Monday, 26 November 2012

Chocolate - the Food for the Gods

[Women] think the most wonderful thing in the world is chocolate.  [Men Behaving Badly]

In Aztec culture the god Quetzalcoati came down from the firmament with a cocoa tree that he filched from the Heavens.

Aztec Chocolate God Quetzalcoati

The Aztecs ground the cocoa seeds and seasoned it with cereals and chilli peppers to produce the spicy drink they called chocolati.

Aztecs enjoying a cup of chocolati

Christopher Columbus, the last man to discover America, stumbled across it in 1502 when he robbed a native trader, and thought it was a kind of almond. 

“They seemed to hold these almonds at a great price. For when they were brought on board ship together with their goods, I observed that when one of these almost fell, they all stooped to pick it up, as if an eye had fallen”.

But he failed to realise the importance of his chance discovery, and it was left to Hernando Cortez in 1519 to establish the first plantation for the growing of cocoa beans.

Cortez concludes a chocolate deal with Aztec Emperor Montezuma

In 1528 Cortez introduced chocolate to the Spanish court of Charles V where they added sugar, vanilla and spices to it. The result was so seductive that they keep it a secret for the next one hundred years.

In 1615 Louis XIII of France is given his first taste of chocolate by his Spanish wife. Soon it is a craze throughout France and gains a reputation as an aphrodisiac. In the following century Casanova has a cup of chocolate before each sexual conquest.

The craze reached London around 1652. In June 1657 the Publick Advertiser announced:
In Bishopgate Street in Queen's Head Alley, at a Frenchman's house, is an excellent West India drink called chocolate, to be sold, where you may have it ready at any time, and also unmade at reasonable rates. 

By the beginning of the eighteenth century chocolate had arrived in Germany and Austria. In the 1750s it reached the United States. Chocolate factories were opened in Europe and in North and South America. In 1847 J.S. Fry & Sons began making solid chocolate.

'Anything is good if it's made of chocolate'. [Jo Brand]

Any commodity as precious as chocolate is bound to lead to conflict, and in 1973 open hostilities broke out among chocolate-producing countries of the EU. After much bickering over the inclusion of vegetable oil in chocolate by some manufacturers, peace was finally restored in 2003.

Save the Earth. It's the only planet with chocolate.

From its humble beginnings chocolate has now become an $83 billion dollar a year industry. [MarketsandMarkets] In the UK 91% of women and 87% of men admit to eating chocolate. [Mintel] In 2008 Germany topped the world league for the consumption per capita of chocolate. And on Valentine's Day in the U.S. 58 million pounds of chocolate candy are sold.

In the words of the Fab Four....
All You Need is Love Chocolate! 

Friday, 23 November 2012

Invasion of the Saucer People. Is it already too late?

World leaders at the G8 Summit 2012?
Or aliens from outer space?

The one thing we can be sure about conspiracy theorists who tell us that aliens from outer space have infiltrated positions of power on Earth in order to take over the planet, is that they are wrong.

For if there were space aliens in our midst we would know them at once by their appearance. The green skin, the three heads, the propensity to hop along the ground on their twelve pairs of legs, would all tend to convince us that they were not native and to the manor born. 

And even if they had evolved human forms, and had been able to adapt to the gravity of our planet, and to sustain themselves on our alien cuisine, and to master our languages, including the ones with the tricky prepositions, we still may get suspicious when one of them arrives for a job interview and announces: ‘My - name - is - Mr - Smith - querk! - and - I - have - an - appointment - with - Mr - Brown - querk! - Please - let - him - know - I - am - here - querk!’

And, yet, we could be wrong. When we see our leaders, our political masters, strut and pose at photo ops, or babble in that curious low-minded manner of theirs, to avoid answering a question perhaps, or because they think it makes them appear statesmanlike, then it is hard to believe that they are not visitors from a distant galaxy. 

Why shouldn’t we be convinced that they are representatives of the Saucer People, and that the wars and chaos and the discord that they spread are all part of a grand, extra-terrestrial plan to prepare the way for an invasion?

But, no, they aren’t from another planet. Though sometimes, when one of them says something monumentally dim, and we stare at him or her in disbelief, can we really be blamed for wondering, if only for one millisecond of a moment, that perhaps maybe they are?

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Yuletide, Saturnalia and the Feast of Fools

The Roman pagan festival of Saturnalia

Santa Claus is coming to town.
(so mind your bottoms, ladies!)

Lo! the Yuletide festivities are upon us once more, and already people will stocking up with the booze, the liver salts and the paper hats. But to what do we owe this our annual manifestation of silliness? Or put another way: From whence comes it thither? And for wherefore does it why?

The winter solstice celebrations, of which Christmas is a part, owe their origins to the ancient Roman tradition of Saturnalia, the festival of Saturn. 

During this period, which lasted seven days, all schools and law courts closed, prisoners went unpunished, and the population indulged in a frenzy of drinking and debauchery. Not very different from the office Christmas party, in fact.

Social boundaries of class and gender were also swept aside as all and sundry celebrated the coming of the New Year in a passionate sexual re-enactment of ancient fertility rites. Once again not very different to the office Christmas party.

The Feast of Fools (detail)
Pieter Bruegel
In England, in mediaeval times, the Christmas festivities were presided over by the Lord of Misrule. During the Lord's 'reign' there was open licence for days (and nights) of nameless wildness, and cross-dressing was an indispensable part of the frivolity.

Naturally it France they went further with their Feast of Fools, which took the form of open rebellion against the Catholic Church. In 1445, the Faculty of Theology in Paris wrote a letter to the bishops, stating: 
'Priests and clerks... sing wanton songs... run and leap through the church... and rouse the laughter of their fellows... with indecent gestures and verses scurrilous and unchaste'.

In England, the revelry continued unabated until the 1640s, when that old killjoy of an Oliver Cromwell, deciding they were unfit for a decent society, took the law into his own puritanical hands and banned them outright. 

Naturally the stout yeomen and yeowomen of Olde Englande didn't give up their pleasures that easily, and they just moved underground. But when they resurfaced again during the Restoration, they had become less wild and spontaneous, with the cross-dressing left to the professional performers, of which today's pantomime artists are the relic.

Monday, 19 November 2012

Death of the Man in the Iron Mask

On 19 November 1703, a prisoner in France’s notorious Bastille Prison, his identity hidden behind a mask of black velvet, suddenly died. But who was the mysterious masked man who occupied the third chamber of the prison’s Bretaudière Tower? The elder brother of Louis XIV? The illegitimate son of Oliver Cromwell? It is a mystery which has continued for over 300 years.

What is known about the celebrated prisoner, named in the burial register as M. de Marchiel, is the day and the circumstances of his death. According to his gaoler, Du Junca, on 19 November 1703, after attending Mass, he suddenly felt ill, and had to be helped back to his cell. There he quickly lost consciousness and died at about 10 o’clock that night. 

The prison doctor was summoned, but could find no cause for the prisoner’s terrible death. The following morning he was secretly buried in the cemetery of the Church of St. Paul. According to the gaoler, the funeral expenses amounted to forty pounds.

Du Junca also recorded in his diary that the prisoner arrived at the Bastille on 18 September 1698, accompanied by the governor, M. de Saint-Mars, and M. de Rosarges, a sergeant. At nine o’clock that night Du Junca and de Rosarges took him to his chamber in the Bretaudière Tower.

The arrival was further elaborated by Voltaire, himself a prisoner at the Bastille on two occasions, in 1717 and 1726. In his work The Century of Louis XIV, he wrote: 

“In the greatest possible secrecy, an unknown prisoner, slightly above average height, young and with the most beautiful and noble countenance, was taken to the Château of the île Sainte-Marguerite. Throughout the journey the prisoner wore a mask of which the chin straps had steel springs to allow the man to eat. They were under orders to kill him if he removed the mask. He remained on the île until, in 1690. a trusty officer called Saint-Mars …. having being made governor of the Bastille, took him .... to the Bastille [where] he was refused nothing that he asked for. His greatest cost was for the finest linen and for lace”. 

Voltaire added that he also played the guitar.

Over the course of the following fifty years Voltaire tried unsuccessfully to discover more about the masked man. In 1771 he decided that he was the elder brother of Louis XIV, the illicit fruits of a secret liaison between the king’s mother, Anne of Austria, and an unknown lover. Upon learning of the existence of this illegitimate elder brother, Louis had him interred and his identity hidden behind a velvet mask. 

But not everyone agrees with Voltaire. So unless Patricia Cornwell gets on the case, the identify of the Man in the Iron Mask could remain a mystery that will haunt us in perpetuity. 

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Artists of the Place Clichy, Paris

Place Clichy by Giovanni Baldini (1874)

The Place Clichy is one of the most animated squares in Paris, so it is not surprising that it has attracted many artists, such as Manet, Renoir, Signac, Pissarro, and most notably Pierre Bonnard.

The square also caught the attention of Italian-born Giovanni 'Master of Swish' Baldini (1842-1931), best known as a portrait artists, who subjects included Sarah Bernhardt.

More paintings of the Place Clichy through the eyes of painters here.

Friday, 16 November 2012

Popes' Palace, Avignon

Photo: Greudin

Avignon is located in the Rhone Valley of France. The main attraction of the town is the Popes’ Palace, which in 1309 became the business headquarters of the Papal Empire.

It came about as the result of a quarrel between two of the principal stakeholders - Philip the Fair, King of France, and Pope Bonifice VIII. 

Philip was unhappy that Rome was extorting vast sums of money from the Christian nations to finance its Crusades. It was creating an imbalance between the spiritual and the temporal powers of Europe, with the spiritual gaining the upper hand. So he determined to stop the drain from his dominions.

He began by prohibiting the export of gold and silver without a licence, and requiring the clergy to pay their taxes directly to him. Pope Boniface responded by excommunicating the king. 

Being excommunicated was the thing that Christian souls feared the most, so it was a useful weapon in the Vatican’s armoury. 

It was also good business, since persons who were excommunicated were compelled to purchase absolutions at exorbitant rates. 

It is estimated that in 1327 half of the Christian world was in a state of excommunication. 

But Philip was made of sterner stuff. He accused Boniface of being an atheist, and despatched several faithful servants to his palace in Anagni, where they seized and manhandled him so badly that he died. His successor, Pope Benedict XI, was poisoned.

Philip then decided that the papacy should cease being an Italian family business. So he concluded an agreement with the cardinals that a French archbishop, Raymond Bertrand de Got, should be promoted to the pontificate, where he took the name of Clement V. The business was then relocated to Avignon and the takeover was complete.

The palace is now a major tourist attraction visited by more than 650,000 tourists [Official website]. On view are the pope's private apartments, as well as the frescos by Italian artist Matteo Giovanetti. 

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Pope Leo X - open for business

Leo X was pope from 1513 to 1521. He was pope while syphilis, introduced to Europe by the companions of Columbus, was spreading across the continent with wonderful rapidity. He may have contracted the disease himself. 

But syphilis or not, he never let it interfere with his money making activities. He spent his own income and squandered the savings of his predecessors. He created hundreds of new offices and put them up for auction. In all this he was following the habits of his predecessors. As Bishop Alvaro Pelayo 200 years previously had said: “Whenever I entered the apartments of the Roman court clergy, I found them occupied in counting up gold-coin, which lay about the rooms in heaps”.

Seated behind the pope on his right in Raphael's portrait of 1518/19 is his cousin Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici, the future Pope Clement VII, who advocated an aggressive approach to the spreading the Word of God. And hovering on his left is Cardinal Luigi de’ Rossi, on whom he had bestowed (or sold) his cardinal's hat.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Theresa Garnett - a scolding for Mr. Churchill

"Take that, in the name of the insulted women of England!"

3 p.m. on Saturday 13th November 1909 and Winston Churchill is alighting from a railway carriage at Bristol station. Suddenly a mad woman comes rushing towards him brandishing a dog whip. “Take that, you brute!” she screams as she tries to beat Mr Churchill with the whip. 

The woman is Theresa Garnett, a 21-year old suffragette militant from a time in which feminists preferred physical confrontation to baring their boobs. Her assault on Mr Churchill was reported in The Times as follows:

'Mr Churchill … had just alighted from the carriage and had introduced his host, Sir William Howell Davies, M.P., and others to Mrs Churchill. Surrounding the party was a number of Bristol detectives in a semi-circle. Mr Churchill was recognized, and a crowd began to assemble. Suddenly a woman broke through the cordon of police, shouting frantically and flourishing a dog whip. She gripped Mr Churchill’s coat with one hand, and with the other which held the whip she aimed a blow at Mr Churchill. She failed to hit him with the whip. Her hand alone hit him in the face. Mr Churchill was not hurt at all. He saw the blow coming and grappled with the woman. For a moment there was a struggle. …. The woman was shouting frantically and the words “Take that, you brute, you brute!” could be heard. Mr Churchill wrenched the whip from his assailant’s hands, and in another moment two police officers placed her arms by her sides. She was promptly hurried outside the station, and as she disappeared, still shouting and struggling, Mr Churchill put the whip into his overcoat pocket'. [The Times 15 Nov., 1909]

Theresa is taken the police station for interrogation. She refuses to give her name but is recognized as a well-known activist with an impressive CV: 

April 1909 - chains herself in the House of Commons.

27 June 1909 -  imprisoned for throwing bricks at Whitehall. Goes on hunger strike and is accused of assaulting a prison officer.

August 1909 -  climbs onto the roof of Sun Hall in Liverpool. Is sent once more to prison and once more goes on hunger strike. 

13 November 1909 assaults Mr Churchill at Bristol Temple Meads railway station.

She is charged with disturbing the peace and given a term of one month’s imprisonment. Once again she goes on hunger strike and is force fed with a tube. In protest she sets her cell on fire and is placed in a punishment cell. 

The Times has no further mention of Theresa Garnett until Wednesday 17 March 1954 when it reports her being present at the funeral of Lady Pethick-Lawrence.

Monday, 12 November 2012

Guy Fawkes and J.M.W. Turner

Guy Fawkes, the only man to have entered Parliament with honest intentions, being greeted by the Official Reception Committee, 
5th November 1605.

Mr Fawkes's intention, of course, was to blow the building up, or to burn it down, he probably didn't care which.

He failed in this endeavour, though the edifice was finally consumed in flames in 1834, and witnessed by the artist J.M.W. Turner. 

The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, 16th October 1834
by J.M.W. Turner

J.M.W. produced so many pictures of the fire, nine in watercolour and two in oil on canvas, that we could almost think he enjoyed it!

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Angelica Kauffman (1741 - 1807)

Angelica Kauffman self-portrait 1785

Swiss-born Angelica Kauffman was an artist child prodigy. As a teenager she was painting portraits of the European nobility. She spoke Italian, German, French and English. She played musical stringed instruments and was an accomplished opera singer. In mid-1760s London she was the darling of the portraitists counting royalty among her clients. Her alluring beauty had men throwing themselves at her feet.   But she was duped into marrying a confidence trickster posing as a count. She got out of the marriage only when the husband died in 1780. She married a second husband in 1781 and spent the last 25 years of her life in Rome, where she died on 5 November 1807.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Louis VIII - the French king who refused doctor's orders

“Your Majesty is dying. The only remedy for you is to deflower this young virgin”. 

Such was the proposition made to Louis VIII of France on 8 November 1226 as he lay on his death bed. But the king replied that he was in love with his wife, Blanche de Castille, whom he had married when both were twelve years old, and must therefore refuse his physician’s thoughtful advice.

Louis had the cognomen ‘the Lion’, and had fallen sick on his way back to Paris from the Crusades in the south of France. He was struck down with a fever and debilitating diarrhoea and was probably suffering for dysentery, a common illness of soldiers at the time, though some think he may have been poisoned. On 3 November he took to his bed and became delirious. His doctors consulted and diagnosed a severe case of sexual abstinence due to several months of campaigning, and that the remedy was a night of passion with a young virgin. As reported by Guillaume de Puylaurens: 

‘…. coming back from the Crusades in Albigeois the king fell ill and they said he could be cured if he saw a woman …. His faithful companion Archambaud de Bourbon chose a beautiful young girl and had her placed in his bed while he was sleeping. Upon waking the king asked the girl what she was doing in his bed. She replied that she was there to help cure him of his sickness. He thanked her for her kindness and said that he must refuse the remedy as he did not wish to commit a mortal sin.’

He died several days later - 8 November 1226, at the age of 39.

No-one at the time blamed Louis’s fidelity as the cause of his death. Instead, rumour-mongers pointed the finger at Thibaud de Champagne, whom they accused of poisoning the king because of his mad passion for Blanche. But Thibaud had a cast iron alibi, as had left the royal army several months before the king’s death. 

Louis was succeeded by his twelve-year old son, Louis IX, who was to become known as Saint Louis, and Blanche assumed the title of Regent.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Place Masséna, Nice

Place Masséna c. 1905

Nice's beautiful Place Masséna owes its name to Marshall André Masséna, a lieutenant in Bonaparte's Italian Army. He saw victory in Zurich in 1799, distinguished himself at the siege of Genoa in 1800, defeated the Austrians at the Battle of Caldiero in 1805, and was conqueror of the Kingdom of Naples in 1806. In 1804 he was made Marshall of the Empire, in 1808 he became Duke of Rivoli, and in 1809 Prince of Essling. But he fell from grace after reverses in Portugal in 1810. More interested in pleasure than in patriotism, he aged prematurely and died in 1817.

Carnival on Place Masséna c. 1900

An important date for Nice, and for the Place Masséna is 26 May 1832 as this is the day that the king Charles-Albert established an institution with the task of creating an urban plan which would determine the shape of the modern city. This led in 1844 to the creation of the Place Masséna with Boulevard Barthélemy (later Avenue de la Victoire, now Avenue Jean Médecin) to the north. 

And in 1928, Jean Médecin, an energetic and stubborn man, was elected mayor of Nice, and oversaw the enlargement of the square to what it is today - a vibrant crossroads in the heart of la belle ville de Nice.

Strollers on Place Masséna today

The History of England from 1625 - 1689

Portrait of Charles I
by Anthony van Dyck
In 1625 James I of England is succeeded by his son Charles I. If the Scottish James did not understand the English, his less intelligent son understands neither the English nor the Scots. Moreover, he has Catholic sympathies, marries a Catholic princess, and favours the High Church party of William Laud. This puts him into conflict with an increasingly Puritan Parliament. The king argues with Parliament, and for eleven years from 1629-40 dispenses with Parliament altogether. Laud persecutes the Puritans and many seek refuge in New England where they found Massachusetts and Connecticut. When Charles tries to impose the Laudian Church on Presbyterian Scotland the Scots rebel and occupy parts of northern England. Parliament meanwhile passes a series of Acts to limit the power of the crown and make it financially dependent on Parliament. Then Parliament introduces the Militia Bill transferring the control of the military to Parliament. Charles tries to arrest leading members of the House, but they escape and train-bands rise in support. 
Charles is put on trial
A week later the king flees his palace and the Civil War begins. At first things go the King’s way. Then Parliament makes a covenant with the Scots, and in 1644 a combination of Scots, Roundheads and Cromwell’s new cavalry defeat the Royalists at Marston Moor. Parliament then enlists a 20,000 force New Model Army commanded by Sir Thomas Fairfax and Cromwell, and in 1645 it routs the Royalists at Naseby and Langport. Charles surrenders to the Scots and is handed over to Parliament. The king tries to sow dissension among his enemies, but is seized by Cromwell, and a Second Civil War begins pitting Cromwell against an unlikely alliance of English Presbyterians, Scots and Royalists. Cromwell quickly defeats his opponents and purges Parliament of its Presbyterians, leaving only a Rump of sixty Independents. Charles is tried for treason and executed on 30 January 1649. But the regicide is a political blunder. Parts of the army mutiny, there is foreign hostility, Ireland rebels, and the Scots proclaim Charles II as their king. Cromwell responds with ruthless efficiency, shooting mutineers, crushing the Irish, and routing the Scots. He builds a naval fleet to secure the colonies and makes 
Charles II in Coronation robes
by John Michael Wright
England mistress of the seas. Except for Catholics and High Churchmen, there is greater religious freedom, but Cromwell argues with the Rump and military dictatorship follows. Cromwell dies in 1658 and England falls into the hands of rival generals. But General Monk marches from Scotland and occupies London, and a newly declared free Parliament restores the monarchy. In 1660 Charles II returns from his long exile, putting an end to the Puritan Republic, in which theatres and other popular entertainments were banned, but which allowed free expression of thought without fear of persecution by Church or state, a privilege enjoyed to this day. Charles is a fun-loving, unscrupulous libertine. But his Catholic sympathies put him in conflict with Parliament, which also wants to retain its control of taxation. But the first decade of Charles’s rule is 
marked by disasters. In 1665 the ‘grievous Visitation’ known as the Great Plague decimates the population of London. In 1666 the Great Fire of London destroys the capital, including the Gothic cathedral of St. Paul’s. And in 1667 the Dutch sail up the Thames in the final act of the Anglo-Dutch naval war which ends in an English defeat. Also in the 1660s Admiralty Clerk of the Acts Samuel Pepys begins writing his famous Diary. In 1672 another Dutch war begins, and in the same year Charles issues a Declaration of Indulgence granting tolerance to all including Catholics. This is too much Parliament, particularly as the heir to throne is Charles’s brother James, the Duke of York, and a Catholic. The king is forced into a U-turn, and for the first ever a monarch has to accept a minister from Parliament, the Earl of Danby, a staunch Anglican who had arranged the marriage between the Duke of York’s Protestant daughter Mary, to William of Orange, Charles’s nephew. In 1678 the informer Titus Oates swears to have uncovered a Popish plot to murder the king and put the Catholic Duke of York on the throne. Innocent Catholics lose their lives as a result of Oates’s 
Period playing card
depicting the execution of
the Duke of Monmouth
treachery. Parliament passes the Habeas Corpus Act, and a Bill to prevent James’s succession. But the House of Lords rejects the Bill and the king dissolves Parliament. Civil war looms once more. Meanwhile the age of experimental science has begun. Christopher Wren is Professor of Astronomy at Oxford, and Isaac Newton Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge. Then in 1685 Charles dies and his brother is crowed James II. A forlorn rebellion led by the Duke of Monmouth is ended at Sedgemoor, the site of the last battle ever to be fought in England. The new king permits Catholics into the army and introduces a Declaration of Indulgence that gives toleration to Catholics. Then James’s Catholic wife gives birth to a son thus assuring a Catholic succession. Disenchanted Whigs and Tories ask William of Orange to save England. William lands at Brixham in November 1688 and James is forced to flee to France. William is crowned king in 1689 and England once more has a Protestant monarch. 

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Alexander the Great, King Porus of India, and the Battle of the Hydaspes

Battle of Alexander and Porus
by Louis Watteau de Lille
 'Porus, gathering forty beasts around him, drove at the enemy with the whole mass of his elephants and inflicted grievous losses. Moreover, he himself was far superior to his companions in arms and in physical strength ... so that he hurled his javelin with the strength of a catapult.' Diodorus Siculus, 1st Century BC.

In 326 BC Alexander marched his army against the Indian King Porus, electing to cross the Hydaspes River during the summer monsoon. He succeeded in crossing with 6,000 infantry and 5,000 horsemen. Facing him were 300 chariots and 200 war elephants deployed by Porus as his front line. But the chariots proved useless in the sodden ground of the battlefield, and Porus, wounded several times, was forced to surrender. 

'Losses in the Indian infantry amounted to 20,000, or very nearly, the cavalry lost around 3,000, and all the chariots were destroyed. Porus's two sons were killed. So were the commanders of the elephant and chariot regments...'Arrian Campaign of Alexander, 1st Century BC.

Triumph of Alexander the Great
by Gustave Moreau

'The little Indian valley where his immense and magnificent throne was established contained all of India, the temples with their magnificent roofs, the glaring idols, the sacred lakes, the underground caves full of mysteries and terror.' [Gustave Moreau]

Friday, 2 November 2012

Pope Alexander VI and those wild Vatican nights

A Glass of Wine with Caesar Borgia by John Collier (1893)
Lucrezia Borgia with father Rodrigo (Pope Alexander VI)
and brother Cesare.

On the night of 31 October 1501, Pope Alexander VI organised a wild party to celebrate the forthcoming marriage of his daughter Lucrezia Borgia to Alfonso d'Este, the future Duke of Ferrara. Among the guests is Vatican chaplain Johann Burchard, who records the night's events in his diary.

It begins with a banquet of food and drink, then Alexander gives the signal for 50 dancers to enter and perform lascivious, pagan dances for the titillation of the guests. The men hurl obscenities and the dancers start to remove their clothes. Servants throw chestnuts into the air, and the dancers get down on all-fours to gather them up.

The Supreme Pontiff then calls for a virility contest with prizes for those guests that display the most ardour among the naked courtesans. The laymen guests remove their trousers, the priests remove their cassocks, and the courtesan-dancers open their legs. Later, exhausted and ecstatic, the winners collect their prizes.

Some may have found the proceedings to be undignified and in bad taste, but not Alexander. From his early years in Spain as Rodrigo Borgia he was always a ladies' man, and he saw no reason to change when, in 1456, at the age of 25, he was called to Rome by his uncle Pope Callixtus III. Though not yet ordained a priest, he was made Vice Chancellor of the Church, essentially number two at the Vatican. And even when made a priest in 1458, he didn't forego the ladies. Because as well as providing pleasure they also provided children, and for an ambitious cardinal children were good for business, as they enabled him to form lucrative liaisons with noble Italian families, a necessary step on the promotion ladder to the papacy.

Rodrigo became pope in 1501 and took the name Alexander VI. One of his first acts as pope was to issue a bull of excommunication against printers who should publish 'pernicious doctrines' about the Church, or put another way, who should dare to engage in intellectual discussion on ecclesiastic matters. But he also decided that it would no longer be prudent for him to sire children. And if one of his mistresses should happen to give birth, then he wouldn't recognise the child as his own. A pontifical nicety that his predecessor Innocent VIII didn't concern himself with, openly recognising two children among the dozen that he probably had. Alexander chose instead to consolidate his power by marrying his daughter Lucrezia to a man - several men, in fact! - of noble birth. 

The first was Giovanni Sforza, but Alexander had the marriage annulled on the grounds of Giovanni's 'impotence'. Giovanni responded by accusing Lucrezia of parental and fraternal incest, a rumour which has stuck to the Borgias to this day.

After the Banquet of Chestnuts, as the party of 31 October 1501 came to be known, Lucrezia married Alfonso d'Este, and they had many children, though it did not constrain Lucrezia from entertaining several lovers. As for her father the pope, he died in 1503, possibly of malaria or the plague, and there is also the suggestion that he was accidentally poisoned by his son Cesare. 

Thursday, 1 November 2012


"London, did ye say? I'll give
thee London!"
What wouldn’t we give to have been a fly on the wall at some of the dramatic (and melodramatic) moments in history. The day, for instance, that Shakespeare announced to his wife Anne that he was quitting the family home and shooting off to London to seek his fame and fortune. Would the Prince of Words have found the phrases necessary to mollify any discontent on the part of his old wench? Or would he have been too busy dodging the items of crockery that said wench was hurling his way?

"Adieu, my brave comrades,
and zee best of luck!"
The fly has a compound eye made up of several thousand lens, so very little would have escaped its beady attention. Consider the dramatic moment outside Moscow in 1812, when Napoleon made the commander's heroic decision to abandon his retreating army and scoot off to the arms of Maria Walewska, his Polish mistress in Warsaw. Did he, perhaps, address his army in the following terms: “My loyal troops and comrades in arms. As you know, zee Russian army iz approaching, and zay are not in a good mood. So I ‘ope you do not mind if I leave you to it while I go to Varsaw for a bit of you know what. So I'll just bugger off, if zat iz all right viz you?” Did he then beat a hasty retreat amid cries of “Vas-tu faire foutre!”, “Saligaud de merde!” and other Gallic expletives? 

"I got the sucker! It's right
there. There it is!"
Of course it's impossible that the humble fly could never become a chronicler of human history. But nor would it ever want to be. All that a fly wants is the same that all of nature wants, and probably most human beings, too, and that's to be left alone. So pity that poor fly that dared that time to wander into a TV studio during an interview with a certain President of the United States of America, and then proceed to put on a free display of aerial acrobatics, including the trick - how does it do it??? - of landing upside down on the ceiling, only to end its days a dead trophy on the studio floor.

Flies, in fact, are our friends. They feed on decaying material thus speeding up the nutrient cycle and creating richer soil for our food to grow in. Without their help we would be up to our necks in excrement. They also provide an essential food supply to many birds, without which their numbers would dwindle and a part of nature with it. So our enjoyment of the world around us would be seriously lessened were it not for flies.