Monthly Archives: June 2012

The 8th Wonder of the World

It’s almost shameful to follow up a post on my garden with one that is acknowledged to have been one of the most beautiful in early modern Europe, but be assured I am suggesting no comparison!  A seventeenth-century German garden called the Hortus Palatinus (the Garden of the Palatinate) was so beautiful, so majestic, and such a bold expression of the mastery of nature that contemporaries referred to it as the 8th wonder of the world. Somehow, it’s all the more legendary because it was such a fleeting creation: elaborately planned by French engineer extraordinaire Salomon de Caus for the challenging terrain adjacent to Heidelberg Castle over a five-year period prior to 1619, it was installed that year and perhaps lasted a year or two before becoming a victim of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) that ravaged much of central Europe.  Fortunately the image and elements of the garden were captured in de Caus’s book, entitled Hortus Palatinus, which has been digitized by the University of Heidelberg.

Engraving by Matthäus Merian from the Hortus Palatinus (1620); painting by Jacques Fouquières, circa 1620.

The garden was commissioned by Frederick V, Prince-Elector of the Palatinate and the briefly-reigning “Winter King” of Bohemia, as a romantic tribute to his new bride, Elizabeth Stuart, the eldest daughter of James VI and I of Scotland and England. De Caus, an exiled French Huguenot who was a favorite of the Stuarts and had served as Elizabeth’s tutor, seems to have possessed a variety of talents:  he is mathematician, civil,mechanical, and hydraulic engineer, landscape architect, and horticulturist all at the same time. The Heidelberg garden was not only a schlossgarten carved out of the earth, it was a walled world of waterworks, moving statues, and mechanical birds, all enhancing its wondrous reputation.  So too did its romantic associations:  Frederick and Elizabeth seem to have had that rare royal marriage that was actually based on affection, and the surviving “Elizabeth Gate” , supposedly erected overnight in 1615 on the orders of the Prince-Elector as a surprise gift to his wife, is a living testament to (at least their early) relationship.

Frederick V and Elizabeth, early 17th century line engraving by Balthasar Moncornet, National Portrait Gallery, London; the Elizabeth Gate at Heidelberg.

The ultimate legacy of the garden is de Caus’ 1620 book, published about the same time that its namesake was being destroyed!  The amazing illustrations of Matthäus Merian (among others, apparently) bring us into the garden and its world, and preserves it forever.

More images from the Hortus Palatinus at the University of Heidelberg, and Salomon de Caus’ design for a mechanical bird, from his earlier work,  Les raisons des forces mouvantes (1615).

Overgrown, “Old-fashioned” Gardens

For the decade that I’ve worked on my garden I’ve been going for a lush, flower-packed, “old-fashioned” look, popular a century ago when there was a strident Colonial Revival reaction against Victorian gardens. Recently a good friend gave me a copy of a special edition of The Mentor (which had a logo/mission which I just love:  learn one thing every day) published in 1916 with a focus on “Historic Gardens of New England”, and after perusing the pictures inside, I realized that I’ve attained my goal, in a way. The author of the featured article, Mary Harrod Northend, was a native of Salem and consequently asserts that “the old-fashioned garden of New England reached its highest development” in her (my) fair city, though she highlights gardens in Newburyport, Portsmouth, and other New England towns as well.  Besides axial paths, arbors, and sundials, the key characteristic of her chosen gardens are their flowers:  not the exotic varieties preferred by the Victorians, but native (or better-yet, brought over by the colonists) varieties that will attain that perfect, bursting-forth-from-the-border look: peonies, hollyhocks, phlox, dianthus, bachelor buttons.  All contained within box borders, of course.

I’ve got the box borders (which really need trimming now) and the sundial, and some of Northend’s preferred flowers but others (hollyhocks and peonies) would take over my small garden so I’ve chosen other plants–like the meadowsweet on the left–that are still taking over my small garden.

To control the chaos, I’ve been putting in germander for edging; Northend doesn’t mention this great plant (similar to rosemary but hardy here in New England) but the Elizabethans loved it for their knot gardens. I’ve also included a few close-ups of some of my favorite plants, in bloom now:  alstroemeria (set against variegated calamint) and red baneberry (set against astilbe).

In the shade garden in the back is a “plant” over which I’ve clearly lost control:  a monstrous hydrangea shrub, now grown into a tree.  It seems to be tapping into the water pump for the pond right next to it, and is reaching for the sky! Follow the path and you run right into it–unfortunately I can’t seem to get a good picture of just how giant it is.  It’s scary.

And now some of Northend’s 1916 Mentor pictures for comparison:  the first is of the Hoffman house on Chestnut Street in Salem (now currently for sale), which featured a famous garden established by merchant/horticulturalist Charles Hoffman in the late 1830s and maintained for over a century.  The photograph below is centered on the “ancient” Dutchman’s Pipe-draped summer house, no longer there.  There has to be some structure in the center: pergolas, arches and arbors prevailed in the old-fashioned garden.

The Pied Piper

The Catholic liturgical calendar reveals that today is the day of the martyred saints John and Paul, the day on which (in 1284) several late medieval sources report that a man wearing a multicolored cloak strode into the small town of Hamelin (Hameln) in lower Saxony, and upon the request of the townspeople, took up his pipe and played a tune that lured all of their troublesome rats out of town and to their deaths. The piper returned for his payment, and when rebuffed, went away and then returned yet again, this time wearing the dark green cloak of a hunter.  He picked up his pipe again, and played a tune that lured Hamelin’s children–130 children in all–away, never to return.  And so the piper got his revenge, and a community lost its children for failing to pay its debt.

Engraving by Henry Marsh after John La Farge, 1868, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; 1930 Hameln postcard, Casas-Rodriguez Collection.

Such a dark story, and a source of puzzlement ever since its rediscovery and publication by the Grimm Brothers in the  nineteenth century.  Actually it never really disappeared; there seem to have been variant “rat-catcher” stories in circulation all over central Europe, and even in Scotland.  But the Grimms spread the tale far and wide, and Robert Browning’s 1844 poem made it even more popular.  Given the prominent role played by RATS in the narrative, it is an easy connection between the loss of the children and the momentous mortality of the Black Death, but the chronology doesn’t work:  the story dates to almost a century before the arrival of the plague in Europe.  In any case, the earliest references to the Pied Piper don’t even mention rats; they first appear in the sixteenth-century Zimmern Chronicle. The other references from that century, a time not only of periodic plague but also religious wars and witch hunts, seem to be transforming the piper into either the Devil or the grim reaper, leading the children in a “dance of death”.

The haunting Dance of Death at the end of Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 film The Seventh Seal.

Robert Browning’s poem, based on the version of the Pied Piper contained in Nicholas Wanley’s six-volume Wonders of  the Little World; or, A General History of Man (1677), somehow presents alighterversion of the story while still maintaining all the dismal details. I think this is because of all the colorful illustrations in the many Browning editions:  by Kate Greenaway (1888), Hope Dunlap (1910), and Margaret Tarrant (1912), among others.  Browning also has a similar “tribe” of people resurfacing in far-east Transylvania, a reference to Ostsiedlung, the eastward migration of the Germans in the high middle ages, a more likely basis for the Pied Piper tale.

As is always the case, folklore serves up useful metaphors to the present, for both social and political commentary. The first half of the twentieth century used the piper for a variety of messages: in two very timely (and different!)  American images, he is leading a pack of criminal and/or radical European immigrants across the sea and a group of children gardeners after World War I, while in Germany, he is a leftist devil, leading the fledgling German republic Into the Abyss.

Anti-immigration and US School Garden Army posters (1909 & 1919), Library of Congress, and “Into the Abyss” poster by Theo Matejko (1919), Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

Blue Lobsters

The rare discovery of a blue lobster by several Rockport lobstermen was all over the Boston news late last week, prompting a search to discover just how rare these crustaceans are.  I kept coming up with the odds of 1 in 2 million, which would indeed make them pretty rare, but I also found bright blue lobsters pulled out of the waters off Ocean City, Maryland last week, two from Canadian waters over the past year, and another off Scotland last year.  Before that, not much news; in fact, the last mention of a blue lobster in Boston was in 1926!  So I am wondering if something is up in the lobster world? Here is the very bright blue–quite aptly referred to as cobalt–Scottish lobster, and an even more rare (1 in 30 million) mutant calico lobster, in the New England Aquarium.

Natural History Museum/Solent

I wish I could blow up this little negative of the 1926 lobster on exhibit in a Boston hotel from the Smithsonian, because it looks like a great picture.  The caption reads:  Boston, Mass.: Rare lobster exhibited at hotel exposition. Ann Donnelly, an attendant at the exposition in the Mechanics Building, holds a blue lobster, one of the very few which has been taken out of New England waters in many years. 5/20/26.

Out of the water, there are lots of blue lobsters, on pottery and paper, fabric and canvas (besides lots of restaurants and Nike sneakers). I particularly liked this platter from Apartment 48, a repurposed nineteenth-century image from Etsy seller Ephemera Press, and an original watercolor called A Lobster Tale by Sarah Storm.


Back to the reign of another long-reigning queen, Elizabeth I.  For my summer graduate course, I’ve been immersed in the pamphlet literature of the 1590s, including those relating the exploits of  London rogues, vagabonds, pickpockets, card-sharks and coney-catchers, to use the language of the day. In the contemporary vernacular, coneys (alternatively spelled conys, connys, connies) were domesticated rabbits (as opposed to wild hares), bred for the table and easy prey. Consequently coney-catchers were those who preyed on similarly-vulnerable human targets in the streets of London:  in today’s language, con-men.

The term seems to have been crafted by playwright, poet and pamphleteer Robert Greene (1560-1592), one of the “university wits” of late Elizabethan London, and an author who definitely wrote more for the public than the court.  Before his untimely death in 1592, Greene waged a war in print on those who had taken advantage of him while he was down and out, in the streets (quite a common state for him due to his profligate lifestyle).  The pamphlets were popular, and the term caught on. Its meaning, fool-taking or-making was easily grasped by everyone, and satirical responses kept the rabbits in print, as did Greene, by publishing under pseudonyms like “Cuthbert Conny-catcher”.

Greene’s conies between the covers.

All of these rabbits (coneys) remind me of those that magicians (conjurers) pull out of a hat:  there must be a connection. The John Derian decoupage tray on my mantle, called “the magician’s apprentice”, is making me think so too.

The Queen Pitches

I must admit to indulging in a bit too much anniversaic history of late but the Anglophile in me cannot resist today’s anniversary of Queen Victoria’s accession (in 1837) especially as her successor just had such a big show. I’ve just discovered the most interesting Salem connection as well:  the Queen’s third cousin, Dr. Ernst Bruno de Gersdorff, left his native Germany shortly after his graduation from medical school and in the midst of the revolutions of 1848, and wound up here, where he began what looks like a very successful homeopathic medical practice and married the sister of one of the wealthiest and most prominent men in town, Judge Joseph Choate, who would later be appointed American ambassador to Great Britain!  A small world of connected people in the transatlantic Victorian Age.

It’s the Queen’s day, not the doctor’s, so I want to pull up some images from my teaching files, featuring the very commercial Victoria as pitchman to the world, at the very peak of the British Empire.  Here is the Queen/Empress of India/safeguard of the Constitution selling oats, soap, stoves, cloth, and cigarettes (produced by both British and American manufacturers) in the 1880s and 1890s.

Victorian advertising ephemera from the John Johnson Collection at the Bodleian Library, Oxford University, the British Library, the British Museum, Duke University’s Digital “Emergence of Advertising in America” Collection, and the New York Public Library Digital Collection.

Salem and the War of 1812

On this day 200 years ago President James Madison declared war on Great Britain, commencing the War of 1812, a conflict that must have meant very different things to different people.  I imagine that Canadians viewed the War as an attempted land grab by upstart Americans and I know that the British viewed it as an annoyance by pesky Americans occurring when the far greater threat, Napoleon, deserved all of their attention.  As an English historian, I never really gave the War of 1812 much consideration, but living here in Salem one can’t help but see its lasting impact.  The people of Salem in particular, and coastal New England in general, were bitterly opposed to the War, nearly to the point of secession.  They believed that it would spell the end of their commercial ascendancy, and they were right.

Salem and other ports up and down the Eastern seaboard had already suffered from the policies of the preceding Jefferson administration, most notably the Embargo Act of 1807, and Madison’s war was seen as a continuation of these anti-commercial (and anti-American?) policies.  One of the most often-cited causes of the War, the impressment of thousands of American seamen by the British Navy, apparently did not rally Salem to the cause, if this 1813 Salem Gazette article is any indication.

I’ve cropped a much larger document from the Library of Congress; it’s difficult to read from the scan, but this article consists of two comparative columns regarding the fates of “Impressed Seamen from Salem” (their parentheses, not mine):  the official story and then “the facts”, which seem to conclude that the seamen in question were simply deserters or otherwise unaccounted for.  This article is implicitly (explicitly?) accusing the US government of perpetuating a hoax on its citizenry in order to rationalize war with Britain, an accusation that doesn’t seem very extreme if you examine the words and deeds of Salem’s opposition Federalist party over the previous decade.  Salem’s leading Federalist was the eminent Timothy Pickering (1745-1829), former Secretary of State, Secretary of War, Senator and current Congressman, pictured below in a contemporary caricature of the Hartford Convention, comprising the New England opposition to the War. Kneeling before King George III in the center, Pickering is given the words:  I, strongly and most fervently pray for the success of this great leap which will change my vulgar name into that of my Lord of Essex. God Save the King.  No wonder that he and his associates were accused of being “Blue-Light Federalists”,  traitors who signalled to British ships with blue lights from the New England shores.  The Federalist Party would never recover from that accusation, in Salem or elsewhere.

Besides political opposition, the other major role played by Salemites during the War of 1812 was that of more proactive privateering.  Captain George Coggeshall’s History of the American Privateers and Letters-of-Marque during our War with England in the Years 1812, ’13, and ’14 (1844) is full of the exploits of Salem privateering vessels, including the Polly, the Snowbird, the Buckskin, the Montgomery, the John, the Revenge, the Dolphin, and the justly-famous Fame.  I particularly liked this passage about the Dolphin which Coggeshall culled from the Salem Gazette:  the privateer Dolphin, after a successful cruise of 20 days, returned to Salem on the 23rd of July.  The Dolphin has taken six prizes without receiving the smallest injury.  She was reportedly chased by the English at one time for 24 hours, but finally escaped. She has treated her prisoners with the greatest kindness. In rowing away from men-of-war, she found great aid from their voluntary assistance.  The prisoners said they had much rather go to America than return aboard a British man-of-war.”  The Fame had similar success before her shipwreck in 1814, and a reproduction Fame has been embarking on cruises around Salem Harbor for nearly a decade.  Her Captain, Michael Rutstein, has recently published an illustrated history of Salem privateers entitled The Privateering Stroke:  Salem’s Privateers in the War of 1812.

George Ropes, The Launching of the Ship Fame, 1802. Courtesy Peabody Essex Museum, Salem.

Ultimately what become known as the War of 1812 ended in a draw in 1814, with lessons learned on both sides.  For the Americans, I think the most important lesson was:  it’s not enough to just grow or sell things, we’ve got to MAKE things (like Great Britain).  So Salem’s commercial heyday was over, but its industrial era was just about to begin.

John Archibald Woodside, We Owe Allegiance to No Crown, 1814:  part of the current exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery:  1812A Nation Emerges.

Watch your Step

We have a little two-story apartment attached to our house, with its own entrance, foundation, and address; it was built on to the main house about a century ago by the doctor that was living here at the time, a time when it was customary for physicians to have home offices rather than the consolidated office-park variety. For quite awhile we’ve had the perfect tenant, who recently informed us that she is leaving:  causing fear and trepidation and then excitement about possible redecoration schemes.  Actually, we quickly found a new tenant, so there won’t be much time to do anything over there, but a few things do need attention in the interim:  first and foremost, the stairs.

This apartment is absolutely adorable if I do say so myself, but it is small.  Everything is smaller-scaled than normal; it’s not quite a dollhouse, but more of a ship’s cabin.  It works (I think; I’ve never lived there, though there have been times that I wanted to rent out the main house and stay in the apartment) because there are so many built-in shelves and cupboards:  in the basement, on the main floor with its tiny little kitchen and floor-to-ceiling bookcases, along and over the stairway going up to the second floor, and in the two tiny bedrooms and bathroom.  Everywhere there are little cupboards and shelves:  for storing medicine, I wonder?  It does remind me of a ship’s cabin, and when I first outfitted it for a tenant I put a rope bannister along the curving stairs, just for that effect.  Now these same stairs need some kind of runner, as the present one is very well-worn.  Given my nautical ideas, I quickly found some stairs in a beach house decorated by Jonathan Adler that might serve as inspiration, but then I was off on a mission.

Numbers:  Lots of people have numbered their stair risers, which is a cute and easy idea, but it might have the effect of making my little stairway seem even more diminutive:  after all, there are only so many stairs.

Courtesy The Design Files and Lover Mother.

Lots of bookcase/staircases out there:  these were my two favorites, in a private home and a public library.

Courtesy Book Patrol.

I came across lots of decoration, on both treads and risers, including these two Victorian staircases embellished with a simple diamond pattern and one of Orla Kiely’s distinctive prints.

Courtesy Old House Web; photograph by Jake Curtis for Living Etc.

Ultimately I am the most inspired by an old photograph of the staircase in an old (very old) Salem house, the Narbonne house, built in the mid 1670s on Essex Street, where it still stands.  This staircase is pretty similar to my apartment’s (give or take a couple of centuries) and the “yankee runner” would look just right.

The Narbonne House exterior and staircase, HABS, Library of Congress.

APPENDIX:  I was also thinking about stairs this past week while I was preparing some lectures on Elizabethan religion for my summer graduate class.  After the practice of Catholicism was made illegal, “priests’ holes” (or -hides) were carved out in Catholic homes, to hide the priest when the royal searchers came calling.  Harvington Hall manor house has four such holes created by the Jesuit/master builder Nicholas Owen, and one of them is below the stairs in the main hall:  here it is, complete with hiding priest.

Courtesy Curious Britain.

When Hostas Attack

I’m looking forward to getting into my wild garden this weekend for some frenzied weeding and general taming, but I have to admit that I’m a little afraid of the hostas in the shade garden.  These are plants that I inherited so I’ve never been particularly predisposed towards them, but they are so thoroughly rooted that I’ve never considered taking them out.  I don’t even know their varieties, I’m embarrassed to say:  I pay them no mind whatsoever except for a few hours in July or August when I snip off their less-than-impressive flowers.  I have the generic shiny dark green plants (none of those variegated ones that you see everywhere, thank goodness), and then the less common greenish blue variety, which are always large but GIGANTIC this particular year:  these are the ones that are intimidating me at present.

I will admit that the advantages of this particular hosta are its relative resistance to slugs, who seem to prefer the shinier varieties, and its flowers, which are a bit more delicate:  an odd juxtaposition as the leaves are tough. Perhaps the slugs are fearful as I am!  I’ve included a shot of the garden looking west towards Hamilton Hall, so you can see how wild it is at present:  I’ve got my work cut out for me.


Tending the Garden (not)

Usually I like it when my personal and professional lives intersect, but not now. I am working on two courses this summer and several writing projects, all of which involve Renaissance gardening texts in one way or another. So I’m reading about what I should be doing in the garden, and not doing it, for lack of time and energy. Like many scholars before and around me, I’m pretty dedicated to restoring gardening to the Renaissance art (and science) it once was, and I’ve got lots of evidence to support my view. Depending on their status and wealth, sixteenth-century people saw gardening as a way to reclaim paradise lost, glory in God’s creation, and, of course, feed themselves; it was serious business all around.  In England, there was an intensifying and rather democratic demand for gardening advice, resulting in about 20 titles published in the sixteenth century alone, with more to come in the next century.

Looking over these texts today, the practical passages seem to be speaking to me, particularly those offering weeding advice, since I am not out back weeding.  Obviously I would prefer to read about it!  Here is Thomas Tusser giving me instructions for June, in verse, in his A Hundreth Good Pointes of Husbandry (1557; later expanded to Five Hundreth Pointes of  Good Husbandrie): in June get thy wedehoke, they knife and thy glove:  and wede out such wede, as the corne doth not love.  Slack no time thy weding, for darth nor for cheape:  thy corne shall reward it, or ever thou reape.  Well, I am slackingTusser’s contemporary Thomas Hill, author of The Gardener’s Labyrinth (1577), does not agree with the former’s technique:  In this plucking up, and purging of the Garden beds of weeds and stones, the same about the plants aught rather to be exercised with the hand, than with an Iron instrument, for fear of feebling the young plants yet small and tender of growth. He want me to dig in and get my hands dirty, but as my rather overgrown garden is full of well-established plants, I think I can go for the iron–I really like this “skrapple” in William Lawson’s New Orchard and Garden (1618).

I’m skipping over to two slightly less practical garden writers of the seventeenth century:  John Parkinson, King James I’s apothecary and a gardener himself, and the more famous Francis Bacon, who included a charming little essay on gardens among his Essays (1625).  Parkinson’s books are appealing because they demonstrate his own interests and expertise, cultivated on his estate near present-day Covent Garden.  London was an emerging metropolis in the later sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but it still had patches of undeveloped land and urban gardens, as illustrated by Ralph Agas’s contemporary map of the city.

North of the Strand was Mr. Parkinson’s garden at Long Acre, where he cultivated the English flowers that are the subject of his two major works, Paradisi in Sole Paradisus Terrestris (Park-in-Sun’s Terrestrial Paradise, 1629), and Theatrum Botanicum (The Botanical Theatre or Theatre of Plants, 1640). Parkinson’s books gave plant-specific advice, from an upper-middle-class urban perspective, thus they are perfect for a suburban gardener such as myself. In their own time, Parkinson’s books were no doubt popular because of the inclusion of woodcut illustrations, like the mallows below.

Francis Bacon’s little essay on gardens is part of his major collection, Essayes or Counsels, Civill and Morall (1625). This was a definite sideline for him, and I can’t imagine it receiving much attention at the time of its publication given the horticultural competition, but centuries after there are some lavishly-presented editions of the essay, which offers more inspiration than advice.

Bacon’s Essay on Gardens, 1625, 1902 & 1905 ( Illuminated Manuscript on Vellum by Alberto Sangorski, courtesy Book Aesthete).

Enough reading and writing: time to get out there, among the weeds and spent flowers:  it’s mid-June, and duty calls. Everything is satisfactory in the shade border in the foreground (thanks to the very tidy Lady’s Mantle), but the central garden is not getting its close-up until I clean it up, one way or another.  Not this morning, however, as it is raining, and all of my experts tell me that the best time to pull weeds is two days after the rain.

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