Hunting butterflies in a museum

There’s a clutch of very famous 17th century Dutch painters whose paintings we usually take to define the style. You can walk through a gallery of paintings from this period pausing only at the Rembrandts and Vermeers and Hals. But this time and place also produced a set of very skilled still-life painters. Walking through the galleries in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid, I was reminded of this. The names Ambrosius Bosschaert or Balthasar van der Ast were not familiar to me, but when I stopped in front of their canvases (detail from van der Ast’s just below, from Bosschaert’s in the featured photo and the last one in this post) I was immediately drawn into their world.

Madrid: Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum: Ambrosius Bosschaert 1607

The Thyssen-Bornemisza is one of Madrid’s Golden Triangle, the others being The Prado and the Reina Sofia Museum. This was the private collection of the Baron Thyssen-Bornemisza, who started by buying up the collections of American millionaires who had fallen on hard times during the Great Depression. I decided to spend half a day in this museum because it was extremely hot outside, and I had half a day between checking out of my hotel and catching my flight back home.

Madrid: Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum: Blathasar van der Ast 1628

With these three examples of the many butterflies I followed in this part of the collection, I thought I’d managed to spend one of the hours in this museum quite fruitfully. In slow stages I moved on to the abstractions of the early 20th century. This museum is the missing link between the collections of the Prado and the Reina Sofia, so it was an afternoon well spent.

Chapel of The New Kings

On my last Sunday in Spain I took the short day trip from Madrid to Toledo. This citadel is really worth visiting, if you have the time, and the inclination, to see one of the old capitals of Castile. One of the highlights is the immense cathedral filled with chapels and side-chambers. Apparently the reason why it is so large is that it was established by razing the old mosque, and wanted to build over the full area that it occupied.

I took a ticket with an audio guide and meandered through the place, looking for the paintings by El Greco, Raphael, Murillo, Velazquez and Goya. After finding them, I followed the audio-guide’s whispered commands and came to the chapel you see above: dedicated to the new kings of Castile. The two sepulchres which you see in the featured photo belong to Henry III of Castile and his wife, grandparents of Isabel who, with Ferdinand, were instrumental in unifying Spain. All that is history. What I don’t understand is this business of three pillows. Wouldn’t that be too high for comfort?

Pedimental Beasts

Toledo calls itself the city of three cultures. This is most visible in the monastery of San Juan de los Reyes. I walked through the Jewish quarter, and past the synagogue, into this large monastery built in the Mudejar style by Islamic architects and artisans, and found a stunning building.

Toledo: San Juan de los Reyes, detail 3

There is a wonderful mix of Christian spaces with Islamic decorations in the tiles on the floor and the woodwork in the ceilings along the corridors. But my eyes were caught by the exuberance of the details on the carvings on pillars and pediments.

Toledo: San Juan de los Reyes, detail 3 Toledo: San Juan de los Reyes, detail 4

I have seldom seen this kind of naturalistic detail outside of India. I walked slowly along the verandah bordering the central courtyard, admiring each piece of sculpture and taking a few photos. I’m sure each of these has been fitted into a symbolic belief structure, and if I were well-versed in medieval Christian symbolism I would see other layers of meaning under them.

Toledo: San Juan de los Reyes, detail 5

I just took pleasure in what the simple artists saw: a dog, a pig and a duck. Satisfied with my slow circuit around the central garden, I waddled out.

Spanish pottery

I saw everyday pottery from before the modern era in various parts of Spain. In a village museum in Andalucia I saw the plate shown in the featured photo. The decoration looked very modern. When I looked at the date, it turned out to be from the early 20th century. I liked the red colour of the fired clay, which you see in the rim. The thin white glaze and the faded green decoration looked very nice too.

Andalucian pottery, early 20th century Andalucian pottery, early 17th century

In the same place, I saw the pieces which you see above in the photo on the left. These pieces are also Andalucian and come from the early 20th century. On the right, above, is a detail from a painting by Murillo. If it shows contemporary pottery, then it is Andalucian, and from the early 17th century. Three hundred years has changed this pottery a little. The shapes are very similar. The newer pottery has somewhat of a brighter glaze.Castillian pottery, early 19th century This could be because the firing kilns are hotter, and therefore allow different glazing.

Finally, I leave you with photos of pottery I saw in Toledo, said to be from El Greco’s time. If this is an example of mid-16th century Castillian pottery, then it is remarkably similar in colour and design to tiles from other parts of Spain and Portugal of that time. Interestingly, even now one finds in southern France, pottery with similar decoration.

Dancing in the streets

During our trip through Andalucia we expected to see a lot of dance. What we didn’t expect was a reminder of Shanghai, and its dances on the streets. In contrast to the spontaneity of Shanghai, Granada was more organized.

We arrived in Granada, checked into our room. The Family was excited. "Let’s go out", she said, without giving me a chance to look at the map on my phone. We wandered out, and the nearest square had this wonderful dance. I have two left feet, so I was content to stand on the sidelines and shoot the video you can see here. Later we realized that the square we were on, Plaza del Carmen, with that wonderful large mosaic in the center, is in front of the city council hall.

We fell in love with Granada right there.

The Generalife of Alhambra

From the terrace of San Nicolas church in the Albaycin of Granada, one gets a good view of the Alhambra complex. In the featured photo you can see, on the right, the palace complex which is together called the Alhambra. The white building on the left, nestled into a hill called Cerro del Sol (Peak of the Sun), is called the Generalife today. The word is a corruption of the Arabic Jannat al-Arif, meaning the Garden of the Architect.

Generalife: Patio de la Acequia

We had a ticket which would take us through the gardens and pavilions of the Generalife, as well as the Alhambra. These are on two separate hills. On the burning hot day when we walked through them, these distances looked enormous. I was happy for the water fountains dotted around, where one could refill bottles and splash water over one’s face.

We walked through the gardens. What remains of the Moorish garden is hard to spot. The present design is from the middle of the 20th century. The flowers are chosen for their colours rather than fragrance, testifying to an European sensibility. The main building here is called Patio de la Acequia, meaning the courtyard of fountains. The photo above is a view along this courtyard.

Generalife: Inside Patio de la Acequia

The sultan would retreat here for peace and quiet in the 14th century CE. The building is simple today, although one does not know where ancient arabesques have been hidden under centuries of whitewash. Those decorations which are still visible are similar to the work in the Alhambra. We walked through the passages of this structure, marvelling that a sultan would spend extended times here. Once one of them was here long enough that a rebellion broke out in the Alhambra.

Albaycin viewed from the Generalife

There is a marvellous view of the Albaycin from this hill, as you can see in the photo above. I did not spend too much time in the garden, because I liked this more. The Family was more practical; she figured that we would see grander work inside the Nasirid palace. So she spent more time in the garden, while I sat on a bench after splashing water on myself and waiting to dry out.

Bird’s Net

Passing through Mumbai airport last week I saw, for the first time, crows inside the huge building. I have seen pigeons inside buildings before, but this was the first time I saw crows. An airport terminal is a closed structure, so it is somewhat strange to see birds inside. One wonders how they get in.

I was reminded of the ingenious Spanish bird’s net: a large net strategically placed to exclude birds. Spanish buildings are open to the air, as Indian buildings are, and for the same reason. Clever circulation of air can cool buildings. A typical Spanish style is a structure built around one or more open courtyards. I noticed that there were seldom any birds inside these buildings. The reason is a net stretched right across the opening at the level of the roof. The mesh is small enough to exclude even the notorious Spanish sparrows!

Handmade guitars

One night, while walking in the little lanes behind the Opera in Madrid I came across the workshop which you can see above. It is exactly the kind of shop that you might want to find near an opera. The next morning I walked into the shop, and into a world I did not know of.

Mariano Conde and his son run this workshop. I learnt about the subtle difference between a classical and a flamenco guitar. The flamenco guitar is louder, so it has a thin top, usually made of spruce. This is lightly attached to a hardwood back and sides, often cypress. The classical guitar, on the other hand, often has rosewood on the back and sides. The workshop specializes in using different kinds to wood to modify the sound of a particular instrument. For the uninitiated, like me, it sounded like the makers of magic wands, Olivanders, from Harry Potter.

More resemblances arose. The father-and-son also make something called a poem guitar (guitarras del poema). This is a guitar with a poem written into the inside, a collector’s item. I might have heard of a guitar with a dragon’s heart string next. I looked at the prices, heroically suppressed a shudder and walked out again.

Two spanish sparrows

We had not planned to do any bird-watching while we were in Spain. The Family had not even carried her binoculars with her. When I saw a few sparrows raiding the ground around a cafe in Madrid for crumbs, I took photos because I was not doing anything else. Imagine my surprise when I looked at the photos and found that they did not resemble any sparrow I have seen before. Thumbing through my field guides I came to the conclusion that the species is not found in India. Further search makes me think I might have seen immature Iberian rock sparrows (Petronia petronia). An adult would show a distinct yellow patch at the throat, and a more well-defined light streak above its eyes. Notice the thick yellow beak and the long grasping toes; these are characteristic of both the adult and the juvenile.

Passer hispaniolensis seen in Granada

This surprise made me go back to a photo I had taken in the Alhambra of a sparrow nesting in a hole in a wall. It wasn’t the same. In fact this was another sparrow which I had not seen before, and which cannot be found in and around India. Another search led me to think that this is the so-called Spanish sparrow (Passer hispaniolensis). The streaks on the back and the markings around the eye distinguish it from the house sparrow. By the markings that I see, this individual is a female. I took this photo originally because of that immense gape of the nestling.

Two lifers! Even without looking for them. Sometimes one gets lucky.

I’ve seen three kinds of sparrows in India: the common house sparrow, the Eurasian tree sparrow, and the russet sparrow. This almost doubles the count. I would have to travel across central Asia and Africa to see the remainder of the dozen or so old-world sparrows.