The Grammar of Ornament (The Beauty of Patterns II)

The Beauty of Mathematics

Back in July I almost managed to convince myself that mathematics was beautiful.

And certainly, the result of mathematics at least is often quite beautiful:

Chambered nautilus shell by Jitze Couperus via Flickr. [CC BY 2.0]
The bit of mathematics illustrated above is a favourite of nature, and goes by the name of the Fibonacci sequence. Today, however, we’re going to ignore nature to see instead what man can do with a bit of mathematics. Or rather, what one particular man did with a bit of mathematics.

Decorations from Pompeii, image plate in The Grammar of Ornament. Photo by Eric Gjerde via Flickr [CC BY-NC 2.0]

Owen Jones and the Alhambra

The man in question was the 19th century British architect, Owen Jones. He made his name with a book on the Alhambra, a Moorish palace in Granada, Spain; later he was involved with the 1851 Great Exhibition.

I first heard of Owen Jones when I visited the Alhambra, a few years ago. Travelling around the Mediterranean as a young man, Jones had developed an interest in Islamic architecture. This in turn led him to visit Spain where many examples of Moorish – Islamic – architecture remain to this day and he spent months studying the Alhambra, possibly the finest example of them all. (It might be hard to believe given its high standing as a tourist destination nowadays but in the 19th century the Alhambra was pretty run down and neglected. The American writer, Washington Irving, who too spent months in the Alhambra, was instrumental in drawing attention to its plight through his wonderful book, Tales from the Alhambra.)

Doorway in the Alhambra, Granada
Alhambra, Granada

The Grammar Of Ornament

Islamic art, probably because depicting humans is much frowned upon by Islam, is highly developed in the use of patterns and calligraphy. Jones saw plenty of examples of both in the Alhambra – and he took plenty of notes.

Familiar patterns side by side in The Grammar of Ornament

It is perhaps not an overstatement to say that his stay in Granada has hugely influenced his life. He developed a lifelong interest in the study of patterns and, in addition to his book on the Alhambra itself, he eventually published The Grammar of Ornament, a stunning collection of decorative designs and patterns from all over the world. Published in 1856, the book remains to this day the classic – the ultimate – reference book for anybody interested in patterns.

From Maori tattoos to Assyrian ornaments, from Greek patterns to the decorations  on Indian hookahs – long, water-cooled pipes -, The Grammar of Ornament has it all. And Jones didn’t content himself merely listing all these sumptuous designs; he compared them, he analysed them, he explained why they worked.

…we have gathered together this collection of the works of the past; not that they should be slavishly copied, but that artists should, by an attentive examination of the principles which pervade all the works of the past, and which have excited universal admiration, be led to the creation of new forms equally beautiful.

(Owen Jones: The Grammar of Ornament)

You might also like: Geometric Design for Beginners
A Higher Ambition: Owen Jones (1809-74) on the V&A website
⇒ Tales of the AlhambraThe Beauty of Patterns (The Rabbit Problem)
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Van Gogh in the Bookshop (Van Gogh en la librería)

Quote of the Week / La cita de la semana:

Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890)

So often, in the past as well, a visit to a bookshop has cheered me up and reminded me that there are good things in the world.

Vincent Van Gogh: Letter to Theo Van Gogh, 30 October 1877

A menudo, en el pasado también, una visita a la librería me ha animado y me ha recordado que haya cosas buenas en el mundo.

Vincent Van Gogh: Carta a Theo Van Gogh, 30 de octubre de 1877

The Battle of Marathon (According to Herodotus)

Casus Belli

In 491 B.C. King Darius I of Persia sent out his envoys to the various Greek city states, demanding of them earth and water – in those times, a sign of submission, the acceptance of, in this case, Persian rule. Some city states were cowed into complying while others refused; but the demand went down particularly badly in Athens and in Sparta:

…the Athenians cast these heralds, when they made their request, down into a pit, and the Spartans had thrown theirs into a well; and the heralds were told to take their earth and water to the King from there!

(Herodotus: The Histories, Book VII.133) 

Continue reading “The Battle of Marathon (According to Herodotus)”

Water (Agua)

Quote of the Week / La cita de la semana:

Lao Tse (6th century BC) [public domain via Wikipedia]

There is nothing in the world more soft and weak than water, and yet for attacking things that are firm and strong, there is nothing that can take precedence of it.

Lao Tse: Tao Teh King 78:1


No hay nada el mundo tan blando como el agua.
Pero nada hay que la supere contra lo duro.

Lao-Tse Tao te king LXXVIII

Quote of the Week: The Council of Trent

George Borrow portrait
George Borrow (1843), courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

In 1842, a  nobody called George Borrow wrote a detailed, 550-pages long account of his day job. Sounds boring? It isn’t: Borrow’s day  job was to sell Bibles in war-torn, Catholic Spain. The Bible in Spain is a book I cannot recommend enough; it’s a travelogue, an adventure story and comedy all in one. If you want to know more, you can read my review here.

Today’s quote is rather lengthier than usual but gives you a flavour of Borrow’s style of writing. Enjoy this excerpt about his run-in with the famous Spanish bureaucracy:

By far the most clever member of this government was Galiano, whose acquaintance I had formed shortly after my arrival.  He was a man of considerable literature, and particularly well versed in that of his own country.  He was, moreover, a fluent, elegant, and forcible speaker… Why he was made minister of marine is difficult to say, as Spain did not possess any; perhaps, however, from his knowledge of the English language, which he spoke and wrote nearly as well as his own tongue, having, indeed, during his sojourn in England, chiefly supported himself by writing for reviews and journals,—an honourable occupation, but to which few foreign exiles in England would be qualified to devote themselves.

[…] Galiano forthwith gave me a letter to his colleague, the Duke of Rivas, in whose department he told me was vested the power either of giving or refusing the permission to print the book in question. The duke was a very handsome young man, of about thirty, an Andalusian by birth, like his two colleagues. He had published several works—tragedies, I believe—and enjoyed a certain kind of literary reputation. He received me with the greatest affability; and having heard what I had to say, he replied with a most captivating bow, and a genuine Andalusian grimace: “Go to my secretary; go to my secretary—el hará por usted el gusto.”

So I went to the secretary, whose name was Oliban, an Aragonese, who was not handsome, and whose manners were neither elegant nor affable.

“You want permission to print the Testament?”
“I do,” said I.
“And you have come to his Excellency about it?” continued Oliban.
“Very true,” I replied.
“I suppose you intend to print it without notes?”
“Yes.”
“Then his Excellency cannot give you permission,” said the Aragonese secretary. “It was determined by the Council of Trent that no part of the Scripture should be printed in any Christian country without the notes of the church.”
“How many years was that ago?” I demanded.
“I do not know how many years ago it was,” said Oliban; “but such was the decree of the Council of Trent.”
“Is Spain at present governed according to the decrees of the Council of Trent?” I inquired.
“In some points she is,” answered the Aragonese, “and this is one. But tell me, who are you?Are you known to the British minister?”
“Oh yes, and he takes a great interest in the matter.”
“Does he?” said Oliban; “that indeed alters the case: if you can show me that his Excellency takes an interest in this business, I certainly shall not oppose myself to it.”

The British minister performed all I could wish, and much more than I could expect. He had an interview with the Duke of Rivas, with whom he had much discourse upon my affair: the duke was all smiles and courtesy. He moreover wrote a private letter to the duke, which he advised me to present when I next paid him a visit; and, to crown all, he wrote a letter directed to myself, in which he did me the honour to say, that he had a regard for me, and that nothing would afford him greater pleasure than to hear that I had obtained the permission which I was seeking. So I went to the duke, and delivered the letter. He was ten times more kind and affable than before: he read the letter, smiled most sweetly, and then, as if seized with sudden enthusiasm, he extended his arms in a manner almost theatrical, exclaiming, “Al secretario, el hará por usted el gusto.”

Away I hurried to the secretary, who received me with all the coolness of an icicle. I related to him the words of his principal, and then put into his hand the letter of the British minister to myself. The secretary read it very deliberately, and then said that it was evident his Excellency “did take an interest in the matter.” He then asked me my name, and, taking a sheet of paper, sat down as if for the purpose of writing the permission. I was in ecstasy. All of a sudden, however, he stopped, lifted up his head, seemed to consider a moment, and then, putting his pen behind his ear, he said, “Amongst the decrees of the Council of Trent is one to the effect . . .”

“Oh dear!” said I.

“A singular person is this Oliban,” said I to Galiano; “you cannot imagine what trouble he gives me; he is continually talking about the Council of Trent.”

“I wish he was in the Trent up to the middle,” said Galiano, who, as I have observed already, spoke excellent English; “I wish he was there for talking such nonsense. However,” said he, “we must not offend Oliban—he is one of us, and has done us much service; he is, moreover, a very clever man, but he is an Aragonese, and when one of that nation once gets an idea into his head, it is the most difficult thing in the world to dislodge it. However, we will go to him. He is an old friend of mine, and I have no doubt but that we shall be able to make him listen to reason.”

So the next day I called upon Galiano, at his marine or admiralty office (what shall I call it?), and from thence we proceeded to the bureau of the interior, a magnificent edifice, which had formerly been the casa of the Inquisition, where we had an interview with Oliban, whom Galiano took aside to the window, and there held with him a long conversation, which, as they spoke in whispers, and the room was immensely large, I did not hear. At length Galiano came to me, and said, “There is some difficulty with respect to this business of yours, but I have told Oliban that you are a friend of mine, and he says that that is sufficient; remain with him now, and he will do anything to oblige you. Your affair is settled—farewell.” Whereupon he departed, and I remained with Oliban, who proceeded forthwith to write something, which having concluded, he took out a box of cigars, and having lighted one and offered me another, which I declined, as I do not smoke, he placed his feet against the table, and thus proceeded to address me, speaking in the French language.

“It is with great pleasure that I see you in this capital, and, I may say, upon this business. I consider it a disgrace to Spain that there is no edition of the Gospel in circulation, at least such a one as would be within the reach of all classes of society, the highest or poorest; one unencumbered with notes and commentaries, human devices, swelling it to an unwieldy bulk. I have no doubt that such an edition as you propose to print would have a most beneficial influence on the minds of the people, who, between ourselves, know nothing of pure religion; how should they? seeing that the Gospel has always been sedulously kept from them, just as if civilization could exist where the light of the Gospel beameth not. The moral regeneration of Spain depends upon the free circulation of the Scriptures; to which alone England, your own happy country, is indebted for its high state of civilization and the unmatched prosperity which it at present enjoys. All this I admit, in fact reason compels me to do so, but—”

“Now for it,” thought I.

“Bu—” And then he began to talk once more of the wearisome Council of Trent and I found that his writing in the paper, the offer of the cigar, and the long and prosy harangue were—what shall I call it?—mere φλυαρία.

(George Borrow: The Bible in Spain)

Passport to Pimlico

There’s an old (1949) British comedy film in which Pimlico, a part of London, becomes the Duchy of Burgundy practically overnight with all the complications that this entails – the kind of complications that Carles Puidgemont, the Catalan ex-president, should have foreseen before he unilaterally declared independence from Spain.

Continue reading “Passport to Pimlico”

Quote of the Week: The Blaze of Summer

Photo by Joerg-Design [public domain via Pixabay]

On the other side of the closed blinds, in the scorched, withered garden, summer ignited a last blaze like an arsonist setting the fields on fire in senseless fury before making his escape.

(Sándor Márai: Embers)


A csukott redőnyök mögött, az aszalt, pörkölt és elszáradt kertben utolsó dühével lobogott a nyár, mint egy gyújtogató, aki esztelen dühében felgyújtja a határt, mielőtt világgá megy.

(Márai Sándor: A gyertyák csonkig égnek)

 

The Amazing Cynicism of the Tao Teh King

In Search of Tranquility

I occasionally see world weary westerners traipsing down Regent Street in loose robes and sandals chanting ‘Hare Krishna’, apparently believing that this would ease their existential angst, or, better still, solve all their problems – I blame the Beatles. Personally, I’ve never yet felt tempted to sing ‘Hare Krishna’; mainly because it’s somebody else’s cultural background and I’ve got a perfectly serviceable one of my own. Even so – and despite the Beatles – I recognise that the East has much to offer us.

Continue reading “The Amazing Cynicism of the Tao Teh King”

Argos vs Sparta (Argos contra Esparta)

Quote of the Week / La cita de la semana

When an Argive said once upon a time, “There are many tombs of Spartans in our country,” a Spartan said, “But there is not a single tomb of an Argive in our country,” indicating by this that the Spartans had often set foot in Argos, but the Argives had never set foot in Sparta.

(Plutarch: Morals, Vol. III., Sayings of Spartans)


Cuando un argivo dijo en una occasión: «En nuestra tierra hay muchas tumbas de espartanos», un espartano le respondió: «Pues en la nuestra no hay ni una sola de argivos», porque ellos habían invadido muchas veces Argos, pero los argivos jamás Esparta.

(Plutarco, Obras morales y de costumbres, III., Máximas de espartanos)

 

A Bear of Very Little Brain (The World According to Pooh)

The other day, in the course of an argument, somebody called me a person with a small brain.

Even while I took offence, I recalled a line from my childhood bible, Winnie-the-Pooh by A. A. Milne:

“For I am a Bear of Very Little Brain and long words Bother me.”

(Winnie-The-Pooh)

I’m all with the Bear of Very Little Brain on this one: long words bother me too. Especially when used by people who don’t know what they mean.

Continue reading “A Bear of Very Little Brain (The World According to Pooh)”

A World View in Stone (Una visión del mundo en piedra)

Quote of the Week / La cita de la semana:

Santa María de Eunate, Navarre, Spain / Navarra, España. Photo by By Jule_Berlin [CC BY 2.0] via Wikimedia Commons

…Romanesque art is a world view expressed in stone.

(Cees Nooteboom: Roads to Santiago)


…el arte románico es una visión del mundo expresada en piedra.

(Cees Nooteboom: El desvío a Santiago)

8 Seconds Independence (8 segundos de independencia)

On Tuesday evening the Catalan president Carles Puigdemont declared unilateral independence from Spain – only to suspend said independence in the same breath, the same sentence. This has to be some sort of a record; according to Wikipedia, the next shortest lived sovereign state lasted a full 6 hours.

El martes por la tarde el presidente catalán, Carles Puidgemont declaró la independencia unilateral de Cataluña de España – sólo para suspender dicho independencia con el mismo aliento, en la misma frase. Es una especie de marca; según Wikipedia, el segundo más corto estado soberano duró un total de 6 horas.

Continue reading “8 Seconds Independence (8 segundos de independencia)”

Breakfast at Tiffany’s

Leave it to me: I’m always top banana in the shock department.

A Truman Capote novella about Holiday Golightly, a New York socialite in 1943. A girl who makes a living from being taken out by men. Not at all the kind of girl I’d have thought I had time for, not even if she only took up a hundred pages. Not at all the type of novella I’d have thought I had time for either, even it was only a hundred pages.

I found Breakfast at Tiffany’s on the bookshelf of Sophisticated Young Lady, whose bedroom I appropriated for my study while she’s at university. I’ve never read anything by Truman Capote and I was between books. I picked it up and glanced idly on the first paragraph.

I couldn’t put it down afterwards.

It made me think I might like to see New York in the rain. 
(Photo by Lei Han via Flickr. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Seville Harbour (Puerto de Sevilla)

Quote of the Week / La cita de la semana

View of Seville in the 16th century with the Fleet of the Indies / Vista de Sevilla en el siglo XVI con la Flota de Indias [public domain via Wikimedia Commons]

Seville harbour – only a few hundred yards of dock set on the banks of a slow river, fifty miles from the sea, yet once the greatest harbour in the world, and still, in the legends of man, the most important. Columbus, Pizarro and Fernando Magellan, the Santa María and the little Victoria – from here they sailed to find a new world, or to be the first in all history to encircle the globe.

(Laurie Lee: A Rose for the Winter)


El puerto de Sevilla – sólo unos pocos cientos de yardas de muelle en las orillas de un río lento, cincuenta millas del mar, sin embargo, en otro tiempo el mayor puerto del mundo, y todavía en las leyendas de la humanidad, el más importante. Colón, Pizarro y Fernando de Magallanes, el Santa María y el pequeño Victoria – zarparon de aquí para encontrar un mundo nuevo, o para ser primero en toda la historia en la circunnavegación del globo.

(Laurie Lee: Una rosa para el invierno)

Nature (Naturaleza)

Quote of the Week / La cita de la semana:

Photo by Beba [public domain via Pixabay]

I love nature, I love the landscape, because it is so sincere. It never cheats me. It never jests. It is cheerfully, musically earnest.

(Henry David Thoreau: Journals, 16 November 1850)


Amo la naturaleza, amo el paisaje, porque es tan sincero. Nunca me engaña. Nunca me burla. Es alegre, musicalmente serio.

(Henry David Thoreau: Diarios, 16 de noviembre de 1850)

“Historia narrativa de una forma cautivadora”: Entrevista a Roger Crowley

Leer esto en inglés (texto original de la entrevista)

Hoy vamos a hablar de – y con – uno de mis autores favoritos.

Empecemos con un extracto:

View from the Doge’s prison, Venice / Vista de la prisión del Doge, Venecia

…Pisani podía oír la bulla desde el calabozo ducal. Puso la cabeza contra de las barras y gritó: «¡Viva San Marcos!» La multitud le respondió con un clamor ronco. Arriba, en la sala de los senadores, seguía el debate nervioso. La multitud puso escaleras frente de las ventanas y golpeó la puerta de la sala con una llamada rítmico: ¡Vettor Pisani! ¡Vettor Pisani!

(Perdóname por los errores de traducción,
es que sólo tengo el libro en inglés.)

¿Eso te parece un extracto de una novela?

No lo es.

Es historia – en la forma que la escribió el historiador británico Roger Crowley.

El extracto arriba es de Venecia: Ciudad de Fortuna, el libro de Roger Crowley sobre el auge y la caída del poder naval veneciano. Si quieres enterar por qué el almirante Pisani (1324-1380) – obviamente muy popular – se halló en la prisión del Doge y qué le pasó después, pues ya sabes qué hacer.

(¡No, eso no significa que lo buscas en Wikipedia!)

Continue reading ““Historia narrativa de una forma cautivadora”: Entrevista a Roger Crowley”

The Silent Pain of the Species (The Mad Toy)

Leer esto en castellano

What effect has ‘the silent pain of the species’ in Silvio’s soul?

This was the question that I had to write a short essay about in a Spanish literature and conversation class a few months ago. I attended the class in the Cervantes Institute in London because I knew that my fluency in Spanish left much to be desired and because I like literature, obviously. I had imagined that in class I’d have the opportunity to speak about Hispanic authors and that I would have to read some books at home so that we could discuss them in class afterwards.

Er… no.

Continue reading “The Silent Pain of the Species (The Mad Toy)”

El silencioso dolor de la especie (El juguete rabioso)

Read this in English

¿Qué efecto tiene en el alma de Silvio «el silencioso dolor de la especie»?

Esta era la pregunta sobre la que tuve que escribir un pequeño ensayo para una clase de literatura y conversación española hace unos meses. Asistí en la clase en el Instituto Cervantes de Londres porque sabía que me falta mucho la habilidad de hablar con fluidez y porque me gusta la literature, claro. Había imaginado que en clase tendría la oportunidad de hablar de autores hispánicos, y tendría que leer unos libros en casa para que podríamos discutir sobre ellos en clase.

Que no.

Continue reading “El silencioso dolor de la especie (El juguete rabioso)”

Three Thousand Year Old Bowls

Quote of the Week:

We can travel to the moon nowadays, but the basic shape of a bowl remains unchanged. I remember similar specimens in Africa, but they were not three thousand years old. I make a supreme effort to sense how ancient these are and I succeed because I know it’s true: three thousand years of violence, of profound upheaval have left this pottery intact, ready for use. I would gladly steal a piece from the cabinet and take it home, not to sell it on for some exorbitant price but to drink from it behind locked doors just in order to prove the continuity of my species, and to reflect a little on the unknown potter who fashioned it.

(Cees Nooteboom: Roads to Santiago)

Mundane