Thursday 26 November 2015

Torcello and the origins of Venice

Visit Torcello to see where it all began

Image from Wikipedia

Having just returned from a most enjoyable trip to Venice, I've encountered a few people who might be planning their first visit, so I thought I would list a few things which someone visiting for the first time ought to see. 

But to begin with, why visit Venice? What's so special? For me, there are several reasons. It is very beautiful, probably the most beautiful city on earth. The main island is small, so that all the lovely things are packed very close together. It is entirely pedestrianised, as all the vehicular traffic is on the water, which means that unlike anywhere else, the entire city is laid out on a human scale, adapted for the pedestrian travelling at 3 km/h rather than the driver speeding along at a minimum of 20 km/h. In that sense, as enlightened planners today try to reverse our dependency on cars, it also provides a model for the city of tomorrow. And although the place is packed with the art of the past, there is also an abundance of the modern and contemporary.

Venice also has an interesting history which provides the backdrop for what we see today. It began its existence at the time of the fall of the Western Roman Empire, after 400, when refugees from invading barbarians, the likes of Attila the Hun, settled in the low-lying islands of the lagoon, and the best way for the visitor to get a sense of this is to visit the island of Torcello in the northern part of the lagoon.

Torcello was one of the islands to be settled by the early refugees and became the principal settlement of the lagoon, an important trading centre, and the seat of the local bishop. However from the 12th century the lagoon around the island became a malarial swamp, and it was eventually abandoned by most of the population. Today the principal monument is the cathedral, founded in 639, but built over the centuries, with many of the main buildings and mosaics dating from the 11th century onwards.

The boat trip from Venice to Torcello takes about 45 minutes. Depending on the time of day, you might need to change at the island of Burano, so it's quite a long trip, but it allows you get a sense of the immensity of the lagoon, the sort of low lying islands on which the early settlers had to build their home. 

On Torcello, they built their cathedral, the oldest in the Venetian islands, with its beautiful mosaics of the Virgin, Christ, and the last Judgement, which are among the finest examples of their kind in Italy. It's also worth climbing up the bell tower for an aerial view of the surroundings. From this vantage point you can appreciate the immensity of the lagoon, with the shallow water that protected the inhabitants from seaborne invasion, the navigable channels marked by bricole, those characteristic wooden tripods, which could be removed in times of peril. 

I can't think of anywhere else in the world where you can get such a feel for the earliest days and the origins of a city and a nation. Because although Venice is today is a city within the Republic of Italy, it was previously an independent state in its own right, with territories on the Italian mainland and overseas possessions in the Mediterranean. The Venetian Republic was founded and 697, and lasted for 1100 years until 1797 when it was conquered by Napoleon Bonaparte, a period of existence as a political entity that is longer than most states in Europe today. And it grew out of an unpromising environment such as the one you see around you.

Thursday 19 November 2015

Venice, the festa of the Salute, and the Palazzo Mocenigo

A post from abroad. 

We're just over half way through our week in Venice, and it's been very enjoyable so far. At this time of the year, compared to the warmer months, there are much fewer people. And no mosquitos, which is a great relief. It's now final week of the biennale, and on Saturday it's the festival of the Salute, marking the end of the great plague of 1630 - 1631. A pontoon bridge has been constructed across the grand canal to the eponymous church at its entrance. On Saturday, people will walk across it to the church, and there will be stalls and fireworks. The traditional dish for this festival is castradina, or salted lamb, boiled and served with savoy cabbage. I haven't seen it on any menus so far, but I made it on a previous trip in our rented apartment and rather liked it. This time round I don't think I'll go to the bother of cooking it myself, but I'm still on the lookout for a restaurant that will serve it.

Earlier during the trip, we visited the Palazzo Mocenigo. This is a house dating back to the gothic period but extensively rebuilt during the early 17th century. The last surviving member of the illustrious Mocenigo family donated it to the city in 1945, and today it is a museum and study centre for the history of fabrics and costumes. The museum with its architecture, furnishings, paintings, and other objects evokes the life of the Venetian nobility during the 17th and 18th centuries, as well as displaying the clothing of the period.

There is also a section on perfumes with a display of the raw ingredients that you can sniff, and a lovely collection of perfume bottles. For those who are interested, they also conduct perfume making workshops.

18th century Venice is the era depicted in the views of Canaletto and Guardi, and in the genre paintings of Longhi. This is sometimes thought of as a decadent age, when the thousand year old republic went into decline and became the playground of wealthy tourists and pleasure-seekers. The truth is of course always more nuanced, and during this period the arts continued to flourish, while life in the city remained relatively prosperous and comfortable by the standards of the time.

The Palazzo Mocenigo museum is well worth a visit for anyone interested in this period. Smaller and more intimate than the other better known museum of the 18th century, the grand Ca Rezzonico, and giving an insight into the more modest life of the very rich, as opposed to the stupendously wealthy.

The day after, we visited the Fortuny museum, a stunningly beautiful place, but that's for another blog post.

Friday 13 November 2015

Three quirky small cruising boats

I've only seen them online but they look like lots of fun

Compared to a lot of people I haven't done that much sailing myself although I've been fortunate enough to have sailed on a range of boats of different sizes, from small dinghies, to reasonably large tall ships. They have all been fun in their own way, but I've been most intrigued by very small cruising boats, or micro-cruisers. There have been heroic ocean-crossing voyages in small dinghies, like those of Frank Dye who sailed across the north sea to Iceland in a 16 foot wayfarer, but that's not the sort of thing that interests me. I'm referring more to small boats for pottering around in coastal or inland waters, which can get to places that the big boats can't reach. Sailing can be very expensive, and complicated. The bigger the boat, the more the hassle and maintenance. Small boats make things simpler and cheaper. They can be towed or sometimes car-topped, and brought to one's desired cruising grounds. Three examples have caught my attention recently, all from the internet.

The SCAMP (Small Craft Advisor Magazine Project) is just under 12 ft in length, with a tiny cabin. There is a single sail, a balanced lug, which is the attractive, traditional, easily-handled rig you can see in the picture.

The mast is unstayed, i.e. there are no wires holding it up, which makes everything very simple, and allows the rig to be set up quickly. Boats of this size usually have a centreboard which can be lowered to reduce sideways drift while sailing, and the centreboard sits in a casing which sticks out into the middle of the boat. In the SCAMP, the centreboard is offset from the midline, so that the crew area in the cockpit is unimpeded. The boat is very stable, water is used as ballast, and there is a tent that extends over the cockpit so that you can sleep aboard under shelter. The boat is built of wood, from plans which can be purchased, and recently it has been available in fibreglass as well. Very importantly, as far as I'm concerned, I think it's a beautiful design.

The Portland Pudgy is much smaller, measuring a mere 7 ft 8 inches in length.

She's made of moulded polystyrene and designed as an ultra-safe unsinkable lifeboat, but one that can be sailed, rowed, or powered with a small engine. Unlike a liferaft which drifts while the occupants await rescue, the Pudgy can be sailed or rowed by the crew. As a lifeboat, the accessories include a shelter which can be used at sea. However, the Podgy can also be used as a sailing dinghy, and as a solo microcruiser. The floor is long enough for a 6'2" person to sleep in, so it can be used for camping and sleeping on board. The masts and sails (available in a selection of options) stow inside the watertight compartment within the hull, and her size makes her ultra-transportable. The design allows the oars to be fixed to the side of the boat, available for use but out of the way. There are all sorts of optional extras available, such as a built-in compass and solar panels.

Here's one set up with a (non-standard) junk rig, under sail and with the tent:

Finally, ultimate simplicity in the form of the Mersea Island Duck Punt.

Based on the old boats used for duck hunting in the East Coast of England (with an enormous shotgun  pointing over the bows), the modern duck punt can be made at home by a not-very-skilled amateur (or so it is alleged) from a few sheets of plywood over a weekend. Plans are available for free, and the materials are said to cost around £150. I suppose that assumes you already have the tools and so on. The rig is a sail from an Optimist dinghy (a well-known class of boats designed for children). There's no rudder, and no centreboard, just a paddle held over the side for steering. This is obviously different from the usual sort of boat that most people learn to sail in, so I guess you have to spend a bit of time getting the hang of it, but it does look like rather a lot of fun and just the sort of thing for exploring the shallow backwaters of the East Coast of England.
For plans:

Thursday 5 November 2015

Batik and Wax Fabric: From Indonesia to Africa, via Holland

I thought there was something a bit familiar about those African fabrics

(Photo from The Wax Sellers of Wentworh Street by the Gentle Author of Spitalfields Life)

Some time ago while wandering around the streets around Wentworth Street, off Brick Lane, where there are numerous shops selling African fabrics, I was struck by how a lot of them reminded me of Indonesian and Malaysian batik. Looking a little more closely I saw labels which said things like "genuine Holland wax". So I did some research, and guess what? It turns out that there is in fact an Indonesian connection, via Holland.

Batik is a technique of wax-resist fabric dyeing which has been practised in Indonesia and maritime South East Asia for centuries, most notably on the Island of Java. The process involves applying a design to cloth with wax, and then dyeing the fabric. The parts of the cloth not covered by wax take up the dye, while the parts covered by wax do not. The wax is then removed from the fabric, and the process can be repeated as often as desired to build up the design. As you can imagine, this is a slow, painstaking and highly skilled technique, and Indonesian batik is on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

This video shows the process:

Indonesia was a Dutch colony until 1949, and the Dutch exported batik to West Africa from the mid 19th century. Towards the end of the 19th century, machinery was invented which could replicate the wax resist process more swiftly, and this gave rise to the African wax fabric prints as we know them today.

The machine-produced batik was not popular in Indonesia, but was popular in Africa. One theory is that West African troops serving with the Dutch forces in Indonesia brought batik back home to Africa, where it was well received. The early fabrics were imitations of Indonesian batik, but the manufacturers later began producing prints aimed specifically at the African market. To this day, although there are now producers in Africa,  and—of course—China, the high end of the market remains dominated by Dutch companies like Vlisco, whose entire output is for the African market. 

Although these fabrics are quintessentially African, they are designed and manufactured abroad. This raises some interesting issues, as you might expect. Critics of the industry have suggested that it represents a continuation of colonial endeavour, and argue that Africans should wear clothing designed and made closer to home. This whiff of colonialism is perhaps the reason the artist Yinka Shonibare includes wax fabrics in his work, as in this example :

Africans may buy their fabrics from Europe today, but there was a time in the past when Europeans had to journey abroad to buy the luxury goods which they were unable to produce themselves, such as Chinese silk during the time of the Roman Empire,  chintz and other luxury fabrics from India from the 17th century (currently the subject of an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum), or porcelain from China, which was not produced in Europe until 1708 (at Meissen). I don't know much about the  textile industry or Africa, but my optimistic view is that it's only a matter of time before fabrics are produced and designed in Africa, by African companies, which will compete with the products from abroad.

I never get tired of wandering around the Wentworth Street area and marvelling at the multitude of wax designs. Some are quite similar to traditional Indonesian batik, but from the early days, many of the fabrics incorporated motifs and images from modern life. They often have stories or symbolic meanings associated with them. This famous Vlisco design from 1940 is called "Six Bougies". The bougies are spark plugs, meant to show that the wearer is wealthy and owns a six-cylinder car, but there is another meaning: that he woman in the centre of the design is strong enough to take on six men. 

Motifs found on more recent fabrics include laptops and mobile phones. Others—like the one entitled Michelle Obama’s Handbag, or Kofi Annan's Brain—pay glorious homage to contemporary events. 

Kofi Annan's Brain

They’re mathematically interesting, too: within the frame of a single shop window you can see anything from regularly repeating motifs to some whose placement seems quite chaotic. There’s never been an occasion where a second, closer, look at these fabrics has gone unrewarded.

I've been wondering for some time if these African batiks would work on traditional South East Asian clothing, like the sarong kebaya.

"Kebaya 1" by Jamieson Teo from Singapore, Singapore - _MG_8051. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Commons

After all, the batik shirts commonly worn in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, like the ones seen here, worn by Indonesian President Joko Widodo and politician Prabowo Subianto:

...have quite a lot in common with the sort of garment favoured by the late Nelson Mandela.

And perhaps nowadays there might be a market for Southeast Asian batik in Africa.

A small correction:
It turns out that Mandela's shirts were made from Indonesian batik, and batik shirts are known in South Africa as a 'Madiba shirts"

Further reading:

Made in Holland: the Chanel of Africa by Inge Oosterhof., 2015

When It Comes to African Wax Prints, Buying Local, Thinking Global Isn’t As Easy As You Think African Urbanism, 2012

Africa's Fabric Is Dutch Robb Young, The New York Times, 2012

African Lace: an industrial fabric connecting Austria and Nigeria Barbara Plankensteiner. Anthrovision, 2013

The Wax Sellers of Wentworth Street, by the Gentle Author