29 April 2010

The Palace at Mistra

This is a thirty-five-year-old picture of the palace complex at Mistra, back when visitors could actually go inside and see how it worked.  The bureaucrats and the archaeological wizards have seen fit -- using the excuse of needing to protect the deteriorating walls, and they did need protection -- to "restore" it, giving us a series of barricaded chancroid boxes that look like this:
The walls are preserved, but no one will ever get in there again to explore, no imagination will be permitted its freedom.  To get in, you will need to be invited to a conference. Improvements have meant classism and investigation only with permission. 

In the 1970s and 1980s, before I knew anything about the Palaiologoi and little about the Franks in the Morea, it was possible to go through the sequence of palace buildings (there were few guards in those days, and those mostly sympathetic) begun in 1261 by William Villhardouin. (It is his palace that you see as yet unrestored on the right.).  Going left from the Villehardouin building, there was the complex built by the Kantakouzenoi with a chapel upstairs -- bits of frescos remaining -- and a magnificent loggia looking out over the valley of the Eurotas.  From there you could work your way around into the third, great wing built under the Palaiologoi.  Or you could enter it properly, under the aegis of a guard, from the courtyard. 
That was a wonderful room, taking up a whole floor of the wing, with eight chimneys for heating paired down one wall, and high round windows through which you could see the snow on Taygetos or -- as I did on one occasion -- the moon.  In the center of the long wall facing the plateia was built a throne.   

Archaeologists found graffiti in there from later periods, like these that combine the 17th century with the neolithic. 

This third wing was constructed -- according to the guidebooks and archaeological statements -- between 1400 and 1460.  That is manifestly silly dating, and you can knock 14 years off immediately, as Theodoros I was not in Mistra in 1400, and he was sick between 1402 and his death in 1407.  And you can bet Demetrios wasn't building any palace after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, what with the various revolts, and Ottoman incursions, and wars with his brother. Nor did Demetrios build this palace between becoming Despot in 1449 and the Fall in 1453, for a reason that will become  clear below.

Constantine didn't build anything between 1443 and going to Constantinople in 1449 or the hagiographers would have told us.  He couldn't afford it, and he was focused on making the Morea a coherent political entity. Any money he had was used for strengthening defenses. Further, he was a realist and, had a throne room been suggested to him, he would have responded that there would very soon be no one left to sit on a throne.

Theodoros didn't build any palace between his accession in 1407 at the age of 10, and 1423, what with being quite young, the episode of getting the wall built at the Isthmus, an archon revolt, various small wars, a major Ottoman incursion, and getting married.  He didn't build a palace between 1436 and leaving Mistra in 1443, because he was focused on being named heir to the imperial throne, which no one but an idiot could have pursued at that point.  (See this entry about Theodoros.)

So the time when the palace wing must have been built was between 1423 and 1436, and it can be narrowed down more. Cleofe died in 1433, so he wasn't building after that, and we have evidence that he was planning his venture to Constantinople in 1436.  He wasn't building between 1423 and 1429 because he was dickering around about taking monastic vows, and discovering sex and falling in love with his wife and becoming a father and watching his brothers do more wars.  

This leaves us 1429-1433, the "glory days" of the Despotate of Mistra, the last years before losses and splitting changed the whole nature of the Morea. That was the period in which Theodoros felt triumphant -- and could afford the construction.  A great deal of loot had been gained with the sea battle of the Sporades, even if he did not obtain percentages of the settlements with Carlo Tocco and the Principality and the surrender of Patras.  And he had received a very large dowry from the Malatesti.

1929 was also the year Cleofe's father, Malatesta Malatesti, Lord of Pesaro, and her brother-in-law, Gianfrancesco Gonzaga, Lord of Mantua, came out to [correction] negotiated with Theodoros as representatives of the Venetian government to settle matters of Despotate incursions into Venetian territory. Malatesta owned a house in Venice.

 Architect Anastasios Orlandos who began the excavations and restorations at Mistra drew this sketch of the front of the palace wing as he found it.  It is essentially what you see in the first photograph above.  Here is his drawing of a restored building, which is probably fairly close to what was once there:

This is why Demetrios didn't build the palace. It is Italian. Like the poem Theodoros wrote for Cleofe which is assumed Byzantine because it is in Greek, but which is actually an Italian poem.  Demetrios was anti-West, though he had been to Venice, twice, which Theodoros hadn't. (And, yes, there are Byzantine similarities, but Byzantine and Italian both came out of the Roman, and they had been in dialogue for 1100 years.)  

If you compare the palazzo of the Venetian doges with the palace of Mistra, and if  you allow for less skilled builders, different materials, and less public financing and will, you have very similar buildings. I have never seen these images juxtaposed before and I can only assume it is because either (1) no one who has seen the palazzo has seen Mistra, and vice versa, or (2) an unwillingness to admit that the last great production of Byzantium wasn't Byzantine. 

It is a provincial building, much smaller than the palazzo, but compare the programs. There is the same sequence moving up from the ground of large arches, then arches along a balcony, arched windows with late Gothic ornamentation (some still in situ at Mistra) on a throne room, and a top row of round windows.  The numbers of windows and arches differ, but there is also a central imperial "signifier" -- the throne alcove on the Mistra facade where Orlandos has intuited a double-headed eagle, and a balcony for appearances on the Palazzo of Venice.

There is also a certain similarity -- because of the period and because it is Italian -- with the palace of Cleofe's sister in Mantua, but hers was built 100 years earlier.

It is striking that with all the mounds of paper and parchment exhausted by the Mistra writers, there is never a mention of the palace construction, beyond a remotely possible oblique mention by Bessarion that Cleofe had been a generous patron. All imperial ladies were generous patrons.  This tells us nothing.  However, all the Malatesti were enthusiastic builders and specifically patrons of architects.  Cleofe's brother rebuilt the cathedral at Patras, and apparently some of the palace at Patras.  Her father had much to do with architectural enhancements in Pesaro.  Her sister Paola built a church and convent and palace additions in Mantua and a palace outside Mantua.  So what with one thing and another, it is quite possible that Malatesta "dei Sonetti" Malatesti  arranged for master builders and stone cutters to come over and help build the throne room wing for Theodoros.*
The monodies for Cleofe make very clear how dependent Theodoros was on her for decisions about everything -- such as building this wing of the palace.  She had extracted him from the bullying of his advisors and made him feel like a man.  He ruled the whole (nearly) united Morea, and he was in an emotional and financial position to act like a real ruler. It would be quite in keeping with what we know of his psychological makeup for him to model his palace on his idea of what a real palace should be.  Venice was at her peak in the 20s, and he knew the Eastern Empire was on the skids, not to mention what he must have heard about the poor condition of John's palace in Constantinople.

This throne room whose high round windows look out at the snows of Taygetos is unique in its arrangements for the throne is in the center of one of the long sides of the hall, while benches run around the whole perimeter of the room. I cannot find any possible contemporary Greek or Italian prototype (though I would be very glad to know of one), but possibilities come to mind. For one, a number of ancient bouleteria were constructed with a single line of equitable seating around the perimeter, though none so large, and none of these was visible in the 15th century. For another, the philosopher Plethon was deeply convinced of the superiority of the ancient Spartans and their equality under that system, and it is just possible that he convinced Theodoros to set an example in that regard in the throne room.   I like to think that Plethon had manuscripts, lost to us, that mention seating of this sort: unknown manuscripts are a great comfort to historians and art historians.

[Late note: forget the comments about bouleteria.  I have now learned this speculation is quite irrelevant and that there are other reasons for the seating arrangement.]

The guidebook says this throne room had frescos, and since there is absolutely no information on these unknown frescos, they may be recreated along with the unknown manuscripts. A hundred and more years before this throne room, the castles of Geraki and Thebes had frescos of Joshua taking the land of Canaan, and of the crusaders taking Palestine-- the same thing, really, if you think about it. The gatehouse of the castle at Nauplion had a series of saints commemorating a treaty. There is a reference I have lost about fine frescos in the castle in Patras.  [Late correction: I found my reference.  The frescos in Patras related the Fall of Troy. Also, the bishop's palace in Coron had extensive frescos of Troy.] But there is no other information about secular frescos in Greece.

If my dating is correct, a military victory can be assumed as one theme, and because they were all such self-conscious intellectuals it was probably Troy. They may have put to work the fresco painters who were just finishing up on the Pantanassa, or Malatesta or the Gonzagas may have sent painters from home.  Paola couldn't send Pisanello because he was frescoing the Gonzaga throne room at the time, but if her husband had mentioned that to Theodoros, of course Theodoros would have wanted his own throne room frescos. In fact, since Gianfrancesco and Paola started a workshop for the production of tapestries, he may have brought sent one or more to Cleofe and Theodoros.

There may also have been military saints painted as portraits of the victorious brothers.  Because Plethon was much focused on Plato, and because of Plato's Republic and proximity to the site, equally focused on Lykourgos, there were possibly portraits of Plato and Lykourgos, probably based on the statues remaining in Sparta that they identified as Plato and Lykourgos.  Missing statues are almost as assuring as missing manuscripts.

There is one other aspect of this wing to which I would call attention, and that is an area behind it (the throne room wing is to the right of this photo) that has arched constructions on three sides.  I was refused permission to go into this area last year, and was given two reasons: (1) it might be dangerous, and (2) the archaeological service did not have the authority to give me permission.  So from what I could see standing at the rope, some of the arches have been filled in, and clearly the constructions have had various uses.  But I believe there was there, once, an enclosed garden with arched walkways on one side -- possibly on more than one side but this photo is what I could see in person.

It is possible that the Orlandos sketches are questionable.  Certainly I have seen nothing from the Archaeological Service -- or anyone else -- to replace them, and beyond the publication in 2000 of the findings from the 1955 discovery of a Mistra burial (forty-five years!  What was going on there?) I have been able to find no substantive new archaeological information since I first saw Mistra on Holy Saturday of 1977.  There have been shiny overpriced books on frescos, and there is an over-determined publication that informs us about the occasional well, olive press, defense angle, and buttons, mostly illustrated with images from somewhere else, but when I was looking for publications on Mistra last year in Athens, the only thing I found I did not already have was a collection of papers from a Plethon conference.
* * * * *
An additional comment, two weeks later: I discover that the comparison of the throne room wing of the palace has been compared to the Palazzo in Venice.  Jordan Demakopoulos,  Ta Spitia tou Rethemnou (Athens, 2001), 21-22, superimposes the floor plans of the throne rooms to demonstrate that the Mistra space is less than a quarter of the Venetian.  He would date it between 1408 and 1416, and have it built by Manuel II.  I think this dating impossible to justify.
[LATE NOTE: For more on the architecture of the palace, go here.]
* A future blog will discuss the lack of technically-trained workmen in the Morea. 

23 April 2010

The Leopard Wranglers: Part Two

This is another Palaiologos being one of the three kings: here, Manuel II in a French manuscript after his visit to Paris in 1401-02.  He, too, is shown with cheetahs.  This has made me think that I have to walk back some of last week's comments on the leopard-wranglers.  Hunting- leopards, that is, cheetahs.

Once I gave it a little thought, I realized that there was no way Manuel was traveling with a retinue that included cheetahs and their handlers.  Manuel was humiliatingly poor.  He had to leave his family in Monemvasia because the Turks were besieging Constantinople and the City was threatened with starvation.  When he got to Venice to ask for help, he had to borrow money for his trip to France.  In France and England he depended on the kindness of strangers, and on his way home his Venetian creditors held up his passage for five weeks until repayment terms were arranged.  When he got home, he sent thank-you presents of a family portrait and pieces of the assorted relics in the keeping of the imperial family.   It had been a long time since the Eastern Empire could afford to send silks and jeweled crosses and golden chalices for gifts.

Which made me rethink John's trip to Ferrara-Florence in 1437-39 and the likelihood of his taking along any cheetahs.  Despite my enthusiasm last week, no likelihood whatsoever.  He and nearly 700 Greeks traveled on Venetian ships, going and returning in winter.  When John got to the Morea, he disembarked -- he hated ships -- rode by land across the peninsula and reboarded on the other side.  He, too, was depending on the kindness of strangers to pay for the trip. He didn't take any horses on the ships, and when he got to Ferrara he had to buy them from the Russian delegation so he could hunt.  The Italians complained about his hunting and the damage it did to the peasant farms, but no one mentioned the hunting leopards, and no one depicted them at the time.  If he had had leopards, Pisanello would have shown them to us.  Pisanello loved drawing animals, even cows. 

But apparently just about every Italian court had its own contingent of exotic animals, and apparently everyone hunted with hunting leopards.  So by the time Gozzoli was hired to paint his Three Kings with last week's lovely Medici-boy-and-cheetah, he painted some of the animals the Medici had in stock.

John did have access to large spotted cats.  Cyriaco wrote about hunting with John in 1444:
Others, the leading citizens and those superior in courage, of course, with the princes themselves, moved rapidly through pathless forests to high hills, [armed] with many hunting spears, weapons, and dogs in pursuit of straight-horned stags, foaming boars, tawny lions, or spotted panthers.
I suspect that at some point the straightened palace budget had required that the resident hunting-leopards be released into the hunting areas. In fact, I would now doubt that Sophia's welcoming procession even included the required hunting-leopards.

17 April 2010

The Leopard-Wranglers

XII: Concerning the imperial bride:
One should know that at the arrival of the imperial bride (δεσποίνης νύμφης), whether by land or by water, when the day when she is to be be brought safely into port at The City is known, the emperor, her husband-to-be (ἀνὴρ αὐτῆς ὁ νεόνυμφος) goes to meet her with his father, if he is living; if not, he goes alone. If she comes by land, it is the custom that she alight in the neighborhood of Pēgē; if she comes by ship, near the church of the Blachernes outside the city, where it happens to be suitable. When she arrives at one place or another, the wives of the dignitaries, senators, and the other highest and most well-born archons, welcome the lady and bride-to-be warmly and attend her as an empress. Both the emperors come to meet her, if the bridegroom has no father, he does as has been said. If then she comes by ship, he meets her at the acropolis at the Evgenikos Gate, and if by land, outside the city as has been said. After that, the emperors, or the emperor, leave her there; the wives of the archons mentioned, whether the wives of the despots, or the wives of the sebastokrators, or of the caesars, or of the other well-born, put the red shoes on her. Dressed in the imperial robes prepared in advance, and escorted as an empress, she comes up to the palace on horseback; after that the marriage ceremony is held on the selected day.

Equally, one should know this: when the leopard-wranglers (παρδοβάγιλοι) bring in their leopards, they enter the palace on horse, and similarly leave on horse. Also, those bearing the cold drinks enter the palace on horse.
* * * *
This is my translation of the chapter on imperial brides from Pseudo-Kodinos, a book compiled about 1360 with later additions about protocol at the Palaiologan court in Constantinople, and it got me to thinking about Sophia of Montferrat who was so scalded by her marriage to John VIII.  He rejected her immediately after the wedding, apparently because he did not like her appearance.

But look at the sequence of events in the light of this protocol.  Sophia arrived in Constantinople on a Venetian galley in November of 1420.  It docked on the Golden Horn, under the Blachernae, probably about where the pretty little mosque is now.  She was welcomed by the court ladies as if she were an empress.  She was John's third cousin, her family used Greek names, and she had probably already learned to speak a little Greek.

Then John and Manuel arrived.  These two slight imperial males dressed as stiffly as icons, and behaving almost as stiffly, greeted her.  Then they left and the court ladies put the imperial scarlet shoes on her feet, and dressed her in robes something like her mother-in-law Helena is wearing here. Then they processed along those narrow twisting streets up the steep hill to the Blachernae  on horseback, and we know nothing about how Byzantine women sat a horse.  If they rode astride like Maria of Trebizond, no one has left any information.  

The procession was led by the leopard wranglers, and the picture above, identified as young Giuliani de Medici in the Gozzoli fresco below, leads off the processions of the Magi as one of them.

The boy was about seven years old when the fresco was painted in 1460, anjd the procession of the Byzantines and John VIII into Florence had happened fourteen years before he was born.  He was murdered in the Duomo in 1478 in the Pazzi Conspiracy.  That is a shame, but it has nothing to do with us here.

The wedding was on 19 January 1421.  John was crowned that day -- Pseudo-Kodinos gives meticulous directions for the ceremony, and then, apparently on the next day, John crowned Sophia.  Byzantine emperors crowned their wives.  He never spoke to her again. 

Why was there a wedding at all?  John had two months between meeting her at the boat, and the ceremonies in Agia Sophia and he must have judged this big blond woman instantly.  Would it have been possible for him to have rejected the bride who had been delivered to him (with a great deal in the way of jewels, gold, and financing)?  Does "incompatibility" make a non-marriage easier to accomplish? Did anyone tell her what was going on before it happened?

When she left, it was on a Majorcan ship chartered at such short notice that it had to leave the Genoese imports it had been charted for on the wharf.  The ship brought Sophia and small group of courtiers across the Golden Horn to Galata, where the Genoese all came down to the waterfront and paid homage to her as their Empress.  The Majorcan ship took her to Chios, where she was provided a Genoese galley back to Genoa.  When she arrived home in Montferrat, she was welcomed as Empress.  All the way along, everyone, with the exception of John, was very kind to her.

She took her crown when she left.  I had thought it might be her wedding crown -- Greek rite weddings crown the bride and bridegroom, and exchange their crowns -- but Pseudo-Kodinos says nothing about that.  John was crowned at the wedding, as Emperor, and the imperial crown can be exchanged for nothing else.  Sophia was crowned Empress of the Eastern Empire and all she had to show for it was the crown John had put on her head

 * * * * * *

I am giving a paper this weekend at the meeting of the Australian Association for Byzantine Studies at the University of New South Wales in Armindale entitled "The Brides of 1420," in which I will be discussing Sophia's face, and Cleofe's clothes.

The animal in the picture above is actually a cheetah (on the ground below it is a leopard), but "cheetah-wrangler" doesn't work in English nearly as well as "leopard-wrangler." Besides, cheetahs were also called "hunting leopards." Nick Nicholas wrote a paper a few years back -- "A Conundrum of Cats: Pards and their relatives in Byzantium," in which he analyzed all the Byzantine terms for members of the cat family, and then tried to identify each one. Byzantines called a cheetah a pardos.  Gozzoli got it right.  That is, by the way, Benozzo Gozzoli's self-portrait -- the man with the blue and white hat in front of the horse, below.

To be continued.

09 April 2010

The Second Gate

A month ago, I wrote about the great formal staircases constructed by the Venetians which you can see at the top of the next Van Gogh-yellow photograph that I found on the interwebs.  (my compliments to the photographer whose name I have lost.). This street passes behind the Venetian armory on the plateia. I mentioned a staircase that went off to the left of it, which you see here above, with one of the jambs that supported a gate.

The stairs in that top photograph go up to a narrow street that runs along the face of the hill, and if you follow the street a short way to the left (you will find yourself almost above the mosque at the main plateia), you soon come to a large grassy lot that runs up the hill to the walls of Acro-Nauplion.  It is clearly private property with a well-cared-for and nearly-vertical garden, and over six or seven attempts I never found anyone at home.  However, it is clear that there are cut stone steps at the back of the garden going on up the hill.  This is the yard from above.

If you followed the stairs in the first photograph up to the road, you should be standing in front of that house with the terra-cotta coloured doors.  But from Acro-Nauplion, looking down in this view, you should see the arched opening in the tower in the center of the picture.

This is a slightly better view of the arched entrance, walled up, but there is no way a person of my sensitivity to private property, and -- most important -- my knees, could have got in a better position.  You  may be able to see for yourself, but probably you will have to take my word for it, that the stonework of the arch dates it to around 1700.

Looking up from the garden fence, this next picture shows the arched opening barely visible in the upper left corner, and shows where the stairs go up from a gate in the garden.  Here you can also see that the Venetians of 1713 or so had removed part of the birm from the construction of the 1480s or 1530s, probably because it took up too much room for their construction plans.

This all means that the Venetians of the 1686-1715 occupation had taken the trouble to build steps (with a gate, and thus a guard -- top picture) up from the plateia on the hillside, and then reconstruct steps going up the face of the hill to the second gate of the city of Acro-Nauplion.  I wrote earlier about the first, main gate.  This is the second gate.  The grand gate of 1713 was the third.  This second gate has not, as far as I know, previously been noticed.  The pictures suggest why it has been so easy not to notice it.

Although the gate exists on the first known map of Nauplion, of 1571 by Camoccio.  Which means it was there at least before 1540 when the Venetians had to give up Nauplion.  This detail from the Camoccio map may make it slightly clearer.  The Google aerial map is of no use here.

The Acro-Nauplion wall runs from the left, from the east going west, and then turns right and runs down -- north -- before turning right and to the west again where it meets the city wall coming up from the water. The round towers show the berms added by the Venetians in the 1480s and 1530s.  On that short stretch of wall coming down, you see the arched gate.  This is the gate I photographed from above, and the gate to which the stairs in that garden go up.  The gate is also shown below, slightly relocated,and labeled Porta, in an imperfect view of Nauplion made after 1686 but before 1713

That is pretty much it for the stairs and gate, except to ask why, if they had those stairs and gate available, and if they had already rebuilt the arch -- probably after enlarging the gate -- why did they then built the grand stairs and formal gate I wrote about before.

These are steep stairs, both sets of them -- from the little plateia up to the street, and from the street up to the gate.  The new grander stairs are less steep and would, I think, allow for horses to be ridden all the way up from the harbor.  The grander, less steep stairs would allow for a procession without huffing and puffing, and the Venetians went in for frequent processions.

This is speculation.  I have not been able to get access to the inside of the wall with that second gate and I don't know when it was filled in.  But because of the appearance of the stone, I suspect the Venetians filled it in once that third, grand gate was completed.  If you have a chance to look at it more closely, let me know what you think.

02 April 2010


Monastiraki, Athens

Much of the research I have been doing has by necessity woven in and around issues of Church Union in the 1420s and 1430s.  I have written here of an emperor shattered and a bride broken in its name, of men embittered, and of one turned great.  But for this year -- and amazingly, for next -- the churches of East and West are united in sharing the day of the Easter feast, united in the centrality of their symbol of the cross.

For the Greeks, as Paul wrote, foolishness.  Humiliation become triumph, torture become healing.  For this day I offer a gleaning of  Greek crosses -- apotropaic, spolia, one representing all those painted crosses in all those olive-scented churches, one a church constructed as a cross.

Christianized gate at Mantinea

Sixth-century cross from the church in the Parthenon

Spolia at Karitena.

Spolia at Nemea

Spolia at Tegea, cross and monogram.

 Spolia at Ag. Triada, Argolid

Areopolis, Mani

Archaeological storeroom, Halkida

Twelfth-century church, Plataniti, Argolid