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.
“…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….”
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 →