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There’s exciting news in the, um, news: French archaeologists have discovered brand-new ancient ruins! The beautifully preserved Roman town were discovered in Sainte Colombe, a contemporary French town next to the Rhône River (as an aside, Sainte Colombe was named after a famous Baroque-era master of the viola da gamba). The ruins, which date back to the second and third century AD, are currently being excavated. So far the researchers have discovered the shops of various artisans and metal workers, a wine warehouse, a temple to an unknown deity, and two luxury houses which belonged to wealthy Romans. The ruins are being dubbed a new Pompeii, since fire caused them to be abandoned and forgotten until present (and left them much more intact than other such discoveries. I love Roman ruins and I am looking forward to seeing more of this ancient town!

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Here is a diadem made of diamonds from 1904.  It was created by Chaumet during its glory years under Joseph Chaumet (who remade the 18th century jewelry house into an international boutique).  Chaumet was an artist who looked for inspiration in unexpected sources, so this crown of diamonds is made to look like the stalactites in a cave, dripping with scintillant water. The piece was originally owned by Louis Cesar, Marquis of Lubersac, who was an esteemed senator of the Third Republic.  He commissioned the piece for his daughter-in-law.  It is so beautiful against a black velvet background, but I wonder if it is annoying to wear!

Verdun

A century ago the Battle of Verdun was taking place. This was a battle between the French and the German armies during World War I which began on February 21st 1916 and lasted until the 18th of December 1916. It is famous for being one of the worst battles ever: a complete catastrophe where poor leadership, innate human savagery, and industrial warfare combined to destroy countless lives.

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The battle started when the German high command abandoned its attempt to smash through the French lines and achieve a quick victory (the central plan of their war efforts up that point). Instead the German generals felt that they could “bleed the French to death” in a costly war of attrition if they attacked in such a place that the French could not retreat from for reasons of pride and necessity. They chose to attack an ancient fortress on the Meuse River–Verdun. The town had a long history of war. Attila the Hun’s armies were driven back at Verdun in the Fifth Century AD. The town traded place between France and The Holy Roman Empire in the Dark Ages. There was also a modern fortress there, although it had been denuded somewhat of weapons at the beginning of the war (because it was not thought to be of high strategic importance).

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The Germans built ten train lines (and twenty new stations) to quickly provision the battle. Yet the French had done a better job of (re)fortifying the area on short notice than the Germans had expected and the German attempt to seize advantageous tactical positions was not entirely successful. But the battle had begun. The German meatgrinder began to pulverize the reserves of the French army.

As it turned out, the German generals were proven right: the French army refused to retreat or surrender. They remained in place and defended Verdun at a terrible cost. However there was a second part of the German strategy which the Field Marshalls had initially overlooked: it turned out that for reasons of pride and necessity, the German army could not retreat or surrender either. The huge modernized armies armies were trapped locked together in a few square kilometers for 11 months. During that time they fired 10,000,000 shells at each other: a total of 1,350,000 long tons of high explosives and shrapnel. The new weapons of the day—poison gas, flamethrowers, grenades, airplanes, and machine guns all made frequent appearances.

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Spent shell casings at Verdun

I cannot give you a blow by blow account of the battle. More than a million men attacked and counter attacked again and again and again. You can read a synopsis online, or look up the details in one of the many books about Verdun.

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What we can say is that Verdun was a nightmare of mud and mechanized death. The year was wet and the local clay quickly became a treacherous landscape of mud filled with war debris and human waste and remains. Trenches and shell holes became slimy drowning pits filled with barbed wire and metal shards. The living and the dead alike rotted in place as millions of shells rained down along with the ever-present rain.

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Historians disagree on the full cost of Verdun, but total casualties (men seriously wounded to the point they were lastingly removed from combat) for both armies numbered between 750,000 and 960,000. An appallingly high number of these casualties were men killed outright. There were tens of thousands of combatants who went missing in action and have never returned.

During the Battle of Verdun, the French army came perilously close to coming apart entirely. Desertions began to run high (though deserters who were caught were summarily executed by firing squad for cowardice). Men went mad and became completely unhinged.  Antoine Prost wrote, “Like Auschwitz, Verdun marks a transgression of the limits of the human condition”  A French officer who was there (and who died there before the battle ended) wrote ” Hell cannot be so terrible.”

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The battlefield today (still scars upon the land)

And in the end the result of the internecine battle was…stalemate. Both sides lost more than they could afford and neither gained a real advantage (although strategists grudgingly grant victory to France for not breaking). The war moved on—soon an equally large battle was taking place at the Somme 125 miles to the Northwest. At any rate there was a second battle of Verdun in summer of 1917…not to mention a whole second world war a generation later.

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One of my favorite clothing colors is “French Blue” a brilliant bright ultramarine color which is best known for its use in men’s suits and shirts.  French Blue is the same color as French ultramarine—the synthetic version of ultramarine (a princely and ancient pigment made of crushed lapis lazuli).  It’s hard to tell if “French Blue” is really French or not—I couldn’t find the equivalent in this French dictionary of color, but it is certainly beautiful and fashionable.

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I’m sorry I haven’t yet said anything about the horrible Friday 13th mass slayings in Paris.  I love France and I love the French so I was too angry to write anything sensible.  My heart goes out to the victims and their families.  Vive la France! I would wish that the terrorist perpetrators from the so-called Islamic State were in hell–but based on what I see in the news–they are actively trying to build hell here on earth.  It is what the IS aspires to. It is hard to know how to properly curse such people: they already eagerly bear a more terrible malediction than any I could invoke.

Insigne de La Brigade des Forces Spéciales Terre

Insigne de La Brigade des Forces Spéciales Terre

Anyway, they have messed with the wrong folk.  The French are not just superb philosophers, bon vivants, aesthetes, and scientists, they are also extremely gifted warriors with one of the world’s finest armies.  Not only do they have similar high-precision weaponry to ours, they also have fearsome (albeit shadowy) special force squadrons who are battle hardened with field experience in Francophone North Africa.  The French are less keen on media-based warfare than we are.  A lot of times, their enemies just disappear without lots of splashy headlines.

But we will see how this unfolds in the real world in years to come.  In the meantime, to show solidarity with the French people, Ferrebeekeeper is going to spend this week writing about French subjects (which is something we should do every year anyway—perhaps around Bastille Day).

The Great Seal of France

The Great Seal of France

Let’s start with the Great Seal of France, the official seal of the French Republic.  Seals are an ancient cultural tradition in France dating back to the first Frankish kings, and before that to the ancient Romans. This particular seal was first adopted by the short-lived Second Republic of France (1848-1851) to replace both the royal seals of the Ancien Régime and the attainted seals of the First Revolution.  The great engraver Jean-Jacques Barre created the design which features the goddess liberty (or possibly Juno dressed as liberty) holding a fasces and leaning on a ship’s tiler with a Gallic cock upon it.  The goddess is wearing a seven arched crown with rays emanating from it—the same headdress which Bartholdi chose for the Statue of Liberty forty years later.

Around the goddess are symbols of knowledge, art, and power.  To quote Wikipedia:

At her feet is a vase with the letters “SU” (“Suffrage Universel“, “Universal suffrage”). At her right, in the background, are symbols of the arts (painter’s tools), architecture (Ionic order), education (burning lamp), agriculture (a sheaf of wheat) and industry (a cog wheel). The scene is surrounded by the legend “RÉPUBLIQUE FRANÇAISE, DÉMOCRATIQUE, UNE ET INDIVISIBLE” (“French Republic, democratic, one and undividable”) and “24 FEV.1848” (24 February 1848) at the bottom.

The reverse bears the words “AU NOM DU PEUPLE FRANÇAIS” (“in the name of the French people”) surrounded by a crown of oak (symbol of perennity) and laurel (symbol of glory) leaves tied together with wheat and grapes (agriculture and wealth), with the circular national motto “LIBERTÉ, ÉGALITÉ, FRATERNITÉ“.

The Great Seal is kept by the Minister of Justice, who is also the Keeper of the Seals.  It is used only for sealing the Constitution and Constitutional amendments—which are sealed with yellow or green wax on tricolour ribbons.

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My food pyramid is more like food columns lately

My food pyramid is more like food columns lately

I have been living on rice and pulses for weeks (pulses=lentils, split peas, red beans, pink beans, black beans, pinto beans, chickpeas…you get the idea). These foods deserve their own posts, not just for keeping me alive in this narrow stretch, but because they are also some of the first crops of humankind (and our history with them goes back way longer than that). However, as much as I love my chili and curries, tonight I couldn’t bear to look at the crock of chana masala. Plus I somehow managed to complete my training as a new employee of [Redacted], the regimented and tight-fisted financial firm where I am improbably quartermaster, and I felt like celebrating the fact that I made it through a (mostly) full week of grueling work alive.

Uh...is this a post about the glamor of working on Wall Street?

Uh…is this a post about the glamor of working on Wall Street?

So I gathered up my nickels and bought one of the cheapest meats available at the supermarket to make a strange poultry feast. Now this is one of my favorite meals, but it is kind of a monster’s dinner–and it is definitely made of meat! My readers who are vegetarians…or even just squeamish may want to skip this cooking post [ED: Why is a recipe post even here?] and come back tomorrow for Fourth of July stuff.

Chicken Livers (photo by the hungry native)

Chicken Livers (photo by the hungry native)

OK, we are making delicious chicken livers with onions in creamy marjoram vermouth sauce! I usually eat it on a bed of yellow rice, but it is really a French meal and it also works well on buttery mashed potatoes, if you want to make those. The key to the meal is fresh undamaged livers without gall bladders…but your only clue in the supermarket is color so this is sort of a Russian roulette meal. Just buy the freshest looking chicken livers and you’ll probably be fine.

Drain the chicken livers (which, rather unpleasantly, come floating in a little plastic cup of chicken blood) and dredge them in a deep plate of plain flour with a pinch of salt mixed in. I threw away one of the livers that looked like it came from a chicken with a serious drinking problem, but all of the livers smelled good (if they smell rancid or bilious, you uh probably need a new batch). Keep the bloody flour—you’ll need it! Grease a large solid frying pan with a bit of olive oil and start frying the livers on medium heat. A lid really helps if you have one!

Thanks Mom and Dad, for the really nice pan.

Thanks Mom and Dad, for the really nice pan.

I then chop up a medium onion and get a handful of wonderful marjoram from the garden. Flip the livers and throw a large pat of butter in the pan. When the butter melts and starts sizzling, put the onions in and flip them around so they don’t burn.

Marjoram

Marjoram

Add the chopped marjoram and some dry thyme and turn the flame down and put the lid on. Now mix the bloody flour with water till it becomes a viscous paste. The livers should be browned and firm and the onions transparent. Pour the flour water into the pan. Cook covered for a few minutes over low heat and then add a liberal splash of dry vermouth. If the gravy looks too thick, just ad some water and turn up the heat. Slosh everything around delicately with a spatula and add some sea salt to taste. Let the meal simmer on low heat till it looks right and then let it rest while you rice finishes (this all goes really fast).

I'll put up this mystery image so you can imagine the meal

I’ll put up this mystery image so you can imagine the meal

The meal looks like brown glop with horrible livers and dispiriting brown bits floating in it. It smells like butter, onions, trace elements, and cooked viscera. Sadly I forgot to take a picture before I fell on it and devoured it like a savage—so you can’t see how ugly it looks. Yet, when it comes out right, it is one of my best meals (and I’m a very good chef). I always imagine it being cooked by some sad scary old French man who lives alone in a forest, but when you get to know him you realize that he is a visionary genius and his horrifying meal is a gourmet treat.

They say he lives on entrails...and read all of Proust...

They say he lives on entrails…and read all of Proust…

This post concerning chicken strayed pretty far from the beaten path, but now you have a gourmet dinner you can make for next to no money! Let me know if anybody makes it! I’m new to food blogging but it seems to be all the rage out there and I thought that this meal fills a peculiar sophisticated/impoverished/delicious niche!

Liberty Enlightens the World (Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, dedicated 1886, copper and steel)

Liberty Enlightens the World (Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, dedicated 1886, copper and steel)

As everyone knows, the Statue of Liberty (which is actually properly titled “Liberty Enlightening the World”) is a colossal neoclassical sculpture which stands in the harbor of my beloved home city, New York, New York. This is the 130th anniversary of the statue arriving in New York from France. The 93 meter tall statue was a lavish gift from the French people, who obviously know how to give astonishing amazing beautiful presents!  I won’t get into the elaborate political, engineering, and fundraising history behind the statue’s conception, fabrication, and construction: suffice to say, it has a very complicated story (as one would expect in a monumental joint artistic venture between two of Earth’s greatest nations).

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I will note that the statue has greatly overshadowed its creator, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi—which seems inconceivable today when most art is an afterthought to the virulent self-aggrandizement of art world personalities.  If something similar were attempted now we would probably end up with a 90 meter tall statue of Jeff Koons…or of some part of his anatomy (though I shudder to write that down, lest I give him any ideas).

A Statue by Bartholdi of Bartholdi with the Bartholdi statue that made him famous (OK, maybe he did have SOME self reflective self-promotional flair)

A Statue by Bartholdi of Bartholdi with the Bartholdi statue that made him famous (OK, maybe he did have SOME self reflective self-promotional flair)

Bartholdi was an Alsatian and a freemason.  He studied architecture and then served in the disastrous Franco-Prussian War (a conflict when the excesses of the Second Empire came back to haunt France—and a war which provided dark foreshadowing for the great industrial wars of the twentieth century).  Bartholdi conceived of the statue as a tribute to democracy and freedom just after the American Civil War—when France was under the dictatorial regime of Napoleon III.  Because of the authoritarianism and inequality of the time, the idea was shelved until after the Prussians drove this second Napoleon into exile and ushered in the third republic.

Although before Lady Liberty he designed a colossal statue for the entrance to the Suez Canal...

Although before Lady Liberty he designed a colossal statue for the entrance to the Suez Canal…

The Statue of Liberty is so universally iconic that it is hard to look at as a work of art—which is a shame because it is very lovely.  The fluid Roman robes belie the practical architecture beneath.  Atop the statue is a glowing crown of radiant beams—the neoclassical symbol for divinity. The enigmatic face is simultaneously stern and compassionate (though it is said that Bartholdi based it on his mother which might explain these juxtaposed emotions—and the very human tenderness with which the artist wrought the giant metal face).

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It is frustratingly difficult to find pictures of other Bartholdi sculptures.  I see here that he created a work titled “Genius in the Grasp of Misery” which sounds incredibly relevant and germane as I scrabble piteously for rent, but sadly I can’t find any photos of it.  He designed a fountain “The Little Vintner of Colmar” which features a handsome youth drinking a never-ending stream of wine.  The statue is as delightful as its description and was a gift from the city of Colmar to the city of Princeton New Jersey…What was going on in the nineteenth century that cities were all giving art to each other? It seems like an amazing trend which has passed.

The Little Vintner of Colmar (Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, 1869, bronze)

The Little Vintner of Colmar (Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, 1869, bronze)

Speaking of which, it occurs to me, that I have never thanked the French people for their far-sighted generosity.  Allow me to do so now!  Everyone here loves the statue and we deeply love our beautiful exasperating intelligent friends across the Atlantic (even if it sometimes seems like we are at odds).  Vive la France et merci pour le cadeau magnifique!

A quarter scale model of the Statue of Liber...Liberty Enlightens the World in Paris France--it's even on a miniature island.

A quarter scale model of the Statue of Liber…Liberty Enlightens the World in Paris France–it’s even on a miniature island.

The Gallic Rooster minted in gold as a 20 Franc piece

The Gallic Rooster minted in gold as a 20 Franc piece

What is now France was once a province of the Roman Empire. The Latin name for these lands was Gallia—which was an approximate homophone with “galus” the Latin word for rooster—so, thanks to Latin wordplay, roosters were affiliated with the province in Roman times. France took its modern name from the Franks—warlike Germanic tribesmen who seized Gaul as Roman hegemony waned away in the middle of the Fifth century. During the French Revolution, however Frankish things became unfashionable since the Ancien Régime (and the nobility) had their roots in the Frankish conquest. The rooster thus became an unofficial symbol of the First Republic—and this affiliation remains true today during the Fourth Republic (although after the anti-aristocratic fervor of the revolution, anti-Frankish bias died away and the name was again used for all sorts of things—like money).

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This unsatisfyingly exiguous history of words is actually an introduction to one of history’s more beautiful coins—the 20 Franc piece, which was minted from 1899 to 1914 by the Third Republic. On the head side of the coin is the Roman goddess Ceres, the goddess of grain, agriculture, growing, and fecundity (who was also co-opted from the Romans as a symbol of the French Democracy). She is wearing the Phrygian cap of freedom and a wreath (although sadly, her cornucopia is not pictured). The tail side is, of course, the magnificent vainglorious Gallic Rooster with the soaring motto of the Revolution “liberty, equality, brotherhood.” Admittedly the golden meaning of the words loses some of its idealism when stamped in, you know, actual gold, but it is the most beautiful chicken coin I could find from history—and there were some really good ones!

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Most of the crowns of history are gone. Long ago they were lost or broken or stolen. Kingdoms fall. Raiders and thieves carry off the crown jewels which are then picked apart and melted down for gold. Famous national symbols like crowns are also deliberately destroyed for political reasons. This blog has told the story of many such missing crowns—for example the crown of the Tudors, the crown of the kings of France, the crown of the arrogant little banker-prince of Liechtenstein, and the crown of Poland. Such is life—silly hats cannot last forever, no matter how precious their manufacture or how blood-sodden their history. Considering this, it is strange that we have the crown of one of history’s most controversial monarchs—and that said infamous crown is somehow relatively obscure.

The Crown of Napoleon

The Crown of Napoleon

Napoleon Bonaparte was one of history’s greatest conquerors. He needs no introduction, but I am going to give him a short biography anyway (ha). Bonaparte was a gifted soldier and political manipulator who rode the chaos of the French Revolution to national power at the end of the 18th century. As dictator of France from 1799 onward he proceeded to conquer most of Europe until he was defeated and permanently deposed in 1815. As ruler of France, Napoleon initially styled himself as “First Consul” but as his authority grew, he adopted the more nakedly authoritarian title of “Emperor of the French in 1804. For his coronation ceremony at Notre Dame, he needed an appropriate crown (since the traditional crown jewels of France had largely vanished during the revolution). Napoleon opted to use two crowns for the ceremony: the first was a plain gold laurel meant to evoke the imperial grandeur of ancient Rome. The second crown, however, was specially made for Bonaparte and it is this crown which still survives at the Louvre.

The Coronation of Napoleon (Jacques-Louis David, ca. 1807, oil on canvas)

The Coronation of Napoleon (Jacques-Louis David, ca. 1807, oil on canvas)

The crown of Napoleon was made in mock-medieval style with eight half arches holding up a gold globe with a cross. The reason the crown is still intact and was not sold by the French state (or stolen by Prussians or Germans) is that the precious stones in the crown are not really that precious.   Instead of diamonds, rubies, and emeralds, the crown of Napoleon was set with shell cameos and carved carnelians. These carved pieces evoked the grandeur of ancient Rome (and followed the fashion of French empire) but did not compare with the huge gaudy gems which were popular for European crowns later in the 19th century.   When Napoleon went to Saint Helena, his crown stayed in Paris, but subsequent Bourbon monarchs (and even Napoleon III) eschewed the crown for other royal symbols.

The Crown of Napoleon

The Crown of Napoleon

History’s thieves, plunderers, and auctioneers all likewise ignored the crown regarding it as a fishpaste and gilt style prop rather than an actual precious relic. It can still be found in the Louvre, a bit threadbare but not substantially the worse for wear thanks to its handicraft “Etsy” aesthetic!

Wheat gray partridges and Orange (Jean-Baptiste Siméon Chardin, 1733, Oil on canvas)

Wheat gray partridges and Orange (Jean-Baptiste Siméon Chardin, 1733, Oil on canvas)

One of the greatest still life painters of all time was Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin (1699-1779). Chardin spent almost his entire life in Paris creating still life paintings of common kitchen and household items (and occasionally painting domestic scenes of maids, servants, and children). In an age dominated by Rococo excess and opulence, his works exalt the simple beauty of quotidian subjects. Additionally, he painted very slowly and turned out only 4 or 5 pieces a year. Chardin is one of Marcel Proust’s favorite artists and anyone who has read “Remembrance of Things Past” will recall long lyrical passages praising paintings such as “The Ray” (one of the Louvre’s prized masterpiece–which Proust saw often). Proust found a kindred spirit in Chardin—someone who found transcendent beauty, grandeur, and meaning within daily life. Chardin’s exquisite little works make a large aesthetic point about the nature of beauty and of truth—which are as often found in the servant’s little room as in the viscount’s vasty palace. A little hanging duck is as lovely as the goddess of the dawn.

A Green Neck Duck with a Seville Orange (Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, oil on canvas)

A Green Neck Duck with a Seville Orange (Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, oil on canvas)

I have chosen to show three paintings of fowl by Chardin (ranging from least, at the top, to best at the bottom). All are kitchen paintings of dead birds about to be plucked and cooked. The first is a simple brace of gamefowl hanging in the kitchen. The second work shows a splendid duck with one cream colored wing extended, the last is a magnificent turkey amidst copper pots and vegetables. Each of these paintings have a deep sense of longing: the melancholy of the dead birds is somewhat abated by the viewer’s hunger and by the wistful nostalgia created by a limited palette of grays and browns (with a few little flourishes of pink, orange, and yellow). Their very simplicity makes them rich and complex (although Chardin’s incomparable brushwork certainly is anything but simple).

 

Still Life with Suspended Turkey (Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, oil on canvas)

Still Life with Suspended Turkey (Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, oil on canvas)

The nymphs, clowns, and jeweled mistresses of 18th century French art seem to come from a world unimaginable—a world which even today’s jaded pop stars and sybaritic billionaires would find decadent. Chardin’s art however comes from some eternal place—a kitchen which we have all walked into in childhood. There in the plain light we are confronted with humble pots and pans and perhaps a bird or fish—but we are also confronted with the absolute beauty of the everyday world.

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