Category Archives: History

Pieces of March

I’ve never seen them in person, but the celebrated frescoes by Francesco del Cossa representing March, April and May in the Room of the Months at the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara have still captivated me for years. They were painted by del Cossa in 1469-70 at the behest of Borso d’Este, the Duke of Modena and Ferrara, who is featured prominently in typical Renaissance fashion. The complex astrological and classical schemes in the murals keep me guessing, but it’s the details that keep me looking. Let’s look at March as a case in point.

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Francesco del Cossa, Allegory of March: Triumph of Minerva, c. 1469-70, at Palazzo Schifanoia and Web Gallery of Art.

The del Cossa murals have three sections: the gods above, the zodiac in the center, and the d’Este court below–but everyone looks accessible and interesting. In the case of March, triumphant deity Minerva, patroness of learning and crafts, is seated in her chariot surrounded by scholars deep in discussion and craftswomen hard at work (at least some of them–all while beautifully dressed and coiffed). These women–most particularly the Three Fates in the foreground– have received a lot of attention from Renaissance costumers and reenactors: even though they dwell in the realm of the Gods they seem quite grounded, by the details of their dress and activity–quite in contrast to those who occupy the realm below.

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The central section of the Allegory of March is the most mysterious: here we see the somewhat familiar Athena hovering over the ram Aries, with two oddly-dressed characters on either side. They are deccans, mediating spirits who ruled for only periods of ten days: a black man dressed in rags and a rather effeminate arrow-and ring-bearing young man (???)–what’s happening here? These guys could represent lots of things–fortitude, beauty, caution–but why the adrogyny, why the rags? The ragged man was so captivating to novelist Ali Smith that he inspired her Man Booker Prize short-listed novel, How to be Both (2014), told partially from the perspective of Francesco dell Cosso.

Allegory of March Zodiac figures

March deccan

Allegory of March Smith Cover

Leather commemorative binding of Ali Smith’s How to be Both by Derek Hood, featuring pieces of the March mural and a famous letter from del Cossa to Borso d’Este asking for more money for the commission–when he was rebuffed, he left Ferrara for good: Begging to recall to your highness, that I am Francesco del Cossa, who made those three fields towards the antechamber entirely by my self: so if you, your Highness really don’t want to give me more than 10 bolognini [pennies] per square foot, I’d be losing 40 or 50 ducats…..I’ve got a name these days, and this payment leaves me on a par with the saddest apprentice in Ferrara…and I’ve studied, I study all the time, and I’ve used gold and good colours at my own expense…and done the whole thing in fresco, which is really advanced work……

I’ve got a name these days: a nice expression of Renaissance confidence in achievement, and attitude! Del Cossa places us firmly on the ground–and in his own time–in the lower register of the mural where we see Duke Borso reigning under a very impressive loggia as his subjects go about their March-appropriate activities: the courtiers hunt and the peasants prune. Obviously there’s some damage here, but in the upper left hand corner there’s a perfect vignette of daily life: while men prune grapevines atop an impressive brick foundation (Del Cossa’s father was a mason) we see dogs chasing March hares, who look like they’re definitely going to get away.

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From Fast to Feast

Today, a national holiday of Wales based on its association with the Welsh patron Saint David (c. 500-c. 589), affords yet another opportunity to explore one of my favorite themes: the secularization of saints’ days. This is a touchstone in several of my courses and a subject I’ve returned to here again and again: on Halloween, St. Nicholas’s Day, Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, and even the feast day of the lesser-known St. Swithun. There’s no question in my mind that one of the most basic tasks, and most popular consequences, of the Reformation was the transformation of the Christian calendar. This transformation was dramatic: Saint David appears to have been one of the most ascetic of saints (a bold claim, perhaps too bold), forswearing beer and meat in favor of water and bread seasoned with a few grains of salt and herbs, yet today his day is celebrated with parades and cupcakes embellished with Welsh dragons and daffodils, and the leeks which became more particularly associated with him over time.

Saint David's Day

Saint David's Day cupcakes

British School, A Celebration of Saint David’s Day, c. 1750, National Museum Wales, Cardiff; Dotty Cupcakes, Cardiff, featured here.

The most revealing illustration of this process occurred during the Elizabethan era, when the Queen–or her advisers and followers and assorted hangers-on–rather deliberately emphasized the coincidence of dates shared by Elizabeth and the Virgin Mary: September 7 (Elizabeth’s birthday and the Eve of the Feast of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary) and March 24 (the day on which Elizabeth died in 1603, and the Eve of the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary). Moreover, the “Queene’s Day”, November 17, the day of which Elizabeth acceded to the throne in 1558, achieved the status of both a national holiday and a religious holiday over her reign. And thus the Virgin Queen and “the cult of Elizabeth” (a phrase first used by Sir Roy Strong) emerged. There’s no agreement that the feast displayed below represents an early celebration of the Queene’s Day, but I like to think that Joris Hoefnagel’s iconic painting Fete at Bermondsey (c. 1569-70)–one of my very favorites– does just that.

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Joris Hoefnagel, A Fete at Bermondsey. Copyright The Marquess of Salisbury, Hatfield House

Casabella Covers

For the most part, I think I’ve been pretty productive during this snowbound February, but I’ve also frittered away a fair amount of time: reading not very scholarly books and searching through some of my favorite databases for anything that might catch my attention: images, fonts, ideas. I love magazines about architecture and interior design, so I browsed through digital collections of twentieth-century publications and found several that intrigued me, not so much for their content (traditionalist that I am) but for their striking covers. Magazine covers are so boring now (with the exception of the New Yorker and a few other titles): there’s no abstraction or design, just a literal representation of what’s inside. This was not the case in the mid-twentieth century, when the images and letters of design magazines like Casabella seemed to (literally) leap off the page. La casa bella, a monthly magazine of “radical” modern architecture, commenced publication in 1928 in Milan and is still published today. Its first covers are pretty sedate, but in the 1930s (about the same time that the title was changed to Casabella) they get quite a bit more interesting, reflecting not just what’s inside but their time. Here’s a portfolio of images from 1929-73, all taken from the magazine’s current website.

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Casabella 1930

Casabella Covers 1932 collage

Casabella 1950s

Casabella 1960 collage

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Casabella Covers from 1929, 1930, 1933, the 1950s, 1963, 1969 & 1973.


Hip (-Hop) Hamilton

It seems to me that from time to time one of our Founding Fathers emerges from the pack, to glow just a little brighter in a blaze of adulation. Certainly John Adams had his time a few years back, singled out by David McCullough’s book and the HBO series; more recently “Sexy Sam Adams” emerged as the hero of the History Channel’s (or as most historians refer to it, the Hitler Channel) Sons of Liberty miniseries, sponsored, of course, by Sam Adams beer. Now it’s all about Alexander Hamilton, the star of a namesake, sold-out musical on off-Broadway. Hamilton, written, directed and starring Tony winner Lin-Manuel Miranda, is based on Hamilton’s rag-to-riches life, as charted by Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography, set to a score that sounds far more lively than that of 1776.

Hamilton the Musical

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Hamilton Poster

I don’t find the spotlight on Hamilton, or the success of Hamilton, even remotely surprising. After all, I live in Alexander Hamilton world: the first thing I see every morning when I wake up is Hamilton Hall, the c. 1805 assembly hall named after the Federalist hero/martyr, and the sign boldly attesting to that fact. And even if you’re just familiar with the outline of his life you can understand that it would make for a good story: illegitimate Caribbean orphan sent to New York, student, lawyer, lover, soldier, author, first Secretary of the Treasury, victim of a duel. Fill in the details and you’ve got a blockbuster!

Alexander Hamilton 1957 Rand McNally Ad

Hamilton Batman Bill

Hamilton Birthday Card

Hamilton Vodka

Hamilton updated: 1957 Rand McNally ad; defaced $10 Batman bill; Alexander Hamilton birthday print by A5/Day; Alexander Hamilton small-batch Vodka.


An Executive Mansion

For this Washington’s birthday weekend, I am thrilled to be able to feature photographs of the ongoing restoration of the Joshua Ward House, where our first President stayed when he visited Salem in the Fall of 1789. I featured the house in a previous post, where you can see historic photographs and read some of its history, but I was not able to access the interior at that time. Since then, the house has been purchased and is presently being transformed, with great attention to detail, into an inn. I have no name or link yet, but will certainly revisit this project: my strong impression is that the owner wants to pay homage to the house’s namesake builder, the worldly merchant, successful distiller, and every-hospitable Joshua Ward, and dispel its dubious haunted reputation forever. Even though it’s right around the corner from my own house, I am booking a room as soon as it is opened: the very room where President Washington slept, restored to all of its former glory.

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Washington on horseback 19th C

As I had never been in the house and long desired to, my expectations were…great, and I was not disappointed. Even in its present state, a work site, it is beautiful both in its entirety and its details. Seeing it so exposed made it even more beautiful perhaps: layers of paint being sanded off, ceilings opened to the rafters, pocked beams everywhere, doors on the floor. It seemed both vulnerable and stalwart to me, especially as I looked out the windows (of George’s second-floor bedroom, of course) and thought of all the things this house has seen: water and wharves when it was first built in the 1780s, then a filled-in busy downtown, then a huge Gothic fortress-train depot, then nothing because commercial structures blocked its view, then a notorious traffic-clogged “plaza”, now a mixed picture of preservation and poor planning. The Joshua Ward House has weathered all of these developments and is standing by, nearly fully-equipped, for future ones.

First floor: looking out at Salem; famous entrance hall and staircase; soon-to-be inn tavern room; front and back fireplaces.

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Second Floor: more of the famous staircase, Washington’s bedroom, opposite (southeast) bedroom, entrance to the back of the house.

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Through, back, up: stairs, second and third floor bedrooms, the attic.

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Details, details:

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Pieces of the past (even the relatively recent past):

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Some orientation: Jonathan Saunders’ c. 1820 map of Salem (house marked by * ) and Sidney Perley’s 1905 map, both from the Boston Public Library; the Ward House in the mid-20th century, obscured by billboards and facades, and today.

Salem 1820 Saunders

Salem 1905 Perley

Ward House Billboards

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Valentines from the Great War

Oddly enough, love and war often do go together and we all know that absence often makes the heart grow fonder, so it’s only natural that the burgeoning greetings card industry would flourish during World War I. In the west, domestic producers had to replace that large part of the market that was previously produced by Germany, and “WWI silks”, embroidered greetings produced in France and Belgium, constituted one of the most important cottage industries of the war. It can be a little jarring to see military themes on cards that were supposed to foster sentiment, but it was a competitive market, and I’m sure that manufacturers wanted to seem current, and relevant. And you really can’t beat the sentiment when you see my ammunition, you’ll surrender your position, which was evidently quite popular as it was issued with a variety of images. So in celebration of St. Valentine’s Day and commemoration of the Great War, here is a selection of valentines from 1914-1919: from Great Britain, the United States, France, and (the most intimate of all, handmade on the Front) Australia.

Valentine Ambulance Bod Lib

Valentine Ambulance Interior Bod Lib

Valentine Nurse Bodleian Lib

Valentine LOC 1918 Over There

WWW Valentine LOC 1919

WWW Valentine LOC 1919 2

Valentine 1918 LOC

PicMonkey Collage

Cupid_Arrow_Heart

Valentine slogan WWI

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Valentine 1917 French Hearts

Love Letter Australian War Memorial 1918

Sources: Nancy Rosin Collection; Bodleian Library, Oxford University; Library of Congress; Ebay; Etsy; The Old Print Shop; Australian War Memorial.


A Salem Romance

I have a real romance author as a neighbor, so I am venturing into this territory with some trepidation, but as Valentine’s Day quickly approaches I want to shift the focus from snow, snow, snow, which is all we are talking about here. In Salem, the perennial romance that is dragged out nearly every year for this occasion is that of Nathaniel and Sophia Hawthorne, which I find boring, boring, boring. It’s been done to death, like so many Salem stories, because it is easy: they both came from conspicuous families and were great diarists, she painted some charming scenes, he was so very handsome. If I were going to pen a Salem romance, which I am not (I am not creative enough for fiction, which this post will verify) I would write the love story of Philip English and Mary Hollingsworth. Now I have no idea if these two people were actually in love (they come from a different time and are not so “open” as Nathaniel and Sophia) but their intertwined lives would sure make for a good story!

Actually, I don’t know why there is not more scholarly work on Philip English, whose life is intertwined not only with Mary but with two of the seminal events of the seventeenth century: the English Civil War and the Salem Witch Trials. He’s the perfect “transatlantic man”, with one foot on either side of the ocean: born on the English Channel island of Jersey to a very connected family in 1651, the very same year the Royalist Carteret family, including his godfather Sir Philip De Carteret (III), surrendered the island to Parliamentary forces. Philip d’Anglois grew up in the midst of a network of merchants, fishermen, and smugglers who had several North American ties–and after the Restoration, his Carteret connections would no doubt come in useful too. He emigrated to Salem by 1670, became Philip English, and immediately commenced making his fortune, no doubt using both his old Jersey and Royalist connections and the new ones forged in New England, most notably through his marriage (in 1675) to Mary Hollingsworth, the only daughter of wealthy merchant and tavern-keeper William Hollingsworth and his wife Eleanor. There followed: the death of William (lost at sea!) and a likely considerable inheritance for Mary and Philip, the construction of a stately, much commented-upon, mansion house in the east end of Salem, seven children, the acquisition of a fleet of over 20 ships, a wharf, and considerable real estate on the harbor, and in 1692, accusations of witchcraft brought forward first against Mary and then Philip. After brief bouts of imprisonment and the confiscation of their considerable property, they fled to New York, where they apparently lived in splendor, and returned home to extract their revenge after the hysteria was over. But it was too late for Mary, who died soon after her return to Salem, aged 42.

English Channel Islands 1680

English House

A 1680 map of the Channel Islands by Thomas Philips, British Museum; The English “Great House” in Salem, built between 1683-90 at the corner of Essex and present-day English Streets: later it was known as the “40 Peaked House”. The Reverend William Bentley records visiting in 1791, and observes that “the rooms are the largest in Town [and]….even the Cellars are plastered.” Image from Ralph Paine, The Ships and Sailors of Old Salem: the Record of a Brilliant Era of American Achievement (1912).

How would I romanticize these biographical facts? I would play up both Philip’s and Mary’s early years, his life in Jersey and at sea and her domestic life. I think I could turn him into a pirate pretty easily, and the Peabody Essex Museum has a sampler of hers, which would provide me with the opportunity to engage in a dreamy, internal narrative. Once he arrives in Salem, their courtship would obviously provide lots of romantic opportunities, and I would emphasize their cultural clash and his exotic “otherness” both before and after their marriage: he was “French” and Protestant, but not quite Protestant enough for Puritan Salem, which doubtless contributed to his accusation in 1692. Seven children! That has to point to some sort of attachment. He goes away, and comes back, away and back. She was first accused of witchcraft (there were rumors about her mother, who ran the family’s Blue Anchor Tavern, which I could certainly exploit in a work of fiction), he comes to her rescue, then he is accused, and they escape to New York: lots of room for embellishment in this course of events. And shortly after their triumphant return to Salem, Mary dies–either from the treatment she received in prison and the difficulties of life on the run, or tuberculosis, or complications stemming from her last childbirth. A tragic romance (and I think I’ll leave out his second marriage and the possibility of at least one illegitimate child).

(c) Grosvenor Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

English Keeping Room American Museum Bath

English Rinaldi

I’m really taking liberties here, but this is fiction! This couple is NOT Philip and Mary, but rather the marriage portrait of an “unknown couple” by John Souch, painted c. 1640 (© Grovesnor Museum): I want my Englishes to look slightly more “worldly” than the typical late seventeenth-century Salem couple, but this couple is probably too “English”. This is not the English “Great House” either, but rather the seventeenth-century “Keeping Room” at the American Museum in Bath. Ann Rinaldi’s A Break with Charity (1992), is told from the perspective of Susanna English, Philip’s and Mary’s daughter.


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