Voltaire on Freedom

January 25, 2014

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I only celebrate the birth of artists who, through the utterly sublime value of their work, make me think of  them as being still alive at the other end of the reader-writer wire, continuing infinitely to transmit a message, an idea, an aesthetic truth beyond a tomb’s earthly limit. Really. And dear boy Oscar Wilde’s just the persona to illustrate my idea of immortal writer.

His “Picture of Dorian Gray”, a flabbergasting compilation of epigrams brilliantly woven with the actual plot, was the object of my first genuine literary infatuation after finishing Homer’s heavy Iliad and has continued inciting my imagination ever since. Needless to confess I can’t eschew reading it least once a year and am actually unable to expel it from my frequent-comparison-terms list (together with David’s Michelangelo and Virginia Woolf’s Orlando).  Its amaranthine aspects keep exerting a seemingly imperishable fascination which I always invariably bite. The wit, the beauty, the whole philosophy of dandyism and vanity in a decadent age: my pronounced affinity for them all has rendered my senses, well, sensible to Oscar’s only novel although I’m perfectly aware plenty other books surpass it in their overall value. Alas (or perhaps not), I am a voluntary victim of Dorian Gray’s witchery.

But enough about the creation: I say happy birthday to the marvelous wordsmith Wilde perfectly embodied and especially to the shrewd observer, the keen intellectual, the lobster-walker, the astute social animal and incorrigible fop coexisting within his fleshly borders. So incredible a man as he deserves the most bona fide greeting on these anniversary days despite being, physically, a mere pile of bones devoid of the possibility of hearing them. However, I wouldn’t refrain from wishing the man a formally expressed “happy birthday” before his tomb in Père Lachaise Cemetery (an occasion I’ve simply missed the last time I’ve been to Paris). There’s something very captivating in paying your compliments to a beloved author before their grave and I’m planning on capturing a drop of the respective feeling with the post you’re currently reading.

To commemorate Wilde I’m dedicating today to watching all the ‘Picture of Dorian Gray’ movies ever made and contriving a top of related subjects I could write about here. Nothing grand or equally off-the-wall to his deeds, unfortunately, but rather a good, valid excuse to do what I’ve been yearning to for a while now. What can I say: nice justification, a dead man’s 158th birthday… 🙂

Ah, and furthermore exploiting the occasion, I’d like heading what’s (if any) your relationship with the defunct yet still lively Oscar; associations, opinions, life stories, practically all you’re kind enough to share.

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?

41 Antinous The ancient world saw the birth of pantheons and singular gods who emerged as icons to be piously worshiped and duly feared (like the Greek word “thambos” suggests) but was particularly the heyday of mortals deified  by deeds of such audacious character or so astounding a trait people could not refrain eventually granting them supernatural statute. From the much-revered Osiris to the now less popular Asclepius,  faith elevated the extraordinary to heights unparalleled ever since and Antinous, reputedly the most handsome creature to have pleased the eyes of men, perhaps best exemplifies these hasty canonizations that were ultimately ensued by the plethora of mythological figures currently known.

But what did this ostensibly  common youth, whose  pulchritude seemed his sole distinctive  feature, to deserve being an object of veneration for a cult even our contemporaries perpetuate?

What they all do: make themselves fervently loved.

Apparently, Antinous, a Bithynian Greek of no aristocratic breed, stirred a most unlikely passion in the eminent Roman Emperor Hadrian that would not cease to consume him the whole span of his lengthy life, which turns the case quite similar to Alexander and Hephaestion‘s. Thus the story goes that the named Augustus from Nervan-Antonine dynasty, being a declared philhellene who took a liking to the old Greek habits, penchant for homosexuality included, so ardently cherished the boy that when he was found drowned in the Nile river a whole sophisticated mechanism of propaganda ensured his place between the immortals. Countless statues bearing his marvelously beauteous features were consequently produced, sanctuaries erected to commemorate him and at one point Hadrian had coins struck with Antinous’ profile, a prerogative previously resumed to the gods or their earthly representatives, the Imperial family.

Across time, this most handsome lover of royalty secretly inspired all the gay intellectuals and J.J. Winckelmann, reputedly the father of art history, is said to have more ore less been influenced by Antinous in his pursuit of Greek and Roman culture.

How do you feel about it, though? to learn it’s outrageously easy to ascend a heavenly reputation through a very humane sovereign’s obsessive infatuation?

39 Antinous

My, that’s love to shape destinies. Wonder what Freud would comment.

Having recently been to Austria (again) and inevitably but  nevertheless unpremeditatedly  stumbled upon an earthly remnant of the famed Sissi, Franz Joseph’s bohemian Empress, in the form of a palace called Kaiservilla, my fascination with her legend instantly rekindled. Thus I ended up buying yet another biography depicting the bizarre destiny of the much idolized monarch whose blazing icon still lingers over the lore-inspired part of our collective memory quite as if time would not attempt diminishing such rarefied a charm – although perhaps time in itself shares not half the merits for its transcendence in the detriment of intensive propaganda which doubtlessly enhances the Austrian economy with its touristic value. So, out of a melange of eagerness and spontaneous, exceptional magnanimity, I made my pecuniary contribution by purchasing Sophie Zavadill’s “Elisabeth, Empress of Austria” and Jean des Cars’ “Sissi, Empress of Austria” (do note I’m aware of the phenomenal difference between these two exceedingly dissimilar titles), managing to devour them in a bit under 2 days.

Here’s one delicious fragment to justify my enthusiasm and concomitantly provide an insight in Sissi’s complex personality:

Sissi, portrait by Hungarian artist Gyula Benczúr

During a carnival she and Ida Ferenczy attended a masked ball in secret. It was the Redoute, which is still held annually in the grand ballroom of the Hofburg. The emperor knew nothing of his wife’s escapade. She also deceived her servants by having herself undressed as usual, going to bed, and pretending to sleep – just as in a novel.  When her servants had withdrawn, Ida Ferenczy slipped into her room with the fancy-dress costume, a magnificent yellow domino made of heavy brocade. Ida also brought the empress a red blonde wig and mask with long black tassels to completely cover her face. Ida wore a red domino and was also masked- as is still the custom at the Redoute.

‘The two slipped into the hall and at first only watched the goings-on from the the balcony. Elisabeth was fascinated. She had been to every sort of functioning by then but never to a masked ball. When she became tired of looking, the empress selected from the crownd a young man who was obviously without an escort. Ida brought him, a government employee in his late twenties, to the masked empress, who spent the rest of the evening in the company of this Fritz Pacher. She questioned him about politics, asked whether he was satisfied with the government, inquired what he thought of the empress and finally spoke about her favorite poet, Heinrich Heine. She flirted with the young man but could not be moved to lift her mask by a centimeter. The ball of the yellow domino was followed by a series of letters between the blonde “Gabrielle” and Pacher. These letters have survived and confirm the fairy-tale story.

More than ten years later, Elisabeth wrote a poem called “Long, long ago: the song of the yellow domino”.’

(“Elisabeth, Empress of Austria” by Sophie Zavadill)

A Gallery of Beauties

June 17, 2013

Everybody at a certain point harbors the desire or curiosity or simple, sheer interest to gather a collection of various things in diverse quantities, some parameters more eccentric than others. Empress Elisabeth of Austria, commonly nicknamed “Sissi“, a character to whom Madame has dedicated a plethora of posts, had her own phenomenal assortment which put together a considerable number of photos immortalizing the most beauteous women of the age. But I already wrote about it here. Yet what I didn’t know at the time when that account of her oddities was given and subsequently learned to be a crucial factor in explaining her peculiar idea of a collection refers to the strikingly similar propensity for putting together images of beautiful ladies which dominated the life of  Sissi’s uncle, King Ludwig I o Bavaria. No longer content with getting most of the pulchritudinous grand dames of the time in his bed for fleeting moments of passion, the monarch who is (in)famous for abdicating the throne following a tempestuous scandal involving his mistress, Lola Montez, determined to forever own the marvelous physical charm of these resplendent females. And thus took shape the Gallery of Beauties, the original inspiration for Empress Elisabeth’s identically themed albums.

beauties

This chamber, wholly dedicated to the celebration of corporal attractiveness, exhibits a selection of 36 portraits ordered by Ludwig between 1827 and 1850. They were all commissioned to have the same size so as to perfectly fit in the allocated space and all feature the enchanting profiles of mid 19th century women coming from sundry social backgrounds like the German aristocracy or the European middle-class. This way, characters who otherwise never spoke in real life were forced by circumstance to keep each other company while hanging on the walls of the King’s gallery of visual splendor inside Nymphenburg Palace. So Ludwig’s sister, Sophie (between brackets: the mother of Emperor Franz of Austria, Sissi’s husband), rested alongside such notorious figures as English aristocrat Jane Digby, actress Charlotte von Hagn (a former concubine to Franz Liszt) and, inevitably, Lola Montez, quite an outrageous arrangement, given the epoch. Sort of like compelling Whistler’s Mother to face Courbet’s “Origin of the World” non-stop.

Don’t you just fancy having a place resembling this?

I thought it fit to conclude the series of most glamorous balls held in the last century with one which took place at Château de Ferrières, the Rothschild residence that hosted the first party of the cycle too, thus enforcing a certain impression of circularity much needed to complete the sense of times past. 

Marisa Berenson, actress and model, depicts the fabulous evening so vividly I find it quite ineffectual to attempt a personal description of an event I was part of in my dreams solely, so I can merely inquire about how you regard this type of exquisite social gathering and otherwise live you to relish the accreditable recountals of a witness and participant.

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:

leo

  Between the myriad other occupations Leonardo was engaged in across his lengthy life, one of the lesser known (albeit as valuable as the “Annunciation”) are his absolutely riveting fables about an extensive range of subjects cunningly related. Being the epitome of the Renaissance man, it was merely natural for a genius painter, sculptor, architect, musician, inventor, mathematician et cetera to skilfully master the ancient art of fabricating moral stories that could effortlessly equal Aesop’s, whose work had barely been rediscovered and fairly accredited only decades before.

I was familiar with da Vinci’s literary products from a tender age thanks to a book of his I stumbled upon in the family library at age about 9. Then and now, one of my all time favorites from the polymath is a peculiar anecdote mockingly describing why Muhammad prohibited alcoholic drinks:

The Wine and Muhammad

Wine, the holy liquor of the grape, once rested in a gilded cup on Muhammad’s table, honor of which he was extremely proud. But an adverse thought troubled him instantly:

What am I doing? Why am I feeling so overjoyed? Is it that I fail to realize my death is approaching and soon I’ll have to leave this golden sanctuary for the abominable, fetid caves of the human body? Do I not anticipate the dreary moment when my perfumed liquid will turn into disgusting urine?’

The Wine cried out for the gods to hear, beseeching revenge for such unjust a faith and implored the Providence to put an end to so much humiliation. He asked that, since in his country grew the juiciest grapes, least these be spared the shame he was experiencing.

Then almighty Jupiter made the Wine Muhammad drank get to his head and influence his judgment so as to lose his mind. Thus the prophet committed a number of mistakes that grave that when he finally came to his senses, he banned all sorts of alcohol.

Hence the vineyards were abandoned with their fruits intact.

Terse and witty as one would expect of Leonardo but still quite hilarious in context, don’t you think?

Hardly a few years passed since the Moors lost their last Spanish stronghold in Granada to the Catholic Kings and the Europeans began mocking them persistently!

Perhaps because I have sadistic velleities or just an eccentric appetite for slightly scandalous deeds which delight me to such extent that I quite managed to become addicted, whenever I’m in need of spicy historical records I turn to Italy, whose patrimony of mischievous figures, rich criminals and lascivious damsels never ceases to quench my thirst. I don’t know if it has anything to do with living in the Boot and having mainly depraved popes, but they definitely put mediatized characters like bloody Elizabeth Bathory to shame.  Think Lucrezia Borgia– she could do more than kill helpless maidens and bathe in their blood to gain eternal youth (Naomi Campbell seems to have repeatedly attempted to test it unsuccessfully -boo, humdrum human rights disapprove-  which means it isn’t so astounding).

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Italians, on the other hand, have a certain something, a natural flair seasoned with one ravishing vice inherited as specific trait from their fiery ancestors, the Borgias, Orsinis, Medicis, Sforza and so on, unlike the French who were rather subverted by vanity, a particular section of generally named “vice” Italy’s inhabitants had (though I assume they still have) galore.  It’s suffice to say this enchants me (it does).

Returning to the main topic, to satisfy my perpetual desideratum for anecdotes I frequently resort to evidences from Rome, Florence or Napoli, the main gathering nests of the wealthy and infamous. Yesterday, to enlarge my research area, I was reading Staley’s “Lords and Ladies of the Italian Lakes”, a highly vibrant  compilation of rumors and stories set in the vividly painted Lombardy Lakeland  (rival to England’s similarly called region) and just stumbled across a single-paragraph biography of Adeliza de Borgomanero. Profession: part-time murderess, nothing unusual, in fact, for the gloomy Middle Ages, but still juicy and only good to savor today.

Adeliza de Borgomanero’s half-legend, pretty sad in the end, follows an interesting row of events and rumors embroidered around her numerous intriguing habits, culminating in her premature death.

Portrait of a woman, c.1400

She was born circa 1350 in a family of minor nobles, enough to secure her the proper background for marrying a local count from  Val d’Ossola region, elder and boorish, I assume, yet without documented evidence. We can scarcely imagine how the wedding might have been due to the complete lack of reports, but let me tell you it was ensued by a hearty feast and inexorably grand if we judge by the period’s traditions.

At any rate, Adeliza, the sinful child, couldn’t refrain her congenital iniquity and did a thing or two (again, unaccounted by history) apparently inappropriate because old, tedious hubby exiled the young girl to a remote Bellagio castle, situated in the vicinity of Lake Como (which will be a faithful accomplice to her atrocities).

Wrong move if he had any intention of rehabilitating his wife since it barely exonerated Adeliza, point from where she, officially discharged of marital duties, began to knock together her own personal court. For a graceful lady, with a small fortune (money speak, after all) at her complete disposition, I bet it wasn’t such a laborious job.

Lovers were definitely not missing from the jolly assembly and, as she gave the impression of having a weakness for both tall, muscular men or more romantic, effeminate boys  (exclusively gallant ones), soldiers and troubadours surrounded her castle. With them began the actual gossip about her disputable morals.

Countess Adeliza was said, inspired by Quenn Giovanna II of Napoli (who had promiscuous affairs with much younger men she then compelled to take their lives, threw over the balcony in the sea, assassinate, etc) to have demanded her paramours to commit suicide post the consumption of their sexual revels. The brave fools who refused obeying her desire were not much luckier: a servant was charged with dropping them through steel racked oubliettes in the lake below (remember I mentioned Como Lake’s implication in the murders) and none survived.

Queen Giovanna II of Napoli

 Either way, let’s remark she was a delicate lady who didn’t like to dirty her hands so those crimes were  more probably made to prove her authority, her sovereignity  over men (the thing women wand most, by Adeliza’s contemporary, Geoffrey Chaucer) and less to satisfy a devilish thirst of blood.

But she became a vampire-siren figure in the popular lore nonetheless, living in a metaphorical (or not?) charnel house.

More original than slaughtering your servants, right?

Adeliza passed away inexplicably at only 20 years of age, in 1370, leaving practically nothing historians can list apart from the legends.  And what beautiful legends.

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