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During the last several years one of the most exciting aspects of astronomy has been data from two orbiting space observatories concerning planets which lie outside our solar system. The NASA space telescope Kepler discovers such planets by simultaneously measuring the light from thousands of stars for the faint dimming that occurs when a planet passes between the star and Kepler. The French satellite COROT (“COnvection ROtation and planetary Transits”) finds exoplanets by tracking the slight oscillations in distant stars caused by the gravitational tug of orbiting planets. The subtlety and elegant precision of both methods is astounding.
Sadly such astonishing engineering seems to have been near the edge of our technological abilities. Yesterday Kepler went into safe mode (a sort of automatic shut-down triggered by a crisis). Apparently a reaction wheel (a flywheel used to orient the spacecraft in relation to the stars) failed and Kepler can no longer be aimed properly. The orbital observatory initially had four reaction wheels—one of which was a spare– however the spare wheel failed in July of 2012 and at least three wheels are required to operate the satellite. If NASA cannot somehow reactivate the flywheel, then the mission is over.
Likewise on November 2, COROT suffered from a computer failure which made it impossible to collect data from the satellite and its status remains uncertain. Most likely it is offline forever. So our ability to find huge numbers of exoplanets via space observatory has temporarily been halted.
Kepler was launched in 2009 for a four year mission, however the mission was recently extended until 2016 (since it took longer to collect and make sense of the data then initially planned). At last count Kepler had discovered 132 planets and was monitoring more than 2,700 further candidate planet. As of November 2011, COROT had found 24 new worlds and was screening around 600 additional candidates for confirmation. Additionally two years of Kepler data has been downloaded but not yet interpreted so post-mortem discoveries may lie ahead.
It is frustrating that the age of almost daily discovery of new worlds has come to a temporary end due to equipment failure, however a new generation of planet finding missions is already on the drawing board. To quote The Guardian:
The European Space Agency announced last year that it would launch the Characterising Exoplanets Satellite (Cheops) in 2017 to study bright stars with known planets orbiting them. Nasa’s successor to Kepler will be the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (Tess), which will conduct a survey of planets around more than two million stars over the course of two years.
RIP Kepler and COROT, you discovered so many planets and you will be missed, but your successors will be even greater.
Here is one of my favorite disturbing religious paintings. The work was completed in 1864 by the not-easily-classified 19th century French master Édouard Manet. At first glimpse the canvas seems like a conventional devotional painting of Christ just after he has been crucified and laid out in Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb, but, upon closer examination the multifold unsettling elements of the painting become manifest. The figures are painted in Manet’s trademark front-lit style which flattens the figures out and gives them a hint of monstrous unearthliness. This is particularly problematic since we are located at Jesus’ feet and his body is already foreshortened. The effect is of an ill-shaped Jesus with dwarf’s legs looming above us. Also, from his half-closed eyes it is unclear whether Christ is dead or not. Is he artlessly deceased with his eyes partially opened? Has he been resurrected already but is somehow still woozy? Are the angels resurrecting him? Here we get to the biggest problem of the painting: when is this happening? This scene is certainly not in the gospels (at least I don’t remember any episodes where weird angels with cobalt and ash wings move Jesus around like a prop). Did Manet just make up his own disquieting interpretation of the fundamental mystery at the heart of Christianity? It certainly seems like it! In the foreground of the work, empty snail shells further suggest that we have misunderstood the meaning. An adder slithers out from beneath a rock as if to suggest the poison in our doubts. Painting this kind of problematic religious work did not win Manet any friends in the middle of the nineteenth century, however it is unquestionably a magnificent painting about faith…and about doubt.
From the era of Frankish Kings until the French Revolution, the kings of France were crowned with the so-called Crown of Charlemagne, a circlet of four gold rectangles inset with jewels. The crown was made for Charles the Bald, the Holy Roman Emperor who lived in the ninth century (who apparently needed an ornate head covering for some unknown reason). Four large jeweled fleur-de-lis were added in the late twelfth century along with a connecting cap ornamented with gems. A matching crown for the queen of France was melted down by the Catholic League in 1590 when Paris was besieged by the Protestant king Henry IV (before he was, you know, stabbed to death by a zealot when the royal carriage was stuck in traffic), yet the crown of Charlemagne survived France’s religious wars & was used in coronations up until 1775 when Louis XVI was crowned. The crown vanished during the French revolution and has never been seen since. A certain Corsican monarch crafted a replacement: the second Crown of Charlemagne was completely different and will be the subject of a subsequent post.
This blog has pursued all things gothic, as the open-ended concept has wound its way through history, the arts, literature, and other forms of culture. There is, however, a major creative genre which we have entirely overlooked—that of cinema. The melodramatic spookiness of the 19th century Gothic revival movement was born in architecture and literature, but it was the media of film which cemented the whole concept of horror as a fundamental distinctive genre. In the modern world, gothic horror (with all of its familiar trappings) is virtually synonymous with film. This characteristic milieu of ruffled clothing, vampires, ghosts, sconces, and eerie castles goes all the way back to the first horror film–which was made very early indeed, in France in 1896.
Le Manoir du Diable (“The Manor of the Devil”) was meant as a pantomime farce, but most of the familiar elements of gothic cinema appear in the three minute production. It was released on Christmas Eve of 1896 at the Theatre Robert Houdin (which was on the Boulevard des Italiens in Paris). Since the piece is well over a century old, any copyright has long expired and it is part of the public domain. So, without further ado, here it is:
Using the most sophisticated special effects of the day, the filmmakers present a sorcerous devil popping in and out of reality. The fiend creates goblins, bats, and specters out of thin air and thereby bedevils a pair of foppish noblemen who have wandered (or been summoned?) into the haunted castle. Fortunately, one of the noblemen has the presence of mind to seize a handy crucifix and banish the fiend.
Although the film’s staging—and overarching moral lesson–owe something to opera, the rapid protean transfigurations were a completely novel feature. Admittedly the special effects have not aged well, but I think you will enjoy Le Manoir du Diable, the first gothic film.
Although I often write about crowns, I have barely ever seen one. I live in a republic and, sadly, I rarely go overseas where monarchs (and their headdresses) are located. Today’s crown however is an exception. I have seen it often at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington. The crown was created as a wedding gift from Napoleon to his second wife Maria Ludovica Leopoldina Franziska Therese Josepha Lucia von Habsburg-Lothringen (aka Marie Louise), Empress of the French from 1810 to 1814. Napoleon divorced his first wife, Joséphine de Beauharnais for failing to provide a son and he then married Marie Louise, the eldest child of Emperor Francis I of Austria in order to provide both legitimacy for his royal dynasty and an heir. Concerning his second wife Napoleon is said to have remarked that he “had married a womb.”
Whatever his feelings, the crown Napoleon gave his second Empress is certainly lovely. The crown itself is made of silver and encrusted with 950 diamonds. It originally had 79 large emeralds but these were replaced with Persian turquoise cabochons when the crown was purchased from from Archduchess Alice Elisabeth and her son Archduke Karl Stefan in the early 1950s by Van Cleef & Arpels jewelers. To quote allaboutgemstones.com:
The original emeralds were re-set by Van Cleef & Arpels into contemporary jewelry and marketed with the slogan, “An emerald for you from the historic Napoleonic tiara.” The Marie-Louise tiara is now located at the Smithsonian Institution’s American Museum of Natural History in Washington DC.
Although undoubtedly the original emeralds were lovely, I have always liked the distinctive look of the turquoise set among the diamonds. Many 19th century crowns were made of the most precious gems, but no others have the unique silver and sky blue color scheme which resulted from the crown’s strange history.
Archery seems to have been invented at the end of the late Paleolithic period. Thereafter the use of bows and arrows for hunting and combat was widespread throughout most human societies up until the invention of firearms. Subsequent to the popularization of guns, archery was (and still is) practiced as a recreational activity, but sometimes it is more fashionable than other times. Right now there is a craze for archery in America thanks largely to the best selling dystopian fantasy novel, The Hunger Games, which features an Appalachian heroine who is forced to use her bow-hunting skills to prevail in an epic gladiatorial contest (that’s her up there at the top of the post as portrayed by Jennifer Lawrence in the blockbuster film). However archery has become popular as a pastime in other eras and other places thanks to similar fads and crazes. For example, in the 18th century, big swaths of the European aristocracy became obsessed with pastoral fantasy—the idea of living as milkmaids, shepherds, and rustic hunters. To celebrate recreational archery (which just finished a star turn at the Olympics), here is a mini gallery of three 18th century masterpieces concerning archery and pastoral ideas of beauty.
Longhi was famous for painting scintillating little scenes of private life in 18th century Venice. Usually his paintings abound with lovely blushing courtesans, lecherous lords, bumbling servants, and sly procuresses (those paintings are a treat and you should go check them out). Here a foppish lord is duck hunting in a red jacket with gold embroidery! The boatmen all seem to be staring at him with mixed expressions of disbelief, contempt, and envy. Despite his graying hair and outlandish looks, the nobleman seems pretty proficient with his longbow and has already shot three ducks.
Jean-Marc Nettier mostly painted the royal family of France. Here he has portrayed Princess Marie Adelaide, the sixth child of Louis XV pretending to be the goddess Diana. The guise proved to be prophetic, for the princess was never married (there were no eligible bachelors of her station alive in Europe). Dressed in leopardskin and silk the princess/goddess stares haughtily down from the canvas as she fingers her arrows. It is as though she is deciding whether it is worth her effort to shoot the viewer.
Pompeo Batoni made his living painting wealthy European lords who were visiting Rome. Although he was a superb portrait painter he did not paint any first order masterpieces–except for this very beautiful painting of Diana tormenting Cupid. The virgin goddess has taken Cupid’s bow away from him and she playfully holds it out of his reach as he clambers (arrow in hand!) across her lap. The work features superbly rendered hunting dogs, magnificently opulent scarlet and pink drapery, and a gorgeous triangle composition. All elements point toward the goddess’ exquisitely painted face which bears a strange intense expression of wry amusement with a hint of wistfulness. This painting is currently owned by the Metropolitan Museum in New York and you should look for it if you are ever there. Because of its beautiful execution, its luminous color, and its superb condition it is one of those paintings that seem like an actual portal where you could step through into a world of nude goddesses and eternally verdant forests.
Heliciculture is the farming of snails for human consumption (and for snail mucous used in make-up and skin cream in the Latino community). Garbage middens from prehistoric settlements contain large numbers of cooked shells–so snails have been utilized as food for a long time. Sustained snail farming dates back at least to pre-Roman Phoenician colonies, however the ancient Romans took heliciculture and snail cooking to new levels. Romans gastronomes regarded snails as a particular delicacy and they introduced certain Mediterranean species to everywhere they conquered. When the empire fell apart Gaul continued the Roman tradition of enjoying escargot. Today the French alone consume 40,000 tons of snails per year. Serious agricultural effort is required to keep up with that sort of appetite.
Roman heliciculture apparently involved building little islands from which the snails could not escape. Today, however, snails are kept in carefully fenced garden plots. A small gauge metal wall which extends into the earth is necessary to keep snail predators out (particularly mice, shrews, raccoons, skunks, and toads) while a second interior wall made of specially constructed material keeps the snails in. A net can be added so that birds do not eat the tasty gastropods. Since pesticide and herbicide could injure the snails or the people eating them, organic greens are grown for the snails to consume. Apparently snails operate by Tron-style rules and do not like to cross another snail’s slime path—which means that only 20 snails can be kept per square meter. There are two principal species which are consumed as escargot. The smaller and more common Helix aspersa is also known as the “petit gris” or “escargot chagrine” whereas the larger, rarer Helix pomatia is called the “Roman snail,” “apple snail,” or “escargot de Bourgogne”. Both of these Mediterranean species have been widely introduced around the world for agricultural purposes. They are now endemic pests in Asia, Africa, Australia, New Zealand, North America and southern South America (and probably elsewhere). It’s funny to think that the snail eating your cabbages is the descendant of a snail which escaped from some long-dead hungry French chef. I can sort of imagine the scene as a black and white early Disney cartoon with giddy jazz playing in the background.
Everybody and everything seems to enjoy eating snails including…other snails. A particular source of difficulty for snail farmers is cannibalism. Larger snails will eat eggs and hatchlings for the calcium. If not eaten by something, snails can live a long time. They hibernate in winter and Helix pomatia can live up to 35 years.
The fleur de lis is an ancient stylized representation of a flower—most likely Iris pseudacorus a golden-yellow species of Iris, native to Europe, western Asia and northwest Africa. The motif can be found as far back as Assyria and ancient Egypt, but it became universally prevalent after it was gradually adopted as a symbol by the Kings of France from the 11th to the 12th centuries AD. Apocryphal mythology from the middle ages maintains that the connection between the fleur de lis and the throne of France dates back much farther–to the very beginning of the French crown when Frankish warriors invaded Roman Gaul during the 5th century AD. According to the legend, Clovis, the first of the Merovingian Kings, who was descended from Merovech (himself descended from a river god), had a divine vision in which an angel ordered him to change the three golden toads on his shield to three golden flowers.
The first surviving instance of the flower in heraldic use is a seal showing the future Louis VIII and his shield strewn with fleurs de lis which dates from 1211. Thereafter Bourbon and Capetian kings made extensive heraldic use of fleurs de lis. The standard of many golden fleurs de lis scattered across a sky blue field was changed to three prominent fleurs de lis by Charles V in the mid 14th century.
Over the centuries other principalities, cities, and families took up use of the fleur de lis. The coat of arms of Florence is a large red fleur de Lis—although the shield is a comparatively recent innovation which does not date to Florence’s golden age. The heraldic device of the Medicis, who ruled Florence at its zenith, was a shield with five red balls. Over time Luxemberg, various popes, and Bosnia and Herzegovina have also utilized fleurs de lis in their standards.
Since the earliest days of the movement, scouting (known in the US as the “boy scouts” and “girl scouts”) has been symbolized by a fleur de lis. The scouts’ founder, Robert Baden-Powell, a British military officer and aristocrat chose the fleur de lis as a symbol because it was used by the British Army as an armband to identify soldiers who had qualified as “Scouts” (reconnaissance specialists). Baden-Powell asserted that the boy scouts’ fleur de lis also symbolized the compass rose–which always points true north.
The fleur de lis is used by numerous New World cities and provinces which were once part of the French colonies before they were conquered or purchased. Many parts of French Canada, the Mississippi valley, and the French Caribbean still use the Fleur de lis for flags, seals, and coats of arms. New Orleans and Louisiana make particularly extensive use of the fleur de lis in local standards. The famous New Orleans Saints football team is symbolized by a golden fleur de lis which is an anomaly in a league filled with aggressive animal symbols.
Beyond the statehouse and the gridiron, bon vivants, artists and sybarites have also come to informally identify with the fleur de lis. It is seen in quixotic tattoos, extravagant fabrics, and luxury logos. It seems appropriate that the heraldic flower, once the symbol of warriors, soldiers, and conquerers has now come to be associated with beauty, pleasure, and leisure (which seem more in keeping with the nature of irises).
Vanilla is easily the most popular flavoring on the market. Not only does vanilla outsell all other ice cream flavors, it is the principle flavor in innumerable cakes, cookies, candies, fillings, icings, and drinks. It is also the dominant scent in many perfumes, cosmetics, and scent-based products. Vanilla (and fake vanilla) is so popular that the word has acquired a second definition as an adjective meaning “commonplace, boring, or lacking any special features.” The second definition seems tremendously incongruous with vanilla’s fundamental nature. True vanilla extract is derived from a beautiful and exotic tropical orchid. For a long time it was one of the rarest and most precious ingredients available. The plant’s cultivation history involves subjugation, genocide, stingless bees, slaves, and the fate of nations. Many many things in this life are dull and unexciting but certainly not vanilla.
Vanilla is derived from tropical orchids of the genus Vanilla. These plants are epiphytic vines which climb trees or other similar structures. Vanilla vines produce white, yellow and green flowers which look like narrow cattleyas. Although the Vanilla genus consists of more than 110 species of plant, almost all vanilla extract comes from one Mexican species, Vanilla planifolia–the flat leafed vanilla–or from cultivars derived from V. planifolia. According to Orchid Flower HQ, “The name vanilla comes from the Spanish word vainilla, a diminutive form of the word vaina which means sheath. The word vaina is in turn derived from the Latin word vagina, which means ‘sheath’ or ‘scabbard’.” As you might imagine from such an etymology, the long narrow annealed lips of a vanilla flower do indeed resemble a sheath.
Once they are fertilized, vanilla flowers produce fruits in the form of long black pods. Totonac people—pre-Colombian Mesoamericans who were indigenous to mountainous regions along the eastern coast of Mexico—were the first people to realize the food potential of these pods. Although initially inedible, the pods produce the sweet heady smell and taste of vanilla when sun-ripened for several weeks. The Totonacs had a myth that the vanilla flower originated when Xanat, a princess and priestess to the goddess of the crops, eloped into the jungle with a handsome lover whom she was forbidden to marry. When the pair were discovered hiding in the forest, they were beheaded. Where the lovers’ blood mingled on the jungle floor, the first vanilla vine first sprouted.
The Totonac people did not get to enjoy their vanilla unmolested for very long. From the mid 15th century up until the Spanish conquest, the Aztecs subjugated the Totonacs and forced them to pay stiff tributes–which included vanilla pods. Not only did the Aztecs use vanilla for medicine and as an aphrodisiac, they added it to their sacred drink xocolatl—a bitter beverage made of cacao which they had learned about from the Mayans. When Cortés marched to conquer the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán, he met the Totonacs along the way and they joined the conquistador as allies. Totonac support was instrumental to Cortés’ conquest of the Aztecs. It was Cortés himself who introduced vanilla to the courts of Europe.
Vanilla was initially used only as a chocolate additive in Europe, but it soon became popular as a pricey stand-alone ingredient. Like the Aztecs, jaded European aristocrats regarded it as an aphrodisiac and a sensual aid. It was also found to be perfect for baking and producing confections. Colonial powers rushed to plant the vine in Africa, Polynesia, Madagascar, and other suitable climates, but there was a problem: although the vines flourished, there were no pods. It was not until 1836, that Charles Morren, a Belgian horticulturist unlocked vanilla’s secret. The vanilla flower (Vanilla planifolia) can not be pollinated by any insect other than the stingless Melipone bee.
Unfortunately the method of artificial pollination devised by Morren proved too expensive and difficult to be commercially viable. It was only when Edmond Albius, an orphaned slave sent to serve a horticulturist on the island of Reunion, discovered a quick easy method to pollinate vanilla by hand that vanilla plantations became viable beyond Mexico. When slavery was abolished in the French colonies, Albius was freed, but he did not see any recompense for his discovery. He ended up imprisoned for jewelry theft and died in poverty.
Fortunately Albius’ discovery made plentiful inexpensive vanilla internationally available. The flavoring rose to dominance because it is almost universally pleasing to humans (although vanillin acts as a trigger for a small minority of migraine sufferers). During the twentieth century, organic chemists discovered how to synthesize vanillin (a phenolic aldehyde predominant in vanilla extract) from wood pulp bi-products. Compared to natural vanilla extract (a mixture of several hundred different compounds) it tastest quite vile: anyone who has compared real vanilla extract with synthetic vanillin could easily expound on the superiority of the former. Real vanilla has a taste of orchids, Central-American jungles, and divinely transfigured princess which synthetic compounds can never capture.
And that is why home-made cookies are so much better.