The Daily

On History

When Emperors Are No More

June 15, 2016 | by

Why did an intelligent Jewish scholar write an appreciation of a German tyrant?

From the paperback cover of Inventing the Middle Ages.

In 1992, a medievalist named Norman Cantor published Inventing the Middle Ages, a series of light, biographical sketches intended to show readers how a few historians from the twentieth century had brought the Middle Ages alive to the general public, with, as the flap copy put it, vivid images of wars, tournaments, plagues, saints and kings, knights and ladies.” One chapter, “The Nazi Twins,” was devoted partly to Ernst Kantorowicz, a Princeton scholar who’d written a magisterial study of sovereignty in medieval law, philosophy, and art. Cantor alleged that Kantorowicz—who was not only Jewish, but had spoken up against Hitler at great peril to his academic career, and whose mother has perished in a concentration camp—had “impeccable Nazi credentials”: an outrageous slander, in the eyes of his former students and colleagues. When The New York Review of Books ran a largely favorable essay on Inventing the Middle Ages, the magazine received a flood of angry letters. “Where is this Cantor [a] professor? Disney World?” demanded one reader. 

But “this Cantor” was not entirely specious in his claims. In 1927, when he was only thirty, Kantorowicz had written a seven-hundred-page biography of Frederick II, a Holy Roman Emperor from the thirteenth century. In lofty German that imitated the Latin style of Frederick’s time, Kantorowicz painted the Emperor as a redeemer of the German people who united the north with the Roman south and brought the barbaric East under his iron rule. Kantorowicz had a Hindu good luck symbol, the swastika, put on the biography’s cover, and on its dedication page he recalled laying a wreath on Frederick’s grave in Palermo. “That wreath,” he wrote, “may fairly be taken as a symbol that—not alone in learned circles—enthusiasm is astir for the great German Rulers of the past: in a day when emperors are no more.” Among the book’s enthusiastic readers was Hermann Göring, who gave Mussolini a signed copy for his birthday. Read More »

The Hard-on on Trial

May 18, 2016 | by

Erectile dysfunction and divorce in prerevolutionary France.

Grace under pressure. Photo: Jörg Bittner Unna.

At face value, René de Cordouan was a lucky man: born into French nobility as the Marquis de Langey, rich without effort, pleasant to look at. By generic, century-spanning sort of standards he was a catch, as endearing to unwed Catholics of the early 1600s (those seeking a deep-pocketed partner with bucolic property to share) as to manicured women with manicured nails browsing EliteSingles.com. The actual minutiae of the Marquis de Langey’s appearance remains a mystery—the size of his feet, the straightness of teeth, the presence or absence of dimples—but one part of his anatomy was so meticulously discussed it secured him a minor place in European history. Inside the nobleman’s underpants, between his upper thighs, was an intromittent organ that would be leered at and prodded before a court of law. To put it plainly, in 1657 the Marquis’s penis was subject to public trial. Read More »

Daughters of the Guild

April 4, 2016 | by

Judith Leyster and the overlooked women painters of the Dutch Golden Age.

Judith Leyster, Self Portrait, ca. 1630, oil on canvas, 29.4" × 25.6".

In 1892, a painting that had been attributed to Frans Hals for more than a century became the subject of a dispute between two English art dealers. The 1630 painting, known at various times in English as The Happy Couple or Carousing Couple, was typical Hals and Dutch Golden Age territory—a genre scene of a couple making merry in a tavern. Pink-cheeked, bemused, the woman raises a glass while her male companion sings and plays the violin. When the painting changed hands for forty-five hundred pounds, the buyer sued after discovering a signature other than Frans Hals right below the violinist’s shoe. It was a monogram nobody seemed to recognize: a conjoined J and L, struck through with a five-pointed star.

leystersig

As a result of the court case’s publicity—the media has always loved it when art experts get it wrong—a Dutch collector and art historian, Cornelis Hofstede de Groot, recognized the monogram as belonging to Judith Leyster, one of the first women painters to be admitted to a Guild of Saint Luke in the Netherlands during the seventeenth century. Though she’d been praised by the observers and historians of her era, Leyster had essentially been erased from art history since her death in 1660. In 1648, when Leyster was not yet forty, the Dutch commentator Theodore Schrevel had noted, “There also have been many experienced women in the field of painting who are still renowned in our time, and who could compete with men. Among them, one excels exceptionally, Judith Leyster, called ‘the true Leading star in art.’ ” Since leyster means “lodestar” in Dutch, Schrevel enjoyed a pun to underscore his point. Read More »

The Little Man of Nuremberg

March 17, 2016 | by

Wonder in the age of Matthias Buchinger.

A late sixteenth-century portrait of a disabled man, included in a Wunderkammer at Ambras Castle.

Though he had neither arms nor legs and was only twenty-nine inches tall, Matthias Buchinger spent his sixty-five years variously as a magician, a musician, a carver, and an inventor, among other vocations. But his most astounding talents were in micrography—that is, literally, small writing. Since his death in 1740, his renown has been relegated to an obscure niche between print design and outsider art. “Wordplay: Matthias Buchinger’s Inventive Drawings from the Collection of Ricky Jay,” showing now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, rescues him from a seventeenth-century German wunderkammer of conjurers, carneys, witches and “freaks” endemic to early modernity. Accompanying the exhibition is the equally eccentric art-history and antiquarian memoir Matthias Buchinger: The Greatest Living German by Ricky Jay, Whose Peregrinations in Search of the “Little Man of Nuremberg” are herein Revealed, in which Jay, something of a sleight-of-hand artist, reconstructs Buchinger’s exotic life and oeuvre. Read More »

Fashion Regained

March 16, 2016 | by

Looking for Proust’s muse in Paris.

The Comtesse Élisabeth Greffulhe.

After making a careful study of contemporary fashion plates, Baudelaire came to the conclusion that one couldn’t examine clothes apart from the individual wearing them. “You might as well admire the tattered rags hung up as slack and lifeless as the skin of St. Bartholomeu,” he wrote in his essay “In Praise of Cosmetics.” In order to “recover the light and movement of life,” clothes needed to be animated by a living body, and it was only on this living body that they were to be understood. One wonders what he would’ve made of the nascent trend of the fashion exhibition, in which the fashions of yesteryear appear on mannequins, those motionless abstractions of the human figure.

La Mode retrouvée,” now at the Musée de la Mode in Paris, and coming in September to New York, uses clothes as a sort of Pompeiian ash in order to sketch the person who once filled them out. In this case, it’s the Comtesse Élisabeth Greffulhe (1860–1952), who was by reputation the most fashionable woman of her time. At her salon on the Rue d’Astorg, an integral part of the political and artistic milieux, she arranged for what was thought to be the impossible Russian-Franco alliance, as well as the reception of Fauré, Wagner, Isadora Duncan, and the Ballets Russes in Paris. Historians of the era have argued that no patron did more for music than she. And this at a time when, no matter the fact that she was married into wealth and rank, she had neither rights nor property as her own, as was the case for all women under the civil code of the Third Republic. Read More »

Writ in Water

February 23, 2016 | by

The enduring mystery of Keats’s last words.

Keats’s grave at the Protestant Cemetery in Rome.

Yet do I sometimes feel a languishment
For skies Italian ...

—John Keats, “Happy is England! I Could Be Content,” 1817

Among the dozens of fountains in Rome, the Trevi may be the most famous, but the Barcaccia in the Piazza di Spagna arguably has a lock on the most poignant. Commissioned in 1629, it sits at the foot of the Scalinata, or Spanish Steps, swarmed by hordes of tourists in high season. Boat shaped to commemorate the spot where, in the historic flood of 1598, the Tiber River reached its highest level and improbably deposited a river barque in the square, the Barcaccia now seems a light-hearted way station, an oasis on a hot Latin day.

But nearly two centuries ago, the fountain played a far different role for one particular admirer, a transplant from England who roomed in an apartment above the steps and listened incessantly to the murmurings of its waters. To this visitor, the Barcaccia was a temporary lifeline during a few dark winter months at the turn of 1821, as he coughed and spluttered his way to a tragically early death. That doomed young man, as devotees of English Romantic poetry know, was John Keats, and the apartment where the poet, barely twenty-five, breathed his last from tuberculosis, on February 23, 1821, is now the Keats-Shelley House, a meticulously kept museum and scholarly library founded in 1909. It’s there, in the room where Keats died, that you will find the key to a misapprehension—one could almost say a lie—about his life and death that has been promulgated, literally written in stone, since 1823. Read More »