26 September 2011


Crow died when he landed on the wrong part of an electric power line just after noon on Wednesday.  It took two and a half hours for the part to be replaced and the electricity to come on again in the four houses that were affected. 

Crow had been inhabiting our yard for more than a week.  He was newly out of the nest, still accustomed to being fed, and he spent most of his -- and our -- waking hours demanding to be fed.  Screaming to be fed. The inside of his mouth was brilliant red, still detectable after death. 

Despite the fact that we had been putting out abundant crow food well within his reach, he wanted his parents to bring it to him, and would fly to wherever they were perched to do his demanding, even if they were much farther away than the food.  One parent -- crow genders are tricky -- would simply fly away after a certain amount of time, while the parent in the picture here would sit patiently, and then let out a withering sequence of caws that would have made any other creature shut up permanently.

Crow did not shut up.  He demanded more, and then would move closer and closer to the parent, apparently trying to groom, if not snuggle. So we don't know if he ever quite learned to feed himself. 

Our yard was raucous with crows all summer, but since Wednesday noon, we haven't seen a one and the quiet is disturbing. I have seen the parent in these pictures down in the park, three blocks away.

These crows were tool-users.  We frequently saw them poking in the chimney of the house next door, and under the edge of the roof with sticks about 4 inches long. Most mornings they would wake us up by skiing down the roof over the bedroom, claws scraping along the slates, and they have spent much time pecking on things under my desk window, just out of sight.  We put food for the crows on the roof of the shed under the lilac bushes, and it took them several weeks to feel secure about coming down into such close quarters.  Often Squirrel or Ms. Squirrel would get to the food first -- squirrel genders are quite easy -- and then it took the crows a few more days to come down and eat with the squirrels.  The squirrels hated it and the crows did, too, but neither side was willing to concede.

Alexandra dug a hole for Crow where we used to keep the beehive. He was surprisingly light in the hand.  Some famous ornithologist said that if humans were birds, very few of us would be intelligent enough to be allowed to be crows.  We had great expectations for Crow.

Crow's Theology

Crow realized God loved him-
Otherwise, he would have dropped dead.
So that was proved.
Crow reclined, marvelling, on his heart-beat.

And he realized that God spoke Crow-
Just existing was His revelation.

But what Loved the stones and spoke stone?
They seemed to exist too.
And what spoke that strange silence
After his clamour of caws faded?

And what loved the shot-pellets
That dribbled from those strung-up mummifying crows?
What spoke the silence of lead?

Crow realized there were two Gods-
One of them much bigger than the other
Loving his enemies
And having all the weapons. 

                                       Ted Hughes

20 September 2011

The Bride stopped for lunch at Corfú

A Serbian Helena of Byzantium,
possibly the one involved here.

Helena Palaiologina, daughter of Despot Thomas of the Morea, was sent at the age of fifteen to marry Lazar Branković of Serbia.  This was in October of 1446.  She traveled with two Ragusan trading galleys and a galeota.  When the ships returned to Durazzo, a complaint -- apparently concerning unreasonable delays, bad manners, livestock, and excessive drinking -- was filed against the captain and the patrons by the Serbian lords of Helena's  escort.  On 3 November, the tribunal recorded a series of depositions on the matter.  This is the story they relate:

* * * * * *

The priest Lucas  Branković deposed:  He was on the captain's galley.  It was true that the captain stopped several times for bad weather, and that he had to return to Durazzo three times for the same reason.  They also had to stop and wait several times for the galeota to catch up with the galleys. The captain was neither arrogant nor bad-tempered, as the Serbs complained, but on the contrary, he was most respectful of them.  Lucas heard it said that the galeota had taken two cattle from Arniti territory.  The captain had not bought linen: he didn't know if the patrons did.  Several people had bought skins, but they put them on the galeota and not on the galleys.  

Juniti Grdečević, comitus of the galley, deposed: The delay was because of the galeota which could not keep up with them.  The Serbian lords insisted on speed, which the captain explained was impossible. It was not true that the galleys were delayed in two ports because of the falcons and the dogs.  The fiancée had made gifts of wine to the officers.  The galley and galeota patrons came aboard the captain's ship every evening to take council.  

His junior officer confirmed his statement.  

Ser Alvise de Restić, patron of one of the galleys, deposed: The sailing was reasonable, except when they left Clarenza and the fiancée wanted to stop at Corfú for lunch.  The weather was not good.  It was decided to leave at midnight but when Restić called for them to go, no one responded and they left at dawn.  The galleys went to Sta. Maria de Caroppo but the galeota stayed at Corfú.  That was because of the dogs that had been stolen from the captain.  The galleys waited for it at Sta. Maria.   The Serbian lords complained of the captain's attitude toward them but Restić never heard anything amiss.  Several people bought linen and skins, which they put on the galeota, not on the galleys.  He knew nothing about the fiancée's gift of wine.  He had heard that the captain had taken cattle aboard. 

Restić continued: At Cape Lachio they wanted to get water, but the Albanians came to the shore armed with swords and arrows, and kept them off.  The captain used the bombardella, which was useless. So they stopped at Kefalonia for water on the way to Clarenza.  He heard from the patron of the galeota, the people on the ship, and the slaves, that the captain had seized a goat, and the patron of the galeota a cow.

At Clarenza, the captain told Restić that they were instructed to make three visits to the Despot Thomas: the first, on their arrival; the second if they were invited to dine; the third at their departure.  The first visit Restić went with the captain.  The second and third visits, the two galley captains and the patron of the galeota went.  He heard it said at Clarenza that the sailors had drunk 10 caratelli of wine which were on the quai, and wanted to take one on the galeota, but the Port Authority stopped them.  In the waters off Kefalonia, they encountered a small  ship that complained that the sailors on the galeota had thrown a stone at them and wounded a Greek.  

* * * * * *

The document stops here.

Patron: one of the investors in a trading voyage. 
Galeota: a small, light galley. 
Comitus: a patrician assigned to command a galley, although there was a real captain on hand.  
Caratelli: small barrels made from chestnut.

The story comes from Dubrovnik in the 14th and 15th Centuries, by Bariša Krekić, #1119.

15 September 2011

Manuel's Grandchildren

The single coin issued in the Morea by Manuel II Palaiologos.

Manuel Palaiologos and his wife Helena had ten children recorded for history by Sphrantzes. Their first Constantine and two daughters died in Monemvasia, of plague.  Later, the infant Michael died in Constantinople, also of plague.  After him there were two more sons, for a total of six sons, which augured well for the future.  But.

John had no children at all.

Theodoros had one daughter who lived to adulthood and who had daughters of her own. A second child, probably a son died before birth, with his mother.

Andronikos never married, and died in his 20s.

Constantine fathered two children who died before birth, with their mothers.

Demetrios had a daughter who eventually ended up in Mehmed's harem as a hostage for his good behavior.  She died there.

Five sons of Manuel produced no male heirs.

It was left to Thomas, the youngest.  His first child, Helena, was married to in 1446 to Lazar Brancović, later Despot of Serbia. Helena and Lazar had a daughter, Helena, the next year. 
More than twenty years after the birth of Helena, and after the birth of their grandchild, Thomas' wife Katerina gave birth to a son in January 1453.  We know almost nothing about Thomas during those twenty years, but from the way he treated Katerina's brother, his relationship with her cannot have been a particularly pleasant one. The boy was not called Manuel after his grandfather in approved Greek fashion, but Andreas after the patron saint of Patras, one of Thomas' two capitals.

So at the time of the fall of Constantinople, in 1453, Manuel's heirs consisted of a baby boy, and two granddaughters and a great-granddaughter all named Helena after his wife.

It was in 1453 Thomas went to war against Demetrios who had been panting for the throne for years, and who had tried to take it from Constantine when John died.  Thomas may have thought a son gave him a certain weight in the inheritance stakes.  A second son was born in 1455, this one called Manuel.  Thomas fought for control of the Morea, tooth and claw, fire and axe, until he was forced to make his escape in the summer of 1460.

Thomas died in 1465, having learned that the "crusade" begun the previous year that promised to retrieve the throne for him was a disaster.  He had not seen his children since leaving them in Corfu in 1460 -- their mother had died in 1462 -- and he had written asking that they be sent to Rome.  He had just time enough to learn that they had arrived in Ancona.

 Cardinal Bessarion
brought young Andreas, Manuel, and their sister Zoe to Rome where he established a household for them, and arranged for their education -- Zoe was to have the same education as her brothers.  Weary Giorgios Sphrantzes visited them the next year -- "Lord Andreas, the despot, and Prince Manuel, my masters"-- and stayed for a month.  Andreas was 13, Manuel 11. There is much that Sphrantzes could have told us about that visit, much that he could have told the children to give them some sense of their family.

One thing that strikes me in this narrative is the way the effects of nature reflect the process of history.  The brothers Palaiologos might have been expected to produce at least six or eight grandsons for Manuel.  There was one infant male in May 1453.  One could have simply kept track of the children and known there was no future.

10 September 2011

The Knight and Death -- Ο Ιπποτης κι ο Θανατος

The Knight and Death, Durer etching, 1513.

The night before 9/11, I was working on a translation of Gatsos' great poem, "The Knight and Death," a title he took from this Durer etching. The next morning as I stood in the crowds watching the astounding beauty of minute red flames flickering in the pillars of cloud, fragments  kept buzzing in my head - - I saw your descendants like birds / rip open the sky of my country / and I saw the cypress trees of the Morea stop breathing on the plain of Nauplion . . . Gatsos speaks of April 1941 but the poem has become something of a talisman for me, and I have used its title for my book on the Morea. For this tenth anniversary of that terrible day, I am printing here my translation and Gatsos' original from my translations of his complete poetry.

* * * * * *

Just so, I see you motionless
traveling down the ages with the horse of Akritas 
and the sword of Ai-Yiorgi 
I would place beside you
with the dark shapes that stand eternally beside you 
until the place where you are extinguished eternally with them 
until you become a fire in the great Chance where you were born
I would place beside you
an orange from the snow-covered fields of the moon
I would unfold for you the veil of an evening 
with red Antares singing the young men 
with the River of Sky overflowing into August
to weep with the North Star and freeze
I would place beside you meadows
waters that never watered the lilies of Germany
and I would ornament this iron you wear
with a sprig of basil and a handful of mint 
with the arms of Plapoutas and the sword of Nikitaras
And then I who saw your descendants like birds

split open on a spring day the sky of my country

saw the cypress trees of the Morea stop breathing
there on the fields of Nauplion
before the waiting embrace of the wounded sea
where the eons wrestled with the crosses of gallantry
I would place beside you
the bitter eyes of a youth
and the closed eyelids
in the mud and blood of Holland.

This dark land
will someday become green again
The iron hand of Götz will overturn the caissons
and mound them with sheaves of barley and rye
And in the dark oaks with the dead loves
there where time turned a virgin leaf to stone
on the breasts where a tear-stained rose trembled
a star will shine silent as a spring daisy

But you will remain motionless
with the horse of Akritas and the lance of Ai-Yiorgi you will travel
through the years
a restless hunter from the race of heroes
with those dark shapes that stand eternally beside you
until a day when you will vanish eternally with them
until you become again a fire in the great Chance where you were born
until in the caves of the river
the heavy hammers of patience resound again
not for ornaments and swords
but for pruning hooks and plows.

Translation copyright © Diana Gilliland Wright, September 2001.


Καθὼς σὲ βλέπω ἀκίνητο
Μὲ τοὺ Ἀκρίτα τ᾿ ἄλογο καὶ τὸ κοντάρι τοῦ Ἁη-Γιωργιοῦ
νὰ ταξισεύεις στὰ χρόνια

Μπορῶ νὰ βάλω κοντά σου
αὐτὲς τὶς σκοτεινὲς μορφὲς ποὺ θὰ σὲ παραστέκουν αἰώνια
Ὥσπου μιὰ μέρα νὰ σβυστεῖς κι ἐσὺ παντοτεινὰ μαζὶ τους
Ὥσπου νά γίνεις πάλι μιὰ φωτιὰ μὲς ατὴ μεφἀλη Τύχη ποὺ σὲ γέννησε
Μπορῶ νὰ βάλω κοντά σου
νεραντζιὰ στοῦ φεγγαριοῦ τοὺς χιονισμένους κάμπους
Καὶ τὸ μαγνάδι μιᾶς βραδιᾶς νὰ ξεδιπλώσω μπροστά σου
Μὲ τὸν Ἀντάρη κόκκινο νὰ τραγουδάει τὰ νιάτα
Μὲ τὸ Ποτάμι τ᾿ Οὐρανοῦ νὰ χύνεται στὸν Ἄγουστο

Καὶ μὲ τ᾿ Ἀστέρι τοῦ Βοριᾶ νὰ κλαίει ταὶ νὰ παγώνει –
Μπορῶ νὰ βάλω λιβάδια
Νερὰ ποὺ κάποτε πισαν τὰ κρίνα τῆς Γερμανίας
Κι αύτὰ τὰ σίδερα ποὺ φορεῖς μπορῶ νὰ σοῦ τὰ στολίσω
Μ᾿ ἕνα κλωνὶ βασιλικὸ κι ἕνα ματσάκι δυόσμο
Μέ τοῦ Πλαπούτα τ᾿ ἄρματα καὶ τοῦ Νικηταρᾶ τὶς πάλες.
ἐγὼ ποὺ εἶδα τοὺς ἀπογίνους σου σὰν πουλιὰ
Νὰ σκίζουν μιὰν ἀνοικάτικη αὐγὴ τὸν οὐρανὸ τῆς πατρίδας μου
Κι εἶδα τὰ κυπαρίσσα τοῦ Μοριᾶ νὰ σωπαίνουν
Ἐκεῖ στὸν κάμπο τοῦ Ἀναπλιοῦ

Μπροστὰ στὴν πρόθυμη ἀγκαλιὰ τοῦ πληγωμένου πελάγου
Ὅπου οἱ αἰῶνες πάλευαν μὲ τοὺς σταυροὺς τῆς παλλυκαριᾶς

Θὰ βάλω τώρα κοντἀ σου
Τά πικραμένα μάτια ἑνὸς παιδιοῦ
Καὶ τὰ κλεισμένα βλφαρα
Μέσα στὴ λάσπη καὶ τὸ αἶμα τῆς Ὁλλανδίας.

Αὐτὸς ο μαῦρος τόπος
Θὰ πρασσινίσει κάποτε
Τὸ σιδερένιο χέρι τοῦ Γκὲτς θ᾿ ἀναποδογυρίσει τ᾿ ἁμάξια
Θὰ τὰ φορτώσει θημωνιὲς ὸ κριθάρι καὶ σίκαλη
Καὶ μὲς στοὺς σκοτεινοὺς δρuμοὺς μὲ τὶς νεκρὲς ἀγάπες

Ἐκεῖ ποὺ πέτρωσε καιρὸς ἕνα παρθένο φύλλο
Στὰ στήθια ποὺ σιγότρεμε μιὰ δακρuσμένη τριανταφυλλιὰ
Θὰ λάμπει ἕνα ἄστρο σιωπηλὸ σὰν ἀνοιξιάτικη μαργαρίτα.
Μὰ ἐσὺ θὰ μένεις ἀκίνητος

Μὲ τοῦ Ἀκρίτα τ᾿ ἄλογο καὶ τὸ κοντάρι τοῦ Ἁη-Γιωργιοῦ θὰ ταξιδεύεις στ χρόνια
ἀνήσυχος κυνηγὸς ἀπ᾿ τὴ γενιὰ τῶν ἡρώων
Μ᾿ αὐτὲς τὶς σκοτεινὲς μορφὲς ποὺ θὰ σὲ παραστέκουν αἰώνια
Ὥσπου μιὰ μέρα νὰ σβυστεῖς κι ἐσὺ παντονεινὰ μαζί τους
Ὅσπου νὰ γίνεις πάλι μιὰ φωτιὰ μὲς στὴ μεγάλη Τύχη ποὺ σὲ γέννησε
Ὅσπου καὶ πάλι στὶς σπηλιὲς τῶν ποταμιῶν ν᾿ ἀντηχήσουν
Βαριὰ σφυριὰ τὴς ὑπομονὴς
Ὄχι γιὰ δαχτυλίδια καὶ σπαθιὰ
Ἀλλὰ γιὰ κλαδευτήρια κι ἀλέτρια.

07 September 2011

On Vacation: Islamic Ceramics

A selection of photographs, mostly of ceramics, from the Benaki Museum of Islamic Art in the Keramikos neighborhood of Athens. The treasures of this museum are too little known except to specialists, but it is fortunately out of the way of the route of the average tourist.  I am not knowledgeable enough to label the pictures securely: enjoy their beauty.  (I will just add that they have the best gift shop of any Athens museum.)

02 September 2011

Athens, 1835

Bettina and Konstantinos Schinas went to Athens in December 1834 to find a place to live, before they moved in March 1835.  After they returned to Nauplion, Bettina wrote her family about her impressions.

* * * * * *

Here in Nauplia we heard so much about the shortage  of lodgings etc. in Athens so I actually expected to find only ruins or half destroyed buildings. I was very surprised then at the first sight of the town, bending from a small hill, of significant extension and full of new houses. But when I got off the horse and searched on foot for the little house of Mme. Gerakis I found myself in a boundless labyrinth of ruins. . . . Look at the plan of the city and the surrounding hills, if you can, at Schinkels and . . . my description becomes more graphic to you. 

Franz Heger, 1829

The city lies in a wide big valley, at all sides of the plain mountains rise; not towards the sea though, only small hills at the sides of the Piraeus. In this plain lies the rock on which the Acropolis stands, the midday side oriented to the sea. The morning sun shines on one narrow side of the rock where it steeply ends towards the plain; at the other narrow side several hills string, flattening out; the Areopagos, the hill of Nymphs (adjacent to the higher rocky plateau where I possibly will get a little house, it flattens towards the big road from Piraeus; in front of the rock which would carry the house is on the same level a garden plot with a steep end. If I could build here no neighbor could take away my view and my house would be standing free on all sides -- I could look over the Piraeus to Aigina and indescribable beautiful mountains in the distance; the big olive forest, the ships coming into Piraeus harbour, everybody coming from there to town; a few hundred steps below me the future palace and it’s future park reaching to our rock, the Thesion and the whole city; if I could look at the Acropolis from the second floor I do not know yet), the hills of Pnyx, Philopappos etc.

The city leans with its widest extension to the northern side of the Acropolis rock, descends from here to the plain and expands far to both sides. The district close to the Acropolis where the ancient town mainly must have been exists only in ruins of younger times. The government did not yet explain clearly about intending future planned excavations or not, so there is no house building here as well.  A few individuals built new houses here, either because they were owners of wrecked houses and so did not have to pay for plots, or because they could buy an inexpensive  plot because there is not much competition in this district and construction material can be found more or less at the spot as the remaining pieces of walls and rubble between them provide building stones.

How messed up these houses are standing is incredible however. There are no streets laid out, the former ones are hardly recognizable just now and then, cut off by rubble, turned into hills and valleys.
Two new houses next to each other will surely not stand in a line -- one orients its facade to the north, the other to the south, just as the owners feel it convenient. If one tries to draw lines from one house to another one would bump into them very often in obtuse or acute angles. You see forms and shapes  here like nowhere else in the world, a real collection of varieties of stairs going outside diagonally upwards, others start at the entrance of a yard rising straight over it to the 2nd floor, Swiss shaped houses with prominent roofs and upper floors etc.. Most owners are builders as well. Instead of lime everything found in the street is put between the stones, that is rubble, sand, dirt, everything that can be mixed in a pit dug for this purpose like for slaking lime. It happens not only for small houses -- for example the big house where Heideck lives, built by an Italian Count as a rental has walls leaking all over when it is raining continuously; in setting up a stove the wall involved was found to be made of dirt.

If the government decides for the excavations, the newly built houses will be torn down: if it decides against, a plan will be made and still many houses will have to come down which do not fit into further streets. The rent however is so expensive people took the risk hoping for years of indecisiveness, which one can indeed expect. There is such a labyrinth here you will not easily find again a house even after a visit. Best is to climb somewhere high looking for the right house, after finding it  walk from which point ever in a straight not losing its direction, crossing walls, rubble, pieces of stairs, broken water pipes, open cisterns, deep sewers etc..  I had one point, an open, very deep half-dried cesspool with a snowy-white skull of a horse  lying in it, from there I could find orientation.

The summer’s conveniences for the inhabitants of this district are millions of very poisonous midges living under hollow wet stones and in stagnant waters. The convenience of winter is the lack of sun in the shade of the Acropolis, in summer it shines over it and the cooling wind from the sea does not get here because of the high rocks.

In flattened areas new streets have been laid out  with many new houses in rows with more or less ruins between them. This center of the town -- if one wants to call it so as the market and the shops are here -- consists mostly of small quickly constructed buildings of little value, which are of intense interest at the moment with the lack of houses but will exist only a few years.  But there is also a fair number of good houses of 6-8 rooms etc., and not just few considerably big ones inhabited by diplomats, ministers, regency etc.. Were all these latter buildings and the reasonable middle sized ones built according to town planning it would be the basis for an orderly town and not insignificant at all.

There was a plan drawn up about 2 years ago by Kleanthes and other Greek architects and temporarily approved which set the king’s palace far away from the now existing buildings (where the king laid the foundation stone last year which was in all the newspapers), Klenze made another plan, putting the palace near the temple of Theseus, a little closer to the road to Pireas. At the moment the king lives at the opposite end of the town in the district of the remains of the temple of Zeus but far of the Acropolis, deeper in the plain. Supporters of Kleanthes’ plan built close to the site of the palace he is proposing, others were built near the king’s were they are needed now, others along the road to Pireas. In a very wide and enormously long street (in the future, maybe!) are standing right now two very big and beautiful houses like fallen out of the blue, Kobel and Armansperg are living there, also the houses of Caradja, Dawkins, Cantacuzenos are separated from all other houses.

Joseph Thurmer, 1819-1824
Communication  is extremely difficult at the time being and almost impossible with bad weather or in the evening. Even where the streets have been cleaned of piles of rubble one must walk hills and valleys, there is no base because of the lack of pavement. In addition water pipes are broken in many places, the delicious clear water is running and building muddy spots until it vanished in canals. To remedy this trouble ditches are dug towards the canals but they get sodden and everything stays the way it is. Streets have been dug in the middle to their full length to build the draining ditches, the ground has been thrown up at both sides. The street lowers to the ditch and is very slippery, and the results can be unpleasant and dangerous you can imagine. Cisterns and wells of former yards where now paths are leading have no edges and might make a wanderer disappear without a trace at night. Big dogs have been bought everywhere as guards for the isolated lodgings at the time being, as soon as it gets dark they bark behind pedestrian from house to house.

The ruins here come partly from small houses of Athenians, from big Turkish palatial buildings, from 365 churches and chapels and between them ancient ruins which have been unearthed only by the latest devastation.  The remaining walls of destructed houses give a strange impression because between the stones they have been built of, or the clay and timber frame parts are single square stone blocks visible, obviously from ancient walls, pieces of marble slabs, columns, knobs, statues (from a small wretched house a most beautiful marble hand is jutting out), marble slabs with new Turkish decoration, from Venetian times many lions etc.. Many Turkish wells, now dried out, at the walls. From the former 365 churches, most of them small of course, one can see next to nothing, just some bigger cupolas, no towers, because churches were not allowed to be seen under Turkish rule. These building too have a wonderful mixture of most different materials, times, stiles of construction, fresco painting etc..  Many of them are buried like Constantine’s arch at the forum. Some of them are built into ancient buildings. A Turkish bath (with steam pipes) which lies now like a cellar deep dark and moist is getting whitewashed and done up for soldiers.

Between all this chaos the ancient ruins give a moving and reassuring impression. Though many of them are partly hidden by lodgings which have been built at or in them it is planned to clean them all and leave them standing as they are. They are rather many, even now when the overview is not yet complete.

I mentioned the war bringing to light a number of antiquities.  Amongst them are some colossal statues which obviously remained on the original pedestals and at the spot they were made for. They were found on the occasion of  the destruction of a big building belonging to a clergyman. He had built walls around them 300 years ago (if  I am not mistaken) to keep safe what had remained of them. They stand in line and regular distances, two lines of them facing each other, the road between them leads straight from the temple of Theseus to another ancient building. The mass of marble is huge but the mutilation too is not little: there would be little interest for them in a collection, but here where they offer information about situation, buildings etc. of the ancient town they are regarded with admiration and pleasure. 

I should now tell you about the antiquities but I confess honestly I can’t. We were not in Athens for very long. I didn’t have any time of peace.

* * * * * *

Previous letters from Bettina Schinas: