La Belle et la Bête – Old as Time

straparola_ritrattoI see the Disneys are dragging out Beauty and her Beast for a new iteration.  It was, of course, ever so, and long before animation and CGI

Scholarly types generally agree that the first iteration of the timeless tale came from the works of Venetian Giovanni Francesco Straparola (1480-1558), a somewhat shadowy figure who thought to follow the success of Boccaccio’s Decameron with a new collection of short stories (the Pig King is the entry in question).  As it happened, he was quite right, and his stuff sold rather well. We may assume he lived happily ever after. As one does in Italy. Continue reading

Mastro Titta (1779–1869): Er dilettante de Ponte

Mastro_TittaA slurred pronunciation of Maestro di Giustizia, or Master of Justice “The dilettante of the bridge”, the name he got from Romanesco poet Giuseppe Gioachino Belli, the bridge being Ponte Sant’ Angelo which connects Rome’s left bank with the Vatican. Belli also credited him as a sure cure for headache.

Titta’s real name was Giovanni Battista Bugatti. He was a short, round, amiable man who, with his wife, made his living by manufacturing, decorating, and selling umbrellas to the tourists who visited the nearby Vatican.

As jobs go, it is easily overlooked, and presumably it was neither steady enough nor profitable enough to make ends meet. At age seventeen he found a second income stream.

He was, in the years between 1796 to 1864, the Vatican’s official executioner Continue reading

John Gamgee (1831-1894): The Iceman Cometh

John GamgeeDr. John Gamgee was born in Florence Italy in 1831, the son of a Scottish veterinarian who wanted his children to have a broad education. John eventually graduated from the Royal Veterinary College in London. He thrived in that field. In 1858, he founded the New Veterinary School in Edinburgh in 1858, and later the Edinburgh Veterinary Review. In 1863, he organized the first International Veterinary Congress in Hamburg Germany.

So far, so dull, unless you are interested in Victorian academic politics. A few years later, the United States government invited him to consult on the matter of lung plague and cattle fever in Texas. He lectured widely in America, promoting his novel view on the pathogenic theory of medicine. That is, that disease was transmitted by microorganisms. It was a theory for which claim he was widely ridiculed.

His so-called “rollerskate” was less controversial, but it was his explorations into the mechanics of refrigeration more that makes him interesting to the general reader. 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 Rose Ellis (1771-1845): Come Sing Me Montego Bay

Stumbled across this documentary about German indentured servants in Jamaica and their descendents, which in turn led me to Charles Rose Ellis.

He was the son of James Ellis, who  in turn was grandson of Col. John Ellis who settled in Jamaica in 1665.  Charles’ father was one of the great landowners of 18th century Jamaica and very rich indeed.  James died at sea when Charles was thirteen, leaving  the young man with an estate worth £20,000 a year (Mr. Darcy, you will recall, had half that amount- but then, he didn’t have land in the Caribbean). Continue reading

George Fabian Lawrence aka Stoney Jack (1861-1939): Items of Interest

Son of a  pawnbroker and initially a pawnbroker himself.  The standard objects of failed enthusiasms (musical instruments) or changing tastes (mustache cups) or romance gone bad (old wedding rings) held only so much interest for him.  He had a taste for the unusual and put word out among the mudlarks who scoured the Thames at low tide and the navvies who dug the foundations of new construction over old that he would pay cash and ask few questions if they had anything of interest to show him.  Continue reading

Commodore Uriah P. Levy (1792-1862): Anchors Aweigh

“My parents were Israelites, and I was nurtured in the faith of my ancestors… I am an American, a sailor and a Jew.”

– Commodore Uriah P. Levy, USN

It’s reasonably well known that Thomas Jefferson for all his cleverness was a complete duffer with household finance and died in debt, his estate sold off for pennies on the dollar.

A scandal, really, and as the government at that time did not take much interest in history in general or historical artifacts in particular, the lands and buildings of Monticello were more or less allowed to go to wrack and ruin. Continue reading

Catherine Walters (1839 – 1920): Champagne and Skittles

Spurning frown and foe
With slacked rein swift Skittles rules the Row
Thought scowling Matrons stamping steeds restrain
She flaunts Propriety with flapping mane.

Alfred Austin

Do poets write poems to loose women anymore?  Do they even exist anymore, les grandes horizontales?  One reads about high rent hookers occasionally, but really, only in connection with low rent politicians or even lower rent entertainers.  We do not as a rule, however, know their names, or see their pictures in the papers, or even (at least in my provincial circles) hear their names spoken in whispers behind raised hands.  I suppose the last of the breed was Pamela Harriman, and as she tended to marry the men, well, that almost disqualifies her. And what are we to make of her becoming an ambassador?  Of course standards have slipped in recent decades, but I mean to say –  can you imagine the likes of Madame du Barry presenting her credentials at the Court of St James?  Doesn’t bear thinking on. 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

George Hoby (1759 – 1832): Boots, Boots, Boots, Boots

Long boots and half boots, Hessians,  Hussar,  top boots, and for the ladies, low cut shoes or pumps – if you wanted them in the age of Hornblower, you went to the corner of Piccadilly and St James’s Street and the establishment of George Hoby, boot maker to George III.   The king was not alone.  The Iron Duke thought so much of the man that he worked with the bookmaker to  modify a Hessian boot a bit higher up than was standard,  and so created the Wellington.

Which gave him particular interest in the battles the Iron Duke was waging in Spain.  He was fitting the Duke of Kent when news of the victory at Vittoria came in.  “If Lord Wellington had had any other bootmaker than myself, he never would have had his great and constant successes; for my boots and prayers bring his lordship out of all his difficulties.” Continue reading