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I live in the city (as does more than half of humankind), and I love the colors, forms, and manic creative energy of this coral-reef like false ecosystem which we humans have built for ourselves.  As much as I love cities, though (especially my beloved home of Brooklyn), I feel like they could be ever so much better.  Cities tend to be terrible places for non-human lifeforms (with a handful of striking exceptions like pigeons)…and most urban places are also pretty unhealthy for the human inhabitants as well.  Not only are cities engineered with minimal interest in ecology but the structure of cities comes to mirror the social problems of the societies which create them (almost universally this involves an elite caste leeching away the vast majority of resources through a rigged hierarchical system they have devised).  Technological and agricultural problems also etch themselves indelibly into the structure of cities. Thus we have the deadly smog-choked car-culture cities of 20th century America…the human sacrifice temples of MesoAmerica…the desicated & starved cities of the desert…the slave cities of the ancient worlf…and on and on.

In many times and places, clever and driven people have tried to solve these problems by planning out entire cities beforehand.  Obviously, all cities are planned at some level, but this generally involves multi-generational building and lots of half-completed projects, strange work-arounds, and odd organic muddles where unexpected or unintended factors override the planners’ visions (insomuch as they planned for anything other than immediate utility). Thus, the great cities like Shanghai, Paris, London, Singapore, Tokyo, and NEW YORK are the collaboration of innumerable minds working together (often at cross-purposes) across many different eras. The end result betrays a lot of compromise and muddling though.  I am not talking about that sort of thing right now.  Instead I am talking about cities which are the result of a single monomaniacal vision.

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Here is a straightforward example of a planned city from Northern Italy in the late Renaissance.  This is Palmanova, a star-fort community built by the Venetian Republic in 1593.  The city was made possible as a result of the Venetians’ great victory at Lepanto in (a battle which also spawned a lot of the best battle paintings) and the designer, Vincenzo Scamozzi, made sure to incorporate the great military innovations of the late 16th century into the plan.  Palmanova was located near the Slovenian border–the eastern front of Christendom’s great war with the Ottoman Empire–and the community is therefor built within a nine-pointed polygon made of earth and mortar to protect the inhabitants from the artillery of the day.   Additionally, the city was designed with Thomas More’s recent literary hit “Utopia” in mind so that artisans, merchants, soldiers, and farmers would be housed in a style which placed them on an equal social footing (although the Palace of Provveditore is somewhat more, um, palatial than the ordinary residences).  The town’s cathedral is near the central plaza and, despite its baroque beauty, it has a shortened campanile so that enemy gunners could not easily focus on it.

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But things went a bit awry for Palmanova right away.  Despite the new city’s elegance and the lofty ideas of the founders, nobody wanted to live there. By 1622, the Venetian planners who had created Palmanova were forced to pardon criminals and offer them free building lots in order to populate the town.  Building slowed to a snail’s pace.  The focus of international conflict changed, and Venice’s glory receded.  The full plans were not completed until between 1806 and 1813 (when the Napoleonic wars brought renewed relevance to fortifications).

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Palmanova is hardly a failure.  You can live there today and aerial photographers dote on the place.  Yet it didn’t usher in a new era of egalitarian polygonal fortress cities either.  The factors which the planners saw as most important were superseded by the rapid pace of progress or they were proven to be matters of baroque fashion rather than universal values.  To address the concerns of today we would not build this sort of place (although I find it strikingly beautiful and I admire the style and the idealism of its planners). Later this week we will look at some more planned cities from history which didn’t have the same sort of success.  Maybe if we focus on some of these real world examples we can think about what would improve the cities of tomorrow.

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While summer lingers here with us I wanted to write a quick post about vinoks, the floral crowns of the Ukraine.  Floral crowns are nearly universal, but the vinoks descend from a long lineage of Greek and Byzantine flower crowns which were worn to denote purity (and eligibility) among maidens.

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(Instagram/Treti Pivni)

A group of floral artists and photographers calling themselves Treti Pivni (which means “Third Rooster”) are working to repopularize the vinok in the modern world (and to breathe fresh life into ancient Ukrainian cultural traditions.

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I can’t speak to the authenticity or meaning of these crowns, but the beauty speaks for itself.  I hope you enjoy them.  If so seek out the Third Rooster…er…Treti Pivni.  They are out there right now agonizingly inserting strands of wheat into wreathes for the delectation of the world.

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I am extremely sorry that my posts have been so thin on the ground for the last fortnight.  I don’t have very good excuses for last week (although maybe the brain-melting heat wave which swept through the region provides some cover), but last night there was a blackout in Brooklyn, and there was no way I could write anything in the digital realm!  Being cast back in time made me reflect on the world before the internet and electricity.  Specifically I became fascinated by non-electrical lamps (which you never really think about until you need them).

Although I filled up my darkened house with LED tea candles and glowsticks, other peoples have not always had recourse to such safe options–like the Romans, who were forced to rely on candles, fires, torches, and their favorite night time standby, the oil lamp.  Ferrebeekeeper has touched on how the symbols and visual culture of Ancient Rome do not always make sense to us today…and indeed today’s post offers a powerful example of that.  Oil lamps came in all sorts of shapes and sizes (some of them seem to have been commemorative, or tourist trap items), but one of the absolute favorite lamp shapes was a foot.  These oil foot-lamps were sometimes bare and sometimes super ornate, but most often they are wearing handsome sandals.

So, why are these things shaped like feet?  Trying to research this question on Google resulted in me being whisked to various strange theological explanations of the Book of Romans by Dr. Lightfoot!  I was hoping that this was the foot of Mercury or something, but I never did get to the bottom of what is going on.  Speaking of which, the best hint I got was that the lamps may have been placed at the bottom of a mural so that the painting glittered in the darkness…which is to say these were the original and literal footlights.  This makes no sense to me, but it is sort of a modern English pun, I guess.  Perhaps it was a pun or a satisfying visual cue to the Romans as well.

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Roman Foot Lamp with Sphinx Handle (Excavated in Libya, manufactured ca.1st century AD) Pottery

Whatever the case is, I love the feet!  These lamps are truly satisfying to look at, so maybe the Romans were on to something (they got roads and aqueducts right, after all).  If anybody wants to make a new old-style lamp company I am opened to that.  Also, if there are any classics majors out there who could explain this, please help us out in the comments!  I am unhappy with the “footlight” explanation and I long for a real understanding of what is going on with these charming feet!

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Roman Imperial Foot-Lamp (Ca. 3RD-4TH Century A.D.) bronze

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It is the 50 year anniversary of the Apollo moon landing!  It is a glorious anniversary: the moon landing was surely one of humankind’s proudest moments to date! Human beings left the Earth and walked upon the surface of a different world and returned to tell the tale! Yet it is a bittersweet anniversary too.  Today we are too politically paralyzed, too indebted, and too subservient to world-bestriding monopolies to accomplish anything similarly stirring.  It is unlikely we could even repeat the same feat! The president talks of returning to the moon by 2024, but anybody following the affairs of NASA recognizes that this is not going to happen (even assuming the current administration remains in place to push these particular space priorities).

In 1967, the Apollo program, by itself, was taking 4 percent of total government spending.  That was an era when the USA’s GDP represented 38% of the total world economic output (it is around 24% today).  There are lots of cranks and bumpkins who grouse about such outlays, but that money was spent here on Earth and it yielded rewards far beyond the moon landing itself.  The communications, materials, and technology innovations which have changed so many aspects of life largely flowed out of the space program (and its shadowy military sibling programs).

Perhaps you are wondering why this is not a nostalgic & triumphalist post about an epochal human accomplishment.  Maybe you are also perplexed about why I am writing about budgets and GDP instead of, you know, about landing human beings on the moon (although there has not been a human on the moon during my lifetime).

This is not just an anniversary post, it is also a polemical post about current policy failures. We are not investing any such vast outlays in long-term, open-ended research today.  It is going to come back to haunt us in a future of reduced prospects and lackluster breakthroughs Fifty years hence, are we going to look back on 2019 and enthuse about an Instagram filter, or slight improvements in immunotherapy, or blockchain technology?

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Wikipedia blandly notes ” blue-sky projects are politically and commercially unpopular and tend to lose funding to more reliably profitable or practical research.” The real genius of the moon-landing was that the end result was so spectacular and stupendous that it upended this conventional wisdom.  U.S. politicians of the sixties had the genius to perceive that the Apollo program could bring us together, boost our national prestige, bankrupt the Russians, and yield enormous technological and scientific rewards all at the same time.

In 1969, it must have seemed like the beginning of a golden age of space exploration.  After our heroic moon conquest we would build nuclear reactors on the moon and then create space cities in domed craters.  There would be giant lunar rail guns, torus space stations, spaceplanes, and Mars missions (and my floating Venutian city).  Instead we have the moldering hulk which is the International Space Station and some worn out space planes in museums.  Our vision and our willpower faded as our greed grew greater.

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But it is never too late! Space is still out there, bigger than ever. The moon landing showed that the impossible is possible if we work together.  That’s still true too and it is something we should all think hard about as we look up at the night sky and make plans for what to do next.

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Lydia Ordering the Death of Her Sons (Loyset Liédet and Pol Fruit, ca. 1467–72), Tempera colors and gold leaf on parchment,

Let’s take a break from parade floats, summer flowers, and ice cream artwork to renew our appreciation of all things Gothic.  Today’s post involves taking a step back in time to check out the footwear of yore–namely those astonishing pointy Gothic shoes which you see in medieval illumination (like the horrifying Game Of Thrones-ish painting above).  Those shoes don’t just exist in ancient artworks and period dramas, specialty cobblers still make them. Here are some photos of Gothic-style footwear which you can buy right now online!

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Long-toe Suede Poulaines from armstreet.com

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I like all of those, but that green pair is particularly splendid!  I would totally wear those if I was accepted into Hogwarts or dragged into a time portal.  But what is the story with those toes?  Why did lordly fops of the 12th-15th century wear these extreme pointy elvish-looking shoes?  The fashion spread throughout northwest Europe, but it originated in Poland (which was going through a sort of golden age) which is why such shoes are called are called “Poulaines” or “Crakows.”  The toes were originally filled with moss or other pre-industrial packing materials in order to hold their shape.  As the toes became more elaborate and more curved, architectural internal elements made of cork or leather became necessary so they would hold their shape.

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I wish I could tell you some satisfying tale of how the pointy toes poked venomous snakes out of the way or helped lords walk on tippy-toe over muddy peasants or something, however, the reason footwear looked as it did then, was much the same as now: namely impractical shoes betokened status. A vast pan-European network of conspicuous consumption existed in the high middle ages and it was a big part of how the elites “kept score.”

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So Crakows with their long poulain toes were apparently the Manolo Blahniks of their day.  I will keep looking for more to the story, but it seems like this might be a classic case of the things we do for fashion.  Don’t worry though, we are not done with Gothic shoes: there is more to come from eras much more recent and familiar.  Just stay tuned to Ferrebeekeeper and keep on your toes!

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Today is Nunavut Day!  Long ago, on July 9th of the far distant year of…uh…1993 the Parliament of Canada established the territory of Nunavut, which was carved out of the catch-all Northwest Territories (a vast expanse of tundra, wilderness, and ice at the northern end of the Americas).  Nunavut includes most of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago as well an innumerable northern islands–including some which are quite huge.  The region has an area of  2,038,722 square km (787,155 sq mi) meaning it is the same size as Japan, South Korea, Italy, France, the UK, and Germany combined, however Nunavut is rather more sparsely populated than these locations and has a total population of less than 40,000 humans (whereas the collective population of Japan, South Korea, Italy, France, the UK, and Germany totals approximately half a billion people).

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But we are not here to quibble about a variation of a few zeroes in population size. The important thing about Nunavut is its rich cultural heritage! This is reflected in the flag of Nunavut, which is what I really want to talk about in this blog post.

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Here it is! This flag was crafted in 1999 by an unholy process involving 800 hand drawn submissions from across Canada, a committee of Inuit elders and artists, and Queen Elizabeth II.  This improbable group collaborated to make a vividly unique and colorful  banner.  The red device in the middle of the flag is an inuksuk, a ceremonial land marker from Inuit culture, and the blue star is Niqirtsuituq, the North star.   According to Wikipedia “The colours blue and gold were selected to represent the “riches of land, sea, and sky”, while red is used to represent Canada as a whole.”  Apparently there is no explanation for the white (although a traveler in Nunavut at any time other than mid-July would probably not need an explanation for that particular color).

Although the flag is unique in its appearance and imagery, it has been criticized by vexillologists for having too many colors, having two bright colors as a background, and for the placement of the star.  Seemingly vexillologists are as vexatious as their name makes them sound.  Join me in the future to criticize their flag! In the meantime enjoy Nunavut Day and try to imagine the serene coolness of that vast northern land.

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It has been 50 years since the Stonewall riots which launched the modern gay rights movement.  Though there have been some setbacks during that time, it has really been a half-century of meteoric social progress.   When I was a child, the brutalization and dehumanization of LGBTQ people was an unremarkable and accepted aspect of society.  Although sexual discrimination is still widespread today, it is anything but acceptable to the majority of people.  There is constant hard work ahead for all of us, but enlightened people realistically look forward to another 50 years of upwards progress.

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To celebrate, here is a little gallery of rainbow crowns and tiaras.  Here in New York it is raining and yet there is bright sun.  I am going to go out and walk around and see if I can spot some rainbows in the real world.  Happy Pride!

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The Crown of Princess Blanche

England had a great treasury of medieval crowns and ancient jewels…which did not survive the excesses of the English Civil War (it’s almost as though having 41% of your country utterly despise the other 53% is somehow dangerous).  Yet two English Medieval crowns have survived into the modern era because they were elsewhere at the time.  Ferrebeekeeper blogged about one–the Coronet of Margaret of York.  Here is the other, the Crown of Princess Blanche, AKA “The Palatine Crown” or “The Bohemian Crown.” This crown is the oldest surviving royal crown affiliated with England, and probably dates to 1370–80 AD.

As the name indicates, the crown was an accessory of Princess Blanche of England, (daughter of King Henry IV) which she brought from England for her marriage to Louis III, Elector of Palatine in 1402.  Manufactured of gold, diamonds, rubies, emeralds, sapphires, enamel and pearls, the little crown measures 18 centimeters (7 inches) high by 18 centimeters deep. It has remained an heirloom of the House of Wittelsbach ever since Blanche’s marriage.  Maybe the beautiful coronet helps to make up for the exceedingly boring Wittelsbach coat of arms which looks like it came with a generic knight from a knock-off playset (all apologies to the Duke of Bavaria–if he ever commissions some flounder art, I will find something nice to say about his dull heraldry).

The Coat of Arms of House Wittelsbach…it’s a good thing these guys weren’t in the fictional “Game of Thrones” (although they were in some real things like that)

Wikipedia describes the crown’s surprising complexity as follows:

The crown is made up of 12 hexagonal rosettes on the base each supporting a gold stem topped by a lily. The stems and lilies alternate in size and height. They are heavily jewelled versions of the fleur de lys (lily flower) that was popular for medieval crowns.[3] In the middle of the hexagons, which have enamelled white flowers overlaid onto a translucent blue or red background, is a pale blue sapphire, 11 of which are oval and 1 is hexagonal. Each point is decorated with alternating rubies and clusters of four pearls that have a small diamond at the centre. In addition to diamonds, pearls, and sapphires, the lilies are also decorated with emeralds.

When I was writing about Margaret of York’s coronet, I said that it was the finer of the two English medieval crowns…and I still believe that, but only because it is such a lovely piece of jewelry, not because this crown is in any way inferior or unattractive.  Indeed, I think the English Medieval style of goldsmithing might be my favorite style of goldsmithing–the apogee of the jeweler’s art in terms of form and color (although the Tang Dynasty goldsmiths also have a claim on my heart).  Anyway, now you know what to get me if you happen to be a well-heeled time traveler who loves this blog.

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Happy Birthday to Mary Anning (21 May 1799 – 9 March 1847).  Mary’s life was a difficult one.  Her father was a poor cabinet-maker in Lyme Regis (a coastal town in Dorset, England) who supplemented his income by selling strange petrified shells and stone bullets which he pried out of a nearby sea cliff.  Mary’s parents had ten children, but only Mary and her brother survived past early childhood.  Her name was a hand-me-down from an older sister who had burned to death at the age of four.  When Mary was 15 months old, she and three neighbors were under a tree when it was struck by lightning and only Mary survived.  Her father died while Mary and her brother were young and they kept the family afloat by selling curiosities pried from the sea cliffs.  This was dangerous business: Mary’s beloved terrier Tray was crushed in a rockslide (he’s up there sleeping with the ammonites in the painting) and Mary narrowly avoided this fate herself on multiple occasions.  Additionally, living so close to the sea carried further perils: the family nearly drowned from a flood during a great storm.  Mary Anning died of breast cancer at the age of 47.  Her final years were marked by agonizing pain from the condition which she self-treated with laudanum (which caused the community to gossip about her morals).

This is a pretty bleak biography (although in no way atypical for a working-class woman from early industrial Great Britain).  So why are we writing about Mary 172 years after her death anyway? Mary Anning was a great pioneer of paleontology, geology, ichthyology, ecology, and invertebrate zoology.  The luminaries of the English geology community relied on her indomitable fieldwork to frame their conclusions about the history of living things and to stock their museums with specimens. Mary was a religious dissenter and the daughter of a cabinet-maker in an age when geology was the near-exclusive preserve of well-to-do Anglican gentlefolk (the Geological Society of London did not even allow women to attend meetings as guests).  Yet she kept informed of the scientific literature of her day and she dissected fish and invertebrates as to better understand the nature of her excavations and discoveries. Above all, Mary Anning actually discovered the fossils which others wrote about–so she had insights and knowledge which were occluded from armchair scholars. Charles Lyell (the father of geology) wrote to her asking her opinions about cliff erosion.  Mary proposed a theory to William Buckland that some of the fossils she discovered were ingested by ichthyosaurs and the remains excreted (a concept which fascinated Buckland and became the central focus of his work). In a fair world she would have an alphabet of letters after her name and be immortalized as a statue on a plinth beside the statues of Darwin and Lyell.  Even in our fallen world, she is revered as one of the founders of the natural history and life science disciplines (although many biographies about her concentrate on the sad exigencies of her life rather than on the extraordinary discoveries she made, a tradition which I have somewhat followed).

The cliffs which Mary relied on for specimens were part of a geological formation known as the Blue Lias. These layers of limestone and shale were a shallow seabed of the Tethys Ocean during the Jurassic period (about 210–195 million years ago).  The curlicues and stone bullets were fossil ammonites and belemnites, but Mary had a knack for finding the much rarer remains of hitherto unknown creatures such as ichthyosaurs, pterosaurs, plesiosaurs and other ancient marine fauna.

In the early 19th century a debate was raging between learned churchmen who knew for certain that God’s perfect creation could never be diminished and gentlemen geologists who believed that there had once been animals which were gone from earth…”extinct” as they called this new concept.   Mary’s fossils of bizarre giant sea crocodiles and lizard dolphins gave concrete evidence to the ur-paleontologists (who were indeed proven right).  Her discoveries were seminal for the discovery of paleontology itself and paved the way to the understanding that the world’s ecosystems were once very different indeed from what they are like now.   These pieces of knowledge helped towards an understanding of the true age of the Earth and ultimately made Darwin’s discoveries possible.

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Here is another painting of Mary, by the greatest living fish-artist, Ray Troll.  Troll shows Mary with fleshed-out versions of the creatures she discovered (note the ichthyosaur swallowing an ammonite).  We owe an enormous debt to Mary Anning.  Her contributions were under-appreciated in her day (when only the most learned gentleman scientists…and Mary… had inklings of the real nature of natural history and what her super sea-monsters connoted ), but those discoveries undergird our understanding the nature of the planet and of life itself.

 

Today’s news has been quite troubling.  The republic rots from within as grifters and fraudsters the treasury secretary and attorney general ignore Congressional oversight and mere national laws and wholeheartedly dedicate themselves to protecting Dear Leader President Trump’s dirty secrets.  Meanwhile, in even more troubling news, the U.N. released a report projecting the imminent extinction of more than a million species of plants and animals due to human activities.  The decline of our republic makes me so furiously angry that I feel like my teeth will break, but that feeling is nothing compared to the bone deep sadness which I feel contemplating the extinction of so many living things for our frivolous and corrupt economic system.

There is no way I could write about either of these things without spending all day at it (and spending a lot of time screaming at the heavens).  Is this what life is going to be like from here on out? Increasingly emotionally devastating headlines as ever more corrupt figures vie for power and the web of life slowly dies? Almost certainly.

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