War and Pieces

Art and War may seem like strange bedfellows at first, but on consideration there are many great art works that have drawn their inspiration from war in virtually every artistic medium.  The Hindu god Vishnu is both creator and destroyer of worlds, and the ancient Greeks appointed Athena goddess of the arts and victory in war.

There has been a lot of interest in the fate of art during times of war of late.  George Clooney’s film The Monuments Men is a fairly lightweight attempt to dramatise the work of those who sought to prevent major cultural artefacts falling into Nazi hands.  (Give me Burt Lancaster in The Train for a bit of grittier art rescue).

There there’s been the revelations about Cornelius Gurlit, the German whose father was one of Hitler’s art dealers and who amassed a collection worth over $1 billion at today’s prices.  The trouble is the work was frequently looted or sold under duress, so there are considerable efforts to restore it to its rightful owners of their descendants.

_MG_1910I was reminded of this when I visited the photography exhibition at Tre Oci on Giudecca, for the permanent exhibits show the preparations made to protect much of Venice’s artistic heritage from damage.

The Giant’s Staircase at the Doge’s Palace was covered in sandbags and bolstered beneath with many more._MG_1781

The bronze well heads were removed to safe keeping, and great conical defences built over them._MG_1778-Edit

Panels from the ceilings inside the Palazzo were removed leaving gilt frames showcasing bare roof timbers.

The whole of the facade of St Mark’s Basilica was covered with an enormous wall of sandbags and supporting timber.  Statues were dismantled and removed.

Venetians had suffered before you see.  When Napoleon had taken the city in the 19th Century, he looted many works of art and placed others in storage in what is now Accademia, the great repository of works by Bellini, Tintoretto, Carpaccio and more, pending its removal.  Luckily he handed Venice to the Austrians shortly afterwards, leaving much of the booty in one place and inadvertently creating a great collection.

Come the Great War, Austria were the enemy and all those preparations were aimed at preventing damage from Austrian bombers.  In over 42 air raids, some 1000 bombs were dropped on Venice.  Cultural vandalism or bad strategy?  The Italian fleet were based at Arsenale in the city.

The defences around St Marks were effective, but at the other end of the grand canal, on 17th October 1915, a bomb intended for the train station destroyed the roof of Santa Maria di Nazareth (better known as Scalzi), and with it the incredible ceiling fresco painted by Tiepolo.   Surviving fragments are on display at Accademia, and serve to demonstrate the scale of the loss.

Meanwhile the aforementioned Mr Clooney, and the bride that he wed in this city, campaign to have the Elgin Marbles repatriated from the British Museum back to Athens.  Ironically one of the original reasons for their removal was to protect them from further damage; the Ottomans who ruled Athens at the time having used the Parthenon as a munitions store, which exploded under fire from…


Now who has the moral high ground?




The Gift of Memory

Like most people there are aspects of my memory that are pretty good (I just wish I could remember what they are right now), and other things that I’m not so good at like remembering people’s names.  When I’m photographing street portraits I like to use the individual’s name at least twice to embed it in my memory for when I write the blog later, though I might also record it on my iphone to be absolutely sure.

My wife’s family love to have parties, and more often than not these involve party games, which tend to become very competitive and not just between the teenagers, but also those who are old enough to know better.  One regular event is to play “the tray game” or “the memory game” where the objects from a covered tray are revealed one by one before the tray is covered again and the task of trying to recall the objects begins.  I’ve never been beaten at this.

This is not a feat of memory though, but the use of a technique.  I begin by having something in mind that I can mentally walk through and then place the objects along the way, visualising some connection that will help me to recall them.  Consequently I can usually recite the order they were shared in as well as the actual objects.  When the objects were relatively few I would work with calendar months, but attempts to thwart me by adding more objects have forced me to refine my strategy to the various premises and landmarks of a real journey.

Derren Brown at the Garrick Theatre, June 2008
Derren Brown at the Garrick Theatre, Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve never made a secret of the technique, which has been in use since Simonides in the Greece of the 5th Century BC, yet no one has successfully adopted the same methodology to challenge me.  It’s called the “method of loci“, loci being Latin for places, and with some variations is the basis for many feats of memory.  You may have seen those who can remember the order of multiple sets of cards, or Derren Brown playing multiple Chess masters by remembering the moves to effectively play them off against each other.

One of the more recent TED talks is by Joshua Foer and is entitled “Feats of memory anyone can do”, but that’s where I have a problem.  I suspect that since the method involves visualisation that some may have greater abilities than others in this field.  I am a very visual person, hence my love of imagery.  Derren Brown is an accomplished artist as well as an entertainer.  Might this be a common factor amongst those can take these techniques to extreme levels.  Might the phrase “photographic memory” be more meaningful than we think?

Of course memory is so much more than being able to recall information visually stored for short-term use (these “achievements” are after all little more than party tricks rather than true learning)  but I suspect that there is some gift that allows some to excel at them.

Which reminds me of today’s portrait subject, whose name is Donna.  There was no way I could forget that name for although it means woman in Italian, it sounds like the Latin worddona.

It means a gift.