domingo, 23 de enero de 2011

Medieval Oslo

The city of Oslo has been ageing extremely rapidly in the 20th century, turning 300 years in 1924, before leapfrogging to 900 in 1950 and finally 1000 by the year 2000.
The city succeeded in ageing 100 years in the span of 50 years on the grounds of archaeological findings suggesting that the town had a central administration and was, thus, a town as opposed to a mere cluster of dwellings, 50 years earlier than was previously assumed.
The even more astounding leap from 300 to 900, on the other hand, is a tale of two cities - Christiania and Oslo - and is due to a royal decision that cut the latter from the roots of its medieval past. The new town of Christiana was founded in 1624, leaving the old town of Oslo abandoned to rural pasture.

Whether or not Oslo had developed into a town by the year 1000, as is now believed, or was funded by royal decree only 50 years later, as one written record suggests, it soon become the most influential area of the southeast of Norway. Its population throughout the middle ages was much less than that of the commercial port of Bergen. However, Oslo was still amongst the three original bishoprics of the kingdom.  

At the foot of a hill, where the river of Alna flows into the fjord basin, the small town consisted for the most part of thatched log houses in between which were interspersed stone clad churches and monasteries.

Among the few residences constructed in stone were those of the bishop and the king, forming the two most impressive clusters in an otherwise mostly wooden townscape. At the northern end, closely adjacent to the market square was the residence of the bishop, which was linked by a walkway to the Romanesque cathedral of St. Hallvard. The cathedral was begun in the early 1100s and was probably complete by 1130.

Not to be outdone, the king linked his residence to a royal chapel, dedicated to the Virgin Mother, and strove to outshine the cathedral by the erection of a twin towered west front in brick and with elements of contemporary gothic. Oslo also saw the construction of a number of other churches and monasteries.

Oslo, however, had no city wall and the royal residence remained poorly defended at a time when the throne was fiercely contested in a succession of civil wars.  The solution was, therefore, to build a more heavily fortified complex across the bay that could bar easy access to Oslo by invaders from sea. This fortress and new royal residence came to be known as Akershus fortress. It is assumed that the complex was begun in the 1290s in the aftermath of the assault on Oslo in 1287.

The fortunes of Oslo grew with the waning of Norwegian maritime influence and the loss of control of islands across the sea. The Oslo area had throughout its history often found itself within a Danish, rather than a Norwegian, orbit, and its possible that a royal presence in the east was warranted by defensive purposes foremost.

In 1314, Oslo laid its definite claim to the title of capital of Norway by way of a royal declaration. The seal of the realm was to be held by the royal Chancellor, a national administrator tied to the royal residence of Oslo.

However, the ascendance of Oslo would not last long and the town would soon be decimated by a series of catastrophes. By mid-century the capital was struck by the black death and the population began a rapid descent. Royal patronage of Oslo died with the last king of Norway in 1387, leaving his mother, the daughter of a Danish king, to establish the union of Denmark, Sweden and Norway. The union would primarily be dominated by Denmark. 

Over the next 150 years, the influence of Norway, and with it Oslo, dwindled entirely. Swedish nobles rebelled and ultimately fought successfully against the power of Copenhagen while the Norwegians attempted but failed, in a series of events that lead only to the elimination of the Norwegian nobility. Oslo retained certain functions of a capital, though these were increasingly symbolic and by the first half of the 1500s they ceased altogether.

In 1537, ecclesiastical patronage also folded. The reformation removed the last source of influence that Oslo still maintained, and which had laid the foundation of its ascendancy:  a powerful and independent clergy.

Repeated fires and outbreaks of plagues likewise ensured that that the ex-capital remained economically stagnant. By 1624, Oslo was a backwater with only the cathedral still functioning as a church. A few minor residences in stone had been added to the townscape in the preceding century. One of these were built on top of the remains of the old Bishop’s palace and must have been among the most representative buildings of the time, as it was used for the wedding of James I of Scotland, who later also ruled in England. However, Oslo was still wholly medieval and a shadow of its former self. 

It was said to have burnt to the ground at least 14 times, but by 1624, the royal orders from Copenhagen decreed that Oslo should not be rebuilt, at least not in the same place. In the same year, the town of Christiania was founded on the opposite side of the bay and was incorporated into the defensive framework of the royal fortress of Akershus.

More on Oslo? Click here.

For more information about historic Oslo, buy my book, Det Tapte Kristiania, here.

sábado, 8 de enero de 2011

Moscow & St. Petersburg

At the end of the trail is of course Moscow, which I got ample opportunity to compare with St Petersburg a few days later. The capital curiously reminded me of London.

For a description of that comparison, please see the following link:

Suffice it to add a few remarks about the capital: It is impossible to fail to notice a dress sense that would raise eyebrows even in the blasé west. In Moscow, the miniskirts are the shortest of them all and the high heels the most gargantuan. It may seem impractical; hobbling across cobbled stone streets, but is very much in keeping with the city of extremes.

Behind the red wall of the Kremlin, rises a forest of onion domes, vying for attention with oddly tent-shaped turrets and towers. It is easily one of the most headily exotic skylines in Europe. In order to enter this bastion of tsarist rule, however, you need to circle the ramparts in order to reach Spasskaya tower, where you better not fumble with the change, or you’ll receive a torrent of abuse from the woman selling the tickets. Expect the same treatment from pretty much everyone from bars to restaurants. Get used to it, they don't do polite in Moscow. Yet, the capital is surprisingly upbeat and forward looking.

St. Petersburg, on the other hand, is a museum. Even in the summer heat, there is a frosty and impersonal character to the place. And yet, the city is still mesmerizingly grandiose and beautiful.

Arriving from an overnight train from Moscow, during which we had the privilege of sharing a cabin with a fussy grandmother and a pampered grandson, our first encounter in the imperial city is with eager taxi drivers.

We are inevitably taken for a ride, quite metaphorically, as Russian taxis don’t run on meters, and since we had no idea how close the hotel actually was to the train station. Not quite convinced, we are presented with a list of figures on a printed scrap of paper, demonstrating, supposedly, that the outrageously high price is the official tourist fee.

The city that Peter the great originally intended was modelled on Amsterdam.  Indeed, some of the oldest buildings in town suggest an air of northern simplicity, and, of course, there are the canals. However, St Petersburg is not an Amsterdam of the east, though that would be less of a misnomer than Venice of the north.  

Many of the architects that contributed to the building of the city were Italians or of Italian origin, but the palatial facades of the imperial capital are not quite like anything found south of the Alps. A possible exception are the rusticated gateways within the Peter and Paul fortress complex, hidden gems that would feel at home just as well in Verona as the shores of the gulf of Finland.  

Much of the rest of the city, however, is a colourful, yet solidly classical baroque, and the later neo-classical, empire, historicist and art nouveau additions do not detract from this general impression.

The winter palace is a prim creation in brick and plaster, using contrast of colour and the piling on of decorative elements as primary means to attract attention. The overall effect, however, is not entirely convincing and the building struggles to stand out along a highly palatial waterfront. Moreover, The rococo-esque expression of the building betrays a vague sense of sham, given the modest brick material at its core.   

Across the palace square flows a gigantic sweep of a building, in a marked contrast with the winter palace. Its architectural expression is bare in comparison with its florid neighbour, though its focus of attention is more crystallised and immediate. The triumphal arch, which plays the role of frontispiece caps the overall effect of imperial might. The square itself is, thus, left with a sort of yin-yang effect of masculine and feminine qualities at either end. Horse and carriage trot across looking for the next pair of tourists, with a carriage man in a suitably ludicrous 18th century dress. 

Seen from the Neva river, there is a sense that the city lacks horizontality, and this is only slightly made up for by the St Isaac’s cathedral, a not particularly original but successful addition to the classical portico and dome theme. However, it is interesting to note that the contrast of the most self-consciously Russian building in town, the Church of Our Saviour on Spilled Blood, ultimately creates the most picturesque backdrop along the canals. It is interesting in a city that was created explicitly as a window to the west, or a rather a city in imitation of the west.

Essentially, St Petersburg is a tourist town, in ways that Moscow is not. There is a sense of a retreat, of an escape into the romantic and pure that infuses it with life. In that respect, the two major cities of Russia could not be more different.