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Every year, as a final post, Ferrebeekeeper publishes obituaries detailing the important losses of the year. But what do we do for this disastrous pandemic year when the world lost so many people from all walks of life (and when Americans nearly lost our democracy to a larcenous conman and his enablers)? How do we characterize the human cost of the plague, strife, ecological degradation, and economic mayhem of this past revolution around the sun?

I thought about including tables of numbers or little biographies, but I decided instead that the best answer is to put up this baroque pen and ink drawing which I made to represent the year and its struggles. You can see the battle for political power which has rocked the nation and the world mirrored in the left and right puppeteers, however, the dueling grandees are less important than the larger tableau of molecular and cellular changes which are affecting the whole ecosphere. I imagine the great skeletal reptile at the bottom as the fossil fuel industry (although it might be the underworld belching up the fires of hell). The cornucopia represents the dark fruits of our endeavors (which we do everything to obtain, yet which always seem to float tantalizingly out of reach). A lovely bat flits around the upper right corner to illustrate the sad vector through which the virus jumped to humankind…but also as a tribute to the dreadful time bats are having.

Studded throughout the image are virus caplets… and grave after grave after grave. It was a dark year and we will be thinking about what went wrong for a long time (provided, of course, that things don’t go more and more wrong in subsequent years, which would certainly recontextualize 2020 in the very worst way possible–as a good year!).

We are not out the woods yet, but the vaccine is on its way (my grandpa just got his first shot). We have to make it through this dark winter first though. Then, in the new year we can start to mourn the dead appropriately. We can best memorialize them by fixing some of the problems which brought us to this unhappy point in time. We can truly have a happy new year by starting to work on the even larger problems which we know to be immediately in the road ahead of us.

We will talk about it all more soon. In the mean time, accept my condolences for any losses or setbacks. Be safe and vigilant and have a Happy New Year!

Since we were thinking about Baroque, um, geologists yesterday, I decided to stay in the same era and present this magnificent harpsichord which was made by Andreas Ruckers in Antwerp in 1643. Just look at this incredible instrument! I really wish we had a sound clip so you could hear the harpsichord’s sweet voice which has apparently staid lovely over all of these years (the resonant soundboard was apparently the true irreducible component of the device). The rest of the instrument though is a bit like the ship of Theseus. The keyboard and action were enlarged and replaced in France in the 19th century which is also when the gold baroque ornaments were added all over the case. Evidently actual baroque harpsichords were more simple and had cleaner lines, but the 19th century owners had little use for the harpsichord as a musical instrument and kept it as a work of art (and so they wanted it to be more ornamental).

The actual artwork on the case is from the 17th century (although it has been retouched) and shows Greco Roman gods and goddesses making music and desporting themselves among melancholy classical ruins. The soundboard itself may be an even finer artwork and is filled with birds, flowers, summer insects, and shrimp.

Paleontologists argue about which living organisms were first. In exchange, we living organisms get to argue about who was the the first paleontologist. There are many potential answers: the Greek philosophers/natural scientists Xenophanes, Herodotus, & Eratosthenes all wrote about fossils and recognized that parts of the land were once under water. Likewise the Roman geographer Strabo theorized about volcanism, subduction, and, most importantly, deposition. Pliny labored to apprehend the relationships between living creatures (and how they related to vanished or mythological beasts). A Medieval Perisan Ibn Sina (known as Avicenna in Europe) came up with a theory concerning the petrification of living things while the Chinese naturalist Shen Kuo recognized that climate and ecology changed over time (based on his studies of petrified bamboo).

However, to my eyes, the first paleontologist was an altogether more peculiar figure–a Baroque Danish polymath named Nicolas Steno who lived from 1638 to 1686. The son of a goldsmith, Steno moved through the scintillant aristocratic courts of Northern Europe in his era and thus knew Spinoza, de Graaf Ruysch, Lister, and Bourdelot (along with lots of aristocrats and churchmen who were probably all-important for securing patronage back then but about whom we are no longer obliged to care). As you can probably tell from the list of names I have given, Steno was dirst an anatomist, and it is through a strange quirk of dissection that he made a name for himself as a geology/paleontology pioneer.

In 1666 two Ligurian fishermen caught a colossal shark which they presented to the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Ferdinando II de’ Medici, who had the presence of mind to order it sent to Steno for dissection. Steno dissected the shark’s head and discovered that its teeth were extremely similar to stony objects discovered within the earth (then known as “tongue stones” but now called “fossilized shark teeth”). These mysterious triangles were once thought to have been hidden by imps or to have fallen from the moon. Steno recognized they came from sharks (perhaps giant sharks killed by the Biblical flood ?) and he devised a hypothesis for how they further came to be inside of rocks. Steno devised a theory of stratigraphy (a discipline of which he is arguably the founder). His four principles of stratigraphy laid the bedrock (heh heh heh) for Lyell, Hutton, and Darwin to piece together an accurate record of events on Earth. These four principles are:

  1. the law of superposition (older layers lie beneath more recent layers…just like upon a cluttered desk)
  2. the principle of original horizontality: (thanks to gravity, layers are horizontal when deposited)
  3. the principle of lateral continuity: (layers within a basin extend in all directions according to the manner and order of their deposition and are contiguous)
  4. the principle of cross-cutting relationships: if a disconuity cuts through a layer, it must be more recent than the strata

These principles seem childishly obvious to anyone who has ever made a sand sculpture–and they are in fact beautifully brilliantly obvious. Yet nobody had stated them together in the context of natural history or applied them properly to the stones beneath us. Indeed it would take another hundred years for scientific consensus to grasp their astonishing power and scope.

Sadly, Steno became interested in theological conundrums (and in the worldly power of the church). He converted to Catholicism and was ordained a priest. Soon he became involved in the counter reformation (where he found a new role arguing with Leibniz and censoring Spinoza). Thanks to his self-abnegating piety and devotion he was even raised to the rank of auxiliary bishop. His story becomes filled with weird hagiographic details like how he sold the bishop’s ring and cross to help the poor and how he ate so little that he, um died.

Steno was not unique among geology pioneers in being a churchman. However he is unique in that he has been beatified (Pope John Paul beatified him in 1988). According to the tenants of Catholicism, if you pray to Nicolas Steno he can intercede upon your behalf in heaven! However I recommend that you do not pay attention to such holy claptrap, but instead keep looking at interesting rocks and cool fish. That is where the real beatification occurs.

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My roommate works at King’s Theater, a movie palace in Flatbush, Brooklyn which opened in 1929 and closed in 1977 (neither of those were very good years for New York City).  The theater stood empty for decades as vandals and the weather destroyed the lavish faux-baroque opulence within, yet nobody had the heart to raze the grand edifice and the city wisely held onto the property waiting for the right moment…which finally arrived in the two-thousand-teens when a private organization spent a near 9 figure sum to renovate the palace to its glory (albeit as a real theater now, rather than a lavish movie house).  All sorts of strange mid-tier international acts have poured through since and I always look forward to hearing from my roommate about David Blaine (who vomited live frogs all over the place), the Hip-Hop Nutcracker, the Snoop Dogg morality play “Redemption of a Dogg” etc. etc.

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Anyway, last Monday was the office party, and he graciously invited me to look around inside the theater (I am familiar with the façade, pictured at the top of the post, but I never checked out live boxing or the Allman Brothers, and thus never passed the main door).   The theater was even more grand inside than outside (as you can see by the house photos immediately above), and walking around on the stage and looking at the stage machinery behind the curtain was a huge thrill.

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One of the miniature sagas of the long decline and unexpected resurrection of the theater is the story of the house organ (although sadly, it does not have the same happy ending).  The original organ was a  Robert Morton company super organ known as “the Wonder Morton” which was played to the delight of the house between shows and during silent films.   The organ was taken down in 1974–with good intentions for later installation at a working theater—but alas, the pieces were lost, except for the console which went to a private home.  When the theater was restored, the console returned from exile (although sadly with electronic guts).  I took pictures of the Wonder Morton console because it fits one of my artistic/musical obsessions: vanished music that plays only in the imagination.

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I love the lyres of classical Greek art, and the pigs playing bagpipes in ruined medieval abbeys and the vanished symphonic orchestras of ancient Rome, not just because of their visual dynamism, but because looking at them evokes a whole lost world.  The sad disengaged cockpit/console of the Wonder Morton touched these same levers in my heart.  Staring at it, I could almost hear the bygone music.  Plus, just look at the names of the settings!   I can almost hear the golden beauty of the chrysoglott, the pastoral serenity of the subharp, or the awesome majesty of tuba mirabilis.

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Ah…the days that are no more.  I will be sure to include some more silent symphony posts about musical instruments which we can never hear–although, come to think of it–I hear there is a theater in Jersey that has one of these organs in working condition….

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There is nothing that Ferrebeekeeper loves more than an enormously ornate 18th century edifice—unless it is a touching story of unification and healing!  This story has all of those things—but it also drives straight through one of the darkest episodes of twentieth century history.

This is the Dresden Frauenkirche, one of the two great churches of Dresden.  The Frauenkirche is Dresden’s great Protestant church: the Catholic church–the Hofkirche of Dresden—has its own history (though it could be argued that both churches form a larger story of faith and schism in Germany especially since Dresden is part of Saxony, which was Martin Luther’s diocese).   At any rate the Frauenkirche was designed by Dresden’s city architect, George Bähr and built between 1726 and 1743.  The defining feature of the church was its 96 meter tall stone dome.  The 12,000-ton sandstone dome rested on eight slender supports, and yet was famous for its solid resilience and strength.  During the 7 Years War, Prussian cannonballs bounced harmlessly off the sandstone dome like acorns bouncing off of a church bell.

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Unfortunately, the 20th century saw the advent of more terrible weapons than cannons (and more terrifying German leaders than Frederick the Great). In the final stages of World War II, the Frauenkirche was destroyed by the 1945 Allied fire bombings which burned down Dresden (and killed 25,000 of its citizens). All that was left was a pile of rubble and melancholy broken walls which looked for all the world like a Friedrich painting. The Cold War also took its toll on Germany and Soviet hegemonic aggression prevented the nation from uniting and fully rebuilding.  East Germany was unable to fulfill its potential or govern itself (on the opposite side of the Cold War, the United States was and is the dearest friend and ally of Germany…although maybe it is best not to look too closely into the circumstances of that firebombing or ask a lot of questions about our own recent embrace of the crazed strongman theory of misgovernment).

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So, for half a century the Frauenkirche was a nightmarish burnt fragment—an ever-present revenant reminding the people of Saxony of the terrible destruction of the war.   It became a locus of the German peace movement (and a site for passive resistance to the East German government). Then, in the nineties, circumstances in Germany changed very quickly.  Reunification brought forth a project to rebuild the Frauenkirche.  The original church was destroyed, but the original blueprints were not.  In 1992 construction began on the new Frauenkirche.   In an effort to recreate the church as thoroughly as possible, chemists tested burnt remnants, historians pored over ancient receipts, archivists collected endless photos and artworks, and the citizens of Dresden saved pfennigs in order to pay for the undertaking.  About 3800 stones from the original church were recovered and used.  The old stones have a patina of age…and they were darkened by the fire.

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The project was finished in 2005 (ahead of schedule) and today the Frauenkirche looks almost exactly the same as it did in 1744 or 1944, except the smattering of original stones give it a speckled appearance like a magnificent baroque toad.  Touchingly, the golden cross at the apex of the tower was funded officially by “the British people and the House of Windsor” and wrought by a British goldsmith whose father was a pilot in the bombing.

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If you have ever tried to fix or restore anything, you will recognize that this is a monumental accomplishment which indicates the proficiency and excellence of German manufacture (not that anyone had any doubts anyway). Even more importantly, the story is a reminder to everyone that reunification, rebirth, and rebuilding to Golden Age glory are entirely possible.  The full story of the church however also remains to remind us of the horror of war and the tragic history of mistakes which caused so much devastation.

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For years my most popular blog post was about leprechauns…so I need to make some Saint Patrick’s art pronto!  However before we get there, here are some weird green flounder artworks to lead up to the holiday.  Spring is almost here, even if the thermometer says otherwise.  Some kelly green artwork should remind us of that fact (even if flatfish are not traditionally spring green).

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To celebrate Halloween this week Ferrebeekeeper is exploring dreams and nightmares! Yesterday we introduced the Baku, a dream-eating, long-snouted spirit-beast from East Asia. Today we travel directly to the real of dreams and nightmares itself! Well sort of….Since I am unable to get inside the head of dreamers other than myself (at least with today’s technology) this means going to an almost equally scary place…the bedroom!

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I wanted to combine the place where dreams happen with gothic decorative art (a particularly fitting style for Halloween). I therefore asked myself whether anyone had crafted overly-elaborate gothic beds. A quick Google Image search revealed the answer to be “Oh my goodness!” Apparently the world’s bedwrights have been hard at work creating an insane array of magnificent and horrifying beds to cradle the reposing bodies of well-heeled dreamers.

"Oh my..."

“Oh my…”

Here is a gallery filled with crazy and extravagant gothic beds (a fitting companion to past galleries of gothic clocks, lamps, gates, and houses). Behold the magnificent dark canopies, strange gargoyles, and haunting grotesques…along with every sort of flange, post, tower, buttress, arch, and bracket that imagination can conceive.

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It’s difficult to believe that people sleep in such dark slendor…anyway, hopefully this range of bedframes will inspire your Halloween dreams (assuming that the baku does not get them first). Sleep well!

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Allegory of Spring (Bartolomeo Guidobono circa 1705-1709)

Allegory of Spring (Bartolomeo Guidobono circa 1705-1709)

Today, March 20th 2014, is the first day of spring.  To celebrate, here is an allegorical painting of spring by the baroque master Bartolomeo Guidobono, who spent most of his career painting in northern Italy.  Spring is here personified as a lovely young woman in a simple but elegant gown. A curly-headed nude infant sprawls across her lap and wildflowers spring up at her feet.  Behind the maiden a grove of budding trees recedes into the green distance.  It is a simple and refreshing painting about the relief and happiness of living things as winter fades and the world begins to grow again.  Hooray for spring!

Isola Bella (Lake Maggiore)

Isola Bella (Lake Maggiore)

The House of Borromeo was an influential family of Lombardi aristocrats who ruled Arona, a town on Lake Maggiore (a long prealpine lake which snakes through Lombardy and up into Switzerland).   Various members of the Borromeo family played important roles in the politics of Milan and of the Catholic reformation (particularly as Archbishops), and even today they control a business empire with considerable wealth and clout.

The Gardens of Isola Bella

The Gardens of Isola Bella

More importantly, however, the Borromeo family was responsible for one of the world’s most impressive residences—an immense palazzo and exquisite formal garden which take up the entirety of Isola Bella, a small island on Lake Maggiore.  Isola Bella was once a rocky crag with a small fishing village on it (the whole island is only 320 metres long by 400 metres wide), however, in 1632 Carlo III set out to build a grand palace and garden on the tiny spot of land.  The climate of Lake Maggiore is uncommonly mild, and the Count undoubtedly was looking forward to cool summers and warm winters on his isolated retreat.  Not even rapacious aristocrats get everything they want however, and the villa’s construction was interrupted by a plague which broke out in Milan in the middle of the 17th century.

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The palazzo is just another enormous beautiful Italian palace filled with sumptuous rooms, art masterpieces, and precious treasures but the tiered baroque gardens are truly remarkable.  Exquisite Mediterranean plants thrive beneath a background of snow-topped Alpine peaks.  Magnificent stairs and formal statuary add additional splendor to the garden.

The Shell Grotto at Isola Bella

The Shell Grotto at Isola Bella

Although aesthetes might find it difficult to pin down the most remarkable feature of this remarkable place, we here at Ferrebeekeeper have an easier task.  The gardens at Isola Bella feature one of the most striking mollusk-themed rooms on Earth.  The shell grotto room connects the ten-tiered garden on one side of the island with the huge mansion on the other—it is literally the linchpin of the island.  The grotto was designed to provide a cool retreat from summer.  The walls, ceilings, floors, and doorways are all covered with intricate murals made from shells and black pebbles.  So ornate is the shell-work that it took workmen and architects a century to complete the grotto…

A different room in the grotto

A different room in the grotto

The Head of Medusa (Peter Paul Rubens, ca. 1617-1618, oil on canvas)

The Head of Medusa (Peter Paul Rubens, ca. 1617-1618, oil on canvas)

Here is a dark Baroque masterpiece.  Using a polished shield as a mirror, Perseus has just severed the dreadful head of Medusa, a gorgon capable of turning anyone who sees her into stone.  Medusa’s head was subsequently used by Perseus as a weapon to slay the sea monster sent to devour Andromeda–but the weapon proved too dangerous for him to keep so he gave the head to Athena, goddess of victory and wisdom.  She set it on her shield (or sometimes her breastplate) and the Gorgoneion thus became a symbol of divine protection and luck as well as a charm for warding off evil.

Through the artist’s imagination, we are allowed to see what Perseus is not: the horrible head of the demigoddess with her countenance contorted in mortal outrage.  Despite her death, the many serpents which make up her hair remain alive and infuriated.  One even bites her forehead in pique. Where her blood pours on the ground, serpents and worms spring to life.  Spiders, scorpions and lizards appear in order to abet the general creepy horror of the scene (as do the stormy clouds and desolate landscape.

Detail

Detail

Rubens was the master of using color and motion to express the sensual and the grotesque.  The full dynamism of his style is evident in this grisly tableau which simultaneously evokes the drama of earlier Medusa paintings by Da Vinci & Carravagio while also bringing some of the detail and imagination of Flemish still life composition to play.

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