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I am sorry it has come to this. I have to write an article for Star Magazine about Elvis movies—a task which requires me to watch all 31 Elvis movies in a short amount of time. Naturally I’ll write a post about the, um, insights into celebrity, aesthetics, and the national character which the experience has afforded me. However, at the moment, I am neck deep in go-go girls, guitars, and musical routines about water skiing. Today, therefore, I am simply posting a photo of contemporary pop princess Katy Perry wearing a beautiful crown and a Byzantine-themed Dolce & Gabbana gown at the 2013 Met Gala. I am sorry to do this to you (and I am stunned that Miss Perry has somehow sneaked into my blog by putting on a crown a second time). I will shamefacedly admit that she looks very beautiful and Byzantine in her jewels and beadwork. This year’s fashion theme at the Met Gala was “punk” and anyone who regards Byzantine royalty as fitting into that criteria cannot be wholly bad (maugre the gossip evidence).
There is a lot of misunderstanding about the color puce. The American definition is a middle tone brownish purple-pink, however, in France, where the name originated, puce describes a much darker and sterner red-brown. Other fashion sources occasionally also use the word puce to describe a murky shade of green horror created by mixing orange and blue (although I personally regard such a concept as misguided on many levels).
The dreadful sounding name has an equally vile origin. The French word for a flea is “une puce”. Puce was the term used for the brownish red dried blood stains left on sheets or clothing when a person was badly bitten by fleas: so puce has its origin in bloodstains. I suppose we are lucky it isn’t called “crime scene” or “parasite”. Despite the confusion regarding the nature of the color, it has had periods of real popularity. Marie Antoinette”s favorite color was said to be puce (although I can’t find any portraits of her wearing it). The color seems to be favored by the great and powerful–it is also the boss’ favorite color in Dilbert.
Last spring my flower garden was sad. I planted a ton of daffodils, crocuses, tulips, and irises, but, thanks to squirrel depredations, I ended up with one mangled tulip of indefinite color (which was ripped apart by a squirrel the day after it bloomed). The squirrels in my part of Brooklyn are angry hungry monsters. Rap music and powerful Jamaican curries have desensitized them to noises and smells which would scare off lesser squirrels. No one traps or shoots them–so they do not fear the fell hand of man.
This year I have been desperately trying to keep my bulbs alive long enough to bloom properly. Every evening since mid-March you can see me out back throwing hot pepper and garlic powder on the garden like some maddened chef. I have spritzed an ocean of animal repellent on the little green buds. I have studded the garden with glittering mylar pinwheels and festooned it with scary helium balloons. Yet every day another bud is taken. The crocuses were all ripped up. In the end, I wonder if anything will actually blossom, or if it was all once again in vain.
However there is one exception to this story of attrition and doom! Yesterday the first flower bloomed in my back yard…and it was not at all what I was expecting. Primulaceae, the primroses are native to Europe from Norway south to Portugal and from the Atlantic coast east all the way to Asia Minor. Perhaps I should not be surprised that the primrose is first to bloom considering it lives wild in Norway, the land of polar bears, glaciers, and marauders. Most garden primroses have been heavily hybridized, but last year I bought a specimen which looked most like the common European primrose, Primula vulgaris, and it survived a whole year to bloom again! The flower has five beautiful butter yellow petals with center around a bright yellow eye.
I was hoping to provide some exciting primrose lore, but the humble flower does not seem to feature in many myths and legends. According to Wikipedia, it was Benjamin Disraeli’s favorite flower, so crafty parliamentarians should at least be drawn to this article. Anyway, spring is finally here so prepare for everything to get better.
Mountbatten pink is a color invented by and named after Admiral of the Fleet Louis Francis Albert Victor Nicholas Mountbatten (1900-1979), the 1st Earl Mountbatten of Burma, KG, GCB, OM, GCSI, GCIE, GCVO, DSO, PC, FRS, and the last Royal viceroy of India. Mountbatten was a nobleman and a Royal Navy officer (as you could probably tell from his rank and title there). In 1940 he was escorting a convoy carrying vital war supplies, when he noticed that one ship would constantly vanish from vision at twilight. This phantom ship was still painted a strange grayish pink color from pre-war days. Mountbatten became convinced that the pink was an ideal camouflage color and he had all of the destroyers of the Fifth Destroyer flotilla painted in the same shade (which not surprisingly came to be identified with him).
Mountbatten pink was a mixture of medium gray with a small amount of Venetian red. The resultant neutral pink mimicked ocean and atmospheric colors of dawn and dusk. Additionally, the German navy used pink marker dye to identify their shells, so Mountbatten pink ships often threw off spotters who were unable to tell ship from clouds of smoke (at least according to some Naval historians). One cruiser, the HMS Kenya, was even nicknamed the Pink Lady because of its color and panache.
Other British captains also painted their ships in Mountbatten pink (or used it as a component of the dazzle camouflage) either because of its effectiveness as battle camouflage, or to suck up to Lord Mountbatten, or out of genuine fondness for the surprisingly attractive lavender-pink, however the color had a critical flaw which ultimately caused the Royal navy to abandon it. Although Mountbatten pink blended into the offing at dawn and dusk, it stood out against the ocean at midday. By 1942 the color was phased out for large ships (although some smaller ships still had the color for a while). Most photos and films of the day were black and white. Imagine that some of the grim British fighting ships engaged in life & death fire fights with the Germans were actually pink!
So does everybody remember Pope Benedict XVI, the German guy who was pope until last month? While I was doing research on Papal tiaras, I happened to come across his personal coat of arms. Holy smokes! Tiaras will have to wait—check out this puppy! Not only does it feature a number of ferrebeekeeper themes–mollusks, mammals, and crowns—it is ridiculously gothic and insanely colorful to boot. The coat of arms features a moor’s head wearing a crown (and how is that an appropriate thing in the modern world?), a bear wearing a backpack (!), and a large scallop shell. The scallop shell is an allusion to pilgrimages and also an allegorical story about Saint Augustine walking on the beach and having an epiphany about divinit. The moor’s head is a traditional symbol of medieval German nobility (as an allusion to beheaded Moorish foes and to suzerainty over Africa): this particular example is apparently the “Moor of Freising” from the coat of arms of the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising. The bear with the backpack is “the bear of St. Corbinian” but I have no idea what he is doing. Maybe he is going to grade school?
This papal coat of arms is unusual in that it is surmounted by a bishop’s miter instead of the traditional three-tiered papal tiera (a symbol of kingship which the papacy has been phasing out, but more about that in another post). The truly important element is there however—the fancy gothic keys of Saint Peter which (according to the Catholic Church) grant access to heaven. Now if only there were a catfish… Speaking of which, below, as a special bonus, I have included the coat of arms of the infamous Urban VIII (who poisoned the birds in the papal garden because their singing disturbed his plotting) which includes the Barberini bees, and the coat of arms of the futile and immoral Pious VI, which shows a weird boy throwing up on a lily.
There are all sorts of snails in my Brooklyn garden which range in color from, well, from medium brown to dark brown. I guess the local mollusks don’t make for a very exciting rainbow–so today we move to the West Indies in search of the most vibrant land snails we can find. There are numerous lovely air-breathing snails throughout (and around) the Caribbean which can be found in a variety of eye-popping colors, but two particular species outshine the others in terms of brilliant red, yellow, black and orange swirls. These are the Cuban land snail (Polymita picta) and the Candy Stripe land Snail (Liguus virgineus) of Hispaniola.
Polymita picta lives throughout Cuba where it eats the algae, mold, and lichen from subtropical trees and shrubs. The single species of snails appear in a dazzling array of spiral color patterns.
Liguus virgineus lives only on Hispaniola (the large island which includes Haiti & the Dominican Republic). Unlike the Cuban land snail, Liguus virgineus specimens are somewhat more homogenous in color and pattern. The Liguus genus however is broadly successful around the Caribbean and Gulf coast and the different species have different patterns (even though they are similar tree snails with similar habitats).
Sadly, both of these snails are at risk because of their brilliant color. The lovely bright colors have proven irresistibly attractive to the world’s most rapacious predator. Humans use the shells as jewelry or collectibles which has led to both species being over-harvested for collectors.
Many of the most amazing historical crowns were destroyed during the tumultuous hurly-burly of history. This is a reproduction of the crown worn by the infamous Henry VIII, the powerful plus-sized king with many wives. The original was made either for Henry VIII or his father Henry VII and was worn by subsequent Tudor and Stuart monarchs up until it was broken apart & melted down at the Tower of London in 1649 under the orders of Oliver Cromwell (when the monarchy was abolished and replaced by the Protectorate). The original crown was made of solid gold and inset with various rubies, emeralds, sapphires, spinels, and pearls. After Henry VIII’s schism with the Catholic Church, tiny enameled sculptures of four saints and the Madonna and child were added to emphasize the monarchy’s authority over the Church of England.
Although the reproduction was not made with solid gold or natural pearls (which would be prohibitively expensive) it was painstakingly crafted by master jewel smiths using period techniques. The jewelers were able to recreate the original crown in great detail because many paintings and descriptions are available, including the amazing picture of Charles I by Daniel Mytens above. Charles I lost his head and the crown with his obdurate insistence on the absolute authority of the monarch—a point of view which Cromwell sharply disputed.
In Latin, ashes are called cinis and , similarly, the Latin word for ashy gray or ash-like is cinereous. English borrowed this word in the 17th century and it has long been used to describe the color which is dark gray tinged with brown shininess. As with many Latin color names (like fulvous and icterine) the word cinereous is often used in the scientific name of birds which are very prone to be this drab color.
However, the concept of color is not quite as simple as it first seems. Different items produce ocular sensations as a result of the way they reflect or emit light, yet different wavelengths of light are visible to different eyes. Humans are trichromats. We have photoreceptor cells capable of seeing blue, green, and red. Most birds are tetrachromats and can apprehend electromagnetic wavelengths in the ultraviolet spectrum as well. Many of the dull cinereous birds we witness may glow and sparkle with colors unknown to the human eye and unnamed by the human tongue.
People love citrus fruit! What could be more delightful than limes, grapefruits, tangerines, kumquats, clementines, blood oranges, and lemons? This line of thought led me to ask where lemons come from, and I was surprised to find that lemons–and many other citrus fruits–were created by humans by hybridizing inedible or unpalatable natural species of trees. Lemons, oranges, and limes are medieval inventions! The original wild citrus fruits were very different from the big sweet juicy fruits you find in today’s supermarkets. All of today’s familiar citrus fruits come from increasingly complicated hybridization (and attendant artificial selection) of citrons, pomelos, mandarins, and papedas. It seems the first of these fruits to be widely cultivated was the citron (Citrus Medicus) which reached the Mediterranean world in the Biblical/Classical era.
The citron superficially resembles a modern lemon, but whereas the lemon has juicy segments beneath the peel, citrons consist only of aromatic pulp (and possibly a tiny wisp of bland liquid). Although it is not much a food source, the pulp and peel of citrus smells incredibly appealing–so much so that the fruit was carried across the world in ancient (or even prehistoric times). Ancient Mediterranean writers believed that the citron had originated in India, but that is only because it traveled through India to reach them. Genetic testing and field botany now seem to indicate that citrons (and the other wild citrus fruits) originated in New Guinea, New Caledonia and Australia.
In ancient times citrons were prized for use in medicine, perfume, and religious ritual. The fruits were purported to combat various pulmonary and gastronomic ills. Citrons are mentioned in the Torah and in the major hadiths of Sunni Muslims. In fact the fruit is used during the Jewish festival of Sukkot (although it is profane to use citrons grown from grafted branches).
Since citron has been domesticated for such a long time, there are many exotic variations of the fruit which have textured peels with nubs, ribs, or bumps: there is even a variety with multiple finger-like appendages (I apologize if that sentence sounded like it came off of a machine in a truck-stop lavatory but the following illustration will demonstrate what I mean).
Citron remains widely used for Citrus zest (the scrapings of the outer skin used as a flavoring ingredient) and the pith is candied and made into succade. In English the word citron is also used to designate a pretty color which is a mixture of green and orange. I have writted about citrons to better explain the domestication of some of my favorite citrus fruits (all of which seem to have citrons as ancestors) but I still haven’t tried the actual thing. I will head over to one of the Jewish quarters of Brooklyn as soon as autumn rolls around (and Sukkot draws near) so I can report to you. In the mean time has anyone out there experienced the first domesticated citrus?
The world’s rarest and most precious pearls do not come from oysters, but instead from very large sea snails of the species Melo melo. Melo melo snails lives in the tropical waters of southeast Asia and range from Burma down around Malysia and up into the Philippines. The snails are huge marine gastropods which live by hunting other smaller snails along the shallow underwater coasts of the warm Southeast Asia seas.
Melo melo is a very lovely snail with a smooth oval shell of orange and cream and with zebra stripes on its soft body. The shell lacks an operculum (the little lid which some snails use to shut their shells) and has a round apex as opposed to the more normal spiral spike. This gives the Melo melo snail’s shell a very aerodynamic lozenge-like appearance (although living specimens look more like alien battlecraft thanks to the large striped feet and funnels). The animals grow to be from 15 to 35 centimeters in length (6 inches to a foot) although larger specimens have been reported. The shell is known locally as the bailer shell because fishermen use the shells to bail out their canoes and small boats.
Melo pearls form only rarely on the snails and are due to irritating circumstances unknown to science. No cultivation mechanism exists (which explains the astronomically high prices). A single large melo pearl can sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars or more in Asia. The pearls are usually egg-shaped or oval (although perfectly round specimens are known) and they can measure up to 20-30mm in diameter. Not nacreous (like pearls from oysters & abalones), these valuable objects have a porcelain-like transparent shine. Melo pearls are brown, cream, flesh, and orange (with the brighter orange colors being most valuable).
Apart from the fact that they come from a large orange predatory sea snail, what I like most about melo pearls is the extent to which they evoke the celestial. It is hard not to look at the shining ovals and orbs without thinking of the sun, Mars, Makemake, and Haumea. Rich jewelry aficionados of East Asia, India, and the Gulf states must agree with me. It is difficult to conceive of paying the price of a nice house for a calcium carbon sphere from an irritated/diseased snail, unless such pearl spoke of unearthly beauty and transcendent longing.