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Fresh Renaissance Art at San Francisco’s de Young

Featured Image: National Galleries of Scotland’s Sandro Botticelli: Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Christ Child (ca. 1490)

A collection of rare renaissance art, on loan from the National Galleries of Scotland, is on display at the de Young museum for nearly three months.

From March 7 until May 31, the 55-piece collection titled Botticelli to Braque will reside in the Herbst Exhibition Galleries within the museum.

Two pieces from the collection are considered to be standouts: Sandro Botticelli’s Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Christ Child (ca. 1490) and Sir Henry Raeburn’s Reverend Robert Walker, Skating on Duddingston Loch (ca. 1795).

Credit: National Galleries of Scottland, Sir Henry Raeborn's The Skating Minister (ca. 1795).
Credit: National Galleries of Scotland, Sir Henry Raeburn’s The Skating Minister (ca. 1795)

Both are considered revolutionary transitions for the artist responsible. However, the Botticelli piece has never been shown in the U.S. before. Including its vintage, the National Galleries of Scotland considers it the headline piece.

“It’s very hard to move from picture to picture because each one is so fine,” said Dede Wilsey, president of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco’s Board of Trustees.

“You want to stay there and take it all in or have someone explain to you how great it is,” Wilsey said. “But you have to move along.”

Other featured artists include Diego Velazquez, Johannes Vermeer, Rembrandt Van Rijn, Frederick Edwin Church, Claude Monet, Paul Gaugin, Georges Seurat and Pablo Picasso.

These names span nearly 400 years of art production.

Credit: National Galleries of Scottland, Diego Valazquez: Old Woman Cooking Eggs (ca. 1618).
Credit: National Galleries of Scotland, Diego Valazquez: Old Woman Cooking Eggs (ca. 1618).

Given the weight of the names and the rarity of the pieces, guided-docent-tour frequency has been doubled. Additionally, headset-guided tours are available for an additional charge.

Prices vary from weekday to weekend, children to seniors, but ID-bearing students get $5 off.

Live by the sword, die by the sword

A nervous look spreads across a young man’s face as he stands surrounded by a group of men and women, draped in what appears to be traditional medieval garb. A short, stocky, sweaty guy pulling on layers of iron armor is in the young man’s face. His barrel chest and belly are in the process of being concealed with a draping of heavy armor; his chin is pushed up by a stout neck protector that extends down to his chest and rests on his meaty shoulders. Soon there will be a fifteen pound helmet of dented metal resting upon his shoulders to complete the ensemble.

All the metal is dented with the marks of receiving heavy blows. His leg protectors operate with swivels and pivot points to allow him to move, his heavy metal gloves protect his wrists and the tops of his hands, letting him to hold his “ugly stick” and a shield in the other hand.

The new-comer keeps a nervous and excited smile on his face as he accepts pointers from this seasoned, medieval brawler. Through physical example the seasoned “heavy fighter” jabs his strong finger into the spots in which one should aim for during a battle. In doing so he catches a glimpse of discomfort in the new-comer’s eye and ensures him that in order to participate, you had better get used to people touching you and being in your space. The new-comer nods and reassures his instructor that he does not have a problem with it.

The “ugly stick” is a fierce looking piece of weaponry. A five foot piece of wood with iron fittings on both ends and two iron cross pieces about a foot from one end make it a device of detrimental pain. Re-wrapped over and over with grip-tape to conceal the chunks that have been left behind in opponents’ armor, the stick has character. And if it could talk it would probably scream.

Metal creaks against metal as the two heavy fighters make their way onto the grassy field. About 50 yards away, a swift but much more delicate swordplay is underway. Two men in fencing masks and long cloaks fend each other off with their thin swords. During battle scenarios at the events, a field can have a melee of up to fifty fighters, making these practices just a tease to what can really be done.

It is like two bulls about too ram horns as the two heavy fighters face off. A code of absolute honor is always upheld in practice and organized events. It is up to each individual fighter to recognize when he or she has been hit, and to act accordingly. The fighter who has delivered the blow cannot and usually will not claim that their blow rendered the other fighter dead or wounded.

If a fighter receives a strong blow to the leg they are required to go down to their knees as if rendered legless. From the ground they can continue to fight until they suffer a blow deadly enough to stop them fully; a blow to the head would be an example, and blows to the head do occur.

There is little holding back when doing the heavy fighting. Fighters leave with bruises all the time. Their forearms will remain black and blue for weeks and they are worn as badges of honor, proof that they can handle it. And while some practice several times a week, those bruises are rarely absent.

As the ugly sticks fly, fighters are bashed in the head, the torso, the legs, the arms; only their shield is there to protect them and when a five-foot stick with iron fittings is being thrust in a fighter’s direction, the shield doesn’t always block the momentum. It is not for the weak or the timid.

Christopher Starling, 55, has been with The Shire for almost ten years. A stout man with a round, friendly face; he sports a tie-die shirt and insists that everyone eat a piece of the lemon cake his wife provided, so that he won’t have to eat them all himself.

A few years back, Sterling was doing some heavy fighting practice with another member. Sterling delivered a solid blow to his opponent’s leg; sending him to the ground, as one is expected to do after losing a leg. As the man covered in full metal armor came crashing to his knees, his shield came down on to Sterling’s hand. Although his hands were concealed in metal gloves, the side of the heavy shield found the one small opening, the Achilles tendon of the glove if you will, and slipped right in, shattering Sterling’s thumb. It was the type of rare accident that can only occur when two grown men are clad in full armor, wielding ugly sticks and metal shields at each other.

Sterling is the senior locksmith for San Francisco’s oldest locksmith company, Warman Security, (the irony is not unseen) which has occupied the same location since 1914. Sterling realized that while he loved heavy fighting, he also loved his livelihood; and lock-smithing is a livelihood that does not go well with broken fingers. So after being a heavy fighter for several years and participating in five Crown Tournaments, he has hung up his ugly stick and switched to rapier.

Steady rotations of fighters leave and enter the practice field. Along the street, lawn chairs are out next to their parked cars and aside from long cloaks, piles of transient armor, a few bags of swords, some shields and a pile of ugly sticks; it’s just another day in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.

Art Mac Ceallaish sits back and relaxes between rounds of rapier. His aviators conceal his eyes and his gray hair is pulled back into a very long ponytail. A blue, homemade cloak of heavy denim drapes over his body.

Art got into Shire life over eight years ago and took to rapier. The heavy fighting interested him, but he says that with a bad back and being sixty-years-old, the reality of being beaten with an ugly stick probably is not the best idea if he wishes to continue this hobby.

Before joining another fencer on the field he slips on his mask. On the mesh face guard he has painted a somewhat ghoulish set of eyes, mouth and nose. He is tall, and holding two swords, one long for the offense and a shorter side arm for defense, squashing any stigma that might apply to a 60-year-old man. He is an intimidating figure, draped in heavy blue and wearing the ominous mask. It is hard for some of these folks to not look intimidating in their garb, but a quick chat quickly reveals they are a warm, welcoming group of people who have a passion and interest in times passed.

The Shire of Cloondara is the San Francisco chapter of a much larger organization. The Society for Creative Anachronism, or SCA,is a world wide organization of over thirty thousand members, who are dedicated to studying and re-creating the practices, styles and the arts of pre-17th Century Europe.

The Shire of Cloondara falls into the domain of the Western Kingdom, which includes Northern California, most of Nevada, Alaska and the Pacific Rim. In the world of the SCA, there are nineteen kingdoms across the globe. Within the kingdoms there are the branch groups. These are broken down by size and work just as the larger kingdoms do. Aside from shires; there are baronies, cantons and colleges. Within each branch group there is a hierarchy of roles and ranks; there is a seneschal, a herald, minister of arts and sciences, marshall and chirurgeon.

From shore to shore and across all continents there is almost always some activity occurring within the society. For example, in Arizona, in the week of February 14 through the 19 was the Estrella War in the Kingdom of Atenveldt. This week-long camping festival turns into a city of nearly ten thousand participants. Goods are sold, battles are fought, songs are sang, and merriment is made.

At the same time, in Bangkok, Thailand, is the Feast of Feralia in the Canton of the Golden Playne. And it does not stop there, over the same dates there is also the Valentine’s revel in the Provence of the Silver Desert in Reno. For many, these festivals are the best part of being an active member of the society.

Battle is not the only aspect of interest for the SCA or any of their smaller chapters like The Shire of Cloondara. Total attention is paid to crafts of the medieval ages. Members are active participants in groups such as brewing (beer), leather arts, metal working, medieval encampment, wood working, textiles and weaving, culinary arts, theatre arts and even medieval gardening.

Caitlin Ayers shows up to Sunday practice with her boyfriend. They have been involved with The Shire for just over a year and appear to be fully integrated into the scene. He cloaks himself in a long green robe that is typical of rapier swordplay. He has long curly hair and is quick to offer pointers to a new-comer, who is being taught some basic points of sword fighting. In the past year Brogan—his Shire name—has become a very proficient swordsman.

While he hits the field to practice with another member, his girlfriend Caitlin hangs out up top by the cars. Short, with brown hair and a Twilight sweatshirt, she joins the others in loose conversation about Shire related and unrelated issues.

Caitlin, 25, graduated from Mills College with a major in English and a minor in book arts; a self-proclaimed book nerd. Among other things she learned ancient techniques of book binding, as well as how to operate the 100-year-old Vanderbilt Press.
“Books have been around as long as the written word and that is a long time, and that’s a long time”, she says. She quivers with delight at the idea of beautifully bound books from the medieval period.

She practiced fencing through high school and college but because of a bad knee her activities within The Shire revolve more around old fashioned book binding and sewing traditional garb. At the next Crown Tournament, she hopes to be a Lister.

A Lister is typically a female and is in charge of controlling the list of fighters during the Crown Tournaments. These tournaments determine who will be crowned the next king. All the heavy fighters wishing to participate are presented before the current court in a traditional fashion. The King and Queen sit at the head of the battle grounds and watch as fighters compete in an elimination process that gives each fighter two chances, if you lose twice you are out. The victor surfaces as the new king and will hold that title for about three months. In these events, any class of fighter may participate; you do not need to be a knight, all though the knights usually win.

Those who win the crown twice earn the title of Duke. And as the folks from the Shire say, if you become a king five times, you become an “Uber Duke.” It is one of many unofficial terms within Shire lingo. They call the current King, known as Jade of Star Fall, “the once and every other king,” because he seems to be king every other time.

There is a rumor and a myth around the Shire and among the entire SCA. With thousands of members trained in hand-to-hand combat they are a force to be reckoned with, despite their light-heated nature.

“The SCA is one of the largest private armies in the world,” says Sterling. “I’ve heard, I’m not positive that the SCA is under observation by the FBI.”

Other members have heard the rumor too. Sterling has met a member who even claims to have met an FBI agent who became enchanted with the SCA after investigating them and then continued to participate in practices and events.

“It doesn’t surprise me that he would get sucked in,” says Sterling. “That is how we get a lot of members. They stop by to check it out, then the next thing you know they’re buying swords or piecing together suits of armor. We’re funny like that.”

When seeking solace in San Francisco, check out these spots

As I walk around the Mission, stressed out, homework, bills, work and so much more is on my mind. The sun is shining, but it is cool out. Perfect weather for some light hiking. I head up toward Noe Valley, but I know that the upscale shops and rich mothers will only add to my misery. I hang a left and start heading toward a little park that I hardly ever see anyone at.

On Castro and 30th Street lies Billy Goat Hill which has a great view of the city rope swing that throws you out over the edge of the hill and affords a sweeping view of the city. The swing is more like a rope with a loop in it where you can place a foot and stand up, or you can grip tight and hold on for the ride. Whenever I am in need of a clear mind and some good clean fun, I head up to Billy Goat Hill.

As I’m floating over the hill I am reminded that there are many peaceful and pleasant places in the city that offer similar delights. San Francisco is a place full of reserved natural areas that offer beautiful views of the land.

On the northwest side of town, bordering the ocean, the beautiful trails of Land’s End wind through cypress trees, around boulders, and the ocean breeze clears the air of any foul smells. This area, also known as Point Lobos, named so by Spanish explorers for the once thriving sea lion population.

Today the rocky beaches are full of oyster-hunting birds, washed-up debris, and if you look closely at low tide, you can see the shipwrecked remains of three boats that met their ends at the rocky outcroppings lining the coast at this point.

If you are daring enough to leave the main path here, there is much to be explored. Below the path and on the water’s edge, the waves crash in as you make your way over and around rocks. Some are chunks of cement with small rocks lodged in them, left over from the Sutro Baths.

“When I walk down to Mile Rock Beach it makes me think ‘Am I still in San Francisco?’ says Ben Vazakas. “There is a perfect view of the Marin Headlands.”

Vazakas moved to San Francisco just under a year ago. He has been exploring the city’s natural areas ever since. “We have so many here, why not take advantage of them?” he asks. “I go mainly to get away from the hustle and bustle. There is no one bothering you at these beautiful places.”

If you are lucky, you will even stumble upon the old bathroom, now slabs of cement with plumbing and a toilet seat sticking out. Graffiti covers what use to be the walls. While not a typical beach visit, this off-the-trail adventure is full of things to see, and lots to climb over. It is a way to explore the city’s history without roaming around its blocks. Each item washed ashore tells a story of its own, and there is no telling how hundreds of cement slabs ended up along the water’s edge.

For those who prefer to stay on the trails, or close to the parking lot near the Cliff House, 48th and Point Lobos Avenue, there is an expansive parking lot with a few trailheads. The trails are well-maintained and some are marked off with historical signposts telling of the land’s first occupants and how they used each area.

[pullquote foo=”bar” author=”Yvette Montemayor”] There’s something about hiking to the top of a hill to sit and feel secluded from the world. You can just get the hell away from it all.[/pullquote]

For many San Francisco residents Land’s End is a bus ride or two away. So, for those living southeast of the Outer Richmond neighborhood, Golden Gate Park might provide a more suitable getaway.

Golden Gate Park is about three miles long and half a mile wide. This man-made wonder is roughly 20 percent larger than New York’s Central Park. The park features a variety of activities. From walking along, admiring the shear beauty of the park, to an 18-hole frisbee golf course, to baseball fields, fly fishing practice ponds, wandering water buffalo, baseball diamonds, and open meadows with picnic tables, Golden Gate Park seems to have it all.

“Golden Gate Park is dope, because it has so many things,” says Tiffany Franklin, a long-time city resident. “There are the water buffalo near the lake, waterfalls, museums–it’s like the all-you-can-do park. I go to sit in the sun, enjoy nature, or whatever,” she adds.

On the east end, closer to Stanyon Avenue, the Conservatory of Flowers is a greenhouse that serves as home to roughly 1,700 plant species. Once you gallivant inside you can get lost among a variety of tropical and rare plants. Open Tuesday through Sunday 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Admission is free on the first Tuesday of every month, otherwise there is an entrance of $5 for students with IDs and $7 for adults.

Jaunt across JFK Avenue to the AIDS Memorial Grove and witness a tribute to all those who have felt the anguish and pain of AIDS in their lifetime. The Grove is decorated with beautiful stone memorials, sloping landscaping, and a variety of plants. If you are seeking a quite place for some reflection, the grove is a great option. Typically during much of the week, there are only a few people meandering through this part of the park.

Golden Gate Park is also home to a few man-made lakes, the DeYoung Museum, Academy of Sciences, Japanese Tea Garden, and many other gardens, polo fields and plenty of paths to provide you peace of mind and an inner-city escape from cement.

“I live across the street,” says Joe Johnson, a lover of Golden Gate Park. “I go jogging there. There are a bunch of joggers so there is a runner’s community. I like to run around the polo fields.”

“I don’t have to pay to go to a gym, because there is a great parcour trail,” adds Johnson. “I like to see all the green of the trees against the blue sky, when the sky is blue of course. The air is really fresh.” Parcour is a type of obstacle course using gravity to help promote fitness.

Even further south of Golden Gate, closer to the Outer Sunset, Ingleside, and West Portal neighborhoods, another great park houses a lake amongst dog play areas and a banquet hall. Pine Lake is one of two natural lakes within city limits.

Stern Grove is also home of the Stern Grove Music Festival that takes place every summer. There are multiple entrances to the Grove, 19th Avenue at Sloat Boulevard provides foot and bike access, but you can drive down and park in a small lot from Sloat. The recreation area takes up 33 acres and stretches from 19th Avenue all the way to 34th Avenue.

Once down inside, enjoy a peaceful stroll around the lake, watch the dogs running around, and sit and consume a good book at the stone, outdoor amphitheater. There are never many people there. Fog rolling in while sun shines down through the tops of the aromatic eucalyptus creates a mystical environment you can almost feel sweep through the area.

East of Stern Grove, and close to a BART stop, Glen Park Canyon cuts through three neighborhoods to reveal the lay of the land before the steep hills and rocky terrain were poured over with concrete. In fact, the first commercial manufacturing of dynamite occurred within the canyon thanks to Adolph Sutro. He was the 24th mayor of San Francisco. The dynamite plant exploded in 1869, killing two, injuring nine, and leveling the entire facility.

The canyon is roughly 70 acres of undeveloped land that is home to the largest remaining free-flowing creek in San Francisco. On the water’s edge willow thickets provides habitat to many of San Francisco’s dwindling wildlife.

Signs warn visitors entering the park that coyotes roam the grounds. Raccoons, skunks, opossums, red-tailed hawks and great horned owls also choose the Canyon as home.

Picnic tables, a baseball diamond, and a children’s daycare center offer landing spots for all-ages at one end of the park. A couple of trails lead away from there up through tall trees, along rocky cliff paths, and down into swampy land as you get closer to the creek. Climb up the rocks and to the edge of one of the many cliffs and enjoy the juxtaposition of the natural land and ritzy neighborhoods.

For those living in the Portola, Bernal Heights, Excelsior and Mission neighborhoods, Bernal Heights Park is a fantastic spot to enjoy sweeping views of the city. On clear days you can see clearly north to the Marina and east in to Oakland.

From the Mission, hike up any street toward the top of the hill on any of the many staricases and garden paths leading to the park.

“Bernal has blackberry bushes at the bottom,” says Will Thompson. “They are fun to eat while you look at the city.” He has been frequenting the hill since he moved to the Mission over three years ago.

About halfway up, above Alabama Street, a mini-park has been constructed with benches, a dog-waste bin, and freshly planted trees. Climb the steep stairs next to beautiful homes and enjoy the expanding landscape the whole way to the top.

“There’s something about hiking to the top of a hill to sit and feel secluded from the world. You can just get the hell away from it all,” says Yvette Montemayor. She grew up living close to the hill and has hung out there since she was a young girl.

“I like to go to the park alone and sit, read, contemplate. Sort out my thoughts,” says Montemayor. “Especially parks like Bernal– that’s a good thinking park. It is off the beaten path.”

Once at the peak, take a walk around the radio tower, enjoy the panorama from the hillside, climb around some rocks, or lay in the grass. The hill is the perfect place to take in the spectacle of the city and get some perspective. Enjoy the scene as dogs frolic, hawks soar overhead, and people make new friends.

“There are all these hawks that fly around and kill rats and other birds,” Thompson recalls, “One time we saw it grab a mouse and drop it. So, we walked over and looked at it. It landed next to a tiny vodka bottle so it looked like it got wasted and passed out. But, of course, it didn’t,” he laughs. “Parks are a good place to make out with chicks.”

McLaren Park is an expansive park full of rolling hills, tall trees, magical meadows, picnic spots, and much more. Walking around this park you can encounter all types of people. There are trails for mountain bikers, families taking short strolls, lovers enjoying picnics, and a little something for everyone.

McLaren is the second largest park within city limits. The park spans 317 acres. It is a hidden gem out past the Portola district, close to the Excelsior, and Visticon Valley. Two large play areas feature tennis courts, basketball courts, soccer fields, children play areas, picnic tables, soccer fields, and seven miles of trails for hiking, jogging, and walking.

“I heard there are buried bodies there,” says Vazakas. “There are great views. Not too many people know about it. Most of the time there is no one there. I like to bike to the top and hang out at the picnic tables.”

A nine hole golf course slopes through the park, a water tower and reservoir shoots up beyond the trees. The blue tower is visible from BART and the freeways. The water tower and reservoir delivers water to the surrounding communities.

The secluded McLaren Park amphitheater is a modern reinterpretation of a Greek-style amphitheater. It is located in a natural slope in the land, allowing different leveled seating to better view the large stage. Just off of Shelley Drive, the amphitheater can hold an audience of 700. On a day the amphitheater is deserted, it is a great place to find some solitude among an ancient looking structure.

Yerba Buena Park is a perfect escape right in the middle of tall buildings, taxi cabs, and over-priced stores. Walk in to the park, take in the fountain, the small pond, and forget that you just stepped off of busy Mission Street. Relax in the park, lay in the grass, and glimpse the tall buildings that surround the open space. This small natural area is perfect for a quick lunch break or a few minutes watching the clouds pass by.

Another place to observe the clouds is between the Castro and Haight districts. Corona Heights is up some winding roads within a neighborhood full of large homes. Enter the small grassy area of the park and be greeted by dogs running around. Walk up the stairs to the right and after a steep, windy, ascent, be greeted by large boulders, handy for blocking the wind, and get an amazing panoramic view of the city. The peak of the area is 520 feet above sea level.

It is home to many of San Francisco’s native reptiles. Many beautiful butterflies can be spotted floating around the area. There are also many varieties of birds who make their nests within the park. The area is protected under San Francisco’s Natural Area Program because many areas of the park are made up of native plant communities.

“Discover a new place you might enjoy, a spot you can claim as your own,” says Vazakas. “Plus, you won’t have to see waves of people at Dolores Park.”

Besides getting some piece of mind and some fresh air, San Francisco’s parks have a lot to offer. They are the last habitats of native wildlife and plant species. For many, they are a sanctuary away from the demands of every day life in San Francisco.