Heard It On The Grape Vine

by Thomas O’Dwyer

Here with a loaf of bread beneath the bough,
A flask of wine, a book of verse—and Thou
Beside me singing in the wilderness—
And Wilderness is Paradise enow. [Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam]

On second thoughts, Omar, forget the loaf and thou. Just leave the flask.

King Ashurnasirpal II drinking wine. Palace of Nimrud relief, Iraq, 879 BC. Photo: Pergamon Museum Berlin
King Ashurnasirpal II drinking wine. Palace of Nimrud relief, Iraq, 879 BC. Photo: Pergamon Museum Berlin

“You can trust me with your life, My King.”
“But not with my wine, obviously. Give it back.”
[The King of Attolia, by Megan Whalen Turner]

The 17th century English philosopher Francis Bacon wrote: “Of all things known to mortals, wine is the most powerful and effectual for exciting and inflaming the passions of mankind, being common fuel to them all.” Emerging statistics from the recent pandemic suggest plenty of exciting and inflaming has been going on around the globe. Times of trouble now play out to a background of popping corks, as do times of celebration. Not that this is new, far from it. In the ninth century BC, King Ashurnasirpal of Assyria threw a mighty wine-drenched party to celebrate the foundation of his new capital city, Nimrud. In Mesopotamia and Assyria, the everyday drink was beer, a beverage whose origins lurk in the dawn of human history.

“What was most impressive and most significant was the Assyrian king’s choice of drink,” Tom Standage wrote in his bestselling A History of the World in Six Glasses. “Despite his Mesopotamian heritage, Ashurnasirpal did not give pride of place at his feast to the Mesopotamians’ usual beverage. Carved stone reliefs at the palace do not show him sipping beer through a straw; instead, he is elegantly balancing a shallow bowl, probably gold, on the tips of the fingers of his right hand so that it is level with his face. This bowl contained wine.” Records of the feast in carved cuneiform tablets report the king served equal quantities of beer and wine to his thousands of guests. But it was the wine that displayed his wealth and the extent of his power — some of the wines came from remote regions of Ashurnasirpal’s empire. Wine was in fashion, but it was still mainly the drink of the elites, being too expensive and probably not to the taste of the beer-drinking masses. But wine was not new and its origins remain almost as obscure as those of beer. Read more »

On being in Rome: visiting de Chirico’s home and Richard Serra at Gagosian

Inv. 138 Sue Hubbard

It was the week after Easter in Rome and the sun was out. The Spanish steps were heaving with tourists and ice cream sellers. Algerian immigrants hawked cheap leather goods. For most the steps simply provided a place to rest; as one ample lady from Texas put it: “ok, so I’ve seen them now, is that it?” Clearly she wasn’t impressed. Relaxing with their maps and bottles of water wondering what to do next few seemed to realise that just yards away from where they were sitting the 26 year old Keats had died a horrible death from tuberculosis (the wonderful museum was practically empty when we visited) let alone that one of the 20th century’s most puzzling artists, Giorgio de Chirico had lived over the road.

The Giorgio and Isa de Chirico Foundation was founded in 1986 by Isabella Far de Chirico, the painter’s widow, who in 1987 donated 24 of her husband’s works to the Italian state.Upon her death, in November 1990, the Foundation inherited the painter's apartment in the Piazza di Spagna – the 17thcentury Palazzetto dei Borgognoni – where he had lived and worked until his death in 1978. In November 1998 it opened as a museum filled with his late paintings, drawings, sculpture and lithographs, along with manuscripts and photographs.

It is a strange place,a haven of quiet above the crowded street below. I had expected something rather more bohemian from this ‘metaphysical’ painter, but found, instead, an airy bourgeois apartment full of antique furniture, comfortable sofas and rugs. Not what I had predicted from this one time friend of Apollinaire, Picasso, and that arch surrealist André Breton, who had hailed de Chirico’s early dream-like cityscapes as pivotal within the development of Surrealism. Most odd was the tiny monk-like bedroom, Spartan in its decor except for a few books, with its narrow childlike bed under a white cover, where the ‘maestro’ slept across the hall from his Polish second wife, the intellectually and emotionally powerful, Isabella Pakszxwer, whose rather large double bed sported a flamboyant red counterpane.

The enthusiastically hailed period – the pittura metafisica – on which de Chirico’s reputation is based, lasted until around 1918. Then his work changed. Why? The official version is that he was paying homage to the Old Masters of the Renaissance, pitting himself against the greats of art history by going to Florence and studying techniques of tempera and panel painting. As Robert Hughes wrote rather pithily, “he imaged himself to be the heir of Titian”.[1] Denounced by the French avant-garde de Chirico counter-attacked with diatribes on modernist degeneracy signing his work Pictor Optimus (the best painter.) But why should an artist who had written: “It is necessary to discover the demon in all things….to discover the eye in all things – We are explorers ready for new departures,” turn his back on contemporary aesthetic discourses in favour of producing second rate paintings that would not, if it weren’t for the significance of his early work, get a look in within the annals of art history?

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