Monday, 30 September 2013

Preview: Palenque

In 1822, a catchily-titled volume was published. "Description of the Ruins of an Ancient City Discovered near Palenque in the Kingdom of Guatemala, in Spanish America" might be a name that publishers today would baulk at, but back in the 19th Century it was a big hit. Translated from Spanish and Italian sources, as the name succinctly suggests it contained reports on a ruined city in the then-Guatemalan (now modern-day Mexican) jungle. Significantly, it had pictures, depictions of the art and sculpture found there. Although investigations had been done into the site before - the Spanish had first chanced upon it fifty years earlier - this was the first time it had received popular attention. Initially, people thought it must be ancient Roman settlements, or the descendents of a lost tribe of Israel; they couldn't get their heads round that it was an entirely different, unknown, civilisation. But as interest continued, further investigation and exploration made, and more books published, it became apparent that this was very much part of a native civilisation - the Maya. And the city of Palenque was just one of many that had flourished about a thousand years earlier.

Friday, 27 September 2013

Preview: Teotihuacan

When you think of an early American metropolis, built to a grid plan with some showpiece buildings, you probably think New York, perhaps Washington D.C. or Philadelphia. But they're just newbies. Down in Mexico are the ruins of a grid-planned city that are much older, pre-dating the Aztecs and the Maya, and with some of the biggest pyramids ever built by man. And we don't even know its name.

Monday, 23 September 2013

Preview: The Golden Gate Bridge

On the west coast of America, two peninsular strips of land almost meet. But they don't, and that gap between them links the Pacific Ocean with the large bay and natural harbour within. It is, in a sense, a gateway, and in 1846 a US army captain called John C. Fremont named it thus. He called it the Golden Gate, in reference to the harbour of Byzantium, which was called the Golden Horn. The name was prophetic - two years later gold was discovered in the area, and the small town on the bay called San Francisco exploded in just a couple from years from around 500 people to 35,000. This number continued to rise. Until eventually people thought that, to speed things up a little, it might be handy to have a bridge linking one peninsula to the other. So they built one.

Friday, 20 September 2013

Preview: The Hoover Dam

I'll be honest, so far I've not been blown away by any dams. Years ago I saw the Aswan Dam, and after having seen all kinds of ancient monumental Egyptian structures, my only impression of the Aswan Dam was "What? Is this it?" It looked like a wall and a pond. And then, last year, as part of the Wonder quest, I visited China's mighty Three Gorges Dam. To date, it's bottom of my list. Big, yes, but not majestic, and certainly not attractive. It ably demonstrated that astounding feats of engineering might push the boundaries of technical excellence and be theoretically inspirational, but they don't necessarily excite the senses or capture the imagination. So why, after having already seen two bigger and technically better dams, do I think this one will be any different?

Monday, 16 September 2013

Preview: The Empire State Building

Until recently, if ever you needed to remind yourself what the original Seven Wonders of the World were - and it's easy to forget a couple - all you had to do was take a stroll into the lobby of the Empire State Building . There, on the walls, all seven were depicted. But wait, there was an eighth! I think you can probably guess what it was.

Friday, 13 September 2013

Preview: The Gateway Arch

In 1803 Napoleon needed money for more war, and for a planned invasion of Britain. Over on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean the French colony of Louisiana provided the answer. Formerly part of the New France colony, which had been broken up the century before, it was a vast swathe of land in the centre of North America that had little interest for Napoleon. The French before him likewise had never had the time or effort to do much with it, and in fact it was at risk from the British seizing it. And so just as we might sell a car or a bunch of CDs we don't listen to for a quick sale, Napoleon sold 800,000 square miles of land west of Mississippi. Although the native Indian population who actually lived there had little say, the buyer was the third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, who had been strongly involved in the independence movement from the British just 27 years earlier, helping to write the Declaration of Independence. "Yours for a bargain $15 million," Napoleon said, except in French ("Votres pour un bargain quinze milles dollars." Or something like that). He then proceeded to blow the money on a series of wars, never managed to invade Britain, killed millions, and bankrupted the country, all while putting the US on its first steps to being a superpower. Nice work there, Napoleon.

Thomas Jefferson, meanwhile, with this one handy purchase managed to double the size of his new nation, and open the door to westward expansion. St Louis in Missouri was part of the sale, and soon expanded to become the regional capital, and the starting point for numerous expeditions to the West Coast. In a sense, it was a gateway to a new world, in which pioneers of a new country settled and built upon land stretching for 2000 miles to the Pacific Ocean. And so in the 20th Century, residents of St Louis decided to commemorate this, with a grand monument. They built this:

Monday, 9 September 2013

Preview: Mount Rushmore

In 1885, Charles Rushmore, an attorney from New York, was taking a look round the Black Hills mountain range of South Dakota to handle the acquisition of some tin mining claims. Mining had been big business since the discovery of gold in 1874, displacing the native American population while the rush for gold and all kinds of other metal took place. Remarking on a distinctive-looking mountain, Charles Rushmore asked its name. Perhaps apocryphally, his mining companion replied, “Hell, it never had a name, but from now on we'll call the damn thing Rushmore”.

Friday, 6 September 2013

Preview: The Statue of Liberty

Over the years, I've been to or have hosted a few dinner parties, and so know that the key to making them work isn't really the decent food, or even the company, it's just tons and tons of booze. Invariably, the best dinner parties descend into a raucous drunkenness so that the best of the night becomes a haze and for which the next morning causes a lot of piecing together of what happened. Actual conversational details are long lost. Which is probably why at my dinner parties, things like this are never conceived:

Monday, 2 September 2013

Preview: Florence Cathedral

Back in the 14th Century, it was boomtime for Florence. The northern Italian city is still flourishing today, with tourism its dominant industry, but back in the late Middle Ages it was a major power. It was more than a city - it was a republic, made wealthy through trade, and influential throughout Italy and Europe as a major cultural force. The Florentine dialect is regarded as the origin of the modern Italian language, and the Renaissance began in Florence. Their most powerful family, the Medicis, produced four popes, and one Queen of France - Catherine de Medici - who was the mother of three French kings and a large factor in shaping one of my Wonders, the Chateau de Chenonceau. Florence was, in modern parlance, the "dog's bollocks".

As such, it was flourishing and great buildings were popping up all over the place. Today the city centre is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and is acclaimed as one of the most beautiful in the world. Much of that dates from this early Renaissance era: churches, monasteries, palaces, grand homes, a town hall, and circling the city were walls 20 feet high and five miles long. Its population matched that of London's. But one crucial thing was missing - no great city was complete without a great cathedral, and the basilica in the centre of the city was old and insufficient. Florence wanted something special, a cathedral to match its prestige and ambition. And to do this, the city leaders decided, meant the biggest dome all of time.