The Ulster Museum: From Irish Elk to Spanish Treasure

I love visiting local museums and the Ulster Museum in Belfast is a great example of the genre. I mean no disparagement by calling it ‘local’; because, what it does, brilliantly, is give visitors an excellent overview of Northern Ireland’s history, together with many fascinating objects which illuminate that.

And it starts with a terrific exhibit – that of the long extinct Irish elk.

An Irish elk excavated from a bog – just look at those magnificent huge antlers

Continue reading The Ulster Museum: From Irish Elk to Spanish Treasure

Please share this page...

FacebooktwitterredditpinteresttumblrmailFacebooktwitterredditpinteresttumblrmail

Top Quality Roman Glass – in Germania Inferior

When I went on a ‘Roman Germany’ holiday a few years ago, the last thing I was expecting to see was superb Roman glass that had actually been made there. I knew that, during the Roman Empire, Rome had occupied parts of Germany to the east of the Rhine for several hundred years but I’d imagined a rough Frontier existence with evidence of Roman forts, siege warfare, and Roman armour – not sophisticated, top-quality glass!

Xanten – a reconstructed Roman fort in Germany; purely military – no fancy glass here, surely.

I was wrong. Cologne, for example, had started life as Oppidum Ubiorum, one of the Roman fortresses set up by the Emperor Augustus in about 10 B.C. It became part of ‘Germania Inferior’ – that is Lower Germany,  the area nearest to the Rhine Estuary. Oppidum Ubiorum and the surrounding territory of Germania Inferior was not so much ruled by Rome directly, it was more an area within Rome’s influence –  the Roman Empire’s boundaries tended to be fluid rather than rigid. In due course, Augustus extended the Imperial frontier to include Germania Superior (Upper Germany) and, eventually, 40 forts stretched along the Rhine; he planned to use them as stepping stones to extend the Roman Empire eastwards as far as the River Elbe.

One of the remaining Roman towers along the city walls of Colonia Claudia Agrippinensis.  

Fast forward 60 years or so, and Oppidum Ubiorum was given a new name: Colonia Claudia Agrippinensis, after the Emperor Claudius’s wife who was born there – hence the name Cologne, or Köln, which it bears today. I was beginning to see that the Roman presence in Germany was much more intentional that I had thought.

Reconstructed Roman scaffolding at the Roman fort at Xanten. Nothing fancy, but it was efficient

This is how the Roman system worked: the military garrisons occupying the Rhine land comprised about 80,000 men. Reliable links were essential if they were to expand eastward and secure the Frontier against the Germanic tribes to the east; some of whom were friendly but others were definitely not. Roads, bridges, forts etc. all had to be built, secured, garrisoned, fed and maintained; the Romans also needed to forge and nurture alliances with friendly tribes on both sides of the Rhine. In other words, the Romans set out to create an autonomous economic zone in Germania Inferior – the land which they now occupied, and had named – in which everyone, soldiers as well as civilians could thrive – and could be taxed.

Partial reconstruction of the obligatory military temple to Jupiter, Juno and Minerva at Xanten 

The Emperor, and those who governed Germania Inferior, were also anxious to promote the Roman way of life: the military garrisons needed pottery, for example, leather goods, wool and linen for clothes and furnishings, carpenters, wheelwrights, builders, stonemasons and so on. Every garrison town had a temple to Jupiter, Juno and Minerva; a Mithraeum, and other communal buildings, like baths. Somebody had to oversee all that building.

Roman glass bowls from the Roman fort at Saalberg; officers could expect the best.

Then there were the veterans, soldiers who had served their 40 years’ service and been granted money and land. They wanted to settle, in comfort, near their old legions – and, of course, Rome could call upon them, if she suddenly needed any military back-up. Roman urban prosperity would mean that the amenities the Romans were used to: comfortable homes with central heating, water on tap, a proper sewerage system, public baths, places to eat out or have a drink, not to mention shops, were not just desirable but necessities if Cologne were to thrive. Merchants, too, came to settle in Cologne: the roads were there; the river provided transport; and, in AD 310, the Emperor Constantine the Great built a bridge over the Rhine.

Roman glass ewer, I love the trailing swirls of colour: white, blue and gold.

Cologne gradually became a city which expected luxury. Cologne’s fine white clay encouraged top quality pottery; and around 100 A.D. the almost pure quartzite found nearby began to be mined for the production of glass.

These wonderful glass fish are in the Römisch-Germanisches Museum in Cologne. I just love their quirkiness, not to mention the skill with which they were made. 

As I said at the beginning of my post, Roman glass-making came as a complete surprize to me. Most of the glass objects in the museum were found in Roman or Frankish graves; and it was obvious that the delicate glass objects must have been both costly and highly valued.

The Cologne glassmakers specialized in ‘cage cups’ where a decorated glass cup nestled inside an intricate cage of glass.

The cup pictured above is being held upright by a modern metal holder. Heaven knows how it stood up originally.

Glass birds

These were the first glass objects I saw in the Museum. I couldn’t make out how they stood up without rolling over – perhaps the bases are flattened slightly.  Nor do I know what they are for. But they are plainly things of beauty and they came in different colours, (most people like to collect things in sets).

Glass slippers – shades of Cinderella?

For me, the glass objects that are obviously just decorative – like the glass slippers above, or the glass birds, or the fishes, are the most poignant. We know that they were grave goods that their owners obviously treasured and wanted to take them with them to the Afterlife, and I’m sure that all those beautifully created little glass masterpieces have stories to tell.

What I love about travelling is that you never know what you are going to find; the important thing is to keep an open mind.

All photographs by Elizabeth Hawksley ©

Elizabeth travelled with Andante Travels

© Elizabeth Hawksley

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Please share this page...

FacebooktwitterredditpinteresttumblrmailFacebooktwitterredditpinteresttumblrmail

Paris and its Merry-go-Rounds

To begin at the beginning: the definition of ‘merry-go-round. When I was a child we called them roundabouts: those colourful rotating machines with pairs of brightly-coloured horses you sat on which went round and round and up and down whilst you held on to the pole which went from the roof, through the horse’s withers, and was screwed into the floor.

This Parisian roundabout gives its customers the choice of riding in a 19th century submarine or on a traditional white horse, or in a 19th century space rocket or sitting in a revolving teacup!

Continue reading Paris and its Merry-go-Rounds

Please share this page...

FacebooktwitterredditpinteresttumblrmailFacebooktwitterredditpinteresttumblrmail

The Natural World: Meeting New Flowers

In 2008, I decided that I would take my holidays in countries that were once part of the Roman Empire: I’d been fascinated by the Roman Empire ever since I read Rosemary Sutcliff’s novels which were set during that period. As a child, I’d written two novels set during Roman times: A Circle of Stones based on Caesar’s Gallic Wars which I studied for Latin ‘O’ Level, and In Days of Old set in Rome itself.

Sicily: scarlet pimpernel and toadflax.

Continue reading The Natural World: Meeting New Flowers

Please share this page...

FacebooktwitterredditpinteresttumblrmailFacebooktwitterredditpinteresttumblrmail

A Visit to Cyprus

Cyprus sits in the north east corner of the Mediterranean and almost every country in that neck of the woods has at one time or other invaded it. And today I’m re-visiting it; it is a country with much to offer.

I love the fact that, in Cyprus, scarlet pimpernels are royal blue

Continue reading A Visit to Cyprus

Please share this page...

FacebooktwitterredditpinteresttumblrmailFacebooktwitterredditpinteresttumblrmail

The Magical Mount Stewart Gardens

Today is Valentine’s Day and I want to celebrate it by taking you to what has been voted one of the world’s top ten gardens: Mount Stewart Gardens in Co. Down, Northern Ireland. It was created by Edith, Marchioness of Londonderry from 1921 on as a place to ‘be lived in and enjoyed’.

A garden needs a lot of upkeep as represented here by the full wheelbarrow. Lady Londonderry loved splashes of colour – the more brilliant the better.

Continue reading The Magical Mount Stewart Gardens

Please share this page...

FacebooktwitterredditpinteresttumblrmailFacebooktwitterredditpinteresttumblrmail

Albania: Art for Heroes?

Socialist Realism Art (promoted by the Stalinist Communist leader, Enver Hoxha until his death in 1992) is not to everyone’s taste but it does give a fascinating insight into what was going on in Albania, or perhaps more accurately, how Hoxha’s Communist Party wanted and, perhaps, needed Albanians to see themselves.

Dealing with a blockage.

Above, we can see that fiery sparks are shooting out of a malfunctioning machine on the right;  a man is struggling to unblock it. The vivid orange safety clothing and the worksite’s obvious heat makes the place look like an inferno. It must be incredibly dangerous work; the Communist Party’s national story has it that these men are Albanian Communist Party heroes.

*

However, let’s start at the beginning. 19th century Albania was part of a weakening Ottoman Empire ruled with a rod of iron by the Turks, and, not unnaturally, the Albanians wanted their independence. There were a number of fierce uprisings, and Albania finally gained its independence in 1912 – but the timing was unfortunate and there was little opportunity to plan for the future. The Balkans erupted into war in 1914, which rapidly engulfed Europe and then much of Asia. Albania found itself struggling against its neighbours, all of whom had their own interests in mind with regard to Albania’s future. However, a small Albanian state was eventually recognized by the post war peace talks and the newly-independent country was led by Ahmed Zog, first, as President and then self-promoted to King from 1928-39.

In 1939, World War II broke out and Italian troops of the fascist Mussolini, who had been eyeing up Albania for some time, invaded.

Attacking the enemy with a cannon, 18th October, 1944 by Petro Kokushta (1979). Note the young man on the right picking up the next shell to be loaded. 

The painting above depicts the Albanian Communist Partisans’ attack on a treacherous Albanian ‘Nationalist’ Assembly which was hosting a meeting with German Nazis on 18th October 1944. The partisans suspected – probably rightly – that Albania was in imminent danger of being swallowed up by Nazi Germany.

A section of the 3rd Partisan Brigade has dragged a cannon up onto the hills above Tirana, and the cannon is firing down on the Victor Emmanuel III Palace seen amid the smoke in the background where the meeting is taking place.

*

During the Second World War the Albanians found themselves fighting on two fronts: against the fascist Italians on the one hand, and the Nazi Germans on the other. When the Albanian Communist Party was founded in 1941, it looked to the Soviet Union for help. But Albania was only finally liberated in November 1944 when Enver Hoxha (pronounced Hod-ja) came to power and set up a Stalinist Communist regime.

Vilson Kilica’s painting below shows Hoxha returning from his crucial meeting with the other Communist countries, having secured a peaceful settlement from his Communist neighbours. He is greeted as a hero.

Declaration of the Republic in Tirana, 1944 by Vilson Kilica, (1982-3)

Enver Hoxha, wearing a long grey overcoat, salutes the crowd. A bride has come out with her new husband to welcome him; a small girl, holding white flowers, is, one suspects, about to cast them at Hoxha’s feet. The banner on the right reads ‘Glory to the Party of Labour – Albania’. A respectable working woman, spreads her arms in reverence. The painting depicts Hoxha as the people’s Saviour. It could almost be a modern Jesus entering Jerusalem in triumph.

However, we note that it is an historical painting from 1982-3 depicting an event which happened nearly forty years earlier. We are allowed to ask: was it really like that?

Hoxha’s rule was a brutal mixture of back-breaking labour; massive industrial development; and the systematic crushing of opposition. He depended on the financial help of a number of communist allies: Tito’s Yugoslavia until 1948; Stalin and Khrushchev’s Soviet Union until 1961, and Mao’s China until 1975. Albania then found itself isolated and Hoxha instituted a new slogan ‘self-reliance’, and Albania withdrew into a disastrous isolation.

Students were co-opted as ‘Aktionists’ doing ‘voluntary’ labour for the glorification of the Communist Party. A painting by Rafael Dembo shows a line of young people setting off to work – the girls carrying pick-axes over their shoulders, young men with spades.

When I went to Albania in 2015, we travelled mainly by coach. One day, our Albanian guide stopped the coach; he wanted us to see a railway line, almost overgrown under weeds and grass. We all got out. ‘I helped to build that line,’ he said, flatly. ‘We had to. It was our ‘voluntary labour’. They never gave us enough to eat.’  He went on to tell us that they built it by hand, with only picks and shovels. His deliberately matter of fact tone, spoke volumes.

With no more foreign investment coming in after 1975, the country’s infrastructure rapidly fell apart. After Hoxha’s death in 1992, the communist party staggered on for a few years and then more or less imploded when the population turned against anything which symbolized Hoxha’s rule and destroyed it. The paintings gathered dust in forgotten galleries.

Albania adopted western-style capitalism and the huge task of reconstruction began.

Raising Pylons. 

Now the paintings are back on show, and we can see what the Communist Party of Albania was trying to promote.

For the very first time, the people of Albania will have the blessings of electricity to heat and light their homes, is the message here. Back in England in the 1930s, the poet Stephen Spender also found the bringing of electricity to rural England excitingly modern and liberating. He compared pylons to ‘nude giant girls striding the landscape‘. I’m not sure that Hoxja would have approved.

However, one thing that Hoxha must be given credit for is giving women the vote and allowing them to train for and take professional jobs. The young woman in the Raising Pylons picture is holding what looks like plans for the site behind her. The man accepts her authority. In the 19th century, Albanian women were probably the least liberated in Europe; they had no rights whatsoever, and they did most of the work. The Socialist Realism pictures include a number of paintings showing women having a professional role in the building of a new world.

I knew, from my reading about the traveller Edith Durham’s adventures in early 20th century Albania, that the Albanians had been heavily oppressed by their Turkish overlords and that the country was still in a state of almost Medieval poverty; farms were worked by hand, with oxen. I have a large World Atlas from 1897 and Albania doesn’t yet exist – it is still part of Turkey. There are no railways, and few marked roads.

When it finally came into existence, Albania was the only European country not to have a standard rail service.  A few narrow gauge lines were built during the First World War to access the mines and for military purposes, but that was it. Goods were carried by horses or mules. Carts were of limited use as proper road surfaces were non-existent and country roads were full of mud in winter and pot-holes in summer. People travelled on foot or on horseback.

It was Hodja, in 1947, who vowed to build a proper rail network.

The Assembler by Petro Kokushka, (1979) ‘The worker at the top of everything and this one is waving a red flag’’

If you look carefully, you can see that the young man standing, legs apart, holding the red flag with the black eagle of Albania aloft, is hundreds of feet up on a massive iron frame – part of a building in the process of being erected. He’s wearing a harness but he has no other safety equipment. None of the workers beneath him are wearing hard hats, for example, and scaffolding seems to be unknown.

This is how Hoxha wanted young Albanian men to see themselves. The worker at the top of everything and this one is waving a red flag’ as the caption has it. And he certainly doesn’t suffer from vertigo. It is young men like this whom the Communist Party of Albania is most proud.

To prepare the land for the construction of Collective and State Farms after the Agricultural Reforms of 1969 would also have needed an enormous amount of hard physical labour – as elsewhere.

‘Vojo Kushi’ by Sali Shijaku, (1969)

There are some vivid pictures of heroes of the revolution. One of the most famous pictures shows a real-life incident during World War II. Vojo Kushi, a young Partisan, found himself, with two other comrades, in a house in Tirana surrounded by Italian fascists. With incredible bravery, they rushed towards the enemy, and Vojo leapt onto an enemy tank and threw a grenade inside it. He was killed, of course, but, through this painting, his name is immortalized.

Note the angle the artist chooses to depict the scene. We, the observers,  crouch on the ground with Vojo Kushi above us. As befits his heroic status, Vojo is bare chested, with bare arms and feet. It packs quite a dramatic punch.

Zef Shoshi ‘The Turner’ (1969)

My final picture is of another female worker in a skilled occupation, this time as a turner in an engineering works. Note that her hair is tucked up out of the way, a safety precaution as well as a cosmetic one.

I doubt whether she earned as much as her male colleagues but after hundreds of years with no legal rights whatsoever (her very life was at the mercy of her male relations), having a paid job, and a vote, even if there was only one Party to vote for, must have felt like luxury indeed. At least for a while.

What is interesting about these Socialist Realist paintings is that most of them are, in fact, historical. They depict an Albania during the second World War and the post-war years at the height of its struggles. This can be no accident. Like it or not, by the late 1970s and without a rich Communist ally, Hoxha needed to face the fact that his ‘Brave New World’ may have turned into something akin to a nightmare – and his championing of this sort of art may be evidence of his ambivalence.

Do I like the art from this era? Actually, no. Having learnt of the horrors of the semi-starvation, the forced labour, Hoxha’s paranoid belief that evil Capitalists were just waiting to invade Albania, and how local communities were expected – as a show of loyalty – to pay for  useless gun emplacements and hidden bunkers which they could ill afford, I find it difficult to view the paintings I’ve shown as anything other than a huge lie. They tell splendid stories, no doubt, but, emotionally, compared with Goya’s war paintings, for example, they are hollow.

Photos taken by Elizabeth Hawksley

Elizabeth Hawksley

 

 

 

 

Please share this page...

FacebooktwitterredditpinteresttumblrmailFacebooktwitterredditpinteresttumblrmail

The Extraordinary Water Theatre at the Villa Aldobrandini

The Villa Aldobrandini, a superb example of Baroque architecture, stands in a dramatic and commanding position above the ancient town of Frascati, looking towards St Peter’s in Rome. It was built between 1598 and 1603 for Cardinal Pietro Aldobrandini as a gift from Pope Clement VIII. Popes weren’t allowed to own property, so Pope Clement’s gift of this magnificent villa to his nephew ensured that it remained in the Aldobrandini family.

The Villa Aldobrandini dominates the town of Frascati

Continue reading The Extraordinary Water Theatre at the Villa Aldobrandini

Please share this page...

FacebooktwitterredditpinteresttumblrmailFacebooktwitterredditpinteresttumblrmail

The Etruscans at the Villa Giulia

Even though it’s early July, it’s dull and damp here in London and I’m in a ‘and now for something completely different’ mood with regard to blogging. So I’m taking you to the Villa Giulia, just outside Rome, once a summer residence for Popes and, nowadays, it is the Etruscan Museum with some spectacular objects dating from the 6th century B.C.

An eye-catching terracotta statue of Apollo, still retaining much of its colouring. 

Continue reading The Etruscans at the Villa Giulia

Please share this page...

FacebooktwitterredditpinteresttumblrmailFacebooktwitterredditpinteresttumblrmail

Ireland: A Walk on the Wild Side

In June last year, I was at Streedagh strand in Co Sligo, on Ireland’s west coast, on one of Auriel Robinson’s wonderful SeaTrails walks. The walk covered a huge amount: local geology dating back 350 million years; prehistory, we examined an interesting Bronze Age Wedge tomb; 16th century history, hearing the story of the shipwrecks of three ships from the Spanish Armada which sank here in 1588; botany, walking over the machair grassland with its profusion of wild flowers; marine geology: marvelling at the fossilized corals, sea lilies and other creatures strewn in profusion along the shore; and 20th century history, seeing Mullaghmore harbour where the tragic murder of Lord Mountbatten, and three other people, two of them children, took place in 1979.

Murraghmore: looking towards Benbulben

Continue reading Ireland: A Walk on the Wild Side

Please share this page...

FacebooktwitterredditpinteresttumblrmailFacebooktwitterredditpinteresttumblrmail