Arcadius Avellanus, born Mogyoróssy Arkád (6 February 1851 – 16 June 1935: “Scisne Latine, Barbare?”

Mogyoróssy Arkád was born in Esztergom near Budapest back in the days before exurbia blurred the line between city and country. His first language, he claimed, was Latin.

The claim is fantastic enough to seduce credulity, and some of the circumstances behind his early life suggest it might be true.

Independent details on his early life are, sadly, scarce, and gentlemen do not inquire too closely into the details of other men’s personal lives, and given what that part of the world has gone through in the years since Avellanus’ birth, confirming anything could be a challenge.

Consider the range of populations under the Hapsburg’s imperial eage. Hungarian German Slovak Slovenes, Serbs, Croats, Rumanians, all jealous of their several prerogatives, what to bring them together, particularly in matters of law and politics? Latin, of course, was language of the Church, the lingua franca of the renaissance. It lasted as the official language of the Hapsburg Empire until 1782.

Sixty nine years (the space between 1782 and his birth) was less earth changing a span in those days than now – one can imagine a traditional family keeping up the old ways, preparing its sons for whatever service the Empire might require. 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

The Reckoning

The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe

Picador

Charles Nicholl

This biography done in the early 1990’s is an arresting variation on the little sonata usually played by Christopher Marlowe’s biographers.  Their performances are almost always tuned to the minor key of Marlowe’s early death (at 29) and the tragedy this posed to English letters.  Charles Nicholl decided to play things in a different mode altogether and the suspenseful true crime narrative he composed is jaunty and percussive instead of a dirge for a dead poet. Continue reading

Bernhard von Breydenbach (1434-1497*): On The Road Again

Von Breydenbach was a rich man, a doctoral graduate of the University at Erfurt,  the canon of Mainz who had, by his own accounts, lived a somewhat loose life, wicked enough that he thought a pilgrimage to the Holy Land would do his soul some good. So in April of 14, 1483 he gathered his friend the artist Erhard Reuwich of Utrecht and with a few of other titled and moneyed traveling companions, set off to see the sights of the Middle East.  

The trip itself was pretty standard tourist fare for the time. Venice first, as Venice had regular water connections with the Muslim Levant.  There they spent any number of days waiting for the ship to be ready, time he spent in seeing the local sights, then as a now spectacular. Once at sea it was to the Venetian held territories of Modon, where he met Gypsies, whom he describes not as being Egyptian (never mind India), but from the nearby town of Gippe.  Stood to reason, of course.  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

The Reverend Robert Walker, 1755 – 1808: Icecapades

We’ve the good fortune of having a year round ice skating rink nearby, which makes for a nice break in a steamy July day.  This provides me a contrived intro for the Raeburn chestnut to our left.   You know the piece. The Reverend Something Something skating on Someplace Someplace.  That one.

The Reverend was the third child of William Walker and Susanna Sturment, he a Scotsman and she a Virginian, of all things.  The father also a man of the cloth was called to minister to the Church of Scotland ex-patriots at the Scottish Kirk in Rotterdam (destroyed in the last war, alas).

What is a boy to do in the Netherlands when the winter cold freezes the canals?  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

Thomas Whittemore, 1871 – 1950: Touching the Face of God

“…a man whom professional archaeologists and scholars dismissed as a pretentious amateur; and indeed, he had gift for making himself appear to be a charlatan.  …his persuasive powers enabled him to raise funds from rich American ladies, whom he handled with superb artifice….”

That’s Steven Runciman talking about Thomas Whittemore.

It’s about as sharp as Runciman ever gets, and you have to wonder where the D List rating for the poor fellow comes from.  Well, he went to Tufts despite being a Cambridge native for one thing, and he read English literature for another, and indeed, taught English there after graduation.  He sort of fell into the whole art history thing gradually and over time, and teaching both subjects in places like NYU and Columbia before going whole hog into the art side.  Did a little field work in Egypt before the first war, in which war his bit was chiefly humanitarian (French Red Cross) and some relief work in Anatolia, which are helped feed his Byzantine obsession.  Continue reading

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

Ewald Georg von Kleist, 1740 -1748: Shock of the New

The recent death of Ewald von Kleist, last of the July 20 conspirators,  who but for bad scheduling would have assassinated Adolf Hitler in the spring of 1944, set me to wonder  about the rest of the family.

There are the usual suspects, a long line of more or less prominent military men, the writer Bernd Heinrich Wilhelm von Kleist  (who started out as a solider), minor professionals who left no particular marks behind them.   And then there was Ewald Georg, jurist and cleric and Bishop of Pomerania.   Continue reading