Thursday, April 30, 2015


     Abraham Zacuto was born c. 1452 and died sometime between 1510 and 1520, so it might be a bit of a stretch to call him a 16th-century personage, but I've gotten all the way up to Z in this Challenge, barely cheating along the way, so you're just going to have to cut me some slack with this.  Thank you.  He was a very interesting man, and well worth bending the rules for.  The story of his life reads like a well-plotted novel: every good turn of events is followed by a bad one, and vice versa.
     Zacuto was born in Salamanca, Spain, into a family of that city's Jewish nobility, and was given an outstanding religious and secular education.  As an adult he became a mathematician and astronomer, served as the rabbi of his community, and taught astronomy at several prestigious Spanish universities, becoming quite well-known in academic circles.  Unlike Copernicus, whom we discussed for the letter C, Zacuto apparently specialized in applied, rather than theoretical, astronomy.  From what little we know, it sounds like the first 40 years of his life were satisfying ones.  In 1478 he published, in Hebrew, a "Great Book" of 65 very detailed astronomical tables that corrected a navigational problem no one had been able to overcome before, and was thus of great practical use to seafarers.  The book, soon translated into Spanish and Latin versions, became a huge success, and no 16th-century European maritime explorers embarked without a copy of it. 

     Then all the Jews who refused to convert to Catholicism were expelled from Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella in August 1492, beginning one day before Christopher Columbus embarked on his voyage to the New World with Zacuto's charts on board for guidance (a copy of the charts with Columbus's own handwritten notations is preserved in Seville).  Rather than undergo forced conversion (as some historians believe Columbus did, having possibly been born a Jew), Zacuto fled to Portugal, along with tens of thousands of other Jewish refugees.  His academic reputation had preceded him and allowed him to land on his feet.  He was soon appointed as the Royal Astronomer and Historian to Portugal's King John II. 
     For most Jewish immigrants to Portugal, their respite (bought from King John with cash) was only temporary; less than a year after granting them asylum, King John ordered that all remaining Jews in the country who refused forced conversions be enslaved.  Of course, exceptions were made for valuable citizens like Zacuto, who remained at court in Lisbon.  King John died in 1495 and was succeeded by Manuel I, who for a time maintained Zacuto in his royal position and consulted with him as to whether Vasco da Gama's proposed voyage to find a sea route to India would be feasible.  Zacuto supported the plan, and he personally trained da Gama and his crew before they departed on their voyage in 1496, bearing with them Zacuto's navigation charts as well as the new, more portable kind of astrolabe he had invented to be used at sea to determine latitude.
     But in 1497, bowing to political pressures (he wanted to marry the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, whose views on harboring Jews we all know), King Manuel ordered that the Jews in Portugal must either convert to Christianity or be deported without their children.  Zacuto and his son Samuel were among the few who managed to escape the country in safety. They fled first to Tunis, where in 1504 Zacuto wrote a history of the Jewish people from the time of the Creation to the year 1500, which was repeatedly reprinted for centuries afterward.  From Tunis, under the increasing threat of Spanish invasion, he moved on to elsewhere in the Middle East - possibly Turkey, possibly Damascus.  Exactly where he spent the rest of his life is unknown, but it is said that he was buried in Jerusalem. 
     The moon crater Zagut is named after Abraham Zacuto.

    In THE DISCOVERERS, Daniel Boorstin (my go-to awesome quotemeister) was writing about Jewish cartographers, but I think what he wrote was equally applicable to astronomers like Zacuto, who mapped the skies rather than the Earth: "It was no accident that Jews played a leading role in the liberation of Europeans from the slavery of Christian geography.  Driven from place to place, they helped make cartography, still the special preserve of princes and high bureaucrats, into an international science, offering facts equally valid in lands of all faiths.  Marginal both to Christians and to Muslims, the Jews became teachers and emissaries bringing Arab learning into the Christian world."

                                                      Vermeer: The Astronomer

                     *              *             *              *              *              *               *             *

     And thus ends my 2015 A to Z Challenge.  It's been an incredible journey for me.  I've learned so much, I've made some new cyberfriends, and I feel like I've been part of something meaningful.  I'd like to thank the Academy - oops, wrong speech.  But I truly would like to thank every blogger who stopped by here during April, even if it was only once, regardless of whether they had time to leave a comment.  I started doing this Challenge last year thanks to Yvonne Ventresca, who told me about it.  And this year I had the extra satisfaction of being a Minion, which made me feel like I was doing a little bit to give back, even though I didn't have as much time as I would have liked to visit other blogs.  There was a comment left on my yesterday's post about how one person can change history, and indeed, that is true.  Well, one person, Arlee Bird, thought up this Challenge a few years ago, and look at the amazing thing he's wrought!  Bloggers from all around the world come together for one month to share a common goal.  The alphabet is, of course, secondary, but it does add a layer of structure and an added element of challenge.  Well done, all of us!  And that includes everyone who successfully finished as well as everyone who tried but didn't quite make it this time.  There's always next year!  I hope to see everyone back again in 2016!  And until then, here's an Irish blessing that may well date back before my beloved 16th century:

May the road rise to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back;
May the sun shine warm upon your face;
And, until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of his[/her] hand.


Wednesday, April 29, 2015


                                                                    (1545 - 1598)

     Yi Sun-Shin (or Sun-Sin) was a Korean admiral who is remembered as a national hero for turning back a relentless eight-year invasion by Japan.
     Yi was born into a noble family in Seoul but was raised in Asan, near his mother's family.  He passed the government examinations to become a military officer in 1576 (after failing them on his first try because he fell off his horse and broke his leg).  Yi first made his mark as a strategist on land, defending border territories from Jurchen marauders from Manchuria, China.  In 1583, he lured the Jurchen into battle and captured their chief.  Soon after that, he became a naval officer.  Although at the time he had no naval experience at all, he proved adept and soon rose through the ranks. 
     The Korean government and military were rife with corruption and backstabbing.  Other officers were jealous of Yi's rapid rise, and spread false accusations about him which led to his discharge from officer rank.  He was imprisoned and tortured, and when he was released he was demoted to a common soldier.  Soon, though,  he was assigned to run a military training center in northern Korea, which he did very well.
     Within the span of a few months in 1590, Yi received four different promotions, culminating in his appointment as commander of the naval forces in Left Cholla Province. While in that post, he resurrected and developed the famous kobukson, "Turtle Ship," considered the first ironclad battleship in history.  Cannons and guns could be fired from every side of these ships, and the dragon's heads on the bows could not only fire cannon, but also discharge smoke screens to conceal the ship's position from enemies.  The decks were covered with armored plates which were studded with spikes and knives to prevent boarding by hostile forces (the Japanese ships were taller than the Korean ones, and leaping onto the decks of the vessels they wanted to capture was a Japanese m.o.).

      In 1592 Japan invaded Korea as a first step in its plan to conquer China.  Because Yi was one of the very few who had foreseen that the invasion was inevitable, he and his troops were well-supplied and well-prepared, despite the lack of cooperation he received from the government.  Japan increased the size of its fleet to 1,700 ships, hoping to defeat the Korean navy through sheer numbers.  But the Korean ships were structurally stronger than the Japanese ones, and Yi proved to be an exceptionally able strategist and leader.  His forces defeated the Japanese invaders again and again, although they were greatly outnumbered.  They fought four major operations against the Japanese during 1592,  consisting of at least 15 battles, and Yi's forces decisively won every battle.  While the Japanese invading land forces were very successful against Korea, their navies kept suffering humiliating defeats.  In 1593, Yi was appointed the joint naval commander of the three southern provinces.
      In 1597, a Japanese double agent convinced the useless Korean king that the Japanese were about to launch a massive attack and insisted that Yi and his forces be sent to set an ambush.  Knowing how treacherous the area was for ships, and probably smelling a rat, Yi refused the king's orders.  As a result, Yi was once again arrested, imprisoned and tortured.  Upon his release, he was demoted to the rank of a common soldier.  But his replacement as commander was disastrously inept, and under his watch the Japanese virtually destroyed the entire Korean fleet.  Yi was quickly reinstated in his old post, but the Japanese wasted no time in attacking his greatly reduced navy, trying to finish it off for good this time.   Miraculously, helped in part by a shift in the tides, Yi's 13 remaining ships defeated the Japanese force of 333 ships at the Battle of Myeongnyang, while suffering almost no casualties and losing none of their own tiny fleet.  This resounding naval victory is credited with turning the course of the war against Japan and eventually leading to that country's retreat after eight years of continuous war.  Unfortunately, Yi was not alive to see the final victory.
     In December 1598, during the Battle of Noryang, Yi's forces once again defeated the Japanese and were pursuing them as they fled, but Yi himself was struck by a stray bullet.  Aware of his imminent death, he famously said to his son and nephew, "The war is at its height. Wear my armor and beat my war drums.  Do not announce my death."  They obeyed his commands and kept the troops fighting until victory was achieved.  Thus, even after his death, Yi and his forces remained undefeated in every battle they fought with the Japanese.
     Yi's noble deeds in protecting his country have been commemorated with statues scattered throughout Korea.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015



     Huang Xiumei, also known as Huang E (1498-1569), one of the most noted female poets of the Ming dynasty era in China, might not have even been remembered in the 21st century if her life had been happier.  But because all but about six years of her long married life were spent separated from her husband, who was in permanent exile far away, we know of her through the poems she wrote to accompany her letters to him.
     Xiumei was a highly intelligent daughter of a high-ranking government official, and was given the equivalent of a man's education in her family home in central Sichuan.  In 1519, she married Yang Shen, the son of another prosperous Sichuan family and a rising intellectual; the two shared a strong love of poetry.  All was apparently good for them until 1524, when Yang Shen took part in a rebellion against the current emperor.  He and the other rebels were beaten as punishment, and he was then exiled to Yunnan in the far southeast of the country (just north of present-day Laos) and was never pardoned; for the 35 remaining years of his life, other than for brief periods, the couple remained far apart, exchanging letters and poems across the distance.  Xiumei lived with her husband's family.  To quote from WOMEN WRITERS OF TRADITIONAL CHINA, edited by Kang-I Sun Chang: "Huang Xiumei became the central figure in the Yang family household, responsible for running the estate, rearing the children and grandchildren (none of them her own), and providing for their education and general well-being.  While Yang, lionized as a literary giant in Yunnan, lived a relatively free if frustrated life embellished by a number of romantic encounters, she lived the proper and constrained life of an upper-class lady, seeing to her husband's financial needs and those of the entire Yang clan with hard work and devotion."  Wait - who is the spouse who was banished into exile?
     And this is the part I find so interesting.  Evidently at one point, Xiumei lived with her husband for three years in Yunnan.  Judging from their poems, the two of them loved each other.  So why didn't she just stay with him there?  Maybe it was because the emperor imposed a three-year time limit, although to me that seems unlikely; no one seemed to interfere with Yang's celebrity lifestyle in any other way.  Maybe either Yang himself, or his family back home, decided that Xiumei was indispensable to them and refused to let her go.  I imagine her as not only feeling beholden to the Yangs for her upkeep, but also as being a classic alpha dog, taking over the running of the household because she couldn't help herself, even if it hurt her own interests.  But I also think there was a third possibility.  Maybe she was the lady who protested too much.  Despite all her poems of longing and loneliness, maybe she stayed with the Yangs because that was exactly where she wanted to be - running the show, making the decisions, not subordinate to a husband.  She outlived Yang Shen by ten years.
     But I digress.  Xiumei isn't known for her lifestyle, like some 16th-century Kardashian; she's known for her poetry, a bit of which I will share.  Controversy surrounds her poems; some scholars attribute most or all of "her" poems to Yang Shen, claiming that he for some reason assumed her persona and gave her credit for poems he himself wrote - although it's not clear why he would have done that.  In any event, here are a few of the most famous poems attributed to Xiumei, in their English translations (I confess that my Chinese is a little rusty, in the sense that I've never spoken or understood a word of it):

1.  I remember when we were together: shared pillow, same coverlet,
     Together we drove out all sadness, together expelled all ills.
     Jade-green sleeves, richly carved saddles,
     Through cold and ice, to far streams and distant peaks.
     But that good time of joy was not to endure;
     This blighted marriage has now worn my spirit thin.
     I sigh long sighs, sunk deep in gloomy thought -
     No need to pursue those old promises.
     The mood for billing and cooing has long since been swept away,
     So don't bring up again that old line about "one quarter-hour being worth
     A thousand pieces of gold."

2.  Incessant rain brings on light chill.
     I see luxuriant bloom on all the trees now battered;
     My eyes are filled with muddy roads ascending to the immortals;
     How many layers of peaks in the clouds?
     How many bends in the rivers?
     To the edge of the heavens as far as I can see,
     And my heart breaks in vain.
     It is so hard to send a letter,
     The heartless migrating geese will not fly all the way to Yunnan.

No, Xiumei, the geese will not fly all the way to Yunnan... and neither did you.


Monday, April 27, 2015


     Francis Walsingham (c. 1530 - 1590) was born in London to a well-off, well-connected family and educated at King's College, Cambridge and abroad, and was admitted to the bar at Gray's Inn in 1553.  Walsingham leaned Protestant; he left England for Switzerland and Italy when the virulently Catholic Mary Tudor took the throne.  He continued his legal studies at Basel and Padua, and did not return to England until 1558, after Mary had died and her Protestant sister Elizabeth I succeeded her.  In 1559 he was elected to Elizabeth's first parliament.
     By 1569, Walsingham was working with William Cecil to search out and counteract plots against Queen Elizabeth, and he helped to foil the Ridolfi Plot designed to depose Elizabeth and replace her with her Catholic cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots.
   In 1570 Walsingham was appointed ambassador to France, where in 1572 he witnessed the horrendous weeks-long St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre, in which thousands of French Huegenots (Protestants) were slaughtered.  This experience marked Walsingham deeply, and in the future, whenever the opportunity arose, he showed no mercy to Catholics.  He supported the torture of Catholic priests and the extraction of confessions from suspected conspirators by use of torture.  He also supported giving land grants in Ireland to English settlers, who he believed would work the land more productively than the Irish had been doing.  This policy fostered Irish resentment, needless to say, and the eventual result was centuries of horrific English-Irish warfare, a.k.a. "The Troubles."
     Walsingham returned to England in 1573, having earned the Queen's trust by the loyalty and talent he had shown during his years in France.  In December of that year, Walsingham was appointed to the Royal Privy Council, and became the Queen's Principal Secretary (an office later known as Secretary of State).  In that role, he became an indispensable advisor to the Queen, second only to William Cecil, the Lord Treasurer.  Walsingham was in charge of all of Elizabeth's correspondence and decided the agendas of council meetings.  He was a big supporter of British trade and exploration, including Francis Drake's circumnavigation of the globe (1578-81).  Perhaps most importantly, he became known as Elizabeth's "spymaster;" he employed a master cryptographer, as well as a fleet of "intelligencers" throughout Europe and North Africa that enabled him to foil many and varied plots against the Queen's life.  Walsingham didn't invent spying, but he's the one who raised it to an art form.
     Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Walsingham's lifelong faithfulness to Queen Elizabeth was the fact that the two of them didn't like each other very much, and they both knew it.  His surviving letters (not to her, of course) contain observations such as "I would to God her Majesty would be content to refer these things to them that can best judge of them [i.e., him], as other princes do," and that there was not a councilor in her service "who would not wish himself rather in the furthest part of Ethiopia than to enjoy the fairest palace in England."  But neither of them ever let their personal animosities get in the way of their professional relationship, and they worked together to their mutual benefit for over 20 years.  
     In 1582-83, Walsingham uncovered another plot to kill Elizabeth and replace her with Mary, Queen of Scots.  The British ringleader was executed and the Spanish ambassador, who had been deeply involved, was expelled from England.  By 1585 Mary, Queen of Scots had been imprisoned, and was tricked into believing that she ha a single means of secret communication with the outside world (letters hidden inside a beer keg).  Those letters enabled Walsingham to prove that she had been engaged in yet another plot against the Queen's life.  Mary was tried, convicted, and in 1587, despite Elizabeth's reluctance, executed.


     From 1586 on, Walsingham began to receive reports from his spies about Spanish plans to invade England.  By keeping himself well-informed on all the preparations, he was able to order counter-preparations, and thus he contributed greatly to the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588.
     Walsingham's health had been in decline since 1571, and became very bad in the late 1580's.  But he continued to work; he attended his last Council meeting two weeks before his death from cancer in 1590.  His political legacy is decidedly mixed, but as a spymaster, he was second to none.

Saturday, April 25, 2015


                                                                  (1514 - 1564)
     In my posts about Louise Bourgeois Boursier and Ambroise Pare, I mocked the physicians of the sixteenth century for being close-minded, snobbish, petty, lacking in imagination, and willing to blindly adhere to ancient traditions even when their own experiences showed them those traditions were wrong.  In today's post I'm going to present the flip side: a sixteenth-century physician who was brilliant, innovative, and not afraid to buck the establishment.
     Andreas Vesalius, born in Brussels, was the son of Emperor Charles V's apothecary.  Andreas received the best medical education available in Europe and received his degree of Doctor of Medicine with highest honors in 1537 from the renowned University of Padua.  Two days after he passed the examination, the University installed him as a professor of surgery and anatomy.
     It soon became apparent to everyone that in teaching anatomy, Vesalius was not going to conduct business as usual.  Once again, I'm going to quote from the brilliant Daniel J. Boorstin, writing in THE DISCOVERERS: "unlike the professors before him, Vesalius did not stay seated high in his professorial cathedra while a barber-surgeon with bloody hands pulled organs out of the cadaver.  Vesalius himself handled the body and dissected the organs."  (Sorry if you're squeamish.  At least I'm not telling you where they got the cadavers from.  Believe me, you don't want to know.)  In addition, although charts and drawings were very uncommon teaching tools at the time, "To help his students, he prepared... four large anatomical charts, detailed enough to show the student the body structure when there was no cadaver at hand.  Each part was labeled with its technical name.  An accompanying glossary and index listed the names of the parts in Greek, Latin, Arabic and Hebrew."
     In 1538, Vesalius published his Six Anatomical Tables, in part because one of his teaching charts was plagiarized and it seemed that the others might soon be.  So he collected them all and published them in book form, along with his own drawings of the veins, arteries, muscles and nervous system.

     Even with all his new techniques, though, Vesalius was basically using the same source materials for his teaching that everyone else was: the writings of Galen, an eminent Greek physician who had died in the year 200 A.D.  As was the case with other scientific fields (see my "C" post on Copernicus), it was still considered sacrilege to question any of the pronouncements of the classical scholars.
     But as he continued teaching and dissecting, Vesalius couldn't help but notice that many of the features Galen described did not actually exist in the human body, although they may have existed in other animals.  Vesalius did not leap to any conclusions, but the method he proposed for checking Galen's findings was revolutionary in itself.  As he wrote in 1539, "I gave careful consideration to the possibility that anatomical dissection might be used to check speculation."  In other words: Vesalius proposed to apply the scientific method of checking Galen's writings against his own observations. And when he did that, he found verifiable proof that in many instances, Galen had been wrong.
     As a result of his studies, Vesalius produced his masterwork: De Humanis Corporis Fabrica (Structure of the Human Body) published in 1543.  Below is the illustrated title page:

     The scene shows Vesalius himself performing a "public anatomy," as the University of Padua required.  The two men crouched unhappily under the dissecting table are barber-surgeons, who used to do this kind of work themselves, but are now reduced to sharpening the professor's razors.
     The book was gorgeously illustrated throughout by some of the best Italian artists available.  It was an instant success.  Fifty years later, most European medical schools were teaching Vesalian anatomy.  Some of his findings were later disproven, but the findings themselves were far less important than his innovation in method.  He taught physicians to think for themselves.
     Ironically, soon after the Fabrica was published, Vesalius left the university setting to become a physician to the court of Emperor Charles V.   He stayed there for another twenty years, being mocked by the other physicians as a mere "barber" and catering to the whims of spoiled, capricious patients.  Vesalius may well have regretted his impetuous decision, but because he had been replaced at Padua by his friend and pupil Fallopius (yes, the one the tubes were named after), it isn't clear whether he could have returned to the academic life even if he had wanted to.  Aside from updating the Fabrica in 1555, Vesalius never published another book. 
     In 1564 Vesalius left for a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  But as soon as he arrived in Jerusalem, he received a message from the Venetian Senate asking him to return and assume the professorship at Padua that had just become vacant due to the death of Fallopius.  Vesalius began the voyage back, but he was killed in a shipwreck off the Greek coast.  

Friday, April 24, 2015


     Born Giovanni Batista Castagna, Pope Urban VII (1521 - 1590) was a man ahead of his time; he enacted the world's first public smoking ban, threatening to excommunicate anyone who "took tobacco in the porchway of or inside a church, whether it be by chewing it, smoking it through a pipe or sniffing it in powdered form through the nose."  Unfortunately, the other major thing for which Urban VII is known is having had the shortest papacy in history: 12 days (September 15th to 27th, 1590),  ending with his death from malaria.  Kind of makes one wonder what the living conditions were like for popes in those days, doesn't it?
     Remember back, back, through the mists of time, to when I first announced my topic for the A to Z Challenge?  Of course you do.  And as you recall, one of my self-imposed rules was going to be "no religious leaders," although I said there would be one exception.  Well, I thought being Pope for less than two weeks deserved an exception, not to mention that there didn't seem to be many notable 16th-century people whose surnames began with the letter U.  If you know of another one, please give me a shout-out!  But Urban VII (the only Pope Urban during that century - yes, of course I checked the list) is my choice.
     Despite his exceedingly short reign at the peak of his career path, Urban VII led quite an eventful (and very privileged) life up to then.  Born into the nobility in Rome, he finished his studies at the University of Bologna with doctorates in both civil law and canon law.  After what seems to have been a short stint as a constitutional lawyer, he entered the Roman curia (the administrative arm of the Holy See) and became sort of an ecclesiastic civil servant, embarking on a series of assignments, both civil and clerical. 
     1553: Archbishop of Rossano
     1555-59: governor of Fano
     1559-1560: governor of Perugia and Umbria
     1562-63: participated in Council of Trent
     1565-72: apostolic nuncio (ambassador) to Spain
     1573-77: apostolic nuncio to Venice
     1576-77: governor of Bologna (I'm not sure how he could be in Venice and Bologna at the same time, but then, he wouldn't have been the last absentee governor, would he?)
     1578-80: papal legate to Flanders and Cologne
     1583: became a Cardinal; served in San Marcello
     1586: inquisitor general (yes, that Inquisition)
     Urban was not a fan of the tradition of nepotism; he would not employ any of his relatives in the court offices, and forbade them from assuming new titles based on their connection to him.  Urban ordered the poor of Rome to be numbered so that he could distribute alms to them.  In his will, he left all of his considerable fortune to the Fraternity of the Annunciation to be used as dowries for impoverished girls.  Sounds like he would have been a good Pope.  That is all.

Thursday, April 23, 2015


                                                                  (1462 - 1516)

     Does this man look like a merry prankster to you?  He doesn't to me, but in fact, that's exactly what he was.  And his most elaborate practical joke kept everyone fooled for roughly 500 years.
     Let's go back to the beginning.  Born in Germany into what sound like humble circumstances, Trithemius craved learning but had a stepfather who didn't believe in education, so he taught himself Latin, Greek and Hebrew in secret.  He left home at 17 and landed at the University of Heidelberg.  At the age of 20, he took refuge from a sudden snowstorm in the Benedictine Abbey of Sponheim, and decided to stay.  It must not have been an A-list place, because the following year he was elected abbot.  He stayed on until 1506, building the abbey's library from 50 volumes to several thousand, and writing his own two-volume work on the history of Hirsau Abbey, one of the most important Benedictine abbeys in Germany.  But that treatise was soon found to contain several fictional passages.  That discovery, along with Trithemius's reputation as a magician, led to a parting of the ways between him and Sponheim Abbey.  Luckily, he was offered the post of abbot at St. James' Abbey in Wurtzburg, where he remained for the rest of his life.  At some point he became a respected advisor to the Emperor Maximilian.
     Trithemius was a prolific writer who produced many books, mainly historical works, into which he occasionally inserted references to fictional people, apparently just to entertain himself.  (What a cut-up, huh?)  But his most famous - some might say infamous - written work was his three-volume Steganographia  (Greek for "hidden writing"), written in around 1500Privately circulated, the books caused such a stir that Trithemius resolved never to publish them.  In fact, their first publication was in 1606, fifty years after his death, and even then they were promptly placed on the Catholic Church's list of banned books.

     What was the problem?  Well, Books 1 and 2 described systems for encoding messages, and are thought to have been the first published works on cryptography.  That was okay.  But the 22-page Book 3 was, at least on its face, about communication between people through the mediation of spirits, and it was couched in the language of the occult.  Trithemius described a hierarchy of angels and spirits that governed specific earthly regions at specific days and times - a handy reference tool, so that readers could know exactly which spirit to contact.  Then all one has to do is write a cover message to the correct angel and conjure the spirit who'll act as courier.  The spirit then delivers the cover message to the recipient, who has to conjure the spirit again himself in order to receive the secret reply message from the angel.  All pretty simple, really, when you know how.  To the Church, all of this was distinctly NOT okay.
     Book 3 also contained many tables of numbers

without any real explanation of how to use or interpret them.  But what made things even worse is that Trithemius still had the reputation of being a magician - a reputation he had acquired by, in fact, being one (although the reputation probably mattered more than the actual facts).  Trithemius had no problem reconciling magic and Christianity; he's quoted as having said, "The word magic is the Persian term for what in Latin is called wisdom, on which account magicians are called wise men, just as were those three wise men who, according to the Gospel, journeyed from the East to adore, in his crib, the infant who was the Son of God in the flesh."  The institution of the Church was not quite as broad-minded as its Benedictine son was, however.  To the Church, magic meant black magic, which required consorting with the devil.
     Steganographia  remained banned for a long time, but became something of a cult classic.  In 1676, a counselor to the Archbishop of Mainz claimed that Book 3 was written in code and that he had cracked it; unfortunately, he wrote up his findings in a code of his own invention, which apparently nobody cared enough to try to decipher.  (No, I'm not pulling a Trithemius here!  This is actually true!  You can look it up!)  And so things stood until 1993, when Thomas Ernst, a German professor teaching in the U.S., published a 200-page paper in a Dutch cryptology journal describing how he had figured out that Trithemius's  number charts were actually all encrypted messages, written in a fairly primitive form of substitution cypher.  Jim Reeds, a mathematician in New Jersey, didn't know about Ernst's findings, and in 1998 he independently cracked the code again.  So it's official: in Books 1 and 2, Trithemius taught cryptography, and in Book 3, instead of talking about it, he performed it.  And it only took 500 years for someone to figure that out.
     You got us, Johannes Trithemius.  Good one!  Somewhere, I'm sure, you're holding onto your chubby sides and laughing like a lunatic.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015


                                                                     (1494 - 1566)

     There are other pictures of Suleiman, but I love this one because - I'm sorry - rather than magnificent, he looks incredibly dorky in that hat.  What is that about, anyway, the turban 10 times the size of your head?  But appearances can be deceiving; Suleiman was, in fact, the longest-reigning sultan of the vast Ottoman Empire, and is known both for his military victories  and for his many and wide-ranging civic accomplishments.  At the time, he was considered by both Christians and Moslems to be the most significant ruler in the world.  Moral: the clothes don't always make the man.
     Upon the death of his father, Suleiman became sultan in 1520.  Christian Europe was expanding during the sixteenth century, which meant that it was encroaching into traditionally Muslim territory.  To fight this trend, Suleiman formed policies designed to destabilize European powers, particularly the Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Empire.  Thus, he poured financial support into newly-Protestant countries.  But the primary way in which he reconfigured the map of Europe was through war and conquest, not just political action.
     Reports of Suleiman's military prowess struck terror into the heart of every Christian ruler in Europe.  In quick succession, he captured Belgrade (1521) and then the island of Rhodes (1522).  In 1526, he defeated the King of Hungary in battle, and when the Hapsburgs took control of the country, he recaptured it in 1529.  His only real European defeats were the failures to capture Vienna after two tries (1530 and 1532).
     Suleiman repeatedly invaded Middle Eastern territories governed by the Persian Shah, achieving victories but no decisive outcome.  Finally, in 1554, a treaty was reached granting Suleiman Baghdad, lower Mesopotamia (modern Iraq, Kuwait, and parts of Syria), the mouths of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, and part of the Persian Gulf.
     The Portuguese dominated trade in the Indian Ocean, and Suleiman set out to dispute their control in order to trade with the Mughal Empire in India.  He largely succeeded in meeting this goal.  He was also concerned about increasing Spanish control of the eastern Mediterranean, so he turned to none other than our old friend Barbarossa (see my H post about Sayyida al-Hurra), appointing him naval commander.  Barbarossa formed a huge fleet and, in 1538, defeated the Spanish fleet and thus secured Ottoman control of the eastern Mediterranean for the next 33 years.
     But Suleiman's prowess at invading and conquering other countries represents only one aspect of this very complex man.  Not only was he a patron of the arts; he was himself considered one of Islam's finest poets.  His reign marked the pinnacle of Ottoman cultural and artistic development; his court became the center for visual arts, music, literature and philosophy in the Moslem world.  In addition, he undertook a series of important building projects - bridges, mosques, palaces - often employing the brilliant architect Mimar Sinan.  And since Sinan also begins with an S, and so does the name of his masterpiece, I'll provide a mini-bonus: a photograph of  the Selimiye Mosque in Ankara:

     Although Europeans called Suleiman "the Magnificent," the Ottomans called him Kanuni, "The Lawgiver."  All Islamic countries were governed by the Shari'ah law, which was derived from the Koran and could not be altered by any ruler.  But there were all kinds of situations that fell outside the parameters of Shari'ah, and that was when rulers could exercise their own judgment, creating what was known as kanun law.  From the time they began their rule in 1350, the Ottomans took this flexibility to a whole new level.  They enacted an entire body of Sultanic law that more or less superseded the Shari'ah altogether.  During his reign, Suleiman revised the legal code and codified the whole kanun system into its final version, thus earning the title Kanuni.  In Islamic history, he is considered to have been the perfect ruler.
     Suleiman had four sons.  Because he had chosen Selim to be the one to succeed him, he ensured a future conflict-free transition by what seems to have been a traditional method: he ordered the murder of two of his other sons, and the third is said to have died of grief.  Thus, as in most things, Suleiman got what he wanted.  He died a natural death in 1566 during an expedition to Hungary.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

R IS FOR MATTEO RICCI (plus bonus!!)

                                                                   (1552 - 1610)

     Ricci was an Italian Jesuit missionary to China who came to love his adopted country so much that he decided never to leave.  His respectful and genuine assimilation into Chinese culture opened doors that enabled him to establish the Church in what was then one of the most closed societies in the known world.
     Ricci was born in Macerata, then part of the Papal States.  He received a good classical education, followed by a two-year study of the law in Rome.  Against the wishes of his father, who banned talk of religion in their house, Ricci became a Jesuit at the age of 19 and entered the Roman College, where he studied philosophy, theology, mathematics, cosmology and astronomy.
     In 1577 Ricci applied to serve as a missionary in the Far East.  The first stage of his journey was a six-month ocean voyage in 1578 from Lisbon, Portugal, to Goa, a city on the western coast of India that was then a Portuguese colony.  There, he taught, studied, and in 1580, was ordained as a priest.  In 1582 he was sent to Macao, a port city on the South China Sea, for the second leg of his journey.  At the time, Macao was a Portuguese trading post, the only place in China that Christian missionaries had ever visited (there had been sporadic attempts over the years to go farther, but none of them panned out).  When he arrived there, Ricci joined Michele Ruggieri, another Italian Jesuit who had been sent to Macao three years earlier to study Chinese as a first step toward the hoped-for expansion of the Jesuit mission deeper into China.  Ricci, too, settled in at Macao and applied himself to the task of learning the Chinese language, customs, art, literature and philosophy.  It took a little while, but he became fluent in all of them.
     Ruggieri, of course, is your bonus R person.  He got to China first, which was awesome (given how little was known to Europeans about the country, it must have been a lot like being a twentieth-century astronaut at the beginning of the space program), but he loses top billing because eventually he went back home.  Not Ricci.  To him, China became home.
     From their base in Macao, Ricci and Ruggieri traveled to Canton and Zhaoqing, the major cities of Guangdong province, to scope out a site for a Jesuit mission.  Fortunately for them, the governor of Zhaoqing had heard of Ricci's skills as a mathematician and was intrigued.  At his invitation, Ricci and Ruggieri came to live in Zhaoqing in 1583.  The following year, Ricci repaid his hosts by creating the first European-style map of the world written in Chinese.  As up until that time, the Chinese concept of a "map of the world" was a map of the Chinese provinces, with a few other countries tossed in helter-skelter outside its borders, Ricci's map predictably caused quite a stir.  China was huge, but the world was much, much huger.

     During their stay in the city, Ricci and Ruggieri also compiled a Chinese-Portuguese dictionary, the first such book translating Chinese into any other language.  They developed their own method for transliterating Chinese symbols into the European alphabet.

(a page of the dictionary)

     In 1588 Ruggieri returned to Italy to try to persuade the Pope to send an embassy to the Chinese Emperor.  He never succeeded in this, and a decline in his health prevented him  from ever returning to China as he had intended.  He died in Salerno in 1607.
    Meanwhile, Ricci remained in Zhaoqing until 1589, when the new viceroy of the city expelled him.  He obtained permission to relocate to Shaoguan, in the north of the province, and to reestablish his mission there while he continued to travel around.  In 1597, the Jesuits appointed Ricci to be Major Superior of the Chinese mission.  He moved briefly to Beijing in 1598, and from there to Nanjing and then Suzhou.  At some point along the way, he participated in proving scientifically that the "Cathay" to which Marco Polo had traveled 300 years earlier was, in fact, China.  Because Polo had arrived in Cathay by an overland route and everyone else since then had come by sea, there had been some doubt as to whether China and Cathay were actually the same place.
     To the insular Chinese, all non-Chinese people were "barbarians," and presumably those who came to China to try to convert them to a Western religion were a particularly unwelcome species.  But as it happened, at the time China was experiencing a sort of Dark Ages in scientific and mathematical knowledge, and Ricci was an extremely well-educated barbarian.  And while he made no secret of his underlying religious mission, he also seemed genuinely happy to teach his new friends trigonometry, astronomy, world geography, and anything else that he knew and they didn't.  He fully adapted to their customs, dressing as a Chinese scholar (see above illustration).  He introduced them to the trigonometric and astronomical tools he had brought with him.  He translated mathematical works, including the fist six books of Euclid's Elements, into Chinese.  In short, because of his unique combination of intellect and personality, Ricci gradually grew on the Chinese people.  His motives were aboveboard, and he gave more than he got.
     By 1601, he had achieved such status that he was invited by the Imperial Emperor to become a mathematical advisor to the court, thus becoming the first foreigner to enter the Forbidden City (he was given free rein there, although he never actually met the Emperor).  Ricci established the first Catholic church in Beijing.  He mingled with the intelligentsia and with high government officials, and succeeded in converting a number of them.  When he died in 1610, special dispensation was granted by the Emperor for him to be buried in Beijing, in a Buddhist temple constructed for that purpose.

Monday, April 20, 2015


     Qiu Ying was born in 1494 into a peasant family in what is now Jiangsu Province in China.  He studied painting in Suzhou under the master Zhou Chen.  Qiu became known for his highly detailed figure and architectural paintings, as well as his studies of flowers.  He exhibited an unusually wide range of subjects and styles in his paintings, and was recognized for his ability to copy the styles of other masters.  But mostly he used the gongbi technique, featuring precise and highly detailed brush strokes.  According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, Qiu "did not pursue the other characteristic arts and activities of the man of letters that Chinese critics believed were marks of a great painter, but he earned critics' respect for the dexterity, representational skill, and refinement of feeling evident in his paintings." 
     Feast your eyes:


     Through his talent and versatility, Qiu acquired several wealthy patrons, including well-known art collectors, and eventually came to be considered as one of the Four Masters of the Ming Dynasty.  His daughter, Qiu Zhu, and son-in-law, You Qiu, became painters as well; his daughter's style has been described as "delicate and beautifully refined," much like her father's.  Qiu Ying died in 1552.

Saturday, April 18, 2015


                                                                   (1517 - 1590)

     At last, we come to my very favorite of all my A to Z subjects: Ambroise Pare, the greatest surgeon of the 16th century.  But first, let me put him into context.  In one of the many ways that the 1500's appear topsy-turvy to us, surgeons got no respect; in fact, performing surgery was often secondary to their main job, which was being barbers.  Their status was nothing compared to that of physicians, who did important things like attach leeches to sick people so that they could benefit from bleeding, and taste the urine of their patients to diagnose their ailments.  Yeah, it's pretty obvious now why physicians were such big deals, right?
     Very little is known about Pare's early life except that he was the son of a cabinet-maker.  He started working in his teens as an apprentice to a barber, and moved to Paris in about 1532.  Later in life, he wrote that he had studied surgery for nine or ten years, three of them at the Hotel Dieu, the oldest hospital in Paris.  In 1536, during a war with the Spanish Empire, Pare had his first experiences with battlefield surgery, serving as a surgeon to the commander of the French infantry.  From then until 1544, Pare alternated between living in Paris and in military camps, where he continued to both learn and innovate new surgical practices.

     In 1549 Pare published his first book, a study of anatomy (including a section on obstetrics).  His reputation continued to grow, and in 1552 he was named surgeon-in-ordinary to King Henri II.  In 1554, he took and passed the examination to become a master surgeon - even though it was given in Latin, which he admitted in his later writings he did not speak!  I guess being the King's surgeon didn't hurt!  Pare was also highly qualified, but I wouldn't want to take bets on which of those two factors counted for more.  (Would you want to be the guy who failed the King's surgeon?)
     As we know from my Nostradamus post, King Henri II died in 1559 from those awful facial injuries we read about two days ago.  Pare remained the royal surgeon through the reigns of the next three kings, and Henri III, who came to the throne in 1574, also made Pare a royal counselor and valet.  Pare published a second book of anatomy in 1561, and in 1564, his Dix Livres de Chirurgie  (Ten Books of Surgery).  For the record, the ten books dealt with: 1. gunshot wounds (or, as he phrased it, "the wounds made by arquebuses"); 2. arrow wounds; 3. fractures; 4. contusions; 5. burns; 6. caries of bones (which sounds to me like bone cancers); 7. gangrenes and "mortifications" (infections); 8. "hot pisses" (I'd say these were urinary tract infections); 9. stones; and 10. urinary blockages.  He often suggested less invasive procedures than surgery to be tried first.  I'm going to quote one of Pare's numerous recipes for "decoctions" here, to be attempted before turning to more drastic measures.  This one is to soften bladder or kidney stones:
                     Root of asparagus, of graminis of polypody of oak, of cleaned
                     raisins, of each 3 ss, of betony, of herniosa, of agrimony, of
                     ominum capill, of Alexandrine laurel, of each m. ss, of the     
                     four greater cold seeds, of seed of fennel, of each 3 i, of
                     leaves of senna 3 vi. Let decoction be made to lb. ss, in the
                     straining let be dissolved of syrup of althea and of herniosa,
                     of each 5 i ss; let very clear and very aromatic apozem be
                     made with a very little cinnamon for two doses; let him take
                     the first dose in the morning two hours before his meal, and
                     the other at four in the afternoon.

     Of course, you can't make heads or tails of any of this, and neither can I.  But look how precise and meticulous he was!  And I would just add as a side note that many medieval herbal remedies were remarkably effective, and many modern medicines - like aspirin - are derived from natural sources that were first identified many hundreds of years ago.
     After Ten Books was published, Pare spent two years traveling around the country with King Charles IX, during which time Pare not only cured himself of a viper bite, but also survived a bout of the plague with only a scar as a memento.  Yep, we're getting into superhero territory here!
     Pare had wide practical experience in performing surgeries. Sometimes the evidence he came across in this way conflicted with traditional views, many of which could be traced back to Galen (a renowned Greek physician and surgeon who had lived more than a thousand years earlier, during the time of the Roman Empire).  When this happened, Pare did not hesitate to speak out against tradition.  For example, he had this to say about the time-honored but torturous practice of treating hemorrhages by cauterizing blood vessels:

        I counsel the young surgeon to abandon this miserable manner of burning and
        butchering, admonishing him not to say any more, 'I have seen it in the book
        of the ancient practitioners, I have seen it done by my old fathers and masters,
        following in whose practice I can in no way fail.'  This I grant you if you wish
        to listen to your good master Galen in the book referred to above, and those
        like him, but if you wish to stop at your father and masters in order to have
        prescriptioners of time and license of ill-doing, wishing always to persevere
        in it, such as one does in a certain degree ordinarily in all things, you will
        render account of it before God and not before your father or your good
        practitioner masters, who treat men in so cruel a fashion.

     Pare's existence had been annoying the members of the Royal College of Physicians for some time by now, but by the early 1570s they began to make their hostility against him public.  The physicians' main actual complaint against him was that he was invading their turf by discussing things like tumors in his writings, but they made up a lot of other claims against him to try to make their disapproval look legitimate.  They attacked every one of his books from then on, but Pare's reputation only continued to spread and to improve, further enraging the physicians.  Undeterred, Pare kept disseminating his vast store of knowledge through his writings until his death in 1590.
     The cover of my copy of Pare's Ten Books contains this illustration of some of the tools he found necessary for performing surgeries:

It's a pretty scary selection, and there are a lot more pages of illustrations similar to it.  Some of the illustrations that interested me the most, though, were those for prostheses, including noses and eyes.  Here's one for a mechanical arm,

and one for a prosthetic hand that could open, close, and grasp:

     Pare is rightly considered to be the preeminent surgeon of the 16th century.  I'll end this post by quoting the concluding remarks of the unsigned preface to my (translated) edition of Pare's Ten Books of Surgery:

          He saw the intellectual and moral deficit of many of the barber-surgeons of the
          period, and since he was one of them, sought to elevate their position by education
          and example.... Although a surgeon to kings, Pare was also a surgeon to the
          common soldier and to the common man. This was unusual in the sixteenth
          century because it was commonplace for many physicians to ignore the illnesses
          of the common people. His rebuke to the physicians is stinging: "You [the patient]
          will be able to have the counsel of the learned physician. Still considering that one
          cannot always get a physician, I have indeed wished to describe for you here some
          good and approved remedies...." While some of his therapy such as covering
          the patient with warm manure is not acceptable today, his concluding state-
          ment is: "Therefore, it is necessary that the surgeon have always before his
          eyes that God and nature command him not to leave patients without doing
          his duty although he may foresee the signs of death, for nature often does
          what seems to the surgeon to be impossible."
               Pare possessed many of the prejudices of the time and by no means was
          able to break completely with the dogma of the past. However, in Dix Livres
           he shows the ability to see, to reason, and to doubt. As such, he was a product
           of the Renaissance as was no other surgeon.

All I can add to that summary of Pare's life and work is: amen.

Friday, April 17, 2015



     Abraham Ortelius (1527 - 1598) was born in Antwerp to German parents.  He was trained as an engraver of maps, and in 1547 entered the Antwerp Guild of Saint Luke as a map illuminator.  As a sideline, Ortelius began trading in books, maps and antiquities.  In the words of Daniel Boorstin in THE DISCOVERERS, "to support his mother and two sisters after his father died, he became a dealer. He bought maps, which his sisters mounted on linen, then he would color them to sell in Frankfurt or some other fair. As his business grew he made regular circuits through the British Isles, Germany, Italy and France, buying the maps locally produced and selling his own illuminated product. In this way he collected the best current maps from all over Europe, which he brought back to his Antwerp headquarters."  Travel brought him into contact with cartographers; in 1554 at the Frankfurt book and print fair he met the geographer Gerardus Mercator, who befriended and began traveling with him.  Under the influence of Mercator, Ortelius began first collecting and publishing maps prepared by others. Eventually Ortelius began producing his own maps. 
   The first map published by Ortelius, in 1564, was an 8-leaved wall map of the world which he entitled Typus Orbis Terrarum:

     Throughout the rest of the decade Ortelius published several more maps, but it was in 1570, after ten years of effort, that he produced his masterwork: Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, a compilation of 53 maps that is widely considered to be the first modern atlas.  At the time, travelers were forced to rely on a hodgepodge of separate maps, all of different sizes and shapes; the larger ones had to be unrolled in order to be used. The Theatrum compiled the best maps of the day into one uniform, portable, user-friendly book format.  It was an immediate success, and was translated into Latin, French, Dutch and German; 28 editions of it were published during Ortelius' lifetime.  He made corrections to the original in some of the later editions, and between 1573 and 1597 he published five sets of supplementary maps, as well as many other maps and scholarly works (unusual for a man like Ortelius, who had never studied at a university).  He was the first person to notice the symmetry between the east coast of the Americas and the west coasts of Europe and Africa (very visible in the Typus Orbis, shown above) and to propose the theory of continental drift: that the continents had at one time been joined together in one land mass, and had been separated by some cataclysmic event.  More than three centuries later, Ortelius was proven correct in this hypothesis.
     As a result of the popularity of the Theatrum, Ortelius became quite famous, and (after being certified by the Catholic Church for his religious orthodoxy), was appointed the official geographer of King Philip II of Spain.
     Returning to the wonderful words of Daniel Boorstin: "These pioneer cartographers, map printers and dealers brought the discoveries of Columbus and Vespucci, Balboa and Magellan, to the people, whose lives their discoveries would transform. Before the printing press there were two great traditions of cartography in Europe. Cosmographers produced grand works to ornament palaces and libraries while chart-makers furnished pilots with the portolanos they needed at sea. Now a new format, the atlas, in many sizes and prices, could inform all who wanted to learn."  Like Aldus Manutius, Abraham Ortelius was one of the pioneers in making modern knowledge accessible to the common people - the folks like you and me.

Thursday, April 16, 2015


                                                                 (1503 - 1566)

     Michel de Nostredame was born in Provence, France, one of at least nine siblings.  His paternal grandfather had been Jewish but had converted to Catholicism in the 1450s, taking the Christian name Pierre and the surname Nostredame ("Our Lady").  Pierre's son Jaume was a grain-dealer, a notary, and (judging by the size of his family) a busy man.
     At 15 Michel entered the University at Avignon, but a year later the university was forced to close due to a plague outbreak. Michel's response to this setback was to travel the countryside for the next eight years, researching herbal remedies and at some point beginning to work as an apothecary.  In 1529 he entered the University of Montpelier to become a physician, but was expelled when it was discovered that he had previously worked as an apothecary, a "manual trade."  Yes, really.
     Nostredame continued working, and gained a name for himself by inventing a "rose pill" that some believed provided protection from the plague.  He moved to Agen in southwestern France in 1531 and married there, but after his wife and two children died in 1534, he returned to a nomadic life for the next decade.
     Surfacing again in 1545, he devoted himself to fighting outbreaks of the plague, first in Marseilles and then in Aix-en-Provence, near his birthplace.  At about the same time, he began to be interested in the occult. 
     In 1550 Nostredame published an almanac, using the Latinized version of his name for the first time.  The almanac proved such a success that Nostradamus continued to publish at least one of them per year for the rest of his life.  They were the medium in which he first began circulating his prophecies, over 6,000 of which appeared in one or another of the almanacs.
     Encouraged by the response, Nostradamus began working on the seminal achievement of his life: a set of 1,000 quatrains, eventually published in three installments and later collected into a book entitled Les Propheties. (1555).  He mixed Greek, Italian, Latin and Proven├žale in with his French to try to avoid running afoul of the Inquisition, but in fact, the Church never had any problem with Nostradamus or his prophecies.  This book, which has never gone out of print, is the reason all of us have heard his name at some point. 
     Opinions about the validity of his predictions run the gamut.  Fortunately for Nostradamus, one of his biggest fans was Catherine de Medicis, wife of the French king Henry II, who summoned him to Paris to explain his prophecies, and eventually made him a counselor and physician to her son Charles, the heir to the throne.
     The prophecies in Nostradamus's book were often written in symbolic terms that could be interpreted in many different ways.  Most of them were poetic descriptions of future catastrophic events.  Here's an example: you know how in my Inigo Jones post a few days ago I mentioned the Great Fire of London in 1666?  It was an epic disaster, raging for three days and destroying the vast majority of homes in the city, as well as thousands of businesses.

Well, here's one of Nostradamus's quatrains that believers say predicted that very fire:

The blood of the just will be lacking in London,
Burnt through lighting of twenty threes the six [read as '66];
The ancient Lady will topple from her high place,
Many of the same sect will be killed.

     I haven't seen any interpretation that suggests who "the ancient Lady" might have been, but some have noted the ironic fact that the fire brought one positive result: it wiped out the population of urban rats that had been spreading the plague through the city, thus effectively cleansing London of the disease.  So, "the blood of the just will be lacking in London" = peoples' blood will stay in their bodies where it belongs, instead of being sucked out by monstrous vermin.  "Many of the same sect will be killed" = hmmm.  Recordkeeping was not exact, but what records survive seem to suggest that fewer than ten people were killed in the entire city by the fire.

     I'll give you one more. 

The young lion will overcome the older one,
On the field of combat in a single battle;
He will pierce his eyes through a golden cage,
Two wounds made one, then he dies a cruel death.

     In 1559, King Henry II of France engaged in a friendly joust with the Comte de Montgomery, who was six years his junior.  Montgomery's lance pierced the visor of the King's helmet and split in two; one piece pierced the King's eye and the other lodged in his cheek.  King Henry suffered for ten days before dying of his wounds.

     Some people, citing to specific quatrains, say that Nostradamus predicted the French Revolution, the rise of Napoleon, the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Kennedy assassinations, and the September 11th attacks.  Me, I'm among the skeptics, other than to say that Nostradamus believed that a lot of bad shit was going to happen in the world, and he was absolutely right.  But it doesn't take the gift of prophecy to know that, does it?  The man wrote over 7,000 prophecies, folks, and only a handful are ever cited as even arguably referring to future events.  Even a broken clock is right twice a day.
     I think I'll just reserve my respect for Nostradamus for his courage in risking his life repeatedly to try to stop the spread of the plague.  But please don't let me stop you from holding views that differ from mine.  I'd love to know: what do you think of Nostradamus and his prophecies?

Wednesday, April 15, 2015


      I'm afraid I can't give you a visual image for today's 16th-century personage.  Or a birth date.  Or a death date.  That's because very little is known about him except for the bare-bones summary I'm about to share, but to me, that's fascinating enough.
     The history of violin-making begins with the arrival of Martinengo, a luthier (lute-maker), in the northern Italian town of Cremona in 1499.  Martinengo was a Spanish Jew who may or may not have undergone a more-or-less forced conversion to Christianity.  He probably did, because Giovanni (Italian for the Spanish "Juan") and Leonardo are certainly not Jewish names.  If he did convert, however, it didn't help his situation much, because he was expelled from Spain in 1492 along with all the rest of the country's Jewish citizens, and wandered through Europe and possibly northern Africa for the next seven years.  No one knows where he stopped along the way, but Victoria Finlay, author of COLOR: A NATURAL HISTORY OF THE PALETTE, speculates that he began by heading east through the Mediterranean lands and spent time in Muslim North Africa, which at the time was more hospitable to Jews than European countries, although not reliably so.  According to Finlay, he probably made his way through port cities like Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli, from there to Alexandria in Egypt, and thence to Constantinople (now Istanbul), Turkey, "home of the lute."  Finlay tells us that lutes originated in Persia and were brought to Spain by the Arabs in the ninth century.  During his journeys, Martinengo would have doubtless picked up valuable and esoteric information about instrument-making that he would have brought with him when he finally settled in Cremona.  He set up a lute-making workshop, and by the time of a census in 1526, he was employing the two Amati brothers: Andrea, who was 21 at the time, and Giovanni Antonio.  And in the 1550's, "after a musician in nearby Brescia decided to take a bow to the lute-guitar and play it like an Arabic rebab rather than plucking it," Andrea Amati began making some of the world's very first violins.  'And two generations later, Andrea's grandson Niccolo would teach this new craft to both Stradivari and Andrea Guarneri."  (See the image above for one of Niccolo's violins.)  You've heard of Stradivarius violins, the finest instruments in the world, worth millions of dollars today?

                                                         Antonio Stradivari

 Stradivari's knowledge can be traced directly back to the shadowy but essential figure of Giovanni Leonardo da Martinengo.

     TODAY'S BONUS:  Since I couldn't give you many historical details about Martinengo, I'll try to make up for it by including a second M person, Aldus Manutius (1449 - 1515) (mostly fifteenth-century, but still).  Manutius was a printer and publisher who invented italic type, developed some elements of modern punctuation, and perhaps most importantly, introduced the idea of printing inexpensive volumes of books bound in vellum in "octavo" size - much smaller and more portable than the then-standard size - that were distributed and read much as paperback books are in modern times.  Manutius, and the Aldine Press which he founded, had no less of an admirer than Erasmus (about whom you read, of course, in my letter E post), who worked at Manutius's press for a while during his stint in Italy, and had this to say:

             However one may sing the praises of those who by their virtue either defend
             or increase the glory of their country, their actions only affect worldly pros-
             perity, and within narrow limits. But the man who sets fallen learning on its
             feet (and this is almost more difficult than to originate it in the first place) is
             building up a sacred and immortal thing, and serving not one province alone
             but all peoples and all generations. Once this was the task of princes, and it
             was the greatest glory of Ptolemy. But his library was contained between the
             narrow walls of its own house, and Aldus is building up a library which has
             no other limits than the world itself.

     You can read a lot more about Manutius and his innovations, and also find out about a current New York City exhibition about him - you can still catch it if you hurry! - in this New York Times article: