Saturday 28 March 2020

The Woodward Tomb - Katherine Langrish

In steadfast Hopes of a happy Resurrection here lyes

Eldest son of THOMAS WOODWARD Citizen and

Carpenter of London and ALICE his wife. A youth adorn’d

with most Excellent Endowments of mind and in all

Arts even above the common reach of his years most


His Parents hope and only Pride and Joy

Whom with the highest duty he allways honour’d

And with great Resignation to the will of Heaven

in the sixteenth year of his age dyed April the 2nd, An Dom


Him GOD to Man had of a Pattern given

Not giv’n but Lent and took him back to Heaven

So reads a touching inscription on the side of a table tomb in our local Oxfordshire churchyard, the grave of a boy of 15 who died in 1725. The tomb is a listed monument, protected under law – and last year it had to be restored, as the domed roof of the vault beneath it was in danger of collapsing. And so for a brief week the tomb was cordoned off with black and yellow tape, workmen arrived, and daylight shone in upon the two burials beneath – young William and an older man, now only bones, their coffins having disintegrated. One of the workmen told me that William had a broken leg; was that what caused the poor boy’s death? 

On the west end of the tomb is another inscription, less personal. Beneath two death’s heads, one in profile:

Death is the utmost

Bound of Life

And crossed bones under it. 

But why was the boy buried here, and what was his father, that master carpenter and Citizen of London, doing in a tiny Berkshire village? (For back then the village was in Berkshire, before the boundary changes.) Now the local history group (Hanney History Group) has done a wonderful job of researching the Woodward family via the parish registers and other records. It seems there was ‘a whole dynasty’ of Woodwards in the village, carpenters by trade, who may well have sent sons to London to be apprenticed in the big city: for Thomas and Richard Woodward – who may have been brothers and were, respectively, a carpenter, and a painter employed in the London parish of St Sepulchre – are named as inheriting property in Hanney. In 1723, Thomas Woodward, Carpenter, was helping build properties in one of the first speculative street developments, in Marylebone. The writer continues:

It seems likely that Thomas Woodward who erected the monument to his young son of 15 wanted to mark his roots and bring his precious child back to Hanney. He also wanted to perhaps show how he had prospered. To be a Citizen of London was no mean achievement. It also meant that he had become a rich man, probably no longer a ‘hands-on’ carpenter. A Thomas Woodward was buried in Hanney in 1747 and may be the father of William – perhaps the other occupant of the grave? The grave seemed set up for three people, but could have held double that number. No records of the burial of Alice, his mother, exist for Hanney.

Now, twenty miles north of here stands Blenheim Palace, built between 1705 and 1722 – intended as the gift of a grateful nation for Marlborough’s victory at the Battle of Blenheim. 

The architect was Sir John Vanbrugh, chosen personally by the Duke of Marlborough but greatly disliked by his Duchess, Sarah Churchill – a lady of character and determination and, famously, Queen Anne’s bosom friend. Sarah didn’t like Vanbrugh’s Baroque design. She herself had wanted Sir Christopher Wren, and she also suspected that he would be very expensive. She was right. Who was to pay for the palace was never satisfactorily worked out between Duke, Queen and Parliament, and all payments ceased when the Queen finally broke off relations with her erstwhile best friend. The Marlboroughs fled to the continent, returning only after Anne’s death in 1714. Building work then resumed with the Duke footing the bill – but altercations soon followed when he suffered a stroke in 1717, and Sarah took charge. Vanbrugh decamped in a rage as she fired his picked master-masons and carpenters and hired her own craftsmen at lower rates. The palace was finally completed in 1722.


And scattered around this part of Oxfordshire there still stand a number of splendid gentlemen’s houses of similar but slightly later date, built in the Baroque style of Blenheim itself, statements of wealth and fashion. These benefited from the skills of some of those master craftsmen who had flooded into the region to build Blenheim and were now looking about for other work. One of these houses is in West Hanney, overlooking the church and churchyard where 15 year old William Woodward, son of Thomas Woodward – Citizen and Carpenter of London – was laid to rest. The boy died in 1725, two years before West Hanney House was completed. 

And so I wonder if there is a chance that Thomas Woodward, with his local family contacts, had been employed at some time between 1716 and 1722 on the construction of Blenheim Palace – or perhaps after 1723, that of West Hanney House? Could that have been what brought him and his family out of London and back to his roots? There’s probably no way we shall ever know, but it seems possible. Certainly the grieving father was rich enough to pay for his son William’s sumptuous monument… a monument which has just cost the parish council the best part of £16,000 to repair.

Picture credits:

Photos of the Woodward Tomb - Katherine Langrish
Blenheim Palace, wikimedia commons,  gailf548 from New York State, USA  
Sarah Churchill, wikimedia commons

Friday 20 March 2020

Culture and Society at Lullingstone Roman Villa by Caroline K. Mackenzie

Caroline K. Mackenzie with her book, Culture and Society at Lullingstone Roman Villa.
© Archaeopress.

Many of us have had our first introduction to Roman life through a visit, perhaps as a child, to one of the well-preserved villa sites in the UK. Here, Caroline Mackenzie tells us the background to her thorough survey of life at Lullingstone. (Caroline is joining us as a History Girl and this is her first post for us).

2019 was a rather special year for Lullingstone Roman Villa - it marked the 70th anniversary of the commencement of the excavations. The first clues as to the existence of a Roman site in the vicinity of Lullingstone in the Darent Valley, Kent had been recorded in about 1750 when the fence around Lullingstone deer park was being renewed and diggers of the post holes struck a mosaic. However, it was not until 1939 that an archaeological survey undertaken by Ernest Greenfield and Edwyn Birchenough of the Darent Valley Archaeological Research Group concentrated on the Roman finds and that the remarkable story of the discovery of Lullingstone Roman Villa properly began.

The Second World War halted the 1939 survey which had to be put on hold until 1947 when the archaeological team was joined by Lieutenant-Colonel Meates, recently retired from the Royal Artillery and by this time resident in the gatehouse at Lullingstone Castle. Excavations formally commenced in 1949 and these revealed the remains of a Roman villa which boasted much evidence of a luxurious lifestyle: mosaics, sculpture, wall-painting, a hypocaust and baths. By 1955, Meates had become leader of the excavations and he oversaw them until their completion in 1961, documenting the finds in a series of publications.

The excavation team included numerous volunteers, some of them still schoolchildren, who dedicated much time and effort to uncovering the site. Many of these volunteers, now in their 70s and 80s, returned to the villa in July last year to celebrate the anniversary at a special reunion. I was fortunate to be invited to meet them and their families and it was fascinating hearing their stories.

Caroline K. Mackenzie presenting her research at Lullingstone Roman Villa, July 2019. 
© Claire Lowe Photography.

I, too, visited the villa as a schoolchild. By this time the excavations had been completed and the site was being managed (as it is today) by English Heritage. I was inspired by the beauty of the mosaics and enthralled by the thought that this had been someone’s home over 1,500 years ago. I became fascinated by the Greeks and Romans and went on to study Classics at university. Many years later, and after a career as a solicitor, I visited Lullingstone again. Within months I had become a Classics teacher at a local school in Sevenoaks. I believe Lullingstone may have had some influence on this decision!

A few years later, when I began studying for an MA in Classical Art and Archaeology at King’s College London, the choice of topic for my dissertation was obvious. I lived near Lullingstone and visited it often, and I wanted to learn more about its history. I decided to focus on two main aspects: first, the villa within its landscape setting and the role of topography in the owner’s self-representation; second, the choice and use of mosaics in the fourth century villa and how the patron presented his cultural identity and status through pavements. Two modern television programmes sprung to mind: Location, Location, Location and Grand Designs! I started to wonder whether modern criteria for choosing a home have changed much from Roman times.

In assessing the landscape setting, I realised I would need to explore the vicinity of the villa on foot. This was an approach first adopted by Tilley in his innovative 1994 book. I also wanted to research the ancillary buildings which included a circular shrine, a temple-mausoleum and a granary. I used the experience of exploring the area to examine the relative prominence of the villa and its ancillary buildings; for example, were they highly visible in the landscape? I also considered how the architects combined the setting with the layout of the villa to create a conspicuous display of the owner’s standing and worth.

Lullingstone Villa in its landscape in the later fourth century AD
(illustration by Peter Urmston). © Historic England Archive.

By way of comparison, I decided to examine some other Romano-British villas. I had recently visited the Isle of Wight and the magnificent site of Brading Roman Villa. Themes such as the four seasons in Brading’s stunning mosaic provided direct comparisons for Lullingstone and helped me to answer questions such as what might have been represented in the part of Lullingstone’s mosaic which had been accidentally dug up in the 1700s. Chedworth Roman Villa, now managed by the National Trust, provided a particularly interesting case study in the context of its landscape setting.

In addition to Lullingstone’s central room which boasts the seasons mosaic framing Bellerophon killing the Chimaera, the adjacent apsidal dining room is celebrated for its mosaic of Europa riding the bull. The Europa mosaic is accompanied by a Latin inscription and in this context, I studied Classical literature in other Romano-British villas to see if Lullingstone is what we would expect or whether it is exceptional.

In this blog, I shall set out the main themes of the book and hope you will be inspired to learn more!

Landscape setting

Wall-paintings from Lullingstone now on display at the British Museum indicated that Christian worship had taken place in the villa. The evidence of religion has been exploited and applied to the mosaics in the adjacent rooms. However, I interpreted the evidence in other ways and asked questions based instead on the use of space, landscape setting and architectural context of the mosaics. Wallace-Hadrill’s work in Pompeii and Herculaneum focused on the use of domestic space and the public and private spheres of a home.[1] Scott subsequently applied a similar concept to the interior space of Romano-British villas and extended it by placing more emphasis on the landscape setting.[2] I applied Scott’s methods to examine how Lullingstone’s inhabitants used domestic space to assert their status and cultural identity. A key example for Scott was that, by alluding to knowledge of Graeco-Roman culture, owners expressed their paideia: their appreciation of literature, philosophy and mythology enjoyed by the Roman √©lite.[3] In my research, I examined the practices of the inhabitants primarily during the late third and fourth centuries AD and how they adopted Roman culture in their domestic space.

Lullingstone Roman villa is in the Darent Valley in west Kent. It sits on a terrace cut into the hillside 55m west of the west bank of the river Darent, whose valley cuts through the North Downs, and was around 20 miles from Londinium (London). Lullingstone was a favourable site because of its access to varied resources and agricultural riches.

In total there are around sixty known/suspected villas in Kent, most of which are in north Kent. Lullingstone was therefore part of an intensively exploited and agriculturally rich landscape. The Darent Valley villas probably supplied food and other agricultural produce to London and provided residences for the London elites.

A symbolic dimension of the owner’s appropriation of the landscape and its resources was the establishment of a cult room apparently relating to water deities complete with a niched wall-painting of three water-nymphs. This was created c. AD 180, contemporaneous with the baths, and demonstrated the owners’ reverence for water. It was located at the northeast of the villa, where the slope had been excavated to create what is known as the ‘Deep Room’.[4] The niche was later blocked up and could have easily escaped the excavators’ notice but, in a twist of fate, the site flooded mid-excavations and dislodged the plaster concealing the water-nymphs.[5] The villa-owner who created the water cult room might have seen this as a sign!

Reconstruction of ‘Deep Room’ shown at underground level, c. AD 380
(illustration by Peter Dunn/Richard Lea). © Historic England Archive.

Visitors today may appreciate the tranquil setting and the view from the villa. While modern subjective assessments of ‘a lovely setting’ must be qualified, we know from Roman authors that observers then were sensitive to the aesthetics of views and this is not just a modern phenomenon (Ausonius: Moselle; Pliny the Younger: Epistulae 2.17).

Modern view of Darent Valley, taken from modern road approaching the Villa.
© Caroline K. Mackenzie.

In c. AD 100 a circular building was constructed on a prepared terrace 24.4.m northwest of the villa. A flint and mortar construction with a thatched roof but no windows, it is thought to have been used for cult purposes until c. AD 180. The slope is steep and the elevated shrine must have made an imposing statement.[6]

It is believed to have fallen into ruin following disuse in the third century. However, the terrace on which it stood was extended to receive a temple-mausoleum in AD 300. This stood prominently around 6m above the ground to the west of the villa[7] and exemplifies skilful use of the hill-slope to create monumentality and visibility. The building took the form of a 12.2m square Romano-Celtic temple.[8] Beneath this was a tomb chamber with two lead coffins and various grave goods. We do not know the identity of the couple buried but it may be the villa-owner and his wife, and the temple-mausoleum seems to have been created for this double burial.

The date of construction of the temple-mausoleum coincides with a major refurbishment to the villa and its surroundings, all of which demonstrated the wealth and aspirations of the owner. The bath complex had been rebuilt and extended in around AD 280 and in AD 293-297 a large granary was constructed to the northeast of the villa,[9] a statement of agricultural prowess. The temple-mausoleum was a necessary part of the refurbishment for a villa-owner who wanted to make his mark on the landscape, in death as in life.

The large granary would have complemented the architecture and positioning of the villa. The granary may also exemplify ‘the conspicuous display of agricultural production, processing and storage’. Taylor argues convincingly for more detailed studies of entire rural settlements and not just domestic buildings, the latter which attract scholarly analysis due to the existence of their mosaics, hypocausts and baths.[10]

The use of landscape to create immediate impact on visitors was used to similar effect in the villa at Great Witcombe in the Coln Valley, which was built into a steep hillside with the main part of the complex highest up ensuring that the most important visitors and household members were, quite literally, placed above everyone else.

Chedworth Roman Villa merited a more detailed discussion in my book: its landscape setting and display of wealth and status provide significant comparisons with Lullingstone. Chedworth Roman Villa was constructed in a small steep-sided valley of the river Coln, Gloucestershire.[11] Visitors to the late fourth century villa would have been struck by its impressive stature in its landscape setting.

The mosaics at Lullingstone

The central room at Lullingstone was a part of the villa which had been in use in every phase of its occupation but in c. AD 330-60[12] it was given a face-lift with the instalment of a lavish mosaic. It depicted Bellerophon mounted on the winged horse Pegasus and killing the Chimaera. Surrounded by a cushion shaped guilloche, this part of the mosaic also contained four dolphins and two shell-type objects. Around the guilloche was a plain, square border, the four corners of which each contained a roundel depicting one of the four seasons, represented by female busts.

Detail: Bellerophon on Pegasus, spearing the Chimaera. c. AD 330-60.
© Historic England Archive.

The location and size of this room suggest that it served as an audience chamber, like the atrium in Italian villas, where the aristocrat held his morning salutatio (greeting) by his clients. The British equivalent might have been the farm workers coming to the villa to receive instructions for the day, or tenants coming to pay their rent.[13]

Detail: Summer. c. AD 330-60.
© Historic England Archive.

Seasons were a popular mosaic choice in Roman Britain (c.f. Brading and Littlecote) and the rest of empire. In my book, I discuss several possible interpretations of the seasons including them reflecting the liberality of the owner;[14] this might be exactly the message the Lullingstone patron had in mind, at a time when he was investing finances in his property.

Bellerophon could represent a heroic model for the patron’s own hunting exploits[15] and an allusion to power.[16] It was comprehensible to most viewers familiar with Homer’s Iliad in which the story was first told (6.155-202). The Homeric reference therefore reflects Lullingstone’s owner’s classical learning, a message consistently conveyed in all the mosaics he chose.

The apsidal room at Lullingstone was added as part of the overall embellishment of the villa c. AD 330-60.[17] A 23cm high step led from the audience chamber to the apse’s entrance, providing a natural extension to the space used for receiving clients and entertaining guests.[18]

Reconstruction of Lullingstone’s audience chamber and apse. c. AD 330-60
(illustration by Peter Dunn). © Historic England Archive.

Reconstruction of Lullingstone's apsidal dining room with stibadium c. AD 330-60
(illustration by Peter Dunn). © Historic England Archive. 

The figure scene in the apse portrays Europa riding on a bull (Jupiter in disguise) over the sea, accompanied by two cupids with a Latin inscription above. The allusion is to Book 1 (50) of Virgil’s Aeneid and plays on the story of Juno’s anger at her husband Jupiter’s infidelity. Ovid’s Metamorphoses 2.846-75 recounts Jupiter’s transformation into a bull to trick and seduce Europa. As with Bellerophon, the overriding message that the owner wanted to convey was his paideia, his wealth and, by the inscription, his wit.

Europa mosaic. c. AD 330-60.
© Historic England Archive.

Concluding thoughts

My book sets out to demonstrate how the ensemble of the architecture, the mosaics and the exterior space worked to persuade visitors of the owner’s wealth and status. This included his right and ability to tame the landscape. The choices of mosaics provide compelling evidence of a traditional Classical education and sophisticated knowledge of Virgil and Ovid. The inscription is a remarkable paradigm of paideia. The Lullingstone owner acted out his role as a powerful and influential individual, displaying his cultural identity and status. We are fortunate that the landscape which served the owner’s purposes in Roman times has also performed a service for us in the years since, by washing soil and debris downhill and thus preserving much of the villa and its mosaics for us to explore 1,600 years later.


First, thank you to Mary Hoffman and all the History Girls for inviting me to join their blog and also to Caroline Lawrence for introducing me to the History Girls. Sincere thanks to Dr. John Pearce at King’s College London for his invaluable help and guidance during my research of Lullingstone Roman Villa and for his supervision and all his support during my MA in Classical Art & Archaeology. Thank you also to all the following: Historic England for permission to use their images; Dr. Will Wootton and Dr. Zena Kamash; Friends of Brading Roman Villa, David Reeves, Bob Pitt and Jasmine Wroath; Kent Archaeological Society and Dr. Gerald Cramp; DROP (Discover Roman Otford Project), Kevin Fromings and Gary Bennett; Rod Shelton; and Rob Sherratt. Last but certainly not least, thank you to everyone at Archaeopress and in particular to Dr. David Davison, Ben Heaney, Patrick Harris and Dan Stott.

Scale model of Lullingstone Roman Villa.
© Rod Shelton. 

Caroline K. Mackenzie is a writer, tutor and lecturer.

Her first book Culture and Society at Lullingstone Roman Villa is available direct from Archaeopress (free PDF included with the purchase of the printed edition) or from'sBook Depository; and Waterstones.


[1] Wallace-Hadrill 1988: 52-55.

[2] Scott 2000.

[3] Scott 2000: 126-8.

[4] Meates 1955: 59.

[5] Meates 1979: 17 and 33.

[6] Meates 1979: 119.

[7] Meates 1979: 17.

[8] Meates 1979: 122.

[9] Meates 1955: 114.

[10] Taylor 2011: 180.

[11] Esmonde Cleary 2013: 14.

[12] Meates 1979: 84.

[13] Ellis 1995: 166.

[14] Ellis 1995: 175.

[15] Ling 1997: 278-9.

[16] Ellis 1995: 175.

[17] Meates 1979: 73.

[18] Barrett 1978: 310.

Friday 13 March 2020

How to read a painting of the plague - Michelle Lovric

Today I should be flying from London to Venice. But obviously I won't be. And even if I could get there, I would be confined to my home, required to fill out a form if I wanted to cross the city to see my friends. I could not go to the library or to see an exhibition. I could not go to my local bar for a cappuccino. A Venetian friend told me yesterday morning, 'It's as if we've all been sent to jail.' 

I wish I was on my way, though. I'd love to see Venice without the crowds and most of all without the cruise ships: restored thereby to the beauty of a Canaletto painting. Without the cruise ships, the air of Venice must be safer to breathe, paradoxically, than it has been ever since the cruise ship blight fell on the city.

So, yes, beauty, but at what cost? 

Northern Italy is now paralysed not just by the corona virus but by fear of the corona virus.

This is not a new condition for la Serenissima. She is a city to some extent shaped by epidemics. As the crossroads and crucible of trade for centuries, Venice was also the place to which all major diseases eventually made a pilgrimage.

Plague, of course, was the sickness that terrified Venice above all others. When the disease struck in April 1464, the senate decreed that prayers should be said continuously in all the convents, monasteries and churches – for the plague was seen as a divine scourge. Two major plague outbreaks, in 1575 and 1630, killed off between a quarter and a third of the population each time. In 1575, one in two Venetians fell sick.

Historically, Venetians liked to portray their city as healthy in body and spirit. So it was a matter of scrupulous record that plague always arrived from the outside. The 1630 plague was said to have been imported via an ambassador of the Duke of Mantua when he was staying on the island of San Clemente. The ambassador seems to have contaminated a carpenter from Dorsoduro who happened to be working on San Clemente. That carpenter’s family were the first Venetian victims of this incarnation of the disease, one of the worst visitations on the city. (I noted this week that a Veneto politician has been keeping up the xenophobe blame tradition by asserting that corona virus was caused by Chinese people eating live mice. He himself is eating humble pie now, fortunately, and perhaps choking on it.)

Apart from plague, Venice was also subject to typhus, smallpox and cholera epidemics. Every ten years or so, sickness crippled the city. Sometimes, cruelly, two diseases arrived at once. Typhus and the plague were often twinned in the winter months. So it’s hard to write historical novels set in Venice without having your plots being contaminated by one illness or the other. Thus far, I’ve kept the plague fairly peripheral in my books, partly because it’s been done before and partly because the mechanics of the Venetian health measures were so detailed that they are laborious to explain and therefore somewhat fatal to novelistic pace. (Some things, like pageantry, are almost impossible to keep alive in words). However, I’ve needed to get closer to Venetian plague over the last couple of years when devising medical history tours of Venice for London’s Worshipful Society of Apothecaries, founded by Royal Charter in 1617 to promote the healing arts. (To this day, 85 percent of members are professionals in medical fields).

During last year’s visit, the Apothecaries were lucky enough to catch the end of Tintoretto’s 500th birthday party, magnificently celebrated in the Palazzo Ducale, the Accademia, various churches. The Scuola Medica at SS Giovanni e Paolo – always on our itineraries – hosted an excellent exhibition entitled Art, Faith and Medicine in Tintoretto’s Venice, which was also recorded in a superb book of essays by the same name (see left).

I saw the exhibition several times. From the first, I was captivated by a painting I’d never seen before. It’s by Domenico, son of the more famous Jacopo Robusti Tintoretto. Although Domenico’s work is generally decried as more workmanlike and of less combustible genius than his father’s, I think that this particular painting touches on greatness because of the simple pathos of its storytelling. You can read it like a book. And that's what I propose to do in this post.

Below is the painting, reproduced courtesy of the Web Gallery of Art (

The emotional message and story arc are very clear. Yet there is also so much going on here in the detail. Even its title is a short story in itself: Venice supplicating the Virgin Mary to intercede with Christ for the Cessation of the Plague, 1630–31.

This painting was commissioned for the congregation members at San Francesco della Vigna in Castello. Incidentally, at this church, the apothecary-priests made Four Thieves Vinegar, which they promoted as a cure for the plague. The apothecary shop there was so popular that the priests had to construct a separate entrance so that the customers did not disturb the prayers of the religious order. 
The striking central banner (above) reads: “Pray for me, I pray to your son for health, with the highest pity give aid to us against this cruel wound that devours us – placate His wrath, ceasing our sighs.” This banner separates the composition into two parts. Below, we see Venice personified, as usual, in a blonde, beautiful woman. She holds her arms open, showing both her considerable bosom (another Venetian trope) and her utter vulnerability. 
At her side is the lion of Venice’s patron saint, the healer Mark. The lion’s darkened face is contorted with grief. 
Above, in the heavens, the figure of Venezia finds her counterpoint in that of the Madonna, who in turn begs God to intercede on Venice’s behalf to close the ‘cruel wound’ of the plague. The city’s wound is of course spiritual and physical – she is haemorrhaging citizens; moreover, the plague manifests in the wounds known as buboes.

This painting shows also the practical side of mass death. Venice was supremely organised during episodes of plagues. Rules were laid down by the Magistrato alla Sanit√† and they worked all the way to street level. When it came to carrying away the dead, only licensed bearers, known as pizzegamorti, were allowed to handle the corpses. And so the painting fades to a miserable brown in the background behind the feminine personification of Venezia. Here you see the pizzegamorti at work, wearing their distinctive tunics marked with long red crosses. 

One of the essays in the exhibition's book explains how this painting developed. The modello or sketch (above) portrayed sprawled and splayed corpses piled up in the foreground. The final version replaced that grim sight with images of two female donors, whose beautiful faces (one of which is seen at left) show signs of graceful grief, echoing that of their patron saint. The essay theorizes that perhaps the donors had something to do with the sanitizing of the art.

Indeed other painters did not scruple to or were not prevented from showing the harrowing details of Venice in the grip of plague, as in this painting by Antonio Zanchi from the Scuola di San Rocco (courtesy of the Web Gallery of Art ( It shows bodies being unloaded into boats and scenes of graphic distress and chaos that echo contemporary written accounts of the disaster.

The exhibition revealed that the words on the central banner of the Tintoretto painting were also adopted in litanies composed by Claudio Monteverdi who was the musical director of the Basilica San Marco in 1630, the time of this plague.

Paintings invoking Christ and the Madonna to intercede against disease were thought to have health-giving qualities. They were carried around the plague-plagued streets to sanitize them while such litanies were chanted by the priests. A miracle-working painting, the Madonna Nicopeia (looted from Constantinople in 1204), was borne around the piazza of San Marco in times of severe plague. It’s likely that Domenico Tintoretto’s painting was also paraded around the parish of San Francesco della Vigna. The shape and size of the painting makes this easy to imagine.

At that same time, the year of Domenico Tintoretto’s important painting, the city promised to build a votive church and establish a procession if the Madonna would intervene to save them from the plague.

The church of Santa Maria della Salute (Our Lady of Good Health) was the result. And in 1575, a similar prayer, this time to Christ the Redeemer, had already led to the construction of the church of the Redentore, or Redeemer on Giudecca. The festival of the Redentore is still celebrated today every July with a votive bridge for processions built in front of the church and massive fireworks at night.

When planning for the Apothecary tour last year, I was very excited at the prospect of showing them both the exhibition and the Domenico Tintoretto painting. So imagine my despair when I discovered that the Londoners would arrive in Venice one day after the closing of the exhibition. I couldn’t quite bear to deprive them of this painting. So I began to speak to people I know, working my way through a series of Venetian ‘no’s’ until I was directed by the eminent art historian Patricia Fortini Brown to Melissa Conn, the on-the-ground director of Save Venice, where she has thirty years’ experience overseeing the works of this American charity devoted to the restoration of buildings, monuments, manuscripts and more in the city. You can see Melissa here, talking about the restoration of Carpaccio’s Saint Ursula Cycle, also explaining modern philosophies and techniques of art conservation.

Save Venice had funded the Art, Faith and Medicine exhibition and the scholarship that was put into the book of essays, as well as restoring sixteen Tintoretto works in Venice. To my enormous relief, Melissa agreed to open the exhibition privately, two days after its official closure so that the London Apothecaries could witness the plague painting for themselves, the day before we set off in a boat to see for ourselves the mist-shrouded lazzaretto islands in the lagoon that once housed those afflicted with the plague or suspected of it.

Melissa not only arranged for us to see the painting, but accompanied us. As Managing Curator of the exhibition, not to mention a noted art historian, she was a font of wonderful insights into this picture, some of which I have recorded above.

So did this votive painting have effect? The 1630/1 plague did indeed dwindle. The sighs of the city ceased. Life returned to normal, for a while. 

In our current difficulties, it does not appear that anyone is commissioning any art, votive or otherwise, to represent a hope of redemption from the corona virus. If someone did so, I wonder what it would look like? A collage of selfies? An internet meme? So far I have seen a photo of a cake cooked in the shape of the virus and a few not-very-funny cartoons to do with a brand of beer.

And even if there were a meme that caught this moment and the world’s anxiety with any accuracy, would it have the staying power, profundity and beauty of Domenico Tintoretto’s painting? 

And is this because we no longer join faith, art and medicine as Venetians did in Tintoretto's day?


The churches of the Veneto are now closed by corona virus, along with the bars and shops. However, there's one parish priest on the Venetian mainland who has found a way to revive the trinity of faith, art and medicine.
Don Andrea Vena with his 'furgoncino dai fideli'
A video here shows Don Andrea Vena travelling around Bibione with a statue of the Madonna in a van, broadcasting prayers for all those affected by the virus, including the worried tourists. A modern priest, Don Andrea posts his itineraries on Facebook and keeps in touch with his parishioners that way too. Father Andrea pauses in front of cross-roads, shops and also the homes of the elderly, so they may be brought out to hear his comforting corona virus invocation to the Madonna, patron saint of Bibione. (Picture courtesy of Veneto Vox).

'Forte!' observes a man in the video, as Father Andrea finishes his prayer. 'Just great!'

Michelle Lovric’s website

Save Venice’s website

Friday 6 March 2020

'The Cure for Every Plague and Poison' by Karen Maitland

The Apothecary (circa 1752)
Artist: Pietro Longhi (1701-1785)
Of all the dangers that daily surrounded our ancestors the one that seem to strike dread into the hearts of the upper classes was the fear of being poisoned, and throughout history the search for a universal antidote against poison obsessed them as much the search for gold, the alchemist's stone or the Holy Grail.

Legend has it that the first universal antidote, known as Mithridate, was invented by Mithridates VI, King of Pontus (NE Turkey), who reigned from 120BCE, enthroned when he was just thirteen. He was terrified of being assassinated by poisoning, as other members of his family had been, and attempted to create an antidote to all poisons and venoms, as well as to the ‘systemic poisons’ which developed inside the body and were thought to be the cause of illness.

He first experimented with a number of single ingredients as antidotes to individual poisons by trying them out on condemned criminals. Then combined all the effective substances into one antidote, to produce a universal prophylactic against poisons and plagues, which he consumed daily. He believed that the interaction between the blended ingredients as they matured resulted in far greater healing properties than consuming any of the individual antidotes alone. Legend has it that it proved so effective that when, in 63BCE, he eventually tried to commit suicide using poison to avoid the humiliation of being taken prisoner, the poison had no effect and he was forced to ask his bodyguard to stab him.
Image on a coin of Mithridate VI

His records fell into the hands of the Roman conquerors of Pontus and Roman medici began to use them. Mithridate contained opium, myrrh, saffron, ginger, cinnamon and honey, along with some forty other ingredients including many herbs, roasted copper, sea squills and beaver castoreum. Andromachus, Nero's physician, is said to have removed some ingredients such as lizard from Mithridates’ concoction and added others, particularly viper's flesh. He called his new recipe ‘Galene’, ‘tranquillity’. Galene became known as ‘theriac’. Andromachus ‘improved’ upon mithridate by bringing the total number of ingredients to sixty-four.

Theriac took at least forty days to make and was supposed to be left for twelve years to mature, though the Emperor Marcus Aurelius apparently couldn’t wait that long and consumed after it had matured for only two months without any harm.
Sea Squills or Sea Onion (Drimia maritima)
Photo: Zeynel Cebeci

Theriac was usually swallowed with wine or dragon water (distilled from dragon-wort, polygonum bistorta, also known as Snake-weed or Bistort), but could instead be rubbed on the skin or eyes, which was advised particularly when being administered to babies and young children. It was used to treat malaria and also a plaster to heal venomous stings or bites. The 11th century Saxon leech book of Bald claims that in 9th century, Abel the Patriarch of Jerusalem sent theriac to King Alfred the Great and the book also includes a recipe for theriac.

The writings of the Greek and Roman physicians and alchemists re-emerged in Italy via Islamic scholars, who introduced them to the great medical universities such a Salerno. By 12th century, theriac was being produced in Venice and exported all over Europe. In England, it was called ‘Venetian treacle’, treacle being a corruption of theriac. It was used widely in Europe in the Middle Ages in an attempt to ward off or cure the Black Death.
Dragon-wort (Polygonum bistorta)
Photo: Muriel Bendel

But the cities of Bologna, Constantinople (Istanbul), Cairo, Genoa, Padua and Milan also competed to produce the best theriac from their own recipes and such was its value and importance that theriac was prepared in public with elaborate ceremony, so that potential customers could be assured that all the ingredients claimed to be in it had been added. If it failed to cure, the apothecary who had made it was held responsible for not having prepared it correctly and could be punished by the authorities.

Mummy’ made from ground-up human corpses mummified in Ancient Egypt was added to many theriac recipes during the Middle Ages, as that too had come to be regarded as a universal panacea and the tombs of Middle East were ransacked by Syrian merchants to keep up with the demand. When these became scarce, merchants and apothecaries were forced to use modern cadavers. The herbalist, John Parkinson, (1567-1650) maintained that the best mummy was obtained from bodies embalmed in the Egyptian manner, but Oswald Croll (1580-1609) recommended making mummy from hanged felons, preferably of ruddy complexion and around 24 years old.
Egyptian Mummy - Louvre Museum
Photo: Dada

In London in July 1586, during the reign of Elizabeth I, the Master and Wardens of Grocers Hall discovered ‘Jeane Triacle’ (Genoa treacle) being sold, which they found to be
‘unwholesome, being compounded by certain rude and unskilful men.’
As a result, they petitioned that the recipe for theriac’s proper manufacture should be kept on record at Grocer’s Hall and preparation of this treacle in London was entrusted to only one of their members, William Besse, an apothecary. He had the monopoly for the whole of London and seven miles around. This attempt at regulation by the Grocer’s guild had the effect of stimulating a flourishing illicit trade in unlicensed mithridate and theriac, and a great many more ‘unwholesome’ treacles were sold behind the backs of authorities. Human nature never changes, nor does our ending search for the wonder drugs which will cure all.
'The Village Apothecary' (who keeps his face masked)
Artist: David Tenier the Younger (1610-1690)