Friday, July 31, 2009

Hannibal's Elephants

There are only a few pictures of Hannibal's elephant army in the Polybius volumes I have been scrutinizing at the library where I work in San Francisco. But at least we do get to see several ancient elephants (below) in the act of crossing a Roman river. Apparently some of them could swim and others couldn't.

A fold-out map traces the route taken by Hannibal and the army and the elephants over the Alps.

And here (from a safe vantage) we observe a line of elephant-cavalry facing off against a corresponding line of horse-cavalry with files of foot soldiers behind them on a wide hospitable plain. I suspect the strict alignment presented for our admiration reflects 18th century ideas of proper warfare (when the engravings were created) more than any truth about how such things were actually conducted in the ancient world.

Thursday, July 30, 2009


Two double-page illustrations of Roman soldiers from a 1727 edition of Polybius, translated from Greek into French.

The first illustration tells in its caption that the scene comes from Trajan's Column.

The second illustration is, we are told, copied from the Arch of Severus. Details below.

The leather restorer recently returned this six-volume Polybius to the library in San Francisco where I work, and today I was resurrecting the catalog record for the books and preparing their return to the Rare Book Room. The set contains over 100 of these double-page illustrations, beautifully mounted by the 18th-century binder onto stubs that permit the pictures to open flat.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009


Tiny pieces of decorative type called dingbats were assembled by a fanciful Dutch printer in 1761 to create these tail-pieces, both roughly heart-shaped.

This small book about European diplomacy published in Amsterdam was written anonymously by "une plume impartiale" as the title page tells us. The text appears to be pretty boring, but the typographic embellishments allow the whole production to maintain one foot in the land of amusement.

Then all through the day I kept seeing other forms of decoration out in the world at large on the foggy streets of San Francisco that reminded me of the swirls and furbelows I had admired inside the little book.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Autoroute du Soleil

"We are barreling toward Paris now, which sits on the map like a great glamorous spider in its web. The road has become crowded. There are old, slouching cars with winking indicators and big glittering ogre-like cars with black windows, tiny battered cars with frantic plumes of smoke fluttering from their exhausts and cars towing enormous caravans. There are trucks and lorries and untidy vans of every description, all blaring their horns. The children play Sweet and Sour out of the window. They wave and smile at everyone who passes. The Sweets wave and smile back. The Sours don't. The children keep a tally on a piece of paper. As we near the Paris peripherique the road becomes a torrent, an onward rush of roaring, barging traffic all hurtling with carefree ferocity toward the center. In a way I would like to join it: I don't know, perhaps it would be easier. Always the effort of resistance, of countermotion, of breaking off into what is untried and unknown: yet the unknown seems in its distance and blank mystery to contain for me a form of hope, a strange force that is pure possibility. Overhead the sky has come apart in great fraying scarves of pale gray and blue. Bursts of soft sunlight fall and fade and bloom again on the windscreen of the car. The temperature rises another notch. On the back seat, the census of the human disposition finds that people are in general more sweet than sour. Weaving and hesitating and being abused on all sides, we swing gloriously south, onto the Autoroute du Soleil."

There are few satisfactions equal to settling in with a new book by a trusted writer. In this case it is The Last Supper : a Summer in Italy by Rachel Cusk (author of seven trustworthy novels and a manual on motherhood).

Monday, July 27, 2009

Architectural Mishmash

The dome of San Francisco's City Hall pops up behind a corner of the Opera House, with one of the flying-saucer balconies of Davies Symphony Hall observing from the right.

Victorian mansion on Russian Hill painted solid white with no colorful trim at all. Most San Francisco Victorians started out pale and monochrome like this, only acquiring their trademark multi-colored paint-jobs later. In this respect they are the exact opposite of classical Greek statues, which started out brightly and variously painted, and only wore down to the unadorned marble over many centuries of abuse and neglect.

The sunlight on Sunday afternoon cast itself kindly even on this nondescript block of flats. It made me remember the leafless trees coated with ice in the Flannery O'Connor story, where "even the meanest of them sparkled."

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Bay View

At the end of May we viewed some foggy pictures of San Francisco's Alta Plaza Park.

This afternoon walking across the city with a friend I stopped and took a few sunlit pictures from Alta Plaza Park – trying at the same time not to derail our conversation about pacifism and theology.

Ocean Wave

Right Side

Left Side





This pottery rendition of an ocean wave was conceived and constructed by my daughter sometime in the 1980s when she was a small child. Recently a friend was trying to remind me of the peculiar horrors of Reagan-era America, when all the Sixties hopes for social progress in this country were definitively squashed. And I had to reply that I had hardly registered the grotesque disappointments of the 1980s on the political front when I was living through that period because I was completely preoccupied with my own private fatherly elation.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Petrified Dragonfly

When I was gardening in the East Bay last weekend I spotted this dragonfly seemingly poised for an instant enjoying a blackberry. With great caution I crept up close enough to photograph it but then through the viewfinder realized that this particular insect had for some time past ceased to number among the living. I wonder how it came to die in such a picturesque position, as if laid out by an entomologist. Probably the blackberries are toxic. That was my first thought. But my fellow gardener suggested the opposite: that the dragonfly died in an ecstasy of blackberry enjoyment.

Friday, July 24, 2009


These images convey some of the wonders observed by a party of French Jesuits who visited Siam under the protection of Louis XIV in 1689. Guy Tachard wrote the account illustrated here: Second voyage du pere Tachard et des Jesuites envoyez par le Roy au royaume de Siam. The first trip had taken place three years earlier. We have that volume also at the library where I work in San Francisco, but the illustrations are fewer and of a lesser exoticism.

The Jesuits had big budgets for the books they produced and in general had a freer hand than commercial printers in the quantity and quality of the illustrations they used. Hence the fold-out plates and scenic chapter headers.