Thursday, 26 January 2012

Everyday landscape

No matter how lovely the view or beautiful the streetscape when one goes about one’s normal business the places and landscapes do not feel so lovely as they do the first time one lies one’s eye on them. I have been lucky enough to live on top of Gianicolo, the high hill on the Vatican side of the Tiber in a 16th century villa with all Rome at my feet. Did I look across Rome on most of the days? No, I did not. I just holed in the library.

I lived for years in Cambridge and on most of the days I did not bat an eyelid on my way to buy a sandwich at the University or crossing the river Cam in order to reach the Classics library or the University library. I may have noticed the crocuses or the bluebells in the Backs on a sunny spring day or paused to look at the swan near the King’s. However, even today when I run to the bus stop from the University Library, I hardly marvel the buildings of Trinity or the Gate of St. John. They just happen to be on my route.

How often do I raise my eyes and look at the beautiful historic buildings in the city centre in Leicester? I must admit that many buildings, such as the St. Margaret bus station, I really could do without seeing. However, the marvellous Turkey Cafe or the former Midland bank on the opposite side of the road with their Moorish or Venetian influences brighten up anybody’s day.

One becomes blind to the beauty of one’s everyday environment and we seem to consider our everyday surroundings mundane. The routes are in the mind’s landscape and even the most beautiful building becomes the background of the everyday routines and rut. If it is overcast, grey, foggy and rainy, even the most beautiful cityscape loses its lustre. Probably Avebury would be a total dump if one had to work from 9 to 5 at a rescue excavation in the icy February rain. If you are covered in mud and your feet are wet, the last thing you want to do is to consider the aesthetic value of a stone circle.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Hues of landscapes

In my mind Finland is a summery green country and during the wintertime busking and shining in a golden spring sunshine but during a couple of the last visits after living abroad for 15 years I have started to see the hint of greyness. Naturally, during our wintry visit a sleety, rainy afternoon is nothing but grey, no matter if there is snow covering the ground. However, I noticed this greyness coming through on a summer visit recently. Yes, all birches are in lovely leaves and the grass is green but everything seems to have a tint of grey merging with the blueness of the sky, brownness of the agricultural soil and greenness of the forests. But the forests are dominated by dark shades of fir and pine trees and the scarred outcrops of bedrock along the motorway are grey of granites and gneisses. The moraines are light-coloured and stony and many of the tree trunks have the grey shade of aspen or willow bark. Not to mention the greyness of the road network and motorways.

Landscape in Britain

Living in England allows one to enjoy green lawns year around – unless the summer is especially hot, which does not happen too often. The brown and green dominate even through the winter and the bright colours of some bedrock areas, e.g. the reds in Dorset or whites in Kent, shine through in places. It is true that when it is overcast and rainy, and that is quite often during the autumn and winter – and spring and summer – everything is damp and dull. However, on a sunny winter day as today when I am writing this everything is green or greener.

The greenness of England does not outshine the brightness of the Mediterranean. If you arrive to a Mediterranean country on a sunny day even in January you see brilliance in the air. The overall tones of the landscape tend to be orange or brown most of the year albeit a relatively short burst of springiness in April or May but the colours of terracotta just add to the feeling of warmness and shininess lacking from the northern latitudes.

It feels cheap to refer to the general tones of the environment when discussing the certain aspects of mentalities in different parts of Europe. Nevertheless, on a beautiful June day a riverside in Turku feels cosmopolitan and the summer clothes worn are colourful whereas the greys and blacks dot the winter palette. A ray of sunshine in the spring allows the English to take those minute tops or shorts out of the closet and turn their necks red. Brightness and sunshine makes people more expressive if not happier.

Reminder: Beginners guide to archaeology and heritage will start on February 20, 2012, at 12:30pm (six two-hour sessions) with the 101 Hinckley Road branch in Leicester. Fee: £40.20 (FREE for unemployed and people on benefits; T&C apply). Click here for more information and enrolment.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Britain with the Roman eyes

Tacitus gives in his Agricola the same kind of treatment to Britain as he gave to Germania to the areas inside and outside the Roman Empire in the area of the modern Germany. However, ultimately Agricola is not a description of Britain as a geographic area or the history of Britain or its tribes but a biography of a general Agricola, a family member of Tacitus (Agricola was his father-in-law). Nevertheless, at the same time as listing the achievements of Agricola as a soldier and a governor of Britain Tacitus ends up giving a summary of the key events of the establishment and rooting of Roman power over Britain and the beginning of a ‘Pax Romana’ on this island as well.

The weather conditions of Britain became quite clear already from the Caesar’s unlucky expedition to these shores when his fleet suffered in a poor weather and storms. The Romans would not return for another hundred years or so but stayed at home licking their wounds and counting the lost ships. Not that they weren’t busy and more successful elsewhere.

Already during the Roman times there was a clear distinction between Britannia and Caledonia, England and Scotland, with the border lying approximately in the area of the Clyde and Forth. “Britannia, insularum quas Romana notitia complectitur maxima”, Britain was the largest island known to the Romans. Under Agricola the Romans proved that Britannia was an island. They also observed the powerful tides in some areas that enter some of the rivers; a clear reference to the situation near Bristol. Many of the qualities of Britain seem to be watery since the productivity of the land is mentioned to be related to the moisture of both soils and heavens. Similarly, the sky is noted to be mostly overcast with continuous rain but at least the climate was not cold (although no wine or olives could be grown).

'Alea jacta est - popular Latin and Roman literature' in Leicester at Vaughan college on Tuesdays at 10.30am-12.30pm from February 21, 2012 (6 sessions). This course is FREE for unemployed and people on means-tested benefits (T&C apply), others pay £40.20. Further information and enrolment by phone 0116 251 9740 or e-mail

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Driving to Murlo

New Year is a good time to go down the memory lane and remember the enjoyable summer holiday moments in a sunny landscape. This summer we said fairwell to my father-in-law’s Tuscan house, which was luckily sold in the autumn. However, the few days we could spend in Etruscan Tuscany showed the versatility of Tuscan landscape. On our way to Murlo, a small paese famous among archaeologists, we descended from the peak town of Volterra to the pleasantly undulating landscape around Siena. Further south we encountered the flatter riverine landscape in the south. This route bypassed Siena and we followed the historic Via Cassia towards Murlo.

The only hotel – and especially its bar – in the modern centre of Murlo (Vescovado di Murlo) is heaving in July with archaeologists and students participating in the American excavation project. The project has its headquarters in Borgo di Murlo, the Medieval centre. This small circular ‘citadel’ is not the Etruscan centre; the archaeological excavations take place on the next hill and there is currently little to see. The consecutive relocations of local centre make the understanding of the local landscape more challenging than usually. However, the Borgo has been lovingly renovated and has a very good museum for those interested in the history of tile roofs and elite buildings during the 7th and 6th century BC. This museum is the main reason for archaeologists to come to this town.

Etruscan Murlo is famous for its terracotta statues that once stood on the roof of the main acroteria. The main character is not an Apollo or any recognisable Graeco-Etrusco-Roman god but ‘Il Cowboy’ with its large floppy hat. This area of Tuscany is now more remote and less populated than the core wine making areas and it is burning hot during August so that large hat must have been a local way of protecting from the sun. As far as I know it is considered an original Etruscan artwork but I cannot be without wondering how conveniently an American project managed to found an Etruscan cowboy, visibly placed in its past urban landscape...