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.”

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To Seek Out New Worlds

03 07 kepler spacecraftOn this day in 2009, NASA launched its Kepler space observatory. Its purpose is to identify earth like planets orbiting other stars. It is focused on the Milky Way where there are billions of stars. Its only instrument is a photometer which continually measures the brightness of 145,000 stars. If any of the stars it is looking at dim periodically, that might indicate that there is a planet passing in front of it. So far, it has identified 1039 planets.

As I have been thinking about space travel today and, as I casually mentioned yesterday a seventeenth century bishop who wrote a story about flying to the moon with some swans, I thought I’d take a closer look at that today, along with another story that I didn’t get chance to mention, which heavily influenced Cyrano de Bergerac‘s ‘Other Worlds’. It is ‘True History’ written by Lucian of Samosata some time in the second century.

Francis Godwin was born in 1562 and became Bishop of Hereford. His father was the bishop of Bath and Wells. Both of his grandfathers were bishops. His ‘The Man in the Moone, or a Discourse of a Voyage Thither’ was published posthumously under an assumed name in 1638. He may have written it in about 1620. It is about a man called Domingo Gonsales, the book’s supposed author. Domingo has made a fortune in the East Indies but has to flee because he killed someone in a duel. He leaves for his native Spain along with his servant Diego. Ill health forces him to stop at St Helena. There he finds a new variety of swan he calls a ‘gansa’ that he discovers can carry substantial weights. 03 07 the man in the mooneEventually he harnesses some of them together so they can carry the weight of a man and flies around the island. Then, he decides to use the swans to fly him home. Nearing Tenerife he is attacked by British ships and forced to land. Finding the natives hostile, he takes off again. The swans carry him higher and higher. On the first day he meets demons and wicked spirits who give him a package of food for his journey. They promise to see him safely back to Spain if he promises to join them and serve a master who they will not name. He refuses.

Instead, the gansas carry him higher and higher, for twelve days, until he reaches the Moon. Suddenly, he feels hungry and opens his package to find that it contains dry leaves, goat’s hair and animal dung. There is also wine that he says smells like horse piss. He finds that the people who live on the moon are tall Christian people who live in a kind of paradise. He finds out that they maintain their Utopian existence by swapping any delinquent children for children from Earth. Here, he cites an example, the Green Children of Woolpit.

This is a very odd story dating from the twelfth century about two children who suddenly appeared near the village of Woolpit in Suffolk. They spoke an unknown language, their clothing was unfamiliar, their skin was green, and they would eat only beans. When they adapted to a normal diet, they lost their green colour. The boy died but the girl survived to adulthood. They couldn’t say how they arrived, only that they had been tending their father’s cattle, there had been a loud noise and suddenly they found themselves in a strange place. There is only one other writer we know of from this time who mentions the story and suggests that they may have come from an extra-terrestrial world. It is Robert Burton in his ‘Anatomy of Melancholy‘. This is an interesting piece of information for me as, over the last year, the Anatomy of Melancholy has become one of my favourite books that I’ve never read. But I digress.

After six months of living on the moon, and learning their strange musical language, three of Domingo’s gansas have died and he becomes concerned he will never get back to earth. He sets off for home, but before he leaves, the King of the Moon gives him a gift of three sorts of stones. Poleastis, which can store and generate great quantities of heat, Macbrus, which generates great quantities of light and Ebelus. Holding one side of this stone to you, renders you weightless, touching the other side makes you half as heavy again.

He uses his Ebelus to make himself lighter so that the journey back to Earth is easier for his remaining gansas. He lands in China where he is arrested as a magician. It takes him ages to learn Mandarin so he can explain himself. Eventually he makes contact with some Jesuits who write down his story and promise to send it to Spain. The book ends with him hoping that his adventures will make him famous.

The second century tale written by Lucian of Samosata was intended to be a parody against contemporary and ancient sources which quote obvious myths and legends as if they had really happened. So its title ‘True History’ is a joke. In the story, Lucien and some adventuring heroes sail west beyond the Pillars of Hercules (the Straits of Gibraltar) and come to an island with rivers of wine filled with fish and bears. They also find marks indicating that Heracles and Dionysus have passed that way. On leaving the island they are 03 07 bearsley's space spidersswept up by a whirlwind and, after seven days, deposited on the moon. There, they find a huge war between the king of the Moon and the king of the Sun over who should colonise the Morning Star (Venus). There is a fantastical description of the two armies which includes men who wear long gowns that they use like sails to fly around, dog-faced men riding winged acorns and giant spiders. The armies of the sun are victorious when they build a wall that eclipses the moon. Lucian tells us that there are no women on the moon but that children grow inside the calves of men. This sounds like a weird idea, but it’s one I’m probably going to mention again at Bacchanalia next week.

After returning to Earth, they become trapped inside a 200 mile long whale. There are some amazing things inside the whale; among them, a little garden a lake and a temple dedicated to Neptune. There are also a thousand people who they go to war with. Then they discover a sea of milk and an island of cheese. After that, they sail to the Island of the Blessed. There, they meet the heroes of the Trojan War and Herodotus who is being eternally punished for all the lies he wrote in his own ‘Histories’. Herodotus was responsible for some of the more outlandish beliefs of Pliny the Elder and which persisted into medieval times, such as the belief in a race of dog-headed people. Lucian tells us that he is glad he will never suffer such a fate as he has never told a lie in his life.

Lucian then discovers a chasm in the ocean, which they manage to sail around and he ends his story as they discover a new continent and begin to explore it. It ends with the promise of more to come. No one now has any idea if there ever was more.

Choose Your Own Adventure

03 06 cyrano de bergeracToday I want to talk about Cyrano de Bergerac. It isn’t going to be very easy, as details of his life are scant. But he does have one, arguably two, totally fictional accounts of his life that I can tell you about.

The real Cyrano was probably baptised in Paris on this day in 1619. He was the son of Abel de Cyrano, lord of Mauvières and Bergerac. He was first educated in the countryside by a parish priest along with his friend Henri Lebret, who later became his biographer. He didn’t pay much attention to his lessons there and sounds like an awful student. His father sent him to Paris to finish his education. I don’t know where, it might have been Collège de Beauvais, because he later wrote a play called ‘The Pedant Tricked’ which made fun of one of the tutors there.

Alternatively, he was not aristocratic at all, but descended from a Sardinian fishmonger. He was the lover of Charles Coypeau d’Assoucy, a burlesque poet, until 1653 when they fell out horribly and wrote lots of rude things about each other. Pick which one you like best. I suppose it is possible that they might both be true to some extent.

03 06 duellersHe enjoyed a life of drinking gambling and duelling and joined the army when he was nineteen. As he wasn’t keen on discipline, war or the death penalty, he didn’t fit in particularly well there. Cyrano was severely wounded twice, he was shot through the body and wounded in the neck with a sword. In 1641, he left the army and began to study under the philosopher and mathematician Pierre Gassendi. Gassendi tried to reconcile Christianity with Epicurean atomism, which I don’t have time to look into today, but it must have been odd as Epicurus didn’t believe any gods were watching us at all, ever.

Cyrano de Bergerac died in 1655, either as the result of a wooden beam falling on his head or because he was involved in a botched assassination attempt and suffered from ill health after he was subsequently confined to a private asylum by his brother. Or perhaps it was syphilis. Again, you choose. Or take all of them…

03 06 benoît-constant coquelin dressed as cyrano de bergeracCyrano’s life was fictionalised in the form of a play by Edmond Rosand in 1897. The fictional Cyrano is a renowned duellist and a gifted and joyful poet. He is also crippled by self-doubt because he has a very large nose. So he cannot tell his beautiful cousin, Roxane, that he loves her. She is also loved by a handsome young man called Christian. Just when Cyrano is about to tell Roxane how he feels, she tells him she is in love with someone. At first he thinks, and hopes that she means him But when she describes him as handsome, he finds out it is Christian. Roxane also asks Cyrano to look after Christian, they are both soldiers and she doesn’t want to see Christian hurt. After that, the two men become friends and, because Christian doesn’t have the gift of poetry, Cyrano agrees to write his love letters for him. Now Cyrano can pour out his heart to Roxane without her ever knowing that the words are his. Roxanne falls deeply in love with Christian because of his beautiful words and eventually confesses to Cyrano that the letters mean so much to her that she would love Christian even if he was ugly. Just as Cyrano is about to confess that he is the author Christian is wounded and dies. So Cyrano feels he can now never confess that it was him all along.

Fifteen years later, Roxane is in a convent, still mourning the loss of Christian. Cyrano comes to visit her, but on the way, someone drops a log on his head and he is mortally wounded. He arrives at the convent, knowing it will be the last time he sees her. She asks him to read Christian’s last love letter to her, which he does. But as he is reading it grows dark. As he continues to read even though it is too dark to see, she finally realises that he is the author of the letters. He denies it to his dying breath. He dies saying that he has lost everything, except one important thing his ‘panache’. The play has been performed many times, rewritten and adapted for film. Off the top of my head, there is the one with Gérard Depardieu, a modern day version starring Steve Martin with an upbeat ending and ‘The Truth About Cats and Dogs’ is a gender reversed version of the same story. It is from the original play that the word ‘panache’ first entered the English language.

Cyrano de Bergerac also wrote stories with a hero named Cyrano which were published after his death by his biographer Lebret. But they are not obviously about his life. Cyrano’s Cyrano travels to the moon and the sun. ‘L’Autre Monde: ou les États et Empires de la Lune.’ (The other world: states and empires of the Moon) and ‘Les États et Empires du Soleil.’ (The states and empires of the Sun) are, in a way, science fiction novels before there was any such thing as science fiction.

03 06 bottles of dewCyrano first tries to reach the Moon by strapping bottles of dew to his body. The sun shines on the bottles which become clouds and lift him into the sky. When he comes down again he is in New France (Canada) because the earth has moved round beneath him. He meets a tribe of people who are naked. He, thinking he is in France, wonders how long French people in the provinces have gone about naked but expects that they are equally surprised to meet someone wearing bottles. Eventually he meets the governor of New France and explains to him that all matter is formed inside, and expelled by stars, which is a pretty surprising idea coming from the seventeenth century. He thinks that the reason the Americas have been only recently discovered is that they have only just been put there by the sun.

In his second attempt to reach the moon, he builds a flying machine and launches it off a cliff. It crashes but he escapes from the wreckage. Then some soldiers find it and think if they attach rockets to it, it will fly into the sky and look like a dragon. He catches them and is upset. He climbs into the machine to try to unfasten the rockets and is blasted into space. On the moon he meets people with four legs who have musical voices and weapons that can cook game at the same time as it is being shot. He also meet the ghost of Socrates and a man named Domingo Gonsales. Domingo is a character from an earlier novel by an English bishop, called Francis Godwin, who flies to the Moon in a chariot drawn by swans. They all decide that the concept of God is nonsense and that men have no souls. Cyrano returns to earth and lands in Italy.

03 06 flying machineHe builds a second flying machine that focuses solar energy, using mirrors to create burst of air. It takes him to the sun. He lands on a sun spot and the beings that live there explain to him how the solar system works by comparing it with the movement of atoms. On the sun, he is tried by a court of birds for all the crimes of humanity But luckily, he is saved by a parrot who recognises him. Then he meets an Italian philosopher called Tommaso Campanella. They start to discuss what sex would be like in Utopia and the book pretty much ends there. As I said, it was published posthumously and it is likely that there was more but Lebret was not brave enough to publish it. There may also be a third story about a journey to the stars, but his original work is now lost. So, if you read it, you’ll have to decide how it ends.

Dystopia

01 10 robot metropolisOn this day in 1927, Fritz Lang’s film ‘Metropolis’ premièred at the Ufa-Palast am Zoo in Berlin. Metropolis is a hugely important film in the history of science fiction. Unfortunately, as it’s still under copyright, there aren’t a lot of images I can show you. However, I feel almost certain that, even if you haven’t seen it, you’ll have seen stills from it elsewhere. I can show you this robot though and you will probably recognise its influence on C-3PO in Star Wars.

Metropolis is set in the year 2026, not so far away now. It shows us an urban dystopia where the rich live in a futuristic city that is powered by workers who toil all day at huge machines and are forced to live underground. I don’t want to spend too long on the plot. It would take a long time and it isn’t really the film’s strong point. Basically, Freder, the son of the man who runs the city falls in love with a working class prophetess, Maria, who wants to bring both sides of the society peacefully together. There’s a bad man, who has the wonderful name of Rotwang, with a robot and he uses it to create a double of Maria, who causes all sorts of trouble. She incites the workers to destroy their machines, which causes their underground city to flood, threatening the lives of their children. Obviously, there’s a lot of stuff about mistaken identity but the right Maria (bad robot Maria) gets burned at the end. The good Maria, Freder and a splendid fellow called Josaphat save all the children and everyone is very sorry, except Rotwang who falls off a roof.

Although it is now considered one of the greatest films of the silent era, and pioneering in the genre of science fiction, not everyone shared this opinion at the time. The New York Times called it: “A technical marvel with feet of clay.” HG Wells was similarly unimpressed. He thought Lang had failed to appreciate that the point of machines was to free people from drudgery, not to make their lives harder. He thought it was a silly film. Even Fritz Lang wasn’t that keen on it once it was finished, but there may be other reasons for that. The book on which it was based was written by his then partner, Thea von Harbou, who became, in later years, a very enthusiastic Nazi. Also the Nazis loved the film, which could have been another reason he grew to dislike it.

However, all that said, Metropolis is indeed a technical marvel. It was one of the first feature-length films and in its original version ran for 152 minutes. Its cast was largely unknown and Brigitte Helm, who played both Maria and the robot, had no previous film experience and was only nineteen years old. There are some glorious sets designed by Erich Kettelhut, Otto Hunte and Karl Vollbrecht. The huge machinery is amazing and the very utilitarain underground workers city is contrasted by the soaring Art Deco city above ground. There is a dark, gothic cathedral and Rotwang’s house and laboratory are different again. Special effects expert, Eugen Schüfftan, created pioneering special effects for the film, including one which was named after him. Parts of the city were built in miniature and the Schüfftan process uses mirrors so make it seem as though the actors are occupying the tiny sets. It was a technique that was widely used in the first half of the twentieth century. Although it has now largely been replaced by green screen, it was used as recently as 2003 in ‘Lord of the Rings: The return of the King.’

Another triumph was the robot’s costume. It was made over a life cast of the actresses body and, when it was realised that the original plan of using beaten copper would be far too heavy, sculptor Walter Schulze-Mittendorff happened upon plastic wood filler. He found he could roll it flat and drape it over the cast, then cut it to make a sort of armour. He then sprayed it with a mixture of resin and bronze powder. Although it allowed for a little movement, it was still very difficult to wear. Brigitte Helm was terribly scratched and pinched by it, despite many attempts by the stage hands to file down all the sharp edges. People felt so sorry for her that they kept posting coins through the slots in her costume which she used to buy chocolate in the canteen. During the transformation scene, she fainted because it took so long and she couldn’t breathe properly. Brigitte couldn’t really see why it had to be her inside the costume at all, it could be anyone. No one would even know. Lang’s answer was that he would know.

Brigitte wasn’t the only one to suffer during the production. It took over a year to film and Lang made them repeat many of the scenes over and over. By the time Gustav Fröhlich, who played Freder, had spent two days throwing himself at the feet of Brigitte, he could barely stand. Spare a thought also for the five hundred child extras, who were from the poorest parts of Berlin. During the scenes when the underground city floods, they spent two weeks struggling in a pool of water that was intentionally kept rather too cold by the director.

As for the famous robot transformation scene that was so difficult for Brigitte, it isn’t clear, even now exactly how it was done. The circular lights that move up and down over the robot were not added afterwards, as they would be today, but filmed directly into the camera. It definitely seems to have involved circular neon lights, probably moved up and down with invisible wires, and putting the film through the camera many times.

Metropolis is a visually beautiful film, if a little slow by today’s standards. It has been much cut about both to make it shorter and to get rid of some of the elements in the original that were not liked. For example, it was all a bit communist for an American audience. The original cut was thought to be lost, but an uncut version was found in Argentina. It has suffered rather over the years but has been restored and an almost complete version was released in 2010. It’s been interesting to watch this film again knowing about all the inventive techniques and the difficulties everyone had to put up with just to get it made. The actors must have felt, at times, as though they were really living in a city that was ruled over by an uncaring despot.