Posted by: Brad Nixon | February 7, 2018

Bits and Pieces from the Notebook

I stab around at a lot of subjects, gathering material that I think may become blog posts or — probably too often for my own good — attracts my interest when I should be focusing on the subject at hand. Many are dead ends. They languish in draft form or in a page of notes, sometimes for years, but never materialize as a finished article. Here are a few.

Heavy Lifting

Learning about marble as part of a home remodeling project, I started thinking about the use of marble in sculpture, and wondered if Michelangelo went to the quarry in Carrara, Italy to pick the stone for his statue, “David.” I learned that the block of Carrara marble from which he carved the statue was acquired by a group of Florentine citizens commissioning statues to occupy niches on Santa Maria Novella Cathedral. In 1464, they had an enormous block of marble moved from the quarry for one of the figures. First one, then a second sculptor undertook the commission, working on the rock before each in succession abandoned the project. The huge stone then lay idle for 26 years before the commissioners resolved to get things moving again. They put out the word that they were looking for a sculptor.

In 1501, nearly 40 years after the block arrived in Florence, 26 year-old Buonarotti convinced the committee he was the man for the job, and spent two years creating his immense statue. Finished, it was 17 feet tall and weighed 6.2 tons. Suddenly the commissioners had a new problem: It was too heavy to lift to its intended spot 80 feet above the ground. A 30-member committee, including Leonardo and Botticelli, was convened and recommended placing it in Piazza della Signoria. It took 40 men 4 days to move it the half mile from near the Cathedral.

Read more at this link on the website of the Accademia Gallery.

In Search of Lost Paintings

Reading Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, or just the first of the 7 books, Swann’s Way, you encounter descriptions of paintings. Charles Swann is something of an art critic, and introduces the young narrator to a number of artists, including Giotto. Swann sets his critical writing aside once he falls in love with the beautiful Odette, instead devoting himself to finding her likeness in the works of the masters, particularly Botticelli.

Another character, Elstir, is a painter, probably based on a Proust acquaintance, James McNeil Whistler. These are just two examples of a steady stream of references to painters and paintings throughout the novel. I didn’t appreciate the extent of Proust’s painting citations until some friends who know my admiration of the book sent me Paintings in Proust, by Eric Karpeles. His book cites more than 100 places in Proust’s novel that refer to specific artists or paintings, and reproduces either the specific work or a representative piece. It was a revelation of something I’d noticed, but not really focused on.

I labored to absorb as much as I could of Proust during the year it took me to read his book. Now have a reason to do it all over again. Lucky me!

Keeping Up with the Windsors

When I was a kid, my maternal grandmother admired two stalwart institutions of her British upbringing: the royal family and Sir Winston Churchill. I never understood why an impoverished girl from Hull should admire a gang of overprivileged aristocrats. I did like the Queen Mum, partly because she and I shared the same birthday. I’ve since understood that for my grandmother, the Queen Mother represented indomitable British tenacity during the war, having been described by Hitler as “the most dangerous woman in Europe,” an epithet anyone would be proud of.

I better understood her admiration of Sir Winston, and it was a sad day for her when we watched his massive state funeral on black and white television in 1965. Looking into it, I’ve learned that the broadcast was viewed by 350 million people around the world. All nations of the world save one ─ China ─ sent an official representative to the funeral, and only the Republic of Ireland did not carry the live transmission. Those facts say something about the world in 1965.

Linguistic Treasures Hidden in the Desert

A final tidbit has stymied every effort I’ve made to fashion it into a blog post, despite the fact that it touches some of my favorite subjects, including libraries, language and ancient manuscripts. I summarize from an article in The Atlantic.

The oldest operating library in the world is purportedly at the 1,500 year-old St. Catherine’s Monastery in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. There, due to the vicissitudes of war, religion, geography and good and bad fortune, a library containing thousands of ancient parchments has been preserved, many of them containing remnants of otherwise extinct languages. When conflict or other events interrupted parchment supplies, the monks tasked with copying manuscripts would re-use older parchments, scraping off the old ink and bleaching them with lemon juice.

However, scores of those documents still hold faint traces ─ palimpsests ─ of the original ink or even pen impressions. With sophisticated technology, researchers are painstakingly reconstructing the vanished writing from beneath the later inscriptions.

As a result, they’ve recovered scores of previously lost manuscripts, including the only two surviving texts in Caucasian Albanian, once used in Azerbaijan until the kingdom was destroyed in the 8th and 9th Centuries. Another poorly documented language, Christian Palestinian Aramaic, combining elements of Syriac and Greek, disappeared in about the 13th Century. It was the language in which many original texts of the Christian New Testament were first recorded, and now linguists have some important new exemplars.

Read the full article on the website of The Atlantic at this link.

One never runs out of interesting things to learn. Were there only time to pursue it all.

© Brad Nixon 2018


  1. Call it Remembrance of Things I Passed, Vol. 1. 😀


  2. When I began my blog ten years ago, I worried that I’d run out of topics to write about. Now, I worry that I’ll run out of time before I’ve finished writing.

    I remember watching Queen Elizabeth’s coronation on television: a black and white marvel with a twelve inch screen that we’d had only a year or two. It’s strange that I remember so many details , and even stranger that I’ve never realized there were two versions filmed that day. We saw the BBC black and white, and I just watched some portions that were filmed in color. It’s certainly interesting to consider it all as a seventy-one year old, rather than a seven year old.


    • One possible explanation is that there was no such thing as color television in 1952. Commercial color television became possible in the U.S. in ’53, though rarely employed. The European color standard didn’t emerge ’til ’67. That live broadcast was in black and white, which is all that was feasible. Any color footage of the coronation was shot on film, and therefore not broadcast live, by definition. An excellent memory, though. Thanks for sending it along.

      Liked by 1 person

    • AND, it’s evident from your wide-ranging education, interests and experience that you’ll never clear the decks of all the ideas you have to address. That’s a good thing.


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