A blog about the arts, books, flora and fauna, vittles, and whatever comes to mind!

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Friday, May 27, 2011

The Cairo Genizah

The Ben Ezra Synagogue in Old Cairo.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia.

A genizah (plural genizot) is a storeroom or depository in a Jewish synagogue or cemetery specifically meant to hold worn-out books and documents in Hebrew before they are properly buried.  Jewish law forbids throwing anything away that contains the name of God.  Personal letters and legal contracts often opened with an invocation of God.  A genizah may also contain secular writings in other languages that use the Hebrew alphabet.  Many documents were written in Aramaic using the Hebrew alphabet.

A modern genizah on a street in Nahlaot, Jersualem.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Normal practice is to remove the contents of the genizah on a periodic basis and bury them in a cemetery.  The most famous for both its size and contents is the Cairo Genizah.  Almost 180,000 Jewish manuscript fragments were found in the genizah of the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Old Cairo.  More fragments were found in the Basatin Cemetery east of Old Cairo, and some old documents were bought in Cairo in the late 19th century.

An original letter from Maimonides's son Abraham.
Image courtesy of the New World Encyclopedia. 

The first European to "discover" them was Simon van Geldern (an ancestor of Heinrich Heine, the 19th century poet) who visited the synagogue about 1752. Later European travelers explored the genizah, but not until they were brought to the attention of Solomon Schechter at Cambridge University did they receive proper scholarly attention.  Schechter acquired many of the documents.

Solomon Schechter studying some of the fragments.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

The whole body of documents, which includes books, letters, and legal documents, was written from circa 870 CE to as late as 1800.  These writings are important in the reconstruction of the economic and social history of the area between 950 CE and 1250.  The Judaic scholar Shelomo Dov Goitein, a famous ethnographer known for his research on Jewish life in the Islamic Middle Ages, made an index of the time period that the documents cover, and it included 35,000 everyday people, as well as prominent ones such as Maimonides (the 12th century Jewish scholar, philosopher, and physician) and his son Abraham.  The documents mention professions, goods, and cities of trade and contact from Kiev to India.

This 12th Century dowry list is from a very rich girl.
The dowry of a Jewish wife was entrusted to her husband, but its full
 value had to be restored to her in the event of his death or a divorce.
This image and the ones below courtesy of the Cambridge University Library.

Most primary documents extant are of momentous events and important people. These are related to ordinary people, which make them unique.  Linguistically they also have great importance, as they illustrate the history and changes within various Arabic dialects.

A child's 11th century primer.

Many unique Arab manuscripts were found, such as a pharmacological text of an 11th century doctor.  A 10th century letter provided the earliest evidence of a Jewish community that existed in the Ukraine.  There are also Yiddish letters and poems from the 13th to 15th centuries.

Ovadiah Ha-Ger, a priest who converted to Judaism,
wrote the first written musical settings to Jewish
liturgical poetry in the 12th century.

The collection is today dispersed among several universities.  The Taylor-Schechter collection at Cambridge has almost 193,000 fragments.  There are 31,000 pieces at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.  The John Rylands University Library in Manchester has a collection of over 11,000 fragments that are being digitized for an online archive.

A 12th century letter from a teacher
complaining about a naughty child.

The continuing study of the documents offers rare opportunities to see life in those times in that area of the world.  A window into the past, what new discoveries will be made from these promises to take the guesswork out of history?

The Taylor-Schechter Genizah Research Unit has an excellent site.
The Schoenberg Center for Electronic Text & Image has many of these fragments available online.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Margate's Shell Grotto is No Folly(?)

Inside shots of the Shell Grotto, courtesy of Colin Bowling.

Mr. James Newlove was digging on his property to make a duck pond in Margate, England in 1835.  When a hole appeared, he lowered his young son into it.  His son described tunnels lined with shells.  Turns out there was 70 feet of winding underground passages - all decorated with shell mosaics - that led to an oblong chamber, known as the altar chamber, which is 15 x 20 feet.

The modern entry.

The initial passage which has no shells.
All three photos above courtesy of Mick Crowhurst.

Architecturally speaking, a folly is a building that is constructed for decorative purposes but so extravagant it exceeds its role as an ornament.  Follies were once important features in English gardens in the 18th century, as well as France, Ireland, and even the U.S., to name a few countries.  At first they took the form of Egyptian pyramids, Roman temples, or ruins of Gothic abbeys.  But later they took on more exotic features.  Whether the Shell Grotto is a folly is debatable.

The Temple of Modern Philosophy in Oise, France, is part of a park begun
by Marquis René Louis de Girardin in 1765.  It was purposefully left unfinished,
since knowledge will never be complete and philosophy will continue to progress.
Photo courtesy of Parisette/Wikipedia.

Follies by definition have no purpose other than ornamental.  The Shell Grotto may have functioned as a sun temple.  The sun enters the Dome, which is halfway down the tunnels, just before Spring Equinox, and stops just after the Autumn Equinox.  At midday on the Summer Solstice the sun aligns precisely at midday. This would indicate when the fertile season was in the area.

The Dome, image courtesy of Colin Bowling.

Inside the Dome room.  Image courtesy of Mick Crowhurst.

There are many theories about who made have built it, including that it was constructed by the Knights Templar.  It is impossible to carbon date, because it was initially lit by gas lamps and the soot from them accumulated making any dating attempts invalid.  The shells are local, and the glue is fish-based.  The glue also contained volcanic elements, but many ingredients are unidentified.

Both images courtesy of Colin Bowling.

It is listed as a Grade 1 structure, so English Heritage protects its preservation. Because of dampness, English Heritage entered it onto the Buildings at Risk register in the 90s.  It is open to visitors, as it has been since 1837.

Map courtesy of Wikipedia.

Another unusual aspect is while shell structures were popular in 1700s, and there are many of them in England, they are all on the grounds of estates.  This grotto lies under farmland, and the land was never part of an estate.

Image courtesy of Colin Bowling.

Since it cannot be successfully dated, theories have it going back any time before the 1800s for about a thousand years.  The designs suggest patterns from Indian and Egyptian folk art - trees of life, phalluses, gods, and goddesses, among other motifs.

Image courtesy of Colin Bowling.

Perhaps one day some kind of documentation will be found that will enlighten us about who built it and why.  Or maybe dating techniques will become more sophisticated and will at least point us to the correct time of its origin.  Until then the Margate Shell Grotto will retain its mystery.

The official site.
More photos can be seen on Colin Bowling's site.
For more info and to see more of Mick Crowhurst photos click here.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Shining the Light on Urban Art

Caged Memories art installation by Luzinterruptus.

When I was an art history student at UCLA, the art department shared the same building.  Installations seemed to be the ticket for art students in those days, and we art history students never knew when we saw something whether it was really what it seemed or an installation.  One day a cleaning bucket, on wheels and filled with filthy water, was sitting out on the patio in front of the entrance to the art library, with several old mops sitting in it.  On the side of the bucket spray dispensers of, assumably, cleaning fluids, hung by their handles.  A couple of dirty rags hung on the handle completed the scene.

Things that would be better if they were clean by Luzinterruptus.

We weren't sure whether someone cleaning had temporarily left it, or if it was an art installation.  We stood around debating it and giggling, then we all went to our respective classes.  I was in a seminar a couple floors up.  Before sitting down, I looked out the window to see if it was still there.  A couple of other people were curious, too, so every time there was a break we looked down out the window. About an hour later, a man dressed in a jumpsuit that some custodians wear came along and pushed it on his merry way.  It was what it was.  Why he left it out in the middle of the patio was a question that bugged some of us, so at break, on our way to get coffee, we caught up with him and asked him.  He shrugged and just said it had been his lunch break.  It took me a while to get into the spirit of installations.

Someone lives there by Luzinterruptus.

Perhaps that's why I'm intrigued with the Spanish interventionist collective known as Luzinterruptus.  They call themselves the "light art" collective.  The anonymous art collective chose their name to reflect their ideology of attracting attention through light, which eventually fades or is interrupted.  They purposely chose projects that not only do not damage anything, but leave space for other street artists and for the public to share.  Using simple materials, often recycled and/or recyclable, they work at night and try to do a project once a week.

For one night they were lamps by Luzinterruptus.

Please, recycle your garbage is one intervention many of us in the U.S. can identify with.  Disgusted with the electoral campaigns for municipal and regional elections, the group decided to put it all in the trash.  Since telephone booths are used for advertising they placed garbage bags over them, basically trashing the politicians.  Although they tried not to focus on any party, they stated that "curiously" most of the ads they found were from one party.

For last year's Spanish poetry festival in Madrid they hung 1,000 white envelopes which contained a light and a poem written for the event in a public garden which was also the site of poetry readings and performances. On the last night members of the public were given the envelopes to keep or address and mail out.  The lights in the envelopes continued to shine.  This installation - 1,000 poems by mail - effectively "shared the light" of poetry in a public space.

The poems hung for three days, then were offered to the public.
The ones addressed by people were mailed by Luzinterruptus.

Thinking that the trash containers throughout the city look like seas, especially since they are covered in blue or green tarpaulins, they decided to add paper ships to them - lighted, of course.  One sees the sea between the cars was carried out in the Salamanca district of Madrid.  Apparently, they were the first things kids saw on their way to school in the morning.

One of their most interesting, to me, installations took place in the Dumbo district under the Brooklyn bridge in New York.  Literature versus traffic consists of 800 books and lights strewn all over the street for several hours.  That's one way to deal with traffic.

These clever and dedicated artists create wonderful surprises just for the delight of making and sharing them.  How great it would be to wake up to one of these installations
All images courtesy of Luzinterruptus.
Photos by Gustavo Sanabria.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

What's in a Name?

The Basket of Wildflowers egg, 1901.

"Fabergé" - the name connotes high standards of art, quality, and craftsmanship. As a brand, the name has great marketing power.  So much so that the name has been sold many times since the 1917 Russian Revolution effectively ended the original House of Fabergé.

The Clover Egg, 1902.

Fabergé was the final appellation of a family traced back to 17th century France, when they were called Favri.  They were Huguenots who fled their home in Picardy in northern France in 1685 to avoid persecution.  As the family moved eastward through Europe, their name changed to Favry, Fabri, Fabrier, and then Faberge with no accent.  By the 1800s, paterfamilias Pierre Favry (later Peter Fabrier)  settled in what is now Estonia, and in 1814 had a son called Gustav.  By 1825 the name changed to Faberge (no accent).

The Memory of Azov Egg, 1891.

In the 1830 Gustav moved to St. Petersburg in Russia to apprentice with a goldsmith.  He continued his training with another firm that were jewelers to the Tsars.  In 1841 he had become a Master Goldsmith.

The Danish Palaces Egg, 1890.

He opened his own retail shop in a fashionable district in St. Petersburg in 1842, and changed the name to Fabergé.  Russian nobility were francophiles and French was the preferred language of culture, which may account for the added accent. Gustav had a son, Peter Carl (known as Carl), in 1846.

The Moscow Kremlin egg, 1906.

Retiring to Dresden, Germany, in 1860, Gustav left his business in the hands of trusted managers while Carl continued his education.  Carl went on a Grand Tour, and learned from goldsmiths in Germany, France, and England, all the while visiting and studying objects in all the major museums.  He returned to St. Petersburg in 1872 at the age of 26.  For ten years he worked under his father's artisans, who taught him further.  In 1881 the business was moved to a larger place and Carl took over.  That same year he was awarded with the Master Goldsmith title.

The Revolving Miniature, or
Rock Crystal egg, 1896.

While repairing and restoring items in the Hermitage Museum, the company was invited to exhibit at a Pan-Russian Exhibition in Moscow.  One of the pieces that they decided to show was a replica of a 4th century BCE Scythian bangle that was in the Hermitage.  Tsar Alexander III was so impressed with it that he gave the firm the coveted title "Goldsmith by special appointment to the Imperial Crown".

Lilies of the Valley egg, 1898.

In 1885, Tsar Alexander III commissioned the House of Fabergé to make an egg as an Easter gift for his wife, the Empress Maria Fedorovna.  (See my post on Easter eggs for the importance of this object.)  Carl Fabergé modeled his egg after one in the Royal Danish Collection made of ivory with a ring inside, which he knew the Empress would be familiar with from her childhood as a Danish princess. The Fabergé Hen Egg, made of gold with enamel on the "shell", opens to reveal a gold yolk, which in turn opens to show a gold chicken, and the chicken opened to display a replica of the Imperial Crown with a miniature ruby egg suspended from it.

The Hen Egg, 1885.  The crown and ruby egg have been lost.

This gift was such a success, that it became a tradition for Carl Fabergé to create an egg each year for Easter for Tsar Alexander III to present to his wife, and for his son Nicholas II to present to his wife and his mother.  Fabergé was given complete freedom in his designs, and only the firm knew what they were before their presentation.  The House of Fabergé created 54 Imperial eggs, of which 42 have survived. Since the Imperial eggs enjoyed such fame, Carl created some for a few select clients:  The Duchess of Marlborough, the Rothschilds, the Nobels, and industrialist Alexander Kelch.

Twelve Monograms or Silver Anniversary egg, 1895.

Aside from the eggs, the firm created handstone carvings from semi-precious or hardstones which were embellished with precious jewels and metals.  They also designed exquisite jewelry  and other gift items, which were approved by Carl, and later his eldest son Eugène, to meticulous standards.  The firm won many international awards and was Russia's largest jewelry concern, with branches in Kiev, Moscow, and Odessa.

Trans-Siberian Railway egg, 1900.

The House of Fabergé was nationalized in 1918 by the Bolsheviks.  Carl fled for his life to Germany, and died two years later in Switzerland.  His sons were imprisoned in St. Petersburg.  One escaped fairly soon, the other some time later. In 1924 they opened Fabergé et Cie in Paris.  They had modest success with their jewelry, and as a sideline repaired original Fabergé items.  Although the company continued until 2001 using the trademark Fabergé, Paris, they lost their rights to the Fabergé name in 1984.

The Madonna Lily egg, 1899.

Samuel Rubin, a manufacturer of perfumes and toiletries, paid $25,000 for the name in 1937.  Rubin sold the name for $26 million in 1964, twenty-seven years later.  Subsequently, the brand was sold several times.  Currently it is owned by a group of investors from Pallinghurst Resources LLP, a London-based investment advisory firm.  Pallinghurst established a Fabergé heritage council, and included cousins Sarah and Tanya, two of Carl's great-granddaughters.  The intent is to steer the name back to the elegance of its roots.

Brut, by Fabergé.

So where will the name "Fabergé" go, and what will it mean in the future?  An invented name that has been used of late to signify desirability and elegance in rather banal products will hopefully be revitalized.  In the commercial world, however, I see little hope that it will equal the art and craftsmanship of Carl Fabergé.

Images courtesy of this site, which has great descriptions of the
eggs and the Fabergé history in general.