Tuesday, 31 July 2012


A long time ago Aristotle wrote about Ethics, I have this little book next to me. Aristotle was a vigorous polemicist and a rational philosopher. He lived between 384 and 322 BC in Greece. The success of Aristotle can be measured by the enormous impact of his book Ethics on Western moral philosophy. He converts ethics from a theory to a practical science. He first composed it simply as notes for lectures he gave.

'Our task is to become good men, or to achieve the highest human good. That good is happiness'.

Individual can behave in an ethical manner, this is true of each person to chose to do good, to be moral.
Professionals like medical doctors are guided by ethical concerns for their patients. 'Do no harm' This of course can apply to many other professions or human behaviour. However nowadays many corporations and government bodies love to issue mission statements on codes of conduct, codes of ethics for their employees. It is good to present this mirage of concern to the general public to reassure the naive and the easily deceived. We should remember that governments are essentially political entities driven by the pursuit of control and power and the public good is a distant third, based on the re-election prospects of the politicians or the sale prospects of products marketed by corporations. Spin which is so much part of our political discourse nowadays is easily confused with ethical speech.

Political correctness is also often confused with ethics, appear to do good without ever doing it. Saying out loud what no one actually thinks or believes quietly. We have in the workplace people charged with promoting ethical behaviour which is associated with correct, officially sanctioned attitudes and pre-fabricated responses to any and all situations. In other words you are told what to think. It appears that we are in fact returning to fascist values of the mid twentieth century, confusing them with modern advanced thought and what passes for modern ethical behaviour.  We have forgotten the lessons of the past and are too willing to accept what is thrown at us as long as it satisfies instant gratification or excitement which masquerades for happiness.

So what happened to ethics in our every day life, it has been replaced by instant profit and reward, greed is justified as success and blissful ignorance is the new normal.

                                    Mourning Athena, goddess of Wisdom

Friday, 27 July 2012

I found $90 million dollars in the basement!!!

Well I did not personally find the $90 millions but Stephen Gritt who is a curator at the National Gallery of Canada sure did. He went to the basement of the National Gallery where many art works are stored. He wanted to see a painting of a Venetian nobleman Daniele Matteo Alvise Barbaro (1514-1570). This portrait was acquired by the National Gallery in 1928 for the sum of 10,000 British Pounds Sterling. However it had been deemed many decades ago by experts to be a copy of the original which hangs in the Prado Museum in Madrid and is owned by the King of Spain. So the portrait just sat in the basement and was forgotten, dirty and in poor condition. At one time it was almost discarded since the National Gallery is not interested in mere copies. However Gritt was not satisfied, he thought let's investigate this matter again, maybe the experts of long ago made a mistake. Today's technology can often reveal surprising details which would have gone unnoticed in the past.

So Gritt submitted the painting to X-Ray examination and it revealed many layers, the painter Titian had made many changes and corrections while creating the portrait, first it was with a simple drawing line outlining the figure then much work was done on the nose of the subject, Barbaro had a peculiar nose, and so on. If this was a mere copy by the students or assistants of the master painter no one would have bothered with correction, they would have simply copied the original. Titian was known for being self-critical and a perfectionist and would often keep a painting for years until he was satisfied with the finish product.
Daniele Barbaro by Titian

Gritt then contacted the Prado Museum in Madrid and asked for their help, could they examine their painting of Barbaro. It turned out that what had been thought to be an original was in fact a simple copy, so the Prado has the copy and we in Ottawa have the original portrait painted by the Titian. What a find! Estimates at this time are based on current market value at $90 million dollars.

Needless to say that the staff of the National Gallery of Canada are overjoyed with this news, a great addition to the collection.

Who was Daniele Barbaro? He lived at the time of the Renaissance in the Veneto, was a graduate of the University of Padua, he is thought to have designed the beautiful botanical garden of the University. He has a writer and diplomat, sent to the Court of Elizabeth I by the Republic of Venice. He was a man of science, he became a Cardinal and he was known for his many scholarly papers, he translated from Latin to Italian, the 10 volumes of the works of Marcus Vitruvius Pollio (70BC- 15AD) on architecture. Vitruvius lived at the time of Emperor Augustus in the first century and his work was much appreciated.

As for Tiziano Vecelli aka the Titian (1488-1576) he is known as one of the greatest painter of the Renaissance able to paint portraits, landscapes, mythological or religious themes with ease.
His style influenced not only Italian painters of his time, he also had a profound influence on painters in the Western World.

So it only goes to show that you may have a treasure in your basement without knowing it. 

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

As we approach Ferr'agosto

It is that time of summer when cities fall into a sort of somnolence or drowsiness. In Italy the approach of Ferr'agosto the great summer holiday for all around 15 August which last 30 days, the cities empty and everything is close.

To this wonderful time of summer a little summer music by Emmanuel Chabrier, (1841-1894) his Suite Pastorale with paintings by his close friend Edouard Manet (1832-1883). Chabrier was much admired by several musicians like Debussy, Ravel, Satie, Stravinsky. Francis Poulenc wrote his biography. This music was the theme of a favourite radio afternoon show on the CBC called ''Off the record'' hosted by the late Bob Kerr for 40 years. Kerr was truly a Canadian broadcasting legend.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Nationalism or Patriotism

The two words do not mean the same thing, though they are often used interchangeably as if they meant the same thing. Often politician will use the word Patriotism or Patriot when they mean Nationalism or Nationalist. The definition of Patriotism is love of one's home, country, a happiness at being in one's country, of finding contentment, happiness. Nationalism is a very different thing, we know all too well where the excess of nationalism can lead, the XXth century has given us numerous example of it
with disastrous consequences. Nationalism is define as putting one's Nation above all others, exalting its virtues and focusing on a national consciousness.

This 1 July 2012 the word Patriotism has been used in many a speech by politicians and our Prime Minister, I came away thinking that he meant Nationalism instead of Patriotism. This year in Canada we celebrate the anniversary of the War of 1812, I say we in a generic manner, this war or was it a civil war or a war of territorial expansion or aggression by the USA or simply political foolishness on the part of the Republicans and President Madison, depends on your point of view. Our current government sees it as a great war to celebrate, a defining moment says the Prime Minister, I am not so sure.  The Prime Minister made his usual address extolling the virtues of Canada over the USA in a rather jingoistic manner. We won this war, he said, the people came together with the help of the aboriginals to defeat the enemy, quickly adding but we are friends now. A very simplistic view and this is not what Canada Day our 1 July is about. No wonder so many felt uncomfortable with such pronouncement or indifferent to them. What does this war mean to anyone who does not live in southern Ontario or south of Montreal? Very little really.

Here is an historical account taken from journals of the time of what happened 145 years ago on Dominion Day 1 July 1867 in Ottawa and around Canada which in those days was composed of the provinces of Ontario, Quebec, New-Brunswick and Nova Scotia.
At midnight, bonfires blazed and cathedral bells chimed. At dawn, artillery salutes thundered. All day long and into the evening, Canadians gathered into the streets, parks and public squares of the new nation. Confederation was a bold innovation. Former colonials were peacefully taking up their right to govern themselves. The new Nation would have a Parliamentary democracy on the British model, its legislature elected by one of the widest franchise the world had seen. The Constitution of 1867 was the first ever made in Canada for Canadians, a plan not suggested by others or imposed on us.

By 1867, the war of 1812 was a distant memory, the USA was emerging from the aftermath of a bloody Civil War and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. The immediate concern of our first Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald was to make Canada a prosperous nation against difficult odds and to establish Canada as a different nation then the USA.

Unfortunately this week with the celebration of the Centennial of the Calgary Stampede in Alberta, again political speeches turn it into the celebration of the greatest nation on earth a theme chosen by our Prime Minister in his speech.
This type of phraseology belongs to another age and to others, it is not a Canadian sentiment.
But it appears that nationalistic ideology is currently the driving theme of the current government.

I chose to be a patriot and love my country and pursue its interest as our national anthem says, O Canada terre de nos aieux, (O Canada land of our forefathers). I leave the ideology of nationalism to others.



Saturday, 7 July 2012


The word Hermitage is French, borrowed by Peter the Great to signify a place of repose, away from all formality, like the hermit who lives in his secluded cave, in his hermitage. Many Russian Imperial Palaces have an hermitage but not all are museum, some are simple quiet pavilion where the Tsar could have a meal with close personal friends like the one at Peterhof, away from courtiers and Court Minister and obligations.

I have just finished reading a wonderful book on the history of the Hermitage museum in St-Petersburg.  The book is entitled The Hermitage, the biography of a great museum by Geraldine Norman published by Pimlico, Random House, 386 pages.  The book was written with the help of the current director of    the museum Mikhail Borisovich Piotrovsky the son of the past director Boris Borisovich Piotrovsky.

Norman did a lot of research into the history of the Hermitage and its development from a private museum belonging to the Imperial Family and its evolution through the ages. She also devotes a large part of the book to the Hermitage under Communism and what happened to the staff of that great museum after the revolution of 1917, their work, their struggles during the 900 days of Siege of St-Petersburg by the Nazi army. Their struggles with the NKVD and the KGB, all arbitrarily arrested, others disappeared in the prisons of Stalin during the purges. All to be rehabilitated in 1956, innocent of any crime, many it was discovered had been summarily shot or sent for years to the Soviet concentration camps in Siberia, the Gulag, sometimes for no other reason than the family name was suspicious.

A fascinating history, how the collections survived revolution and war, a modern day miracle really, this due to the Ermitazniki, the staff devoted to the point of dying to protect their collections, like Yakov Smirnov who died of hunger in the winter of 1942 during the siege of the city preferring to continue to work at the museum despite the lack of food and all other necessities, lunacy or devotion.

I wish I had read this book prior to my visit to the Hermitage, though now I can recall what I saw like the magnificent painting of The Prodigal Son by Rembrandt, painted in 1663.  

   The collection today in the Hermitage is very different of what it was in 1917 at the start of the Revolution. Quickly after the overthrow of the monarchy, the Hermitage became the store house of all the treasures and art collections of the different aristocratic families whose palaces had been confiscated. A vast treasure trove of numerous rare and precious objects.  Then the Communist faced with a difficult cash shortage decided to sell many paintings and diverse other collections between 1924-28 for quick cash often not understanding what they were selling and at bargain prices. The Hermitage was also forced by the authorities to share with museums in Moscow its collections. Then in 1945 the Hermitage was the recipient of stolen art or war booty the Soviet Army brought back to the USSR from all over Europe. Throughout all this turmoil the museum staff and its director fought a desperate fight against the often uneducated and ignorant Commissars of the regime to protect their valuable collections, saving the most important objects from the commercial venture. Many, for their opposition to the ''sell all'' orders were arrested and persecuted as was the case of one director of the Hermitage, Sergey Troinitsky who even after his return from the Gulag was denied housing and died in appalling poverty in Moscow.

Today it remains a breathtaking experience to visit this grand museum. Not to forget that the Hermitage was built in various phases, the Old, the New and the Grand Hermitage as the Tsars accumulated treasures for their personal pleasure and prestige, attached in various wings of the fabled Winter Palace. Today the palace is part of the museum, the two intertwine.  Though faced with such magnificent display one can only wonder about life under the Tsar before all the tragic unhappiness of Communism, the death of millions, the difficult years. Norman concludes that the Russian people have a deep affection, love and understanding of culture so much that it would have been unthinkable even under Lenin and Stalin to get rid of these art treasures and palaces which represent so much of the Russian national history and soul.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

a bit of Nostalgia on 1 July 2012

When I was a child and part of my earliest memories is of my parents listening to Radio-Canada, the National broadcaster. In Montréal the programming started at 6 in the morning and ended at midnight. There was no radio or television broadcasting between midnight and six in the morning. It was some kind of broadcasting rule and the news was only given at six and eight in the morning and then at noon and six at night and a final evening bulletin at ten o'clock. All broadcasting on the radio was to open with music to rouse the listeners and at midnight close with the National Anthem, O Canada followed by the Royal Anthem. In the 1970's all this started to change as political developments on national unity gripped us.

The programming was focused on National themes since this was the national broadcaster. Since prior to 1939 and the Second World War the role of Radio-Canada or the CBC was to inspire and give a positive image. So in the morning the radio show would be programming focused on happy Canadian music with a radio comedy show called Chez Miville. At noon time there was a radio serial novel about some romantic theme, women were still at home in those days, there was also a comedy and music show, Les Joyeux Troubadours, all very proper and the radio shows were 15 to 30 minutes long, evening programming could go to 60 minutes. With the news also came afterwards a farmer's almanac and the music composed for this program had a martial air about it, full of purpose, Le Réveil de la nature, (the awakening of nature). Originally it had been intended for the opening of the air waves at 6 am but this never came about and despite the lyrics mentioning the dawn of the day it was used at noon time for the farmer's almanac. This got my mother saying when asked when did she get up to answer at the crack of noon.

There was none of the self-doubt and criticism you find in everything nowadays on radio or television. It was probably a more naive and innocent time, if there was bad news from far-away the attitude was to think that we lived in a civilized and peaceful country, we were part of the British Commonwealth, what could we do. The only enemy or danger was the bad Soviet Union, China for us was Taiwan, the other mainland China, no one was sure about, did they still have an Emperor, no one knew.

This morning as I was driving near Parliament Hill, I was listening to Radio-Canada who was playing some archival material from 1973 as part of their summer programming. The material was taken from a popular interview show on the radio called Appellez-moi Lise, the host of the show was Lise Payette who would go on to become a Parti Quebecois Minister. It was nice to hear the old shows and how polite people were then on the radio, no foul language, the tone of the conversation was that of educated people, words were well pronounced and elocution was important since you were on radio. In this episode she interview the author of Le Chant du Réveil, Alfred Desrochers, then an old man and the other interview was with Jacques Brel, the author, musician and singer, who would die young a few years later in 1977.

As far as I remember Le Chant du réveil was used on Radio-Canada from 1938 to about 1975. It was abandoned after that because of changing taste and mentalities. To me it evokes all kinds of souvenir of how people were then. It reminds me that this was the Canada of the years after WW II full of prosperity, fast developing infrastructure, burgeoning cities, Montreal was then the great metropolis of Canada. Most Canadians still lived on farms, agriculture was still very important. A Canada of the two founding nations as depicted in the political agenda of the day.  A Canada which was the first Dominion of the Empire and an important world player.

Here it is Le chant du réveil rural (1937), sung by Albert Viau (1910-2001)
words by the famous poet Alfred Desrochers and music by his friend Oscar O'Brien

C'est le réveil de la nature
Tout va revivre au grand soleil
Oh ! la minute libre et pure
De la campagne à son réveil
Autour de toi, l'instant proclame
L'amour, la foi, la liberté
Ô fils du sol, ouvre ton âme
Comme tes yeux à la beauté

Vois l'aube au ciel s'élargir en aurore
Pour chasser l'ombre au pied des monts lointains
Et de la ferme ensommeillée encore
Entends le coq chanter dans le matin