30.6.09

The Iron Economic Rule of Life, or, a page from the Very Occasional Travelogue




Kęty is a very nice place.


A stop in Sevilla serves well to refresh one’s memory regarding the iron economic rule in life.

The lesson applies to all things, of course: in literary consumption it says “thou shalt not read Kurt Vonnegut when Thomas Mann can be re-read instead”; in music, it says something similar about Brahms and Bach; and in tourism – about Seville and most other places in the world.

Do not misunderstand me: Seville is pretty, even cute. It has nice architecture; monuments; good vino; and, at night, girls decked out like they know what they want from decking out. Seville’s climate is not its strongest suit, but beats Kęty’s hands down. It has a white hot night-life, I am told, and it may even have culture, too (if you manage to look beyond the omnipresent tourist flamenco show). It certainly isn’t waste of time to be here; but it surely is a waste of time to come here – unless, like me, you are merely passing through and can take it in at no additional cost.

The place simply isn’t Rome. It does not have the Vatican Stanze or the Doria Pamphilj, the Barberini, or the Gesu; and yet – it costs the same. It costs as much to get here; and it costs as much to stay here. Why do it then? Why is there a line to get into the Cathedral (7.50 euros per person, thirty minutes’ wait in the white hot summer sun?) Why do tourists come here when they could go to Rome on the exact same budget?

I did come here, back in 1986, and thought the trip worthwhile then; but it was a peseta country then – the price-wise equivalent of Thailand or Malaysia today – and for that sort of money it certainly offered one a good vacation deal. But today it does not: twenty years of high inflation, structural transfers from the EU, a ten year bubble in real estate prices, and a staunch refusal to carry out any serious structural reforms have made Seville expensive without making it convenient (e.g. supermarkets are still closed on Sundays; the tourist information booth has no information about buses in and out, the bus company's website does not tell you from which of the three bus stations of Seville their buses depart and when you call their call center they tell you flat out that the journeys listed on their internet page do not exist at all, ect.). (Note: poor information exchange is the leading cause of economic backwardness).

Euro for euro, most Italian cities – even an also ran like Padova – and many French ones – Arles, for example – beat Seville black and blue.

I had the same feeling last summer in Warsaw. Warsaw actually does have tourist assets: it has fantastic theater scene, excellent art film studios, more than passable classical music scene (certainly better than Seville), and it has both art and monuments enough to fill in the lacunae. But last summer it cost more than Venice -- 3.6 Euros for a beer in Foksal, which, believe me, ain't no Saint Mark's.

Well, I said to myself, enough is enough and swore not to go back. But the currency has since taken a 40% dive against the Euro and Warsaw is sensibly priced again. And thus the door is open for me to go back again. (I won’t be having 2.20 Euro beers in Foksal; but the Chamber Opera seats are again attractively priced).

This is a trick Seville cannot pull: it has no currency of its own which it could devalue. Cost competitiveness can only come through grueling, vicious, bone-crushing deflation; it will come in time – the process has already begun (on this morning’s walk every other apartment seemed for sale; they were still expensive, but given the glut of properties, discounting only seemed a matter of time). But it will all take a very long time indeed. Until then, Seville will remain as she is now: simply not good value for money at all.

Nor will she see me again unless business takes me through again; which isn’t very likely.

As an illustration of my gripe, consider my hotel: 77 Euros on a Sunday night, but 95 on Fridays and Saturdays, it has friendly staff and fantastic cuerda seca in the lobby; but the room is ordinary, the bed flabby, the buffet breakfast (included in some prices, but not all, and when not included a mind boggling 10 euros) is indifferent, and the coffee absolutely awful. (The staff shrug apologetically: yes, I know, it’s terrible, but what I can do? It’s the company! And roll their eyes). In Thailand this quality would cost thirty dollars -- dollars, not euros -- at most (and the coffee would be exactly the same); but in Rome the standard -- and the price -- would be, well, par.

So, why not go to Rome, then and at least see the Doria Pamphilj for your trouble?

Yet, people come; and will continue to come. Why? The answer is – they have not been here yet.

This is how people travel, surprising as this may seem to me: no, they do not want to go back to Rome again, they have already been once, three days, and have seen the Vatican; they have even taken their photo with Venus de Milo. (Or was that Paris?) But Seville they have not yet been to. So to Seville they must go.

Why not Kęty then? I mean, really, why not?

The reason is the list: there is somewhere a list of visitable places; Seville is on it and Kęty is not. When a person travels, as they must several times a year, they just work their way down that list.

Why Kęty is not on the list is not clear, but Warsaw’s experience sheds some light on the question. Warsaw, just as its currency, and prices, peaked last summer (and its relative value reached its nadir) managed to make the list through the simple trick of running ads on CNN and BBC. All of a sudden all sorts of travelers met in all sorts of places were saying to me, oh, Warsaw, yes, I so much want to go.

Years of working in advertiging had made me cynical about these things; I have seen so much clients' money put into projects that did nothing or their brand; why, sometimes even -- not infrequently enough -- projects which did not even exist that I have become jaded; and come to the conclusion that it is all a rip off; an utter waste of money; a pure confidence trick, a madoff job, a ploy to part the fool and his money. After all, how could anyone be seriously expected to go out and buy a car only because they saw a pop star in a 15 second clip get into one while the assembled crowd oohed and ahhed? The very notion of this mechanism seems so transparently false to me that I would never buy a brand so advertised, assuming that it must be a real piece of junk if it needs a that sort of promotion.

But guess what? I am wrong. It works. Put it on TV, and they will come.

25.6.09

Çintamęty

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Pair of sleeves (kolluk), 16th century, Topkapi.

Right at the formation of the Polish national state, the indoctrination began: in 1920 both Semadenis -- husband and wife -- then still boyfriend and girlfriend -- wrote their Baccalauréat thesis on the subject: Does Poland belong to Western European civilization or Central European civilization? They both answered correctly (and passed): Western. In their case it's no surprise: they were Lutherans of German and Swiss origins. How else could they answer? But the answer was de rigeur for all, it would seem, not only recent immigrants form the West.

The indoctrination job has been done well in Poland: formerly close ties of Poland to the East -- Turkey in particular -- have been programatically wiped out from Polish collective memory. Yet the proof of the connection lies everywhere; at the linguistic level the most basic items bear Turkish names: pierogi (the national dish); palto (coat: can't live without one); torba (bag); wisnia (national fruit). The national dress -- kontusz -- was defended in the 18th century against the effeminate French fashion as truly Polish; it was, of course, Turkish (by way of Hungary). As was the hairstyle, the obligatory drooping mustache and the saber. (The saber is still obligatory: I own one).

Simply put, the Polish eternally western nature is -- a fraud. But never mind that: why waste my time fighting the nation-building indoctrination in Poland? All nation building indoctrination is equally stupid, whether in Poland or in India or Lapland; and I could never fight it all: who am I, a lone voice, against a sea of nonsense? Let them do their foolishness as they please.

But digging up layers of Turkishness in Poland is fun. It's not unlike archeology.

Here is one of my more entertaining recent digs:

Last November I passed through Kęty, or Kąty, in Upper Silesia. The name -- literally "corners" -- used to carry the connotation of "boonies" or "sticks", which Kęty was and still is. No offense: I am partial to sticks. Now, Kęty's coat of arms, proudly displayed at all city entrances, looks like this.

I laughed out loud. The right field is pure Chintamani (Çintamani), of course: three balls in pyramidal arrangement and two wavy lines. (Here is an example).

Chintamani was one of the principal elements of Turkish figurative design -- in textiles, in Iznik pottery, wall tiles, etc. It's origin lies in a banner the Ottoman rulers had adopted: three balls of Timur-e-Lang plus two stripes of Rustam's tiger-skin.

A friend who was traveling with me dug up the facts: sometime in the thirteenth century a prince of Silesia hunted somewhere in the sticks and finding an eagle's nest with three eggs in it close by a stream, decided to found a town there. (And why not). Hence the three balls (eggs) and two stripes (stream).

Hence, not Turkish but Polish?

Well, the source of the coat of arms may not be Turkish; but it is hard to believe that whoever drew this coat of arms -- with that particular arrangement of balls, and the two parallel wavy lines (in other coats of arms streams are represented with three lines) had not seen the Chintamani. I am sure he did. Perhaps he even owned a Turkish chintamani velvet.

Taken in a charge on a Turkish camp, of course.


*

A word about Chintamani:

It was just Rustam's two tiger stripes until Timur suddenly turned up: check out this link: you will see a portrait of Osman I, the founder of the Turkish state in Anatolia wearing a half-Chintamani, as it were: a tiger-stripe pattern kurta, gold on blue1. No balls.

Now, here is the thing: Osman predated Timur; at his time the Turks had not yet had the opportunity to learn the -- er -- shall we say -- burning significance of the three balls.

Now look at the illustration at the top of this post. Ipek, Imperial Ottoman Silks and Velvets calls it "a striking pattern in an unusual color combination". One wonders if the editors had seen the Osman portrait.

_____________

1 By the way, the word kurta lives in Polish as "kurtka", i.e. "small kurta", i.e. "jacket", and has nothing to do with German kurtz, though no doubt, the Semadenis' Baccalauréat thesis would have had you believe otherwise.

I should also mention here, I suppose, that the name Semadeni is originally Italian, or rather, to be precise, Savoyard, not Swiss; so much for the native Swiss Germanness of the Semadenis, I suppose.

24.6.09

Bursa velvets

16th century, Turkish. Made in Bursa. Gulbenkian collection, Lisbon.

The persistent idea is of staggered rows of circles. Some circles morph into carnations and some -- into thistles. And others into flower arrangements. The pattern works -- but one wonders where it derives from.

Some patterns have a superimposed frame (a la Sanguszko carpet -- Heaven's Gate?). The frame, when present, seems always asymmetrical: it cuts through the circles differently at bottom than at top, suggesting that the design was directional -- to be hung one way but not the other.

One wonders why and hopes the museum got it right.





The circles can sometimes be arranged in neat rows, too. Here they seem to incorporate the idea of the chintamani pattern (of which more anon):



A great number of these was once exported to Poland; many workshops in Bursa (and later in Istanbul) existed solely for the purpose of production against Polish orders. Polish merchants in Bursa had a special tax dispensation, allowing them a lower export duty on their shipments to Poland (the Sultan being kind to his best customers). The National Museum in Cracow has a large collection of these makaty (Polish: wall hangings; from Arabic: maq'ad, a small sitting carpet).

But the influx of New World gold into Europe in the sixteenth century, and the subsequent price revolution, allowed Europeans -- including Poles -- to offer very high prices for these velvets; prices which Turkish nobles could not match. To prevent the draining of Bursa velvets out of the Empire, the Ottoman government then banned their export. One of the consequences of this decision was that Italian weavers began to make fake Bursas (many in Chintamani pattern) for export to Poland.

23.6.09

Raise thyself unto poesy, mensch!

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Polyphemus is -- well -- Poliphermanator. But he is also a poet:

Air

Polyphemus

O ruddier than the cherry,
O sweeter than the berry,
O nymph more bright
Than moonshine night,
Like kidlings blithe and merry.

Ripe as the melting cluster,
No lily has such lustre;
Yet hard to tame
As raging flame,
And fierce as storms that bluster!

O ruddier. . . etc. (da capo)
The poetry is mighty good: Poliphemus is so taken with his creation that repeats the opening two lines three times (what is good to hear once, etc.) and then breaks out into a bleating ornamentation. ("Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee").

Ah, the transformative power of love!

A good singer will sing the aria badly -- off beat ("o sweeter than the berry") and bleat like a sheep on the eeeeee ornamentando. Mathew Rose does this brilliantly here. Bryn Terfel does it badly: he doesn't know how to discard his singer's pride in the name of -- well, a good joke.

Which this aria is.

(Who says Germans have no sense of humor?)

22.6.09

Dog days

Dog days are upon us; one lies in shade all day, like a beached sunfish, barely breathing, reading poetry:

Il brille, le sauvage Été,
La poitrine pleine de roses.
Il brûle tout, hommes et choses,
Dans sa placide cruauté.

Il met le désir effronté
Sur les jeunes lèvres décloses ;
Il brille, le sauvage Été,
La poitrine pleine de roses.

Roi superbe, il plane irrité
Dans des splendeurs d'apothéoses
Sur les horizons grandioses ;
Fauve dans la blanche clarté,
Il brille, le sauvage Été.

Théodore de Banville -- look -- he looked hot. Then, at dusk, life begins: one strolls slowly through the empty streets, under the tropical canopies, and stops at street-side cafes for coffees and sweets.

21.6.09

The Sanguszko


Not a Sanguszko, actually


Last night I froze speechless before a huge (four by six meters) Iranian carpet produced by Miri.

Miri has been making modern recreations of traditional pieces of incredible color and quality -- (absolutely the smallest knots I have ever seen). On account of their workmanship and beauty, some of their pieces have been bought by museums. Yet, their catalog (and website) do not show any of their work, God (the Merciful, the Compassionate) only knows why. (But they do show their good looking chief designer, who is very much worth seeing). Try to get your hands on the promo catalog of their closest competitor too, though -- Woven Legends -- the reproductions in it are fantastic.

*

Last night, in a deep pomegranate field minuscule red lions and leopards bit into the necks of helplessly thrashing deer; angels floated in pairs while playing lyres; dragons intertwined with peacocks; and men raced on horseback with their swords up-raised. The carpet, I was told, was a kind of... Sanguszko.

I did a double take: a -- who?

(Out of that name, like out of a madeleine dipped in tea, an image of an old aunt floated up before my eyes).

*

The title of Princes, which the family Sanguszko claim, we are told by no less authority than New York Times, is Polish.

It isn't.

It's Lithuanian.

The Sanguszko are descended from Fiodor, brother of Jagiello, the Grand Duke of Lithuania (he later became king of Poland; and in time fathered Wladyslaw Warnenczyk, him of the Madeira fame); and through Fiodor, they descend from Gedymin, one of the greatest heroes of the Lithuanian heroic age.

(There were no princely titles in Poland just as there were no court ranks: in Poland which was a Res Publica -- with an elective king -- all nobles ("citizens") were equal, including my folk. But in Lithuania there were two sorts of princes -- Lithuanian -- those descended from the Grand Dukes, i.e. cousins of the royal house; and Ruthenian -- descendants of Rurik, the founder of the Ruthenian state, and, Russians say, Russia. (Ukrainians disagree). My folk in time came to call themselves counts -- which made them liars. But the Sanguszko are the real thing: blood royal; a off-shoot of the Gedymin tree. In time, they polonized and called themselves Polish, but their roots, and title, were 100% Lithuanian).

*

Sometime early in the last century the Sanguszkos have deposited a carpet with the New York Met. There it was seen by millions and by the virtue of the fact became quite famous while the Sanguszkos frolicked all over the world (last time I checked, in Sao Paolo, Brasil). Then, in 1994, the last Sanguszko living decided to put the carpet up for sale. (One familiar with the ways of Polish noblemen might enjoy imagining an astronomical gambling debt incurred overnight). As the Met could not raise the money fast enough -- the sum of 4 million bucks was reported -- the carpet went to the Miho Museum of Art. ("Globalization").

Where it may not be seen, of course. (Hey, what are museums for).


*

The carpet is Safavid -- it was made in Kerman, in the 16th century. It is considered the finest example of a group of about sixteen similar carpets dispersed across the world. They are distinguished by their extremely fine workmanship -- it is said that the pattern can be made out on the reverse -- and color; and their figural patterns (rather than the usual geometric and vegetal). There is an interesting paper1 trying to make out the meaning of the pattern and figures. The carpet represents the heavens seen from earth; the border that runs around it is the heaven's first gate; the medallion in the middle, the second; and the small circle in the center: the third and highest (behind which stands the veiled Throne of God). (It is a kind of perspective, don't you see). The dragons entwined about it are Chinese in origin: the yin-and-yang, but in Persian they are also a pun (mobram -- "entwined", but also "inevitable"). Yet, the symbol is Zoroastrian (eternal struggle between Light and Darkness). The felines devouring the horses represent the fate of those who do not follow the path (gor -- "onager" but also "infidel"). The tigers are black with gold stripes -- the reverse of facts on earth -- because these are heavenly tigers. The central medallion and the two escutcheons are geometric representations of the Shamanist two-headed Sun Bird. The strange birds -- swans on crane's legs -- are souls of the faithful waiting to be born.

Etc.

These figural carpets were made during a short period in the 16th century and may have gone out of production on account of the revival of Shi'ite orthodoxy under Shah Tahmasp (of coffee-renouncing, atelier-dispersing fame). The paper goes on to argue that certain kinds of geometric patterns and designs popular in later eras may derive from them, being, as it were, coded allusions.

Fascinating stuff. Possibly untrue, too, but makes one want to see the Sanguszko all the same -- doesn't it? Sadly I am unable to find a reproduction to show you. (I can always go to my friendly local carpet dealer to take a look myself... But I'd like to show it to you, too, so if you find a photo, do send it to me for posting).

(The carpet above is not a Sanguszko, it belongs to a category known as Royal Hunting Carpets, which were made at about the same time).

*

How did this Kerman get into Sanguszko hands?

Why, through a heroic deed of arms, of course. At the battle of Chocim (Khotim), 1621, the second of the four which fought there -- Chocim is quite literally a swinging sort of place. It was among the many carpets the Commonwealth cavalry took from the Turks. The Commonwealth Cavalry charging the Turkish camp in order to seize Persian carpets is a bit of an East European tradition. Perhaps the Sanguszkos, who took part in the charge in 1621, took this one at the division of spoils on account of its pattern -- it includes the motif of a man charging on horseback with a sword up-raised. (You can see a similar figure in the carpet above). And he looks a lot like Pogon, the Sanguszkos' coat of arms.


1 Schuyler van R. Cammann, "Cosmic Symbolism on Carpets from the Sanguszko Group", in Studies in Art and Literature of the Near East, New York, 1974.

16.6.09

A western meibutsu


Speaking of meibutsu, this must surely rank among the ultimate meibutsu of the west: The Farnese Cup. Just read this entry from the usual place:
After Octavian's conquest of Egypt in 31 BC, the Farnese Cup was acquired by the Treasury of Rome. It was later brought to Byzantium, then back west after this city was sacked in 1204 during the Fourth Crusade. By the 15th century it was in the court of Frederick II, from which it then reached the Persian court of Herat or possibly Samarkand, from where it found its way to the court of Alfonso of Aragon in Naples. Lorenzo the Magnificent finally purchased the famous "scutella di calcedonio" in Rome, in 1471. From there it came into the possession of the Farnese family and thus into the Naples National Archaeological Museum (Inv. MANN 27611).
OK?

The cup is.... Oh, what the heck, read the whole entry:
It is a phiàle (libation plate). The internal decoration is an elaborate allegory of Ptolemaic Egypt's prosperity. It operates on two levels, one Egyptian, the other Greek.

It presumably represents the Egyptian divine triad, Serapis-Isis-Harpocrates or, alternatively, the Eleusinian triad: Hades/Pluto-Demeter-Triptolemos.

On the bottom are female figures possibly personifying the seasons. Two male figures soaring in flight above the divine triad represent the propitious Etesian winds that blow during the summer. On the exterior, a large apotropaic Gorgonian mask glares threateningly at the enemies of the state.

Produced at the court of the Ptolemies, other interpretations of the figures have them being Cleopatra III, her husband Ptolemy VIII and their son Ptolemy X Aléxandros. Through the amalgamation of Egyptian and Greek deities and their identification with members of the royal family, this dynasty tried to perpetuate the traditional conception of divine power they had inherited from pharaonic Egypt.
It is now displayed -- if that is what you call its barely lit presence in the back of a room in the back of beyond of the Naples museum, conspicuous for its darkness, emptiness, and a general sense of abandonment and unkemptness. To reach it, one walks through several cavernous rooms which appear to have the general impression of a waiting room - or perhaps left luggage room -- in a rarely frequented Stalinist style railroad station somewhere in Shaanxi province (perhaps Datong?); other cabinets in the same room are empty and dusty (perhaps, by now, cobwebbed). One almost wishes for it to have died a heroic death, like that certain meibutsu smashed to bits by a daimyo in front of his assembled retainers after he had received it from Oda Nobunaga in reward for his participation in a campaign. (Oda was famously stingy with his retainers). Damn useless piece of junk! announced the warlord, chagrined to be unable to pay his men real money for their work. Poof! went the meibutsu.

Or perhaps the Farnese Cup is like the Sleeping Princess? You have to overcome all sorts of obstacles to reach her -- including not letting yourself be deceived by the unassuming appearance of the rooms immediately preceding her; and not being diverted by the unjustly far more famous Farnese Bull, but once you have reached her -- she is all yours, yours alone.

15.6.09

The annual summer solistice artifact quiz, second clue


Well, alas no, Mrs Ziuta K. of Wolomin, but thank you for participating in our quiz. No, alas, no, the answer to our quiz is not "Kamiya-guro", as you can clearly see by looking at Kamiya-guro, here.

(For the rest of you, dear readers, "Kamiya-guro" is a chaki-meibutsu (sometimes also called meibutsu-gari): it is a storied, named tea utensil, an item cherished as much for its aesthetic appeal as for its illustrious provenance. You can see several storied, named objects here (in the Mitsubishi Electric Museum) and read more about the concept here, on a page published by one of the leading tea-ceremony schools in Tokyo; a more interesting reading is perhaps this article by Herbert Plutschow, detailing in its chapter 7 the many ways in which chaki-meibutsu were used by the great generals of the civil war period (ca. 1570-1600) as symbols of power and objects of ritual. It's hard not to admire these guys' commitment to tea-ceremony in particular, and culture in general, the outward manifestation of the idea that a warrior's excellence does not reside in his superior military skills, but, on the contrary, his superior military skills are a function of his overall excellence of character; and that a warrior's chief object is not the seizure of political power but seizure of power for the sake of subsequent engagement in unbridled cultural enjoyment).

Anyhow, as we still do not have a winner, here is your second clue. This one should make it clear to all that the object of the quiz is not the cup in the painting fragment last posted, but rather the painting itself. Thus, you now you have two clues: beautifully manicured ladies hands holding precious art objects.

So -- any guesses?

14.6.09

Ministry of Strange Buildings


You are of course familiar with the Ministry of Silly Walks. But I am sure you have never heard of the Ministry of Strange Buildings.

The reason why you have not heard of it is because it is one of the seven Invisible Ministries in my new country, carefully hidden from the public eye (and Brussels), of which the others are:

2) Ministry for the Prevention of Rampant, Ill-advised and Potentially Harmful Economic Development (MPRIPHED),
3) Ministry of Good Food and Wet Lunch (MGFWL),
4) Ministry of Confusing, Misleading and Downright Wrong Signs (MCMDWS),
5) Ministry of the Good Life (it has been rumored to be on the verge of merging with MGFWL these past 27 years but has had a life too good to get around to do that),
6) Ministry for the Preservation of Delicious Pasteis (MPDP, and boy are they delicious),
7) Ministry for Undoing Everything That Everyone Else is Busily Doing (MUETEBD);

and

8) ? one more ministry which has not as yet defined its name or writ, having spent the last 27 years trying to work them out.

Now, the principal job of the Ministry of Strange Buildings is to strangeify Lisbon's wonderful (and whacky) architecture. Permits are issued by a committee which is likely to ask of the architect challenging questions like: do you not think there is too much symmetry and balance in the facade? And: is it not possible to tilt that tower somewhat off the vertical to shake up a bit this same old same old? Or, indeed: where is your tower?! (If you have no tower, then, well, where shall you lock up your princesses and what will the noble knights attempt to capture?)

At the top of this post is a ohoto of a building which has recently (1902) passed the Ministry's inspection. It is commendable, in my opinion, on account of the architect's honesty who, instead of designing a twelve story building in which every story had exactly the same kind of windows, designed a four story building in which each story had a different kind of windows. (He was, in other words, delivering value for money).

Below is a building whose inspection and permitting has not as yet been completed, but whose permit is expected to be granted in the near future on the same grounds: the architect is honest and the building is strange enough.

13.6.09

Three short scenes from the life of Bela Bartok

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.
or,
The Miraculous Mandarin for piano four hands



Some time ago I had the opportunity to see Berliner Philharmoniker play, back to back, Mahler (the Eighth) and Bartok (concerto for orchestra). It was instructive: while the Mahler was clearly difficult, it was fun, the musicians enjoyed themselves playing him; but during the Bartok their facial expressions were -- tense.

So are those of Chamayou and Vitaud when they play Bartok's Miraculous Mandarin in piano transcription for four hands: their eyes are riveted to the score, their faces stone hard and pale, their hands beat out an uncombed mess of sound like merciless threshing machines.

Orchestration makes the work transparent: it is easier to spy a rustling wind as it slithers through the undergrowth of strings. Here, transcription acts like camouflage: the impression of the whole work becomes like a pietra-dura black-and-white mosaic, dense, impenetrable.

Aside from that, the work is, of course, totally deranged; yet, you would not guess it from Bartok's photos which show a perfectly sane, distinguished-looking gentleman. (See above).

A number of short skits suggest itself:



1

A cafe in Budapest. Bartok sits calmly. From his head rises barely perceptible smoke.


Friend: How are you, Bela!
Bartok: I am fine.


2

Same cafe.

Bartok's doctor: How are you, Bartok?
Bartok: Fine. Much better now.
Bartok's doctor: Are you staying away from composing, like I advised you?
Bartok: Oh, yes, yes.


3

Bartok's study. Bartok's mother enters abruptly. Bartok jumps up from his desk and frantically tries to cover up his work.

Bartok's Mother: What are you doing in here?
Bartok: Oh, nothing, nothing!


*

Malhereusement, their Miraculous Mandarin is not on You Tube, but here Chamayou and Vitaud (plus friends) play Le carnavale des animaux. But the Bartok is better.

12.6.09

The last mystery of Madeira

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III
O Rei Encoberto... Polonês

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Encontro de S. Joaquim e Santa Ana junto da Porta Dourada
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What is the connection between Sebastiao O Desejado (king of Portugal and Algraves, etc.), and Władysław Warneńczyk (king of Poland and Hungary, etc.)?

For one, there is a striking similarity of fate.

Born in 1424, Władysław, like Sebastiao, ascended his father's throne as a mere boy upon his father's death (1434). Like Sebastiao, he was handsome, intelligent and energetic. This was one reason why six years later he was elected king of Hungary as well, on the understanding that he would take up the cross against the Turks in defense of his new kingdom; which he did and, like Sebastiao, he led a crusade: in 1444, 25,000 Poles, Hungarians and Wallachians crossed into Bulgaria. Like Sebastiao's , the crusade of Władyslaw was also initially a success; the Turks were compelled to a ten year truce which obliged them to stay out of continental Europe. But then, almost immediately, the young king gave in to Pope's warmongering pressure, violated the truce and resumed the crusade. And then it all ended, like that of Sebastiao's, in utter and total defeat, at Varna, on November 10. The king was last seen leading a charge; his body was never found.

These similarities are obvious.

But then there is the similarity of their after-life: this young king's death, just like the other's, was widely disbelieved; and he became the Awaited One.

Władysław's brother and heir, Kazimierz, refused to believe in his brother's death and delayed his own coronation by three years, patiently awaiting his brother's return. Messengers were dispatched in search of the disappeared king in an attempt to establish what had happened to him. Some were shown a severed head which they said was not the king's. Back in Poland it was ordered that at Angelus church bells strike extra ten times as a symbol of the country's loyal longing for her king. (They continued to do so for as long as the country remained independent (1795); and in Sandomierz they still did so as recently as 1970's, which I heard with my own ears).

Then in the 2oth century the word spread from Portugal that Władysław had not died at Varna, but, having been saved by some Franciscans, was taken to Mount Sinai, where, having recovered from his wounds he became a knight of Santa Catarina; and thence he traveled to Portugal and -- Madeira, where he settled on land given him by the king of Portugal under the name of Henrique Alemao, or Henry the German. There he funded a church of St Magdalen, now destroyed; a painting from it, preserved in the local museum (above), is said to represent him as St Joachim.

The legend is old: in the 1970's a Polish historian has discovered a letter in the Teutonic archive dating to 1470's reporting that Władysław was alive and well on Madeira. (This would have been useful propaganda for the Teutonic order, involved as it was in a life-and-death struggle with Władysław's brother, Kazimierz: it could be used to undermine their enemy's legitimacy).

If you ask me, the story sounds fake. Henrique had most likely been an impostor; if you wonder why, well -- his imposition has earned him a nice property on Madeira from the benevolent king of Portugal. (It would not be the last time that Poles arrived in Portugal under false pretenses). It speaks volumes of Portuguese sense of nobility that they so readily accepted the impostor's excuse for not returning to Poland: having violated the Turkish truce and then lost the war (clearly, a divine punishment for breaking his royal word), he now felt he did not deserve to be king anymore.

A touching story, this: it would go well into a Fado song.

But one thing does appear certain: there indeed was in the late 1400's in Madeira a man claiming to be Władysław; and the story was indeed quite well known in Portugal.

So the real connection between Władysław and Sebastiao appears to be this: that when a century later Sebastiao disappeared on his crusade, a legend of his survival, occlusion, and possible future return was already waiting for him in Madeira.

There are many ways in which liars make history; this is just one more.

11.6.09

The annual summer solistice artifact quiz, first clue


The game is called: Identify the art object. Here is your first clue. Any guesses?

10.6.09

More mysteries of Madeira

.


II
King of Portugal and the Algarves,

of either side of the sea in Africa, Lord of Guinea and of Conquest,
Navigation and Commerce of Ethiopia,
Arabia, Persia and India, etc.





To introduce the Madeira's second mystery, I must begin somewhere else. I must begin with the mythical figure of Dom Sebastian of Portugal, or, as he is known in Portugal, Sebatião O Desejado, Sebastian the Desired.

Or perhaps: The Longed-For.

Five hundred years after his death, he remains one of the most important figures in Portuguese mythology. Good looking, able-bodied, willful, and famously pious (he was attended by two monks 24/7 so as to preserve his chastity) he came to the throne as a mere youth, yet proved a good administrator, initiating important administrative reforms, founding charitable institutions and a system of micro-credit for small farmers in times of drought. His saintliness and his good governance is credited with the good fortune Portugal experienced during his brief rule: Goa repulsed a surprise invasion, Os Lusiadas, the national epic, were composed, and, it is said, not a single ship during Dom Sebastião's rule was lost at sea.

Alas, all of this excellent good fortune -- as good fortune often does -- gave rise to hubris and that, in turn, to downfall.

What happened was that some dubious oriental gentlemen had arrived in Lisbon purporting to be exiled kings of Morocco. They managed to convince the young king to mount a crusade against the Muslims of Africa for the purpose of returning them to the throne. Soon, a great expedition was mounted and launched with huge fanfare. The king's landing in Asilah was triumphant; and so was his march on Fez.

But within weeks it all ended in ruin; at the battle of Alcácer Quibir, known also as the Battle of Three Kings, the flower of Portuguese nobility were either killed or taken prisoner. The king himself was said to have been last seen charging into the thick of the enemy; his body was never found.

The huge loss of life -- Portugal's ruling class was effectively decapitated -- and the heavy burden of ransom payments which had to be made to secure release of the few surviving prisoners and the bodies of the rest, undercut the power of the state; worse, Sebastião died without issue, his death created a succession crisis; this ended in Spanish invasion and loss of independence. Portugal had wagered high and -- lost -- literally everything. Sixty years of Spanish occupation followed; and then another sixty of war of liberation.

Sebastião's earthly life was thus meteoric: a bright object of wonder in the sky, shing bright as it falls to earth.

But just as Sebastião's his earthly life ended, his mythical life began. Since his body had never been found, the rumor spread that the king had not been killed and that he would return. When Philip, the new Spanish king of Portugal, ransomed Sebastião's remains and buried them in Geronimos, the same rumor claimed the remains were not his remains, merely a Spanish propaganda ploy.

Portuguese pining for freedom became a pining for Sebastião's return; he became O Desejado, the desired, and sometimes O Encoberto, the hidden one, subject of myth, song and poem. Several impostors arose claiming to be Dom Sebastião -- the last one was executed in 1619. The legend outlasted the Spanish rule: as late as the nineteenth century Brazilian peasants in the sertão were expecting his second coming.

(But, you will ask, where is Madeira in all this? Wait, my dear young friend: read here tomorrow to find out).

9.6.09

An experiment in aesthetics


How good Maria Joao-Pires is, I thought to myself with surprise, while listening to this: Mozart's piano concerto No. 9, the Jeunehomme ('the young man", 1777), the middle movement, Andantino ("somewhat walking").

She isn't boring at all, I said to myself with surprise, but most amazingly, gently touching, sensitive and wise! And: how wrong have I been all my life thinking otherwise! How unjust!

But then I returned home, got out the album and, having listened to it several times through, had to concede that Maria Joao-Pires was, after all, incredibly dull. It hadn't her rendition of Mozart that was so great; nor even the Mozart himself; it had been the view out of the window: the sun slowly leaning towards the evening, the light turning golden, then somewhat orange, then orangish-russet-red, shadows growing in the world, breeze rising off the sea, white clouds' reflections on the bay, their most Piero-della-Francesca liquid edges in yellowish grey.

Such evenings are rare even here.

On such evenings, even Maria Pires sounds good.

And the lessons in aesthetics? It is this: when you think something moves you, double check: are you entirely sure that what moves you is what you think moves you, or could it be something entirely else happening at the same time, in parallel, possibly even unnoticed?

Lang-Lang Yuck

Giergiev and Lang-Lang gave Prokofiev' No. 3 on the 18th and 19th of May, 2009, at Salle Pleyel, Paris. Go here, and hit the link entitled "Mardi 14:30 Ecouter the Concert" (you have 24 hours do so) to hear HOW NOT TO PLAY IT. Really, it is worth hearing just to see how badly No. 3 can be played. It's an evenement, dear friends.

Now, I'm not fond of Giergiev -- he's too much of "classical music for busy people" sort of guy for me -- but this really is bloody awful and I suppose the blame for that is to be laid squarely at Lang-Lang's feet: Giergiev alone is never that bad.

Interestingly, judging by the applause, the audience loved it. Mrs S is right in observing that they just don't know the piece. They sure don't or they would boo to high heaven.

8.6.09

Some mysteries of Madeira

.


I
A mountain, in the middle of the sea



After three days of terrifying storm [at sea], during which, on several occasions, the navigators had thought themselves lost, there came upon them suddenly an unexpected calm, and a dense, dark, ashen fog, through which they could hear approaching a great thunderous roar from afar. A strong current in the sea bore them swiftly towards it.

The sailors found this more frightening than the storm: to sink is common enough sailor's fate, but to pitch over the precipice at the end of the world seemed both terrible and unknown. Tough, wiry, dry-eyed men stared intensely, white-knuckled, forwards, awaiting their fate.

Then, in the late afternoon, relief came: the fog lifted revealing a be-cliffed, steeply-hilled, thickly-wooded isle, full of game and birds, balmy of climate, rich in soil, and -- untouched by the foot of man. The roar they had heard was not, it turned out, the ocean pitching into the netherworld but -- the ocean surf crashing against her rocks!

(Tratado que comproz o nobre e notavel capitão Antonio Galvão dos diversos & disvaridos Caminhos, per onde nos tempos passados a pimenta & especcaria veio da India as nossas partes, & assim... Lisbon, 1563)


Such was the Portuguese discovery of Madeira in 1419.

Or not exactly - the discovery: it is the first of the many strange mysteries of the island that, it turns out, it had not been unknown prior to the Portuguese discovery; rather it seems to have been someone's well guarded secret, though we are not sure whose: a fourteenth century Italian navigational map has since come to light showing clearly the island's location and fairly precise drawing of its coastline. Who made it and who owned and used it and for what purpose, we do not know; but someone did.

Nor do we know why they kept it a secret, but they did.

7.6.09

The Aldobrandini twelve



Ippolito Aldobrandini, in time Pope Clement VIII, commissioned twelve tazze, or elaborate table-top ados, which are known by his name. They were executed between 1573 and 1577, mostly likely by a northern (cherman?) artist working to an Italian design. They represent the twelve roman emperors featured in the histories of Suetonius (the statuette), and the major events of the reign of each (on the plate). The last time all twelve were together was 1861; the set was subsequently scattered, and, what is worse, some individual pieces were disassembled and reassembled again -- some wrongly.

(I would like to know why they were scattered, but have been unable to find the story so far; surely, they would have been more valuable as a set? Something odd must have transpired, but what? Inheritance, perhaps? As for the disassembly -- the explanation is simple: the owner had a mechanically-minded twelve year old son).

This one, in the possession of the Minneapolis Arts Institute (who?!), shows the figure of Augustus and the events from the reign of -- Caligula. See this page for a zoom-in view: the details are really impressive and the most amazing thing about it is its color: it's gilt silver, but somehow barely gilt: the color is the palest-yellow-tinged, extremely subtle and very beautiful. The chemist in me wants to know how this effect was achieved.

I have found two of these in Portugal: a complete one at Medeiros Almeida - of Emperor Tiberius, beautifully displayed allowing one a close-up stare; and an incomplete one (only the plate) at Arte Antigua, also well displayed if not well lit. There is another one at Victoria and Albert, but the VA website won't tell you which emperor they have. (Maybe it's an embarrassing emperor?)

(Nor will the VA let you zoom in on their tazza. Let the provincials struggle for cheap popularity, not us).

Another tazza was sold at an auction in July 2000 for 1.6 million bucks. At these sort of prices, and with public museums owning some, the twelve are not likely to be put together ever again.

*

Looking at the Arte Antiga tazza today, I discovered it was much richer gold than the Medeiros piece. It was also dented: perhaps that's your explanation: it had been dropped, damaged, and had to be regilt. But it was regilt by someone who did not know the original recipe and so came out yellow as an egg-yoke.

The workmaship, of course, remains extraordinary.

6.6.09

Urad Dhal vs. Jesus 1:0

There is some disagreement as to whether

a) Jesus went to India during his hidden years (i.e. before launching his public career in Palestine); and went in order to learn all that mind-boggling stuff with which he subsequently beguiled the unlettered back home (a.k.a. "Wisdom of the East"), as this film would have it ("this is clearly a possibility we cannot exclude"); or

b) whether he went there at the end of his Palestinian career, to escape crucifixion, as his Holiness Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad of Qadian would have it ("The evidence from books of history shows that the coming of Jesus to the Punjab and neighboring territories was inevitable");

but

that he did go seems to be clearly established by this recipe:

URAD DHAL

Ingredients:

1 cup Urad (black) daal
1 Onion sliced
1 Tomato diced
1 tsp Ginger grated
1-2 Green chilies chopped
Coriander leaves finely chopped
1 tsp Cumin seeds (jeera)
2 bay leaves
2 cloves
1/2 tsp. turmeric powder
Salt to taste
A pinch of Garam masala
Red chili powder to taste
2 tbsp oil
1 tsp lemon juice


Preparation:

Clean and wash the dhal properly. Soak it in water for 10-15 minutes.
Boil it in 5 cups of water. Boil till it becomes soft. It should not become pasty. Remove the water and keep aside.
Heat oil in a kadhai (deep skillet) and add cloves, bayleaves and cumin seeds, allow to splutter.
Now add ginger, onion and green chili and stir-fry till golden brown.
Add tomato and fry till it softens. Add all dry masalas (turmeric powder, chili powder, salt) and fry for a moment.
Now add dhal and lemon juice, mix very gently.
Sprinkle garam masala and garnish with coriander.
Serve hot.
Urad dhal is the oldest dhal known to man; excavations at Mohenjo Daro have shown that Indians were eating it, spiced with jeera, turmeric and amchur, some five thousand years ago (while our ancestors, people, ate raw meat on a stick in caves).

Then Jesus arrived and began his teaching and the Punjabis were faced with a difficult problem: do we go and listen to that odd-looking, wheatey fellow over there, or do we continue to squat here and eat urad dhal (using our right hand, of course)?

Then, not surprisingly, they punted for urad dhal.

This explains why there is no trace of Jesus and his teaching in India. Urad dhal wins. It always does.

*

(Further research reveals that Jesus did not, in fact, go to India, but to Poland. 'Twas the mushroom season that did it, I am sure).

5.6.09

In which he is mean and sarcastic towards people and places he loves

The Museu do Oriente has a rich, well organized, well-labeled collection; it's also at the end of the world across three wrong sets of tracks and therefore real hell to get to; and in a building which makes me sick (it's a converted factory, all reinforced concrete, sloping ramps and delivery size elevators; and all shapes are relentlessly, unforgivingly straight and perpendicular).

It also has a gift shop which is not just ridiculously priced -- they buy for 3 euros and sell for 36 -- and full of utter and total junk -- not a single item of any value at all -- but is also totally wrong: the Asian outfits are not Asian, Burmese "laquerware" is plastic, the cabinet with tea-pots, helpfully inscribed "China" -- and "中国", for added authenticity, no doubt -- has not a single Chinese item in it and the tea implements in it are worse than useless. The museum does a good job popularizing some aspects of Asia; but its gift shop then completely undoes it all. I am entertained -- I can't help laughing out loud at some of the shop items -- but also shocked. Is the museum really allowed to do this? Is this not a violation of some kind of principle? A perversion of its educational mandate?

While waiting for my show I watched a documentary on Goa -- it featured interviews with people I know and pans of the insides of their homes; Mario looked younger and healthier than I remember him; perhaps the video predated my stay, Goa seemed somehow cleaner than I remember it.

The show was Bharatnatyam by Saju George, the Dancing Jesuit (oh, yes); not the greatest BN I have seen, Saju also tired towards the end of the first half and began to lose balance; still, for a priest -- I mean, an amateur -- he was really remarkably good, even excellent. For a moment I had a spell of aesthetic delight.

I left early, unwilling to remain behind to join the announced discussion regarding matters of dance and priesthood. I like the dance alright, it's the priesthood I can't stand.

*

Coming back by way of a fancy restaurant where overpriced vegetarian food is served in Indian thalis (a thali in India is a way to serve an economic dish) I noted that, it being Friday, it was time for their weekly Oriental Dance. The lights were on and the curtains drawn; I looked in. It wasn't Bharatnatyam, though, as the thali has always suggested to me, but, somewhat disconcertingly, North African belly dance. Except that it wasn't that either: it was a pretty lame ad lib by someone who has clearly not even taken lessons. That someone was pretty and was clearly having fun; she caught my knowing glance through the window; and gave me a pixish smirk: she was enjoying herself -- the fraud perhaps more than anything else ("I can't believe they are paying me to do this"). She was clearly English -- a tourist perhaps or a student -- it's such an English joke; and such a English smirk.

4.6.09

In which he descends (briefly) into hell

(and makes his own illustration)

Every great classic must obligatorily contain a chapter in which the hero travels out to the limit of the known world and peers beyond. (If it doesn't, it fails; ask Camoes and Mickiewicz why they are not taught in the Dead White Men courses in America).

The epic chapter of my life took place this morning.

I went to a certain suburb to look for shoes in a certain large shopping mall. This expedition necessitated a departure from the quaint city center, with its seven hills, its aqueducts, its triumphant arches, its mosaicked side-walks, its cute wooden trams and the levitating clouds of blooming jacaranda everywhere, its tiny retail shops and minuscule family owned eateries, its mainly pedestrian traffic -- and into the wholesale mass-market world of modernity.

The impression this created was so overwhelming that upon returning I immediately set out on a massive substance abuse program, carefully blending uppers and downers for that so very much needed knock-out blow.

Over there there had been broad freeways down which endless chains of motor vehicles tore with a roar; and square honey-comb towers -- factories for living -- in which people somehow managed to live cheek-by-jowl without going on a wild shooting spree too oft; gigantic shopping malls, convoluted architecturally, full of absolutely worthless, shockingly ugly stuff; and proferring in their feederies (deemed "restaurants") what looked like mold-injected, polymer-based artificially colored sugar pulp. Everything was fast and noisy and there was not a single pretty thing upon which to rest one's soul.

A huge tower full of apartments with head-bashing low ceilings (but central vacuum-cleaning, I am sure) was being marketed at a site overlooking a major snarling freeway traffic exchange. "Lux living" said the copy, but it should have said "Luxury living easy to get away from" (that is -- if you buy this place, you needn't really be here).

A hard thought struck me: goodness gracious, people live like that.

My god, I thought to myself, these suburbs have grown in the last fifty years; but how did they grow? Where must one come from to find this kind of life sufficiently bearable to choose it over wherever it is one comes from?

*

Later, a glance at the real-estate magazine revealed a puzzling fact: the housing there, in the middle of all that, is hardly less expensive than it is here; 20-30% discount on average over this -- which is, I grant you, a theme-park life, but a cute theme park life all the same, agreeable in the extreme, easy on the senses, and pretty well laid back.

Which means that the quality/price curve is here extremely shallow -- as it is in the rest of the world: as one travels down the curve, one gives up a tremendous amount of quality to gain a little in price advantage -- an apartment which costs 10% less to rent is a lot worse than its 10% more expensive brother.

But try to go up from the middle and the opposite seems true: to generate a 10% improvement in quality from here -- the place where I am -- one must be prepared to double the price one pays. The price-to-quality curve seems therefore to look like this:



Where the axis cross is the "middle" of the market (me, and almost certainly -- you). If we go down from here (look for a cheaper apartment, for instance), any saving will come at a huge cost to quality; but going up from here we pay through our nose for even a small improvement.

I am not sure why the curve should look like this, though suspect it has something to do with income distribution.

*

How steeply prices rise as one tries to go up from the middle was confirmed for me in the afternoon when I visited an oriental carpet dealer -- in my own quaint and laid-back neighborhood of course (my much abused soul had needed to look at pretty things to recover from the morning's rude shock). The friendly Iranian man took me through the back, up some regal stairs and into a cavernous apartment hung and laid with delicious carpets (it was like entering the Ali-Baba cave). And there they were, beautiful, restful and silent: mamluks, tekkes, herazes, sardes, qoms reposing in total and absolute silence, not rushing anywhere, not making a sound. There I sat on a snow-white silk qom, all 40,000 euros of it, and slowly my soul calmed down.

2.6.09

Speaking of Mamluks

.
Speaking of Mamluks, here is one (click to enlarge):


Edmund de Unger explained why Mamluks were his favorite oriental carpet pattern: "however long you stare at them, he said, you always see something new, you are never bored". But neither does the eye tire, I'd like to add: the patterns are complex, but regular and calm, and the color scheme is subtle.

This is a modern Mamluk, a copy of a sixteenth century original. It was woven by Woven Legends.

1.6.09

A few words about carpets

.

1. Edmund de Unger, the owner of this miniature [which is a leaf of Shah Thamasp’s Shah Nama, read about the book here, read the book here, see pages from various manuscript editions here], was born into a Hungarian aristocratic family. His father was an Oriental carpet collector and young Edmund's first drawings as a child were not dogs, houses and human stick figures but – carpet patterns.

2. His father’s collection died a dramatic death: during the 1945 fighting for Budapest, Russians buried their dead wrapped in them. One couldn’t very well object: they were, after all, war heroes. And, surely, a hand-woven carpet, rich, thick, and laboriously made, makes a fitting shroud for a hero.

3. After the communist take-over, young Unger fled to the UK where for a time he served as a gentleman’s gentleman (literally) while studying for a barrister’s degree. He then joined British imperial foreign service and it is there that he caught the luster-ware bug. It all went from there. Though it was probably inevitable: a collector is born a collector, Unger says, what he collects is a matter of accident – stamps, bottle caps, Old Masters, carpets.

(Though, this not the case with me: my collections are not collections at all. They are just assemblies of beautiful object of every category and description, since they do not follow any scheme at all -- no category, no period, no genre. Clearly, I am not a collector in the same sense as Unger. Nor in another: I do not care if my possessions are authentic; only whether they are beautiful).

(Still, I do understand something of de Unger’s pleasure: he recalls fondly falling asleep deliciously in his friend's house while counting his friend’s Qing pieces. It has happened to me).

4. Asked his favorite oriental carpet design he says without hesitation "Mamluk", because, no matter how many times one stares at one, he says, one always discovers something new. I understand this, too: I, too, am slave to complexity. (Says who complexity is not a source of pleasure?)

(Just wait. There is a really nice Mamluk coming up).

5. I found the interview in the most recent issue of Hali ("carpets, textiles and Islamic arts" -- where has this beauty been all my life?). There I also found other treasures; like the advertisement, by Azer Ilme, a carpet weaving and marketing company of Azerbaijan (see some of their offerings here), that they have managed to reproduce a Shehi Safi carpet (last examples of this beauty-wonder were made in the 16th century, back when Azeris still spoke an Iranian dialect); and an article on the paracas carpets of Peru.

6. These last are as weird a story as you'll ever hear. They date to sometime between the 1st Century BC and 4th century AD - roughly the time of Imperial Rome. They were used to wrap the dead who were then buried in elaborate cave necropolises in the Paracas peninsula, Peru. One Julio Tello discovered these necropolises in the early 1900´s when he noticed very strange -- and beautiful -- carpets for sale in the markets of Lima and followed the grave robbers to their source. The colors of the surviving carpets have been beautifully preserved in the dry darkness of the graves; we know nothing about the civilization that made them, or why they made them, or what the designs mean, but they look as if they had been dyed and woven yesterday.

And they do look weird: just look.


7. And thus it is seen that the Russians, wrapping their war dead in Persian carpets, were simply re-discovering what the people of Paracas had known long before them: that a carpet makes a fitting shroud for the dead. I should make a note of it: I too want to be buried in a richly woven carpet.

(All this for a mere afternoon at the library. Can you imagine? And they say reading does not have a future).

*

8. On a later day at the library I discover that burying the dead wrapped in carpets was an ancient Scythian custom. The oldest extant Old World carpet -- dating to 4th century BC -- comes from a Siberian Scythian burial in Pazyryk, a high cold plateau in the back of beyond, where the borders of China, Mongolia, Russia and Kazakhstan meet. (This was discovered only lately, but confirmed a story from Herodotus that the Scythians buried their dead at a special site several weeks' ride east into the steppe; well, guess what, the old man did not lie: they really did). (Read all about it, and especially the Ice Maiden, a tattooed woman buried with weapons, horses, and a chariot, here).

Now, this touches me deeply: I am supposedly of Scythian descent.