Thursday, April 30, 2020

Hilary Mantel, "The Mirror and the Light"

So it comes to an end, this incredible tale, the finest recreation of the past I know in any form. It has facts in plenty, and more fidelity to the truth than the average professor's history book, but it also has thoughts, feelings, and images. Of course they are guesses, but without them something is lacking that Mantel has in astonishing superabundance.

I know Mantel's Thomas Cromwell better than any other person I ever met in a book. He stands before us in his silks and velvets, risen from blacksmith's son to Earl of Essex and Lord Privy Seal, then beheaded for the crime of rivaling the king in power and pride. Mantel has made him believable, has made him a man. Over three volumes and 1500 pages she has given us all that we can know of his life, and much more. All of it seems plausible to me.

I know of no other books like these. The history is perfect, in fact probably a little too perfect; this final volume could have been shorter, but there was just so much Mantel had learned and wanted to tell us. If you wondered why certain people appear so often – Thomas Wyatt, Lord Lisle, Ambassador Chapuys – it is because they left us troves of letters, allowing us to see this world through their eyes. If you wondered why she mentioned obscure prophetesses, it s because they were written up in broadsheets or because their trial records survive, full of detail about their lives and their foretellings. These are the windows through which Mantel glimpses the Tudor world. In other places you can feel the documents that lie just behind her writing, the lists of confiscated goods, the descriptions of court masques. All was just as she describes it.

Over it all looms the awful presence of King Henry the Mad, crazed for a son, fixated on a sort of loyalty no person with a will can ever give. He executed hundreds, many, like Cromwell, for wholly imaginary crimes. Cromwell did his bidding, trumping up charges to bring down Anne Boleyn when Henry no longer wanted her, twisting the words of unhappy courtiers into active treason. When Cromwell fell in his turn he was not widely mourned, which makes him a bold choice for the central character of this vast novel. Mantel shows us his vengefulness, his greed, the cold-blooded ways he destroyed Henry's enemies. But also his loyalty to his friends, his hatred of war, the wonderful way he opened his home to a flock of young men, trained them, and launched them on their careers.

To me these books are a great gift. I treasure them, and I feel a heavy debt of gratitude to Hilary Mantel for bringing them into the world.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020


In the winter of 2001, the Halil River in southeastern Iran flooded catastrophically. Among other things it ate into two ancient mounds near the small city of Jiroft, causing parts of them to collapse into the river.

Inspecting the damage the next day, local residents discovered that a cache of valuable ancient artifacts had washed out and been scattered along the river's bank. They immediately snatched them up to sell, but the police got wind of it, too, and raided the houses of people who had been picking up artifacts or offering them for sale. I can't find any clear statement of the timeline here, but so far as I can tell months might have passed between the first discoveries and the first police seizures.

When some archaeologists finally arrived they were startled by the quality of the finds; what were these marvelous Bronze Age artifacts doing in Jiroft, a city with no archaeological record?

Exploring the two mounds, which are more than three kilometers apart, the archaeologists realized that they contained the remains of a Bronze Age city. Feeling over their heads, they called in Jean Perrot, a leading French archaeologist who had for years directed excavations at the ancient site of Susa. Perrot confirmed that this was indeed a Bronze Age city and he suggested that it might be a site of the highest importance.

All of the object shown here were carved from a soft stone called chlorite, in a style well known to archaeologists and collectors. Similar works are known from Sumer, Elam, and the oasis cities of Bacrtria, dating to between 2700 and 1700 BC. They look just about the same across this whole area, and nobody can agree on where the style originated; some say Elam, some say the Iranian Plateau, while others think they were made across this whole region and are therefore evidence of widespread cultural sharing. When Jean Perrot found them in profusion at Jiroft, he suggested that the origin point of this style had been found.

Beginning in 2003 Iranian archaeologists under the direction of Yousef Majidzadeh carried out a substantial excavation at the site, exploring large areas of the mounds. One of them turned out to contain a citadel measuring 33 acres (13.5 hectares). The site seems to have reached its peak between 2500 and 2200 BC. Majidzadeh thinks that the Jiroft mounds were the capital of a kingdom the Sumerians called Aratta, from which, tablets say, they imported valuable objects.

The most impressive find was a ziggurat, its shape related to those is Sumer but not identical.

Love this sinister reconstruction.

So Jiroft is an exciting discovery, a real Bronze Age city, a possible link between Elam and Bactria.

And that is where agreement about it ends. First, there are a lot of questions about the initial artifact bonanza. Quite a few more chlorite vessels have been found during the excavations, but nothing like the incredible haul generated by that first flood. This has led some skeptics to speculate that what the police seized had actually been collected across the region over a period of years, I mean, if you wanted to sell an ancient chlorite vessel, wouldn't you take it to a known dealer in such objects?

And such dealers might also trade in fakes. Chlorite vessels have been valuable antiquities for a century, and it is well known among collectors that many specimens on the market are modern. I especially wonder about this falcon. I found it posted with a caption saying that it represents great cultural continuity in Iran, since it looks just like Sassanian falcons from 2,000 years later. I think it more likely represents a forger with a weak grasp of periodization in history.

There are also a lot of questions about these tablets. The writing seems related to Elamite but is not identical to it and reading some of this on the assumption that it is Elamite produced gibberish. Nor has anyone been able to produce a standard set of symbols or the like for these, leading some to argue that at least some of them must be fake.

But as I said more chlorite vessels were found in good contexts during the excavation, so the people of Jiroft certainly used them, which gives us an excuse to spend a while with these wonderful objects.

And to dream about finding lost civilizations, or digging up the treasures of cities mentioned in Cuneiform tablets but never before discovered, or translating unknown scripts and finding the names of forgotten peoples and their vanished gods. And other marvelous things.

Monday, April 27, 2020

Castello di Vincigliata

Having fun on the internet last night I stumbled across a photograph of the Castello di Vincigliata. I thought, hey, that's cool, I wonder if it's real? That turned out to be a complicated and interesting question. The castello is in Tuscany, near the village of Fiesole.

These days the castle's web site promotes it as
one of the most romantic and beautiful wedding venues, only a few km from the centre of Florence. Plunged among the rolling Tuscan hills, it is the ideal place for celebrating your special day.
So, you know, if you were thinking of getting married in Tuscany, give them a call. Just out of curiosity, would you find out for me how much it costs?

The castle's own web site reveals that this is no pristine medieval construction. As they put it,
In 1840 Sir John Temple leader was exploring the hill of Fiesole,when he came upon the overgrown ruin of a medieval castle. He instantly fell in love with it and decided to restore it to its former glory. Of the many stories he uncovered, Sir John especially coveted the one about Donna Bianca.

Sir John decided that Vincigliata was a perfect place to host his many noble friends. With the help of a young architect Fancelli, he started the daunting task of restoration. In pure spirit of renaissance patronage, he commissioned 80 masons, artisans, sculptors, glassmakers and antiquarians and with their help, Vincigliata was reborn after 10 years of work.
So this was really built in the 1840s. But how extensive were those ruins that started Sir John dreaming? Wikipedia tells us that  under Temple's ownership the castle was "entirely reconstructed in the feudal style."

These two drawings are the only records I have found of what was here when Sir John's builders set to work. They are enough, though, to show that quite a bit remained, so this is far from a complete fantasy. Eugène Viollet-le-Duc did some of his "restorations" with less. So who built the castle that Sir John found in ruins?

According, again, to the castle web site, there has been a noble residence on this spot since at least 1031. And that's pretty much all the castle's web site has to say about the site's early history. I did track down one halfway learned source, a brief article in Italian, which confirms that there was a medieval house here. In fact there is an estate inventory of 1335 that describes the place as
medietas pro indiviso cuiusdam resedii cum turre, curte, giardino, terra laborativa, puteo, e arboribus positum in populi Sancte Marie de Vincigliata comitatis Florentiae, loco dicto ala torre
That is, a house with tower, wall, garden, fields, well, and woods in the parish of St. Mary de Vincigliata in the county of Florence. So there was something fairly impressive here by 1335. However, our author (Alessandro Rinaldi) does not think that describes our house. He seems to think that whatever was there before was mostly swept away after 1365, when the property fell into the hands of the Alessandri family.

The Alessandri family were Florentine aristocrats, a wealthy clan that produced numerous senators and the like in the 1300s and 1400s. One of their town houses, the Palazzo Allessandri, still stands

and they once owned a famous piece of furniture, the Alessandri Table. They show up among the patrons of various Florentine artists, and Vassari says that one of their infants was the model for a famous baby Jesus. Anyway, they were rich and stylish.

Photo from a set posted by one of my favorite bloggers, Vertigo 1871

They were not, however, soldiers. Or knights. They were merchants. Of course like most rich merchants of that era they spent some of their profits buying land, both as a safe investment and by way of elbowing their way into the old aristocracy. And what did you, a merchant trying to pass as a nobleman, build on the country estate with the money you made in banking or trade? Why, a castle!

Like this one, described in a will of 1429 as "a Lordly palace with battlements and subterranean vaults, with an outer wall." Our man Rinaldi calls this new structure
an eloquent expression of the neo-feudal aspirations and mentality of the Florentine aristocracy of the 15th century.
It just tickles me that our nineteenth-century English romantic, full of neo-feudal aspirations, rebuilding a castle as a place to entertain and impress his friends, was following so closely in the footsteps of the fifteenth-century Alessandri, who were also building a sort of lark instead of a fortress.

And Donna Bianca? She was a young woman of the house who was loved by two brothers. Like a proper folk tale heroine, she chose to marry the younger. She was sitting at the tower window on her wedding morning, waiting for her betrothed to arrive, when she saw him coming down the road. Just before he reached the gate his older brother and two other men leaped from behind trees and killed him before her eyes. Of course, she leaped to her death.

Things We Don't Know: the Flu

The flu, which has been around for a long time, kills on average 40,000 people every year. And the amount we don’t know about the flu is amazing. We don’t understand why the flu is seasonal. It’s such a profound thing that there’s this three-month period where it’s very active and then almost nine months where you have a hard time finding it, depending on which hemisphere you’re in.

–Bill Gates, from this interview

Re-Opening and Urban Life

Writing in the Times, David Rubin and Paul Offit describe a Pandemic model they have developed and applied to data from 46 US states. The exercise, they say
revealed that crowding and population density, whether in densely populated areas in New York City or a meatpacking plant in South Dakota, are the most important factor in determining the havoc the virus can wreak.

After accounting for age distribution and health issues it was clear that risk not only of infection but of death broke between two groups: those in densely crowded areas, and everyone else. Large, densely populated areas like New York and Chicago had nearly twice the rate of transmission in the first two weeks of their outbreaks than the least densely populated areas we are tracking, like Birmingham, Ala., or the metro area of Portland, Ore. Yes, we did find that warming spring temperatures in some areas are helping to reduce transmission, but that effect is dwarfed by the impact of population density in our largest cities, particularly in the North.
Re-opening Philadelphia, they argue, would be disastrous, but in Harrisburg the virus would probably "fizzle out" if some basic safety measures are retained.
This means that areas in the country that are less densely populated or are already benefiting from warmer spring temperatures will probably be able to reopen more quickly, as long as the number of cases in their area have sharply reduced — we can’t give an exact rate — and if they maintain workplace safety, moderate distancing, and test to identify and trace outbreaks early.

Large, densely populated cities are going to need a more cautious plan. This is not just because more crowded areas increase the risk of spread, but also because we’re learning that crowding itself may also affect the death rate. The relationship between the amount of virus to which one is initially exposed and the severity of the illness is found in most infectious diseases. Models assessing outcomes from the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic reveal that the likelihood of death was dependent upon the number of infected individuals with whom that person came into contact. When a family is infected by chickenpox, the second child to contract the virus often becomes more seriously ill, presumably because they have been exposed to more of the virus.
"Re-opening" is going to be a slow and partial thing no matter what governments decide; anybody out there really want to attend a movie in a crowded theater right now? My office is in Washington, DC, and whatever my bosses say I'm not going back until I've been vaccinated.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Exploring Istanbul by Foot and Tram

Instanbul! The gateway to Asia, the meeting place of Europe and the Middle East; we've finally made it after years of longing.

Let's imagine we wake up in the Mesihpaşa neighborhood, where there a lot of hotels and where many visitors stay.

After our requisite Turkish breakfast, we make our way north to our first stop, one of the most famous and beautiful buildings in the world: the Süleymaniye Mosque.

The mosque was built in 1550–57 for Sultan Süleyman I, “the Magnificent”. It was designed by one of the greatest artists you may never have heard of, called in modern Turkish Mimar Sinan, that is Sinan the Architect. Sinan (1490-1588) was either Armenian or Greek by birth; the son of a stone mason, he trained as a military architect and did not embark on his career of designing mosques and palaces until he was past 50. Fortunately for us he lived a very long life so was still able to design more than 100 mosques and 70 schools. It also helped that his life coincided with the peak of Ottoman wealth and grandeur.

There are multiple levels to appreciating the architecture of Istanbul. There is the first impression of the grand structure, its domes looming against the sky or above your head. Wow. But they you must turn your attention to the details, for these builders could put as much wonder in a single courtyard as in a whole palace, and as much beauty in one tile as a courtyard.

We could linger here all day, admiring the fountains and tombs, but there is so much else to see.

As all tourists must we make our way to the Grand Bazaar, actually a network of alleyways, some as well-roofed as a modern mall, others rougher and not completely covered.

From here we're going to hop the street car that runs down Yeniçeriler, the Street of the Janissaries, until we reach Mehmet Akif Ersoy Park.

From there's it's a very short walk to our next stop, the ancient Hippodrome of Constantinople, now a public square still marked by two ancient obelisks.

This seems to have been built around 203 AD, when Emperor Septimus Severus expanded the City of Byzantium, built it new walls, and endowed several buildings. It was enlarged by Constantine. It was, archaeologists think, 1500 feet (450 m) long, and its stands could hold 100,000 spectators.

Among the pieces you can still see is the base of one of the obelisks, showing Emperor Theodosius offering the laurel wreath to a victor. We saw the bronze horses that once adorned the Hippodrome last week during our tour of Venice.

Right across the street from the Hippodrome is the great Blue Mosque or Sultan Ahmed Mosque, built by Ahmed I between 1609 and 1616. The mosque is so big that it is actually hard to see it very well from the street, so most of the famous pictures are taken from the air or the water, but I'm trying to focus mostly on what we would see as we explore the city on foot.

The interior is delightful, but this is still a functioning mosque, so mind your manners.

From there we walk about half a mile (0.8 km) across a series of parks and squares, passing the Sultan Ahmad fountain

To the Hagia Sophia, one of the most extraordinary remnants of the classical world, built in 532 to 537 AD. Its construction was ordered by Justinian I to replace an earlier church that had been burned in the Nika Riots that nearly ended his rule. It was designed by the engineer Isidore of Miletus and the mathematician Anthemius of Tralles. It was the cathedral of the city, and then its principal mosque, before becoming a museum after the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the founding of the modern Turkish state.

We pass through the mighty entrance

Into the famous interior,

With its extraordinary mosaics.

From there let us walk through more parks to the Istanbul Archaeological Museum.

Here we can wallow in remnants of the Greek and Byzantine past, or explore older marvels like relics of Babylon and Sumer. Among the artifacts here are the famous sarcophagi of Sidon I wrote about in February.

Adjacent to the archaeological museum is the wall of Istanbul's great palace, the Topkapi. This hill overlooks the spot where the inlet called the Golden Horn meets the Bosphorus Strait. This was the original site of Byzantium's acropolis, and then the palace of the Caesars. The older palace was wrecked during the great siege of 1453, and Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror decided to level everything and start over. The palace was open, and its basic plan in place, by 1465.

The palace grew over time into a small city of its own, with offices and pavilions



kitchens (built in the 1460s)

and audience chambers.

Into main reception hall where one might behold the Sultan sitting on the Imperial Sofa.

Much of this has been made into a series of museums; the old treasury holds the famous Ottoman collection of arms and armor.

And we end our day on one of the palace's many terraces with their spectacular views of the sea.