Thursday, 27 March 2014

Heart of stone

A work of Art, be it ever so humble, is long lived; we never tire of it (...). All works of Art have the property of becoming venerable amidst decay: and reason good, for from the first there was a soul in them, the thought of man, which will be visible in them so long as the body exists in which they were implanted.
  W. Morris – Art and Socialism, 1884

Naumburg Master - Uta von Naumburg 

One cannot but agree with William Morris’ opinion about the fascination, the soul, which dwells within a work of art. A power that strikes even more when it comes out from a cold and hard stone that suddenly acquires known or knowable features and that, be it only for a moment, makes us stop and stare.
I don’t know how the statue of the margrave Uta von Ballenstedt, better known as Uta von Naumburg, actually looks like, but the charming power of her  soul can already be perceived through the numerous images of her that can often be seen. 

Walt Disney's Grimhilde
This figure, in fact, has become worldly famous after Walt Disney’s Snow White (1937), who took inspiration from Uta to give life to Queen Grimhilde, Snow White’s evil stepmother. 

If you want to see the statue, you should visit the cathedral of Naumburg, in the German Land of Saxony-Anhalt. The “magic” is owed to the unknown Naumburg Master, who decorated the choir screen, where the twelve statues of the founders of the cathedral can be found.
Living between 1000 and 1046, Uta is represented among the statues of the first customers of the original Romanesque cathedral*; at her side is the margrave Ekkehard von Meissen, who became her husband in 1026. Their marriage was with high probabilities based on political reasons, nevertheless the couple didn’t give birth to any successor.

Naumburg Master - Uta and Ekkehard

One cannot fail to notice the distance between the two figures. In a traditional pose, the valorous Ekkehardt brandishes his shield and his sword, firmly looking towards the horizon. Uta’s long cloak, instead, wraps her almost completely; she’s even covering part of her face with the collar in such a way that the perfect oval shape of her face, framed by the crown, stands out clearly. Therefore the viewer can only see Uta's face and one of the hands, as the other one is hidden under the cloak.
Concealing her is precisely what draws the viewer’s attention on the few but elegantly defined details. The fine features of her face, the natural manner in which she sustains her cloak, preventing it to fall down, her melancholic look directed towards an undefined space and time dimension. Few elements that nevertheless succeed in transmitting the nobility of the figure. 

A figure that in every epoch inspired and captured passionate viewers. Disney was in fact not the only one who felt Uta’s peculiar charm; Umberto Eco himself is said to have claimed that, should he have to date one of the most famous medieval female figures, he would without a doubt choose her.

The exploitation of this image reached an extreme peak during the Nazi period, when Uta became the icon of Aryan beauty and the prototype of “classic art”, as opposed to the so called “degenerate art”. The Naumburg Master wouldn’t have thought to go as far as that.

Giotto di Bondone - The Meeting at the Golden Gate (1303 - 1305)
To conclude, I would like to call your attention to another image, a figure from a fresco which dates back to 1303 – 1305, some decades after the creation of Uta’s statue. The scene is taken from one of Giotto’s masterpieces, namely the decoration of the ScrovegniChapel, in Padua. It represents one of the episodes from the life of the Virgin Mary, and in particular Joachim meets Anna at the Golden Gate.

Giotto di Bondone - The Meeting at the Golden Gate (particular)

The figure in the black cloak distracts the viewer’s attention from one of the earliest kisses of the history of art, does 
she remind us of someone? 

Which had later been rebuilt, around 1250, in a more Gothic style, therefore representing an important proof of the transition between these two architectonic styles.

Monday, 17 March 2014

a Drill as a Fishing Gear

Technique adopted by a Bosun from the Philippines in Northern European waters… 

Performance carried out with success!

Thursday, 13 March 2014

The Body of the Enemy

Igorot Warrior
Sailing up the Congo River, Marlow’s expedition feels the presence of the tribal warriors hiding along the banks. They are observing the boat from the forest and Mfumo, Marlow´s Congolese companion, knows that they will not let them go much further without attacking. Those warriors are cannibals and only once they will get a member of the expedition, they would be able find their peace.

In order not to lose his strength, Mfumo picks out of a little bag a piece of bone which he inserts in a hole he has pierced on the right side of his chin. In spite of this, the threat becomes more and more pressing and Mfumo eventually stops trusting in his amulet. All of a sudden, he takes the bone out of his chin and throw it away in the waters of the river by saying: my enemy is laughing at me.. il me protège plus..Adieu! 

The little bag carried by Mfumo is full of small pieces of bones of a former enemy. In spite of his great strength, Mfumo succeeded in killing him and now, these small human fragments shall keep the caring presence of the dead’ spirit close by.

Mfumo’s disappointment in realizing the ineffectiveness of this method is smarting, but completely incomprehensible to Marlow, a man of the West. After attending Mfumo’s vehement reaction, he asks him placidly: Do you think that was a good idea? But Mfumo got his way out. In fact, in his bag are “many enemies” and another bone is what he needs to be confident again.

The scenes above are from the 1994 TV movie “Heart of Darkness” by the English director Nicholas Roeg, in which Marlow and Kurtz are interpreted respectively by Tim Roth and John Malkovich. 

The reason why I chose to recall the mentioned footage is because I think it highlights with particular attention the difference between the sentiments of rivalry among natives and colonists. 

The news that reach us from the conflicts all over the world, the falls of regimes, the attacks on minorities as well as the acts of violence reported on newspapers, made somehow “usual” at our eyes the sight of the enemy’s body as the object of scorn, humiliation and annihilation –symbolic other than physical – of an overcome obstacle. 

In many indigenous traditions instead, what happens to the body of the adversary does not go together with the denial of his valour. 

His body is torn and made in pieces and, by means of this, his spirit is asked to cross the line and step on the winner’s side. This implies that the reality of the defeated is symmetrical to the one of who succeeded in the fight. The head of the dead rival is stuffed, his bones are cleaned and made shining white, his tufts preserved to become part of amulets.

The cut heads stuck on poles at the entrance of the villages in the ancient Taiwan, the skulls hanging from the ceiling of the huts by the natives of Borneo and those dangling from the saddles of the Celts were certainly a warning against prowlers, but this reason went together with a primary religious purpose: the freeing of the spirit of an enemy whose virtues can be assimilated by who got his life. Through rituals, gifts and ceremonies this spirit is now prayed to stand by those who are still alive.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Il corpo del nemico

Borneo Headhunters, source:
Risalendo il fiume Congo, la spedizione di Marlow percepisce la presenza dei guerrieri indigeni in agguato lungo le sponde. Il congolese Mafumo sa che si tratta di cannibali intenzionati a catturare almeno uno tra loro per mangiarselo. Al ché, per darsi forza, Mafumo tira fuori da un borsello un frammento osseo che si infila in un foro praticato nel suo volto, sulla parte destra del mento.

Nonostante questa precauzione, l’insidia si fa sempre più incalzante e Mafumo perde presto la fiducia nel suo amuleto che d’un tratto si sfila dalla cute del viso per gettarlo nel fiume dicendo : il mio nemico sta ridendo di me.. il mio nemico non mi protegge più… Addio!

Il borsello che Mafumo si porta dietro infatti, è pieno dei frammenti ossei e dei denti di un acerrimo nemico che egli è riuscito ad uccidere dopo aver vinto la sua grande forza. Ora, tenersi vicino i residui del corpo dell’avversario dovrebbe implicare la vicinanza e la protezione da parte del suo spirito.

La delusione di Mafumo nel constatare l’inefficacia di questo metodo è cocente, ma allo stesso tempo è del tutto incomprensibile all’occidentale Marlow che vedendolo reagire così veementemente, senza perdere l’aplomb, gli domanda: Pensi sia stata una buona idea? Ma Mafumo ha la sua soluzione: nel suo borsello infatti ci sono “molti nemici”, un altro osso è quel che serve a ritrovare la sicurezza perduta.

Le scene sinora descritte sono parte dello sceneggiato “Heart of Darnkess” del regista inglese Nicolas Roeg (Marlow e Kurtz sono interpretati da Tim Roth e John Malkovich) il quale sembra aver voluto porre particolare risalto ad un approccio completamente diverso alla dimensione della rivalità da parte dell’uomo indigeno rispetto a quello dell’europeo colonizzatore.

Le immagini che giungono dai conflitti di tutto il mondo, i rovesciamenti di regime, gli attacchi alle minoranze, ma anche la violenza riportata nelle cronache, ci hanno reso in qualche modo “usuale” l’infierire sul corpo del nemico per scherno, umiliazione e annientamento anche simbolico di un ostacolo abbattuto.

Presso molte culture indigene invece la lacerazione del corpo del nemico non si accompagna al rinnegamento del suo valore . Questi viene dilaniato e fatto a pezzi dal rivale per aggiudicarsi la sua forza chiedendo al suo spirito un passaggio di campo che sottintende la realtà del vinto come speculare a quella del vincitore. Il capo della vittima viene imbalsamato, le sue ossa ripulite e rese bianche splendenti, i ciuffi di capelli conservati per farne dei feticci.

Le teste tagliate affisse sui pali all’ingresso dei villaggi dell’antica Taiwan, i crani appesi ai soffitti della capanne degli indigeni del Borneo e quelli penzolanti dalle cavalcature dei celti, avevano sicuramente una carica intimidatoria verso il malintenzionato, ma questa si accompagnava a una motivazione religiosa, ovvero la liberazione dello spirito d’un avversario le cui virtù sono assimilabili da colui che ne ha avuto ragione. Con riti, omaggi e cerimonie adesso si chiede a quegli stessi spiriti di passare dalla propria parte.