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Thursday, 28 May 2015

PAINTING ALBANIA







In an era before photography became the principal mode of recording memorable scenes by travellers, the English poet and artist Edward Lear (1812-1888) toured Albania during 1848. His sketches and paintings combine realism with romanticism. They provide the viewer with a good sense of what he actually saw and felt. Many years ago in the 1970s, having recently seen one of Lear’s paintings of the Vale of Tempe (now in Greece), I attempted to follow in his footsteps to see where he had sketched. What I found was much as he had depicted the place many years earlier.

Conditions in Albania for a traveller in 1848 were far from comfortable as Lear described in his Journals of a landscape painter in Albania, etc, published in 1851 in London. Occasionally, he was attacked by dogs, and more often by the locals who were suspicious and also disapproving of his attempts to depict reality. For example, about Elbasan he wrote: “Dervishes — in whom, with their green turbans, Elbassan is rich — soon came up, and yelled, " Shaitan scroo ! — Shaitan !" in my ears with all his force ; seizing my book also, with an awful frown, shutting it, and pointing to the sky, as intimating that heaven would not allow  such impiety. It was in vain after this to attempt more; the " Shaitan" cry was raised in one wild chorus — and I took the consequences of having laid by my fez for comfort's sake — in the shape of a horrible shower of stones, which pursued me to the covered streets, where, finding Bekir with his whip, I went to work again more successfully about the walls of the old city.
Knots of the Elbassaniotes nevertheless gathered about Bekir, and pointed with angry gestures to me and my ' scroo.' “We will not be written down," said they. " The Frank is a Russian, and he is sent by the Sultan to write us all down before he sells us to the Russian …[1]” ( ‘Shaitan scroo’ meant, Lear explained, ‘ the Devil draws’). I do not believe that the Albanian artist Bashkim Izano who was born in Gjinokastër, had to face such difficulties whilst painting the wonderful series of pictures that were being exhibited as part of The Albanian-British Festival of Culture in London. I was privileged to be amongst those who attended the opening of the exhibition at Europe House in Smith Square on the 28th of May 2015.



The opening began with three speeches. One was given by Head of Representation of the European Commission in the UK, Jackie Minor. This was followed by an introductory talk by the Ambassador of Albania Mal Berisha. Then, the artist addressed the gathering also in English. The paintings on display were his homage to Edward Lear, and a very fine one at that. I am no art historian or critic, but I felt that like Lear, Bashkim Izano managed to combine romantic fantasy with realism.  Several of his canvases had symbolic figures painted in sharp contrast to the evocative impressionistic Albanian land- and townscapes that formed the colourful backgrounds. One of the images that I particularly liked was an almost comical depiction of an artist running downhill with a painting under his arm whilst dogs bark at his feet. This image that reminded me of the paintings of Marc Chagall must surely be Izano’s representation of poor old Lear who faced situations such as this.




I was fortunate to have had a nice conversation with Mr Izano, whose English is superb after having lived in the USA for a good number of years. I asked him whether he knew the author Ismail Kadare, who was born in in Gjinokastër. He said that he knew him well and that like me his favourite Kadare novel is Broken April. He also told me that he had painted Kadare’s portrait a number of times. I would have loved to have seen at least one of these, but the exhibition was a homage to Lear.

The exhibition is on until 19th June 2015







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Sunday, 24 May 2015

EINSTEIN IN ALBANIA ?



Src: http://th.physik.uni-frankfurt.de/~jr/physpiceinstein.html


After watching the movie Besa, The Promise, my curiosity drove me to watch another film about the rescue of the Jews by Albanians before and during WW2. The film Rescue in Albania, may be watched at your leisure on the Internet (https://youtu.be/eZ8szhccfZM). During the first 12 minutes of this film, it is stated that the physicist Dr Albert Einstein was both issued with an Albanian visa or passport and also spent several days in Albania on his way to the USA in 1935. This aroused my curiosity.

There are numerous references to Einstein’s alleged stay in Albania on the Internet. However, if this happened it is not mentioned in any of at least three well-regarded biographies of this man[i]. It is unlikely that he even needed an Albanian passport as he was a Swiss Citizen, holding a Swiss passport. It appears that he travelled on a German passport. Barbara Wolff of The Albert Einstein Archives at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem wrote in 2014: “Dear Albanians, I do not doubt that your country protected and saved a considerable number of Jews during the Nazi years. However, Albert Einstein was not among these people. Thanks to original documents in our archives we can easily refute Basho’s stories and prove that Einstein was neither in Vienna nor in Albania in April of 1931, that his German passport was not taken away from him but he travelled on this German passport to the US in 1931 and did neither need nor use an Albanian passport before or after 1931. He immigrated to the US in October 1933 and left only once, to travel to Bermuda, in May 1935, but never returned to Europe.- Regards from Jerusalem, Barbara Wolff. [ii] This was in response to an article that claimed that Einstein was made a citizen of Pogradec in 1931( see: http://gazetadielli.com/albert-einstein-in-albania-and-the-albanian-passport/)

I searched the Einstein Archives Online[iii] for both ‘Albania’ and ‘Albanian’, and only found two references, both to letters dated April 1931. One of them was written by Pandeli Endjeli, who was Prime Minister of Albania at the time. It was addressed to an “Albanian Consulate” and its subject matter was “Professeur Einstein et Menichelis au nom”. It was written in French and sent from Tirana, and makes mention of both Menichelis and Einstein. The other letter was written in German by “The Swedish Consul” and its subject matter was “In Abwesenheit meines Freundes, des Herrn Martin Lentschner, Konsul von Albanien” [i.e. ‘In the absence of my friend Mr. Martin Lentschner, Consul of Albania’]. Its recipient was Albert Einstein. It was sent from Leipzig. There is a reference to Martin Lentschner that I found which was in Das jüdische Schulwerk in Leipzig 1912-1933, by Barbara Kowalzik, where a Martin Lentschner was referred to as a ‘merchant’. In Handbuch für das Deutsche Reich Bearbeitet im Reichsamte des Innern, published in 1924 Martin Lentschner is listed as being the Albanian Consul in Leipzig. In the Balkan-Archiv, Volumes 5-7, published in 1981, we read: “Noch weniger ist über das Albanischer Institut, das im Jahre 1925 gegründet wurde. Die Finanzierung wurde durch das albanischer Konsul in Leipzig, Martin Lentschner, sichergestellt.” [i.e: ‘Even less is known about the Albanian Institute, which was founded in 1925. The financing was assured by the Albanian Consul in Leipzig, Martin Lentschner.’]. This institute was in fact founded by Gustav Weigand (1860-1930), who also founded Rumanian and Bulgarian Institutes in Leipzig[iv].  Robert Elsie writes of Weigand: “Although Weigand specialized in Romanian, Bulgarian, and, in particular, the Aromanian dialects of the Balkan peninsula, he also made a notable contribution to research on the Albanian language. In this field he is remembered for Albanesische Grammatik im südgegischen Dialekt: Durazzo, Elbassan, Tirana … and many articles on Albanian dialects and the origins of the Albanian people.”[v]

Unfortunately, I have not been able to see the contents of the two letters described above. The letters were written in 1931, a time during which Einstein was shuttling back and forth between Europe and the USA, and before Hitler became the Chancellor of Germany. Einstein finally left Germany in 1933.

One of the items that I found whilst investigating Einstein’s visit to Albania throws some doubt on it. On the 21st of May 2013, Ms. Edith Harxhi, Deputy Foreign Minister of the Republic of Albania, is reported[vi] to have said:“There are many newspapers that have published articles about a possibility that Albert Einstein was provided with an Albanian Passport when he left Europe for the United States. It was said that he went to Albania, got the passport and the US Visa and after 3 days he travelled to the United States. There are many Albanians who have given testimony about this fact. However, no records were found about this interesting fact. It might’ve been concealed for security reasons of that time.”

I will leave you with this, and let you decide for yourself whether Einstein ever set foot in Albania or possessed an Albanian passport. I am rather sceptical, but IF ANYONE CAN PROVIDE ME with good evidence that Dr Albert Einstein did actually visit Albania, I am willing to change my mind!


[i] The 3 are by Banesh Hoffman, Alberto Pais, and Walter Isaacson.
[iii] http://alberteinstein.info/
[v] See Elsie’s Historical Dictionary of Albania, 2nd. Edition.
[vi] http://www.osce.org/cio/101869, accessed 21st May 2015




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Tuesday, 19 May 2015

An Albanian Eagle in London



The double-headed eagle, national symbol of Albania[i], has an ancient ancestry. Its earliest known manifestation is amongst artefacts dating back to Ancient Babylon, 2000-3000 years BC[ii].

Recently, I was walking along London’s Fleet Street when I happened to notice a building with a double-headed eagle above its main entrance. This building houses the private bank C Hoare and Co. The bank, founded in 1672, has had premises on this site since 1690, when its founder Richard Hoare moved his business there from “The Sign of The Golden Bottle” on Cheapside[iii]. The golden bottle is the bank’s emblem; the double-headed eagle is that of the Hoare family.

[i] And many other places!
[ii] See for example The Art and Architecture of the Ancient Orient by H Frankfort, (4th ed.) publ. by Penguin Books, Harmondsworth: 1970.
[iii] Historical information about the bank comes from Hoares Bank – A Brief History, published by the bank as a four page handout. I was given a copy of this by the doorman, who shared my interest in the double-headed eagle.



The founder of the Hoare (or Hore) family was Robertus who, in about 1330, married an heiress of the family of Fforde of Chagford in the county of Devon[i]. Earler than that, there was a Sir William le Hore, who besieged and captured the Irish town of Wexford in 1169. His standard[ii] bore a double-headed eagle[iii]. One of his descendants, went over to Devonshire in England to seek his fortune and married the heiress of Fforde. He settled at Chagford and founded the Devon family which was at first known as ‘Hore’ and later as ‘Hoar’ or ‘Hoare’. Other branchs of the family settled in the South east quarter of Devonshire. This family has its armorial insignia described in the record of the earliest visitation of Devonshire as ‘Sable an eagle displayed with two necks within a bordure engrailed argent’. The London bank, whose premises are in Fleet Street, was founded by member(s) of this Hoare family.

 I wonder why the curious heraldic device of the double-headed eagle was adopted by this family. From what I have already written, it is evident that the family was employing it in the 12th century, certainly by 1169. This was before 1256 when Richard, Earl of Cornwall, was elected to become King of the Holy Roman Empire, one of whose most well-known emblems is the double-headed eagle. So, it is unlikely that the family picked up the double-headed eagle from that source.

            The eagle with two heads was certainly used by the Byzantine Empire and also the Seljuk Turks. It has been claimed by some that people returning from the Crusades, which began in the late 11th century, may have brought this symbol to Western Europe. However, there is evidence that it reached this part of the world even earlier. Emile Male wrote that there is a cloth dating back to the 9th or 10th century AD at Sens in France[iv]. Although he believed it to have been of Byzantine origin, I suggest that the presence of it and other similarly decorated textiles in Western Europe may have helped to have brought the double-headed eagle to the attention of those living in France, many parts of which were under control of the Normans who were also ruling England.


[i] The history of the Hoare family, which I have consulted, is that written by Edward Hoare. It appears in http://neergaard.org/CGTGenealogy/Family%20Histories/Family%20Histories-%20Crests/History%20of%20Hoare%20Family.html, which I accessed on the 19th May, 2015.
[ii] i.e. flag or crest.
[iii] See also: A General Armory of England, Scotland, and Ireland, by J & JB Burke, publ. by Edward Churton, London: 1842.
[iv] See: L’art Religieux du XIIe Siecle, by E Male, publ. by Librairie Armand Colin, Paris: 1922.

When I told the porter of the Hoare Bank in Fleet Street about my interest in double-headed eagles, he told me that he had often wondered about the curious eagle above the door where he stands all day. His view was that the Hoare family chose to use the double-headed eagle sometime after the bank was founded simply because nobody else was using this heraldic symbol[i]. As I hope that I have demonstrated, the use of this symbol by the Hoare family goes back much further than the founding of the bank. Lastly, I must point out that I have a tenuous connection with Hoare’s bank. Some years ago, my wife used to work for an offshoot of this venerable bank.




[i] The double-headed eagle is usel rarely in British heraldry. Most of the families that use it come from the West Country, which includes Devon and Cornwall.




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