Canada Slim and the Coming of the Fall

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 13 October 2017

There are some things that I don´t enjoy about working at Starbucks: shift work, impolite customers, how horribly messy the customers can be, how terrible things can become when things get insanely busy, especially with the arrival of autumn and the annual St. Gallen OLMA fair on now.

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No job is perfect.

As well, no person is perfect at their job 100% of the time.

I´m certainly not.

But to justify supporting an employee, standards are set that he/she must meet.

From the bottom rung of humble baristas, such as myself, to shift managers, to store managers, to district managers, all the way to corporate HQ in faroff Seattle.

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Above: Starbucks Corporation Headquarters, Seattle, Washington, USA

The job is defined, standards are set, and, hopefully, those hired by the company will do their jobs by the set standards.

If one doesn´t do his/her job as he/she should, then it is no great surprise to find that person asked to leave the position.

Politics shouldn´t be that far removed from business practices.

National leaders have their jobs defined, by either constitutions or by, the basest standard of measurement, the welfare of those for whom he/she has been entrusted responsibility.

Standards are set, either through comparisons with other current counterparts in a similar position of power or through comparisons with those who previously held the position.

Depending on the system of government by which a nation is administered, an unsuitable leader is forced to relinquish power if he/she is not following the constitution by which the country defines itself or if the welfare of the people has become so unpleasant that legal or even violent methods are sought to force the leader out.

Which brings me to the topic of two leaders, a century and an ocean apart….

In America there are three ways to end a presidency: vote him out of office in the following election, impeachment, and assassination.

Flag of the United States

Assassination is usually a bad idea, for it creates a martyrdom of that presidency.

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Above: The assassination of President Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth, Ford Theater, Washington DC, 14 April 1865

Election is the normal course, if the dislike of a particular president is less a consequence of wrongdoing the president has done as it is a preference for a different candidate, then folks will willingly, albeit begrudgingly, wait until the customary time for re-election is due and then not return the president to power.

Impeachment is reserved for times when the President has already proven himself unsuitable for the position based on the dual standards of the rules set out by the US Constitution and by the intolerable welfare of the American populace.

At present, the United States is administered by Donald John Trump, a man uniquely unsuitable for the position of President.

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Above: Donald John Trump, 45th US President since 2016

At present, his popularity wavers in the low 30s percentage mark.

So, is there a case for impeachment?

“Impeachment will proceed from the misconduct of public men, or, in other words, from the abuse or violation of some public trust, and they relate chiefly to injuries done immediately to the society itself.” (Alexander Hamilton, The Federalist)

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Above: Alexander Hamilton (1755 – 1804)

“History is not geometry and historical parallels are never exact, yet a president who seems to have learned nothing from history is abusing and violating the public trust and setting the stage for a myriad of impeachable offenses that could get him removed from office.” (Allan J. Lichtman, The Case for Impeachment)

The Case for Impeachment - Allan J. Lichtman

What follows is an abridgement of Lichtman´s excellent abovementioned book….

The President is the nation´s chief executive and commander in chief of its armed forces, but herein lies the danger that a President might pervert his administration into a scheme of oppression, or betray his public trust to foreign powers.

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To keep a rogue president in check, power in America is shared by three independent branches of government, but a determined President can crash through these barriers.

Above: The political system of the United States

So, impeachment exists as the final solution to remove an unsuitable President before an election or before his/her term is due to end.

“The genius of impeachment is that it could punish the man without punishing the office.” (Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.)

The impeachment of a President is rare.

America has seen the impeachment of only two Presidents: Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998.

Both were acquitted after impeachment by the Senate.

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Above: Andrew Johnson (1808-1875), 17th US President (1865-1869)

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Above: William Jefferson Clinton, 42nd US President (1993 – 2001)

Richard Nixon avoided impeachment by resigning.

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Above: Richard Nixon (1913-1994), 37th US President (1969-1974)

One in fourteen US Presidents has faced the possibility of impeachment.

Trump has broken all the rules.

He has stretched presidential authority nearly to the breaking point, appointed cabinet officials dedicated to destroying the institutions they are assigned to run, and has pushed America toward legal, military and constitutional crisis.

No previous President has entered the Oval Office without a shred of public service or with as egregious a record of enriching himself at the expense of others.

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Trump´s penchant for lying, disregard for the law and conflicts of interest are lifelong habits that permeate his entire Presidency.

He has a history of mistreating women and covering up his misdeeds.

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Above: The Women´s March, the largest single day protest in US history, 21 January 2017

He commits crime against humanity by reversing the battle against catastrophic climate change.

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His dubious connections to Russia could open him up to a charge of treason.

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Above: The flag of Russia

There are standards of truthfulness that a President must uphold.

There is a line between public service and private gain.

A free press is needed for a democracy to function.

A country should be immune against foreign manipulation of its politics.

A President has a responsibility to protect his people and, where applicable, the world.

By all these standards, Donald J. Trump has failed as a President.

As I have previously stated in this blog, impeachment is only possible with the majority vote of the US House of Representatives, which is controlled by the Republican Party whom Trump represents.

Seal of the U.S. House of Representatives

Only when Republicans themselves become convinced that Trump has committed high criminal offenses against the United States, that he imperils public safety and is unwell to occupy the Oval Office, then and only then will impeachment become a possibility.

Above: Logo of the US Republican Party

Trump could be convicted for illegal acts that occurred before he assumed office, for the Constitution specifies no time limit on any of its impeachable offenses: violation of the Fair Housing Act, the fraudulent charity Trump Foundation which is not legally registered, violation of the federal government´s strict embargo against spending any money for commercial purposes in Cuba, the fraudulent Trump University, and his exploitation of undocumented immigrants to build Trump Tower and in Trump Model Management.

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Above: Trump Tower, Trump Organization HQ, New York City

To guard against foreign leverage on a President, the Constitution has a provision known as the Emoluments Clause, which says that “no title of nobility will be granted by the United States, and no person holding any office of profit or trust under them, shall, with the consent of Congress, accept of any present, emolument, office or title of any kind whatever, from any king, prince or foreign state.”

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Above: Page 1 of the original US Constitution (1787)

The Emoluments Clause prohibits all federal officials, including the President, from receiving anything of value from foreign governments and their agents.

The prohibition is absolute.

No amount is specified.

A quid pro quo is not required to trigger a violation.

The Trump Company has millions invested in the Philippines and Trump´s profits depend on the good faith of the Filipino agent in the United States.

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Above: The flag of the Philippines

The Trump Company has been granted a valuable trademark right for the use of the Trump name in the construction industry in China.

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Above: The flag of the People´s Republic of China

Which begs the question of whether there is a quid pro quo agreement between the President and China.

Besides China and the Philippines, there are more than twenty nations in which Trump has business connections.

Does Trump distinguish his economic interests from the interests of the United States?

Trump businesses are heavily laden with debts that give lenders leverage over the Presidency.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Trump owes more than a billion dollars to some 150 financial institutions.

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“The problem with any of this debt is if something goes wrong and there is a situation where the President is suddenly personally beholden or vulnerable to threats from the lenders.” (Trevor Potter)

Trump and his appointees make policy and regulatory decisions that affect these lenders.

Federal regulators have sanctioned one of Trump´s largest creditors, Deutsche Bank for fraud and the laundering of money from Russia.

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Above: Logo of Deutsche Bank

Trump also has debts in China.

“Trump´s election may usher in a world in which his stature as the US President, the status of his private ventures across the globe, and his relationships with foreign business partners and the leaders of their governments could all become intertwined.” (Rosalind Helderman/Tim Hamburger)

Already, there is a lawsuit, brought by a bipartisan group called Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), which accuses Trump of having violated the Emoluments Clause.

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Above: The White House

Trump´s domestic interests violates other federal laws.

The Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge (STOCK) Act prevents members of Congress and other federal employees from reaping private economic benefits through access to nonpublic governmental information.

“If Trump continues to own his businesses and he uses insider information or information he has as President, then arguably it is a violation of the STOCK Act.” (Larry Noble)

The Act also applies to any nonpublic information that Trump provides family members.

Withholding his tax returns, Trump makes it difficult to distinguish between benefits flowing to him personally versus those flowing to members of his family.

Above: Page 1, Form 1040, US tax return form, 2005

Then there is the question of conflicts of interest.

Trump has been urged to sell his interests in all his properties, to liquidate his debts and to put his remaining assets in a blind trust, administered by a third party who would not report to the President or his family any details of financial transactions.

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Instead Trump handed over management of his enterprises to his children.

Trump retains all ownership and licensing rights to his enterprises and continually and personally profits from all his businesses.

The list of conflict-making presidential decisions cuts across virtually the entire range of national policies, including taxation, regulation, infrastructure spending, government contracts, trade, military operations, relations with foreign leaders, and so on.

A technical violation of the law is not necessary to trigger impeachment.

Any subordination of America´s national interests to Trump´s financial interests will suffice.

Donald Trump is a liar.

His lies have profited him in business, burnished his image, helped him fight thousands of lawsuits and won him the White House.

It is his reflex response to any challenge or opportunity.

Legally, Trump can lie while in office, but if he lies intentionally on a material matter in sworn testimony, that is a crime known as perjury.

Lying to Congress or to federal officials is also an impeachable offense.

The US Supreme Court has ruled that a President cannot be sued for his official duties, but is not otherwise immune from lawsuits involving unofficial conduct, whether before or after assuming office.

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If Trump is sued and forced to testify under oath and lies, this could lead directly to his impeachment.

If Trumps corrupts the government information upon which an informed citizenry depends, this is another avenue to impeachment in that his lies threaten national credibility and trust.

Is Donald Trump a traitor?

If it can be proven that there was some level of collusion between Trump or his agents and a foreign power to manipulate the results of an American election, then Trump could be charged with treason.

No one in Congress will tolerate a compromised or treasonous President.

Impeachment and trial will be quick and decisive.

Trump may be destined for impeachment for egregious abuses of power.

Through his travel bans, Trump has violated the letter and spirit of the Immigration Act, which rejects nationality quotas and states that no person can be “discriminated against in the issuance of an immigration visa because of the person´s race, sex, nationality, place of birth or place of residence”.

The travel bans violate the First Amendment´s prohibition against “an establishment of religion”, which forbids any government to favour one religion over another.

The travel bans violate the Fifth Amendment, which prohibits the government from depriving individuals of their “life, liberty or property, without due process of law”.

The Whistleblowers Protection Act protects the rights of federal employees to report misconduct, without retaliation or reprisals.

Some 1,000 professional American diplomats submitted a dissent memo declaring that Trump´s ban was discriminatory.

They were told that they “should either get with the program or they can go”.

Trump fired Acting Attorney General Sally Yates when she refused to defend his travel ban in court, because she believed, in good conscience, that the ban violated American law.

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Above: Sally Yates, US Attorney General (2017)

In drafting his travel ban, Trump did not consult with Congress or any pertinent committees.

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Instead Trump recruited staff members of the House Judiciary Committee to assist in drafting the executive order, without prior consultation with their bosses, imposing on them confidentiality agreements.

The unauthorised use of congressional staffers and the coercing upon them of gag orders, violates the separation of powers between the executive and Congress.

When Senior Federal District Court Judge James L. Robart issued an injunction halting implementation of Trump´s travel ban, Trump responded by waging war on the judiciary suggesting that the Courts will be to blame for any future terrorist attack upon US soil.

Trump´s dispargement of the Judiciary raises concerns that, in the event of another terrorist incident, Trump will blame the Courts and his political enemies as a pretext for taking total control under martial law.

To eliminate another check on his powers, Trump discredits any reporting that does not follow his propaganda line as “fake news” by the “very dishonest press”.

The White House has barred from press briefings selected outlets that have reported news critical of the administration.

Above: President George W. Bush unveiling the James Brady White House Press Briefing Room, 11 July 2007

He continues to threaten suppression of those news sources he disapproves of.

Even if President Trump does not brazenly violate the First Amendment through censorship, he can still be impeached for his war on the press as an abuse of presidential power.

Issues surrounding Trump´s temperament raise the question of whether he might be charged with “incapacity”.

The Twenty-Fifth Amendment provides a means for removing a President for disabilities – not limited to the physical – that render him unable to fulfill the duties of office.

It is a procedure that has never been used to remove a President and requires the cooperation of the Vice President and the cabinet.

Should Trump challenge this declaration, then Congress must declare him incapable by at least a two-thirds vote.

Mental health professionals have already challenged Trump´s mental fitness to govern.

By the standard of ensuring that the citizenry under his control are provided for, Trump has again failed.

From his desire to remove millions of Americans from health coverage, to his unwillingness to ensure American safety from the overabundance of and lack of regulation of guns, to his provocation of North Korea in a game of nuclear roulette, to his reversal of needed climate change legislation and cooperation, to his unwilling reluctance to assist a devastated Puerto Rico, Trump has proven again and again of his unfitness to govern America.

 

Perhaps it is not a question of whether Trump will be impeached but more of a question of when?

 

A similar inevitable scenario existed in Russia a century ago….

To be fair, Tsar Nicholas II had powers that Trump could only dream of, but there are definite parallels that can be drawn between Nicholas and Trump and why these parallels led to the necessary abdication of Nicholas as Tsar of Russia.

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Above: Nicholas II of Russia (1868-1918), Tsar (1894-1917)

The Russian Revolution did not come of the blue.

The dress rehearsal for the events of 1917 took place in 1905.

1904 had seen military defeat by the Japanese, starvation and discontent in the countryside, appaling living and working conditions in the cities, and the spread of socialist and democratic ideas among the intelligentsia.

These all came together on 9 January 1905, Bloody Sunday, when the Imperial Guard in St. Petersburg gunned down hundreds of unarmed demonstrators.

The result was a mortal blow to the credibility of Nicholas II and his regime.

Massive nationwide strikes and demonstrations forced the Tsar to accept the first-ever representative assembly in Russian history, the Duma.

This concession brought a few years of precarious stability.

The next few years saw a bitter tug of war between a Tsar, who was intent on maintaining his autocratic power, and a series of Dumas demanding economic and political reform.

With the abandonment of serious efforts at reform, rising social disorder and discontent was Russia´s entry into the First World War in 1914.

Russian society pulled together in the face of a common enemy.

Strikes stopped.

Agitators were jalied.

There were huge patriotic demonstrations.

But as the War dragged on, the resulting military humiliation and rising economic discontent, was the final nail in the coffin of the tsarist regime.

The War took Nicholas far away from Petrograd (the new, patriotic name for St. Petersburg) to command his troops.

(Like Trump, Nicholas thought himself to be a military leader.

He wasn´t.

Trump isn´t.)

Government was left in the hands of the capricious and incompetent Tsarina Alexandra.

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Above: Alexandra Feodorovna (1872-1918), Tsarina (1894-1917)

The standing of the Tsar reached rock bottom, with even members of his own family plotting to remove him.

Rising popular discontent came to a head with bread riots in Petrograd.

After some attempts at suppression the army joined the rioters.

Nicholas was asked by the Duma to respond directly in Petrograd.

On his train, Nicholas was virtually incommunicado.

Russia had only a provisional government sharing its powers with a workers´ soviet.

The temporary government needed the aura of authority through which to yield power, while the soviet knew its powers need not extend beyond the capital.

The people needed a legitimate sense that order would indeed be reestablished.

It was clear that Nicholas had long ago failed them, but, sheep need a shepherd, someone needed to lead and organise.

Nicholas needed to abdicate and someone needed to replace him.

Trump needs to be impeached and someone is needed to replace him.

Nicholas, like Trump a century later, had shown no willingness to accept advice, to grow in his role, to internalise criticism or to show restraint.

Nicholas, like Trump, lacked the protection of a wide popular mandate.

Both men fought to keep their power regardless of the damage wrecked on others.

Trump´s end has yet to be written.

What follows soon in this blog is how Nicholas´ chapter drew to a close and how an exile in Switzerland would seize the fall of a Tsar to grab ultimate power for himself.

Sources: Wikipedia / Allan J. Lichtman, The Case for Impeachment / Tony Brenton, Historically Inevitable?: Turning Points in the Russian Revolution

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

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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
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  • 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.

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

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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 High Road to Anarchy

Landschalacht, Switzerland, 7 September 2017

Six nights ago the world was shocked and saddened when a lone gunman in a hotel room on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Resort and Casino on Las Vegas Strip in Paradise, Nevada, shot into a crowd of more than 20,000 people, killing 60 and injuring hundreds.

The world has learned that the suspect, Stephen Paddock, was armed with at least 23 firearms, including long distance rifles used by the American military for the last half-century.

What we know – and I don´t want to give this monster more attention than he deserves – about Paddock was that he was a professional gambler, a real estate investor, a pilot and plane owner, a former employee of Lockheed Martin (a military contractor), a retired accountant and twice divorced.

Invading his home, police have discovered Paddock had a cache of over 63 weapons.

In plain and simple language, a civilian was armed with military grade firearms.

Those bearing arms in the US armed forces are analysed and supervised.

Civilian gun-owners in the US….

Not so much.

Thus there is a real danger that civilians will – unsupervised – acquire a stockpile of weaponry and that the unbalanced among them will use them.

And as events in Vegas and many other locations prior to Sunday night´s massacre have proven….

It is almost impossible to determine what will trigger these civilians to become unbalanced and unleash the unthinkable upon the unknowing.

Gun violence in the United States results in tens of thousands of deaths and injuries annually.

Flag of the United States

In an average year in America there are over 10,000 homicides, 20,000 suicides and 500 accidental deaths caused by civilian-owned firearms.

Over 1.5 million people in the US have been killed using firearms since 1968, equivalent to the population of a large American city.

Globally, it is estimated that there are over 875 million small arms in the hands of civilians, law enforcement agencies and armed forces.

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Of these, 75% are held by civilians.

US civilians account for over 270 million of this total.

The United States and Yemen are distinct from many other countries in that they consider civilian gun ownership as a right.

In most countries, civilian firearm ownership is considered a privilege because the legislation governing possession of firearms is more restrictive.

Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Eritrea, Somalia, the Solomon Islands and Taiwan prohibit civilian ownership of firearms in almost all instances.

In America it has been shown that the states with the strictest gun laws have lower homicide and suicide rates than those with the least restrictive gun laws.

States without universal background checks or waiting period laws have steeper homicide and suicide rates than do states with these laws.

But, of course, for every study proving that gun control does work, somehow studies emerge that gun control doesn´t work.

And the mindset in America is so pro-gun ownership that an American philosophy Professor Michael Huemer argues that gun control is morally wrong, because individuals have a right to own a gun for self defence and recreation!

In my homeland of Canada, rifles and shotguns are relatively easy to obtain, while handguns and semi-automatic weapons are not.

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So, though our gun laws may not have significantly reduced gun violence or firearm suicide rates, the ability and the frequency to murder masses of people at one time is significantly lower than our counterparts south of the border.

Gun control laws enacted in Australia, following mass shootings, have shown a dramatic decline in overall firearm-related deaths, especially suicides.

A blue field with the Union Flag in the upper hoist quarter, a large white seven-pointed star in the lower hoist quarter, and constellation of five white stars in the fly – one small five-pointed star and four, larger, seven-pointed stars.

Gun control laws passed in Austria, Brazil, New Zealand, Israel, Switzerland, Norway, South Africa and Colombia have all shown a resulting reduction in homicide and suicide rates.

The effectiveness and safety of guns used for personal defence is usually the argument given by gun ownership advocates.

Yet it seems in the US, out of 1,000 criminal incidents, guns are used for self defence in less than 1% of the time.

In most cases, the potential victim never fired a shot.

What is certain is that the likelihood that a death will result is significantly increased when either the victim or the attacker has a firearm.

Every year in America there are over 19,000 firearm-related suicides.

It has been shown that individuals living in a home where firearms are present are more likely to commit suicide than those who do not own firearms, because firearms are the most lethal method of suicide.

Every year on average there are over 10,000 firearm-related homicides in America, 75% of them using handguns.

The US has one of the highest incidence rates of homicides committed with a firearm in the world.

Of the victims of gun homicide in America, 55% of them are African Americans.

Of the white homicide victims, 84% are killed by white offenders.

Of the black homicide victims, 93% are killed by black offenders.

In 2015, there were 372 mass shootings and over 30,000 deaths due to firearms in the US, while, by comparison there were only 50 deaths due to firearms in the UK.

(A mass shooting is defined as four or more people shot dead in a public place.)

The rate of deadly mass shootings in the US keeps increasing every year.

Sadly, unbalanced individuals can become infected by the attention given other disturbed people who have become mass killers, resulting in more mass killing.

More people are typically killed with guns in the US in a day (on average, 85) than are killed in the UK in a year.

In the US, areas with higher levels of gun ownership also have higher rates of gun assault and gun robbery.

At least 11 assassination attempts with firearms have been made on US Presidents: four were successful (Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, Kennedy).

Above: The assassination of President William McKinley, 1901

And throughout history, gun violence has played a major role in civil disorder.

But, let me be fair….

Most gun owners are not criminals and purchase guns to prevent violence, rather than for recreational use.

Debate over gun control remains a heated and controversial issue in America.

Firearms regulations are sets of laws or policies that regulate the manufacture, sale, transfer, possession, modification and use of firearms by civilians.

Much, albeit necessary, focus has been on the possession, modification and use of firearms.

Personally, I think there needs to be more focus and more restrictions on the manufacture, sale and transfer of firearms as well.

The fewer guns produced, the fewer guns can be purchased, legally or illegally.

If manufacturers are restricted to selling arms only to the military and the law enforcement community and private selling of arms to the public are reduced while the private purchase of arms is made prohibitively expensive throughout heavy taxation, then might the production and availability of new armament to the general public be reduced.

As for existing guns, limit ownership to one weapon, buy back or seize (should the gun owner refuse to sell) the remaining weapons and destroy them.

My argument is if the purpose of purchasing a firearm is recreation or self-protection, only one firearm is necessary.

If the purpose of owning a firearm is recreation or self-protection, then, like Canada, let that ownership be restricted to rifles and shotguns, banning the future purchase of handguns and semi-automatics.

As for the illegal purchase and sale of firearms, let the penalties be so harsh as to actively discourage the practice.

Those who read these words may accuse me of being a “gun grabber”.

They are right.

With great power comes great responsibilty.

Owning a gun is a great power – the power to end another person´s life.

Quite frankly, there are far too many civilians who don´t act responsibly, and though there are indeed many who do, it only takes a few to cause carnage as was witnessed on Sunday night in Paradise, Nevada.

And….

Enough with “thoughts and prayers”.

Offering condolences after a public tragedy, manmade or natural, is a poor substitute for preventing or preparing for these tragedies.

There is something deeply hypocritical about praying for a problem you are unwilling to resolve.

“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works?

Can that faith save him?

If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them:

“Go in peace, be warmed and filled.”,

….without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?” (James 2: 14 – 16, The Holy Bible)

(Donald Trump, regarding Puerto Rico, take note.)

As well, we need to learn from history that shows just how irresponsible civilians can be once they get their hands on a firearm.

 

Petrograd (today´s St. Petersburg), Russia, Monday 27 February 1917

Events took a decisive turn in the early hours of the day, when the army, as many had predicted, began mutinying.

At 3 am, following the previous day´s example of the Pavlovsky rebels, the soldiers of the Volynsky Regiment´s barracks near the junction of the Moika River and the Ekaterininsky Canal, some of whom had been ordered to fire on the crowds on Sunday, decided to mutiny.

When the soldiers lined up for duty, some of them turned on their commanding officer and shot him dead.

They were unable, however, to persuade the rest of the Regiment to join them, so they headed off to incite other regiments, picking up a rabble of civilian supporters along the way.

They gathered at the Liteiny Bridge and headed to the depot battalion of the Preobrazhensky and Lithuanian Regiments as well as the 6th Engineer Battalion.

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Above: Liteiny Bridge, today

Most of them soon joined the Volynsky rebels – with the Engineer Battalion even bringing their marching band – and, by the end of the day, would kill the commanders of a battalion of the Preobrazhensky and a battalion of the Volynsky as well as numerous other officers.

In those first few hours most of the rebellious soldiers were disorientated and numbed by the spontaneous decision they had made.

They had no sense of where to go or what to do, other than get other regiments to join them.

Such was the euphoria among the rebellious troops that many simply walked around shouting, cheering and arguing amongst themselves “like schoolboys broken out of school”.

Leadership of this motley mob of soldiers and civilians devolved into acts of sudden bravado or rabble-rousing on street corners, but they quickly realised that they needed to arm themselves.

It was a huge shock to Meriel Buchanan, daughter of the British Ambassador, arriving back in Petrograd at 8 o´clock that morning from a visit with friends in the country, to find there were no trams or carriages to transport her and her luggage back to the Embassy.

She was forcibly struck by how Petrograd had changed in her absence:

“In the bleak, gray light of the early morning the town looked inexpressibly desolate and deserted, the bare, ugly street leading up from the station, with the dirty white stucco houses on either side, seemed, after the snow-white peace of the country, somehow the very acme of dreariness.”

At 10 am, with Meriel Buchanan shut up and forbidden to leave the Embassy, the rebel group descended on the Old Arsenal at the top of the Liteiny, which housed both the Artillery Department and a small arms factory.

Above: Liteiny Prospekt, today

In a mad frenzy, they smashed in the Arsenal´s ground floor door and windows and looted rifles, revolvers, swords, daggers, ammunition and machine guns.

Around 11 am, they turned their attention to the hated symbols of tsarism – the nearby District Court and the Palace of Justice, together with an adjoining remand prison.

The prison was burst open, the inmates set free and handed weapons, and the prison set on fire.

The District Court was torched, thus destroying all the criminal records of all the freed convicts as well as valuable historical archives dating back to the reign of Catherine the Great (1762 – 1796).

American photographer Donald Thompson watched the violence on the Liteiny when suddenly he himself was arrested and hauled off to the police station.

He showed the police his American press pass, but he was locked in a suffocating small cell with 20 other people.

The mob broke into the police station, smashed the lock to his cell and suddenly people threw their arms around him and kissed him, telling him he was free.

In the front office, as Thompson made his way out, he “found a sight beyond description”: “women were down on their knees hacking the bodies of the police to pieces”.

He saw one woman “trying to tear somebody´s face off with her bare fingers”.

The Liteiny quarter was now a scene of “indescribable confusion”, ablaze from the fires at the District Court and the Palace of Justice, the air thick with the crackle of random shooting. (French diplomat Louis de Robien)

An abandoned, overturned tram was being used as a platform from which a succession of speakers attempted to harangue the mob, but “it was impossible to make heads or tails of the disorderly ebb and flow of all these panic-stricken people running in every direction.” (Louis de Robien)

When a group of still-loyal Senonovsky Regiment soldiers arrived, there was a pitched battle between them and a company of Volynsky mutineers – watched by groups of civilians huddled into side passages and doorways, many of them women and children tempted out by “the spirit of curiosity”, and who took enormous risks, “walking out calmly under a lively fire to drag back the wounded”. (Louis de Robien)

The wounded were carried off as fast as they fell, leaving behind “long trails of fresh blood” in the snow. (US Special Attaché James Houghteling)

In between bouts of fighting, civilians scuttled back and forth across the Liteiny, intent on carrying on shopping as normal, even lining up outisde the bakeries and dispersing only when they heard machine gunfire.

To many of the bewildered civilian population, the events swirling around them were unreal, “as though they were watching some melodrama in one of the cinemas.” (James Houghteling)

Such was the abandon with which weapons looted from army barracks, the arsenal, prisons and police stations were handed out to everyone.

Crowds of civilians, workers and soldiers were soon parading round gleefully, brandishing their weapons and firing them off at random.

“Here….a hooligan with an officer´s sword fastened over his overcoat, a rifle in one hand and revolver in the other.

There….a small boy with a large butcher´s knife on his shoulder.

Close by, a workman….holding an officer´s sword with one hand and a tramline cleaner in the other.

A student with two rifles and a belt of machine gun bullets around his waist was walking beside another with a bayonet tied to the end of a stick.

A drunken soldier had only the barrel of a rifle remaining, the stock having been broken off in forcing an entry into some shop.” (British engineer James Jones)

There was no safe haven for any officers seen walking the streets that day who did not immediately surrender their weapons when challenged.

By midday the rabble of weapon-toting civilians in and around the Liteiny had been joined by 25,000 soldiers from the Volynsky, Preobrazhensky, Litovsky, Keksgolmsky and Sapper Regiments.

The dense crowd jammed the street for a quarter of a mile, “carried on by its own faith in itself”. (Arno Dosch-Fleurot, New York World)

Everywhere, amidst the mighty roar of revolutionary excitement, the singing and cheering and shouting, the fighting colour of scarlet was in evidence – in crude revolutionary banners, in rosettes and armbands and in red ribbons tied to the barrels of rifles.

Throughout that terrifying day in Petrograd many observers became alarmed by the anarchy and violence of the mob.

This was no benign revolution, but rather “like watching some savage beast that had broken out of its cage”. (US entrepreneur Negley Farson)

Hardened criminals, bestialised by brutal prison conditions, yet released by the mob from prisons across Petrograd, proceeded to incite the crowds to violence, arson and mass looting.

It was dangerous for any foreign national to venture into the streets without wearing some token of sympathy with the Revolution – a red ribbon or an armband of some kind.

“It was a very easy time in which to be killed.” (Isaac Marcosson, Everybody´s Magazine)

Foreigners were constantly being stopped and challenged on the streets for being policemen or spies.

Some were killed if they could not produce proof of identity quickly enough.

That day “anybody could have a gun for the asking”. (James Jones)

With so many untrained and inexperienced people now in possession of them and not “having a care as to which way the gun was pointing when they tried it out for the first time“, indiscriminate firing led to many innocent bystanders being killed and wounded. (James Stinton Jones)

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All day long, people – mixed casualities of soldiers and civilians – flocked into hospitals from the streets, trying to escape the shooting.

A long overdue day of reckoning had arrived, as popular hatred was visited, with a savage vengeance, on the police.

During this February Revolution of 1917, there were far too many incidental acts of murder of policemen for any reliable record ever to have been taken of the numbers killed.

Nobody was immune to the experience of such savagery.

By late evening 66,700 men of the Imperial Army in Petrograd had mutinied.

Revolutionaries were now in charge of the whole city, except the Winter Palace, the Admirality and the General Staff – still guarded by loyal troops, as were the telephone exchange and the telegraph office.

Above: The Winter Palace, today

The whole day had been “a Revolution carried on by chance – no Organisation, no particular leader, just a city full of hungry people who had stood enough and were ready to die if necessary before they would put up with any more tsarism”. (US aviator Bert Hall)

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Above: The storming of the Bastille Prison, Paris, 14 July 1789

These events bring to mind the French Revolution of 1789 and Charles Dickens´ A Tale of Two Cities.

“Petrograd was flaring like the set piece of a colossal firework display.” (Canadian William J. Gibson)

“The prisons were opened, the workmen were armed, the soldiers were without officers, a Soviet (worker´s council) was being set up in opposition to the Temporary Committee (formed by the Duma´s moderate and liberal members) chosen from the elected representatives of the people.”

Petrograd “was already on the high road to anarchy”.

(UK Military Attaché Major-General Alfred Knox)

Above: A scene of anarchy, Thirty Years War (1618 – 1648)

As I have previously written, revolution or civil war is highly unlikely in America as there is great lack of cohesion amongst its citizens.

But should American citizens ever get it into their heads to revolt, their 270 million guns could create one hell of a state of anarchy and destruction.

I hope that day never comes, but a failure to address the problem of an overproliferation of guns is perhaps tempting fate one time too many.

Is it only a century that separates Paradise from Petrograd?

Man at bridge holding head with hands and screaming

Above: Edvard Munch´s The Scream

Sources: Wikipedia / Helen Rappaport, Caught in the Revolution: Petrograd 1917

 

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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.)

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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.

Three men in army fatigues

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.

A blurred pictured of a man with the words "The Truth Can Be Adjusted" superimposed

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.

Obama standing with his arms folded and smiling

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

 

 

Canada Slim and the Evil Road

9 September 2017, Landschlacht, Switzerland

I am determined to not write myself into too predictable a rut.

There have been a number of themes running through the posts of this blog since I started it back on 18 May 2015.

I have written of many things: my travels in Switzerland and abroad, topics currently relevant at the time of writing, and occasional glimpses into the comedy that is everyday life.

I have started themes that have yet to be completed, like the Brontes and Brussels, my own solo travels prior to this blog, the crucial importance of Turkish politics and history, and, of course, the current political malaise that is the US Trump Administration.

After a long break from blog writing over the summer I have found two themes that interest me greatly: travelling in Italy, and the Russian Revolution and how it was shaped from Switzerland.

To keep both the reader´s attention and my creative juices flowing I have decided to alternate between these themes.

This is not to say that current events are not worthy of my attention….

They have it.

The monsoons in Bangladesh, the destructiveness of hurricanes in America, the reversal of DACA resulting in over 800,000 people forced to leave their homes in America and return to birthplaces they have never really known, the tragedy of Standing Rock and international indigenous peoples, the ongoing farce that is Brexit, the abyss of race relations in the US, world poverty, immigration and refugees, the relevance of the media in modern times, terrorism….

The list and the complexity of world events seems endless and daunting for a simple blogger such as myself to tackle.

But be patient, gentle readers, over time I shall try to weave these events and more into the ongoing saga that is the Chronicles of Canada Slim.

At present, I want to talk about a place that at first glance seems easy to ignore.

The Splügen Pass (Italian: Passo dello Spluga) is a 2,115-metre high mountain pass which marks the boundary between the Lepontine and Rhaetian Alps, respectively dividing the Western Alps from the Eastern.

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The pass road connects the Swiss Hinterrhein valley and the hamlet of Splügen in Graubünden Canton with the Valle Spluga and the town of Chiavenna in the Italian province of Sondrio, the road continuing on to Lago Como.

The Pass is the water divide between the drainage basins of the Rhine, which flows into the North Sea, and the Po, which flows into the Adriatic.

On the Italian side of the Pass is the small three-street village of Montespluga, which is cut off from both Italy and Switzerland during the winter.

Above: Montespluga in summer

So the best time of year to travel this quiet pass is June to October.

The Pass was already in use in the Roman era.

The route follows historic mule trails and was recorded in the Roman Empire´s list of arterial roads as it followed an almost dead-straight link between southern Germany and Lombardy.

Path and road construction, transport services and trading traffic, spiritual exchange and creative artistic power have influenced the landscape and settlements as well as improving living standards and broadening horizons for local farmers.

The name Splügen/Spluga is possibly derived from the Latin specula (lookout).

From 1818 to 1823 the modern road was built at the request of Austrian authorities then ruling the Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia in the south.

In 1840, English author Mary Shelley (best known for her gothic novel Frankenstein) travelled through the Pass on the way to Lake Como with her son Percy Florence.

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Above: Mary Shelley (1797 – 1851)

This was not her first trip to Italy and one might wonder why she would return to a country that had seen her suffer great sorrow.

The threat of debtor´s prison, combined with their ill health and fears of losing custody of their two children, her husband Percy Bysshe and Mary left England for Italy in 1818.

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Above: Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792 – 1822)

They had no intention of returning to England.

The Shelleys then embarked on a roving existence, never settling in any one place for long.

They devoted their time to writing, reading, learning, sightseeing and socialising.

Their Italian adventure was blighted by the deaths of both their children:  Clara, in September 1818 in Venice; and William, in June 1819 in Rome.

These losses left Mary in a deep depression that isolated her from her husband.

For a time, Mary found comfort only in her writing.

The birth of her son Percy Florence, on 12 November 1819, lifted her spirits, though she nursed the memory of her lost children till the end of her life.

On 8 July 1822, her husband and Edward Williams set out on a return sailing journey from Livorno to Lerici with their 18-year-old boatsman Charles Vivian.

They never reached their destination.

Ten days after the storm that arose after they sailed from Livorno, their three bodies washed up on the coast near Viareggio, midway between Livorno and Lerici.

Mary eventually returned to England to raise her son.

In 1840, mother Mary (age 43) and son Percy (21), along with three of his friends, travelled together on the Continent.

This journey and a subsequent journey together in 1842 would result in the travel narrative Rambles in Germany and Italy.

Map showing routes of Shelley's European trips. 1840 trip begins in Brighton, proceeds to Dover, crosses the Channel to Calais, proceeds south to Paris, east Metz, north to Coblenz, east to Frankfurt, south to Freiburg, south to Milan, west to Lyons, and north to Paris and Calais. 1842–43 trip begins in Southampton, proceeds to London, crosses the Channel to Antwerp, proceeds southeast to Frankfurt, northeast to Berlin, south to Prague, Salzburg, Padua, Rome, and Naples.

Although her husband and her two children had died there, Italy had become for Mary “a country which memory painted as Paradise”.

From their home in north London, they travelled to Paris and Metz.

From Metz, they went down the Moselle by boat to Koblenz and then up the Rhine to Mainz, Frankfurt, Heidelberg and Baden Baden.

Feeling ill, Mary rested at a spa in Baden Baden.

Above: Baden-Baden

She had wracking pains in her head and convulsive shudders, symptoms of the meningioma that would eventually kill her.

(Meningioma is a tumor that attacks the brain and spinal cord.)

This forced stop dismayed Percy and his friends as it provided no entertainment for them, but because none of them spoke any German they were forced to remain together.

The group eventually travelled on to Freiburg im Breisgau, Schaffhausen, Zürich to arrive at the Splügen Pass.

She describes the Pass in her travel narrative, Rambles in Germany and Italy, published in 1844:

Chiavenna, Italy, Monday 13 July 1840

“At five in the morning we were in the yard of the diligence (stagecoach) office (at Chur).

We were in high spirits – for that night we should sleep in Italy.

The diligence was a very comfortable one.

There were few other passengers and those were of a respectable class.

We still continued along the valley of the Rhine, and at length entered the pass of the Via Mala (the evil road), where we alighted to walk.

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It is here that the giant wall of the Alps shuts out the Swiss from Italy.

Before the Alp itself (the Splügen) is reached, another huge mountain rises to divide the countries.

A few years ago, there was no path except across this mountain, which being very exposed , and difficult even to danger, the Splügen was only traversed by shepherds and travellers of the country on mules or on foot.

But now, a new and most marvellous road has been constructed.

The mountain in question is, to the extent of several miles, cleft from the summit to the base, and a sheer precipice of 4,000 feet rises on either side.

The Rhine, swift and strong, but in width a span, flows in the narrow depth below.

The road has been constructed on the face of the precipice, now cut into the side, now perforated through the living rock into galleries.

It passes, at intervals, from one side of the ravine to the other, and bridges of a single arch span the chasm.

The precipices, indeed, approach so near, in parts, that a fallen tree could not reach the river below, but lay wedged in midway.

It may be imagined how singular and sublime this pass is, in its naked simplicity.

After proceeding about a mile, you look back and see the country you had left, through the narrow opening of the gigantic crags, set like a painting in this cloud-reaching frame.

It is giddy work to look down over the parapet that protects the road, and mark the arrowy rushing of the imprisoned river.

Midway in the pass, the precipices approach so near that you might fancy a strong man could leap across.

This was the region visited by storm, flood and desolation in 1834.

The Rhine had risen several hundred feet, and, aided by torrents from the mountains, had torn up the road, swept away a bridge, and laid waste the whole region.

An English traveller, a Mr. Hayward, then on his road to Chiavenna, relates that he traversed the chasm on a rotten uneven plank, and found but a few inches remaining of the road overhanging the river.

It was an awful invasion of one element on another.

The whole road to Chiavenna was broken up, and the face of the mountain so changed that, when reconstructed, the direction of the route was in many places entirely altered.

The region of these changes was pointed out to us, but no discernible traces remained of where the road had been.

All here was devastation – the giant ruins of a primaeval world; and the puny remnants of Man´s handiwork were utterly obiliterated.

Puny, however, as our operations are, when Nature decrees by one effort that they should cease to exist, while She reposes they may be regarded proudly and commodiously traversed by the antlike insects that make it their path.

We dined at the village of Splügen.

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Above: Splügen in summer

It was cold and we had a fire.

Here we dropped all our fellow travellers – some were going over the San Bernandino – and proceeded very comfortably alone.

It was a dreary-looking mountain that we had to cross, by zigzags, at first long, and diminishing as we ascended.

The day, too, was drear, and we were immersed in a snowstorm towards the summit.

Naked and sublime the mountain stretched out around, and dim mists, chilling blasts and driving snow added to its grandeur.

We reached the dogana (Italian customs) at the top and here our things were examined.

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Above: Spluga Pass, present day

The customs house officer was very civil – complained of his station, where it always rained – at that moment it was raining – and, having caused the lids of one or two trunks to be lifted, they were closed again and the ceremony was over.

More time, however, was consumed in signing passports and papers.

We then set off downhill, swiftly and merrily, with two horses – the leaders being unharnessed and trotting down gravely after us, without anyone to lead or drive them.

All Italian travellers know what it is, after toiling up the bleak, bare, northern, Swiss side of an Alp, to descend into ever vernal Italy.

The rhododendron, in thick bushes, in full bloom, first adorned the mountain sides, then pine forests, then chestnut groves.

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The mountain was cleft into woody ravines.

The waterfalls scattered their spray and their gracious melody.

Flowery and green, and clothed in radiance and gifted with plenty, Italy opened upon us.

Thus – and be not shocked by the illustration, for it is all God´s creation – after dreary old age and the sickening pass of death, does the saint open his eyes on Paradise.” (Mary Wollstonecroft Shelley, Rambles in Germany and Italy)

After Chiavenna, Mary and her travelling companions would spend two months at Lake Como and then go on to Milan.

In Milan, the young men left Mary to go back to their studies in England, while Mary slwoly made her way back home via Geneva and Paris.

Upon her return, she became depressed.

“In Italy I might live as once I lived: hoping, loving, aspiring, enjoying.

I am placid now and the days go by….and darkness creeps over my intellect.”

9 September 2017, Landschlacht, Switzerland

In 1843 the road was further expanded with a 312-metre/1,024-foot long avalanche gallery designed by Swiss engineer Richard La Nicca which today is out of use but largely preserved.

Above: Richard La Nicca (1794 – 1883)

Plans to build a railroad line across Splügen Pass were abandoned in favour of the Gotthard Railway opened in 1882.

The author Sir Dr. Arthur Conan Doyle as well as his beloved creation Sherlock Holmes, a creation that Doyle himself was not particularly fond of, are inextricably linked to Switzerland.

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Above: Sir Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle, M.D. (1859 – 1930)

Doyle, who spent most of his childhood and youth in boarding schools, spent some time at Stella Matutina in Feldkirch, Austria.

On his journey back home to Edinburgh in 1876, Doyle had his first contact with Switzerland.

Many years later, 34-year-old Dr. Doyle came to Switzerland in August 1893 to give a series of talks in Lucerne.

Doyle was a sporty doctor.

He had seen skiing in Norway and imported one of the first pair of Norwegian skis to Davos.

Along with the Branger brothers, Doyle scaled the saddle of the Jacobshorn in the Albula range, now served by cable car and renowned for snowboarding.

They then tackled the 2,253-metre pass between Davos and Arosa, rising at 4 am, heading to Frauenkirch, crossing the Maienfelder Furka Pass and sliding down to Arosa.

Since 2008 this area has been added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites, traversed by the Rhaetian Railway and by “lads leaping about on planks tied to their feet”. (Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain)

Doyle predicted that “the time will come when hundreds of Englishmen will come to Switzerland for a skiing season”. (Conan Doyle, “An Alpine Pass on Ski”, The Strand, August 1894)

Time has proved him right.

Doyle would then travel on to Maloja and Caux with his wife.

On 6 November 1895, the Doyles left Caux for Italy.

Did he enter Italy through the Splügen Pass?

I have no information so far about his exact route.

After a few days in Rome, the family left Brindisi by ship to Egypt, where they would spend the winter in Cairo.

It remains a question of debate whether Doyle ever came back to Switzerland after his journey to Egypt and his subsequent return to his home in England.

Besides skiing, Doyle left his mark on Switzerland by setting the Holmes Story “The Final Problem” at Reichenbach Falls.

(See Canada Slim and the Final Problem of this blog.)

Splügen Pass is mentioned in Doyle`s “The Adventure of the Illustrious Client”, a Holmes story published in 1924.

“Both Holmes and I (Dr. Watson, the narrator) had a weakness for the Turkish bath….

On the upper floor of the Northumberland Avenue establishment, there is an isolated corner where two couches lie side by side, and it was on these that we lay upon 3 September 1902, the day when the narrative begins.

I had asked him whether anything was stirring, and for answer he had shot his long, thin, nervous arm out of the sheets which enveloped him and had drawn an envelope from the inside pocket of the coat which hung beside him….

…This is what I read:

“Sir James Damery presents his compliments to Mr. Sherlock Holmes, and will call upon him at 4:30 tomorrow….”

Sir James comes to see Holmes and Watson about his illustrious client´s problem.

(The client´s identity is never revealed to the reader, although Watson finds out at the end of the story, it is heavily implied to be King Edward VII.)

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Above: Edward VII, King of Great Britain (1901 – 1910), (1841 – 1910)

General de Merville`s young daughter Violet has fallen in love with the roguish and sadistic Austrian Baron Adelbert Gruner….

Damery: “…for we are dealing on this occasion, Mr. Holmes, with a man to whom violence is familiar and who will, literally, stick at nothing.”

I should say that there is no more dangerous man in Europe.”

Holmes: “….May I ask his name?”

Damery: “Have you ever heard of Baron Gruner?”

Holmes: “You mean the Austrian murderer?”

Damery: “There is no getting past you, Mr. Holmes! Wonderful! So you have already sized him up as a murderer?”

Holmes: “It is my business to follow the details of Continental crime.  Who could possibly have read what happened at Prague and have any doubts as to the man´s guilt?  It was a purely technical legal point and the suspicious death of a witness that saved him!  I am as sure that he killed his wife when the so-called “accident” happened in the Splügen Pass as if I had seen him do it….”

The Granada TV series (1984 – 1994), with Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes, is faithful to the original story as penned by Doyle, though it takes some artistic licence regarding the Bruner wife murder.

Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes.jpg

“The Illustrious Client” shows the fallen Baroness, to whom Gruner rushes to her side, accusing him with her dying breath of pushing her off the mountainside.

The viewer sees the scene is witnessed by a young boy, whom we are told by Holmes in his interview with Sir James that he suspected that Gruner had seduced his mother to poison the shepherd boy.

In “The View from Olympus”, the 18th episode of the 3rd season of the US modernised adaptation Elementary, with Holmes as a recovering drug addict who aids the New York City police accompanied by a female Dr. Joan Watson, Holmes mentions a previous case about a man who killed his wife on the Splügen Pass and tried to make her murder look like an accident.

Elementary intertitle.png

In this blog`s Canada Slim and the Lure of Italian Journeys, I wrote of how my wife (aka She Who Must Be Obeyed) and I travelled from our home by the Lake of Constance in Landschlacht to Chur.

“We leave the Autobahn and enter a wild land – a land of deep, narrow valleys, ancient forests, mountain torrents and villages that have seen little excitement or change since Roman times.

Past Rhäzüns and its isolated chapel of Sogn Gieri/St. George to the town of Thusis loomed over by threatening mountains and mysterious forests, the road, the Evil Road / Via Mala plunges into a narrow ravine, with sheer rock walls rising over 500 metres from the bed of the foaming Hinterrhein River.”

Above: The Chapel of Sogn Gieri, Rhäzüns

Via Mala, that ancient and notorious section of an abomination of a path along the Hinterrhein River between Zillis and Thusis in Graubünden Canton….

Via Mala, that narrow gorge that blocks the approach to two mountain sorties that defiantly declares that the traveller shall not pass….

Via Mala, so beautifully maleviolent and enchanting that the German director Werner Herzog filmed his 1976 psychological drama Heart of Glass there….

Heart of Glass DVD.jpg

(Heart of Glass is the story of an 18th-century Bavarian town with a glassblowing factory that produces a brilliant red ruby glass.

When the master glass blower dies, the secret to producing the ruby glass is lost.

The local Baron and factory owner is obsessed with the ruby glass and believes it to have magical properties.

With the loss of the secret, he soon descends into madness along with the rest of the townspeople.

The main character is Hias, a seer from the hills, who predicts the destruction of the factory in a fire.

During shooting, almost all of the actors performed while under hypnosis.

Every actor in every scene was hypnotized, with the exception of the character Hias and the professional glassblowers who appear in the film.

The hypnotized actors give very strange performances, which Herzog intended to suggest the trance-like state of the townspeople in the story.

Herzog provided the actors with most of their dialogue, memorised during hypnosis.

However, many of the hypnotised actors’ gestures and movements occurred spontaneously during filming.)

As I look into the gorge of the Via Mala, my heart grips tightly in fear….

As we navigate the climbing hairpin curves leading to the Paradise of Italy, my heart grips tightly in fear….

For my wife is driving.

She is mostly a fine driver but give her a challenging, cliff-hanging, narrow road and suddenly she becomes a Grand Prix Formula race car driver, a Maria Andretti or a Michaela Schumacher.

Of all the duties that are split between man and spouse, my wife has assumed the role of driver.

This has never bothered me, for I had never the urge to learn to drive and as a result I believe I am a great passenger.

Perhaps because ignorance is bliss, she could drive down a one-way pedestrian street knocking over a half dozen old ladies in the process and I would not react because I foolishly assume she knows what she is doing.

Now I have read statistics that say when partners are in a car together, the man is four times likely more to drive.

And perhaps I should feel more emasculated when she is driving, but she loves to drive and I make an excellent navigator (despite what the wife says).

But cliff hanging races and breakneck curves make me reassess my masculinity and I once again, especially on this trip, wonder if I will somehow survive my marriage (unlike Baron Gruner`s wife) or make it through the Evil Road of the shadow of Death to Italian Paradise (like Mary Shelley).

Sharing a car ride with my wife is a lot like being an unwilling participant in a hostage situation – you don´t know what´s going to happen and you hope you will survive the experience.

I am reminded once again of Canadian comedian Lorne Elliott´s comments on driving through the mountains:

Bildergebnis

“Not only can you fall down these mountain things, these mountain things can fall down on you!”

The climb up to Splügen reminds me of the lacing of a corset thrusting the hills into prominence.

Corsets?

How fear emasculates!

After 20 years together there are very few off-putting things we don´t know about one another, but I have learned, the hard way, that a little paranoia is a good thing in marriage.

Normally she does not want to kill her husband….

But my wife is driving.

I am not certain whether we will arrive in an Italy that resembles Paradise or in a Paradise that resembles Italy.

I will keep you posted….

Sources: Wikipedia / Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Adventure of the Illustrious Client”, The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes / Nicole Glücklich (Editor), The Adventures of Two British Gentlemen in Switzerland: In the Footsteps of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes / Padraig Rooney, The Gilded Chalet: Off-piste in Literary Switzerland / Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Rambles in Germany and Italy