St John’s finger

finger

It might have been in the Bargello, or more likely in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, both in Florence (Italy), that there was (and probably still is) an exhibit that captured my imagination when I was a young child. Amongst a collection of holy relics housed in elaborately crafted silver and glass containers, there was one holy relic that looked a bit like the stub of a discoloured cigar. It was, so the museum label stated, a bone from the index finger of St John the Baptist. Whether it was or was not, this item fascinated me, and even haunted me.

Many years later when I was looking into the story of St Appolonia, the patron saint of dentists, I read that one of the miraculous properties of the body parts of dead saints is their ability to reproduce themselves – a feature that must have been useful for those who used to sell such things. I am glad that I had not known this when I used to stare fascinated at St John’s finger, which I then believed to be exactly what it claimed. That would have spoilt my amazement, which I always felt when I saw that piece of bone in its ornate container.

 

Photo from flickr

An American in a gondola

When I was young, before I was about 17, I used to visit Venice annually with my parents. We used to stay in a pensione called ‘La Calcina’. As breakfast and one meal were included in the room price, we used to take lunch in the dining room of La Calcina. Every year, we sat with other regular visitors, whom we got to know gradually. One of them was a somewhat silent American gentleman…

 

On the Canale Grande_500

 

The Calcina’s neighbour, the Pensione Il Seguso, was located on a corner where a narrow side canal met the wide Giudecca Canal. One morning, we were waiting outside the Calcina, trying to decide what to do. It was a bit later than usual, which is possibly the reason that we spotted something we had never seen before. A gondola with green upholstery and other identically coloured cloth drapes appeared from along the side canal and drew to a standstill at the corner near where we were standing. The gondolier was dressed in a livery the same colour as the upholstery and the drapes. After a short delay, the American, who used to sit silently with us at lunch, left the main entrance of the Calcina and boarded the gondola. The gondolier set his vessel in motion. His American passenger sat reading his newspaper whilst he was rowed across the Giudecca Canal. We watched them disappearing along a canal that passed through the Giudecca Island towards the wide open lagoon beyond the island. Naturally, our curiosity was aroused.

That lunch time, the American sat down in his usual place. My mother could no longer contain herself. She asked the American about what we had witnessed that morning. He explained that the gondolier was the grandson of his late mother’s personal gondolier. Whenever he visited Venice, he would hire this same grandson for the duration of his visit. Every morning, he was picked up just as we had observed, and was rowed out into the midst of the lagoon. When they arrived there, he and his gondolier exchanged roles. The American had mastered the art of rowing a gondola, and took his daily exercise by ‘gondoling’ around the lagoon for an hour or so.

The American introduced himself. My father, a knowledgable amateur historian of art, was most excited to discover that our American lunch time companion was William Milliken, a former Director of the Cleveland Museum of Art in Cleveland, Ohio, and a famous historian of mediaeval art.

Later Miss Steiner, a humourless late middle-aged Austrian who managed the Pensione Calcina, told us that Mr Milliken stayed at the Calcina every year during the month in which his mother had died. He stayed in the room that she used to occupy during her visits to the Calcina. Whilst he stayed there, Miss Steiner informed us, the room was always filled with his mother’s favourite flowers, and furnished with the very same furniture that she used to use whilst she was a guest at the pensione.

 

Mr Milliken died in 1978, at least ten years after I last met him. About twenty years later, I bought a second-hand copy of his book, “Unfamiliar Venice”. This wonderfully illustrated and almost poetically written book, which was published in 1967, describes the magic of Venice beautifully, but makes no mention at all of any of the things we learnt about our solitary American neighbour in the dining room of the Pensione Calcina.

 

 

Art gallery

Bangalore in south India is not blessed with many tourist attractions. I will describe one of them, which gives me great pleasure.

Almost 10 years ago, a branch of the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) opened in Bangalore. Even if you have little interest in modern art this place is worth seeing. Part of the collection, which changes regularly, is housed in the former Manikyavelu Palace, a 19th century edifice which has been superbly restored.

The palace is linked to an elegantly simple contemporary building in which some of the permanent collection is displayed. The collection includes works mainly by Indian artists but there are also a few by European artists. Most of the artworks were created in the 20th and 21st centuries. There is a good selection of paintings by Bengali artists.

The new building also houses well curated temporary exhibitions. Currently, there is a wonderful exhibition of paintings and drawings by the artist Khanderao, who was born in Gulbarga. His early works were beautifully executed topographical scenes. He is also a superp portraitist. Like other great modern artists, for example Picasso, Khanderao has moved into abstraction, which he deals with beautifully.

A water feature separates the palace and its modern extension from another contemporary complex. This includes an auditorium, a library, a café, and a gallery shop.

The verdant gardens of the NGMA contain several modern sculptures.

The NGMA is, in my opinion, one of the loveliest attractions that Bangalore offers visitors and residents alike.

Summers in Florence

I hope that this piece will not sound ungrateful, dear reader.

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When I was a child and in my early teens, my parents, who were art-lovers, took my sister and I to Florence every summer. As a child, I failed to appreciate what a treat these visits were. At the end of the summer when school recommenced, my friend N and I would compare notes about our holidays. N visited Llandudno in North Wales every summer with his parents. He would relate how they had climbed the Great Orme, travelled on a special tramway, and stayed at a marvellous hotel overlooking the sea. What was I able to tell N? Well, nothing that I believed would rival the exciting things that N had experienced. What, for example, was the Uffizi art gallery in Florence when compared with the Great Orme in Llandudno? I mention the Uffizi in particular, because our annual visits to this treasure house of art filled me with despair. I wrote of this place in my book “Charlie Chaplin Waved to Me” (available from Amazon and Bookdepository.com) as follows:

The aforementioned Uffizi was another of the places that we often visited in the morning. I used to dread having to walk through its seemingly endless series of inter-connected galleries filled with masterpieces. The only thing that sustained me during this ordeal was the promise of an ice-cream afterwards or the promise of the opportunity to buy a paper cone filled with corn to feed the pigeons in the Piazza Signoria outside the gallery.

One of the first pictures that we always used to stop and admire was the Portinari Triptych painted by the Flemish painter Hugo Van der Goes in about 1475. That was during the time when the Florentine merchant Portinari, who commissioned it, was living in Bruges in the building which became the hotel in which we often stayed. My father, who is fascinated by the iconography of Renaissance art, explained to us the meanings of everything in this beautiful picture. My very young sister absorbed this information so well that year after year she could explain to us, and also to other tourists, who gathered around to listen to her, the reasons that particular things were depicted in it. For example, she could relate why there were a certain number of lilies in the vase near the bottom of the central picture; and why there was a barely visible devil’s horn at its top left, just above the horn of a cow grazing in the holy manger. This horn only became apparent after the picture was cleaned in the early 1960s.

The museums and my late mother’s seemingly endless visits to the dress-maker and countless shoe shops added to my lack of enjoyment of Florence. However, it was not all gloom and doom. The food we ate was lovely and there were some cultural sights which I enjoyed. And, Florence did hold some mysteries, one of which was solved between two successive annual visits. Let me quote from my book again:

The River Arno flows through Florence. It is traversed by a number of bridges, the most famous of which is the Ponte Vecchio. This is covered, like the mediaeval London Bridge used to be, with buildings and shops. The most interesting feature of this old bridge was the‘secret’ corridor that ran along its buildings just beneath their roofs. This, so my father often told us, linked the Uffizi on one side of the Arno with the Palazzo Pitti on the other side, the Oltrarno. Thispassageway, which must be about almost half a mile in length, allowed Florence’s rulers to move between these important buildingsunobserved by the public. It was closed to the public when we used to visit the city.

When the Germans retreated at the end of WW2, they demolished all of the bridges across the Arno except the Ponte Vecchio. They decided that as its carriage way was far too narrow to accommodate military vehicles and large troop movements, it could not have been used by the Allied armies chasing them. My father said it was a tragedy that this bridge was saved whereas its neighbour a few yards downstream was demolished. This bridge, the Ponte Santa Trìnita, was a masterpiece designed by the renaissance artist Bartolomeo Ammanati (1511-1592). His Fountain of Neptune is an important and much photographed landmark in the centre of Florence.

When we first visited Florence, the bridge, which was painstakingly reconstructed after the war from the fragments found scattered about under the waters of the Arno, had two statues at each of its ends. Three of these were complete, but one of them was missing its head. This was the only bit of the bridge that had not been recovered. One summer, when we were visiting the city, my father pointed at the bridge and asked us if we noticed anything different about it. We discovered that the missing head had been found, and was back in its rightful place; the bridge was complete again. This must have been in 1962, as the head was only recovered late in 1961.

Most people reading this blog article, will probably think that I was so lucky to have visited Florence so often, and they would be justified. However, to a young boy as I was, I could not appreciate it properly. Now, many years later, I realise that my exposure to the arts at such a tender age was a great gift bestowed by my parents, even if it meant that I never saw the Great Orme.

Huberta the hippo

 

We visited South Africa in 2003. Wherever we parked, young men offered to ‘look after’ our hired car for a small fee. It was NOT a good idea to turn down their offers!

My great-grandfather, Franz Ginsberg, began industrial enterprises in King Williams Town in the late 19th century.

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Once part of my great-grandfather’s factory in King Williams Town

We drove the short distance to the Amathole Museum (formerly called the ‘Kaffrarian’) in King Williams Town. Our car-minder was David, a friendly young man, who appeared to live in a derelict car parked near the museum…

We returned to the museum on the next day. We received a friendly greeting from David, our car minder from the day before.  He offered to wash our car whilst we were away. As it needed this, we agreed. We met the curator again. She had prepared a vast number of photocopies for me. I returned the photograph album, we chatted briefly, and bid farewell.

We had a quick look around the large museum. One exhibit in the Industry Section was a poster exhorting people not to buy imported matches but instead to buy locally made matches, that is matches made by Ginsberg & Co (my great-grandfather’s company). Near this is a picture of another large enterprise, King Tanning.

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My great-grandfather’s home in King williams Town

The museum has an enormous collection of stuffed animals.  The curator said that this collection was better than the Kruger National Park, and that the animals were easier to see, as they don’t move around! The best known of these animals is Huberta, the Hippo. This creature, in the 1920s, wandered many 100’s of miles south from its tropical habitat in the north of the country and passed through King Williams Town. Near Port Elizabeth, an ignorant farmer ended her life by shooting. The body of Huberta was sent to London for taxidermy before returning to South Africa to its present home.

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David, the car-minder, and his friends

After about an hour we left the museum. David and some of his friends had just started to clean our car. We watched them perform this procedure painfully slowly. Eventually, it was sort of done. To some extent it was a bit cleaner that before! We said good-bye and David asked to visit him again. He asked us to bring him a shirt and a pair of shoes on our next visit to King Williams Town.

She found a strange object…

Barkly East (Barkly Oos in Afrikaans), South Africa 2003:

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The museum curator met us. She gave me a list of the eleven Jews who had been buried in Barkly East’s cemetery. She told us that although Edelsteins was a smaller store, that it acted as a rival to Seligmann’s store. Mrs. Van Wyk related that the last Jewish family to live in Barkly East was the Bortz family. Lazer Bortz had come out of Russia to South Africa with his sister (? Or wife) and both had been employees of Seligmann’s before Lazer set up his own business, as a fuel (i.e. oil and coal) supplier. The business still exists, with new owners, under its original name of “L. Bortz” but the family has long left the town. They went to Bloemfontein. Lazer had a son. The curator used to teach him when he still lived in the town. She then asked for our assistance.

Long after the Bortz family had left Barkly East she noticed something attached their house – she prized it off the wall in order to keep it safe from vandals. She did not know what it was.

It was a mezuzah*, complete with its prayer scroll.

[ * These are always mounted on the right hand side of entrance doors in traditional Jewish homes]