Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Iglesia de la Compañía, Arequipa, Peru

Built by the Jesuits, 1590 to 1698. Above, the famous entrance.


Overall view. The style of this church was very influential, and several others were built in the next century in this Indianized Baroque idiom.

In the cloisters.

Side entrance, now closed off.

Interior, including the gold-covered altar.

Ceiling of a side chapel.

St. James in glory.

Lovely photo from this blog, which has many more images and some history.

Rebels and the American Establishment

Would-be radical rapper and filmmaker Boots Riley explains the ironies surrounding cultural rebellion in America:
“Everybody feels like they’re the exception,” he went on. “There’s a story I tell, which was told to me by Tom Morello,” who was the guitarist for Rage Against the Machine, with whom Riley formed a side project several years ago. “Rage were going to shoot a music video for one of their songs, Michael Moore directed it and the idea was they were gonna show up on Wall Street and play loud in the middle of the day, and when the cops came, and when Wall Street people came and yelled at them, even if it got shut down, that would be the video. So they get there, they play the song one time. Tumbleweeds. Play it again. Nothing’s happening — a couple cops talking into their radios. They play it a third time and start hearing a rumble. ‘Are they sending SWAT in?’ And then, from around the corner, they see hundreds of people in business clothes coming closer, chanting ‘Suits! For! Rage!’ They’re fans!” (In the finished video, for the song “Sleep Now in the Fire,” a few men in trading-floor jackets rock out in the crowd.)

In a Lawless Place

In Rio's Favelas, the militias founded to fight the drug gangs look increasingly like them:
In their current form, militias were established in Rio de Janeiro in the late ’90s and early 2000s, under the pretext that they were protecting residents from drug traffickers. Although more civilians are joining, the militias have been dominated by active-duty and retired police officers, who essentially assume control of suburban slums, or favelas, under the guise of defending them.

Once they have a foothold in the community, militia members extort money from residents and shopkeepers (in other words, they demand payments that are partly for protection against themselves). They also control local unlicensed public transportation, since city buses are scarce or nonexistent in remote areas. They offer illegal internet and television connections, charge commissions on real estate deals, and control the supply of gas and water. In the Gardênia Azul favela, for example, militia members collect money from street vendors and even popcorn carts.

It’s a kind of mafia, with Brazilian peculiarities.

One of them is irony. After careful deliberation with their accountants (at least that’s what I imagine), and in the name of business diversification, some militias have entered the field of drug trafficking. Others have decided to work with their former rivals from drug gangs, selling them weapons and recruiting members from their ranks. In 2015, according to the newspaper O Dia, a militia “sold” the area of Morro do Jordão to a drug gang for three million Brazilian reais, or about $800,000. So much for the righteous excuse of vigilante justice.

According to the news website G1, two million people in the Rio metropolitan area live in territories controlled by militias. A 2013 academic report concluded that of the roughly 1,000 favelas in the city, 45 percent are controlled by militia organizations and 37 percent by drug gangs. The main difference is that police brutality is less common in militia-controlled neighborhoods, probably because those groups have strong ties to the official state security apparatus.
Where government cannot maintain order, somebody else will. And it is just a libertarian fantasy that unofficial police forces would be less burdensome than the official kind.

Incidentally, Rio's most powerful militia is called the "Justice League."

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Excavating Babylon

Instead of whatever it was I should have been doing, I spent about three hours this afternoon learning about the excavation of Babylon. I got curious about this because I was looking for reconstructions of ancient cities, and those of Babylon all look pretty much the same.

Here is a nice one by Rocío Espín Piñar. These paintings all look the same because they all follow the original reconstructions made by the director of excavations at the site from 1900 to 1917, Robert Koldewey of the German Oriental Society.

You can get a good sense of Koldewey and his work from a semi-popular book he wrote after the 1912 excavation season, which was quickly translated into English and more recently put online for free. The Excavations at Babylon, translated by Agnes Sophia Griffith, is not a particularly exciting book, but it is concise, well illustrated, and remarkably clear. There are many wonderful plans, like this one of the Southern Citadel.

Koldewey did a good job of telling us both what he thought his team had discovered and how certain he felt about it. Case in point: he identified a building that he thought might be the Hanging Gardens, but admitted this was mainly because the building was unique and he hadn't found anything else that might be the Hanging Gardens. Archaeologists now think it was a granary, and I subscribe to the theory that puts the Hanging Gardens at Nineveh. Koldewey published this photograph of an assortment of small figurines of apes, which says were very common finds in residential districts, while freely admitting that he had no idea what they represented.

While Leonard Woolley's work at Ur is most famous for the artifacts he uncovered, and Henry Layard's at Nineveh is know for the stone reliefs and sculptures, Koldewey's Babylon is known mainly for its architecture.

But then Babylon was a truly extraordinary city. The circumference of its walls was 11 miles (18 km), and this was no simple, single wall; behold Koldewey's diagram of the defenses. The most massive wall was 72 feet (22 m) thick. To excavate this vast site Koldewey employed 250 laborers and a dozen surveyors, and they worked most of the year, not some quick field season.

One of the discoveries Koldewey made was that shifts in the Euphrates River and a rise in the water table meant that the lower levels of Babylon are now under water; notice the water in the bottom of this excavation. Because of that the early Babylon of Hammurabi is still unknown. Across most of the site Koldewey's team reached only the last period of the city's glory, when it was the capital of what we call the Neo-Babylonian Empire. This was the age of Nabopolassar (reigned 626–605 BC) and his famous son, Nebuchadnezzar II (605-562). A few finds were made in residential neighborhoods reaching back to 1400 BC, but in the public areas it's all Neo-Babylonian.

We know a remarkable amount about this period. We have several different semi-official chronicles that give us the view of the ruling families, and also a strange class of courtly tales scholars call "novels" that provide fascinating details about the private lives of kings and queens. (The account of Kings David and Solomon in the Bible is one of these.) There are also tens of thousands of clay tablets, many of them from courts and temples but others from merchants and private schoolmasters. We have thousands of inscriptions. And we have Koldewey's archaeology. Above, reconstructed tile panel from Nebuchadnezzar's throne room.

Conveniently for us, ancient Mesopotamian kings liked to sign their building projects with stamped bricks and tiles; this one boasts of the great building works undertaken by Nebuchadnezzar. So we don't have to guess at who built which phase of the walls or which part of the palace, just dig out a few of the millions of stamped bricks.

This is how Koldewey was able to do such a great job of reconstructing the city that only a few details of his work have ever been questioned; mostly it was just a matter of moving massive amounts of rubble, mapping the walls, and reading the bricks. Above, plan of the sacred precinct, with the great ziggurat called Etemenanki, the Foundation Stone of Heaven and Earth.

Water tunnel. I shudder to think what it would take me to dig out such a tunnel with modern methods and safety standards.

Koldewey's book is of course mostly in black and white, but if you want color photographs of artifacts from Babylon you can find hundreds at the web site of the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.

Like the famous onyx scepter and this tiny onyx turtle.

Glass flask.

Gypsum head of the Demon Pazuzu. Aren't you glad to know about the Demon Pazuzu?

Of course the most famous artifact from Babylon is the Ishtar Gate, shown here as it is reconstructed in Berlin. But that is such a complex tale that I will take it up in a separate post.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Yair Dvir, "Living Dead"

Dried chameleon corpse in the Israeli desert. From National Geographic.

Grand Expositions: Paris 1900

Of all the great World's Fairs, the most over-the-top may have been the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1900, intended to celebrate the achievements of the nineteenth century.

It was held in the same place as the more famous fair of 1889, which launched the great era of the fairs. So the Eiffel Tower, built in 1889, loomed over the site.

Notice the huge Ferris Wheel, introduced at Chicago in 1892 and a requirement thereafter.

What made the 1900 fair remarkable was the sheer exuberance of the architecture.

Consider the Chateau d'Eau, the Castle of Water, attached to the Electricity Exposition. This was Art Nouveau taken to its most Baroque extreme.

So much was spent that the fair lost money even though 50 million people attended.

The fair featured the assortment of technological marvels that made these fairs so famous; among other things the first talking movies were shown. (You can see clips at wikipedia.) Rudolf Diesel exhibited his famous engine, and the mass public got their first look at escalators. Campbell's Soup was awarded the gold medal that still appears on some of their labels; I hope it was for preservation technology, not taste. Nested Russian dolls were either (depending on who you believe) sold for the first time or introduced to the west.

But it is the mad richness of the buildings and their scultpures that lingers in the imagination.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Meanwhile in Japan

I give you the world's largest LEGO cherry tree:
At 14 feet tall and almost 5 feet wide, the incredible 3,333 kg (7,348 lb) piece . . . took over 6,500 hours to complete with 881,470 bricks. The impressive piece features a grassy base, large branches, a canopy with thousands of flowers, and even LEGO lanterns that illuminate the structure at night.
I am not sure if I am more puzzled by the act of investing 6,500 hours in a LEGO cheery tree or that I found this story at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Genius as Circumstance

Opera director Yuval Sharon responds to being named a MacArthur "genius" fellow:
I believe there is a way of thinking about genius that could powerfully encapsulate the creative process. It begins by no longer applying the term to individuals. If calling an individual “a genius” sounds pompous and grandiose, describing some thing as “genius” is commonplace. “That was a genius move,” I find myself saying too often for it to actually mean very much. Or, “I wasn’t crazy about the last season of Mad Men, but the final scene was genius.”

Moments, ideas, a single poem in a collection — a work of genius, no matter how individually wrought — is never the product of a single individual. We should stop thinking of genius as an attribute and instead start to think of it as a condition, a circumstance. . . .

When genius is considered circumstantial, it becomes contingent — precarious, rare, and magical. Nothing becomes predictable: genius is a river, and to ride it, we must build a vessel specific to the circumstances we find it in. . . .

This is genius as the spirit of circumstance — an environment, socially created, not an attribute of an isolated individual. I believe most artists who truly contemplate how and why they create ask themselves the question: “Does the work I do even belong to me?” Here I must think about Ortega y Gasset’s great study, Meditations on Quixote: “The reabsorption of circumstance is the concrete destiny of humanity […] I am myself plus my circumstance, and if I do not save it, I cannot save myself.”
And he sums up by quoting Miles Davis:
“So What” or “Kind of Blue” . . . they were done in that era, the right hour, the right day, and it happened. It’s over; it’s on the record.
Most people who have studied the history of art or literature have considered something like this. After all the genes of Italians in 1500 were not different from those of two centuries before or after, yet, boom, suddenly there was this astonishing generation of painters and sculptors. In Paris a forty-year explosion of creativity took art from the Academic through Impressionism, Art Nouveau, and Symbolism to Cubism, Surrealism, and Abstraction, a dizzying run that left artists and art lovers gasping. The leaders of these changes became as famous as any artists ever, but in some other time and place they might have been recreating the same frescoes on one church wall after another.

It's an ancient insight but bears repeating: any great achievement begins with catching the wave at just the right moment. Most of the power comes from the vast ocean and the globe-spanning wind; the individual creator can contribute only a few bits of foam.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

The Catonsville Nine

Fifty years ago today, on May 17, 1968, something happened in Catonsville.
The Catonsville Nine were nine Catholic activists who burned draft files to protest the Vietnam War. On May 17, 1968, they went to the draft board in Catonsville, Maryland, took 378 draft files, brought them to the parking lot in wire baskets, dumped them out, poured over them home-made napalm (an incendiary used extensively by the US military in Vietnam), and set them on fire. Then they sang, prayed, spoke with reporters and waited to be arrested by the Baltimore County police.
The Nine were:
Father Daniel Berrigan, a Jesuit priest
Philip Berrigan, a former Josephite priest
Br. David Darst, a De La Salle Christian Brother
John Hogan
Tom Lewis, an artist
Marjorie Bradford Melville
Thomas Melville, a former Maryknoll priest
George Mische
Mary Moylan
They were tried in Federal Court in Baltimore on October 5-9, 1968. Both pro- and anti-war demonstrators picketed outside the courtroom. They were found guilty of destruction of U.S. property, destruction of Selective Service files, and interference with the Selective Service Act and sentenced to a total of 18 years in prison. But their leader Father Berrigan went on the lam and for the next seven months kept showing up in various places around the country, preaching anti-war sermons, and then disappearing again. He was eventually arrested and served a year in prison.

The building that housed the draft office still stands next to our public library; my daughters took ballet lessons there. I remember the strange thrill I got when I realized that those events took place in the parking lot where I left my car every Saturday.
Our apologies, good friends, for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children, the angering of the orderlies in the front parlor of the charnel house. We could not, so help us God, do otherwise.

–Father Daniel Berrigan

Tobias Hägg, Torres Del Paine

Lots more of Hägg's beautiful work here.

A Wonky Comment on Lead in the Ice Core

All the media that pay attention to such things (NY Times, Science News) are covering some results from measuring the amount of lead in an ice core from Greenland, which the study's authors say traces out the history of lead production in the ancient world. They think they can see in this data several major historical events, such as the civil wars of the late Roman Republic and the crisis of AD 250-270. This is pretty cool science; I love the basic idea of studying ancient industrial production by measuring the residue of pollution. But there is something wrong with this study.

First, look how spiky their graph is. A certain amount of random variation is inevitable in any series like this, but why would samples from some years have ten times as much lead as the years before or after? Industrial production in the Mediterranean cannot explain this. So there is another variable at work.

Also, a simplified version of the graph shows that it traces the rise and fall of the Roman economy fairly nicely. But what is happening at the far right end? Granted the European economy might have improved under Charlemagne, but it did not get back to the level of AD 100. Not even close. This seriously raised my hackles and made me wonder what the heck is going on.

Fortunately the authors of the study provided us with an important clue in their Supplementary Material. On these three graphs the simplified ice core data is shown in red. The black line is data from three studies of lead in bog sediments. Notice that all three show the Classical expansion, but only the one at the top shows dramatic growth after 650 AD. That sample is from Flanders Moss in northern Scotland.

Aha! So the missing factor here is wind patterns. The graph we see from the ice core is a combination of at least two variables: how much lead the Romans were pumping into the air, and whether the wind was blowing toward Greenland. Lead concentrations rise in the Carolingian period not because of increased production but because the wind shifted and blew more often toward the North Atlantic. Of course there might be yet more variables, such as changes in refining techniques, or the seasonality of smelting work, or the location of active mines. But anyway there are at least two.

Notice that the bottom bog sample has much higher lead levels than the other two; as you might guess, that bog is in Spain, the epicenter of Rome's metal industries. And it traces out a graph that more closely matches my idea of lead production in the Mediterranean than the ice core graph does. Probably cost about 1% as much, too.

I don't want to seem too negative; the ice cores are a great resource and we should push them as hard as we can. But they don't reveal everything, and sometimes they can be misleading. I understand that a couple of well attested volcanic eruptions do not appear in the ice core data, presumably because weird wind patterns kept any detectable amount of their ash from reaching Greenland. In the case of lead from Classical and Medieval times ice core data clearly should not be used alone, but only in combination with other information. And people who publish about it should be a lot more circumspect and do less grandiose self-promotion; their data is nice but not as good as data from bogs produced by people nobody has ever heard of, whose results completely failed to make it into the news.