Tag Archives: Teaching

Monarchs and Monkeys

When you teach with a lot of images, as I do, you’ve got to be ready to answer all sorts of questions, because students will notice every little thing and be much more interested in the margins than the focal point. I have been rendered answer-less on more than one occasion, so I always try to be prepared. When discussing queenship in my Tudor-Stuart class, for example, I would never, never, never show them two of my favorite portraits of queens, Katherine of Aragon by Lucas Horenbout and Henrietta Maria by Anthony van Dyck, because I know that their attention would almost immediately move away from the women and turn to the monkeys. Why would these two dignified Queens have their portraits painted with monkeys? Well, it varies with the Queen, so let’s start with Katherine, the first wife of Henry VIII, whose miniature portrait by Lucas Horenbout was painted in 1525, just about the time that Henry began the long process of attempting to annul their marriage, a desire that would eventually result in the severing of ties with Rome and the English Reformation.

PicMonkey Collage

Katherine panel

I’m featuring several versions of this image: the original miniature (from the Duke of Buccleauch Collection), doubled for effect, and a later and larger copy on wood panels, featuring a younger Katherine and a clearer view of her monkey and its message–because there is a pretty obvious message here. Like her father-in-law, Henry VII, and several other contemporary royals, Katherine probably enjoyed having a monkey as a pet (and it was said to hail from her native Spain), but the pet has a purpose in this image: he (or she?) holds a Tudor rose in one hand and is reaching for Katherine’s crucifix rather than the coin she is offering to him. While medieval monkeys could represent all sorts of negative things–the Devil himself, foolishness, vice–the monkey of Katherine’s time was more likely a symbol of exotic worldliness and an imitator of man. A tethered monkey, like Katherine’s, can therefore represent ascetic discipline, which is reinforced by his gesture towards the cross: faith over greed. This is the message Katherine is sending out there, just as (and after) Henry is replacing her.

So now let’s look at two other depictions of royals and their monkeys: Daniel Mytens’ posthumous portrait of Katherine’s sister-in-law, Margaret Tudor, the Queen Consort of Scotland (Royal Collection), and Anthony Van Dyck’s portrait of Charles I’s Queen, Henrietta Maria, with “her” dwarf Jeffrey Hudson and a monkey (National Gallery of Art). What a contrast between these two royal portraits, which were painted at about the same time (1620s-1630s, though Mytens’ painting harkens back to an earlier era). The monkeys have lost their message and been reduced to mere exotic pets, especially in the extravagant depiction of Henrietta Maria: here the monkey is still tethered, but to the dwarf rather than the Queen. This is a woman whose extravagance (and Catholicism) would contribute to the intensifying division between the King and Parliament, a division that would soon lead to the English Revolution. So perhaps I can teach with these particular portraits–if the depictions of monkeys can open up a larger discussion of events as significant as the English Reformation and the English Revolution, why not?


Monkey and Henrietta Maria Van Dyck



Spring Semester 2014: Tudors and Trials

Classes started last week, but I really don’t get my mind focused on teaching until after the long MLK weekend, which marks the commencement of the spring semester just as Labor Day cues the fall. The administrative work of my other role as department chair is continuous, which makes teaching even more special: a regular break from the tedious. I get three course releases for being chair, which means I am reduced to teaching just one course (Tudor-Stuart England) per semester, but this particular semester I’m also teaching a graduate course (Topics in European History: the European Witch Trials): this particular combination of content and community will make for an interesting semester, I am sure.

The Tudor-Stuart class is always filled with the best and the brightest students, not only among our History majors but also English and Theater majors. The Tudors have been so consistently topical in popular culture over the last decade or so that my students will feel that they “know” them; the Stuarts are more elusive. We’ll cover all the big events, most prominently the English Reformation in the sixteenth century and the English Revolution in the seventeenth, but two of the course texts will (hopefully) enable my students to get a bit more into the homes and heads of Tudor and Stuart people. I’ve never used Orlin’s text in class before (but what could be more essential than privacy?), but Friedman’s subject matter–cheap print–opens up a much wider window into the Revolution.

PicMonkey Collage

I teach two courses on the European witch trials of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, one undergraduate and one graduate, and I much prefer the latter. The reasons why more than 100,ooo people were tried for witchcraft in this (early modern) era are complex, and I find that undergraduates want them to be simple. They don’t have the background, the patience, or the time (or inclination, really) to read all the texts they need to read in order to figure out all the factors that went into this frenzy. But graduate students read: we go through at least one book (or series of scholarly articles) a week in my class. It’s a dynamic field, so there are always great titles to choose from: I always start with a few texts on the fifteenth century to lay the foundation, and then take a regional tour around those areas that experienced intensive witch-hunting. There are definitely some universal causes of the witch hunts in this era, but the catalysts are more local, even personal, so this is a topic that can be well-served by case studies such as Carlo Ginzburg’s Night Battles, a classic study of counter-magic in northern Italy, Thomas Robisheaux’s Last Witch of Langenburg, and James Sharpe’s Bewitching of Anne Gunter.

Tudor Book 5

PicMonkey Collage

We will try to understand sensationalistic cases of demonic possession in France (through Sarah Ferber’s Demonic Possession and Exorcism in Early Modern France), some of the anthropological and psychological factors present in the region which experienced the most intense witch-hunting in Europe (through Lyndal Roper’s Witch Craze. Terror and Fantasy in Baroque Germany), and one of the last major European series of trials (30 years before Salem, through P.G. Maxwell-Stuart’s Abundance of Witches. The Great Scottish Witch-Hunt). I always try to switch out the books every time I teach a class to keep everything “fresh”, but two perennial texts for this course are Friedrich Spee’s Cautio Criminalis (1631), a plea for judicial caution and against torture by a Jesuit confessor and poet who had witnessed (and participated) in the worst trials in Germany and Charles Zika’s The Appearance of Witchcraft. The image of the witch, projected far and wide through the relatively new medium of print, is one of those universal factors I was referring to above, and Zika’s visual analysis is masterful.


Tudor Book 4

Blood Sugar

Sugar has long been a connecting commodity, linking various global communities in networks of supply and demand. In both my world and western history courses I have long stressed its importance: as a key factor in the expansion of Europe from the Crusades on, as a major cause of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, as an initiator and indicator of the increasing globalization of trade and consumerism over the early modern era. From the moment I discovered Sidney Mintz’s classic text Sweetness and Power. The Place of Sugar in Modern History (1985), sugar has been one of my portals into the early modern past. Because of the inextricable connection between sugar and slavery, I thought I was familiar with the term “blood sugar”, as used by abolitionists in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in much the same way that we would use “blood diamonds” today, but I never really understood the full ramifications of that term until I was viewing a current exhibition at the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University: Sugar and the Visual Imagination in the Atlantic World, circa 1600-1800. “Blood sugar” can refer metaphorically to the blood, sweat, tears, and lives of the slaves who were sacrificed on the altar of the ever-increasing consumption of sugar in the western world, but also literally to use of cattle blood in the sugar-refining process. Several sources in the Sugar and the Visual Imagination exhibition make the explicit connection between sugar and the blood shed by people and animals, including the fascinating 19th century abolitionist “picture book” aimed at children, Cuffy the Negro’s Doggrel Description of the Progress of Sugar  (1823).

Blood Sugar

This might seem like a very graphic association for children, but British abolitionists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (like their counterparts across the Atlantic) were not known for their subtlety. The most popular pamphlet of the 18th century, William Fox’s Address to the people of Great Britain on the propriety of abstaining from West Indian sugar and rum (1791) went much farther and set the tone for much of the debate:  Nay, so necessarily connected are our consumption of the commodity the misery resulting from it, that in every pound of sugar used, (the produce of slaves imported from Africa), we may be considered as consuming two ounces of human flesh.The Sugar and the Visual Imagination exhibition explores this “Cannibalism” angle and its role in making sugar distasteful for everyone–including the royal family, who were pictured in several contemporary caricatures trying to wean themselves off the substance. Below, a rather grotesquely caricatured Queen Charlotte (who was said to have African blood herself) weighs tiny pieces of sugar on a scale for her guests while King George III says he can leave it altogether.

Blood Sugar BM

Isaac Cruikshank, The Gradual Abolition of the Slave Trade, or Leaving of Sugar by Degrees, 1792, British Museum.

Even (long) after the abolition of the slave trade in both Britain and America, sugar continued to foster connections, criticism and conflict. It became a focal point for critics of both economic and political imperialism, as illustrated by the 1906 Puck cover below (from the Library of Congress), criticizing U.S. economic policy in the Philippines. Much more recently, I came across the headline “Coca-Cola Distances itself from Blood Sugar Farms” in Cambodia.

Blood Sugar Puck 1906

Bloody Mary

Today marks the death day of Queen Mary I, the unfortunate and undisputed first Queen of England, and thus the beginning of the “golden” age of Elizabeth. When I teach the Reformation, as I am doing now, I have to reveal my Protestant bias to my students, but even I can admit that poor Mary Tudor’s reputation has suffered from a hatchet job: she has been “Bloody Mary” from almost her own time and has somehow been transformed into a paranoid, desperate dwarf in ours. She was certainly a pious and intolerant Catholic, but in her time toleration was not an attribute: while almost 300 Protestants were executed during her reign the Chambre Ardent (“Burning Chamber”) of the French King Henri II killed far more. I see her primarily as a victim of circumstances and a woman of her time: the daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, Mary was in a position to make a glorious and early marriage, but fell from favor during her parents’ divorce and was declared illegitimate. She was reinstated in the order of succession to the throne in 1544, and succeeded her half-brother Edward VI in 1553, but her religion and the “Spanish Marriage” to the future Philip II contributed to her unpopularity, along with the economic depression and military losses that characterized her brief reign. Several false pregnancies seem to indicate the presence of severe tumors or possibly even cancer, and she died in pain and in misery on this day in 1558, aged 42.

NPG 428; Queen Mary I by Master John

NPG D18729; Queen Mary I when Princess Mary after Hans Holbein the Younger

Mary Tudor: as Princess Mary in 1544, by Master John; Engraving after Hans Holbein the Younger, c. 1700, both National Portrait Gallery, London.

A passionate circle of Protestants, generally called the “Marian Exiles”, left England during Mary’s reign and upon her death they returned, with a vengeance, as their movement had been strengthened by the martyrs who chose to stay behind. Even their new Queen Elizabeth, whom they had idealized as a perfect Protestant princess, would not be pure enough for them, but her sister was thoroughly demonized, most consequentially by John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments of these Latter and Perillous Days, first published in 1563. This book (which is treated as more of an “event” than a mere book by historians) chartered the history of Christian persecution back to the days of Nero in five volumes, but its successive reprints (as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs) and abridgement increasingly focused on Mary, and transformed her into the Bloody Mary of the seventeenth century and after. It didn’t help Mary’s historical reputation that her successor sister’s reign was so golden by contrast, as exemplified by the triumphant victory of England over the “invincible” Spanish (Catholic) Armada in 1588.

The British Library- G 12101 t/p


Title page of 1563 first edition and colored woodcut illustration from John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments online at the University of Sheffield, which has all four Elizabethan editions.

It just gets worse for Mary as Britain’s triumphant Protestantism is associated with its imperial strength (and democratic government) in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. And the contemporary popular obsession with the Tudors seems to have contributed to the deification of Elizabeth and the demonization of Mary: the first Elizabeth film (1999) being a particularly blatant case in point. Despite some recent historical revisionism (there is a succinct review here), I’m not sure Mary I can ever be viewed in her proper historical context:  “Bloody Mary” seems to have taken on a life (several, really) of its own.

Bloody Mary

“Teaching” Mary: a flash card from the 1920s, NYPL Digital Gallery.


As part of their midterm exams last week, I gave my Renaissance students several images to analyze, including one with a very earnest brown-eyed man holding–no, bearing a ring:  was he mourning a deceased wife or fiance, was he himself a lost husband, or more mundanely, was he a goldsmith advertising his wares? These are the usual interpretations, and my students came up with more interesting ones. There are a surprising number of these ringbearing portraits, maybe not enough to classify as a sub-genre, but certainly more than I realized. Most art historians seem to think the portrait below depicts Bolognese goldsmith and painter Francesco Francia.

Francesco del Cossa. Portrait of a Man with a Ring 1472

Francesco del Cossa, Portrait of a Man with a Ring, c. 1472-77, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid.

There is also a theory that this ringbearing young man was a member of the prominent Este family of Ferrara, which means he might be related to this other Francesco below, appearing in this striking portrait by Rogier van der Weyden. Franceso d’Este bears a ring and a hammer, which the curators at the Metropolitan Museum of Art believe might be jousting prizes or symbols of power. I had not thought of jousting prizes before, and while the hammer looks powerful, not sure about the ring.

Ringbearers van der Weyden

Rogier van der Weyden, Francesco dEste, c. 1460, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

This has got to be a northern Renaissance device/motif that found is way to Italy, like oil painting in general and portraits in particular. The earliest ringbearing portraits I could find were painting by Jan Van Eyck and one of his “followers”: the first painting is Van Eyck’s incredibly intimate portrait of Bruges goldsmith Jan de Leeuw, and the second is simply titled Young Man Holding a Ring. I have always found the de Leeuw portrait strikingly modern. The curators at the National Gallery of Art in London, whose collection the latter painting belongs to, explain the ring rather conventionally in terms of trade and/or impending marriage, but there is an inscription here (Lord, Let it Pass) so maybe things were a bit more complicated?


(c) The National Gallery, London; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Jan Van Eyck, Jan de Leeuw,c. 1436, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna; Follower of Jan Van Eyck, Portrait of a Young Man Holding a Ring, c. 1450, National Gallery of Art, London.

Don’t get me wrong–I think it’s enough that these goldsmiths are being “captured”: such a great example of the relatively egalitarian and aspirational aspects of Renaissance society and culture. I just wish I knew the whole story behind these interesting portraits. I’m the most curious about the sole woman in this group: the mysterious and beautiful subject of Lorenzo di Credi’s Portrait of a Woman (c. 1490-1500). Most likely the widowed daughter of a goldsmith, or perhaps the widow of the artist’s brother, she is clearly not showcasing her own creation but rather commemorating a relationship.

Ringbearer Lorenzo di Credi

Lorenzo di Credi, Portrait of a Woman, c. 1490-1500, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Two other images speak to the Renaissance fascination with jewelry and jewellers, which I think might be both literal and symbolic:  one is my absolute favorite painting, Petrus Christus’ St. Eligius as a Goldsmith, variantly titled A Goldsmith in his Shop (1449) in which a couple are pictured in a goldsmith’s shop, presumably about to purchase a ring (with onlookers outside, as well as US). There’s a lot going on here: one of the acts associated with the early medieval St. Eligius was the gift of a gold ring to his contemporary Saint Godeberta before she took her religious vows. Petrus Christus might be portraying Godeberta torn between worldly and holy marriages-and she appears to be reaching towards the latter.

Saint Eligius as a goldsmith by Petrus Christus 1449

Petrus Christus, A Goldsmith in his Shop, 1449, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

And finally there is the symbolic signature (after 1508) of another Northern Renaissance artist. Lucas Cranach the Elder: a crowned black serpent bearing a gold ruby ring. This heraldic device, which also served as Cranach’s coat of arms, appears in many variations (which you can see here) but no one seems to know precisely what it means–perhaps the artist simply thought it looked cool. I’ve always thought that Cranach was the most interesting and enigmatic of northern Renaissance artists, working closely with Luther to advance the cause of the Reformation visually while simultaneously maintaining commissions from the Catholic Church. Throughout his life, he always seemed to be reaching for the brass ring.


Hue Histories

I had a million things to do yesterday: write a new course proposal, rework an old book proposal, write memos and evaluations (the endless activities of a department chair), work on my digital exhibition of the Great Salem Fire of 1914,  finish my seasonal closet turnover (alway a huge project, unfortunately), laundry, cleaning, etc…but for some reason I lay on the couch and read a book about purple—a color I don’t even like—for a good part of the day. To be more precise, the book was about mauve, the first artificial dye, invented quite by accident in 1856 by a teenaged chemical student named William Perkin. I’ve had Simon Garfield‘s Mauve:  How One Man Invented a Color that Changed the World in my library for quite a while, but I never really opened it up until yesterday.

Hue Histories Mauve

And once I did, much of the day slipped away, as Garfield drew me into the story of Perkin’s accidental discovery and its colorful consequences. While working on a malaria treatment derived from the synthesis of quinine from coal tar, Perkin wound up with an appealing purplish sediment in the bottom of his beaker: this became mauveine, the first chemically-produced dye. Mauveine, and the process by which it was produced, led to a world of industrial applications:  more standardized and intense colors for the textile industry, and advances in the diverse fields of medicine, perfumery, explosive, food and photography.  Even before the color made its formal debut at the London International Exhibition in 1862 it caught the eyes of two extremely influential ladies, Queen Victoria and Empress Eugénie, the fashionable wife of Napoleon III. The Queen wore a gown of “rich mauve velvet” (according to the London Illustrated News) to her daughter Victoria’s wedding to Prince Fredrick William in 1858 and later judged it appropriate for “half-mourning”, while the Empress (apparently the Elizabeth Taylor of her day) wore “Perkin’s purple” often, as it was said to match her eyes. The decade of the 1860s was deemed the “mauve decade” by the popular press, characterized and colored by an outbreak of what Punch called “mauve measles”.

PicMonkey Collage

Mauve gowns and upholstery fringe, 1860s-1870s, Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

Garfield’s book got me thinking about other hue histories: I read Amy Butler Greenfield’s A Perfect Red. Empire, Espionage, and the Quest for the Color of Desire a few years ago while prepping for my Expansion of Europe seminar: its focus on the American cochineal is a perfect illustration of early modern colonial competition. There are several books on indigo, also a sought-after commodity (the one below looks good), and apparently you can read about the histories of all the colors in Victoria Finlay’s Color: A Natural History of the Pallette, including ochre, black and brown, white, orange, yellow and green.

Hue Histories Red

Hue Histories blue

Hue Histories Finaly

I might use one of these books in a class one day (when I am relieved of my administrative obligations): commodities are a good way to focus in history surveys:  students like things that are tangible, material, and accessible–and they also like narratives. Commodity history has been dominated by food and drink in the past few decades (COD and the making of the modern world, the POTATO and the making of the modern world, RUM and the making of the modern world, SALT and the making of the modern world, PEPPER and the making of the modern world, BANANAS and the making of the modern world, etc…..) but now I think we can add some color.

Boccaccio’s Birthday

Now that I’ve made this big transition to chair of the History Department, I’m doing very little teaching: only one class (on the Renaissance and the Reformation) as opposed to the normal four-course-per-semester load. That’s just how administrative the job is. I’d much rather be teaching three more courses, frankly, but at the same time I have a renewed appreciation of the time I do get to spend in the classroom. The Ren/Ref course is an old standard, easy and fun to teach with its contrasting and continuous movements and its visual and theological drama, and my students are open and engaged and undemanding. It takes me a while to get into the period as the course has no prerequisites and most of them need some medieval footing in order to proceed; consequently we’ve just finished an examination of the late medieval crisis (intense famine, plague, war, schism, all at the same time) and the “worlds” of the “three crowns” of early Italian Renaissance literature:  Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio. I usually focus almost exclusively on Petrarch as the key transitional figure in the emergence of the Renaissance humanist mentality, and this course was no exception, but all of the celebratory initiatives associated with the 700th anniversary of Giovanni Boccaccio‘s birth are making me reconsider my practice. Perhaps the Decameron, Boccaccio’s allegorical collection of 100 stories told by ten young Florentines seeking to distract themselves and pass the time while they wait out the Black Death in a deserted rural villa, should be read for more than its plague prologue.


Boccaccio, in the company of Petrarch, Dante, and three other Renaissance writers, in Giorgio Vasari’s Six Tuscan Poets, 1544, Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

Boccaccio 2013” is a multi-disciplinary, multi-event happening in Italy, and Boccaccio is also being celebrated in Britain, where he has always been recognized as an inspiration for another essential late medieval work, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (as well as John Lydgate’s Fall of Princes). There was a major conference at the University of Manchester this summer, as well as a coincidental, and ongoing exhibition, focused on Boccaccio’s currency.  He endured because (like any true Renaissance man) he sought fame in his own time and among his contemporaries, but also because his accessible prose and format inspired a succession of authors, from Shakespeare to Voltaire, to Tennyson, Longfellow and Poe. Readers past and present also wanted to see those beautiful noblemen and -women telling their tales–as well as the characters in their tales–while the world was dying all around them, and so centuries of artists have been inspired by Boccaccio as well. Renaissance escapism:  modern and universal at the same time.


Decameron Crivelli Bodleian

Boccaccio Botticelli

Boccaccio Stothard 1825

Boccaccio after Stothard etching

Boccaccio Waterhouse

Boccaccio the author, in a French manuscirpt of his De Claris Mulieribus, 1440, British Library MS Royal 16 G V; Eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die:  illustrations of the Decameron from Taddeo Crivelli’s 1467 manuscript edition, Bodleian Library MS Holkam mis. 49, and by Sandro Botticelli, the Story of Nastagio degli Onesti: The Banquet in the Pine Forest, 1483, Museo del Prado, Madrid, Thomas Stothard, c. 1820, British Museum; and John Williams Waterhouse, A Tale from the Decameron, 1916, Lady Lever Gallery, Liverpool.

Work and the WPA

The artwork produced by the artists of the Federal Arts Project, the major visual initiative of the New Deal Works Progress Administration, is always accessible and often compelling. I think this because of the complete lack of abstraction in the works, but also because of their timeliness. During the period that the Project was operational (1935-43), the artists it employed produced over 200,000 works of art, including the iconic poster that informed the public, their employer, how and on what they were working.


Where the federally-employed workers worked in 1936:  Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

I like how the FAP artists visualized work, both their own and that of other contemporary sectors. In advance of Labor Day, I was looking through their occupational posters, and thinking about work in the past, work in the present, and work in the future. For me, the Labor Day Weekend and Labor Day itself has always been less about the end of summer and more about heading back to work/school, whether as a student or a professor. This year, I’m going back as chair of my department, so I’m thinking about work in a different way altogether: rather than my own work, I’m thinking about how I can support and evaluate the work of my colleagues and facilitate the path of our students towards gainful and satisfying employment. As chair, I will also have to answer that dreaded question that always comes from students and their parents:  what can you do with a History major? There’s a long-winded answer (basically anything and everything), and I wish I had one of the FAP’s occupational posters to help me animate it! I just might have to commission one.

Workers LC household

Workers LC industrial

Workers LC

PicMonkey Collage

PicMonkey Collage

PicMonkey Collage

PicMonkey Collage

FAP/WPA Posters from the collection of the Library of Congress.

Ideal Cities

Salem is a boom town/construction zone right now with big projects ongoing, or about to begin, all over town: a large housing project on the site of the demolished St. Joseph’s Church on Lafayette Street and two more on the outskirts of town, a new “Gateway” center on one of the major entrance corridors, a new parking garage for the train station, more expansion for the Peabody Essex Museum and my own university, a huge (and great) power plant demolition/reconstruction project, and, of course, infrastructure work, a constant activity in a city as old as Salem. There is so much going on that the city has put up a separate website just to handle information about these projects.

Boom Town

I am glad that Salem is doing so well in terms of development, and I believe that most of these projects will benefit the city tremendously. But not all. Certainly the Mayor’s office and city government facilitated these proposals, and are doing a good job overseeing the process of their implementation. However, I can’t help thinking that much of this development is compartmentalized and not part of a plan, that our city is reacting to proposals rather than seeking them out, vision in hand and mind.  Too often a proposal skates by the various boards, simply because it’s better than what is there now. As is my general inclination, I can’t help but compare past and present, and as I’m teaching a summer-long graduate class on the Renaissance, a time when urban planning became an art (like everything else) that is my past. Ideals were very important to Renaissance society, for both human development and urban development. The rediscovery of Vitruvius’s Ten Books of Architecture in 1414, the desire to build structures on a human scale. and the influence of mathematics combined to create an ideal vision for Renaissance cities, exemplified by three panels produced in the 1480s, all called The Ideal City.

Boom Town Ideal City Walters



Ideal Cities in Baltimore, Urbino & Berlin museums: Fra Carnevale, Walters Art Museum; Piero della Francesca or Leon Battista Alberti ?, Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, Urbino; Gemaldegalerie, Berlin.

It’s really not fair to hold up these panels as standards because they were, in fact, idealized rather built cities:  “windows into a better world”. Yet the ideal, the plan, the desire to live in a better world, still has merit. I know we lost the sense of human scale and aesthetic detail in the twentieth century, but we can still seek better and more beautiful buildings, that assimilate easily into their material landscape. Perhaps it’s not the lack of planning but the actual architecture that is troubling me. This is certainly the case with one project: a proposed $45 million complex that would include a possible hotel, residences and retail stores to be built on a downtown block that definitely needs some help–this would be an easy case of it’s better than what’s there now so the expectations, and the standards, will be low. The renderings for the project reveal a (cheap) brick and glass multistory building which is a mirror image of the “Tavern on the Square” structure affixed to the old Salem News building across the way:  both are more suited for the suburban corporate office parks found along Route 128, Boston’s inner beltway, than a historic port city like Salem.  Both buildings, like several structures built in Salem in the past few years, are not only grace-less but also place-less: they have no relation to our city’s built environment and are also, quite frankly, boring. Can’t we do better?

Boom Town Dodge St

Boom Town Waltham Corporate Center

“Mill Hill” proposal conceptual rendering for Salem & the Waltham Corporate Center along Route 128.

Wondrous Whales

Over the past week or so I’ve had whales on the brain, and I’ve encountered them in numerous places: at the Smithsonian’s recently-opened Whales:  from Bone to Book exhibit, in the pages of an old Salem-published book I picked up at a yard sale last weekend, and searching for examples of wonder in various digital archives of sixteenth and seventeenth-century English printed books. For early modern Englishmen and -women, few things were as “wondrous”, or providential, as the appearance of a “monstrous fish”, a “sea-monster”, or a whale. Their Christian worldview and precedents (Jonah and the whale, St. Brendan’s “island”) guaranteed that something big was up when one of these creatures appeared.

Whale Granger_Timothy-A_moste_true_and_marueilous_straunge-STC-12186-385_01-p1

Whale St Brendan 1621

Whale Dow 1925

Timothy Granger, A Moste true and marveilous Straunge wonder (1568); St. Brendan holding mass on the back of a whale, from Caspar Plautius, Nova Typis Transacta Navigatio (1621); Illustration from George Francis Dow, Whale Ships and Whaling: a Pictorial History (1925).

Every maritime culture appears to have its whale lore, but I’m only (vaguely) familiar with the western variety, and still trying to figure out quite a few whale tales. I’m not entirely certain why whales were so wondrous, so monstrous, so shocking, so noteworthy in the early modern era; after all, there were the ancient precedents as well as more recent medieval references, most notably to ambergris. Though there were diverse theories about its exact source, everyone seemed to accept that whales were somehow connected to the exotic substance.

Whale Medieval

Birthwort, serpent & a sperm whale in a Salerno herbal, British Library  MS Egerton  747,  c. 1280-1310.

Centuries later, it is apparent that it was not just whales that were wondrous in early modern England but beached or stranded whales, gigantic creatures that were far from their natural surroundings. And I can understand the fascination; I remember discovering the remains of a whale (just a blubbery part really) on a rocky beach in Maine when I was a child and running home to tell my parents, small bone in hand, quite vividly. Another memory I have of a whale comes from much later, when I was researching my dissertation and came across a seventeenth-century pamphlet reporting the foiled attempt of a Jesuit to sneak into England in the body of a whale. Few things were as threatening as Jesuits in post-Gunpowder Plot England, so this secret papal mission of sorts makes sense in the scheme of things, but I lost track of the reference and never found that source again. This past weekend, I found something similar:  A True and Wonderfull Relation of a Whale with a “Romish Priest” in its belly, no doubt the tract of my faulty memory.

Whale 1645

Two seventeenth-century tracts that look slightly more “scientific” but also contain “prodigious” accounts are A True Report and Exact Description of a mighty Sea-monster, or Whale (1617) and Strange News from the Deep, Being a Full Account of a Large Prodigious Whale (1677). These accounts date from the same century when the English were actively engaging in whaling well off-shore in the North Atlantic, so apparently it was only whales at home that were wondrous. Those in the deep possessed another characteristic–value–which would only increase in the coming centuries.

Whale 1617

Whale 1677


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,924 other followers

%d bloggers like this: