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Plas Newydd: Royalty and Green Skilly 

I admit to being a hopeless Anglophile. I can easily see myself sweeping down a grand staircase to greet visiting royalty, as the  Angleseys of Plas Newydd in Wales did for centuries.

The house has Tudor origins, but much of it was built in stages beginning in the 1700s. According to a docent, it was more or less a summer cottage, so costs were kept down. The stone walls and pillars in the entry hall? Faux painting. Works for me.

Royals attended Anglesey weddings as a matter of course. And royals stopped by Plas Newydd to play cards in the saloon (toffspeak for the main living room, where everybody gathers. If there are children, this is where they play checkers and race around on tricycles).

Show me a drawing room or saloon, any room where my betters relax, and I’ll head straight to the obligatory black-and-white framed photos, casually strewn on the grand piano or the museum-quality writing desk.

I love faded chintz, tastefully worn Persian rugs, and slightly shabby velvet.

I asked whether this little ceramic pair represented any couple in particular. No, the docent said, it’s just a prince and princess. This figurine was probably mass-produced, but somebody liked it enough to set it on a table alongside family heirlooms.

In another lifetime, maybe I was a British aristocrat–not a snooty one, but a slightly eccentric one who welcomed artists of all stripes. The artist Rex Whistler would have a permanent room in my mansion.

I’d look over Rex’s shoulder as he worked on whatever he wanted, maybe costumes and stage design for a production of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” I think this is Alonso, Prospero’s brother.

Caliban is spiky and green.

Miranda looks lovely, and remarkably like Caroline, a daughter of the family (to whom the artist was devoted).

The 6th Marquess of Anglesey had a fine sense of humor. These are his photos of his four daughters. I’m guessing that none of these daughters inherited any of the property. British families kept their estates intact by passing on everything to the oldest son. Most of them still do. But growing up as an aristocratic daughter looks like a pretty good life all the same.

In the breakfast room, there’s a special side table with a screened box to keep the family dogs away from the sausages.

The bedrooms were completely redecorated in the epitome of 1930s country house comfort and style. I’ll take the pink one, please.

I’ll be down for dinner when the gong sounds. Just let me fuss a bit more with my hair…

In the kitchen far below, servants bustle with pots and pans and silver platters. They sit down to their own dinners. Do they say grace after the meal instead of before? Sounds like it:

We thank the Lord for what we’ve had,

It wasn’t good, it wasn’t bad.

The sodduck was stale, the skilly was green,

But thank the Lord the plates were clean.

I’m blessed with a husband who likes old stuff as much as I do. We celebrated our 49th year of wedded bliss at Plas Newydd. This year, we made it to 50! I’d like to go back to Plas Newydd for a nice cup of skilly (tea), green or not.

Golden Kingdoms at the Getty

Sometimes I come face to face with how little I know about non-European cultures. For example, who made this life-sized mask and how  was it used? Was it made to scare the pants off anyone who looked at it, or is it just me? Well, this particular mask was found in the grave of a high-ranking person in Peru, dating from around 900 to 1100 A. D. Possibly there were demons to scare off?

In the fall of 2017, the Getty Center in Los Angeles has a spectacular exhibit called “Golden Kingdoms.” I was immediately attracted because the poster had kind of a Viking look. But no! Instead, it’s a completely different set of cultures, with artifacts from all over the Americas. The objects, all of them with sacred meaning, date from 1200 B.C. up to the beginning of European colonization in the 1500s.

It’s not all bling, at least as we understand bling. The Incas valued feathers and textiles above all else. There’s a perfectly preserved wall-sized rug made entirely of tiny blue and yellow feathers. It was preserved because it was hermetically sealed in an ancient grave.

Peruvian artists of the Moche culture, around 200 A.D., made these heavy mosaic ear ornaments, about the diameter of baseballs. They depict a pair of gorgeous running animals, maybe owls.

I was puzzled about how some of these ornaments would be worn, until I took a close look at a breastplate and diadem belonging to a ruler of the Calima-Yocoto, Columbia, all the way from 200 B.C. to 800 A.D. They wore nose ornaments! Not for the faint of heart.

Nose ornaments were really a thing in these parts.  They look pretty uncomfortable to me–heavy, with a little slot cut out so they can be worn in the nostrils. Special occasion jewelry, I have to think.

This beautiful ceremonial knife from the north coast of Peru, around 900 to 1100 A.D., gave me pause. What kind of ceremony would that be? No doubt some kind of sacrifice was involved.

From the exhibit poster, I expected the dragon-like gold figure to be huge. But it was tiny, and took some hunting to locate. It’s an Aztec “labret,” an ornament signifying political or military power. It’s from Mexico, 1300-1500 A.D.

It was a mouth ornament in the shape of a serpent, made to fit in front of the wearer’s lips.

The tongue can be retracted, or flicked side to side in scary fashion.

An Aztec effigy vessel from the same time period in Mexico depicts the Sun God.

I especially liked this image of Chalchiuhtlicue, the Aztec goddess of lakes, rivers and moving waters.  Her name means “Jade Her Skirt.” Jade and other gemstones were valued more highly than gold in this time period, around 1500 in Mexico.

Spanish conquistadors began arriving in the 1500s, changing the native cultures forever. The spectacular painting above could not be photographed, but I sneaked a shot from the exhibit catalog. It shows a political leader from Ecuador and his two sons. In exchange for swearing fealty to the Spanish king, they were allowed to rule a large area. They naturally began dressing somewhat like Spaniards, but they kept their traditional nose and ear ornaments.

Christianity began to replace the age-old beliefs in gods and goddesses. This 1539 piece, composed of gold, paint, and tiny feathers, is a visual explanation of the new-to-the-Americas sacrament of the Catholic communion.

The new rulers of the Americans needed to catalog their new possessions. The book shown above is part of the Codex Mendoza. It carefully lists everything paid as tribute from the native Aztec people to their conquerors, the Spanish. It reminds me of the Domesday book that the Normans compiled in 1086, after they conquered England in 1066.

The mask above is from the grave of a long-dead young warrior, around 525 A.D.  He’s a fearsome sight, but does he also look a little apprehensive about what comes next? None of us know what’s in store for us. Still, we keep studying the past for clues and maybe some understanding.

There’s an article about this exhibit at:

Chagall on Stage at LACMA

In his long career as an artist, Marc Chagall designed sets and costumes for four stage productions. I wish I had seen any one of them, but the next best thing is the glorious special exhibit this fall at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). 

The exhibit begins with some borrowed paintings that illuminate Chagall’s lifelong passions for music, performance,  and colorful memories of his childhood village in Russia. The painting above is “The Red Circus,” 1956-1960.

Violinists were always prominent in Chagall’s work. “Green Violinist” was from 1923-1924. It’s a fiddler on the roof–literally. This image was used in one of seven murals in the Moscow State Jewish Theater in 1920.

Like countless Jewish artists, intellectuals, and ordinary people, Chagall had to leave Russia. But for the rest of his long life he celebrated and mourned the lost life of his village of Liozna in his work. 

By 1942, he was in Mexico working on a production of the Tchaikovsky ballet “Aleko,” which opened in New York City. I love the costume for my favorite animal, the fox. Chagall did all the set design and hand painted the costumes and sets. The work had to be done in Mexico because American union rules prohibited hands-on work on costumes and sets by the artist. His wife worked alongside him, organizing materials and seamstresses.

In 1945, he did the same for a production of Stravinsky’s “The Firebird.”

The sets and costumes were fabulously wild. I love the alligator and the green bird.

In 1945, Chagall did sets and costumes for Ravel’s “Daphnis and Chloe.” 

The pirates were as lovingly costumed as the pair of lovers.

The exhibit at LACMA displays not only the costumes themselves, but the artists’ joyous renderings of them as he worked.

Mozart’s opera “The Magic Flute,” in 1967? Sure, coming right up!

Mozart’s fantastic story required fantastic sets and costumes.

Chagall said, “I adore the theater and I am a painter. I think the two are made for a marriage of love.” Amen to that!

If you have a chance, go see this exhibit, and take your time seeing it. The painting above is “The Dance,” 1950-1952. 

The 1965 photo above is by Yousouf Karsh. The artist was still working, twenty years later, on the day he died at age 97. No doubt he still had the same joy in life and in his work. We should all be so lucky!

There’s an article about the exhibit in LA Weekly at:

Santa Maria della Scala in Siena: Going Medieval on Health Care

Directly across the square from the glorious cathedral of Siena, Italy, there’s one of the oldest existing hospitals in the world. It’s a vast complex, partly underground, built over centuries beginning in the 1100s.

The exterior looks modest, but just inside is the spectacular Pilgrim’s Hall, where over the centuries anyone could wander in and find free food, medical care, and compassionate social services.
The fresco above shows the Augustinian friar Agostino Novello, believed to be one of the most important leaders of the hospital, around 1305. He’s being robed in the modest dark cloak of his new job. Previously, he was a high enough churchman that he was entitled to rich and colorful silks. A pauper leaning on a stick stands to the right. The artist was Priamo Della Quercia, 1442.

The fresco above shows the (possibly legendary) time in 1195 that Pope Celestine III gave the hospital brothers the privilege of running their own affairs and choosing their own rector. The artist was Dominico di Bartolo, 1442-1444.

Above, a fresco shows one of the hospital brothers kneeling before an archpriest, describing a vision. The hospital cared for orphans and foundlings; possibly the vision was of the naked children climbing a ladder toward heaven and being scooped up by the Virgin. The artist was Lorenzo di Pietro, known as il Vecchietta, 1441.

I’m not sure why the guy in the foreground above is working in his tighty whiteys, but he’s working with a sextant: part of the continual hospital expansion. Somebody else is piling up bricks. A group of nobles are inspecting the building project on horseback. A bishop rides a mule as a mark of humility. A person in a long blue robe is handing out money.

The two frescoes above show the wet-nurses for the foundling babies being paid their wages in grain. The artists were Pietro d’Achille Crogi and Giovanni di Raffaele Navisi. They worked in the Florentine Mannerist style, 1575-1577. Grain was collected from outlying farms, measured into sacks, and payments carefully recorded.

This fresco, “Caring for the Sick,” shows a crowd of clergy, doctors and servants taking care of patients. The surgeon in the center is about to operate on the fellow with his foot in the basin. A brother wearing the order’s square headpiece tends to a patient on a bier. An Augustinian friar hears confessions on the right. The place looks a lot like a crowded emergency room in a contemporary hospital. The artist was Bartolo, 1440-1441.

Another Bartolo fresco, “Almsgiving,” shows a crowd receiving bread, which the brothers distributed to all comers for centuries. A near-naked man in the center receives a nice warm cloak.

Bartolo also did the fresco above, “Marrying the Hospital’s Girls,” 1441-1442. Foundlings were not only raised and educated, but were launched into adulthood. Boys learned a trade, and girls received dowries so they could marry respectably.

Today, a tourist qualifies as a pilgrim. A ticket to Santa Maria della Scala buys a little loaf of bread like the ones handed out for centuries.

To this day in Italy, emergency rooms treat anyone–including tourists from the USA–either for free or for a nominal fee. This is true in most European countries.

Traveling in Europe, I am mortified to think of the dismal medical options available to Americans unlucky enough to have no private medical insurance. In July of 2017, thousands of people waited for hours to be treated at a once-a-year free medical event at a fairground in Virginia, while the United States Senate dithered and threatened to take away health insurance from millions of people who only recently acquired it. The photo above is from an article in the Daily Mail.

I’d like the USA to “go medieval” and provide health care for all, as the city of Siena was somehow able to do centuries ago.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe, Scandinavia and the British Isles!

May 4, Liberation Day in Denmark

Yesterday I came upon a celebration in the park across from my hotel in Odense. A military band was playing tunes from the World War II era, accompanied by a chorus of civilians.

 The gentleman in the coat and tails, pictured above, kept a path open through the crowd.

Why? To keep a path clear for people like this elderly hero of the Danish Resistance.

When the Nazis overran Denmark in April of 1940, they just wanted the tiny country for strategic reasons. Danes were allowed to govern themselves for a couple of years. The people gritted their teeth and cooperated to some extent in order to survive. But underground, the resistance grew quietly. The Nazis tightened their grip and demanded that all the Jews be deported. Right under the noses of the Nazis, the Danes got together with their hated historic enemy Sweden. (They still don’t care much for Sweden). But Sweden was neutral, and so hundreds of boats spirited all the Jews across the water to Sweden, a few at a time. Virtually none were lost. Then the Danes turned their attention to matters like blowing up bridges and helping the Americans, the Canadians, and the British.

Liberation came at 8:30 pm on May 4, 1945. At 8:30 last night, May 4, church bells rang all over town and everybody from the park filed into the nearby cathedral for a service of thanksgiving.

Danish soldiers carried the flags of Denmark, the U.K., Canada, and the United States. Later, I thanked the soldier carrying the US flag. He and his friends thanked me for being Americans. I cried. This really was a moving ceremony.

When I left on this trip, I registered as always with the US State Department. They sent me two different travel warnings, advising me to avoid crowds and and any kind of public gathering. I am so glad I didn’t avoid the May 4 celebration in Odense, Denmark.

I stood around outside the church before the service and talked with Danes, who mostly speak perfect English. I thought about going into the church for the service, but it was all in Danish and looked like standing room only.

So I just walked back into the park and contemplated the war memorial.

In spite of what’s going on in my country right this minute, I’m still proud to be an American. I trust that after some dark days, we’ll be able once more to stand with those less fortunate than ourselves, and welcome people into our country. Our young people, like young people everywhere, are our hope for the future.

USA Tax Day 2017

Nobody much likes to pay taxes. In the London National Gallery I came upon these two fellows, “The Tax Gatherers.” The painting is from the workshop of Marinus van Reymerswale, most likely from the 1540s. The caption explains that it was probably painted as a satire on covetousness. (Do you think? It looks to me like a 16th century version of a biting episode of our “Saturday Night Live”).

In the 1500s, government authorities imposed taxes on items such as wine, beer and fish. The serious-looking gentleman on the left is apparently writing out a tax list. Once the tax rate was set, private individuals were entrusted with actually collecting the money from taxpayers. An unscrupulous tax-gatherer could obviously take advantage of this system. The man on the right, with his grasping fingers and face contorted by greed, looks more than ready to grab more than his fair share of whatever he collects.
We all hope our hard-earned tax money is used well, but we suspect it is not. As Americans get their tax returns ready to stamp and mail (this year actually on April 18 instead of the traditional April 15), some people might have headaches. I came across a possible remedy in the National Museum of Finland in Helsinki.

It’s a wood carving of the head of John the Baptist on a platter, from the Pertteli Church, circa 1500. The caption helpfully explains that parishioners cured their headaches by holding it above their heads while praying. Worth a try, I would think!

Monkey Business with Tulips

I just flew over the fabled tulip fields of Holland.  Sadly, I only had a short layover in Amsterdam airport. But I fondly remember a tulip-season trip to Holland three years ago. Tulips were everywhere, in all their glory.

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Museums have traditional arrangements of tulips, like this one which only a very wealthy family would have enjoyed in the past. Each precious bloom has its own place in a towering Delft vase, a luxurious work of art in itself.

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During that trip, I hopped a train for a short ride from Amsterdam to the nearby town of Haarlem, especially to visit the Frans Hals Museum.  Frans Hals was a contemporary of Rembrandt; they competed for the same clientele of wealthy Dutch citizens during the Golden Age of Dutch painting, in the 1600s.  His namesake museum has many Hals paintings, plus work by other artists of his time.

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But my favorite piece in the Hals museum was the little oil painting of monkeys going bananas over tulips. It was based on an all-too-true historical event. (In the Dutch Golden Age, they didn’t have Twitter or “Saturday Night Live”).

“A Satire of Tulip Mania” by Brueghel the Younger, Public Domain

“A Satire of Tulip Mania,” by Breughel the Younger, was painted in 1640, just after the debacle of the tulip boom and bust cycle.  This was the seventeenth-century equivalent of the dot-com boom and bust, or the subprime mortgage boom and bust. It was probably the first modern instance of rampant speculation in a commodity, followed by a crash. At the height of the frenzy, a single tulip bulb sold for ten times the annual income of a skilled craftsman.

Brueghel dressed his gullible monkeys in contemporary clothes and showed them facing debtor’s court and even urinating on discarded tulips, turned from priceless to worthless overnight. Then as now, greed leads straight into monkey business.

Today the tulip trade is much more stable.  The museum had spectacular arrangements of tulips and other spring flowers in every room.

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I’m plotting a return trip to Holland–one where I can get out of the airport and into the tulips.

Christmas Markets in Europe


This photo is of skaters at one of the great Christmas markets, the one that takes up the main streets of Munich. As I sadly and angrily think of the carnage this week at the market in Berlin, I thought I’d post some photos of markets I’ve loved over the years–not that I ever buy much.  The point is for people to be together, enjoying the season and laughing at ice and snow.


Vienna has some of the most beautiful markets, each with its own unique flavor. The one at the Rathaus–the City Hall–is the largest and has the most festive lights.  For weeks before Christmas, it’s packed day and night with happy people strolling, eating and drinking.


Inside the august halls of the Rathaus, the Christkindl angel speaks with thrilled little children. In Austria and Germany, the angel seems to serve somewhat the same function as a visit to Santa in the United States.  But it has not become a big photo op–it’s just a chance visit, all the more thrilling because it can’t really be planned.

Children sign up for gift workshops in the Rathaus, making presents for their loved ones.  No hovering adults are allowed.  I would love to receive a lopsided gingerbread man from the baking workshop.


My favorite Vienna market is the one in the plaza of the historic Karlskirche.

The Karlskirche market is especially kid-oriented.  There’s a big straw play area with animals ready for the bolder kids to pet.


One of the most popular activities at Karlskirche is to lead a gentle llama around on a leash.  As soon as I find the photo, I’ll post it! Meanwhile, I’ll dream of being in Austria or Germany again at a Christmas market–hopefully in snow.

I haven’t posted in awhile because on my last trip I caught a nasty virus which took awhile to overcome.  Am I discouraged about traveling? Not a chance.  I’ll be on a plane again as soon as I can. And I’ll be praying for world peace and harmony.

Join me next time for more explorations in European art, history and culture!



Rome in November

Sunshine and no crowds–well, hardly any. We got up early to arrive at St. Peter’s at 7am, opening time. 

We waited just outside Bernini’s spectacular colonnade, contemplating the fact that the oval space was once Nero’s circus–a chariot racetrack with assorted atrocities against early Christians as extra entertainment. 

We were among the first 10 people in line. Our reward? We were allowed in at about 8:10, and suddenly there were quite a few people–some more colorful than others. All were welcome.

Inside, the enormous church feels smaller than it is–the architects, including Michelangelo, made the statues  way up high in extra-large sizes, so they seem closer.

There’s a list of all 250 or so Popes, with the dates of their deaths. The two most recent, Benedict and Francis, are not listed because they are still among the living.

A couple of them sleep eternally, enclosed in glass, in the actual church instead of in the crypt below. I’m not sure why this is, but I especially liked the comfy Santa nightcap on this Pope. 

Some years ago, I was able to walk right up to Michelangelo’s beautiful Pieta, sculpted when he was just 24. Now, visitors are kept way back–the result of a vandalism incident. It’s like the disappointing view of the Mona Lisa in the Louvre–all jostling people with their cameras.

The closest I got to the Pieta was this plaster copy of it the next day in the Vatican Museums.

Still, St. Peter’s feels very much like a working church, not just a tourist attraction.

I’ll cheerfully visit any time I’m lucky enough to be in Rome.