Sunday, July 21, 2013


I once had a picnic lunch in Julius Caesar's living room. It was back in the day, when Rome's Forum was still a weedy field and nobody was rushing about seeing their day's quota of ruins. There were no fences and no crowds, only me and two cats and a few odds and ends: salami, buffalo mozzarella, some big dark olives, bread and some wine. It was a fall day, sunny and just cool enough. I sat on a large piece of rubble (marble, carved, 1st C BCE), laid out my feast on another stone, and fed both myself and the cats. A little sign, discrete, almost an afterthought, informed me that the mosaics under my feet were part of Caesar's floor. For the life of me I can't remember what the pattern was, only that the background of 1/2" marble tessera was white, and some dark swirls - leaves? fish? - peeked from under the dirt and weeds.
Think of mosaics and that's likely what you'll think of: small squares of colored stone carefully laid, enduring for millennia in some cases. Tunisia and western Turkey, for example, are practically paved with mosaics. Find the Bardo Museum (Tunis) site for some killer examples. Mosaics also come in tiny, detailed form, some of the stones 1/16", which allows amazing detail.
I am in Hue, Vietnam, and went this morning (on a motorbike, picture that) to see the Imperial tombs outside the city. Most of them date to the mid-19th century, and - compared to most funerary complexes - are pretty modest. Part of their beauty is their settings, which are rolling parkland and forests, with long expanses of lotus-strewn lakes. The Minh Mang complex is particularly lovely, with a series of rising and falling pavilions amidst the trees.
And then we have the tomb of Emperor Khai Dinh,  (1916 - 1925, essentially a French puppet), sited on a hillside overlooking rolling hills and rice paddies. The guidebook says mosaics line the mausoleum at the top of the hill, so I climbed the 127 steps and went into the hall where the Emperor is buried. The room, centered by the gaudiest tomb ever built, is thirty by thirty, with twenty foot ceilings. There is not a square inch that does not have high relief glass and pottery figures in it: the Four Seasons, Eight Precious Objects (?), and Eight Fairies (those I wanted to see), dragons and phoenixes, clouds and peonies and plants, birds and flowers. It is in absolutely awful taste and it hangs together beautifully. There are times when nothing succeeds like incredible excess. This is one of those times.
Photos coming, when I can get to a computer that isn't blocked.

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