Tuesday, 19 September 2017

What does ‘Roman’ mean to you? by Alison Morton

Signifer, National Roman
Legion Museum, Carleon
Traditionally, Rome was founded in 753 BC. It grew into one of the largest empires in the ancient world with roughly 20% of the world’s population and an area of 6.5 million square kilometres at its height.

 Plagued by internal instability and attacked by various migrating peoples, the western part of the empire broke up in the 5th century, giving way to the pre-mediaeval ‘Dark Ages’ of Europe. Only Italy, Dalmatia, an isolated part of northern France and parts of Mauretania remained under Roman or Roman shared rule. The last western emperor Romulus Augustulus, abdicated in AD 476, kneeling in the dirt to Odoacer, who styled himself King of Italy.

The western Roman state existed for 1229 years. Although development has moved at rocket speed in recent years, a simple comparison would be from AD 680 to AD 1909 – what a lot of history that covers!

 Popular but not always accurate, depictions include plays like Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Coriolanus and Anthony and Cleopatra, feature films like ‘Ben-Hur’, ‘The Fall of the Roman Empire’, ‘The Robe’, ‘Gladiator’ and series such as ‘I, Claudius’ and HBO’s ‘Rome’. Visual depictions often stay in the public’s eye more firmly than images conjured up by books. However, we have every sort of fictional account from humorous with grim undertones such as Lindsey Davis’s Falco series to gritty campaigning and power grabs by inter alia Simon Scarrow, Ben Kane and Douglas Jackson.

But over more than a millennium, what really symbolises 'Roman' for us?
Do we go back to Romulus, founder and first king of Rome 753-717 BC?

From an altar found at Ostia Antica –
The discovery of Romulus and Remus

Or do these pottery heads found on the Capitoline Hill in Rome and dating from 6th century BC tribal societies indicate the essential Romans?

Maybe the ‘great’ Marcus Furius Camillus c. 446 – 365 BC Roman general and statesman who defeated the Etruscans at Veii in 396 BC and expelled Brennus and his Gauls in 390 BC. But patrician to his core, he stoutly resisted granting the plebian representatives rights until 367 BC during a further war against the Gauls when he negotiated a compromise which united the two orders.

Triumph of Furius Camillus
Francesco Salviati (1510–1563)

Perhaps the influential Cornelia Africana, the daughter of Scipio Africanus, mother of the political reforming brothers, the Gracchi. She died at age 90 in 100 BC, and was remembered by the Romans as an exemplar of womanly virtue by saying she needed no other jewels than her children.

Cornelia, mother of the Gracchi
Angelica Kaufmann (1741-1807)

Or this soldier from the Altar of Domitius Ahenobarbus, known as the “Census frieze”, circa 122 BC?

Maybe Augustus 63 BC – AD 14, the first Roman emperor, founder of the Julio-Claudians; power grabber and great reformer. He certainly ensured his image was disseminated throughout the Roman Empire during his lifetime which has left us plenty of evidence of his existence.
The Meroë head 27-25 BC
Photo courtesy of the British Museum

Or his influential and clever wife, Livia, or staunch friend Agrippa, the builder, general and administrator?
Statue, Museum of Roman Civilisation, Rome

The Plinii, Elder and Younger, polymaths, scientists, narrators of the minutiae of Roman life?

The eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79 which has sent us so many poignant messages from Pompeii and Herculaneum into the present?
Domestic items from Pompeii, Naples Museum

Or perhaps Eurysaces, an eccentric baker, who made a fortune out of the grain trade who was introduced to us by Mary Beard?

Does Claudia Severa’s birthday dinner invitation to Lepidina testified by the Vindolanda tablets resonate with us today as we email that invitation to some friends for next Saturday night?

Or perhaps Constantine the Great AD 272 – 337, the first emperor to convert to Christianity?
Capitoline Museum, Rome

And there’s Flavius Stilichio, the half Vandal general who was magister utriusque militiae (commander-in-chief) of West Roman forces AD 395–408.
From an ivory diptych c. 395AD,Monza Cathedral
(Sometimes attributed to Aetius)

Perhaps Galla Placidia (AD 392 – 450), daughter of the Roman Emperor Theodosius I, Regent for Emperor Valentinian III from 423 until his majority in 437, and a major force in Roman politics for most of her life. She was consort to Ataulf, King of the Goths from 414 until his death in 415, and Empress consort to Constantius III from 417 until his death in 422.

Galla Placidia medallion, minted, Ravenna c.425AD
Bibliothèque Nationale de France

And near the end, Emperor Majorian AD 457-461 who was one of the last emperors to make a concerted effort to restore the Western Roman Empire. Possessing little more than Italy, Dalmatia, and some territory in northern Gaul, Majorian campaigned rigorously for three years against the Empire’s enemies.

Gold coin of Majorian in full military kit

Late Antiquity was a very different place from the days of Romulus and Remus, but people very much regarded themselves as Romans. Indeed some vestiges of Roman ruled lands such as the Domain of Soissons persisted almost until the end of the fifth century  And of course the Roman church, the systems of government, law and administration persisted for further centuries.

What does the word “Roman” conjure up for you?


Alison Morton's latest book in the Roma Nova thriller series, RETALIO, is available from the usual retailers as ebook or paperback.


Monday, 18 September 2017

Why Historians are Hoarders by Sarah Gristwood

Blame it on too many women’s mags, but I started sorting out the other day. Not before time - the piles of papers had reached the point where we burrowed between them like tunnellng moles. But that doesn’t mean, as I threw anything towards the dustbin bags, that I didn’t feel a little guilty. Some of those papers had been there longer than I had. Some were there before I was born, actually.

In one chest of drawers, they went in layers, like the strata of rock they taught us in geology. In others, previous attempts to sort (or simply to find something for the taxman!) have resulted in an earthquake-like overthrow, so that my father-in-law’s World War II permission to travel is in among a stack of 1980s press releases.

A backstage pass to join Bruce Willis’ band in Berlin, some time in the 1990s. A shooting script for Last Tango in Paris. A letter, dating back to the Fifties, from the then head of an Oxford college, pouring out his affection for my husband’s mother. A handful of share certificates, a thousand old German marks . . . And an enormous quantity of sheer junk, naturally.

The point is, how to distinguish? Fashionable (essential!) though it might be to minimalise, how can you really be sure of what will and won’t be valuable some day? And by valuable, I don’t mean the German marks, or the share certificates - I mean something that makes me feel I’m touching history. Even if it is only my own history.

Those press releases can go, surely? Or the letter from a press officer making arrangements for me to travel to an interview, and giving details of a flight that landed several decades ago? Except . . . Don’t I want to remember that once (before I left journalism for the ultimately more rewarding, but certainly less glamorous, world of Tudor history) I used to jet around the world interviewing Hollywood celebrities? That ladies-only lunch with Sharon Stone at the Hotel du Cap, outside Cannes? That LA lunch with Clint Eastwood, that flight back from a film location in Ireland, with Anthony Hopkins giving me life advice I remember to this day?

OK, so maybe that remembering is the point? Maybe I don’t need the paper to remind me? But somehow there’s a need almost to prove my case - as if someone else might be interested, some day.

Many years ago I wrote a book about women’s diaries, and one of the questions that came up then was why so many of us, ordinary people, feel impelled to leave a record of ourselves for posterity. I remember one diarist declaring openly that it was in case, one day, someone wanted to write her biography.

Most of us can’t flatter ourselves with that possibility - but all the same I was aware that, researching the subjects of biographies I’ve written, I’d have been ecstatic to come across hoards of the kind I was about to throw away.

It doesn’t, after all, have to be the person themselves who is so notable, to whet a historian’s appetite in future years. Sometimes ordinary people find themselves acting extraordinarily. The papers in our flat, transported in their crates from my husband’s old home, and simply dumped unsorted in a boxroom, have already helped him write a book, Family Secrets, about a murder in his family. Sometimes they are simply swept up in an extraordinary event. That wartime ‘permission to travel’ - the card that came with a WWII medal - carry with them the whiff of a whole world turned upside down, of courage and of tragedy.

But what about the souvenirs of more mundane occasions? What about the playbill from the 1950s, featuring my husband - as ‘A Gaoler - in a university production of a Shakespeare comedy? (It’s lying on top of a season’s programme for the Guardian cricket club, and a pair of handcuffs. Handcuffs. I like to think they were sent to us as a publicity gimmick for some movie.)

If, perish the thought, I’d had done amateur dramatics in my own youth in the Eighties, I’d have no illusions that I was keeping that flyer from anything but pure vanity. But this, older, one feels like an artefact, a message from a vanished era. Even the yellowing paper seems to have something to say.
So what - does junk become valuable after x many years, and if so, how many? Does someone ring a bell and the past becomes history? It’s a question for Antiques Roadshow, maybe. But meanwhile, you know what, I think I’ll stick to throwing away old make-up bottles. That’s safe - surely?

Our thanks to Sarah for this "anytime" post. Celia Rees will be back soon.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

A TIME OF FIGS by Dianne Hofmeyr.

Penny Dolan says: I came across Dianne Hofmeyr's beautiful post on another blog and immediately wanted to share her words, thoughts and images with everyone here, so thank you very much, Dianne, for being my History Girls Guest today.

London is subdued in the last heat of summer as August draws to a close over the bank holiday week-end. The pavements lack children careering down on you on their scooters. The streets are deserted. The traffic is quiet. Street markets are full of bright yellow zucchini fiori, tomatoes of every colour and fat purple figs… but no one to buy them. Everyone is away.

On my tiny London terrace under a sparse fig tree stunted forever in its pot, the pages of my book flip close and I drowse through an imagined Sicilian heat. The landscape of aridly undulating hills of Tomasi di Lampedusa …
with no lines that the mind could grasp, conceived apparently in a delirious moment of creation; a sea suddenly petrified at the instant when a change of wind had flung the waves into a frenzy.'

Summer in London, is not the blistering 40 degrees of Italy or France that brings back frazzled families when schools finally reopen. I savour the peace with The Leopard under my nose. Drip by drip, Lampedusa feeds me the landscape and customs of the old aristocracy – Sicily that summer of 1860 when Garibaldi arrives.

It’s not the Sicily of the five-star hotel high up on the cliff of Taomina with dramatic infinity pool and a view of Mount Etna and a wander through the tourist-filled main street up to the ancient Greek amphitheatre set above the limpid Ionian Sea.

To see Sicily the way Don Fabrizio, the Prince of Salina in The Leopard sees it, you must start with the chaos and contradictions of Palermo – the traffic, the grime, the washing hanging from balconies in narrow side streets, the scorched hills that surround it, the glimpse of sea, the architecture ravished by time and neglect, ancient baroque palazzi, interiors opulent with gold and mosaics, convents, churches and oratories on every corner reflecting Roman, Byzantine, Arab and Norman rule.

The Arabian arches of the Cloister at Monreale outside Palermo

Leopards between olive and date palms in the Room of Roger, Palazzo dei Normanni, Palermo
Close-up of the mosaic work by Byzantine artisans 
Describing a ball in one of the Palermo palazzi, the Prince savours the decaying grandeur.
‘The ballroom was all golden; smoothed on cornices, stippled on door-frames, dasmascened pale, almost silvery… It was not the flashy gilding which decorators slap on nowadays (this being 1862) but a faded gold, pale as the hair of certain nordic children, determinedly hiding its value under a muted use of precious material intended to let beauty be seen and cost forgotten. Here and there on the panels were knots of rococo flowers in a colour so faint as to seem just an ephemeral pink reflected from the chandeliers… From the ceiling the gods, reclining on gilded couches, gazed down smiling and inexorable as a summer sky.’

I've not seen that Palermo ceiling but in Noto I came across the ballroom of the Nicolaci family. The palazzo with its 90 rooms, (not unlike the maze of rooms Tancredi and Angelica get lost in, in The Leopard) makes me wonder how the nobility became so rich? In the earthquake of 1693 the entire town of Noto was destroyed – palazzi and people all lost and the town later rebuilt in the style of the day – Sicilian baroque. Of the noble families only a few remained and through intermarriage became even wealthier built on the shoulders of the tuna industry.

Ballroom at the Palazzo Nicolaci di Villadorata in Noto
The railings of the balconies curved to contain the voluminous swoop of silk and taffeta ballgowns. 

The pink-washed walls of Modica.
Under my fig tree I dream on... the salmonpink-washed walls of Modica at sunset. Modica, Syracuse, Ortygia – none play a part in The Leopard. They are names from my A Brief History of Ancient Times schoolbook. That incredible lofty Cathedral of Syracuse, the walls wrapping the Ionic pillars of an earlier Greek temple, the old Jewish Quarter close by, its narrow alleys where craftsmen still work, tinged with salt air. So mesmerised am I by the marble inlay of the ancient floor that I forget my iPhone in a pew which is later returned to me with a simple ‘Pronto’ when I call my number.

When I run up the worn marble steps from the harbour to retrieve it, my mind has skittered down another track. I think of the ancient ships arriving, the Greek sailors treading these same steps and Cicero describing Syracuse as 'the greatest Greek city and the most beautiful of them all.'

Yes… the quiet of August in London is as delicious as a fat ripe fig, filled with the dreams of blistering islands where the sun beats down 365 days of the year from an inexorable blue sky.

But a chill creeps into the closing lines of The Leopard.  When the mummified carcass of the family wolfhound is thrown out the window, the shadow of The Leopard hovers in Don Fabrizio's spinster daughter's words...
'its form recomposed itself for an instant; in the air there seemed to be dancing a quadraped with long whiskers, its right foreleg raised in imprecation. Then all found peace in a little heap of livid dust.'   

A salute to all my past History teachers. Other books on Sicily: The Land where Lemons Grow by Helena Attlee and Syracusa recommended by Adele Geras. Do any History Girls or readers have any other recommendations?

twitter: @dihofmeyr

Dianne Hofmeyr's picture book, Zeraffa Giraffa, about a Giraffe sent as a gift from Egypt to Paris in 1826, will be on stage at the Little Angel Theatre in Islington and the Omnibus in Clapham over the next nine weeks. Zeraffa Giraffa is illustrated by the artist Jane Ray, who also illustrated their forthcoming picture book: The Glassmaker's Daughter, which is set in Venice. Both books are published by Frances Lincoln.

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Marianne North - plant painter!

My last few posts have been about plant hunters. This is not unconnected with the fact that I have a children's book about plant hunters coming out at the end of the month - it's called Jack Fortune and the Search for the Hidden Valley, and you can find out more about it here.

But this month, I want to write about someone who also travelled the world searching for exotic new plants - but in order to paint them, rather than to collect them.

Marianne North at work

She was called Marianne North, and what she did would be remarkable if she had been doing it today - but she did it in the Victorian Age, which makes her even more extraordinary. The conventional image of Victorian women is that they sat at home looking demure, painting water colours and occasionally swooning on a sofa. But they certainly weren't all like that. There were some women who not only broke the mould but utterly smashed it - by climbing the Alps, by writing great novels - and by exploring dangerous corners of the world: women such as Lady Hester Stanhope, Gertrude Bell and Isabella Bird.

Marianne North belongs in their company. She was born in 1830 into a comfortably well-off (and well-bred) family - her father was the Liberal MP for Hastings. Her first passion was for singing, but with a background like hers, a career in music wasn't an option. So then she turned to flower painting. Her sisters married, but Marianne thought marriage was a terrible idea, which turned women into 'a sort of upper servant', and she avoided it. Instead, when her mother died in 1855, she took to travelling with her father, who was also interested in botany. Then when he died some 15 years later, she, at the age of 40, determined to continue her travels, exploring far-flung corners of the world and painting the plants and flowers she found there. She usually travelled alone, finding companions a distraction and an annoyance, and she lived simply - it wasn't a case, obviously, of hopping on a plane and staying in a nice hotel: travelling was difficult, but she did it anyway.

Morning glory climber in South Africa

She wasn't formally trained, so maybe this is why her paintings are so unlike conventional botanical illustrations, in which the plant is shown against a white background. Marianne shows her flowers in context, where they grew - though she clearly took some liberties in order to show a beautiful view or an interesting insect: she didn't simply paint what she saw. Also, she didn't use water colours, she used oils, so her paintings are dense with brilliant colour - full of drama and absolutely wonderful.

In 1879 she offered her paintings to Sir Joseph Hooker, the Director of Kew Gardens. She designed a special building for them, and decreed how they were to be hung: close together, and grouped according to geographical area. However, she lost one fight. She wanted visitors to be served tea or coffee (so sensible!) but Sir Joseph huffed and puffed and said he was running a scientific institution, not a cafe. But she had the last word - she painted a tea plant and a coffee plant above the entrance.

The gallery at Kew

I think I first heard about Marianne North when I went to Kew Gardens when I was researching Jack Fortune, though for some reason I didn't go to the gallery then - I probably didn't know about her till I'd been to the shop, where I bought a pack of reproductions of her paintings. I was enchanted by their boldness and brilliance, and one of them showed a view of the Himalayas through a framework of foliage, which was in my mind as I wrote about my characters' first sighting of the mountain which plays a pivotal part in the book:

Then, between two houses, Jack saw something that stopped him in his tracks. In the distance he could see immense mountains with snow glistening on their peaks. “Look, Uncle!” he breathed.
His uncle stood still. He didn’t say a word, and Jack glanced at him. He was gazing at the distant peaks with a look of the most desperate longing on his face. Jack suddenly saw just how much his uncle wanted – no, needed – to reach them. On impulse, he touched his arm, and said seriously, “It’ll be all right, Uncle Edmund. We will get there. I promise you we will.”

His uncle looked surprised. Then he smiled sadly. “I hope so, Jack,” he said. “Oh, I do hope so!”

Friday, 15 September 2017

A Brief Lighthouse History

by Marie-Louise Jensen

Within a short stretch of coast on the very northern tip of Jutland, there are three lighthouses. Two are decommissioned, the third is still active. They are a remarkable glimpse into the development of the lighthouse in Denmark. 
This first picture is of the Skagen's vippefyr (or 'lever light') which is a copy of the lighthouse that guided ships around the tip of Jutland from 1627 to 1747. It was the first of its kind and replaced an earlier system - a parrot light. This new design allowed the burning coals to be hoisted into the air, clearly visible to passing ships, contained in a metal basket, thus reducing the risk of setting the wooden structure alight. 

This was one of three of a kind that marked the shipping channel from the North Sea down into the Baltic - an important but treacherous route for Danish vessels, especially in the days of sail. This one defintely has a quaint, olde worlde look to it.
A short distance further north, but in sight of each other, is another lighthouse; Det hvide fyr (the white lighthouse). This looks altogether more modern, even with its lantern removed:

(Photo attribution: by Arnoldius (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

The white lighthouse served Skagen from 1747 to 1858. The first Danish lighthouse to be built of stone, it was originally red brick until it was whitewashed at the beginning of the 19th century. It must have originally had another name! Initially coal fired, rapeseed oil was later burned.

The third lighthouse on this small peninsula is the Skagen Lighthouse, also known as the Grey Lighthouse (Skagen fyr; det grå fyr).

This lighthouse came into use in 1858 and is still in use. It is impossible to tell from the photographs, of course, but at 46 metres tall, it is more than twice the height of its predecessor. The original parafin lamp was replaced by a 1,000 watt and then a 1,500 watt sodium lamp. It's not difficult to imagine the progress towards safety at sea that these developments must have made over the years. Having seen an old chart of shipwrecks clustered at the tip of Jutland, I know how necessary that was.
What is fascinating at Skagen, is having these three very different lighthouses from different eras all in view at once; testament to the importance of warning ships of the dangers of the peninsula through the centuries and to people's continual striving to improve the system for doing so.

Incidentally, the Skagen lighthouse is now also home to a migratory bird reserve with hides and an interactive museum inside. An excellent double use for the building.

Thursday, 14 September 2017

‘Algernon and Ernest’s Excellent Adventure’ by Lesley Downer

In October 1866 a young man called Algernon Mitford arrived in Japan. ‘I found myself in a world younger by six centuries than that which I had left behind,’ he recalled. Like the eponymous heroes of the 1989 film ‘Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure’, he had stepped into a time machine, but in his case, his experiences were real.

The extraordinary world that Mitford found himself in is the setting for The Shogun’s Queen as well as the other Shogun Quartet novels. One of the most exciting parts of my research was reading Mitford’s Memories. His writing is so vivid, fresh and full of life that he brings alive that Japan of a century and a half ago that was even then on the brink of disappearing.
Algernon Freeman Mitford
portrait by 
Samuel Lawrence, 1865

Japan had been largely closed to outsiders for 250 years, until 1853 when the American Commodore Matthew Perry arrived to force open its doors. Just eight years had passed since 1858 when a treaty was negotiated permitting westerners to visit, trade and settle in a few specific ports.
Ernest Satow 1869

Algernon - the grandfather of the famous Mitford sisters - was 29 years old and had been posted to Japan to join the newly established British Legation under Sir Harry Parkes. He had paid his own way. In those days you had to have private means to be a diplomat.

Another of the officials at the legation was the 23 year old Ernest Satow, from Clapton. He’d arrived in Japan in 1862 and was fluent in written and spoken Japanese. The two became firm friends. Satow, too, later wrote his memoirs, a gripping account entitled A Diplomat in Japan.

At the time there were few westerners in Japan and most were confined to the heaving port of Yokohama. In those days Yokohama was like a wild west gold rush town, populated largely by unscrupulous adventurers who’d gravitated there, pretending to be merchants or traders, out to make a quick buck by fair means or foul. The only westerners allowed to live and travel outside the port were diplomats attached to the legation - like Mitford and Satow.

'younger by six centuries' pic from Rutherford Alcock
The Capital of the Tykoon 1863
After several of their small wooden houses had burnt down in the regular fires that took place, the two set up house in Edo, now Tokyo, in a little temple in Shinagawa, near the Legation, in the south east of the city, as far as possible from Edo Castle where the shogun lived. It was the roughest part of town, a ‘sinister and ill-famed quarter’. On a morning ride they sometimes passed a headless body lying at the side of the road, the aftermath of a vendetta execution.

'Like hobgoblins of a nightmare'
Samurai by Felice Beato
‘Edo,’ Mitford writes in his stirring prose, ‘was like the Edinburgh of the olden days with the cries of the clans and the clash of arms ringing in its wynds and alleys, and a Walter Scott is needed to tell the tale.’

Shinagawa was where the execution ground was. The standard mode of execution was crucifixion on a X shaped cross and Mitford writes of seeing the executioners, who were of the outcaste class, sitting peacefully smoking their spindly pipes, having finished their work for the day, with the corpse still hanging on the cross.

In Japan this was a time of enormous and dramatic change with the empire-building British doing their best to interfere in every means possible so as to advance Britain’s influence and power. Mitford and Satow hobnobbed with all the major players on both sides of what was rapidly developing into full scale civil war. They dined with the last shogun, Tokugawa Keiki, who features in The Shogun’s Queen. Mitford describes him as ‘the handsomest man that I saw during all the years that I was in Japan. ... He was a great noble if ever there was one.’ 
Tokugawa Keiki, the Last Shogun, 1867

Mitford also witnessed some of the fighting that brought about the fall of the shogunate and saw troops of samurai in full armour ‘with crested helms and fiercely moustachioed visors’ and streamers of horsehair floating to their waists, ‘like hobgoblins out of a nightmare.’

But the biggest adventure was a trip which the two took overland through territory which no westerner had ever passed through before. They travelled by palanquin with a guard of twenty men. Crowds gathered to see what to their eyes were ‘strange wild beasts.’ 

Whenever the two were out of sight of people they walked though in order to preserve their dignity they had to squeeze back into their cramped and uncomfortable palanquins whenever they passed through a populated area.

They were nearing the end of their journey when they came to a hurdle. Impatient to reach their destination, Osaka, they had decided to take a short cut. But the officials they met up with that night argued incessantly that they should take the regular route, which was longer. The officials dreamt up all sorts of arguments but Mitford and Satow were well aware of the real reason - to keep them away from the sacred city of Kyoto which no westerner had ever been allowed to visit and which would be defiled even by their proximity.

'cramped and uncomfortable' - palanquin
Eventually Mitford, exasperated, demanded that the officials put their arguments in writing and said that if they did so they would comply with their demands. The officials did so and the two men reluctantly took the longer route. 

They reached Osaka two days later, having been on the road for 15 days. Only then did they learn by chance that there had been four hundred samurai lying in wait along the shorter route to ambush them, intending to cut them down to punish them for defiling the neighbourhood of the sacred city. ‘Had we taken the route which we proposed we should have been dead men,’ Mitford wrote.

Unknowingly the Japanese officials had saved their lives.

Lesley Downer’s latest novel, The Shogun's Queen, set in the world of Mitford’s Japan, is out now in paperback. For more see www.lesleydowner.com

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

GABRIELLE BY CHANEL – Elizabeth Fremantle ponders on the ugly side of beauty

The other day a promoted Tweet landed in my Twitter feed. These unasked-for, supposedly targeted, advertisements are usually little more than an annoyance but this one drew my attention. 'For Gabrielle Chanel passion is a movement, an impulse, a breath,' it waffled, inviting me to click on play to watch the stylish little animation it was offering.

Now, I know this is a history site and so far this doesn't seem to be going anywhere historical, but bear with me, it will. I clicked on the arrow to be assaulted by the kind of aphoristic nonsense particular to fragrance launches, for this is what it was: the launch of Chanel's new parfum, Gabrielle.

Over clever graphics in chic monochrome a dulcet voice described the philosophy of Gabrielle Chanel (better known as Coco), delivering unmoored words: PASSION SIEZE DARE CREATE. 'Never do things by halves...embrace radical decisions...continue your journey without worrying about the past or posterity.'

It was the last point, suggesting carefree abdication of the past, that particularly drew my attention, given that Chanel's past was less than savoury. I clicked 'reply', hastily punching out into the Twittersphere: 'She was a Nazi sympathiser, hardly something to celebrate!'

Surely, I thought, the marketing gurus at Chanel, whoever they are, are aware that the woman they have chosen as their glossy icon was a collaborator during WW2, who swanned about the Ritz rubbing shoulders with various Nazi officers including Goerring and Goebbels and that her affair with the German officer Baron Hans Gunther von Dinklage is well documented.

Indeed, if Hal Vaughan's meticulously researched 2012 biography, Sleeping with the Enemy: Coco Chanel's Secret War, is to be believed, the 'past' that is being ignored in the frivolity of this fragrance launch is worse than that. Vaughan is clear that Chanel was working for German military intelligence under the Abwehr label, Agent F-7124 and her code name was, somewhat wittily, Westminster – she had reputedly had an affair with the Duke of W.

Chanel, the company, is not alone in having links to murky wartime affairs. Most such organisations have changed beyond recognition and I'm not suggesting that driving a Volkswagen or shopping at Hugo Boss, or indeed Chanel is wrong. But what I take particular issue with is that this particular fashion behemoth would make the unforgivably crass error of holding up Chanel, the woman, as a role model. The fashion and beauty trade is necessarily superficial, but in this case a little depth and concern about the past would have been appropriate.

I, for one, will not be spraying myself with Gabrielle – the stench would be too much to bear.

Elizabeth Fremantle's latest novel The Girl in the Glass Tower, a Times Book of the Year 2016, is published by Penguin.

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

On swimming in Ancient Roman fishponds, by Antonia Senior

This Summer, we snorkelled in an Ancient Roman Fishpond.

The setting was the incredible island of Ventotene, some 50 kilometres off the coast of Lazio. Just 800 metres wide and 3 kilometres long, Ventotene is a gorgeous, volcanic haven of what my kids call "cool Roman stuff". It is brimful of stories and tragedies.

Mussolini imprisoned some of his opponents on Ventotene - more specifically on the even tinier island next door - Santo Stefano. One of them, Altiro Spinelli, dreamed of a federal Europe to end Europe's ceaseless wars - and his Ventotene Manifesto is widely seen as the ideological founding document of the EU.

A view of Santo Stefano (the large island) at sunset. (There's a Brexit metaphor here, but it's too depressing)

In antiquity, the island was called Pandateria. It was the place to which Roman Emperors shuffled off their inconvenient women. The first of the exiles was Julia, daughter of the Emperor Augustus, who was exiled for adultery and immorality. The terms of her imprisonment forbade her from seeing men or drinking wine. The ruins of the massive imperial villa complex are called the Villa Julia - and I will write of them in a later blog. Julia is the subject of the novel I am currently working on.

Julia's daughter, Agrippina the Elder, and Grand-daughter, Julia Livilla, both ended up exiled on the same island and were allegedly starved to death there. Nero's unfortunate wife Octavia, the daughter of Claudius, was sent to Pandateria, and was executed there on her husband's orders. The last Roman to be sent to the island was Flavia Domitilla, the Grandaughter of Vespasian, sent by her Uncle Domitian for the crime of being Christian - at least according to the early church.

A tragic island, then. An island of abused, abandoned, pilloried women.

And now, a rather jaunty Italian holiday island - unfrequented by Brits, entirely Italian speaking, and utterly gorgeous. With one volcanic sand beach and glorious turquoise seas.

Claudia modelling the volcanic sand of Ventotene

But I want to tell you about the fishpond....

Fishponds were a feature of early Imperial holiday villas. They served an obvious practical purpose - catching and storing fish utilising the surge of the tide. But they were more than this - they were part of the elaborate pursuit of otium (leisure) which characterised the aristocratic Romans at play. A marriage of architecture and nature.

The ponds themselves were surrounded by partially submerged rooms - cave-like, man-made structures - which were gorgeously decorated and full of statuary. Seneca talks of these dining-rooms in a famous passage, where he describes the fish being freshly caught as part of the theatre of dining. Fresh mullet, sir?

A graphical reconstruction of the fishponds (from the report of 2004 archaeological work of Annalisa Zarattini – Simone L. Trigona –
Dante G. Bartoli – Ayse D. Atauz

An archaeological survey of the site in 2004 revealed the extraordinary complex engineering of the fishponds - which, like the nearby extant Roman harbour, was carved from the soft tufa rock. The whole system relied on tunnels which worked together to keep the water circulating so it would remain fresh and not stagnant.   

Inside one of the tunnels - the archaeologists' picture.
The amazing thing is that, by swimming from the rocks near the beach, and throwing yourself over a low sea wall, you can swim straight into this incredible feat of Roman engineering. With a mask, you can see the tunnels. And fish!. The atmosphere inside the vaulted space is incredible. History breathes on you, smelling of salt and seaweed. And we had it all to ourselves. Here are a few of me, the kids and my sister exploring. Forgive the indulgent holiday snaps, but we were SWIMMING INSIDE AN UNBELIEVABLE ROMAN MONUMENT - so I think you'll forgive me. 

A magical experience. Next time: Julia's Villa....