Pierre Poivre, 1719 – 1786: Nutmeg and Spice

Really, you couldn’t make up a name like that and even if you did, no fiction editor worth his salt would let it pass.   So, truth must step up where fiction dares not tread.

Poivre  was the son of a Lyon merchant and was heading towards a religious career when the Society of Foreign Missions, impressed with a native talent of languages,  sent him to China and Indochina to get his feet wet with a little evangelical work.  Reports of his time there get somewhat murky (mysterious east and all that), a curious mixture of amusing anecdote and utter silence. One story goes that he  landed in a Chinese jail through a misunderstanding with a local mandarin but learned enough Chinese while incarcerated to talk himself out of it.

On the utter silent part (or at least the Not-In-Front-Of-The-Servants part), is the fact that he was encouraged to leave the mission and indeed, from China altogether.  Certainly he gave up the path towards the church.    Continue reading

Thomas and Daniel Wildman (floruerunt 1760-1780): Improving the Shining Hour

“June 20 1772 Exhibition of bees on horseback! At the Jubilee Gardens, Islington, this and every evening until further notice (wet evenings excepted).

The celebrated Daniel Wildman will exhibit several new and amazing experiments, never attempted  by any man in this or any other kingdom before.  The riders standing upright, one foot on the saddle and one on the neck, with a mask of bees on his head and face. He also rides standing upright on the saddle with the bridle in his mouth, and, by firing a pistol makes one part of the bees march over the table, and the other swarm in the air and return to their hive again, with other performances too tedious to insert.”

Imagine only that Lennon had had that poster instead of Pablo Fanque’s! Continue reading

Gaetano Giulio Zummo (aka Zumbo), 1656-1701: The Wax Man Cometh

I came across a review of Rupert Thomson’s novel Secrecy, which sounds like one for the to read list. What struck me was the protagonist Zummo, aka Zumbo.*

He was an historical personage, as it happens, born in Sicily, possibly to impoverished aristocrats, certainly in reduced circumstances, and was initially schooled to be a cleric.  The records give him the title of Abate.   Somehow his talents in the plastic arts emerged (he was self taught) and it was clear that this was a man destined for something other than performing Mass and taking confessions.

Perhaps because he was self taught, his first public appearance as an artist comes relatively late in life, in the 1680s, in Bologna.  The work was good enough to encourage to try for Florence, where in 1695 Grand Duke Cosimo III put him on the payroll.  Continue reading

Zeuxis and Parrhasius, 5th Century BC: One-up-manship

There was disagreement in fifth century Greece over who was the best painter of the day.  It came down to Zeuxis and Parrhasius. A contest was proposed to settle the matter.

Zeuxis proceeded to paint a wall with a  still life of some grapes that proved so realistic that birds were seen to come down and peck at them.

Tough act to follow and Parrhasius was willing to concede victory.  For the record, he reluctantly asked his rival to pull back the curtain on his own poor efforts.  Zeuxis began to do so, only to find that the curtain was itself just painted on the wall.

He immediately acknowledged Parrhasius the better painter.


Gilles de Montmorency-Laval, Baron de Rais, 1404-1440: Gilles et Jeanne

Gilles et Jeanne.  Sounds like a Truffaut film.  The Jeanne in question is Joan of Arc, and the two did in fact work together, fought side by side for France, and both were vilified by and tried by Ecclesiastical courts.  Joan of Arc became a saint. Gilles became the template for Bluebeard.

We all have our bad days.

So what was the back story here, what got him to his ugly end?  You wouldn’t necessarily come to it by a look at his early years.   He was born in 1404, son of minor aristocrat who had fought for the King of France in the earlier stages of the Hundred Years War.   Gilles spoke Latin and illuminated manuscripts.   He was raised by his grandfather, an ambitious man who married Gilles off well, that is to say, to a girl whose family could increase the Monmorency-Laval estates.  Continue reading

Elizabeth Hawkins-Whitshed, 1860-1934: Our Lady of the Alps

Last time it was Victorian hero Frederick Gustavus Burnaby, as much a man as ever was.  Died a picturesque if not wholly surprising death while fighting the Fuzzy Wuzzies.  The nation mourned. I mentioned he had been married.

What sort of woman would marry such a man?

Elizabeth nee Hawkins-Whitshed, who, daughter of Captain Sir St. Vincent Hawkins-Whitshed (an  English baronet with a large estate in County Wicklow, Ireland,) was more than up to snuff.

Not at first, however.  She was one of those frail and sickly children, all croup and consumption, that you read about in Victorian writings. But like Teddy Roosevelt, she determined that this was no way to go through life.  If England and Ireland were unhealthy, how about Algiers?  No? Italy perhaps? Better.  The Tyrol?  Better still.  Finally, to Switzerland, where she found her life’s inspiration in mountains.

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Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, 1571-1610; Darkness and Light

Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane by Andrew Graham-Dixon, Norton, 2011

Caravaggio, brawler, pimp, murderer, fugitive from justice.  Basically your wouldn’t want to meet him in a dark alley kind of man.

He was also (like Kit Marlowe) an artist of startling quality and originality.   A painter of lush paintings of horrific realism and originator of the Mannerist style.

It’s powerful work, Caravaggio’s and not surprisingly as you read his story, it can be a bit queasy making.

Caravaggio fell out of favor with the art establishment until the twentieth century.  (It happens. You couldn’t give away Vermeers until the late nineteenth century.)  What changed? Difficult to say, though Graham-Dixon notes that Caravaggio’s style fits in well with the son et lumiere fashion that movie making exploits (there is a good deal of worthwhile ink spilled on Martin Scorcese).  Continue reading

Eustachio Celebrino, ca 1480-1555: Memoirs of Old Grub Street

Gutenberg got the printing press ball rolling with his Bible, and Aldine family and others pushed along the revival of classical learning by publishing the Greek and Latin texts that had been moldering in monastic libraries across Europe.  Scholarship flourished, academies grew, and the Western World kicked off the Renaissance.

Noble stuff, and the appetite for these books and various religious volumes made for steady work at the printing shops. The market was decent, but limited, given the large population that had finally cracked the literacy thing but had little Latin, less Greek, and probably no serious interest in the classics.  You can imagine a lot of nouveau riche merchant heads cracking open the fresh copy of the Aeneid and nodding off at about book three.  Granted, the books did indeed furnish a room and proved your wealth and taste, but really, was that all there was?

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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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Ida Ehre, 1900-1988: Tradition

Ida Ehra leading actress and Grand Dame of the German stage.  Born the daughter of a cantor in Vienna and a student of the the Academy for Music and Theater in Vienna, she moved to Berlin in 1933.  In 1933 she was barred from the stage by order of the Nazi party and worked instead as the assistant to her husband Dr. Bernhard Heyde (1899-1977), a prominent gynaecologist.  They and their daughter planned to leave the country after Kristallnacht, but the outbreak of the war made this impossible.  She was arrested by the Gestapo in 1943 and taken to Fühlsbüttel concentration camp, a first step on the road to Buchenwald.  She avoided this fate only because her (non-Jewish) husband was able to arrange her release by writing a personal appeal to an old school mate, Heinrich Himmler.

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