Thursday 30 May 2024

Jesus-in-a-bottle - Michelle Lovric

I’m spending most of spring in Venice this year. For the first six weeks I carried the usual A6 spiral-bound notebook everywhere. I kept adding lines and stanzas to a long poem I was building inside it. Occasionally I thought of tearing out the pages to type them up for my poem larder. But I never quite did.

Instead, I left the notebook in my local supermarket and the staff were adamant that a cleaner must have thrown it out. 

I feel very edited.

Was the poem good? I can’t tell you. But the cleaner saved me the agonies of transcribing my terrible handwriting it, cutting the poem, rebuilding it, making it squirm into a fashionable form.  I never put that poem through a workshop, never heard the embarrassed silence when I finished reading it. I was never subtly or openly questioned for daring to create it or present it. I never had to struggle to justify its length or the extravagance of its language. I never had to hear someone suggest that I put it aside to work on something more lucrative.

On the whole, I am better off without that poem. Terminally edited, it cannot harm me anymore. Thank you to the cleaner at the supermarket. All power to his or her hardworking elbow.
It has been a spring like this. My plan was to spend time in the archives of the Scuola Dalmata, researching one Giovanni Lovric, perhaps even finding a connection between myself and this writer from Sinj who was in Venice in the 1770s. It was hard to get an answer from the scuola but they were obviously on my wavelength because the very morning I was choosing scholarly attire to front up in person, I finally received an email to say that they too are closed for restoration. (Picture of the Scuola Dalmata from Wikimedia Commons).

My two current novels for adults and children are also closed for restoration and I’d been hoping to find refreshment in Giovanni’s story. Instead, I have resorted to imagining him. I suspect the imagined Giovanni Lovric is having much more fun than his real inspiration, locked in the archives. For a start, he has a ferocious girlfriend with a bear who drinks beetroot beer.

I too have been closed for restoration after a couple of surgeries, with more to come. Some parts of me will never be restored. But I have found solace in a new collection of folk-art objects. 

I found these first two below at the mercatino in Venice’s Campo San Maurizio. As often happens, I then started to see them all over the place. And I have now acquired two more for my collection. (Picture by Déirdre Kelly, my fellow Companion of The Guild of St George).


By collecting, you learn: language, culture, folklore, faith.

So I have learned that people used to refer to a bottle like this as a ‘Bottiglia Mistica’ (‘Mystical Bottle’) or a bottle containing ‘Arma Christi’ (‘Christ’s Weapons’). It might also be called a ‘Bottiglia della Passione di Cristo’ or ‘Bottiglia della/di Pazienza’. A ‘pazienza’, I have read somewhere, can be a nun’s robe. And the bottles are sometimes described as ‘lavoro conventuale o monastico’ – convent or monastery work or ‘Klosterarbeit’ in German, where many of the bottles are for sale. So, like many articles now considered or sold as religious folk art, the bottles could have been put together by nuns or monks. (I have a collection of Christmas decorations hand-painted by Italian nuns and studded with coloured foil from chocolate wrappings). The description could also, of course, refer to the patience required to set up these little scenes, building them to be folded flat, inserting them in the bottle and then erecting them with threads pulled through the neck. 

I have also seen them called ‘Calvary Bottles’. Or ‘Impossible Bottles’ – though this title was also applied to the ships in bottles created by Venetian glass masters like Francesco Biondi in the early 19th century. I particularly like ‘God-in-a-Bottle’. And ‘Jesus-in-a-Bottle.’ (It sounds like a profane exclamation, doesn’t it? As in, ‘Jesus-in-a-bottle! I left my notebook in the supermarket and the cleaner threw it out!’)

The Bottles of Passion share many elements, most of which place them as folk-art objects. They use mixed media and sometimes found objects: carved wood, pre-made Victorian chromolithographs, fabric, bone, printed paper, even bread and rice. The bottles are often recycled: once used for common foodstuffs and even alcohol. Most date to the late 19th century or early 20th century when glass bottles became cheaply and commonly available.

They all show some combination of the symbols of Christ’s Passion:
- the whip and the whipping post

- the reed sceptre

- the crown of thorns

- the cross

- the dice with which the soldiers played for His robe

- the hammer that drove the nails into Christ’s hands and feet

- the ladder

- the shroud

- the cock that crowed

- the spear of Destiny

 - the sponge held up to His lips

- the pincers that removed the nails

 - the holy grail or chalice

- the sign INRI (Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum: Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews)

Some bottles add angels, Mary and Mary Magdalen. One of mine has three Christs, or two particularly holy-looking thieves. (Picture at right by Deirdre Kelly)

These Instruments of Passion, inside a bottle, might be believed to create a spiritual tool-kit that can be used to defeat Satan. Some were sold at religious shrines, such as that of the Black Madonna of Liesse in France. Some were filled with holy water – a portable blessing.

My own thought on this is that the stations of the cross are a journey, and that these little bottles provided the comfort of a portable shrine for those undertaking their own pilgrimages in hazardous times or places.

It is also said that these bottles forfended against particular superstitions about places where waters and roads meet, as it was thought that evil spirits lurked there in wait for the innocent traveller; such places also presented risks in the form of cross-currents, ambush or the possibility of taking the wrong way, physically or metaphorically.

Some times things go the right way. 

To those of you who kindly kept up with the Oceandiva saga in my various posts here at the History Girls, the threat has gone away. Five years after we first discovered the ambition of Europe’s biggest party boat to come to the Thames, the owners have announced they were fed up with the ‘regulatory system’ in the UK and were consciously uncoupling from London and happily going back to EU waters. I would like to take this opportunity to thank my tireless, hilarious colleagues in the campaign, the odd bunch of Londoners who sacrificed so much time and energy to keep the Thames more safe, less commodified and less greenwashed. There's plenty more for us to do. The Oceandiva has proved to be only symptomatic of problems that need addressing on the River Thames. 

More detail about this on the River Residents Group website.

What else am I thinking about? One thing is the anniversary of the terror attack on my London village on June 3rd 2017, when eight young people were killed and another 48 injured by three terrorists using large kitchen knives. For many days afterwards, residents were locked up inside their homes or excluded from them by a police cordon around our neighbourhood, which had become a crime scene.

I’ve been thinking about my friends and neighbours who were caught up in the attack or who witnessed it. I worry that the memorializing of the attack has not always happened in ways that are appropriate or disinterested. Indeed, it sometimes feels appropriated. I wonder to what extent we community members will be included in memorials this year, if at all. We're going to try something do-it-yourself, but heartfelt, I hope, instead. I am not going to say more. The point is, to do it away from publicity and photo-shoots. 

And there is one more thing that concerns some of us: just a few hundred paces from the attacks, a kitchen shop has put up a huge display of knives that are not protected by a case. It gives me a shiver each time I pass. Over many  months, my neighbours and I have protested to the shop, to their landlords at Borough Yards and to the police. But the display is still there, still far too easily accessible to anyone with violent intentions or to someone whose judgement is blurred by the beer with which the area is awash, this being the most intensive conglomeration in Southwark of premises that sell alcohol. It is sobering that, as the seventh anniversary of the attack approaches, we still can’t find anyone to care enough about the potential danger of this knife display to do something about it. 

Instead, there are plans to close a road or two, potentially marooning hundreds of residents, but no desire, it seems, to remove the bars' pavement licences that narrow the streets, causing serious bottlenecks for hundreds of thousands of people crammed into the narrow canyon-like streets of the Borough Market. The topography eerily recalls the photos of Itaewon, in Seoul, where 160 died in a crowd crush of 100,000 visitors in October 2022. In Borough Market, in fact, the crowds can be 50 percent larger than Itaewon. And they have nowhere to go if something were to go wrong. 

Meanwhile, the fight against over-tourism goes on in Venice, with NoGrandiNavi unleashing a picturesque new protest against the latest moves to excavate the lagoon in order to speed the return of the monster ships to the Stazione Marittima in Venice. A demonstration took place at nearby Zattere, and I was there with some colleagues from our Thames River Residents Group to cheer them on. A few weeks earlier, several artist activists had crafted the banners you see below and created a marine creature to protect the lagoon - seen arriving below. 

You can hear NGN's Marta Sottoriva eloquently explaining the new battle and the locals' reaction to the tourist access tax in the first episode of BBC Radio 4's The Tourist Trap, an investigation into over-tourism all over the world. (You can listen again on BBC RADIO SOUNDS).

Banners created by artists for the demonstration

It took three boats to transport the symbolic creature 

Above, some if the River Residents Group contingent in Venice last weekend.

Michelle Lovric's website
River Residents Group websitewebsite 


Carol Drinkwater said...

Dear Michelle, I am delighted to read that the threat to the Thames has been denied. I am dismayed though that Venice still allows these monstrosities into their waters. When will learn? Well done for the fight you have led to protect the Thames and its riverbanks.

V E H Masters said...

Such a lovely, and passionate, post. I do hope you get the knives removed from the shop window - so shocking

Sue Purkiss said...

Unbelievable that such a knife display is permitted - anywhere, let alone in a place where such an attack has happened. Was fascinated to read about the bottles, stunned to hear of the loss of your poem - and horrified to hear that Venice is still under threat from the cruise ships. And am concerned to hear of your health problems - so sorry, and I hope the treatment will go well and do what it's supposed to. Hope to see you some time when you're back in London!