29 May 2015

To the city

 by Rowan Williams

To the City

1. Bosphorus
Once there were chains between the towers
shackling the green-black forest walls across the water
locked in each other's mirror-gaze, chains to choke off
the galleys headed greedily for the tense city. Not now:
this is a motorway shining with oil, the lanes
jostling and humming with their relaxed freight,
birthdays and anniversaries and conference excursions
bouncing and rocking along the cleft so confidently
you could forget the swimmers dead in the green-black
depths, the ones who failed to breach the walls
on the far shore or break the mirror. And the day trips
swing round and land where they began. But in the unquiet
morning dazzle, the dolphins arch and plunge, unannounced,
bright needles pulling threads between air
and sea. They stitch their trails round the lethal cruisers,
the crates of oil and spinning blades, come without call
or cause, go without mercy. Out of the green-black vaults
the thread leaps, wavering in unquiet light,
to tow the boats out of their channels, craw
short to shore, face to face, swimmers to gulls and sailors.

2. Ayia Sofia
And that, the Greeks tell you, is the Conqueror's black handprint,
when he rode in over the ten-foot depth
of corpses; when he leaned over, pushing
the half-globe on its axis, swinging the arrow
towards a new, south-eastern pole. The bars of light
lie angled silently, rolling against the tilted bell:
a tongue's thread cut. The foliage of immense
words painted curling and waving, unmown
green verges of a scoured field, drifts across open mouths
and scratched eyes, the layered dead
under the flaring frozen seraphs. There are no hours
to strike, no consecrating whisper to be marked, where death
so rolls and stacks its fields. Handprints of soot
inside the burnt domes of skulls; the empty segment
on the sundial, where worlds have pulled apart
and shadows stand unmoved, the clock's hands
are nailed still, the bell cracks open to a sky
of frozen stars pointed in accusation,
flaring on spikes, burning for the uncountable names
harvested by conquerors for this or that revelation's sake.

3. Phanar; the Patriarch's Cantor
Anastas. Leaning back, lifting elbows, braced,
jaw out, he curls fingers and lips, to make
his brassy diaphragm a bowl where the round gale
swings on itself, brushed the metal to a shine. Fingers
unfold into the quieter pulsing of a sandy breeze;
the drone shifts with a grind, brows are wiped,
a tired eight-year-old begins to cry, is hugged,
scolded, bundled behind the screen. The wind
starts rising once again, the couriers pick up speed
and ride into the gaping caves, the lifting wind
scrapes sandy flanks against the bowl of lung, sinus,
damp and bone. What does it carry, the straining
weight searing his arms against the stall's wood?
The creak of stones shifting on the hill; forests falling; a body,
massive, limp, released from its ropes around the mast,
struck dumb? The windy grains ringing half-audibly,
bouncing around the bowl's rim? He lifts
his palms again; welcomes the rising, the stone,
the grain, the body, the little pestle
drawn round the bronze. Anastas. Lifted. 

From Rowan Williams, The Other Mountain, 2014.

22 May 2015

In recovery: The warriors

General George Patton, Jr., 1885-1945, 
National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC

Here are portraits of warriors, dressed to best dramatize their authority and power. Gritti as Doge of Venice in cloth-of-gold and red velvet and ermine.  Patton in battle jacket and cavalry pants, with his ivory-handled pistols, riding crop, dispatch rider's bag, and his four stars -- two sets of two pairs of four stars. (In the portraits of General Marshall and General Eisenhower in the same room, they each only wear one pair of their five stars, but that was Patton.  A friend of my family was his chaplain when he crossed the Rhine: I grew up hero-worshipping him and kept begging for toy ivory-handled pistols only to be told that they were for boys.)

Doge Andrea Gritti, 1455-1538, 
National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

In Washington, in April, the similarity between the men and the portraits struck me.  Both men are wearing old leather belts, so old and worn you can smell the sweat that soaked into them over the years and the wars.   The fancy dress does not portray the essence of the men: the belts do.

15 May 2015

Two for Cyriaco

Two documents for Cyriaco of Ancona, one new, one ignored, that contribute to his portrait.

* * * * * * * * * *

Cyriaco  is conventionally thought to have died in 1452 or 1555: I find authors fairly evenly divided on that.  I'm quite sure 1452 is wrong, as I have found the document above which certainly has him alive on 8 March 1454 when he was granted Venetian citizenship at the age of 62. This is not a very exciting or important piece of information, but it was a surprise and raises the question of why Venetian citizenship at this point?  He was 63 and had been going to Venice since he was 10.

This document is available on-line at ASV Senato Privilegi 1425-October 1560.

* * * * * * * * * *

In 1431 Francesco Filelfo, a fellow citizen of Ancona, wrote Cyriaco a letter.  Cyriaco had been studying Greek for five years or so -- we don't know what that means -- but apparently Cyriaco had written a letter in Greek to Filelfo who was teaching Greek in Florence.  To my mind, Filelfo was a bit of a charlatan, and this letter demonstrates it.  His quotation of Homer bears no resemblance to anything Homer ever wrote, thought it seems to refer to Aphrodite and Diomedes in Iliad 5.  And his compliments of Cyriaco's Greek make me wonder what the Florentines were paying to learn from him: Cyriaco's Latin was not so good, his Greek was unlikely to have been any better.  Pierre MacKay translated the letter for me.

Francesco Filelfo to Cyriaco, greetings,
I have for a long time admired your capabilities in language, and now I would have no way of doing so adequately; so much has the beauty of your letters written in Greek astonished me; it informs me vividly that you did not learn it in Constantinople but there in Athens. The grace inherent in your composition is from there. I believe that the first of the Muses, if you were to meet her in person, on experiencing and marveling at the charm of your words would utter that Homeric phrase:
Who and from where are you, where is the city that bore you, For I shall tell you that I, most distinguished of goddesses, am envious At being so utterly defeated by a mortal

Be in good health, therefore, so that you may be able to enchant us and all those others who are similarly disposed toward you with your God-given talent from the Muses. I wish for you also that you may reach the age of Nestor, since you yield in wisdom in no way whatsoever not only to our contemporaries, but even to the outstanding figures of those in the past. Stay well, shrine of the Muses, and love your Filelfo as always, who would for your sake and for the sake of all who support you, jump into the fire, metaphorically, with great eagerness.

From Florence, on the nones of March, in the year 1431 from the birth of Christ. 

This letter can be found on-line as #8 in Cent-Dix Lettres Grecques de Francois Filelfe.

08 May 2015

The wunderkammer

Wunderkammern fascinate me, so I have made my own small cabinet of small things that belong no place in particular. Small things attract other small things, so I am going to have to get another cabinet. Meanwhile, I take some out, put others in, rearranging to find ways for these small things to speak to one another.  Perhaps the main thing they have in common is that each one is small enough to be concealed in my hands

Amethyst and moonstone. 

Ghanaian goldweight snake and tourist Athenian owl.

Fox skull. 

Sixteenth-century Persian sherd.

Hummingbird nest and silkworm cocoons. 

Theo's otter. 

Miniature of a Benin leopard.  

Glass carafe stoppers and a hedgehog.

Corinthian aryballos. 

Firecrest nest, jay and flicker feathers, abalone shell.

Thirteenth-century Corinthian sherd.

03 May 2015

For Bartolomeo, with love and respect

A book on which I have been working far too long – The Greek Correspondence of Bartolomeo Minio. Vol. 2: Dispacci from Candia, 1500-1502 – has just been published. To have the new book in hand is a pleasure, but this entry is late because I have not known how to bring about the end to this working companionship.  I have nothing more I can write about Bartolomeo Minio. I have not been far from tears as I have autographed books to send out, and as I have tried to write here.

 I discovered Bartolomeo Minio while looking for material on Nauplion at Dumbarton Oaks, long before I thought of graduate school. The 100 pages of his letters from Nauplion became bedtime reading off and on for years.

<They were intensely familiar, of course because of Nauplion, where my house had been attached to the wall he had built, but also because I had grown up in a colonial environment. Minio's constant fatigue and frustration at lack of adequate equipment and money, his isolation, his increasing identification with the local population, all reflected what I had absorbed in my younger years from the adults around me. I found something else, too: the sense of a desperately lonely child, so you can imagine my reaction when I found in Venice a document indicating that his father had remarried when he was two and a half years old. 

He was the youngest child in his family, born in about 1428 and named for his mother's father, and was the only one of his brothers to marry.  His wife was Elena Trevisan. This was normal Venetian practice, and his third son, Francesco, was the only one of his sons to marry.  His oldest son, Marco (born about 1460) , became a prominent Venetian ambassador to the Vatican and Constantinople, and was elected Doge of Crete.  Little is recorded about the second, Alvise (born a year later). There may have been children who did not live. The youngest, Francesco, was born in 1483/4, nine months after Minio returned from his assignment in Nauplion.  Francesco made a fortune in shipping and the transport of pilgrims to the Holy Land, and his wills record a number of houses, including the pretty Ca' da Madoneta on the Rio da Frescada near S. Toma.  The family were all buried at the Franciscan church of S. Francesco dalle Vigne: in several searches I failed to find any tombstones in the hundreds there.

My PhD dissertation was on his letters from Nauplion.  Hans Theunissen from Utrecht published it in his on-line monograph series in EJOS.  One of my dissertation readers, John Melville-Jones from Perth, suggested a published edition of the letters which are preserved in a Minio family copy (written in four different hands, including Bartolomeo's) in the Correr Library in Venice. We published the letters from Nauplion in 2008, and then set to working on another set of his letters, a Minio family copy (by his son Marco) in the Correr, from Candia. This is a total of more than 150 letters written by one man, a very rare inheritance.  

Minio was clearly lonely in Nauplion -- there were probably no patricians there, and I suspect he was acutely class-conscious where Venetians were concerned.  His letters and reports rarely received a response, and supplies were rarely and inadequately sent.  He developed a few very close and protective relationships -- his secretary Eustacio; Antonio Marinato, an Italian commander of foot soldiers, who may have been a part-time pirate, and was kidnapped and sold into slavery; his wife's brother, Piero Trevisan, who commanded a galley occasionally sent to Nauplion; an Ottoman governor who shared all the same problems, and who let him in on a plot to overthrow Mehmed.  

He was a tense man, with neck cramps and migraines.  He had a strong sense of fairness and justice, and though he insisted on following instructions to the letter, he received tremendous loyalty from the Greek and Albanian stratioti, and from the Greek townspeople of Nauplion. He wrote once, in great distress, that he had had to used forced labor at Nauplion for work on the walls.  It was, he said, a hardship for "these poor people," but "I worked with them in person." The Greeks remembered that, and a chronicle records:
At that time, the governor of the place, that is, the Venetian, with all the people of Nauplion, did all the building, and built the walls around, just as they appear today . . . and the governor of the place, the Venetian, gave benefits and many gifts.

Minio died in 1515, in his late 80s.  His failing health is mentioned in several entries in Sanudo's Diarii.  He should have died several other times that we know of: from malaria in Nauplion, from camp fever in the Ferrara war, from pirates in the Bay of Biscay, from pirates off Cyprus, from pneumonia in Crete. In his mid-70s he wrote with pride of his good eyesight, and then rode the length and width of Crete to inspect its fortresses. He was a survivor and a fighter, though I suspect he absolutely hated fighting. Not because of any pacifist leanings, but because it was an indication of disorder, and he did value order above all.

He has been a good companion. I hope he would have liked my work.

The Greek Correspondence of Bartolomeo Minio. Vol. 2: Dispacci from Candia, 1500-1502. Diana Gilliland Wright & John Melville-Jones. Padua: Unipress, 2015.  Orders here.  

Map by Ioannis Xenodochos, Corfu, 1520.