Sunday, April 28, 2013


The finest and most extensive collection of Romanesque frescoes from the 10th and 11th centuries may be seen at the National Museum of Catalonia (MNAC) in Barcelona.  Originally, these paintings were applied directly to the walls, ceilings and pillars of many of the small remote Romanesque churches in Spain and especially the Pyrenees. Recognizing that they art treasures were threatened in the modern age – by deterioration or pillage - the government of Catalonia made a plan to remove these frescoes intact.  Early in the 20th century, a small group of Italian restoration experts successfully carried out this incredibly delicate task. Having been transferred to a stretched cloth, these frescoes were transferred to an especially designed area of the museum where they are applied to wooden frames in the shape of the original wall, arch or pillar of the church from which they were taken.  The shapes of whole chapels and their component parts are duplicated with their original frescoes on the surface.  Sensing a chapel setting adds even more to the authenticity of the experience.  These aged frescoes, now seen in one location and protected by the museum, never will be destroyed by falling or leaking roofs, collapsing walls, and, as happened to several of them during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), to be demolished in battle.  Here they are preserved as an amazing and accessible treasure from the distant past.

The museum utilizes the space of a building constructed for the International Exposition of 1929,  held in Barcelona. It sits on Montjuic, a hill overlooking the city, capital of the province of Catalonia. The name means Jews' hill.  Jewish culture thrived throughout the Iberian Peninsula in an era  known as the Golden Age.  Spain’s large, influential, and prolific Jewish community had a rich history until their tragic expulsion by Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492.

A different kind of preservation may be seen down the hill from the National Museum.  The entire brick exterior of the circular bullfighting arena located in downtown Barcelona has been transformed for a completely different purpose -- enclosing a modern shopping mall.  The stands and sand of the arena have been replaced with large bright yellow beams supporting three floors of glass fronted shops circling the inner side of the building. The formerly cheering crowds have been replaced by shoppers now entering to buy jewelry, clothes, cameras  --- goods from around the world.  The former focus of interest here, the bulls and matadors, are left to the imagination.
Frame for apse frescoes

Romanesque fresco with widowed donor at bottom right

Museum --  originally built for International Exposition, 1929

Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya

Former Bullfighting Arena

Interior of Shopping Mall



Kayaking under the Pont du Gard

Arch with rectangular holes for beams to support scaffolding if repairs were needed

European Union portrayed Pont du Gard as unifying symbol on 5 Euro note
Were the Romans engineering geniuses? Seems so by visiting the Pont du Gard. 

To settle and maintain their civilization in Nimes, a free flow of fresh water was needed – for the Roman baths, drinking water, and sanitation. In just ten years, Romans directed the construction of a 50 km (31 mile) long aqueduct from the fresh, flowing springs in Uzes, a Roman military camp, to the Roman settlement in Nimes. Local slaves and prisoners provided the construction manpower.
What were the essentials in the design project?

Though the distance from spring to settlement was only 15 km, the aqueduct needed to wend through 31 km in order to maintain a gentle slope in the channel that carried the water.  This very precise downward slope took advantage of the fact that the drop in height from the spring to Nimes was only 11 meters, or approximately 10 inches per mile!

100 gallons per second traveled through the aqueduct from end to end. The water channel was covered to prevent evaporation of this precious resource.

Local limestone blocks were used to construct bridges – dry construction with no mortar. However, the Romans knew that limestone is porous and could not carry water. So, brilliantly they covered the channel with an impervious plaster made of broken tile, lard and other materials.

To cross streams and rivers, 20 arched bridges were built -- the greatest of which was the Pont du Gard with its three tiers of arches, standing 160 feet high.

Saturday, April 27, 2013


View of the Amphitheater through the sculptured concrete walls of the Museum. The governor built the amphitheater at his own expense.

Remains of a Roman Chariot with its freight

Frieze on sarcophagus

A segment of one of the finest bronze inscriptions from antiquity. Recording a speech in 48 CE by the Emperor Claudius in the front of the Roman Senate.

  Present day Lyon is at the confluence of the Soane and Rhone rivers. Founded in 43 BC as a colony of Rome, it was then known as Lugdunum and served as a center of Roman administration from the first century through the decline of the empire 400 years later. Shortly after the assassination of Julius Caesar, the new leaders of Rome decided that it would be best to move one of Caesar’s good friends and supporters out of Rome and away from the centers of power—a savvy political move.  Hence, Munatius Placus was given the assignment of founding and heading a colony in central Gaul -  far enough away to not be a threat, but at the same time useful to the Roman state. Lugdunum became a center for trade in wine, olive oil and other goods of the area – a veritable emporium.  High on a hill overlooking the modern city is the center of the Roman settlement with its amphitheater, Odeon, and remnants of baths and homes. 

Today the Gallo-Roman Museum, designed and constructed with wonderful concrete forms and carved into a hillside, overlooks these ancient sites.  Using the most modern museum design, it displays ancient Gallo-Roman artifacts – sculptures, friezes, jewelry, coins, and ceramics.  



Paris Exposition Center

Left Bank Cafe

7th Century Visigoth Jewelry - Cluny Museum

Book of Hours - Cluny Museum

3-D CAD of Notre Dame Construction

On Bridge over the Seine with Love-Locks

Breakfast, Villa Lara, Bayeux

Mont St Michel
Bus Stop in Paris

Monday, April 22, 2013


The Bayeux Tapestry is not a tapestry; it is a magnificent embroidery sewn using only 4 different type of stitches and 10 thread colors. The Tapestry -- a linen banner about 70 yards long and 3 feet high -- tells a story of the Norman invasion England in 1066:  its origins, its military course with the triumph of William at the Battle of Hastings, and finally, the crowning of William as King of England.  It was directed to a largely illiterate English and Norman peasantry. 

The panels depict the sequence of events in this important bit of history.                           *Edward the Confessor, elderly and without an heir, selects William of Normandy to be his successor as king.
*Edward sends his brother-in-law Harold to Normandy to inform William that Edward has chosen him as his heir
*William extracts an oath from Harold to not become King of England
*Harold returns to England
*When Edward soon dies, Harold violates his oath and is crowned King of England
*William creates an army to remove Harold for violating his solemn oath
As it concludes, the embroidered work depicts the successful Norman invasion of England in 1066, with Harold’s death and William’s ascension to the throne.

The survival of this masterpiece for almost a thousand years is itself a miracle. Beginning in about 1070 after completion of the tapestry, Bishop Odo the brother of William the Conqueror hung it annually for several days in the cathedral at Bayeux.  For the rest of the year, it was stored in a large wooden box in the cathedral crypt.  It was almost destroyed during the French Revolution. During World War II, the Germans shipped it to Paris from where it was to be moved on to Berlin, but it remained, almost forgotten, in the cellars of Louvre.

Why did Bishop Odo want this history of the Norman invasion made and so publicly hung?  Was the Bayeux Tapestry a propaganda piece prepared by Odo to justify the invasion and give William legitimacy?  Did William invade England because the transition to Harold as king presented him with an opportunity to extend the size and scope of his lands?  Was Harold the true heir to the throne?  All this is unclear from the narration based on this great piece of medieval art.

But, as with many ancient conflicts, the winners write the histories.    


Cloisters and 15th C spires

Romanesque Pillar

Walls of the Abbey

Construction of new elevated causeway enabling Mt St. Michel to again be an island in high tide

The second most visited site in France, Mt St Michel, is set on a large rock island about ¾ of a mile off the Normandy coast.  It towers 700 feet above the English Channel.  From a distance, it looks like a pyramid, but as one approaches, the Gothic spires of the abbey can be seen reaching towards the sky.  The abbey dates from the 8th century with additions and replacements made through the end of the Hundred Years War in the 15th century.  Heavy Norman pillars underlie the Romanesque arches and finally the more delicate, soaring, pointed Gothic arches of the nave top the entire complex. The cloisters, chapels, refectories, sleeping quarters for the Benedictine monks and guest halls for visiting dignitaries provide an immersion in the history of medieval architecture.    

The town at the base of this sea and sand surrounded rock island is a warren of alleys with homes, tourist shops and even some small hotels. Before the causeway was constructed in the 19th century, the twice-daily tides isolated Mt. St. Michel from the mainland. Although the water and sands were supposed to make it impregnable, it was assaulted and taken several times over the centuries. In fact, Mt. St. Michel was last occupied by the Germans in the 1940’s, who used its highest steeple tower as an observation post to overlook the English Channel during the war years.  After the Allied invasion of Normandy, some German soldiers were captured on site but most had already fled.

Now, tourists again stream onto the ramparts of this miraculous religious/military structure. Here, they can absorb a full overview of medieval architecture from its Norman beginnings to its Gothic glories.




Driving north from Bayeaux to the beaches of Normandy, one passes through a bucolic green countryside with rolling plains boxed in by more and more hedgerows as the road draws closer to the sea.  Dating from medieval times, thick hedges grew from a wall of dirt, now fixed by innumerable roots, delineating land boundaries and helping absorb water from these low-lying lands.  In 1944, they formed a big physical obstacle for the largest sea-land-air invasion force amassed in the history of man.  For the Allied invasion to succeed, enormous military competence and technology had to work together effectively in proper sequence on this one day.

What made it work?  How did it succeed? 

American leaders had been preparing a military build-up in the 1930’s as the conflicts in Europe and the Far East grew. New planes, new tanks, new guns, new ships were all coming on line.  But only after December 7, 1941, did the war effort truly become national, where every man, woman and even child had contributions to make.  The army grew with a host of enlistees and draftees; the war plants hummed with women on the assembly lines; the backyard Victory Gardens grew with the children watering the vegetables --  everyone did their share.  The United States was united.

Transporting American men, equipment and supplies to England as the launching platform for an invasion was an immense task requiring extraordinary planning and skill in execution.  Once in Great Britain, the military leaders, Marshall, Eisenhower, Bradley, and others, sought to organize each fighter and every support item to make a coordinated crossing of the English Channel. Their goal was to establish a beachhead in France while under hostile fire from German defensive installations, the enemy’s Atlantic Wall. Every allied move was carefully sequenced as to what, where, when and how much.  Every 30 caliber machine gun had to have 30 caliber ammunition in proper boxes; every man had to have the necessary food to carry and someone had to have more food ready behind him; above all every unit in the military had a defined mission to assure the success of the invasion.  

Numbers:  160,000 allied troops participated along a 50 mile front; 5000 ships carried the men and supplies; 13,000 aircraft covered the skies.

But once all is lined up for the big day, and the effort is launched, what happens?  Then come the contingencies of battle, the chance occurrences that make for success or failure, the events that are not planned and take place only in the course of the chaos of the fight. The allied armies in Normandy on that fateful day had to cope with these unplanned, chance events.  Every soldier knows that he will face these contingencies in the course of battle.  From privates to generals, they exhibited untold courage, American ingenuity, and optimism to overcome the unforeseen obstacles.

Examples abound; here are a few. 

1.    Those landing inside gliders and those by parachute of the 102nd and 101st Airborne were supposed to land in drop zones, group together and take control of strategic bridges and crossroads, block the anticipated enemy strikes against the forces landing from the sea, and hold their positions until relieved by the rest of the army.  Not so simple.  With high winds in a cloud covered sky and in the face of heavy enemy anti-aircraft fire (the German acronym - FLAK) our air invasion arm was scattered for miles distant from the intended landing zones, basically all over Normandy.  Losses were high, groups of men were led by corporals or experienced privates to find their way to their assigned landing zones.  Along the way they fought Germans and did what they could.  The Germans were confused by the dispersed landings of the American troops and could not focus a counter attack effectively, since they were not sure where to go.  Our soldiers adapted effectively to their supposed setback by doing the best they could in small groups.  But was it a setback or did the dispersion really help the invasion effort?

2. Rommel was the Germany’s most formidable general -- in charge of the Atlantic Wall.  He had already done much to improve German defenses in the year he commanded this area.  He forced French farmers to place 10 foot long stakes at the corners of 10 yard squares and topped these with barbed wire to block the gliders from landing (known as Rommel asparagus); Rommel added and improved the reinforced concrete bunkers housing big guns and machine guns on the dunes overlooking the beaches; he grouped his tanks ready to assault a landing force along the French coast. But, on June 6, Rommel was far from the front. Instead, he had stopped in Paris to buy his wife a pair of shoes and then went to Berlin to celebrate her birthday.  He did not command at the front and did not return for several days.  Another contingency, but this one in our favor--- they work both ways.

In the end, good luck not withstanding, our overwhelming force, the competence of our commanders and the dedication of our soldiers to the mission won the day.
But not without terrible loss—9000 men were killed or wounded on the first day of the invasion.  

Parachutist caught on spires of Ste Mere Eglise

Sherman Tank

Normandy Beachhead

German Cannon Bunker

Military Honor

This embattled shore
Portal of freedom
Is forever Hallowed 
By the Ideals and Valor
And the Sacrifices of our Fellow Countrymen.
     American National Cemetery and Memorial
     Colleville-sur-Mer, Normandy, France    

Wednesday, April 17, 2013


On the left bank near the Sorbonne is a marvelous gem of a museum of the Middle Ages, the Musee de Cluny.  The museum is founded on two ancient sites: Roman baths of Lutetia, as Paris was called in the time of the Roman Empire; and, a Clunaic monastery from the early 15th century, a replacement of their 13th century building used to house monks of the order.  The building has been modernized over the intervening centuries and now houses artifacts from the period after the fall of the Roman Empire to the beginnings of the Renaissance in the 15th century.
Visigoth crown

Carved choir stall

Tapestry of the hunt

Kings of Judah

And what is seen here in the cool darkened rooms of this former monastery? 

A 7th century gold votive Visigothic crown, set with sapphires and emeralds, uncovered in Spain.

A wooden choir stall from XV century Beauvais extended along the walls of a long narrow room. Beneath one wooden seat was an elaborate carving of a truncated man with puffed cheeks blowing on a stalled windmill, hoping to turn the blade. Clearly, its anonymous artisan in the Middle Ages knew that wind was an unreliable source of power. 

Walls covered with tapestries depicting scenes of the hunt and tapestries of tournaments – sports used to prepare knights for real battle. Assorted shields, body armor, helmets and swords used by knights and foot soldiers.  Several hand written copies of the Book of Hours which had been used by monks at prayer and early sheet music used in churches for Gregorian chants. 

Heads of the Kings of Judah uncovered recently during road construction in Paris. The heads from the medieval sculptures were removed from full sized figures during the Reformation.
 These ancient objects were a feast for the imagination. 


 Claude Monet bought a farmhouse and accompanying piece of property about 45 miles outside of Paris in the town of Giverny. Intrigued by Japanese art and landscape paintings, Monet excavated a pond fed by water from the Seine River which passed nearby and built a small simple bridge with a handrail over a narrow outlet of the pond.  He surrounded the pond with attractive gardens and willow trees, planted bamboo from the Orient and brought in water lilies to bloom on the watery surface.  Thus he created an outdoor setting to complement his extensive collection of Japanese prints that he hung in his nearby home.  

Although Claude Monet had painted versions of his bridge and the water lilies in regular sized paintings, in his later life, he painted a water lily series specifically for the Musee de l’Orangerie. In fact, the museum’s space was specifically constructed for these unique works of art. These canvases, with the images of the Giverny water lilies in various seasons and times of day, cover the walls in two very large, elliptical rooms. With no sense of depth, the aquatic plants float vertically on the watery canvas almost independent of the canvas itself.  It is said that the clouded abstract nature of the water lilies may have had something to do with the way Monet was actually seeing his treasured plants; at the time, he was suffering with cataracts and so took advantage of his personal imaging to present us with this masterpiece.  So, was it an abstract vision?  Or his true vision?  Or maybe he took advantage of his true vision to give us an abstract vision. 

Monday, April 15, 2013


Designed in 1937 in a dull neoclassical style for the Paris Exhibition, the Chaillot Palace has been converted into a museum of architecture, with a elaborate French name, La Cite de L’Architecture and du Patrimonie.  One of its best features is that it overlooks the Eiffel Tower with one of the best views of this impressive 19th century structure, a signature of the Paris skyline. Currently, the museum has a special exhibit of the life and works of Marcel Breuer.

Marcel Breuer (1902-1981), a Hungarian of Jewish descent, was one of the founders of modern architecture. Breuer joined the Bauhaus School in the mid-1920’s, first as a student and later as a teacher.  Here, he designed his famous tubular steel chair, inspired by the curved handlebars of his bicycle.  This chair, with its cantilevered leather strapped back, seat and arms, has remained a classic piece.

After fleeing Nazi Germany in the early 1930’s, Breuer first went to London and then to Boston where he taught at Harvard Architecture school with Walter Gropius.  He and Gropius parted ways in 1941 when Breuer moved to New York to establish his own architectural firm.  He is credited with the design of multiple private homes, the Ameritrust building in Cleveland, the Whitney Museum in New York and the UNESCO Headquarters in Paris.   

He first focused on “people sized” objects—chairs, tables, desks -- and then expanded to single family houses and finally large public buildings. Marcel Breuer placed his own career in perspective when he commented that architects of monumental projects must begin with smaller objects that people can use.  He felt this was a necessary step to grand design since ultimately, all buildings are used by people --- not giants.

Model for home in Lincoln, MA