All of us, across the world, know that Italy is shaped like a boot. But almost none of us know that, in the regions of Apulia and Calabria at the country’s “heel” and “toe,” live small communities who, among themselves, still speak not Italian but Greek. The word “still” applies because these peoples, known as Griko (or Grecanici), are thought to have descended from the much larger medieval or even ancient Greek communities that once existed there. Of course, it wouldn’t have been at all unusual back then for inhabitants of one part of what we now call Italy to speak a quite different language from the inhabitants of another.
John Kazaklis at Istoria writes that “the Italian language did not become the staple language until well into the end of the 19th Century during the process of Italian unification, or the Risorgimento,” which turned the Tuscan dialect into the national language. Yet “there exists today a tiny enclave of Greek-speaking people in the Aspromonte Mountain region of Reggio Calabria that seem to have survived millennia.”
Are they “descendants of the Ancient Greeks who colonized Southern Italy? Are they remnants of the Byzantine presence in Southern Italy? Did their ancestors come in the 15th-16th Centuries from the Greek communities in the Aegean fleeing Ottoman invasion?” Everyone who considers the origins of the Griko/Grecanici people (or their Griko/Grico/Greko languages) seems to come to a slightly different conclusion.
“I suspect they speak a dialect more closely related to the Koine Greek spoken at the time of the 11th century Byzantine Empire, the last and final time Southern Italy was still part of the Greek-speaking world,” writes Grecophone Youtuber Tom_Traveler, who visits the Griko-speaking villages of Gallicianò and Bova in the video above. “Or perhaps it was influenced by Greek refugees fleeing Constantinople upon its fall to the Turks in 1453.” However it developed, it’s long been a language on the decline: “the clearest estimate of remaining Greko speakers seems to be between 200-300,” Kazaklis wrote in 2017, “and numbers continue to decrease.” In the interest of preserving the language and the history reflected within it, now would be a good time for a few of those speakers to start up Youtube channels of their own.
“If you’re in Venice, you might not enjoy it so much if you follow a tour-guide route that gets you to the main attractions.” So says Youtuber Manuel Bravo — whom we’ve previously featured here on Open Culture for his videos on Pompeii, the Duomo di Firenze, and the Great Pyramids of Giza — in “Venice Explained” just above. “But if you get off that road, the charm of Venice is that it’s such a tangled mess that nobody ventures out there” — out, that is, into the “wonderful little neighborhoods with little squares with cisterns and little cafés.” Diminutive though that may sound, Venice comes off in Bravo’s analysis as an entire, unique urban realm unto itself.
“Historically, Venice is really detached from Italy proper,” Bravo says. “It was not a Roman town. It does not have the detritus of Roman ruins scattered around. It does not have remnants of a Roman town plan with cardo and decumanus. It does not even have, well, land.”
Indeed, Venice is famous for having been built in the Adriatic Sea, on a “new fortified ground plane” made of strong trees imported from Croatia. As its political and economic importance grew, so did its “incomparable medieval urban landscape that has remained practically unchanged.” This built environment is full of architectural styles and details seen nowhere else, to which Bravo draws our attention through the course of the video.
Though he recommends departing from the tourist-beaten paths, he doesn’t ignore such world-famous Venetian structures as the Ca d’Oro, “perhaps the most beautiful building in Venice”; the Doge’s Palace with its “antigravity” architecture; and — in detail — the Basilica and Piazza San Marco, “one of the most memorable spatial complexes in the history of urban planning.” No first visit would be complete without some time spent at each of these sites. But “Venice is a city of light,” and in order properly to enjoy it, we must “see it at different times of the day and experience all the nuances that it offers”: good advice in this “most visually seductive of all the cities in the world,” but also worth bearing in mind as a means of appreciating even the less majestic places in which most of us usually find ourselves.
Wikipedia throws doubt on these origin stories by citing an entry in an ecclesiastical directory published a few years prior to 1869, which gave the full parish name as “Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerbwlltysiliogogo.”
Someone in the tourist information office told travel writer Dave Fox that it translates to “St. Mary’s Church in the hollow of white hazel near a rapid whirlpool and the Church of St. Tysilio near the red cave.”
It’s tempting to think this little Welsh town has the longest name in the world, but that honor actually goes to Bangkok.
The name by which most foreigners know Thailand’s capital city is actually an archaic reference to its pre-1782 location.
It means “City of angels, great city of immortals, magnificent city of the nine gems, seat of the king, city of royal palaces, home of gods incarnate, erected by Vishvakarman at Indra’s behest” and looks like this, when written in Thai script:
Today it would be viewed as cultural appropriation writ large, but when Louis XIV ordered the construction of a 5-building pleasure pavilion inspired by the Porcelain Tower of Nanjing (a 7th Wonder of the World few French citizens had viewed in person) as an escape from Versailles, and an exotic love nest in which to romp with the Marquise de Montespan, he ignited a craze that spread throughout the West.
The blue-and-white Delft tiles meant to mimic Chinese porcelain swiftly fell into disrepair and Madame de Montespan’s successor, her children’s former governess, the Marquise de Maintenon, urged Louis to tear the place down because it was “too cold.”
Her lover did as requested, but elsewhere, the West’s imagination had been captured in a big way.
The burgeoning tea trade between China and the West provided access to Chinese porcelain, textiles, furnishings, and lacquerware, inspiring Western imitations that blur the boundaries between Chinoiserie and Rococo styles
This blend is in evidence in Frederick the Great’s Chinese House in the gardens of Sanssouci (below).
His European face is more than just a symbol of intellectual union between Asia and Europe…The figure on the roof has an umbrella, an Asian symbol of social dignity, which he holds in an eastern direction. So the famous ex oriente lux, the good and wise Confucian light from the far east, is blocked by the umbrella. Further down, we notice that the foundations of the building seem to be made of feathers and the Chinese heads over the windows, resting on cushions like trophies, turn into a monkey band in the interior. The frescoes in the cupola mainly depict monkeys and parrots. As we know, these particular animals are great imitators without understanding.
Frederick’s enthusiasm for chinoiserie led him to engage architect Carl von Gontard to follow up the Chinese House with a pagoda-shaped structure he named the Dragon House (below) after the sixteen creatures adorning its roof.
Dragons also decorate the roof of the Great Pagoda in London’s Kew Gardens, though the gilded wooden originals either succumbed to the elements or were sold off to settle George IV’s gambling debts in the late 18th century.
There are even more dragons to be found on the Chinese Pavilion at Drottningholm, Sweden, an architectural confection constructed by King Adolf Fredrik as a birthday surprise for his queen, Louisa. The queen was met by the entire court, cosplaying in Chinese (or more likely, Chinese-inspired) garments.
Not to be outdone, Russia’s Catherine the Great resolved to “capture by caprice” by building a Chinese Village outside of St. Petersburg.
Architect Charles Cameron drew up plans for a series of pavilions surrounding a never-realized octagonal-domed observatory. Instead, eight fewer pavilions than Cameron originally envisioned surround a pagoda based on one in Kew Gardens.
Having survived the Nazi occupation and the Soviet era, the Chinese Village is once again a fantasy plaything for the wealthy. A St. Petersburg real estate developer modernized one of the pavilions to serve as a two-bedroom “weekend cottage.”
Given that no record of the original interiors exists, designer Kirill Istomin wasn’t hamstrung by a mandate to stick close to history, but he and his client still went with “numerous chinoiserie touches” as per a feature in Elle Decor:
Panels of antique wallpapers were framed in gilded bamboo for the master bedroom, and vintage Chinese lanterns, purchased in Paris, hang in the dining and living rooms. The star pieces, however, are a set of 18th-century porcelain teapots, which came from the estate of the late New York socialite and philanthropist Brooke Astor.
Court Green, the rural Devon property Sylvia Plath called home for sixteen months toward the end of her life is a popular pilgrimage for Plathophiles, seeking to worship at the wellspring of some of her best known poems – The Bee Meeting, Daddy, Lady Lazarus, and many other works posthumously published in 1965’s Ariel.
(Her ex-husband Ted Hughes wrote his collection, Crow, there as well, not long after Plath died by suicide. Something tells us his widow, Carol, a staunch defender of her husband’s legacy, doesn’t exactly roll out the welcome mat when she sees starry eyed devotee’s of her husband’s first wife tromping around the perimeter of the property where she still lives…)
I looked around the Victorian gravestones, slowly passing the souls of the dead. The beautiful green trees could not contrast more with the Neo-gothic church. I knew at first sight which one is the yew tree in Plath’s poem. I was searching for the window of Court Green, Plath’s office window, from which she could have an expansive view of the yew…North Tawton has been an ambiguous place for both Plath and Plathians. In the year she spent in the isolated village, she produced her best and most well-known poems, but it was also a place where she experienced extreme isolation after Hughes left her. Nevertheless, the country life provided plenty of opportunities for Plath to explore her creative, aesthetic, and domestic independence, such as horse riding in the field of Devon, experimenting with beekeeping, painting her children’s nursery elbow chair, and making apple pie from the apples of her garden. The poetry and fiction Plath wrote between autumn 1961 and winter 1962 are embedded in the natural environment in Devon and community, places, and non-human life of North Tawton.
Plath wrote The Moon and the Yew Tree on October 22, 1961, less than two months after moving to Court Green. Everything in the poem is true: her property was separated from an adjacent church by a row of headstones; on Sunday eight bells would toll; an ancient yew tree grew in the church graveyard. …She doesn’t mention the yew tree specifically in any of her letters; she saved that for the poem.
Her performance of “The Moon and The Yew Tree,” above, is more straightforward than Plathian, allowing the darkness of the work–which The Marginalian’s Maria Popova calls “one of (Plath’s) finest poems and one of the most poignant portraits of depression in the history of literature”–to speak for itself.
As Popova notes, the poem was written during a difficult period, in an attempt to fulfill a writing exercise suggested by Hughes, “to simply describe what she saw in the Gothic churchyard outside her window.”
Who would dare fault Plath for obeying the impulse to editorialize a bit?
The New Yorker had accepted but not yet published “The Moon and the Yew Tree” when Plath took her own life on February 11, 1963. It was published posthumously in a two-page spread along with five other poems six months later. You can read it online here.
Understandably, the hybrid cable-stayed/suspension superstar connecting Brooklyn to lower Manhattan takes the lead in Wyetzner’s coverage of five bridges that have had an enormous impact on the development of a city whose five boroughs were once traversable solely by ferry.
In his 1921 book New York: The Great Metropolis, painter Peter Marcus noted that “if laid over Manhattan it would reach from Wanamaker’s store at Eighth Street, to One Hundred and Twenty-fifth Street.”
Macomb’s Dam Bridge, a low lying swing bridge whose center portion pivots to accommodate boat traffic on the Harlem River. When construction began in late 1890, the New York Times gushed that it would be a “street built in mid-air” between the Bronx and Washington Heights in upper Manhattan:
It is hardly enough to say of it that it will be the greatest piece of engineering of the kind in the world. Nothing like it has ever been attempted.
The High Bridge– Originally part of the Croton Aqueduct, it is technically the oldest surviving bridge in the city, as well as a community-led preservation campaign success story. Having languished in the latter part of the 20th century, it is now a beautiful pedestrian bridge whose killer views can be enjoyed without the hassle of Brooklyn Bridge-sized crowds.
The George Washington Bridge– a major money maker for the Port Authority, it’s not only the world’s busiest bridge, it puts a lot of the bridge in “bridge and tunnel crowd” by connecting Manhattan to New Jersey.
I never want to be more than three minutes from the George. I could always see it as I grew up. That bridge has been in my life for as long as I can remember. As a kid, I could walk across it anytime I wanted. I love to see it sparkling at night. I moved to New Jersey, and I’m still next to it.
Wyetzner, whose architectural round up shoehorns in a lot of interesting information about public health, economics, transportation, labor practice and New York City history, is actively courting viewers to suggest bridges for a sequel.
Jan Morris visited Hiroshima in 1959, fourteen years after its devastation by the United States’ atomic bomb. “The city has long been rebuilt, and a new population has flooded in to replace the victims of the holocaust,” she wrote, “but for all the bright new buildings and the broad boulevards, no Pompeii is more surely frozen in its attitude of disaster, and no Mont Pelée more permanently scarred.” Despite the robust urban form and activity around her, she felt “for all the world as though the tall new buildings are not there at all, and the islands of the Ota delta are still blackened and smoking. Assured indeed must be the visitor who has not, just for a fleeting foolish moment, wondered if the stones of Hiroshima were still radioactive, or eyed the running water thoughtfully.”
Today, the very name of Hiroshima still evokes one thing and one thing only, at least to most foreigners. But if those foreigners actually make the trip to that once-destroyed city, it will probably strike them as even more incongruously alive than it did Morris those six decades ago.
Some would imagine that, given that the dropping of the bomb known as “Little Boy” remains just within living memory — its 78th anniversary passed just last Sunday — Hiroshima would be an abandoned nuclear wasteland. Here to explain why it flourishes instead is Youtuber Kyle Hill, whose new video above explains the difference between the long-term effects of nuclear devastation on Hiroshima and those on a place like the region of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.
“For all the destruction it caused, the Little Boy bomb was terribly inefficient,” Hill says. “Of the bomb’s 64 kilograms of uranium, less than one kilogram underwent fission. This means that “every joule of energy that devastated Hiroshima, a fireball so hot it etched ‘negatives’ of people into concrete, a blast wave so intense, it shattered windows 200 kilometers away, came from less than a gram of matter converted directly into energy.” To the much more powerful nuclear weapons developed since there can be no comparison, even considering that Little Boy (like “Fat Man,” which hit Nagasaki) was detonated high in the air, not on the ground, thus causing relatively little lasting contamination. As a result, there’s no need to feel radiation-related hesitation about visiting Hiroshima. If you go, by all means visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, but don’t forget to enjoy an okonomiyaki or two as well.
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In 1880, architect Thomas W. Cutler endeavored to introduce his fellow Brits to Japanese art and design, a subject that remained novel for many Westerners of the time, given how recently the Tokugawa shogunate had “kept themselves aloof from all foreign intercourse, and their country jealously closed against strangers.”
Having written positively of China’s influence on Japanese artists, Cutler hoped that access to Western art would not prove a corrupting factor:
The fear that a bastard art of a very debased kind may arise in Japan, is not without foundation…The European artist, who will study the decorative art of Japan carefully and reverently, will not be in any haste to disturb, still less to uproot, the thought and feeling from which it has sprung; it is perhaps the ripest and richest fruit of a tree cultivated for many ages with the utmost solicitude and skill, under conditions of society peculiarly favorable to its growth.
Having never visited Japan himself, Cutler relied on previously published works, as well as numerous friends who were able to furnish him with “reliable information upon many subjects,” given their “long residence in the country.”
That said, Cutler emerges as a robust admirer of Japan’s painting, lacquerware, ceramics, calligraphy, textiles, metalwork, enamelwork and netsuke carvings, the latter of which are “are often marvelous in their humor, detail, and even dignity.”
Only Japan’s wooden architecture, which he confidently pooh poohed as little more than “artistic carpentry, decoration, and gardening”, cleverly designed to withstand earthquakes, get shown less respect.
Cutler’s renderings of Japanese design motifs, undertaken in his free time, are the lasting legacy of his book, particularly for those on the prowl for copyright-free graphics.
Cutler observed that the “most characteristic” element of Japanese decoration was its close ties to the natural world, adding that unlike Western designers, a Japanese artist “would throw his design a little out of the center, and cleverly balance the composition by a butterfly, a leaf, or even a spot of color.”
The below plant studies are drawn from the work of the great ukiyo-e master Hokusai, a “man of the people” who ushered in a period of “vitality and freshness” in Japanese art.
A sampler of curved lines made with single brush strokes can be used to create clouds or the intricate scrollwork that inspired Western artists and designers of the Aesthetic Movement.
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