26 September 2009



This is the inscription at canal-level across the facade of that charming house with the fake chimneys on the Grand Canal, and if you dated it to 1490, you would be close enough. There is only one other similarly inscribed house on the Grand Canal, built just after 1500, but its inscription is of an unconvincingly Christian ilk and says NON NOBIS DOMINE NON NOBIS SED NOMINI TUO DA GLORIAM -- NOT TO US LORD BUT TO YOUR NAME GIVE THE GLORY.**

Dario was a Christian, too -- everyone in Venice was-- but more important, he was a Venetian citizen. This citizenship was a gift for his service. He had not been born to it, and he had dedicated his whole life to the service of
quella cità santa -- his earlier, more personal expression of pria Veneziani poi Cristiani, or siamo Veneziani. First Venetians, then Christians. Few meant it with the particular intensity that Dario felt, and his letters from abroad yearn toward his Venice, and his bed in Venice, with all the yearning another man might have extended towards a beloved. Say, Sigismondo Malatesta for his Isotta.

A brief article on Sigismondo's Tempio Malatestiano in Rimini discusses an excerpt from a Greek inscription on the exterior of the church: ΘΕΟΙ ΑΘΑΝΑΤΩΙ ΚΑΙ ΤΗΙ ΠΟΛΕΙ ΤΟΝ ΝΕΩΝ -- THIS TEMPLE TO THE DEATHLESS GOD AND THE CITY. The beginning of the inscription reads, SIGISMONDO PANDOLFO MALATESTA . . . HAS ERECTED. And this is where Cyriaco of Ancona comes in.

Cyriaco came in often during the first half of the 15th century. He and Sigismondo Malatesta had met at the church council in Florence in 1439, if not before, but in 1432 Cyriaco had visited Naples and copied down a temple inscription in Greek he found there which read TIBERIUS JULIUS TARSUS TO THE DIOSCOURI AND THE CITY. Stay with me on this.

In the late 1440s, Malatesta commissioned the dazzling Alberti to fix up a 13th-century Franciscan gothic church in Rimini. Alberti fixed it up, all right, baffling the Franciscans with a Renaissance reliquary full of elephants, pagan deities, and dancing cherubs to enshrine the bodies and the love of Malatesta and his brilliant wife Isotta. Piero della Francesca who was also at Florence in 1439 painted Malatesta's portrait in a fresco in the interior. Cyriaco visited Rimini in 1449 and that article on the Tempio suggests that Cyriaco gave Malatesta this Neapolitan inscription which was then adapted and carved on Alberti's confection. But Cyriaco surely did not change the Greek "temple" from the ordinary ΝΑΟΝ of the Naples inscription to the showy ΝΕΩΝ of Rimini.

Malatesta had Greek scholars on staff, and it could have been done that way, but another person whom Malatesta had met at Florence in 1439, and one who chronically employed such hyper-classical Greek was Georgios Gemistos Plethon of Mistra. Malatesta admired him intensely, so intensely that when he was leading the Venetian war in Greece in the 1460s and briefly captured Mistra, he brought back Plethon's body as his personal souvenir and buried him in a sarcophagus on the exterior of the Tempio.

(There are more connections: Malatesta was a nephew of Cleofe, Plethon had talked way too much at her funeral, and Malatesta may have felt a certain personal entitlement at Mistra. Certainly the Venetians thought he did. Would you be surprised to know that Cyriaco had visited Plethon at Mistra at least twice?)

One more thing about this inscription and then back to the one on Ca' Dario. There is another element that is so Cyriaco, and that is the two letters above the inscription:
Τ Α. These letters stand for ΑΓΑΘΗΙ ΤΥΧΗΙ, To the Benevolent Fortune -- letters common on dedicatory inscriptions from Hellenistic Greece, and letters which Cyriaco sometimes used at the beginning of his letters. When Cyriaco visited Rimini in 1449, he had copied hundreds of such inscriptions, many with this prefix, and had exchanged a number of letters with Malatesta.  So when the Venetian Senate gave Giovanni Dario the house on the Grand Canal in appreciation for his exceptional services to Venice in tidying up the end of Malatesta's war which went from 1464 to 1478 -- other services, too -- the house needed fixing up. This probably began in 1486 when Dario was 73 or so (but then it could have been about 1480). The facade of the brick gothic house was fixed up with a brightly colored marble cladding, rather like the meticulously symmetrical Miracoli which became the reliquary for a miraculous icon, but looks much more like a casket for jewels. However, Venetian gothic is asymetrical and the marble cladding with its intertwined circles gives Ca' Dario the affect of someone who has had too much prosecco standing unwisely in a gondola. Dario knew Malatesta. (Would you be surprised to know that Dario also knew Plethon, and had visited Mistra?) Dario and Cyriaco had long been friends, probably first meeting in Crete in 1445. It is not difficult to envision Dario's learning about Malatesta's inscription and making his own version, especially when he, too, was enshrining a great love. (Of course, one could envision Dario's seeing an inscription of his own, perhaps at some Adriatic port.)    Whatever the genesis of GENIO. VRBIS. JOHANNES. DARIVS, Dario had it carved large, hand-sized, at eye-level where no one floating past could help but read it and feel some sense of possession. ** This building, Ca' Vendramin-Calergi, is now the Casino of Venice, whose clients, no doubt recite the inscription with anxiety. For notes on the history and decoration of Ca' Dario, and more pictures, go here

19 September 2009

PS, Part Two: Chapels

Starting again with the topic of clothes: I had mentioned the fresco of a Western woman in a small church used for the burial chapel, Ag. Marina, of a fief near Nauplion. I discovered a cache of my photographs that had gone missing, and in them I found her husband.

This may not seem particularly exciting, since all you can see of him is part of his red robe, and a bit of elbow and arm to the left of the hanging lamp, and a faint outline of thighs and knees just below the middle of the picture. Here she is again, below, in what was once meant to be a white dress. Both pictures have been Gimped to lighten them up and increase the contrast considerably. The man in red and the woman in white are reaching out towards each other, a common gesture in such paintings.

So in this tiny, badly-built, ruinous chapel, we have portraits of a husband and wife. Excavation might find a tomb. Excavation might ruin the place. Cleaning the frescos plus a little faith-healing might produce evidence of another burial or two, and even another portrait.

This husband and wife would have had a house in Nauplion, and one out on the fief. What small information we have on Nauplion's houses indicate that the houses were underwhelming, embarrassing if the city had to house a high-level visitor. We know even less about the fiefs, but this one is made out of steep hills and valleys, the ancient Greek fortress of Kazarma, and a Mycenean bridge where the main road from Nauplion to the east coast of the Argolid runs through. Cyriaco rode out there to visit and sketch the antiquites. Probably the fief produced wool, honey, and olive oil. That is what is produced in those hills today.

* * * * *

More Gimping and enlarging turned up a provocative image from another chapel, Metamorphoses. Most of the visible frescos are firmly dated to 1570 by a painted inscription. On the wall to the right of the entrance is a fairly conventional scene of the saint-making process, with body parts about to happen. In contemporary Venetian documents, this is called tagliar a peci, cutting to pieces, and can mean anything from a knife wound to what you think it means.

This whole fresco is clearly 16th century, even without the inscription that dates it. But the top of this 16th century scene peters out over an earlier scene which could provide a great deal of information for the history of the chapel.

All that remains of that earlier scene is a group of men, wearing what appears to be Western dress, being directed by a young man in the center to look at Christ on the cross. The later painter has nicely managed so that the mountains of his scene support the older scene and give Christ's feet a place to rest -- which suggests a damaged but respected older fresco.
A combination of small hints in various sources have made me think there was a small Franciscan monastery somewhere in the Nauplion area in the 15th century, and this partial fresco is suggestive of Franciscans to me. I would be grateful for any information here -- on iconography, Franciscans, whatever.

The historical sequence of events, then, would have the monks, maybe Franciscans, maybe not, leaving --at the latest -- in 1540 with the Ottoman takeover of Nauplion. A new landowner allowed the abandoned monastery to be taken over by the Orthodox, and Michael Fantalouris paid for new frescos in 1570, for the benefit of his soul, he said.

I hope his soul was received kindly.

12 September 2009

PS, Part One: Imperials

Speaking of Maria of Trebizond and her riding outfit, I have been looking for all the upper-class ladies I can find from the last decades of the Empire, trying to find a gown suitable for wearing on a horse. Most imperial ladies are shown dressed something like Jelena of Serbia in the mid-1300s (left) or Maria's mother-in-law, Helena. Bulky. Stiff. Important. These images were not intended as fashion statements, but as statements of empire.

Clearly such robes were not for riding astride. However, a contemporary image turned up of a delectable blonde, Anna Radene Lemniotida from Kastoria. She has a an important hat, masses of carefully-maintained curls, big earrings, a wide cloak. Sixteen rings on her long slender fingers. Her red robe has huge hanging sleeves, and I bet there is enough fabric in the rest of it to accommodate riding astride quite easilly. This is not a definitive solution, but it is interesting.

* * * * *

Then there is the question of porphyrogennetos. The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium avoids making a commitment here, and Wikipedia doesn't quite get it. Recall that Sphrantzes said that -- this was at the point when John had died, before Constantine arrived in Constantinople -- Sphrantzes said that Demetrios was not a despot and "porphyrogennetos according to the custom of Constantinople." [Late note: either Sphrantzes was lying, or he forgot: Demetrios had been Despot of Lemnos for 15 years.] What he meant by "the custom of Constantinople" has been a problem. For a long time porphyrogennetos described an imperial child born in a special pavilion at the palace set aside for births. It was lined with porphyry, perhaps, or hung with purple curtains, and porphyrogennetos means "born in the purple." But that pavilion fell down or out of use by the 11th century.

A close examination of the texts on this splendid family portrait, painted in a manuscript to be sent to Paris about 1403, gives a clue. The texts, three for the boys, and two for their parents (not shown here), are crammed with titles. Manuel is pistos basileus, autokrator and augustos. Helena, augusta and autokratorisa. John, the oldest son, dressed like his father, is also pistos basileus. Theodoros, the second son, porphyrogennetos. Andronikos, the youngest at that point, authentopoulos, which means "true son."

John's title, basileus, means that his father had chosen him as successor to the throne of the Eastern Empire, and Westerners called him "the little king." Theodoros called himself porphyrogennetos in a poem he wrote for his parents.
By analogy with basileus, and with the fact that a "true son" in Greco-Roman tradition means that a child was so recognized by his father, it seems clear that porphyrogennetos in this case was a title given by the the emperor who was also the father.

The texts on this image help make clear what is meant where, one page after the passage in Sphrantzes where it says that Demetrios was not a despot and porphryogennetos, a subsequent passage says that "the despot and porphryogennetos, Lord Demetrios, went to the Morea."

So when Constantine arrived in Constantinople as Emperor, he appointed Demetrios (who was already there trying desperately to be Emperor) to serve as Despot along with Thomas. Both Demetrios and Thomas signed their documents as porphyrogennetos. Demetrios did not have the title of porphyrogennetos at the time when John died, but Constantine as Emperor gave him the title with the appointment.

"After the custom of Constantinople," is a red herring. Sphrantzes was devoted to the memory of Manuel II, for whom he began working when he was a child. He would writing nothing that might possibly be construed as the remotest criticism of his beloved Emperor, and, of course, everyone who was anyone would understand what "after the custom of Constantinople" meant.

05 September 2009

The Frogs

Video © Irene Connelly 18-4-2009.

The frogs here are the descendants of Aristophanes', and the "Brek-e-kek-kek coax coax" chirp is instantly, delightfully identifiable. These particular frogs were found in the open curve in the aerial photo, in the little river of Myloi, across the bay from Nauplion.

If you come to Myloi by the coast road, you will cross the railroad, which is that center line down the middle of the picture. The bare patch at upper left is the Myloi playground beside the main road, and the river flows from the Myloi pumping station into the sea. The famous archaological site of Lerna is at bottom left. When Nero and Pausanias made their visits, this area was a mysterious bottomless lake, but time and roadbuilding have left us a small, clear, rushing, green-glass river.

Following the river to the left in the video takes you past the orange grove in the upper right of the aerial photo, to the beach, and from across the river you see these ruins -- a 15th-century Venetian tower, and to its right, a double wall that leads to the remains of a small square tower.

The double wall is indicated on the aerial photograph. The space is wide enough for a man with weapons to get from one tower to the next. There is a double wall from the same period at Nauplion, running from the north side of the Toro bastion, the wall that once extended to the round tower at the shore. This double wall is now only visible at ground level for a short distance (below). Thirty years ago, I could walk through it from tower to tower.

The tower has been much aggravated by history, most recently in World War 2 when the Germans made use of the site. To the left of the tower in this picture is the large circular base of an anti-aircraft gun, and on the shore is a German pillbox. A 17th-century map shows a windmill on the shore.

This wall once indicated the border between Argos-Nauplion territory and the Despotate of the Morea of Theodoros and Demetrios Palaiologos. There are many Venetian complaints and diplomatic representations about raids from the Despotate up into Argos-Nauplion territory, and the occasional complaint of raids in the othe direction. The Anonymous Naupliote was brought to this borderline when he was returned from imprisonment at Mouchli in 1450.

Bartolomeo Minio used it for a starting point in 1480, when he and Giovanni Dario and the Ottoman representatives worked out the boundaries between Ottoman and Venetian territories in Greece after the long war. He wrote
Beginning from the White Tower by the shore, where it was shown by our elders and theirs in agreement, passing the river which is ours . . .

The boundaries had to be done all over again two years later, and Minio wrote:
They began at the White Tower on the shore, where the boundary of Nauplion begins . . .
Which makes one wonder: was the tower once painted white, so it could be identified from Nauplion, across the bay?

When I first came on the river and beach in 1978, it seemed the perfect image of the place where Odysseus came ashore, slept, and then encountered Nausikaa and her friends doing the laundry. It has changed very little in thirty years, and I introduced my grandchildren to it this past April when we met in Nauplion for Holy Week.

Should you visit, this is private property. The owners do not mind visitors, but they do mind the debris that visitors leave. At the top end of the wall is their house -- two-story, great verandas, four bedrooms, and a gazebo. You can see it in the aerial view. The house is for sale. The frogs are a bonus.