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Saturday, July 31, 2010

Ten Things Italy Does To You....

1.  You realize you need a town bike with basket and full fenders, even though you already have a road bike and a mountain bike.

2.  You finally understand why ricotta is used in desserts.

3.  You fantasize about roaring off on your Vespa when the light turns green.  Of course, you are in a motorcycle pack.

4.  You get your RAA (recommended annual allowance) of second-hand smoke all at once.

5.  You develop a "thing" for Italian men in lycra on beautiful bikes.

How cute is this....father and son in matching team jerseys and helmets.

6.  You return home with a renewed commitment to your exercise regimen.

7.  You realize Italian is the most beautiful language in the world and you resolve to learn it.

8.  You dig all your high heels out of the bottom of your closet and wear them for a week (until you realize you don't have the genetic mutation that allows Italian women to walk in four inch heels along cobblestone streets).

9.  You realize you have met a true artisti....and he makes your cappuccino every morning (Grazie Dominico!).

10.  You vow to return as soon as possible.

View from room 242, Hotel Mamiani

[This is my 200th post!  I dedicate it to my Italian hosts and new friends Simone and Mateo and to the wonderful staff at the Hotel Mamiani in Urbino.]

Thursday, July 29, 2010

I Write Like.....

 ....H. P. Lovecraft, an American author (1890-1937) of horror, fantasy, and science fiction.  How do I know this?  Because I pasted a sample of my writing into the web site I Write Like and it statistically analyzed my choice of words and writing style and compared them to a data base of famous authors.  I had never heard of H.P. Lovecraft but thought it quite the spooky coincidence given my obvious love of craft.

How reproducible was this result?  I pasted in text from a second blog post and got the same answer.  Then I pasted in the first three paragraphs of a science proposal I am writing and got the same answer again!  (I'm not sure this bodes well for my science proposal.)  At this point I'm really skeptical so I paste in three samples of my father's writing and get three different answers (dad, you write like Dan Brown, Cory Doctorow, and J.R.R. Tolkien---my conclusion, you have a unique writing style/voice).  Then I tested my blurb about Morris from the sidebar.....H. P. Lovecraft, again!  Clearly, all Lovecraft fans should be reading my blog.

Finally, given that Lovecraft was a fantasy writer, the fictional genre invented by William Morris (see post here), I wondered if there was a connection between the two, other than both of the authors being included in the well-known (to people like Tyrion Frost) Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series.  All I could discover was that Lovecraft was heavily influenced by Lord Dunsany, who in turn was strongly influenced by Morris.  My writing style thus appears to have three degrees of separation from the Great One! 

p.s. after finishing this post, the analysis of it on I Write Like, again, was H. P. Lovecraft!

The Ultimate in Historic Preservation

I wonder if William Morris, the founder of the modern historic preservation movement, would have enjoyed a visit to the famous Gubbio Section in Italy.  I know you are probably wondering, what the heck is that?  It is an outcrop of rock (see pic below) that preserves a record of deep time, a sequence that somehow escaped being eroded, subducted, buried, washed away, blasted to smithereens, etc.  Here in a deep gorge in the mountains near the medieval town of Gubbio, one finds the beautifully preserved boundary between the Cretaceous Period, the time of the dinosaurs, and the Tertiary Period, the time of mammals rise to dominance (we rule!).

 It is at this famous outcrop that Walter Alverez, Jan Smit, and their colleagues found the telltale evidence for the asteroid impact that slammed into the Earth 65 million years ago bringing with it years of darkness, firestorms, a collapse of the food chain, and the demise of the dinosaurs that had roamed the Earth as the largest vertebrates for over 160 (!) million years.  I first learned of the asteroid extinction hypothesis as an undergraduate, the year it was proposed --- it was considered a profoundly outlandish idea at the time.  Probably the only reason anyone paid any attention at all to it was that it was authored by a Nobel Prize winning physicist, Luis Alvarez, geologist Walter's father.  Thirty years later the hypothesis is widely, although not universally, accepted within the scientific community (as a comparison, I would say there is more scientific consensus on the reality of anthropogenic global warming).

The reason the boundary layer looks like a slanted hole (the rock layers are tilted) is that for decades geologists and others have been digging further and further into the cliff to get samples of the extinction layer.  The guy in the lime shirt is Jan Smit, one of the original proposers of the asteroid impact hypothesis.

 Even though it is the most famous outcrop in the world, this is still really only a place to set a geologist's or naturalist's heart aflutter.  But anyone would appreciate Ristorante Bottaccione, located a few hundred meters down the road.  Here we (about 70 of us!) had a fabulous multi-course lunch on a shaded outdoor patio with many bottles of wine.  We pored over the two Gubbio guest books that have been kept by the restaurant since the first one was started by Walter Alverez in 1976 (he and his colleagues published the hypothesis in 1980 after discovering extraterrestrial iridium in the boundary layer).  A record of the many geologists and Earth Science groups that have visited the outcrop over the years, these books are filled with names of scientists, famous and otherwise, along with their doodles, reflections, comments, etc.  A few years back a museum in France scanned them in their entirety as an epistemological record of the evolution of the asteroid impact hypothesis.  Like my visit to Red House, it was a great feeling to finally visit this amazing place.

The first page of the first logbook...Walter Alvarez at top of list.

Monday, July 26, 2010

The Bullerswood Carpet, Now you see it.....

The Bullerswood is the grandest of all the hand-knotted carpets made by Morris & Co.  It dates to 1889 and is based on ancient Persian and Turkish carpet samples collected by Morris.  It has woolen pile on a cotton warp, is colored with vegetable dyes, and is HUGE, approximately 4 meters by 7.5 meters (13 feet by 25 feet).  It is currently on view in the British Galleries at the Victoria & Albert Museum.

The carpet is rarely displayed and its colors are still vibrant.  While researching the carpet I found a fascinating article about how scientists have determined the ideal display and lighting conditions for this masterpiece.

The vegetable dyes used in the carpet "range from reasonably light-fast to very fugitive."  (What a great use of the word fugitive!)  The curators must consider that the "brighter the illumination, the easier the object will be to see but the greater the rate of light-induced deterioration."  What to do?  The approach was to carry out a series of experiments on the back of the carpet.  Sections of different colors were brightly illuminated over time intervals long enough to detect fading by measuring spectra of reflected light with a spectrophotometer.  Unexpectedly, they discovered that the blue areas on the carpet faded the most with the least fading occurring for burgundy, opposite of what is typically the case for objects colored with vegetable dyes.

 The V&A has developed a lighting policy which establishes acceptable fading rates for artifacts, namely that changes be limited to one 'just noticeable fade' (JNF) in 50 years.  After a very technical discussion of how one measures a JNF (a new unit for this scientist) the article concludes that exposure for the carpet would need to 19 years of display at 50 lux to conform to the policy.  As the light level in the gallery is 100 lux, it was decided that the carpet would be on display for only 5 years, a length of time which allows for errors in the above calculations as well as preserving the possibility of a further five years display over the next half century.  Pretty interesting!  I now realize how lucky I was to even get a glimpse of this beauty.

 Morris notebook sketch of design for Bullerswood Carpet

Saturday, July 24, 2010

"La Muta", The Silent One

 In the Palazzo Ducale, in a hall of the Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, you will find this mysterious portrait of an unknown gentlewoman.  Painted by Raphael around the year 1507 when he was in his early twenties (!), and measuring 64 x 48cm (25 x 19in), it is considered the Mona Lisa of the Marche.  For obvious reasons (see below), Raphael is believed to have been inspired by Da Vinci's great work which was painted between 1503 and 1506.

Like the paintings in haunted house cartoons, La Muta's eyes follow you around the room.  Make eye contact with her....lean a foot or two to the right of your computer......lean back.......yes? 

It's even spookier in person, especially as unlike the Mona Lisa where you are typically looking over the heads of a small mob, in the sparsely populated galleries of the Palazzo La Muta only has eyes for you.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Palazzo Ducale, Urbino

(photo by Il Conte di Luna, 2007)

Since my helicopter is in the shop, I've downloaded an aerial view of Urbino and the Ducal Palace from the internet.  Duke Federigo da Montefeltro, the "Light of Italy" and still a local hero over 500 years later, built his palace in the mid-fifteenth century.  This UNESCO World Heritage Site is widely considered the perfect princely dwelling in the perfect medieval hilltop fortress town.

Here is a picture of Duke Fred, a fabled patron of the arts (including that youngster Raphael) and amasser of the second largest library in Italy after the Vatican.  One of the Renaissance's most famous Condottieri and inspiration for Machiavelli's "The Prince", the Duke was both a great warrior and leader of his people.  He lost his right eye in battle and later had surgeons cut out the bridge of his nose to improve his peripheral vision (all the better to see the assassination attempt coming at you...).

The Duke's private study.  About half the paintings of famous figures that line the upper wall are sepia photographic reproductions of originals that are now housed in the Louvre.  Monsieur Louvre, give them back!

In places like this there is always an overwhelming number of things one could photograph---in this case I decided to look all just seems so perfectly Italian.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Walking around Urbino, Italy

One of the gateways entering the walled city

 Urbino is an ancient walled city in the Marche region of Italy.  A World Heritage Site with a history extending back to the time of the Romans, it reached its pinnacle of influence during the Renaissance under the patronage of Frederico da Montefeltro, duke of Urbino.

View from entrance of Raphael's childhood home.

the main piazza....grappa central

The Ducal Palace on horizon.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Some Lovely Linen, V & A Collection I

An embroidered hanging made in 1896 at the Haslemere Peasant Industries workshop in Surrey, an artisans collaborative started by Godfrey Blount in 1894.  Haslemere Peasant Industries served as a marketing organization for local craftspeople and supported a London shop for the sale of work. This panel, one of the "Peasant Tapestries", is made using applique of linen on linen with the edging in linen thread.  It was designed by Godfrey Blount.

 A stenciled linen panel, characterized by soft colors and stylized motifs, designed and executed by George Walton in 1898.  Panels such as this were used as wall decorations.  This one, measuring about 2.5 by 6 feet was up over a door in the V&A.

 The central courtyard of the Victoria & Albert Museum, William Morris's home away from home.....

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Red House Ceilings

One of the really spectacular aspects of Red House are the ceilings, many of which were hand-painted by Morris and his friends.  Some have since been repainted by subsequent owners but the main stairwell ceiling is still original (and smoke stained).

On many of the ceilings you can see the patterns punched with small holes on the ceiling board.  The docent said that Morris did this to guide the later painting (after the ceiling boards were installed).  In some rooms the ceilings were never painted but the pattern was punched.

Up the stairs and through this archway you find the hall with the ceiling below....

To the left is this bedroom.....

In the main living room the small window seat alcove sports the ceiling pattern below.....if the historians hadn't confirmed it was a pattern and color original to the house, I would have guessed this was painted in the sixties!

Love the castle turrets on the stair posts!

A beautiful three-quarter arch...

In the Morris bedroom is this reproduction of the famous blue serge bed-curtain embroidered by Janey.  I have always loved this pattern (daisy)----if I was ever stranded for a year on a desert island with nothing but yarn, fabric and a needle, this would be a great project!

I hope everybody was inspired by these pictures of Red House!  I want to go home and paint white rooms with fabulous ceilings and doors.   Next, the Ducal Palace in Urbino, Italy....