Some thoughts, pre-trip

In about four days, I’ll be heading to London and Prague for a week. I’m putting the final touches on my packing, checking my to-do list and making sure I have everything printed out that we’ll need. I’m very excited to see my boyfriend again after almost a year apart.

I wanted to share a final list of what all we’ll be doing. I’m actually pretty amazed that we’ll be able to fit it all inside a week, and it’s a testament to our teamwork and planning abilities. So without further ado, here are the highlights of our upcoming trip:

  • The National Gallery in London
  • The British Museum
  • A proper curry dinner
  • BBC Proms concert featuring Yo-Yo Ma
  • The Spanish Synagogue and Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague
  • Prague Castle and St. Vitus Cathedral
  • Our Lady Victorious church
  • An evening Prague ghost tour
  • A visit to Petrin Hill and the Stefanik Observatory in Prague
  • Lunch at a Michelin-starred restaurant
  • The Beer Museum
  • An alternative walking tour of Prague
  • A Prague cocktail bar specializing in Prohibition-era drinks
  • A breakout game in Prague
  • A boat tour on the Vltava River
  • SkyGarden in London
  • Borough Market in London
  • The Tate Modern
  • Dinner with one of my friends in London
  • “Much Ado About Nothing” at the Globe Theatre
  • A picnic in Hyde Park
  • Harrods
  • The Victoria & Albert Museum
  • Two “secret” places we’ve each picked out to surprise the other

It’s a lot, isn’t it? And yet somehow we’ll be doing it, and more. I can’t wait.

On the stories of paintings

"Danaë," by Titian

“Danaë,” by Titian

During the month I spent traveling across Europe in March and April 2007, I visited some of the greatest art galleries in the world, including the Louvre, the Orsay, the Vatican Museum, the Uffizi and the Prado. My love for art, particularly Italian Renaissance pieces and French Impressionism, has been steadfast ever since.

Today I visited the National Gallery, which currently has on loan a painting by the Venetian Renaissance master Titian. The piece is “Danaë,” one of a series of five Titian paintings of the mythological princess and mother of Perseus. This particular piece is housed in Naples, and was originally commissioned by Cardinal Alessandro Farnese.

As I read the information about the painting (I must confess that I’m not a particular fan of Titian; I veer more toward the Florentines), I noticed that the backstory included details of the painting’s commission and information about what happened to it later. During World War II, Hermann Göring had it looted from Italy to add to his personal collection. It was recovered in a salt mine in Altaussee, Austria, by the “Monuments Men.”

It struck me that paintings such as this are often at the mercy of what happens to them later, through no fault or intention of their creator. The origin story of the series is fascinating enough (the classical inspiration was a way to skirt obscenity charges because of the nudity, and the Danaë figure reputedly has the face of Farnese’s mistress), all the more so because it gives Titian some level of agency.

But what to make of the World War II connection? You can also sub in any other incident: theft, attempted theft, damage, popular literature. There are numerous ways for the mystique of a painting to transcend the painting itself. How many exemplary pieces of art are sidelined, overlooked or even forgotten simply because they lack a glamorous story to accompany them?

As I seek out works of art that I haven’t yet seen, and revisit old favorites, that’s what I’ll attempt to remind myself. Evaluate the work based on the work, and treat any interesting incidents as just that: external forces that don’t — shouldn’t — elevate or reduce the art. A painting or sculpture is not any more or less valuable because a Nazi wanted it, or because it disappeared in a museum heist, or because someone wrote a fictional book about it.

(In an unrelated now, I find myself wanting to return to Italy.)

Richard III has one hell of a car park bill

As an insatiable student of history, I geeked out this morning when I saw that Richard III’s remains had been found in a car park (a parking lot) in Leicester. (As you might expect, the BBC has the best coverage of the goods.)

The skeleton had taken a fatal head wound, the burial site matched the alleged location of Richard III’s final resting place, the remains matched the time period and Richard’s age, and a mitochondrial DNA test matched known descendants of Richard. Most intriguing, to me, was the fact that the skeleton had a curved spine — scoliosis — that was the basis for calling Richard a “hunchback.”

Richard’s story — the brother of a king who became king himself under interesting circumstances, only to die in battle against Henry Tudor at Bosworth Field — holds political significance even now. Namely, the story shows that history is written by the victors — in this case, the Tudor dynasty, victorious in the final stand of the Wars of the Roses, painted Richard as a deformed, child-killing villain, with the help of one William Shakespeare. And above all, it shows that “might makes right.”

The discussions on the BBC story are fascinating to read. A few decry Richard as a murderer who should be left where he was found. Others say he was framed and that Henry Tudor was responsible for killing Edward V and Richard, Duke of York, in the Tower of London. (While I think we’ll never know for certain, I tend to believe that Richard did it; come at me.) There are those who want him interred in York Minster or Westminster Abbey (right now a Leicester burial is planned). And there are those who insist that Edward IV was not a legitimately born son of Richard Plantagenet, 3rd Duke of York, and Cecily Neville and that Richard III, his younger brother, was the legitimate king after all. Oh, and Henry Tudor (Henry VII) was a usurping jerk.

This last part is interesting for a few reasons. First, Edward IV overthrew Henry VI, the last Lancaster king, and thus could, in theory, have claimed the throne by right of conquest no matter who his real father was. Second, Richard’s claim was largely through being Edward’s brother, based on Edward’s success against Henry VI. Richard and Edward’s father had been a duke but not a king. So if Edward was illegitimate and not qualified to be king, Richard as his brother should not have had a claim either — it’s circular logic, saying that Richard was the rightful king and not Edward, when Richard’s immediate claim was derived from Edward’s military success. If Richard was the rightful king, it follows that Edward must have been, too; if Edward’s claim was bunk, his heirs’ claims must have been too, surely? While it’s true that both men had claims by being descended from Edward III, they were certainly not alone there; the primary argument for the York dynasty at that point was defeating the Lancasters.

And the same can be said for Henry Tudor. Rightful claim or not — Henry’s mother was descended from a legitimized branch of Edward III’s family through his son, John of Gaunt, and his father descended from a Welsh upstart who married Henry V’s widow, a French princess — Henry still defeated Richard and could claim the throne by right of combat.

That justification for rule just seemed lost on much of the BBC audience. Arguing about legitimacy and parentage and the church and rights, while forgetting that in those days, the throne belonged to whoever could keep it. Richard failed, Richard died and Richard lost. And he wasn’t the first one — Henry Tudor (technically on the Lancasters’ side, but who founded the Tudor dynasty) overthrew Richard, who helped overthrow Henry VI. Whose grandfather Henry IV overthrew his own first cousin, Richard II. And on and on back to William I. So who gets to decide who’s rightful? When does a usurper become legitimate, and vice versa? Ask 10 different people and you’ll get 10 different answers. So it goes.

Regardless of how misplaced I think some of the commenting on this story is, it’s nonetheless a huge development in understanding a critical moment in English history — considered the dividing line between the Renaissance and the Middle Ages by many — and I was thrilled that it happened. I also hope that more can be done to understand Richard and how he lived, and maybe even change popular opinion about his reign and personal character. There’s a lot to be learned here, and I for one am curious to see where this all goes.

I’m reading “A Song of Ice and Fire”

When I’m not working on my dissertation, I’m barreling through George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series. You may know it better as the basis for the HBO series “Game of Thrones.”

I love it.

Even though I’ve been familiar with the series for a while, it took the television show to get me to read the books. The fifth novel, the long-awaited (for longer-term fans, that is) “A Dance With Dragons,” comes out next week. I decided to try to read the first four before then.

While the novels most definitely fall into “fantasy” territory — their entire world is fictional and includes magic and supernatural creatures — they stand out to me for two reasons. The first is their extreme realism, or as much realism as a fantasy series can get. They have a depth, a moral ambiguity and a complex social and cultural fabric that would be impressive in a mainstream fiction novel, let alone one in which virtually everything stems from the author’s imagination.

The second reason I love them is that they contain what I like to think of as a dog whistle for British history enthusiasts. It’s completely possible to read and love the series without ever thinking about its real-world parallels, but I loved reading it and picking out its historical counterparts. Martin based the series at least in part on the Wars of the Roses, and you can plainly see our own world history in the story.

  • Westeros, the continent on which most of the story unfolds, was originally settled by rural “children of the forest” and subsequently invaded by the First Men, Andals and the Targaryens. I interpreted these to be the Celts/Picts, Romans, Saxons and Normans, in that order. Like the Normans, the Targaryens came from an eastern landmass and brought their own language and culture. Like Aegon the Conquerer, William the Conquerer consolidated independent kingdoms and clans.
  • The southern kingdom of Dorne, the last to join the Seven Kingdoms, reminds me somewhat of Wales.
  • The brother-against-sister civil war in the series is a clear parallel to Matilda and Stephen in English history, and even had the same outcome (the brother defeated his sister, but her son succeeded to the throne).
  • Like the long Plantagenet line, the Targaryens ruled for several hundred years. A dynastic shake-up in the series that occurred roughly two generations before the novel’s present could be a parallel to Henry IV overtaking Richard II.
  • Robert Baratheon and his line appear to Yorkist, overthrowing their Lancaster/Targaryen cousins, and sending the surviving heirs into hiding/exile. By plotting her return to Westeros from across the Narrow Sea (i.e. the English Channel), Daenerys Targaryen reminds me of Henry VII.
  • Henry VI suffered from a mental breakdown, and though he never became murderous, it is easy to identify him with Aerys II Targaryen, the murdered Mad King.
  • Robert Baratheon is a clear Edward IV figure, a warrior-king who eventually fell into excess. His victories in the Trident, where he first won his crown, and against Balon Greyjoy’s rebellion remind me of Edward IV’s Towton and Tewkesbury.
  • Robert’s queen, Cersei Lannister, and their son, the eventual king Joffrey, appear to be a composite of Margaret of Anjou and Edward of Lancaster (Edward VI’s wife and son), and Elizabeth Wydville and Edward V (Edward IV’s wife and son). Like Margaret, Cersei is the real power behind the throne and “scheming.” Like Elizabeth, she’s protective of her children and has to contend with outside interests when her son becomes king. Like Edward of Lancaster, Joffrey’s parentage is suspect and he has violent, cruel tendencies. Like Edward V, he succeeds his father as king at a young age.
  • Robert’s brothers, Renly and Stannis, and Cersei’s, Tyrion and Jaime, display various aspects of Edward IV’s brothers, George and Richard. One is blamed for his nephew’s murder (Tyrion, like Richard) while two openly defy the line of succession (Renly and Stannis, like George and Richard). Another killed the previous king (Jaime, like George and Richard, allegedly).
  • Tywin Lannister is akin to Warwick the Kingmaker, in that his immense wealth sustains the crown, and his loyalties shift based on expediency. Mace Tyrell, a powerful lord whose daughter weds three kings in succession (like the Neville girls wed kings and/or heirs to the throne), is also reminiscent of Warwick.
  • The basic geography of Martin’s world is extremely similar to our own. Westeros is Britain on a larger scale, while Essos is the mega continent of Europe and Asia, and Southros is like Africa. The free cities of Essos are very similar to the duchies and city-states of Germany, France and Italy, while its eastern desert is like the Middle East and the mysterious Asshai is Asia (they even look/sound similar).
  • Northern Westeros is divided from the south by an ancient wall (similar to Hadrian’s), and is home to tribal groups that southerners consider socially inferior — a nod to the Scots. Like England, the Seven Kingdoms also have a distinct north/south dichotomy in terms of wealth and culture.
  • Finally, and perhaps most tragically, Ned Stark reminds me of William Hastings, Edward IV’s honorable friend who ended up on the wrong side after the king’s death and found himself short a head.

I’m sure that other similarities exist, but those are the principal ones. Other characters in the series, such as the Stark children, do seem to be relatively independent of exact historical parallels, but the groundwork is there, plain as day. That just makes it more interesting and adds a different perspective to the reading. Note that I’m not sure that those exact parallels are the ones Martin had in mind; they’re just what came to me as I was reading. The series is long and grueling in places — the third book, though the best, is also a beast — but well worth the time and energy for a great story. I can’t wait until next week when I can pick up the fifth book. And yes, I’m a geek.

A damp day in London

I get a bit of a rush whenever I step off the train at a London station. I got it when I went from Reading to Paddington, and I get it when I go from Canterbury to St. Pancras. I love going into London, because it exhausts me — I’ll sleep like a baby tonight — and it challenges me, as I try to find my way around, discover new places and keep up with the fast pace. Best exercise I’ll get all week.

I don’t get to go into London very often, about once or twice a month, so when I go, I leave early and come back late, so I get a full bang for my buck (quid?). Take today, for instance. Instead of leisurely seeing two or three things, I covered a lot of ground, most of it in the West End or in Chelsea/Knightsbridge.

First I hit Hummingbird Bakery near Soho, where I picked up a red velvet cupcake (the house specialty) and a cola cupcake (Friday special). I ate my red velvet cupcake with a peppermint mocha at Starbucks on Regent Street, and visited the Regent Street Apple store, the world’s largest by area.

After that I walked from Piccadilly Circus to Trafalgar Square, where I ducked inside the National Gallery to see a few of my favorite paintings: Botticelli’s Venus and Mars, Raphael’s portrait of Pope Julius II and Da Vinci’s Virgin of the Rocks. I went to the National Portrait Gallery to say hello to the Tudors and all of their associates — Elizabeth I, Henry VIII, Henry VII, Catherine of Aragon, Mary Stuart, Mary I, Catherine Parr, Thomas More, Thomas Cromwell, Edward VI. They’re all there, although poor Anne Boleyn was getting her portrait cleaned.

It was lunchtime after that, but I was dismayed to find that Tsunami wasn’t accepting lunch walk-ins. Making a note to make a reservation next time, I braved the Charlie Foxtrot that is Tottenham Court Road(work) for the foreseeable future, and had tacos at the UK’s only Chipotle on Charing Cross Road. Verdict: Just as yummy as at home, but they get brown rice as an option!

I was in a museum mood today, so next I stopped by the Natural History Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum. The Natural History Museum has all kinds of animal skeletons, ecosystem exhibits and fossils, so it’s a popular place with school kids. The V&A Museum has a lot of sculpture, textiles and “industrial”/useful art. Harrods was just down the road so I went to look at expensive handbags, Seven for All Mankind jeans and the selection of dog collars. Harrods is already dolled up for Christmas, and the display theme this year is Peter Pan (when I was at Reading the theme was Casino Royale).

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Harrods was also unbearably hot, so after I finished there I went to Kensington Gardens and found the Peter Pan statue (I saw it once before but it was dark) and walked over to Hyde Park. By then it was getting a little dark and rainy, so I took the Tube to Covent Garden, where I promptly walked out onto the street, slipped on the wet stones and fell flat on my rear. How embarrassing.

There was another bakery near Covent Garden that I was going to try and find, but with the early darkness and rain I didn’t get to it. I grabbed coffee to give myself a boost and get out of the rain, before I went to a hopping Leicester Square to see “Let Me In” at the Odeon. The movie was pretty good and a nice twist on the vampire genre.

After the movie I took the Tube back to St. Pancras, where I observed the people just getting in from Paris and Brussels, grabbed some McDonald’s for dinner — first time I’ve had it since moving here — and caught my train home. Whew!

I’m going in again on Wednesday, and that day I’m shooting to see the Tate Modern, the British Museum and a few of the other parks, or at least St. James Park. Oh, and that second bakery …

(Today was also Guy Fawkes Night, but more on that tomorrow.)

Bodiam Castle and Rye

On Saturday, I went on a day trip with the university chaplaincy (I’ve been attending Anglican services on Sundays) to Bodiam Castle and the small town of Rye, both in East Sussex.

The castle was built in 1385 by Sir Edward Dalyngrigge (that’s a mouthful), who served King Edward III and received permission to build the castle from King Richard II. Its intended purpose was to stave off a French invasion during the Hundred Years War. The castle itself was built with an artificial moat and was the seat of the feudal Bodiam Manor.

Its owners seem to have had a bit of rotten luck over the years. Dalyngrigge himself died in combat on a knightly campaign, and its next owner, Sir Thomas Lewknor, made the mistake of supporting the Lancastrians during the Wars of the Roses. King Richard III confiscated the castle, although the Lewknors eventually got it back when King Henry VII took over.

During the English Civil War, its owner was John Tufton, who was a Royalist. Another owner on the wrong side of the victors, Tufton had to turn the castle over in the face of heavy taxation. The castle was torn apart, and passed down to Lord Curzon, who tried to fix it up and gave it to the National Trust in 1925. The castle is mostly ruins inside, but has a remarkably intact exterior.

Not too far away is the town of Rye, sitting up on a hill. Back when it was founded, the sea came much farther inland, and the town’s position on the hill kept it from getting washed out. The village is very attractive, with cobbled streets and a wide variety of tea houses, antique shops, cottages and cafes.

Enjoy photos of the castle and village below.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Note: Just giving a big thanks to everyone who’s been reading The Canterbury Tales. October 2010 has been my most-viewed month so far, and it’s not even over yet!