My New Book: The Mediterranean – a shared heritage

Last week, I presented my new book, The Mediterranean: a shared heritage, at a ceremony held in Piran, Slovenia, marking the tenth anniversary of the EMUNI University. More than just a book, it is the culmination of a long Mediterranean Odyssey that took me to 20 Mediterranean countries, and to places in the mind that I never knew existed. From the Phoenician coastline to the Pillars of Hercules, may the passion be contagious, may the journey begin.

Brief: The book is centred around the history, culture and heritage of the Mediterranean region, with a focus on common heritage values, bridges of intercultural and interfaith dialogue, and the role of the butterfly effect in shaping our collective history in this part of the world. It also showcases Mediterranean personalities from the past and offers alternative cultural itineraries in various Mediterranean cities.

Index:
Forward Note

Preface

I. Distant Memories: Birth Pangs of a Mediterranean Legacy
Once Upon a Time in a Cave
The Neolithic Revolution
Pharaohs, Purple Traders and Thalassocracies
Democracy and Other Gifts from Greece
Mare Nostrum and the Pax Romana
The Early Medieval Rollercoaster: Renovatio Imperii?
The Crusades: Deus vult
Renaissance at Last: Humanism Triumphant
Discoveries and Revolutions: Eppur es muove
Constantinople to Vienna: Ottomans at the Gate

II. Unlikely Encounters: The Butterfly Effect
Carthage must be destroyed
Metamorphosis of the Written Text: Papyrus to Paper
Barbarians in the Land of Berbers
Andalusi Diasporas and Accidental Heroes
The Rise and Fall of the Mamluks
By the Walls of Damascus
Captives in Barbary and Beyond
Madrasas of Splendour and Scandal
The Old Masters: Artistic Encounters and Rivalries
Ottoman Blood Tax and Turkish Delights

III. Cultural Bridges: Enlightened Minds and Civilizing Agents
Hypatia: Greek Fire in Alexandria
Ziryab: A Bird from the East
Maimonides: Guide of the Perplexed
Ibn Arabi and Other Andalusi Mystics in the Orient
Ramon Llull: Christianus Arabicus
The Translators of Baghdad, Toledo and Sicily
The Troubadours: Alchemists of Love
Epic Travels, Images of the Other
Women at the Forefront of Cultural Promotion
Byzantine Ambassadors of the Greek Tradition
Le Siècle des Lumières

IV. Living Heritage: Icons of Identity
Epic Poems and Oral Traditions
The Divine Gift of the Mediterranean Diet
Fascinating Crafts: The Story of Glass
Sacred Bulls, Immortal Bison
Urban Fabric: A Mediterranean Legacy
An Ode to the Sea Deity
Circle Dance: From Prehistory to Matisse
Ancestral Knowledge: The Memory of Trees
Cultural Routes, Landscapes and Natural Wonders
Fishing East and West
Healers, Exorcists, Mourners and Puppeteers
More than just Tangible Heritage

V. Sun-Bathed Cities: Cultural Itineraries
Barcelona: What has become of Barcino
Dubrovnik: Ragusan Splendour
Tétouan: The White Dove
Tunis: White and Mediterranean Blue
Valletta: The Real Club Med
Acre: Beyond the Sea Walls
Alexandria: The Winepress of Love
Athens: I came, I saw, I was conquered
Beirut: The Vibrant Capital of the Levant
Marseille: A Taste of Provence

The Final Encore: Where do we go from here?

Photo Gallery
Reference Notes

Quotes
“Throughout its history, the Mediterranean has been both a civilizing sea and a ‎corrupting sea. It has almost always been what we have made out of it: a meeting point, a ‎melting pot, or a hostile frontier. It is, in short, a genuine epitome of the human ‎condition of its people.”

“The Mediterranean that gave birth to the alphabet, to democracy, to the republic, to philosophy and ‎drama, and to the world’s first great libraries and academies, has always taught ‎us that beyond the imagined communities and the clichéd perceptions, there is a ‎common Mediterranean culture that is omnipresent in the lives of people around ‎its shores. Whether in Sicily or in Byblos, the essence is one: people celebrating life and rejoicing in a ‎variety of expressions and a pluralism of sentiments.”

“More than ever, we need to understand that the ‎moment we see our diversity as a threat rather than a resource, ‎we are no longer Mediterranean. One of the core parameters of our Mediterranean ‎culture is our ability to absorb so many differences without losing our essence, without giving up on what makes us individually unique in a context of pluralism.”

Book Cover

Masterpieces of Eastern Med Art: Lecture Brief

The Fertile Crescent and its immediate neighbors share something more profound than just geographical proximity. Countries like Turkey, Iraq, Egypt, Syria and Greece were all sites of magnificent Neolithic and Bronze Age cultures and civilizations that made the Eastern Mediterranean a vibrant mosaic of human creativity and a treasure-trove of stories about human genius. Art, true to its essence as the mirror of every age, gives us privileged insights into the human condition of the successive communities that inhabited this part of the world. During my lecture on the ‘Masterpieces of the Eastern Mediterranean Civilizations’, we came across Minoan fishermen, Cycladic musicians, Phoenician traders, Mycenaean warriors, Hittite metal smiths, to the end of the long and exotic list.

The masterpieces presented were:

The Totem Pole of Gobekli Tepe, Neolithic Art
Stag Rhyton, Hittite Art
The Frescoes of Akotiri, Minoan Art
The Harp Player, Cycladic Art
Sword with Lion Hunt Scene, Mycenaean Art
Amphora with Ajax and Achilles playing a board game, Archaic Period Art
Statue of Ebih-il, Tell Hariri Art
Coin with Hoplites and Hippocampus, Phoenician Art
The Narmer Palette, Egyptian Early Dynastic Art
The Tomb of Nebamun, Egyptian New Kingdom Art
The Standard of Ur, Sumerian Art

The colors of the Akotiri frescos are vivid and bright, and so are those of the Tomb of Nebamun. The attention to detail in the Ajax-and-Achilles Amphora and the Standard of Ur is fascinating, whereas the abstraction of the Cycladic Harp Player is breathtaking. The Phoenician coin with Hoplites and the Mycenaean Sword with Lion Hunt Scene are miracles of compression, and the Narmer Palette and the Stag Rhyton are both ripe with symbolism.

Once again, many thanks to all those that attended the lecture.

Bruegel and his Fallen Angels

A nightmare landscape. It could have perfectly been a Hieronymus Bosch, but it’s not. All these demons and grotesque creatures that populate the canvas seem to come out of an enchanted neverland. The Book of Revelation is, after all, a neverland: perfectly surreal; perfectly disturbing.
Of all the Flemish and Netherlandish masterpieces at the Old Masters Museum in Brussels, the collection’s most prized jewel is ‘The Fall of the Rebel Angels’ by Renaissance painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder. So prized is this artwork that the Museum decided to resort to new technologies to allow visitors to fully understand and appreciate the multitude of figures and symbols in it; the exhibition is absolutely fascinating, and so is the story of the painting. What story?

It’s the story of pride and the price paid for folly and sin. Lucifer’s pride gets him and other rebel angels to be expelled from heaven, condemned into a dark and hopeless life, and transformed into horrible demons and freaks. We see in the painting how the Archangel Michael and other good angels chase the fallen angels with swords and trumpets in hand; victory is won. Below them, the fallen angels seem to have suffered a horrendous metamorphosis. Deformed anthropomorphic and zoomorphic figures clearly correspond to exotic creatures that were filling catalogues at the time (armadillo, pufferfish, etc), while other elements seem to be inspired by the discoveries in the Americas and the contact with the Ottomans (scimitar, helmets, turbans). Different musical instruments can be spotted; the battle between Good and Evil does not lack a ‘soundscape’ of course. Bruegel was a man of his time, curious about the New World, an admirer of Bosch’s art, and deeply inspired by a socio-cultural phenomenon that was on the rise during his lifetime: the Cabinet of Curiosity. A thorough examination of the painting would betray a fascination with such cabinets, their mark omnipresent in his work.

The ability of Bruegel to juggle and integrate all these worlds effortlessly into one dynamic whole gives his artwork a life almost entirely of its own: vibrant, intricate, and almost throbbing…everything you would expect from an apocalypse. Every creature in the painting is interesting on its own, but the total effect is way more than just the some of all parts. I don’t know how long I spent in front of this artwork, but it was long enough to spot Lucifer (top left), the spiral of damned souls pouring from heaven (top centre) and a Medusa-like head (bottom right). I was never a big fan of Flemish/Netherlandish art’s severity and sobriety, but the layers of meaning and symbols in the works of Bosch, Jan van Eyck and Bruegel make life bearable on days when beauty is no longer enough.

Click any image to enlarge it.

My New Course: Art Masterpieces of Eastern Mediterranean Civilizations

I am glad to announce my new course in Cairo this spring, this time dedicated to a fascinating topic, namely the Art Masterpieces of Eastern Mediterranean Civilizations, with a focus on Egypt, the Levant, Greece and Asia Minor.
From the Minoan Marine Style to the Egyptian Amarna Style and from Phoenician panels to Hittite rhytons, this course will be an aesthetically breath-taking journey in space and time for all history buffs and art lovers.

Below are the details of this course:
Title : Masterpieces of Ancient Art in the Eastern Mediterranean
Lecturer : Mohammed Elrazzaz, Prof. of Mediterranean Heritage
Language : Arabic (slides in English)
Venue : My place in Rhoda, Manial, Cairo
Date : 31 March 2018
Duration : 2 hours (7pm – 9pm)
Fees : 350 EGP

Deadline for confirmation is 10 March 2018, but please note that the places are usually booked very quickly, so, hurry up! PLEASE do not reserve if you are not 100% sure that you would come. Have respect for the lecturer and for the other people who want to come.

يسعدني أن أعلن عن المحاضرة القادمة التي سألقيها في القاهرة في مارس المقبل، والتي تتناول موضوعاً شيقاً للغاية، هو روائع الفن لحضارات شرق المتوسط، مع التركيز على مصر والمشرق واليونان وآسيا الصغرى.
تأخذنا المحاضرة في جولة مبهرة في المكان والزمان لكل عشاق الفن وهواة التاريخ، حيث نتنقل بين الطراز البحري للمينوسيين وطراز العمارنة المصري، وبين الألواح الفنية الفينيقية وأقداح الشراب الحيثية.

وفيما يلي تفاصيل المحاضرة:
العنوان : روائع الفن القديم لحضارات شرق المتوسط
المحاضر : محمد الرزاز، أستاذ تراث حوض البحر المتوسط
اللغة : العربية
المكان : منزلي في الروضة، المنيل – القاهرة
التاريخ : يوم 31 مارس
الفترة : ساعتان (من السابعة إلى التاسعة مساءًا)
الرسوم : ثلاثمائة وخمسين جنيهاً

الموعد النهائي للحجز هو العاشر من مارس، مع العلم بأن الأماكن يتم حجزها بسرعة، وأن الأفضلية للأسبق في الحجز. رجاء عدم الحجز دون التأكد من قدرتكم على الحضور احتراماً للمحاضر ولغيركم ممن يرغب الحضور.

Poster

Da Vinci’s ‘Salvator Mundi’

When Willem de Kooning’s Interchange was sold for $300 million in 2015, many art lovers started wondering: “what price would a masterpiece by an old master fetch if sold?” A logical question to which it was impossible to find an answer…until a couple of weeks ago. For a decade now, the most expensive paintings ever sold featured artworks by Impressionists, Post-Impressionists and Abstract Expressionists (the usual suspects: Gauguin, Cezanne, Pollock and company).

Few Renaissance and Baroque masterpieces are owned by individuals, and even fewer could be offered for sale. Such was the case with Leonardo Da Vinci’s ‘Salvator Mundi’, commissioned by King Louis XII of France around the year 1500. The painting was eclipsed by other masterpieces realized by Da Vinci like The Mona Lisa, the Last Supper and Virgin of the Rocks, specially that it was ‘lost’ and forgotten for centuries, until it resurfaced to the public in 2011 at the National Gallery Museum in London.
Auctioned last week in New York, Salvator Mundi sold for $450 million (auction house fees included), setting a record that might stand the test of time for quite some time. The painting shows Christ holding a transparent crystal orb in one hand, while the other hand blesses the viewer. The crystal orb looks nothing like our world, for he said “My kingdom is not of this world.” His fingers, hairlocks and face seem all seem to dissolve into the surroundings, an exquisite demonstration of Da Vinci’s perfection of the sfumato technique. Then comes the famous trompe-l’œil, a coessential Da Vinci trick of composition: is Christ smiling to us?

One cannot possible ignore the intense blue color of the Christ’s robe in this painting. Known as ‘ultramarine’, this color was obtained using the powder of lapis lazuli, a semiprecious stone which, at the time, was imported from Afghanistan! The name ultramarine alludes to the fact that it came from a faraway country through Venetian and Genoese ships. In comparison to cobalt or azurite, ultramarine produced from lapis lazuli does not fade or change color.
Attributing Salvator Mundi to Da Vinci is not universally accepted. Da Vinci never signed his works, and less than twenty paintings can be attributed to him with relative certainty, most of them Madonnas or portraits. A polymath in every sense of the world, Da Vinci had a reputation for not finishing much of what he had begun. Painter, sculptor, engineer, mathematician and inventor, his genius seems to have kept him constantly distracted by new ideas, but some of his experiments proved catastrophic, using painting techniques that proved unstable and unsuitable for the supports to which they were applied.

Why would someone pay 450 million dollars for a Da Vinci? For one thing, the ‘discovery’ of Salvator Mundi sent strong shockwaves across the art community around the world, for all of Da Vinci’s works are in museums around the world (the Uffizi, the Louvre, the Hermitage, etc.) and none of his works are offered for sale. We would never really know the exact motives of the buyer. Is it a true passion for Da Vinci and his art? Is it a decision motivated by religious zeal and an admiration for the representation of Jesus Christ in the painting? Is it an investment where the painting serves as store of value? Big art auctions are difficult to expect, let alone explain. Art, when traded as a commodity, follows the market laws of supply and demand, and yet, it has its own peculiarities. Pricing is not based on labor hours, but rather on a complex set of values, some intrinsic, some perceived, that involve the sentimental value, the halo effect of the artist, the historical value of the artwork, its aesthetic quality, to the end of a very long list. Not even the most experienced and reputed auctioneers would have guessed that Salvator Mundi would fetch such a price! Now the question becomes: when would that record be broken again?

So far, the top five most expensive paintings ever sold are:
1. Salvator Mundi by Da Vinci – $ 450 million in 2017
2. Interchange by Willem de Kooning – $ 303 million in 2015
3. Card Players by Paul Cezanne – $ 266 million in 2011
4. When will you marry? by Paul Gauguin – $ 210 million in 2014
5. 17A by Jackson Pollock – $ 200 million in 2015

Click any image below to enlarge it.

 

An Intro to the Fine Art of Greek Vases

I first developed a taste for Greek Vases during my visit to the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, whose collection offers a tour-de-force of Ancient and Classical Greek Art. In addition to the fascinating Minoan frescoes, Mycenaean gold masks and jewelry, Cycladic idols and Classical statues, the Museum houses a mind-blowing collection of Greek kylixes, kraters, pitchers, amphorae, askoi and other varieties of Greek pottery from different periods and styles. The styles are so many and the techniques are sophisticated, but here I mention some examples to those interested:

Minoan Marine Style
One of the earliest ‘styles’ of pottery painting during the Bronze Age is the Marine Style developed by the Minoans in Crete during the third millennium BCE. As the name implies, this style is dominated by depictions of marine life on amphora and other vessels. Octopuses, shellfish and fish were painted using brown or black against a creamy background; figures would flow and fill the surface of the vessel with curves and waves. The Mycenaeans also employed this style.

The Geometric Period Style
The Pre-Geometric, Proto-Geometric and Geometric Vases which coincided with the Archaic Period all show intricate geometrical patters that range from simple concentric circles to the famous ‘meander’ motif that resembles a labyrinth design. Moreover, some stylized representations of men, horses and charioteers were used. One of the most impressive examples is the Dipylon Amphora.

Black-Figure Pottery
Attica became the heart of pottery production, and the black-figure style appeared in the seventh century BCE. Simply put, black figures are painted on brown/red clay. Attention to detail is very high, and mythological themes became a main inspiration for the subject matter.

Red-Figure Pottery
In the late sixth century BCE, several artists started using red figures against a black background, producing a wealth of magnificent pottery that eventually turned into a prized commodity throughout the Mediterranean. From everyday vessels, the Greek Vases have become collectable ‘art objects’ and several artists gained fame as master potters (like the Andokides Painter). Moreover, Greek vases became bearers of a tradition and media through which people could peer into the Greek world and its system of beliefs and values through the stories they depict.

 

 

Casa Vicens: Gaudí’s Early Masterpieces

“To be interesting, ornamentation must present objects that remind us of poetic ideas, that constitute motifs. Motifs are historical, legendary, active, emblematic; fables relating to men and their lives, action and passion.” – A. Gaudí

This week, one of Antoni Gaudí’s most impressive –and bizarre- houses finally opened its doors to the public. Considered as his first masterpiece, Casa Vicens (1883-1888) is everything you would expect from Catalan Modernism: polychromy, curvilinear forms, wrought iron railings, geometrical and zoomorphic motifs, the interplay between light and shade, to the end of the long list, all with an unmistakable ‘organic’ twist that is a constant in Gaudí’s work.

One particularly interesting detail in Casa Vicens is the use of the ‘muqarnas’ (stalactite) decoration in one of the rooms. Guadí incorporated elements of the Islamic-influenced mudejar style in many of his buildings, but the use of muqarnas breaks the mudejar mould and betrays a clear fascination with Islamic art, not only of al-Andalus, but also of the Orient. In his notebooks, Gaudí explains:

“In the East, everything blends into the horizontal supports and vertical struts. The arch is a simple ornamental motif set within a system of pillars and lintels. Its vaults are simple spherical caps or stalactite vaults – a flat ceiling supporting stalactites as a reminder of the coolness of the cave.”

Click any image to enlarge it.