In my assiduous attempt to provide my intellect with quality lectures favoring the breeding of uncountable thoughts I genuinely consider a chief condition for one’s happiness to achieve substance, I rarely came across spiritual themed books. Mysticism’s not really my cup of tea and reading its adepts has yet to attract me, you should know, but while relishing a dose of Borges’ oral speeches the other day (Borges being quite a brilliant modern mind, if you’d ask my opinion) I became unexpectedly intrigued by the man he was talking about, a certain Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772).

Swedenborg who? Apparently, the guy was the proud possessor of a brilliant mind which Kant took some time in studying with expressed  regrets he could never meet its owner, dead a decade earlier. Reputed scientist for the first half of one of those lives uncommonly long in the not so healthy 18th century (he managed to survive the age of 80), obedient student and offspring of a wealthy Lutheran bishop quite respected by the Swedish King, he was much appreciated himself for researches (truly ahead of his times) on human brain (developing the “neuron” concept barely occurred as an important matter to Swedenborg’s contemporaries), psychology and complex anatomy, although international recognition came with a treaty on similarities between metallurgy and philosophy. Later, he even took some time in designing a flight machine, reaching the sky otherwise than through death being a dream he had in common with da Vinci.

Great variety in preoccupations, do observe.

But not sufficient to conquer historic immortality.

Until Providence generously opened the gates of a new domain Swedenborg could usefully study in a wholly eccentric perspective: theology. Now, how he came to have the transcendent visions on which his following works were heavily based one may effortlessly find on omniscient Wikipedia without my mentioning it, yet I’d like sketching their content as it explains my decision of boring you with this particular Swede.

Upon experiencing an elevating journey of the type Dante made famous worldwide at the end of a swift adjustment, Swedenborg established a few marvelously novel religious ideas definitely surpassing, in context, Rudolph Steiner’s esoteric movement centuries later.

According to him, our souls are directly responsible for their entry in either hell or Paradise since, here goes the surprise, each man is let to decide where to spend his afterlife. Swedenborg explains that, after an interval spent hanging in a neutral zone where angels and demons could freely pass, we are put to chose the place of our eternity, the only space in which we’re able to find happiness. Shockingly, some actually desire to reside in the fiery depths of infernal terror, which he doesn’t interpret as punishment.

“The life of any one can by no means be changed after death; an evil life can in no wise be converted into a good life, or an infernal into an angelic life: because every spirit, from head to foot, is of the character of his love, and therefore, of his life; and to convert this life into its opposite, would be to destroy the spirit utterly.” Explained, it means a predominantly mischievous spirit, without being damned, can never pass Heaven’s doors because it would condemn him to tremendous misery; it’s not his nature to stay among those essentially good or graceful for he’s destined to hate, spite, breath in torturing vices alongside those assembling his temper, a theory most sophisticated in comparison with Bible’s old-fashioned variant -reminiscent, though, of Shaw’s “Man and Superman” third act.

Evidently, there’s much more to say about Swedenborg regarding his concepts and the authenticity of his mystical connections; I promise to incorporate sometime in a longer post if interested, probably subsequent to reading the “Heaven & Hell” work which won him posterity.

For now, what do you think about his rather strange philosophy? Heresy? Madness? A wild but nevertheless genuine hunch?

Love triangles and promiscuity seldom flourished so exquisitely than at the Papal Court in Rome up to about 3-400 years ago. As some “The Borgias” fans might’ve already noticed, Vatican city was quite a den of lavish sins back in the days of Michelangelo and didn’t stop being one until long after Bernini’s days, which is why the following episode of his life should not come as a surprise.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the preeminent protege of the Popes Urban VIII and Alexander VII, like all reputed artists, had some apprentices to do his less important commissions in exchange for advice and guidance. And these anonymous apprentices, emphasizing one in particular, had wives. Female presences to whose charms the great sculptor could not frequently resist.

One such ravishing woman by law reserved for a single husband, was Constanza Piccolomini Bonarelli, spouse of Matteo Bonarelli and licentious lover of Bernini.

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So much was he enamored with her that, to fully convey his passionate sentiments, Gian Lorenzo produces the above bust, a Constanza he could caress in marble, the immortal, unwithering variant of his beloved. It was the zenith of their affection.

And soon they’d reach their nadir… one terrible way too.

Since Constanza was unfaithful to her hubby, cheating came natural to her and not long after her storming affair with Bernini commenced, she found herself involved with a second paramour, none other than Gian Lorenzo’s younger brother, Luigi.

Alas, a naturally suspicious Bernini soon felt her betrayal and thought a most basic scheme to catch the two in flagrant delicto: he simply announced his going to the countryside to tend to some business, insidiously expecting the couple to make a wrong move… which didn’t let itself waited.

Luigi, unconscious of any danger, immediately visited a lonely Constanza yearning for consolation to be “welcomed” by a furious Bernini who almost beat him to death.

Amusingly (or tragically, depending on your point of view), this telenovela-like story didn’t stop here, but to continue it and learn the climax of the whole affair, I recommend the following documentary:

The pas week has been a hectic ping-pong with several events I had to squeeze in my program and diligently prepare, though I cannot complain for taking part in any of them since they are direct fruits of either my work or my resolute desires across the last few years.

I’ve been invited to make a visit to the town residence of the Royal House of Romania and been (briefly) received by Princess Marguerite, I’ve had to pull through an essay meant to be my entry for quite a promising contest then finish the editing of my novel novella (“Vicious“) to be able to publish it in time and handled its launch concomitantly with that of my author blog. This, plus a couple of other troubles.

No wonder the “Parties of the Past Century” series has yet to be completed.

However, here’s the next roaring social gathering which brought together most of the era’s elite:

Le Bal du Siecle

Ball of the Century

The Mexican multimillionaire Charles Beistegui, a professed eccentric also known as the modern “Count of Monte Cristo”, was the host to the most lavish, flamboyant and altogether magnificent masked ball ever given in honor of the old aristocratic times. His Venice Palazzo Labia, a splendid 17th century residence, was put to its use glamorously and costly decorated to fit the magnitude of the event Charles promised to be the assembly of the century.

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Luxurious rococo gowns of rich materials were displayed with a profusion of jewels and thus the elegantly adorned guests could only be distinguished from the likewise decor by the mere barrier of movement. Famed names such as Orson Welles, the Aga Khan, Barbara Hutton, Dali, Gene Tierny or Jacqueline de Ribes relished the extraordinary parade of refinement, the presence of exotic black people with their peculiar animals (camels included), the amazing atmosphere.

It was an evening of perpetual wonder, the sort wars exclusively can impel one to organize just for the most humane need of forgetting one’s misery.

Le Bal Black & White

1966: Truman Capote, prodigious writer much celebrated on his mother-continent,  throws a party that instantly has him conquer the lavish high society worldwide, a ball whose promise of superlatives makes invitations paramount concerns of elites across both America and Europe (no wonder he gathered 5 thousand friends but gained 15 thousand enemies when anyone known as someone vied for a possibility to attend).

The New York Plaza Hotel, meticulously decorated, reaches its zenith.

After a period of seclusion dedicated to laborious preparations, Capote returns with repetitive “I’m beside myself! Beside myself!” to take it over and welcome the masqued guests nevertheless recognized by the photographs galore who fenced in the red carpet.

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Glittering names as those of Frank Sinatra, Cecil Beaton, Mia Farrow, Jacqueline de Ribes, Oscar de la Renta, Marlene Dietrich, Maharajah and Maharani of Jaipur,  Vivien Leigh, Shirley MacLaine,Baroness Cecile de Rothschild, Baron and Baroness Guy de Rothschild, Mr and Mrs John Steinbeck, Andy Warhol, Tennessee Williams and even the expatriated Duke and Duchess of Windsor figured on the privileged guest list. It was indeed the egocentric celebration of a silver age, a kaleidoscope of savory juxtapositions of class, titles, secular manners and social status to garrison the last remnants of decadence.

Half the Hall of Fame and Best Dressed list attended Capote’s hubristic feast in the most mesmerizing costumes possible (note: I’m far from resorting to hyperbole for that depiction)…

If in Truman’s shoes, is there anyone you would’ve coveted to see there but was not, caught in various circumstances, able to come?

Le Bal du Palais d’Hiver

It just so happened that I stumbled across an incredibly posh and surprisingly well composed series of five episodes on the most exquisite XXth century parties I’m going to use as a main support for my own sequence, just to baffle a bit the monotony this blog has, alas, succumbed to.

So without further (and obviously unnecessary) introductory lines, behold the first sample.

As if anticipating the ensuing horrors of the Russian Revolution, Tzar Nicholas II, knowingly the last Romanov ever to sit on his rightful throne, and Empress Alexandra, whose demeanor, like her mother in law,  I’ve always disapproved of, threw the most dazzling party at the Palais d’Hiver.

The Surrealist Ball

How splendiferously eccentric can a mid-late 20th century ball get?

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Apparently, the Rothschilds forward their answer through a flamboyant surrealist party of oddities galore, as anticipated in the picture above, which gives gives an accurate account of just what unusual looks they could conceive. The Rothschilds being the banker family that honorably took over Croesus’ reputation in modern days. Surrealism- the inter-bellum artistic current prizing the chaotic, fantastical  absurd. Think Dali (who not coincidentally was a guest).

Now, another participant at the mentioned gathering, Baron Alexis de Redé, extensively describes all one would love to know about the whole ‘a tad ludicrous’  event:

On 12 December 1972, Marie-Hélène gave her Surrealist Ball at Ferriéres. This time the guests were asked to come in black tie and long dresses with Surrealist heads.[ The year before, 1971, the Rothschilds were hosts to a glorious Proust Ball assembling more than half the international elite] The invitation was printed with reversed writing on a blue and cloudy sky, inspired by a painting by Magritte. To decipher the card, it had to be held to a mirror.

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‘For the evening the chateau was floodlit with moving orange lights to give the impression that it was on fire. The staircase inside was lined by footmen dressed as cats that appeared to have fallen asleep in a variety of staged poses.’

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Guests had to pass throught a kind of labyrinth of Hell, made of black ribbons to look like cobwebs. The occasional cat appeared to rescue the guests and lead them to the tapestry salon. Here they were greeted by Guy with a hat to resemble a still-life on a platter, and by Marie-Hélène wearing the head of a giant weeping tears made of diamonds.

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Marie Hélène proved that she had the flare and imagination to create something unique and worthwhile. None of this was created by charm alone. It needed a degree of ruthless determination. She attended to every minute detail of style in her life and also in her entertaining. She was a great hostess with all the qualities. She loved parties and people. She was forever in quest of new talent and new figures to entertain from the world of the arts, literature, dance and haute couture. She mixed them with the more established set of Paris society. Everyone was intrigued. Marie-Hélène’s parties took on such importance that one social figure threatened to commit suicide unless she was invited…

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It is not possible to repeat such things now for many reasons. But it is fascinanting to look back and to remember these occasions, which dominated our thoughts and plans to such an extent for so many months. I am happy that I took part in so many, and happy that I gave some myself.

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And with this verdict, reminiscent of Proust although much less highfalutin,  ends our attendee’s account of the soiree which, lush and exuberant in spirit, inaugurates a “Parties of the Past Century” series.

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From those titivated descendants of the sanguinary mob that had relentlessly witnessed the guillotine at work with victorious sneers and shouts of “death to the  ancien regime!” what is to expect? After such macabre an episode as the one unleashed in the years after the 1789 revolution could we not suspect a massive change of mentality which would eventually give sense to why people enjoyed promenades to the Paris morgue?

Well… partly.

paris

I couldn’t say for sure, giving the other explanations more entitled historians have for this grim pastime, but I bet there’s a bit of the Terror exerting its effect in the melange. Why else would professedly educated men and women, spruced, dandy (even snobbish) and often haughty, top-hatted and faultlessly dressed, feel the urge, or least the curiosity, to stare at the corpses exhibited for identification? Apparently, they’re doing it so persistently the very word “morgue” reveals it: in old French, “morguer” translates “to gaze”. Yet why?

A mid 19th century edition of the “Fraser’s Magazine” provides a fairly pertinent answer, glazed with poetic metaphors too:

“The Morgue possesses a constantly recurring and constantly varying story, involving equally new scenery, new actors and new passions; the dead play the leading parts in every drama of fear or guilt or suffering and the living are made subordinate accessories in the shifting panorama of horror with which every spectacle is wound up. The Morgue is the Omega of humanity, the grave without the coffin, the sleep without the shroud. Its interest is not the interest of this world, its scenes are not those out of which human ingenuity can weave” royal palaces, conventional art, et cetera.

Thus, the morgue is a resource of both cruel realism and the romantic mystery fashionable in the epoch, attiring, maintaining a vivid fascination Dickens himself (a foreigner, not an eccentric Parisian) experienced:

”Whenever I am at Paris, I am dragged by invisible force into the Morgue. I never want to go there, but am always pulled there. One Christmas Day, when I would rather have been anywhere else, I was attracted in, to see an old grey man lying all alone on his cold bed, with a tap of water turned on over his grey hair, and running, drip, drip, drip, down his wretched face until it got to the corner of his mouth, where it took a turn, and made him look sly. One New Year’s Morning (by the same token, the sun was shining outside, and there was a mountebank balancing a feather on his nose, within a yard of the gate), I was pulled in again to look at a flaxen-haired boy of eighteen, with a heart hanging on his breast–‘from his mother,’ was engraven on it–who had come into the net across the river, with a bullet wound in his fair forehead and his hands cut with a knife, but whence or how was a blank mystery. This time, I was forced into the same dread place, to see a large dark man whose disfigurement by water was in a frightful manner comic, and whose expression was that of a prize-fighter who had closed his eyelids under a heavy blow, but was going immediately to open them, shake his head, and ‘come up smiling.’ Oh what this large dark man cost me in that bright city!”

paris

The account he gives in the “Uncommercial traveller” I feel is a veracious completion of the previous record, pretty much elucidating the psychological enigma behind the outstanding number of people who payed a visit to the anonymous dead per year:more than 1 million by 1892. Fancy that! Someone could’ve gotten exceedingly rich if the idea of introducing a fee ever occurred to them… Unfortunately for the empty wallets, nobody exploited the opportunity.

But what’s your opinion on the subject? and Would you try a delightful promenade to similar destinations?

I believe it’d be a gripping experience to register…

The majority of people have this exceedingly stiff, gloomy, prefabricated perception of the otherwise sole invariable in our pretty hazardous lives: I’m referring to the frightening, constantly lurking death I rather regard as a perfectly personal epilogue for the one who’s canny enough to work it out, to make it a paragon.

Surely, with the dwindling courage of the human race, this subject is far from being easy to discuss objectively since it underlines the prospect of our own demise none usually desires to confront, but I’m attempting to change the perspective a bit. Death’s sometimes preferable, seldom (yet still) recommended  and can, on various occasions, invest our very lives with a purpose we’ve previously lacked. Death is faithful and least as interesting as its antagonist, not that I’m adulating either. Through the prism of my (frequently) phlegmatic temper, the quietus  in question is even charged with a dose of undeniable aesthetic value; not for nothing I’ve a habit to judge a person starting from the manner in which (s)he passed away. There’s a lot to understand about a man’s personality analyzing their final moments.

Hence I put together the following list of the 5 most peculiar deaths I ever came upon during my nocturnal readings, containing more or less obscure historical characters with comments attached.

year 1531: Louise of Savoy, mother of bawdy  King Francis I  (of France) kicked the bucket while watching a comet on a chilly September evening. Tout ensemble, quite an idyllic ending for the active figure she was but nonetheless fit if you ask me.

year 1771: King Adolf Frederick of Sweden, deemed a weak, useless monarch, died after having consumed a full meal consisting of lobster, caviar, sauerkraut, kippers and champagne galore, in God knows what humongous quantities, which was topped off with 14 servings of his favorite dessert: semla (the thing he’s thinking about in the above picture) served in a bowl of hot milk. He is thus remembered by Swedish school children as “the king who ate himself to death.” Justifiably.

year 1556: Pietro Aretino, the Italian responsible for the invention of erotic literature,  chum with the reputed painter Titian (who made the displayed portrait)  is said to have died of suffocation from “laughing too much.” A strange conclusion, giving his curriculum vitae… Playwright, poet, satirist , pensioned by both Francis I and  Charles V, twice knighted by two Popes… I definitely didn’t see that coming, which makes it all the more interesting, don’t you agree?

year 1667: A handsome lad called James Betts died from asphyxiation after being sealed in a cupboard by Elizabeth Spencer, at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, in an attempt to hide from her father, John Spencer. Apparently, the two were passionate lovers with bright future perspectives… until  impure thoughts drove them to experience some unfortunate premarital intercourse and almost got caught in flagrante delicto … To further dramatize the story, after her beloved’s demise and probably inspired by the tragic romance of Romeo & Juliet, unbearable grief made Elizabeth commit suicide. Surely, I’ll never again look at “Quickly! Hide in the wardrobe!” sort of commercials with the same ignorant eyes: there’s a true danger over there.

year 620 BC: Draco, not the pathetic Harry Potter character but rather the Athenian law-maker who, known for his severity, is presently as synonymous with maleficence as Machiavelli, was smothered to death by gifts of cloaks showered upon him by appreciative citizens at a theatre on Aegina. Whether a smartly masked murder or pure coincidence, I find his way of snuffing it the most peculiarly amusing of them all. Something about the lethal value of a present tickles my fancy…

But which of these 5 tickles yours?

I have never regarded history as being a sterile chronicle of things past and therefore peremptorily obsolete. We’re history too, after all, and how pathetic would be considering oneself a living, breathing fossil with no purpose except making some future successors yawn? Exceedingly, I assure you.

That’s partially why I though of sharing, every gloomy Monday from now on, a quotation which contributed to my feeling the old days thoroughly, vividly animate. It should be amusing and witty or utterly, bitterly ironical and bring a sense of modernity in the historical context from where it was extracted, although you’ll be the ultimate judge of its value.

So I’m expecting comments on this week’s choice:

Lunardi’s flying Folly

October 10, 2012

Shallow as it may sound, the ‘beauty comes first’ criteria to which my visual senses respond made me stop at this man’s intriguing story only after dropping an eye on  his rather handsome portrait preceding it. One inexorably desires more information about charming characters; it tends to enhance their attractiveness and draw them to spheres of humanity easier to empathize with, still stressing the physical gorgeousness first to catch one’s attention. But I’m missing the point (thing I’m terribly good at).

The lad depicted above, a very flamboyant Italian named Vincenzo Lunardi,  makes this very October 225 years since he first flew over Edinburgh in a hydrogen-filled balloon, stunning the curious mob gathered on the grounds of George Heriot’s School to watch the big event which The Scots Magazine  later described with appreciatory words:

‘The beauty and grandeur of the spectacle could only be exceeded by the cool, intrepid manner in which the adventurer conducted himself; and indeed he seemed infinitely more at ease than the greater part of his spectators.’

A day to remember, really.

But the charismatic Vincezo had orchestrated numerous such occasions to leave his contemporaries in utter awe long before that October 1785 and could, at the mere age of 26, boast with the several aeronautic adventures alongside the famous James Tytler, whom he had met around the 1780’s during a diplomatic voyage. Because yes, the courageous Lunardi started up as a minor Neapolitan nobleman engaged in diplomatic missions to France and, elected Secretary to Prince Caramanico (a well respected Ambassador), to England. Let us not forget envoys in the Revolutionary epoch were people characterized by the most acute sense of action, having traveled enough to discover different habits and mentalities. Not to mention their varied education. In all sort of ways.

In London, Lunardi’s appetite for fame and the dandy allure so appealing to the English public facilitated his ascension as a ‘Daredevil Aeronaut’, the first to successfully experience the perilous balloon flight after de Morel’s failure in a time when the conquest of air was a hot topic. The novelty was there, waiting for a valiant one to affirm it, and the world stared impatiently. Easy times to become hero for audacious hearts.

So, eager to conquer a certain prestige, Vincenzo, native showman, immediately planned an ascension with a balloon designed by his partner, George Biggin, over the 200,000 heads of riveted Londoners among whom stood aristocratic figures such as the Prince of Wales. To make thing even more peculiar, Lunardi decided to give a cat, a dog and a pigeon the honor of traveling alongside himself, although with the cat’s airsickness one could contest it was indeed a good idea.

Setting off from the Artillery Ground to a northerly direction towards Hertfordshire, without poor Biggin, he eventually put the balloon to rest in Standon Green End which, to this day, bears the name of ‘Balloon Corner’ to commemorate the historical event.

This first balloon flight in Great Britain turned Lunardi into the hero of the hour, his main desire, and brought him before the ‘Mad King’ George III.

“At his command, a monument was erected on the spot where Lunardi landed for the second time; its popular name is Long Mead, and it is still there. Lunardi went on to build larger and better balloons and ascended once more from Moorfields. On this occasion his balloon was decorated with a huge Union Jack, in which manner he ‘wished to express his respects and devotion to everything which the word ‘British’ stands for’. His faithful friend Biggin and a Mrs Letitia Sage, an actress, were to have accompanied him on this trip, but once more the lifting capacity of the balloon was poor, so Lunardi started alone on 13 May 1785. Soon afterwards he had to come down again, near Tottenham Court Road, because the envelope turned out to be leaking. The well-tried patience of Biggin was finally rewarded later that year when, on 29 June, he was able to ascend himself, accompanied by Mrs Sage.’

”This trip lasted an hour and had the distinction of being the first time ‘a British female air travelers’ had gone aloft. This was the term by which Mrs Sage henceforth liked to be described. She was a beautiful lady, but from a ballooning point of view she unfortunately tipped the scales at 2001b. Lunardi made several more balloon ascents in Great Britain during 1785, but in August 1786 one of his young assistants lost his life in a tragic accident. During the preparations for an ascent at Newcastle upon Tyne, Ralph Heron was pulled aloft as one arm got entangled in the anchor rope when the balloon took off prematurely. The rope broke and the hapless youngster plunged to his death. Lunardi was not to blame, yet, after the incident, everywhere he went in Great Britain he was now persecuted as intensely as he had previously been acclaimed. He left the country for good, but continued his balloon ascents in Italy, Spain and Portugal. His health later failed, and he died in Portugal on 31 July 1806.”

I think him quite a curious human specimen. And Sir Laurence Olivier thought him so too when playing Lunardi in the 1936 film ‘Conquest of the Air’.

Any other opinions?

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