Monday, 17 November 2014

Window shopping on Grafton Street, Dublin in 1930

A gentleman browses the cameras on Dublin's famous Grafton Street in 1930.
Photo credit: Photos of Dublin - @PhotosOfDublin

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Brutus - the Death of an Assassin - 23 October 42 B.C.

Marble bust of Brutus by Carlo Brogi

In the year 42 B.C., on 23 October, Marcus Junius Brutus the Younger ended his life less than two years after participating in the assassination of his mother's lover and civil partner Julius Caesar.
Some said that Brutus was Caesar's son as his mother Servilia had been one of Ceasar's multitude of mistresses.

Lindsay Duncan as Servilia in the TV series Rome.

Orphaned at an early age, Brutus was raised in Greece where he was initiated in the arts of Platonic philosophy and stoicism. He becomes convinced that man's affairs could only be governed by reason and not by force of arms. But back in Rome he found himself falsely implicated in a plot against Pompey, and was forced to flee.

His political career finally took off when he was sent to Cyprus to assist Cato during his governorship of the isle. While there he amassed a tidy fortune and returned to Rome a rich man and married Clodia Pulchra. 

Clodia Pulchra
Published by Guillaume Rouille

More riches flowed Brutus's way when his 'father-in-law', Julius Caesar, appointed him as questor in the province of Cilicia. His task as questor was to collect taxes for Rome, but Brutus shrewdly ensured that part was and diverted into his own deep pocket. 

But back at Rome all was not well. Treachery was afoot! While Caesar was campaigning in Gaul, his partner Pompey the Great seized power. Julius was livid! 'I'm livid!' he proclaimed, and immediately began hot-footing his army back to Rome.

They arrived at the Rubicon, the tiny river that marked the boundary between Gaul and Italy. There Julius hesitated, knowing that to cross the Rubicon would be an act of high treason because of new laws enacted by Pompey and the Senate. He agonised over his options, until one of his soldiers, Astronautus Neilus Armstrongus, urged his general to cross.
'Tis but a short step for man by a giant leap for Mankind,' said Armstrongus.
'Then the die is cast,' said Julius, and marched his army southwards and to Rome.
'It is said, moreover, that on the night before he crossed the river he had an unnatural dream; he thought, namely, that he was having incestuous intercourse with his own mother.' - Plutarch.

Knowing himself to be outmatched, Pompey fled Rome, and Julius installed himself as Dictator with absolute power.

Obverse of a silver denarius bearing the head of
Julius Caesar and inscribed DICT (Dictator).

'Beware the Ides of March'

Several dozen senators were outraged at Caesar's arbitrary decision to bring to an end the Roman Republic, and a plot began to be hatched to permanently remove him. 

Because of his popularity with the Roman citizens, Brutus was persuaded to join the conspiracy. But Brutus had conditions.
'Only Caesar must die,' demanded Brutus. 'There must be no collateral damage. Copy?'
'Roger that,' agreed a reluctant Cassius.

Death of Julius Caesar by Vincenzo Camuccini

The dirty deed was set for the Ides of March, when Caesar would be attending a Senate meeting at the Theatre of Pompey. But the omens were not good. The seer Spurrina had warned Caesar to 'beware the Ides of March'. And the historian Suetonius later wrote: 'On the day before the Ides of that month a little bird called the king-bird flew into the Hall of Pompey with a sprig of laurel, pursued by others of various kinds from the grove hard by, which tore it to pieces in the hall.'

Unconcerned, Caesar went to the Pompey Theatre without his bodyguard. He took his place and the conspirators - sixty it all - crowded around him. Then, one of them, Cimber, grabbed Caesar's purple robe.
'This is violence!' cried Caesar.
It was also the signal to the other plotters.
Publicius Servilius Casca struck the first blow on Caesar's throat. The other conspirators drew their daggers, among Caesar's 'son' Brutus.
'Kai su, Technon?' ('You too, my child?') said Caeser in Greek.

La Mort de César by Jean-Léon Gérôme.
Caesar's dead body lies abandoned on the floor.

With Caesar dead civil war ensued. Brutus's partner in crime, Cassius, was vanquished by Mark Antony. Believing Brutus also to be crushed, Cassius commited suicide. Three weeks later Brutus, too, was overcome by Antony and on 23 October decided to end his life. His dying words were said to have been: 'Virtue, thou art but a name'.

'O Caesar, though you enacted many laws that men may not be killed by their personal foes, yet how mercilessly you yourself were slain by your friends!' From the funeral oration by Mark Antony.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Jakob Fugger the Rich

Portrait of Jakob Fugger by Durer

Jakob Fugger (1459-1525), known as Jakob Fugger 'the Rich', was one of the richest people that ever lived. He made his fortune in banking, trading, and occasionally contraband, in particular saffron, pepper and other spices. He also had a lucrative sideline in the sale of indulgences with his business partners in the Vatican, which gave impetus to Martin Luther's Reformation in Germany.

German postage stamp depicting Jakob Fugger

Portrait of a Young Man (in a fur)
Attributed to several artists including Giorgione.
Sitter believed to be Anton Fugger, nephew of Jakob Fugger

Friday, 18 April 2014

An Easter celebration for Vlad the Impaler of the House of Dracula

Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia, son of Vlad II Dracul of the Order of the Dragon, was not a forgiving man.
"I have not the forgiving vein," said he to himself, when he succeeded to the princely throne ten years after his father's assassination.
"Now that I have my throne, my father's aristocratic killers will feel the full force of my wrath and vengeance. But in what devilish way shall I kill them? I know, I will skewer them alive on stakes like I saw in Turkey during my long exile there."

He slated his revenge for Easter Sunday 1457, as on that holy day the whole of the nobility would be gathering at the royal palace to celebrate the Resurrection of Christ.

The day duly arrived, and with the religious ceremony over, the 200 guests made their way to the banqueting hall to glut their appetites on the food and wine graciously provided by their host.
"I like the chicken on sticks," remarked one of the guests, unconscious of the dramatic irony in his choice of words.
"You'll soon have one up your backside," commented Vlad sotto voce.
"I beg your pardon?" said the guest, not hearing what his host said.
"Nothing," replied Vlad. "Have some more wine, then dance a merry measure with the ladies."

The guests danced and pranced in a jolly ambience with their womenfolk, and were so absorbed in their entertainment that did not see Vlad make a sign to one of his henchmen. Immediately the room was invaded by a troop of armed guards, some clutching wooden stakes with nasty pointed ends.

Fear and panic gripped the assembled guests. 
"W-what's happening?" stammered one of the aristocrats.
"The grand finale," said Vlad, with a villainous grin on his villainous face. "To pay for your treason ten years ago, when you treacherously assassinated my father, each head of family will have the honour of being skewed alive with a stake up his aristocratic rectum!"
"Ooh, I'll bet that hurts!" said one of the ladies.
Vlad then turned to his executioner.
'About your work, Mr Executioner,' he ordered.
'Roger that, your majesty,' replied the executioner, and set about his grisly job.

Vlad had the choice of two ways of impaling his unfortunate victims: the Assyrian method, which consisted in lowering the victim sternum first onto the stake; and the Turkish method, in which the victim, still living, is laid prostate on the ground, and the stake delicately pushed inch by inch through his body until it emerges out of his mouth. 

Vlad chose the Turkish method, and he gaily tucked into his meal as the sentences were carried out.
'This meat is jolly nice,' said he to himself. 'I must remember to compliment the chef.'

The prince's Easter celebrations later earned him the name of Vlad the Impaler, and became in the inspiration of Bram Stoker's Dracula novel, as well as countless movies. And Princes Charles, the present heir to the British throne, is said to be a great grandson 16 times removed to the notorious Impaler.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Tintoretto and the St. Mark paintings

St. Mark's Body Brought to Venice
Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice

'Beautiful colours can be bought in the shops on the Riato, but good drawings can only be bought from the casket of the artist's talent with patient study and nights without sleep.'  Tintoretto.

Born Jacopo Robusti in Venice in 1518, and called Il Tintoretto because his father was a dyer by trade, Tintoretto was part of the triad of great 16th century Venetian artists, along with Titian and Veronese. 

Tintoretto trained in the workshop of Titian and was first mentioned as a master in 1539.

Between 1548 and 1563, he painted several large-scale pictures of the Miracle of St. Mark. According to the painter and engraver Marco Boschini, he would use small wax figures to create the scene that he envisaged in his mind, and then experiment with light sources.

The Miracle of St. Mark (also known as The Miracle of the Slave)
Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice

This picture was one of four St. Mark subjects that Tintoretto was commissioned to paint in the Scuola de S. Marco, the others being St. Mark's Body Brought to Venice; Finding of the Body of St. Mark; St. Mark Rescuing a Saracen from a Shipwreck. 

Finding of the Body of St. Mark
Pinacoteca de Brera, Milan

St. Mark Rescuing a Saracen from a Shipwreck
Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Charles Gallo : Anarchist !

"Long live the Republic! Long live anarchy! Death to the bourgeois magistrature! Long live dynamite!"

Such was the defiant cry of Charles Gallo at his arraignment before the Court of Assizes in Paris on 26 June 1886 following his failed bomb attack on the Paris Stock Exchange almost four months earlier.

"I refuse to be judged by a tribunal of bourgeois!" he hurled at the court after being told he would stand trial three weeks later.


Gallo's life had an austere beginning. His young mother abandoned him at birth, and he spent his first ten years with a family of poor peasants. 

As a young man, though studious, he was not academically gifted, and turned to forging counterfeit money to make an income. But all he got for his pains was five years imprisonment.

Upon his release from prison he searched out the haunts frequented by anarchists, and began to formulate in his head a daring act in one of the shines of the hated bourgeoisie. "What shall it be?" he wondered. "The National Assembly with its corrupt lawmakers? Or the Stock Exchange with its parasitic traders and speculators?" 

He decided on the latter - la Bourse - the Stock Exchange!

The first thing that Charles needed was a bomb, but lacking the means or know-how to make one, he was forced to settle for a flask with 200 grams of prussic acid. He borrowed a revolver from a friend, and on 5 March 1886, wearing a black coat and a black bowler, the 27-year old anarchist made his way to the Bourse.

Once inside, he went up to the south gallery overlooking the trading area, and spent several minutes surveying the repugnant sight of speculators getting rich on the sweat of honest workers. He waited patiently until the bell tolled three to signal the end of the day's trading, and then he made his move.

Unconscious of the presence of a student friend who happened to be standing nearby, Charles darted forward and hurled his 'bomb' onto the trading floor beneath him. But instead of the violent explosion he was expecting, there was only the phhht! of a damp squib, and a bitter aroma.

Undeterred, Charles took out his revolver and quickly discharged two chambers. Both missed their marks. His student friend saw him fire off another three - bang! bang! bang! - in rapid succession, again without result. Then, with only one bullet left, he fixed his sights on a Bourse employee, but didn't pulled the trigger, because, as he later explained at his trial, he thought the man looked poorly dressed. 

Then, suddenly, the adventure was over. A guard overpowered Charles, relieved him of his weapon, and he was escorted to the police station.

Gallo was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment on the penal island of New Caledonia. In prison he continued to vent his spleen with revolutionary invective dipped in vitriol:

'It is because personal property exists that humanity is divided into two enemy classes, those who, through privilege of birth, receive a good education, wealth, luxury, well-being, leisure and material power joined with intellectual domination, and the others, doomed irrevocably to a life of ignorance.'

Then he attacked a guard with a pick and received two bullets in his head. Miraculously, he survived, and was condemned to death, the sentence commuted to hard labour for life. He died around 1903.

Friday, 28 March 2014

Harold Pinter : One Man's Land

'There are some things one remembers even though they may never have happened. There are things I remember which may never have happened but as I recall them so they take place.'
Harold Pinter - Old Times.

When you look back upon your past
it will not be the words you wrote
you shall remember,
the words your chose yourself,
so carefully,
and with such purpose.

Rather it will be the voice 
behind the words
you shall recall,
the tone of the voice,
and the way in which you sat
as you were writing.

The past has no morals,
it is an alien country
huge and vast,
and things which occurred then,
though we knew them not,
will manifest today,
as though they happened today,
as we recall them today
from our past.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Chess with Aleister Crowley and Savielly Tartakower

Aleister Crowley

'The wickedest man in the world'

Around 1930, the English magician, occultist and self-proclaimed Beast with the number 666, Aleister Crowley, was living in Paris, following his expulsion from Italy by Benito Mussolini.

Labelling by the British press 'The wickedest man in the world' because of the activities involving sexual-magic and drugs at his Abbey of Thelema in Sicily, Crowley was now spending his time in the calmer atmosphere of the Paris British Chess Club, a circle of chess players from the British community that met once or twice a week at the Café du Grand Palais. It was here that he was befriended by the young English writer George Langelaan, later to find fame for his cult short story The Fly.

'Do as thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.'

Despite Crowley's notorious reputation as author of The Book of the Law, the 'sacred text' which he claimed had been dictated to him by an entity named Aiwass, and whose central tenet was to 'Do as thou wilt,' Langelaan found in him 'one of the great intellects of the century,'  in addition to one of the most curious chess players.

The ancient game of chess is one of the most intense mental combats between two brains ever invented by man, but for Crowley winning or losing the battle was of no importance. The only thing that interested him on the chessboard was the arrangements of the pieces, looking for something in them to ignite his imagination as a magician, like the yarrow sticks in I Ching. If the board positions didn't interest him, then he would simply switch off and abandon the game, even if strongly placed to win.

Savielly Tartakower

Crowley would also at times participate in official tournaments, and was asked to be part of a team that included Langelaan. He agreed, and in each tournament played in his usual quick and bad way, but always relaxed, occasionally finding an interesting combination of positions that encouraged him to up his game, but managing nonetheless to lose nine games out of ten, always with a smile on his face.

Then, one night, he found himself at the chessboard facing one of the best players of his generation, the Polish grandmaster Savielly Tartakower. 

Crowley played as relaxed as ever, sure that he would lose another point for his team, and after about one hour of play, while his opponent was contemplating his next move, got up to stretch his legs and glance at the other chessboards.

'How's your game with Tarta doing?' asked his captain, the only player in the team to have a good position in his game.
'I'm playing for the honour,' replied Crowley, 'but he'll win. He's already taken one of my pawns.'
'No chance of a draw?' asked the captain pleadingly.
'Then why not a win while we're at it?' replied Crowley with a smile.
'It would help us from falling down the classifications,' said the captain.
'My dear friend, I know nothing about your classifications, but if it's really that important then I'll see if I can fix it.'

Crowley returned to his chessboard, made his next move, then got up once more, and this time went to the washroom in the basement. Langelaan vaguely saw him go, then several minutes later he too went to the washroom.

In conference with the Baron.

Upon entering the washroom, Langelaan was confronted with the sight of Crowley with his shirt sleeves rolled up, his collar and tie undone, standing in front of a mirror, intensely watching himself as he made strange gymnastic movements with his hands and his forearms in the manner of a music-hall hypnotist common at the time. 

Langelaan was unable to stop himself from smiling at the sight of his eccentric friend, and when Crowley noticed the presence of Langelaan he laughed aloud, straightened his tie, and said: 'It's nothing. I was in conference with the Baron.' 

Conscious of Crowley's reputation as the most infamous black magician of the century, Langelaan decided that it skilled not to ask who the Baron was.

They went back upstairs and got back to their games, and not long afterwards Langelaan was startled by the sound of a loud groan coming from Tartakower. He looked up and saw the great man laying down his King, the sign that he was resigning the game. It seemed that he had made a stupid mistake, unpardonable in a grandmaster, and was about to lose his Queen.

A short time later Crowley was expelled from France as he had been from Italy, for reasons that were never specified.


Source: Issue no. 19 of Planète (November/December 1964)

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Pedro de Mendoza - the syphilitic Conquistador

After several tumultuous weeks on the high seas, the flotilla of thirteen vessels, under the command of Pedro de Mendoza, made its slow progress up the Rio de la Plata in South America. It was early February 1536, and the conquistador made land on the west side of the great river and constructed a fort, which he baptised Nuestra Señora Santa Maria del Buen Ayre, the future Buenos Aires. 

The good-natured natives, called Querandies, came to greet the new arrivals. But who were they, these strangers with their pale and hairy faces? Could they be gods come down from the firmament? Whoever they were, they were hungry, and the Indians graciously provisioned them with tasty game birds.   

Gods, however, the intruders most certainly were not. Pedro de Mendoza was a desperate mortal from the Spanish city of Guadix, Granada. He had lots of pride but very little money, but had heard of the profit-making exploits of Cortes and of Pizarro, and wanted to get in on the action himself.

So in 1529, at the already advanced age of 42, he petitioned Charles Quint, also called Charles V, the grandly-titled Holy Roman Emperor, for a command in the emerging economy of Eldorado. But Charles was too occupied with his wars against the hated Francis I of France to pay any attention to Pedro’s grovelling. It was only after five years of obstinate persistence by his dear mother that he finally got what he was after.

He set sail towards the end of 1535 with his 13 ships and 2,000 men. He carried with him a letter from Charles permitting him to keep for himself half of the treasures of any Indian chiefs that he killed, and 90 per cent of their ransoms. 
‘Now that’s what I call cool!’ quoth Pedro to himself. ‘Better than a banker’s bonus!’ 

But things did not go well for Pedro. First a storm dispersed his fleet, then his chief lieutenant was murdered, probably on Pedro’s orders, as he suspected him of treason. But worst of all was the syphilis he was carrying in his body, and which was so debilitating that he was forced to command the fleet from his sick bed. But what the hell! For soon he would be one of the richest men in the world. Pedro de Mendoza: Bill Gates with syphilis.

But bad luck on the high seas was compounded by arrogant stupidity in the new fort on the Rio de la Plata. Pedro and his men took the kind offerings of the natives as if they were tributes that were their right and due, and gave nothing back in return. Fed up with the hairy-faces’ ingratitude, the natives decided they had had enough, and so left the intruders to their own devices.

Pedro was livid! ‘Is this how they repay us for bringing them civilisation, Holy Roman Catholicism, and Olde Worlde etiquette?’ 

He dispatched his brother to bring the ungrateful savages back! Ambushes and skirmishes ensued with many killed on both sides, including Pedro’s brother. The remainder of the party returned empty handed. 

Suddenly Pedro’s South American gig was not cool any more. Reduced to famine, the invaders were forced to live on rats, mice, lizards, and even the flesh of their dead comrades. Then the natives began raiding their settlement and even setting fire to huts. The syphilitic Mendoza was incapable of leading his men, so his chief officer went in search of help and in the process founded another settlement which he named Muy Noble y Leal Ciudad de Nuestro Señora Maria de la Asunción, later the capital of Paraguay.

For Pedro there was now only one solution - he must get more men from Spain. So in 1537, leaving the fort to the protection of his men, with a promise to return with reinforcements as soon as possible, he set sail. But after several days his syphilis got the better of him, and Pedro de Mendoza, the not-so-cool Conquistador, breathed his last.

The remaining colonists waited until 1541 for their errant leader to return, and then abandoned the fort and made their way to the new settlement in Paraguay. But for the Indians it was only a reprieve, as the invaders returned forty years later, and this time they stayed.

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Assam Tea: the day the English got their first taste of India tea

Preparing the ground and sowing the seed

10 January 1839 is an important day in the history of England. For on that monumental day the first shipment of Indian tea was being sold by auction at East India House, Leadenhall Street, London.

Ever since an embargo on trade with Europe had been decreed by the Chinese emperor, in retaliation at the European powers saturating his country with opium, the English had been deprived of their daily libation of tea. Could they survive any longer? More importantly: could the Empire survive? They would need to find a solution to the grave crisis facing the nation!

Robert Bruce
Enter Robert Bruce, a Scotsman like his illustrious namesake Robert the Bruce. Part-time explorer and part-time trader, in 1823 he discovered a place in India called Assam, where the natives consumed a decoction that closely resembled tea. A local chief gave him his first taste of the brew. Indeed, it was just like tea! He was ecstatic! All he needed now was to convince the sour-faced English and his fortune would be made.

Then a catastrophe happened. A mortal blow from which Robert was unable to recover: he died. Fortunately, for England and for the Empire, he had a younger brother, Charles Alexander Bruce, who sent the tea plants to a  botanical garden in Calcutta.....only to have them rejected as not suitable to the refined and fussy English pallet. 

Charles kicked his heels for a decade, until, in 1833, the British government decided that it would need to establish new tea plantations in India. A Tea Commission was set up and a delegation was dispatched to Assam. One of the officers, Lieutenant Charlton, sent several of Robert Bruce’s wild plants to Calcutta once more for analysis, and this time they were identified as tea. Hurrah! A scientific team was then sent to Assam to carry out a detailed study of the terrain in order to see if it would support tea plants from China. And Charles Alexander was given the task of carrying out the tests with the help of Chinese workers.

But it was another disappointment. The plants from China could not adapt to the new climate. Charles experimented in mixing them with the local plant, while gradualy becoming more and more sure that the ideal solution would be to cultivate Assam tea only. And his persistence finally bore fruit when he convinced the British viceroy, Lord Auckland, of the quality of the local tea. At last he could send a first consignment to England.

To conserve the aroma of the precious cargo during the long voyage, Charles had the leaves packed into 46 crates, and after a journey lasting five months, they finally arrived in London. Only one last hurdle remained: the tasting of the tea experts.

Happily, for Charles, and for England, the tea met with the approval of the tasting committee, who declared it to be equal to that of China. The auction took place a short time later, and in less than one hour the entire cargo of 350 lbs had been sold at twenty times the price of China tea. 

It was a triumph! England had a new supply of tea. The Empire was safe. Time to celebrate with a nice cup of tea...........

Pour we the tea
And let its sweet aromas climb to our nostrils
From our bless'd teacups.   William Shakespeare (sort of)