Charlottenburg Palace Diary

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I hadn’t had time to tour this palace during my visit to Berlin in May of 2018 because it was so far away from my lodging in East Berlin and difficult to get to. This time I stayed in the more tranquil Charlottenburg district, which, along with the palace, Frederick the Great had renamed after his wife Sophie Charlotte, who had died in 1705 at age 37. I quickly grew fond of Charlottenburg’s wide streets with shops that didn’t cater to tourists. There was only one souvenir shop near my hotel, and it was at the Metro stop. Charlottenburg had an appealing ambiance and cast a spell on me.

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My first stop, after quickly learning the ropes of the Berlin Metro, was Charlottenburg Palace. Both the Old Palace and New Wing were very crowded. Because it was rainy, windy and very cold on that spring day, I did not spend time in the garden or see the buildings situated in it. Next time. . . .

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First, in the Great Courtyard I took a good look at the equestrian statue that glorified Great Elector Frederick William of Brandenburg, the father of Elector Frederick III. The son was the husband of Sophie Charlotte who became King Frederick I.

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I studied the external appearance of the impressive complex. The 50-meter high domed tower of the Old Palace caught my attention instantly. Fortuna, the gilded goddess of luck, was perched atop a lantern on the tower. The New Wing, built by Frederick the Great in the 1740s, was on the left side of the Great Courtyard. Its entrance portal was simple yet elegant.

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First, some background information: Charlottenburg Palace was born in the late 17th century as Lietzenburg, commissioned by then Electress and future Queen Sophie Charlotte. The couple adopted it as their summer residence. It grew into a lavish Baroque building with three wings. Cultural life flourished at the palace during Sophie Charlotte’s time. When she died in 1705, the lively cultural life ended, though King Frederick I still favored the palace.

After Frederick I died in 1713, the palace was only used for receiving guests and for family events because his successor, Frederick William I, was more passionate about the military and hunting and didn’t pay much attention to the palace. Then Frederick II took over in 1740 and had the New Wing built and furnished in Rococo grandeur. When Frederick William II came to the throne in 1788, he used a summer apartment in the New Wing.

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King Frederick William III and his wife Queen Louisa enjoyed life at Charlottenburg during their 43-year reign. They altered the appearance of the interior in 1810, the same year Queen Louisa died at the tender age of 34. A mausoleum with her Carrara marble tomb was erected in the garden. It was a simple yet intimate structure, resembling a Doric temple. The mausoleum is accessible to visitors today.

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Frederick William IV and Elizabeth of Bavaria were often present at the palace after the 1848 Revolution, but the first German Emperor, William I, only paid homage to Queen Louisa in the mausoleum. Otherwise, he was not attached to Charlotenburg. When Frederick III was emperor in the late 19th century, Queen Victoria put in an appearance at Charlottenburg.

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The year 1918 brought a halt to the monarchy, and Charlottenburg Palace then served as a hospital. During the Second World War, the palace took some destructive hits, but many of the priceless objects had been stored elsewhere by the time the bombs had been dropped. After the war, the palace was in much need of lengthy restoration. That work would last from the 1950s to the 1990s. At long last, Charlottenburg was restored to its former glory, presenting life of the royals from the Baroque age through the beginning of the 20th century. Charlottenburg Palace was even the home of the President of Germany from 2004 to 2006.

The interiors were very intriguing, many rooms even astounding. The lavish Baroque and Rococo décor of some spaces overwhelmed me. Still, I was a bit distracted by the size of the crowds walking from room to room, but that is what happens when you visit such a popular sight. I especially liked the chinoiserie adornment in many rooms. I found the Chinese-inspired style very impressive. I had not appreciated the remarkable effects that chinoiserie designs could have on a building before I visited the largest former resident of the Hohenzollern clan.

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One intriguing fact: The Amber Room that can now be found near St. Petersburg, Russia was built in this very palace. The amber covering walls were dazzling, as I saw when I visited Russia. Frederick William I gave the lavish room to Tsar Peter the Great in 1716.

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One superb space decorated in chinoiserie fashion was the Porcelain Cabinet, my favorite room in the entire palace. There are some 2,700 objects displayed in the luxurious and extravagant space. Before World War II did its damage, there were many more objects decorating the collection that celebrated the reign of Frederick I with abundant grandeur. There was so much porcelain that it was almost a shock to look at the space. Cleverly positioned mirrors magnified the number of Chinese and Japanese artifacts. The collection holds the distinction of being one of the oldest and biggest in the country.

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The Glass Bedchamber of Sophie Charlotte’s First Apartment

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Golden Cabinet with white harpsichord

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Another room that caught my undivided attention was the Golden Cabinet with its white harpsichord decorated with painted chinoiserie features. The Glass Bedchamber of Sophie Charlotte’s First Apartment showed off masterfully carved furniture and sported chinoiserie elements in its painted lacquer furniture and porcelain. The Brussels tapestries from 1730 in the Audience Chamber of Frederick I showed off scenes taken from Plutarch’s writings. I have always been a sucker for tapestries! Lacquer furniture and Far Eastern porcelain highlighted the chinoiserie effect. The Japanese Chamber is another space in which the chinoiserie style abounds.

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Japanese Chamber

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Audience Chamber of Frederick I

The chapel was phenomenal. It was here, seated in the royal gallery, that the Hohenzollern rulers, worshiped as Reformed Calvinists. Its decoration is awe-inspiring with a superb ceiling painting and carved pulpit. I looked up and saw the lavish decoration of a huge crown and the Prussian eagle.

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The Gris-de-lis Room featured an important painting by Watteau as well as other Rococo gems. In Watteau’s work, the protagonists have been indulging in earthly delights on the island of Cythera and are on their way to a golden ship that will take them home. The Golden Gallery was stunning with its green and gold Rococo adornment. The room, once used for balls, measured 42 meters long. Some of the gilt decoration includes shapes of flowers and shells. The Etruscan Rooms were influenced by Etruscan, Greek and Roman art and took on an exotic quality in the Rococo style.

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Ancestral Gallery

The Ancestral Gallery was regal in appearance with portraits of the Hohenzollern dynasty. Frederick the Great’s portrait was life-size and impressive. Even the details of the King’s Bathroom were not to be overlooked. Taps on the faucets appeared as dolphins. These sorts of details greatly impressed me.

I really was drawn to the Bedroom of Frederick William II, which was decorated in a white-striped bright yellow pattern. I recalled the bright yellow of my mother’s kitchen, a cheerful room where so many topics have been discussed as we set the world to rights, voiced our dreams and hopes as well as our disappointments and sorrows.

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East Indian Chintz Room

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The East Indian Chintz Room was no less spectacular. A favorite of Queen Louisa, the walls were covered in chintz, a waxed cotton fabric decorated with plant ornamentation as well as bird themes. The Adjutant Room was also intriguing for its South American rain forest landscapes. Paintings of Italian vistas in another room brought to mind my love of Italy, a country I tried to visit every year.

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Other buildings in the 55-hectare Baroque garden with Great Orangery included the New Pavilion, constructed from 1797 to 1869 and inspired by a villa in Naples. Romantic and Biedermeier paintings adorned its interior. The Belvedere, once a three-storey observation tower, was now home to a Berlin porcelain museum. The Great Orangery was another plus. During the late 18th century, plays and operas were staged at the impressive former theatre building.

I hope to visit these places, plus the mausoleum for Queen Louisa, next time I visit, weather permitting. There were three museums across from the palace, two of which were opened. I explored them and found a small hamburger joint for locals where I savored a juicy burger.

There always seems to be something drawing me back to Berlin.

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.

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MUSÉE DE CLUNY DIARY

Sorry the photos do not always show the objects described in the text.

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The chapel of the Musée de Cluny

One of my favorite museums in Paris is the Musée de Cluny, which houses a treasure trove of medieval art. Converted in 1843 to a museum, it is situated on the site of the former baths of Lutetia, a Gallo-Roman site. At one time, it was also home to abbots of Cluny.

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The baths of Lutetia are situated on three levels. They were most likely constructed in late 1 AD and served this function for 200 years. In 1862, they were recognized as a historical monument.  The townhouse that once was the residence of the abbots is another architectural delight. The huge inner courtyard includes an external spiral staircase. The facades are adorned with many Gothic sculptures. The decoration of an oriel amazes, too. Renaissance and Gothic art features prominently there.

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The museum isn’t only a showcase for medieval art. I also found Byzantine and Romanesque artifacts as well as metalwork and enamelware made in Limoges workshops. These included crosses, altarpieces and reliquaries, such as the reliquary of the murdered archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Beckett (1170). The gold votive crowns from Visigoth Spain hailed from the seventh century and served as prime examples of early Western art.

However, what fascinated me the most was the Gothic art. I loved the stained glass windows from Sainte Chapelle, a must for me every time I visited Paris. These windows dated from the middle of the 13th century. Three of the Apostle statues from Sainte-Chapelle were also on display. I loved the detailed drapery of the religious figures.

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I also saw the Virgin and Child, dating from 1240 to 1250, carved out of elephant ivory with the detailed folds of drapery on both figures. The Virgin was in the midst of making a gesture with one hand. Her hand looked as though it was in motion. The other hand held onto Jesus so gently, so lovingly. The smile on Jesus’ face was so bright, cheerful and contagious.

The objects from 15th century France tended to be morbid in nature. Indeed, even pictures of decaying corpses were on display. These figures were mostly comprised of reliquaries, statues, small altarpieces and stained glass.

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One unique artifact was a mask of a recumbent effigy from Tournai about 1400. I could see aging features on the face, particularly in the forehead. A winged vase was covered in brown and blue decoration on a white background and had a dynamic flair. Coats-of-arms adorned the central part of the vase. It hailed from Valencia, dating from 1465 to 1469.

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However, my favorite items in the museum were the six panels of the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries, in which the unicorn and a lady of noble stature were the protagonists. The six tapestries were created in Flanders around 1500 from wool and silk. They are considered some of the premiere works of art made during the Middle Ages. Five of the six panels evoked the senses while the meaning of the sixth one remains a mystery.

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In the sixth tapestry, a unicorn standing on two legs and a lion flanked the lady and her servant, a tent and trees behind them. In front of the tent, I saw French words that could be translated as “love desires only the beauty of the soul.” In the pictorial narrative, the servant was holding an open chest while the smiling lady put a necklace that she was wearing in the other tapestries into the chest. It was notable that the lady is smiling; in the other five tapestries, she was not. The background was made up of flowers and animals. The tapestry could have a spiritual or moral theme or could stand for love and understanding.

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Other tapestries on display that astounded me included three scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary (1499) and the Tapestry of Saint Stephen (1500). The Grape Harvest tapestry, hailing from the Netherlands in the 16th century, showed figures with detailed clothing making precise gestures as some picked grapes and other pressed them. I recalled all the amazing tapestries I had seen in the Vatican Museums while I stared, in awe, at the many tapestries in the Cluny Museum.

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I also loved the altarpieces and triptychs. The triptych of The Mass of Saint Gregory hailed from Westphalia in the late 15th century. It depicts the Pope seeing the apparition of Christ. The Presentation in the Temple is a triptych made in France during the third quarter of the 15th century. I liked the child’s wooden horse and the Gothic vaulting of the temple. The Life or the Virgin Mary was a gem of painted terracotta with much detail, created by Arnt von Zwolle in 1483. The Altarpiece of the Passion came from the Netherlands and Champagne in the early 16th century. Those are just a few examples.

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I left the museum with a much more poignant perspective on medieval art. I can’t wait to go back there someday – hopefully, someday soon. . . .

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Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.

Isola Bella Diary

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View from one of the grottoes in the palace

While visiting the Borromean Islands on Lake Maggiore, our tour guide saved the best for last. Named after Carlo III Borromeo’s wife Isabella d’Adda, the luxurious island had its name shortened to Isola Bella. I had heard there were ten terraces of gardens built in the shape of a truncated pyramid and that the island was shaped like a boat. Before experiencing the magic of the lush gardens, I entered the magnificent palace, which featured painting and other decoration that left me in awe.

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The Medal Room astounded me with its stucco and gilded adornment, alabaster statues and Murano chandelier. Ten medallions showed scenes from the life of Saint Charles. Two cabinets featured columns and richly decorated black stone.

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The large Throne Room showed off Lombard Baroque art, a ribbed vault ceiling and stucco with shell and plant decoration. Of course, the highlight was the throne, a gilded, wooden structure from the 18th century. It had an embroidered silk canopy. I also admired the red marble pilasters that added to the regal atmosphere. Two large cabinets from the 18th century had been made with tortoiseshell and included designs of landscapes. I admired the intrinsic detail of the craftsmanship.

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The biggest space in the palace, the Reception Room was lighter in atmosphere than the other rooms. The monumental pillars were decorated with putti and emblems, including a camel with a crown and a unicorn. A model of the palace and garden in the center of the room reminded me of visiting my Dad’s office on weekends as I gazed at all the architectural models and wondered if and when they would be built or if they had already been built. Statues and busts added to the adornment in the space. The circular pattern and dome added to the elegance of the space. There was plenty of white stucco décor. I saw the coat-of-arms symbols of the Borromeo clan on the walls. The brave unicorn that did not seem to shun a snake caught my attention.

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The Music Room has historical significance as the Stresa Conference was held there from April 11 to April 14, 1935. Representatives from Italy, Great Britain and France were concerned with Hitler’s violation of a section of the Treaty of Versailles. Little did they know that the following year the Italo-Abyssinian War would put a halt to their April negotiations calling for peace.

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What I liked best about this room were the 80 some paintings by Flemish artist Pieter Muller the Younger, who had acquired the nickname of The Tempest because he often created stormy landscapes. There were also two portraits in the room, the only portraits that The Tempest had ever created. The Tempest had lived an intriguing life. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison for murdering his first wife in 1679, but the Borromeo clan used their influence to get him released. Other items of interest in the room included a Florentine safe that was masterfully carved. A harpsichord in golden cypress wood stood out in the center of the room. The Murano chandelier added to the décor that I found almost overwhelming.

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The Napoleon Room got its name because Napoleon and his wife slept in the bed on display after his army defeated Italy. The canopy included damask and silk with silk braid. However, this was not Napoleon’s only stay at Isola Bella. He and his wife first spent the night here in 1797. I noticed that much of the furniture was in Empire Style and was reminded of the plethora of furnishings in that style at the Bohemian chateau Kačina. I admired the beautiful stuccoes as well. A Murano chandelier from the 18th century captured my attention as well.

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The Luca Giordano Room featured three large canvases by that author. One, the Rape of Europa, showed Jupiter as a bull. Another pictorially described the Judgment of Paris. But the room was not only awe-inspiring due to painted decoration. There were Japanese vases and even an ivory saddle from the 15th century that also astounded.

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The Zuccarelli Room was dominated by landscape paintings that Francesco Zuccarelli had created. His paintings emitted a sense of joy. I was already happy, but I felt even happier looking at them. Peasants, shepherds and mythological figures punctuated his works. I particularly liked the rendition showing the property and castles owned by the Borromean clan. I loved tapestries, and this room showed off three 16th century tapestries made in England. The velvet upholstery on the divans was another delight.

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In the Conversation Room, one piece of furnishing caught my attention the most. The top of a round table was made of colored marbles depicting a vase of flowers. It took 18 years just to gather marbles in the right colors! That’s how detailed and intricate the work was. It had been a gift to the Borromeos from Pope Leo XII in the 19th century.

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The rectangular Ballroom combined neoclassical features with Empire style décor. The divans were in Empire style while the marble sculptural grouping depicting the Rape of Persephone was made in neoclassical form. The stuccowork and imitation marble decoration had me in awe. I admired the flowers, fruit and garlands in circular frames that punctuated the room. The big mirrors had trompe d’oeil frames.

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I also saw six grottoes in the palace. This is where the Borromeos came when it was unbearably hot in the summer because the grottoes were cool. Black and white pebbles, tufa, stucco and stones were used for impressive decoration. Out of the stones were created figures of dolphins, seashells, bees and flowers. The last grotto included a fountain with a dolphin figure in the middle. It dated from the 18th century. The grottoes seemed depressing and dark to me, but their decoration was intricate and admirable. Still, I much preferred the light Reception Room that radiated joy due to its lighting.

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Next came a corridor of mirrors set at angles. They multiplied images in such a way that I was able to see many strange perspectives. That is one of the main reasons I travel, I mused – to gain new perspectives on life and the world.

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The room that perhaps was dearest to my heart was the Tapestry Gallery with six Flemish tapestries on display. A lioness, tiger and unicorn fought a tough battle while starving ostriches roamed in the wilderness, ravenously hungry. An otter was savoring a fish. In one tapestry a monkey, pheasant, elephant and two giraffes did battle with a rhinoceros.

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The Italian Baroque gardens were next on my list. The truncated pyramid had ten terraces, fountains and sculptural decoration. I stared at this gem for a long time, astounded at its beauty. White peacocks strolled by, acting nonchalant. The Camphor Garden showed off rare and exotic plants. The Theatre of Amphitheatre Garden’s architecture was intricate, taking the shape of a shell. Pillars, statues and obelisks stood out, especially the statue of a unicorn – the main symbol of the Borromeo clan – and the statues representing the four elements of earth, air, fire and water. The statue of fire was notable for the anvil in the back of the figure. Statues of the four seasons also made appearances. Winter donned a hat made of metal feathers.

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The Upper Terrace offered magnificent views of the lake and mountains beyond as well as the other islands. Egyptian papyrus, a banana grove and azaleas made up a beautiful Flower Garden. I loved the pool dotted with water lilies – it triggered thought of my favorite painter, Monet – in the Garden of Love. The many statues and spectacular views added to its splendor. There was a stunning greenhouse, too.

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I wound up sitting at the outdoor café, taking in the amazing view and drinking some much-needed water on this unbearably hot day. Then I followed the path out of the garden and eventually came to some shops and an intimate chapel. On the embankment were many stands with souvenirs, clothes and other items.

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Soon it was time to get the boat back to Stresa, located in the center of the Gulf of Borromeo. I admired the grandeur of the large hotels there. The Hotel des Iles Borromees had hosted kings, princes and politicians. Ernest Hemingway had written about the place in his novel Farewell to Arms. I didn’t see any of the churches or the park with zoo. I also didn’t have time to go the top of Matterone at 4,892 feet. Instead, I walked leisurely through the center, admiring the small cafes and shops selling magazines, shoes, purses and handmade greeting cards. Then I had dinner at an outdoor café and later met a friend at a café. Then it was time to go to the bus and make our way back to Prague.

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Church on Isola Bella

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My last day at the Italian lakes had been delightful with impressive and awe-inspiring sights, full of memories that would last a lifetime. Each island had its own unique character. My favorite was Isola Bella with its luxurious palace and lush gardens. Isola Bella was an incredible place, that was for sure. Then again, all the Borromean Islands had been incredible.

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Views from garden

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View from palace

 

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.

Isola dei Pescatori Diary

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After visiting the palace and botanical gardens at Isola Madre, we set off for Isola dei Pescatori or the Fishermen’s Island in the Borromean Islands off Lake Maggiore. The only island inhabited year-round, as of 2018, Isola dei Pescatori had 25 permanent residents. The island has been inhabited for about 700 years.

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First, something about the name Borromeo. Indeed, the Borromeo dynasty played a major role in the history of the islands. While the Borromeos own the other two islands we visited, they never had possession of Isola dei Pescatori. They first gained control of the other two islands back in the 1500s. The wealthy family worked as merchants during the 1300s until they took up banking in Milan sometime after 1370. The most renowned Borromeos were cardinals and archbishops. Carlo was even canonized as a saint.

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At first glance, it was evident that this was not a place where I would find a luxurious palace or elaborate gardens. This was a fishing village, gritty and down-to-earth, with cobbled streets, cafes, stands and small boats near the lakefront. The houses were equipped with long balconies for putting dried fish.

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The island was just as picturesque as Isola Madre, even without a palace or lush gardens. Narrow alleyways led to gorgeous views of the sea and rocks on which one could sit down and contemplate life. It reminded me a bit of the views of the sea at Cefalu, when I sat down on the rocks and thought about nothing and everything at the same time. The island was picturesque, romantic even, with its tangle of alleyways and meandering, narrow streets. Many of the buildings housed shops with local goods, such as amaretto cookies in various flavors and many types of pasta. There were restaurants where you could have a proper meal as well as tacky souvenir shops where you could buy a variety of t-shirts and postcards.

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The most beautiful building I saw on the island was the modest yet elegant Church of St. Victor, which was built as a chapel in the 11th century. Now the only part of the Romanesque structure that still stands is the apse. While the church was expanded in the Gothic and Renaissance eras, it was also transformed into Baroque style during that particular period. It was first dedicated to Saint Victor when it took on the status of a parish church in 1627. Remnants of 16th century frescoes can be seen even today. The high altar included the busts of four bishops, a simple, modest affair that suits the church’s intimate atmosphere. The paintings in the church were also intriguing. I found the sense of intimacy that could be felt during prayer to be the most favorable characteristic of this church. It didn’t feel cold from an emotional standpoint, even for someone who was not especially religious. Wanderers could feel a palpable connection to the church, regardless of their relationship to religion.

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I ate at a café on the lakefront, gazing at another island and the calm waters as I finished lunch with a pistachio gelato. And, yes, I did go into one of those tacky tourist shops and buy some postcards for relatives in the USA.

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, editor and proofreader in Prague.

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Isola Madre Diary

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View from Isola Madre

On a tour of the Italian Lakes, we spent the last day at Lake Maggiore, visiting three Borromean islands – Isola Madre, Isola dei Pescatori and Isola Bella.

First, something about the name Borromeo. Indeed, the Borromeo dynasty played a major role in the history of the islands. In fact, the Borromeo clan still owns the islands, except for Isola dei Pescatori, today. They first gained control of the islands back in the 1500s. The wealthy family worked as merchants during the 1300s until they took up banking in Milan sometime after 1370. The most renowned Borromeos were cardinals and archbishops. Carlo was even canonized as a saint.

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View from Isola Madre

First, we took a small covered boat from Stresa to Isola Madre. This island was the largest of the three and featured a botanical park with exotic plants and flowers as well as a palace that boasted an intriguing collection of 16th to 19th century furnishings and paintings as well as marionettes and puppet theatre sets. The palace especially showed off 17th century Lombard paintings.

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I did justice to the five-terraced garden before entering the villa. The rare birds were a real treat. White peacocks proudly strutted on the grounds. The flowers were striking. I spotted rhododendrons, azaleas and magnolias, for instance. There was an entire section of camellias, a kind of flower that has been nurtured on the island since 1830. I loved the pond adorned with water lilies. It reminded me of the Monet paintings I had seen at The Orangerie in Paris so many years ago, on that warm February morning, shortly after it first opened following a lengthy period of reconstruction.

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I also saw a banana tree that measured more than three meters in height. Palm trees appeared in the lush park. On the Gobbi Lawn stood a conifer tree that was still rather young, only about 200 years old. These types of tree can have a lifespan of 4,000 years.

Perhaps my favorite sight in the park was the Cashmir cypress tree because it had a fascinating past. The cypress tree was brought here from the Himalayas, presented to the Borromeos by an acquaintance in 1862. Initially a packet of seeds, the tree grew and grew and grew, finally weighing a total of 70 tons and becoming the largest of its kind in Europe.

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Fate would put an end to the tree’s claim to fame. During the tornado of 2006, the cypress fell. Still, it was not destroyed. The tree was pulled up again, thanks to cables and winches. It is truly an amazing sight that astounded me.

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Later, I would read in depth about the history of the island, which was the first of the three to be populated. (No one lives there anymore.) A document from 846 provides written evidence of Isola Madre’s existence. It is not clear why the name Madre was chosen. Perhaps it was because the island was the first one that people called home. It is also possible that the name refers to Count Renato Borromeo’s mother. The appearance of the island has changed little since the end of the 18th century.

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Then I entered the palace with a double arcade that made it look light and airy. The furnishings of the palace had been transported there from homes owned by the Borromeo family. I noticed the mannequins dressed in intriguing uniforms from several centuries ago, attire relating to their professions.

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The Fireplace’s Room included Milanese paintings from the 1600s and octagons decorated with portraits of kings, but what I really liked were the two Lombard cabinets, intricate and detailed craftsmanship on display. The front panels looked like they were made from semiprecious stones, but it was actually a visual effect of the scagliola technique, which involves using a substance made with colored plaster. They hailed from the late 17th century.

Scagliola was also present in the Room of the Four Seasons in the form of an octagonal table dating from the 17th century. Its intricate decoration awed me. The Collector’s Room included impressionist landscape paintings that caught my eye. My favorite style was Impressionism, my favorite genre of painting landscape. I noticed some Buddha figures, too among the many, various artifacts.

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The Green Bedroom did not disappoint with its scagliola-adorned tabletop, hailing from the 17th century. The Yellow Bedroom was named after its four-poster bed with yellow damask lining. There was also a cradle shaped like a boat and a strange sculptural grouping on a table made from silver-plated terracotta. A baby, fast asleep, had placed one hand on an hourglass, symbolizing the countdown to death. The other hand was touching a skull. The 17th century object seemed so macabre, but the macabre had been in fashion during that era, I mused. It reminded me of the grotesque Cycle of Death frescoes at Kuks, a former hospital, which showed off many skeletons. The Baroque era was fascinated by death.

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Then we came to my favorite rooms, the three displaying puppet theatre settings, puppets, machinery and plays. In the first room, the curtains and wings did a good job of hiding the machinery from the audience. The stage seems much more spacious than it really is. The wings and backdrop were created by Alessandro Sanquirico, a scenic designer who created stage set for more than 300 productions for La Scala Opera House in Milan. His sets were made in the Romantic style. He even designed the decorations for the crowning of Ferdinando I of Austria as king of Lombardy and the Veneto and was responsible for some ceiling adornment in the cathedral of Milan.

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The next room focused on marionettes and machinery. One puppet had a metal head, allowing it to breathe fire through its mouth like a grotesque attraction of a circus performer or a mythical dragon. Some creative machinery included pipes that could simulate fog and lamps that were used for fire, lightning and thunder. It fascinated me how such objects could simulate sounds used in plays. It was ingenious to use these contraptions to make the sounds seem real.

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The stage setting in the third room was grotesque, to say the least. Dragons, devils and skeletons all made appearances in this ghoulish design. There also was an organ with three pipes that served the purpose of creating terrifying noises. I could easily imagine the audience being frightened by a play with this hellish stage set. I wondered about the plot of the play for which it had been used. Maybe it was for something Dante-ish in which the marionettes wound up in Hell.

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In the hallway, I saw more stage sets, including one of a Chinese temple and another showing a Renaissance building.

Because I had studied theatre in college and often went to the theatre in Prague, I was very interested in the history of theatre on the islands. The drama tradition of the islands can be found in writing as far back as 1657, when a theatre – for people, not for puppets – was built in the gardens of Isola Bella. Then a theatre building where comedies were presented was constructed in the garden. The thespians put a halt to their theatre activities in 1690. The puppet theatre tradition was initiated at the end of the 18th century.

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I soon came to Federico VI’s Bedroom. While other Federicos in the family had become cardinals and archbishops, this one contributed to the cultural sphere in Milan during the 1700s. Playwright Carlo Goldoni even dedicated his play The Antiquarian’s Family to Federico. The room included a 17th century four-poster bed, but I found Federico more fascinating than any of its furnishings.

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The Dining Room was elegant. I loved the delicate decoration of ivy leaves on the 19th century set of Viennese china adorning the long table. Some paintings included three landscapes of architecture that showed off ruins and neglected terrain.

In The Family Drawing Room, there were portraits of the dignified Borromeos. The portrait of Gilberto Borromeo and his wife Maria Elisabetta Cusani featured the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica in the background. It made me think back to my fortieth birthday, when I walked to St. Peter’s Basilica at sunset. Seeing the sun rise over the dome was stunning and gave me strength to be positive about turning forty and to look ahead and move onward rather than look back and get depressed. Another portrait that caught my eye showed four children and dog, the kids immersed in a game of backgammon. It brought back memories of playing board games – Monopoly, getting a get out of jail free card or buying up hotels and chess, which I took up briefly to impress a boy I liked in grade school. The room itself was not without impressive décor. Lunettes at the top of walls showed off allegories of youth, old age, honor and nobility, for instance.

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Besides the puppet theatre rooms, my favorite was the Venetian Drawing Room. The painted decoration on the walls made it resemble a pavilion with columns sporting plants and flowers. The door panels were adorned with vines as well. Even the mosaic flooring boasted a detailed pattern. The Rococo décor gave it a certain elegance. It was a light and airy room, perfect for morning tea, pondering over daily life and setting the world to rights as well as jotting notes for a new story or essay. It was a tranquil space where one could relax and get away from the stress and problems of the outside world. It was a sort of haven in which only my dreams and I existed.

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In the gardens near the palace, I also peaked into the family chapel, simple yet elegant. The small space included only one room, yet it had a certain charm and appeal.

I walked through the garden to the exit and joined my friend at a café with a terrific view of the lake. Throughout the gardens I had seen breathtaking views of other islands and the calm waters. I had a pistachio gelato while we waited for the boat to Isola dei Pescatori, a fishing village that now was filled with shops, stands, restaurants and cafes.

Tracy A. Burns is an editor, proofreader and writer.

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View from Isola Madre

The First Republic Art Exhibition Diary

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Josef Čapek, The Sailor

A long-term temporary exhibition, the First Republic art exhibition in Prague’s Trade Fair Palace showcases mostly Czechoslovak paintings and sculpture from 1918 to 1938, when Czechoslovakia was a democratic state under the guidance of President Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk. Czechoslovakia was founded in 1918, and Masaryk, who had been living in exile, was welcomed back into the Czech lands with much celebration and fanfare. The Munich Agreement, signed in September of 1938, proved a dark and dismal event in Czechoslovakia’s history, as the country ceded its German-minority Sudetenland to Hitler’s Third Reich. On March 15, 1939, the Nazis would march into Prague, and Hitler would set up the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, starting a horrific chapter in Czech and Central European history.

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Josef Čapek

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Myslbek

The exhibition examines the flourishing of art in the various cultural centers of Czechoslovakia, first and foremost in Prague but also in Brno, the capital of Moravia. In Slovakia the cultural hubs were located in Bratislava and eastern Košice. Zarkarpattia was a section of Czechoslovakia from 1920 to 1938, and its city of Užhorod was the setting of some intriguing exhibitions. The exhibition not only features Czech art but also Czech-German production and Slovak artistic endeavors.

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Antonín Slavíček, House in Kameničky, 1904

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Adolf Hoffmeister, Bridge, 1922

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Bohumil Kubišta, Quarry in Braník, 1910-11

Some of the Czech and Slovak artists whose works shine in the exhibition are Antonin Slavíček, Max Švabinský, Josef Čapek, Václav Špála, Jan Zrzavý, Jan Preisler, Ľudovít Fulla, Martin Benka, Bohumil Kubišta and Josef Šíma as well as Toyen and Jindřich Štyrský. The German and Austrian artists represented include August Bromse, Max Pechstein and Oskar Kokoschka, a favorite of mine.

Sculpture by Auguste Rodin, Paul Cezanne, House in Aix, 1885-87

French art from the 19th and 20th century is also on display as the Mánes Association in Prague held an important exhibition of French art at the Municipal House during 1923. The dynamic renditions of Monet, Matisse, Renoir, Van Gogh, Seurat, Gauguin, Rodin, Rousseau and others are in the limelight, too. The paintings of Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso explore Cubist tendencies.

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Vincent Van Gogh, Green Wheat Field, 1889

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Henri Rousseau, Self-Portrait – Me. Portrait – Landscape, 1890

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Paul Cezanne

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Georges Seurat, Harbor in Honfleur, 1886

I was particularly impressed by the works of a Czech artistic group called the Obstinates, established at the Municipal House. It included artists who spent World War I in Prague. I liked to eat chicken with potatoes at the Art Nouveau Municipal House, and I sometimes would imagine what it had been like for those artists to discuss their ideas and theories of art there. Three of my favorite Czech painters belonged to this group of avant-garde art that had traits of Cubism and Expressionism: Josef Čapek, Špála and Zrzavý. The Municipal House at that time was one of the most prominent exhibition spaces. It still houses art exhibitions and nowadays also includes a concert hall.

On right: Jan Zrzavý, Lady in the Loge, 1918

I also tried to imagine the avant-garde Devětsil group having its first exhibition during 1922 at the Union of Fine Arts in the Rudolfinum, now the main concert house for the Czech Philharmonic. I have attended many concerts there, even seeing my favorite violinist Joshua Bell on its stage twice. I wondered what it had been like to see the works of Karel Teige, Adolf Hoffmeister and Štyrský in that majestic building during 1922 and 1923.

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Jindřich Štyrský, The Puppeteer, 1921

My favorite painting in the exhibition was called “Woman with a Cat” by František Zdeněk Eberl. I am a cat fanatic, and the woman in the painting is holding her cat on her shoulder so lovingly. You can sense that the cat is an important part of her family just as my Šarlota Garrigue Masaryková Burnsová is for me. (My cat is named after President Masaryk’s wife, the First Republic’s First Lady of Czechoslovakia.)

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František Zdeněk Eberl, Woman with a Cat, around 1929

The exhibition also highlighted the importance of the Mánes Association of Fine Artists, which had been established by Prague students in 1887. It had many functions, organizing exhibitions and lectures as well as editing magazines, for instance.

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Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Village Square, 1920

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Václav Špála

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Vincenc Beneš, Behind the Mill in Písek, 1928

There were African art relics in the exhibition as well. I thought of Josef Čapek, who had been greatly influenced by African art. The exhibition informed museumgoers that Emil Filla’s paintings had been on display with African art at the Mánes in 1935. Filla had a strong interest in non-European art and was an avid supporter of the surrealist trends in Czechoslovakia.

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Another significant exhibition space during that era was the Dr. Feigl Gallery. Hugo Feigl made quite a name for himself as a private gallery owner. The exhibitions he put together did not only display Czech art but also highlighted Czech-German, Jewish and artists from around the world. He did not only organize exhibitions at his own gallery. One art show that interested me was Feigl’s exhibition of German and Austrian artists who had come to Prague as refugees, fleeing Hitler as the dictator amassed more and more power. Oskar Kokoschka, one of my favorite painters, was a refugee who had made his home in Prague. I loved his view of the Charles Bridge and his view of Prague on display. They captured the magical spell of Prague using avant-garde techniques.

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Oskar Kokoschka, Prague – View from Kramář’s Villa, 1934-35

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Oskar Kokoschka, Prague – Charles Bridge, 1934

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August Bromse, Descent from the Cross, before 1922

In 1937, Feigl even organized a daring exhibition of German Expressionist works from a German collection of which the Nazis were by no means fans. This exhibition encouraged people to protest against an exhibition in Munich, one that glorified the Nazi regime with its display of Nazi-approved art.

Václav Špála, By the River – Vltava near Červená, 1927, sculpture by Otto Gutfreund

I was also enthralled by the exhibitions that had taken place in Brno, Zlín and Bratislava. I had poignant memories of all three places. I had helped out at the first international theatre festival organized by the Theatre on a String in Brno many years ago. People in Brno had been so friendly, and my Czech really improved thanks to my time spent there. I had also visited some villas in Brno and knew the city’s sights well.

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Max Švabinský, In the Land of Peace, 1922

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Otto Gutfreund, Business, 1923

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I had spent several days of one vacation in Zlín, where I had toured the fascinating Báťa shoe museum, which probably featured every kind of shoe imaginable. More than a decade ago, I had visited Bratislava once a month to help take care of my favorite Slovak writer’s grave. I had also visited the Slovak National Theatre, learning Slovak in part thanks to its performances. I loved the Slovak language and felt at peace hearing people around me speak it. I also felt this way when I heard Czech. I especially liked the works of Slovak painter Ľudovít Fulla. His use of bright colors, in his work “Balloons” for example, gave his paintings a dynamism and vitality that was unforgettable.

On right: Ľudovít Fulla, Balloons, 1930

Košice and Užhorod were featured as artistic centers, too. I had spent a lot of time in Košice during my travels to Slovakia as some of my ancestors had been from that region, and I had also used Košice as a starting point to visit other places in east Slovakia, such as Humenné and the Vihorlat. I had never been to Užhorod, which Czechoslovakia had begun to modernize during the early days of the country’s existence. I was surprised that architect Josef Gočár had designed some functionalist buildings there. I often walked by some of Gočár’s architectural achievements in the Baba quarter of functionalist individual family homes.

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Anton Jaszusch, Landscape, 1920-24

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Pablo Picasso, Still Life with a Goblet, 1922

The exhibition also informed me that between 1933 and 1938, about 10,000 refugees from Germany and Austria had officially made their way to Czechoslovakia while the number of unofficial refugees was about the same. Many significant artists came to Czechoslovakia to flee Hitler’s hold on Germany and Austria.

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Caricature of Hitler, John Heartfield, Adolf the Superman: Swallows Gold and Spouts Junk, 1932

I was surprised to discover that as early as 1934 an exhibition of caricatures and humor protested Hitler’s ascent to power. It took place at the Mánes Association of Fine Artists. The caricatures were not limited to Hitler and even included some of the “good guys.” For instance, artists also poked fun at Masaryk. I was very moved by Josef Čapek’s versions of the painting “Fire,” showing a person unable to escape the dancing flames, artworks providing a stark warning about the danger of Hitler’s ideology and reign. The caricature of Hitler was chilling. Hitler’s head was perched atop a chest x-ray. His spine was made up of coins. His heart was shaped like a swastika.

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A sculpture commenting on the Munich Agreement of 1938

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Josef Čapek, Fire, 1938

The exhibition ended with those works commenting Hitler’s control of the region, specifically on the Munich Agreement of 1938. While those paintings and the sculpture profoundly affected me, I preferred to concentrate on the avant-garde creations that had been featured in an artistically flourishing democratic Czechoslovakia, when artists boldly experimented with their artistic visions, during an era that I had always wanted to visit if I could go back in time. I would have loved to experience the atmosphere of the country when democracy was fresh, the state new and full of promise. Little did anyone know at its inception that the First Republic would not last long and that such a chilling chapter would follow.

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.

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Furniture set from First Republic, Jan Vaněk

East Side Gallery Photo Diary

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I first visited this permanent exhibition of politically motivated murals on the longest stretch of the Berlin Wall, reaching 1.3 kilometers or just under a mile, back in 1991, when there were six more murals. The East Side Gallery was created in 1990, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989. Artists from more than 20 countries took part.

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I was fascinated by the bold, brightly colored visual statements displayed in the open-air gallery back then, although I had not truly understood them before my second visit in 2019. Having lived in the Czech Republic and Czechoslovakia for more than 20 years, I have heard from friends what it was like to live under a totalitarian regime. I have friends who greatly suffered under the Communist regime. The messages of newly found freedom and the zest with which the fall of the Berlin Wall was depicted in those more than 100 murals took on another dimension for me in 2019. I could better appreciate the sheer euphoria and utter joy triggered by that historic event in 1989.

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When the wall was renovated in 2009, six artists refused to recreate their work, so I was able to see more in 1991. Also, the East Side Gallery had been longer back then. In 2006 45 meters of the wall was destroyed for commercial purposes. Then, in 2013, six more meters were taken down.

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Many of the murals made a great impression on me. Of course, the mural of Soviet and GDR leaders Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker kissing was poignantly repulsive. For me, it certainly epitomized the political climate under Communism.

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The Trabant (a GDR-made car that came to symbolize the Communist country) almost leaping through the wall had an amazing three-dimensional quality. The mural challenged me to appreciate better the euphoria of the East Germans as the Wall came down and their thirst for freedom. I noticed that the license plate of the car was the date that the Berlin Wall fell – November 9, 1989.

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I also enjoyed studying the faces in the crowd trying to scramble through the hole in the Wall on November 9, 1989. Not all expressions emitted joy. In those faces I read apprehension and fear as well. A new world had suddenly opened up, and there would be challenges to form a stable democracy, to make the country blossom economically and culturally. The transformation would not happen overnight. There would be trials and tribulations before the change was complete.

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One mural that stood out for me was dominated by the word Berlin in white letters on black. In the left-hand corner were some tall buildings with the words New York. Balloons hovered above the name of the German city. For me this painting celebrated Berlin’s identity. It showed pride in the city of Berlin and the sense of hope that immersed the city after the unification. As one city, without the East and West divisions, Berlin would flourish, it seemed to say. (I am sorry I do not have a picture of this mural.)

Another that caught my attention read Curriculum Vitae at the top and listed many years from 1961 to 1989. Below the numbers I saw the words, “Gratitude to the killed and surviving refugees.”  It made me think of the people that had escaped to West Berlin and then had helped others escape, risking their lives so that others could enjoy the freedom they had found.

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Other murals included joyful people dismantling a wall. White doves fluttered on a blue background in one visual statement celebrating peace. Another mural showed a hand making the peace sign through bars and chained to a white dove, the sun behind the bird that symbolized peace. Some consisted of grotesque or cartoon-like figures. Cartoonish gas masks, all connected to each other, dominated one picture. A few of the paintings seemed set in a sci-fi world. In one mural an American flag and red star appear in the foreground while the Brandenburg Gate is pictured in the background.

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I felt exposed at the gallery because I sensed that I was in the middle of nowhere, though I was near a train and subway station as well as a modern arena, a hotel and high-rise housing. I felt as though I was in the East Berlin I had visited in 1990 – a desolate, dreary place as opposed to what had been the lively western part. After seeing the murals, I fled back to Charlottenburg, a quarter in which I felt very comfortable because it was inhabited mostly by locals, there was an absence of tourist shops, and the streets were tranquil. At the East Side Gallery, I did not feel comfortable. Frazzled, I was even relieved when I had finished touring the sight.

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.

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On the other side of the Wall, there was some interesting graffiti and more murals.

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The other side of the Wall with the graffiti

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