Monthly Archives: April 2014

Beauty Sleep

As it happened I was watching the 1935 film version of Romeo and Juliet (starring Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer) while I was going through seed catalogs and doing some (late) garden planning. Just as Juliet went into her deep sleep, I came to the herbal sections of one catalog, and remembered that I always wanted some belladonna (Atropa Belladonna; Deadly Nightshade) for my garden–just because it’s one of the most storied poisonous plants in history. A decade or so ago, when I had given over most of my garden to herbs which served as either plague cures or poisons (for scholarship!), a student gave me some belladonna seeds–which I thought was very nice/cheeky of him–but the plant lasted only one season. So I’d like to try again. Juliet reminded me:  Shakespeare is not specific, but it must have been belladonna on his mind. His contemporary, John Gerarde, wrote that a small quantity could lead to madness, a moderate amount to a “dead sleep”, and too much to death in his Herball or General Historie of Plantes (1597). As Friar Laurance observes in the play,”within the infant rind of this small flower/poison hath residence and medicine power” and later instructs Juliet: Take thou this vial, being then in bed, / And this distilled liquor drink thou off; / When presently through all thy veins shall run / A cold and drowsy humour, for no pulse… And in this borrow’d likeness of shrunk death / Thou shalt continue two and forty hours.

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Juliet considering her options and holding a belladonna? tincture in an 1830 print by William Say (British Museum) and an apothecary bottle from 1880 (Wellcome Library Images).

Friar Laurence was right: belladonna has the virtues of both medicine and poison, but throughout history, its emphasized use has been on the latter (poison-tipped arrows, “inheritance powders”, magical ointments which enable witches to fly) with the exception of the cosmetic application which explains its vernacular name, “beautiful lady”. The Renaissance image of beauty encompassed not only a high forehead but also a certain wide-eyed (literally) look, and Atropa Belladonna contains a muscle-relaxant substance (atropine) that dilates the eyes for long periods of time. Presumably the fashionable Renaissance lady had to be quite knowledgeable about how to prepare her tincture, or have a reliable apothecary. I always thought the Raphael’s mistress Margheriti Luti was the perfect belladonna girl, and he certainly admired her. Perhaps the “spring beauty must-have”, Giorgio Armani’s Belladonna palette, can create a similar look (and I wonder if Mr. Armani knows that the name conjures up as many references to death and it does to beauty?)

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Raphael, Woman with a veil (La Donna Velata), 1516, Galleria Palatina, Florence, Italy; Giorgio Armani’s Belladonna palette for Spring 2014; Atropa Belladonna as depicted in one of Mary Delany’s beautiful collages , 1791, British Museum.

 


Brick Revival

A beautiful brick Colonial Revival house in Salem came on the market last week, so I stopped by to check it out on my way to school. Fairfield Street, its location, is just off Lafayette in the midst of the area that was completely devastated by the Salem Fire of 1914. Almost immediately after the Fire, its property owners committed to a plan of relatively rapid rebuilding and this strident street emerged as prime evidence of Salem’s renewal. This is certainly the theme of Salem author/photographer Mary Harrod Northend’s article in the Fall 1920 edition of The House Beautiful: “Worthwhile Houses Built in Salem since the Great Conflagration of 1914”, which features 11 Fairfield Street along with its neighboring structures–many built of solid, more flame-retardant materials like brick and stucco–built to last, with myriad details representative of their owners’ and architects’ appreciation of the “old-time architecture” of Salem. In the particular case of 11 Fairfield, the owner was George W. Hooper, owner of the Salem Laundry, and the architect was Robert. C. Boit of Boston: the house is dated 1914, so they must have made their contract while the embers of that June were still smoldering!

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Fairfield Street Interior

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The George W. Hooper House, designed by Robert C. Boit, 1914, as featured in its present-day listing and in The House Beautiful, no. 49 (1920)–on the right.

 


Set in Salem (sort of)

I have heard so many dreadful things about the new WGN series Salem that I was desperate to see it: our cable provider does not carry that station but I was able to watch it online and I also checked out the series website. It is indeed horrible, in more ways than one. Its central premise, that there were witches in Salem who themselves initiated the 1692 trials in a devilish divide-and-conquer strategy against the voiceless Puritans, sustains that mythology and ignores decades of research, but of course it is fiction, so I suppose all is well. Or is it? One of the series’ executive producers, Adam Simon, maintains that the history is fantasy but the magic is real and that Salem reflects all the knowledge we now have about the reality of European witchcraft. His reality is a strange mishmash of witchcraft folklore from the Continent, England, and the New World, with no cursing crones: a very sexy head witch, empowered by her very sexual pact with the Devil and aided by the very sexy Tituba, stores her familiar frog in her bewitched/incapacitated husband and prepares to face off against a very sexy Reverend Cotton Mather, whose father Increase burned scores of witches back in Essex (England, I presume, though to my knowledge Increase never visited there; he is better represented by his iconic assertion that”It were better that Ten Suspected Witches should escape, than that one innocent Person should be condemned”.) Geography–a sense of place–is not a strength of this show, which is odd because it is named after a place. I get the feeling that the producers and writers don’t even know where Salem is (was): the big city is New York, not Boston, and the costume designer comments that In Salem they had more [sartorial] rules than the rest of Europe. I could go on with my critique, but I think you get the picture.

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The Streets of “Salem”, according to WGN America

This “Salem” got me thinking about other screen “Salems”, and there are many. Salem on film is a huge topic, impossible to capture in one post. If you differentiate between films that are supposed to be set in Salem (lots of Scarlet Letters, The Maid of Salem (1937), The House of the Seven Gables (1940) and several Crucibles, and films that were filmed in the actual Salem (the more recent Hocus PocusBride Wars, and American Hustle), it is more manageable. I’m more interested in the former, and it basically comes down to “Puritan films”  in the earlier part of the twentieth century and “witchcraft films” thereafter, with notable exceptions and overlap. I haven’t seen all the Scarlet Letters (the first one dates to 1911!) but I prefer the 1973 Wim Wenders version (in which Portugal stands in for 17th century Salem) to the 1995 Demi Moore film, and The House of the Seven Gables (starring Vincent Price) has nothing at all do with Hawthorne’s novel: we need a real/reel “remake”! There are also several versions of The Crucible: a 1957 French film adapted by Jean-Paul Sartre, entitled Les Sorcières de Salem, and Arthur Miller’s own 1996 adaptation, which was filmed for the most part up the coast on Hog Island in Ipswich Bay.

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© Copyright 2010 CorbisCorporation

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Posters for the 1926 and 1934 versions of the Scarlet Letter, and a screen shot of the 1973 Wim Wenders film; Posters for the Maid of Salem (1937) and The House of the Seven Gables (1940), and a photograph of the latter’s Salem opening at the Paramount Theater on Essex Street; Poster for Jean-Paul Sartre’s Les Sorcières de Salem (1957).

 

 


A Scary Map of the World, with no London or Amsterdam or……Salem

On this Earth Day, it seems appropriate to feature the scary but beautiful map of the world with unfrozen polar caps created by Slovakian student/graphic artist/cartographer Martin Vargic. At first glance, the map looks like a traditional nineteenth-century decorative map of the hemispheres, but then you look closer (just click on it) and see that many unshaded coastal areas are “missing” and that new seas and lakes have opened up in the midst of continental interiors: there is an Amazon Sea in the middle of South America and a new “Artesian Sea” in Australia. The map presents a rather radical vision with sea levels 260 feet higher than today (most scientists seem to project a 3 foot rise by 2100), and consequently all the coastal cities of the eastern seaboard in North America are gone (including Salem, of course), along with those of the Gulf Coast and what looks like the entire state of Florida. Across the Atlantic, London is gone, along with Amsterdam, and DenmarkVargic, whose work can also be found here, seems to have one-upped his earlier map of the internet, which went viral earlier this year.

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Climate Vargic 1

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Map Images © Martin Vargic @ Halcyon Maps

Appendix: Climate maps are nothing new, although predictive ones certainly are. Those from the 17th through the 19th centuries seem to be more of the recording or empirical nature, like the circular map of London’s annual temperature cycle below. Things get a little bit more subjective later in the nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries, when “scientific racism” (and environmental determinism) tried to assert “rational” explanations for the industrial progress (and supposed superiority) of the West. The 1924 map below seems to be doing just that.

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Map from Luke Howard, The Climate of London, deduced from meteorological observations, made in the Metropolis, and at various places around it…(London, 1833),Wellcome Library; and map from Ellsworth Huntingdon, Civilization and Climate (London, 1924), Wellcome Library.

 

 

 

 


Remembrance, Recreation and Reenactment

The blogger part of my brain is whirling in anticipation of this long weekend of Patriots’ Day/Easter/Marathon Monday: what to write about? I think I’ve offered up enough Easter eggs, bunnies and witches, and Patriots’ Day, the Massachusetts (and Maine) holiday which commemorates the Battles of Lexington and Concord and the beginning of the American Revolution, coincides with Marathon Monday. I have always thought of my own personal ritual–a walk or run down the Battle Road on which the British retreated back to Boston–as sort of a combination of the two holidays, a form of patriotic athleticism. But last year I had a bad cold and stayed home and watched the Marathon on television, including the horrors that unfolded at its finish line in Boston. Now, after last year, the holiday seems different, darker. I am afraid that I am a bit numbed by the nonstop media coverage of the Marathon memorial that we have experienced in the Boston area (and perhaps nationally?) over these past few weeks, so I think I’ll go back to 1775, or at least our impression or “memory” of it. After classes yesterday I flew down to Concord to catch the first day of the new exhibition at the Concord Museum, timely titled The Shot Heard Round the World: April 19, 1776, and while I was there I poked around a bit, looking for Minutemen and Redcoats–or at least their shadows.

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In Concord: the entrance to the exhibition, with a militia man inside, flints from the battlefield, a 1930 diorama, and across town, the Major John Buttrick House and adjacent monument.

Concord does commemoration very well, much better than we do here in Salem: of course they a good event to commemorate–the courageous shot heard round the world–and we have a bad one–the intolerant, irrational witch trials. But I would really like to replace the tacky, exploitative, and out-of-date Witch Museum–which is really just one BIG diorama dated circa 1971–with the tasteful and reflective Concord Museum, which seems just as concerned with Concord’s history as the making of Concord’s history. I long for an exhibition on the creation of “Witch City” but doubt I will ever see it.

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There’s another exhibition I’m looking forward to further down the road (battle and otherwise): The Battle After the Battle: the Lexington-Concord Tug of War for Revolutionary Fame, opening at the Lexington Historical Society on May 3. I thought these two towns worked together in the spirit of collaborative commemoration, but apparently not! They’ve both been in the business for quite some time, to which the Boston Globe photographs from the 1920s and 1930s below attest. As I was heading back to Salem I spotted a few present-day reenactors outside the Concord Museum: I think they’re camping out tonight so they can be on the spot, rested and ready, for tomorrow’s battles.

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Reenactors in Concord (1928) and Lexington (early 1930s) © Leslie Jones, Boston Public Library, and yesterday, outside the Concord Museum.

 

 


Spring Snow

We certainly did not suffer the weight of snow dumped on the upper midwest yesterday, but T.S. Eliot’s weighty observation that April is the cruelest month seemed particularly apt when we woke up to white: and it seemed more like ice than snow! It might be aesthetically pleasing to see newly-sprouted grass and flowers frosted with white, but it does make you fear for your garden. Mother Nature is indeed a cruel master to tempt plants out of the protective earth with a warm weekend, and then slam them with an arctic frost! It was so warm a few days ago that I finally switched out the evergreen shrub in my front stoop pot with a tender purple-flowered variety, and now its leaves are black and curled. The same cats which frolicked in the back yard a few days ago are now back on their radiator perches, looking at me with suspicion.

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iPad version of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), with really neat annotations.

 

 


Patched with Plastic

I was planning a post on tax collectors for this Tax Day, but it got too overwhelming and too depressing: as one of Lucifer’s Four Evangelists (with the usurer, the banker, and the miller (???), the tax man has been reviled for centuries, and depicted in images and prose in all sorts of unflattering ways. I don’t think anyone wants to see paintings of tax collectors on the day their returns are due, even if they are the creations of Renaissance artists (who seem to have a singular obsessions with tax farmers). So instead, I’m offering LEGO art!

T, The New York Times Style Magazine has some interesting features in its latest edition, despite a thematic focus on minimalism (not my favorite style). There is a lot of texture in the magazine, and one particular photograph stopped me in my tracks: an ancient, crumbling wall, patched with plastic. The close proximity of very new and very old is my favorite aesthetic, so I had to see more of the work of artist Jan Vormann.

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Jan Vormann/© 2014 ARS, New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

At first glance, I thought the above image was photoshopped but no, as his website and this Daily Telegraph article make clear, Vormann travels the real world and places bright LEGO blocks in the midst of conspicuous decay, drawing attention to buildings and places as part of a “Repair Manifesto”. He wants onlookers to see the holes, question why they are there, and seek their repair–except perhaps where they serve as constant reminders, as in the case of the bullet and shrapnel destruction of Berlin. How I wish he would come to Salem! We need the colorful and constant reminders of our past, and the manifesto to repair.

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Lego “repairs” in Berlin, New York City, Venice and Vormann’s hometown of Bamberg, Germany: JAN VORMANN / BARCROFT USA and Dispatchwork.

 

 


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