SALT OF THE EARTH [Via Nina Reznick]

Deep underground in Poland lies something remarkable but little known outside Eastern Europe. For centuries, miners have extracted salt there, but left behind things quite startling and unique. Take a look at the most unusual salt mine in the world.

From the outside, Wieliczka Salt Mine doesn't look extraordinary. It looks extremely well kept for a place that hasn't mined any salt for over ten years but, apart from that, it looks ordinary. However, over two hundred metres below ground it holds an astonishing secret. This is the salt mine that became an art gallery, cathedral and underground lake.

Situated in the Krakow area, Wieliczka is a small town of close to twenty thousand inhabitants. It was founded in the twelfth century by a local duke to mine the rich deposits of salt that lie beneath.

Until 1996, it did just that but the generations of miners did more than just extract. They left behind them a breathtaking record of their time underground in the shape of statues of mythic, historical and religious figures. They even created their own chapels in which to pray Perhaps their most astonishing legacy is the huge underground cathedral they left behind for posterity.

It may feel like you are in the middle of a Jules Verne adventure as you descend into the depths of the world. After a one hundred and fifty metre climb down wooden stairs, the visitor to the salt mine will see some amazing sites. About the most astounding in terms of its sheer size and audacity is the Chapel of Saint Kinga. The Polish people have for many centuries been devout Catholics and this was more than just a long term hobby to relieve the boredom of being underground. This was an act of worship.


Amazingly, even the chandeliers in the cathedral are made of salt. It was not simply hewn from the ground and then thrown together; however, the process is rather more painstaking for the lighting. After extraction the rock salt was first of all dissolved. It was then reconstituted with the impurities taken out so that it achieved a glass-like finish. The chandeliers are what many visitors think the rest of the cavernous mine will be like as they have a picture in their minds of salt as they would sprinkle on their meals! However, the rock salt occurs naturally in different shades of grey (something like you would expect granite to look like).


Still, that doesn't stop well over one million visitors (mainly from Poland and its eastern European neighbours) from visiting the mine to see, amongst other things, how salt was mined in the past.


For safety reasons, less than one percent of the mine is open to visitors, but even that is still almost four kilometres in length ... more than enough to weary the average tourist after an hour or two. The mine was closed for two reasons:
.... the low price of salt on the world market made it too expensive to extract here. Also, the mine was slowly flooding ... another reason why visitors are restricted to certain areas only.


The religious carvings are, in reality, what draw many to this mine ... as much for their amazing verisimilitude as for their Christian aesthetics. The above shows Jesus appearing to the apostles after the crucifixion. He shows the doubter, Saint Thomas, the wounds on his wrists.

Another remarkable carving, this time a take on The Last Supper. The work and patience that must have gone into the creation of these sculptures is extraordinary. One wonders what the miners would have thought of their work going on general display? They came to be quite used to it, in fact, even during the mine's busiest period in the nineteenth century. The cream of Europe's thinkers visited the site ... you can still see many of their names in the old visitor's books on display.

These reliefs are perhaps among some of the most iconographic works of Christian folk art in the world and really do deserve to be shown. It comes as little surprise to learn that the mine was placed on the original list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites back in 1978.

Not all of the work is relief-based. There are many life-sized statues that must have taken a considerable amount of time ... months, perhaps even years ... to create. Within the confines of the mine, there is also much to be learned about the miners from the machinery and tools that they used ... many of which are on display and are centuries old. A catastrophic flood in 1992 dealt the last blow to commercial salt mining in the area and now the mine functions purely as a tourist attraction. Brine is, however, still extracted from the mine and then evaporated to produce some salt, but hardly on the ancient scale. If this was not done, then the mines would soon become flooded once again. 

Not all of the statues have a religious or symbolic imagery attached to them. The miners had a sense of humour, after all! Here can be seen their own take on the legend of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The intricately carved dwarfs must have seemed to some of the miners a kind of ironic depiction of their own work. Certainly, they may have whistled while they did it but the conditions in the salt mine were far from comfortable and the hours were long ... the fact that it was subterranean could hardly have added to the excitement of going to work each morning.

To cap it all, there is even an underground lake, lit by subdued electricity and candles. This is perhaps where the old legends of lakes to the underworld and Catholic imagery of the saints work together to best leave a lasting impression of the mine. How different a few minutes reflection here must have been to the noise and sweat of everyday working life in the mine.

494 BCE, Rome: On the History of Protest and Small Triumphs [via Nina Reznick]

Today's selection -- from The Rise of Rome by Anthony Everitt. In 494 BCE, the people of Rome staged one of the most remarkable and imaginative protests in world history. Though this protest brought some reform, it underscored the seemingly never-ending struggle of the plebs against the major landowners and ruling elite:
"It was the strangest spectacle seen since the foundation of Rome. A long stream of families could be observed leaving the city in what looked like a general evacuation. They walked southward and climbed a sparsely populated hill, the Aventine, which stands across a valley from the Palatine, the site of Romulus's first settlement. They were, broadly speaking, the poor and the disadvantaged -- artisans and farmers, peasants and urban workers. They carried with them a few days' worth of food. On arrival they set up camp, building a stockade and a trench. There they stayed quietly, like a weaponless army, offering no provocation or violence. They waited, doing nothing.

"This was a mass protest, one of the most remarkable and imaginative in world history. It was like a modern general strike, but with an added dimension. The workers were not simply withdrawing their labor; they were withdrawing themselves. ...

The Secession of the People to the Mons Sacer, engraving by B. Barloccini, 1849.

"What, then, was their complaint? ... The poor were burdened with debt and arbitrary treatment by those in authority; they sought redress. Many had reached a point where the only thing they owned with which to repay their debts was themselves -- their labor, their bodies. In that case, they were able to enter into a system of debt bondage, known as nexum, literally an interlacing or binding together. In the presence of five witnesses, a lender weighed out the money or copper to be lent. The debtor could now settle what he owed. In return he handed himself over -- his person and his services (although he retained his civic rights). The lender recited a formula: 'For such and such a sum of money you are now nexus, my bondsman.' He then chained the debtor, to dramatize his side of the bargain.

"This brutal arrangement did not in itself attract disapproval, for it did provide a solution, however rough-and-ready, to extreme indebtedness. What really aroused anger was the oppressive or unfair treatment of a bonded slave. The creditor-owner even had the right to put him to death, at least in theory. Livy tells the story of a victim, an old man, who suddenly appeared one day in the Forum. Pale and emaciated, he wore soiled and threadbare clothes. His hair and beard were unkempt. Altogether, he was a pitiable sight. A crowd gathered, and learned that he had once been a soldier who commanded a company and served his country with distinction. How had he come to this pass? He replied:

While I was on service during the Sabine war, my crops were ruined by enemy raids, and my cottage was burnt. Everything I had was taken, including my cattle. Then, when I was least able to do so, I was expected to pay taxes, and the result was I fell into debt. Interest on the borrowed money increased my burden; I lost the land which my father and grandfather had owned before me, and then my other possessions. Ruin spread like an infection through all I had. Even my body wasn't exempt, for I was finally seized by my creditor and reduced to slavery -- no, worse, I was hauled away to prison and the torture chamber ...

"In 326, a scandal led to the reform of debt bondage, the nexum. An attractive youth sold himself into bondage to a creditor of his father. The creditor regarded the youth's charms as an additional bonus to sweeten the loan and tried to seduce his new acquisition. Meeting resistance, he had the boy stripped naked and flogged. Bleeding from the lash, the boy rushed out into the street. An angry crowd gathered and marched on the Senate House for general redress.

"The consuls, taken aback, conceded the point. They won the People's approval of a law limiting the nexum to extreme cases, which, in addition, had to be adjudicated by a court. As a rule, to repay money lent him, a debtor's property could be seized, but not his person."

[via Beth Gallagher]

"I think a point occurs in the reading development of some young people where they change from identifying with the characters to identifying with the writer, that mysterious, creative presence behind and in the words. The more noticeable that shift, the more likely it is that the reader will become a writer, or at least fantasize about being one.”

~ Billy Collins, Poet

A Mortgage Bailout in Ancient Rome [via Nina Reznick]

Today's selection -- from Money Changes Everything by William Goetzman. Virtually all Roman Senators were moneylenders:

"Four years before Tiberius died, Rome was struck by a financial cri­sis involving mortgages and defaults. Unlike his profligate successor Caligula, Tiberius had been conservative in public expenditures -- there was plenty of money in the treasury. The financial crisis of 33 CE arose in the private sector, but it ultimately needed to be resolved by the government through an intervention in the credit markets. ...

"The crisis was described years later by historians Tacitus, Dio, and Suetonius. It evidently began with the renewed enforcement of laws enacted decades earlier by Julius Caesar regulating loans and defining the terms of holding estates in Italy. Caesar's regulations were themselves a response to a financial crisis that began in the 50s BCE and came to a head after his march on Rome in 49 BCE. At that time, in response to a dearth of credit and declining property values -- perhaps also brought on by political uncertainty -- the Senate capped interest rates at 12%, which evidently did not solve the credit crisis. Caesar took additional action by allowing debt repayments in land at pre-crisis values; he also canceled interest due on mortgages, forbade cash hoarding, and required lenders to hold a portion of their wealth in real estate.

"These same remedies -- eighty years later -- were applied to solve the credit crisis of 33 CE. The Julian law was invoked by Roman tribunes (the representative of the people), but their action was likely instigated at the behest of Tiberius. In what was evidently an attack on senatorial finances, the tribunes lowered interest rates to 5% and closed loopholes used to evade usury and landholding laws. The pow­erful senator Nerva reportedly starved himself to death over the conflict with Tiberius and the tribunes -- ostensibly because he was convinced that it was a disastrous policy, but perhaps because he suffered catastrophic financial failure.

"According to Tacitus, virtually all senators were moneylenders. Cut out of the commercial trades by law, lending was the primary means by which senators maintained their wealth. Research by Roman historian Nathan Rosenstein on the economics of the senatorial estates makes it clear that, at lease for most senators, farming was just not profitable enough to sustain them.

"The Senate requested and received from Tiberius an eighteen­-month reprieve from enforcing the law, but this grace period did not work. What followed was a scarcity of money, as credit disappeared and borrowers desperately tried to raise cash for repayment by selling estates. The crisis in estate prices was likely exacerbated by the emperor liquidat­ing the confiscated estates of Sejanus's supporters.

Bass-relief showing money changer at his bench

"The Senate next tried to prop up estate prices by requiring three­-quarters of all loan capital to be secured on land in Italy -- trying to force mortgage credit to landholders. This echoed the earlier Julian proclamations -- but apparently did not work. Lenders simply withdrew from the mortgage market, keeping capital on the sidelines until the uncertainty over land values resolved. Tacitus describes the consequences:

many were utterly ruined. The destruction of private wealth precip­itated the fall of rank and reputation, till at last the emperor inter­posed his aid by distributing throughout the banks a hundred mil­lion sesterces, and allowing freedom to borrow without interest for three years, provided the borrower gave security to the State in land to double the amount. Credit was thus restored, and gradually pri­vate lenders were found.

"To get a sense of the scale of the government mortgage bailout in 33 CE, when Tiberius died four years later, he left 2.7 billion sesterces. So the bailout was roughly 4% of government funds and was 100 times the wealth qualification for a senator during the earlier Republican period."

: Adorable bird gets adorable Q-tip massage [via Nina Reznick]

\Princess BB is a Japanese white-eye and there’s nothing she loves more than getting massaged by Q-tips. So much so, in fact, that sometimes she forgets to focus on anything else.


Most Beautiful Murals of the Year 2016

Banksy Mural at Bristol School

Although he’s been quite absent this year, Banksy had time to leave a mysterious “present” on the walls of a Bristol primary school. He even left a message for the kids, saying: “Dear Bridge Farm School,Thanks for your letter and naming a house after me. Please have a picture. If you don’t like it feel free to add stuff, I’m sure the teachers won’t mind – remember, it’s always easier to get forgiveness than permission. Much love, Banksy.”

Eduardo Kobra paints David Bowie

Brazilian artist Eduardo Kobra painted a spectacular portrait of the late David Bowie from his Ziggy Stardust days in New Jersey. The recognizable orange lightning bolt is still there in its original color, but everything else is painted in Kobra’s colorful geometric style – with a touch of black and white.

Guido van Helten’s Salt of the Earth

Australian prodigy Guido van Helten became a part of a documentary of famous street artists from his country, produced by Wanderers. While the project will be out in early 2017, we can admire this beautiful piece painted on train cars and featuring the artist’s signature portraiture of two elderly people.

WD Wild Drawing in Athens

Greek talent WD aka Wild Drawing covered two walls in Athens with an absolutely remarkable mural of an owl, called Knowledge speaks – Wisdom listens. Made during Petit Paris d’Athènes festival, it pays homage to the bird as the symbol of wisdom and the goddess Athena at the same time. According to the artist, ”Nowadays Greece, and not only, is experiencing a really dark phase and I think is time for us here and around the globe, to recall this creature’s wisdom.”

Alexis Diaz for JustKids

He creates amazing art in the studio and he creates amazing art on the walls. Alexis Diaz was a part of The Unexpected initiative in Fayetteville, Arkansas, curated by JUSTKIDS. The mural depicts a giant owl accompanied by a crescent, an eye and three feathers. The work oozes in detail and precision, as always.