Thursday, July 31, 2008


Apricots. No further comment needed really, except to say these are from Pam's tree, and they look lovely.

Two large boxes of these beauties reside in the kitchen awaiting their demise... (bwah ha ha)


Pam and James (in chorus):
"Not two boxes... THREE!"

Orvieto by night

When we arrived in Orvieto* back in May, we took a stroll in the evening to see the town by night, when it was less thronged with tourists. It was a different way to experience the town, and we hope you'll enjoy some of the photographs...

As dusk falls, the lights go on, and everyone heads inside for antipasti and dinner. That included us... (Bev: I love the way the houses seem to grow out of the hillside like limpets or crystals...)

After dinner, we strolled down the main street, and were again presented with the Italian obsession for swimwear and lingerie shops. The name of this chain of shops, we translated very inaccurately as 'Ladywraps'. (Bev: I took the picture: he wouldn't!)

Bev: Around the corner is one of the many churches, this one being on the site of the Roman forum, and next to a moorish tower, its multiple sides home to many pigeons. We went into the church the next day, and it has the most astounding azure blue ceiling with stars painted on it...

...and an arcade based on the Ospidale dei Inocenti in Florence. In the daytime, this was a flower market stall.

Of course the main attraction is the Duomo. The piazza is worth attention as well, and we sat here, enjoying the peace and quiet (no cars), the soft air, and the views of the Duomo and clock/bell tower:

- It's quite the facade.
With sculptures representing Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

And then to bed, in preparation for another hard day of pizza-eating, sipping Orvieto Classico - oh, and just a little art...

James and Bev

*This is one of many retrospective posts we anticipate to come, covering things we saw and did but haven't had a chance to add to the blog until now. No, we haven't returned to Italy. (Yet.) Also, I suspect we'll be adding posts for some months yet... - J.

Birds of BC

On the trip, one fascinating aspect has been meeting up with friends (old and new) and family, and gaining insights into their interests, expertise and hobbies. Pam, Bev’s mother, has been a keen birder for some years now, eagerly seeking out birds wherever in the world she finds herself. For this guest spot on the blog, we asked Pam to present a selection of some of the birds of British Columbia, as we’ve enjoyed discussing some of the sightings and work she’s undertaken, including helping compile data for the British Columbia Breeding Bird Atlas. (For more see The BCBBA website).

Notably, and as mentioned in the captions, some shots were taken by positioning the digital camera behind the bird spotting telescope (known in the family as ‘the bun gun’) as an extemporary telephoto lens; a tricky, but sometimes remarkably successful technique, (known as digiscoping).

-Over to Pam!

Thanks, Bev and James, for the chance to share some of my bird photos on your blog! Photographing birds is a challenge, but has added a new area of interest to my birding passion. I took all these photos over the past three years, all in British Columbia and many in our own back yard. I hope you enjoy them.

This is a female Belted Kingfisher, taken through the spotting scope; she was perched on a dead branch, and diving for fish in the lake. Note the murderous fish-spearing beak! Interestingly, the female has two ‘belts’, while the male has only one, an unusual variation of gender-specific plumage.

This California Quail pair (with the male left, female right) are drinking at their favourite small dish on Jim’s wall. They come nearly every afternoon and bring the kids when they’ve hatched. Day old chicks are like ‘walnuts on toothpicks’, to use Jim’s phrase, and are able to forage for themselves and even fly a little.

One of Canada’s smallest diving ducks, this is a male Hooded Merganser, elegant and crisp in spring plumage on a brightly lit local pond.

This male Northern Flicker, also taken through the spotting scope, was taking his turn at sitting on the eggs in the nest hole. The Northern Flicker is an abundant woodpecker, large, colourful and easily observed across Canada.

This juvenile Osprey (taken through the spotting scope) was perched very conveniently at eye level on pilings near a wooden jetty where I was standing with other birders. Earlier, we had enjoyed watching the parent birds teaching both their young how to fish.

A Pygmy Nuthatch is a very endearing little bird and rare in Canada, being found only in the Okanagan Valley and south Nicola Valley. A tiny nuthatch, it nests in Ponderosa Pines and feeds on insects in the bark. Obviously, it also likes the occasional seed to vary the diet! Here one is seen at our bird bath, which they visit nearly every day. They remain throughout the winter and liven the winter scene with their communal roosting and feeding. They are acrobatic feeders, especially favouring chunks of beef fat in an old onion bag hung outside our sunroom window.

This is a rufous morph Red-Tailed Hawk, very reddish-brown (taken through the spotting scope). The species varies from very pale to very dark, but all have the characteristic belly band and unmarked ‘bib’. This is probably the most abundant raptor in Canada, magnificent when soaring and hunting on the wing.

This young Rufous Hummingbird is seeking nectar from the flower basket planter I hang from a large pine tree each summer. They love pink tubular flowers especially, but also love the lobelia. Rufous Hummingbirds migrate south along high mountain pastures, where they can find flowering nectar-bearing plants late in the season, long after those in the valleys have finished blooming. (James adds: The hummingbird's amazing wing 'design' is, I think one of the most under-rated pieces of nature's remarkable engineering - notice how the wings are moving so fast they have almost disappeared in the photo. The hummingbird can fly backwards, and hover, as well as all the 'usual' avian maneuvers, and the energy-demand 'spike' this flight creates probably also explains why it needs to run on sugars!)

And lastly, one of our largest water birds, related to the European Divers, is the Loon. Its eerie call is evocative of the Canadian north. This bird, like the kingfisher, has a murderous fish-spearing beak. It cannot walk on land, but is a superb swimmer and diver. When seen face-on, its head is completely spherical, perfectly streamlined for deep and prolonged hunting in the water. Somewhat surprisingly in view of their size, loons are very difficult to photograph well! This bird was photographed through the spotting scope.


Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Gone fishing

Every year should contain something new. This year had a number of firsts for me, but this item was a standout. As promised, Jim and I managed to get up to Oyama lake where we went fishing. (Bev and Pam came too, but this is the fishing bit of the tale.) A big thanks to Jim for the loan of the equipment, licence, fly (which I'm sorry to say was lost through trying to get the lake bottom into the boat) and patience. I caught two fish, which were voted rather tasty. I'll just add, so everyone knows what a great host Jim was, that he killed, gutted and cooked them too.

I just got to play at the best bit... Catching them.

Jim assured me this wasn't trying to show how you made all fish measure 40" long...

The fishermen return with provisions on ice.

Oyama lake is a beautiful spot and we were lucky to strike perfect weather for a grand day out. I'm sure Bev will outline some of the day's other highlights, but I'm sure you'll excuse me if I'm a bit focussed on one thing.

Bon appetit!


Monday, July 28, 2008

Frederico III through old glass

Exploring and observing history can become all too routine, but sometimes there is something that quietly commands your attention. It is, sadly also all too rare that one gets to encounter great historic sites and their patron without vast adulatory and enervating overtures from guides. On this trip, one of the outstanding moments for me was discovering, essentially anew, the buildings and works of Federico III da Montefeltro, and realising what an remarkable story his life is - sadly not available in English as a full biography, as far as I'm aware.

Left: The handmade (perhaps original) glass in the Ducal Palace at Urbino reveal some aspects of the humanist architecture of the Duke.

He was a remarkably successful condottieri (now we would say 'mercenary', bringing a range of moral views that were quite different in the pre-Renaissance period) never losing a war, and actually fighting, on one occasion, successfully against a former client. He was an illegitimate son, who was recognised as legitimate, raised to a dukedom, and granted the Order of the Garter by a grateful English king, an award he was clearly particularly proud of. (For more of the facts, see the end of the post or the Wikipedia entry.)

Subtle colour variations have a kaleidoscopic palette effect.

But that was not what made him remarkable. From Wikipedia:

"Federico, nicknamed "the Light of Italy", is a landmark figure in the history of the Italian Renaissance for his contributions to enlightened culture. He imposed justice and stability on his tiny state through the principles of his humanist education; he engaged the best copyists and editors in his private scriptorium to produce the most comprehensive library outside of the Vatican; he supported the development of fine artists, including the early training of the young painter Raphael."

In two small Italian towns, we saw the nature of that influence. The quiet, sleepy town of Urbania (below) held one of his palaces, and the resonance of his influence was notable centuries later.

And not far away, we saw the university town of Urbino where that same influence was writ larger. Thankfully, the centre of the Italian Renaissance moved away from these towns, with the result that they still are Frederico's towns, to a remarkable degree.

What was important about that? Firstly, it was clear that here was a man, who through warfare and successful manipulation of the murderous nature of the politics of the day, had come to the top. But rather than continuing as he had succeeded, he was to set aflame the arts, and he clearly chose to push through the acceptable in both laying aside his weapons of war in favour of the tools of learning, but also to take that learning in new directions, past the acceptable in the monolithic Catholicism of his time into humanism but into asking questions, through some of the great artists and thinkers of the day, that still puzzle us now.

It is ironic that Frederico was one of the men who started the Renaissance, employed artists who taught Leonardo da Vinci, and founded many aspects of the humanist revolution that underpin our values even today, yet is often overlooked for less innovative patrons in less original cites, such as Florence.

In a country infamous for unfinished culture (many of the great Italian cathedrals are still awaiting, as they probably will for ever, numerous missing items from complete facades to galleries and more) the drift of the centre of culture away from Urbino and Urbania meant that these two cities are more complete and uncompromised examples of the artistic vision than arguably greater, later places.

Many soldiers (and patrons) have often wanted to be seen as great thinkers, leaders and men of note; and just when you think you can predict what he would do next, yet at every turn Frederico continues to surprise:

"He often strolled the streets of Urbino unarmed and unattended, inquiring in shops and businesses as to the well-being of the citizens."

He was a man both of his time and also ahead and outside of it. He was clearly aware of his own strengths and importance, yet laid works where he was not the focus. His name and deeds are in many ways forgotten or overlooked, yet they have a greater effect than many more famous people who followed him shortly after. Unlike many historical figures, where one can easily encompass their achievements and motivations, where there is little left to discover, he's someone I would like to meet, to find out more of what made him tick. He cannot have been an easy man, nor one who suffered fools gladly, but one who valued thought, originality, and artistic achievement.

Above: The Palace from outside the walls of Urbino. Below: The huge stair tower, designed by Francesco di Giorgio Martini (one of Bev's study subjects) for bringing horses up to the city from below.

Above: Spot the art historian... Below: An enigmatic carving in a stone on the outside wall of the Palace. What is the story?

Below: The river wall of the Palace in Urbania. The far tower, was again, designed and built by Francesco di Giorgio Martini.

From the Marche History website:

"Federico da Montefeltro was born in 1422 to a small-time noble family that ruled over an insignificant square of the chess-board that was then central Italy. Yet within sixty years he had become "the light of Italy" and the paradigm of Renaissance man, as skilled in letters as in arms.

He made his money as one of the most successful condottiere, or hired generals, of his time. Always fighting on short-term contracts and strictly for cash on the nail, he displayed the timeless Italian ability of never taking sides - he managed once to fight for Florence against the Pope only to later take up the Papal banner against the Florentines.

His fortune made, he turned to the arts as enthusiastically as he had to war and settled down to create his shining court. Almost all the great names of the Quattrocento passed through his palace, and his library was reckoned amongst the largest in Europe.

On his death in 1482, his sickly son, Guidobaldo, managed to keep alive the splendour of the court with the help of his emancipated wife Elisabetta Gonzaga. Baldesar Castiglione wrote his famous Book of the Courtier, the classic account of the Renaissance ideal, as a member of Guidobaldo and Elisabetta's retinue.

On his death in 1508, the Dukedom passed to the Della Rovere family and Urbino's decline began; the light was finally extinguished in 1631 when the last Duke handed the Duchy to the Papal States - its palace stripped of its treasures, Urbino sank into unbroken torpor."

Torpor, maybe, but two towns that, for me, outplayed Rome, Florence, Venice and Orvieto. No small achievement. We'll return to this topic again.


The faces and injuries of Federico da Montefeltro

Another fascinating aspect of Federico da Montefeltro (see the post here for more) is that he has one of the most memorable faces of the middle ages (perhaps, arguably, in all art) with a hook nose and left profile that is unique.

Right: A detail from his portrait, which has him together with his young son, Guidobaldo, is by the Spanish painter Pedro Berruguete in Urbino's Ducal Palace. A reader, a Duke, a man of war, and a man of God. Yet (we are assured) only ever seen in left profile. The full frame of this painting is seen below; sadly the colour is not as rich as in the gallery brochure's detail image.

His profile was unique, we learn, because he lost an eye, and had the bridge of his nose destroyed in a jousting accident; and most accounts say we only have left-hand portraits of the man, but this is not quite true.

The reverse of the famous diptych with his wife shows his 'triumph' with him riding towards his wife, and seen from the right.

The front is, perhaps the most famous portrait we have of him, and is that famous profile:

Fascinatingly, this reconstruction by Roberto Sambonet appears after a brief internet search, showing (literally) another side to a famous face.

Roberto Sambonet, Federico da Montefeltro, manifesto per la Pinacoteca di Brera, 1977

There are many others; and like other motifs, once you are looking, his face appears everywhere, even in Oxford's Ashmolean Museum:

And another aspect came to light as I was researching this article. It appears that even when the patient is safely dead 500 or more years, physicians can't help but investigate. Two New York authors, Anthony V D'Antoni and Stephanie L Terzulli, have come up with the theory that he suffered from 'Hyperkyphosis', a curvature of the spine.

Their paper, Federico di Montefeltro's hyperkyphosis: a visual-historical case report, uses two of Piero della Francesca's paintings (below) featuring Frederico to discuss this possibility.

Madonna of the Egg (1472) by Piero della Francesca. Pinacoteca of the Brera Academy, Milan, Italy. In this painting, the 50-year-old Duke is genuflecting and is again depicted in a left lateral view.

"Based on the available evidence, the Duke's thoracic hyperkyphosis could have been caused by repetitive trauma to the spine due to numerous hours on horseback with heavy armor. The role that osteoporosis played in the development of the hyperkyphosis is unclear, as is whether the Duke had the convexity during childhood. The hyperkyphosis as a stylistic variant by Piero della Francesca is unlikely."

The Duke and Duchess of Urbino (1465) by Piero della Francesca. Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy. The left panel is a portrait of Battista Sforza in a right lateral view. She faces her husband, Federico di Montefeltro, who is depicted in a left lateral view. The Duke was 43 years old when this diptych was painted. Notice the missing nasal bridge [5], moles on the cheek, and the skin folds on his jaw due to a facial skin disease that he had as a young man [13]. In addition, observe his prominent thoracic hyperkyphosis with the apex of the convexity roughly at the level of the T6–7 vertebrae. Battista, in contrast, does not have this anomaly.

Portraiture is a very challenging art. Finding more than a representation of the subject is the demand taken on by the portrait painter. But here it would be nice to know as much of the Duke's thoughts as we do of his ravaged physique.


Sparkles on stones

There's something almost primal about looking through the water on a beach.

This is just an experiment to see if short videos will work. This 4 second film was shot on location ~hem~ on the Okanagan lake, and was trying to capture the golden sparkles radiating away over the stones.