Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Marina Belozerskaya - The Medici Giraffe

“The Medici Giraffe” is a remarkable book that spans from about 250 years before Christ up until the last century. From ancient Egypt to the Aztec court of Montezuma, from the court of Rudolph II, Holy Roman Emperor to the opulent Florence of Lorenzo de Medici and from the menagerie of Josephine Bonaparte to the vast hills of Hearst Castle in California the author never falters.

Marina Belozerskaya’s book is subtitled “and other tales of exotic animals and power”, so expect no fuzzy tales of roman emperors and the love they lavished on favorite pets. While this was also a reality, this book focuses on the many ways exotic animals served as currency to those powerful enough to obtain them. “Exotic” is the keyword here – it was because particular animals were rare and strange that they were used as a way to gain leverage, impress neighboring rivals, give a little push to whatever diplomatic conundrum was going on at the time. Vast menageries with hundreds of animals from hundreds of different locales (such as the one Spanish conquistadores found in Montezuma’s court) were a way to state that their owner was a man respected and feared in all those faraway provinces. Montezuma even kept humans in his zoo – albinos, who were considered precious additions. The Spanish took this as a further proof of the Aztecs godless ways, and proceeded to slaughter them in a cruel and vicious fashion, more to the liking of Christ’s soldiers, apparently forgetting all the dwarves, hunchbacks and hairy men kept in European courts for the entertainment of their monarchs.

For Ptolemy Philadelphos, king of Egypt, elephants were a way of terrifying his opponents. Although neighboring kings had been able to procure some tens of elephants all the way from India, Ptolemy wanted his army to have hundreds. He sent expeditions into the wild and unknown regions of what is today Sudan, and ended up putting into place a vast network of trading posts along the Nile to keep the steady flow of animals into Alexandria, a city he was also shaping into the most beautiful and grandiose in the known world (the famous library dates from his reign).

For the roman leader Pompey, exotic animals were also a way to make his might obvious to all. However, in true roman fashion, the circus was their final destination. For animal lovers this chapter makes for very uncomfortable reading. That roman leaders would routinely organize spectacles ending in the slaughter of a lion or bear is not news, but the numbers butchered under Pompey’s organized circus in 55 BC are staggering: for five days, twice a day, lions and leopards chewed their way through monkeys, antelopes, sheep and gladiators alike. For the grand finale a herd of wild elephants was brought out to match their wits against a group of elephant hunters from Sudan. Cornered, the animals still standing after the initial massacre are said to have let out such awful cries of despair that even the jaded roman audience pleaded for them to be spared. Pompey did not heed their requests. In time Julius Caesar’s henchmen would not heed his.

Lorenzo de Medici was no warm and cuddly boy himself. In roman tradition he tried to organize his own circus in Florence, but the lions kept as a symbol of the city were so well fed they ended up dozing amid the petrified sheep brought for their enticement. But this setback was not enough to render Lorenzo insensitive to the diplomatic power of exotic animals. He wanted, after all, to be seen as a king, instead of a republican merchant leader. A giraffe had a neck almost as high as the importance he thought he should get.

Now, Rudolph II was probably mad as a hatter. I mean, it’s all very well to emulate family tradition, but when that tradition involves allowing lions to roam your palace and maul subjects at their will as your father once did, it’s probably best to review your priorities. If obsessive collecting has a shade of mental illness to it, you can also check that square: Rudolph became so obsessed with collecting every zoological specimen he could get his hands on (alive or stuffed) he even forgot he had a kingdom to run and ended up deposed.

My favorite chapter was “The Black Swans at Malmaison” regarding Josephine Bonaparte’s menagerie. It’s not only that she was kinder to her exotics than any male counterpart on the book: she also had a head on those pretty shoulders. At a time when cabinets de curiosités and menageries were all the rage among the wealthy and crowned, she stepped into a male hobby without skipping a heartbeat and with a lot more discernment. Josephine wanted the animals at Malmaison to roam free and as such gave away to Natural History Museum all the offers she got of large carnivores, keeping instead flocks of herbivores, birds and large cages of parrots. Also, the story of the French naval explorer Nicolas Baudin is absolutely riveting: he had the responsibility of amassing Australian specimens for Josephine’s menagerie and although he died in the middle of his return voyage and his reputation was soiled by a lying rival, his expedition brought many new exotic specimens to France, among them kangaroos, emus and the famous black swans.

The last chapter tells the story of the complex character of William Randolph Hearst. Although there is little doubt the mogul truly cared for the well being of animals (he was vocal against vivisection and passionate about dogs), his ranch at St Simeon seems, in the long run, to align with the flaunting of power so common in men of wealth and more than a little with the craziness associated with hardcore collecting. Hearst, after all, nearly finished off his own fortune amassing works of art – and exotic animals were another hobby. True to his gender he couldn’t stay away from the large cats, but the primates probably suffered the most in their cramped, bare cages.

“The Medici Giraffe” is a book of rare width and breadth – each chapter brings alive the time to which it pertains drawing from many historical sources. Belozerskaya doesn’t just stick to the story at hand but instead brings in all sorts of characters and historical episodes that further illuminate the particular tale. The chapter on Montezuma’s menagerie made something I had never even heard of come alive with detail, and Josephine’s chapter I felt really adds detail to her life. It enchants and tingles the little grey cells – a must for anyone interested in history and animals.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Michael Allin - Zarafa

I was going to review "Zarafa – the true story of a giraffe’s journey from the plains of Africa to the heart of post-Napoleonic France” along with “The Medici Giraffe” which I just started. But having started it yesterday and finished it today I came to believe this little book deserves a review of its very own.

“Zarafa” is elegant in its sparseness (only 200 pages with a nice, big, font), there is nothing extra, nothing tacked on or that feels out of place. From first to last page Michael Allin’s book flows effortlessly, gently bobbing the reader along this fascinating tale.

A pawn in diplomatic relations (as exotic animals tend to be), Zarafa was captured as a baby in Sudan (by cruelly slaying the mother, by the way) and grew up in the presence of men, for whom it was made clear this was a precious cargo they should guard with their lives. The exceptionally friendly Zarafa soon turned into what can only be called a pet (dimensions aside) so easy and trusting was she around humans. She was to be a present from Muhammed Ali, Ottoman viceroy of Egypt, to the French king Charles X – a gesture intended to dissuade the French from helping out the Greeks, involved in a civil war against the Ottoman Empire.

Luckier than previous giraffes who set hoof in Europe (Caesar supposedly had hundreds killed or pitted against predators in his circus, while in Constantinople another died of hunger), and than its mate, a sickly giraffe that would soon die in London, Zarafa grew into a vigorous, healthy animal, only slightly short for her species at 3.6m (12,12ft), which as Allin suggests might have aided her travels.

The trip down the Nile, either walking or by boat, is the part of the journey,Allin had more difficulty in reconstructing historically for lack of written testimonies. However, from Alexandria onwards he found a wealth of documentation that must be many a historian’s dream: documents with carefully outlined budgets, schedules and itineraries regarding the giraffe, letters from the many fans the gentle Zarafa made along the way and newspaper articles documenting her passage and witnessing the enormous curiosity and affection the giraffe brought about in the French people.

Aboard a boat altered with a round hole padded with straw on deck (the giraffe’s head was protected from intense sun or rain by an awning), Zarafa and the Arab and Sudanese handlers that would accompany her to Paris made their way to Marseilles. Her travelling companions were the cows, that not only provided the many litres of milk the animal consumed daily but also served as guides in her exploratory walks.

In fact, watching how docile the animal was and how happily she followed the quadrupeds, the natural historian Ètienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire came to the conclusion that walking her all the way to Paris was definitely feasible. For the first leg of the journey he wrote frequently to the mayor of Marseilles, who had built a special stable for Zarafa’s stay in his own property – a friendship brought on by the mutual tenderness both men felt for the animal.

About halfway to Paris, Saint-Hilaire grew sullen with what he felt was indifference on the part of the royal house with the physical effort of the walk. He had wished to board the giraffe on a boat for the last part of the journey, but received no authorization to do so. At 55 years-old the walk was taking its toll on Saint-Hilaire too. In addition to the daily travel he had to entertain the local bourgeoisie every single day and parade Zarafa for their curious eyes.

The king seems to have felt only a modicum of the wonder and fondness Zarafa had elicited in almost everyone else. She came to be housed in the Jardin des Plants and Atir, the Sudanese, became her private carer, even sleeping in her quarters. The French continued to lavish attention on her by visiting daily until her death.

“Zarafa” is a great book where extensive research doesn’t weigh on the reader. Allin transformed what must have been years of work into a sweetheart of a book.

A Slice of Heaven and A Dip in Paradise

"Getting Wet- Adventures in the Japanese Bath" - Eric Talmadge
"Pizza - A Global History" - Carol Helstolsky

National identity is a strange, elusive subject, best left to boring, long incomprehensible philosophical treaties (the exception being Norbert Elias “The Germans” which is still a heck of a long book). National obsessions however, are more my speed. Anecdotes abound, history is breezy, meaning can be found just about anywhere, be it in a pizza or a bathtub.

“Getting Wet – Adventures in the Japanese Bath” could probably be shorter, but the black and white photographs and illustrations sort of make up for excessive length. The Japanese are crazy about their bath: boiling hot, communal and filled with yummy minerals is the ticket. This particular obsession has nothing to do with hygiene (you thoroughly wash before getting in the tub, whether at the public baths or at home) and everything to do with relaxation and health (and probably a little to do with pain, since a lot of baths are scalding).

As Eric Talmadge expertly guides the reader through the many facets and rituals connected with Japanese bathing, we learn about the antiquity of this custom (a must for any self respecting national obsession), the etiquette of bathing, and its more recent metamorphoses (in ancient Japan themed baths in Tokyo, for example). Japanese culture being what it is (a mixture of extreme politeness and equally extreme perversity) even sex got into the bath-related craziness in the form of brothels named Soapland (the former name Turkish Bath created a diplomatic incident, when Turkish Girls became synonymous with prostitutes, and tourists started calling the embassy to arrange appointments), where clients pay officially not for sex but for a bath.

Of course sometimes a bath isn’t just a bath. For the Japanese it’s about the whole experience which, done well, involves a beautiful natural environment, a very nice meal and a very comfortable night’s sleep. As often happens with pillars of identity, the younger generation doesn’t seem too interested in keeping up with tradition. The biggest Japanese consumers, (single girls 20-30) are not courted by the (dying) industry and the tattooed are barred from entering (a measure first in stored to keep Yakuza gangsters out of the baths).

Tourism isn’t much of a draw either because everything in Japan is so expensive. Now, if you really want your national obsession to conquer the world you need something cheap, adaptable and…edible – like pizza.

Pizza is the complete opposite of the Japanese baths – it’s a national obsession that successfully turned global, and is capable of adapting so seamlessly into so many corners of the world, that it begs the question – is pizza still Italian?

In “Pizza – A Global History” Carol Helstolsky sort of proves it isn’t. The pizza we mostly enjoy today (take-out pizza, or pizza with lots of toppings, some very exotic) bears little resemblance to the original pizza that the XVIII century Naples lazaroni (beggars and poor men generally) bought on the street to fool hunger – an unleavened bread with a little olive oil, mozzarella cheese and some tomato. Pizza, of course is an ancient dish, so much so that several Mediterranean populations ate variations of thin bread covered with whatever else was available regionally and seasonally.

In that sense, it can be argued that pizza wasn’t specifically Italian to start with (Italy itself being a fairly recent construction) and in that sense very well equipped to become the most popular fast foods ever. It even started out as a fast-food – something to be consumed in the street, while walking.

Helstolsky follows the path of pizza from Naples to the east coast of the USA, to the Midwest where two different sets of brothers founded Pizza Hut and Domino, companies that would alter the dish forever. Softer crusts, more cheese, pineapple and barbecue chicken – you name it, if there was a craving for it you could translate into pizza. If there is a dish that can adequately satiate young and old, carnivore and vegetarian, pizza is it.

While Italy is fiercely protecting the “real” pizza, the author, introduces us to a polish pizza-hut favourite (Indian toppings), gourmet concoctions with truffles and the like, and even regional variations such as “Japanese pizza”, (now if only I could have one after indulging in scalding bath).

“Pizza – A Global History” is from the Edible Series of Reaktion Books – they are small, hardcover books filled with colour photographs, and everyone who likes food will probably want to collect them. “Getting Wet” I got from a sale bin – at 2 euros it was quite the bargain even if the dustcover is torn –in that sense it is great value for money, otherwise it’s more of a gift for Japan enthusiasts.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Barbara Weisberg - Talking to the Dead

It was in 1848 that sisters Maggie and Kate Fox, then fourteen and eleven years old respectively, were first in the presence of mysterious sounds, “rappings”, as they came to be known. Soon they would be catapulted into the sort of hysterical teenage celebrity we might easily equate with our own times and would both help to establish the new belief in Spiritualism. Were they teen con-artists or the real deal? As the famous and wealthy gathered around them, two girls from humble origins, it soon became impossible to determine who was using who.

As neighbour after neighbour was called into the Fox home in rural Hydesville, state of New York, to witness the strange sounds, it quickly became apparent that there was some sort of intelligence behind the knockings for they could – more often than not, correctly - answer questions.

At first, the answers could only consist of numbers (ages, dates, how many etc) but soon, someone came up with the nifty plan of saying the alphabet out loud, so the spirit could rap on the appropriate letter (how exhausting it must have been), and say his peace.

The spirit belonged apparently to a murdered man buried in the cellar, but as the girls were sent to Rochester to stay with their older sister Leah (34, at the time) the rappings followed them and would soon adopt a multitude of spirit personas.

For many, (Maggie and Kate included) Leah would be seen, in hindsight, as a scheming opportunist, pimping the young girls to advance her own standing. There is little doubt she was ambitious – she even sent her own little girl away to live with her estranged husband, when she said out loud she wished the awful sounds would silence for ever.

It certainly would not be unreasonable for Leah to see Maggie and Kate as a possible sort of income. As Weisberg clearly enumerates there was no shortage of would be mediums, seers, founders of new religions (Joseph Smith of Mormon fame lived nearby when he received his visions) and revivalists in the region. The area came to be known as the “burnt-over district” for there was a hardly a soul left to convert. Between the shakers throwing themselves around, the circus side-shows coming through the region and science looking more like magic (and often performed as such) than anything else, the world must have looked very mysterious indeed. Who was to say those who had passed could not be reached? And in a time of high infant and general mortality what better gift than to receive messages from the dearly departed?

Shrewd as Leah was she could have definitely have seen that the demand was present for a service the girls could easily perform – that they were young and pretty didn’t harm the cause either. Ok, just to make it clear, this is me talking now, all right? I am not channeling the author, because one thing Barbara Weisberg does not do is pick a side regarding the veracity of the Fox sisters’ “performance”. And kudos to her because I think it’s nearly impossible to write a book on these girls without making apparent what you really think.

One thing is clear: Kate and Maggie’s real or otherwise spirit communications allowed them to live very different lives than they would have otherwise. They sold-out public venues wherever they went; travelled extensively (Kate would eventually go as far as Russia), met with numerous personalities of their time (artists, political activists, writers, scientists, captains of industry other celebrities such as James Fenimoore Cooper, the abolitionist Amy Post and Frederick Douglass– Maggie would meet and secretly marry the Arctic explorer Elisha Kane); were wined and dined (to the end result that they would both become alcoholics); spent months as guests in comfortable and beautiful homes they could hardly have known otherwise.

But, there was the reverse too, because for every fan there seemed to be two adversaries, and some went so far as to dedicate years to the pursuit of unmasking the sisters’ “fraud”. In order to silence their critics the sisters endured many a humiliating trial: groups of “scientists” would go so far as to place the girls in various positions (some probably not very decorous), touch their knees and feet (hardly acceptable) and make rude remarks as they attempted to establish if the raps were produced by their own bodies. Several times they conceded to be completely undressed and examined by “Ladies’ Committees” searching for hidden apparatus.

No-one ever found proof of their scam but when, in 1888, Maggie came out publicly and confessed to deception, and proceeded to demonstrate how she snapped the articulation of her big toe, many a critic felt vindicated.

Just a year after, however, Maggie recanted her confession. The reasons for her false confession (if indeed it was false) could have been manifold: she desperately needed the money the confession brought in (a fee payed by a reporter and tickets for the public “outing”) and even more importantly she badly wanted to get back at her sister Leah, whom she saw as the culprit for her failed marriage with Kane (After Kane’s death his family never acknowledged the marriage and withheld the money Kane had left for Maggie, largely because of her outcast status as a celebrity medium – how lucky you are to have been born later, John Edwards). She presented Leah as a manipulator who had basically forced the girls to put on the show.

A year later she died in poverty as would Kate. Ironically, only Leah was able to make the final transformation into a respected upper middle class matron through her successful marriage.

Of all the historical characters we might wish had left personal journals filled with information, Kate and Maggie are surely up there on the list. As Weisberg concedes there is scant information regarding their thoughts, beliefs and even personalities. Especially in the beginning when they were both little more than children, hardly anyone even distinguished between the two. Later on they would go on tour separately, and it seemed as if they were interchangeable. Rich patrons would invite them to stay over and often treat the girls as entertainment, something to be gawked at and envied by equally well-to-do friends. Only die-hard spiritualists seem to have really cared about the girls individually and to have protected them. How ironic it would be, if it turned out these kind souls, desperate for contact with dead sons, daughters, wives and husbands had been duped by Kate and Maggie.

They were seen as enigmas by their contemporaries and so they’ll have to stay. Yes, they probably were complete frauds, but the reasons, the motivations to endure so much – the hatred of some, the suffocating attention of others, the complete disruption of their personal lives – the stuff we tell ourselves but know is not true, that would be the real Fox Sisters story.

“Talking to the Dead” felt a bit long winded at times (sort of like this review…yikes!) it didn’t have any peaks of excitement, it’s very…even. Some of it might be attributed to the carefully impartial tone of the author, some of it to the lack of written material by the girls. Some days I despaired of ending it, but I’m still very glad I did stumble across it (in the blog A Garden Carried in the Pocket - thanks again jenclair!), because it’s such a fascinating story. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that some grad student or home renovator might come across a box of old journals by the sisters … but I wonder if that would answer questions or pose some more?

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

A slight detour

The Parrot Who Owns Me – Joanna Burger
The Philosopher and the Wolf – Mark Rowlands

I got slightly off track with these too, but I could hardly help myself. When “The Parrot Who Owns Me” arrived I just had to start immediately, and then it seemed natural to read “The Philosopher and the Wolf” right after.

Actually, the two books have a lot more in common than I could have guessed: both tell of strong relationships with wild animals kept as pets; both writers are academicians (Burger an ornithologist, Rowlands a philosopher) and both found their theoretical work very much influenced and changed through the vicissitudes of sharing their days with a parrot and a wolf.

Large parrots and wolves (the latter much more so, of course) are unusual pets and with good reason. Most people are simply not able to accommodate the needs of such animals, nor are they willing to. The result where vanity and stubbornness persist, are bald parrots who pick their own feathers out frustration and boredom, and big, aggressive dogs tied away in backyards.

Rather, as both authors soon discover it is you who must provide the company for your wild pet, sacrificing many things as you go along. Rowlands turns himself into a marathoner in order to keep Brenin, the wolf, satisfied in terms of exercise and stimulation, while Burger has to warn hapless dinner guests not to open the fridge if they want to avoid the attack of Tiko, the parrot. (Only she was allowed to open the fridge).

In fact, the bite of Tiko the amazon parrot, though infrequent is painful and scarring. Everything must be negotiated, and the amazon can never be pushed, only persuaded. And yet what clearly shines through Joanna Burger’s book is the absolute joy, the privilege of being trusted, respected and loved by such a magnificent wild animal.

For the privilege of Tiko’s affection the scientist must cut frequent research trips to a minimum absence of three weeks (the amazon will get aggressive with the sitter after that time), forfeit any other animals in the house (as Hester the chicken found out, Tiko will not stand any rivals around), and curb any demonstrations of affection from her husband (they send Tiko into a jealous rage). On the other hand observing his behavior sends Burger’s research into new and exciting paths, into vigilance, mating rituals and habitat conservation.

The saddest thing about large parrots, to my mind, is how they generally outlive their owners (they can live into their seventies). As the book closes, Tiko is approaching fifty and still fit as a fiddle (Tiko had been previously owned by two elderly sisters). Can parrots understand death?

And can we? That is more the type of question Mark Rowlands poses himself in “The Philosopher and the Wolf”. Professional deformation, and all that, but it’s understandable since after all, it was Brenin who turned Rowlands into a published author. Sort of.

I loved Brenin’s story as will anyone with a love of animals, Rowlands tone however, is another story. I nearly fell off my chair laughing when by page 85, he states “If people don’t think of me as arrogant – perhaps they do – that’s only because I’m good at hiding it.” Weeelll, have I got news for you…!

Brenin was a big teddy bear who quickly grew into a big, nice wolf. However, since he could not be left alone for more than a minute (his powers of house wrecking were truly prodigious), Rowlands soon begun to take him everywhere with him, including university lecture halls and rugby matches. Slowly it was Brenin’s company (although I would argue it was also the author’s move from rowdy, happy-go-lucky Alabama to sullen Ireland, plus the six months mandatory quarantine for Brenin) turned him into something of a misanthrope, ergo, a prolific philosophy writer.

I disagreed with a lot in this book, but hey, philosophy as far as I can understand it (not much taking from my grades in high-school) is nothing but a matter of opinion and of how elegantly or forcefully you can state your theory. There is no scientific method to it, at least not when you’re talking life, love and death. Rowlands has this whole theory about how apes are deceitful, ungraceful and simply mean creatures and that we as their descendants are just about the same, no matter how much we try to hide it. Wolves on the other hand are loyal, graceful and know no fear – they are pure.

Yes, I can just about hear Konrad Lorenz’s applause coming from the hell to which are consigned scientists who jumped on the nazi bandwagon. He too preferred dogs with wolf blood because they were braver (you meant more Aryan didn’t you, you old coot?) while the dogs descending from coyotes were submissive, even false.

As shamanic and spiritual as it is to equate certain qualities or defects with certain animals I don’t think it stands any real chance as serious theory, philosophical or otherwise (A great book on the subject is Boria Sax’s “Animals in the Third Reich”). Anyone who lives closely with animals knows that personality is an important factor.

If animals are not just archetypes who can only live fulfilling lives by living exactly as they have always done; if, on the contrary they can adapt and enjoy new experiences, including sharing their lives with respectful humans, as Rowlands states, and I agree, then it hardly seems possible to ascribe to them an immutable nature or temperament.

I did enjoy his discussion on evil, which ran closely with my own opinions, but I really wish he didn’t take so much pleasure in frightening dog owners with Brenin off leash all the time.

Both are great books on animals. I preferred Burger’s because right now birds and parrots are more fascinating to me than wolves, but also because the steady drip of hemingway-like machismo (now there’s a guy that should have owned a wolf…) was a bit tiresome in Rowland’s (though I did feel like crying in the end which means…that I’m a submissive, morally bankrupt ape, I guess).

If I wanted to get all philosophical I’d say this: while Rowlands takes pride in the way he successfully trained Brenin to walk in our world, Burger takes pride in the way Tiko allowed her to enter his world. And that, friends, to quote one of our great simian poets, made all the difference.

Joanna Burger & Tiko

Mark Rowlands & Brenin

Friday, February 06, 2009

Jane Glover - Mozart's Women - His family, his friends, his music

A wonderful, intimate, biography of Mozart and the women who surrounded him.

Although it might be argued that Wolfgang Mozart’s most important formative and even adult relationship was with his tyrannical father (even while trying to escape his control), Jane Glover has found a very interesting, almost cozy, angle in order to explore the great musician’s life.

The book is divided in four parts: in “Prelude” the author explores Mozart’s childhood and adolescence taking special care with the portrayal of his mother, Anna Maria, and his sister, Maria Anna, known as Nannerl. To me, Nannerl, ended up being close to a second protagonist in the book. For even if Constanze, Mozart’s wife, turns out to be a very likeable character, Nannerl’s life was, to my mind, so tragic, it almost upstages that of her brother.

An equal to Mozart’s musical interpretation and no stranger to composition, Nannerl was in every way her younger brother’s partner as their father paraded them as prodigies across European royal courts. In fact, she was more impressive than the little boy for some onlookers. There is no doubt she had a great curiosity for the world at large as well as great talent and, having spent her childhood and early teenage years as an accomplished performer, travelling from England to Italy, experiencing the culture, fashion (a great love of hers) and conversation of the best company in the Continent, her confinement in provincial Salzburg must have been particularly painful.

After a brilliant beginning which could have easily steered her into an adult career, Leopold Mozart (a miser, if there ever was one) decided that it would be more economical to travel Europe accompanied solely by the boy. It probably allowed him to experience a more vicarious pleasure, as they travelled alone, little Mozart a mirror (so would Leopold flatter himself, undoubtedly) of his father’s genius.

In fact, Mozart senior succeeded only in making the both of them a nuisance in many royal courts. His lack of subtlety and his arrogance, assuming every king and queen should fall over themselves in order to hire Wolfgang, probably did more harm than good. Whereas the practical, even-tempered Anna Maria would establish long lasting friendships wherever she passed, Leopold’s exit was probably met with sighs of relief. Mother and daughter could have done much to find Mozart a suitable position sooner. Instead, they were both confined, anxiously awaiting letters from the Mozart men.

Over the course of many European ramblings Wolfgang probably picked more than a bit of his father’s haughtiness, at least where it concerned his employers (for talented musicians he never showed less than full allegiance), so it is not very surprising he soon caused his own dismissal from Archbishop Colloredo’s employ. A free lance composer was something of a rarity and Mozart was, after all, of marrying age.

In Vienna, Mozart will all but loose contact with his sister, who will scarcely ever again leave the province of Salzburg. Only at 32, after having refused a suitor (maybe on Leopold’s order), will she marry a twice widowed man with five children from his previous marriage. This would be no “Sound of Music” matrimony either. Poor Nannerl endured an increasingly cold and hostile husband and hateful stepchildren. Of her own three children, one would die at one year of age and another at sixteen. In her final years she would endure a progressive blindness and frailty that kept her from her beloved piano.

Mozart, meanwhile, would become deeply involved with the Weber family, a relation Jane Glover explores in the chapter “Mozart’s other family”. It was first Aloysia, who would become a celebrated opera singer (a career that slipped through Nannerl’s fingers), that captured young Mozart’s furious passion. Some time apart, however (the four Weber girls also toured Europe) , rather cooled the girl’s affections. Depressed, Mozart could not wrest himself from the warm, artistic family, and would end up taking lodgings with them in Vienna. Slowly, it was Constanze, a more discreet beauty with a balanced temperament, that would win his heart until the day of his death.

For all the penury, frustration and humiliation Mozart would live professionally until his untimely death at 35, it’s safe to say that with Constanze he enjoyed a truly happy marriage. She would eventually take up a role evocative of his mother and sister’s: part personal assistant, part accountant and part public relations.

“Mozart’s women” explores in depth Mozart’s operas describing the plot and especially the biography of each original female singer – how their singular strengths, figures and personalities would inspire Wolfgang into composing arias that were essentially “made to measure”.

Finally, “After Mozart” ties back the loose ends of the surviving women. It ends as it begins, in Salzburg, the place Nannerl never left and where Constanze, her younger sister Sophie (who was with Mozart in his last moments) and the older, Aloysia, came to live their final years. As neither of Mozart’s boys by Constanze left progeny or additional works it wouldn’t be off base to see these two women (sister and widow) as his true heirs. It was, after all, their conjoined effort that would assure the wealth of biographical material available today. “Mozart’s Women” takes a potential “been there, done that” historical biography into something very different: an enlightening and moving book.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Michel Pastoureau - Black: the history of a color

“Black” is a big book, with shiny high-quality paper and filled with beautiful reproductions of works of art. It screams coffee table book but it’s actually a work of erudition that spans the cultural meanings of this mesmerizing color from antiquity to modern times. It’s not a book you’ll want to read in bed or even in the couch (this puppy is heavy), but it will more than compensate you for the time you have to spend sitting at a table or desk (preferably propped up against something – the book, not you).

From holy men to Satanists black spans the width and breath of human history as a color most often associated with extremes: a princely color in the XVII century, synonymous with morality and integrity, it became the color of everyman in the end of the XIX, (after being rejected in the colorful haze of the XVIII, in French court fashion) and then the color of transgression and rebellion in the beginning of the XX century.

Black proved a tricky color for dyers – before the XVI century it was almost impossible to obtain a durable, deep black in fabric – but meaning already abounded around the color long before you could build your wardrobe around it. In antiquity it had been the color of darkness both in its life-forming, fertility and metamorphosis aspect as well as the frightening equivalent of death or evil. It was a complex shade filled with different, sometimes antagonistic meanings, which only became slowly equated with sin, Satan and suffering in the centuries after the Bible made the rounds in Europe.

Slowly it became the color of God’s nemesis and pulled into its evil realm just about anything that shared the color including cats, crows or the realm of the night such as wolfs and owls. The exceptions were monks who wore – not so much actual black but mostly dark habits - equated with humility.

As Pastoureau explains color is only color in opposition or combination with other colors and meaning is also (or always) tied in with these combinations. For instance, in medieval times the most often worn combination of colors was red and green, not a high contrast pair then. For a long time “black and white” was not the striking opposition we have seared into our minds today (white and red, was the most contrasting pair), a cultural modification that came about with the advent of the printing press and subsequent reproduction everywhere of black ink on white paper.

Is black even a color? I remember being excited learning in a “visual education” class (that’s what they called drawing/painting/geometry classes when I was ten) that black and white were not colors – rather the first was absence of color and the second the combination of all color. In fact, in mankind’s history this is a very recent theory imported from the Newtonian discovery of the light spectrum (the demotion of green from a primary to a secondary color also came about very late) and when you think about it quite silly.

Because colors, primary, secondary or whatever are cultural constructions first and foremost. Science must follow suit as Pastoureau demonstrates when he explains how black became a coveted color by kings and princes in the XVI century before dyers had found the best method of imprinting the color onto fabric – here, as in others instances, demand spurred on technology.

Today, black is the closest thing to a neutral shade – according to Pastoureau it is neither the most popular (blue) nor the least popular (yellow) hovering somewhere in the middle – it’s a safe color to wear, considered elegant and yet conservative, that retains only a whiff of its rebellious past . A teenage crush rather than an actual torrid love affair – isn’t black almost a naïve color in our days?

I think cultural perceptions of color are a fascinating subject but “Black” is a book that might please even those with only a marginal interest in color (who are those people?!). And you’ll keep going back just to look at the illustrations.