Canada Slim and the Life Electric

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 17 October 2017

We live in such modern times that sometimes it is hard to imagine that there were times before that weren´t so modern.

Perhaps in a thousand years, folks will think that the manner of measuring time using the abbreviations BC and AD (before Christ and Anno Dominiin the Year of Our Lord) later modified to signify religious equality or a lack of religion BCE and CE (before the Common Era and Common Era) might later be interpreted to mean Before Computers (BC) and the Age of Digital (AD)!

We measure electric current in amperes and conveniently forget that amperes are named after the French physicist André Marie Ampere (1775-1836).

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Above. André-Marie Ampere

We measure energy in joules, named after English physicist James Prescott Joule (1818-1889).

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Above: James Prescott Joule

Force is measured in newtons, because of English mathematician Isaac Newton (1642-1726).

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Above: Isaac Newton

The Standard Internationale unit for frequency is the hertz, named after German physicist Heinrich Rudolph Hertz (1857-1894).

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Above. Heinrich Rudolph Hertz

Power is measured in watts, thanks to Scottish engineer James Watt (1736-1819).

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Above. James Watt

The unit for resistance is the ohm, because of German physicist Georg Simon Ohm (1789-1854).

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Above: Georg Simon Ohm

We use kelvin, fahrenheit and celcius to measure temperature, named after Scottish physicist William Thomson, 1st Baron Kelvin (1824-1907), Polish physicist Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit (1686-1736) and Swedish astronomer Anders Celcius (1701-1744)

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Above: William Thomson, Baron Kelvin

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Above: Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit

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Above: Anders Celsius

We have Napoléon Bonaparte and revolutionary France to thank for the metric system.

But the Italians of Como would be very cross if you forgot their native son, father of the volt that measures electric force, Alessandro Giuseppe Antonio Anastasio Volta (1745-1827).

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Above: Alessandro Volta

Italy´s smaller contributions to everyday life are so numerous as to go unnoticed.

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Above: The flag of Italy

There would be no pistols but for the city of Pistoia, no savon in France but for the city of Savona; no faience anywhere but for the city of Faenza; no millinery but for the city of Milano; no blue jeans but for the city of Genoa (Gênes in French); no Neapolitan ice cream without Napoli; no Roman candles without Roma; no Venetian blinds without Venezia; no bologna without Bologna; no Parmesan cheese without Parma;

Italian Cristoforo Colombo discovered America for the Americans, albeit after the Original Peoples, the Vikings and Atlantic fishermen.

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Above: Italian Explorer Cristoforo Columbo (in English, Christopher Columbus)(1451 – 1506)

Italians taught poetry, statesmanship and the ruses of trade to the English, military art to the Germans, cuisine to the French, acting and ballet dancing to the Russians, and music to everybody.

The list of famous Italians is awe-inspiring and far too many to list conclusively.

Suffice to say, Italy has produced some of the world´s finest saints and sinners, political thinkers and military leaders, admirals and scientists, navigators and philosophers, poets, painters and musicians.

Italians have always respected and admired great scientists, especially if their discoveries and theories were abstract and incomprehensible.

Nowhere is this mix of respect and admiration combined with the abstract and incomprehensible more evident than it is in Como with their native born son Italian physicist and chemist Alessandro Volta.

 

Como, Italia, 2 August 2017

From the modern hotels and banks of Piazza Cavour, the main square overlooking the Lago di Como, the wife and I walked south along arcaded Via Caio Plinio to Como´s marble-faced Duomo.

Above: Duomo di Como (Como Cathedral)

The Duomo is considered to be Italy´s best example of Gothic-Renaissance fusion.

Fairytale pinnacles, rose windows and clownish gargoyles combine with rounded arch portals.

Inside the Gothic aisles are hung with dark rich tapestries woven with biblical scenes, including a sleepy Madonna, an adoration by the Magi and a leisurely flight to Egypt of Joseph and Mary avoiding Herod´s planned execution of the Christ child.

(See Canada Slim and the Inappropriate Statues of this blog regarding the Duomo.)

Next to it the polychromatic town hall, the Broletto, is an elegant construction with a tricolour facade of gentle pink, white and grey, with a 15th century balcony deliberately designed for municipal orators.

Above: Il Broletto di Como (Como Assembly Hall)

The Broletto is also known as the Palazzo della Ragione – the Palace of Reason.

Behind the Duomo the neoclassical facade of the Teatro Sociale built on the remains of the castle of the Torre Rotunda – the Round Tower – stands out with its Corinthian columns.

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Above: Torre Rotunda, Como

Beyond the railway there is the Piazza del Popolo with the famous Casa del Fascio – the House of Fascism – erected in the 1930s as the headquarters of the local Fascist party and designed by Comoese architect Giuseppe Terrigni – it is universally considered to be a masterpiece of the architectural style known as Rationalism.

Above: Casa del Fascio, Como

In the heart of the old town we encountered the medieval square Piazza San Fedele, (formerly called the Piazza del mercato del grano – Grain Market Square), which owes its name to the basilica situated here named after the saint who brought Christianity to the Como region.

Above: Piazza San Fedele, Como

The basilica´s unusual layout is noteworthy, as it is a circular building with three naves and three apses, looking very much like a three-leaf clover.

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Above: La Basilica di San Fedele, Como

At the end of the old town is the imposing Porta Torre, the ancient entrance to the walled city built in the 12th century along with the surrounding walls that, to this day, protect the historic town centre.

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Above: Porta Torre, Como

Not far from the Porta Torre there is the Piazza Medaglie d´Oro Comasche.

In this square are two distinct buildings: the Palazzo Giovio – home to the Museo Civico e Archeologico Paolo Giovio– and the Palazzo Olginati – home to a museum dedicated to Giuseppe Garibaldi.

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Above: Museo Civico e Archeologico, Como

(Garibaldi is worth a blog post by himself.)

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Above: Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807 – 1882)

Back toward the Lago, almost directly on the water, sits the Tempio Voltiano – a museum dedicated to Alessandro Volta and hosting a collection of scientific instruments used or designed by the famous scientist – from where one can look out onto the Lago itself and see in the middle of the harbour the contemporary sculpture by Daniel Libeskind dedicated to Volta, the Life Electric.

Above: Tempio Voltiano (Volta Temple), Como

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Above: The Life Electric, Como

Walk northeast along the waterfront, past Piazza Matteotti and the train Station, and take the Funicolare Como-Brunate – a cable car built in 1894 – walk through hilltop Brunate with its Chiesa di San Andrea, up to San Maurizio and then climb 143 steps to the top of the lighthouse Faro Volta, built in 1927 to mark the centenary of Volta´s death.

Above: Funicolare Como-Brunate Station, Como

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Above: Faro Volta / Volta Lighthouse

Then you, Como visitor, have had a full day of things Volta.

There are a number of problems with the manner in which Volta is remembered, primarily making the man interesting, making the science for which he is honoured meaningful to today´s generation who take what has evolved since his day for granted,

I climbed up from Brunante with my wife and saw the view from Faro Volta.

We admired the Life Electric sculpture from the boat cruise we took the day before.

But on this day, after much marching about town – we also visited the Museo didattico della Seta (worth a blog post on its own) – my wife needed a break, to simply sunbathe and dip her toes in the waters of Lago di Como.

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Above: Museo didattico della Seta (The Educational Museum of Silk), Como

So she left an exploration of the Tempiano Volta solely to myself.

The Tempio Voltiano is a lakeside neoclassical temple built in 1927.

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Above: Lakeside view of Tempio Voltiano, Como

Inside is an exhibition on the life of Como-born electric-battery inventor Alessandro Volta, after whom the electric unit, the volt, is named.

Above: Alessandro Volta

Some of the instruments he used to conduct his experiments are displayed inside.

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But the lack of friendliness by the sole guard assigned to both sell tickets and secure the place against unwanted activity and the lack of interactive and explanatory descriptions leave the modern visitor numb.

And this is a shame, for it is important for the visitor to understand how dependent modern civilisation is on Volta´s discoveries and inventions, to truly appreciate this man and this temple that once graced the front and back of the 10,000 lire Italian banknote (1984-2001).

Those who honour Volta seem to forget that God did not make all visitors alike – some enjoy and embrace science, while others feel intimidated and bewildered by its seeming complexity and unapproachability.

I would love to see how Bill Nye, the Science Guy, or The Big Bang Theory´s Professor Proton, would bring this museum and the man it honours to reach an audience today that scorns intelligence and has a very limited attention span.

I am not these men.

It would be great if a character like the BBC´s Doctor Who actually existed and we could transport ourselves back in time to see the inventor himself.

But sadly we do not possess 1950s police phone box TARDIS machines.

 

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 17 October 2017

To get an understanding of what Volta did, we need to comprehend what electricity is and what happened before Volta came along.

In 1850, British Prime Minister William Gladstone asked the scientist Michael Faraday why electricity was valuable.

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Above: English scientist Michael Faraday (1791 – 1867), inventor of the first electric generator. The SI unit of capacitance (how much electricity can be created) the Farad is named after him.

Faraday answered: “One day, Sir, you may tax it.”

In the 19th and early 20th century, electricity was not part of the everyday life of most people, even in the industrialised Western world.

The popular culture of the time depicts electricity as a mysterious, quasi-magical force that could slay the living, revive the dead or bend the laws of nature.

Long before any knowledge of electricity existed, people were aware of shocks from electric eels.

Ancient Egyptian texts dating from 2750 BC referred to these fish as the “Thunderer of the Nile” and described them as the protector of all other fish.

Electric fish were again reported millennia later by ancient Greek, Roman and Arabic naturalists and physicians.

Several ancient writers, such as Pliny the Elder and Scribinious Largus, attested to the numbing effects of electric shocks delivered by catfish and electric rays, and knew that such shocks could travel along conducting objects.

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Above: Roman author Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD)

Patients suffering from ailments such as gout or headache were directed to touch electric fish in the hope that the powerful jolt might cure them.

Possibly the earliest and nearest approach to the discovery of the identity of lightning and electricity, is to be attributed to the Arabs.

Ancient cultures around the Mediterranean knew that certain objects, such as rods of amber, could be rubbed with cat´s fur to attract light objects like feathers.

Thales of Miletus made a series of observations on static electricity around 600 BC, from which he believed that friction rendered amber magnetic, in contrast to minerals such as magnetite, which needed no rubbing.

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Above: Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus (624 – 576 BC)

Thales was incorrect in believing that the attraction was due to a magnetic effect, but later science would prove a link between magnetism and electricity.

(The Parthians may have had knowledge of electroplating, based on the 1936 discovery of the Baghdad Battery, which resembles a galvanic cell, though it is uncertain whether the artifact was electrical in nature.)

Above: “The Baghdad Battery”, found in Khuyat Rabu, Iraq, near the ancient site of Ctesiphon, capital of the Parthian empire (150 BC – 223 AD)

Above: An example of a galvic cell, named after Luigi Galvani by Alessandro Volta; also called a voltaic cell.

Electricity would remain little more than an intellectual curiosity for millennia until 1600, when the English scientist William Gilbert made a careful study of electricity and magnetism, distinguishing the lodestone effect from static electricity produced by rubbing amber.

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Above: English scientist William Gilbert (1544 – 1603), the “Father of Electricity”

He coined the new Latin word electricus (“of amber”, from the Greek word elektron) to refer to the property of attracting small objects after being rubbed.

This association gave rise to the English words “electric” and “electricity”, which made their first appearance in print in Thomas Browne´s Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646).

Further work on electricity was conducted by German scientist Otto von Guericke (1602-1686), Irish chemist Robert Boyle (1627-1691), English scientist Stephen Gray (1666-1736) and French chemist Charles Francois du Fay (1698-1739).

In the 18th century, American polymath Benjamin Franklin conducted extensive research in electricity, selling his possessions to fund his work.

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Above: Benjamin Franklin (1706 – 1790)

In June 1752, he is reported to have attached a metal key to the bottom of a dampened kite string and flown the kite in a stormy sky.

A succession of sparks jumping from the key to the back of his hand showed that lightning was indeed electrical in nature.

Franklin also explained the apparently paradoxical behaviour of the Leyden jar as a device for storing large amounts of electrical charge in terms of electricity consisting of both positive and negative charges.

Above: Typical construction of a Leyden jar

In 1791, Italian physicist Luigi Galvani published his discovery of bioelectromagnetics demonstrating that electricity was the medium by which neurons passed signals to the muscles.

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Above: Luigi Galvani (1737 – 1798)

(Could electricity be the key to increasing our longevity?

Is the movie Crank 2 completely far-fetched to suggest that a man could extend his life by juicing himself up with electricity?

Could it be possible to extract human bioelectricity and thermal energy to power machines as suggested in the dystopian film The Matrix?)

Alessandro Volta´s battery, or voltaic pile, of 1800, made from alternating layers of zinc and copper, provided scientists with a more reliable source of electrical energy than the electrostatic machines previously used.

Above: A voltaic pile on display in the Tempio Voltiano

Following Volta, mankind would begin to recognise the concept of electromagnetism as the unity of electric and magnetic phenomena.

This would be followed by the invention of the electric motor (1821), the mathematical analysis of the electric circuit (1827), and the linking of electricity, magnetism and light (1862).

While the early 19th century had seen rapid progress in electrical science, the late 19th century would see the greatest progress in electrical engineering.

Electricity turned from a scientific curiosity into an essential tool for modern life, becoming a driving force of the Second Industrial Revolution.

Later mankind would learn that electrodes illuminated with ultraviolet light cause electric sparks more easily, and that the photelectric effect is the result of light energy being carried in energising electrons.

German physicist Albert Einstein´s 1905 discovery of the latter would lead to the Quantum Revolution.

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Above: Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955)

This photoelectric effect is now employed in photocells that can be found in solar panels and is frequently used to make electricity commercially.

This understanding of electrons would lead to the detection of radio waves and mankind´s present ability to switch and amplify these waves.

Current flow which we now understand as negatively charged electrons and positively charged electron deficiencies (charges and holes) have led to the development of Quantum Physics and the development of crystalline semiconductors.

Wires connected to crystals would lead to the invention of the transistor (1947), and later the vacuum tube, semiconductor diodes, integrated circuits, light-emitting diodes (LEDs), microprocessor chips and the concept of RAM (random access memory).

Mankind has learned how to generate, store and transmit electricity, but it wasn´t until Volta´s battery that a viable source of electricity became available – the ability to store energy chemically and make it available upon demand in the form of electrical energy.

Above: A voltaic pile

Through Volta´s inspiration and invention, mankind had learned to generate electricity from fossil fuel combustion, nuclear reaction, wind or flowing water.

Electricity´s ability to transfer energy has led to the light bulb, electric heating, electric refrigeration, and the telegraph.

Though optical fibres and satellite communication make our modern communication systems possible, electricity remains an essential part of the process.

I look at my own life and realise how utterly dependent I am upon electricity.

Without electricity, I could not operate this computer or use the printer that sits beside it.

Without electricity, my food supply would not be cool in the fridge or cold in the freezer, nor could I prepare this food in the microwave, the oven or on the stove.

My coffee would not be hot without our electric kettle.

My room would not be warm without the electrical heating nor would I be able to navigate through my apartment without electric lighting.

My cellphone would soon cease to function and there would be no electricity to power my television set nor could I listen to music on my stereo.

Without the basic knowledge of how to generate, store and retrieve electricity when needed, our planet would be very different than it is today.

Electricity has become such a necessity of modern life that we pay attention to it only when it stops flowing for us, an event that usually signals disaster.

The people who keep it flowing are still often cast as heroic, wizard-like figures.

So, let´s look at Alessandro Volta.

Alessandro Volta was born in Como on 18 February 1745, to Filippo and Maddalena Volta.

The Volta family had risen to nobility and wealth from commercial origins and intermarriage, but by the time Alessandro was born the Volta family had lost much of its wealth and Alessandro was raised in a humble one-storey building on Contrada Porta Nuova (today called Via Volta).

“Till his 4th year of age, Alessandro had not enough strength to articulate words.

In his 7th year, he started to show clear signs of propensity to study, and he was born to make good use of it.”  (Maurizio Monti)

After the death of Filippo in 1752, the young Alessandro, as well as his mother and his younger sisters Marianna, Cecilia and Chiara, lived with his uncle, Canon Alessandro Volta, while his older brothers were taken care of by his other uncle, Archdeacon Antonio Volta.

“Alessandro started at the age of 12 to be extremely curious about the secrets of nature, and I still keep an extraordinary text on this subject written by him at this time.

He almost drowned in a water spring at Monteverde to inspect a mineral vein that, according to local peasants, released small gold straws, but in fact turned out to be plain yellow mica.” (Giulio Cesare Gattoni)

By age 14, Alessandro made up his mind to become a physicist.

In his 17th year of age, Volta began to analyse throughly works on natural and artificial electricity, on his own, without any instruments whatsoever.

In his 18th year, he had already entered into correspondence with renowned physicists.

In 1769, Volta officially made his scientifc debut with his dissertation, De vi attractiva ignis electrici, ac phaenomenis inde pendentibus.

In 1774, Volta became a professor of physics at the Royal School in Como.

By October, he is appointed head of the public schools in Como, so he takes advantage of his post to insist that Como should have its own physics laboratory.

The following year, Volta obtained the Chair of Experimental Physics at the Royal Grammar School of Como, and began to improve and popularise the electrophorus, a device that produced static electricity.

His promotion of the electrophorus was so extensive that he is often credited with its invention, even though a machine operating on the same principle was described in 1762 by the Swedish experimenter Johan Wilcke (1732 – 1796).

Above: An electrophorus, a manual machine used to generate static electricity

In 1776, Volta made considerable efforts to establish a central public library in Como.

It would take 20 years to pass before the founding of Como´s Municipal Library.

This same year, Volta studied the chemistry of gases, researching and discovering methane after reading a paper by Benjamin Franklin on “flammable air”.

In November, he found methane at Lago Maggiore.

In September 1777, Volta set out on a long study tour that, via the Gotthard Pass, led him to visit Bern, Basel and Zürich.

On 16 September 1777, Volta showed his experiments with the pistol to the members of the Zürich Physics Society.

After a sojourn in Strasbourg and Alsace, Volta returned to Como via Geneva and the Savoy.

Volta carried out barometrical and geological surveys at high altitude.

Among the personalities Volta met during this journey, he met the BernouillisDaniel (1700-1782), Johann II (1710-1790), Jean (1744-1807) of the family of physicists and mathematicians – in Basel, and Swiss physicist Horace Bénédict De Saussure (1740-1799) in Geneva, but above all, his visit to the elderly Voltaire in Fernet should be mentioned.

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Above: French philosopher Francois Marie Arouet, aka Voltaire (1694-1778)

From Aiguebelle in the Savoy, Volta brought home potatoes and made great contributions to the diffusion of this North American vegetable to Lombardy and Italy.

By 1778, Volta managed to isolate methane and devised experiments such as the ignition of methane by an electric spark in a closed vessel.

By virtue of a bill promoting outstanding professors, Volta was invited to take on the Chair of Experimental Physics at the University of Pavia.

“He banned the old methods of teaching physics and chose a textbook that was one of the most authoritative advocates of experimental science.

His lectures were attended by an extremely large number of students.

He was admired because of his great fame, because his discourse was clear, lucid and often lively, his accent agreeable, and because his manner was self-effacing but at the same time imposing.” (Maurizio Monti)

Volta also studied what we call “electrical capacitance”, developing separate means to study both electrical potential and electrical charge and discovered for any given object, they are proportional.

This is called Volta´s Law of Capacitance, and it was for this work that the unit of electric potential has been named the volt.

Volta would remain the Chair of Experimental Physics for almost 40 years.

Luigi Galvani, another Italian physicist, had discovered something he named “animal electricity”, when two different metals were connected in series with a frog´s leg and to one another.

Volta realised that the frog´s leg served as both a conductor of electricity (what we would now call an “electrolyte”) and as a detector of electricity.

He replaced the frog´s leg with brine-soaked paper and detected the flow of electricity by other means familar to him from his previous studies.

In this way Volta discovered the electrochemical series, and the law that the electromotive force (emf) of a galvanic cell, consisting of a pair of metal electrodes separated by electrolyte, is the difference between their two electrode potentials.

This is called Volta´s Law of the Electrochemical Series.

In 1781, Austrian Governor Count Firmian – Austria ruled Como at this time. – decided that Volta´s request of a long journey through Europe “in order to get to know renowned men and useful factories” deserved to be accepted.

Volta´s journey lasted from September 1781 until October 1782.

Starting from Torino, Volta headed to Lyons and Geneva, spent a week in Strasbourg, crossed the Rhine to the palaces of Radstadt and Karlsruhe, lingered in Mannheim, Mainz, Frankfurt and Düsseldorf.

In 1782, in Paris, Volta showed French chemist Antoine Lavoisier (1743-1794) his experiences with the eudiometer, from which the scientist drew a conclusive proof of the composition of water.

Above: An eudiometer, a laboratory device that measures the change in the volume of a gas mixture following a physical or chemical change

He then went to the Netherlands, Flanders and finally England, where he stayed for a few weeks.

In June, Volta visited Birmingham and Oxford, accompanied by Joao Magellan, a Portuguese scientist and a direct descendant of the famous explorer.

His return trip took him across France and finally back home via Genoa.

In July 1784, travelling through Tyrol, Volta reached Wien (Vienna), where, on the 27th, he was received by Emperor Joseph II.

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Above: Joseph II (1741-1790), Holy Roman Emperor (1764-1790)

Volta´s journey then continued towards Bohemia and Germany and ended in November.

In 1785, at the beginning of the new academic year, the students of Pavia University, elected Volta as Chancellor of the University.

In 1794, Volta married an aristocratic Comoese lady, Teresa Peregrini (1794-1841), with whom he will raise three sons: Zanino, Flaminio and Luigi.

In 1800, as the result of a professional disagreement over the galvanic response advocated by Luigi Galvani, Volta invented the voltaic pile, an early electric battery, which produced a steady electric current.

Volta determined that the most effective pair of dissimilar metals to produce electricity was zinc and copper.

In announcing his discovery of the voltaic pile, Volta paid tribute to the influences of English chemist William Nicholson (1753-1815), Italian physicist Tiberius Cavallo (1749-1809) and English physicist Abraham Bennet (1749-1799).

The battery made by Volta is credited as one of the first electrochemical cells.

It consists of two electrodes: one of zinc, the other of copper.

The electrolyte is either sulfuric acid mixed with water, or saltwater brine, existing in the form of hydrogen and sulfate.

The zinc, which is higher in the electrochemical series than both copper and hydrogen, reacts with the negatively charged sulfate.

The positively charged hydrogen ions (protons) capture electrons from the copper, forming bubbles of hydrogen gas.

This makes the zinc rod the negative electrode and the copper rod the positive electrode.

Thus, there are two terminals, and an electric current will flow if they are connected.

The copper does not react, but rather functions as an electrode for the electrc current.

However, this cell also has some disadvantages:

It is unsafe to handle, since sulfuric acid, even if diluted, can be hazardous.

Also, the power of the cell diminishes over time, because the hydrogen gas is not released.

Instead, it accumulates on the surface of the copper electrode and forms a barrier between the metal and the electrolyte solution.

In March 1800, Volta reported his results in a long letter to Sir Joseph Banks, president of the Royal Society in Britain.

The letter was entitled “On the electricity excited by the mere contact of conducting substances of different kinds”.

Without a buzzer or a semiconductor to detect voltage, Volta used his body as a detector and did not seem to mind getting electric shocks!

In 1801, during the autumn, Volta left for Paris, on behalf of the University of Paris.

Volta paid his respects to Napoléon – Como is now governed by the French. – and triumphally displays his battery to the Institute of France.

Above: Volta explains the principle of “the electric column” to Napoléon, 1801

Volta enjoyed a certain amount of closeness with Napoléon throughout his life and would be conferred numerous honours by him.

Portrait of Napoleon in his forties, in high-ranking white and dark blue military dress uniform. In the original image He stands amid rich 18th-century furniture laden with papers, and gazes at the viewer. His hair is Brutus style, cropped close but with a short fringe in front, and his right hand is tucked in his waistcoat.

Above: Napoléon Bonaparte (1769 – 1821)

By 1804, Volta has repeatedly asked to be relieved from his University commitments.

Despite his professional success, Volta tended to be a person inclined towards domestic life and he preferred to live secluded from public life for the sake of his family.

But, in 1806, Napoléon, during his visit to Pavia in May, pleaded with Volta to remain in his position.

Volta then accepted the nomination as Professor Emeritus.

Persistent requests led Volta to resume, at least in part, his physics lectures.

From 1806 to 1809, Volta organised 40 experimental lessons, carried out over two months.

After the defeat of Napoléon and the return of the Austrians, Volta is appointed the Dean of the School of Philosophy, a position he holds until 1819.

Towards the end of his life, Volta pioneered the remotely operated pistol, whereby an electric current travelled 50 km / 30 miles from Como to Milano and fired a pistol.

This was the forerunner of the telegraph, which uses electricity to communicate.

In 1814, the death of Volta´s son Flamino strengthen Alessandro´s resolve to give up his academic commitments.

Volta retired in 1819 to his estate in Camnago, now named Camnago Volta, in his honour.

Volta died there on 5 March 1827, just after his 82nd birthday.

Volta´s remains rest in Camnago Volta.

In 1927, Francesco Somaini, a local Como cotton industrialist and Member of Parliament, promoted the idea of establishing the idea of establishing a musuem dedicated to Volta, the Tempio Voltiano, and financed its construction on the occasion of the first centenary of the scientist´s death.

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Above: The Tempio Voltiano, Como

The opening ceremony of the Tempio Voltiano was held on 15 July 1928.

In the main hall of the Tempio, the visitor encounters relics and scientific instruments for experiments with inflammable gases and thermal phenomena, devices to sudy electrical phenomena, an exhibit on Volta´s dispute with Luigi Galvani regarding electricity and animals, a display of Volta´s famous battery and a collection of other scientific instruments either used by or invented by Volta.

The mezzanine tells the story of Alessandro Volta as a man and as a scientist and the times in which he lived in.

In addition, the scenic lighthouse, the Faro Volta, dedicated in his honour by the city´s telegraph and telephone workers, was inaugurated on 8 September on the top of Mount San Maurizio which dominates Como.

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Above: Faro Volta, Como

The contemporary steel sculpture, the Life Electric, in Como´s harbour, also dedicated to Volta, was completed in 2015 by the artist Daniel Libeskind.

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Above: The Life Electric, Como

The sculpture is 13.75 metres tall and weighs 11,000 kilograms.

The Life Electric takes inspiration from the electric tension existing between the two poles of a battery.

Above: The design of The Life Electric

The Life Electric is meant to act as a third pole, located mid-distance from the Faro Volta and the Tempio Voltiano, and is meant to show the connections among the natural elements of light, wind and water, the geometry that connects the sky, the lake and the mountains.

And this interplay between light, wind and water….

This interplay between the remote past, the touristic present and the unimaginable future….

This harmony of sky, lake and mountains makes Como feel electric.

Multiple lightning strikes on a city at night

Sources: Wikipedia / Google / Rough Guide Italy / Lonely Planet Italy / David Clarke, Technical English at Work / Georgina Palffy (editor), The Science Book / Robert Winston (editor), Science Year by Year: The Ultimate Visual Guide to the Discoveries that Changed the World / Alberto Longatti (editor), The Volta Temple in Como: A Guide

 

 

 

 

 

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Canada Slim and the Inappropriate Statues

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 11 October 2017

Watching American politics these days is like being witness to a horrific traffic accident:

Flag of the United States

You want to look away but somehow….

You just can´t.

So much every day exploding or threatening to explode in the overly Excited States of America.

And yet it is this constant turmoil of emotion and endless, neverending, eternal debating that goes on unceasingly in America that is both the country´s primary weakness and the nation´s greatest strength.

Two issues that keep resurfacing in America, and should keep resurfacing, are the removal of Confederate statues and the refusal to stand like a statue during the playing of the national anthem during a sporting competition.

Because both of these issues, at first glance appearing as much ado about nothing, are focusing on the past and the future.

America needs to look at the wrongs it has done to others, both foreign and domestic, and it needs to create a future where America truly becomes a shining example to others, both foreign and domestic.

Black Americans want Confederate statues removed because those commemorated fought for the right to enslave African Americans.

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Above: Stone Mountain, Georgia

Colin Kaepernick refuses to stand up during the national anthem, because he believes that the flag, and the values it is supposed to represent – the ideals of equality and justice for all – has let down this generation of African Americans.

(Exactly when did nationalism need to be expressed during sporting events?)

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Above: Colin Kaepernick

Little progress has been reported on the removal of Confederate statues in Southern states, but when Trump told the National Football League (NFL) owners that they should fire the SOBs who kneel when the anthem is played, a unity between white owners and black players seems to be developing.

Above: Donald Trump, Huntsville, Alabama, September 2017

Granted that the owners are reacting not out of idealism but rather the President´s words affect their profits and they don´t like to be bullied by anyone even if he is the President.

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But the show of solidarity may help bring into focus the terrible injustice of white cops gunning down unarmed black folks and literally getting away with murder.

Perhaps White America that claims to espouse Christian values will once again be forced to acknowledge that America´s history of slavery and racism was not Christian nor Christ-like.

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Perhaps White America that claims to be following the practices of Christ will realise that God, should He exist, loves all the world and that those who profess to follow the Christian faith should love the world as well.

Yet there are 1,503 memorials dedicated to Confederate soldiers men who committed treason against their country – 718 of which are statues or monuments, and there are even 10 US military bases named after Confederate soldiers who fought against the US military.

(So far, at this time of writing, Austin, Baltimore, Birmingham, Bradenton, Columbus, Dallas, DC, Daytona Beach, Fort Warren, Gainesville, Helena, Kansas City, Lexington, Louisville, Lynchburg, New Orleans, Orlando, Reidsville, San Antonio, St. Louis and West Palm Beach are some communities who have removed their Confederate statues from public display.)

(Even in Montréal, Canada, a plaque in a Hudson´s Bay Company store recalling Confederate President Jefferson Davis´ brief stay – installed by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1957 – was removed after the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville in August 2017 turned violent.)

Many in the South still believe that the Civil War was about states´ rights not about the preservation of the institution of slavery, despite written proclamations by these seceding states of their desire to struggle to perserve the right to own other people.

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Above: Scenes from the American Civil War (1862-1865)

“If white nationalists and neo-Nazis are now claiming this as part of their heritage, they have essentially co-opted these images and these statues beyond any capacity to neutralise them again.” (Eleanor Harvey, Smithsonian American Art Museum)

The history these monuments celebrate tell only one side of the story, one that is openly Confederate.

These statues were erected without the consent or input of African Americans, who remember the Civil War far differently and who have no interest in honouring those who fought to keep them enslaved.

Perhaps it is human for people to want to distance themselves from the unpleasant reminders of their history, but there is a danger of distorting the reality of that past the further we try to separate ourselves from the shadows of our dark heritage.

Though we are not personally responsible for what our ancestors did, we can´t ignore the heritage and the legacy that remains because of their actions.

And the timing of the raising of these monuments is also curious….

Most Confederate monuments were raised during the first two decades of the 20th century (a time of repressive laws against African Americans) and the 1950s and 60s when civil rights movements were struggling to be heard, as a means of intimidating African Americans and reaffirming white supremacy.

Above: Lowering of Robert E. Lee Monument, New Orleans, 19 May 2017

Statues send messages.

Statues glorify people.

President Trump argues that the removal of Confederate flags and monuments is liberals trying to take away America´s culture, America´s history.

Above: Planned removal of this Robert E. Lee scuplture in Charlottesville, Virginia, has sparked protests and counter-protests, resulting in three deaths.

(Six states, formerly Confederate states, have passed laws prohibiting the removal of monuments: Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.)

“These laws are the Old South imposing its moral and political views on us forevermore.

This is what led to the Civil War, and it still divides us as a country.

We have competing visions not only about the future but about the past.”

(Stan Deaton, Georgia Historical Society)

And though there is a danger of judging historical figures by modern standards, keeping Confederate statues on public exhibit keeps open the sores of American history, gives approval to the Confederacy for its actions of treason against the nation in defence of an action that is immorally indefensible and is a constant reminder of the African American´s inequality in the past and continued acceptance of the African American´s inequality at present.

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Above: The Confederate Soldiers Memorial, Durham, North Carolina, pulled down by protesters, 15 August 2017

I was reminded of the problems that America has during my summer vacation this year, and not by reading Facebook or picking up a copy of the International New York Times, but by visiting the Cathedral of Como and remembering history.

 

Como, Italy, 2 August 2017

Como is an elegant town with a stunning lakeside location, a splendid and fascinating city full of history, situated at the foot of the west branch of the Lario River.

View from Lake Como. The tower which tops the hill on the right is the Castello Baradello.

Como was founded by the Romans in 59 BC with the name Novum Comum, and to this day is the site of a magnificent town centre and a pedestrian zone surrounded and protected by powerful walls.

Piazza Cavour is a modern square facing the water from where boats and ferries cut through the waters of Lago di Como to reach the lakeside towns.

A few steps away is the Piazza del Duomo, home to several interesting buildings, with the magnificent Duomo, the town cathedral, standing out.

Formerly the site of the early Christian Church of Santa Maria Maggiore, work on the Duono began in 1396.

It took nearly 400 years to complete this cathedral which encompasses elements of the diverse architectural styles that characterised four centuries: austere Gothic, elegant Renaissance, precious Baroque.

The white facade in marble is magnificent.

Many artists worked on the Duomo, but the Comoese consider the greatest contribution was made by the Rodari brothers.

These skilled scupltors are credited with the beautiful pair of podiums that frame the  statues of Pliny the Younger (on the left) and Pliny the Elder (on the right) both illustrious citizens of Como in Roman times.

But…. here´s the rub….

Though there was, and is, nothing unusual about having classical figures feature in Christian churches, the presence of these two pagans, seems somewhat….

Inappropriate.

Caius Plinius Secundus, better known as Pliny the Elder (23 – 79 AD), was the creator of the most extensive, industrious and unscientific product of Roman science.

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Above: Imagined portrait of Pliny the Elder

Though busy all his life as a soldier, lawyer, traveller, administrator and head of the western Roman fleet, Pliny the Elder wrote treatises on oratory, grammar, the javelin, a history of Rome, a history of Rome´s wars in Germany, and 37 books of natural history.

How he managed all this in 55 years is explained in a letter of his nephew, Pliny the Younger:

“He (Pliny the Elder) had a quick apprehension, incredible zeal and an unequalled capacity to go without sleep.

He would rise at midnight or at one, and never later than two in the morning, and begin his literary work….

Before daybreak he used to wait upon Vespasian, who likewise chose that time to transact business.

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Above: Bust of Vespasian (9-79 AD), 9th Roman Emperor (69 -79 AD)

When he had finished the affairs which the Emperor committed to his charge, he returned home to his studies.

After a short light repast at noon….he would frequently, in the summer, repose in the sun, but during that time some author was read to him, from whom he made extracts and notes….as was his method with whatever he read.

Thereafter he generally went into a cold bath, took a light refreshment, and rested for a while.

Then, as if it were a new day, he resumed his studies till dinner, when again a book was read to him, and he made notes….

Such was the manner of his life amid the noise and hurry of the town.

But in the country his whole time was devoted to study, except when he was actually bathing.

All the while he was being rubbed and wiped he was employed in Hearing some book read to him, or in dictating.

In his journeys a stenographer constantly attended him in his chariot or sedan chair.

He once reproved me for walking.

“You need not have lost those hours, ” he said, for he counted all time lost that was not given to study.”

Pliny the Elder´s one-man encyclopedia summarised the science and errors of his age.

“My purpose is to give a general description of everything that is known to exist throughout the Earth.”

He dealt with 20,000 topics and apologised for omitting others.

He referred to 2,000 volumes by 473 authors and admitted his indebtedness by name with a candor exceptional in ancient literature.

Pliny the Elder began by rejecting the gods.

They are, he thought, merely natural phenomena, that is, the sum of natural Forces, and that gods pay no special attention to mundane affairs.

He was not content with natural history.

He also wished to be a philosopher.

Throughout his pages, he scattered comments on mankind.

He thought the life of animals is preferable to man´s, for animals never think about glory, money, ambition or death.

They can learn without being taught and never have to dress.

They do not make war on their own species.

Life, in Pliny the Elder´s estimate, gives us much more grief and pain than happiness, and death is our supreme boon.

After death, there is nothing.

No God or gods, no afterlife….

Not very Christian.

Though in Pliny the Elder´s defence, his final actions alive were very Christlike, in that he sacrificed himself to save others.

On 24 August 79 AD, Pliny the Elder was stationed at Misenum, at the time of the great eruption of Mount Vesuvius, which overwhelmed Pompeii and Herculaneum.

He was preparing to cross the Bay of Naples to observe the phenomenon directly when a message arrived from his friend Rectina asking him to rescue her and Pomponianus.

Launching the galleys under his command to the evacuation of the opposite shore, Pliny himself took a fast sailing cutter.

As the light vessel approached the shore near Herculaneum, cinders and pumice began to fall upon it.

Pliny´s helmsman advised turning back, to which Pliny replied:

“Fortune favours the brave.

Steer to where Pomponianus is.”

They landed and found Pomponianus “in the greatest consternation”.

Pliny hugged and comforted him.

They could not find Rectina.

They loaded the cutter, but the same winds that brought it to Stabiae prevented it from leaving.

Pliny reassured his party by feasting, bathing and sleeping while waiting for the wind to abate, but finally they had to leave the buildings for fear of collapse and try their luck in the pumice fall.

Pliny sat down and could not get up even with assistance and was left behind.

His friends theorised that he collapsed and died through inhaling poisonous gases emitted from the volcano.

Above: Plaster casts of the casualities of the pumice fall, Pompeii

As he is described as a corpulent man, his friends left him because Pliny was already dead.

When Pliny the Elder´s nephew was born at Como in 61, he was named Publius Carcilius Secundus.

His father owned a farm and villa near the lake and held high office in the town.

Orphaned early, Publius was adopted and educated first by Virginius Rufus, governor of Upper Germany, and then by his uncle Caius.

This busy scholar made the boy his son and heir and died soon afterward.

According to custom, Publius took his adoptive father´s name, becoming known as Pliny the Younger (61 – 114 AD).

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Above: Statue of Pliny the Younger, Como Cathedral

At 18, Pliny the Younger was admitted to the bar.

Pliny enforced the law with the officiousness of an amateur.

In a letter to Trajan:

“The method I have observed toward those who have been denounced to me as Christians is this:

I interrogated them whether they were Christians.

If they confessed it I repeated the question twice again, adding the threat of capital punishment.

If they still persevered, I ordered them to be executed….”

To which Trajan replied:

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Above: Bust of Trajan (53-117 AD), 13th Roman Emperor (98-117 AD)

“The method you have pursued, my dear Pliny, in sifting the cases of those denounced to you as Christians is eminently proper….

No search should be made for these people.

When they are denounced and found guilty, they must be punished, but where the accused party denies that he is a Christian, and gives proof….by adoring our gods, he shall be pardoned.

Information without the accuser´s name subscribed must not be admitted in evidence against anyone.”

Should a killer of Christians be honoured outside the Cathedral?

 

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 12 October 2017

Why would the Cathedral honour the Plinys?

Because there weren´t enough Comoese of fame worth honouring?

Because the Cathedral wanted to remind people of the Church´s heritage stretched back to ancient Rome?

So should the Comoese petition the Cathedral to remove the statues?

Here is where America and Como share similar problems.

Argument 1: The statues are artistic masterpieces that should not be destroyed.

Fine.

Put them in a museum.

Argument 2: Where they are makes the landscape what it is.

Change happens.

Deal with it.

This is a generation that paves Paradise to put up a parking lot.

Argument 3: The events of the past have long passed and removal of the statues signifies to most people a destruction of their heritage and not an approval of all that was done in those days.

Yet those that know their history are reminded of the evil that was done by these supposedly good men being honoured by monuments.

Those who don´t know their history see these monuments and falsely believe that those being honoured must deserve to be.

Should we forget the pain, suffering and sorrow the South endured in its struggle to be free?

No.

But we must not forget that within the nation that presently exists these Southern good ol´ boys committed treason in the cause of the preservation of slavery.

Let us remember them in books and museums, but not as everlasting symbols approved as civic models in town squares or on the side of mountains.

Should we forget the achievements of Pliny the Elder as a writer and attempted saviour of the victims of Vesuvius?

Should we forget the achievements of Pliny the Younger as a lawyer and author?

No.

But let us not honour them as symbols of Christianity.

Black Americans do not deserve to be reminded of how they were once slaves and how inferior they were (and sadly often still are) made to feel by white Americans.

It is one thing to sadly recall the days of Christian martydom at the hands of the Roman Empire.

But let´s not put a non-believer in God and a persecutor of Christians in places of honour on a cathedral.

Let us remember history as it was, not how we wish it were.

Let us honour those deserving of honour and not honour those unworthy.

Sources: Wikipedia / Will Durant, The Story of Civilization: Caesar and Christ / Lonely Planet Italy / Rough Guide Italy

 

 

 

Canada Slim and the Birth of a Nation

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 9 October 2017

I was 24 and living in Ottawa, Canada, in 1989, when I read the news about the fall of the Berlin Wall that had separated West Germany from East Germany for a generation.

Parliament sits in the Centre Block in Ottawa

Above: Centre Block, Parliament Buildings, Ottawa, Canada

I would see remnants of this wall in subsequent visits to Berlin with my wife and my cousin in 2007 and 2008.

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In 1999, I visited the De-militarised Zone (the DMZ) that still separates North Korea from South Korea.

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In 2000, I saw the Green Line that separates North Cyprus from Cyprus.

I am a little over a half century old and in the past 50 or so years I have witnessed the independence of 18 African nations, 10 Caribbean nations, 14 Middle East or Asian nations, 11 European nations and 11 South Pacific nations.

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I have watched dictatorships change into democracies and I have sadly seen some democracies devolve into dictatorships.

So I guess it feels quite normal to watch with growing fascination the growing movements of the Kurdish people of Turkey, Iran and Iraq and the Catalonian people of Spain.

As a man who has seen his fair share of historical events, though like most men of my socio-economic class living in the West mostly indirectly, I find it compelling to watch how nations develop from ideas to actual sovereign states.

And having grown up as an Anglophone in Francophone Québec, a province that has itself toyed with the idea of independence from Canada, I can´t say that I am unemotional in regards to this topic of sovereign states and what it is exactly that constitutes a nation.

Flag of Quebec

I have always felt that it is more to the advantage of both Canada and Québec to remain together, as Canada, for all its faults has acknowledged that Québec is a distinct society whose language and culture must be respected within the framework that is Canada.

Vertical triband (red, white, red) with a red maple leaf in the centre

Québec, both economically and culturally, would be weakened should it attempt total self-reliance surrounded as they are by an Anglo North America, especially when considering the economic and military clout of the United States.

In regards to the desire of the Kurdish people to determine their own destiny, I cannot deny that I am partially sympathetic to their cause, for as reprehensible as the violence that has been used by some Kurdish factions has been (and it has been reprehensible indeed), the determination by the dominant powers that rule them to eliminate their culture and deny them their language and, in some dark chapters of the past, attempt their extermination, leaves me hopeful that through wiser leadership and true diplomacy the Kurds may one day create their free Kurdistan.

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Above: One of the symbols used to represent Kurdish nationalism

(See The Sick Man of Europe 1: The Sons of Karbala and The Sick Man of Europe 2: The Sorrow of Batman of this blog for greater explanation and background of the Kurdish situation.)

But in regards to Catalonian independence I am on more insecure footing…

The Principality of Catalonia was a territory of the Crown of Aragon at the time of the Union of Aragon and the Kingdom of Castile in the late 15th century, which led to what would become the Kingdom of Spain.

Above: L´Estelada Brava, the pro-independence flag of Catalonia

Initially, Catalonia kept their own fueros (laws and customs) and political institutions.

Catalans revolted against the Spanish monarchy in the Reaper´s War of 1640 – 1652, which ended in Catalan defeat.

The end of the War of Spanish Succession was followed by the loss of the fueros and the imposition of the Nueva Planta decrees which centralised Spanish rule.

The beginnings of separatism in Catalonia can be traced back to the mid-19th century.

The Renaixenca (cultural renaissance), which aimed at the revival of the Catalan language and traditions, led to the development of Catalan nationalism and a desire for independence.

Between the 1850s and the 1910s, some individuals, organisations and political parties started demanding full independence of Catalonia from Spain.

The first pro-independence political party in Catalonia was Estat Catala, founded in 1922 by Colonel Francesc Macia.

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Above: Francesc Macía (1859 – 1933), 122nd President of Catalonia

Estat Catala went into exile in France during the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera (1923 – 1930).

Following the overthrow of Rivera, Estat Catala joined the Parti Republica Catala and the political group L´Opinió to form Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya, with Macia as its first leader.

Macia proclaimed a Catalan Republic in 1931, but after negotiations with the provisional government he was obliged to settle for autonomy, which lasted until the Spanish Civil War.

Following Franco´s death in 1975, Spain moved to restore democracy.

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Above: The flag of Spain

A new constitution was adopted in 1978, which asserted the “indivisible unity of the Spanish nation”, but acknowledged “the right to autonomy of the nationalities and  regions which form it”.

Independence parties objected to the constitution on the basis that it was incompatible with Catalan self-determination and formed the Comité Catala Contra la Constitució Espanyola to oppose it.

The constitution was nevertheless approved both in Spain and in Catalonia.

In 1981, a manifesto issued by intellectuals in Catalonia claiming discrimination against the Castilian language drew a response in the form of a published letter, Crida a la Solidarität en Defensa de la Llengua, la Cultura i la Nació Catalones, which called for a mass meeting at the University of Barcelona, out of which a popular movement arose.

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Beginning as a cultural organisation, the Crida soon began to demand independence.

In 1982, at a time of political uncertainty in Spain, the Ley Orgánica de Armonización del Proceso Autonómico was introduced in the Spanish parliament, supposedly to “harmonise” the autonomy process, but in reality to curb the powers of Catalonia and the Basque region of northwest Spain and southwest France.

There was a surge of popular support against LOAPA.

During the 1980s, the Crida was involved in nonviolent direct action, among other things campaigning for labelling in Catalan only and targeting big companies.

Following elections in 2003, the Spanish government produced a draft for a new Statute of Autonomy.

The Spanish parliament made changes to the Statute, by removing clauses on finance and language and the article stating that Catalonia was a nation.

The Partido Popular, which had opposed the Statute in the Spanish parliament, challenged its constitutionality in the Spanish High Court of Justice.

The case lasted four years.

In 2014 the Spanish Constitutional Court ruled that the declaration of sovereignty was unconstitutional.

In 2015 the Catalan parliament passed a resolution declaring the start of the independence process.

In response Spanish Premier Mariano Rajoy said the state might “use any available judicial and political mechanism contained in the constitution and in the laws to defend the sovereignty of the Spanish people and of the general interest of Spain.”, hinting that he would not stop at military intervention.

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Above: Mariano Rajoy, Prime Minister of Spain since 2011

In 2016, Carles Puigdemont, on taking the oath of office of President of Catalonia, omitted the oath of loyalty to the King and the Spanish constitution, the first Catalan President to do so.

Carles Puigdemont Casamajó

Above: Carles Puigdemont i Casamojó, President of Catalonia since 2016

In late September 2016, Puigdemont told the Spanish parliament that a binding referendum on Catalan Independence would be held in 2017.

The question on 1 October 2017 was:

“Do you want Catalonia to become an independent state in the form of a republic?”

The Spanish government said that the referendum could not take place because it was illegal.

The Spanish government seized ballot papers and cell phones, threatened to fine voters up to €300,000, shut down websites and demanded that Google remove a voting location finder from the Android app store.

Police were sent from the rest of Spain to suppress the vote and close polling locations, but parents scheduled events at schools (where polling places are located) over the weekend and vowed to keep them open during the vote.

Some election organisers were arrested, including Catalan cabinet officials, while demonstrations by local institutions and street protests grew larger.

The referendum was approved by the Catalan parliament along with a law which states that independence would be binding with a simple majority, without requiring a minimum turnout.

The Yes side won, with over 2 million people / 91% voting for independence.

The government of Spain opposes any Catalan self-determination referendum, because the Spanish constitution does not allow for a vote on the independence of any Spanish region.

The Catalan parliament passed a law declaring it would only follow Catalan law.

The Spanish constitutional court moved quickly to prevent a declaration of independence.

On 3 October 2017 Carles Puigdemont said that his government intends to act on the result of the referendum “at the end of this week or the beginning of next” and declare independence from Spain.

Puigdemont went before the Catalan Parliament to address them on Monday 9 October 2017, pending agreement of other political parties.

On 4 October 2017, Mireia Boya, a lawmaker of the Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP), announced that a declaration of independence would likely come after the parliamentary session on 9 October.

Felipe VI, the King of Spain, called the Catalan referendum “illegal” and appealed to the union of Spain and called the situation in Catalonia “extremely serious.”

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Above: Felipe de Borbón, aka Felipe VI, King of Spain since 2014

According to Swiss national radio, the Foreign Ministry of Switzerland has offered to mediate between the two sides in the crisis.

Flag of Switzerland

So, here are the questions that remain….

Could Catalonia survive without Spain?

Map of Catalonia in Spain

Above: Map of Spain, with Catalonia in red

What damage would the loss of Catalonia do to Spain?

Will a declaration of independence, which seems likely, lead to bloodshed?

It can be argued that a justifiable reason for a region to declare itself independent of a dominant government over it, is if the dominant force threatens the region´s domestic affairs in regards to how it determines its identity through race, religion, language or cultural traditions, and especially if the region´s economic or humanitarian needs are not being met.

I have insufficient information to decide whether or not the Spanish government has tried to suppress Catalan language, culture or traditions.

I do believe that Catalonia is strong economically as it stands now, but whether it is in Catalonia´s best interests economically to break free of Spanish rule…..

I am not so certain.

The irony of a people wishing to be free of a monarchy (although Spain is a constitutional monarchy much like Canada) on the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, and on the 150th anniversary of Canada´s own sovereignity as a confederation, is not lost on me.

 

Petrograd, (present day St. Petersburg) Russia, Monday, 27 February 1917

(Please read Canada Slim and….the Bloodthristy Redhead, the Zimmerwald Movement, the Forces of Darkness, the Dawn of a Revolution, the Bloodstained Ground, and the High Road to Anarchy of this blog for the background to the events below….)

With so much rampant anarchy unleashed on the streets of Petrograd, Duma (Russia´s parliament) President Mikhail Rodzinko and the other Duma members were at a loss as to how to deal with events that had taken them totally by surprise.

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Above: Mikhail Rodzinko (1859 – 1924)

With Russia plunged into political uncertainty, the Duma at the Tauride Palace was a magnet for Petrograders all day.

Above: The Tauride Palace, St. Petersburg

By 1300 hours a crowd of thousands massing around the doors to the Duma was thick with “green uniformed and green capped students, many waving red flags and red bunting and listening to revolutionary speeches”, all anxious to offer their support to the formation of a new government and seeking instructions on what they should do.

What once was a graceful Palladian building of white colonnades, grand reception rooms and columned galleries, the Tauride Palace was now a rackety military camp of political hustling, where urgent meetings were held to establish a provisional government to take charge of the extremely volatile situation.

The Palace was full of troops.

“Everybody seemed to be hungry.

Bread, dried herrings and tea were being endlessly handed around.”

The mental confusion within the Palace was more bewildering than the Revolution outside.

The Palace seethed with tension and excitement, as regiment after regiment arrived and was “drawn up in ranks, four deep, down the length of Catherine Hall” (the main lobby and promenade of the Duma) to swear its allegiance to the new government.

Rodzianko addressed each of them in turn, urging them to “remain a disciplined force”, to stay faithful to their officers and return quietly to barracks and be ready when called.

 

1430 hours

In the semicircular main hall an enormous, mixed assembly of moderate and liberal members of the Duma met to organise themselves, under Rodzianko´s leadership, in the hopes that a reformed, constitutional government could yet be salvaged from the wreckage.

A twelve-man Provisional Executive Committee was eventually elected that evening to take control.

One of its first acts was to order the arrest of the members of the Council of Ministers – the Upper House of the Duma, the Tsar´s men – who met at Mariinsky Palace.

Above: The Mariinsky Palace

Some had already tendered their resignations, including Prime Minister Nikolay Golitsyn.

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Above: Nikolai Golitsyn (1850 – 1925), 8th Prime Minister of Russia (1917)

Others had gone into hiding, and revolutionary patrols were now searching for them.

Even as the Duma members were establishing their own committee, elsewhere in Tauride Palace, a large group of soldiers and workers intent on nothing else than the declaration of a socialist republic and Russia´s withdrawl from the War (WW1) were meeting with the moderate Mensheviks and socialist revolutionaries, with the objective of electing their own Petrograd Soviet of Workers´ and Soldiers´ Deputies.

Their most immediate call was an appeal to citizens to help feed the hungry soldiers who had taken their side, until their supplies could be properly organised.

Petrograders responded quickly, welcoming men into their homes to warm themselves and be fed.

Restaurants offered free meals.

Old men were seen in the street “with large boxes of cigarettes, which they handed out to the soldiers.”

 

2100 hours

An unknown American encountered a very well dressed intelligent man, running breathlessly up Kamennoostrovsky Prospekt, “stopping a few moments every block to tell the great news….

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Above: Present day Kamennoostrovky Prospekt, St. Petersburg

“The Duma had formed a temporary government.”

It was astonishing, colossal, not to be grasped at once or even half understood.

 

Tuesday 28 February 1917

Midnight

A “tremendous mass of people in the square surrounding a truck packed with soldiers from which a Second Lieutenant was telling the crowd the news:

“Now it´s all right.

There´ll be a new government.

Do you understand?

A new government, and there´ll be bread for everybody.”

“I don´t think any man´s mind that night, except the very leaders in the Duma, could stretch fast enough and far enough to do more than struggle with the realisation of the simplest and most elementary fact of the Revolution – with the plain fact that there actually was a Revolution.”

“On the whole, it may be truthfully said that, so far as Petrograd was concerned, by Tuesday evening the Revolution was over.”

 

0200 hours

The train carrying the Tsar back to Tsarskoe Selo left Mogilev, its windows darkened, its passengers asleep.

On the train, Nicholas was virtually incommunicado.

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Above: Russian Tsar Nicholas II (1868 – 1918)

Russia no longer had a government, and over the next crucial 27 hours or more, for all practical purposes, be without an emperor.

Nevertheless, when Nicholas reached Tsarskoe Selo the next morning he expected that General Nikolai Ivanov and his 6,000 front line troops were in place to crush the rebellion.

He could sleep easily.

His train was on schedule.

In consequence, with no government and a nomadic Tsar lost in a train, power in Petrograd passed to the Revolution, with the Tauride Palace home of a Duma that was no more.

The tsarist government was finished.

The Arsenal – the last rallying point of the old regime – had finally surrendered by 1600 hours when the rebels threatened to turn the guns of the Peter and Paul Fortress onto it.

The whole of the army in Petrograd had now thrown in its lot with the revolutionaries.

The Tauride Palace now housed a noisy mass of workers, soldiers and students, joined together in a Soviet.

The few hundred respectable deputies who backed the Duma Committee now jostled for places in rooms and hallways packed with excited street orators, mutineers and strike leaders.

It was chaos and would remain so for days to come.

Grave anxiety remained as to the future, with the struggle between the new Soviet and the Executive Committee of the Duma intensifying.

It was already abundantly clear that any power-sharing between the Duma and the Soviet would be extremely fraught.

In the midst of all this chaos, the young man beginning to stand out as the dominant figure was Alexander Kerensky, a member of the Duma Committee but also vice-chairman of the Soviet.

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Above: Alexander Kerensky (1881 – 1970)

Bestriding both camps, Kerensky´s power was enormous.

The Committee had the better claim to government, but the members knew that in this Revolution they could only lead where Kerensky was willing to follow.

For the members of the Soviet, the Executive Committee represented the enemy: the old order of capitalists, the bourgeoise and the aristocracy.

At the same time, the Soviet had the sense to know that they were in no position to form a “people´s government” as their authority did not extend beyond the capital.

They had few if any among them the experience to act as Ministers.

There had to be a deal.

For the Duma men that meant securing the Tsar´s abdication while preserving the monarchy itself.

Nicholas would be replaced by his lawful successor, his son Alexis, with Nicholas´ younger brother Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich as regent.

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Above: Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich (1878 – 1918)

Michael was a war hero, a cavalry commander holding Russia´s two highest battlefield awards, and he was known to be sympathetic to constitutional monarchy on the British lines.

The army held him in high regard and he would also be a popular choice in the Duma where he was widely trusted and respected.

But Nicholas had first to be compelled to give up the throne.

Trundling across Russia in his train, Nicholas had, as yet, no idea what would be demanded of him.

 

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 10 October 2017

When I view recent events regarding the Kurds and the Catalonians, I realise that here too, a century after the Russian Revolution…..

There has to be a deal.

But much like Nicholas on the train….

I have, as yet, no idea what will be demanded.

Above: Gathering in Zarautz, Basque Country, in support of Catalonian independence

Sources: Wikipedia / Steve Bloomfield (editor), How to Make a Nation / Tony Brenton, Historically Inevitable?: Turning Points of the Russian Revolution / Helen Rappaport, Caught in the Revolution: Petrograd 1917

 

 

 

Canada Slim and the Isle of Silence

Landschlacht, Switzerland,  8 October 2017

It may be the greatest of romances, the strongest of friendships, the warmest of families….

Yet travelling together will put these bonds to the test, for there will come a time when the trip is not ideal for all the travellers simultaneously.

For some travelling duos, these moments may be rare and short in duration.

For other travelling pairs, these moments can fracture the relationship permanently.

Simply put, one of you doesn´t want to do what the other one wants to do, so idyllic separate solitude is sacrificed for the travelling partnership, as one person compromises to the other for the sake of the relationship.

Sometimes the compromise turns out not to be so bad after all and the compromised finds him/herself actually feeling enjoyment despite all his/her expectations to the contrary.

Sometimes the compromise is bitterly regretted and the compromised hates both him/herself for making the compromise and the person who demanded the compromise.

I am reminded of the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

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My travelling companion and I stood directly beneath the arch of the Tour d`Eiffel, but she looked at the line-up and looked at the price, and adamantly refused to allow herself or me to join the queue and ascend the Tower.

I argued that this was an golden opportunity.

We did not know when, if ever, we would have the chance to do this again, and that, wait and expense be damned, it was well worth it to do so.

She would not budge.

I compromised.

I still have yet to ascend the Tour d´Eiffel and the uncertainty of life does not reassure me that I might ever have that chance again.

Thus there remains a sour feeling inside me and a source of great consternation everytime I think about it.

 

Lago di Como, Italia, 1 August 2017

We had a day ticket to cruise the Lago di Como and, to be fair, we could not possibly see everything that there was to see and be able to return back to the city of Como on the last returning boat.

But, despite the additional expense, would it have been so tragic had we visited the Isola Comacina, and then arranged passage from there back to the mainland then taken a bus back to Como?

She would not budge.

I compromised.

Prior to the great discussion regarding a visit to Isola Comacina, we visited the Villa Carlotta in Tremezzo and the Villa del Balbianello at Dossa d´Avedo.

The Villa Carlotta is a villa and botanical garden in Tremezzo, located on the lakeshore, facing the Bellagio Peninsula and the mountains surrounding the Lago di Como, which can be seen from the Villa windows or from the terraced gardens.

The Villa Carlotta is a place of precious beauty, combining both natural and manmade masterpieces in perfect harmony.

The Clerici family had risen from rural origins to become successful silk merchants.

Milanese Marquis Giorgio Clerici became a Senator in 1684 and six years later he decided to establish a country estate on ancestral lakeside land at Tremezzo.

The estate was complete in its initial form by 1695 and finally completed in its present form in 1745 by Giorgio`s great grandson Anton.

When Anton died in 1768, he had spent most of the family fortune building the Palazzo Clerici in Milano.

Anton´s daughter Claudia sold Villa Carlotta in 1801 to the banker/politician Giovanni Battista Sommariva.

Above: Bust of Giovanni Battista Sommariva (died 1826) by Bertel Thorvaldsen

Sommariva had risen from being a barber´s apprentice to a position of power in Napoleon Bonaparte´s government in northern Italy.

Portrait of Napoleon in his forties, in high-ranking white and dark blue military dress uniform. In the original image He stands amid rich 18th-century furniture laden with papers, and gazes at the viewer. His hair is Brutus style, cropped close but with a short fringe in front, and his right hand is tucked in his waistcoat.

Above: Napoleone di Buonaparte, aka Napoléon Bonaparte (1769-1821)

In 1802 Sommariva was a candidate to be the Vice President of the Republic of Italy, but Napoleon selected instead Francesco Melzi d´Eril for the post.

With his political ambitions thwarted, Sommariva retired from public life and devoted his time to collecting art.

Sommariva added balconies to take in the lake view, a large clock on the Villa facade, patronised a number of sculptors, constructed a domed family chapel and mausoleum, and transformed part of the property´s park into a romantic garden.

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When Sommariva´s eldest son, Emilio, died, fighting in Spain in 1811, and his second son Luigi´s sudden death in 1838, Sommariva´s declining fortune was divided between his wife, Emilia, and numerous relatives.

The property was sold in 1843 to Princess Marianne, the wife of Prince Albert of Prussia.

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Above: Princess Marianne of the Netherlands (1810 – 1883)

Marianne gave the property to her daughter Charlotte (in Italian, Carlotta), as a wedding present upon her marriage to Georg II, the Duke of Sachsen-Meiningen.

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Above: Princess Charlotte of Prussia (1831 – 1855)

Her parents´ marriage was unhappy due to Prince Albert´s several affairs, and was finally dissolved in 1849.

Marianne began to live with her former coachman Johannes von Rossum, with whom she had a son.

Albert married a former actress Rosalie von Rauch, who bore him two sons.

The custody of Charlotte and her siblings Albert and Albertine was given to their father.

However their childless aunt Queen Elisabeth of Prussia took care of them.

As a young woman, Charlotte was highly eligible for marriage, due to her mother´s Dutch fortune and her father´s Hohenzollern noble connections.

In Charlottenburg on 18 May 1850, the nineteen-year-old princess married Georg, Prince of Saxe-Meningen, who was 24.

Already Georg had led a battalion from Meningen in support of the Prussians in the First Schleswig War against Denmark in 1849.

The two shared many interests, particularly with the theatre, as they were both ardent attendees.

During their engagement, they had even acted in amateur court theatricals together.

Charlotte had a talent for music and was professionally instructed by great artists of the period, even writing a number of military marches, songs and piano pieces.

The couple spent much of their time in Berlin and Potsdam but resided in Meiningen for the birth of their children.

Charlotte, whose marriage was a love match, had only a short time to enjoy the Villa Carlotta, for she died of childbirth complications at the age of 23 in 1855.

Georg and Charlotte had, prior to her death and the death of their one-day-old son, three other children Bernhard (1851 – 1928), Georg (1852 – 1855) who died a few months before his mother did, and Marie Elisabeth (1853 – 1923).

Duke Georg would later marry two more times, outliving his second wife Feodora (1839 – 1872) who provided him with three sons before she died of scarlet fever and would be outlived by his third wife, former actress Ellen Franz (1839 – 1923).

The Sachsen-Meiningens used the property as a private holiday home.

In 1857, author Ludwig Bechstein wrote a description of the Villa, which was published as Villa Carlotta: Poetische Reisebilder vom Comersee und aus den lombardisch-venetianische Landen.

Above: German writer Ludwig Bechstein (1801 – 1860)

Duke Georg, who had a passion for botany, dedicated himself to the development and enrichment of the Villa gardens introducing a great variety of rare and exotic species.

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Above: Duke Georg II of Sachsen-Meiningen (1826 – 1914)

He died in 1914 at the outbreak of World War One.

Once Italy entered WW1 in May 1915 on the side of the Allies, the Villa, despite being owned by a German, was not confiscated by the Italian state, as were most other properties of other enemy aliens in Italy, but was placed under the management of the Swiss Consulate.

In 1921, the financial administrator of the Province of Como informed the owners of Villa Carlotta that the entire property was now the property of the Italian state, arguing that the Villa was of eminent national significance.

It was proposed in 1922 that the Villa would be sold at auction.

Local enthusiasts, led by Senator Guiseppe Bianchini and the Rotary Club of Milano opposed this, which lead to the Villa being entrusted to the Ente Villa Carlotta Foundation, constituted by royal decree on 12 May 1927.

This foundation is still responsible for the Villa.

The Villa consists of three floors, two of which are open to the public and serve as a museum, with art works by Antonio Canova (1757 – 1822), Bertel Thorvaldsen (1770 – 1844), Adamo Tadolini (1788 – 1863), Luigi Acquisti (1745 – 1823), Francois Hayez (1791 – 1882), Jean-Baptiste Wicar (1762 – 1834) and others.

Above: The Repentant Magdalene, by Antonio Canova

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Above: Mars and Venus by Luigi Acquisti

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Above: Palamedes by Antonio Canova

(Palamedes, the mythological inventor of chess, dice games and some of the letters of the Greek alphabet, was the only one, in Homer´s Illiad, who unmasked Ulysses´ deceit in pretending to be mad, thus forcing him to abandon his island of Ithaca and go fighting in the Trojan War.

Ulysses never forgave him and plotted against Palamedes who, for this reason, was killed.)

The botanical garden covers an area of about 8 hectares/20 Acres and is filled with cut hedges, orange and camellia trees, rhodendron and 150 varieites of azalea, cedars, palms, redwoods, plane trees and other exotic plants, and over 25 different bamboo species.

Fancy decadence.

Nice gardens.

Waitress at the Villa Café tells me “I love you.” after I give her a large tip.

Fickle woman tells the next tipper the same thing.

 

My wife and I then travelled onwards down the western shore of Lago di Coma to the tip of the small wooded peninsula of Dosso d`Avedo, not far from the Isola Comacina.

Yet another Italian Villa.

The Villa del Balbianello is reached by taking a stroll along the harbour of Lenno and through a park of skillfully pruned plane trees.

At the entrance to the FAI (Fondo Ambiente Italiano/Italian National Trust) property, we are greeted by a trio of young men who ask us to sign a petition and give a donation to assist those with drug addiction.

The views of the Lago di Como from here are breathtaking.

Unlike most of the grand villas on the Lago di Como, Balbianello was not initially built as the residence of an aristocrat.

A Franciscan monastery had existed on the grounds since the 13th century, and the two towers which still remain are the campanili of the monastery´s church.

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After failing in his attempts to buy nearby Isola Comacina, Cardinal Angelo Durini (1725 – 1796) purchased the property in 1785.

In 1787 Durini converted the monastery building into a villa for use during the summer and added a loggia, which would allow visitors to obtain two different panoramas of the Lago.

The elegant loggia, built at the highest point of the property, opens on two sides to take in the extraordinary beauty of the Lago.

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It has a central portico with two rooms on either side which Durini used as a library and a music room.

Cardinal since 1776, Durini dedicated himself to poetry and engagement with Lombardia literary circles, where he distinguished himself as a generous patron of the arts.

He was a great friend and benefactor of Giuseppe Parini, who dedicated his important ode La Gratitudine to him.

Giuseppe Parini, in a lithograph by Rosaspina.

Above: Italian poet Giuseppe Parini (1729 – 1799)

Sadly the Cardinal was able to enjoy Balbianello only for a short time, passing away at the estate in 1796.

After the Cardinal´s death, the Villa passed to his nephew, Luigi Porro Lambertenghi (born 1780).

Lambertenghi was a high profile figure in a group of Milanese republicans and a member of the Carbonari, who wished to liberate Italy from the Austrians, who after the end of the Napoleonic era were restored their former possessions but now acted more repressive than they had previously in policing their domains.

The Carbonari desired both the liberation and unification of the entire Italian peninsula and frequently met at Balbianello to discuss their plans.

In 1815 Lambertenghi hired the republican writer Silvio Pellico to tutor his children.

Above: Italian republican writer Silvio Pellico (1789 – 1799)

Pellico stayed for many years at Balbianello, which he recalled fondly in his Le mie prigioni (My prisons).

In July 1817, during a boating excursion from Como to Cadenabbia and Bellagio, Stendhal passed in front of Balbianello, where the oarsmen had difficulty in rounding the promontory, due to a sudden wind.

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Above: French writer Marie-Henri Beyle aka Stendhal (1783 – 1842)

The rocky shoreline reminded the Frenchman of Scottish lakes and the romantic allure of “that heavenly lake” inspired his first chapters of The Charterhouse of Parma.

In 1821, following the failure of an attempted insurrection, Lambertenghi – having caught wind of his imminent arrest – fled Milano to take refuge in Switzerland, remaining there in exile until 1840.

He was sentenced to death in absentia in 1882.

Pellico was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Before leaving for Switzerland, Lambertenghi sold Balbianello to his friend Giuseppe Arconati Visconti (born 1797)

Visconti made improvements to the gardens and the loggia.

To this day the balustrade in front of the church bears the Visconti emblem of a serpent with a man in its mouth.

Shortly after acquiring Balbianello, Visconti was also accused of participating in revolutionary movements.

Visconti eluded capture by the Austrian authorities by fleeing to Gaasbeek, Belgium and taking refuge in his maternal uncle´s castle 15 km from Brussels.

Above: Gaasbeek Castle

In 1924, Visconti was sentenced to death in absentia.

Visconti and his wife Costanza lived in Gaasbeek until 1839.

During the period of Visconti ownership, the Villa hosted politicians and writers including republican poet Giovanni Berchet (1783 – 1851), novelist Alessandro Manzoni (1785 – 1873), republican politician Giuseppe Giusti (1809 – 1850) and Swiss artist Arnold Böcklin (1827 – 1901).

(I wonder…. did the view of Isola Comacina from the Villa del Balbianello inspire Böcklin´s painting “Island of the Dead”?)

Gian Martino Visconti (1839 – 1876), Giuseppe and Costanza´s only surviving son, was a restless youth who embarked on a career in the military while nourishing a dominating passion for travel.

He undertook many journeys in Europe and Egypt.

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His passion led him to undertake in-depth studies of Arabia.

In 1864, Gian was in Algeria, as documented by his book Viaggi a caso di un vagabondo – Gita ad Algeri (An Errant Vagabond – Out in Algeria).

Above: Pipelines across modern Algeria

In 1865, Gian embarked on his most ambitious trip – to the Arabian Peninsula via Cairo and Suez, crossing southern Arabia to Aqaba.

Above: Map of the Arabian Peninsula, 1720

He then went up the Wadi Arabah until he reached Petra, which was little known at the time.

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Above: Petra, Jordan

After leaving Petra and surviving the perils of Bedouin attacks, Gian took refuge in Jerusalem before returning to Europe.

His Diario di un viaggio nell´Arabia (Diary of a voyage in Arabia) was one of the last records of an individual journey through places that would soon be visited by organised tourism and amply described in Baedeker guidebooks.

In 1873 Gian married radical republican Frenchwoman Marie Peyrat, a free spirited, eccentric, beautiful young woman, in Paris, witnessed by Emmanuel Arago and Victor Hugo.

However, the marriage was short-lived.

In 1876, Gian died from a disease contracted during his travels.

Marie stopped going to Balbianello a few years after the death of her husband and for more than 30 years Balbiandello was left to fall into a state of neglect.

In 1904 during a boat excursion with some friends, US businessman/politician Butler Ames saw the Villa for the first time and was determined to own it.

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Above: Butler Ames (1871 – 1954)

Ames was immediately and irrevocably struck by the romantic beauty of Balbianello.

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It was until 1919 that he was successful in obtaining ownership.

After purchasing the Villa, Ames and his wife Fifi spent all of their summers there, with the exception of World War 2, until Ames´ death in 1954.

In these years, their guestbook contained the names of a great number of visitors, including “America´s Sweetheart” Canadian actress Mary Pickford (1892 – 1979), former US First Lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis (1929 – 1994) and US Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson II (1900 – 1965).

Ames´ will stipulated that his heirs could not sell Balbianello for 20 years after his death, but as soon as the period expired Balbianello was sold to Guido Monzino (1928 – 1988).

Monzino had admired and desired the Villa ever since he was young, when he used to spend his Sundays fishing with his father, who moored his boat near the Dosso d´Avedo promontory.

Lenno Villa Balbianello 12.jpg

A businessman and entrepreneur, Monzino had been Managing Director of Standa, Italy´s 1st large department store chain, but deep in his heart he was, like Gian Visconti, an explorer and dedicated much of his time to this pursuit, participating in or leading a total of 21 major expeditions over a twenty-year period to all corners of the world. including being the 1st person to climb the north face of the Torres del Paine in Chile, the first to climb Kanjut Sar (the 26th tallest mountain in the world) in Pakistan, and the leader of the 1st Italian Expedition to climb the tallest mountain in the world, Mount Everest.

Above: Mount Everest

At the end of his long career, Monzino threw himself wholeheartedly into the restoration and refurbishment of the Villa.

He died in 1988 at the age of 60.

Unmarried and without any direct heirs, Monzino bequeathed Balbinello to the FAI.

In keeping with his final wishes, Monzino is buried in the estate´s underground icehouse in the garden.

Today the Villa del Balbinello is the most visited among the FAI properties with over 90,000 visitors annually.

A number of feature films have used Balbinello for location shooting:

  • A Month by the Lake (1995), starring Vanessa Redgrave, Edward Fox and Uma Thurman
  • Amonthbythelakeposter.jpg
  • Star Wars: Episode 2 – Attack of the Clones (2002), starring Natalie Portman and Hayden Christensen
  • Film poster. A young man is seen embracing a young woman. A man holds a lightsaber. In the foreground, there is a man wearing a suit.
  • Casino Royale (2006), starring Daniel Craig and Eva Green
  • The poster shows Daniel Craig as James Bond, wearing a business suit with a loose tie and holding a gun. Behind him is a silhouette of a woman showing a building with a sign reading "Casino Royale" and a dark grey Aston Martin DBS below the building. At the bottom left of the image is the title "Casino Royale" – both "O"s stand above each other, and below them is a 7 with a trigger and gun barrel, forming Bond's codename: "Agent 007" – and the credits.

 

Across from the Villa del Balbianello, there is a small wooded island in the gulf known as the Zoca de l´oli.

The island, which is home to many archaeological remains, is about 600 metres long and a perimeter of two kilometres.

Isola Comacina is a wild place where one can wander through the ruins of nine abandoned churches.

In the late 6th century was a remaining stronghold under Francio (legendary founder of the Franks), even though the Lago di Como surrounding the island was controlled by the Lombard tribes.

The island was besieged by Authari of the Lombards, with Francio captured and sent back to Ravenna.

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Above: King Authari of the Lombards (540 – 590)

The Lombards found the island to contain many riches left behind by local Roman loyalists.

A place once conquered by the Romans and then the Lombards became a refuge for the wealthy citizens of Como.

It developed into a centre of resistance, and in the turmoil of the Middle Ages, attracted an eclectic mix of dethroned monarchs, future saints and pirates.

Eventually it allied with Milano against Como, an unfortunate move, which led the Island to be sacked by the Comoese and razed to the ground.

The island was invaded in 1159 by Frederick Barbarossa and soldiers from the town of Como.

Above: Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I / Federico Barbarossa (1122 – 1190)

In 1175, Vidulfo, the Bishop of Como, cursed the island with the following words:

The bells will never ring.

The rocks will never be placed one over the other.

Nobody will do here the work of the publican (businessman), the punishment a violent death.”

Abandoned for centuries, Isola Comacina was bought by a local, Auguste Caprini, who outraged Italy by selling it to the King of Belgium.

In 1917 the island was bequeathed to King Albert I of Belgium, who donated it to the Italian government, and entrusted to the Academy of Fine Arts in Milano.

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Above: King Albert I of Belgium (1875 – 1934)

The Island is now administered by a joint Belgian/Italian commission.

Pietro Lingeri built three houses on the island in 1939.

His idea was to turn the island into a colony for artists.

The three artist houses were built in a rationalist style, made from local materials and without much decoration.

Since 1947 it has been home to an extremely exclusive restaurant, the Locanda dell´ Isola, whose clients have included English Lady Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, and American singer Madonna Ciccone.

Bildergebnis für locanda dell'isola comacina

Today the Isola Comacina consists of the three artist houses, a restaurant, a café and a collection of archaeological sites.

Image may contain: sky, mountain, outdoor, nature and water

My wife and I stood directly beside the landing dock of the Isola Comacina, but she looked at the line-up in front of the restaurant and looked at the price, and adamantly refused to allow herself or me to join the queue and ascend the stairs leading off the boat and above the island.

I argued that this was an golden opportunity.

We did not know when, if ever, we would have the chance to do this again, and that, wait and expense be damned, it was well worth it to do so.

I consider the personalities I have learned about today….

Princess Charlotte died young, limited travels;

Cardinal Durini died before his plans complete;

Gian Visconti, saw the world, died shortly after marriage;

Guido Monzino, saw the world, died alone.

Shakespeare once wrote:

“Gather ye rosebuds whilst you still can.”

One never knows if dreams unspoken will ever be realised, if places denied can ever be revisited.

Above: The Island of the Dead (1920) by Alfred Böcklin

Sources: Wikipedia / Facebook / Rough Guide to Italy / Lonely Planet Italy / Villa Carlotte / FAI, Villa del Balbianello

Canada Slim and the Injured Queen

Cernabbio, Lago di Como, Italia, 1 August 2017

We disembarked from the lake steamer, the wife and I on vacation, eager to visit the Villa d´Este and Villa Erba.

The day would make me consider the role of women in the world and especially the role of my wife in my own.

The Villa d´Este, originally called the Villa del Garovo, is a Renaissance residence in Cernabbio on the shores of Lago di Como, which began as a convent and now functions as a luxury hotel.

VillaDEste.jpg

Gerardo Landriani, Bishop of Como (1437 – 1445), founded a nunnery here at the mouth of the Garrovo torrent in 1442.

Learning this, I asked myself:

What would inspire a woman to become “a bride of Christ”, chaste for the rest of her days?

There does exist people who are simply non-sexual and may not feel the urges average folks do.

Their biggest problem is not lack of stimulation as much as the non-acceptance by others for their inclination, for it remains a universal that those who are not understood are often rejected.

And a true belief in a divine power beyond ourselves coupled with a warm welcome into an institution that insists that there should be no distraction away from worshiping the divine may have lead women who have willingly chosen to be nuns – historically not all women have had the choice – feeling content with their cloistered existence.

A century later Cardinal Tolomeo Gallio demolished the convent and commissioned Pellegrino Tibaldi to design a residence for the Cardinal´s own use.

Above: Cardinal Tolomeo Gallio (1527 – 1607)

The Villa del Garovo, together with its luxuriant gardens, was constructed during the years 1565 to 1570 and during the Cardinal´s lifetime it became a resort for politicians, intellectuals and ecclesiastics.

I asked myself:

Why would a man desire a garden beyond the practicality of a fruit orchid or a vegetable garden?

Beyond the interest in botany or medicine that may pique some men´s curiosity, every man whose wife has dragged him into a greenhouse or a florist´s shop or a botanical garden seems damnably discomfited and visibly bored.

Many men see colours, but most don´t make fine distinctions in subtlety of shade.

We see flora but know few names for individual flowers and even less about the odd symbolism humanity attaches to these flowers.

Many men see beauty, but more as an abstract concept, and with the notable exception of the insecure teenage years, don´t see beauty as so applicable to men ourselves as much as it is to women.

And though many men will buy flowers for their ladies, usually as compensation for deeds done wrong in the past or insurance against deeds that will be done wrong in the future, the thinkers amongst my gender reflect how odd a custom it is to cut down flowers, toss them in a vase of water and then slowly watch them die – a rather cruel way to appreciate beauty.

I wonder if the collection of flowers and the observation of their slow demise could be extended into a metaphor about the fairer sex.

Girls are raised to be aware of beauty, often inspired to reflect that beauty, and some even equate their sense of self-worth based on the degree to which they are found beautiful by others, feeling their value diminishes as their beauty fades with the passage of time.

What a strange and terrible idea.

On Gallio´s death the Villa passed to his family who, over the years, allowed it to sink into a state of decay and disrepair.

From 1749 to 1769 Garovo was a Jesuit centre for spiritual exercises, after which it was acquired first by Count Mario Odescalchi and then in 1778 by Count Marliani.

In 1784, Garovo passed to the Milanese Calderari family who undertook a major restoration project and created a new park all´Italiana with an impressive nymphaeum and a temple displaying a 17th-century statue of Hercules hurling Lichas into the sea.

Terrible symbolism of might making right, very macho.

After the death of Marquis Calderari, his wife, Vittoria “la Pelusina” Peluso, a former ballerina at La Scala, married a Napoleonic general, Count Domenico Pino and a mock fortress was erected in the park in his honour.

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Above: Portrait of Count Domenico Pico (1760 – 1826)

A ballerina marrying a general – seems like an odd pairing….

Almost as odd as a teaching barista being married to a doctor….

In 1815 Garovo became the residence of Caroline of Brunswick, the estranged wife of future King George IV.

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Above: Caroline of Brunswick (1768 – 1821)

“Its garden seems almost suspended in the air and forms a scene of complete enchantment.”, she wrote in her diary.

Life ain´t easy, and for women life has challenges unique to her gender that men may try to share but most will never fully understand.

Life ain´t easy for women and historically it rarely has been.

Take my wife.

Please!

There are times she would thank you if you did!

For living with me cannot be easy.

In our apartment lives a grumpy old man and a lovely younger lady.

I do not appreciate orderliness as much as I should, I dance like an elephant stranded on an ice rink and I still cling to remnants of boyhood like a love of games and superheroes.

Like an old lion in winter, I exert myself when I must, growl when disturbed and roar when provoked.

I have the fashion sense of a train wreck, my study reflects photos of a just-bombed Dresden, and my remarks are often as not as loving and poetic as they could be.

And beauty never was my trademark and more so as I age disgracefully.

My balding pate can be seen from space and what hair determinedly remains is as white as alpine snow.

My belly could be used as a baby´s trampoline and my bones complain.

What a fine mess my darling has been harnessed with!

And as much as a burden that my wife´s personal life is, she struggles mightily to get the respect that is accorded her male colleagues.

The adage that women must work twice as hard to get half as much respect is sadly a truism still prevalent in our society.

And this truism has always existed, regardless of a woman´s status in society.

Take the case of Caroline.

Caroline was born a princess of Braunschweig (Brunswick in English) in Germany.

She was brought up in a difficult family situation.

Her mother resented her father´s open adultery and Caroline often tired of being a “shuttlecock” between her parents.

Whenever Caroline was civil to one of them, she was scolded by the other.

She was educated by governesses, but the only subject in which she was given a high education was music.

By age 16, she was an attractive girl with curly, fair hair, whom French politician Honoré Riqueti, Count of Mirabeau described as “most amiable, lively, playful, witty and handsome”.

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Above: Honoré Riqueti, Count of Mirabeau (1749 – 1791)

Caroline was brought up with an extreme degree of seclusion from contact with the opposite sex even for her time.

She was constantly supervised, restricted to her room when the family was entertaining guests and ordered to keep away from the windows.

She was normally refused permission to attend balls and court functions, and when allowed, she was forbidden to dance.

Though Caroline was not allowed to socialise with men, she was allowed to ride.

During her rides, she visited the cottages of the peasantry.

Her English mother Augusta, the sister of the British King George III, desired a match between one of her children and a member of her English family.

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Above: Princess Augusta of Great Britain (1737 – 1813)

From the age of 14, Caroline received a number of proposals for marriage  – the Prince of Orange, Prince George of Hesse-Dartmouth, Duke Charles of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, the second son of the Margrave of Baden – were all suggested, but none of these developed.

Caroline´s father Charles forbade her to marry a man she had fallen in love with because of his low status.

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Above: Charles William Ferdinand, Prince of Braunschweig (1735-1806)

The identity of this man is not clear, but a handsome Irish officer who lived in Braunschweig is suspected.

There was also a rumour – rumours were the bane of Caroline´s entire existence – that Caroline had given birth at the age of 15.

There is no confirmation of this rumour – nor the rumours that would follow her later in life – but it was a widely circulated rumour and referred to as a reason why she married at an older age than was customary, despite being regarded as good-looking and having received so many proposals.

In 1794, Caroline and the Prince of Wales were engaged.

They had never met, but George agreed to marry her because he was heavily in debt.

If he contracted a marriage with an eligible princess, Parliament would increase his allowance.

Caroline seemed eminently suitable: she was a Protestant of royal birth and the marriage would ally Braunschweig and Britain.

Although Braunschweig was only a tiny country, Britain was at war with revolutionary France and so was eager to obtain allies on the European continent.

On 20 November 1794, Lord Malmesbury arrived at Braunschweig to escort Caroline to her new life in Britain.

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Above: James Harris, Lord Malmesbury (1746 – 1820)

In his diary, Malmesbury recorded his reservations about Caroline´s suitability as a bride for the Prince….

She lacked judgement, decorum and tact.

She spoke her mind too readily, acted indiscreetly and often neglected to wash or change her dirty clothes!

She had “some natural but no acquired morality, and no strong innate notions of its value and necessity”.

However Malmesbury was impressed by her bravery….

On the journey to England, the party heard cannon fire, as they were not far from the French front.

While Caroline´s mother, who was accompanying them to the coast as chaperone, was concerned for their safety, Caroline was unfazed.

On meeting his future wife for the first time, George called for alcohol.

He was very disappointed in her.

So was she in him.

She told Malmesbury:

“The Prince is very fat and he´s nothing like as handsome as his portrait.”

Above: George IV (1762-1830), King of Great Britain (1820-1830)

At dinner that evening, the Prince was appalled by Caroline´s rough nature and her jibes at the expense of dinner guest Lady Jersey.

Above: Frances Villiers, Lady Jersey (1753 – 1821)

Caroline was upset and disappointed by George´s obvious preference for Lady Jersey over her.

Caroline and George were married on 8 April 1795 at the Chapel Royal of St. James Palace in London.

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Above: St. James Palace, London

At the ceremony, George was drunk.

He regarded Caroline as unattractive and unhygienic and he told Malmesbury that he suspected that she was not a virgin when they married.

He himself was not.

He himself was already secretly married to Maria Fitzherbert, but as his marriage violated the Royal Marriages Act of 1772, their marriage was not legally valid.

Above: Maria Fitzherbert (1756 – 1837)

In a letter to a friend, the Prince claimed that the couple only had coitus three times: twice on their wedding night and the third the night after.

He wrote:

“It required no small effort to conquer my aversion and overcome the disgust of her person.”

Caroline claimed that George was so drunk that “he passed the greatest part of his bridal night under the grate (of the fireplace), where he fell, and where I left him.”

Nine months after the wedding, Caroline gave birth to Princess Charlotte, George´s only legitimate child, on 7 January 1796.

Above: Princess Charlotte of Wales (1796 – 1817), as a child

Three days after Charlotte´s birth, George made out a new will, leaving all his property to “Maria Fitzherbert, my wife”, while to Caroline he left….

One shilling.

Gossip about Caroline and George´s troubled marriage was already circulating.

The newspapers claimed that Lady Jersey, Caroline´s Lady of the Bedchamber, opened, read and distributed the contents of Caroline´s private letters.

Caroline despised Lady Jersey and could not visit or travel anywhere without George´s permission.

The press crucified George for his extravagance and luxury at a time of war and portrayed Caroline as a wronged wife.

Caroline was cheered in public and gained plaudits for her “winning familiarity” and easy, open nature.

(Doesn´t Caroline remind you of the late Princess Diana Spencer?)

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Above: Lady Diana Spencer, Princess of Wales (1961 – 1997)

George was dismayed at her popularity and his own unpopularity, and felt trapped in a loveless marriage with a woman he loathed.

He wanted a separation.

In August 1797, Caroline moved out to a private residence.

No longer constrained by her husband, or, according to rumour, by her marital vows, Caroline entertained whomever she pleased.

Charlotte was placed in the care of a governess and Caroline visited her often.

In 1802, Caroline adopted a three-month-old boy, William Austin, and took him into her home, Montagu House, in Blackheath.

Above: Montagu House

By 1805, Caroline had fallen out with her closest neighbours, Lady and Sir John Douglas, who claimed that Caroline had sent them obscene and harassing letters and accused Caroline of infidelity and alleged that William was Caroline´s illegitimate son.

In 1806, a secret commission was set up, known as the “Delicate Investigation” to examine Lady Douglas´ claims.

The commissioners (the Prime Minister, the Lord Chancellor, the Lord Chief Justice, and the Home Secretary) decided that there was “no foundation” for the allegations.

Despite being a supposedly secret investigation, it proved impossible to prevent gossip from spreading, and news of the investigation leaked to the press.

Caroline´s conduct with her gentlemen friends was considered improper, but there was no direct proof that she had been guilty of anything more than flirtation.

Later that year, Caroline learned that Braunschweig had been overrun by the French and her father was killed in the battle of Jena-Auerstadt.

Her mother and brother Frederick fled to England.

With much of Europe controlled by the French, Caroline could not leave Britain as much as she wanted so desperately to do.

During the Delicate Investigation, Caroline was not permitted to see Charlotte.

Afterwards her visits were restricted to once a week and only in the presence of Caroline´s mother.

By the end of 1811, King George III was declared permanently insane and the Prince of Wales was appointed as Regent.

Monochrome profile of elderly George with a long white beard

Above: George III, in later life (1738 – 1820), King of Britain (1760 -1801)

The Prince restricted Caroline´s access to her daughter further, and Caroline became more socially isolated as members of high society chose to patronise George´s extravagant parties rather than hers.

Needing a powerful ally to help her oppose George´s increasing ability to prevent her from seeing her daughter, with the help of Henry Brougham, an ambitious Whig political reformer, they began a propaganda campaign against George.

Charlotte favoured her mother´s point of view, as did most of the public.

Author Jane Austen wrote of Caroline:

Watercolour-and-pencil portrait of Jane Austen

Above: Jane Austen (1775 – 1817)

“Poor woman!

I shall support her as long as I can, because she is a woman and because I hate her husband.”

In 1814, after Napoleon´s defeat, nobility from throughout Europe attended celebrations in London.

Caroline was excluded.

George´s relationship with his daughter was deteriorating as Charlotte sought greater freedom from her father´s restrictions.

On 12 July, George informed Charlotte that she would be confined to Cranbourne Lodge in Windsor, that her trusted household would be replaced and that she could have no visitors except his mother, Queen Charlotte, once a week.

 

Above: Cranbourne Lodge

Horrified, Charlotte ran away to her mother.

After an anxious night, Charlotte was eventually persuaded to return to her father, since legally Charlotte was in her father´s care and there was a danger of public disorder against George, which might prejudice Charlotte´s position if she continued to disobey him.

Caroline, desperately unhappy with her situation and treatment in Britain, negotiated a deal, agreeing to leave the country in exchange for an annual allowance.

After a two-week visit to Braunschweig, Caroline headed for Italy through Switzerland.

Along the way, she hired Bartolomeo Pergami as her most trusted servant and friend.

In 1815, Caroline bought the Villa, even though her finances were stretched.

Caroline gave it the name Nuova Villa d´Este and the park landscaped in the English style.

Meanwhile Charlotte married Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld.

Above: Princess Charlotte and Prince Leopold

From early 1816, Caroline, accompanied by Pergami, went on a cruise around the Mediterranean.

By this time, gossip about Caroline was everywhere.

Lord Byron wrote to his publisher that Caroline and Pergami were lovers.

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Above: English poet Lord George Gordon Byron (1788 – 1824)

Baron Friedrich Ompteda, a Hannoverian spy, bribed one of Caroline´s servants for proof of adultery.

None was found.

In 1817 as her debts were growing, she sold the Villa d´Este and moved to the smaller Villa Caprile near Pesaro.

In November 1817, Charlotte died after giving birth to her only child, a stillborn son.

The loss of her daughter meant Caroline lost any chance of regaining her position in England.

George was determined to press ahead with a divorce and set up a commission to gather evidence of Caroline´s adultery.

As the commission was assembling more and more evidence, Caroline was worried.

She informed that she would agree to a divorce in exchange for money.

However, at this time in England, divorce by mutual consent was illegal.

It was possible to divorce if one of the partners admitted or was found guilty of adultery.

Caroline said it was impossible for her to admit that.

On 29 January 1820 King George III died.

Caroline´s husband became King, and, at least in name, Caroline was Queen of the United Kingdom.

Instead of being treated like a Queen, Caroline found her estranged husband´s accession made her position worse.

The King demanded that his Ministers get rid of her, but they would not agree to a divorce because they feared the effect of a public trial.

The government was weak and unpopular, a trial detailing juicy details of both Caroline´s and George´s separate love lives was certain to destabilise the government further.

Rather than run the risk, the government entered into negotiations with Caroline, offering her an increased annual allowance if she stayed abroad.

She rejected the offer and embarked for England.

When she arrived on 5 June, riots broke out in support of her.

Caroline had become a figurehead for the growing radical movement that demanded political Reform and opposed the unpopular King.

Nevertheless, the King still adamantly desired a divorce.

On 15 June, the guards in the King´s Mews mutinied.

The mutiny was contained, but the government was fearful of further unrest.

In July, the government introduced a bill in Parliament, the Pains and Penalties Bill of 1820, to strip Caroline of the title of Queen and dissolve her marriage.

The government claimed that Caroline had committed adultery with Pergami.

Various “witnesses” were called during the reading of the Bill, which was effectively a public trial of the Queen.

The trial caused a sensation.

Above: The Trial of Queen Caroline, 1820

Caroline joked that she had indeed committed adultery once – with the husband of Maria Fitzherbert, the King.

Even during the trial, the Queen remained immensely popular, with over 800 petitions and nearly a million signatures favouring her cause.

As a figurehead of the opposition movement demanding reform, many revolutionary pronouncements were made in Caroline´s name.

At the end of the Trial, the government again extended the offer of an increased allowance, this time without preconditions, and Caroline accepted.

Soon after her husband´s coronation, from which she was barred, Caroline fell ill.

Above: The Coronation of George IV, 19 July 1821

She died on 7 August 1821, at the age of 53.

She is buried in her native Braunschweig in a tomb bearing the inscription:

“Here lies Caroline, the Injured Queen of England.”

Even today, nearly two centuries later, the double standard of men acceptably being promiscous while women remain condemned for the same remains.

The Villa was briefly owned by the Tsarina Maria Feodorowna, mother of the last Tsar of Russia Nicholas II, but was never visited by her and remained abandoned.

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Above: Tsarina Maria Feodorowna (Dagmar of Denmark)(1847 – 1928)

It was converted into a deluxe hotel for the nobility and the high bourgeoisie in 1873, and kept the name Villa d´Este to take advantage of the apparent link with the more famous Villa d´Este in Tivoli, near Roma.

Visiting the garden in 1903 for Century Magazine, Edith Wharton found Este to be “the only old garden on Como which keeps more than a fragment of its original architecture”.

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Above: US Pulitzer Prize writer Edith Wharton (1862 – 1937)

A gala dinner held at the Villa d´Este on 15 September 1948 was the scene for the celebrated murder of the wealthy silk manufacturer Carlo Sachi, shot dead by his lover Countess Pia Bellentani with her husband´s automatic pistol.

8 pistola bellentani

She spent the rest of her days committed to an insane asylum.

Today, with room rates averaging €1,000 / $1,122 a night and executive suites averaging €3,500 / $3,926 per night, the Villa is a luxury hotel for wealthy people and a high level congress centre.

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In 2008, Travel and Leisure magazine listed the Villa as the 15th best hotel in Europe and the 69th best hotel in the world.

In 2009, Forbes reckoned that the Villa was the best hotel in the world.

Every April, the hotel hosts the Concorso d´Eleganza Villa d´Este for vintage and concept cars.

Every September, it has hosted since 1975 the annual Ambrosetti Forum, an international workshop attended by prominent figures from the fields of politics, finance and business.

The European House Ambrosetti

The Ambrosetti Forum is organised by The European House – Ambrosetti, a consulting firm, and brings together heads of state, ministers, Nobel laureates and businessmen to discuss current challenges to the world´s economies and societies.

It presents forecasts of the economic and geo-political outlooks for the world, Europe and Italy and analyses the main scientific and technological developments and their impacts on the future of business and society.

Forum participants are privately invited and the event takes place behind closed doors.

Yet media coverage of the event is very relevant, given the presence of over 400 Italian and international journalists.

In addition, BBC World, CNBC, CNN, Financial Times and RAI produce talk shows and in-depth live interviews with the speakers of the Forum for broadcast around the globe.

The Villa Erba is a 19th century villa, built by the founder of the first Italian pharmaceutical company, Luigi Erba, to show off his wealth, and now used as an exposition and congress centre.

Villa Erba, Cernobbio - Concorso eleganza Villa d'Este.jpg

In 2004, Erba served as a filming location for the movie Ocean´s Twelve.

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(See Canada Slim and the Quest for George Clooney of this blog.)

In 2005, American singer Gwen Stefani shot the music video for her single, Cool, on the Villa´s grounds.

A blond woman is looking back over her right shoulder. She is wearing a dark blue blouse and red lipstick, and she is in a room. Above her image are two stripes. The upper is blue and the words "Stereo" and "Fidelity" are written in light yellow, and between them there is a long red arrow (←→). The second strip is yellow; on it the words "Gwen Stefani · Cool" are written in navy blue capital letters.

Later that same year, a concert of Anastacia´s Live at Last tour was hosted in the Villa´s park.

Above: Anastacia Lynn Newkirk in 2005

So many women with such a large influence on the world all passing through Cernobbia directly or indirectly: nuns, a ballerina, a queen, a tsarina, a countess/murderess, movie stars, singers, a doctor/my wife….

All have made a difference – the last abovementioned a difference in my life.

Men often have a way of disappointing the women in their lives: kings rejecting queens, manufacturers driving countess to insanity, teaching baristas driving doctors to distraction….

My wife will be disappointed that I have mentioned her yet again in my blog.

And she hates when I have called her “She Who Must Be Obeyed” on Facebook or in this blog, but if she could only realise that by “obeyed” I mean “honoured and respected” because I realise that like many women she probably married beneath her, that she might be happier with someone more appropriate and that, despite our differences, she is a far far better life partner than I deserve.

She is my injured queen, for whom I am forever grateful and to whom I wish nothing but happiness.

 

Canada Slim and the Bloodstained Ground

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 2 October 2017

I have returned, refreshed and revitalised, from a weekend away in Freiburg im Breisgau, in Germany´s Black Forest, ready to write.

Above: Freiburg City Hall

I had forgotten some of my own rules, some of my own motivations, for writing, which two of my best friends in Freiburg reminded me of.

(Thanks, Reggie and Miguel!)

The first rule was to be true to myself, to not write what I think is politically correct but to speak my mind.

The second rule was to remind myself constantly of the old adage that the only way for evil to triumph is when good men do nothing, that I have a responsibility to use my words to show others the dangers of remaining complacent to the world´s injustices and inequalities.

The third rule was to be constant, to keep on keeping on, to write as often as possible, to write as if I am being read by millions rather than dozens, to believe in my abilities to write, to one day become a published author of distinction.

Of recent weeks I have been writing if two major themes: my travels and the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution(s) of 1917.

Russian Revolution of 1917.jpg

I believe the second of these two themes is extremely important and relevant these days, for how a society claims for itself democracy and how it can lose that democracy in the desire for order and security is not only a recounting of the events of the Russian Revolution, but is as well a reminder of how fragile democracy is and how quickly it can be lost, even in the most stable of democracies, even in this most modern of times.

When I last spoke of the Russian Revolution….

(See Canada Slim and the Dawn of Revolution of this blog.)

….I wrote of how the Tsarist government had failed the Russian people and how a group of dissatisfied angry women triggered the events that would eventually lead to the Tsar´s abdication.

Day One of what would be later known as the February Revolution came and went in Petrograd (formerly and presently St. Petersburg).

Let´s look now at how the days that followed the women´s march that would bring down a Tsar and bring a revolutionary out of exile.

 

Petrograd, Russia, Friday 24 February 1917

It was dull and foggy with cold rain, but neither the weather nor the appearance on the streets of Cossack horsemen, heavily armed and grim, dampened the demonstrators´ zeal.

 

By late morning, nearly 75,000 workers from Petrograd´s industrial Vyborg quarter (2/3 of Petrograd´s workforce) had joined the strike.

This second day of mass demonstrations had seen more workers out on strike than at any time during the War. (WW1)

As the marchers approached the Liteyny Bridge, Cossacks were arrayed against them, the lines of horses and the glint of steel terrifying.

Liteyny Bridge Panorama.jpg

But these agents of the Tsarist government shared the workers´ frustrations.

For the first time anyone could remember, the Cossacks cantered through the workers´ lines, refusing to brandish their sabres or their whips.

Meanwhile, across the river in downtown Petrograd, further demonstrations filled the streets, bakeries were looted and food shops attacked.

The workers were now becoming violent.

General Khabalov ensured that many more machine gun placements were set up in the attics of mansions, hotels, shops, clock and bell towers up and down Nevsky Prospekt, and on the roofs of railway stations.

He had infantry and machine gunners in reserve and a huge stockpile of rifles, revolvers and ammunition, which, although designated for the front, had been retained for use in Petrograd, should the need arise and stored in the various police stations.

Nonetheless, the disturbance spread west to the dockyards and naval Engineering works of Vasilievsky Island.

Government ministers had yet to respond to events.

In the Tauride Palace, however Duma (Russia´s Parliament) members demanded to take control of the city´s food supply in a last-ditch attempt to address the most immediate economic woe: the shortage of food.

Throughout the night, there were occasional volleys of gunfire, but astonishly the social life of the city continued.

The Alexandrinsky Theatre was packed that evening for a performance of Nikolai Gogol´s (1809 – 1852) The Government Inspector.

The audience was in a lively humour at this satire on the political weaknesses of the mid-19th century.

Few seemed willing to believe that a greater drama was at that moment unfolding in real life throughout the capital.

The atmosphere of the city was like a taut wire.

Over at the French Embassy, First Secretary Charles de Chambrun wrote to his wife, pondering the news he had just heard that a general strike had been declared for the following day.

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Above: Charles de Chambrun (1875 – 1952)

More marches, more protests were coming, but what could a mob “without alcohol, without a leader and without a clear objective achieve?”

As night fell, Petrograd waited expectantly.

 

Petrograd, Russia, Saturday 25 February 1917

“Oh, this interminable Russian winter with its white roofs for so many long months and its slippery roads.”, French resident Louise Patouillet wrote ruefully in her diary, by now long accustomed to the kind of low grey sky that greeted the city with a new fall of snow.

National City Bank clerk Leighton Rogers, in contrast, struck an excited note in his own journal:

“What a day!

The general strike is on, all right, and trouble has begun.”

That morning, on their way to the Bank, Rogers and his colleagues had “found the streets thick with police, both afoot and mounted, no factories working, and the Nevsky a long line of closed shops, with here and there a boarded up door or window.”

Rogers had heard rumours that the first person had been killed the previous night when trying to break into a bread shop.

People on the streets seemed on the lookout for excitement, “like a crowd at a great country fair”, but Rogers “hated to think of what one shot would do.”

Had Rogers known the extent to which the strikers were now arming themselves for an inevitable street fight with the police, he might have been even more alarmed.

Across the city, embassies and legations were being warmed by telephone not to allow their staff to go out.

Violent protest was certainly the intention of the workers over in the factory districts that morning, as they gathered for a huge march on the city.

A large gathering of people outside, some holding banners

They ensured that they wore plenty of padding under their thick coats to ward off blows from police batons or Cossack whips.

Some even crafted metal plates to wear under their hats, to protect their heads from blows.

They filled their pockets with whatever metal projectiles and weapons they could lay their hands on in their factories.

The general strike had begun.

Among its leaders were members of the Mezhraionka (Soviet inter-district committees) and rank-and-file activists from various left-wing groups, including the Bolsheviks´ Vyborg Committee.

All had worked through the night to spread the message and bring people out.

The morning felt like the start of a holiday.

Trainloads of people, including families with children, streamed into the city from nearby industrial towns.

In Petrograd itself, working class districts hummed with earnest preparation.

The factories were silent.

There were no trams.

By 10 o´clock the streets rang with the sound of marching feet and voices singing revolutionary songs.

As the day went on, the strike spread across the city, bringing out everyone, from shop workers to waitresses, to cooks and maids and cab drivers.

Key workers in the supply of the city´s electricity, gas and water, as well as tram drivers, were also out in force.

Striking postal workers and printers ensured that there were no mail deliveries and no newspapers.

Over 200,000 people chose to march through Petrograd that day.

White collar workers, teachers and students joined the uprising, and as they passed the homes of the wealthy the marchers sometimes saw pale hands waving from upper windows.

The goal was Znamenskaya Square, where huge crowds had assembled by the early afternoon.

Red banners stretched above the sea of heads, many with slogans that demanded peace, immediate and longed-for peace.

Between the many speeches, some enthusiasts began singing the Marseillaise.

In wartime Russia, this was treason and a breach of martial law.

But, for most, the crowd felt like protection in itself, the sense of justice and community a shield in its own right.

A little after 3 pm, a mounted police officer, Krylov, told his men to prime their weapons and disperse the mob.

In the mêlée that followed, the Cossack horsemen charged the crowd, but then rode back and regrouped using their sabres on the police, not on the demonstrators.

Krylov himself lay dead.

The Cossacks had pulled Krylov from his horse, someone had grabbed the officer´s revolver and shot Krylov dead, while another had beat him in a rage with a piece of wood.

It was the first defining act of violence against the police that day.

For an hour or so, the people could believe in a forthcoming victory.

Bitter cold prevailed.

All the trams were stopped and many shops were closed.

People milled on Nevsky Prospekt, “eddying up and down in anxious curiosity”, a “curious, smiling, determined crowd…dangerous”. (Leighton Rogers)

Troops were out in force at the natural gathering points at major intersections, but like the Cossacks, they were unwilling to exert force.

The crowds appeared hopeful that that they had won them over.

The impromptu bread riots of women marchers had now exploded into a political movement, coloured by more and more acts of violence and looting.

Revolution came easily to a people already traumatised by wartime sufferings or, as soldiers, inured to violence.

But there would be other confrontations between crowds and troops that day and marchers and bystanders would be killed.

No one was certain of the facts.

There were neither newspapers nor public telephones.

There was still no outward sign of a systematic organised revolt.

The movement remained chaotic, leaderless.

“Is it a riot? Is it a revolution?”, asked Claude Anet, Petrograd correspondent of Le Petit Parisien, who – like other foreign journalists in town – had no luck in telegraphing the news back to his paper in Paris.

At Russian army HQ at Mogilev nearly 500 miles away, Tsar Nicholas II received news of the violent turn of events in Petrograd, although Interior Minister Alexander Protopopov failed to transmit the true gravity of the Situation to him.

Nicholas II by Boissonnas & Eggler c1909.jpg

Above: Tsar Nicholas II (1868 – 1918)

Thinking firmer measures by police and troops were all that were needed, Nicholas did not see the necessity of returning to Petrograd.

Instead he telegraphed Major General Khabalov, Petrograd´s military governor, and ordered him to “quell by tomorrow the disturbances in the capital which are inexcusable in view of the difficulties of the war with Germany and Austria”.

His wife Tsarina Alexandra had written, dismissing the day´s events as no more than the workers blowing off steam, “a hooligan movement”, “young boys and girls running about and screaming that they have no bread, only to excite.”

Alexandra Fyodorovna LOC 01137u.jpg

Above: Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna (1872 – 1918)

Had the weather been colder, Alexandra felt that the protesters “would probably stay indoors”.

Besides, Alexandra had far more serious things to think about:  three of her five children were down with the measles.

Seeking some light relief from the day´s traumatic events, some Petrograders went that evening to the Mikhailovsky Theatre premiere of a French farce, L´ Idée de Francoise.

Spb 06-2012 MichaelTheatre.jpg

The imperial boxes were empty and the grand dukes absent.

One of the company, actress Paulette Pax, found the whole performance unnerving – particularly the audience, with its profusion of jewels and sumptuous outfits – bearing in mind what had been going on outside all day,

Pax felt that none of the audience had taken much notice of the play.

Their minds were elsewhere, their applause half-hearted.

“What we were doing was ridiculous,” Pax wrote in her diary, “performing a comedy at such a time made no sense.”

Daily Observer journalist Arthur Ransome did not consider the situation as serious as Pax.

Ransome Autobiography cover.jpg

Above: Cover picture of Arthur Ransome (1884 – 1967)

He noted how many of the theatre crowd were out simply to watch other people make trouble.

The “general feeling” was one of “rather precarious excitement like a Bank Holiday with thunder in the air.”, Ransome wrote in his despatch that evening.

Outside in the streets of Petrograd, restless photographer David Thompson was still in search of a story at 2 am, when he came face-to-face with mob violence.

A rowdy group of 60 people had taken two heads of slain policemen and had jammed them onto poles and were carrying them down the middle of the street.

Thompson had seen enough red for one day: red flags, red bloodstains on the snow and now severed heads.

He saw more bodies on his way back to the Astoria Hotel and he would later discover that a great many policemen were killed or seriously wounded by mobs that night.

All through Saturday night there was a great deal of screaming and yelling and incessant gunfire throughout the city.

 

Petrograd, Russia, Sunday 26 February 1917

There was an ominous stillness in the city on this beautiful, cloudless, sunny morning.

But overnight General Khabalov had resolved that draconian measures would have to be taken to keep the situation under control.

New placards posted across the city announced that all workers would have to return to work by Tuesday the 28th or those who had applied for deferment of their military service would be sent straight to the front.

All street gatherings of more than three people were forbidden.

At a meeting of the Council of Ministers that had gone from midnight until 5 am, Khabalov gave assurances that 30,000 soldiers, backed up by artillery and armoured cars, would be on the streets, with orders to take decisive action against the demonstrators.

Overnight, Khabalov had issued orders to turn Petrograd into a military camp.

At daybreak, the bridges were raised.

Armed police and troops had mustered at main junctions and squares, while Red Cross wagons waited to cart the wounded off to makeshift hospitals.

Flag of the Red Cross.svg

Khabalov´s orders were to fire on any demonstrator who defied his order to disperse.

Khabalov ensured that most of the troops on Nevsky Prospekt were training detachments from the guards regiments, brought in from the military academies.

They were all heavily armed with rifles and bayonets.

The assumption was that NCOs (non-commissioned officers) would be less reluctant to shoot, if ordered to do so.

It seemed that the whole city was out of doors that morning, and on foot – for there were no trams or cabs.

People were determined to get to church as usual or simply enjoy the fine weather for a promenade along Nevsky Prospekt.

Couples pushed their babies in prams.

Children skated on ice rinks.

Just like any ordinary Sunday.

But most of the shops and cafés were closed, with most of them with shutters closed or windows boarded up.

People were desperate for news and groups formed around those with any news to tell.

The predominating conversation was about how many had been killed or injured.

By midday Nevsky Prospekt was blocked with dense crowds.

A mob, waving red flags and singing the Marseillaise, gathered.

The police pulled a machine into the middle of the tram tracks.

Volley after volley rang out.

The dead were thick.

The wounded were screaming as they were trampled down.

Hell itself had broken loose on the Nevsky.

There was gunfire from every point, from the roofs of buildings and sweeping all around.

A little girl was hit in the throat by gunfire.

A well-dressed woman collapsed with a scream as her knee was shattered by a bullet.

All around people lay dead and dying in the snow.

Thirty dead in all, with far more women and chidren than men slain.

Everyone else was prostrate on the ground, hugging the pavement or lying in the snow, numb with cold, too frightened to move.

Ambulances appeared and started collecting the dead and the wounded.

But the bloodshed wasn´t over.

By noon, 25,000 troops had gone over to the side of the demonstrators.

The bulk of the available forces, however, simply stayed in their barracks as the mob took over the streets.

In the early evening, at Znamensky Square, a dense mass of people from the Nevsky converged with another crowd coming up Ligovskaya, the major thoroughfare to the south.

Local police leaders rode among the crowd ordering them to disperse.

The people refused to budge.

The commander of the 1st and 2nd training detachments of the Volynsky Regiment ordered his men to fire into the crowd.

The troop of Cossacks also positioned in the crowd turned and fired at the Regiment gunmen.

It was a veritable pandemonium, as with a great howl of rage, the crowd scattered behind buildings and into courtyards, from where some of them began firing at the military and the police.

More than 40 people were killed and hundreds wounded.

No one knew exactly how many had been killed by Sunday´s end.

Nobody was counting, but evidence of the day´s violence was everywhere to be seen.

Hundreds of empty cartridge cases littered the ground and the snow was drenched with blood.

After dark, when the crowds had been cleared from Nevsky Prospekt, the soldiers involved in the shootings at Znamensky Square and on the Nevsky, returned to their barracks, angry and upset that they had been forced to fire on the crowds.

100 of the Pavlovsky guards in their nearby barracks on the Field of Mars, hearing how earlier in the day members of the 4th Company had been ordered to open fire on crowds, decided to take action.

They attacked their Colonel and cut off his hand.

They set out for the Nevsky with a few rifles and ammunition, intent on dissuading their comrades from shooting on demonstrators, when they were confronted by mounted police.

Firing broke out, but the soldiers soon ran out of ammunition and were forced back to their barracks where they gave themselves up.

The 19 ringleaders were arrested and incarcerated in the Peter and Paul Fortress; the rest were confined to barracks.

There was an immediate clampdown on news of the mutiny, but soon the word was out.

Meanwhile, the much-anticipated party at Princess  Catherine Radziwill´s palace went ahead as planned, although the carriages bringing guests had been refused entry to the Nevsky and had to go the long way around.

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Above: Princess Catherine Radziwill (1858 – 1941)

French journalist Claude Anet noted how preoccupied the guests were, though everybody “tried to dance in spite of it”.

Anet watched as Grand Duke Boris Vladimirovich took to the dance floor.

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Above: Grand Duke Boris Vladimirovich (1877 – 1943)

Was he witnessing this scion of the Russian aristocracy dancing his “last tango”?

French Ambassador Maurice Paléologue was exhausted, having spent the whole day “literally besieged by anxious members of the French colony” wanting to get out of Petrograd.

Above: Maurice Paléologue (1859 – 1944)

He went out to dinner with a friend that evening rather than attend the Radziwill party, but on his way home he passed the palace and saw a long line of carriages and cars waiting outside.

The party was still in full swing, but Paléologue was not tempted to join in.

As he noted in his diary that night, Sénac de Meilhan, historian of the French Revolution, had written that there had also been “plenty of gaiety in Paris on the night of 5 October 1789!”

(On 5 October 1789, crowds of women began to assemble at Parisian markets.

The women first marched to the Hotel de Ville, demanding that city officials address their concerns.

The women were responding to the harsh economic situations they faced, especially bread shortages.

They also demanded an end to royal efforts to block the National Assembly, and for the King and his administration to move to Paris as a sign of good faith in addressing the widespread poverty.

Getting unsatisfactory responses from city officials, as many as 7,000 women joined the march to Versailles, bringing with them cannons and a variety of smaller weapons.

Twenty thousand National Guardsmen under the command of Lafayette responded to keep order, and members of the mob stormed the palace, killing several guards.)

As late night partygoers made their way home there was a terrible eerieness about the city.

Normally the squares would be full of activity – coaches, sledges and motor cars waiting to take passengers home, but that night the squares were completely empty and there was not a taxi or sledge to be had.

Baroness Meyendorff was obliged to walk home in the moonlight and the intense cold.

The silence was ominous and made the creaking of the snow under foot seem disproportionately loud.

Petrograd seemed like a dead city.

In the Tauride Palace, frantic meetings of the Duma took place all day.

A desperate Mikhail Rodzyanko, leader of the Duma, telegraphed the Tsar.

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Above: Mikhail Rodzyanko (1859 – 1924)

“The capital is in a state of anarchy.

The government is paralysed.

General discontent is growing.

There is wild shooting in the street.-

There must be a new government, under someone trusted by the country.

Any procrastination is tantamount to death.”

Reading the telegram in Mogilev, Nicholas dismissed it as panic.

“Some more rubbish from that fat Rodzyanko.”

However Nicholas did decide to put together a loyal force and despatch it to the capital, with he himself returning to his home, Alexander Palace at Tsarskoye Selo, 13 miles south of Petrograd.

Above: Alexander Palace, Tsarskoye Selo

That should settle matters.

The rebel soldiers were no more than an armed rabble that would never stand against proper front line troops.

Fearful of a coup within the Duma, Prime Minister Golitsyn stepped in and suspended the Duma from meeting.

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Above: Nikolai Golitsyn, 8th Prime Minister of Russia (1917)(1850 – 1925)

Rodzyanko was outraged.

The Duma was the constituted authority of Russia.

Its prorogation was a violation of Russian law.

He urged his colleagues to rally around and defend the Duma, and a temporary committee was hurriedly organised.

Revolution had now been officially declared: in the seat of government, by some of the guards regiments, and by the once fiercely loyal Cossacks.

Workers, outraged by the indiscriminate firing on crowds, formed their own militias and spent that night plotting not only to continue the strike and the demonstrations, but also to seize weapons and turn the protest movement into nothing less than an armed uprising.

American photographer David Thompson wrote his wife from his room in the Astoria Hotel that evening:

“Since 1 o´clock today it has been a bloody Sunday for Russia.

If this spreads to other regiments, Russia will be a republic in a few more hours.”

Everything would depend on how the disaffected troops would respond on Monday.

 

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 3 October 2017

Any Americans reading this blog today quite possibly believe the aforementioned bloody Sunday couldn´t happen in America, and I sincerely pray that they´re right.

Flag of the United States

But consider this.

Guns are everywhere in America and discipline is the thinnest veneer of a civilian population that possesses them.

Too many Americans have guns and some are as well armed as any soldiers that might be sent to face them.

What could compel the average gun-toting American to use those weapons against a government they feel as let them down?

In the case of the Russians, it took being on the losing side of a war and worries about the future to compel average workers and common soldiers to defy the authorities that had failed them.

Patriotism is well indoctrinated into the average American citizen for much of his life, but that very patriotism can easily be manipulated into serving the powerful.

Yet natural disasters, due to unchecked global warming, keep happening in America, and it is questionable whether Washington has the will or the means to protect or assist the population on the continental United States when national emergencies multiply, let alone lend help to any of its farflung territories like hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico.

Above: Aftermath of Hurricane Maria, which struck Puerto Rico on 20 September 2017

The Russian Revolution occurred spontaneously, beginning with impatient breadline women and factory workers and reaching into all quarters of society already discontented but now driven to force change.

Discontent is rife in America today.

What act of spontaneity could make everything unravel?

It seems the prevalence of guns and the discontent felt keenly by disturbed individuals has yet again caused carnage of an unthinkable, but sadly unsurprising, nature to happen this weekend.

Paradise, Nevada, 1 October 2017

Singer Jason Aldean was giving the closing performance of the third and final day of the 4th annual Route 91 Harvest Country Music Festival on a 15-acre lot behind the Mandalay Bay Hotel on Las Vegas Strip, with 22,000 people in attendance.

At 10:08 pm, someone began firing weapons from the 32nd floor of the Hotel into the Harvest crowd below.

With at least 60 fatalities (including the suicide of the alleged perpetrator) and over 500 injured, this incident is now officially the deadliest mass shooting in American history.

The shooter has been identified as 64-year-old Stephen Paddock, a wealthy retired accountant.

Police found 16 rifles and 1 handgun in the hotel room that Paddock had rented.

Stock prices of firearm manufacturers have already risen since the attack.

What drives a person to commit such an act of senseless violence?

And what is to prevent another such act from happening again?

A lone gunman fires into a crowd.

Just another day in America?

Seriously…
What can one say that hasn’t already been said?

Stephen Paddock, a white man probably insane, kills 60 and injures hundreds in Las Vegas.

Will he be branded a terrorist?

Probably not, because he is white, a good old boy.


Will many questions be asked as to how he got his hands on 17 guns?

No.

Too uncomfortable a question.

Might offend the gun lobbyists, victims be damned.

Will this incident change Americans’ minds about its easy access to firearms laws?

Don’t bet on it.

So, folks will tell you to pray for Las Vegas and not a damn thing will change.

Except folks who had a future now…. no longer do.

What they were, they are no more.

No matter how many die, the money must keep flowing in.

And corporations without a conscience will go on being protected by a government without guilt.

Blood on the streets…. children orphaned, wives and husbands widowed, romances wrecked, families destroyed….

With great power comes great responsibility.

Every time a nation allows folks to come to harm, the nation has failed the people.

Every time a gun is easily accessible, another human life is put at risk.

The mark of a great nation is not in its ability to protect its mighty and powerful, but rather its ability to protect the vulnerable.

America has failed the test yet again, for the lessons of unthinkable carnage never seem to be learned.

The lights of Vegas may briefly lose their lustre and flags will temporarily be flown at half mast and politicians will send their warmest condolences and sympathies to the families and the victims of this terrible shooting, this act of pure evil, this senseless murder….

Southern half of Las Vegas Strip at night with CityCenter construction on the bottom right, 2007

But the foolish game of profits over people will go on.

There will be no second American Revolution, no second Civil War, for there is no unity amongst Americans who will resolutely continue to feel discontent in the name of patriotism.

It is hoped that discontent does not lead to violence, but history has shown that it often does.

One man in a hotel room in Vegas destroyed the lives of hundreds.

60 dead.

Hundreds injured.

By one single solitary man.

With 17 guns found in the hotel room along with the assailant’s body, his life taken by his own hand.

Let that just sink in for a moment.

One man with a gun ended 60 lives in Vegas on Saturday night.

Awesome power.

One man was allowed to own 17 guns.

Seventeen!

Am I the only one who thinks that a person should not be allowed to own so much firepower?

True, he was a registered gun owner.

True, he was a licensed hunter and pilot.

True, Paddock was retired.

But what is normal about owning, and bringing into a hotel, 17 guns?

17 ways to kill.

And what exactly did his murdering of 60 people actually accomplish?

Nothing.

Nothing but pain and grief, suffering and sorrow.

Was he seeking fame as the biggest mass shooter in modern US history?

Don’t worry.

I am certainly there will be someone out there who will surpass Paddock’s kill record, just as Paddock surpassed the 2016 Orlando nightclub shooter’s record.

Exterior photo of Pulse gay nightclub and parking lot.

Above: Pulse Nightclub, Orlando, Florida, where security guard Omar Mateen killed 49 people and injured 58 on the evening of 12 June 2016

The ability to take a human life needs to be regulated.

My right to life should take precedence over another’s right to take my life.

There needs to be limits far greater than the ones that can allow a man, who was clearly psychologically disturbed, to obtain 17 guns.

There needs to be regular psychological testing of those who wish to bear arms, because of the incredible damage that can be done by a person with a gun.

A gun as a last defence?

OK.

A gun for gathering food, not sport trophies?

OK.

As a former urban Canadian and present resident in Switzerland, I am OK with only the police and the military having guns that are left at work.

I have never held a gun.

I have never had a desire to do so.

Killing a person who attacks my family may be justifiable but it is still murder.

Fighting for a country or a cause that condones war may be coached in honourable language and gift wrapped in a flag, but the taking of a life – the erasure of everything the slain person ever was or will ever be – is murder.

It should be with the greatest of reluctance and regret that a weapon should be drawn from its sheath or holster.

The itchy trigger finger has been too often seen in recent events.

Cops and soldiers should be seen as our protection not as a threat.

Maybe one day I shall be struck down by a gun.

But whether I am armed to the teeth or not, I cannot control the future.

Even the mighty and powerful have been victim to those with a weapon.

And being human ultimately means being mortal.

Rarely do we see death coming before it arrives, unannounced and unwelcome.

But until America learns to regulate itself better….

There will be blood.

There will be violence.

There are responsible gun owners.

Do we know how many?

Do we know how much firepower they possess?

Are we regularly and really sure that they are rational and responsible enough to keep their weapons?

Vegas should be a wake-up call.

Otherwise there will be more violence.

There will be more blood.

There will be other lone gunmen.

In Russia, a people united by violence would topple an empire once they were joined by those with weaponry to insist that armed might could “make things right.”

Revolución-marzo-rusia--russianbolshevik00rossuoft.png

History has showed again and again what is born in violence ends violently.

The February Revolution would see hundreds die.

The October Revolution and the ideology behind it would result in the deaths of millions.

Did the Tsar´s rule of Russia need to end?

Yes.

Could his rule have been ended non-violently?

Perhaps.

One hundred years separate the Russian Revolution from 2017, yet gunfire into crowds remains a constant.

Perhaps within all of us lies the potential to be violent.

But if I do not possess a weapon it reduces both the capacity and the opportunity to act upon violent urges.

How many lives have been ruined at the point of a weapon?

How many more will there be in future?

Sources: Wikipedia / Helen Rappaport, Caught in the Revolution: Petrograd 1917 / Tony Brenton, Historically Inevitable?: Turning Points of the Russian Revolution / Ekaterina Rogatchevskaia, Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths / Dominic Lieven, Towards the Flame: Empire, War and the End of Tsarist Russia / Catherine Merridale, Lenin on the Train

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Canada Slim and the Quest for George Clooney

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 28 September 2017

Celebrities ARE different.

They get more public attention and media exposure than we do.

They usually have far more wealth than we do.

Some achieve celebrity status through their successful careers in sports or entertainment or politics.

Some become famous due to media attention on their lifestyle, wealth or controversial actions, or for their connection to another famous person.

And rewarding mere mortals godlike celebrity status is not a new thing.

Athletes in ancient Greece were welcomed home as heroes, had songs and poems written in their honour, and received free food and gifts from those seeking celebrity endorement.

Ancient Rome also glorified actors and gladiators.

Some have had to die to achieve fame.

In the early 12th century, Thomas Becket (1119 – 1170) became famous following his murder.

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He was promoted by the Roman Catholic Church as a martyr and images of him and scenes from his life became widespread in just a few years.

And in a pattern often repeated throughout history, what started out as an explosion of popularity, or mania, turned into longlasting fame.

In the case of Becket, pilgrimages to Canterbury Cathedral where he was murdered became instantly fashionable and the fascination with his life and death has inspired many plays and films.

The cult of personality (particularly in the West) can be traced back to the Romantics in the 18th century, whose livelihood as artists and poets depended on the currency of their reputation.

(Which makes Johann Wolfgang von Goethe´s (1749 – 1832) escape from his fame (somewhat) in Germany to make his Italian Journey (1786 – 1788) even more remarkable.)

Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein - Goethe in the Roman Campagna - Google Art Project.jpg

Above: Goethe in the Roman countryside

The establishment of cultural hotspots became an important factor in the process of generating fame.

Newspapers started gossip columns and certain clubs and events became places to be seen in order to receive publicity.

With the global spread of the movie industry in the 20th century, we now have the familar concept of the instantly recognizable faces of its superstars.

Yet, celebrity status wasn´t always tied to film actors, when cinema was starting out as a medium.

“In the first decade of the 20th century, American film companies withheld the names of film performers, despite requests from audiences, fearing that public recognition would drive performers to demand higher salaries.”

(Paul McDonald, The Star System: Hollywood´s Production of Popular Identities)

Public fascination went well beyond the on-screen exploits of movie stars and their private lives became headline news.

Television and popular music brought new forms of celebrity, such as the rock star and the pop group, as shown by Elvis Presley or the Beatles.

A square quartered into four head shots of young men with moptop haircuts. All four wear white shirts and dark coats.

Above: The Beatles (clockwise from top left: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and George Harrison)

John Lennon´s (1940 – 1980) highly controversial 1966 quote:

“We´re more popular than Jesus now.”

….which he later insisted was not a boast, and that he was not in any way comparing himself with Christ, gives an insight into both the adulation and notoriety fame can bring.

Unlike movies, television created celebrities who were not primarily actors, like presenters, talk show hosts and news readers.

Still only a few of these have broken through to a wide stardom.

The book publishing industry began to persuade major celebrities to put their names on autobiographies (many ghost written) and other titles to create a genre called celebrity publishing.

Cultures and regions with significant populations have their own independent celebrity systems, with their own distinct hierarchies.

Outside of Switzerland, who knows DJ Bobo?

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Above: D J Bobo

Outside of German-speaking parts of Europe, who knows Michelle Hunziger?

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Above: Swiss-born TV hostess/actress/model/singer Michelle Hunziger

Outside of Quebec, who remembers Mitsou?

Above: Canadian actress/singer Mitsou Gélinas

Regions within a country, or cultural communities (linguistic, ethnic or religious) can also have their own celebrity systems.

Regional radio personalities, newcasters, politicians or community leaders may be local or regional celebrities, much like my foster cousin Steve, a local athlete, is instantly recognisible within the confines of Argenteuil County in Quebec, Canada, but mostly unknown beyond there.

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Above: Canadian athlete Steve O`Brien

In politics, certain politicians are recognisable to many people, usually Presidents or Prime Ministers.

Yet only the heads of state who play a major role in international politics have a good chance of recognisability beyond their country´s borders.

Do you know who the Prime Minister of Luxembourg is and would you recognise him/her on the street?

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Above: Xavier Bettel, Prime Minister of Luxembourg since 2013

But, because so much media attention is brought to bear on the US President, Donald Trump has become, unfortunately, world famous.

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In contrast, some people are more famous under their official titles rather than their actual names, such as the Pope or the Dalai Lama.

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Above: Jorge Mario Bergoglio, aka Pope Francis

Do you know the Pope´s birth certificate name? The Dalai Lama´s?

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Above: Lhamo Thondup aka the 14th Dalai Lama

Some politicians remain famous even decades or centuries after they were in power, because of the historical deeds associated with their names and kept in memory in history classes, like Julius Caesar, Genghis Khan, Napoleon Bonaparte, Abraham Lincoln, etc.

Scandal can also make people famous, regardless of how accomplished they were in their chosen professions.

Who can tell me what were the legislative accomplishments of Anthony Wiener or can you only recall his exposing himself and sexting?

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Above: Anthony David Weiner, US Congressman (1999 – 2011)

Some things are associated with fame, like appearing on the cover of Time, being spoofed by Mad, having a wax statue in Madame Tussauds or receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Some people are well known even to folks unfamilar with the area in which the celebrity excelled.

I never followed boxing, but I know the names Muhammed Ali and Mike Tyson.

Even those who aren´t interested in art, recognise Pablo Picasso.

The unscientific know Albert Einstein.

Even criminals become famous if their crimes are sensational enough.

Celebrities often have fame comparable to royalty.

Some celebrities are hated for being celebrated, and due to their high visibility the successes and shortcomings of even their private lives are made very public.

Celebrities are also portrayed as glowing examples of perfection, as possessing skills and abilities beyond average people, beyond us mere mortals.

Even those celebrities with limited education or experience are viewed as experts on complicated issues and some have been very vocal with their political views regardless of their understanding of these views.

And sometimes it is a person´s celebrity status that can bring an issue´s importance into the spotlight with the public and the media.

It is believed that because very few people can become celebrities, this must mean that those that do must be superior to those who, for many reasons, cannot become famous.

It is a fallacy, but a manic belief nonetheless.

 

Lago di Como, Italia, 1 August 2017

We had booked three nights at the Convento San Antonio Bed & Breakfast, and I was determined that Ute (my wife) would not drive our car except between accommodation stops.

We had driven a lot the previous day and it had been a frustrating and hot drive along the western shore of Lago di Como to arrive in the city of Como.

(See Canada Slim and the Evil Road, Canada Slim and the Apostle of Violence, and Canada Slim and the Road to the Open of this blog for details of that first day.)

So I hoped that Ute (and I, of course) could relax and enjoy our vacation if we were not bound to our Peugeot throughout the trip.

Of all the lakes that Italy possesses, it is the forked Lago di Como that comes most heavily praised.

Lago di Como.png

Marie Henri Beyle first set foot on the shores of Lago di Como (also known as Lago Lario) as a 17-year-old conscript under Napoleon.

Years later, as Stendhal, he wrote in La Chartreuse de Parme that the blue-green waters of the Lake and the grandeur of the Alps made it the most beautiful place in the world.

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Above: Stendhal (1783 – 1842)

The hordes of Italian and foreign tourists who have flocked here ever since suggest that Stendhal was onto something.

Wordsworth thought it “a treasure which the Earth keeps to itself.”

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Above: English Romantic poet William Wordsworth (1770 – 1850)

Today, despite the influx of tourists, the Lake is still surrounded by abundant vegetation and zigzagging across the water on a steamer still seems ridiculously romantic.

And Como, come summertime, is packed out with British and German tourists.

Now I understand how Italians can be both puzzled and delighted by us, the foreign visitors, the peaceful invaders.

There are over 20 million of us every year and we still keep coming.

Nothing stops us.

Nothing frightens us.

We are a flood that never dries up.

We come from all over.

We are well-fed, self-satisfied and well-behaved.

We follow urges we cannot explain.

Italy once experienced first hand never loses its charms.

We are never satiated by the sights, climate, food, music and life.

The cities of Italy are emptied of Italians, save those who cater to we dusty and perspiring tourists.

Rough Guide Italy does not sing Como´s praises, describing it as “a rather dispiriting place to arrive, with little of the picture-postcard prettiness you would expect from a lakeside town.

As the nearest resort to Milano and a popular stopoff on the main road into Switzerland, Como is both heavily touristed and fairly industrialised.”

Lonely Planet Italy describes Como:

“Elegant Como, 50 km north of Milano, is the main access town to the Lake and sits at the base of the 146 sq km body of water.

Como has relatively few attractions in its own right, although the lakeside location is stunning, its narrow pedestrian lanes are a pleasure to explore and there are numerous bars and cafés where you can relax with a cold drink on a balmy day.”

Ferries operated by Como-based company Navigazione Lago di Como crisscross the Lake year-round.

We buy a map “The Villas Seen from the Lake”, so from the boat we will able to identify the many villas and interesting places that one can see from the Lake, from Como to Bellagio on the east bank and from Como to Griante on the west.

The rows of villas seem endless.

So many Villas!

Villa Carminati Scacchi, Villa Saporiti (“the Rotunda” and Napoleon´s residence during his stay in Como in 1797)….

Colored painting depicting Napoleon crowning his wife inside of a cathedral

Above: The Coronation of Napoleon Bonaparte (1769 – 1821), 2 December 1804

Villa Gallia, Villa Parravicini Thaon de Revel, Villa Pisa Colli Canepa, Villa Geno (a former hospital and convent of the Humiliati Friars), Villa Volonté….

Villa Olma (host to kings and queens and emperors and Garibaldi who unified Italy. Here Garibaldi fell in love with Josephine, a daughter of the owner of the Villa. Their marriage lasted…30 minutes!)….

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Above: Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807 – 1882)

Villa Mirabella, Villa Pisani Dossi (built by the Italian writer Carlo Dossi, including the famous “porch of friends” with columns engraved with the names of important artists close to Dossi)….

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Above: Carlo Dossi (1849 – 1910)

Villa Troubetzkoy (“the Swiss Chalet” built by Russian Prince Alexander Troubetzkoy and used after he had been sentenced to six years of hard labour in Siberia for an attempt on the Tsar´s life), Villa Sforni, Villa Dozzio, Villa Cademartori (once owned by the Artaria family, publishers of the compositions of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, etc)….

Villa Taglioni (built in 1840 by Marie Taglioni, the famous dancer who invented ballet “en pointe”, who once was so rich she also possessed five palaces by the Grand Canal in Venezia, but lost her fortune when her father made poor investments. She died penniless in Marseille.)….

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Above: Marie Taglioni (1804 – 1884)

Then….

Day 2 of our vacation was turning out to be the Quest for George Clooney.

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Above: American actor George Clooney

Villa Erba in Cernobbio, west bank of the Lake, was built in 1894 by the grandparents of the famous director Luchino Visconti.

Some important scenes of Ocean´s 12, the 2001 film starring George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt and Catherine Zeta-Jones, were shot here.

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The boatload of passengers were suitably impressed.

Villa Allamel, Villa Belgioioso Schouvaloff (in Blevio, east bank of the Lake, built by Russian Prince Schouvaloff and owned today by casino prince Oleg Boyko. It once belonged to Cristina Trivulzio Belgioioso, an exceptional woman who, despite failing health, led a very interesting and adventurous life, working hand in hand with those who fought to release Italy from Austrian rule.)….

Above: Cristina Belgioiso (1808 – 1871)

Villa Cima (where the noble intellectual beauty, rich and refined Vittoria Cima della Scala once lived), Villa Belvedere (belonged to the Imbonati Family, whose grandson, the famous Italian writer, Alessandro Manzoni spent many happy summers)….

And on and on…

Till the mind could not take in any more Villas and the tales they harboured.

Then the boat threatens to tip to one side as we all rush to get a glimpse of Villa Oleandra, to the left of the church of Laglio, owned by George Clooney (and his wife (his 2nd marriage) human rights lawyer Amal Alamuddin, of British-Lebanese heritage), near the former residence of Italian author Ada Negri.

Above: Villa Oleandra

Above: Julia Roberts with George and Amal Clooney at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival

Why did Mr. American Apple Pie buy property in Italy?

We foreigners don’t just come to Italia.

We keep coming back.

Hollywood actors like Clooney come and stay, because the US Internal Revenue Service (IRS) wants more money from him than he feels they deserve.

He wants the reassurance of noble surroundings, to show off his excellent taste, his genius, his charisma and importance in a land that still appreciates such things.

He does not realise that Italians treat him as one treats children, with courtesy and sympathy.

But the reality of being Italian is too disturbing, too difficult, too mysterious, too undefinable, for folks like George or myself.

A boatload of female fans were disappointed as George was not seen.

The women still love George, at least those over 30.

George Timothy Clooney, born 6 May 1961, exactly 4 years and 8 days before yours truly, is an American actor, director, producer, screenwriter, activist, businessman and philanthropist.

He has received three Golden Globes and two Academy Awards for his work in Hollywood.

His rise to fame came when he played Dr. Doug Ross on NBC´s medical drama ER (1994 – 1999).

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His first major Hollywood role was in the horror-comedy-crime thriller From Dusk till Dawn, co-starring Harvey Keitel.

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He then increased his profile in the romantic comedy One Fine Day (with Michelle Pfeiffer), the action-thriller The Peacemaker (with Nicole Kidman), the superhero movie Batman and Robin (with Arnold Schwarznegger, Uma Therman and Chris O`Donnell), crime comedy Out of Sight (with Jennifer Lopez) and  the war satire Three Kings all while still on contract to ER.

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After leaving ER, Clooney starred in the disaster drama The Perfect Storm, the adventure comedy O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and the heist comedy Ocean´s 11 – Clooney´s most successful film with him in the lead role.

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Clooney made his directorial debut in the 2002 film Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, based on the autobiography of TV producer Chuck Barris.

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He then starred in Syriana, a story based loosely on former CIA Agent Robert Baer´s memoirs of his Service in the Middle East.

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He then directed, produced and starred in Good Night, and Good Luck, a film about 1950s TV Journalist Edward R. Murrow´s famous war of words with Senator Joseph McCarthy.

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Clooney next appeared in the film noir The Good German set in post WW2 Germany, then in the legal thriller Michael Clayton.

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He directed and starred the sports comedy Leatherheads, costarred with Ewan McGregor and Kevin Spacey in the war parody The Men Who Stare at Goats, starred in the comedy-drama Up in the Air, produced and starred in the thriller The American, starred in the drama The Descendants, and in the political drama The Ides of March, and produced the thriller Argo.

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He co-starred with Sandra Bullock in the science fiction thriller Gravity, co-wrote, directed and starred in the WW2 thriller The Monuments Men, produced August: Orange County (starring Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts), starred in science fiction adventure Tomorrowland and in the 1950s Hollywood spoof Hail, Caesar!, reunited with Julia Roberts for Money Monster and directed Suburbicon (starring Matt Damon and Julianne Moore).

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Clooney is the only person in Academy Award history to be nominated for Oscars in six different categories: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best Adapted Screenplay.

Clooney has appeared in commercials outside the US for Fiat, Nespresso, Martini vermouth, and Omega.

Clooney was named one of Time magazine´s “100 Most Influential People in the World” (2007, 2008, 2009) and has been described as one of the most handsome men in the world.

TV Guide ranked Clooney #1 on its “50 Sexiest Stars of All Time” list. (2005)

He has been parodied by South Park and American Dad.

Director Alexander Cartio made his debut feature film, Convincing Clooney, about a LA artist who, faced with rejection as an actor and screenwriter, tries to get Clooney to star in his first-ever low-budget short film.

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As an activist, Clooney supported President Obama´s campaigns in both the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections.

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He is a supporter of gay rights.

In 2003, he opposed the Iraq War, saying:

“You can´t beat your enemy any more through wars. 

Instead you create an entire generation of people seeking revenge.

Our opponents are going to resort to car bombs and suicide attacks because they have no other way to win.

I believe Donald Rumsfeld thinks this is a war that can be won, but there is no such thing anymore.

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Above: Donald Rumsfeld, 13th and 21st US Secretary of Defense (1975-1977 and 2001-2006

We can´t beat anyone any more.”

In 2016, Clooney endorsed Hillary Clinton for the presidential election.

He is involved with Not On Our Watch Project, an organisation that focuses global attention and resources to stop and prevent mass atrocities.

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He organised the telethon Hope for Haiti Now after the 2010 earthquake.

Clooney performed with Martin Sheen and Brad Pitt in Dustin Black´s play 8, re-enacting the federal trial that overturned California´s Proposition 8 ban on same sex marriage, raising money for the American Foundation for Equal Rights.

Clooney advocated a resolution of the Dafur conflict, spending ten days in Chad and Sudan making the TV special “A Journey to Dafur” reflecting the situation of Darfur´s refugees, with proceeds donated to the International Rescue Committee.

He spoke to the UN Security Council to ask the UN to find a solution to the conflict and to help the people of Dafur, and he visited China and Egypt to ask both governments to pressure Sudan´s government.

Flag of United Nations Arabic: الأمم المتحدةSimplified Chinese: 联合国French: Organisation des Nations uniesRussian: Организация Объединённых НацийSpanish: Naciones Unidas

Above: Flag of the United Nations

He sent an open letter to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, calling on the European Union to take decisive cction in the region given the failure of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir to respond to UN Resolutions.

He narrated and produced the documentary Sand and Sorrow and also appeared in the documentary Dafur Now.

The United Nations announced Clooney´s appointment as a UN Messenger of Peace in 2008.

Clooney initiated the Satellite Sentinel Project to monitor armed activity for signs of renewed civil war between Sudan and South Sudan and to detect and deter mass atrocities along the border regions there.

Clooney is an avid supporter of the recognition of the Armenian Genocide and is one of the chief associates of the 100 Lives Initiative, a project which aims to remember the lives lost during the event.

He has urged various American government officials to support the United States´ recognition of the Armenian Genocide and he visited Armenia to commemorate the 101st anniversary of the event in April 2016.

In May 2015, Clooney told the BBC that the Syrian conflict was too complicated politically to get involved in and he wanted to focus on helping the refugees.

In March 2016, George and Amal met with Syrian refugees living in Berlin to mark the 5th anniversary of the conflict, before meeting with Mrs. Merkel to thank her for Germany´s open door policy.

All of this about George was unknown by the ladies on our boat and, quite frankly, I don´t think they would have cared to know.

As access to celebrities is strictly controlled by their entourage of staff, including managers, publicists, agents, personal assistants and bodyguards, this makes it difficult for even journalists to have access to them.

We on the boat knew that most of us would never meet George face to face in our lifetimes.

Still I don´t envy George.

While being famous offers some advantages such as wealth and easier access to things that are more difficult for non-famous people to access – like the ability to easily meet other famous or powerful people – being famous comes with the disadvantage of creating conditions in which the celebrity finds himself acting in superficial, inauthentic fashion.

Being famous means a life without anonymity, often without privacy.

And a private persona that is different from the public persona that the celebrity created can lead to difficulties in accepting the celebrity for the person he/she really is.

But ironically there remains a strong public curiosity about celebrities´ private affairs.

George´s love life prior to his marriage to Amal interested a great many people and….

George has dated.

A lot.

He has dated actress Kelly Preston, actress Talia Balsam, porn star Ginger Lynn Allen, French TV personality Céline Balitran, British model Lisa Snowdon, actress Renée Zellweger, actress Krista Allen, dating reality personality Sarah Lawson, Italian actress Elisabetta Canalis, wrestling diva Stacy Kiebler and finally his present wife Amal Alamuddin.

Above: Italian actress/model Elisabetta Canalis

And why not?

Women have found him attractive, both physically and socially.

Perhaps the ladies gawking and craning their necks to shore hoped to see George without his shirt, but perhaps the recent births of twins to George and Amal has kept him secluded inside the Villa Oleandra….

Or inside his main home in Los Angeles….

Or in his home in Los Cabos, Mexico, next door to supermodel Cindy Crawford….

Or in his new home, the Mill House, on an island in the River Thames at Sonning Eye in England.

The ladies aboard sailed past the Villa Oleandra disappointed but not surprised.

I met a celebrity only once in my life, riding the same elevator as myself, riding up to do separate interviews for CBC Radio inside the Chateau Laurier in Ottawa, Canada.

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Former Canadian Prime Minister Joe Clark and I had little to say to one another and I am certain his meeting me was quickly forgotten.

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Above: Joe Clark, 16th Prime Minister of Canada (1979 – 1980)

And I am certain that whatever it was that I said in my stunned surprise was both unintelligible and unintelligent.

And I am certain that if George Clooney ever crossed my path I would have absolutely no idea what it is I would say to him.

Above: Amal and George Clooney, 2016 Berlin Film Festival

But considering that my wife has always lusted after George since she first began watching ER I think I would say:

“George, thanks for keeping your shirt on.”

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Sources: Wikipedia / Rough Guide Italy / Lonely Planet Italy