Tuesday, April 19, 2016


     16th century Europe didn't have rock stars, movie stars, or star athletes.  On the other hand, they had all of the above rolled into one: royals.  People gathered in droves when they heard that kings and queens would be on public display.

     In July of 1574, Henri III, the new successor to the French throne, was on his way with an enormous entourage from Poland, where he had been living in exile, to Paris, to claim his kingdom.  He decided to stop in Venice along the way.  Venice was a proud republic, and had been so for many years, but that didn't mean that its citizens weren't as gaga over royalty as anyone else, if not even more so. 

     The first (unpublished, of course) book I ever wrote was a middle-grade novel set in the year 1574 in Murano, a tiny island off the coast of Venice that was the traditional home of the city's glassblowers.  Because this A to Z post is the only way any of GLASS ISLAND will ever see the light of day (see title of blog above), I'm going to offer an excerpt of the scene in which I describe (based on research into contemporary accounts) the crowd of spectators gathered near the water in Murano to watch Henri's arrival in Venice, as seen from the viewpoint of young Tommaso, the main character.

On the evening of July 16th, more than thirty thousand people, all mad with excitement, stood jostling and pushing at the Murano pier. Tommaso's family had been stationed there since midafternoon.  Papa, Uncle Luigi, Marco and Tommaso all stood, legs braced, arms around each other's shoulders, creating a small semicircle of space into which Mama, Aunt Rosanna, and the younger children were all packed. The boys were under strict orders not to move, no matter what happened. But Marco, who was still not speaking to Tommaso, found many opportunities to pinch and shove him when the adults weren't looking. 
As the sun began to drop into the sea, the woman standing directly behind Marco suddenly stopped scolding her children, gave a gasp and fainted in the heat, almost knocking Marco over, but he stood his ground like a soldier. 
A gondola carrying a group of Turkish merchants drew up at the waterside. Their appearance drew angry mutterings from the crowd. One red-faced man, who had been drinking wine at least since Tommaso had been there, refused to move over to make room for them. "You don't belong in Venice!" he shouted, shoving aside a portly Turk with a long gray beard."Walking around as free as the rest of us, and you're probably all spies for your heathen government! Go back to your own filthy country!"
A shriveled little man with no teeth took up the chant.  "They ought to be kept in pens if they have to be here. Gathered up in one place so they can't do no harm to the rest of us." 
Fortunately, the Turks either didn't understand Venetian dialect, or were wise enough to pretend that they didn't. They squeezed themselves humbly into the smallest possible space, and silently waited for the King. Since the red-faced man and his toothless friend couldn't draw any response from them, they soon gave up and sank back into a bleary-eyed silence.

Just as twilight turned to dark, a new commotion began less than ten yards from where Tommaso and his family stood. 
"Move over, swine!" 
"I was here first, son of a dog!" 
"Aargh!  You spit on me!"
"I didn't!"
"Liar!  Here's what I have for you!"
Screams and shouts filled the air. Tommaso couldn't see what was going on, but he could hear excited voices. "My God! He's got a knife!" "Stop him!" "He's bleeding!" "Give him room! Room!  The man's been stabbed!"
All was unimaginable chaos. Eventually, the man with the knife was wrestled to the ground, and the injured man, moaning in pain, was lifted over the heads of the crowd and carried off into the nearest house to have his wounds bandaged. To Tommaso's great relief, word came back that he would live.

An hour after the torches were lit, the King finally did arrive, accompanied by a

fleet of more than two thousand gondolas. The mass hysteria reached new heights,

but none of the people crammed together at the dock actually got to see him.

Surrounded by hundreds of his entourage, including armed guards, Henry was rushed

under a canopy through the crowds to the palace of Bartolomeo Capello, where he

was to spend the next two nights.  The disappointed mob seemed almost ready to

storm the palace walls.

Henri III arrives in Venice
     Of course, everywhere the royals went in Europe, people lined up along the roads to watch them pass by, but for most of them the sight of a royal entourage was at least an occasional occurrence.  For the Venetians, who had no royalty of their own (they always had a doge, a chief magistrate, who made very fancy public appearances from time to time, but he was just a well-connected Venetian politician so it wasn't quite the same), that July day in 1574 was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.


  1. I have never thought about this. But I suppose people had their shows back then too ;-)
    Good excerpt.

    The Old Shelter - Jazz Age Jazz

  2. Thanks, Sarah! Yes, there was no TV, but there was still plenty of gawking at celebrities when the opportunities arose!

  3. Intriguing excerpt! Makes me want to read more of the story.

    The desire to segregate people different from us remains more or less the same down the centuries, not much change in prejudices even now in many parts of the world

    1. As far as I can tell, every human society has had its own elite caste(s) and its own destitute class.