Through a Lorgnette Darkly

by Harry M. Allen, after Sir John Everett Millais, 1st Bt, oil on canvas, (circa 1884)

by Harry M. Allen, after Sir John Everett Millais, 1st Bt, oil on canvas, (circa 1884)

Not many Victorian Lords of the stage have reputations which have survived into the twenty first century.  Many of them are now forgotten, even such people as John Wilkes Booth are famous for their non thespian activities (in his case presidential assassination) but one at least deserves to be remembered: Henry Irving.

Henry, or Sir Henry as he came to be known later in life, was from Cornwall and began his career with the unfortunate surname of Brodribb.  He changed it to Irving and began acting when an uncle left him a small legacy of 100 pounds, enough to start himself in the competitive  business of acting in the mid nineteenth century. Continue reading

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

Plus ça change…

This Renaissance sign required you to measure your catch from the Tiber river:

Your catch should not be larger than this or it belonged to the Pope.

Your catch should not be larger than this or it belonged to the civic authorities.

These days, if you catch something smaller than these:

You measure your catch and if it is smaller than these it goes back into Long Island Sound.

You measure your catch and if it is smaller than these it goes back into Long Island Sound.

One way or another, size always matters and there’s always a catch.

Milunka Savic, 1888-1973: Woman Warrior

1912-1913 marks the centenary of the First and the Second Balkan Wars, a spot of local trouble that would lead to the killing fields of the First World War.  They’re not much remembered outside the area except by specialists and presumably relatives.  Certainly they didn’t kick up any household names.

Which is not to say that there were not  people with good stories.  People like Milunka Savic.

She was a village girl, and either from boredom or patriotism (or possibly because her brother was to ill to go), in 1912 she cut off her hair and presented herself to the recruiting sergeant.  Induction was presumably a cursory affair, and she was soon toting gun and bayonet to the front lines.  No further record of the brother, but the army got their money’s worth.   Continue reading

Gérard de Nerval, 1808-1855; The Man Who Loved Lobster

I have a vague memory of a Robert Graves essay in which he decries people who steal jokes.  (Google is useless in finding it, suggestions welcome.)  One takes his point.

I have a stronger memory, easily googled, of Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) in his very best Sebastian Flyte mode walking his pet lobster about Magdalen College Oxford.  Ah, young wit!

Witty, but not original.

Though there may be others, I’m guessing that the first of the lobster walkers was the French poet Nerval.  And he had reasons other than style. Continue reading

Antonio de Lebrija, 1441-1522: “language is the instrument of the empire”

Prince George: Well, now, look, Dr. Johnson, I may be as thick as a whale omelette, but even I know a book’s got to have a plot.

Samuel Johnson: Not this one, sir. It is a book that tells you what English words mean.

Prince George: I know what English words mean; I speak English! You must be a bit of a thicko.

The above exchange is from Blackadder III, episode 2, Ink and Incapability and purports to be the conversation between Dr. Johnson and the prince on the occasion of Johnson’s presenting his completed dictionary. Continue reading

Claire McCardell 1905-1958: Rich Designs, Poor Fabrics

Among the qualities most strongly associated with American clothes now are functionality and sleekness, and yet they were not always synonymous with US designs.  There was a time when American fashion was essentially just a version of whatever it was that Paris had proposed that particular season, in a variety of colors.  American designers were less designers, than fashion copyists.

This all changed with World War II and the occupation of Paris by the Nazis. Claire McCardell was just one designer who had suddenly gotten a chance to promote designs that were not particularly…French.  She rose to the challenge of providing clothes in wartime, the materials she used, chiefly cottons and knits, were inexpensive and easy to get.  When closures had to change due to shortages, McCardell used steel hooks or piping sewn into long “spaghetti straps” to tie around waists and customize dresses.  She created her own wide belts, in elastic materials that held in the waist without corseting it, and her clothing paired well with functional footwear, ballet slippers (un-rationed footwear during the war) and slave sandals.  She created elasticized snoods for skiing, dresses made of triangles sewn together, wrap sashes in knit fabrics that would not slide down, evening gowns of washable cotton piquet.  Who was this practical woman? Continue reading

Robert L. Ripley 1893 – 1949: Born on Christmas Day, Believe it or Not

He was one of those journalists who learned the craft on the job, and never mind about some fancy degree.  He was a jock more than a scholar, a high school drop-out (there was a time when a high school diploma meant rather more in America than it does now), and despite his lack of credentials, managed to segue from minor league baseball into writing sports for the New York papers.

He also liked to draw.  On a whim on a slow day, he did a nine panel cartoon showing some oddball sports (backward running contest) which hit a chord.  It also hit the attentio0n of William Randolph Hearst who knew a good thing when he saw it. Thus was born Ripley’s Believe it or Not!. Continue reading