Categories
Art Milan

A Cathedral mystery

20121029-063521.jpg A Cathedral as enormous as Milan’s is bound to have a few mysteries hidden away somewhere. One of them can be found in the left-hand transept: a giant candlestick, known as the Candelabro Trivulzio. It is a triumph of fractal geometry: from a distance it seems just a bronze seven-armed candlestick, but as you move closer in, first of all you appreciate the size (it is 5 metres high), and then you see that the structure dissolves into a swirl of bronze leaves concealing dozens of strange figures, including animals, saints and angels. The base consists of four dragons, whose drooping heads form the feet of the candlestick, and whose powerful tails move upwards to create the basic structure. Strangely, each of the dragons is being attacked by a pair of animals. What does it all mean?

Certainly the candlestick fits in very well with the Cathedral. The fluted central column echoes the great columns of the nave, and the candlestick’s organic volutes replete with Biblical characters are the bronze equivalent of the Cathedral’s decoration and statues in marble. But in actual fact the candlestick predates the Cathedral, whose construction began in 1386, by about two hundred years. And the candlestick was not made in Milan, but (according to many scholars) in England!

Tracing the history of this piece of art is made more complicated by the fact that the earliest documentation is from 1550 and records Giovanni Battista Trivulzio’s gift of the candlestick to the Cathedral. It is certain that he had acquired it from somewhere in France: it is likely that it had been shipped from England to France in order to save it from the destruction of sacred images that took place during the Reformation.

20121029-063607.jpgTo give you an idea of the complexity of the subject matter portrayed in the candlestick, here is a description of a small part. As you approach the candlestick’s south side, you see a foot consisting of a dragon being attacked by two cowled monkeys wielding swords. Move to the left, and at the very bottom you see the head of a fantastical animal with a curving beak and spiralling horns. Above this, to the left, there is the figure of Noah in the Ark (which looks more like a church than a boat). One of his sons is looking out from the right-hand side. Noah holds his hands in the air, having just released a dove. Further up, on the left, you can see the dove returning, with a branch of olive, bringing the message to Noah that the deluge has come to an end. To the left of the Ark, there is a flashback to before the Flood, with two sheep on their way into the vessel.

To the right of Noah’s ark is Abraham, swinging a large sword and about to sacrifice his son Isaac, whom he is holding on the altar. Just above, an angel has grabbed the sword to save the boy, and just under the little altar is the unfortunate lamb who will become the sacrificial victim in Isaac’s stead.

Above these two Biblical scenes are a king and a queen. They represent Virtues vanquishing the Vices, which are seen as smaller figures below. Next up comes a group of star-signs, Cancer (the crab on the left) and Leo (a lion), with Virgo sitting above and between them.

20121029-063658.jpgIn the spiralling tail of the left-hand dragon, a female figure grasps a serpent: this group embodies one of the four Liberal Arts, dialectics. Opposite, in the right-hand dragon’s tail, a young man is pouring water from a jar: this represents one of the Rivers of Paradise. They correspond to the four great earthly rivers, the Tigris, Euphrates, Ganges and the Nile.

Now, leave the base and move up the central stem, past the first smooth node, to the central node. This is dedicated to Mary, who is seated on a throne, with Jesus on her lap. On the three remaining sides of this node, the three wise Kings can be seen on horseback, making their historic journey.

And all this is just a quarter of the candlestick: the other three sides are just as elaborately decorated. But, you may ask, what are those strange dragons all about? This is a question for which not even the scholars have an answer. It is impossible to compare the Candelabro Trivulzio with similar versions in England because, even though that country had a great tradition of giant seven-armed candlesticks, they were all destroyed in the 16th century, at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries.

20121029-063802.jpgHowever, to venture a hypothesis, we could say that the base of the candlestick represents the universe, with the rivers, the history of the world with the Old Testament stories, and the stars above as symbolised by the astrological signs. From this base springs the Church, built on the figure of Jesus, which radiates light and enlightenment as demonstrated by the seven lamps.

As to the form of the world itself, in 1200 it was still thought of as a flat disc supported by four elephants or other such animals.

Today, a scientist would ask “and what are the elephants standing on?”, but in those days, that sort of question would get you flogged or worse. And so perhaps this candlestick’s dragons signify the continuous struggle between good and evil that characterises man’s world.

Nonetheless, this dramatic imagery has not dissuaded thieves from removing some of the semi-precious stones that adorn the bronze. In various places you will see blank sockets, and the eyes of the dragon on the east side are now bereft of the two original gems. Showing that when it is a question of allaying the suffering of man, some people prefer more immediate remedies than those offered by spiritual enlightenment.

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Categories
Fashion

Ermenegildo Zegna

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I couldn’t really say that I’m a fashionista, but there are certain occasions that call for a smart outfit, and so last weekend I was on the road in search of a place to buy a dark suit. Ermenegildo Zegna was what I wanted, and the place was The Place, a small mall just south of Biella, Piedmont. The low, modern structure is surrounded by thickets of bamboo, and the boutiques are arranged around a green courtyard. As well as Zegna, there are Gucci, Agnona, La Perla and Bellora, plus a bar, and lots of parking space.

I visited only Zegna because that was what I was after, and I found it, along with courtesy and skill in recommending the type of suit that would fit. I learnt about trousers with and without ‘pinces,’ the different types of cut for a jacket, shirt collars and cuffs, and came away with the outfit. It would have been easy to purchase loads more, because everything is so perfect, from textiles to colour and style. Beautiful pairs of dark green trousers in a velvety fabric were artfully hung next to a spectacular jacket in a glossy light green sheen that changed as the light caught it. Fantastic blazers. Beautiful ties, shoes, sunglasses. All items were discounted, and some even more, with large orange labels indicating one-off sample pieces.

20121028-022838.jpgI would say that Ermenegildo Zegna is a brand that does it right. Apart from style and all that, there is its social commitment, which translates into a green attitude that led to all that bamboo, plus a protected nature reserve up in the hills nearby. The ‘Oasi Zegna’ is 100 square kilometres of spectacular nature, where you can walk, mountain bike, paraglide and hang-glide. Zegna is also currently supporting a cancer clinic project to provide screening and rehabilitation services for the local population. In the leaflet that publicizes The Place, they provide information on two other interesting places to visit, the Candelo ‘ricetto‘ which is a fortified village, and the Santuario di Oropa, surrounded by another nature reserve. The ricetto was like taking a step back into the Middle Ages, and it has been used as a film set on many occasions. The Santuario will have to be for another visit, when I next return to The Place.

The Place, Via C. Battisti 99, Strada Trossi, Sandigliano, near Biella. Take the Carisio exit on the Milan-Turin motorway. Tel. +39 015 2496 199. Open every day 10.00-19.00.

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Read more: Ermenegildo Zegna brand history
Read more: Pal Zileri brand history

Categories
Milan

Last Supper, a grand complication in art

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One of Milan’s claims to fame is that it is the only city in which you can give the name of a painting to a taxi driver, and he’ll know exactly where to take you. The Last Supper caused a revolution in painting when it was first unveiled in 1499, and it has contined to exert its power over artists right up until today, notwithstanding the fact that it has suffered the passage of time more most pieces of art. Visitors should be warned that the visit does not include multi-media presentations or explanations, and at best a guide with limited grasp of English who provides a summary overview of the scene that Leonardo depicted. Here is my version.

What is luxury? Certainly, luxury has a lot in common with rarity, and while the world’s finest mechanical watches may be made in editions limited to a thousand, a hundred, thirty pieces, a work of art is absolutely unique and so acquires value in the eyes of collectors. Damian Hirst’s diamond-encrusted skull titled “For the love of God” cost £14 million to make and was put on sale at £50 million, but even more remarkable in terms of acquired value was the Codex Leicester, or Codex Hammer, thirty-three drawings by Leonardo da Vinci which were bought by Bill Gates in 1994 for $30 million.

So, if luxury has something in common with rarity, then the original DaVinci Last Supper enables everyone to experience the ultimate luxury in art, because this work is absolutely unique, and will never be moved to another museum for a temporary exhibition. It is indissolubly tied to the walls of the room in which it was painted, the refectory of a Dominican monastery in central Milan. Santa Maria delle Grazie.

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It is common knowledge that this Renaissance Last Supper is in a bad state, but it is in better condition now than it has been for almost five hundred years. Leonardo painted it from 1494 to 1498, and his finished work sent shock waves through the Italian Renaissance. But just a few decades after it had been finished, it began to deteriorate. Often, people think that this was caused by an experimental technique invented by the artist that went wrong, but this is not actually the case.

In the German city of Erfurt, the Catholic cathedral has a large fresco depicting Saint Christopher, in excellent condition, recorded as having been painted “à l’huile sur le mur préparé au moyen d’une couche d’huile et d’une couche de blanc de plomb”. This corresponds to the preparation of the wall on which the Last Supper was painted, a very fine plaster mixed with an oily substance, possibly wax, and then coated with a layer of white lead. The technique therefore was not an invention by Leonardo, but a method that had been described previously, in particular, by Cennino Cennini in the 14th century. In fact, according to Cennini, the traditional fresco painting technique, using pigments direct on wet plaster, was the safest, but had the disadvantage of restricting the range of colours that could be used. Cennini in fact recommented the use of pittura a secco, namely painting onto dry plaster, for the final touches alone. Leonardo had evidently heard about the techniques used in northern Europe, and decided to use the oil-based technique for his fresco. This was also important for his desire to work slowly on the painting, giving him sufficient time to develop the gradual shading or chiaroscuro that was essential in his style.

Unfortunately, the wall was subject to rising damp, and the situation was made worse by the fact that on the other side of the wall were the kitchens, where the food eaten by the monks in the refectory was prepared. In the years following the completion of the work, the moisture in the wall repelled the oily ground, and it began to crack, fragmenting the painted surface. In many areas, the individual pieces of plaster between the cracks took on a concave shape, like a series of tiny shells, within which dirt accumulated. During the innumerable restoration operations that have been performed over the centuries, the painting was scraped with spatulas and metal brushes in an attempt to force the plaster back into shape, but this just damaged the edges of the individual concave chips, exposing the lead white ground. Layers of resin and glue were painted over it in an attempt to stabilize the layer of pigment. On several occasions, painters were actually summoned to bring the work back to its original glory by painting over it. By 1969, many scholars believed that there was nothing at all left of Leonardo’s original work, but just accumulated dirt and the paint added during successive repainting operations.

Only in 1977 did the first trial areas of cleaning demonstrate that it was possible to remove the extraneous layers and reach Leonardo’s original pigment. And this is what was done in the operation that lasted from 1978 to 1999.

Another event in the history of this painting shows that its survival up until today is something of a miracle. In August 1943, the refectory received a direct hit from a bomb dropped in one of the three air-raids planned to accelerate the Kingdom of Italy’s Armistice (signed on 3rd September). The blast completely destroyed the roof and one of the long walls of the refectory. The two end walls – one with the Last Supper, the other with Montorfano’s Crucifixion – survived, and the paintings remained intact because they had been protected by a wall of sandbags from floor to ceiling.

It is no surprise, considering its turbulent history, that its conditions are closely monitored. Visits are limited to 25 people every 15 minutes, which is why pre-booking is necessary. Before entering the hall itself, visitors pass through a series of glass-encased rooms that delicately remove excess humidity and dust by means of a pressure differential. In other words, you are hoovered, but very gently.

Inside the refectory, there is nothing. Nothing except Leonardo’s painting, and Montorfano’s on the opposite wall. At this point there is another analogy with a valuable mechanical timepiece. You can only appreciate its value if you understand something of its incredible complication. Just as to the eyes of a layman, superficially there doesn’t seem to be all that much difference between a Piaget and a Swatch, the Last Supper runs the risk of leaving a visitor with the feeling “is that it?” Worse, a lack of information leaves ample space for writers – most famously Dan Brown and The Da Vinci Code, but many other even worse authors who wanted their share of this dubious glory – to reinterpret the painting as they wish. And so, according to Dan Brown, the feminine-looking figure to the left of Christ is not actually one of the twelve Apostles, but Mary Magdalene. This immediately prompts a Brown sceptic such as myself to ask, so where did the twelfth disciple go? Out buying the pizzas, or just late for dinner?

The truth of the matter is that the painting is a true grand complication. There is so much meaning, on several different layers of complexity, that any of the modern reinterpretations pales in comparison. The Last Supper question is one that has never been comprehensively answered.

The first level of meaning is the scene itself. Leonardo chose an exact moment in the Gospel narration of the Last Supper. “In truth, I tell you, one of you will betray me…” says Jesus, who is shown in the act of speaking. This revelation surges outwards amongst the Disciples who react, each in his own way, coalescing them into four groups of three. Christ has an expression of resigned sadness and at the same time, an assured and regal poise. He gestures to the wine with his right hand, to the bread with his left, instituting the fundamental Christian ritual of the Eucharist. The movement of the Disciples isolates Jesus, leaving Him alone at the centre of the composition. He is the only person to have a geometrical shape, an almost perfect equilateral triangle. He is also the only person to wear robes in red and dark blue. This is a tradition that descends from Mediaeval traditions in painting and stained glass.

The most expensive pigments to make were deep blue and bright red, requiring pulverized lapislazuli and gold respectively, and so over the centuries, these pigments were used only for the most important figures in the composition.

Leonardo painted the Apostles after having made countless drawings, some of which have survived in his notebooks. One preparatory drawing shows the Apostles labelled with their names. In fact, each Apostle had acquired a sort of standard appearance throughout the history of art up until that point, so that a person could recognize them in paintings and frescoes. In the same way, saints and martyrs were often depicted with certain objects that left no doubt as to their identity, such as John the Baptist’s rough animal-skin clothes, St. Peter’s keys, St. Catherine’s wheel and so forth. And so we know who attended the Last Supper – namely the identity of the Apostles – from the facial expressions that Leonardo gave them. On the far left, Bartholomew is rising to his feet, incredulous. James Minor is seated, trying to attract Peter’s attention with a hand on his shoulder. Andrew has both hands in the air, a gesture still used in Italy today to mean “it wasn’t me, honest!”

The next group of three is complicated. Judas is a dark figure, leaning back from his position close to Jesus and over the table, so that his head is actually the next, the fourth, in the sequence. He is clutching a bag of money in his right hand, while his left is about to take a piece of bread. In fact, Jesus would shortly reveal to John that the traitor would be he who would dip his bread into the same bowl as Him.

Judas is distanced from the other Apostles by his dark, shadowed complexion, and by an apparently broken nose. Behind his back there is a knife held by a mysterious hand. It could be Peter’s, it could be a disembodied 27th hand belonging to no-one in the composition.

Peter, the next in the sequence, is leaning in the opposite direction to Judas, so that although he is sitting next to Andrew – they were brothers – his head is very close to John the Evangelist. This is because, in the Gospel narration, Peter is asking John to ask Jesus who the traitor would be. John was the youngest Apostle, which was why he was traditionally shown without a beard.

Then, on the right of Jesus, there is Thomas, pointing upwards with a finger. This gesture was familiar to monks during the Renaissance: as meals in the refectory had to be taken in silence, in order to indicate God there was a conventional sign, thumb and index finger extended, the others closed. James Major is next, in a green robe. Philip is gesturing with both hands towards his heart, saying in tortured self-doubt, “Could it be I?” Matthew, the only educated man amongst the Apostles, is debating the matter, hands outstretched towards Jesus while he himself is deep in conversation with the other two Apostles in the right-hand group, Thaddeus, and lastly Simon.

Leonardo brought about many small revolutions with this painting, advances that may seem insignificant to us in our scientific and relatively unspiritual age, but that at the time were momentous. Firstly, he completely broke with tradition as regards the position of Judas. Painters before Leonardo made sure that Judas was very different to the rest of the Apostles, often by placing him alone, on our side of the table, or by making him the only one without a halo. Leonardo puts him together with the rest, one of the twelve, part of the overall sequence, and none of his figures have a halo. Secondly, this is probably the first painting in which an artist has tried to depict the variety of human psychology. Each Apostle reacts in his own, unique way, and Leonardo depicts this using all the methods possible, facial expression, bodily position, and above all, the gestures of the hands. Third, the question of perspective. Leonardo was a master in this fundamental Renaissance rediscovery, and in this painting he both broke the rules, and used it to add extra significance to the work. He broke the rules, because when you are standing the in the refectory, the perspective seems wrong. The upper edge of the tapestries ought to follow straight from the ceiling moulding in the real room, but they don’t. This is because Leonardo wanted to paint the fresco at a raised level, both so that it could be seen by all the monks in the room, and because the Gospel describes the Last Supper as having taken place in a room on an upper floor. If he had used perspective correctly, we would have seen nothing of what is on the table, and the table itself would have obscured most of the figure’s bodies. So he painted the scene with a perspective view that would be correct if the observer were at a height of about twelve feet.
The lines of perspective, the tapestries and the ceiling beams, converge at a vanishing point that is just above Jesus’ right eye. On his temple. “Tempio” in Italian. The word has the same double meaning in both languages, and it succinctly indicates that Christ is the originator of the new faith, the new church.

Leonardo took his revolution a step further. (I should warn you that from here on, I am voicing my own ideas. You decide). The parallel between the twelve Apostles and the twelve signs of the zodiac had been noted prior to Leonardo, but no-one had ever expressed it in paintings, partly because the Church didn’t approve of the contamination of doctrine with astrology. So Leonardo put in some subtle clues. Andrew, third from left, two hands in the air, Gemini, the twins, double sign. Judas, the fourth in the sequence, symbolizes a word that had had three meanings from Ancient Greek times: karkinos, the crab, tumours, and the zodiac constellation. Cancer. Then Peter, fiery temper, a great mane of hair: Leo. And then, the sixth in the sequence, a pale, delicate, feminine face: Virgo, of course! On the other side, Thomas, doubting Thomas, whose raised finger alludes (as well as to the Divinity in the sky) to that fact that later he would say that he would not believe until he had placed his finger into the wounds on Christ’s hands, is in the position of Libra, the sign of the zodiac hallmarked by perennial doubt. Second from last, Thaddeus is holding his hand in a cup shape. Aquarius, the water-bearer.

It’s true, not all the figures have such clear astrological attributes, but I think that there is enough to corroborate the theory. But, one may ask, why did Leonardo want to risk getting into trouble again with the Church for his unorthodox approach to subject matter? Here, I think that the answer is that Leonardo wanted to do more than just paint a picture describing a scene from the Gospel. He wanted to encapsulate that momentous instant in time into a worthy frame, and so he incorporated the only scientific, or rather metaphysical, concept on the origin and structure of the universe that he knew. (The same sort of approach can be seen in the Trivulzio Candelabra in the Cathedral, except that in this case, the world view is early Mediaeval). As this article is already getting rather long, I won’t burden you with details. Suffice to say that Leonardo incorporated numerological clues to indicate that the room represents the universe visible to Man, at which Christ is at the centre. The three windows behind provide a glimpse into the world of eternity, or paradise, as you will. Of course Christ is at the perspective centre of this as well.

Another revolution: Leonardo saves Judas. I mentioned the knife that is behind his back, another traditional element in Last Supper paintings, indicating man’s hostility to the traitor and suggesting the fact that Judas would die soon after. While at first glance, Peter seems to be holding the knife, the impossible anatomical position of this hand shows that in actual fact, the hand grasping the knife belongs to no-one at all, and that Peter is restraining it from its murderous action. Leonardo seems to be saying, by placing Judas with the rest of the Apostles, that there is an element of evil in all of us, and that we have to accept it just as we accept death and suffering. We cannot excise evil from the human race by executing a sinner. Hands off Cain, many centuries in advance.

This, then, is one interpretation of this extraordinary painting. While I’ve taken two hours to write this article, Leonardo spent four years on the painting, and there’s more, much, much more to be told…

Last Supper bookings: call +39 02 92800360, or visit the website http://www.cenacolovinciano.net where you can book tickets on line. Visits from 8.15 to 18.45, Tuesday-Sunday, closed on Mondays. Remember to bring your booking code, and to get there at least 20 minutes before the time of your visit. Where is the Last Supper located – Piazza Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan.

Categories
Milan

Just desserts

Kwarktaart

“Mmm, this is lovely”, I said, turning away from the view over Amsterdam.

Mmm, buonissima“, said my wife, “what is it?”

Kwarktaart“, replied my aunt. A white cake with a biscuity base, something like cheesecake but much lighter.

Kwarktaart? Strange name. Sounds like it’s made of sub-atomic particles”.

“No, the main ingredient is kwark. Not quarks. Don’t you know what kwark is? It’s something midway between yoghurt and cheese”.

L’abbiamo anche noi“, said my wife, “or at least something similar in Liguria. They call it quagliata, or prescinsèua. But you only find it in the area from Genova to Sestri. They use it for desserts. How do you make this one?”

“I really don’t know”, said my aunt, “my next door neighbour made it. I’ll ask her for the recipe”.

It was only on my next visit to the Netherlands, a month later, that she gave me the recipe. Or rather a box containing the necessary ingredients. My wife wasn’t with me on that occasion, and so I listened attentively while my aunt explained what I had to do. I made copious notes and packed the box into my suitcase.

Ah, ho capito, torta allo yoghurt“, said my wife when I showed her the packet, back in Milan. That’s good, I thought, she knows all about it. I put it away and forgot all about it. Until my aunt decided that she’d visit us in Milan using one of those cheap crack-of-dawn flights to Orio al Serio.

“You can make me the cake”, she said, “I love kwarktaart for breakfast”.

I know nothing about cooking, but I am an expert in procrastination. So, only late in the evening before my aunt’s arrival did I take out the cardboard box. First hitch: I’d lost all the notes I’d made in Amsterdam. No problem, I thought, there’ll be instructions on the box. And, seeing as the Dutch are so good at English, they’ll be printed in both languages. But there was only Dutch.

I suppose that some people, at this stage, would ditch the whole kwark idea in favour of a quick trip to a pasticceria on the way back from the airport. But my problem is that I am half Dutch (see name at bottom), and the fact that I am unable to communicate with my Dutch relatives in what ought to be at least my second language is something that continuously fuels my galloping guilt complex. The kwarktaart was a challenge that I couldn’t fail to meet.

No problem, I thought. Quite a lot of Dutch words are similar to English. Een twee drie vier vijf zes zeven acht negen tien. And I could see from the main titles in the instructions that the two stages of preparation took just 5 minuten each. I had loads of time. Taartbodem bereiden. I found a 24 cm springvorm, and put in the piece of paper that was included in the packet. So far so good. Smelt 50 gram boter in een pannetje, and that was easy too. Then there were a lot of sentences with some very long words, so I ignored them and followed the pictures. Very soon I had a very professional-looking biscuity cake base at the bottom of the tin. Now for the second section. Doe het lauwe water en de taartmix in een kom en klop dit met de mixer met garden op de laagste stand in één minuut tot een glad mengsel. Hmm. A lot of English-looking words there, but most of them must be treacherously false friends. Luckily I could remember one of the things that my aunt had translated, and that was that I had to mix the mixture at normal speed for a bit, then at the fastest speed. I remembered this because I’d said that in our kitchen, fastest speed meant me turning the handle more quickly. Anyway I opened the second sachet and put the white powder into a bowl with some cold water (hoping that it was lauwe enough) and the yoghurt, which, as I’d discovered on another panel on the packet, could be used to substitute the mysterious kwark. I started whisking slowly, and then increased the revs, only to stop immediately, having seen a flurry of white specks deposit themselves all around the kitchen. This cake was going to be bad news. I propped the breadboard against one side of the bowl as a screen and carried on whisking.

After a few minutes, the mixture hadn’t changed at all. Still a creamy white liquid, and loads of it too. Surely it was going to run out the sides of the springvorm? I added some extra caulking, poured the stuff in and hoped for the best. Now I just had to cook the thing. I scrutinized the instructions carefully. Schenk het taartmengsel over de bodem en laat de taart ten minste 2 ½ uur opstijven … ten minutes, or two and a half hours? And at what temperature? But the packet ran out of useful suggestions, except for an optimistic “Bak met plezier!” at the bottom. Huh, I’d definitely bake with pleasure, if only you told me how. I considered waking my wife to ask her, or phoning my aunt. Then I saw the time, and decided that the only chance was to procrastinate. I’d put the whole thing into the fridge for the moment and bake it in the morning after having received some expert advice.

Next morning, I woke late, and saw that I’d have to dash if I was to get to Orio al Serio in time. As that flight is the first of the day on that particular route, I couldn’t even hope for any accumulated delay. I parked, ran into the arrivals, and met my aunt just as she was coming out of the doors. I took her case and we left the terminal. As we passed the bar with its fantastic array of brioches, the memory of the kwarktaart came back with a rush, but I realised that there wasn’t much I could do about it now. We drove back to Milan in the midst of rush-hour traffic and eventually reached the flat. I buzzed my wife at the door, and sent my aunt up with the lift. I took the car down to the garage, where I waited patiently while our next-door-neighbours performed complicated manouevres to get their Mercedes out of a Fiat-sized garage.

When I reached the flat, my wife and aunt were sitting on the terrace with cups of cappuccino and – horror! – my wife was cutting the cake! I watched aghast but couldn’t find the words to avert the disaster. My wife must have seen my expression.

Che c’è?“, she said, cutting another piece.

“Is it… cooked enough?”, I asked, but then, seeing that somehow the liquid had congealed into a solid mass, and that they were eating it with at least a moderate degree of approval, I understood that what I imagined to be a raw inedible stage of the recipe was in fact the finished product.

So all was well that ended well. Except that I still couldn’t imagine why the sub-atomic particle had been named after the cheesy stuff – as you can see I had at least succeeded in working out that the cheese probably preceded the physics. A few days later I found a tub of German “quark” in a delicatessen, so I felt that I was on my way to the solution. But then I found some lines in Finnegans Wake that said, “Three quarks for Muster Mark!, Sure he hasn’t got much of a bark, And sure any he has it’s all beside the mark.” The footnotes told me that “to quark” was an English verb meaning to caw or croak, and that the American physicist who had proposed the sub-atomic particles, Murray Gell-Mann, had probably been thinking of James Joyce and not of cheese. Certainly not of kwarktaart.

© Johannes H. Neuteboom, Milan 2005

Categories
General

Astrofashion – every day has its colour

What am I going to wear today? It depends on a lot of things, the stuff that I have in the wardrobe, the stuff that I’ve managed to iron, or the clothes that best suit the occasion, perhaps with influences from things like fashion, family, friends. For other people, style consultants, personal shoppers and so forth may also be involved.

But with the term Astrofashion, I would like to suggest a different system. The colour of the day. Every day has its colour. The colour provides a defining ingredient for the day’s outfit.

Seven days, seven colours

There are seven days in the week. The names of the days suggest a link to the seven planets of ancient science. Isaac Newton theorized the existence of seven colours – red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet – but apparently he put in indigo specially to make seven colours (he liked the number seven), and so I would simplify this and say that we have red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet, and black/white/grey.

Monday – black/white/grey

Let’s start with Monday. Linked to the moon, the metal silver, and so to the whole range of tones running from white to black. We could even choose some states of mind associated with the moon: dreams, intuition, family, emotions. And if we’re fashionistas, Armani and his insistence on black and white fits perfectly.

Tuesday – red

Then we have Tuesday. One of the things that surprises me about the days of the week is that the links with the planets exist in different languages. Just as Monday in Italian is lunedì (from luna, moon), Tuesday in Italian (to take an example of a Romance language) is martedì, connected to Mars, the red planet, and god of war. The English Tuesday is derived from Tiw’s Day, a reference to the Germanic god Tiwas and the Scandinavian divinity Tyr – gods of war. So there can be no doubt about the colour of Tuesday: red. The metal is iron.

Wednesday – orange

The name Wednesday was Wednesdei in Middle English, and wōdnesdæg in Old English (before the 13th century), and this was derived from a local version of the Latin term ‘dies Mercurii,’ day of Mercury, because the Germanic god Woden (Wodanaz or Odin) corresponded to Mercury, the god of that day for the Ancient Romans. In Italian, the day is mercoledì. The characteristics: communications, learning, divining. The colour: I would say orange, the colour of some mercury salts (in Italy they use something called mercurio cromo as a disinfectant for minor wounds; it leaves a lovely bright orange colour on the skin). I was reassured to find that the defining colour of luxury brand Hermès is orange. Hermes is the Ancient Greek equivalent of Mercury. However apparently Hermès adopted this colour by chance: during the Second World War, shortages of paper and card forced them to use the only materials available, orange card and brown ribbons. This became their signature colour combination.

Thursday – blue

Thursday comes from Thor’s day, a Norse god whose name was originally Punor, and who wielded thunderbolts. The correspondence is with the Roman god Jupiter or Jove, who lives on in the Italian giovedì. The colour is blue, the metal tin – which has a bluish silvery tinge – and the characteristics are dedication, loyalty and luck.

Friday – green

Friday is linked to Venus, through the Norse goddess Fríge, who corresponds to the Latin Venus (in Italian, venerdì). Venus was the Roman goddess of beauty and love, just like Fríge. The metal is copper, and the colour can be seen on any copper object that has oxidised over time: green.

Saturday – violet

Saturday is directly linked to Saturn, whose metal is lead. Characteristics are change, death, motivation, understanding. The colour is violet.

Sunday – yellow

No prizes for guessing Sunday, and the colour yellow. In the Romance languages (domenica in Italian) the name is based on the words for ‘the Lord’s day.’ The metal is gold, and the characteristics are authority, power, friendship, healing and wisdom.

Alchemical symbolisn

And why seven days of the week? Apparently this is not based on anything astronomical, unlike a day or a year which are governed by the rotation of the earth. It runs back to ancient traditions in Jewish and Babylonian civilizations, and it was also a feature of ancient China. The number seven seems to have a sort of deeper meaning, because it appears in all sorts of expressions such as the seven ages of man, the seven wonders of the world, seventh heaven, the seven pillars of wisdom and so forth. There are seven notes in the musical scale, seven chakras, seven arms on the Menorah. Perhaps the progression through the week, running progressively from one metal to another, symbolizes the alchemical opus, the idea of creating gold from a base metal by means of a series of transformations. This itself was a symbolic representation of our own course through life with a constant aspiration for wisdom and improvement. It also suggests the cyclic nature of life, from birth to death, creation and destruction, from season to season.

Porta Magica, Rome, photo
Porta Magica, Rome, photo by Sailko – CC BY 2.5

The alchemical process is illustrated, in the usual virtually incomprehensible fashion, at the Porta Alchemica in Rome. This “Magic Door” can be seen in the gardens on Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II. According to legend, a pilgrim – later identified as the alchemist Giuseppe Francesco Borri – staying at Villa Palombara, built in about 1680 by Marquis Massimiliano Palombara, passed through the door and disappeared, leaving behind a few flakes of gold resulting from the successful alchemical transformation of lead into gold, and a document presenting a serious of symbols and inscriptions describing the process. The marquis had the symbols engraved onto the five gates and walls of the villa, in the hope that some day someone would be able to decipher them. The Porta Alchemica is the only surviving part of this material. At the centre of the jamb, an “oculus” symbolizes the sun and gold. On the two jambs, there are six symbols, with on the left, from top, Venus/copper, the Moon/silver, Mercury, and on the right, from the top, Mars/iron, Jupiter/tin, Saturn/lead.

Porta Magica Rome
Porta Magica, Rome, engraving by Henry Carrington Bolton, public domain

To sum up, astrofashion is a way of feeling connected to all this, to the grandiose sweep of life and nature, to an archaic dimension that seems to have been swept away by our hyper-technological world but that is still there and that, in the end, will remain.

And it has one practical benefit. I am absent-minded, and so after having made a conscious decision as to which shirt to put on, for the rest of the day, all I have to do is take a glance at it to remember which day of the week it is!

Categories
Health

The quest for immortality

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Just a glance at a fashion magazine is enough to show that the predominant image of the human condition is that of eternal beauty. But perhaps what people are really after is something more radical: immortality.

Many writers have looked at the subject, such as Edgar Allen Poe (The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar), Oscar Wilde (The Picture of Dorian Gray) and John Wyndham (Trouble with Lichen). More recently, Jerome Bixby wrote the film The Man from Earth on this subject.

Science has also worked on the concept. Ageing is apparently to some degree written into the human genome, just as for all species, because programmed cell death is essential in modelling the body during embryology and in keeping it in good shape during life. Unfortunately, after the body reaches physical perfection, it appears to be condemned to a downwards slope along which gravity progressively moulds its sagging forms. Is ageing actually written into the human genome? If so, what advantage can ageing bring to the species?

Perhaps the answer to this lies in the story of evolution. Man’s ascent to his position at the apex of life, starting from a unicellular organism floating in the primordial broth, necessarily required millions of successive generations. The inheritance of beneficial characteristics deriving from random genetic mutations requires reproduction, and the survival of the next generation is simpler when the previous occupants have made room by unobtrusively departing from life.

Mutations occur all the time during cell divisions, and some of these have an effect on cell mortality. Why, one asks, have there been no mutations in the other direction, from mortality to immortality? If the course of evolution has been so prolific as to generate so many strange and hyperspecialized creatures such as koalas, giraffes, rhinos and hippos, surely it could be conceivable that at one stage in history, a man – or an animal – was born with a genetic malformation that condemned him, her or it to immortality?

Of course, if ever a mutation gave rise to a man with the genetic apparatus enabling immortality, he could have been killed in his prime on the battlefield of the Somme, or – if he was a fly – mercilessly exterminated by a dexterous blow from a flyswat. We would never know, and the unfortunate individual would not have succeeded in passing his momentous genetic heritage on to the next generation.

Surely, bodily ageing serves no real purpose? A useless and ultimately detrimental inheritance, like the appendix? We know that nearly all human cells are constantly replenished by means of their own internally-programmed cycles of death and renewal. Our skin is constantly generated from below, while the top layer of dead cells is eliminated by daily wear and tear, or by cosmetic peels and scrubs. But, while admitting the necessity for short-cycle death and renewal of body cells, what need is there for those progressive, long term, irreversible changes that cause the skin to become less elastic and more wrinkled?

Over the last few years, some answers have been provided to these questions. Scientific research has recently made radical discoveries regarding the mechanisms of cell ageing. A fundamental role in the process is played by a section of DNA at the end of a chromosome, called a telomere, which protects the DNA sequence during cell division. The enzymes responsible for chromosome duplication cannot duplicate the entire length of DNA, and at every division, a section of DNA at the end of the chromosome is lost. Telomeres are like sacrificial sections which can get chopped off without compromising the function of the new cell, and so the number of telomeres at the end of each chromosome determine how many times a cell can divide before it becomes unviable. Another enzyme, telomerase reverse transcriptase, determines the regeneration of telomeres, therefore increasing the number of cell divisions possible.

Telomere generation is programmed during embryology and in certain parts of the body (such as the immune system) where rapid cell division is essential. This research – dating to only the last few years – caused considerable excitement in the field, because it seemed to suggest that the ageing process could be controlled or modified by telomerase. But there is a flip side to all this. The unrestricted cell division made possible by telomerase is also the cause of cancer, when a rogue cell proliferates out of control.
Some studies on human populations show that certain inherited characteristics related to telomerase increase lifespan. A study on Ashkenazi Jews published in 2009 shows that the longest-lived individuals inherit a hyper-active version of telomerase that reconstructs the telomeres at the end of chromosomes.
Another research project screened a number of traditional Chinese medicine plant extracts, and found that a natural substance named cycloastragenol is capable of enhancing telomerase activity in the human immune system. This could be used in the treatment of HIV and age-related infections by enhancing the immune system, but there is no doubt that there are hopes that this sort of substance could have an effect on the process of cellular ageing at a fundamental, age-enhancing level. The name of the pharmaceutical company that financed the research, Geron, shows exactly where their real interest lies.

While telomeres provide an inbuilt biological clock that controls development and prevents cancerous cell proliferation, cells are also subject to external influence. Another cause of cell ageing can be identified in the oxidants that are an inescapable consequence of cell metabolism. DNA damage means that eventually the cell is incapable of synthesizing the proteins that it needs to exist and perform its functions, causing its progressive deterioration and death.

This source of damage is relatively unimportant for simple organisms such as bacteria, which divide constantly in favourable conditions, remaining forever young. But in complex organisms, the programmed number of cell divisions can be relatively small – a few dozen divisions – or even nil, as in the case of brain and nerve cells. We receive our ration of neurons during embryological development, and from then on, no cell division is possible. Our nerve cells are the only ones we’re going to get, so we’d better look after them…

Research seems to suggest that the best way of reducing oxidant damage to DNA is to limit cell metabolism to what is functionally necessary. This means a low-calorie regime, or at least a food intake that does not condemn cells to working overtime.

Perhaps one day, further revelations will be provided by studies on small and primitive organisms and their interactions. Algae and lichen are organisms that spend all their time synthesizing complex molecules that they don’t seem to need at all, and simply secrete them. While a rock is incapable of doing anything with them, trees may well benefit from the substances produced by the mossy green covering on their bark, and in some cases, these chemicals seem to be capable of modifying the identity of tree cells, turning their biochemical clock back and giving them functions of youthful reproduction, stimulating growth in order to combat pathogens.

Whether or not other useful substances analogous to cycloastragenol may emerge in this field, at present we can only observe man in his incessant struggle to stave off the inevitable. The age of youth has progressively extended, and women are bearing children later and later in life. Old people are becoming more active, energetic and assertive. In Italy, there are moves to pass a law for equality in pensions, so that women will have to work until they are 65, as for men. And if an immortality drug will ever be discovered, there would doubtless be further taxation reform. The Inland Revenue would never forego the possibility of infinite income tax!

Categories
Milan

The Cimitero Monumentale

Milan's Cimitero Monumentale
Milan’s Cimitero Monumentale

November starts with the ponte dei morti, which, literally translated, means the bridge of the dead. A horror movie? A natural disaster? No, just a long weekend, from Thursday 1 November 2012 to Sunday 4 November. Tutti i Santi, 1 November, is a public holiday in Italy. For many people, Friday gets thrown in free to bridge the gap. Then on Wednesday 2 November, there is the Commemorazione dei Defunti, which is not a holiday, but a day when many people visit cemeteries and put flowers on their family graves. For this reason, November is an excellent time in which to visit Milan’s Cimitero Monumentale, which is always spectacular, and even better when bedecked with crysanthemums and other blooms. Though externally it is obstructed by a building site for a new Metro line, access is still possible.

Cemetery visiting, in the sightseeing sense, is not really an Italian thing at all. Most Italian males, when faced with this sort of suggestion, would surreptitiously touch a certain dual part of their anatomy, and many Italian females would extend the second and fifth fingers of one or both hands in the unmistakable “horns” gesture that keeps calamity and death at an acceptable distance. But for many visitors from abroad, a visit to one of Italy’s monumental cemeteries is an essential part of a trip here.

Milan's Cimitero Monumentale
A sculpture in bronze in Milan’s Cimitero Monumentale

Probably the finest of all is Milan’s Monumentale, with Genoa’s Staglieno and Turin’s Monumentale close behind. Milan’s cemetery was built from 1866, on the wave of the “cemetery movement” that really started with Père Lachaise in Paris and spread all over Europe. After the Edict of St. Cloud had prohibited burial in churches, the time was ripe for the cimitero monumentale, an enclosed field in which there were no problems of space. Above all, this type of cemetery was a civic establishment, only partially controlled by the clerical authorities, and this meant that artists could indulge in extreme realism and images that would never be allowed in a church. In addition, Milan’s cemetery developed in the years during which the Romantic movement was at its height. For Romantic artists and writers, the concept of death was no longer associated with fear and horror, but with release, repose, rebirth, and even ecstasy of the most explicit variety. And so many of the tombs feature extraordinarily beautiful sculptures of lightly veiled, or totally naked, women. The cemetery is a huge – 250,000 square metres – open-air gallery, with over 6,000 pieces of sculpture in peaceful and green surroundings. It’s open from 8.30 to 17.30 every day except Monday.

There is lots more religious sculpture in the Cathedral, just opposite Palazzo Reale, where you can see a sculptural version of Saint Bartholomew post-martyrdom. This, just inside the entrance on the south side, is definitely not for the faint-hearted. The 16th-century sculptor Marco d’Agrate shows a
man whose skin has just been totally removed, and takes the opportunity to show off his skill at muscles, veins and tendons, which at that time was all the rage after Leonardo da Vinci’s pioneering anatomy studies.

San Bernardino, Piazza Santo Stefano, Milan
San Bernardino, Piazza Santo Stefano, Milan

Not far off, in Piazza Santo Stefano, there is one of the strangest sights in Milan. The largest church is Santo Stefano, and the church tower used to be on the left-hand side of the church. When it collapsed in 1642, it fell on top of a much smaller church, San Bernardino, nearby, which for centuries had been used to store human remains. And so San Bernardino was rebuilt, and the bones were used as an interior decoration material. The writing is on the wall, as one says, and in this case the writing is in femurs. To find this little chapel, look for the passage on the right after going in. The main church was built in the 1700s after the bone-lined chapel had become something of an attraction for the people of the city. San Bernardino is open from Monday to Saturday mornings (about 8.30 to 12.30) and it also opens for Mass on Sunday.

After all this culture, what about a little refreshment? Personally, at this time of year I can’t resist pane dei morti, little chocolatey cakes sprinkled with sugar, in all the pasticcerie. Delicious. And, to conclude, neither can I resist a couple of quotations on the subject. “Dying is a very dull, dreary affair. And my advice to you is to have nothing whatever to do with it”. (W. Somerset Maugham). “I am ready to meet my Maker. Whether my Maker is prepared for the great ordeal of meeting me is another matter”. (Winston Churchill). But my absolute favourite is not by a famous person at all, but by one of my ancestors. I have recently discovered that my great-grandfather Henry, when aged 84, wrote, in a letter to his local newspaper: “… and I do not expect to stop smoking until my cremation is over”. Actually my second favourite is also by the same venerable Henry who, having admitted to his partiality for beer, wrote, “When asked ‘Is life worth living?’ I reply that it depends on the liver!” Brilliant! Now why couldn’t I think of something like that? Unless he stole it from someone else, of course.

© Henry Neuteboom 2012