art and history: 2 posts

Illyria : Postcard from Albania

I was walking up the hill, leaving behind me the ancient town of Apollonia with its graceful ruins of temples and arcades, when I saw this vista. A golden field, a tree, blue skies. The setting sun colored the burned grasses dark gold, and if I turned around, I could see a ribbon of the sea glittering on the horizon. But I stared straight ahead. Centuries compress into seconds when one sees visions like this. This could have been Illyria.

Illyria is what this land in the west of the Balkan Peninsula was called in antiquity. Today, its largest part is in Albania. The town of Apollonia was famous for its university, and it was here that in 44 BC Gaius Octavius Thurinus learned of the assassination of his great-uncle Julius Caesar. Being named Caesar’s heir, he rushed to Rome to claim the throne and become emperor Augustus. He never finished his university studies, but it didn’t prevent him from being one of the most brilliant of Roman statesmen.

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The Passion of Johann Georg Pinsel

It’s not often that a sculptor causes me to crisscross Europe in search of his traces. But Johann Georg Pinsel did just that. I took rickety marshrutka buses to distant Ukrainian villages to see his work at local churches. I visited many a palace where fragments of his sculptures were displayed–a wing of an angel, a headless saint, a saint motioning one to come closer and listen to the revelation. Finally, I made it to Lviv, a western Ukrainian city, and later to Vienna, the center that once exerted considerable political power over Lviv. These journeys spanned almost a year, intertwined as they were around other trips and exploration, but somehow, Pinsel, a mysterious 18th century master, was the leitmotif.

Very little is known about Pinsel. His name was only established with certainty in the 1990s. Where was he born? With whom he did study? The area where he chose to work was the Lviv region, at the time a part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and after the first Partition of Poland in 1772, a part of the Habsburg Empire. After Stalin signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with Nazi Germany in 1939, these territories once again exchanged hands and ended up in the Soviet Union. This bloody and brutal history had consequences for the master who has been dead for almost two centuries–he was forgotten.

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