The Editor's Blog

16.04.2014
14:02

In praise of plague cakes

Photo by Phil Manning © St Olave Hart Street PCC 2013

In the eastern corner of the City of London, close to the old walls and to the place where the Aldgate once stood, is a small church, that of St Olave Hart Street. It is dedicated to King Olaf II of Norway, who fought with King Ethelred against the Danes at the Battle of London Bridge in 1014. He was canonised in 1031, so the church in London must have received its dedication after that date. In 1666 the Great Fire came within 100m of St Olave’s before the wind fortuitously changed direction, thereby saving it from being engulfed in flames. (The church was not so lucky during World War Two and sustained two direct hits during bombing raids; it has been lovingly restored and King Haakon VII of Norway laid a stone from Trondheim Cathedral, the burial place of St Olaf, in the sanctuary.)

The church is famed as the burial place of Samuel Pepys; and high up on the north chancel wall, left of the altar, is a bust of Pepys’ wife, Elizabeth (d. 1669). To the right of the altar is a wall tablet commemorating William Turner (d. 1568), Dean of Wells, militant Protestant and father of English botany. Close by, left of the southeast window, is a painted alabaster portrait bust of Turner’s son, Peter, ‘Doctor in Physick’, who attended Sir Walter Raleigh in the Tower. In 1603 Peter Turner wrote a treatise in support of plague cakes: little phials of arsenic to wear around the neck or in the armpits in order to ward off infection. Turner was a keen follower of Paracelsus, the great German physician known for his advocacy of the use of poisons to control disease: he was both early homeopath and pioneer chemotherapist. He recommended the use of mercury to combat syphilis, for example. Efficacious to a degree, but of course toxic if used in too great quantities. Paracelsus also used a solution of lead as a treatment for goitre. Peter Turner may have been right to champion the use of these poisonous pomanders. The full title of his treatise is important: ‘The opinion of Peter Turner Doct. in physicke, concerning amulets or plague cakes whereof perhaps some holde too much, and some too little’. Dosage is all. In 1605, Francis Bacon published his Advancement of Learning, in which he also mentions the use of plague cakes: ‘It hath been anciently received, for Pericles the Athenian used it, and it is yet in use, to wear little bladders of quicksilver, or tablets of arsenic, as preservatives against the plague: not for any comfort they yield to the spirits, but for that being poisons themselves, they draw the venom to them from the spirits.’

Turner’s bust (c. 1614) disappeared from St Olave’s during the confusion of the Blitz but—in another of the strokes of luck that seem to attend this church—it resurfaced in 2010 at public auction. In 2013 it was reinstalled after a 70-year absence, in a partial recreation of the original monument.

Blue Guide London (18th edition), compiled, written and updated by Emily Barber, will be published this summer.

Princesses from the Trabzon Empire

Detail of the princess from Pisanello's 'St George' fresco in Verona.

For the Grand Comneni, the Christian rulers of the 14th–15th-century Trabzon Empire, diplomacy was probably the best way to survive in a hostile environment. Enemies were all around, and they were all Muslim. If you could not fight and crush them, it was probably more prudent to join them and hope to buy time, to fend off the evil day: it was a strategy of survival. And for this purpose, the Comneni used the best commodity they had.

Princesses of the line of the Grand Comneni enjoyed a high reputation for beauty, refinement, learning and class. They were highly prized by non-Christians, mainly as an exotic addition to the harem. Between the mid-14th and mid-15th centuries, a number of daughters of the Trabzon Emperor—a total of eleven, to be exact—were betrothed to Turkmen and Mongol rulers and to Emirs. It is only fair to say that the Grand Comneni did not invent this practice. They took their cue from Byzantium, where in 1346 Theodora Cantacuzene had been married to the Ottoman ruler Orhan.

The arrangements surrounding these marriages were rather vague: the ceremonies took place outside the Empire and it is not clear whether a dowry or a bride price was ever paid. According to the Church, the unions were invalid and Pope Pius II went as far as to say that the demise of the Empire of Trabzon was a clear sign of divine displeasure at such dealings. Ibn Battuta, on the other hand, saw the princesses as something akin to high commissioners in an allied court, a protector of local Christians. That may have been the case of Theodora Grand Comnena, who married the Ak Koyunlu chief Uzun Hasan, a Turk, and went to live with her Greek entourage (which included a suitable complement of monks) in the fastness of Harput in the middle of Anatolia. She was his principal wife, his hatun, but, sure enough, when the crunch came, Uzun Hasan made no move to assist his father-in-law, under pressure from the conquering Ottomans in Trabzon. No other Trabzon brides ever reached the position of hatun; it shows that from a Turkish point of view, the princesses were hostages. None of them gave birth to the next ruler, therefore acquiring the powerful position akin to the Valide Sultan in the Ottoman court. Nevertheless, they were clearly sought after. Their story does not appear in the Greek Pontic ballads but is remembered in the sixth ballad of Dede Korkut, a Turkic folk cycle. It is set in 14th-century Trabzon in the Meydan, the main square, and tells the story of the brave Kan Turalı, one of the Ak Koyunlu Turkmen, and his quest for Salcan, a true Amazon of a princess who could draw two bows at a time and had already disposed of 32 previous suitors. It all ends happily but the Herculean labours the young Kan Turalı has to complete go a long way to show how desirable the lady was.

The only Pontic girl who truly ‘married well’ was not a princess at all. Known as Maria de Doubera, she was the daughter of a converted Pontic Greek (or so one may infer from her name). Her family, from the Matzouka valley immediately south of Trabzon, had been able to assemble small estates, make its way through society and participate in local government. She married the Ottoman Sultan Beyazıt II in 1463 and was his principal wife. Her son Selim became sultan but she never was Valide Sultan as she died before his accession. She took the name of Gülbahar; her mosque and türbe (the grave), are in Trabzon.

In Europe a Trabzon princess graces the wall of the Pellegrini Chapel in Sant’Anastasia, Verona. It is a work by Pisanello dated to the mid-15th century and represents either the liberation of the princess by St George or his departure to get his dragon. Either way, she looks magnificent in her finery and outsize headdress. In the background Trabzon looms high: all the fabled towers are there with the inevitable gallows for the Turks to hang from. Cervantes must have had this image in mind when he modelled his Dulcinea on a captive princess in need of a saviour (he would have had plenty of time in his five-year captivity in a Turkish prison in Algiers to hear the folklore of his jailers).

With the passing of time, Trabzon princesses became progressively ethereal and unreal. In Offenbach’s comic opera La princesse de Trébizonde, she is not even a real person. Her wax image is sufficient to steer the deepest feelings in the male lead. But the opera was a great success, notwithstanding such arias as ‘I have a toothache’; it was premiered in Paris in 1869 and went on the take Melbourne by storm in 1874.

by Paola Pugsley, author of Blue Guide Eastern Turkey and Blue Guide Southeastern Turkey (for details, see here) She is currently working on a volume about the Turkish Pontic provinces, to be published by Blue Guides later this year.

Artwork of the month: April

The Seuso silver

At some point during the turbulent years of the declining Roman Empire, a cache of silver was hidden by its owners, packed into a copper cauldron. This hoard has been puzzling the world ever since. Known as the Seuso (or Sevso) Treasure, it has become an artworld mystery. And the mystery is far from solved. But seven pieces of the great hoard are—at last—on view to the public, in the Hungarian Parliament building in Budapest. They will remain on show for the next three months, after which the plan is to transfer them to Budapest’s new Museum Quarter, planned for 2018.

No one really knows anything about the Seuso Treasure except that it is Roman, extremely fine and extremely valuable, and dates from the 4th or 5th century AD. The most convincing story is that it was found, sometime in the 1970s, by a young man called József Sümegh, in the vicinity of the village of Polgárdi, east of Lake Balaton in Hungary. Sümegh did not live long to enjoy his find. He died in mysterious circumstances shortly afterwards, at the age of just 24. Not long before his death, he had suddenly started appearing in Levi’s jeans, the kind of apparel that wasn’t readily available in Communist Hungary in those days. It is highly possible that he had sold several of the smaller items of the hoard. By the time the Treasure ended up in the hands of Lord Northampton in England, it numbered 14 pieces: perhaps vastly fewer that had originally been stashed, hurriedly and in panic, into that wide copper cauldron by a Roman family clinging to the coat-tails of their civilisation as it collectively fled before the barbarian invasions of Central Europe.

Hungary cannot prove its claim to the silver. Even though soil samples from the cauldron are a good fit with Transdanubia, it is not enough. The trail of the hoard has been deliberately muddied and obfuscated for decades, by dealers, smugglers, heisters, small-time and big-time crooks, a whole procession of them. The tedious dishonesty of greedy men has obscured the story of these extraordinary works of art. The Getty Museum was at one stage interested in purchasing the silver, but it pulled out because its story was too murky. Auctions at Sotheby’s and Bonham’s in London foundered because of bad provenance. Even now the Hungarian authorities will not reveal from whom they purchased the seven pieces for 15 million euros. This was a good price, considering—though if the silver really is Hungarian patrimony, it is a pity they had to pay anything at all.

The centrepiece of the Hungarian Parliament display is the so-called Hunting Plate: a huge salver with a beaded and decorated rim and a central roundel filled with a busy scene. In the centre are figures dining under a canopy, one of the members of the party feeding a titbit to a dog. Around them are scenes of hunting: and below the image of an upended boar, is the word “PELSO”, the Roman name for Lake Balaton. The whole design is of silver gilt with the details picked out in niello (a black-coloured alloy of sulphur with copper and lead). Circling the roundel is the following inscription: H[A]EC SEVSO TIBI DVRENT PER SAECULA MVLTA POSTERIS VT PROSINT VASCVLA DIGNA TVIS (‘May these vessels remain with you for centuries, Seuso, and serve your descendants worthily’). It has been suggested that the silver was presented to Seuso as a wedding gift. Nothing is known of him. It can only be surmised that he was a wealthy Roman or Romanised Celt who lived a gracious life in one of the fine villas that existed in the neighbourhood of Lake Balaton. At the very top of the inscription, between the first and the last words, is a tiny Chi Rho: Seuso must have been a Christian. (For a detailed image of the central roundel, see here .) Stylistically, the platter shows similiarities to the famous Cesena Plate in the Malatesta Library at Cesena in Italy, near Ravenna. (For an image of the Cesena Plate, see here.)

Other items from the seven now in Hungary include another large plate with a geometric design in the centre and two geometric ewers (one of which illustrated at the top of this story). These objects are assigned by some scholars to a “Western” workshop, whereas other objects, notably an unusually-shaped incense casket and a jug with Dionysiac scenes are decorated with repoussé figures. On the Dionysiac jug, the varicose decoration of frenzied maenads recalls (sort of) the famous Derveni krater in Thessaloniki. Which is perhaps not an utterly mad comparison, despite the six hundred or so years' time difference between the crafting of the two, because scholars believe the pieces of the hoard may have come from two different centres of craftmanship, a western and an eastern. Other experts claim that all the pieces could have originated from a single Balkan workshop (in Sirmium, for example, or Thessaloniki), a place where the styles of East and West came together.

In the late 19th century, an elaborate folding stand, made of silver and lavishly decorated, was found close to Polgárdi, the claimed findspot of the Seuso hoard. It is a tetrapod plate stand, just the thing for a sumptuous fête champêtre, a kind of five-star camping table. It is part of the holdings of the Hungarian National Museum (see image here ). It is by no means out of the question that it once belonged to Seuso’s picnic equipment.

For three months, members of the public may view the seven treasures in Budapest, free of charge and with no prior appointment, in the hopes that someone might have their memory jogged, might recall a small silver object—a spoon, say, or a little finger bowl—which a member of their family might have bought, many years ago, from a treasure trover called József Sümegh. Then at last the question of the silver’s patrimony might be convincingly answered.

Uffizi selfies come to Budapest

Self-portrait by Pál Szinyei Merse (1845–1920)
Pál Szinyei Merse’s plein-air rendering of a field of poppies

 

As part of the Budapest Spring Festival, an unusual exhibition has come to the Budapest History Museum: “Painters in the Mirror”, a display of self-portraits by Hungarian artists from the collection of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. The Uffizi has an extensive collection of self-portraits, the largest in the world: over 1,600 of them, of which 24 are of Hungarian artists. They are displayed in the Corridoio Vasariano, a covered walkway built by Vasari in five months to celebrate the marriage of Francesco de’ Medici and Joanna of Austria in 1565. Nearly a kilometre long, its purpose was to connect Palazzo Vecchio via the Uffizi and Ponte Vecchio with the new residence of the Medici dukes at Palazzo Pitti. The Medici family found it particularly convenient in wet weather and it was sometimes used as a nursery for the children of the grand dukes. Elderly or infirm members of the family were wheeled along it in bath chairs. The Uffizi’s collection of self-portraits has been hung here since the early 20th century. The collection was begun by Cardinal Leopoldo in 1664. Having acquired the self-portraits of Guercino and Pietro da Cortona, he went on to collect the ‘selfies’ of some 80 more artists. The collection continues to be augmented.

The first Hungarian self-portrait to enter the collection was that of the elder Károly Markó, a painter of almost Claude-like landscapes who settled near Florence in 1848. The collection continued to expand throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, largely by invitation. The portraits of Rippl-Rónai, István Csók and Pál Szinyei Merse arrived at the Uffizi by this route. The great painter of large-scale historical canvases Gyula Benczúr was also invited to contribute a self-portrait and produced one expressly for the Uffizi. Other self-portraits were acquired by purchase. It was not long before artists eagerly sought to have themselves represented at the Uffizi, and the gallery received numerous offers, some of which it accepted and some of which it did not. Miklós Barabás, considered (at least in Hungary) one of the finest portraitists of his day (1810–98), submitted a portrait (it was submitted, in fact, by his son-in-law) but it was not considered by the board of judges to be of sufficient artistic merit. It was not returned, however, and is still the property of the Italian state, officially entered in the Uffizi’s inventory. It forms part of the current exhibition, hung alongside a charming likeness by Barabás of a young woman in a black dress, painted against a backdrop in the Hungarian—and Italian—national colours of red, white and green.

 

Self-portraits of Hungarian modern and contemporary artists include Victor Vasarely’s typically optical-illusory upside-down image of himself, and a fine work by László Fehér (b. 1953), who presents a typically hyper-realist image of himself in a small pocket mirror.

 

Each self-portrait in this interesting and absorbing small exhibition is shown alongside another painting by the same artist which may be taken to be representative of his or her oeuvre. Some of the more memorable pairings include Philip de László’s classic, textbook self-portrait hung next to his stunning likeness of Pope Leo XIII; and Pál Szinyei Merse’s view of himself in a wintry birch forest hung alongside his beautiful Poppy Field, its tall grass and cotton-wool clouds redolent of early summer warmth.


Painters in the Mirror”, at the Budapest History Museum, runs until 20th July. The collection of the Uffizi is covered in detail in Blue Guide Florence.

Florentine Mannerists at Palazzo Strozzi

‘The Visitation’ by Pontormo, from Carmignano

by Alta Macadam

A major exhibition now running at Palazzo Strozzi in Florence (on until 20 July 2014) is dedicated to two of the most famous protagonists of Mannerism in Italy. It traces the highly individualistic styles of Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino, both born in the same year, 1494, and who both started out their careers in the Florentine workshop of Andrea del Sarto. The exhibition's sub-title, ‘Diverging paths of Mannerism’, makes clear the intention is to illustrate the wide differences in style of these two masters. The texts throughout the show often cite Vasari, who first used the term maniera to describe his contemporaries’ way of painting. This ‘mannered’ style, characteristic of the painters who were at work immediately after the great era of Raphael and Michelangelo, was long considered affected and even decadent, but since the 20th century it has been recognised that these 16th-century painters explored new ideas and that their work is often characterised by extreme elegance and refinement.

The visitor is greeted by three huge frescoes from the Santissima Annunziata: on either side of a biblical scene by Andrea del Sarto are the Assumption by Rosso and the Visitation by Pontormo, both of which stand out for their originality. In Rosso’s memorable crowd of Apostles there are numerous different expressions and stances, while Pontormo’s fresco has great elegance and the two central figures portray a touching intimacy.

One entire room is dedicated to portraits by Pontormo. Beside his well-known posthumous ‘official’ Portrait of Cosimo il Vecchio, in his bright crimson cloak, is displayed his much more intimate Double portrait of two friends from the collection in Palazzo Cini in Venice (which is not regularly open to the public so this is a great chance to see this unusual work). It is displayed beside the engaging Young Man from the Palazzo Mansi in Lucca. Two of Pontormo's best male portraits, both sitters shown holding books, are on loan from the National Gallery in Washington and a private collection. Rosso is also given a room of his own to display his portraits: arguably the two most accomplished are those from the Uffizi and the Pitti.

Rosso’s Marriage of the Virgin from San Lorenzo is one of his loveliest altarpieces, crowded and full of colour. Pontormo’s work in the chapel of Santa Felicita, with his famous frescoes, are understandably not present in the exhibition (but can be seen just a few steps away across the Arno), but the lovely little stained-glass window from the chapel and the painted tondo have been brought here so that they can be seen at close range. His Crucifixion, salvaged from a tabernacle near Villa della Petraia and housed in the Accademia delle Arti del Disegno, is also on show, and even though greatly damaged it demonstrates his skills in this medium. Pontormo’s small Madonna and Child with the Young St John is here too, from the Corsini Collection (a private collection, the most important to have survived in Florence, but long closed to the public, so this is a welcome opportunity to see it).

Pontormo’s greatest work is the Visitation from the church of Carmignano close to Florence. Mary is shown embracing her older cousin Elizabeth (mother of John the Baptist) in the presence of two women looking out of the painting, Mary and Elizabeth's ‘alter egos’. It has been restored for the exhibition and its colour and composition make it one of the masterpieces of 16th-century Italian painting. In the same room is Rosso’s Deposition from the church of San Lorenzo in Sansepolcro, one of his highest achievements (also recently restored so that all the details, some quite bizarre, are far more visible). His small painting of the Death of Cleopatra (now in Braunschweig), the only secular painting he produced before he left Italy for France, is particularly beautifully painted, and this is a rare occasion to see this little-known work.

The last room illustrates Rosso’s activity at the French court of François I in Fontainebleau, where he spent the last years of his life, and includes a magnificent tapestry illustrating the battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs, made there on a cartoon by Rosso (and now in Vienna).

The curators of the exhibition are Antonio Natali (much-admired director of the Uffizi Gallery) and the art historian Carlo Falciani. The display, by the architect Luigi Cupellini, is excellent, with clear and helpful descriptions (‘textbooks’ are provided in each room to stimulate children’s interest). Dr James M. Bradburne, Director General of the Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi, is to be congratulated on continuing to produce important and thoroughly enjoyable exhibitions at Palazzo Strozzi. Its programme stands out as the liveliest element in the city’s current cultural scene.

Alta Macadam is the author of Blue Guide Florence, available in both print and digital formats.

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