Monday, April 28, 2008

The End of Passivity

Gin, Television, and Social Surplus is an article I've been waiting for practically all my life. It's got all the stuff in it that I hate about television, and all the reasons why the television culture may cease to be the ruling class in this world. I like television as much as the next person, but I have a number of very big objections to it. Here they are (you can stop reading now if you don't want a soap-box oratory):

1. A lot of it is stupid.

2. People are trying to sell me stuff the whole time and are counting on me not noticing that they are trying to sell me stuff.

2a. When people are trying to sell me stuff, they are willing to do anything they can to get me to buy it, including working really hard at making me hate myself so their product can be the solution.

2b. The people who want to sell me stuff are also thinking of my children as a commodity to be bought and sold, and have absolutely no compunction about trying to turn three-year-olds into buying machines (or using the whine factor to try to get little ones to turn me into their own personal buying machine). Also, they want to make my daughters feel bad about themselves so they will buy things. Yuck.

3. There is too much of it! I could spend all my life watching it and never be through. It makes it very unsatisfying at times.

4. TV is extremely passive, which is fine when I'm exhausted, but at other times I grow impatient.

That's all I can think of at the moment, but the article above fills me with glee. It also captures the essence of some of the things I love about blogging. I encourage you to go check it out.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Of Clockwork Trains and Faberge Eggs

Wonder is in the mind of the beholder, so it is always best to limit your visits to hobby sites. However, there is a great deal to be said for starting-points, and toy trains were my starting point when I began to think, today, about the craftsmanship of toys.

Clockwork train afficianados seem to like to make their own locomotives, and sometimes they get very creative with their mechanisms - and that is often quite interesting. Take, for example, Jeffery Young's decision to use an old Meccano* wind-up motor (from back when the cheap motors were wind-up and the expensive ones were electric) to power his locomotive, Windus:

The Meccano innards

The finished train car

Or Kevin Strong's wonderful Super-8 powered clockwork "thing":

For another thing, there is a long and historical gradient from the cheap wind-up toys of fun fairs and dime stores, stamped out of tin and painted or printed with colorful paints, through the kind of toys a genteel lad or lass might play with - porcelain dolls and actual steam-powered toy boats (like the one below from the estate of Ward Kimball, the Disney animator - which just sold for $71,500) and on upwards to toys of the rich and powerful.

I don't mean silly boring grown-up toys, like the ones Sharper Image used to sell, but real toys, made from precious materials such as gold and platinum, with encrustations of diamonds. The kinds of trinkets that Tsarinas or maharajas' sons might play with, in their off hours. Little things made by people like the Freres Rochat in Geneva in the early 1800s. Here are a few I found in several auction houses (here, here and here, for example) across the web:

Singing Canary Clock

Pearl encrusted gold and enamel pocketwatch with automata

Gold and enamel pistols with pearls and singing birds

The caption for this one reads, "Toward the end of the 17th century, it was a popular pastime to raise canary birds and teach them to sing. This fashion was the inspiration for the decorative objects using singing birds of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, of which this clock is an example. At first, the bird's song was provided by a serinette mechanism, as is the case here; later, the Jaquet-Droz were to invent the whistle with sliding piston, which allowed a much greater miniaturization and the imitation of true bird song. In this case, the bird sings popular tunes of the period."

The ultimate example of this kind of perfection, the miniaturization and delicate workmanship personified, is of course Faberge and his fabulous eggs. These masterpieces began as art pieces for the Tsar and his family, complete with function and whimsy, a celebration of the family's greatness; but by the early 1900's they included some of the finest and most delicate examples of hand-made automata to be found anywhere. One example is the famous Trans-Siberian Railway Egg which included a tiny, fully-functioning clockwork train made of gold and platinum, the ultimate expression of toy train delight. The train fits into the hen-sized egg in three pieces, and when assembled is no more than one foot (33 cm) long.

PBS has a really nice website describing the relationship Faberge and the Russian royal family, the pathos of a relationship based on doomed morals and private privilege. The Faberge eggs are the ultimate expression of this very intimate and curiously emotional response to a family's life:

"The jade Alexander Palace egg (1908) contains a perfect replica of their favorite royal residence in the country – only two and one half inches long. And sailing on the clear rock crystal sea of the Standart egg (1909), is a replica of their royal yacht – reproduced to the last detail – where many happy days were spent together. 'I think that was where Fabergé differed so much from all the other jewelers of the period,' adds author Lynette Proler. 'Where they were only interested in large gemstones, Carl Fabergé was interested in the ultimate effect that a piece would have, a lasting effect so that every time you looked at a particular object, you would have this great sense of sheer enjoyment and pleasure from it.'"

Like many people, I have a many-sided response to the eggs. They are so very beautiful, and the craftsmanship is lovely. And yet, what kind of people would commission these exquisite, insanely expensive trinkets when thousands of people in their country were near starvation? I look at the lifestyle of these people and I feel that push-pull so familiar to us all: I wonder what it would be like to live a life like that, full of rich beauties and luxurious houses in interesting places with your every wish taken care of; and yet I can't comprehend the kind of dream-world they must have been living in, fooling themselves about the divine rights of kings while the rest of the world marched on.

On one hand, there are the starving peasants who eventually rose up and murdered this family, with their beloved yacht and favorite houses and jeweled trinkets. They had enough reason to revolt, this is certain. On the other hand, I look at the extraordinary craftsmanship, the time put into it, the overwhelming quality of the materials, and I think how wonderful it is that there are times and places where free rein can be given to pursue an art form to its absolute utmost: to make things that are so exquisite, so intensely perfect, that people are still knocked over by them a hundred or more years later.

"At the stroke of the hour, a ruby-eyed rooster emerges crowing and flapping its wings from the top of the elaborately designed Cockerel egg (1900). Fabergé was known to have worked on the mechanism of the Peacock Clock in the Winter Palace, and his familiarity with that famous automaton no doubt inspired the creation of this egg.

'Fabergé, who had traveled a lot, had absorbed all the currents, the various artistic currents, in Paris, in Florence, in Dresden, in London,' says author Géza Von Habsburg. 'He could go back to this memory bank and select objects from it. For instance, the Bay Tree egg in the Forbes Magazine Collection is based on an 18th century mechanical orange tree, a French automaton, which was a fairly well-known object which Fabergé must have seen during his travels.

Other eggs that Fabergé made were based on objects he saw in the imperial treasury and used as prototypes for his first eggs.' The Bay Tree egg (1911) is laden with gemstone fruits set among carved jade leaves. Turning one of the fruits opens the top of the egg as the tiny bellows inside produce the sweet song of a feathered bird."

There is a weirdly fascinating article I read about a man raised in Soviet Russia who was so affected by a Faberge egg (curiously, the Trans-Siberian one, with the train) on a visit to the museum that he spent the rest of his life thinking about eggs - even down to learning to be a jeweler in a state school and working in a factory - before starting his own business as soon as it was allowed in the 1980s, making Faberge-type eggs which are now all the rage in Europe and America. The article's description of a six-year-old child, raised with the not-very-lovely sights and sounds of Soviet Russia, seeing these exquisitely-crafted, jewelled eggs for the first time, caught my imagination. He describes how he could not stop talking about them, and his parents, good soviets, were in a quandary as to how to discuss these objects which were essentially religious objects and to couch the discussion in terms which simply couldn't reconcile the obvious beauty, lavish care and spiritual elements inherent in the eggs with the simple, politically-driven language of communism.

And ultimately, that is what makes the eggs special, because rather than going for full-on bling, wowing us with big rocks and a sort of timeless and grandiose vision of "royalness", he went for emotion, an undeniable sensitivity of spirit. Under all the purity of quality, the miniaturization, the perfect, delicate craftsmanship, lay more than the desire to either simply glorify or make money off the royal family. And he took his time over it. Each piece or part was carefully carved, carefully set, carefully planned. It is no wonder that they have been so thoroughly loved.


More on Marklin toy boats, both clockwork and steam-powered.

Makers of toy trains through history, including very old German and Swiss companies.

Victoria and Albert Museum's Museum of Childhood has a section on mechanical toys.

A grade-school class who made their own "Faberge" eggs.

Faberge research site.

Another site with a collection of interesting Faberge eggs and info about each egg.

*aka Erector Set

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Romance of Zenobia's Palmyra

While I was looking for Georg Niemann's images of Split ca. 1907 I happened across a reference to Robert Wood's The Ruins of Palmyra, otherwise Tadmor, in the desert (London, 1753), and it actually made me sit up and clap my hands, because Palmyra is one of my favorite places, and to find such a plethora of wonderful images is like getting the best kind of birthday presents.

I went to Palmyra in the early 1990's, before Americans were persona non grata in the Middle East (yes, that recently. We were actually welcome a lot of places back then). I went on a 5-week trip with my good friend Gwyan, who was working in London with me doing graphics at the time, to Turkey, Syria, Jordan and Israel. It was a fabulous trip, and one of the best places was the long-lost desert city of Palmyra, destroyed as an example by a Roman emperor.

We went from by bus from Hamma before going on to Damascus. I remember seeing a many-pointered sign-post on the way of which one of the pointers (pointing off into sandy flatness) said, "Baghdad 413 km" (or something), and feeling completely surreal. When we got there, we were blown away: across the desert, scattered around like toothpicks after a storm, were hundreds of beautiful sandstone columns, statues, carved cornices, and so on - carved from a beautiful orangey stone, like the desert itself. Some of it still stood (or stood again), some of it lay flat, and some was piled up randomly like pick-up sticks.

Nearby was a podunk little town of cement-block housing and boiling-hot, straight, lonely streets crammed up against high earthen walls. Within these walls lay the delicate heaven of the oasis itself: acre after acre of green trees and bushes, surrounded by ditches and pools of water, soaking into the fine desert soil. Where the wall grew lower we would linger, staring at the bounty and the lushness, and wish we could go inside.

The town was full of bored Arabs and on the outskirts, and in the ruins themselves, one could see Beduin folk hanging out, making tea or riding their camels or horses in lovely dark blue robes, the horses or camels arrayed in hand-woven saddlecloths with long tasseled bits. It was almost shockingly romantic.

Several of the buildings in the town housed trinket stores and sold things such as Beduin cloth, souvenirs, postcards of the Godforsaken main street, and any number of other things. I had always wanted a Beduin camel-blanket and found one in a little store run by a young man who looked as if he were about fifteen. After seeing the ruins we went in and bargained with him in a desultory way, drinking cups of sweet tea and discussing the price in a very slow and roundabout flirtation between buyer and seller. After awhile, he heard we were glassblowers and offered to show us his secret room. But more about that below.

Palmyra itself began as an oasis town:

"...[it] was made part of the Roman province of Syria during the reign of Tiberius (14–37). It steadily grew in importance as a trade route linking Persia, India, China, and the Roman empire. In 129, Hadrian visited the city and was so enthralled by it that he proclaimed it a free city and renamed it Palmyra Hadriana." [wiki]

The city is cited in a number of texts (under the name of Tadmor) as having been built by King Solomon, and with Roman conquest grew to be an extremely prosperous and elegant city, with a key part to play in the importation of desirables from the East to the Roman empire.

"Beginning in 212, Palmyra's trade diminished as the Sassanids occupied the mouth of the Tigris and the Euphrates. Septimius Odaenathus, a Prince of Palmyra, was appointed by Valerian as the governor of the province of Syria. After Valerian was captured by the Sassanids and died in captivity in Bishapur, Odaenathus campaigned as far as Ctesiphon (near modern-day Baghdad) for revenge, invading the city twice. When Odaenathus was assassinated by his nephew Maconius, his wife Septimia Zenobia took power, ruling Palmyra on the behalf of her son, Vabalathus. Zenobia rebelled against Roman authority with the help of Cassius Dionysius Longinus and took over Bosra and lands as far to the west as Egypt, establishing the short-lived Palmyrene Empire. Next, she attempted to take Antioch to the north. In 272, the Roman Emperor Aurelian finally retaliated and captured her and brought her back to Rome." [wiki]

Zenobia, known as "the Warrior Queen", expanded her empire and took over Egypt at the age of twenty-nine with her mounted desert-tribe soldiers and a great deal of skill, but was doomed to lose it within a very few years:

"In her short lived empire, Zenobia took the vital trade routes in these areas from the Romans. Roman Emperor Aurelian, who was at that time campaigning with his forces in the Gallic Empire, probably did recognise the authority of Zenobia and Vaballathus. However this relationship began to degenerate when Aurelian began a military campaign to reunite the Roman Empire in 272-273. Aurelian and his forces left the Gallic Empire and arrived in Syria. The forces of Aurelian and Zenobia met and fought near Antioch. After a crushing defeat, the remaining Palmyrenes briefly fled into Antioch and into Emesa.
Zenobia was unable to remove her treasury at Emesa before Aurelian successfully entered and besieged Emesa. Zenobia and her son escaped from Emesa on camel back with help from the Sassanids, but they were captured on the Euphrates River by Aurelian’s horsemen. Zenobia’s short lived Egyptian kingdom and the Palmyrene Empire had ended. The remaining Palmyrenes who refused to surrender were captured by Aurelian and were executed on Aurelian’s orders."

Except for Zenobia: she was taken back to Rome and paraded through the streets in golden chains. Aurelian was so impressed with her beauty, dignity, intelligence and general queenly bearing, however, that he pardoned her quickly and gave her a villa in Tibur (now Tivoli) where she lived in luxury, becoming a respected socialite, prominent philosopher and wife of a Roman governor and senator - and bearing the ancestors of many prominent Roman citizens.

I think this is one of the most interesting stories I know about this time period. And the ruins themselves live up to it, that's the best part. The rug dealer's secret room, however, did not.

It was a tiny room with florescent lighting. All along one wall were shelves and shelves of ancient Roman artifacts - small ones, such as coins and dusty, devitrified little bottles and shards of Roman pottery. "Glass," he told us, gesturing, "Roman glass."

Not my fake: this is what it's supposed to look like!

We looked at the glass with the practiced eye of glass people, and shook our heads, smiling. "This isn't old," we said. "Come on, admit it!" We said this with smiles and the sort of gentle nod-and-wink conspiratorial air of people who had been drinking tea with another person for two days. "No, no, really," he protested, his hands held out palms up, "Roman glass!"

We began to point out all the ways the glass didn't really look like truly aged glass. The oily sheen, we said, that was supposed to be age, wasn't on the surface of the glass, it was somewhere...inside it. We weren't sure how, but it seemed awfully like Mylar stuffed down inside.

He began to grin - he just couldn't help it. He was only fifteen, after all. Picking up one bottle, he showed it to us: "This one, made of a light bulb, cut off on the bottom. The neck - only plastic! See? Easy to melt so the top looks like it's hand-made."

We peered at the thing closely. Covered with a layer of sprayed-on grit, there was a little window for the Mylar to peek out, and the neck really was plastic! We started laughing, and couldn't stop. It was hilarious! A light bulb! Cut off! He showed us some of his other things, and described how it was done. In the end, we bought the light bulb one from him, along with some other ones that we thought were wonderfully inventive - AND the Beduin camel-blanket - and shook hands with him, thanking him for making our trip so much more interesting.

So who was laughing all the way to the bank? Who cares? I still have the light bulb bottle, and it still makes me smile. More, perhaps, than my beautiful pictures of the fabled city of Palmyra.

(The two modern images of the ruins are from an unknown website with beautiful travel photos)

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Monday, April 14, 2008

Photography, Space, and the Brain:
In Appreciation of Drawing

(Continued from last week)

Here we are: some of the great plates from Ruins of the palace of the Emperor Diocletian at Spalatro in Dalmatia by Robert Adam, a Scottish architect who visited Split during the last forty years of Venetian rule (which ended in 1797). As a consequence, I get to see aspects of the city as it was over two hundred years ago, before some of the more significant growth of the town.

Of course, many of these images feel much more romantic and exciting than they probably really were. Adams came from a Romantic appreciation of ruin, so the elimination of unsightly modern clutter and the artful placement of fallen capitals, etc. is likely. As a result, my modern attempts to recreate his "views" with a camera are significantly lacking by comparison!

Also, please excuse the imperfect Photoshopping; I had neither the time nor the stitching-software which might have made for a more sophisticated look... still, you get the picture - so to speak. I am heartily aware how dull these images make the city look, yet I still find them fascinating: they speak of changing attitudes and how the vision of the age can affect what we record. The modern world is not always beautiful, but we do need to beware of romanticizing the ancients. Doing this project was a real eye-opener [sic] for me in terms of how we look at and record the world. I learned a lot.

One of the first things I learned is that you can't always count on the environment to co-operate. It is probably good that this gate is in restauro, but it doesn't help my cause much. Still, you can see it hasn't changed too significantly, except for the hilarious little windows (into houses on the other side) now have modern windows in them, and people can actually pass through this gate now (in Adam's time it was bricked up). And please note the little piece of column is still lying on the ground there, after all these years! It's much less prepossessing than Adam made it look (though, to be honest, it's probably not really the same one).

The Peristyle has changed hardly at all, except somehow the floor in front of it has been lowered; there are steps just beyond the woman striding through the foreground, and on the opposite side, under the entrance to the domed Vestibulum, someone has made an opening with stairs down to the lower levels of the Palace, the place where, historically, things were unloaded and loaded from ships at the sea-gate. Nowadays, of course, this area in front of the South wall is filled in and the famous Riva, where people like to promenade, lies there. But Adam describes a difference:

"From the Peristylium we ascend by a flight of steps into the Porticus [the gateway area at the top of the steps]... From this there were two doors to two winding stairs, which led to the ground story, in order that the slaves might have access thither, without passing through any of the apartments."

Nowadays, of course, these two little spaces lead nowhere and are merely decorative, with souvenir shops inside. And, of course, modern people simply don't look as interesting as all those people in turbans lounging and looking at textiles (but did they really look like that?). As anyone who's ever taken snapshots of something and discovered a horrible pipe going right across what you were looking at but didn't notice, cameras aren't smart about clutter. So when Adam sat down to draw - and there was that pile of broken pots or the horrible old man with leprosy, the kid peeing against the steps, the graffiti - he simply left them out, and concentrated on the architecture (with of course some Picturesque-ing of the filler subject, to keep it interesting).

Another thing I learned is how different a camera is than drawing with one's own eyes. I know, there's tons of discussion about this in the art world and beyond, but it has never been brought home to me so strongly the limitations of the camera. When I tried to capture the Vestibulum, I discovered to my horror that Adam's beautiful flat projection of this spot took in more than half of the actual surrounding space. Without magically hovering in the air twenty feet away and using my x-ray vision to photograph it (which wouldn't have satisfactorily flattened the space, anyway), I couldn't possibly fit even a small part of it into the lens of my camera.

And here I have to stand back for a moment and ponder.

We go through the world, looking at everything and never fully appreciating how wonderful our sense of sight is. If I include peripheral vision - without turning my head - I can see throughout approximately a 240 degree radius. This means, when confronted with an awe-inspiring view, I can gasp at its vastness; I can appreciate the spacial intensity of a place, from top to bottom and side to side, without working very hard at it. It's true, as the Cubists said, that our way of seeing is actually made up of dozens, if not hundreds, of little glances. But our brain stitches this together so seamlessly together into a wondrous whole.

Artificial Intelligence researchers have spent years and tons of money trying to figure out how to replicate this ability of the brain's, but it simply takes too much processor power to reproduce. What we do unconsciously, without hardly trying, computers simply flail at. And cameras - well, cameras just simply... well, suck. I mean, they are a wonderful instrument, and create art out of thin air. But there are places where they just can't compete with someone sitting and looking. Looking through a camera is, of necessity, like looking through a square hole at something (probably because you're doing just that).

When Adam decided to draw the dome, or the entrance to the Temple of Jupiter (now a church), he didn't worry about "getting it all in the frame." He simply drew what he saw, with his marvelous eyes that Nature had given him. And - as natural as anything - he laid it all out flat, so it made sense. Not like my weird, distorted attempts above.

And to take it a bit farther, I find myself wondering how hard could it be for someone to create a digital camera with a fixed fish-eye lens and pre-programmed hardwiring that would compensate for the fish-eye distortion, allowing us to take pictures much more like what we see...and laying it into a flat format much like what Adam created two hundred years ago? I don't believe it could ever produce as lovely a product as we can create with trained eyes and hands like he did, actually looking around us and putting down what's important about what we see, taking in as much as we need to make the picture work. But it could help us to escape that feeling of looking down a well at the world when we want to capture it with a camera.

Case in point: when I went to take a picture of the entrance to the church, I found that the place I really needed to be standing to take a picture was about eight feet off the edge of a drop-off, standing fifteen feet in the air. How did Adam draw it? Simple, I think: he looked around him, drew what he saw, and then extrapolated, drawing people to scale and making it appear farther away than it really was (thus encompassing it all).

And, unfortunately, they don't allow photography in the church. Perhaps sometime I'll go back and do a sketch, though I hear from others in my family that the interestingly patterned bricklaying in the ceiling is still on view. above all the rich trappings of the church itself.

As you can see, some things have changed a great deal. The Temple of Aesculapius, for example, used to include a building and a great forecourt as part of its status as a temple (see the map at the bottom). However, with Christianity and the pressing need for more dwellings, this temple is now in a tiny back-alley (as you can see below). It is, of course, in restauro - which in the long run is good. I had to crouch in a smelly doorway to take my seven photographs of the poor thing in order to get it all in, and then warp it like crazy in Photoshop to get it all to fit together! (And the graffiti is indeed cut off like that, it's not an artifact of the stitching).

The gate in the western wall of the old Palace seems to be slowly disappearing, swallowed by buildings from the 19th century, mostly.

In any case, the search goes on to try and grasp the details of the changes and convolutions the city has gone through as it ages. I want to see it in my mind, turning and twisting, rising and falling: and use it somehow, provide a rich and changing backdrop for something, because even before the Venetians it was an interesting place. It has always been a refuge, where people came when hordes came over the mountains, or during war-torn years. It has never been unoccupied, and it shows: like the beautiful lines on the face of an old woman who has been everywhere and seen everything, and is still here to remember it for us.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Inside, Outside, Upside Down (And Inside Out)

I'm thrilled to have discovered the Ruins of the palace of the Emperor Diocletian at Spalatro in Dalmatia by Robert Adam, a Scottish neoclassical architect who is "considered by many to be the greatest architect of the late 18th century" [wiki]. Spalatro, in this case, being a Scottish architect's spelling of Spalato, the Italian (and more importantly, Venetian) name for Split.

I've been slowly becoming obsessed with this city. I wander the streets when I have time, trying to figure it out, making sketches and peering through archways. It's not just that the city is old, that the streets are crooked and narrow (sometimes extraordinarily narrow) and the buildings are an interesting hodgepodge of eras and styles; it's not even that every part of the Old Town is full of Roman bits, arching over streets and providing structure for other, less well-planned building efforts. It's really more about a strange Escher-esque quality. The city feels as if, sometime in the past, parts of its stony, unforgiving insides have been turned inside out.

Disembodied arches sprout from the sides of walls, going nowhere; ancient stoneworks stride through shiny boutiques, contemptuous of their surroundings. In some places, ancient corridors have shed their roofs and become alleyways, complete with balconies and shutters - and turning, without warning, into corridors again, which lead unceremoniously into rooms whose arched Roman windows look out over the waterfront: rooms without roofs, patios with glass windows.

My favorite alleyway dead-ends in a half dome which springs from the walls of two houses, covering the end of the little street with its lost interior. Who knows what living-space the dome used to cover? And below it, a lovely Venetian window, complete with stone tracery, which used to look out on some view of the Temple of Aesculapius, perhaps; but now it is filled in by a modern window-frame which looks through the same window in the opposite direction, out into the alleyway which, perhaps, used to be a corridor.

I marvel at this ability of a town to twist itself around, passing through the eye of a tracery and back again. It seems to me different than any other place I've been, and yet I keep remembering cities - York, Jerusalem, Istanbul - full of the layerings of past and present. They, too, have the richly overembellished rooflines; they, too, have achieved a fanciful arrangement of spaces possible only through centuries of adding structure onto structure onto ruin.

But Split defies them, somehow. There is something about the core of this town which is different from the organic growth-patterns of other ancient cities, and I think I may have finally put my finger on what it is. It stems from the origin of the city as a 9-acre Roman palace, planned and executed with typical Roman efficiency, strength and symmetry.

Only part of the massive Iron Gate peeks out at you from behind a Venetian palace. The rest of the buildings came later still.

It is these, the strong 1700 year old bones built by tidy minds, which poke resolutely through the 300 odd years of high Venetian dash and dazzle, 10 years of Napoleonic facelifting, and 100 years of Austrian absentee-landlording. As you walk, you encounter a mobius strip of sorts, as the city flips around you - but then there they are, those tenacious bones, marking that single few years in history when a Roman emperor built a special place for himself to retire to.

Diocletian, the emperor who retired to this singular palace, was an extraordinary man, lowborn and local (from near Solano, just around the corner of the bay), who rose through the ranks of the Roman legions to be declared Emperor on a hilltop near Antioch. He co-ruled for twenty years (284-305) with his friend and fellow-officer Maximian, securing previously unsecurable borders and restructuring the governing system so that what was a crumbling Empire lasted another hundred years. In 305, after a prolonged illness, he became the first Roman emperor to voluntarily abdicate from his position - and moved to his palace to live out the next seven years, gardening and looking out over the sea. He was said to be proud of the cabbages he had planted with his own hands.

(By the way, I recommend the Wikipedia article on Diocletian. Sometimes Wikipedia can be a bit dry, but Diocletian's inimitable personality seems to simply pop through the listing of battles, conflict, and death, much as the bones of his palace continue to pop through the modern walls of everyday Split. The Roman ruling class always reads like a cheesy soap-opera, with people poisoning people and other people sleeping with their sisters; but Diocletian comes across as a really smart, straightforward idealist with plenty of discipline who was... well, charismatic).

So now I'm letting all this stuff run around inside my head, in the hopes that some interesting fiction will come out of it. I leave the back of my head open as I go about the business of living, and hope the spores come and settle - and grow. Is that enough mixing of metaphors? Mushrooms with legs come to mind.

But back to the wonderous book by the blessed Robert Adam: the man came during the Venetian reign, at a time when those lovely bones were still very much out in the open, and - thank you, thank you! - the man did engravings of familiar places all around the city. Not only that, but he did sectionals of the Palace as it must have been, comparison drawings of the ruins all around him and what they must have looked like originally, and a complete floor-plan of the Palace as it was in his own time and as it likely was when it was brand-new (based, in part, on his own studies in Rome, where he read all the ancient architectural writers such as Vitruvius and Pliny the Younger).

Included - get this! -is also a comprehensive description of the uses of all the spaces within the original palace.

Check it out at the Digital Library for the Decorative Arts and Material Culture, a resource I won't be forgetting soon.

So, in the interests of capturing a bit of the fascination, I've included a few of his fabulously Picturesque plates below, with my own pictures of the same angle and the same spot. Okay, this turned out to be harder than I thought, so I'm saving it for a whole 'nother blog post, probably in the next day or two, so hang with me, please. Cheers!