25 July 2009

Thomas Palaiologos

If this were a folktale, the youngest brother would end up with the princess, the throne, and live happily ever after. But even though the Palaiologue jewels and robes have appeared in one folktale or another for 600 years, the Palaiologos family did not live in a folk tale. Nor did any of them live happily ever after: the family simply unraveled.

The youngest Palaiologos brother, Thomas, is the most enigmatic of the brothers. The Italians who knew him in his last years noted his fine appearance, his dignity, his melancholy. Melancholia. Depression.

Depression is understandable, even normal: he had left the Morea in July 1460 with his family, pursued by Mehmed. He had not surrendered his Despotate or dowry lands, and he spent his last five years waiting on the kindness of strangers. Pius II was going to lead a crusade to retake the Morea and, ultimately, Constantinople, and make him the eastern emperor, but Pius died in August 1464, just before the crusade sailed, the crusade went wrong in the Morea almost immediately, and Thomas died in May 1465.

He moved into history at the age of 8, when he was shipped off to the Morea to join his brother Theodoros. It was normal practice for the Palaiologos family to hive off its sons very young. His introduction to Italy probably came a few years later through his brother's wife Cleope and her Italian companions, not to mention
a steady stream of Italians -- merchants, colonists, diplomats, curiosity-seekers -- I almost said, people like Cyriaco of Ancona, but there was no one like Cyriaco.

In his teens, Thomas joined his brothers, Theodoros and Constantine, in a series of small military campaigns to take over the non-Byzantine lands of the Morea. The campaign against the Principality of Achaia was settled when he was 21, with marriage to Catharine Zaccaria, daughter of the last Prince of Achaia, and more than a third of the Morea as dowry -- western Morea across to Karitena and down to Kalamata, Vostitsa nearly to Corinth, and the eastern Argolid. John sent an emissary from Constantinople to tell him that he had been awarded the title of Despot over Achaia. There seems to have been a pattern in the family of
formal titles coming with marriage, and like Theodoros, John and Constantine, he married a Latin woman in conformance with his father's strategy that marriage in the Latin church would bring Western aid.

We know of little he did in his role as Despot beyond signing the occasional grant of land. He lived primarily in Patras and Leondari. One account mentions his giving an order to have someone blinded. This may not tell us anything about him: it was normal Byzantine judicial practice and we know of a similar order from his brother John. A foreign writer commented that you saw a lot of mutilated people in Greece.

Despite his apparent affinity for things Italian, he did not go to Italy until his late 20s when his brother Constantine sent him with a message to John at Floremce, and Florence must have been overwhelming -- Brunelleschi's dome was half-way along, Fra Angelico was frescoing the convent of S. Marco where many of the Greek delegation were staying, the Gates of Paradise were dazzling in the summer sun. But this is a problem. We know of nothing Thomas did or sponsored in the Morea that would indicate he had seen or enjoyed Italy, or that he had learned anything there, and when he had to live in Italy, he was an outsider and a subject for art. He is reported to have had beautiful manners, but this was reported of most of his family.

He becomes more problematic after Constantine moved to Constantinople on the death of their brother John, and Demetrios was sent out to hold the position of Despot of Mistra. That is when the vocabulary comes in and one chronicler describes them as "those brothers who swallowed their oaths like cabbages," and another, "those brothers who ate each other's hearts." (These were quoted in the entry on Demetrios, but they are eminently quotable descriptions by people who knew them better than we do.) Demetrios was with reason jealous: Thomas had been in the Morea for nearly 32 years, he had acquaintances and alliances, and he would have liked the whole thing. Even though Demetrios was older he was the new boy.

After the Fall of the City the brothers were left flailing at each other, surrounded by revolts, needing Ottoman aid to maintain their titles, needing Venetian aid to balance off the Ottomans. Several of Thomas' followers offered their allegiance to Mehmed. Then after five years, Mehmed demanded the surrender of Constantine's cities -- Corinth, Patras, Kalavryta -- which Thomas held. They were formally surrendered on his behalf, but the next year he went to war with 300 soldiers sent from the west, and took Kalavryta and some few territories back. But he found that his followers were now ruling, not on his behalf, but were treating these lands as their personal conquests, and the 300 were were rampaging and out of control. He and Demetrios continued to tear at each other, encouraged by various archons who changed sides with the weather. What could any of them have thought would happen?

Inevitably, in 1460 Mehmed came into the Morea, took the surrender of Mistra and added Demetrios Palaiologos and his family to the numbers who traveled with his camp. He set out next for Leondari and Thomas, but Thomas worked his way south with his family.
He never surrendered. He took ship at Porto Junco/Pylos for Corfu where he left his family and went to Italy to obtain Papal assistance. He was dependent on others for his support, and while he shows up often enough in art, and even on the central doors of St. Peter's in Rome, he is essentially unknowable.

His last years were a litter of losses, failures, waiting, dependency -- all done with beautiful manners. Melancholia. His wife died on Corfu. He never saw his children again though he left detailed instructions for their education -- daughter as well as sons-- with his friend Cardinal Bessarion who became their guardian. He had no more knack for fatherhood than his own father who also suffered from melancholy.

He died on 12 May 1465, aged about 56.

18 July 2009

Monastery of the Metamorphosis, Asine

Gina Margarita told us about the Metamorphosis, except that she said it was a church with a moat. Gina was an Englishwoman living on a tiny pension in a tiny caravan near Asine beach. It took us a long time to realize how very poor she must have been, but she frequently came up our stairs at lunchtime crying, "AL-lo it's GI-na!" She had red hair and green toenails ("I was born in Sherwood Forest, like Robin Hood, you know!), and she believed she was the reincarnation of Isadora Duncan. German hikers had taken her to see the Metamorphsis -- it was in their hiking guide. In fact, she was frequently taken off on expeditions by vacationing foreigners or invited to dance for parties.

She told about being invited to dance for a large estate outside Argos, where people came down from Athens and engaged in behaviors they said were the restoration of the worship of the ancient Greek gods. Everyone back then had just read The Magus and wanted to try it out themselves, and at some point a great many people with inadequate clothing were arrested for what the police who had no theological training said was an orgy.
Gina said the parties did get a bit naughty, and she found it tiresome having to wait until someone was sober enough to drive her back to her caravan. A daughter said I should not put much about Gina in here, and she was right: Gina tends to lead the topic astray.

Thirty years ago I walked to the Metamorphosis by going up the hill above Tolo, through the garbage dump, and down into the valley on the other side. (The Tolo and Nauplion --above Karathona --garbage dumps have the most spectacular sites and views in the Argolid). Then it was a long walk either out to the Asine-Lefkakia road, or on across two more lines of hills to Nauplion. Now there is a long and winding, but simple road right to the church. The valley has been planted with orange trees and farmers need access.

The Metamorphosis -- in English that would be "Transfiguration" and locally it is called. Ag. Sotira -- is a medieval chapel that at some point became a monastery. It has a 15th-century tower on the north side, originally at least 4 floors, but in thirty years it has lost the indications of the fourth, and the guidebook says it had three. You can compare the before- and after- pictures, though different angles, and there wasn't a tree 30 years ago. Other parts of the walls have gone missing, but there is a vaulted room down to the left. The enclosure wall, somewhat restored, remains along the south side of the propery.

The most interesting aspect of the church, apart from the roof that looks as if it is melting, is the spring house. The church was built against a spring. On the south side by the apse, slippery steps go down to a chill dark enclosure where a metal cup hangs. It was hanging there 30 years ago, and probably for 30 before that. The water is fine, not as good as that from the Agia Moni, but better than that from Profitias Elias. The water flows under the apse of the church and emerges on the south side where it feeds a large open tank -- this must be Gina's moat -- and an irrigation channel. Under the apse, in a niche beside the flowing spring, is a hiding place, used during the Revolution, and WW2 and the Civil War. In recent years, large protective walls have been built around the spring, not damaging, but they do alter the somewhat absent-minded effect of the old roof.

Like all the other chapels of the Argolid, this has a great cool porch with benches and a table (and a place for trash). Interestingly, there is also a great marble structure which appears to be an altar for outdoor use as the porch can hold at least four times the number of people that could squeeze into the airless interior. The picture at the beginning is the little window that looks out on the porch, and you can see that this window has been rebuilt at least three times.

The interior of the chapel is densely frescoed in mostly 16th-century frescos, not terribly exciting individually and difficult to make out from the damage of age, and my inability to find out how to turn on the electricity, but some about women are prominent on the left -- Salome, the wedding at Cana. The apse has a fine Virgin andChild with a damaged Annunciation just above. At various places you can glimpse frescos under frescos, and there is a fresco on the soffit of the large arch over the front door which was filled in at some point with the fresco left in place. Many of the frescos have been covered with a clear varnish -- this cannot be a good idea and the reflectivity makes them nearly impossible to photograph -- and there is a nice inscription dated 1570 on one wall from the donor of the frescos. The lightbulb wasn't there thirty years ago.

There are two arcosolia, one with a Deisis -- this was another burial chapel for a fief at one time, though we can't now know if the fief was private or belonged to the church. A couple of late 15th-century documents from Nauplion refer to the hermitage of the Franciscans of Sta. Maria di Valverde, a Venetian order with a name descriptive of the location. But we don't know if it belonged to them.

If you follow the route of the little creek from the spring, you will go on down the hill to a small valley opening onto a private beach. It is difficult not to think that at one time, or at different times, it served as a hiding place for one of the small pirate boats that in medieval times infested the coast of the Argolid like mosquitos. That broken tower would have been a good place from which to watch the bay and perhaps to signal.

[More on a fresco here.]

11 July 2009

Pavane for a Dead Princess: Part Three

Cleofe -- that is how she signed her name in three of the four letters we have from her -- may not have dressed like this Greek bride. Her Italian dress was one of the problems that came up. But perhaps she allowed herself to be adorned for the wedding celebrations at Mistra in February 1421. Was that before or after she learned that her bridegroom had made a vow to live in chastity for six years (and not eat meat which, presumably, would inflame his sexual desire)?

Was the vow made before he met her, or after? Everyone agreed she was beautiful and very bright. She is reported to have been tall. Theodoros was probably shorter than average, like his father and brother John. He was awkward and immature, raised by clerics and professional intellectuals who taught him mathematics and theology. He knew nothing about women, except that they were occasions for sin. One can imagine him pudgy, possibly a little nearsighted, and absolutely terrified by the gaiety and charm of this young woman they had shipped in for him for the benefit of his father's political arrangements. Perhaps the wedding night was a disaster and he found a vow a great relief.

We don't know. We do know that Cleofe was miserable because her letters say so, and the women in her family wrote each other that she was. Four of her letters survive, as well as one from her sister Paola, and two from their sister-in-law Battista. These were highly literate women: there must have been many more and our view of her life and marriage might be profoundly changed if we had them. Finally -- despite the letter Theodoros had written the Pope guaranteeing she could maintain her religion and her Italian customs -- she, after much pressure from him, took to wearing Greek dress and was received into the Orthodox church. She took up fasting according to Orthodox practice.

This is where it gets complicated. Jacomo de Sancto Angelo from Padua talked to Cleofe when he was in Mistra, and reported to her brother in Patras that she had said, "I have not become a nun, just because I was anointed with a little oil. My heart is as free as it ever was." And Christofano, another friend of her brother, commented that she could dispute religion so well she could corrupt a lamb, and that she was the most perfidious Greek in the world.

Most writers misunderstand this last phrase and take it that she had "betrayed her faith," but Greek perfidy has been a catchphrase ever since the Trojan horse, and everyone who has studied Latin, and many who haven't, knows "Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes." Cleofe made such a performance of being a devout Orthodox woman that her husband and his courtiers were deeply impressed. He had grown up without women and couldn't have been expected to know better, but it also suggests that the Greek aristocratic male mindset saw categories of women rather than individual people. Or perhaps no one who caught on to the truth wanted to make more difficulty for her.

Whatever the tensions between Cleofe and Theodoros, she was allowed much personal freedom. She had books and music. She wrote. She talked at great length with various men who visited Mistra, and gave them intimate information to take back to her family. Her letters told Paola and Battista that Antonio da Fossombrone, Conte Ricardo, the Mega Kartophylax, were bringing messages.

She was moody. In three of the four letters -- no longer than would fit on a postcard -- she says she does not have time to write more. The four letters date from October 1426, January 1428, March 1428, July 1428.

The marriage was complex, more complex than I have seen recognized in print, and the period of abstinence was not one of calm. Her sister-in-law Battista wrote the Pope about "internecine warfare" and wanted him to interfere. This is a clue that Cleofe was not simply a victim. She remembered that she was a Malatesta. The Malatesta did not go as lambs to the slaughter. She threatened to leave him, delivering literary tirades, or being ominously silent. Everyone knew that his brother John's wife had left him because he ignored her: John, in fact, wanted her to leave.

Perhaps Cleope threw Theodoros' math manuscripts out the window. One hopes so. But Theodoros must not have actually wanted her to leave. A year after the six years of abstinence were completed, in the January 1428 letter, Cleofe refers with anxiety to her pregnancy. She was very close to delivery. She may have been normally concerned, or she may may have been aware of potential difficulties. The second pregnancy killed her.

The March letter is a long and wrenching train-of-consciousness. She was desperately lonely for her sister. She begged for letters, about the children, about anything that has happened. She asked as a favor, but if she doesn't get letters from home, she will die. She hoped God would confine her unhappiness to this world.
Her life was bitter, she was worthless. She could not stop crying. There was not enough paper to record her unhappiness. The only consolation she had is from her baby daughter -- this a bare mention at the end of the letter-- but no consolation comes through to the reader. If there ever were a portrait of post-partum depression, this letter is it. The letter has not previously been read with this interpretation.

The letter has one more point of interest, and that is the signature. Her usual signature was "La vostra sorella Cleofe Paleologhina," but this one she signed as "La vostra sorella Cleofe Paleologhina. Deo gratia, vasilisa della Morea." Theodoros gave her a title when Helena was born,
βασιλίσσα, and she was proud of it, and she spelled it the way it is pronounced with a V for the B.

Theodoros must have been frightened. They were parents and he knew that should have been a source of joy for both of them, but he was afraid and she wouldn't stop crying. He couldn't handle the situation. The intensity of his own emotions was too much, and he talked about retiring into a monastery. He had been talking about it ever since she became pregnant. The monastery would have been pretty much the same kind of life he had at Mistra before Cleofe arrived, only without the burdens of ruling and having interpersonal relations.

This is at least the third example we know of his choosing retreat when confronted with crisis. When they were making him into a boy ruler and intellectual, no one considered that his heart needed education, too. Several years earlier, in the summer of 1423, when an Ottoman army invaded the Morea and came all the way to the walls of Mistra, he had thought he would go into a monastery. This most recent time, his family took it so seriously, that his brother Constantine had arrived in December to take over.

He decided not to retire. He hung on, and during the next year and a half, his brothers conquered their rivals for power in the Morea and doubled the size of the Palaiologos holdings in the Morea. The family had acquired glory and apparently considerable wealth. Theodoros became wonderfully exhilarated and thought ruling had definite appeal. Cleope's father came to visit. One can imagine that when he went back to Italy he sent Theodoros an architect, because this was the period when the great Italian wing of the palace was built at Mistra.

Somewhere in here, things changed between Cleofe and Theodoros. Perhaps planning for the new palace allowed them to discover how well they could work together. They studied poetry together, wrote it. Her father was a well-known poet, Petrarch had been a family friend. Theodore developed an interest in Italian poetry.

She became pregnant again in 1432, probably in
August or September. It is not clear just what happened -- probably the foetus died before it could be born, perhaps Dr. Pepagomenos interfered more than his skills warranted and gave her puerperal fever. Cleofe suffered for days. Theodoros sat with her, holding her hand until she died on 18 April 1433.

Theodoros' heart was broken. He wrote a poem to go in her tomb and from it we get hints that whatever the fears and furies that had been between them, they had become lovers and companions.

The primary sources and a bibliography for the Theodoros and Cleope story can be found here. The poem and its sources can be found here.

03 July 2009

Nauplion: Walls

This dim and damaged painting is from the eave of a house in Nauplion -- take the street to the left of the bus station, first corner to the right -- to my knowledge, the only remaining 19th-century house with eave-paintings left in the city.

Other houses, much restored, have these curved eaves but they show stenciled ornamentation: pre- and post-independence ornamentation made extensive use of stencils. This house, built shortly after 1830, has hand-painted swags of flowers, a parrot, and this exceptional view of the walls of Nauplion with columned buildings that were never there.
At that date, Nauplion's walls were mostly wrecked, and the remaining towers were of a different design. In fact, most pre-modern views of Nauplion show buildings that no one who lived there would ever recognize: Venetian images have Venetian houses from the terraferma, and later artists show Ottoman fantasies, but the eave painting seems to have been influenced by an image from a popular book.

This book published by G. N Wright in 1840 and called The Shores and Islands of the Mediterranean included a steel-engraving of a view of Nauplion from the water -- a detail here. When the image is enlarged, you can see a number of white-columned buildings, pediments, acroteria -- the various signals of classical Greek architecture. A Nauplion painter, then, saw the picture -- or the owner of the house had a copy of the picture -- and it was used for the wreathed cartouche over the front door of the house.

A second image, or one of the many derived from it, possibly contributed a tower to the cartouche -- the Camoccio map excerpted here several times previously. The artist of Shores and Islands never saw towers like this at Nauplion: this is a 15th-century design for defense against small shipboard cannon. Those towers were built about 1700 for a different kind of defense, when the harbor was too shallow for the high-decked ships of the period to come in close enough to be of danger.
Those small black keyholes in the towers are sighting blocks for small cannon. You can see several of them in the walls at Methoni, but Nauplion has only one left and that one is upside down, in a tower by one of the swimming clubs past the end of the waterfront. But it is possible that the tower of the cartouche was painted from one of the towers up on Akro-Nauplion.

The configuration of the largest street in Nauplion follows the line of the walls in this engraving. The street that ends at the Bibliotheke Palamidi occupies the space where this (actually, straight) harbor wall stood. Where the print shows water and wooden piers, there are now schools, hotels, Hermes Car Rental, the Peloponnesian Folklore Museum, Savouras Restaurant, and others. Much of Nauplion is built on landfill, intentionally as of 1480 and the Venetians, from silt brought down by a stream that disappeared in the 19th century, and in the last decade from a vigorous program of fill and construction.

That is all concrete and corners and has nothing to do with this small proud crumbling cartouche of an idealized city, the capital city of a free Greece with its mighty protective walls and the columns of its glorious heritage.

Dimitrios Antoniou called my attention to the content of this cartouche, an image I had photographed but not thought about. The 1840 Nauplion engraving is found in The Nauplion of the Foreign Travellers by Aphrodite Kouria, a 2007 publication of the National Bank of Greece available in, among other places, the gift shop of the Peloponnesian Folklore Foundation in Nauplion.