Architecture, sculpture, installations can all be found in Jerusalem and always the unexpected. There is always something new to see or experience and much that stays the same. That’s easy to do when you are in a place that’s been around for many thousands of years. Our final day included a visit to the Israel Museum, where sculptures abound.
We visited a small museum in an old house in the Old City built 500 years ago and typical of architecture in the Mediterranean with an internal courtyard, small and cramped rooms, with the courtyard serving as the center for family activities. Cooking was not done in the house because of ventilation problems, and each family had their own corner in the courtyard for that purpose. Although living conditions in Jerusalem remained unchanged for generation, and the Old City was quite inhospitable, at the turn of the century progress had been made for affluent residents though not for the majority. During the British Mandate (1917-1948) electricity came to Jerusalem and wealthier families could hook up to the grid.
The museum is set up to simulate one of these buildings. One unique thing is that the room that simulates the synagogue is the room where the Ari was born. The “Ari” which means lion is the name given to Isaac Luria, a famous rabbi and mystic, considered the father of Kabbalah. While he may have been born here his main following and attention (including a famous synagogue with his name and location of his burial) are in Safed in the north of Israel.
A friend in Mendocino has a cousin who has worked in the antiquities department of the Israel Museum for over 30 years. His speciality is art from the 3rd to 5th centuries (so ancient Rome to Byzantine). We met at the museum and he spent several hours taking us “behind the scenes”. It was amazing and I’m sharing some of what we saw.
Who were the Nabateans? At its peak the Nabatean Empire stretched from Yemen to Damascus and Western Iraq to the Sinai desert though no one knows for sure. They were a mysterious group of travelers and traders so it’s hard to know the true extent of their empire. Even though it is known they were literate they left little written record of their lives. We know them from the spectacular architecture, especially the magnificent site of Petra.
Not what you think. I’ve always wanted to visit the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg but not much else in Russia so that seems like a long way to go for a museum. Now I don’t have to go (or not anytime soon). The exhibit at the Foundation Vuitton was an amazing collection of art from the Hermitage. I learn something new almost every day, and this was one of those times that I said to myself, “how come I never heard of this man before”? Sergei Shchukin was one of the greatest collectors of French modern art very similar to Gertrude Stein and her family. The collection included Monet, Matisse, Picasso, Cezanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh and of course the important early 20th century Russians. Once Lenin nationalized the collection and Stalin asserted that art was “bourgeois” the collection was placed in public art collections at the Hermitage and Pushkin Gallery in Moscow.
This is the first time since the work was initially collected that it makes its appearance in France, where most of it was created and first exhibited. If you are a Matisse fan as I am hope you can imagine seeing so many of the most iconic works in one place so unexpectedly. We will be learning about all these artists this semester (unless you are in the ancient art class-sorry but more is coming for you in the next few days).
On a side note: The color on the outside of the museum is a temporary site specific work by Daniel Buren. If you want to see more of his work go to:
Ancient dwellings called bodies were domed dry masonry buildings made from limestone with walls up to 4 ft. thick. They date from 2000 BCE and were regularly rebuilt using the ancient methods until the 19th century when they were abandoned. Around 3000 of these structures many standing singly in fields (to store things or for short term shelter) or grouped like this in villages can be found around Provence. This village was restored in the mid 20th century. They are all built facing away from the north to avoid the mistral a strong wind that blows (and has been blowing every day since we’ve been here). We haven’t minded since it helps mitigate the heat but we are told can blow up to 100 miles an hour.
Hans Memling, Jan van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden, Hugo van der Goes were amazing artists of the Flemish school of the 15th century. While Italy was in full blown Renaissance, northern Europe was still transitioning from the Gothic style and conventions of the Middle Ages. So these artists were called “primitives”. It’s a term that couldn’t be more misleading.
Hans Memling’s paintings were serene,motionless, expressionless scenes of extreme devotion that was quickly fading in the rest of Europe. He became extremely successful because Europeans who passed through Bruges fell in love with it, took it home with them and thereby affected art making in many other places. His work is exquisite in its painting quality, attention to detail and miniature elements, landscape, and of course ability to tell a story. The Memling Museum is located in the former St. John’s Hospital which actually functioned as a hospital until 1975. The museum has some of Memling’s best work combined with work of some of his peers and various hospital related tools, furniture, and depictions of medical care dating back to the Middle Ages. Upstairs was an interesting photographic exhibit by an American photographer (sorry forgot to write down his name) who spoke with hospitalized patients who were close to death and asked them about their illness, how they felt about dying, what they regret, who they love, do they believe in God (a fair number did not), and how do they want to be remembered. It was powerful especially in this place.
I’ve looked at lots of blogs in the course of putting this one together and wanted to keep this on a more serious note partly because I’m also in the midst of teaching two art history classes and am excited to share as much with my students as I can since I can’t have them here with me. But there are some things that just don’t fit into that “serious” thing so this post will cover those other things. Hope you’ve enjoyed this little journey- we certainly did.
For the car we rented, we wished we had a bumper sticker that said “Avis made us rent this car.” It was twice the size of any other car on the road and now that you’ve seen how narrow some of the streets in these towns are you can see what a disadvantage that is. We figure here in Sicily perhaps this car makes us appear to be part of that group that you are not supposed to mention (you know the one that sparked a TV show about “singers” in the opera). It’a a good rationalization for the looks we get from passersby. We turned it in filthy, from road dust, lots of bird poop from parking under trees, and plenty of scratches but don’t worry we never met insurance we didn’t feel we had to buy. A man we met at the AVIS counter asked Jeff how he enjoyed the car as I guess it’s considered a “luxury” model and Jeff’s response was just get all the insurance.
About the cats, it truly makes us feel we were in a Mediterranean country, and one more tied to the Middle East since the British brought cats to Israel and Egypt when they were part of their empire to take care of the rats. Since the British were probably the only ones who were not in Sicily (except maybe during WWII) we can blame the French or anyone else you like. Anyway, they are only annoying if you have food otherwise they have virtually no interest in you. Saw very few stray dogs but they haven’t got the pooper scooper thing yet so in addition to being sure we didn’t sprain something by stepping into a hole we had to watch out for that as well.
For those who are reading this blog and are Jewish you know that we are in the midst of a whole season of continuous holidays. Sukkot (the one we are in now) is one of my favorites and probably the one I miss not celebrating at home the most. So, we were delighted to find a “sukkah” restaurant in Ragusa. The food has been very good though the beef is nor very high quality and there is no chicken on the menu in Sicily so if you are not a seafood eater you are probably a vegetarian by now. We are having no problem in that department though finally figured out that we were eating too much and are ordering much less. Hard to imagine that people can eat an appetizer, a first course (pasta), a main course, and dessert.
So last night we were in our last hotel, and I dreamt that the hotel had a section of floor that was from the 3rd century. We of course went in search of it (in my dream) and did find it in some out of the way corridor and were the only ones “looking” at it. Kind of a funny dream but made me think about how we had, as one of my students put it, “stood in the temples” and I am amazed to think that we spent so much time immersed in ancient history that is still with us today though who knows for how long. We are happy to come home to one of the places people go on vacation instead of vice versa. By tomorrow it will probably seem like we never left.
Catania is our last stopping off point on this trip and we’ve explored the town for two days now. It is dominated by Mt. Etna which is 10,000 feet and reminds us of Mt. Shasta though at this time of the year it has no snow. According to Thucydides, the city was founded in 729 BCE by Greek colonists. It was flooded with lava, shaken by earthquakes and yes, razed to the ground in 1693. The city today is the result of 18th century rebuilding that includes broad straight streets (though there are many little alleys as well), unevenly shaped piazzas and a different color of stone from the lighter colors you see elsewhere in Sicily. Unfortunately there is quite a bit of graffiti everywhere which detracts but we’ve seen some interesting things and our hotel is a bit out of the way (cruise ships come here) so we’ve had some great meals in local restaurants and found this a great way to end the trip.
On our last morning in Catania we went to see one last sundial in the church called San Nicolo l’Arena. This one is quite large, crossing the whole transept but the strange thing is the church is completely empty and filled with dusty chandeliers, niches, and even confessionals. It was a strange last church to see.
We fly to Rome for one more night and then make our way back to the US.