Paola Pugsley explores the history of this now established custom
When faced with a crisis like the death of a much beloved sovereign, human beings tend to seek comfort in ritual. One of these is the tradition of the lying in state, when the deceased is laid in his or her coffin and mourners are invited to file past to pay their respects. One might think that this was a custom hallowed by the centuries. The truth is rather different.
The procedure refers to the placing of the body in an open or closed casket and displaying this in an opulent or solemn setting, as happened in Westminster Hall in the case of the late Queen Elizabeth II. The coffin stood on a raised plinth, covered by the royal standard and topped by a wreath, with the imperial crown, the golden orb and the sceptre on a purple cushion and huge candle stands all around. A selected contingent kept the vigil, dressed in elaborate unifoms, and a steady stream of mourners, some of whom had been queuing for hours, filed slowly past in complete silence. Only the shuffling of feet was heard.
But just how old is this custom? An early mention of the term ‘lying in state’, in the London Gazette in 1705, refers to Sophia Charlotte of Hanover, Queen Consort of Prussia, who died of pneumonia in that year. But there is no suggestion of crowds of commoners filing past to pay their respects. Her death remained a private matter.
That does not mean that the demise of a powerful leader was always kept private. Far from it. Monumental tombs, intended to endure forever, were a good way to announce the fact indelibly to everyone. One need only think of the pyramids. The populace did not visit them to pay their respects, as such, but they would certainly have stood before them in awe. Another, perhaps more subtle way of manipulating public perception was the use of conspicuous consumption. The target in this case was not so much the ordinary people but rival clans and power centres, who could be led to believe, seeing so much money lavished on a monument, that if so much disposable income was available, then there must surely be plenty more where it came from. This conspicuous consumption could take the shape of immense banquets, or the burial of vast riches with the deceased, as happened in the so-called Midas Tomb in Gordion ,Turkey. The procedure was one involving priests, relatives and officialdom. The populace played its role later, as tomb robbers.
Human sacrifice is also recorded. A man’s entire retinue of household servants might be bludgeoned to death and summarily embalmed, according to the latest research, to join their deceased master and ensure faithful, eternal service in the afterlife (mid-3rd millennium in Ur, Mesopotamia). But this system seems not to have endured. The Egyptians made do with moulded models, and the famous terracotta army was made of clay, not of people. For a long time the death of a ruler remained an affair between the surviving relatives and the religious authorities, but prestige might be lent by the architect of a monument. In Florence, Lorenzo the Magnificent had a simple tomb in San Lorenzo, but it was designed by Michelangelo.
The lying in state of a person of authority for the benefit not only of relatives and members of the apparatus of state but also of the common people, seems to have developed in the US, starting in 1852 with Henry Clay, a senator with a long and distinguished political career. In 1865 Abraham Lincoln was the first president to lie in state. The place of choice was the Capitol in Washington, DC. While we know when, however, it is not clear why it came about. Certainly the dramatic circumstances of Lincoln’s death played a part; moreover, as a young country looking for a common identity, the shared moment of grief acquired a momentum of its own in the United States and needed an outlet. The first statesman to be awarded the honour in the UK was Gladstone, in 1898, and from then on the practice spread and has now become routine. The first member of the British royal family to lie in state was Edward VII in 1910.
Another possible explanation for the custom of placing a body in an open casket is the fear of mistaken death. This encouraged people to delay burial for a few days to make sure that the departed was truly no more. The corpse would be kept in the house while well-wishers would come to pay their respects and comfort the family. While the medically accepted phenomenon of autoresuscitation (or Lazarus syndrome) is rare, the fear of being buried alive was and is very real. One can find all sort of examples on the web, including the case of a person who came back to life during his own autopsy.
Paola Pugsley is the author of Blue Guides to Crete and Turkey
This new book by Charles Saumarez Smith (Thames & Hudson, 2021) is a fascinating look at how museums, their mission and their vision, have evolved over the past half-century. Forty-two museums are explored; the choice is personal, focusing on institutions that the author knows well, without any aim to be deliberately exclusive. Saumarez Smith joined the staff of the V&A in 1992. Throughout the course of a distinguished career, he has been director of both the National Portrait Gallery and the National Gallery, and Secretary and Chief Executive of the Royal Academy, all in London.
As he was writing the book, Saumarez Smith noticed a clear pattern: a ‘universal decline in belief in a master narrative.’ In its place, he detected ‘a growing interest in the validity of individual response…and in treating the museum as an opportunity for private adventure.’ In an age when Tate thinks Wikipedia can give just as good a summary of the life and work of the artists represented in their collection as their own curators could or should, this study is more than timely.
Museum directors were once upon a time supremely imperious. The director of the V&A in the early 1930s described the public as ‘a noun of three letters beginning with A and ending with S…We heave sighs of relief when they go away and leave us to our jobs.’ For him, the visitor off the street was an unwelcome nuisance, not the raison d’être of his institution. Museum directors might still be imperious, but so are donors and trustees—and so are artists and architects. Lina Bo Bardi, who designed the MASP in São Paulo (opened 1969), is quoted as declaring: ‘The museum belongs to the people…They gaze at a picture in the same way they look into a shop window…They take part even if they lack “cultural grounding”.’ Far from being in the way, the visitor off the street has become fetishised. The museum and its designers take their cue from him or her and try to appease his/her appetites.
The idea that ‘museums and galleries should be places of deep scholarship more than public enjoyment’ has gone. And it is interesting to see how museum design reflects this. Firstly, there is the building. Up until the outbreak of WWII, the accepted architectural style for a museum was Neoclassical, a temple to the Muses. As an example, Saumarez Smith gives the National Gallery of Art in Washington, designed in 1937. With its colonnaded portico, its central rotunda modelled on the Pantheon in Rome, and its gallery spaces arranged around a courtyard, it was designed to be stately and solemn and to serve the art it housed.
Two decades later, the construction of the Guggenheim in New York brought to the fore a tension between curators, who wanted spaces to exhibit art, and architects, who wanted those spaces themselves to steal the show. The Guggenheim’s architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, was seen to have won the contest when almost three thousand people queued up to get inside his building when it opened in 1959. Ever since then, people have regarded the Guggenheim Museum as ‘a great symbolic monument, at least as important for the experience of its architecture as for seeing its collections.’ Another architect who liked to call the shots, Mies van der Rohe, said airily of his Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin (1968): ‘It is such a huge hall that of course it means great difficulties for the exhibiting of art. I am fully aware of that. But it has such potential that I simply cannot take those difficulties into account.’ And this concept, of the museum building not simply as a receptacle for knowledge or revelation but as an iconic piece of starchitecture, has been tenacious. A later Guggenheim Museum, the one in Bilbao by Frank Gehry (1997), represents what Saumarez Smith believes is a paradigm shift: ‘No one thinks of it in terms of its collection.’ It is famous as a monument in its own right, like the Taj Mahal. People go to visit it for its own sake, to experience the excitement of its architectural form.
I.M. Pei (National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1978) celebrates the fact that ‘Museums have become much more than storehouses for art; they have become also important places for public gathering.’ The museum’s role is to provide visitors with a special sort of experience, beyond what everyday life can provide, and the emphasis is no longer on learning but on individual response. So it is not only the architect who holds the reins; it is also the public. The Victorians regarded themselves as public-spirited, as educators, as throwing open doors to a wider populace. Now, though, we see their attitude as de haut en bas. We see their grandiose buildings not as thrilling and inspiring but as intimidating; we see their egalitarian educational ideal as elitist; we see as blinkered their belief that focusing attention on the objects on display would open windows in the mind. Saumarez Smith himself directly tackled this in the Ondaatje Wing of the National Portrait Gallery in London (2000): ‘A coolly democratic attempt to open up and widen public access to a Victorian public institution…and to make it look outwards by giving it a view from the restaurant over the rooftops.’
With the desire to make the public feel embraced rather than instructed, art loses its pole position. Nicholas Serota describes Tate Modern (London, 2000) as ‘a place that people will want to go and meet others and then perhaps go and look at some modern and contemporary art. It’s a place that should become part of the social fabric as well as the cultural fabric.’ In the 19th century this function was provided not by the museum but by the village church or opera house, where people went to catch an eligible eye rather than pay attention to sermons or soprano solos. But today, it is not only the design of museum buildings which has shifted, it is also the curatorial approach. At the Menil Collection in Houston, Texas (Renzo Piano, 1987), the walls were kept free of explanatory texts so that nothing could ‘interfere with the emotion art could inspire in the viewer.’ Deep knowledge, which a traditional curator might have thought necessary before the public can fully understand and appreciate the art on display, has become an encumbrance. Instead people go to explore themselves. Again discussing Tate Modern, Serota says, ‘Our aim must be to generate a condition in which visitors can experience a sense of discovery…rather than find themselves standing on a conveyor belt of history.’ It now seems axiomatic that historical narrative is bad, that fixing individual works of art in historical relationships to other works of art is too preachy, too systematic, too objective. Peter Zumthor, architect of the Kolumba diocesan museum in Cologne (2007), talks of works of art being treated as ‘objects to be contemplated and appreciated aesthetically and spiritually without too much explanation or an imposed historical interpretation. The point is to look, to think, to contemplate, and to absorb their beauty.’ Instead of the works, via the medium of the museum, transmitting inherent meaning to the viewer, the viewer is invited to bring his or her own meaning to the works and to be somehow redeemed by them.
The design of the Benesse House Museum in Naoshima (1992) was informed by ‘a belief that museums could provide access to a different order of quasi-spiritual experience from the everyday consumer world.’ At Renzo Piano’s Beyeler Foundation in Basel (1997), people use its spaces for ‘reflection and contemplation—spiritual recuperation.’ But alongside contemplation and response, museums have also come to be about adventure. Architects have been keen to make their spaces mysterious. Instead of the progression through a clear enfilade we have the maze. ‘Mystery has replaced logic. Order and rationality have been displaced by unpredictability.’ This is the museum as funfair, ghost train, escape room. Parts of it might be given over to retreat and contemplation; other parts are for social mingling; still others for fun or for commerce. It is a city within a city and as such, the museum has given itself an ambitious role; it has ‘increasingly important public responsibilities beyond the simple display of art.’ But when museums start thinking in terms of public responsibilities, is this not arrogating authority to themselves? And how does one avoid the danger of institutionalisation? The new MoMA (2004) designed by Yoshio Taniguchi, is, Saumarez Smith thinks, ‘too bland, too like a corporate headquarters for modern art.’ So on the one hand there is the risk of corporate vanilla; on the other, a danger of turning art galleries into retail spaces. ‘Museums are becoming ever more commercial and looking ever more like shopping malls.’ An ephemeral quality is becoming more apparent, too. Major Western museums are starting to franchise their collections in other parts of the world—China, the Gulf—but while governments are keen on financing totemic buildings, paying for high-quality staff and long-term running costs is another matter. Perhaps a museum might have no permanent collection at all but simply be a pop-up, borrowing iconic works for a limited period, used as a tool of soft power.
For much of the second half of the last century, pedagogues would talk about language ‘acquisition’ as opposed to language ‘learning’, convinced that acquiring language naturally, as a child does, instead of memorising cases and declensions, was more communicative and more fun. For most of that same half-century, museums have stopped being ‘places where visitors come to find out, and be told, about the past: they are no longer treated as public lecture rooms, where works of art are laid out according to strict historical sequence.’ But grammar can be a democratic and liberating tool and it can level the playing field. Can art history not do the same? And if curators believe in a definite message and in an imperative to transmit it, will the schoolroom approach not have to make a comeback? It might be that we are at just such a juncture now. In Lens in northeast France, at the satellite Louvre museum by SANAA (2012), the part of the project which Saumarez Smith found most successful and memorable is the Galerie du Temps, ‘laid out as a walk through a three-dimensional, transnational history in which some of the greatest objects from the Louvre’s collection are presented laterally along a strict timeline…It is exceptionally logical and intellectually coherent; possibly oversimplified, but all the better for being so easily understood and properly transnational—indeed, as far as possible, global.’ In 2012, the agenda was not the same as it would have been in Victorian times, when global and transnational were not buzz-words, but the curators have a new message and they have reached back to the logical, intellectual, historical approach to convey it.
This superb and eminently readable book takes us along a roller coaster of ups and downs, experienced by museums as they lose, regain, refashion their intellectual confidence, their belief in or rejection of, the notion of a set of universal values, alternately giving prompts to, or taking their cues from, the public. Are we a temple or a shopping mall? A schoolroom or a playground? A set-menu restaurant or a smorgasbord? At the back of our minds we know that our conclusions, half a century of ‘experiments in trying to relate the experience of art to the public’, might seem hopelessly wrong-headed by the generations that come next. But that is natural and museums ‘will continue to be rethought, redesigned and redisplayed as a result of new beliefs about their purpose.’ The 19th-century museum founders, with their mission to educate, believed that by studying the past we could learn about our present selves and the progress our civilization had made. Today, in an age which is at once self-flagellating and narcissistic, we are less interested in our past, but the mission to direct people’s thinking and to cultivate their responses is alive and kicking.
Saumarez Smith ends on a slightly sombre note. He is not sure that museums will regain their moral confidence or their financial security. There are also, with collections sourced from around the globe, inevitable questions of legitimate provenance and restitution. He concludes too, that after the death of George Floyd, museums failed to pay attention to public concerns, that they did not find a systematic way to respond to the legacy of slavery. Might a moral certainty about the need for a certain way of thinking return in the light of this? Might we see, after all, the resurgence of the didactic approach, with carefully thought-out explanatory labels unequivocally telling us what’s what?
Lost Prestige, by historian, diplomat and former Hungarian Foreign Minister Géza Jeszenszky, now published in English translation, is a book about reputation. Using British perceptions of Hungary in the years leading up to the First World War, it seeks to examine more broadly the relationships between states, and how international reactions to particular events can shape universal judgements. We have all become used to seeing opinions presented as general consensus by a manipulative Press, or appearing to have traction on an unedited social media, but what does this really reveal? We are in a hall of mirrors, Jeszenszky suggests. And behind this, as the silvering on the mirror, lies moral posturing or vested interest.
No mirror is perfect: every looking glass, however well made, distorts the image, sometimes in subtle ways. Nor is the person who looks in the mirror an impartial spectator: they are looking for a reflection that will show them what they want to see or that will flatter their sense of self.
The specific conundrum with which Jeszenszky grapples is this: In 1848, Hungary rebelled against Austria, demanding its constitutional freedoms. Hungarians gained wide international support, particularly in Britain, and came to be seen as a noble people standing up bravely against oppressive and absolutist masters. By 1914 this reputation was in tatters and it was Hungary, rather than Austria, who was regarded as authoritarian and chauvinistic. How did this happen?
If we cannot see things directly ourselves, we rely on mirrors and lenses for information. Lost Prestige is an examination of how the perception of things and the way those perceptions are presented can alter the course of history. Immediately after 1848, Hungarians were largely telling their own story. The anti-Habsburg revolutionary Ferenc Pulszky spent his exile in Britain and his wife Theresa wrote a best-selling memoir in English. The architect of the revolution, Lajos Kossuth, toured Britain and America giving talks to enthusiastic audiences. But although reactions were widely favourable, the Habsburg empire was nevertheless still seen as integral to the European balance of power. Voicing public support for plucky Hungary’s bid for independence was one thing, but Britain’s mandarins were privately pleased when in 1849 Russia stepped in to crush the revolution and to restore the integrity of Austria. A fully independent Hungary was not in Britain’s interests. It was a romantic idea, perhaps, but not a sensible one. In the first years of the 20th century, however, two influential British commentators appeared: Henry Wickham Steed (Vienna correspondent of the Times), and R.W. Seton-Watson, a journalist and campaigner. Initially both men were great champions of Hungary but over time their attitudes became more and more critical. Their conclusions not only swayed the opinions of the British public; they also began to influence British foreign policy, in Hungary’s disfavour. How and why?
By the 1890s, Hungary was no longer the underdog. She was widely seen to have received a “good deal” in the Compromise agreement of 1867, when the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary came into being, but the huge bulk of her non-Magyar population—Croats, Slovaks, Romanians and others—lacked political representation. International sympathies now turned to these marginalised minorities. Britain had another reason, too, for deploring Hungary’s attitude: internal conflicts between Magyars and non-Magyars blinded the country as a whole to the external threats besetting it. In holding up a mirror to Hungary, Britain hoped to see a bulwark against German ambition. Instead it saw selfish, Magyar-centric chauvinism, an arrogant assumption that the prosperity Hungary enjoyed was all of her own making, and petty quarrelsomeness with Austria in demanding more rights for herself while denying those same rights to her non-Magyar peoples. Hungary’s obstreperousness in obstructing the proper workings of Parliament and stubbornly insisting on a Hungarian language of command (instead of German) in the Hungarian army (despite the fact that almost half of its soldiers were not Magyars) was widely deplored. For decades the existence of a united Austria-Hungary had been central to British policy, its dissolution unthinkable. Britain now began to think about it.
It was at this point that Wickham Steed and Seton-Watson came into their own. The Monarchy’s Slavs, Wickham Steed reported, were more reliably anti-German than the Hungarians. Partition of Austria and the creation of new buffer states along ethnic lines might be a better safeguard against German domination of the region. The creation of such states would bring the added advantage of liberating peoples groaning under a system of repression by Hungary which Seton-Watson described as “without any parallel in civilized Europe”. This book does not directly blame Seton-Watson or Wickham Steed for the outcome of Trianon (the post-WWI treaty by which Hungary was deprived of two thirds of her territory, millions of her citizens and a significant proportion of her natural resources), but it was Britain who led the charge towards the dismemberment of the Habsburg empire and it did this even before the War was over, for example by entering into treaties with Italy and Romania, enticing them over to the Allied side in return for territorial reward. Jeszenszky quotes a telegram sent in January 1915 to the British Embassy in Bucharest by the Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey: “We have already declined to entertain any suggestion of Hungarian independence that would prevent satisfaction of Roumanian national aspirations as regards Transylvania.” It was a done deal. What Britain did not see was that there is no such thing as “the Slavs”. Croats, Serbs and Slovenes do not always think alike and their interests are not necessarily the same; nor are those of Czechs and Slovaks. Prophetic voices such as that of the intelligence officer Leo Amery, warning that breaking up Austria-Hungary would create a “new Balkan” of weak, unstable states which would “sooner or later lead to another war”, were ignored.
Britain was an imperial power not known for championing the self-determination of the peoples under her dominion. How dare she, one might ask, attack Hungary on the subject of the way she treated her minorities? Wickham Steed excused himself by maintaining that his attitude was directed purely and simply by British national interest. As he saw it, a Hungary which worked in harmony with its nationalities would be a stronger ally against Germany. One that was at daggers drawn with them was a danger to Britain. Seton-Watson’s attitude was more personal. He had friends among the non-Magyars in Hungary and the horror-stories they told him led him to see everything in black and white. His Racial Problems in Hungary (1908) was shocking and convincing but it was also exaggerated and factually selective, “a passionate piece of polemical writing”. Hungary was certainly unlucky in making an enemy of him, since he was more of an activist than a historian. He orchestrated the bombardment of Austro-Hungarian troops with leaflets showing proposed new national borders and urging Slav and Romanian soldiers to desert and join international legions. Murky tactics. But Jeszenszky notes that Hungary was fooling herself in clinging to the notion that she was or could become a homogenous nation and her tendency to see all manifestations of national feeling as separatism, and thus to crush them, merely served to fan the flames.
In some ways this book is a portrait in non-fiction of the plot of Miklós Bánffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy: a wilfully blind elite class of Magyars refusing to see how hard the people they oppress (both the national minorities and the working classes) are longing for their destruction. And Jeszenszky pulls off a rare feat: he makes parliamentary history into a page-turner. But quite a lot of background knowledge is taken for granted and readers not already familiar with Hungarian history will need to look things up, because Lost Prestige is not a history book, it is a book about image: about how Hungary was viewed and judged by external media and about how it failed to turn the mirror on itself to see how big its warts really were.
The Paris Peace Conference made many mistakes. In Central Europe, multiple peoples were living “overlapping and mixed and it was next to impossible to create States uniting all the members of a nation and having no large minorities that had their own distinct language and identity.” Human nature is universal and after Trianon, Hungarians found themselves minorities among the peoples they had tried to Magyarise. But what would have happened if Hungary had appeased its nationalities? Would concessions have prevented the break-up of the Hungarian lands? Or merely accelerated it? The opinions that become history are all about perception. Perceptions drive events. Tony Blair and the spin doctors were right: it is crucial to put the right gloss on things.
The English translation of this book is timely. How is it that Hungary has once again alienated the world’s press, when in 1956 and 1989 it was lionised? Are we seeing a repeat of 1848 and 1914? It is always tempting to look for historical parallels. The UK’s vote to leave the EU unleashed intense confrontation between leavers and remainers. Can similarities be seen with post-Dualist Hungary? Does today’s European Union approximate to the federation of states that some early 20th-century observers believed was the solution to Austria-Hungary, Germany, Russia and European equipoise?
And to what degree were Seton-Watson and Wickham Steed’s analyses fair? Reputation is a fragile thing, an “idle and most false imposition, oft got without merit and lost without deserving” (Othello). Hungary, as Jeszenszky points out, was neither so liberal before the turn of the 20th century nor so reactionary afterwards as British commentators portrayed it. But instead of angrily blaming the mirror for distortion, he suggests, a better response is to consider instead whether some of the faults it shows might actually be there. We should take Jeszenszky’s concluding lines to heart: “Self-awareness that also rests on criticism from others is essential to individuals as well as to nations.”
Lost Prestige: Hungary’s Changing Image in Britain 1894–1918, by Géza Jeszenszky. English Translation by Brian McLean. Published by Helena History Press, 2020. Reviewed here by Annabel Barber.
The first edition of Blue Guide London was published in 1918, the year of the Spanish Flu. Work on the 19th edition was supposed to be completed in 2020, the year of Covid-19. But the measures introduced to contain the spread of the virus have brought research to a temporary halt. Curiously, the last place we revisited before lockdown was Aldgate, the parish where “H.F.”, the narrator of Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, was a resident. Though a fictional account, Defoe’s Journal is based heavily on fact, as supplied by observation, experience and survivors’ stories. Defoe himself knew Aldgate well. He was married in its church, which features more than once in the Journal. He describes the great plague pit that was dug in its churchyard—“a terrible pit it was”—and he also recounts an incident in the church itself:
Once, on a public day, whether a Sabbath-day or not I do not remember, in Aldgate Church, in a pew full of people, on a sudden one fancied she smelt an ill smell. Immediately she fancies the plague was in the pew, whispers her notion or suspicion to the next, then rises and goes out of the pew. It immediately took with the next, and so to them all; and every one of them, and of the two or three adjoining pews, got up and went out of the church.
Blue Guide London’s description of Aldgate reads as follows:
Busy Houndsditch, dominated by the catenary curve of the ‘Can of Ham’ Tower (Foggo Associates, 2019), follows the course of the old moat outside London’s city wall. At the the south end of it is the bright blue St Botolph Building (Grimshaw Architects, 2011), in whose glossy panels is reflected the now diminished-in-stature spire of the church of St Botolph-without-Aldgate, which stands on Aldgate Square. The square marks the site of the Aldgate, or ‘old gate’, which guarded the road out of London to the east. A ‘draught on Aldgate Pump’ (which still stands at the junction of Fenchurch St and Leadenhall St) was once a cant expression for a worthless bill. Geoffrey Chaucer leased the house above the Aldgate from the City of London in 1374. Overlooking Aldgate Square to the west is a handsome Primary School, founded in 1710 by the charitable alderman Sir John Cass (d. 1718). On the annual Founder’s Day (20th Feb), children and guests wear a red feather in honour of Cass, who suffered a fatal haemorrhage whilst writing the will by which he funded the school, staining his white goose quill red with blood. The Founder’s Day parade includes a sermon in St Botolph’s.
The church has a long history. The first chapel or oratory was built here over 1,000 years ago, outside the old City gate so that travellers could pray on arrival and departure (Botolph is the patron saint of wayfarers; relics of his were kept at churches dedicated to him at each of the London city gates). The current building is by George Dance the Elder (1744) with an interior by John Francis Bentley (1888–95). In the octagonal vestibule is a memorial to Robert Dow (d. 1612), a benefactor, with anxious-looking portrait bust, his arms clamped upon a complacently grinning skull. Daniel Defoe was married here in 1683. Thomas Bray, founder of the SPCK and SPG, was vicar here from 1708–22. Jeremy Bentham was christened here in 1747. William Symington, pioneer of steam navigation who built the Charlotte Dundas, died here ‘in want’ in 1831 and is buried here (tablet on the west wall). Built into the perimeter wall of the churchyard is an old Metropolitan Drinking Fountain of 1906, with the iron cup still attached by a chain.
So far, so good. But there are other Defoe references we could add, marked on the map below.
Beyond Aldgate Square, among massive new office blocks and thundering traffic, the ancient Hoop and Grapes pub (1) on the corner of Mansell St shows the former scale of the buildings that once stood here. Its foundations go back to the 13th century: Defoe would certainly have known it, although he chooses instead to mention two other taverns in his Journal of the Plague Year. One of them, no longer extant but which stood just to the west of the Hoop and Grapes, is the Three Nuns Inn (2), close to the entrance to the street known as Minories (3) (whose name comes from those same nuns, the Franciscan Sorores Minores, or Minoresses). It was from this end of Minories, while standing in St Botolph’s churchyard, that H.F. saw torches approaching. They were lighting a dead-cart bringing bodies to the pit, and accompanying it was a man, mourning his wife and children. Defoe describes how, overcome by grief, he is taken to the Pie Tavern at the end of Houndsditch (4), where he is mocked by a group of drunk and insensitive “plague deniers”, who end up themselves being carried off by the pestilence. And the dwelling place of H.F. himself is given with some accuracy: “I lived without Aldgate, about midway between Aldgate Church and Whitechappel Bars, on the left hand or north side of the street.” Just about where Aldgate Tube Station (5) is now, in other words.
This month, a new exhibition devoted to the art of the 17th-century painter Artemisia Gentileschi was to have opened at the National Gallery in London. Blue Guides was to have visited the exhibition and posted a review of it. That will now have to wait.
Artemisia Gentileschi features in many Blue Guides, notably the volumes covering Rome, Florence and Southern Italy. She was particularly fond of biblical and religious scenes with a tough female protagonist (Samson and Delilah, Salome with the Head of the Baptist, Judith and Holofernes). London’s National Gallery recently acquired a self-portrait of the artist in the guise of St Catherine of Alexandria, the saint who was broken on the ‘Catherine wheel’. The entry on Gentileschi in Blue Guide Florence says the following:
Gentileschi, Artemisia (1593–1652). Talented and independent, Gentileschi trained under her father, Orazio Gentileschi, an artist who owed much to Caravaggio. She worked in Rome but moved to Florence to carry out commissions for Cosimo II de’ Medici. Dramatic Caraveggesque chiaroscuro certainly suited Artemisia’s choice of subject matter. She had a particular affinity for the story of Judith and Holofernes (her most famous treatment of the subject is in the Uffizi). Legend relates this to the fact that Artemisia was raped as a young woman and that her assailant was never brought to justice.
“Judith and Holofernes”. Museo di Capodimonte, Naples
According to the National Gallery, this story was no legend. Artemisia was indeed raped and her assailant, though found guilty, was never fully punished. Her attacker, Agostino Tassi, enjoyed a career in Rome producing painted decorations for a number of palazzi and as assistant to Claude Lorrain. Blue Guide Rome, in its Glossary of Artists, merely mentions him as a “painter known for his landscapes. In Rome he worked alongside a number of other artists.” Perhaps, after this London exhibition, we might feel tempted to say more.
Apart from the Judith and Holofernes in the Uffizi, there is another version of the same scene, in the Capodimonte museum in Naples. It is that version that is pictured above. And you can read more about the National Gallery’s planned exhibition on Gentileschi here.