05.06.2010 - 05.06.2010
After a long night of celebrating my co-workers birthday I woke up painfully early to head out to the Fishbourne Roman Palace which is the largest and earliest Roman residence in Britain. The palace ruins are located just over an hour west of Brighton by train and nestled in the tiny village of Fishbourne (pop:1,953). It was built in the 1st century AD, around thirty years after the Roman conquest of Britain on the site of a Roman army supply base established at the Claudian invasion in 43 AD. The original Palace had three wings with approximately one hundred rooms, most of which had mosaic floors. There was also a large Roman garden.
To be honest I went for the mosaics. My dad's obsession with this particular form of art made me curious to see the British version. The earliest mosaics at the palace are black geometric patterns on a white background, something that was apparently popular in Italy at the time. According to the display, the mosaicists probably also came from Italy since no one in Britain would have had the necessary expertise. However, the materials were local. The white tesserae come from lower chalk while the dark grey comes from limestone. This one is from approx 75-80 AD:
Here is the most famous, and best preserved, mosaic found at Fishbourne laid in 160 AD and appropriately titled, 'Cupid on a Dolphin.' Here you see cupid sitting astride a dolphin with a trident in his hand. They are surrounded by what the website calls, "a border of braided guilloche" and flanked by semi-circles containing sea horses and sea panthers, wine vases and scallop shells:
Here is another one from the second century AD:
The palace was virtually destroyed by a fire in 270 AD and subsequently abandoned. Later it was desecrated by ploughs and thieves so only the north wing remains intact. While the site makes many references to Pompeii (e.g. similar mosaic designs) it lacks both the detail and grandeur of even smaller sites like Hadrian's Villa. While it is undeniable that the Romans left their mark on England what I found truly fascinating was it all seemed so out of place. The unknown ruler of the palace had created a mini-Roman world replete with mosaics comprised of the warm Mediterranean hues that make sense in Italy but seem strange when firmly situated in the South Downs that are frequented by more muted colours and grey skies/rain. It's a good thing they knew all about under floor heating. I stood in the re-done Roman garden looking at a spindly looking Cyprus tree and it all seemed a bit odd.
After Fishbourne I decided to take the train from Chichester to London. I went because there was a huge protest against the Gaza aid flotilla raids. More than 20,000 people from across Britain flooded into the streets of Kensington in London in protest of the IDF raids and murders of activists in international waters on May 31, 2010. There were at least 40 British nationals on those boats and the British government (like other EU countries) have by and large been more critical than, say, the US or Canadian governments. But the protest was about more than that. It was reflective of the growing global pressure on Israel to end the Gaza blockade which has caused a humanitarian crisis through the collective punishment (in contravention of the Geneva Convention) of Palestinians that has been decried and condemned by everyone from the United Nations to Amnesty International to Human Rights Watch to the International Committee of the Red Cross, etc. They are joined by the powerhouses of the left like Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Noam Chomsky, Judith Butler, and Naomi Klein who offer both insight and a critical voice on this issue. Hell, even Margaret Atwood and Elvis Costello have recently stepped into the fray. At the demonstration there were the unmistakable dual emotions of hope and determination and I couldn't help but feel, to use a somewhat cliched protest phrase, that the whole world is watching. Now if only that will translate to meaningful and lasting change:
After the demonstration I went for a walk through Kensington and Chelsea. Unsurprisingly, Chelsea in particular holds my imagination. One blogger asserted that by 1968 Chelsea's main artery, King’s Road, had become the Hippest Street in the World. It was soon home to Vivienne Westwood's boutique "SEX", and witnessed the birth of the British punk movement via the Sex Pistols. Now it is beautiful but boring. I wandered through the streets and at one point was taking a photo of an eccentric (and old) looking building. A man sweeping the sidewalk asked me to guess how old it was. I said I didn't know. He pressed me so I guessed its origins as Art Nouveau because of the gold trim and outlandishness of the design. He said it was built from the ground in 1984. The owners bought an old property sign that read '1928' and replaced the '9' with a plastic '7' that they painted black so it read '1728.' He said tourists always take pictures of it when the building directly adjacent to it, a much more modest structure, is actually the oldest building in Chelsea at 300 years old:
As I walked away he warned me, "not everything is as it appears."