A Week in Culture: Angus Trumble, Curator


The Culture Diaries


4:45 A.M. Reviewing two new books about Caravaggio—books that are about as different from each other as it is possible to be: Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane, by Andrew Graham-Dixon, and The Moment of Caravaggio, a series of illustrated lectures by Michael Fried. Almost everything we know about the man himself comes from evidence meticulously transcribed by hugely diligent notaries attached to the Roman civil and criminal courts: a litany of threats, assault, battery, and, ultimately, cold-blooded murder.

6:00 A.M. Until two years ago it was axiomatic that Caravaggio did not draw. Thanks to a new infra-red camera, however, we may now observe what was previously thought not to exist, namely short choppy lines in ink—unmistakable evidence of fairly extensive under-drawing by which the artist set down on the primed canvas his principal points of reference. There is also evidence of scored lines and even tracing, à la carbon paper. None of this overturns the basic fact that draftsmanship was not very important to him. But at least we now know Caravaggio certainly practiced it when he needed to, the crafty devil.

12:30 P.M. I am re-reading My Memories of Six Reigns, by H. H. Princess Marie-Louise, having some months ago suggested it as an ideal summer book for readers of the Yale Alumni Magazine, especially connoisseurs of that neglected subgenre of dotty royal memoir. “Cousin Louie,” as she was known, was the fourth child of Queen Victoria’s bad-tempered middle daughter, Princess Helena. Her book is a fantastically weird combination of out-of-sequence table-rapping reminiscence; reverent reflection upon the burdens of monarchy, and innumerable flecks of interesting detail.

1:45 P.M. Louie’s Edwardian wedding to Prince Aribert of Anhalt was the bright idea of Cousin Willie, the Kaiser, but more accurately an example of his total lack of judgment. It seems the Prince was soon afterwards caught in flagrante with an attractive young male servant in, on, or more probably beside the marital bed, and, concluding from this that her marriage was no longer viable, Louie promptly undertook an extended tour of Canada and the United States. Returning to Britain she immersed herself in charitable and artistic work, set up a Girls’ Club in Bermondsey, kept an eye on her mother’s nursing homes, and lent modest support to the imperial trade in dried fruit. Wholly guileless, Princess Marie Louise is irresistible.


6:00 A.M. Sorting through some papers this morning, I came across a souvenir of my recent visit to Gignese, in the hills of Piedmont, northern Italy. It is a little dictionary of Tarùsc, the now vanished in-house language of the ombrellai, or umbrella and parasol-makers of the Province of Verbania on the western shore of Lago Maggiore. In Gignese, there is a museum devoted to this local industry, so naturally I visited it. Part of the display of ancient umbrella-making equipment is a fascinating description of Tarùsc, as it was set down nearly eighty years ago by the ethnographer P. E. Manni da Massino. Although the main purpose of Tarùsc was to protect valuable trade secrets, it appears to have fossilized elements of speech extending all the way back to the semi-Teutonic, certainly pre-Roman inhabitants of the district. There is much more in Tarùsc than was needed to prevent rivals from nicking the ingeniously svelte rib-to-stretcher-to-runner mechanism of local umbrellas and parasols.

1:05 P.M. Keeping track of Australian politics is relatively easy at this distance, but that does not make it easier to comprehend. Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who was elected in a landslide two-and-a-half years ago, and for a while enjoyed unprecedented levels of popularity, slumped badly in certain opinion polls and was then suddenly and ignominiously dumped by his own parliamentary caucus. His deputy, Julia Gillard, replaced him within a few weeks of calling the next federal election.
If this goes against every rule in the political book, the recent publication of the second volume of a breathlessly admiring biography of former Prime Minister Bob Hawke must surely raise eyebrows too: The author is Blanche d’Alpuget, his second wife.

8:00 P.M. The conductor Sir Charles Mackerras has died in London. He remained an Australian at heart despite having lived for more than sixty years in Britain, yet his greatest achievement was bringing to international attention the operas of Leoš Janáček, as well as the work of other Czech composers he unearthed in Prague and Brno before the Cold War became too frigid. He was a polymath—a fine oboist and cor anglais player, a distinguished musicologist, a pioneer in the 1960s of performances using original instruments, a reviver of forgotten baroque conventions such as appoggiatura, and an inspired interpreter of the broadest possible repertoire. He thought conductors got the best results by hypnotizing their orchestra.


6:05 A.M. Melbourne University Publishing have asked me to go on radio to talk about my new book The Finger: A Handbook, specifically the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s New South Wales “Statewide Drive” program, at one o’clock on a Monday afternoon. This translates as eleven o’clock on Sunday night EST.

11:10 A.M. My blog attracts an array of delightfully eccentric correspondents. For example this morning I have received an email message from a person who is busily researching the work of a nineteenth-century amateur lady poet who signed herself “Desda,” but turns out to have been Jane Davies, my great great grandmother. Her heroic verse is appalling, and the lyric materials roll off the tongue like a brick.

Roaming through the bush one day,

He saw a pretty maid.

Her eye was bright as sunshine,

Yet soft as evening shade.

Her look was sad, her gaze was wild, and often did she sigh,

And in a silv’ry, timid voice she uttered the wild cry;

And in a silv’ry, timid voice she uttered the wild cry:

Coo-ey, Coo-ey, Coo-ey, Coo-ey—Echo caught the strain;

Coo-ey, Coo-ey, Coo-ey, Coo-ey—it echoed back again…

6:15 P.M. “From the tables down at Mory’s / To the place where Louie dwells / And the dear old Temple Bar we love so well / Sing the Whiffenpoofs assembled / With their glasses raised on high! / And the magic of their singing casts a spell…” Shortly “The Whiffenpoof Song” (1909) will be sung once more by hearty Yale undergraduate à capella singers at Mory’s, their point of assembly in York Street, which for the past year has been shut for renovation and refurbishment. I am helping the association to reinstall their vast collection of memorabilia, including oars, trophies, team and sports captains’ portrait photographs, and other Ivy-League detritus, but the job is even more enormous than I guessed it would be when cheerfully I agreed to lend a hand.

8:30 P.M. Bits and pieces, odds and ends, this and that—whilst contemplating issues of placement at Mory’s this afternoon a single hold-all word for these vague but necessary collective terms, with special application in the kitchen, popped into my head: manavalums. It is a word that my dear late father used quite often, and his mother before him, usually in connection with stray and otherwise maybe unidentifiable crumbs of matter (not always food), with, I seem to recall, a hint of distaste. This morning it was as if I was hearing Dad’s voice from thirty years ago, speaking it in his gentle, and good-humored way—“manavalums.”

10:30 P.M. Upon taking a few minutes after tea to look up manavalums in Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library I find that the term exists in a generous handful of slightly different forms, none of which, it turns out, ends in –ums: For example, in their marvelous Slang and Its Analogues, Past and Present (1890–1904) John Stephen Farmer and W. E. Henley gave “manablins, subs. (old)—broken victuals, also manavilins” and compare it with the French arlequin, –ine and bijou. For these intriguing non-cognate French synonyms one finds the relevant entries in the enormous Trésor de la Langue Française, where arlequin, subs., “en parlant d’un inanimé,” means something “tout ensemble formé d’éléments de couleurs varies, d’éléments triangulaires, d’éléments disparates,” while bijou, subs., means “À Paris, desserte des plats constituant un benefice pour les plongeurs.” However, the Oxford English Dictionary lists the useful English term under “manavilins, manavlins, sb. pl. slang, also minavilins, malhavelins, manablins, manarolins, menavelings; of obscure origin,” and define it broadly as “small matters, odds and ends, articles supplementary to the ordinary fare.”

This brief article—which was not revised or altered in any way for the great second edition of 1989—contains only four historical quotations, but I see with satisfaction that two of these are actually Australian, namely a passage in chapter xxii of his great novel Robbery Under Arms (1882–83), by Rolf Boldrewood (1826–1915), and The Black Police of Queensland by Edward B. Kennedy (1902), where, conveniently, “odds and ends are described in the colony by the one useful old naval word ‘manavlins,’ a term which embraces every small thing.” I am not quite sure how Dad turned the naval and/or more broadly sea-faring and/or Welsh or Border or Yorkshire and thence to Australian colonial usages of manavilins or menavelings into manavalums, but let us assume that this may be a unique instance of nautical terminology comingling with the conventions of the legal profession in its old Latin-loving guise, at least in the mind of one well-beloved man who was wholly devoted to both.

For Dad’s sake I shall continue to use manavalums, and shall also keep my eyes peeled in case his word ultimately proves more widespread, and therefore requires further documentation. I doubt if it will go viral in the United States, but stranger things have happened.

Check back tomorrow for the second installment
of Angus Trumble’s culture diary.

Angus Trumble is senior curator of paintings and sculpture at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Connecticut.