MUSÉE DE CLUNY DIARY

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

ParisCluny3Chapel

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.

ParisCluny4

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.

ParisCluny5

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.

ParisCluny14

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.

ParisCluny8

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.

ParisCluny1

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.

ParisCluny12

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.

ParisCluny2

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.

ParisCluny10

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.

ParisCluny6

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. . . .

ParisCluny7ParisCluny13

 

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

Isola Bella Diary

IsolaBellaviewfromgrotto

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.

IsolaBellaint3IsolaBellaint4IsolaBellaint12

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.

IsolaBellaint8IsolaBellaint10IsolaBellaint11

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.

IsolaBellaint17IsolaBellaint18IsolaBellaint19

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.

IsolaBellaint20IsolaBellaint23

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.

IsolaBellaint6isolabellaint7.jpg

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.

IsolaBellaint24IsolaBellaint26IsolaBellaint27

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.

IsolaBellaint15IsolaBellaint28IsolaBellaint30IsolaBellaint31

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.

IsolaBellaint32IsolaBellaint36

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.

IsolaBellaint5IsolaBellaint33

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.

IsolaBellaint38IsolaBellaint39

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.

IsolaBellagrotto1IsolaBellagrotto2IsolaBellagrotto3

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.

IsolaBellagrotto4IsolaBellagrotto6

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.

IsolaBellaint43tapIsolaBellaint44tap

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.

IsolaBellaint45tapIsolaBellaint46tap

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.

IsolaBellagarden4IsolaBellagarden5IsolaBellagarden6IsolaBellagarden10

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.

IsolaBellagreenhouseIsolaBellagreenhouse1IsolaBellaview1IsolaBellaview2

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.

IsolaBellaviewfromgarden1IsolaBellaviewfromgarden2

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.

IsolaBellachurch1

Church on Isola Bella

IsolaBellachurch2IsolaBellachurch3

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.

IsolaBellaviewfromgarden5IsolaBellaviewfromgarden6

Views from garden

IsolaBellaviewfrompalace2

View from palace

 

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

Isola dei Pescatori Diary

IsoladeiPescatori1

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.

IsoladeiPescatori15

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.

IsoladeiPescatori3

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.

IsoladeiPescatori6

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.

IsoladeiPescatorichapel9

IsoladeiPescatorichapel8

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.

IsoladeiPescatoriview

 

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.

IsoladeiPescatoriview7IsoladeiPescatoriview9IsoladeiPescatoriview10

 

 

Isola Madre Diary

IsolaMadreview7

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.

IsolaMadreview3

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.

IsolaMadre5

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.

IsolaMadre10

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.

IsolaMadretree1

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.

IsolaMadre6

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.

IsolaMadrepalace2

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.

IsolaMadrepalace4

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.

IsolaMadrepalace9IsolaMadrepalace10

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.

IsolaMadrepalace12

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.

IsolaMadrepalace13

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.

IsolaMadrepalace14

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.

IsolaMadrepalace15

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.

IsolaMadrepalace16IsolaMadrepalace17

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.

IsolaMadrepalace18diningrm

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.

IsolaMadrepalace23IsolaMadrepalace24IsolaMadrepalace25

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.

IsolaMadrechapel1IsolaMadrechapel2

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.

IsolaMadreview1

View from Isola Madre