Travels with Vasari; Melvyn Bragg’s Radical Lives

Travels with Vasari is a two-part documentary we’ve had on the PVR for the last 4 years or thereabouts. It’s presented by Andrew Graham Dixon and is about Vasari, and Renaissance Italy. Vasari was an artist in Italy in the 16th Century but nowadays he is much more famous for the book he wrote called “Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects”. Dixon explained that this is the first work of art criticism and art history as we know those subjects today, and that Vasari can be credited with inventing them. The two programmes had a little bit of Dixon talking about Vasari himself (his life, some of his art) but mostly it was a tour round Italy looking at examples of the works that Vasari wrote about. The book was organised as a sort of progression throughout the Renaissance towards what Vasari thought was its crowning glory – the paintings of Michaelangelo. As his subject was the lives of the artists he obviously provided some biographical details for each one as well as discussing their art – but in many cases he stretched the truth or invented things out of whole cloth (for instance casting one artist as a murderer, yet investigative work in the 20th Century showed that said artist died 4 years before his putative victim …).

A good series, I’m not sure why we left it so long before watching it. It also reminded me that somewhere I have a book covering the broad sweep of the history of art via a series of example paintings, and while at one point I was going through it at a rate of a painting a day, I don’t think I ever finished. Must dig that back out again.

Melvyn Bragg’s Radical Lives was two biographical programmes about two of the great British radicals. Bragg started the first programme by reminding us that while Britain has never had a successful revolution, and it’s flirtation with being a republic ended by inviting the monarch back, nonetheless there have been some notable radical thinkers born in our country. The first programme looked at the life of John Ball – a name that isn’t necessarily familiar to everyone, but I think most people will’ve heard the phrase “When Adam delved and Eve span, who then was the gentleman?” which is one of Ball’s. John Ball lived during the 14th Century and was instrumental in leading what is now known as the Peasants Revolt. The subject of the second programme was Thomas Paine, an 18th Century radical who was born in England but participated in the American War of Independence (on the American side) and the French Revolution. He wrote several influential pamphlets – like “Common Sense” which was influential in the decision of the fledgling US to declare independence, and “Rights of Man” which was in part a defence of the French Revolution.

Bragg told the stories of these two men as separate tales, but linked them together and to William Tyndale (who he’s previously made a programme about) by the way that their great influence was derived from their use of English to communicate their ideas. And not just English (which was radical enough in Ball’s time all on its own) but plain English that was understandable by everyone rather than just some intellectual elite.

Interesting programmes about two men I didn’t actually know much about beyond their names.

Other TV we watched last week:

Episode 2 of Rule Britannia! Music, Mischief & Morals in the 18th Century – Suzy Klein talking about 18th Century British music and how it impacted and was impacted by the history of the time.

Episode 2 of Tropic of Capricorn – Simon Reeve travels round the world following the Tropic of Capricorn.

Episode 2 of Lost Land of the Tiger – three part series about looking for tigers in Bhutan.

Episode 1 of Britain’s Great War – Jeremy Paxman looking at what happened in Britain during WWI.

The Search for Life: The Drake Equation – one off programme about the possibility that there is life on other planets, looking at each of the factors of the Drake equation in turn to see what we now know about the probabilities. I didn’t always agree with what was being said (for instance I’m not particularly convinced the photosynthesis is as dead certain to develop as they were saying, it’s only evolved once on earth after all). It was also marred somewhat by the visual style which was clearly done by someone who thought the subject of the programme was dull so needed to be jazzed up with shaky cams. Overall, good but not as good as it could’ve been.

Do We Really Need the Moon? – a delightful programme presented by Maggie Aderin-Pocock about the moon. She talked about the origin of the moon, what it was like in the past, what it will be like in the future. And a lot about how it has shaped the earth and life on earth. Possibly she credited the moon with a bit too much influence sometimes, but her enthusiasm carried the programme along.

A Trip to Turin (October 2013)

Back in October of last year J and I spent a few days in Turin – I’ve not been very efficient with processing my photos and so I’m only getting around to writing about it now. The primary reason for our visit was to see the Egyptian Museum in Turin, but we left enough time to see other things as well. I’ve put up an album of my photos on flickr, and some highlights in this post.

Turin Bull Out for a Stroll
Turin StreetTurin Street
Palazzo Madama

The basic plan for our holiday was to arrive on Sunday (12th Oct), and have a look around Turin that evening and the next day. Most of the public buildings are shut on Mondays (which we knew in advance) and so this time was mostly spent wandering about the centre of the city getting a feel for the place and seeing what there was to see. The central parts of Turin are fairly uniform in height – there was an information plaque we saw while wandering about that explained that an 18th Century ruler of the city had decreed that each street should have a facade of a particular style and height. This means that the skyline seen from the top of the few taller buildings isn’t as interesting as it might be in another town. The facades and doorways are more interesting from street level, tho. J took quite a lot of pictures of the doorways and I think when we go back in a few years (it’s inevitable, see below) I’ll do that too, it would make a nice set (I did take a few this time). There is also a photo project there of graffiti and street art.

View from the Top of the Palazzo Madama
Me on a Turin StreetStatue of Amenhotep I
J & Some Coffins

We then spent two days looking at the things in the Egyptian Museum (Museo Egizio). It’s being refurbished and re-arranged at the moment (again we knew this in advance), so it currently has about two-thirds of its objects on display in about a third of the space. It’ll re-open properly in 2015, so I’m pretty sure we’ll be going back in a few years time to see what they’ve done to it. I’m going to write another post about the museum when I’ve processed more of the pictures from it, I’ve only included a representative selection in this album, so I’ll only say a few words here. Because all of the stuff is crammed into a relatively small space it felt a little overwhelming at times. The rooms that were in their intended space were much better – this included the room with all the tomb goods of Kha and Merit, and also the sculpture gallery. The sculpture gallery was the most striking part of the museum, it makes clever use of lighting and mirrors combined with dramatic dark red walls and I think it enhances the impact of the statues. There are also many Sekhmet statues, which was pleasing 🙂

Statue Gallery
Middle Kingdom Coffin of MereruModel of Nefertari's Tomb
Statuette of Kha, On a Chair

The fourth day, our last full day in Turin, we visited some of the other touristy buildings that we’d seen the outsides of on our first day. I’d particularly wanted to see the Palazzo Madama, which has art and other objects from the whole history of Turin – and some really spectacular interiors. It also had a rather nice & peaceful garden, where we saw several sparrows and lizards basking in the sunshine. Again I’ll write another post about that when I’ve processed more of the pictures. We also visited the Cathedral, and saw the box where they keep the shroud (tho I was more taken with the copy of da Vinci’s Last Supper, myself). We’d been in another church (associated with the Dominicans) on Monday – the interiors are an odd blend of plain and ornate. The overall space in both felt clean and open and dominated by the white-washed walls. But along the side walls there were several places to pray to particular saints and those, the side chapels and around the high altar were very ornately decorated (which somehow didn’t affect that first impression of plainness).

Garden at the Palazzo Madama
Church of San DomenicoA Good Mirror To Take Selfies In
Turin Cathedral

Of course Italy is also well known for food and wine, and we did eat nice food 🙂 We kept our lunches pretty light, and then in the evening we generally had a glass of wine in a cafe/bar followed by dinner somewhere. Despite most places only having Italian menus (requiring much looking up of words in my phrase book) we almost always managed to get something we liked. Only one disaster – but I suspect even if I’d known more Italian I still wouldn’t’ve known I wouldn’t like that particular cheese sauce (and sadly I don’t remember what the cheese was to avoid in future as I didn’t see the menu again after eating!). And of course much ice cream was eaten! 🙂

Ice Cream!
A Nice Glass of Wine Before DinnerIce Cream!
At Dinner

It was a good holiday, nice city and we saw lots of cool stuff 🙂 Do go & look at the rest of the pictures! 🙂

Baroque! – From St Peter’s to St Paul’s; Guilty Pleasures

Baroque! – From St Peter’s to St Paul’s was a three part series presented by Waldemar Januszczak about Baroque art and architecture. The three programmes moved in geography (covering Italy, Spain & the Netherlands, and Britain respectively) and forwards in time. He started off with the story of how baroque art has its roots in the Counter Reformation – basically intended to propagate the “right” Christian message via eye-catching art. In particular as a response to the more austere Protestant sensibility, a sort of “you say we have too much art? we’ll show you too much art!”. As the movement took off in Spain (via Naples – a Spanish colony) the religious subject matter became darker and more visceral. Baroque artists also became the court painters of the era. Januszczak was entertainingly dismissive of the Hapsburg rulers of Spain & the Spanish Netherlands (and to be fair, there’s a lot there to to be dismissive of) while extolling the virtues of their taste in art. The Spanish court paintings were one of the vectors that introduced baroque art & architecture to England – Charles I’s visit to Spain when he was hoping to marry a Spanish princess brought him into contact with the court culture and painting. This wasn’t to be the baroque movement’s first jump to a Protestant nation – that was the Netherlands. Once the baroque took a hold in England it was given extra space to grow because of the Great Fire of London – about half of the last episode of this series was about the various churches (including St Paul’s) which were rebuilt in a baroque style after that disaster.

I’ve found it hard to write about what was in the programmes, because a lot of the point was (unsurprisingly) the visuals – Januszczak showed us a lot of paintings and buildings both well known and not. The style of the programme was gloriously over the top, as befits the subject matter. Well worth watching 🙂

This week we also watched both parts of a series that we’ve had on the PVR for ages – Guilty Pleasures. This series was about how modern attitudes to luxury have been shaped by our cultural roots. It was presented by Michael Scott, who’s a classicist, so it’s no surprise that the first episode was about the influence of the Ancient Greeks; the second episode was about the influence of medieval Christianity. In Ancient Greece he followed three strands of Greek attitudes to luxury – the first of these was the Athenian democracy that spent time and legislation on trying to prevent ostentatious private luxuries by channeling the urge to consume into public luxuries. And tried to tie society together by having ritual communal luxuries – like sacrificing large numbers of cows which would then give every citizen some meat. The Spartans in some ways had their downfall through unsuccessfully navigating this tension between public & private luxury. As prominent Spartan citizens began to gather wealth to themselves rather than live in the spartan communal fashion their society began to decline. And the last society he touched on in that episode was the Macedonians who embrace luxury (for the ruler) much more than the Athenians or Spartans – they use their wealth as a propaganda tool and to enhance the division between the ruler and the ruled (unlike the more egalitarian principles of Athens or Sparta).

By the middle ages luxury has become a sin. Having contact with luxurious things is supposed to lead you into ever worse sin – fine foods, fine clothing is just a precursor to other indulgences. Scott also talked about how the Black Death actually led to increased luxury for the people who survived. People at the lower reaches of society in particular gained land and better pay because there was a lack of labour available. Which increased the feelings of guilt around luxury. Another factor was that the plague was seen as God’s punishment on people, and so at higher levels of society people took a second look at their lives and came to the conclusion that God was not pleased about their sinfulness (including their luxuries).

And Scott tied it together at the end by thinking a little about modern attitudes to luxury, in particular in the wake of the 2008 banking crisis. The Greek influences can been seen in how we generally react to conspicuous consumption as divisive, and the medieval influences are most obvious in the very idea of a “guilty pleasure”.

Other TV watched this week:

Episode 2 of The Stuarts – a series about the Stuart Kings of England & Scotland, presented by Clare Jackson, and about how they shaped the United Kingdom and how they were shaped by it. Broadcast on the Scottish version of BBC2 only.

Episode 1 of Bible Hunters – series about the search for early texts of the Bible in Egypt.

Episode 1 of Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England – this was part of the BBC’s Tudor Season in 2013. It’s a series about life in Elizabethan times from the perspective of the differences between now and then, what you’d need to know if you could travel back there.

New Secrets of the Terracotta Warriors – Channel 4 one-off programme about the terracotta army found buried near the Emperor Qin’s grave in China. Partly about the history of Qin era China (the first unification of the country in c.200BC, and partly about the techniques currently being used to learn more about the terracotta soldiers. A little shallow.

Episode 1 of The Great British Year – series about British wildlife and countryside over the whole year. Lots of gorgeous shots of animals, and timelapse sequences of landscapes.

Britain’s Most Fragile Treasure – Janina Ramirez programme about the East Window in York Cathedral. How it was made, who made it, how it’s being conserved, and what the various scenes and stories are.

This Week’s TV Including Dogs, Shakespeare, Evolutionary Vertebrates, Greek Drama & Jewish History

The Wonder of Dogs

More about dogs – this episode concentrated on their senses & intelligence. This included demonstrations of how good their hearing, smell & eyesight is (in particular that a dog’s field of view is much wider than a human’s). They also talked about the sorts of behaviours that dogs have been bred for – using gun dogs as the primary example. The desired behaviour has changed over time, as gun tech & hunting styles changed. So at first it was pointers (who found and pointed to the game) then spaniels (to bounce around and flush the game out) and finally retrievers like labradors (to bring the game back to the hunter). And they demonstrated how training is needed as well as the innate behaviour using one of Kate Humble’s dogs – who is a herding breed, but who wasn’t a very useful sheepdog after only one lesson (although very enthusiastic).

They also had a bit on how intelligent dogs are, including a German group who are studying dog intelligence by getting them to push pictures to get treats. They’re offered a choice of a dog picture & a landscape picture each time, and they learn that dog pictures get treats. Which is quite an abstract level of thought – it’s not one dog v. one landscape, it’s a variety of pictures of a variety of scenes & dogs. I wanted to know if dogs could tell the difference between, say, cats & dogs for getting treats.

Shakespeare in Italy

This is a two part series about Shakespeare’s connections with Italy that we’ve had on the PVR for ages. It’s languished there in part because I find the presenter, Francesco da Mosto, irritating (irrational on my part, I’m sure, his style just sets my teeth on edge). But despite that it was still interesting enough to watch the second part.

This episode was about Shakespeare using Italian places (and stories) to tell stories about love. The plays he talked about were Taming of the Shrew (marriage for money not love), Romeo & Juliet (obviously, tragic love), Much Ado About Nothing (rom com) and Othello (love turned to jealousy). Along the way he visited various places mentioned in the plays, and talked about the Italian stories they were based on. He also discussed how Shakespeare might’ve visited Italy – there’s no record of him doing so but there’s also 7 years where he’s missing from any records. So perhaps. Of note, tho, is that the British Museum Shakespeare exhibition that we went to last year (post) was sure that Shakespeare didn’t visit Italy but instead talked to people who had. And there was also a somewhat nutty theory put forward by a town in Sicily that Shakespeare was actually Sicilian – some playwright or poet whose name translates to Shake Spear who goes to London. I’m not sure if or how they tried to reconcile this with the Shakespeare who exists in records prior to this Italian’s arrival …

The second part was looking at how Shakespeare set plays in Italy to give himself a layer of plausible deniability when writing about politically sensitive subjects. So he talked about The Merchant of Venice as being (among other things) about law & the rule of law. And Julius Caesar, set not just in Rome but in long ago Rome, is a commentary on tyrants and if it’s ever justified to assassinate them – a particularly touchy subject at the time, as there were many assassination attempts on Queen Elizabeth and the England of the time was very repressive. Italy was also the country of the future – da Mosto made much of how the Renaissance was in full swing in Italy but England was lagging behind. Anthony & Cleopatra was an example of a play where Shakespeare was exploring new ideas to come out of Italy – in this case how a ruler should act and da Mosto said it owed much to Machiavelli. The final play he talked about was The Tempest – based in part on a well known alchemist or sorcerer in Naples at around that time. Again a touchy subject – James I was paranoid about witchcraft – but it was also the way of the future (in that alchemy leads to science in a while).

I’m a bit conflicted about this series – it was an interesting subject, but I still found the presenter irritating.

David Attenborough’s Rise of the Animals: Triumph of the Vertebrates

This is a new two part David Attenborough series, all about the evolution of vertebrates. The first part, From the Seas to the Skies, covered the first vertebrates and the major developments leading to the evolution of fish, amphibians, reptiles (including dinosaurs) & birds. It was a rather good mix of fossils, modern animals and cgi reconstructions of ancient animals. I was particularly fond of the tiktaalik taking it’s first waddly steps across the land. The gliding feathered dinosaurs were also neat. I don’t think I learnt anything new in terms of concepts or the overall story, but there were several new details – like the tiktaalik as the first animal to get onto land (I’m sure I learnt about lungfish escaping predators in the past), or the Chinese fossil beds that pre-date the Burgess Shale ones that I knew about (and contain the first known chordate, ancestor of modern vertebrates).

If I’ve got one quibble is that the language used emphasises progress too much. I’m probably over-sensitive to this, tho. But I do think it’s important that there’s no inevitability about the evolution of any species or group, and that there’s no progress – modern lampreys aren’t “primitive” for instance, they’re well suited to the places they live. Lacking most of the features we think of as common to the vertebrates (like jaws, fins or limbs) doesn’t make them worse it just makes them different. But it’s very hard to avoid because when talking about these things it’s easiest and clearest to tell a story, which leads to language that implies progression and purpose. So in this programme Attenborough talks about problems needing to be solved before vertebrates could move onto the land. Which makes me wince because there wasn’t any working towards a goal involved.

Ancient Greece: The Greatest Show on Earth

This is a recent series from Michael Scott, about the development of drama & theatre in Ancient Greece. The first episode looked at how the development of drama as an artform is intertwined with the development of democracy. Both have their roots in Athens, in the 5th & 6th Centuries BC and at the smaller local level debates & plays would even happen in the same assembly spaces. Greeks had three sorts of plays, two of which we still have. These were tragedy, comedy & satyr plays – the last were bawdy, farcical plays which were used as a sort of palate cleanser after a cycle of tragedies. Tragedies in a modern sense are stories with a sad ending, but Scott said Greek ones were more about posing questions about situations. One of the experts he spoke to characterised tragedies as setting up problems caused by bad luck or bad decisions, and suggesting how they might be dealt with while getting the audience to think about what would they do in this or similar situations. Plays were often based on myths, but the stories told were topical and relevant to recent politics domestically & abroad. And the audience for the plays would be the same men who would then vote on how Athens was run & how it reacted to events. Scott was saying that this close link between the subjects of plays and the real life decisions that were being made meant that plays can be seen as educating the Athenians about democracy and as a part of how democracy evolved. Comedies were also important in this process – they weren’t just funny stories, they were generally pointedly aimed at particular political figures. Who would be right there watching thinly veiled versions of themselves be publicly mocked. Scott said this was part of how the boundaries on what was & wasn’t appropriate behaviour were enforced.

The Story of the Jews

The last episode of Simon Schama’s series about Jewish history looked at the formation & history of the modern state of Israel. He started with the Holocaust and the plight of the Jewish refugees during & after that horror. He talked about how even those fighting against Germany in the war were not willing to do much for the Jews – lots of sympathetic noises not much if any actual support. And how this led to more Zionism in the Jewish population – if no-one else will aid you or want you, then you are even more in need of a homeland of your own. And then Schama moved back to trace the steps towards the formation of the modern Israel – starting with the Zionist movement in the early 20th Century getting the British Empire on board with granting the Jews a homeland within Palestine. Apparently in the early days post WWI there were even some glimmers of hope that a future Israel and the existing Arab nations might co-exist in some form of peace. Sadly, as we now know, this was not to be – the influx of Jews post-WWII being a contributing factor, with the British Empire’s poor handling of the situation pre & post war also being important. (Promising the same real estate to two groups of people as “their own nation” isn’t ever going to end well …). Schama then discussed the history of Israel since independence, and how over time (and after two wars, more persecution of Jews in Arab nations & violence and terrorist attacks on Israelis in Israel) the politics & sentiment inside Israel has calcified into hatred & mistrust of Arabs. Schama talked to someone involved in the Settler movement, who was disturbing in his starry-eyed rhetoric about how the Jews were entitled to the land up to the biblical borders by God given right. And Schama visited the wall built to keep the Palestinians out of Israel, or at least only allow them through under strict observation.

I found this series thought provoking & well worth watching, although frequently grimly depressing. As well as the subject matter itself it was an interesting reminder that so much of the stuff we watch is from our own perspective – this very much wasn’t, it was Simon Schama’s take on Jewish history from the perspective of a member of the culture whose history it was.

In Our Time: The Borgias

The Borgias have a bit of a reputation – poisoning, murder, incest & all sorts of bad behaviour. And particularly shocking in a family that includes two Popes! The experts who discussed this on In Our Time were Evelyn Welch (Queen Mary, University of London), Catherine Fletcher (University of Sheffield) and Christine Shaw (Swansea University).

The programme started with a brief run-down of the salacious details of the “Black Legend” (much as I did just now, but they did it with a quote). Then they moved on to set the Borgia family in context with a description of Italy in the fifteenth century – unlike today it wasn’t a single unified state, instead there were several different states on the peninsula. Some were city states ruled by aristocracy, some were republican city states, other areas were kingdoms (like the Kingdom of Naples), and there were also the papacy. The political interactions of all these various states, and of the families that ruled them were complex and sometimes the rivalries were so bitter that states would rather invite in foreigners than be ruled by a neighbouring state. The papacy had only relatively recently returned to Italy & to Rome, and so was in the process of establishing itself (in temporal terms) in the network of relationships. The Pope held a lot of lands within Italy, including the Kingdom of Naples.

The Borgias enter the story with Alphonso Borgia who came with the King of Aragon when he conquered Naples, as a secretary & lawyer. He was then made a Cardinal, and became Pope as a compromise candidate when there was stalemate between the two leading candidates. Once he became Pope he did the traditional papal thing of making a nephew or two into Cardinals. They were saying on the programme that this nepotism (the word is derived from the Italian for nephew) was fairly standard – that there were really two sorts of Cardinals, those that were respected theologians or churchmen, and those that were there to be part of the government for the Pope’s temporal domains. And promoting your own family to these positions would give you some men on whose loyalty you could count.

So Rodrigo Borgia is one of these new Cardinals and he stayed a Cardinal under several popes for thirty-something years, gaining experience and power as he did so. The experts were saying that he was a very politically savvy man. He was elected as Pope in 1492 and took the name Pope Alexander VI – he’s the (in)famous Borgia Pope. Here’s where in the programme we had the first debunking of a popular legend – he is generally said to have bribed his way to the papacy, but the experts were keen to point out that bribery isn’t quite the right way to describe it. Yes, his various bishoprics were handed out to various Cardinals etc after he became Pope but this was the standard way that things were done. And obviously people who were on good terms with him would be more likely to get given these, but it wasn’t that he systematically went out to gain votes by promising people rewards. Any of the candidates for the papacy would’ve given out their bishoprics to allies after they got the office.

Rodrigo had several children, eight I think they said, and particularly doted on the eldest four (who all had the same mother). These included Cesare Borgia and Lucrezia Borgia who are the other main subjects of the salacious legends. They said on the programme that it wasn’t particularly shocking that a Pope had children – but he did raise eyebrows by actually having children whilst he was Pope and by legitimising his children.

They talked about how the generally politically astute Rodrigo had a blindspot when it came to his children. He was trying to ensure the survival of his dynasty after his death and granted Cesare a lot of lands that had belonged to the Pope, which unsurprisingly didn’t particularly go down well. Rodrigo was effectively trying to sweep aside all of the delicate alliances & networks of relationships that existed in Italy and to install his son in a fiefdom of his own. He also once left Lucrezia to handle the papal correspondence whilst he was away from Rome – shocking because women weren’t even supposed to be in the Vatican, let alone be in a position of responsibility. This helped fuel rumours of indecent relations between father & daughter.

When they came to discuss the rumours and legends they were fairly unanimous that most of it was made up by enemies of the Borgias either at the time or after one of Rodrigo’s main rivals had succeeded him as Pope. There probably was one orgy, but there is no evidence of poisoning or of incest. The incest rumours in particular are probably due to someone who would have a distinct bias against the Borgias – Lucrezia’s first husband. At the time the rumours start Rodrigo is trying engineer his daughter’s divorce (because he wants an alliance with someone more useful), and is trying to get the chap to sign off on an annulment on the grounds that he was incapable of consumating the marriage. Which the soon-to-be-ex-husband isn’t particularly happy about, so he’s spreading rumours about how rather than him being impotent it’s more that Rodrigo wants Lucrezia for himself.

However it is likely that the talk of murders was true – some of them at least. But this is not confined to the Borgia family, and it’s worth remembering that not only were the politics of the time fairly cut-throat in general but also the whole period is a time of war. The King of France is marching his armies through Italy (at, I think, the request of some states that are hoping he’ll back them against other states – that whole thing where the internal rivalries are stronger than the external). There’s definitely evidence that Lucrezia’s second husband was murdered on the orders of the Borgia. And perhaps one of the Borgia sons was murdered by Cesare – but there are several other candidates for his murderer. However, Shaw made the point that the Borgias seem to’ve been particularly feared as a family that you shouldn’t cross, and even Rodrigo seems to’ve thought that Cesare overreacted when he felt he’d been insulted. So they certainly weren’t a nice family.

They talked a bit about the later lives of Cesare & Lucrezia – Cesare basically declined from power & ended up dying in some minor conflict in Navarre. Lucrezia died in childbirth at the age of 39, and at that point had a reputation for piety & good business sense – not what you’d think if you believed the stories told about her now.

So the take home message was that the Black Legend of all the evil doings of the Borgias was pretty much propaganda. They weren’t nice people by any means, but they weren’t unusual for a ruling family of the time.

“Venice in Shakespeare’s Time” Hilary Williams (British Museum Friends Open Evening 5/12/12)

As well as the lecture we also went to a gallery talk at the Open Evening – these are where a curator takes you around some objects of interest in a gallery for 45 minutes or so. The theme of this one tied in with the Shakespeare exhibition, and was in some ways an extension of the central room of the exhibition. Shakespeare set several of his plays in Venice and (as discussed in both the exhibition and this talk) this was for several reasons, including the fact that it allowed him to portray situations that might’ve got him in trouble if he’d set them in England. Venice was also widely known as an exotic, tolerant place where luxurious goods came from. During the gallery talk she showed us various pieces of ceramics & glassware that had come from Venice around the time of Shakespeare or just before. Shakespeare himself is thought never to’ve gone to Venice, but he would’ve known about the place both from reading published works about it, and through objects like the ones she showed us which he would’ve seen in the houses of the aristocracy.

16th Century Painted Ceramic Plate

One of the things it seems hard to remember is how exotic good quality glass was at the time. The glassware of Venice was famous throughout Europe, and to have a Venetian glass salt cellar or marriage cup really showed how high status & wealthy you were. The glassmakers of Venice were apparently forbidden to leave the city, so that the recipe for their glass remained a secret only known to Venice.

16th Century Venetian Glass Chalice

As well as showing us several objects & setting them in their cultural context she also read us a story from an old guidebook to Venice – which labelled a house as where a man had murdered his wife. I’ve unfortunately forgotten the names, but the name of the family was reminiscent of “Moor” although they were not Moorish, and the name of the wife was similar to Desdemona. So it’s possible that Shakespeare didn’t just get an exotic stage set from his reading about Venice, but perhaps also the start of one of his plot lines.

An interesting talk 🙂

And for a bonus picture – here are the Christmas decorations at the British Museum. They even say something sensible in the hieroglyphs – something like “Beautiful birthday of God’s child”.

Christmas Decorations