Saturday 23 February 2008


The Romans used lapis as an aphrodisiac. The ground powder was mixed with milk and used as a compress to relieve ulcers and boils and, during the Middle Ages, lapis lazuli was believed to maintain the skeleton in healthy condition while keeping the spirit free from the negative emotions of fear and jealousy.

The euphonious name of the stone is derived from 'lapis', the Latin word for stone, and lāzaward, which comes from the Arabic and means blue (compare our word “azure”), but which ultimately is derived from the Persian word Lajward, the place where the rock was mined. The worth of this stone to the world of art is immeasurable, for the ultramarine of the Old Masters is nothing other than genuine lapis lazuli. Ground up into a powder and stirred up together with binding-agents, the marble-like gemstone can be used to manufacture radiant blue watercolours, tempera or oil-paints. Before the year 1834, when it became possible to produce this colour synthetically, the only ultramarine available was that valuable substance made from genuine lapis lazuli that shines out at us from many works of art today. Unlike all other blue pigments, which tend to fade in the light, it has lost none of its radiance to this very day. Nowadays, the blue pigment obtained from lapis lazuli is mainly used in restoration work.

Here is an Illuminated Manuscript Bible in Latin, from. Northern Italy, completed around 1273 AD. The brilliant blue of ultramarine is as splendid as the day it was painted on the parchment.


During ancient times lapis was ground up and used for medicinal purposes as well as a cosmetic. The Egyptians used Lapis for seals, ground it for an eyelid cosmetic and often carved it into vases and figurines. Dark blue, also called "Egyptian" blue, was the color of the heavens, water, and the primeval flood, and it represented creation or rebirth. The favorite blue stone was lapis lazuli, or khesbed, which also meant joy or delight. It is thought that blue may have had solar symbolism because of some objects made from blue faience that carry a solar theme. There is also a theory that blue may have been symbolic of the Nile and represented fertility, because of the fertile soils along the Nile that produced crops. Because the god Amen (also spelled Amon or Amun) played a part in the creation of the world, he was sometimes depicted with a blue face; therefore, pharaohs associated with Amen were shown with blue faces also. In general, it was said that the gods had hair made of lapis lazuli. In a tomb painting of the Opening of the Mouth ceremony, depictions of both the mummy and Anubis are shown with blue hair.

A golden Horus head from the Temple of Horus at NekhenBeads made from lapis lazuli have been found dating back to the Predynastic Period. Since lapis lazuli was imported from the Euphrates area because it was not native to Egypt, these early specimens show that extremely ancient civilizations had already formed trade routes. Here are two Egyptian scarabs carved from this precious rock.


In Europe, this blue rocky material was valued as precious from ancient times when it was used in making jewellery, but also ground up as a pigment. Top quality lapis lazuli was sourced in the ancient world from the Badakhshan province of Afghanistan where is has been mined for more than 6500 years, but other sources now also include Siberia, Chile, the U.S., Pakistan, and Canada. If one was painting with such a precious material as lapis lazuli (from which the finest ultramarine blue was made), the expanses of blue that one would plan for in one’s paintings depended on the size of one’s purse. The noble and the rich could afford to paint their ceilings with ultramarine and the extravagance of their paintings could be gauged by the amount of blue they instructed the artist to use when painting.

Lapis is considered a rock, not a mineral. This is because it combines various minerals in a complex and intimate mixture. It is composed mainly of lazurite, but also contains calcite (white), sodalite (blue) and pyrite (fools' gold, a metallic yellow) and to be considered a mineral it would have only one component. A strong blue, sometimes with a hint of violet characterises gem quality lapis lazuli, but its value decreases with the presence of white patches (calcite). In some uses, small veins of pyrite are often prized.


“Time is the most valuable thing a man can spend.” - Diogenes Laertius

No single artist, no single painting, no analysis of style, genre or composition today for Art Sunday. Rather I’d like to focus on the resplendent blue that you see adorning the ceiling of this room, a view of the interior of the Capella degli Scrovegni, looking towards the apse, painted in fresco by Giotto, between 1304-1306 AD. It is one of the most glorious sights that you can see in Padua, Italy. Giotto, like many of his contemporary artists had been commissioned to adorn this chapel and as was custom, allowance had been made for the materials he was to use. Ultramarine blue is what gives the Scrovegni Chapel ceiling its gem-like clarity and this was the most expensive and opulent of pigments that an artist could use.


“Nostalgia is a seductive liar.” - George Wildman Ball

For Song Saturday today, I give you a song by French Singer/Songwriter, Veronique Sanson. She was born on April 24, 1949, in Boulogne. She has an avid following in her native country, but also in Canada. She was one of my favourite singers when I was in High School in the 70s. This song, "Comme je l'imagine" (1972) is one that brings back memories of my high school years to me…

She began performing in a trio, the “Roche-Martin”, with François Bernheim and her sister Violaine Sanson. Her singing is strong and melodic, with distinctive harmonies and a very strong vibrato, which often makes her lyrics difficult to understand. She often plays the piano while she is singing, but also plays the guitar.

From 1973 to 1976 Sanson was married to American rock musician Stephen Stills. Their son, Chris Stills, is also a musician. One of Veronique Sanson’s songs, "Amoureuse", was a hit in the United Kingdom for singer Kiki Dee in English translation (1973). The steamy video (caution, mature audiences only!) can be seen here.

Friday 22 February 2008


"Only the pure of heart can make good soup" 
- Ludwig van Beethoven

We had some rain today and the weather started to cool a little. Autumn is peeking from around the corner at us, making faces. The wheel of the year is rotating yet again and as the cooler weather starts to make its presence felt, the need for soup begins to surface. Soups are very homely, comfortable, no-nonsense foods. The type of food that you can really revel in while enjoying in front of an open fire, while munching on crusty, freshly baked bread – its delightful fragrance melding with the appetising aromas of the herbs and spices the soup is seasoned with, the tang of cheese and freshness of a well scrubbed wooden kitchen table.

Soups can be labour intensive in their preparation and sometimes their ingredients can be so varied that one will need to plan ahead and shop for. Other soups materialise out of what is in the pantry or the fridge at the time. Like this soup that was thrown together after raiding the kitchen and throwing together whatever was found. I always make a note of exactly what was thrown together if the experiment succeeds. I forget quickly what didn’t work!

• 1/4 cup butter
• 1 1/2 cup of thinly sliced mushrooms
• 1 leek (white portion only)
• 1 can of cream of celery soup
• 1 1/2 cups of milk
• 1/2 cup chopped parsley
• Turmeric, nutmeg, thyme, pepper
• 1/2 cup of grated Parmesan cheese.

Sauté the chopped leek in the butter until tender. Add the mushrooms and cook thoroughly until golden, stirring all the while. Add the soup and heat through, stirring while adding the milk and parsley. Simmer for about 15 minutes, adding a little more milk to maintain the volume constant. Add the spices and cook for another 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Mix in the grated cheese and serve immediately, garnished with a sprig of parsley.

Bon Appétit!

Thursday 21 February 2008


“He who does not know foreign languages does not know anything about his own.” - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

February 21st is celebrated as International Mother Tongue Day. One’s mother tongue is one's native language; the language that is learned by children from their parents and passed from one generation to the next. Worldwide, there are about 45,000 different languages and dialects spoken. The top ten list of languages spoken around the world in terms of numbers of speakers is:

1. Chinese (Mandarin): 1,075,000,000
2. English: 514,000,000
3. Hindustani 496,000,000
4. Spanish: 425,000,000
5. Russian: 275,000,000
6. Arabic: 256,000,000
7. Bengali: 215,000,000
8. Portuguese: 194,000,000
9. Malay-Indonesian: 176,000,000
10. French: 129,000,000

This list is a little deceptive as it includes both native speakers as well as groups that use the language habitually as a second language. For example, while English doesn't have the most speakers, it is the official language of more countries than any other language. Its speakers hail from all around the world, including the U.S.A, Australia, England, Zimbabwe, the Caribbean, Hong Kong, South Africa, and Canada. Increasingly it is being used as the international language in fields as diverse as industry, business, diplomacy, sport, politics, aviation, shipping, the arts, etc.

It is expected that the number of languages in the world will be cut by half, in a century. This is largely to be blamed on increasing use of some languages worldwide as preferred means of international communication, increased coverage of the world by mass media and broadcasting in a small number of the top 10 languages, because of cultural imperialism and because of status and potential advantages socially and economically of being able to use one of the major languages of the world. Minority languages and dialects in several countries around the world may be battling racial and ethnic prejudices and their use may be minimised as they may be seen to be socially disadvantageous.

Most countries have one main language. For example, in Bangladesh the official language is Bengali. Some countries have two or three main languages. In Switzerland, for example, the official languages are German, French and Italian. Many Swiss speak all three, as well as English! South Africa, has 11 official languages: English, Afrikaans, Ndebele, Sepedi, Sesotho, Swati, Tsonga, Tswana, Venda, Xhosa and Zulu.

Although Australia has only one official language, English, it also has about 400 language groups living in it. It has about 250 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander language groups, plus about 150 languages brought by migrants since 1788.

One’s mother tongue is a wonderful and culturally significant heritage. A country (especially one rich in a diverse linguistic heritage) should be consciously trying to combat stereotypes, prejudices and misconceptions about language, so as to contribute to the richness of human civilisation and culture. The more languages one speaks the broader one’s mind becomes, the more expansive one’s thinking, and generally the more culturally sensitive one’s attitude.

My mother tongue is Modern Greek, which I speak fluently, but I also speak English as a native speaker. I speak Italian and French conversationally and I can also understand the gist of what is said in another couple of languages. I have studied Classical Greek and Latin and I regret not having had the time to sit and learn a few more languages – perhaps a suitable occupation in my retirement…

And as a final tribute to the mother tongue, here is an extract from Greek Nobel Laureate poet Odysseus Elytis, translated from Greek into English for you:

I was given the Hellenic tongue
my house a humble one on the sandy shores of Homer.
My only care my language on the sandy shores of Homer.
The sea-bream and perch
windbeaten verbs
green currents with the caerulean
all that I saw blazing in my entrails
sponges, medusae
with the first words of the Sirens
pink shells with their first dark tremors."

(from Axion Esti, 1959)

Wednesday 20 February 2008


“It is never too late to have a happy childhood.” - Tom Robbins

At what point do we stop being children and enter that curious phase of adolescence that melds imperceptibly into adulthood? Hard to say, we all are so different and children nowadays are so much in a hurry to rush headlong into adolescence and adulthood. Do some of us bypass this adolescent phase? Circumstances can throw us into the adult world rudely, suddenly, with no warning.

Some of us may choose to linger in the playground well into adulthood and our adolescence is indeed a long one, overlapping imperceptibly over childhood games and adult amusements. But some of us have no choice: We sleep tight one night in our pastel-tinted childhood bedroom to the sound of fairy tales being read aloud to us, and awaken alone the next morning in a bleak bedsitter full of gray obligations and black and white responsibilities of the adult world.

Lucky are those amongst us who can preserve the child that plays within our soul and in whose hearts the child’s song resounds. Woe unto those who have been thrust into adulthood and the only remnant of childhood is the evanescent sweet taste of a pleasant dream, forgotten in the morning.

The Child

In the backyard of my soul
A child runs, plays, laughs,
Wastes his time heedlessly
While the tall walls hide their secrets.

In the courtyard of my heart
A child sings, loudly, happily;
Not caring about anything
Drowning in oceans of joy.

In the backyard of my soul
The child grows up, stands still.
The walls crumble and reveal much;
And the tears begin to flow…

In the courtyard of my heart
There is no child any more.
Only a still, empty, echoing space
A deserted melancholy.

Sans Souci hosts poetry Wednesday. Visit her blog for the tour!

Tuesday 19 February 2008


"God means us to be free. With divine daring, He gave us the power of choice." - Cecil B. DeMille

Reality check: Am alive, yes just barely, I think… Am leading a remarkably hectic existence at the moment with several things happening in my life that impinge on my time and concentration (in no particular order):
a) I have started a new job.
b) I am continuing a huge medical dictionary project, where I am one of the three editors-in-chief.
c) I have just finished proof-reading my Greek novel and sent it back to the publishers for printing.
d) I am finalising a consulting project.
e) I have several (snail) letters to answer.
f) I am halfway through another gardening project at home.
g) I have promised to send a friend a chamber piece of music I have started to write and I am almost finished with.
h) I have to clean my desk in my study at home.
i) I have to clean my study at home.
j) I have a couple of social obligations that I can’t postpone any more.
k) I have to see a friend or two that I have neglected for a little while.
l) I have to spend time with my family.

Still, it seems that I can’t help myself and as soon as one task is finished (hmmmm, perhaps even before it’s finished!) I start another. It is a form of self-imposed enslavement, is it not? Yet, oddly I don’t feel imprisoned or constrained. I see these tasks as challenges, as enjoyable occupations, as demanding – yet fulfilling distractions.

We all yearn to be free, to be able to do whatever we wish to do, but if you think about it, what would you really do if tomorrow morning you had absolutely no compelling reason to do anything that you had done the previous day? No work, no family or friends to worry about, no household chores, no social obligations, no study, no other constricting or demanding impositions on your time. I don’t know about you, but I’d hate it. It would be rather like being a vegetable marrow or a sloth.

We all get the feeling sometimes of “Ughhhhh! I want to be free!” But what exactly is freedom? Is it merely the option of nominating one’s own form enslavement? Having the freedom of choice of one’s own fetters? And even if the opportunity for that kind of freedom appears magically, why do so many of us choose not to follow our whim and choose what we want to do? Strong attachment to routine, maintenance of the well worn rut of the status quo, a lack of courage, a strong sense of responsibility, financial considerations, family ties?

I am a middle-aged man who has decided to cut the chains of habit, who has done something different, who has overturned his life in order to be free to choose his own form of confinement. I have been in my new job for a few weeks now and so far I am enjoying it. There are new people, new tasks, new responsibilities, the new routine of the workplace, that is still tantalisingly strange so as to be interesting. There is that lightness of spirit that accompanies the cutting of a tether, the wonderful feeling of having a new space in which to prove oneself, new skies to soar in.

Artists will often choose freedom of action, freedom of expression, exploration of new horizons, trying out of new experiences over the security of well-tested routine. Most of us prefer the cosy arrangements that a well-regulated life brings. An existence that has no nasty surprises (but maybe no pleasant ones, either). Besides, there is the matter of the mortgage, the weekly shopping bills, gas and electricity…

I am fortunate to have made the choice that allows this relative freedom. As far as my busy schedule goes, that has not changed much. I always take on a lot and usually manage to deliver the goods when the crunch comes. A life should be filled with experiences, a life should be full of constant stimulations of the mind, constant challenges and goals to be attained.

PS: I have to add item (m) to the list above:
m) Visit my friends’ blogs on yahoo 360 (and multiply!)

Monday 18 February 2008


“No good movie is too long and no bad movie is short enough." - Roger Ebert

We watched an interesting French movie yesterday and in some ways it was reminiscent of the classic film noir genre, but also there were elements of modern expressionism and psychological thriller overtones in it. The film is “Feux Rouges” (Red Lights) by Cédric Kahn, based on a book by Georges Simenon (of Inspector Maigret whodunit fame). The film is based on some amazing performances by the three leads, Jean-Pierre Daroussin (the husband), Carole Bouquet (the wife) and Vincent Deniard (the hitchhiker).

Antoine and Hélène seem to be a typical married couple in the opening frames of the film and they begin their summertime drive to South France to pick up their kids from a holiday camp. The road traffic is heavy and the atmosphere becomes tense. Antoine stops at almost every bar they meet and becomes increasingly drunk the further they progress. After a fierce argument Hélène leaves Antoine at a bar and decides to take the train to Bordeaux. They each have an experience that changes their life forever.

The film is a wry study of the middle-aged male psyche and all of the attendant misfortunes that the prospect of incipient old age brings with it. Here is the dissection of the life of a man who has reached a crisis point and finds himself doubting his worth, his virility, his position in society and his diminishing sense of innate worth. He believes his professionally successful wife has a lover, he sees his children become distant as his job absorbs his energy and time and he believes that alcohol is his only solace. A dangerous situation that ticks away like a time bomb set to explode that very night.

There are similarities in this film to some of Hitchcock and Kubrick. The director plays with the audience like a cat with a mouse and we squirm as we witness Antoine’s descent into the depths of night, a dark night of the soul in which his alcohol-steeped nightmares seem to become a mind shattering reality. We are left to doubt what we see through Antoine’s eyes as his world is one that is full of horrific fantasies, weird illusions and almost demented and cruel actions of impotent wish-fulfillment.

The cinematography is very good and the opening sequences with the quasi geometric shots of modern city architecture from a great height set the scene wonderfully by dwarfing the people and making the concrete shapes alienate the flesh and blood in a way that is prophetic for the film’s heroes. The music score is by Frenchman Debussy, whose “Nuages” provide an interestingly serene and dispassionate counterfoil to the raw emotions of the characters.

Red Lights is a good film, brought to life by the magnificent acting of Daroussin, who gives his all in a brilliant character study that is disguised as a thriller. Antoine is both hero and anti-hero and although he is not at all likable, he still manages to make us feel for him, and we empathise with his predicament. As Alfred Hitchcock says: “Always make the audience suffer as much as possible.” And then your film is successful…

Sunday 17 February 2008


In 1939 Vollard was killed in an accident and the artist was thus released from his contract. It left behind it an important question: what was to happen to the great mass of unfinished work which was now in the possession of Vollard's heirs? In 1947 Rouault brought a suit against them to recover this material. Rouault had always been very concerned with the artist's rights over his own creation.

He succeeded perhaps better than he had hoped. He asked the courts for the return of 800 unfinished and unsigned paintings which had remained in Vollard's possession at the time of his death, and his right to them was eventually conceded. He only failed to recover those which had already been sold. In November 1948, to make his point quite clear, he ceremonially burned before witnesses 315 of the canvases he had recovered…

This is another religious painting of Rouault, this genre of painting being a favourite of his. “Christ and Five Apostles” of 1939.


Rouault produced several illustrations for books under the influence of Ambroise Vollard (the famous art dealer with whom Rouault signed a contract in 1917 and which was to provide him with freedom to work for many years. Rouault agreed to give Vollard everything he produced in return for a salary). Here is such an illustration, “Madame Louison” of 1935.


“Crucifixion” (1937-1939).

Many great artists have painted crucifixions and each manages to convey a depth of meaning that his or her art enables them to. Rouault’s crucifixion is formally symmetrical, simplified as a ruse stone carving, flat as a cutout, as confronting as a two-dimensional vitrail of a very old country church. The sober colours of the painting seem to foreshadow the fate of France in the second world war. A crucifixion seems the only apt theme in these dark and doom-laden days of approaching war…


“Legendary Landscape” (1936).

This is a great favourite of mine. The paint has been applied to the canvas with abandon and one can become immersed in its swirling creamy depths. The colours are dark and brooding, yet luminous and the sky is portentously red and yellow, with great swathes of green clouds, through which a sick yellow sun shines. The figures stand in the street like actors in a Greek tragedy and the houses look curiously homely and incongruous. This is a disquieting painting, one that stirs dark emotions and primeval passions.


“Art is not a study of positive reality, it is the seeking for ideal truth.” – Georges Sand

For Art Sunday today, Georges Rouault (French, 1871-1958). Although he was isolated amongst the artists of his time, George Rouault produced work which proved it was possible to be an independent yet wholly committed Modernist. His work is painterly and influenced by the impressionists and expressionists, but there is a primitive strength in his work that often reminds one of the monumental stained glass windows of the middle ages.
“The Old King” – 1937, one of his best known works.