She Who Dares

07 22 hoorayI started this blog on July 23rd last year, with the hope of finding something interesting to tell you about each day of the year, so today’s post will be my last one, for the foreseeable future at least. It’s been difficult to find something that I’m happy to finish on. Looking back at some of my favourite recurring themes over the last twelve months, I probably wouldn’t be happy with anything less than a daredevil hoaxer, with a side interest in alchemy, who also happened to be a woman. Unfortunately, no such person exists, but if I ever write a work of fiction, I know what the central character is going to be like. In the mean time, here is a picture of me celebrating my achievement with a cake and a massive sword..

07 22 maria spelteriniBut I do have a daredevil to tell you about. On this day in 1876, Maria Spelterini, walked over the Niagara Gorge on a tightrope. It was the last of four crossings that she made as part of the celebration of the US centennial. If you’re thinking this story might have a tragic end, it doesn’t. She lived until 1912. Several people crossed the gorge in the second half of the nineteenth century but Maria was the only woman. She made four crossings between the 8th and the 22nd. She walked across and she danced across. She crossed it backwards, she crossed with a paper bag on her head and she crossed with large peach baskets strapped to her feet. Honestly, you can see them in this photograph. On July 22nd, she crossed with her ankles and wrists manacled.

Unfortunately, I can tell you very little else about Maria. Most sources insist that she was Italian, but there is one that suggests she was German. She seems to have begun her career in her father’s circus at the age of three and to have performed around Europe and Russia. I also found a report that she crossed the bay at Jersey City, on a wire 125 ft high, in a thunderstorm.

The bridge that you can see in the background is was once used by the Underground Railroad to secretly transport enslaved African Americans to freedom in Canada. The Niagara Suspension Bridge was the first permanent bridge to cross the gorge and it opened in 1855. But before that, there was a temporary bridge, which is worth a mention. It was built by a rather flamboyant character called Charles Ellet Jr. In order to bridge the gorge, he first had to get a rope across. He thought about towing it across on a steamer, he though about attaching it to a cannonball or rocket and firing it across. In the end, he decided to run a competition.

The first child to fly a kite across the gorge and tie the kite string to the other side would win $5. Young people flocked from nearby towns to participate. The $5 was won by sixteen-year-old Homan Walsh, who flew his kite from the Canadian side of the river. The kite string was used to pull increasingly heavy lines over the gorge until they managed to secure a cable that was almost an inch thick. Charles wanted to use the cable to transport materials across without having to take them down to the river. They tested it with an 07 22 ellet's basketempty metal basket, but it kept getting stuck halfway. The whole operation had attracted quite a crowd of onlookers so, to assure them it was going to work, he climbed into the basket himself and was hauled across. He spotted that the cable had been flattened and the basket’s rollers were getting stuck. He fixed it and was pulled over to the other side. So Charles Eller Jr was the first person to cross the gorge. The basket worked very well after that. In fact, people used to pay him a dollar to ride in it. Even though he had been expressly forbidden to do so, he sometimes took around a hundred and twenty-five passengers a day.

When the bridge was finished, he was the first to cross it, in his horse and buggy, standing, like a gladiator. The 700 ft bridge only had railings along one third of its length. In the first year of its operation, $5,000 had been collected in tolls. Charles and the bridge company fell out over the money. He ended up mounting cannons on the bridge and claiming ownership of it. Eventually he was paid off and someone else built the permanent bridge.

07 22 mary toftAs I couldn’t find the ideal candidate for my last post, I’d like to leave you with a hoaxer and an alchemist, neither have birthdays that I can celebrate, but both are women. Firstly, Mary Toft was born about 1701 in Godalming, Surrey. When she was about twenty-five, she managed to convince some fairly eminent physicians that she had given birth to rabbits. At first she brought forth only parts of animals, but later seemed to produce whole rabbits. I won’t go into the details of how she did this, because it’s fairly disgusting and it’s a wonder she didn’t develop some sort of infection. Mary had been pregnant, but had miscarried after, she claimed, she had seen a rabbit whilst out working in the fields. After that, she had become obsessed with rabbits and couldn’t think of anything else. There was, at that time, a widely held belief that a child could be physically affected by what its mother had seen during her pregnancy. A similar story was ascribed to the mother of Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man. Many thought a woman capable of producing a small, mouse-like creature known as a ‘sooterkin’. Some doctors believed Mary, others were more sceptical, especially when she later gave birth to a pigs bladder that smelled of urine. When she finally admitted the hoax, it ruined the reputations of those who had believed her. Mary was imprisoned for a while, but then released, as no one could think of anything to charge her with.

Finally, I want to tell you about a lady who is variously called Mary or Maria the Jewess or, alternatively, Mary or Miriam the Prophetess. According to tradition, Mary was the sister of Moses, but she could have lived at any time up the the first century AD. She is known as the first alchemist of the western world. None of her writing survives. But it is referred to in the works of later alchemists, in connection with the first description of acid salt and 07 22 bain marierecipes for turning plants into gold. She in credited with having invented several items of chemical apparatus, including a sort of double flask. The outer flask in filled with liquid that can be used to heat whatever is in the inside flask. So if you put water in the outside flask and heat it up, whatever is on the inside can never get any hotter than the boiling water. It is still used today by chemists who require gentle heat for their experiments. And by me, for melting chocolate. This type of apparatus still bears her name. It is a ‘bain marie’, Mary’s bath.

Under the Feet of a Woman

07 20 saint margaretToday, I have not one, but two female saints to tell you about. There is absolutely no evidence that either of them existed, but let’s not let that get in the way of a good story.

Firstly, I want to tell you about Saint Margaret of Antioch, who was supposedly martyred in the year 304. Margaret was an extremely popular saint in medieval England. This was because, before she died, she promised that she would forgive any sin, and assist anyone in times of trouble, but particularly women in childbirth. This was providing that they read, or had read to them, the details of her life. So there are quite a lot of copies of her legend. Some are written on long strips of parchment, which were fastened around the bellies of women in labour.

She is often pictured, as above, in the act of hitting a devil on the head with a hammer. But she is also the only female dragon slaying saint that I have come across. Margaret was the beautiful daughter of a pagan priest in Antioch. When she became a Christian, she was denounced by her father and adopted by a nurse. Whilst tending sheep for her stepmother, she was spotted by a Roman governor called Olybrius. He wanted her for his wife, if she was a free woman, or his concubine if she was a slave. He also wanted her to renounce her faith. Obviously, she refused, and he had her arrested and thrown in prison. Then, he had her body beaten with rods and her flesh torn with metal combs. When she still refused, she was returned to prison.

There, she was visited by two devils. The first, in the form of a dragon, swallowed Margaret whole. But the cross she was carrying irritated its insides so much that it exploded, and the saint was free. The second devil appeared in the form of a man. Margaret grabbed him by the head, threw him to the ground and then stood on his neck saying:

“Lie still, thou fiend, under the feet of a woman”

The devil was pretty embarrassed about it and, eventually, the earth swallowed him up. I can’t tell you about Margaret, without showing you this fantastic image of her riding the dragon. The picture below belongs to the Wellcome Collection, who have been extremely useful to me it the last year as they have generously uploaded some fantastic images to Wikimedia Commons. It’s a brilliant dragon, covered in flowers and with at least three pendulous breasts. Honestly, Wellcome aren’t paying me, but I wanted to return the favour by telling you that they have a brilliant cafe, an amazing shop and some really fascinating exhibitions. Check them out if you’re visiting London, they’re just near Euston Square tube station.

V0032585 Saint Margaret. Engraving by P. Galle after J. Stradanus.
image credit: wellcome images licensed under creative commons

But, back to Margaret. The next day, she was tortured again. She was burned, and then thrown into a pot of water. But God intervened and lifted her out of the water. The man whose job it was to finally chop off her head refused to do it. Margaret told her he must and also that she forgave all her torturers, giving the speech that I mentioned at the top of this article. He beheaded her and then fell down dead. As is often the case with early martyrdom tales, many witnesses were instantly converted. Five thousand people became Christian and were immediately beheaded as well. Even by the tenth century, there were people who were quite sceptical about her existence, particularly the dragon part.

If you look at the picture at the top, with Margaret and the devil, you might notice that she has a bit of a five o’clock shadow around the chin. But that’s nothing compared with our second saint. Today is also the feast day of Saint Wilgefortis, who is known in Britain as Saint Uncumber. Her saint’s day, along with Margaret’s, was dropped from the calendar in 1969 on the grounds that she never existed. Their stories start in a remarkably similar way. Saint Uncumber was born in Portugal and was the daughter of a nobleman. She was promised in marriage to a pagan king. As she was a Christian who had taken a vow of chastity, she prayed to God for help. She prayed that she could be made repulsive so that her prospective husband wouldn’t want to marry her. Her prayers were answered when she sprouted an enormous beard. Her father was so angry that he had her crucified.

image credit: gugganij licensed under creative commons

She is often pictured with one shoe off and a fiddler at her feet. This is also rather odd. It illustrates a story connected with one of her statues. It seems that a poor fiddler came to play a tune to her image. The Statue was so pleased by this that she let one of her golden shoes fall to the ground as a gift to the musician. The fiddler was immediately accused of theft and was sentenced to death. He begged to be asked to play in front of the statue again. This time, in front of an audience, the statue kicked off her other shoe.

It is thought that her totally fictitious life story came about because of a mistake. In the east, representations of the crucifixion tend to show Jesus in a full length tunic. In the west, people looked at the long dress and immediately saw a woman. They just made up a story that fitted with what they thought they were looking at.

Saint Uncumber is the patron saint of women who want to be freed (disencumbered) from abusive husbands. Both are wonderful stories about independently minded women, so I think, even if they are made up, they’re worth hanging on to.


07 18 rudolph ii portraitHoly Roman Emperor, Rudolf II, was born on this day in 1552 in Vienna. Rudolph was also King of Germany, King of Bohemia and King of Hungary. He became something of a recluse, rarely leaving his palace in Prague. He ruled at a difficult time when, as Holy Roman Emperor, he was meant to be Catholic, but a lot of his subjects were not. He tried to occupy the middle ground and it didn’t really work out too well for him. He was eventually deposed by his more ambitious brother. All this makes him sound rather dull, but he really wasn’t.

Rudolf was an enthusiastic patron of both the arts and sciences. This meant his court harboured all sorts of interesting people. Under his rule, Prague had a reputation for being full of dissidents, heretics and heliocentrists. The idea that the earth might go round the sun, instead of the other way round was not a popular one. In 1599, he made Tycho Brahe, who is probably my favourite astronomer ever, his court astronomer, after he was exiled from his home country of Denmark. But Rudolph was also fascinated by alchemy and the occult. Both of these subjects were, at the time, every bit as credible as astronomy. In the 1580s, he was visited by the famous mathematician and alchemist John Dee along with his questionable friend Edward Kelley, who Rudolph later locked up in a castle.

07 18 rudolf IIThe Emperor was an extremely keen collector of both art objects and scientific instruments. As well as collecting well-known artists like Dürer and Brueghel, he commissioned many new pieces. This unusual portrait on the left is Rudolph as Vertumnus, the Roman god of the seasons. The artist’s name is Giuseppe Arcimboldo, he did a lot of paintings like this, but mostly they have titles like ‘winter’ or ‘the librarian’. This is the only one I could find that is of a specific person.

Rudolf amassed an amazing ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’ that included one hundred and twenty astronomical and geometrical instruments and more than sixty clocks. His collection was the finest in Europe and it occupied three large rooms of his palace. As the private collection of a recluse, not many people got to see it, so we can’t be sure of everything that it contained. Certainly he kept a live lion and a tiger, which roamed freely about the castle. We know this because there are documents relating to the payment of compensation to those who had been attacked by them or, if it had gone particularly badly, to their families. Rudolf himself insisted that he owned a grain of earth from which God made Adam, two nails from Noah’s Ark, a basilisk and some dragons.

Rudolf never married, but it is rumoured that he had numerous affairs at court with both men and women. He had several illegitimate children, one of whom seems to have suffered from schizophrenia and did some terrible things. Rudolf was a member of the Habsburg dynasty, who suffered terribly from inbreeding and do not have a happy history of mental stability. Rudolph himself seems to have suffered from bouts of melancholia, which was common in his family. Two of his favourite objects were a cup made of agate, which he believed to be the Holy Grail, and a six foot long horn, which came from a narwhal, but Rudolf thought it had belonged to a unicorn. When he was at his lowest he liked to take these two things, draw himself a magic circle with a Spanish sword, then just sit in it.

Some believe him to be one of the owners the Voynich Manuscript, a very interesting document which I mentioned briefly when I wrote about Edward Kelley. It has been carbon dated to some time in the early fifteenth century and is written in an unknown language. It has defied all attempts to translate it. Most of the illustrations are botanical and there are some with what look like star charts. But some are really weird. There are a lot of drawings of naked women that also feature an elaborate system of pipes. They seem to be conveying something really specific, but we have no idea what. So, naturally, they make everyone who sees it really want to know what it says. It seems to contain information about plants, medicine, biology, astronomy and cosmology. It doesn’t appear to be written in code, but rather in some, now lost, language that is possibly Middle Eastern in origin, but no other examples of the language have ever been found. If you’ve never come across it before, you can find a facsimile here

07 18 voynich cropped by me.

Rudolf, as you may gather, was a deeply superstitious man. Tycho Brahe once informed him that he shared a horoscope with his favourite lion cub. When it died, years later, the Emperor shut himself up in his rooms and refused all medical attention. He died three days later. His successors were less enthusiastic about his collection. It was packed away and forgotten about. Later, much of it was stolen when Swedish troops attacked Prague Castle in 1648 and many of its items later ended up in the hands of Queen Christina of Sweden.

Silly Money

07 16 chinese paper moneyToday, I am told, is the date that the first European banknotes were issued by the Swedish bank, Stockholm Banco, in the year 1661. Banknotes are quite a weird thing, if you think about it, so I thought we might take a look at how we came to accept what is essentially just a piece of paper in place of something that has any intrinsic value. Paper money had been used in China for around eight hundred years. The Ancient Chinese also produced some of the earliest known coins. They were generally round, though there are older coins that are shaped like spades or knives. The coins had a rectangular hole through the middle so they could be strung and worn around the neck. The problem was, if you had a lot of them, they were a bit heavy. So people started leaving their coins with a trustworthy person which was exchanged for a slip of paper stating how many coins had been deposited. These slips of paper could then be used later to retrieve the money. Eventually the notes began to be passed from person to person instead of the coins.

07 16 kublai kahnTravellers from Europe such as Marco Polo brought back tales of the strange paper money. In fact in his ‘Travels of Marco Polo’ he devotes a whole chapter to it. He describes how the Emperor, Kublai Khan, had notes made from the bark of mulberry trees, which he had plenty of. He paid for everything with the notes and they were used by all his subjects in place of coins. No one was allowed to refuse the notes, on pain of death. Furthermore, merchants coming to China from abroad, bringing gold, silver, jewels or pearls were allowed to sell to no one but the Emperor. They were paid with his notes, which could be exchanged for anything in his Empire. If there was anyone else left who happened to have any gold, silver, gems or pearls, they could take them to the Royal Mint and get a good price for them, but they were paid in notes made from mulberry bark. So that was how the Emperor ended up with all his empire’s wealth, yet it cost him almost nothing to acquire it. “He hath”, said Polo, “ the Secret of Alchemy in perfection”. The idea of issuing promissory notes travelled to medieval Italy and Flanders and they began to be used as an alternative to transporting cash over long distances, which was both impractical and dangerous.


As in China, the notes that were issued in Sweden were also due to the difficulty of carrying heavy money around. Their problems however, were much bigger. Basically there were two currencies that were both called the daler, but one was made of copper and the other of silver. This was a problem because they were both meant to be worth the same amount. Copper was much cheaper than silver, so the copper coins needed to be bigger. Then suddenly copper got really, really cheap. The coins became enormous, huge slabs of copper weighing several kilograms. The largest denomination, the ten daler weighed almost 20 kilograms, that’s 44 lb. Unsurprisingly, people didn’t much want to carry them around, they wanted to deposit them at the bank. The promissory notes they received in exchange were much easier to use. A note could be put in an envelope and posted whereas even a single coin might require a horse and cart.

Sadly, Stockholm Banco decided it would be okay to print more notes than the value of the copper that they held. That didn’t really work out. They went bankrupt after three years. Swedish banks did not issue paper money again until early in the nineteenth century. The Bank of England began to issue paper notes in exchange for real money in 1695, when it was trying to raise money to rebuild the country’s navy after a particularly disastrous war with France. Eventually, paper money became pretty normal everywhere. Coins made from gold, from silver, from copper, could be often too dangerous, and sometimes massively inconvenient to carry around, so everyone was persuaded to accept little pieces of paper, that are essentially useless until you exchange them for something else. Now, of course, we don’t often have the pieces of paper either, just a small plastic card. Money feels even more imaginary but, unfortunately, our world would grind to a halt if we stopped believing in it.

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


07 08 artemisia gentileschi self portraitToday I want to tell you about a famous female painter of the Italian Renaissance. But before I start, I wanted to warn you that my research today has involved reading through the details of a seventeenth century rape trial, which I will be mentioning. If it’s a subject you find distressing, and frankly, why wouldn’t you? Maybe give this one a miss.

July 8th is the birthday of Artemisia Gentileschi, who was born in 1593, in Rome. Her father, Orazio, was a painter, her mother, Prudentia, died when she was twelve. She showed much more artistic talent than any of her younger brothers and her father taught her drawing, how to prepare colours and how to paint. Orazio was much influenced by the work of Caravaggio, who was his contemporary and both his work and that of Artemisia share his dramatic use of light and dark.

07 08 susannah and the eldersIt couldn’t have been particularly easy for a young girl to make her way in a profession dominated by men. Her first signed painting, here on the left, is dated 1610, when she was only seventeen. It depicts the story of Susannah and the Elders. Susannah was a young married woman who was bathing alone in her garden. Two old and lecherous men were spying on her. As she returned to the house, they accosted her and said that they would tell everyone that she had been planning to meet a young man there, unless she promised to have sex with them. She refused, was arrested and was about to be put to death when Daniel, of Lion’s Den fame, came along and saved her. He questioned the two men separately and their stories did not match, so they were proved to be liars. It has been a popular subject in classical art, but Artemisia’s painting is one of the few that shows it as a traumatic event. Artemisia knew what it was like to be at the mercy of an older man.

In 1611, her father was working with another painter called Argostino Tassi. During that time, he employed Tassi to teach Artemisia about perspective. Tassi forced his attentions on Artemisia and he raped her. There’s no need to dwell too much on the details but she put up a fight. She scratched him, she threw a knife at him, but he was too strong for her. Tassi was fifteen years older than her. He promised Artemisia that they would be married and continued to visit her for the next nine months. Then, it turned out that he wasn’t going to marry her at all. Her father Orazio, accused Tassi of rape, and also of stealing a painting. In 1612, there was a huge and very public trial which lasted for seven months. Tassi at first claimed that he had never touched Artemisia, or even been alone with her. Then he changed his mind and said that he had visited her only to protect her honour. He produced witnesses who swore that the Gentileschi household was practically a brothel, slandered her dead mother and claimed her father had committed incest with her and then sold her for a loaf of bread. They were blatant lies and some of the witnesses were afterwards prosecuted for it. During the trial it transpired that Tassi had been aided by another man called Cosimo Quorlis, who had previously been rejected by Artemisia, and that a woman called Tuzia, who she had previously trusted, had allowed Tassi into the house through her apartment. It was also revealed that Tassi was married, had previously raped his sister-in-law and that his wife was missing and presumed murdered by him. Up until half way through the trial, Artemisia did not even know that he was married. Artemisia was subjected to a gynaecological examination and she was tortured with thumbscrews to prove she was telling the truth. Tassi was found guilty and sentenced to prison. He was forgiven and released after only eight months.

A month after the trial, Artemisia was married off to a friend of the family and moved to Florence. Either during or just after the trial she painted this picture of Judith beheading Holofernes. Artemisia herself is the model for Judith. It’s a very powerful painting by, I can’t help feeling, a very angry woman.

07 08 judith beheading holofernes

Again, the subject of Judith and Holofernes was a popular one. I mentioned it back in January when I wrote about Elisabetta Sirani. Most artists had previously shied away from depicting the beheading part of the story, choosing to show instead, Judith and her maidservant carrying the head away. Probably the closest earlier example is this one by07 08 judith beheading holofernes caravaggio Caravaggio, painted around 1598. Caravaggio’s Judith is filled with revulsion as she slices through the neck of Holofernes and her maidservant stands aside holding a bag. Artemisia’s Judith is very focused, devoid of emotion and her maidservant is helping to hold him down. I think it’s a pretty safe bet that her Holofernes was based on the likeness of Tassi.

Artemisia got on pretty well in Florence. She painted for the Medicis and for Michaelangelo Buonarroti the Younger, who was building a museum in honour of his famous great uncle. There she painted a second, larger and even more bloody version of Judith beheading Holofernes with an even bigger sword. There is another of Judith and her maidservant escaping with the head in a basket. Not all her 07 08 allegoria dell'inclinazionepaintings deal with such violent subjects, on the left is a painting from Casa Buonarroti. But around ninety percent of those that survive show a female protagonist, or one who is at least the equal of men. It’s not surprising that most of her paintings feature women. As a female artist, she would not have been allowed access to male models. Whilst in Florence, she also became friends with the astronomer Galileo Galilei and became the first woman to be accepted into the Academy of Arts and Drawing. Her new husband did not fair so well. He got them into a horrible amount of debt and, in 1621, she left him and returned to Rome. After Rome, she moved to Venice, then to Naples, where her daughter was married in 1634. In 1638, she went to England, at the request of King Charles I, where her father was already working. She collaborated with him on a large commission at the Queen’s House at Greenwich.

It was probably at the court of Charles I that she painted the self portrait at the top of this post. She has painted herself as an allegory of painting. Abstract concepts like painting were often represented as female figures and, as a female artist, Artemisia was in the unusual position of being able to put herself in the picture. Her father died in England in 1639 and we don’t know much about what happened to her after that. She went to Naples and may have died during a plague there in 1656. What we do know is that the terrible rape case in her early life, and possibly deserting her husband, left her with a tarnished reputation. Artemisia Gentileschi worked as an artist her whole life, overcoming not only the difficulty of being a female in a male dominated profession, but also her reputation as a fallen woman. It seems as though her early experience with Tassi coloured the rest of her life. There is certainly a lot of power and a lot of rage in many of her paintings. I like to think that she might have turned this to her advantage and found herself a rather niche client base who really enjoyed paintings of powerful women.

Hot Dog

07 03 siriusPerhaps it’s because I’ve been so busy writing this, but it seem to me as though summer is dragging its heels a bit this year. Still, today looks promising and perhaps this will be the start of a run of fine weather. Traditionally, July 3rd is the first of the ‘Dog Days’, hot, sultry summer days that should last, at least here in the Northern hemisphere, from now until August 11th.

The term Dog Days originally referred to the time of year when the Dog Star, Sirius rose just before the sun appeared over the horizon. Should you be interested, I can tell you that this is called a ‘heliacal rising’. Sirius is the brightest star in the night sky. That led ancient people to believe that it added to the power and heat of the sun and made the days hotter. Because of something called the precession of the equinoxes, the heliacal rising of Sirius once happened earlier in the year and now happens later. For the ancient Egyptians, it appeared around the time of the summer solstice and heralded the annual flooding of the Nile. But for the ancient Greeks, it started around this time and was associated with the hottest days of the year. They didn’t like them at all. Pliny considered it to be a time when people were most at risk of being bitten by a mad dog and Hippocrates thought it a bad time to prescribe purging medicines. They were evil days, stagnant and unwholesome. The sea boiled, wine turned sour, dogs went mad, people were more prone to diseases and hysterics and everyone was too hot to do anything about it. Even Homer complained about them in his ‘Iliad’:

Sirius rises late in the dark, liquid sky
On summer nights, star of stars,
Orion’s Dog they call it, brightest
Of all, but an evil portent, bringing heat
And fevers to suffering humanity

07 03 stabbing the vigin maryMaybe it was the evil effects of the Dog Days that affected a Swiss soldier, who found himself in Paris on this day in 1418. According to legend, he had been drinking and gambling in a Paris tavern. He had lost his money, he had lost his clothes, and he was feeling angry. He reeled his way furiously down the street, swearing all the way until, at the corner of ‘la Rue aux Ours’, the Street for Bears, he came upon a statue of the Virgin Mary. He took out his knife and stabbed it. The statue began to bleed. A lot. The authorities were called and he was arrested. The story is probably not true at all, but supposedly his punishment was the be scourged until his eyes fell out, his tongue was skewered with a hot iron and his body cast into a fire. The statue was taken to a church for safety. For hundreds of years afterwards, the people of Paris built a fire, every July 3rd, on the spot where the statue had stood. They also built, carried through the streets, and then burned an effigy of the soldier. In later years, they began to fill him with fireworks too. Luckily, in 1744, someone realized that this was quite dangerous in a narrow street and the fireworks part was banned. But the citizens continued to parade and burn their soldier until around 1807.

Perhaps though, there is another reason why people might have been a bit bad-tempered around the time of the Dog Days. Astrologer’s almanacs, which first appeared, along with printing, in the fifteenth century, were full of helpful advice about where, when and with whom is was advisable to indulge one’s carnal desires. “Restrain your desire…” they advised, “particularly during the dog days of July and August”. It seems many followed this advice as parish records indicated a distinct fall in the birth rates during Spring. Also, a commentator writing in 1662 noted a “high dissatisfaction among women” in July because “men this month observe the rule of astrology too much”. Many wives turned to adultery because “If husband won’t, another must”.