Ever wanted to put yourself in the picture? It was evening and the sky was precisely the deep Prussian Blue that Van Gogh portrayed in his painting of “the Café Terrace at Night”. The lights under the awning reflected warmly in the wine glasses as we toasted our meal and our time in Province. It was Autumn in Arles, and the smell of lavender mingled with the delicious food smells. It hadn’t changed much since Vincent (yes we’re on first name terms now) painted the café at around the same time of year in 1888.
In those days, the café terrace was lit by gas lamps beneath the awning, as the evening brought out the vibrant stars. Van Gogh did the painting as a companion piece to his Night Café in which he depicted the interior of this same cafe.
Van Gogh wrote about this painting to his sister Willemien Van Gogh on 14 September 1888:
“I was interrupted precisely by the work that a new painting of the outside of a café in the evening has been giving me these past few days. On the terrace, there are little figures of people drinking. A huge yellow lantern lights the terrace, the façade, the pavement, and even projects light over the cobblestones of the street, which takes on a violet-pink tinge. The gables of the houses on a street that leads away under the blue sky studded with stars are dark blue or violet, with a green tree. Now there’s a painting of night without black. With nothing but beautiful blue, violet and green, and in these surroundings the lighted square is coloured pale sulphur, lemon green.12 I enormously enjoy painting on the spot at night. In the past they used to draw, and paint the picture from the drawing in the daytime. But I find that it suits me to paint the thing straightaway. It’s quite true that I may take a blue for a green in the dark, a blue lilac for a pink lilac, since you can’t make out the nature of the tone clearly. But it’s the only way of getting away from the conventional black night with a poor, pallid and whitish light, while in fact a mere candle by itself gives us the richest yellows and oranges.”
– [Source: www.vangoghletters.org].
There were other cafés nearby on the plaza that once formed part of the Roman Forum here, and over the ten days we stayed there, we sampled most of them. Here, the steak was tasty and the Beaujolais formed the perfect accompaniment, along with the traditional baguette. A cool wind blew, but we didn’t mind. The occasional scooter clattered past on the cobble stones – damp after a recent shower – leaving an oily smoke in its wake. It is a real place. Yet somehow the damp ground added vibrancy to the colours, rendering the scene more painterly. I can see why he chose this town, this part of the south of France. It is the light.
[source: photographed by me from a print erected at the spot from which he painted the cafe.]
The cafe itself – as you can see – is still there on the Place du Forum in Arles, just down the road from the Roman Amphitheatre which is still in use today for concerts and bull fights. Sharon and I had a wonderful dinner there – very French – with a nice carafe of wine. It was a magic evening 🙂
As for the actual painting? You can find Café Terrace at Night on display at the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo, Netherlands.
Some go to Nantes because it was the birthplace of visionary C19th author Jules Verne; others for the quirky botanical gardens, but for something truly unique, visit Les Machines de l’Isle. In 2004, as the former Naval shipyard lay closed and abandoned, two theatre designers –François Delarozière and Pierre Orefice – had a dream to revitalise this industrial corner of Nantes and transform it into an artistic wonderland inspired by Jules Verne. And so the Machines de l’Isle was born.
It is like entering a world of the imagination. There are giant mechanical puppets, including a four-storey elephant that can take 50 passengers for a ride around the precinct; a giant heron, a mechanical ride-on inchworm and a fantasy tree stretching tens of metres. There are carousels and marine creatures and it is all created in front of you. You can visit the huge workshop where artists, engineers and craftspeople transform metal, hydraulics and intricate wood carvings into the next generation of giant mechanical sea monsters, birds, insects and plants.
From their theatre origins, the designers place performance before engineering and as a result, the place takes on a wonderful narrative form. They have worked together for over 20 years in street theatre and urban performance. They produced giant puppets for the Royal de Luxe troupe and saw an opportunity when the shipyards closed in 1987. A street theatre company was formed in 1999 and the first machines were animated in 2007 with the inauguration of the Great Elephant and followed soon after with the Marine Worlds carousel.
The Great Elephant
It is said that being on the back of the Great Elephant is like being on the 4th floor of a travelling house with a great view over the whole place. There are movies on how the machines are made – many go on tour worldwide – and everywhere you see designs and other machines in their environment.
The Great Elephant is a giant in every sense, and everything about it is … well… big. It stands 12m high 8m wide and 21m long. It comprises 48.4 tonnes of steel and wood (American tulip wood) and it is powered by a 450hp motor driving the beast 1-3km/h. As you will see in the video below, it is highly articulated, driven by 44 hydraulic cylinders, 6 pneumatic ones and 10 gas ones. the trunk is highly segmented and snakes in all directions, blowing air and water at the will of the driver. The ears flap, the eyes blink, the mouth opens and closes and the legs walk in a synchronised fashion as it takes its load of passengers on a tour of the grounds.
The Machine Gallery
The Machine Gallery is a performance space – open since Feb 2012 – which houses a wealth of plants and puppet machines revolving around the Heron Tree project. Real plants combine with mechanical ones in a dazzling wonderland. The machines are explained by the machinists who built them – in French – and performers interact with the machines providing mini shows for students and adults alike.There is something to fascinate and delight everyone from children to the childish in all of us
How to visit
There are various modes in which you can visit – the ‘discovery mode’ is the one we chose, so we could wander through the galleries and machines and workshops. You can take a ride on the Great Elephant and/or you can take the ‘fairground’ mode in which you get to ride on the carousels and explore the marine world more deeply.
Here is a sample of our experience and what you can expect to see:
The place is continuously being developed so more attractions are being designed and added as time goes on. For something completely different and only in France – Les Machines is well worth the visit.
Two hours by TGV from Paris’ Gare de Montparnasse. Then take the tram on line 1 from the station to the Chantiers Navals stop (translates as ‘naval shipyard’) and cross the Pont Anne de Bretagne bridge to the other side of the river. Information on how to get there is on this page. You can find their opening hours and entry fees here. Please check their website for enhanced security measures – and leave your large luggage items back at your accommodation.
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As the Cassini Saturn probe prepares for its final few orbits before being de-orbited into the planet, it’s worth considering who it was named for – the C16th Italian astronomer Giovanni Cassini. These days the Vatican collaborates with the European Space Agency and NASA on space science. Even the Vatican Library uses an image file storage system developed by NASA – it was a system originally designed for radio astronomy.
But it is worth remembering that the Church has often had an uneasy relationship with science. Galileo Galilei was tried in 1633 for heresy by the Inquisition and was sentenced to formal imprisonment – one of the Church’s ‘oops’ moments – later commuted to house arrest.
In 1582, when Galileo was just 18, Pope Gregory revised the calendar, as the Julian calendar developed under Julius Caeser was getting embarrassingly out of step with the solar year (it lacked leap years). But the introduction of the more accurate Gregorian calendar that we use today, presented a new problem. The major Feast Days needed some re-calibration. The most difficult one was Easter – a so-called Moveable Feast – and a pretty important one to the Christian faith. It was supposed to fall on the Sunday following the first full moon after Spring Equinox (20 March). While today we just look it up on Google or wait for Facebook to remind us, it was a bit more complicated back in the C16th. You see, the problem was that the Church followed the lunar year, while everyone else followed the solar year, and they don’t quite match up. It was time to find some astronomers who hadn’t yet been executed for heresy, and who would admit to being astronomers… no pressure then.
Genovese astronomer Egnazio Danti (cosmologist to Cosimo de Medici I) was called to Bologne to work with Pope Gregory’s Calendar Commission to help determine accurate dates for the Spring Equinox – and by extension, Easter. He constructed a Gnomon – a sight line – inside the Basilica of San Petronio in Bologne and cut a hole high in the wall to allow the sun to shine through onto the gnomon. This was used to determine the path of the sun at certain times of the year, and help with measuring the lunar cycle too. But less than 100 years later, some renovations designed to expand the Basilica meant that the wall with the hole for the sun was removed (oops)… So in 1655, a mere 20 years after Galileo’s death, Giovanni Cassini was brought in to design a new gnomon in the same church. His ambitious plan was to build a much longer gnomon for more accurate observations. His ulterior motive was to prove Galileo’s observation that the Earth went around the sun, not the sun around the earth – this time without getting into trouble with the Inquisition.
So what has this to do with travel? You can still see Cassini’s gnomon today in the Basilica of San Petronio in Bologne. But if you are visiting Rome you can find another Gnomon – it’s worth checking out the floors in some of these churches, and look for an angled line in bronze running across the floor… There’s also one at the Church of San Sulpice in Paris (pictured below) – made famous by the movie of Dan Brown’s ‘The Da Vinci Code’.
The C16th Basilica of Santa Maria Degli Angeli in Rome was dedicated as a Basilica in 1920 by Pope Benedict XV in 1920. But from the outside, it doesn’t look much like a church at all. Curiously, it was built inside the ruined Frigidarium of the Roman baths of Diocletian (ca 300AD), thus preserving a significant part of the ancient Roman building into the modern age.
The church itself was designed by none other than Michelangelo. So, from a simple ancient Roman exterior, you enter into a magnificent Renaissance church of breathtaking scale – one of the world’s largest.
But I had heard that it held one more surprise. A gnomon. The gnomon here was copied from Cassini’s design. Pope Clement XI commissioned the astronomer Francesco Bianchini to construct the Gnomon. Bianchini was Secretary of the Calendar Commission, and h chose the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli because of the stability of its Roman walls and foundations, and because of its height and large internal space. Bianchini improved on Cassini’s design by allowing for the observation of stellar transits – even in daytime.
Here you can clearly see the sun approaching the meridian line.
The pinhole occulus through which the sun shines is located high on the wall, and to give it a clear path, part of the entablature and the capital of the pilaster – designed by Michelangelo – was cut away – perhaps a metaphor for the tension between art and science and the church! I have added an arrow to show where the sun enters.
The church also houses a Foucault pendulum which demonstrates the earth’s rotation through the pendulum’s elliptical swing.It was invented by French scientist Leon Foucault, who first demonstrated it in 1851 at the Paris Observatory – it now resides in the Museé des Arts et Metiers in Paris.
The pendulum weight is in the form of a globe as though pushed with a giant hand. Metaphors for force were quite literal! As you can see below
So, from a C16th astronomer seeking to solve the Church’s problem with Easter through detailed observations of the Sun, to a spacecraft providing detailed observations of Saturn we can glean nearly five centuries of the Church’s relationship to science and the arts by visiting a two-thousand year old Roman bath house renovated by Michelangelo in Rome. And all this, from noticing a strange geometric pattern on the floor of a church! It does pay to look down sometimes!