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#MuseumCats and Cat Symbolism in Poetry

In Allgemein by Francesca / 30. Juli 2014 / 0 Comments

The internet’s atwitter with images of cats in art, today’s trending hashtag on twitter being #museumcats. Powered by @CultureThemes and @CuratorialCats, two twitter feeds dedicated, as the names suggest, to thematic explorations and all things feline in collections, the month is going to be dedicated to cats and museums for summer fun. As such, the cat is cross-disciplinary and so all kinds of angles are coming into view and the hashtag has attracted tweets from a great range of museums.

For example, the Hello Kitty lunch box, from 1974, appeared in the feed of the Smithsonian Museum of American History, together with an article about its origins and significance and the interest in the lunchbox more generally as an indicator of social history. For its own part, the Wellcome Collection of the Wellcome Trust dedicated to medicine and its history, published a fantasmagoric blog post about the history of black cats and their connection with the black plague according to medieval European superstition. The national museums of various countries tweeted their 19th, or 15th, or 17th, or 20th century oil paintings, etchings and drawings depicting cats in art.

The look at cats in art through the centuries is like a mini-history of art: from the Hogarthian “mandatory” cat that we’re guaranteed to spot somewhere in every painting, in every drawing Hogarth did of human depravity in its many incarnations, via ancient Egyptian sculpture, the exoticizing depiction of lions and jaguars of the colonial era, to the oblong and bleary-eyed, phantomatic expressionist cats in black print, to Hello Kitty, Garfield and other comic characters and everything in between and beyond, we can see what a strong fascination cats really have to the human mind and eye. And we can see all the different styles of painting, sculpting and drawing as we go through the stream of illustrations on today’s twitter hashtag #museumcats!

As a literature person, I’ve taken this day as an excuse to get to the bottom of something I have wondered about for some years, Edgar Allan Poe’s influence on Baudelaire. Poe’s short story, “The Black Cat” tells the tale of an alcoholic murdering his wife, all entangled with deep symbolism and a lengthy preamble about cats and the main character’s relationship with them. The relationship with the domestic cat is used as a vehicle to illustrate how from loving and tender, the main character gradually turns into an unsavoury, brutish, and increasingly evil and sadistic character. The murder of the wife is told in only half a sentence, but the whole psychology of the violent alcoholic and wife-beating murderer is expressed through the medium of his relationship with the domestic cat. Because the cat – especially the black cat – carries a baggage of superstition, of equivocalness between wild and tame, captive and free, night and day, that so appeals to the human imagination.

Edgar Allan Poe’s is a short story of gin and alcoholism, of moral decay, of poverty and violence, all tied in with the semi-surreal and uncanny presence of symbolic cats with gallows tattoos, and the wreckage of reason; these themes are not difficult to trace also in the French poet Baudelaire, whose collection “The Flowers of Evil” was published in 1857, preceded by about a decade and a half by Poe’s “Black Cat” (1843). In his own country, E. A. Poe’s writings were not nearly as much appreciated as they came to be in France. Jonathan Culler in 1990 wrote an article on Poe and Baudelaire that summarized, compared and contrasted the critics‘ voices from the era in America, Britain and France, and also tracing how the works of E. A. Poe entered Baudelaire’s essayistic writing on literary criticism at the same time as they became an influence strongly felt in his poetry and poetic prose. The poem “Le vin de l’assassin” (“Assassin’s Wine”) is but one of many examples that pays homage to “The Black Cat” and, lastly, Baudelaire’s poem “Le Chat” (“Cats”) which I’ll reproduce here to honor today’s hashtag, amalgamates the imagery of the cat with that of erotic love much in the way that Poe’s short story used the cat to circumscribe the emotion felt for humans.

Poem and translation taken from baudelaire.org

Le Chat
Viens, mon beau chat, sur mon coeur amoureux;
Retiens les griffes de ta patte,
Et laisse-moi plonger dans tes beaux yeux,
Mêlés de métal et d’agate.
Lorsque mes doigts caressent à loisir
Ta tête et ton dos élastique,
Et que ma main s’enivre du plaisir
De palper ton corps électrique,
Je vois ma femme en esprit. Son regard,
Comme le tien, aimable bête
Profond et froid, coupe et fend comme un dard,
Et, des pieds jusques à la tête,
Un air subtil, un dangereux parfum
Nagent autour de son corps brun.
— Charles Baudelaire

The Cat
Come, superb cat, to my amorous heart;
Hold back the talons of your paws,
Let me gaze into your beautiful eyes
Of metal and agate.
When my fingers leisurely caress you,
Your head and your elastic back,
And when my hand tingles with the pleasure
Of feeling your electric body,
In spirit I see my woman. Her gaze
Like your own, amiable beast,
Profound and cold, cuts and cleaves like a dart,
And, from her head down to her feet,
A subtle air, a dangerous perfume
Floats about her dusky body.
William Aggeler, The Flowers of Evil (Fresno, CA: Academy Library Guild, 1954)

Further reading : BAUDELAIRE AND POE, JONATHAN CULLER, Zeitschrift für französische Sprache und Literatur, vol. 100, SPRACHWISSENSCHAFT · LITERATURWISSENSCHAFT · SEMIOTIK. Wechselwirkungen in Theorie und Praxis (1990), pp. 61-73.


Photo: Wikimedia Commons. Louvre Museum, Bastet Cats.

Oedipus Complex : What Can Freud Tell Us about Ancient Greece?

In Allgemein by Francesca / 24. Juli 2014 / 0 Comments

Sigmund Freud (1865-1939) has been an influential figure in the transmission and popularization of ancient myths and history, quite aside from his philosophy of the mind and the psychoanalytic method developed by him which have left a strong imprint on the way we now think and understand ourselves. The Oedipus-complex, for one thing, is probably better known than the Sophoclean play Oedipus the King, in which the events occur which became the conceptual building blocks of the now famous formulation of the Oedipus-complex.

Freud’s theory does not particularly enlighten — or at least enlightens only indirectly — the study of Sophocles. For instance, in the Oedipus complex theory, it is assumed that the young man sexually desires his mother, knowing that she is his mother, and desires to kill his father, knowing that he is his father. But in the Sophoclean version of this myth, everything revolves around the fact that Oedipus in fact does not know who his parents are since he grew up with adoptive parents. Only later does Sophocles‘ Oedipus discover that the woman he hastily married upon meeting her is in fact his mother, and that he inadvertently had previously killed his own father in a road fight with a man who, at that time, was a stranger.

The Sophoclean tragedy of Oedipus holds within it many questions and complexities about guilt, responsibility and blame in the scenario. How guilty is Oedipus of incest, and of patricide, since to his knowledge, these persons were rather a man and a woman he had never before met? Just like his marriage seemed to him a simple and legitimate affair, so too the road fight did not carry the intent to kill the opponent, and especially did not conceptualize the opponent to be his father. But, as Freud explains:

His destiny moves us only because it might have been ours — because the Oracle laid the same curse upon us before our birth as upon him. It is the fate of all of us, perhaps, to direct our first sexual impulse towards our mother and our first hatred and our first murderous wish against our father.

in: The Interpretation of Dreams, ch. 5


Freud made use of this legend to explain family dynamics and developmental issues in young adults which he studied at the time. As a keen collector of art and antiquities, he had surrounded himself with some 2500 antiquities by the end of his life, consisting of vases, sculpture fragments, and many figurines. Almost all of these are now on view at London’s Freud museum, his historic home, to which he transferred everything as he fled from Vienna at the onset of World War II. An enthusiastic amateur archaeologist, Freud was a keen art buyer, and involved in excavations in Hungary and elsewhere.

Throughout his opus, Freud drew analogies between the study of the human mind and the pursuit of archaeological digs, as he cultivated the view of the psyche and consciousness as layered and possessing deep and surface levels like the earth itself. Freud’s view was that the deeper, the more interesting, original, and sharply revelatory things one would find. Archaeology’s habit of collecting fragments of broken vases or sculptures, and bringing the pieces together in order to complete once again the picture of a now exploded reality, also found its way into Freud’s writings as a metaphor for how psychoanalysis can enter into the deeper levels of the mind and re-imagine the lost and forgotten elements. And there is more, besides Oedipus, besides the idea of archaeological excavations; Freud also used the word Thanatos, the Greek name for Death and the nether world, when he developed his thoughts on the human death wish which does seem to inhabit many persons at certain times in their development; or indeed Eros, the libidinal drive, again, Freud took straight from ancient mythology in order to give a palpable dimension to his explanations of psychology. At the time, psychology was a brand new field of study, attracting many sceptics and scoffers. References to the ancient Greeks were, in that sense, always a good idea, a way of showing one was well-educated and socially in a strong position.

It is thought that Freud’s strong commitment to the study of antiquity has its part to play in the naming process of his psychological insights. The Oedipus complex is discussed in the Interpretation of Dreams, which was first published in 1899; if we set that in parallel with the decade or so before the year 1899, we know that theatrical performances of Oedipus were popular in Vienna in this period, and were also very frequent. Philhellenism was in vogue at the time, in a multitude of incarnations, the theatre being only one of several media that enjoyed great influence at the time. Freud’s thought and his writings he has left as his legacy continue to fascinate and inform the way “we” think of mental processes and the psyche. And mediated through Freud, we also know something about Oedipus that continues to startle, and (darkly) fascinate.


The image shows Athena with the Medusa in her mirror; Athena is also sometimes represented with a shield embossed with the beheaded Medusa. It is said that Freud’s favourite piece from his own collection was a figurine of Athena with this beheaded Gorgon, as it symbolized at once the castration anxiety (the severed head) and a multitude of phallic replacement objects (the many snakes, the hair of the Gorgon).

Electric Elektra: Classics in the Modernist Metropole

In Allgemein by Francesca / 17. Juli 2014 / 0 Comments

Many things stand between the ancient Greeks and “us”. Still, we’re able to see ourselves in their ancient culture, recognize their preoccupations to be similar to our own. Ancient plays have graced the stage through its various incarnations in modern times, from mannerism to expressionist opera, experimental psycho-drama to sword and sandal film, multifariously produced for all kinds of performances in the metropoles of modern Europe and beyond.

Visionary stage directors and translators, script editors, actors, set and costume designers, composers and librettists have perpetually re-adapted ancient Greek plays to give them a contemporary spin that would appeal to the audience of, say, 1910s Vienna, 1860s London, or 1940s Paris (or indeed the African colonies, or America, or the provinces…).

There’s a case to be made that the musical genre Opera was first invented with Greek tragedy in mind, as the earliest operatic works known today pay homage to Greek drama. The earliest known composition is from 1597 Florence and by Jacopo Peri. His operatic work based on antique themes from Greek drama falls within the general zeitgeist of classical revivals so dear to the Italian Renaissance.

Opera as a genre and the production of libretto texts for operatic performances continued to go in pair with classical drama for many centuries, updated and upgraded as music developed new trends and styles, and costumes changed with time as well. In the late 1800s, national Italian themes flourished more than ancient Greek ones, as the romantic era of nationalism and post-napoleonic pride was in full swing; and in Germany, the mid- to late 19th century saw developments on the operatic scene exponentially intensified. Between Wagner, Strauss, and Berg, the advances and modernization of musical composing and staging are as fast-paced and startling as was the advent of modernism and the birth of the industrial megalopolis in the late 19th, early 20th century which engulfed all activities of the time. Early cinema and photography accompanied the developments of the all-new, over-crowded and high-rising, electric city with its trams and streetlights, its malnourished children and the broken shells of romantic aesthetics.

Berlin’s expressionist scene, powered by a group of poets whose first vocation had been medicine, under poet and psychiatrist Gottfried Benn’s influence especially, colluded together with Freud’s Vienna, where an passion for describing and studying dreams through the medium of poetry and literature had begun to produce an all-new set of literary works. The film “Dr. Caligari’s Cabinet” epitomizes the fascination with the subconscious mind, mixed with the fascination for horror of the deranged brain, the attraction of the mental asylum that was to become absolutely central for the surrealists of the 1920s and their aesthetic of contorted bodies and the twisted mind.


But I go too fast. What of the ancient Greek plays that were, after so many years, still underwriting many librettos and operatic productions?
In 1907, Richard Strauss asked Hugo von Hoffmannsthal for an opera libretto based on the poet’s play Electra which had been published a few years earlier. The production premiered first in Dresden in 1909, and soon thereafter also in London in 1910, where aside from the English King’s death, this opera and the debates it roused became the event of the year.
Why? Informed by the psycho-pathology of Freud’s Vienna and Benn’s Berlin, this production was ultra-modern for its time, and shocked the artistic sensitivity of many London opera-goers. With its heavily re-worked dialogue focusing all attention on grim and dark mental processes, *Electra* featured in the title role a woman seeming rather like a Bedlam escapee.
This Electra was all the opposite of what, by 1910, the public had come to expect of the Greek heritage: a dignified, high-minded, infinitely poised and rational picture of womanhood should have greeted the London audience that year, not a distraught woman in the rages of bloodlust and revenge. This Electra “Electrified” London, as the newspapers were quick to report. Not only did it turn on its head the image of the Greeks per se, but in the era of Britain’s colonial empire it was also customary to use Greek civilization as an anchor point of European culture, and now this culture was being made to look rather chaotic and tribal, full of violence and retribution, framed by harrowing new costume styles and the modernist music of the day.

It inaugurated a reflection upon classical drama itself in the universities, that had not yet been a focus of classical studies itself, and even if from today’s perspective, these productions seem in their turn dated, they’re a crisp window through which we can look at the differences between ancient and modern, “them” and “us”.



picture: Annie Krull as Electra, 1909. Wikimedia Commons.

Everyman’s Library & Literae Humaniores : Classics for Entertainment

In Allgemein by Francesca / 9. Juli 2014 / 0 Comments

Oxford and Cambridge Universities were founded in the middle ages as religious institutions of study, and held the duopoly of higher education in England until the 1820s, when University College and King’s College were founded in London. University College London famously championed secular higher education, taking its cue from the London Institution which had opened its doors in 1806 but closed them again rather quickly. In the meantime, Oxford and Cambridge updated their look, adding training in Mathematics to their curriculum in 1802 as well as Literae Humaniores, the study of classical texts not from a theological vantage point, but with the focus on human life contained in them and without reference to divinity.

Thus in the 19th century, the gates were opened to the founding and accreditation of many more higher education institutions. The latter half of the 1800s saw the birth of the redbrick universities dedicated to training scientific and technical workforces in the industrial cities of England. Specializing in the natural sciences, medicine and engineering, these schools owe the appellation “redbrick” to the terracotta bricks used to build them, and had themselves evolved out of various 19th century private research and education institutes.

Running in pair with these changes in the higher education system of the 19th century towards a more open-access model of education, was the introduction of compulsory education for children. Though not as deeply radical and systematically rolled out as the educational reforms in France that followed the French Revolution, with its ideological rooting in the declaration of human rights and the right to education, the 19th century in England doubtlessly saw literacy rates rise significantly amongst the population, allowing the expression of warm enthusiasm for popular education and for facilitating it.

None epitomizes this better than the rise of Everyman’s Library, producing pocket-sized hardback editions of classical texts in modern translation, and selling for the, then, remarkably low price of a shilling a piece. The Everyman’s library was established by London publisher J. M. Dent in 1906 with the collaboration of poet and editor Ernest Rhys and designer William Morris.

J. M Dent had made his name in publishing with his Temple Shakespeare imprint, which specialized in small runs of high-quality editions of classic texts. Already at the Temple Shakespeare venture, Dent had enlisted essayist and writer Charles Lamb, whose 1807 adaptation of Shakespeare’s plays for children, which he produced together with his sister Mary, is a beloved classic of educational reading in its own right until today.

But it was Dent’s passion for bringing books to the people which budged Dent to venture into the new model of producing books industrially on a large scale to make them available at a cheap price. William Morris had established The Kelmscott Press at his Kelmscott house, spearheading his signature design style in its application to bookbinding. As a socialist and keen medievalist, Morris was acquainted with the poet Ernest Rhys and no stranger to the Rhymers’ Club which was Rhys’ and W. B. Yeats’ dining club. Consisting of poets who would meet either in Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese on Fleet Street (the pub still goes on) or for private dinners in their homes, the Rhymers’ Club brought forth two anthologies of poetry featuring the works of some (but not all) of its members in the mid-1890s.

It was Ernest Rhys who, in 1906, spoke with the publisher J. M. Dent, and the pair went on to launching the Everyman’s Library. Ernest Rhys became the imprint’s first editor. Indeed, it was Rhys’ idea to call it Everyman’s Library, paying homage to the medieval play Everyman, of which a quotation appears in the front of every book in the series :

Everyman, I will go with thee and be thy guide, In thy most need to go by thy side.

Publishing ventures like the Everyman’s Library — George Routledge’s Railway Library comes to mind, too — are thought to have played a significant role in the popularization of classical reading and popular education in literature more generally. This kind of reading had previously been accessible only through membership in certain circles and in a higher education context, which made not only the study of classical texts a highly exclusive affair, but also the reading of classics for general entertainment. There used to be no scope for gladiator movies, before… This is what these inspired publishers had set out to rectify, and, judging from their legacy in the arts and education everywhere, they really succeeded.

image: book cover design by William Morris, taken from Wikimedia commons

The Emperor in the Swimming Pool : A History

In Allgemein by Francesca / 26. Juni 2014 / 0 Comments

Thought I’d write something a little more light-hearted now that summer is really coming, and write about the history of swimming pools — in fact this is a great way to connect with the ancient Roman emperors, who used to have quite stylish baths themselves, as the fun-looking archaeological evidence in places like Pompeii and Ostia attests.

In Bath, UK, where hot springs form under the ground, a perfectly functional replica of the Roman bath that was built there by the Romans after they invaded Britain in about 60-70 A.D.; although there was already a Celtic shrine at the site of the hot springs before, the Romans gave it their stamp of permanence by transforming it into a temple of Minerva and leaving behind their distinctive architectural style. The Great Roman Baths can still be visited and bathed in today.

The fashion blogs are atwitter with postings about the history of the bikini, but let us dive into the history of swimming pools (pun kind of intended)…

We know the ancient Romans liked to bathe, and we today love lounging by a private pool in summer. But how did it all begin? Have you ever thought many public swimming pools appear to have been built in the mid-20th century, and did you ever wonder why that is?

We’ll have to go back to England, via the USA, to understand the swimming pool phenomenon; because one thing is for sure: in between antiquity and modernity, bathing was certainly not very common during the middle ages in Europe. A mixed set of reasons has been suggested as to why that was, in particular it seems that the church, which was the most influential authority during the middle ages, condemned the use of public bathing facilities by women, arguing that mixed bathing led to immorality, promiscuity, sex and disease. At the time, it was believed that disease spread through water, so that many decided to forego bathing altogether.

Personal hygiene, on the whole, remained rather unsavoury until as late as the 19th century, when many advances were made in the understanding of health and hygiene. Indeed, this is when public bathing facilities began to pop up again. Bathing in the river became a popular social pastime in Britain in the early to mid 19th century, as became water polo and a handful of eccentric games such as swimming breakfast parties. The first recorded swimming club opened its doors in Maidstone in Kent, in 1844. By then, six indoor swimming pools with diving boards existed in London already.

In 1896, the modern Olympic Games were relaunched in Athens, after Greece had gained its national independence from the Ottoman Empire in the 1820s, and the idea to reconnect with the Greek cultural patrimony sparked off the Olympic fire. The games included swimming races, which pulled their weight in popularizing swimming as a sport even more, and the enthusiasm for swimming pools began to spread.

The 1952 Hollywood movie Million Dollar Mermaid (aka One Piece Bathing Suit) gave a huge deal of publicity to the private home swimming pool and the swimming sports (not least: the water ballet), and swimming fashion.

And the public pools? Just like the enjoyment of water sports of all kinds flourished in the late 19th century, so too did the return of personal hygiene in that time. For instance in Germany, early pioneers of working class healthcare reforms believed that increasing the standards of basic hygiene would significantly improve the overall health of the population and launched ambitious projects to have numerous public bathing houses built in the German cities.

This is how, before the frenzy for public sports centres and Olympic racing pools of the 1950s and ’60s, many public bathing houses were built in Germany towards the end of the 19th and in the early 20th century. Aside from showers and bathtubs, some also featured swimming pools. A handful of them still survive as listed buildings in all their art deco, art nouveau or bauhaus-style glory, often playing with reminiscences of Roman bath architecture and design.

And today? Oh well, you know…



image : Wikimedia commons. Gellert baths in Budapest

Odysseus and the Great Unknown

In Allgemein by Francesca / 18. Juni 2014 / 0 Comments

Travelogues and travelogue-like passages appear in ancient literature, in more than a few places. Some of the travel descriptions of ancient Greece which have been transmitted to us, appear to be dedicated to geographical and cultural education of the reader, seeing as to travel very far given the ancient transportation facilities was a noteworthy feat. Another sub-category of travelogue is the historiographic, in which the military exploits of an army and its men are recounted not only in terms of their skills in battle, but also expanding upon their courage and endurance at making their way to the location of the battle.

Homer’s Odyssey typefies the saga of the long return, the homeward journey from a faraway place. In the Odyssey, readers are first introduced to Odysseus as an absentee father who had left behind his wife and young son in order to take part in the Trojan war, in his capacity as the king of Ithaca. The last part of the book focuses on how Odysseus eventually arrives back home after his long absence and is faced with a barrage of suitors to his wife, his mansions in decay and the city under very bad administration, all of which he has good mind to reclaim for himself. If we are to believe the legend, twenty years have passed since Odysseus was last in his home town: he fought for ten years in the Trojan war, and then took ten years to get back home. When he arrives, the youth has grown, nothing is like it was, and Odysseus himself, after the war and the long road, is quite a different man as well.

Sandwiched in between these scenes from Odysseus’ home at Ithaca, are the surreal and extraordinary tales of what Odysseus saw and did on his ten year long journey, which, as readers are informed, took so long because an angry Poseidon kept sweeping his ship astray – for revenge.

In the story, Odysseus lives to tell the tale, so that his adventures amongst witches, ogres and monsters, his descent into the underworld, and visit to Lestrygonians, his shipwrecks, entrapments, and ingenious explorations out in the great unknown, have since become some of the most popular legends. Nearly everyone has heard of the Cyclops, the one-eyed giant who eats human flesh and lives in a cave, and whom Odysseus squarely overpowered by feeding him wine and blinding his one eye with an incandescent wooden beam. Or the beautiful sirens, whose enthralling charm and irresistible singing Odysseus was able to bypass by putting wax in the ears of all his crew.

Interpretations of the Odyssey have traditionally pointed out the strong focus on loyalty that is implicit in the will to take on challenge upon challenge only to come back home, and attached to this loyalty towards his home town and family, is a commitment to the Greek culture, of which the forms and values appear especially in relief by contrast to the strange lands wandered by Odysseus in the meantime. At Circe’s, the witch who can turn men into swine and wants to make Odysseus the king of her little kingdom :

But venomed was the bread, and mixed the bowl,

With drugs of force to darken all the soul:

Soon in the luscious feast themselves they lost,

And drank oblivion of their native coast.

The fear of never making it home is ever-present, and the lure of the sometimes rather enticing propositions made by the fairytale-like creatures in equal parts attractive and revolting seems to intensify at each turning of the road. Here is another passage :

We plied the banquet, and the bowl we crown’d,

Till the full circle of the year came round.

But when the seasons following in their train,

Brought back the months, the days, and hours again;

As from a lethargy at once they rise,

And urge their chief with animating cries:

Is this, Ulysses, our inglorious lot?

And is the name of Ithaca forgot?

Shall never the dear land in prospect rise,

Or the loved palace glitter in our eyes?

The travelogue description introduces many episodes of arriving on strange shores and meeting unknown cultures and hybrid, half-awesome, half-scary species of character beings. The places Odysseus goes to seem to appear at first from a distance, enclosed either by walls, or thick vegetation, or water, so that they are each in their own way a closed universe and a microcosm in a capsule – at times it seems like the Odyssey draws up a map of warped mircocosm after warped microcosm before our eyes, and each time, a new breed of fantasmagoric characters hop on the scenery as if they belong to a surreal film set. For example, Odysseus travels to :

A floating isle! High-raised by toil divine,

Strong walls of brass the rocky coast confine.

Six blooming youths, in private grandeur bred,

And six fair daughters, graced the royal bed.

These sons their sisters wed, and all remain

Their parents’ pride, and pleasure of their reign.

All day they feast, all day the bowls flow round,

And joy and music through the isle resound;

At night each pair on splendid carpets lay,

And crown’d with love the pleasures of the day.

This 1873 verse translation I have been quoting from is by T. A. Buckley and in the public domain. As I commented in another blog post recently, the digital media revolution increases the use of public domain books, but these books often are in the public domain by virtue of being 100 years old or more. Looking at this 19th century translation, which I very much enjoy for what it is and I hope you have as well, adds a specific flavour to the story. As I have commented in another post, the Odyssey was very popular in the British colonial Empire and Odysseus‘ character, by no means one beloved by all ages, had a distinct appeal with his explorer’s nature and experience of the great unknown. A contemporary of this translation was Tennyson, whose famous poem „The Lotos Eaters“ conflates the pleasures of a Victorian opium smoker with the adventures of Odysseus on the Lotophagi island:

And round about the keel with faces pale,

Dark faces pale against that rosy flame,

The mild-eyed melancholy Lotos-eaters came.

Branches they bore of that enchanted stem,

Laden with flower and fruit, whereof they gave

To each, but whoso did receive of them,

And taste, to him the gushing of the wave

Far far away did seem to mourn and rave

On alien shores; and if his fellow spake,

His voice was thin, as voices from the grave;

And deep-asleep he seem’d, yet all awake,

And music in his ears his beating heart did make.

The painting above titled „Land of the Lotos-Eaters“ (1863) by Robert Duncanson also epitomizes the conflation of 19th century exoticism with Hellenism which is yet another aspect of the same phenomenon. As much as it is important to notice these identifications and projections, the real interest lies in finding out what the Odyssey can mean to „us“, and now.

What is it about Pompeii that we still love?

In Allgemein by Francesca / 11. Juni 2014 / 0 Comments

by Craig Melson

Pompeii has seemingly never been more popular in our culture, with a hit film starring Jon Snow from Game of Thrones and Jack Bauer, an irritatingly catchy Bastille song, an episode of Doctor Who (which inconveniently guest starred the next Doctor) , a bestselling novel and a record setting British Museum exhibition. We’ve always loved Pompeii and our allure with the ruined city goes back centuries, so why can’t we get enough of it?
The Last Days of Pompeii is probably best known as a brilliant TV series, but no so well-known is that it started out as an 1834 book by all-round 19th century genius Edward Bulwer-Lytton, himself inspired by a painting of the same name by Russian painter Karl Bryullov. This era was the real height of Pompeii loving, where every young European noble would revel in neo-Classicism and undertake the ‘Grand Tour’, which often had Pompeii as the culmination (though richer and more adventurous nobles ventured on to Greece and Turkey). The Roman Empire during this period had both an enhanced and diminished role compared to now with nations obsessed with Rome as they went empire building, however, saw Rome in a one dimensional source of cool stories and pretty art, both things Pompeii supplied in spades when the serious excavations seriously excavated. It also provided moral lessons in the religious sphere, with the conservatively Catholic Italians denying full access to some of the more…interesting frescoes up to 2000, and preachers using the rediscovery to highlight the wrath of god (which is also Pliny’s assessment of why the volcano erupted).

Fast forwarding to now, there are probably two reasons why we love Pompeii, and keep reimagining it across all our different mediums. Firstly, is the touchy feely emotional side, as people relate to the folks that lived there, imagining the horror of the eruption, with the plaster casts and massed skeletons at Herculaneum hammering this point home. Takeaway restaurants, living rooms, doormats, shops, sports arenas are all things we recognise and relate to, and act as snap shots into ancient lives.
The second reason is the insight the ridiculously well-preserved site gives us into to normal Roman urban living. First century Pompeii was a pretty, but unremarkable Italian city, laid out and with the same grid pattern and social layers as thousands of other Roman cities across the Empire. Classical scholarship has always been about marrying the archaeological evidence with literary sources, which are of course hugely imbalanced towards recording the lives of the elite. Religious buildings, fora, villas and the like are hugely valuable as evidence, but all pale in comparison to what Pompeii tells us about urban life.

It’s not only the classicists, historians, geologists and geographers who have had their knowledge enhanced by Pompeii, but also engineers, doctors, city planners, plumbers, politicians, plasterers have all directly or indirectly drawn on Pompeian examples, as like any modern town of today, it has a thousand stories to tell. And we love it.

I would like to end with a quote from Up Pompeii!, but never found it that funny.


photo : Karl Briullov, *The Last Days of Pompeii*, 1827-33. Wikimedia Commons.


Craig Melson graduated from King’s College London in 2007 and has since worked in TV, policy and public affairs. He likes European politics, Shakespeare and anything classics, but hates UCL.

Premium Wines, German Monarchs, and Vineyard Slopes with an Exotic Micro-Climate

In Allgemein by Francesca / 4. Juni 2014 / 0 Comments

by Manuela Thoma

On the slopes of the historic old Württemberg, surrounded by beautiful vineyards on the outskirts of Stuttgart, lies the home of the Rotenberg and Uhlbach wine producers. The Rotenberg and Uhlbach associations of wine growers brought into existence the Collegium Wirtemberg, a cooperative wine-growers association, in April 2007.
This cooperative received this year’s Gault Millau award as Newcomer of the Year 2014, and was appraised by the editors as „a pleasant surprise“, and „a great performance with expressive white wines and dense reds“.

Not only are the enchanting views of the Neckar Valley, down to Esslingen, Bad Cannstatt and Stuttgart worth a visit for their idyllic wine villages. The impressive-looking local wine presses in Rotenberg and Uhlbach are also real treasure troves to any and all wine lovers. Collegium Wirtemberg offers regional specialty and classic wines that are characterized by a clear structure in aroma and flavor and bring out beautifully the variety of aromas from each different grape, and their salubriousness. In addition, elegant, refined, strong tasting varieties are also on offer, from these selectively harvested grapes from old, crop-reduced vines, to mature, compact and full-bodied wines expressing the characteristics of their regional origins beautifully – location, climate, and soil.

High above stands the chapel grave of Queen Katharina, beyond the vineyards of the Württemberg region that was named by King William II and until 1907 still was called Rotenberg. The grave chapel was built for Katharina Pavlovna (1788-1819) , second wife of William I of Württemberg (1781-1864). William himself is buried here too, as is their daughter, Marie Friederike Charlotte of Württemberg (1816-1887).

The crypt chapel was built after the death of Queen Katharina from 1820 to 1824, following designs of Italian court architect Giovanni Salucci. It is built on the foundations where once stood the former castle Wirtemberg, the house of Württemberg’s ancestral home, just in between the old Rotenberg and Uhlbach wine presses. The historic buildings are premises for tastings and sales, and popular visitor destinations with a rustic flair today. Unique too is the cultural landscape around them. In the warm micro-climate on the steep slopes of the Neckar Valley, the grapes ripen partly on terraces. Even Mediterranean vegetation such as lavender, figs and delicate English rose grow here. The maintenance of these systems is part of the work of the Collegium Wirtemberg, thus ensuring the survival of the wine making tradition. The walk up through the vineyards from the outskirts Untertürkheim up to the Württemberg and then across to Uhlbach is a completely unique experience.

The Collegium Wirtemberg honors its historic location through having the grave chapel as its logo. Two of its best wines from just around the venerable grave chapel are dedicated to King William and Queen Katharina: The dry 2011 Riesling „Katharina“, which received the Artvinum Award 2014, and the 2011 Trollinger „Wilhelm“, which was awarded the third place at the German Red Wine Award 2013 – a breakthrough for the much-underrated red Trollinger wine. A third wine of the so-called „monarchy Troika“ honors the architect of the grave chapel by dedicating him his very own dry red Cuveé „Salucci“ (grapes: Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Mitos and Lemberger). Through its dark and soft touches and its international style, it is reminiscent of the full red wines of Italy.

Cellar-master Martin Kurrle achieves such success thanks to the remarkable „Holzfasskeller“, a special cellar located in the so-called „Fleckensteinbruch“, which is naturally conditioned by a granite fountain. Here, 60 large wooden barrels and 370 barrique barrels are stored. From this former stone quarry came the stone blocks that were used to build the vineyard terraces on the steep slopes of the Württemberg. Once more the Collegium Wirtemberg links up wine and culture: the fountain was designed by the artist Siegfried Berger from Rotenberg, whose art can be seen at the Collegium Wirtemberg. At this year’s local trade fair day on April 5th, we got a chance to visit the barrel cellar and the vineyards and to taste the new vintages and the entire range of the Collegium Wirtemberg. It’s a little known and underrated cultural gem full of unforeseen delights and treasures.


www.collegium-wirtemberg.de (website checked on 15.05.2014)

http://www.deutscheweine.de/icc/Internet-DE/nav/61a/61a50b54-13f9-0401-be59-267b48205846&uCon=aab7e80a-2993-e31e-fe9e-54406f135e25&uTem=f202e0af-acd1-811e-c729-fe20926daeec&currentpage=6 Checked on 15.05.2014
http://www.vinum.info/_data/pdf/Deutscher_Rotweinpreis_2013_Gewinnerliste.pdf Checked on 15.05.2014

Image : Wikimedia Commons

Manuela Thoma studied history, comparative literature, and German literature at the University of Tübingen. She is particularly interested in post-medieval European history and is currently writing her doctoral thesis in Tübingen and Oslo. Manuela is a passionate cook and a lover of wine and whiskey. She works part-time in a traditional wine store and accompanies her boss to renowned wine fairs all over Germany.


Stephenstown House & The Fall of the Great Irish Estates

In Allgemein by Francesca / 28. Mai 2014 / 0 Comments

by Steve Downes

Stephenstown House in mid county Louth today stands as a majestic shell of what was once one of Ireland’s many fine 18th century mansions. It is emblematic of the slow decline of these structures which in Ireland simultaneously (and sometimes contradictorily) represented the Anglo-Irish landed gentry, British oppression, employment and opportunity for the lower classes and social focal points for the creation of village/rural communities. Stephenstown House was all of these things, depending on where you viewed it from in history and society, more importantly it, and other great estates like it, formed an indelible part of our shared cultural experience in Ireland.

The politics of Independence has long been blamed for the decline and, in many cases, the destruction of the great Irish Estate House. However despite the cataclysm of the War of Independence and the Civil War in the 1920’s many of the landed estates of Ireland, with their splendid Georgian piles of brick and stone struggled on for decades, some continuing to be in family ownership into the 1980’s and 1990’s.

It was largely Acts of the consecutive Irish Governments that caused the abandonment of many of Ireland’s big houses. Immediately after Independence much of the vast farmland that supported the creation of these houses was divided up among tenant farmers. Death duties and other hefty taxes forced families to sell the remaining estates, including the houses, and dozens of notable Anglo-Irish family names disappeared across the channel and settled permanently on their British domains.
One of the most barbaric attacks on Irish Heritage by government was the so-called ‘Roof Tax’ which, from the late 1950’s, led farmers to remove the roofs off many historic building on their land to avoid paying such taxes. This Act alone caused the destruction of thousands of historic sites in Ireland.

Stephenstown House was built in 1785 by Matthew Fortescue for his new bride Marian McClintock; it is set in expansive gardens, with a mill, ponds, coach and farm buildings. It had a medieval Motte and a small 15th century castle (also called Stephenstown) which was the original Anglo-Norman structure on the site to control trade along the nearby Glyde river (these were both used as garden features).
The Great House itself is a square Georgian building of two storeys over a basement five bays long and five bays deep. It was extended in 1820 by the addition of two wings of one storey over a basement. One of these wings was demolished later in the 19th century. Sometime in the earlier part of the 19th century the windows were given Tudor-Revival hood mouldings but later the house was refaced with cement and the hood mouldings replaced by Classical pediments and entablatures.
Stephenstown House remained in the Fortescue family until recently. During its lifetime as a working estate it saw the Golden Age of Irish Georgian society, with its grand balls and rich excesses; it would survive the upheaval of the Land Wars, the Home Rule Movement, the First World War and the chaos that accompanied Ireland’s struggle for Independence.
After the death of Mrs Pyke-Fortescue in 1966, Stephenstown was inherited by her nephew Major Digby Hamilton who sold it in 1974. It was let fall into ruin in the 1980’s, when the roof collapsed.

Even as a ruin Stephenstown is an impressive reminder of one of Ireland’s greatest architectural Ages. Its windowless façade still dominates the local landscape and its influence over the nearby village of Knockbridge (rebuilt to serve the needs of the Great House) is still echoed today in local folklore and place names.
Through the 1970’s and 80’s Stephenstown was stripped of anything valuable, sometimes illegally. As its classical interior disintegrated, explorers into the House found that it comprised not of one household but actually two. Concealed beneath the rich wood veneer of high society was the basement and backstairs’ world of Stephentown’s many servants, who lived and worked for decades behind the scenes.

Something could still be salvaged of these forgotten great Irish Houses, their history is not separated from Irish history, they are an endemic part of a collective Irish Culture and it is my hope that their preservation in one form or another will see them passed onto the next generation of history lovers.

Steve Downes, M.A.,
Co-founder Hidden History Ireland

Picture : Ian Russell, Hidden History Ireland. Front of house with 1880s photo overlay.

Pro Wein 2014 – International Trade Fair in Düsseldorf

In Allgemein by Francesca / 21. Mai 2014 / 0 Comments

by Manuela Thoma

„Pro Wein“ is one of the leading international trade fairs for wines and spirits and takes place every year in March since 1994 – just in time to taste the new vintages – in Düsseldorf.
According to leading journals “Pro Wein” is considered as the most important international wine fair. It is aimed specifically at a professional audience from gastronomy and traiding. It gives winemakers from around the world the opportunity to present themselves and their wines to the international visitors. In addition, retailers have the opportunity to taste the quality of new vintages and get the chance to compare wine on a large scale.
In the year of its 20th anniversary, the “Pro Wein” took place from 23. to 25. of March 2014. It offered 4830 exhibitors from 47 countries and approximately 48,000 visitors in 7 halls space to present and inform themselves, and transformed the entire city of Düsseldorf in the „international capital “ for wines and spirits.
In addition to individual booths, the central “tasting zone” offered both a supporting program with a variety of awards and honors, and numerous high-profile wine seminars and events around wine and spirits. Especially the “ Champagne Lounge“ with over 60 types of champagne enjoyed great popularity among the visitors.
The German vintage of 2013, which due to the weather and crop conditions is regarded as difficult, convinced with a variety of fresh, fruity, light and tangy white wines.
Of particular importance was the host country Japan this year, which in numerous booths and events could present and convey the diversity of its local specialty “Sake”. At the same time, Japan also presented itself as one of the many newcomers in the international wine business (among others: Israel, Georgia, England and Lebanon) with two young wineries who presented their white wine from the traditional Koshu grapes for the first time in Düsseldorf.
Sustainability and ecological viticulture are obvious measures to produce strong character wines today. International organic organizations and well-known organic winegrowers presented their convincing results at the “Pro Wine” and showed that organic is also all the rage.
Next year’s “Pro Wein” wine will take place from 15 to 17 of March 2015 in Düsseldorf.

About Manuela Thoma : As an employee of the prestigious Tübingen specialty shop for wine, fine food and spirits „Vinum Tübingen“ our wine consultant worked at the “Pro Wein” at the booth of the well known trader „Weinmarkt Mattheis”, and had the opportunity to learn about the new vintages and trends.



Sources for this article:

http://www.prowein.de/cipp/md_prowein/custom/pub/content,oid,22258/lang,1/ticket,g_u_e_s_t/~/ProWein_2014_Beste_Stimmung_zum_Jubil%C3%A4um.html Eingesehen am 6.5.2014

http://www.theshout.com.au/2013/03/28/article/ProWein-2013-attracts-record-attendance/QGNOBQVNCF.html Eingesehen am 6.5.2014

http://www.just-drinks.com/comment/comment-prowein-tips-the-balance_id109943.aspx Eingesehen am 6.5.2014

http://www.harpers.co.uk/news/prowein-visitors-up-7-to-48000/355888.article?utm_source=RSS_Feed&utm_medium=RSS&utm_campaign=rss Eingesehen am 6.5.2014

http://www.harpers.co.uk/news/michael-degen-of-messe-dsseldorf-on-what-makes-prowein-so-relevant-for-global-wine-trade/355836.article?redirCanon=1 Eingesehen am 6.5.2014

http://www.deutscheweine.de/icc/Internet-DE/nav/eb8/eb8708fd-e785-7401-be59-267b48205846&uCon=f8a30448-8be8-b341-0d57-29c044755dbd&uTem=d5304ee7-4f03-d212-517b-6624c41ed8b2&currentpage=1 Eingesehen am 6.5.2014