The Snail and The Crested Porcupine

Those of you that pay attention to the Categories and Tags may notice that this is listed under “Christmas”, “Christmas Tree”, and “Christmas Decorations”.  A Snail and a Crested Porcupine – what do they have to do with Christmas?  Traditionally?  Nothing!  But in our house they are linked with a trip to Siena back in 2011 and two ceramic ornaments that were added to our Christmas trove on that trip.

A bit of background would probably help.  The city of Siena is divided into Contrade; the nearest concept in English would be wards. Set up in the Middle Ages they were initially military enclaves during the wars with Florence and other city states.  Over time they lost that aspect but became centres of fierce patriotism to a community.  Rivalries and alliances were formed – think Verona, Montagues, Capulets – and each Contrade became almost a city unto itself.  There were originally 59 but today amalgamation and urban change has reduced the number to 17.  However each  Contrade has retained its own animal symbol, motto, and colours; not only that every Contrade has its own museum, fountain and baptismal font, feast days and festivals.  They are tightly knit communities within the larger city and only come together for grand occasions or, more importantly the Palio di Siena.

The ornaments we purchased bear the colours and symbols of two of the Contrade: Chiocciola (Snail) and Istrice (Crested Porcupine).  I should add this was not because of any allegiance on our part but purely because I liked the designs.

Chiocciola is situated in the south-western corner of the city; traditionally, its residents worked as terracotta makers.

Their symbol is the snail and the motto translates as  “With slow and deliberate steps, snail leaves the battlefield triumphant.” Their colours are red and yellow, trimmed in blue.  

There is an expression in Siena, “The people of the Snail  drown their saints.” In 1888, after losing a Palio, the people of the Contrada was so angry that they threw a statue of Saint Anthony (patron saint of horses) into a well. The statue wasn’t removed until 1910 and miraculously the district won in 1911. Saint Anthony hasn’t exactly been on their side recently – they last won the race in 1999.

Istrice occupies the north-western most edge of Siena and contains the San Vincenzo e Anastasio church, home of the city’s oldest surviving fresco.  By tradition its residents were blacksmiths.

Their symbol is a porcupine and their colours are red, white, blue and black. The motto is Sol per difesa io pungo (I prick only in self-defense). The porcupine is “crested” with a crown award

During th 14th century the community gave quartering to the Knights of Malta and were awarded the title Sovrana which earned their porcupine his crest or crown.  They last won the Palio in July 2008.

I mentioned that all the Contrade congregate on special occasions and on one of the days we were there an important canonization was taking place in Rome.  I captured some of the medieval pageantry as we walked towards the Cathedral Square and as the standards of each Contrade were being carried into the church.  I apologize for the quality but I was – and am – still learning how to use and make videos.

As I have often mentioned the ornaments on our tree bring back wonderful memories of voyages, homes, place and people.  It is a tree of memories.

On this day in 1971: Norma McCorvey (Jane Roe) filled a law suit against Henry Wade, Dallas county attorney, in the Roe v. Wade case.

Mercoledi Musicale

We missed the big storm that ended November here on PEI .  It caused a fair bit of havoc with downed trees and power lines, extended blackouts  and general chaos.  A friend of ours recalled that as a kid they looked forward to possible blackouts with a sense of adventure but now they are generally greeted with wails of distress at lost internet signals. Sic transit gloria socialis instrumentis!

As I said we missed all that but the past week or two has been one of snow, melt, snow, melt and now more snow.  It looks very much like it will be a white Christmas.  Now I’ve vowed that I will not be posting pictures this year of the winter wonderland that is our Province and I will make every effort to keep to that promise.  Nor will I wax enthusiastic (initally) or morose (as winter goes on) about the continued cold and frozen precipitation.

Instead I will let Vera Ellen (voiced by Trudy Stevens), Rosemary Clooney, Danny Kaye and Bing Crosby raise their voices in praise of – are you ready for it? – SNOW!

Fine for them they were caroling Irving Berlin’s paean to the white stuff on a sound stage sheltered by swaying palm trees. But I guess it’s early enough in the season to joy in the white stuff – I wouldn’t dare post this come March or April.

My mother thought Bing Crosby was really hot (?) and the day that White Christmas opened we headed downtown to the grand Imperial Theatre on Yonge Street to see the first show at 1000 in the morning.  And we sat through the second show before heading over to Diana Sweets for lunch and afterwards, if my memory serves me right, to Eaton’s to talk to Santa Claus.

On this day in 1925: The Majlis of Iran votes to crown Reza Khan as the new Shah of Iran, starting the Pahlavi dynasty.

Lisboa Redux

Yes Gentle Reader – more about Lisbon!

Several friends had strongly suggested a visit to the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon and never one to ignore the advise of friends we headed there on our second full day in town.

Laurent in front of the building that houses the permanent collection at the  Calouste Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon.

I have some reservations about the Founder’s Collection if not the wonderful facility that houses it.  The story of Calouste Gulbenkian and his oil intrests in the Middle-East are too complicated for me to go into.  Suffice is to say that he was a very rich man at a time when art works and period artifacts were “affordable” in Europe.  And with any collection of this sort some of the works are exquisite and of remarkable taste and others are, to my eye at least, dross.  This is not to in any way downplay his philanthropy or the work of the Foundation he left behind to safeguard, expand and promote his collection and the work of the Museum.

As so often happens amongst the works on display – from the Egyptian, Greco-Roman, Islamic and Oriental art, old coins and European painting and decorative arts – two amongst the many captured my interest. 

The first was in a special exhibition that had been mounted in response to the rather puzzling fact that Gulbenkian ignored the art and artifacts of the region that made his fortune.  After his death the Foundation began to acquire the works of Iraqi artists and became involved in the design of the Modern Arts Centre and the People’s Stadium in Baghdad. 

This was the first time that many of the Iraqi works had been on display and I was drawn to one piece by Lorna Selim

ORIENTAL WINDOW (1961) – Lorna Selim – Oil on Canvas
Selim captures a visual of Baghdad – human and architectural.

An English woman, Loran Selim met Jawad Sleem, a major Iraqi painter and sculptor when they were students at the Slade School in London.  She was a strong an influence on the arts of modern Iraq as her husband and it was said by one critic that “Lorna came to Iraq and saw beauty where none of the rest of us had noticed it before. Other artists began to study the rich artistic tradition which had been under their noses all along. She has had a profound influence.”

The second piece is in the permanent collection and it took some work to find a good quality photo of it.  My own is beset with reflections of the surrounding lights.  It is perhaps the most beautiful painting I have ever seen of the Madonna and Child.

The work of an unknown Flemish artist it is dated somewhere between 1485-1490.  I don’t honestly think I have very seen such a happy Bombino and the look of contentment on Mary’s face is exquisite.

On this day in 1931: Statute of Westminster 1931: The British Parliament establishes legislative equality between the UK and the Dominions of the Commonwealth —Australia, Canada, Newfoundland, New Zealand, South Africa  and Ireland.

Lunedi Lunacy

Roch Carrier
Author Roch Carrier sporting the “abominable maple leaf on the ice” that became the inspiration for his iconic short story.

Not really lunacy but a touch of, perhaps nostalgia, perhaps a longing for simpler times, or perhaps just a wish to revisit a little short film I recall seeing years ago. Back in 1979 author Roch Carrier was contracted by the CBC to present a piece on the Quebec question of the time; by his own admission the piece he wrote was a dry as a high school essay. To fill in the broadcast slot and fulfil his contract he started to reminisce about his childhood in Sainte-Justine and The Hockey Sweater was the result.

The following year the NFB produced this little gem narrated by Carrier and animated by Sheldon Cohen.

Currently a musical based on this wonderful “conte”, which premiered in Montréal,  is playing in Ottawa.  Brandon Roy, very talented young performer who has made the Island his home for several summers now, is appearing in it.  Only wish that we had a chance to see it here on the Island.

On this day in 1984: United Nations General Assembly recognizes the Convention against Torture.

Advent II


Mystic dew from heaven
Unto earth is given:
Break, O earth, a Saviour yield
Fairest flower of the field.

W. Rooke-Ley
The Books of Hymns
(Edinburgh 1910)

English composer William Byrd was a convert to Catholicism during the reign of Elizabeth the first – a dangerous time for such a conversion.  He was kept under constant surveillance, his house open to search, and he and his family fined for recusancy (the refusal to attend Anglican services) regularly.   Through some miracle – perhaps his music – he survived to old age at a time when others around him were being imprisoned, tortured, and executive as dangers to the State.

He left behind some 470 compositions and amongst the sacred pieces were works for both Anglican and Roman worship including this setting of the Rorate caeli.  It is sung here by choir of Basiliek van de Heilige Nicolaas, Amsterdam.

On this day in 1851: The first YMCA in North America is established in Montreal.