23 December 2008


What is wanted here is silence.

That the young woman is pregnant is suggested by her unlaced gown, shorter in front than in back. Her labor has begun, and her right hand both indicates her pregnancy and feels the movement of the contraction, while her other hand presses into her back to relieve the discomfort. She has moved deep within herself into silence.

The angels, mirror images, their colors inverted, are closing the tent to give her privacy. Inevitably these angels are described as pulling back the curtains to reveal her: this would be the convention, and innumerable putti pull back draperies to uncover lovers or other important events. But Piero is never conventional when he follows conventions, and an understanding of the young woman's posture and the way in which they shield her with their wings makes it clear that they are protecting her, giving her privacy.

This tent, though is even less conventional.

Exodus 25-26-27 describes the making of the tent of the Ark of the Covenant. Piero gives us an imperial tent of his day and here the red-dyed rams' skins and the gold of Exodus have become heavy red brocade woven with gold roses. Where Exodus constructs the tent of skins, Piero lines the young woman's enclosure with fur. The King James Version reads the skins as badger skins, but the word may actually refer to sealskins (there were and are seals in the eastern Mediterranean), and Piero's furs have that softness. So this young woman standing in the Tent of the Ark, flanked by two angels as was the Ark, becomes herself the Ark and the Covenant will be present among us this winter night in the protective quiet and warmth of the enclosing fur.

The first chapter of the Gospel of John, which nearly every church will read tonight at midnight or tomorrow morning, says, "And the Word became Flesh and pitched his tent -- ἐσκήνωσεν --
among us." Translators make that say that he lived, or dwelled with us. But John meant what he wrote: the tent of the Ark of the Covenant was pitched in our midst, and he created in words this image that Piero has translated into fresco.

Piero always paints silence, whatever the images, the silence between notes, and the silence of this young woman about to give birth brings to mind a poem that ends:

She's crowning, someone says,
but there's no one royal here.
just me quite barefoot
greeting my barefoot child.

The poem is by Linda Pastan, from A Perfect Circle of Sun.
A larger version of the painting.

17 December 2008



Athens' students have learned well the lesson of the eighteenth division of the first book of what it means to be Greek.

. . . so from the head of Achilleus the blaze shot into the bright air.
He went from the wall and stood by the ditch . . .
There he stood, and shouted, and from her place Pallas Athene
gave cry, and drove an endless terror . . .
As loud as comes the voice that is screamed out by a trumpeter,
by murderous attackers who beleaguer a city.
Humiliation leads to fury. Fury leads to destuction that is anything but mindless. These minds were concentrated on destruction.

Whatever else was involved in making this crisis -- there are many factors, and this is a very partial and prejudiced account -- the students have been humiliated: humiliated by the thinness of authoritarian education in shabby classrooms; humiliated by undereducated and underpaid teachers; humiliated by a culture that will only have employment at graduation for half of them, most of that employment at minimal rates outside the area of their discipline; humilated by the loss of the future.
Despair has been fed by anarchists supplied with drug money, by frustration exploited by political extremists -- extremists are alien to irony, but reflect, will you, that Socrates was executed on a charge of corrupting the young.

Those first nights, koukouloforoi
-- "the hooded ones" -- whirled through the streets bringing terror, raging against the long-legged buildings like the flames whirling about the mannequins in the image here, smashing into plate glass with steel bars and hammers, throwing Molotov cocktails into shops and at the underpaid, undertrained, underequipped police whose job it is to get themselves abused to make the government look as if something is being done. But the koukouloforoi seek terror and destruction, not social justice, and the name recalls the nightriders of the Klan whom my mother saw riding with torches when she was a child.
Homer's warriors hurled stones (such as no man now could lift): the koukouloforoi, fuelled by adrenalin, testosterone, and the joy of destruction, smash sidewalks and pavements to get missles to hurl at the police or through the windows of shops. Blazes shot into the air from Achilleus, the green blaze of lazer pointers shoots from the koukouloforoi.

My generation learned of Molotov cocktails from the Hungarian students in 1956 who stood against Russian tanks, and the flames in Budapest came from torches made by the spontaneous lighting of newspapers that first evening when there was still hope. Students standing against tanks takes us to Tianamen Square. The fury in Athens has the dignity of neither, but it, too, is a revolution. The Athenian press calls it polemos -- war.
History is wrenched from the pavement to shatter assumptions.
Achilleus raged with unimaginable fury and his fury created such destruction that nature recoiled from him. The river vomited up his his destruction and the gods cried out: Achilleus has destroyed pity!


Saturday when the city was almost quiet, I was walking in a part of Athens new to me and glanced up absent-mindedly to see the soaring north side of the Acropolis -- the Parthenon and the Erechtheum. They came to me like singing rather than sight, singing of order, singing out what this city knows of building and mindfulness.

Then the next day at St. Paul's Anglican Church, the surrounding pavements glittering with shards of glass and burned buildings not twenty feet away, we had a reading from Isaiah:

. . . instead of ashes . . . They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.

11 December 2008

The Miracles of Ag. Demetrios-Karakalas

Nuns from an icon since the nuns of Ag. Demetrios Karakalas are not to be photographed, although the nuns of Ag. Demetrios Karakalas could never show the grimness on these faces.
One of our visits was on the twenty-sixth of October, the Feastday of the saint,
and the road was clogged with pick-up trucks and small cars and ery small donkeys. The crowd had clotted at the convent gates, waiting to pass the gauntlet of gypsies, beggars, and pretty girls who sold lottery and admission tickets. Inside the gate we were snatched by Sister Akakia who rushed us into the parlour calling ahead to the others that we had returned and calling back to us that she wanted us to see their miracle.
On each visit the nuns told us stories of miracles, in the matter-of-fact way in which children discuss Christmas presents: one feels a certain confidence in their reports. On this visit they introduced us to a woman who had experienced a miracle in the convent three years earlier. She was a thin woman with large tranquil eyes, though pain had clawed deep lines in her face. She told her story.
For some years, she had been depressed, finally, to the point of anorexia and aphasia. Her family was in despair. They brought her to the convent for help, and their whole village came with them. At night they came to the chapel with its great double doors, a dark sweet church smelling of incense and lemon oil and fresh flowers and bread, and they knelt and prayed together all night long.
In the night, Agios Demetrios rode into the church on his red horse, and pointed his spear at her and said, "Speak."
She said, "I can't speak."
He said again, "Speak."
She said, "I can't speak."
He said, "Speak."
She said, "I don't have anything to say." And then Panagia, the Mother Holy above All, came and put her arms around her and patted her, saying over and over again, "Everything will be all right."
She and her family and her village prayed in the chapel for three nights. Each night Agios Demetrios rode in and commanded her, "Speak," and each night Panagia came and held her and said, "Everything will be all right."
And everything was all right. She was able to speak, and at the convent she was helped to eat again. For the first year after that, she wore black; in part to honour the miracle, but also to bury the sickness, and because even in healing, a certain loss must be acknowledged.
The nuns were delighted with this miracle, but not boastful, for the roses were blooming exceptionally well for the end of October, and a child was playing in the courtyard who was expected to die. These women all assumed that miracles are reasonable happenings. They radiate good health, bodily and mentally, all of them moving not as women who have made sacrifices, but as women who are constantly receiving abundance.
On this feastday they went about their duties, embracing women and children, cooing over each little Demetrios or Demetria, or Mimis or Dimitri or Demetra or Dimitraki, the new crop of babies since last feast day, all fat and engulfed in hand-embroidered baby clothes and clouds of blankets. The sisters applauded other women's pregnancies, exclaimed over this year's new engagement and wedding rings, passed out plates of candied apricots, relayed messages, complimented each other, and carried stacks of handwoven and embroidered linens to the guest rooms which were crammed wall to wall with pallets for the pilgrims.

We had met other miracles there, such as Sister Paraskevi, thin and precise like the point of a librarian's pencil. She was, for a Greek, tall and thin; her triangular face barely visible under her wimple; a prominent nose and chin. She had a masculine walk and a masculine handclasp, meaning that she showed great self-possession, confidence, authority.

She described herself to us, on her arrival at the convent, as sickly, scrawny, mean, complaining, depressed, unloveable, and so nearsighted as to be nearly blind. She chose Paraskevi as her convent name, for the saint who has particular responsibility for eyes. She bathed her eyes regularly with water that had been poured over a miraculous icon of Agia Paraskevi, and wore a scapular with a piece of cotton soaked in the miraculous oil from the tomb of Agios Demetrios.
She had a nervous habit of doodling. Someone, she said "the convent," saw that what she did was good, and encouraged her to draw. She drew constantly, losing as she did so her tendency to whine and to feel poorly, and her eyes were not so weak. The convent bought her books on art and painting, reproductions to study, and she gradually trained herself as an icon painter. She became widely known; the convent had a long backlog of orders for her work from churches all over Greece.
Sister Akakia was another example of this particular intelligence in the convent. She had come to Ag. Demetrios Karakalas after living in Crete for twenty years as a weaver. In the first months she was depressed and lonely, and "the convent" asked what made her happy at home. When she spoke of weaving, they provided her with a loom and the necessary materials, and she delightedly taught Sister Christoforo and some of the others how to weave. All the hangings in the church and the convent were of their own weaving, as were the vestments of the priest of the Evangelistria in Nauplion. When he stood among the brocades and samites of the other clergy in a simple white cotton sprinkled with blue flowers, he had the appearance of the true prince among the false claimants.

The convent -- a monastery until the end of World War II -- has survived Venetians, Turks, Greeks, Albanians, Egyptians, and Germans, all of whom harassed and burned and killed. Toward the end of the eighteenth century, the monastery gave refuge to klefts from the mountains, and some said that the monks were themselves klefts. It was dynamited by the Germans under the assumption that it was sheltering andartes from ELAS in the sick bay; in the depredations of the Civil War, it was fired by Communists who claimed that it was aiding the Government troops, and fired by Government troops because it was hiding Communists. They were both right: the monks were never particular about the political views of the wounded.

04 December 2008

Bartolomeo Minio

This is not Bartolomeo Minio. Minio would never have given his attention to dressing this well, and he couldn't have afforded to. But he has Minio's resolution, isolation, and the deep marks of experience: he was Minio's contemporary, and represents him here.

There is a myth of Venice, often disparaged, and it has been fashionable in the last 20 years for historians to deconstruct one part or another of the myth. But Minio was the man the myth describes and he deserves honor. He is knowable, in the way that few men from 500+ years ago are knowable, because there survive 150 letters that he wrote,* in addition to many small references to him in Venetian government documents, comments in the Sanudo Diaries, and bits that can be inferred from other records..

Minio was born about 1428 and died in the summer of 1515. He should have died a number of other times for which records survive -- of malaria in Nauplion in August 1480, of dysentery in the Ferrara war in 1484, in a night battle at sea with pirates in June 1485, of pneumonia in Crete in 1501. He was a lonely man, tense, with neck cramps and migraines. He thought he followed a strict construction of his intructions, but you can watch him developing friendships and making decisions more out of concern for actual people.

The variety of his professional life reflects the expectations Venice had of its representatives in the stato da mar. He built the sea walls of Nauplion and the great tower of Famagusta. He developed warm relationships with a series of Ottoman governors and officials in the Morea, and after a stratioti revolt was able to commit Venice to an exceptional grant of amnesty that prevented an all-out revolt across the country. He kept having to deal with starvation -- in Nauplion, of the chronically unpaid soldiers stationed there, and of the city after a crop failure; in Crete he received the refugees from the capture of Methoni and Koroni by the Turks, and reported that there was no place for them but the streets, and no way of providing food. He had orders to obtain 40 falcons for the French fleet in the dead of winter, and to bury the headless body of an acquaintance executed for treason.

His first post immediately after his return from Nauplion in 1483 was provveditor over the stratioti taken from Greece for the Ferrara war. The stratioti had been so shocked at the violence and slaughter in their first Italian encounter (which was with Federigo, Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino) -- guerilla fighters had been sent in opposite a mounted charge in full armor -- that they refused to fight without a commander who knew what he was doing, "not one of those Italians." Minio was selected because he had dealt with the same men for nearly four years, and he was complimented for his success in managing them and for winning battles in the field.

The next year, 1484, he was elected captain to defend the galley convoy, muda, to Flanders and England, and this is a story worth following. On 3 August, the four galleys reached the Atlantic. They were attacked off Cape Vincent in the Bay of Biscay by seven armed ships flying the flag of Charles VIII of France, commanded by the corsair
Nicolò Griego ("Nick the Greek"). In the ensuing battle which lasted from the first hour of the day to the twentieth, 300 galioti oarsmen who were armed and expected to fight – were killed, as were most of the crossbowmen, and two of the patroni. Christopher Columbus was one of the pirates and a sensational description survives in a biography written by his son. Most of the galioti were killed. Minio and two of the investors were set on the coast of Portugal to make their way home. The pirates went away with the galleys and at least 200,000 ducats worth of goods for sale, and the potential of bankrupting half the merchants in Venice.**

He is the only one of some 500 Venetian governors in Greek territories before 1540 who was remembered by the Greeks. He wrote once, in extreme unhappiness, about having to use forced labor at Nauplion working on the walls -- it was a hardship for "these poor people," but, he said, he 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 . . .

Bartolomeo Minio is one of those people of whom Cavafy wrote:

Honor to those who in their lives
are committed and guard their Thermopylae.

Never stirring from duty;
just and upright in all their deeds,
but with pity and compassion too;
generous whenever they are rich, and when
they are poor, again a little generous,
again helping as much as they are able;
always speaking the truth,
but without rancor for those who lie.

* See Diana Gilliland Wright and John Melville-Jones: The Greek Correspondence of Bartolomeo Minio: Volume I, Dispacci from Nauplion (1479-1483),
UniPress, Padova, at 40.00 euro plus shipping, by e-mail from unipress2001@libero.it or fax 39.049.8752542.
** This story will be told in Volume II, Dispacci from Crete (1500-1502) which should be out next winter.

27 November 2008

Leagros Kalos

This pot, or vase, is formally called the Euphronios krater. It dates from about 515 BC – Euphronios was the painter, Euxitheos the potter – and it presents the death of Sarpedon as narrated in the Iliad.. Sleep and Death are come to take home the body of Sarpedon, the king of the Lykians who had come to fight for Troy, and lay it down in green pastures. It is a powerful scene, dense with allusions and metaphor, with the figure of Sarpedon unique in Greek vase painting.
All the characters are named in writing that goes sometimes from left to right, and sometimes right to left. The potter, Euxitheos, has signed it over behind Sleep to the left -- Euxitheos epoiesen.. Euxitheos made it. And Euphronios signed Euphronios egrap[sen?] Euphronios painted it.

But when you look at the reverse side of this pot, it is quite a simple scene, conventional, unemotional: young men arming themselves for battle. Two of them have shields with armored animals – a crab and a scorpion. This image reminds me of young Simoeisios at Troy. Look at this simile:

Aias’ spear
. . . struck him as he first came forward beside the nipple
of the right breast, and the bronze spearhead drove clean through the shoulder.
He dropped then to the ground in the dust, like some black poplar,
which in the land low-lying about a great marsh grows
smooth trimmed yet with branches growing at the uttermost tree-top:
one whom a man, a maker of chariots, fells with the shining
iron, to bend it into a wheel for a fine-wrought chariot,
and the tree lies hardening by the banks of a river. 4.480ff.

In this simile, Simoeisios is transformed into a tree, and like the young man the tree falls, and like the young man it is cut down by iron and is made into a chariot and becomes itself a part of the war maching to continue making missing sons.

And some of the poignancy of this great image of Sarpedon is that because Zeus is his father, his particular fate could have been prevented. Now look at the simile that accompanies Sarpedon's death – it is almost the same image as that used for Simoeiseis:
the shaft struck where the beating heart is closed in the arch of the muscles.
He fell, as when an oak goes down or a white poplar,
or like a towering pine tree which in the mountains the carpenters
have hewn down with their whetted axes to make a ship-timber. 16.481ff

A timber for a ship, like those that brought men to Troy, and dead Sarpedon is tall and lean like a towerig pine. Again there is that suggestion of being returned to the war machine – remember the young men arming on the other side of the krater – well, this krater has LEAGROS KALOS beautiful Leagros written on both sides, over the dead man and over the young men – this krater was at the least intended as a reminder of a memorable young man.

Eleven inscriptions by Euphronios alone have been found dedicated to Leagros – and nearly seventy by other artists. Leagros must have been absolutely stunning. The inscription on one pot is Leagros Kalos kai xi – Leagros is handsome, and how! It is known that his family lived near the Athens Keramikos, and very possibly he modelled on occasion for artists. When Euphronios was considerably older, he made a pot that was dedicated to Glaukon son of Leagros. Like all young Athenians, Leagros went to war, and was respected enough to be elected strategos, general, and in his turn he was killed in war, probably in 467 – acting and reenacting the images on this krater and in Homer.

Sarpedon goes down like a great tree, and that should be a moving image in itself, but neither his father nor we are spared a thing:
. . . he lay there felled in front of his horses and chariots
roaring, and clawed with his hands at the bloody dust . . .
He died raging .

The great classicist, Bernard Knox, was a volunteer in the Spanish Civil war. In the battle of Madrid, a bullet went through his neck & shoulder & ruptured his carotid artery. The medics let him know he was dying. In a published lecture, he told how he felt:

I was consumed with rage furious, violent rage Why me? I was just 21 and had barely begun living my life. Why should I have to die? It was unjust. And, as I felt my whole being sliding into nothingness, I cursed. I cursed God and the world and everyone in it as the darkness fell.

Sarpedon died raging, and Homer is relentless: 
. . and Patroklos, stepping heel braced to chest, dragged
the spear out of his body, and the midriff came away with it
so that he drew out with the spearhead the life of Sarpedon.
The battle continues for some time before
Apollo ...
lifting brilliant Sarpedon out from under the weapons
carried him far away, and washed him in a running river,
and anointed him . . .
then gave him into the charge
of Sleep and Death who are twin brothers, and these two
laid him down within the rich countryside of broad Lykia.
When the Metropolitan acquired this pot, I travelled to New York from Washington to see it. In the two and a half years I taught in New York, I made at least 18 visits to take my students, and when it was about to be repatriated, I travelled to New York from Seattle to see it for the last time. So I was amazed and profoundly moved to encouter it in Athens, in the new Acropolis Museum, in an exhibit called Nostoi (Returns). All the other Homeric nostoi are of the living and they are in the Odyssey. Sarpedon's is the only nostos of a dead man.

20 November 2008

Osman Şah's Mosque

In his inimitable style, Evliya tells us how Osman Şah's mosque came to be:

True, it is rather small, but it is a remarkable, fine and captivating edifice, full of light, a prosperous, well-adorned and brilliantly constructed mosque. There are such jeweled hangings suspended here. . . The court is paved in white marble, and revetted with colored marbles, with arcades along the sides, formed of capdomes supported on monolithic columns, and an upper school formed of chambers for the learned. This brilliant mosque is situated in a level area of lawns and flowerbeds along the bank of the river, with all the other monumental buildings are good works and pious benefactions of Osman Şah.

Koca Osman Şah, the descendant of the Ottoman line, was a man possessed of a magnificently generous nature. He was nephew to Sultan Suleyman, in that his mother was the daughter, born under a happy star, of Sultan Selim the first, and he was slightly older than Sultan Suleyman. Now when Selim turned Suleyman over to the Chief of the Imperial Gardeners with the order to kill him, the Chief Gardener claimed that he had done so, and prepared a bier with a man’s body on it. He took that man out and buried him. Then this foresighted and provident chief gardener disguised prince Suleyman as a gardener, and set him to work with a hoe in the tower garden.

It happened then that Selim Khan fell ill on his return to Istanbul after the conquest of Egypt, and when his remaining household were gathered around him, they said, “My Sovereign, to whom will you pass on this crown, this throne, this mantle and this dominion after you? For behold, my Sovereign, you are left without a son. You have sacrificed your brothers, Sultan Korkud and Sultan Ahmed, and you have sacrificed the darling prince, the tawny lion, free of all faults, your own Suleyman, and now who shall be master of the throne?” When they had said this, Selim answered, “The learned prince Osman Şah, my daughter’s child shall be the supreme and absolute ruler.”

The chief Gardener waited till Selim Şah was in the last agonies of death and taking many hundred thousand oaths in the name of God, he went to find tawny Suleyman in the tower garden, and brought him in to Selim Şah’s presence, still wearing his gilt gardener’s gap and carrying his hoe in his hand. Father and son rushed into one another’s embrace, and Selim Han recovered his health and strength for forty more days. On the fortieth day, after he had raised the Chief Gardener to the rank of a Councillor of State, Selim Han went to his last rest.

When Suleyman Han became absolute sovereign, all the servants of the imperial household raised a great murmur of scandalized outrage, saying, “Selim Han made his testament to us, and we will make Osman Şah our sovereign, since he is a great prince.” So the provident and far-sighted Suleyman got Osman Şah, together with his half-sister, that is to say, Osman Şah’s mother, and sent them off under cavalry escort to ride in a single night into banishment in the Trikkala command. He made this command over as an inalienable lifetime gift to Osman Şah who built this beautiful mosque here in Trikkala and left hundreds of other good works and benefactions. God have mercy on him, for it is certainly a brilliant mosque.

From Evliya's Travels © Pierre A. MacKay.
The mosque today, and here.

14 November 2008

Mycenean Polytope

In the summer of 1979, the premiere of a work entitled Mycenean Polytope, by a leading Greek composer was presented at the great fortress of Mycenae. Posters promised a live orchestra, three hundred soldiers, torches, narrations, and the Premier of Greece. Reviewers were expected from all the major European newspapers.

At the Mycenae parking lot, a grazing field rented for the occasion, traffic had to maneuver around some thirty black goats and sheep, belled and bearing lights. Most of the animals had paired off and were butting heads together in slow motion, oblivious to screaming men who were trying to direct them into an enclosure. It was lovely to watch, but it did not promise well for the music.

It was an interesting performance, for those whose tastes ran to interesting performances. A great deal of the music emphasized the atonal and arythmic, as well as the blatantly ugly. More of the music involved what seemed intended to be rams' horns blown for an attack or for authenticity of atmosphere, but it came through the amplifiers like Cyclopean whoops, farts, and burps, which is how the audience responded.

There were not three hundred soldiers with torches, but maybe there were seventy raw recruits from the Nauplion barracks, and they had not rehearsed climbing on and off vertical archaeological sites in the dark. Their walkie-talkies broadcast on the same frequency as the amplifiers for the orchestra so we heard a great many instructions, frustrations, expletives, and discussions of personal sexual habits, hygiene, and ancestry. Meanwhile, someone possibly associated with the performance was intoning those consonant-vowel syllables from the Mycenean Linear B clay documents -- da-mo-ko-ro-po-ro-ko-re-te -- or perhaps not those precise syllables, but it hardly mattered since Linear B is lists of livestock and jobs. Accompanying this were little whoops and bleats from the orchestra, with occasional shrieks which occasioned additional feedback in the speakers and a great many responses from the black sheep.

Then someone else began intoning, "Menin aide thea." This was cheering because it was recognizeable, but the cheer was brief because the orchestra's part showed no signs of improvement and the narrator gave every impression of being able to continue through the whole twenty-four books. There was considerable intonation about Ahhhh-chi-laaaay-oos, which seemed odd in a way as he never had anything to do with Mycenae, but it served to signal that the Iliad was still going on. Meanwhile, torches were lit, or such torches as could be managed in a high wind -- more antiphonal ancestral comments from the soldiers here – and whispers in the crowd suggested the torches meant the narrative had reached the burning of Troy.

The black goats and sheep with their bells and lights were unleashed and driven up the slope of Mt. Zara – this was intended to represent the hopes and aspirations of mankind – momentarily splendid to behold, but surely disappointing to the composer as some of them began like we to go astray, and the ruder sorts in the audience gave forth with shepherd whistles, many of them and contradictory, which tended to confuse the sheep and brought some few back down the slope where such as could be collared and turned around were driven forth again. The livestock in Homer, as best I could recall, were generally being eaten. It was reported over the next weeks that Polytope had occasioned hard feelings among the sheep-owning population of Mycenae, many of whose animals continued to be missing.

07 November 2008

Far-Away Peter and the Lion in the Rafters

He is a clumsy thing, this mannikin with the great hands. Barely a foot high and so far away as to be nearly invisible, he stands at the right end of the triumphal arch in the church of Ag. Pareskevi in Halkis, Greece. He is St. Peter Martyr and at the left end of the arch is an equally clumsy but less interesting St. Dominic.

The other image here below, the merry feathery lion, even smaller and more completely invisible from the floor, is the Lion of St. Mark, painted on the end of one of the massive rafters in the same church

These two unlikely images are unlikely in their location, and even more unlikely in that they may be the oldest surviving images of their types.

The church, long claimed to be a sixth-century Byzantine basilica by nationalists who willfully failed to consider the Gothic arches and rafters before their eyes, has been demonstrated by two scholars independently to be a Dominican priory church, dated by dendrochronology to 1261 or just after. Peter, a Dominican monk, became a martyr in 1252 and was canonized in 1253, so he had barely been minted which this image of him was created.

Brother Peter of Verona was a Dominican inquisitor, and though most people have an instant hostile reaction to the word, he never did anything to anyone. In fact, he had called off an inquiry into the Cathars at Milan with the idea that they might return to the fold of the church more readily with kindness than with discipline, and he was such a good preacher that they were. He was walking to Milan with Brother Dominico to find our how things were working when he was attacked in the forest of Barlassina by two men, Carino and Manfredo who had been hired by wealthy Cathars to get rid of him. Brother Peter bled to death almost immediately. Brother Dominico was wounded and died a week later.

Brother Peter's skull survives, and it is easy enough to see the hole and slice in his skull made by the blow of a pruning hook -- and what other sure weapon could a countryman risk being caught carrying in a woods? The Dominicans, running far behind the Franciscans in interesting saints, pushed through his canonization immediately, and authorized images of him to be set up in their churches along with St. Dominic.

Very few images make any pretense of accuracy, though this portrait of Savanarola as Peter Martyr comes fairly close. Fra Angelico tones it down, but one can't imagine Fra Angelico doing anything else. This image, though, is a melodramatic interpretation of his martyrdom, surpassing most other melodramatic images such as this, this, or this, and it is probably a fair sample of the images that appeared in the first generation after his death. This little big-handed man had an iron blade slicing through his face, attached with dowels to the stone -- you can see the holes for the dowels and the place where the face was cut away for the blade. It is a shame, really, that he was too small, too high up, too far away for this to be seen.

Another first, this exuberant little lion, fairly dancing on his Gospel book, because the first known use of the winged lion of St. Mark to represent Venice was in 1261. It is a very familiar image now, painted, carved in stone, in moleca -- the last appeared by 1263. He holds a book, this one closed, but conventionally it is open and says, 'Pax tibi, Marce, evangelista meum." The rest of the phrase says, "here will your body rest," because the body of Mark is believed to rest in the crypt of S. Marco in Venice. Someone has demonstrated the body of Saint Mark is really the body of Alexander the Great, because Mark was brought from Alexandria and Alexander was buried in Alexandria, and it all stands to reason.

Carino, by the way, allowed himself to be captured. He had been promised aid, and that seems to be why he was able to "escape" from prison. It is a great story. He eventually ended up, ill and wracked with guilt, in the Dominican hospital in Forli where he made a deathbed confession. When he failed to die, he became a lay brother of the Dominicans and lived a life of such devotion, that after his death he became the focus of a cult and is even now recognized as the Blessed Carino of Balsamo by the people of Forli.

02 November 2008

Layings on of Hands

The photographs this fall made me remember what Rebecca West wrote about the 1934 assassination of Alexander I of Yugoslavia:
Innumerable hands are caressing him. Hands are coming from everywhere, over the backs of the car, over the sides, through the windows, to caress the dying king, and they are surprisingly kind. . . . they stroke his cheek as if they were washing it with kindness.
When President Reagan was shot, the videos showed the same thing, showed over and over men's hands moving in tenderness, men's hands offering comfort. Pictures show hands touching Bobby Kennedy that way, too, but it was too late.
That was forty years ago -- is it possible this man who was our sad younger brother could ever be seventy-nine years old? The hands were reaching out to him that year grabbing, demanding, wanting a piece of him as if touching him could make them gold. That year we learned to be afraid. Too many people we loved were killed, and the vintage of the grapes of wrath flowed through our streets.

It is not inappropriate here to write of death, because to think about death implies that we have some requirements for what life must mean if it is to be more than simple biological functions, and that we have some need for lives to have meaning. Surely few things show how individuals create meaning in their lives more than do political campaigning and the ways campaigns are understood
Barack means "blessing," and picture after picture shows people responding to him in just that way, show him receiving gentle hands, and in the one here he is covered with a feathering of hands. These are hands with grace, not grabbing hands, not grieving hands, but hands with joy. In this Fall of 2008, hands reach out to Barack Obama -- passing him strength, giving him blessing.

Take note of this column.

22 October 2008

Nauplion: The Forks

The picture to the left is a detail of the oldest known image of Nauplion and shows the city's circumstances in the 1530s. There is the advance wall of 1480 sealing the space between Palamidi and the shore, the palisade along the marsh, the Albanian neighborhood (they were probably not allowed to live inside the city), the meat market, and the "forks."

That would be the two little forked poles with a crossbeam in the little peninsula left of the moat. And you can see how they worked here or here (upper left).

The forks appear only once in Nauplion's records, which is of course no indication of how much they were employed: the Byzantine and Frankish records are essentially non-existant, most of the Venetian are burnt or lost, and I cannot read the Ottoman.
But they come into a court action about a fief, a hundred years before this picture.

In 1412, the
podestà of Nauplion assigned half of Giovanni Cavaza's fief to Manoli Murmuri. Giovanni, a Nauplion official and a merchant in linen and wool, had died 6 years earlier. He had also been billing the Nauplion treasury for repairs to his private home and getting Venice to send out timber for it. Other than possession of the fief, Cavaza has no importance here. A fief contained about 200 stremmata of land. The medieval Morea stremma varied between 900 and 1900 square meters, depending on the kind of land, so this definition is not at all helpful, but just over 4 stremmata at 1000 m2 is equal to one American acre. A fief was a lot of land.

This assignment of half a fief to Manoli Murmuri was cancelled by action of three legislative bodies in Venice in April 1413 and the half-fief was eventually transferred to Giovanni Catello in January 1415. This Giovanni was senior member of a very large and progressively powerful family in the city. In 1416
Murmuri's brother Michali, Nicolò Murmuri, and someone's brother named Gregorio -- tried to kill Giovanni. They failed but he was so badly injured that he lost his right hand.

There is a gap of eight years in the narrative. Then in 1424, the Murmuri brothers bribed a
rusticus to kill Giovanni. Giovanni was ambushed when he went out to inspect his vineyard. Again, he survived the assault, though he received five wounds. The rusticus disappeared.

The brother of the rusticus testified against him and named Michali, Nicolò, and Gregorio as responsible. Catello's complaint to the Venetian Signoria in 1424 sought legal action against the three: the
rusticus was not the real problem. Signoria, however, declared that when the rusticus was found, he was to have his right hand amputated before he was hanged from the “forks.”

We have no idea what happened to the rusticus.

16 October 2008

Isabelle de Villehardouin, Princess of the Morea

A long entry, after two short ones.

Isabelle Villhardouin was a true princess and a lady, but as a princess in the 13th-century Morea, the realities of life did not allow her what a woman of her character and intelligence deserved.

When she was a child in the mid-1260s, her father, Guillaume II of Villehardouin was militarily insecure. To guarantee military backing, he, together with Baldwin II, ex-Emperor of Constantinople, ratified the Treaty of Viterbo with Charles I of Anjou. This meant that Anjou would inherit the Principality of the Morea after Guillaume died, sealed by the betrothal of Isabelle to Anjou's young son, Philippe; and that Anjou would inherit title to the Empire of Constantinople, sealed by the marriage of the Emperor's son Philippe to his very young daughter, Beatrice.

There were about a dozen of these children, young Angevins and their betrothed, all being raised together in the French-Italian court of Naples with a surround of troubadours, manuscripts, and warriors. Isabelle and Philippe were formally married when they were twelve, but the agreement had specified that she be protected from sexual relations until she was older--old enough for a reasonably safe childbirth.

Philippe died in 1277, probably before they got that far: he had always been unwell, and a great deal of the marriage had consisted of trips to healing shrines and hot springs. Isabelle's father died the next year, Charles of Anjou became Prince of the Morea [inherited from his son], and she was retained in Naple's Castel dell'Uovo. She must have felt uneasy there: her aunt Helena, widow of Manfred, had been imprisoned with her son in the Castel since Manfred's defeat and death in 1266, and Villehardouin surely knew something about that when he agreed to the treaty in the following year.

Isabelle's mother, Anna, and Helena, were daughters of Theodora of Arta and Michael Komnenos Doukas. Theodora was later recognized as a saint, and while her vita does not mention these daughters, they were clearly raised with character and with good educations. Theodora's focused intelligence comes through Anna to Isabella and her sister, Marguerite: we have no idea if they were able to keep in touch with their mother after their marriages. They also had their father's focused energy. So much focus brought them frusration and disappointment, again and again.

Guillaume II, Prince of the Morea, died in 1278, and Anjou sent out governors, These were considered harsh and extortionate, but the best we can tell is that they were trying to rationalize taxation and administration in the Morea the way that Anjou's brother, Louis XI, had done in France, to similar objections. Nevertheless, the Morea and Anjou were under great strain for a number of years. Anjou had the Sicilian Vespers, war with the Aragonese. When he died in 1285, his heir, Charles II, was a prisoner of that war.

In 1289 Isabelle married Florent of Hainaut, who was related to the family of the ex-emperor and to the Avesnes family of the conquest of Greece. Whether this was an arranged marriage -- Charles II, though somewhat older, had escorted her to her marriage with his brother, and he might have actually been fond of her -- or whether it was an arranged marriage that suited her admirably, it turned out to be a good marriage. Charles II granted them the titles of Prince and Princess of the Morea on their wedding day, and sent them off to straighten things out in Greece. Which they mostly did, Florent in the north and west out of Andravida, and Isabelle in the south near Kalamata. They had a daughter, Mahaut or Maud, and then in 1297, Florent died unexpectedly. Isabelle continued in Greece.

Then like so many unwillingly single women of her age--she was 40, Isabelle decided to travel. She went to Rome for the Jubilee of 1300, the one about which Dante said, "I had not thought Death had undone so many." In Rome, she met a certain Philip of Savoy. She was far from being the only woman d'un certain âge to be smitten by a younger man: he sent her little presents, he took her on moonlit walks by the Tiber, he admired her sophistication, so unlike the silliness of younger women. Or maybe he didn't. But she was quite overwhelmed by him and they were married.

The bill for the wedding feast of 12 February 1301 still survives. The meats included 2 cows, 12 sheep, 9 pigs, 72 small birds, 8 goats, 24 pheasants, 50 ducks, capons, fowls, doves and egs. That took care of the protein. The bill goes on to list vinegar, rosewater, farina, salt, raisins, bread, fruit, 4 kinds of wine, 200 pounds of almonds, 27 pounds of sugar, 8 pound of pepper, 6 pounds of ginger, 3 pounds of cinnamon, charcoal, firewood, wax and torches,10 men to make sauces, transportation of the food, 31 horses, reeds and herbs for the banquet hall, planks and supports for the tables, payment for three master cooks, and beds for the servants for the nights before and after the banquet.

The romance lasted just about as long as the banquet. Charles II reluctantly sent them to the Morea to continue the Angevin-Villehardouin rule. Philippe took along his friends. Altogether they brought with them a whole new frat-boy layer of arrogance and violence, and the chronicles that admire Florent list Philippe's brutalities in detail. The Andravida branch of the Peruzzi bank of Florence was involved. Philippe also ignored Charles' directions. The Moreote peers rebelled and wrote Charles. The Greek archons were on the verge of rebellion, and this was more serious. Charles recalled Isabelle and Philippe on the technical grounds that she had lost her right to rule for marrying without permission.

Before this happened, in 1305, Isabelle arranged the betrothal of her twelve-year old daughter Mahaut to Guy II de la Roche, Duke of Athens, clearly with an eye on the possibility of the original Frankish families regaining their position. Mahaut was taken to Athens to live with Guy's mother until she was of age for marriage. Trying to go out with heads high, Isabelle and Philippe held a tournament at Corrinth 1307, one attended by 1000 knights and barons from all over Greece and the island, and seven professional jousters from the West who took on all challengers. Guy of Athens performed spectacularly.She left Philippe as soon as she arrived in Italy, ignoring Charles' offers of property and money, taking with her their daughter Marguerite to live in Hainaut on the lands Mahaut had inherited from her father.

Other than always keeping the loyalty of the Moreote Greeks, both for herself and for her family's loyalty to them, that was about it. Isabelle died in 1311, at the age of fifty. Marguerite married a knight of no particular status and died without children.

07 October 2008


If you are a Turk, the Greek Palia-Patras, Old Patras (not to be confused with New Patras near Thermopylae) sounds like Bali-Batra, which means Honey-Patras. And this is a true and rightful name because, as Evliya Celebi writes, there is no equal on earth or in all the inhabited quarters of the seven climatic zones to the great cypress tree of Patras, created by God:

This is a mighty tree, a cypress a green as emerald, which is under the special care of that ever-watchful Gardener, the Supreme Creator and Artificer, the Glorious Lord. In all the embellished heavens under the ninth sphere there is no sight like it. It is not tall and straight like other cypresses, but forks out in four trunks, from which spring three hundred and sixty branches reaching to the sky.

As these push out to right and left, forty or fifty picket-lines of horses might be tied in the shade, and forty or fifty thousand sheep might be shaded there. Around each upper trunk, a full fifty or sixty horses could stand, while lower down I and seven young slaves hardly managed to encircle the great main trunk with our arms outstretched. We also unwound a turban from a man's head and the full turban cloth just encircled this tall cypress tree.

In conclusion, at the top of this wondrous cypress threre is an old cavity where honey-bees have made a nest, and produce so much honey that the owner of this tree gets a hundred kilos of honey from it every year, which he sends round as presents to the great men in every province.

God knows, on the face of the earth there has never been a sweeter, purer and more aromatic honey created by the Maker of All Things.

From Evliya's Travels in the Morea © Pierre A. MacKay.

30 September 2008

Sari Sadik Baba

Evliya Celebi learned this when he was visiting Patras in 1668:

Sari Sadik Baba is visited by the Greek infidels too, for they say that "this is our Saint Nicholas." By giving their offerings to the keepers of the tomb, they make their visits to him. None of the authorities have been able to root this practice out absolutely.

Once, when this saint wished to cross from the city of Vostitza to the Bay of Naupaktos, opposite, the sailors started across without taking him into the boat. Sari Sadik Sultan then gathered a little sand from the seashore into the skirts of his robe and walked onto the sea after the boat, scattering the sand grain by grain. The sailors watched, and as the heart-wounded dervish came on, filling up an area extending for two thousand paces, they became panic-stricken lest the saintly dervish should fill up the entire sea this way, and by closing off the gulf, deprive them of their place of work.

So they called out, "Come and get in the
caĩque, Old Father," and taking him at once into the boat, ferried him across to Naupaktos. For this reason, there is a mile-long sandy point on the Vostitza side of the gulf.

This, then, is Sari Sadik Sultan, holiness be upon him, who lies at rest in Patras, and to bring his holiness to its fullest visibility, he has been transported to Heaven.

From Evliya's Travels in the Morea © Pierre A. MacKay.
About Evliya's manuscript.
The Modern Bridge

25 September 2008

Sappho, Cleopatra, and the Pope

I see how fine he is, how rare, this creature called Lung Book or Mortal Book because of his strange organs of breath. His lungs are holes in his body, which open and close. And inside the holes are stiffened membranes, arranged like the pages of a book — imagine that! And when the holes open, the pages rise up and unfold, and the blood
that circles through them touches the air, and by this bath of air the blood is made pure . . . He is a house of books, my shy scorpion, carrying in his belly all the
perishable manuscripts — a little mirror of the library at Alexandria, 

which burned.

We were having a drink under the platan trees by the trout ponds in Naousa. A man joined us, we exchanged introductions, and he said, "You think you are scholars and you know everything about history. But you don't know what really happened to the Library of Alexandria." And then he explained that the library had never burned, as everyone assumed, but that the Pope had taken it away, and all the priceless Greek manuscripts were locked away in the Secret Archives of the Vatican. This sounded like good news to us: it meant that priceless manuscripts still survived, but for him it was the crowning proof of papal perfidy. Considering the Fourth Crusade and Ferrara-Florence, a fragile case might be made for his view, but not here.

It might be thought a bit of perfidy that Alexandria had some of its Greek manuscripts at all. Ancient Athens required that a copy of each play presented at the Dionysia be deposited in the Metroön, the building that housed official city archives. That would have been nearly 400 plays collected across the century under which the system of drama was maintained. A hundred years after that century was over, Athens became involved in the Chremonidian War, an effort of Greek states to throw off Macedonian control. Athens was not what she had once been, and asked to borrow war funding from Ptolemy II of Alexandria, who agreed in exchange for receiving the complete collection of plays as pledge on the loan.

In an act that can only chill the stomach of anyone who has sailed in the Mediterranean, Athens put the manuscripts of a thousand plays on a galley and sent them across the water to Egypt. Ptolemy sent the money. In time, Athens asked to redeem the pledge. Ptolemy, in effect, said, "Keep the money."

More history happened. In the course of Julius Caesar's siege of Alexandria in 48BC, warehouses in the harbor area in which books were stored caught fire. There was much outrage about burning the library -- if the books did indeed belong to the library.

A patriarch named Theophilos is said to have burned the library in 391 AD on the grounds that if the books contradicted Holy Writ, they should be destroyed, and if they agreed with it, they were extraneous and unnecessary. In 640, the Calif Omar took over the city of Alexandria and when asked what should be done about the library, made, by the most amazing coincidence, the same response as Theophilos. These burnings of the library cannot be demonstrated to have happened although there were burnings, and in the course of conquests and revenge books do get burned.

There may have been other burnings that did or did not happen. The real problem is, we cannot establish that there was actually a Library of Alexandria in the time of Caesar, let alone by the time of Theophilos or Omar.

What we do know is that over the course of the 8th and 9th centuries, mathmatical and medical documents from Alexandria ended up in Persia. And we know that Egyptians took manuscript rolls, sliced them like jelly rolls into little strips, and wrapped their mummies with them. Most of the Sappho that exists today comes in partial lines from fragmented ribbons of mummy wrappings, although not the poem above.

In that fragment neatly copied on papyrus, Sappho says to a group of young girls that they have the gifts of the Muses, and ends by saying that, being human, there is no way not to grow old. Cleopatra of Egypt, who loved Caesar for a while and could not have loved a book-burner, given the choice, would have gladly responded to that with her famous "Make it so!"
For the whole poem about the scorpion, http://nauplion.net/Diana.html

17 September 2008

A Fate Worse than Death

Rossini's opera, The Siege of Corinth--L'assedio di Corinto, is not an experience to be undertaken lightly, say, the way one would go blithely to one's seventeenth or twenty-seventh performance of Barbiere. Even when it was written, in 1820, audiences stayed away in droves, possibly because it was entitled Maometto II, somewhat lifted from someone else's opera, and possibly because it was pretty awful.

Maometto told the story of the 1470 siege of Negroponte and its capture from the Venetians, but even in Venice--or especially in Venice--it was not much appreciated. The story is vaguely that of Anna Erizzo, daughter of the Venetian commander, with whom the tyrant -besieger, Maometto
(brooding operatic portrait to the right), becomes smitten. Anna Erizzo's story filled Venetian propaganda after the capture, and she was said to have taken her own life rather than submit to his brutal lusts. (It may or may not be of interest to note that rape is not reliably recorded among his more unattractive characteristics.)

It is true that after the capture of Negroponte, the women, children, and boys under the age of 18, were taken off as slaves, but there never was an Anna Erizzo. The Venetian commander Paolo Erizzo was killed before dawn on the final day of the siege. All men of military age, about eight hundred, were beheaded after the capture. More had been killed, a few escaped. The loss of the women and children was its own tragedy, and documents survive of men like Eustachio who, although able to track down and ransom his wife and some of his children, was grieving ten years later for the two daughters still missing. But with the exception of
Dialogues des Carmélites, tragedy in opera is not like tragedy in real life and Anna needs little sympathy.

Six years after Maometto flopped, Rossini reissued it in French, and with ballets, as The Siege of Corinth (which Maometto had beseiged, briefly and without violence in 1458). It was an immediate hit. Europe had been following the 1826 siege of Messolonghi (where Byron died of malaria in 1824) and the massacre there of the women and children who had tried to escape. There had also been the 1822 siege and massacre at Chios.

A couple of passages from the Baltimore Opera program illustrate the general tenor of the opera.
Anna and Paolo Erizzo have become Pamira and Cléomène. It begins:
In the vestibule of the Senate palace, the men of Corinth are ready to defend their city (“Signor, un sol tuo cenno”), but Cleomene, the governor, tells his people that their situation is hopeless: the Turk Maometto II refuses to relent in his siege of the city (“Del vincitor superbo di Bisanzio”).

and ends:

As the men march off to fight, Pamira and the women pray again, readying themselves for death (“L'ora fatal s'appressa”), even as the Turks are heard exulting in victory. Maometto enters triumphantly hoping at last to gain Pamira, but she threatens to kill herself if he approaches. With a roar, the building crumbles, revealing the city consumed in flames, as the Turks slaughter the people of Corinth .

This time the opera worked, audiences wept in droves for tragic oppressed Greece, and everyone, especially Rossini, was quite gratified.

We were in Negroponte the other day, now Halkis, trying to identify aspects of the siege. In the years before and after 1900, the city fathers of Halkis went to uncommon trouble to eliminate all traces of medieval fortifications, and it is now difficult to envision what must have happened. With one exception:

Looking to the north, you can see where Nicolò da Canale sat with the Venetian fleet that August, out of danger, but not out of the sound and sight of the besieged. Mehmed-Maometto was besieging Negroponte as vengence for da Canale's stupidly gratuitous siege and massacre of Ainos in 1468. But da Canale's Negroponte behavior duplicated what happened earlier, when the Venetian fleet waited off-shore at Patras in August 1466 and so enabled the slaughter of Jacopo Barbarigo and his troops, and the impalement of Michali Rallis.