Bergamo Diary

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I was only in Bergamo for a short time, but it stole my heart just the same. We only had time to explore the Upper Town for part of a day, so I did not get to visit the Lower Town’s Accademia Carrara with its fantastic art collection.

The Upper Town was magical. What I loved more than the sights were the winding, narrow, hilly streets – so romantic and picturesque. I felt as if I had time-traveled back centuries while walking down those streets. In fact, the entire Upper Town made me feel as if I had gone back in time. I saw medieval houses and houses with 16th and 17th century facades. The atmosphere reminded me of that in Urbino, where I had visited a fabulous art gallery and Raphael’s birthplace as well as strolled down hilly, narrow streets.

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First, a few things about Bergamo’s history. Bergamo was founded as Bergomum by the Celts. It was given the status of municipality under the Romans in 49 BC, but then it was destroyed in the fifth century. It was rebuilt and blossomed into a significant town in Lombardy. I found out that Bergamo had been one of the stops on the mail courier route created by the Thun and Taxis dynasty during the 13th century in what was considered the first modern postal service. I remember hearing about this when I visited the palace in Regensburg.

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Bergamo was under Venetian domination as of 1428. During the period of Venetian rule, the middle class came into being, and Bergamo flourished artistically. Peace – something we experience little of in the world today – reigned over the awe-inspiring city for no less than three-and-a-half centuries. During the 16th century, the Venetians had defense systems built around the city. These structures have been recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

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Then came Napoleon. The French troops took over the city on March 13, 1797. The Austrians didn’t take control of the territory until June of 1814. Some Italians were not satisfied with Austrian rule, and, in 1848, they rebelled against the monarchy. During 1861 Bergamo joined the Kingdom of Italy. The 20th century saw a major increase in industry. Three years ago, in 2017, Bergamo hosted the G7 summit. That’s when the Charter of Bergamo came into being, a proclamation focusing on reducing hunger in the world and helping agricultural development in Africa.

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We went to the Upper Town by funicular and headed for Piazza Vecchia, the main square. I admired the Baroque fountain in the middle, studying its adornment of tritons and lions. One of the most impressive buildings was the Palazzo della Ragione, constructed in the second half of the 12th century and housing administrative offices during the Middle Ages. The porticoes were elegant while the arches and three-mullioned windows above them were remarkable. I also admired the 18th century sundial on the pavement. The Torre Campanaria or Tower of the Big Bell harkened back to the 11th century. Every evening it tolls 100 times.

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The Palazzo del Podestà Veneto (Palace of the Mayor of Venice) is another architectural gem, built in the 14th century and now serving as a university. The Civic Library across the street was erected according to plans by Vincenzo Scamozzi, whose name I remember from my tour of Vicenza and its Palladian architecture. This structure in Bergamo dates from the early 17th century. The town hall was located on its premises from 1648 to 1873.

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The cathedral and Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore are situated on the Piazza del Duomo, a small square where markets took place during the Middle Ages. The Baptistery includes eight bas-reliefs portraying the life of Christ. The basilica dates from 1137 and still has some Romanesque features. The loggias are very elegant. The interior was refurbished in the 16th and 17th centuries.

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What impressed me most of all was the Colleoni Chapel, where the sarcophagi of Bartolomeo Colleoni and his daughter Medea rested. Colleoni had been captain-general of the Republic of Venice and hailed from the Bergamo area. The church-mausoleum was built between 1472 and 1476 and is one of the most intriguing Renaissance structures in north Italy. The façade overwhelmed me with its tarsia and polychrome marble in red, white and black. The marble designs on the facade exuded a feeling of vivaciousness and a sense of harmony.

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The rose window took my breath away. I recalled the rose window in the cathedral of Altamura in Puglia – it had also put me in a sort of trance. Unfortunately, the Colleoni Chapel was closed when we were there, so I could only admire one of the most beautiful facades I had ever seen. I later read that inside there were remarkable ceiling frescoes by Giambattista Tiepolo from the 1730s.

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The cathedral was built in the 17th century on the site of another cathedral. The façade on the west side was Neoclassical, a 19th century renovation. The cathedral got major makeovers in the late 17th century and in the 19th century. With a Latin cross ground plan, the interior was impressive, each altar enthralling in its own unique way. There was only one nave. A painting by Tiepolo adorned the apse. The baptistery dated from the Middle Ages with a font from 1340. On the upper level a colonnade included 14th century statues of virtues. The Diocese Museum was closed, unfortunately.

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The medieval houses that we passed on the way to the fortress included walled-up areas that are referred to as the doors of the dead. These entrances are opened only for a funeral of a family member. The fortress was built for John of Bohemia in 1331, and the tower, which we did not have time to go up, was sure to offer spectacular views. We also saw a 12th century tower. We did not have time to see San Michele al Pozzo Bianco, a 12th century church with impressive frescoes. I had also heard that the botanical garden was worth visiting.

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As I sat with a friend at a café on the main square, she told me it was her birthday. What a fantastic place to spend a birthday in! The evening was tranquil, the weather pleasant, without crowds as we had experienced in Verona in the morning. It was as if time stood still in Bergamo, as if peace momentarily reigned in the world just as it had in Bergamo for three and a half centuries.

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While we only had time to sample the city’s atmosphere, Bergamo made a distinct impression on me. One of the most admirable features of the Upper Town was the absence of souvenir shops. I wish Prague’s Old Town would ban souvenir shops. I remembered Prague of the early 1990s, when there were not so many souvenir shops and the center had yet to be overrun by tourists. Bergamo’s streets sported shops with local delicacies – I bought some tasty biscotti in one of them. There were also bookstores and stores for paper goods, for instance.

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What first comes to mind when I think of Bergamo are those streets, small and narrow yet romantic and poetic. I could walk down those streets for hours, around and around and around from dawn until dusk, getting lost and finding my way and myself over and over again.

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

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2019 Travel Diary

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At East Side Gallery

Despite battling illnesses and undergoing an operation, I did manage to do some exciting traveling last year. I returned to Berlin, a city that I had only a year earlier become reacquainted with after a 27-year absence. Last year I explored the Charlottenburg district and even found time to visit the East Side Gallery for the second time in 28 years.

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Inside the palace on Isola Bella

In the summer, I spent a brief but bewitching time in the Lake District of Italy. Seeing the Borromean Islands off Lake Maggiore was the highlight for me, although Malcesine, Verona, Bergamo and other spots were all fascinating.

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Baroque former hospital Kuks with its 24 statues of vices and virtues

I did not have much time to travel in the Czech Republic because I had an operation during the summer. I did travel to the Baroque former hospital Kuks – one of my favorite sights in the country – as well as Ploskovice Chateau. I also was glad to be able to spend time at the Azyl Lucky Cat Shelter in Černov, located about an hour from Prague. I adopted my beloved Šarlota from that shelter and since then, I have enjoyed visiting the owner of the shelter and the beautiful cats and dogs that await forever homes.

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Cats at the Azyl Lucky Shelter

Let’s start with Berlin in May. The weather was coldish and windy, but the sights were as magnificent as always. There’s always something fascinating to see in Berlin.

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Charlottenburg Palace

The objective of my short stay was to visit Charlottenburg Palace. I stayed in the Charlottenburg district with its tranquil, wide streets. There were not many tourists in the area, which was very pleasant.

Charlottenburg Palace began as Lietzenburg, commissioned by then Electress and future Queen Sophie Charlotte. Frederick the Great renamed it after his wife when she died in 1705 at age 37. Under the guidance of Sophie Charlotte, the chateau had been a cultural hubbub.

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I was overwhelmed by the Baroque and Rococo décor and especially by the chinoiserie ornamentation. My favorite room was the Porcelain Cabinet, which featured about 2,700 objects in a luxurious and elegant space. I also loved the white harpsichord decorated with chinoiserie features in the Golden Cabinet.

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Several museums are located across from the palace. While one museum featuring Art Deco and Art Nouveau works was closed, I did get to explore the Museum Berggruen, where I excitedly perused paintings by Picasso, Braque, Matisse and Klee. Sculptures by Alberto Giacometti and African art rounded out the exposition. The museum of surrealist art nearby also had some intriguing works by artists such as Goya and Klee.

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I wound up having some time to revisit the politically motivated murals of the East Side Gallery that had entranced me so much when I was a tourist back in the summer of 1991. Back then, when I was visiting after graduating from college in the States, the Berlin Wall had fascinated me. Now I knew many people who had lived and suffered under totalitarian rule, and the Wall to an extent sickened me. But not this portion of the Wall. The murals represented an exuberant and vivacious celebration of freedom, a good riddance to the oppression that had darkened so many decades of life behind the Iron Curtain. I loved these bright and bold statements of euphoria and optimism. Sure, some murals portrayed fear and anxiety as a new era beckoned, but that was only to be expected. This was the longest stretch of the Berlin Wall still standing. During my visit in 1991, so much more of the Wall had yet to be taken down.

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My four-day jaunt to Italy was not without its disappointments. I fell ill shortly after the lengthy bus ride and five-minute breakfast that we were allowed. I went to Italy with my good friend, traveling with an agency that I had not used before.

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Isola Bella palace interior

My favorite day was the one when I felt healthy, the last day of the trip, but it was also the most special to me because I saw the amazing Borromean Islands that had me bewitched. My favorite island was Isola Bella, the site of a magnificent palace and ten-tiered garden shaped as a truncated pyramid. Shaped as a boat, the island boasted a luxurious palace along with six grottoes. The Music Room included 80 paintings by Pieter Muller the Younger, who was known for his renditions of stormy landscapes and thus had earned the nickname “The Tempest.” I was awed by the harpsichord in golden cypress wood, too. The Throne Room featured Lombard Baroque art. The gilded, wooden throne hailed from the 18th century. I also liked the two large cabinets made with tortoiseshell. The Tapestry Gallery was remarkable for its six Flemish tapestries. I have always loved tapestries! Visiting the Italian Baroque gardens topped off a great day.

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Garden of Isola Bella

Before experiencing the glamor of Isola Bella, I had been engrossed in the beauty of Isola Madre and Isola dei Pescatori or Fishermen’s Island. Isola Madre was a botanical park dotted with white peacocks and rare birds. The largest of the three islands, it boasted a palace with 16th to 19th century furnishings, including Lombard paintings, marionettes and puppet theatre stage sets, such as a grotesque one punctuated by dragons, devils and skeletons. I also liked the machinery for making thunder and lightning as well as terrifying noises. The five-terraced garden also showed off a pond of water lilies, among other delights.

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Birds on Isola Madre were plentiful.

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Church on Isola Madre

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In Palace on Isola Madre

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In Palace on Isola Madre

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View from Isola Madre

Isola dei Pescatori was the only of the three islands with permanent residents – as of 2018 there were 25 people who called the small place home year-round. The cobbled streets and narrow passageways that led to gorgeous views of Lake Maggiore were postcard-perfect. The modest yet elegant Church of St. Victor was furnished in Baroque style, though it had been built as a chapel during the 11th century. I also saw the picturesque town of Stresa, a wonderful place to relax after a day of island hopping.

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House on Isola dei Pescatori

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Street on Isola dei Pescatori

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Church of St. Victor on Isola dei Pescatori

I spent one day in Malcesine during the scorching heat of the early summer. Even though I started to feel ill while riding the funicular to Mount Baldo, which is 1,800 feet above sea level, I appreciated the amazing views from the first cable car installation in the world with an all-rotating cabin. (It did not help my dizziness, though!) On Mount Baldo it was cold and windy at 8 am, so I did not spend much time there. I preferred to explore the picturesque town of Malcesine and chill out at cafes, drinking mineral water to ward off the effects of the harsh hot weather. The castle ruins were romantic and offer superb views of Lake Garda. Goethe was even briefly imprisoned there because the authorities thought he was a spy. There are several medieval frescoes in the castle complex.

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Castle in Malcesine

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Castle ruins in Malcesine

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Views from rotating cable car from Malcesine to Mount Baldo

Bergamo was another town that will always be close to my heart. We only had time to explore the Upper Town, so I was not able to visit the Accademia Carrara art museum in the Lower Town, but it gave me a good reason to make a trip back there someday. Just standing on the Piazza Vecchia was awe-inspiring. The Palazzo della Ragione, located on this square, was built in the second half of the 12th century and boasted elegant arches and three-mullioned windows as well as porticoes. The most amazing architectural delight was the Colleoni Chapel, which was closed, unfortunately. Still, the façade sporting delicate colors of marble exuded such a sense of harmony and balance plus a vivaciousness that overwhelmed me. It is one of the best examples of Renaissance architecture in northern Italy. The sculptural decoration did not disappoint, either.

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Colleoni Chapel in Bergamo

The cathedral, which was not completed until the 19th century, was impressive with a Baroque altar that featured a carved Episcopal throne. Unfortunately, the Diocese Museum was not open, but that was another reason to come back to this bewitching town.

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What I liked best about Bergamo were the romantic, narrow, hilly streets that reminded me of those in Urbino. Walking by medieval houses or houses with facades from the 16th or 17th century was magical. The best thing about Bergamo’s Upper Town was that there were no souvenir shops. There were shops selling local delicacies and bookstores, but no shops promoting crazy t-shirts and gaudy objects. It was so refreshing. I wish the Old Town of Prague had banned souvenir shops.

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Juliet’s balcony in Verona

We were only in Verona for half a day, so we did not see much of the city. After several minutes there, I know I would be yearning to come back for a longer stay. We saw Juliet’s House, the balcony that was said to be famous for the Romeo and Juliet scene in Shakespeare’s play. In reality, Verona created a tourist trap when they bought the house from the Cappello family. No one named Capulet had ever lived there. The house’s façade is impressive, in Gothic style, dating back to the 13th century. The balcony hails from last century. A statue of Juliet stood in the small courtyard. It is said to be lucky to rub her left breast, but I didn’t try it.

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The main drag in Verona

I also saw the exterior of Romeo’s House, which never belonged to the Montague family. It was only given this name for sightseers. The building is medieval, in Gothic style and includes an archway with crenelated walls.

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Then we saw a few of Verona’s main squares. Piazza Brà is one of the largest in Europe and boasts palaces, a museum and the city hall. Piazza delle Erbe was once the site of chariot races. During the Roman era, a large market took place there. Now visitors see palaces, a tower and a remarkable fountain dating from 1368. We walked down Via Giuseppe Mazzini, the central shopping street that was, during medieval times, dirty and lined with warehouses as well as barracks. Now expensive shops call the stunning renovated houses home.

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I loved the arena, though I did not get much time there. Built in the first century AD, it is the third largest area, measuring 140 meters in length and 110 meters in width. The original seating capacity was 30,000, back when it was used for games and gladiator events. It became dilapidated after Emperor Honorius banned events there in 404 AD. For centuries, it was abandoned. At one point, prostitutes used the arena. Now, though, the arena is a remarkable sight that should not be missed.

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Sigurtà Park

We also visited Sigurtà Park with its extensive, beautiful grounds. I loved the water lily ponds and many monuments plus views of the villages beyond. You really needed a full day to explore the vast grounds properly.

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Dance of Death Baroque frescoes at Kuks

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Braun’s statues in the lapidarium at Kuks

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The pharmacy at Kuks

I also visited several places in the Czech Republic last year. Kuks, a former hospital in gushingly Baroque style, is famous for its twenty-four 18th century statues of virtues and vices, sculpted by Matyáš Braun. In the lapidarium I was almost in a trance while peering at Love, Despair, Sloth and Hope. I also was enamored by the grotesque Dance of Death frescoes, as the figure of Death intruded on people’s lives. The pharmaceutical museum and one of the oldest pharmacies in the country were also very intriguing. There’s a lot to love about Kuks.

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Ploskovice Chateau

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Painting by Navrátil at Ploskovice

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The Main Hall at Ploskovice

Ploskovice was first mentioned in writing during the 11th century. The chateau was born in the 16th century. The vestibule was decorated with sculpture, frescoes and stucco ornamentation. The Knights’ Salon is Rococo in style. Vedutas of French kings’ castles and French parks hung on the walls. The Ladies’ Bedroom showed off the Rococo style as well while an early Baroque jewel chest was decorated with bas-reliefs and inlaid with various kinds of woods.

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The painted ceiling in the Ladies’ Study was the work of the renowned Josef Navrátil, whose masterful work I had also witnessed at Zákupy Chateau a year earlier. His remarkable and delicate painting was evident on the ceiling of the Dining Room as well. The Main Hall has 12 pilasters and shows off stucco works of Hope, Motherhood, Bravery and Nature. The painting on the cupola was remarkable, showing the four continents, created by masterful Czech artist V.V. Reiner. I had seen his masterpieces at Duchcov Chateau a few years earlier. Navrátil painted 36 oval medallions in the Main Hall.

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I also liked the grottoes at the chateau. They originated during the Baroque era. Baroque fountains in the grottoes boasted figural decoration. Perhaps what I loved most about Ploskovice were the peacocks fluttering around the grounds.

I wish I had had more time to explore the Czech Republic last year, but my health and occasionally the weather prevented me from doing so. This year I am planning to go back to Italy and to take more trips in the Czech Republic. I also hope to see art exhibitions in Berlin and Vienna.

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

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Museum Berggruen Diary

 

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The last time I visited Berlin I made sure to peruse the collection of paintings by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Georges Braque and Paul Klee at the Museum Berggruen, situated opposite Charlottenburg Palace. I am a big fan of early modern art. As a young child, I picked out a book of Paul Klee’s works from my parents’ bookshelves and often looked at the geometric shapes that fascinated me. Seeing Picasso’s masterpieces in Barcelona, Madrid, Paris and many other cities had been thrilling. I think back fondly to an exhibition of Matisse’s cutouts in Ferrara, Italy. I’ve been mesmerized by Matisse’s creations at The National Gallery in Washington, D.C. for ages. The museum also displays sculpture by Alberto Giacometti and African art, which I admire greatly. I recall that the Czech writer and painter Josef Čapek was influenced by African art. Still, I was there to see the paintings by artists of works that had enthralled me for years.

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The Berggruen Museum boasts 165 works of art from the collection of Berlin-native Heinz Berggruen. He left Berlin in 1936 and went to the USA and Paris, where he worked as an art dealer specializing in early modern works. He also made a name for himself as an author. Berggruen was the recipient of many awards, including Germany’s High Order of Merit, bestowed upon him in 1997. He died in 2007. The museum opened in 1996.

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Still Life in front of a Window in St. Raphael, 1919

Of all the paintings by Picasso, the one that spoke to me the most was his “Still Life in front of a Window in St. Raphaël,” created in 1919 at a resort in St. Raphaël, France, rendered from his hotel room.

A surreal quality dominates the painting that is Cubist in character. I love the blue of the sea and how the calm sea seems to come into the room that boasts a violin and a blank musical score. The sea gives me a feeling of tranquility. The green door complements the pale yellows and blues, too.

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Town-Like Construction, 1917, photo from m.blog.naver.com

Paul Klee’s “Town-Like Construction,” with a black rectangle at its center, dates from 1917. I could imagine the triangles, squares and rectangles as elements of a town, representing rooftops and facades of buildings. I could feel the bustling city with its constant movement. I’ve always liked visiting cities that have many sights, especially cultural ones. I like the rhythm of the painting that exemplifies the rhythm of a town. I feel as if I am looking at a town from an aerial view.

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Matisse’s “In the Studio” was rendered 12 years after my favorite painting by Klee, when Matisse was residing in Nice. I liked the way light seemed to fill the room. I liked looking at the sea stretching into the horizon. As in Picasso’s painting, the sea had a calming effect. The pastel colors emitted feelings of joy and contentment. I love Matisse’s use of pastel colors. The carpet and curtain were portrayed in bright yellow while the sky and sea were represented in amazing hues of blue. The window divides the painting into one section with the sea that has an light quality while the part with the furnished room has a heavy quality.

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I left the museum feeling cheerful because I had had the possibility to see works by three of my favorite painters of early modernist style. The next day I would visit Charlottenberg Palace, another gem of architecture with spectacular art.

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

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Theatre Review Diary: The Act

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Ben Bradshaw as Mrs. Žila dances in The Act. Photo from http://www.zdjc.cz

I have decided to add theatre reviews to my blog. Most, if not all, of the plays reviewed will be understandable to an English-speaking audience or will somehow enhance an English speaker’s knowledge of the Czech Republic’s culture and history.

Humor is in full force in the Cimrman English Theatre’s production of The Act, a witty and hilarious comedy brought to life in English translation by British, American and Czech thespians. I thought the group performed well when I saw the second performance they ever staged, The Stand-In, three years ago, but now the professional ensemble performs even the minutest gesture seemingly with ease.

The play is expertly written in Czech by the co-founders of the Jára Cimrman Theatre, Zdeněk Svěrák and Jiří Šebánek as well as Ladislav Smoljak. The Act was the first play in the Czech group’s repertoire, premiering in 1967. It introduced Czechs to the unlucky fictional master of all trades, Jára Cimrman, who was chosen as the Greatest Czech in a survey during 2005. Cimrman was not only a prolific writer of plays and works of other genres but also an inventor, self-taught gynecologist, dentist, world traveler, composer, criminologist and philosopher, among other professions. Many of the plays take place during the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s reign over the Czech lands in the 19th and early 20th centuries, though The Act is set in the 1960s.

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The dancing and singing are two excellent reasons to see The Act. Photo from http://www.zdjc.cz

Cimrman was definitely unlucky: Alexander Graham Bell made it to the patent office just before he did, so Cimrman did not get credit for inventing the telephone. Famous composters stole pieces of Cimrman’s seven-hour operetta Proso and incorporated them into their own works. Cimrman’s writings were discovered during 1966, when a dynamite explosion of a chest in the village of Liptákov scattered his papers, and his creative endeavors were appreciated for the first time.

All the Cimrman plays are divided into two parts. In the first act, the actors play themselves, posing as experts of Jára Cimrman’s life, love of animals, philosophy and inventions, for instance. The actors perform a hilarious scene from Cimrman’s horror play, The Electric Stool, an invention that has a heating spiral and utilizes 360 volts. They perform the skit in witty verse, which is excellently translated into English. An inventor tries to trick his tailor into sitting on the stool so he can find out if it works. His plan backfires, though, and the inventor winds up sitting on the stool and dying.

In the first act spectators also learn of Cimrman’s failed attempt to teach his pet hen Zora to tie his shoes and about Zora’s tragic death. Cimrman the philosopher is the theme of one lecture. His philosophy consists of the idea that the external world exists, but he does not. The actors also explain why spectators will see a big hole shaped like a person in the set’s back wall during the second act. That’s how Cimrman escaped the one performance of this play in his lifetime as it was greeted with a very negative response.

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Ben Bradshaw’s character shines brilliantly in the play. Photo from http://www.zdjc.cz

In the first act, actors are seated in simple chairs on the stage while one of them speaks at a podium. While the man at the podium tackles a topic concerning Jára Cimrman, the actors in the background also are often interacting with each other silently using gestures and facial expressions as they react to what is being said. Thus, this sort of action in the background complements the action in the foreground, making the lecture part of the play more dynamic and lively. Spectators see how well the actors interact with each other. This is true of the plays in Czech as well.

The second part is the play itself. The plot of The Act revolves around three men who do not think they know each other and seemingly have nothing in common visiting the home of Mr. and Mrs. Žila, who have invited them in order to explain why Mr. Žila (Peter Hosking) never was able to finish his painting of a nude. Their lives are changed forever as they learn secrets about their pasts. Mrs. Žilová (Ben Bradshaw) steals the show with his gestures, facial expressions, dancing and ability to belt back beer. In fact, all the dances are well-choreographed. It is evident that the actors have painstakingly rehearsed the dances. Not only the dancing but also the singing is expertly performed.

Bedřich (Adam Stewart) is very convincing as a man who has done three stints in jail, someone who at first only stays to scarf down the chicken that Mrs. Žilová has prepared for her guests. His thick British accent seems to suit his character.

The other actors are just as convincing – there’s Pepa, the sexologist (Brian Caspe) whom Mrs. Žilová mistakes for a barber because he dons a white doctor’s coat; Mr. Žila, who hit his wife on the forehead with a mallet so she would lose her memory; and Láďa (Curt Matthew), who defecates in his pants whenever he gets very emotional. It is clear that director Michael Pitthan has studied the Czech version down to the minutest detail.

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Mr. Žila and Mrs. Žila with the nude painting. Photo from http://www.zdjc.cz

During the past several years, the ensemble has gelled into a group that works masterfully together. Teamwork is the key to the success of this production, as the actors seem very comfortable performing with each other. The translation, especially the dialogue in verse and the lyrics of the songs, is top-notch, bringing out the humor of the Czech original.

The Cimrman English Theatre also performs in English three other plays from the Czech Jára Cimrman Theatre’s repertoire – The Stand-in (Záskok), Conquest of the North Pole (Dobytí severního Pólu) and Pub in the Glade (Hospoda na mýtince). My review of the latter play is on www.czechoutyourancestors.com. The English-speaking ensemble has received accolades for their performances in America as well.

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Bedřich, played by Adam Stewart, has everyone’s attention. Photo from @CimrmanTheatre.

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The dancing is brilliant. Photo from prague.tv.

 

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

Jaroslav Weigel Diary

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Zdeněk Svěrák and Jaroslav Weigel. Photo from Divadelní noviny.

I’ve decided to focus not only on places but also on people in my blog. Unfortunately, this post takes the form of an obituary as Jaroslav Weigel passed away September 5, 2019 in a Prague hospital at the age of 88. I saw Weigel act in many of the 15 plays performed at the theatre I love to frequent, The Jára Cimrman Theatre. This theatre is unique because it only showcases plays about the fictional character Jára Cimrman, who lived during the Austro-Hungarian Empire. All 15 plays take place at the end of the 19th century or beginning of the 20th century. The comedies employ witty and often history-related jokes as well as language-oriented puns.

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Jaroslav Weigel from the play Africa. Photo from style.hnonline.sk

They all center on the genius Jára Cimrman, whose talent remained undiscovered until his posthumous papers were unearthed in a cottage in the Jizera Mountains of north Bohemia during 1966, according to the playwriting duo of Zdeněk Svěrák and Ladislav Smoljak, two of the creators of the Cimrman legend. Cimrman was a man of many trades: an inventor, a playwright, a collector of fairy tales, a traveling dentist, a composer of operas, a gynecologist, a criminologist and a world traveler, to name just a few of his professions. The tales of Jára Cimrman have become national folklore that to no small extent defines the country’s culture.

Over the years, this theatre has helped me deal with stress and hardships, making me laugh when I dearly needed a reason to smile. Seeing the performances allows me to achieve a mental balance in my life, so that I can think more clearly and solve problems more easily.

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Miloň Čepelka and Jaroslav Weigel in The Act. Photo from zpravy.aktualne.cz.

Back to Jaroslav Weigel. Ever since I started attending performances some years ago, I have been fascinated by Weigel’s accomplishments, by his stellar resume of talents and achievements. While I thought of him as an actor, he also made a name for himself as a painter, graphic artist, scene designer and costume designer. He was a member of the theatre ensemble since 1970. His association with the theatre started in the 1960s, when he worked as an editor with the influential magazine Mladý Svět (Young World). There, he came across a story by a young Zdeněk Svěrák, who co-founded the theatre. That marked the beginning of cooperation that would span five decades.

Weigel studied to be an art and history teacher at Charles University, and one of his mentors was the acclaimed Cyril Bouda, a much-acclaimed illustrator and painter. The talented student sometimes visited Bouda at his unique family house in the functionalist Baba quarter, a section of Prague six through which I often take walks. I sometimes try to imagine a young Weigel walking with a determined gait through the streets of Baba on the way to see his professor.

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Jaroslav Weigel designed the Secession-like covers of the DVDs of the plays.

 

Weigel designed the theatre’s distinctive Secession style publications such as the DVD cover of České Nebe or Czech Heaven. Photo from mksvyskov.cz.

Weigel’s talent as a graphic artist has greatly influenced the theatre’s artistic image. He designed all the printed matter for the theatre, including posters and programs, which have a charming and elegant Art Nouveau quality and are artistic works themselves.

However, his contributions did not stop there. He also designed the costumes and the stage sets, which bring the stories to life, helping to shape a fictional world in which the spectators can become engrossed.

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Jaroslav Weigel and Zdeněk Svěrák in Lijavec. Photo from topky.sk.

Weigel also designed postage stamps dedicated to Jára Cimrman, one of which celebrates the 50th anniversary of the theatre that took place several years ago. It shows Cimrman’s practically featureless bust.

The artistic guru also acted on television and in films written by Zdeněk Svěrák, including Svěrák’s first screenplay, Run, Waiter, Run! He last appeared on the big screen during 2007, when he had a role in the much-acclaimed Empties, directed by Jan Svěrák and written by Zdeněk Svěrák.

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The long-time actor’s achievements do not stop there. He also designed covers for records and illustrated books and magazines as well as calendars. He even co-designed a comic strip with Kája Saudek.

What I will remember Weigel for most is his acting. Over the decades, he had performed in all 15 plays, taking on roles as the baron leading an expedition to Africa in a hot air balloon and as the 15th century religious martyr Jan Hus, who was burned at the stake in 1415. In Messenger from Liptákov, Weigel played major roles in two short plays. In the Messenger of Light, he played the father of a son who decides to turn his parents’ home into a factory to make flashlights, with plans to have his parents walk 30 kilometers to a retirement home in the mountains. Weigel’s character, who often acts confused, winds up outsmarting his son, hitting him over the head with a flashlight. Then the mother and father make sure their son will not be able to ruin their lives.

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Jaroslav Weigel in Messenger from Liptákov

In the other play of Messenger from Liptákov, Weigel played Hlavsa, who sees into the future by peering into his huge wood stove. A coal baron named Ptáček asks him to find out which suitor is right for his daughter, and Hlavsa tells the wealthy man that he sees the name Petr Bezruč on the gate of one of Ptáček’s mines. The baron, played by the very talented Miloň Čepelka, assumes he sells his mine to the poet Bezruč, not realizing that the mine will be taken away from him during the totalitarian era and that Bezruč’s writings will become a mouthpiece for the Communist regime.

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Jaroslav Weigel as Jan Hus and Petr Brukner as Saint Wenceslas in Czech Heaven. Photo from Třebíčský deník.

The character of Smrtka, personifying death, wears a black suit with black hat and holds a scythe. He waits for Weigel’s character to finish his prophesies in order to lead him to Heaven because it is the day that Hlavsa is scheduled to die. It turns out that Smrtka misses his chance to take Hlavsa to Heaven as the designated time passes, and he has to hurry to his next customer. Smrtka tells Weigel’s character that he has two more years before another younger Smrtka comes along to escort him to Heaven.

I guess that September 5 was the appointed time for Jaroslav Weigel to go on his last journey, ending an illustrious career that helped form the image of the Jára Cimrman Theatre and that helped the ensemble survive more than 50 years.

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

 

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Jaroslav Weigel designed the cover of the collected plays

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A stamp celebrating the 50th anniversary of the theatre ensemble, designed by Jaroslav Weigel.

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The book celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Jára Cimrman Theatre. Cover designed by Jaroslav Weigel.

 

 

 

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. 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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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.