Thursday, 28 March 2013

Ferdinand Magellan - the first man to circumnavigate the globe. Or was he?

Ferdinand Magellan by an unknown artist.

On the twenty-eighth day of the month of March in the year of the world 1521, the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan arrives at the undiscovered island of Cebu after 19 gruelling months of voyaging.

Two long boats, which an Italian sailor onboard, Antonio Pigafetta, identifies as ballanghai, approach his ship and Magellan sends for his slave Enrique, bought in Malacca in 1511 to act as interpreter. 

In the larger of the ballanghai is the island‘s king Humadon. Magellan calls out to him: “If you’re thinking of opening a bank account in Cyprus - don’t!” Enrique translates, and the king replies: “No problem!”

Statue of Enrique of Malacca
According to Magellan, Enrique came from Malacca, though Pigafetta claimed he was born in Sumatra. Magellan took his slave west with him back to Portugal. Seven years later Enrique accompanied his master on his farewell world tour. So when Enrique addressed King Humadon in his own language, had he already become the first person to circumnavigate the planet? 

The Victoria - the sole survivor of Magellan's
circumnavigation of the world.

Magellan had set out on his voyage on 20 September 1519. He commanded a flotilla of 5 vessels and 237 men. After several months on the high seas he rounded the southern tip of South America and entered the vast Pacific Ocean. Already one vessel had been lost to the depths, and another had turned back, as the captain wasn’t sure if he’d turned the kitchen light off.

Then it all goes pear shaped. Three and half long and tedious months roll by and not a sight of land anywhere! Scurvy begins to decimate the crews. Pigafetta writes on his blog: “We eat only two powdery biscuits, full of worms and stinking of rats’ piss, and drink infected yellow water”. 

Finally they spy land! Hurrah! They replenish their supplies, and 10 days later reach the waters of the Philippines. The regulation canoes come out to greet them. But when Enrique interprets his master’s words no one understands what he's saying. "Then fuck you!" said Magellan, and pushes on to the island of Cebu, where Enrique finally gets his message across.

So had Enrique circumnavigated the globe when he arrived at the island of Cebu? For literal minded historians he had not. And there is also the question of what happened to him afterwards.

History says that he was left on Cebu. But was he?

Could he have continued the voyage back to Portugal?  

Could he have been one of the surviving 18 sailors out of the 237 that set off? 

Was he the first person to circumnavigate the globe?

Should the history books be rewritten? 

Is there a conspiracy by the European Union to conceal the truth?

When will David Beckham finally hang up his soccer boots?

Maybe on day we shall know the answers to these important questions...

Saturday, 23 March 2013

Speed reading Shakespeare

Polonius: What do you read, my lord?
Hamlet: Words, words, words.

Ever wanted to read the Complete Works of Shakespeare but have never just had the time? Then why not try one of the many speed reading courses that are available?

Some claim they are able to boost the average reading speed of 250 words per minute to a phenomenal 1,000 works per minute, or even higher. The world champion, Anne Jones, has been clocked at an incredible 4,700 words per minute! [Wikipedia].

But maybe you prefer to see the plays on the stage, the medium for which they were written, perhaps performed by the RSC - The Royal Shakespeare Company. But this would mean spending over 100 hours in cramped theatre seats, unable to stretch your legs, not daring to cough, and - horror of horrors! - not even allowed to turn on your mobile phone! And you'd still have all that nasty archaic language to cope with!

But mercifully help is at hand in the shape of the other RSC - The Reduced Shakespeare Company, who romp through the entire opus of 37 plays in just 97 minutes - an average of less than three minutes per play!

And from Cliff Notes Films there's a cartoon version of Hamlet which they manage to zip through in an amazing seven minutes! Their technique, as their website explains, is to compress Shakespeare's text into "concise, tasty mind nuggets". Here's an example from their take on Romeo and Juliet:


JULIET: If that thy bent of love be honourable,
Thy purpose marriage, send me word tomorrow,
By one that I'll procure to come to thee,
Where and what time thy wilt perform the rite;
And all my fortunes at thy foot I'll lay
And follow thee my lord throughout the world.

Cliff Notes Films

JULIET: OMG, that was like so hot. Lets totes get married.
ROMEO: I'll get a priest.

[Source: The New York Times]

Balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet - Cliff Notes Films.

Of course speeding your way through the Works at 1,000 words per minute will inevitably mean that you'll lose some comprehension along the way. The complex landscape of Shakespeare's language was not made to be traversed with one eye on the speedometer. His subtle use of metaphor and simile, the irony and imagery skilfully contained in many of the words, are for reading at a leisurely pace.

And leisurely reading is also beneficial. A recent study by researchers at Liverpool University found that Shakespeare's words are like a 'rocket boost' to the brain, and can even trigger moments of self-reflection. And the brain particularly responds when it encounters difficult and challenging word structures of the kind which could so easily be glossed over in a speedy read.

"I was always going to the bookcase for another sip of the divine specific [i.e. Shakespeare]" - Virginia Woolf.

We live increasingly in a world of words without substance, a world in which those in the public eye talk in sound bites and clichés, their words like the food we eat, processed and indigestible. 

But the words of the world's great writers, Shakespeare and many others, and in all languages, put ideas in our heads that were never there before, ideas that resonate and that stay with us for days and even years after we read them, and sometimes even for the rest of our lives.

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Southwark playhouses commemorative postage stamps

The Rose playhouse 1592
Commemorative postage stamp
August 1985

In August 1985 the British Post Office issued a series of five commemorative postage stamps celebrating playhouses in Southward (London) which were open and pulling in the crowds during the time of Shakespeare.

The theatres depicted were The Rose (1592), The Swan (1595), The Globe (1599), The Hope (1613), and The Globe (1614).

The first Globe was destroyed by fire in 1613 during a performance of Shakespeare's Henry VIII (All Is True). It enjoyed a second reincarnation when a meticulously research reconstruction was built in the 1990s despite initial opposition from a local council leader who reportedly said 'Shakespeare is tosh' (rubbish, nonesense). [Source: Financial Times]

About 750,000 people now visit the new Globe each year [Source:].  Tosh indeed, Mr Council Leader!

The Swan playhouse 1595
Commemorative postage stamp
August 1985

The Globe playhouse 1599
Commemorative postage stamp
August 1985

The Hope playhouse 1613
Commemorative postage stamp
August 1985

The Globe playhouse 1614
Commemorative postage stamp
August 1985

Friday, 8 March 2013

Joachim-Raphael Boronali, aka Aliboron, the donkey Impressionist

Et le soleil se coucha sur l'Adriatique
by Jachim-Raphael Boronali (Aliboron)

On a day in March 1910, in the Montmartre district of Paris, the quarter frequented by artists, a young art critic by the name of Roland Dorgelès arranges a rendezvous in the club Lapin agile with two of his friends, the critic and writer André Warnod, and the illustrator Jules Deraquit.

At the same time he informs a local innkeeper, known as Father Frédé, that he will require the services of his donkey Aliboron - Lolo to those who knew him - for a joke he wishes to play on his Impressionist painter friends.

Frédé with his donkey Lolo at the
door of the Lapin Agile

The three friends enjoy a convivial dinner while Frédé goes to bring Lolo. At around 3 p.m. a representative of the legal profession arrives, Me Brionne, invited by Roland to give formality to the pleasantry. Then Frédé returns with Lolo, and they get down to work.

Roland puts a canvas on a chair. Already painted on the canvas are two colours representing the sky and the earth, a technique directly inspired by Monet. Then Frédé attaches a brush to the tail of Lolo, brings the donkey close to the canvas, and dips the brush in a pot of paint. He then feeds Lolo carrots and tobacco leaves in order to stimulate his creative forces, or put another way, to get him to wag his tail over the canvas.

And it works! "Look how the donkey's painting all on his own!" cries  Frédé, unable to restrain his enthusiasm. "Yes, I see", replies the legal official. But Lolo quickly loses the inspiration and his tail drops. 

Nevertheless, the painting is finished. "It's a masterpiece!" they exclaim. But what to call it? Several suggestions are put forward before Roland decides on the title Et le soleil se coucha sur l'Adriatique (Sunset over the Adriatic). And a name for the artist? Joachim-Raphael Boronali, Roland decides, being an anagram of the donkey's name Aliboron.

The artist at work

Several days later the painting gets its first viewing at the Salon des Indépendants, an event open to all-comers. Roland hands out a text entitled The Manifesto of Excessivism. A collector offer 400 francs for the work. Art critics discuss the painting, until Roland reveals the joke to a daily newspaper complete with photographs.

It was to be Lolo's only work and is now on permanent display for art lovers throughout the world at: 

Espace culturel Paul Bédu
8 Bis rue Farnault
91490 Milly-la-Foret (France)

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Pope Paul IV and his pesky nephews Carlo and Giovanni

Cardinal Carlo Carafa 

5 March 1561 and the executioner’s axe falls on the neck of the Giovanni Carafa, the Duke of Paliano, nephew of Pope Paul IV. 

The day before, the duke’s brother, Cardinal Carlo Carafa, suffers a similar fate, though spared the bloody axe because of the dignity accorded to his holy office. For Carlo death is administered by suffocation, much to the relief of the servants, spared the messy job of mopping up afterwards. So, after reciting the seven psalms of penitence, the cardinal is garrotted. 

Thus ended the lives of the Carafa brothers, who just two years earlier had been among the most powerful men in the Vatican, thanks to benevolence of their uncle, Pope Paul IV. 

Pope Paul IV
'Even if my father were a heretic,
I would gather the wood myself to burn him'.
'It is an heretic that makes the fire, Not she which burns in't'. [William Shakespeare]

The Carafa family was one of the most powerful in Naples, and in 1555, one of its members, Cardinal Giovanni Pietro Carafa, was elected pope under the name of Paul IV. 

A man lacking in charisma, for several years he had overseen the Inquisition. And on his election to the papacy he issued a bull obliging Jews to live in ghettos; ordered the burning alive of marranos who had fled from Portugal; and instituted the Congregation of the Index Expurgations with the task ‘to examine books and manuscripts intended for publication and to decide whether the people may be permitted to read them’ (aka book censorship).

He also invoked the ancient tradition of papal nepotism by making his first nephew (Carlo) a cardinal and then his Secretary of his State, his second nephew (Giovanni) commander of the Papal guard, and his third nephew (Antonio) the Marquis of Montebello.

nepotism - the practice among the powerful of granting favours to relatives or friends, especially in giving them jobs. From Italian nepotismo, from nipote (nephew), with reference to privileges bestowed on the 'nephews' of popes.

The three brothers then set about igniting Rome with their passions for money, women and boys. A celebrated Spanish courtesan, Isabella di Luna, and a young woman named Pandora, are said to be sharing the beds of Carlo and Antonio. The pope-uncle is outraged and on 27 January 1559 he banishes them from Rome. Then, several months later, on 18 August, his holy father dies. 

Then events take a new dramatic turn. Ten days after the pope's death, while the cardinals are agonising over the naming of his successor, Giovanni orders the assassination of Marcello Capece, the supposed lover of his wife, the magnificently named Violante Diaz Garlon. The new pope when elected, Pious IV, orders the arrest of Giovanni and his brother Carlo, along with their accomplices.

The two brothers are condemned to death for heresy and homicide and the sentence is carried out. But in 1567, the surviving brother, Antonio, petitions the pope to re-examine the trial of Carlo and Giovanni. The pope agrees, and after several months of examination, rehabilitates the brothers. And for good measure he makes Antonio a cardinal.