27 February 2015

Restorations at Mistra: Questions

Palace, August 1994

Palace 2001.

Palace 1978 to help explain reconstruction below.

Palace, October 2014

So I took my grandchildren to see Mistra last October. Readers of this blog know that Mistra is my passion and the focus of my scholarship. No one can be blamed for the rain: it had already rained in Nauplion for a week, and it continued raining in Monemvasia.

But once again the palace was behind barricades. It has been closed to visitors for more than 20 years. A whole generation of scholars has written about Mistra without ever being inside its single most important secular building. A whole generation of tourists has been turned away from the most comprehensible structure on the site. It is all well and good to publicize that Mistra is a World Heritage Site (and that produced a great deal of funding), but despite the interminable restoration, stabilization, and reconstruction projects, there is less to see than when I was a regular visitor in the late 70s.

A great many houses are being rebuilt, but they were well along in the rebuilding process according to The Monuments of Mystras, edited and mostly written by Stephanos Sinos, published in 2009, and very expensive and very heavy. These house are still not completed and open to visitors.  I will not get into the disappearance of the rest room from the Pantanassa, or the majority of the walkways that are extremely dangerous to those of us who are no longer young.

So this entry is an inquiry: What is going on at Mistra? I hope readers will tell me what they know, either in the Comment section below, or privately at nauplion@gmail.com.

19 February 2015

Excavations at Nauplion's Castle of the Franks

The Castle of the Franks, Grimani map ca. 1712.

Wall and tower shown below directly in the center.

The Greek Archaeological Service has after many years taken up work again on Akro-Nauplion with large projects in the Castle of the Franks. In November, thanks to Ioanna Christoforaki, I was shown over the sites by archaologist Natassa Basileiou and two of her colleagues.  It could not have been a more inconvenient day for them because of organizational changes, but they were generous with their time and humor and information, and it is a great pleasure to know that these are the people who are the future of the Archaeological Service.

 Archaeologists Eirini Oikonomopoulou,  
Kostis Boundouris,and Anastasia Basileiou. 

Visitors to Akro-Nauplion have a certain familiarity with the great merloned Venetian cross-wall built in 1470 during the Venetian-Ottoman War because there the road is forced to turn abruptly right and go through a narrow bend to gain access to the bell tower and then the hotel further down. Up on the hill behind this Venetian wall is a cross-wall with a large square tower in the center built by the Franks probably 250 years earlier to defend against Greek Nauplion. The Archaeological Service has uncovered the remains of the square tower, and has identified remains of the cross-wall at the bell tower.

The Castle of the Franks, Francis Schaefer, 1936.
Cross-wall and tower, left; central tower with frescoes, right.
Bell tower, top left.

Remains of square Frankish tower. 

                                                                   End of Frankish cross-wall at bell tower.

Inner entrance to tower with frescos.

As part of the restoration project for the tower, the interior fill deposited over the centuries has been removed, and the inner approach to the tower cleared down to the base. I did not ask where Schaefer had found the child sacrifice but it was much on my mind.

View of frescoed chamber with Angel barely visible above
on plaster over arch of Roman brick.

When Francis Schaefer saw the tower frescos in 1956, he thought them in good-enough condition so as to need no restoration work. When I saw them first in 1977 – knowing only that they were “Frankish” – I could make out almost no details. That winter the tower chamber was sealed and the subsequent deterioration was rapid. In the last two years they have been restored to the extent possible -- and the photo above shows how very pale they are now.  None have the color or show the marvelous detail of the small Angel of the Ascension on the overhead arch.  

The photographs below that I was able to take are underwhelming, but they have been much brightened and the colors intensified with Gimp.  The identifications are those made by Francis Schaefer. The frescos are dated between 1291 and 1311, and were probably created by Greek painters for Frankish employers.

Ornamentation shown on right of previous photograph.

Warrior before Gimp.

Warrior after Gimp.

St. Anthony.



Some information thanks to Monika Hirschbischler, “The Crusader Paintings in the Frankish Gate at Nauplia, Greece,” in Gesta XLVI/1 (2005) 13-30.

12 February 2015

Oh best and wisest of friends, or George and the wolves

The best and wisest of friends, Nikeforos Prinkeps Cheilas, is one of the small group of intellectuals of mid-century Mistra, and probably the most enigmatic. Cheilas first appears in 1433, when he gave a monody at the memnosyne for Cleofe. It is an extraordinary work, highly emotional, and full of powerful metaphors, but it is his only surviving writing.  A number of letters to him have survived, which collectively give a strikingly detailed portrait of a complicated but valued personality. No letters of his survive. As Eugenikos wrote him in 1455:

Your letters are double treasures, O best of men, winged reminders of your dear countenance and our association, among us even when we have received nothing whatsoever.

It seems that Cheilas left Mistra with Theodoros in 1443 when he became Despot at Selymbria. This put Theodoros in Constantinople most of the time where he intended to pick up the throne from John. In the summer of 1448, John, seriously ill,  still had not named an heir. Theodoros had been quarrelling with him over money, and it appears that with the aid of family members and aristocrats in Constantinople, and his entourage, plus the prospects of foreign troops and the promise of a foreign bride, Theodoros was ready to attack Constantinople and seize the throne.  But there was a major epidemic of plague, he delayed his attack, contracted plague and died. His body was taken to Constantinople and buried at night in the Pantokrator. His friends and entourage – including Cheilas – sat by the tomb for seven days and nights in the traditional homage, in terror of what might happen to them.

Nothing happened. Too many important people had been involved, and details were covered over, except that everyone knew about it. Cheilas must have written a mound of mea culpas to everyone he had ever corresponded with. Bessarion received one, and responded with generosity in considering why Cheilas might have decided as he did.

You thought you were doing the right thing in deceiving us, having other considerations, and saying what was not the case, but you did not escape us in your attempt to conceal the truth in your concern for loyalty and good will toward our leader and despot, for his sake keeping his secrets truly secret. . . . It is no ordinary virtue for those who consort with dynasts to understand that they must hide the mysteries of those in power . . .Why would one not speak the truth to you and not praise acts worthy of admiration? Why would he not spare a friend from accusations or not supply the defense of one most dear to him. . . . We clearly do not blame you and we have acquitted you of any crimes already. Do not write your defense to us and give no thought to supplication. . . .

For you should view it as I do, that we were harmed by the loss of a brother and a wise friend, while we hoped that you would fare well, for by doing so you would clear away our dismay and comfort us that you were together with better companions. Or, if you willingly endured because you did not accept a division and separation from your benefactor, and were overwhelmed by love, that in itself was the better, and something for which--if you had not felt it--then you might need an apology, such as is not needed now, since you did feel it.

May you be in the midst of all good things, oh best and wisest of friends, and may you overcome all your griefs and, with the support of God, enjoy all the best of the great city. For the present, we wish you to cheer us with the occasion and beauty of your correspondence, and with better words about yourself. In the future, your brilliance will be seen brightly by us who love you. For they are well whenever and wherever your situation is better and pleasanter.

Scholarios was a man of many faces. Without revealing his support of Theodoros, and using language in keeping with his role as a judge, he wrote Cheilas:

Such is your case. We shall not believe you, and forget the evidence of your actions, and we shall not listen to you belittling your state when we have many fine witnesses who honor it, and justly so.

A good bit of the Scholarios letter to Cheilas comments on letters from him, overwritten and somewhat hysterical as was his style in distress (τοῖς γράμμασιν ἦν μετ´ὑπερβολῆς), but it also dryly indicates that their situations under Constantine had changed from what they previously had been under John:

You are abandoning us who have no wish to show contempt, and who respect the eagerness of a friend . . . Let this suffice us then. We share your happiness in the good will of our best leaders as we ourselves often enjoyed it in splendor, but now let us abandon and be free of it, thinking that we and you together with us are fortunate. We are enjoying this opinion equitably, and taking pleasure in a reputation for virtue in place of our former splendor. For we, along with them, shall celebrate the brother for his praiseworthy clemency -- don't you think? -- for through that all the best will come from both God and men.

Eugenikos wrote:

You are prevented from writing frequently by the crowd of problems that surround you . . . Write, then, whenever you find it easier for you. . . . Write something short: that will be dearer and more precious than the longer effusions of others, and show by this your longing and purest feeling toward us as from the beginning.

Cheilas eventually returned to Mistra where he then became mesazon for Demetrios. In a letter to the Gemistos brothers, when their father died, Bessarion concluded:

Be well, and speak to Nikephoros Prinkeps Cheilas for me, telling him to know that he is loved by me for his goodness more than ever before.

There is much evidence for the emotionality of Cheilas' personality, and when hostile gossip produced hurt feelings , Eugenikos had written:

I learned from one of your countrymen here, a warm supporter of yours, and the good son of one of my associates, that certain ill-wishers here have corrupted the good and wise information that you receive, announcing complete untruths and have claimed that I have condemned you frequently and to many people when, by the grace of God, what I do is just the opposite, fervently and continuously. You are, with the aid of God one of those we praise, and we are not given to slandering.

John Eugenikos left his estate in Cheilas' care during his trip to Trebizond in 1454-55. Then he had a letter from his son George (the deaths of his younger brothers were discussed in the previous entry). Eugenikos wrote Cheilas with such graciousness that it becomes difficult to discover that Cheilas had been negligent.  The wolves are a puzzlement: they are generally taken as raiding neighbors, but a mountain village on the slopes of the Taygetos range is likely to be a sheep-herding village and I suspect these are real wolves.

Not but that if you stood aside for a while from our common understanding and firm resolve for the better, something that happens to people who are distracted by many important things, as nature has it though it may be against their will, nonetheless keeping in mind the letter of warm mutual affection, and those bright hopes of ours for those around you, and what we set up for my son when I left, and you promised, what I begged from you in earlier letters for yourself and those under your care, a grant to us concerning everything where you are and whatever or ours there is. My son George needs help frequently, and the village along with him, which will provide for his and my survival when I, God willing, shall return. The village is frequently besieged, and excavations are dug under the fences by the wolves nearby, and who could be a better manager and a greater assistance for us than you, when you are led by God.  

Again, thanks to Pierre MacKay for his translations.

04 February 2015

The Eugenikos sons

Two and a half years ago, I wrote about the time Pepagomenos left his sons with the Eugenikos family in Mistra when he and his wife made a trip to Constantinople. This was probably in 1443. In a letter to him, John Eugenikos compliments the excellence of the two boys, calling them "that pair of ours, and especially Nicholaos." In another letter, Eugenikos describes a group that he had invited to read a letter from Pepagomenos. He included "our good Nicholaos" and his friends in the audience -- it looks as if Nicholaos was the older son. (I think the younger was Giorgos.)  After the formal reading, Nicholaos and his friends took the letter, "treating it lovingly," and tried to work it out for themselves. Their Greek had not yet become Byzantine.

So I was startled and saddened to find an exchange of letters between Bessarion and Eugenikos, written four years earlier, about the deaths of two of Eugenikos' sons. Bessarion was in Florence at the Council of Union. Eugenikos, profoundly opposed to any discussion of Union, had obtained permission to leave the previous September and had finally reached Constantinople in May 1439, nearly drowning in a shipwreck on the way. Eugenikos seems to have gone directly on to Mistra -- did he arrive in Constantinople to find his sons dead? The letters don't say. 

They had learned in Florence that there was plague in Constantinople. Bessarion, concerned about no letters from Eugenikos began to worry, but he could not imagine that his friend's household could be affected by plague. Then he learned from two boys just arrived in Florence from Mistra that the Eugenikos boys had died. The boys must have been travelling with the group from Mistra Eugenikos mentions at the end of his letter.

Here is Bessarion's loving and clumsily-written letter to John Eugenikos. The two men were polar opposites on the topic of Church Union, but they were the closest of friends. The last paragraph of Bessarion's letter indicates that the Council is still voting: given what can be worked out about travel, Bessarion letter must have been written in June of 1439.

* * * * * *
[Bessarion to Eugenikos]
I was believing that your house was safe and not afflicted by the disease, and that in your relief you would be glad to take part in the pleasures of life and so would not overlook what is right for us who left the great city and came here, and who beg for letters from there more than any other gift. When we were unable to discover them—how could we, when they did not exist—for my part I was eaten up at heart, being uneasy about your silence When I asked around, no one had even a suggestion that might dispel my ignorance until I learned directly from fellow townsmen, those who knew you best, and was told that terrible news, that the cause was much worse than anything we might have suspected, that you had lost the companionship of your children, those children whom even someone hostile to you would be ashamed not to mourn, whom an enemy, needing no truce, would have pity for, and about whom anyone seeing it would fall into the same grief as their parent. I shed bitter tears as soon as I heard of it. Those who announced it to me were of the same age, with the same beauty and symmetry of limbs, in the same first flowering of their life that gave witness to me what their condition was to be in future. I write you now with the same tears, aware of the despair that must exist in your soul, and how sharply you grieved as you sent these dear ones to the tomb before you had clearly witnessed their full heritage. And yet you know how to grieve while at the same time praising nature, and you understand philosophy, for you have in all times praised the mean as best, taught that thee fully-matured virtues lead us to the mean, and you walk along the royal road, as it is said, distancing yourself from the evils on either side.

Death, for those in hardship is a release from evils, while for those who have lived virtuously, and for children, in whom there is no villainy to be considered, being not yet aware of the unfulfilled pledges of life, it brings mourning to those left behind, as is right when they are distressed by the separation of bonds. May it be a consolation to you, that medicine of consolation that has often been to many, and in many circumstances. Contrast the life in this world with that one, as being by so much more, blessed. To have been snatched away before time is to escape the griefs of this life, which are the preponderance in it, perhaps even all of it. With not exulting in them because they have gone away despite one's prayers and the hopes that they might too become fathers of children, contrast the absence of grief and affliction of offspring who are unworthy of their parents, for, that may sometimes happen, and if the separation, and your no longer being called their father grieves you, you must remember that you must not grieve more for what you have had taken away from yourself than you must rejoice in the acknowledgement of what God has offered, for He as our Lord has taken his own, not what is ours. How could it not be so, when we have our very life from Him. If God can give us many times over what he takes from us then this is a sufficient comfort to us who remember those who have gone from us neither in a small-spirited way nor as if those departed had ceased to exist.

About you, many good things are are noted by those Peloponnesians who come here and who have voted for what is best with every vote. The law of friendship makes me regard your good reputation no less than my own with pleasure. I greet those about you who have voted with you as still being friends. But if we have lost you, and your true self, to be well-pleased with those, who take pleasure in you but are others, is to pursue the shadow and an image of pleasure, neglecting the true pleasure. Nonetheless, being deprived of this now in the tyranny of the present circumstances, we shall enjoy the second pleasure, that of hearing you well-famed, until we ourselves may more clearly enjoy your goodness. 

* * * * * *

 Bessarion wrote Eugenikos other letters about the deaths that have not survived, and Eugenikos wrote back immediately.  He does not mention the Council or the Act of Union, which had been signed on July 6, but there was a lot going on, with many letters crossing in transit.  In this next letter we learn that Bessarion's letters were carried by Gabriel, and that Eugenikos had written Bessarion (these were the letters that Bessarion was worried about because he had not seen them) letters taken to Florence by the stratopedarchos 
Frangopoulos (this is the man who built the Pantanassa at Mistra) and by Alexios Laskaris (the name shows up in other Moreote documents).  This is new information about Greeks in Florence, and it makes very personal what we already know about the transmission of letters.

* * * * * *

[Eugenikos to Bessarion]
This is clear to me, what is said by the philosophers that pleasures are fixed right next to griefs, in that no part of the present life remains unchanged, for since the joy of good men in infinite future ages will properly be matched by the grief of the unjust. Certainly, it follows that this is true for those allotted life in this uncertain order that will shortly cease to be. Just as many other opposite things occur simultaneously, as, like a wheel, the affairs of men, change and are borne along this way and that, so happiness and grief are to one another. With your good and wise letters, you have filled me with this immeasurable happiness, oh best and thrice desired friend, after I have known many distresses from many sides, and what a fresh sweetness you have poured over my despairing soul, what a medicine of consolation. 

 This is not only because of the great charm, and the longing for me in your soul, your unmixed love, and your recognition of me and disposition toward me evident for a long time before and especially now, to which I add the flowering grace and skill of your writing, but also your advice to me to offer thanks to God even for the loss of my dearest. Your letters have had such power over me that they have been longed for especially, honored when seen, and deeply treasured. It is right, according to the teachings of the church and your counsels, that we should give thanks to God from our souls, both when he gives and when he takes away, as much as it is in us, and we ask for your prayers and for the prayers of those with you who love us or, rather, who love God more than us, that they be safe and be left to us in place of the children and may be increased in accordance with His generosity to us. 

Thus as I said, following the anguish to ourselves, there was also joy for other good things, not the least of them being your wise letters in which while they lacked absolutely nothing of your kindness and honor, I found in addition to these benefits that they came together with the high-minded escort, that best and sweetest, that good and noble Gabriel, who to such an extent filled my ears with frequent praise of you that he made my longing for you, which had already reached a peak, increase and rise to an even higher peak.
So this is my joy over you and yours. 

But there is also with it a grief, and a very immediate one, heavy and great for me, that strengthens my delight in your letters and at the same time troubles and confounds it. This is that you did not receive my letters, a long one sent earlier, and one after that, owing to the indifference of those who took them. The calamity was made so much the worse because of what the most distinguished of our friends, to whom the letters were entrusted, have become. These were the good Frangopoulos, the grand stratopedarch, who took the long one, and after him, Alexios Lascaris, who took along with the one I addressed to you others for the spiritual father Isidore. If there was one more important than the other it is the one that went with the grand stratopedarch which would have been given into your two hands if he had not been indifferent to God and to the happiness of friends. If this is not the case ask him to look into his trunk, or the trunks of his closest associates, and perhaps they will appear somewhere. If not, let that stand as a part of my misfortune and wretchedness.

[The Bessarion letter is found in Mohler 3: #10; the Eugenikos is IN Lampros, Παλαιολόγεια καὶ Πελοποννησιακά, 1: 164-5. Pierre MacKay did the tedious work of translation.]