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

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Friday, February 18, 2011

Photography and the History of Places

Paris 1940 and 2010:  German cavalry on the Avenue Foch by Sergey Larenkov.

Rephotography is an attempt by a photographer to retake a photo at a different time but from the same viewpoint.  The comparison of resulting photographs can be noteworthy, often jolting.  This isn't an easy endeavor.  Achieving the same viewpoint can be difficult, but computer software is being developed to help. Using such software is called computational rephotography.

Defenders of the city at the Hotel Astoria by Sergey Larenkov.

Researchers at MIT are currently using a laptop to automate the process.  The plan is to create software that will fit inside a digital camera.  This software system would compare what's seen in the viewer with a historical photo, determine the alignment, then issue instructions to the photographer.  This is called visual homing.

Paris 1940 and 2010:  Rue de Rivoli by Sergey Larenkov.

Superimposing an old photo over a modern one can produce a striking experience. There is a website called historypin that is a global project launched in London last June.  It is a project of the "We Are What We Do" organization as part of their campaign to get people of different generations talking to one another.  By sharing old photos with new ones, they hope to create a "digital time machine".  Working with Google, they used Google maps and Street View functions to build the site. Photos are "pinned" to their geographical locale, and everyone is encouraged to post a piece of their own history.

Sergey Larenkov is a Russian photographer and photoshop artist who uses images of WWII for his work.  His photos are often haunting; superimposing bleak and disturbing images of war over modern ones in times of peace can produce discordant and perturbing reactions.  He has been criticized for not creating smoother, more integrated works, but I think that it may be his intention to keep the jagged, often disruptive look - like memories that come bursting into the frame.


By his own admission the siege of Leningrad, his hometown, made an impression on him.  His work includes images of the defense of Moscow, the liberation of Vienna and Prague, the storming of Berlin, and the occupation of Paris.  The sometimes rather brutal images of an era that most young people don't really know about and most of the rest would like to ignore directly confront one and remind one how easy it is to bury and forget the past.


The Siege of Leningrad, now Saint Petersburg, was an unsuccessful military attempt by the Axis powers to capture the city; it was also known as the Leningrad Blockade.  This siege, lasting from September 9, 1941, to January 27, 1944, was one of the longest and most destructive sieges of any major city in modern history. Many thousands of people died, having been deprived of food and fuel for heating.  People took to eating anything they could get their hands on, even in extreme cases each other.

Supply problems also affected the citizens of occupied Paris.  However the French were slightly better off than the citizens of Leningrad.  Tickets were given out to be exchanged for food supplies.  There was also a black market.  People tried buying directly from farmers, but this was at high risk.  In general, things were worse in the city, as in the countryside there were some vegetable gardens and dairy products were more easily available.  It was a difficult and oppressive time for many European nations.

Larenkov's works are a startling evocation of those times, and the juxtaposition of the war-time images with modern ones are dissonant and strident reminders of a horrible past.  If a picture is worth a thousand words, what better way to communicate the difference between war and peace?

All images courtesy of Sergey Larenkov.
Please visit his journal and/or website to see all his images.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Gallery of Beautiful Faces and Beautiful Minds

Nymphenburg Palace photo by Wilfried Hösl /Presseamt München.

Long before Hugh Hefner created the Playboy Mansion, King Ludwig I of Bavaria created the Schönheitengalarie (Gallery of Beauties), in the former small dining room in the south pavilion of the Nymphenburg Palace in Munich.  The Schloss Nymphenburg is a Baroque palace commissioned by Ferdinand Maria and Henriette Adelaide of Savoy in 1664, and completed in 1675.  It served as the main summer residence of the rulers of Bavaria.  It went through several remodellings and extensions on its way to its present form, and although open to the public, remains the home and chancery for the head of the house of Wittelsbach.

Nymphenburg Palace in 1761, oil on canvas.
Bernardo Bellotto (il Canaletto),  National Gallery of Art, Wash., D.C.

Ludwig I (1786-1868) succeeded his father on the throne in 1825.  He is known for his enthusiasm for the arts, the German Middle Ages, and women.  The occasion of his marriage to Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen on October 7, 1810 was the first ever Oktoberfest.  (It was so much fun it was decided to do it again the next year, and the rest, as they say, is history.)  He was a fanatical art collector and enthusiast of ancient Greece and the Italian renaissance.  Although his collection interests focused on Greek and Roman sculptures, he also collected early German and Dutch paintings, Italian renaissance masterpieces, and contemporary art for his galleries and museums.  He was a notoriously bad poet, to boot.  But his most famous venture is the Schönheitengalarie.  This gallery houses the portraits of 36 women, most of them by court-appointed painter Joseph Karl Stieler, with two additional ones by Friedrich Dürck.
Portraits of King Ludwig I and Queen Therese by Josef Stieler, circa 1810.
Images courtesy of Destination Munich.

The portraits were painted between 1827 and 1850.  The women were considered the most beautiful women from all strata of society.  A few of the portraits are of family members.  This was not the first such gallery, however.  There was an earlier one in Munich of French beauties from Versailles.  In England there were two collections:  the Windsor Beauties and the Hampton Court Beauties.  Ludwig I supposedly had scouts searching the kingdom for beautiful women.  Leo von Klenze, his architect and confidant, was said to have kept a dossier of the king's conquests, which is rumored to have listed over fifty names.  Ludwig had several mistresses, the most famous, and the one which led to his downfall, was Lola Montez.

Lola Montez.

By the time she hooked up Ludwig in 1846, Lola Montez (her stage name) had already been associated with Alexander Dumas and Franz Liszt, and been married and divorced.  A "wild woman", meaning she led her life on her own terms, she had a reputation for her beauty and quick temper.  Born Eliza Gilbert in Ireland, she had lived in England, Scotland, and India before shocking Europe with her "Spanish dancer" burlesque.  Ludwig made her the Countess of Landsfeld, and granted her a large annuity.  Because of her influence on the king, over whom she exercised considerable political power, and because of her perceived arrogance and temperamental outbursts she was unpopular with the locals.  In 1848 Ludwig abdicated the throne under public pressure.  Lola went on to many other places and things, dying in New York at age forty-two, where she was involved in rescue work with women.

Jane Digby painted by Stieler in 1831.

Jane Digby, the daughter of an English admiral, was another of Ludwig's paramours.  Another "scandalous" woman who was sexually active, she also later had an affair with Ludwig's son, Greece's King Otto, among others.  She moved to Syria when she was forty-six, and fell in love and married Sheikh Medjuel el Mezrab under Muslim law.  Although he was twenty years younger than she, their marriage lasted for twenty-eight years until her death.  She adopted Arab dress, lived half the year as a nomad in the desert, and the other half in a villa in Damascus.  Arabic became her ninth language.  She became friends with Sir Richard Burton and his wife Isabel while living there.  She was an adventurous and intelligent woman.

Marianna Marches Florenzi, painted by Stieler in 1831.

Marianna Marquesa Florenzi was an Italian noblewoman.  She had a literary education and was devoted to reading philosophical works and translating them. She was one of the first woman to study natural sciences at the University of Perugia in the first part of the 19th century.  She represented the female ideal of an educated woman, and hosted cultural gatherings and salons where she was known for her wit.  She translated Leibniz, and promoted the works of Kant, Schelling and Spinoza.  In 1850 she published Some Reflections on Socialism and Communism. This, along with most of her work, was listed on the church's Index Librorum Prohibitorum, the Catholic Church's list of prohibited publications, a sure sign, to my mind, of her liberated thought and emancipated opinions.  She was Ludwig's lover for forty years, and he often sought her advice.  4,500 letters of correspondence between them survive today.

Charlotte von Hagn, painted by Stieler in 1828.

Charlotte von Hagn was a German actress and daughter of a businessman.  She was celebrated wherever she went, famous for her comedic roles and ready wit. She was known as a charming and intelligent conversationalist, and her nickname in the theater was 
"the German Déjazet" (Virginie Déjazet was a very famous actress of the French stage).  She also had an affair with Franz Liszt.  Inclusion in the Schönheitengalarie suggests an affair with Ludwig, and that was rumored at the time, but no records exist of it.

Helene Sedlmayr in Old Munich costume by
Stieler circa 1830.

Perhaps the most famous of Ludwig's inamoratas was Helene Sedlmayr, also known as “Schöne Münchenerin” (beautiful woman of Munich), who was the daughter of a shoemaker.  Queen Therese bought some toys from the shop where Helene worked.  Helene delivered them to the palace where she met Ludwig.  He was so enamoured of her that the court became worried.  She was immediately married off to the king's valet, to whom she bore ten children and remained married to until she died at age eighty-five.

Image of Helene Sedlmayr overhead on the ceiling of a
carousel bar in Munich.  Courtesy of Destination Munich.

The women Ludwig chose for his gallery were not, I think, just chosen for their pulchritude, but from what is known about some of them for their intellect and independence from prescribed roles.  These women were intrepid and chose a life that suited their needs, not society's.  They wanted their intellectual and sexual desires satisfied, and Ludwig was apparently obliging, even admiring.  No Hef he, they appear in the 
Schönheitengalarie fully clothed and classically posed.  Thank goodness things have changed centuries later and women are not constrained by separate standards for behavior.

Wait...we aren't, are we?

Unless otherwise stated, images courtesy of Wikipedia.
For a glimpse at all the portraits in the Schönheitengalarie, click here.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

By the Sea, By the Sea...

This winter has been harsh all across the U.S.  People are dreaming of summer, which brings up the subject of summer vacation.  How to combine fun in the water, being at the seashore, and music into one unique experience requires thoughtful consideration.  But there is a great way down in sunny Florida.

Just head down to Looe Key Reef, located in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, about six miles south of Big Pine Key.  On July 9 of this year, the 27th Annual Underwater Music Festival will take place.  Each year this event attracts hundreds of scuba divers and snorkelers to North America's only living coral barrier reef.  Bill Becker - the founder, coordinator, and music director - began these concerts to raise awareness for coral preservation.

Staged by Keys radio station WWUS (104.1 FM), the festival takes place from 10 A.M. until 2 P.M.  Lubell Laboratory speakers are suspended under boats which are positioned at the reef, and that is how the music is broadcast.  The playlist features ocean-related songs, such as "Yellow Submarine", "Octopus's Garden", and "A Pirate Looks at 40".  The sounds of humpback whales are also included, making this a multi-specie event.  The sound has been described as ethereal, since sound travels underwater over 4 times faster than in air.  Over the live broadcast, however, the sound is the slower, normal one we are familiar with.

A local artist, August Powers, creates often whimsical instruments for the musician/divers and mermaids to play, such as a "fluke-a-lele", "sax-eel-phone", or a "trom-bonefish".  While actual instruments are not used, the musicians "play along" on their mock instruments.  The works of local Keys musicians are also featured.

Divers and snorkelers who want to attend the event live can book a place onboard boats run by private charter from dive operators, or launch their own boats. Florida Keys Nation Marine Sanctuary officials broadcast diver awareness announcements throughout the concert, giving tips on how to enjoy the ocean while minimizing the impact on the reef and marine environment.

Each year the festival has a different theme.  In 2010, there was an Alice in Waterland Underwater Tea Party, and featured the "Mad Haddock" and "The March Herring".  In 2008, both "Reefpublicans" and "Democrabs" congregated to the presidential election, er, "eel-lection", theme.  There were underwater appearances by "Barackuda Obama", "John McClam", and other notable politicos.

Looe Key is famous for the diversity of its coral population and the colorful array of tropical fish found there.  What a perfect way to create coral reef preservation awareness and have a good time.  So nice to dream about it in all the cold weather and snow...

Images courtesy of the Lower Keys Chamber/Bill Becker.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Voynich Manuscript - Puzzle of the Centuries

The strange Voynich manuscript boinks cerebral scholars.

The University of Arizona has recently redated a puzzling manuscript known as the Voynich Manuscript.  Most scholars, who have been unable to decipher its script or make sense of its drawings, had thought it was created in the 16th century.  But modern radiocarbon dating reveals that the pages hark back to the early 15th century, making it a century older than previously thought.

U of A researchers first performed C14 dating in 2009, and they then concluded the parchment was created between 1404 and 1438.  The McCrone Research Institute in Chicago was also able to determine that the ink was added soon afterward.  Experts think the manuscript most likely comes from Northern Italy. One significance of the accurate dating is that it places it in a time when coded texts were in fashion, and thus allows scholars to discard encoding techniques that were used later than the date of the manuscript and concentrate on contemporary ones.

The manuscript is composed of approximately 240 vellum pages, most of which are illustrated.  The unknown script in an unknown language by an unknown author has caused it to be considered the world's most mysterious manuscript.  It has been studied by professionals and amateurs alike, including codebreakers from both WWs, to no avail.  From the gaps in numbering it seems the manuscript once had at least 272 pages, and they are thought to have been reordered, maybe even several times, from the original sequence.  A quill pen was used for both text and drawings, and the figures were roughly painted, possibly at a later date.

Stars or flowers seem to serve as bullets.

Experts believe the text was written left to right with no punctuation, although there are flower or star bullets in some places in the left margin.  Some of the words occur only in certain sections, for instance in the herbal section the first word on each page only occurs in that place, hence is logically the name of the plant being discussed.  While the lettering resembles European alphabets of the time, these words do not make sense in any of the European languages.  Ten of the months (March to December) are written in Latin in the diagrams of the astronomy section, but may have been added later.

Text sample.

The illustrations are not helpful in decoding the text, but seem to suggest that the book was arranged in six sections:  herbal, astronomical, biological, cosmological, pharmaceutical, and recipes.  Except for the recipes section which is all text, the other sections have at least one illustration on almost every page.  The manuscript seems to be a pharmacopoeia or early medical book.  However, none of the plants in the herbal section are readily identifiable.  Since the text is undecipherable, the illustrations are the only clues for this manuscript.  The human figures wear dress and hairstyles that are European, and the castles are European as well.

Possibly nymphs from the Biology section.

The earliest mention of the book  is in a 1639 letter from then owner George Baresch, a 17th century Czech alchemist, to Athanasius Kircher, a Jesuit Scholar at the Collegio Romano who had published a Coptic dictionary.  Kircher tried to acquire it, and finally did after Baresch left it to a mutual friend, rector Jan Marek Marci, when he died.  Marci sent it to Kircher.  The next 200 years of the manuscript's history are unknown.  It is accepted that it was in the Collegio Romano with the rest of Kircher's papers.  In 1870 the Papal States were annexed, and books from the library were furtively transferred to the personal libraries of the staff to avoid confiscation.

Plant illustration.

The Voynich manuscript still has the mark of ex libris of Petrus Beckx, who was the head of the Jesuit order.  Beckx's library was moved to the new headquarters of the Jesuit Ghislieri College in 1866.  By 1912, the Collegio Romano was short of funds and quietly sold some of their effects.  Voynich is said to have found it while sifting through a chest of books for sale.  He spent the next 18 years trying to make sense of the manuscript but made no headway before he died.

Many scholars have and do consider the manuscript to be a hoax, however it is very sophisticated.  There have been many attempts to identify the author but all are inconclusive.  In Marci's cover letter to Kircher upon sending him the book, he claimed that book had been bought by Holy Roman Emperor and Bavarian King Rudolf II (1552-1612) for a sum that would now be about $80,000, and suggested the author may have been Roger Bacon, a fact which Voynich tried to confirm.  John Dee, a mathematician/astrologer in the court of Queen Elizabeth I, has also been suggested as author.  Dee's scrier, or crystal gazer, Edward Kelley claimed to invoke angels and have long conversations with them, which Dee wrote down.  The angel's language he called Enochian, after Enoch, the father of Methuselah, and some scholars also think that Kelly may have fabricated the Voynich manuscript.

From the Astronomy section.
There are those who think Voynich may have manufactured it himself.  As an antiquarian book dealer, he had the knowledge and the means to acquire the materials.  The correspondence concerning it may not refer to the manuscript that currently exists, and may have led Voynich to fabricate the manuscript and push for the Bacon authorship, which would drive the price up.  But this is only one of many theories, and none currently are satisfying.  Some scholars even think it may be the work of multiple authors.

Wilfrid Michael Voynich in 1885.

There are so many interesting aspects to this manuscript, way too many to go into here.  Real or hoax, and regardless who wrote it, it is a fascinating puzzle.  But another puzzling aspect about it is how Voynich came upon it.   Michał Wojnicz (later known as Wilfrid Michael Voynich) was a Polish revolutionary who went to London in 1890 and worked for anarchist and nihilist organizations until at least 1896.  Suddenly he morphed into an internationally known antiquarian book dealer by 1898, but little is known of this transformation.  An even more interesting question is where he got the funds to purchase the hundreds of rare books that he displayed in his London shop.  In 1914 he moved to New York, and opened another book shop.  He died in 1930.  His wife Ethel Lilian Boole (daughter of mathematician George Boole) inherited the book.  When she died it passed to her friend and her husband's former secretary, Anne Nill, who eventually sold it to rare book dealer Hans P. Kraus.  When Kraus couldn't get his asking price of $160,000, he donated to Yale University, where it is kept in the Beinecke Library as MS 408.

Ethel Lilian Voynich, from the frontispiece of
Book News, Vol. 20, No. 229, published by
The National Book League, Great Britain

Much has been written about the Voynich manuscript - books, articles for both popular magazines and scholarly journals, and online.  It is continually being analyzed and theorized.  A facsimile of it was published in 2005.  Hopefully, with all the attention it is receiving, its mysteries will be revealed and the puzzle finally solved.

All images courtesy of Wikipedia.
To see all the images page-by-page, go to the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library.
If you would like to contribute to the discussion or keep abreast of the current
research on the Voynich manuscript, you may want
 to subscribe to the Voynich Manuscript Mailing List HQ.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Valentine Gift Guide

Ah, Valentine's Day!  Roses, chocolate, a nice dinner out... the usual - blah, blah, blah.  How about mixing it up a little this year?

First of all, heart-shaped desserts are de rigueur.  But why not be anatomically correct and go with some authentic-looking treats?  One of the ones below should appeal to someone with real heart.

If you happen to be in London, then go to the London Dungeon,
which will be giving out free cupcakes to visitors.  These cupcakes are
designed by 
Miss Cakehead of the Eat Your Heart Out cake shop.

This one was created by internationally famous designer
Naoto Fukasawa.
Lili Vanilli's red velvet cake with cream cheese frosting and black current
and cherry "blood".  Priced at roughly $11, 20% of the proceeds go to
Trekstock, a music and fashion charity raising money for youths with cancer.
This specimen is one pound of solid chocolate, and will run you $16
from Bluelips.

Women, if your guy is kind of macho, and you don't think a heart, anatomical or otherwise, would make a suitable gift, then how about these tools?

Designed by Fran Kobe Sweets, these are in a limited edition
of 5,000 sets, at about $32.

You may want to make something special for your loved one.  A homemade treat always hits the right spot.  Something like this, perhaps?

If you would prefer something jigglier, try this gelatin mold.
Strawberry, cherry, or a mix of flavors?

A nice cuppa is always good.  You can buy a whole heart-shaped tea set to serve your favorite tea in:

The cup and saucer from a tea set by Wagokoro-Ya.
You can also buy Japanese tea cups in a heart shape.

Men, how about something for the woman who can't have enough shoes?  (Can't you just see Pee Wee Herman in these?)

Hand-carved, custom-made shoes from Booty Cocktails, only $199.95.
These are model 0536 "Red Heart Wooden Stripper Shoes" by Karos Shoes.
(As far as I am aware, Birkenstock's doesn't make anything like these, so I'm out.)

Perhaps you are looking for something that both of you can enjoy together.  Mua is just the thing for lovers.  Wicker-wrapped steel, lined in red, it can dangle from a tree for the true Tarzan/Jane/(Cheeta?) experience.

Lounge furniture by Victor Aleman available at busyboo.

Maybe Valentine's Day is one of those where it isn't even worth chewing through the restraints.  Here both of you can get your frustrations out by actually chewing on your cuffs:
What if you are alone and broken-hearted on Valentine's Day?  Help is available with the Love Patch.  It can help you with your addiction, making you a better person.  Perhaps.

And finally, what better way to get rid of your lover than with the following gift? A limited edition Marmite, with added champagne flavor...
'Nuff said!  Happy Valentine's Day to you and yours!