Sunday, September 15, 2013


Throughout the Werdenfelser Land in September, the subtle seasonal changes that begin in mid-August become more pronounced. Dried leaves drift from trees and the sun makes shorter, less frequent appearances. The klingel-klangel of sheep, goat and cow bells announces the animals, sleek and plump from grazing through the summer on a diet of grasses and flowers on mountain meadows. They trot through town, on their way to  smaller pastures where they will graze for the next month or so until cold weather finally forces them into barns for the winter. This is the season for the Almabtrieb in southern Bavaria. 

The sheep returned to Garmisch early this past Sunday and by 10 a.m., they had been herded into temporary pens in the center of town for the Schafpraemierung--a sheep show and judging.  As I walked through the pedestrian zone, I could hear the bleating and baa-ing of the sheep as they puzzled over their temporary quarters and complained about the impending shearing, also on the day’s schedule. 

When I walked into the square, the priest was saying a prayer of thanksgiving for the safe return. After he finished, he walked by the pens, blessing the animals with sprinkles of Holy Water. Then the day’s main event, the sheep show, with its judging and awards, started and the beer tent opened.

Lamb and sheep bells

Although the sheep were the main attraction, several artisans demonstrated crafts associated with raising sheep. One man from Sudtirol, the northernmost part of Italy just south of the Austrian border, sold hand-crafted bells for sheep and goats--these sturdy bells are meant to be hung around the animals’ necks so the shepherd can find lost members of the flock even in foggy weather. The bells vary in size, from small ones intended for new-borns to a substantial size for the bocks.

Even more impressive than the bells, he had also crafted sheep-sized collars (they also fit goats) as well as much larger collars for cattle. Farmers ‘dress' their animals for a festive entrance into town in these neck pieces, which are decorated with  intricate carvings and metal designs, as well as incised motifs. In addition, the animals often wear bouquets or garlands of Alpine flowers--they’re truly the fashionistas of the animal world.

Franz Greber, an organic farmer who raises endan-
gered breeds of sheep, demon-strated making felt, a heavy, water-repellent material used locally to make hats and slippers. 

First, he laid a sheet of carded wool flat on a table. On top, he placed a hat-shaped pattern and folded over all the edges of the wool to completely encase the pattern. Greber splashed the fluffed wool with hot water and sprinkled on a few drops of a natural soap. “You must work the wet wool  gently with the fingertips until the wool compacts,” he explained in his Bavarian-accented German. “The fibers must be evenly distributed around the pattern, which is now sealed inside the wool." 

He handed the now triangular-shaped cloth to his helper, a young neighbor, who pressed the wool repeatedly with a rolling pin over a washboard, to further flatten and compact it. 

After the rolling, Greber took over again, continuing to press and smooth the wool flat on a table, still adding dribbles of soap and water. Then, he, too, used a rolling pin to make the fibers contract into the proper shape. Eventually, when the wool was sufficiently dense, he used scissors to snip what will be the brim of the hat open and removed the form. 

Finally, he shaped the nascent hat over a wooden form until eventually the finished hat emerged.  The end product, the natural color of Greber's rare local braune Bergschafen sheep, is guaranteed to protect a shepherd’s head from the winds and cold that blow from the high mountain pastures into the valley.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Mountains Glow

The mountains change constantly, and I glance out the window frequently throughout the day to see if I am missing anything. The best time to look is just before the sun sets--when the sun’s rays reflect above the horizon to create a red glow on the mountains--Alpenglühen.

These photos were taken just before sunset, so it isn’t truly Alpenglühen, but it still looks dramatic!

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Heading to Italy?

Ross King’s Leonardo and the Last Supper will undoubtably top the reading list for those bound to the Renaissance-rich regions of central and northern Italy. And for anyone lucky enough to score a ticket to luxuriate for 15 minutes in the presence of da Vinci’s Last Supper in Milan, the book is on the required list. Readers will not only find a detailed explanation of the actual process of painting of the Last Supper but will also tap into a rich source of information on Leonardo’s early life, his working style (which would certainly earn him low evaluation ratings in today’s employment environment) and the meaning behind Leonardo’s interpretation of the final meal shared by Christ and His disciples. The book  explores many aspects of life in Renaissance Florence and Milan and increases understanding for the artistic and political milieu that influenced the next five hundred years. 

King describes Leonardo’s childhood--he was illegitimate, born to a mother who may have been a slave in a Florentine household. His father’s family accepted him, a not-unusual situation in 15th Century Italy where even popes and cardinals had offspring. Several professions were off-limits by virtue of his birth circumstances, but he was educated in an ‘abacus school’ and prepared for a job as a merchant. His father’s influence won him an apprenticeship in the workshop of Verrochio, a respected sculptor and painter at the Medici court in Florence. Verrochio recognized Leonardo’s abilities and provided training and contacts that forged a promising career.

Perhaps Leonardo’s interests were too broad, because he seemed to have difficulty in focusing on and completing the task at hand. Although he was trained as an artist, he emphasized his achievements in architecture and design of machines of war to win a position in the court of Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan. Despite Leonardo’s efforts, the Duke was primarily interested the Florentine’s artistic talents, which frustrated Leonardo and resulted in frequent foot dragging when it came to completing portraits and other assignments. By the time Leonardo was commissioned to paint the Last Supper, his actual output was surprisingly sparse.

King’s chapters on the painting of the Last Supper provide rich detail on the genesis of the project as well as on Leonardo’s techniques, innovations, and actual painting. Patrons did not simply tell an artist to paint a picture. They gave detailed instructions and provided contracts which specified exactly what they wanted to appear in the final product. The artist was expected to carry out the technical aspects of the job, but his creativity was not left unharnessed.

Other passages explore artistic techniques used during the Renaissance for frescoes. For instance, paper for cartoons was prepared with burnt chicken bones and silver styli were used to scratch preliminary fresco designs onto the paper before the design was transferred to the wall for final production. 

Perhaps some of the book’s most interesting detail was a description of how Leonardo’s interpretation of the Last Supper differed from earlier artists’ depictions which were drawn from the scriptures of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Instead, Leonardo rooted his version of the events in the Book of John and the resulting interpretation offers new insights into the story. And, for Dan Brown fans, King considers the figure on the right of Christ and offers a different, more scholarly interpretation of whom that figure may represent.

Leonardo and the Last Supper is a fine addition to King’s earlier books about the Italian Renaissance (Brunelleschi’s Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture, Michaelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling, and Machiavelli: Philosopher of Power. As a collection, they provide a fine reading on a historical period that shaped history and remind us that the arts can flourish even in times of political uncertainty.

The book will be published on 30 October, and if your local bookstore runs out, you can order it from Amazon.  

Happy reading!