Van Gogh’s Mediterranean

“We can tell that Van Gogh painted this view of the sea from the beach, as grains of sand have been found in the paint layers. It was done at the fishing village of Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, during a trip he took from Arles in the south of France. In addition to the blue and white that he brushed onto the canvas with bold strokes, he used green and yellow for the waves. He applied these colours with a palette knife, neatly capturing the effect of the light through the waves.

Van Gogh was enthusiastic about the colours of the Mediterranean Sea. He wrote that it ‘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’. The bright red signature has been placed prominently in the foreground: it was intended as a ‘red note in the green’.”

Source: https://www.vangoghmuseum.nl/en/collection/s0117V1962

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The Mediterranean & Raft of the Medusa

When Théodore Géricault, an icon of French Romanticism, painted his ‘Raft of the Medusa’ back in  1818, he didn’t know he was immortalizing a horrific tragedy in which a group of French people were left on a makeshift raft in the middle of the ocean with no means to navigate and no supplies to keep them alive, while the rich were carried to safety in lifeboats following the catastrophe that had befallen their ship. What followed was a dark drama that ended up in ‘survival of the fittest’. Everything was fair game for the survivors, starting with throwing the weak and the wounded into the sea, and ending with cannibalism (because, who said romanticism was about ‘romance’?).

Almost two centuries have passed since Théodore Géricault had depicted this event based, in part, on the discussion he held with some of the survivors. The painting was so intense that the great Eugène Delacroix willingly posed as model for one of the dead figures in the artwork (face down, arm stretched in the middle). Géricault chose a dramatic moment to capture, namely that in which the survivors spot a ship. Hope of deliverance breathes life into half-dead bodies and souls, and the raft turns into a ghastly theatre of earthly horrors. Expectedly, the painting eventually became a universal icon of human struggle for survival and facing the unknown.

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Some 200 years after, one is flooded every day with images of migrant boats and drowned refugees. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), some 3770 migrants died crossing the Mediterranean in attempts to reach Europe in 2015 (an average of 10 people / day). I came across a photo that shows a group of Syrian refugees finally reaching the shore after an epic journey across the sea, Mare Nostrum which has become Cemetery Nostrum. The photo supposedly gained some award (I don’t know the photographer), but this is not the important thing. The important thing is that it captures an extreme human condition of mixed feelings following an impossible odyssey. How would Théodore Géricault paint this tragic moment had he been among us today? What other icons of human failure should we be adding to our collection?

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Mediterranean Heritage Course Review

“Heritage distills the past into icons of identity.” – David Lowenthal

Our Mediterranean identity is inconceivable without our sea, and this was the starting point for today’s course on ‘Mediterranean Cultural Heritage’ that I gave at my place in Cairo.

Following an introduction to the Mediterranean from geographical, historical and cultural perspectives, we discussed the concept of cultural heritage and its typology (tangible and intangible, mobile and immobile), and then proceeded to talk about the Mediterranean Cultural Heritage with a focus on six areas, namely:

  1. Thought, Learning and Spirituality;
  2. Artistic and Literary Expression;
  3. Architecture and Urban Models;
  4. Intangible Heritage Domains;
  5. Industrial and Scientific Heritage;
  6. Documentary Heritage.

Epic poems, masterpieces of art and architecture, unique urban models, traditional crafts, extraordinary monuments, exotic elements of the folklore, cultural landscapes and heritage routes, rare books and illuminated manuscripts; the course covered so many aspects and elements of heritage from all 22 Mediterranean counties and their hinterland.

Logically, special emphasis was given to elements of the Egyptian heritage that appear on different UNESCO Heritage Lists (List of World Heritage Sites, List of Intangible Heritage, and Memory of the World Register). We ended the course with an overview of the main challenges, the key trends and the most heated debates related to cultural heritage in our part of the world.

Below are some slides from the PowerPoint presentation, many thanks to all those who joined and looking forward to the next course.

 

Intangible Heritage DomainsHeritage TypologyHeritage in Dangerffsw

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

The Mediterranean of Van Gogh

My dear Theo,‎

I’m writing to you from Saintes-Maries on the Mediterranean at last. 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.‎
It’s a funny thing, the family — quite unintentionally, and despite myself, I’ve often ‎thought here from time to time of our uncle the seaman, who has certainly seen the ‎shores of this sea many times.‎

‎(…) I took a walk along the seashore one night, on the deserted beach. It wasn’t ‎cheerful, but not sad either, it was beautiful.‎

The sky, a deep blue, was flecked with clouds of a deeper blue than primary blue, an ‎intense cobalt, and with others that were a lighter blue — like the blue whiteness of ‎milky ways. Against the blue background stars twinkled, bright, greenish, white, light ‎pink — brighter, more glittering, more like precious stones than at home — even in ‎Paris. So it seems fair to talk about opals, emeralds, lapis, rubies, sapphires. The sea a ‎very deep ultramarine — the beach a mauvish and pale reddish shade, it seemed to me ‎‎— with bushes. In addition to half-sheet drawings I have a large drawing, the pendant ‎of the last one. ‎

More soon, I hope. Handshake.‎

Ever yours,‎
Vincent

Seascape by Van Gogh

The Mediterranean of the Nostoi and Lotus-Eaters

‎“For the ancient Greeks, the fall of Troy did not simply result in the collapse of the heroic ‎World of Mycenae and Pylos. It was also remembered as the moment when Greeks set out ‎to wander the Mediterranean and beyond; it was a time when sailors grappled with the ‎dangers of the open seas – animate dangers, in the form of the singing Sirens, the witch ‎Circe, the one-eyed Cyclops. The storm-tossed seas recorded in Homer’s Odyssey and in ‎other tales of heroes returning from Troy (a group of men known as the Nostoi, or ‎‎‘returners’) remained places of great uncertainty, whose physical limits were only vaguely ‎described.‎

‎(…) The aim of wanderers, whether Odysseus in the west, or Menelaos of Sparta in Libya and ‎Egypt, was, ultimately, to return home. The world beyond was full of lures, islands of lotus-‎eaters and the cave of Calypso.” – David Abulafia, The Great Sea

The history of the Mediterranean was shaped –and remains to be shaped- by travel and migration. ‎The cycle has turned though, because more than any other time, the aim of wanderers is no ‎longer to ‘return home’, but rather to leave it behind.‎ During he first 9 months of 2014, 75% of migrant mortality in the whole world occured in the Mediterranean. These people were neither wanderers nor returners. They did not have to survive the Sirens or fear the Cyclops; they had escaped a far worse enemy: human injustice; a miserable human condition.

There are no more nostoi in our Sea…only lotus-eaters.

Menelaos & Patroklis

My lecture in Rome: Pathways for the Mediterranean Future

Yesterday I gave a speech in Rome at the Annual Scholar’s Conference organized by ‎the Studienstiftung des deutschen Volkes. The Conference this year was dedicated to ‎discussions, workshops and lectures presenting ‘Perspectives of the Mediterranean’. ‎Over 100 participants engaged in a great learning experience thanks to the excellent ‎organization, including high profile keynote speakers and highly skilled scholars; and I ‎had the chance to lecture on two alternative development pathways for the Euro-‎Mediterranean region, namely a regional creative economy and a mapping of regional ‎ecosystems in terms of economic and social opportunity costs.‎
These two pathways tackle two key issues for our Mediterranean future: one is cultural ‎diversity; the other, biodiversity.‎

I would like to share a short story that I used as an intro to set the scene for my lecture; ‎a story about a man called Filippo Lippi:‎

‎“Filippo was a Renaissance painter of the Quattrocento (the 15th century in Italy). His ‎name might not ring a bell to many outside Italy; after all he is not Giotto, Raphael or ‎Botticelli. ‎

When he was a young man, Filippo was kidnapped by Barbary pirates and taken to the ‎Maghreb, before he was finally set free. This experience marked him, and it shows in ‎some of his artworks, like the Barbadori Altarpiece in which, if we zoom in, we would ‎see pseudo-kufic writing on the mantle of the Virgin. It is a decorative motif that is ‎meant to imitate the Kufic script used sometimes in writing Arabic, but it is not Arabic, ‎and it is most definitely not writing at all to start with. ‎

Filippo Lippi had captured only the aesthetic quality of the Arabic writing, rather than ‎its cultural essence. In addition to paintings, Pseudo-Kufic motifs were also used in the ‎decoration of several Mudejar palaces in Spain and Norman palaces in Sicily, among ‎other places. The story about Filippo Lippi was related to us by Vasari, a famous artist ‎and art historian, and I use it as a metaphor on what both shores of the Mediterranean ‎have been doing repeatedly: approaching the Mediterranean question in a way that ‎emphasizes the style rather than the substance.”‎

Finally, my sincere thanks to Dr. Frank Habermann and Patrizia Ianiro from the ‎Studienstiftung des deutschen Volkes for the great effort and dedication. Congratulations for an ‎excellent Conference. ‎

Barbadori Altarpiece - Filippo LippiFilippo Lippi - ZoomThe Italian Centre of German Studies