Holly Tucker's Blog

September 2, 2014

Screen Shot 2014-08-01 at 12.11.00 PMBy Ted Steinberg (Guest Contributor)

Where He Slept, Where He Stepped

There has been quite a fuss over where George Washington slept. But it’s where he stepped that matters more.

Consider New York where Washington was inaugurated in 1789. The Founding Father made the journey to the city in a stagecoach, was then barged across the harbor and dropped off at Murray’s Wharf, now the foot of Wall Street. When he stepped ashore he encountered an island that bore little resemblance to the looming towers, asphalt and steel found there today, but one that also had changed considerably since Henry Hudson came calling in 1609.

Washington ventured into a Lower Manhattan still dominated by marshland, a vast expanse of cordgrass and salt hay, marsh wrens and crabs. He entered a sweeping terra infirma, a city, yes, but one hemmed in on the north by a soggy frontier that stretched across the island. It is hard to imagine today with all the dense streets and monumental buildings looking as solid as a rock, but during high tide the water in the marsh complex may have briefly cut Lower Manhattan off from the rest of the island.

Canal Street

These days Canal Street is jammed with vendors selling everything from glass bongs to knock-off handbags. But the street was named for a reason.

As this map from 1775 shows, a ditch, beginning slightly above and to the right of the map’s center, had been built through the meadows to the Hudson River, a channel that declined over time into a stinking river of filth that was paved over and given the name it retains to this day.

And yet, when Washington stepped foot on the island he found himself not just in a water world subject to the tides but a place that was striving to beef itself up at the expense of the sea. Washington disembarked onto “made land,” that is, an area that had once been open water or marsh but had since been turned into solid ground to make way for the wharves that underwrote New York’s rise to dominance as a port.

Between the 1600s and Washington’s day, Manhattan had grown in size by seventy-four acres, as sandy beach and sloping shore gave way to a new bustling waterfront. The English colonists showed that land was not a fixed resource, a radical idea that laid the groundwork for one of the most engineered environments on earth, a Manhattan Island that is a stunning seventeen hundred football fields larger today than in Hudson’s time.


Screen Shot 2014-08-01 at 12.12.32 PMTed Steinberg has worked as a U.S. historian for more than twenty years. His new book is titled Gotham Unbound: The Ecological History of Greater New York. The book examines the ecological changes that have made New York the city that it is today.


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Published on September 02, 2014 01:04

September 1, 2014

by Adrienne Mayor (regular contributor)

A remarkable number of personal names of Amazons are preserved in Greco-Roman literature and art. Amazons appear on more than 1,300 ancient Greek vases and about 70 are labeled by name. A few of those names, such as Hippolyte, Antiope, and Penthesilea, are very well-known from mythology. But most of the Amazon names on the vases are unique. Since vase paintings often illustrated well-known characters from myth, the adventures of the Amazons with unknown names might have been famous in classical antiquity. Other names may have been made up by artists.

 Most names of Amazons are Greek and many contain the root hipp (horse), reflecting the love of horses and equestrian skills, and pointing to the centrality of horses for Scythian peoples. Some Amazon and warrior women names in Greek sources may have been translations of barbarian names. Examples of horse-related Amazon names are Philippis (Loves Horses), Alkippe (Powerful Horse), Melanippe (Black Mare), Hippomache (Horse Warrior), Ainippe (Swift Horse), Hippothoe (Mighty Mare), Hippolyte (Releases the Horses), Xanthippe (Palomino), and Hipponike (Victory Steed).

Amazons and Scythians were archers and many Amazon names refer to archery, for example, Toxaris (Archer); Toxoanassa (Archer Queen), Toxis (Arrow); Toxophone (Whizzing Arrow), Toxophile (Loves Arrows), and Oistrophe (Twisting Arrow). Other Amazon names describe warlike attributes, such as Andromache (Manly Warrior), Polemusa (War Woman), Aella (Whirlwind), Deianeira (Man Destroyer), Charope (Fierce Gaze), Pantariste (Best of All); and Artistomache (Best Warrior). Still others refer to weapons or armor, such as Chalkaor (Bronze Sword) and Pharetre (Quiver Girl). Some names suggest character: Pisto (Trustworthy), Thraso (Confidence), and Areto (Excellence).

A significant number of Amazon names suggest equality with men, such as Isocrateia (Equal Power), Antianeira (Man’s Match), and Antibrote (Equal to Man). These bring to mind the meaning of Atalanta’s name, “Equal Balance” and the earliest Greek connotation of the word Amazones to designate a barbarian tribe of male and female “equals.”

Among those with non-Greek names are the historical warrior queen of Scythia who attacked Greek colonies in the northern Black Sea region, Tirgatao (Arrow Power) and Sparethra (Heroic Army), a Scythian warrior woman who battled Persians. A daredevil warrior woman of Central Asian legend, Harman Dali, means “Crazy-Brave,” yet another perfect name for an Amazon.

Until now about 150 names were known for Amazons. In my research, I have gleaned about 50 more names of historical and Amazon-like heroines from epics, chronicles, and accounts in Caucasian, Egyptian, Central Asian, and even Chinese sources, raising the number of ancient warrior women names to more than 200. These names, with translations, can be found in the Appendix of my new book, The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World.

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Published on September 01, 2014 08:00

August 27, 2014

By Adrienne Mayor (Regular Contributor)

Little brown batRabies spread by bites of infected dogs has been deeply feared since antiquity. The main vector is domestic dogs, but wild animals such as foxes and bats can transmit the disease to humans. Rabies is almost invariably fatal. The earliest record of canine rabies appears in Mesopotamian cuneiform law tablets from about 2000 BC. The codex set a heavy fine for an dog owner who allowed a dog with symptoms of the disease to bite another person. The disease’s zoonotic ability to jump from animals to humans is thought to have originated in Mesopotamia, reaching China in the sixth century BC. Rabies was known in ancient Anatolia by the fifth century BC, mentioned by Xenophon and Aristotle. As rabies spread to Italy and Europe, many Byzantine doctors and medieval medical writers described the symptoms and course of the dread disease (animal symptoms include snapping and biting, excessive drooling, hydrophobia).

Rabies arrived in Greece in the fifth century BC. The ancient temple of Athena at Rhocca (Crete) was notorious for rabid dogs. Athena of Rhocca was invoked to cure human victims of rabies. In about AD 200, the natural historian Aelian described an experiment to cure some young boys who had been bitten by rabid dogs near Rhocca, whose ruins are found south of Methymna, Crete. A doctor administered the toxic stomach acid of seahorses to his patients in an attempt to counteract the mad dog “venom.” This early attempt to fight poison/venom with another poison/venom (anticipating the principles of vaccines, chemotherapy, and venomics) failed and the stricken boys died.

Aelian remarked that a piece of cloth bitten by a rabid dog could imbue the fabric with deadly saliva, causing second-hand infection of anyone who came into intimate contact with it. The virus can indeed infect via an open wound. Aelian’s ominous comment insinuates that mad-dog “venom” could have weapon potential.

Sure enough, historical detective work uncovers two intriguing formulas for creating biological weapons in an ancient Indian manual of warfare. The Arthashastra by Kautilya (fourth century BC) tells how to make many different types of poison arrows. One recipe calls for mixing various toxins with the blood of a musk rat. “Anyone pierced with this arrow,” wrote Kautylia, “will be compelled to bite ten companions, who will each in turn bite ten more people.” The implication is that musk rats were a vector of rabies in India. The other poison arrow recipe calls for “the blood of a man and a goat to induce biting madness,” which sounds suspiciously like rabies. Perhaps goats were susceptible to rabid animal bites. Two thousand years later, in about 1500, the idea of “weaponizing” rabies occurred to Leonardo da Vinci, who envisioned a terror-bomb created from sulphur, arsenic, tarantula venom, toxic toads, and the saliva of mad dogs. In 1650, the Polish general Casimir Siemenowicz entertained a similar notion. He suggested placing “the slobber from rabid dogs” in hollow glass or clay balls and catapulting them on the enemy to cause “epidemics” of rabies. The effectiveness of such weapons is dubious, but the diabolical intentions are chilling.

Adrienne Mayor is a Research Scholar in Classics and History of Science, Stanford University. She is the author of “Greek Fire, Poison Arrows, & Scorpion Bombs: Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World” (2009); and “The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy,” a nonfiction finalist for the 2009 National Book Award.

This post first appeared at Wonders & Marvels on 6 July 2013.


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Published on August 27, 2014 23:00 • 1 view

August 26, 2014

by Jack El-Hai, Wonders & Marvels contributor

Imagine you are a boy bicycling along the beach with a friend on a cool November evening on Anastasia Island, Florida. Perhaps you stop to examine shells, driftwood, and small burrowing crabs. Then, unexpectedly, you see looming at the shoreline, partly buried in the sand, an enormous something…a mass of flesh…a monster.

The St. Augustine Monster in 1897, weeks after its discovery.

The St. Augustine Monster in 1897, weeks after its discovery.

Dunham Coretter and Herbert Coles together made such a grotesque find in 1896. Whatever it was — and its youthful discoverers suspected it was the remains of a whale — the creature was greatly decomposed. The boys notified DeWitt Webb, a naturalist in nearby St. Augustine, who wasted no time in trekking to Anastasia Island.

A globster

Today we call this sort of unidentified washed-up biomass a globster, and beachcombers and fishermen have chanced upon many of them over the centuries. (The Montauk Monster, for instance, appeared on a New York beach in 2008.) Webb found what he described as a pale carcass bearing the remains of tentacles. Its texture was very tough and almost impossible to cut with a knife. He measured its visible length at six meters and its width at 2.5 meters, and he estimated its weight at five tons. Webb preliminarily identified it as the remains of a giant octopus.

Other people, including the owner of a nearby hotel, made their own observations. Many confirmed that the beached creature had arms, and some even saw a head “as large as an ordinary flour barrel” that resembled the head of a sea lion. Partial excavations of the creature from the sand showed it to be much larger than Webb had previously measured.

Weeks later the globster was still embedded in the sand, but a January storm pulled the carcass back into the sea. It soon reappeared on a beach two miles away. Webb took numerous photos of the hulk and sent them to various zoologists. Speculation on its origins ranged from squid to sperm whale to extinct sea monster. With difficulty and a team of six horses, Webb managed to haul the carcass away from the beach to a more protected spot, where it became a spectacle for tourists. The remains eventually rotted away or vanished, and its ultimate fate remains unknown.

Octopus or whale?

Before that disappearance, however, Webb had sent a specimen from the globster to William Healey Dall at the Smithsonian Institution. That sample sat forgotten in the Smithsonian’s archives for decades, until interest in it reignited in the 1970s. A 1971 study of the specimen declared it part of an octopus, a determination agreed upon 15 years later by another investigation. During the 1990s, the application of new technology cast that identification in doubt. Finally in 2004, DNA analysis confirmed that the biomass consisted of a massive sheet of collagen that had, in life, belonged to a whale.

The boys who discovered the St. Augustine Monster 108 years earlier had been right about it all along.

Further reading:

Broad, William J. “Ogre? Octopus? Blobologists Solve an Ancient Mystery.The New York Times, July 27, 2004.

Ellis, Richard. Monsters of the Sea. Lyons Press, 2000.


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Published on August 26, 2014 22:01

By Chet Van Duzer (Guest Contributor)

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Cartography and Fancy: Depicting Monsters 

When we think about sea monsters on medieval and Renaissance maps, I think for many people an image comes to mind of fanciful sea monsters cavorting in the oceans. In researching my book Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps, I found that this perception is not very accurate. It turns out that the sea monsters on most medieval maps are less fanciful—at least in the eyes of the cartographers who painted them—than they seem to our eyes. Most of these monsters were taken from books such as medieval encyclopedias and bestiaries that the cartographers believed to be accurate scientific sources. But around the middle of the sixteenth century a fashion arose of purely fanciful sea monsters that were clearly invented by cartographers, rather than taken from scientific texts.

The Isolario & Creative Cartography

In 1572 Tomaso Porcacchi (ca. 1530-1585?) published an isolario, or island book, illustrated with maps. His L’Isole più famose del Mondo is the first isolario to include sea monsters on its maps. His monsters are remarkably varied and abundant, and so fantastic that in some cases it is difficult to describe them—many of them are certainly Porcacchi’s inventions. On Porcacchi’s map of Crete he has a curious sea monster with a bulbous, cactus-like body and a porcine nose; on his map of Cyprus there is a spectacular winged sea dragon with a hint of peacock; and on his map of the New World there is a sort of sea elephant with an impressive array of spikes jutting from its back (see the illustration). Porcacchi’s use of invented sea monsters rather than monsters derived from scientific books emphasizes their decorative aspect, and also suggests a desire to surprise and fascinate the viewers of his maps—and also perhaps increase the sales of his book. On the one hand, these invented sea monsters privilege the role of cartographer as artist and creator, but on the other, they represent an early step towards the disappearance of sea monsters from maps. The implicit recognition that the images of monsters were purely decorative, rather than conveying information about creatures believed to exist, made their decline inevitable in the course of the next two centuries as maps became more precise and practical. Screen Shot 2014-07-19 at 12.42.22 PMChet Van Duzer has published extensively on medieval and Renaissance maps in journals such as Imago Mundi, Terrae Incognitae and Word & Image. He is also the author of Johann Schöner’s Globe of 1515: Transcription and Study, and Seeing the World Anew: The Radical Vision of Martin Waldseemüller’s 1507 & 1516 World Maps. His current book project will be published by the British Library. For more information on whimsical sea monsters of the sixteenth century, as well as of the cartographic sea monsters of earlier centuries, refer to Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps, which comes out in paperback in September of 2014.

Wonders & Marvels is excited to have three (3) copies of Sea Monsters on Medieval & Renaissance Maps to give away! To enter, simply sign up below for the giveaways of your choice by 11:59 pm EST on August 29. Your entry will also get you updates from our Monthly Features. (At this time, prizes can only be shipped within the US)

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August Book Giveaways

Beth Fowkes Tobin, “The Duchess’s Shells”
Miles Unger, “Michelangelo: A Life in Six Masterpieces”
Chet Van Duzer, “Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps”

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Published on August 26, 2014 01:31 • 1 view

August 25, 2014

By Pamela Toler (Regular Contributor)

Dr Bhim Rao Ambedkar

Dr. Bhim Rao Ambedkar (1891-1956) was one of the great men of the twentieth century, though he is virtually unknown in the west.


Ambedkar was born into the “untouchable” caste of Mahars in the Indian state of Maharashtra. At the time, untouchables suffered under legal restrictions that made the Jim Crow laws of the United States look mild by comparison. They traditionally performed jobs considered “unclean” by Hindu theology: a religious and economic catch-22 in which they were ritually unclean because of the work they did and could only do certain types of work because they were ritually unclean. They were not allowed to enter Hindu temples–in some regions they couldn’t even walk on the road in front of a temple. In the South Indian state of Travancore, untouchables had to carry a bell that announced their presence so higher caste Hindus would not be defiled by their proximity.

Like African-American reformer Frederick Douglas, Ambedkar became a spokesman for an oppressed people thanks to education. At a time when fewer than one percent of his caste could read, Ambedkar was supported in his quest for education by both his family and high caste Hindu reformers who recognized his talents. Between 1912 and 1923, he earned a BA in Bombay, an MA and PhD in economics from Columbia University, and a MA and D.Sci in economics from London University–and passed the bar from Grey’s Inn in London.


Back in India, Ambedkar devoted himself to improving the lives of untouchables. He soon found himself in conflict with Gandhi, who had declared himself an untouchable by choice. They disagreed at both the symbolic and the practical level. Both men recognized the power of abandoning the term “untouchable”. Gandhi proposed Harijans (people of God) as a substitute. Ambedkar rejected Harijan as patronizing, preferring the term dalit (oppressed). Gandhi wanted to improve the lives of Untouchables by appealing to caste Hindus to abandon untouchability. Ambedkar recognized that it was easier to change laws than to change people’s hearts and heads. He preferred to lead dalits in campaigns designed to improve access to education and to secure basic civil and religious rights, including the right to use the public water system and to enter temples.

In 1935, after an unsuccessful five-year campaign to gain the right to enter Hindu temples, Ambedkar decided if you can’t beat them, leave them. He declared “I was born a Hindu, but I will not die a Hindu” He urged untouchables to “change your religion”: reject Hinduism and convert to a religion that doesn’t recognize caste or untouchabliity.

Both Christianity and Buddhism fit the description, but Ambedkar leaned toward Buddhism, which had ceased to be a living religion in India when Muslim invaders destroyed its temples and monasteries in the twelfth century, On October 4, 1956, after twenty years of study and writing on the subject, Ambedkar and thousands of other dalits converted to Buddhism in a massive ceremony. In the following years, more than four million dalits declared themselves Buddhists and stepped outside the mental framework of the caste system.

Founding Father

Ambedkar fought bitterly with Gandhi and the Indian National Congress on issues of dalit rights and representation throughout the 1930s and 1940s. But when India achieved independence, Nehru named Ambedkar India’s first Minister of Law. More important for the position of dalits in independent India, the new nation’s temporary assembly elected Ambedkar chairman of the committee that drafted its constitution. Under his leadership, the constitution legally abolished untouchability and included safeguards for depressed minorities.

Since independence, India has implemented affirmative action programs for the benefit of what are officially called the “Scheduled Castes and Tribes”. In 1997, fifty years after independence, India elected its first dalit president–an event what would have been unthinkable during Ambedkar’s lifetime. Nonetheless, dalits still suffer from discrimination on many fronts. (Does any of this sound familiar to my fellow Americans?)

Ultimately, both Ambedkar and Gandhi were right: in order to abolish untouchability or other types of political and economic discrimination, it is necessary to change not only laws but also people’s hearts.

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Published on August 25, 2014 08:41

August 20, 2014

By Dara Horn (Guest Contributor)

Complicating Bigotry

The old American South ranks high on the historical list of institutionally bigoted societies – which is why most people are surprised to learn that the Confederacy’s Secretary of State, whose face was even featured on the Confederate two-dollar bill, was a Jewish man named Judah Benjamin. But what is even more astonishing than a Jewish man’s prominence in Confederate politics was his outlandish escape from the Confederacy at the war’s end. It’s a story that makes 19th-century dime novels seem realistic.

A Multivalent Man

Judah Benjamin was one of those rare people who are described, depending on the speaker’s beliefs, as either ambitious, brilliant, craven, lucky, or blessed. Born in 1811 in the Caribbean to impoverished Jewish parents whose ancestors had been expelled from Spain in 1492, Benjamin moved with his family to the Carolinas at the age of two.

A child prodigy, he was admitted to Yale Law School at the age of 14—and if you’re wondering how on earth anyone could be admitted to Yale Law School at the age of 14, well, the people at Yale must have been wondering too, because he was expelled from Yale Law School at the age of 16. His lack of a law degree, and the persistent public anti-semitism that dogged him all his life, did not stop him from becoming a successful attorney in New Orleans, or from being elected to the United States Senate, where he represented Louisiana, or from becoming a contender for a seat on the United States Supreme Court just before Louisiana’s secession from the Union. Within the Confederacy, he had a similarly meteoric career, becoming the Confederate president’s most trusted adviser and spymaster while simultaneously serving as Secretary of State.

Yet with the Confederacy’s collapse, his indestructibility rose from mere persistence into the realm of the supernatural. As the Southern capital burned and the Confederate cabinet fled their Yankee pursuers, Benjamin recited poetry and philosophy to cheer his despairing colleagues. When Lincoln was assassinated and Northerners began to call for Confederate leaders’ executions, the cabinet refugees split up—and Benjamin’s miraculous odyssey began.

A Journey and its Ambiguous Significance

While his fellow leaders were quickly captured and imprisoned, Benjamin disguised himself as a Frenchman, wearing spectacles and speaking only French, and convincing a Jewish Confederate secret agent to pose as his “interpreter” as he traversed war-torn Georgia. When his “interpreter” abandoned him in Florida, he continued his journey alone. By then the Northern press was accusing him of involvement in Lincoln’s assassination, and there was already a price on his head.

He slept in forests and swamps by day and traveled only at night. One day as he rested in a swamp, he heard a parrot in a tree above him saying, “Hi, for Jeff! Hi, for Jeff!” At that time there was only one “Jeff” in the South: Confederate president Jefferson Davis, with whom Benjamin had spent fourteen hours a day for most of the previous four years. Reasoning that someone who had taught a parrot how to say “Hi, for Jeff!” might be sympathetic to his plight, he threw a rock at the parrot to get it out of its tree and then followed it to the home of a farmer, who indeed knew who he was, agreed to hide him for a few days, and then helped him to travel by boat along the Florida coast. Federal agents soon boarded the boat, searching for Benjamin. On his host’s suggestion, Benjamin implausibly yet successfully disguised himself, in skullcap, apron, and soot-smeared face, as the crew’s Jewish cook, and escaped capture again.

From the Florida Keys, acts of God further intervened. Benjamin boarded a small boat with two guides for the Caribbean island of Bimini, and soon found himself caught in a “waterspout” storm that the vessel barely survived. Shaken by this brush with death, he boarded another boat bound for the Bahamas. Unfortunately this boat was loaded with a cargo of sponges. The sponges gradually expanded until the boat burst at sea. Benjamin survived the wreckage in a small lifeboat that was quickly submerged within inches of sinking.

With a single oar, Benjamin and three African-American passengers on the lifeboat managed to steer their way toward the Bahamas, where Benjamin must have felt great relief to board an actual ship departing for England. By this point in the story, it is perhaps not even surprising to learn that this ship caught fire within hours of Benjamin’s boarding it – and that even though the fire raged for three days and was not even extinguished by the time the ship returned to sea from an emergency docking in St. Thomas, Benjamin nonetheless reached England unharmed. But like many ambitious or brilliant or craven or lucky or blessed people, Benjamin was not satisfied with mere survival. Instead, he embarked on an entirely new career in which he passed the British bar, became a British barrister, rose to the level of Queen’s Counsel, and wrote a textbook used in British law schools to this day.

How did this much-hated man pass through every obstacle and come out thriving on the other side? Was it ambition? Brilliance? Cravenness? Luck? Blessing?

On the Confederate two-dollar bill, Judah Benjamin is smiling.  In that smile, some might wish to see a documentary-worthy sentiment like determination or courage. But I look at it and see a mask. To me, the grinning face on that two-dollar bill is the price a person once paid to thrive in a time and place where talent was not nearly enough.

Eli Evans, Judah P. Benjamin, the Jewish Confederate
Robert N. Rosen, The Jewish Confederates

Dara Horn’s third novel, All Other Nights (Norton), about Jewish spies during the Civil War, is out this week in paperback. The first chapter and other information – including on Civil War ciphers and codes – are posted at www.darahorn.com


This post first appeared at Wonders & Marvels on 7 March 2010.


IMAGE: the Confederate two (2) dollar bill

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Published on August 20, 2014 23:31 • 1 view

August 19, 2014

Screen Shot 2014-07-28 at 2.09.01 PMBy Miles Unger (Guest Contributor)

+ A Giveaway Below

An Unexpected Claim

It might sound strange to call Michelangelo (1475-1564) the first modern artist. He was, after all, the prototype of the “Renaissance Man”, heir to such giants as Giotto, Brunelleschi, Masaccio, Donatello, and Leonardo da Vinci. A consummate craftsman who worked in the great tradition of figurative painting and sculpture fostered in his native Florence, he might appear to have little in common with contemporary purveyors of inscrutable, often incomprehensible, oddities that leave us scratching our heads and wondering whether our infant children might not be capable of something similar.

But dig a little deeper, beneath the dazzling skill and unmatched ability to render the human form, and you will discover in Michelangelo’s work something new: a distinctive temperament, the personality of the artist bursting through, demanding to be heard, imposing his idiosyncratic vision on the material.

Combining Renaissance Ideal with Modern Self

In some ways this was the fulfillment of the Renaissance ideal. This was, after all, the Age of Man, when the human animal (at least the male half) came into his own, proud of his achievements and proclaiming his individual worth. Michelangelo’s friend, the philosopher Pico della Mirandola, stated it most memorably in his “Oration on the Dignity of Man”: “O highest and most wonderful felicity of man! To him it was granted to have what he chooses, to be what he wills.”

We can see this buoyant spirit in Michelangelo’s early Pietà (1498), a tour-de-force of marble carving boldly signed by the artist on a strap Screen Shot 2014-07-28 at 2.09.21 PMthat lies across the Virgin’s breasts. The boastfulness is even more apparent in the enormous David, perhaps the greatest emblem of Man in the fullness of his powers. But in the later works, a new element creeps in: Michelangelo’s famed terribilità (awesome terror). In the prophets of the Sistine Ceiling, in the Moses—and even more in the Captives intended for the same monument— in the knotted figures of the Medici Tombs who seem to be at war with themselves, and the tormented souls who tumble to their doom in the Last Judgment, art becomes a vehicle for self-expression. Whatever the ostensible subject, we feel the artist’s personality emerging, his fierce pride and equally fierce self-doubt, an ego titanic enough to take on God’s Creation, but also an awareness of his own sinful nature that made him despair of his own salvation.

Also distinctly modern was the way Michelangelo cultivated his image. Called “divine” even in his own lifetime, he understood the value of good press, shaping his biography (and manipulating his biographers) to foster the image of the solitary genius who owed nothing to his colleagues. If in his dedication to his craft he looked back to earlier centuries, in his understanding of PR he paved the way for countless self-promoters in ages yet to come.


Screen Shot 2014-07-28 at 2.09.38 PM

Miles Unger
writes on culture and the arts for The Economist and is a former contributing writer to the New York Times. He is the author of three biographies of Renaissance figures: Magnifico: The Brilliant Life and Violent Times of Lorenzo de’ Medici (2008); Machiavelli: A Biography (2011); and, most recently, Michelangelo: A Life in Six Masterpieces (2014).


Wonders & Marvels is excited to offer a Giveaway of Miles Unger’s Michelangelo: A Life in Six Masterpieces to five (5) readers!

Enter below by 11:00pm EST on August 29 for your chance to win, and you’ll also be subscribed to our W&M Monthly Feature.  Good luck!

(We can only ship within the US at this time)

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August Book Giveaways

Beth Fowkes Tobin, “The Duchess’s Shells”
Miles Unger, “Michelangelo: A Life in Six Masterpieces”
Chet Van Duzer, “Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps”

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Published on August 19, 2014 01:00

August 18, 2014

img_0682_2-1By Elizabeth C. Goldsmith (Regular Contributor)

On this day 94 years ago, the 19th amendment to the US Constitution was ratified, granting American women the right to vote. The women who had fought so long to reach this goal had used many different tactics in their struggle, but perhaps the most effective, it was recognized from the beginning, involved hitting the road. Voting meant freedom, and the first step to freedom was simply getting out of the house.

Risk as inspiration

From the beginning of the suffrage movement, women who were famous for having dared to lead lives of travel and adventure used their own notoriety to support women’s rights.

Annie Smith Peck (1850-1935), a classics scholar who took up high-risk mountain climbing at age 44, caught the public’s attention with her ascents of the highest mountains in Europe and South America. In 1909 she climbed Mount Coropuna in Peru and planted a flag on the summit that read ‘Votes for women’!


Journalist Nellie Bly, famous for her undercover exposes of mistreated women in mental hospitals and factories, decided in 1889 to undertake a trip around the world in less than the fictional Phileas Fogg’s 80 days. She made it in 72 days, 5 hours, and 11 minutes. Later, she covered the Women’s Suffrage parade of 1913, an event that came at the end of a long women’s march across the state of New York.. She wrote, presciently, that she thought it would be 1920 before American women received the vote.

Taking the Wheel

The National Women’s Suffrage Association recognized the impact that could be achieved by the spectacle of women traveling on their own.

In the early era of the automobile the sight of women behind the wheel was an added bonus. Supporters of a women’s suffrage amendment drove across their states collecting signatures. Photographs of women changing tires and attending to their frequent engine troubles easily made their way into the newspapers.


In 1916, the NWSA sponsored a 10,000-mile cross-country trip by two activist roadsters, Nell Richardson and Alice Burke, who stopped to give speeches from their car along the way. Their yellow Saxon roadster, dubbed “The Golden Flier”, became a symbol of the suffrage movement.

They were all lampooned mercilessly, but they drew crowds wherever they stopped. There are two cartoons from the era that I particularly like, both of them conveying, perhaps unintentionally, the sense that victory for the woman’s cause was inevitable. One shows a group of young women driving a bulldozer marked “progress”over a pile of blocks marked “opposition”. The other shows an alarmed old gentleman at a women’s rally. He has just recognized the speaker as his daughter.



For further reading, see the National Archives blog, “Traveling for Suffrage.”

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Published on August 18, 2014 03:56 • 1 view

August 17, 2014

Screen Shot 2014-08-04 at 11.33.20 AMAn Interview with François Furstenberg (Guest Contributor)


Wonders & Marvels: What role does your childhood play in your current writing and research interests?

 François Furstenberg: I grew up in the United States with a French mother and an American father. That heritage played an obvious role on my second book, which explores a forgotten French past in American history.

W&M: Could you tell us a bit about the authors or texts that have influenced you?

 Furstenberg: It’s awfully hard to say, but I think that Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom and David Brion Davis’s Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution are two of my all-time favorite books. Both, coincidentally, were published the same year, when I was only three years old. Yet they continue to offer insight after all those years and all those readings.

 W&M: How would you describe your process on a day of writing?

 Furstenberg: I wish I could say that I have a writing process that works for me, but the truth is far less structured. There is only one constant: it starts with coffee. (Hot in the winter and iced in the summer.)

I tend to write in bursts – usually between painful bouts of responding to e-mail. Sometimes, when the writing gods smile Screen Shot 2014-08-04 at 11.37.31 AMdown on me, it just magically comes together, and I can work for many hours straight. I can forget to eat lunch. I can come back to my writing after dinner and stay up working deep into the quiet of the late night. There is a quality to the silence that helps me focus. I’m truly alone, awake while the world sleeps, just me and my writing.

At other times the writings gods are crueler, and I work on the same unfinished paragraph over and over again. Repeated trips to the espresso machine fail me. The New York Times website beckons. My inbox overflows. Frustration ensues.

 W&M: Aside from including a cup of coffee, what does your workspace look like?

Furstenberg: I don’t have a fixed workspace per se. Sometimes I write at home, in my pajamas, slouched on my couch, my computer in my lap and my fingers twisted over, practically begging for carpel tunnel syndrome. Other times I write in my office, dressed more professionally, where my posture is better too. At other times still I go to a coffee shop in my Montreal neighborhood until I’ve had so much that my heartburn tells me it’s time to go home. I change locations as my productivity declines. I usually get a temporary boost until it’s time to move again.

 W&M: What advice do you have for writers who deal with history?

Furstenberg: One of the hardest things to know is when to stop researching and start writing. The truth is, the research is never really finished. There are always more leads to track down, archives to visit, books and articles to read. And the research process can be so much fun, so full of delightful surprises and wonderful little nuggets that it’s hard to let go.

I don’t think there’s a very good rule on this issue, unfortunately. One way to assess when you have enough material is to note when you stop being surprised by what you dig up. When it starts to feel like just more of the same – when you are transcribing the seventeenth quotation you’ve found to illustrate a point that, in truth, only needs one, perhaps two at most – well, it might be time to start writing.


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François Furstenberg is a professor of history at Johns Hopkins and is the author of When the United States Spoke French.

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Published on August 17, 2014 02:26