What Is Your Favorite Work Of Art?

It has occurred to me that Michelangelo might be my favorite artist.  I’ll be in Rome with students in April, so I’m reading Ross King’s Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling.  I’m loving all the minutiae about the creation of the Sistine Chapel, from detailed information about pigments (did you know ‘ultramarine’ is so called because it describes the place far from the sea (as the name suggests) — Afghanistan! — where the lapis is quarried that’s used to make it), to the political intrigues surrounding Pope Julius II (The Warrior Pope!) and the office politics of the renaissance art world.

Halfway through the book, I realize that I’m enjoying it as much as I am because I love the Sistine Chapel.  I’ve seen it twice in my life and both times I stood there in the crowd, looking up at its immensity and grandeur, and I swooned like the heroine of a Victorian novel; it quite literally took my breath away.  So did the statue of David (and the gallery of figures emerging from the marble leading up to it).  Van Gogh and Chagall rank highly in my esteem as well, but Michelangelo…no lie: I swooned.

And I can’t wait to do it again.

So have you swooned before a work of art?  Even if you haven’t, what would you say is your favorite work and why?



Alexander Hamilton: the Man, the Book, the Musical

In 2012 I was sitting on the beach in Tel Aviv with two friends from the Collegiate Chorale.  We performed with the Israel Philharmonic for three weeks that summer, and on this evening early in the tour the three of us were drinking wine at one of the open air bars scattered along the coast and talking about…(wait for it…)…Alexander Hamilton.  One of my compatriots had recently finished the Ron Chernow biography and was clearly excited to share what she’d learned.  She told us of his exploits with a beaming air, as if he were her own son.  Hamilton, she said, was far and away her favorite Founding Father.

This struck me for two reasons.  First, my friend is Syrian by birth, educated in Europe, now an American, and she is so passionate about history that she has a favorite Founding Father.  Which prompted my second thought: my DNA arrived on American soil in the mid-1600s, long before Hamilton & Co. were even born, and yet I’d taken their contributions for granted.  I know that’s common: when we study history in schools, everything that happened in the past feels like a foregone conclusion.  It’s only as an adult that I began to realize that none of it has ever been preordained and that the present could have been very different.  Even so, I have to admit I was a little bit ashamed for not having a favorite Founding Father myself, especially considering I grew up in Cincinnati, which is in Hamilton County, which is named for that same Hamilton (a fact I didn’t realize until I read the biography; no one ever told me and I never thought to ask).  In that moment, in Tel Aviv, it seemed as though a fave Founder was something one ought to have.

Hamilton's grave at Trinity Church in the Financial District in NYC.  I always make a point of visiting him when I'm in the area.

Hamilton’s grave at Trinity Church in the Financial District in NYC. I always make a point of visiting him when I’m in the area.

Naturally, then, I started reading the book as soon as I got home from the trip.  It was immediately clear why she’d been so drawn to him.  His biography is like something out of Dickens: a ragamuffin West Indian kid grows up on the wrong end of town with a cast of colorful characters, moves forward in life by impressing the right people with his wit and scrappy intelligence, makes his way to New York to study, finds himself hobnobbing with the elite, eventually becomes Washington’s most trusted aide.  He also happens to be the father of modern finance and was one of the very first prominent abolitionists.  And all of this is only the tip-of-the-tip of the iceberg.

And now, two centuries after his death from dueling Vice President Aaron Burr, he’s one of the hottest characters on Broadway. Since he’s now my favorite Founding Father, too, I was both shocked and excited to read about Hamilton the musical.  Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of In the Heights, was also moved and impressed by the Chernow biography and turned Hamilton’s story into a hit show that’s got both Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd-Webber singing its praises.  A quick search turned up this fantastic video from a performance by Miranda at the White House in 2009.  No doubt the piece he performs has gone through many changes before finally making it to New York, but if the show in its current form is anything like this recording then my guess is that Sondheim and Lloyd-Webber weren’t just being nice.  It’s sold out through April, but I’m going to do my best to get $20 tickets in the lottery.  I’ll report back if that actually happens.

In the meantime…

(ps: Who is your favorite Founding Father?)

5 Things I’ve Learned from Writing an Historical Novel

I’m now almost two weeks and more than 25,000 words into my first novel-length work of historical fiction.  Figured it would be worthwhile to pause for a minute to pat myself on the back (pat. pat.) and to reflect on what I’ve learned from and about this process so far.

1. Planning is important, but there’s a time to jump in.  The story of the novel is set in the present — well the future actually: Spring and Summer of 2015 — but it’s about people who reenact Napoleonic battles, so even though it isn’t technically a historical novel, the history certainly matters and I want to get it right.  Oh yeah, and I had no background in Napoleon whatsoever before this.  So I read histories and biographies and took a lot of notes for over a year…and I’m still not an expert.  It was beginning to feel like a problem.  But thanks to National Novel Writing Month (www.NaNoWriMo.org), I decided it was time to stop talking about it and start writing this thing.  Either poo, or get off the chamber pot.  What I’ve discovered is that I’ve got enough historical knowledge to know how to tell the story, and enough to know where I’m lacking and what I’ll need to revisit later to fill in the details.  You need to plan enough, but you don’t need to plan everything.
2. Your characters will tell you who they are.  As with historical detail, so with my characters.  I had their lives and identities all sketched out before I started writing, but then they started surprising me like, you know, real people do.  This one was supposed to be fifteen years old, then I start writing and it turns out she’s five.  That one was supposed to be an arrogant, snooty bastard — turns out he actually has the biggest heart of any character in the work, he’s just been living a hard life and built up a lot of walls.  (I was with everyone else: I just thought he was a jerk for no reason….)  When you read a book it feels as though the characters have always existed exactly as they are in their little world, but I’m beginning to realize that at this stage of the game they have a lot of say in who they become.
Yes, we'll discuss how impressive I was at Toulon...but first, why don't you read this draft of my story and tell me what you think?"

Yes, we’ll discuss how impressive I was at Toulon…but first, why don’t you read this draft of my story and tell me what you think?”

3. The devil is in the details, but so are the baroque cherubim.  What’s harder than writing about historical characters who demand accuracy in details?  Writing about contemporary people who passionately and obsessively recreate history down to the authentically ornate carving on their early 19th century antique cherry-wood writing desks*.  I don’t know much at all about antiques, but my characters do, so I’m going to also be doing a lot of research to find the right objects to decorate their offices and living rooms.  And I’m kind of excited about that.  At this stage in the writing, I feel that it’s more important to get the story written than to worry about decor.  Right now I’m giving the characters rooms to exist in.  Later I’ll help them decorate.  They should be grateful because no one likes to help you move.

4. It is possible to write.  That was a misquote of Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf in The Hours when she says, “It is possible to die.”  That line has been in my head a lot lately, not because I’ll be putting stones in my pockets, but because I love Virginia Woolf and her specter has haunted me for many years, intimidating me and keeping me from writing.  It isn’t her fault, but that’s how it is.  She and Faulkner and Joyce and Morrison, all of whom I love, have intimidated me and I haven’t attempted to write a novel despite the overwhelming desire to do so.  But this year I’ve overcome that.  This year my pantheon of writing deities is cheering me on.  It helps that I have (what I think to be) a really good idea that’s full of characters who are fun and original and who nag me to let them out of my head so that they can live in the world with the rest of you.  It helps that I have real life friends who also push me.  And again, it’s helped to have NaNoWriMo and all the participating writers out there in the world to ride on our collective, frenetic, creative energy.
5. I’d rather be writing.  I’ve not slacked off at my job (I love my students and wouldn’t let my teaching be trampled on by my writing), but I definitely have a lot of moments throughout the day when all I’m thinking about is how to get the characters through that next obstacle, or how to flesh out the secrets of their past interactions and relationships with each other in an interesting way.  It’s really a lot of fun.  And, okay, maybe I put off grading a stack of papers while in the midst of a writing sprint…but they got graded eventually.
How about you?  Has anyone reading this written historical fiction — or fiction of any kind — and have any additional insights to share?  Comment away!
*I don’t even know if desks in early 19th century France were made of cherry-wood.  I made that up to make it interesting.

Hero/Villain: The Trouble with Napoleon

About a year and a half ago I read an article in the WSJ about the bicentennial commemorative Battle of Waterloo to be held in 2015.  Two men were considered to be the finest Napoleons in the reenactment world, one American and one French (naturally).  That there should be two, and that they should be French and American — this just seemed too thematically rich for me to pass up!  I knew there was a fun-yet-poignant story here, but I wasn’t interested in telling the real tale of will happen (or what may have already happened: for all I know, one of them has come out on top).  I wanted to explore the possibilities of what could happen: what kinds of real passions might be stirred, and what Machiavellian moves might be made behind the scenes to make the mock history come to life?

Any resemblance to real characters is almost purely coincidental.

"Even I'm conflicted about my legacy."

“Even I’m conflicted about my legacy.”

Well, as far as the real, living Napoleonic players are concerned.  The representation of Napoleon the Emperor, the actual man, is a different matter.  I don’t want to screw up any of the history as far as it concerns my novel, but it isn’t the facts that worry me.  It’s how people interpret the facts.  In my research I’ve discovered that historians fall on one side of a very clear dividing line.  You either believe that Napoleon was flawed like any great historical figure, but is ultimately responsible for laying the foundations for modern Europe.  Or you believe that he was a monomaniacal tyrant bent on world domination at all costs — one of the costs being the hundreds of thousands, if not millions of lives lost during his campaigns.

Both sides have their points, and as soon as I feel pulled to one side of the argument, I’ll read someone’s opinion from the other side and be swayed that way. This isn’t a Coke or Pepsi kind of argument: either the man was a modernizing hero whose laws are still the foundation of French democracy today, or a mass murdering villain who led men to their deaths for no good reason whatsoever.  Reading historians’ opinions of Napoleon makes me feel like an onlooker at Caesar’s funeral as Brutus and Mark Anthony give their conflicting accounts of the man.  I suppose this is healthy for my book, which seeks neither to bury Napoleon nor to praise him.  Love him or hate him, it doesn’t change the fact that people are interested in him enough to dress up like him and lead mock battles — that’s what interests me.  And yet by aiming to write this novel and put it out in the world, I’m entering a horse into the race.

I’m a fairly non-confrontational person by nature.  I don’t really enjoy embroiling myself in heated debates, which is not to say that I don’t have my opinions, I just don’t like to fight.  That this novel could thrust me into the midst of a debate that has been going on for centuries really deterred me from writing it for awhile.  But the characters wouldn’t leave me alone.  For a year and a half they urged me to keep reading, keep taking notes, keep adding new characters into their midst.  And now, this November, I promised them that I would harness the energy of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) to get them out of my head, into the computer and finally onto paper.  It’s happening, and it has been a great joy this past week getting to watch them come to life.  I know now that I don’t have much of a choice in the matter anymore.

Which means I’m going to accept that the final product will be interpreted however it will be interpreted.  It will probably please some hardcore Napoleon lovers/haters, but not all.  It will explore both sides, and I’m guessing that for the extremists it won’t go far enough in either direction.  I’m choosing to be okay with that.

I’m wondering if anyone reading this has thoughts on the matter.  Have you written about a controversial character and felt conflicted about it?  Please chime in!



On to my wine homework.

As stated in the previous post, the first quality that I want to explore is connectedness.  Admittedly, the post about Rioja already addressed this to a degree: its connection to Spain and Spanish culture is what led to my Aha! wine moment. But MacNeil‘s the expert, and if she says I should get to know this quality through a Mosel riesling, then I’m sure as heck gonna try.

Knight I bought in Salzburg guarding the Fritz Haag Riesling

Knight I bought in Salzburg guarding the Fritz Haag Riesling

The riesling I chose was a 2011 Fritz Haag, a wine I picked more or less at random in the store but was happy to find that it’s one of MacNeil’s Mosel-Saar-Ruwer “wines to know.”  She writes, “The wines that Fritz Haag makes from the incredible sundial — Sonnenuhr — vineyard located above the village of Brauneberg are, year in and year out, classic examples of perfect Mosel riesling.”  Praise indeed.

Here is my impression.  The wine has a flirty blonde color that I’ve notice is common to rieslings I’ve tried — not yellow like some chardonnays, but flaxen.  It’s nose was harder to describe, and all I can really come up with is this: fresh air.  It’s getting humid here in the NYC tri-state area, but when I stuck my nose in a glass of this riesling, it was like a cool dry Spring day with highs in the 70s (or 20s in centigrade; this is a European wine, after all…).

If its fragrance was Spring, its taste was pure Winter — breathing in deeply on a day that’s below freezing.  And peaches.  Underripe, when the texture of the peach is hard and harsh, but the taste — what little there is — is crisp, clean and a little tart.  Finally, (and this is probably a bit of a sacrilege, but I’ll write it anyway), it tasted a bit like a Radler, a mixture of a lager and Sprite common to Germanic lands and perfect for a workday lunch.

So how does any of this bring to mind the Mosel region and the wine’s connection to it?

Well, to get there, I have to travel by way of autobiography.  I grew up in Cincinnati, a city whose seasonal extremes have led me to say frequently that it’s the hottest and the coldest place I have ever been.  All of my descriptors above are references to the seasons of Cincinnati, which, as it happens, sits along a river not unlike the Mosel.  In fact, whatever quirks and idiosyncratic delights that Cincinnati may boast are usually traceable to the people’s German heritage, from our breweries to our Schützenfesten to saying “please?” quizzically when we don’t understand what you’ve said (the German equivalent of “bitte?”).  You can still attend mass in German if you visit Over-the-Rhine, a neighborhood whose hillside position overlooking the Ohio River reminded its settlers of home.  Most high schools in Cincinnati offered German until recently (which is why yours truly studied the language from 7th through 12th grades).

I’ve never been to the Mosel, but I’ve spent some time now reading about it and looking up pictures online.  It feels like home.  It came up in conversation recently: a friend is planning to ride his bike there, stopping occasionally at this vineyard and that, drinking riesling all week.  It never occurred to me to do that, but now that it has, it’s the top of my travel list.

Fritz Haag’s website revealed to me that their wines were beloved by Thomas Jefferson and Napoleon alike.  I spent a big chunk of the Fall reading a biography of Alexander Hamilton that featured Jefferson prominently (because they hated one another), and I’m currently writing a screenplay that is about Napoleon and what he means to the people of Sandusky, Ohio (kind of).  In fact, I have a few Napoleonic blogposts fomenting in my head as l’Empereur determines exactly what I should write.  I’ve also been commissioned this week to write a destination travel piece on Frankfurt, the largest city in Hesse and not far from the Mosel region….


Yes.  I know.

I still haven’t answered how this riesling is connected to the Mosel.

And I’m sorry, Karen MacNeil, but I can’t, not really.  Not without having been there to taste it where it was grown and produced.  Your book tells me it takes on the flavor of the minerals in the slate that it grows from, and I believe you, but I can’t pick those notes out yet.

The connectedness that I’m experiencing right now is my own connection — through the wine — to historical figures I admire, to my childhood and memories of playing outdoors in Summer, to Germany and my immigrant great-great-great grandparents I never knew, to a man named Fritz Haag and his son (grandson?) Oliver who currently runs the winery and wears similar glasses to my own.  These men have created a wine that’s set loose my fancy and let it fly; when I take that bike trip, I’m definitely going to look them up.

It’s not the kind of connectedness that I was aiming to experience, but it’s more than I got from drinking my daily Diet Coke at lunch — would it were a Radler!

Magna Carta Day — 6/15

WHEREAS today marks the 798th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta, and
WHEREAS it is Father’s Day Weekend,
THEREFORE I see it fit to honor a few of my great-great-great…x20…great-great grandfather’s who had some involvement in the Magna Carta’s existence and execution.

I’ve been archiving my family history for enough years and with enough concern for accuracy that I feel comfortable referring to myself as a genealogist, albeit of the amateur, hobbyist sort.  I recently discovered that one of my earliest colonial American ancestors, John Throckmorton (1601-1683), descended from a fairly august lineage that led through a succession of feisty barons straight into the Plantagenet, Angevin, Carolingian and Merovingian dynasties.

It seems to be genealogical gold to be able to trace your family history back to Charlemagne, and I can do it, but I always offer this caveat for those who think “royal blood” is something to get over-excited about.  Charlemagne is my 40th great grandfather.  So say the word “great” forty times and that’s how far back you have to go.  Assuming a person has two parents who are not brother and sister (or any other combination of relatives), then that person has four distinct grandparents, eight great grandparents, sixteen great-great grandparents, and so on.  Know how many 40th great grandparents a person has?

A: 4,398,046,511,104

That’s over 4 trillion, folks.  That’s a lot of Grandparent’s Day cards.  And it presents a mathematical problem: there were only a couple dozen million people living in Europe during Charlemagne’s day, and if you add up the rest of the population of the Earth at that time it still doesn’t equal 4 trillion.  In fact, if you add up all the people who have ever lived it doesn’t equal that amount.  So that means that those 4 trillion empty spaces on your family tree have to be filled with the same few million people about a million times over!!

And it also tells us that we’re pretty much all related.

Now, having put all that out there, why care about genealogy at all?  Because it’s one thing to know generally that every person with any European ancestors whatsoever can probably trace their lineage back to Charlemagne (and everyone else alive then), but it’s another thing to have names and biographies and marriages — to have specific ancestors to think about who lived in a set of specific dates, who faced the challenges and enjoyed the blessings presented by the circumstances of the world at that time.

Which brings me back to the Magna Carta.

The English baronage in the early 13th century was in revolt against King John.  He was engaged in several battles in France that were draining royal coffers, so he did what governments in need do: he raised taxes (never a popular move).  English possessions in Normandy were lost.  A skirmish with Pope Innocent got him excommunicated.  The barons were not pleased.  Theirs was not the first rebellion against a king, but it was the first where the rebels didn’t have a replacement king in mind, so the result was that the king was not dethroned, but his powers were diminished.  This gave rise to the kinds of parliamentary governments so familiar to the world today, which is one reason the Magna Carta is historically relevant for the entire world.  According to the British Library, most of the clauses of the Magna Carta were so specific to the time period that only three remain as law today, but one of them is supremely important: that every person accused of a crime is given due process of the law and judged by a jury of their peers.

So, some of my known grandfathers had a hand in that.  Here are their stories.

William D’Aubigny, Lord of Belvoir (after 1150 — 1 May 1236)

Belvoir Castle, ancestral home of the D'Aubigny family

Belvoir Castle, ancestral home of the D’Aubigny family

Grandpa Willy D’oh is my 26th great grandfather (and you only have 268,435,456 of those).  He was the Lord of Belvoir Castle, a stunning bit of real estate in Leicestershire.  He remained neutral at the beginning of the rebellion, only joining once he saw that the rebels might win.  It’s always smart to hedge your bets if it means losing your head.  Once in, he was all in, going so far as to hold the Rochester castle for the barons in the war that took place after the signing of the charter.  King John’s men did eventually capture him, though, and he was nearly hanged, but he lived on to become a Surety of the Magna Carta, meaning he was one of the twenty-five men who saw to it that it was enforced throughout the land.  He became more of a loyalist during the reign of John’s son, King Henry III, and was a commander for Henry’s army during the Second Battle of Lincoln.  He died in 1236 and was buried in Newstead Abbey in Nottinghamshire, which is best known as the ancestral home of Lord Byron.  I like to think about Byron glancing at my ancestor’s memorial stone in the abbey and having it reappear transformed as an image in Manfred or Childe Harold.

Sir Robert de Ros, Baron of Helmsley (ca. 1170/72 — 1227)

London - Temple Church Robert de Roos 1227

Effigy on Grandpa Rob’s tomb

Grandpa Rob Ros is also a 26th great grandfather of mine.  There’s a lot more research to be done on this one because it sounds like he lived a life less ordinary.  First off, he committed some sort of offense that had him arrested by no less a personage than King Richard I, but his first captor handed him over to a second captor who subsequently let Grandpa Rob go free.  The second captor was not so lucky: he was hanged.  Grandpa Rob went on to prosper, however, and was given the barony of Helmsley by King John.  He was therefore loyal to John at first (like Grandpa Willy), and even escorted his father-in-law, my 27th great grandpa William the Lion, King of Scots, to the court of John to swear fealty to the English king.  (Incidentally, William the Lion was great-great grandson to King Duncan of Macbeth fame — a connection that pleases this English/Theater teacher immensely!)  It seems he had a brief period sometime thereafter where he became a monk, but that didn’t last.  This may have been the time when he was one of the Knights Templar.  In any case, he was rewarded for his loyalty to John during the start of the rebellion, but by the end he, too, took on the role of Surety of the Magna Carta and was responsible for watching over Northumberland.  He is entombed in the Temple Church in London, made famous recently by The DaVinci Code.

King John I of England

Don't look so sad, Grandpa.  You did good in the long run.

Don’t look so sad, Grandpa. You did good in the long run.

Grandpa John, like the other two, is a 26th great grandfather of mine.  Okay, okay: I should have probably started with him.  My DNA (from the research I’ve been able to complete) left the lines of succession after John’s grandson, King Edward I.  I’m not going to try to give his bio here — the man was a king, after all: there are hundreds of volumes written about him, far more than I can offer here.  History has not ranked him as one of the better kings, and that reputation doesn’t seem likely to change any time soon.  But, as Hamlet says about his deceased kingly father, “He was a man, take him for all in all, I shall not look upon his like again.”  This day 798 years ago was a bad day for Grandpa John, but it was the dawn of a new day for the rest of us.  It marked a turn in the course of human events.  I’m pretty sure his barons didn’t mean to, but they unwittingly cracked open the doors of democratic rule that allowed the rest of us to bear a share of the power that they alone had wielded for many centuries.  I know you couldn’t have known it at the time, Grandpa John, but you did a far better thing for the world than you could have ever imagined — which is perhaps reason enough to clear some of the blemishes off your reputation.

So Happy Magna Carta Day, everyone!  Here are a few shots of me from last summer in the ruins of a crusader castle in Acre, Israel (where my last Plantagenet ancestor, Joan of Acre, was born).  See any family resemblance?


In the navy!

Lost in the melee

Lost in the melee

Gored by a crusader, probably a Grandpa.

Gored by a crusader, probably Grandpa Rob.