REVIEW: Ten Caesars: Roman Emperors from Augustus to Constantine

Strauss Cover Ten CaesarsSir Ronald Syme, one of the scholarly giants of 20th century Roman history, frowned on biography, he thought it led to a distortion of analysis.

One doesn’t like to argue with him, but on the other hand, most of us are not scholarly giants and find the lives of real people more interesting than  abstracted historical trends. Excluding biography treats time like distance, and scales down the people of the past, miniaturizing achievement and eccentricity alike.  Whether you accept or reject the Great Man theory of history,  you have to admit, life stories make for entertaining reading.  More to the point, they spark curiosity in students and the general public, who otherwise, may back away from history entirely.

Taken as a job lot, the Roman emperors good and bad provide a  panorama of arresting characters, and in more recent years (the shadow of Syme notwithstanding) classicists have been tip toeing back to the old biographical form.  Old in that one of the pioneering  biographical gossipers, Suetonius, writing in the second century AD gave us the initial juicy joint biography of the first twelve Caesars.  Long form essays, in fact, full of amusing stories some of which must be true, though nailing him down on specifics is a perennial headache for classical scholars, and not finished yet.

Strauss, a professor at Cornell and author of several classical works for a general audiences,  enters the field with Ten Caesars.  He repeats four of Suetonius’s twelve (Augustus, Tiberius, Nero, Vespasian), and includes Trajan, Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius, Septimius Severus, Diocletian and Constantine.   The inclusions are more or less arbitrary, chosen he says for their strength and success (Nero who was neither strong nor successful, he admits, is stretching this selection policy a bit, but who can resist Nero?).     Another writer might choose other Caesars, but these will do nicely. Continue reading

Renoir’s Dancer: The Secret Life of Suzanne Valadon

Renoir’s Dancer: The Secret Life of Suzanne Valadon

St. Martin’s Press, 2018, 381 pages

Valadon as seen by Toulouse lautrec

Valadon as seen by Toulouse lautrec

The lives of female artists have seldom been easy.  This turns out to have been painfully true of the French Post Impressionist Suzanne  Valadon, who began her life as the illegitimate daughter of a linen maid in the Limousin region of France.  Her mother, left widowed young, by a husband who was a forger, subsequently apprehended, and sentenced to hard labor, decided to move to Paris to better her lot and that of the young daughter born to her some years after her husband’s death. Fate dealt the pair a severe blow, for the year of their move was 1869-70, or the year of the Paris Commune, and the resulting rioting, and famine.  Continue reading

Cristóbal Balenciaga Eizaguirre (1895 – 1972): Master of All Couturiers

The Master of Us All, Balenciaga His Workrooms, His World
by Mary Blume,
Farrar, Straus, Giroux 2013

Cristobal Balenciaga

The news of Oscar de la Renta’s death this past Monday (Oct.20th 2014) snapped one of the last remaining threads stretched between Balenciaga’s era and our own. As a young man, Mr. de la Renta had worked briefly at Balenciaga and the imprint of the great Spanish designer is on his work. You see it in de la Renta’s architectural designs and his love of deep ruffles. Continue reading

Charles Louis Désiré Du Pin (1814-1868): Red Devil

If he doesn’t appear in any of the Flashman books, he should have.  Of all the outrageous soldiers of the 19th century, Du Pin is one of the most notorious and, like Flashman himself, appears to have been everywhere.

He was born at Lasgraisses in the shadows of the Pyrenees,  attended Ecole Polytechnique in Palaiseau and was enrolled as an officer in the French Army.  His first few years were uneventful, but that changed for good once he was sent to Algeria in 1842.  Made a name for himself a year later in the battle of Smalain the 1847 capture of Abd-el Kader, and featured in the panoramic painting of the event of the sort so beloved of the 19th century patriots.  (Full marks if you can make him out.)  Promoted to Major by 1851, he was off to fight in the Crimea in 1855 (French cavalry made no such nonsensical cavalry charge into any valleys of death). Four years later he was in Italy, leading a cavalry division and helping the locals break away from the Austrian Empire.   Along the way he picked up a pair of Legions d’Honneur and and some other decorations for bravery. Continue reading

Thomas Dallum (ca. 1575 – ca.1614): Don’t Shoot, I’m Only the Organ Player

Back in the day, the day being any time between, say, 1520 and 1600, the way to the heart of the Turkish sultans was through clockwork.  Makes sense.  When you have the wealth of the world at your disposal,  you want the unusual and the unique. Toys, essentially, the fiddly wind-up spring machine types that whirred and turned and chimed and bonged.  Fortunately for Europe,  there were men who excelled in this kind of trivia.

As with anything that is not a mere commodity, the novelty value had to gear up over time.  A simple one handed  pocket watch becomes a bore, and so further complications – second hands, moon phases,  twittery birds – have to be grafted onto the basic work.  By the turn of the seventeenth century, it would take something very complicated indeed to turn the head of a jaded potentate.   And as at that time, Britain, not yet fully engaged with its eventual empire,  was still wooing the sultans in hopes of profitable trade arrangements for the Levant Company,  the gift had to be spectacular indeed.

So in 1598, what were the good merchants of London going to send to Mehmed III? Continue reading

Lady Anne Blunt (1837 – 1917); Horse Sense

Née Lady Ann Isabella Noel-King.

Her grandfather was Lord Byron, her father the Earl of Lovelace, her mother Ada Lovelace, who is credited (not quite accurately) as the first computer programmer for Babbage’s calculating machine.  With that kind of pedigree, anything was possible.

She grew up on her father’s considerable estate at East Horsley Park,  home-schooled in languages, mathematics, and violin.  She learned drawing from John Ruskin.  As befits a proper country blueblood,  she found her  real passion from  a young age was horses (indeed, it was said that she could jump a mount well into her seventies).    This meshed nicely with her husband’s passion for the Middle East.  It was about the only thing on which they could make a real partnership. Continue reading

Bibi-la-Purée (1847? – 1903) The Last King of the Latin Quarter

“It will come as a shock to every Englishman who has studied in Montmartre to know that the famous Bibi la Puree has been locked up for forgetting to pawn some clothes of a brother bohemian and putting them on himself.  The downfall of this strange character, with his long hair and historical looking clothes, dates from the night when poor Paul Verlaine, the decadent poet, took him home and housed him for a few days.  The poor fellow came back severely stricken with poet mania and has never done a stroke of work since, and never will.  I believe he belongs to one of the most aristocratic families in France.”

The Sketch: A Journal of Art and Actuality, Volume 38, May 7, 1902

Well, that would be a “no” on most points.

Continue reading

Caresse Crosby (1891-1970): America’s First Girl Scout

It’s true! In 1910, Robert Baden-Powell came to America to help get the Boy Scouts going here and brought Lady Baden-Powell with him.  She somehow wound up at our  subject’s school  and had lunch with Miss Ruutz-Rees.

Mrs. Crosby writes:  “I am sure it was in exchanging modern ideas over the after luncheon coffee cups that they together with Miss Loundes and Miss Lewis (both as British as buns) brewed the scheme for instigation of a Girls Scout movement right there at Rosemary.”

Polly was chosen as the first initiate, and got the name Policumteenawa, signifying Little-Possum-By-the-Fire, or some such.

But we get ahead of ourselves. Continue reading

Harry Crosby (1898 -1929): Rich and Different

Mrs. Allen contends that the let-it-all-hang-out generation of the sixties was not all that revolutionary and really was not a patch on the nineteen twenties.

Reading the life of  Harry Crosby, I’m inclined to agree with her.

Short version, he was a connected Boston boy of privilege gone to the bad.  He prepped at St. Marks and was to go to Harvard (of course), but he found the lure of World War One more attractive and so went off to join the American Field Service Ambulance Corps. Not exactly soft duty – he was nearly killed by an artillery shell, for which he was awarded the Croix de Guerre. Continue reading

Mikhail Mikhaylovich Gerasimov 1907-1970: More Things on Heaven and Earth

That’s him on the left.

You will have seen those documentaries or serious crime shows where experts put layers of clay directly onto human skulls and show us how they looked in real life.  Most recently/interestingly this was done with Richard III, which proves if nothing else that Olivier was right to play the part.*

Among the early practitioners of this art/science was Gerasimov.

He came by it honestly enough.  He was the son of a doctor and an artist and managed to bring the two strains together in Stalinist Russia – no mean feat at all.  He started out on pre-historic men and other bi-peds, and somehow managed to work his way up to real people.  Famous people.   Starting with Dostoevsky’s mother, which seems a bit of an odd choice. Continue reading