Juan Pablo Bonet, 1573-1633: The Miracle Worker

Rasputin did for the Romanovs simply because, despite being a dreadful man, he was good at dealing with the prince’s hemophilia.  The Empire fell, a century of tragedy followed.  No real good came of it.

A happier end is the story of Juan Pablo Bonet.

Bonet was a linguist and secretary attached to the Spanish army, with which he saw action in Africa, Saboya and the Milanesado.  Almost as an aside, he became a member of the household of his commander, Juan Fernandez de Velasco, 5th Duke of Frias.  It was there that he became aware of the second son Luis (born 1610)  and the trouble his tutors were having with the boy’s deafness. Continue reading

Yolande of Aragon (1384-1442): Farewell, Yolanda

The Maid and the Queen: The Secret History of Joan of Arc
by Nancy Goldstone, Viking Adult (2012)

Subtitling anything with “Secret History”  is a bit risky, given the number of alternative theories of Joan there are out there, some more wacko than others.*

The good news is that the secret here is not at all wacko, but rather an expansion on the shadowy role of Yolanda of Aragon, Duchess of Anjou,  in getting Joan into the company of the Dauphin.  This book is a three parter, a bio of Yolanda, a bio of Joan, and aftermath of the execution to the end of the Hundred Years War.

Joan you already know.  Yolanda – you may need an introduction.

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Renato Bianco, ca 1500 – ?: Smell The Glove

The story goes that Renato was a foundling and raised by Dominican monks of Santa Maria Novella, where the brothers taught him how to distill herbs, presumably for medicinal purposes.  The work was interesting enough, but he other requirement of the order probably less so, and when the master died (rumors of murder were whispered), Renato was looking for something a little less restrictive, a little more glamorous, than being a mere apothecary.

He got his first big break concocting a bespoke scent for Catherine de’Medici (1519-1589).  She was all of fourteen.

She was also decidedly on the way up.  Niece of a pope, daughter of phenomenal wealth, in 1533, she left Florence to wed Henri, second son of King Francis I of France (and eventually king himself), and since France at the time was a backward place nowhere near as civilized as Italy, young Catherine was obliged to bring some civilization with her.  Continue reading

Jane Webb Loudon, 1807-1858: A Tale of the Nineteenth Century

“In the year 2161, England enjoyed peace and tranquility under the absolute dominion of a female sovereign.”

The year 2161 AD, mind.  And, for the record, the queen was named Claudia.

It’s a provocative opening for a book published in 1823, that is to say, just 13 years after the arrival of Pride and Prejudice,  and nine after Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). Not a lot of science fiction being done at the time, and in this case by a woman, well….

The book is familiar chiefly to academics and monomaniacs, as the vast majority of out-of-fashion novels tend to be, and of only moderate interest to casual readers.  Ms Webb’s own life story, however,  is quite interesting.  Continue reading

Mary Anne Clarke, 1776-1852: Let A Woman In Your Life

Oh, the grand old Duke of York,
He had ten thousand men;
He marched them up to the top of the hill,
And he marched them down again.

And when they were up, they were up,
And when they were down, they were down,
And when they were only half-way up,
They were neither up nor down.

The duke in question was possibly Frederick, second son of George the Third  (1763–1827), and rather a good man to have on hand if you were a soldier.  He was responsible for the administrative overhaul of the British Army that was instrumental in defeating Napoleon on the Spanish Peninsula and Waterloo.

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George du Maurier, 1834 -1896: The First Blockbuster

The nineteenth century saw the first mass market for books and concomitantly the first serious bestsellers.   Dickens and Twain, of course, made quite nice livings by writing, thanks very much, and Harriet Beecher Stowe had more than her fifteen minutes of fame.  But however well these people did, the kind of DaVinci Code phenomenon never really hit the Victorian century.

That is,  not until 1894 when George du Maurier came out of nowhere with the game changing novel Trilby.  And, no doubt to the fury of a generation of would-be scribblers, he wasn’t even a proper writer.

Du Maurier was born in Paris of Anglo-French stock (his grandmother was Regency courtesan Mary Anne Clarke, on whom more next time) and for the better part of his life was chiefly known – well known, in fact – as an illustrator.

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Sir John Hawkwood, ca 1320-1396: Inglese Italianato, Diavolo Incarnato*

A significant difficulty in raising armies or any other kind of trouble is figuring out what to do with the soldiers once the fighting stops.

At the end of the Hundred Years’ War in 1360 (more a breather than an end, but close enough for our purposes), the number of idle infantrymen and cavalry hanging around France was great enough to be a serious concern for both sides.  The soldiers had been on campaign for years having a grand old time and didn’t want to go home, not after they had seen Paree so to speak.   England didn’t want them, France certainly didn’t want them.  Best thing for the reconciled monarchs now was to direct these troublesome fellows elsewhere.  South, first, where they worried the pope who was  then in Avignon.  He suggested that they might find useful occupation in Italy.

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John Florio, 1553-1625: A Harmless Drudge

Contrary to our flash image of Italy as a Catholic country, Protestantism did in fact make some inroads into the peninsula in the 16th century.   Giordano Bruno is among the best known to have had what Americans call “issues” with the Catholic church, issues strong enough to convert such him and others to Protestantism.  Among his colleagues was  Michaelangelo Florio, a Franciscan friar of Jewish extraction and father of our subject John.  Michaelangelo made a few  ill advised sermons on the subject, and soon wound up in jail (he was fortunate that he was not, like Bruno, burned alive).  First chance he got, he was off to Protestant friendly countries, ending in England where he shepherded other exiled Italian Protestants.

His day job was to tutor of Lady Jane Grey, that unfortunate queen for nine days, in foreign languages (it is to her that he dedicated his Regole de la Lingua Thoscan).   He mourned her death greatly and presumably also mourned the elevation of the deeply Catholic Queen Mary, who had a hard enough time with English Protestants, never mind Italian tutors of royal usurpers like-  well, like Lady Jane Grey.   So it was off to Switzerland (Italian Protestant connection again)* Continue reading

Anne Boleyn, 1501-1536: The Trouble With Anne

Anne Boleyn has to date had far too many biographies written about her.  She is such a fascinating character, the woman for whom Henry the VIII broke faith with Rome to form an entirely new English church, and threw his family, and his kingdom into turmoil, and moreover lost Sir Thomas More’s head. (Someone else had to lose Sir Thomas More’s head; he never lost it himself.)

Anne Boleyn has been endlessly misjudged in my estimation.  People marvel at her success with her off-beat looks, and her eleven fingers, and her elegance, and think that those things, together with the solely contemporarily detectable quality of sexiness, explain her hold on King Henry – but I don’t think so. Continue reading

Mitsui Hachirobei, 1622-1694: One Price Fits All

Americans and, I suppose, westerners in general, tend to have a somewhat vague mental image of Japan prior to the twentieth century.   Rickety wooden temples, paper houses, zen gardens, skilled artisans, rice paddies, fishing villages, mountainous wilderness with the occasional samurai warrior wandering about looking for an injustice to set right.

The notion that they had cities and a bustling economy just as the Europeans did may not filter through.  More’s the pity.  The time and the players make for some fascinating stuff.  Consider the Mitsui family. Continue reading