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

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Friday, September 2, 2011

See You Monday!

After writing 250 posts, Monday through Friday, and never missing a day, I'm taking a day off!

I'll be back on Monday....


Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Pearl Set in Emeralds

The Emirate of Granada, the Nasrids, was the last Muslim dynasty on the Iberian peninsula.  They built a palace complex on top of the Assabica hill in the southeast border.  After the takeover by the "Reyes Católicos" in 1492, some parts were used by the new Christian rulers.  The Holy Roman emperor, Charles V, built a castle in 1527 in the midst of the buildings.

The Court of Lions.

Forgotten for centuries, the entire complex fell into disrepair.  In the 19th century it was "discovered" by travelers and scholars and the restoration process was begun. Neglected, vandalized, and in cases poorly restored, it is still an example of Islamic architecture without the Byzantine influence, as other Spanish sites reveal. A Moorish poet described it as a "pearl set in emeralds", alluding to the buildings which were originally whitewashed and the very green setting surrounding them.

Mirador de Lindaraja, Palace of the Lions.

Built in the Mudéjar ("domesticated) style, it reflects a synthesis of Iberian and Islamic architectural styles and decorations that was popular during the Reconquista, or reconquest of Iberia by the Christian kingdoms.  The isolation from the rest of the Islamic world and the interaction with the Christian kingdoms influenced the style.  The consistent theme of the buildings is "paradise on earth", thus they are quadrangles with a central courtyard.  Each addition kept with the theme but in different dimensions, and were connected by smaller rooms and passages.  The exteriors are purposely kept bare and unembellished, open to the sun and the elements.

A canopy of stonework.

Most of the decorations follow Islamic tradition, and are foliage, geometrical patterns, and Arabic inscriptions.  The walls were usually covered in painted tiles. Blue, red, and yellow were the predominant colors used throughout, but have mostly faded over time.  M.C. Escher visited in 1922, and his study of the symmetrical tiles there was said to have inspired his work.

Since the site was added on to piecemeal - from the first 9th century citadel to the 16th century palace of Charles V - the layout is not aligned nor systematized.  The entire site covers an area of about 1,530,000 square feet.  To the west is the alcazaba, a strongly fortified citadel.  The Moorish palaces are enclosed by a fortified wall with thirteen towers, some of which are defensive, but others were built to access the view.

The original palatine city was planned for six palaces, five grouped together to form a royal quarter, numerous bathhouses, and two circuit towers.  Later acequias were formed as an irrigation system for the gardens of the Generalife, which are located just outside the fortress, ending the dependency on rainwater.  The canal made the site a palace city instead of a defensive center.

Court of the Long Pond, a popular spot of the Generalife.
Part of the Generalife.

The Generalife (from the Muslim "Jennat al Arif", or garden of the architect) is an outlying building that connects to the Alhambra.  The complex includes the Jardin de la Sultana, built in the style of medieval Persian gardens.  The Generalife has one of the oldest surviving Moorish gardens.

Another part of the Generalife.

After 1492, the Christian conquerors altered some of the work.  Much was whitewashed, paintings and gildings removed, and the furniture destroyed or removed.  Charles V rebuilt some parts in Renaissance style, and demolished most of the winter palace to build a Renaissance-style building which was never completed.  Later Philip V (circa 18th century) constructed his palace in the middle of what had been a Moorish building, blocking off whole apartments, and decorating it all in an Italian style.

Palace of Charles V.

Over time, the remaining Moorish art was defiled, and in 1812 some of the towers were demolished by the French.  An 1821 earthquake did more damage.  In 1828, a Spanish architect began reconstruction, his work continued by his son and grandson.

Vaulting in the Hall of the Abencerrajes, an example of the "stalactite"
or "honeycomb" vaulting of the Moors.

The original complex was designed with the surrounding environment taken into consideration.  The park, Alameda de la Alhambra, was planted by the Moors with roses, oranges, and myrtles.  Later, in 1812, a dense forest of English elms was planted by the Duke of Wellington.  There are many fountains and cascades, filling the air with the sounds of running water, and there are many nightingales in the park.

Plan of the Alhambra from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.

The Alhambra beautifully integrates the natural site with the buildings and gardens designed and built through the skills of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish builders, craftsmen, and artisans.  In 1984 it was listed as a World Heritage Site, along with the Generalife, by UNESCO.  Although significantly altered from its inception, it still gives a satisfying taste of the beauty of Islamic architecture.

Images courtesy of Wikipedia and Wikipedia Commons.
The official website of the Alhambra.
A virtual walking tour.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Passing on the Good with Forever Young

Steve Young is an NFL Hall of Famer and Super Bowl MVP.  His participation in sports obviously meant a lot to him, because he and his wife, Barb, in 1993 founded a non-profit organization that makes athletic, therapeutic, as well as academic opportunities available to children with physical and emotional challenges, and don't have the necessary finances to help themselves.

Steve Young, image courtesy of fortunecity.com.

Currently Forever Young focuses on the areas of Arizona, Northern California, Utah, and Ghana in Africa.  They also partner with the NFL in developing Youth Education Town Centers (YET) in each Super Bowl city.

One of their endeavors is the creation of zones to provide state-of-the-art media centers, with equipment for radio, TV film, and recording, so youths can train on professional equipment.  This includes a professional recording studio with an isolated vocal booth and digital audio mixing.  There's also a design studio, enabling the development of artistic expression through graphic design.

Image courtesy of bannerhealth.com.

There are three hospital units:  Primary Children's Medical Center in Salt Lake City, Utah; Lucille Packard Children's Hospital in Palo Alto, California; and Banner Children's Hospital in Mesa, Arizona.  These units provide zones where children working through serious illnesses can relax, play, and build supportive relationships to help in their recoveries.

Image courtesy Lucile Packard Children's Hospital.

In Ghana, they are expanding the extant schools and building new ones.  They are also providing Ghanaian youth with athletic, health, and education opportunities. Their mandate is to raise future leaders of the country, while encouraging them to keep their heritage and customs intact.  By partnering with the Komart Foundation, they are able to provide business, student, and microcredit loans.  With the African Equity Fund, they promote entrepreneurship, helping small businesses to rise out of poverty.

Forever Young representatives visit the Korle-Bu Teaching Hospital's Reconstructive
Plastic Surgery and Burns Centre in Accra.  Image courtesy of Interplast/Flickr.

Forever Young also partners with other groups with similar goals, some of which include:  the Taylor Family foundation, which assists children in Northern California with life-threatening illnesses and disabilities; Wasatch Adaptive Sports, which provides special needs children with sporting and recreational activities; the Anasazi Foundation, an outdoor substance abuse treatment program also helping kids with emotional and behavioral problems; and Right to Play, an international humanitarian organization using sport and play programs to improve health and develop life skills in countries affected by war, poverty, and disease.

Image courtesy of righttoplay.org.

They also work with other non-profits, providing year-long training for leaders.  These individuals learn how to develop and implement an operation plan, and make long-range business plans.  This is offered at a minimal cost, helping to ensure the success and growth of their organizations.

This is a great organization to contribute to, whether it's sending a check or buying their stamps from Zazzle.  Steve and Barb Young do a great job passing on the opportunities they have had in their lives, and enabling others to experience some good.


Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Heat is On!

One of the foods that originated in the Americas is a member of the nightshade, or solanaceae, family - the chili pepper.  Pepper is a misnomer, as that refers to a member of the piperaceae family, such as black or white pepper.  But that's what Christopher Columbus thought it was, and so named it.  A physician from Columbus's second voyage to the West Indies, Diego Álvarez Chanca, took it back to Spain in 1493 and wrote about the medicinal effects a year later.

A ristra, or arrangement of chilis strung to dry.

There seems to be two main theories on how chilis got to Asia.  One is that the Spanish colony of Mexico was trading with the Philippines, and from there it spread to India, China, Korea, and Japan.  The other is that the Portuguese took it with them when they colonized the Goa region of India, where is it a prominent ingredient in the cuisine, and from there it spread through Asia.

Fresh ghost chili from a market in Assam, India.

What makes chilis so popular, and now an integral part of cuisine the world over, is its heat, or pungency. This is caused by capsaicin, a chemical compound, and coincidentally a topical analgesic.  Capsaicin stimulates nerve endings in the skin, especially mucous membranes.  It is a natural compound, related to vanillin (found in vanilla), eugenol (bay leaves, allspice, and cloves), and zingerone (ginger and mustard).
A habanero.

Capsaicin, when consumed, binds to the receptors in the mouth's lining.  They register the pain from the heat, and hence the burn.  This happens when calcium ions flow from one cell to the next.  It's not a coincidence that Latino foods are often served with sour cream or guacamole, or Asian curries have cream or butter in them.  Dairy products and fatty foods provide the most relief.  Water only spreads the pain.  Alcohol might help if it was 80%, but then would create a different kind of burn.

This stinging pain has not been ignored as a weapon.  The Mayans used to throw them at their enemies.  In northeast India and in Africa, they are used to keep wild elephants from eating certain plants and to restrict them from entering areas.  In fact, in 2009, scientists at India's Defense Research and Development Organization announced plans to use capsaicin in hand grenades as a non-lethal way to flush out terrorists and control rioters.  It has also been developed into a spray for self-defense.

But capsaicin also has serious medical uses.  Ghosts chilis, one of the hottest, are used in India for homeopathic medicines for stomach ailments, and to induce perspiration in hot weather.  Capsaicin can lower the sensation of pain in arthritis and other chronic conditions, such as herpers zoster, diabetic neuropathy, post-mastectomy pain, and headaches.  Capsaicin blocks the production of certain neurotransmitters, preventing nerves from communicating with each other.

The highest amount of capsaicin is found in the placenta of the fruit, and not in the seed as is commonly thought.  The seeds do have a bitter taste.  Although mammals can taste the pungency in chilis, birds can't, so it's a good thing to add to birdseed to prevent squirrels and other rodents from making off with it.  I've also diluted it with water and sprayed it on plants to keep rabbits and squirrels from eating them.  It works, but must be reapplied frequently.

Image courtesy www.chilepepperinstitute.org.

Measuring the capsaicin in a chili was a dilemma until pharmacist Wilbur Scoville came up with a test in 1912, which he called the Scoville Organoleptic Test.  He tried testing the reaction of capsaicin with other chemicals, but nothing was sensitive enough to register it.  What was sensitive enough was the human tongue. He was ridiculed by his peers, but continued with his experiments.

Bell peppers, which have no capsaicin.

He soaked each kind of pepper in alcohol overnight to extract the capsaicin.  This extract was added in increments to a sugar solution until the heat was barely detectable by the human tongue.  He used a panel of five people at the time, averaging their ratings.  The degree of the dilution is his scale rating.  A bell pepper, which has no capsaicin, has a rating of zero.  But a habanero has a rating of 200,000 or more, meaning it must be diluted 200,000 times before the capsaicin can just barely be detected.

This scale now needs to be upgraded with the new Guinness winners.
Image courtesy of www.benitoshotsaquce.com.

The problem with the scale is it is subjective, which makes it imprecise.  A new way has been developed which uses a machine which is claimed to be as sensitive as the human tongue.  This new method is called high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC).  It directly measures the chemicals, which are expressed in ASTA (American Spice Trade Association) pungency units.  One part per million equals 15 SHU (Scoville Heat Units).  But getting people to switch has been as hard as getting the U.S. to use metric measurements, so ASTA figures are multiplied by 15, then reported in SHU.  Some spice experts say the figures can be up to 50% off, however.

HPLC equipment.

The Scoville scale can be used to determine the pungency of other substances, such as resinferatoxin.  This is a substance found in spurges, a plant used since ancient times as a laxative.  Resinferatoxin is 1,000 times hotter than capsaicin, so it would be expressed as billions on the SHU.

Growing the hottest chili is now a highly competitive undertaking.  In the Guinness Book of World Records in 2007, the hottest chili was the "bhut jolokia", also known as the "ghost chili", rating 855,00 SHU.  On February 20, 2011, Guinness awarded the title of "world's hottest chili" to the "Infinity" chili from England (1,067,266 SHU).  Five days later, on February 25, the record was broken by the "Naga viper" chili (1,382,118 SHU).  But on March 1, the record was again broken by the "Trinidad Scorpion Butch T Pepper" with a SHU of 1,463,700.  Who's next?

The Trinidad Scorpion Butch T chili, named for its scorpion-like tail.
Image courtesy www.thehotpepper.com.

One thing to be considered when looking at the Scoville rating is that the pungency of chili is greatly determined by the growing conditions - soil, humidity, and the quality of the seed.  Some chilis don't grow well "in captivity", and specimens of the same variety may rate significantly different.   I once grew some Anaheim chilis, known to be mild, and they were so hot I couldn't give them away, even to friends who prize very hot chilis.

Red savina pepper (580,000 SHU).

As far back as 7,000 BCE, chilis may have been first eaten in South America. Valued, spread throughout the area, and at one point used as currency, chilis now have a new currency in the race to breed the hottest one.

Unless otherwise noted, images courtesy of Wikipedia.
Chili has two recognized alternative spellings - chile and chilli.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Sorollo - The REAL "Painter of Light"

Children at the Seashore, 1916.

The painter Thomas Kinkade calls himself "the painter of light".  He has even protected that self-proclamation by trademark.  Au contraire, monsieur!  Although you may be a marketing genius, that moniker rightfully belongs to Joaquín Sorolla.

Photo of Sorolla by Gertrude Käsebier, c 1908.

Joaquín Sorolla y Batisda was born in Valencia in 1863, and raised by his maternal aunt and uncle after his parents died when he was two.  He began his art education at the age of 14, and when he was 18 he went to Madrid to study the masters at the Prado.  After his military service, he was awarded a grant to study at the Spanish Academy in Rome for four years.  A 1885 trip to Paris was his first exposure to modern art.

Photo of Sorolla at work courtesy of this site.

He returned to Valencia in 1888, and married.  He was to remain devoted to his wife and three children his entire life.  In 1890, they moved to Madrid.  For the next decade he concentrated on painting large canvases of historical, mythological, orientalist, and social themes.  He also displayed in salons and international exhibitions, including Madrid, Paris, Munich, Berlin, and Chicago.

My Wife and Daughters in the Garden, 1910.

Sorolla's first success in the art world was at the National Exhibition in Madrid, where he won a gold medal for his painting Another Marguerite in 1892.  The painting then won a first prize at the Chicago International Exhibition, where it was sold.  It was donated to the Kemper Art Museum of Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.

Another Marguerite, 1892
Image courtesy of the Kemper Art Museum.

He was acknowledged as the head of the modern Spanish school of painting.  In 1894, his painting The Return From Fishing was held in such high regard at the Paris Salon that it was purchased for the Musée de Luxembourg.

The Return from Fishing, 1894. 

In 1897 he did two paintings about science.  The Portrait of Dr. Simarro at the Microscope featured a friend.  He also painted A Research.  He presented both paintings at the National Exhibition of Fine Arts in Madrid and won the Prize of Honor.

The Portrait of Dr. Simarro at the Microscope, 1897.

His painting Sad Inheritance, 1899, won the most official recognition, winning the Grand Prix and a Medal of Honor at the Universal Exposition in Paris in 1900, and the Medal of Honor at the National Exhibition in Madrid in 1901.  This painting depicted the results of a polio epidemic that struck Valencia.  The children in the painting are crippled and tended by a monk.  He never produced another work that revealed such a strong social awareness, and this was a fitting end to his career as a salon artist.

Sad Inheritance, 1899.  Image courtesy of this site.

Also at the the Paris Exposition in 1900, he was nominated as a Knight of the Legion of Honor.  Within the next few years he was also honored as a member of the Fine Art Academies of Paris, Lisbon, and Valencia, and named a Favorite Son of Valencia.

Swimmers, Javea, 1905.  Image courtesy the Museo Sorolla.

Valencian Fisherwomen, 1915, image courtesy the Museo Sorolla.

There was a special exhibition of his works at the Galeries Georges Petit, which led to his appointment as Officer of the Legion of Honor.  This show featured about 500 of his works, of all subject matters, and was a financial triumph.  This was followed by two more exhibitions in Germany and London, but of a smaller scale.

The Horse's Bath, 1909, image courtesy Hispanic Society.

In 1908, Sorolla met Archer Milton Huntington, stepson of the railroad magnate Collis P. Huntington and a lifelong friend of the arts.  Huntington made him a member of The Hispanic Society of America in New York, which Huntington founded, and invited him to exhibit there in 1909.  That exhibition presented 356 of Sorolla's paintings, of which 195 sold.  He spent five months in America, painting more than twenty portraits.

Afternoon Sun, 1908.

Portraiture was a profitable venue, even though it was not his favorite.  Since sunlight was what he was interested in (he once said a studio was a garage for storing art, not making it), he preferred an outdoor setting for his portraits.  He loved to paint plein air, and did so dressed in a suit.  He was a prodigious
painter, some years producing hundreds of large canvases.  Using three-foot brushes, to allow him some distance from the canvas, he painted very quickly, which is the reason for his success in capturing light.

Photo of Sorolla painting plein air courtesy of this site.

He went to the United States for the second time in 1911, and exhibited 161 new paintings at the Art Institute of Chicago.  Later that year he contracted with Huntington to do a series of oils on life in Spain for the Hispanic Society of America.  This project dominated the last years of his life, and the scenes were painted on fourteen panels ranging from twelve to fourteen feet high and 227 feet in length.

Huntington had envisioned a history of Spain, but Sorolla had in mind scenes of the provinces of Spain.  Despite their huge size, all but one was painted plein air and on the sites with models in regional costumes.  By his own admission, he was exhausted by 1917, but spend another two years finishing the project.

Two Sisters, Valencia, 1909.

Boys on the Beach, 1909.

In 1920 he suffered a stroke while painting in his garden in Madrid.  This left him paralyzed, which was no doubt unbearable for someone who loved the outdoors and working with his hands.  He died three years later.  His wife left many of his paintings to the people of Spain.  These are now housed in the Museo Sorolla, which was converted from his house in Madrid and opened in 1932.

The Museo Sorolla in Madrid, Spain.

His works are in museums and private collections all over the world, and there are still exhibitions devoted to them.  Unusual for an artist, he enjoyed recognition and financial success in his lifetime, but seems to have become more obscure in time. He is now considered a painter's painter, and actually not merely a "painter of light", but a master of painting light.

Images of Sorolla's paintings do not do them justice.  If you have the chance
to see them in person, you will awed at the size, colors, and light depicted.
Unless otherwise noted, images courtesy of Wikipedia.
Here is the website for the Museo Sorolla.
This site features his work.
The Hispanic Society of America website.