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daniliaotoviana

This is Danilia octaviana, a tiny marine gastropod of the family Chilodontidae (the mollusk family Chilontidae—because of a taxonomic mishap, there is apparently a fish family of the same name). Danilia octaviana throughout the Mediterranean Sea (and in the Atlantic near the mouth of the Mediterranean). It is a tiny snail. Adults measure between 7 and 11 millimeters (about a third of an inch). It scrapes up algae and microscopic plants and bacteria with its radula, and is in turn eaten by numerous predators of all different stamps. There is nothing remarkable about Danilia octaviana: there are thousands of small snails like it which live at the margin of our attention (although that perhaps is remarkable, in its own way).  Based on information on the internet, is a bit unclear whether the snail is currently alive or not (the photo above makes it seem like it is a fossil, but some sources speak about it today). I post it here because I think it is surprisingly beautiful and interesting as a textured sculptural whirl.

Danilia_otaviana

Common Myrtle (Myrtus Communis)

Common Myrtle (Myrtus Communis)

The common myrtle (Myrtus communis) is a small evergreen tree from the Mediterranean which grows up to 5 meters (16 feet) tall (although it is usually smaller).  Myrtle has little white star-like flowers which turn into blue-gray glaucous berries.  The small leaves produce an essential oil with a distinctive odor.  Myrtles are elegant small plants which can be clipped into handsome topiaries for the mild weather garden.  Some of you Californians may recognize it, if you aren’t too busy surfing, or auditioning for movies, or joining cults.   Herbalists attribute various medicinal properties to the plant, but medical science has never confirmed any utility of any part of the plant as a drug.

Aphrodite rides on the back of the swan, accompanied by a pair of winged Erotes (love-gods) holding myrtle wreaths. (drawing after fifth century Greek vase)

Aphrodite rides on the back of the swan, accompanied by a pair of winged Erotes (love-gods) holding myrtle wreaths. (drawing after fifth century Greek vase)

Myrtle is primarily worthy of mention because the Greeks and Romans loved it and regarded it as a sacred plant of love and immortality.  The plant was the signature flower of Aphriodite/Venus (though it was also apparently sacred to Demeter, albeit to a lesser degree).  Since it is symbolic of Venus, myrtle punches far above its weight in the canon of Western art.  Visitors to art museums are probably perplexed to notice the non-descript little topiary in the background of bodacious paintings of the gorgeous nude goddess (assuming they notice at all).  Venus’ other attributes are well known: swans, roses, nudity, little men with bows and arrows, nudity, shells, Cyprus, nudity, and sparrows, however the poor myrtle seems somewhat overshadowed by the charisma and charms of the love goddess.

Venus D'Urbino (Titian, 1538, Oil on Canvas) Note the pot of topiary myrtle in the pot by the column!

Venus D’Urbino (Titian, 1538, Oil on Canvas) Note the pot of topiary myrtle in the pot by the column!

stuffed artichoke from eat-spin-run-repeat.com

stuffed artichoke from eat-spin-run-repeat.com

The appetizer for the first dinner I ate in New York City was an artichoke baked with Parmesan, crumbs, and olive oil.  It was the first time I remember eating an artichoke (although I must surely have eaten some anonymous slimy dip in the 80s).  It was delicious!  Artichokes are still one of my favorite foods and they still remind me of how exciting it was to be in New York for the first time. But personal recollections aside, what is an artichoke?  The answer is as amazing and unexpected as the vegetable itself.

A field of artichokes

A field of artichokes

The first time I tried to cook an artichoke, I bought a couple of likely specimens and included them with my grocery purchase:  the poor teenage grocery clerk grabbed them from the conveyor belt like they were tomatoes and then screamed. It turns out that artichokes are a sort of thistle: they have sharpened spikes on the edges of their leaves (I’m really sorry the clerk hurt her hands:  I would have warned her if I had only known she was unfamiliar with artichokes).  Domestic artichokes (Cynara cardunculus var. scolymus) are a variety of cardoons–wild thistle flowers which are native to Italy, Spain, and North Africa.  Cardoons are part of the aster family (along with daisies, scottish thistles, and sunflowers) and were eaten by humans in prehistory.  It is unclear whether the Greeks and Romans domesticated the spiky plants (although they certainly knew of cardoons), however by the middle ages Muslim farmers were breeding the vegetables to be bigger and tastier.

The Wild Cardoon (Cynara cardunculus)

The Wild Cardoon (Cynara cardunculus)

Cardoons are hardy perennial flowers which grow up to 1.5 meters (60 inches) in height and produce purple flowers from a large spiky capitulum.  The capitulum is the portion of the artichoke which we eat.  If it is allowed to sprout into a flower, it becomes dry, leathery, and inedible unless you are a ruminant (in which case, why are you reading this?).  The world’s farmers currently grow about 1.4 million tons of artichokes a year–the vast majority of which still come from Italy.  There is even a delicious artichoke bitter liquor made of artichokes!

Cynara4_artichokeXwildcardoon_offspring

Roman Liburnian

Roman Liburnian

The early days of the Roman Empire were marked by huge naval battles.  The First Punic war saw great fleets of polyremes battling for the Mediterranean and that tradition continued as Rome grew and conquered the Mediterranean and fought civil wars right up until the battle of Actium left one man in control of the entire sea.  Thereafter, in the days of Empire, giant ships were no longer needed for dealing with pirates or policing sea lanes.  The navy of the later Roman Empire consisted principally of liburnians (also known as liburna), small light galleys which were not so swift and giant as the monstrous oared ships of the Republic.

Liburnians of the Danube fleet during Trajan's Dacian Wars (BAs Relief from Trajan's column, 118 AD)

Liburnians of the Danube fleet during Trajan’s Dacian Wars (Bas Relief from Trajan’s column, 118 AD)

Liburnians were named for, um, the Liburnians an Illyrian tribe inhabiting the Adriatic coast of Greece (what is today Croatia).  The Liburnians were pirates and sea raiders.  When the Macedonians conquered Liburnia, the military men were impressed by the lightness, maneuverability, and deadliness of the Liburnian vessels, so they made them part of the navy. Later, in the second half of the first century BC, Rome conquered the Hellenic world and took up this naval design (as well as a huge host of other Greek concepts).

Roman Liburna

Roman Liburna

The original liburnian boat had a single bench of 25 oars on each side.  The Romans refined altered this design to feature dual rows of oarsmen pulling 18 oars per side.  A liburnian was probably about 31 meters (100 ft long) and 5 meters (16 feet wide) wide with a draft of a meter (3 feet).  The Romans also added a prow for ramming other boats.

The liburnian served with distinction for centuries in the navies of the golden age empire and afterwards.  The boats were not used only for military missions but also for cargo and passenger transport. They saw use on the great rivers as well as on the sea. For many more centuries it liburnians were the backbone of the Byzantine navy as well, until the changing ideas of warfare caused the craft to evolve into the Byzantine dromons and the war galleys of the middle ages.

The Citron Fruit (Citron Medica)

The Citron Fruit (Citron Medica)

People love citrus fruit!  What could be more delightful than limes, grapefruits, tangerines, kumquats, clementines, blood oranges, and lemons?   This line of thought led me to ask where lemons come from, and I was surprised to find that lemons–and many other citrus fruits–were created by humans by hybridizing inedible or unpalatable natural species of trees.  Lemons, oranges, and limes are medieval inventions!  The original wild citrus fruits were very different from the big sweet juicy fruits you find in today’s supermarkets.  All of today’s familiar citrus fruits come from increasingly complicated hybridization (and attendant artificial selection) of citrons, pomelos, mandarins, and papedas.  It seems the first of these fruits to be widely cultivated was the citron (Citrus Medicus) which reached the Mediterranean world in the Biblical/Classical era.

Large Citron in a Landscape (Bartolomeo Bimbi, ca. 1690s, oil on canvas)

Large Citron in a Landscape (Bartolomeo Bimbi, ca. 1690s, oil on canvas)

The citron superficially resembles a modern lemon, but whereas the lemon has juicy segments beneath the peel, citrons consist only of aromatic pulp (and possibly a tiny wisp of bland liquid).  Although it is not much a food source, the pulp and peel of citrus smells incredibly appealing–so much so that the fruit was carried across the world in ancient (or even prehistoric times).  Ancient Mediterranean writers believed that the citron had originated in India, but that is only because it traveled through India to reach them.  Genetic testing and field botany now seem to indicate that citrons (and the other wild citrus fruits) originated in New Guinea, New Caledonia and Australia.

citrus

In ancient times citrons were prized for use in medicine, perfume, and religious ritual.  The fruits were purported to combat various pulmonary and gastronomic ills.  Citrons are mentioned in the Torah and in the major hadiths of Sunni Muslims.  In fact the fruit is used during the Jewish festival of Sukkot (although it is profane to use citrons grown from grafted branches).

"Um, how do you tell if this has been grafted?" (Image from Abir Sultan / EPA)

“Um, how do you tell if this has been grafted?” (Image from Abir Sultan / EPA)

Since citron has been domesticated for such a long time, there are many exotic variations of the fruit which have textured peels with nubs, ribs, or bumps: there is even a variety with multiple finger-like appendages (I apologize if that sentence sounded like it came off of a machine in a truck-stop lavatory but the following illustration will demonstrate what I mean).

Varieties of Citron Fruit

Varieties of Citron Fruit

Citron remains widely used for Citrus zest (the scrapings of the outer skin used as a flavoring ingredient) and the pith is candied and made into succade.  In English the word citron is also used to designate a pretty color which is a mixture of green and orange.  I have writted about citrons to better explain the domestication of some of my favorite citrus fruits (all of which seem to have citrons as ancestors) but I still haven’t tried the actual thing.  I will head over to one of the Jewish quarters of Brooklyn as soon as autumn rolls around (and Sukkot draws near) so I can report to you.  In the mean time has anyone out there experienced the first domesticated citrus?

The color citron

The color citron

Olive trees (Olea europaea) in the Garden of Gethsemene, Jerusalem.

A couple of years ago I was in a sumptuous private garden outside of San Francisco.  The Mediterranean style garden was filled with gorgeous silvery trees bearing strange deep purple fruit.  When I earnestly praised the trees to the garden’s owner, he looked surprised and informed me that they were olive trees.  I was raised thinking olives were disgusting squishy things that came in jars. Only after moving to New York did I realize how varied and delicious they can be.  I ran to the nearest tree and pulled off a ripe black olive and popped it into my mouth…and promptly involuntarily spat it out.  The fruit was indescribably bitter and vile.  “Oh there’s a process to preparing them for eating,” said the owner nonchalantly.

That was my first experience with a living olive tree (Olea europaea), one of the plants which appears most frequently in Western literature and art.  In Greek, Roman, and Biblical writings, the olive has easy primacy over all of the other plants, fruits, trees and flowers (other than the life-giving grains).  It is a defining symbol of Mediterranean culture and civilization.

Dispute de Minerve et de Neptune (Noël Hallé, 1748, oil on canvas)

There is a classical Greek myth about the creation of the olive tree.  Poseidon and Athena both wished to be the patron deity of Athens.  The dispute was becoming heated, but before it came to outright war, Athena proposed a contest: whichever deity could provide the most useful gift (as judged by Cecrops, the snake-bodied founder-king of Athens) would be the city’s special god.  Poseidon presented his gift first.  He raised his trident and brought it crashing down on the acropolis and a spring of water gushed into the air on the spot where the Erechtheion was later raised.  The citizens were delighted—until they tasted the water and found it to be as salty as the ocean.  Then Athena struck a great boulder with her lance.  The rock split open and a beautiful tree with silver leaves grew in the spot—the first olive.  Not only were the olives delicious, the oil was good for illumination, perfume, and cooking.  The wood was made into votive statues and other useful things.  The tree was drought resistant and tolerated brackish water.  As always, Athena was victorious and the city was named in her honor.

Wild olives (oleasters) were used for oil, fuel, and wood for at least 19,000 years.  It is unclear when they were first domesticated, but domestication happened in many different times and places (possibly from different wild antecedents).  Domesticated olives are propagated through grafting and cloning—since seeds can yield undesirable strains.  As I discovered in San Francisco, ripe raw olives are so bitter as to be inedible—they must be treated with salt or lye (!) in order to become acceptable to the human palate (although goats and cattle do not object to untreated olives).  The oil obtained from crushed olives was far more important than the fruit itself.  Olive oil is almost pure fat and is resistant to spoilage for longer than a year.  Not only was it the great preservative of classical society, it was the basis of cuisine, medicine, personal grooming, perfume, and sacred ritual.

Detail of a seated statue of Augustus wearing an olive wreath (from the Augusteum at Herculaneum)

The oldest and most revered cult objects of ancient Greece, the mysterious xoana, were constructed of olive wood (although these strange sculptures were known to ancient authors, none have survived into modern times except as stone copies of the originals).  In ancient Greece and Rome, victory—in games and in actual war–was denoted by a crown of wild olive leaves (also known as kotinos).  Olive oil was equally sacred in the Levant where it played a part in Jewish sacrificial offering and priestly anointment.  In the Bible, the olive is the first plant which the dove brings back to Noah as the flood resides—imagery which has become synonymous with peace.  Ironically olive is also a dark yellow color (or a drab green) in universal usage by the militaries of the world thanks to the fact that it is not a color readily distinguished by human eyes and thus blends in with many sorts of terrain.

Olive Drab Merkava Mk.4 Main Battle Tank camouflaged in a scrubland (the tank is in the middle of the composition)

In the modern world olives have spread from the Mediterranean and now live on all continents except for Antarctica.  Huge orchards of commercial olives can be found not only in Spain, Italy, Turkey, Greece and Israel, but also in South America, Africa, Australia and Asia (and the West coast of North America, obviously).  In their new homes olives can be a nuisance. They are a serious invasive hazard in Australia and certain Pacific Islands. Because of their resistance to drought, they out-compete native plants and create a weedy monoculture. Their high oil content makes them susceptible to fires which burn incredibly hot.  Of course not all olive trees are commercial plants, or dangerous weeds.  Olive trees can live to immense old age and some revered specimens are at least 2000 years old.   Such ancient trees are remarkable for their fabulous gnarled trunks and branches which take on an otherworldly appearance appropriate to their age.  Additionally it seems somehow appropriate that the olive tree—which has a reasonable claim to being humankind’s favorite tree–is capable of living through the millennia.

Ancient olive tree near Kavousi, Crete–reputed to be 3,500 years old

Pinna nobilis growing in the wild

Luxury fiber is a strange thing.  Linen comes from flax (which has some legitimate claims to being the first domesticated plant). Silk is derived from the cocoons of lepidoterans.  Qiviut comes from the undercoats of musk-oxen.  One of the rarest of all luxury fibers comes from an even more peculiar source.  “Sea silk” is produced by collecting and spinning the long micro filaments or “byssus” secreted by several kinds of bivalve mollusks–expecially Pinna nobilis (a large saltwater clam once widespread in the Mediterranean ocean).  Pinna nobilis can grow up to a meter (3 feet) in size and anchors itself to the ocean floor with an extremely fine fiber it excretes from a land in its foot.

A Pinna nobilis shell and naturally colored sea silk gloves

The fiber was mentioned in various Greek, Egyptian, and Roman sources (and an analog seems to have existed in ancient China) but differentiating sea silk made from mollusk fibers from similar luxury fibers like cocoon silk, or fine linen seems to be more a matter of context rather than of terminology.  Sea silk is finer than the true silk produced from silkworm cocoons.  It was said that a pair of ladies’ gloves made of sea-silk could be folded into one half of a walnut shell because the fiber was so profoundly delicate.  Sea silk was warm and durable but it was infamous for attracting clothing moths.  A few pieces have survived in museums including the extraordinary mediaeval chasuble of St. Yves pictured below.

The chasuble of St. Yves in Louannec (woven of byssus/sea silk)

Unfortunately the Pinna nobilis clams which are the source of byssus fibers have declined rapidly in number thanks to overfishing, pollution, and the general decline of the Mediterranean sea-grass beds.  Other fibers like seaweed based cellulose or watered silk have adopted the “sea silk” name further confusing the issue.   Today the sea silk industry only barely survives in Sardinia where a handful of aging practitioners keep it alive–more for tradition’s sake than economic reward.

Chiara Vigo, one of the last sea silk textile masters

Sealife Mosaic from "the House of the Dancing Faun" in Pompeii (ca. 1st century AD)

So much of Roman artwork is lost.  Except in remarkable circumstances, Roman paintings, textiles, and drawings were too fragile to survive the long centuries of neglect.  Almost all are now long gone.  Fortunately the Romans were masterful mosaic artists and mosaics are durable. Many mosaics concerning all sorts of aspects of classical life have lasted through the millennia.  Some of these tile artworks present the loves of gods or the wars of men but quite a few are more humble and show the aftermath of a banquet or fishermen hauling in a day’s catch .  Since Romans ate a huge amount of seafood, it is no surprise that many mosaics showcase mollusks of one sort of another.  Here is a gallery of Roman mosaics featuring octopuses, squids, bivalves, or snails.  I have tried to add as much information as I could but some of the photos I found were poorly labeled

Marine Life Mosaic from House viii in Pompeii demonstrating the vermiculatum technique (ca. 2nd century BC)

Detail of a Roman bath mosaic depicting a murex. (ca. late second to early first century BC)

Floor mosaic from "House of the Faun" Pompeii: Cat with bird, ducks, and sea life.

Ancient Roman Mosaic Prtraying Sealife from the British Museum

Triton with an octopus and squid (Forum Baths, Herculaneum)

Roman Mosaic of an Octopus

Modern mosaic makers were inspired by the Roman example and flamboyant cephalopods are a major theme of contemporary mosaics as well as ancient ones.  Here are some modern octopus and squid mosaics for millionaires’ swimming pools, elementary schools, or even everyday bathrooms.  Enjoy!

Modern copy of a Roman era mosaic from Milreu, Portugal

A Kraken for the bottom of a swimming pool (by Laurel Studios)

Octopus Mosaic for a public school

Contemporary Octopus Mosaic

A squid mosaic in downtown Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Octopus Mosaic from Seattle Country Day School

Navigation Mosaic by Mia Tavonatti

A Conch Used as a Trumpet

Conches are large sea snails.  True conches are from the family Strombidae, but there are a number of other large marine snails which are also colloquially called conches including horse conches (Fasciolariidae), crown conches (Melongenidae), and the “sacred chank” (a member of the Turbinellidae family).  These powerful marine snails are fascinating organisms in their own right—but today’s post is not about biology, rather it concerns music. When properly prepared, conches can be made into lovely and powerful wind instruments. Such shell trumpets have been found in use by cultures from around the world and specimens have been found dating back to the Neolithic era (although the musical use of shells might predate even that).

3000 year old Strombus galeatus shell modified as a musical instrument by pre-Inca people of Peru

Different cultures obviously use different shells for their trumpets and the instruments also serve varying purposes.  The magnificent big pink queen conch (Lobatus gigas) from the Caribbean was used as a trumpet by the Carib, the Arawak and Taíno peoples.  In India, the shell of the big predatory sea snail, Turbinella pyrum has long been crafted into the shankha, a religious musical instrument emblematic of the Hindu preserver god Vishnu (who last appeared in Ferrebeekeeper slaying the demon of Lake Lonar).  The shankha (also known as the sacred chank in English) can be intricately carved.  Though initially used as a charm to ward off the dangers of ocean travel, it long ago came to be associated with Vishnu worship and with nagas—water serpent deities.  Buddhists from the subcontinent also esteem the same instrument  as one of the eight auspicious symbols of that faith.  The Tibetan Buddhists call such a trumpet a “Tung.”

Vamavarta shankhas, c. 11-12th century

The Triton shell, Charonia tritonis, is used as a wind instrument throughout its Pacific range.  In Polynesia the instrument is called a “pu” whereas in Japan the horn is known as the horagai.  Likewise the Triton’s shell is a military instrument in traditional Korean music (where it is known as a nagak).

A Korean Bugler plays a Nagak

The cultures of the Mediterranean also made extensive use of conch-horns as foghorns and signaling devices and it is through Greek art and literature that conch horns made their way into mainstream Western art of the last two millennia.

Triton blowing on a Conch from the Bailey Fountain in Brooklyn

There seem to be two major ways of crafting a wind instrument from a large gastropod– both of which essentially involve creating an aperture in the whorl of a large gastropod shell. Mitchell Clark summarizes them with admirable clarity in his excellent article about shell-trumpets writing:

 There are two basic places this hole may be placed, and so there are two basic approaches that can be taken for making a conch shell into a shell trumpet. A hole is made either at the apex (the tip of the spire) of the shell, or, alternatively, in one of the whorls to the side of the spire…. In some cases the hole itself forms the mouth hole; in others, a mouthpiece is added.

The sound of such a trumpet is a rich rumbling primal roar—but it is usually only one note in one key.  Although pitch can be modified with finger holes or embouchure, such an approach is unusual.  But enough talk about shell trumpets!  Below is a Youtube video of a um…contest-winner playing one.

An octopus or squid theme jar from the Knossos Palace in Crete (ca. 1500 BC)

Since the last two posts concerning mollusks have also involved the classical Mediterranean world (where cuttlefish ink was used for writing/drawing and murex mucous was employed as a costly dye), I am going to continue the theme by presenting a gallery of octopus vessels from ancient Greece.

A Mycenaean Octopus Vase (from beyondbooks.com)

Most of these vessels are from the Minoan culture which flourished from 2700 BC -1500 BC or from the Mycenaean city states which were most successful between 2000 BC and 1100 BC (when an incursion of mysterious aggressive “sea people” apparently destroyed the great palace kingdoms). Such vases and jars were made by trained craftsmen and were prized throughout the Levant.

Stirrup jar with octopus, (ca. 1200–1100 b.c.; Late Helladic IIIC, The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Vase of the Late Minoan I Period (about 1600-1100 B. C.) found on Gournia, Crete Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art."

Minoan "Palace style," vessel (ca. 15th century BCE, Athens National Museum)

Because we only know tantalizing fragments about life in ancient Crete or in the Mycenaean palace states, the artifacts from that age have been subject to much conjecture and speculation.  These lovely octopus vases have led some thinkers into believing that Minoans worshipped the sea and the creatures therein.  Other scholars have conjectured that the ancient Cretans looked to octopus tentacles as inspiration for that characteristic Minoan architectural conceit, the labyrinth.  The real symbolic or ritual purpose of the octopus motif remains unclear and probably always will.  What is certain is that the vases, drinking vessels, and jars are quite lovely.  The octopus motif originated around 1500 BC and by the Minoan period the so-called “marine style” of decorating pottery had become even more prevalent and diverse.  Some ceramics were covered with fish, octopuses, dolphins, and crabs.  In fact there was even a vessel covered with murexes. Perhaps these people simply liked octopuses and sea creatures. I can certainly understand that motivation!

Terracotta rhyton painted in "Marine Style" with murexes (Zakros, Late Minoan IB, ca. 1525/1500-1450 B.C.) (Courtesy Onassis Public Benefit Foundation)

Rhyton, drinking vessel with painted octopus (From the Aegean, found in Ugarit "Minet-el-Beida", Syria. Late Bronze. Terracotta)

Minoan Amphora w Octopus Motif , New Palace Period , Knossos , Crete

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