Blue notes

I ENJOY ENTERING HOUSES in which famous characters once lived. It gives me a thrill to think that I am entering rooms where, for example Samuel Johnson or Benjamin Franklin, once lived and worked. But, how does one know where these personalities once resided? In London, that is quite easy because the homes and places where famous historical characters lingered are marked with blue (usually) plaques recording their occupation of these buildings. In other parts of the world, signing is often attached to the places which were occupied by well-known or, sometimes once famous, men and women.

BLUE BLOG

In London, many of these plaques which are circular with white writing on a blue background. They are known as “blue plaques”.  According to that font of all knowledge, Wikipedia, the first blue plaque scheme was started by the Society of Arts in 1867. The first of these was installed in 1867 (on a house which has since been demolished). It commemorated the birthplace of Lord Byron. Another early one (in King Street, London SW1) commemorates Napoleon III, who “lived here, 1848”. He lived there from February 1847 until September the following year. It is one of, if not the only, blue plaque to be put up whilst the person named on it was still alive.

We are fortunate to live in a part of London rich in blue plaques and similarly purposed plaques of different colours. Kensington was favoured by the rich and famous (in all fields of activity) and remains so. The names on the plaques differ, and that is not surprising, but so do the words describing the nature of the person’s occupancy of the marked buildings. A small plaque in Sheffield Terrace in Kensington, records that the author GK Chesterton was “born” in a house on that street but gives no indication of how long he stayed in that place. In contrast, there is a house not far away which records that “Dame Agatha Christie … lived here 1934-41”, a good length of time, accurately recorded. Incidentally, I have enjoyed strolling through the rooms of Greenway, the house overlooking the River Dart, which she used to own and occupied during her holidays.

Much vaguer than Agatha’s is the plaque in Palace Court, which reads “ALICE MEYNELL 1847-1922 POET AND ESSAYIST lived here”, because it gives the passer-by no clue as to how long the building was home to Ms Meynell (actually she was ‘Mrs’ but as a promoter of women’s rights, she would have probably liked the title ‘Ms). Not far from this plaque, there is another one in Portobello Road. It informs someone walking past that “George Orwell … lived here.” Again, we are not made privy to how long the author of “Animal Farm” and “1984” lived on this street, which in normal, virus-free times is flooded with tourists heading for the Portobello Road street market. It would fill me with a sense of well-being to know I was sharing the same roof as someone as illustrious as, in this case, George Orwell (the pen name of Eric Blair). And, no doubt it would impress some of my friends and family. However, if they knew that Orwell had only lived there for one winter in 1927, they might be less awed.

One of my favourite composers of western classical music is the Finnish Jean Sibelius (1865-1957). The first classical LP I ever bought was his Second Symphony. So, I was excited to find a blue plaque with his name in Gloucester Walk in Kensington. It is a “lived here” plaque. However, according to the memorial, he only lived in this lovely part of London in 1909.  A little research reveals that it was only a few weeks in that year. I think the wording “stayed here” would have been more appropriate than the wording on display. There is a brown circular plaque in Kensington Square, which reveals that “WM Thackeray … lived here”. This is an honest record because the novelist did live in the house from 1846 until 1854. Close to Thackeray’s former home, we can find a blue plaque recalling “TS Eliot (1888-1965) … lived and died here.” He lived there from 1957 until his death. This is also an honestly worded plaque.

I have long been interested in Hungary and the Hungarians. I was excited to discover recently that the Hungarian patriot Louis Kossuth (1802-1894; ‘Kossuth Lajos’, to use the correct Hungarian version of his name) had spent time near where I live in Kensington. His blue plaque is on a house in Chepstow Villas, not far from Portobello Road. According to the plaque, he “stayed here”, rather than “lived here”. He stayed there in 1851, whilst on a three-week lecture tour in England, during which he spoke to the English about Hungarian independence and his exile. Of these three weeks, maybe only a few nights were spent at this address in Kensington, or, he and his family, who did spend another seven years in England, might have lived in the house in Chepstow Villas. Possibly, the plaque should be worded “lived here”, rather than “stayed here”.

Number 18 Melbury Road, near Holland Park and the oddly-shaped Design Museum (formerly, the Commonwealth Institute), offers us two blue plaques, one a “lived here” and the other a “stayed here”. The pre-Raphaelite painter William Holman Hunt (1827-1910) “Lived and died here”. The other plaque on the building records that Cetshwayo (c. 1832-1884), King of the Zulus, “stayed here in 1882”. When I first spotted this plaque several years ago, I was intrigued, and wrote a little about it (https://londonadam.travellerspoint.com/41/ ) , which I will repeat here:

“Earlier in 1882, this house, built in 1877, hosted a very important guest, King Cetshwayo (Cetshwayo, ka Mpande, c1832-1884), King of the Zulus. After being defeated by the British in the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, Cetshwayo was held captive in Cape Town. During his exile, he visited London in 1882:

“On his arrival, 18 Melbury Road … was made more appropriate to his needs and those of his chiefs. The beds, for instance, were reduced to floor level. On waking on 5 August, the ex-king ‘made his way through the various rooms of the house, examining them with curiosity’.

Outside, a huge crowd of people had gathered, eager to see Cetshwayo. The Times described how ‘at times the ex-king would appear for a moment at one of the windows, and he was invariably greeted with cheers’. Cetshwayo himself looked upon the throng ‘as a display of friendly feeling towards him’. By the close of his visit, he had become something of a celebrity.

In an interview given while at Melbury Road, Cetshwayo said that he regarded the war as ‘a calamity’. He had made it clear that the purpose of his visit to England was his restoration to the throne, reasoning that his people wanted him and that there would be another war if he didn’t return. Following a meeting with Gladstone and a visit to Queen Victoria at Osborne House, his reinstatement was agreed.”. The British allowed him to return to Zululand in 1883.”

Would the famous artist have met the African king in Melbury Road? I doubt it because Holman Hunt only moved into his final home from 1903 onwards. However, Cetshwayo might have seen or been seen by another artist Colin Hunter (1841-1904), who lived nearby on Melbury Road from 1877 until his death. His home was destroyed by bombing in 1940. Woodsford Court, built on its site, bears a blue plaque, appropriately of the “lived here” variety. By the way, if you are ever near to it, a leisurely stroll along Melbury Road will delight those fascinated by late Victorian domestic architecture.

For my favourite memorial placed on a building to commemorate its occupancy by a notable person, we must transport ourselves to Palermo in Sicily. The island of Sicily is full of plaques celebrating the temporary presence of Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807-1882) in this place or that. This might not be surprising because he did travel a lot around western Sicily while fighting the Bourbons. In a square in Palermo, I spotted a grand marble plaque carved with the words: “In questa illustre casa il 27 Maggio 1860 per sole due ore poso le stanche membra Giuseppe Garibaldi”, which loosely translated means ‘Garibaldi, rested his weary limbs in this illustrious house for only two hours on the 27th of May 1860.” So, it sems that a two-hour stay is enough to bring fame to a building, providing the temporary occupant is worth remembering. I am not sure whether it would be justifiable for one of our local supermarkets used by a former Prime Minister  to put up a plaque with the wording “David Cameron stayed here”, or even “Peter Mandelson shopped here”,  but one can never tell what the future holds.

 

 

Curious ‘cookies’

GARIBALDI

In 1860, Giuseppe Garibaldi commenced his famous invasion of Sicily. This led to the downfall of the House of Bourbon’s rule in Sicily and Naples and, ultimately, to the Unification of Italy.

Many people who live in the UK will be familiar with Garibaldi biscuits (‘cookies’ in US English). They consist of a paste made with currants sandwiched between two layers of thinnish baked biscuit dough. Because of their appearance, they are sometimes called ‘squashed flies’.  Garibaldi biscuits were first made in 1861 by the Peek Frean Company in London and have been popular ever since. Garibaldi, who visited England in 1854, became very popular amongst the British at that time.

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Garibaldi biscuits (from Wikipedia)

In 1910, the Peek Frean Company designed a biscuit that consists of a chocalate flavoured paste placed between two rectangular chocolate flavoured biscuits. This now very popular biscuit was named the ‘Bourbon Biscuit’.

I wonder how many of the millions of Garibaldis and Bourbons are eaten by people, who know the historical significance of their names.

Archimedes and Eureka!

As a young child I was fascinated by the following story, which may be apocryphal. Archimedes (c287-c212 BC), the great Greek physicist, mathematician, engineer, and general genius, is reputed to have made an important discovery whilst taking a bath. He noticed that the level of water in his bath rose as he immersed himself in it. This led to his famous Principle. When he realised the significance of the change in water level, he is said to have leapt out of his bath yelling “Eureka”, which is the Greek for “I have found it.”

ARCHIMEDES

In 1960, my father had to attend a conference at Kyrenia (Girne in Turkish), which is now in Turkish Northern Cyprus. It was then part of one unified country. We, the rest of my family, accompanied him. On our way, we had to change ‘planes in Athens. I remember walking down the steps that led out of the aircraft from London and feeling my face hit by a wave of burning hot air. I thought for a moment that I was feeling the exhaust from the ‘plane’s engines, but soon realised that the air at the airport had a very high ambient temperature.

On our return from Cyprus, we spent a few days in Athens. Our visit happened shortly after I had learnt about Archimedes and his Principle at school. In Athens, we visited numerous ancient Greek and Roman sites, and this put the idea into my head that somewhere amongst these ancient ruins we should be able to locate the famous bath out of which Archimedes leapt. Rather sportingly, my parents hired a taxi and explained to the driver the nature of our quest. He was happy to spend hours driving us around Athens, stopping regularly to enquire about the location of the bath. It was a fruitless quest. During the hours that we spent with our driver, he told us that he was Jewish. When he realised that we were his co-religionists, albeit completely non-practicing, he took us to see a synagogue, which was unmemorable architecturally.

Sadly, after spending time in the taxi, we were not able to exclaim “Eureka.”

Some months after we returned to London, I discovered that Archimedes had lived in Syracuse (Sicily) rather than Athens. If his bath had ever existed and still happened to be in existence, which was highly unlikely after so many centuries had elapsed since his death, it was there that one needed to search for it, rather than in Athens.

 

To read about more of Adam Yamey’s childhood travels, CLICK HERE

 

The lady in blue

What makes for a great work of art? Well, people differ on the answer to this question. Seeing one special painting in the Galleria Regionale della Sicilia in Palermo (Sicily) helped me formulate my answer.

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The painting that literally caught my eye and grabbed my full attention is “The Virgin Annunciate”. It was painted sometime between 1474 and ’77 by the Sicilian artist Antonello da Messina (c. 1430-79). It depicts a woman in a blue veil seated at a small wooden desk on which there is an open book. The fingers of her right hand spread forwards towards the viewer. Her left hand holds her veil closed. She appears to be gazing towards her right.  Simple, really, if described like this, but it is not.

The painting grabbed my attention long before my brain had time to analyse what was reaching my eyes’ retinas. It was an intense visceral attraction to the image that made me stop and look at it carefully, an attraction that few other works of art have had for me.

When I had recovered from the initial pleasurable shock of seeing such beauty, I began to notice its subject matter, and with the help of an explanatory note next to the painting, I learnt some of the artist’s deeper intentions.

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For example, there is a sharp crease in the cloth of the veil  just above the mid-point of the lady’s forehead. This tells the informed viewer that the Virgin is wearing a special treasured, rarely worn, veil that is usually kept neatly folded in a closet or wardrobe. No doubt, art historians would be able to point out many other meaningful details that the artist has depicted. Despite these aspects of symbolic meaning, despite its subject matter and context, this picture is primarily an object of enormous beauty and graciousness that appeals greatly to something in the deep recesses of my subconscious.

For me, a work of art must first seize the seat, the very source of my emotions in a positive way. If it can do that, then whether or not the artist has imbued it with layers of meaning, the work is in my view a great one. Lest you think that it is only the works of long dead masters that fall into my definition of ‘great art’, let me refer to someone who created more recently, Constantin Brâncuși (1856-1957). Some of his sculptures depict birds or humans as simple, almost abstract, forms, almost devoid of detail. These works evoke the same deep sensations of visceral attraction as the painting by Da Messina, yet they could hardly be more different in all respects from that.

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A work by Brancusi [Source: bookdepository.com]

I am unable to formulate why the Da Messina and Brancusi works chime (and even some extremely abstract works such as those by Modriaan or Sean Scully) with my deepest emotional chords, when others, undoubtedly masterful in many ways like the works of Caravaggio and Barbara Hepworth, do not. I suppose this is what folk call ‘taste’. And, tastes differ greatly.

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Sean Scully

For me, a great work of art must first appeal to me emotionally, viscerally if you like, rather than intellectually. If I can only begin to appreciate a work of art after it has been explained, as is the case with much so-called ‘conceptual art’, then, for me, it is not ‘great art’.

They helped Garibaldi to unify Italy

The Arberesh of Sicily are a group of people descended from Albanians, who left the Balkans in the 15th century to escape from the Ottomans.

Palermo, the capital of Sicily, is separated from the rest of the island by a crescent of mountain ranges. After the occupation of Sicily by the Arabs in the 9th century, the Bishop of Palermo moved his seat to Monreale, a small hill town southwest of the city. There, he built a cathedral and then, later, after the Arabs had been expelled, the Normans built a Benedictine monastery. Monreale, which overlooks the metropolis, is now a suburb of Greater Palermo but in mediaeval times it was almost 5 miles away from the old walled city.

Albanian refugees landed along the coast of Sicily during the 15th century while the Ottomans were fighting in Albania, ably resisted for many years by George Kastrioti Skanderbeg (1405-68). Some Albanians landed near Palermo about twenty years after the death of Skanderbeg. In 1488, the Archbishop of Monreale granted them some vacant, disused, plague-ravished land across the mountains about 5 miles south of Monreale. They were told to make the most of it, and they did so very successfully. In exchange for this ‘gift’ of land, the Albanian settlers were required to recompense the Archbishop with taxes raised on what they were able to produce.

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The settlers established a town on the south-east facing slope of Monte Pizzuta. Originally named Piana dei Greci, it is now known as Piana degli Albanese (‘Piana’).  With a present population of about 7,000, most of the people speak an archaic form of Albanian known as Arberesh, as their mother tongue. They are also fluent in Italian and Sicilian.

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Bilingual signs (Italian/Arberesh) in Piana

In 2014, I published a book, “From Albania to Sicily”, which describes the Arberesh communities in Piana and several other villages in western Sicily. In October this year, while staying in Palermo, we re-visited Piana for a day and a night.

The bus from Palermo to Piana winds through the mountains separating Piana from the capital. As we travelled along the sinuous road with its many hairpin bends, I looked at the slopes strewn with greyish boulders and pondered the difficulty of the terrain through which the Albanian settlers had to struggle in an era long before there were decent roads. Then, I remembered the landscape of wild, steep mountain ridges in south western Albania, south of Vlora. Travelling through the wild terrain south of Palermo must have seemed no different to what the settlers had left behind in Albania.

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San Demetrio Megalomartire

On arrival in Piana, I popped into the lovely cathedral of San Demetrio Megalomartire. This church has an iconostasis such as you would expect to find in an Eastern Orthodox church. It is home to worshippers who practise the Byzantine rites. The first inhabitants of Piana, who originated mainly in south-western Albania and the Morea (Peloponnese) were Greek Orthodox Christians. The Archbishop of Monreale allowed them to continue to worship according to the Byzantine rites, but they had to adopt the Pope in Rome, rather than the Patriarch in Constantinople, as their spiritual leader.

In 2016, we visited Himara in Albania. This beautiful seaside resort was one of the places where the Arberesh lived before escaping to Sicily. The old part of the town, high above the coastal resort, is largely abandoned, but it resembles closely the historic centre of Piana. Incidentally, Piana has a street named Via Himara, and, also, a restaurant called Valle Himara.

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One of the reasons for our recent visit to Piana was to present a copy of my book to the town’s excellent library that occupies two storeys above Piana’s centrally located Extra Bar, which is famed for its fine canoli. We were invited to meet Ing. Rosario Petta, the town’s Mayor, who showed great interest in my volume, and even suggested that it ought to be translated into Italian.

During our visit, we met many people who remembered us from our earlier stay in Piana. They greeted us like old friends, an indication that the Arberesh have not abandoned the Albanian traditions of friendship and hospitality. They have also not forgotten other traditions they brought with them from Albania. Although they dress like other Italians for daily activities, no opportunity is lost to change into colourful, decorated traditional Arberesh/Albanian costumes. This is particularly the case at Easter time, when visitors from all over Italy flock to Piana to see great numbers of people wearing this garb.

Eric Hobsbawm remarked that the people of Piana, “… had a reputation for rebelliousness …” He quotes the words of GM Trevelyan who said that Piana “… was the hearth of freedom in Western Sicily.” I wondered why of all the towns in Sicily, Piana was one of the most rebellious. GM Trevelyan puts it down to some kind of inheritance. Maybe, those Albanians, who preferred living freely rather than under the yoke of the Ottomans and also chose to leave their homes in the Balkans in the 15th century, were perhaps endowed with something, maybe even genetic, which engendered in them a love of freedom and equality. Who can say?

The Arberesh in Piana played an important role in assisting Garibaldi in his invasion of Sicily in 1860, the beginning of a series of events that led to the Unification of Italy. When GM Trevelyan visited the town sometime before 1912, he met leading citizens of the town, “… in their circolo, where a very intelligent and just pride is taken in the history of the revolution of 1860 and the highly creditable part played in it by the ‘Albanians’ of Piana.” Garibaldi, who began his campaign to liberate and unify the Italians in Sicily, proclaimed to the Sicilian Arberesh who fought with him that: “Avete combattuto come leoni” (i.e.: they had fought like lions).

During our recent visit to the library in Piana, we met a group of highly educated librarians, who showed great interest in my book. When we began discussing Garibaldi in Sicily, they, like several people we met in Palermo, displayed unfavourable sentiments about the Unifier of Italy. They all felt that the liberation of Sicily and its incorporation into Greater Italy was a bad thing for the island. What had once been a prosperous part of the Italian lands became impoverished whilst the previously impoverished north of Italy became increasingly wealthier. Many of the people we met in Piana and Palermo suggested that the liberator Garibaldi, a northern Italian, had not only liberated Sicily from the Bourbons, but had also ‘liberated’ much of Sicily’s wealth including the contents of the vaults of the island’s banks. I have yet to check the veracity of these surprising slurs on Garibaldi’s reputation.

Returning to Piana, this delightful little hillside town is an attractive, peaceful place to stay. There is accommodation in the town and in the countryside around it. You can explore the old town with its steep streets as well as the interesting Nicola Barbato Museum, the lake, and several old churches. Energetic visitors can enjoy breathing fresh mountain air on the slopes of Mount Pizzuta and other nearby peaks. If you speak Albanian (or Italian), you will have no difficulty communicating with the hospitable Arberesh. Although the Arberesh language differs from Albanian, Albanian-speakers can easily converse with the Arberesh. If, however, you are hungry for Balkan food, Piana will disappoint.

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Various restaurants in Piana, including the first-rate Antica Trattoria San Giovanni, serve wonderful Sicilian fare. Signor Salemi, who established the Antica Trattoria, was a child in May 1947. He was present at a large public political gathering on the 1st of May at Portella della Ginestra (close to Piana), when members of a gang of bandits led by the bandit Salvatore Giuliano opened fire on the unarmed people, massacring about 12 folk including children as young as he was and a baby. But, that is a tragic story that I will save for another time.

Wherever you go in Piana, you will see the Albanian double-headed eagle and Albanian flags. Road direction signs and other public notices are frequently bilingual: Arberesh and Italian.  In the Cathedral, I noticed a huge poster recording the 550th anniversary of the death of the original settlers’ compatriot, Skanderbeg. The people of Piana retain their ancestral homeland, Albania, close to their hearts.

book cov

LEARN MORE ABOUT THE ARBERESH BY READING
FROM ALBANIA TO SICILY

by Adam Yamey.

Available on Amazon and bookdepository.com

Arab or Norman, Hindu or Muslim…

The Normans took over Sicily from its Arab rulers. The early mediaeval church architecture adopted by the Norman builders shows the influence of Arab design.

In Gujarat (India), the Muslim invaders began building mosques in the style of local Hindu temples, just as the Normans built in the way that they found when they arrived in Sicily.

Island of history

The timeless Mediterranean washes the shores of an ancient land, Sicily.

Here in Cefalu, the Normans built a magnificent cathedral after taking over the island from its Arab rulers.

Sicily has been invaded many times, each invasion adding to the variety of culture and traditions on this piece of land that separates the western part of the Mediterranean from the eastern part.

Nothing changes

Palermo

It is 2018, and I am eating ice cream in Italy after the ladies in my family have just visited a shop selling brassieres.

60 years earlier, aged 6, I was doing the same thing. We used to visit Florence annually during my childhood. Every year, my mother used to buy her bras in Florence at a shop close to an excellent ice cream shop called “Perché no?” (IE Why not?). After every visit to the bra store, I was rewarded with an ice cream.

Now, here in Palermo, the same thing has happened six decades later?

Nothing changes.