A blog about the arts, books, flora and fauna, vittles, and whatever comes to mind!

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Friday, December 24, 2010

Season's Greetings

I don't celebrate religious holidays, but I respect them and the people who do.

What I do celebrate is the concept of peace on earth.  To everyone, regardless of who they are, and to everything - animal, vegetable, and mineral.

Tonight and tomorrow, as my husband and I walk around the land we are custodians of, filling bird feeders, scattering seeds, filling water bowls, and laying out treats for the bunnies, squirrels, and whoever else comes along, we will be sending them the greetings of the season.  I will hug my favorite trees, and sit on a boulder and take it all in.

Whatever you are doing, I wish you peace and happiness.  And the best greetings of the season.

Image courtesy of CCI Cards

Thursday, December 23, 2010

WAY before her time!

So what does it take for a woman to earn something men have earned, even if she can run circles around said men?  Money?  Connections?  Opportunity?  Those seem to be the keywords.  For instance…..

The University of Padua, Università degli Studi di Padova, founded in 1222, has a long and illustrious history.  It has a stellar list of past professors and alumni – Copernicus, Galileo, Reginald (Cardinal) Pole, Nicolas of Cusa, Sir Francis Walsingham, and Giacomo Casanova among many others.  It was one of the earliest universities in the world, and became one of the most prominent ones in early modern Europe.  It has the oldest original botanical garden, and the oldest surviving permanent anatomical theater in Europe.
University of Padua's Palazzo del Bo.
1654 woodcut image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Men were awarded Doctor of Theology and Doctor of Philosophy degrees there since its inception.  In 1678, Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia, a Venetian noblewoman and mathematician, became the first woman in the world to earn a Doctor of Philosophy degree.  She had wanted a Doctor of Theology degree, but no, it was decided that women couldn’t do that.  The Roman Catholic Church did not deem that was proper.  They banned females from becoming priests, and granting a woman a Doctor of Theology degree was too close for comfort.  (Catholic universities did not allow women to obtain degrees in theology until the 20th century, and in the United States some schools would not allow women to pursue a PhD until the latter part of the 20th century.)

Image of Piscopia courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

However, there were apparently enough members of the University that were upset by this that they met and decided to allow her the PhD degree.  This was remarkable because even though it was known that she was attending classes there, the general assumption was never that she would get a degree.  Most likely thoughts changed after a philosophy debate held in 1677 in which she participated, arguing in Greek and Latin with three highly respected scholars in front of the entire university, many citizens of Venice, and other scholars from all over the continent.

Mural of Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia.
The Italian Room, University of Pittsburgh.

Lady Elena was born in 1646 into the noble Venetian House of Cornaro.  Famous for the commissions of palaces, chapels, villas, theaters, paintings, church art, and much more over the years, the Cornaro family traced its ancestry back to noble Roman roots, including general Scipio Africanus and several consuls of Rome.  The family also boasted of having four Venetian Doges, a queen of Cyprus, three popes, and nine cardinals.  They were involved in the expansion of the city-state of Venice into the eastern Mediterranean areas.  It was in an erudite atmosphere of learning, study, and awareness of the family history that she grew up.  It is telling that we know of her, but not of her two elder brothers, or elder and younger sisters, who assumedly had the same advantages, but perhaps not the same abilities.

She began her studies early, beginning at age seven with the study of Latin and Greek.  After mastering these languages she went on to study Hebrew, French, Spanish, Arabic, and Chaldaic (biblical Aramaic).  Her fluency in these languages made her “Oraculum Septilingue”, a title meaning she was a master, or oracle, of seven languages besides her native Italian.  She also excelled in philosophy and theology, which she started learning at a young age as well.  Various teachers taught her grammar, dialectics, astronomy, mathematics, and science. 

The Great Window in the Memorial Library
Building at Vassar College, showing the
doctoral examination of Piscopia.
She was also taught what were considered the more feminine arts of singing, reading and writing music, and how to play the harpsichord, clavichord, harp, and violin.  At age seventeen, she was considered to be an expert musician, and had earned a reputation as a composer.  By the time she was 19, she was considered the most educated woman in Italy, attracting some of the many learned people in Europe to the family palaces in Venice and Padua to meet and talk with her.  She learned to debate and excelled at it, which would serve her well in the future.

Detail of Vassar window.  Installed in 1906, it was the gift of Mary Clark
Thompson in memory of her husband, Frederick Ferris Thompson.
She took a vow of chastity when she was eleven, and seemingly kept it all her life.  She wanted to become a Benedictine nun, but her father refused to let her, pushing toward further studies, and clearing the path for her to attend the University of Padua.  There she flourished, and continued to attract visitors and wage debates, which became famous events throughout academic Europe. 

Detail of the Vassar window showing Piscopia.
Lady Elena’s doctoral examination was held on June 25, 1678, in the Cathedral of the Blessed Virgin in Padua, rather than at the University Hall due to the size of her audience, and was attended by the University administrators, professors of all disciplines, students, Venetian Senators, and invited guests from the universities of Rome, Naples, Bologna, and Perugia.  She spoke for an hour in Latin from selected passages of Aristotle, and answered all questions eloquently.  This event became legendary, and she was awarded her PhD, a laurel wreath was placed on her head (the Poet’s Laurel Crown), a ring placed on her finger (the Doctor’s ring), and an ermine cape (the Teacher’s Mozetta) placed on her shoulders.  This was an extraordinary event for the 32-year-old woman and the University.  It was many centuries before the University awarded a PhD to a woman again.

Detail of Vassar window showing scholars
attendant at her examination.
She was appointed that same year as a mathematics professor at the University of Padua, another big first, and lectured there until her death.  She also lectured on theology and music.  After her graduation, she did become a Benedictine Oblate, and spent the last years of her life tending to the sick and poor.  She died in 1684 of tuberculosis and was buried in the Church of Santa Giustina in Padua.  Her funeral was attended by the faculty in gowns and capes, and her casket carried by four of the professors.  She was buried in the habit of an Oblate, with her mozetta over it, wearing a wreath of lilies and laurels signifying her purity and learning.  In 1895 the Abbess of the Benedictine nuns in Rome had her tomb opened, her remains placed in a new casket, and a tablet inscribed in her memory.

Detail of Vassar Window.  The images in the
tracery (only four of eight shown in this photo)
represent Grammar, Dialectics, Music, Philosophy,
Astronomy, Medicine, Geometry, and Theology.
A statue was placed in the University, and in 1685 the University struck a medal in her honor, something they had never done before. Her writings were published in 1688, which included both academic and devotional works (not much has survived, however).  Upon receiving her doctorate, she was the recipient of praises, poems, and letters of congratulation from scholars all over Europe.  Her name was inscribed on the Roll of Honor of many academic institutions in Europe.

Statue of Piscopia in the Palazzo del Bo, University of Padua.
An extraordinary woman who led an extraordinary life, Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia became not only a remarkable woman scholar, but a remarkable scholar of either gender, creating a gold standard not easily equaled, much less surpassed.  By anyone.  Period.


Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Tony Meeuwissen

Not many people this side of the pond have heard of Tony Meeuwissen, which is a pity.  One of those artists who never had formal training, his natural skills and abilities have served him well.

Instead of art school he served a five-year apprenticeship with a Rank Screen Services in London making commercials, then worked for various advertising agencies and design groups as a designer and art director before beginning his  freelancing career.

He has done various projects, from a Rolling Stones album cover, books (including his own), stamps, and the awesome The Key to the Kingdom transformation cards.  His covers for Penguin books are phenomenal, and one needs to remember that these were all done before the advent of computer illustration.

His work has been shown in galleries, and the Victoria and Albert Museum has purchased his works for its Department of Prints and Drawings.  One of his many awards is the Victoria and Albert Museum's illustration award.

He has also won two gold and two silver awards from The Designers and Art Directors Association (D&AD).  His Royal Mail stamps were voted the most popular British stamps.  In 1984 he won the Italian Francobollo d'Oro award for the world's most beautiful stamp.

But I think his most spectacular work are his playing cards.  Published by Pavilion Books in September 1992, the deck came with a book of corresponding verses.  There was a treasure hunt in this, and the winner won a golden key and $10,000.  The object of the hunt was to take an 18-line verse and decode it to select 14 cards.  Once the cards were selected and a familiar phrase found, the winner had to construct a verse applicable to the clues, including the names hearts, diamonds, club, and spades.  However, to my mind, the real treasure is the deck itself!

This deck is still available for sale, can be found on Amazon.

Images copyright of the artist, used here for illustration purposes.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Art of the Fold

"Spring into Action" by physicist and origami artist Jeff Beynon.
Origami is the art of paper folding (from the Japanese ori meaning "folding" and kami meaning "paper").  The term refers to all types of paper folding, even those not of Japanese origin.  In Japan origami is a folk art that goes back to the 17th century CE, and perhaps even earlier, but which became really popular in the mid-1900s.  However, there are paper folding traditions in China and Europe, notably Spain and Germany.  But since paper is so perishable, the only way of tracing its history is through references in published texts.

Image courtesy of Fabulous Papers.

In the early 1900s, origami artists began creating and recording original pieces.  Akira Yoshizawa created innovations such as wet-folding and a diagramming system, which created a renaissance for origami.  In the 1980s, a system-wide study of the mathematical properties of origami were explored, which led to a complexity of pieces which has gone on for decades.

Image courtesy of Fabulous Papers.

The number of folds can be small, but combined in a variety of ways they can make intricate designs.  Most designs begin with a square sheet of paper whose sides may be different colors or prints.  Traditional Japanese origami doesn't have strict rules, and sometimes cuts are made.  Modular origami, or unit folding, is a form that uses several sheets of paper for one design.  Each sheet of paper is folded into a module or unit, then assembled by inserting flaps into pockets, both accounted for in the design.  The tension created by the flaps and pockets holds the design together.

Kusudama (literally "medicine ball") is a form created by sewing multiple pyramidal units together through their points to create a spherical shape.  Sometimes a tassel is added, and they were once used for potpourri.  This can be similar to modular origami, but uses thread, glue, or tape to hold the piece together.


Sometimes paper money is used, also known jokingly as "moneygami".  This is thought to have originated with Chinese refugees detained in America.  It is also known by the name Golden Venture folding, named after the ship they came over on.

Origami presents several subjects of mathematical interest.  Technical origami, also known as origami sekkei, has developed on a parallel with mathematical origami.  In this field the basic structure of a design can be plotted out on paper or a computer before its execution.  This allows for the creation of extremely complex designs.

Image courtesy of Fabulous Papers.

The main starting point for these pre-conceived designs is the crease pattern, or CP, which is the layout of creases necessary for the final model.  This is different than a diagram, but is increasingly used instead of a diagram.  There is a challenge in "cracking" the pattern.  Some designers don't publish a diagram, so one is left with only the CP to complete the design.

Image courtesy of Fabulous Papers.

Some designers want to sequence the steps of their models but are unable to design clear diagrams, either due to lack of diagramming programs or artistic ability.  They occasionally use a Sequenced Crease Pattern (SCP) or Progressive Crease Patterns (PCP), which are names for a set of crease patterns.  This allows them to offer a step-by-step explanation.

Yoda courtesy of Fabulous Papers.

One of the foremost origami artists in the world is American physicist Dr. Robert J. Lang.  He is known for his intricate designs.  He has been involved in the mathematics of origami and in the use of computers to apply the theories of origami for real-world engineering applications.  Nine years ago he left the engineering field to become a full-time origami artist and consultant.  Yet he keeps his involvement in physics current with part-time laser consulting and as an editor of the Journal of Quantum Electronics.

Lang's Black Forest Cuckoo Clock

I, myself, have trouble remembering how to make an origami crane, so my hat's off to these brainiacs who can do so much more.

All images courtesy of Wikipedia unless otherwise noted.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Once You Are Real...

Children’s book can be very charming, and some offer little lessons in life.  The Velveteen Rabbit or How Toys Become Real is one of those.  Published in 1922, it became an instant classic.  I came upon it during my troubled teens, and fell in love with its message of being real, rather than worrying about how to please other people.

"What is REAL?" asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. "Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?"

"Real isn't how you are made," said the Skin Horse. "It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real."

"Does it hurt?" asked the Rabbit.

"Sometimes," said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. "When you are Real you don't mind being hurt."

"Does it happen all at once, like being wound up," he asked, "or bit by bit?"

"It doesn't happen all at once," said the Skin Horse. "You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand."

What a great message.  It becomes even truer when you get older, and your hair has been loved off, and your eyes get weaker, and your joints ache, and you start to look shabby.  Because if you do become real, and it is a painful process, then there are people who love you for whom you are.

The story is about a stuffed rabbit that is given to a young boy one Christmas.  He is relegated to the nursery, where he is forgotten.  The other toys put on airs and say they are real.  The rabbit's only friend is the skin horse.  Eventually, the rabbit is thrust upon the boy, who comes to love him completely.  Then one day the boy gets very sick, and all the toys he has been playing with have to be burned.  As the rabbit is waiting for the bonfire, a fairy comes and turns him into a real rabbit, since he was so loved.

The author Margery Williams (Bianco) (1881-1944) was born in London.  Her father was a barrister, and her mother a classical scholar.  She was encouraged to read and use her imagination as a child by her father.  That desire to read became a desire to write.  Her beloved father died when she was seven, and the sadness of that loss is an undertone to her work.  Sadness and loss are necessary for the continual processes of change and growth.

From Poor Cecco
Image courtesy of Bangkok Rare Books.

She went on to write numerous other children’s books.  Most notable is Poor Cecco:  The Wonderful Story of a Wonderful Wooden Dog Who Was the Jolliest Toy in the House Until He Went Out to Explore the World.  Named for her son, Cecco (and arguably the precursor of Toy Story), it is the tale of a wooden dog and his friend, the stuffed puppy, who are on a quest for a lost friend.  Published in 1925, and illustrated by Arthur Rackham, it remains unfairly obscure but is highly collectible by Rackham enthusiasts.

From Poor Cecco
Image courtesy of Bangkok Rare Books

The original edition of The Velveteen Rabbit was illustrated by Sir William Prior Nicholson (1872-1949), an author in his own right of children’s books, as well as an illustrator and painter.  It has been adapted for the theater, as well as radio, television, and movies.

I recommend this book as a gift to everyone, especially children and teens, and dedicate this post to all of us who are continually searching for ourselves and are on the quest to be “real”.

Except as noted, images courtesy of A Celebration of Women Writers
(Complete text included at this site.)