Saturday, 18 February 2012

The Shakespeare Death Mask and the Flower Portrait

The Sculptor of the Stratford Bust before the Finished Work(1857) by Henry Wallis in which Ben Jonson shows Shakespeare's death mask to the sculptor. Through the window is seen the River Avon and Holy Trinity Church.

Shakespeare died on his fifty second birthday 26 April 1616. The exact cause and circumstances of his death are unknown, unless, that is, you accept the evidence of Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel, professor of English literature at Mainz University in Germany, who believes that a Plaster of Paris cast of a face, which at the time of her investigation was residing in a museum in Darmstadt (Germany), is, in fact, the death mask of William Shakespeare, and the key to the poet's death. 

Nothing is known of the whereabouts of the mask until 1775 when a German nobleman purchased it in London. In 1842 it was auctioned as part of the nobleman's possessions, and in 1860, Ludwig Becker***, a court painter in Darmstadt, found it in a junk shop and sold it to the local municipality.

Dr. Hammerschmidt-Hummel asked the Bundeskriminalamt, the criminal investigation department of the German police, to compare the mask with the two authentic portraits of Shakespeare: the copperplate engraving of Martin Droeshout used in the First Folio of 1623, and the limestone bust in Holy Trinity Church in Stratford. After forensic examination, the scientists concluded that they found a "perfect" match, with many points of "facial feature agreement". 

They also used a technique which slices in half video images of faces and then uses a computer program to analyse them, and once again good matches were found.

Dr. Hammerschmidt-Hummel also noticed a swelling above the left eye on the mask and the two portraits, and asked Walter Lerche, head of the Horst-Schmidt eye clinic in Wiesbaden, to investigate. He diagnosed Mikulicz syndrome, a potentially fatal lymphoma of the tear glands, suggesting death by eye cancer.

A report on Dr. Hammerschmidt-Hummel's findings first appeared in the internationally renowned British publication New Scientist [19 October 1995].

The authenticity of the death mask has not met with the universal approval of Shakespeare academics, among them Professor Stanley Wells, Honorary President and a Life Trustee of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford upon Avon, who said: "To my mind it might just as well be a stray drop of plaster".

Dr. Hammerschmidt-Hummel has also provoked controversy over the Flower Portrait of Shakespeare, which she claims is an authentic likeness produced during the dramatist's lifetime. This directly conflicts with an investigation carried out by the National Portrait Gallery (London) which concluded that the portrait was a fake dating back to the early 19th century. They examined the portrait using a combination of x-rays, ultraviolet, paint sampling and microphotography, and found, among other things, that paint dating from around 1814 was embedded in the portrait. Dr. Hammerschmidt-Hummel countered by claiming that the picture examined by the National Portrait Gallery was not the original but a copy. She cited 'expert' evidence of her own to prove that the 'original' portrait, which allegedly has been missing since about 1999, is genuine.

The death mask is now part of the William Ramsay Henderson Collection at the University of Edinburgh and is due to have a permanent home in the University's Anatomy Museum.

*** In 1849 Ludwig Becker took a miniature painting of a corpse crowned with a laurel wreath to the British Museum in the belief that it depicted Shakespeare. However, the miniature appeared to have been painted in 1637, which is the year that Ben Jonson died, and was therefore more likely to be him than Shakespeare, who died in 1616. Mr Becker suggested that the painting was probably a copy which had been made in 1637. When he later produced the cast which he claimed was Shakespeare's death mask it surprisingly had the date 1616 on it, which for many suggested that the date had been added to bolster its claim to authenticity.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Romulus and the Sabine Women

The Intervention of the Sabine Women (1799) by Jacques-Louis David

Romulus, and his twin brother Remus, are the traditional, mythological founders of Rome. But having decided to build their new city, they fell into brotherly dispute over where to locate it.
"I want it here!" said Romulus.
"Well I want it here!" said Remus.
Unable to agree they decided to take the matter to arbitration by consulting an augur. The augur duly deliberated by studying the flight of birds - how else? - and made his decision. But the twins still argued, the dispute only being settled with Romulus resorting to violence and killing Remus, then building the city where he wanted it and naming it after himself.

The city attracted newcomers and quickly began to grow. But there was a problem - most of the newcomers were men. Romulus quickly spotted that his could be a severe handicap to producing a new generation to succeed the older generation when they passed away. So he entered into negotiations with neighbouring tribes, including the Sabines, with the aim of getting his hands on their womenfolk. Not surprisingly the men refused, so Romulus once more opted for violence... (It had worked once so it could work again. And who says we never learn the lessons of history?) ...and came up with a plan to abduct the women instead.

He concocted a festival and invited the neighbours round: the Caeninenses, the Crustumini, the Antemnates, and, of course, the Sabines. Then, at a given moment, Romulus signalled each Roman to grab a woman, and to fight off any resistance from the men. It was a simple strategy, but a good one - and it worked! 

Of course the neighbours were just a little peeved, and the king of Caenina even marched an army into Roman territory. But Romulus saw them off, killing their king in the process. The Sabine women were then persuaded to marry their Roman abductors. And the rest, as they say, is legend.

All the above supposedly took place around 750 BC (Rome was traditionally founded on 21 April 752 BC), and about 2,000 years later it became a popular story and soon found its way into artistic interpretations, at first on marriage chests, known as cassoni, then later in sculpture and paintings.

Among the artists attracted by the episode was Pietro da Cortona with his painting The Rape of the Sabine Women (1627-1629); Nicholas Poussin with two interpretations The Abduction of the Sabine Women (1634-1635) and The Rape of the Sabine Women (1637-1638); and Jacques-Louis David with his canvas The Intervention of the Sabine Women (1799), also known as The Sabine Women Enforcing Peace by Running Between the Combatants. This latter was to inspire Picasso to take up the theme in the 20th Century with several of his inimitable interpretations.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

La Belle Époque - Vive la bagatelle !

There had never been a time like it. At least, that's what they said.  A time in which the well-to-do threw off the mundane constraints of work and social life and gave themselves over to leisure and pleasure and playful activities.

In was a time in which sports flourished. The first modern Olympics took place in Athens in 1896. Technical advances in smaller and lighter engines allowed the development of motor cycles and automobiles and allowed motor sports to develop, which in turn gave rise to the futurist movement. The Tour de France began its first ever race on 19 July 1903. Bicycles, indeed, became a fashion, and with it an attendant new fashion costume. The same was true with golf, horse riding, and, of course, swimwear. And photography, already firmly established, led to moving images and to the first picture houses.

Alphone Mucha poster
Historically, it covers the period from the late 19th century to the outbreak of hostilities in 1914 leading to the Great War for the Civilization of the World, that 'vast universal mockery', as Louis-Ferdinand Céline called it. It was particularly present in the European capitals where posters  on the new advertising pillars known as Morris Columns announced the latest spectacles in the theatres, the cinemas, the ballrooms, the art galleries and studios. Among the artists who produced the posters were Toulouse Lautrec and Czech-born Alphonse Mucha, and among the creatures on those posters was Sarah Bernhardt, named 'the Divine Sarah' by Oscar Wilde, and the most renowned actress of the Beautiful Age.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

King Bladud of Bath - Ancient Britain's pioneer aeronaut

From the second edition of Portraits des Roys d'Angleterre
engraved by Leonard Gaultier

Bladud was a descendant of Brute the Trojan and the father of King Lear, and is the traditional founder of the English city of Bath and its hot medicinal springs. He was also the first recorded casualty of an aeronautical accident while flying over Troja Nova (New Troy) or Trinavantum, now known as London.

He was the tenth ruler of Britain and the ninth king, the third ruler being Gwendoline, the widow of Locrine, one of the three sons of Brute. Bladud ascended to the throne in 863 B.C.,(1) succeeding his father Rudhudibras or Rhun Paladr-fras. 

Effigy of King Bladud
overlooking the King's Bath, Bath
The circumstances of Bladud succeeding to the throne are clouded by the years. According to one story, he was sent to Athens by his father to be instructed in philosophy, and, after his father's death, returned home with four philosophers and founded a university at Stamford in the county of Lincolnshire. But another story contends that he spent 11 years in Athens and returned a leper and was placed in confinement. He escaped in disguise and made his way to his father's court and offered his services for any mean employment available. He was employed to take care of the pigs in Swainswick, a small village near the place where Bath was later located. He noticed that some of the pigs would wallow in the mud even in the depths of winter, and he wondered why. So he followed them and discovered that the mud was warm, and noticed too that the pigs that wallowed in the mud did not have eruptions on their skin like the other pigs. So he tried it himself, and cured himself of his leprosy. He then returned to the court, declared who he was, and was crowed king of Britain on the death of his father.

King Bladud, as he now was, was a practitioner of necromancy or magic, and had it taught throughout his kingdom. He founded a temple in Bath dedicated to Minerva, where he placed inextinguishable fires. He performed wondrous and spectacular tricks, and created a flying machine made from the wings of birds. But it was while he was testing his invention, by attempting to fly at New Troy, that his magic powers momentarily failed him, and he fell on the temple of Apollo, which had been founded by his ancestor Brute, and was dashed to pieces, after reigning 20 years. He was buried at New Troy and succeeded by his son, King Lear, who, like his father, had a life prone to misfortune.

(1) In 1749 the architect John Wood fixed the date of Bladud about 500 B.C., a date more recent than various chronicles such as Geoffrey of Monmouth's Chronicle of History (1508); Chronicles of England by John de Wavrin, Lord of Forestel (written 1445-1471 and in print 1864); A Manuscript Chronicle from the Creation to Edward IV (c.1480).

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Shakespeare's London: The Liberty of the Clink and Paris Garden

In the time of Shakespeare, pleasure-seeking Londoners headed south across the river to Southwark in the county of Surrey, an entertainment area that offered animal bating, stews (brothels) and plays. Shakespeare's own company, the Lord Chamberlain's Men, relocated there in 1599, rebuilding its theatre in the area known as the Liberty of the Clink. By 1600, Shakespeare, too, had taken up residence in the borough.

Connecting London to Southwark was the one bridge, called, appropriately, London Bridge. It was nearly 350 yards long, with shops and stalls and houses of great splendour, and had a passage about twelve feet wide for the traffic of animals, carts and people to move along. At the London end was a water wheel which pumped river water through lead pipes to houses in the City. Over the gates at either end of the bridge the severed heads of traitors disloyal to the crown were displayed, a grisly warning to any like-minded sympathisers.

About half the bridge's breadth was composed of massive piers, which caused the tide to bank up, and for the water to rush in a torrential flow through the arches. Navigating a small boat through the arches, known as 'shooting the bridge', was a very risky manoeuvre, and therefore a challenging attraction for gallants eager to impress.

A contemporary commentator, Fynes Moryson, rated the bridge 'worthily to be numbered among the miracles of the world'. But for the watermen of the Thames, whose livelihood was to ferry people across the river, it was, in the words of Thomas Overbury, 'the most terrible eyesore'. The watermen made up about one third of the population of the liberty of the Clink, and ferrying Londoners to their chosen entertainment was a major part of their income.

The liberty got its name from the Clink prison, one of five in the borough, the others being the Compter (or Counter, in which debtors were jailed), the King's Bench, the Marshalsea, and the White Lion, an inn which had been converted to use as a prison. High levels of crime kept Southwark's sixteen constables fully occupied, though one hopes they proved more effective than Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing. Having crossed the bridge, the entertainments lay westwards, on the other side of Long Southwark, now called Borough High Street.

Aernout van Buchel's copy of a
drawing of the Swan playhouse
by his friend Johannes de Witt
There were three open-air-amphitheatre playhouses to choose from - the Rose, the Swan and the Globe. The Rose, owned by theatre entrepreneur Philip Henslowe in partnership with one John Cholmley, was the first to be built (1587), and also the smallest. The next built was the Swan (1595), and was clearly intended by its owner Francis Langley as direct competition with the Rose. A contemporary copy of a drawing of the theatre has survived. The Globe was the last to be erected (1599). Later, in 1614, the first combined playhouse and animal bating ring, named the Hope, was opened by Philip Henslowe, by then joint Keeper of the King's Bears with Edward Alleyn, the famous actor.

One further attraction was the notorious Paris Garden, it's name possibly a corruption of Parish Garden. Formerly a manor house and enclosed by a moat, its trees, bushes and fish ponds belied its trade as an exclusive brothel, where good food, drink and whores hand-picked by its lease holder, Dame Britannica Holland, were available at very high prices. Paris Garden had a further attraction as an animal bating arena.

Around c. 1602-1604 Shakespeare moved back across the river to his most documented lodging in Silver Street in Cripplegate Ward, near the parish church of St. Olave.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Albrecht Altdorfer (c. 1480 - 1538) and the Battle of Alexander at Issus

The Battle of Alexander at Issus (1529) by Albrecht Altdorfer

German born Albrecht Altdorfer lived most (if not all) of his life in Regenberg (Germany), where he served as civic engineer. His election to the town council in 1519 and to the inner council inn 1526 testifies to his high standing in the town. But he is remembered today as one of the most talented painters in the history of German art.

One of Altdorfer's best known works is his epic portrayal of Alexander the Great's victory against the Persian king Darius III at the great battle in Cilicia, near the town of Issus,  on 5 November 333 BC. He depicts the battle from an elevated viewpoint, the battlefield in the foreground with the vast opposing armies, and in the background the eastern Mediterranean with the island of Cyprus in the centre, Egypt and the Nile to the right, and the Gulf of Persia to the left. Alexander is seen on Bucephalus, the wild stallion that only he had been able to master, and which faithfully carried him throughout his Asia campaign, before dying of old age. 

As for the battle, Darius had made a disastrous choice of battlefield, unable to use his cavalry in the narrow plain, and the superior manoeuvrability of Alexander's force proved decisive. 

Alexander continued his conquest to the banks of the Hyphasis in India. There, after covering more than 12,500 miles, several of his generals expressed their weariness of the years of campaigning, and their desire to return to their wives and children in Greece. The next day, and with a heavy heart, Alexander reluctantly yielded to their wishes, and is said to have wept that there were no more worlds for him conquer.