Nebra Sky Disc

The oldest surviving sky map is neither Egyptian nor Mesopotamian; it is neither the work of Pharaohs nor the fruit of Sumerian astronomy. It does not belong to China, India, or Pre-Colombian America, but rather belongs to Saxony-Anhalt in present-day Germany where the Bronze Age trade routes once converged, and it is known as the Nebra Sky Disc. This Disc is no less wondrous than the Zodiac of Dendera (now in the Louvre) or the Aztec Sun Stone, and it has a story to tell us about a civilization that left no written record of its knowledge and its achievements.

Discovered in 1999 near Europe’s oldest observatory in Goseck, the 3600 year-old bronze disc is adorned with gold-leaf shapes depicting the sun, the moon, stars and a solar boat, reminiscent of Ancient Egyptian boats that were believed to serve as vehicles for the sun as it sailed across the sky from darkness to dawn every day. We already recognize a cluster of stars as the Pleiades the way they would look 3600 years ago, but why the sun and the moon together? And why a moon that is not a nascent crescent moon, but rather a 4 to 5-day old moon? It would seem these Bronze Age astronomers had managed to reconcile both solar and lunar calendars, allowing for a thirteenth month, but that is not everything.

A golden arc on the tip of the disc at one side (and which had a similar arc on the opposite side, now lost) seems to form a triangle with the moon and the sun. Its edges mark the exact points on the horizon where the sun rises and sets on the longest and shortest days of the year (summer and winter solstices) in Central Europe. The solstices had both ritual and practical significance to Bronze Age people, as they were associated with divinity and helped mark seasons and agricultural calendars.

It is believed that the solar boar motif was added to the disc some time after the sun and the moon had been added. As the National Geographic puts it, this motif ‘would later become as important to Bronze Age cultures as the crucifix to Catholicism.’

A sky map, a calendar, a ritual object; it comes as no surprise that this Disc was listed in the UNESCO Memory of the World Register as ‘world documentary heritage’. One can only contemplate the good old saying: ‘archaeology is not what you find; it’s what you find out.’ Will we find out one day whether the Sumerian Clay Planisphere at the British Museum was actually a sky map and whether it was older than the Nebra Sky Disc?


Nebra Sky Disc



Modigliani’s Nude reclines in a Taxi Driver’s Collection

Paying tens of millions of dollars for a painting or a sculpture is nothing new. For decades now, auction houses have been doing a remarkable job and one record after another came tumbling down. Among the ‘usual suspects’ were Picasso, Rothko, Bacon, and a whole bunch of Pop artists and Post Impressionists.

This week, a 1917 nude painting titled ‘Nu Couché’ by the sensational Modigliani was sold for $170.4 million at Chrtistie’s New York, becoming the second most expensive work of art ever sold at auction. Till here it would have been just another piece of news, but…

The painting was acquired by a Chinese billionaire called Liu Yiqian, and the fact that he had started his career as a taxi driver caused an uproar among several self-righteous experts and critics that rushed to label him as a culture vulture with a stock exchange mentality and no taste. Nevertheless, his story is –to my mind- way more interesting than the purchase itself. New York Times reported the story of Liu Yiqian, the taxi-driver that turned into a billionaire and an extraordinary art collector:

As a teenager growing up in Shanghai during the tumultuous years of the Cultural Revolution, Mr. Liu sold handbags on the street and later worked as a taxi driver. After dropping out of middle school, he went on to ride the wave of China’s economic opening and reform, making a fortune through stock trading in real estate and pharmaceuticals in the 1980s and 1990s. According to the 2015 Bloomberg Billionaires Index, Mr. Liu is worth at least $1.5 billion.

“To me, art collecting is primarily a process of learning about art,” Mr. Liu said in an interview with The New York Times in 2013. “First you must be fond of the art. Then you can have an understanding of it.”

Mr. Liu, together with his wife, Wang Wei, is one of China’s most visible –—some say flashy — art collectors. Over the years, they have built a vast collection of both traditional and contemporary Chinese art, much of which is displayed in their two museums in Shanghai: the Long Museum Pudong, which opened in 2012; and the Long Museum West Bund, which opened last year. Ms. Wang, 52, is the director of both museums.

“I first came up with the idea that the Long Museum should collect international objects about two years ago,” said Ms. Wang, adding that her husband has been very supportive of her work.

The couple’s collection includes a 15th-century silk hanging, called a thangka, bought by Mr. Liu for $45 million at a Christie’s auction in Hong Kong last year. The purchase made headlines when it set the record for a Chinese artwork sold at an international auction.

With that purchase, Mr. Liu broke a record he had set months earlier when he paid $36.3 million at a Sotheby’s sale for a tiny Ming dynasty porcelain cup known as a “chicken cup.” Soon after, he caused an uproar after a photograph that showed him sipping tea from the antique cup spread online.

For both record-setting acquisitions, Mr. Liu reportedly paid with an American Express credit card, earning him many millions of reward points.

The couple’s self-promotion tactics have prompted some in contemporary art circles in China to draw comparisons with the “taxi tycoon” Robert Scull and his wife Ethel, voracious collectors of what came to be known as “Pop Art” in the 1960s but derided by some in the art world as crass nouveaux riche.

Speaking about Mr. Liu and Ms. Wang, Philip Tinari, director of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing, said: “These are collectors that have so much money that they acquire taste or they don’t have to have to taste because they buy everything in sight.” He added: “There’s very little discrimination, they just buy the most expensive things. They’re not connoisseurs.”

Source: New York Times. Click here for the full article.


Mediterranean Passages

While preparing a course on ‘Mediterranean Heritage’ for the university, I cam across some truly inspiring quotes and passages written by historians, sociologists, thinkers, artists and writers; a great homage to our great sea, at once civilizing and corrupting. Here I share some paragraphs, along with some photos that I took of different Mediterranean landscapes:

“The mark of a living civilization is that it is capable of exporting itself, of spreading its culture to distant places. It is impossible to imagine a true civilization which does not exports its people, its ways of thinking and living.
A living civilization must be able not only to give but to receive and to borrow. Borrowing is more difficult than it seems: it is not every man who can borrow wisely, and put an adopted implement to as good use as its original master. One of the great borrowings of Mediterranean civilization was undoubtedly the printing press, which German master-printers introduced to Italy, Spain, Portugal and as far away as Goa.
But a great civilization can also be recognized by its refusal to borrow, by its resistance to certain alignments, by its resolute selection among the foreign influences offered to it and which would no doubt be forced upon it if they were not met by vigilance, or, more simply, by incompatibility of temper and attitude.”

Excerpts from ‘The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II’ by Fernand Braudel

“The sea that stand between the lands knows very well that the frontier is a place where the richest and the most complex personalities are gathered, precisely because the old worn-out litany of identity is absent, and one can experience diversity. Those who stand on the frontier know that there are many ways to speak, pray, eat, love and die, and surely once in their life have thought that each civilization has its own wisdom and dignity. The Mediterranean is a sea of this difficult but essential mutual recognition, of building the difficult harmony among people who, even though they cherish their own identity, are still capable of understanding that contact with others expands the spirit, that it does not represent danger but enrichment.”

From ‘The Mediterranean: A Sea against all Fundamentalisms’ by Franco Cassano

“The Mediterranean exists, therefore, wherever people respect others, wherever they greet each other, wherever they sit down for the pleasure of conversation and telling stories, wherever they eat and drink together, wherever they become friends and spend time together until late at night, wherever they waste time because this is the only way to gain time. The Mediterranean exists wherever people speculate that perfection can have several faces, that it can come from work, from angels, from fantasy, but also from the tactile pleasure of the possibility of coexistence, from the highest, indolent agreement with the world.”

From ‘The Mediterranean Planet’ by Franco Cassano

“Take people from the remotest corners of the world, sprinkle them along the Mediterranean coast, and before long, through the alchemy of the sixth continent, they will become Mediterranean to the bone. Like its very waters, the Mediterranean embodies a fluent and cerulean history of humanity. […] And the eastern littoral is where the Mediterranean is quintessentially Mediterranean.

This in not a literary flourish or poetry, but the truth. Other regions of the world might boast of a single civilization, if that; but the eastern Mediterranean and its surroundings can lay claim to the Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian, Assyrian, Egyptian, Hittite, “Persian, Minoan, Ionian, and Greek civilizations…for civilization is such a phenomenon that its seeds cannot be sown by one or another people alone. Civilization, which is humanist, has never been the monopoly of one pure line of descent. It has always taken hold through the intermingling of diverse strains.”

From ‘The Voice of Anatolia’ by Halikarnas Balɪkçɪsɪ

“There is a Mediterranean sea, a basin linking different countries. Those whose voices boom in the singing cafes of Spain, who wander in the port of Genoa, along the docks in Marseilles, the strange, strong race that lives along our coasts, all belong to the same family. When you travel in Europe, and go down toward Italy or Provence, you breathe a sigh of relief as you rediscover these casually dressed men, this violent, colorful life we all know. Our Country is (…) a certain way of appreciating life which is shared by certain people, through which we can feel ourselves closer to someone from Genoa or Majorca than to someone from Normandy or Alsace. This is what the Mediterranean is – a certain smell or scent that we do not need to express: we all feel it through our skin.”

Excerpts from text of a lecture Albert Camus gave on Mediterranean culture at the Maison de la Culture in 1937

“The Mare Nostrum, located in the north of the south and the south of the north. In-between water, media-terrania, sea between two lands, united by the bonds of water that are generally gentler than the bonds of earth. “Our” sea, belonging to all those living on its shores, is not what it should be because it has not been what it should have been: an area of confluence, of harmony, of plies blue waters fertilized by the peace of olive trees. And , all too frequently it has not been the Mare Nostrum but rather the Mare Vostrum. The sea dominated by the powers at each historical moment.”

Excerpt from ‘What Future for the Mediterranean?’ by Federico Mayor Zaragoza, Former Director-General of UNESCO

“The Mediterranean stands there reminding us that between the fundamentalism of the land or the sea there is a balance of measure. There exists a form of life capable of reconciling freedom and protection, a civilization that knows the beauty of belonging, but also of leaving, a civilization accustomed to a multi-dimensional geometry, a civilization that is never puzzled by the complexity of life.”

From ‘The Multi-Dimensional Mediterranean’ by Franco Cassano

“The Mediterranean ‎has a colour like mackerel, in other words, changing — you don’t always know if it’s ‎green or purple — you don’t always know if it’s blue — because a second later, its ‎changing reflection has taken on a pink or grey hue.”

From ‘The Letters of Van Gogh’

“Happy is the man who, before dying, has the good fortune to sail the Aegean Sea.
(…) Many are the joys of life. But to cleave that sea in the gentle autumnal season, murmuring the name of each islet, is to my mind the joy most apt to transport the heart of man into paradise. Nowhere else can one pass so easily and serenely from reality to dream.”

From ‘Zorba the Greek’ by Nikos Kazantzakis