“Happiness can be found in the darkest of times,
if one only remembers to turn on the light.”
Winter is a season like no other. The world of many plants and animals becomes a time of rest and hibernation. For humans, December is a time of intense activity as Christmas approaches. The drab world of winter cities is transformed by lights of elaborate design hanging across the streets, and shop windows are at their most colourful. Wreaths with red ribbons hang on doors of most houses, and decorations make their interiors festive and jolly. It is a time of putting up Christmas trees, a time of pine garlands, multicoloured tinsel, gold stars and sparkling baubles. It is a time of logfires and brisk walks after Sunday lunch. A huge Christmas tree is erected in Trafalgar Square. It is a yearly gift from Norway to Great Britain for our help in liberating their country during World War II. And it is an unbreakable link with the past. It is a time of reflection. After the Christmas celebrations comes January. This is the most significant month of the year as it has symbolised for millenia a new beginning. The end of the old and the start of the new.
The name January comes from the Latin word, janua, which means a door. It isn’t only a door that moves back but is also a symbolic doorstep of going out and forward; it leads from yesterday and into an eagerly anticipated future. Janus was a Roman god who protected the doorsteps of human abodes and the gates of the cities. He was a symbol of the shadowy line that divides yesterday’s past from the future of tomorrow. He had two faces, one looking back and one looking forward, on the same head. That is why in January we pledge to refrain from our ‘sinful’ drinking, smoking, overeating and other bad habits for at least a month, but come February and our good intention becomes just that, good intentions only, at least for a few of us.
The winter’s cold taut air and lack of sun slows life. At this time all the birds that have not migrated need our help. The bird table should have as much variety as possible – seeds of all sorts, raisins, dried mealworms, lots of fat and any crumbs of our soft foods. One of the most popular songs that Mary Poppins sings is: ‘Feed the birds, feed the birds…’, and as the film is shown on TV each Christmas, it makes children put food out, and brings ‘a smile to birds’ cold faces.’
In northern European countries, winter is white with the blinding whiteness of the snow set against the horizon, where the iron-cast sky merges with the frost-bound earth. Even in our technologically advanced age, there is great delight to be a part of a kulig, a sledge cavalcade. Several large sledges cushioned with sheepskins offer comfortable seating for the revellers. The horses, usually in pairs, and the jubilant coachmen shouting ‘Who-ha!’, glide at full speed among the flurry of snow under the sledge runners. It is winter’s equivalent of summer gondola trips in Venice. Winter brings skiing sports and the Olympics. On lakes, natural or man-made, scores of people practise ice-skating. In Finland and Russia some brave souls go for a morning swim in ice-cold water, and surprisingly live to tell how invigorating and beneficial this experience is. All I can say is rather them than me!
One of Scotland’s best-known paintings, The Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch, attributed to Henry Raeburn
Winter temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere fall well below 0 degrees Celsius. In London, during the time of Samuel Pepys, the Thames froze solid for a few months enabling people to walk across, set up market stalls and even enjoy this unusual happening. Water is affected not only by heat and cold but also by air pressure. Although clouds are obviously formed by evaporation, our high atmospheric pressure is the reason that the oceans or big rivers don’t evaporate away totally. Water has other odd properties. It is at its heaviest at 4 Celsius degrees and ice floats on water lightly even though is solid. Most people think of water as a liquid to swim in or to drink but the two separate elements of which it is composed exist as two gases: oxygen and hydrogen. The wonder of nature at its best.
The end of February is the beginning of winter’s end. By now the whole northern world yearns for the warmth of the sun and for the first sign of Spring – snowdrops. We know spring is well on its way when forsythia’s branches burst with an amazing display of masses of gold flowers. After that, the catkins buds are at the ready to welcome Spring, as much as we are.
Forsythia, the first flowering bush of Spring
City names are not accidental, and the city I am writing about here although Genoa now, in the Middle Ages was called Janua. In Latin, it means the door, not only the door to go out but also the doorstep that is dividing the whole wide world from the abode behind it. It symbolises the new step toward the future and the link with the past. It had two faces symbolising the past and the future. The first month of the year was called January as it closed the last moments of Winter of the cold old year and was opening the path leading to Spring. Genoa was in the centre of travellers sailing in search of India’s gold, and the spices of the East. It was in Genoa that a man, who wanted to close the doors on the old world and to open the way to the new wide world, was born, Christopher Columbus.
City of Genoa, Italy
As this is a post in my Literary Series, I am going to tell you the story of the most famous son of Genoa, the greatest violinist that ever lived, Niccolo Paganini. Although at the end of this post, I will provide a few book titles, it will be my own tale about Paganini which I have known for a very long time.
Are you sitting comfortably? Then I shall begin.
Niccolo Paganini was born on 27 October 1782, in Genoa, the third of the six children of Theresa and Antonio Paganini. There is a legend connected with his birth and his superhuman ability to play the violin and it started on the night of his birth. The Paganini family lived in a poor neighbourhood of Genoa, a typical grey maze of houses connected to each other through dirty corridors with the passage going across from one side to another in Passo di Gatta Mora. The midwife summoned to Theresa Paganini’s house tripped on the loose steps to their house and swore, “For Devil’s sake!” just as the door opened, and the harsh meowing sound of the just-born baby Niccolo, filled the air. The child cried all through that rainy and windswept night in cold October.
At that time there was a large, long building at Passo di Gatta Mora, dilapidated with black window frames and holes in the greenish with age walls, it was a place for the poorest called, “Albergo dei poveri”. Every day a group of dirty children would spill from there and fill the street with shouting, running, fighting and playing, throwing paper boats into the pools of water in the ground. Among the children, one could see a tiny monkey with a large forehead, sticking out square jaw, a very long nose and curly black hair, On the ugly face, surprisingly, stood out a pair of beautiful, agate eyes with long eyelashes. It was a startling contrast to the awkward body with thin legs and arms almost touching his knees and the very long fingers of a child; it was Niccolo.
His father was a fairly successful gambler and during one of his few days of absence to the casino, a young Niccolo stuck at home with a fever picked up his father’s lute and started to play. He was so absorbed in his playing that he didn’t hear his father’s return. Antonio stood listening and smiling, behind him stood his mother. When Niccolo stopped playing, Antonio clapped and for the first time put his hand on the boy’s curly, black hair. The child looked up shyly at his father, “Uh, what a horrible creature you are!”, said Antonio turning away from Niccolo. Antonio brought from another room an old violin and gave it to his son. “You will learn to play the violin and you will earn good money. What I lose in the casino, you will earn back on the violin.”
An Italian lute
Paganini playing the violin
This was the first lesson of playing the violin and Niccolo had difficulty in understanding his father. Antonio was impatient and would slap him frequently. Next, he brought a long ruler and hit Niccolo’s hands; they soon were covered in bruises. Getting angrier and angrier, he locked the boy in a cupboard and told him to play the first practice, and that he would stay there until he got it perfect.
Within a few weeks, Niccolo learned to play well and read the notes. One day during the absence of his father, Niccolo came out with his violin and played Carmagnola, a revolutionary tune, very popular at that time. Within minutes the women and men living in the building surrounded Niccolo and sang Carmagnola. This was the first time that he had played in front of a large audience, a group of adults, and he felt excited and proud. It was the beginning of a difficult time for Niccolo. His father, impatient to capitalise on his son’s talent, decided to take Niccolo across the neighbouring towns and cities on a tour. It was a far too premature decision as a tiny child didn’t have the stamina to travel and practise relentlessly under Antonio’s cruel regime. Even when his hands couldn’t hold the violin any longer and he collapsed with exhaustion on the ground, Antonio would kick and slap him, demanding obedience. The beloved to Niccolo violin became an instrument of torture. If anyone were to look in Niccolo’s eyes he would see the depth of human misery.
The tour was the start of the fame, fortune, and unprecedented adulation of Niccolo Paganini. It was written by many of those who could witness the divine power of his playing that in his hands the violin became a live organism, specially created to play what was a miracle, his interpretation of the world around, and of the wonder of Paganini’s genius. When he played, the elated audience could hear the sound of bells from the church’s tower, the image of green fields suffused with sunshine, and the sound of grazing animals. With his playing, he evoked the journey through vineyards, gardens full of tulips, and the vibrant beauty of the blooming, green world. In the different, silvery, and high, clean tones, the spell-bound listeners could see the snowy peaks of the distant mountains, the streams cascading into the lakes below.
Paganini’s hearing was legendary; he could hear people speaking word for word in the whole street while he was in his third-storey mansard room.
The great, the noble, and the Church fought to have his services. When Niccolo played in any of the many churches in towns, to which Antonio was taking his wife and son, the crowd waiting to hear him would bring an unparalleled rise in the Church’s revenue. There were offers of concerts and one nobleman connected with the Stradivarius family gave Niccolo a Stradivarius after hearing him play with a passion that would elevate a piece of music into a masterpiece. Throughout his life, Paganini would attract envy, spite, and hate as well as fortune. When he grew up, women were ready to do anything to have his attention. Many were attracted by his passion displayed not only in his playing. The fact that he was ugly seemed only to add to his appeal.
There is not enough space here to describe the eventful path to glory, Paganini had to tread, the studying of the theory of music. the concert music of la vistas, adagios and cantilenas. All this was happening at a time of great political turmoil in France and in Italy. During his concerts, Paganini would paint with the sound of his violin the thunder of the uprisings, the revolution, and the gigantic upheavals that shook Europe; at the end of the concert, the ecstatic crowd would sing the included combined bit of La Marseillaise and Carmagnola. Also, there is not enough space here to tell you about his life of extensive travelling to all corners of Europe, instead I will show you just a few pictures…
“Liberty Leading The People” by Eugene Delacroix
Later, Paganini had a wife, Antonia Bianchi, and a son, a pretty boy with blond hair and blue eyes, Achillino. The boy was 14 when Paganini died, and he loved his father. Paganini left his fortune to him. His life wasn’t peaceful and even in death, it was not free of controversy and problems. His unique talent couldn’t be analysed in human terms, it can only be compared to a magical wand that had power over the world of mortals. His hand moved over his violin like lightning as if the instrument was an extension of his heart. This instrument spoke the human language and was understood by all, but the only one who could speak it was Paganini.
As a sidenote, the spelling of his first name is varied.
Here are a few books to consider as I promised: