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.