Friday, September 12, 2014

A Researcher's Rant (or: Why won't all those dates hold still?!?)

In my home I currently have 28 books about the life of Saint Francis of Assisi (including four library books and four on my Kindle).  Oh, wait - there's another one in today's mail.  Make that 29.  Many, many more, from the public library as well as the university library, have already been here, stayed a while, and then gone back home, leaving behind copious notes and photocopies.

Most are in English, some in Italian.  In addition, I have lots of books on the history of Assisi, and of Rome, and of the papacy, and of the church in the middle ages.  And there are literally thousands more books out there that deal specifically with Francis's life - page after page after page of them listed in the university's online catalogue, for example. 

Some of the current batch

So you'd think I'd be able to zero in on a few useful dates for my work in progress, wouldn't you?  Especially since Francis is not even my main character?

Nah... no such luck.  I'm pretty sure no two scholars would produce exactly the same timeline for Francis.  I tell you, it's enough to drive a researcher stark raving bonkers.

In the marvelously funny little book 1066 and All That, by W.C. Sellar and R. J. Yeatman, the authors take on the task of composing "a memorable history of England," meaning only the bits people (mis)remember.  Or, as the blurb says:
Comprising all the parts you can remember, including one hundred and three good things, five bad kings, and two genuine dates.
Two genuine dates is about what I've got to work with.  Sellar & Yeatman had 55 B.C., "in which year Julius Caesar (the memorable Roman Emperor) landed, like all other successful invaders of these islands, at Thanet" and 1066, "the other memorable date in English History," when "William I (1066) conquered England at the Battle of Senlac (Ten Sixty-six)."  That last one must have been very memorable.

13th century depiction of Fourth Lateran Council

And me?  I've got the date of the Fourth Lateran Council (it began in November 1215) and the date of Francis's death (in October 1226).  Pretty much everything else is contested.   

Giotto di Bondone, Death of Francis

What if I want to know when the famous Chapter of Mats, that great gathering of Franciscans, was held?  Was it in 1217, 1219, 1220, 1221?  Was it actually a compendium of several of the above?

According to my sources, yes.  Thanks, guys.

And what if I need to know how long Peter of Cattania was minister general of the order?  Good luck with that.  We know when he died, but not when he took over.  He either did or didn't hold the position long enough to run a chapter meeting.  I can find you people who will swear to both positions.

What about Elias?  When, exactly, did he go to the Middle East?  1216?  1217?  Earlier?  Later?  On a need-to-know basis, I need to know this.

And my own main character, Giacoma dei Settesoli:  when did she meet Francis?  When was she widowed?  Did she move to Assisi immediately after Francis died in 1226, or years later, just prior to her own death in 1239 (unless of course that actually happened in 1273...)?  Was she present at Francis's death, or had she gone home by then? 

Either she's there ...

or she's not there...

Well, that sort of thing may well be important, you may say, but surely you can fudge a few dates.   You don't have to mention an exact date when you're writing fiction.  Just tell the story.  

Okay, but when you can't even get agreement on the sequence in which things happened, it's difficult to keep your causal relationships straight.  If Event A preceded Event B, it is possible to hypothesize that something in Event A may have caused, exacerbated, or paved the way for Event B.  But if it turns out they happened in the opposite order, all bets are off.  And that's a simple one, with only two components.  Usually there are more.  

And of course it's not only the date discrepancies that matter.  I've got about a dozen different lists of Francis's earliest followers, the ones who accompanied him to Rome (in whichever year that was...) to meet with Pope Innocent III.  And did Francis actually meet Dominic, that other great leader of a newly-hatched mendicant order?  Some say yes, some say no.  And if they did meet, was it during the Fourth Lateran, or some other time and place?  I've got plenty of people advocating every possible position on this, including that they never met at all, and that neither one was actually present at the Fourth Lateran.  At least we can find them together in certain works of art:

So what's a fiction writer to do?  

Well, first you can make some distinctions among sources.  Some writers are more reliable than others, based on any number of factors:  what materials they had available at the time they were writing, whether they are specialists or generalists, and (in the case of Francis) whether they are writing under church auspices or not.  (That last one can be a two-edged sword.)  Some may just have a more readable style than others, and may appeal to you more.  

However you do it, it's usually possible to narrow the field down to a handful of sources you feel you can trust to some degree.  My experience is that they will still disagree, but you'll feel somewhat better about any choices you eventually make if one or more of these high-quality sources supports you.

Secondly, you've got to keep your story uppermost in your mind.  If you have to make strategic choices in order to get the story you want, then that's what you're going to do.  Ideally, you'll be able to keep your choices within the realm of plausibility, however.  If you can't, you're not really writing historical fiction any more, and I for one would find it less satisfying.  I wanted Francis present for the Fourth Lateran, so in my book, that's where you'll find him. But if any of my sources had managed to convince me that his presence then and there was not possible, I would not have used it.  

Thirdly, the choices you make will be influenced by your feelings about the characters.  You will not be neutral.  If you are neutral, I submit that this is not your story to write.  In my case, I needed to know not only Francis's history insofar as I could, but I had to evolve my own responses to him and to his message.  I had to know whether I thought Elias was the devil incarnate, as so many have implied, or a well-meaning scapegoat whose talents actually helped keep the Franciscan order alive.  Or, perhaps most likely, something much more complex, more involved, more thoroughly human than either of the extremes.  And whatever choice I made, it influenced how I saw his personal timeline - what he did, what happened to him, what made him who he was, or at least who I think he was:  if this happened, it would have affected him in a particular way, whereas if it hadn't happened yet, perhaps that would be more likely.  Dates are pervasive; they affect everything.

I've made my choices.  It was not an easy process, and nothing in it was a foregone conclusion, but I believe I have honored the demands of plausibility while telling a story that holds meaning for me.  

Maybe next time I'll pick a period where things are better documented.  Maybe there'll be newspapers.  Or detailed public records.  Or something.  But probably not, since I'm inordinately fond of medieval Italy. 

Do you suppose the akashic records have a decent search engine?

Illustrations in this post are all in the public domain.

Monday, August 18, 2014

St. Julian: TripAdvisor of the middle ages, or Lizzie Borden meets the Bates Motel?

St. Julian the Hospitaller (Piero della Francesca)

A medieval traveler with many miles ahead of him needed to give some thought to his lodgings.  Would he find an inn when he needed one, or a religious house that would offer hospitality, or even some kindly person whose home could serve as a sort of Air B&B? 

He knows he'll need something, some space that will keep him safe and dry till morning.  The road holds many dangers even during the day; the thought of spending a night in the open, vulnerable to wolves and bandits and things supernatural, would have been terrifying.

But how to ensure he'll find what he needs?  One very common tactic:  offer a prayer to Saint Julian the Hospitaller.

St. Julian, Domenico Ghirlandaio

We find an example of this practice in Boccaccio's Decameron (second story, second day), in which Rinaldo says this:
I know very few prayers; nevertheless, it is my usual practice when traveling never to leave an inn in the morning without saying one Our Father and one Hail Mary for the souls of St. Julian's mother and father, after which I pray to God and to St. Julian to grant me a suitable lodging for the coming night.  And in my journeys I have often found myself in grave danger, from which I have nonetheless managed to escape and find myself in a safe place with good lodgings that same evening; so I firmly believe that St. Julian, in whose honor I say my prayers, has obtained this favor for me through his intercession with God, and if I had not recited my prayer that morning I don't think I could manage to travel safely during the day or arrive safely by nightfall.  (Translated by Mark Musa and Peter Bondanella)
So who was Saint Julian?  Did he actually exist?  And did he really murder his parents messily as the result of a misunderstanding?

(The answer to that second question is probably "No."  The Bollandists, a tenacious bunch of religious scholars who were followers of the Jesuit Jean Bolland in the 17th century, existed to study and publish the lives of saints, and they doggedly tried to separate truth from legend in the hagiographies, but even they were never able to verify any aspect of this saint's life.  As one scholar said, Saint Julian "has no date, no country, no tomb.")

St. Julian, tavern sign

But many people believed the story, which has a number of sensationalistic elements.  Multiple versions of the tale exist, going back at least as far as the 13th century, but they mostly agree on the following points:

Julian, a wealthy young man, learns that he is fated to kill his parents.  This information variously comes to him through a talkative stag while he is out hunting, or via his mother as she spills the beans about a prophecy made before his birth, or by a vision that comes to him while he is hunting.  However he learns of his fate, he decides to avoid it by leaving his parents' home and going far away.  Eventually he marries and settles down, possibly in Galicia.
One day, years later, his parents come seeking him.  They reveal their identities to Julian's wife, who welcomes them graciously (Julian is off hunting again...) and gives them the best bed in the house, the bed in Julian's own chamber, where they fall asleep, no doubt dreaming about being reunited with their son the next day.  When Julian returns, he mistakenly believes that the two figures he sees in his bed are his wife and her lover.  (In some versions "the enemy" - the devil, perhaps? - has told him his wife was being unfaithful.)  So Julian, who is not what we would call a reflective sort of person, hacks the two sleeping figures to death in his rage.
St. Julian, Agnolo Gaddi
And then he sees his wife.  In some versions she is chatting with other women outside the church, and as he stands there with his mouth agape she happily tells him that his parents have arrived for a visit, and she has given them their bed.  In other accounts, she is standing by, horrified, watching as he does the deed.  (See my favorite depiction of her, below.)

Julian is, of course, immediately filled with remorse.  In most versions he makes a pilgrimage to Rome (or some other distant place), after which he founds a hospital (or a hospice or an inn), where he and his wife dedicate themselves to providing charitable hospitality, including ferrying travelers safely across a nearby river.
St. Julian, Agnolo Gaddi
 There are also suggestions that a leper to whom Julian granted hospitality turned out to be an angel (or, in some accounts, Christ himself), who then informs Julian that God has forgiven his sin.
Let's think for a moment about Julian's wife.  (You knew I'd get to that, didn't you?)  She's usually said to have shared his pilgrimage and his penance, yet she'd just seen that (1) her husband didn't trust her, and (2) he was willing to murder her without first verifying what was going on.

At least in Gustave Flaubert's 1877 telling of the story Julian goes off alone, having first given all of his possessions to his wife.  Really, it's the least he could have done, under the circumstances.

Julian is the patron saint of a diverse assortment of people, including ferrymen, circus performers, fiddlers, innkeepers, jugglers, travelers, pilgrims, shepherds, wandering musicians, and - logically enough - murderers.  Who knew that murderers even had a patron saint?!


Circus performers






There's one picture of Julian's dastardly deed that I wish I could show you, but I can't.  It's in the Pinacoteca Comunale (city art gallery) in Assisi, where photographs aren't allowed, and I always respect such rules.  I've not been able to find an image of it, there or anywhere else.  It's quite extraordinary - a massive anonymous 14th century painting showing the poor couple after the murder, with slit throats, gaping wounds, lolling tongues, and lots of blood everywhere.  If that artist were alive today, he'd be making slasher films.

Lizzie Borden
Sign, Madame Tussuad's, London

I'll leave you with one more Julian story, this one from the 13th century Golden Legend of the Genoan Giacomo da Varazze (de Voragine):

The enemy (remember "the enemy"?) came to Julian's hospice disguised as a pilgrim.  At midnight he woke and completely trashed the place, rock-band style, after which Julian swore never to let anyone into his home again.  But that night Jesus went to him disguised as a humble pilgrim.

Julian told his visitor he could not enter, because the last pilgrim had vandalized his home.  Jesus asked Julian to hold his walking-stick, and the stick stuck to Julian's hand.  Julian finally recognized his guest and repented, promising to give shelter to anyone who had need of it, whereupon Jesus forgave him.

St. Julian, Taddeo Gaddi

Images in this post are in the public domain, with these exceptions:  The two photos of paintings by Agnolo Gaddi are licensed to Sailko, the photo of the jugglers is licensed to DerGrosse, and the photo of the Bates Motel sign is licensed to Nevit Dilmen.  All are using the Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike-3.0 Unported license, and are found on Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

On Seizing Serendipity (Guest post by Debra Atwood)

 Today I'd like to introduce a guest post by Deb Atwood, author of Moonlight Dancer, a timeslip novel rich in Korean history and the paranormal.  Here's the blurb:

A doll... a ghost... a love that transcends time.

Kendra JinJu MacGregor can resist neither the antique Korean doll in the dusty warehouse nor the handsome Hiro Peretti who sells it to her.

Once she brings the doll home, Kendra pays little attention to misplaced objects or her beloved dog's fear.  That is, until one terrifying night forces her to question her very sanity.  Soon, the ethereal, brooding NanJu manifests herself, and Kendra begins her travels through time to 16th century Korea into a history of conflict and intrigue.  For Kendra is about to discover the dark past of her ghostly visitor.

Now it's up to Kendra, with Hiro by her side, to interpret the past and prevent murder.  Everything depends upon Kendra's success, even -- she discovers to her horror -- her own life.

Deb Atwood has some fascinating research experiences to share with us.  Here's Deb, and her bio:

Deb Atwood

Deb loves Korean history and time-slip novels and feels a ghost is the perfect medium to bring history to life. She holds an MFA and resides in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and former shelter dog Nala. Deb’s work has appeared in numerous anthologies. Her time-slip novel Moonlight Dancer was selected as a front page Featured Review by Book Ideas.

Please visit Deb on Twitter here or at her blog.   She’d love to see you there!

To buy a copy of this wonderful book, click here.

On Seizing Serendipity

Serendipity with Kate Beckinsale and John Cusack.

You know the movie, right?

If the planets align or the fates allow (you choose), John C. and Kate B. aka Jonathan and Sara will find each other via a recycled $5 bill or an inscribed copy of Love in the Time of Cholera.

Silly you think? Kate is content (at least initially) to bow to destiny, a sort of que sera, sera on steroids approach. Not John. He hunts down every used bookstore in town, riffles through each Garcia Marquez tome in search of the novel bearing his love’s phone number.

In other words, he gives serendipity a nudge.

Those of us who write often take a page out of John’s book. (Sorry.) That is, we seize serendipity. In my own case, a desire to portray a strong woman in a neo-Confucian culture led unexpectedly to a dance, a battle, a bridge, and a myth.

The historical backdrop for my time-slip novel is 16th century Korea when Japan cast its covetous eye on Korea. The ensuing war pitted trained, merciless samurai against scrappy, inventive peasants. My favorite story involves a sea invasion in which Japanese invaders scaled a cliff wall to stage an attack. The Korean militia was vastly outnumbered, so following the direction of Admiral Yi Sun-shin, women donned soldiers’ uniforms. Under the moonlight at the edge of the cliff these brave women brandished torches and performed the traditional gang gang sullae dance. This display so frightened the Japanese that they rappelled back down the cliff wall, jumped in their boat, and sailed away. As my dad would say, “Never underestimate the power of a woman.”

Traditional gang gang sullae dance

Of course I had to use this story in my novel, but my first task was to locate that cliff. I read Admiral Yi’s diary Nanjung Ilgi. Alas, he made no mention of this event, so with a little authorial license, I chose a likely spot—the island of Jindo—in the southernmost province Jeallanamdo near Yi’s famous Crane formation battle. Ready to explore, my husband, daughter Hillary, and I traveled by train, then car to this remote locale. Interestingly, no Korean of my acquaintance has ever been to Jindo, and no Westerner I know had ever heard of this place.

That all changed on April 16th of this year when the ferry Sewol capsized, killing 304 people. One hundred seventy-two survived and were transported to Jindo for first aid and shelter. The waterways of Jeollanamdo are indeed treacherous, which the ingenuous Admiral Yi was able to exploit in his famous turtle boat battle against the Japanese.

No one would have predicted the Sewol disaster on that hot afternoon when husband, daughter, and I first rumbled along country roads in Jindo, nauseous from some questionable sushi in Myung Dong the day before. (Note to self: Never eat raw fish in a hole-in-the-wall restaurant on a hot and humid afternoon.) Rumbling along that road, surrounded by high grasses tossing in the wind, I had no idea what I’d find.

Turns out, a remarkable natural phenomenon occurs in Jindo’s archipelago, a parting of the sea. Yes, it really happens. For one hour in the fourth lunar month, roughly May and again around July, the waters recede so that you can walk across a land bridge to a little island called Modo.

Archipelago off the island of Jindo

As is the case with many natural phenomena, this one comes with its own creation myth. I was delighted to discover the myth involves a streak of tigers, a family fleeing to safety on Modo, and a grandmother stranded and left to the mercy of the tigers. (Ditching Grandma is a pretty bad thing in a culture that venerates elders.) At any rate, Grandmother prays, and the Sea King conjures a rainbow path and parts the sea so she can run across the land bridge to her family. Here you can see a monument dedicated to the faithful grandmother.

Grandmother monument

What an unexpected gift was this find, so welcome after all the research that brought me to this point! I didn’t know it at the time, but this myth of the grandmother and the tigers, coupled with a true story of the war heroine NonGae, would figure into my novel Moonlight Dancer, would, in fact, provide the setting for the crisis that changed the life of my ghost NanJu.

So, a historic dance in a famous battle led me to a cliff, which overlooked a land bridge, which led to the discovery of a myth. Writers, particularly those invoking history, spend hours in research. Sometimes in the course of that research, if we’re lucky, a little serendipity comes our way. We’d be fools not to seize it.         


Thanks so much to Deb for this great post, which is true to the original (and often deviated from) purpose of this blog.  

The picture of the traditional Korean dance "Korean.Dance-03" originally by photoren - Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Rome's talking statues - the Abbot, the waterseller, and the baboon

Rome, 1572

It's threes all the way:  In Part 3 of this three-part post on the Talking Statues of Rome, we will talk about three statues -- Abate Luigi, Il Facchino, and Il Babuino.  For the background to this post, see the first post here and the second post here, or if you're in a hurry, make do with

The Short Recap: 

In Renaissance Rome, poetry was a weapon.  Free speech was not exactly a commonly-held value in those days – at least not by the people in charge – but the Roman people had plenty on their minds, and it tended to come out in the form of scurrilous, anonymous verse  

Around the beginning of the 16th century, these entertaining but not-very-polite poems started appearing on a statue.  In time, this first “talking statue” was joined by five others in various parts of town.  Together, they became known as the “Congregation of Wits.”  The messages were posted in the dead of night, and next morning people would cluster around to read them. 

For all those hundreds of years, the people in charge have wished they could silence the talking statues, but at least some of the statues are still finding ways to “speak,” and their barbs have been felt by leaders as recent as Berlusconi and beyond.

Abate Luigi

He's a tall, imposing, handsome kind of guy, and he used to be no less than an emperor of Rome (though since he was wearing a different head at the time, nobody seems to know which emperor). 

Now he's known as Abate Luigi (Abbot Luigi), and he hangs out near the Basilica di Sant'Andrea delle Valle.  Centuries ago, he used to get involved occasionally in three-way conversations with Pasquino and Marforio (see previous two posts).  

His plinth bears a plaque that says:
I was a citizen of ancient Rome.  Now I am known as Abbot Luigi.  Together with Marforio and Pasquino, I achieved eternal fame for civil satire.  I have endured insults, disgrace and interment, but here my new life is finally secure.
This habit of losing his head, though, was not a one-time occurrence.  Some say that the one he's wearing now is a concrete cast of a previous version.  One writer observes that even though the head keeps disappearing, "it finds its way back."  It, or another that will do just as well.

Il Facchino

Il Facchino ("the porter") should perhaps have been known instead as L'Aquaiolo (the water-seller), as the latter is the profession he represents.  He stands patiently, dribbling water from his cask into the fountain he tops, on Via Lata.

Il Facchino is the only one of the six talking statues who was created in the Renaissance, rather than in classical times.  It must have been before Pope Sixtus V (there's that name I love again!) started putting the ancient aqueducts back into service, in the days when water sellers roamed the streets bringing water to people's homes. 

Il Babuino

I've saved my favorite for last.  Il Babuino ("the baboon") guards his fountain on the street named for him:  Via del Babuino.  In the statues' heyday, this area was relatively unpoliced; thus, people could affix their most outrageous comments to the Baboon, safe from the authorities.  

Il Babuino is probably a statue of a silenus, companion to Dionysus, usually represented as an old man with the legs and ears of a horse.  I've seen him described as a "superb representation of a lecherous drunkard on the prowl."   The Roman people, however, were apparently less impressed; they nicknamed him "The Baboon," and it stuck.  

His turf is what used to be the Strangers' Quarter.  A large community of foreigners lived there, and they used him to lampoon members of the Roman community - perhaps even the ones who were posting their own pasquinades on the other five statues.  

In one of the recent crackdowns on the statues (Gianni Alemanno, recent mayor of Rome, was not a fan, for example), the powers-that-be hit upon the idea of painting the Baboon's backdrop with graffiti-proof paint, as you see it above, and here at a greater distance:

Il Babuino in his pristine environment
But it was not always thus.  Look at him here, in all his former glory:

Talking statues today

They're not the daily entertainment they used to be, back in the day, but once in a while a political comment still turns up on one of the statues.  Most often it seems to be Pasquino.  And when Alemanno cracked down on posting things directly on Pasquino, most of the posts that appeared on the board over to the side were digs at Alemanno for that new policy.

But whatever the Gang of Six was or wasn't doing in recent years, the spirit behind them lives on.  One night during the period when Berlusconi's lurid private life was under legal investigation and public scrutiny, a group calling itself Nessun Dorma ("None shall sleep" - also the name of an aria from Puccini's Turandot) posted messages overnight on no fewer than 150 statues throughout Rome, with messages such as "Italy is not a brothel," and "The body of Italy is not for sale."  

And that concludes my brief series on Rome's talking statues.  I intend to visit them all next spring, take my own photos, and see for myself if any of them still have anything to say.

Images in this post are in the public domain, with the exception of the photo of Il Babuino with graffiti, which is licensed to Jerzystrzelecki via the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license, Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Talking Statues 2: Marforio and Madama Lucrezia

Marforio, in the Musei Capitolini

In Part 2 of this three-part post on the Talking Statues of Rome, we will talk about Marforio and Madama Lucrezia.  For the background to this post, see the previous post here, or if you're in a hurry, make do with

The Short Recap: 

In Renaissance Rome, poetry was a weapon.  Free speech was not exactly a commonly-held value in those days – at least not by the people in charge – but the Roman people had plenty on their minds, and it tended to come out in the form of scurrilous, anonymous verse  

Around the beginning of the 16th century, these entertaining but not-very-polite poems started appearing on a statue.  In time, this first “talking statue” was joined by five others in various parts of town.  Together, they became known as the “Congregation of Wits.”  The messages were posted in the dead of night, and next morning people would cluster around to read them. 

For all those hundreds of years, the people in charge have wished they could silence the talking statues, but at least some of the statues are still finding ways to “speak,” and their barbs have been felt by leaders as recent as Berlusconi and beyond.



This elegant reclining statue, known to the Romans as Marforio, was the conversational partner of Pasquino, the first of the talking statues (discussed here in last week's post).  Somehow these two, although distant from one another, got into the habit of exchanging comments or asking each other questions.  In one famous exchange, Marforio plays straight man to Pasquino as they poke rhyming fun at Pope Clement XI (1700-21) and his obsession with revitalizing the city of Urbino:

Marforio:  Dimmi, che fai, Pasquino?

Pasquino:  Eh, guardo Roma, che non vada a Urbino.

(Tell me, Pasquino, what are you doing?  I'm watching Rome, so it doesn't get moved to Urbino.)

Marforio, a colossal statue of -- possibly -- a river god, has had quite a variety of homes in Rome.    Originally found near the Arch of Septimius Severus, he was already a landmark in Rome in the late 12th century, but once he started speaking his mind, he wasn't going to be allowed to stay there.  Too accessible, too public.

Marforio's original neighborhood
In 1588, Pope Sixtus V (I've always loved that name...) moved Marforio to Piazza San Marco.  Then in 1592, our loquacious hunk of marble moved on to decorate a fountain in the Piazza del Campidoglio, on a wall of the Basilica di Santa Maria in Ara Coeli, facing the Palazzo dei Conservatori.

But even then there was to be no rest for a talking statue.  Finally, in 1679, Marforio moved one last time, inside the Palazzo Nuovo di Campidoglio, where now he languishes, an inmate of the Musei Capitolini.  The excuse was preservation, but many believed it was to remove him from Rome's lively street conversation.

Marforio's name, by the way, may have derived from an inscription near where he was originally found, which said "mare in foro" (the sea in the forum).  It may also have derived from the Marioli (aka Marfuoli) family, who owned property in the area.  And at various times he's been thought to represent Oceanus, Jupiter, Neptune, and the Tiber. 

Madama Lucrezia

The only female member of this chatty Gang of Six is the redoubtable Madama Lucrezia,  the colossal bust of a statue of a priestess of Isis (or possibly of Isis herself, or, some say, of the Empress Faustina).  The lady is located in a corner near the Basilica di San Marco and the Palazzo Venezia.  

She emerged from the ground near a Temple of Isis, in the vicinity of the Chiesa di Santa Maria Sopra Minerva (near the Pantheon).  Dating from about the 3rd century BC, she fell into the hands of King Alfonso V of Naples, who then presented her to his mistress, Lucrezia d'Alagno, and it was for this lady that the statue was named.

Lucrezia (if it isn't Vittoria Colonna)
 After Alfonso's death in 1458, Lucrezia found it prudent to relocate to Rome, where she lived in the neighborhood where her namesake now dwells.  

Pie di Marmo
Some say this rather large foot, the famed Pie di Marmo (foot of marble), may once have supported Madama Lucrezia when she was whole, but no one is sure.

In the 18th century, May Day celebrations involved decking Madama Lucezia with necklaces of onions, garlic, carrots, and ribbons -- a perfect mix of festive and edible.  The poor people of the neighborhood then danced the Ballo dei Poveretti (dance of the poor people) around her.

 Madama Lucrezia took an unfortunate tumble in 1799 (perhaps that's what happened to her nose), when unrest among the people over Napoleon's invasion of Rome toppled her from her plinth.  To add insult to injury, she was promptly given a sign that translates, colloquially, to "I just can't stand it any more."  

But her most famous comment was a dig at Pope Urban VIII, of the Barberini family (pope from 1623-1644).  He had used the bronze tiles of the Pantheon for the canopy of St. Peter's, apparently not a popular choice in Rome, and this was the result:

Quod non fecerunt Barbari fecerunt Barberini.
 (What the barbarians did not do, the Barberini did.)

This couplet is sometimes ascribed to Pasquino, as if a female statue was not capable of coming up with such wit.  That reminds me of a little verse by Dorothy Parker, which goes like this:

Oscar Wilde
If, with the literate, I am
Impelled to try an epigram,
I never seek to take the credit;
We all assume that Oscar said it.

Next time, we'll finish up with the final three talking statues:  Abate Luigi, Il Facchino, and Il Babuino.

Images in this blog are in the public domain, thanks to the generosity of their creators or to expired copyright, except for the Pie di Marmo photo, which is licensed to Lalupa via the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license, Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

A Congregation of Wits


In Renaissance Rome, poetry was a weapon.  Free speech was not exactly a commonly-held value in those days – at least not by the people in charge – and it was not a very good idea to complain about politicians or popes in such a way that they knew you were the one saying those things about them.  But the Roman people had plenty on their minds, and it tended to come out in the form of scurrilous, anonymous verse.   In those days, a poetry “slam” really was a slam. 

And right around the beginning of the 16th century, these entertaining but not-very-polite poems started appearing on a statue.  In time, this first “talking statue” was joined by five others in various parts of town.  Together, they became known as the “Congregation of Wits.”  The messages were posted in the dead of night, and next morning people would cluster around to read them (or listen to them read aloud, in the years when not all were literate). 

Madama Lucrezia
For all those hundreds of years, the people in charge have wished they could silence the talking statues, but they have never completely succeeded in doing so.  Despite such 21st-century innovations as anti-graffiti paint, at least some of the statues are still finding ways to “speak,” and their barbs have been felt by leaders as recent as Berlusconi and beyond.

Il Facchino
In this post I'm going to talk a little about the history of that first statue, the redoubtable Pasquino.  In subsequent posts, I'll tell you a little about the other five:  Marforio, who used to hold conversations with Pasquino; Madama Lucrezia, the only female statue in the bunch; Il Facchino, the only one of the statues originating in the Renaissance rather than in classical times; Abbot Luigi, who has a habit of losing his head; and finally Il Babuino – The Baboon.

Abate Luigi
Il Babuino


Pasquino doesn't look like much, but he's got a good excuse.  He's been around since the 3rd century BC, though he spent a fair bit of that time underground.  He emerged during a spate of road construction in 1501, while the Parione district was being paved.  It is thought that the statue depicts Menelaus with the body of Patroclus. 

In the year in which the statue emerged, Cardinal Oliviero Carafa placed it in a small square close to Piazza Navona, a much-trafficked area.  Every year on the Feast of San Marco (April 25) the cardinal chaired a Latin poetry competition in which people posted their poems on the statue, which was often painted and dressed in different guises.  These poems were not scurrilous affairs; many were written by scholars and high-ranking Roman citizens.  (This was true even after the tone became less lofty.  Many a political point was scored by someone close to the powerful by posting an anonymous gibe at a rival or a political foe.)

And why was he called Pasquino?  Accounts differ, but one that recurs is that the original Pasquino was a tailor (or possibly a barber) in the neighborhood whose work often took him to the Vatican, where he picked up a lot of gossip and then proceeded to spread it around, adding his own acerbic comments and observations.  It's said that after the flesh-and-blood Pasquino died, his neighbors named the garrulous statue after him, in fond memory.  In fact, the little square where he resides is now called Piazza di Pasquino. 

Pasquino even has a type of literature named after him:  the pasquinade (Italian pasquinata), which is defined, naturally enough, as a satire or lampoon, originally one displayed or delivered publicly in a public place.

Pasquino's first known political post – the first that we remember, anyway – had to do with Pope Alexander VI, the Borgia pope, and was posted in August of 1501.  Pasquino may well have been the first to “utter” the famous bon mot referring to Giulia Farnese, the pope's mistress, as “the Bride of Christ.”  He also sported a venomous dig at Giulia's brother, a cardinal, effectively calling him a pimp and brother to a slut.

Pope Alexander VI
Giulia Farnese

 It was Pope Hadrian VI (pope for only a year and a half, from 1522-1523) who inadvertently turned one talking statue into a whole congregation.  He fervently wanted to get rid of the troublesome statue, but something prevented him.  Some say it was his early death, others that he feared ridicule if he did as he threatened and tossed poor Pasquino into the Tiber.  Some said Hadrian was convinced when someone told him that like a frog, the statue would only croak louder from the river.  The pope – whoever it was at that precise moment – settled for creating draconian laws forbidding the posting of anonymous screeds, and enforced this by posting a guard at all times.  It kept Pasquino under control (for a while), but it's hard to keep a good idea down, and soon more statues, elsewhere in the city, began to find their voices. 

(Poor old Hadrian really did have to put up with a lot, though, considering he was only pope for a year and a half.  During the conclave where he was elected as successor to Pope Leo X, Pasquino managed to satirize Leo, Hadrian, and the cardinals doing the electing.)

Pope Hadrian VI
But Pasquino wasn't done talking yet.  Some of his best known remarks are from later centuries, including a famous pun during the papacy of Alexander VIII (1689-1691).  Pope Alexander's name had originally been Pietro Ottoboni, a Venetian.  Pasquino's comment was this:

“Allegrezza!  Per un papa cattivo abbiamo Otto Boni!”

Or, “Rejoice!  For one bad pope we have Eight Good Ones [Otto Boni]!”

Maybe you had to be there.

His comment on the twenty-year reign of Clement XI (1700-1721) was this:  “Dacci un papa miglior, Spirito Santo, che ci ami, tema Dio ne' campi tanto.” (“Give us a better pope, Holy Spirit, who will love us, fear God, and not live so long.”

Pietro Aretino
Pasquino associated with some famous people.  The 16th century poet, playwright, and satirist Pietro Aretino made use of Pasquino to broadcast his message, and the eminent 17th century sculptor Gianlorenzo Bernini is said to have remarked that Pasquino was the finest sculpture he had ever seen – one suspects, given the statue's condition, that this judgment was made on other than aesthetic grounds.

But what of the others?  Ah, that's grist for another blog post.  Tune in again next time to learn about Marforio (the River God) and Madama Lucrezia (a priestess of Isis, but named after a king's mistress).

Images in this post are in the public domain (1) because of their age, in the case of reproductions of two-dimensional images; and (2) in the case of photos, thanks to the generosity of photographers who have removed restrictions from their work posted on Wikimedia Commons.