Ming: 50 years that changed China at the British Museum. A review by AHA alum Will Martin

Ming is a word familiar to most of us, and tends to be synonymous with any fragile, rare Eastern pottery. We all know the trope of the Priceless Ming Vase; someone on a (usually pretty mediocre) TV show happens upon a Ming vase, and is at pains to ensure that no harm comes to it. What happens next is inevitable – one particularly clumsy character will knock it off its absurdly precarious perch, smashing the vase into a million pieces, before spending the rest of the episode frantically trying to repair it!

Longquan shrine (Yongle era, 1406). Stoneware, celadon glaze and gilding. Zhejiang province

In reality however, the Ming dynasty, also known as the Empire of the Great Ming, was the ruling house of China for around 300 years between the late 14th century and the middle of the 17th century. The influence of the Ming dynasty on the politics, art, governance and history of Asia is huge, but it is perhaps not always appreciated.
Now though, light is being shed on the dynasty through a new exhibition at the British Museum. The exhibition focuses on the years 1400 to 1450 – the period in which the dynasty cemented China as a superpower in an increasingly globalised world – and brings together artefacts from various museums in China, as well as the British Museum’s collection, and pieces from other museums in the UK.

The effect of this collaboration between the various museums is a stunning array of pieces, spanning the obligatory Ming porcelain, gold, jewels, textiles, paintings and much more. A large amount of the antiquities displayed have never been seen outside of China until now, and as such, this is a rare chance to view some truly stunning Eastern artwork.

Large porcelain flask painted with underglaze blue decoration of lotus flowers (1426-1435). Made in Jingdezhen, Jiangxi (province), China, Ming dynasty Xuande (reign)

The exhibition starts with a brief video, providing a timeline of the five rulers of the dynasty during the 50-year span covered. Initially focusing on the Yongle emperor and his decision to move the court of the dynasty from the city of Nanjing to Beijing, the exhibition moves on to look at all parts of Ming society, examining military, religion, hunting, every day courtly life, trade, and everything in between.
There is surprisingly little porcelain given its indelible association with the word Ming, although the standout piece is a huge, polychrome cloisonné jar, covered with dragons and various other regalia. Also amongst the collection are a vastly opulent sword, whose handle takes the form of a gilded dragon, a beautiful golden Buddha, a Daoist shrine crafted from a single piece of jade, and numerous pieces of red lacquered furniture.

Cloissoné enamel jar and cover with dragons, Xuande mark and period (1426-1435)

Furthermore, adorning the final wall of the exhibition is, strangely enough, a painting by Andrea Mantegna, the northern Italian Renaissance artist. It depicts the Adoration of the Magi, but is notable for featuring a small Ming porcelain bowl, illustrating the pervading influence of the dynasty throughout the world at the time.
These are some of the very best pieces, but truth be told, almost everything in the place is a highlight – such was the quality of the artefacts on show, it took me nearly three hours to leave what is essentially a single room of pieces!
I went into this exhibition with virtually no knowledge of anything to do with the Ming dynasty, but came out feeling far better acquainted with what is a truly fascinating part of history and of art. Tickets are not cheap, but for such a brilliant exhibition, they are worth every penny.

Tickets for Ming: 50 years that changed China, are available to book online, and cost £16.50 (£13 for concessions). The exhibition is free to British Museum members. The exhibitions continues until 5 January 2015.

Copyright for all images belongs to the Trustees of the British Museum

For more information; visit www.britishmuseum.org

What came first, the turkey or the pumpkin? Will Martin looks into the origins of Thanksgiving Dinner

'Freedom from want' by Norman Rockwell (1943)

Being very much the Englishman, I’ve never known an awful lot about Thanksgiving, with my knowledge being limited to that episode of Friends where Monica puts a turkey on her head. However considering that I’m supposed to be AHA’s dedicated student foodie, I thought it might be interesting to explore the origins of the food that is seemingly everywhere throughout North America at this time of year.

For those of us unfamiliar with exactly what Thanksgiving is, it is a holiday celebrated in November, allowing the American people to give thanks, especially to God, as stated by President Lincoln in 1863 when he declared the official holiday. However, Thanksgiving’s origins can be traced to a feast held by the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony in 1621, to celebrate their first harvest. 53 Pilgrims and 90 Native Americans are said to have attended the feast, which lasted three days.

'The First Thanksgiving' by Jean Louis Gerome Ferris (1915)

Obviously if you ask people what they associate with Thanksgiving dinner, 99.9% will say the turkey. Turkey has become so commonplace on the Thanksgiving table that many Americans now call the day ‘Turkey Day’. But why exactly is it that the turkey is so utterly ubiquitous on the tables of Americans on the third Thursday of November? To be honest, there is no definitive answer. It is known that at the ‘First Thanksgiving’, with the Pilgrims, the centrepieces of the meal were beef and an ‘assortment of wild fowl’, but we do not know exactly what these fowl were. We do however know that in a letter sent before the feast, Pilgrim Edward Winslow mentions going hunting for wild Turkeys.

Another tale, most likely apocryphal, is that Queen Elizabeth I, upon being informed of the sinking of the Spanish Armada in 1588, was so delighted that she ordered an extra goose to be prepared for dinner that evening. Some argue that the early settlers took inspiration from this action, but chose to roast turkey instead of goose.

'The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth' by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe (1914)

Whilst the turkey is very obviously the centerpiece of any Thanksgiving dinner, there are of course a multitude of accompaniments and side dishes which are equally important and delicious. Cranberry sauce, different types of squash, sweet potatoes, pumpkin pie and mashed potatoes are just a few of the foods eaten during the traditional Thanksgiving dinner, and it is known that the vast majority of these foods were either native to America, or were brought over on the Mayflower. As well as being native to America, many of the foods consumed at Thanksgiving dinners are seasonal, especially the squashes and pumpkins served. These have always been fruits associated with the Autumnal harvest, and therefore it seems apt that they are eaten at a festival, which initially existed to celebrate the fact that the Pilgrims had survived their first year in the New World and had managed a successful harvest.

Whilst it may be a holiday celebrated in only some parts of the world, the food history of Thanksgiving is fascinating and manages to provide an insight into how the Pilgrims lived in the early days of Plymouth colony and how their struggle shaped the America we know today. Now, off for some leftover turkey!

All images courtesy of Google

The Hermitage, St. Petersburg: Too big for it’s own good?

The museum as seen from the Neva river.

A couple of weeks ago, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to travel St. Petersburg, Russia for a long weekend. Whilst there I took a trip, two trips in fact, to The Hermitage Museum, and it was quite frankly the most astonishing art gallery and museum experience I’ve ever had. This revelation comes as a result of numerous factors, however the most obvious of these is the sheer size of the place, and the volume of art contained within it. A quick search on the ever reliable Google tells me that the Hermitage is the 4th largest museum in the world in terms of area. I’ve never been to the Smithsonian, the Acropolis Museum, or the Louvre, so I can safely say it is the biggest museum I’ve ever visited. Honestly, it makes gargantuan sites like the Vatican Museum, the Uffizi, the British Museum and others feel very small indeed. As well as the size of the museum, what is equally as astonishing is the sheer variety of art and artefacts on display. Objects range from paintings by Rembrandt and Leonardo, to Japanese Samurai armour and Egyptian sarcophagi, right back to classical sculpture from Ancient Rome and Greece.

'The Sacrifice of Isaac' by Rembrandt (1635)

One issue I have with the museum is that it doesn’t seem, to my admittedly amateurish eyes, to be particularly well curated. Granted artworks are grouped by nation and period, but beyond that, it seems that they’ve all just been hung with little regard for creating a real flow within the gallery. I think this may be something to do with the vast size of the collection held within the Hermitage. To give an example, part of my second afternoon in the museum was spent in the ‘French Painting of the 20th century” section, which is unfortunately tucked away in a stuffy corner, in what is essentially the attic of the Winter Palace. Housed within this are innumerate works by the likes of Cezanne, Matisse and Derain, which are hung with what appears to be little concern towards style, period etc.

Henri Matisse's 'The Dance'. One of numerous works of his held in the museum.

My family and I spent nearly two days in the Hermitage complex and I think we saw most of what was on offer, but I’m certain that I missed a lot, and I feel that I was only really able to see most of the art superficially as there is just so much to look at, and to be to totally honest, one needs to sift through a lot of very average paintings before finding the good stuff.

Canova's 'Psyche Revived by Cupid's Kiss'

To sum up, I must say that the Hermitage Museum complex holds one of, if not the most impressive collection, of paintings, sculptures and antiquities I’ve ever seen. However it is let down by poor curation, and I think this is a real shame. That said, if you’re a lover of art (and if you’re reading this blog, I assume you are) then I’d say that if you’re ever given the chance to go to St. Petersburg, you should bite off the hand of whomever afforded you the opportunity. Not just the Hermitage, but the entire city, is quite spectacular!

For more information about the Hermitage museum, visit http://www.hermitagemuseum.org/

Why is it that Italian food is so good? Will Martin discusses…

When the vast majority of people think of Italian food, they think of two obvious things. I won’t patronise and say what they are, but they do both start with the letter ‘P’ and end in the letter ‘A’! Whilst these two carb based delights are indeed Italian and can be absolutely delicious, they’re just the tip of the Italian culinary iceberg.

The thing about eating in Italy is that in all the big, touristy cities, you can eat very well, but also very badly. It tends actually to be rather easier to eat badly for one simple reason: Tourists. A wise man (probably my AHA tutor Steve Nelson, as he is the source of most of my accumulated wisdom) once told me that one should never eat within 200 yards of a major tourist attraction or piazza in Italy.

The reason being that in these kind of areas, the restaurants, osterias and trattorias are so flooded with tourists that they do not need to make any real effort to turn a substantial profit, and even if they were committed to serving great food, the sheer number of people pouring through the doors would make it impractical to do so. As a result, sit down for lunch outside The Colosseum, or anywhere near Brunelleschi’s Duomo, and you’ll be hard pushed to get anything other than Spaghetti Pomodoro, or a Margherita pizza smothered in so much oregano that it’s like eating a very fragrant slice of cardboard.

Look a bit further however and you’ll find the best, and most diverse food you’ll ever eat! One of the wonderful things about Italian food for me is the diversity of styles and ingredients available. The reason for this diversity is pretty simple; Italy has only existed as a single entity since 1861, when Victor Emmanuel unified it. Prior to this point all the major cities were states in themselves, only loosely bound together. Travelling from Rome to Naples, as Baroque painter Caravaggio famously did to escape arrest, was like going to an entirely different country – although in fairness, it still is today! Consequently, so many different styles of cooking arose that it is hard to define exactly what Italian cuisine is. As I previously mentioned, everybody seems to think that all Italian people are constantly digging into a bowl of pasta, but this really isn’t the case. In fact, in the north-western regions of Lombardy and Piedmont, pasta is eaten very rarely, with the favoured source of carbohydrate tending to be either polenta, or rice in the form of risotto. Likewise, whilst you can get pizza everywhere in Italy, go to an authentic trattoria in Florence and ask for one, and you’ll probably get kicked out, or slapped!

Italian people are incredibly proud and protective of their regional cuisine. For example, I was having dinner in Siena once (as you do!) and someone I was with asked for a certain pasta dish, but with a different type of pasta. In most restaurants in the world, they’d probably say yes, whilst privately cursing you in the kitchen, but in this particular place, the waiter and owner took particular umbrage to this request, and launched into a near five minute long rant about how such and such pasta should be served with the sauce, and that to put any other pasta with it would be an abomination. We all found the sight of an angry Italian ranting and raving about pasta quite amusing, but to be fair, you had to admire his passion. I can’t imagine a restaurateur in Britain reproaching someone for asking for chips with their bangers rather than mash. The passion and drive for quality held by Italian food producers is really inspiring, and that is why I love it. Put it this way, if I was forced to eat only one type of food for the rest of my life, it would be Italian, and I think that says a lot!

If you’d like to read a more detailed of this blog, please visit my personal blog at http://custardandjelly.wordpress.com/

Food in the Baroque: Examining depictions of fruit in the works of Caravaggio

As a little change of pace from usual, this month, I’m not actually going to be writing about real food, but rather having a little look at depictions of food (well, just fruit really) in the work of everybody’s favourite Baroque painter, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. Caravaggio is obviously best known for his stark usage of dark and light, his hyper-realistic representations of biblical scenes, and of course, for being a bit of a loveable rogue (he famously killed a man after an argument over a game of tennis.) However, as well as all of this, Caravaggio had a supreme talent for still life painting.

The Supper at Emmaus (1601)

Granted many of these depictions are within larger pictures, such as The Supper at Emmaus (1601), housed at the National Gallery, and his Bacchus (c.1597) at the Uffizi in Florence, but there are instances where depictions of food take the centre stage, like the spectacularly originally named Basket of Fruit (c. 1595-96), in the Ambrosian Library, Milan.

Bacchus (c.1597)

What is perhaps most interesting in this painting, is that the fruit shown is not perfectly manicured and polished, instead it looks almost as if it is decaying. Some leaves sag wearily under their own weight, whilst others are pockmarked and filled with holes, whilst a central apple bears all the hallmarks of having a worm buried deep in its flesh. Even the grapes, so often shown as glowing orbs of purple and green, are distinctly dusty, and some even look to be rotten, turning to detritus quicker than their friends. As a painter, Caravaggio was never one to skirt around the truth, or do things by the book. He was renowned for using prostitutes and other folks of ill repute as models in his paintings, in order to portray a gritty realism onto his canvasses, and the slow decay of the fruit in Basket of Fruit is reflective of this style.

Basket of Fruit (c.1595-96)

In stark contrast to the slightly tatty, ragged appearance of fruit in Basket of Fruit, the work Still Life with Fruit on a Stone Ledge (dated between 1601 and 1605, but widely disputed) is a veritable smorgasbord of earthly delights. All of the produce seems to scream at the viewer ‘EAT ME!’ with its appeal heightened by the cross-sections of marrow and watermelon portrayed. One can almost see the juice dripping invitingly from the melon. Virtually all of the imagery in the painting is of immense fertility and life – a handful of art historians have even argued that the writhing, bulbous white marrows are decidedly phallic, bringing to mind Nicholas Poussin’s famously censored painting of Priapus (1634-38). The iridescent freshness and life of the fruit is contrasted greatly by the stone ledge upon which it is placed. Not only is it decidedly cold and grey, but it also cracked and chipped, perhaps serving as a reminder that the fruits will also perish one day.

Still Life with Fruit on a Stone Ledge (c. 1601-05)

Caravaggio is rightly seen as one of the most influential and important painters of biblical imagery in the history of art, however his still life works, of which there are many more than the two previously mentioned, tend to be overlooked. This in my eyes is a great shame. So I say next time you feel the need for a Caravaggio fix, ignore The Calling of Saint Matthew (1600), and Judith beheading Holofernes (1599), and instead look at a painting of some food!

Eating with my eyes; Part II – A mind expanding evening at Noma

For three consecutive years, Noma, a small restaurant housed in an old warehouse in Copenhagen, Denmark, has been named the best in the world by Restaurant magazine. It is safe to say that right now it, and its head chef and co-owner, Rene Redzepi are at the centre of the culinary universe. A few days ago, I was lucky enough to be able to dine there, and to say it was amazing really doesn’t do the place justice. It was simply out of this world. Much like the Osteria Francescana, about which I have previously written, artistry and beautiful presentation are crucial at Noma, and I want to talk a little about this, as well as my general experience of the restaurant.

Potato and duck liver (apologies for the quality of the photo)

In total, there were 22 different courses in the evening, and I obviously don’t have enough words to write about all of them in detail, but I’ll try and convey a general sense of what we ate. The first 10 or so courses were a series of small bites, all to be eaten with our fingers and shared around the table, which was delightful, and proved to be a real talking point amongst my party, made up of myself, my parents and my good friend Rory. Highlights of this finger food included; Crispy pork skin and black currant, potato and duck liver, and radish, soil and grass, which was brought to the table in a plant pot, and genuinely looked like a potted plant, until we were told that the soil et al was edible!

Crispy pork skin and black currant

Perhaps the most exciting and simultaneously scary part of the finger food though was the live shrimp, which has been a controversial dish at Noma. Four supposedly stunned shrimp are brought to the table alongside a beurre noisette dip and you just tuck in. It was actually quite nice, and nowhere near as scary as I’d anticipated.

On top of our appetisers, we were served 8 main courses, and 2 puddings, all of which were deeply rooted in the philosophy of Noma: the idea that food should give the diner a feeling of ‘time and place’ before they eat. That the food should be both seasonal and locally sourced. At Noma, if it isn’t from Scandinavia and it isn’t in season, it isn’t on the menu. The presentation of the food tended to be earthy, and was far less grand than at the Osteria Francescana. For instance, an oyster dish at Noma was served on a plate covered in glazed pebbles, clearly attempting to replicate a pebble beach, which I found to be an interesting touch.

Oyster from Limfjorden with Gooseberry and buttermilk

What I enjoyed about the presentation of the vast majority of dishes, is that they were without unnecessary embellishment, they looked almost as though they were like nature intended them. This was most true of the ‘Cauliflower and pine with cream and horseradish’, which was presented with two branches of pine, there only to emphasise that this dish was very much rooted in nature.

Cauliflower and pine with Cream and horseradish
The oyster once again, this time sans shell!

There were very few precise swirls and dots of sauce, with a nice spoonful or even a dollop favoured. This rustication of the presentation, in my eyes at least, reflects the restaurant’s creed, and helps to showcase the ingredients, without placing too much emphasis on style, as some modern restaurants can do. Instead the dishes, even down to the tableware they were served on, were made to look earthy and rustic, whilst still retaining a great degree of refinement, which I believe is a huge credit to the chef. All in all, my trip to Noma was as eye opening as it was delicious, and if you can get a table, I’d thoroughly recommend making a trip to Copenhagen.


Cauliflower again, shrubbery removed.

If you’d like to read more of my thoughts on Noma, please go to my personal blog at http://custardandjelly.wordpress.com/

Noma is co-owned by head chef Rene Redzepi and business partner Claus Meyer in Copenhagen, Denmark. Visit www.noma.dk for more information.

World Building of the Year: thoughts from AHA alum Will Martin

Sitting in the kitchen of my slightly dingy student house, I received an email asking me whether I’d like to blog about the World Architecture Festival. At the time my housemate was sitting next to me eating pasta with tomato sauce. An irrelevance you might think, but seeing a picture of the building that won, the Cooled Conservatories at Gardens by the Bay in Singapore, I couldn’t help think that it bore a striking resemblance to the Conchiglie he was eating. Maybe this is indicative of what my parents have been saying for years, that I’ve always got food on the mind, or more likely that it’s designed to look like a shell, like the pasta. This would probably fit considering that it is built by the sea.

Another first impression to strike me was that buildings of this nature, with sweeping curves and copious amounts of glass, have been slightly overdone in the past decade or so. For instance, in my hometown of Newcastle (technically its in Gateshead), we have the Sage, a music centre, which opened nearly eight years ago, and for the life of me, I’m struggling to see any real progress in terms of aesthetics. Yes, it is aesthetically pleasing, but it just seems to be almost trying too hard. Call me old fashioned, but I like my buildings to have a few straight lines and a bit of stone in them. My other problem with this building is that it seems not to fit in with the landscape of its surroundings, but then again nothing seems to in the Singaporean landscape, everything just sort of looks like its been plonked down.

The Sage Gateshead, opened 2004

Whilst I may not particularly admire the aesthetic element of the Conservatories, I cannot help but be mightily impressed by the way in which they are constructed. Designed by London based firm Wilkinson Eyre, the shell of the building is extremely fragile and can apparently only support its own weight, whilst the external arches have been designed to increase the rigidity and wind resistance of the buildings, whilst also allowing as much light as possible to penetrate the building. The buildings are also called the Cooled Conservatories for a reason, they are cooled naturally, and without and air conditioning. How this is done is mighty impressive and I couldn’t even begin to explain it in such a short space of time, but suffice to say, it’s rather revolutionary. All very clever, but this project just seems to me to be a little forced.

An interior shot of the 'Flower Dome'

Within the Conservatory complex itself, a very interesting point is raised. Both Conservatories contain Flora from environments that are likely to be greatly affected by climate change and global warming. The larger of the two buildings, the Flower Dome focuses on how cultivated plants in the Mediterranean region will suffer as temperatures rise, whilst the smaller ‘Cloud Forest’ looks at the impact on biodiversity of the warming of tropical forests, as well as methods of sustainable development which can be used to slow the impact of global warming. Whilst this is all well and good, it seems slightly strange to build this complex in the very near vicinity of a race track used by Formula One, one of the least environmentally friendly sports on the planet.

Although I may not be a fan of the design of the buildings in terms of looks, I think it’s hard to argue that the construction and internal cooling systems of the Conservatories are not impressive. This along with the fact that the Cooled Conservatories focus on just how important and damaging climate change could be to our planet, make them a worthy winner of the WAF’s World Building of the Year.

For more information about the Cooled Conservatories, and the other winners at this year’s World Architecture Festival, go to http://www.worldarchitecturefestival.com/

We’d love to know your thoughts about the winner of the World Architecture Festival as well. Please send them to alex@arthistoryabroad.com, find us on Twitter @AHAcourses, or ‘Like’ us on facebook.

Eating with my eyes: A trip to the Osteria Francescana, Modena, Italy

We all know that Italian food is invariably delicious, its pretty much a given that if you eat in Italy, or in any Italian restaurant, you’re going to get a decent meal. However what I experienced this afternoon in the city of Modena, took this idea and blew it up to the vastest proportions you can possibly imagine. Quite simply, I ate the best meal I have experienced in my, albeit brief, life. The venue for such culinary delight was the Osteria Francescana, a small unassuming looking place run by chef Massimo Bottura and his English wife Lara. It was last year voted by Restaurant Magazine as the 5th Best in the World, and holds three, much coveted stars in the Michelin Guide.

Oops! A broken fruit pie.

Before I get going, I want to assure you that this blog entry is in no way a review, as I would feel wholly inadequate reviewing such a magnificent restaurant. Instead, I’m aiming to use my lunch at the Osteria as a springboard to talking about the aesthetic element of food, something that has interested me for a while. Everybody eats with his or her eyes to a certain extent, for instance it is clear that if you’re presented with a nice, neat plate of food, it will look more appealing than a big heap slopped in front of you. In Modena, this idea was taken to the extreme. In fact some of dishes presented to me were so beautiful (and I really do mean, BEAUTIFUL) that I felt aggrieved to have to eat them, and would much rather have just studied them all afternoon, much as one would do with a Titian or a Bellini.

The most delicious breadsticks I have ever tasted!

Me and my dining companion, my mother, who also happened to pay (Thanks Mummy!), both decided to have the Chef’s Sensations menu, which claimed to be the ‘expressions of the experimental kitchen’. All very exciting. What followed were 11 of the most scrumptious and equally handsome plates of food I have ever eaten. I’ve got nowhere near enough words available to me to describe each course individually, but I’ll talk about some of the highlights briefly.

The Oyster that turned out not to be an Oyster!
Soft and crunchy Branzino with "cacciatora" rabbit sauce.

The first course was a delightfully light almond granita, with capers, bergamot, and coffee cream, which served as a perfect ‘amuse bouche’ for the forthcoming meal. What followed were a series of delectable seafood courses, including a seriously tasty Sea bass dish, with three different sauces, before we moved on to the final savoury dish of the day, the most spectacularly moist pigeon, with what the restaurant described as ‘sour and mineral salad and Balsamic juice’. Next were two pre-desserts, and finally, what was for me the piece de resistance of the meal, a dessert called ‘Oops! A broken fruit pie’, which was essentially a lemon tart, deconstructed to it’s elements, and delightfully presented as though it had been dropped.

In a meal full of delicious dishes, this was to the chef what David was to Michelangelo, absolutely unparalleled. Everything put in front of me today was not only delicious, but also entertaining, and spectacularly pretty, and I could not have had a better first meal, from which to talk about the visual art of food. In my opinion, art should not only delight the eyes, but also the soul, and I could not help but smile whenever a new dish was brought out to me. Whether or not food can be art is debateable, however on today’s evidence, I think it definitely can.

Razor clam and its friends

Osteria Francescana is run by Massimo Bottura in the Italian city of Modena. For more info visit: www.osteriafrancescana.it

The Jackson Pollock-esque Pigeon dish