Friday, 10 July 2020

Why I’m not busy doing publicity for my new novel - Michelle Lovric

It’s hard to write or speak right now without mentioning Covid, so I’m not even going to try to avoid the subject. Here’s the question all writers are asking one another: have you blossomed into lockdown creativity? Me, I can’t say, objectively. Yes, I have written a lot – at least thirty thousand words of something that might be prose, but I don’t know if it’s emotionally legible, let alone good. I may not know until we’ve come out of this dreamlike time and can think clearly again.

I have loved writing for a poetry seminar led by the wickedly inspiring Christina Dunhill. We’ve been working on Ghazal, Rubai, Rhyme Royal and other contortions, form being, in my opinion, the poets’ Sudoku. (In the case of sestina or pantoum, form is more like the poets’ Rubik’s Cube). Zoom works surprisingly well for a poetry seminar, with much deployment of the chat function, so there’s lots of subtext, literally. The screen has exploded with talent, passion and humour. Christina’s group will be one of my best memories of the lockdown. Meanwhile, my own far-flung family has resorted to a new post-Covid poetic form on WhatsApp – Gangsta Haiku, which involves a lot of swearing and, I fear, disrespecting of one another’s cats. Our cats are also voiced, and they turn out to be quite outstandingly rude. (For shame, Caramella, Guppy, Jessie. For shame.)

However, I have spent most of my lockdown time bare-knuckle wrestling with a planning application presented to the City of London as a 'simple reinstatement' of historic Swan Lane Pier by London Bridge at the heart of the Thames.

I'd support the reinstatement of the old pier, of course.

You can read about its colourful history on this excellent website:

If only we could reinstate the Swan Lane Pier of Samuel Pepys, the old Swan Upping ceremony and the 'Waterman, naked all but his shirt, rowed in a Butcher’s Tray from the Old Swan Stairs, to Greenwich, for a Wager of four Guineas, and won the same.'

But I'd also support a new pier with a gentle footprint on the river - a pier that ran on solar, tide or wind renewables, providing a mixed hub for public transport, safe water sports for London's children and adults and a responsible truly green freight offering to ease road congestion. Who wouldn't be in favour of giving Londoners more free access to our river and City commuters new healthier journeys? I'd support more pier work for the Company of Watermen and Lightermen who must have been hard hit by the virus: in a thousand years, the Thames cannot have looked as glassy and silent as it's been in the last few months, but the beauty has surely come at the cost of some hardship. More than anything, I'd love to see the return of the old Royal Sovereign and Belle steamers. If only I liked fish-paste, I'd love to sit on deck eating fish-paste sandwiches from a linen handkerchief while I traced the Thames all the way out to sea and into Yarmouth, a jolly whole-day trip starting off at Old Swan Lane ...

The current proposal, however, is not for a reinstatement of old Swan Lane Pier. In fact, the plan was revealed last year as a massive reinvention of the site as private pier complex specifically designed to host Europe’s biggest party boat, the Ocean Diva. (Everything you need to know about style and scale lies in the name. You can look on YouTube if you want to see the parties). This would be a private pier, joint-funded by the Ocean Diva itself, and would be privately run too. With up to1000 partygoers filling the single narrow ramp between pier and shore up to four times a day, there just physically couldn't be much of a window for kayakers or scheduled public transport or regular freight. Water-sport and public transport have been scoped out anyway; the freight offering, shall we say, bespeaks the core operation and raison d'être of this particular scheme.

Moreover, to accommodate the Diva's 282-foot length, the developers would need to dig a kind of private underwater harbour into the Thames, quaintly styled as a 'pocket'. This would entail dredging 2200 cubic metres of sediment so contaminated with lead and mercury that it's too dangerous to dump at sea. This vast dredge would take place on the very foreshore of Roman London, a Tier One site of archaeological interest. Lara Maiklem devotes a whole chapter to this stretch of foreshore in her beautifully-written book Mudlarking.

Yet, via various planning loopholes, the Ocean Diva might well arrive in London unscrutinised as to its aesthetics (and effects on protected views) and unenforceable as to its emissions and its noise. Given the number and size of the loopholes, it's easy to see how the Thames must have seemed a most attractive site for this kind of development. So efforts to resist this one mega-boat's dedicated pier are not just about shining a light on a single pier's fate but really about trying to futureproof the historic river – London’s biggest public realm – against large-scale privatisation and commodification, while still allowing the river and those who work on it to thrive economically. 

 As followers of this site will know, I have long campaigned against the cruise ship invasion of Venice. I have seen what it has taken from the city without giving much back except a tourist monoculture and an air quality disaster, not to mention damage to infrastructure, as in last year's terrifying incident when the MSC Opera went out of control and collided with another boat and the shore, injuring five people. Budapest was not so lucky: on May 29th last year, 28 were killed when a large cruiser ran down a smaller boat in front of the Hungarian parliament building on the Danube. Megaships and narrow metropolitan waters: just not safe. 

My colleagues at NoGrandiNavi have been sad and sorry to hear about the Ocean Diva. So have residents in Amsterdam, home of the Ocean Diva. In both cases, they  have warned that if we let one megaship in, soon there will be fleets of them. Use Venice, a Venetian friend urged, as a terrible example of what can happen. The Ocean Diva team has not acceded to our request to supply images of their boat on the Thames. A planning loophole means they don't have to do so. Instead, here's a Canaletto adapted by artist Vince McIndoe for NGN, to show the incongruous scale and aesthetics of the megaships compared to the fragile beauty of Venice. 

The Thames has this going for it: there's a huge community who cares about it very much and that community is paying attention. So many people have taken a good hard look at the scheme proposed at Swan Lane and have understood its wider implications. Living Bankside has set up a web page to explain the issues. Amanda Craig (whose utterly absorbing new novel, The Golden Rule, just out) set up a petition on Artist Déirdre Kelly, who lives in Venice, created this beautiful collage. It shows how the heart of the old Thames needs to be protected. 

There's a deliberate reference to the NoGrandiNavi campaign logo (right) in the typography above, as there are many ways in which the Thames and the Grand Canal can be seen as twin waterways at the moment: both beleaguered by those who would make money of them at the expense of the environment and liveability. For this reason, passionate letters of protest about the Ocean Diva at Swan Lane have flooded in from Venetian academics and Venetophiles all over the world.

Nor do the Thames and its many concerned riverside villages lack for local support: Southwark Cathedral, the Borough Market, Shakespeare’s Globe and the Tower of London have all written meaningful and powerful objections to this particular iteration of Swan Lane Pier, as have many thoughtful writers who love our river, archaeologists and naturalists.

While Swan Lane Pier has edged closer to its decision date in the City of London, the publication date of my own new children’s novel has also been approaching. But it's been doing so on slippered feet. This is not just because of the dissonant noise around Swan Lane Pier but also because everything (else) seems muffled at the moment, doesn’t it? It has been muffled by the quiet of the streets, the silence of the Thames below me, the absence of aeroplanes and the shuttered bookshops. To lessen the sense of writerly isolation, I’ve been exchanging pre-pub thoughts on this strange situation with fellow History Girl, Celia Rees, who has a compelling adult historical out soon: Miss Graham’s Cold War Cookbook. I was fortunate to have a preview copy to enliven the beginning of the lockdown. I hope very much that Miss Graham is just the first volume of a trilogy, because Celia has a gift for an engaging female character and there are two other ladies whose stories I’d be fascinated to know.

Apart from writing and reading and Thames-ing, I was invited to participate in the celebrations of the Great Get Together, inspired by Jo Cox. Our usual wondrous street party was coronavirused, but Bankside Open Spaces Trust hosted a celebration broadcast across a network of radio stations including Resonance FM 104.4 , K2K Radio and SOAS Radio on June 21st. The Water’s Daughter (published yesterday) is my sixth novel for children – and yes, I shall eventually get to it! – but it’s my second Venetian children’s book that has gained more attention in the last few weeks. I was interviewed about it by Tim Wood for The Great Get Together, because of the novel's rather shudder-inducing prescience.
The Mourning Emporium opens in late 1900 with a disastrous ice-flood that reduces Venice to ruins. This is followed by a pandemic that is called the Half-Dead disease because it makes people fade away and die. The Mourning Emporium follows a tribe of orphaned Venetian children who sail in an old wooden boat to London … only to find that the Half-Dead disease has got there ahead of them. And their boat, the Scilla, is slapped in quarantine. 

The strange thing is that The Mourning Emporium was written ten years ago and it’s strange not just because of Covid but also because of disastrous flood that swept through Venice in November 2019, just before the virus took hold.  For The Great Get Together, a few pages describing the Scilla’s arrival in London were beautifully read by the talented Douglas Clarke-Wood, who really made the scene come alive with wonderful Italian accents. The piece of music I chose to accompany my interview was this.

The real pandemic – the one not invented by writerly imagination – is loosening its grip in Venice now. The city is determined to come out of Covid better than it went in. Venezia Fu-Turistica is a new idea, expressed in a day of peaceful marching, banners and speeches on June 13th. It is hard to translate this pun. It means in one sense ‘Venice was touristical’ but you can also run the words together as Venezia Futuristica … meaning ‘Futuristic Venice’, a better city conceived for a new future. The plea is that the post-pandemic rebirth should be as a different kind of Venice, one where the principles of social and climate justice are not just greenwashing but actually embedded in society and infrastructure.

Many in this country are talking about similar ideas. Which in turn raises the question: exactly what kind of reinstatement of Swan Lane Pier would be compatible with a green (and not a greenwashed) campaign to Build Back Better? Or in line with Poets for the Planet's Begin Afresh campaign? Or on the same page as so many other initiatives that give hope of better, cleaner, quieter, inclusive, less secretive, more genuine, more wholesome, more respectful, more considerate culture post-Coronavirus? In this context, a private and privately run bespoke pier for a mega-partyboat ... feels like an uneasy fit and a sadly lost opportunity for a true mixed-use pier accessible to all.

As our community organisation Living Bankside says, 'Covid 19 has thrown into relief how important it is for people to have access to natural space and particularly public realm, because not everyone is lucky enough to have a garden or balcony of their own ... The Thames is London’s biggest public realm and should belong to everyone. Let’s not let it get commodified. Let’s learn from Venice before it’s too late and keep the mega-ships out of the heart of our city.'

Finally, back to The Water’s Daughter, which is what I really should be writing about today of all days, and about which there would be plenty to say, at any other time.

However, I have detained the Patient Reader far too long already. 

Long story short then: according to my publishers, 'It’s an exquisitely imagined fantasy novel about a girl who can see history with her touch.’ It’s also about a vengeful Arabian Djinnir, a talking leopardess and a fleet of ferocious Barbary pirates whose surprisingly young leader bears a deep and understandable grudge against Venice. The Water’s Daughter also brings back the rude and greedy Venetian mermaids of the previous books, winged cats and I Fedeli,  a secretive organisation that promises to protect Venice from the water, but instead lines its own pockets and leaves her perilously vulnerable. The name 'Fedeli' is ironic: it can translate as 'Those of Good Faith', or 'The Faithful Ones'. I came up with the idea for this book back in 2013. Any similarities between I Fedeli in The Water’s Daughter and those whose corruption bankrupted Venice’s real life flood defence programme … and any similarities between I Fedeli and those whose financial interests may have tipped them in favour of embracing the Ocean Diva at Swan Lane… are purely quite interesting. 

With the help of designer Helena Wee, I’ve prepared some new Water's Daughter pages for my website. Once more, they include the haunting photographs of the talented David Winston, with whom I have collaborated in previous blogs. 

Last word goes to Guppy of Tokyo, because it really takes an international village to take care of our Thames. Other protest cats are available, on the Peaceful Thames facebook page.

Michelle Lovric’s website

The Water’s Daughter web pages

The Water’s Daughter

The Living Bankside pages are here  (and include a guide to making a quick and effective objection to City of London Planning).

The Ocean Diva petition can be signed here


Twitter: Please search for hashtag #NOOCEANDIVA to interact and retweet

Friday, 3 July 2020

Jean Giono's Legacy, by Carol Drinkwater

                               Jean Giono born in Manosque in 1895 and died in the same village in 1970.

I am frequently asked who my favourite writers are; authors I return to time and time again. One of the first who springs to mind is Jean Giono. Son of a cobbler and a laundress, he is a Provençal writer through and through. Henry Miller, the great American writer, described Giono as one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century. Yet he is little know outside his native France, although many of his books have been translated in to English.

In 1953 he published perhaps his most famous book, THE MAN WHO PLANTED TREES. If you haven't read it I certainly urge you to. You won't be disappointed. The tale narrates the story of a berger, a shepherd, who spends thirty years reforesting a region in the Haute Provence. The book was made into a film produced in Canada. Here is the link to the very beautiful  animation film:

Or in English:

In these hard days full of sickness and bad news, I heartily recommend this beautiful little film and, of course, the novel, which in my opinion is a small masterpiece.

By serendipity, I recently discovered the group, Friends of Jean Giono/ Les Amis de Jean Giono. They meet every year in early August in Manosque, watch films of his work, read from his books and take walking tours to parts of the Provençal countryside Giono wrote about. I am hoping that I will be able to attend this year.

Coincidentally, Michel and I are attempting to plant up a forest of oak trees grown from acorns fallen on our land at the Olive Farm ... a small gesture for the future.

Enjoy your summer reading and I hope you find inspiration from Giono and this marvellous little film.

Friday, 26 June 2020

Angelica, Paintress of Minds by Miranda Miller

   When I was writing my novel about the fascinating painter Angelica Kauffman there were two things I found difficult to understand: her devout Catholicism (I am not religious) and her fear of change in her last years, when she was living in Rome, widowed, waiting for Napoleon’s army to invade. In early nineteenth century century terms she was an old lady - actually younger than I am now - and she wanted to continue to shine in the brilliant world of art and culture in London and Rome that no longer existed because of the wars. Change is inevitable, I thought rather impatiently as I wrote about her sadness and fear of the new century.

   The last few strange months have changed all of our lives and now I think I have more empathy for people who lived through past wars and pandemics. We spend most of our lives deluding ourselves that we are important and then some disaster comes along to remind us that we are actually tiny and have no control over these great events.

   Angelica was a determined woman who controlled her life from childhood, when her precocious gift was regognised and exploited by her father, an unsuccessful painter. Hers was one of those talents that was perfectly attuned to the taste of her age and she made the most of it, painting portraits of the rich and famous that were flattering and also psychologically acute, like this one of the great classical scho;ar Winckelmann, who was a friend,.

   Angelica was good looking and charming, a talented singer who spoke German, Italian and English. When she was twenty-five she moved to London where she very quickly established herself in the highly competitive art world. A new word was coined: Angelicamad. Joshua Reynold liked and encouraged her and as well as portraits she did History and literary paintings, often showing melancholy women left behind by the macho exploits of their men, She also painted many aristocrats and members of the royal family, including Queen Charlotte, who befriended her. These two intelligent cultivated young women were about the same age and the Queen, who was lonely in En gland, was relieved to be able to speak German . This ia a mezzotint of Angelica’s allegorical painting of the Queen about to awaken the sleeping arts in Great Britain.

   Angelica was always aware that as a ‘paintress’ she did not have the sexual freedom of male artists. Remarkably, her career and reputation were not damaged by the one mistake she made, her first marriage to the ‘Count de Horn’ who turned out to be a con man. It was probably due to the influence of the Queen that Angelica was one of only two women to become founding members of the Royal Academy of Arts when it opened in 1768. She was a shrewd businesswoman who made a lot of money during her years in London. Here is one of many self portraits she painted from the age of thirteen. I found them very helpful as a guide to exploring her life.

    In her late thirties, after her first bigamous marriage was annulled, she married Antonio Zucchi, a Venetian decorative painter fifteen years older than her. She had seen many other women artists ruined by marriage because their husbands were jealous of their talent or objected to their earning money as painters. She drew up what we would call a pre-nuptial agreement, giving her total control over her own money. In fact Zucchi was happy to be supportive of his more famous wife and their marriage seems to have been a happy one.

   In 1780 Lord George Gordon let a violently anti-Catholic mob on a rampage of rioting, looting and burning in London that lasted for several days. As Catholics, Angelica and her household were terrified and decided to move back to Italy.

   Rome was then the centre of the European art world,where all the Grand Tourists came. Angelica and her husband lived in a very grand house at the top of the Spanish steps. When I was researching my novel I visited Rome, thanks to a generous grant from the Authors’ Foundation, and found that her house has been demolished and replaced by a luxury hotel.

   Her house became an international cultural centre and during those years Angelica painted the Queen of Naples, Antonio Canova, Germaine de Stael, Emma Hamilton and Goethe, all of whom were her friends. After Zucchi died in 1795 she wrote, ‘These happy times are over,’ and for the last years of her life she lived in fear that the soldiers of Napoleon, would arrive and loot her valuable art collection. Lucia, an invented character in my novel, is a young woman Angelica helps who is infatuated with the glamour and excitement of Napoleon and his sister, Princess Pauline Borghese, who was living in Rome. As a conservative Catholic Angelica detested both and mourned the old world that was being swept away by Napoleon. This argument runs throughout the novel. In Lucia’s unconventional spirit Angelica recognises a youth she missed:“She is the girl I trained myself not to be.”

   Like us, Angelica lived at a time of enormous change and was often bewildered by it. At the end of her life, still anxious to avoid scandal, she made a bonfire of most of her private papers. I’ve presumptuously tried to bring them back to life in my novel, Angelica Paintress of Minds, which is now out on kindle and will be published by Barbican Books in August.

Friday, 19 June 2020

On Purbeck Marble

Tomb of William Marshal: Temple Church.  Author's photograph
Purbeck Marble was a highly prized building material in the Middle Ages especially from the 11th to 16th centuries, with its heyday in the 12th and 13th.

It can only be obtained from one place and that is the land in the area of Corfe on the Isle of Purbeck in south-east Dorset.  It is not a marble technically speaking, but a polishable limestone, characterised by tightly-packed fossil shells of the water snail viviparus carinfer.  It comes in a variety of shades including blue-grey, red-brown and green.  The vein of this limestone is between 18 and 24 inches thick and was worked from the surface.

Thousands of architectural objects have been fashioned from Purbeck stone, including the the columns at the Temple Church in London, various knightly effigies, including that of William Marshal, and a magnificent fountain that used to stand outside the private apartments at the Palace of Westminster.  Henry of Blois, Bishop of Winchester and brother to King Stephen, used Purbeck for wall shafts, capitals and bases at Wolvesey Palace in the mid 12th century and also for elaborate colonettes at Hyde Abbey.

Working the marble is difficult because of its denseness and it required expert craftsmen for the task.  Such men worked at Purbeck itself and in London.

One of the reasons for the success of Purbeck was the coastal location of the source which made it easy to transport. Columns were shipped up to Durham Cathedral in 1175. Capitals and bases went to Norwich, to Westminster, to Vale Royal.  In 1375 a ship called the Margarite out of Wareham was listed as transporting cargoes of Purbeck to London, including two high tombs for the Earl of Arundel and a large slab for the bishop of Winchester.  In 1386 the same ship took Purbeck from Dorset to London intended for the tomb of Edward III.

Tomb of King John Worcester Cathedral.  photo taken by the author
The London craftsman originally came from Corfe but settled in their community in London. The biggest influx seems to have come with the requirement for building and beautifying at Westminster Abbey instigated by Henry III in 1245. By 1253 there were 49 marblers on the site all cutting and polishing the marble blocks and shafts.  There were probably also centres of marbling at other great ecclesiastical sites - Salisbury Cathedral for example, which was sending worked marble to Southampton in 1231-2.

The most successful Purbeck items for the mass market in the 12th and 13th century were tomb slabs and effigies.  William Marshal's effigy as aforementioned, Henry Bishop of Winchester, King John, Hubert Walter - Archbishop of Canterbury.

Later on Purbeck continued to be in high demand when funeral brass effigies became all the rage and the marble was used as a background to the brass.  It was still also being used for paneled tomb chests and large canopied wall tombs.

Today it is no longer quarried on the former sites except for specialist restoration projects.

Temple Church interior showing the Purbeck columns - these are restored ones following
bomb damage in World War II

Friday, 12 June 2020

What's in a Name ? by Judith Allnatt

What's in a name? Well, often quite a nod to history. Our own names often tell us something of the occupations off our ancestors, as in Potter, Shepherd, Smith (blacksmith) and Whitaker (white acre).  Some, of course, would be difficult to guess. Who would have known that the first name Gary means 'spear-carrier',  Kimberley 'a wood clearing' or  Everard 'strong boar'?

Some names have suffixes that suggest the nature of an occupation. 'Wright' means someone who makes something, as in Wheelwright or Wainwright, 'wain' being short for 'wagon'. Suffixes can also imply gender. The surname Webb was commonly used for a male weaver. The suffix 'ster' was often added for a female labourer, as in 'Webster'. Words on this pattern have even entered the language as nouns.  'Spinster' no doubt originated from an occupation commonly taken up by single women needing to support themselves. Prefixes can also be revealing. 'Fitz', from Old French,  means 'son of', as in Fitzpatrick or Fitzgerald, or in the case of Fitzroy the (illegitimate) son of the King (Roi).

When choosing names for characters, novelists generally think carefully about the nature of the character and the impression they want to create. Thomas Hardy, in Far from the Madding Crowd, introduces his character, Gabriel Oak, through his robust clothes and steady nature but his name also underpins this impression. A man named after an archangel and the sturdiest of English trees must surely be a moral benchmark and a reliable, all round solid chap.

Sometimes historical research can lead a writer to a name that chimes with their idea of a character.When I was writing The Silk Factory, set in the early 1800s, I drew on the history of John English, the overseer in the silk manufactory in my Northamptonshire village. He was described by the outraged schoolmaster of the time as 'an inhuman taskmaster'. Like Gabriel Oak, John English seemed far too traditional and forthright a name for a character who was to cruelly exploit and mistreat his workforce. I would have to rename him. In researching the industry, I read about weaving  workshops in Spitalfields in London and how nets would sometimes be set up on the rooftops  to catch songbirds to sell. A bird catcher was known then as a 'fowler' - the perfect name for the silk master overseeing a workforce trapped in a stuffy attic working sixteen-hour days.

John English also had a mysterious past. An advert in the Northampton Mercury offered a reward of ten guineas for his capture as he was accused of several felonies, including theft and cruelty. It said: 'He has many wounds upon his head and in different parts of his body, wears a wig and the general turn of his conversation is directed to Travelling, Voyages, Mechanics and discovering Mines and the North-West passage.' Because  of this, I wanted a first name that had elements of mystery and exoticism. I chose 'Septimus', the name used for a seventh son, a role imbued with mystery in fairy tales through the ages. 'Septimus  Fowler', I felt would be a character that the reader would recognise as villainous from the moment of his introduction.

We don't tend to think about the origins or meanings of names as we use them in everyday life. They've become commonplace over the generations through their frequent use. However, I think perhaps we sometimes have an unconscious awareness of their associations. When writing A Mile of River, which features a farmer obsessed with expanding his land and controlling his family, I drew a blank for his name. After a night sleeping on it, I came up with the name 'Henry Garton'. It seemed to click although I couldn't have said why. Looking up the meanings I found "Henry - head of the household" and "Garton - a fenced farm, a walker of boundaries". A salutary lesson on trusting one's writerly instincts!

No wonder many peoples have superstitions about telling a stranger their names. Perhaps they have a sense that to do so is to part with more information about themselves  than they would like to give. What's in a name? Quite a lot it would seem.

Friday, 5 June 2020

Beautiful Libraries & Travel Dreams by Catherine Hokin

Like every writer I know, I am wedded to libraries and bookshops and, ten weeks into this strange new world we are now living in, I am missing my regular haunts.

I have two libraries I regularly spend time in - my local university library in Glasgow and the Wiener Holocaust Library in London - and too many virtual ones to count. Independent bookshops in Glasgow are, unfortunately, thin on the ground but Edinburgh is only a hop away and we have a suitably eccentric second-hand bookshop at the bottom of our road that I really hope survives the current closures.

 El Ateneo Grand Splendid Bookstore - Flickr
Travel seems a long way away but I have been digging through the photos and planning trips, and libraries and book stores are always part of the itinerary. Last year, while researching my novel The Fortunate Ones, I was lucky enough to visit Buenos Aires and the incredible El Ateneo Grand Splendid. This bookshop was built in 2000 inside the Grand Splendid Theatre which itself opened in 1919. The shop retains many parts of the original theatre, including the stage - which is now a cafe - the balconies and boxes and even the red curtains. I have never seen a shop like it, and we lost hours in there.

 Washington National Library - my picture
A few months before that, I was in Washington where I almost broke my neck craning for a better view of the magnificent ceilings in the Library of Congress.The decoration is breath-taking, the library is in the Beaux Art style which means it is theatrical and heavily ornamented. It was the largest library in the world when it opened in 1897, and still is. Its collections number more than 170 million items and that number is constantly growing - about 10,000 items are added to its lists every working day.

The Library of Congress is, however, a long way from being the world's oldest library. That honour falls to the Library of Ashurbanipal, which was founded in Ninevah in modern day Iraq in the seventh century BC. The ancient world also housed the legendary Library of Alexandria which attracted scholars from around the Mediterranean until it was destroyed by fire - either in 48 B.C., 270 A.D or at the end of the fourth century depending on which record you read. The oldest surviving library collection - roughly 1800 scrolls - dates from 79 A.D and was discovered in the Villa of the Papyri when Herculaneum was excavated in the eighteenth century. The scrolls were blackened and carbonized after spending so long entombed in the mud and ash left by the volcanic eruption which buried Herculaneum along with Pompei. Much of the catalogue has yet to be deciphered, but studies have already revealed that the library contains several texts by an Epicurean philosopher and poet named Philodemus.

Libraries have always been viewed as an essential part of our world and I, for one, cannot wait to walk into one and breathe that special printed page smell again. We are currently, I think, evaluating many of the things that are important to us, and I hope libraries continue to get the support and funding they, and we, need. In a time of fake news and sometimes too fast news, they have never been more essential to us - libraries provide equality of information and they are the custodians of truth. They are also, many of them, stunning works of art in their own right. I am sure many readers of this blog have their own favourites - Trinity College Library in Dublin is another of mine - but the following pictures are top of my my wish list. As soon as the world opens up again, I'm on my way...

Royal Library, El Escorial, Madrid, Flikr

 George Peabody Library, Baltimore, Wikicommons

Friday, 29 May 2020

Sex, Death and Eternal Love by Elisabeth Storrs

I was inspired to write my A Tale of Ancient Rome series when I found a photo of a C6th BCE sarcophagus of a man and women lying on their bed in a tender embrace. The casket (known as the Sarcophagus of the Married Couple) was unusual because, in this period of history, women were rarely commemorated in funerary art let alone depicted in such a pose of affection. The image of the lovers remained with me. What kind of culture exalted marital fidelity while showing such an openly sensuous connection? What ancient society revered women as much as men? Discovering the answer led me to the Etruscans, a society that existed from before archaic times in Italy and was mainly situated in the areas we now know as Tuscany and Lazio.

Sarcophagus of the Married Couple - Late C6th BCE
Etruscan women were afforded education, high status and independence. As a result they were often described as ‘wicked’ by Greek and Roman historians and travellers whose cultures repressed women. Etruscan women dined with their husbands at banquets and drank wine. In such commentators’ eyes, this liberal behaviour may well have equated with depravity. One famous account claims that wives indulged in orgies. And so modern historians continue to debate the contradictory depictions of Etruscan women –were they promiscuous adulterers or faithful wives? 

Etruscan society clearly celebrated both marriage and sex. The image of men and women embracing is a constant theme in their tomb art and ranges from being demure, as in the case of the Married Couple, to the strongly erotic (Tomb of the Bulls) and even pornographic (Tomb of the Whippings.) The latter illustrations seem to confirm the more prurient view of Etruscan women but the symplegma or ‘sexual embrace’ was not a gratuitous portrayal of abandon but instead was an atropaic symbol invoking the forces of fertility against evil and death.

Larth Tetnies and Tanchvil Tarnai
Late C4th early 3rd BCE
No better example of this is a particularly striking double sarcophagus found in Vulci in Italy and which is now located in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Wrought in fine white limestone, the man and woman lie entwined in each other’s arms. However, unlike the anonymous Married Couple, this husband and wife can be identified. They are Larth Tetnies and Tanchvil Tarnai. The very fact that Tanchvil has two names is evidence of the status of Etruscan women. In early Rome, females only had one name – that of their father’s in feminine form. In Etruria, the bloodlines of both sides of a woman’s family were often recorded on their casket.

The image of the couple is both intimate and yet openly erotic. The spouses are not young but are nevertheless beautiful. Tanchvil gently clasps the nape of Larth’s neck as the lovers gaze into each other’s eyes. They are naked, the outline of their limbs evident beneath the sculpted folds of the mantle that covers them. However nudity cannot hide their status. Their luxurious hairstyles and elegant jewellery declare their wealth, as does the wide, decorated double bed upon which they lie.

There was a second sarcophagus found in the sepulchre at Vulci. It is narrow and only held the remains of a woman, Ramtha Visnai, but its lid depicts her embracing her husband, Arnth Tetnies. They are the parents of Larth. This coffin is made of rough nenfro stone. Wrapped in their shroud, the figures embrace each other on their bed. Unlike the sexually charged younger couple, the older pair is more contemplative as they face each other although the sight of their feet peeping from beneath the covers hints at the relaxed familiarity of their marriage.

Ramtha Visnai and Arnth Tetnies
C450-400 BCE

The Married Couple inspired me to write my trilogy, but the two caskets in the Tetnies tomb were the inspiration for the title of The Wedding Shroud. For both couples lie beneath mantles that I came to understand could symbolise the large veil under which an Etruscan bride and groom stood when they took their vows. In effect the spouses were swathed in their wedding shroud for eternity, their union protecting them from the dark forces that lay beyond the grave.  

As for the conflicting views of Etruscan women, it is clear from studying this society’s art that they celebrated life. Many worshipped the religion of Fufluns (the Greek Dionysus and Roman Bacchus) whose later cult adherents were famous for indulging in debauchery but in its purest form was a belief in the power of regeneration. So which version is correct? Sinners indulging in group sex or steadfast wives? Perhaps both, because the concept of a culture that condones female promiscuity while also honouring wives and mothers is not necessarily contradictory. For while it can be erroneous to compare modern societies with ancient ones, it could be argued that this attitude to females occurs in many present-day Western cultures today.

Either way, the erotic and sensual image of an embrace transcends any moralising in which historians might indulge.  Ultimately I believe that the symplegma is not just an atropaic symbol but something more powerful. Whether sculpted in stone, moulded in terracotta or painted in a mural, the embrace of two lovers remains, above all, an eternal celebration of abiding love.

Elisabeth Storrs is the author of the A Tale of Ancient Rome saga, and the co-founder of the Historical Novel Society Australasia. Learn more at
This post first appeared on Feather of the Firebird blog.
Tarnai_Tetnies Sarcophagus courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Visna_Tetnies Sarcophagus courtesy  AncientRome.rus
The Married Couple courtesy Wikimedia Commons