09/01/2022 15:37


Italy is an inexhaustible source of all kinds of unexpected experiences – culinary, as well as cultural. I open the door to something that has fleetingly interested me and impressions, memories, dreams and a host of other phenomena rush over me. Like when a month ago, together with my American friend Joe, I visited Florence and was confronted with Donatello’s art. An exhibition about his life, works and influence was presented in the palaces of Strozzi and Bargello.


I had previously visited Florence many times and in churches and museums been confronted with Donatello’s work, read about the Master and heard my art professor tell about him, but I had never seriously realized the extent of Donatello’s genius. The great and revolutionizing influence he had had on his followers. I once again realised the astonishing moment in human history during which he and his good friend Brunelleschi constituted the eye of the hurricane. Donatello with his sculptures and reliefs, Brunelleschi with his theories about the central perspective and the dome he created above Santa Maria del Fiore.


The two friends had visited Rome together, where Donatello had been overwhelmed by the presence of cultural treasures left behind by past times; the imaginative richness, balance and perfect harmony of the Greek and Roman statues and sarcophagus reliefs, this while Brunelleschi (1377-1446) in detail studied ancient arch techniques and immersed himself in the writings of Vitruvius (80-15 BC).

Brunelleschi was the more theoretically/mathematically versed of the two geniuses, while Donatello was a consummate artist/craftsman, with an intuitive sense of the expressions his art would take to satisfy his clients’ expectations, and more than that – astonish them. Donatello’s contemporaries often pointed to his lack of education, claiming that he was barely literate. I doubt if this is really true, assuming it was a myth intended to suggest that his genius was God-given, just as Muslims often state that Muhammad could neither read nor write, thereby implying that his teachings were forthwith dictated by God.

Donatello, actual name was Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi. Donatello is a diminutive, an epithet given him due to his small stature. He was born in Florence 1386, as the son of Betto Bardi, whose occupation was listed as “wool carder”, although he also occupied himself as goldsmith. Wool carder could mean that Bardi was a proletarian, though it could also mean that he was owner of a wool carder manufactory, something that seems to be indicated by the fact that he was a Guild Master. The guild he belonged to would then have been the powerful Arte della Lana, a craft association that included wool manufacturers and wealthy merchants involved in Florence’s flourishing wool industry.

During Donatello's lifetime, the wool business employed no less than 30,000 workers, a third of the population of Florence, who annually produced 100,000 metres of textiles and clothing.



The buyers and exporters of wool and cloth was over time able to amass large fortunes, which they used to lend at interest to various European rulers. Most of these bankers were organized within a guild called Arte di Calimala. The strange name Calimala, Calm Her, came from the name of the street where Arte di Calimala’s headquarter was located. Through their wealth, members of this guild were able to influence and manipulate the rulers of Florence. Most influential among the members of this particular guild was the Medici family.


A picture in an Italian comic book illustrates the state of affairs in Donatello’s Florence. Donald Duck is toiling away shearing sheep and collecting wool while his Uncle Scrooge is counting the money he has received through wool sales and banking.



Like several other northern Italian trading cities, Florence was during Donatello’s lifetime governed by an assembly called the Signoria. Its nine members were chosen from the city’s leading guilds. Six of them came from guilds called Priori, i.e. the six ancient and most powerful guilds, among them the Arte della Lana and Arte di Calimala. Two additional members were elected from the fourteen ”minor” guilds. The ninth member of the Signoria was named Gonfaloniere di Giustizia and served as its chairman. He was elected every two months, not by lot but by members of the outgoing Signoria.


One of the several peculiarities of this form of government was how the members of the Signoria were elected and the short time they served as decision makers. The names of all guild members over the age of thirty were placed in eight leather bags. Every two months these sacks were carried out of the church of Santa Croce, where they were kept and during a short ceremony the names were drawn at random. Only men who were not in debt could be elected, moreover they would not have had a seat in the Signoria during the past year and they could not have any family ties to the men who had served during the previous term. Immediately after their election, the nine members of the Signoria were expected to take up residence in the Palazzo della Signoria, which facade was adorned with the coats of arms of the guilds. There they would stay for the two months that their mission lasted.


That's how it all worked in principle, but over time intrigues and manipulations confused the already complicated system and power effectively came to rest with the Gonfaloniere di Giustizia, an office that came to be dominated by the increasingly powerful Medici family. However, this did not mean that the guild system and its influence on Florence’s power game disappeared. For several centuries, the Signoria continued to dominate the economic and political life of the city.

Arte della Lana, of which Donatello’s father was a member, controlled the entire process from the raw, packaged wool that on a daily basis arrived in the city, to the finished textiles produced at looms scattered among private homes and manufactures located within the city walls.



Like other guilds, the Arte della Lana coordinated and controlled the activities of its members; guaranteed the quality of the production, set prices, regulated wages, checked the training of journeymen, tested and decided who should be awarded a master craftsman's certificate.


Each guild had its patron saint, while its board resided in a palace, generally they also supported and paid for Catholic masses and the maintenance of a specific church. The mighty Arte della Lana resided in an impressive palace in the very centre of the city, its patron saint was St. Stephen and its church was none other than Florence’s DuomoSanta Maria del Fiori.



In niches around the Chiesa di Orsanmichel, there are statues of the patron saints of the various guilds. Arte della Lana’s St. Stephen had been sculpted by Lorenzo Ghiberti, in whose renowned bottega Donatello at the age of seventeen had been accepted as an apprentice.



During Donatello’s lifetime the bottega system was well developed in Florence and the city counted on anumber of master bottegas. A bottega was more than an artist's studio, more than a place of learning for future masters and could best be described as a workshop that, under great competition, delivered commissioned work to various patrons. Much of the work was governed by strict routines marked by extremely important craftsmanship and tasks which depended on clients’ requirements, lack of time when it came to the execution of the complicated works, as well as the guild system’s production control and detailed regulations.



In particular, the maufacture of paints was an essential part of a bottega’s activities and for that reason Florentine painters belonged to one of the six most powerful guilds that made up the Priori – Arte dei Medici e Speziale, the Crafts Association of Doctors and Apothecaries, i.e. an association of specialists who made and used drugs and various decoctions. In addition to artists, the Arte dei Medici e Speziale also included shopkeepers who sold spices and textile dyes.



Each bottega produced its own colours. Paint production, as well as the careful preparation of canvases and specially treated wooden boards which constituted the base/groundwork for paintings, were labour-intensive processes handled by the bottega’s apprentices.


Colour pigments came from a variety of sources. They could consist of different types of soil containing minerals and clay, such as Raw or Burnt Sienna and Burnt Umbra. The pigments were often based on toxic substances such as mercury, lead, sulfide, tin, and cinnabar. They could also be constituted by very expensive imports such as Indian Yellow, which was made from the urine of cows fed on mango leaves, or most expensive of them all – the blue stone, lapiz lazuli, which was brought to Florence from Badakshan by the upper reaches of the river Amu Darya. To obtain the best pigments, artists were often forced to experiment on their own, or to gain such high esteem that patrons were willing to pay for their access to coveted and expensive pigments.


The pigments had to be grinded down to small, fine grains by using a runner, a cone-shaped stone with a flat bottom surface that was used to crush the pigments against a smoothened stone slab. When the pigments obtained the right grain size, they were compacted into a paste, by adding different binders. During Donatello’s time, the most common binder was egg yolk mixed with water – tempera. An alternative was to add oil, usually from linseed, to the solution, thus making it dry faster and permitting application to softer surfaces like canvas, instead of the commonly used base made of pine or poplar. Other common binders were beeswax and casein.


The artists’ workshops also produced various forms of varnish. The medieval name for varnish was the Latin word veronix, which gave rise to today's vernissage, the opening day of an art exhibition. During the Renaissance, this meant that when the varnish had dried the work of art could be considered completed and thus presented to the client. If the client rejected the result, it could mean a great loss of prestige for the bottega, as well as a serious financial setback.


Within a bottega, the hard-working apprentices were called garzoni, boys. Donatello’s entry as a garzone in the bottega of Master Lorenzo Ghiberti took place at an unusually old age. Generally, most garzoni accepted into a bottega were around ten years old. They were entrusted to their Master’s care. He nurtured, disciplined and taught them and they were considered to be part of his household. They lodged and ate together with their master’s family. Several garzoni did not advance from working with colours and panels, but the most skilled and enthusiastic of them were by the master taught to sketch, read and wtite, and could finally be allowed to participate in the completion of his works of art. Gradually, the most skilled garzoni were entrusted with more important tasks than the painting of decorative details and completion of the master's contours, or the colouring of previously delimited surfaces.



The guild required a master to provide his garzoni with an accartati, contract, and a fixed salary, the latter was usually quite modest—generally five or eight gold florins in a year, compared to a skilled labourer’s wages of about thirty-five florins within a year. At the end of his apprenticeship, a garzone could be offered to undergo a journeyman’s test. If he succeeded he was declared a journeyman and thus the opportunity to offer his services as an independent artist, though a journeyman was not allowed to establish his own bottega. That required membership in the Arte dei Medici e Speziale.


Guild members provided membership if a journeyman could present a Masterpiece (from which our contemporary word originates) that was accepted as such by selected guild members. If the jorneyman was accepted he was appointed Master of Arts and through a specific certificate he was thus granted the right to open a bottega of his own. First, however, a would-be Master had to prove he was the recognized son of a guild-member and willing to pay an entry fee, as well as signing a contract stipulating that he accepted the guild’s statutes and committed himself to submit an annual contribution to the guild’s common coffers.


The strict work discipline, fixed routines, the practical work that attached great importance to every single detail, the rigorous quality control of the guilds, fierce competition, the cooperation between a Master and his garzone, as well as the team spririt reigning within the guilds contributed to the fact that many Renaissance artists at an early age became exceptionally skilled craftsmen.



The earliest work of art that attributed to Donatello is a David he in 1409, at the age of twenty-three, carved in marble. The work had been paid for by Arte della Lana, the guild to which Donatello’s father belonged and it was intended to adorn one of the buttresses of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. However, it was not placed there because the guild members thought it was too small to be appreciated from ground level. The statue thus remained for several years in a bottega before the Signoria in 1416 brought it to its palace and placed it on a pedestal with the inscription: “To those who bravely fight for the defence of the motherland, the gods provide help, even against the most terrible enemies.” Apparently, the city counsellors thought that the young, bold David could serve as a role model for defenders of the Republic.


Criticism has been harsh while judging this first known work by Donatello. It has been written that the dimensions are wrong, that the whole work gives a ”formal and bland expression.” This David of his has been mercilessly compared to Donatello’s later skills and declared to be quite uninteresting.


Having now seen it in real life, I arrived at a different opinion. Considering the circumstances that predisposed the manufacture of the statue, it is certainly a masterpiece. David rests his left hand by his side while he, positioned in an elegant contraposto, triumphantly lifts his long robe to reveal Goliath’s severed head, which rests at his feet – still with both sling and stone embedded in the skull. Despite the distance from which the sculpture would be viewed, the grotesque head is fashioned in great detail and prominently presented, with its closed eyes and half-open mouth, through which the dead giant’s tongue can be glimpsed. The killing stone has penetrated the forehead, the congealed blood is difficult to distinguish from clumps of tangled hair.



There is no doubt that the arrangement was intended to adorn a buttress and thus be viewed from below. It all seems to be striving upwards. The gesture of the left hand opening the garment makes the head of the defeated Goliath seem closer to us than the rest of the of the statue. It looks like the gory head has been placed in a cave formed by the robe. At the same time, the opening in the mantel is reminiscent of a flame striving upwards, making the entire sculpture, with its Gothically curved movement, remind us of earlier madonna-sculptures carved from ivory and thus being adapted to the curvature of the elephant’s tusk. Through their elegantly curved movements, these Virgins and their child seems to be lifted up towards heavenly heights.


David’s oversized right fist, which has often been criticized, and his relatively small, and not so empathetically characterized, head, underline the impression that the sculpture was to be viewed from below and from a great distance. Considering all this, I got the impression, particularly since the sculpted details cannot be discerned from afar, that Donatello’s David was in fact his “Masterpiece”, his entrance exam to a guild. Since Donatello at the time was active in Ghiberti’s workshop, which master was better known as a sculptor than a painter, it is possible that the guild which he entered as a recognized master was the Arte dei Maestri di Pietra e Legname, the Guild of Master Stonecutters and Wood Carvers.



Donatello's good friend and peer Nanni di Banco, who together with Donatello had been given the task of decorating Il Duomo’s buttresses, did seven years later make a famous sculpture group, which impressed his contemporaries and became a great inspiration for Donatello (who probably assisted di Banco with the manufacture) – Quattro Santo Coronati, Four Crowned Saints. These four martyrs, whose names were unknown, are by tradition said to have been Christian sculptors who under the Roman Emperor Diocletian refused to make sculptures of “pagan” gods and therefore were placed alive within sealed lead coffins and thrown into the Sava River in present-day Serbia. They had since then been invoked as patron saints of sculptors and were of course the obvious choice of the Arte dei Maestri di Pietra e Legname to adorn its niche on the church di Orsanmichele.



In 1405 Nanni had been appointed master of the aforementioned guild. The four figures are masterfully arranged within a shallow semi-circular niche, where, through glances and discreet movements, they seem to be involved in a conversation. The solemn gestures, the toga-like clothing and the volume of the bodies testify that Nanni was influenced by ancient Roman sculptural art.

Donatello’s marble statue of David had, during the exhibition at Palazzo Strozzi, been placed in the same room as another youthful work by Donatello – the Crucifix in Santa Croce. It hung next to Brunelleschi's crucifix from Santa Maria Novella. The reason for this was surely an anecdote in Giorgio Vasari's (1511-1574) anecdote in his Le vite de’ più eccelenti pittori, scultori e architettori, The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects.



For Santa Croce, Donatello had “with infinite patience” carved a wooden crucifix, which he proudly displayed to his friend Brunelleschi, who, however, after Donatello’s enthusiastic descriptions, had expected something better and thus could not help to smile. The disappointed Donatello sensed his friend’s displeasure and asked him, in view of their great friendship, to tell him what he really thought of the crucifix. After some hesitation, Brunelleschi once again looked intensely at the crucifix and stated: “You have put a peasant on the cross and not Jesus Christ, the most perfect man ever born.” Bitterly, because he had after all expected praise, Donatello replied: “If it was as easy to make something as it is to criticise, my Christ would really look to you like Christ. So you get some wood yourself and try to make one yourself.”


Without a word, Brunelleschi nodded and left the church. Not revealing it to anyone, he set about making a crucifix with the aim of surpassing Donatello’s creation. After several months’ of hard work he produced, with great perfection, a work which, according to him, was superior to Donatello’s crucifix.

One morning Brunelleschi invited his friend Donatello to dine with him. Donatello naturally accepted the invitation and they walked together towards Filippo’s house. As they passed the market, Brunelleschi bought some ingredients for the dinner, and after stating he had a couple of more errands to run he gave the market goods to Donatello and asked him to take them to his bottega. When Donatello entered the workshop, he found Filippo’s crucifix stategically placed in perfect lighting. Overwhelmed with surprise and admiration, Donatello dropped the apron in which he had placed the eggs, the cheese and other items brought from the market. At the sam moment, Filippo arrive and found his friend standing among the broken eggs, lost in thoughts and apparently stunned by suprise. Laughingly, Brunelleschi asked: “What’s your design, Donatello? What are we going to eat now that you’ve broken everything?” “Myself,” Donatello answered, “I’ve had my share for this mornig. If you want yours, you take it. But no more, please. Your job is making Christs and mine making peasants.”



It is a quite subtle anecdote and Vasari’s anecdote has for posterity come to characterize differences between Brunelleschi’s and Donatello’s art. It has time after time been commented upon by various art critis.

The difference between the two representations of the dying Christ is actually not that great. It is clear that the two wood carvers found their inspiration in Giotto’s Triumphal Crucifix in Santa Maria Novella. Painted in 1288, it was more than a hundred years old when Donatello and Brunelleschi made their crucifixes.



Giotto was inspired by Franciscan spirituality, which more than paying hommage to his glory and sublimity, or inhuman suffering, had emphasized Jesus’ humanity, love and poverty. Giotto’s crucifix thus depicted a dying man, with a realistically rendered body. There are no signs of barbaric beatings or physical suffering. Christ wears no crown of thorns and the only wounds he exhibits are from the spear thrust into his side and the nails hammered through his hands and feet. Maybe he is already dead.


It is in the expressions of their faces that the biggest differences between Donatello’s and Brunelleschi’s versions of the crucified Jesus become most apparent. It may be an illusion, though I assume that Donatello’s Jesus is closer to us than Brunelleschi’s Christ, with his tired, but still gentle gaze under almost closed eyelids, a half-open mouth with a swollen upper lip. His more prominent cheekbones and high forehead. The face, despite its lack of external damage, seems to bear witness to how an ordinary person exposed to contempt, betrayal and grotesque bullying is close to leaving his earthly life, but despite all this, Jesus’ tired face radiates forgiveness and human love.

Giotto’s Jesus is emaciated, at least compared to the more fleshy and muscular bodies depicted by Donatello and Brunelleschi. The latter’s Jesus, however, seems to be slimmer built than Donatello’s. Brunelleschi’s Christ has the same bent legs as Giotto’s, while the stretched legs of Donatello's Jeusus figure rest more heavily against the stem of the cross. Brunelleschi’s Christ has a small crown of thorns, though like Giotto’s Jesus, Donatello’s is lacking one.


It is in the expressions of their faces that the biggest differences between Donatello’s and Brunelleschi’s versions of the crucified Jesus become most apparent. It may be an illusion, though I assume that Donatello’s Jesus is closer to us than Brunelleschi’s Christ, with his tired, but still gentle gaze under almost closed eyelids, a half-open mouth with a swollen upper lip. His more prominent cheekbones and high forehead. The face, despite its lack of external damage, seems to bear witness to how an ordinary person exposed to contempt, betrayal and grotesque bullying is close to leaving his earthly life, but despite all this, Jesus’ tired face radiates forgiveness and human love.

Jesus’ heavy body lacks in Donatello’
s rendering the slender elegance of Brunellschi’s personage. Like in Donatello’s version, Brunelleschi’s Jesus does not present many signs of having been brutally beaten and abused. However, in comparison with Donatello’s Jesus he has an air of refinement and sensitivity. A true aristocrat, or rather a superman’s submissive resignation under God’s omnipotent will. His eyebrows are sharply defined, the nose narrow and the cheeks soft and smooth.

Donatello's Jesus is closer to us in the sense that he endowed with the build of a manual labourer, like the construction worker Jesus probably was before he was convinced that he had a God-given mission (the Greek word tektōn the term used for Jesus’ occupation could mean craftsman, in the sense of a builder working with both wood-work and stone masonry). His figure and face indicate signs of the everyday life of such a man, with all the brutality and closeness to life that seems to be lacking in Brunelleschi’s nobleman. Vasari’s account of Brunelleschi’s judgment is to this extent entirely correct. Donatello’s Jesus is indeed reminiscent of a peasant, someone who has not only been crucified according to the Gospels, but furthermore been subjected to mob violence and the street contempt shown to powerless and/or deviant people.



Why does Vasari, while comparing him with Brunellschi's representation, seem to underestimate Donatello’s Jesus? Perhaps because Vasari in all the artist descriptions emphasized his appreciation of an artist’s ability to link physical beauty with creative skill and thus succeeded in imitating God’s creative power and originality in his/her works.

According to Vasari, a skilled artist is, unlike a farmer, a Creator, someone who, in accordance with the words of the
Book of Revelation:And he who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new’mirrors God’s creative and innovative powers. A view that was not at all unusual among Renaissance intellectuals who often saw themselves as more than farmers. They were “citizens”, townspeople who, unlike the down-to-earth peasants, could appreciate the subtleties of philosophy and religious faith, far from the superstition and brutality that prevailed among the toilers of the earth. In fact, many Florentines harboured a deep-seated distrust and even fear of the peasantry who surrounded the city. In his Ricordi, Memoirs, Donatello’s contemporary, the wealthy cloth merchant Giovanni di Pagolo Morelli, stated that “there is no single peasant who would not be willing to come to Florence to burn the city down.” In other words, in an early work such as the crucifix in Santa Croce, Donatello already sreveals his skill in reshaping the art that dominated his time, in a new, revolutionary and life-like manner.



After finishing his crucifix, Donatello goes from strength to strength. Constantly varying and deepening the possibilities of his studies of ancient art combining them with an awareness of the innovations made by his contemporary artist colleagues. The powerful patron Cosimo de Medici caught sight of him and during his long life, during which Donatello was feverishly active until the end, he was never without constant, new assignments. In addition to his superb skills and unexpected gifts, Donatello, unlike many other artists, was known to be a modest, kind and extremely generous person.



It is through the subtle characterisation, the vitality and psycholgical depth of his motifs that Donatello has been hailed for an undeniable mastery. Shortly after returning from his study trip to Rome in 1433, in the company of Brunelleschi, Donatello created in Santa Croce his Annunciation, as a monument for the family tomb of the powerful Cavalcanti clan.

The angel and Virgin are executed in high relief in front of a partially gilded background in the form of a closed gate. They are depicted in the moment just after Gabriel’s appearance. The Virgin, placed in front of a lyre-shaped chair, has risen in surprise after sitting reading a book, which she still holds in her hand. The youthfully beautiful Madonna puts one hand to her chest and her graceful, gothically curved figure vaguely suggests that she has for a moment intended to escape from the apparition. The exquisite drapery of the dress follows the movement of the legs to the left, out of the picture, but at the last moment the maiden has controlled her emotions and turned towards the angel.


Gabriel kneels in front of the Madonna, who he almost shyly looks up at. It seems that with his slightly turned head, humble appearance and searching gaze, he wants to capture Maria’s unconditional attention. The scene breathes a bright, lively interplay between the portrayed figures, who animate their emotions with gestures and facial expressions. Donatello has succeeded in giving Maria’s nobly refined face an expression of quiet surprise, marked by both gratitude and humility.

Donatello avoided traditional elements such as the dove of the Holy Spirit and the lily, or olive branch, in the angel’s hand. The symbolic language is limited and subtle, like the book of Mary alluding to the Bible’s predictions about the coming of the Messiah and the closed gate in the background, suggesting the chastity of the Madonna.


Donatello never repeats himself and constantly surprises. Five years before the Annunciation in Santa Croce, Donatello, together with his colleague Michelozzi, had executed a sumptuous funerary monument for the still living Cardinal Rainaldo Brancacci. Brancacci was a sly, political vane and it appears rather strange how ecclesiastical princes like him could have the audacity to like ancient pharaohs erecting extravagant memorials over themselves. So be it, because after all, we have such self-adoring narcissists to thank for the astonishing masterpieces of several Renaissance geniuses.



On the Brancacci sarcophagus, Donatello executed one of the stiacciatore reliefs admired by his contemporaries. Stiacciato is a technique that makes it possible for a sculptor to create a so-called recessed relief with a depth of only a couple of millimeters. To gradually reduce depth from foreground to background an illusion of greater depth is created. Donatello must have learned this technique from his master Ghiberti, who used stiacciato in his occasionally depth-perspective reliefs on the famous Paradise Gates of the baptistry of Santa Maria degli Fiori



In his Ascension of the Madonna, Donatello portrayed an elderly, perhaps tired and worried woman surrounded by gracefully hovering angels. I come to think of the whirling of the Rhein daughters in the introduction to Wagner’s Das Rheingold.


Returning to Florence, Donatello created several portraits in the Roman Antique style, difficult to distinguish from Greek and Roman models.



Or penetrating, highly original studies of contemporary men:



For one of the niches in Giotto’s tower next to Santa Maria del Fiore, Donatello executed an Old Testament prophet – Habakkuk. The gloomy and tormented man who called out to God with the lamentation:


How long, Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save? Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrongdoing? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds.



The misanthropic man depicted by Donatello and popularly called Il Zuccone, the Bald One, had as its model a now forgotten artist, wealthy man and opponent of the Medici family – Giovanni de Barduccio Cherichini. The sculptue became immediately popular among the Florentines, who were taken by the old man’s serious attitude, as well as the great skill and realism with which the statue had been executed.


Vasari states that it was Donatello’s favorite work, and that he got into the habit of swearing his oaths by saying: “By the faith I have in my Zuccone,” and that while he was working on on the statue he would look at it and keep muttering; “Speak, damn you speak!”

Donatello increasingly distanced himself from the fashions of his time. His insightful studies of well-known saints became increasingly realistic and unexpectedly bold. As an aged and worn-out Mary Magdalene depicted in all her frailty, with an emaciated body, wated through devastating penance.


So different from his St. George, which was commissioned by the armourers’ guild to adorn their niche in the Chiesa di Orsanmichele. The niche Donatello was assigned was unusually shallow and thus the sculpted a figure that partially emerges from it and it can thus be seen from several directions.

It is an individual who steps forward, alert and tense. St. George has not yet attacked the dragon, which presence spectators sense behind their backs. The warriuors’s feet rest firmly on the ground, but his right foot is slightly extended and the posture thus harmonizes with St. George’s worried facial expression. He does not exude defiance and can hardly be assumed to guard anything. His shield is at rest, but we nevertheless get an impression of courage and determination. A determined preparedness for a difficult task that could have a fatal outcome for himself.



As expected, St. George is encased in a sinuous and exquisitely chiselled shell of leather and metal, after all it was the armorers’ guild that hade commissioned Donatello to create a bold and heroic Saint George. Despite this, there is an air of defenselessness about the lonely saint, well aware as he is of the great danger he will soon be exposed to. However, this does not prevent his whole figure from being characterized by a nervous energy. We are unsure how long he will sustain this tension. Soon he must attack, … or retreat.

Nervousness and hesitation characterize the tense face; the furrowed brow and the worried look. Unlike Donatello's marble David, St. George is in his niche almost level with the viewer who can thus be directly confronted with his anxious preperaedness. Soon he will overcome all his doubts and thus becomes an image of one of the virtues that the Florentines liked to attribute to themselves – Prontezza, an ability to be prepared to face every threat and adversary with elevated calm.



The relief under St. George is executed in exquisite stiacciato through which the loin of his horse appears to be closer to the viewer than its head. The dragon, St. George and the Virgin, who is rendered in elegant Gothic curvature, are sharply plced against a central perspective background, where the wild nature, which cliffs and caves are the dragon’s home, are juxtaposed to the ordered, urban landscape behind the Virgin – culture and order in contrast to the unbridled evil of nature.


Soon Donatello utilized the stiacatto technique for increasingly sophisticated representations. With a background of symmetrically constructed areas created through a perspective combined with empty surfaces, he harmonizes the actors with a space that both encloses them and opens behind them. Dramatically concentrated, and at the same time dynamic depictions that as in snapshots captures eventful processes, through which emotional energy is reflected through the actors’ body language.

A relief on a baptismal font in Siena shows the turbulent scene when a kneeling executioner during a banquet on a plate is handsing over the severed head of John the Baptist to Herod. The drama of the main incident is strongly emphasized and psychologically nuanced. The various reactions to the blood-stained head are reflected as captured in a wave of horror and disgust, which to the right subsides around an unaffected Salome who seems to have just finished her fatal dance.


The depth of the image is divided into several planes – foremost where the executioner holds out the dish with John’s severed head, small children flee at the sight of the terrifying head while the unemotional Salome in a pleated dress that seems to refer to the wild dance she previously has performed before Herod


The other side of the table forms another plane in which Herod recoils in disgust when he is offered grotesque of a severed head, while his wife Herodias, with a giving gesture indicates the cut off head she has persuaded her daughter to request from her stepfather as a condition for perfroming her arousing dance. A void has opened up around Herodias and her explanatory attitude, her nasty request has aroused disgust and repudiation among those around her. At the other end of the table, one of the diners covers his face with one hand as he turns away in repulse of the bloody spectacle.



On a plane behind these people we glimpse the musicians who have accompanied Salome’s dance and at further away we glimpse how the executioner hands over the head of John the Baptist to Herodias and her daughter. The lively, and highly original, presentation of a commonly known scene probably shocked the spectators who were confronted with it. There was no elegant sophistication here, but an unprecedented brutal realism. A flash of presence through which the artist conveyed an impression that he had actually witnessed what he described.


Donatello did not only use the stiacatto technique to present crowded and dramatic scenes. He also created intimate, devotional setting, such as this one where a deceased Jesus is lifted up by mourning angels.



Or a number of sensitively depicted Madonna images reflecting a tender love between mother and son.

On an exterior pulpi by the facade of the Cathedral of Prato, he depicted a joyfully unrestrained horde of dancing little angels. Such pulpits were used by famous preachers who, like rock stars, moved from town to town and attracted large audiences through their virtuoso preaching



It is difficult to imagine how austere orators and sombre revivalists preached their deeply religious messages of divine punishment and Christian restraint from a rostrum adorned with bacchanalian, dancing cherubs.



Inside the slightly congested basilica of Padua, Donatello gave vent to his original and imaginative art. Behind the high altar we find, for example, a representation of one of Sant Antonio’s miracles. In its scenic grandeur it reminds of some historical cinemascope film produced in Hollywood. The cinematic impression once again provides an impression that Donatello actually witnessed the vivid scene he is rendering.


What Donatello illustrates is a somewhat silly, but at the same time politically cahreged legend. The Pataria was a 11th-century movement aiming at reforming the clergy by enforcing papal sanctions against simony, challenging clerical control of the Eucharist, as well as it tried to outlaw clerical marriage and concubinage. The movement caused some armed rebellions which were soon put down and Pataria eventually was declared to be an open and punishable heresy.

According to legend, a miller named Bonvillo denied the celestial and miraculous nature of the Eucharist, namely that the belief that during Mass the wine and bread actually were transformed into real flesh and blood. He challenged San Antonio by keeping his mule confined for days without feeding her. Then he would take her to the square in front of the catedral and a multitude of people and put some tasty fodder in front of her. At the same time, San Antonio would rise a consecrated oblate for the mule to see. If the animal knelt before the host and ignored the pile of clover and other appetizing things, Bonvillo promised that he would never again utter any disbelief in the miracle of the holy mass.



Antonio accepted the challenge and on the agreed day the saint showed the host to the mule with the words:


If indeed what I hold my hand is the human fleash of our Creator, I command you, dumb animal, to humbly approach Him and show Him due reverence.


Scarcely had Antonio finished his sentence than the mule, to the astonishment and jubilation of the people, ignored the appetizing food, bowed her head and knelt before the sacrament and incarnation of Christ’s body.

Perhaps a certain humor can be sensed through Donatello’s large-scale representation of of a multitude of the people showing astonishment at the miracle of the kneeling mule.



Among the evangelist symbols that also adorn the main altar of the Basilica San Antonio di Padua, the lion of Mark undeniably makes an amusing impression, humanized as it is with an individualized expression of concentration and authority.



The Madonna, enthroned in front of the altarpiece’s crucifix, stands in front rather than sits on her throne. She appears to be leaning forward, an impression reinforced by her thrusting head which lends intensity to the forward movement. She holds the baby Jesus in front of her, as if she wants to demonstrate it to the congregation. The chubby child turns to us with a gesture and facial expression that seem to free him from his mother’s hold. The treatment of the bronze is exemplary – shiny, smooth and hard.



Right next to the Basilica di San Antonio, the condottiere Erasmo Stefano da Narni, called Gattamelata (the Honey Smoth Cat) is in a powerful manner urging his magnificent steed forward. In earlier (painted) equestrian depictions, of which Ucello’s and del Castagno’s frescoes are the most famous, the huge horses appear to be more prominent than their riders.


With the ancient Roman equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius, who was probably Donatello’s main model, the roles appear to be reversed. The horse is truly magnificent, though the emperor seems to outsize it.


Gattamelata’s horse exudes calm and massive power. The general’s posture and facial features express confined, but intense activity. His grim expression does not indicate any unleashed warrior frenzy, but rather careful calculation, control and concerted preparedness.

In his sculpture, Donatello has depicted Gattamelata as he leads his troops during a battle. Command staff and sword form a diagonal that cuts out the commander at an angle to the plinth, thus drawing the viewer’s attention to his reflection and overview. Compared to previous equestrian statues, there is a realistic renewal here, a dignity and formal effect that is nevertheless based on previous representations.


Donatello made several detailed horse studies and in Naples there is a magnificent horse’s head which, in the exhibition in the Palazzo Strozzi was placed next to a copy of a head from the four ancient bronze horses that adorn the facade of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice. They had been stolen from Constantinople in 1204 and since then thay have been an inspiration for various artists.


Gattamelata is a free-standing sculpture, one of the few previously created after Roman Antiquity. In many ways, Donatello's revolutionary art was a renewal of ancient Roman-Greek art, which has made some art connaiseurs to believe that some of his art works actually originated from ancient Rome. However, not his most famous work – the free-standing bronze sculpture of David.

As of 1437, the Medici were the most influential family in Florence and largely controlled the city and its Signoria. For several centuries, the Medici gathered at their court Italy’s foremost artists, writers, humanists and philosophers. Of course, this gave glory and prestige to the increasingly powerful and wealthy Medici clan, but possibly their patronage of art, music and literature could also be considered a gesture of appreciation of their hometown and its citizens.

Donatello was held in high esteem by Cosimo de Medici, the leading man of the Florentine moneyed aristocracy, who assumed an unofficial position as ruler of the city republic. In 1440 he ordered from Donatello a “free-standing statue”, a figure in the “antique” spirit, completely sovereign, unbound by any decorative tasks.



The result was astonishing. Donatello’s David was placed in the garden of the Medici Palace and its shocking originality aroused astonishment and admiration. The heroic youth is almost completely naked, and it is only Goliath’s fearsome, armored head at his feet that suggests this is the David of the Old Testament and not some Greek god.

With an enigmatic smile, the elegant youth poses with one foot on Goliath’s severed head. It is the moment after his defeat of the giant. The boy has a strong physique, though provides the spectator with a remarkable “feminine” impression. David’s slender build contrasts with the large sword he holds in his right hand.

His nakedness suggests that David defeated Goliath not through physical strength but due to God’s intervention. This is not the case, as it was with Donatello’s St. George of a moment of vigilance and nervousness, but about relaxation and reflection. The young man’s face is calm. His facial muscles are completely relaxed and a mysterious smile plays on the slightly open mouth. There is a subtle pride in his expression, not boastfulness but rather a reflection of inner thoughts. We are not confronted with a triumphant superhero holding aloft a sword and a severed head. Instead, we meet a contemplative face and relaxed body.


The body position indicates a calm confidence. David rests standing, seemingly carelessly, but nevertheless harmoniously, with the weight placed on the right leg. It is a classical counterpose, well known through Polykleitos’ Doryphoros, Spear Bearer, which since its creation in 440 BC. has been admired and copied as the epitome of harmony, dynamism and balance. Not least in poses taken by modern film actors, such as the young Marlon Brando and several other Hollywood stars.


At the same time, in Donatello's David there is something of the sliding line rhythm of the Gothic, from the brutally severed head along the body up to the shoulders and the long hair. A gliding upward movement that meets and interacts with gently falling rhythms in the hat, arms, crotch and legs. A continuous pulse seems to run around the entire sculpture, a constant succession of clearly chiseled silhouettes around hard, solid matter. Freed from all supports and surrounding ornaments, structures and contexts, an individual appears, who with a unique physicality, allows himself to be viewed from all angels. In my opinion, Donatello’s David is far more harmonious and complete than Michelangelo’s more famous and admired free sculpture of the young David.



The tradition-breaking, uniqueness, but still antique-applying quality of Donatello’s David has made several “experts” declaring it to be the first free-standing sculpture in history after Antiquity and a kind of talisman for the Renaissance. An opinion I perceive as an example of a coomon, casual condemnation of the greatness of medieval art. I do not see the Renaissance as a break with earlier art, it is rather a superb part in an unbroken chain of masterpieces. The psychological depth Donatello conveys in his art is also present in medieval artwork.



On our walk to Donatello’s David in the Bargello Palace, we passed several exquisite Byzantine ivory miniatures. This meticulously executed craftsmanship, with its perfect dynamics and harmony within confining spaces, reminded me of an ivory miniature made in Lorraine sometime in the 11th century that I in 1973 first saw in East Berlin’s Bode Museum and I since then I have often thought about it.



The figures are pressed against each other in a round-arched niche. The ivory carver has masterfully arranged the entire image surface and balanced Thomas the Doubter and Jesus against each other with perfect clarity, rhythmic power and saturated expressiveness. With his back to the spectator, the Doubter climbs upwards while he clings to Jesus. In anguish and doubt, he tears at Christ's mantle and with his fingers dig deep into the exposed wound. Thomas’ intrusive clinging is contrasted with Christ’s calm. With raised arm he exposes his wound and harmoniously fills the roundel of the niche while he is serenely watching the upset Tomas. Jesus exoresses concerned participation, patience and pity. Here, through gestures and interplay, there is profound psychology at play, just as in Donatello’s best works.


Perhaps one might consider medieval crucifixes as free-standing sculptures. For example, Helmsted’s bronze crucifix from the latter part of the 11th century,


or Bishop Gero’s crucifix in the Cologne Cathedral. Carved sometime between 970 and 1000, it is history's first preserved, wood-carved monument and already perfected in its representation of Jesus’ already dead and prostrate body.

The statue of St. Teodore in Chartres gives an heroic an impression similar to Donatello’s St. George.


Pierre de Montreuil’s Adam from the begiining of the 13th century, which is now in the Musée de Cluny in Paris, can actually be considered as a free-standing sculpture, produced in a perfect Greek-Roman antique spirit.


The Defeated Synagogue in the Strasbourg Cathedral is as poignant psychological study as those created by Donatello.


So are the prophets of Bamberg. Jonah’s face bears comparison with Donatello’s Il Zuccone.


The Rider in Bamberg is certainly not as dynamic as the Gattamelata sculpture, but is nevertheless endowed with a calm and noble grandeur.


Uta von Ballenstedt in Naumburg has a mysterious and withdrawn air about her and thus stands in stark contrast to the wonderfully realistic representation of the lush and happily smiling Queen Adelaide of Burgundy, made 1260 in Meissen, although it looks so fresh and new that I doubted whether it could actually be that old.



The lively relief of the Last Supper in Naumburg is as skillfully executed and varied as any of Donatello’s reliefs.


Bishop Hohenlohe’s imgae from 1350 in the Bamberg Cathedral leans towards us and like the figures in Donatello’s artwork he provides us with a vivid, unique and idiosyncratic impression.


Despite a realisation of the greatness of medieval art, I nevertheless dare to say that Donatello’s contribution is both different and revolutionary. His astonishing blend of tradition and modernity was, after all, something entirely new.

Medieval artists never ceased to seek inspiration from the sources of the classical art of Byzantium and Rome, though their output was overshadowed by a spiritual outlook. A presentation of ideal conditions, largely disconnected from Antiquity in the sense that Augustine gave as the task of art – uti non fruti, to use but not enjoy. The medieval Christian ideal of God allowed the flesh of Antiquity to be resurrected in a declared form, purified in the fire of faith, bearer of a message about the Kingdom of Eternity beyond the limits of the visible.

Contrary to such a mindset, Donatello’s work has a worldly anchoring. Even when he portrays saints and madonnas, he does so in a personal and intimate way. A reality seen through a temperament and sometimes, as in the statue of David, he lets himself loose in a way that seems to be completely freed from Judeo-Christian tradition and thinking.


In the exhibition in the Palazzo Strozzi, one of Donatello’s strangest works was exhibited on a pedestal. It was for a long time widely considered to date from Roman Antiquity, although Vasari and some of his contemporaries carrectly identified it as a work of Donatello. Vasari describes the sculpture as:


a bronze Mercury, standing three feet high in full relief and clothed in a curious fashion.



Cupido-Attys is undeniably bizarre. A remarkably skilfully made study of a child’s body, whose proportions, contrary to medieval methods of representation, cannot be considered to be those of a miniature adult. Part of the puzzling character of this statue originates in the juxtaposition of a variety of classical motifs—wings like a cupid, a small goat's tail like that of a faun, winged sandals like those of Mercury, and what seems to be an allusion to the Bacchus Child and other fertility-suggesting creatures which during Antiquity, often were depicted in the form of babies, cupids and putti.



The strange clothing that exposes the boy’s genitalia, the raised arms and above all the face, where the burnished bronze, chubby cheeks, dimples, a half-open, smiling mouth – all this gives an impression of movement, a fleeting, excited feeling allluding to ancient models of bacchanalian, unrestrained freedom, expressed in the raised arms and the swinging, dancing movement.


However, even though the statue has been interpreted as an expression of the free-spirited joy of the Renaissance, by me it provides a sneaking sensation of unease. Through the strange pants that expose his genitals and the boy’s vitality, his apparently cheerful liveliness, the whole arrangement seems to be charged with an ill-concealed erotic energy, an air of distasteful pederasty. Behind Cupido-Atty’s consummate realism, the masterful execution of details, a sense of discomfort might be felt, something menacing, unhealthy and disturbing. The boy, in the midst of all his implied joie de vivre, seems able to do harm – to himself and others.


At the age of seventy-five, Donatello created a representation of Judith in the process of cutting off the head of Holoferenes. Judith stands upright, her sword is raised, while she with a firm grip on his hair lifts up the lifeless tyrant’s body. Calmly and methodically, she prepares to severe the brutal old man’s head from his body, acting with the calm of an everyday butcher. For several years, the sculpture was placed in front of the Signoria’s palace, as a symbol of the Republic’s contempt for autocrats and tyrants.



Donatello’s last masterpieces, executed when he was approaching the age of eighty, are the bronze reliefs on the so-called pulpits in the Florentine church of San Lorenzo. “So-called”, because these are probably not pulpits, but rather intended to be sarcophagi, even if were not used as such, but lifted up on pillars to be used by pulpits.


Vasari wrote that Donatello in the ned became increasinly senile, though there is not the slightest sign of this in the execution these reliefs, which are characterized by the same monumental realism as the altar reliefs in Padua. Hoever, here the realisim even stronger than before, perhaps even characterized by an old man’s disillusionment. As in the his representation of St. Lawrence’s martyrdom during which he with with a long pole attached to his neck by an excutioner is mercilessly ressed down into violently blazing fire. The spectators seem to be quite unmoved by the horrid spectacle. A Roman soldier holds his shield in front of him, as if to protect himself from the heat of the fire.



In another impressive scene, the three women descend to visit Jesus’ tomb. There they are met by an angel who announces that he has risen. The eldest of them seems to be clinging to a pillar, overwhelmed as she is by the startling message, while another woman, whose face is hidden by her cloak, with a lamp in her hand, descends the steps of the rock tomb. She seems not yet to have perceived the angel’s presence.



The reliefs are so high up that it is difficult to make out any details. I was amazed at the sight of a servant who, during Pilate's confrontation with Jesus, holds up the bowl of water in which the prefect is to wash his hands, a symbolic act to show that he is not guilty of the death sentence he pronounced. But ... with my neck strained, I tried to focus my gaze on the servant’s head. Did I see right? Did he really have two faces?


When I got home I rummaged through my art books and found that this was indeed the case. It looks as if Donatello was trying to create a sense of movement. With one facial movement, the servant calmly turns to Pilate, while the other seems to be turned to Jesus, in surprise at his presence or what he he saying.



The art historians I conulted commented on the double face by making a lot of comparisons with similar images, not least ancient Janus’ faces. It seems to me that they got lost in complicated explanation, which in at least two of them resulted in the opinion that the double countenance of the servant reflects Pilate’s hesitancy, his reluctance to make a firm decision and stick to it.

It may well be a plausible explanation. How, to me, Donatello’s double-faced servant might be a bold and successful attempt to create movement in art through duplication.


Already in ancient times, a Stone Age artist succeeded in admirably creating a boar’s gait in the Spanish cave of Altamira using a technique a technique of doubling features.


It would take thousands of years before Italian Futurists succeeded in creating a illusion of movement, like Balla in his representation of a dog’s brisk walk with its master. Or Boccioni when he fills the space of an entire painting with the illusion of movement, while the face of a woman leaning forward is doubled in what appears to be a window reflection.



Once again, one of my blog posting has grown beyond its limits. However, it was hard to hold back all the thoughts that my meeting with Donatello in Florence gave rise to. The realization of his modernity, vitality, inventiveness and unimaginable skill was undeniably staggering and will stay with me for a long time.

Vasari wrote:


He was superior not only to his contemporaries but even to the artists of our own time […] Artists should, therefore, trace the greatness of the art back to him rather than to anyone born in modern times. For as well as solving the problems of sculpture by executing so many different kinds of work, he possessed invention, design, skill, judgement, and all the other qualities that one may reasonably expect to find in an inspired genius.



Harris. Jim (2011) ”Defying the Predictable: Donatello and the Discomfiture of Vasari,” in Harris, Jim, Scott Nethersole and Per Rumberg (eds.) ‘Una insalata di più erbe A Festschrift for Patricia Lee Rubin. London: The Courtauld Institute of Art. Levey, Michael (1967) Early Renaissance. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books. Martina, Guido och Giovan Battista Carpi (1983) “Messer Papero e il Ghibellin Fuggiasco,” in Topolino, n. 1425, 20 marzo. Pagolo Morelli, Giovanni di (2019) Ricordi: Nuova edizione e introduzione storica. Florence: Firenze University Press. Pfeiffenberger, Selma (1967) ”Notes on the Iconology of Donatello’s Judgement of Pilate at San Lorenzo,” in Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. 20, No. 4. Poeschke, Joachim (1993). Donatello and his World: Sculpture of the Italian Renaissance. New York: Harry N. Abrams. Vasari, Giorgio (1988) The Lives of the Atists. London: Penguin Classics.



08/28/2022 11:04

Italien är en outsinlig källa för allsköns oväntade upplevelser – kulinariska, såväl som kulturella. Jag gläntar på dörren till något som flyktigt intresserat mig och plötsligt forsar intryck, minnen, drömmar och en mängd andra fenomen över mig. Som då jag för en månad sedan tillsammans med min amerikanske vän Joe besökte Florens och där konfronterades med Donatellos konst. En utställning kring hans liv, verk och influens på en mängd efterföljare efterföljare pågick i Palazzi Srozzi och Bargello.



Förvisso hade jag tidigare besökt Florens och i olika kyrkor konfronterats med Donatellos verk, läst om mästaren och hört min konstlärare Aron Borelius berätta om honom, men jag hade aldrig på allvar insett vidden av Donatellos genialitet och hans stora betydelse för sin eftervärld. Det häpnadsväckande moment i mänsklighetens historia under vilket han och hans gode vän Brunelleschi utgjorde orkanens öga. Donatello med sina skulpturer och reliefer. Brunelleschi med sina teorier kring centralperspektivet och kupolen han lät slå över Santa Maria del Fiore.



De båda vännerna hade tillsammans besökt Rom, där Donatello omtumlats av antikens kulturskatter; statyers och sarkofagreliefers fantasifulla rikedom, balans och fulländade harmoni, alltmedan Brunelleschi (1377-1446) ingående studerat den antika valvtekniken och fördjupat sig i Vitruvius (80-15 f.Kr.) skrifter.


Brunelleschi var den mer teoretiskt/matematiskt bevandrade av de två genierna, medan Donatello var en fulländad konstnär/hantverkare, med en intuitiv känsla för de uttryck hans konst skulle anta för att tillfredsställa beställarnas förväntningar, rummets förutsättningar och hans egen självkritiska hållning. Donatellos samtida pekade ofta på hans brist på bildning och påstod att han knappt var läskunnig. Jag tvivlar och antar att det var en myt som togs till intäkt för att hans genialitet var gudagiven, liksom muslimer ofta säger att Muhammed varken kunde läsa eller skriva, för att därmed antyda att hans lära var direkt dikterad av Gud.


Donatello, hette egentligen Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi. Donatello är ett diminutiv, ett epitet som kom sig av att han var liten till växten. Han föddes i Florens 1386 som son till Betto Bardi, vars yrke angivits som “ullkardare”, fast han ägnade sig även åt guldsmide. Ullkardare kan betyda att Bardi var proletär, men kan också innebära att han var föreståndare för en en ullkardarmanufaktur, något som tycks bevisas genom anmärkningen att han var skråmästare. Det skrå det kunde röra sig om vore så fall det mäktiga Arte della Lana, en hantverksförening som omfattade yllefabrikanter och köpmän verksamma inom Florens blomstrande ylleindustri.


Under Donatellos livstid sysselsatte verksamheten kopplad till ull inte mindre 30 000 arbetare, en tredjedel av Florens befolkning, som årligen producerade 100,000 meter textiler och kläde.



Uppköparna och exportörerna av ull och kläde tillskansade sig med tiden stora förmögenheter, som de använde till att med ränta låna ut till olika europeiska makthavare. De flesta av dessa bankirer var organiserade inom ett skrå kallat Arte di Calimala. Det märkliga namnet Calimala, Lugna henne, kom från namnet på den gata där Arte di Calimalas högkvarter var beläget. Genom sin rikedom kunde medlemmar i dettta skrå påverka och manipulera Florens styresmän. Mest inflytelserik bland skråets medlemmar blev sedermera familjen Medici.


En bild i en italiensk serietidning illustrerar utmärkt förhållandet – Kalle Anka sliter med att klippa får och samla in ull alltmedan Farbror Joakim räknar de pengar han fått in genom ullförsäljning och bankirverksamhet.



Likt flera andra norditalienska handelsstäder styrdes Florens under Donatellos levnad av en församling kallad Signoria. Dess nio medlemmar valdes från stadens ledande skrån. Sex av dem kom från skrån kallade Priori, det vill säga de sex äldsta och mäktigaste skråna, bland dem Arte della Lana. Två medlemmar valdes från de fjorton mindre skråna. Den nionde medlemmen benämndes Gonfaloniere di Giustizia och verkade som ledare för Signorian. Han valdes varannan månad, dock inte genom lottdragning utan av den avgående Signorians medlemmar.



En av flera märkvärdigheter med detta styrelseskick var hur Signorians medlemmar valdes och den korta tid de verkade. Namnen på samtliga skråmedlemmar över trettio år lades i åtta lädersäckar. Varannan månad bars dessa säckar ut från kyrkan Santa Croce, där de förvarades och under en kort ceremoni drogs namnen slumpmässigt fram. Endast män som inte var skuldsatta kunde väljas, dessutom skulle de inte ha suttit i Signorian under det gångna året och de fick inte ha något familjeband med de män som verkat under den tidigare mandatperioden. Omedelbart efter det att de valts förväntades de nio styrelsemedlemmarna bosätta sig i Palazzo della Signoria, vars fasad var prydd med skrånas vapensköldar, där kom de att stanna under de två månader som deras uppdrag varade.



Så fungerade det hela i princip, men med tiden förvirrade intriger och manipulationer det redan komplicerade systemet och makten kom i realiteten att vila hos Gonfaloniere di Giustizia, ett ämbete som kom att domineras av den allt mäktigare Medicifamiljen. Detta innebar dock inte att skråväsendet och dess inflytande på Florens maktspel försvann. Under flera århundraden fortsatte Signorian att dominera stadens ekonomiska och politiska liv.


Arte della Lana, där Donatellos far var medlem, kontrollerade exempelvis hela processen från den råa, emballerade ullen som dagligen strömmade in staden, till de färdiga textilier som tillverkades vid vävstolar utspridda bland privathem och manufakturer inom stadens murar.



Likt andra skrån samordnade Arte della Lana sina medlemmars aktiviteter; försäkrade sig om kvalitén på produktionen, fastställde priser, reglerade löner, kontrollerade utbildningsgången hos gesäller, samt prövade och beslutade vem som skulle förlänas ett “mästarbrev”.



Varje skrå hade sitt skyddshelgon, dess styresmän residerade i ett palats och i allmänhet stödde de och bekostade mässor och utsmyckningar i en specifik kyrka. Det mäktiga Arte della Lana förfogade över ett imponerande palats i stadens centrum, dess skyddshelgon var Skt. Stefan och dess kyrka var ingen mindre är Florens Duomo – Santa Maria del Fiori.



I nischerna framför den Medicidominerade Chiesa di Orsanmichele fanns statyer av de olika skrånas skyddshelgon uppställda. Arte della Lanas Skt. Stefan hade där skulpterats av Lorenzo Ghiberti, i vars välrenommerade bottega Donatello vid sjutton års ålder hade börjat som gesäll.



Under Donatellos livstid var bottegasystemet väl utbyggt i Florens och staden räknade med en mängd mästerbottegas. En bottega var mer än en konstnärs-studio, mer än ett lärosäte för blivande mästare och kan väl snarast beskrivas som en verkstad som under stor konkurrens levererade beställningsarbeten till olika mecenater. Mycket av arbetet styrdes av stränga rutiner präglade av hantverksmässiga ytterst viktiga rutiner som i sin tur var beroende av beställarnas krav, tidsbrist då det gällde utförandet av de komplicerade arbetena, samt skråsystemets produktionskontroll och detaljerade regelverk.



Speciellt tillverkningen av färger var en väsentlig del av en bottegas verksamhet och orsaken till att Florens konstnärer tillhörde ett av de sex mäktigaste skrån som utgjorde Priori – Arte dei Medici e Speziale, Hantverksföreningen för läkare och apotekare, alltså en sammanslutning för specialister som tillverkade och använde sig av droger och olika dekokter. Förutom konstnärer ingick även butiksägare som sålde kryddor och textilfärgningsmedel i Arte dei Medici e Speziale.




Varje bottega framställde sina egna färger. Färgframställning, samt den noggranna prepareringen av de dukar och specialbehandlade träskivor som utgjorde underlaget för målningarna var en en arbetskrävande process som tillföll bottegans lärlingar.


Färgpigmenten kom från en mängd olika källor. De kunde utgöras av olika jordarter innehållande mineraler och lera, som  eller Bränd siena och Bränd umbra. Pigmenten var ofta baserade på giftiga ämnen som kvicksilver, bly, sulfid, tenn och cinnober ett mineral som är en blandning av kvicksilver och svaveldioxid. De kunde också vara mycket dyra importprodukter som Indiskt gult, som tillverkats av urin från kor som utfodrats med mangoblad, eller dyrast av dem alla – den blå stenen, lapiz lazuli, som fördes till Florens från Badakshan vid Amu Darjas övre lopp. För att erhålla de yppersta pigmenten tvingades konstnärer experimentera på egen hand eller vinna så pass stor uppskattning att beställarna var villiga att bekosta åtkomsten av eftertraktade pigment.



Pigmenten måste rivas, det innebar att de maldes ner till små, fina korn genom att finfördelas med hjälp av en löpare, en kägelformad sten med plan bottenyta som malde dem mot en flat stenhäll. Då pigmenten fått den rätta kornstorleken revs de samman till en pasta, genom tillsats av olika bindemedel. Under Donatellos tid var det vanligaste bindemedlet hela ägg, eller enbart äggvita – tempera, men man använde även bivax, kasein och olika oljor, främst linolja. Konstnärsbottegerna tillverkade även olika former av fernissa och lasyr. Det medeltida namnet för fernissa var det latinska ordet veronix, som gett upphov till nutidens vernissage, dvs. öppningsdagen för en konstutställning. Under renässansen betydde det att då fernissan torkat kunde konstverket presenteras för beställaren, om denne underkände resultatet var det för bottegan såväl en stor prestigeförlust, som ett ekonomiskt bakslag.


Inom en bottega kallades de hårt arbetande lärlingarna garzoni, pojkarDonatellos inträde som garzone i den uppburne Mästaren Lorenzo Ghibertis bottega skedde vid en ovanligt hög ålder. I allmänhet var de flesta garzoni som accepterades i en bottega i tioårsåldern. De anförtroddes i mästarens vård. Han fostrade, disciplinerade och undervisade dem medan de var en del av hans hushåll, där de logerade och åt tillsammans mästarens familj. Flera garzoni avancerade inte från att arbeta med färger och pannåer, men de skickligaste och mest entusiastiska av dem fick av mästaren lära sig skissera, läsa och slutligen även medverka vid konstverkens fullbordande. Efter hand anförtroddes de alltmer betydande uppgifter än framställandet av dekorativa detaljer och ifyllande av mästarens konturer, eller anläggandet av av tidigare fastställda färgytor.



Skråna krävde att en mästare skulle ge sina garzoni ett accartati, kontrakt, och en fast lön, den senare var oftast blygsam – i allmänhet fem eller åtta guldfloriner under ett år, att jämföras med en utbildad arbetares lön som var omkring trettiofem floriner per år. Vid slutet av lärlingstiden kunde en garzone beredas ynnesten att få genomgå en gesällprov. Om han lyckades med att förklaras som gesäll kunde det ge dem möjligheten att erbjuda sina tjänster som självständiga konstnärer, men de tilläts inte driva egna verkstäder. För det krävdes medlemskap i Arte dei Medici e Speziale något som i konstnärernas fall krävde att skråmedlemmarna visade sin uppskattning av ett Mästerverk (varifrån vårt samtida ord härstammar) och att en gesäll därigenom kunde utnämnas till Mästare, Maestro dell’arte och därmed rätten att öppna en egen bottega. Först måste dock en blivande Mästare bevisa att han var erkänd som son till en tidigare medlem av ett skrå och betala en inträdesavgift, samt skriva ett kontrakt som innebar att han accepterade skråets statuter och förband sig till en årlig inbetalning till dess gemensamma kassa.


Den stränga arbetsdisciplinen, de fasta rutinerna, det praktiska arbetet som lade stor vikt vid att varje detalj var så perfekt som möjligt, skrånas stränga kvalitetskontroll, den hårda konkurrensen, samarbetet mellan mästaren och hans garzone, samt den stora kårandan var säkerligen orsaker till att renässanskonstnärerna blev så skickliga och mognade som artister vid en tidig ålder..



Det tidigaste konstverket som kan härledas till Donatello är hans David, som han 1409 högg i marmor vid tjugotre års ålder. Arbetet hade bekostats av Arte della Lana, det skrå som Donatellos far tillhörde och var tänkt att pryda en av katedralen Santa Maria del Fiores strävpelare. Den placerades dock inte där emedan skråets medlemmar tyckte att den var för liten för att kunna uppskattas från marknivå. Statyn blev således under flera år stående i en bottega innan Florens Signoria 1416 förde den till sitt palats, placerade den på en piedestal med inskriften: ”Till de som tappert kämpar för fosterlandet försvar ger gudarna hjälp, även mot de mest fruktansvärda fiender.” Uppenbarligen tyckte stadens rådmän att den unge, djärve David kunde tjäna som förebild för Republikens försvarare.

Kritiken har ofta varit nedlåtande då det gäller detta första kända verk av Donatello. Det har skrivits att dimensionerna är fel att hela verket ger ett ”formellt och intetsägande uttryck”. Denne David har skoningslöst jämförts med Donatellos senare skicklighet och förklarats vara tämligen ointressant.


Efter att nu i verkligheten ha fått ett tillfälle att betrakta Donatellos Davidframställning på nära håll har jag fått ett helt annat intryck. Med tanke på de omständigheter som predisponerade statyn är den förvisso ett mästerverk.


Vänsterhanden håller David vid sidan, medan han placerat sig i en elegant contraposto lyfter han triumfatoriskt sin långa klädnad för att därmed avslöja Goliats avhuggna huvud, som vilar vid hans fötter – fortfarande med såväl slunga som sten inborrade i skallen. Trots det avstånd från vilket skulpturen skulle betraktas är det groteska huvudet detaljrikt och framträdande presenterat, med sina slutna ögon och halvöppna mun, genom vilken man skymtar den döde jättens tunga. I pannan sitter den dödande stenen inborrad, det stelnade blodet är svårt att skilja från hårsvallet.




Det framstår klart att arrangemanget var tänkt att pryda en strävpelare. Det hela tycks sträva uppåt. Vänsterhandens gest som öppnar dräkten gör att den besegrade Goliats huvud tycks vara närmre oss än Davids uppåtsträvande gestalt. Det tycks i klädnadens djup vila som i en grotta. Samtidigt påminner klädnadens öppna, spetsiga flik om en svart eldslåga som strävar mot höjden. Det gör hela skulpturen som med sin gotiskt svängda rörelse påminnaner om de tidigare madonnaskulpturer som utförts i elfenben och därigenom anpassats till elefantbetens kurvatur. Genom den elegant böjda rörelsen tycktes Jungfrun och hennes barn lyftas upp mot himmelska höjder.



Den överdimensionerade högernäven, som ofta kritiserats och Davids förhållandevis mindre och inte så inkännande karaktäriserade huvud understryker intrycket av att skulpturen skall betraktas underifrån och från stort avstånd. Med tanke på allt detta fick jag intrycket att eftersom skulpturens detaljer inte kan urskiljas från långt håll så utgjorde Domnatellos David i själva verket ett ”mästerverk”, hans inträdesprov till ett skrå. Eftersom Donatellos vid tilläöllet arbetade i Ghibertis verkstad, vars mästare var mer känd som skulptör än målare, är det möjligt att det skrå i vilket han invaldes som mästare var Arte dei Maestri di Pietra e Legname, Stenhuggarmästarnas och träsnidarnas skrå.



Donatellos gode vän och jämnårige Nanni di Banco, som tillsammans med Donatello hade fått uppgiften att pryda Il Duomos strävpelare gjorde sju år senare en berömd skulpturgrupp som imponerade på samtiden och blev en stor inspiration för Donatello – Quattro Santo Coronati, Fyra krönta helgon. Dessa fyra martyrer vars namn var okända skulle enligt traditionen ha varit kristna skulptörer som under kejsar Diocletianus vägrat framställa skulpturer av romerska gudar och därför placerats levande i förseglade blykistor som slängts i Savafloden i nuvarande Serbien. De hade sedan dess åkallats som skulptörers beskyddare och var givetvis Arte dei Maestri di Pietra e Legnames självklara skyddshelgon.



Nanni hade 1405 blivit utnämnd till mästare inom ovannämnda skrå och det var för dess räkning som han utförde sin skulpturgrupp för kyrkan Chiesa di Orsanmichele. De fyra gestalterna är mästerligt arrangerade inom en grund halvcirkelformad nisch, där de genom blickar och diskreta rörelser tycks vara inbegripna i ett samtal. De högtidliga gesterna, togaliknande klädnaderna och kropparnas volym vittnar om att Nanni påverkats av Antikens skultpurkonst.


Donatellos marmorstaty av David hade under utställningen i Pallazzo Strozzi placerats i samma rum som ett annat ungdomsverk av Donatello – Krucifixet i Santa Croce. Det hängde bredvid Brunelleschis krucifix från Santa Maria Novella. Orsaken till detta var säkerligen en anekdot i Giorgio Vasaris (1511-1574) anekdot i hans Le vite de´più eccelenti pittori, scultori e architettori, De mest utmärka målarnas, skulptörernas och arkitekternas liv.



För Santa Croce skar Donatello ”med oändligt tålamod” ett krucifix av trä som han stolt uppvisade för sin vän Brunelleschi, som dock efter Donatellos entusiastiska beskrivning hade väntat sig något bättre och inte kunde låta bli att småle. Den sårade Donatello anade vännens misstycke och bad honom att med tanke på deras stora vänskap berätta vad han verkligen tyckte om krucifixet. Efter en viss tvekan såg Brunelleschi mot krucifixet och konstaterade: ”Du har satt en bonde på korset och inte Jesus Kristus, den mest fullkomliga man som någonsin fötts”. Bitter, eftersom han trots allt hade förväntat väntat sig beröm svarade Donatello: ”Om det vore lika lätt att fördöma något, som att själv skapa det skulle min Jesus inte se ut som en bonde. Ta du själv lite ved och försök göra ett krucifix.”



Utan ett ord lämnade Brunelleschi kyrkan och utan att avslöja det för någon satte han igång med att tillverka ett krucifix med syftet att överträffa Donatellos skapelse. Han åstadkom efter flera månaders arbete, med stor perfektion, ett verk som enligt honom var vida överlägset Donatellos krucifix.


En morgon bjöd Brunelleschi in sin vän Donatello att äta med honom. Donatello tackade givetvis ja till inbjudan och de gick tillsammans mot Filippos hus. Då de passerade marknaden köpte Brunelleschi några ingredienser till middagen och eftersom han sade sig ha ytterligare ett par ärenden som omndelbart måste uträttas gav han marknadsvarorna till Donatello och bad honom ta dem till sin bottega. Då Donatello kommit in i verkstaden fann han Filippos krucifix effektivt placerat med en perfekt ljussättning. Överväldigad av förvåning och beundran, släppte Donatellos förklädet i vilket han placerat äggen osten och de andra varorna han burit med sig från marknaden. Då Filippo, kom in och fann han vännen stå vilsekommen och häpen bland de krossade äggen. Skrattande frågade Brunelleschi: "Vad håller du på med, Donatello? Hur ska vi nu kunna äta något när du har tappat allt?" "Jag," svarade Donatello, "har fått nog. Om du vill ha något, ta det. Dig är det givet att göra Kristus, och mig bönder."



Det är en tämligen underfundig liten historia och Vasaris berättelse har för eftervärlden kommit att karaktärisera skillnaden mellan Brunelleschis och Donatellos konst och har kommenterats ett otal gånger.


Skillnaden mellan de två framställningarna är egentligen inte så stor. Det framstår klart att de två träsnidarna fann sin inspiration i Giottos triumfkrucifix i Santa Maria Novella. Målat 1288 var det mer än hundra år äldre än de krucifix som Donatello och Brunelleschi skapade. Giotto var inspirerad av den franciskanska andligheten som mer än hans ära och upphöjdhet, eller omänskliga lidande, hade poängterat Jesu medmänsklighet, kärlek och fattigdom. Giottos krucifix framställde därmed en döende människa med en realistiskt framställd kropp. Hos honom finns inga spår av barbariskt prygel och tortyr. Han bär ingen törnekrona och de enda sår han uppvisar är från spjutsticket i sidan och spikarna i händer och fötter.




Det är i ansiktenas uttryck som den största skillnaden mellan Donatellos och Brunelleschis jesusframställningar blir mest tydlig. Det kan vara en illusion, men jag tycker att Donatellos Jesus genom sin sin trötta men likväl milda blick under nästan slutna ögonlock, en halvöppen mun med svullen överläpp, sina mer framträdande kindknotor och höga panna är oss närmre än Brunelleschis Kristus. Ansiktet tycks, trots sin brist på yttre skador, vittna om hur en vanlig människa utsatt för förakt, förräderi och grotesk mobbing är nära att lämna jordelivet, men trots allt detta det utstrålar Jesu trötta anlete förlåtelse och människokärlek.


Giottos Jesus är tämligen utmärglad, i varje fall jämfört med de mer muskulösa kropparna skildrade av Donatello och Brunelleschi. Den senares Jesus tycks dock vara smäckrare byggd än Donatellos. Brunelleschis Jesus har samma böjda ben som hos Giotto, medan Donatellos kristusfigurs sträckta ben vilar tyngre mot korsets stam. Brunellschis Jesus har en liten törnekrona, men likt Giottos Jesus saknar Donatellos en sådan.



Donatellos Jesus är oss närmre i så måtto att han är förlänad med en kroppsarbetares gestalt, likt den byggnadssnickare Jesus i själva verket var innan han fick sin uppenbarelse och sitt gudagivna uppdrag. Hans gestalt och ansikte uppvisar tecken på en sådan mans vardagsliv, med all den brutalitet och livsnärhet som tycks saknas hos Brunelleschis ädling. Vasaris berättelse om Brunelleschis omdöme är i så måtto helt korrekt. Donatellos Jesus påminner verkligen om en bonde, någon som inte enbart i enlighet med evangeliernas berättelser har korsfästs, utan dessutom utsatts för pöbelns våld och det gatans förakt som visas maktlösa och avvikande människor.



Varför tycks då Vasari, medan han jämför honom med Brunellschis framställning, underskatta Donatellos Jesus? Kanske för att Vasari i samtliga konstnärsskildringar poängterar sin uppskattning av en konstnärs förmåga att sammanlänka fysisk skönhet med kreativ skicklighet och därmed i sina verk lyckas efterlikna av Guds kreativa kraft och originalitet.


En skicklig konstnär är, enligt Vasari, till skillnad från en bonde en Skapare, någon som i enlighet med Uppenbarelsebokens ord förmår göra “allting nytt”. En syn som inte alls var ovanlig bland Renässansens intellektuella som ofta betraktade sig som förmer än bönder. De var “medborgare”, stadsbor som till skillnad från de jordnära bönderna förstod att uppskatta filosofins och den religiösa trons subtiliteter, fjärran från den vidskepelse och brutalitet som var förhärskande bland jordens arbetare. I själva verket hyste många florentinare en djupt rotad misstro och även rädsla för de bönder som omgav staden. I sina Ricordi, Minnen, fastslog Donatellos samtida, den förmögne klädeshandlaren Giovanni di Pagolo Morelli, att ” det finns ingen bonde som inte vore villig att komma till Florens för att bränna ner staden”. 


Med andra ord, i ett tidigt verk som krucifixet i Santa Croce visar sig Donatello redan sin skicklighet i att på ett nytt, revolutionärt och livsnära sätt omgestalta den konst som dominerade hans samtid. Efter sitt krucifix går Donatello från klarhet till klarhet. Ständigt varierande och fördjupande de möjligheter som hans studier av antik konst i kombination med en medvetenhet om de innovationer hans samtida konstnärskolleger gjorde. Den mäktige mecenaten Cosimo de Medici fick ögonen på honom och under sin långa levnad under vilken Donatello in i det sista var febrilt verksam saknade han aldrig ständigt nya uppdrag. Förutom sin suveräna skicklighet och oväntade franställningar var Donatello, till skillnad från många andra artister, känd för att vara en blygsam, vänlig och ytterst generös person.



Det är genom sin subtila karaktäristisk av sina motiv som Donatello blivit hyllad för ett obestridligt mästerskap. Strax efter återkomsten från sin studieresa till Rom 1433, i sällskap med Brunelleschi, skapade Donatello i Santa Croce sin Annunciazione, Tillkännagivandet, som ett monument för den mäktiga klanen Cavalcantis familjegrav.

Ängeln och jungfrun är utförda i hög relief franför en delvis förgylld bakgrund i form av en stängd port. De skildrs i ögonblicket strax efter Gabriels uppdykande. Jungfrun, som placerats framför en lyrformad stolsrygg, har överraskad rest sig upp efter att ha suttit och läst en bok, som hon fortfarande håller i handen. Den ungdomligt vackra madonnan för en en hand mot bröstet och hennes gracilt, gotiskt svängda gestalt antyder vagt att hon för ett ögonblick tänkt fly uppenbarelsen. Dräktens utsöka drapering följer benens rörelse åt vänster, bort ur bilden, men i sista stund har jungfrun kontrollerat sina känslor och vänt sig mot ängeln.


Gabriel knäfaller framför madonnan som han i det närmaste blygt blickar upp emot. Det verkar som om han med sitt lätt vridna huvud, ödmjuka framtoning och sökande blick vill fånga Marias obetingade uppmärksamhet. Scenen andas ett ljust, levande samspel mellan de framställda gestalterna, som med gester och ansiktsuttryck animerar sina känslor. Donatello har lyckats förläna Marias ädelt förfinade ansikte ett uttryck av stilla förvåning, präglat av såväl tacksamhet som ödmjukhet.


Donatello undvek traditionella inslag som den Helige Andes duva och liljan, eller olivkvisten, i ängelns hand. Symbolspråket är begränsat och subtilt, som Marias bok som anspelar på Bibelns förutsägelser om Messias ankomst och bakgrundens slutna port som antyder Madonnans kyskhet.



Donatello upprepar sig aldrig och överraskar ständigt. Fem år innan Bebådelsen i Santa Croce hade Donatello tillsammans med sin kollega Michelozzi för den fortfarande levande kardinalen Rainaldo Brancacci byggt ett överdådigt gravmonument. Brancacci var en slug politisk vindflöjel och det framstår som tämligen märkligt hur kyrkofurstar som han hade fräckheten att över sig själva, likt forntida faraoner, resa extravaganta äreminnen. Det får vara hur det vill med den saken eftersom vi trots allt har sådana självförgudade narcissister att tacka för förbluffande mästerverk utförda av flera renässansgenier.



På Brancaccis sarkofag har Donatello utfört en av de stiacciatoreliefer som beundrades av hans samtid. Stiacciato är en teknik gör det möjligt för en skulptör att med enbart ett par millimeters djup skapa en så kallad eller försänkt relief. Att gradvis förminska djupet från förgrund till bakgrund skapa illusionen av större djup hade Donatello säkerligen lärt sig av sin mästare Ghiberti, som använt sig av stiacciato i sina ofta djup-perspektiva reliefer på de berömda Paradisportarna till Santa Maria degli Fioris baptisterium.




Donatello framställer i sin madonnas himlafärd en äldre, kanske trött och oroad kvinna som omsvärmas av graciöst svävande änglar. Osökt kommer jag att tänka på rehndöttrarnas kringvirvlande i inledningen till Wagners Das Rheingold.



Återkommen till Florens skapade Donatello ansikten i antik stil, svåra att skilja från grekiska och romerska förebilder.



Eller inträngande, ytterst originella studier av samtida män.



För en av nischerna i Giottos torn bredvid Santa Maria del Fiores utförde Donatello en gammaltestamentlig profet – Habakkuk. Den dystre och plågade man som anropade Gud med orden:


Herre, hur länge ska jag ropa på hjälp utan att du hör, ropa högt till dig över våld utan att du räddar? Varför låter du mig se ondska, och hur kan du själv se på sådant elände? Fördärv och våld är inför mig, det uppstår tvister och gräl.  Därför blir lagen utan kraft, och rätten kommer aldrig fram. Den ogudaktige omringar den rättfärdige och rätten förvrängs.



Den misantropiske mannen, som av populärt kallas Il Zuccone, Den skallige, hade som förebild en numera bortglömd konstnär, förmögen man och motståndare till Medici familjen – Giovanni de Barduccio Cherichini. Den blev omedelbart populär bland florentinarna som greps av den gamle mannens svårmodiga uppsyn och hållning, samt den stora realism med vilken staty utförts.



Vasari påstår att det var Donatellos favoritverk och att han fick till vana att svära sina eder genom att säga: ”Vid den tilltro jag för min Zuccone”, och att medan han skulpterade sitt verk gång på gång ropade: ”Tala! Tala!”.


Donatello avlägsnade sig alltmer från tidens mode och hans insiktsfulla studier av välkända helgon blev alltmer realistiska och oväntat djärva. Som en åldrad och sliten Maria Magdalena framställd i all sin skröplighet med en avmagrad kropp, späkt av förödande botgöring.



Så skild från hans Sankt Göran som av rustningmakarnas skrås beställts för att pryda en nisch i Chiesa di Orsanmichele. Den nisch Donatello anvisats var ovanligt grund och därmed träder den skulpterade gestalten delvis ut från den och kan därmed ses från flera håll.


Det är en individ som stiger fram, vaksam och spänd,. Sankt Göran har ännu inte gått till anfall mot den drake som åskådaren anar bakom sin rygg. Fötterna vilar stadigt mot marken, men den högra foten är lätt framskjuten och hållningen harmoniserar därmed med oroade ansiktsuttrycket. Det är inte trots som helgonet utstrålar och han kan knappast antas bevaka något. Hans sköld är i vila, men vi får ett intryck av mod och beslutsamhet. Beredskap inför en svår uppgift som kan få en dödlig utgång.



Som väntat är han inkapslad i ett slingrande och utsökt cisileratcililserat skal av läder och metall, det var ju rustningsmakarnas skrå som gett Donatello uppgiften att skapa en heroisk Sankt Göran. Trots detta står det en air av skyddslöshet kring det ensamma helgonet, väl medvetet om den stora fara han inom kort skall utsättas för, men detta hindrar att hela hans gestalt präglas av en nervös energi. Vi är osäkra om hur länge han kan upprätthålla denna spänning. Inom kort måste han gå till attack, eller dra sig undan.


Nervositet och tvekan präglar det spända ansiktet, den rynkade pannan och oroade blicken. Till skillnad från Donatellos marmordavid är Sankt Göran i sin nisch nästan i jämnhöjd med åskådaren som därmed direkt kan konfronteras med hans ängsliga beredskap, som trots allt slutligen övervinner all tvekan och därmed blir till en sinnebild för en av de dygder som florentinarna tyckte om att tillskriva sig själva – Prontezza, en förmåga att med upphöjt lugn vara beredd att möta varje hot och motgång.



Reliefen under Sankt Göran är utförd i utsökt stiacciato genom vilken länden på hans häst tycks vara närmre åskådaren än dess huvud. Draken, Sankt Göran och Jungfrun, framställd i elegant gotisk kurvatur, är skarpt utförda framför en centralperspektvisk bakgrund, som kontrasterar den vilda natur vars klippor är drakens hemvist mot stadslandskapet bakom Jungfrun – kultur och ordning i motsats till naturens otyglade ondska.




Snart utnyttjade Donatello stiacattotekniken för alltmer sofistikerade framställningar. Med bakgrund av symmetrisk uppbyggda rum och rymd skapad genom perspektiv kombinerat med tomma ytor, levandegör han motsägelsefria rektioner mellan bildernas delar, mellan aktörerna och ett rum som både omsluter dem och öppnar sig bakom dem – en dramatiskt koncentrerad och samtidigt dynamisk skildringskonst som i ögonblicksbilder fångar händelserika förlopp, genom vilka känslodynamiken speglas i aktörernas kroppsspråk.


En relief på en dopfunt i Siena visar den nyansrika scen som uppstår då en knäfallande bödel under ett gästabud på ett fat överlämnar Johannes Döparens huvud till Herodes. Huvudhandlingens dramatik är stark framhävd och psykologiskt nyanserad. Reaktionen inför det det blodiga huvudet avspeglas i en våg av skräck och vämjelse, vilken mot höger stillnar kring Salomes oberörda gestalt. Hon tycks precis ha avslutat sin fatala dans.



Bilddjupet är uppdelat i flera plan – främst bödeln som räcker fram fatet med Johannes avhuggna huvud, småbarnen som flyr från det skräckinjagande huvudet och den kyliga Salome i en veckrik klädnad som tyckas antyda den vilda dans hon tidigare utfört inför Herodes.



Bordets andra sida utgör ett annat plan där Herodes i avsmak ryggar tillbaka inför det avhuggna huvudet, alltmedan hans hustru Herodias med en givande gest för sin make förevisar det avhuggna huvudet som hon övertalat sin dotter att begära av sin styvfar som tack för sin upphetsande dans. Det har uppstått en tomhet kring Herodias och hennes förklarande attityd, som om hennes otäcka begäran väckt avsky bland hennes omgivning. Vid bordets andra ände täcker en av middagsgästerna med ena handen sitt ansikte alltmedan han i vämjelse vänder sig bort inför det blodiga spektaklet.



På ett plan bakom dessa personer skymtar vi de musikanter som oberörda har ackompanjerat Salomes dans och längst bak ser vi hur bödeln överräcker Johannes Döparens huvud till Herodias och hennes dotter. Den livfulla, originella framställningen chockade antagligen de åskådare som konfronterades med den. Här fanns ingen elegant sofistikation utan en tidigare inte skådad brutal realism. En ögonblicksbild genom vilken konstnären förmedlade intrycket av att han verkligen bevittnat vad han beskrev.


Donatello gjorde inte bruk av stiacatto enbart för att framställa folkrika dramatiska scener. Han skapade även intima andaktsbilder, som denna där en avliden Jesus av sörjande änglar lyfts fram till beskådande.



Eller en mängd känsligt skildrade madonnabilder som speglar den ömma kärleken mellan mor och son.



Han skildrade på en yttre predikstol, vid sidan av fasaden till Katedralen i Prato en glädjefylld frisläppt hord av dansande småänglar. Sådana predikstolar nyttjades av berömda predikanter som likt rockstjärnor drog från stad till stad och genom sin virtuosa predikokonst lockade till sig stora åhörarskaror.


Det är tämligen svårt att föreställa sig hur stränga vältalare och dystra väckelsepredikanter spred sina djupt religiösa budskap om gudomliga straff och kristen återhållsamhet från en talartribun prydd med backanaliskt uppspelta, dansande keruber.





Inne i den lite väl överlastade basilikan gav Donatello utlopp för sin originellt fantasirika konst. Bakom högaltaret finner vi exempelvis en framställning av ett av Sant Antonios mirakler. Den påminner i sin storslagenhet om en scen från någon historisk cinemascope-film producerad i Hollywood. Återigen ges här ett filmatisk intryck av att Donatello verkligen betraktat den livfulla scen han återger.



Vad Donatello illustrerar är en något töntig, men samtidigt politiskt högaktuell berättelse. Pataria var en 1000-talsrörelse som syftade till att reformera prästerskapet genom att tvinga fram påvliga sanktioner mot simoni, ifrågasätta prästernas kontroll av nattvarden och förbjuda prästerliga äktenskap och konkubinat. Rörelsen orsakade en del väpnade uppror som snart slogs ner och Pataria förklarades vara ett öppet och straffbart kätteri.

Enligt legenden förnekade en mjölnare vid namn Bonvillo eukaristins natur, nämligen att vin och bröd under mässan verkligen förvandlades till blod och kött. Han utmanade San Antonio genom att hålla sin mula instängd i flera dagar utan att mata henne. Sedan skulle han ta henne till torget framför folket och lägga lite foder framför henne. Samtidigt skulle San Antonio placera hostian framför mulan. Om djuret knäböjde inför hostian och ignorerade högen med klöver och annat aptitligt lovade Bonvillo att han aldrig mer skulle visa vantro inför mässundret.



Antonio accepterade utmaningen och på den överenskomna dagen visade helgonet hostian för mulan med orden:


Om jag verkligen håller vår Skapare i handen beordrar jag dig, arma djur, att med ödmjukhet närma dig Honom och visa Honom vederbörlig vördnad.


Knappt hade Antonio avslutat meningen förrän mulan till folkets förundran och jubel ignorerade den aptitliga födan, sänkte sitt huvud och knäböjde inför Kristi kropps sakrament.


Kanske kan en viss humor anas genom Donatellos storstilade framställning av folkets förundran inför miraklet med den knäfallande mulan.


Bland de evangelistsymboler som även pryder Basilica San Antonio di Paduas huvudaltare ger onekligen Markus lejon ett roande intryck, förmänskligat som det är med sitt individualiserade uttryck av koncentration och auktoritet.


Madonnan, som tronar framför altaruppsatsens krucifix, snarare står framför än sitter på sin tron. Hon tycks luta sig framåt, ett intryck som förstärks av hennes framskjutna huvud som förlänar intensitet åt den framåtriktade rörelsen. Hon håller Jesusbarnet framför sig, som om hon vill förevisa det för menigheten. Det knubbiga barnet vänder sig till oss med en gest och ett ansiktsuttryck som gör att han tycks frigöra sig från sin mors grepp. Behandlingen av bronsen är föredömlig – skinande, slät och hård.



Alldeles intill Basilica di San Antonio driver kondottiären Erasmo Stefano da Narni, kallad Gattamelata (den Honungslena Katten) på en hög sockel fram sin kraftiga springare. I tidigare (målade) ryttarframställningar, av vilka Ucellos och del Castagnos fresker är de mesta kända, tycks de väldiga hästarna vara mer framträdande än sina ryttare.



På den antika ryttarstatyn av Marcus Aurelius, som antagligen var Donatellos främsta förebild, tycks rollerna vara omkastade. Visserligen är hästen magnifik, men kejsaren tycks vara större än den.



Gattamelatas häst utstrålar lugn och massiv kraft. Generalens hållning och ansiktsdrag uttrycker en hopbiten, intensiv aktivitet. Hans bistra uppsyn tyder inte på någon lössläppt krigarkraft, snarare på noggrann planering, kontroll och sammanbiten beredskap.



Donatello har i sin skulptur framställt Gattamelata medan han anför sina trupper under en strid. Kommandostav och svärd bildar en diagonal som i vinkel mot sockeln skär ut härföraren och därmed får betraktaren att uppmärksamma hans reflexion och överblick. Jämfört med tidigare ryttarstatyer finns här en realistisk förnyelse, en värdighet och formverkan som likväl bygger på tidigare framställningar.



Donatello gjorde flera ingående häststudier och i Neapel finns ett magnifikt hästhuvud som på utställningen i Palazzo Strozzi placerats bredvid en kopia av ett huvud från de fyra antika bronshästar som pryder fasaden på Markuskyrkan i Venedig. De hade 1204 rövats bort från Konstantinopel och sedan dess varit en inspiration för olika konstnärer.



Gattamelata är en fristående skulptur, en av de få som tidigare skapats efter Antikens tidevarv. I mångt och mycket innebar Donatellos revolutionerande konst en förnyelse av den antika romersk-grekiska konsten, något som gjorde att en del av hans verk senare antogs härstamma från det antika Rom. Dock inte hans kanske mest berömda verk – den fristående bronsskulpturen av David.


Från och med 1437 var Medici den mest inflytelserika familjen i Florens och kontrollerade i stort sett staden och Signorian. Under flera århundraden samlade Medici vid sitt hov Italiens främsta konstnärer, författare, humanister och filosofer. Givetvis skedde det för att ge glans och prestige åt den allt mäktigare och förmögnare Mediciklanen, men möjligen även kunde deras gynnande av konst, musik och litteratur även betraktas som en gest av uppskattning av hemstaden och dess medborgare.



Donatello uppskattades livligt av Cosimo de Medici, den florentinska penningaristokratins ledande man, som intagit en inofficiell ställning som stadsrepublikens härskare. 1440 beställde han av Donatello en ”fristående staty” där gestalten i antik anda framträder helt suverän, obunden av dekorativa uppgifter.



Resultatet blev förbluffande. Donatellos David placerades i Medicipalatsets trädgård och dess chockerande originalitet väckte häpnad och beundran. Den heroiske ynglingen är helt naken och det är enbart Goliats anskrämliga, bepansrade huvud vid hans fötter som antyder att det rör sig om David och inte någon grekisk gud.


Med ett gåtfullt leende poserar den elegante ynglingen med foten på Goliats avhuggna huvud, precis efter att ha besegrat jätten. Pojken har en stark fysisk och ger ett anmärkningsvärt ”feminint” intryck. Davids slanka kroppsbyggnad kontrasterar till det det stora svärd han håller i högerhanden.


Nakenheten antyder att David besegrat Goliat inte genom fysisk styrka utan genom Guds ingripande. Här rör det sig inte, som fallet var med Donatellos Skt. Göran om ett ögonblick av vaksamhet och nervositet, utan om avspänning och eftertanke. Ynglingens ansikte är lugnt. Ansiktsmusklerna är helt avspända och på den lätt öppna munnen spelar ett mystiskt leende. Det finns en subtil stolthet i uttrycker, inte skrytsamhet utan snarare en spegling av inre tankar. Vi konfronteras inte med en triumferande superhjälte som håller svärd och avhugget huvud högt. Istället möter vi ett kontemplativt anlete.


Kroppsställningen visar på en rofylld självsäkerhet. David vilar stående, till synes vårdslöst men likväl harmoniskt med tyngden lagd på det det högra benet. Det rör sig om en klassisk kontrapose, välkänd genom Polyklitos Doryphoros, Spjutbärare som sedan den skapades 440 f.Kr. har blivit beundrad och kopierad som sinnebilden av harmoni, dynamik och balans. Inte minst i poser intagna av moderna filmstjärnor som John Wayne och andra machomän från Hollywood.



Samtidigt finns det hos Donatellos David något av gotikens glidande linjerytm, från det brutalt avhuggna huvudet längs kroppen upp till skuldrorna och det långa håret. En glidande uppåtriktad rörelse som möter och samverkar med lugnt fallande rytmer i hatten, armarna, mellangärdet och benen. En fortlöpande puls som löper kring hela skulpturen, en ständig följd av klart utmejslade silhuetter kring den hårda, fasta materian. Frigjord från alla stöd och omgivande ornament, strukturer och sammanhang framträder här en individ som med en unik kroppslighet låter sig betraktas från alla håll. I mitt tycke är Donatellos David långt mer harmonisk och fulländad än Michelangelos mer berömda och beundrade friskulptur av den unge David.



Den traditionsbrytande, unika, men likväl antikanspelande kvalitén hos Donatellos David har gjort att den deklarerats vara historiens första fristående skulptur efter Antiken och en slags talisman för Renässansen. En åsikt jag uppfattar som ett slentrianmässigt fördömande av storheten hos Medeltidens konst. Jag ser inte Renässansen som en brytning med tidigare konst, snarare en suverän del i en obruten kedja av mästerverk. Det psykologiska djup Donatello förmedlar i sin konst är även närvarande i medeltida konstverk.



På väg mot Donatellos David Bargellopalatset passerade vi flera utsökta, bysantinska elfenbensminatyrer. Detta minutiöst utförda hantverk, med dess perfekta dynamik och harmoni inom begränsande utrymmen, fick mig att minnas en elfenbensminiatyr tillverkad i Lorraine någon gång på 1000-talet som jag 1973 först såg i Östberlins Bode Museum och ofta tänkt på sedan dess.



Gestalterna pressas mot varandra i en rundbågig nisch. Elfenbenssnidaren har mästerligt disponerat hela bildytan och balanserat Tomas Tvivlaren och Jesus mot varandra med perfekt klarhet, rytmisk kraft och mättad expressivitet. Med ryggen mot åskådaren klättrar Tvivlaren uppåt och klänger sig samtidigt fast vid Jesus. I ångest och tvivel sliter han i Kristi mantel och gräver djupt med fingrarna i det blottade såret. Tomas påträngande fastklamrande kontrasteras mot Kristi upphöjda lugn. Med lyftad arm blottar han sitt sår och fyller harmoniskt nischens rundel medan han med bekymrat deltagande, tålamod och förbarmande betraktar den upprörde Tomas. Här finns genom gester och samspel en djuplodande psykologi, precis som i Donatellos bästa verk.



Kanske kan man betrakta medeltidens krucifix som fristående skulpturer. Exempelvis Helmsteds bronskrucifix från 1000-talets senare del,



eller Biskop Geros krucifix i Kölnerdomen. Skuret någon gång mellan 970 och år 1000, historiens första bevarade, träsnidade monument och redan fulländat i sin framställning av Jesus i dödsögonblicket nersjunkna kropp.


Statyn av Skt. Teodore i Chartres ger ett minst lika hjältemodigt intryck som Donatellos Skt Göran.



Pierre de Montreuils Adam från mitten av tolvhundratalet som nu finns i Musée de Cluny i Paris kan faktiskt även den betraktas som en fristående skulptur, framställd i en fulländad antik anda.



Den Besegrade Synagogan i Strasbourgs katedral är en lika gripande psykologisk studie som de Donatello skapade.



Så är profeterna i Bamberg. Jonas ansikte tål en jämförelse med Donatellos Il Zuccone.



Ryttaren i Bamberg är visserligen inte så dynamisk som Gattamelataskulpturen, men har en lugn och ädel storhet.



Det har även Uta von Ballenstedt i Naumburg. Mystisk och tillbakadragen står hon i skarp kontrast till den förunderligt realistiska framställningen av den frodiga, glatt leende Drottning Adelaide av Burgund, gjord 1260 i Meissen, fast den ser så färsk och ny ut att jag tvivlade på om den verkligen kunde vara så gammal.



Den livliga reliefen av Den Sista Nattvarden i Naumburg är lika skickligt utförd och varierad som någon av Donatellos reliefer.



Biskop Hohenlohes skulptur från 1350 i Bambergs katedral lutar sig mot oss och ger som gestalterna i Donatellos konst ett levande, unikt och egensinnigt intryck. En imponerade, underligt närvarande porträttstudie .



Trots en insikt om den medeltida konstens storhet vågar jag likväl påstå att Donatellos insats är både annorlunda och revolutionerande. Hans förbluffande blandning av tradition och modernitet var trots allt något fullkomligt nytt.


Medeltidens konstnärer upphörde aldrig att söka inspiration vid den klassiska konstens källor i Bysans och i Rom, men deras produktion överskuggades av ett andligt synsätt. En framställning av ideala tillstånd, i stort sett frikopplad från Antiken i den mening som Augustinus gav som konstens uppgift – uti non fruti, att nyttja men icke njuta. Medeltidens kristna gudsideal lät Antikens kött återuppstå i förklarad gestalt, renat i trons eld, bärare av ett budskap om Evighetens rike bortom det synligas gräns.


I motsats till ett sådant tänkesätt har Donatellos verk en världslig förankring. Även då han framställer helgon och madonnor gör han det på ett personligt och intimt vis. En verklighet sedd genom ett temperament och ibland som i Davidstatyn släpper han sig lös på ett sätt som tycks vara fullständigt befriat från judisk-kristen tradition och tänkande.



I utställningen i Palazzo Strozzi fanns på en piedestal ett av Donatellos underligaste verk. Det ansågs allmänt länge som härrörande från Antiken, även om Vasari och några av hans samtida hade identifierat det som ett verk av Donatello. Vasari beskriver skulpturen som


en metallisk Mercury av Donato, en och en halv arm hög, rundlagd och klädd på ett tämligen bisarrt vis.



Cupido-Attys är onekligen bisarr. En anmärkningsvärt skickligt gjord studie av en barnakropp, vars proportioner, i motsats till medeltida framställningssätt, inte kan betraktas som en vuxen människa i miniatyr. En del av statyns förbryllande karaktär finner sitt ursprung i sammanställandet av en mängd klassiska motiv – vingar som en Cupido, en liten getsvans som på en faun, bevingade sandaler som hos Merkurius, och vad som tycks vara en anspelning på Bacchusbarnet och andra fruktbarhetsantydande varelser som under Antiken ofta framställdes i form av spädbarn, amoriner och putti.



Den underliga klädseln som blottar pojkens genitalier, de upphöjda armarna och främst ansiktet där den blankpolerade bronsen, de bulliga kinderna, skrattgroparna, den halvöppna, leende munnen – allt detta ger ett intryck av rörlighet, en flyktig, upphetsad känsla som samverkar med de antika förebildernas backanaliska, hämningslösa frihet, uttryckt i de upphöjda armarna och den svängande, dansande rörelsen.



Men, trots att statyn har tolkats som ett uttryck för Renässansens frimodiga glädje, skapar den hos mig en smygande olustkänsla. Genom de underliga byxorna som blottar genitalierna och pojkens vitalitet, hans glada livlighet tycks hela arrangemanget vara laddat med en illa dold erotisk energi, en air av osmaklig pederasti.


Bakom Cupido-Attys fulländade realism, detaljernas mästerliga utförande finns ett obehag, något hotande, osunt och oroväckande. Pojken kan mitt all sin antydda livsglädje göra skada – för sig själv och andra.

Vid sjuttiofem års ålder skapade Donatello en framställning av Judith i färd med att hugga av Holoferenes huvud. Judith står upprätt med lyftat svärd medan hon med ett stadigt grepp i hans hår lyfter upp den livlöse tyrannens kropp. Lugnt och metodiskt bereder hon sig att liksom en alldaglig slaktare skilja den brutale gubbens huvud från hans kropp. Skulpturen var under flera år placerad framför Signorians palats, som en sinnebild av Republikens förakt för envåldshärskare och tyranner.



Donatellos sista mästerverk, utförda då han närmade sig åttioårsåldern, är bronsrelieferna på de så kallade predikstolarna i den florentinska kyrkan San Lorenzo. ”Så kallade”, eftersom det antagligen inte rör sig om några predikstolar utan snarare om sarkofager som inte använts som sådana utan senare lyfts upp på pelare för att brukas av predikanter.


Dessa reliefer präglas av samma monumentala realism som altarrelieferna i Padua, men här tycks framställningarna vara än mer realistiska, kanske till och med präglade av en gammal man illusionslöshet. Som i framställningen av Skt. Lars martyrium under vilket han av en bödelsdräng, på befallning en kejsares bjudande gest, med en lång stång gripit tag om Skt. Lars hals och obarmhärtigt pressar honom ner i våldsamt flammande eld. Åskådarna tycks oberörda av spektaklet. En romersk soldat håller skölden framför sig, som för att skydda sig mot eldens hetta.



I en imponerande scen stiger de tre kvinnorna ner för att besöka Jesu grav. Där möts de av en ängel som förkunnar att han är uppstånden. Den äldsta av dem tycks klamra sig fast vid en pelare, överväldigad som hon är av det förbluffande budskapet, alltmedan en annan kvinna, vars ansikte är dolt av hennes mantel, med en lampa i handen stiger nerför klippgravens trappa. Hon tycks ännu inte ha uppfattat ängelns närvaro.



Relieferna sitter så pass högt upp att det är svårt att urskilja några detaljer. Mest förbluffad blev jag vid åsynen av en tjänare som under Pilatus konfrontation med Jesus håller upp den vattenskål i vilkenprefekten skall två sina händer, en symbolhandling för att visar att han inte är skyldig till den dödsdom han uttalat. Men … med uppåtsträckt hals försökte jag fokusera blicken på tjänarens huvud. Såg jag rätt? Hade han verkligen två ansikten?



Då jag kommit hem rotade jag bland mina konstböcker och fann att så verkligen är fallet. Det ser ut som om Donatello försökt framställa en rörelse. Med den ena ansiktsrörelsen vänder sig tjänaren lugnt mot Pilatus, medan det andra tycks vara vänt mot Jesus i förvåning över hans närvaro eller vad han sagt.



De konsthistoriker jag läste och som kommenterat det dubbla ansiktet gör en mängd jämförelser med liknande dubbelansikten, inte minst antika Janusansikten. I mitt tycke tycks det som om de förlorat sig i komplicerade förklaringsmodeller, som hos minst två av dem utmynnar i åsikten att tjänarens dubbla anleten speglar Pilatus tvehågsenhet, hans ovilja att fatta ett fast beslut och stå vid det.


Det kan mycket väl vara en trovärdig förklaring. Men, för mig tycks det vara ett djärvt och lyckat försök av Donatello att genom dubblering framställa rörelse i konsten. Redan under forntiden lyckades en stenålderskonstnär att i den spanska grottan Altamira på ett beundransvärt sätt med en sådan teknik framställa ett vildsvins gång.



Det skulle dröja tusentals år innan de italienska futuristerna lyckades skapa samma rörelseillusion, Som Balla i hans framställning av en hunds snabba promenad med sin husse. Eller Boccioni då han fyller en hel tavlas utrymme med rörelseillusion, medan en framåtlutad kvinnas ansikte dubbleras i vad som tycks var en fönsterreflex.



Återigen har ett blogginlägg vuxit över sin bräddar. Men, det var svårt att hålla tillbaka alla de funderingar som mitt möte med Donatello i Florens gav upphov till. Insikten om hans modernitet, vitalitet, uppfinningsförmåga och ofattbara skicklighet var onekligen omtumlande och kommer att stanna hos mig för all framtid.


1568 skrev Vasari:


Donatello var överlägsen inte enbart sina samtida utan även vår egen tids konstnärer […] de bör därför spåra konstens storhet tillbaka till honom, snarare än till någon som fötts i modern tid. Ty bortsett från att han, genom att utföra så många olika slags arbeten, löste  skulpterandets  problem,  ägde  han uppfinningsrikedom, känsla för formgivning,  hantverksskicklighet, omdöme och alla andra egenskaper som man rimligen kan förvänta sig att finna hos ett inspirerat geni.




Harris, Jim (2011) ”Defying the Predictable: Donatello and the Discomfiture of Vasari,” in Harris, Jim, Scott Nethersole och Per Rumberg (eds.) ‘Una insalata di più erbe A Festschrift for Patricia Lee Rubin. London: The Courtauld Institute of Art. Levey, Michael (1967) Early Renaissance. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books. Martina, Guido och Giovan Battista Carpi (1983) “Messer Papero e il Ghibellin Fuggiasco,” i Topolino, n. 1425, 20 marzo. Pagolo Morelli, Giovanni di (2019) Ricordi: Nuova edizione e introduzione storica. Florens: Firenze University Press. Pfeiffenberger, Selma (1967) ”Notes on the Iconology of Donatello’s Judgement of Pilate at San Lorenzo,” i Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. 20, No. 4. Poeschke, Joachim (1993). Donatello and his World: Sculpture of the Italian Renaissance. New York: Harry N. Abrams. Sandström, Sven (1965) Renässansskedet. Stockholm: Natur och Kultur. Vasari, Giorgio (1971) Lives of the Atists. Harmndsworth. Middlesex: Penguin Classics.






06/09/2022 09:49

During my youth’s frequent cinema visits I used to smile at a commercial occasionally presented before the film began – a crane striding in a bog while the speaker voice stated: “Some people like to watch birds pecking in swamps.” Suddenly the bird explodes and disappears into a cloud of smoke with the comment: “But, we like cinema!”



Maybe it was like that, I liked cinema more than bird watching. The main reason was possibly that I did not have a proper pair of binoculars and did not pay any serious attention to the nature surrounding me, never far away since I lived in a small town. However, currently one of my biggest pleasures is to walk alone through the forest around our house by a lake in southern Sweden, listen to the birds and occasionally catch a glimpse of them. Nevertheless, my familiarity with these marvellous creatures mostly comes from books.


Ever since my childhood, I have been fond of bird books. My grandfather had three elegant leather leather bound volumes – Svenska fåglar efter naturen och på sten ritade I-III. Med text av professor Einar Lönnberg och 364 kolorerade planscher av bröderna von Wright, Swedish Birds Drawn after Nature and litographed I-III. With text by Professor Einar Lönnberg and with 364 Coloured Plates by the von Wright brothers. The books were originally published in 1838 and the magnificent illustrations were made by three Swedish-Finnish brothers. I do not know where Grandpa’s von Wright books ended up after his death and I must state I miss them quite a lot. I often sat curled up in one of Grandpa’s armchairs with one of the large volumes in my lap. It is difficult to explain the fascination I felt while looking at these wonderfully clear and strangely beautiful bird pictures. Perhaps it had something to do with a meticulous immersion in details and the wonder of birds.


As I flip through such exquisite bird books as the Wright brothers’ masterpiece, I come to think of the title of one of the Portuguese author António Lobo Antunes’ novels – Explicação dos Pássaros An Explanation of Birds. Many have tried to do just that, but it is an impossibility, as difficult as explaining what life is about, therefore I find the Swedish translation of the book title to be more adequate – Explain the Birds to Me. I assume what made Lobo Antunes choose such a title for a novel about a man's inability to accept what happened to him in his life, was the impossibility to explain the mystery of birds, those often beautiful, winged and well-sung creatures. The novel deals with the protagonist’s mother’s death in cancer, his alienation from his own family, how he shot away his first wife and their children, his shaky political stance and difficulties in understanding his new wife. The birds thus become an image of us all, their inexplicable existence as a symbol for our strange choices, subterfuges, and misbegotten ideas. Life as an impossible project.



Even as a child when I sat with Grandpa’s big bird book in my lap and through the large windows could look out across his flamboyant flower mountain and its backdrop of tall pine tress, in which magpies jumped around and screamed in a way that always makes me remember Tallebo, Home of the Pines, which Grandpa called his house and garden. I suspected that there was a mysterious relationship between me and the birds. A feeling that took hold of me when I from my friend Örjan received a facsimile edition Olof Rudbeck the Younger’s Swedish Birds as a gift for my sixty years birthday. Rudbeck's book, which he began to draw and write as early as 1693, is endowed with the same attention to details as the von Wright brothers’ masterpiece, which appeared 150 years later.



I have also enjoyed John Audobon’s (1785-1851) The Birds of America, which I in 1981 was acquainted with in the 

library of the Instituto Cultural Domínicano Americano, where I often nested during my years in Santo Domingo. 



For hours I could sit in the Institute’s library immersed in admiration of Audobon’s depictions of birds, which harmonized the animals with their surroundings; the flowers, the trees, the water and often also dramatizing their existence within carefully portrayed environments.




That I found Audobon in the Dominican Republic was an interesting coincidence, since he was born in the neighbouring Republic of Haiti, during a time when it was a French colony called Saint-Domingue. Audobon’s father owned a slave-run sugar cane plantation. Already as a six-year-old child Audobon was forced to move to France, together with his father and siblings. The ruthlessly exploited and tormented plantation slaves, with whom John’s father, like so many of his slave-owning friends, had a multitude of children, had revolted and no white man could any longer feel safe in the rebellious Saint-Domingue. An eighteen-years-old Audobon then left France for the United States.



Considering our contemporary condemnation of the artistry of nasty people I would actually not be able to enjoy Audobon’s mastery, as little as it is now permissible to admire films by the paedophile Roman Polanski. Unfortunately, I cannot help surrendering to Audobon’s exquisite art (and also appreciate Polanski’s films), even though he was obviously a rather unpleasant person.


Audobon was certainly a genius, whose contribution to ornithology and art is invaluable, though he was endowed with a complex character and was repeatedly committed to a contemptuous behaviour, which even by the lax standards of the time was quite indefensible. He was accused of lying, academic fraud and plagiarism. He enslaved black people and wrote critically about emancipation. Audobon stole human remains and sent skulls to a colleague, who used them to, through his “scientific research”, prove that white-hued persons are superior to “non-whites”.

In the United States, Audubon spent more than a decade as a businessman in Kentucky, where he owned a thrift store in the city of Henderson and also was engaged in the slave trade. For some time, Audobon was relatively successful, but in 1819 he was imprisoned accused of bankruptcy and fraud. Released, Audobon travelled through the wilderness of the United States, hunting and depicting its bird fauna. Well aware of the English’s romantic craze for nature depictions, he sailed to England in 1826, bringing with him an impressive portfolio of life-size bird depictions and his fortune was made. Audubon became a wealthy and admired man.



It was in Santo Domingo I became familiar with Audobon’s life, coming across an odd character named John Chancellor, who was also afflicted by a fair dose of racism. Chancellor bought and sold antiquarian books about Haiti and the Dominican Republic and gave me two biographies he had written; one about Wagner and one about Audobon. Unfortunately, both monographs were based on inadequate research and I later found quite a lot of inaccuracies in them. Nevertheless, I appreciated that Chancellor gave me the books and they became the gateway to better and more detailed reading about these two, undeniably unpleasant and prejudiced geniuses.

Back to the birds. During a long life I have become acquainted with several bird watchers. In the Swedish town of Lund, for example, I had a neighbour who worked as “developer” at Tetra Pak, a Swedish-Swiss multinational food packaging and processing company, though his immersive interest was to wander around the Scanian plains, or in lush forest groves, to record bird sounds. He had a large number of tapes and from time to time he played them for me to demonstrate how birdsong differed from area to area, almost like human dialects. I had a hard time distinguishing the tiny nuances, but nevertheless found it fascinating that someone to such an extent could be engaged in a scrupulous analysis of birdsong.

A few years later I read Edward Grey’s The Charm of Birds, since Lord Grey in his book demonstrated an unusually large and lively interest in birdsong, the Swedish book title had the somewhat more adequate title Birds and Birdsong. Lord Edward Grey, First Viscount and Third Baronet Grey of Fallodon, was between 1905 and 1916 British Foreign Secretary. Despite an obvious lack of knowledge of foreign languages and a distaste for diplomacy he was nevertheless a committed and skilled negotiator, who unfortunately became entangled in the run-up to World War I.

It was Lord Grey who at the outbreak of that war made the classic statement: “The lights go out all over Europe; we will not see them lit again during our lifetime.”



When the war ended, Lord Grey stated that his prediction had been correct in the sense that the consequences of the war had damaged an entire European generation and these wounds would surely be reopened once again. However, he had by then retreated to his favourite pastime – fly fishing in the crystal-clear, water cress covered Itchen, which flowed through his property in Hampshire, while he listened to the birdsong in the dense greenery by the riverbanks. What fascinated me when I read Lord Grey's well-written book was his ability to stimulate an attentive interest in birdsong.



He captured the feelings that spring grants me in the forests around our Swedish home – the half-hour before sunrise when “like morning stars all the birds sing together”, which Lord Gray described as jubilant euphony. In this choir he distinguished the beautiful voice of the wood warbler. A slender, small bird which discrete colours harmonize with newly sprouted beech leaves:


The soft green and yellow colours of the bird are in tone with the foliage, and its ways and movements and general happiness animate the beauty of young beech leaves: wonderful and perfect beyond description as this beauty is, the presence of a wood-warbler can still add to it.



According to Lord Gray, the wood-warbler has two tunes in his repertoire. Clear and joyful tones that tremble in short intervals and are repeated again and again. They are inter-weaved with a clear and very beautiful song, repeated ten times in slow succession.

Lord Grey assumes that the impression a human listener obtains from these melancholic tones is that they express a deep sadness. The tone is pathetic, there are tears in the wood warblers song.

In May, the birdsong in Lord Grey’s lush forestlands was taking on a new meaning. For overwintered birds the arrival of spring means a reawakening of life, while the songs of migratory birds announce their arrival. Each and every bird is through his song assuring that he is reanimated, or has returned home, is choosing his territory, searching for a mate and a place to build his nest.



The singing at dawn becomes a “tapestry translated into sound.” It starts with a few muted notes of thrush song, waking up the tits and soon “sawing notes, bell notes, teasing notes” fill the air, the song of mistle-thrush, merle and mavis, maybe also the rounded notes of an owl, and above it all rises the voice of the blackbird; warm and clear “light as amber among the sharper flood of song.” A vocal attire constituted of innumerable stitches of sound.


Lord Grey nurtured a special love for the wren. According to him, its song is not the best, though its “a good song , clear, distinct, musical and pleasant; it is elaborate rather than simple and is well turned out.” The impression of the wren’s song is enhanced by its distinctive appearance and specific character. Even though it is a bird of insignificant size, it has resolutely protruding tail feathers and a violent temper. Lord Grey watches the arrogant little bird during its spring mating season and gets the impression that the song of the wren contains more of challenge and triumph, than love. He surprises two male wrens, which on his lawn are involved in such a violent battle that they ignore his threatening presence. When one of them finally emerges victorious from the fight and the defeated bird has retreated, the victor flies to a nearby bush and from where he fills the air with a triumphant song.


In the birds’ dawn choir, Lord Grey distinguishes the blackcap’s voice, so perfect and moving that he considers it to be among the foremost English songbirds. The blackcap’s singing is loud:


exceedingly sweet, but also spirited: it is not very long, but is frequently repeated: there is a great variety, but the thing done is absolutely perfect. There is not a note that fails to please or to be a success.



The garden warbler’s song is also beautiful, but it seems as if that bird can never completely clear its throat and let out sounds as pure and free as those as the blackcap. However, in one respect the garden warbler is superior to its rival – his by all means beautiful song is more enduring, it lasts longer.


Lord Grey asks his readers to listen attentively to the birds triumphant dawn choir and above all notice how the blackbird’s euphony add life and soul to the entire symphony. According to Lord Grey it is impossible to explain why the blackbird’s singing surpasses any other bird’s. Why it means so much to us humans. He suggests that it might be due to a sense of “familiarity” conveyed by the blackbird’s song. The tunes of other birds are for sure quite pleasing, though the song of the blackbird directs itself to the soul of its listener. It touches deep-seated emotional strings, which ultimately unite us with the pitch-black bird. But alas,the euphoria is limited. The blackbird gives us barely four months of bel canto. He begins singing regularly by mid-March and before the end of June he falls silent. In July we might listen to the last spring tones coming from mavis and robin, but the farewell to these birds is not as melancholy as listening to the tones of the last blackbird, knowing that a long time will pass until we hear them again.


During autumn we listen to the owls’ desolate screams and hooting, sounding as if they were harbingers of something threatening and mysterious. Almost as sonorous as the solitary, enigmatic sound of the bittern. The owl’s scream consists of a long, calm and fine tone, which pauses for four seconds, to be followed by a drawn-out tone, which at first vibrates and then culminates at a soothing, full volume. The owl’s cry gives life to the forest and it would be unsettlingly quite if it ceased.


When I read Lord Grey’s careful descriptions of how nature and the behaviour of its inhabitants, the birds, is changing in accordance with nature’s course, I am reminded of the forests’ powerful breathing which I perceive during solitary forest walks, or while rowing across our lake in Swedish Göinge.

Deep down in my mind, I am upset about all kind of killing – war, slaughter, hunting, even fishing, though I nevertheless enjoy talking to fishermen and hunters and have often heard them describe how their waiting for prey unites them with their immediate surroundings. How sitting still and quite during the long waiting of their hunting sessions makes them realize how much that generally is hidden from sight and hearing. How our threatening presence in forests and groves arouses fear and suspicion among the animals, making them hide and become silent.



While we thoughtlessly walk through forests we see very little of all the life within them. Maybe we catch a glimpse of a few small birds, surprises a deer or a hare, though they quickly escape and hide among bushes and burrows. Upon our arrival alarm signals are, unknown to us, sent out and animals quickly disappear from our sight. However, we are constantly observed by the wild life, which might be in constant fear, anticipation and even excitement.

If, on the other hand, we sit down and silently scrutinize the surrounding nature we will soon discover how shy and easily frightened animals forget about our presence and resume those activities we previously have disturbed them in. Squirrels and rabbits appear, birds sing and thrushes rustle in the dry leaves around us , soon we might see how a moose or a small flock of deer appear.



What I find endearing in in people able to describe painters, and then perhaps mainly in birdwatchers, is how they patiently pay attention to “the little life”. The great patience of ornithologists, a quiet and silent wonder at the life around them, a respect for nature that makes them incapable of harming the creatures living there. It is enough for them to look at the rich life that surrounds them. Yes – several of these nature observers are obviously able to transform their activities into a part of their own life.

That’s probably why I find pleasure in reading and flipping through nature writers/artists’ books. For example, the Swedish writer and artist Gunnar Brusewitz, who among his many works of art designed the diplomas for the Nobel Prize in Literature, but his most famous works are a large amount of illustrated books, dealing with nature and animals.



I am particularly fond of his Diary from a Lake and Waterside Reflections, in which he based upon sceneries from his artist’s cottage by the lake-shore of Sparren, in the Swedich landscape of Roslagen, follows the changes of seasons and the passage of the years. With a view towards the four quarters he portrayed with skill and empathy the flight and presence of birds and the four-legged animals which walked past his haunt. Through Brusewitz’s books I perceive the scent and sound of the forest, the warmth or coolness of the air.



More minimalist nature studies were done by another artist, Björn von Rosen, who in his Conversation with a Nuthatch described his “platonic friendship” with a small bird, which I, by the way, after giving a lecture about it when I was in the fourth grade always have felt an affinity with.



Björn’s and the nuthatch’s relationship began when the blue shimmering little bird approached the artist’s windowsill while he for several months was bedridden in a troublesome illness. Björn’s wife got the idea to open the window towards the winter landscape outside, fill empty matchboxes with cookie crumbs, hemp seeds and pieces of cheese, placing them on the windowsill so Björn from his sickbed could enjoy watching how birds came to visit and devour the procurement.


A particularly prominent guest was a constantly recurring nuthatch. One morning when Björn von Rosen opened the window and held out his hand with some cookie crumbs in the palm, the nuthatch placed itself on his fingers and began to nibble the crumbs. With a shudder of pleasure the convalescent experienced how “the feeling of her small dry claws lingered on the skin of my fingertips while I returned to my sickbed.” This episode became the prelude to a daily routine which consisted of Björn getting up from the bed, opening the window, stretching out his hand and immediately becoming visited by the nuthatch, eating crumbs from the palm of his hand.


When Björn had recuperated and together with his two bassets resumed his daily walks, the nuthatch followed him, jumping from branch to branch. Eventually the bird demanded only cookie crumbs. If it turned out that Björn only had bread crumbs in his hand, she contemptuously threw them away with a jerk. Eventually, the nuthatch’s mate also appeared. He was interested in nut crumbs, but at first he did not dare to grab any from Björn’s outstretched hand, though he soon became as fearless as his wife.

Björn’s friendship with the two nuthatches and their children continued for nine years and in his book he described small episodes and reflections concerning the lives of these small birds, and what he assumed to be their way of thinking.



When I read books like those written and drawn by Brusewitz and von Rosen it happens that I envy avid bird watchers, for example my friend Magnus who had a house built for himself and his family in the southernmost Swedish beach town of Falsterbo, with an upper room filled with bird books next to a terrace from which he with his binoculars can watch the rich bird life. Forester as he is in service of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), Magnus has had ample opportunities to get acquainted with the bird life in different parts of the world, while I remain an incorrigible and ignorant amateur, who watch birds in books and through my computer.

It was not impressions from any small birds that made me write this blog post, but a recent visit I and Rose made to Abu Dhabi. Together with our friend Lupita, who had been living in the country for a few years, we paid a visit to the Zayed Heritage Center, a museum dedicated to Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan (1918-2004) Father of the Fatherland, who in Abu Dhabi is venerated with a devotion of saintly proportions. He was the main driving force behind the formation of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which in 1971 united seven emirates along the coast of the Persian Gulf. He became the Union’s first Ra'īs, President, a position that Sheikh Zayed kept for 33 years, from the founding of the UAE until his death in 2004.



In 1966, Sheikh Zayed deposed his brother Sheikh Shakhbut and thus became the undisputed ruler of Abu Dhabi. He had previously realized the importance of obtaining the full support of the people in exchange for improvements in their standard of living – jobs, fixed income, social safety nets, general health care, free and obligatory education for all. After the British withdrawal in 1967 (they had controlled the impoverished emirate since the early 19th century), Sheikh Zayed opened his country to a massive immigration of skilled workers, along with a clause in the constitution stipulating that an immigrant could apply for citizenship only after proving that he/she spoke fluent Arabic and had lived in the country for at least 30 years. However, Sheikh Zayed also stated that “guest workers”, apart from the right to vote and becoming involved in politics, would have the same rights and obligations as citizens of the Emirate.

Compulsory schooling for boys and girls was introduced, universities were founded, religious freedom was established, although state censorship of all media was maintained. Roads were built and public access to drinking water and health care was secured. In particular, Sheikh Zayed renegotiated the oil concession agreements, ensuring that Abu Dhabi obtained the lion share of revenues from all oil- and gas production, thus putting an end to the British monopoly on oil extraction, paving the way to the United Emirate’s enormous wealth. The UAE currently has an annual GDP of about 400 billion USD, a third of which comes from oil revenues, of which Abu Dhabi controls 94 percent.



When Sheikh Zayed in the mid-1960s gained total power over the country, Abu Dhabi had no paved roads, no hospitals, no schools (except for a few boys and men who attended a Qur'anic school, 98 percent of the population was illiterate). It was an even worse backwater than before since cultured pearls had put a stop to revenues from pearl fishing, which previously had been virtually the only source of the Emirate’s export revenue. Abu Dhabi’s capital consisted of a stone building that sometimes housed representatives of the British government and some huts gathered around Qasr Al Hosn, the Nahyan family’s Fortress/Palace.

I thought about this as I stood by the panoramic windows of Lupita’s and Dino’s apartment on the fifty-second floor of one of the impressive Ethiad Towers, enjoying a view of the azure-blue waters of the Persian Gulf. In a distant haze I discerned Qasr al Watan, the newly built Emirate Palace and site of the UAE Government, actually one of the most beautiful buildings I have ever visited. It was hard to believe that in just fifty years, this lavish, well-organized, extremely clean, and secure nation had risen from the sands of a dirt-poor Bedouin kingdom. After all, it was no wonder that the nation revered the unparalleled Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan.



We were the only visitors to the Zayed Museum. Its manager, a friendly, elderly man who had known the Emir personally, offered us tea and gave me a magnificent book about the archaeology of the Emirate. The museum was filled with all imaginable curiosities left from the Sheikh’s legacy. What fascinated me most was the amount of pictures and objects which bore witness to Sheikh Zayed’s immersive interest in falconry.


The main reason for my interest in this activity was that I had previously visited several of Frederick II's (1194-1250) castles and forts in southern Italy and thus had come to read something about his great passion for falconry. Another reason for my sporadic falconry interest emerged from the fact that when I more than ten years ago was working at the UNESCOs Department of Intangible Cultural Heritage a colleague of mine told me she was, among other things, working on an application for including falconry in the Organization’s Representative List of Humanity's Intangible

Cultural Heritage, an effort that finally became completely realised a year ago. She had asked me to write something about the gender aspects of the application and I then found that women had been intensely engaged in falconry, especially in the Far East and Central Asia, though it had also been a popular pastime among aristocratic ladies during the European Middle Ages.



We find, for example, falcon-hunting women in the so-called Tymouth Hours, an “Anglo-Norman” prayer book from the 1330s, in which each page is illustrated with everyday scenes, which generally has nothing at all to do with the text.



At UNESCO, I read a medieval poem by a writer who was active in Sicily by the end of the 13th century, now known as Nina the Sicilian, Nina from Messina, or Dante’s Nina. Her sonnets are recorded in a manuscript in the Vatican Library (Codex 3793) in which someone by the end of the 13th century copied 137 ”songs” and 670 sonnets. Several of these belong to the so-called Sicilian School of Poetry written in Italian and preceding the somewhat later Tuscan School, with giants like Petrarca and Dante.


Nina’s sonnets are included in the part of codex 3793 which their copyist described as written by ”unknown” authors (the free andclumsy translation below is mine):


 Tapina me che amava uno sparviero,         Alas, I who once loved a falcon,

Amaval tanto ch’io me ne moria                so much I could have died from love.

A lo richiamo ben m’era maniero,             When I called him, he was obedient.

Ed unque troppo pascer nol dovria            I fed him, not too much but enough.

Or è montato e salito sì altero;                  Now he has fled and reached

Assai più altero che far non solia;             heights I do not know,

Ed è assiso dentro a un verziero,               there he sits in a birdhouse,

E un’altra donna l’averà in balìa.             for by another woman.

Isparvier mio, ch’io t’avea nodrito;          Oh, my falcon, which I raised.

Sonaglio d’oro ti facea portare,                 I gave you golden bells to carry,

Perchè nell’uccellar fossi più ardito         so no bird would harm you.

Or sei salito siccome lo mare,                   You rebelled, like a stormy sea.

Ed hai rotto li geti e sei fuggito,               You destroyed your ropes, tore yourself free,

Quando eri fermo nel tuo uccellaro.         as soon as I had taught you how to hunt.




As with several other troubadour singers, and even contemporary Persian Sufi poets like Jalal al-din Rumi, Nina’s poetry is ambiguous in the sense that it describes earthly love against a religious backdrop. The poem’s ”other woman” could just as easily have been the Virgin Mary who received the deceased lover/falcon in her Paradise, as an earthly woman with whom the lover/falcon had forsaken the poetess.


Early records indicate that Nina was a young lady favoured by Frederick II’s mother, Costanza d’Altavilla, daughter of Sicily’s Norman ruler Ruggero II and married to his successor, the ruthless German-Roman emperor Henry IV of Hohenstaufen.

Costanza d’Altavilla died when Frederick was only five years old, though he grew up in the refined court environment created around his mother. Frederick was a rather skilled sonnet poet, who in his poetry praised the courtly love of his time. Although he wrote extensively on falconry, none among Frederick’s surviving poems does, like other Sicilian poets, mention falcons and falconry as symbols of love between man and woman. Falconry was in several Medieval, aristocratic circles considered to be the most perfect occupation of court life. For many men and women, it was an almost immersive passion, often sublimated in erotic depictions and verse.



This is evident, for example, in several illustrations of Codex Manesse, a Liederhandschrift (a manuscript of songs) compiled in 1304 for the wealthy Manesse family in Zurich. The manuscript contains works by 135 Minnesänger, German troubadours, each of whom is presented with one or more poems, exquisitely illustrated with 137 hand-painted miniatures.


The refinement and connection of falkener culture with eroticism is prominent in one of Decamarone’s short stories. This collection of tales, which in 1353 was published by Bocaccio in Florence, is not unique in the sense that a collection of more or less well-known fairy tales and legends is presented as if they had been told in a small, refined, aristocratic society, was a fairly standardised literary ploy. Decamarone’s fame is mainly linked to the elegance and stylish ease with which Bocaccaio tells his stories. This is evident in the introduction to the ninth story on the fifth day a spiritual company of aristocratic gentlemen and ladies are telling each other, after isolating themselves from the plague in Florence in a rural manor:


You are to know, then, that Coppo di Borghese Domenichi, who once used to live in our city and possibly still lives there, one of the most highly respected men of our century, a person worthy of eternal fame, who achieved his position of pre-eminence by dint of his character and abilities rather than by his noble lineage, frequently took pleasure during his reclining years in discussing incidents from the past with his neighbours and other folk. In this pastime he excelled all others, for he was more coherent, possessed a superior memory, and spoke with greater eloquence.



The story that Bocaccio puts in Borghese Domenichi’s mouth tells about the young, handsome and wealthy Federigo, who is engrossed by an all-consuming love for the “most beautiful and pleasant” lady in Florence; the chaste, high-minded Lady Giovanna, who unfortunately married to another man. For the sake of his love and to win Giovanna’s attention, Federigo wastes his wealth on exquisite spectacles, tournaments, Catholic masses and sumptuous dinners. However, Lady Giovanna, remains faithful to her husband and only devotes a distracted interest to Federigo and his activities. As a result, Federigo ruins himself and ends up living frugally in a small country house where he tries to turn his passion for Lady Giovanna into an immersive interest in falconry. The only wealth he has retained is a beautiful, perfectly trained gyrfalcon, which is admired by his entire neighbourhood.


When Lady Giovanna’s husband dies, she retreats to her deceased husband’s country estate, bordering Federigo’s plot of land. Her son is captivated by the neighbour’s falcon and follows him during his daily hunts. However, the youngster becomes seriously ill. When a despairing Lady Giovanna perceives how her son fades away day by day she asks what he possibly might assume would cure him from his distress. After several days of hesitation, he reveals that a wonderful gift might get him on the road to recovery. When Lady Giovanna urges her beloved son to mention such a gift, he answers “Federigo’s gyrfalcon”. Lady Giovanna, well aware of Federigo’s longing for her love, leaves for the forsaken lover’s cottage with the intention of persuading him to give her his falcon.

When Lady Giovanna arrives, in company with her refined ladies-in-waiting, the confused and overwhelmed Federigo tries imagine what sumptuous meal might through her stomach reach the coveted woman’s brain and win him Lady Giovanna’s loving attention. He spends his last pennies on a delicious dinner, but at first he does not have enough imagination to be able to figure out what he should present as an irresistible main course. It must be something wonderful, something almost beyond human imagination. He comes up with the thought that only a dish which in itself signifies, or even includes his great love and passion for Lady Giovanna might through her delight turn her tender passion towards him. His gaze falls on his pampered and well-fed falcon. Federigo twists the bird’s neck and lets his temporarily hired master chef prepare it.

And, miracle of miracles – the sumptuous meal makes Lady Giovanna mild-tempered and she looks gratefully, almost lovingly, at the deeply moved Federigo. Finally, she dares to tell her host that her son is dying, but that she imagines that he would recover if Federigo gave him his gyrfalcon as a gift. The desperate Federigo is forced to admit that they have just eaten the bird. Lady Giovanna becomes appalled when she realizes that all her hope for her son’s recovery is gone and he actually dies after a few days. Nevertheless, deep down in the depths of her heart, Lady Giovanna is greatly moved by Federigo’s desperate attempt to win her love and his sacrifice of the beloved gyrfalcon has indeed finally awakened her love for him. She marries Federigo who now becomes a wealthy man and when he has reached the goal of his fervent desire he also turns into an enterprising and frugal husband.



For centuries, even millennia, falconry has been both an immersive occupation and a source of prestige within sophisticated court circles around the world, possibly with the exception of ancient American civilizations, like those of the Mayas and Incas.

In China, there are a number of historical testimonies, in the form of literature, poems, paintings and porcelain. proving falconry’s great popularity within court culture.


Chinese falconry was inseparable from politics and power. Written documents dating back to 700 BCE bears witness to the importance of falconry. Especially during the Tang Era (618-907 CE), Falkener culture flourished and was highly esteemed among the Empire’s potentates – emperors mandarins and warlords. Here as well, there was a connection between eroticism and falcons, as in Chang Hsiao-p’iao’s poem from 826 CE:


The Lay of the Hungry Hawk

She imagines the plain afar

where the hares are plump just now:

She turns her horned bill a thousand times

and shakes her feather coat:

Just let her peck loose

this knot in her silken cord …!

But unless she got the call of man

she would not dare to fly.


The poem clearly alludes to women’s longing for freedom, which is, however, limited by the control their husbands has over their lives.



For centuries, Falkener culture continued to flourish at Chinese courts. Below are some falcon portraits of the versatile Jesuit Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766). He came from a wealthy Milanese family and when he joined the Jesuit order, Castiglione was already a skilled artist. At the age of twenty-eight, he was introduced to the Imperial Court in Beijing, where his art was much appreciated. Castiglione had soon learned Mandarin and adapted his Western painting technique to Chinese taste. Castiglione's hybrid art came to form school, especially through his magnificent animal representations




Falconry arrived from China to Korea around 200 CE and from there the tradition was passed on to Japan.


The first Japanese written evidence for falconry dates from the 6th century CE and soon a unique and sophisticated court culture had developed around falcons and hawks – Takagari. A tradition especially linked to the Shinto religion and often expressed in the hunting societies’ beautiful costumes and aesthetically pleasing paraphernalia. A specific, ritual falconry was cultivated within various “schools” such as Suwa-ryu and Yoshid-ryu, which cherished a solid knowledge of everything concerning birds of prey, both domesticated and wild, and , for both men and women a profound familiarity with falconry became a status symbol .



In India, falconry had been practised in aristocratic circles as early as 600 BCE, but it was not until the reign of the Mughals (1526-1858) that the sport developed into a passion among wealthy men and women.


Falcons and other birds of prey were not only symbols of a desire for freedom and eroticism, but also of ruthlessness and war. The screaming of falcons and hawks as they flew in front of attacking armies was a call for bloodshed and a search for glory on the battlefields. Already 220 BCE, the poet Sung Yü stated that autumn is a


season of desolation and blight,

the avenging angel,

riding upon an atmosphere of death.


However, a thousand years later, the warrior poet Lu Yu glorified autumn as a heroic time of falconry and commemoration of ancient Chinese victories over Tatar invaders:


Swift falcons leave the gauntlet with sturdy talons and beaks

and bold men fondle their swords with frenzied spirits.



There are many indications that falconry originated in Central Asia, among peoples called Huns, Mongols or Tatars. Among these peoples, falconry was practised more than 3,000 years ago and birds of prey are of great importance in Central Asian and Siberian shamanism.


Shamans are believed to be able to change their demeanour and use paraphernalia and costumes mimicking birds of prey and in trance widely around the world, even to realms unknown to us living people.



Among Mongolian khans, falconry achieved a high level of refinement and creativity. Mongolian falconers use several different species of birds of prey, including large and complicatedly trained birds, such as eagles. During their extensive military campaigns, Mongol armies used such to hunt for provisions and as a relaxation between battles. At the time of Marco Polo’s to Kublai Kahn’s court (1275-1292) there were 60 officials who only dealt with the management of the emperor’s hunting falcons, as well as 5,000 hunters and 10,000 fully employed falconers.



Being fierce conquerors many Mongols did probably not regard the peregrine falcons as images of freedom and love, but as bloodthirsty predators who fought in their service.



In the 1998 Disney film Mulan, the murderous leader of the invading Hun Army, Shan Yu, has a ruthless Tatar falcon, Shan-Yu, as his only trusted and perhaps even respected “friend”.


The obvious, almost passionate love that avid falconers show their falcons seems to reflect a great admiration for birds of prey’s ability to adapt to the nature surrounding them. These birdmen seem to nurtures a desire to see and experience the world through a falcon’s eyes and instinct. Among some of them, there may also be an exciting feeling of being able to engage, in an almost identical fashion, participate in the falcon’s hunt for prey, a fervent desire to gain some of its instinctive strength and ruthlessness, which has nevertheless been subjected to their human owners through training.

The author Terence Hanbury White (1906 - 1964) author of The Once and Future King, a skilfully retold King Arthur saga, was born in Bombay and had an unhappy childhood. His alcoholic and moody father was District Superintendent of Police, while his mother was an emotionally chilled lady. The couple soon divorced and the young White was sent to an English boarding school where his emotional misery continued unabated.

As an adult, White fought against his homosexuality and other sexual tendencies. He wrote:


All I can do is behave like a gentleman. It has been my hideous fate to be born with an infinite capacity for love and joy with no hope of using them.



An acquaintance stated that T.H. White: “did not fear God but was fundamentally afraid of humanity”. In 1946, White settled on the canal island of Alderney and became increasingly alcoholic over time. It was at Alderney that he wrote the book The Goshawk, which is about how the young White after reading the lines in an old book about falconry “and the bird returned to its wild state”, became obsessed with the idea that maybe he too could be transformed to "a free savage". He got a pigeon hawk from Germany. The bird was “cruel and free”. White came to the conclusion that the only way to tame the hawk would be to deprive it of sleep, which resulted in White also came to suffer from insomnia. According to him, man and bird ended up in a common state of delirium, attraction and repulsion. It could be likened to a love affair. White never managed to tame his hawk, nevertheless he found that there was a connection between humans and animals that could be both liberating and painful.


An immersive passion for falcons, and especially valuable gyrfalcons, seems to be particularly alive in Abu Dhabi, something that not only the Sheikh Zayed Museum bore witness to, but also the emirate's eminent falcon hospital.



A place where sick and injured falcons receive excellent care in operating theatres and individual air-conditioned rooms, with place for more than the 200 falcons, which are cared for there, in addition to the 11,000 birds of prey visiting the hospital each year. The hospital’s German manager, Margit Müller, explains:


Falcons are fascinating, each has its own special, independent character, the way they express themselves is completely unique, almost magical. In Arab culture, they are not considered pets, but are rather considered to be family members who should be raised and cared for as such. They live with the family, have their own seat in the living room and many even sleep in their owners’ bedrooms.



The Falcon Hospital also evaluates falcons and hawks on the basis of their strength and health. The judgement of medical falcon authorities is of great importance in a country where falcons are an exclusive status symbol. Gyrfalcons (Falco rusticolus) are the largest falcon species and their natural habitat is mountains and tundra. The Icelandic gyrfalcon is considered to be especially valuable. The large island occasionally went by the name Falcon Island and the white gyrfalcon can be seen on the top left of the Icelandic Republic’s coat of arms.


The white gyrfalcon is the most expensive falcon variant. A thoroughbred gyrfalcon can be worth more than 150,000 USD. In November 2021, the young gyrfalcon Shaheen was in Libya sold for 450,000 USD.


Valuable falcons are tenderly cared for by their wealthy owners and several of them even take their falcons on air travels, especially when it comes to introducing them to a particular game. Above all, a kind of desert birds called Houbara Bustard (Chlamydotis undulata). Theses are nomadic birds moving around arid areas in North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, being rare in most parts they are especially numerous in Afghanistan.



The presence of houbaras in that country was leading to a near catastrophe for the Emirates’ wealthy sheikhs, several of whom, especially Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Kalifa bin Zayid and Dubai’s Sheik Makhtoum, who along with other gyrfalcon aficionados each year are travelling travel to the houbara hunting ground in southern Afghanistan. border areas to Pakistan. Bin Laden used to haunt this particular areas and since he had grown up in Saudi Arabia’s Bedouin tradition and he was also a falcon aficionado.



In late February and early March, houbaras gather in hard-to-reach, arid areas south of Kandahār. During the hunting season, and perhaps they still do, wealthy sheikhs of the Arabian Peninsula flew with their falcons into Afghanistan’s relatively houbara-dense areas and set up luxurious tent camps there. In February 1999, the CIA’s Bin Laden Tracking Team announced that satellite images had convinced them that their most-wanted terrorist was moving around the falconers’ tent villages and was possibly even hunting together with the sheikhs. Gary Schroen, CIA’s site manager in Riyadh and leader of CIA’s Near East Division, recommended that the entire tent city should be bombed:


Let's just blow everything up. And if we kill bin Laden, and five sheikhs in the strike, I'm sorry. But, what do they have to do with bin Laden? He’s a terrorist. If you lie down with the dog, you wake up with fleas.




It was extremely close that the UAE Sheikhs became victims of their falconry passion. However, at the last minute Richard Clarke, National Coordinator for Security, Infrastructure Protection and Combating Terrorism, advised against the attack. Clarke was closely acquainted with the UAE’s powerful emirate families, especially the Abu Dhabi Nahayan clan, and he was well aware that the UAE’s ports, oil and gas were essential to U.S. warfare. Clarke could thus easily overlook the fact that falconry blinded its practitioners to such a degree that they did not care if skilled participants in their hunting teams were terrorists. It was hunting and not politics that mattered, at least during the limited time when houbaras gathered in Kandahār's desert regions.


All those who had lived with Arabs upholding ancient Bedouin traditions knew how important Falcons could to them, especially among wealthy and powerful men. Abdelrahman Munif, a Jordanian-born Saudi who worked in the Middle East oil industry, wrote a fascinating five-part story about how oil had changed life on the Arabian Peninsula, corrupting its leaders through luxury and abundance. It is an extensive work in which each volume contains more than six hundred pages. Only the first two parts of Munif’s Cities of Salt have been translated into English.

It’s a fascinating read. The story progresses at a calm, patient pace, almost providing the reader with a feeling that he/she is travelling through the desert on a patient, arduous camel. Munif’s stories are filled with a peculiar symbolism. They have no heroes, thougfh thousands of characters and names pass by, creating a dense web of voices and legends, this while modernity relentlessly changes and transforms everything. Munif declares that ancient traditions have been falsified to such an extent that they now can be used as a defence of totalitarianism, corruption and subtle oppression. His novels are banned in Saudi Arabia, but available in the UAE.



An episode in the first novel tells about how an emir arrives at the fictional port city of Harran. He is disapproved of by the city’s Arab population, while the oil-exploring Americans and cunning, local businessmen swarm around him. The emir claimed that he had come to the city to do justice and implement law and order, though it soon became apparent that he primarily wanted to enrich himself by conspiring with the Americans and he only distractedly listened to wishes and demands coming from the urban population.

Dabbasi, the city's most crafty merchant, gained a reputation for being a devil since he knew how to manipulate the Emir:


because from the minute he started talking about hunting, the emir underwent a total transformation—when he listened to Dabbasi’s stories, he became like a small child and asked him to sit down by his side.



Dabbasi had observed how several of the emir’s men kept pet falcons on their wrists and lovingly caressed and talked to them while the emir sat uninterested judging the people of Harran. Dabassi had then in a loud voice suddenly declared that the areas around Harran were well known for their houbaras, which appeared during the winter months. The emir’s face lit up and he became extremely attentive to everything Dabassi said about falconry. When Dabbasi had captured the emir’s interest, he was able to convince him that it was good politics to listen to the locals before he negotiated with the Americans. “Truth is truth and the natives are closer to us than the strangers” stated the emir before he once again turned to Dabassi and with him immersed himself in conversations about houbaras and gyrfalcons. When the emir finally took farewell, it was from a benevolent urban population and when he had mounted his camel he turned to Dabbasi with the words: “When winter comes and it is as harshest, then I will come back and we ride in search of all the hunting grounds you mentioned. ”

Sir Wilfred Patrick Thesiger (1910-2003) was born in Addis Ababa as the son of the British Consul General. At the age of eighteen, he was sent to England and educated at Eton and Oxford, where he mainly studied history. In 1930, he was invited to Ethiopia by his father’s friend Haile Selaisse. On the Ethiopian Emperor’s behalf, Thesiger made several research expeditions. During World War II, Thesiger commanded Ethiopian forces fighting the Italians, as well as Druze military units fighting the Vichy regime in Syria. After the war, Thesiger was active in the fight against migratory grasshoppers on the Arabian Peninsula and lived with the Bedouins he followed on their migrations through the vast desert area of Rub al-Khali – the Empty Quarter.



In his book Arabian Sands from 1959, Thesiger describes a timeless area with people who lived the way they had done for thousands of years. He participates in raids against hostile Bedouins, is hunted and captured by bandits, his travelling companions are threatened with blood revenge, slave hunters are in pursuit of lonely wanderers. Thesiger encounters hospitable sheikhs, revered by their subordinates while they surround themselves with harems, slaves, valuable camels and gyrfalcons.

Thesiger wrote that he his craving for adventure had been established during his Ethiopian youth. In his old age he wrote how overwhelmed he once had been while watching tribal warriors returning from battle:


I had been reading Tales from the Iliad. Now, in boyish fancy, I watched the likes of Achilles, Ajax and Ulysses pass in triumph with aged Priam, proud even in defeat. I believe that day implanted in me a life-long craving for barbaric splendour, for savagery and colour and the throb of drums.



After crossing Rub al-Khali, Thesiger reached in 1948 the village of Muwaiqih in the oasis of Buraimi, the domain of Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. He looked forward to meeting this sheikh, who was much talked about among the Bedouins, who appreciated him for his open, informal manner, steadfast character, cunning and physical strength:


Zayed is a Bedouin. He knows camels and rides like one of us, he is a good marksman and knows how to fight.


When Thesiger asked for the sheikh, he was told that it was a good idea to talk to him when "he is sitting", i.e. when he was heading a majlis, legislative council or assembly. Thesiger found the sheikh as he simple, traditionally dressed and barefoot sat directly on the sand, surrounded by thirty men. When he saw Thesiger approaching, Sheikh Zayed got up and invited the Englishman to sit down on a rug in front of him, while he respectfully sat down on the sand again.

He had a strong, intelligent face, with steady, observant eyes, and his manner was quiet but masterful. He was distinguished from his companions by his black head-rope, and the way he wore his head-cloth, falling about his shoulders instead of twisted round his head in the local manner. He wore a dagger and cartridge-belt; his rifle lay on the sand beside him.


Thesiger and Sheikh Zayed became good friends. He lent the Englishman his famous white camel Ghazala. Thesiger returned to Muwaiqih on several occasions and stayed there for extended periods. On one occasion, he followed Sheikh Zayed and his men during a several-week long hunting expedition, when Zayed displayed his great familiarity with all the intricate elements of falconry. He explained to Thesiger that hunting with falcons is the noblest sport in existence, since an experienced falconer feels united with his falcon. He sees and thinks like the hunting bird. This is a completely different feeling than aiming at an animal and shooting it down with a rifle. Just as Dr. Müller at the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital Thesiger got he feeling that an avid falconer considered his favourite falcon almost as a family member. Falconers slept with their falcons perched by their beds, and when Zayed’s men sat talking with Thesiger, they had often brought their falcons along with them, caressing and whispering to the birds.



When Thesiger in 1977 met Sheikh Zayed for the last time, he had become one of the richest men in the world, but according to Thesiger Zayed constituted to be just as respectful and politely accommodating as he had been thirty-five years earlier. Although he now lived in a palace, Zayed was still surrounded by his falcons and as often he could tried to ride out for falconering in the desert.

As was the case for Sheikh Zayed, Frederick II of Hohenstaufen's falconry was the result of a centuries-old tradition. His Norman Viking ancestors had been avid falconers, something that several runestones bear witness to, for example the Norwegian Alsted Stone.



At the Böksta Stone close to Swedish Uppsala, we discern how a mounted hunter, followed by a man on skis, kills a moose attacked by his dogs and falcons. On top of the stne is a depiction of a hawk with mmenasing claws.


This depiction makes me think of the Swedish landscape Jämtland’s strange coat of arms, based on a seal created in 1635 by order of the Danish king Christian IV, though the difficult-to-interpret motif may be much older than that. I wonder if the coat of arms might be related to the picture on the Böksta Stone, which is said to be a representation of the ski- and hunting god Ull, whom the Danish chronicler Saxo Grammaticus (1160-1206 CE) is telling us about.


In Nordic myths and legends, there were plenty of birds of prey. The Danish king Rolf Krake is said to have had a hunting hawk named Hábrók, who during a battle near Uppsala is said to have killed no less than thirty of the Swedish king Adil the Mighty’s hunting birds. Like Normans and Mongols, the Vikings thus seem to have brought their falcons with them in battle, as well as in everyday life.


The Norwegian king and later canonized Olav Tryggvason, who by the way was born in Kyiv and there converted to Christianity under Valdemar I, is said to have had a violent temper. He angrily grabbed his sister Astrid’s beloved hunting hawk and plucked the feathers from it after Astrid had refused helping him to propose to a woman who would allow him to enter into an alliance with one of his many enemies.

However, the Russian icon below does not depict Saint Olav, but the saint Tryphon, whose name means "softness/sensitivity". In Orthodox Christianity, Tryphon is worshipped as a protector of birds and prayers are directed to him asking for protection against attacks by rodents and grasshoppers. Before he became a saint in the 200s, Tryphon took care of geese in the Phrygian town Kampsade, but when the Viking Valdemar I introduced his cult in Kyiv, he became a protector of falconers and carries a merlin.



Incidentally, in Nordic legends, hunting hawks are mentioned more often than falcons, which were used more by Normans and Russian Vikings. This was because the more expensive and better-regarded falcons hunted in the open, while in the deep Scandinavian forests, hawks were much more skilled hunters. It is mentioned that the northerners also used owls as hunting birds.

King Gautrek of Västergötland always had his hunting hawk with him and when his beloved wife died, he left the throne to his son and sat mourning on her burial mound, while the hawk brought him food.

Birds of prey are often found in Viking graves, with both deceased men and women. These animals were probably their beloved hunting birds, but the practice to bury them with their masters might also have had a religious significance. In Norse mythology, birds serve as messengers and link humans with different worlds, not least the realms of life and with those of death. Famous are the ravens of the Norse god of death and wisdom, Odin – Hugin and Munin, who carried him messages from all over the world and whispered in his ears. Hugin means “thought” and Munin “memory”.



These two ravens also had a sinister aspect in connection with the fact that they were scavengers and thus also connected to Odin’s role as a feared god of death. The Icelandic poet Torbjörn Hornklof wrote in a poem to the Norwegian king Harald Hårfagre:


Croaking ravens, say,

whence have you come,

with bloodied beaks,

early in the morning?

Flesh stick to claws.

From throats –

foul cadaver stench.

This night you alighted

within a harvest of corpses.



On top of the crown of the world tree Yggdrasil sits the eagle Hreasvelgr, the Corpse Devourer, by flapping his wings he brings deadly tempests. Like Odin, Hreasvelgr has his trusted messenger and informant, the hawk Väderfölne, who rests upon his head.



Hreasvelgr has a twin, the eagle Are, who on behalf of the goddess of the Abyss of the Dead, Hel, picks up those who have been sentenced to death by the Thing, governing assembly among the Vikings, and brings them down to down to the excruciation pits in Helheim.

Birds know and see more than humans, something the hero Sigurd Fafnersbane experienced when, after killing the dragon Fafner and on the advice of Fafner's treacherous brother Regin, was frying Fafner’s heart in open fire. Regin wanted to eat the heart as a reward for helping Sigurd to kill Fafner. However, when Sigurd with his index finger touched the fried surface of the heart and then put it in his mouth to taste, he heard sparrows chirping in a bush


– Sigurd is sitting there frying Fafner’s heart. If he were to eat it himself, he would be the wisest of all humans.



The quest to become one with the birds, and especially with the falcon, this amazingly skilled hunter, is something that has crossed the mind of several men and women who have breeding and training hawks and falcons. The Vikings brought their hawks and falcons across, bringing them with them on travels to Russia, Ireland, England and Normandy and if they seettled there they continued with their falconry.


Wilhelm the Conqueror was an avid falconer and on the Bayeaux tapestry, which tells of the Norman conquest of England, several falcons and hawks are depicted. The descendants of the Normans carried their falcons further on to Sicily and the birds also accompanied them on their crusades. In the Outremer, the Crusader States, the Norman aristocrats for certain encountered like-minded Muslim potentates who just as them were avid Falconers, and they they did exchange their interests and experiences.


The Norman-German emperor Frederick II of Hohenstaufen claims in his sumptuous book De arte venandi cum avibus, On the art of hunting with birds, that falconry is the most refined sport in existence. It is a way to get to know and become one with nature, a spiritual exercise that also is a form of meditation, an art-form and a science. The traditional hunting with weapons and dogs appeared to Frederick as brutal and tumultuous, falconry, on the other hand, was based on a subtle interplay between bird and hunter creating a relationship between man and nature, reaching its most exquisite dignity in the falconer’s art, where he, his horse and dogs all become subordinates to the noble falcon.



For Frederick his admiration of birds of prey almost becomes a symbol of Cosmos, a powerful life force emanating from an unaltered, unbound nature. He regards birds of prey as aristocratic beings associating them with earthly rulers, almighty princes like himself – the German-Roman Emperor, the most powerful ruler of of this world.


Such thought reminds of the role of the falcon in ancient Egypt. There the falcon god Horus, the son of Osiris, was the maintainer of universal order. His all-percieving eyes were likened to the life-giving sun and the time-controlling moon. Horus was intimately connected with the Pharaoh, the earthly ruler as guarantor of cosmic and accordingly also human order. The eye of Horus became the symbol of all Egypt, of the life-giving Nile, of an orderly Cosmos, of the annual Nile floods, of rain and budding fertility. Horus appeared in symbiosis with Pharaoh and was thus identified with him, while the falcon god acted as the ruler's divine protector, a guarantor that he was under the protection of the Cosmos. A way of thinking which seems to fit well with the Christian notion of Jesus Christ, who is simultaneously regarded as God the Father and his Son, heavenly maintainer of justice and order, a protection against evil and the forces of chaos.



Frederick could in many ways be likened to a pharaoh. Like such a ruler, he lived in harmony with nature. Pharaoh ruled over nature in the form of his control of the Nile’s annual floods, which under his supervision were regulated by organized work and constructions of dams and canals, while he, in his own glory and power, as well as Cosmo’s guarantor built temples for the gods and palaces to himself. Frederick was also an observer of nature's changes, and as one of the world’s first environmental conservationists he set aside large tracts of land, which were to be protected and left untouched for the benefit of wildlife. An initiative that may be linked to his immersive interest in falconry. Frederick wanted to preserve natural areas so that the birds of prey could thrive and multiply.


Likewise, several of his magnificent buildings can be linked to his interest in falconry. I became fascinated by Frederick when I several years ago visited his Castel del Monte. On a hill with views in all directions of the surrounding landscape, shining white against a clear blue sky. A perfect octagon with eight towers, even those with eight sides. Harmoniously and majestically the castle dominates its surroundings. Like a huge imperial crown, it is set on top of a flourishing hill, a symbol of the emperor’s power and control over his reign. However, Castel del Monte is actually neither a castle, nor a palace. It lacks a moat and a drawbridge. In fact, it is an oversized hunting lodge, from which towers Frederick was able to observe the flight of birds of prey and release his own hunting falcons.


Frederick II was in many ways a strange man. In his basic book The History of Biology, which was published between 1920-1924 and translated into a variety of languages, the Swedish botanist Erik Nordenskiöld concisely summarized Frederick’s personality and contribution to biology, which he considered to have been of great importance for ornithology as a science:


Italian in his upbringing, semi-oriental in his habits and way of thinking, he gathered around him learned men from both East and West. He had Aristotle’s writings translated from Greek into Latin. Fredrik’s writing about falconry is so much more than just an account of hunting, it is a comprehensive account of birds' anatomy and habits.



The remarkable Frederick II, who during his lifetime was called Stupro mundi et innovator, Miracle of the World and Innovator, was during his fifty-six years of life almost incomprehensibly active in a number of areas. His many and varied achievements were far from being limited to falconry and his learned observations of and explanations about the life of birds. Frederick’s political career was characterised by disputes over his German, Italian, and Oriental claims, and was marked by constant sieges, battles, and crusades, born out of endless intrigues of a religious, social, and geographical nature. Particularly prominent were his ideological and political clashes with the pope. Frederick could be likened to a storm-carried bird of prey flying above the centre of Europe and the the Levant.


Judged by a modern yardstick, he was also a frivolous pleasure seeker, unfaithful and tolerant, with a vast amount of concubines who in his palace in Lucera, in accordance with oriental custom, were kept in seclusion and supervised by eunuchs.



He wrote about and studied mathematics, architecture, natural sciences and philosophy, reading and speaking Latin, Italian, German, Arabic, French and Greek. One of his special interests and expertise was medicine and he reformed the ancient medical school in Salerno, while he decreed that all medical doctors had to be examined and registered. In 1224, he founded the University of Naples, the first in Europe with established statutes and curricula. Music and literature flourished at his court and together with Muslim and Jewish sages he explored the mysteries of nature, not least through autopsies of humans and animals. His sceptical, practical and inquisitive character was formulated in one of his mottos Ea que sunt, sicut sunt, that which is, is as it is, a critique of theological hair-splitting. He was engrossed in nature studies. As soon as time was given him away from all the political struggles, wars and intrigues, he sought out nature.


In Ferderick's bird book De Arte Venandi Cum Avibus, there is a random picture of a man who has taken off his clothes and swim in a lake, or pond. Maybe a portrayal of Frederick himself. How he relaxes from all his worries and striving. The picture makes me think of a picture of Noman Rockwell showing how on a hot summer day travelling salesman has left his car to take a refreshing dip in a river.


Frederick intensively studied the behaviour of animals in the wild, as well as in captivity. He owned a large exotic menagerie with elephants, lions, cheetahs, dromedaries, camels, monkeys, a variety of birds of prey and most amazing of all – a giraffe, a white peacock and a polar bear. During his numerous travels Frederick often brought with him, as in a circus entourage, animals from his zoo. Of course, since it amused him to deal with the animals, but also to attract and impress other potentates. It happened that he passed through towns and villages, exposing his exotic beasts animals as if they were part of a circus spectacle.



The giraffe was a great success throughout Europe, while the white peacock and polar bear impressed the Muslim potentates he negotiated with in Palestine – he managed without bloodshed to guarantee that the holy sites were reopened to Christians and he became, with the consent of the Muslims, in any case of their temporary rulers, King of Jerusalem. He obtained his giraffe from the Caliph of Cairo, in exchange for his polar bear.

A great admiration for Frederick lives on, especially in southern Italy where he is hailed as the First European. However, this enthusiasm for the German-Roman emperor is not shared by the modern of the crusade chronicler, Steven Runciman, who wrote:


His was a handsome man, not tall but well-built, though early inclined to fatness. His hair, the red hair of the Hohenstaufen, was receding early. His features were regular with a full, rather sensual mouth and an expression that seemed kindly till you noticed his cold green eyes, whose piercing glanced disguised their short-sightedness. […] He was well versed in philosophy, in the sciences, in medicine, in natural history, and well informed about other countries. His conversation, when he chose, was fascinating. But for all his brilliance, he was not likeable. He was cruel, selfish, and sly, unreliable as a friend and unforgiving as an enemy. His indulgence in erotic pleasure of every sort shocked even even the easy standards of Outremer [the Middle Eastern crusader states]. He loved to outrage contemporaries by scandalous comments on religion and morals. […] He saw no harm in taking interest in other religions, especially Islam, with which he had been in touch with all his life. Yet no ruler persecuted more savagely such Christian heretics as the Cathars and their kin.



Behind everything and everywhere was falconry, during Frederick’s travels, his conversations and wars. At one point, a siege ended in disaster as Frederick and his entourage left their camp under inadequate surveillance after embarking on falconry. The enemy broke the siege and destroyed Frederick’s camp. During his free time, Frederick studied the birds and wrote on his De Arte Venandi Cum Avibus, read the works of Arabic falconers and discussed their findings with the Muslim scholars he had in his service, it is possible that he also drew the book’s unique illustrations because he was also known as a knowledgeable artist.


Although the bird reproductions are far from being as detailed and realistic as those of Rudbeck, Audobon and the von Wright brothers, they have a decorative and unique charm.

It is far from only falcons and hawks that Frederick described and depicted.



He also presented the people who cared for and trained the falcons.


He described how the hunt was carried out and how the riders leave their castles at dawn. It was mainly falconry on horseback that fascinated Frederick.


The German-Roman emperor did through his interest in falconry probably strive for a sense of liberation within his multifaceted existence. It is possible that he, like several other bird fans, identified with his hunting falcons – dreamed of becoming like a falcon. Someone who definitely seemed to wish for this was the solitary, myopic and singular John Alec Baker (1926-1987). It may seem that this man was the exact opposite of the powerful, well-known and admired Frederick II of Hohenstaufen – a fairly anonymous clerk at The Automobile Association's, AA’s local branch in Chelmsford, the capital of Essex County, north-east of London. AA provides vehicle insurance, driving lessons, crash protection, loans, car advice, and road maps. J.A. Baker lacked a driver's license, he did not even have a TV in the frugal home he shared with his wife Doreen in central Chelmsford. Doreen also worked at AA. The couple was childless and John Alec remained in Chelmsford all his life. Even his wife described him as “something of a hermit”.


But, there was something that united John Alec Baker with Frederick II of Hohenstaufen and Sheikh Sayed of Abu Dhabi – the falcons. This despite the fact that he never owned or tried to tame a bird of prey. Like Frederick II, Baker obviously wanted to be one with nature and with great patience he approached the peregrine falcons he was fascinated by. According to him, the peregrin regarded all other beings as threatening, as prey, or even harmless. It was especially difficult for a human being to appear as an inoffensive being, because to the animals we appear as killer “stinking of death. We carry it with us. It covers us like frost. We cannot tear ourselves away from it.”



It was important to approach the extremely astute peregrine falcon as quietly and unnoticed as possible:


To be recognised and accepted by a peregrine you must wear the same clothes, travel by the same way, perform actions in the same order. Like all birds, it fears the unpredictable. Enter and leave the same fields at the same time each day, soothe the hawk from its wildness by a ritual of behaviour as invariable as its own. Hood the glare of the eyes, hide the white tremor of the hands, shade the stark reflecting face, assume the stillness of a tree.


Baker wanted to be as close to the peregrine falcon as possible. He had no desire to own it, to master it. It seems that he instead wanted the falcon to dominate him, almost like an unrequited love, a passion. Baker enjoyed and was tormented by this hopeless love, bound as he was to an awkward, unsuitable human body. A spectator who tried to think like a falcon, to be like a bird of prey, but utterly unable to leave his human body behind, to deny his essence as a human being, his human distinctiveness. It is not possible to fly, to see, to feed like a falcon. Baker seems to have avoided human company, aware of his extreme myopia and a clumsiness which was exacerbated by an inexorably aggravated rheumatoid arthritis. During his childhood he had been ill and as a teenager he was after a nervous breakdown admitted to a hospital for three months, the result of an unfortunate love story.

As often as he could, the extremely myopic John Alec walked, or cycled, out into the fields east of Chelmsford. Along the lush banks of the river Chelmer, he reached Essex’s fertile and gently undulating agricultural landscape, sloping towards the mouth of the Blackwater River, by the shores of the North Sea.



With great patience and sharp observation, John Alec followed the bird life through his binoculars. By correcting his unfortunate myopia the binoculars endowed him with something resembling a “falcon’s vigilance”.

In open fields and swamps John Alec thoroughly studied the peregrine falcon’s patient watchfulness, its flight, its habits, its hunting, bathing, and mating. In his book, like Brusewitz and Lord Grey, John Alec meticulously recorded the changes of nature, the shifts and light of the days and especially the dawn; the weather, the wildlife, the scents and the plants. As a common thread through his dynamic and occasionally metaphorically exaggerated depictions, which largely follows day after day from October 1962 to April 1963, there is the constant presence of the peregrine and John Alec’s almost total identification with the bird.


In detail he describes the peregrine’s hunting behaviour. Investigating remains of its prey, which condition he carefully records, in detail describing how the peregrine had torn its victim to pieces and what parts of its flesh it has devoured. John Alec described a world where the existence of birds of prey is characterized by various forms of killing. His accounts are almost completely free from the propensity for a humanization of animal behaviour that often accompanies romantic depictions of nature.


In fact, J.A. Baker’s ten years of diligent study of the peregrine falcon is a thorough, though not entirely accurate, distillation of what takes place during an autumn and winter during which he realized his intention to study the peregrine as detailed as a lone human being was capable of:


Wherever he goes, this winter, I will follow him. I will share the fear, and the exaltation, and the boredom, of the hunting life. I will follow him till my predatory human shape no longer darkens in terror the shaken kaleidoscope of colour that stains the deep fovea of his brilliant eye. My pagan head shall sink into the winter land, and there be purified.


Fovea is a depression in the retina of the eye’s centred vision. In a peregrine falcon, the fovea is much more developed and effective than in humans. J.A. Baker’s (it's typical of John Alec to hide behind the initials J.A.) the mentioning of the fovea is symptomatic of his detailed descriptions. It might seem to be tiring and too cumbersome for someone who has not personally experienced the subtle shifts of nature, but for such a person Baker’s writing style might have an almost hypnotic effect.

In his strange book, John Alec hardly says anything about himself, other than his observations of landscapes and birds, his concern about human’s reckless damage to nature and their guilt for the extinction of peregrine falcons. Occasionally there something that may be described as anxiety, even contempt,occurs while Baker fumes about human’s damaging encroachment on nature. John Alec’s longing to become a peregrine falcon often returns in text:


I shut my eyes and tried to crystallise my will into the light-drenched prism of the hawk’s mind. Warm and firm-footed in long grass smelling of the sun, I sank into the skin and bones of the hawk […] like the hawk I heard and hated the sound of man, that faceless horror of the stony places. I stifled in the same filthy sack of fear.



Such a longing to become a bird has often been described in literature and film. While teaching at the International School in Hanoi for a time, one of my colleagues was Camille Du Aime, a large American lady who grew up on a riverboat on the Seine in Paris:


It was a rather miserable and leaky boat. I cannot say I enjoyed it. My parents were bohemian and while I was with them my father tried to make a living as an artist. He had traumas after his participation in World War II and tried through his art to drive away his demons. It was only at long last he found his right element in writing novels. He became rich and famous, but then it was too late for me.



Camille's father, Albert William Du Aime (1925–2008), wrote under the pseudonym William Wharton and Birdy, his first novel, written when he was over fifty, became an instant success and like his following novels Dad and A Midnight ClearBirdy became a critically acclaimed film (Wharton published more than ten books).

Birdy deals with a sensitive, somewhat neurotic young man who dreams of being free as a bird. Typical of his behaviour is when, after a clumsy and unsuccessful act of love with a beautiful girl, he returns home to a birdhouse he had built in his room and lying naked there imagines how he flies around in his room, through the house and out into the world.

After being summoned to the war in Vietnam, Birdy is wounded in the face and then suffers a severe trauma, is admitted to an asylum where he, through his bird fantasies, builds a mental wall around himself. A wall that not only excludes him from painful war memories, but also from all dealings with other humans and a normal life.



The talented film director Alan Parker, who made the film Birdy in 1984, called Wharton’s book a “wonderful story” and initially wrestled with how to portray it:


I did not know how I could take the lyrical tone of the book and turn it into cinematic poetry, or if an audience really wanted to see such a work.


At the 1985 Cannes Film Festival, Parker's film won the Grand Prix Spécial du Jury.


Birdy and several other works, both novels and scientific accounts,


as well as films, describe human affinity to birds, and especially falcons and hawks.



Alejandro Iñárritu’s multi-faceted film Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) has, through its ability to connect realism with an inner drama affecting reality and thus reshaping it, has by some critics been considered as a successful attempt to transfer Latin American magical realism into film. Iñárritu’s movies has furtermore been compared to Fellini’s 8 ½ since it depicts the world of an artist/director, both from the outside and from within, and how a writers’ block is transformed into successful art.

Iñárritu explained:


What this film talks about, I have been through. I have seen and experienced all of it; it’s what I have been living through the last years of my life.


To me, Birdman reflects quite a lot of what I have been writing about in this blog entry. For example, how it, like António Lobo Antunes Explain the Birds to Me realistically depicts a confused individual’s struggle with himself and his past life, all against a background of the birds’ inexplicable beauty, beautiful song and “freedom”, which nevertheless is entirely driven by instinct. In the case of Birdman this is about the actor Riggan Thomson’s struggle to break out of the cage created by his role as the superhero Birdman. A story marked by a similar insoluble conflict as the one of John Alec Barker who desired to become a peregrine falcon. A desire/illusion that finds its outlet in creation. In Barker's case it became a book, by Riggan Thomson a realistic play with him in the leading role, with Alejandro Iñárritu – a film.


In general, these works revolve around obsessions and border areas between fantasy and reality. Barry Hines’ (1939-2016) novel A Kestrel for a Knave, is however an entirely realistic novel set in the mid-sixties in a greyish mining town located in Yorkshire. The novel's strange title, A Kestrel for a Knight, emanates from a list in a manuscript from the mid-15th century, The Booke of Hawkyng by Prince Edwarde Kyng of England:


An Eagle for an Emperor, a Gyrfalcon for a King; a Peregrine for a Prince, a Saker for a Knight, a Merlin for a Lady; a Goshawk for a Yeoman, a Sparrowhawk for a Priest, a Musket for a Holy Water Clerk, a Kestrel for a Knave.



The novel depicts an obstinate fifteen-year-old, Billy Kasper, who will soon leave secondary education and enter working life. He comes from a poor, fragmented home with an easy-going, vulgar mother and a brutal half-brother, who works down in the mine shafts; in his spare time a woman chaser, drunkard and gambler who regularly beats up his little brother. Billy has a past as a punished member of a criminal boy gang, which now haunts him. School is a nuisance and least of all Billy Kasper wants to go down the pit, working in the mines. He is only happy when he wanders around in the nature surround the gloomy mining town.



Billy is a sensitive and attentive boy, who against all odds has managed to preserve his joy and self-respect. During one night, he climbs, while endangering his life, up the wall of a ruined monastery and steals a kestrel chicken. With the help of a book he stole in a book store, Billy trains the bird to become a skilled hunting hawk. Kes, as he calls his kestrel, becomes for Billy an escape from his miserably circumvented and shabby existence. Through his patient training of Kes and his liberating hunt with his bird of prey, Billy’s self-confidence is strengthened, though he remains a stranger within the biased and vapid society that surrounds him.

It is a deeply moving and masterfully told novel which, given my past as a teacher, made quite an impression on me. The soul-destroying teaching, with its punishments and total failure to find the goodness, strength, willpower and search for security within an impoverished, bullied and abused boy, might torment any teacher with a love for his/her calling and obsessed by the joy of teaching.


A skilfully portrayed episode is when Billy Kasper is by an empathetic teacher convinced to enthusiastically tell the class about his falconry. After embarrassment and hesitation, Billy is seized by his subject and thus enchants the entire class, impressing the teacher who eventually seeks out Billy as he hunts with his falcon in the fields outside the town. The teacher realises that his student is a unique person, whose interest has opened up the world to him and might be a means to leave the boredom and bullying in a mining town immersed in bleak hopelessness, insecurity and poverty.

A Kestrel for a Knave contains both humour and joy, but it is nevertheless deeply tragic in its depiction of how a basically good and imaginative boy is constantly threatened with suffocation, enclosed as he is by a brutal and incomprehensible environment.



And now back to the introduction: “Some people like to watch birds pecking in swamps. But, we like cinema!” For me it is a truth with modification – of course I like to watch movies, but as my blog post hopefully has indicated, despite my ignorance of the subject, I am also fascinated by bird watching – the respectful observation of these strange creatures. The birds that give life and meaning to our existence.

I recently read
 A Kestrel for Knave and it was my admiration for that novel that led me to my thoughts about birds. That I once bought the novel was because I in 1970 had watched Ken Loach’s Kes - the Falcon, at the cinema in my small home town and the experience has lingered in my memory. I have not seen the film again, but will now try to get hold of it, especially now when I have read the novel and learned that Loach made the film together with the author Barry Hines. The reason for the collaboration was Loach’s opinion that ”I have never read a novel where every scene could be transferred to film with such ease.”



Al Fahim, Mohammed A. J. (2013) From Rags to Riches: A Story of Abu Dhabi. Abu Dhabi: Makarem. Antunes, António Lobo (1995) An Explanation of Birds. New York: Grove Press Audobon, John James (2001) The Birds of America. New York: Welcome Rain Publishers. Baker, J. A. (2004) The Peregrine. New York: NYR. Bocaccio, Giovanni (2003) The Decamaron. London: Penguin Classics. Coll, Steve (2005) Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan and bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001. London: Penguin. Davidson, Hida Ellis (1990) Gods and Myths of Northern Europe. London: Penguin. Gresti, Paolo (ed.) (1992) Sonetti anonimi del Vaticano lat. 3793. Florens: Accademia della Crusca. Grey, Lord of Fallodon (2001) The Charm of Birds. London: Orion. Hines, Barry (2000) A Kestrel for a Knight. London: Penguin Modern Classics. Kroll, Paul W. (2018) Critical Readings on Tang China: Volume 3. Leiden: Brill. Munif, Abdelrahman (1987) Cities of Salt. New York: Vintage International. Runciman, Steven (2016) A History of the Crusades II: The Kingdom of Acre. London: Penguin Classics. Tay, C.N. (1979) ”Two Poems of Mao Tse-tung in the Light of Chinese Literary Tradition,” in The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 29, No. 3, Thesiger, Wilfred (1991) Arabian Sands. London: Penguin.Wharton, William (1980) Birdy. New York: Avon Books. White, T.H. (2007) The Goshawk. New York: NYRB Classics. Wood, Casey A. och Marjorie Fyfe (eds.) (1969) The Art of Falconry Being the De Arte Venandi Cum Avibus of Frederick II of Hohenstaufen. Redwood City CA: Stanford University Press.




05/15/2022 21:46

Under min ungdoms flitiga biobesök brukade jag småle åt en annons som emellanåt visades innan filmen började. Man fick se en trana som stegar runt på en myr alltmedan speakerrösten konstaterar: “Somliga gillar att titta på fåglar som pickar i träsk.” Plötsligt sprängs fågeln och försvinner i ett rökmoln med kommentaren: “Men, vi gillar bio!”



Kanske var det så, att jag gillade bio mer än fågelskådande. Främsta orsaken var möjligen att jag inte ägt en ordentlig kikare och inte på allvar uppmärksammat naturen omkring mig. Dock är ett av mina största nöjen att ensam vandra genom skogen kring vårt hus i Bjärnum, lyssna till fåglarna och emellanåt fånga en skymt av dem. Trots det har min vänskap med dessa märkliga djur för det mesta präglats av böcker.



Ända sedan barndomen har jag uppskattat fågelböcker. Min morfar hade tre eleganta skinnband: Svenska fåglar efter naturen och på sten ritade I-III. Med text av professor Einar Lönnberg och 364 kolorerade planscher av bröderna von Wright. De skapades ursprungligen 1838 av en finländsk brödraskara, vart Morfars upplaga tog vägen vet jag inte. Ofta satt jag uppkrupen i en av Morfars fåtöljer med en av de stora volymerna i knäet. Det är svårt att förklara den fascination jag kände inför de förunderligt klara och sällsamt vackra fågelbilderna. Kanske hade det något att göra med försjunkandet i detaljåtergivningen av de förunderliga fenomen som fåglar utgör.



När jag bläddrar i så utsökta fågelböcker som bröderna Wrights mästerverk kommer jag att tänka på titeln till en av António Lobo Antunes romaner – Förklara fåglarna för mig. Många har försökt göra just det, men det är en omöjlighet, lika svårt som att förklara vad livet är. Något som jag tror fick Lobo Antunes att välja en sådan titel på en roman som handlar om en mans oförmåga att acceptera vad som hänt honom i hans liv; moderns död i cancer, hans främlingskap inför sin egen familj, hur han skjutit från sig sin första hustru och deras barn, hans vacklande politiska ställningstagande och svårigheter att förstå sig på sin nya hustru. Fåglarna blir därmed till allas och en vars sinnebild av sin oförklarliga tillvaro; våra underliga val och ställningstaganden. Livet som ett omöjligt projekt.


Redan då jag som barn satt med Morfars stora fågelbok i knäet och genom de stora fönstren kunde se ut över hans prunkande blomsterberg och dess fond av höga tallar, i vilka skator hoppade kring och skrek på ett sätt som alltid får mig att minnas Tallebo, som Morfar kallade sitt hus och trädgård, tyckte jag mig ana att det fanns ett släktskap mellan mig och fåglarna. En känsla som fortfarande kunde gripa mig då jag av min vän Örjan i sextioårspresent fick en faksimilupplaga av Olof Rudbeck den yngres Svenska fåglar som påbörjades redan 1693 och som även den är förlänad med samma detaljkärlek som bröderna von Wrights 150 år senare mästerverk.



Stor glädje har jag också haft av John Audobons (1785-1851) The Birds of America, som jag 1981 fann i biblioteket på Instituto Cultural Domínicano Americano, där jag ofta häckade och gjorde den ena upptäckten efter den andra. Det var exempelvis där som jag för första gången greps av Faulkners författarskap och slukade hans romaner.



I timmar kunde jag i Institutets bibliotek sitta försjunken i betraktandet av Audobons ytterst vackra fågelskildringar, som harmoniserar djuren med deras omgivningar; blommorna, träden, vattnet och ofta dramatiserar deras tillvaro inom deras noggrant skildrade miljöer.



Att jag fann Audobon i Dominikanska Republiken var ett intressant sammanträffande, eftersom han föddes i grannrepubliken Haiti, under den tid då den var en fransk koloni vid namn Saint-Domingue. Audobons far ägde en slavdriven sockerrörsplantage. Redan som sexåring tvingades dock Audobon tillsammans med fadern och sina syskon bege sig till Frankrike. De hänsynslöst utnyttjade och plågade plantageslavarna, med vilka fadern likt så många av sina slavägarvänner hade en mängd barn, hade revolterat och ingen vit man kunde känna sig trygg i Saint-Domingue. Arton år gammal lämnade Audobon sedan Frankrike för USA.


Med tanke på vår samtids fördömande av otrevliga personers konstutövande skulle jag egentligen inte kunna njuta av Audobons mästerskap, lika lite som det nu är tillåtet att oförtäckt uppskatta pedofilen Roman Polanskis filmer. Dessvärre kan jag dock inte undgå att till fullo njuta av Audobons utsökta konst (och även uppskatta Polanskis filmer), trots att han uppenbarligen var en tämligen otrevlig person.


Audobon var förvisso ett geni vars bidrag till ornitologi och konst är ovärderliga, men han hade en komplex karaktär och gjorde sig gång på gång skyldig till ett föraktligt beteende, som även efter den tidens måttstock var tämligen oförsvarligt. Han anklagades för lögn, akademiskt bedrägeri och plagiat, förslavade svarta människor och skrev kritiskt om emancipation. Audobon stal mänskliga kvarlevor och skickade dödskallar till en kollega, som använde dem för att i sin “forskning” bevisa att vita var överlägsna icke-vita personer.


I USA tillbringade Audubon mer än ett decennium som affärsman i Kentucky där han ägde en diversehandel i staden Henderson och dessutom ägnade sig åt slavhandel. Audobon var under en tid relativt framgångsrik, men 1819 fängslades han under en tid för konkurs och bedrägeri. Utsläppt färdades Audobon genom USA:s vildmarker, jagade och avbildade dess fågelfauna. Väl medveten om engelsmännens romantiska vurm för naturskildringar seglade han 1826 till England, medförande sin imponerande portfölj med fågelskildringar i naturlig storlek och hans lycka var gjord. Audubon blev en förmögen och beundrad man.


Det var i Santo Domingo som jag blev närmare bekant med Audobons liv. Jag stötte där på en udda karaktär vid namn John Chancellor, som även han var ansatt av en ordentlig dos av rasism. Chancellor köpte och sålde antikvariska böcker om Haiti och Dominikanska republiken och gav mig två biografier han skrivit; en om Wagner och en om Audobon. Dessvärre var båda monografierna baserade på bristfällig forskning och jag fann sedermera en hel del felaktigheter i dem. Trots det uppskattade jag att Chancellor gett mig böckerna och de blev inkörsporten till bättre och utförligare läsning kring dessa två, onekligen otrevliga och fördomsfulla genier.



Tillbaka till fåglarna. Under ett långt liv har jag blivit bekant med flera fågelskådare. I Lund hade jag exempelvis en granne som arbetade som “utvecklare” på Tetra Pak, men hans uppslukande intresse var att dagligen ge sig ut på den skånska slätten, eller i dess frodiga skogsdungar, för att där spela in fågelläten. Han hade en stor mängd band och emellanåt spelade han upp dem för mig för att visa hur fåglars sång skilde sig från område till område, nästan som mänskliga dialekter. Jag hade svårt att urskilja nyanserna, men fann det likväl fascinerande att någon i en sådan omfattning kunde ägna sig åt fågelsång.

Några år senare jag läste Edward Greys The Charm of Birds, eftersom Lord Grey visade ett ovanligt stort och levande intresse för fågelsång, har den svenska boktiteln den något mer adekvata titeln Fåglar och fågelsång. Lord Edward Grey, förste Viscount Grey av Fallodon och tredje Baronet Grey av Fallodon, var trots brist på kunskaper i utländska språk och avsmak för diplomati, brittisk utrikesminister mellan 1905 till 1916. Uppenbarligen en engagerad och skicklig förhandlare, som dessvärre blev ordentligt intrasslad i upptakten till Första världskriget. Det var Lord Grey som vid krigets utbrott fällde det klassiska yttrandet: “Lamporna slocknar över hela Europa; vi kommer inte att se dem tända igen under vår livstid.”



Då kriget tagit slut menade Lord Grey att hans förutsägelse stämde i den meningen att krigets följder skadat en hel europeisk generation och att såren säkert skulle öppnas igen. Vid det laget hade han dock dragit sig tillbaka till sin älsklingssysselsättning – flugfiske i den kristallklara, vattenkrassefyllda Itchen, som rann genom hans ägor i Hampshire, alltmedan han lyssnade till fågelsången i den täta grönskan vid åns stränder. Vad jag fascinerades av då jag läste Lord Greys välskrivna bok var hans förmåga att väcka mitt intresse kring fågelsång.



Han fångade de känslor som om våren griper mig i göingeskogarna – halvtimmen före soluppgången då fåglarna stämmer upp den gryningskör, som Lord Grey beskrev som ett samstämt jubel “likt morgonstjärnors ljus”. I kören urskiljde han grönsångarens toner. En späd, liten fågel vars stillsamt gröna och gula färger harmoniserar med med de nyutspruckna boklöven, vars späda skönhet får liv genom grönsångarens “rörelser och glädje”:


Fast bokskogens grönska är underbar och över all beskrivning fulländad, kan närvaron av en grönsångare likväl förhöja den genom sina sånger.



Grönsångaren har enligt Lord Grey två sånger på sin repertoar. Skälvande toner som klara och glädjefyllda med korta intervaller repeteras åter och åter,. De interfolieras med en klar och mycket vacker sång vars toner i sakta följd upprepas tio gånger Enligt Lord Grey bör man akta sig för att tolka in mänskliga känslor i fåglarnas instinktiva sång, men hos honom födde grönsångaren likväl starka känslor:


det intryck en mänsklig lyssnare får av dessa melankoliska toner är att de uttrycker en djup sorg. Tonen är patetisk, det är tårar i rösten.


Lord Grey skriver att i maj får fågelsången i hans grönskande marker en ny mening. För de övervintrade fåglarna betyder vårens ankomst livets återuppvaknande. Flyttfåglarnas sånger tillkännager deras ankomst och samtliga fåglar försäkrar genom sin sång att de åter gör sig hemmastadda; att de väljer revir, finner sin maka och en plats för sitt bo.




Gryningskören blir till en symfoni, en gobeläng av toner. Trastarna börjar det hela genom att häva upp ett par dämpade toner som väcker mesfåglarna – ”sångtoner, klocktoner, spinnande toner” och över detta stiger allt klarare dubbeltrastarnas, koltrastarnas och taltrastarnas klara toner, kanske ackompanjerade av en ugglas mer avrundade stämma. De övriga fåglarnas sång förenas till trastsångens ackompanjemang, en röstgobeläng av oräkneliga stygns tättvävda grundstruktur, “med undantag för gärdsmygens brusande fors av toner”.



Lord Grey hyste en speciell kärlek till gärdsmygens sång. Enligt honom är den inte den bästa, men den är klar, tydlig, melodisk och vacker, “snarare utarbetad än enkel och den utförs omsorgsfullt”. Intrycket förstärks av gärdsmygens säregna utseende och speciella karaktär, trots att det är en fågel av oansenlig storlek har den sturskt uppstickande stjärtfjädrar och ett våldsamt temperament. Lord Grey betraktar den under vårens parningstid och får uppfattningen att gärdsmygens sång rymmer mer av utmaning och triumf, än kärlek. Han överraskar två gärdsmygshannar som på hans gräsplan är invecklade i en så våldsam strid att de inte ens bryr sig om hans hotande närvaro. Då en av dem till sist gått segrande ur kampen och den besegrade fågeln flytt sin kos, flyger vinnaren till en närliggande buske och fyller därifrån rymden med sin triumfatoriska sång.



I fåglarnas gryningskör urskiljer Lord Grey även svarthättans stämma “så fulländad och gripande” att han anser den vara bland de allra främsta “engelska sångfåglarna”. Dess sång är ovanligt stark, välklingande och


eldig, den är inte lång, men repeteras ofta; den bjuder ingen stor variation, men den sjungs absolut perfekt. Den äger icke en ton som ej behagar och väcker anklang.



Trädgårdssångarens sång är också vacker, men det tycks som om den fågeln aldrig fullständigt kan klara strupen och släppa ut tonerna så rent och fritt som svarthättan, “den tycks alltid vara på väg mot den fulländning, till vilken endast svarthättan når fram”, men i ett avseende är trädgårdssångaren överlägsen sin rival – den är mer uthållig, dess skönsång varar längre.



Lord Grey ber sina läsare lyssna uppmärksamt till vårens gryningskör och då framförallt lägga märke till hur koltrastens sång ger liv och själ åt konserten. Enligt honom är det omöjligt att förklara varför koltrastens sång överträffar andra fåglars. Varför den betyder så mycket. Lord Grey föreslår dock att att det är den “förtrolighet” som sången skapar. Andra fåglars sång gläder och behagar, men koltrastens sång tycks vända sig direkt till lyssnaren. Den rör vid djupt liggande känslosträngar som förenar oss människor med den svarta fågeln. Välbehaget är dock begränsat. Det är knappa fyra månaders sång som koltrasten skänker oss. Han börjar inte sjunga ordentligt förrän i mars och innan juni kommit till sitt slut har han tystnat. I juli kan vi lyssna till taltrastens och rödhakesångarens sista vårtoner, men avskedet till dessa fåglars sång är dock inte så melankoliskt som att höra den sista koltrastens toner och veta att en lång tid skall förlöpa tills dess vi får åter får höra dem.



Under hösten återstår att lyssna till ugglornas ho-ande och skrin, som de vore förebud till något hotfullt och mystiskt. Nästan lika kusligt lockande som rördrommens vittljudande, dovt ödsliga läte. Ugglans skri består av en lång, lugn och fin ton, som pausar i fyra sekunder för att återigen följas av en utdragen ton, som till en början vibrerar, men mynnar ut i en lugnande, fyllig volym. Ugglans rop skänker liv åt skogen och det vara oroande tomt om de upphörde.



Då jag läser Lord Greys omsorgsfulla skildringar om hur naturen och dess invånares, fåglarnas beteenden skiftar med naturens gång och växlingar tänker jag på den mäktiga andhämtning jag förnimmer under skogspromenader, eller roddturer över vår göingska sjö.


Innerst inne upprörs jag av allt dödande, över jakt, till och med fiske, men jag tycker likväl om att samtala med fiskare och jägare och har ofta hört dem beskriva hur deras väntan på byte förenar dem med omgivningarna. Hur de sittande under sina pass insett hur mångt och mycket i allmänhet är fördoldt för våra blickar och vår hörsel. Hur människans närvaro i skog och mark väcker djurens fruktan och misstankar.



Medan vi tanklöst promenerar genom skogarna ser vi mycket lite av allt det liv som ryms inom dem. Kanske skymtar vi en och annan liten fågel, får en glimt av ett rådjur eller en hare, men de flyr bort och gömmer sig bland buskar, eller i jordhålor. För oss okända larmsignaler sänds ut vid vår ankomst och djuren försvinner snabbt ur vår åsyn. Vi är dock ständigt iakttagna av det vilda liv som befinner sig i ständig avvaktan och spänning.


Sitter vi däremot ner och i tystnad betraktar den natur som omger oss kommer vi snart att upptäcka att de skygga djuren glömmer bort vår närvaro och återupptar de aktiviteter som vi tidigare stört dem i. Ekorrar och kaniner dyker upp, fåglar sjunger och trastar krafsar omkring oss, snart kanske vi skymtar en älg eller en hjort.



Vad jag finner sympatiskt hos naturskildrare, och då kanske främst hos fågelskådarna, är hur de tålmodigt uppmärksammar “det lilla livet”. Ornitologernas stora tålamod, en stilla och tyst förundran inför livet omkring dem, en respekt för naturen som gör att dem oförmögna att skada de varelser som lever där. Det räcker för dem att betrakta det rika liv som omger dem. Ja – flera av dessa naturbetraktare förmår uppenbarligen förvandla sig till en del av detta liv.


Det är antagligen därför jag med behållning läser och bläddrar i naturkonstnärers böcker. Exempelvis Gunnar Brusewitzs Strandspeglingoch Dagbok från en sjö och i vilken han med utgångspunkt från en tecknarstuga vid sjön Sparren i Roslagen följde årstidernas växlingar och årens gång. Med utsikt åt de fyra väderstrecken skildrade han med inlevelse dagrar och skymning, fåglarnas flykt och närvaro, de fyrfota djuren som tassar eller skrider förbi. Genom Brusewitzs naturböcker förnimmer jag skogens dofter och ljud, luftens värme eller svalka.


Eller de än mer minimalistiska studierna hos en annan konstnär. Mer impressionistiskt och inte så detaljrikt som Brusewitz har Björn von Rosen i sin Samtal med en nötväcka skildrat en “platonsk vänskap” med en liten fågel, som jag för övrigt, efter att ha hållit ett föredrag om den i fjärde klass, alltid känt mig befryndad med.



Deras förhållande inleddes då en blåskimrande nötväcka närmade sig konstnärens fönsterbräde medan han under flera månader låg sängbunden i en besvärlig sjukdom. von Rosens hustru fick idén att öppna fönstret mot vinterlandskapet utanför, fylla tomma tändsticksaskar med kaksmulor, hampafrön och ostbitar och placera dem på fönsterbrädan så att Björn kunde roa sig med att från sin säng betrakta hur småfåglar kom på besök för att äta från skaffningen.


Speciellt framträdande gäst blev en ständigt återkommande nötväcka. En morgon då Björn von Rosen öppnat fönstret och hållit ut sin öppna hand med några kaksmulor i handflatan, satte sig nötväckan på hans fingrar och började nappa åt sig smulorna. Med en rysning av av välbehag upplevde konvalescenten hur “känslan av hennes små torra klor dröjer sig kvar i fingerkantens hud när jag gått tillbaka till sängen igen.” Episoden blev upptakten till en daglig rutin som bestod i att Björn steg upp från sängen, öppnade fönstret, sträckte ut handen och genast fick besök av nötväckan som åt smulorna ur hans handflata.



Då Björn blivit frisk och tillsammans med sina två taxar återupptagit sina dagliga promenader följde nötväckan honom, hoppande från gren till gren. Efterhand krävde fågeln enbart kaksmulor, om det visade sig att Björn enbart hade bröd i sin hand slängde hon föraktfullt bort dem med en knyck. Så småningom dök även nötväckans make upp. Han var intresserad av nötsmulor, men vågade till en början inte nappa åt sig några ur Björns hand, men han blev snart lika orädd som sin maka.


Björns vänskap med de två nötväckorna och deras barn fortgick i nio år och i sin bok beskrev han små episoder och betraktelser kring dessa småfåglars liv och leverne, och vad han antog var deras sätt att tänka.



Då jag läser böcker som de av Brusewitz och von Rosen händer det att jag avundas inbitna fågelskådare, exempelvis min vän Magnus som åt sig och sin familj låtit bygga ett hus i Falsterbo med ett övre rum fyllt med fågelböcker bredvid en altan från vilken han med sin kikare kan betrakta näsets fågelliv. Jägmästare som han är i FAO:s tjänst har Magnus även haft rikliga tillfällen att bekanta sig med fågellivet på skilda håll i världen, alltmedan jag förblir en oförbätterlig, okunnig amatör som vid mina böcker och dator i stort sett enbart fångas in av ett litterärt fågelintresse.


Det var inte tanken på några småfåglar som fick mig att börja skriva det här blogginlägget, utan ett besök jag och Rose nyligen gjorde i Abu Dhabi. Tillsammans med vår väninna Lupita, som varit bosatt i landet under några år, gjorde vi ett besök i Zayed Heritage Centre, ett museum tillägnat Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan (1918-2004) ”Fosterlandets Fader” som i Abu Dhabi ägnas en i det närmaste religiös dyrkan. Han var den främsta drivkraften bakom bildandet av de Förenade Arabemiraten (UAE), som 1971 enade sju emirat med kust mot den Persiska Golfen. Han blev Unionens första Ra’īs, President, en position som Schejk Zayed innehade i 33 år, från UAE’s grundande fram till sin död 2004.



1966 hade Shejk Zayed avsatt sin bror Schejk Shakhbut och därigenom blivit Abu Dhabis obestridde härskare. Han hade tidigare insett vikten av att erhålla folkets fulla stöd i utbyte mot förbättringar av deras levnadsstandard – arbetstillfällen, fast inkomst, sociala skyddsnät, hälsovård och utbildning. Efter britternas tillbakadragande 1967 (de hade sedan 1800-talets början kontrollerat det urfattiga emiratet) öppnade Schejk Zayed sitt land för en massiv immigration av kvalificerade arbetare, tillsammans med en klausul i grundlagen som fastställde att en invandrare kunde ansöka om medborgarskap först efter att ha bevisat att han/hon talade flytande arabiska och hade bott i landet i minst 30 år. Schejk Zayed fastställde dock att ”gästarbetarna”, bortsett från röst- och yttranderätt, skulle ha samma rättigheter och skyldigheter emiratets medborgare.

Obligatorisk skolgång för pojkar och flickor infördes, universitet grundades, religionsfrihet etablerades, även om statlig censur av all media upprätthölls. Vägar byggdes och allmän tillgång till dricksvatten och hälsovård säkrades. Framför allt omförhandlade Schejk Zayed oljekoncessionsavtalen och säkerställde därigenom att Abu Dhabi förfogade över majoriteten av inkomsterna från all oljeproduktion, något som avslutade ett brittiskt monopol på oljeutvinning och öppnade vägen till emiratets ofantliga rikedom. För närvarande förfogar UAE över en årlig BNP på omkring 400 miljarder USD, en tredjedel kommer från oljeintäkter, av vilka Abu Dhabi förfogar över 94 procent.



Då Schejk Zayed vid mitten av sextiotalet tog makten över landet hade Abu Dhabi inga asfalterade vägar, inget sjukhus, ingen skola (förutom ett fåtal pojkar och män som gått i en koranskola var 98 procent av befolkningen analfabeter). Det var ett än värre bakvatten än tidigare eftersom odlade pärlor hade satt stopp för intäkterna från pärlfisket, som tidigare varit så gott som den enda källan till emiratets exportintäkter. Abu Dhabis huvudstad bestod av en stenbyggnad som ibland hyste representanter för den brittiska regeringen och några hyddor samlade kring Qasr Al Hosn, Huset Nahyans fort/palats.


Jag tänkte på detta medan jag stod vid panoramafönstren i Lupitas och Dinos lägenhet på femtioandra våningen i ett av de imponerande Ethiad-tornen och njöt av utsikten över den Persiska Golfens azurblå vatten. I ett fjärran dis skymtade Qasr al Watan, det nyligen uppförda emirpalatset och centrum för UAE:s regering, faktiskt en av de vackraste byggnader jag besökt. Det var svårt att tro att denna överdådiga, välorganiserade, extremt rena och mycket säkra nation på enbart femtio år hade rest sig ur sanden i ett fattigt beduinrike. Det var trots allt inte så underligt att nationen vördade den märklige Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan.



Vi var de enda besökarna i Zayedmuséet. Dess föreståndare, en ytterst vänlig, äldre man som känt emiren, bjöd oss på te och skänkte mig en praktbok om emiratens arkeologi. Muséet var fyllt med all upptänklig kuriosa och märkliga ting ur schejkens kvarlåtenskap. Vad som fascinerade mig mest var den mängd bilder och föremål som bar vittnesmål om Schejk Zayeds uppslukande intresse för falkenering.



Främsta orsaken till det intresset var att jag tidigare besökt flera av den märklige Frederick II:s (1194-1250) slott och borgar i södra Italien och därmed kommit att läsa en del om hans stora passion för falkenering. En annan orsak till mitt sporadiska falkintresse kommer sig av att då jag en tid för mer än tio år sedan arbetade på UNESCO:s avdelning för immateriellt kulturarv av en kollega fick höra att hon bland annat ägnade sig åt en ansökan om att inkludera falkenering i organisationens Representativa lista över mänsklighetens immateriella kulturarv, något som slutligen skedde för ett år sedan. Hon hade bett mig skriva något om ansökans genusaspekter och jag hade då funnit att även kvinnor ägnat sig åt falkenering, speciellt i Bortre Orienten och Centralasien, men det hade även under Europas medeltid varit en populär sysselsättning bland aristokratiska damer.



Vi finner exempelvis falkjagande kvinnor i den så kallade Tymouth Hours en ”anglonormandisk” bönbok från 1330-talet, vars varje sida är illustrerad med en vardaglig scen, som oftast inte alls har med texten att göra.



På UNESCO läste jag en medeltida dikt av en författarinna som varit verksam på Sicilien vid slutet av 1200-talet, numera känd som Nina Sicilianskan, Nina från Messina, eller Dantes Nina. Hennes sonetter finns upptagna i ett manuskript i Vatikanbiblioteket (Kodex 3793) i vilket någon vid slutet av 1200-talet skrev ner 137 ”sånger” och 670 sonetter. Flera av dessa tillhör den så kallade ”sicilianska skolan”, poesi skriven på italienska och som föregick den något senare ”toskanska skolan”, med giganter som Petrarca och Dante.



Poetissan Ninas sonetter ingår i den del av kodex 3793 som dess kopist betecknat som skriven av ”okända” författare (den fria och klumpiga översättningen är min):


Tapina me che amava uno sparviero,         Ack, jag som en gång älskade en falk,
Amaval tanto ch’io me ne moria;               så mycket att jag kunde dött av kärleken.
A lo richiamo ben m’era maniero,             Då jag kallade på honom var  han mig lydig.
Ed unque troppo pascer nol dovria.          jag gödde honom, ej för mycket men tillräckligt.
Or è montato e salito sì altero;                  Nu har han flyktat och nått
Assai più altero che far non solia;             höjder jag inte känner,
Ed è assiso dentro a un verziero,               där sitter han i ett fågelhus,
E un’altra donna l’averà in balìa.             omvårdad av en annan kvinna.
Isparvier mio, ch’io t’avea nodrito;          O, min falk, som jag fostrat.
Sonaglio d’oro ti facea portare,                Jag gav dig gyllne bjällror att bära,
Perchè nell’uccellar fossi più ardito.       så att ingen fågel skulle skada dig.
Or sei salito siccome lo mare,                  Nu har du gjort uppror, likt ett stormigt hav.
Ed hai rotto li geti e sei fuggito,               Du förstörde dina band och slet dig lös,
Quando eri fermo nel tuo uccellaro.        så fort jag lärt dig jaga.



Som hos flera trubadursångare, och även samtida persiska sufidiktare som Jalal al-din Rumi, är Ninas diktning dubbeltydig i den meningen att den beskriver jordisk kärlek mot en religiös fond. Diktens ”andra kvinna” kunde lika gärna vara Jungfru Maria som tagit emot den avlidne älskaren/falken i sitt Paradis, som en högst jordisk kvinna som älskaren/falken försmått poetissan med.



Tidiga uppgifter säger att Nina var en ung kvinna vars talang gynnades av Frederick II:s mor, Costanza d’Altavilla, dotter till Siciliens normandiske härskare Ruggero II och gift med hans efterträdare, den hänsynslöse tysk-romerske kejsaren Henrik IV av Hohenstaufen.


Costanza d’Altavilla dog då Frederick endast var fem år, men han växte upp i den förfinade hovmiljö som skapats kring hans mor och Frederick var själv en tämligen skicklig sonettdiktare som i sin poesi hyllade sin tids höviska kärlek. Även om han skrev mycket om falkenering finns det bland Fredericks efterlämnade dikter ingen i vilken han likt andra sicilianska diktare har använt falkar och falkenering som sinnebilder för kärlek och älskog. Falkenering betraktades nämligen inom vissa medeltida aristokratiska kretsar som hovlivets mest fulländade sysselsättning. Det var för många män och kvinnor en nästan allt uppslukande passion, som färgade av sig inom erotiska skildringar.



Något som exempelvis är uppenbart i flera illustrationer till den ståtliga Codex Manesse, en Liederhandschrift (en handskrift med sånger) som 1304 sammanställdes för den förmögna Manassefamiljen i Zürich. Manuskriptet innehåller verk av 135 minnessångare, som var och en presenteras med en eller flera dikter, utsökt illustrerade med 137 handmålade miniatyrer.



Falkenerarkulturens förfining och sammankoppling med erotik är framträdande i en av Decamarones noveller. Denna novellsamling som Bocaccio 1353 publicerade i Florens är inte unik i den meningen att en samling mer eller mindre kända sagor och legender framställdes som om de berättats inom ett litet förfinat, aristokratiskt sällskap. Decamarones ryktbarhet är främst kopplad till den elegans och stilsäkra lätthet med vilka Bocaccaio skriver sina historier. Uppenbart även i inledningen till den nionde berättelsen under den femte dagen som ett spirituellt sällskap med aristokratiska herrar och damer roar sig med att berätta för varandra efter att på ett lantligt lantställe ha isolerat sig från pesten i Florens:


[Coppo di Borghese Domenichi] fann på sin höga ålderdom ofta nöje i att för sina grannar och andra personer berätta om förflutna händelser, vilket han förstod att göra bättre och med större reda, minnesgodhet och noggrannhet i ordvalet än någon annan.



Berättelsen som Bocaccio lägger i Borghese Domenichis mun handlar om den unge, stilige och förmögne Federigo som uppslukad av en förtärande kärlek till den ”skönaste och behagligaste” damen i Florens, den kyska, högättade fru Giovanna, som dessvärre är gift. För sin kärleks skull och för att vinna Giovannas bevågenhet slösar Federigo sin rikedom på utsökta skådespel, turneringar, mässor och överdådiga middagar. Fru Giovanna förblir dock sin make trogen och ägnar Federigo ett förstrött intresse. Följden blir att Federigo fullständigt ruinerar sig och lever fattig på ett litet lantställe där han försöker omvandla sin passion för Fru Giovanna i ett uppslukande intresse för falkenering. Den enda rikedom han behållit är en vacker, fulländat tränad jaktfalk, som beundras av hela grannskapet.



Då Fru Giovannas make dött drar hon sig tillbaka på makens efterlämnande gods som gränsar till Federigos jordplätt. Hennes son blir där betagen i grannens jaktfalk och följer honom dagligen under jakter kring hela trakten. Ynglingen insjuknar dock allvarligt. Då den förtvivlade Fru Giovanna undrar om sonen inte tror att att det kan finnas någon bot för hans sjukdom, avslöjar han efter flera dagars tvekan att en underbar gåva kanske skulle kunna få honom på bättringsvägen. Då Fru Giovanna enträget ber den älskade sonen att tala om vad det kan vara för gåva, svarar han ”Federigos jaktfalk”. Fru Giovanna, som är väl medveten om Federigos trånad efter hennes kärlek, beger sig till den försmådde älskarens stuga i avsikt att övertala honom att skänka henne falken.


Då Fru Giovanna anländer med sina förfinade hovdamer inbillar sig den omtumlade Federigo att ännu en överdådig måltid kanske skulle kunna vinna honom Fru Giovannas bevågenhet. Han lägger ut sina sista slantar på en utsökt middag, men till en början har han inte tillräcklig fantasi för att kunna fundera ut vad han bör presentera som den oemotståndliga huvudrätten. Det måste vara något underbart, något nästan bortom mänsklig fantasi. Han inbillar sig då att enbart en rätt som i sig innefattar hans stora kärlek och passion genom magen skulle kunna nå Fru Giovannas hjärta. Blicken faller på hans välgödda falk, Federigo vrider nacken av fågeln och låter sin inlånade mästerkock tillreda den.


Och, givetvis – den härliga måltiden gör Fru Giovanna mild till sinnes och hon blickar tacksamt, nästan kärleksfullt, mot den djupt gripne Federigo. Slutligen dristar hon sig att för värden berätta att hennes son är döende, men att sonen inbillat sig att han skulle tillfriskna om Federigo skänkte honom sin jaktfalk. Den förtvivlade Federigo tvingas då erkänna att de alldeles nyss har ätit upp fågeln. Fru Giovanna blir bestört då hon inser att hon misslyckats i sin förhoppning om att kunna bota sonen, som mycket riktigt dör efter ett par dagar. Men, i djupet av sitt hjärta har Fru Giovanna rörts av Federigos förtvivlade försök att vinna hennes kärlek och offret av jaktfalken har slutligen väckt hennes kärlek till honom. Hon gifter sig med Federigo som nu blir en förmögen man och då han nått sina önskningars mål också förvandlas till en driftig och sparsam make.



I århundraden, till och med årtusenden, har falkenering varit såväl en uppslukande sysselsättning som en källa till prestige inom sofistikerade hovkretsar.  I Kina finns en mängd bevarade historiska vittnesmål om dess stora popularitet inom hovkulturen, i form av litteratur, dikter, målningar och porslin.



Kinesisk falkjakt stod i ett oskiljaktigt förhållande till politik och makt och skrivna dokument går tillbaka till 700 BCE. Speciellt under Tangepoken (618-907) blomstrade falkenerarkulturen och var ytterst uppskattad bland kejsarrikets potentater, såväl mandariner som rövarhövdingar. Även här fanns en koppling mellan erotik och falkar, som i Chang Hsiao-p’iao’s dikt från 826:


Den hungriga hökens rede


Hon föreställer sig den fjärran stäppen

där hararna nu är välgödda;

tusentals gånger vänder hon sin hårda näbb

och skakar sin befjädrade klädnad:

Släpp henne fri,

lösgör silkesknuten!

Men, om inte mannen kallar

skulle hon inte våga flyga.


Dikten anspelar uppenbarligen på kvinnors längtan efter frihet, som dock begränsas av deras mäns kontroll över deras liv.



Falkenerarkulturen fortsatte under århundraden att frodas vid de kinesiska hoven. Nedan några falkporträtt av den versatile jesuiten Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766). Han kom från en förmögen milanesisk familj och då han inträdde i jesuitorden var Castiglione redan en skicklig konstnär. Som tjugoåttaåring introducerades han för det kejserliga hovet i Beijing, där hans konst blev livligt uppskattad. Castiglione hade snart lärt sig mandarin och anpassade sin västerländska måleriteknik till den kinesiska smaken, Castigiones hybridkonst kom att bildade skola, speciellt genom sina magnifika djurframställningar.




Falkenering anlände från Kina till Korea omkring 200 CE och därifrån fördes traditionen vidare till Japan.



De första japanska skriftliga beläggen för falkjakt härstammar från 600-talet och snart hade det vuxit fram en unik och sofistikerad hovkultur kring falkar och hökar – Takagari. En tradition som blev speciellt kopplad till Shintoreligionen och ofta tog tog uttryck i jaktsällskapens vackra kostymeringar och estetiskt tilltalande parafernalia. En specifik, rituell falkhantering gynnades genom olika ”skolor” som Suwa-ryu och Yoshid-ryu som värnade om en solid kunskap kring allt som rörde rovfåglar, såväl tama som vilda, och förtrogenhet med falkenering blev till en statussymbol, för såväl män som kvinnor.



I Indien har falkenering belagts inom aristokratiska kretsar så tidigt som 600 BCE, men det var först under mogulernas herravälde (1526-1858) som sporten utvecklade sig till en formlig passion bland förmögna män och kvinnor.



Falkar och andra rovfåglar var inte enbart symboler för frihetslängtan och erotik, men också för skoningslöshet och krig. Falkars och hökars skriande då de flög framför anfallande arméer var lockrop till blodspillan och sökande efter ära på slagfälten. Redan på 220-talet BCE konstaterade poeten Sung Yü att hösten är en


tid av ödslighet och fördärv,
en hämnande ängel drar far fram

i en stämning av död.


Men, tusen år senare hyllade krigarpoeten Lu Yu hösten som en tid för falkjakt och åminnelse av forna kinesiska segrar över tatariska inkräktare:


Med kraftiga klor och näbbar lämnar snabba falkar handsken
och med förväntan smeker djärva män sina svärd.



En hel del tyder på att falkeneing finner sitt ursprung i Centralasien, bland folk som kallats hunner, mongoler eller tatarer. Bland dessa folk utövades falkjakt för mer än 3000 år sedan och rovfåglar har stor betydelse inom centralasiatisk och sibirisk shamanism.

Shamaner tros kunna kan ”ikläda sig” rovfågelshamnar och i dem färdas vitt över världen, till och med till riken som är okända för oss levande människor.

Bland mongoliska khaner uppnådde falkenering en hög nivå av förädling och kreativitet. Mongoliska falkenerare använder flera olika arter av rovfågel, även stora och svårtämjda fåglar som örnar. Under sina vidsträckta militära kampanjer använde sig mongolarméerna av tränade rovfåglar för viltanskaffning och avkoppling mellan bataljerna. Vid tiden för Marco Polos vistelse vid Kublai Kahns hov (1275-1292) fanns där 60 ämbetsmän som enbart ägnade sig åt förvaltningen av kejsarens jaktfalkar, samt 5000 fångstmän och 10 000 fullt sysselsatta falkenerare.

Som det erövrarfolk de var betraktade antagligen flera mongoler inte jaktfalkarna som sinnebilder för frihet och kärlek, utan som blodtörstiga rovdjur som stred i deras tjänst.

I Disneyfilmen Mulan från 1998 har den mordiske ledaren för den invaderande Hunarmén, Shan Yu, en skoningslös tatarfalk, Shan-Yu, som sin ende förtrogne och kanske även respekterade ”vän”.



Den uppenbara i det närmaste passionerade kärlek som inbitna falkenerare visar sina falkar tycks spegla en så stor beundran för rovfåglarnas förmåga att anpassa sig till den natur som omger dem. Dessa fågelmän tycks hysa en önskan att se och uppleva världen genom en falks ögon och instinkt. Hos en del av dem kanske det även finns en upphetsande känslan av att kunna uppgå i falkens jakt, få del av dess instinktiva styrka och hänsynslöshet, som likväl genom träning har underkastats deras mänskliga ägare.


Författaren Terence Hanbury White (1906 – 1964) författare till The Once and Future King, Den kung som är och skall komma, en skickligt återberättad Kung Arthur saga, föddes i Bombay och hade en olycklig barndom. Hans alkoholiserade och lynnige far var distriktspolischef, medan modern var emotionellt kylslagen. Paret skilde sig och den unge White skickades till en engelsk internatskola där hans emotionella elände fortsatte.


Som vuxen kämpade White mot sin homosexualitet och andra sexuella tendenser. Han skrev:


Allt jag kan göra är att bete mig som en gentleman. Det har varit mitt hemska öde att födas med en oändlig förmåga till kärlek och glädje, utan hopp om att använda dem.



En bekant konstaterade att T.H. White: ”inte fruktade Gud men var i grunden rädd för mänskligheten”. 1946 bosatte sig White på kanalön Alderney och blev med tiden allt värre alkoholiserad. Det var på Alderney han skrev boken The Goshawk, Duvhöken, som handlar om hur den unge White efter att i en gammal bok om falkenering läst raderna ”och fågeln återgick till sitt vilda tillstånd”, blev besatt av tanken att kanske även han kunde bli förvandlad till ”en fri vilde”. Han skaffade sig från Tyskland en duvhök. Fågeln var ”grym och fri”. White kom till slutsatsen att enda sättet att tämja höken vore att beröva den sömn, vilket hade till följd att även White blev sömnlös. Enligt honom hamnade man och fågel i ett gemensamt tillstånd av delirium, attraktion och frånstötande. Det kunde liknas vid ett kärleksförhållande. White lyckades aldrig tämja sin hök, men fann att det fanns ett samband mellan människa och djur som kunde vara såväl befriande, som plågsamt.



En uppslukande passion för jaktfalkar tycks vara speciellt levande i Abu Dhabi, något som inte enbart Schejk Zayeds museum bar vittnesbörd om utan även emiratets eminenta falksjukhus.



En plats där sjuka och skadade falkar får utmärkt vård i operationssalar och individuella lufkonditonerade rum med plats för fler än de 200 falkar som vårdas där, utöver de 11,000 rovfåglar som varje år besöket sjukhuset. Sjukhusets tyska chef, Margit Müller, förklarar:


Falkar är fascinerande, var och en har sin speciella, oberoende karaktär, sättet de uttrycker sig på är helt unikt, nästan magiskt. Inom den arabiska kulturen betraktas de inte som husdjur, utan anses snarare vara familjemedlemmar som bör fostras och vårdas som sådana. De bor tillsammans med familjen, har sin egen sittplats i vardagsrummet och många sover till och med i sina ägares sovrum.



Falksjukhuset utvärderar även jaktfalkar och hökar på bas av deras styrka och hälsa. De medicinska falkauktoriteternas utlåtanden kan vara av stor betydelse i ett land där falkar är en exklusiva statussymboler. Jaktfalkar (Falco rusticolus) är den största falkarten och dess naturliga habitat är fjäll och tundror. Speciellt eftertraktade var förr de isländska jaktfalkarna. Den stora ön gick stundtals under namnet Falkarnas ö och den vita jaktfalken skymtas uppe till vänster på den isländska republikens landsvapen.



De vita jaktflygarna är också den dyraste falkvarianten. Ett praktexemplar kan vara värt mer än 150,000 USD. I november 2021 såldes den unge jaktfalken Shaheen i Libyen för 450,000 USD.



Värdefulla falkar vårdas ömt av sina förmögna ägare och flera av dem tar till och med sig sina falkar på flygresor, speciellt då det gäller att introducera dem för ett speciellt vilt. Framför allt en slags ökentrappfåglar som kallas houbara. De är strykfåglar och rör sig över torra områden i Nordafrika, arabiska halvön och är under vintermånaderna speciellt talrika i Afghanistan.



Fåglarnas förekomst i det landet höll på att leda till en katastrof för emiratens förmögna schejker, av vilka flera, speciellt Abu Dhabis Sheikh Kalifa bin Zayid och Dubais Sheik Makhtoum, som tillsammans med andra jaktfalksaficionados varje år brukar bege sig till de houbararika områden i södra Afghanistans gränstrakter till Pakistan, där även Bin Laden brukade uppehålla sig. Bin Laden hade vuxit upp i Saudi Arabiens beduintradition och var även han en jaktfalksaficionado.



I slutet av februari och början av mars flockas houbara i svåråtkomliga, torra trakter söder om Kandahār. Under jaktsäsongen flög, och kanske de fortfarande gör det, den arabiska halvöns förmögna schejker med sina falkar in i Afghanistans houbaratäta områdena och upprättade där luxuösa tältläger. I februari 1999 meddelade CIA:s Bin Laden Tracking Team att det genom satellitbilder övertygats om att den efterlyste terroristen rörde sig kring falkjägarnas tältstäder och möjligen även jagade tillsammans med schejkerna. Gary Schroen, CIA:s platschef i Riyadh och tongivande i CIA:s Near East Division förordade att hela tältstaden skulle bombas:


Låt oss bara spränga hela alltet i luften. Och om vi dödar bin Ladin, och fem schejker stryker med, är jag ledsen. Men, vad har de att göra med bin Ladin? Han är en terrorist. Ligger man med hunden vaknar man upp med loppor.



Det var alltså ytterst nära att UAEschejkerna blev offer för sin falkjaktspassion, men i sista stund avrådde Richard Clarke, Nationell samordnare för säkerhet, infrastrukturskydd och bekämpning av terrorism, attacken. Clarke var nära bekant med UAE:s mäktiga emirfamiljer speciellt Abu Dhabis Nahayan klan och han var väl medveten om att UAE:s hamnar, olja och gas var ytterst viktiga för USA:s krigsinsatser. Han kunde för den skull överse med det faktum att falkenering gjorde sina utövare blinda för om andra deltagare i jaktlaget var terrorister. Det var jakten och inte politiken som var huvudsaken, i varje fall under den begränsade tid som houbara flockades i Kandahārs ökentrakter.


De som levt med araber visste hur viktiga falkarna är för dem, speciellt de som är mäktiga män. Abdelrahman Munif, en saudier född i Jordanien och verksam inom oljeindustrin i Mellersta Östern skrev en fascinerande berättelse i fem delar om hur oljan förändrat livet på den arabiska halvön och genom lyx och överflöd korrumperat dess ledare. Det är ett omfattande verk där varje volym omfattar mer än sexhundra sidor, enbart de två första delarna av Städer av salt har översatts till engelska.


Det är en fascinerande läsning. Berättelsen skrider fram i ett lugnt, tålmodigt tempo, läsaren får nästan en känsla av att han/hon färdas fram genom öknen på en envist strävsam kamel. Munifs historier är fyllda med en säregen symbolism. De har inga hjältar, men tusentals gestalter och namn passerar revy och skapar en tät väv av röster och legender, samtidigt som moderniteten obevekligt förändrar och omvandlar allt. Munif ogillade att urgamla traditioner förfuskats på ett sådant sätt att de använts som försvar av totalitarism, korruption och subtilt förtryck. Hans romaner är totalförbjudna i i Saudi Arabien, men tillåtna i UAE.



Ett avsnitt i den första romanen handlar om hur en emir kommer till den fiktiva hamnstaden Harran. Han ogillas av stadens arabiska befolkningen, alltmedan de oljeprospekterande amerikanerna och sluga köpmän svassar kring honom. Emiren påstod att han kommit till staden för skipa rättvisa och instifta lag och ordning, men det visade sig snart att han främst ville berika sig genom samröret med amerikanerna och han lyssnade förstrött till stadsbefolkningens önskningar och krav.


Dabbasi, stadens slugaste köpman, får rykte om sig att vara en djävul eftersom han visste hur han skulle manipulera Emiren:


eftersom han från den minut han började tala om jakt genomgick emiren en total förvandling – när han lyssnade till Dabbasis berättelser blev han som ett litet barn Efter all den kyla och antipati hans ord lagt i dagen under den första tiden av sitt besök, så mjuknade han genom Dabbasis berättelser och bad honom sitta ner vid hans sida.



Dabbasi hade sett hur flera av emirens män hållit sina falkar på handlederna och kärleksfullt smekt och samtalat med dem alltmedan emiren ointresserad suttit till doms över Harranborna. Dabassi hade då med hög stämma plötsligt konstaterat att trakterna kring Harran var välkända för sina houbaras, som dök upp under vintermånaderna. Emirens ansikte lyste upp och han blev idel öra för allt vad Dabassi hade att förtälja om falkjakt. Då Dabbasi fångat emirens intresse fick han honom att även intressera sig för lokalbefolkningen och vända amerikanerna ryggen: ”Sanning är sanning och de infödda står oss närmre än främlingarna,” konstaterade emiren innan han åter fördjupade sig i samtal kring houbaras och jaktfalkar. Då emiren efter en tid tog farväl var det från en välvilligt inställd stadsbefolkning och då han steg upp på sin kamel vände han sig till Dabbasi med orden: ”När vintern kommer, den kallaste delen av vintern, då kommer jag tillbaka och då skall vi gå på jakt på de platser du nämnde.”


Sir Wilfred Patrick Thesiger (1910-2003) föddes i Addis Ababa som son till den brittiske generalkonsuln. Som artonåring sändes han till England och utbildades i Eton och Oxford, där han främst studerade i historia. 1930 inbjöds han till Etiopien av faderns vän Haile Selaisse och på kejsarens uppdrag genomförde Thesiger flera forskningsfärder. Under Andra världskriget förde Thesiger befäl över etiopiska styrkor som stred mot italienarna och druser som bekämpade Vichystyret i Syrien. Efter kriget var Thesiger verksam inom bekämpningen av vandringsgräshoppor på Arabiska halvön och levde med beduinerna som han följde på deras vandringar genom det stora ökenområdet Rub al-Khali – det tomma området.



I sin bok Arabian Sands från 1959 beskriver Thesiger ett tidlöst område med människor som levde på samma sätt som de gjort i tusentals år. Han deltar i räder mot fientliga beduiner, jagas och tillfångatas av banditer, hans resesällskap hotas av blodshämnd, slavjägare lurar på ensamma vandrare. Thesiger möter gästfria schejker som vördas av sina män alltmedan de omger sig med harem, slavar, värdefulla kameler och jaktfalkar.


Thesiger skrev att han alltsedan sin etiopiska ungdom drivits av

lockelsen från barbarisk prakt, vildhet och färg och även erhållit en bestående respekt för tradition och en beredskap att acceptera en mängd olika sedan länge etablerade kulturer och seder. Jag växte upp till att känna en ökande förbittring mot västerländska innovationer i andra länder och en avsky för den tråkiga monotonin i vår moderna värld.

Efter att ha genomkorsat Rub al-Khali når Thesiger 1948 byn Muwaiqih i oasen Buarimi, Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyans domän. Han såg fram emot mötet med Schejk Zayed, som var välkänd bland beduinerna, som uppskattade honom för hans öppna, informella sätt, karaktärsstyrka, list och fysiska styrka:

Zayed är en bedu. Han känner kameler och rider som en av oss, han är en god skytt och vet hur man slåss.”

Då Thesiger frågade efter schejken fick han till svar att det lämpade sig väl att tala med honom då ”han sitter”, det vill säga när han befann sig i en majlis, ett rådsmöte. Thesiger sökte upp legendomspunne schejken då han enkelt, traditionellt klädde och barfota satt direkt på sanden, omgiven av trettio män. Då hanfick syn på Thesiger nalkas reste sig Schejk Zayed och bjöd engelsmannen att slå sig ner på en matta framför sig, medan han respektfullt åter satte sig på sanden.

Zayed hade ett starkt, intelligent ansikte, med stadig blick, observanta ögon och hans sätt var stillsamt och tystlåtet, men dominerande […] han bar en dolk och ett patronbälte; hans gevär låg på sanden bredvid honom. […] Jag betraktade honom medan han med stor uppmärksamhet lyssnade till varje rättssak som lades fram inför honom. Kontrahenterna argumenterade upprört och avbröt varandra ständigt, vilket är deras vana. Zayed hade ingen önskan att förarga förbrytarna, men inte heller förlora sitt anseende för rättvisa. Det var bevis för hans skicklighet att han med sina domslut i allmänhet lyckades tillfredsställa de olika falangerna.


Thesiger och Schejk Zaued blev goda vänner. Han lånade engelsmannen sin vittberömda, vita kamel Ghazala och Thesiger återvände vid flera tillfällen till Muwaiqih och stannade där under längre perioder. Vid ett tillfälle följde han Schejk Zayed och hans män under en flera veckor lång jaktexpedition, när Zayed visade sin stora förtrogenhet med falkeneringens intrikata moment. Han förklarade för Thesiger att jakt med falk är den ädlaste sport som finns, eftersom jägaren genom den förenas med sin falk, ser och tänker som honom och jagar sina byten genom falken. Det är något helt annat än att sikta på ett djur och fälla det med ett gevär. Precis som doktor Müller vid Abu Dhabis falksjukhus fann Thesiger för en inbiten falkenerare framstår falken som en en familjemedlem. Falkenerare sov med sina falkar vid sängen och då Zayeds män satt och samtalade med Thesiger hade de ofta med sig sina falkar, som de smekte och viskade till.



När Thesiger träffade Schejk Zayed en sista gång 1977 var denne redan på väg att bli en världens förmögnaste män, men enligt Thesiger var Zayed lika respektfull och stillsamt tillmötesgående som trettiofem år tidigare. Även om han nu bodde i ett palats var Zayed fortfarande omgiven av sina jaktfalkar.


Liksom fallet var för Schejk Zayed var Frederik II av Hohenstaufens falkintresse följden av en sekellång tradition. Normandernas vikingaförfäder hade varit ivriga falkjägare, något som flera runstenar bär vittnesbörd om, exempelvis den norska Alstedstenen.



På Bökstastenen i Uppland ser vi hur en beriden jägare, följd av en man på skidor, nedlägger en älg som angrips av hans hundar och jakthökar. Stenen kröns av en bild av en jakthök med stora klor.



Något som får mig att tänka på Jämtlands märkliga landskapsvapen som bygger på ett sigill skapat 1635 på order av den danske kungen Kristian IV, men det svårtolkade motivet kan vara äldre än så. Jag undrar om det inte kan vara besläktat med bilden på Bökstastenen, som sägs vara en framställning av skid- och jaktguden Ull, som den danske krönikeskrivare Saxo Grammaticus (1150/60-1206) berättade om.



I nordiska myter och legender fanns det gott om fåglar och jaktfalkar. Den danske kungen Rolf Krake sägs ha haft en jakthök vid namn Hábrók som under en strid vid Uppsala sägs ha dödat inte mindre än trettio stycken den svenske kungen Adil den Mäktiges jaktfåglar. Liksom normanderna tycks alltså vikingarna ha fört med sig sina jaktfalkar i såväl strid, som till vardags.


Den norske kungen och sedermera helgonförklarade Olav Tryggvason, som för övrigt var född i Kiev och där blivit omvänd till kristendomen under Valdemar I, lär ha haft ett våldsamt humör. Han grep i vredesmod sin syster Astrids älskade jakthök och plockade fjädrarna av den efter det att systern vägrat hjälpa honom att fria till en kvinna som skulle göra så att han skulle kunna ingå en allians med en av sina många fiender.


Den ryska ikonen nedan framställer dock inte Sankt Olof, utan helgonet Tryphon, vars namn betyder ”mjukhet/finkänslighet”. Inom ortodox kristendom dyrkas Tryphon som beskyddare av fåglar och böner till honom ber om skydd mot angrepp av gnagare och gräshoppor. Innan han blev helgon på 200-talet tog Tryphon hand om gäss i det frygiska Kampsade, men då vikingen Valdemar I införde hans kult i Kiev förvandlades han till beskyddare för falkenerare och bär på en stenfalk.



För övrigt nämns i de nordiska sagorna jakthökar oftare än jaktfalkar, som användes mer av normanderna och ryska vikingar. Det berodde på att de dyrbarare och bättre ansedda falkarna jagade på öppen mark, medan i de djupa skandinaviska skogarna var hökar betydligt skickligare jägare. Det nämns att nordborna även använde ugglor som jaktfåglar.


Kungen Gautrek av Västergötland hade alltid med sig sin jakthök och då hans älskade hustru dog lämnade han tronen till sin son och satt sörjande på hennes gravhög, medan höken förde med sig mat till honom.


Man finner ofta rovfåglar i vikingagravar, hos såväl män som kvinnor och det rör sig antagligen om deras älskade jaktfåglar, men bruket kan också ha haft en religiös betydelse. I nordisk mytologi tjänar fåglar som budbärare och en länk mellan olika världar, inte minst mellan liv och död. Berömda är döds- och visdomsguden Odins korpar, Hugin och Munin, som bar honom bud från världen och viskade i hans öron. Hugin betyder ”tanke” och Munin ”minne”.



Korparna hade också en sinister aspekt i samband med att de var likätare och därmed även kopplade till Odins roll som en fruktad dödsgud. Den isländske skalden Torbjörn Hornklof skrev i ett kväde till Harald Hårfagre:


Kraxande korpar

vadan kommen I, sägen,

med blodiga näbbar

vid början av dagen.

Kött låder vid klorna;

liklukt ur munnen.

I natt i nedslogen

i närhet av likskörd.



I kronan av världsträdet Yggdrasil sitter örnen Hreasvelgr, Liksväljaren, och skapar genom sina vingslag vindarna. Likt Odin har Hreasvelgr sin förtrogne budbärare och informant, höken Väderfölne, som vilar på hans huvud.



Hreasvelgr har en tvilling, örnen Are, som på helvetesgudinnan Hels uppdrag hämtar de som vid Tinget dömts till döden ner till pinohålorna i Helheim.

Fåglar vet och ser mer än människor, något som hjälten Sigurd Fafnersbane erfor då han efter att ha dödat draken Fafner och på inrådan av Fafners förrädiske bror Regin stekte Fafners hjärta över elden. Regin ville ha det som belöning för att han hjälpt Sigurd dräpa Fafner. Men, då Sigurd med pekfingret kände på hjärtats stekyta och sedan stoppade det i munnen för att smaka av så hörde han hur mesar kvittrade i en buske:


Där sitter Sigurd och steker Fafners hjärta. Det skulle han äta själv, så skulle han bli den klokaste av alla.



Denna strävan att bli ett med fåglarna, och speciellt med falken, denne skarpsynt skicklige jägare, är något som förespeglat flera män och kvinnor som fostrat och tränat jaktfalkar. Vikingarna förde med sig sina jaktfalkar över haven och hade givetvis med sig dem under sina färder till Irland, England och Normandie, där de sedan bosatte sig och fortsatte med sin falkenering.



Wilhelm Erövraren var en inbiten falkenerare och på Bayeauxtapeten som berättar om normandernas erövring av England finns flera falkar och hökar framställda. Normandernas ättlingar förde sedan sina falkar vidare till Sicilien och hade även med dem på sina korsfararfärder. I Korsfararstaternas Outremer stötte de de normandiska aristokraterna säkert på likasinnade muslimska potentater som även de var inbitna falkenerare och de utbytte sina intressen och erfarenheter.



Den normandisk-tyske kejsaren Frederick II av Hohenstaufen hävdar i sin digra bok De arte venandi cum avibus, Om konsten att jaga med fåglar, att falkenering är den mest förfinade sport som finns, emedan den utgör ett sätt att lära känna och bli ett med naturen, en andlig övning som dessutom är en form av meditation, konst och vetenskap. Den traditionella jakten med vapen och hundar framstod för Frederick som brutal och tölpig, falkenering byggde däremot på ett subtilt samspel mellan fågel och jägare som skapar ett förhållandet mellan människa och natur som når sin högsta dignitet genom att falkeneraren, hans hästar och hundar alla är underställda den ädla falken.




Fredericks rovfågelsbeundran blir nära nog en sinnebild för Kosmos, den orörda naturens kraftfulla liv. Han betraktar rovfåglar som aristokratiska varelser och förknippar dem med jordiska härskare, likt honom själv, den tysk-romerske kejsaren, jordens mäktigaste furste. En sådan tanke påminner om de forntida egypternas falkdyrkan. För dem var falkguden Horus, Osiris son, den universella ordningens upprätthållare. Hans skarpsynta ögon liknades vid den livgivande solen och den tidskontrollerande månen. Han sammanställdes med Farao, härskaren som den mänskliga ordningens garant. Horus öga blev sinnebilden för hela Egypten, för den livgivande Nilen, för ett välordnat Kosmos, för de årliga nilöversvämningarna, regn och spirande fruktbarhet. Horus verkade i symbios med Farao och identifierades med honom, samtidigt som falkguden agerade som hans gudomlige beskyddare, en garant för att han stod under Kosmos skydd. En tankegång som påminner om den kristna tanken om Jesus Kristus, som samtidigt betraktas som Gud Fader och hans son.



Frederick var i mångt och mycket lik en farao. Som en sådan levde han i harmoni med naturen. Farao styrde över naturen i form av kontroll av Nilens årliga översvämningar, som under hans överinseende reglerades genom organiserat arbete och konstruktioner av dammar och kanaler, samtidigt som han till sin egen ära och makt, liksom Kosmos garant byggde tempel och palats år sig själv. Även Frederick var ytterst observant på naturens växlingar och som en av världens första miljökonservationister avsatte han stora landområden, som skulle skyddas och lämnas orörda till förmån för djur- och växtliv. Ett initiativ som kan sättas i samband med hans uppslukande intresse för falkenering. Han ville bevara naturområden så att rovfåglarnas bytesdjur kunde frodas.



Likaså kan flera av hans magnifika byggnadsverk sättas i samband med hans falkintresse. Jag fascinerades av Frederick då jag för flera år sedan besökte hans sandstensslott Castel del Monte. På en kulle med utsikt åt alla håll över det omgivande landskapet, lysande vitt mot en klarblå himmel. En perfekt oktagon med åtta torn, även de med åtta sidor. Harmoniskt och majestätiskt dominerar slottet sina omgivningar. Som en väldig kejsarkrona kröner det en blomstrande kulle, en sinnebild för kejsarens makt och kontroll över sitt land. Castel del Monte är dock ingen borg, det saknar vallgrav och vindbrygga. I själva verket är det en överdimensionerad jaktstuga, från vars torn Frederick kunde observera rovfåglarnas flykt och släppa ut sina falkar på jakt.



Frederick II var i mångt och mycket en märklig man. I sin grundbok Biologins historia, som gavs ut mellan 1920-1924 och översattes till en mängd språk sammanfattade botanikern Erik Nordenskiöld klart och koncist Fredericks personlighet och insats, som han ansåg ha haft stor betydelse för ornitologin som vetenskap:


Italiensk i sin fostran, halvt orientalisk i sina vanor och sitt sätt att tänka samlade han omkring sig lärde män från såväl öst som väst. Han lät översätta Aristoteles skrifter från grekiska till latin. Fredriks skrift om falkenering är så mycket mer än en redovisning för jakt, det är en omfattande redogörelse för fåglars anatomi och vanor.




Den remarkable Frederick II, som redan under sin livstid kallades för Stupro mundi et innovator, Världens mirakel och nydanare, var under sin femtiosexåriga levnad i det närmaste obegripligt verksam inom en mängd områden. Hans många och varierade prestationer var långt ifrån begränsade till falkenering och lärda utläggningar kring fåglars liv och leverne. Fredericks politiska bana var späckad med tvister kring hans tyska, italienska och orientaliska anspråk och präglades av ständiga belägringar, strider, och korståg, födda ur intriger av religiös, social och geografisk karaktär. Speciellt framträdande var han ideologiska och politiska sammandrabbningar med påven. Frederick kunde liknas vid en stormburen rovfågel flygande över Europas centrum och Levantens länder.




Bedömd efter en modern måttstock var han dessutom en frivol njutningssökare, trolös och tolerant, med mängder av frillor som i hans palats i Lucera efter orientalisk sed hölls i avskildhet och övervakades av eunucker.



Han skrev om och studerade matematik, arkitektur, naturalia och filosofi, läste och talade latin, italienska, tyska, arabiska, franska och grekiska. Ett av hans specialintressen var medicin och han reformerade den antika medicinskolan i Salerno samt krävde att läkare skulle examineras och registreras. 1224 grundade han universitetet i Neapel, det första i Europa med fastslagna statuter och läroplaner. Musik och litteratur blomstrade vid hans hov och tillsammans med muslimska och judiska vise män utforskade han naturens mysterier, inte minst genom obduktioner av människor och djur. Han skeptiska, praktiska och undersökande karaktär formulerades i en av av hans deviser Ea que sunt, sicut sunt, det [de] som är, är som det [de] är, en kritik av teologiska hårklyverier. Han var uppslukad av naturstudier. Så fort tid gavs från alla hans politiska bestyr, krig och intriger sökte han sig ut i naturen.



I Ferdericks fågelbok De Arte Venandi Cum Avibus finns helt omotiverat en bild av en man som lagt sina kläder vid stranden av en sjö, eller damm, och naken simmar i den. Kanske en framställning av Frederick själv. Hur han kopplar av från alla bestyr och bekymmer och uppgår i sin älskade natur. Bilden får mig osökt att tänka på en bild av Noman Rockwell som visar hur en sommarvarm handelsresande stigit ur sin bil för att ta ett uppfriskande dopp i en å.



Frederick studerade intensivt djurens beteende i såväl det fria som i fångenskap. Han ägde ett stort exotiskt menageri med elefanter, lejon, geparder dromedarer, kameler, apor, en mängd rovfåglar och det mest förbluffande av allt – en giraff, en vit påfågel och en isbjörn. Under sina talrika resor förde Frederick ofta med sig, som i ett cirkusfölje, djur från sitt zoo. Givetvis för att det roade honom att sysselsätta sig med djuren, men också för att locka till sig och imponera på andra potentater. Det hände också att han drog genom städer och byar och exponerade sina makalösa djur som om det rörde sig om ett sentida cirkusspektakel.




Giraffen gjorde överallt i Europa en stor succé och den vita påfågeln och isbjörnen imponerade på de muslimska potentater han förhandlade med i Palestina – han lyckades utan blodspillan garantera att de heliga platserna åter öppnades för de kristna och han blev själv, med muslimernas medgivande, i varje fall av deras tillfälliga makthavare, utropad till kung av Jerusalem. Giraffen fick han av kalifen i Kairo i utbyte mot sin isbjörn.


En stor beundran för Frederick lever kvar, speciellt i södra Italien där han hyllas som Den förste europén. Entusiasmen inför den tysk-romerske kejsaren delas dock inte av korstågens moderne krönikör, Steven Runciman, som skriver:


Han var en stilig man, inte lång men välbyggd, fastän tidigt benägen till fetma. Hans hår hade Hohenstaufarnas röda färg, men tunnades tidigt ut. Hans ansiktsdrag var regelbundna med en fyllig, tämligen sensuell mun och ett uttryck som tycktes vara vänligt tills man lade märke till hans kyligt gröna ögon, vars genomträngande blick dolde deras närsynthet. […] Han var väl bevandrad i filosofi, i vetenskaperna, i medicin, i naturalhistoria och grundligt informerad om andra länders seder och bruk. Hans konversation, när han valde den att vara så, var fascinerande. Men trots all sin briljans var han inte sympatisk. Han var grym, självisk och slug, opålitlig som vän och oförsonlig som fiende. Hans njutningslystnad rörande varje form av erotiska nöjen chockade till och med Outremers [Mellanösterns korsfararstater] lättsinnigt omoraliska normer. Han älskade att skapa upprördhet genom sina skandalösa kommentarer kring religion och moral. […] Han såg ingen skada i att intressera sig för andra religioner, särskilt Islam, som han hade varit i kontakt med hela sitt liv. Likväl förföljde ingen härskare mer skoningslöst kristna kättare, som katharerna och deras anhöriga.



Bakom och överallt fanns falkenering, under Fredericks resor, hans samtal och krig. Vid ett tillfälle slutade en belägring i en katastrof eftersom Frederick och hans följe lämnat sitt tältläger under bristfällig bevakning efter det att de gett sig ut på falkenering. Fienden bröt belägringen och förstörde Fredericks läger. Under de lediga stunder han fann studerade Frederick fåglarna och skrev på sin De Arte Venandi Cum Avibus, läste arabiska falkkännare och diskuterade deras rön med de muslimska lärde han hade i sin tjänst, det är möjligt att han även tecknade bokens unika illustrationer eftersom han även var känd som en kunnig konstnär.



Visserligen är fågelåtergivningarna långt ifrån så detaljrika och realistiska som Rudbecks, Audobons och von Wrights mästerverk, men de har en dekorativ och unik charm.



Det är långt ifrån enbart falkar och hökar som Frederick beskriver och avbildar, utan även andra fåglar,



och de människor som vårdar och tränar falkar.



Han beskriver även hur jakten går till och hur ryttarna lämnar sina slott i gryningen. Det var främst falkenering till häst som fascinerade Frederick.



Antagligen sökte den tysk-romerske kejsaren i sitt falkintresse en befrielse från sin mångfacetterade tillvaro. Det är möjligt att han liksom flera andra fågelfantaster identifierade sig med sina jaktfalkar – drömde om att bli som en falk. Någon som definitivt tycktes vara en önskan för den solitäre, närsynte och originelle John Alec Baker (1926-1987). Det kan tyckas som om denne man var raka motsatsen till den mäktige, välkände och beundrade Frederick II av Hohenstaufen – en tämligen anonym tjänsteman på The Automobile Association’s, AA:s lokalavdelning i staden Chelmsford, huvudort i grevskapet Essex, nordost om London. AA är Englands motsvarighet till det svenska Motormännens Riksförbund och tillhandahåller fordonsförsäkring, körlektioner, haveriskydd, lån, bilrådgivning, och vägkartor. J.A, Baker saknade körkort, han hade inte ens TV i den enkla bostad som han i centrala Chelmsford delade med hustrun Doreen. Även Doreen arbetade på AA, paret var barnlöst och John Alec förblev hela sitt liv i Chelmsford. Till och med hustrun beskrev honom som ”något av en ensling”.



Men, det fanns något som förenade John Alec Baker med Frederick II av Hohenstaufen och Schejk Sayed av Abu Dhabi – falkarna. Detta trots att han aldrig ägt eller försökt tämja en rovfågel. Likt Frederick II ville Baker uppenbarligen vara ett med naturen och med stort tålamod närmade han sig de pilgrimsfalkar han fascinerades av. Enligt honom betraktade pilgrimsfalkarna alla andra varelser som hot, byte, eller som harmlösa. Speciellt svårt var det för en mänsklig varelse att framstå som ett oförargligt väsen, eftersom vi för djuren framstår som dråpare ”stinkande av död. Vi bär den med oss. Den täcker oss som frost. Vi kan inte slita oss från den.”



Det gällde att närma sig den ytterst skarpsynte pilgrimsfalken så stilla och obemärkt som möjligt:


För att bli igenkänd av en pilgrimsfalk måste man varje gång bära samma kläder, färdas samma väg, utföra sina handlingar i samma ordning. Liksom alla fåglar fruktar den det oförutsägbara. […] dölj din stirrande blick, göm händernas vita viftande.


Baker ville vara så nära pilgrimsfalken som möjligt. Han hyste ingen önskan att äga den, att behärska den. Det tycks som han istället önskade att falken skulle dominera honom, nästan som om det rörde sig om en obesvarad kärlek, en passion. Baker njöt och plågades av denna hopplösa kärlek, bunden som han var till en otymplig, ofärdig människokropp. En åskådare, en betraktare som försökte tänka som en falk, vara som som en falk, men som var oförmögen att lämna sin kropp, förneka sitt väsen, sin mänskliga särart. Det går inte att flyga, att se, att livnära sig som en falk. Baker tycks ha undvikit mänskligt sällskap, medveten om sin extrema närsynthet och en fumlighet som förvärrades av en obönhörligt förvärrad reumatisk artrit. Under sin barndom hade han varit sjuklig och som tonåring blev han efter ett nervöst sammanbrott, följden av en olycklig kärlekshistoria, under tre månader intagen på sjukhus.


Så ofta som han hade möjlighet vandrade, eller cyklade, den extremt närsynte John Alec ut till markerna öster om Chelmsford. Längs floden Chelmers frodiga stränder nådde han Essexs bördiga och mjukt böljande jordbrukslandskap som sänker sig mot ån Blackwaters mynning vid Nordsjöns låglänta kust.



Med stort tålamod och skarp iakttagelseförmåga följde John Alec fågellivet genom sin kikare. Genom att åtgärda hans olycksaliga närsynthet skänkte kikaren honom med något han liknade vid en ”höks vaksamhet”.


På de öppna fälten och sankmarkerna studerade John Alec ingående pilgrimsfalkens vaksamma väntan, dess flykt, vanor, jakt, badande och parning. I sin bok följer han likt Brusewitz och Lord Grey minutiöst naturens växlingar, dagarnas och speciellt gryningens skiftningar och ljus, väderleken, djurlivet, dofter och växter. Som en röd tråd genom den dynamiska och emellanåt metaforiskt överdrivna skildringen, som i stort sett följer dag på dag från oktober 1962 till april 1963, löper pilgrimsfalkens närvaro och John Alec näst intill totala identifikation med fågeln.


Han beskriver pilgrimsfalkens jakt. Letar rätt på resterna av dess bytesdjur, som han noggrant bokför Han beskriver ingående hur falken slitit dem i stycken och vilka delar av deras kött som den slukat. John Alec skildrar en värld där rovfåglarnas tillvaro präglas av olika former av dödande. Hans redogörelser är så gott som helt befriade från den fallenhet för ett förmänskligande av djurens beteende som ofta vidlåder romantiska naturskildringar.



I själva verket sammanställde J.A. Baker tio års trägna studier av pilgrimsfalken till en noggrann, men inte helt korrekt, destillation som utspelar sig under en höst och vinter under vilken han följer sin avsikt att ingående studera falken:


Varhelst han färdas under denna vinter, skall jag följa honom. Jag skall dela jägarlivets fruktan, eufori och tristess. Jag skall följa honom tills dess min rovgiriga, mänskliga skepnad inte längre genom skräck förmörkar det färgrika kalejdoskop som skimrar i djupets av hans oerhörda ögas fovea. Mitt hedniska sinne skall försjunka i vinterlandet och renas där.


Fovea är en fördjupning i näthinnans för ögats detaljcentrerarade seende. Hos en pilgrimsfalk är fovea betydligt mer utvecklad och effektiv än hos människan. J.A. Bakers (det är typiskt för John Alec gömde sig bakom initialerna J.A.) omnämnande av fovean är symtomatiskt för hans detaljspäckade framställningssätt. Det kan verka tröttande och alltför omständligt för någon som inte själv upplevt naturens subtila skiftningar, men på en sådan kan författarstilen ha en i det närmaste hypnotisk inverkan.


I sin märkliga bok berättar John Alec knappt något om sig själv, annat än sina observationer av landskap och fåglar, sin oro inför människors besinningslösa åverkan på naturen och deras skuld till till pilgrimsfalkarnas utrotande. Emellanåt skymtas något som närmast kan betecknas som en ångest, till och med ett förakt, inför människans intrång i naturen. Ofta återkommer John Alecs längtan att bli som en pilgrimsfalk:


Jag sluter mina ögon för att utkristallisera min vilja till att dela ett ljusgenomdränkt prisma av hökens sinne. Varm och med säker gång genom det långa gräset, som doftar av solsken, sjönk jag in under hökens skinn, bland dess blod och kött […] Likt höken hörde och hatade jag ljudet av människa, denna ansiktslösa skräck bland förstenade platser […] Jag kände samma märkliga längtan att färdas därifrån.



En sådan längtan efter att bli en fågel har ofta gestaltats i litteratur och film. Då jag under en tid undervisade på den internationella skolan i Hanoi var en av mina kolleger Camille Du Aime, en storvuxen, amerikansk dam som vuxit upp på en flodbåt på Seine i Paris:


Det var en tämligen eländig och läckande båt. Jag kan inte påstå att jag trivdes på den. Mina föräldrar var bohemiskt lagda och medan jag levde med dem försökte min far livnära sig som konstnär. Han hade trauman efter sitt deltagande i Andra världskriget och han försökte genom konsten fördriva sina demoner. Det var först långt om länge han fann sitt rätta element genom skrivandet. Han blev rik och berömd, men då var det för sent för min del.



Camilles far, Albert William Du Aime (1925–2008), skrev under pseudonymen William Wharton och Birdy, hans första roman, skriven då han var över femtio år, blev en omedelbar succé och liksom de följande romanerna Dad och A Midnight Clear blev Birdy en kritikerrosad film (Wharton publicerade fler än tio böcker).


Birdy handlar om en känslig, något neurotisk ung man som drömmer om att bli fri som en fågel. Typiskt för hans beteende är då han efter en fumlig och misslyckad kärleksakt med en vacker flicka återvänder hem till ett fågelhus han byggt i sitt rum och liggande naken där föreställer sig hur han flyger kring i sitt rum, genom huset och ut i världen.


Efter att ha blivit inkallad till kriget i Vietnam, såras Birdy i ansiktet och drabbas därefter av ett svårt trauma, blir intagen på ett mentalsjukhus där han genom sina fågelfantasier bygger sig en mental mur. En mur som inte enbart utestänger honom från plågsamma krigsminnen, utan även från allt umgänge med människor och ett normalt liv.



Regissören Alan Parker Parker som 1984 gjorde filmen Birdy, kallade Whartons bok en ”underbar historia” och brottades till en början med hur han skulle gestalta den:


Jag visste inte hur jag skulle kunna ta bokens lyriska ton och omvandla den till filmatisk poesi, eller om en publik verkligen ville se ett sådant verk.


Vid filmfestivalen i Cannes 1985 vann Parkers film Grand Prix Spécial du Jury.



Birdy och flera andra verk, såväl romaner och vetenskapliga redogörelser.



som filmer, rör människors samröre med falkar, hökar och andra fåglar.



Alejandro Iñárritus mångbottnade film Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) har genom sin förmåga att koppla samman realism med ett inre drama som påverkar verkligheten och därmed omskapar den, har av en del kritiker betraktats som ett lyckat försök att överföra den latinamerikanska magiska realismen till film. Filmen har också jämförts med Fellinis 8 ½ i så måtto att den skildrar en konstnärs/artists/regissörs värld, såväl utifrån som infrån och hur en slags writers block, skrivkamp, omvandlas till succéartad konst.


Iñárritu förklarade:


Det den här filmen handlar om vad jag har varit med om. Jag har sett och upplevt alltihop; det är hur jag har levt under de senaste åren av mitt liv.


För mig speglar Birdman mycket av det jag skrivit om i den här blogginlägget. Exempelvis hur filmen, liksom António Lobo Antunes Förklara fåglarna för mig realistiskt skildrar en förvirrad individs kamp med sig själv och sitt gångna liv, allt mot en fond av fåglarnas oförklarliga skönhet, skönsång och ”frihet”, som likväl uppenbarligen helt och hållet är drivet av instinkt. Birdman handlar om skådespelaren Riggan Thomsons kamp för att bryta sig ur den bur som skapats av hans roll som superhjälten Birdman. En berättelse präglad av en liknande olöslig konflikt som John Alec Barkers vilja att bli en pilrgimsfalk. En önskan/illusion som får sitt utlopp i skapande. I Barkers fall blev det en en bok, hos Riggan Thomson en realistisk pjäs med honom i huvudrollen, hos Alejandro Iñárritu – en film.


I allmänhet rör sig dessa verk kring tvångstankar och gränstrakter mellan fantasi och verklighet. Barry Hines (1939-2016) roman A Kestrel for a Knave, Kes Falken, är en alltigenom realistisk roman som utspelar sig vid mitten av sextiotalet i en grådaskig gruvarbetarstad belägen i Yorkshire. Romanens märkliga titeln, En tornfalk för en knekt, härstammar från en lista i ett manuskript från mitten av 1400-talet, The Booke of Hawkyng after prince Edwarde Kyng of Englande:


En örn för en kejsare; en jaktfalk för en kung; en pilgrimsfalk för en prins; en tatarfalk för en riddare; en stenfalk för en dam; en duvhök för en livgardist; en sparvhök för en präst; en musket [nordlig sparvhök] för en sekulärkanik och en tornfalk för en knekt.



Romanen skildrar en egensinnig femtonåring, Billy Kasper, som snart skall gå ur högstadiet och ge sig ut i arbetslivet. Han kommer från ett fattigt, splittrat hem med en lättfärdig, vulgär mor och en brutal halvbror, som arbetar nere i gruvgångarna, super sig full då han är ledig och regelbundet pryglar upp sin lillebror. Billy har ett förflutet som straffad medlem i ett kriminellt pojkgäng, som nu förföljer honom. Skolan är plåga och minst av allt vill Billy Kasper go down the pit, börja arbeta i gruvorna. Lycklig är han enbart då han vandrar kring i naturen som omger den dystra gruvstaden.



Billy är en känslig och uppmärksam pojke, som mot alla odds lyckats bevara sin glädje och självrespekt. Under en natt klättrar han med fara för sitt liv uppför muren till en klosterruin och fångar en tornfalksunge. Med hjälp av en diger bok han snattat i en bokhandel tränar Billy fågeln till att bli en skicklig jaktfalk. Kes, som han kallar falken, blir för Billy en flykt från hans eländigt kringskurna och sjaskiga tillvaro. Genom sin tålmodiga träning av Kes och sin befriande jakt med rovfågeln, som tyr sig till honom, styrks Billys självförtroende, men han förblir dock en främling i det omgivande samhället.


Det är en djupt gripande och mästerligt berättad roman som med tanke på mitt förflutna som lärare grep mig alldeles speciellt. Den själsdödande undervisningen, med dess bestraffningar och totala misslyckande i att finna godheten, styrkan, kunskapsviljan och trygghetssökandet hos en fattig, misshandlad pojke, kan även plåga en lärare med kärlek till sitt kall och en betagenhet inför undervisandets glädje.



En skickligt skildrad episod är då Billy Kasper av en empatisk lärare lockas att inlevelsefullt berätta om sin falkenering. Efter förlägenhet och tvekan grips Billy av sitt ämne och trollbinder hela klassen, samt imponerar på läraren, som sedan söker upp Billy då han jagar med sin falk på fälten utanför staden. Läraren inser att hans elev är en unik människa, vars intresse öppnat världen för honom och kan bli en väg bort från tristessen och gruvstadens hopplöshet, osäkerhet och fattigdom.


A Kestrel for a Knave rymmer såväl humor som glädje, men den är trots detta djupt tragisk i sin skildring av hur en i grunden god och fantasifull pojke ständigt hotas att kvävs i en brutal, fattig och oförstående omgivning.



Och nu tillbaka vid inledningen: “Somliga gillar att titta på fåglar som pickar i träsk. Men, vi gillar bio!” För mig är det dock en sanning med modifikation – visst gillar jag att se på bio, men som mitt blogginlägg förhoppningsvis visat är jag trots min okunnighet kring ämnet även fascinerad av fågelskådande – det respektfulla iakttagandet av dessa märkliga varelser. Fåglarna som ger liv och mening åt vår tillvaro.


Jag läste nyligen A Kestrel for Knave och det var min beundran för den romanen som ledde mig till mina fågelfunderingar. Att jag en gång köpte romanen berodde på att jag 1970 såg Ken Loachs Kes – falken på bio i Hässleholm och upplevelsen har dröjt sig kvar i minnet. Jag har inte sett om filmen, men skall nu försöka få tag på den, speciellt nu då jag läst romanen och fått veta att Loach gjorde filmen tillsammans med författaren Barry Hines. Orsaken till samarbetet var Loachs uppfattning att ”jag har aldrig läst en roman där varje scen med sådan lätthet kan överföras till film”.



Al Fahim, Mohammed A. J. (2013) From Rags to Riches: A Story of Abu Dhabi. Abu Dhabi: Makarem. Antunes, António Lobo (1995) Förklara fåglarna för mig. Stockholm: Månpocket. Audobon, John James (2001) The Birds of America. New York: Welcome Rain Publishers. Baeksted, Anders (1970) Gudar och hjältar i Norden. Stockholm: Forum. Baker, J. A. (2021) Pilgrimsfalken. Lund: Bakhåll. Bocaccio (1971) Decamarone i urval av Knut Hagberg. Stockholm: Forum. Brusewitz, Gunnar (1993) Strandspegling. Stockholm: En bok för alla. Brusewitz, Gunnar (1996) Dagbok från en sjö. Stockholm: Wahlström & Widstrand. Coll, Steve (2005) Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan and bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001. London: Penguin. Gresti, Paolo (ed.) (1992) Sonetti anonimi del Vaticano lat. 3793. Florens: Accademia della Crusca. Grey, Lord of Fallodon (1967) Fåglar och fågelsång. Stockholm: Pan/Norstedts. Hines, Barry (2000) A Kestrel for a Knight. London: Penguin Modern Classics. Kroll, Paul W. (2018) Critical Readings on Tang China: Volume 3. Leiden: Brill. Munif, Abdelrahman (1987) Cities of Salt. New York: Vintage International. Runciman, Steven (2016) A History of the Crusades II: The Kingdom of Acre. London: Penguin Classics. Tay, C.N. (1979) ”Two Poems of Mao Tse-tung in the Light of Chinese Literary Tradition,” i The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 29, No. 3, Thesiger, Wilfred (1991) Arabian Sands. London: Penguin. von Rosen, Björn (1978) Samtal med en nötväcka. Stockholm: En bok för alla. Wharton, William (1980) Birdy. New York: Avon Books. White, T.H. (2007) The Goshawk. New York: NYRB Classics. Wood, Casey A. och Marjorie Fyfe (eds.) (1969) The Art of Falconry Being the De Arte Venandi Cum Avibus of Frederick II of Hohenstaufen. Redwood City CA: Stanford University Press.





04/23/2022 12:26

And this is still life! What an eternal damnation!

Arthur Rimbaud


Through a daily confrontation with Ukrainian misery and Putin’s madness, the mood oscillates between fuitile anger and helpless hopelessness. What is the fundamental fault of humanity? How can any sensible person imagine that a war of aggression could cause anything but sorrow and devastation? How is it possible that great nations can submit to the will of a single individual? And what might be said about Putin’s defense of the grotesque abuses he and his henchmen are guilty of? To demilitarize and de-Nazify Ukraine? An insult to an entire people. That Ukrainians are carrying out genocide on Russians? In a nation where Russians, Ukrainians, Roma/Sinti and Jews have been subjected to what Putin now baselessly accuses their descendants of and to which they were in fact subjected to by representatives of the regime to which he is the actual heir. That he, Putin the Great, is a knight in shining armour who in the name of the Holy Mother Russia is taking up arms against morally corrupting influences from the West. That this preposterous clown is rescuing Russians from Ukrainian evil. O Sancta Simplicitas! A warlock spinning a web of deadly illusions that now are becoming materialized in the shape of war and terror.


Several parallels have been drawn between the beginning of World War II and Putin’s cynical, armed attack on Ukraine. Not least the West’s shameful way of throwing Czechoslovakia into the Nazi throat for the sake of its own peace of mind. Not to mention the German army’s unprovoked Blitzkrieg against Poland, an unprovoked attack that finally triggered the entire World War II.



At four in the morning on September 1, 1939, German bombs began without any warning to fall on the Polish city of Wielún. It was an experiment – was it possible to wipe out all defences in a short time by terror-bombing a vulnerable civilian population? Seventy tons of bombs were dropped on the defenbceless city, people fled and when German ground troops arrived there were more corpses than people among the ruins. The next day, the action was repeated over 158 Polish settlements. On the tenth of September, Warsaw was subjected to seventeen bomb raids, and so it continued until the middle of the month when the metropolis, as the first major European city to be subjected to something similar, was destroyed and the defense ceased – this after 560 tons of ”conventional” bombs, and 72 tons of “firebombs” had been raining down on Warsaw, leaving 25,000 deaths. However, in the rest of the country the Poles continued to fight on, all alone. Poland never surrendered, neither to the Germans, nor to the Russians.


Admittedly, Britain and France had declared war on Germany, though apart from the French army invading the Saar, only to retreat after a short time, no military operations were carried out to support the Poles, whose army eventually gave in after Poland had from the east been attacked by the Soviet Union’s Red Army. For the next five years, German and Russian massacres of Polish citizens continued.



From the very beginning, the battle had from the side of the attackers been overly ruthless. Neither the German, nor the Soviet army leadership considered Poland to be a “real” country and its army was thus according to them no “real army” either. Consciously the war was waged without any regard for internationally agreed conventions. Hitler advised his soldiers: “Close your hearts to pity.” Prisoners of war, as well as civilians who resisted the onslaught, were ruthlessly slaughtered by both Germans and Russians. For Poland, five years of war and German occupation resulted in between 5.62 and 5.82 million deaths, while during the year the Soviets occupied the eastern territories, 150.00 Poles were killed and 320,000 deported.


To this can be added the terror that Stalin between 1937 and 1938 had inflicted on Poles living in the Soviet Union. In Ukraine alone, 55,928 Poles (and ”Polish-friendly affiliates”) were arrested, of whom 47,327 were executed, in Belarus 17,722 Poles were executed, and in Leningrad 6,597. The contemporary poster below shows how Russian peasants approvingly watch a Soviet soldier clubbing a threatening Polish general.



The slaughter of Poles was repeated during World War II when Polish officers, intellectuals and soldiers were brought as prisoners to the Soviet Union, were they later were liquidated, among several palces in the infamous Katyn Forest – 21,892 Polish POWs were by NKVD members murdered through shots in the back of their heads. Of family members of those killed, 60,677 women, children and elderly were deported to Kazakhstan.



One of the survivors (he never understood why he had been spared) the Polish artist and reserve officer Józeph Czaspki wrote a tragic and well-worded book about how, on behalf of Soviet and Polish officers, he recruited a Polish army, which reached Italy through the Middle East to join the Allied struggle against the German armed forces. During his search for Polish volunteers, Czaspki gradually discovered the painful truth about NKVD’s murder of his Polish officer comrades. In addition to Primo Levi’s The Truce, Czaspki's book is the strangest and best written account I have come across dealing with of the fate of prisoners of war in the Soviet Union. Where Czaspki is bitter and critical, the Italian Auschwitz survivor Levi is more appreciative of the Russians.



Ignoring a long and extremely bloody history of oppression of the people of Ukraine and concerned about the threats of lower living standard and nuclear war we have now taken the seats of spectators to Ukraine’s suffering, so far supporting insufficient attempts to stop a mad leader’s cynical torment and destruction of defenceless women and children.



It hurts the soul of an ageing man with a beloved granddaughter to be confronted with images of the worried little ones, who with their dolls and teddy bears hide in basements, are placed on buses and trains, becoming deprived of all their security, their parents and even losing their tender lives.



If this meaningless and all-too-tangible nightmare, its destruction of morality and infrastructure are allowed to continue unabated. For sure one catastrophe after another still awaits. Half of Ukraine’s harvest, of paramount importance to global food supplies, is at risk of being lost due to Putin’s ruthless war. Last year, Ukraine harvested a record of 106 million tonnes of grain and 25, or even 50 percent of this amount is currently feared to be lost during this year and, most commentators add, “this is an optimistic forecast.”



This is not the first time that Ukraine, “he world’s breadbasket”, is suffering from grain shortages and, despite its wealth – devastating famine.


Several years ago, a good friend of mine, whom everyone calls Allen, though his actual name is Hussein Rahman, told me it is actually not entirely correct to blame mass starvation on the fact that poor harvests are stifling food supplies. Allen is quite knowledgeble. He got his Ph.D. from Dijon University after researching a high yielding variety of rice. After that he worked for 15 years for the World Food Programme (WFP) and was posted in Lesotho, Angola, Comoro Islands, Ethiopia, and Yemen. During the last years he worked with the UN he was during ongoing wars active in Somalia and Iraq with The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) Allen was convinced that famines mainly are a political issue and there are no, or at least very few, examples of mass stravation affecting democratic societies.


While studying at Dijon University, Allen was inspired by Nobel laureate Amartya Sen's book Poverty and Famines,written in 1982, in which Sen analyzed what he as a nine-year-old boy had seen in Bengal in 1943 – how people who had succumbed to acute starvation lay dead in the streets. Just over three million died from the devastating famine.





Amartya Sen proves that despite crop failure, there was nevertheless an adequate food supply in Bengal in 1943, though due to panic purchase, hoarding, military food storage and, above all, an economic boom that had raised food prices, it was mainly landless workers and the urban proletariat, whose wages had not followed the development, who could not obtain enough food. Bengali food production was admittedly lower than it had been the previous year, though more abundant than it had been in years befopre that, when no famine had occurred.


Amartya Sen’s studies of the Bengal famine have deepened in a way that proves him right in his conclusion that famines, generally speaking, are created by humans and can thus also be prevented, or at least mitigated, by humans. Archival studies have recently proven that Winston Churchill’s war cabinet in remote London had been repeatedly warned that a famine was brewing. At an early stage, the British Government was well aware of the fact that an excessive export of rice was likely to lead to a lethal famine, but it nevertheless chose to continue exporting undiminished quantities of rice from India to other parts of the Empire.



London turned a deaf ear when the Indians demanded a promised million tonnes of wheat in return for the exported rice. The warlords stood leaning over their maps and with a cigar in his mouth Churchill observed that the reason for the famine was actually that the Indians bred like rabbits and jokingly wondered that if the rice shortage was so immense, how come that Gandhi was still alive? The war was at the centre of these men’s thoughts and concerns, and in order to prevent the Japanese, who were approaching Bengal from Burma, from obtaining necessary food supplies, huge quantities of rice were brought away from the border areas, while thousands of boats were confiscated.



At the thought of Churchill and his associates leaning over their maps predicting and planning how the War would continue and unfold, I cannot help thinking of a poem by Anna Akhmatova, the undisputed poetess of the Soviet Union, who survived the siege of Leningrad, whose two husbands were executed and whose son spent more than ten years in Stalin’s Gulag camps. In a poem Akhmatova writes about the immense suffering behind figures, abstract data, figures and statistics:


I would like to call you all by name,

but the list has been removed

and there’s nowhere else to look.

I've woven them a shroud

prepared from poor words,

those I overheard.

I will always remember them, everywhere.

I will not forget them,

not even among new sorrows.



The cruel and emotionally cold attention with which leaders and rulers lean over maps, without a thought about the suffering they are causing through their hasty, strangely indifferent and yet fateful decisions.


According to Amartya Sen, it is the inability of those in power, or even worse – their reluctance to act in the public interest by guaranteeing freedom for food producers, which cause mass starvation. Of course, Sen has been contradicted from various quarters, but I am convinced that he was right that it is people’s general reluctance to help each other that causes starvation and a lack of understanding that it is actually a fair distribution of resources that guarantees that our general welfare may protect us from war and famine.



Amartya Sen writes about the need for a ”new human psychology”, which continuously would take into account how


politics and psychology affect each other. People can indeed be expected to resist political barbarism if they instinctively react against atrocities. We have to be able to react spontaneously and resist inhumanity whenever it occurs. If this is to happen, the individual and social opportunities for developing and exercising moral imagination have to be expanded.



Deadly hunger is among the most degrading sufferings that may affect a human being. Paralysing hunger does not lead to rebellion. Most people plagued by an all-consuming hunger are forced into an animalistic, instinctive, all-encompassing quest for survival. During a famine, people experience months of indescribable suffering, weakened by hunger pangs that might lead to insanity, paralysis, and eventually death. Entire social systems are affected not only by food shortages, but lack of morals, ”decency”, and compassion. Crime, violence, and emotional insensitivity spread throughout the social body, being replaced by a ruthless struggle of all against all, a desperate battle for your own survival.



Inside the Gulag and the killing fields of the Stalin era, as well as in nNazi death camps and occupied territories, starvation reigned, paired with freezing cold, vulnerability and the fact that people died like insects around those still able to preserve a spark of humanity. Within that glimmer of compassion there could still be a flickering belief in your own and others’ love and compassion. When you were forced to give up everything you previously thought and hoped for, could you still care for others? Some tough indivuals beacme engaged in a struggle not to disappoint yourself and forget about others for the sake of your own survival. Some clinged to a hope that everything would come to an end, a belief that you would finally make it alive. That you, and maybe even your loved ones would mange to survive and overcome Hell with so much strength and dignity left that you could endure an effort to be able to live again. I think very few were privileged to receive such a grace. Those who could tell of a miracle were the those who had survived – they knew that a miracle was the only reason why they had not perished.



Not everyone pass through hunger and torment as if they were animals, though many, probably most of them, suffer severely from hopelessness, which in addition to physical pain force them into shame and despair. It is not without reason that cynical rulers might consider hunger to be an effective means of crushing their enemies, bringing reluctant subordinates to their knees, pacifying and paralysing them through hunger and despair. Hunger is a weapon for the powerful and a bottomless shame for the destitute.



When I worked at Swedish International Development Agency (Sida), I was by my colleagues asked to be helpful in arranging an entertainment for the Agency’s Stockholm staff. I jumped at the opportunity to perform a role I always had dreamed of impersonating – The Master of Ceremonies, MC, in Kandor’s and Ebb’s magnificent Cabaret. Together with my colleagues I created a number revue as if it were a more modern variant than the one presented at the Kit Kat Klub in Berlin and we sang and danced. Before that, I had several times watched Bob Fosse’s unforgettable film version and knew every song number by heart. My absolute favourite was and still is Money, Money! which includes the lyrics:


When you haven't any coal in the stove
And you freeze in the winter
And you curse to the wind at your fate
When you haven't any shoes on your feet
Your coat's thin as paper
And you look 30 pounds underweight
When you go to get a word of advice
From the fat little pastor
He will tell you to love evermore
But when hunger comes to rap
Rat-a-tat rat-a-tat at the window
(At the window!)
Who's there? (hunger) oh, hunger!
See how love flies out the door.

The musical takes place in 1931, two years before the great famine hit Ukraine. The beginning of a monumental bloodbath that once more would wash over the constantly disputed areas between the German and Russian/Soviet empires. Tormenting the inhabitants of areas which came to be called The Blood Lands. In Bolshevik Ukraine Amartya Sen’s views could impossibly be counter-argued. There, mass starvation was for sure caused and exacerbated by an undemocratic, entirely totalitarian policy.

Considering Putin´s intense propagandistic argumention that Ukraine is a Russian core country, it could be opportune to point out that for most of the time, before it was annexed by Russia during Catherine the Great in the 1780s, this disputed area had for centuries been divided and torn between Ruthenians, Poles, Muscovites, Mongols, Tatars, Turks, and even Swedes, while it was inhabited by Ruthenians, Russians, Jews, Roma/Sinti, Greeks, Germans, Italians, and Cossacks.


Before the Russians invaded the area with full force, it had since 1648 been largely dominated by the Zaporože Cossacks. Those denominated as “Cossacks” were groupings of warrior peasants , who at first probably mostly consisted of escaped serfs and slaves who over time became united with other people who had ended up in areas which in both Polish and Russian were called the “border areas” – Ukraine.



The Cossacks and other steppe inhabitants were most often “controlled” by the Polish Kingdom, in union with Lithuania, and several of these settlers were during certain time periods oppressed by Polish lords, who occasionally could join forces with the “free” Cossack hordes, especially during common struggles against the Ottoman Turks. The Poles were generally Catholics, while Cossacks were Orthodox. In 1648, the Hetman, Cossack leader, Bohdan Khelmelnysky, headed a revolt against the Poles. After winning the war, the Cossacks controlled the Ukrainian steppes under constant skirmishes with Polish and Russian armies.



During my book devouring youth I read with relish novels about 17th century Cossacks – Sienkiewicz’s With Fire and Sword and Gogol’s Taras Bulba, which I had found in my grandfather’s well-stocked library. Of course, while reading these thrilling novels, I did not discover their ethnic stereotypes, over-heated nationalism and gung-ho sentiments. Nor did I notice the nasty backdrop of Khelmelnysky’s uprising, i.e. the Cossack leader’s limitless hatred of the Polish szlachta, aristocracy, and the Jews, whom he considered to be the szlachta´s trusted henchmen and faithful servants.



Khelmelnysky’s bloodthirsty hordes killed an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 Jews, and when the peace treaties were concluded, all Jews were banned from living in territories controlled by the Cossack rebels.


However, it is doubtful whether the hatred Khelmelnysky’s Cossacks nurtured for Jews was actually, as their leaders stated, whipped up by the role of the Jews as tax collectors, it was rather due to religious fervour and the fact that the defenceless Jews turned to Polish overlords, since they actually represented protection and some security in an othjerwise often hostile and dangerous environment. I did not realize this until I read Bashevis Singer’s Satan in Goray, which dealt with the aftermath of Khelmelnysky’s massacres and how desperate and confused Jewish survivors found hope in the teachings of the “false Messiah” Sabbati Zevi. A mad world filled with a fanatically heightened anxiety and dybbuks, malevolent, evil spirits assumed to be able to possess people.



The Russian Civil War and the Polish-Soviet War of 1919-1921, portrayed by Ukrainian master tellers like Mikhail Bulgakov and Isaac Babel, were a disaster for Ukraine, resulting in 1.5 million deaths. Ukraine was also hit hard by starvation, though this time the epicentre was areas around the Volga basin. Between 1921 and 1923, five million people died, but unlike what was to come, Bolshevik leaders asked the global community for help. Lenin and Gorky wrote an open letter, appealing to “all right-thinking Europeans and Americans: 'Give us food and medicine'.” Through mainly the U.S. aid organization ARA, but also a number of European initiatives and 250,000 Russians, more than 10 million people were fed on a daily basis up until 1924.



When the hunger plague was over, people asked themselves: “Could anything be worse? Now, we expect that peace and prosperity must finally arrive.” Not at all.


Both Hitler and Stalin wanted to control of Ukraine’s fertile wheat fields. After World War I Germany had lost its – albeit much more modest than France and England – overseas colonies and had also been defeated in Western Europe. However, on the Eastern Front, German armies had in fact won The War, and before the Germans less than a year after the Brest-Litovsk peace agreement made with the newly founded Soviet Union, had been forced to relinquish their control over the vast tracts of land they had conquered, the Germans assumed that The East would provide them with Das Lebensraum, The Living Space, several of them longed for. Hitler and his followers continued to dream of populating Ukraine’s wheat fields with enterprising Aryans and their Slavic serfs. These abundant areas would feed the growing industry and working class in the Aryans’ western motherland.



Stalin’s dreams were no less grandiose. For him Ukraine was much more than a source of agricultural supplies. It was a place that would change all economic laws. From there, the Soviet Union would be saved from poverty and isolation – an entire continent would be re-created. Nourished by the grain of Ukraine’s black soil, a vast army of industrial workers would build an utopian, high-tech communist Empire. Ukraine’s abundant surplus of wheat and cattle would be sold abroad and pay for what was needed to initiate a huge, amazing development.



Such enormous mobilization could not be allowed to be spoiled by half-measures and democratic squabble. No Polish parliament was required here, but goal-oriented, cold-blooded planning eould ransform every Soviet citizen into a cog in a well-oiled and relentlessly controlled machinery. But, how do you get a reluctant, bull-headed and stock-conservative peasantry to move in the right direction? Old believers who were appalled by the sight of a tractor factory, imagining that it was a Devil’s Fata Morgana.

Each and every peasant family could not be allowed to enrich itself on its own and to strive further along the same old plough furrows and linger in villages where family, church and neighbours were more important than a forward-looking collective, a progressive working class, science and a benevolent, rationally organized State. Everything must be aligend along the lines of Stalin’s thinking. Humans should be radically transformed, from being oppressed peasants down-trodden and sweltering under burdens of ancient farming methods, paralysing superstition and parasitizing big farmers. Agricultural labourers ought to straighten their backs and be offered education, access to scientific achievements and take their rightful place in emerging, effective collective farms and factories, like these young women working in a Donetsk factory:


But time for this transformation was limited. The Soviet Union was a huge country and in many ways backward, in particular if compaired to several of its increasingly threatening neighbours. Stalin feared the new nation’s arch-enemies, foremost among them Poland, which in 1921 against all odds had halted the Red Army’s advance towards the West. Furthermore, despite Lenin’s hopes to the contrary, Western capitalism did not seem to have weakened and Western democracies would not be crushed by revolting workers, at least not within any foreseeable future. Instead, there was according to Stalin a great at risk that his Soviet Union, wounded and weakened as it was by war and famine, was at a great risk of being attacked and subdued by Western, capitalist powers endowed with a far superior technology. In the East, another opponent grew stronger and constantly more threatening – Japan. In Stalin’s mental world, Western and Eastern spies, saboteurs and infiltrators threatened to corrode his Empire from within, while capaitalism/impeialism was mobilizing enemies all along its outstretched borders.

Massive industrial production and more efficient, modern agriculture collectives in the form of kolkhozy (if they were cooperative-run) or sovkhozy(if they were state-run) must be built up immediately, while reactionaries, saboteurs and spies had to be purged, exterminated and/or rendered harmless. One Ukrainian problem was the elongated, porous border with Poland and many Ukrainians often violent opposition to the Bolsheviks.

By the outbreak of World War I, large parts of the western and south-western parts of present-day Ukraine were an integrated part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, meaning that when the Imperial Russian Army invaded Austro-Hungarian Galicia, 250,000 Ukrainians fought for Austria-Hungary, while 3.5 million were fighting on the Russian side and a huge number of Ukrainian civilians ended up in the cross-fire between the two huge armies.

Ukraine lost 1.5 million people during the war years and Ukrainian nationalists gained increasing support for their desire to unite “their people” within the borders of an independent republic, but such hopes were dashed when it in Versailles was decided that most of Ukraine would go to the Soviet Union and become one of its republics. Returning, war-weary soldiers, however, had previously gathered in Kyiv to participate in an All-Ukrainian Congress of Soldiers’ Representatives and on May 18, 1917, an Ukrainian General Military Committee was established with the task of organizing an “independent” Ukrainian Army. As commander for this army Symon Petliura (1879-1826) was chosen. He was a well-known journalist who mainly had been active in St. Petersburg. The Ukrainian language had since 1873 been banned throughout the Russian Empire and Petliura found it easier to write and operate in the capital of the Empire than in Ukraine.

However, quarrels within the Ukrainian leadership made Petliura leave the Government of a so far embryonic Ukrainian Republic and and take command of what now was called Haidama Kish, the “Voluntary Army”. During four years of fighting, Petliura fought both the Bolsheviks and the “White” forces opposing them, and he often sided with the Polish army. The Poles had assured Petliura that they supported an independent Ukraine.

Petliura’s tragedy was his undisciplined troops. Several of his soldiers were mentally war-injured veterans and although most of them were of peasant descent, their roots had been uprooted and most of them had lost contact with their relatives, if they had not died. Few had any professional background and the war had hindered them from getting a proper education. The soldiery lived under constant threat and were constantly in motion. Inadequately restrained army squads committed horrific crimes against the civilian population, especially Jews. All the armies that took part in the bloody civil conflict in Ukraine were guilty of murdering Jews, though Petliura’s Volunteer Army was definitely the worst. It is estimated that between 35,000 and 50,000 Jews were massacred during four years of Ukrainian civil war.



The pogroms could not be curbed. Petliura issued a stern order that the persecution of Jews and pogroms should be banned and forcefully condemned. Under no circumstances could such barbarism be tolerated, especially since foreign observers, not least the aid workers who had arrived in Ukraine to alleviate the famine and often were forced to observe the cruelty inflicted on the Jerwish population did not fail to report what they had seen and experienced.


Order issued on August 26, 1919, by the Main Command of the Armies of the Ukrainian National Republic: It is time to realize that the world’s Jewish population—their children, their women—was enslaved and deprived of its national freedom, just like we were. It should not go anywhere away from us; it has been living with us since time immemorial, sharing our fate and misfortune with us. I decisively order that all those who will be inciting you to carry out pogroms be expelled from our army and tried as traitors of the Motherland. Let the courts try them for their actions, without sparing the criminals the severest punishments according to the law. The government of the UNR, understanding all the harm that pogroms inflict on the state, has issued a proclamation to the entire population of the land, with the appeal to oppose all measures by enemies that instigate pogroms against the Jewish population.
Chief Otaman Petliura



The effort was in vain, mass rapes and pogroms against Jews continued. When Petliura lived in exile in Paris, he was in 1926 stopped in the street by an anarchist, Sholom Schwarzbard, who had had fourteen relatives massacred in a pogrom carried out by members of the Volunteer Army.


– Are you Mr. Petliura? Schwarzbard wondered and when Petliura waved his walking stick in confirmation, Swarzbard took a step forward and hissed:

– Dirty dog, my people’s killer. Defend yourself, and he then fired five shots straight into Petliura's chest.


Several of the Cossack units, which fought on all sides of the conflict, though mainly on the side of the Whites, particularly under the generals Kornilov, Alekseyev, and Deniken, were also guilty of horrific abuses directed against Jews. Even if they practised an inner discipline they were nevertheless often part of the demoralized and murderous groups which roamed the cities and the Ukrainian countryside in the early 1920s. A shocked eyewitness, an American aid worker wrote:

Around the the towns and shtetles are bandit packs, insurgents, groups, mobs, or simply peasants with pitchforks and scythes, with various slogans, with all sorts of demands, or with out all these gauze curtains [pretence]; – all of them beat, torture, mutilate Jews. There are many dozens of chieftains. Almost all of them have nicknames borrowed from the folk tales or pulp fiction.

The Cossacks were a group in their own right. They were surrounded by a romantic nimbus and generally considered to be wild, reckless warriors. Exotic, yet well-known strangers. Unbridled, strong and uninhibited, they were nevertheless also known to be unwaveringly loyal to their Cossack comrades. Like the Red Indians of boys’ adventure books, they were considered to live in perfect harmony with their surrounding nature and rode as if they were one with their horses. It was not so strange that other groups, both criminal and nationalist, tried to imitate the Cossacks and often called themselves Cossacks and hetmans.

However, the genuine Cossacks, who lived in accordance with the traditions and specific rules of their clans and groups, would certainly not have identified with any particular “nationality”. Their identity lay elsewhere. They were “free men”, with traditions, ideas and laws of their own . Cossack identity was not based on any ethnicity, but on their community. Cossacks were not an ethnically homogeneous group of people and they did not identify with neither Russians nor Ukrainians.

Cossacks, like White officers, had similar motives for fighting the Bolsheviks. As a result of the revolution, they had lost their special privileges. The Bolshevik policy against Cossacks was quite simple – without any hesitations the new Soviet rulers declared that their aim was to dissolve the Cossack armies, while abolishing Cossack privileges and land ownership. Every attempt to maintain the traditional Cossack units was perceived as a counter-revolutionary activity and met with persecution and violence.

The Cossacks, who had made themselves known as excellent horsemen and devoted soldiers, had on their own terms made agreements with various rulers and often served directly under Russian tsars (when they did not rebel like Pugachev and Mazepa). For centuries Cossacks had retained their privileged status and generally hated the Bolsheviks’ attempts to curtail their freedoms, although one or two Cossack groups nevertheless sided with the Reds, such as some units within Semyon Bujonny’s cavalry army, which fought against the Poles and during World War II.

Enrolling in the Bolshevik forces could for some Cossacks be a matter of survival. Many suffered through their relentless refusal to submit to the Bolshevik State. Between 1918 and 1924, a large number of Cossacks were executed and even more were forcibly relocated. In the areas around Don, east of Ukraine, there lived in 1918, 4.5 million people, half of whom in villages granted specific Cossack privileges, three years later the population had more than halved.


In his novel And Quiet Flows the Don, Mikhail Sholokov, who was not a Cossack himself, gave a vivid and exciting fresco of the life of the Don Cossacks during the Civil War. In the novel, its hero, Grigory, changes sides again and again. Despite the straitjacket of social realism, the young Sholokov, who was only twenty-two years old when he wrote the first part of his quadrology, managed to give depth and relief to the characters his story and he also won Stalin’s enthusiastic approval. Sholokov was, in fact, one of the few persons who face to face with the life menacing and moody dictator dared to describe how a state-supported famine ravaged the Don area. In several letters he described to Stalin what was happening in the countryside during the worst crisis, between 1931 and 1932:

right now kolkhoz farmers and individual farmers are starving to death; adults and children are swelling and eating everything that humans are not supposed to eat, starting with carrion and ending with oak bark and all kinds of swamp roots. […] It is so bitter, Comrade Stalin! Your heart bleeds when you see it with your own eyes.


Sholokov even dared to criticise the arbitrary violence of political commissars and NKVD personnel: “We must put an end to the shameful system of torture used on prisoners.”

Stalin actually wrote personal replies to all of Sholokov’s letters. He pointed out that the young author went far beyond the boundaries of his writing by engaging in politics, something he did not understand. Nevertheless, to some extent, the dictator gave Sholokov some consent and even provided food supplies to areas in the author’s vicinity. Sholokov lived like an old-fashioned large estate owner, with servants and private estates. However, Stalin resented the empathy Sholokov felt for “our esteemed grain harvesters” most of whom, according to the dictator were schemers and saboteurs. It was something of a miracle that Sholokov escaped Stalin’s anger and persecution, The Father of Nations must have appreciated the young joker and boozer.


However, the dictator's stifling demands for a new, great epic about collectivization and an inability to repeat his previous performance made Sholokov sinking deeper and deeper into alcoholism and an embarrassing self-fossilization. However, he maintained an aggressive anti-Semitism and could even after Stalin’s downfall talk appreciative about the Stalin era. After such a laudatory speech, Sholokov found on one occasion that people in anger had thrown piles of And Quite Flows the Don outside of his door.

If my good friend and classmate Dan in high school had not given an unforgettable lecture on Quite Flows the Don I would for certain never have read the novel, but I did so with great interest and still remember several scenes, perhaps supported by a popular TV series that also was presented in my youth.

After the great famine of the early 1920s, the previously strictly controlled markets had reopened to individual sellers and the State’s pressure on the peasants eased, but as Stalin felt more secure in the saddle, his megalomaniac plans for mass production began to take shape and blossomed into the first five-year plan, between 1928 and 1932. When peasants proved reluctant to invest in kolkhozy agriculture and tractor depots, while agricultural production declined rapidly instead of increasing, Stalin gave the OGPU, United State Political Directorate i.e. the security police, the task of mapping property conditions in all of the Soviet Union in order to identify hamsters, speculators, profiteers and saboteurs. A witch hunt on so-called kulaks, fists, began, this was a nickname for rich, stingy farmers. In the Stalin era, kulaks became synonymous with farmers who refused to abandon their farms to join the kolkhozy. Even if kulaks were consistently portrayed as greedy parasites that sucked the life blood out of their peasant neighbours, the torrent of abuse and exaggerated propaganda thrown on these people, who mostly tried to secure the livelihoood for their families and thus had uttered some opposition to the the draconic methods of the Soviet commisars, seldom had any equivalent in reality.

In 1929, Stalin declared that the kulaks would be “liquidated as a class” and be divided into three categories: i) to be eliminated immediately; ii) be interned in labour camps and iii) 150,000 households to be deported as soon as possible. Speaking of liquidation, it was a word that had already been an integral part of the violent Bolshevik vocabulary, ever since the party took power in 1917, and for many of those persecuted by State and Party, its symbolic hammer and sickle came to signify not only the tools of workers and peasants, but a murderer’s sledgehammer and the Grim Reaper’s scythe.

Even the red-kerchiefed Mother Russia of Soviet propaganda could be turned into a Messenger of Death armed with a scythe.

When the New York stock market crashed in 1929 and was followed by a prolonged and profound depression, many left-wing sympathizers came to believe that the Soviet Union had escaped the death trap of capitalism and that the Workers’ Republic would now sail past the hopelessly corrupt and degenerate West. Stalin’s propaganda machinery was not late in depicting his Socialist Empire, not to be filled with milk and honey but with wheat and tractors, like a Paradise on earth.

Protected not only by weapons, but also by its abundant harvests feeding the people of the Soviet Union and they could thus also be considered as an effective weapon of defence against the Soviet Union’s many enemies.

At the same time, the weeds had to be uprooted. Already in the first four months of the 1930s, 113,637 people had been transported away from Ukraine under the pretext that they were kulaks. Soon, 300,000 Ukrainian kulaks had been transported from Ukraine alone, to settlements and labour camps in the European part of Russia, in Siberia and in Kazakhstan. Labour camps were located to palces like Solovki, an archipelago in the White Sea, or Belomor, the centre of the 170,000 slave labourers digging through stone and frozen soil, as well as blasting a canal between the Baltics and the White Sea. After 20 months of suffering and death (the estimated number of deaths ranges from 12,000 to 25,000, mainly caused by acute starvation), the canal proved to have been a quiet unnecessary endeavour, it was to shallow for larger vessels and was frozen during more than half of the year. In Kazakhstan, hundreds of thousands had already died, after nomads had been forced to slaughter their herds during State attempts to turn the Kazakhs into resident farmers, a suffering increased by an influx of hundreds of thousands deportees.

In Ukraine, conditions worsened. The traditional leaders of the peasant collectives had been branded as kulaks, killed or deported and most villages were in a state of dissolution. The remaining and increasingly poor farmers were through taxes and requisitions of their livestock and crops forced to join the collectives.

The 1931 harvest was miserable, not at all as abundant as the year before, which had been used to set the 1931 quotas. The weather was bad, cattle had been slaughtered, the tractors were not as efficient as expected and the state demanded grain for export and to feed a rapidly growing industrial working class. However, the authorities could not bring themselves to regret or amend their failed agricultural policies. The misery was blamed on kulaks, hamsters, saboteurs and foreign infiltrators, mainly Poles.

It was impossible to fill the quotas, but the State insisted that they must be fulfilled. Energetic OGPU men were sent out to search for hidden wheat and meat, and in their madness the authorities even sent away next year’s seeds. A frightful disaster could not be avoided. During the summer, people in Ukraine were reached by rumours that more one million had already died of starvation in Kazakhstan and soon death was everywhere in Ukraine. The madness grew in scope. In November 1932, it was decreed that those agricultural collectives that did not deliver their quota on time would be sentenced to increase it even more, as soon as possible. No respite was given, the grain had to be delivered in quantities determined by the State, if more time had been given perhaps more grain could have been produced, but now it was impossible. The borders were closed, train tickets and internal passports were denied to Ukkraine’s rural population, an action declared to be an attempt to curb a “counter-revolutionary plan” which, according to the authorities, was trying to “expose misleading pictures and reports of hunger and poverty to outsiders.”

Some brave reporters managed to photograph corpses that lay scattered in the streets of Ukrainian cities, before being picked up. Particularly painful for the few visitors and travellers who managed to enter the sealed-off Soviet republic was to be confronted by large hordes of orphans, as well as desperate mothers who asked passers-by to take care of their dying, emaciated babies. Parents often died of starvation before their children and orphans were crowding train stations, kolkhozy and factories. Several were captured as if they had been wild dogs and taken out of sight to “orphanages”, which also lacked food and where the children died.

One of the few who, under strong opposition from the Soviet authorities and the outcry of the Soviet Union’s global acolytes, managed to publish articles and photographs from a hellish journey through a famished Ukraine was the brave, Welsh and Russian-speaking journalist Gareth Jones. Two years after the publication of his startling articles, Jones was in Manchuria apparently kidnapped and murdered on behalf of the NKVD (the organization that in 1934 had succeeded the OGPU).

By early 1933, the Ukrainian countryside had became mute and silent. Anyone who is familiar with a lively farmland can easily recall its symphony of sounds and how the air carries them far and wide – roosters’ crows, dogs barking, chickens cackling, noise from pigs and ducks, people’s songs, cries and loud voices, children’s laughter and screams, birdsong from thickets and rooftops. Even the politicians who come to find hidden foodstuff and arrest “opposition elements” testified how they had ended up in a strange, extremely eerie world. Unburied corpses were strewn on paths and village streets, but worst of all was the confrontation with emaciated people still alive. On their alternately shrunken, alternately swollen, sore bodies, the skin was tightened over bone knots and ribs, so thin that it seemed to be made of paper, or as if the starving victims had become transparent. The heads of adults and children seemed to be unnaturally large, their necks elongated; legs and arms like sticks, stomachs swollen with skin tense like drum skins and everywhere abandoned or extinguished glances, an almost unbearable silent suffering. If one of these creatures, which appeared to have come from another planet, got something to eat, it often happened that they died shortly thereafter. Their altered organisms had not been able to cope with the shock of nutritional supplement.

By extreme hunger, the body cannibalizes itself. It swallows its glucose, fat, tissues, meat and proteins, even the skin is sucked out and shrinks, eyes protrude from their cavities, all power disappears from the hungry, while the immune system collapses and diseases take hold of external and internal organs.

In the midst of all these indescribable torments was the presence of a state-sponsored absurdity which meant that while the outside world was kept unaware of what was going on, food was not brought to the needy, but instead taken away from them, while starvation victims were accused of their own desperate condition, being stamped as traitors, saboteurs, hamsters, and reactionaries. They were even punished, executed, or deported and forced to try to survive in extreme cold or heat. An example of the absurdities that occurred:

Ukrainian musician Yosip Panasenko and his band of bandura players were engaged by the authorities to “bring culture to the starving.” They found village after village totally deserted. In one place they entered a house and found two girls lying dead in a bed, a dead man’s legs protruding from the oven, a mad woman crawling on her knees, scratching the floor with her nails.

The bones in the stove testified to a terrible reality that already had existed during the famine in the early 1920s, but then the shock had been great and authorities had carefully documented what happened, photographed, interviewed and recorded, while the outside world was made aware of the terrible truth – cannibalism. One of humanity's greatest taboos and a source of shame and despair.

Reports of cannibalism was not published in the 1930s. It was not until long after the Holodomor (holod - famine, mor - plague) that it was discovered that the authorities had actually registered widespread cannibalism and that in 1933, 2,505 persons had been convicted of cannibalism, the actual perpetrators were for sure many more.

The estimated figure for Ukrainian deaths during the Holodomor (1932-1933) is 3.3 million, while at the same time 67,297 died of starvation in the labour camps and 241,355 in the settlements to which kulaks and their families had been deported. Thousands also died during travels to these places in distant Siberia or Kazakhstan, several, perhaps most of them, were Ukrainians.

The deported kulaks who between 1930 and 1933 ended up in Kazakhstan came from one killing field to another. Kazakhstan had in 1928 been hit by the Zhut, a period of extreme cold that prevented cattle from finding pasture and thus forced to starve to death. The Soviet authorities saw their chance to confiscate surviving cattle from richer Kazakhs, who here were not called kulaks but bai (chiefs), and at the same time convince other Kazakhs of the benefits of joining an agricultural collective.

More than 10,000 bai were deported from their homeland, after losing their land and livestock. Between 1929 and 1932, the Soviet state seized most of Kazakhstan’s livestock and grain. One third of the grain, one million tonnes, was distributed to the urban population. However, the Kazakhs starved mainly because meat production became insufficient and then 200,000 “settlers” and former Gulag prisoners were brought to the Soviet republic to become engaged in agriculture, part of the already scarce Kazakh food production went to them. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Kazakhs were expelled from their pastures and plots of land.

The Kazakh famine became the worst of the Soviet famines. More people died in the Ukrainian Holodomor, but Kazakhstan lost through Soviet interventions approximately half of its population – 1.5 million, of whom 1.3 million were Kazakhs, the rest had been forcibly deported from other places in the Soviet Union. 665,000 Kazakhs fled with their livestock, mainly into China, Mongolia, Afghanistan and Iran.

The Soviet leader who oversaw Kazakh tragedy was Philip Goloshchyokin (1876 - 1941), originally a dental technician from Nevel situated by the northern border to Belarus, though he soon became a professional revolutionary, going in and out of prisons. For a time he was also deported to Siberia. Goloshchyokin co-founded the Russian Communist Party (the Bolsheviks) and after its coup in 1917 he became Military Commissioner of the Urals, stationed in Yekaterinburg (Sverdlovsk) where he took the initiative and carried out the execution of the Tsar and his family.

In February 1925, Goloshchyokin was appointed First Secretary of the recently established Kazakh Autonomous Socialist Soviet Republic and served until 1933 as the republic’s autocratic ruler. It was under the supervision of Goloshchyokin that the fatal collectivization took place. Those who knew Goloshchyokin have described him as a cold cynic, distanced from his subjects:

This is a typical Leninist. This is a man who does not stop the blood. This trait is especially noticeable in his nature: the executioner, cruel, with some elements of degeneration. In party life he was arrogant, was a demagogue, a cynic. He did not count the Kazakhs as people at all. Goloshchekin did not have time to appear in Kazakhstan, as he stated that there is no Soviet power, and it is “necessary” to orchestrate a “small October” [Bolshevik coup].



Numerous complaints concerning Goloshchyokin reached Stalin, though he let him stay on while listening to his assurances that the five-year plan and collectivization were a success. Quite unexpectedly, however, Goloshchyokin was brought back to Moscow in 1933, where he served in a more secluded post as arbitrator at the USSR Council of Commissars, where he remained untouched until 1939, when the head of the NKVD, Nikolai Ivanovitj Yezhov, Stalin’s “bloody little dwarf”, was ousted. Before Yezhov was executed, he had during prolonged torture produced a large number of “confessions”, revealing among other things that he and Goloshchyokin were lovers. Homosexuality had been criminalized in 1934, and it was probably that inclination, and neither mass murder nor the promotion of mass starvation, that led to Goloshchyokin’s eventual execution.

It is quite clear that Stalin was convinced of Yezhov’s guilt of conspiring against him, a conviction fuelled by Yezhov’s successor, the equally sinister Lavrentij Berija. Whether the perverted extravagances of “the bloody dwarf”, with both women and men, were also decisive for the execution of Goloshchyokin, is however not entirely certain. Stalin was admittedly in many ways a priggish Victorian who hated exposure of open eroticism and sincere tenderness, though in an inner circle of vulgar comrades he did with relish shoulder the role of a brutal macho guy. Stalin often expressed his contempt for homosexuals, his common denomination of them was “the degenerates”. However, he was far from ignorant of, tolerated, and used for his own purposes all the “high tension” and promiscuity that prevailed among people within his inner circle. An uninterrupted nervousness mixed with an intoxicating power over life and death, which made the privileged few believe that they were exempt from generally accepted morals and human considerations, while at the same time they were engaged in a dynamic tumult where people rose, fell and disappeared. One day you could be exalted and praised, only to be tortured the next day in a blood-soaked NKVD cellar and later dragged out into a secluded court yard and receive a bullet in the back of your head.

Within this psychotic constellation of power and guilt it was not uncommon that the same actors constantly appeared in close proximity to each other. In Yezhov’s case, for example, the strangely untouched “Cossack author” Sholokov seems to have played an important role. Like several other writers, he had had been in an intimate relationship with Yezhov’s equally promiscuous wife, Yevgeniya. Yezhov had been eavesdropping on Sholokov and hadf him constantly shadowed. The angered author went straight to Stalin, complaining about the greediness and promiscuity of Yezhov and presented everything he had heard about the NKVD chief’s irregularities. Instead of defending the man he met at an almost daily basis to establish executions and plan torture, Stalin assured his good writer friend Sholokov that he was already disappointed with Yezhov and that all the crimes he was suspected of having committed would be thoroughly investigated.

Stalin’s openness to Sholokov is astonishing. The alcoholic writer had even on several occasions been observed telling Stalin that he considered it to be unworthy of a man of his stature to accept the ridiculous cult directed towards him. On such an occasion, Stalin had, with one of his famous “foxy smiles” playing under his moustache, replied: “The people need a God.”

There is no doubt that after Yezhov’s execution, Stalin completely obliterated his memory. For example, we see below, as often was the case, Yezhov by Stalin’s side, this time during a walk along the Moscow-Volga canal in 1937. Stalin obviously liked the photograph and a year after Yezhov’s disgrace and execution it was included in a tributary biography of the great leader, but then Yezhov had disappeared from the picture without a trace.

While all this was going on in the Kremlin, the Soviet people continued to suffer. War, famine, poverty, violence, plagues, pogroms and state oppression had not created any utopian society in the Soviet Union. It was possible to blame sinister foreign powers, people’s general unwillingness to work and anti-Bolsjevik sabotage, but it could not be denied that something had gone catastrophically wrong. Not least, everyone could be reminded of the misfortunes through the presence of hundreds of thousands of stray, orphaned children. The aid organizations that operated in the country in connection with the famine 1921 to 1923 estimated that through their and government efforts, five million children under fifteen years of age were on a daily basis provided with food, many of them were certainly not orphans, but those children who were completely defenceless nevertheless amounted to hundreds of thousands, with everything it meant of unimaginable suffering and in many cases emotional and physical exploitation.

Many writers and journalists pointed out the constant presence of those vulnerable children, and some artists, such as the somewhat murky, though officially appreciated Fyodor Bogorosky, became in the 1920s known for their portrayals of besprizornye.

Bogorosky was later banned from portraying the victims of such poverty and abuse and like so many other artists he went on to create charming park landscapes and heroic social realism.

It seems that in Soviet society there was a parallel world of extreme poverty, crime and lawlessness. It was denied in official propaganda, generally ignored by artists and writers and it was probably even forbidden to seriously portray misery in an empathetic way, as it had been done before the revolution, for example by Maksim Gorky in his once world-famous play The Lower Depths.

Some grotesque and strange scenes in Sergei Eisenstein’s film The Strike from 1925, does however suggest the presence of a criminal world, in the midst of big Soviet cities. A police spy seeks out a gangster boss who with his large retinue resides in a cemetery. The whole thing is played out as a kind of farce, a bizarre and actually rather disgusting pantomime, like a social realistic overplayed Commedia dell Arte. The gangster appears as a kind of vaudeville tramp, once a common trope in music halls and movie sketches. He is courted by a submissive dwarf and “his people” living in large barrels, buried and lined up in a field, or under gravestones. They are portrayed as obscenely absurd and hardly human beings, a lumpen proletariat which willingly lends itself to spoiling the workers’ attempts to obtain decent wages and working conditions. Even if Esienstein describes it all as taking place during the old, wretched tsarist era, it nevertheless has a contemporary touch to it.


Until the end of the 1930s, few extensive attempts were made to take care of the enormous crowds of suffering, orphaned children, other than that they were roundwed up, sent to collection sites and deported to various places within the vast Soviet Empire. It was not until 1937 that the State more systematically began to take care of children of sentenced “enemies of the state”, i.e. criminals and/or subversive “political elements”, who had been executed or deported.

Abandoned children are still present in Russia. It is estimated that there may cu7rrently be at least 50,000 besprizornye in the country.

We should not assume that Ukraine’s suffering ended after the Holodomor and the purges of the Poles. For several years it continued unabated. When the harvests could finally be salvaged again, the collectives were made more efficient and the harsh quotas in 1937 could be met, the persecution of kulaks took off again. Between 1937 and 1938, 70,868 Ukrainians were liquidated by the NKVD, only between January and August 1938, 35,563 were shot, while “only"” 830 were sentenced to labour camps. At the same time, 40,530 Ukrainians accused of “nationalism” were arrested.

In the midst of all this those who had suffered from hunger and hardship tried to pursue what they had lacked; life’s simple joys—especially food.

However, an abundance of food and delicacies had never been lacking at Stalin'’ sumptuous dinner table, which naive and easily impressed VIP visitors perceived as a result of the abundance created by the prosperity of the Workers’ Republic.

For example, when the celebrated author George Bernhard Shaw in 1931 visited the Soviet Union during the impending famine of Ukraine and Kazakhstan, he was in Moscow greeted by a military guard of honour, banners adorned with his portraits and crowds shouting “Long live Shaw!” A sumptuous banquet was organized to celebrate Shaw’s 75th birthday and afterwards he was treated with a two-hour conversation with a Stalin who Bernard Shaw found to be in a “charmingly good-humoured mood.” A greatly satisfied Shaw left Moscow after nine days. The day before his departure he gave a good-bye speech ending with the words: “Tomorrow I will leave this land of hope and return to our western countries – the countries of despair.”

When Germany’s Sixth Army and First Armoured Corps on June 22, 1941 broke through the Soviet Union’s Fifth Army and invaded Ukraine. The astonished Germans were in several places met by cheering people throwing flower bouquets at them. These Ukrainians assumed the German armies would free them from the Communist terror. They could hardly imagine what awaited them.

During its lightning offensive, called Operation Barbarossa, the German army captured about five million Soviet soldiers, most of whom were deliberately starved to death. This was done in accordance with a so-called Hunger Plan. Between 3.3 and 3.5 million captured Russian soldiers died in German detention camps, most of them from starvation.

Shortly before the invasion of the Soviet Union, Herbert Backe, State Secretary at the Ministry of Trade and Industry, did at the Chief of German Police and Minister of Interior, Heinrich Himmler’s request, in coperation with a coalition of Nazi politicians, draw up a plan to secure Germany’s future food supply. One month before the initiation of Operation Barbarossa, Backe’s plan was presented to Die Oberkommando der Wehrmachts, the Defense Staff’s, finance office, which enthusiastically approved it while emphasizing the Soviet railway network’s deficiency, insufficient road transport and fuel shortages which the German army was going to encounter in conquered areas.

The following conclusions were drawn: i) the war can only be fought if Russian supply is guaranteed for three years, and ii) this undoubtedly means that tens of millions of Russians will die of starvation, a “logical and inevitable development”. It was further stated that “tens of millions of people will become redundant” and thus had to die or being forced to emigrate to Siberia. Any attempt to save locals from starvation would prevent Germany from emerging victorious from the apocalyptic battle.

Ukraine’s perceived grain surplus was particularly prominent in this vision of a “self-sufficient” Germany. Hitler had stated that Germany needed “Ukraine, so that no one could be able to starve us again, as they did during the last war.” In order for Germany to “take advantage” of Ukraine's agricultural surplus, it was necessary that “undesirable elements”, such as Jews and the Ukrainian town population, be completely denied any food supplies, while food rations for rural Ukrainians should be limited as much as possible.

Backe estimated Russia's “surplus population” to be between 20 and 30 million, if these people were denied food supplies, these could be used for the German army and the German population. A carefully planned famine would thus be an integral part of the German military campaign and would henceforth be a solution to the European food crisis, as well as an effective method of eradicating an “undesirable” Soviet population.

Germany’s attack on and occupation of Ukraine killed at least 2.5 million soldiers and 4.5 million civilians. More than 2.2 million Ukrainian civilians were taken to Germany as slave labour, less than half of them returned, the others had fallen victim to Allied bombings and German mistreatment.

The Nazi genocide in Ukraine was directly linked to the Vernichtungskrieg, War of Extermination, outlined in connection with the aforementioned Hunger Plan and was directly linked to the German army’s conquest and subjugation of Ukraine.

More than four million Ukrainian civilians were killed during the German occupation, including more than one million Jewish victims. Defenceless men, women and children were ruthlessly slaughtered by German Einsatzgruppen, police battalions, Wehrmacht troops, Romanian army units and local Nazi collaborators. Einsatzgruppe C (Otto Rasch) was assigned to northern and central Ukraine and Einsatzgruppe D (Otto Ohlendorf) carried out its mass executions in Moldova, southern Ukraine, Crimea and northern Caucasus.

The most extensive massacre took place in the Babij Yar ravine just outside of Kyjiv. The site was chosen for several mass executions and a total of 100,000 people are estimated to have been slaughtered there. On September 28, 1941, Kyjiv’s German military command announced that all of the city’s Jews had to be evacuated. They should show up at the train station, bringing warm clothes, personal documents, money and valuables. Between the 29th and the 30th of September, 33,771 men, women and children showed up and were transported to the extensive ravine eight kilometres outside the city. Upon arrival they were forced to undress, before being mowed down with machine guns, only two women escaped and survived the horrific massacre.

The main person responsible for this mass slaughter of innocent civilians was SS Brigade Commander Emil Otto Rasch, commander of Einsatzgruppe C. Dr. Rasch had received his doctorate through a dissertation in jurisprudence and political economy. A dutiful man who believed that a commanding officer had to be present at executions of Jewish men, women and children. Rausch was arrested shortly after the war, but was not questioned, convicted or executed since he was diagnosed with advanced Parkinson’s disease, combined with dementia. He died in his cell in 1948.

The leader of Einsatzgruppe D, Otto Ohlendorf, who was arrested together with Heinrich Himmler in Flensburg, was able to give a number of testimonies. Ohlendorf was completely incorrigible, during the Nuremberg trial he claimied that he had acted as a dutiful and correct German officer:

It was not a racist programme for the annihilation of Jews in the Soviet Area but a general liquidation order primarily aimed at securing the newly won territory, a liquidation that would affect not only the Jews, but other population groups as well. […] the tasks of the firing squads were no worse than those of the “press-button killers” who dropped the atom bomb on Japan. […] the aim was that the individual leaders and men should be able to carry out the executions in a military manner acting on orders and should not have to make a decision of their own; it was, to all intents and purposes, an order which they were to carry out. On the other hand, it was known to me that through the emotional excitement of the executions ill-treatment could not be avoided, since the victims discovered too soon that they were to be executed and could not therefore endure prolonged nervous strain. [However] all ill-treatment, whether pysical or mental, was to be prevented through measures ordered by me.

While given his testimony, Ohlendorf did not show no remorse whatsoever:

Because to me it is inconceivable that a subordinate leader should not carry out orders given by the leaders of the State.

Leon Goldensohn, the psychiatrist who interrogated Ohlendorf with the task of “presenting a psychological profile” of the war criminal, stated that Ohlendorf:

looks like a burnt out ghost and his conscience, if you can call it that, is shiny clean and completely meaningless. The lack of affect is obvious, but not remarkable in the clinical sense.

Ohlendorf was sentenced to death for crimes against humanity and hanged in 1951. The Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko did in 1961 write a poem about Babij Jar, some lines from it:

The wild grasses rustle over Babi Yar.

The trees look ominous,

like judges.

Here all things scream silently,

and, baring my head,

slowly I feel myself

turning grey.

O my Russian people!

I know