08 August 2009

The Empress and her Riding Hat

On 17 December 1432, Bertrandon de Broquière went to Ag. Sophia for the service of the Three Hebrew Children in the Fiery Furnace but he spent the service watching John VIII with his mother Helena, his wife Maria, and his brother Thomas, Despot of the Morea. Actually, Bertrandon wasn't interested in anyone but Maria, a "tresbelle dame." He thought she was a honey.

Five years later, Pero Tafur was invited several times to go hunting with John and Maria several times. He left a brief description:

The Empress rides astride, with two stirrups, and when she desires to mount, two lords hold up a rich cloth, raising their hands aloft and turning their backs upon her, so that when she throws her leg across the saddle no part of her person can be seen.
Although Pero Tafur had other, conversational, encounters with Maria, that is the most he does in the way of description. Compare it with Bertrandon's account. He was clearly hoping to see her legs:
I went all day without food and drink, almost to vespers, very late, to see the Empress who had rested in a residence nearby which seemed to me as beautiful as a church, to see her come out and how she mounted the horse. She only had with her two woman and two or three elderly men, and three of the kind of people the Turks have to guard their women. When she came out of the residence someone brought a bench from which she could mount and then they brought out a very beautiful roncey draped with rich and beautiful bardings. Going beside the bench, one of the elderly notables took a long mantle which she carried and then went to the other side of the horse and raised up the mantel with his hands as high as he could. She put a foot in the stirrup and then mounted the horse like a man, and then he threw the mantel on her shoulders.
There are several elements in this narrative that raise questions, such as why wasn't there a more private place where she could do this, but it is difficult to find information with which to approach the questions. The other thing thing Bertrandon mentioned is that she wore one of those long pointed Greek hats
on the point of which she had three golden plumes which suited her very well. She seemed as beautiful to me as she had before. She came so close to me that someone said I should follow behind, and it seems there is nothing to say, except that her face was made-up, which was not necessary because she was young and fair. One her ears, hanging from each one, was a large flat earring with many stones, more rubies than anything else. It appeared, when the Empress mounted her horse, that the two women with her were equally beautiful, and they wore mantles and hats.**
So riding astride, the Empress and her two women rode the length of the city of Constantinople, from Agia Sophia to the Blachernae Palace up a steep hill overlooking the Golden Horn, in the December dark. Accounts in this period offer intriguing glimpses of a combination of formality and informality among the royals. Take Pero Tafur again:
At the entrance to the Palace . . . is an open loggia of marble with stone benches round it, and stones, like tables, raised on pillars in front of them, placed end to end. Here are many books and ancient writings and histories, and on one side are gaming boards so that the Emperor's house may always be well supplied. Inside, the house is badly kept, except certain parts where the Emperor, the Empress, and attendants can live, although cramped for space.
A little more can be said about that hat, but only a little. Extensive hat-searching turned up three images of pointed Greek hats. This first is from an early 15th-century Italian painting which I have not been able to identify, but it is surely based on an impression of Manuel II when he was in Italy and Paris between 1399 and 1402.

were fascinated by Manuel and his hats, the way the Italians were fascinated by John and his hats five years after Bertrandon saw the hat with golden feathers. They took up Manuel's beard and curled hair and imperial outfits with great enthusiasm, using him to portray ancient philosophers and wise men and one of the Three Kings.

There is another pointed hat, found in the Très Belles Heures, in another image of Manuel, when he was visiting in Paris. Only one other pointed Greek hat has turned up for me, painted by Carpaccio more than eighty years later in St. Stephen Preaching at Jerusalem, but no one would wear it with golden feathers and ruby earrings. I am seeing Maria's hat as being made of elaborate fabric like that of the philosopher-king, but of the style of the Belles Heures which seems much more suited for riding.

I have already used the picture of the lady above to represent Maria. It is by Pisanello, and appears to be the same lady as the Princess in his fresco of St. George and the Princess of Trebizond. She, too, is young and fair, almost as if seen in a dream, and does not look at all like young women in Italian paintings. Pisanello drew, modeled, and painted John extensively, and I like to think John had a portrait of Maria with him.

[Later comment:  I do not think this is a portrait of Maria, although an Italian art historian does.  I am much more inclined to think it based on women of the Malatesta-Gonzaga family and originally intended as a portrait of Cleofe Palaiologina. See here and here for partial thoughts on this.  I have not yet published my reasons for this, as I am still in the process of gathering evidence for AND against.]

** Go here for a little more on Maria's wardrobe.

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