31 October 2009

Sophia of Montferrat

 This faceless Byzantine queen will represent Sophia of Montferrat: it was Sophia's face that was supposed to be the problem.

The short version of the story says that Pope Martin V gave permission for the sons of Manuel II to marry women of the Latin rite. This would do wonders to promote the Papacy's goal of church Union on the one side, and on the other, produce military aid and money for the defense of Constantinople. The first brides, papal nieces, were shipped out in the fall of 1420: Sophia of Montferrat to Constantinople to marry John,  and Cleofe Malatesta to Mistra for Theodoros. 

Sophia had a huge dowry, a gracious manner, the body of a goddess, golden hair down to her feet, and apparently a face such that John refused to have anything to do with her after the wedding and coronation. She lived quietly in the palace with her Italian household and the friendship of her in-laws, Manuel II and Helena. After Manuel died, she "escaped" from Constantinople on a Genoese ship and returned to Montferrat where lived out her life in a convent.

There are problems with this story, though we can concede that he did not like her face. The first problem is that both of those brides, Sophia and Cleofe, were rejected by their husbands, and the stories of both rejections specify sexual rejection. John just ignored the marriage entirely and went on with his life, while Theodoros immediately took a six-year vow of chastity. There is a great deal of room for speculation, but the sexuality of neither man is in question. The specific area of speculation I will mention here is the fact that Manuel II had written a treatise on marriage, presented in the form of a dialogue between himself and his mother, in which he presents his reservations against marriage, and she argues for. Manuel worked on this treatise between 1417 until his death 1425, and it was widely circulated in the palace and among the 
literatiHis sons had read it and seen that the best reason their father could produce for marriage was that it was a good influence for the lower classes. He did grant the possibility of companionship, and an heir to the throne, but he clearly begrudged the necessity.

The second problem is the face. The degree of the problem has much to do with the reports, and the translations of the reports. The conventional report comes from Doukas, and this is how it goes in the conventional translation by Harry Magoulias:
Emperor John, however, was not pleased with his wife. The young woman was extremely well-proportioned in body. Her neck was shapely, her hair blondish with braids flowing down to her ankles like glimmering golden streams. Her shoulders were broad and her arms, bosom, and hands well proportioned. Her fingers were transparent. She was tall in stature and stood very straight -- but her face and lips and the malformation of her nose and eyes and eyebrows presented a most revolting composition. In general, she may be described in the words of the vulgar adage: "Lent from the front and Easter from behind." When Emperor John saw how she looked, therefore, he had no sexual relations with her nor did he ever sleep with her. Consequently, she lived alone in one of the apartments of the palace. 
Ὁ δὲ βασιλεὺς Ἰωάννης ἦν μὲ στέργων τὴν σύνοικον, ἡ κόρη γὰρ τῷ μὲν σώματι καὶ μάλα εὐάρμοστος, τράχηλος εὐειδής, θρίξ ὑποχανθίζουσα καὶ τοὺς πλοκάμους ὡς ῥύακας χρυσαυγίζοντας μέχρι τῶν ἀστραγάλων καταρεομένους ἔχουσα, ὤμους πλατεῖς καὶ βραχίονας καὶ στέρνα καὶ χεῖρας ἐμμέτρους καὶ δακτύλους κρυσταλλοειδεῖς καὶ τὴν πᾶσαν ἡλικίαν τοῦ σώματος ἀνωῤῥεπη καὶ πολὺ εἰς τὸ ὄρθιον ἱσταμένη, ὄψις δὲ καὶ χείλη καὶ ῥινὸς κατάστασις καὶ ὀφθαλμῶν καὶ ὀφρύων σύνθεσις ἀειδεστάτη, παντάπασιν ὡς ἔπος χυδαῖον εἰπεῖν, "Ἀφ´ ἐμπρὸς τεσσαρακοστὴ καὶ ὄπισθεν πάσχα." Τοιαύτην οὗν ἰδὼν ὁ βασιλεὺς Ἰωάννης οὐκ ἐμιγε τούτην, οὐδὲ τὸ παράπαν σύγκοιτος ταύτης ἐγένετο, διὸ καὶ μονάζουσα ἦν ἐν ἑνὶ τῶν κοιτώνων τοῦ παλατίου.

I have underlined two words in the Greek, the ones Magoulias translates with "malformation" and "revolting." This is how Pierre MacKay and I translate that part: 
but her face and lips, the condition of her nose, and the arrangement of her eyes and eyebrows were extremely unpleasant.

"Condition" is not "malformation," "unpleasant" is not "revolting": we read an implication of aesthetic preference rather than of deformity.

One more example of translation, or paraphrase of Doukas, this from Sylvia Ronchey: 
Il viso di Sofia era veramente brutto. Fronte, naso, denti, occhi, sopracciglia, no si salvava nulla. ’La natura’ sospirò un cortigiano ’aveva rifiutato alla sovrana ogni bellezza.’ ’Spiacevole, per non dire disgustosa’ sentensiò un altro. Dopo una bambina russa di undici anni, Giovanni Palaeologo aveva avuto in moglie da suo padre Manuele una gigantessa dalla faccia di gorgone. 

Scholarship is corrupted to turn a phrase: a giantess with the face of a gorgon.

(A parenthesis here: both Sophia and Cleofe were described by contemporaries as tall. John, and probably Theodoros, was slight and below average height, like his father. We have strong evidence of John's concern for how he was seen in public, and he could not have tolerated a wife larger than he.) 

The section quoted above is from a longer paragraph by Doukas on the Sophia episode. Doukas was not a familiar at the court though Ronchey would make him so: he reports from what he has heard or read, and much of what he relates sounds like gossip. In his paragraph are two provable errors in terms of when events happened: there is no reason to assume that any other specific detail is accurate beyond the fact of the event itself. The wisecrack he quotes typifies Byzantine humor: personal and humiliating -- Mazaris is full of it if you like this sort of thing -- and this passage has been considered quite funny in my hearing by male Byzantinists. 

Sphrantzes, who was in the palace and with the family at the time, who knew Sophia, tells us nothing but the fact of the marriage, and the fact of her departure. He was incapable of writing critically about Manuel, or John, and I suspect that more accuracy would have required criticism. Chalcocondyles, who knew the family and knew people who knew Sophia, wrote a brief account. There is no general English translation of Chalcocondyles available, but we translate it this way: 
He [Manuel] brought him [John] as wife from Italy the daughter of the ruler of Monferrat. She was pleasant in manner, but not attractive in face. Crowned with the diadem, he was made high priest and king over the Greeks. As for her, as he did not live with her, he became hostile and disagreeable to her for a time, and the wife of the emperor [Helena] noticed that her husband was behaving disagreeably and that she was very hateful to her husband . . .
καὶ ἀπὸ Ἰταλίας ἀγόμενος αὐτῷ γυναίκα τοῦ Μονφεράτου ἡγεμόνος θυγατέρα, ἐπιεικῆ μὲν τὸν τρόπον, ἀηδὴ δὲ τὴν ὄψιν, διαδήματι ταινιώσας ἀρχιερέα τε καὶ βασιλέα ἐστήσατο τοῖς Ἕλλησι. ταύτην μὲν οὖν, ὡς οὔτε συνῴκει συνεγένετο ὲς ἔχθος ἀφικόμενος καὶ ἀηδῶς ἔχων αὐτῇ ἐπί τινα χρόνον, καὶ ἧ τε γυνή τοῦ βασιλέως ἐνεώρα ὲς αὐτὴν τὸν ἄνδρα ἁηδῶς ἔχοντα, καὶ ἀπεχθάνεσθαι τῷ ἀνδρὶ ὲς τὰ μάλιστα . . .

It is not a great deal different, but Chalcocondyles does not need to exploit Sophia for compare-and-contrast, or for amusement, and his emphasis is on John's unkindness, not on Sophia's appearance which to him was not much of a problem. Doukas emphasizes the reverse.

For almost any word, particularly adjectives, a translation can be selected from a spectrum of choices.  How does one choose? Does the translator decide in advance the meaning the words need to produce? Does the translator take the most sensational of dictionary alternatives? The most conservative? The one that will cover the most possibilities? How does the translator distinguish between Greek ideas of feminine attractiveness, and a medical condition? 

So we really don't know the problem with Sophia's face, beyond the fact that it was most unfortunate where the Greeks were concerned, but this suggests Chalcocondyles heard a version that finds more fault with John's behavior than with her face. And what Chalcocondyles tells us of Theodoros' behavior toward Cleofe in the first years makes it clear that the problem was his. Sons and daughters of rulers knew they would be sold off in one political arrangement or another: that was a given. There are too many questions about this one -- the first being: would the Marchese of Montferrat and the Pope have actually shipped out a genuinely deformed bride? Women with serious disfigurements, if upper-class, usually disappeared into some convent early on. 

What we do know is that Sophia was humiliated by her uncle, the Pope, by her father, by Manuel, and by John, for the sake of a political solution to a problem that was not a problem, and another problem that had no solution.

When she slipped away from Constantinople with the aid of a Genoese ship and a palace plot, she took with her a crown. In a Greek wedding, bride and bridegroom are crowned, and their crowns are exchanged. The day after the wedding, she was crowned queen. Whichever crown she took, that was all she had to show for her six years in the Queen of Cities. It was not enough. 

The fresco is of an Empress Helena from the monastery of Sopocani. I would be grateful for more information.

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