Kiwis Might Fly

03 31 richard pearseOn this day in 1903 it is entirely possible that New Zealand farmer Richard Pearse made the first powered aircraft flight. This was some nine months before the Wright Brothers made their first powered flight. I can only say ‘entirely possible’ because his flight was not documented, but circumstantial evidence is strong. Unlike Wilbur and Orville, Richard did not have a team of engineers behind his project.

Richard designed and built the entire plane himself at his remote farm near Temuka on the South Island. Having no access to libraries, he learnt everything he knew from the engineering magazines that he subscribed to. He used bamboo, tubular steel, wire and canvas to construct a monoplane with a 25 foot wingspan with a three wheeled undercarriage. Like the Wright Brothers, he’d been unable to find an engine that would be light enough to do the job, so he invented one for himself. He used tobacco tins and cast iron drainage pipe to build a two-cylinder engine. He even made his own spark plugs. His engine weighed a mere 57kg against Wilbur and Orville’s 82kg one. His design made the craft difficult to steer, but the Wright’s experienced similar problems with their early experiments. His flying machine had more in common with their later aircraft. The Wrights early model was a biplane and his had a single wing. He located the propeller at the front and had wheels underneath, theirs had a rear mounted propeller and was mounted on skis. In many ways Pearse’s aircraft was very similar to a modern microlight.

There were several witnesses to his flight attempts and their accounts can be found here. Some suggest a date as early as 1902. Some saw his plane in the air. Some saw it sitting on top of a high gorse hedge, following a collision. Some just reported hearing unusual noises coming from his workshop. There are definitely reports that pinpoint the date of March 31st and his flights were witnessed by people who had left the area by 1904. My favourite was from a lady called Cissie Connell. She had been watching from the top of a haystack and witnessed the hedge incident. She thought that Richard didn’t fly, but when she was asked how the plane came to be on top of a tall hedge, she couldn’t explain it. She said : “It just hopped up there.”

His flight of March 31st is estimated to have been around 350 yards, which compares favourably with the Wright bothers first attempt in December 1903. No one, including Pearse himself, would claim that he made the first controlled flight, but he does seem to have built a machine that could lift itself from the ground to a height of at least ten feet.

Richard Pearse gave up his flying experiments after 1911, but took it up again during the 30s and 40s. He built something which seems to have resembled a helicopter, because it was designed to take off vertically. His vision was that it could also be driven like a car and that its wings, tail and propeller could be folded up so it would fit in a garage. I did find a photograph of it, and you could probably find it too. But really, I preferred the description. It was said to be like a cross between a windmill and a rubbish cart.

In his remote location, Richard’s achievements and innovations went unrecognised in his lifetime and his work had no influence on aircraft design. His reputation was restored after his death and a replica of his first plane was built in the 1970s which can now be seen at the Museum of Transport and Technology in Auckland.

03 31 replica plane

Money for Nothing, Gold for Free

03 30 alaskaIn the early hours of March 30th 1867 the United States agreed on a deal to purchase Alaska from the Russians. There were those who thought that it was a waste of money. But the price of $7.2 million was ridiculously low, amounting to around two cents an acre. The Russians really wanted to sell. Although Alaska isn’t very far from the east coast of Russia, it was a long way from their centre of government and their colony there was hard to defend. They feared they would lose it anyway, perhaps to the Americans, perhaps to the British, who had territories just next door in British Columbia. The Russians had, in the 1850s, lost to the British in the Crimean War and they definitely didn’t want them to have it.

03 30 seal skin notesRussia’s interest in Alaska stretched back to the previous century. It was one of the final acts of Peter The Great, in 1728, to send an expedition to find out if Russia was attached by land to North America. He sent a man named Vitus Bering who, after an incredibly difficult journey, found out that is wasn’t. In the 1730s, Bering set out on another journey, this time crossing the strait that now bears his name. He reached Alaska in 1741, but died on the return voyage. What the Russians were particularly interested in was the fur trade and they quickly colonised the coast of Alaska and set up trading posts. They set up a company called The Russian-American Company which dealt in walrus ivory and animal skins. It had it’s own flag and it’s own unusual currency which was made from seal skin. Their relationship with the indigenous people of Alaska was, to say the least, strained and by the nineteenth century, they were facing competition from British Columbia. Russian America became too expensive to maintain and it was just too far away.

When it was suggested that the United States acquire the territory, some Americans felt the same way about it. They too were recovering from the effects of war. They were trying to pull their country back together following the American Civil War. Alaska, which they considered to be a wasteland, was not even connected by land to the rest of the United States. Dissenters thought the land would be worth nothing. They thought it wasn’t worth having even if the Russians were giving it away. They called it ‘Andrew Johnson’s Polar Bear Garden’. They also called it ‘Seward’s Icebox’ and ‘Seward’s Folly’. Andrew Johnson was their president and William Seward was Secretary of State. It was Seward who signed the treaty. Those in favour of the agreement were happy to see yet another ruling country kicked off what they increasingly thought of as ‘their’ continent and it is likely they hoped the British would be next.

03 30 nome gold rushThe Alaska Purchase turned out to be a good thing for America. Alaska is huge and, overnight, the country had become 20% bigger. $7.2 million is a pretty good deal, even if it does include quite a lot of lakes and glaciers. America easily recouped the money from the fur trade. But then, in 1896, gold was discovered in the Klondike on the border between Alaska and Canada. Thousands of prospectors travelled through Alaska. It was a gruelling journey over steep mountain passes and when they got there, they weren’t allowed in unless they had a year’s worth of food supplies with them. So, plenty of boom towns sprang up along the route and there was a good living to be made by anyone prepared to help them carry all their stuff. Then, in 1899, there was a second rush at Nome on the coast. Much of the gold found there was just lying around on the beach. Over the years, the area surrounding Nome has produced around 112 metric tonnes of gold. Not bad for two cents an acre.

There’s A World Going On Underground

03 29 terracotta warriorsToday I am celebrating the discovery of the Terracotta Warriors in Xi’an, China in 1974. Some farmers were digging a well not far from the site where Emperor Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China, was laid to rest in 210 BC. Bits of terracotta had been turning up there for centuries. At first they thought they had found a kiln, but when they unearthed an entire life-sized figure, they knew they had something more important. They notified the authorities and government archaeologists were sent to begin excavations. Work at the site still continues and so far around 8,000 figures have been unearthed.

The first pit to be excavated was found to contain 6,000 warriors. The detail on the figures is incredible, from the rivets in their armour to the tread on the soles of their shoes. They vary in height according to rank. Although the heads of the warriors seem to have been made from eight 03 29 terracotta warriorbasic moulds, features have been added to make each one unique. Originally, the figures were painted in bright colours, but any remaining paint tends to flake of within minutes of its being exposed to the dry air. The soldiers also once carried real weapons including spears, swords and crossbows. Some rusted away long ago, some were looted shortly after they were buried, but some have been recovered. Swords have been found that were rust free and still sharp after more than two thousand years. They were found the be coated with chromium dioxide which has protected the blades. No one knows if the ancient Chinese knew how to do this on purpose or if it is just a happy accident.

The warriors were placed there to guard the burial chamber of the Emperor. I have no idea whether it was a normal thing, in ancient China, to have yourself buried with thousands of clay warriors, but I’m going to put Emperor Qin Shi Huang in my category of brilliant eccentrics. He came to the throne at the age of only thirteen and managed to unite a collection of warring states into a single nation. He introduced a single currency and a single written language and also built a good network of roads and canals. All these are fine things for a powerful ruler to do. But there are a few other things I want to mention.

03 29 qin shi huangDuring his reign he survived several assassination attempts including being attacked with a lute packed with lead and having a strongman throw a massive metal cone at him. In later life he became afraid of death and he had tunnels and passageways built between his palaces because he believed that being underground would protect him from evil spirits, and probably from assassins too. In 211 BC a meteor fell in his realm that was said to prophecy his death He had the object found, burned and crushed. He also became obsessed with finding the Elixir of Life which would give him immortality. Needless to say that left him prey to all sorts of charlatans. He once met a thousand year old magician called Anqi Sheng who could sometimes make himself invisible. In 219 BC he sent an expedition led by a man called Xu Fu to find Anqi Sheng and get from him the secret of his longevity. Xu Fu and his fellow adventurers did not find the magician and, probably sensibly, did not return. Legend has it that they sailed to Japan and colonised the islands there. The Emperor’s alchemists made him tablets that were supposed to make him live for ever. They didn’t. It was probably the mercury in the tablets that killed him.

 The warriors were not the only figures that Qin Shi Huang had buried with him. Life-sized chariots and horses have also been found, along with acrobats and water birds. As I said, excavations are ongoing. In fact since I first wrote about the terracotta warriors a year ago, archaeologists believe they have located another 1,400 figures and possibly 89 war chariots. Then there is his burial chamber. It is estimated to be 690 meters long and 250 meters wide. It has never been excavated for two reasons. Firstly, no one is confident that they could safely preserve for posterity what might be inside. Secondly because no one knows how to protect the archaeologists from what might be inside.

There is a huge history of ancient China which was completed around 94 BC. It does not mention the buried army at all but it contains a description of the tomb. It tells us the 700,000 men were needed to build it. It is filled with rare artefacts and wonderful treasures. There are also crossbows primed and ready to fire at anyone who enters. But that is not the main concern. Inside his tomb there is a microcosm of his realm. The ceiling is set with jewels to represent the heavens It is lit by candles made from the fat of the man-fish. And no, before you ask, I don’t know what a man-fish is. There are also said to be a hundred rivers all set to flow mechanically and a vast sea. This is where the problem lies. They are all made from mercury. This could, of course, all be legendary nonsense, but soil tests in the area do reveal a very high mercury content.

What I like thinking about with the terracotta warriors is all the time they’ve been hidden underground. I think about all the hundreds of years of history I’ve covered, all the people I’ve read about who never knew anything about them, and I wonder how people ever managed to forget that they had once buried 6,000 life-size clay warriors. I like that they were discovered completely by accident by people who were just digging a well and it makes me wonder what other treasures might lie hidden. Sadly, the initial discoverers of the army seem to have profited little from their find. In fact, they have been turfed off their land to make way for a museum. So, it seemed the least I could do was to try to dig them out of the internet, dust them off and tell you their names. They were: Yang Zhifa, Yang Quanyi, Yang Peiyan, Yang Xinman, Yang Wenhai, Yang Yanxin and Wang Puzhi.

The Art of Dying

03 28 ruyschToday is the birthday of Frederick Ruysch who was born in 1638 in The Hague. Someone who had himself painted pulling the insides out of a dead baby might seem like an unlikely candidate for ‘Why Today is Brilliant’, but bear with me. Ruysch is the last of three peculiar Dutch anatomists who I first stumbled upon last summer. They all studied at the university of Leiden in the 1660s. I have written about Reinier de Graaf and Jan Swammerdam elsewhere and how they fell out about who had discovered that humans had ovaries. As anatomists, what they really needed were corpses to dissect, but they were difficult to come by, had a disappointingly short shelf life and were rather expensive. They all became involved in finding a way to preserve anatomical specimens. They devised a way of injecting melted wax into blood vessels. When it cooled and set, they had something that they could dissect. It was a method that revealed delicate structures that had never been seen before. They stained the wax red to make the results a bit more lifelike. While de Graaf and Swammerdam were arguing about the nature of human reproduction, Ruysch was doing something else. He was making dioramas out of body parts.

03 28 vesaliusHis work was not entirely unprecedented. There were anatomical texts that showed bodies in dramatic poses. Take a look at this one from ‘De humani corporis fabrica’ by Andreas Vesalius which was published in 1543. But Ruysch had found a way of presenting actual specimens. He found a material that was even better than wax for injecting. It reached even the tiniest of vessels and, when coloured, gave a life-like quality to the whole specimen. He was pretty secretive about it, so no one is quite sure what it was. It may have included Berlin blue, mercury oxide and clotted pigs blood. But I’ve also come across mentions of spirits of Zeus and Poseidon. I have no idea what these are, if you do, I’d love to know. Later, he invented a clear liquid that he used to store his body parts in jars. It kept them soft and more life-like. He referred to it as ‘liquor balsamicum’ and I haven’t a clue what was in that either. It must have been good because some of his wet specimens still survive after more than three hundred years.

Ruysch amassed a huge collection of anatomical specimens. Initially, they were used only for medical study but when non-medical people heard about them, they wanted to see for themselves. He eventually displayed them in a series of cabinets in a private museum. Physicians were allowed free admission and, if they were particularly interested, could attend lectures given by Ruysch. The general public would pay an admission fee and be shown around by his daughter.

So far I have only mentioned anatomical specimens in the vaguest terms, and I promised you dioramas…

L0023489 F. Ruysch, Opera omnia anatomico-medico...
image credit: wellcome images

The centre piece of each cabinet was a little tableau, each of which conveyed some idea of the fleeting nature of human life. The main feature of these were foetal skeletons arranged in various poses. They would be playing the violin, clutching a string of pearls, weeping into a handkerchief. Ruysch actually had access to a lot of foetal skeletons as, in 1668, he was made chief instructor to the midwives of Amsterdam. (He managed to collect and preserve foetuses at all stages of development.) The rest of the scene was made up from bladder, kidney and gallstones for rocks, preserved blood vessels for trees and preserved lung tissue for grass and bushes. Even the handkerchiefs that his tiny skeletons were weeping into were made from the membrane that covers the brain. It all seems rather macabre, but this was not Ruysch’s intention at all. He saw them as beautiful objects that would: “allay the distaste of people who are naturally inclined to be dismayed by the sight of corpses.” It worked too. His anatomical preparations, partly teaching aid, partly works of art, did go a long way towards dispelling some of the stigma attached to the study of anatomy.


As well as doctors and the general population of Amsterdam his museum was frequented by the rich and famous. In 1697, he was visited by Peter the Great. Peter had a keen interest in all things scientific. Ruysch taught him how to catch and preserve butterflies and they had a common interest in lizards. The Tsar liked what he had seen so much that he returned for a second visit in 1717 and bought the entire collection for 30,000 guilders. Ruysch’s collection was installed in Tsar Peter’s Kunstkamera in St Petersburg where it helped to introduce ideas of European Enlightenment and modern sciences to Russia.

Ruysch immediately began to build a new collection. After his death in 1731, it was sold to Augustus the Strong, King of Poland. It is from Peter the Great’s collection that some of Ruysch’s specimens still survive. If you visit this site, you can see some photographs of a few of them. There is the hand of a child clutching the heart of an unborn baby. To cover the place where the hand was cut off there is a beautiful lace cuff that was probably made by his daughter. Some of the site is in English, though you will have the advantage of me if you speak Dutch. Sadly none of his dioramas have survived the test of time but luckily, they were carefully recorded in a series of drawings by Cornelius Huyberts, which is a good thing, otherwise you might not have believed me.

03 28 diorama 1

The Madness of Crowds

03 27 charles mackayToday is the birthday of Charles Mackay who was born in 1814 in Perth, Scotland. He was a poet, journalist, novelist and songwriter, but what I really want to tell you about today is the book that he published in 1841. It is called: ‘Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds’, which is an excellent title. It is about the odd things that people suddenly become obsessed with in their thousands. From get rich quick schemes to miracle cures. From the hunting down of witches to the admiration of audacious criminals. Even the peculiar little sayings that come from nowhere and are suddenly on everyone’s lips.

I was also pretty excited to find out about Charles because, in his massive two volume work, he has covered so many of the topics that I have come across, and found fascinating, whilst writing this blog. He has a great deal to say about alchemy and the people who practised it. People, he says, are generally troubled by three things: their mortality, a lack of wealth and worrying what the future holds. Alchemists have at least two of these covered with their Elixir of Life and their Philosopher’s Stone which will turn base metals into gold. They believed that in Antediluvian times (before the Flood) people possessed the knowledge to extend their lives for hundreds of years. They also believed that all metals were made from metallic earth and a red inflammable material they called sulphur. Gold, they thought was made from just these two things, but other metals contained impurities. Find out how to remove the impurities, and you have gold.

There are some great potted biographies of alchemists, including Edward Kelley, who I mentioned elsewhere and a man called Artephius. He was born some time in the twelfth century but managed to convince everyone that he was over a thousand years old. He claimed to possess the Philosopher’s Stone. In his search for it, he had descended into hell 03 27 albertus magnusand seen the Devil sitting on a golden throne. Then there was Albertus Magnus and his pupil Thomas Aquinas. Both were later made saints and both were keen alchemists. They didn’t succeed in finding either the Philosopher’s Stone or the Elixir of Life, but they did manage to bring to life a bronze statue which they also gave the gift of speech. Apparently it used to act as their servant. Unfortunately it wouldn’t shut up and Thomas wound up smashing it to bits with a massive hammer. So, there you are. Be careful what you wish for.

In his section on predictions, he mentions the Prophetic Hen of Leeds, who I wrote about last week. There is also a section on cures which speaks at length about the Weapon Salve which I came across whilst writing about Jan Baptist van Helmont back in December. It was a rather peculiar belief that wounds could be cured at a distance by applying an ointment to the weapon that caused it. After that, people started to believe they could cure a wound by magnetising the weapon. This led to another strange idea, that people would be able to communicate with each other over vast distances in the following way: Cut a piece of skin from the arm of each person and ‘mutually transplant them while still warm and bleeding’. When the patch of skin grew into its new arm, it would still remember the body it came from. It would sense if any harm was done to that body. Therefore, if you tattooed, on each piece of skin, the letters of the alphabet, you could use a magnetised needle to prick out your message. Even if its original body was thousands of miles away, it’s new owner would be able to sense the pricks and read out the message on his own tattoo.

Actually, Charles Mackay has a lot to say about magnetic cures. It has a long history and hasn’t really gone away, even today. He has a great deal say about Mesmer, who I will, no doubt, get round to mentioning in May. There is also a lovely story about an American called Benjamin Perkins who, in 1798, brought to England a magnetic cure that he claimed would relieve gout and rheumatism. It consisted of two heavily magnetised metal plates which he moved over the afflicted area. He called them ‘metal tractors’. His patients experienced much relief and Perkins became a wealthy man. But then a physician at Bath, a Dr Haygarth, began to wonder about the cure. He tried the same thing with blocks of wood, painted to look like metal. He found the results were the same. This led him to write a book which also has a wonderful title, it is called: ‘Of the Imagination, of the Cause and Cure of Disorders, exemplified by Fictitious Tractors.’

Charles Mackay seems to be largely remembered now for his analysis of financial disasters, economic bubbles and the way that humans, no matter how intelligent they are, fail to see the inevitable consequence of investing in something that has no intrinsic value. He mentions tulipomania, which I have also covered elsewhere. Really, you just have to look at the dot com boom, property investment and the selling of debts that will never be repaid to see that we have learned nothing, and probably never will.

But there is a lot more to Charles than that. There’s a whole other volume that I haven’t touched on which talks about the religious fervour and hope of economic and political gain that fuelled the Crusades. He also talks about the obsession people once had with witches. 03 27 matthew hopkinsWitch Finder General, Matthew Hopkins, liked to tie his victim, generally an old lady, to a chair and then wait. If any insects came and settled on her, he declared them her familiars. One poor lady was declared a witch after being visited by four flies called Ilemezar, Peck-in-the-Crown, Grizel-Greedigut and Pye-Wacket. I can’t help thinking this says more about Matthew Hopkins than it does about his poor victim. Matthew himself died as a result of being accused of witchcraft. Someone got a bit fed up of it all and declared that he had got his list of witches from the Devil.

There is also a chapter about the way people have come to love daring criminals like Robin Hood and Dick Turpin. Perhaps, he says, it is because people love an adventurer. Or perhaps it is that they love a story where the undeservedly rich are cheated of their wealth. Clearly I have fallen victim to this particular madness myself, as my post about Jack Sheppard is probably the longest I’ve ever written. If you want to know more about what he has to say about ghosts, about fortune tellers, about holy relics, seek out his work at internet archive. It’s a little ponderous but quite readable.

I’ll finish up for today by telling you about a couple of popular phrases that have captured peoples imaginations and then disappeared into obscurity. He calls them ‘the harmless follies and whimsies of the poor’. In London, there was once a time when you could answer any question or finish any argument with the simple word ‘Quoz’, and everyone thought it was hilarious. Why did this happen? ‘Quoz’. Why did I suddenly decide to start writing a huge essay every day on a subject I previously knew nothing about? ‘Quoz’. See? It still works. This was replaced by: ‘What a shocking bad hat!’ Anyone wearing a hat that was just a little bit worn would face a chorus of ‘What a shocking bad hat!’ as they passed by. It became easier to buy a new hat, even if you couldn’t really afford one. If you appeared annoyed by the taunt, people would remove your hat, drop it in the mud, lift it out with a stick and pronounce again ‘What a shocking bad hat!’. Probably my favourite though, was addressed to adolescent boys who hang around on street corners imagining themselves all grown up and alpha-male. It is: ‘Does your mother know you’re out?’ It made them absolutely furious and also rather humiliated.

Chaos and Custard

03 26 fred karnoToday is the birthday of Fred Karno, an acrobat turned theatre impresario who helped launch the careers of Stan Laurel and Charlie Chaplin. He is credited with popularising the custard pie in the face gag. He was born Frederick John Westcott in Exeter, Devon in 1866. Shortly after that his family moved to Nottingham. Fred took up an apprenticeship as a plumber, but when he went to do some work at a gymnasium, he was so taken with it that he signed up for instruction. Fred, it turned out, was a natural athlete. Then he met a travelling juggler and wire-walker named Alvene and begged to be taken on as his assistant. It was around that time that the plumber to whom he was apprenticed died and Fred took to the life of a travelling performer.

He worked in circuses, pantomime, music hall and at what he felt was every fair in the country. It was a hard life and he soon found himself in London hanging out at ‘poverty corner’ opposite Waterloo Station where theatrical agents knew they could always find out of work performers in need of employment. To supplement his income, Fred kept a glazier’s kit at home. He and a partner would walk the streets shouting ‘winders a mend’. 03 26 the kidIf there were no windows to be mended, he was not above sending his partner ahead to break a few. Charlie Chaplin would one day use this stunt in his film ‘The Kid’.

His music hall career really took off when he and two other acrobats were asked to fill in for a troupe called ‘The Three Carnoes’. They were asked to stay on and, as no one realised they weren’t the real Carnoes, they named themselves ‘The Three Karnoes’. Fred began performing as Fred Karno and in 1895 he began to introduce music hall audiences to short mime sketches that were re-workings of his circus acts. Fred had introduced slapstick to the stage. He drew on his knowledge of clowning from his circus days and, by 1901, he had four action-packed sketches. They included ‘Jail Birds’, where prisoners played tricks on the warders and ‘Early Birds’, about a small man who beats a huge East End ruffian. Four sketches might not seem like very much but in those days, it was possible to perform the same material for years. He became so well known that people would come to see a show just because it had his name on it. This meant that he was able to give breaks to unknown young actors. Two of these were Arthur Jefferson (who would later become Stan Laurel) and Charlie Chaplin.

Fred was a master of publicity, it was a trick that he learned from theatre manager Arthur Jefferson senior, the father of Stan Laurel. Arthur had a portable zoo cage with a lion inside that was mauling a dummy which he exhibited around Glasgow. For a different show, he sent round a hansom cab with a man inside who had a dummy knife sticking out of him. For his sketch Jail Birds, Fred bought a Black Maria (the name of a police vehicle used 03 26 keystone copsto transport prisoners) and decorated it with streamers proclaiming ‘Fred Karno’s Jail Birds’. He drove it about filled with actors dressed as policemen, warders and convicts. Sometimes the convicts would ‘escape’, particularly during rush hour, and be chased about. Echoes of this stunt can be seen in the antics of The Keystone Cops in early silent movies. It was the Keystone Studio that first signed Charlie Chaplin.

His name became synonymous with anything that was chaotic and badly organised. There was even a popular First World War song called ‘Fred Karno’s Army’. But Fred trained his actors carefully, not only in the art of slapstick, but also showed them how they could gain the audiences sympathy. He believed that the best laughs came when a character didn’t know what was going to happen to him but the audience did. Which is where the custard pie in the face thing comes in.

03 26 fred karno's fun factoryWhen I first wrote about Fred Karno a year ago, who I had then never heard of, I discovered an amazing coincidence. He bought two houses in Camberwell and knocked them into one. It was his home, his office, a rehearsal space and a warehouse for theatrical props and costumes. He called it his ‘Fun Factory’. This is a photograph taken there in 1907. In the 1980s, the building was turned into artists’ studios and I found out that my friend Andrew used to have a studio there. In 2008, they all recreated this photograph, you can see it here.


03 25 canalettoThis day in 421 marks the founding of the beautiful city of Venice. I was surprised that we can be so specific about an event that happened so long ago. Especially when I found out that it happened at exactly 12 noon. A whole city, born in a single moment. The event this date commemorates is the founding of the first church, San Giacomo on the islet of Rialto. March 25th is also the Feast of the Annunciation, when the Angel Gabriel visited the Virgin Mary with important news, so probably it was a propitious day to found a new city.

The first citizens of Venice were largely refugees fleeing their homes following invasions of Attila the Hun and other tribes from the north as the Western Roman Empire began to crumble. Venice sits on a lagoon which is protected from the sea by a chain of low islands in the north east of Italy, It was a good site for a settlement because it was difficult to reach from land and only the people who lived there knew how to navigate its waterways. But building there was a huge problem. The islands are small and the ground is soft. So the city sits partly on land and partly on water. In order to build foundations, people had to 03 25 santa maria della salutedrive wooden piles into the silt and build on top of them. Wood doesn’t sound like a great material to hold up massive stone buildings. You’d think it would have rotted away, but because the wood is underwater, the micro-organisms that cause decay can’t grow the way they would in the open air. Also there are a lot of them. This church, Santa Maria Della Salute was built on over a million of them, each measuring 4 metres in length. The city is made up of 117 islands, so where a city would usually have streets, Venice has 177 canals. The streets it does have are really just the left over spaces between buildings. The narrowest is just 53 cm wide.

Although a collection of muddy islands wasn’t the most sensible place to build a city, it was excellently placed for trade between western Europe, the still thriving Eastern Empire of Byzantium and the Far East via the Silk Road. Venice became a rich and thriving centre for trade and by the thirteenth century was the most prosperous city in Europe. It was from this Venice that Marco Polo set out, in 1271, on a massive journey overland via the Silk Road to China. His journey lasted twenty-four years. In 1299, a book was published about his travels. It’s a rather fanciful account, that was written by a man named Rusticello. Marco Polo narrated the stories of his adventures whilst the two were both imprisoned following a war between Venice and Genoa.

03 25 marco poloRusticello was a writer of romances, so it’s rather hard to pick out which parts of Marco’s story might be true. He mentions a place where there used to be an island populated by a race of dog headed people, encountered serpents with teeth that could swallow a man and a unicorn. From his description, these are clearly crocodiles and a rhinoceros. He also mentions that the Chinese used paper money and burned coal, both of which were unknown in Europe. The book also claims that he became an important person at the court of Kublai Khan at Xanadu. Marco Polo’s recounted tales were widely read and inspired many to set off on their own adventures. Columbus carried his own, heavily annotated, copy when he set off on his journey that led to the discovery of the Americas. It is also the original source of Coleridge’s famous poem. During his lifetime, people found his stories rather unbelievable and even now there are those who doubt that he ever went to China at all. There is no historical evidence to support the claims made in the book. Marco himself claimed: “I did not tell half of what I saw.”

Kublai Khan died before Marco arrived back in Venice which caused the fragmentation of the Mongol Empire and the closing of the Silk Road. This would eventually lead to new sea routes being found to the Far East and the declining importance of Venice as a centre of trade. It was ravaged several times by plague. In 1630, a third of the population died. But the city still had it’s beauty and it became an important stop on the Grand Tour. This was a city that encouraged pleasure. It was famous for its masked Carnival, for its gambling houses and for its courtesans. This was the Venice that gave birth to Giacomo Casanova in 1725.

03 25 casanovaCasanova also spent much of his life travelling and his adventures also made it into print. But Casanova’s life was very different, he lived on his wits. Sometimes he was lucky, sometimes he wasn’t. He made his living variously as soldier, a musician, a gambler, a medic, an astrologer, a spy and a librarian. He was also quite a prolific writer. Among other things, he translated the Iliad and wrote a sort of science fiction novel called ‘Icosaméron’, which is about a brother and sister who fall into hidden world beneath the surface of the Earth. It is populated by a race of dwarves who feed mainly by breastfeeding each other. But he is now best remembered for his ‘Histoire de Ma Vie’, the story of his life.

His first big break was when he happened to save the life of a Venetian nobleman after he suffered a stroke. The nobleman adopted him and Casanova lived a grand life until he was arrested by the Inquisition. Among the charges were: cheating at cards, blasphemy and occult practices. He was imprisoned in the Doge’s Palace, but escaped through the roof along with a disgraced monk. After that, he was exiled from Venice but famous for his daring escape. He spent the next eighteen years criss-crossing Europe. He travelled around 40,000 miles. Made a fortune running a lottery in France and lost it gambling. He was involved in duel in Poland and frequented the literary salons of Geneva. He met with Voltaire, Catherine the Great and Benjamin Franklin. He got around. Unlike the travels of Marco Polo his adventures are supported by historical evidence.

Casanova’s name is now synonymous with ‘philanderer’ and he is best known for his many sexual conquests. His autobiography was not published until 1822 and it was very heavily edited. Histoire de Ma Vie was not published in full until 1960 and not translated into English until 1966. Giacomo Casanova was remarkably honest about his relationships, his successes and his failures. He opens his memoirs by saying: “I was all my life the victim of my senses; I have delighted in going astray and I have constantly lived in error, with no other consolation than that of knowing I have erred. … My follies are the follies of youth. You will see that I laugh at them, and if you are kind you will laugh at them with me.”