It’s a beautiful day here in Salem, but I’m in lockdown in my study, more than halfway through the very last chapter of my book! I am taking a break to show you some early modern masks, just because they are so wonderful. There is no material culture in my book: it’s all about information culture. But some of the instructive information I am coming across refers to very mundane matters like personal and household hygiene: one of my very favorite books is all about how to remove spots and stains from both precious and mundane fabrics, with dyeing advice if they won’t come out. Out, damned spot! Out, I say! This was of course a huge problem, as I am not dealing with a disposable society. Cleanliness was increasingly important for health reasons as well: sixteenth-and seventeenth-century people were living through constant pandemics of plague and various poxes and fevers, and while they knew nothing about germ theory, they had associated disease and squalidness. When they went outside, into the pestilential air, they covered up for protection if they could afford to: with hats, hoods, gloves and fans and yes, even masks. Everyone is now familiar with the beaked plague masks of the later seventeenth century, but this was just one, rather dramatic, form of early modern masks, which were also worn for “disguising,” for protection against the weather, for festivity, and for fashion. The most elaborate of fashionable early modern masks for women, the vizard or visard, which covered the entire face except for the eyes, seems to have had Italian origins, like so many fashions then (and now): when they began appearing in England, many commentators, especially of the Puritan disposition, were not impressed. In his Anatomy of Abuses (1583), Phillip Stubbes wrote: When they use to ride abroad they have invisories or visors made of velvet, wherewith they cover all their faces, having holes made in them for their eyes, whereout they look. So that if a man, that know not their guise before, should chance to meet one of them, he would think he met a monster or a devil, for he can see no face, but two broad holes against her eyes with glasses in them. Nevertheless, the household accounts of Queen Elizabeth’s reign list vizards among her purchases, and a century later, these “visors” were fashionable apparel for women of some means, who would wear them out and about, particularly when attending the theater. Samuel Pepys was so struck by one vizard-wearing lady at a performance that he went right out and bought a mask for his (long-suffering) wife. There are several digital sources for early modern apparel: I chose the images below from a late sixteenth-century album of costumes in watercolor at the Morgan Library and the “Friendship Album” (AlbumAmicorum) of a German Soldier in the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Wenceslaus Hollar’s engravings of English women clothed for every season from the mid-seventeenth century illustrate the bit more utilitarian masks worn by women of means during the winter: many more Hollar images are at the FisherLibrary at the University of Toronto and the Rijksmuseum, where I obtained these images—there is a new “Rijkstudio” where you can get creative with collection items; no time for that now, but later……..
I’m having this really neat synchronicity of research, writing and life right now, as I’m working on Chapter Three of my book, which is focused on Elizabethan horticulture. So I get up, water my garden, and then go upstairs into my study and read and write about English gardening texts from the sixteenth century. Or there is the alternative day: I get up, drink coffee, read and write about English gardening texts, and then go downstairs for “cocktail watering” at the end of the day. Regardless of when I sit down to immerse myself in this topic, it is obvious that there was a lot to write about then, and so I have a lot to write about now: new plants, coming from the Continent or the New World, how to feed the rapidly growing city of London, how to harness the power of plants for a variety of medicinal purposes. There were kitchen gardens, physic gardens, market gardens, and “summer gardens” for pleasure and relaxation. No matter what the purpose of the garden, the general belief was that it should be adjacent to the house and laid out in beds segregated by paths and walkways: the influences of the French parterre and medieval precedents encouraged the creation of a “knotted” or knot garden, which seems to have become a Tudor symbol. The pioneer of English gardening texts, Thomas Hyll (or Hill) published his first book, TheProfitablearteofgardening in 1558: it was reprinted frequently thereafter and published in an amplified edition called The Gardeners Labyrinth posthumously in 1577. The Labyrinth was also very popular, due to the combination of Hyll’s “plain” instructions on how to lay out, enclose, plant, fertilize, irrigate, protect, and harvest a garden as well as its wonderful illustrations, the most reprinted of which are his images of watering the garden, something we all need to think about right now in the August doldrums (at least in New England). And true to its title, the Labyrinth also includes illustrations—templates really, for knot gardens, mazes, and labyrinths. Somehow I am more appreciative of his watering advice right now, in these 90-degree days!
Tending to and ordering your garden in the Elizabethan era: Thomas Hyll’s Gardeners Labyrinth.
I am a bit confused by these two alternative watering techniques: “the maner of watering with a pumpe by troughes in the garden” and “the maner of watering with a pumpe in a tubbe” as Hyll is quite clear in the text that “water rotteth and killeth above ground.” So do we water from above or below? I generally do both: aiming for the roots when I start watering and then just lazily arching it from above when I get tired and lazy—especially if I am watering with wine-in-hand. So many tools we use now were used then—rakes, hoes, shovels, watering “pottes”: and he calls his tin watering devices “great Squirtes”! August was hot in those Elizabethan summers as well: and Hyll instructs his readers to get out there and water in whatever way they can.
Bad cocktail watering (?) and the garden in the morning.
There are several knot garden examples in The Gardener’s Labyrinth as well as mazes: Hyll had to appeal to the literary public, which was essentially a monied and aspirational one, and so his gardens had to have ornamental qualities as well as utilitarian ones. The knot or maze is a perfect and very literal example of man bending nature to his will, a key Renaissance preoccupation: man is at the center of everything. The perfectly-ordered gardens that appear in the backgrounds of English portraits from this era reflect very well on their individual subjects, as well as the society at large.
Knot & Maze designs from the Gardeners Labyrinth, 1577; Lord Edward Russell by George Perfect Harding, watercolor copy of a 1573 portrait after unknown artist, National Portrait Gallery; Isaac Oliver, a Young Man seated under a Tree, 1590-95, Royal Collection Trust; Lettice Newdigate, c. 1606, Private Collection: Arbury Hall, Warwickshire.
So I have just finished converting my lecture courses into online formats: difficult to do midstream. A well-designed online course is a beautiful thing, but if a course is based on a more personal form of delivery and has to become virtual overnight there are going to be challenges. Fortunately, I teach history, and not a discipline that requires a lab or a studio: I can’t imagine what those professors are going through! And I also feel very fortunate to be able to depend on a variety of institutions—libraries and museums—which have made so much of their collections accessible AND provided road maps and guides to these same texts and images in the form of interpretive essays, questions for consideration, and extra-special digital features. I’ve had digital content in my courses for the last decade or so, but again, a course based on all-digital content is another thing entirely. I could not have accomplished such a thing—in such a short time— a decade or so ago; I can now, thanks to the diligent and creative efforts of these institutions, which take the “education” and “engagement” directives in their missions seriously. So here’s my top 10 list, with one qualifier and one comment: 1) I teach medieval and early modern European history and world history, so this is not going to be a US-centric list; and; 2) these institutions are focused on general education, not just formal education: they have made their collections accessible to those who have more casual or independent interests as well as those working within a curricular framework. (oh, and this list is in no particular order and is by no means exhaustive).
1. The Newberry Library, Chicago: For an American library, the Newberry has very rich European collections and it has created online exhibitions and curated primary source sets that I find invaluable for my courses: its librarians and fellows are very attuned to key curricular and historiographical trends. The Newberry is also a leader in American history and culture in general and local history in particular: it just won the top prize for “Oustanding Public History Project” at the National Council on Public History’s virtual conference for “Chicago 1919: Confronting the Race Riots”.DigitalNewberry offers about a million high-resolution texts and images: this is a small fraction of the library’s collection but still quite a lot to see.
Theodor de Bry’s famous 1594 engraving showing Amerindians pouring molten gold into the mouths of Spaniards driven by insatiable lust for the stuff.
2. The HeilbrunnTimeline ofArt History at the Metropolitan Museum of Art: is a timeline which pairs works of art from all eras and regions of the world with curatorial essays. You can search by region, by period, or by theme, and there are many thematic essays to explore: one leads to another and before you know it, hours have gone by. I teach with images, so this is the first place to I go to find perfect visuals for my presentations, but I also encourage my students to explore this resource themselves. And they do.
Jan Steen, The Dissolute Household, 1663-64.
3. Speaking of timelines, check out the British Museum’s History Connected: A Museum of the World, in which objects can be explored across time and place while visualizing connections, the essential links of world history, and listening to curators share their expertise and perspectives. This is the result of a partnership between the Museum and Google: Google Arts and Culture can provide a engaging platform for a cultural institution to broaden their reach in more ways than one, but there needs to be some intent in terms of design and curation. Some institutions just share images of their objects and leave it at that (I’m looking at you, Peabody EssexMuseum: 323 objects; 2 stories, but what BIG story is being told? And could we possibly have some more Salem objects?): this is parking, not driving engagement.
It’s all about connections at the British Museum (above) and the Rijksmuseum (below).
4. Another exemplary Google partner is the Rijksmuseum: which offers up 164,511 objects, 11 stories, and 8 museum views, taking us right into the building. We can “walk” around the galleries, focus on particular paintings, examine them in “street” or catalog views, organize them in chronological order, discover connections to other works. The collection is so comprehensive (though again, only a fraction of the museum’s 8 million objects), and the connections go on and on, in all sorts of directions.
5. This semester I really need to get my students into the Vatican, as I’m teaching the Renaissance and the Reformation, and that particular place is a powerful connecting link between the two eras and movements: while a succession of Renaissance popes reveled in its creation and majesty, Martin Luther was repulsed by it. The Vatican Museums‘ website features 360-degree tours of many rooms and a more virtual experience with headsets, but just getting us into those spaces will be fine.
6. Anniversary Digital Exhibitions: Both private and university research libraries characteristically observe historical anniversaries by putting together digital exhibitions of images and texts. 2017 was the anniversary of Luther’s 95 Theses and the beginning of the Reformation, so there were many such exhibitions which are now archived: two of my favorites are Cambridge University Library’s Remembering theReformation and the University of Arizona’s Special Collections Library’s After500 Years: theProtestant Reformation. This year, digital exhibitions on the anniversary of Woman suffrage abound: see my previous round-up here.
7. DigitalBodleian: 914,832 images and counting at the digital portal of Oxford University’s Bodleian Library, through which you can do your own curation and share “collections” with students (or friends!). A very diverse and visual database, including some great ephemera, which I also love to teach with: I’ve got to cover both the “old imperialism” and the New in my European and World History courses, and I think some educational ephemera will illustrate the transition.
8. The BritishLibrary, of course, because it has everything. I like the smaller, more curated collections, the “Turning the Pages” feature for complete texts, and when I am teaching medieval history (not this semester), the digitized illuminated manuscripts collection is indispensable. This is my favorite image of Henry VIII: from another anniversary exhibition and his own personal psalter: in the bedroom!
9. HarvardDigitalCollections, of course, because they have everything: 6 million objects assembled from all of Harvard’s libraries, which you can search through with purpose or browse through an array of diverse topic collections. Because Salem is so source-challenged, I’ve come to rely on the Colonial North America collection quite a bit for this blog, but I use several of the other collections regularly for teaching. Then I just jump in from time to time: another rabbit hole: tread with caution!
10. IDEA: Isabella D’Este Archive at the University of North Carolina: I wanted to include one specialized site which demonstrates the full potential of what digital learning can encompass, and this is it. IDEA is an open-access digital “environment” dedicated to the life and letters of Isabella D’Este, the marchesa of Mantua (1490-1539). Isabella was by no means a “representative” Renaissance woman, but she left a blazing multi-disciplinary, interdisciplinary trail, which is explored here in creative ways, including a wonderful, truly virtual, replication of her personal studiolo. I love to go here/there, and I bet you will too.
The incomparable Isabella D’Este and a site worthy of her.
I generally post a book list around this time of year: my favorite books of the past year, books I want for Christmas, books I’m reading or assigning for my spring courses, books I want to read over the holiday break. This list is all of that except for the first category: I haven’t read much this past year because I’ve been working so hard—writing myself, teaching, and reading to teach—and so I really can’t play favorites. This was not a leisurely year and there is very little fiction on this list, and even very little history unrelated to my teaching: very little American history in particular.To a certain extent, this blog has been an exercise in discovering the American history which I avoided from high school: I’ve learned a lot but now I’m kind of done—it seems a bit repetitive to me. Other worlds call, and new books in my own fields are piling up! I’ll never be done with the histories of architecture (structure and landscape) and material culture though—and folklore, though nothing of that genre caught my eye this year. So proceeding in chronological order, here are the books which did.
These books are all for my courses and an endless writing project which I hope to bring to fruition in the coming year. Simon de Montfort is one of those guys like Sir Philip Sidney: a glamorous representative of his age, in this case the thirteenth century, who has a very dramatic story which students love and which can also represent the best (anti-absolutism) and worst (antisemitism) of the time. I’ve read everything about de Montfort, and this book, by University of Lancaster Lecturer Sophie Thérèse Ambler, is very good, full of details and analysis which will enhance my teaching. I will be reading Renaissance Futurities and Gardens for Gloriana for pleasure and for context for own work over the break, and I am considering Walter Ralegh and Elizabethan Globalism for sections and courses on European expansion in the early modern era, although the latter is also an absolutely gorgeous book that could double as a more casual coffee-table text. Climate history is absolutely essential right now, as as the periods I teach encompass both the “Medieval Warm Period” and the “Little Ice Age” I’m always on the hunt for fresh environmental perspectives: Nature’s Mutiny is a potential adoption for several of my courses but I have to read it over the break to gauge its accessibility.
These are all books I WANT or want to read: I think Inventing Boston would inform my understanding of Salem craftsmanship in the same key era, Mark Girouard’s classic Life in the English Country House has been reissued in a stunning edition by the Folio Society this year with photographs from Country Life and a binding illustration by architectural artist John Pumfrey, and I collect Penguin clothbound editions by Coralie Bickford-Smith. I’m not sure I buy into Orlando Figes’ themes of European unity and modernity in the nineteenth century, but that is an era with which I need to engage, again. I’ve always been fascinated with Frank Lloyd Wright’s professional and personal life, and who doesn’t want to read about English Country House parties? Oh, and in addition to Sandition, I did want to read one other novel this year if only for the local reference in its title, but no, I cannot read Lucy Ellman’s 1000-page Ducks, Newburyport at this particular time: I just don’t have the ability (or the time) to dwell on a strung-out sentence of rambling thoughts, as experimental and interesting as it/ they may be. Maybe next year, or the year after.
I don’t believe that I’ve posted on books that I’ve read, or am reading, or want to read in quite some time: it seems like this whole past year has been consumed by the dislocation of our local history rather than more pleasurable pursuits! In years past, I always rounded up what I read–even before I started blogging—as a form of reflection, and December is obviously the best time for that. This year was odd not only because of the PEM problem, but also because I’ve been on sabbatical this fall and am writing my own book—so I’ve been reading primary sources and very specialized scholarly texts for the most part, not the sort of books that are going to rate inclusion in a top ten list aimed at a general audience. On weekends and at night I worked through a more entertaining stack by my bedside. I’ve always been a content reader even when I’m not reading for work: some history outside my period, lots of natural history, all sorts of books about books, and books about art and various types of design. I like to read about food in historical or cultural contexts, but I don’t really like to cook. I like to read about beverages in historical and cultural context as well, and I do like to mix drinks (and drink them). Not much fiction, and the occasional guide depending on what’s going on in my life. The first three books on this list intersect with my professional and private interests a bit, the rest are just representative of my varied interests, and the last book is a work of fiction, and one of the best books I read all year.
My book is actually based on Renaissance handbooks, but not handbooks as specialized, and as beautiful, as the one reproduced, in its first English translation, in Pasta forNightingales, an Italian orinthological study by Pietro Olina produced in 1622 with watercolor illustrations produced for the “Paper Museum” of the Roman collector and scholar Cassiano dal Pozzo. The text features all sorts of charming contemporary ways to relate to birds, including a chickpea pasta recipe for nightingales. This is just the kind of intersection—of folklore and emerging “science”— that I’m hoping to capture in my book. The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books, by Edward Wilson-Lee, tells the story of Christopher Columbus’s illegitimate son, Hernando Colón, and his thirty-year quest to assemble–and organize–the largest private library in Europe, a collection that sadly went to waste after his death. It’s not just Colón’s constant purchasing of books from all over Europe that makes this book interesting, but also his efforts to catalog them: their problem looks slight in comparison to ours, but Renaissance Europeans actually suffered (a bit) from “information overload” in the first decades of print. I’ve always learned a lot from Theodore Rabb—in graduate school and throughout my career–and the essays in Why Does Michelangelo Matter? address one of my key teaching goals: the integration of the visual arts into historical analysis. Jumping back and then forward in time: ancient history is not my favorite era, much less the horrible twentieth century, but I love Mary Beard and I wanted to read something about the Great War in this centennial year of its end, so I’ve got The Roman Triumph and Jörn Leonhard’s Pandora’s Box. A History of the First World War on my list.
I am including Susan Orlean’s The Library Book, about the devastating destruction by fire of the Los Angeles Angeles Public Library in 1986 in particular and the impact of libraries on public and private lives in general, on my list even though I haven’t read it. It just seems appropriate for this year when I was obsessed with the loss of a library (and she is such a good writer): it’s nearing the top of my bedside stack. My food book this year (so far) is Dan Stone’s The Food Explorer, which is really about a botanist bureaucrat who transformed the American diet through his discoveries in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. On to drink: I’m including a mixology book because it’s been a difficult year: gin is my spirit of choice and I’m always looking for the perfect gin and lemon drink, and Gin Made me Do It helped me to refine one. I really am a material girl at heart, and an anglophile, and I live in a townhouse, so Ros Byam Shaw’s’s Perfect English Townhouse, showcasing 14 stunning homes, is perfect for me. Finally, my last pick: Francis Spufford’s amazing novel of colonial New York City: Golden Hill. Rarely do I read fiction, even rarer still, historical fiction: essentially I have to know the author to indulge in that genre. But, much like Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, this book just submerged me into into its time and setting. I devoured it: you will too, I bet.
Fair warning: this blog is going into a very random phase, even more random than usual. Normally around this time of year I would have some sort of Labor Day or “Back to School” post, but as I have just started a sabbatical I am unaccountable to any calendar but that of my own projects–of which I have several. I might post on these occasionally, or I might use the blog to take a break from scholarship. Faithful readers know how I feel about Salem’s ever-intensifying Haunted Happenings, so know not to count on me for any October coverage: last year I got out of town for six straight weekends from September to November and that worked very well for my piece of mind. That’s the standard advice offered to anyone who is critical of Halloween in Salem—embrace it or leave town; you know what you were getting into–but in my case it is actually good advice! Fortunately my study is way up on the third floor of our house–and in back, overlooking the garden rather than the street–so when I’m not traveling I can hide away, far from the maddening crowds. So that’s the setting for the next few months, and I’m not sure what I’ll come up with for this space/place. Today is a good case in point: I was looking into the medical use of several plants in the sixteenth century, including artemisia and byrony, and found myself among the digitized manuscripts of the British Library. One manuscript in particular, Giovanni Cadamosto’s Herbalwith accompanying treatises on food, poisons, remedies, and the properties of stones (MS Harley 3736; late 15th or early 16th century) provided me with a little escape/break, mostly because of the amazing roots of several of the plants illustrated within.
I am familiar with this manuscript, but I never realized just how many fantastic roots it contained: suddenly that’s all I could see! We all know about that of the magical Mandrake, of course, but that’s just one of eleven by my count. Anthropomorphism always interests me, but in this case it’s a bit perplexing, as this text represents a more realistic Renaissance attempt to draw from nature rather than just relying on traditional motifs. These roots contradict that naturalism, but then again we’re in that transitional time, when a bit (or more) of whimsy could be retained. I’m still working on the plant identifications: “Antora” might by a yellow variety of aconitum or monkshood, “Dragontea” might be dracunculus vulgaris, or dragon lily, and “Palma Christi” must be the castor bean plant, which went by that common designation.
I have always focused on hearts for St. Valentine’s Day and this year will be no exception: even in the midst of my Phillips frenzy. Actually, I could showcase some Phillips materials because for some reason, among the thousands of materials in its possession, the PEM in all of its wisdom has chosen to digitize valentines, as opposed to, say, invaluable records about the trades in pepper, or opium, or slaves, or all the papers of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s family. But featuring these scraps would be too easy; and I’d rather leave Salem for a while and go back to a more distant and detached time: the Renaissance. There and then we find a man literally draped with titles: René of Anjou, Count of Provence, Duke of Anjou, Bar and Lorraine, and (titular) King of Jerusalem and Sicily, who was associated in one way or another with all the celebrated figures of the fifteenth century: he carried on an influential correspondence with Cosimo de Medici, was comrade-in-arms with Joan of Arc, fathered a Queen of England, and commissioned Christopher Columbus. “Good King René” was in many ways the perfect Renaissance Man, not only for his associations but also for his activities: in addition to his military and political roles he was also a noted author and patron of the arts. The Angevin Duke idealized courtly life and love in several compositions, including Les Coeur d’ Amours Espris, which is alternatively translated as The Book of the Heart Possessed/Seized by Love or (my favorite), The Book of the Love–Smitten Heart(1457).
Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des manuscrits, Français 24399
I think there are six extant copies of the manuscript, to which the illuminations were added later. Above is text from the manuscript in the Bibliothèque nationale; there is another in the Austrian National Library (Codex Vindobonensis 2597), with illuminations by Barthélemy d’Eyck. Both are beautiful in their variant ways, as the heart-sick Duke narrates a dream journey of the Knight-Heart (wearing a spectacular helmet festooned with winged hearts), in league with Desire and in search of his lady, Mercy. There is trouble along the way, of course, including an encounter with the truly monstrous dwarf, Jealousy. A more aesthetic moment occurs when the Knight-Heart is rescued from the River of Tears by Hope, having been deposited there by Melancholy.
The tone is sentimental throughout, but things lighten up at the end of the French manuscript, in which hearts are picked, lassoed, espaliered, caged, and in one way or another, captured, trained, and no longer allowed to run free. And here you have perfect valentines for René’s time–and ours.
He awakes, and immediately writes down his dream. …which is all here!
In Salem, December 5 has been celebrated as krampusnacht more often than St. Nicholas’s Eve over the past few years, but I’m following up on a post about the latter today. I want to connect the forerunner of Santa Klaus to pawnbrokers, through the symbolism of three golden balls. This is not an original association, but a reader referenced it several years ago, and I always wanted to connect the dots, so this day seems like a perfect time to do it! I think that the traditional pawnbrokers’ sign of three golden balls attached to a (straight or curved) bar is recognized universally in the west, or at least in Europe: here’s a John Crowther watercolor of Aldersgate Street in London in 1886 with both a traditional symbolic trade sign and a sign of the trade sign, and a photograph from Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York of an old pawnbroker’s sign that is apparently about to vanish—it might be already gone.
John Crowther, Aldersgate Street, London, 1886, Guildhall Library; the trade signs of the defunct S&G Gross Pawnbrokers in New York City from Vanishing New York.
Nearly everyone traces the origins of the three balls back to the Medici family for several reasons: the Medici crest features balls (palle) prominently, their financial roles in Renaissance Europe, which can somehow (not at all clear to me) serve as a predecessor for pawnbroking, and the fact that they were Italian, like the Lombards who became the first Christian moneylenders in medieval Europe, when usury (charging interest for a loan of money) was expressly against canon law. There is also an old yarn about a monster, Charlemagne, and the balls representing defensive dings in a shield, adopted by the Medici as proof of their valor, but I don’t think I need to delve too deeply into that tale. The Medici had as many as twelve balls on their crests before the fifteenth century, when they finally settled on six. Not three.
The Medici Crest with its distinctive six palle on the leaf of a 15th Century MS of Propertius, Elegies, Oxford University Bodleian Library MS Canon. Class. Lat 31.
Raymond de Roover, a prominent mid-century medieval economic historian, wrote a short article just after World War II in which he asserted a general connection between the heraldry of all of the moneylending families of late medieval Europe, each and every one featuring spheres on their crest to symbolize coins, and modern pawnbrokers’ signs. He discounts a distinct Medici connection, but also the St. Nicholas one that I favor, with the argument that such a marginal occupation as moneylending (and by association, pawnbroking) could not possibly be associated with as esteemed a saint as St. Nicholas of Bari (or more correctly, Myra), who was known, even beyond the expectations of your average saint, for his charity. But I believe that Professor de Roover is incorrect: perceptions of St. Nicholas clearly focus on the ball symbolism later associated with pawnbrokers, and one of the key links between these two disparate entities is the dowry, an absolute requirement for every Renaissance bride. The most famous example of St. Nicholas’s generosity, depicted time and time again by nearly every Renaissance artist, is the aid he gave to an impoverished family of three daughters of marriageable age: under cover of darkness he threw three purses (increasingly depicted as golden balls) through the window so that the girls would have dowries and avoid destitution or even worse, prostitution. From the mid-fourteenth century through the sixteenth, this scene is played out again and again on canvas: the paintings below represent the beginning and the end of this era–during which St. Nicholas was always pictured with his identifying attribute: the three golden balls.
Paolo Veneziano, The Charity of St. Nicholas, 1430-45, GalleriadegliUffizi; Girolamo Macchietti, The Charity of St. Nicholas of Bari, c. 1555-1560; NationalGalleryofArt, London; Taddeo Crivelli, St. Nicholas, 1469, J. Paul Getty Museum; Sebald Beham, Saint Nicholas, NationalGalleryofArt, Washington, D.C.
This same period is also one in which public institutional charitable funds emerged, first the famous Monte delle doti, which enabled Florentine fathers to invest in the city’s public-funded debt and ensure a sufficient dowry when their daughters were of marriageable age, and later in the fifteenth century the Monte di pietà, a form of public-administered pawnbroking designed to provide an alternative to avaricious private moneylending. The Florentine state, and other states as well, were quite willing to engage in official lending, especially if it could finance its public debt and alleviate a pressing social concern at the same time. With its system of collateralized lending and low interest rates, the Monte di pietà, in particular, represented a beneficialChristian form of lending in contrast to the old Lombard system, inspired and reflected by all those images of the three-ball-bearing St. Nicholas, who eventually became the patron saint of pawnbrokers.
Coat of St. Nicholas on the Christ Church gate of Canterbury Cathedral, @Neil Holmes; Leslie Jones photograph of Boston pawn shop signs in the 1920s, Boston Public Library.
This is the only October weekend for which I didn’t have travel plans which would get me out of Salem for the entire time: consequently I found myself at home on what is usually one of the worst days of Haunted Happenings, when hundreds of motorcycles invade the city for the annual MDA Annual Witch Ride. It’s for charity so we are not supposed to complain, but of course I always do because it seems like insult to injury–but this year it didn’t seem as loud or annoying as usual while I was hunkered down at home. On Friday and Saturday we were in Provincetown where my husband and stepson fished (and swam!) at the very tip of Cape Cod; I hung out with them for a while but then went into the very busy downtown. When it got too busy for me I retreated onto the side streets and up into the Pilgrim Monument which overlooks everything. It always amuses me to see this Renaissance campanile overlooking the outer Cape: it seems so out of place and such an odd monument to the Pilgrims who must be the most anti-Renaissance people I can think of—but somehow everything works in Provincetown.
And speaking of the anti-Renaissance, on the way home we were compelled by the cosplay enthusiasm of my teenaged stepson to stop at King Richard’s Faire, an annual Renaissance fair held in the wilds of southeastern Massachusetts. I don’t really think I can explain this experience in sentences and the only words I can come up with are cleavage and capes.Clearly historians of the Renaissance—myself included—have done a terrible job at articulating even its basic chronology as everyone from the Vikings to Marie Antoinette seemed to be present at this affair! And it was raining….so we were all mucking about in the mud. The only retreat from this nightmare was the car, where I happily read a book about the Mitford sisters until the men appeared. Then it was back to Salem on Saturday night for buses and motorcycles and a stack of papers on the Crusades to correct on Sunday. I retreated to the garden, where there was both (relative) peace and (still) quite a few flowers, thanks to our very warm fall.
Provincetown above, including a colorful-yet-solemn “Silent Witnesses” installation beneath the Pilgrim Monument, bearing witness to victims of domestic violence; some 17th-century plague doctors at the Renaissance Faire in Carver below; that’s it for the Renaissance Faire pictures!
Home in Salem: a peaceful day in the garden with Trinity and a distant roar. The blog has helped me keep track of changes in the garden better than any journal I’ve ever (intermittently) kept–and there’s a lot more green out there than in previous Octobers.
Is it just me (here in Salem) or is Tarot experiencing a major resurgence? If so, I would point to our own anxieties and its flexibility, which encourages and drives myriad interpretations and paths: the Economist kicked off the year with its annual predictions issue featuring a spread of Tarot cards suggesting a dystopian future for “Planet Trump”. Regardless of their meaning, I love visual metaphors that are enduring and flexible, or so flexible that they are enduring: reflective of a particular era’s beliefs and values time and time again. One Tarot card that seems to represent this genre well is trump XII, The Hanged Man, which can represent a state of suspension, punishment, suffering, self-sacrifice, and also a critical crossroads at which one has the opportunity to change course. In the first Tarot decks, produced in fifteenth-century Italy and France, he was simply the traitor, perhaps reflecting contemporary “shame paintings” of conspirators and criminals, who were hanged by one leg for all to see.
Hanged Men from the Visconti-Sforza deck, c. 1428-50, Cary Collection of Playing Cards, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University and Morgan Library & Museum ; Samuel Y. Edgerton’s CLASSIC book on pittura infamante, with one of Andrea del Sarto’s drawings (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence) on the cover and inside.
The hanged man crosses the alps and is presented as Le Pendu in Tarot decks produced in early modern France and Flanders in the characteristic hanging-by-one-leg pose, (sometimes with bags of coins weighing him down in reference to the ultimate traitor, Judas). It’s important to note that before the end of the eighteenth century and the publication of French occultist Antoine Court de Gébelin’s The Primitive World Analyzed and Compared with the Modern World (1773-1782), Tarot cards were merely for play. The Primitive World asserted an ancient Egyptian lineage and ascribed much more power to all of the cards, and replaced the Hanged Man dangling from a rope to Prudence in the presence of a snake. A few years after the publication of de Gébelin’s tome, Jean-Baptiste Alliette reinforced and popularized his claims and offered up a more practical approach to Tarot practice in How to Entertain Yourself with the Deck of Cards called Tarot (1785), completing its transition to an occult art. The Hanged Man reappears in the nineteenth century, looking much the same as his pre-modern form but with enhanced powers and meaning.
The Hanged Man in a Flemish Tarot deck from the eighteenth century, and Oscar Wirth’s 1889 deck, British Museum.
The troubled twentieth century was a golden age for Tarot, beginning with the deck that popularized and standardized its “divinatory meanings”: the Rider-Waite Deck, with illustrations by Pamela Coleman Smith, which was first published in 1909 and reissued in a major way in 1970. In A.E. Waite’s accompanying Pictorial Key to the Tarot, the Hanged Man is described as “a card of profound significance, but all the significance is veiled…..the face expresses deep entrancement (represented by the saintly halo), not suffering…the figure, as a whole, suggests life in suspension, but life and not death”. While Tarot meanings were widely disseminated and standardized by Rider-Waite, the archetypal images were subjected to a range of modern interpretations over the next century. Perhaps the second most influential deck of the twentieth century was the “Thoth Tarot”, a collaboration between Aleister Crowley and Lady Frieda Harris which was published in 1969, well after both artists’ deaths. Much more multidisciplinary, the Thoth Deck broke the mold and inspired decades of creative interpretations–“traditional” (whatever that means when referencing Tarot), commercial, allegorical and abstract. Several Crowley-Harris paintings, the Hanged Men among them, were exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 2013, which I think began this current preoccupation with Tarot. There have been several Tarot exhibitions over the past few years, encompassing everything from emblematic installations to hooked rugs, as the Tarot cards are “reimagined” over and over again. Right here in Salem, photographs from Jim Bostick’s “Salem Arcanum” Tarot series, featuring a Hanged Man who seems both traditional and modern and definitely illustrates “life in suspension”, are currently on view in the October exhibition at the Mercy Tavern.
A century of Hanged Men: Pamela Coleman Smith, from the Rider-Waite deck, 1909; Aleister Crowley and Lady Frieda Harris, 1969; Dürer & Bruegel Hanged Men by Giocinto Gaudenzi, 1989, and Pietro Alligo & Guido Zibordi Marchesi, 2003 accessed from this amazing site which showcases Tarot through the ages; the Housewives Tarot by Jude Buffum and Paul Kepple for Quirk Books, 2003; Woodcut @ HorseAndHair, 2013; photographs by Ayla El-Moussa for 25thCentury, 2016; and Jim Bostick of Salem, 2017.