Fran Ross’s Oreo is amazing and hilarious and wondrous, I cannot believe I had never heard of it before, never read it. It is funny, so few books are actually successfully funny. Brilliant inventive language and a dance through culture and knowledge that makes absurd any distinction between high and low. All about race, hybridity, fierce female strength and sass that is comfortable in its own skin. It contains some awesome whipping of some pimp ass. Philly v New York. My my, but you could not ask for more.
Writing so much about segregation, this made me laugh out loud but it is not the best bit by any stretch. That might be the bit about riding the bus, but might not. There are so many.
The family favorite that night was the story she told about playing at a house party in the all-black suburb of Whitehall, so much in the news when low-income whites were making their first pitiful attempts to get in. The upper-middle-class blacks of Whitehall objected to the palefaces, not because they were poor (“The poor we have with us always,” said town spokesman, the Reverend Cotton Smith-Jones, rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church), but because they were white (“We just do not want whitey, with his honky ways, around us,” said Reverend Smith-Jones to a chorus of genteel Episcopalian “Amens”). As Chuck Smith-Jones pointed out, whitey was beyond help. Chuck did not groove on crime in the streets, the way black people did; he did not dig getting his head whipped, his house robbed, his wife raped, the way black people did; he was not really in getting his jollies over his youngsters’ popping pills, tripping out, or shooting up, the way black people did. Such uptight, constipated people should not he allowed to mingle with decent, pleasure-loving black folk. That was the true story, but officially Whitehall had to be against the would-be intruders on the basis of poverty.
The town adopted a strict housing code, which was automatically rescinded for blacks and reinstated whenever whites appeared. (The code was shredded, its particles sprinkled into confiscated timed-release capsules, and is now part of the consciousness of millions of cold sufferers.) “Keep Whitehall black,” the townspeople chanted in their characteristically rich baritones and basses. “If you’re black, you’re all right, jack; if you’re white, get out of my sight,” said others in aberrant Butterfly McQueen falsettos. These and other racist slogans were heani, as the social, moral, economic, and political life of the town was threatened.
The white blue-collar workers who labored so faithfully at the Smith-Jones Afro Wig and Dashiki Co., Inc., were welcome to earn their daily bread in the town, but they were not welcome to bring their low-cholesterol foods, their derivative folk-rock music, and their sentimental craxploitation films to Whitehall. The poor, the white, and the disadvantaged could go jump.
The people of Whitehall set up floodlights to play over the outskirts of the neighboring, honky-loving black town, whose lawns (formerly reasonably manicured but now nervously bitten to the quick) bore sad witness to the instant herbaphobia that whites brought with them. Black Whitehall posted sentries and devised elaborate alarm/gotcha systems (the showpiece was a giant microwave oven with the door ajar). The Whitehall PO-lice raised attack dogs on a special “preview” diet of saltines and the white meat of turkeys. Helen quoted Reverend Smith-Jones as saying, in his down-home way, “If any chalks should be rash enough to come in here, those dogs will jump on them like white on rice.” (73-75)
Ross, Fran ( 2015) Oreo. New York: New Directions.
We should be in Poland now. Katowice, spending some time with beloved friends after Mark keynoted the literary philosophical conference they were putting together (which I had promised to submit a paper to but failed, being broken by work. So broken. But resting now). Still, we are on holiday, a holiday slipping through fingers stuck here at home. A holiday of writing. I thought perhaps I could return to some old blogs started and not finished, but it is not helping.
When in Warsaw — we were in Warsaw, another conference just before Christmas, a fascinating city I’ve still to write — we walked to the Neon Museum. When in Warsaw, in a time when travel was still possible, when movement beyond South Manchester a privilege but not an impossibility. The Neon Museum’s driving force has been the neon collector Ilona Karwinska along with David Hill, and it is marvelous. You can find English news coverage on CNN. We brought home this documentary Neon (2014) Eric Bednarski.
Mark watched it with me with good grace, I am fascinated by this idea of planning with light, of a unique time and a language that made to neonise a verb. I am a little in love with this way of designing a city, transforming this city completely rebuilt after Nazi destruction in WWII on massive Stalinist lines in grey concrete. A collective effort of collaborative design between architects, graphic designers, painters, engineers. The celebration of it in the pages of the magazine Stolica.
The time of neon was the time of the thaw after Stalin’s death in 1953, and a new emphasis on lightness, brightness, colour. Neon became both about bringing glamour to the city, but also provided a kind of a map, allowing the orientation of self in the city through light — you see the cow you know what street you are on. It reminds me of the saints that guard and guide you through the streets of Valletta. Warsaw’s idiom was full of modernity’s promise, associated with the bright lights of Times Square or Vegas. But in many ways it has more in common with the saints, expressively noncommercial, artisanal. It is a way to know and navigate a city, imagine the maps that Kevin Lynch might have uncovered here.
The process of creating neon itself is fascinating. Blow torches are used to shape the tubes, they rely on chemistry and the composition of gasses that somehow relate more to the mysteries of alchemy than modernity to me. And in Warsaw they were all unique, made for one specific place and time without standardisation.
My favourite thing about the film was the neon designer Piotr Perepłyś, without the smallest doubt. He embodied for me the joy of neon, the beauty of it, the way it felt (I paraphrase) to see something new shining there on any street ‘we could feel we were part of the world, part of Europe’. Neon imparted a new, a different kind of vitality to architecture, it gave it movement, light, energy. It transformed the grey (but oh, there is such a sense of the drab greyness of this twisted facade of communism). Perepłyś says something like ‘in that sad grey reality of ours, neon became a brooch, a jewel, gleaming down‘.
He designed with a pen and nib, a flowing hand, the best way to create the smooth lines and joined letters needed.
But the addition of gases to create shifting lights means that it is not (necessarily) a static art, but one that allows you to add a storyline, a narrative a joke.
Most wonderful. Because they did.
I love that the city designers of Warsaw’s different areas competed in neon. Yet even so it could be up to 3 years from design to building and putting it in place. A tortuous approval process ate up this time, which included the city council — the documentary contains an awesome document montage that gives a sense of the process.
And of course there are some great stories. Like the enormous flower bouquet that disturbed the sleep of the mistress of the minister, but complain as she might, it had gone through all the stages of approval and therefore it could not be removed.
This would all change. The mid 70s would bring economic crisis and (as everywhere) issues with energy. Many companies started leaving their neon unlit even before martial law was declared in 1981 in response to the solidarity movement. A new era began of military blockade, curfews and blackout with neons forbidden.
I can’t remember who says it but it is definitely true that ‘unlit neons are very depressing‘.
As letters fell, meanings became transformed in humorous ways. Yet this signaled the beginning of the end, and by 1991 the neons started to disappear, often actively destroyed as communist remnants.
Many remain scattered through the city — though nothing like their heyday which I would have loved to have seen. There are some amazing photographs here. I am glad this many have been saved, glad they are having something of a come back. The museum is wonderful, and well worth a visit, as is wandering the surrounding area.
The picture above is from Jennifer Jewell’s The Earth in Her Hands. In this great green garden she created and in that T-shirt, Jamaica Kincaid is fierce. A quote from her interview there: ‘Plants contain the world. The garden, better than any college education, gave the world to me‘.
I loved this book, even if (maybe because) it isn’t very easy. I loved the spiked outline of Jamaica Kincaid in all its fullness of garden colour and glory: the obsessive gardening, the plants, the meditations on winter and colour and travel and China and self and other people and foxes and history and Vermont and Antigua and mothers and children and … you know, this stuff of everyday thought and life.
It is not full of things to be quoted really. It is to be enjoyed in the round this book, the full chiaroscuro of character that only appears when you reach that last page, close that cover. But there were two things I wanted to share. The first because I have noticed only in the past few months (pre-lockdown) the strange appearance of breadfruit everywhere in Manchester and Bristol. The new vegetarian alternative, from replacing my favourite pizza at Zizzi’s to numerous other restaurants offering strange versions of it. I know it is not at all new elsewhere, but how did it happen like this all at once here? There is something going on, but what?
Kincaid gives it new meaning.
This food, the breadfruit, has been the cause of more disagreement between parents and their children than anything I can think of. No West Indian that I know has ever liked it. It was sent to the West Indies by Joseph Banks, the English naturalist and world traveler, and the founder of Kew Gardens, which was then a clearinghouse for all the plants stolen from the various parts of the world these people had been (the climbing rose R. banksiae from China was named for his wife). He sent tea to India, he sent the West Indies the breadfruit; it was meant to be a cheap food for feeding slaves. It was in the cargo that Captain Bligh was carrying to the West Indies on the Bounty when his crew so correctly mutinied. (Perhaps Antiguan children sense intuitively the part this food has played in the history of injustice and so they will not eat it.) It grows readily, it bears fruit abundantly, it is impervious to drought, a serious impediment to the growing of things anywhere. In a place like Antigua the breadfruit is not a food, it is a weapon. (100-101)
And obsessed with history as I am, I loved this, and she repeats that larger paragraph at the end of this chapter on history, underlines it.
What to call the thing that happened to me and all who look like me?
Should I call it history?
If so, what should history mean to someone like me?
Should it be an idea, should it be an open wound with each breath I take in and expel healing and opening the wound again and again, over and over, and is this the healing and opening a moment that begins in 1492 and has yet to come to an end? Is it a collection of facts, all true and precise details, and if so, when I come across these true and precise details, what should I do, how should I feel, where should I place myself?
Why should I be obsessed with all these questions?
My history begins like this: In 1492, Christopher Columbus discovered the New World (114).
I suppose more than anything this makes me ache even more for my own space, my own garden. I know that old excitement of plant catalogs. This is an old ache exacerbated in lockdown, staring at the wild grass outside I must cut. A small yard not mine, without tools to prune the wild suckers and plant growing things (and plant for whom? though I know I should leave this place better than I found it as I hope to leave all places, yet a punishing terrible job leaves no time to cultivate or improve anything in a sustained way and I never ever expected to be here so long, that alone makes me want to curl up and give in), the damp in the walls, the furnishings and appliances that belong to a landlord and are cheap and breaking down, this bed that hurts my back so I can’t exercise much anymore, the stove that will not bake properly at gas mark 4, these uncomfortable couches, kitchen chairs you can’t sit on for too long, the glass table. Sometimes I feel like I am shriveling up.
I do, I really do, know that it could be worse.
Kincaid, Jamaica (1999) My Garden (book): London: Vintage.
I found a hotel on Third Street that was tenanted by dark Europeans. It was managed by an elderly woman who, when I asked if Orientals were accepted, explained that it was not an American establishment. She meant that Filipinos were allowed to stay so long as they abided by the rules. In other places I had felt like a criminal, running up to my room in fear and closing the door suspiciously, as though the whole world were conspiring against me. (306)
Wonderful autobiography, highly recommend.
Bulosan, Carlos ( 2014) America is in the Heart: A Personal History. Seattle & London: University of Washington Press.
A long long walk through to neighbourhoods we have not seen before revealed such unexpected treasures today, above all the Fairfield Moravian settlement. We walked through Gorton (increasingly well known) and on to Openshaw, Fairfield, Droylsden. Needing to stretch our legs safely in lockdown, so tired of the streets immediately around us. We went off once again in quest of more blue plaques…quests we enjoy. Mark has posted a badly photographed plaque every day now for weeks, and I love the wander through everyday streets and architectures with a preliminary destination provided by the randomness of human birth and committee-recognised achievement.
We found such extraordinary things on this walk, though sadly as much flytipping as ever. Improved, perhaps, by the presence of creepy dolls and ancient suitcases, cheap chairs sat upright in the road.
We saw flowers growing from walls, the memories of windows and doors and crosses, a canal and some cottages down at an old wharf, geese and the astounding cuteness of goslings, a Moravian settlement of cobbled streets and timeless feel, open fields, huge brick factories in various stages of disrepair and decay, very pleasing sections of older terraced housing, some fascinating church architecture (South Manchester has such a wealth of wondrous churches and mosques with astonishing spires), an extraordinary checkerboarded market building, a variety of old pubs (closed alas all closed), birds attacking a kestrel above the ghosted outlines of a factory long demolished, the library bearing a plaque for Harry Pollitt, former General Secretary and Chairman of the British Communist Party, cats on roofs and staring at us from windows, and the birthplace of Frank Hampson who created the Dan Dare comic strip.
The Moravian settlement was most extraordinary, visited as the site of two plaques but we had no idea what else what there until we found it. A whole community (or what is left of this village and its fields that once covered 60 acres) of Georgian houses opened in 1785, built by Czech Moravians fleeing persecution. The money to build it came from Moravian church member John Lees, who sold two of his mines in Oldham (mines in Oldham!) to raise the £6,000 needed (£6000!). From the church’s website:
Fairfield is a Settlement congregation which was opened in 1785. It was planned and built by its own people, with its inn, shop, bakery, farm, laundry, fire-engine, night-watchman, inspector of weights and measures, an overseer of roads, and even its physician. There were community houses for sisters and brethren, who applied themselves to the varied work of the Settlement.
With the passing of time have come changes. The boarding schools of Fairfield have gone. That for boys, started in 1790, was discontinued in 1891; and the girls’ school, begun in 1796, has passed into the care of the local authority as Fairfield High School for Girls. The work of the Moravian Theological College was transferred to Fairfield in 1875 and continued there in the original Sisters’ House until 1958. Fairfield is no longer a self contained village; no longer does the watchman make his nightly rounds, and in the farm meadows are now streets and houses.
Despite the many changes in the life of the Settlement over the past 200 years, the Church, with its worshipping and serving congregation, remains its focus and heart.
There is a lovely piece in the Manchester Evening News about the museum there (closed sadly but not-sadly of course due to lockdown) and the woman who runs it and was baptised as a baby here. From the news article (well worth a read):
With its own council, inspector of weights and measures, bakery and laundry the Morovians built their own unique community where men and women were equal.
The plaques were for Charles Hindley, first Moravian MP, mill owner and part of the factory reform movement and Mary Moffat who attended the Fairfield Girl’s School, became a missionary to South Africa and whose daughter married David Livingstone. I have left the pictures in the flow of the walk below, simply because they stand in such incredible contrast to the world around them. We were struck by how simple this place is and yet how much better it seemed to work as a place to live, labour, visit than the whole of the area around it. How I would love to live in such a place. Obviously I am a bit obsessive about how urban space works, and some of this has rubbed off on my partner. We spoke about it as we walked the long miles home. Those thoughts and more below:
As I stare at my pictures, and the other pleasing examples of terraces we walked past, I am ever more certain that for me it is the height of the ceilings and the size of the windows above all that makes terraced housing most pleasing. The older they are the bigger the windows, and even the most simple two up two downs are thus rescued from what always strikes me as the meanness of so much later housing construction.
No asphalt or paved roadways, with nicely wide pavements raised from the roadways but not otherwise distinctive. This makes the whole of the space between buildings feel more unified and for walking or playing in, with cars allowed on sufferance. They are cobbled and obviously this makes them absurdly picturesque, but it is more the narrower cobbled space for cars and the parking set in the middle rather than along the edges that makes this work I think.
Likewise I think houses fronting right on the pavements, trees down the middle of the space between the terraces creates more of a sense of community and connection, a shared greenspace but easy (perhaps better said easier) to maintain. But what we could see of the gardens also showed them much loved and beautiful
Unified building materials but very differently sized dwellings giving visual interest, adding nooks and crannies and varied surfaces but also a sense that this community has planned for a diversity of household sizes and needs. There is clearly some level of class/status distinction here, but they feel to some extent unremarkable in the face of the quality of building, the greater sense of community expressed by the layout of the buildings and the way people clearly lived side by side.
the feeling of artisan rather than mass construction
Beautiful communal buildings
Well cared for and maintained (I’m guessing few absentee landlords here, and regulations maintaining the ‘historic preservation’ aspect), clean, some houses covered by greenery (my favourites of course) but many not
I found a map of the original settlement that shows the layout and the changing building uses, including the initial building of rooms for single men and women:
Scrolling down, you meet a statue to honour the early Moravians themselves, and then the village is easy to see emerging from South Manchester. But this walk took us past many streets and buildings and spaces full of character, one of my favourites so far.
When a friend mentioned walking to the secret lake I thought he was just talking about the reservoir, but there is actually a secret lake. We found it almost by accident. Walked through Nutsford Vale Park and through the bit that still feels more landfill than park to find that most of it is actually lovely. We walked through trees and fields to someone playing a slow version of Bella Ciao over and over again. It was eerie, sad when meeting asphalt paths and other people broke the spell.
This walk brought us narrow passages full of rubbish, an old motor bike rusting in a dried stream bed, factories, recycling, Nutsford Vale Park and Greenbank Park, the secret lake full of swans and water lilies and lined by hopeful fisherman.
Seeing the city as a work of art is a curious way to view a city, I found it an interesting exercise. This book represents quite a masterful look at London, Paris and Vienna, with a splendid raft of photographs, illustrations and quotations. To the greater or lesser extent that I know them, they are all cities that I love. Perhaps the best way to document just how Olsen thinks of cities here is to give a view of the table of contents – you can see that he gets through quite a lot.
THE CITY AS LUXURY 1Urban Virtue and Urban Beauty THE CITY AS MONUMENT 2The Monumental Impulse 3The Remaking of London The Vision of Splendor, 1811-1825 • Disillusion and Disgust, 1825-1837 • The Victorian Alternative 4The New Paris Paris before Haussmann • Paris Remade, 1852-1870 • Paris after Haussmann, 1870-1914 5The Vienna of Franz Joseph Vienna in 1857 • The Creation of the Ringstrasse 6The Process of Urban Embellishment THE CITY AS HOME 7The Building and the Dwelling: The Family and the Individual • London • Paris Vienna 8Inside the Dwelling: The Public and the Private • The London House • The Paris Flat • The Viennese Wohnung 9Social Geography The Town as a Map of Society • London • Paris • Vienna 10Villa Suburbia London • Paris • Vienna 11Working-Class Housing: Scarcity, Abundance, and Domestic Values THE CITY AS PLAYGROUND 12London: Hidden Pleasures 13Paris: The Garden and the Street 14Vienna: Display and Self-Representation THE CITY AS DOCUMENT 15Architecture as Historical Evidence 16The Beautiful: In Search of a Nineteenth-Century Aesthetic • London • Paris • Vienna 17Architecture as Language: Representation and Instruction 18The City as the Embodiment of History
Exploring the City as Art also, of course, means really as ‘high art’. I find that just a little tiresome, as I do of this ongoing debate that tires me of cities as good or bad, beautiful or ugly — there are a number of binary debates rehearsed in here. But useful to give his summary here:
The city as a work of art? Surely not. The city as wasteland, perhaps, or as battleground, or jungle. The city as manifestation of all that is rotten in society, festering wound in the body politic, foretaste of hell in which brute force tramples the weak underfoot, corruption feeds on innocence, gluttony mocks hunger, unprotected virtue submits to triumphant vice. From Juvenal to Cobbett, from Saint Augustine to Jefferson, poets and moralists, publicists and philosophers have subjected the city to righteous abuse. In more measured language, the modern scholar approaches urbanization as a pathologist tracing the course of a disease. Defenders of the city usually justify their position on economic rather than aesthetic grounds. They see the city as infrastructure, to be judged by the efficiency with which it facilitates the creation and distribution of wealth. To both attackers and defenders, the city is the product of vast, anonymous forces, not an individual creation. Any beauty it might possess would be incidental to its real nature, any visible structure one imposed by historical necessity rather than artistic intent.
Yet with rare exceptions, such as Ireland before the Viking invasions, the civilizations of the past have regarded cities as neither shameful nor inevitable, but as deliberate creations, worth making sacrifices to build, maintain, and embellish. (3)
I do quite love the idea of city as deliberate creation — what after all is the point of urban planning if not that (though I know I know it is so rarely that…) In the end I find viewing London-Paris-Vienna through the eyes of Art and Architectural History (and this very specific view of Art and Architectural History capitalised) enriches other views (as annoyed as I sometimes became reading it, being a great lover of bottom-up histories rather than this necessarily top down one, which as Olsen says by necessity excludes industrial cities such as Sheffield given such a focus on ART and ARCHITECTURE, but aside from all my annoyance still to some degree a useful exercise…). He writes of London:
Here both individual and national extravagance were at worst forgivable, at best laudable. Whether such extravagance took the form of an afternoon spent purchasing frivolities in Bond Street or the erection of pinnacled monuments along the Embankment, London offered possibilities of conspicuous self-indulgence and significant display that would have been out of place in an industrial city. To grasp the meaning of such self-indulgence, such display, the techniques of the economic historian are useless, those of the social historian inadequate. The art historian and the intellectual historian are better qualified to illuminate our understanding of cities that, like London, transcend in both aspiration and achievement the merely practical and utilitarian.
While waiting for the results of the refined analysis such specialists may engage in, we can perhaps achieve cruder but still valuable insights by using our eyes and by finding out how people in the century before 1914 themselves perceived London, Paris, and Vienna. (6)
And thus we begin. This book is quite full of splendid detail, almost too much so, it is impossible to capture or blog properly. I’ve pulled out a little for each city of London – Paris – Vienna separately, but here try to give just a sense of how Olsen compares them.
City As Monument
The nineteenth was the most historically minded of centuries, the one most aware of itself as participant in a continuing drama. It possessed at the same time, unexampled means for giving material expression to that awareness…London, Paris, and Vienna had long contained monuments. Only in the nineteenth century did they try to become monuments. (9)
I like that distinction, I confess. Olsen continues:
Although the inner core of each city bore uncomfortable witness to its medieval origins, suburban extensions during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries showed a degree of order and decency that occasionally rose to monumentality.
What failed them from doing so completely? The ‘enforced poverty’ of English monarchs subject to Parliament’s unwillingness to pay out. For the Bourbons and Habsburgs, ‘another instance of their unwillingness to interfere with private interests and individual rights‘ (10-11).
The concluding chapter (The Process of Urban Embellishment) sums the monumental argument up (I am also enjoying reviewing these geographies in my mind and how they resonate or not with my own experiences of walking these cities, such a pleasure during this time of lockdown):
first London, then Paris, and finally Vienna attempted to turn them-selves into monuments in the course of the nineteenth century. London, between 1811 and 1837, remade itself along the line connecting Regent’s Park with St. James’s Park and Trafalgar Square; Paris, between 1852 and 1870, cut great swaths across itself, north to south, east to west, and diagonally, planting trees and flowers wherever it could; Vienna, beginning in 1857, turned a fortified zone into a ring of pleasure. The three programs shared a number of characteristics: they resulted from the initiative of the central government; depended for their success on the attraction of private investment by speculative builders and developers; were intended to make royal or imperial residences more prominent; created public parks; mixed public and private buildings, ecclesiastical and secular purposes, residential and commercial uses; used architecture mainly in the classical tradition (broadly defined); put up monuments of national, imperial, dynastic, or cultural significance; built wide streets both to facilitate traffic and to serve as fashionable promenades; and combined aesthetic with social and sanitary motives. London and Paris incorporated slum clearance in the preliminary demolitions; in Vienna no destruction of residential or commercial property, slum or otherwise, was necessary.
And a note to self on the distinctiveness of Vienna — which does indeed feel different and I think in the end in great part because of this:
One peculiarity, indeed, of Vienna is that it has never indulged either in the cutting through of percees or in systematic slum clearance as these operations were carried out in London and Paris. (82)
Yet these had nothing on the great motorways and ringroads of the following centuries.
The City as Home
The two dominant institutions of the nineteenth century, the two focuses of loyalty, were the family and the nation-state. … Between the late Middle Ages and the end of the eighteenth century there had developed, through western and northern Europe, a belief in the values of individualism, privacy, and domesticity. (89)
Thus, he argues:
The dwellings of London, Paris, and Vienna illuminate the respective attitudes of the three societies toward domesticity, familial affection, privacy, and individuality. (90)
Been reading a lot about homes, how they’ve changed over the centuries (like Judith Flanders, Witold Rybczynski, my favourite from Alison Blunt and Robyn Dowling) so nothing here was too revelatory, though I loved the architectural drawings of buildings and almost laughed out loud at this:
The English were convinced that nowhere were domestic virtues better or more extensively cultivated than in England. Paris certainly, and Vienna so far as they knew about it, seemed on the whole more suitable for extramarital adventure than for sober family life. (90)
This goes without saying
The major difference between them being that English cities tend to be made up of ‘small dwelling houses’ while the other two ‘large blocks of flats’. (92)
But this I hadn’t known:
And this — almost all London buildings beginning life as residences, true of most houses between the City and Hyde Park:
And even while Parisian middle classes loved their flats, still there remained some of these:
And then there is Vienna — where not a single medieval home still exists. It is now palaces of the aristocracy and blocks of flats for the rest.
How can we read social geographies through architecture? Broadly speaking, he argues that medieval homes had everyone living and undertaking work and other activities in the same space and this slowly transitioned into single family homes partitioned with each person and activity separated and assigned space, servants separate from family, more public spaces separate from private. Just so cities went from such a mix to more segregated subdivisions. London, due to being larger and more technologically advanced with its embracing of domesticity and privacy took this further earlier than either Paris or Vienna.
This of course could only proceed so far until modern transport, and the spaces for workers, servants, carriages and horses and such even in the wealthiest of neighbourhoods were no longer required. I love mews though have only known them in their gentrified incarnations. This lovely illustration shows all they were before becoming additional luxury residences.
While the English perceived class distinctions to be fewer in France, Olsen hedges that it was only slightly less in Paris than in London, especially after the 1850s and 60s, but always a distinction between left bank and right, interior and the working class suburbs. Still, in London and Paris the geographies of wealth and fashion did shift to some extent. Of all three Vienna remained the most stable: prosperous aristocratic neighborhoods remained so, and there continues to be ‘a marked decline in social prestige as one moves from the first Bezirk (City and Rigstrasse) to Vorstadt…to Vorort’. (151)
Also housing signaled slightly different things in each city:
The customary English way for a rich City man to insinuate himself, or rather his descendants, into the governing class was to purchase a country estate and set himself up as a landed gentleman. No London mansion, no taking of a house in Grosvenor Square, would serve to expunge the mercantile stain. In Vienna residence in the City, far from being incompatible with a noble manner of living, was essential to it. The Ringstrasse, though attached to the City, imitating it in its architectural forms, and surpassing it in physical magnificence, never succeeded in equaling it in fashion and prestige. The French aristocracy transferred itself to the Marais under Louis XIII, to Saint-Germain under Louis XV, and—if it could afford it—to the Champs-Elysees and beyond during the Third Republic; the Viennese aristocracy, once established in the Altstadt, stayed there.
I sit and try to remember what it felt like to wander these cities, to travel at all. Olsen continues on Vienna:
It would be wrong to exaggerate the social inferiority of the Ringstrasse. It served rather as the concrete expression of the admission to the ruling classes of both individuals and broader social groupings, who expanded and enriched the older governing class just as the Ringstrasse zone expanded and enriched the older City. The Ringstrasse united new aristocracy with old, money with birth, ability with rank, the arts and scholarship with politics and administration.-3 It represented what was healthiest about the last period of the Habsburg Empire: its openness to talent, new ideas, and new artistic forms, whatever their origin; its cosmopolitanism, its respect for learning and achievement, and its refusal to be shocked by the unconventional. (154)
This is obviously not the place to look for solid descriptions of working class housing, but there is this:
The paucity of reference to the working classes in this discussion of the city as home may suggest that privacy, intimacy, and domesticity were qualities too expensive for them to afford. With respect to the housing available to them in Paris and Vienna, and to a considerable extent in London, this may very nearly have been true: when the normal family dwelling consists of a single room, with perhaps a small separate kitchen, discussing the impact of degagements and subdivided, specialized areas makes little sense… As for neighborhoods segregated by social class, the luxury of choice of district was a middle-class privilege: the workers moved to whatever places economically stronger groups chose to avoid.
Studies of working-class housing before 1914, local and national, normally stress its inadequacy—overcrowded, overpriced, and insufficient—and note the failure of the free market to produce enough new housing to keep up with the growing population, much less bring average standards up to a level of decency. The most optimistic estimates show a degree of improvement far less than any overall rise in living standards.1 But as one reads the dismal accounts the nagging objection emerges: conditions everywhere could not be worse than they were everywhere else. And the testimony both of contemporaries and of the buildings themselves suggests that for the working classes as for the middle classes, standards were higher in London than in Paris, in Paris than in Vienna. They were high enough to enable a significant minority of London’s working classes to imitate middle-class patterns of behavior, much as the middle classes were shaping their own lives according to their notion of aristocratic manners.
There is also some reference to the economics of it all, which I appreciated:
Contributing more to differentials in cost were the local building codes, most stringent in Vienna, least in London. The flimsy, jerry-built construction practiced by London’s builders, of which contemporaries were forever complaining, did enable them to build and sell more cheaply and allowed house owners to make reasonable profits from lower rents than would have been conceivable in either Paris or Vienna. The mild English winters and the willingness of the English to endure cold indoors permitted builders to make little provision for insulation or other than primitive heating arrangements.
The nature of the London building industry, in which large numbers of small undercapitalized speculators were able to coexist with giants like Cubitt and William Willett, meant that there were always those willing to plunge into housing development whatever the economic climate. They went bankrupt with monotonous regularity, leaving rows of carcasses to be finished by the next generation of hopeful speculators, but the houses ultimately got built. The syndicates and companies that were responsible for building Paris and Vienna were not above over-estimating the market themselves, but on the whole they behaved more rationally and cautiously and hence built more in response to than in anticipation of demand.
And of course all of these — the type, amount, cost of housing, building codes, climate etc — were co-constitutive of how people lived in it. Each impacted the other and I wouldn’t wager which was more important, but the large differences remain
If the nature of the London house, the layout of the London street, and the pattern of development that informed the Victorian metropolis encouraged withdrawal and seclusion, the structure of the Paris flat, the attractions of the Paris street, and the very nature of Paris itself called its residents out of doors. If the life of London lay hidden in its drawing rooms, inside its clubs, within the cozy subdivisions of its pubs, the life of Paris was there for all to see, and perhaps to join: in its promenades, its boulevards, and its streets. (185)
City as Playground
This is partly city as enjoyed by tourist. Interesting to note London as a city was very much lacking in hotels or restaurants. For men single or married, there was instead the club. Described by Cesar Daly (who I must read but seems like I must read him in French, yikes) as a way to enjoy the society of others without mixing with those of inferior social class. That sums up England rather beautifully.
Olsen quotes Henry T. Tuckerman on Paris, a very different sort of place:
We of England and America, instinctively revolve about a permanent centre, hallowed and held by the triple bond of habit, love, and religion. Not so the Parisians: Imagine … we dwelt in a kind of metropolitan encampment, requiring no domicile except a bedroom for seven hours in the twenty-four, and passing the remainder of each day and night as nomadic cosmopolites: going to a café to breakfast, a restaurant to dine, an estaminet to smoke, a national library to study, a cabinet de lecture to read the gazettes, a public bath for ablution…a thronged garden to promenade, a theatre to he amused, a museum for science, a royal gallery for art, a municipal ball, literary soirée, or suburban rendezvous, for society.39 (217)
Fun fact: The first raised foot pavement in Paris was in the rue de ‘Odeon in 1781 (Wow) but rare anywhere else until the 1830s. And yet, this view of Paris as a place where live is lived out of doors is ubiquitous, as in this quote from Philip Gilbert Hamerton (Paris in Old and Present Times). ‘The English have invented the house, the French have invented the street.‘
Vienna? ‘No city in Europe is better suited for a life of public self-representation‘.
The City as Document
This opens with a bit of a debate around history and architecture that I find a little stale,
An assumption underlying this book has been that a work of art is also a historical source, that the city, as the largest and most characteristic art form of the nineteenth century, has something to tell us about the inner nature of that century. (251)
The caption for the picture below: “A Parisian facade seems to be a drawing in stone, full size, literally an immense lithograph.” Rue de la Victoire 98. From Revue Generale de l’architecture 16 (1858)
This one is even better for Vienna: “If a street census were taken…they would certainly equal the population of a respectable market town.” Figurative sculpture on facade of Schubertring 9-11, Ludwig von Zettl , architect, 1865 (Kunsthistorisches Institut der Universitat Wien. Photo Johana Fiegl).
Architecture as Language
Just a few good quotes;
“The history of architecture is the history of the world,- proclaimed Pugin in 1843. “The belief and manners of all people are embodied in the edifices they raised.” [A. Welby Pugin An Apology… 1969]
1892 N. J. W. Westlake: “the higher architecture is . . . a language for the expression of thought. . . . In ancient times it expressed the ideas of the period in the idiom of the period.”
Pevsner: “…every building creates associations in the mind of the beholder, whether the architect wanted it or not. The Victorian architect wanted it.” [A History of Building Types]
From John Belcher’s presidential address to the RIBA in 1904, where he ‘made explicit a conviction implicit in historicist theory: architecture and its associated arts could convey the maximum of beauty, morality, and truth only if they combined to form a Gesamtkunstwerk‘:
Architecture must tell its tale; it has its message to deliver. Like a musical score it expresses a great deal more than meets the eye. . . . Architecture is the prose of inarticulate but beautiful thought and feeling. Sometimes it tells of the commonplace in life; rising higher it speaks of domestic peace and happiness; and yet again in more stately diction it sets forth the grander and larger purposes of life. It recounts the past, records the present, and holds up ideals for the future. But only when it is enriched from the sister arts of sculpture and painting can it tell the tale with the fulness of eloquence and power.
Olsen’s take, and a summary of the questions he tries to answer here:
What messages were buildings, cities, and other works of art expected to transmit? What meaning did they possess, what ideas did they contain? What can a city, in its capacity as a work of art, accomplish? What can art do, apart from existing in its own right? It can tell a story, or many stories. It can establish a mood. It can reinforce selected virtues. It can surprise and delight by unexpected juxtapositions of forms, textures, colors, and movements. It can soothe and reassure by repetition of familiar forms, textures, colors, and movements. It can stand for, or represent, ideas, qualities, institutions. English critics placed great stress on the expressive qualities of buildings, German theorists on their representational qualities. (285)
Olsen, Donald J. (1986) The City as a Work of Art: London – Paris – Vienna. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
I think few people understand the psychosis of developers and suburbs like Charles Willeford (1919-1988). He could have invented The Big Short, I’m sorry he didn’t. This does have some brilliant passages that resonate eerily with the 2008 crisis. The more things change the more they stay the same, or some other appropriate cliche.
There were thirty four-story condominium apartment buildings in the complex that made up Kendall Pines Terrace, but only six of the buildings had been completed and occupied. The other buildings were unpainted, windowless, concrete shells. Construction had been suspended for more than a year. Almost all of the apartments in the occupied buildings were empty. For the most part, their owners had purchased them at pre-construction prices during the real estate boom in 1979. But now, in fall 1982, construction prices had risen, and very few people could qualify for loans at 17 percent interest.
“There’s been some vandalism out here,” Susan said, when she parked in her numbered space in the vast and almost empty parking lot. “So they built a cyclone fence and hired a Cuban to drive around at night in a Jeep. That’s stopped it. But some-times, late at night, it’s a little scary out here.”
There was a tropical courtyard in the hollow square of Building Six—East. Broad-leaved plants had been packed in thickly around the five-globed light in the center of the patio. and cedar bark had been scattered generously around the plants. There was a pleasant tingle of cedar and night-blooming jasmine in the air.
Susan … pointed toward the dark Everglades.
“In the daytime you can see them, but not now. For the next four miles or so, those are all tomato and cucumber fields. Then you get to Krome Avenue, and beyond that it’s the East Everglades–nothing but water and alligators. It gets too drowned with water to build on the other side of Krome, and Kendall pines Terrace is the last complex in Kendall. Eventually, the rest of those fields will all be condos, because Kendall is the chicest neighborhood in Miami. But they won’t be able to build anymore in the ‘Glades unless they drain them.”
“This apartment looks expensive.”
“It is, for the girl that owns it. She put every cent she had into it, and then found out she couldn’t afford to live here. She’s just a legal secretary, so she had to rent it out, furniture and all…” (52-53
Perhaps even more interesting, thinking Miami in terms of escaping cops…
If a man had to escape from the cops, he could only drive north or south. Only two roads crossed the Ever-, glades to Naples, and both of these could be blocked. If a man drove south he would be caught, eventually, in Key West, and the cops could easily bottle up a man on the highways if he headed north, especially if he tried to take the Sunshine Parkway.
The only way to escape from anyone, in case he had to, would be to have three or four hidey-holes. One downtown, one in North Miami, and perhaps a place over in Miami Beach. There would be no other safe method to get away except by going to ground until whatever it was that he’d have done was more or less forgotten about. Then, when the search was over, he could drive or take a cab to the airport and get a ticket to anywhere he wanted to go. (67)
Willeford, Charles (1984) Miami Blues. London: Futura Publications.
I didn’t read the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili properly, eyes drooping amidst its turgid misogyny and lengthy OCD descriptions of classical architecture, sculpture and tits…I realised I had many better things to do. But I skimmed along, I liked the pictures (lol). Glasgow University Library has a great blog on it, they liked the pictures too:
Arguably the most beautiful book of the Venetian Renaissance… Published in 1499 by the renowned printer Aldus Manutius, this magnificently crafted volume is illustrated with 172 woodcuts by an unknown artist.
So…beautiful to look at, but some choice quotes of the reactions of others Glasgow University collected:
The overall literary merit of this work is debatable, and some critics have dismissed it as unreadable. Certainly it is written in an odd hybrid of Latin vocabulary imposed upon Italian syntax; this idiosyncratic language would probably have been as difficult for sixteenth century readers as it is today.
That’s actually pretty cool, if only the content merited it.
Liane Lefaivre, for instance, suggests that it is in many ways a nondescript example of ‘a highly stylized genre’. Professor Weiss, meanwhile, declared it to be ‘a serious runner up for the title of most boring work in Italian literature’.
IT IS SO BORING. But laid out rather beautifully as they say (on the right is an absurd statue that gets like two pages of absurdly erotic description — the priapic satyr? Yikes):
But I pulled out a few bits that weren’t totally boring, it does have lots to interest the gardener or aficionado of medieval clothing. I’d bought it on a whim from a used bookstore years ago, and thought after reading the Decameron (1353) I’d give it a go in this great time of lockdown.
It totally justifies some of Boccaccio’s ill will towards the Venetians.
Like Boccaccio too, it is obsessed with the ancients in all things, looking backwards always for inspiration. But being of its time, there are some choice passages on the plague, near the very end. The first book is Poliphilo wandering in a strange (yet strangely familiar) land. I liked the tiny second book stuck at the end which actually gives the history of Polia and Poliphilo the best to be honest.
These are the words of Polia, the object of the protagonist’s desire (it’s all in the name to be sure).
Very soon after this there occurred a great carnage affecting people of every age and condition. They were infected through the corrupted air by a contagious and deadly plague, and a great multitude died. Dreadful terror and alarm spread over the sickly earth, and people were struck by mortal fear. Everyone sought safety outside the city and took flight to the suburbs and country regions. Such a dreadful mass of people was exterminated that it was suspected that the fetid south wind had brought the plague from humid Egypt, where at the flooding of the turbid Nile the fields are strewn with a multitude of dead animals that putrefy and stink, and that these had infected the air. …
Ah Europeans, always blaming plagues on the dark continents and the whims of nature rather than commerce. She continues:
Due to my own frail and malignant fate, I found myself afflicted by a tumour in the groin. I besought the highest gods, on the chance that they would grant me recovery, while the spreading infection of the plague in my groin gravely weakened me. Because of this everyone deserted me, and I was left behind, except by my nurse, the kindest and best of women, who stayed to care for me and to witness my last breath and the departure of my spirit. Afflicted by the grave malady, raving and wandering, I uttered incoherent words and many a groan and lamentation. But turning inwards I did the best I could, and sincerely invoked the help of divine Diana, because I had as yet no notion of other gods and no religion but of this goddess. So I uttered many a single minded prayer in my trembling voice, and vowed myself to her cold and sacred chastity, promising in my tormented state that I would be her devotee and ever serve her religiously in her sacred temples, in strict continence, if only she would save me from this deadly contagion and sickness. (378-88)
Seems fair enough that after that she would then reject the advances of Poliphilo — also against him is the fact that he is possibly the most annoying, boring man alive, as his lengthy writing style proves beyond doubt. Sadly, he wrote the book, chose the ending, and this is clearly male wish fulfillment at its finest:
Then the fearless nymph turned to me, with her placid and charming presence showing every sign of kindness, and with a sigh uttered hotly from the bottom of her inflamed heart she spoke thus: ‘Dearest and best beloved Poliphilo, your ardent and excessive desire and your constant and persistent love have altogether stolen me away from the college of chastity, and forced me to extinguish my torch….it has cost me no small fire to keep it hidden and concealed in me, and so long suppressed. … A love so worthy should not be left unrequited and denied equal reciprocation and recompense; and consequently I am all prepared for your inflamed desires.
You may throw up just a little in your mouth here and yet it goes on
Look: I feel the fire of fervent love spreading and tingling throughout my whole being. Here I am, the end of your bitter and frequent sighs. Here I am, dearest Poliphilo, the healing and instant remedy of your grave and vexing pains. Here I am, a ready consort for your amorous and bitter suffering and a sharer in everything. Here I am with my profuse tears to quench your burning heart, and to die for you promptly and most devotedly.
And as proof of it, take this!’ She hugged me close and gave me, mouth to mouth, a luscious biting kiss full of divine sweetness, and also a few pearls in the form of tearlets, wrung by singular sweetness from her starry eyes. Inflamed from head to foot by her charming speech and by the mouth-watering and delicious savour, I dissolved in sweet and amorous tears and lost myself completely. Likewise the sacrificial President and all the others, moved with sudden emotion, could not contain their tears and sweet sighs (216-17).
Tearlets? Vomitous. At least she did try to get rid of him. I quite liked this illustration:
She’s refused him, he collapses, she drags him off to a dark corner of Diana’s Temple where he lies dead for a few days. This could have been an awesome feminist murder mystery, an early example of medieval noir.
But no. She had to change her tune, go back for him, bring him to life (of a kind) with her tears and kisses, and become a sacrificial sex doll of a woman.
That’s what counts for a plot.
There are also numerous monsters, this could have been a great medieval bestiary. I liked these drawings too:
But the skinks are too small, unicorns pull carriages and are consumed for dinner, and there is no mayhem whatsoever.
Instead this is mostly an ‘erotic’ yet somehow still boring tale of architecture, sculpture, gardens — and I love all three of these things and yet, god its boring. The illustrations are far and away the best thing about it. Here is one of the less boring descriptions of columns:
The reason that flutings were used for the temple of a goddess is that they represented the folds of feminine garments, while the capitals placed upon them with their hanging volutes indicated the braided hair of women and their ornaments. The Caryatids, which have a female head for the capital, were made for the temple of a rebellious people after their subjugation, because of their feminine inconstancy, whose perpetual memory was signified by columns thus constructed (49)
Thanks a lot.
I did like the sense of what the greatest possible imaginable luxury was of this time though, as well as menus for fine dining:
All the utensils or instruments at this supreme and splendid table were of fine gold, as was the round table in front of the Queen. Now a cordial confection was presented, which I think I am right in saying was a healthy compound made mostly of powdered unicorn’s horn, the two kinds of sandalwood, ground pearls in brandy set alight so as to dissolve them completely, manna, pine-nuts, rosewater, musk and powdered gold: a very precious mixture, weighed and pressed out in morsels with fine sugar and starch. We were given two servings of this, at a moderate interval and without drinking in between. It is a food for preventing every harmful fever and for dispelling all sorrowful fatigue.
After this, everything was taken away in an instant: the fragrant violets were scattered on the ground and the table was stripped. No sooner was this done than the table was covered once more with a sea-coloured cloth, and all the servants were wearing the same. Then, as before, they covered it with fragrant flowers of citrine, orange and lemon, and then presented in vases of beryl (and the Queen’s table was of the same stone, except for the forks, which were of gold) five cakes or fritters made from saffron-coloured dough with hot rosewater and sugar, cooled and finely sprinkled with the same musk-flavoured water and with powdered sugar. (108)
That is quite a meal, though it’s health-giving benefits seem debatable.
I did love the illustrations of classical ruins:
Indeed, the classical motif runs throughout stretching back to Egypt — there are any number of obelisks in here. That was curious.
These ‘hieroglyphics’ are awesome too, a medieval reimagining of the scripts of earlier time.
I also greatly loved these views into homes — bearing out just how different medieval homes were to ours, how much more bare with their furniture along the walls:
But with massive beds (also, love this perspective, and look at the ducks pulling the carriage! Awesome.):
And CATS. Or is that a dog?
And I did, of course I did, love the illustrations of gardens. It is splendid in illustrating medieval gardens.
Particularly this knotwork patterned garden with a list of what should be planted there: cyclamen, myrtle, mountain hulwort, wild thyme, laurentiana, tarragon, achillea, groundsel, idiosmo, terrambula, hazelwort, wild nard, golden-hair. I would like to make one.
I couldn’t recommend you read it, but a good skim through the pictures — excellent.
Colonna, Francesco (or maybe not) ( 2005) Hypnerotomachia Poliphili: The Strife of Love in a Dream, translated by Joscelyn Godwin. London: Thames & Hudson.
Lockdown is very busy. Work, so much work. I don’t even know how I am getting through it, I am so full of sadness and grief, the losses in my family seem to grow every day. I thought Boccacio deserved a little more attention. I find blogging so soothing somehow.
I’ll start with this awesome paragraph, though it comes at the end. Boccacio at his best.
I suppose it will also be said that some of the tales are too long, to which I can only reply that if you have better things to do, it would be foolish to read these tales, even if they were short. Although much time has elapsed from the day I started to write until this moment, in which I am nearing the end of my labours, it has not escaped by memory that I offered these exertions of mine to ladies with time on their hands, not to any others; and for those who read in order to pass the time, nothing can be too long if it serves the purpose for which it is intended (801).
Take that ladies. I think I’m going to use this as the epigraph to my next novel.
So you are probably aware of the set up, the plague has transformed Florence. Pampinea urges her six lovely companions met by chance in a church to flee Florence, go to an estate in the country she knows where they will be safe. They are discussing amongst themselves how this is to be done when Filomena starts in.
Pampinea’s arguments, ladies, are most convincing, but we should not follow her advice as hastily as you appear to wish. You must remember that we are all women, and every one of us is sufficiently adult to acknowledge that women, when left to themselves, are not the most rational of creatures, and that without the supervision of some man or other their capacity for getting things done is somewhat restricted. We are fickle, quarrelsome, suspicious, cowardly, and easily frightened; and hence I greatly fear that if we have none but ourselves to guide us, our little band will break up much more swiftly, and with far less credit to ourselves, than would otherwise be the case. We would be well advised to resolve this problem before we depart.’
Then Elissa said:
‘It is certainly true that man is the head of woman, and that without a man to guide us it rarely happens that any enterprise of ours is brought to a worthy conclusion. But where are we to find these men? As we all know, most of our own menfolk are dead, and those few that are still alive are fleeing in scattered little groups from that which we too are intent upon avoiding…’
You can see why I might be somewhat sceptical of claims that Boccaccio is some kind of proto-feminist (made by this translator G.H. McWilliam, with whom I disagree to no small degree, but more of that later).
Luckily three young men join them in the church, and make this country retreat possible. But only with the help of their three man-servants, of course. Three maids. Not everything has broken down you see. Some still while away the time in music, dancing, napping, telling stories while others do the dirty work — if only they had been able to tell a story or two. We only hear from them once, a fight on the 6th day between Licisca and Tidaro, where she argues that women are never virgins at marriage, as it is untrue that ‘young girls are foolish enough to squander their opportunities whilst they are waiting for their fathers and brothers to marry them off…‘ (445). Ladies, virginity is not all its cracked up to be according to Boccaccio, even though your father/husband/brother/man-you-despise-but-who-really-loves-you are all well within their rights to kill you dead for bestowing it where you please. Do not worry about that at all.
I still enjoyed this book. Let that be said.
It almost feels a guilty pleasure, though, but without quite enough pleasure for that. Along with more than a few good stories, Boccaccio provides a string of tales to prove that men’s love for women should always be rewarded, that rape ends happily and can be quite enjoyable, that to the victor belong the spoils. Yet he also celebrates generosity, loyalty (sometimes), wit, intelligence, quick thinking and sexual desire in women. It is what redeems some of this, but does this a proto feminist make? Unlikely methinks.
It is sobering, too, to reflect on what I would have made of a world where the clothes on your back, the wealth in your pocket, the horse beneath you and the food in your stomach were all predicated on pleasing a patron. Most sobering. At some point I would have said f*&^ off and had to go live in a hovel. If I didn’t start and end there that is.
But I shall leave aside such thoughts as they would have applied to men only anyway, as women could be whores or marry well and little in between. Married at 15, you had little chance to shape your life and even in a hovel it seems to me I would have spent much time over the age of 12 fending off attackers. Widows though…widows seemed to have it the best. I think I would have enjoyed being a widow if I’d had a little money scraped together. I think marrying an old rich man close to death seems to be absolutely the best you could possibly do.
Anyway. Ten days, ten stories a day. Most are themed. Each ends with a poem sung to the company — these did not touch me as the stories did, I felt all the great distance of time staring at these little caring for their overdone sentimentality.
There is running throughout a constant anti-clerical theme that can be enjoyed as misogyny cannot:
The story I propose to relate, concerning the manner in which a sanctimonious friar was well and truly hoodwinked by a pretty woman, should prove all the more agreeable to a lay audience inasmuch as the priesthood consists for the most part of extremely stupid men, inscrutable in their ways, who consider themselves in all respects more worthy and knowledgeable than other people, whereas they are decidedly inferior. They resemble pigs, in fact… (205)
hard on clergy really, with so many men having only slightly more options than women in this medieval set up. Had I been a man without the great career of widow to aim for, I should have had to be in the clergy — books, wine, housing, abstinence non-essential.
Of course, Boccaccio also saves much spleen for Venetians:
as a last resort he moved to Venice, where the scum of the earth can always find a welcome. (303)
Though Rome gets a bit of a mention as well:
Not long ago, in the city of Rome — which was once the head and is now the rump of the civilized world… (385)
One of the most infuriating stories is told by Filomena — she’s pretty awful. I’m going to ruin this story but it is well deserved. A man is in love with a woman. She refuses him. Perfectly reasonable. He travels to a remote bit of forest and sees the ghost of a beautiful and naked woman running through the briars, chased by mastiffs nipping at her heels and eventually catching her and ripping her flesh. The naked woman’s sin? Refusing to sleep with this knight who loved her, who chased her, who committed suicide when she refused him and then she gloated. And then she died. And so this is her punishment, to run naked through thorns, to be attacked by dogs, to have her heart cut out by this knight who loved her — loved her? — and then he throws it to his dogs. And then she is resurrected to do it all again. The same time every day. The first man after watching all this and hearing the story brings his own love and a crowd of others to a dinner on the very spot, she sees it all and can refuse him no more.
…from that day forth the ladies of Ravenna became much more tractable to men’s pleasures than they had ever been in the past. (425)
I know I’m not selling this well, but as a window to a world it is brilliant. The 10th story on the 5th day that laughs at a husband and wife falling in love with the same man and the three heading off into the sunset — this is borrowed from a Roman story to be sure, but still, quite a surprise!
There is also this spoken there, from an old woman acting as a go between for the wife and the young handsome thing she hopes to have an affair with:
‘You must help yourself to whatever you can grab in this world, especially if you’re a woman. It’s far more important for women than for men to make the most of their opportunities, because when we’re old, as you can see for yourself, neither our husbands nor any other man can bear the sight of us, and they bundle us off into the kitchen to tell stories to the cat, and count the pots and pans. And what’s worse, they make up rhymes about us, such as “when she’s twenty give her plenty. When she’s a gammer, give her the hammer,” and a lot of other sayings in the same strain (435).
There’s plenty of the belief that our physical appearance, and any delicacy, beauty, intelligence, wit, all come from noble blood (lol). I suppose the belief in a divine order that we are born into as God wills was really a thing.
Fair ladies [says Pampinea], I cannot myself decide whether Nature is more at fault in furnishing a noble spirit with an inferior body, or Fortune in allotting an inferior calling to a body endowed with a noble spirit, as happened in the case of Cisti, our fellow citizen…This Cisti was a man of exceedingly lofty spirit, and yet Fortune made him a baker. (448)
There are sentences you will almost never find in stories of today, but Cisti gets to be a hero. There are a few stories of commoners. I particularly like this sentence:
‘Go now, with my blessing, and come back soon. And if you should happen to meet Lapuccio or Naldino, don’t forget to ask them to bring me those leather thongs for my flails’ (556).
There is a horrible, terrible vengeful story — eighth day, seventh story, Pampinea. It’s hard to keep track of who tells what as you read, but going back over this Pampinea is possibly the most misogynist of the lot. This is certainly the worst story, where a scholar is humiliated by the woman he wants to make his mistress and so tricks her into almost dying atop a tower. According to notes, this is thought by many commentators to be in part a self portrait, and supported by his later work Corbaccio, described here as ‘possibly the most violent anti-feminist diatribe in medieval literature‘ (854). Yowza, I bet that takes some doing. Leaving that aside for a moment, however, there is this amazing quote that I would like to lift completely clear from this context if I may, and just enjoy on its own merit:
Ah, what a poor misguided wretch she must have been, dear ladies, to suppose that she could get the better of a scholar!’ (588)
You get the feeling not everyone likes Emilia. Lauretta tells her as she gives her the crown:
‘I know not, madam, whether you will make an agreeable queen, but we shall certainly have a fair one.’ (644)
This, this was a bit poignant.
They were all wreathed in fronds of oak, and their hands were full of fragrant herbs or flowers, so that if anyone had encountered them, he would only have been able to say: ‘Either these people will not be vanquished by death, or they will welcome it with joy’. (648)
This can most certainly be read for enjoyment, a little at a time. I did very much love the informative footnotes, with the occasional footnote quite a bit lol. Like this one:
Dioneo’s suggestion of the possible reason for the ladies’ reluctance to discuss the topic he has prescribed, anticipating Freud, reflects B.’s intuitive understanding of the human psyche. (845, note 1)
He’s referring to the topic of tricks women play on their husbands. Honestly, what?
The next one (p 846 note 1) is more interesting, about the Italian fantisima which he translates as werewolf, ‘described by B.’s contemporary, Jacopo Passavanti, as ‘an animal resembling a satyr, or cat monkey (CAT MONKEY!), which goes around at night causing distress to people‘. Sadly, so sadly, there is no real cat monkey (nor even werewolf) in this story.
The last little bit of trivia is that a chamber pot was ‘The distinctive sign for a doctor’s surgery, urine analysis being the most commonly used method of diagnosing ailments‘ (856).
Anyway, well worth a read, even in (or especially in) a time of pandemic.
Boccaccio, Giovanni ( 1995) The Decameron. 2nd edition translated G.H. McWilliam, London: Penguin.
Just communities, just cities, Just connections between country and city. Also, the weird and wonderful.