Shades of Old Detroit

art, Cabinet of Wonders, history, moments in time, place

I just came across this while looking for something else in Google images: a project by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre, called The Ruins of Detroit, a 5-year collaboration between 2005 and 2010.  This is part of what they have to say about the work:

“Detroit, industrial capital of the XXth Century, played a fundamental role shaping the modern world. The logic that created the city also destroyed it. Nowadays, unlike anywhere else, the city’s ruins are not isolated details in the urban environment. They have become a natural component of the landscape. Detroit presents all archetypal buildings of an American city in a state of mummification. Its splendid decaying monuments are, no less than the Pyramids of Egypt, the Coliseum of Rome, or the Acropolis in Athens, remnants of the passing of a great Empire.”

My father grew up in Detroit in the 1930s and 1940s, worked in the auto factories during the summer, and went to the grand movie houses during the height of the movie era.  I have always wanted to visit the Detroit of his youth, and looking at these pictures is, in some ways, like looking at him: under the age are traces of a marvelous youth, a grace and power that still speak to us, despite the passage of time.  It’s both breathtaking and heartbreaking to see these remains of another era.  Particularly, I find the image of the theatre to be beautiful and sad.

Wild Creativity: Muto, Animation on Public Walls

animation, art, Cabinet of Wonders, contemporary, culture, place

A friend of mine sent this link to Muto to me when I was in Croatia, but this is the first time I’ve actually had the bandwidth to look at it, and it’s just wild. Check it out, but beware, some of it is a very tiny bit creepy-crawly, for those of you with delicate stomachs. But mostly it’s just amazing.

Also, now that I’m in the land of DSL again, more posts to follow! Yay!

San Marco Clock Tower, Venice

Cabinet of Wonders, clocks, clockwork, grand tour, history, machines, museums, place

Ed. note: I have been meaning to post about this. Pardon my clockwork geeking below; if you are uninterested in technical details it is still worth checking out the photos!

While in Venice, I found out accidentally about the little-known tour of the beautiful clock tower on the Piazza San Marco. Everyone is so busy going into the Basilica or up the Campanile they don’t look much at the clock tower; but it’s a beautiful thing, marking not only the hours but the date, moon phase and astrological time.

The clock is remarkable: aside from the mechanism, there is a ball painted half gold and half blue, which by its orientation in the clock face will describe the face of the moon. A track circling the outside allows a group of four figures (the three Magi and a trumpeting angel) to pass in front of the figure of the Virgin (this only happens on two festivals a year now, see below). As they do so, the Angel raises its trumpet and its wings, and the Magi bow and move one arm in salute.

At the top of the tower, two larger-than-life shepherds (known as the Moors because of their patina) swing their hammers hourly at the great bell. They are beautifully put together (and vastly anatomically correct), their fleeces hiding the fact that they are segmented at the waist.

The clock was created by clockmaker Gian Carlo Rainieri in 1499. Rainieri then moved into the tower and was paid to keep the clock running and accurate. When he died a number of people of varying skill levels succeeded him, and after two hundred and fifty years the clock was in bad shape. So in 1752 Bartolomeo Ferracina, a reknown clockmaker, was hired to refurbish the clock.

“He actually made a completely new movement. The old mechanism and the original astronomical dial were given to him in part payment. The new movement, although modified, remains until the present day. It has four trains, in a peculiar cruciform pattern, one for the time, two for the hour strike by the Moors and one for the special 132-blow strike mechanism which will be described later. On the upper floor of the tower, above the main movement, there is a separate mechanism for the Magi’s carousel.” (from Antica Orologeria Famberlan, and excellent page with everything you might want to know about the mechanism’s history).

Curiously, the pendulum was lengthened twice, and became long enough that it necessarily hung down into the next floor. This meant that the temperatori, living in the tower below the clock mechanism, had the pendulum moving across his living room at all times. Here is a picture from the 1950s:

The climb through the tower is “not recommended for pregnant women or people suffering from claustrophobia” as the stairs are narrow and get narrower as you go up. Personally, I was impressed with their very Enlightenment look:

In 1857 more repairs were required, and Giovanni Doria, the temperatore of the time, made a careful survey of the necessary repairs to both building and mechanism. While they were at it, the Venetians decided they wanted a luminous display on it so that the time could be read at night. So Luigi De Lucia (appropriately named) designed the two wheels that displayed lamp-lit numerals in the windows that the Magi had once come through. The light shone out through glass-covered cutouts in the metal wheels.

When I was there, I noticed a strange whirring clunk that happened every five minutes; this was the minute wheel regulator going off, and the wheel doing its turn to the next display panel. It was quite extraordinary to be privy to this mechanism, as it’s very beautiful from the inside:

Note the triangular frames hanging from the ceiling. These have small, strong metal hooks on them which are hooked onto the number-wheels, allowing them to be easily disengaged and drawn backwards into the room for those days during Ascension when the Magi are once again attached to their wheel (on the floor) and allowed to parade past Mary.

There are two faces to the clock, both driven by the same movement: one of them, elaborate and decorative, faces the Doge’s Palace and the Piazza San Marco, for the Doge to look at (and presumably all the Senators and so on who ran the government from the Palace). The other one was for the regular people, who lived outside the square; this one was very simple, though still elegant.

Nowadays, the clock is driven by “weights” which are actually wheels on bicycle-type chains, pulled or lifted daily by electric motors. This was based on a decision not to rely on a temperatore to pull the weights down each day and wind the movement. It is the only part of the 1750’s mechanism which has been completely modernized.

I was intrigued and impressed as I followed our guide, not only because it’s the kind of thing most of us dream of – living in a tower with a bunch of clockwork – but because so much of the place was designed with beauty and functionality hand-in-hand. I do love the Enlightenment and Victorian eras’ penchant for lovely design! Here, for example, is the top floor, before you climb to the rooftop where the bell-ringers stand:

Or this rooftop structure which tops the spiral stairs and keeps them watertight:

I mean, really! Captain Nemo, where are you??

One of the best parts of this tour was being taken out onto the roof to see the high-Rennaissance Moors, who look about double life-size. It was so great to get up close and see the difference in their faces and poses, and understand, finally, not only how the pivot at their waists were so beautifully disguised, but to have the mechanism explained: inside their legs is a rod which turns each of them; if you look at the main clock mechanism (above) you will see a large wheel with notches in it. If you look closely, you may see that there is one notch, followed by two notches, followed by three, and so on: the wheel is actually a great cam, which moves the bell-ringers to ring the appropriate number of times.

There are two of these cams, one on each side of the clock mechanism, to drive the two Moors.

Also, if you notice there is a double cable going up to a small hammer on the edge of the bell. This was put there as part of the 1752 mechanism; at midnight every night, every blow to the bell by the Moors is relived via this little hammer: 132 blows. Whether this is a sort of “rewind” feature, or a “design feature” (or some combination of the two), I have not yet discovered.

I feel so lucky to have found this tour, which I found through an idle inquiry at the Tourist Information office at Piazza San Marco. Since then, I have tried to find the name of the place we bought our tickets, but every online source seems to try to sell them to you at great expense. It was (somewhat) cheaper in person – just enquire, as I did, and they will direct you to the nearby gallery where you can book a spot on a tour (and where there is a wonderful miniature of the tower and its mechanism). You must book it ahead of time, and show up early, as you are taken in a group over to the tower and let in the little door at the bottom (a curiously thrilling moment). When we went, it was a tour of two – my daughter and I had the place to ourselves.

I am hoping to get permission to go up in the clock in the cathedral at Strasbourg on our way through in ten days. Wish me luck!


Wikipedia, of course, has a bunch of information about the various restorations and attendant controversies.

I read the book Daughter of Venice with my daughter before going to Venice (heh), and it really put us in the mood – and filled in some details about Venetian history. It’s about a girl living in 16th century Venice and is full of interesting details about what life was like for women and how families worked to keep their wealth. It describes some aspects of the governmental system of Venice and the kind of wrangling that was always going on. Great book! …In the Young Adult section, like many good books, but readable by all ages, I think. Unfortunately, though, it doesn’t discuss the clock tower in any detail.

Decrepit But Not Abandoned

architecture, Cabinet of Wonders, contemporary, history, museums, natural wonders, Personal, place

Walking on Marjan, the high hill-park here in Split, I have walked past this fascinating spot a number of times.

It’s rare, in the States, to see glass greenhouses anymore – and rarer still to see one in such a wonderful state of organic funk. I wondered what this was for ages before I went to investigate.

I found that it was the Botanički Vrt, or the Botanical Gardens, a largely futile exercise in signage, as it is crumbling and seems to have very little in the way of exotic plants. There are several greenhouses, of which this is the largest (the others seeming to be a poor storage area for a motorcycle and a bunch of cast-off window-frames). The gardens are tiny and pretty, but this greenhouse held my imagination. Walking around it was an exercise in mysterious snooping.

After I’d been there for awhile a guy came out of one of the buildings to smoke a cigarette. He looked at me curiously, then asked me a question in Croatian. After awhile I realized he had unlocked it for me, so I went inside, to a scene of curiously domestic disintegration and decay.

Proof positive that it’s always worth investigating…

The Languages of Tone and Rhythm

art, Cabinet of Wonders, culture, history, language, miscellany, place

I’ve always been a sucker for a good boatswain’s call.

Oh, I don’t mean that silly “Wee-ee-ee” you hear in Star Trek when there is a change of status; I mean the wonderful silver and copper device which was used to issue orders that could be heard above noise and weather.

There were any number of calls used to communicate different things, made by opening and closing the hand over the buoy to make the note lower or higher. Besides plain whistling, there were warbles (made by blowing jerkily) and trills (made by rolling an “r” while blowing); by blowing patterns of high and low notes of varying style, most anything that needed to be communicated on shipboard could be said.

Using flutes, whistles, and drums to communicate is a very old idea. Ancient Greek and Roman ships used flutes to help the rowers keep in step, and the boatswain’s call (or bosun’s whistle) has been around since at least the 1300s. Not only that, there are numerous whistling languages traditional among mountain peoples, where visual contact can be made over great distances, but the voice is difficult to discern (the exception being, of course, yodeling, which is yet another language). Some places that have developed whistling languages are Nepal, Mexico, Greece, New Guinea and the Canary Islands.

Similarly there are also drum languages, used once again to be heard over long distances (though visual connection seems to be less important here). In Africa, drum languages are so common that they are a standard and almost casual auxiliary mode of communication. In Cameroon, for example, the dogs are actually trained to recognize their names when they are drummed – which, if you think about it, isn’t much different than sheepdogs recognizing their personal whistles.

Master-drummer Michel Wanga, Ippy, June 1973

There are a number of ways in which whistling or drumming can work. In some cases, they are direct transmissions of how the spoken language actually sounds. For example, the Sizang people (of Chin State, Burma) have a tonal language, so their whistled language uses an abridgement system – in other words, it drops all aspects of the language but one basic element – to mimic the tones (and then relies on context for the rest). Some languages translate the message into code – like Morse Code, for example, which bears no relation to the actual spoken message but relies on the alphabet to get a more specific kind of message across. Others use a translation system, for example, the Duala (Africa) translate their messages into such archaic synonyms that they are essentially encoding it, because the synonyms have ceased to be used in spoken language, being only retained in their drumming.

There’s something about this idea, though, that is intriguing. How many of us loved the idea of a secret language when we were kids, something our friends could understand and no one else could? How many of us dreamed about smoke signals, and were fascinated by the stories of identical twins who had developed their own language which they only used with each other? There is something about the idea of being able to change forms, from words to beats or whistles, that takes this idea one step further – because you are not only speaking a language other people can’t understand, you are doing it without looking like you are communicating at all. Imagine sitting in class tapping your pencil on your desk. Your teacher thinks you are simply twitchy, but in reality you are passing notes – while looking innocent and attentive.

Look at this passage from Mazateco Whistle Speech, by George M. Cowan:

“Eusebio Martinez was observed one day standing in front of his hut, whistling to a man a considerable distance away. The man was passing on the trail below, going to market to sell a load of corn leaves which he was carrying. The man answered Eusebio’s whistle with a whistle. The interechange was repeated several times with different whistles. Finally the man turned around, retraced his steps a short way and came up the footpath to Eusebio’s hut. Without saying a word he dumped his load on the ground. Eusebio looked the load over, went into his hut, returned with some money, and paid the man his price. The man turned and left. Not a word had been spoken. The had talked, bargained over the price, and come to an agreement satisfactory to both parties – using only whistles as a medium of communication.”

In the Canary Islands, there is a shepherd’s whistling language known as Silbo Gomero, or Silbo, which was extremely old (pre-Spanish) and nearly lost by the end of the 20th century. However, the Gomeran government made it mandatory for children to learn Silba in school, and it’s making a comeback. There has been a lot of interest in it, even to the point of scientists doing brain scans of Silbadors (speakers of Silba) and finding that when they heard Silba their brains reacted as if they were listening to a language, as opposed to non-Silbadors, who merely responded as if they were hearing whistling. This seems a little pointless to me, since people use it to pass on fairly complex messages, despite its apparent simplicity, so it must be processed like language.

It’s interesting, the question of “what is language?” Of course, if you ask different people you’ll get different responses. People who study the philosophy of language tend to stroke their chins and discuss things like “What is meaning?” and “How can meaning ever really be known?” – which doesn’t really answer any questions – while semioticians (who study signs, symbols, and communication) differ from linguists in that they are willing to include things other than words in their definition of language – in other words, “Semiotics differs from linguistics in that it generalizes the definition of a sign to encompass signs in any medium or sensory mode.. it… extends the definition of language in what amounts to its widest analogical or metaphorical sense.” [wiki] In other words, they believe that language can exist in any number of situations and ways of expression. The language of clothes, the language of TV, the language of gestures.

Which, if you think about it, extends language into all the spheres of our thinking. We are constantly telling each other something, either through a glance, or how we hold our arms; what choose to dress that day, or whether we kiss our sweethearts goodbye. it is all communication.

I remember when I was teaching English in Japan, I used to terrify my students with the following lesson:

“Is THIS your umbrella?”
“Is this YOUR umbrella?”
“Is this your UMBRELLA?”

All of which, of course, have entirely different connotations, as they imply completely different choices that you are questioning. The first one asks which umbrella, the second asks whose umbrella, and the third, well, that one can’t seem to believe it’s really an umbrella at all.

So it might actually be tempting to step outside the regular context of “language” as we know it and find some simpler mode of communication. I love talking on the telephone, because I don’t have to pay attention to subtle physical cues (either mine or theirs) and can rely entirely on voice timbre. I am charming on the phone, and awkward in person, because I am constantly distracted by the matter of body language: did they hear that last part? Are they bored? Did I just make them angry? …The telephone is just so much simpler – I can funnel all that energy into my voice, and it makes me focused and comfortable.

The modern equivalent of drumming/whistling/etc. is, of course, the text message, either IM or by mobile phone. Whole languages have risen that are completely endemic to the digital environment. When older people moan that young people are being ruined by all this terrible spelling, I reply, “Not at all; they are simply learning another language.” Like whistling, drumming, and smoke signals, IM and text messages use code, abridgement, phrases, and even sometimes direct transmission to get the message over a long distance. Nothing new there.

Andes, Venezuela: “at six o clock in the morning the fog was crawling over the mountains and i heard the whistle language of farmers in the valley (like you can hear on la gomera, canary islands) ” (Thanks to drmidix on Flickr)


For history and how-to of the Boatswain’s call, try this, this, and this. Wikipedia also has an interesting entry on it.

An odd little website on the pursuit of whistling languages (with sound samples).

BBC article on the revival of Silba.

A little page on train whistle language.

Wikipedia article on communicating through drums.

The Western Australian Maritime Museum, where you can buy a replica boatswain’s call (can’t guarantee the quality, though – try eBay for actual antiques)

Forms of Alternate Communication