Tag Archives: Renaissance

Hastened Hearts

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 valentinesas 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 LoveSmitten Heart (1457).

Heart 3

Heart 5Bibliothèque 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.

Heart collage

heart 2collage

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.

Heart 25

Heart 28

Heart 3 collage

Hearts 27

René_d'Anjou_Le_livre_du_[...]_btv1b60005361He awakes, and immediately writes down his dream. …which is all here!

Three Golden Balls

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.

Three Golden Balls John Crowther

Pawnbroker sign NYC 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.

Three Golden Balls Medici MS 15th CThe 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.

Three Golden Balls SCALA_ARCHIVES_10310197649 1340s

Three Golden Balls ANGLIG_10313766773

Three Golden Balls AGETTYIG_10313913291Crivelli 1469

Three Golden Balls ANGAIG_10313967631 Paolo Veneziano, The Charity of St. Nicholas, 1430-45, Galleria degli Uffizi; Girolamo Macchietti, The Charity of St. Nicholas of Bari, c. 1555-1560; National Gallery of Art, London; Taddeo Crivelli, St. Nicholas, 1469, J. Paul Getty Museum; Sebald Beham, Saint Nicholas, National Gallery of Art, 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 beneficial Christian 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.

Three Golden Balls HGP 342650 (1) Canterbury

Three Golden Balls Boston Leslie JonesCoat 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.

Engage and Retreat

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 Beach

Provincetown Collage2

Provincetown Cottage

Provincetown Cottage 2

Provincetown downtownProvincetown 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!

Renaissance Faire

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.Fall Garden 8

Fall Garden 3

Fall Garden 2

Fall Garden 5

Fall Garden 4

Fall Garden 11

Fall Garden 7

Fall Garden 12

Fall Garden

The Hanged Man

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 Man collage

Shame Paintings collageHanged 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.

Tarot Pack BM

Tarot Worth BMThe 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.

Hanged Man 1909

Hanged Man Crowley-Harris

Hanged Men collage2

HWT collage

Hanged Man Woodcut

Minimalist Tarot


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 25th Century, 2016; and Jim Bostick of Salem, 2017.

Winter and Spring

Looking out the window on the last day of winter 2017, a grey snow-threatening day, it seemed as if the seasons were in battle, with Winter struggling to muster up the energy for one last blast before Spring inevitably prevailed. By the end of the day the sun came out, and I interpreted this as the triumph of Spring! The seasons have been personified from the classical Horae and their Renaissance revival on, but my wistful weather musings were influenced more by materialism than any intellectual curiosity or poetic sensibility on my part: I was engaging in a favorite Sunday pastime of browsing upcoming auction lots, and came across Louis Rhead’s watercolor Lady Spring banishing Father Winter, circa 1890, in an upcoming Swann auction of  illustration art.

M34760-7 001

Louis Rhead, Lady Spring banishing Father Winter, c. 1890

Of all the seasonal personifications, only Winter is portrayed as masculine, but not exclusively: perhaps this is because Winter wasn’t really recognized as a season in the classical era so he/she is more gender-flexible. Rhead portrays “Father” or “Old Man” Winter in the European folklore tradition, but other artists of  his era preferred the all-feminine “four seasons”. Walter Crane’s Masque of the Four Seasons (c. 1903) seems to mirror Botticelli’s Primavera (c. 1482) except for the feminization of the brooding, blue Winter, which the latter depicted as Zephyrus, who effects the transformation of Flora into Spring, with her ever-present basket of flowers.

Winter and Springe Masque of the Four Seasons Walter Crane


Walter Crane, Masque of the Four Seasons & Sandro Botticelli, Allegory of Spring, or Primavera (c. 1482), Uffizi Gallery Museum

Winter and spring are feminine companions/opponents in Alphonse Mucha’s seasonal series from 1896, women are in season in Henri Meunier’s Four Seasons series from 1900, and sullen Winter looks on the more cheerful and cherubic seasons in Henry Wallis’s drawing from the same year. The seasons become more strident in the twentieth century: charging rather than prancing about the garden in William Walsh’s series of covers for Women’s Home Companion, 1931. Riding in on her unicorn, Spring definitely looks triumphant.

Winter and Spring Mucha collage

Seasons collage Meunier

Four Seasons V and A

Winter and Spring 1931

Alphonse Mucha, Winter and Spring from The Seasons series (1896); Henri Meunier, Winter and Spring from the Four Seasons series (1900); Henry Wallis, The Four Seasons (1900); William P. Walsh, May (Spring) and February (Winter) 1931 covers of Women’s Home Companion.


Pomanders and the Plague

Early December is busy for any academic, so just about the only handcrafted Christmas decoration/gift I can manage is the humble pomander. I wrap rubber bands and ribbons around oranges and lemons as Martha Stewart advises, and then stick in the cloves. But it doesn’t matter how many beautiful photographs of Martha’s Christmas vignettes I peruse for pomander-inspiration, I’m always going to think about the plague when I make these things. Given the contemporary belief in the spread of the pestilence through a fog-like miasma of foul air, a corollary faith in the preventative pomander was equally long-held over the late medieval and early modern eras. If you could not smell the plague, you could not contract it. Sweet-smelling herbs, encased in little silver balls which were also called pomanders if you were rather rich, never left your side, indoors or out. Paintings of patrons with pomander in hand became almost conventional–these little balls were the symbol of an infectious age.


Hanneman, Adriaen, c.1601-1671; John Evelyn (1620-1706)

Perfect Pomanders present and past: the portrait of seventeenth-century diarist John Evelyn (©Shakespeare Birthplace Trust) by a follower of Adriaen Hanneman features one of the most modern pomanders I have ever seen!

The Evelyn portrait above is very unusual: I suspect this was a hollowed-out orange filled with the usual plague herbs but it looks like one of my little pomanders! Much more common in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were images of sitters with silver and gold pomanders in hand, chained, ever-present: a display of wealth and fortitude. The Flemish sitters below were far more typical in their presentation: the plague was endemic, it could strike at any time, so you must be ever ready with your “preservatives”. They might as well be encased in a spectacular piece of jewelry.

de Vos, Cornelis, c.1584-1651; Portrait of a Lady


Cornelis de Vos, Portrait of a Lady, ©The Wallace Collection; Heinrich vom Rhein zum Mohren, a Copy after Conrad Faber von Creuznach, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

So what was inside those little chalices (or “swete” bags if you were less wealthy)? There are lots of “recipes”, with many constants and some variation. Here are a couple of concoctions from the Certain Necessary Directions ; As well for the Cure of the Plague As for Preventing the Infection approved and offered up by the College of Physicians in 1665, a terrible plague year. For the common sort: angelica, rue, zedoary (a type of tumeric), myrrh, camphor, labdanum (most of these don’t actually sound very common–I think most people just grabbed some rue when they went outside). For the “richer sort”: “citron pilles”, angelica, zedoary, red rose petals, sandlewood, lignum aloes, gallic moschat, stozar benzoin, camphor, labdanum, gum tragacanth, and rosewater.



Pomander recipes with a seventeenth-century skull pomander, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Well, of course, none of these things actually worked to preserve the body from plague. Yet despite their ineffectiveness, the major plague “preservatives” survived through evolution into much less serious substances: vinegar–a major plague fighter–evolves into vinaigrette, theriac, the most powerful supposed plague antidote, into sweet treacle, and pomanders into perfume and sachets and various forms of aromatherapy, as well as Christmas decorations.


Diptyque Paris Pomander Candle.

Fantastic Beasts (and where to find them)

When I need to find fantastic beasts I know precisely where to go: straight to Conrad Gessner’s five-volume Historiae animalium (1551-1558) or to its English variant, Edward Topsell’s History of FourFooted Beasts and Serpents (1658), both of which are illustrated extensively and digitized. Why do I need fantastic beasts? Principally for teaching purposes: there’s nothing better to illustrate the sense of the wonder of discovery in the early modern era along with a fledgling (in Topsell’s case very fledgling) scientific empiricism. Both authors describe what they have seen or heard about these beasts, and that is the difference between the early modern approach and the modern one: hearing about things seems to be just as valid as seeing them in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Consequently a unicorn can be just as real as a rhinoceros, as neither had actually been seen. What I generally do with the images and descriptions of these texts is examine very real, even mundane animals side by side with more exotic, fantastic ones, and compare the details of their descriptions: a more scientific empiricism is evident in descriptions of dogs, horses and sheep, while the much shorter chapters on camels and lions and tigers–and their more mysterious but fellow four-footed beasts–rely on ancient “authorities” and “sundry learned” authors. We do not see the hearsay purged from natural history texts until the later seventeenth and eighteenth century, and thereafter fantastic beasts roam into the realm of the imagination.



You can see how dependent Topsell (bottom) was on Gessner (top) in their comparative illustrations of camels, along with many of the other beasts–both common and exotic–featured in both books. Gesner’s peacock is particularly beautiful, and he also includes a North American turkey.


Beavers are very interesting to both Gessner and Topsell, as the European beaver had become very scarce, if not extinct, in the region and its American counterparts were the source of both valuable fur and a musk-like substance called castoreum, which is secreted by both male and female beavers every spring. Gessner and Topsell both feature rather ferocious beavers, and the latter added an alternate view exposing the supposed source of castoreum.




Now for some truly fantastic beasts: the unicorns of Gessner and Topsell, a satyr from Gessner, along with some sea monsters and a seven-headed hydra.






Topsell’s Baboon looks rather wondrous/monstrous, but his manticore, a composite beast of ancient Persian origin, and the legendary lamia, a vampire-like siren, represent a more threatening form of hybrid monster. Here be dragons and sea serpents too, as well as beast from the New World (where wonders abound) called the Su, all part of God’s plan.






topsell-su1 Illustrations from Conrad Gessner’s  Historiae animalium (1551-1558) and Edward Topsell’s History of FourFooted Beasts and Serpents (1658), National Library of Medicine and University of Houston.

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