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Archive for the ‘Europe’ Category

London – Westminster Abbey

Posted in United Kingdom  by admin on January 10th, 2010

Church, burial ground, coronation site and much more, Westminster Abbey continues to attract visitors over 900 years after its founding.

In many respects the architecture is common. There’s the traditional cross-shaped floor plan with a nave, north and south transepts and several round side areas. But both its execution and use raise The Collegiate Church of St Peter, Westminster (the official name) to among the highest examples of church construction.

For, here lie buried kings and poets, scientists and philosophers who have themselves raised humankind to the highest levels. Isaac Newton and James Clerk Maxwell (discoverer of electromagnetic theory, which later lead to radio and TV), Chaucer and Kipling, Dr. Samuel Johnson (creator of the first English dictionary) and many other justly famous names are interred here.

Here lie many of the kings of English history. Henry III, for example, who reigned from the age of nine for 56 years, is buried in the Abbey. Much of the current structure owes its origins to his efforts.

New discoveries are still being made within its walls. As recently as 2005 the burial tomb of its founder, Edward the Confessor (Edward I) was discovered beneath a 1268 AD Cosmati mosaic. A number of other royal tombs dating back to the 13th and 14th centuries were also found using ground penetrating radar.

But far from being merely about the dead, here the centuries of history come alive. Still an active church, Westminster Abbey is the site of services and events for all denominations. Used for every coronation since William the Conqueror’s in 1066, pageantry combines with austerity to create an atmosphere of grandeur.

That grandeur can be seen in the enormous vaulted ceilings, typical of early Gothic design. But the artistic grandeur combines with technological brilliance. Just as one example, the support arches are not the ornate visible ones, but are actually enclosed within the thick stone roof.

The art housed by the Abbey makes the site worth visiting. Inside the west entrance is a portrait of Richard II, painted in 1390, making it one of the oldest known contemporary portraits of a British monarch.

There are several outstanding monuments in the nave, including those depicting Winston Churchill and the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior of WWI. This last was the last full-body interment in the abbey. Only containers of ashes are allowed now.

From the cloister, walk to the octagonal Chapter House near Poet’s Corner, one of the earliest constructed sections, built at the time of Henry III. Here you can see the mixture of architectural styles forming the Abbey, as the result of additions made over the centuries.

Stroll over to the south transept to view the original rose window with its nearby rare medieval sculpture. Three dimensional art was often considered sinful during the period.

Then stand near the center where the various architectural elements join and take in a 360 degree view. Almost 1,000 years of history in a brief glance, still alive and still being made.

The Abbey is easily reached by the tube (the London Underground subway system). Exit at the St James Park stop.

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Paris – Versailles

Posted in Europe, Modern & Historical Art  by admin on November 23rd, 2009

As you approach the gates of Versailles you inescapably have the feeling of entering not a palace but an entire city. The impression is justified given the massive scale of the building and the even larger grounds.

Beginning as a modest château of stone and slate to serve as a hunting lodge for Louis XIII (13th), Versailles blossomed – figuratively and literally – during the reign of his son. By 1682, after 20 years of work, the ‘Sun King’ took up residence… and then building really began.

At its height the grounds covered 1,800 acres and housed over 1,500 fountains besides the enormous palace. Around 300 remain today. Around the grounds are several distinct gardens. Watered by a system only part of which were 150km (90mi) of canals, the gardens and fountains are themselves a show on Sundays.

Covering 250 acres, the gardens were designed mostly between 1661 and 1700 and continue to amaze visitors. Be sure not to miss the large Fountain of Apollo, with the sun god driving a chariot of horses out of the surface.

Also on the grounds are huge stables. Closed to the public for almost 200 years, they were originally home to 600 horses owned by Louis XIV (14th). Now home to 20 Portuguese Lusitanian horses, the indoor arena is decorated with a sculpture and drawings of which the Sun King himself would have been proud.

Visitors can enjoy a directed tour of the stables and watch a morning dressage with costumed riders. (‘Dressage’, French for ‘training’, is a standard equestrian term. It means, roughly: training horses to move in complex patterns similar to a dance.)

But, of course, it is the château itself that forms the (literal and symbolic) center of the place. With 700 rooms no single visit could encompass more than a small percentage of the total.

Thousands of nobles and their servants lived here in the late 17th century, as Louis managed his government with tight reins within the palace gates. Which were always left open, interestingly, in order to give a sense that the palace was ‘owned by the people of France’.

Throughout the château are paintings, sculptures, wall hangings and structural elements drawn from all over Europe.

One of the main attractions, justly so, is the 73m (239ft) long La Galerie des Glaces (Hall of Mirrors). Bearing no resemblance to a fun-house, the high mirrors line the walls on one side with seventy windows open to the gardens on the other. Still impressive, the mirrors were the latest technology of the time and awed even jaded visitors. Set off by Corinthian pillars of green marble, the room (which once hosted many a formal dance) still dazzles.

Viewed by thousands of visitors daily, the château can be quite hot and stuffy in the summer, even outdoors. Dress appropriately. The grounds and palace are open year round and can be reached via the RER line C: Versailles – Rive Gauche.

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Paris – The Louvre

Posted in Europe, Modern & Historical Art  by admin on November 1st, 2009

Unquestionably the most famous name in the world of art museums, The Louvre largely deserves its renown. Enormous and filled with irreplaceable treasures from around the world, this premier series of exhibits offers something for everyone.

The building itself is something of an historical and art adventure. The construction of the original structures began as long ago as the 13th century, though the present museum has its origins in efforts of three hundred years later. The existing Château du Louvre, which forms a large portion of the floorspace, was begun in 1546.

The subject of sporadic expansion efforts for the next three hundred years, the only major alteration in recent times was the addition of a grotesquely inappropriate glass pyramid completed in 1989. The Crystal Pyramid forms the current entrance.

The change had one advantage in opening up the museum to large numbers of visitors more comfortably. Through the entrance and down an escalator the visitor enters a world of 6,000 years of every style and type of art known to man.

Within the museum walls are Egyptian sarcophagi, Persian and Greek artifacts, medieval and Renaissance paintings, 19th century classical and Romantic sculptures and a smattering of the latest forms. Some estimates run as high as 100,000 pieces, but in truth no one could know with certainty.

The museum itself is an eclectic collection of styles, the consequence of its many additions and changes over the centuries. Much too large to see in one day, the visitor is well-advised to pick a few favorite periods or countries and focus on them. Naturally, the best strategy is to opt for several visits but that may not be practical for most.

There are the pieces known even to those with little interest in art – the da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, the marble Winged Victory (Nike) of Samothrace, the armless Venus de Milo. But there are works well-known to those with at least a passing acquaintance with painting – Delacroix’s Liberty Guiding the People, Vermeer’s Geographer or Lacemaker, Ingres’ The Bather, David’s Marat Mort.

Along with the more recognizable pieces there are literally thousands on display known only to experts or the most regular visitors. Most of the collection is in storage at any given time. Many of the walls are covered from floor to very high ceiling with paintings ranging from miniatures to 10m by 3m (33 feet by 10 ft) canvases.

And there are a lot of those walls. The floor space covers several thousand square meters and there are a dozen different major buildings including the Château and the Tulieres that have been joined by passageways over the centuries. The various parts are also on several different levels, many connected only by steps. Be prepared for an extensive walk.

Fortunately, there are benches scattered about and the steps in many places are lightly used, providing several places to rest. To take a breather and enjoy a sandwich before continuing, the exterior too provides several places to sit. Here you can enjoy the passing parade of people or the stationary Les Jardins Tulieres. (Jardins is French for garden)

Lines can be long for tickets. Best to buy a ticket in advance or purchase one of the many available multiple-tourist-site passes. The museum is easy to reach via the metro (subway). Exit at the Palais Royal or Louvre Rivoli stations.

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Paris – Sacré Coeur

Posted in Europe  by admin on October 19th, 2009

The site of Sacré Coeur has long been an attraction for religious figures and groups. Though dedicated to peace and brotherhood, the building owes its birth on the site to the misfortunes of war and violence.

In the 3rd century, the first bishop of Paris, St Denys, was beheaded here. A Benedictine Abbey occupied the entire hill until rioters of the French Revolution burned it down.

During the Prussian War of 1870, the two Catholic businessmen who initiated the Sacré Coeur project wanted to build an offering should France survive the conflict.

The construction was approved and the site selected in 1872 by the then-archbishop of Paris, Cardinal Guibert. Financed predominantly by modest donations, work began in 1875 and was finished in 1914. Due to the outbreak of WWI, the consecration was delayed to 1919.

Despite its late-19th century origins, the architecture is a much older style. A mixture of Romanesque and Byzantine, the white, Oriental-style domes house a 19-ton bell (Savoyarde) and elaborate reliefs. Note: ‘Oriental’ does not mean ‘Asian’. The architecture of the Middle East is commonly known as ‘Oriental’.

Apart from its unusual (for the time and place) architectural style, the building has another unusual feature. The walls themselves actually get whiter with age. Made of travertine, a type of stone which leeches calcite, any accumulated soot and weathering gradually erode leaving the exterior a dazzling white.

The art work accompanying the building is alone worth the trip. The sculptures atop the entrance are bronze equestrian statues of Jeanne d’Arc (Joan of Arc) and King Louis. There are numerous mosaics and paintings covering the interior, including a large figure of the Virgin and Child. And, the ‘Christ in Majesty’ mosaic in the apse is one of the largest in the world.

The church is located in the north of Paris and rises 129 meters above-sea level. It is the second highest location after the Eiffel Tower. Sited next to the basilica is the still-standing 6th century St. Pierre de Montmartre church.

The building is a series of stepped-back rectangular walls pierced by several arches and capped by domes of varying sizes. Around the structure are complementary gardens and fountains, providing a peaceful site. That is, during those times when the grounds and building aren’t overcrowded, such as during the off-seasons or early in the morning.

From every angle without and many within the basilica is much more impressive than it generally receives credit for. Though a traditional style, the carvings and additions all form a harmonious whole. The golden mosaics give a glow to the interior that supports the site’s purpose as an area for contemplation.

From the grounds, high atop Paris, one can look out over the entire city and from within the dome there are equally impressive views. In the distance is the Eiffel Tower, and at dusk the combination of the onset of lights and the setting sun is spectacular.

Access to the site is challenging. There’s a metro (subway) station nearby at Abbesses. But, there are a great many steps leading up the hill to the basilica. The walk is eased somewhat by the funiculaire.

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