Ottoman submarines

Sultan Abdülhamid II (the last sultan with absolute powers), who reigned from 1876 until 1909, when he was deposed, was very much aware of the shortcomings of technological development in the Ottoman Empire at a time when foreign powers were progressing in this field in leaps and bounds. He could see this from the foreign press which which was submitted to his attention in translation and from his ambassadors’ reports.

Sending promising young students abroad for further training did not appeal to him: the young people would learn ‘bad ways’ in the decadent West; would either come back arrogant and disrespectful or would not come back at all. His idea was therefore to kickstart the Ottoman technical revolution at home, under the leadership of an inspirational model figure who could be enticed to come and work in the Empire. 

According to his biographer Recep Hikmet Kırımlı, his first pick was Thomas Edison, the man who had tamed electricity and given light to the world. An official invitation was duly sent out, with an undertaking to make available funds that were twenty times as much as Edison was able to command in the US. But answer came there none. 

Shortly afterwards the sultan was informed, possibly by his Navy Minister Admiral Bozcaadalı Hasan Hüsnü Paşa, that in around 1885 the Greek government had bought a submarine, a stealthy craft that could patrol the seas undetected—and in the sultan’s mind, deter any hostile undertaking by the Russians keen to find an opening into the Mediterranean. Submarines were quite a novelty at the time and still very much in the experimental phase. The one mentioned above had been built in Sweden to the design of an Englishman, the Rev. George Garrett, curate of Moss Side in Manchester. And it is diretly to him that the sultan applied. As a man of the cloth possibly through the pressure of family tradition, Garrett clearly preferred engineering to the care of his flock. He had been dabbling in submarines since the late 1870s and had made trials in the Liverpool area with mixed success. His contraptions (there were three of them, nicknamed ‘the curate’s egg’ because of their shape) were steam-powered. The last one did not live up to its given name, Resurgam (‘I will rise again’), because it foundered off Birkenhead while it was being towed to Portsmouth to impress the Royal Navy. It is still there and a replica can be seen on dry land nearby.  

Replica of the Resurgam, Woodside, Birkenhead. Photo by El Pollock, licensed under CC by 2.0.

The repeated mishaps did not put the reverend off. He was able to team up with a Swedish business, which is how the Greek submarine had come about and how the sultan came to hear about the Rev. Garrett. The parts for two submarines commissioned by the Ottomans were constructed in Barrow shipyards and then reassembled in the Taşkızak naval shipyard on the Golden Horn. Trials of the two craft, named after the sultan and after his father Abdülmecid, were carried out in front of an extensive display of officialdom. One of submarines got as far as Seraglio Point (roughly where the Topkapı is) and successfully fired a torpedo at an old target-vessel which promptly sank. The Rev. Garrett joined the Ottoman Navy with the rank of Paşa. The design was still experimental, however, and full of problems with stability, autonomy when submerged, not to mention the safety of the crew. Later, when Van der Goltz Paşa, the German general who took on the task of modernising the Ottoman army, had a look at the rusting hulls of the two submarines, he declared them useless and had them scrapped. 

As for the Rev. Garrett, things went from bad to worse. There proved to be no opening for him in Istanbul, the Church would not have him back as a curate and he eventually emigrated to America, where he died penniless after a string of ill-advised ventures.

By Paola Pugsley. Her latest book, Blue Guide Mediterranean Turkey, is now available in digital and print-on-demand format.

     

An update on Dante

Domenicho di Michelino’s famous likeness of Dante in the Duomo of Florence.

Work is underway to plan next year’s celebrations for the seven-hundredth anniversary of the death of Dante Alighieri (see previous article posted here on 22 March this year “Dante Day”). In fact Sergio Mattarella, the Italian President, went to Ravenna on 6th September to open the events (albeit behind a mask) at the recently restored tomb of the great poet, who died in Ravenna in 1321.

There is talk of a reconciliation between Florence, Dante’s birthplace, and the town of Ravenna in Romagna across the Apennines where he died in sorrowful exile. Although the Tuscan city has numerous memorials to Dante—inside and outside the church of Santa Croce, on street plaques throughout the city, a copy of his death mask in Palazzo Vecchio—there has always been a feeling that the poet’s rightful resting place should also be in Florence (the Medici pope Leo X almost succeeded in having his remains moved there). Ravenna, however, points out that it was thanks to Franciscan friars in their city that the poet’s bones were preserved at all. His tomb, right beside their convent, is a disappointment at first glance: a gloomy mausoleum erected at the end of the 18th century with further ‘embellishments’ added in the first decades of the 20th century (during celebrations for the sixth centenary of his death), but it does preserve a relief of 1483 by the great Venetian sculptor Pietro Lombardo, which shows the poet in profile surrounded by his books. Florence in fact failed to commemorate her famous son until the 19thcentury, when a cumbersome statue was set up in the centre of Piazza Santa Croce (moved to a less conspicuous position a few years later) and a rhetorical monument was erected inside the basilica. The museum known as the Casa di Dante has no original works. It is perhaps the Baptistery of Florence which stands as the most moving testimony to Dante’s presence in the city he loved and where he once acted as a Prior. He was baptised here and recalls his ‘bel San Giovanni’ in the Commedia. In 1302 he was sentenced to death in his native city, and in order to save his life he never returned there, seeking refuge instead in other places in Italy, ending up in Ravenna where he was given a home and so was able to finish the Divina Commedia.

As part of the celebrations in Florence (even today seen by some as an opportunity to ‘reconcile’ Dante with his native city) there are plans to give the Dante Museum a much-needed face-lift, and also to put on permanent display the wonderful series of frescoes of famous men (which includes Dante by Andrea del Castagno) which for many years has been hidden away in an area of the Uffizi not normally open to the public. The delightful painting in the Duomo, of Dante ‘protecting’ Florence, has been chosen as the logo of the 2021 events. There will also be all sorts of theatrical events, readings and concerts.

Dantedì (‘Dante Day’), on 25th March, is to become an annual event. One of the most interesting events scheduled for next year is the inauguration of the Museo della Lingua Italiana, a museum of the Italian language, in part of the convent of Santa Maria Novella. There will be exhibitions at the Uffizi and at the Bargello, which will include editions of his works and the most famous of the commentaries. The Accademia della Crusca in the Medici villa of Castello will publish a Dante dictionary in recognition of the fact that it was Dante who established Tuscan as the literary vernacular of Italy. In Ravenna there will also be many important exhibitions, concerts and performances. Projects are going ahead despite fears about Covid-19—of course ‘virtual’ exhibitions and events are also a possibility. One of these has already begun here, where a a panel of a hundred artists, literary figures, journalists and people from all different walks of life, have each been asked to provide a commentary on one Canto of Dante’s opus

So the ‘bel paese’ (Dante, Inferno, canto XXXIII) is at least planning better days ahead, even linking concepts such as ‘unity’ and ‘Europe’ to its greatest poet.

by Alta Macadam

New Blue Guide Rome reviewed

“Gripping” and “delicious”: Harry Mount reviews The Blue Guide’s latest offering for Chapter House in the Catholic Herald.

Ever since 1918, Blue Guides have been the best guides to European cities.

No other guide has the sheer quantity of facts. For people who want to know why a building is where it is, who built it, when and in what style, they’re the only option.

Alta Macadam, a Florence expat, has been writing Blue Guides since 1970. Annabel Barber, Editorial Director of the Blue Guides, has, like Macadam, tramped every cobble (or black, basalt sanpietrino) of Rome’s roads, and the roads leading to Rome – the entry on the Via Appia is peerless.

Read more»

The legend of Şahmeran

If you happen to be in Tarsus, driving east along the central Adana Blv, you will find to your left, at the large roundabout 100m north of the Ulu Cami and the so-called Church of St Paul, a fountain with an intriguing statue in the middle of a small basin. It shows a triton standing on its coiled scaly tail with back and sides covered with large erect snakes, twelve of them: they hold the water pipes. More smaller snakes appear to be arranged as a sort of crown on the head of the figure. This is Şahmeran, and the connection seems to be with Persia, since Şahmeran translates as ‘king of snakes’ in Farsi. However, there is also talk of Egyptian origins, but in any case the legend of Şahmeran appears widespread all over the East, normally with a reference to medicine and healing. In fact, the coupling of healing with snakes is still with us, as the staff of Aesculapius (a roughly-hewn branch with one coiled snake, illustrated here) well testifies.

A 50cm by 50cm relief of Şahmeran (now in Kars museum) was recently unearthed at Ani near the cathedral. The plaque shows a creature with a snake’s body, a dragon’s head protruding from its back and a human face that looks decidedly female. The Tarsus Şahmeran is definitely a man, at least according to local lore (you can find a number of images of him on the Internet, for example on this TripAdvisor page here). In Tarsus Şahmeran is linked to the nearby bath, the Şahmeran hamam. It is open for business today though its origins are very old. The building is c. 15thcentury, with 19thcentury restorations , but it is said to rest on top of a Roman bath, as yet unexplored. It is here that Şahmeran is said to have met his end, when he was discovered peeping at his beloved from an opening in the cupola. He was swiftly dispatched on the marble massage table by having his head cut off. Stains of his blood are apparently still visible and the local people have been dreading the snakes’ revenge ever since.

Meanwhile, Şahmeran left his body to science so to speak, with momentous consequences. Both the local ruler and his deputy had fallen seriously ill and Şahmeran instructed a young man by the name of Lokman in the art of medicine. He told him to take his (Şahmeran’s) body, cut it into three parts and boil it. The meat was served to the ruler, who was healed, and the stock to his ‘vizir’, who died—and rightly so, since he was devious and untrustworthy. Justice was done. From these promising beginnings, Lokman proceeded to learn about herbs, potions and infusions. Indeed, he acquired the skill of understanding the speech of plants. He would go for walks in the countryside, listen to what they said, and then he knew what to do: his career was assured.

by Paola Pugsley. Her Blue Guide Mediterranean Turkey, which includes Tarsus, will be published this summer. For other books by Paola on Turkey, see here.

The ‘Moors’ of Venice

The place of ‘Moors’ in the history of the Venetian Republic is a fascinating subject and one that deserves more attention. Venice had a lasting and intricate relationship with Islam: the visitor cannot fail to be struck by the impact of Eastern architecture on so many of its buildings and by the incredibly large number of very beautiful Islamic works of art to be seen here.

One of the most charming spots in the city, in the sestiere of Cannaregio at the northern limits of the city, is the peaceful little Campo dei Mori—‘of the “Moors” ’—, where you can see three quaint statues, popularly supposed to represent the Levantine merchants of the Mastelli family, whose palace is close by (it still bears a relief of a merchant leading a heavily-laden camel with spices from the East). A few steps away is a fourth statue of a Moor (known, for some reason to Venetians as ‘Alfani’), almost overwhelmed by his huge turban and attached to the house where Tintoretto lived for the last two decades of his life. The term ‘Moors’ seems to have been used to denote Muslims from the Middle East, from North Africa, or from the Levant and Turkey.

Gentile Bellini, appointed by the Republic to paint the official portrait of all the doges from the 1460s to 1501, was also bidden to the Ottoman court to paint Sultan Mehmet II, in 1480 (that portrait now hangs in the National Gallery in London). Bellini stayed in Istanbul for three years, and the little bronze medal he designed at the same time, with an effigy of the sultan, can be seen in Venice in the Ca’ d’Oro.

‘Moors’ could of course also refer to black Africans, whom we know were first seized in West Africa and shipped by the Portuguese to Europe as slaves in 1440, and they soon arrived in Venice. White slavery in some form seems to have been an accepted institution in Europe before then, but legislation varied from city to city, and is a subject which needs more study. Very little is known about the presence in Venice of black Africans since the documents often only listed their first names and described them as ‘black’, ‘Moor’ or ‘Saracen’ with no record of their full identity or place of origin. What little knowledge we do have includes the fact that some sub-Saharan slaves, freed in the early 16th century, joined the associations which ran the gondola ferries across the Grand Canal. 

In the famous True Cross cycle begun in the last years of the 15th century (now in the Gallerie dell’Accademia, which reopened to the public on 26th May), Gentile Bellini and Vittore Carpaccio both included ‘Moors’ (presumably black Africans) in their depictions of the history of that relic. When, as it is being processed across a bridge it falls into a canal, Gentile includes a black African about to take a dive to rescue it (the Venetians themselves were notoriously bad swimmers). In another scene, Carpaccio shows a black maid in a turban watching the events from a roof terrace amidst a thicket of chimney pots. A much lesser-known work in the Gallerie dell’Accademia, the Incredulity of St Thomas by the great painter Cima da Conegliano, a contemporary of the Bellini brothers, includes, far in the background, a lone horseman from the East in a turban and with a scimitar at his side. An intriguing detail. Later, in 1749, Gian Domenico Tiepolo, in his delightful series of small paintings of the Stations of the Cross in the oratory attached to the church of San Polo, included splendidly-dressed Arabs in turbans, who stand out memorably as protagonists in the crowds, and which one cannot help but feel were portraits from life.

Gentile Bellini: detail from the Miracle of the True Cross cycle. At the far right, a maidservant steadies a man about to take a dive into the canal to help retrieve the relic.

Even though at certain periods Venice was seen as a champion of the Christians against the Muslims, the Serenissima always maintained a close relationship with the East. In 1621, the Republic granted the Turkish merchants their own trading centre (to serve as a warehouse and lodgings) in the city and a grand palace on the Grand Canal was chosen for the purpose (from then on known as the ‘Fondaco dei Turchi’). A room was turned into a mosque and another area was adapted as a ritual bath house. Goods unloaded here from Turkish boats moored on the Grand Canal outside would include wax, oil, wood and raw hides (and later in the 18th century, tobacco).

The subject can be followed in other parts of Italy, too. The servants and peasants in the Medici household were sometimes included in paintings: in 1634 the court painter Suttermans was commissioned to paint two elderly peasant women, one holding a duck and one a basket of eggs, accompanied by ‘Piero Moro’ wearing a pearl earring, and around 1684 Anton Domenico Gabbiani produced a portrait of four Medici servants which features a ‘Moor’ gorgeously dressed in silk embroidered with yellow flowers.

The exquisite collections made by the Medici in Florence included the bust of a black woman made in onyx, pearl, gilded silver and gilded metal which is known to have been exhibited in the Tribuna of the Uffizi by 1589 (and is still in the Uffizi collection). There is also a portrait head of a young black girl dating from the 2nd century BC, owned by Francesco I, who had it made into a statuette by adding a black-and-white marble cloak (now in the collection of the Archaeological Museum in Florence).

In Rome there is an early 13th-century mosaic tondo on the Caelian hill showing Christ between two fettered captives, one white and the other black, at the entrance to a former Trinitarian hospice for the redemption of slaves. Present scholarship on the subject suggests that the black Africans who arrived in Venice as slaves were set free after a period of time and assimilated into society. But the definition of ‘slave’ and the history of slavery in Europe remains a very complex subject.

Alta Macadam

I am indebted to Professor Kate Lowe, whom I heard lecture some years ago on the subject of black Africans in Venice and slavery.

Blue Guide London, Daniel Defoe and the Plague Year

The first edition of Blue Guide London was published in 1918, the year of the Spanish Flu. Work on the 19th edition was supposed to be completed in 2020, the year of Covid-19. But the measures introduced to contain the spread of the virus have brought research to a temporary halt. Curiously, the last place we revisited before lockdown was Aldgate, the parish where “H.F.”, the narrator of Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, was a resident. Though a fictional account, Defoe’s Journal is based heavily on fact, as supplied by observation, experience and survivors’ stories. Defoe himself knew Aldgate well. He was married in its church, which features more than once in the Journal. He describes the great plague pit that was dug in its churchyard—“a terrible pit it was”—and he also recounts an incident in the church itself:

Once, on a public day, whether a Sabbath-day or not I do not remember, in Aldgate Church, in a pew full of people, on a sudden one fancied she smelt an ill smell. Immediately she fancies the plague was in the pew, whispers her notion or suspicion to the next, then rises and goes out of the pew. It immediately took with the next, and so to them all; and every one of them, and of the two or three adjoining pews, got up and went out of the church.

Blue Guide London’s description of Aldgate reads as follows:

Busy Houndsditch, dominated by the catenary curve of the ‘Can of Ham’ Tower (Foggo Associates, 2019), follows the course of the old moat outside London’s city wall. At the the south end of it is the bright blue St Botolph Building (Grimshaw Architects, 2011), in whose glossy panels is reflected the now diminished-in-stature spire of the church of St Botolph-without-Aldgate, which stands on Aldgate Square. The square marks the site of the Aldgate, or ‘old gate’, which guarded the road out of London to the east. A ‘draught on Aldgate Pump’ (which still stands at the junction of Fenchurch St and Leadenhall St) was once a cant expression for a worthless bill. Geoffrey Chaucer leased the house above the Aldgate from the City of London in 1374. Overlooking Aldgate Square to the west is a handsome Primary School, founded in 1710 by the charitable alderman Sir John Cass (d. 1718). On the annual Founder’s Day (20th Feb), children and guests wear a red feather in honour of Cass, who suffered a fatal haemorrhage whilst writing the will by which he funded the school, staining his white goose quill red with blood. The Founder’s Day parade includes a sermon in St Botolph’s.

The church has a long history. The first chapel or oratory was built here over 1,000 years ago, outside the old City gate so that travellers could pray on arrival and departure (Botolph is the patron saint of wayfarers; relics of his were kept at churches dedicated to him at each of the London city gates). The current building is by George Dance the Elder (1744) with an interior by John Francis Bentley (1888–95). In the octagonal vestibule is a memorial to Robert Dow (d. 1612), a benefactor, with anxious-looking portrait bust, his arms clamped upon a complacently grinning skull. Daniel Defoe was married here in 1683. Thomas Bray, founder of the SPCK and SPG, was vicar here from 1708–22. Jeremy Bentham was christened here in 1747. William Symington, pioneer of steam navigation who built the Charlotte Dundas, died here ‘in want’ in 1831 and is buried here (tablet on the west wall). Built into the perimeter wall of the churchyard is an old Metropolitan Drinking Fountain of 1906, with the iron cup still attached by a chain.  

So far, so good. But there are other Defoe references we could add, marked on the map below.

Map extract from Blue Guide London 18th ed.

Beyond Aldgate Square, among massive new office blocks and thundering traffic, the ancient Hoop and Grapes pub (1) on the corner of Mansell St shows the former scale of the buildings that once stood here. Its foundations go back to the 13th century: Defoe would certainly have known it, although he chooses instead to mention two other taverns in his Journal of the Plague Year. One of them, no longer extant but which stood just to the west of the Hoop and Grapes, is the Three Nuns Inn (2), close to the entrance to the street known as Minories (3) (whose name comes from those same nuns, the Franciscan Sorores Minores, or Minoresses). It was from this end of Minories, while standing in St Botolph’s churchyard, that H.F. saw torches approaching. They were lighting a dead-cart bringing bodies to the pit, and accompanying it was a man, mourning his wife and children. Defoe describes how, overcome by grief, he is taken to the Pie Tavern at the end of Houndsditch (4), where he is mocked by a group of drunk and insensitive “plague deniers”, who end up themselves being carried off by the pestilence. And the dwelling place of H.F. himself is given with some accuracy: “I lived without Aldgate, about midway between Aldgate Church and Whitechappel Bars, on the left hand or north side of the street.” Just about where Aldgate Tube Station (5) is now, in other words.

The Venetian Republic in times of plague

The Venetian lagoon at sunset, the time of day when people in isolation traditionally gathered to sing the Te Deum. The island shown here is the old hospital island of Sacca Sessola. Image ©Blue Guides.

The Venetian Republic had to take steps to contain infection in the city as early as the 15th century. Their dependence on trade, bringing merchant ships from the East, meant that they were particularly vulnerable to the spread of disease (just as we are told today that globalisation has favoured the spread of Coronavirus). Venetians held that the ease of infection could well be attributed to flying particles in the air, a theory confirmed by scientists many centuries later.

The Venetians were able to make use of some of the islands in the lagoon, either for isolation hospitals or as quarantine stations. The 12th-century pilgrims’ hospice on the island of Lazzaretto Vecchio was taken over by the Augustinian monastery of St Mary of Nazareth in 1423 and became the first-known permanent isolation hospital in Europe. The name Lazzaretto is a corruption of ‘Nazareth’, with a secondary etymology from Lazarus, patron saint of lepers. A lazzaretto or lazaret came to be a general term for a quarantine station. Right up until the 18th century those who were confined on Lazzaretto Vecchio would stand on the bank looking towards Venice at sunset each evening and sing the Te Deum together in thankfulness for their escape from contagion.

Perhaps the most interesting of the Venetian quarantine islands is Lazzaretto Nuovo. Local archaeologists and volunteers have restored some of its buildings and carried out excavations and the island is open to visitors on certain days. In the centre of the island is the Tezon Grande (one of the largest public buildings in Venice, more than 100m long), which was used to decontaminate ships’ merchandise. The goods were fumigated outside, using rosemary and juniper, or soaked in salt water in specially-constructed canals, or covered with vinegar. The splendid wood roof has been restored and the original brick herring-bone pavement survives. On the walls are some interesting inscriptions made by sailors in the 16th century. Some 200–300 sailors, merchants, and travellers could also be housed in isolation on Lazzaretto Nuovo, in small cells built against the perimeter wall, each with its own kitchen, fireplace and courtyard (in old prints the island can always be identified by its forest of Venetian chimneys). Today the island is inhabited by herons, cormorants, swamp hawks, kingfishers and egrets. A sea dyke has been constructed to the west, in an attempt to protect it from acqua alta, and a pilot project has been carried out close to the landing-stage which demonstrates that water can be purified by plant biology. The island also has its own website and a full description of what you can see there is given in our Blue Guide Venice. Ironically, research work for the next edition of Blue Guide Venice was interrupted a few weeks ago by the Coronavirus outbreak.

Another island, San Clemente, housed a quarantine station for overseas visitors until it became a large monastery in 1645. The island of Sacca Sessola (pictured above) was occupied by a hospital until 1980. San Lazzaro degli Armeni, and island just off the Lido, was used from 1182 as a leper colony and after occupation by the Benedictines was given to an Armenian Catholic monastery in 1717.

All visitors to Venice will be familiar with the church of Santa Maria della Salute, which stands guard at the entrance to the city, right at the beginning of the Grand Canal. It was built in 1631–81 in thanksgiving for deliverance from the plague of 1630–1, which had claimed the lives of some thirty percent of the population (46,000 people). The Doge visited the Salute annually on 21st November, in a procession across a pontoon of boats from San Marco. Every year on the same date this Venetian festival is still celebrated and crowds throng to the church to receive a votive candle.

by Alta Macadam

Blue Guides during lockdown

“The world is a book,” according to St Augustine, “and those who do not travel read only one page.” For years we featured that quotation prominently on our website. The trouble is that today, in this state of global lockdown, none of us is permitted to travel; we are all confined to that single page. Perhaps we are finding unexpected beauties there: watching out of the window as the trees come into leaf (if we are in temperate Europe), noticing how the clouds regroup, how the sky changes as dusk falls or day breaks. Perhaps we are marvelling at the sight of our semi-deserted cities, all those teeming streets and squares suddenly tranquil and still like Laurana’s famous painting of an ideal Renaissance city (pictured at the top of this page), where rows of elegant, geometrically proportioned buildings converge on an invisible vanishing point behind a central rotunda. Not a soul is abroad, no life stirs. It is a city fresh from the planner’s drawing board, unsullied by noise and clutter, dirt and litter, double yellow lines and garish signage, traffic lights and commercial advertising. The painting hangs in Urbino. We used its rotunda as the cover image for Blue Guide the Marche and San Marino. But which of us can travel to the Marche or San Marino now? We can only dream of going there. What use is a series of travel guides to people who cannot travel?

But Blue Guides do have something to offer. They are not and never have been primarily focused on practical details, and they still deliver information by means of long paragraphs of continuous prose. Perhaps because of this, they appeal to the contemplative life just as well as to the active one. Anyone who suddenly has more time on their hands for reading will find that Blue Guides are wonderful things to curl up with in an armchair, with a cup of tea and no deadlines. Our most recent volume is the new 12th edition of Blue Guide Rome. We also have a list of titles that are not specifically guide books. These include our Literary Companions (to Rome, London and Venice), extracts from writings—poems, diaries, novels, letters—by travellers throughout the ages. There is also our Sites of Antiquity, a lavishly illustrated story of 50 ancient sites that underpin the whole history of Europe. And there are our Food Companions, available in book form or as apps. People are cooking a lot in lockdown, either experimenting with new recipes or—when familiar ingredients prove unobtainable—improvising new ones, posting photographs on Instagram of culinary triumphs and ignominies. Some inspiration might be found in Blue Guide Italy Food Companion, with its roundup of gastronomic knowledge from across the peninsula; or Blue Guide Hungary Food Companion, introducing those not familiar with Central Europe to a whole new world of flavour.

Artemisia Gentileschi

This month, a new exhibition devoted to the art of the 17th-century painter Artemisia Gentileschi was to have opened at the National Gallery in London. Blue Guides was to have visited the exhibition and posted a review of it. That will now have to wait.

Artemisia Gentileschi features in many Blue Guides, notably the volumes covering Rome, Florence and Southern Italy. She was particularly fond of biblical and religious scenes with a tough female protagonist (Samson and Delilah, Salome with the Head of the Baptist, Judith and Holofernes). London’s National Gallery recently acquired a self-portrait of the artist in the guise of St Catherine of Alexandria, the saint who was broken on the ‘Catherine wheel’. The entry on Gentileschi in Blue Guide Florence says the following:

Gentileschi, Artemisia (1593–1652). Talented and independent, Gentileschi trained under her father, Orazio Gentileschi, an artist who owed much to Caravaggio. She worked in Rome but moved to Florence to carry out commissions for Cosimo II de’ Medici. Dramatic Caraveggesque chiaroscuro certainly suited Artemisia’s choice of subject matter. She had a particular affinity for the story of Judith and Holofernes (her most famous treatment of the subject is in the Uffizi). Legend relates this to the fact that Artemisia was raped as a young woman and that her assailant was never brought to justice.


“Judith and Holofernes”. Museo di Capodimonte, Naples

According to the National Gallery, this story was no legend. Artemisia was indeed raped and her assailant, though found guilty, was never fully punished. Her attacker, Agostino Tassi, enjoyed a career in Rome producing painted decorations for a number of palazzi and as assistant to Claude Lorrain. Blue Guide Rome, in its Glossary of Artists, merely mentions him as a “painter known for his landscapes. In Rome he worked alongside a number of other artists.” Perhaps, after this London exhibition, we might feel tempted to say more.

Apart from the Judith and Holofernes in the Uffizi, there is another version of the same scene, in the Capodimonte museum in Naples. It is that version that is pictured above. And you can read more about the National Gallery’s planned exhibition on Gentileschi here.

Hungarian pioneer of hand-sanitization

How many of us today, while methodically washing our hands in the hope of staving off Covid-19, think of Ignác Semmelweis? How many of us have even heard of him? Semmelweis (1818–65) is not widely known around the world but he is a familiar name in Hungary. Budapest’s medical school is named after him and he has gone down in history as the ‘saviour of mothers’ because his pioneering methods saved many women and infants from death by puerperal fever. Semmelweis’ theories were revolutionary for his time. And now, his insistence on the importance of disinfection to halt the spread of contagion has been brought once again under the spotlight as we are once again reminded of its importance. Semmelweis was ahead of the curve in his grasp of the importance of hand-washing: his hunch was borne out by significant decreases in the rate of mortality on obstetric wards under his supervision. Despite this, his idea was rejected by the established medical community, who were offended by the suggestion that a patient’s death could be imputed to the medical staff’s personal hygiene. What made things more difficult for Semmelweis was the fact that he was a practitioner, not a scientist. His theory could be explained as a hunch that seemed to work but he had detected nothing through a microscope that could furnish scientific explanation and proof. He never gained the reputation he deserved during his lifetime. In fact he suffered some kind of mental and emotional breakdown and began lashing out in print at the ignorance and obstinacy of the medical fraternity. In the end he was transferred to an asylum in Vienna, a move supported by his wife, who was no longer able to cope with his tantrums. He died very shortly after his admission, perhaps as a result of ill-treatment.

Semmelweis’s former home in Budapest is now a museum of the history of medicine (described in full in Blue Guide Budapest). His theory, of course, is fully recognised today. Named after him is the phenomenon known as the Semmelweis reflex, the human tendency to reject or ridicule new ideas if they fly in the face of accepted convention.