Orange Blossoms, Bootleg Liquor, and an Acrostic: My Grandparents’ Wedding

Last Christmas, when I was writing about Pietro Yon, composer of the Christmas song Gesù Bambino and probable guest at my grandparents’ wedding, one of the images I considered including was this souvenir of the occasion, a beautifully-decorated remembrance of the wedding guests in the form of an acrostic. But since this item has an Easter connection rather than a Christmas one, I decided to save it until now.

Wedding Acrostic
Souvenir of Julius and Josie’s Wedding

Under the heading “NOZZE: Julius Valentino ~ Josephine Boatti” (Nuptials of Julius Valentino, my grandfather, and Josephine Boatti, my grandmother), the names of the guests are arranged in squares and rectangles, with one letter in each name highlighted in red, forming an acrostic. Moving from left to right, the acrostic reads, “FIORI DI ARANCIO LA PASQUA CHE VI UNISCE VI PORTI FELICITA PARENTI AMICI PRESENTI LONTANI LO AUGURANO.” The words are in all caps and there’s no punctuation, which makes translation more challenging. I separated it into two sentences, which I have rendered thus:

With orange blossoms, may Easter which unites you bring you happiness. Your family and friends, both those present and those far away, wish you the best.

The text of the acrostic exhibits several interesting features. It begins, “With orange blossoms.” Orange blossoms, also illustrated in the background, have long been associated with weddings, and, like the white bridal gown, were popularized by Queen Victoria’s 1840 wedding to Prince Albert. I don’t think I can see actual orange blossoms in my grandmother’s bouquet; it looks to me like just roses and lilies-of-the-valley. She doesn’t say anything about her bouquet in her memoir, although she does mention that her dress came from Macy’s. She also says, quite casually, that because the wedding took place during Prohibition, “he got all the liquor from the ship” (Julius was working for Italian Lines at the time).

Josie's wedding portrait
Josie in her wedding dress

The acrostic continues, “may Easter which unites you bring you happiness.” My grandparents were married on April 20, which in 1924 was Easter Sunday. My grandmother wrote in her memoir, “They did not want me to get married on Easter Sunday, but somehow or other I must have looked at the priest with a very sad expression because we managed to get that date.” The Catholic Church does not allow weddings during Lent, as it is a penitential season, but as far as I know Easter Sunday is ok. Probably the priest was just reluctant because Holy Week and Easter are so busy and it would have been more convenient to pick a later date.1

Finally, the acrostic uses the Italian verb augurano for what the family and friends are doing. I have translated augurano as “wish you the best.” The related noun, auguri in the plural, means “best wishes.” My grandmother used to write molti auguri in my birthday cards, or “with all best wishes.” The history of these words goes back to ancient Rome, where augury was a form of divination. Divination refers to determining the will of the gods by means of observing some aspect of the natural world. A prophet—mantis in Greek—is one who is skilled in reading the book of nature. That is why many forms of divination end in the suffix –mancy.2 The insect known as the praying mantis is named for its resemblance to a prophet making a pronouncement.3

praying mantis
Praying mantis in a prophetic pose

Augury is the form of divination that involves interpreting the behavior of birds. When Romulus and Remus were arguing over which of them should have precedence in their new city, they decided to settle the question by asking the gods. It didn’t go well, as the ancient Roman historian Livy relates:

For this purpose Romulus took the Palatine hill and Remus the Aventine as their respective stations from which to observe the auspices. Remus, the story goes, was the first to receive a sign—six vultures; and no sooner was this made known to the people than double the number of birds appeared to Romulus. The followers of each promptly saluted their master as king, one side basing its claim upon priority, the other upon number. Angry words ensued, followed all too soon by blows, and in the course of the affray Remus was killed.4

Had the fight gone the other way, of course, the capital of Italy would be called Reme.5 We no longer consult the flight of birds before undertaking something important, like building a city or getting married, but Italians still wish one another good omens—molti auguri—and even in English we say that something “augurs well.”

In addition to the text of the acrostic, the guest list is also quite interesting. Disappointingly, the name of Pietro Yon does not appear, although I am reasonably certain that I identified him in a group wedding photo. Perhaps the artist only included those names that were needed to make the acrostic. Of the names that do appear, the one that jumped out at me was “Hon. La Guardia.” In 1924 La Guardia was not yet an airport, or a Broadway musical, or even the mayor of New York City, but he was, I discovered, a U.S. Congressman (hence the “Honorable”).6 This souvenir was framed and hung in my grandparents’ house for years, and I remember once asking her about La Guardia. As I remember, she said something like, “My parents invited all kinds of bigshots.” Now I’m not sure if she meant that a bigshot like La Guardia was invited and came to the wedding, or that he was invited and therefore included on the guest list that the artist worked from, but didn’t actually show up. In any case, La Guardia’s presence is not noted in any of the newspaper articles about the wedding that my father transcribed in the memoir.

My grandparents were married for 70 years, until my grandfather died in 1994. That Easter Sunday wedding, with or without actual orange blossoms, did augur well for them.

The Merchant of Prato and the Scholar of La Foce

2021 is the 700th anniversary of the poet Dante Alighieri’s death in 1321. I celebrated this anno dantesco in the fall semester by teaching my Age of Dante course, an interdisciplinary offering that combines a history of medieval Italy with reading large portions of the Comedy.1 One of the topics we study is the commercial economy of the Italian communes, or city-states. The primary source anthology we use, The Towns of Italy in the Later Middle Ages, edited by Trevor Dean, includes a selection of documents on wool manufacture, an important facet of the economy of medieval cities like Dante’s Florence.

The documents Dean chose come from the Datini archive, which holds the records of Francesco Datini, a wealthy international merchant from Prato, a Tuscan city about twenty miles from Florence. Datini lived from ca. 1335-1410, so he’s a bit late for the age of Dante, but his archives are particularly rich, and wool manufacture didn’t change substantially between Dante’s time and his, so I felt justified in assigning these documents. In the passages printed in their anthology from Datini’s account books, students could see how many steps the process of wool-making involved and how decentralized it was, with the account books noting the amounts paid to individual carders and combers, spinners and weavers, dyers and finishers.2

Datini kept detailed and voluminous records of his various business interests, which included, in addition to wool manufacture, shopkeeping, banking, and import-export trade in such goods as cloth, arms, wheat, spices, and gems.3 Because he was often away on business, he corresponded with his wife, Margherita. And because he spent a lot of time at his premises in Florence, while she remained at home in Prato, letters could go quickly back and forth.

Statue of Francesco Datini.
19th-century statue of Francesco Datini, in Prato.

Francesco and Margherita Datini had no children. In his will, he directed that his estate should be used to establish a charitable foundation to help the poor of Prato. He hoped this would help atone for any sins he might have committed in his business activities, especially usury. The foundation still exists. The Fondazione Casa Pia dei Ceppi is headquartered in Datini’s former home in Prato, the Palazzo Datini.

The Palazzo Datini
The Palazzo Datini in Prato.

I first became aware of the Datini archive in graduate school, when I read The Merchant of Prato, by Iris Origo, for my comps. This fall, when reading the wool industry documents with my class, I became curious about the history of the archive itself. I learned that all of Datini’s records and correspondence sat, ignored, in the Palazzo Datini for centuries until they were discovered in 1870. They are now part of the State Archive of Prato, also housed in the Palazzo Datini.

I’d love to know the full story of the 1870 discovery. Was it accidental or intentional? Did someone just trip over a box in the Palazzo Datini and say, I wonder what’s in here? Or did someone suspect that there might be interesting documents and go looking for them? In the “Introduction” to The Merchant of Prato, Iris Origo simply says, “in 1870 some learned citizens of Prato brought them to life.”4 In the bibliography, however, she names the discoverer as “an Archdeacon of Prato, Don Martino Benelli, a man of taste and scholarship.”5

I’ve been unable to find any more information about the circumstances of Benelli’s find.6 Given the date, and the fact that Origo described Benelli as a scholar, I suspect that the discovery was intentional. Nationalism was very prominent in the nineteenth century. One expression of nationalism was an interest in historical study, and several national archives and publication projects were established in the nineteenth century. For example, the Monumenta Germaniae Historica, a series of published documents relating to Germany, began in 1819; Britain’s Public Record Office (now part of the National Archives) was founded in 1838; and the Archivio di Stato di Firenze was established in 1852. Nationalist feeling would have been especially high in 1870, when the final stages of both German and Italian unification were imminent, so I can easily imagine that a historically-minded archdeacon might think to see what he could find in the local Palazzo.

Italian economic historians began to draw on the Datini archive beginning in the early twentieth century. Then in 1957, Iris Origo, an Anglo-American writer living in Tuscany with her Italian husband, published The Merchant of Prato, a combination biography of Datini and social and economic history of fourteenth-century Italy based on sources from the Datini archive.7 Whereas earlier researchers had drawn on Datini’s business records to focus on his economic activities, Origo broadened her scope to include the extensive private correspondence between Francesco and Margherita, allowing her to explore domestic activities and family life.

Iris Origo herself had a fascinating life.8 She had a privileged background on both sides. Her father’s family, the Cuttings, were members of the Old New York aristocracy; they sound like they stepped out of the pages of an Edith Wharton novel (in fact, Wharton was a family friend). Iris’ paternal grandfather, William Bayard Cutting Sr., was a co-founder of the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Public Library. The Cutting country estate on Long Island, Westbrook, is now a state park. Iris’ mother’s Anglo-Irish family could have had their own storyline in Downton Abbey. Her maternal grandfather, Lord Desart, was an Irish peer. His daughter, Lady Sybil Cuffe, met William Bayard Cutting, Jr., while he was stationed in London as private secretary to the American ambassador. They married in 1901 and Iris, their only child, was born in 1902.

Iris’ father died of tuberculosis when she was only eight, and she and her mother settled in Italy, where they were part of the large British expatriate community. The Cuttings lived in the Villa Medici in Fiesole, in the hills just outside Florence. Yes, that Medici. The Villa was originally built in the 1450s; beginning in 1469, Lorenzo the Magnificent used it as his summer residence. It belonged to the Medici family until 1671. That’s where Iris grew up. Among her mother’s friends was Bernard Berenson, the Lithuanian-born American art dealer who almost single-handedly founded the study of Italian Renaissance art. Little Iris used to play in the gardens of his home, the Villa I Tatti, while her mother, Berenson, and his other guests discussed art and poetry. I Tatti is now owned by Harvard University and used as an institute for Renaissance studies.

Iris Cutting married Antonio Origo in 1924 and they bought a run-down estate south of Siena, La Foce, which they spent the next several years renovating. They made an effort to be good padroni, implementing agricultural improvements (aided by Mussolini’s agricultural policies) and building a school, medical clinic, and homes for their tenants, the mezzadri, or sharecroppers. During World War II, the Origos took in refugee children and aided the local partigiani, or anti-Fascist fighters. Iris Origo published the diary she kept during this period as War in Val d’Orcia. After the war she and Antonio repaired the wartime damage to La Foce and raised their two daughters, Donata and Benedetta (a son, Gianni, had died of meningitis in 1933). Iris Origo died in 1988; Benedetta now runs La Foce as a country hotel.

Iris Origo and family
Iris and Antonio Origo, with their daughter Donata.

In addition to the war diary and The Merchant of Prato, Origo wrote several other books: an autobiography9 and biographies of subjects drawn from medieval and Renaissance Italy10 as well as studies of nineteenth-century literary figures, both English and Italian.11 Iris Origo was not a professional historian, however. She was mostly educated at home, by governesses and tutors; she never taught at or even attended a university. She was what we would now call an independent scholar. You might even call her a scholarly dilettante.

Dinner with the Honorable Podrecca: An Invitation to History

I found another interesting photo when I was consulting my grandmother’s memoirs to write about Pietro Yon attending her wedding. This one, taken before her marriage, shows a group of people seated at a table, with three women standing behind. The caption my grandmother composed and my father transcribed reads, “Josie [my grandmother, referring to herself in the third person] playing waitress for the Honorable Podrecka. I am on the left, and my sister, Ida, is on the right.”

Dinner with Guido Podrecca
Dinner with the Honorable Podrecca

Josie’s parents are among the people seated at the table. I recognize Josie’s stepfather Charles (or Carlo) Boatti on the far left, and her mother Ida Boatti third from the left. But the photo and its caption raise a number of questions. First of all, who is the Honorable Podrecka, and what makes him Honorable? Why is he having dinner with my great-grandparents? And why is Josie playing waitress for them?

Google was made to answer at least some of these questions. I first discovered that my father must have guessed at the spelling of the Honorable guest’s name (there was no Google when they were working on the memoir in the early 90s). The person’s name is actually Guido Podrecca. Here’s a photo of him from the internet:

Guido Podrecca
Guido Podrecca, 1865-1923

He must be the person immediately to the right of my great-grandmother.

Once I had the correct name, it was easy to find information on him (most of it in Italian, however). Guido Podrecca was born in 1865 in Vimercate, in Lombardy, Italy. His younger brother, Vittorio, was a puppeteer who founded the Teatro dei Piccoli, an internationally-known marionette company. Guido Podrecca was a journalist who published a satirical newspaper, L’Asino. He was elected to the Italian Parliament—hence the “Honorable”—in 1909, representing the Socialist party.

Vittorio Podrecca
Vittorio Podrecca, 1883-1959

Socialists are typically internationalists, believing that workers in each country have more in common with workers in other countries than they do with capitalists in their own country. The slogan, after all, is “Workers of the world, unite”; the anthem in the “Internationale.” Many socialists, therefore, are anti-war. But sometimes nationalist feelings aroused by the outbreak of war can overpower socialist internationalism. This was the experience of both Guido Podrecca and his contemporary Benito Mussolini, both of whom turned from socialism to fascism after fighting in World War I.

But what was Guido Podrecca doing having dinner in New York City with my great-grandparents? A New York Times article published on November 11, 1921, begins to provide an answer. In those days, newspapers would note the arrival of transatlantic ocean liners and identify prominent passengers. This article is mostly interested in a delegation to an armaments conference; the headline is “Party of 14, Including General Vaccari and Admiral Acton, Arrive on Dante Alighieri” (the name of the ship). Also arriving from that voyage was “Giovanni Caruso, younger brother of the late Enrico Caruso,” who had come to the U.S. to “complete an inventory of the tenor’s estate” (Enrico Caruso had died on August 2, 1921). At the very end of the article, we are informed that “to assist Italian soldiers here who are suffering from tuberculosis and other diseases contracted during the war is the mission of Guido Podrecca, a member of the Italian Parliament, who arrived on the liner.”

An article published a few weeks later, on November 27, 1921, provides more information:

Guido Podrecca, Italian Member of Parliament, writer and lecturer, soon will visit this country as a member of a mission organized by the Italian National Association for War Consumptives. The Association expects that Italians in the United States will respond to the appeal for help. . . . Mr Podrecca . . . will deliver a number of lectures in New York and other large cities in America.

By March 1922, Podrecca was in San Francisco, where the San Francisco Call newspaper published a detailed article on his activities:

The war left in its wake in Italy 83,000 [or 33,000; the first digit is partially obscured] tubercular soldiers. Athough the government gives each of them 10 lira a day, most of them are without adequate care and treatment.

A commission, headed by Signor Guido Podrecca, is now in San Francisco bringing the appeal of the afflicted Italian soldiers to the members of the local Italian colony.

The commission represents the Italian National Association for War Consumptives, and, with the endorsement of the Italian government, is seeking to raise 2,000,000 lira, equivalent to about $100,000, among the Italians of the United States.

The commission has visited most of the principal cities of the country, and, according to its members, has everywhere met with generous response.

The San Francisco Call also provided some more background on Podrecca himself:

Podrecca is one of the most distinguished Italian journalists and authors.

For many years he was a deputy in the Italian Parliament and an active figure in the Socialist party. Eleven times he was sent to prison for his political activities, spending more than three years in jail and four years in exile.

With the coming of war and the split among the Socialists on the question of participation, Podrecca went with the pro-war Socialists and served on the Italian front. He took his three sons into the army with him, the youngest being 12 years old at the time of the war. The boy was in active service as a Boy Scout and had the distinction of being the youngest soldier in the Italian army.

Since the war Signor Podrecca has eschewed political activities and has devoted him [sic] to writing. He is known as one of the foremost critics in the fields of art and music in Italy. Besides being editor of Il Popolo d’Italia in Milan, he is contributing editor of the Messagero of Rome and is compiling a history of Italian music in twenty-five volumes. He is also editor of Il Primato, a Milan magazine devoted to art.

So I think it’s safe to say that the Boattis hosted a dinner for Guido Podrecca as part of his fundraising tour in the early 1920s, and my teen-aged grandmother and great aunt were drafted as servers (I have no idea who the person standing between them might be). I wonder what the dinner conversation was like?

Guido Podrecca never got to complete the “history of Italian music in twenty-five volumes.” He died in 1923 while still in the United States, in Auburn, New York, a town near the northern end of Cayuga Lake. I thought it was unlikely that a small town in the Finger Lakes region would have had a large enough Italian-American community for Podrecca to have visited it on his tour. I wondered if perhaps Podrecca himself suffered from the disease he was raising money for, and if Auburn had a TB sanatorium. Bingo! The website of the Cayuga Museum of History and Art tells us that Auburn’s sanatorium was located on Prospect St, in a building now occupied by the Sunnycrest Concrete company. Sunnycrest doesn’t have any photos of their premises on their website, but I found this one courtesy of Google Street View.

Former TB Sanatorium in Auburn NY
The former TB Sanatorium in Auburn, NY

When I was searching for information about Guido Podrecca, I came across an obituary for a Guido Podrecca who died in 2012. I knew that this was not the Guido I was looking for, and I almost didn’t follow the link. But my curiosity got the better of me, and I discovered that this Guido Podrecca was born in 1923—in Auburn, NY! He must have been born while his father was staying in the sanatorium. Guido Sr. had already fathered several children in Italy. He named two of his sons Carlo Marx and Giordano Bruno—he reminds me of the capitalist Mr. Gradgrind in Dickens’ Hard Times, who named two of his sons Adam Smith and Malthus.1 The American-born Guido Jr. grew up to be a physician; he worked as a pathologist in Springfield, MO and died in Key Largo, FL at age 89. The comments on his obituary indicate that he was well-loved.

So what began with my curiosity about a dinner guest developed into a trip through the twentieth century, with stops in puppetry, Italian politics,  World War I, transatlantic voyages, the Italian-American experience, the treatment of tuberculosis, and a second-generation American success story.

‘Round Yon: Connections to Gesù Bambino

I’m not ashamed to admit it—I love Christmas music. I love listening to it, singing it, and playing it. One of my favorite Christmas songs is “Gesù Bambino,” composed in 1917 by Pietro A. Yon. The song combines a beautiful melody in the form of a Pastorale (a dotted rhythm in six-eight or twelve-eight time) with the tune to Adeste Fideles. There are innumerable performances on youtube. Here’s Luciano Pavarotti singing the Italian version.

I am more familiar with the English lyrics, beginning “When blossoms flowered ‘mid the snows,” written by Frederick H. Martens. Here’s a performance by the Cathedral Singers.

Nowadays Pietro Yon might be considered a one-hit wonder, with “Gesù Bambino” being his one hit, but during his lifetime he was well-known as a virtuoso organist and composer, mostly of sacred music. Here’s a newsreel clip from 1930 showing him playing the organ at St Patrick’s Cathedral (he starts playing forty seconds in; sorry about the audio quality).

I recently discovered some unexpected family connections to Pietro Yon. My maternal grandmother, Josephine Valentino (whom we called “Nonni”), spent her last years in a nursing home. She had long expressed a desire to write the story of her life, and my father (her son-in-law) offered to help her. He would visit her once a week and tape record her reminiscences, transcribe them during the week, bring them to her on his next weekly visit for her review, and then start the cycle again. Working this way, they produced two volumes of memoirs, which he had duplicated and bound at a copy shop and sent to all the relatives. Producing these books, I think, was one of my grandmother’s proudest accomplishments.

Recently my son asked me a few questions about our family history, and to answer them I got out Nonni’s books. I hadn’t read them in a long time, and I found a few surprising things (look for later blog entries!). Nonni and my father chose some supplemental materials to go along with her text. These were mostly family photos, but in the section where she talked about her 1924 wedding at Sacred Heart church in Manhattan, my father transcribed newspaper accounts of the event. One of these articles listed some of the wedding guests, including, according to my father’s transcription, “Peter and Constantino Yon.” My first reaction upon reading this was, could that be Pietro Yon, the composer of Gesù Bambino? And if so, I wonder if it was the newspaper that called him “Peter” or if that was a transcription error on my father’s part?1 Next, I wondered if Pietro’s wife was named “Constantina” and if “Constantino” was a typo (again, either my father’s or the paper’s).

Some quick googling answered at least some of my questions. Pietro Yon was born in Italy in 1886 and came to the US in 1907.  From 1907-1926 he was the organist at St Francis Xavier church in New York City, and from 1926 until his death in 1943 he was the organist at St Patrick’s Cathedral. At least the chronology and geography, therefore, are consistent with his attending my grandparents’ 1924 wedding in New York City. Yon’s wife was named Francesca, not Constantina, but it turned out that Constantino was the name of Pietro’s brother, also a church musician.2 Wikipedia also helpfully informed me that Pietro Yon’s birthplace was in the Piedmont region of Italy, which is the same region my grandmother came from (she emigrated to the US as a child in 1910). The obvious next step was to check Google Maps, where I discovered that Yon’s hometown, Settimo Vittone, is only a couple of miles from Borgofranco d’Ivrea, where my grandmother’s family lived.

Next piece of evidence: the photographs. Here’s a photo of Pietro Yon from the internet:

And here’s a photo taken at my grandparents’ wedding reception at the Hotel McAlpin:

I’d say the gentleman on the far left is Pietro Yon. I’m not sure if Constantino is in the photo, as I couldn’t find a good image of him for comparison. (As an aside, check out the pageboys, dressed as Little Lord Fauntleroy. There’s a wedding custom that probably would profit from further research.)

I think it’s fairly certain that Pietro Yon attended my grandparents’ wedding. But the question remains, what was the connection? How did he (and his brother) get on the guest list? It’s possible, given the closeness of Settimo Vittone and Borgofranco, that the families knew each other in the Old Country. Or perhaps they just moved in similar Italian-American circles in New York City. I like to imagine my grandmother’s stepfather, Carlo Boatti, encountering Pietro Yon at an event—perhaps a dinner at some Italian-American society—and recognizing his accent. Just like in canto ten of Dante’s Inferno, where Farinata degli Uberti hears the character Dante’s speech and calls out to him, “O Tosco” (“Hey, guy speaking Tuscan!”)3 Maybe Carlo Boatti called out, “O Piemontese!” I was unaware of this family connection to Pietro Yon while either my grandmother or my mother was alive, so I can’t ask them how our family knew the Yons. I guess I’ll never know.

I found another Yon connection in the course of my research. Pietro’s older brother Constantino was also a musician. In addition to being the organist at St Vincent Ferrer church in New York City, Constantino was also a music instructor at the College of Mount St Vincent in the Bronx (affectionately referred to as “The Mount”). Pietro dedicated one version of Gesù Bambino to the college, presumably because of his brother’s connection to it.

Mount St Vincent is affiliated with the Sisters of Charity of New York, the same order who ran Holy Cross Academy for Young Ladies, the school attended by both my mother and grandmother. My mother, who graduated first in her class, was offered a full scholarship to Mount St Vincent, but she turned it down in favor of attending Hunter College, where she majored in music (another story for another blog entry). But if she had taken the scholarship, she might have studied under Constantino Yon. And to bring the connections full circle, the Sisters of Charity of New York are a branch of the order founded by Saint Elizabeth Seton, who left New York and settled in Emmitsburg, MD, where one of her other communities, the Daughters of Charity, have their Mother House right down the road from Mount St Mary’s University, also affectionately referred to as “The Mount,” and where I teach. And now I think I’ll go play “Gesù  Bambino” on my violin.

HIP Enough for You? A Historian’s Approach to the Vivaldi G Minor Violin Concerto

Portrait of Antonio Vivaldi
Antonio Vivaldi

Recently, as a result of a casual mention in conversation, I found myself thinking about the Vivaldi G Minor violin concerto (Opus 12, no. 1; RV 317).1 My violinist readers may recall that this concerto is found in Suzuki Book 5. I learned it in high school, from the Suzuki book, and even used it as an audition piece for a summer music camp. 2 When it came up in conversation, I remembered that I had enjoyed playing it back when I was a teenager and decided I would take it up again. I realized, however, that I was hearing it in my head the way I remembered playing it, the way I was taught to play it—in a rather Romantic style, very legato. It occurred to me that this didn’t sound particularly Baroque; it is not what would now be considered a Historically-Informed Performance, or “HIP.” Wanting to test my hypothesis, I went on to youtube to hear some examples.

Photo of Mischa Elman
Mischa Elman in 1916

I found that the recordings show a surprising amount of variation, in both tempo and character. For the most part, the older recordings are more like the way I remember learning it—slow and smooth. This makes sense, since my violin teacher, Mr. Gordon, was an older man who would himself have learned a Romantic style of playing. The oldest youtube recording I found was by Mischa Elman.

Advance the recording to 1:52. Hear that slide from the low note to the higher one? That’s called a “portamento,” and it’s very characteristic of late 19th– and early 20th-century violin playing; Elman was especially known for his portamento. But that’s probably not the way Vivaldi taught the concerto to his students at the Ospedale della Pietà in Venice.3

Photo of Tivadar Nachéz
Tivadar Nachéz

If you look on the International Music Score Library Project (usually referred to as “imslp”) for the music to the Vivaldi G minor, you will find an edition by Tivadar Nachèz, first published in 1912 and still available for purchase.4 Nachèz (1859-1930) was a Hungarian violinist, composer, and arranger. His own compositions (also available on imslp) include two violin concertos and a set of Gypsy Dances, but he is more well-known today as an arranger of Baroque works, including several by Vivaldi. The Nachèz edition of the G minor concerto is dedicated to Mischa Elman, and this is the version that he recorded. Nachèz also did an edition of the Vivaldi A minor concerto (Opus 3, no. 6; RV 356).

Photo of Shinichi Suzuki
Shinichi Suzuki

The Nachèz editions of these two Vivaldi concertos, A minor and G minor, are the ones included in the Suzuki repertoire (A minor in Book 4, G minor in Book 5). Suzuki and Elman were near contemporaries (Elman was born in 1891; Suzuki in 1898), so I suspect that it was the Elmanesque style of playing that got transmitted in Suzuki pedagogy. Furthermore, Suzuki’s biography claims that he was inspired to learn the violin as an adult after hearing a recording of Elman playing the Schubert Ave Maria.

In addition to Elman’s performance, another Romantic-sounding interpretation of the Vivaldi G minor concerto is that of Itzhak Perlman. I even found a fairly recent example of this style, by Boris Kuschnir. But for the most part, newer recordings are fast and crisp, such as this one by Sarah Chang. Finally, here is a period-instrument performance by violinist Julien Chauvin with the Concert de la Loge.

We could say that these latter two recordings have a more Baroque character—that they are more HIP. As I listened to them, however, I discovered that Sarah Chang and the musicians of the Concert de la Loge weren’t just playing in a different style than the earlier recordings; they were sometimes playing different notes. Nachèz rewrote some passages in his edition to make them more virtuosic—taking some phrases up an octave, for example. Laurie Niles has written about how much more virtuosic (and therefore difficult to learn) the Nachèz edition of the A minor concerto is than Vivaldi’s original and how she uses these differences in her teaching. Jian Yang, on the faculty of the Shanghai Conservatory, uses the Vivaldi A minor as a case study to explore the pedagogical implications of using the Nachèz edition rather than an original edition.

It turns out that Nachèz was quite open about his revisions. Not only did he not claim to have produced a faithful edition; he explicitly stated that he had created something new. On the back cover of the Nachèz edition of the G minor concerto (published by Schott in 1912) is a statement of originality in three languages; here is the English version:

This Concerto is freely treated from old Manuscripts and constitutes an original work. Any kind of rearrangement of this Edition will therefore constitute an infringement of Copyright. When played in public, Nachèz’s name must be mentioned in the programme. [underlining in the original]

A similar statement (in more idiomatic English with less-Germanic capitalization) was included in a newer American reprint of the Schott publication of the A minor concerto:

NOTICE: This edition is freely derived from original manuscripts and constitutes an original work. Programs for public performance of this Concerto must include the name of Tivadar Nachèz.

Nachèz was participating in a centuries-old custom of re-imagining classic works for present-day purposes, going at least all the way back to Vergil’s reworking of Homer. In Nachèz’s time, flashy virtuoso technique was expected and valued, so when he didn’t find enough of it in Vivaldi’s works he put it in. Disturbingly, Suzuki books 4 and 5 did not include any attribution to Tivadar Nachèz until 2008 (the composer is now identified as A. Vivaldi/T. Nachèz). That means that before 2008, Suzuki students and their teachers, like me and Mr. Gordon, were not informed of the history behind this work and could not therefore make historically-informed choices regarding their performances.

What would be really helpful would be an Urtext edition of the concerto to compare to the Nachèz edition. “Urtext” refers to a scholarly edition of a musical composition based on original manuscripts (if available) and early printed editions, aiming to recreate as closely as possible what the composer actually wrote. Curiously, the only one I could find for the Vivaldi G minor was a Ricordi edition from 1968; I assume Vivaldi scholarship has advanced since then.5 The Ricordi version is the one that the HIP performers are using.

So which edition am I using as I try to re-learn this concerto? Am I using the familiar Suzuki/Nachèz edition that I played in high school, or the one presumably closer to what Vivaldi actually wrote? Which interpretation am I modeling my playing on—the Elman-era Romantic approach that I was originally taught, or the more recent attempt to recreate an authentic Baroque style? As a historian, I am naturally attracted to the idea of Historically-Informed Performance (as I frequently tell my children, I’m a HIP mom). I always consult an Urtext edition if one is available and make an effort to use my technique to recreate the style of the period in which a piece was composed. But does that mean that I reject other interpretations and consider Elman, Perlman, and Kuschnir to be playing it wrong? I do not.

I like to make an analogy to Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s plays can be performed in period costume in a replica of the Globe Theatre, or they can be performed in modern dress in a black-box theatre, or any other configuration that a director dreams up. They’re all Shakespeare. What counts is not how historically accurate the production is or isn’t; what matters is how good the performance is, how successful it is on its own terms.

I think we should approach musical performance the same way. The world is enriched, not diminished, by allowing space for multiple interpretations, for Elman as well as Chang, modern instruments as well as gut strings and Baroque bows. The advantage of a HIP approach is that it need not be confined to the performance practice of only one moment in history–the moment of the piece’s original composition. If I choose to play the Nachèz version of RV 356, my Historical knowledge of the early twentieth century can Inform my Performance. And I’ll try to become sufficiently skilled that I can choose either approach to the G minor concerto and produce a beautiful result.

“Stuff I Did”: The Res Gestae, Tulips, and Squeezes

We tend to think of the Latin language as fancy, formal, and technical. But my favorite Latin word when I am teaching ancient Roman civilization in Origins of the West is “res,” which means “thing.” In Origins, we encounter it in the term res publica, literally the “public thing,” which began, according to tradition, in 509 BCE, when the Roman people, led by Brutus the Liberator, exiled King Tarquin the Proud and replaced the monarchy with a republic. A monarchy is a private thing—the king treats the kingdom like he owns it—but a republic is a public thing, owned by the people as a whole.

We also encounter the word when we read Vergil’s Aeneid, which begins in medias res—in the middle of things.1 Book one of the Aeneid begins with Aeneas already in Carthage; we learn the previous events, the fall of Troy and his voyage to north Africa, through flashbacks, as Aeneas narrates them at the banquet Queen Dido throws for him in books two and three. By book four, we’re back to the present.2

I made this diagram to illustrate how the Aeneid is structured in medias res. The numbered items on the outside of the arch are the events in the order they occurred; the book numbers on the inside of the arch are the order in which we read them.

Finally, my favorite use of my favorite Latin word is in the phrase res gestae, or “things done.” This is the title of a document written by the emperor Augustus (63 BCE-14 CE) near the end of his life.3 The title is usually translated “accomplishments” or “achievements,” but it basically means “stuff I did.” So we’ve got “public stuff,” “in the middle of stuff,” and “stuff I did.” So much for fancy, formal, and technical.

We know of the existence of the Augustus’ Res Gestae from a passage in the biography of Augustus by the ancient Roman author Suetonius, written around 120 CE. Suetonius tells us that Augustus compiled a list of his accomplishments and arranged for them to be published on bronze tablets to be erected in front of his mausoleum in Rome.4

The bronze tablets no longer survive, but a copy that was sent to the provinces does. The Latin text of the Res Gestae is carved into the interior walls of the cella (the inner room) of the Temple of Augustus in what is now Ankara, Turkey (then Ankyra, provincial capital of Galatia). A Greek translation is found on the exterior wall (which makes sense, as Galatia was in the Greek-speaking part of the empire). The inscription is also known as the Monumentum Ancyranum.5

The ruins of the Temple of Augustus in Ankara. Only the cella is still standing.

I use a translation of this text whenever I teach the Age of Augustus. It’s a rare example of an extant ancient historical text that is not only contemporary with its subject but also written by the person in whose voice it is. (Unlike, for example, the Suetonius biography, written about a century after Augustus died, or the Funeral Oration of Pericles, written by Thucydides in Pericles’ voice.)

A portion of the Latin inscription of the Res Gestae on the wall of the Temple of Augustus.

In the document, Augustus lists the achievements he wishes to be remembered by. It’s a combination of a memoir, curriculum vitae, and a completed to-do list. The document is not particularly well-organized, but if we were to reorder the items and group them under headings (which is what I have my students do), they might look something like this:

  • Military Victories and Conquests
  • Diplomacy and Peacemaking
  • Public Works
  • Donations
  • Restoration of the Mores Maiorum (the “ways of the ancestors”)

If you are familiar with the scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian where John Cleese’s character asks, “What have the Romans done for us,” you might think of the Res Gestae as Augustus’ answer to the question, “What has Augustus done for us?” And both answers would include “the aqueduct” and “brought peace.”

Equally as fascinating as the document’s content is the story of how it was found. I knew that it survived only in the provincial copy carved into the Temple of Augustus in Ankara, and I knew that at some point it was recognized as the work of Augustus. Beyond that, I vaguely assumed that it had been identified by a classically-educated nineteenth-century British diplomat—like Lord Elgin, only less destructive.

As usual, I was partially right. My instincts were correct, but I was off on the details (just like with King Arthur flour). It wasn’t a classically-educated nineteenth-century British diplomat; it was a classically-educated sixteenth-century Flemish diplomat. Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq (1522-1592) was ambassador of Emperor Ferdinand of Austria to Emperor Suleiman the Magnificent. During his time there, between 1554 and 1562, Ghiselin de Busbecq traveled around the Ottoman empire and later published his observations in Turkish Letters (1581). He wrote,6

Here we saw a very beautiful inscription, containing a copy of the tablets in which Augustus gave a summary of his achievements. We made our people copy as much as was legible. It is engraved on the marble walls of a building now ruinous and roofless which formerly may have formed the official residence of the governor. As you enter the building one half of the inscription is on the right, and the other on the left. The top lines are nearly perfect; in the middle the gaps begin to present difficulties; the lowest lines are so mutilated with blows of clubs and axes as to be illegible. This is indeed a great literary loss, and one which scholars have much reason to regret; the more so as it is an ascertained fact that Ancyra was dedicated to Augustus as the common gift of Asia.

Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq

 Recognizing the Res Gestae wasn’t Ghiselin de Busbecq’s only accomplishment. He was also interested in plants, and claimed to have been the person who introduced tulip bulbs to Europe. This claim was an exaggeration, but Ghiselin de Busbecq probably contributed to their popularization. 7 Tulips became so popular in the Dutch Republic of the 17th century that the buying and selling of the bulbs is referred to as “Tulipmania,” and the rise and subsequent collapse of the market in 1637 is considered an early example of an investment bubble. 8

‘Still Life with Flowers,’ 1639, by Hans Bollinger (fl. 1623-1672), now in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. The striped tulips, known as ‘broken,’ were the most highly sought-after during the tulip craze. It is now known that the ‘break’ is caused by a virus. Coincidentally, the name of the most valuable broken variety was ‘Semper Augustus.’

The surviving copy of the Res Gestae was mentioned by classical scholars a few times in the subsequent centuries, but serious study of it was only undertaken in the nineteenth century, beginning with the work of Theodor Mommsen, a groundbreaking German historian of ancient Rome. Mommsen was not an archeologist, and he did not travel to Turkey to study the inscription in person. Rather, he relied on drawings made by others to produce his scholarly edition of the Res Gestae in 1865, and a second edition that utilized plaster casts of the inscription in 1883.9

Another technology that has been developed by epigraphers (people who study inscriptions) is known as “squeezes.” A squeeze is made by pressing dampened paper onto the inscription, letting it dry, then lifting it off. The resulting impression is lightweight and easy to work with (although the image is reversed; epigraphers have to become adept at reading ancient languages backwards). Taking a squeeze allows for prolonged study of the text off-site, and for simultaneous study of inscriptions from multiple sites.

I was delighted to learn that Cornell University, my doctoral institution, has an extensive collection of squeezes, including the Res Gestae. The Res Gestae squeeze was obtained as part of the Cornell Expedition to Asia Minor and the Assyro-Babylonian Orient (1907-1908). I was not aware of this collection’s existence while I was studying there, although ancient Greek and Roman history was one of my minor fields. At that point, in the pre-digital era, the squeezes were just sitting in storage in the attic of Goldwin Smith Hall, home of Cornell’s Classics department. But the squeezes have since been restored and digitized.

One of the squeezes of the Res Gestae now in Cornell’s collection.

Another Cornell connection to the Res Gestae, slightly more tenuous, is that Theodor Ernst Mommsen (1905-1958), grandson of Theodor Mommsen, taught medieval history at Cornell beginning in 1954 (having escaped Nazi Germany in 1935) until his untimely death from suicide in 1958. His successor was Brian Tierney, with whom I studied.

In the 1930s, archeologists excavated the Ara Pacis, an Augustan monument mentioned in the Res Gestae10

When I returned to Rome from Spain and Gaul, having settled affairs successfully in these provinces, in the consulship of Tiberius Nero and Publius Quinctilius [13 BC], the senate decreed that an altar of Augustan Peace should be consecrated in thanks for my return on the field of Mars, and ordered magistrates and priests and Vestal Virgins to perform an annual sacrifice there.

As part of his program to connect his rule to the glories of imperial Rome, Mussolini had a museum constructed to house the Ara Pacis, located near the ruins of the mausoleum of Augustus on the banks of the Tiber. The text of the Res Gestae was carved into an exterior wall of the museum. The Ara Pacis museum opened in 1938, a year celebrated as the 2000th anniversary of the birth of Augustus.11

Mussolini’s Ara Pacis museum. The Res Gestae was carved on the wall in the foreground.

The Mussolini-era museum has since been demolished and replaced with a new building, completed in 2006, designed by American architect Richard Meier. The wall with the Res Gestae was preserved, however. So if you want to see an inscribed version of the Res Gestae, there’s no need to visit Ankara; there’s one in Rome, near its original location, although not on a bronze tablet.

Whenever an academic administrator asks me for the goals of a course, I always use the same three (polished a bit more for administrative consumption):

  • Teach them stuff (content).
  • Teach them to do stuff (skills).
  • Teach them how it relates to other stuff (connections).

The Res Gestae is a perfect example of this approach in action. Teach them stuff: the document is literally made up of, and named for, the stuff Augustus did. Teach them to do stuff: in addition to the skill of reading and interpreting a document, the Res Gestae also gives students the opportunity to learn about disciplines like archeology and epigraphy and techniques like squeezes that lie behind the conveniently anthologized, printed, translated text in front of them. Teach them how it relates to other stuff: the history of the Res Gestae not only connects to the history of the interest in and study of the classics—by Ghiselin de Busbecq in the 16th century, Mommsen in the 19th, and Mussolini in the 20th—it also, more unexpectedly, connects to the history of horticulture and early-modern capitalism. No wonder it’s one of my favorite texts to teach.

The Flour of Chivalry: King Arthur Flour and American Medievalism

Recently, King Arthur flour is having a moment, as people under stay-at-home orders turn to baking to fill time and relieve stress. King Arthur flour has ramped up production and posted recipes, blog entries, and how-to-videos aimed at the quarantine market.

I had actually been thinking about King Arthur flour and planning my own blog entry about it even before the virus hit us. In fact, I’d just picked up the interlibrary loan books I needed when my institution went to remote learning, but the demands of online teaching meant I haven’t been able to blog until now.

King Arthur flour had come up in my Making History class (an introductory course for history majors) as part of our study of medievalism (the appropriation of medieval material in modern contexts). We’d read about American medievalism in Marcus Bull’s Thinking Medieval, which had a passing mention of the Knights of King Arthur, a boys’ organization similar to the Boy Scouts, founded in New England in 1893.1 In class, I asked the students if they were aware of any other Arthurian connections associated with New England, and one student answered right away, “You mean King Arthur flour?” I did. But I didn’t know anything more about the company than the name and that they were based in New England. Time for research!

I knew that Howard Pyle’s illustrated retellings of the King Arthur stories (which I read as a child and which I’m sure influenced my choice of scholarly specialty) dated from around 1900.2 Given that the Arthurian boys’ clubs were founded in 1893, I wondered if the flour company also began around that time and could be seen as an example of a fin-de siècle American fashion for things Arthurian.

It turned out that I was half right. The company was actually founded in Boston in 1790, not 1890, as Henry Wood and Company, selling flour imported from England. They began selling American-grown and milled flour in the 1820s. In 1896, the company, known since 1890 as Sands, Taylor, and Wood, introduced a new, high-end flour. One of the partners, George Wood, had recently attended a play about King Arthur in Boston, and, in the words of the company history published in their 200th anniversary cookbook,3

came away feeling that the values inherent in the Arthurian legends, purity, loyalty, honesty, superior strength and a dedication to a higher purpose, were the values that most expressed their feelings about their new flour. So it was decided that King Arthur would be its symbol.

King Arthur Flour at the Boston Food Fair, 1896
King Arthur Flour was introduced at the Boston Food Fair in 1896.

The new product was introduced at the Boston Food Fair in 1896, promoted by a man dressed in armor riding through the streets of Boston on a horse. An article in the Boston Post described the scene:4

A horseman clad in glittering armor and armed cap-a-pie [head-to-foot] has been creating no small sensation of late as he guided his prancing steed through the streets of the Hub. No stranger contrast can well be imagined than this figure of medieval romance set down in the busy turmoil and traffic of modern Boston.

It seems at first sight that one of Walter Scott’s heroes had come to life again, or, perchance, that a new Don Quixote had arisen to tilt against the deadly trolley.

The Crusaders’ cross gleams on the coat of mail and adorns the silken standard that he bears aloft. It is, in truth, King Arthur come to earth again—the picture of that gallant warrior is literally perfect. The standard bears the legend ‘King Arthur Flour,’ and the inference is obvious—that as King Arthur was a champion without fear and above reproach, so is King Arthur Flour the peerless champion of modern civilization.

The writer makes up in enthusiasm what he lacks in accuracy. Sir Walter Scott’s novel Ivanhoe (which we also read in Making History) was enormously popular in the nineteenth century and enormously influential in creating the modern understanding of the Middle Ages (which is the reason we read it in Making History), but it has nothing to do with King Arthur—it’s set in England in the late twelfth century, the time of Good King Richard and Bad Prince John.5 Further, King Arthur never went on Crusade, so his depiction with a Crusaders’ cross can’t really be called “literally perfect.” And I’m not at all sure what Don Quixote is doing there. Over a thousand years of history has been compressed into a single medieval moment—King Arthur, Crusaders, Wilfred of Ivanhoe, and Don Quixote all ride through the streets of modern Boston at the same time.

This medieval mashup is also seen in the original King Arthur Flour logo, a version of which still adorns the company’s bags of unbleached flour. In the original version, not only is King Arthur dressed as a Crusader—a Templar, in fact—but in the background you can see palm trees and a desert sun setting behind the walls of a Middle Eastern city.

Vintage King Arthur flour logo
Vintage King Arthur Flour logo, with the Middle Eastern setting.

This discrepancy was eventually noticed by the company, and in the 200th anniversary cookbook, the author, Brinna Sands (married to a fifth-generation member of the Sands family that had been involved with the company since 1840), wrote,6

When our logo was conceived a century ago, the artist inadvertently placed King Arthur in the Middle East as if he were a crusader. King Arthur may have been a crusader, but not in the sense the term is generally accepted. His Crusade was in the land of hill fort “castles’ and ancient oaks which we have substituted for the palm trees and mosques.

Logo from the 200th anniversary cookbook
Logo from the 200th anniversary cookbook, showing a castle and “ancient oaks”

The logo is simplified now, with neither palm trees nor ancient oaks in the background. They still celebrate the Arthurian connection, however. The company name was changed from Sands, Taylor and Wood to The King Arthur Flour Company in 1999.7 The commercial product line (sold only in 50-pound bags) includes Sir Galahad (all-purpose), Sir Lancelot (high gluten), and Round Table (low protein) flours. Queen Guinevere, however, has been dethroned, as her namesake product, a bleached cake flour, was discontinued when they developed an unbleached version. The campus in Vermont, where they moved in 1984, is known as Camelot.

I’ll definitely be doing some research on the Arthurian boys’ clubs for a future blog. But now I think I’ll go bake something.

Vergil or Virgil: What’s in a Roman Name?

Yesterday I made a brief Facebook post regarding an insight one of my students had during a discussion of Book II of Vergil’s Aeneid (the Fall of Troy). The account of the attack on Priam’s palace reminded him of the siege of Helm’s Deep in Tolkien’s The Two Towers. A friend of mine questioned my spelling of “Vergil” in the post. I assured him that I was correct and realized that this was a perfect opportunity for a blog post on Roman onomastics (the study of naming customs).

My friend thought that the correct spelling for the name of the poet of the Aeneid is “Virgil.” He’s not wrong: look at the cover of my (well-thumbed) copy of the Fitzgerald translation of the Aeneid.

So why did I write “Vergil” and not “Virgil”? The poet, of course, didn’t spell his name either of those ways. His full name was Publius Vergilius Maro. But that just leads us to another question: why are we referring to him by a shortened form of his middle name? Well, it’s not a middle name in our understanding of the term—that is, the second of two personal names chosen by our parents, and followed by our last name, which is the family name. The name in the middle position of a 3-part Roman male name was not a personal name chosen by one’s parents; it was part of the family name. In other words, Publius Vergilius Maro’s father and brothers would also be named Firstname Vergilius Maro, and not Firstname Middlename Maro.

Here’s how it worked. The name of a male Roman typically had three parts:

The praenomen (first name) Marcus
The nomen (clan or gens name): Tullius
The cognomen (branch of the gens): Cicero

There were so few praenomines available that the Romans developed a set of standard abbreviations for them; these abbreviations are found, for example, in inscriptions on Roman monuments. They are also commonly used by modern writers. So we could refer to our poet as P. Vergilius Maro, and there would be no doubt that we are talking about a Publius. Here are all the praenomines and their abbreviations (I tell my students that an ancient Roman baby name book was a single page):

C.Caius or Gaius
Cn.Cnaeus or Gnaeus
K.Kaeso or Caeso
S. or Sex.Sextus

Notice that not only are there merely eighteen names to choose from, but some of them are just numbers: Quintus, Sextus, and Decimus (Fifth, Sixth, and Tenth)! I don’t know if those names were reserved for actual fifth, sixth, or tenth sons (or children); I also don’t know why the other numbers are missing.

A boy born after the death of his father was given the praenomen “Postumus.” Sometimes a second cognomen was added (later called an agnomen), especially in honor of military achievements: P. Cornelius Scipio Africanus (P. Cornelius Scipio, the conqueror of Africa). If a boy was adopted by another family, he would assume the new family’s nomen and cognomen; his original nomen would have the syllable “an” inserted in it (making it an adjective) and would become his agnomen. For example, when P. Aemilius Paullus was adopted by the Scipio family, his new name became P. Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus (the Aemilian Cornelius Scipio). Similarly, when C. Octavius was adopted by C. Julius Caesar, his new name became C. Julius Caesar Octavianus (the Octavian Julius Caesar). We commonly refer to him as “Octavian.” (Later, he was granted the agnomen “Augustus”).

If this is how male names worked, how about female names? Was there a corresponding list of female praenomines, and was P. Vergilius Maro’s mother known as Mrs. Vergilius Maro? No and no. Female Romans had only one name: the name of their father’s gens (his nomen) with a feminine ending. If a family had more than one daughter, they would be distinguished by maior (the elder) and minor (the younger). Roman women did not change their names at marriage. Here are some examples:

C. Julius Caesar’s daughter = Julia
M. Tullius Cicero’s daughter = Tullia
L. Aemilius Paullus’ daughter = Aemilia
T. Livius’ daughter = Livia

Back to Vergilian spelling. One good indication that a particular Roman has had a prominent place in the western tradition is if his name has been anglicized. We don’t say “Q. Horatius Flaccus”; we say “Horace.” We don’t say “T. Livius”; we say “Livy.” We don’t say “P. Vergilius Maro”; we say “Vergil.” But that still doesn’t answer the question where “Virgil” came from.

The answer is that it comes from the Middle Ages. The poet of the Aeneid was especially revered during the Middle Ages, when his work was used for divination: a questioner would open the Aeneid at random and point to a line, whose significance would then be used to answer the question. This practice is known as the sortes Vergilianae (or Virgilianae). As a result, the poet got a reputation as having been a magician. The Latin word for “magic wand” was virga; hence, his name came to be spelled “Virgilius.” This was later anglicized as Virgil.

Today, both spellings are used and both are acceptable. I prefer “Vergil” because it’s closer to his original name. But if I were writing about medieval uses of the Aeneid (for example, in Dante’s Divine Comedy), I would probably spell it “Virgil.”

Turabian: The Woman and her Book

The only image I could find of Kate Turabian. It’s from the Univ. of Chicago Press website, so it’s presumably the best one they have.

One of the courses I teach regularly is an introductory course for History majors, entitled “Making History.” One of my responsibilities as instructor is to teach the students how to do documentation in historical writing, or, in a word, FOOTNOTES.

Wait, don’t stop reading. Footnotes are fun! The form of documentation conventionally used by professional historians is called “Chicago style,” after the Chicago Manual of Style, first published by the University of Chicago Press in 1906 and now in its 17th edition. One question I have not yet been able to answer is how it came about that the conventions created for the output of one particular university press came to be adopted by the historical profession as a whole. Other academic disciplines use documentation models sponsored by their respective professional organizations: Psychologists use APA style, as specified by the American Psychological Association; literary scholars use MLA style, regulated by the Modern Language Association. But although there is an AHA, the American Historical Association, there is nothing called “AHA style.”

Undergraduate history majors rarely purchase the Chicago Manual, however. Not only is it expensive—the current edition lists for $70—but it includes much more detail than they need for the kind of writing they’re doing. (I didn’t buy one until I was a PhD student.)

Instead, students typically use specially-written handbooks that package the essential information into a more user-friendly format. In Making History, for example, we use Mary Lynne Rampolla’s Pocket Guide to Writing in History. But when our history majors get to the Senior Seminar, we have them purchase a more serious, detailed, in-depth handbook. At that point, as they prepare to write their Senior Research Thesis, they’re ready for . . . TURABIAN.

What’s a Turabian, you ask? It’s short for Kate L. Turabian’s Manual for Writers of Theses, Research Papers, and Dissertations. Like Cher or Madonna, Turabian requires only a single name to be immediately identifiable to the cognoscenti. I recall going to see a professor during office hours in the first history major course I took as an undergraduate, to ask for help in beginning the assigned research paper, and receiving the answer, in its entirety, “Turabian.”1

I was reminded of this conversation recently when I was introducing Chicago-style footnotes to my Making History students. Although we don’t buy Turabian in Making History, I thought it was important that they at least know the term. Even undergraduate research journals, conferences, or essay competitions might well specify “Turabian” without further elaboration.

Wanting to show my students the person behind the name, I did a little research. Fortunately, the Chicago Manual Online has a page devoted to the history of Turabian, both the person and the book. There I learned that she was born in Chicago in 1893, never attended college, but went to work as a department secretary at the University in 1925, becoming the thesis secretary in 1930.

The thesis secretary at a graduate institution is in some ways the most powerful person on campus. She (and it often was a she) inspects all master’s theses and doctoral dissertations to ensure that they conform to the university’s formatting guidelines, including margins, front matter (title page, acknowledgments, etc.) and documentation. Your professor might have already approved your work; your methodology might be groundbreaking, your conclusions insightful, your prose sparkling. But if the thesis secretary sees that your margins are too narrow or too wide, no degree for you until it’s fixed.2

To help students navigate this stressful process, in 1937 Kate Turabian produced a booklet summarizing the formatting guidelines for Chicago style, so that Depression-era students didn’t have to buy the big manual. Her pamphlet was first published in book form in 1955; it is now in its 9th edition.

Next I looked for some images to show the class, and was delighted to come across the cover of the 3rd edition, published in 1967. This is the one I remember using in college.3 Notice what’s on the cover—mostly pencils and pens of various types, most of the pens having nibs, and one curious-looking round object. Boomers like myself may be able to identify that as a typewriter eraser. This cover image says to me that “writers of term papers, theses, and dissertations” will literally be writing them by hand, and only as a final step producing a typescript (perhaps even hiring a typist).

Notice how the cover of the 4th edition, from 1973, has changed. It is still an assemblage of writers’ tools, still mostly writing implements, but now none of the pens have nibs, there’s a new-fangled marker, and instead of a typewriter eraser there are two spherical objects. These are type balls (known familiarly as “golf balls”) from an IBM Selectric typewriter, first introduced in 1973—which means that the cover is displaying what was then state-of-the-art technology.

The 5th edition, released in 1987, got rid of not only the pens but also the typewriter accessories. That round red object with the spokes is a daisy wheel from a daisy wheel printer. We’re in the computer age! Daisy wheel printers were used before the widespread introduction of laser printers to produce what was called “letter quality” output, that is, as good as what a typewriter could do. I printed my first cover letters for job applications using a daisy wheel printer.

Perhaps because daisy wheel printers were already headed towards obsolescence in 1987, beginning with the 6th edition the Manual for Writers dispensed with images altogether. But collectively, the 3rd through 5th edition covers are a fascinating look at the rapid revolutionary changes in writing technology over a period of just 20 years. I should point out, however, that while the fountain pen has disappeared from the cover of Turabian, I used one to draft this entry (and, in fact, my doctoral dissertation as well). Like vinyl records, the fountain pen is making a comeback!

Kate Turabian retired as thesis secretary at the University of Chicago in 1958, but she continued to work on updates of the manual; she died in 1987. The book is still published in her name, along with the names of the writers who have taken over the updates.4 According to a 2016 study of American college syllabi, Kate Turabian is the most assigned female author in college classes.

Kate Turabian’s New York Times obituary, October 26, 1987.

Now I want to know more about the history of the footnote itself.5 As the American Historical Association says, #everythinghasahistory. Research never ends!

Magna Carta and Modernity in Medieval Films, part 2:


In the last entry, we saw how Magna Carta was modernized in Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood. Today we see a similar transformation in Ironclad.

Like Ridley Scott, Jonathan English, director of Ironclad, released in 2011, claims historical accuracy for his film. Like those of Ridley Scott, English’s claims don’t hold up.1 Compared to Robin Hood, Ironclad has more historical and less folkloric content. Ironclad is based on a real event, the siege of Rochester Castle, and its characters, although a mixture of real and fictional, do not include any mythical figures like Robin Hood. Nonetheless, Ironclad’s treatment of Magna Carta is equally as modern as Robin Hood’s and, in fact, is even more strongly reminiscent of an eighteenth-century document, the Declaration of Independence.

Ironclad is set in the fall and winter of 1215, during the baronial rebellion that followed the failure of Magna Carta. The film focuses on the siege of Rochester Castle, in which it imagines that seven brave defenders held off the forces of John and his mercenary army. (The director, Jonathan English, has acknowledged his inspirations included The Magnificent Seven and The Seven Samurai).2 These medieval magnificent seven are led by Baron William of Albany and Thomas Marshal, a troubled Templar who in the course of the siege falls in love with Isabel, wife of the castle’s lord, Reginald Cornhill.3 John ultimately takes the castle, but is unable to follow up on his victory when an invading French force shows up, led by Prince Louis, son of King Philip. John flees, and the film ends with John’s ignominious death by dysentery after losing his treasure in the Wash while Thomas and Isabel ride away from the castle to live, presumably, happily ever after.4

While the time period of Robin Hood is well before the actual time of the granting of Magna Carta, the action of Ironclad takes place in the months after Runnymede. Magna Carta still plays a large role in the film, however. The civil war of late 1215 is presented as resulting from John’s attempt to take revenge on the supporters of Magna Carta; the defenders of Rochester Castle see themselves as defending the ideals of Magna Carta. However, the Magna Carta of Ironclad is not the Magna Carta of Runnymede. To paraphrase Greta Austin, who claims that all medieval films are “modernity in drag,” Magna Carta in Ironclad may be described as “the Declaration of Independence in drag.”5 Like the Declaration, it has a single author. Like the Declaration, it is signed by its supporters. Like the Declaration, the physical object, the document itself, is seen as significant. And like the Declaration, the meaning of the document has been transformed from its original context to be something else.

In Ironclad, Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton is presented not only as a supporter of Magna Carta but also as its sole author. Langton was identified as the author of Magna Carta at one time, but today the scholarly consensus is that its composition was a group effort, with Langton perhaps insisting on clause one, on the liberty of the English Church.6 In Ironclad, however, when we first meet Langton in the episcopal palace at Canterbury, he tells Thomas, “I am to be excommunicated for writing Magna Carta.”7This is understandable for dramatic reasons—the story is easier to follow if we can attach a face to the document everyone is fighting over. But in addition, Stephen Langton is the stand-in for Thomas Jefferson.

The script refers several times to John’s “signing” Magna Carta. In reality, Magna Carta was not signed but sealed.8 Interestingly, a few references to sealing the document do creep in—it’s almost as if the screenwriters knew the proper term but frequently lapsed into the familiar error. This confusion is already evident in the film’s opening sequence, where a voiceover spoken by Charles Dance, who plays Stephen Langton, provides the historical background necessary to understand the rest of the story:

“It was agreed that John could remain on the throne, on one condition—that he would sign a document upholding the rights and privileges of all free men, but ultimately limiting the power of the monarchy. [At this point we see John sign the document.] The Magna Carta was sealed at Runnymede on the fifteenth of June in the Year of our Lord twelve hundred and fifteen.” [emphasis mine]

The look of this scene is clearly influenced by nineteenth-century visual representations of what the artists imagined to have happened on June 15, 1215. Do a google image search with terms like “Magna Carta signing” and you’ll see plenty of examples.9 The one I believe the filmmakers chose is an 1864 illustration by artist James Doyle.10 In the illustration, John is in a tent, seated at a table covered with a red tablecloth embellished with gold brocade. He is surrounded by standing knights and clergymen. Through the open back of the tent can be seen more tents spread across a rolling green meadow next to a river.

James Doyle, ”John Signs the Great Charter,” 1864.

In the opening sequence of Ironclad, there is an establishing shot with a tent-covered meadow next to a river; the camera then takes us inside John’s tent where he is seated at a table covered by a red cloth embellished with gold brocade and surrounded by standing knights and clergymen.

The field at Runnymede, from Ironclad.
John signing Magna Carta, from Ironclad.

The writers did enough research to know that Magna Carta was sealed. They must have just assumed it was signed as well, partly from the influence of the visual tradition they were following, but also because in modern times we expect important legal or governmental documents to be signed. A bill doesn’t become a law until the President signs it; the Declaration of Independence couldn’t take effect until the delegates signed it. So Magna Carta must have been signed as well.

The parallel of Ironclad’s Magna Carta to the Declaration of Independence extends further. The prop Magna Carta used in the film was neither a duplicate of one of the surviving 1215 copies nor modeled on the eighteenth-century facsimile (as Robin Hood’s was). Rather, Ironclad’s Magna Carta has a similar layout to the Declaration. John’s signature is centered below the main text, in large letters—like his namesake president of the Continental Congress—with the other signatures in columns to its left and right.11 In fact, the leaders of the baronial revolt did not sign it either, but our familiarity with the Declaration of Independence has conditioned our expectations of what such a document should look like.12

The Magna Carta signed by ”John of England,” from Ironclad.

On the must-see list of any first-time visitor to Washington, D.C. is the Rotunda of the National Archives, where the “Charters of Freedom” exhibit reverently showcases the original documents of the Declaration of Independence, as well as the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Americans revere the Declaration as a physical object.

Ironclad has a similar view of the importance of the document itself. In an early scene, John and his Danish mercenaries arrive at the castle of one of his enemies. John shows him a copy of Magna Carta and, pointing to it, asks if this is his handwriting. The baron claims he was forced to sign it; John grimly replies, “I know the feeling” and has the man hanged. Later on, John is shown in a sacked burning castle surrounded by heaps of bodies; one has a crumpled-up bloody copy of Magna Carta stuffed in its mouth. When the rebels first occupy Rochester castle, a member of the resident garrison protests, “The rebellion’s over. The king surrendered to the Great Charter.” Albany then pulls a copy of Magna Carta out of a leather tube and says, “Magna Carta. This one sealed by the King’s own hand.  And now he’s executing everybody who supported it.”13 Late in the siege, when the defenders are coming to realize that they are doomed, Reginald Cornhill wants to negotiate a surrender. Squire Guy, the idealist youth among our “Magnificent Seven,” objects, saying, “We swore an oath, to Albany—to England.” Cornhill answers, “Your oath is worthless. Magna Carta is worthless. The Church has annulled it. Whatever happens here is meaningless.” He leaves the room and Guy silently unrolls Magna Carta and looks at it. Almost the last thing we see in Ironclad, after a final Charles Dance voiceover that narrates John’s death and the loss of his treasure in the Wash, is a shot of Magna Carta floating in muddy water.

Ironclad’s view of Magna Carta’s broader significance is also informed by modern expectations and parallels the popular understanding of the Declaration of Independence. In the popular mind, Jefferson’s list of all the crimes of George III is forgotten; all that we remember is “All men are created equal” and the inalienable rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Similarly, in Ironclad all the technical clauses of Magna Carta are ignored and its scope is extended to, as the initial voiceover sequence puts it, “upholding the rights and privileges of all free men.” English echoes this judgment in his commentary, where he references America’s other founding document: “The Magna Carta of course is one of the original documents that formed the basis of liberty and justice for all men and was the basis of the American Constitution.” When John first confronts the rebels at the walls of Rochester castle, Albany reminds him that he “sealed a charter giving the people of England freedom.”14

This emphasis on “the people” and “freedom” is especially notable in the words of Squire Guy. When Thomas finds out that Guy has never killed anyone, he tells him, “Then you will learn that it is not a noble thing.” Guy counters, “Not even when it’s for freedom?” Thomas, the disillusioned Crusader, replies, “Not even when it’s for God.” When Cornhill asks the company at dinner in the castle why they support the rebellion, Guy proclaims, “Because we are for the people.” Again, English reinforces this sentiment in his commentary:  “The central theme of the film is worth—the worth of men, the worth of the people; that’s essentially the concept of the Magna Carta.” 15 Finally, the last words spoken in the film reinforce this idea of Magna Carta as a declaration of freedom that was ahead of its time: “In time the great keep of Rochester was rebuilt. It stands to this day. So too does the noble dream that was Magna Carta.”


No one has ever made a straight historical movie that tells the story of Magna Carta—one that begins in John’s reign, climaxes at Runnymede, and doesn’t have any legendary figures in it.  Some studio missed a great opportunity for a 2015 release. But why has no one made such a film? Perhaps it’s because Magna Carta now exists more in memory than in history, and in memory it’s no longer tied to specific events (apart from the signing ceremony, which didn’t even happen). The legacy of Magna Carta has turned it into a document about freedom and modern constitutional democracy. Whatever it meant in 1215, this is what it means now, so even in movies that are set then, Magna Carta is presented with the significance it has now.

The directors of both Ironclad and Robin Hood claim to be telling historical truths, but both are incorrect. Not just because they are careless with historical facts (although they are), but because both films are a-historical. Ironclad at least keeps Magna Carta tied to its own historical moment, but then turns it into the Declaration of Independence. Robin Hood takes Magna Carta completely out of history, placing its origins in the 1160s or 70s and its resurrection in 1200 and transforming its content into a generic “rights of man”—in effect, making it timeless, and, in true Enlightenment fashion, universalizing it.

Both these movies perpetuate the Enlightenment stereotype of the Middle Ages. If the Middle Ages are the Dark Ages—by definition, unenlightened—then if anything positive appears in the Middle Ages, it must be modern. The filmmakers have clothed a medieval document that arose at a specific time and place, out of specific circumstances, to meet the needs of specific people, in Enlightenment dress.  Truly, “modernity in drag.”