Unmentionable

07 21 artemis of ephesus 2Today, I want to tell you something that is, on the face of it, not brilliant. On this day in the year 356 BC, the temple of Artemis at Ephesus was burned to the ground. But it does give me a chance to tell you about the Artemis of Ephesus, and she’s quite unusual. Here she is, on the right. The Greeks were a bit like the Romans. As they expanded their territories, they met with new gods. But rather than try to replace them with their own, they chose a god from their own pantheon that they thought it most resembled, and renamed it. Artemis was their goddess of the hunt, of animals, of the wilderness and also somehow of both childbirth and virginity. There are certainly lots of animals in this image, but I can’t see her doing much hunting in that frock. Having a column instead of legs isn’t really that uncommon in Greek statues, but those things all around her torso are a bit more mysterious. They have been interpreted variously as breasts, eggs, bulls testicles or some sort of elaborate jewellery. But we don’t really know what they’re meant to be. We know nothing about her cult before the arrival of the Greeks. I can’t even tell you her name.

Artemis, like the two saints I mentioned yesterday, did not have much time for men. It seems she was once in love with Orion, but then accidentally killed him. The river god, Alpheus, loved her but she didn’t love him. He tried to capture her, but she disguised herself by covering her face in mud. There are a couple of other stories about mortal men who tried to rape her. One, she shot with poisoned arrows and the other, she turned into a little girl.

The temple of Artemis was huge and it was famous. It was the most magnificent building in the city and possibly the first Greek temple ever built from marble. It had been built to replace a previous temple which was destroyed by a flood some time in the seventh 07 21 amazons 1century BC. The first temple was reputed to have been built by the Amazons. Not the ones from South America though the, possibly mythical, tribe of warrior women. It was dedicated to their goddess, who later became identified with the Greek goddess Artemis. Little has been found of the original temple, but some gourd shaped drops of amber have been recovered, which may be the breast shaped ornaments that decorated her original statue.

The site was certainly an important one, as archaeological evidence shows that it has been occupied since the Bronze Age. Also, people kept building there despite the fact that it was clearly prone to flooding. The building of the new temple began around 550 BC and held a wooden effigy of the goddess. If you’re wondering, as I was, how a marble temple got burned up in a fire, I understand the roof beams were also made from wood and it possibly contained a library. The whole building was about 377 ft long and 115 ft wide. It was an impressive building that was visited by sightseers, merchants and kings, many of whom paid homage to the Artemis. Ephesus was a large and prosperous city, and it was all due to the protection of their goddess

So when it burned down, it was a disaster. But, even worse than that, someone had set fire to it on purpose. Worse still, he wasn’t sorry. He set fire to his city’s splendid temple because he knew it would make him famous. Afterwards, he went around telling everyone he had done it. He was sentenced to death for his crime, but that was not his only punishment. The Ephesians didn’t want him to be remembered at all. They forbade anyone to ever mention his name again, on pain of death. I’m rather with the Ephesians on this. People who do such things are still a problem to us nearly two and a half thousand years later. Someone who does something spectacularly wicked just so that they will be raised from anonymity deserves to have that snatched from them. Mentioning them over and over and putting them on the front page of every newspaper only encourages others. Unfortunately, not everyone was governed by the laws of Ephesus and it’s perfectly easy to find out his name, but I’m not going to tell you it.

Instead, I’ll tell you that the Ephesians built themselves an even bigger temple. It was around 450 ft by 225 ft and 60ft high. They commissioned a new statue of their goddess from a sculptor named Endoeus, who was a apparently a pupil of Daedalus, the man who built a labyrinth for the Minotaur and made a pair of wings for his son Icarus. So there’s one in the eye for the unmentionable pyromaniac. The new temple was so magnificent that it became one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

07 21 temple of artemis

Of the Seven Wonders, all are now gone, except the Great Pyramid at Giza. The Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, the Colossus of Rhodes and the Lighthouse of Alexandria were all destroyed by earthquakes. The statue of Zeus at Olympia was taken to Constantinople and perhaps lost in a fire. No one is completely sure whether the Hanging Gardens of Babylon really existed. The Temple of Artemis seems to have fallen into disuse with the arrival of Christianity. Perhaps it was destroyed by the Goths. If we believe early Christian sources, it was John the Apostle. He prayed there and cast out all the demons. The altar exploded and half the temple fell down. But if we’ve learned anything in the last year, it is to take the stories told to us by the early Christians with a pinch of salt.

Ephesus, which had once been a thriving port, became less important after the river there silted up. By the fifteenth century, it had been completely abandoned. It is now far from the coast. The temple was probably dismantled to build other things. Some of its columns were taken and used in the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople in the sixth century. So they became part of a Christian church which was made a mosque in 1453. The temple of the Lady of Ephesus, whoever she was, has time travelled from the ancient Greeks, through the Christian Byzantine Empire and the Ottoman one. The Hagia Sophia is now a museum.

Stormed It

07 14 bastilleToday, most people in France get a day off because it is the anniversary of the Storming of the Bastille. The Bastille was a prison in Paris, which had the reputation of being a place where you could be locked up without trial, just for doing something that the King didn’t like. The prison had held assassins and spies, booksellers and magicians. It also held members of the nobility whose behaviour had been deemed too shocking to be revealed in a public trial. But what that actually meant, was that anyone with an embarrassing relative could have them locked away, if they could get the King to agree to it. During the reign of King Louis XIV, some 2,320 people were detained there. It wasn’t necessarily a bad place to be. If you were rich enough, you could take your own clothes, you’re own furniture, even your own servants if you could persuade them to go. But it wasn’t necessarily a good place either. There were tales of torture chambers and mysterious prisoners who had lain forgotten for years. A tremendous amount of secrecy surrounded who was actually held there. People didn’t like it very much but, in truth, by the reign of Louis XVI, it was barely used at all and there were plans to demolish it. Nevertheless, it was a looming symbol of royal oppression, so after the people of Paris stormed the building and freed the prisoners held there on July 14th 1789, it quickly became a symbol of everything the Revolutionaries stood against.

What the people who stormed the building were really after was the gunpowder that was stored there. Earlier in the day, the same crowd had stormed L’Hôtel des Invalides, which does not sound quite so glorious, in order to steal weapons. It was a sort of hospital and retirement home for war veterans. There, they had seized around 30,000 muskets but had found no ammunition.

When it occurred to them that it would be politically expedient to free the prisoners of the King while they were there, they began to search the cells. They found only seven inmates. Four were forgers, who couldn’t believe their luck and immediately absconded. One was an aristocrat named the Comte de Solages who was held there at the request of his family, possibly for kidnapping his sister. There were also two lunatics. One had been imprisoned for telling everyone that he had been involved in a plot to assassinate the present king’s grandfather, Louis XV. The other man was either British or Irish. His name was Jacques-François-Xavier de Whyte. He had a long white beard and looked far more like the sort of prisoner that they were hoping to find. He looked like a man who had been cruelly imprisoned for years on the whim of an uncaring monarch. They paraded him through the streets. De Whyte was delighted and smiled and waved to the crowds, but then he did believe that he was Julius Caesar…

When the liberators realised that there wasn’t a suitably heroic prisoner in the Bastille, they simply made one up. The Comte de Lorge had supposedly been imprisoned for thirty-two years and bore a striking physical resemblance to De Whyte. Despite the fact that someone claimed to have met him and even wrote a book about him, there is no evidence that he ever existed at all.

Had the Revolutionaries arrived ten days earlier, they would have found an eight prisoner. The Marquis de Sade had been transferred to an asylum at Charenton on July 4th. He was moved because he had been shouting at passers-by from the battlements, yelling that prisoners were being killed inside. When he was confined to his cell he continued to shout from his window using an improvised megaphone. His behaviour fuelled unrest in the city so he was bundled out of his cell in the night. He left in such a hurry that he left behind a manuscript he had been working on: ‘120 Days of Sodom’. To the end of his life, he believed that it had been lost during the subsequent looting of the prison but it was later found hidden in the wall of his cell.

07 14 bastille foundationsThe prison itself was raised to the ground, pieces of it were taken away as souvenirs. Nothing now remains of the building, excepting a few foundation stones that were discovered during the construction of the Paris Metro in 1899. On the site where it stood though, there was, for thirty-two years, a large plaster elephant that was also a fountain. When I say ‘large’, I really mean it, it was seventy-eight feet high. It was protected by a guard who lived in one of its legs. The plaster elephant was actually just a stand-in for a bronze elephant, that the Emperor Napoleon planned to have cast from the cannons of his defeated enemies. He imagined people being able to climb up the inside and stand on a platform at the top to take in the view. But Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo in 1815, and the project was abandoned. By 1820, people were pretty fed up of the plaster elephant because it was full of rats. But it was not removed until 1846. Its base was used to support the column that now stands there, which commemorates the second French Revolution in 1830.

07 14 napoleon's plaster elephant

When I started to think about Napoleon’s elephant, it occurred to me that the Parisians seem to have been oddly obsessed with buildings that are also elephants. Napoleon probably had his idea from an architect names Charles Ribart, who, in 1758, had proposed building a giant elephant on the site now occupied by the Arc de Triomphe. He imagined that banquets and balls could be held inside it. There also seems to be a little forest, which I’m guessing is a theatre.

07 14 ribart elephant

In 1889, Paris hosted a World Fair to commemorate the centenary of the Storming of the Bastille. I know that the exhibition included a model of the prison, though I couldn’t find a picture of it anywhere. I also know that there was a large elephant. I know this because it was afterwards purchased by Joseph Oller and Charles Zidler. Creator and manager of the Moulin Rouge. They installed it in their garden where it served as either a venue for belly dancers or an opium den, possibly both.

07 14 moulin rouge elephant

Theatreland

06 29 globeToday, I want to tell you about the Globe Theatre, in Southwark. The theatre where William Shakespeare worked and where his plays were performed. It opened in 1599, I don’t know the exact date, but I do know when it burned down and it was on this day in 1613.

The Globe was built to house an acting company called the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. It was owned, for the most part, by the company’s lead actor, Richard Burbage and his brother Cuthbert. But Shakespeare owned a one eighth share in the project. The actors’ previous home in Shoreditch, north of the City, had been one of the first, and certainly the most successful permanent theatres to be built in England since Roman times. I can tell you where it was: between Alice Daridge’s garden and the Earl of Rutland’s oat barn. Just near the Great Horse Pond, next to the common sewer and a slaughterhouse. Not that this really tells you much about it’s geographical location, but it does give you some idea of what it might have been like. It opened in 1576 and was called, simply, ‘The Theatre’. But they had run into problems. The Theatre had been built by Richard and Cuthbert’s father James Burbage and a man named Mr Brayne who was his brother-in-law. After both men died, there was a huge falling-out over who owned what. Added to this, the Theatre was built on land that was leased from a man called Giles Allen. Allen was a staunch Puritan who wasn’t keen on theatre and, when the lease ran out in 1596, he refused to renew it. What’s more, he claimed that the building now belonged to him too.

The Burbages side-stepped the whole problem on the night of December 28th 1598. Giles Allen was away celebrating Christmas at his country residence and the Burbages, along with a carpenter called Peter Street and a few others, probably including Shakespeare, simply stole the building. They assured onlookers that they were renovating it, but in fact, they carted away all the massive oak beams and stored them in the carpenter’s warehouse over the winter. When the weather improved, they used the beams to build themselves a new theatre across the river at Southwark.

The site of the Globe theatre wasn’t great either. It was prone to flooding, especially at high tide and they had to build a sort of raised bank to protect it. Also, one of the other attractions on offer nearby was bear-baiting. We have an account from a Swiss tourist called Thomas Platter, who visited in 1599. He said that he saw twelve bears and a hundred and twenty mastiffs and it absolutely stank because of all the offal that was fed to the dogs. He also went to see a play. It was Julius Caesar and it may have been the first play performed at the Globe. Thomas tells us that the audience could stand and watch from the courtyard for one penny. For two, you could get a seat in the galleries and for three, you could get a cushion as well and a seat where everyone could see you. He describes the actors as lavishly dressed and explains why this was. Lords and knights, he says, tended to bequeath their best clothes to their servants. But they were much too fancy for a servant to wear, so they sold them and actors bought them.

06 29 globe and bear garden

The theatre, as I said, caught fire in 1613. It was during a performance of Henry VIII. It broke out after the firing of a theatrical cannon. Some of the material fired from the cannon reached the thatched roof of the building where it smouldered unheeded for a while. The fire spread inside the thatch and soon the whole roof was on fire. The entire building was burned to the ground in less two hours. It seems no one was hurt though, which was lucky as the theatre could host up to three thousand spectators and there were only two small doors for everyone to get out. According to an eyewitness the only casualty was a man whose breeches caught fire, but it was quickly put out by someone pouring a bottle of ale over them.

The theatre was quickly rebuilt on the same foundations, but this time, they sensibly built it with a tiled roof. The Globe Theatre was in use, apart from periods of closure due to outbreaks of bubonic plague, until all the theatres were closed by down the Puritans in 1642. It was demolished two or three years later. We have a pretty good idea of what the theatre looked like because we have a beautiful reconstruction of it, only 750 ft from where the original stood. It is the first thatched building to have been allowed in London since the Great Fire of 1666.

06 29 shakespeare's globe

Adrift

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.”

Life on the Edge

12 18 cliff palaceOn this day in 1888, two ranchers called Richard Wetherill and Charlie Mason were riding across a high plateau in south-western Colorado. The weather was bad and they were looking for stray cattle, when they discovered a vast canyon. Through the blowing snow, they could see something on the side of a steep cliff. It wasn’t one of their cows. It looked like a city, squashed into a crevice in the rock face. They were probably the first non-Native Americans to see what they would later name Cliff Palace.

Cliff Palace was a settlement built by a tribe now known as the Ancestral Puebloans. They built many dwellings high in the cliffs, but Cliff Palace is probably one of the largest and best preserved. The buildings are made from stone, wooden beams and a mortar made from soil, water and ash. From a distance, they are hardly distinguishable from the surrounding sandstone cliffs. Some of the buildings are four stories high and reach the ceiling of the cavern. There are rooms for people to live in and others for storage. None have doors at ground level. You would have needed a ladder to get in.12 18 kivas Also there are twenty-three kivas, which are round rooms, sunk into the ground. They were used for ceremonial purposes. Originally, they would have had a wooden beamed ceiling. Each had a fire pit in the centre and a ventilation shaft in the wall, with an opening at floor level to provide a draught for the fire. There was also another small hole in the floor called a sipapu, which I am reliably informed represented the portal through which the ancient ancestors came into the world. There were probably around a hundred people living at Cliff Palace, but the presence of so many kivas suggests that it was a pretty important place. So it might have been visited by surrounding communities too.

The crevices in which cliff dwellings like Cliff Palace were built, were formed by water seeping through the sandstone until it reached a bed of shale. Because the water could penetrate no further, it would collect there. In the winter it would freeze, causing the rock to crack and fall away, eventually leaving the alcoves into which the Ancestral Puebloans packed their buildings. There are around six hundred of these dwellings in the Mesa Verde National Park.

The Ancestral Puebloans were an agricultural people. They would have grown beans, squash and corn. Obviously, they would have had to grow these somewhere else, so quite why they decided to live so far away from their crops is not clear. Perhaps it provided shelter. It would have been cool in the summer and protected them from the worst of the winter weather. Maybe it was just safer, if they had enemies they needed to hide from. It could have been religious, it could have been that they just liked the view.

The construction of Cliff Palace has been dated to between 1190 and 1260. It was abandoned around 1300. Again, we don’t know why. They may have been driven out or it may be that farming became difficult due to drought. We know that the period between 1276 and 1299 was very dry, so they may have just had to move somewhere else. The Ancestral Puebloans never wrote anything down, and the many tribes who are descended from them don’t remember either. So we’ll never know why they built their cliff dwellings, what they did there or why they left. But the mysterious, compact little city that they left behind is a thing of beauty. For anyone who listens to ‘Welcome to Night Vale’ it is how I imagine the impossibly tiny city below the Desert Flower Bowling Alley and Arcade Fun Complex.

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photo credit: lance johnson licensed under creative commons

Towering

12 15 gustave eiffelToday is the birthday of Gustave Eiffel who was born in 1832 in the Côte-d’Or in France. It’s pretty obvious what Eiffel is famous for, but before his work on the Eiffel Tower, he was an engineer who was really great at designing bridges. If you needed a bridge across a deep river valley, he was your man. He knew all about the properties of his materials and how to build a structure that could stand heavy wind resistance. As well as building bridges in France and elsewhere in Europe, he also designed bridges as far away as Egypt, Peru and Vietnam. In 1879, he also designed a series of bridges in kit form that could be shipped out to areas with poor infrastructure that could be put together easily, without the need for highly trained engineers. In 1886, he designed the dome of the Astronomical Observatory in Nice which, at 73 ft (22.4m) wide, was then the largest dome in the world.

12 15 statue of libertyEiffel was good at building big, and he was good at building strong. In 1881, he was contacted by Auguste Batholdi, the designer of the Statue of Liberty. He needed some help with the internal structure of the statue. His chief engineer, who had suggested using a brick pier inside the statue, unfortunately died and, even more unfortunately, left no indication of how he thought that would work. Eiffel was selected because of his expertise with wind resistance. He designed a four legged pylon that had two spiral staircases inside so visitors would be able to climb up to the crown and a forty-foot long ladder to reach the torch. He designed it with a secondary skeleton so that it would be able to move slightly in the winds in New York Harbor and expand in the heat without cracking. The whole statue was put together at Eiffel’s works in Paris before it was dismantled and shipped to New York.

The original idea to build the famous tower did not come from Eiffel. The first plans were drawn up by two men called Koechlin and Nouguier. It was to be a centrepiece in the 1889 Exposition Universelle, a world fair which would commemorate the centenary of the storming of the Bastille. At first Eiffel was not that keen, but when some decorative arches, a glass pavilion and a cupola were suggested, he became more interested.

12 15 building the eiffel towerOnce the design was finalised and the site chosen, people started to complain about it. Some people thought it would be impossible to build a three hundred metre high tower. Others just thought it would be ugly. There was a significant amount of protest and a group was formed called the ‘Committee of the Three Hundred’. One member for each offensive metre of the proposed monstrosity. The basic problem was that it was just too big. They called it a ‘giant black smokestack’. They did not like the thought of the tower dwarfing all of the beautiful buildings of their city and said: “…all of our humiliated monuments will disappear in this ghastly dream… we shall see stretching like a blot of ink the hateful shadow of the hateful column of bolted sheet metal.” But it was all a bit late by then.

12 15 1889 exhibitionWork was begun in 1887 and it took two years, two months and five days to construct. It was not quite open to the public in time for the opening of the World Fair on May 6th 1889. When it did finally open on May 15th, the lifts weren’t quite ready, but that did not deter 30,000 visitors who braved the 1,710 step climb to the top. The lifts were soon in operation and the tower was a huge success. Over the course of the exhibition there were 1,896,987 visitors.

The tower was never meant to be a permanent fixture, it was only meant to stand for twenty years. But then it proved to be an incredibly useful radio mast, so it stayed. It has survived being sold twice by a con artist for scrap metal in 1925 and Hitler’s order to tear it down in 1940. Not everyone loved it though. One of the main opponents to its construction, Guy de Maupassant, reputedly ate lunch in the restaurant there every day, because it was the only place in Paris from which the tower was not visible.

Form And Function

10 11 orson squire fowlerToday is the birthday of Ogden Squire Fowler, who was born in Cohocton, New York in 1809. You may not have heard of him, but he was pretty famous in the mid-nineteenth century for his work in phrenology. Fowler had begun his adult life on a different course. He had walked four hundred miles to attend Amherst College in Massachusetts to train for a career in the Church. But then he attended a lecture by Johann Spuzheim, a Viennese doctor who was one of the leading proponents of Phrenology. This was at a time when people were just beginning to understand that different areas of the brain were responsible for different functions. The idea behind Phrenology was that every personality characteristic was governed by a different area of the brain. That meant that if a person had an abundance of a particular characteristic, such as benevolence or firmness, that area of the brain would be larger, resulting in a bump in the skull. Fowler was fascinated, he was soon reading the skulls of his fellow students at two cents a time.

10 11 phrenologyAfter leaving college he travelled the country, lecturing on Phrenology and reading heads. He was soon accompanied by his brother Lorenzo and they eventually set up a practice in New York. They were later joined by their sister Charlotte. It was quite the family affair and when Lorenzo married a doctor, Lydia Folger, she gave some medical credence to their operation. It was hugely popular and they had a lot of famous clients including President James Garfield and the author Walt Whitman. Despite only charging a dollar for an examination and three dollars for a written report, they were soon pretty wealthy. Fowler branched out into publishing, writing a book and also a magazine on the subject.

Phrenology though, was not really enough for him and he began to think that he could improve other areas of peoples lives. He also produced books about health, religion and oddly, architecture. Fowler’s own head bumps had led him to believe that he would be a pretty good architect. He was particularly enamoured of the octagonal house. An eight sided house allowed for more windows and this meant more light, less dark corners and a free flow of air around the house. A central staircase would also allow air to circulate more easily and he felt this would make the house easier to heat in cold weather and to keep cool in the summer. Fowler was not a fan of internal hallways, he preferred a veranda, which meant going outside to get to the next room. He wrote ‘A Home for All, or A New, Cheap, Convenient, and Superior Mode of Building.’ in 1848. He claimed that they provided more interior space and were cheaper to build, though this was largely because he favoured poured concrete walls over brick or stone.

10 11 octagon houseFowler built his own octagonal house at Fishkills, New York. It was massive. It was ninety feet tall, had four storeys and sixty rooms. It had a cistern on the roof to collect rainwater. Inside it had a dumb waiter to bring food from the kitchen in the basement and speaking tubes to allow communication around the house. I do love a speaking tube. Fowler’s ideas led to hundreds, maybe thousands of octagonal houses being built all over the United States in the mid eighteenth century.

Ogden Squire Fowler really began to fall out of favour when he published what was basically a sex manual with the catchy title of ‘Sexuality Restored And Warning And Advice To Youth Against Perverted Amativeness: Including Its Prevention And Remedies As Taught By Phrenology And Physiology’. I haven’t been able to find out much about it. It seems to have approached the subject by looking at it in the light of having children and raising them to healthy and respectable adults. One of the chapter titles is: ‘How young husbands should treat their brides; how to increase their love and avoid shocking them.’ He thought that women should enjoy sex and absolutely not wear corsets, both of which were quite shocking notions at the time. This, and the fact that he also lectured on the subject, really spoiled his reputation. He was accused of giving “private lectures to ladies…of an immoral character—often grossly obscene in action and speech,” and the Chicago Tribune said that he: “disseminated the seeds of vice” under the “cloak of science” which conjures up an interesting image.

However, he didn’t really want people to get too carried away by sex, basically his message seems to have been that people should enjoy themselves but not too much. Depravity should definitely be avoided, as this could lead to couples having weak and sickly children. This was not well received, particularly by the parents of weak and sickly children.

Grand Designs

10 01 william beckfordToday is the birthday of William Thomas Beckford,. He was born at his family home at 22 Soho Square in London in 1760. At the age of ten he inherited £1 million from his father and a further annuity of around £50,000. That was a lot of money in the eighteenth century. Let’s have a look at how he spent it.

Beckford became a compulsive art collector. He had a large collection of Italian Renaissance paintings and a good deal of fine antique French furniture which he acquired from French aristocrats who were fleeing the Revolution. He also fell completely in love with the Orient and owned a lot of furniture and prints from the Far East. Beckford was a restless sort of fellow and he frequently sold pieces only to buy them back later.

At the age of 21, his interest in the Orient and a fascination with the tales of the Arabian Nights, which had been translated into English in 1708, led him to write a novel. He claimed to have written in only three days and two nights. Not only did he write it quickly, he also wrote it in French. It is called Vathek and is about a Caliph who lives in a vast palace and follows a life devoted to sensual pleasure and to acquiring forbidden knowledge. He builds himself an enormous tower, with 11,000 steps, in an effort to communicate with the stars, but finds that, once at the top, he is no nearer to them. Then a mysterious stranger comes to his court, offering him access to the Palace of Subterranean Fire which was filled with wonders. The price is that he must give up his faith and perform certain rituals. Then Vathek renounces Islam, takes up the magic arts and embarks on a terrible series of human sacrifices. As you can imagine, it doesn’t end well. Beckford claimed that his book was an emotional response to events that happened in his home at Fonthill, in Wiltshire, at Christmas in 1781, so goodness knows what went on there but it may have been when he first met William Courtenay. Vathek is a sort of mixture of the Oriental and the Gothic which stands alongside Walpole’s Castle of Otranto and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as one of the earliest examples of Gothic literature.

10 01 william courtenayBeckford achieved notoriety when, in 1784, he was found to be having an affair with the much younger William Courtenay, then regarded as the most beautiful boy in England, who would later become 9th Earl of Devon. Beckford was married only the year before to Lady Margaret Gordon and may also have been having another affair with his cousin’s wife, Louisa Pitt. The papers got hold of the story and there was a massive scandal. William Beckford and his wife, who died in childbirth two years later, left for Europe in a self-imposed, but probably necessary exile. He spent the next thirteen years travelling through Europe with a vast entourage which included a doctor and twenty-four musicians. He also carried with him many of his books, his prints, his plates, his cutlery and also his bed. There are stories that he required any inn that he stayed at to have his rooms repapered before he arrived, and that once, in Portugal he ordered a flock of sheep to be sent from England to improve the view from his window.

10 01 fonthill abbeyIn 1796 he returned to England with a plan. He surrounded his estate with a twelve foot high wall which very much annoyed his fox-hunting neighbours, but Beckford was against bloodsports and also wanted a bit of privacy. He also wanted a new home, somewhere suitable to house his huge art collection – it would be a Gothic cathedral. Not a house that was a bit like a Gothic Cathedral, an actual massive Gothic cathedral with thirty-five foot high doors and a central tower that was three hundred feet tall. To help him with his plan he employed an extremely popular architect called James Wyatt. Wyatt was not on site quite as much as he perhaps should have been which left Beckford in charge of the project for quite a lot of the time. Wyatt’s design was amazing, it included different architectural styles to make it look as though it had been constructed over a long period of time. His preferred building materials though were timber and cement, which proved to be not such a great idea. Also Beckford was in a hurry to get it finished. He had five hundred labourers working day and night. He bribed four hundred and fifty more, who were supposed to be building new royal apartments at Windsor Castle, to come and work for him instead. He did this by increasing their ale ration. He commandeered every wagon in the area to transport his building materials. By way of compensation for this, when the weather was cold, he delivered free coal and blankets to the poor.

Whether it was due to the poor building materials or the drunken labourers isn’t clear, but parts of the building began to crumble almost as soon as they were completed. One Christmas, he insisted that the dinner be prepared and served at the Abbey, even though the mortar in the kitchen was still wet. As the servants carried the food into the dining room, the kitchen collapsed behind them. Then the huge central tower was destroyed in a gale. Far from being disheartened, Beckford appears to have enjoyed watching his house crumble as it gave him the opportunity to start building anew. When his tower collapsed for a second time, his only regret was that he wasn’t there to see it. The tower was rebuilt for the third time, this time in stone, and the building was declared finished in 1813.

10 01 fonthill abbey insideBeckford lived alone in his enormous house, excepting his servants and four dogs which I read were called Nephew, Tring, Mrs Fry and Viscount Fartleberry, I really hope that’s true. He didn’t have very many guest either. His neighbours were extremely curious, but because of his relationship with William Courtenay and subsequent exile, they still held him in disgrace. They would attempt to visit whilst he was away. If he heard about it, he would rush home and provide a banquet for them, knowing that etiquette would compel them to stay, even though it also compelled them to shun him. Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton dined there in 1800 and were met at the thirty-five foot high front door by a dwarf. Beckford kept an odd collection of boy servants, a harem possibly, to whom he gave nicknames such as Pale Ambrose, Miss Butterfly and Mr Prudent Well Sealed Up.

When at last this immensely wealthy man was stuck for money he sold his Abbey to an arms dealer called John Farquar in 1822. The tower collapsed again in 1825, taking part of the west wing with it. Beckford moved to Lansdown Crescent in Bath, where he had another tower built to house his treasures. It is still standing, you can even hire it out as a holiday home. Beckford died in 1844 and, after resting for four years at Bath Abbey cemetery, was reburied close to his Lansdown Tower in a tomb which is inscribed with a line from his novel Vathek: “Enjoying humbly the most precious gift of heaven to man – Hope”.10 01 collapsed abbey

Castles

09 24 horace walpoleToday is the birthday of Horace Walpole, son of the first British Prime Minister, Robert Walpole. He was born in London in 1717. He was educated at Eton and Cambridge, where he seems to have managed not to take a degree, then spent two years doing a Grand Tour in Europe. He later became MP for a constituency in Cornwall that he never visited and later of a Rotten Borough near Kings Lynn. None of these things are great, and they reek of over-privilege but there are two things he did that I want to tell you about.

Firstly, he built himself a splendid house called Strawberry Hill House in Twickenham, which was then south west of the capital. It seems eighteenth century Twickenham was bit of a rural retreat for London’s wealthy and artistic people. I’m not entirely sure why as a quick look at the history of the area tells me that it was also home to factories that produced sulphuric acid and gunpowder. The house that he bought there was a relatively modest dwelling belonging to a coachman which was called Chopped Straw Hall. The name didn’t suit him at all and a search through the archive turned up an old lease which called his new acquisition Strawberry Hill Shot., much nicer. What he really liked about the original building was it’s asymmetry.

09 24 strawberry hillThe original house wasn’t nearly grand enough though, and he began to add to it. Strawberry Hill sprouted Tudor style chimneys, medieval battlements and pointed Gothic windows. It was an odd mix of architectural styles that would become known as Strawberry Hill Gothic which foreshadowed the Victorian Gothic Revival. Walpole loved Gothic architecture and he continued the theme in the interior of the house. There is a gallery with an amazingly ornate ceiling in white and gold inspired by the ceiling of the Henry VII Chapel in Westminster Abbey. The shelves in the library are based on the an illustration of a doorway in Old St Paul’s Cathedral and there is a fireplace which was influenced by the tomb of Edward the Confessor. What Walpole was after was the ambience of an ancient building, something for which he coined the term ‘gloomth’.

Strawberry Hill is not at all the dark sort of place that we would associate with Gothic architecture today. The corridors were dark but the rooms they opened into were bright and jewel like with lots of stained glass. Nor was the exterior gloomy, it was painted a brilliant white, making it look like some sort of fantastic piece of confectionery. The gardens were cheerful too. No fake ruins, no hermitage for him. He thought it was: “…almost comic to set aside a quarter of one’s garden to be melancholy in.” He thought Gothic should be confined to architecture but gardens should be all about the gaiety of nature, something that he referred to as ‘raint’.

09 24 giant helmetWhile Walpole was building his house and being an MP he also found plenty of time for writing. His most famous novel is ‘The Castle of Otranto’ is cited as being the first Gothic novel. It begins with a forthcoming marriage but then the groom is killed when a giant helmet falls out of the sky and hits him. There’s a lot of intrigue, ghosts, unrequited love some tragic death and everyone lives miserably ever after. It would influence later writers such as Mary Shelley and ‘Bram Stoker.

Up In The Air

09 16 airship at empire state forgery.On this day in 1931 it was reported that an airship had managed to dock at the top of the Empire State Building in New York City. This sounds like a pretty unlikely scenario and to explain how it came about, I need to go back a bit.

In the late 1920’s there was a huge amount of rivalry between a small group of very rich people to see who could build the world’s tallest skyscraper. The competition continued to rage despite the stock market crash of 1929 and the beginning of the Great Depression. At first there were two projects involved, the Bank of Manhattan Building at 40 Wall Street and the Chrysler Building. Each added extra stories to their plans during construction. It looked as though 40 Wall Street would come out on top, but the Chrysler building had a secret. They had constructed a 125 ft metal spire and hidden it inside the building. It took only ninety minutes to add the surprise spire. The Chrysler was a clear winner at 1,050 ft. But it didn’t last long.

In 1930 construction began on a third skyscraper. The Empire State Building. Like the other two designs, extra stories were added to the design. The building was going to be eighty-six stories high and, at 1,050 ft, the same height as the, then uncompleted, Chrysler Building. Unlike the builders of 40 Wall Street; the main investor of the Empire State, John Raskob, suspected that the Chrysler would pull some last minute stunt. He suggests that his building: needed a hat.

The hat would be 200ft high and bring the building up to 103 stories and a height of 1,250ft. Al Smith, chairman of the building’s construction company, insisted that this decision was not taken to outdo the Chrysler, but that it was an economic investment. The mast would be used as a mooring point for airships. The airship would be able to throw out a line which would be attached to a winch. Then it’s nose could be pulled right up to the mast. Passengers would be able to simply walk down a gangplank, into an elevator and be on Fifth Avenue within seven minutes. It would be much better that the lengthy journey currently experienced by international airship passengers, all the way from Lakehurst, New Jersey.

The Navy Department, who ran the landing site at Lakehurst, were pretty sure it was a terrible idea. Landing an airship was a tricky business even on the ground. They said that they would really need to experiment with a mooring tower somewhere else first before they tried it over a massive city. They further pointed out that a Graf Zeppelin would at some point need to jettison hundreds of gallons of water ballast before it could rise as high as the Empire State. Dr Hugo Eckener, commander of the Graf Zeppelin, and probably the greatest expert on the subject, agreed that it would be too dangerous. He knew that there would be irregular and violent updraughts of air between the high buildings, the worst possible conditions for an airship. Even if the ship did manage to anchor it would be unstable. If a draught caught the underneath of it, it could be lifted vertically and wind up standing on it’s nose.

09 16 uss los angelesThis is true, it had actually happened at Lakehurst in 1927. An airship was moored to a mast only one tenth of the height of the Empire State Building. It was a calm day but a sudden sea breeze caught the tail and the ship was lifted almost vertical and began to swivel around. After that they started to use much smaller mooring towers and weighted down the tail end. Eventually even Al Smith had to admit that there was a problem. Weighting down the tail would mean fifty ton lead weights swinging high above the streets of Manhattan. Not really a thing that people would be comfortable with.

09 16 enna jetik blimpIn May 1931 when the building opened, the necessary winching gear had still not been, and never would be installed. So the airship that was reported to have ‘moored’ there was not an international airship, nor did anyone actually get on or off. In was an advertising blimp belonging to the Dunn & McCarthy Shoe Company. In winds of 45 mph the ship battled to get close enough to drop ropes to a ‘ground crew’ of just three men. Without winding gear, they were only able to hold the ship for about one and a half minutes before they were completely exhausted. It was decided that the mooring tower would be best used for delivering mail.

An attempt to deliver some newspapers via airship was made two weeks later. The photographers and celebrities invited to witness the event were almost swept from the narrow balcony by a wind-tossed blimp. It also had to drop it’s water ballast, drenching everyone for several blocks. A more successful effort was made the following day, but still the person who cut the stack of papers from the lowered rope was lucky not to be pulled over the balcony. The delivery was hailed as a mighty success by Al Smith, but no further attempts were made to use the docking station.