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.

Isola Bella Diary

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View from one of the grottoes in the palace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Church on Isola Bella

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

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Views from garden

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View from palace

 

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

Isola dei Pescatori Diary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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