Not the Da Vinci Code tour: part 2

Posted by jerry on June 30th, 2006 — Posted in History, Journal, Travel

The first rule of jet-lag – and how to overcome it is to drink water and get plenty of exercise and stay awake for the first day until well after dark. Okay, so that was three rules. Anyhow, after a delayed flight (are there flights not delayed out of European mainland?) I hit London walking.

Straight down the Strand – one of my favourite streets. Every time I go down the Strand I discover something new – or in this case very old. It was a chance glance down a laneway by Fleet Street that brought me to a church with a Wren-like steeple. I hadn’t previously encountered St Bride’s Church, and the name was intriguiing – especially it’s nickname: The Printer’s Cathedral. Okay, I was on Fleet Street – home to all those newspaper publishers – but I was surprised to find that the first moveable type printing press was brought here in 1500AD.

St Bride's Church

There is quite a history on this site. This is the eighth church built on this site, and it has been a Christian place of worship for 1500 years. The present church was the venue for the marriage of the parents of Virginia Dare (thanks for the comment) – the first European child born in Colonial America in 1587. The spire (above) is the tallest that Wren ever built and was the inspiration for the tiered wedding cake. This was also the church in which Samuel Pepys was baptized.

In 1940 a bomb revealed a crypt in which you can now see the pavement on which Romans walked in AD180 – and it is open to the public.

St Brides' Crypt

A bit further down is St Paul’s Cathedral, and one of my favourite things to do to stave off jet-lag is to climb the 530 stairs to the lantern on the dome where you get a superb view of London – and a good sense of the underlying landscape.

St Paul's Cathedral, London

And inside the dome the magnificent paintings visible from the Whispering Gallery

inside St Paul's dome

Walking back along the Strand you can sense the history – as well as take some minor detours down some delightful laneways. Take this one, for instance, which would be entirely hidden were it not for a suitable tourist sign on the Strand, which points towards Temple church – reputedly built by the Knights Templar, but ceded to the Hospitallers. The church has gained some recent attention, having been featured in a movie about another semiotician, who uncovers a mystery. And yes, every Tuesday and Thursday at 2.30pm you can take the tour which explains the reality behind the myth underlying this church’s role in the Da Vinci Code. It is London’s only remaining Romanesque building – modelled after the the domed Church of the Rock in Jerusalem.

Temple Church, London

The stained glass windows are breathtaking, but turning towards the rear of the church, you can see several life-sized effigies laid out on the floor. Many are named, and some are in interesting cross-legged positions.

Temple Church effigies

The effigies are of Templar knights from the 13 Century – this one is of Gilbert Marshall, fourth Earl of Pembroke and Templar knight who died in 1241. And don’t forget to look up at the walls – the row of grotesques is fascinating.
And, in case you were in any doubt about the Templar association, you need look no further than the pedestal outside the entrance.

Templar sign

But if you really want to avoid the Da Vinci Code tourists, it is only a short sprint up the Strand to Somerset House, home of the Courtauld Institute of Art gallery and the Hermitage Rooms. This gallery is one of London’s gems, housing world famous old masters, impressionist and post-impressionist paintings.

Somerset House, London

Among the exhibitions I went to were The Road to Byzantium – a collection of luxury domestic goods from the St Petersberg Hermitage Museum, at the Hermitage Rooms. The exhibition runs from 30 March to 3 September 2006 – and is well worth a visit. Among the fascinating items are some Byzantine coptic textiles from Egypt in the 4th century AD.

The Coptic craftsmen had a vast number of images on which to draw for inspiration, many of which circulated in the form of patterns, a few of which have survived on papyri. They used pictorial motifs from the Greco-Roman tradition, including pastoral scenes related to the Nile River and mythological characters such as dancers who evoke Dionysian celebrations.
byzantine textile

This textile is a fragment of a tunic with scenes from Euripides’ play Hippolytos, and is part of a group of textiles with representations of heroes from Greek tragedies. It is made from linen with wool weaving.

byzantine textile 5-6 century AD
This textile depicts Dionysos’ chariot and the twelve labours of Hercules from 5th Century AD Egypt. It is made from linen with wool weaving.

A contemporary quote (4-5th century AD) from Asterius, Bishop of Amaseia of Syria condemned the growing fashion for clothing woven with images: “They have invented some kind of vain and curious warp and ‘broidery which, by means of the interweaving of warp and weft, imitates the quality of painting and represents upon garments the forms of all kinds of living beings, and so they devise for themselves, their wives and children gay-colored dresses decorated with thousands of figures.” (quote from Indiana University Art Museum website)
So it’s easy to avoid the Da Vinci Code tourists and find fascinating sites that remain undiscovered by so many – they don’t know what they’re missing!


Not the Da Vinci Code tour – part 1

Posted by jerry on June 26th, 2006 — Posted in Journal, Travel

It began one summer evening, when celebrated semiotician, Jerry, was giving a presentation at a conference in Paris – he even had his Moleskine notebook (standard issue for all celebrated semioticians). That evening the phone went (they’ll pinch anything around here) but actually on further analysis it was only the phone signal. Must buy another recharge card, he thought. He was startled from his reverie by the phone – this time it was ringing with that insistent frog tone that marked his phone from all the other corny ring tones. It was Sharon – something about the Louvre. Jerry headed straight over there, admiring the art nouveau Metro signs at the station.

metro sign

At the Louvre it didn’t quite add up – who put that ugly glass pyramid in front of this nice building? It was Jerry’s first brush with Modernism. Must have been the Chinese-born American artist Ieoh Ming Pei. He turned, like he had a sour taste in his mouth. Another mystery. There across the river – how did they manage to turn a railway station into the Musee d’Orsay? He headed over to investigate.

Musee d'Orsay

Now that was refreshing. His eyes glistened like Monet’s water lillies and he came away with the heady feeling like the world was flowing out of perspective, like Van Gogh’s bedroom – the air conditioning wasn’t working and he decided he was in need of Evian water.

Louvre museum from the rear

Later, in the parking lot behind the Louvre there was a sign – two signs, connected by some emergency tape. Some random youths were circling on in-line skates. Suddenly one broke free and raced for the tape (this could get ugly) and at the last moment he sprang up over the tape and landed skillfully on his skates. Another, this time on a push bike pedalled furiously while riding on the back wheel – then he lunged forward and coasted for several metres – on the front wheel. The semiotician analysed – what did this mean? And then he had it. “must be French” he muttered – they’re the only ones that skillful. Perhaps they were Templars. No, he decided, they were clearly Hospitallers. It was time to go to the Church of Saint Sulpice.

Church of Saint Sulpice, Paris

He found it further up behind the Louvre, on the road towards MontMartre. Not bad as churches go, he thought, but what caught his eye was the antiques market in front of the church – forget the gnomon – and he went to investigate. His gaze was attracted by some white porcelain – perhaps this was an Arzberg teapot? He was, after all, on a quest – and quests give meaning to one’s shopping. Sorely tempted by the antique model steam engine he tried to do a quick calculation of what one hundred and eighty euros was worth in Aussie dollars. He carefully replaced the steam engine – it would keep another day. He admired the traditional market games laid out in front of the church, and smiled.

Saint Sulpice market, Paris

It wasn’t too far to discover Paris’ true holy relic – Cugnot’s steam carriage, tucked away in the Musee des Arts et Metiers just past the national archive.

Having seen Leonardo’s Mona Lisa some ten years ago, along with the Virgin on the Rocks  (sounds like a Richard Branson cocktail drink) he decided it was time to compare the latter with Leonardo’s later version, which hangs in London’s National Gallery. Paris is a place to look up – above the shops are delightful balconies bursting with window boxes of colour. Parisiennes love their flower boxes. And if you don’t see the window boxes, there are always the wonderful baroque architectural details that add visual texture to the streetscape.
To be continued…


Cugnot’s steam tractor – Fardier a Vapeur

Posted by jerry on June 25th, 2006 — Posted in History, Journal, Steam, Technology

One of the little-known museum gems in Paris is the Musee des Arts et Metiers – the museum of technology. Among the amazing objects there is Nicolas Cugnot’s steam tractor – the Fardier a vapeur. This is the first steam propelled vehicle – from which the development of the modern automobile began.

Back in 1769, when Captain Cook was preparing for his voyage to Australia, a French military engineer was considering the merits of using steam to propel a vehicle. With the backing of the Minister for War, the Duke of Choiseul, Nicolas Joseph Cugnot (1725-1804) developed a prototype steam tractor for towing artillery without horses. The prototype was built under Cugnot’s direction by Army mechanic Brezin at the Paris Arsenal. The first protoype showed some limited promise, and he went on to build a second vehicle in 1770. His idea was to use a three-wheeled cart, with a high-pressure boiler placed in front of the driving wheel, and a two-cylinder piston engine to push on a notched disc each side of the wheel. The whole driving assembly was mounted so it could pivot on a vertical axis for steering – with a steering lock of about 15-20 degrees in either direction. It seems very front-heavy, but it was designed to tow a heavy artillery piece.

The machine has a reverse gear and could move its five-tonne load at up to 4 km/h. It was only partially successful, however. The fire-box was small, and the machine could sustain steam for only about 15 minutes before it ran out of steam pressure. And the lack of brakes and and slow steering (by geared rack and pinion) made the machine unwieldy. On an early test run it failed to make a sufficiently sharp turn and crashed into a stone wall, and the project was scrapped – after the first motor vehicle accident in history – in 1771.

The test vehicle was long thought to have been destroyed during the French Revolution, until it was discovered in Napoleon’s time. It has been preserved in the Musee des Arts et Metiers since 1800.

I am happy to report that the machine is still in an excellent state of preservation, and the workmanship of the mechanic, Brezin, was very professional in its approach. The two single-acting cylinders are 13 inches in diameter, and the structure is robustly constructed on massive timber beams. Cugnot himself received a pension of 600 francs, which was revoked in 1789, forcing Cugnot into exile in Brussels. He was brought back to France and his pension reinstated by Napoleon shortly before he died in 1804 at the age of 79 years.

The museum website has an excellent video presentation on how the engine worked

The vehicle’s scale is impressive as you can see in the following photos I took 2 weeks ago.

Cugnot's steam carriage
Cugnot’s steam carriage – the Fardier a Vapeur 1770

Cugnot's boiler assembly
Cugnot’s boiler assembly

Cugnot's steam tractor
Cugnot’s steam wagon – left view

Cugnot's drive gear
Drive gear on Cugnot’s steam carriage

Cugnot's engine valve gear - detail
Cugnot’s engine valve gear – detail

Cugnot's drive train
Cugnot’s drive train

Cugnot's 1770 Fardier a Vapeur
This picture is included just to provide a sense of scale to Cugnot’s steam wagon


Holy Grail found – in Berlin

Posted by jerry on June 24th, 2006 — Posted in Journal

Everyone has to have a quest – it gives meaning to one’s shopping. It all began ten years ago. It was a Thursday – and what had started as a normal day took an abrupt downward turn when I dropped the lid of my teapot, and it broke into several pieces. The teapot was not expensive, but it was a classic Bauhaus-inspired style: Arzberg Form 1382, designed by Dr Hermann Gretsch in 1931.
I tried the Australian shops – no, they vaguely recalled seeing one once. A couple of trips to the UK yielded a withering look, an arched eybrow, and a slight sniff as I was told “That would be a German make – we don’t stock those”.

In Europe I asked a few places – in Copenhagen I was given blank looks. In France, more blank looks – perhaps my schoolboy French wasn’t up to it. Finally, I wound up in a conference in Berlin this week. I pondered – perhaps there might be a slim chance?

I took a chance during a lunch break and headed out down Friedrichstrasse, and down on the corner of Alexanderplatz, I found a porcelain shop. Alas it was the royal German manufacturer’s outlet. Then a glimmer of a sign: “Arzberg is the name of a town”, the assistant said helpfully, “Are you sure that you have the manufactuer’s name or is that a type?” I assured him it was indeed the manufacturer’s name. He shook his head sadly, he had never heard of this brand. I mentioned that it was a Bauhaus design – by Dr hermann Gretsch. His face lit a little, “Yes I know of the designer Gretsch”. His tone softened towards me. “Perhaps you could try a place across town, a department store that has many kinds of porcelain, called KaDeWe – it is quite famous you know.” I didn’t. But I had a map, and got him to point out the location. Then it was time to head back to the conference. But I had a clue – the trail had warmed slightly.

The following lunchtime I took a taxi to KaDeWe and set off to find a floor with porzellan. I made my way to the fifth floor, past the ladies fashions, the mens fashions, the ladies underwear, the manchester – perhaps this would be like so many other department stores – all clothes and no porcelain. But I kept going ever upwards on the escalators, and quite abruptly, there was the porcelain section. Royal Doulton, the German KPM (Royal German porcelain manufacturer) Wedgwood were all in evidence – everything but… I sighed. I was approaching the end of the porcelain department.

I looked around and spotted an alcove, and there emblazened in discrete signage was the familiar Arzberg inside a plain oval ring. Below the sign were some unfamiliar designs. Perhaps it isn’t made anymore in that style? – Finally I saw a shelf unit emblazoned with ‘Form 1382’ – a whole cabinet with the familiar Bauhaus design, and there on the top shelf was a very familiar teapot.

The loud ‘whooppeeeee’ that escaped my lips startled some nearby shoppers – one doesn’t normally make that kind of sound in THAT kind of store. Yes, I bought the teapot – and its smaller sibling.

Arzberg teapot style 1382

So you see, the holy grail is not a cup after all, nor a genealogy – as a certain movie would have us believe. It is in fact, a teapot. Eine teekanne. And it is real.

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the design. From his development of Form 1382, Dr Gretsch was awarded the gold medal at the 6th Triennal in Milan in 1936 and another gold medal at the World Exhibition in Paris in 1937.

Gretsch was born in Augsberg, Germany in 1895 (died 1950), and studied architecture in Stuttgard, but sat his final exam as a ceramicist at the Arts and Crafts school in Stuttgart. In 1930, he became a Government architect and the following year became artistic consultant at the Arzberg porcelain factory, and later chairman of the regional trade museum, as well as acting director of the regional trade school. In 1945 he returned to his original profession as an architect.

The Form 1382 series is also on display at the London Design Museum. Arzberg Porcelain Factory also has a website.


They don’t make them

Posted by jerry on June 2nd, 2006 — Posted in Journal

How many times have you had that response from  shop assistant when you go back to a shop to buy a replacement for something you bought there just six months ago: “They don’t make them”. We’ve never stocked those” “It sounds like a good idea though…”

The other day I went to buy a binder – you know, the ones with two flat metal strips and a slidey thing to keep it closed. I went into a shop where I know I’ve bought them before. “No, they don’t make them”. “We have binders with a clip” – I laughed, because that was the fourth time this year I’ve had that response.

Travel technology – do they stock a CD burner for travellers – where you just push in the camera card and you can burn CDs – no computer needed? “No they don’t make them – sounds like a good idea though.” I eventually bought the Apacer 200 in London – last one on the shelves.

I’d like a book light please… “a what?” You know, clips on the book and shines a light on the page – so you don’t disturb someone trying to sleep. “Sounds like a good idea” the assistant said doubtfully “but I don’t think anyone makes them”. I tracked one down in the fifth bookshop for Aus$14.95 “They don’t make them” I said as I handed over the cash.

It’s time I upgraded my camera – do you have one that takes Compact Flash cards? “They have a flash built in” No I mean a flash card  – for storage “They don’t make them. They’ve never made them.” This time I came prepared: Here’s the camera they’ve never made – it’s called a canon “Fancy that!” Yes I said as walked out of the shop. I bought it here six months ago.

But it’s the simple things – like storage boxes – ever tried to match one with one you bought six months ago? Or long lighters for gas stoves. One response from a supermarket “They don’t make them” I bought one here four weeks ago – which aisle will I find it on? “We’ve never stocked those” It was in aisle four – and they do stock them still.

Maybe it’s some form of new-management retail unhelpfulness training? It’s okay I’ll find one eventually.