Dance of Death Paintings at Kuks Diary

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NOTE: See my Kuks Diary for more information on Kuks hospital.

I visited the former Baroque hospital Kuks for the third time last year, soon after reconstruction. In the early 18th century, a spa had been situated across from the hospital, but it was destroyed by a flood in 1740. At Kuks visitors can admire 24 Late Baroque statues of vices and virtues by master sculptor Matthias Bernard Braun, a Baroque pharmacy, a pharmaceutical museum, a lapidarium, a chapel, a church and a crypt. Lining one hallways are 50 Dance of Death paintings that were beautifully restored during the recent reconstruction.

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The Dance of Death or Danse Macabre genre in art was revived during the Baroque age and not only at Kuks. It began during the Late Middle Ages in 15th century France. The artistic renderings show death personified summoning people from all walks of life to dance. No one – neither kings nor beggars – could escape death. During medieval days the plague had ravaged Europe, and this was one artistic way to try to come to terms with so many deaths riddling the continent. Dances of death also played roles in religious plays presented in churches. People looking at these paintings during the hospital’s Baroque heyday were supposed to dwell on the fragility of life. Thus, the Dance of Death emphasized a certain mentality, a specific outlook on both life and death.

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

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Stiassni Villa Diary

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I had heard that the Stiassni Villa in Brno had been open to the public since the end of 2014, but I did not have time to go there in 2015. When the Czech UNISMA travel agency offered a tour of the Stiassni and Löw-Beer villas in the Moravian capital, I immediately signed up. A prime example of modern functionalist architecture in the Czech lands, the Stiassni Villa had been under reconstruction from 2012 to 2014. During Communism renovations had taken place as well –during that time period furniture from various chateaus had been added to the interior. Still, the villa had original furniture, too.

I was entranced with the section of Brno where the architectural gem was located – in the villa-sprinkled Masaryk Quarter, a section that looked tranquil, so different from the hustle and bustle of the city center. It reminded me of the Hanspaulka section of Prague, where I enjoyed taking long walks along villa-flanked streets.

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I am not a big fan of the functionalist style, but the exterior was intriguing. Its spartan appearance reminded me a bit of the exteriors of Prague’s Müller Villa and Rothmayer Villa. Shaped like the letter L, the Stiassni Villa was designed by architect Ernst Wiesner, who made quite a name for himself in Brno during the interwar years. His work was influenced by Austrian architect Adolf Loos, who designed the Müller Villa in Prague. Wiesner created the plans for other buildings in Brno as well, such as the Moravia Palace and crematorium. Wiesner fled to Great Britain in 1939, the year the Nazis took over. The villa was completed in 1929 for textile entrepreneur Alfred Stiassni and his family – his wife Hermine and his daughter Susanne. The structure features rectangular windows and a massive cassette cornice, for example.

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The Stiassni’s tenure at the villa only lasted nine years. Because they were Jewish, the family fled Czechoslovakia in 1938, when they traveled to London and then continued to Brazil. Alfred Stiassni’s mother decided not to leave her homeland due to her age. She died at the Terezín concentration camp in central Bohemia during 1942, when she was 87 years old. The villa was taken over by the Nazis during World War II. During 1945, the Stiassnis obtained US citizenship. That same year Russian soldiers liberating the city would destroy furnishings in the villa. It was in good shape again when Czechoslovak President Edvard Beneš stayed there later that year, on his first visit to Brno after the war. He and his wife would reside in the villa again the following year during another trip to the Moravian capital.

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Paintings of the owners of the villa, Alfred and Hermine Stiassni. The paintings are not part of the original furnishings.

From 1952 the villa was the property of the Regional National Committee and was used as accommodation for VIP guests, such as Fidel Castro. In 1961 Alfred Stiassni died in Beverly Hills, California. His wife passed away the following year. In 1964 leading Soviet Union politician Nikita Khrushchev spent time at the villa. From 1990 to 2005, the place served as a four-star hotel. Famous guests included Rudy Giuliani and Bill Gates. In 2005 Susanne, who had married an American, died in Beverly Hills.

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Soon it was time for the tour to begin. In the Large Dining Room I admired the copy of a Baroque painting by 17th century Flemish Baroque painter Jacob Jordaens showing merry people drinking and laughing. I thought I could see the influences of Peter Paul Rubens and Jan Brueghel the Elder in the work. The onyx fireplace also caught my attention. My eyes were drawn to an elegant vase as well.

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Another room featured watercolor paintings by Hermine and original chairs with grey upholstery. The pewter chandelier was also intriguing. An exquisite table had been originally in Bítov Castle, one of the largest and oldest castles in Moravia, a sight I had toured twice. I also admired a Baroque commode. The stucco decoration on the walls and ceiling was stunning. Then we visited some small rooms, and I especially liked the Empire space with side tables and a bed in that style. The bathroom was made of green marble. It had obtained its appearance during reconstruction in the 1980s. It is not known what the bathroom really looked like during the Stiassni’s tenure there.

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The first floor was even more intriguing. Behind Alfred’s vast closet with moveable drawers was a space for more than 10 pairs of shoes. I recalled how the drawers in the dressing rooms of the Müller Villa were also moveable. In the bathroom the detail on the faucets was superb.

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From Hermine’s bedroom it was possible to see the sloping English garden with hills and other greenery in the background. Other villas could also be seen in scenery that would have made a remarkable landscape painting. Mirrors covered Hermine’s closet in her dressing room. Her bathroom was green marble because the architects had no idea what it had looked like originally.

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The daughter Susanne had the nicest rooms. Her playroom featured a dressing room, a bathroom and the terrace. I liked the yellow color of the rooms. It was my mother’s favorite color, and it brought back memories of my time spent with her in the yellow-painted kitchen of my parents’ house. So many discussions about so many topics, so many smiles, so many problems resolved. Susanne’s governess also had a small room.

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The Small Dining Room, where the Stiassnis usually ate, was very modest with a small table set for three. The garden was another highlight of the villa. It was established in 1927 and included many foreign woody species. I noted its symmetrical design. Each section had been assigned a different use.

The Stiassnis were athletes. They took up swimming, skiing and skating, for example. There had been a swimming pool above the villa, and there still were tennis courts on the property.

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I had enjoyed my tour of the villa, which contained some intriguing furnishings and was architecturally enthralling. I appreciated the functionalist design even though it was not my favorite style. I could imagine the villa in the early 1930s, when the family was settled there, not aware that their time in the villa would be cut short by the Nazis’ rise to power. From there we headed to the Löw-Beer Villa, which had a stunning Secession façade but only one piece of original furniture. Facing the famous Tugendhat Villa, the Löw-Beer Villa is now used as an exhibition space.

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

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Gordes Photo Diary

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One of the most picturesque villages I have ever visited is Gordes. It was certainly a highlight of my 10-day trip to Provence. I loved meandering down the narrow, steep, romantic streets flanked by stone buildings with terracotta roof tiles. We were there on a Tuesday, when the weekly market is held, and I enjoyed examining the vendors’ wares and wound up buying two exquisite scarves. The views of the countryside were incredible, and away from the main square, it was tranquil. I found a quaint restaurant with simple yet attractive décor for lunch, too.

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Gordes is located in the Vauclause Hills at 373 meters above sea level. It has about 2,000 inhabitants and encompasses 4,804 hectares. The name Gordes is Celtic in origin. Romans built forts in Gordes when they ruled. During the fifth century, when the Barbarians, Visigoths and Lombardians raided the plains where many settlements were located, people fled to the hills, which became villages in the 10th century.

The castle was first mentioned in writing during 1031 and was reconstructed in 1521, during the Renaissance. However, the lords did not reside there because Gordes was in such a remote location.

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The village blossomed economically in the 18th and 19th centuries with craft production, tanners and shoemakers in great demand. Olive oil was also manufactured there. No less than 18 windmills were located in the village before the onset of the First World War, which brought terrible times to the village. Gordes was depopulated, and there was much poverty.

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During World War II Gordes was home to many resistance fighters. When members of the resistance killed Nazi soldiers in the village during August of 1944, the Germans got revenge by shooting villagers and destroying property. Thirteen inhabitants were murdered in Gordes during the war. Later the village received a medal for its resistance activity.

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After the war, Gordes got a new lease on life. Artists flocked to the village, and painter Marc Chagall and others settled there. During the 1950s, when tourists discovered the village, Gordes was rebuilt and acquired the picturesque appearance it has today.

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

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Les Baux-de-Provence Photo Diary

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One glance at Les Baux-de-Provence and I understood why this village was dubbed one of the most picturesque in France. This rocky hilltown in Provence cast a spell on me from the moment I laid eyes on it. I walked along the narrow, steep streets flanked by art galleries, craft shops and a few churches. The small squares were enchanting, too. I tasted my first lavender ice cream, the most delicious flavor I had ever tried. The Renaissance facades were charming. There are no less than 22 historic monuments in Les Baux. I loved the romantic castle ruins, sprawled onto seven hectares. Breathtaking views of the Alpilles Mountains, Arles and the Camargue region abounded. Even though it was a ruin, I could feel the history of the castle that had been built from the 11th to 13th century.

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Our guide told us about the history of the village. Les Baux-de-Provence can trace its origins back to the Bronze Age, to 6000 BC. The village is mentioned in 10th century documents. The Princes of Baux successfully guarded the region for many years until they were defeated in the Bauessenque Wars of the 12th century. The castle was attacked on numerous occasions during the Middle Ages. The Renaissance proved to be a prosperous time.

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A significant event occurred in 1642, when King Louis XIII presented the lordship of Les Baux-de-Provence to Hercule Grimaldi, then the Prince of Monaco. Even today, the Prince of Monaco holds the official title of Marquis des Baux. During the 19th century, the village became a sort of ghost town; for the most part, it was abandoned. Then, following the Second World War, an entrepreneur opened a gourmet restaurant on the rocky outcrop. Food connoisseurs were not the only people who started to flock to Les Baux. It soon became a tourist attraction and remains so, as was evidenced during my day there by the large crowds that had inundated the village. Still, even the large number of tourists couldn’t make Les Baux lose its charm.

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