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Saving the Great Bear: Trieste's floating crane

Towering nearly 80 metres over the harbour of Trieste, cranked at an angle of about 30 degrees, stands a huge pontoon crane: the URSUS. She has been declared a national monument and has been taken to the collective heart of the people of Trieste as one of the symbols of the city, more potent probably than the halberd of St Sergius which decorates all the lamp posts and civic buildings. The pontoon on which she floats was built in 1914, in Trieste’s San Marco shipyard. The crane itself dates from 1931, from the same shipyard. When it was announced in the spring of this year that funds for her restoration were insufficient, it caused consternation. “After all,” remarked a café proprietor on Riva Nazario Sauro, “this is the Ursus we’re talking about. She’s history. She’s been towed all up and down this coast to work, even as far as Croatia. We can’t just let her sink.” But her pontoon is damaged. Furious bora winds in March 2011, sweeping the coast at over 170 kmph, wrested her from her moorings and she went galumphing out to sea like a rogue elephant, bumping herself in the process. This YouTube video shows her mad stampede, as two tugs attempt to catch her.

But the thousands of euros of public money made available by the region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia have been deemed insufficient to cover the maintenance and restoration costs that her overhaul will incur. More money (according to the local newspaper Il Piccolo, around 40,000 euro) needs to be found—and quickly, or the existing 150,000 made over by the region will be used for other projects.

Ursus is a magnificent sight, even in her present rusting, hunkered-down state. Let’s remain bullish that the bear can be saved.

Ursus from the top
Ursus from the bottom

News from Florence

Madonna and Child by Jacopo di Cione. Photo ©Sailko.

For many years in the buildings adjoining the magnificent church of Santa Croce (in the rooms around the sacristy and in the great refectory) some important works of art have been on a temporary display. A few weeks ago a definitive arrangement of them was presented to the public. They have been housed in the conventual buildings since the first years of the 20th century (when they were rescued from religious houses suppressed by Napoleon).

In the last few decades Santa Croce has found itself in a rather unhappy geographical position: on a straight street which provides an entrance to the city from the ring-road, which makes it a favourite place for bus tours. An added attraction is the old-established 'leather factory' attached to the church, and leather goods are now sold in the shops on the approach so that, all in all, it represents a perfect stopping place for tour groups which are being hurried on their way from Venice to Rome, but in this way can also fit in a few hours in Florence en route. So it is all the more important that if you are on your own and the church becomes too crowded (as it more often than not does by mid-morning), you can now visit the quieter areas which have been beautifully restored.

Close to the famous frescoes by Giotto in two chapels at the east end of the huge church, you enter a corridor off which is the sacristy, where Cimabue's famous painted Crucifix has at last found a permanent position. It was the most important work of art in Florence to be damaged in the Arno flood of 1966. After a spectacular restoration it is now hung high enough in this beautiful room to be safe from the waters of the Arno should they ever break their banks again. Painted before 1288, it shows Christ 'patiens' (suffering) rather than 'triumphans' and is for that reason a particularly dramatic figure. The sacristy, because it was part of such an important religious house, is very spacious and has its own 'chapel' covered with splendid frescoes by Giovanni da Milano, one of the most interesting followers of Giotto.

From the sacristy you can now go into an adjacent room which has a well in a niche frescoed by Paolo Schiavo, currently being restored. The well would have provided fresh water for the lavabo that was once here. The walls have now been hung with panel paintings (from suppressed churches and convents) which have been in storage here ever since the first years of the 19th century. A triptych by Giovanni del Biondo is dedicated to St John Gualberto, with stories from his life. A modern frame has been reconstructed around Nardo di Cione's triptych which is particularly interesting for its predella, which has unusual scenes from the life of Job. Also here is St James the Greater Enthroned by Lorenzo Monaco.

The Chapel of the Novices, built for Cosimo de' Medici by his favourite architect Michelozzo, is also now open. It houses two huge paintings in wonderful gilded frames by Battista di Marco del Tasso; a Deposition by Salviati and a Descent into Limbo by Bronzino. There is also a Descent from the Cross by Alessandro Allori and a Trinity (with the dead Christ) by Ludovico Cigoli. The enamelled terracotta altarpiece is a della Robbia work and above it a little stained-glass window (designed by Alesso Baldovinetti) has the two Medici patron saints, Cosmas and Damian.

In a tiny barrel-vaulted room off the chapel, with one little window and just large enough to hold a coffin, a bust of Galileo records the fate of the great scientist's corpse, which was hidden here in 1642 before it was decided he could be given a Christian burial inside the church nearly a century later. In the corridor outside are four gold-ground paintings and a monument to Lorenzo Bartolini, who by the time of his death in 1850 had become the most important sculptor of his day.

Back in the church itself, beside the very beautiful Annunciation tabernacle by Donatello, a door leads out to the first cloister. At the foot of the steps, behind a white curtain, is the Pazzi Chapel, one of the most perfect Renaissance interiors in Florence. Close by is the second cloister, one of the most peaceful and beautiful spaces in the city. The rooms of the museum here are now a bit shabby, but don't miss the last room, which has a delightful fragment of the Madonna learning to sew and a fragment of the grieving Madonna in a delicate peach-coloured robe, which found its way here in 1904 from somewhere in the city. In the same room are two newly restored Madonnas, one by the Maestro di San Martino alla Palma, and one by Jacopo di Cione, with the Child in a golden tunic. From this room you enter directly into the splendid Gothic refectory with its huge frescoed representation of the Last Supper by Taddeo Gaddi. This space has now regained its spacious atmosphere. Don't miss the fresco fragment with one of the earliest views of the Baptistery or the gilded bronze St Louis of Toulouse made by Donatello for the exterior of Orsanmichele.

In a little cloister behind the Pazzi Chapel (entered from the new Information Office) an interesting and well-designed little exhibition illustrates the history of the Arno floods (and a 'totem' outside show the various levels the water reached). Also here there is sometimes access to a huge crypt (beneath the sacristy), the 'Famedio', a First World War memorial opened by the Fascist regime in 1937 with the names of the 3,672 Florentine soldiers who fell in the fighting inscribed on black marble all around the walls.

As mentioned above, Santa Croce and its piazza can become uncomfortably crowded—but you can slip away from the crowds with the greatest ease if you seek out the little medieval church of San Remigio, in an extremely peaceful corner of town. At the far end of the piazza (the opposite end from the church) take Borgo de' Greci and then (second left) Via de' Malagotti, which leads to it directly. The church contains one of the most beautiful 13th-century paintings of the Madonna and Child in Florence, by an unknown master named from this work the 'Maestro di San Remigio'.

by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Florence, available in print and digital formats. For more, see here.

Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Parmigiano-Reggiano comes from a strictly defined area: both the cheese and the milk from which it is made are produced only in the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena and Mantua, by a consortium of 600 small dairies. The cows graze in open pastures or are fed locally-grown fodder, and all-natural fermenting agents are used to give the cheese its particular flavour and texture.

Today, as eight centuries ago, the process is the same: milk, fire, rennet and the skill and knowledge of cheese masters are the basic ingredients. The giant truckles are aged naturally for at least a year (usually two years or more), all the while being brushed and turned, and inspected daily to check that they match up to strict consortium standards.

Parmigiano-Reggiano is a DOP (Designazione d’Origine Protetta) product, which means it meets special EU quality standards. If buying a truckle (or, more likely, part of one), you should look for ID markings on the rind: the words PARMIGIANO REGGIANO, the identification number of the dairy, the month and year of production, the acronym DOP in pin-dot stencil.

Real Parmigiano-Reggiano is straw-coloured and the colour is always uniform throughout the cheese. Inside, the cheese forms long, thin flakes radiating from, or converging towards, the centre. The internal mass tends to be soft, minutely granulated, and dotted with barely visible holes. Although these traits remain constant, it is still possible to detect differences between individual cheeses. As is the case with any hand-made product, each truckle has a touch of individuality.

Explore Parma, Reggio Emilia and Modena with Blue Guides’ new ebook on the region of Emilia Romagna. See here for details.

Baccio Bandinelli: a rehabilitation

Baccio Bandinelli, self-portrait, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

by Alta Macadam

 

This exhibition, running at the Museo Nazionale del Bargello in Florence until 13th July, is the first ever show devoted to this sculptor, who was of supreme importance during his lifetime in 16th-century Florence, not only for his skill as an artist but also because he was the official sculptor of the Medici. He learnt his art directly from Michelangelo and (the far less well-known) Giovanfrancesco Rustici. Bandinelli’s pupils included Vincenzo de’ Rossi, Ammannati, and his successor as court sculptor for the Medici, Giambologna. The Bargello is therefore the most fitting place to hold this exhibition, since in the first room of the museum, recently rearranged, all of these sculptors are very well represented.

 

The reason for the notable lack of interest in Bandinelli (1493–1560) until now is probably due most of all to the fact that he was clearly an unpleasant man and jealous of his position as the Medici favourite. In public he was particularly fond of doing down Cellini, whom we know far better through his delightful Autobiography and who was by far the greater sculptor, but who suffered from the success of his rival.

 

Bandinelli had the grossly mistaken idea to carve a colossal statue as a pair to Michelangelo’s David outside the entrance to Palazzo Vecchio. It is one of the worst sculptures produced in Florence in the 16th century. Representing Hercules and Cacus, the two figures are flabby and in fact border on the ridiculous. Cellini was delighted to point this out to Cosimo I in the presence of Bandinelli, but Cosimo still continued to commission statues from Bandinelli rather than Cellini including, nearly thirty years later, the huge but feeble and languid Neptune for the fountain a few metres away in Piazza della Signoria (it had to completed by his pupil Ammannati after his death). Cellini’s famous Perseus is in the loggia of the same square but its model and original base and exquisite bronze statuettes are preserved in the Michelangelo room where the exhibition begins. Cellini would have been satisfied indeed that these and some of his other superb sculptures are displayed here, establishing his pre-eminence.

 

Bandinelli’s earliest sculptures in the exhibition include a mutilated classical Mercury from the Louvre, a bas-relief of the Flagellation from Orleans (with a plaster cast of it from the Casa Martelli in Florence) and several red chalk drawings from the Louvre and another from the British Museum. There is also a small relief of the Deposition in gilded and painted stucco from the Victoria and Albert Museum. All these demonstrate clearly Bandinelli’s superb skills as a draughtsman, and also particularly as a sculptor in low relief.

 

A number of busts by him of his patron Cosimo I are displayed together, including one which he carved for the façade of his own residence in Via Ginori, as a proud statement of his allegiance to the Medici family (now in a private collection it has rarely been seen since its was removed from the house front). Accompanying these works is Cellini’s colossal bronze bust of Cosimo, now even more impressive since, in the new display of the permanent collection here it has been raised higher on a pedestal, and clearly it is a greater portrait of the powerful Duke than any produced by Bandinelli.

 

Some of Bandinelli’s best marble reliefs were carved for an elaborate new choir he designed for the Duomo, directly beneath the dome, but which was never completed and was ultimately considered unsuitable for the church (it included two entirely nude statues of Adam and Eve which were to flank the altar, and which are on permanent display in this room). Some of the superb original reliefs are on display next to a model of how this ambitious project would have looked: it was to have included some 300 similar reliefs. Bandinelli’s Bacchus is also displayed here, rejoining three other statues on permanent display in this room: Sansovino’s earlier Bacchus; Cellini’s classical Ganymede; and Michelangelo’s David-Apollo, all four of which are known to have been special favourites of the Duke’s, which he kept together in a room of his palace.

 

The exhibition continues in two small rooms also off the courtyard. Here you can see a series of Bandinelli's exquisite small bronzes, all from the Bargello collection. Seen on their own they confirm his mastery of this genre. All around the walls are examples of Bandinelli’s splendid drawings, many in red chalk, from the Uffizi, including two of his famous patrons Pope Leo X and Cosimo I, clearly drawn from life in the 1540s.

 

In the last room there is a memorable portrait of the young Bandinelli by an unknown Florentine painter influenced by Andrea del Sarto and a marble relief of a bearded man attributed to Bandinelli, as well as his self-portrait in terracotta dating from around 1557. The show helps reinstates Bandinelli as an artist of great merit, and it is always a delight to return to the Bargello, which is one of the finest museums in Florence and never, for some mysterious reason, over-crowded.

 

Alta Macadam is the author of Blue Guide Florence.

Artwork of the month: May. "Flora", Pompeii

The Sorrento peninsula begins at the modern town of Castellammare di Stabia, on the southeast shore of the Bay of Naples. It takes its name from its 9th-century castle and from the ancient city of Stabiae, which was swallowed up by the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79. Pliny the Elder met his death on the beach at Stabiae, suffocated by toxic fumes from the volcano. On the plain of Varano and in the hills above, overlooking the water, are the remains of two Roman villas. The Villa Arianna dates from the 2nd century BC. It is not known how large it was at its full extent, as many of its clifftop rooms have collapsed, but surviving remains show a sumptuous, spacious building, including the large palaestra. Some of the surviving wall decoration and floor mosaics are very fine. In the main triclinium was a fresco of Ariadne, abandoned on Naxos by Theseus, which gave the villa its name, Arianna. Finest of all the frescoes are those from the cubicula, detached in the 18th–19th centuries and now in the Archaeological Museum in Naples. One of the most interesting is the Cupid Seller, depicting two women, one young, one middle aged, confabulating together while an old crone at their feet (a procuress?) displays her wares, tiny cupids trapped in a wooden cage like chickens at a market. The image fascinated artists of the Neoclassical age, and several versions of it were produced. More famous still, and apparently without any sinister subtext, is the lovely Flora, a young girl shown with her back to us, delicately gathering spring flowers.

Stabiae and Naples are covered in Blue Guide Southern Italy.

"Cupid Seller": Soprintendenza Speciale ai Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei.

Travelling around Britain in style

Recent debate regarding rail travel in Britain has revolved around the provision of first class facilities – with some saying they should be completely scrapped to reduce the problem of overcrowding. So with some uncertainty hanging over the future of first class train travel, Blue Guides’ resident rail expert Mark Dudgeon recently went roving on the rails to see what the fuss is all about – and is the extra cost of first class worth it?

Not all Train Operating Companies (TOCs) in Britain offer first class facilities. Generally, on shorter more commuter-oriented services, the trains are one-class-only. On many longer routes, however – principally the West Coast Main Line (London to the West Midlands, North-West England and Glasgow), the East Coast Main Line (London to Yorkshire, North-East England and Edinburgh) trains offer a separate first-class section with a reduced number of seats, more space and extra treats such as free catering.

Costs

First-class travel can be very expensive - especially buying “walk-up” tickets, and if travelling during peak periods, which are generally early-to-mid morning and late afternoon/early evening on Mondays to Fridays. A walk-up round-trip ticket for the 180-kilometre, 80-minute hop from Birmingham to London, for example, costs a painful £264 in first class.

These prices may be acceptable to the captive business market, but clearly many tourists would baulk at such extravagance. There are ways, however, of reducing the cost. Purchasing advance tickets (right up to the day before departure) for travel outside peak periods can reduce the costs significantly. Rail passes, such as a BritRail pass which is available to non-residents only, also can help, especially if you are travelling a lot by rail. If you are using a rail pass in Britain, there is the added advantage that reservations can be made free-of-charge at any staffed station - just remember to take your pass with you to make the reservations.

So what can you expect for the extra cost of travelling in first class? Generally, you’ll get a bigger and more comfortable seat - first class seating is usually three-across rather than four-across in standard class - and on several long-distance routes, free wi-fi is available. And then on many long-distance services, dependent on the time of day, there will be some form of complimentary catering offered.

Blue Guides put three of the major Train Operating Companies to the test ….

Virgin Trains

First class on a Virgin Pendolino
Scrambled eggs & smoked salmon breakfast

Virgin Trains operate the West Coast Main Line (WCML) franchise, with fast, frequent trains between London’s Euston station and: Birmingham and the West Midlands; Liverpool, Manchester and the north-west of England; and Carlisle and Glasgow. On the whole they are a well-regarded outfit, and there was an outcry when they were about to be stripped of the franchise a couple of years ago – a decision which was later reversed.

On Virgin’s flagship trains, the Pendolinos, first class can comprise up to four coaches, so be prepared for airline-style service. However, the quality of breakfasts, in particular, is consistently good and much better than you would receive on an average short-haul flight. Staff are efficient, occasionally tending to the brusque – probably because of the number of passengers they have to serve, often in quite a short space of time.

Full English breakfasts are generally served from a platter and consist of fried egg, tomato, sausage, bacon and a potato. Alternatives include vegetarian breakfast, scrambled eggs with salmon, and sausage muffin. Blue Guides found the English breakfast offering to be hot, freshly cooked and tasty, adequate in size, if not especially abundant. Toast and croissants are also served, with fruit juice and tea and coffee. Service could be touched up – grab the tea or coffee when you can – there may not be a second chance – and occasionally, as happened to the Blue Guides' reporter once, you may find occasional slip-ups such as the fruit juices being served after the meal!

During the rest of the day, hot and cold snacks are served, and on some evening services from London a hot-course evening meal (often a curry or similar) is offered followed by dessert or cheese and biscuits. All accompanied by your choice of drinks (alcoholic or not) from the complimentary bar trolley. Full details of Virgin’s first class catering services are shown here on their website.

Seating is reasonably comfortable - seats are in twos or fours, generally facing each other with tables - but the inward sloping sides (necessary because of the tilting action of the train through curves) – do make the carriages feel, you might say, somewhat snug. There is the added bonus of free (and, in our experience, reliable) wi-fi in first class.

The service on Virgin’s other trains – the diesel-powered Voyagers, which mainly operate between London and North Wales, and Birmingham and Scotland - is reduced somewhat because of the lower demand (there is only one first class coach in each Voyager train set), although service tends to be more personalised.

At weekends and during holiday periods, complimentary catering is generally restricted to hot drinks and biscuits.

Blue Guides’ verdict: reasonably comfortable seating, if a little cramped; good breakfasts; free wi-fi generally works well. Worth it if you can get a good, off-peak advance fare, or are using a rail pass.

East Coast

Mid-morning snack

The East Coast Main Line, connecting the capital cities of England and Scotland is the Blue Riband route of the British rail network. Sights on the way include Durham cathedral, the striking Angel of the North sculpture before Newcastle, and later along the north-east coast of England the mystical Holy Island of Lindisfarne can be spotted in the distance, often shrouded in mist, followed by the border town of Berwick-upon-Tweed. On the way, look out for the large stencilled arrow signs appearing every so often by the side of the line: for example “Halfway between London and Edinburgh” and “Edinburgh 100 miles”. In order to get the best views, make sure you are sitting on the right side of the train (facing forward) going north, or, conversely, on the left side travelling south.

East Coast operates train services on this route, and - unusually - this is a nationalised body which took over the franchise when the previous operator forfeited it in 2009.

The seats in first class are comfortable - almost armchair-like - and there is more of a sense of space than on Virgin’s trains, even though East Coast’s trains are older. There is free Wi-Fi, but on the times Blue Guides has travelled on East Coast trains, the service has been very patchy and not reliable enough to do anything much more than occasionally checking or sending e-mails.

Complimentary catering in first class varies according to the time of day. There is a guide to what is available on the East Coast website, including a convenient, colour-coded timetable.

Blue Guides tested both the breakfast and daytime snack offerings. Breakfasts were ample and varied, although not consistently as good as on Virgin. The available options rotate on a weekly basis.

All-day snack offerings include a choice from a platter of fresh sandwiches, with pre-packaged biscuits, nibbles, and cakes. In the evening, a more substantial meal is offered on some services. As with Virgin Trains, the catering offering at weekends and during holiday periods is significantly reduced.

Service, we found, was inconsistent – some personnel were excellent and pro-active, while others were mediocre, sadly reminiscent of old, pre-privatisation British Rail days. The bar trolley offered soft and alcoholic drinks, but whether or not you were offered a refill seemed very much to be subject to the whim of the staff.

Blue Guides’ verdict: best part of the experience is the seating; the catering is reasonable and may or may not satisfy you depending on when and where you travel; forget the wi-fi.

Arriva Trains Wales

Premier service coach on Arriva Trains Wales
Premier service dinner main course

We’ve saved the best till last. You need to search hard to find the ne plus ultra of catering on British trains – and, it seems, not many people do. Indeed, on the day of the Blue Guides test, only three other passengers had the pleasure of this experience.

Arriva Trains Wales, which operates most of the trains within Wales (and between Wales and Birmingham and Manchester), doesn’t do first class on its high-density (some might say, spartan) trains – with one, glorious, exception. They don’t even call it first class – it’s called Premier Service, it’s an evening dining experience, and it’s only available on one train a day, five days a week. That train is the 17:16 departure from Cardiff to Holyhead, passing through Hereford, Shrewsbury and Chester before travelling along the North Wales coast to the Anglesey port. (On the early morning train in the reverse direction, breakfast is served).

Here you can experience the way trains used to be: a rake of coaches pulled by a locomotive, sitting in a proper, comfortable restaurant car with a menu and service to match. The menu generally consists of a choice of three appetisers, three main courses and three dessert and cheese options. On the day Blue Guides travelled on this train, the menu included: Baked local crab and cockle pots with fennel and Welsh cheddar; followed by: Pan-fried Gressingham duck breast served with braised red cabbage with apple, thyme and port, spring onion mash and peppercorn sauce; with Bara Brith, Cointreau butter pudding with cream to finish.

The three-course meal, soft and hot drinks are complimentary for passengers travelling with first class tickets and passes. The only thing that lets the experience down slightly is the wine list – reasonably priced, for sure, but on the day of our review, the only available wines were substitutes of poorer quality.

The service is personalised and friendly, and the atmosphere relaxed. This is a journey best experienced in the longer-day months of May or June, when the lovely, understated, scenery of the Welsh Marches can be savoured in all its finery, whilst sipping a glass of wine and enjoying the food in the way that civilised train travel should be. If you are travelling all the way on the longest days of year, you might well enjoy a fine sunset along the North Wales coast to boot. (We recommend you reserve seats in advance on this train: it is not compulsory, but there are only seventeen places).

So how and why does this train exist? Well, it’s operated by arrangement with the Welsh Assembly: it is financed, basically, by the Welsh taxpayer - to the tune of several thousand pounds per journey - in the interests of encouraging business connections between North and South Wales. So, be warned, it may not be around for long; and if you wish to experience it, make sure you reserve the right train because there are other, “normal” trains which ply this route.

Blue Guides’ verdict: great all-round experience, if you can get it! No extra charge for holders of a first class rail pass, but there is no wi-fi on this service.

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.

For St Olave Hart Street, plague cakes and much more besided, get Blue Guide London (18th edition), compiled, written and updated by Emily Barber.

02.04.2014
15:30

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 the Blue Guide to the Black Sea coast of Turkey (for details, see here).

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