Saturday, 29 June 2013

Monday, 24 June 2013

Preview: The Colosseum

The Venerable Bede in the 8th Century wrote, as later translated by Lord Byron*:

While stands the Coliseum, Rome shall stand
When falls the Coliseum, Rome shall fall
And when Rome falls – the world.

Good thing it's still around then.

Friday, 21 June 2013

Preview: St Peter's Basilica

In the Bible, Peter was a pretty straightforward man. Any other time, he would no doubt have played out his years as a humble fisherman on the sea of Galilee, but having a key role in what was to become one of the world's major religions kind of changed things. One of Jesus's disciples, he is described in one chapter as "unlearned and ignorant", and committed a number of faux pas. Despite this, Jesus seems to have quite liked him. In the Gospels, he is mentioned 195 times, with all the other disciples managing only 130 between them. Poor old Thaddeus gets only four mentions - I reckon even I could have done better than that. A very "human" disciple, with a wife and probably a daughter, Peter seems like he'd make a reliable figure to have a pint with down the pub. Jesus recognised this and in fact gave him his name (he was previously called Simon), which means "rock", saying to him "Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church."

It became uncannily true. After Jesus's death, the rest of Peter's life was spent spreading the word, and although precise documentary evidence is sketchy, early Catholic tradition has him ending up in Rome, the capital of the then dominant Roman Empire. He helped found what could be described as a small rebel Christian movement against the large pagan empire, and for his troubles Nero had him crucified. His followers retrieved his body, hanging upside-down from a cross, and secretly buried it in an area then just outside of Rome called Mons Vaticanus, and a small chapel was later built. It became a place of worship. A few hundred years later, in the 4th Century, Emperor Constantine had a vision and decided that the Roman Empire would become Christian. The small chapel became a basilica. 1700 years and some very substantial overhauls later, that place of worship still remains, in somewhat grander form: St Peter's Basilica.

Monday, 17 June 2013

Preview: The Tower of Pisa

The Tower of Pisa is not celebrated for its immense size, as with the Great Wall of China or the Empire State Building. It is not celebrated for its spectacular beauty, as with the Taj Mahal or the Millau Viaduct. And it is not celebrated for its sense of ancient mystery, as with the Pyramids of Giza or Stonehenge. No, the Tower of Pisa, perhaps unique on my list, has an entirely different quality that has seen it capture the attention of the world: improbability. It seems to defy logic. Tilted southwards, it looks like it should fall down and, well, it really should have.

Friday, 14 June 2013

Preview: The Alhambra

There is a lovely story behind the origins of the Spanish term "Ole!", traditionally used for flamenco dancing or bullfighting and with "Ole, Ole, Ole!" used today as a celebratory football chant. For a few centuries, Muslims were in control of Spain, and for 700 years there was a strong Muslim presence. Called the Moors, these Muslims had come from North Africa, and during ritual dances they would chant "Allah, Allah, Allah", as they believed the inspiration came from God. Over the years, this was adapted by the locals to the "Ole" form that we know now. Spanish football supporters, unwittingly, are exclaiming the excellence of Allah when their team coasts to a victory.

It's a lovely story, but sadly unlikely to be true. The expression is only first recorded in 1541, decades after the Moors left Spain, and linguists believe there is no natural shift between the two forms. Nevertheless, many Spanish words do have Arabic roots, and there is no doubting that centuries of occupation will have an influence upon a country. This includes physical remains, of which numerous Moorish Alcazabas, or citadels, scatter the country, mostly ruined. The greatest of these, surviving the trials of the centuries, is the palace-fortress of the Alhambra, in the city of Granada.

Monday, 10 June 2013

Preview: Sagrada Familia

On the 7th June 1926, a shabbily-dressed man in his 70s was walking very purposefully through the streets of Barcelona. To all outward appearances he looked like a tramp - scraggy-bearded, dishevelled, half-starved, his worn and loose-fitting clothes hanging off him. Observant locals would have been familiar with this apparent tramp marching the same route almost daily, preoccupied and seemingly oblivious to what was around him. This included the trams, notorious for recklessly careering their way through the city. Back then, it was not uncommon for trams to push their way through crowds of people, and the brakes of a tram were never something to rely upon. Bloody-minded, the tramp felt that pedestrians should have priority over trams and cars; the driver of No. 30 on this day was reading a different script. The exact version of events is unclear, but it seems that, unaware, the man stepped out in front of a tram, which struck him. The tram stopped and the driver pushed the obviously injured old man to the side - then drove on! A bleeding, concussed tramp by the side of the road, most people walked on by, but two women came to his aid. His injuries were clearly serious; they called a taxi and he was taken to a hospital, with fractured ribs and cerebral bruising. His underwear was held together with safety pins - the nurses assumed he was just another beggar and put him in bed 19 of a public ward.

Within a couple of days, visitors started flocking to his bedside. They had found him! On 10th June, he died and two days later hundreds of thousands gathered to pay their respects in what was virtually a state funeral to one of the greatest architects Barcelona and the world has ever known. Antoni Gaudi, the eccentric but visionary architect behind many of Barcelona's greatest buildings was dead at the age of 73, with his masterpiece unfinished. Almost a century on, Barcelona's most celebrated building by its most celebrated architect remains unfinished: the Sagrada Familia.

Monday, 3 June 2013

Preview: The Pont du Gard

Let's imagine you're standing on a bowling green, bowling ball in hand. You want to roll the ball along the green to its target, be it the jack or some skittles, but you're not allowed to push or help it along its way. All you have is gravity. The surely non-regulation bowling green must therefore be set on a slope. Given that a green is typically less than 40 metres long, you don't need to be standing too much higher than your target as long as the slope is even, but imagine now that this bowling green stretches for 20 km. Yes, definitely non-regulation. And imagine that the spot you're standing on is only 17 metres higher than your target, but in between are hills and rivers and valleys and forests. 17 metres difference in 20 km - the equivalent for a 40 metre bowling green would allow you a total height difference of just 3 cm. No giving the ball a helping hand, it just has to roll continuously. This was the problem the Romans faced 2000 years ago when building an aqueduct to serve the city of Nimes, and this was why they built the Pont du Gard.