Areopagus, The Two Agoras, And The Temple Of Hephaestus

At the foot of the Acropolis you will the Areopagus, an ancient rocky outcropping that used to be the meeting spot of the Athenian council during classical times. Now, it is a place for visitors to the Acropolis to climb to the top then sit, lounge, check their phones, and take a selfie. From the vantage point of the rock you can enjoy a nice view of the Acropolis to one side, as seen in the photo above, and a view of the Temple of Hephaestus and the Greek agora to the other, as seen in the photo below. Unfortunately, many of the visitors also smoke, and the top of the rock is covered in cigarette butts in some areas. It’s an embarrassing testament to modern sensibilities that people would casually litter on the top of a place that played a prominent role in ancient Greek governance.

Incidentally, according to our guide you aren’t supposed to smoke atop the Acropolis, or in the Agora, or anywhere in the area, and our guide wasn’t shy about calling out the smokers she saw. Some of them ignored her and some put out their cigarettes quickly, but the sea of butts we saw atop the Areopagus demonstrated that a lot of visitors don’t give a crap about the smoking prohibition, or littering.

From the Areopagus you follow a narrow downhill trail. The pathway leads you past some musical performers playing for contributions, and then through the middle of a restaurant seating area, with tables wedged into each side of the pathway, requiring you to dodge waiters carrying trays of food and drinks. Obviously, the Greeks make use of every square inch of space in Athens! Ultimately, you emerge into a more open area, where you can see the ruins of the Roman forum, to one side, as shown in the photo below.

Our destination, however, was the old Greek agora, found at the base of the Acropolis. The agora is home to a wide avenue, shown below, that used to be the road followed by the processions of the faithful who journeyed up to the top of the Acropolis for important celebrations. There isn’t much left of the agora itself, but there is an interesting museum that provides some useful information about the daily lives, practices, and coinage of the ancient Greeks.

Our primary destination in the agora was the Temple of Hephaestus. It is one of the best preserved Greek temples in existence and, unlike the Parthenon, has all of its columns, its interior rooms, and some of its roof. The temple survived because it was converted to a Christian church in the seventh century AD, and later served other purposes.

As the photo above reflects, the Temple of Hephaestus would have towered over the Greek agora, which is fitting for a temple dedicated to the god of blacksmiths, metalworkers, sculptors, carpenters, and other craftsmen, who would have been plying their trades in the agora. Hephaestus obviously was a good who saw the value in commerce.

The Temple of Hephaestus is remarkably well preserved for a structure that is more than 2,000 years old. It’s graceful lines and proportions are a wistful reminder of how the Parthenon must have looked at one point in its history.

You can walk entirely around the Temple of Hephaestus and admire it from different vantage points. From the rear, you can look all the way through the structure to the front and get a sense of how the ancient Greeks designed their temples. If you like classical architecture, the Temple of Hephaestus is definitely worth a visit.

The Acropolis Museum

Yesterday morning we visited the Acropolis Museum. Located at the foot of the Acropolis, and affording a view of the sacred rock and its buildings as shown in the photo above, the Acropolis Museum houses an extensive collection of sculptures and artwork from the Acropolis and the homes at its base—like the portrait of a priest shown above.

The amount of sculpture associated with the Acropolis that is part of the museum’s collection is staggering. You can rent an audio guide, take a guided tour as part of a group, or go it alone. We chose the latter option. Fortunately, there are excellent and informative placards at every item in the collection, with information in Greek and English—so the visitor know that the sculpture above on the right is of Dionysos, holding a theatrical mask, perched on the shoulder of Popposilenos, his tutor. The collection is roughly grouped by era, with larger placards providing information about Athens’ history during that particular era. There also is an excellent short film that tells the story of the unique architecture of the famous Parthenon, the primary surviving building atop the Acropolis, and the depredations it suffered over the years at the hands of Romans, Christians, the Venetians, the Ottoman Turks, and the British. It is a sad story of how a magnificent structure was not treated with the respect and care it deserved. Thanks to the mistreatment, we must make do with appreciation of only fragments, and be left to imagine what the scene must have looked like when the Acropolis, the Parthenon, and the related statuary and sculpture were at their height.

Of all of the statuary and sculpture at the Acropolis Museum, my favorite was the exhibit of the Caryatids, seen in the photo below—the female figures who once held up part of the Erechtheion, a temple to Poseidon and Athena on the Acropolis. An accompanying video shows how they were painstakingly cleaned using a laser and other modern technology. They give a glimpse of what a wonderful place the Acropolis must have been in its heyday. I would recommend the Acropolis Museum as a good way to prepare for the visit to the Acropolis itself.

What Makes A Great Skyline?

We’re in Austin for a quick visit, and last night we attended a fine performance of the Austin Symphony Orchestra at the Long Center. The Long Center not only is a good place to listen to orchestral music, it also is a great place to admire the Austin skyline. Being across the river from the core downtown area, it allows you to get some distance and perspective.

Austin has a great skyline, and looking at it from one of the Long Center balconies got me to think about what makes a great skyline. The height of the skyscrapers helps, of course, but it is not dispositive. The key thing is variety, both in terms of the height of the buildings–to help create that classic, jagged, sawtooth look that we associate with skylines–but also in the design and depth of the buildings. Austin has some very tall buildings, but it also has a lot of architectural variety that makes the skyline interesting to study. The “jenga” building, and the graceful arc of the Google building, which looks like an unfurled sail from a distance, help to make the Austin skyline a lot more interesting.

Columbus has a decent skyline, and thanks to the LeVeque tower, and its art deco lineage, there is some architectural variety. The construction that has occurred over the past few years and the projects that are underway will go a long way to determining the long-term quality of the Columbus skyline, however. I’m hoping the architects of the new buildings are willing to take some risks on their designs, and provide a bit more visual diversity, so Columbus’ skyline ends up looking a lot more like Austin’s.

The Coming Red And Blue Cloud Above Gay And High

We will soon be getting a new neighbor in the Gay Street District of downtown Columbus–but instead of being at street level, like most of our neighbors, this addition will be floating above the ground, suspended from supports attached to the four buildings at the intersection of Gay and High Streets.

The new neighbor will be a sculpture, called “Current,” by Janet Echelman. The artwork will be a red and blue, cloud-like object that apparently will look something like the picture above once it is installed. According to news reports, it was made with 78 miles of twine and more than 500,000 knots.

That’s a lot of knots!

“Current” is supposed to be installed in early June. It will be a significant piece of public art in Columbus, and civic boosters are hoping that it will have the same kind of visual appeal and tourist-attracting power as “The Bean” in Chicago’s Millennium Park. If that happens, we can expect to see “Current” as the backdrop for a lot of selfies.

It will be interesting to see how “Current” works out. Speaking as someone who walks through the Gay and High Street intersection every day, I wonder about the practical impact of a large, knotty sculpture suspended overhead. How will it handle the inevitable summer thunderstorm? Will traffic be snarled as drivers gape at the huge red and blue object overhead? Can it be changed to scarlet and gray during football season? Will I inevitably appear as a random background pedestrian in hundreds of selfies taken as I walk to and from work every day?

I like the fact that Columbus is trying something interesting like this, and I really hope it works out as planned.

Hotel Room Un-Art

You never know what you are going to get from hotel room artwork. Black velvet paintings, bad landscapes, out-of-focus photographs of unknown landmarks–the standard American hotel room tends to be a repository for weird, often disturbing images that would never be hung in a person’s actual home.

My expectations for hotel room decor are understandably low, but even so I was struck by this piece of artwork found in my room at a hotel in San Marcos, Texas. It’s not a mirror; it’s just a frame around nothing. It wasn’t clear to me whether the nothingness of the piece is by design, and is intended to be a clever commentary on the grim obliviousness of generic hotel rooms, or whether (more likely) the photograph or art that was within the frame fell out or was taken by a prior guest and never replaced.

Either way, it was a thought-provoking wall hanging in an otherwise undistinguished hotel.

The Miracle At A West Texas Gas Station

We were in the middle of west Texas, about 150 miles east of El Paso, when I began to get concerned about the gas situation. We had gassed up hours earlier, but in the vast, empty stretches of arid west Texas, where the speed limit on I-10 is 80 mph, the exits are few and far between–and most of the exits don’t have a gas station. I had been looking carefully for one for miles, but to no avail. In the meantime, the gas tank bars kept shrinking, we got the chime and the notice that we were almost out of gas, and there was no station in sight.

But then, in the shimmering haze of the bright sunshine reflecting on the dry and dusty landscape, we saw what appeared to be a sign in the distance. At first we thought it might be a mirage, but as we drew closer we realized it was, in fact, a sign. This, by itself, provided no real comfort, because we had seen signs at earlier exits, but the gas stations they were advertising were abandoned. Finally, we saw the Exxon logo above, and the functioning neon, and realized that we were saved from the ignominy of running out of gas on one of the loneliest stretches of the American Road. It was a West Texas Miracle.

When we pulled up to the pump, we saw that the price for gas was higher than it had been at our earlier stops in Texas. But beggars can’t be choosers, and at that point we would have paid far more for gas. The law of supply and demand, and the invisible hand that guides pricing decisions, demanded that the scarcity of available gas in that remote corner of the world factor into the pricing. In reality, I was so grateful that I would have left a tip if the machine had permitted me to do so, because we were in the middle of nowhere and would have been completely out of luck if that little gas station had not been there.

And speaking of the middle of nowhere, the photo below gives you an idea of just how desolate this area was. There was absolutely nothing around this little gas station. This part of west Texas defined “vast” and “empty.”

Presumably because it was the only commercial business to be seen for miles and miles, the gas station offered an interesting assortment of items for sale–including a collection of paintings, shown below, that were leaning against the wall next to the entrance to the restrooms. So, in addition to filling your tank and emptying your bladder, you could buy a painting of a woman in creepy makeup holding a skull. What’s more, there was a discount price if you bought two of the larger paintings, with one painting selling for $59.99 and two for $80. It was admittedly tempting, but I managed to resist.

After we had gassed up, we hopped in the car and pulled away from the station with a sigh of full-tank relief. We were thankful for the station’s existence, but also for learning an important lesson: in west Texas, you can never have too much gas in the tank.

The Vinyl Rebound

We got rid of our vinyl records decades ago. They were a pain to maintain, and little kids and turntables, toner arms with delicate needles, and easily scratched vinyl records are not a good combination. When CDs were introduced, I figured vinyl would inevitably go the way of the dodo.

But I was wrong–vinyl has made a comeback. Last year, for the first time since the 1980s, the sale of vinyl record units outpaced the sale of CDs. Of course, both physical forms are far behind streaming services in the delivery of music–but still, vinyl obviously has its fans.

Interestingly, no one knows exactly why vinyl is hot (or at least lukewarm) again. Some diehards insist that the sound produced by vinyl is superior to streaming services and CDs–richer, fuller, more robust, more nuanced. Others believe vinyl fans like the album as a kind of art piece, and clearly some classic covers, like that of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band, look a lot better on a full-sized album sleeve than on a shrimpy CD box. Others believe that album lovers like the tactile sensation of playing an album and its related elements, like carefully removing it from its sleeve, placing it on the turntable, keeping it clean to avoid those annoying skips, and deftly replacing it when the playing is done.

And here’s proof that the album renaissance has some legs: manufacturers like Sony and Victrola have started to produce new turntables again. Obviously, they think there is a market there, and one that is probably here to stay.

Family Art

I’m in Savannah, Georgia for a brief family visit. It‘s been a nice opportunity to catch up with my uncle and aunt after a long absence, but also a chance to appreciate some of our family art that is displayed around their house.

My grandfather on my Dad’s side was a bookkeeper by trade, but with the soul of an artist. Some of my earliest memories are of his workspace, where he kept his palette and brushes and an easel that held his latest creation. He was an accomplished painter with a meticulous eye for detail.

Grandpa painted still lifes, landscapes, city scenes. dreamy symbolic pieces, and portraits. I like them all, but particularly like these two portraits of my grandmother and grandfather. If you look carefully at the bottom right of the portrait below, you’ll see that it is signed with Grandpa’s neat “AWWebner” signature—but the portrait of Grandma is not. That’s because Grandpa liked his self-portrait, but was never really happy with his painting of Grandma and kept reworking it (even though I think is a good likeness). He only signed pieces when he was satisfied with his work.

Upside Down Or Downside Up

Piet Mondrian’s New York City I is a classic piece of abstract art, consisting of straight yellow, red, and blue lines that suggest the Manhattan skyline. It is unsigned and, like many pieces of abstract art, it doesn’t have an obvious orientation.

Now the art world believes that the way the painting has been hung since 1945, shown above on the left, is in fact upside down, and Mondrian actually created it with the orientation shown at the right.

The Smithsonian magazine tells the interesting story of the realization that an important piece of modern art may have been incorrectly displayed for decades. The story began with an Italian artist, Francesco Visalli, having the nagging feeling that the work was hung upside down and communicating his views to the German museum that owns the artwork. The curator of the museum did some digging and found a Town and Country magazine piece from 1944 that shows the painting on an easel, with the thickening lines at the top of the painting rather than the bottom. That’s also the way another, similar Mondrian painting called New York City is configured. The museum believes the thickening lines at the top of the painting are supposed to reflect a dark sky and are convinced that the orientation at the right is the way the piece was meant to be seen.

So, how did the piece come to be displayed upside down for more than 75 years? No one knows for sure, but it may simply be that whoever unpacked it when it arrived at the museum thought the thickening lines went at the bottom, and none of the people at the museum, or the many people who have seen the piece since, noticed the mistake before Francesco Visalli had the impulse that literally turned the art world upside down.

It’s pretty embarrassing to think that a painting has been incorrectly hung for decades. I wonder how many museums will now be taking a hard look at their abstract pieces and trying to confirm that they are displayed right side up?

Backfire Protests

The primary objective of protests is to call attention to your cause–and to do so in a way that makes people sympathetic to your position. The lunch counter sit-ins and freedom marches of the ’50s and ’60s to protest racism and segregation in the American South, in which peaceful protesters were attacked and manhandled by bigoted authorities and police dogs, were examples of protests that successfully turned public opinion.

The recent protests in which climate activists hurl food at famous paintings and then glue their hands to walls, in contrast, seem ill-suited to achieving that basic goal.

Monet’s magnificent Les Meules, shown above, is the latest painting to endure the indignity of being the target of thrown food, in the form of mashed potatoes. The mashed spuds were tossed by members of “Last Generation,” a group that wants the German government to stop using fossil fuels. The incident followed a similar escapade by members of “Just Stop Oil,” who splattered tomato soup on one of Vincent Van Gogh’s Sunflower paintings in the National Gallery in London. In both instances, the food tossers then glued their hands to the walls holding the paintings. Fortunately, both the Monet and the Van Gogh were covered by glass, so no permanent damage was done.

There’s no doubt that the protests got media attention, and some people on the political spectrum have dutifully argued that the food-throwing protesters are “totally justified” in their actions due to concerns about climate change. I suspect, however, that a far larger number of people object to converting beautiful works of art into props for acts of political theater and turning quiet art museums into turbulent protest zones. It just seems wrong to throw things at artwork–especially when the paintings have nothing to do with the fossil fuels or climate change that are supposed to be the whole point of the protest. Committing assaults on paintings of flowers and haystacks doesn’t exactly drive home a point about global warming.

Gluing your hands to walls and floors doesn’t make much sense, either. Either the palms of the protesters are going to be painfully de-skinned when police arrive, or they are going to risk being left glued down in the dark overnight, without access to food, water, or the facilities–an unhappy fate which happened to protestors who glued themselves to the floor of a Volkswagen facility recently. Either way, it doesn’t exactly send a message that the protestors have intelligently thought through the potential consequences of their actions.

We’ll see whether the food-tossing, hand-gluing approach to protesting causes a shift in public opinion in a way that favors the protesters cause–or whether it has the opposite effect. People in Europe, and elsewhere, might not be receptive to the intended message as they approach a winter in which there are significant concerns that people won’t have enough fuel to heat their homes.

More Overhead Art

It was a beautiful morning yesterday, and we decided to enjoy it by walking down to German Village and taking a lap around Schiller Park. When we go to the park we saw that the terrific exhibition of overhead sculptures by artist Jerzy Jotka Kedziora that had an extended stay at the park, thanks to COVID-19, had finally been removed. We knew the removal had to occur some day, but I had enjoyed the sculptures and appreciated their contribution to the ambiance of the park, so I was sorry to see that they were gone.

But when we reached the northeast corner of the park we noticed to our delight that a new, permanent piece of overhead art has been added to the Schiller Park mix. Like the other pieces, this one is also by Jerzy Kedziora, so it provides a kind of link to the prior exhibition we enjoyed. The piece is called Boy with Kite and was created in 2020 in Krakow, Poland. A small plaque erected by the Friends of Schiller Park provides a bit of background context for the new addition: “A gift from anonymous donors who believe parks need children as much as children need parks and have provided Schiller Park with countless hours of two joyful boys.”

The gift of a piece of public art seems like a pretty fine way to memorialize a favorite childhood spot for members of your family, one that has provided many happy memories.

This Morning’s Palette

We’re getting ready to do some home decorating in the near future, so we’ve been doing a lot of talking about color palettes and “vision boards” and other decorating-related concepts.

This morning I was greeted by a pre-sunrise scene that had what I considered to be a pretty compelling palette, with lightening shades of blue, a band of coral, warm reds and oranges, and a hint of the yellow to come. The gray clouds and the harbor water would be the “accent colors,” I guess. The only thing that is missing is those evocative paint store names for the colors, like “seashell gray” or “sunflower yellow.” In any case, it’s a palette that goes well together.

I’d love to get a look at Mother Nature’s “vision board” for today., but she is notoriously close to the vest about that.

In Taormina

Yesterday we visited Taormina, a cliffside town that is a short drive from our vineyard lodgings. Originally founded by Greek settlers in the B.C. period, the town is a melange of Greek, Byzantine, Moorish, Norman, and Italian influences, with bright colors and patterns everywhere you look. The town square shown above, with its fabulous tile inlaid floor, is a good example. You get a sense of Taormina’s cliffside status from the steep hills immediately behind the church.

The town square also affords a sweeping view of the cliffside and the Mediterranean Sea far below. Those are prickly pear cactus plants in the foreground, and you can see a few boats on the bright blue water.

The buildings in town are colorfully painted, and many feature second story railings with plantings and traditional figures. The streets in the town are narrow—being built into the hillside means space is at a premium—and you get a close-up view of the buildings as you stroll along.

From the town square you pass through an arched gate in the wall that leads to an older part of town where the streets are even narrower. The archway features a beautiful traditional Madonna and child mosaic, shown below, that is set into the wall for all to enjoy and that attests to the Byzantine influences in the town.

Part of the fun of visiting Taormina is taking a peek at the tiny alleyways that branch off from the main street. You’ll see lots of stairs leading up and down and planters, too. The stairs also can serve as seats for the footsore visitor looking for shade. Stopping in the beautiful local churches also is a good way to beat the heat.

There was an amazing variety of plants along the passageways, with the kinds of deep color you expect to find in tropical settings. That should come as no surprise in a seaside town on an island off the coast of southern Italy.

Taormina is a popular tourist destination, and it is not hard to see why: it is a charming and interesting place with some very dramatic views.

Coastal Colors

When Betty and I took our walk this morning we passed the Island Ad-Vantages building, which has a new paint job. It a pretty bold color scheme—which means it fits right in.

One of the things I like about Stonington is that people aren’t afraid to use bright paint on their houses. That is true in many seaside communities. To be sure, there are many houses that are white or coastal gray, but there also are vibrant yellows, blues, reds, and greens. It makes for a very pleasing palette. It also says “vacation.”

The new shades on the Island Ad-Vantages offices just add more hues to our multi-colored Stonington rainbow.

When Girth Is A Virtue

New York City is now home to the world’s skinniest skyscraper. The Steinway Tower has finished construction and is open for occupants. The building comes in at 84 stories in height, is 1,428 feet tall, and has a height to width ratio of 24:1. It is taller, and therefore skinnier, than the other slender skyscrapers that are found on what is being called “Billionaire’s Row” on West 57th Street.

There are 60 apartments in the Steinway Tower’s 84 stories, and as the photo above indicates, the Tower offers a commanding view of Central Park, the east side and west side of Manhattan, and the rivers beyond. According to the CNN article linked above, the prices are extraordinary, even by Manhattan standards: studio apartments are $7.75 million, and the penthouse goes for $66 million. (Seriously, who would want to pay $7.75 million for a studio apartment?)

Photographs of the building make it look like a gigantic, freshly sharpened pencil, and in addition to it’s super-thin appearance, it’s got other architectural flourishes. The facade includes blocks of terracotta, which appears to change color when seen at different times of day with different light and from different angles.

Separate and apart from the cost, and the height, it would take a special person, willing to put a lot of trust into architects, contractors, building materials, and super-height construction techniques, to live in this building. Super-skinny might be fashionable, but in my view when it comes to buildings a little more girth is welcome.