Tag Archives: Seventeenth Century

The Fire Framer

The keynote presentation at last night’s Conflagration symposium, commemorating the centennial anniversary of the Great Salem Fire of 1914, was focused on modern urban fires and their impact on firefighting, but I must admit that my mind drifted almost as soon as the speaker introduced one of the earliest fire engineers, the Dutch artist, draughtsman, and all-around urban innovator Jan van der Heyden (1637-1712). Very rarely do my scholarly and local historical worlds intersect, but this was just such a moment, and I also love it when art and science come together–as they do in the work of this Dutch Golden Age Renaissance Man (mixing epochs and metaphors). Apparently Van der Heyden witnessed the burning of Amsterdam’s Old Town Hall when he was a teenager, and this conspicuous conflagration inspired him not only to depict fires and fire-fighting (along with more placid streetscapes) but also to invent the first manual fire engine and (with his brother) an effective leather hose. He professionalized Amsterdam’s volunteer fire companies and wrote and illustrated the first modern fire-fighting manual, Brandspuiten-boek (The Fire Engine Book, 1690). This publication, with its very detailed yet still artistic prints (see below–how great is the dissection image of a house fire!) ensured his influence beyond the Netherlands–along with his fire engine and his street lighting scheme, which served as the western European model until the mid-19th century.

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Jan van der Heyden, Dam Square, Amsterdam (with rebuilt town hall on left), c. 1669-70, Kunstmuseum, Basel; Two Wooden Houses in the Goudsbloemstraat Burned 25 November 1682, Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University; The title page of Van der Heyden’s Book (with his title of “Generaale Brandmeesters”, or Fire Warden, of Amsterdam, and two illustrations: Sectional View of an Amsterdam House on Fire, and Rope and Tar Fire, 1690, Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

Jan van der Heyden (1637-1712) was 15 years old when he witnessed the Town Hall blaze, and like other artists he also depicted the scene in sketches and paintings. But the event also inspired him to invent an engine that revolutionised fire-fighting. – See more at: http://www.dutchnews.nl/features/2014/02/master_dutch_painter_revolutio.php#sthash.SkcuYdys.dpuf

 


June is for Jousting

While searching my usual sources for characteristic images of the month of June, I was struck by how many epic battles occurred during the most green and golden of months: there are as many images of conflict as there are of pastoral fields and full-blown flowers. This is pretty understandable given that spring and summer constituted “campaign season” in the pre-modern past, but momentous battles continue into the modern era, presumably after nature has been conquered herself: Naseby, Louisburg, Bunker Hill, Waterloo, Custer’s Last Stand, D-Day. I don’t really want to go there, so I’ll think I’ll dwell in the more distant past, where not only serious battles occurred in the first month of summer, but also “play” ones, as a whole circuit of tournaments and festivals emerged in the late medieval and early modern eras, signalling the submission of the military aristocracy and the coincidental expansion of royal authority and centralized monarchies. As soon as a way of life gets ritualized, you know it’s on its way out!

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Detail of miniature of a joust between Pierre de Courtenay and Sire de Clary, British Library MS Harley 4379, f. 19v; June calendar page from BL MS Additional 24098, Book of Hours, Use of Rome (the “Golf Book”, c. 1540); Kings Henry VIII of England and Francis I of France meet at the “Field of the Cloth of Gold”, 5 June, 1520; King Henri II is injured during a celebratory joust on 30 June, 1559, Franz Hogenberg, Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris (leading to a half-century of power struggles and warfare among the unleashed French nobility, divided and motivated by their religious differences); Louis XIV’s “Grand Carrousel”, 1662: the festival (after Henri de Gissey) and a participant in one of the elaborate “oriental” costumes designed for the event, Chateau de Versailles (certainly no self-respecting noble would put on this garb a century before!)

 


Be Merry and Drink Perry

One of the most famous colonial Christmas “incidents” occurred here in Salem on Christmas night, 1679: the so-called (by Stephen Nissenbaum, author of The Battle for Christmas) “Salem Wassail”. In the old English wassailing tradition, but quite contrary to the prevalent Puritan culture of Salem, four young men from Salem Village burst into the remote home of 72-year-old John Rowden and began singing before his hearth in an effort to entice him to offer them some of his (apparently renown) pear wine, or perry. Rowden and his family tried to get the intruders to leave, but they responded that “it was Christmas Day at night and they came to be merry and drink perry, which was not to be had anywhere else but here, and perry they would have before they went.”  The Rowdens were steadfast (after all Christmas revelry was actually illegal in the colony from 1659-1681), but wavered a bit when the young men offered them some money for the wine, “coins” which turned out to be pieces of lead. More pleading, a request for directions to Marblehead  (apparently not as dry as Salem), and then the young men stoned the Rowden homestead in demand of perry. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and as we all know, the holidays can promote rather disorderly behavior. The seventeenth-century “war on Christmas”, provoked by Puritans who saw no scriptural basis for the holiday and associated it with paganism (they were right) and popery, was largely over in Old England at the time of the “Salem Wassail” and it would soon end in New England as well.

Here and now, I have stocked up for my Christmas visitors with perry ( a traditional local version from Russell Orchards in Ipswich and a more festive sparkling variety–see below) as well as other spirits: I don’t want to get stoned.

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Bonny Doon Vineyards Sparkling Perry label (there’s also quite a few artisanal pear CIDERS on the market now–not sure if they are the same as perry; Russell Orchards makes both); two tracts from the war on Christmas in the 17th century: The Vindication of Christmas (1653) and Merry Boys of Christmas, or The Milk-Maids New Years-Gift (1660).


The Witchfinder on Film

Between weekend errands, I organized a little Vincent Price mini-marathon for myself, culminating in a truly horrible (in more ways than one) movie called The Conqueror Worm (1968), which was produced and released in Britain under the more appropriate title Witchfinder General. The film is very loosely based on Matthew Hopkins, the self-appointed “Witch-finder General” who was responsible for the condemnation and execution of more than 100 people for witchcraft in 1645-46, during one of the more chaotic phases of the English Civil War. Hopkins’ reign of terror in Essex represents the peak of the witchcraft hysteria in England, which was rather less hysterical than many hot spots on the European continent. I suppose that the American title, which alludes to a poem by Edgar Allen Poe, was chosen to take advantage of the popularity of Vincent Price’s Poe films like The Fall of the House of Usher, but the film has nothing at all to do with Poe.

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I have a distant childhood memory of seeing bits and pieces of this film on television, certainly without my parents’ knowledge, as it is intensely and gratuitously violent: Price’s Hopkins (about 30 years older than the actual Hopkins) is lecherous and his fellow “witch-pricker” John Stearne is absolutely sadistic. These men might have possessed these qualities and tendencies, and they did torture their victims, but it’s no matter: the film is all about sensation, not context, and certainly not history. And in that typical 1960s manner, everyone is running around with swinging sixties hair. There are too many historical inaccuracies to list here; perhaps the most egregious is Hopkins’ ability to just string up his victims, with no presentation of evidence or trial. Even in this chaotic era, lawlessness did not reign. When Hopkins engages in “due process”, it’s the notorious, and seldom-implemented, “swimming test” for witchcraft. The posters above represent the general anachronistic and sensationalistic nature of the film quite well, while also conveying the spirit of the “burning times” when in fact all English witches were condemned to death by hanging. Better to refrain from the film altogether and view Hopkins through Malcolm Gaskill’s substantive-yet-accessible Witchfinders: A Seventeenth-Century Tragedy.

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Frontspiece to Matthew Hopkins’ “Discovery of Witches”, published by Richard Royston, 1647, British Museum; Illustration from C.R. Weld’s History of the Royal Society, 1848; Malcolm Gaskill’s Witchfinders. A Seventeenth-century Tragedy (2007).


Pikemen on Salem Common

The annual muster on Salem Common was amplified this year because of Salem’s recent designation as the Birthplace of the National Guard  based on the First Muster of 1637, when all able-bodied men between the ages of 16 and 60 were called to arms on the Common to begin their regular training as a citizens’ militia.  So on Saturday there were not only current members of the Massachusetts Guard marching about, but also representative re-enactors of past regiments, including those from the Revolutionary War and the “East Regiment” from 1637. There was a lot of waiting around for everything to begin (and it was freezing, literally) so I passed my time talking to the seventeenth-century guys. After all, you seldom see pikemen on Salem Common. They were enthusiastic and knowledgeable members of the Salem Trayned Band, whose motto is it’s all about the hats.

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Commemoration of the First Muster this past weekend in Salem: Members of  the Danvers Alarm List and Massachusetts National Guard Regiments enter St. Peter’s Church for a memorial service; The Salem Trayned Band on the Common, the National Lancers on horseback; all in formation, though I wish they were aligned in chronological order!

The pikeman’s role in the so-called “early modern military revolution” is a central but transitional one. Medieval mounted knights and archers were replaced by musketeers and pikemen in the sixteenth century; the slow rate of fire of muskets necessitated that the musketeers be defended from sudden cavalry attack by pikemen, generally the strongest men in the regiment  given that their weapons were a sturdy 18 feet long. The invention of the bayonet in the later seventeenth century effectively made each musketeer his own pikeman, and the latter history. I don’t generally pay much attention to military matters in my courses (consigning weapons and tactics to the realm of “boys’ history” and concentrating more on the impact of war), but I do put up a few images from some contemporary military manuals, including Jacob de Gheyn’s Wapenhandelinghe (1607), the “Exercise of Arms”. I’ve also included images of a band of Dutch pikemen from about a century before below, wearing very fancy (but  considerably less protective) hats, and pikes and pikemen in their heyday, the English Civil War.

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Jacob de Gheyn, Wapenhandelinghe van Roers, Musquetten ende Spiessen (The Exercise of Armes for Calivres, Muskettes, and Pikes), The Hague, 1607; Pikemen in the 1520s in a print by Jan Wellens de Cock (attributed)and in a 1657-8 print by Thomas Nealle, all British Museum, London.

Such a nice day, mixing past and present in the guise of commemorations and military uniforms. The planned flyover by the Massachusetts Air National Guard was canceled due to the budget sequestration, but I think there was enough going on, on the ground.

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Groups of Pikemen, past and present:  Stefana Della Bella etching, mid- seventeenth century, Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Gray Collection of Engravings Fund, and this past Saturday.


In the Bedroom

I’ve been spending a lot of time this past week looking at two pictures of bedrooms: we’ve been examining the justly-famous Arnolfini Portrait in two of my classes, and then I came across a painting of a mysterious bedchamber by an anonymous artist when I was (of course) searching for something else entirely:  what’s going on here? Actually, what’s going on in both paintings? Bedroom scenes are pretty provocative.

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Arnolfini double portrait van Eyck 1434 National Gallery London

Scene in a Bedchamber, Unknown Artist, c. 1700, Victoria & Albert Museum; The Arnolfini Portrait, Jan van Eyck, 1434, National Gallery, London.

I’ve got very little information on this first painting, so it invites speculation and many return visits. We have a well-appointed bedchamber in which something has happened: is the person in the doorway looking at the remains of the night before?  A chair has been overturned, a little dog is running towards the door with a slipper in his mouth, wallpaper in peeling off the wall, cards are on the dressing table. Some sort of wild card party in which someone lost his/her shirt, or at least a slipper? I’m not sure if anyone is actually in the bed; we can’t quite see in there. I’ve got too much information on the Arnolfini portrait but it remains somewhat enigmatic:  ostensibly it is a double portrait of  Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini and his wife, but at what stage in their relationship/lives?  Is this a betrothal portrait, a wedding portrait, or perhaps a memento mori?  Does the woman’s apparently-expectant appearance represent fertility (along with the symbols in the room) or is it just a fashion statement?  Like the painting above, we have a rather flagrant display of wealth here:  Arnolfini was a member of a wealthy Italian merchant family living in Bruges and he looks the part. And who are those figures in the doorway, reflected very cleverly in the convex mirror?  We have a dog and slippers here too!

Scenes of curtain lectures purport to give us a little bit more information about what’s going on behind those bedclothes, but they are really just commentaries on nagging housewives. From its first use in the seventeenth century, the phrase referred to those moments after the curtains had been drawn and the wife would berate her (poor) husband with all the pent-up demands of the day, until he (mercifully) fell asleep.

STC 13312, title page and frontispiece

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Two Curtain Lectures:  Thomas Heywood. A curtaine lecture. London, 1637 (STC 13312); Richard Newton print, London, 1794, British Museum.

Rather less compelling, but still interesting to me because they are both so staged, are two Salem bedroom views published by Detroit Publishing Company in the first decade of the twentieth century:  one is a “New England Bedroom c. 1800″ and the other is “Clifford’s Bedroom” in the House of the Seven Gables.  I’m not sure where the first one actually was, but the Essex Institute retains the copyright, so I assume it is one of George Dow’s period rooms (the first in the country). I love the fancy chairs in Clifford’s room at the Gables, and the portrait:  Abraham Lincoln? These two cards much have had a huge print run, as I see them everywhere.

Bedroom at Essex Institute Salem 1907

Bedroom at House of Seven Gables Salem

Back across the Atlantic, to a painting that was produced around the same time as these postcards.  Again, this image has captured my curiosity as I can’t figure out what is going on between these three people in the bedroom.  And that bed and their shoes! Like the painting at the beginning of the post, I think a creative person could conceive a complete sketch–perhaps even an entire novel–around just this one scene. Or just a funny caption.

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Two Men and a Woman in a Bedroom, Otto Friedrich Carl Lendecke, 1918, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.


Winter Wear in the 1640s

Like much of the country, it’s been really cold here in Massachusetts over the past week:  starkly beautiful in that mid-winter way, but freezing cold. Every day I forsake one of my fashionable wool coats for a shapeless parka, which depresses me, as I’m a bit of a coat hound (I think this is in my blood: my Italian great-grandfather came over at age 13 and became a designer of what everyone tells me were the most beautiful ladies’ coats). There is plenty of current advice about how to look good while bundled up but I also like to look at the fashion plates of one of my favorite artists, the Bohemian etcher Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-1677)  for comparison, if not inspiration. Hollar’s costumed women were probably idealistically dressed, but they are nonetheless charming.

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Wenceslaus Hollar, “Winter” Dress, 1643-44.  Courtesy of the British Museum.

Wenceslaus Hollar was a professional etcher and printmaker with nearly 3,000 prints to his credit. He escaped war-torn central Europe and came to England in 1636 under the patronage of the “Collector” Earl of Arundel, but also pursued his own projects, including series of prints such as this which he sold individually and in sets. The inscription below this fashionable London lady reads: “The cold, not cruelty makes her wear/In Winter, furs and Wild beasts hair/For a smoother skin at night,/Embrace her with more delight.”   The first couplet strikes me as an uncharacteristically modern sentiment to be expressed in the fur-crazy seventeenth century, and the second as rather racy! I must say that this seventeenth-century lady does not look that dissimilar from some of the New Yorkers captured by Bill Cunningham in this week’s  “Antifreeze/On the Street” Times column.

Besides his seasonal series, Hollar produced two other sets of prints of ladies’ contemporary costumes, both available in their entirety at the University of Toronto’s extraordinary digital collectionOrnatus Muliebris Anglicanus, or The Several Habits of English Women (1640) and Theatrum Mulierum and Aula Veneris (1643). Below is another bundled-up English lady from the former, and Scottish, Spanish, Flemish and Bohemian ladies from the latter.

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Muffs, muffs, and more muffs!

I am not a fur-wearer, but I can still appreciate Hollar’s amazing depictions of muffs, the must-have accessory of the seventeenth-century noblewoman (and men too).  They were a relatively recent import to England from the Continent, first referenced as “snuffskyns” in Elizabeth’s time, and Hollar apparently admired them so much he often did away with the wearer and just etched the muff–with such precision that you can almost feel the fur.

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It is interesting to see what a difference a century (or so) makes:  in the later eighteenth century, British caricaturists would regularly mock muffs as an extravagant French accessory, the very symbol of sartorial excess. In Hollar’s time, however (certainly a more Puritan-ical era), they appear to objects above reproach!

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Inigo Barlow, Les Incommodités de Janvier’, etching published by Hannah Humphrey, London, 1786.  Courtesy of the Victoria & Albert Museum, London.


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