09 May 2014

Sphrantzes in winter

Marginal drawing, Book of Hours, Utrecht, ca. 1460.

 Giorgios Sphrantzes finished "the account of the events that occurred during my wretched life," on 29 March 1478.  He had introduced himself as "pitiful" and he was much to be pitied. He was seventy-six and a half years old, cold, aching from many years of rheumatism.  Ten years earlier, he and his wife, penniless after lives in imperial palaces, had made confessions of faith and joined convents. In October 1476 he became desperately ill with an infection of the sinuses, ears, and throat.  He was given the last rites three times.  When it was clear that he would live longer, he was deaf for a long time -- he couldn't hear a bell tolling next to him -- and his feet were too painful to walk.

He wrote.  He wrote a priceless book in his own hand, giving us an intimate view of the important individuals and events of the last years of the Eastern Empire. There is much about it that is uneven and incomplete, but he apologizes, "as old age and infirmity did not allow me to finish my work properly." He placed the completed book in the hands of the priest Antonios.

When you read it as a retrospective view, rather than as a contemporary chronicle, it is a book saturated in loss. It begins with death, that of Beyazid I and ends that paragraph with "Mehmed . . . who enslaved us and expelled us from Constantinople." The next event he reports is the humiliation of Manuel, to whom he was devoted, and then the birth of his beloved Constantine. Manuel's brother Theodoros dies, the Patriarch dies, then plague takes Sphrantzes' sister, her husband, a daughter, six servants, and then his parents die.

He finds himself isolated, although he is firmly embedded in the imperial court, best friends with the emperor's sons, with responsibility for the emperor's wardrobe. It is with his first title, protovestiaritis, that he identifies himself at the end of his life despite the accumulation of further titles. When Manuel dies, John inherits his loyalty, and then Constantine begs John for Sphrantzes' services.  He serves Constantine from the fall of 1428 until 29 May 1453, and as soon as he is able to free himself from slavery, he travels to the Morea to offer his services to Thomas, following him into exile.

At the end of his book, he has outlived all Manuel's sons and some of their children, his own four children -- Andronikos died at 8 days, Alexios at nearly six, John was killed by Mehmed at the age of fourteen and a half on a charge of murder in 1453, and Tamar died about the same age of disease in Mehmed's seraglio in 1455 -- and his wife, and his remaining friend.  In 1452 he had wanted to take John on a trip with him, and leave him in the Morea with family for safety, but the trip never came about.  Tamar was to have married in the Morea but she was not old enough for marriage when travelling was possible.

For all he has seen and done, little in his writing gives us images from his world.  He refers to "silver-sealed" documents and Constantine signs a marriage agreement "with his own hand three crosses in red ink on the upper part of the document,"  but the silver and red ink are for him signs of authority, not images.  But there are a few, in the section of his book with the most detail: the scene outside Patras where he and Constantine are pursued on horseback in a skirmish. Constantine fell, Sphrantzes defended him, he escaped, and then Sphrantzes and his horse were cut down.  Sphrantzes was taken prisoner and "thrown into the dark tower of a house, full of ants, weevils,  and mice, as it was located in front of the grain storage."  When he was finally freed from prison, half-dead from wounds and starvation, Constantine sent him "an expensive double green tunic lined with fine green linen . . . a red cap decorated with gold . . . a heavy, gold-colored caftan from Brusa, a green coat, and a finely worked sword." 

And there is his isolated description of 25 January 1470, desperately sad when you think of what it implies: "so much snow covered the whole island of Corfu as no local inhabitant had ever seen.  It was even possible to catch foxes and hares by hand."

1 comment:

  1. The bitter juice of Sphranzes' life and work ... Thank you.


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