Elizabethan London

Elizabethan London
Tyburn was an infamous execution spot west of London, used since medieval times. The Tyburn "tree" - a unique, multi-person gallows - erected in 1571 became a popular public spectacle, drawing crowds of thousands.Tyburn Tree blog is less blood-thirsty but hopefully topical, interesting and informative, if slightly bent to my personal topics of interest - books, writing, history, technology, with a smattering of politics and dash of pop culture, science and the downright strange. So "take a ride to Tyburn" and see what happens...

Wednesday, January 28, 2004

Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling

Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling - Ross King

Surly, often sullen, perpetually brooding, argumentative, distrustful, highly competitive, monstrously creative and ugly to boot, Michelangelo Buonarroti was a sculptor of genius. Ross King's superlative book Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling tells the story of how this tempermental artist created one of histories greatest art treasures, the ceiling frescos of the Sistine Chapel.

King draws a crisply written and fascinating portrait of Michelangelo, including his stormy relationship with his family, patrons and fellow artists, his chaotic life and times, and the myriad background sources of his artistic and creative vision. A contemporary of Leonardo Da Vinci and later Raphael, Michelangelo famously sculpted both the Pieta and David. His skill as a sculptor brought him to the attention and patronage of Pope Julius II, il papa terrible. Known for his fiery temper, a penchant for striking his cardinals and servants liberally with his walking stick and a highly militaristic, almost imperial ambition, Julius commissioned (almost coerced actually) Michelangelo into painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel - all twelve thousand square feet of it.

King's book is filled with insight and detail, outlining the difficulties that Michelangelo faced "painting in the wet" (fresco literally means "fresh" as in wet or fresh plaster, as the colors are applied before the plaster can dry), the engineering of the Sistine Chapel's scaffolding, the usage of fixed perspective, the color scheme and biblical and mythic themes of the various frescos.

The book is, thankfully, well illustrated with details, including excellent color images of the Sistine Chapel, a necessary element that helps unfamiliar readers such as myself enormously in understanding the overwhelming scale of the projects (it took more than four years to complete).

Here's a brief excerpt on the bitter rivalry between Da Vinci and Michelangelo when both were commissioned to fresco opposite walls of the refectory in Santa Maria delle Grazie:

"This artistic duel was made even more compelling by the two artists' well-known dislike of each other. The surly Michelangelo had once taunted Leonardo in public for having failed in his attempt to cast a giant bronze equestrian statue in Milan. Leonardo, meanwhile, had made it clear that he had little regard for sculptors. 'This is a most mechanical exercise,' he once wrote, 'accompanied many times with a great deal of sweat.' He further claimed that sculptors, covered in marble dust, looked like bakers, and that their homes were both noisy and filthy, in contrast to the more elegant abodes of painters. All Florence awaited the outcome."

For a look at the fruits of Michelangelo's labors, check out the Sistine Chapel here, here, and here. And for good measure, here as well.

For a look at the restoration process (and some nice before and after images) check out the Artcyclopedia andthis site.

Among other items, King points out the habit of many artists (Michelangelo among them) of putting sly jokes and hidden messages within the content of their work, much as medieval monks would draw humorous pictures in the margins of their lavishly illustrated books (called "marginalia") or, in a more modern context, the 'easter eggs' found in many software programs. Check out this image (click to enlarge) and zoom in on the cherub in the back's right hand. He's giving her "the fig"...

Thursday, January 22, 2004

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix - J. K. Rowling

What more can one say about J.K. Rowlings and the most famous boy in wizardom?

Since last summer, I've been working my way steadily through all five of the Harry Potter books (Harry Potter and Philosopher's Stone, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire), reading them aloud to my five-year old son. Most recently, thanks to the benevolence of Santa Claus, we've been ripping through Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

I say ripping because my enthralled son insisted on reading the 870-page book nightly, often for more than an hour at a time (which, if you have a five-year old and you are reading something that has no pictures, is definitely saying something about the author's ability to capture his interest!).

In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, J.K. Rowling continues to build on both the depth of her imaginary magical world and on the steady growth of the characters. Harry Potter is returning to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry for his fifth year, despite the ominous indications that (as seen in Book IV) He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named (that's the evil Lord Voldemort, for the three people left in the world who haven't either read the books or seen the movie) has returned.

Harry, and his growing array of friends and allies (the Order of the Phoenix in the title) must face down enemies both within and without as Harry faces the multiple challenges of his cousin Dudley, rogue Dementors, OWL (Official Wizarding Levels) exams, bad press, first romance and a malevolent new "headmistress" at Hogwarts....and the machinations of Voldemort and his DeathEaters.

Despite the length, the book doesn't sag or lack. At times it is pure adventurous exhilaration and fun, and although some sections are somewhat slow, I found that as a reader, I was so invested in the characters, the world and the setting, that the occasional slow section was barely noticable. You should note that if you are reading the book to younger kids, you may wish to self-edit some of the more frightening bits and pieces. This is also a good excuse to read ahead....

All in all, we loved Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and are eagering anticipating the next book in the series. Get to work Ms. Rowling!

I have read in the media that some people have complained at times regarding the content of the Potter books.. Let's face it - these books offer up terrific, imaginative, thoughtful, adventurous reads that successfully pull kids and adults away from the pale everyday gleam of the cathode ray tube and gets them to read! Kids! Reading! Who'd have thunk it?

J.K. Rowling deserves to be congratulated for that fact alone (but I suppose being richer than the Queen is probably enough).

Interested in finding out exactly what are Muggles, Hippogriffs and Bowtruckles? Consult the Harry Potter Lexicon for all your wizarding queries.

Check out the trailer for the upcoming Harry Potter movie, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

Interested in visiting Hogwarts?

Lastly, since it is an election year....

Wednesday, January 7, 2004

1421: The Year China Discovered America

1421: The Year China Discovered America - Gavin Menzies

History is a fuzzy subject.

The one real, inescapable truth that comes out of any serious assessment of history is, realistically, how little you actually know about the in's and outs of events, societies and people.

When you dig through dusty, moldy and sometimes starkly biased historical documentation or try to comprehend the social intricacies of an era by perusing a handful of broken pot shards, post holes and chipped foundation stones, you are, in essence, piecing together a barely legible puzzle, with incomplete pieces and an uncertain understanding of just what the hell a puzzle actually is...

I preface this review with the above remarks because I am very aware of how damnedly difficult history and archaeology can be as a subject and in Gavin Menzies' book 1421, I'm sorry to note the author has overreached his subject. He has shot for the moon, and fallen sadly well-short.

1421 outlines Menzies' theories regarding the exploits of Emperor Zhu Di's famous five Admirals (Zheng He, Yang Qing, Zhou Man, Hong Bao and Zhou Wen) who, under Imperial command, set sail in five massive fleets of sea-going junks in 1421 to "proceed all the way to the end of the earth to collect tribute from the barbarians beyond the seas". Menzies attempts to trace the routes of the five fleets, drawing on what little written historical record exists (the fleet records were destroyed by Zhu Di's somewhat xenophobic successor), a number of early maps and charts, and a huge pile of unfortunately highly subjective and circumstantial evidence.

Menzies traces the five fleets literally around the globe, touching on literally every continent and region including North, Central and South America (both east and west coasts), the Caribbean, Africa (which, actually does have evidence of Chinese contact on the east coast at any rate as the region was well-travelled by Arab voyagers who, among other destinations, regularly plied their trade with China), Russia, Greenland, Australia, and Antarctica.

While some of the work that Menzies assembles crys out for a more scholarly and searching examination (namely his persistant claims to have uncovered evidence on a number of charts for Chinese contact with Australia and the U.S.'s west coast, and his evidence that the Chinese had developed significant navigational advances well in advance of Europe) the majority of his assumptions are built on a succession of loose guesses and highly circumstantial and subjective evidence. Indeed, towards the end of the book (when a Chinese fleet has landed almost everywhere it is possible to discover except for Europe), Menzies seems almost frantic to buttress his arguments. In Menzies' hands, the fall of every sparrow is attributable to the five fleets.

Despite the highly questionable conclusions, 1421 does offer several highly commendable points - it brings to light an era of Chinese history and discovery that hitherto has been sadly under-examined by historians and raises a number of questions regarding the reach of the intrepid voyage of the Five Fleets. The author's passion and excitement for his subject is clearly evident in his writing and although it overreaches, it's nice to see someone shooting for the moon once in a while...

Incidentally, the book was titled 1421: The Year China Discovered the World everywhere except in the United States (where, as shown above, it was entitled 1421: The Year China Discovered America). I know that U.S. publishers routinely tweak titles to make them more applicable and appealing to U.S. markets but puh-leeze...Doesn't it seem a trifle ridiculous and condescending to think that we would only care to read it if it was about us? Next thing you know they'll be changing the titles of the Harry Potter books because people don't know what a Philosopher's Stone is....oh...wait a minute....they did change that one too. Oh. Sorry.

For more on 1421, check out the author's website (it includes still more evidence not included in the book).

Find out more about the famous Piri Reis Map (cited in the book several times) here, here and here. You can also find the Kandigo map, and the Pizzigano Chart from the James Ford Bell Library (which has some excellent additional materials well worth a look (such as this)).

Always wanted to learn more about Chinese history? (Try here as well). or you could just watch this....it's not history, but its damn fine cinema.

Comments are always welcome!