Knights on Walkabout (or marginalia in extremis)

For E.G., sweetest and gentlest of godsons whose obsession with Warhammer utterly perplexes me. I’m sparing you the threatened creation of a little rainbow-flatulating sprite who wreaks havoc on your necromancers, dwarves, and vampires. Instead, you get Hubert.

When last we saw our embryonic (in no way Byronic) hero, Hubert, the little knight believed that he had at last discovered a manuscript more suited to his chivalrous ambitions than the Fieschi Psalter in which he first been drawn and where his creator had heartlessly consigned him to fighting a snail.

https://manuscripts.thewalters.org/viewer.php?id=W.45#page/46/mode/2up

As he was in the Fieschi Psalter. (Baltimore, Walters Gallery, W 45, fol 23r)

Delighted with a French romans brimming over with the chivalrous derring-do of Arthurian knights, Hubert sets about scouring the margins for a place to squeeze himself in. for he knew better than to try and insert himself into any actual tale. (There are rules if one is drawn into the margins. )

Marginalia may mimic the action of the text,

32r romans detail 32r

BNF, Francais 94, f. 32r.

or it may herald action to come.

52v their deeds heralded by umm heralds 52v

BNF, Francais 95, f. 52v.

Trumpets are always good for heralding although it is best not to get carried away.

261r romans no chris botti you do NOT need more sound production

BNF Francais 95, 261r. Here a drôlerie takes its cue from Chris Botti with his excessive sound production.

Sometimes the action in the margins spoofs the main text.

226r not the distaff 226r romans

BNF, Francais 95 v. 226v Oh no! Not a distaff!

Then, of course, there are the times when there seems little or no connection between the text and marginalia. Sometimes it’s just best not to ask (as in any time when pickles make an appearance).

134r romans arthurien 134r cukes in the margins

BNF, Francais 95, f. 134r.

Thus it was our little Hubert found himself wandering from leaf to leaf, looking for a place to call home. Unprotected by proper mail and armed only with a spear and that ludicrous shield with which he’d been drawn, Hubert felt out of place among the knights of the romans‘ margins. Some of them appeared to have traveled to the Far East where they learned Kung Fu.

291r romans when your marginalia has watched too many kung fu movies

BNF, Francais 95, f. 291r

Others illustrated life lessons like why juggling with knives is a pointedly bad idea. (Yes, this is a grotesque and not a proper knight, but the moral of still applies: do not try this at home.)

Yet others demonstrated the lesser known perils of warfare such as crossbowmen getting their feet stuck while loading.

203v romans two lessons not to get your foot stuck and wear gloves handling mss

BNF Francais 95, fl. 203v.  ” Zut a-friggin’-lors!”

138v romans arthurien diabolical expression for someone whose just stolen sheet music

BNF, Francais 95, fl. 138v. Perhaps the page contains the music of the spheres and that has roused this creature’s crazed expression.

Hubert decided to start among less martial figures, only to discover that he felt no more comfortable among the grotesques than he did among the knights.

Indeed, he stumbled across a lion-ed body fellow sporting such a diabolical expression that Hubert was trembled at the thought of what that music might be.

On that very same leaf, the little knight spotted a rabbit whose terrified expression was less than reassuring.

138v romans arthurien 138v S is for scared as in scared rabbit

And no wonder, the beasts in this manuscript got a raw deal.

But then, it appeared that times were perilous for everyone. Particularly everyone’s posterior.

The scenes were such that Hubert began to wonder if fighting snails was truly so disreputable. Tilting with snails seemed no worse than hanging out with indecorous creatures with faces on their bellies; creatures with so little sense as to have two heads and no body at all; couples that…. Well, let’s class that image with the pickles and say no more.

In the end, it was the spectacle of a knight fending off a sword-munching lion whilst an arse-biting dragon attacked from behind that decided the question for Hubert.

292v romans arthuriens some days you just can't win for losing

BNF, Francais 95 f. 292v

“When a fellow can’t win for losing, snails don’t look so bad,” thought Hubert whose enthusiasm for chivalrous brouhaha was rapidly diminishing.

It wasn’t that Hubert minded taking on a lion. He didn’t. It wasn’t that Hubert minded taking on a dragon. He didn’t. But if the illuminator of this manuscript had willfully subjected one knight to both at the same time, there was no trusting the man.*

1 Walters, W 45, fol 23r detail. jpg

Baltimore, Walters Gallery, W 45, fol 23r detail.

 

With a touch of nostaligia, Hubert remembered the dragons of his old psalter. They might chew on a decorative capital, but not on bottoms.

And yes, admitted Hubert, some the creatures in that old psalter might not had no more sense than to have two bodies sharing one head. In such cases, however, they knew better than to tamper with the action and played their decorative role with suitable decorum.

Baltimore, Walters Gallery Fieschi Psalter W. 45 fol. 196 r detail

Baltimore, Walters Gallery Fieschi Psalter, W.45 fol. 143 r babewyn

Baltimore, Walters Gallery Fieschi Psalter, W.45 fol. 143 r

As for the babewyns, grotesques, or drôleries (what you will), Hubert could not recall one instance of them gripping on like a lamprey eel to anyone’s backside. In fact, his memory of them was as fairly shy and retiring, not unlike an opossum.baltimore-walters-gallery-fieschi-psalter-w.-45-fol.-196-r.jpg

 

 

Alright. Birds might not be totally safe. Fair enough. But birds aren’t bottoms, and as he stared about the folio of the romans where he found himself, Hubert decided to put his backside first.

Before he left the romans, however, Hubert found a knight who’d been knocked unconscious, stripped him clean of his armor, and stole a shield free of decorative smiling faces.

Whatever the psalter threw at him this time, he was prepared.

Walters, Fieschi Psalter, W. 45 fol 82v

Walters, Fieschi Psalter, W. 45 fol 82v

*Given the provenance of the manuscript, the illuminator was most likely a man.)

 

Adventures in the Margins

Just as children wonder what their stuffed animals do after the lights go out, I frequently wonder what those figures in the margins do after the codex is closed. I would like to think something much like the following perambulations of a nameless knight in the margins whom I’m dubbing Hubert.


It was a horrible position for a self-respecting knight to find himself in. It wrapped  humiliation and ludicrousness all up in one neat-if rather slimy-package.

Admittedly, Hubert’s creator had drawn him into the margins of Psalter where humility is all well and good. Despite this, Hubert felt absolute certainty that carrying a shield with a smiley face on it and facing off against a snail was not the thing. If the plan is to nab oneself some escargot, then a little toothpick of a spear will serve the purpose. Otherwise, a knight wants a sword.

And some proper mail. Hubert really did feel his martial accoutrements were inadequate. For heaven’s sake, he’d seen a woman on another leaf carrying a proper sword as she challenged a dragon with a seven-headed tail.2-baltimore-walters-gallery-fieschi-psalter-w.-45-fol.-256-v-maiden-vs-dragon.jpg

Baltimore, Walters Gallery, Fieschi Psalter W. 45, 256v

 

Alright. She wasn’t a proper woman, not with those green lion’s legs, but the less said of that sort of thing, the better. It was a rule of the margins not to hold one’s fellows responsible for some mad illuminator’s whimsy.3-baltimore-walters-gallery-fieschi-psalter-w.45-fol.-166v-tres-curieux-indeed.jpg

Baltimore, Walters Gallery Fieschi Psalter, W.45,166v

Fight with one’s fellows? Certainly.

Make rude gestures? Absolutely.

Look away? Frequently and quickly.

Judge them? No. (Très curieux, indeed.)

A good clobbering generally sufficed.

Thus is was that Hubert resolved to find himself more chivalric prospects, by making his way into another manuscript. After some searching, and so he made his way into romans arthuriens. [1]  Here, Hubert thought–among works like Le livre de Lancelot du Lac, La queste del Graal, and La mort au roy Artu–his martial possibilities would improve. He would find a good page, a better, snail-free page, and make a home for himself.

Wandering through the romans, Hubert encountered the usual random assortment of babewyns and drôleries that monkey about in the margins and hang off the decorative caps like so many stockings off the chandelier after a blow-out. After his more reverential setting among the Psalms, Hubert found himself taken aback by inordinate amount of violence involving backsides.

Still, into the heart of the pages, Hubert saw the sort of thing that made his heart pound with hope.

This was the way knights are supposed to behave.  They fight. They fight more, and then, for something different, they fight more.

Over a hundred folia later, they’re still fighting.

166r the word you're looking for is OW 166r romans

166r the word you’re looking for is OW

186v a hundred folia later still fighting 186v romans

186v Yup. Still fighting.

Hubert was in heaven. Of course, Hubert knew that that chivalric code consisted of more than just fighting. After all, a good knight only has a good night if he fights for the right thing. And the best knights are protected by the BVM and dream of martial deeds.

33v all good knights r protected by the BVM and dream martial dreams detail 33v romans arthurien

42r

And if they dream of falling, they are caught by seraphim.

42r-and-if-they-dream-of-falling-they-are-caught-by-seraphim-42-r-romans.jpg

42r

Of course, there were the occasional indulgences (the fleshly sort, not the faux penitential-bring on the Reformation! sort). There is always the risk of Bad Dancing or bullying. Sometimes its hard to tell the different unless you actually read the text, and Hubert wasn’t much interested in the story at this point.33v bad dancing in the romans arthurien 33v

33v

Then, there is always the ceremonial coming to fisticuffs while putting up the pavilion.

226r u tell me to to put my left foot in and do the hokey pokey 1 more time rather than helping me with this tent 226r romans

226r. “If you tell me to put my left foot in and do the hokey pokey one more time instead of helping me with this pavilion, I’m going….

 

 

The occasional misjudgement about drinking and riding….

138v romans arthurien 138v is he supposed to look that way

138v.

And then, there are the women. Sometimes they even marry them albeit reluctantly.152r i said shake hands and make up romans arthuriens 152r

152r. “Wait. What? Did you just say man and wife?”

All in all, it was more promising than not. No smiley face shields and, most importantly, no snails.

[1] You can’t possibly be seriously wanting a rational explanation for how a knight in the marginalia of the Fieschi Psalter W. 45 (Walters Art Museum of Baltimore, Maryland) found himself in BNF, Francais 95 (Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris).   Imagine a Terry Pratchettian explanation of the content of every book, codex, stone, or papyri anywhere existing on a its own space-time continuum.  Right? Right. Back to Hubert.


NEXT WEEK: Hubert heads to the margins of his new romans to find himself a place to call home.

Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The History of the Kings of Britain

https://manuscrits-france-angleterre.org/view3if/pl/ark:/12148/btv1b10542189p/f134

From the first page of Geoffrey of Monmouth, Historia Regum Britanniae,  BNF  Latin 8501A fol. 63v. “Britain, best of islands…”

I have avoided reading Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain for years, many years. Never understanding the allure of all the Arthurian nonsense, I did not see the point in dedicating time to a work dedicated to putting Arthur’s reign and derring-do at the center of early British history. I’d read William of Newburgh’s damning assessment of his near contemporary chronicler.  He savages Kings of Britain as historical flummery at best, romantical codswallop at worst. Thus, Geoffrey’s book sat neglected on my shelf amongst other chroniclers who seemed a worthier investment of time Henry of Huntingdon, Usama Ibn Mundiqh, Jean de Joinville and Geoffroy de Villehardouin, and their ilk. I only picked up Geoffrey’s History recently because I was on a very specific hunt.

Illstr copy Geoffrey of Monmouth Kings of Britain

Geoffrey of Monmouth, Historia Regum Britanniae,  BNF  Latin 8501A fol. 108v 12th cent 2nd 1/2)

I kept reading because of the recommendation of Geoffrey’s translator[1] Lewis Thorpe that those those skeptical of Geoffrey’s utility approach the work as they do the Aeneid and Odyssey, not at history, but epic.[2] History does, as Thorpe writes, occasionally “peep” through the fiction, but the sweep of the story certainly feels more fictional—both epic and romantic–to me than it does historic.[3] For some reason, that adjustment of expectations made a world of difference.

Geoffrey’s is a winding but not wandering account of the history of Britain’s kings from its fictional founder Brutus (son of Silvius, the son of Ascanius, the son of Aeneas) down to Cadwallader. If Troy was destroyed around 1240 BC and Cadwallader died in 689 AD, then our lad Geoffrey bites off quite a mouthful. Still, he maintains a compelling tone and rhythm. His history is intermittently interrupted by proverbial asides that lend both color and moral portent to the gazillionth battle between the Romans and the Britons:

“However it is easier for a kite to be made to act like a sparrow-hawk than for a wise man to be fashioned at short notice from a peasant. He who offers any depth of wisdom to such a person is acting as though he were throwing a pearl among swine.”[4]

Geoffrey’s slandering of peasants here is it turns out, a whole lot better than what the course of events threw at them:

“In opposition to them [them being everybody and their brother from the North of the Isle and Scandinavia who decided to attack the Britons after Rome took off], slow-witted peasants were posted on the top of the walls, men useless in battle, who were unable even to run away for the very palpitation of their bellies, and who shook with fear through the days and nights on top of their stupid perches. Meanwhile the enemy continued to ply their hooked weapons, dragging the miserable plebs down from the walls with them, so that they were dashed to the ground. The very suddenness of the death they endured was a stroke of luck to those who were killed in this way, for by their immediate execution they avoided the miserable torments which awaited their brothers and their children.”[5]

Right riveting stuff. When Geoffrey touches on the pusillanimity of the Britons in this section, it’s impossible not to think of Gildas’ De excidio Britanniae. Geoffrey never gets mouth-frothingly apoplectic as does Gildas, but then Geoffrey wrote in the twelfth century and not the sixth as did Gildas, and so Geoffrey had more time to reconcile himself to the waning of British glory before the onslaught of treacherous Saxons and domineering Angles. Indeed, by Geoffrey’s time, the Normans had settled in like the pox to make their mark upon the island. Ah, the Normans: proof positive that things can always get worse. Always.

“What more can I say?” asks Geoffrey after the Romans leave the Britons to fend for themselves.

The answer, it turns out, is quite a lot.

For the edification of anyone is thinking that, aside from that whole ‘Trojans take Britain’ thing, the narrative here looks respectably historical, I hold up as exhibit B: The Prophecies of Merlin. Despite my lack of interest in Merlin and Arthur (the two of whom never meet in Geoffrey’s text), I will admit to being quite taken with the prophecies of Merlin. Figures like “the Boar of Commerce,” “the Dragon of Worchester,” and “the Ass of Wickedness” give the prophecies a what-kind-of-mushroom-did-you-eat-and-are-you-sure-it’s-not-going-to-kill-you quality. A sampling will suffice.

“An Ass shall call to itself a long-bearded Goat and then will change shapes with it. As a result the Mountain Bull will lose its temper: it will summon the Wolf and then transfix the Ass and the Goat with its horn. Once it has indulged its savage rage upon them, it will eat up their flesh and their bones, but the Ox itself will be burned up on the summit of Urianus. The ashes of its funeral pyre shall be transmuted into Swans, which will sim away upon dry land as though in water. These Swans will eat up fish inside fish and they will swallow men inside men. When they become old they will take the shape of Sea-wolves and continue their treacherous behavior beneath the sea. They will sink ships and so gather together quite a treasure-house of silver.”[6]

Who needs apoplectic diatribe when you have phantasmagoric soothsaying?

After all the startling figures who populate the prophecies—from the “Foster-daughter of the Scourger” and the “Horned Dragon” to the “Farmer from Albany” to the drunken Lion, the prophecies take a decidedly cosmic and apocalyptic turn. I rather wish Geoffrey’s book ended here rather than continuing on as it does to the rise of Arthur and his inevitable betrayal followed by the fall and scattering of the Britons. The prophecies conclude thusly:

“Roots and branches shall change their places and the oddness of this will pass for a miracle.

Before the amber glow of Mercury the bright light of the Sun shall grow dim and this will strike horror into those who witness it. The planet Mercury, born in Arcady, shall change its shield; and the Helmet of Mars shall call to Venus. The Helmet of Mars shall cast a shadow and in its rage Mercury shall over-run its orbit. Iron Orion shall bare its sword. The watery Sun shall torment the clouds. Jupiter shall abandon its pre-ordained paths and Venus desert its appointed circuits. The malice of the planet Saturn will pour down like rain, killing mortal men as though with a curved sickle. The twelve mansions of the stars will weep to see their inmates transgress so. The Gemini will cease their wonted embraces and will dispatch Aquarius to the fountains. The scales of Libra will hang awry, until Aries props them up with its curving horns. The tail of Scorpio shall generate lightning and Cancer will fight with the Sun. Virgo shall climb on the back of Sagittarius and so let droop its maiden blossoms. The moon’s chariot shall run amok in the Zodiac and the Pleiades will burst into tears. None of these will return to the duty expected of it. Ariadne will shut its door and be hidden within its enclosing cloudbanks.

In the twinkling of an eye the seas shall rise up and the arena of the winds shall be opened once again. The winds shall do battle together with a blast of ill-omen, making their din reverberate from one constellation to another.”[7]

Creation itself seems almost to move in reverse as if the voice of God over the waters were now withdrawing. The prophecies conclude with the majesty and mournfulness of the heavens collapsing as the constellations trip and fall out of their established courses. (Anyone who has ever read C.S. Lewis’ Last Battle will wonder with me if Lewis didn’t get the ideas for Narnia’s end from these lines.) No inscrutable bulls or mystifying farmers can diminish the gravitas of these final prophecies.  We may not weep with the Pleiades, but it’s impossible not to feel the tug of grief here for a world that will indeed be coming down around the Britons’ ears by the end of the book.

In short, do not pick up The History of the Kings of Britain for history, but for a window  into how Geoffrey (and his source-author) saw their nation and age as a part of larger human landscape. There is a deep dignity to Geoffrey’s dream of Britain. After all, how we tell the story of our past reflects the landscape of our heart. It reflects the world as we wish it might be, even if that reflection is per speculum in enigmate.

[1] Yes. I was being lazy.  All quotes hereafter from: Geoffrey of Monmouth: The History o the Kings of Britain, trans. Lewis Thorpe. Penguin, Clays Ltd. 1966.

[2] p 28.

[3] p 19.

[4]  p 146.

[5] p 147.

[6] p 180.

[7] pp 184-185.

In memoriam

Excepting the occasional son like Dylan Thomas, I suspect that all families–however uniformly happy or uniquely unhappy–have a common hope for their frail and failing parents: a good and peaceful end. My father died in his sleep last night and I am deeply grateful. The years were hard on my father. When I saw him for his ninetieth birthday last month, he squeezed my hand, his mouth a grim and determined line as he whispered, “Age is cruel, daughter. Cruel.”

Mercy does not obliterate grief, however much it may soften its hard blow. I am thankful that the cruel hand of age no longer clutches at him, but to finish that sentence without qualification proves impossible.

Perhaps the greatest mercy in this moment is that what I find flooding over me are the not recriminations or the disappointments that burdened me for years, but the memories of a sweet, sweet man, for my father was a man of personality and charm before he dwindled into shadow. Shadows stripped away, I find myself reckoning with how deeply I am my father’s daughter. Suddenly, rather than associating him with the things I hate most about myself– cowardice in the face of confrontation, quickness to be moved to tears, the temptation to practice peace at all costs even when the cost is one’s own well-being–I am realizing that he planted the seeds of my most formative and abiding loves within me. I am more deeply indebted to him than I ever recognized, much less told him.

My father used to say that my sisters got our brains from our mother and our looks from him. That was one of his frequent quips, alongside his impish exhortation to “Give me a kiss and I’ll forgive you” when he made a mistake of some sort or the other. Yet, however much he saw our mother in us, however much she was a force of nature, it is to my father that I owe my adoration of language and story. Yes, my mother would send me to the dictionary and I’d get lost there, but it was William Henry Smith who inspired me with that insatiable hunger for the just the right word. That, at least, was the lesson that I took away from the dinner table at the age of five when he shook a bottle of slightly cemented ketchup until it could be cajoled from the bottle and then explained the dance from coagulated goopiness to liquid and then back to goopiness as thixotropy.  Ketchup was thixotropic.

Thixotropic. Callooh! Callay! She chortled in her joy.

William Henry 1953Both my parents read to my sisters and I as children, but my father spun us his own stories as well. Every daughter had her own stories. Mine were the adventures of Baby Ruth and her father. They went hiking and encountered rattlesnakes. They saw wolves. They shared the outdoors my father loved, but had so little time to spend in.

As my memory leapfrogs to showing him pictures last summer of the caves in Mammoth National Park where my sisters and I puttered happily and deliriously around for a few days, I realize that love too is part of his daughters’ shared inheritance: his wondering, curious love for nature and her mysteries. Even as I write this I foresee that grieving my father will be rather like writing a thank-you note with a thousand post-scripts.

“Oh! I nearly forgot, Dad. Thank you for….”

That I never told him how I owe my greatest loves to him is to me a greater regret than the fact that I have not sent him anything I’ve written for years, or that I have not shared my life with him in any meaningful way for years. To share nothing of any meaning was easier than trying to speak of hard truths, especially when my father’s loss of hearing required speaking  loudly. Some truths have a best-by date. Spoken thereafter, they are merely hurtful and serve no good purpose. To  yell them is impossible.

Still, I could have, and I wish that I had, thanked him for the good loves even if I’d had to shout it. Love is always worth remembering. Always worth speaking.

V&A

This semester–and yes, my life at mmbty-some years of age is still measured in semesters–has been the longest and the slowest that I can remember in some time. I am fairly certain that the trip that I was supposed to have made to London in early February was either:

  1. made in a different lifetime
  2. made in an alternate universe
  3. made by someone else who stole my identity for that trip and I now need to track the bugger down and get my life back.

In short, that jaunt to London was a flash of a visit, the delight and point of which has been pulled to the depths of my memory by the riptide of this semester’s duties. (That moment of verbal melodrama provided courtesy of an utterly shattered brain.)

Despite the complete void in my memory, my camera has photos on it that suggest that I did somehow make it to the good old Victoria & Albert during that blip, and pictures don’t lie. Well, my pictures don’t lie because I haven’t got the foggiest how to doctor them. I could probably sit them down on the sofa and mess with their minds, but properly doctor ’em? Nope.

Anyway, my camera tells me that (true to form) I spent a fair bit o’ time in the medieval rooms, and it appears that I was thinking about home furnishings and accessorizing. I suppose, there’s nothing like a tin-can of a hotel room to make you think about a spacious home. The tin-can I remember. Oh, and I believe there was a very happy interlude with a scone in the V&A cafe…. It all comes back eventually.


Ivory book covers. This year’s must have for that special person in your life who has everything… except a conscience.

 

Always make sure that when guests enter your house, they know where they stand: on your turf. Tile that foyer with your coat of arms as did John of Gaunt.

DSC01503

The arms of John of Gaunt and his wife Constance, 1372-89. Clear, coloured and flashed glass with paint. (from the collection of Horace Walpole, 1717-77)

Looking for a new backsplash?  Tile is so passé. Consider using Limoges plaques.  Nothing says “money to burn” like gilded copper with champlevé enamel. Anxious about looking excessive? Go for a spiritual theme like the resurrection to subtly suggest your mind is on higher things. Besides, don’t we all feel like this when the dishes are done?

DSC01501

Plaque with the Resurrection of the Dead, circa 1250. Limoges, France.

Have a hankering to decorate with a touch of the outré? Did you watch that scene with the clutching hand in Harry Potter and think to yourself, “Well, maybe if it weren’t so poorly manicured that would work on the Green Room’s mantle….” Then, for that soupçon of je ne sais quoi (ou pourquoi), try a reliquary. Let the neighbors show off their aquamanile collection. Nothing says, “I’ll see your lousy bronze lion water pot and raise you an even more priceless objet d’art!” like a reliquary. (Nearly all body parts represented in current market. Some disassembly may be required.)

DSC01529

Now empty reliquary from 1250-1300, Southern Netherlands.

Personally, I have to confess that I would collect aquamaniles in a heartbeat. So far as my shallow little heart is concerned, they beat reliquaries hands down. But then, I’ve never been into the outré and as for soupçons, I’m more a soupspoon girl. Speaking of which….

DSC01550 who wants a silver spoon when you can have

This baby from c. 1430 was clearly intended for display and not use. Netherlands, silver enamel, gilding and niello (black composition).

Have bare walls? Well, why not set off this year’s trendy, dark green walls with a set of ivory love scenes produced in Paris between 1300-1325? Aim the proper lighting toward them and they’ll not only frame themselves, but they’ll also set the tone.  We recommend scenes like these which are straight out of romance literature. Did we mention tone?

 

Lastly, a little personal accessorizing is always necessary. Why should one’s house be better appointed than oneself? (It shouldn’t.) I like my accessories with a touch (a soupçon even) of humor. Case in point: this molded leather number which is equal parts Dean Martin and the Prioress from The Canterbury Tales. Who could ask for anything amore?

DSC01553 equal parts Dean Martin and Wife of Bath

Moulded Italian leather bag, 15th century.

Well, I could. Of course, I could. The aquamanile collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for starters….

Frick

Aside from the morally questionable game of “If I could steal one thing” that I play in museums, I tend to go through them fantasizing about putting irreverent Post-It notes up hither and thither.  Knowing that museums tend to frown on that, I do not, of course, do it. Still, I think it would be a very interesting social experiment to see how people engaged with non-official, humorous commentary. Would they take them down in disgust? Post their own if they could in response? Methinks it would be an amusing experiment, but we shall, alas, never know.

Being in New York for a few days, I am doing the rounds of small museums built by American industrialists. Yesterday it was the Frick, today the Morgan Pierpont for the one and only U.S. stop for Tolkien: Maker of Middle Earth. So, before I head for the day, I thought I’d post the “Post-Its” that I couldn’t put up in the Frick.


 

 

“Giovanni! Did you just knock another sculpture on the ground, young man? Basta! How many times do I have to tell you not to wear that esecrabile sword in the house!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



“Wait! I’m not ready. I just put a lozenge in my…. Oh, never mind.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

This spring, the fashion forward woman will be matching her hair to her feather. Ladies, this is de rigueur.

 

 

 

 

titian

Portrait of a Man in a Red Cap Titian (Italian, ca. 1488–1576) Date: ca. 1510

 

 

“Mama said this cap was a mistake,  but she was sooo wrong. (She also told me, I should shave my stubble and get a real haircut. The woman knows nothing.) My hat is no worse than that guy over there…”

 

 

 

 

 

“Are you talking to me? Are you seriously talking to me, you fop? My hat has points! Yes, fine. They’re soft points because it’s velvet, but it’s still a bloody serious hat. Yours looks like an undercooked pudding. Poltroon.”

 

 

 

 

 

“Points are for mustaches. Not hats. As for the pudding monstrosity, the less said the better. You’re both rather preposterous. Ask Mrs. Leyland over there.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Would you all just be quiet and let me contemplate the van Ruisdael? Peace and a fine prospect. That’s all I ask for.”


And now, if I could steal one thing….

 

D is for Depressive

Field Notes, Installment V

The girl’s first thoughts upon spotting the creature were rather uncharitable.

“What abominable posture that creature has!” she thought, and while she was not wrong, such a judgemental attitude hardly befitted a budding natural historian.D is for Depressive 1 edited

Perhaps the girl could not be blamed too much for her reaction. She had, after all, been brought up to be able to set a formal dining table with books on her head. That particular talent bestowed no virtue in and of itself, of course, but it did tend to make her very observant of all kinds of backbones (or the lack thereof).

When the creature turned cautiously towards her, the girl could hardly blame the beast for its disheartened stance. Everything about the creature reminded her of horseshoes if horseshoes were soft and squishy as jelly.  Or life-preservers if all the life had been kicked out of them. Or perhaps travel pillows which are always and forever disappointing. The only thing that didn’t remind her of such things was the creature’s stomach, and that was the worst part. For a moment, the girl just stared. She couldn’t help herself despite being raised to know better than to stare and being able to set the Sunday dinner table with books on her head.

“That explains everything,” thought the girl with a shake of her head, sitting down to quickly sketch, for the creature was so skittish she thought it might waddle away at any moment if she tried to get any closer.

Indeed, it was only because she didn’t approach that the creature remained where it was, skittishly watching her. The girl couldn’t blame it. Any creature with a dotted line running from chin to belly, belly to tail tip would naturallD is for Depressive 2y be wary of oncoming traffic of any sort, however pedestrian. After a bit, when the beast seemed well and truly satisfied that the girl was going to remain on her haunches fiddling with paper and pencil, it decided to investigate her. Since the creature was extremely slow and clumsy and did not so much waddle as list dangerously from one side to another and then back again, the girl actually began to feel motion sick as she watched its progress.

All the girl’s best attempts to engage the creature in conversation went flat as a tire, but then, what can one justly expect of a creature with road markings down its front and spur-like spikes down its back? Thus, the beast’s genus and species would have to remain a mystery until the girl encountered a more loquacious specimen. Indeed, she considered it a triumph to have gotten the creature’s name out of it.

“Penelope,” repeated the girl to herself as she put away her sketch book and watched the creature lurch gracelessly from sight, before her stomach demanded she turn her eyes elsewhere. “How very, very unexpected.”