24 April 2014

The first of the hundred

Doge Leonardo Loredan, Giovanni Bellini, 1501.
National Gallery, London.

When I was a child in West Africa, my parents had a book entitled One Hundred Great Paintings, or The Hundred Greatest Paintings in the World -- it was a title that juxtaposed hundred and great and paintings. This portrait of Leonardo Loredan, Doge between 1501 and 1521, was the first of the hundred. The second was the glorious Titian Bacchus and Ariadne. Mona Lisa was in there, a Sunflowers, The Birth of Venus, The Fighting Temeraire, and a number of ladies wearing very little in the way of clothes. The ladies bemused me, because my parents were extremely intolerant of my coming in the way of noticing anything that might suggest the realities between the chin and the knees, but they apparently allowed to Art what was unacceptable for Life.

I spent a great deal of time with these paintings, and particularly with the first two. The Titian was incomprehensible -- up in the bush in West Africa, there was no place to look for Titian or mythology -- but it was intoxicating, which seems the way to respond.  I spent most of my great-paintings time with Doge Loredan. I didn't know what I was looking at, beyond the fact of a rather tense man in interesting clothes, painted in beautiful colors, but it gave me joy. 

So I was inordinately pleased, fifty years later, to come on his signature in a Venetian protocollo belonging to Jacobo Grasolario probating the will of Zorzi Cernovich.  This is a will written like a love-letter, and it has a fascinating story to it. Most wills did not require a dogal signature, but Cernovich had been the ruler of Montenegro, he died outside Venice, and had created an international incident with the French. Grasolario had to have the will translated from the Slavic Cernovich had written into Italian. 

protocollo is the permanent, legal, record of a notary, licensed by the Venetian government. This one belonged to a Jacobo Grasolario who handled the wills of my beloved Giovanni Dario. The signature says, "We, Leonardo Loredan, by the grace of God, Duke of Venice, etc, undersigned, his own hand," and it looks to me like the signature of a tense person.

There are a few other scattered Loredan signatures in the Grasolario protocollo, and what is striking about them is that by 1518 or so you can watch the writing deteriorate.  The last signature is nearly illegible and droops far down at the right.  He died less than a week later.

Thanks to Bonnie Blackburn for helping me read the signature.

20 April 2014


Piero della Francesca, The Resurrection of Christ,
Museo Civico, Sansepolcro.

10 April 2014

The Maltese whelp

In February of last year, I wrote an entry on Bessarion's Little White Dog and used the two dog painting I have here. I think I'may have identified the two dogs here, as to species, even though there are some differences between them. Apparently from ancient times on up to modern, this white toy Maltese -- with some breeding changes over time -- has been traditionally identified as a lady's lap dog.  If Bessarion did have one, he wouldn't have worried about that issue.  Odysseus (xvii: 315) compared his hunting dog Argos to lap dogs.  He called them τραπεζῆες κύνες -- table dogs, the kind of dogs we here who are partial to mastiffs and karabaş might in an off-moment call a "kick-me" dog, though I have been known to become sentimental over a King Charles Spaniel.

What is particularly interesting about this over-enlarged blurry dog is Aristotles' comparison of the Maltese to a mustelid, and it does have a slight resemblance to a weasel. These little white dogs are also found in the writings of Pliny, Strabo, Martial, and possibly first of all in Callimachus.  They have an tradition in scholarly writing, which may be why they appear with images of Bessarion.  Or maybe he really did own a little white dog.  I keep hoping.

But there seems to have been a Byzantine development where the term "Maltese whelp" became a term of literary contempt. We don't know if they had the little white dogs but they had the insult.  Psellos called John Italos a "Maltese whelp." When George Gemistos Plethon wrote Theodoros II about reforming the Morea, he spoke harshly about the present system of military defense:
It is better to be ready for war and inexpensively dressed than to wear golden robes and live in dread of your enemies.  Or one may compare the way of a shepherd, who will feed a guard-dog from his produce rather than waste it on keeping Maltese whelps, or other useless or voracious animals . . . like one or two of those you are now keeping, who flatter and deceive you , with their mouths wide open . . . unable to restrain their greed.
He is mixing a lot of metaphors here and making a lot of points, but contempt for Maltese whelps comes through.  

So think then about how George Gemistos Plethon, the philosopher of Mistra, friend of emperors, despots, and scholars, honored guest of Florence, judge and teacher, wrote George Scholarios in what was presented as a scholarly reply to Scholarios' Defense of Aristotle.  Nestled among arguments about Aristotle's errors, logic, circular motion, comets, and heat, the great Plethon included statements such as these: 

Along with your other faults, lying comes naturally to you. . . .

. . . a man who has no shame in boasting about the influence of a wretched woman -- and a little tart at that . .

You are not only vindictive, but dull-witted, as your present work shows . . 

[You] enjoy discussion, which is a practice of moderation, as well as simultaneously enjoying your own vanity, which is deplorable and tasteless and has nothing in common with moderation; and you seem to be so consumed with your vanity that you will even sacrifice your religious beliefs for it, changing them at every opportunity in whatever direction you think will bring you greater esteem. . . 

They are certainly not stupider than you, for it would be hard to find among serious students of Aristotle anyone stupider than you. . .

You can have nothing to say that affects me . . . I have paid, and shall continue to pay, no more attention to it than to the howling of a Maltese whelp.1

 I have found these remarks devastating.  Scholarios' response is a matter for another entry.

1Woodhouse 1986: 283, 285, 166, 298, 299, 307. 

02 April 2014


[We first arrived in Nauplion in September 1977.  This entry is about how it was then, before the old houses were painted and air-conditioned and turned into boutique hotels, before the voices of children vanished, before the public oven became a bank. The avge man is no more, my Venetian house has been replaced by a gelato shop, the baby-blue helix is white. This wall that we saw from our balcony has been replaced by a bar with red chairs, but the red no longer means what it did 40 years ago. Photo: Bill Connelly.]

In Nauplion, early October is the time of year when the grey mullet run in to the land. After dusk, half the men in town stand along the waterfront dangling unbaited hooks in the water pulling out dozens of fish, while the other half sit at the waterfront cafes and criticize. Every evening after supper we walked the waterfront to watch the mullet catch and then to watch the shrimpers.

There was a strict division of labor: men fished for mullet; small boys went shrimping. Each boy had a small net and a flashlight to shine straight down the side of the quai into the water: the shrimp eyes reflected light like tiny Christmas bulbs and the boys scooped them out, although it might take an hour to collect four or five shrimp. After the shrimp, we walked into the darkness at the end of the quai, past the broken boats, past the football field, and up along the coast road, watching the fishing boats come in, the lights flickering along the road that rimmed the bay, the small soft owls swooping down from the telephone lines.

In the daytime it was still warm enough to swim. We took the bus eight miles over to the great rock of Homeric Asine, spread blankets on the cave side away from the wind, and spent the days with books and picnics of figs and tomatoes and cheese. The children climbed over the ancient stones and searched the thorn and thyme for shards which they threw down to me, shouting. Late in the afternoon, waiting for the bus back to Nauplion, farmers walking home would stop and greet us, as was Odysseus, "Welcome, strangers. Where are you from? Why are you here?" and then take us home with them to give us tangerines or eggs or tomatoes for our supper.

* * * *

I had always wanted to live in Greece, ever since I was thirteen and read about Mycenae, read about the shadows of the grape arbor moving in the firelight at La Belle Hélène, and  young Agamemnon pouring the wine. Once in Greece, I reread the book where I thought I had found the image: it had no grape arbor, though La Belle Hélène does, over the deep veranda;, and Agamemnon has a grandson.

The grape arbor was the first of many images, and finally the desire to come to Greece was as persistent as salt in the mouth, the decision as clear as a gold coin in the hand. There were children to persuade, a house to sell, farewells to make. It was four months between the decision and the oily, suffocating brown dawn when we sailed from a Brooklyn pier, passed under the necklace of lights of the Verrezano bridge, and set out into the fogbound Atlantic.

A month later, there was a bus ride from Corinth to Nauplion on a rainy night: two hours of standing-room-only on a sprained ankle, juggling backpacks, gasping against the accumulation of cigarette smoke and body heats -- an open window apparently meant instant pneumonia -- all of us terrified by our first experience of normal Greek night driving. The windshield wipers were out of order; the driver extended the life of his headlights by using them only on straight stretches where they could shine the farthest; he otherwise relied on his horn and the icons over his head illuminated by a red light to negotiate passing on the curves.

We swayed down through the mountains of the Dervenakia, passed a sign pointing to Mycenae, halted in Argos where most of the passengers got off and we sat down, and then tore along a straight road past the bulk of Tiryns. The night rain was luminous for miles from the lights of Palamidi, a great whale-shaped hill overshadowing Nauplion with an illuminated fortress in the shape of a Byzantine headdress with pendants.

The Nauplion bus stop was closed for the evening. We stumbled into the first taxi, clutching at the phrase-book to find the words for "cheap hotel." There was a pelt through narrow streets under dripping balconies, and we were disgorged at the cheap hotel. Fatigue was washed over with soft color: a white church with a terracotta roof, a gilded shrine hung with roses, cascades of jasmine and four o'clocks over the yellow walls and white pilasters of the Hotel Otto. Inside, there was a circular staircase, a baby-blue helix floating up to a painted ceiling.

"Of course," said Apostolos, reaching for our bags, "you can stay as long as you like.

We breakfasted in the Otto's minute formal garden. It had orange and lemon trees, arbors of jasmine and roses, basil, and cages of ornamental birds. It also had a house across the street which happened to be for rent. We wandered the town for four days, trudging up and down the slippery stone steps of the hill, trying to make up our minds, trying to assimilate the newness and the strangeness and the beauty.

Old Nauplion is built on a hillside. Half the streets are vertical stairs going up to the castle or down to the harbor, past a thousand shadings of terracottas and creams and buffs and yellows on old buildings painted so many times that they have had no edges for a very long time. Every yard has a grape arbor, an orange or fig or lemon tree, a window box spilling geraniums. In early fall, Nauplion had the air of perpetual teatime held among sets left over from one of the lighter Italian operas. The Venetians of 1700 built bulky stone mansions; scattered among them are smaller, slenderer plastered houses built according to what the Bavarians of the 1830s insisted Classical architecture ought to have been: graceful houses of creams and blues and buffs and ochres and mauves, all with balconies and architraves and Corinthian capitals and acanthus leaves and tiny sphinx faces. Above the city, the fortress of Acro-Nauplion is rimmed with sharp-edged Venetian walls that blend into rougher Frankish and Byzantine ruins, and all are supported by massive Cyclopean stones.

The streets were full of cats and the air was full of bells. Beside the church bells, rung often but on schedules known only to God, the bell tower on Acro-Nauplion rang the hours and half-hours, each twice, several minutes apart. If it were ever necessary to know the precise time, there was the bank or the bus station, but the only times exactness was needed was when catching a bus, and there would always be another in half an hour, or tomorrow. There was always tomorrow: Avrio, the most common word in Greek, possibly because of the silken way it floats through the mouth. Nauplion offered limitless tomorrows.

The important thing about living in Nauplion, in Greece, is that the physical facts of life are almost overwhelming. Every sensor of the body is relentlessly besieged by stimuli as distinct as black olives on a plate. Everything has a scent, a nuance, a color, a texture, and as soon as they are perceived, a breeze passes, a cloud changes, and everything is to be learned anew. The golden-brown mountains multiply, merge, become blue and grey.

It is impossible to look at something only once. Homer wrote as much as he did, Seferis said, only because he was blind. Each street can be identified by its blend of smells -- lemon trees, bread ovens, leather workers, the ouzo distillery, fish soup, chestnuts roasting, jasmine, cigarettes, olive pressings, paint, oranges on the quai. Every corner presents another composition -- a blue Turkish fountain, a cascade of pink roses, an old man stitching shoes, cats in the sun, a Byzantine arch, a pyramid of apples, three children and a priest kicking a ball. There are all the ordinary noises that chart the day -- bells, the "Avge!" cry of the egg man, an angry woman shouting across a narrow street, a priest chanting in the church across the street, the gull-sound of winches, a sudden motor cycle, a piano practiced behind closed shutters, voices arguing  in a cafe, the dry rattle of the tric-trac board, the blunted sound of oars.

With sensory experience so acute, time blurs. One day I came back from a hike and reported that I had seen an old Turkish fortified house, an old Mycenean wall, an old woman and an old Byzantine church. With one limited word to speak of two hundred years, thirty-five hundred years, eighty years, and a thousand years, the past becomes a great accumulation of Then, which can only mean whatever is not Now.

Kathleen learned her Roman numerals from Venetian cannon, tracing sleet-chilled letters with mittened fingers; we swam at a beach from which ships set sail for Troy; we filled canteens from a spring mentioned by Pausanias. On any walk we found shards with red Mycenean spirals or fragments of amber Byzantine glaze. Our blue-green parrot was quadrupled in a fifth-century mosaic. The same weeks that we went to Epidauros to see Medea or Oedipos, we read in the paper of a woman killing her children, or of a charge of incest in the courts, and I went to Elektra fresh from wrangling with my teen-aged daughter.

We were outsiders, we were guests – kseni – the word is the same for both.