New Year. Or is it?

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESHooray! We’ve all made it (safely I hope) into another New Year. So firstly, I wish for you more of the things you enjoyed last year, and less of the things you didn’t like, in the year ahead. New Year is a time for new beginnings, for letting go past enmities and troubles and making a fresh start. Perhaps you opened your back door on the stroke of midnight to make sure the old year made a swift exit. In my family, the 1960s and 70s found my dad standing outside the front door clutching a piece of coal and a silver coin waiting to be let in as a ‘first-footer’. We needed a dark-haired man to be first over the threshold on New Year’s Day to bring luck for the following year and, fortunately, he fitted the bill perfectly. The coal represented warmth, the coin, fortune. It is an old, and predominantly northern tradition that can sometimes involve a piece of bread to represent food and some greenery to ensure long life for everyone.

New Year has not always been on January 1st, but it has always been a time for taking stock of your life and starting anew, as you mean to go on. In Ancient Babylonia the year began at the spring equinox. It was an eleven day festival that involved the king being stripped of his regalia and slapped around by a priest until he cried, just to make sure he respected the gods and didn’t get too above himself. Sadly, this ritual has now fallen from favour. It might have been fun to see Trump stripped to his underwear and slapped around Washington National Cathedral by its bishop as a sort of pre-inauguration ceremony. I have no idea weather the bishop would be up for this, wikipedia has little to say about the bishops political leanings. In fact, it has very little to say about her at all, but it’s a cheery thought to begin 2017.

Ordinary people would try to placate their gods by making promises to them, typically, to return borrowed farm equipment. We also often make promises to be better people, in the form of New Year’s Resolutions. Though, if the Ancient Babylonians were as good at sticking to their resolve as we are, there were probably plenty of farmers who never saw their ploughs again.

01 01 janusIt was the Romans who fixed New Year’s Day as January 1st. They made it sacred to their god Janus. Perhaps the whole month of January is named after him. Janus is the god of gateways, of beginnings and of transitions. He has two faces, one looking forwards and the other backwards. He looks to the future but also the past. So he sits quite well at the threshold between one year and the next. The Romans believed that the beginning of anything held omens for the whole. So it was important to greet everyone cheerfully and to give and receive small gifts. If you want to follow their lead, you should also devote a little time to your usual work. Not too much, don’t go overboard and leave the house or anything.

In England the date on which the New Year started has been confusing. Although most people considered New Year’s day to be January 1st, Samuel Pepys certainly did, the year legally did not begin until March 25th. Between the seventh and twelfth centuries, it began on December 25th. Then, there was the liturgical year, which began on the first Sunday of Advent. Most of Europe began to accept January 1st as the beginning of the New Year in the sixteenth century. Scotland adopted it is 1600 to keep in line with other “well governit commonwealths” in Europe, which probably explains why they’re so much better at New Year than we are. They’ve had more practice. In England we stuck with March 25th until we adopted the Gregorian Calendar in 1752. It must have been difficult. In the days surrounding Christmas and New Year, it’s hard enough to know what day it is, without wondering what year it is as well.

Queen of Nowhere

06 06 queen christinaToday I want to tell you about Queen Christina of Sweden. She is something of a contradictory character. Not entirely good, but also a fascinating person. I didn’t want to celebrate her birth, because she caused a lot of problems for a lot of people. But celebrating her death isn’t really appropriate either, so today I am celebrating her abdication from the throne of Sweden on June 6th 1654.

Christina was born in 1626 and was made heir to the throne by her father, Gustav II. Her mother had already given birth to a stillborn daughter and a second daughter, also called Christina, who died when she was only a year old. When Christina number two was born there was, at first, some confusion over her sex and everyone thought she was a boy. This seems mainly to have been because her body was covered in hair and she cried with a “strong, hoarse voice”. When the king was informed of the mistake he replied: “She’ll be clever, she has made fools of us all.”

Gustav was very fond of his daughter and had her raised with the sort of education normally reserved for boys. She studied languages and philosophy and learned about politics. When Christina was only six, her father was killed in a battle and her mother, who was already emotionally unstable, went completely over the edge. She refused to bury her husband’s body. She kept it in an open coffin and visited it regularly. The King remained unburied for over eighteen months. So Christina’s mother was, fairly swiftly, sidelined and she was raised by an aunt.

06 06 christina and descartesChristina was hugely interested in arts and sciences and, by 1649, had amassed an enormous collection of paintings, statues, manuscripts, coins and scientific instruments. She was equally interested in opera and theatre and was a bit of an amateur actress herself. Christina wanted to make her capital, Stockholm, the “Athens of the North” and she invited many learned men to her court. Most notably, she asked René Descartes. Christina had a lot of stuff she felt she needed to learn about. Her days were long and she decided the only time she could possibly see Descartes was at five in the morning. The climate and possibly the early starts didn’t agree with poor Descartes and, sadly, he caught pneumonia and died there in 1650.

She was not officially crowned until later that year, but it wasn’t long before she was making plans to abdicate. Christina made it very clear that she had no plans to marry, ever. She admitted “an insurmountable distaste for marriage” and “for all things that females talked about and did.” Though this did not stop her having an extremely close relationship with one of her ladies in waiting, Ebba Sparre, who she describes as her ‘bed-fellow’. For most of her reign though, she pursued a punishing regime of long days, a rather ascetic existence and very little sleep. It led to a sort of nervous breakdown in 1651 and she again asked to abdicate. In 1652, under the care of a French physician, Pierre Bourdelot, she was persuaded to stop studying so hard, get more sleep and enjoy life a bit more. He also introduced her to the sonnets of Pietro Aretino.

As she never planned to marry or have children, she made arrangement to have her cousin, Carl Gustav, made her heir. Christina had, for a long time been very interested in the Catholic idea of celibacy and with Catholicism in general, which made a lot of people very uncomfortable. This may have been one of the reasons her abdication was finally accepted. Another could have been that she was just spending loads of money and had become a bit of a liability. There was an abdication ceremony at Uppsala Castle in which she removed her regalia piece by piece. She made a speech and left in a simple white gown. But she had already packed up most of her treasures and sent them on ahead.

Days later, she left Sweden disguised as a man, to make travelling easier. She journeyed through Europe, spending and partying all the way and arrived in Rome in 1655. There, she was warmly greeted by the Pope, Alexander VII, and was accepted into the Catholic faith. Her presence was widely celebrated. Firework displays, jousts, fake duels, operas and all manner of celebrations were held in her honour. Take a look at this carousel (below), which was given for her in February 1656, it’s pretty splendid. She set up home in the Palazzo Faranese and opened an academy for the enjoyment of music, theatre and literature.

06 06 carousel for christina

Of course, as soon as the Swedish government found out about her religious conversion, they cut off all her financial support. Then, she became involved in a very close relationship with a cardinal called Decio Azzolino, who was rather liberal for a Catholic, and that didn’t go down so well. But they stayed firm friends for the rest of their lives.

Cut off from her revenue, she hatched a plan to become Queen of Naples. Spain and France had been fighting over Naples for years and she had the idea that, if she were made Queen, she would pass on the crown to the King of France. When she visited France, in an attempt to organise this, the French found her extremely uncouth. At the ballet, she applauded too loudly and sat with her legs over the arm of the seat. Nevertheless, she was treated with respect by the King and his mother. It was at this time that she visited and recommended the release of Ninon de l’Enclos, who I mentioned back in November.

However, things went terribly awry when she accused her master of the horse of revealing her plans and had him executed. She had to leave France and was not particularly welcome in Rome either. Then, in 1660, her cousin. Carl Gustav died and she thought she might go back and be Queen of Sweden again, But, being a Catholic, they wouldn’t have her and she went back to Rome. She was reasonably happy there until 1666, when she returned to Sweden again and, disappointed by her reception, went to live in Hamburg. There, she found out that her patron, Pope Alexander, had died. The new Pope, Clement IX, was also a friend and had been a regular guest at her palace. She threw a party to celebrate. Citizens of Lutheran Hamburg were furious. The party ended with shooting and she was forced to leave in disguise via the back door.

Christina made a spirited attempt to be made Queen of Poland in 1668, but this also failed. She passed the rest of her years in Rome. She and Pope Clement shared a love of theatre and in 1671, she established Rome’s first public theatre. Subsequent Popes were less keen, and Innocent XI had it turned into a storeroom for grain and banned women from performing. Christina didn’t care though, she carried on putting on plays at her palace.

06 06 queen christina 1685She continued to be a bit of a rebel, supplying the world with her unsolicited opinions, long after she had lost her rights to rule. When Louis XIV revoked the rights of French Protestants, she wrote him a letter of objection. In 1686, she made the Pope put an end to an awful practice of chasing Jews through the streets at Carnival. Then, she issued a declaration pronouncing all Roman Jews under her protection and signed it ‘the Queen’.

When she died, in 1689, she left all her treasures to her old friend Cardinal Azzolino and they passed almost immediately to his nephew, who sold them. Many of her books are now part of the Vatican library. Most of her paintings went to France and many are now in the National Museum of Scotland.

On balance, I really like Queen Christina. She upset a lot of people, but she did what she wanted and she didn’t care. Certainly, she walked off with a lot stuff that almost definitely should have stayed in Sweden but, in 1697, her castle burnt down and it would all have been destroyed anyway. She is one of only three women to have been buried in the Vatican.

Good Riddance

05 14 john xiiSometimes, when I’m searching for a subject, I have to write about someone on the day of their death. Usually it’s because no one knows when their birthday was. But occasionally, just occasionally it feels more appropriate to mark the day that they left us. Today’s post is not about someone brilliant. It’s about someone completely awful. But his story is too outrageous to ignore. The other day I wrote about Pope Sylvester II and how people thought he was in league with the Devil. I said I thought that his reputation might have been ill deserved and that there were other Popes who were far worse. Well, today, I give you Pope John XII…

I’ll start with a bit of family background. His grandmother, named Marozia, had once been mistress to Pope Sergius III and together they gave birth to another Pope, Pope John XI, but that is a separate issue. Marozia later married Alberic I, who was a duke and they had a son, who became Alberic II. Alberic number one died and Marozia married his half brother, Hugh, who became King of Italy. Alberic number two was, for various reasons pretty upset and tried to overthrow Hugh at the wedding ceremony. Hugh escaped but Marozia was imprisoned for the rest of her life. Alberic number two became the self-styled prince of Rome. He was the father of John XII.

Alberic II made the Roman nobles swear that his son, then named Octavianus, would be made Pope the next time the situation became vacant. Then Alberic died in 954 and his son became the next prince of Rome. The following year, the Pope died and Octavianus was, as promised, made Pope as well. Being both a prince and a pope, and also rather young, somewhere between eighteen and twenty-four, he got a bit above himself. Actually that’s putting it mildly. He did what ever he wanted.

He had a lot of trouble hanging onto his lands and called in the help of a German king, Otto I. He had Otto crowned Holy Roman Emperor. But later, he went back on all his promises of loyalty to the new emperor. If you’re a prince, hanging onto your lands is pretty important, as I think I mentioned when I wrote about Machiavelli the other day. As a pope though, John XII was absolutely terrible. Among his many mistresses were one of his father’s concubines and his own niece. He had sexual relationships with both women and men. No one was safe. He was such an awful sex pest that female pilgrims were put off visiting the tomb of Saint Peter in case they were attacked by the Pope. He turned the Papal Palace into a brothel. And that’s not all…

Pope John XII was a drinker and a gambler. He drank toasts to the Devil. He invoked the names of Jupiter and Venus whilst playing dice. When he lost, he used money from the papal treasury to pay off his debts. He once ordained a ten-year-old boy as a bishop and ordained a deacon in a stable. While we’re talking about stables, he is said to have kept 2,000 horses which he fed on figs and almonds soaked in wine. Anyone who tried to criticise him was severely punished. He had a cardinal castrated, put out the eyes of his confessor and had an archive-keeper’s nose cut off.

Eventually, Otto called a council and asked John to defend himself against a number of charges. John responded by threatening to excommunicate anyone who threatened to depose him, then he ran away. Whilst he was gone, another Pope was elected, Leo VIII. But then, John returned, evicted Leo, maimed many of his supporters and beheaded sixty-three bishops and noblemen. Fortunately just as he was about to try and make things up with Otto, he died. Want to know how? A man caught him in bed with his wife and hit him on the head with a hammer.

05 14 benedict ixOddly, the Catholic Church later made his cousin a pope. And two of his nephews. And his great nephew, Benedict IX, who was also spectacularly awful. I can mention him as well today, as no one seems to know when he died. Which is unusual for a pope. Benedict also had a string of lovers, both men and women, but he also added a few animals into the mix. He was forced out twice, then abdicated after selling the papacy to his godfather for fifteen hundred pounds of gold. But then he tried to seize power again and was excommunicated. He was eventually replaced by Pope Damasus II, who’s reign lasted less than a month. It’s a pity Popes don’t often rule under their own name, because his given name was Poppo. Pope Poppo would have been a fantastic name.

Magic Pope

05 12 pope sylvester iiToday, I want to tell you about Pope Sylvester II. I don’t know when his birthday was, but he died on this day in the year 1003. If I tell you that Sylvester was an excellent mathematician, you might not be very interested. But if I tell you that people believed he was in league with the devil and that he possessed a magical talking head, I may have you’re attention. Happily, both those things are true.

Sylvester’s birth name was Gerbert and he was born in the year 946, somewhere in the Auvergne region of central France. He was a clever child and was lucky enough to be taken to study mathematics and astronomy in Spain. The thing that is important about this, is that Spain was, at that time, home to a lot of Islamic people, known as the Moors. Much of what had been learned about mathematics and astronomy by the Egyptians, the Persians and the Ancient Greeks had been lost and forgotten in the West. But in Islamic countries, they had retained that knowledge and built on it. They were also in contact, through trade, with India and China and they absorbed many of their ideas too. Their knowledge of these subjects was the most advanced in the world. Back then, the greatest Christian library held about a thousand books. But in the Moorish capital of Córdoba in southern Spain there was a library that contained four hundred thousand books. They had other libraries too, around seventy in Spain alone.

So Gerbert learned his skills from the Moors, spending three years at the monastery of Vic in Catalonia. He learned to study the movements of the stars and, as we know, astronomy and astrology were once pretty much the same thing. Trying to divine the future and find out what God had in store for us was very wrong. He also learned how to make calculations using Arabic numerals. The numbers we use today, 0-9, are based on this system and it was much easier to use them to do difficult calculations in your head than Roman numerals. Gerbert also re-introduced the abacus to Rome, which was an idea he had from the Moors. All this knowledge made Gerbert seem like some kind of magician. So that was what people decided he was.

05 12 sylvester iiThere was also the fact that he rose through the ranks, from abbot of Bobbio in Italy in 983, to archbishop of Reims, then of Ravenna all the way to Pope in the year 999, despite not being liked very much. So maybe he had made a pact with the Devil. There is a great legend about him that he practised the Black Arts and once stole a book of spells from an Arabic sorcerer. He fled, and was pursued by the magician, who could divine his whereabouts by studying the heavens. But Gerbert climbed over the side of a wooden bridge and hung by his hands beneath it. Thus suspended, between heaven and earth, the sorcerer could not find him. Or perhaps he prayed to Satan for help and was wafted away by him. Then, the only way he could get back home was by promising the Devil his soul. In return for his promise, Satan would furnish him with greater power than the book of spells could ever provide, and that was how he became Pope.

05 12 brazen headThe other weird story about him is that he built a brazen head which could speak and answer questions with the answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’. The idea of a talking head, either magical or mechanical, comes up quite a lot when I’m looking at people accused of sorcery. Thomas Browne, who wrote a myth-debunking book called ‘Pseudodoxia Epidemica’ in 1646, dismissed the idea as a misinterpretation of alchemical texts. Luckily for Gerbert, his head, unlike the statue built by Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas that I mentioned back in March, would only speak when spoken to. He asked it if he would become Pope and it replied ‘yes’. He asked if he would die before he got to preach in Jerusalem and it replied ‘no’.

Gerbert was a clever sort of fellow and he knew just what to do. He would simple never go to Jerusalem. But you can’t cheat fate, and one day he had to read mass in one of the smaller churches in Rome, the Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, which means, the Holy Cross of Jerusalem or as it was commonly known, just ‘Jerusalem’. In one story he was attacked by the Devil in the church. He gouged out the Pope’s eyes and gave them to his demons to play with. Another tale has Gerbert fall sick and die. He dies raving, insisting that his body be cut up and spread about the city. In cesspools and on rubbish dumps. Presumably to make the Satan’s job of collecting his debt as difficult as possible.

There have been many Popes who did really terrible things, but I rather suspect Gerbert has been unfairly dealt with. While he certainly gained seemingly magical knowledge from Moorish texts, it seems unlikely that he stole it. There is a, somewhat misplaced, belief that his bones will rattle in his tomb when the present Pope is about to die. Poor Gerbert, dead for more than a thousand years and still expected to predict the future.

Tell it Like it Is

04 20 aretino by titianToday is the birthday of Pietro Aretino, who was born in Arezzo in the Florentine Republic in 1492. His life didn’t have a very promising start, he was the illegitimate son of a cobbler, was probably not well educated and was, for reasons I’ve been unable to divine, banished from his home town as a teenager. Aretino at first thought he might be a painter, but soon realised that writing was where his real talent lay. He would be honoured by Popes and befriended by Kings, but not because he was a writer of fine and elevated literature. Aretino was good at noticing people’s weaknesses and he wasn’t afraid to write about them. This made him a lot of enemies, so he survived on his wits and also a certain amount of good fortune. He also wrote poetry and plays that were extremely sexually explicit that have earned him the title of the inventor of literate pornography.

When he was about fourteen, he moved to the nearby city of Perugia, where he worked as assistant to a bookbinder. But he had to leave the city after he vandalised a statue of Mary Magdalene by painting a lute in her hands. By the time he was twenty-four, he was living in Rome, working for a rich man called Argostino Chigi. For Chigi, he began to write obscene and witty poems which he recited at dinner parties, much to everyone’s delight. But Aretino wanted more. He wanted fame and he thought a combination of his writing and access to a printing press could probably help him achieve that. He just needed to find the right subject.


Then, in 1516, the Pope’s pet elephant died. The Pope, Leo X, loved his elephant. His name was Hanno and he used to appear in parades. Sadly, after two years of living in Rome he died after a failed attempt to treat his constipation. The Pope composed Hanno’s epitaph himself and commissioned Raphael to paint a fresco in his honour. It might have seemed a bit over the top to some people, and then a pamphlet appeared, purporting to be ‘The Last Will and Testament of the Elephant Hanno’. It mocked pretty much every cardinal and authority figure in Rome. The elephant bequeathed his jaws to Cardinal Danti Quattro so that he will be able to devour the revenues of the Church more easily. To Cardinal Santa Croce, he left his knees: “so that he can imitate my genuflections, but only on the condition that he tells no more lies in Council” and to Cardinal Grassi, his generative organs because he is such an ‘incorrigible fornicator’. Luckily, the Pope saw the funny side. Leo X was a member of the Medici family and was, like Aretino, from the Republic of Florence. Maybe he thought it would be useful to have a man like Aretino in his employ and he hired him for himself.

Five years later, Pope Leo died and Aretino was naturally hoping that another Medici would be elected in his place. He published a lot of rude things about the other potential candidates. Unfortunately for him, someone else was elected. Adrian of Utrecht was known to: “scorn the vanities of this world”. As a man who relied pretty heavily on the vanities of this world, Aretino could see that things were not going to work out very well form him and he fled Rome

Pope Adrian died the following year and another Medici, Clement VII, was elected in his place. Aretino returned to Rome and began, once again to publish rude pamphlets mocking the power hungry men who surrounded the Pope. This time though, he made himself a powerful enemy called Giovanmatteo Giberti, who swore revenge. It wasn’t long before he was presented with the ideal opportunity.

To explain what happened, I need to tell you about a couple of artists. The first was Giulio Romano. He was doing some work in the Vatican, but when he was bored he did a few sketches for his friends. There were sixteen drawings and they all: “dealt with the various attitudes and postures in which lewd men have intercourse with lewd women.” Legend suggests that he actually drew these pictures on the walls of the Vatican. I’d love that to be true, but it probably isn’t. When he left to work on another commission elsewhere he left the drawings with his friend Marcantonio Raimondi. Marcantonio had learned how to reproduce drawings as engravings and had them printed. He sold thousands of them. When the Pope heard about it, Marcantonio was arrested and thrown in prison. Every single copy of the engravings was found and destroyed. Somehow, and we don’t know how because he was not a popular man, Aretino managed to campaign for Marcantonio’s release.

Then, of course, he wanted to know what all the fuss had been about. Marcantonio showed him the drawings and Aretino was so impressed that he was inspired to write a sonnet to accompany each illustration. Each poem is a conversation between a courtesan and her client. Some of the characters were recognisable as prominent public figures. The work was published all over again as a book which is called ‘I Modi’ or ‘Aretino’s Positions’. They were dedicated to his enemy Giberti. When this came to the attention of Giberti he ordered Aretino arrested. But when the guards arrived at his house, he was already gone. All copies were again sought out and destroyed. All that remains of Marcantonio’s engravings are a single illustration and a few fragments which now belong to the British Museum. Aretino’s sonnets have survived along with some woodblock prints from a forged copy of their book.

04 20 i modi fragments

04 20 i modi raimondi

Aretino fled to Mantua, but Giberti’s influence was far reaching and in July 1525 Aretino was on his way home from a party, when he was stabbed twice. He was stabbed once in the chest and once in the hand and was expected to die. But slowly he began to recover. He had to learn to write with his left hand because his right was so badly damaged. In 1527, he moved to Venice, which was an extremely liberal place and pretty much perfect for him. Aretino knew a lot of things about a lot of very important people. Sometimes he made a living writing about them, sometimes by not writing about them. People would give him gifts in the hope that he would publish something salacious about their enemies. Sworn rivals Francis I of France and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V both petitioned him in the hope that he would have something to say about the other one.

Before we leave Aretino today, I want to tell you a bit about one of his other works. His ‘Capricciosi Ragionamenti’ (Capricious Dialogues) was a three part work. It was a discussion between one prostitute and another about how she should raise her daughter. Basically, there were three life choices open to women. They could become a nun, a wife or a whore. The mother Nanna, wondered which was best. Her friend, Antonia, suggests that, as Nanna had been all three, she should describe the life of nuns, the life of wives and the life of whores and she will be able to tell which is best for her daughter.

As a young woman, Nanna had been sent to a convent. She expected to find a place of piety and prayer, a place where she might as well have been dead. Instead, as she sat 04 20 nun picking penises off a treedown to eat, a man brought a basket, which he claimed contained fruits from paradise. But what the basket contained was loads of glass penises made out of Murano glass. The picture on the right is not an illustration from his work, it’s actually from around two hundred years earlier, but I was reminded of it. Nanna was completely debauched in the nunnery and eventually left to return to her family. Then, she was married off to a very old and rich man. To convince him that she was a virgin, her mother placed an egg shell filled with chicken’s blood inside Nanna’s vagina. The ruse completely fooled her husband and Nanna later met many other wives and learned about the tricks they’d pulled on their foolish husbands. Nanna had lots of affairs while she was married and wound up stabbing her husband when he found her in the arms of a beggar. It was after that, that she became a whore, selling her ‘virginity’ over and over. Her friend concluded that she would be better off making her daughter a whore straight away. That way she wouldn’t be breaking any promises to God, or her marriage vows.

04 20 death of aretinoPietro Aretino died in 1556. He died of laughing too much. Either he asphyxiated or he fell backwards and hit his head on the floor. Which isn’t the worst way to go. You can see a nineteenth century depiction of the event by Anselm Feuerbach on the left. His work continues to cause controversy. In 2007, Michael Nyman set some of his ‘lust sonnets’ to music. When they were performed in 2008 at Cadagon Hall in Chelsea, the programme was withdrawn on grounds of obscenity. It is one of the few pieces of classical music which carries a ‘Parental Advisory, Explicit Content’ sticker.


Can’t Choose Your Family

04 18 possibly lucreziaToday is the birthday of Lucrezia Borgia, she was born in 1480 in Subiaco near Rome. She was said to be very beautiful, with golden hair that fell past her knees. There aren’t any contemporary paintings that we definitely know are of her, but of the likely candidates, the one on the right is my favourite. Historically, she has been seen as a dreadful person. A depraved incestuous poisoner and general worst person ever. You can find stories about how she carried poison hidden inside a ring, and how she attended a party at the Vatican where fifty prostitutes were made to crawl around on a floor that was strewn with lit candelabra and chestnuts (don’t know why). Although she was certainly a member of a very ruthless and power hungry family, she may have been completely innocent of the crimes of which she was accused.

Lucrezia was the illegitimate daughter of a Cardinal, Rodrigo Borgia, and his mistress, Vannozza dei Cattanei. This sounds like a pretty shocking thing to us, but it really wasn’t. It was quite normal for men of the cloth to have mistresses, they just weren’t allowed to marry. As with any daughter of a powerful family, her value was that she could be married off to someone who could provide them with political advantage. Rodrigo arranged for her to be married at the age of ten, but then he changed his mind and betrothed her to someone else. When she was twelve, her father was made Pope. As Pope Alexander VI, he could arrange a much more advantageous marriage for her and he broke of her second engagement. At thirteen, she was married to Giovanni Sforza.

Two years later though, the marriage ceased to be of political advantage to the Borgia family. The easiest way to have got rid of him would have just been to have him killed, and it seems this is what Alexander and Lucrezia’s brother, Cesare planned to do. But Cesare warned Lucrezia and she told Giovanni to leave Rome. Next, Alexander wanted their marriage annulled on the grounds of non-consummation. Giovanni was understandably upset by this and launched a counter attack. He accused both the Pope and Cesare of committing incest with his wife. It all got pretty nasty but Giovanni eventually agreed to be thought of as impotent if he could keep her huge dowry. It is possible that Lucrezia was pregnant at this time and later gave birth to a son. A child was certainly born in the Borgia family, but no one is sure of his parentage. The Pope issued two separate Papal Bulls. One claiming that Cesare was the father the other claiming that the child was his. There is no mention of the mother’s name, but it certainly fuels the rumours of incest. Lucrezia herself may have been having an affair with Alexander’s chamberlain, Pedro Calderon. It wasn’t very long before Pedro’s body washed up in the Tiber.

Her first husband was probably lucky to escape with his life. Her second, Alfonso d’Aragon was not so lucky. When his family fell out of favour he was attacked on the steps of St Peter’s Basilica and stabbed several times. This was not what killed him though. Lucrezia, who seems to have genuinely cared for him, was nursing him as he recovered from his wounds when someone strangled him. Suspicion fell very heavily in the area of one of her brother Cesare’s trusted servants.

04 18 lock of hairIt is not surprising that Lucrezia’s next prospective father-in-law, Ercole I d’Este, was a bit uneasy about the match. He had seen how badly her first marriages had turned out and he had heard the rumours of incest. In fact, he sent a spy to the Vatican to see what Lucrezia was really like. He received a report that she seemed like a sweet and lovely girl, who was not at all depraved. Also, a combination of a large dowry and a threat to unseat him as Duke of Ferrara helped secure her marriage to his eldest son and heir. Lucrezia and Alfonso d’Este remained married until she died after complications in her last pregnancy. It doesn’t seem like they were in love as they both had loads of affairs. She had a long affair with her brother-in law. Also, in the Ambrosian Museum in Milan, there are a number of love letters that she sent to a court poet, Pietro Bembo, along with a lock of her hair. Lord Byron visited the museum in 1816 and declared them to be ‘the prettiest love letters in the world. He also made off with a strand of her hair. What remain is now encased in glass, to keep it safe from poets.

Lucrezia’s third marriage probably stood the test of time because her scheming father, Pope Alexander VI and her awful brother Cesare Borgia both died, releasing her from their machinations. Free to live her own life, she made an excellent Duchess of Ferrara. She was a patron of the Arts. She bought up marshy land and had it drained for agricultural use and she gave much of her wealth to fund the building of hospitals and convents. When she died, people were truly sorry.

04 18 rossetti's lucreziaSo, her evil reputation seems ill-deserved. It really began with rumours started by her spurned first husband and continued after the next Pope, Julius II, seriously fell out with her third husband. There was an incident where a bronze statue of the Pope was toppled and broken into pieces. Alfonso had the bits melted down and made into a cannon. Macchiavelli repeated the rumours as fact, so did a historian called Guicciardini. Then, in 1833, Victor Hugo wrote a stage play about her which got turned into an opera by Donizetti. Which is probably what led Dante Gabriel Rossetti to paint this picture of her, cavorting with her father and brother.

One Pope, Four Funerals and the Patron Saint of the Internet

pope_formosusToday I’d like to tell you about Pope Formosus, who died on this day in the year 869. Before he became Pope he had already been excommunicated and reinstated once. As Bishop of Portus, he took off to Bulgaria to persuade a man called Charles the Bald that he really ought to be Holy Roman Emperor. The Bulgarians liked him so much that they wanted to keep him. So he got into trouble for seeming a bit above himself and also for ‘despoiling the cloisters’ in Rome. Whether he did or didn’t do these things isn’t really what I’m interested in today. I want to tell you about what happened to him after he died.

As far I can tell he didn’t really do anything bad. There are plenty of Popes who were far worse. But, twenty-eight years after his death, in 897, the whole Bulgarian thing was a still a problem to one of his successors, Stephen VI. He decided that Formosus should have been excommunicated after all and had his body exhumed. He then had him dressed in papal robes, seated on a throne, tried and found guilty. His papacy was declared null and all of his actions invalidated. If Stephen had thought this through properly, he might have remembered one of Formosus’ actions had been to make Stephen a bishop. But just in case you need further evidence that Pope Stephen wasn’t thinking clearly, here’s what happened next… Formosus’ corpse was stripped of it’s robes and had three of it’s fingers cut off, (the ones Formosus would have used in life for blessing). He was briefly reburied then dug up a second time and thrown in the Tiber. Everyone was pretty angry about that and Stephen was deposed, imprisoned and then strangled. The next Pope had Formosus’ body retrieved and reburied in St Peter’s. He also declared that there would be no more trials against dead people. Sadly that wasn’t the end for poor Formosus. It is possible that he was dug up and tried again during the reign of Pope Sergius III, found guilty again and was beheaded.

04 04 formosus

Here’s something a bit more cheerful though. Today is also the feast day of Saint Isadore of Seville. When he was Bishop of Seville he gathered together all the learned texts that survived from classical times and edited them all into one massive work. It was published in the seventh century and was a sort of encyclopaedia that contained everything in the world ever.

His Etymologiae  ran to twenty volumes and covered a massive range of subjects. You could read it and find out all about history, mathematics and grammar, or everything Isadore considered worth knowing about dust. It became the most used text book of the middle ages. Pliny the Elder’s ‘Natural History’ was a major source of his information. So all those medieval bestiaries full of pictures of people with faces in their chests, dog’s heads or one massive foot as well as exotic animals, real or imagined have all come through him from the writings of Pliny which first appeared around 77AD. Pliny, in turn, had them from Heroditus, a Greek writing in the 5th century BC. 

It is because of his comprehensive gathering of all knowledge that he has become known as the patron saint of the internet. Like the internet, his work has good and bad points. Because his books were so popular, it is often the only existing source of some information, because the original documents that he studied have been lost. On the other hand, the reason some of them are lost was that scribes spent so much time copying out Isadore’s book that they didn’t bother to copy the originals any more.  If you’ve searched the internet for the original source for some wild claim, you’ll be familiar with this problem.

04 04 isadoreWhen I was looking for a picture of him, I found that he is often pictured as a bishop holding a pen and surrounded by bees. I thought this was an excellent image for the patron saint of the internet, because trying to focus on writing on a machine that has access to everything in the world ever is pretty much like trying to write with bees buzzing everywhere – distracting. I tried to find you a picture of him with the bees, it took ages, I got horribly side tracked and came up with nothing. So I’ve drawn you one.

Facing His Demons

02 06 charakterkopfToday is the birthday of sculptor Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, who was born is 1736 in Wiesensteig in the south west of Germany. He is best known for a series of head sculptures which all depict extreme and rather disturbing facial expressions. He was raised in Munich by his uncles and it was from them that he first learned sculpture. After that he went to study at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. Messerschmidt was extremely good with the current, flamboyant baroque style, he earned lots of commissions and became Court Sculptor the the royal house of Habsburg.

Later, he became very interested in the art of Ancient Rome and the classical proportions that were associated with it. By 1765 he had earned enough money to take himself to Rome to study classical sculpture. Whilst there, it seems he astounded other artists with his ability to carve freestyle into wood. We don’t know much about his time in Rome. Only a single story that he recounted to a visitor towards the end of his life, when he had become very reclusive and strange. According to Messerschmidt, he was carving a tree trunk into the likeness of a statue of Hercules when a Spanish artist suggested that he was using the power of an evil spirit to make his sculptures. Messerschmidt hit him.

When he returned to Vienna, he began to work in a more classical style. He began to eliminate the elaborate drapery and fine jewels that were common to the baroque style and concentrate on the facial features. Although his work had changed significantly it was still very much admired. He was showing the character of the person, rather than the things they owned. He made a bust of his neighbour, Franz Anton Mesmer. Mesmer was an odd character who believed that all living things possessed tides of energy and that he could control these tides to cure hysterics. Messerschmidt must have seen lots of troubled people coming and going at his neighbour’s house.

In 1774, he expected to inherit the position of Professor of Sculpture at the academy in Vienna. This did not happen. He was passed over because people had started to find him unusual. They said that for the three years he had: “shown signs of confusion”. He was still working but they saw evidence of: “a not perfectly healthy imagination”. He had come to believe that all the other professors were his enemies and people were worried that he would be a danger to students. Messerschmidt packed up all his belongings and moved back to his home town for a while and then on to Pressburg, now called Bratislava.

02 06 messerschmidt yawningThe accusations were rather veiled and non-specific but we know that in 1771 he had begun to work on a series of heads. The head sculptures are mostly life-size, are probably all of him and show a range of extreme facial expressions. Many of them look as though they are in severe pain. It was a project that would consume him for the rest of his life. He would make sixty-four of them. He still continued to support himself with commissions that people were perfectly happy with, so he was not entirely unhinged. But his heads are very odd indeed. They’re not like anything else.

In 1781 he was visited by a writer called Friedrich Nicolai, who found him to be intelligent, but eccentric. He seemed to own nothing except a bed,, a flute, a tobacco pipe and an Italian book on proportion. When questioned about the heads, he told Nicolai that he was haunted by spirits. Most particularly by the ‘Spirit of Proportion’. The Spirit of Proportion was envious of him because he was able to easily represent an almost perfect human figure in stone. Because of this it was causing pain in every part of his body as a punishment. The heads he made were to scare the demon away. Their expressions were copied from his own face. He would stand in front of a mirror, pinch himself really hard in the ribs until he grimaced, then reproduced the face he pulled on one of the heads. He had, he said, perfected sixty-nine grimaces for this purpose. Nicholai understood that his faces intentionally displayed some animalistic qualities because animals knew better how to scare away evil spirits than humans.

His heads, which were later called ‘character heads’, fall loosely into four categories; reasonably normal human expressions, a group with more extreme animalistic expressions, but varying hairstyles, a group of bald-headed figures with virtually no neck, and a group with the neck extended, often with the face pinched up in the middle. We’ve no idea what order he made them in. All the titles they have were given to them by others after his death. They are things like ‘Afflicted with Constipation’, ‘Beak Head’ and ‘ The Incapable Bassoonist’. We can only guess at what his influences were. Probably early Roman portraiture Perhaps works on physiognomy by men like Giambattista della Porta who I mentioned the other day. Maybe the work of his Viennese neighbour Mesmer. Or it might also have been the carvings in Vienna Cathedral, which are pretty strange.

After his death in 1783 his heads were treated with, at best, curiosity and at worst derision and disgust. By the end of the nineteenth century, papier-mâché replicas were being displayed in freak shows and game booths. He was thought of as a mere caricaturist and likened to Hogarth. In the twentieth century, there has been much speculation about whether or not he was insane, and if he was, what the nature of his insanity might have been. But we’ll never know because, apart from his odd conversation with Friedrich Nicolai, he left no clues. If you want to see more of his work, there’s a great video here.

02 06 messerschmidt heads engraving

Fire Risk

08 23 vulcanIf we were ancient Romans we would be celebrating Vulcanalia today. A festival in honour of the god Vulcan. As he is the god of fire, they had to pay special attention to him at this time of year. Otherwise he might decide to set fire to their recently harvested grain. Even by Roman standards he is a very old god. The oldest shrine in Rome is dedicated to him and it is supposed to have been built in the eighth century BC. It is situated at the foot of the Capitoline Hill and was probably originally outside the city walls. After all, you wouldn’t want an excited fire god kicking off inside your city. It seems the Romans would celebrate by building a bonfire and throwing in live fish and small animals. Maybe I’ll have a barbecue instead.

Vulcan was the son of Jupiter and Juno, the king and queen of the gods. His mother thought he was so ugly that she threw him in the sea. He was rescued by Thetis, a sea-nymph, who raised him as her own. Vulcan had a happy childhood, playing with pearls and swimming with dolphins. Then one day he found the remains of a fisherman’s fire on the beach. He was so fascinated by a glowing ember that he put it in a clamshell and took it back to his underwater home. At first he just looked at it. Then he found he could make it hotter with bellows and use it make certain stones sweat iron, silver or gold. Later he found he could beat the metal into shape and make jewellery, weapons and tools. He built himself a silver chariot which was pulled by seahorses.

Once when Thetis went to a party on Mount Olympus, she was wearing a beautiful necklace of silver and sapphires that Vulcan had made for her. Juno admired it and asked her where it came from. Thetis knew that Vulcan was really Juno’s son and was reluctant to say. Juno was suspicious. When she discovered the truth, that the son she had rejected had become a talented blacksmith she was furious. She demanded that he return home. He refused, but he did send her a gift, a beautiful chair made from silver, gold and mother-of-pearl. Juno was delighted. Until she sat on it. Her weight triggered springs inside and straps flew out fastening her to the chair. The more she struggled, the tighter the straps became. He had built a trap for her. She was stuck in it for three days. Vulcan only agreed to release her when his father, Jupiter, offered him Venus as his bride in return for freeing his mother.

Keep an eye on Vulcan, you never know when he’s going to get out of hand. It was during the festival of Vulcanalia in 79 AD that Mount Vesuvius first began to rumble. If you’ve ever been to Pompeii or to Herculaneum, or even if you haven’t, you probably know how that turned out.

Lazy Saint

AAAaaaa!Happy Saint Sithney’s Day. Just a short one today, as I can’t find out much about him but he’s certainly worth mentioning. Saint Sithney seems to have been a friend of Saint Patrick. Maybe he was Irish, maybe he was Breton, I just can’t tell. He has a village in Cornwall named after him and his bones rest in the church there.

God told Saint Sithney that he was to be the patron saint of young women seeking husbands. Sithney thought that sounded like a lot of hard work. He thought young women seeking husbands would be always bothering him about all sorts of things; handsome men, wealth, fancy clothes… Sithney ungratefully replied that he would sooner be the patron saint of mad dogs. So God granted him his wish.

Interestingly his feast day is suspiciously close to a Roman festival on August 3rd called Supplicia Carnum (Punishment of the Dogs) which I didn’t mention yesterday because, as you can tell from the name, it’s not brilliant. Especially if you happen to be a dog. Although it’s fine if you’re a goose who enjoys dressing up.

While trying to find out more about Saint Sithney I kept finding reference to a well that mad dogs could drink from and be cured. I can’t find a single picture of it, so obviously he hasn’t done a very good job of looking after that either.

 I don’t think I would ever have troubled Saint Sithney for any of the things he was worried about. My dog, on the other hand, might need some help…