Cathedral of Commerce and the Gothic Bank (Melbourne, VIC)

It’s seems rather odd when walking along Collins Street, Melbourne’s swanky avenue lined with boutique shops, restaurants, historic churches, some of Australia’s tallest buildings and its banking center. For such a commercial and financial avenue, one wouldn’t expect to find the city’s best examples of Victorian-era architecture. It seems that the 19th-century captains of finance were in the habit of erecting and working in grand, ornate Gothic Revival buildings. There seems to have been no expense spared.

Included among these are the former English, Scottish and Australian (ES&A) Bank building and the former Stock Exchange. Though both are classified as Neo-Gothic, one is restrained and stately, the other almost flamboyant, perfectly at home along the canals of Venice. They are an odd couple. At the time of their construction, both buildings were not internally connected. That didn’t happen until 1922 when the conjoined structures became known together as the Gothic Bank.

While walking in the rain along Collins Street, we came across the Gothic Bank at Queen Street. Not inclined to admire the exteriors in this weather, we went inside to see the famed interior designs. The space previously occupied by ES&A Bank is now an ANZ branch, snug up against and connected to its imposing (and decidedly post-modern, sky-scraping) World Headquarters.

Walking into the bank lobby was quite a surprise. I’d never seen a bank interior like this one. It has to be one of the most ornate banking chambers in the world. The columns, capitals, arches and ceiling are richly detailed and gilded, like entering a Venetian palace.

From there, we made our way to the Stock Exchange building through doors along the lobby’s north wall. The former trading floor is now called the ‘Cathedral Room’ for obvious reasons. In fact, from Day One, the exchange became known as the Cathedral of Commerce, a reference to its clearly Gothic architectural elements: granite columns mounted by decorated capitals, soaring pointed arches and elaborate groin design. Unlike the adjoining bank interior, the off-white and gray colors are more suited to an ecclesiastical setting except that this hall was witness to financial trading in days past.

cathedral room

ANZ World Headquarters is situated next door and north of the ES&A building. The indoor passageway wouldn’t be noteworthy if it weren’t for the glass atria in between that are bordered by colorful post-modern columns. Those in the south atrium are made of smooth, blue-green marble topped by modern telescoping capitals. The north atrium reaches higher into a soaring space that repeats the column design of its southern neighbor on the bottom but adds fluted, light turquoise columns on top, its color chosen presumably so as not to appear overbearing. The effect is startling and imaginative. The atrium has the appearance of a courtyard, on one side lined with Gothic-inspired arched windows overlooking it.

anz whq atrium

We had earlier in the day visited the State Library of Victoria whose reading room is topped by a massive dome modeled after the ones in the U.S. Library of Congress and the British Museum.

State Library of Victoria's reading room dome

State Library of Victoria’s reading room dome

Melbourne has many architectural wonders, thanks to preservationists who saw the value of retaining heritage buildings. We only saw a small fraction. If your interest turns occasionally to architecture, you’d do yourself a favor by spending time among Melbourne’s many masterpieces.

Olive and Wine Country: Corning, CA

A giant replica of a martini olive sits on the corner of South Avenue and Hall Road in Corning, California. It isn’t someone’s idea of a practical joke but a symbol of the fruit’s importance to this part of the Sacramento Valley in California that produces olives and olive oil.

A visit to Lucero Olive Oil opened our eyes to an industry that is growing fast enough to be an important crop for the state. Lucero also happens to produce some of the best extra-virgin olive oils in the world, having won many competitions. The process for extracting the oil from the olive fruit is highly mechanized at Lucero, but as in winemaking, the role of the master maker is also very important. Despite the simplicity of how it sounds, the “cold-pressing” process for extra-virgin olive oil involves crushing the olives and pits into a mash and after kickstarting enzymes with a bit of heat in malaxers not to exceed 80oF, centrifuging the oil out in decanters. A few hardy olive varieties lend themselves to mechanized harvesting, but the fruit-picking is done manually for the most part to minimize bruising that could lead to oxidation. The tasting room lets you sample their oils, balsamic vinegars and tapénades and a factory tour can be arranged at the spur of the moment. Their oils had a range of tastes from mild to slightly bitter, with degrees of buttery, fruity and herbal notes. It was explained to us that the peppery finish in oils depends on variety, but more so on how mature the fruit is when picked, the greener ones exhibiting this characteristic.

The area between Corning and Red Bluff are full of olive tree orchards, which can easily be seen along the many roads throughout the valley.

Olive orchard along Road

Olive orchard along Hall Road

In nearby Vina, a community of Cistercian monks live in a monastery, the Abbey of New Clairvaux. The brothers also have a winery that produces award-winning wines, a tradition that dates back to Europe. There is a tasting room where we sampled a pinot grigio, viognier, albariño, barbera, petit sirah and a port-like vino dolce, a bottle of which we purchased.

new clairvaux

As you approach the winery, you can’t help but notice a Gothic-looking building on the grounds. The history behind its construction (or reconstruction) is very interesting, involving a thirteenth-century Cistercian abbey, William Randolph Hearst, and Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. In an attempt to build an estate that would surpass San Simeon, Hearst purchased a ruined chapter house of Santa Maria de Ovila, an old Cistercian monastery in Spain, as part of the project. The building was dismantled, piece by piece, and brought to the Bay Area. The advent of the Depression disrupted this plan and the stones eventually donated to the De Young Museum of San Francisco. The stones were left unattended in Golden Gate Park for many years where they were vandalized and generally lay in ruin. In 1994, the stones were granted to the Abbey of New Clairvaux, which has incorporated the stones to build a new chapter house, a replica of the original Spanish structure.

Cistercian architecture is known for its simplicity. The symbolism of its vaulted ceilings and windows are considered divine. Some aspects of the design use the golden ratio, often embodied in esoteric works of art.

The golden ratio is incorporated into the proportion of

The golden ratio is incorporated into the layout and dimensions of the portals

The pointed ceilings symbolize the vault of heaven

The pointed ceilings are supposed to symbolize the vault of heaven

In Corning, the Olive Pit sells all manner of olive products, more than I had ever seen anywhere.

For dinner, we took advantage of half-price senior buffets at the local Rolling Hills Casino, operated by the Nomlaki tribe.

“Miraculous” Loretto Chapel Stairway (Santa Fe)

Most non-parishioners come to Loretto Chapel to marvel at the spiral staircase. A fascinating legend surrounds its construction. Originally, when the chapel was built in 1872, there was no stairway to the choir loft.  The nuns prayed to St. Joseph to intercede. At the end of nine days, a carpenter appeared at the church who volunteered to build a stairway, on the condition that he have total privacy during construction. After three months, with the chapel completely sealed off, the stairway was completed, but the stranger disappeared without having been compensated. A reward for his identity never was claimed. The mystery doesn’t end there, however. The spiral stairway is a miracle of carpentry: it has no central support to the loft and uses no nails, only wooden pegs. Legend has it that no one saw any wood being delivered to the sequestered carpenter. Who was he? We can only marvel at this handiwork.

Loretto Chapel
207 Old Santa Fe Trail
Santa Fe, NM 87501

Santa Barbara County Courthouse (Santa Barbara, CA)

A significant architectural building in all of California is the Santa Barbara County Courthouse, built in the 1920s. It is arguably the most impressive building in the city, reflecting a superb example of the Spanish Colonial Revival style that earned it a designation as a U.S. National Historic Landmark and a place in the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. We were hoping to catch a late-afternoon tour, to no avail. But, even as we walked down the corridors and climbed up and down stairways, it was obvious why the building is so important.

From the clock tower, you can see the unique Spanish Colonial architecture throughout much of the commercial district, adopted by civic leaders after the devastating 1925 earthquake.

Masonic Temple (Philadelphia, PA)

A view down the Grand Staircase from the second floor

The Philadelphia Masonic Temple, built in 1873 and situated directly across the street from City Hall, is one of the city’s historic buildings and an architectural wonder. The design of its interior is among the finest of all Masonic temples. Its museum holds many interesting artifacts from American history. The lodge (the full name is The Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons of Pennsylvania) is where luminaries of the American revolution claimed membership. The last time I was in town in May, the museum was closed because of renovation to the Grand Entrance gate.

Freemasonry has been an enigmatic, some say secret society of men which has played an influential role in American history. It is assumed by some that it traces its roots back to the Knights Templar, the organization primarily responsible for Europe’s Gothic cathedrals. Many of the most important Founding Fathers were Freemasons: George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Adams, John Adams, John Hancock, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, to name a few. Most American Presidents were Masons. While the Freemasons were not a majority of the signatories of the Declaration of Independence or the U.S. Constitution, whatever you think of them, they were extremely influential in shaping the ideas of what we now call American democracy and creating its form of government. How ironic that a society dedicated to equality, righteousness, and fraternity did not (and still does not) officially include women.

A guided tour of the temple will not necessarily reveal what Freemasonry is or does, in no small measure because it was led by a Stanford graduate (just kidding, but he is an alum). You do discover that it adheres to no particular faith, its only “religious” requirement for membership being the belief in a Creator. There is also a belief that esoteric wisdom was handed down by priesthoods or secret societies throughout history, dating as far back as the ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians, some of which is codified in the symbols that are very much a part of a Freemason’s education.

There are seven lodge halls designed in a variety of architectural styles. Oriental Hall reproduces a part of the Alhambra in Granada (Spain), giving it a striking Moorish appearance. Egyptian motifs and hieroglyphics adorn the Egyptian Hall, designed after the temples of Luxor. The other meeting rooms are Renaissance, Ionic, Corinthian, Gothic, and Norman.

Oriental Room is inspired by Granada’s Alhambra

Egyptian Room shows influence of the temples of Luxor

Symbols are very important to Freemasons. There are many beyond the well-known compass and square. For example, the Star of David makes its appearance, not necessarily as an emblem of Judaism but as an esoteric symbol, signifying Divine Providence. The Star of David can be seen as an interweaving of two equilateral triangles, a special Euclidian shape and an important symbol to Masons. It also appears as points on George Washington’s Masonic apron.

Star of David

Even the materials used in the construction of the temple have meaning. An entire side of the building is covered in stone (Cape Ann syenite) that was quarried in Upper Egypt, the very same stone used by the ancient Egyptians to build pyramids and temples.

The museum is also an architectural masterpiece, done in the Byzantine style. It is so ornate that you tend to overlook the fact that it holds important Masonic artifacts, such as the apron, embroidered by the wife of the Marquis de Lafayette (also a Mason), that George Washington wore when he laid the first stone of the U.S. Capitol building.

Byzantine architecture of the museum (note the Star of David pattern again and other Masonic symbols)

If you are a Masonic scholar or interested in Freemasonry or if you are a student of architecture, you can do no better than pay a visit here.

Bologna (Italy)

One of Bologna's many arcades

One of Bologna’s many arcades

After our tour ended, we had a few days left before we had to board a flight from Malpensa back to the States. Outside of an extra day in Rome, we chose Bologna as our one and only destination before Milan. One big reason for coming here was its sometimes designation as the “food capital of Italy,” situated in Emilia-Romagna, the region that produces world-renowned food products. It is also a university town, University of Bologna, the oldest in the world, and long a center of left-wing politics.

Bologna’s 24 miles of arcades are another attraction for which it is famous. It is possible to walk throughout the historic district almost entirely covered overhead by one of these extensive porticos, each one seemingly with a unique design.

Food as a form of civic pride is evident by noticing the many shops with elaborate culinary displays, from the gastronomia (delis), grocers, cafeterias and bakeries. We purchased a few items from Caffe del Teatro for later eating. This was September, so the produce was bountiful, including porcini mushrooms which we had the great fortune of tasting throughout our trip.

Display at Caffe del Teatro

Display at Caffe del Teatro

A great time of year to purchase produce from the local grocer

A great time of year to purchase produce from the local grocer

An Italian deli

An Italian deli

An Italian bakery

An Italian bakery

Emilia-Romagna, the region of which Bologna is the capital, produces some of the most iconic products associated with Italian cooking and cuisine. Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese is arguably the most famous of these, followed by balsamic vinegar, Grana Padano cheese and Parma ham (prosciutto). We looked into a bus tour to a factory making any of these, but none was open on the weekend. Bologna also introduced the world to a special kind of bolognese sauce, ragu alla bolognese, typically served over tagliatelle, another product of Emilia-Romagna.

Ragu alla bolognese on taglietelle at Trattoria da Gianni

Ragu alla bolognese on taglietelle at Trattoria da Gianni

Many of the delis displayed Emilia-Romagna’s famous stuffed pastas of all sorts.

Tortelloni, one of several kinds of stuffed pasta famous in Emilia-Romagna

Tortelloni, one of several kinds of stuffed pasta famous in Emilia-Romagna

The public art that is notable here includes the Two Towers of Bologna and Fountain of Neptune in Piazza Nettuno. The Two Towers, considered symbols of the city, both lean and are thought to have been constructed in the 12th century. They are two of the several towers of about 200 or more that have survived damage, collapse, or other catastrophes. The Fountain of Neptune, topped by a towering bronze status of Neptune and surrounded by lactating nereids (sea nymphs) at the base, are the work of Giambologna whose masterpieces are found throughout Italy.

Neptune atop his eponymous foundation

Neptune atop his eponymous foundation

One of four Foundation of Neptune's lactating nereids

One of four Foundation of Neptune’s lactating nereids


The Two Towers of Bologna, Asinelli on the right, Garisenda on the left

The Two Towers of Bologna, Asinelli on the right, Garisenda on the left

Two days were not enough. Bologna is an exciting, vibrant city that begs for a return visit.

The Colosseum (Rome, Italy)

It was our first stop of the day, the tour led by a special guide who later led us through the Roman Forum. Considered the greatest example of ancient Roman engineering, the Colosseum still largely stands in the center of Rome, even after several major earthquakes and the ravages of time took their toll. There were several attempts throughout the Roman period to restore major portions of it, but the Colosseum never regained its original splendor. The structure is significant because of the influence it had on later, even contemporary designs, such as the inclusion of tiered seating and the manner in which spectators were quickly and efficiently seated and evacuated from so large an edifice.

In the Roman era, it seems that the Colosseum was used for entertainment purposes, including gladiatorial combat, recreation of famous battles, animal hunts, theatrical productions and the like. It is even said that there were recreations of naval battles which required the filling of the floor with water. The entire design of the subterranean section below a wooden floor covered with sand consisted of two levels of cages and tunnels that held and ferried not only props but gladiators and animals as well. The hypogeum, as the underground section was called, can still be seen largely intact today.

The hypogeum is still largely intact

The different classes of Roman society were segregated among the three seating levels, with the north side reserved for the emperor. The Colosseum is thought to have accommodated up to 50,000 spectators.

The Colosseum’s spectator section consisted of three levels above the arena

This and other monumental architecture makes you appreciate the accomplishments of ancient peoples.

Pantheon (Rome, Italy)

The portico of the Pantheon has Corinthian columns made from single pieces of granite

The portico of the Pantheon has Corinthian columns made from single pieces of granite

Walking through the Piazza della Rotonda in Rome, all we could see of the Pantheon was the portico with classic Corinthian columns that fronted a large, gray circular structure. As we stepped inside the building through the original bronze doors, we were awestruck by the sheer size of the interior, its immense and lofty dome, a marvelous feat of engineering of ancient Rome. The present structure was largely built by Emperor Hadrian, though an inscription atop the portico attributed it to Emperior Agrippa. In actuality, it has been rebuilt or modified many times.

As the name suggests, the Pantheon was probably a temple consecrated to all the Roman gods. Since the 7th century, the Pantheon also served as a Roman Catholic church, as evidenced by the addition of altars, apses, paintings and niches that contain sculptures of Christian personages and tombs. One of the tombs contains the remains of Raphael. Were it not for its conversion to a church after the fall of Rome, the Pantheon would have long ago been vandalized or stripped of its materials for other uses.

What is astonishing about the dome is that it is the largest, un-reinforced concrete dome in the world. How did the Romans accomplish this? To relieve the pressure from sheer weight, as it rises the dome tapers in thickness and employs lighter stones, with a pumice aggregate at the top. Coffering also reduced the weight.

Now, imagine a structure perfectly enclosing a sphere. This is exactly what the builders seemed to have in mind. The dome itself is a hemisphere with a diameter of 150 Roman feet and the height from floor to oculus is also 150 Roman feet. On the astronomically important dates of the solstices and equinoxes, the sun casts its light at noon on different spots in the interior. On the equinoxes, it shines along a north-south axis through the rotunda. Since our visit was but a week from the vernal equinox, we missed the centered illumination of the entryway, which faces north.

We missed the illumination of the entryway on the vernal equinox by a week.

We missed the illumination of the entryway on the vernal equinox by a week.

If the enclosed sphere were intended to be a planetary object, such as the Earth or sun, and when you consider that the sun’s rays penetrate the interior of the Pantheon through the oculus (see the top of the photo below), tracing its own path along an arc as the day progresses and its positioning on the equinoctial dates, then it isn’t hard to wonder if the Pantheon had an astronomical significance, too.

The hemispherical dome is topped by an oculus and flanked by 5 rows of coffers. Raphael's tomb is in the center at ground level.

The hemispherical dome is topped by an oculus and flanked by 5 rows of coffers. Raphael’s tomb is in the center at ground level.

Filippo Brunelleschi studied the Pantheon before he designed his dome for the Florence cathedral. The Pantheon is truly one of the world’s remarkable structures.

St. Peter’s Basilica (Vatican, Italy)

After dinner, the tour group returned to Vatican City to see arguably the most famous church in all of Christendom. Huge throngs of people were already flooding St. Peter’s Square.

Burial site for its namesake and numerous popes as well as papal basilica, St. Peter’s Basilica is not only a destination for the Catholic faithful but tourists from all over the world. It is one of the largest churches in the world, spreading over almost 6 acres. Like many other holy sites the world over, which includes many cultures and civilizations throughout history, it is built on top of another holy site, in this case, the basilica built by Emperor Constantine. It is also to be admired artistically. Some of the greatest names of the Renaissance were involved in its construction: Michelangelo, Bernini and Bramante (the architect). Its very splendor and opulence probably lend fuel to the fires of those who find its excesses overwrought. But, it is undeniably a monumental achievement in architecture, art and religious conviction.

The life of St. Peter is depicted on the ceiling of the portico

The dome, the tallest in the world, is a technical achievement, influenced by the dome designs of the Pantheon and Florence Cathedral. Several architects, including Michelangelo, passed away before the dome was completed. Superficially, it looks like the Pantheon’s, the representational “coffering” being instead paintings of 96 Biblical and papal figures, 16 in each of 6 ascending tiers. Unlike the Pantheon, the dome was built oval in shape to reduce compressional forces. There are also 16 windows ringing the dome at the base that provide illumination that on sunny days appears as crepuscular rays. The dome sits on a cylindrical wall, like the Pantheon’s, but which is itself mounted on four massive pillars, connected by spandrels on which each of the four evangelists, Luke, Matthew, John and Mark, is painted, to give an overall impression of stupendous height.

Leading up to the dome, the nave is flanked by pillars on both sides with niches occupied by statues of saints

The ovoid dome rests on a row of 16 clerestory windows, a source of natural illumination

Michelangelo’s masterpiece, the Pieta, is also in the basilica, housed in a glass case. He was an unknown sculptor, aged 24, when he completed it from a single piece of marble.

The Pieta by Michelangelo

The great sculptor and architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini was responsible for some of the basilica’s greatest treasures, created well after the basilica was built. His first commission resulted in the canopy (baldachin) that lies over St. Peter’s tomb and directly below the apex of the dome, possibly the largest work of bronze in the world. The layout of the piazza is entirely his design. It is flanked on two sides by colonnades of two pairs of columns, also his design, topped by statues of 140 saints. The piazza oddly has an Egyptian obelisk in the center, brought to Rome by Emperor Caligula.

Bernini’s baldachin that lies above St. Peter’s tomb

Bernini’s colonnades, topped by statues of saints, virtually ringing the piazza

Swiss guards have been protecting the Vatican since 1506

We wound up spending two hours wandering through this massive edifice. The basilica is breathtaking in its scale and elicits both awe and disquiet.

Siena Duomo (Italy)

The most striking and imposing architecture in Siena is its Duomo. We were taken there by our guide Annalisa. After some background information, she left us there to explore it on our own. Like any religious structure of this size, it took many years to complete. It’s difficult not to be impressed by its scale, ambition and sumptuousness, its decoration consisting of great works of art and masonry.

Because the façade was being repaired, it was sheathed in a false one of fabric painted to look like the real thing (top image). Facing due west, the façade, considered one of the finest in Italy, has its own interesting history during which construction was begun in 1285 and halted a few times under the supervision of different architects, spanning over almost 100 years, with the result that several architectural styles were incorporated, an odd yet unified combination of Romanesque, French Gothic and Classical.

The striped columns of Siene's Duomo are a decidedly Moorish influence

The striped columns of Siene’s Duomo are a decidedly Moorish influence

Here is one place where, not only do you look upward and marvel at architectural and artistic achievements, but down as well. The entire floor space is covered in mosaic tile that is the combined labor of about 40 artists, evolving from a drilling technique (graffito) to inlaid marble (intarsia) over the almost 200 years it took to complete them. The pavement is so valuable and fragile that much of it is covered up with drop cloths throughout the year, except for a brief time between August and October. Once again, we were fortunate to have seen more than most tourists, even if great sections of the flooring still were gated off to prevent foot traffic. There are 59 panels altogether, representing biblical scenes and important moments in Sienese history.

The Duomo's flooring is an artistic achievement

The Duomo’s flooring is an artistic achievement

Looking up in the nave, you can’t help but notice the plaster busts of 172 popes along the horizontal molding above the arches, although a closer examination shows a repetition of about ten different faces. In the spandrels below them are the busts of 36 Roman emperors. The roof is decorated with a pattern of gold stars against a blue background.

Above the nave are busts of popes and emperors

Above the nave are busts of popes and emperors

The pulpit is an octagonal structure sculpted by Nicola Pisano using Carraran marble, topped with panels of carved reliefs depicting important Biblical events.

Nicola Pisano's pulpit sculpted from Carraran marble

Nicola Pisano’s pulpit sculpted from Carraran marble

There are many other masterpieces in the Duomo, but an interesting adjunct to the cathedral is the Piccolomini Library that commemorates the life of the sponsor’s uncle, Aeneas Piccolomini, who became Pope Pius II, and stores his uncle’s book collection. The tribute takes the form of brilliant frescoes along the walls to which a young Raphael is said to have contributed. Combined with the paintings of classical mythological figures and themes in the vault, the effect is stunning on first entry.

The frescoes and artwork in the Piccolomini Library

The frescoes and artwork in the Piccolomini Library

The Duomo was so impressive that we returned there after lunch.