Wednesday 30 December 2015


It's quite often an apple...

The fruit chosen to depict the Fall of Man in the Garden of Eden is now habitually referred to as having been an apple, although the First Book of Moses, Genesis, does not specify what kind of fruit grew on the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil –– other than the Knowledge of Good and Evil!

One guess is that the choice of the apple by generations of artists may have originated as a Latin pun: Eve ate the malum (apple) and succumbed to mālum (evil).

On one corner of the Palace Ducal on the Piazzetta San Marco, there is a sculpture of Adam and Eve at the moment of when they gave into the urge to pick and eat...

Adam and Eve's nakedness is decorously concealed by artfully arranged tree branches whose leaves are clearly those not of the apple, but of the fig!

And – apart from the tell-tale leaves – the forbidden fruit for which Eve reaches (encouraged by the human-faced serpent) and is quite clearly a FIG!

Photos: © Brian Sibley& David Weeks 2015


It is a common sight in Laguna di Venezia (and here in le Canal de la Giudecca) to see cormorants perched atop the stanchions, opening and closing their wings. Whilst spending their lives in and on the water, a cormorant's feathers are not waterproof, hence their need to dry them after fishing. In past centuries, these fisher-birds were themselves hunted on the Lagoon in what has been described as a form of underwater falconry. Just such a hunt was depicted some 500 years ago by Vittore Carpaccio...

 But the cormorant has another Venetian connection via the Bard. Wanting a name for the villain of his play, The Merchant of Venice, William Shakespeare selected Shylock.

The Shakespearean scholar, Sir Israel Gollancz (1863-1930) notes:
The book which was read by Elizabethans for everything relating to the later Jewish history, and which went through edition after edition, was Peter Morwyng's translation of the pseudo-Josephus, A compendious and most marveylous History of the latter Times of the Jewes Commune Weale... In Marlowe's Jew of Malta, and elsewhere in the plays of Elizabethan dramatists, the influence of the book can be detected. 

Near the beginning of the History we read: "About that time it was signified also to them of Jerusalem that the Askalonites had entered in friendship with the Romans. They sent therefore Neger the Edomite, and Schiloch the Babylonian [my italics], and Jehochanan, with a power of the common people; these came to Askalon, and besieged it a great space. Within the town was a Roman captaine called Antonius, a valiant man, and a good warrior." 
This passage, suggests Gollancz, may well account not only for 'Shylock' but also for 'Antonio', the Merchant of the title.

And Shakespeare, the inveterate player with words, may have also made another connection: the Hebraic word for 'cormorant' is 'shalak', (meaning 'plunging' or 'darting down') as can be seen in the list of forbidden, 'unclean' creatures listed in Leviticus 11: 17...

12 Anything living in the water that does not have fins and scales is to be regarded as unclean by you. 13 These are the birds you are to regard as unclean and not eat because they are unclean: the eagle, the vulture, the black vulture, 14 the red kite, any kind of black kite, 15 any kind of raven, 16 the horned owl, the screech owl, the gull, any kind of hawk, 17 the little owl, the cormorant, the great owl, 18 the white owl, the desert owl, the osprey, 19 the stork, any kind of heron, the hoopoe and the bat.
The cormorant, because of its voracious appetite, also came to be a symbol of usury as can be seen from a 16th Century reference to attempts to rescue "poor debtors" from usurers and "the claws of such cormorant harpies".

Shylock, the Jewish moneylender, may, therefore, owe some aspect of his name to the shalak, the cormorant of Laguna di Venezia, that would have been a familiar sight both to him and to Antonio, the Merchant of Venice...

Photos: © David Weeks 2015

Tuesday 29 December 2015


Do you remember having – or, maybe, you still have – those delicate glass (as opposed to plastic) decorations we used to hang on our Christmas trees?

Every year the box would be carefully opened and the tissue paper gingerly unwrapped and we would be transported by rediscovering those fragile, shiny, treasures.

Each one, selected with care, would then be lovingly hung upon a branch where it might reflect the shimmer of tinsel, the twinkle of Christmas lights – and distort our faces like miniature fairground mirrors...

Sometimes, with a pang, we would find that the ball or pendant, the golden fir-cone or the smiling Santa face had failed to survive another year in storage and was now nothing more than a mass of tiny slithers of shimmering silvered glass.

Wandering through Campo San Pantalon, the other day, we discovered a shop selling the most unusual and exotic glass Christmas Tree decorations. It was closed (which was, perhaps, as well) but we managed to photograph some of their many unusual offerings...

In addition to the Father Christmases, Nutcrackers, Carolers and Nativities, there was a veritable Noah's Ark of wildlife including cheetah, giraffe, zebra, rhino, polar bear, flamingo, seahorse –– and walrus!

 There were elephants (obviously)...

Turkeys (less obviously)...

And (totally unlikely) lobsters!!

There are also specifically Venetian decorations including a Rialto Bridge and several Moors which despite the City's connections with Othello are, one would have thought, nowadays politically incorrect.

Maybe, before coming home, we need to go back and see if the shop is open...

Photos: © Brian Sibley & David Weeks 2015

Sunday 27 December 2015


When fog descends on Venice, the city undergoes a metamorphosis.

The air is moist, the stones sweat and the fog works its relentless changes on everything: tarnishing the gilded mosaics of the Basilica; shrouding buildings; decapitating campaniles; bleaching colour from the brickwork; drabbing down the marble; deepening the shadows in the narrow calli; obliterating every distant vista and turning the sky a universal, eye-tiring grey, occasionally smudged by the silhouette of a lone wheeling gull...


Photos: © Brian Sibley & David Weeks 2015

Saturday 26 December 2015


There are 139 churches in Venice, but our 'local' parish church is the Chiesa di San Moisè,  dedicated to Moses, since Venetians, like the Byzantines frequently accord the patriarchs and prophets the status of sainthood.

Originally built in the 8th century, the church  also honours Moisè Venier, the aristocrat who funded the reconstruction during the 9th century. Elaborately decorated in the Baroque-style (its frontage features camels among myriad embellishments!) San Moisè shares its small campo with the Teutonic Hotel Bauer and the emporia of Prada and other peddlers of the chic...

This year, at night it is bathed in icy blue light...

On Christmas morning, the small local community boasted a two-women choir who sang the mass with more musical beauty than the full choir of the Basilica had managed to muster on the previous eve!

Appropriately for so elaborate a church, their Christmas crib is hardly understated...

Photos: © Brian Sibley & David Weeks 2015

Friday 25 December 2015


It came upon the midnight clear,
That glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the earth
To touch their harps of gold:
"Peace on the earth, good will to men
From heav'n's all-gracious King."
The world in solemn stillness lay
To hear the angels sing.

Still thru the cloven skies they come
With peaceful wings unfurled,
And still their heav'nly music floats
O'er all the weary world.
Above its sad and lowly plains
They bend on hov'ring wing,
And ever o'er its babel sounds
The blessed angels sing.
For lo! the days are hast'ning on,
By prophets seen of old,
When with the ever-circling years
Shall come the time foretold,
When the new heav'n and earth shall own
The Prince of Peace their King,
And the whole world send back the song
Which now the angels sing.

...I wish for you joy, peace and harmony; 
health in mind, body and spirit; 
the wisdom to find and hold onto happiness
and the courage to love and be loved...

Carol: Text – Edmund H. Sears, 1810-187; Music – Richard S. Willis, 1819-1900 

Photo: After Midnight Mass at the Basilica San Marco, Venice, Italy © Brian Sibley

Thursday 24 December 2015


Here's a little Christmas Eve gift for you...

Readers of my blog will know how much I love the work of the writer and artist, Tove Jansson – and especially her unique creation: the Mommins of Moominland...

In 1963, Jansson wrote and illustrated an enchanting Christmas letter as if written by Santa Claus himself in which he speaks about how he loves to receive letters from the world's children because they comfort him in the loneliness of his solitary life. He also explains how he and his helpers manage all those Christmas gift requests and his personal hopes and wishes.

It was published for the first time, today, on the Official Moomin Website and here it is...

Click to enlarge

The website includes a transcription, but as it isn't quite accurate (and since Tove Jansson wrote in impeccable English) I have made a few small corrections:

Dear little friend!

How are you? I’m getting to be a rather old Santa Claus. A little lonely as well, so I like letters. 

It’s great fun, you see, to think of the fact that all over the world a lot of small kiddies that I’ve never seen are sitting remembering me and writing me letters. Some of them write about presents for themselves or for other people. Some of them write to thank me, and some others just for a chat. But all of them have been thinking about me, and I like that. You see, all the year long I’m living by myself – rather a secretive and lonely life. I’m waiting for the winter to come and trying to imagine what kiddies like yourself might be wishing for, and what you might need.

Then, one night I hear the first snow falling outside. Only I, Santa Claus can hear the snow – it falls so silently and lightly, making all the world soft and white and friendly. By this I know that Christmas is on its way: the very special Eve and Night that are unlike all other nights of the year, the darkest and longest of all nights with its millions of burning candles. The night when everyone tries to be friendly towards everyone else, because the child Jesus was born in that night, once upon a time. 

So I open my cottage door and sniff against the north wind and ring my silver bell. After a while a rustling and a whispering are to be heard in the woods around my hut. Yule gnomes and brownies and many kinds of winter beings begin to arrive from all directions – on skis, on snow-shoes, struggling on foot or riding on grey reindeer that have gentle and velvet-black eyes. Then I take out all the X-mas letters and all the wishes and dreams that have accumulated under my cap, and my people and I roll up our sleeves and get to work. 

It is most important that everybody gets exactly the gift they want, within reason, that nobody is disappointed, that addresses turn out right and parcels tidy, that some space is left for surprises and that people who are too shy to ask for anything get a gift also. 

Some of us turn invisible and fly around the world like whispers – it is we who give parents their ideas for the right presents. Also we remind people of those who would never get a Christmas gift otherwise. We have a wonderful time with it all! I’m never lonely in those days because I’ve got all the kiddies of the whole world and their expectations in my head.

And all the woods of Finland lie gleaming white in the sparkling light of the Aurora Borealis, and the snow on the ground around my hut is crisscrossed by little tracks of hurrying feet, and the heaps of gift parcels are growing steadily. 

Then Christmas night arrives and all is silent and solemn. All the parcels have been sent off and received. And the stars are large and burning bright over the earth, and I walk up alone to the crest of Korvatunturi in my wolfskin coat and I sit down in the snow and I make a wish: that you will all be happy and like each other as much as possible. 

And that you will not forget me.

All best wishes from yours ever,

Santa Claus

You can read a previous blog-post of mine about my love of the Moomins and my time in corresponding with Tove Jansson, HERE

And Tove fans might enjoy knowing that I have introduced the new Tolkien Calendar for 2016, featuring some of the illustrations she made for The Hobbit in 1961. 

You can read more about the calendar on the website of the publishers, HarperCollins.


Tove Jansson's Letter from Santa Calus is © Moomin 

Wednesday 23 December 2015


La Serenissima in secretive mood...


Nothing should ever surprise one in Venice...


If you think you are likely to get a pair of slippers for Christmas, feast your eyes on these items in a Venetian shop window...

Tuesday 22 December 2015


Arriving late last night at Marco Polo Airport, Venice, we found the otherwise deserted pontoon of the Alilaguna boat service (linea Arancio) decorated with a delightful 'home made' nativity scene – complete with lights and miniature figures and buildings – including a mill with a revolving water wheel... 


Saturday 19 December 2015


Here's a piece of vintage Sibley radio (from 1997) celebrating Frank Capra –– the man who told us that IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE...

Friday 27 November 2015


or many years now, The Illustrators has been a legendary annual exhibition in the calendar of the London art gallery scene.

Held at the Chris Beetles Gallery, 8 & 10 Ryder Street, St James's, London, the range of illustrators whose work is exhibited and for sale is extensive and spans three centuries.

The current exhibition, THE ILLUSTRATORS 2015: The British Art of Illustration 1837-2015 presents 800 original works for sale by over 90 artists, with prices ranging from £200 to £175,000.

Here are just a handful of the gems on offer...

Arthur Rackham

William Heath Robinson

Eric Fraser


Al Hirschfeld
(Katherine Hepburn and Dorothy Landoun in The West Side Waltz)

David Levine
(Caricature of E M Forster)

E H Shepard

Ronald Searle
("Eunice! How many times must I tell you – take the band off first!")

Harry Hargreaves
(Paddington in The Blue Peter Annual)

The Illustrators catalogue is for sale, price £20, can be viewed as a pdf on-line here or in person at the gallery, 
8 & 10 Ryder Street
St James's
Telephone: 020 7839 7551
Opening Times: Monday - Saturday, 10:00-17:30

I'll leave you with this – one of several personal favourites – a seasonal cartoon by Gerard Hoffnung...