Monday, July 23, 2012


Sunday, July 15 we traveled to Chartres, a little town southwest of Paris. On Monday we took a train to Reims, a larger city, but also located within the Ile-de-France. This small region of France is where the architectural style we know as the "Gothic" was born at the abbey church of St. Denis, north of Paris (today a suburb). After a series of Early Gothic buildings, such as Notre Dame, the style developed into the High Gothic at Chartres before it was further elaborated in the 13th C. at the Ste. Chapelle (see earlier "Pre-Louvre Excursion" post), Reims Cathedral and elsewhere.

Unlike when we were in France in 2000, I now teach this period of architecture and despite my rather anti-medieval (or at least medieval = lesser) graduate school "Renaissance indoctrination," I find that I love this period of building. It's daring, beautiful, original, style-conscious, at times architecturally rule-breaking, and intimately linked to this small region of France. So, this trip we saw more Gothic architecture with a focused, knowledgeable eye and it was truly wonderful. Our moments spent in these special spaces are among my favorites of the entire trip.

Below I share some of these special places through photos.


The facade (front) of St. Denis was started in the later 1130s by the Abbey's abbot, Suger, one of the great patrons of the 12th C. Here he and his architects introduced the first Gothic facade. What makes it Gothic? (Ahem, putting on my professorial hat...)

1. Portals surrounded by sculpture integrated into the architecture (however, largely reconstruction today due to significant damage during the French Revolution)

2. Two towers. Today it's missing its left tower due to a lighting strike in the 19th C., but it was originally completed with two following a long tradition in church building.

3. The division of the facade into three vertical and three horizontal strips.

4. The rose window

It is the combination of these together that is new--all of these elements were seen on previous buildings, but not combined like this. As you will see below, this new combination is the root of all large Gothic facades.

Here at Saint Denis in 1140, Abbot Suger added the area you see above, which is known as a chevet (the apse, choir and ambulatory together) or the east end of a Gothic structure. This area introduced the use of large stained glass windows to illuminate the altar and halo it, as it were, with a ring of light. Nobody had seen anything like it! When this part of the church was dedicated in 1144, all the key archbishops and bishops of France attended and then they went back to their own parishes and built their own Gothic structures insuring the rapid, wildfire-like spread of the style.

Sitting here in this spot I enjoyed thinking of the wide-eyed bishops and archbishops in awe of the way the walls, usually so thick in the churches they knew, had all but disappeared only to be replaced by glass and colored light. Then, each collectively saying, "I want one!"

View down the choir of St. Denis, where the upper structure of the building dates to the 13th C.

This building still houses the remains of France's patron saint, St. Denis, who was martyred on Montemartre and reputedly walked, head in hand to this spot for his final rest. Several sculpture of the decapitated saint may be found here.


Our first glimpse of Chartres, as it dominates the city skyline.

Dave in front of the facade, which is actually Early Gothic. The rest of the building burned during a disastrous fire in 1194, the same year the city began rebuilding on the site in the High Gothic style. The cathedral houses the miracle-working veil of the Virgin, which also survived the 1194 fire. This was interpreted in two ways by late 12th C. citizens of Chartres: the veil's miraculous nature was confirmed, and given its survival, it must mean the Virgin was in fact, communicating that she wanted a new church! Money flowed in from local guilds, aristocrats, the monarchs of France and smaller parish churches under Chartres control.

The building was finished by 1225, including its sculpture. This feat in itself is a kind of Gothic miracle in a period where building often drug out for a hundred years at one site.

One set of elegant statues (jamb figures) from around the facade doors. These are Old Testament kings and queens and represent the best preserved Early Gothic architectural sculpture anywhere! I love the way they appear to levitate while looking kindly out on church-goers. Note the elongated proportions. Believe it or not, all of this would have been brightly painted originally.

Huge Early Gothic windows in the facade of the cathedral, which also survived the 1194 fire. I show you a detail below, which is closer in color to the way the windows look in person. Cameras just can't capture the jewel-like light quality of the stained glass, but this detail comes close. This is taken from the center window, which depicts Christ's infancy and early life.

Below are three images of the choir. The next two photos also capture a bit of the space right in front is the transept (the cross arm of the building) and the nave (main body of space into which one enters), which are pitch black. This is due in large part to the fact that these areas are dark today. Indeed, a major restoration campaign is currently underway on the interior of Chartres that will literally make us see this building in a new light. Chartres was originally painted a light peachy ivory with white grout lines. In the 19th C. dramatic "restorers" removed what was left of the paint and two generations (at least) of medieval scholars have learned about and taught (this is how I learned it) that Gothic cathedrals were cool, uniform structures that revel in their stonework. This is true, but not the larger picture. These cathedrals were riots of color, not reserved modernist spaces.

Today restorers are returning Chartres to its earlier--and somewhat shocking--appearance, as the photos below document. I am both excited to see it finished and nervous at the outcome--the last image shows faux marble detailing that isn't at all what I would expect to see in a Gothic structure...I found this both fascinating and slightly unnerving. Is this how people felt when the Sistine was cleaned? The Chartres I knew is about to disappear.

And yet, looking at the creamy, ivory walls with their white accents it becomes obvious how the paint worked WITH the glass to magnify the light's reflections, and the windows appear to float in space. Of course this is how it looked! (But I eagerly await the academic explanation of the faux marbling in the lowest story, which you see at the bottom of images 1 and 3 below...)

REIMS (pronounced like France, but drop the F and give the R a little throaty roll. However, it's pronounced--as I learned from a train employee in Paris, ("in France we say...")--as the French say France, that is the A sounding like "aw.")

The beautiful rolling farmland and countryside zipping by the train en route to Reims, which is in the northern part of the Ile-de-France. Note the low dramatic sky. The clouds moved as fast as we did.

This was both of our first visits to Reims. I was extremely excited to see this building, which I regularly teach and have admired in slides as (in my humble opinion) the most beautiful facade of any Gothic cathedral in France. This trip confirmed that! The Reims structure took 100 years to build, from 1211-1311, and was started in the High Gothic style, but finished in the later Gothic style current at its completion, the Rayonnant. One key feature of this later style is the triangular area over the door, which was solid stone with sculpture at Chartres and is now stained glass.

This group of sculpture below is among the most famous of the Gothic era and comes from the right side of the center door, which you see above. From left to right are the Annunciation (Gabriel and the Virgin) and the Visitation (Virgin and St. Anne). They were carved by two separate sculpture workshops, hence the difference in the Virgin's appearance. Again, all of these would have been brightly painted and indeed, some faint paint was still visible behind the figures, who are over life size.

As the second tallest complete Gothic cathedral in France, Reims' 125 foot tall vaulting makes one feel tiny! Note the people down the nave in the shot below for a sense of the scale here.

This structure is much darker than Chartres on the inside, even with a great deal of clear glass in its nave (some added intentionally while other windows are post-WWI replacements when the building was heavily bombed).

The steep proportions of the cathedral are easily appreciated in the side aisles. Below is one side aisle, followed by a detail of the glass, from the other side aisle. This is the glass over the side aisle's front door. Beautiful!

American John D. Rockafeller paid to rebuild Reims in the wake of WWI. Some of the devastation is still visible on the cathedral's front, especially on the left door where sculpture are particularly battered. It's obvious when seeing the structure that it has had a "harder life" than Chartres, and yet it remains a glorious building.

I don't think we ever were able to decide which of these two cathedrals were our favorites--Chartres or Reims. I felt lucky to be able to see them both and so close in time to one another.

The two cities holding these churches are also delightful. Chartres in particular is a jewel and we enjoyed one of the best meals of our post-Italy trip in a small restaurant there that overlooked the cathedral.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Home again

Dave and I returned late on the evening of Wednesday, July 18 after nearly 24 hours of travel. We made it safe and sound though and are settling back into our quiet, summer Greensboro routine.

In the next week or so we plan to post some final images and thoughts on our trip, especially our last few days in France and our time in Germany, when we did not have internet.

On a personal note, I'll admit I was a bit reluctant to commit to a blog for this trip, but the feedback we've gotten from those of you reading, and the fun we've had writing and posting has really made this entire experience part of the special memories that are summer 2012 for us. So...thank you for reading, commenting, engaging and emailing us...and stay tuned!

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Pixar Perfect

Backing up to Bonn, Germany...

On the evening of July 5, Dave and I were very lucky to be holding an invitation to the private opening of the new Pixar art exhibition, officially unveiled at the Bundeskunsthalle, in Bonn, on July 6. The show, entitled Pixar: 25 Years of Animation is a wonderfully thought-provoking, beautiful and carefully curated show that visually and simply documents the process of making a Pixar film. The displayed works range in media from digital painting to pastel, from pencil to gouache, and include both 2D and 3D pieces from Pixar's shorts and features through Brave.

The galleries, which were nicely organized to tell the "narrative" of the Pixar process, were also specifically painted in particular colors to set the work off to great effect. The energy was high in the gallery spaces that night and in the days that followed, as I visited to take notes and re-view the galleries.

Below, me at the opening with Christine F., my Pixar buddy and go-to-woman for all things Pixar. She has made all my trips to Emeryville both fun and super-productive. (Christine--you rock!)

Many of the subway stops en route to the museum had billboards publicizing the show. The very first image in this post is another such billboard. I liked the one above so much I bought a poster-sized version of it. (This image of Nemo is taken from one of Ralph Eggleston's small pastel studies for the film, which appears in the exhibition)

After the opening Dave and I joined the Pixar and museum staff for a lovely private dinner and each brought home a little piece of Pixar--Dave has a Sully figurine and Bob Parr (Mr. Incredible) will soon defend my desk as he did my spot at dinner. The entire evening was special, and Dave and I felt privileged to be a part of it.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

For Chris (and other jazz lovers)

We spent our penultimate night in Paris at Duc de Lombards, a well known jazz club that showcases musicians from around the world.  We "discovered" this place in 2000 when it was at a different, more modest location.  In any case, we heard a terrific quintet led by the trumpeter Dominick Farinacci.  Besides Farinacci's truly excellent horn, the group included a piano, stand-up bass, drums, and percussion. 

The best song of the night, "Tango No. 3," was written by Farinacci himself.  The set also included standards such as a terrific arrangement of Cole Porter's "It's Alright With Me" and, as a bit of a tribute to the home folks, Jacque Brel's "Ne Me Quitte Pas."

However, the true star of the show was the pianist, Kris Bowers.  Wow.  From his first solo to his last, he was absolutely amazing.  I got the feeling that in about a decade, I'll be able to say that "I saw Kris Bowers in Paris in 2012 before he really hit it big."  My initial sense was that he was part Thelonious Monk (above) and, given his ability to play such that if you closed your eyes you'd swear there were two pianos, Art Tatum.

And then late in the set, Farinacci revealed that Bowers had won the most recent Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Competition.  He was unbelievable.  And he's 23 years old.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Versailles, Volume 2

Versailles' gardens are also justifiably famous. We spent as much time in them as we did in the "house," and with good reason, as you will see below. 

As a gardener, the gardens were endlessly awe-inspiring and inspirational, both the formal "rooms" and the less formal tracts of forested land. Unlike other gardens we've seen on this trip, these were immaculate. It probably comes as no surprise then, that we actually saw gardeners working in teams to trim, rake and weed these immense grounds.

Below, a view towards the chateau through the south parterre.

It was nice to see that even at Versailles the yews are not trimmed exactly the same. Apparently nature can be shaped, but not bent.

Below, two views of the Orangery, which was one of my favorite spaces to look down upon from up high. The first image is taken from a terrace near the chateau, the bottom is a detail from the same spot. 

Versailles reinforced that a garden can be immensely interesting and visually pleasing when working only with evergreens. Many areas of these immense grounds were only green, but the textures, variances in tone and leaf shapes made the spaces optically interesting.

Two above is Dave in front of the chateau, at the base of one of the long grassy fields (just mowed) forming a vertical between the "house" and the water you see below, known as the Grand Canal, an apt name. This body of water is enormous! See those small forms out on the water above? They are row boats that can hold at least 6 adults. This is a serious body of cross-shaped water, whose full extent is very hard to grasp from photos, and indeed, even from being there it's hard to comprehend how huge it is.

These manicured yews are interspersed with classicizing sculpture lining the pathways and grassy field you just saw above. In fact, if you look closely you can see them behind Dave. I loved these!! This is the sort of thing I hope to one day do in my yard. Even one such yew would feel like such a triumph. Again, it was nice to see that nature doesn't always cooperate. These weren't identical to others cut just like them, but the gardener had to deal with what nature provided. Good for me to remember!

Below, a pathway leading from the grand canal to the Grand Trianon, one of the other chateaux here. This one was used primarily by court ladies and is built to take advantage of summer breezes for the purposes of cooling. The gardens, which you see me in below were more human in scale, although still enormous. This was also one area where color was allowed (see the detail of one bed below). Interestingly, a sign at the start of the garden recalled, by quoting a missive from one court lady to her servant, that guests the night before left early complaining of the strong perfume of flowers from the garden! (Or perhaps they were just bored to death of the tedious conversation...)

The long walk back through the drizzle...still beautiful. 

(Also, below, a detail of one bed we passed in this area close to the house. The colors here were cooler, more blues and less red, as you can probably see.)


Saturday, July 14, 2012

Versailles, Volume 1

Versailles is the triathlon of tourist experiences. It's right up there with the Vatican and the Louvre, although they probably beat it with the sheer tourist mania displayed per cubic meter. However, Versailles requires not only physical stamina to cover its more than eight square mile area (unless of course you rent a golf cart to tool around on), but it also demands a kind of mental stamina to experience and process the incredible amount of visual stimuli it provides--both good and bad.

We were prepared! Thanks to friends' experiences and help from guidebooks we bought our tickets ahead of time, arrived just as the palace property opened on Thursday morning. Shortly after looking at the property map we dispatched with the "burden" of seeing everything here, which in truth is impossible to do and do thoroughly in one day. What most people--including us--didn't get until we were there was the sheer immensity of the property (it makes Schonbr├╝nn, which dedicated readers will remember we already saw in Vienna look like a quaint guest house) and the fact that what most of us know as "Versailles" is really the "chateau," as in ONE building. The palace property actually has 4 chateaux, although the large hunting lodge you see in the photos below is certainly the largest and most elaborate of the group.

Here Louis XIV, XV and XVI (before his untimely end) whiled away the hours.

Storms threatened the whole day, but it wasn't until about 6:00 that the skies finally opened up, which luckily coincided with when we were tired and ready to go.

I've divided this post into two parts, the palace proper--that is the hunting lodge--and the gardens, which were a whole other wonderful experience separated by lunch at Angelina's, one of the onsite restaurants where I had my first macaroon and discovered, to my surprise, that I like them!

Our arrival at Louis' doorstep.

His coat-of-arms greets us at the gate.

Looking at this gate, where angry French demanded Louis XVI's head, it's not hard to see why France had a revolution. This gate was recently restored to its original glory, which required the application of over 100,000 sheets of gold leaf! (You can see it in the sun in the first image--blinding! And, unbelievably decadent.)

Me, inside the gate, within the courtyard where carriages once dropped off their royal guests. (Notice how chilly it is. We haven't been complaining--just re-wearing the same 3 things! It hasn't made it out of the 60s since we've been in Paris.)

The man of the hour (or multiple hours, I should say), Sun King Louis XIV by Gianlorenzo Bernini. If this trip has proven nothing else, it's shown that Bernini got around...oh, and that he can sculpt like nobody's business! This bust commanded the room it was in and put the other sculpted busts to shame.

The absolutely breathtaking Hall of Mirrors. This room is justifiably famous. What a space! It's captivating and magnetic. I didn't want to leave it, despite all the tourists, which is saying something.

Dave is nonchalant in his excitement.

I leave you with a hint of what's to is a shot taken from one of the upstairs rooms.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Mona Mania

The Louvre was quite a full-frontal assault on the senses after the morning of relatively quiet looking. It was loud, hot, impossibly crowded (like ants in a hill) and filled with forbidden popping flashes and tired tourists. The first 45 minutes of the experience was, frankly, disorienting and disillusioning. Was this to be our Louvre experience? But we rested, moved away from the vortex of insanity--Room 6-- where a certain Leonardo painting hangs, we adjusted and we enjoyed ourselves AND saw amazing art.

But here is a slice of what I like to think of as a kind of madness for the Mona Lisa:

1. A "fast track" to The Mona Lisa, which actually prevents one from seeing things like, Michelangelo's Slaves, Raphael's Madonna of the Meadow, etc., etc.

2. The unbelievable mosh pit of tourists crushing forward to see (and snap) said portrait. My favorite part about this image are the warning signs flanking Mona that warn you, the viewer, to be aware of potential pickpocketing as you gaze on this "quasi-holy" visage. (Even pickpockets have no shame it appears, and the tourists pushing to the front were no better in that regard.)

3. Stage right.

4. At the front--I am stunned to find a.) that she has either been turned into the nicest piece of office decor or an altarpiece and b.) that I can't get anywhere near Mona. She has a 3 foot wooden "shelf" in front of her, an additional semi-circular barrier and another rope line (see above). She has more protection than most rock stars can boast.

 5. And now for the snarky...At least at a rock concert people know why they are there.