31 December 2009

Pepper Silk Peacocks Bankrupt

"A lady whom Time hath surprised," said Sir Walter Raleigh of Queen Elizabeth.  I, too, have been surprised by time, and I have been surprised by time even more as a historian. I love this "Compact Object" by Natsayuki Nakanishi* from MoMA for offering Time as precious and confusing, an egg in the hand, a bomb, surprising, a beginning, a never-ending curve.

Since I began this blog on 22 July 2008, I have written 84 entries, close to 90,000 words, or a good-sized book, while working on two other books and two articles.  Ten months of that time was in Athens, financed by an NEH grant.  To all of you who pay US taxes, my deep gratitude.

The main work-in-process is The Knight and Death: Krokodeilos Kladas and the Fifteenth-Century Morea, an examination of the Morea's anarchic, desperate, and beautiful culture during the final disintegration of the Eastern Empire. I took the title from the great poem by Nikos Gatsos which I was translating the night before time surprised us with 9/11. I stood in the street in New York watching the pillars of fire and smoke, his lines running through my head: I who saw your descendants like birds split open  . . .the sky of my country.
Gatsos also gave me the lines that serve as epigraph here: . . . a little wine for remembrance . . . a little water for the dust, which is what I have been offering in these 84 entries.

The second book, which should come out in early spring, is a second collection with John Melville Jones of letters by Bartolomeo Minio, these from Crete in 1500-1502, as a companion to the volume we published of his letters from Nauplion between 1479 and 1483. This makes 150 letters from one man, an incomparable archive from a difficult world, and testimony to the pit-bull persistence of a good and cranky man.

The first article, "Golden Hammerings," with my partner Pierre A. MacKay, is a study of three poems, conventionally credited to Cardinal Bessarion, but which I have become convinced were written by Theodoros II Palaiologos of Mistra. I have given early summaries of two of them here in the past year. The second article is an expansion of the material provided by "The Anonymous Naupliote" as I discovered an exactly contemporary Venetian manuscript discussing the anarchic events at the same fair of Ag. Demetrios and the same corrupt Greek governor where Anonymous was surprised by time.

Much of the material in the blog has come from topics I have been chewing over for the Kladas book, and I can give footnotes to anyone who asks. Other material has come from thirty-two years of walking and cycling my beloved Nauplion and the surrounding area. This writing has been a discipline in deadlines, concision, evidence, and translation, as well as a vanity production and self-indulgence in the topics and images that please me.

Lately the blog has been averaging about 100+ viewers a day, not a large public, but there are millions of blogs out there, and quite a few are people who come back again and again, or who follow certain topics.  The number is inflated by the unfortunates who were googling for "second-hand hats" and found a fresco from Mistra, or "pictures of Toufa island"** and found a crown with feathers, or dianawright fabrics and found description of cloth in a fresco, or "music for pavane for a dead princess" and found several more from Mistra. The googler for "cape of dogs" found the entry 15 months after it was posted and seems to have been delighted.  Strangely, "thumb injuries" produced the description of an image of Athena "the size of a thumb," and "country house rent Lefkakia" must have bitterly dissapointed someone. My favorite of the search terms to bring in a viewer -- I have a widget on the site that gives me your IP address, your town, how long you spend reading, what search terms you use, the resolution of your browser, and various other bits of information -- is "pepper silk peacocks bankrupt." That, I think, pretty well sums it up.

The most downloaded images have been St. Jerome's lion, a laying-on of hands, the Euphronios crater, and one of my favorites, Carpaccio's parrot. Various pretty women have been quite popular: a possible Maria of Trebizond, a stand-in for Cleofe Malatesta, the girl with the pearl earring, and my mother. Surprisingly far down the list is my favorite, the most beautiful of antiquities, the gem of Athena Cyriaco held in the lamplight one night on a galley. 

I had hoped for more discussion, more questioning of my assertions, more information.  Pavlos has done that with his note for Nick the Greek with more on Greeks who sailed with big-name explorers, and the Singular Stratiote with material on stratioti from Zakynthos and much material on Columbus.  Otherwise, there have been only Bill Caraher confirmed the advance wall with a similar wall at Corinth; Stazybo Horn who identified my Meteora elephant; and Opoudjis who supplemented my discussion of "improvements." Readers have been kind with compliments but scholarship needs kind correction as well.

2010 is about to begin. The Venetians began their year on March 1, the Eastern Empire on September 1 because that was the first day of Creation, and the date from which the Romans counted their indictions. I work back and forth among these three systems and it keeps me keenly aware that there are alternative views of absolutely everything I have written and will write. Mary McCarthy wrote of Lillian Hellman: "Everything she wrote is a lie, including "and" and "the."
  Nevertheless, I love Hellman and find McCarthy unreadable.

What happens with the blog in the next months is uncertain.  I am anticipating my mother's funeral, my grandson's birth, two eye surgeries, a wedding.  Two conference papers  So it occurs to me that perhaps an occasional guest blogger might be of interest. Pavlos?  As Alexandra used to say, "Whobody?" If you have something within the tone or topics of this blog, write me at the e-mail address to the left of the title, and let's talk.

May 2010 be full of surprises.

* Googling will show that quite a few bloggers have found this image appealing.
** As best as I can make out, someone named Sofie Toufa has recorded on Island label.

27 December 2009


Martha, Ogbomosho Baptist Hospital, ca. 1950

My mother was set free today, at the age of ninety-two and a half, the last fourteen months completely bed-ridden, the last five years essentially blind. My brother and his wife kept her in their home, gave her exceptional, loving care.

These years of captivity were so wrong.  This was a woman delighted to be told she resembled a butterfly. Always moving. She loved dancing, though as a Baptist she couldn't. A petite Southern lady -- always a lady, and like the archetypal Southern lady, tough, unable to understand "you can't" -- who intended to become a professional organist, and who became instead a missionary doctor.  She thought, when she and my father arrived at the Ogbomosho Baptist Hospital in September 1946, that she was to take care of obstetrics and gynecology.  Those were the good days, when she had some preparation for what she encountered.

The picture above is of my mother in the women's ward of the hospital. For long periods of time she was the only doctor for a million square miles, and most days, even when she did surgery, she saw two hundred patients in clinic.  The first four years there was no electricity -- my father put that in, for the hospital and the mission station -- and night emergencies occurred in the presence of kerosene lamps, night surgery with the headlights from a car. Every single night she was wakened at least once by the distant knock of a bicycle pedal against the frame, the waver of a lantern, as a hospital messenger brought word of an emergency that couldn't wait till morning.

At every chance she got, she pushed oranges, fingernail brushes, beans. Nutrition, sanitation, and the difference between right and wrong. She taught piano lessons, Sunday School lessons, planted seed boxes and directed the gardener who raised most of our food.  She taught me from kindergarten into the middle of my second year of high school -- piano, blood typing, Latin.  In free time, she learned astronomy and read about mountain climbing.  She could name every peak when we flew over the Alps. She knew the name of every constellation and star we could see from our front porch in Ogbomosho, and when she explained the light-years she talked about the music she would hear up there in Heaven.

In the 40s and 50s, even missionaries could afford household help, so she taught someone to read and to cook. She taught herself to make bread on a wood stove so she could teach him. We had formal meals, cloth napkins, a steward in brass buttons.  The floors gleamed.  She loved color, flowers.  Our house was always prettier, more ordered than almost any other house we saw. 

For a woman who had given more than fifty years to healing, it was great injustice for her to be trapped by a deteriorating mind, blinded in one eye by a careless eye surgeon, unable to walk on legs that had cycled for 40 years, danced, run up and down stairs, taken brisk daily walks. A women who wept over the beauty of light barely able to distinguish between light and dark, though sometimes she could catch an intense red.  A woman disciplined about the emotions she showed, determined we would not learn fear, she was ravaged by sundowner syndrome.  An obstetrician, she nearly bled to death in childbirth because there was no obstetrician available when she gave birth in Nigeria to my brother. A surgeon, she underwent at least 7 major operations herself, and knew all about the pain, the submission, the fear.  

There is one last operation, today, when her brain is removed and sent in ice to a researcher who is studying brain changes in dementia.

We go to what we love. My mother dances today with the Lord of the Dance to the music of the spheres.  My mother is become light.  

19 December 2009

I, Joseph, was walking

And I, Joseph, was walking, and not walking, and I looked up
into the heavens and I saw the vault
of the heavens standing still,
and the birds of the heavens trembling,
and I looked down
on the earth and I saw a dish
lying on the ground and workmen reclining,

and their hands were in the dish,
and those raising their hands were not raising them,
and those who were bringing food to their mouths
were not eating,
but all of their faces were looking up,
and I saw sheep being driven and the sheep
standing still,
and the driver's hand raised up as if to strike them,
and I looked up
to the winter stream and saw the young goats
and their mouths were touching the water
and they drank not,
and everything was astonished.

᾿Ἐγὼ δὲ ᾿Ιωσὴφ περιεπάτουν καὶ οὐ περιεπάτουν καὶ ἀνέβλεψα
εἰς τὸν οὐρανὸν καὶ εἶδον τὸν πόλον τοῦ οὐρανοῦ ἑστῶτα καὶ τὰ πετεινὰ
τοῦ οὐρανοῦ τρὲμοντα καὶ ἐνέβλεψα ἐπὶ τὴν γῆν καὶ εἶδον σκάφην
κειμένην καὶ ἐργάτας ἀνακειμένους καὶ ἦσαν αἱ χεῖρες αὐτῶν ἐν τῆ
σκάφη καὶ οἱ αἴροντες οὐκ ἀνέφερον
καὶ οἱ προσφὲροντες εἰς τὸ στόμα οὐ προσὲφερον ἀλλὰ πἀντων αὐτῶν
ἦν τὰ πρόσωπα ἄνο βλέποντα καὶ εἶδον πρόβατα ἐλαυνόμενα καὶ τὰ
πρόβατα εἱστήκει ἐπῆρεν δὲ ὁ ποιμὴν τοῦ πατάξαι αὐτά καὶ ἡ
χεὶρ αὐτοῦ ἔστη ἄνω καὶ ἀνάβλεψα ἐπὶ τὸν χείμαρρον καὶ εἱδον ἐρίφους
καὶ τὰ στόματα αὐτῶν ἐπικείμενα τῶ ὕδατι καὶ μὴ πίνοντα
καὶ πάντα ὑπὸ ἔκπληξιν ὄντα.

Protevangelium Jacobi 18
Trans. DW

12 December 2009

The Singular Stratiote

These marvellous striped stockings, much gimped, are all that remain of the figure of a stratiote in a Cretan fresco of military saints, but they suggest something of the multivalent world of the stratioti. The name comes from the Greek word stratiotis, one obligated to military service, and in this period it was supplemented by the Italian notion that it meant something like "on the road." Marino Sanudo described them in the 1480s:

These stratioti are Turks, Greeks, and Albanians living in the Morea, men of great spirit, ready to put themselves in every danger. They ride their horses with great swiftness, cutting down and laying everything to waste. They are by nature rapacious and much given to looting and to the deaths of men, against whom they use great cruelty. They carry shield, sword and lance with a pennant at the tip of the lance, and an iron mattock at their side. Few wear a cuirass, and the rest only their coats of bombazine1 sewn in their fashion. Their horses are large, good workers, fast on the hoof, and always carry the head high. They eat grain and straw. These people are much experienced in war . . . and their city wall is the sword and the lance.
OK, that sounds a bit like the Spartans claim for themselves, but the stratioti were -- given that this is a fallen world and much happens that we would prefer did not -- the stratioti were pretty magnificent.  Those Sanudo writes about had been imported from Modon, Corone, and Nauplion in 1482 for the Ferrara war.  There had been days of arguing and a near-revolt against Minio over the pay scales offered, and then as soon as they were off-loaded from their barges on the Brenta canal, most were massacred in a charge by Federigo de Montefeltro and his steel-armed warriors.  The stratioti were having no more of this, so they refused to fight until they had a commander of their own -- "not one of those Italians " -- and announced they would take no prisoners. The general practice was to try to capture individuals for whom they could collect ransom.  Meanwhile they engaged in a little looting while the Venetians decided what to do. Minio arrived back in Venice from Nauplion just in time to be appointed their commander -- he seems to have been thought the only person likely to be able to control them, and was commended for their military success.  But the Ferrarese and their allies were frightened of losing their heads or, if not killed, their ears, and the stratioti's reputation possibly accomplished more for them in Italy than actual fighting.

 Venice had been hiring stratioti here and there in Greece for about 60 years, but their first real use came early in the 1464-1478 war when four-fifths of the fanti Sigismundo Malatesta had brought from Italy died of plague. Stratioti cost considerably less, they supplied their own horses, they knew the mountain routes that had to be negotiated as the Venetian troops dodged and tracked the Turkish.  And, as Barbarigo wrote, "These peasants are better fighters than the Italians." Barbarigo was supposed to oversee Malatesta and coordinate the war efforts, including food, pay, hiring and firing.

This war had very little commitment back home, and much of Barbarigo's wonderful letters are concerned with trying to get food for his troops, pay for his troops, straw for their horses.  Very little of anything was being sent out, and he had before him the example of stratioti in country, too long without pay, who had decapitated their Italian captain. Then he had trouble finding aides who could speak and write Greek to deal with them, and he was on short rations himself.  He had to send half of his stratioti up to Nauplion territory, because Modon and Corone territories could only feed 150 horses each.  Meanwhile, the stratioti were selling off their future wages at one-quarter of their worth to get a little money for a little food.  Most of them were without shoes, and many of were sick from malnutrition and malaria. Then there were the occasional raids that acquired a couple of thousand sheep and goats, and half of them had to be slaughtered and abandoned because the band of 40 or 70 stratioti couldn't manage them across the mountain passes fast enough ahead of the Turks.

Stratioti are rarely singular.  They are almost always mentioned in groups, though two were assigned to take the Anonymous Naupliote from Mouchli to Argos.  They fight in bands, almost always family-related groups, usually between eighteen and thirty males of all ages, but on occasion as many as 500.  We have very few names of individual stratioti, but we have many of names of kapitanioi, or capi -- Krokondeilos and Emmanuel Kladas, Michali Rallis, Thodoro Bua, Petro Bua, Bozike, Blessi, Theodoros Palaiologos, Demetrios Palaiogos (related, but not imperial), and towns all over Greece have names familiar from stratioti  in the 15th Century -- Gerbesi, Manessi, Zonga. Venice rewarded the kapitanioi and gave them lengths of red or black cloth on occasion when there wasn't money, and generally provided widows' pensions, daughters' dowries, and hired the sons.  The stratioti were so much food for the birds and the dogs.

The original theory, and the practice that the Venetians tried to maintain as much as possible, was that they received land to farm in lieu of pay, they took along their own provisions, provided their own equipment, and could have whatever they could get in loot.  Stratioti could easily become bandits when there was no war on, and in most accounts of war in the Morea -- when not actually facing an organized Ottoman force -- it is very difficult to say why a particular action is war rather than banditry.

However, the realities of the Ottoman war meant that Venice needed to hire troops from the Albanian clans who moved their herds and huts from mountain to mountain and had little or no local allegiances or concern for Venetian discipline.  In both Minio and Barbarigo there seems to be an exasperated equivalence that stratioti = good, Albanians = bad, but stratioti were as often Albanians (from earlier periods of immigration) as Greek, and were perfectly capable of rebellion.  Minio calls them all "zente desregulata -- lawless people."

Still, these were ferociously loyal men, fighting, hanging on after months of not being paid, sometimes performing amazingly heroic actions.  Sometimes, after not being paid for a very long time, bands would go off to fight for the Turks for a while instead of against them.  Sometimes, desperate for food, a group would make a private peace so they could tend to their crops for a season.  And once a group of stratioti, furious at the Ottoman-Venetian peace settlement, declared their own six-month war against the Turks. One can only imagine how difficult their lives must have been to prefer unpaid service under the Venetians to quiet herding on one of the Morea's beautiful upland pastures.

They are raggedy men -- the stockings in the picture, and the red shoes, were probably sold a few months later so their owner could buy food.  The image I cary of stratioti is a scene repeated over and over in the various reports: a crowd of hungry men barefoot in the dust of the plateia at Nauplion -- now paved with marble and place lined with Rossini-esque buildings and cafes and Venetian lions and a couple of repurposed mosques -- crying "Pan! Pan!"  Bread.

05 December 2009

Nauplion: Under the Threshold

In 1955, the German archaeologist Wulf Schaefer obtained permission for a a private excavation of the Frankish and Venetian walls on Acro-Nauplion.* During this time he meticulously  mapped the Frankish and Venetian fortifications of the Castle of the Franks.**  A major part of his excavations was concerned with the large entrance passage that the Franks had built in ther reconstruction of the Roman entrance to Acro-Nauplion.

In the late 260s, the Gothic Herulians from the Black Sea area were raiding islands and coasts of the Greek world.  They sacked Athens, Corinth, Argos, Sparta.  Greeks who had been living in the countryside to escape Roman taxes moved back inside what fortifications they could find -- a hundred years earlier Pausanias had said Nauplion was uninhabited -- and tried to rebuild their walls.

 Schaefer made two momentous discoveries on Acro-Nauplion during his excavations.  The first was the discovery, under the Roman threshhold of the rebuilt gate, of the skeleton of a child, about 6 or so.  This is his picture.  He calls it "my find of a sacrificed baby."  It is not done in Greek archaeology to suggest that there was such a thing as human sacrifice (with a single exception in Crete), but the myths and plays are full of it.  It is certainly not done to suggest that such could happen in a "civilized" age.***  So we will call this a "threshold burial," and remember that people who are scared tend to make decisions that hurt someone.

The small folded skeleton was found at the foot of the staircase from which you are looking down in this next picture, and you can see the Roman tiles that make up the arch.(A back yard in Nauplion has stacks of Roman tiles under the lemon trees.)  Schaefer's second momentous discovery, on the vault and lower walls, was of Frankish frescos from around 1300.  If you look at the map of the walls in the link below, this passageway-entrance is between the two large towers at the top of the image.

I saw these frescos in 1977 -- hadn't a clue as to what I was seeing -- and then they were mostly gone, flecked away from damp.  Twenty years of exposure seems to have undone the visibility of what Schaefer found. His photographs show a great deal more than I saw.  Monika Hirschbichler**** has written extensively on these frescos, using Schaefer's photographs, and may be the last person to have seen them.  She dates them between 1291 and 1311. They were closed up in late '77 and now there appears to be a permanent barricade.

Beginning in 1463, the Venetians involved in a long drag-out war with the Ottomans which was not ended until 1478. Starting in 1470, they made major modifications to the Frankish defense system they had inherited.  They filled the Roman-Frankish gate with rubble, and enclosed the towers with stone batters against cannon fire. The road in the photo dips around the remaining tower.  The southern tower was brought down in modern times to put through an access road.  The Venetians opened up new gate, still accessible, which required breaking through the Roman wall for a narrow, nervous approach from the precipitous cliff side.              

In 1981, Schaefer wrote friends -- I am copying his English accurately: "There have too many things I began in my life to be brought to a decent end.  When I look at the maps of drawings on the history of Nauplion, and the rows of manuscripts . . . I feel badly about my conscience regarding my whole studio full of excellent ideas, buried in manuscripts, nobody ever will read."

In another letter he wrote: "Maybe if I had not be killed somewhere in Albania, had become even a better archaeologist over there . . . So my proposal: To find a male person.  I will give him all my knowledge . . .."  The friend suggested a male person, but the male person, deep in his own momentous research, was not consulted before being volunteered.  Without waiting for confirmation, Schaefer enthusiastically wrote of his gratitude for this "eruditus of this medieval field . . . my rescuer."  The friend sent on Schaefer's three leters to the eruditus.

The eruditus recently discovered these three letters and gave them to me because of my work on Nauplion. They are sad letters.  I am haunted by Schaefer's grief over the unfinished work and unfinished papers, yet the favorite ideas and positive statements in his letters and two of his articles have long since been demonstrated unfounded.

Schaefer worked on the Corinth excavations from 1936-1939 as site architect.  Earlier he worked in excavations on Acro-Nauplion, clearing out what very little could be found of the Byzantine and Roman remains.  Most of those finds were destroyed in WW2 when the German military and Gestapo took over the museum buildings, and part of the excavation was destroyed by a gun emplacement.  In the summer of 1939 Schaefer had joined a team working at Mycenae when he received draft orders to return to Germany.  He was captured late in the war and was a POW for two years, returning home to a flattened Bremen in 1946.

This is as much as I know of his professional biography from these three letters and it surely needs a lot of fine-tuning.  I wonder what his experiences were in Albania.  But he recounted one incident of joy in letters to two people:
I will never forget this beautiful spring morning (Frůhling is a better word for it) which made the μοῦσαι τε χάριτες dance on Helikon and Parnassos opposite the Gulf over there, to share with that lovely girl (alas - only these few hours!) who represented to me all the charms of New England.
I did not 'print her features on my memory', but in fact, I do remember this exceptional beautiful morning on 'Acro,' augmented by the radiance of an extremely lovely girl.

*.  The central section of the Acro-Nauplion fortifications here.
** As far as I know this map was only published in Schaeffer's dissertation and I am pleased to make it available here.
*** Think of all the Romans did for civilization. 
**** Monika Hirschbichler, "The Crusader Paintings in the Frankish Gate at Nauplion, Greece," Gesta XLIV/1 (2005) 13-30.

25 November 2009

Ag. Nikon of Sparta

November 26 Thanksgiving in the US, but it is the Feastday of Ag. Nikon of Sparta. I do not like Ag. Nikon, but I am going to try to be fair.

He is called the "Metanoiete," the "Repent-Ye," because he tramped the length and breadth of Crete for seven years after Nikeforos Phokas took it back from the Arabs in 961, calling for repentence. Once he had them all quailing in terror of Hellfire, he went on to Negroponte and did the same there.

He stood on the city wall, over where the water of Evripos keeps changing its direction though not as many as the seven claimed, and preached "Metanoiete!" all day and all night. The crowds scrambled up on the walls, too, and a child was pushed off by "the malignant enemy, Beliar." The crowd assumed a person as cranky as Nikon would naturally have shoved a child off the wall, assumed the child was smashed to pieces, and were ready to tear Nikon to pieces himself, but the child stood up and and said that Nikon had caught him in the air and did not allow him to be hurt. Whereupon the crowd repented and converted quite efficiently. There are a lot of this kind of miracle cited in his Vita.

He went on to Thebes, a short trip from Negroponte, and then over the mountains to Corinth, and worked his way down through the Morea shedding doom and miracles across the countryside, while at the same time traveling from Corinth to Sparta in an instant. A farmer saw him aloft and in the air, illuminated by torchlight.

He stopped off in Argos and Nauplion -- this was before Ag. Petros had arrived; he's the one who has my allegiance -- and visited a John Blabenterios. Because of a sorcerer, this John Blabenterios and his daughter had a disease which had left them as corpses, except that they were still breathing. Nikon healed them and miraculously located the sorcerer's spell buried in the roots of a tree in their courtyard.

Ag. Nikon, like every other earnest Byzantine, was under attack by black demons. His appeared in the form of rock wasps. This is a harsh thing to say about demons, considering the nature of the Greek rock wasp which attack with the force and noise of Stukas.
Nikon healed those who had been stung and drove the black demons groaning back into the bottomless depths.

This icon detail shows black demons afflicting various individuals who are trying to get to Heaven. Demons also appear as black crows and there was one in a well he had to handle at Euripos that had flown up and terrified a girl who only wanted to draw water.

The rock wasps were impeding the building of a church in Sparta -- you can visit this very lovely site on a hill out beside the Roman ruins. Nikon had marked out the shape of the church on the ground with a rope. Believers in Sparta brought out food and wine to feed the workmen on the church. One gift, from the poorest of the poor, was of wine so acrid it was undrinkable, and the less said about the smell the better. Nikon changed this into unlimited amounts of splendid wine.

The volunteer construction workers got quite tired before the end, and tried to fudge the column work for the altar by piecing together one column instead of cutting it from a single piece of stone. Another miracle solved this problem. The church, when finished,
is reported to have had gleaming and colorful columns, bright stones, and paintings. Also, a golden dove flew about in the sanctuary and the lamps swung of their own accord without any wind.

These vitae give invaluable glimpses of the worlds in which their saints moved, and this one tells us that below the church was a field given over to ball players and horse racing. This is precisely the site of the Sparta soccer field today. The strategos of Sparta, Gregorios, was wrapped up in a ball game and did not pay attention to Nikon who was reproaching the players for making so much noise it was disrupting the service. Gregorios ordered Nikon out of town, and as soon as he turned to strike the ball with his hand, first the hand was paralyzed and then his whole body. He was in awful pain and was carried into the church begging for help. Nikon -- you already figured out how this story would end -- healed Gregorios, Gregorios repented of his arrogance, and forever dedicated himself to the service of the saint. I don't think much of this sort of saint-trick, but I would mention that we have only one other medieval reference to athletics in the Morea, and that is when Cyriaco of Ancona reported going with Constantine Palaiologos to see the young men of Sparta in foot races.

When Nikon died, his body gave off a miraculous oil that cured.
There were a lot of miracles from this oil, a grab-bag of sensational effects, including a terminal female cancer and two individuals, one vomiting (a man from Helos) and one defecating (a man from Kalamata) gigantic worms. In fact, the writer of this Vita personally testified to the miraculous effect of this oil, because he had a massive abscess in the bone on the left side of his face, which caused excruciating pain. He would have starved to death -- being unable to move his jaws -- had he not prayed to Nikon, rubbed on some oil, and been instantly relieved of his pain. He wrote that he had the sense of a cooling breeze passing over his face. An icon of Nikon grasped by humble peasants kept their daughter from being raped when she was seized by bandits. The bandits were blinded and had to release her.

There are many more miracles, which I will not go into, though I am glad he was concerned with rape. I am surprised that he also takes an interest in sailing and has been reported standing watch, steering, and even lifting galleys in a crisis.

This is what I especially don't like about Nikon and why I don't grant him his Agios: He diagnosed a problem in Sparta as having been caused by the Jews there, and called on the citizens to drive them out. Which they did. One nobleman, John Aratos, "pricked by the goad of envy, and moved by demonic evil," was so rash as to assert that this action was neither just nor reasonable. Remember the name of this 10th-century person: John Aratos who would not join the mob.

For more about the icon, go
Denis Sullivan has edited and translated the Vita of Ag. Nikon.

18 November 2009

Nick the Greek

Nicholas from Nauplion was a sailor on Magellan's Victoria between 1519 and 1522. He was one of eighteen men who survived the first circumnavigation of the globe, sailing 14,460 leagues, or about 81,449 kilometers.

Magellan began with five ships --
Concepción, San Antonio, Santiago, Trinidad and Victoria, and a crew of about 250 men. He was killed on 27 April 1521 in what is now called the Philippines. After 21 December 1521, Victoria sailed alone, the eighteen sailors pumping water out of the hold all the way because they had managed to save out of all the storms, deaths, murders, and disasters, a ship-load of spices.

This blog is to honor Nicholas from Nauplion. I have no more information about him. I don't know if he ever got back to Nauplion.

I want to honor all those eighteen men for their courage and endurance.* And possibly, their sheer cussedness.

Juan Sebastián Elcano, captain-general.

  • Miguel de Rodas, boatswain (contramaestre) of Victoria.

  • Francisco Albo, of Axio, boatswain of Trinidad.

  • Juan de Acurio, of Bermeo, boatswain of the Concepcion.

  • Martino de Judicibus, of Genoa, superintendent of Concepcion.

  • Hernando de Bustamante, of Alcantara, barber of Concepcion.

  • Juan de Zuvileta, of Baracaldo, page of Victoria.

  • Miguel Sanchez, of Rodas, skilled seaman (marinero) of Victoria.

  • Nicholas the Greek, of Nafplion, marinero of Victoria.

  • Diego Gallego, of Bayonne, marinero of the Victoria.

  • Juan Rodriguez, of Seville, marinero of the Trinidad.

  • Antonio Rodriguez, of Huelva, marinero of Trinidad.

  • Francisco Rodriguez, of Seville (a Portuguese), marinero of Concepcion.

  • Juan de Arratia, of Bilbao, common sailor (grumete) of Victoria.

  • Vasco Gomez Gallego (a Portuguese), grumete of Trinidad.

  • Juan de Santandres, of Cueto, grumete of Trinidad.

  • Martin de Isaurraga, of Bermeo, grumete of Concepcion.

  • The Chevalier Antonio Pigafetta, of Vicenza, passenger.

  • Nauplion should put up a statue for Nicholas. In his time, there was a small church of Ag. Nicholaos at the port, just outside the city wall, where the present Ag. Nicholaos is located. That would be a good place for the statue.

    Wikipedia supplied the names.

    13 November 2009

    The Girl in the Man's Coat

    On the back of the painting it says

    In 1506 on June 1 this was painted by the hand of master Zorzi from Castelfranco, colleague of master Vicenzo Catena, on request from master Giocomo.
    Zorzi is made respectable as Giorgione, and sometimes the girl is called Laura, though that is not necessarily her name. Sometimes she is "Portrait of a Young Bride" which makes her undress respectable.

    She is a little thing, private, only 41 by 33.6 cm, not as wide as my computer screen. An essay from the National Gallery of Art explores how she was painted. At an early stage, there was blue sky and much more laurel to the right. Some of her belly was exposed before Giorgione painted the fur under her breast. The laurel on the left was added on late, as was the wisp of veiling. In the 18th century the painting -- canvas glued to a fir panel -- was cut to make an oval, and later on it was reshaped with the addition of ten pieces of oak.

    Her portrait is said to have freed Venetian artists to paint all those drowningly lovely nudes with skin like cream, and mirrors, furs and pearls and splendid hair. When you look at contemporary portraits like this one by master Vicenzo mentioned on the back of Laura, you see that this is a new attitude in looking at women -- expectations for dress and class and symbol are overturned and you are left trying to figure out what to do with this naked woman with her hair falling down. She is not from a class that has portraits. Like the girl with the pearl earring, there is no background into which she can retreat, or that can provide the viewer with a clue.

    She is young -- perhaps sixteen. There is a touch of belligerence in her manner -- she is cold, she needs the money, the baby needs nursing, she doesn't like master Giacomo looking at her undressed, they are expecting her in the kitchen and she will hear about this, the red wool scratches, she would like to wear a good dress and fix her hair if she is to be painted, she is really really tired of not moving, and Zorzi has said "not much longer" about four hundred times.
    The painting generates speculation.

    And vocabulary. People do produce vocabulary about this painting. This is a "poetic image." She shows her breast "in a grave, thoughtful way," she "embodied the erotic dreams of the Venetians," and sometimes there seems confusion about what painting is under discussion: "the white lace that flutters around her like an airy snake gives this painting a mythic feeling." (I see fine-wove linen, possibly silk, here: there is no lace.) She is wearing a "gendered garment." Her right hand "is in the midst of an uncompleted gesture which, we might say, is not rhetorical but transitive." Or we might not.

    She is "a response to the developing phenomenon of the courtesan and a parallel exploration of the unrecognized middle ground between . . . lady and whore, that the courtesan had just begun to map out for herself."
    She is a chaste bride whose sexuality is for her husband (with women, laurel represents chastity). She is a poet (with men, laurel represents the poet -- and she is wearing a man's robe). She is concealing herself. She is revealing herself. She is a response to the tradition of romantic Lauras inspired by Petrarch. She is Daphne becoming the laurel tree.

    Like Daphne, the girl become tree, the girl whose name might not be Laura is forever fixed because of the way a man saw her.

    Suppose she is the girl the painter was sleeping with. She got out of bed on a cold morning to go to the small room on the staircase. It was very cold and she grabbed the robe closest to the bed. . The painter said, "Hold still like that while I do a sketch," or "I want a picture of you like that."
    She had grains of sleep in her eyes, her breath was off, her hair was falling down. She needed to go but she held still for the sketch. Later master Giacomo was visiting Zorzi's studio, saw the sketch, asked for a complete painting.

    But the girl was not important enough to be mentioned in the inscription on the back.

    The image at this link can be enlarged to about four times the size of the original which is in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

    06 November 2009

    Greek Elephants

    Nick Nicholas was visiting and we were discussing the 15th-century elephant in the manuscript he and George Baloglou had published, An Entertaining Tale of Quadrupeds. The text under the elephant reads:
    Just like a tower, safe and fortified,/
    a fort impregnable, firm to the end,/
    thus, too, stand I, robust beyond compare.
    It is, frankly, not convincing if you consider this rather bewildered quadruped.

    But it reminded me of my small collection of images of Greek elephants, and as this week is given to celebrating a daughter's wedding, I offer a celebration of elephants instead of more of the 15th century.
    This next, tiny image, is cribbed from John Chapman's dense site on Mani, from an 18th-C fresco of the redemption of all the earthly creation at the Last Judgement, in the church of Ag. Chrysostomos at Skoutari.

    This elephant is in a fresco at Metora of Adam naming the animals. I bought an unlabeled postcard 32 years ago, and now have no idea which monastery is so privileged, nor of the date, though I will risk a guess for the 16th-C. The animals are fascinating as a group, each taken from a different manuscript illustration, from different cultures and periods, and Adam is gender-neutral, possibly influenced by Balkan gnosticism.

    Not actually Greek, but bought by a Greek, and brought to Greece -- it now resides in the Benaki Islamic Museum in Athens -- this ink drawing is Coptic, from the 8th century. A second elephant from the Benaki Islamic is this splendidly-colored tile:

    The Museum of Byzantine and Christian Art in Athens has this very scrubbed 3rd?-C elephant alongside a soft giraffe, part of a sculpture of Orpheus playing his harp for the animals.

    And the loveliest of them all, this tender elephant from a procession of elephants from the late 4th-century Arch of Theodosios in Thessaloniki.

    31 October 2009

    Sophia of Montferrat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    22 October 2009

    When the Turks came to Davia

    Aerial view of Tavia, now Davia, west of Tripolis, in the foothills of Mainalon

    Among the resources for the 15th century Morea are the little chronicles called the Vracheachronika, or Kleinchroniken, depending on which edition you use. These are lists, mostly of one-sentence paragraphs recounting events as recorded by monks in various monasteries. Sometimes these are lists are taken from single events noted on the margins of a manuscript about something else. Sometimes they cover two or three pages in a codex.Some of them are fragmented collections of a few dates of Biblical history, a bit of Constantine, two incidents from the 1100s, a death of an abbot, and something about a despot. Often a chronicle is simply copied from another chronicle.

    So we get staggeringly limited records such as:

    1499, Naufpaktos.
    1500, Methoni
    referring to Ottoman conquests of Venetian-occupied Greek cities, and the copyist certainly wrote these down years after the events.

    Page after page, the chronicles are, for the most part, frustratingly limited and reflect the dreary mindset where those who could be considered literate thought this was an adequate record of events:

    1402. When they took Prusa.
    1430. When they took Thessakoniki.
    1430. When they took Ioannina.
    1439. When the Emperor John went to Florence and there was the Eighth Synod.
    1187. When they took Jerusalem.
    1446. When they took the Hexamilion.
    1451. When they took Karamania.
    1453. When He took Constantinople.
    1456. When they took Athens.
    1458. When they took Serbia.
    1458. When they took Corinth.
    1460. When He took the Morea.

    There are more in this series, but it suggests the copyist did realize the taking of Constantinople and the Morea were of possible significance to him. But what is Jerusalem doing in there? Did he see a notation of it elsewhere and think it belonged in the conquest list?

    There are rare bits of useful information, particularly in two chronicles from the Nauplion area that report the collapse of the apse of a church as the result of a thunderstorm, and the miracle that happened when a Venetian bishop opened the tomb of Ag. Petros of Argos. Not enough is reported. None of them mentions the war in the Morea that lasted from 1463-1478. None of them mentions the Kladas revolt of 1480, which is what I was given an NEH grant to spend last year in Athens doing research for a book about.

    But I was intrigued by this event at Davia (picture) in 1423, tracking it through the chronicles. Here are the various ways it was recorded:

    They came to Tavia and killed the Albanians there on 5 July
    They destroyed the Albanians at Tavia.
    He slaughtered the Albanians at Tavia.
    They cut down the Albanians at Tavia on 22 May.
    He slaughtered the Albanians.
    They killed the Albanians on 5 June.
    The Ninth Death, when the Albanians came to Tavia.

    They came to Lakedaimonia, also Leondari, also Gardiki, also Tavia where there they cut down the Albanians.
    One copyist who was not paying attention wrote: "The Albanians killed them at Tavia." What was this about Albanians at Tavia?

    In 1423, Turahan Bey, head of one of the Ottoman families that was allowed to remain independent for a promise of not contesting the sultan's authority, made a raid into the Morea. This allowed Turahan's soldiers practice and loot, and the sultan acquired half of the loot without the nuisance of war. Further, it contributed to weakening Greek resistance and discouraged any aid from being sent to Constantinople to oppose the sultan's attack there.

    In May, Turahan broke through the Hexamilion which Manuel II had rebuilt eight years before with such fanfare, and then made a drive down through the Nemea valley, and into the passes of Mt. Lyrkeo, past Mantinea, and down past Tripolis, as far as Mistra. This raid was timed to take advantage of the barley harvest, and then the wheat. After raiding the Mistra area, Turahan started back north through the miserable passes of the Taygetos range and back up into the plain south-west of Tripolis where he assaulted two of the more important Greek cities in the Morea, Gardiki and Leondari. The choice of the Taygetos passes indicates that he knew there would be no opposition. One wants to know how Turahan knew about these various routes.

    There was no opposition. The Despot, Theodoros II, who might have been expected to direct some sort of resistance, went into a panic and dithered about going into a monastery. Ioannis Frangopoulos, protostrator or general, of the Morea, but did nothing (though the next year he built the lovely Pantanassa at Mistra).

    What happened is somewhat explained in the history of Laonikos Chalcocondyles. Or -candyles, depending on your edition. Chalcocondyles was from an important Athenian family, his father was a member of the court at Mistra, and he grew up knowing everyone who was anyone in the Morea, and with access to any written records he wanted.* He wrote two massive volumes covering Greek history from 1298 through 1463, and gave a paragraph to what happened at Tavia. This is his account -- there were at least 6000 Albanians in the Morea potentially available to bear arms.

    The Albanians assembled around the center of the region, and they planned to break away from the Greeks in order to destroy the army of the Turks. Turahan, however, when he discovered that the Albanians were uniting against him in the one place, so that he could not escape them, arranged himself for battle, and the Albanians being assembled, came against him. When they came into confrontation, they could not withstand the Turks, and turned to flight. At that point, Turahan, coming out of formation and pursuing them, destroyed many, and those he captured alive, about 800, he executed, and made a tower of their heads.**
    Well, it would happen, wouldn't it? The Turks were well-armed, trained, disciplined. The Albanians had little armor and were accustomed to independent, guerrilla-style tactics. But they tried. Possibly they had the thought they could also relieve the Turks of the loot they had acquired in the Morea.

    Davia, twelve miles west of Tripolis, is now is a scattering of houses on a foothill of Mainalon (upper right) that slopes into a broad plain with a river (far left). In ancient times Davia was a substantial city with a fortress. It was sacked five years before this event, in 1418, by Centurione Zaccaria, Prince of the Morea. It is farming and herding country, though the fields tend to damp, as do all those upland Moreote plains. We drove through, to pay homage to the warriors of 1423, but it was snowing, mixed with rain, impossible to take photographs, and we did not stop.

    It is an event of no significance in the overall history of the Morea, but it was as significant in the chronicles as almost anything else besides the Fall of Constantinople. It has shown up in a couple of modern Greek historians as an example of the Albanian penchant for revolt, rather than as an example of courage. The major Moreote historian gives one sentence, "A large number of Albanians met death at Tavia when they were attacked by the troops of Turahan."

    George Seferis wrote:

    No one remembers them. Justice.

    * And of course, Chalcocondyles met Cyriaco when he was visiting there, twenty years after Tavia. Cyriaco wrote: "Also, I saw rushing to meet me in the palace, the gifted young Athenian, Laonikos." The next day, Laonikos took Cyriaco to look at the ruins of ancient Sparta.

    ** Thanks to Pierre MacKay for help with translation.