The Danse Macabre, also called the Dance of Death in English, is an artistic genre of allegory on the universality of death: no matter one's station or status in life: eventually, death will take all of us.
Typically, death is personified in paintings as skeleton moving around representatives from all social layers: kings and emperors, nobles and clergymen, and laborers and peasants. The concept has its roots in the Late Middle Ages, as murals painted on cemetery walls. The first known example was painted on the south wall of the cemetery of the Holy Innocents in Paris in 1424-25. Although the mural was destroyed in 1669 because of a road widening, the individual scenes are largely known from the cycle La Danse macabre, published in 1485 by the Parisian printer Guyot Marchant, to which accompanying dialogue verses were added.
Fragments from Guyot Marchant's Danse Macabre. For texts, see University of Rochester (with English translation)
In 1440, a fresco was painted on the inside of the cemetery wall of the Dominican cemetery in Basel, Switzerland. Today, only a beautiful watercolor copy by Johann Rudolf Feyerabend exists, the mural was destroyed in the first decade of the 19th century. Other murals were painted in Lübeck, Talinn (Estonia) and in several places in Istria around the same period.
The Basel Dance of Death, copy by Johann Rudolf Feyerabend (1806)
Another famous example originating in Basel are the woodcuts by Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543), which he drew in 1526. The first edition, containing 41 woodcuts, was published in France in 1538. By 1562, there were eleven editions and estimates are that up to a hundred unauthorized copies and imitations were printed throughout the 16th century. Holbein's series shows the figure of "Death" in many disguises.
The Dance of Death by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1526
Even though the concept isn’t as widespread on cemeteries as it used to be, the ‘dance of the death’ concept remains to inspire artist of several disciplines. French composer Camille Saint-Saëns wrote his ‘Danse macabre’ in 1874. In my opinion, it is a masterpiece in telling the story of death: the violin screeching gives one goosebumps, the xylophone remembers one of rattling bones. If you’ve ever been to Dutch amusement park Efteling, you might know the show shown in the haunted castle. It shows a graveyard, and upon the clock striking twelve, Saint-Saëns piece starts playing and skeletons and ghosts rise from their graves. It is, indeed, quite a macabre attraction for a park originally intended for children.
Images courtesy of Efteling, retrieved from: Het Spookslot spookhuis - Efteling
This isn’t the only representation of the Danse Macabre to a young audience, though. Also Walt Disney picked up the theme: In the 1929 animated short ‘The Skeleton Dance’, four human skeletons dance and make music around a spooky graveyard based on Edvard Grieg’s ‘March of the Trolls’. Only Denmark shortly banned the film for being ‘too macabre’ in 1931. Animator of the film, Ub Iwerks, used the theme a couple of years later in his technicolored ‘Skeleton Frolic (1937), in which a skeleton band making funny music in an eerie graveyard, surrounded by wicked owls and terrifying black cats.
And even today, I know quite lot of songs addressing the ‘Danse Macabre’ or ‘Dance of the Death’, mostly from the metal genre. It is a theme that will probably always fascinate and frighten people – because, indeed, death might be the one thing that unites all.
The history of tabletop or board games dates back into antiquity. Board games have been played, travelled and evolved in most cultures and societies throughout history: Senet was a board game played in Ancient Egypt from around 3,500 BC, Backgammon was popular in Mesopotamia 5,000 years ago, as was the Royal Game of Ur. Chess is believed to originate in India in the Gupta Empire (c. 280–550 AD), the several Mesoamerican cultures played a strategy and luck game known as Patolli from 200 BC on.
The oldest records of board gaming in Europe date back to Homer's Iliad (written in the 8th century BC), but Norse cultures and ancient Ireland mention games as well.
In her book ‘The Games We Played’, Margaret Hofer, associate curator of decorative arts at the New-York-Historical-Society, described the period of the 1880s–1920s as ‘The Golden Age’ of board gaming in America. Mass production of games made them cheaper and more easily available, and the industry boosted. Pioneering mass publishers were the Milton Bradley Company (est. 1860) and the Parker Brothers (founded in 1883, they published immensely popular games like Monopoly (1935), Cluedo (1949) and Risk (1959)).
In the early 20th century, board game design began to emphasize amusement over education, which made simpler race games such as Ludo (originally called Mensch, ärgere dich nicht, 1914 in German) grow increasingly popular, as did word/letter games like Anagrams (MB, 1920s) and Scrabble (1938).
On February 2, 1848, the American-Mexican War ended with the signing of a treaty that left California in the hands of the United States. Eight days before, carpenter James Marshall had found flakes of gold in the American River in the Sierra Nevada mountains while building a sawmill of John A. Sutter, who owned a ranch in Sacramento Valley. To test if it was gold, Marshall tried to break the nugget between two rocks - only to find out that it could change shape, but not broken. He was sure that what he had discovered, was gold.
Marshall and Sutter tried to keep the discovery for themselves, but Mid-March, a San Francisco newspaper published an article reporting that gold had been found at Sutter's Mill. Within two weeks, the paper's staff had left to go to Sutter's creek. They were soon followed by about 75% of the male San Francisco population, who turned their backs on their fields and labors in the expectancy of making quick fortune with finding gold. By August, some 4,000 miners had reached the area.
The news soon spread worldwide, and by 1849, 80,000 men from the Americas, Britain, Australia, Europe and China arrived in California by ship or by the Californian trail. The would-be gold-miners migrating were called "forty-niners". The California population rose to over 200,000 in less than three years. Few women accompanied their husbands in the early years, and they took on the responsibility of running farms and businesses.
The Romantic period was a mainly European artistic and literary movement that celebrated its peak between 1790 and 1860. The movement can be seen as a reaction to the Industrial Revolution and the Enlightment. Whereas the main point of Enlightment was a rationalistic world view, the main idea of Romantisicism is the complete opposite. Romanticists do not trust in the human ratio as a mighty power above all things, but see themselves subordinated to nature. Romanticists perceive a irrational, mysterious and incomprehensive side of reality. Humans, they believe, do rather follow their emotions instead of reason alone, and thus tend to live by their desires rather than their rational thoughts. Typical romantic book characters, like Byrons Manfred or Goethes Werther, lose themselve in their emotions completely - sense cannot keep their feet on the ground.
For a romanticist, two opposite concepts were in constant incongruity with another: analogy and irony. With analogy a mythical way of thinking is depicted: the conviction that all is connected to everything: words and objects, heaven and earth, people and nature. On the other side, irony is the awareness of our own mortality and of the fact that all things come to an end. The analogy therefore can never be infinite. A romantic author is aware of this incongruity and suffers, in addition, from the feeling that he does not fit into the world. He seeks for a way out in poetry, but there finds that words are not enough to describe his feelings. And again, he must admit that he cannot form the world, but that he is a slave of nature's laws.
In short, Romanticism is thus characterized by strong feelings, melancholy and a strong connection to nature. Many of the literary works written during the romantic era contain (page)long descriptions of landscapes and gardens. The often sad, melancholic emotions of the hero or heroine are being emphasized (1).
Around 1900, many inventions revolutionized the world. In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell developed the telephone, one of the most world-changing inventions ever made. Thomas Edison improved the electric light bulb to a long-lasting, inexpensive device (1878), invented the phonograph (1877). Karl Benz developed the first modern motorised car, which was first built in 1885. The Lumière brothers created the first motion picture projector or cinematograph, which they patented in 1895. Guglielmo Marconi built a wireless telegraphy system based on Hertzian waves and patended the radio in 1896. Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin's ideas for an airship were developed in 1893, whereas the Wright brothers invented and flew the first airplane in 1903.
"En L'An 2000"
No wonder that at the turn of the 19th century, the possibilities for the future seemed endless. This influenced many artists - just think about the immensely popular science fiction novels by Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. In that time, collecting trade cards was popular among consumers. In the period 1899-1901, either a cigarette or toy company in France hired several graphic artists to create a series of illustrations called "En L'An 2000", on which they depicted what they thought everyday life would look like in the year 2000. Unfortunately, the company got out of business before the cards were distributed, leaving us with only one complete set of about 50 cards, that is now in the hands of Isaac Asimov. Luckily, he published a book about them. I found some trade cards by a chocolate company called Louit that seemed to have distributed cards with the futuristic pictures in a later year.
A striking amount of the pictures feature flying vehicles, and thinking about how much happens in the sky, the people back then had a good view on the future. Even though postmen themselves don't fly, tons of mail is being distributed via air. Videoconferencing was foreseen, as well as aerial battles and breeding machines. We still can't walk on water, though water skiing comes close. I collected all the cards on a Pinterest board: Victorian Future Visions
Hildebrand's trade cards
In the same period, the German cacao company Hildebrand published a set of twelve trade cards depicting life in 2000. Hildebrands cards shows moving sidewalks, live broadcasting of theater performances in the living room, personal flying machines, a good weather machine (if only...!) and roofs over cities - as can be seen below.
Though the Dutch were tolerant against foreigners (Portuguese Jews, for example, were warmly welcomed in Amsterdam), they expected of their countrymen to convert to Calvinism after the Reformation. Catholics were not allowed to conduct their worship in public. The catholic minority built clandestine churches (Dutch: schuilkerken): hidden churches that were not recognizable as such from the street.
One of those is “Our Lord in the Attic”, a secret church placed in the loft of a canal house at the Oudezijds Voorburgwal, in the current red light district, in Amsterdam. It was opened in 1661 and has been in use for catholic services for over 200 years, until the Basilica of St. Nicholas was opened. From 1888 on, the attic church has been a museum. However, since recently, the catholic mass is occasionally being celebrated again. Prayers next to moans - only in Amsterdam ;-)
Time is a difficult concept. The longer you think about it, the more complicate it gets. Fortunately, you don’t really need to think about it either – it’s just like maths in that respect ;-).
Nevertheless, I was surprised to learn that it wasn’t until 1909 that a uniform time was used in the Netherlands: 19 minutes and 32.13 seconds ahead of Greenwich Mean Time. In 1937, this was simplified to 20 minutes (GMT +00:20), and when Germany occupied The Netherlands in May 1940, Central European Time (GMT +01:00) was established as the official Dutch time. This finding made me want to investigate the concept of time and time zones further.
Local mean solar time
Before clocks were in use, the time was measured based on the Sun's position in the sky using sundials. A sundial is a device that tells the time of day by the apparent position of the Sun in the sky. An apparent or “real” solar day is the time that passes between the Sun’s highest position today and her highest position tomorrow. Because the Earth’s orbit is elliptic and not circular, and because the Earth’s axis is tilted, apparent solar days differ in length through the year. This variation, however, is subtle: there is only a one minute difference between the longest (during the solstices in June and December) and the shortest (during the equinoxes in March and September) solar day.
In the beginning of the 19th century, well-regulated mechanical clocks became widespread. Because it is rather impossible to construct clocks based on days that vary in length, mean solar time was established. This time is based on the average length of a day: 24 hours.*
Greenwich Mean Time
Because the sun’s position is dependent of the position of the observer on earth, each city began to use some local mean solar time. One of those is Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), which was established in 1675 when the British Royal Observatory was built in Greenwich. Noon GMT is the moment at which the sun reaches its highest point in the sky over Greenwich. Due to the day length variations as mentioned above, this moment rarely is exactly at 12:00:00 GMT, with variations of up to 16 minutes. The establishment of GMT was of great help for navigators at sea, who now had a standard time to refer to when each city in Europe kept its own local time.
The Route 66 is one of the original highways in the United States of America. It was established in 1626 and started in Chicago, Illinois, heading west through Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona before ending in Santa Monica, California. The route spreads over 3,940 kilometers, crossing a great variety of landscapes.
The Route 66 was the major road for migrants from Oklahoma who travelled west after a period of heavy dust storms in the 1930s, that had caused severe drought and damaged the agriculture in the U.S. Many farmers, but also other workers, that suffered from the change in ecology had been told that there was still work enough in California and travelled there with good hopes. However, due to the economic crisis now known as the Great Depression, the situation in California was not much better than in the country the migrants had left behind. This migration is beautifully described in John Steinbecks novel "The Grapes of Wrath". The only ones that enjoyed the migration movement were the communities based along the Route 66. Restaurants, car workshops, gas stations and grocery stores thankfully profited from the many travellers that passed them.
It were those people who fought for the preservation of the Highway when its use declined because of the establishment of interstates in the 1950s and 1960s. Eventually, in the late 1980s, associations were founded and Missouri declared the highway to be a State Historic Route in 1990. In 2008, the route was added to the World Monuments Watch to preserve the existing gas stations, motels, cafes etc. alongside the route. Today, the Route 66 has grown to be a popular cult route for motor riders.
The story of the Route 66 served as a topic in John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath (1939) and in the Disney Pixar movie Cars (2006).
The 'Grand Tour' was a trip through Europe that was untertaken by rich Englishmen, mainly from the upper class. Later also Americans took on the journey, as did Mark Twain, who wrote a satirical book about it. Because the journey was a rather expensive undertaking, travellers usually stayed in post stations or even in horse stables. Only the very rich could afford a coach of their own, most travellers were dependent on rather uncomfortable post carriages.
Means of the trip was to get acquainted with the classical cultural history of the continent. The Tour traditionally could last several months to several years, but had a standard itinerary. The trip provided an opportunity to view specific works of art and antique or Renaissance architecture and to hear specific works of music.
The typical journey started in Dover, crossing the channel to Ostend in Belgium or to Calais or Le Havre in France. From there, the tourist went to Paris. Since French was the language of the European gentry, an English tourist would learn French and the manners and fashion of the French high society.
From Paris, the traveller typically travelled on to Switzerland and stay a while in Geneva or Lausanne before taking on a streneous journey across the Alps to norther Italy. Italy was a must visit for its richdom of antique architecture and as the cradle of the Renaissance. The Uffizi gallery in Florence, Turin and Venice were required stops. From there, the tourist would travel south to Rome to study ancient roman ruins and various paintings and sculptures in museums. The traveller could either travel further south to Naples or even as far as Greece, or travel northbound to Austria and Germany. Typical stops in the German-speaking part of Europe were Salzburg (where some traveller could have enjoyed a Mozart concert), Vienna (Beethoven) and Berlin. Some tourists spent a semester at the universities of Munich or Heidelberg and get acquainted with German habit. Before crossing the Channel back to England, the traveller would see some Dutch masters paintings in Holland and Flanders.
The Grand Tour's popularity declined when Romanticism surfaced in the early 19th century. Instead of antiquity, the European Gothic and medieval times became of interest - and relics from that time were as present in Britain as in (southern) Europe.
1. The French & Indian War (1754–1763), the North American part of the worldwide Seven Years War, made Great Britain the dominant power in eastern North America, but also left the country with high debts. Hence, the British government passed several acts on the colonies imposing taxes on, among other things, tea and paper. Also, the Quartering act compelled Colonists to provide British soldiers with any needed housing or food.
2. These acts led to resistance among the Colonists and the building of an opposition against the British suppressors. Acts were disobeyed and the import of British goods were boycotted. In the line of the European Enlightenment movement, rebels plead for democracy, liberalism and a republic instead of being part of the British monarchy.