Friday, 29 March 2019

A VAINGLORIOUS ATTEMPT AT MASCULINITY?

A skyscraper in Sjöstaden – architects' wet dream – inhabitants' bad dream!

No one living in our cosy little neighbourhood of Sjöstaden (with 25 000 inhabitants, but still cosy) can help notice this "middle finger" being raised at us, whilst we are taking the tram to subway station Gullmarsplan. It is an enigma to me why architects and building companies hunger for raising such an outlier at odd places in Stockholm. This will be the third scraper raised, with at least three more in the pipeline.

I ask you: why on Earth did the city authorities authorise this extreme case of one-up-manship? It is as if largesse in size is equalled to grandeur in style by the town officials. Anything higher than 20 floors goes, if there is but an empty building site allowing for it. Unfortunately, city officials' understanding of urban aesthetics is hardly shared by us poor suffering citizens.

Aesthetics aside; did the town planners think about the logistical nightmare being created by this outsized sugar top? Close to where its feet are planted into the Earth, there lies one single small roundabout, which has to accommodate, on the one hand, all morning and evening traffic flowing to and fro our neighbourhood into town, and, on the other, all the cars coming from Southern Stockholm and choosing to travel to downtown, using the small bridge across. Already without the new scraper and surround, with its forthcoming 6000 working places, this roundabout is hardly navigatable during rush-hours, with huge queues backstopping way into our neighbourhood. Imagine what will happen with the abrupt increase in car traffic created by this new development.


I am sorry to say, that there will be NO ROOM to enlarge the roads around this abomination of a city plan! Every single square meter of the necessary space is already occupied. What were town planners thinking when approving this building project?

You may conceive of me as being a hopeless nostalgic, forever opposing progress. And I am forced to agree, even if my reaction to this unnecessary and molesting skyscraper appears to me more rational than affective. Still, I think it is better to be a nostalgic, wishing to keep hold of all that is pleasant in the city, rather than embrace "progress" that implies getting rid of what is pleasant and replace it with abominations!

An old song comes to mind, which will help me to underpin my position. Unfortunately, it is in Swedish, based on an Italian original. But allow me to reproduce and translate here the core lyrics of the tune:

Lyckliga gatan du finns inte mer,
du har försvunnit med hela kvarter.
Tystnat har leken, tystnat har sången,
högt över marken svävar betongen.
När jag kom åter var allt så förändrat,
trampat och skövlat, fördärvat och skändat.
Skall mellan dessa höga hus en dag, stiga en sång?
Lika förunderlig och skön som den vi hört en gång...

Lucky Street, you exist no more.
You have disappeared with the entire neighbourhood.
The game has ended, the song has subsided.
High above the ground floats the concrete.
When I came back everything was so changed,
trampled and plundered, damaged and desecrated.

Shall between these high risers one day rise a song?
Equally wondrous and beautiful as the one we heard once upon a time...


Will a song rise around the Sjöstaden high riser one day?
I doubt it!


Tuesday, 1 January 2019

FATA SUA QUADRIGAE





This time of the year is usually dedicated to retrospection. Typically, you are looking at the past twelve months, at your achievements in that period, your mistakes and disappointments, and make pious pledges to become a better person the following year.

I will attempt to do more than this. Instead of looking back one year, I will try to have a glimpse at most of two thousand years in the past. A vainglorious task you may well think. You have, of course, a right to think so. But so do I have a right to make the attempt, being as old and (hopefully) wise as I am. In addition to getting on, I am also a born Austrian and as such always eager to tell a good story. So here goes:

Last October, I had the pleasure of exhibiting my Stockholm pictures from the book "Stockholm/Brussels ..." at a vernissage in Vienna. I am glad to say that this met with great interest. Especially glad am I to have seen so many old friends and relatives at the gallery. The picture below shows the "grand opening" with representatives for the Swedish Embassy, the "Österreichisch-Schwedische Gesellschaft" and the gallery, all praising me with nice welcomes.

Opening of vernissage with my Stockholm pictures in Vienna, October 2018

Inspired by this warm welcoming, I took, in turn, care to talk at great length around the pictures on the wall. The one on top of this blog has always been my favourite, so I went into considerable detail extemporising on the provenance of the bronze horse taking centre stage therein. Afterwards, a young lady was clearly inspired by the presentation and bought the picture straight away, being the very first to acquire a fine print at the exhibition. Hopefully, I have now wetted your appetite for the story behind this horse, since I simply can't resist to let it unroll.

To be precise, the horse in the picture was not originally conceived as a solitaire. Even now, there are two such sculptures standing on Blasieholm Square, in the centre of Stockholm. But there should actually be four horses standing, since the original was cast as an antique quadriga, a four-in-hand team drawing a racing chariot. And we are not talking about just any old four-in-hand, it is the only quadriga preserved from antiquity. You don't believe me? Well, you only have to visit St Mark's Basilica in Venice to see it in all its gilded glory!

The Quadriga of Saint Mark.  Source: Wikimedia

But how did this quadriga wind up in Venice? You may be surprised to hear that its origin is lost in the dawn of history. Investigations of the sculpture, looking at the way the eyes had been cast and the gilding applied, led experts to the presumption that it must have been forged around the turn of the second century AD. It is most plausible that it had been ordered by Emperor Septimius Severus, to embellish the top of his Triumphal Arch in Rome, in celebration of his sizeable military achievements.

The gilding method, in particular, points to the emperor. It concerns a cumbersome and costly procedure, with the labourers involved being condemned to painful disease and certain death. Who but an emperor could order such work?

Triumphal Arch of Septimius Severus in Rome. The Quadriga long gone!
Source: Wikimedia

However that may be, the statue would not have remained in Rome for more than a century. In 330 AD, a new Roman Capital was dedicated in the East, called Constantinople after its founder, Emperor Constantine the Great. Constantine put great efforts into getting this new seat of power up to imperial splendour immediately. To that effect, he pilfered sculptures, memorials, prominent obelisques, etc. from all over the Empire to adorn his "Second Rome".

It is therefore plausible that such a prominent sculpture as Septimius Severus' Quadriga would not have remained unmolested on top of Severus' Triumphal Arch. The rebuilt and enlarged Hippodrome in Constantinople had a four-in-hand to show for it on top the Northern facade, with its start boxes. This most probably is Severus' Quadriga.

Restored overview of ancient Constantinople, with the Hippodrome in centre
The quadriga is just about visible on top of the Northern facade.   Artist: Antoine Helbert

The Quadriga throned on the Hippodrome for a whole 900 years! It took a holy cruisade to remove it. To be precise, the Fourth Cruisade got "confused" and plundered, in 1204 AD, Constantinople instead of conquering Jerusalem! The Venetians, led by Doge Enrico Dandolo, participated in the plunder. Dandolo hastened to have the horses dismounted and shipped to Venice as spoils of conquest. There they were put on the facade of Saint Mark's Basilica and are from then on known as "The Horses of Saint Mark".

You may be led to believe that this is the end of the story. Far from it, several events remain to be told. Granted that another 600 years passed by without incident. But, anno 1797 AD, a modern day emperor was in the making. Napoleon had invaded Italy and now occupied Venice. Like a Septimius Severus reborn, he ordered the Quadriga to be moved to Paris, so that it eventually could crown his very own Triumphal Arch on Place Vendôme, known as the "Arc de Triomphe du Carousel".

Military review in front of the Arc de Triomphe du Carousel.
Quadriga on top.  Artiste: Hippolyte Bellangé

But, as we all know, Napoleon's power and glory came to a timely end, about 15 years after this move. Post the Congress of Vienna, Emperor Francis I of Austria, who by then had become sovereign of Venice, ordered the horses to be returned to Saint Mark. And there they have stayed, with the exception of two shorter deviations, an excursion to Rome in WWI and a visit to Padua in WWII.

The Horses of Saint Mark, now residing within the Basilika, to shelter them from atmospheric influences.  Source: Erich Lessing

This about ends my New Year's Retrospection; even if somewhat longer than usual, it still contains, at the very beginning, a short glimpse at my main achievement during 2018! But what about my New Year's Resolutions? Well, I am a senior citizen by now and understand the limits of my free will. What I am able to accomplish, I will of course pursue; but no pledges from my part about activities that I am well aware to be unable to carry out. Instead, permit me to put forward some pious wishes for the future. They concern the fruit of my creative labour. By this I mean, especially, the best of my Stockholm pictures.

These pictures lead a life rather more precarious than my two photographic books. The latter are safely preserved in the Swedish Royal Library, as long as that venerable institution will persist. But the fine prints I am producing will depend on the "kindness of strangers". Only if there are people gracious enough to acquire them and hang them on their wall will they have a life of their own. All I myself can do is to gift them the potential to last of up to a century, if well taken care of by their owners.

So let me wish the acquirers of my fine prints, in particular of the "Venetian Horse on Blasieholmstorg", a long and fruitful life so that they can cosset this creative child of mine. Let the print bring them an understanding of the almost two thousand years of history behind it. Let it induce them to hand it over to their children and them to their children, so that it can last the life span given to it by its creator.

In this spirit, I would like to wish all the dear readers of this blog

A very Happy New Year!