Botticelli’s portraits of Giuliano de’ Medici

Many years before I had a chance to go anywhere virtually, I spent some real life time in Bergamo, with Italian friends.  This was my first experience of Italy, and I was lucky enough to be completely unprepared for the cultural shock.  Bergamo has a beautiful historic centre with many astonishing buildings, and, unassumingly tucked away, one of the world’s great Art Galleries, the Academia Carrara.

I memorised some of my favourite portraits including Bellini’s Madonna and Child with Pear.  But today I am going to share an image I actively disliked, but which drew me with the kind of magnetic quality which makes children keep creeping up to something nasty to see if it is still as horrible as it was the first time round.  In fact, last week I visited it again: I was back in the Academia Carrara and it is hard to miss.  So here it is.

Portrait of Giuliano De’ Medici, Botticelli c.1478

The Medici family need no explanation – the fifteenth century was the time of their rise to power in Florence.  Giuliano co-ruled with his brother Lorenzo the Magnificent.  In the picture, which is a very standard portrait bust,  he is plainly but richly dressed.  His profile is accentuated by the pale square behind it.  He has fashionably curled very dark hair, which suggests youth and beauty, and here is a sign of immaculate grooming.  Then we come to the face.

Male portraits of this period have a strong bias towards what we call branding – recognition and respect are more important than prettiness.  Giuliano carries his chin high and looks, as he was, a distinguished man of about twenty-five.  His distinctive family features are too narrow for the ancient Greek aesthetic; he has a thin face with regular features, a sharp nose, thin lips, and a strong cleft chin.  His eyes are down cast, half-hidden under the lids, his lips are pressed lightly together.  He is oblivious of the viewer, perhaps thinking of some serious subject with calm deliberation.  He is also, as it happens, dead.

Giuliano was killed in 1478 in a botched conspiracy to dislodge the Medicis from power.  This is one of several portraits made posthumously by Botticelli.  Botticelli had painted him living, but some people think this set of portraits show characteristics which come from the use of a death mask – the half-closed eyes, the sunken colourless cheeks and prominence of the nose.

Terracotta bust of Giuliano de’ Medici by Verrocchio, 1475-8

In fact Giuliano looks a good deal healthier in another image from not much earlier.  Here there is a fullness in the face and an alertness about the eyes which balanced the sharp nose.  The contrast is very striking.  In fact we know he was a robust young man who enjoyed sports.

But whether the picture represents a death mask or not, we are also to understand that he is dead from another key feature of the picture – the empty window square.  In North Italian painting of the period, it was common to place subjects in front of open doors or windows.  The view in the background contributed to the meaning and atmosphere of the picture, and might contain local landscapes or significant scenes.  Guiliano’s window contains nothing except strong central light, which illuminates each side of the window equally.  He has no portion in this world anymore, so his lands and his aspirations cannot appear in the window.  He is not, however in heaven.  This is a human portrait not an imagined apotheosis.  Giuliano, with his immaculate hair and rich modern clothing is suddenly and totally dispossessed.  No wonder he looks pensive.

There is a version now in Berlin, which is very similar to the Bergamo one, but the memento mori aspect is even more marked in this version in the National Gallery of Art, Washington.

Giuliano de’ Medici, Washington Portrait, Botticelli c. 1478


Here Botticelli has added extra symbols of liminality and death.  The window now has two shutters, one open and one closed.  This marks a point of transition, as Giuliano, captured in paint, is poised everlastingly  between life and death.  We are now separated from Giuliano by a sill where a bird perches on a dead twig.  The bird is often an emblem of mortality, and the flight of the soul.  Here it is a dove, emblem of fidelity, perhaps to the widowed bride, or the family he represented.  The dead twig, broken off its living tree, is an emblem of premature death.   The sill itself makes no sense in real space.  Similar sills often separate us from the divine in paintings of the period, as in Bellini’s Madonna and Child with Pear in the same gallery.

 Madonna and Child with Pear, Bellini c. 1488

Here a highly artificial screen behind the Madonna and Child separates them from the scenes of Italian life, over which they nonetheless reign. Close in front of them a balustrade separates the viewer from the holy figures, like the altar rail which seals off the holiest ritual area of a liturgical church.  The balustrade forms a sill where the symbolic object is a piece of fruit – emblem of swift decay.  The painter has also stuck his tag in the centre of it.

The same principles are used in the  Washington portrait is the same.  The sill in this case separates the dead from the living and is ornamented with symbols of death.  But Giuliano is not wholly gone or the frame would be empty.  The viewer is holding Giuliano between the two worlds, between life and death.  This isn’t eternal life through art, it is more like eternal non-death.

This is a truly secular Renaissance painting, rooted in Classical not Mediaeval culture, and in the Court not the Church.  There is nothing Christian about this painting – no fears of Judgement or hopes of Heaven.  We have a young and powerful man in the midst of a rich life, about to be married, in fact, suddenly and horribly expelled from his world and offered instead what appears to be nothingness.   Botticelli uses these portraits to confront  human questions about death, which go far beyond the mere fear of dying.   How can our selves, our whole private universe, depend for existence on a body that gives in to 19 stab wounds in a church in Florence.  How can a person suddenly not be?  How does it feel to have your enemies force you out of life?  Can there be justice for that?  Is this all there is?  How do you construct a life which is not dominated by the fear of losing it?

If you think this is a lot for Botticelli to infuse into this painting, then it is worth knowing that the conspirators had misjudged crowd feeling in Florence.  With the encouragement of Lorenzo, the people hunted out and exterminated them and their associates  Few made it to formal execution.  Numerous people – maybe a hundred – met humiliating and agonising ends.  Botticelli was commissioned to paint images of the condemned as hanging corpses on the outside of the Bargello, the public building concerned with administration of justice.  He had a lot of time to reflect on the wreck of human lives.

As for the influence of  Classical philosophy, this was central to the whole Medici Court.  which patronised many artists and scholars, including the Neoplatonist Marsilio Ficino.  The Platonic tradition fostered very different beliefs about the soul and its immortality than those of the prevailing Catholic orthodoxy.   For a start, Platonists thought reincarnation as a human or animal was a possibility.   But, more importantly, the soul is on a journey.  It is indeed immortal, and survives death, but its goal is to escape the imprisonment of matter.  Our conduct in this life determines whether our next existence will be more or less bound by matter – whether we will be philosophers or pigs, or whether we will escape having a material body altogether.  Christian orthodoxy is more sympathetic to the body – Christians hope for a new Resurrection body, without the defects of the old.  This allows for the idea that the individual will continue as a recognisable individual into everlasting life.  But Platonic after life, stripped of the body is more complicated.  Souls which achieve the happiest outcome will return to the One, the source of all life, free from the taint of a material body.  But in what sense will we still exist as individuals?  The whole point of the One, is that it is whole, complete, and not divided.  Will my soul take my individual consciousness there?  Is this life even ‘my’ life – I may have been a cat, or Plato in a previous existence; after death ‘I’ may have more incarnations.  Who am I, once the body is removed?  Giuliano’s soul has clearly left his body.  Where is he now?

Henry VIII: the impossible portrait

Posting about the Great Cameo, and its impossible image of stability within the Augustan succession, brought to mind this other impossible dynastic image.  The Hampton Court portrait of Henry VIII with his family represents the Tudor monarch as the head of a successful nuclear family.  He sits in the centre in majestic bulk, flanked by a younger edition of himself, and his dear wife.  The daughters, older, but by English law always lower than sons in the line of succession, stand dutifully one on each side.

Henry VIII and his family

This picture may have been commissioned by Henry about 1545 for his Royal Palace of Whitehall, but it now hangs suitable enough in the Haunted Gallery of Hampton Court Palace.  The Royal Collection has an interesting page about it.  Its function was to project Henry’s vision of his own stable family, for his own satisfaction and presumably to impress state visitors.  And yet the scene it represents is very misleading.

We start with the middle.  The whole painting glows with gold, but this section is extraordinarily rich, and surrounds the King with priceless objects proclaiming his royal lineage and power.


Central detail

Behind and above him is a black velvet canopy embroidered all over in gold thread.  It bears his initials and royal arms.  his feet are supported by a matching cushion placed on top of a rich carpet.  He himself wears cloth of gold and gold embroidered red.  His huge padded sleeves increase his breadth, turning his bulk into power and suggesting the huge shoulders of the athlete he had been in his youth.

On his left, at a lower level, but close under his arm, sits his beloved wife Jane, the mother of his son.  She is demure, but arrayed in cloth of gold and ermine.  Henry’s right hand rests on the shoulder of his son, Edward, who stands, as is appropriate in the presence of his royal father, but is gathered affectionately under his father’s arm and behind his knee.  His stance, features and costume (minus the gold) suggest that he is in every way his father’s son.  This closely gathered trio present a united front to the world – the males confront the viewer in full face, the Queen modestly tilts her head inwards to avoid the direct gaze.  Beneath their feet stretches an exquisite carpet.

Edward was born in 1537 to Henry’s third wife Jane Seymour who barely survived the Christening.  His age in the picture is one of the clues to its date, which is towards the end of Henry’s reign, conventionally 1545.  As the mother of the Prince and heir, Jane is is Henry’s eternal Queen in the picture, but she was long dead when it was painted.  She had never lived to sit by her husband while their son stood at his right hand.  And Henry had not kept her place vacant.  There had been Anne of Cleves (divorced) and Catherine Howard (executed).  In legend, Catherine’s screams for mercy haunt the Gallery where the portrait now hangs.  And finally, Henry married Catherine Parr, who was to survive him.  She, not Jane, was his Queen in 1545.

Standing on ornate tiles, not carpet, and separated from the central group by a colonnade, stand the two dutiful older daughters, Mary on Henry’s right, Elizabeth on his left.  They are dressed almost identically, but their height is used to indicate their age.  If this is 1545 Elizabeth is 12, and Mary 29.  The artist has smoothed out the age discrepancy and emphasised their physical resemblance.  They are not here as individuals, but as the royal daughters, included as a matter of course in the courtly scene.  But there was nothing matter of course about how they got there.

Just as the Great Cameo celebrated some development in the Augustan Succession, perhaps Tiberius adoption of Germanicus’ sons, or Claudius’ marriage to Agrippina, so this portrait puts into living form Henry’s Third Succession Act of 1543.  His son by Jane is his principal heir.  Then in order of age come his daughters, Mary and Elizabeth.  Given usual rules of succession in the period, this looks like a very standard arrangement, but there was nothing standard about it in this case.

The Third Succession Act replaced two earlier acts; the Succession Acts of 1533 and 1536.  The First Succession Act of 1533 followed Henry’s annulment of the marriage to first wife Catherine of Aragon, his conversion of the national religion to Protestantism, and his marriage to Anne Boleyn.  In this Act, Henry repudiated Mary, the only surviving child of the marriage to Catherine of Aragon, as a bastard and disinherited her, in favour of the new born Elizabeth,  his child by Anne.  Mary was demoted from Princess to Lady, and spent three years attached to the court of her baby half-sister and separated from her mother who died in 1536.

But Catherine of Aragon wasn’t the only royal consort to die in 1536.  Anne Boleyn’s reign was over and, accused among other things of adultery and witchcraft, she was beheaded.  Now the Second Succession Act bastardised and disinherited Elizabeth too.  Henry had no named successor until his third marriage produced Edward in 1537.  At this point, Henry still hoped for more male heirs, but in 1543 he restored the girls to the line of succession.  Whatever he had said about them, he privately accepted that that were his biological daughters.

So finally this Tudor family were united in an image which dismissed all the unsatisfactory marriages and focused on Henry’s relations to his three children.  This was the next stage of the dynasty.

But, like Augustus, Henry’s manipulation of the succession had already produced the roots of serious complications.  Edward was too young to reign when his father died in 1547, and he was very ill, possibly with a congenital disease inherited from his father.  He did not live to marry.  Edward’s reign was dominated by his advisers, and characterised by Protestant religious intolerance.  It was a dangerous time for Mary and Elizabeth.  When he died in 1553, there was a brief Civil War between the supporters of Mary and the supporters of Jane Grey.  Why?

Mary, who had suffered so much at the time of the divorce, had clung to her Catholic faith.  This gave a Protestant faction the opportunity to try to replace her with a Protestant cousin, Jane Grey.  Mary triumphed easily, and set about replacing the intolerant Protestantism with intolerant Catholicism.  Her religion and her odd status as the King’s bastard had kept her unmarried – Henry should have learned from Augustus to focus on the grandchildren.  Now she married the King of Spain, Philip II, and hoped desperately for an heir.  The prospect of Philip’s son adding England to the Spanish Empire, and importing the Spanish Inquisition caused unrest in England.  Fearing a repeat of the Jane Grey rebellion, Philip urged Mary to execute Elizabeth if she would not convert, and Elizabeth ended up in the Tower of London.

Mary’s death without heirs in 1558 brought Elizabeth to the throne.  But her early life experiences may be responsible for her lifetime refusal to marry.  She had seen her mother executed, and then Catherine Howard, who had been a kind stepmother.  The legend is that, as Catherine fell, Elizabeth, aged 8, declared to her cousin Robert Dudley that she would never marry.  In Edward’s reign, living under the protection of the dowager Queen Catherine Parr,  the teenage Elizabeth was compromised by the advances of her stepfather, Thomas Seymour, who exploited his access to try to involve her in an affair, and, with luck, eventually a marriage.  His ambitions cost him his life and endangered Elizabeth’s.   Later, Elizabeth saw her half-sister Mary finally gain the throne only to give in to domination by Philip of Spain, who roused up her subjects against her and neglected her in private life.  In her adult life, she had ample opportunity of observing her cousin Mary Queen of Scots, lose her child and her kingdom through her marital disasters.  Elizabeth was not prepared to share power, even for the sake of producing an heir.  The Tudor dynasty died with her.


Disentangling the Augustan Succession (Part 10: The Great Cameo of France)


The Great Cameo of France


There is confusion about the date of this carved sardonyx jewel, about a foot in diameter, which now resides in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris.   The Cameo commemorates the unity of the Julio-Claudian dynasty.  On all interpretations, Augustus in heaven watches over Tiberius, who, under the wise guidance of his mother, the Augusta, is surrounded by the stalwart men and women of the family who will carry the dynasty on.  This was the public face of the Augustan succession.  And it had a job to do – reinforcing the obvious reality of Rome’s power with the belief that it radiated from a divinely appointed stable imperial household.

From the time of Augustus, the provincial peoples worshipped the Emperor and, over time, more and more of his deified relatives.  The Cameo presents his lineage in heroic style.  The jewel has 3 levels.  At the top is heaven, where dead Julio-Claudians reside.  Roman heaven is only for gods: starting with Julius Caesar, Augustus’ father by daoption, the dead Julio-Claudians become gods on death.  The reclining figure with veiled head and rod of office is always taken to be Augustus himself, at the head of his dynasty.

IN the middle are members of the dynasty.  This is where opinion begins to conflict.  I see these as people who were alive when the jewel was made, following the theory that it was made in AD 23, to celebrate Tiberius’ adoption of his nephews Nero and Drusus as heirs following the death of his own son.  Another theory is that the Emperor Claudius had it made.  On either theory, the jewel tells an open story of unity and strength, which covers up a tale of violence, instability and cruelty.

What we see in the middle ground is a group of strong men and noble women, in heroic pose around a commanding throned man and his female consort.  The clothing generally suggests the loose draperies of an earlier age, and that the men of warrior age wear armour.  Strong eyelines connect the figures with each other and the heavenly scene.

Most interpretations agree that the throned man is the Emperor Tiberius, who ruled from 14-37 AD.  The throned woman is not his wife but his mother, the dowager Empress, known as the Augusta.  Under the throne sits a defeated Parthian, reminder of Tiberius’ role in recovering the Roman standards lost at the battle of Carrhae (53 BC) .  These returned to Rome after negotiation in 20 BC, but both Augustus and Tiberius presented their recovery as evidence of massive military victory.

Under the imperial feet, at the bottom of the Cameo, the images of captives and subjects, use the language of violence openly.  The Romans were traditionally a warrior society, and celebrated their power over lesser peoples.  For centuries, triumphant generals had literally paraded captives in the streets.  In diverting Romans away from Civil War, Augustus used the tactic of reinforcing traditional military values and promoting foreign war instead.  So the artist’s decision to use images of abased subjects is not subversive; it is a traditional part of Roman self-glorification.  The humility of the subjects is contrasted with the glory of the rulers, the imperial house.

The identification of other figures is more tenuous and varies depending on the date ascribed to the Cameo.  Everyone agrees that they are Julio-Claudians, especially members of the family of Germanicus, and however you swap them around, the Cameo tells the same story of public grandeur concealing private dysfunction.

Augustus lacked a son, the male heir he craved to keep his dynasty in power.  At one point he took his daughter’s sons as heirs, but they died before him.  He then looked at various options for the succession involving marrying descendants of his sister and his only daughter, to create a bloodline.  He came to view his great-nephew Germanicus as the next dynastic head.  Germanicus married Augustus’ granddaughter Agrippina 1 to produce great-grandchildren multiply descended from Augustus and his sister.  These children were Augustus’ best hope for taking the dynasty forward.

There was a snag in the shape of Augustus’ step-son, Tiberius, Germanicus’ wicked uncle.  Tiberius was a significant commander, and an earlier plan had been for him to head the next generation, married to Augustus’ daughter, Julia 1.  This marriage had been a disaster, and led to the strangest possible compromise.  When the grandchildren died, Augustus adopted Tiberius as his heir AND made Tiberius adopt Germanicus as his heir above his own only son.  The idea was that Tiberius should be a caretaker emperor, and pass power back into Augustus’ biological family, by handing power over to Germanicus at the right time.

When Augustus died in AD 14, Tiberius took over and restored his own son to the succession.  But when this son died in AD 23, Tiberius returned to Augustus’ plan.  Germanicus too was already dead, murdered in very grisly circumstances, so, according to Roman custom Tiberius adopted of Germanicus’ sons, Nero and Drusus.  However, their closeness to the throne was to cost both these young men and their mother their lives.  Germanicus had already paid this price, undoubtedly murdered, at the behest of someone very high up in the court – perhaps even Livia, the dowager Empress.

Returning to the jewel, around Augustus in heaven are some dead heirs.  If we are in AD 23 and Drusus has just died, he may be the warrior ascending to heaven on Pegasus.  The other figure is probably Germanicus.   No-one is quite sure but we need to choose two from this short-list; Drusus son of Tiberius, Germanicus, and Germanicus’ father, Drusus, brother of Tiberius.  In front of these figures is a man in a tunic, who may represent Aeneas, founder of the Julian family.  Heaven consists of Augustus and, probably, the two dead heirs of his adopted son, Tiberius.

We move to the living in the middle row, which, on this version, contains the Emperor and his newly adopted sons and heirs.  Tiberius and Livia are central.  In front of him and behind him stand two young warriors, the sons of Germanicus, whom he has just adopted.  We’ll assume the elder son, Nero (not the Emperor) is standing in front of him.  Portioning out the girls is more controversial.  The woman with the laurel wreath may be Germanicus’ wife, Agrippina, the granddaughter of Augustus (hence the wreath).  The little boy may be Germanicus’ youngest son Gaius, known as Caligula.  This all sounds very neat, but it doesn’t account for all three of his three daughters.   The woman on the far right is often identified as Germanicus’ daughter Agrippina 2, wife of the Emperor Claudius.

Without worrying about the details, we can use the Cameo to look at the carnage the Augustan succession caused in the imperial family.

Germanicus, a resident of heaven, was undoubtedly poisoned on campaign in 17 BC.  To be more precise he was undoubtedly attacked by witchcraft – in Rome, poison and cursing magic went together.  His wife, Augustus’ granddaughter, whom I identify as the wreathed woman proudly supporting her son on the Cameo, would be put to death by Tiberius.  So would the two elder sons, the new heirs.   So far, that is four figures dead by unnatural means.

But Drusus, winging his way to heaven, was also said to have been poisoned – by his wife, Germanicus’ sister.  We could count her death too, as she was later put to death for conspiring against Tiberius, but she isn’t on the Cameo.  So the official Cameo unnatural death toll is 5 and counting.

The boy, Caligula, would survive to be Emperor – and to be assassinated.  That makes 6.  His three sisters lasted his reign.  One of them, Agrippina 2, became the wife of her uncle, her father’s brother, the Emperor Claudius.  The other two survived Caligula’s reign to be put to death by their uncle, their father’s brother, the Emperor Claudius.  Agrippina 2 went on to be assassinated by her own son.  So whichever they are, the Cameo unnatural death toll rises to 8 – everyone except Tiberius and Livia from the middle panel met sticky ends.

Even if you try some new identities for the figures, the death toll does not improve much.  If one of the heavenly figures is Tiberius’ brother, Drusus, it improves a bit, as he fell off his horse on campaign.  In the version where Claudius makes the jewel for Agrippina 2, he and Agrippina are said to be the figures behind the throne.  Emperor Claudius was supposedly poisoned by his wife and she Agrippina 2 was assassinated by her son, so no improvement there.  On this reading the little boy on the left may become a young version of Agrippina 2’s son, the future Emperor Nero, who was dethroned and committed suicide to avoid execution.  If we make the woman holding the boy an allegorical figure, such as Providentia, goddess of Providence, then at least she is immortal.

All this only scrapes the surface of unnatural and suspect deaths in the imperial family, let alone the acrimonious marriages and divorces and punishments without trial.  If the Cameo was made by Claudius, the Cameo shows Tiberius with people he had openly had killed.  I find this a major problem with the later date.  If the date is 23 AD, the irony is accessible only to later viewers; Tiberius’ strong household consists of people he was to kill and with others who would kill and be killed because of their claims on the Augustan succession.  Whichever members of the family you place around him, you still get a litany of violent death.  How can something so exquisite be so grim?

If you liked this post, you may like the post on the Hampton Court Portrait of Henry VIII and his family.

Travels with Gervase of Tilbury: 1 Haveringemere

Haveringemere (Otia Imperialia III 88)

At this point in the Otia Imperialia Gervase is reporting stories of bodies of water punishing people for inappropriate behaviour.  Gervase accepts this as a scientific phenomenon because he doesn’t have the resources to enable him to evaluate his sources.   Tales about malicious water bodies could not be ignored, as they often reflected genuine nautical hazards, personalised as dangerous spirits or monsters.

The story of Haveringmere comes from the Welsh Marches – Banks and Binns list Newton Mere, Shropshire and Hanmer, Clwyd as candidates.  It is nothing to do with Havering in London.  The place name is of standard Saxon form, meaning the people (ing) belonging to Haefer.   Mere means a lake.  Unless the Northern Marches had some really dangerous local weather, the story may reflect a surviving pagan belief in local water spirits.

Gervase writes, in mixed Latin and Middle English:

Also in the same region is Haveringemere, and if anyone crossing it shouts out ‘Phrut Haveringemere and alle tho the over the fere’ he is immediately caught up in a sudden storm and sinks with his boat.

Gervase could clearly speak Middle English, and, since this is a local tale, we presume he had connections with the area.  The modern English is ‘Phrut Haveringemere and all that travel on you.’  ‘Phrut’ may be an actual expletive or represent a rude noise, like raspberry blowing.   Gervase goes on to say that it is extraordinary that a lake should take offence in this way.

Ellesmere, Shropshire
Newton Mere, Shropshire

The North Marches has several large bodies of water, including Ellesmere, which is rich in its own lore.  The whole area is called ‘the Meres’.  While not exactly the Lake District, the area is extremely beautiful, and I understand that it is ideal for walking holidays.

Dealing with travellers’ tales like this, I always find the question ‘WHY?’ interesting.  Why did this story get into circulation?  Why did people take it seriously?  A story like this could be anecdotal.  If a boatman is hurling abuse at a lake, he may already be under some stress and very possibly drunk, which might explain him sinking in bad weather.  But this kind of explaining away may miss the point completely.  Perhaps there is or was a local weather phenomenon which made the mere surprisingly treacherous.  Perhaps the story is based on a strong local pagan tradition about that particular mere spirit and is therefore serious evidence for pagan survival.  Perhaps the whole thing started as a joke, and is just evidence for how difficult it was for Gervase to get reliable sources.  It is certainly evidence for how complex and inexplicable the Mediaeval environment could seem, even to educated observers.

In the interests of science, I am looking for a kayaker or coracler  to make the experiment.  There are two main questions to answer; do any of the meres respond, and if so, which one?   We need to know.


Travellers’ Tales in the Otia Imperialia of Gervase of Tilbury.

Dedicated to Meg T who introduced me to Gervase and all his best stories.

This post is only an introduction to the good stories, which will follow in other posts.

Sometime at the end of the twelfth century, one Gervase, an Anglo-Norman, possibly from Tilbury, went to Bologna to study canon law, and from there to a career as jurist and administrator in England, Sicily and France.   At some point he made time for his own mission to educate, inform and entertain, aimed in particular at the Holy Roman Emperor, Otto IV.  The large resulting book is the Otia Imperialia (Leisure Reading for an Emperor).  The copy I am using is edited and translated by S. E. Banks and J.W. Binns for the Oxford Medieval Texts series  For copyright reasons, I shall use my translation , but for obvious reasons, it will be not unlike that in the edition.  And so I add this disclaimer: quod apud illustrissimos Banks et Binns optime legendum est, hoc loco minore arte Anglice redditum expono, ut in reti quoque narrationes Gervasii abundent.

Leisure is not something you would readily associate with Otto IV, who spent a great deal of time battling for his throne, and ultimately losing it.  But in case he had spare time, Gervase provided him with three volumes.  Book I chronicles the world from creation to the time of Noah.  Book II continues the history up to the Norman kings of England.  And Book III, on marvels of the world is where the best stories are, many of them based on Gervase’s travels.

The history of travellers’ tales in European literature is long and fascinating.  Homer’s Odyssey might be a good place to start.  Herodotus is the obvious next main stop on the line – the man who gave us the sheep with such fat tails that they have to pull them around in little carts.  The important thing about travellers’ tales is that they have to be believed to be true information about the real world.   And, apart from being really entertaining, they are seriously interesting in many ways.  It isn’t that they ‘have a grain of truth in them.’  Some of them do, others are absolutely true, although often oddly expressed, others are utterly insane.

Self-castrating beaver from Bibliotheque Nationale de France, lat. 6838B folio 5v

Here, for example, not from Gervase, but from bestiaries throughout the Middle Ages, and going back at least to Hierocles the Stoic in the 2nd century AD is the self-castrating beaver.  There already is a blog about this entertaining critter here.



I may come back to the beaver, whose non-existent behaviour proves many things about God and the universe.  But for now my heart is with Gervase and the search for knowledge in a very unreliable world.

Mary’s books in three Renaissance Pictures

Today is or isn’t Assumption dependent on your point of view.  In my many years as an Anglican (Anglo-Catholics, look away now), I have heard almost no sermons on the Virgin Mary, despite the fact that she is the subject of quite a lot of verses in the Gospels.  The disciple who mothered Jesus and was with him at his death, who was mentioned in his dying words, gets a very poor reception in Protestant  preaching.

On one Sunday August 15th, I heard a well-respected Anglican divine improve what had recently become the anniversary of the Omagh bombing with schoolmasterly tuttings about the follies of Catholics.  Mary is the only disciple whose name seems to trigger the impulse to slag off other Christians from the pulpit.  For me, that ought to be St Paul, who spends loads of time slagging off other Christians, but what do I know?

More constructively, I once heard a trainee Baptist minister attempt the topic. It was a brave move – you could actually hear the eyebrows rising.   The line he took was hardly flattering to the one blessed among women, or women in general; Mary ‘would have been’ a typical teenage girl, as in a ditsy phone addict with the IQ of a rabbit.  After all, God can choose anyone, even Mary.

At the moment, I am interested in assumptions about Mary’s literacy in Renaissance art.  Mediaeval and Renaissance Christians assumed that Mary could read, that she studied God’s word and that her spirituality helped prepare her for her role as the mother of Christ.  In many images of the Annunciation,  Mary is pictured reading devotionally when the angel visits her.  Traditionally, she reads Isaiah 7. 14.  Here is an Annunciation by Duccio.  If you go to the National Gallery Site where it comes from, you can zoom in on the book and actually read the words; ECCE VIRGO CONCIPIET ET PARIET FILIUM ET VOCABITUR.  Everyone is a bit greenish because the painting comes from Siena, where they used a green under-layer for flesh tones.

Duccio Annunciation completed 1311

The book in this picture is not realistic.  The writing is artificially large to communicate the text.  My post on St Anne Teaching the Virgin to Read helps make the point that giving Mary books in art is not just an ornamental way of introducing the Scriptural text.  Mary was definitely assumed to be literate.  The Master of Liesborn  Annunciation, which I published in that post, is particularly interesting because it includes a horn book, the basic literacy tool for ordinary people, and a scrap of writing.  Here it is again.

Master of Liesborn Annunciation, National Gallery

Just under the back window is the horn book.   The scrap of writing is on the table.  This is interesting in itself, because it suggests that Mary can write – a different skill in the period.  She might be practising writing, or copying something she needs to keep, maybe for a commonplace book.  Little strips of writing could also be charms, although this doesn’t seem right here.

If you follow through to the National Gallery Link, you will be able to magnify the pieces of writing to try to see what they say.  The detail in this picture is so fascinating it is well worth doing.  In fact, I don’t think there are distinct words – the book in the foreground only has black and red lines which look like writing.

However, this doesn’t mean that we can’t hope to identify what the writing is supposed to say.  Sometimes the artist includes features which indicate the content of the text.  I’m going to finish this blog with a beautiful picture that illustrates this.

Annunciation by Van Eyck, Fifteenth Century in National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

You should be able to magnify this picture too if you visit the link.  And it is well worth doing.  This artist imagines the Annunciation in a Cathedral -like environment.  This doesn’t mean he got the location wrong – the structure is probably symbolic, though it could represent an actual Church.  Of all the many things in this picture, I am especially interested in the book.  The writing is not legible, but the artist has included an ornate letter P; the first letter of Isaiah 7. 14 in Latin – PROPTER.  So where Duccio depicts the book unrealistically in order to make the text legible, Van Eyck makes the book realistic and just uses one letter to suggest the missing text.  But on the top of the page on the viewer’s left, upside down, from Mary’s point of view, are the letters ES, presumably for Esaias, or Isaiah.

But does Mary only ever read Isaiah 7. 14?  If you use the magnification option, you can see that she and the angel are literally standing on Old Testament stories, interlaced with signs of the Zodiac.  There is a compendium of learning under their feet.  As she converses on a level with the angel, this serene Mary seems to be a conscious participant in her destiny.

However, Van Eyck’s painting is a symbolic meditation on the place of the Incarnation in God’s plan, rather than a realistic depiction.  Mary clearly does not actually live in a large Church.  This painting places her in a theological perspective, not a natural environment.  Perhaps all the learning belongs to Mary as part of her special grace from God.  This Mary doesn’t seem to have a human life where she actually does everyday things and has to study and pray.

So my favourite Annunciation so far remains the Master of Liesborn, whose Mary is so real that she needs a cord to hold up the canopy of her curtained bed.  She lives in a luxurious bedsitter, with a bedside cupboard, a candlestick, embroidered cushions on a settle, and she has a horn book and writes on scraps of parchment.  This is a Mary who definitely reads.

This post is dedicated to my brother Jonathan.




Disentangling the Augustan Succession (Part 9 – Swapping Off)

So far we have seen Augustus build a succession of heirs, only to be disappointed by repeated deaths.

His moves in the succession combine four principles, NO MORE WAR, GIRLS ARE MUMS, DADS ARE BEST, AUGUSTUS LOVES LIVIA.

Here is a summary of Augustus’ attempts to provide a succession of strong male heirs.

Augustus lacks a son.  He decides his nephew Marcellus (son of his sister, grandson of his biological father, Gaius Octavius) will make a suitable father for the children of his daughter Julia 1.  This simple plan fails due to Marcellus’ death.

Next he adopts his grandsons, Lucius and Gaius, Julia’s children by another husband.  They die.

Then accepts his unrelated stepson Tiberius, as a father of heirs.  When Tiberius’ marriage to Julia fails, and it is clear that she will have no more sons (in fact she gets banished), Augustus is forced to consider Tiberius as an heir and adopts him.  Augustus really wants a biological heir and so also adopts Julia’s third son by her previous husband, but later rejects him as unsuitable to be an heir.  He has now run out of Julia’s sons, but there are still daughters.

Faced with the prospect of seeing his succession pass out of his biological line to Tiberius, Augustus brings in his great nephew, Tiberius’ nephew, Germanicus, who has descent from Augustus’ sister Octavia.    Germanicus is to marry one of Julia’s daughters and keep the succession in Augustus’ biological family.  Tiberius and his son lack biological relatedness to Augustus.  Tiberius’ son is placed after Germanicus in the succession and given a suitable marriage which will produce children descended from Augustus’ father, but not Augustus himself.

The rest is just swapping off.  Here are the Julio-Claudians who ruled.

In 14 AD Augustus died.  Tiberius succeeded, as planned.  During his reign he killed off several of Augustus’ descendants, including his own ex-wife, Julia 1, Agrippina, wife of Germanicus, and her two elder sons.  Germanicus himself died of disease or poison in 19 BC.  When Tiberius finally died in 37 AD, he had kept the peace for quarter of a century, although the imperial court had become a dangerous place.  His son had predeceased him, possibly murdered by his wife, and Tiberius, now embittered and absorbed in his own world of vice and paranoia, allowed his line to die out.

Since Tiberius’ son was dead,  a son of Germanicus followed him, as Augustus had intended.  A survivor of the massacre of his family, the Emperor Gaius Julius Caesar, known as Caligula was reputedly mad.  His bloody reign ended with his assassination in 41 AD.  The line of Germanicus’ sons was exhausted, although daughters remained. Caligula left no heir.

The next Emperor was Claudius, brother of Germanicus, a descendant of Augustus’ father.  He had never been intended as an heir – he was lame and Augustus viewed him as half-witted.  Tiberius never saw him as a rival, and Caligula made him a figure of fun.  Now, in the confusion of the assassination, he became Emperor.  Claudius already had a son and a daughter.  But in 49 AD Claudius married into Augustus’ bloodline, cementing his claims on the Augustan succession.  This involved incest –  he chose his niece, Caligula’s sister, Germanicus’ daughter, great granddaughter of Augustus himself, and, like Claudius, descended separately from Augustus’ sister .  Names in the imperial household were departing from tradition and becoming very confusing.  So we will call her Agrippina 2, to distinguish her from Agrippina 1, wife of Germanicus.

When the marriage took place, Agrippina 2 already had a son, Nero, by a previous marriage who had a double claim to Augustan descent, both from Augustus and from his sister.  Claudius was only descended from Augustus’ sister.  As a result of Augustus’ back-up heir plans, there were a number of people around with some sort of relatedness to him and his father.

Agrippina 2 was a dangerous bride.  She had survived the killings of both parents and  two brothers, and she had also steered her way through her brother Caligula’s murderous court.  The story is that Claudius could not see through his young wife’s ambition for her own son.  When Claudius’ son died young, it was said he had been poisoned by his stepmother.  Left without an heir, Claudius adopted Agrippina’s son Nero and made him his heir.  As you might expect by now, Nero also married Claudius’ daughter, his stepsister and first cousin once removed.  Their son would be Claudius’ grandson (and his great nephew) and descended in multiple ways from Augustus and his sister.  When Claudius died in 54 BC, allegedly poisoned by his wife, Nero became Emperor.

However, once he became Emperor, Nero’s concern for the Augustan succession was minimal.  There was no grandson for Claudius.  After Nero had established his rule, he murdered his mother and had his wife put to death.  He made two other legal marriages as well as two irregular marriages, but had no children who survived infancy.  In 68 AD his military commanders rebelled and he committed suicide.  Civil War followed and the Augustan succession was over.  Augustus had prevented Civil War for nearly 100 years.  But his concerns for promoting his biological line in the succession had made the imperial family a brutal and murderous place.  The traditional morality which Augustus promoted in his legislation was nowhere more flouted than in the distorted relationships, scandals and cruelties which typified his own family.

Disentangling the Augustan Succesion (Part 8 – Germanicus)

So in AD 4 Tiberius, son of Livia, stepson of Augustus, was adopted into the Julius family and had only Augustus’ unsatisfactory grandson, Postumus, between him and the prospect of ruling Rome.  AUGUSTUS LOVES LIVIA.  But Augustus didn’t love Tiberius that much and he had not finished with the DADS ARE BEST principle.  He soon rejected Postumus and was left with the prospect of Tiberius taking over, and founding his own dynasty, with no biological connection to Augustus at all.  Yet there were still options among his biological family through his sister’s daughters.

Essentially, Augustus had a good stepson/bad stepson problem, at least, from his own point of view.  Livia’s younger son, Drusus, was the good stepson.  He had never known any father except Augustus – and many people believed he was Augustus’ son, conceived while Livia was still married to her previous husband.  He was a great military commander in his own right, and earned the title Germanicus for his family in battle.  And he had married a daughter of Augustus’ sister Octavia in 16 BC.

In 16 BC this had made sense.  Julia 1 (GIRLS ARE MUMS) and Agrippa were producing numerous children, including the boys, Gaius and Lucius.  Tiberius had been betrothed to Vipsania, Agrippa’s daughter by a previous marriage, almost since she was born – a political match which had nothing to do with the succession.   They married in 19 BC and were happy.  Meanwhile, as a back-up plan for the succession, Augustus decided Drusus could be a father of his own father’s descendants (DADS ARE BEST) and married him to his niece, the daughter of his sister Octavia in 16 BC.  While this fulfilled the AUGUSTUS LOVES LIVIA principle, Augustus didn’t expect to need either of Livia’s sons in the succession.

All this changed with Agrippa’s death in 12 BC, Tiberius’ disastrous marriage to Augustus’ daughter, Julia 1,  and her disgrace and exile.  Augustus had to give up on having a biological grandson in the line of succession.    But Drusus’ successful marriage had produced a potential heir, descended through women from Augustus’ biological father  Gaius Octavius .  This new arrival was  – well, he is always called Germanicus.


If Drusus had lived, Tiberius would almost certainly have missed out on the succession in AD 4.  He and Augustus had had a terrible relationship since the marriage to Julia in 11 BC.  Drusus could have been adopted as a strong successor and caretaker for his own son, Germanicus.  But Drusus died in 9 BC, reputedly of falling off a horse – another example of the dangers of campaign.   Left without Drusus, Augustus briefly considered making Germanicus his heir, but at barely twenty, he was too young to take over, especially against the opposition of his now wicked uncle, Tiberius.

But the future was with Germanicus.  Let’s not forget Julia 1’s daughters (GIRLS ARE MUMS).  By now, Augustus had given up on marrying Tiberius to anybody.  But Julia’s daughters were still available for marriages and their children would be great grandchildren to Augustus himself.   He was set on Germanicus, already a great nephew via Octavia, marrying one of Julia’s daughters and fathering his great grandchildren.   So Augustus came up with a complicated plan.

In AD 4 Augustus forced Tiberius to adopt Germanicus, his nephew and to make him his heir above his own son.  Augustus finished the plan by marrying Germanicus to one of Julia’s daughters, Agrippina.  Now everything would unfold as if Drusus had lived, with Tiberius filling in until Drusus’ son took over.

Augustus was following the four principles.

Germanicus (DADS ARE BEST) was descended from Augustus’ father, Gaius Octavius, through Octavius’ daughter Octavia, and her daughter Antonia (GIRLS ARE MUMS).  So he was descended both from Livia on the one side (AUGUSTUS LOVES LIVIA)  and Augustus’ father on the other.  By the marriage to Agrippina, Augustus’ granddaughter, Germanicus’ children could be descended from Augustus himself.  So Germanicus’ children would be Augustus’ descendants, Gaius Octavius’ descendants, and also Livia’s descendants in a mixed Julio-Claudian succession.  As a promising young commander, Germanicus would soon be able to ensure the NO MORE WAR principle for himself.  And meanwhile Tiberius would be  get to rule for life, but he would not get to found a dynasty.  All this might have made sense on paper, but it took no account of psychology.

What about Tiberius’ son?  Well, like Tiberius, Tiberius’ son wasn’t biologically connected with Augustus at all.  He had a place in the succession too – Tiberius was allowed to adopt him as a Julian and junior heir after Germanicus.  And a marriage was made between Tiberius’ son and Germanicus’ sister.  This gave Augustus another chance to bring his father’s line into the succession even if Germanicus died without heirs.  After Tiberius would come his son (unrelated to Augustus) and then his son (descended from Augustus’ father).   But Germanicus and his line came first.

Tiberius came off worst in these arrangements.  having been forced to divorce his son’s mother to marry Julia 1, he now found his son virtually disinherited.  He had to treat his nephew, Germanicus, as senior in his household to his own son – a humiliating position.  And he became a wicked uncle to Germanicus, knowing that his own son could only succeed if Germanicus’ line failed.   When Augustus made these arrangements,  he was signing a death warrant for his granddaughter Agrippina and two of her sons, who would be wiped out, along with other potential rivals, in the reign of Tiberius.  Germanicus himself would die of poisoning on campaign in 19 AD.  But Germanicus would eventually contribute two Emperors to the succession – his son Caligula and grandson Nero.

We are now ready for the final post; Part 9 – Swapping Off.

Disentangling the Augustan Succession (Part 7 – the Fourth Principle)

In AD 4 Augustus was faced with the death of both his heirs, the sons of Julia 1, and the lack of a credible regent.  He revised his position.

Julia still had one son left -her youngest, Postumus Agrippa.  So Augustus adopted this boy, whom he had previously ignored.  The sources suggest there was some deep-seated objection to Postumus,  possibly because he had some sort of disability or mental illness.  Postumus did not remain an heir for long – he was banished in AD 6.

Livia heart

But Augustus also made a much more interesting move.  While focusing his hopes on Gaius and Lucius, Augustus had kept on devising  back-up plans involving brutal political marriages and divorces.  Let’s go back in time.  When Agrippa died in 12 BC, Julia 1 was still young enough to become the mother of even more heirs.  Augustus hoped not to need them – he had Gaius and Lucius, her sons.  But on the GIRLS ARE MUMS principle Augustus felt Julia should continue to ensure his succession with back-up sons, and picked another suitable husband.

So in 11 BC, Julia married her stepbrother, Livia’s elder son, Tiberius.  He was indeed strong enough to enforce the NO MORE WAR principle, but his choice over other candidates was obviously to please Livia.  AUGUSTUS LOVES LIVIA.   To make this marriage,  Tiberius was made to divorce his beloved wife, the mother of his son, and marry Julia against his will.  The marriage with Julia was a disaster and produced no children.  Julia’s career as mother of heirs was over.  By 6 BC, Julia and Tiberius had separated and in 2 BC she was disgraced and sent into exile.  Augustus would have to make the best of her children by Agrippa.   At the time, with Gaius and Lucius shaping up excellently, this didn’t seem much of a problem.

But in AD 4, the situation was much more urgent.  Augustus did something much more radical than just trying out the unsuitable Postumus as an heir – he adopted his stepson, Julia’s ex-husband, Livia’s elder son Tiberius, bringing the Claudius family into the succession.  Like Agrippa, Tiberius was no biological relation, but an experienced commander and able to uphold the NO MORE WAR principle.   This helps explain how he got chosen to marry Julia.  But that doesn’t explain his adoption in his own right, after it was clear that he would not father Julia’s sons – for that we need the fourth principle; AUGUSTUS LOVES LIVIA.  Augustus was elevating Livia’s son to a position where he might inherit the rule of Rome – something he had not done for either of Julia’s previous husbands.  In fact (spoilers), on Augustus’ death in 14 AD, Tiberius became the Emperor Tiberius.

However, Augustus did not let go of the idea of keeping his own biological family in the line of succession.  Initially, he kept his grandson Postumus in reserve; given the age difference, it is probable that he considered placing him next in the succession after Tiberius, so that Tiberius would hold power in his life, but pass it back to a descendant of Augustus at death.  Even after he finally gave up on Postumus, Augustus would continue to interfere with the line of succession, diverting it away from Tiberius’ natural heirs towards his own biological family.

Disentangling the Augustan Succession (Part 6 – the Children of Julia)

The death of Marcellus ruined Augustus’ first hopes.  But he caused Julia 1 to remarry by 21 BC.  She was 18, her new husband some 25 years older.  The new husband had to divorce his wife, another cousin of Julia’s, to marry her.  In fact the ex-wife was the sister of Julia’s dead husband.  Augustus’ family was becoming extremely complicated.  But it all seemed worthwhile to him because Julia had to be the mother of heirs and she had to have a hand-picked husband.

The husband picked in this case was Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, Augustus’ second-in-command who had won the crucial Battle of Actium for him in 31 BC, causing the flight and suicide of Augustus’ rival Mark Antony and his consort Cleopatra.  The choice of Agrippa seems to have been purely practical – Augustus needed a regent who could take over and protect his heirs if he died.  On the NO MORE WAR principle, Agrippa was the obvious person to take over, and he would champion the rights of Julia’s children if they were also his own.

Augustus had not abandoned the idea of bringing his own father’s descendants back into the line of succession.  He was arranging other marriages among his kin which we will come back to later.  Augustus did not adopt Agrippa.  His focus was on Julia’s children and their marriages.

Julia and Agrippa had a number of children, many of them doomed to be martyrs to the Augustan succession.   The marriage produced three sons.   Gaius Vipsanius Agrippa (b. 20 BC) and Lucius Vipsanius Agrippa (b. 17 BC) were the first two.  Augustus stretched the law in order to adopt them both in 17 BC; he removed them from their parents, and brought them up in his own household.  As the boys were adopted, they officially took new Julian names.  You will find them listed as Lucius Caesar and Gaius Caesar.  He showered titles and privileges on them and sent them out into theatres of war as soon as they were old enough to get experience.

Gaius and Lucius aureus.jpg
Aureus of Augustus, Lugdunum Mint, 2 BC – 2AD, RIC 209

This coin was recently sold by for $21,000.  It is solid gold – nearly 8 grams.  This was a prestigious coin, celebrating the stability of the succession.  The younger boy put on the adult toga in 2 BC, and died in 2 AD, so scholars think the coin must have been minted in the interval when both were alive and officially adult.  On the obverse is Augustus, with his titles – SON OF THE GOD, FATHER OF THE FATHERLAND, CAESAR AUGUSTUS.  On the reverse, CLCAESARES – GAIUS AND LUCIUS CAESARS.  Above this legend stand the heirs, wearing the toga and displaying shields and spears.  The odd objects floating between them are religious implements.  The message is clear – the youths are ready to take over from Augustus in civil, military and religious life.  Around them are their own titles; SONS OF AUGUSTUS, CONSULS DESIGNATE, LEADERS OF YOUTH.

The coin told one story, reality another, but there was no reason why most people handling the coin should know the true situation.  Augustus presented an image of direct father son succession, cleverly constructed by adoption.  The title ‘leader of youth’ was invented especially for the Senate to bestow on Gaius (5 BC) and Lucius (2 BC), along with ceremonial silver shields and spears, pictured on the coin.  In the days when consuls had been elected from the Senate, a consul designate would usually be a senior general in his forties.  Now, under Augustus, the role was ceremonial.  Gaius was designated as consul in 6 BC aged 14, before he even put on his adult toga.  The next year he put on the toga, was appointed to the elite religious role of pontifex, and was made leader of youth and given a ceremonial military command.  Lucius followed in his footsteps as he reached the same ages.  Gaius held his consulship in AD 1, aged barely twenty.  There was no substance behind the images.

Augustus also married Gaius to his 12 year old cousin Livilla in 1 BC.  She complied with the four principles by being descended through women from Augustus’ sister (DADS ARE BEST, GIRLS ARE MUMS), and by being the daughter of Livia’s younger son (AUGUSTUS LOVES LIVIA).   But she was very young to begin producing heirs and Augustus probably felt there was no urgency.  He focused on rapid military training for Gaius and Lucius instead (NO MORE CIVIL WAR).  By 4 AD they were both dead in foreign lands – Lucius in Marseilles and Gaius in Lycia (Turkey).   Hostile writers suggest that Livia poisoned them, but their deaths are probably more an illustration of the deadliness of the exposure to disease and accidents which was an inevitable part of campaigning.

Amid state mourning in 4 AD, Augustus had to make a new plan.