Monthly Archives: January 2012

It’s Not That Easy Being Queen

A flattering portrait of Queen Anne by Sir Godfrey Kneller, 1705

If you’re flipping through the pages of a history book and come across Queen Anne of Great Britain (ruled 1702-1714), you would conclude that she was a fairly successful monarch.  Technically she was the first monarch of Great Britain, since the 1707 Act of Union, which united the kingdoms of England and Scotland, happened while she was on the throne.

The arts and sciences flourished during her reign.  To this day, Queen Anne style is a term applied to furniture and decorative arts.  She knighted Isaac Newton in 1705; he was the first scientist to receive that honor.

Anne wasn’t personally leading the troops, of course, but Britain had some major military victories while she was queen.  In fact, she is one of the rare monarchs in history who has a war named for her.

Ask any 10 North Americans where (and when) Queen Anne’s War was fought, and they’ll respond with a gesture like they’re swatting away a mosquito.  Maybe 1 in 100 know that Queen Anne’s War was fought in North America from 1702-1713, and that it resulted in Britain’s acquisition of Nova Scotia, the Hudson Bay region and the island of St. Kitts.

What the history book might not mention is how profoundly miserable Anne must have been. 

Royal females were expected to produce heirs, and that was a task at which she failed.  Not that she didn’t try — from the time of her arranged marriage to a Danish prince at age 17, the princess Anne was almost constantly pregnant until she was 35.  Various sources list the number of her pregnancies between 16 and 18, but she had no children who survived.

Most of her pregnancies resulted in miscarriages or stillbirths; only five were live births.  To compound the tragedy, two daughters — Mary (not quite 2 years old) and her sister Anne Sophia (10 months old) — died of smallpox within days of each other.  Anne’s longest surviving child, William, lived just past his 11th birthday.

There has been a lot of speculation by historians about the medical reasons for all that sadness, but very little admiration is expressed for Anne’s courageous efforts to give her people what they wanted.  The truth is, she had a host of health problems:  gout, arthritis, some sort of facial skin eruption, and possibly lupus erythematosus. 

Those conditions were aggravated by poor dietary habits — way too much eating and drinking.  Writing in the online British Medical Journal (BMJ), pathologist H.E. Emson characterized Anne as “massively obese”.

She had to be carried in a sedan chair to her coronation, and had great difficulty walking from around age 30 or so.  when she died at 49, the Stuart line ended.  Anne was buried in Westminster Abbey in a coffin that, due to her girth, was almost square.

Portraits painted during her lifetime bear no resemblance to written descriptions by her contemporaries, because court painters want to a) get paid, and b) not get beheaded.  They flattered her, but she undoubtedly knew she was no beauty queen.  Anne just did her royal job day after day, even though she was in agony most of the time.  It couldn’t have been easy.

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Celebrity Cemetery

There's someone interesting just around this bend...

“How many more tombs of famous dead guys do we have to see?”

That was asked by one of my kids when I made my family linger at some London memorial while I read yet another inscription.  It was a fair question; not everyone — especially teenagers — shares my fascination with the final resting places of historical figures.

A lot of people do seem drawn to such sites, though; one in Paris, called Cimetière du Père Lachaise, has hundreds of thousands of visitors every year.  It is believed to be the most-visited cemetery in the world (although I’m not sure who is actually keeping track of attendance figures at cemeteries).

Its location in the 20th arrondissement — northeastern Paris — might seem inconvenient, but there are two or three Métro stations within easy walking distance of Père Lachaise.  Well, it’s not as easy a walk as, say, from the living room to the kitchen, but the stations are within a few hundred yards of an entrance to the cemetery.

It’s probably a coincidence that there are flower shops near each entrance.  Most of them sell maps of the cemetery for a few euros, but as I recall, there was one spot just inside the main gate that supplied free maps, which come in handy. 

The tree-lined cobblestone paths go off in many directions, leading you past concrete and marble memorials for many individuals whose names you’d recognize from your school days.  Here is a sampling of some of the famous people who are interred at Père Lachaise:

Artists:   Delacroix, Modigliani, Jacques-Louis David, Seurat, Rosa Bonheur, Géricault, Ingres, René Lalique (the glass designer), Corot, Max Ernst, Pissarro.

Writers and Poets:  Molière, Marcel Proust, Richard Wright (Native Son), Collette,  Balzac.

Performers:  Sarah Bernhardt, Marcel Marceau, Edith Piaf, Maria Callas, Isadora Duncan, Yves Montand, Simone Signoret.

Composers:  Georges Bizet, Paul Dukas, Francis Poulenc, Rossini (he has actually been relocated to Florence, but his crypt is still here).

Of special interest at Père Lachaise are:  The remains of star-crossed lovers Abelard and Heloise, which were transferred here in 1817, several hundred years after they died.  Frederic Chopin‘s tomb stands out because of the many floral tributes and candles left by his legion of admirers.  The great composer’s body is here, but his heart was taken to his native Poland.

The tomb of rock singer Jim Morrison (The Doors) attracts many offerings from his fans, too, but a lot of it looks like debris:  scrawled notes, ticket stubs, photos, articles of clothing and other random items are strewn there.  Gertrude Stein and her partner Alice B. Toklas share the same tombstone; Stein’s name is on the front and Toklas’s is on the back.

The Art Deco monument to Oscar Wilde was regularly “vandalized” with lipstick kisses put on it by visitors, but cemetery officials recently gave it a thorough cleaning and blocked it from potential smoochers with a glass barrier.

Scientists and politicians and philosophers and engineers are buried in Père Lachaise as well, and of course some eminent composers and artists are buried elsewhere in Paris.  If your time in the City of Light is limited, though, Père Lachaise is the best place to go if, like me, you feel compelled to see the tombs of famous dead guys.

Salad Days

This man did not create the Caesar salad (Le Louvre, Paris -- photo by Herve Lewandowski)

For some reason, I was under the impression that salad was a relatively recent development in the history of food.  My assumption was that until the 18th century, what people ate fell into one of three categories:  1) bread, 2) meat, 3) other.  That last category, I thought, included porridge and fingernails and whatever else found its way into one’s mouth.

Then I discovered that Shakespeare made reference to salad way back in 1607:  “My salad days/When I was green in judgment” is a line from Antony and Cleopatra.  Further investigation revealed that not only did salads exist in Shakespeare’s time, his mention of them in this play was not an anachronism, like having a centurion glance at his wristwatch and say “Would you look at the time…”  The ancient Romans, probably including Mark Antony, ate salad.

It is not true, however, that Julius Caesar invented the Caesar salad.  Neither did Augustus or Tiberius or any of the other imperial Caesars.

There are conflicting opinions about who initially threw together romaine lettuce, croutons, parmesan cheese, egg and Worcestershire sauce.  Most salad authorities narrow it down to a restaurant in Tijuana, Mexico, called… go ahead, take a guess.  Right.

It was owned by a restaurateur named Caesar Cardini, who along with his brothers, also owned a place in San Diego.  Caesar’s Restaurant in Tijuana was quite popular with Americans during the 1920s because it was just on the other side of the border — where Prohibition didn’t apply.

According to Mr. Cardini’s daughter, Caesar created his eponymous salad one busy weekend in 1924 when a lot of the Hollywood crowd had come to town.  (As you may have heard, some people in the entertainment industry have been known to drink a little.)  Cardini’s cupboard was getting bare, so he got creative with what he had on hand and Caesar salad was the result.

It was a hit, and its popularity spread back to the U.S. side of the border and eventually worldwide.  As a result, almost everyone who worked in Caesar’s Restaurant during the 1920s later tried to take credit for it, including Caesar’s brother Alex, a couple of cooks, and probably the dishwasher.  The reason that I favor the Caesar Cardini version is that his recipe did not use anchovies.  I hate anchovies.

While we’re clearing up misconceptions about salads, let me mention that coleslaw was not named for Old King Cole.  That cabbage-and-mayonnaise concoction has been around since the 18th century, and is derived from two Dutch words, “kool” and “sla”.  Not surprisingly, “kool” means cabbage, and “sla” means salad.  Seriously.

It had nothing to do with cold slaw or warm slaw, which you sometimes see on menus in the midwestern U.S.  Nope, it’s from the Dutch, and you’ll recall that a lot of Dutch immigrants settled along the Hudson River, where they grew cabbage and made koolsla.

Oh, and I guess I don’t have to tell you — Mr. Potato Head did not invent potato salad.

Older Than Dirt

Tourists visit Akrotiri excavation site -- Santorini, Greece

Nothing will spoil your day like the eruption of a nearby volcano, causing tons of ash and rock to rain down on you.

As you know, the most famous calamity of that sort was at Pompeii, in southern Italy, when Mount Vesuvius blew its top in A.D. 79, killing hundreds almost instantly.  (Ironically, one woman had just said about her neighbor’s attire, “I wouldn’t be caught dead in that outfit.”)

A much more powerful event — perhaps 100 times bigger — happened on the Greek island of Santorini, also known as Thera.  In fact, the island itself was the volcano.  When seen from the air, or from the little town of Fíra perched on top of the island, the caldera is apparent.  It must have been one hellish explosion, and it buried the town of Akrotiri, on the southern end of Santorini, for about 3,500 years.

Akrotiri was a Minoan community — Crete is roughly 70 miles away — and the residents were busy making stuff with their Bronze Age tools when the ground began to rumble and then spewed fire.  Scientists disagree about the date; opinions range from around 1500 B.C. to one guy who insists it was exactly 1646 B.C.  He bases that on ice core dating, and a Members Only jacket found in the rubble.

The site was discovered in the 19th century by workmen who were quarrying pumice to make cement for construction of the Suez Canal.  Systematic excavation by scientists didn’t really get going until 1967, though, and to be honest, “systematic” may be a generous characterization of the process.  When we visited in the 1990s, archaeologists were only able to dig about one month out of the year due to lack of funding.

Still, they have found some fascinating stuff under all that old dirt:  lots of pottery, furniture and walls decorated with beautiful frescoes.  The residents of Akrotiri weren’t living in huts by any means — some of the buildings had multiple stories (see photo).  Our guide got breathless describing the ancient drainage systems discovered there.

Two things that haven’t  been found are 1) gold in any significant quantity, and 2) human remains.  This suggests to scientists that there was a relatively orderly evacuation of Akrotiri prior to the eruption.  The hypothesis is that a series of earthquakes preceded the main event by several months, convincing the residents that it was time to pack up their valuables and get out.  In other words, Akrotiri had been abandoned before it got buried.

Maybe so.  And maybe the fleeing Minoans got just far enough away to be caught in the tsunami waves generated by an explosion estimated to be the equivalent of multiple atomic bombs.

In any case, the only documented fatality at Akrotiri occurred in 2005.  There is a roof over the archaeological site (see photo again); a portion of it collapsed, killing a British tourist and injuring several others. 

Because of that incident, the site has been closed to visitors, although there is talk that it will reopen “soon”.  As you may have read, however, there is virtually no gold to be found in Greece’s treasury either, so they may keep saying “soon” for a very long time.

He Meant to Do That

J.A.D. Ingres, "The Comtesse d'Haussonville" (Frick Collection, New York)

“No one ever drew and painted nude women better — from the neck down.”  That is art historian Paul Johnson’s assessment of 19th-century French painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres.

Johnson is right:  The bodies are exquisite, but the facial expressions of Ingres’s nudes don’t convey amorous intent, or surprise that someone has found them undressed, or even “Wow, it’s cold in here!”  The paintings I’ve seen give the impression that his models were looking forward to quittin’ time.

It’s not that Ingres was incapable of painting good faces; in fact, he is famous for his portraits.  You should see some of the marvelous paintings he did of people with their clothes on.  Let me mention in passing that his name is pronounced “ANG”, with just a hint of “ruh” following; in French, the res isn’t a full-on syllable, it’s almost silent.

Anyway, his talent is so obvious, you might wonder why the faces of the nudes seem so vacant.  Well, here’s one answer:  he meant to do that.  Ingres’s idol was the Renaissance giant Raphael, and what the two painters shared was an appreciation of the classical traditions of Greece and Rome.  In fact, Ingres’s paintings suggest ancient sculpture, with very graceful lines, very smooth surfaces — and faces that often aren’t particularly expressive.

Unlike his archrival Eugène Delacroix, Ingres did many preparatory sketches before committing paint to canvas.  Delacroix plunged right in with his brushes, but Ingres was a draftsman first.  Then he paid so much attention to detail that when you study an Ingres painting up close, you notice that there are no visible brushstrokes.  His paintings are brought to a high finish:  Nothing is left raw, there are no jagged edges.

An Ingres painting I’ve admired many times is part of the Frick Collection in New York.  It’s a portrait of a young woman called the Comtesse d’Haussonville; Ingres painted her in 1845.

There are several things about the painting that are impressive, and one of them is the texture of the fabrics.  The ribbon in her hair appears to be silk, her gown is blue satin, and there is delicate lace on her sleeve.  Even as you lean in for a closer look, you’d swear it’s the real thing.  Painting that perfect is why museums have to hire guards to enforce the “don’t touch” rule.

Another thing you notice immediately about the Comtesse is the delicate hand under her chin, as though she is studying you as you study her.  Light glints off her jewelry… and it’s while you’re looking at those adornments on her right arm that you notice one more striking thing about this painting.

Take a careful look at the position of her arm.  It looks like her right shoulder must be somewhere in the middle of her rib cage, doesn’t it?  It’s not as revolutionary as the work of later artists like Picasso who painted subjects with (for instance) multiple noses, but the Comtesse is not anatomically correct.

Why Ingres chose to paint her that way is the subject of some conjecture, and you’re welcome to your own opinion.  All I know is that Ingres was an extravagantly gifted artist, and since that’s how he painted the Comtesse, he meant to do that.  I also suspect that by now, her shoulder must be killing her.