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review 2018-06-09 05:15
The Romance of Leonardo da Vinci by Dmitry Merezhkovsky
Leonardo - Dmitry Merezhkovsky

I read this on the recommendation of a friend whose taste in literature is even more antiquated than mine. I know that's ridiculous considering how many new books I'm reading, but I'm most happy when I'm deep in a Trollope.

Merezhkovsky follows the life of Leonardo da Vinci mostly through the lens of his time in Florence and the attitudes of the people, the politics and life in Renaissance Italy. Often the man himself fades into the background in favor of other characters, particularly his apprentice Beltraffio who goes through many struggles with his faith and the genius of a man like da Vinci. I've seen some criticism at how 'Romance' seems to be an awfully Russian sounding Italian Renaissance, but to that I say booooo. Merezhkovsky clearly did his research here, creating a meticulous image of the era as understood by scholars of the time. The philosophy and the style, I grant you, being written by a Russian, will likely be Russian. They have little to do with one another apart from setting and time-frame, but I kept turning over George Eliot's 'Romola' in my mind as I was reading this. It was a startling time. His characterization of Machiavelli and that man's relationship with Da Vinci was the most interesting historical speculation, but I'll be honest and say that the witches sabbath was just the most bat-shit crazy and unexpected bit of reading I've ever found in a novel of this period. It was pure fun.

This forms the middle volume of a thematic trilogy involving the decay of the classic tradition and its inevitable revival. I don't know if I'll read the others, but I'm intrigued.

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review 2018-01-14 22:03
Christmas Past by Robert Brenner
Christmas Past: A Collectors' Guide to Its History and Decorations - Robert Brenner

I have to admit something to you all: I'm crazy about Christmas. I don't have a tree up all year or sing carols or anything, but as soon as Thanksgiving is over, IT'S ON! The Christmas albums come out, the lights get put up and our collection of ornaments get hung on the trees.*

My husband and I have family ornaments ranging from a few fragile German pieces from just after WWI to mid-century Shiny Brites to a piece of purple foil glued on cardstock marked 'MyLes' in pencil.** We also like finding eclectic antique and vintage ornaments in cotton or paper or glass. The problem is that while we've picked up a thing or two, we never had a comprehensive reference on how to identify or date ornaments. As 'crackers' as we are about the ornaments, there's a real limit to how much we'll spend on a piece of fragile glass or a disintegrating candy container. So we hunt for bargains that aren't going to be researched and labeled. That's where Robert Brenner and his books come in.

This Christmas we received three of his books on the history of ornaments. This one is his earliest and is a valuable reference tool, but it does suffer from some issues. The book is divided into sections based on the materials an ornament is made of - dough, cloth, metal, paper, wax, cotton, glass, composition and plastics - with some grey areas addressed. Oh, and lighting. The book is furnished with some excellent photos of early ornaments of most types discussed.

A big revelation was how many ornaments and styles kept on for decades after we thought they would have fallen out of fashion. We were aware of many modern reproductions, but certain styles of ornaments we thought were exclusively Victorian it turns out were made well up into the early 1930s - these include the large wire wrapped glass figurals and the abstract tinsel ornaments made built around tissue-thin glass spheres. "Feather trees", artificial trees made of wire and wrapped in dyed goose feathers, and the miniature ornaments to match, were also made right up until WWII. Brenner offers some advice on what to look for: a rule of thumb is that more elaborate construction and "true" lifelike colors in glass and paper indicate an earlier date. But there are exceptions. And, while there are hundreds of color images in the book, Brenner rarely, if ever, puts examples side by side. For example, if Japanese honeycomb tissue ornaments were 'less dense' then their German counterparts what does that mean exactly if there isn't a single picture of a German or a Japanese item?

The book is a great place to start, and there is a later edition of this book (still twenty years old...), but I'm hoping the others provide some more concrete examples and insight. I'm hoping to be a little more educated next time we come across promising ornaments.

*We had two. Maybe a third next year. Only one is real though! Does that make it better?

**I've always disliked arts and crafts, so I tended to phone it in even then.

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