Monthly Archives: December 2013

Without a net: farewell to Miss Mara

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Headshot for Miss Mara. Source Yesterday’s Town blog.

I want to die on the trapeze.

La Mara has left us. María Papadopoulos Vaquero, the Spanish aerialist who electrified the circus world for four decades with her trapeze act, passed away on December 14 due to complications following back surgery. The opening line of a poem her brother Enrique dedicated to her is quoted above.

A woman without age

Born in the early thirties, she was recruited by Ringling Bros and Barnum and Bailey circus in 1951. As she said to the newspaper El País:

Goddesses shouldn’t age and on the trapeze I was a goddess.

Born inside a dressing room

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Mara swinging while hanging from her heels. Source Circo Meliés blog.

Though her father came from a circus family of Greek and Romanian origin, her parents initially tried to keep her away from the circus. But it was to no avail. Since her first act at the age of five, Mara was drawn to performing at great height.

The eldest of eight siblings, she was their matriarch, with the closeness that is so common among Spanish families of that generation. Her wirewalker brother Tonito, also a recipient of Spain’s National Circus Prize, accompanied her to the US when she moved there.

Heel catches on a swinging trapeze

Miss Mara hanging from the back of her neck. Source Yesterday's Towns blog.
Miss Mara hanging from the back of her neck. © Elliot Fenander, in the Collection of Shelburne Museum. Source Yesterday’s Towns blog.

© Elliot Fenander, in the Collection of Shelburne Museum

Mara’s solo act was novel for the time as it took place on a swinging trapeze. She developed several unique moves. In one, her calves slid along the trapeze until catching herself by the heels. The other involved balancing from the back of her neck. She always performed without a net or any other safety device.

When asked about fear, she didn’t mince words.

Fear costs nothing. Each of us chooses the dose we want to take.

Readily acknowledging the danger of working at height, Mara noted the parallel to the quandary of a bullfighter: you triumph or you die.

Every night, she dreamt of slipping

Mara’s first serious fall in 1948 resulted in a broken hip. In Tacoma WA in 1953, she fell fourteen meters to the concrete floor of the ring, suffering fractures in her right leg, left arm, and three lumbar vertebrae. Two pins were inserted in her ankle. After seven surgeries, the doctors believed that with hard work and luck, she might walk again.

In March 1955 Mara performed in front of 18,000 spectators in Madison Square Garden

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This book by Simón Gonzalez includes wonderful photos. The cover image is from a 1962 poster.

Although Mara and her siblings owned various circuses over the years, her greatest successes were on the trapeze. She received many awards, including  the International Circus Oscar in 1966, the Press Award in the III Montecarlo Festival in 1976, the National Circus Award of Spain in 1992, and the Gold Medal for Merit in Fine Arts in 2007. She performed for Sinatra and Hemingway and was perhaps the most internationally renown trapeze artist of Spain.

Watch her yourself

This six-minute video took my breath away. I dare you to remain indifferent. Sure, the flamboyant headdress, the swan-bedecked chariot, the makeup, the music may seem quaint to the Cirque du Soleil generation, but Mara’s courage and skill, strength and precision, are timeless.

Mara was a star, in a time and a place where women weren’t encouraged to stand out. Her triumphs were hard won- with exemplary grace.

Mara has left us, but in our memory she will continue to fly, to a standing ovation.

The fall of the Land of Cockaigne: a tale of two blues

Four horses were standing in the yard threshing corn with all their might, and two goats were heating the stove, and a red cow shot the bread into the oven.

This surreal excerpt comes from the very short Tale of the Land of Cockaigne  from the Grimm Brothers. There is no plot, simply a recitation of preposterous scenarios.

It s obviously a tall tale, one where the storyteller is self aware, breaking out of the story to ask:

            Have I not told enough lies?

The Land of Cockaigne, a Medieval theme

The Land of Cockaigne, of Plenty, is an Upside Down World.  The established order is subverted: animals do the jobs of peasants, the clergy are punished, the poor are idle and fat. Like El Dorado, it is a land of riches untold, with an added element of humor and the grotesque.  Unlike El Dorado, it remains firmly ensconced in myth and metaphor.

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Pieter Brueghel’s The Land of Cockaigne (1563). The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei via Wikimedia Commons

Pieter Brueguel the Elder’s 1563 unflattering but humorous portrayal of the Land of Cockaigne is combined with Flemish proverbs. He also makes a humorous and satirical  commentary on the failed revolt against the Spanish in 1560.

The idea of the Land of Cockaigne is found throughout Europe: the Italian Cuccagna, Spanish Cucaña, German Schlaraffenland, and Swedish Lubberland.

A proposed origin of the name is from the Pays de Cocagne

The southwestern region of France around Toulouse, Albi, and Carcassone is still known as Pays de Cocagne. It was home to the production of the most valuable blue in the late Middle Ages: pastel. The cocagnes (in French) were the round balls of paste formed after grinding the leaves of woad (Isatis tinctoria).

The traditional process to obtain blue from Isatis tinctoria included two fermentation processes and took over a year. The first fermentation process was accelerated by adding urine. (Natural dyeing processes release ammonia, an early example of noxious industrial emissions. Queen Elizabeth I forbade woad dyeing within five miles of her residences.)

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Panoramic view of the hôtel d’Assézat. Construction started in this Renaissance palace in 1555. It now houses an art museum, the Fondation Bemberg. Source by Pom2 via Wikimedia Commons.

The period between mid-fifteenth and mid sixteenth century was known as the Golden Age of Pastel, and led to the construction of Renaissance mansions in Toulouse, such as the hôtel d’Assézat and Beyron.

In search of blue: a costly color

Chaucer mentions three core plants for dyers: woad (blue), madder (red), and weld (yellow). Woad, in the cabbage family, grows throughout Europe. Dyed fabric has been found in burials since the Iron Age (1st century CE).

Julius Cesar’s claim in The Conquest of Gaul that the inhabitants of Britain painted their faces blue has been interpreted to explain the name of the Picts. However, it seems unlikely that he is describing the Picts nor that woad was used as body paint.

Dyes for cloth made fortunes in SW France

The region’s climate and soil were ideal for woad cultivation and it was widespread already by the XIIth century. Initially centered in Albi in the 14th C, the shift to Toulouse enabled meteoric expansion.

The banking structure was better able to manage the risk associated with the time lag between planting and dye production.  The Garonne also provided a good means for export north and east.

Like so many booms, the pastel economy fell sharply. Many reasons have been proposed to explain the decline in the 1560s. These include a lack of investment back into the industry and dubious practices (adding chalk to the paste). Two years of heavy rainfall with abundant but low-quality harvests wreaked havoc on the pricing. The already precarious trading routes were severely disrupted by the religious wars between Catholics and Protestants. Eventually, the easy access to indigo almost made pastel obsolete.

A color found in snails and leaves

The dye chemical produced from the lengthy and smelly procedure to produce pastel is indigo. It is also found, and in greater concentration, in the tropical indigo plant Indigofera tinctoria, from the pea family and native to Asia and India.

Indigo or indigo derivatives are also produced by several snails. In fact the chemical behind the famous Tyrian purple (great animation here) is di-bromine indigo.

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Indigo in the left hand, woad in the right. From the blog Root Simple.

The ancients that knew both woad and indigo considered them completely different. Woad led to a different color, probably because the pastel technique didn’t lead to pure pigment. The components of red and yellow add a richness, a shadow to the brighter indigo blue.

Indigo, the devil’s dye

Although indigo had long been known in Europe, it arrived via overland spice caravans in such low quantities it could not compete. However after Vasco de Gama opened the maritime trade route, the Portuguese were importing it in large quantities by 1516.

This led to great consternation in France, Germany and England where the woad industry was a cornerstone of the economy. Its use was punishable by death in France and Germany into the XVII century.  Britain initially also forbade the use of indigo, but by 1634 indigo was one of the mainstays of trade of the East India Company.

Although indigo was cultivated in Spanish and French colonies and in South Carolina in the XVIIIth century, Indian production eclipsed all other sources.

Blue military uniforms

Napoleon tried to revitalize the French pastel industry, establishing an academy and using it for his uniforms in the early XIXth century. However, at the fall of the empire in 1823, indigo took over.

The color blue continued to play a significant role in French military uniforms during WWI with a shift from the bright indigo blue to a lighter shade after high death tolls.

The development of synthetic indigo in 1893 led to the end of large-scale indigo production, but not before the oppressive conditions of indigo plantation workers played a role the independence movement in India.

Today woad is used for its pigment and for medicinal purposes

Natural biodegradable pigments have gained in allure beyond craft dyers. Bleu de Lectoure is researching cultivation and extraction techniques, as well as applications for a sustainable activity. The medicinal properties of woad, long used in traditional Chinese medicine, are also under investigation.

Blue is always with us

It is obviously questionable to aspire to a Land of Cocaigne as there is no free lunch (an expression not shown explicitly in Bruegel’s work). But this story of blue shows that color transcends any sense of frivolous decoration.

It has the power to build empires and to bring them down.

Beauty or the beast: multiple faces of Medusa

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Mosaic from a Roman villa in Spain of ~250CE, now in the Tarragona Archeological Museum. Source: Ophelia2 via Wikimedia Commons.

The Gorgon, Medusa, was known for her petrifying gaze. That mortal power continued after Perseus beheaded her so Athena used Medusa’s head on her shield.

Of course, there are multiple versions of this story, which continues to evolve today

In some versions Medusa had two immortal sisters, though for some (undisclosed) reason she was not. Daughters of primordial sea gods, they had long claws, fangs or tusks, and hissing serpents for hair. Their bulging eyes could turn a person to stone.

For some scholars the Gorgons represent the ancient matriarchal religions which were overthrown by the Olympians

In other versions, Medusa was a mortal girl who consorted with Poseidon, in some stories willingly. Athena retaliated by turning her into a monster.

Perseus by Benvenuto Cellini. Bronze and marble (base), 1545–1554. Under the Loggia dei Lanzi, Florence, since 1554. © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons
Perseus by Benvenuto Cellini. Bronze and marble (base), 1545–1554. Under the Loggia dei Lanzi, Florence, since 1554. © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons

Enter Perseus

Her fatal run-in with Perseus occurred when a king who was courting his mother asked him to bring the Gorgon’s head as a banquet gift.

Though Perseus was a son of Zeus, he wasn’t known for any skill at that time, so Hermes and Athena took pity. Hermes gave him a curved sword and Athena a shiny reflecting shield.

They sent him to the Graea who knew the location of the Hesperides, nymphs from the western lands, who in turn knew where to find Medusa.

Lots of eyes in this story…

The Graea were three old women, sisters and daughters of the same primordial sea gods. They had one eye and one tooth between them- which they shared, like sisters do. When Perseus held the eye ransom, they told him what he wanted.

Detail of the pediment of the Temple of Artemis in Corfu (580BCE). The Gorgon in the center is flanked by lionesses and her sons, born from her blood when she was killed: on her right are the hind legs of her son Pegasus and on her left Chrysaor. In the Archeological Museum of Corfu. Source: Dr.K via Wikimedia Commons.
Detail of the pediment of the Temple of Artemis in Corfu (580BCE). The Gorgon in the center is flanked by lionesses and her sons, born from her blood when she was killed: on her right are the hind legs of Pegasus and on her left Chrysaor. In the Archeological Museum of Corfu. Source: Dr.K via Wikimedia Commons.

The Hesperides really set him up

They not only gave him directions to the faraway land of the Gorgons, they provided winged sandals for faster travel, a satchel to carry Medusa’s head, and a nifty cap of invisibility.

According to some stories, Medusa was asleep when Perseus arrived, which pretty much rendered her harmless. In any case, he didn’t look at her directly but used the shield to see and cut off her head.

Her sisters woke up and went after him, but Perseus donned his cap so they couldn’t see him. The sandals ensured a speedy exit.

According to some accounts, he rescued his future wife Andromeda on his way home, but others say it happened later.  But when he arrived to the court of the king, he pulled the Gorgon’s head out of his satchel and turned the pesky king and his guests to stone.

Then he gave Medusa’s head to Athena. She added it to her shield. Some say it was actually Zeus’s shield, but she used it more than he did.

Apotropaic images and symbols ward off evil

By using Medusa’s face to defend herself, Athena appropriated her power.

Images of frightening animals or creatures have long been used  to protect from evil, especially at doorways and windows. The eye is often used as an apotropaic image.

And there are so many references to vision in this story: the look that petrifies, the shared eye, the use of a mirror to see safely, escaping by becoming invisible.

What better defense than Medusa’s eyes?

Relief of Minerva, and hypothetical reconstruction of upper half. Source: Arxiu Municipal Tarragona.
Relief of Minerva, and hypothetical reconstruction of upper half. Source: Arxiu Municipal Tarragona.

Beauty or the beast?

Medusa often appears in the guise of a monster, while in other cases, like in Cellini’s Perseus, her features are human.

One interpretation is that this corresponds to an evolution through  time, from monster to maiden.

However, as noted by Kathryn Topper, some vases from the 6th century BCE show Medusa as a sleeping maiden. She suggests that these depictions of Medusa are telling a slightly different story in which Perseus is no hero.

And sometimes the shield has a Medusa that isn’t a Medusa

An incomplete relief of Minerva (the Roman version of Athena) from 300CE is found on the Roman walls of my hometown. Minerva stands in profile, her large shield before her. The shield holds no Medusa, but a wolf’s head.

The wolf was a sacred animal for the Iberians that lived on the Mediterranean coast of Spain when the Romans arrived. It represented strength and valor.

The Romans knew all about appropriating the power of those that came before

More recently, fashion designer Gianni Versace chose an image of Medusa as the logo for his company.  

And thus throughout history, symbols are repurposed. Their meaning evolves, but more slowly than their power wanes.