Town & Gown

I attended graduation in my school today – and this got me wondering about the tradition of the cap and gown – where did this almost worldwide custom originate from? 

The custom of caps and gowns is as old as universities – and dates back to the 12th century. At that time gowns and hoods were worn in university on a daily basis by the clergy who were the teachers and the aspiring clergy who were the students – they were the only ones who attended these church owned universities. Wearing these gowns visually separated the scholars from the lay people in the town  – hence the term town and gown. Also wearing the same apparel gave a sense of unity to the college students and professors.

Quad at Oxford university

The gown and the hood kept the clergy with the shaved heads warm in the unheated university buildings. Later the hood was replaced by the skull cap we see today.The square shape of the skull cap is said to trace its origins to the quad at Oxford – but this is only one of many theories.

At universities like Cambridge and Oxford, gowns were to be worn according to the strict specifications of the university – and professors in these institutions wear a gown and cap on a daily basis even now. Students wear the full academic regalia for special occasions.

Harvard, Princeton, and Brown that started during colonial times in the US followed the customs prevalent in European universities and required the wearing of gowns on a daily basis. It was not until after the civil war when there was dislike for everything English that gowns and caps as college uniforms dropped out of fashion in the US. Their use continued only for graduation ceremonies, which also made the cap and gown signify achievement.

Howard Willis Dodds (1889-1980),President,Princeton University in academic regalia (

The long history associated with the caps and gowns makes them even more meaningful and special.

Kafka – Sunday Seven

We started reading Czech author Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis in English last week and I am still trying to understand what I am supposed to make of this book. On its surface it’s quite simple – if one allows for all suspension of disbelief – a salesman goes to sleep a normal human being and wakes up a bug  and seriously what kind of life did Kafka live to have such a wild imagination. I realize we are dealing with deeper issues like an existential crisis – but still what an imagination. I decided to find interesting quotes by Kafka for this week’s Sunday Seven.

  • A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.
  • In man’s struggle against the world, bet on the world.
  • Slept, awoke, slept, awoke, miserable life.
  • I usually solve problems by letting them devour me.
Kafka Sculpture in Prague
  • They say ignorance is bliss….they’re wrong.
  • God gives the nuts, but he does not crack them.
  • Anyone who keeps the ability to see beauty never grows old.

And my favorite:

  • How about I sleep a little longer and forget all this nonsense.

Happy Birthday Herr Dürer

Born on May 21, 1471, Albrecht Dürer was one of the finest – and certainly the most popular – German artist. He lived and painted at the same time as Michelangelo and Leonardo, and brought the Renaissance from Italy to Northern Europe. His art brilliantly embodied the theories of perspective and proportion, and his works show an amazing passion for realistic detail.

He was born in Nuremberg, Germany, and other than when he went to the Netherlands and then Italy for training, he lived there his entire life. He was a child prodigy and a versatile artist – his travels allowed him to combine the detailed realism of Netherlandish Renaissance Art with the beauty of Florentine Renaissance. He was a master at woodcut engravings and the prints he made from them were extremely popular. His skills in woodcut engraving and printmaking remain unsurpassed to this date. His vast body of work includes altarpieces and religious works, numerous portraits and self-portraits, and copper engravings. The popularity of his prints and their lower cost made them bestsellers – making him the first bestselling artist in the world.

The monumental nature of his paintings, particularly his later self-portrait in which he bears an uncanny resemblance to Christ, and uses his initials significantly as AD 1500 (for the year of the painting) are all for the purpose of giving his profession the elevated stature that artists enjoyed in Italy, in contrast to the craftsman type stature they held in northern Europe. His exquisite self-portraits are breathtaking in every way – and show his journey from child prodigy to a great Renaissance artist.

So Happy 559th to this talented and versatile powerhouse of an artist.

German English

Earlier this week I heard the word Schadenfreude and it really intrigued me – that this very non-English sounding word was being used in English. It is a German word that means to take pleasure in someone else’s pain – for which we have no exact one-word translation in English.  That got me thinking of other German words that we use regularly that were obviously ideally suited to describe something better than English could and so were adopted into the English language.

For the love of driving.

Fahrvergnugen – the love of simply driving – this is another German word that has no exact English translation. This word was used in German car ads and so became quite well known.

Wanderlust – intense desire to travel – this German word is so commonly used in English that I didn’t realize it was not an English word.

Doppelganger – a double who looks exactly like another person – this is another which is used regularly because there is no one word to capture its meaning in English. I’ve noticed the usage of this word seems to have gone up a lot and I see it quite a lot in Instagram – maybe people find their doppelgangers a lot more because of social media.

President Obama and his doppelganger

Zeitgeist – the spirit of the times – another German word that describes the spirit of the times better than any English word could.

Kindergarten – children’s garden – interestingly another German word.

Kitschy – something that’s tacky – this is another German / Yiddish word that describes something tacky particularly with reference to art or decorations.

Hinterland – backwoods – another lovely German word that does the job better than English could.

Huck Finn – a Bildungsroman

Bildungsroman – a literary term most high schoolers who have read “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” know only too well – and now we know the word is German.

A delicious deli

Deli short for Delikatessen – another common work which comes from Germany.

Interesting how English adopts words and adapts itself – maybe that’s why it’s the most widely spoken language in the world!!

Roman Aqueducts

Of all the things the Ancient Romans did, what fascinates me the most are the Roman Aqueducts. These bridge-like structures supported by multiple levels of Roman arches can be seen spanning across valleys in many countries across Europe and North Africa – territories that were part of the Roman Empire.  The aqueducts carried fresh water into Rome’s homes, baths, and fountains. In fact, even today the famous Trevi fountain in Rome is fed by water from an aqueduct that was built in 19 BCE.

The Romans built the aqueducts from 312 BCE to 226 CE, under the rules of Augustus, Caligula, and Trajan. While the parts above ground are the most recognizable, a majority of the aqueducts were laid below ground – and are made up of underground tunnels, pipes, and canals. Of a total of 420 kms of aqueducts, only 50 kms are above ground.

The water flowed from dams, reservoirs, and other sources towards Rome because of gravity. The entire aqueduct system had to have just the right gradient – too much and the water would flow too fast particularly into Rome and burst the pipes, too low and the water would stop flowing. The Romans used rivers and riverbeds to learn about gradient technology to allow water to flow at the correct speed. The engineering knowledge the ancient Romans must have possessed to achieve this feat is remarkable.

Ancient Roman Aqueduct

Once the water arrived in Rome, it went into a large storage reservoir called the main castellum. From the castellum, the water traveled to different parts of Rome in smaller channels, and entered a secondary castellum, from where it further branched until it reached its final destination like the Trevi fountain.

The ancient Romans built 11 aqueducts in all. Some of the Roman aqueducts are Aqua Claudia, Aqua Appia (oldest), Aqua Anio Vetus, Aqua Marcia (could take water up to Palatine hill), Aqua Alexandina (last one built), and Aqua Traiana.

Pont du Gard, Nemes, France

Trentino or Quarantino

It almost sounds like I’m going to write about the movie director Quentin Tarantino – but I’m not – not that it’s not the most fascinating name – but I’m actually  writing about something that’s been on everyone’s mind a lot lately – Quarantine.

Quarantine comes from the Italian word Quarantino, which comes from the Latin word quaranta giorni – which translates to “space of forty days.” The policy of quarantine was first enforced during the bubonic plague in 1348 in Venice. Ships carrying sailors and cargo had to stay on the ship in Venetian lagoons for 40 days before they could enter Venice.

Medieval Dubrovnik

Even before the Venetian quarantine the city of Dubrovnik in Croatia became the first to pass laws requiring a mandatory order for all inbound ships and sailors to stay away from the city for a period of 30 days for fear of carrying infection into the city. The sailors were sent to an uninhabited rock island for 30 days – and this was called trentino. This is the first known evidence of isolation and is remarkable that the officials of Dubrovnik had this much understanding of diseases and incubation.

Biblical importance of 40 days

The 30 days was later changed by Italians to 40 days – and this makes us question – why 40 days? The period of 40 days has numerous biblical references – and may have been picked for that reason. According to the bible when God flooded the earth it rained for 40 days and 40 nights, and Jesus fasted in the wilderness for 40 days. Even today, in many countries, women have to rest for 40 days after childbirth.  

Another interesting and related term is Lazaretto – which is the place where the quarantine took place, or a place where people with diseases, especially lepers, stayed. The term traces its origin to the biblical Lazarus who was covered in sores. So for instance the rocky island near Dubrovnik where the quarantined (or should I say trentined) people were sent would be a lazaretto.

Dubrovnik Lazaretto