Idoru by William Gibson (1996)

Arleigh’s van smelled of long-chain monomers and warm electronics.
(Idoru page 201)

Virtual Light, the first novel in William Gibson’s ‘Bridge trilogy’, made me fall out of love with Gibson. Once I’d realised the tough ex-cop hero of the book, Berry Rydell was, underneath all the sci-fi add-ons, basically an avatar of John McClane from the Die Hard movies or Jack Reacher, i.e. a rough, tough hero of the type found in all airport thrillers, I found myself noticing on every page, barely disguised by Gibson’s gee-whizz, cyberpunk style and settings, all the clichés of the American thriller genre.

However, I think Idoru is by way of being a return to form, combining Gibson’s street-smart, cyberpunk attitude and jive prose style, with passages of genuinely visionary writing about the experience of cyberspace and virtual reality, passages as strange and poetic and haunting as anything in Neuromancer. I liked it, though with a few reservations, which I’ll explain at the end.

Plot summary

It’s a few decades into what was then the future, maybe about 2010, after a fictional mega-earthquake has devastated Tokyo and San Francisco, leading to the abandonment of the Golden Gate Bridge to thousands of squatters who’ve built a shanty town on it (which is why these three books are known as the Bridge trilogy).

Colin Laney has a natural talent for spotting patterns and nodes in information. He gets a job at Slitscan, a downmarket scandal TV channel, ‘descended from reality programming’. His boss is an intense woman named Kathy Torrance, who has jaded views about celebrity, namely that celebrities deserve to be made famous then crushed by media outlets like hers. A typical Slitscan ‘story’ is the revelation that a popular band, the Dukes of Nuke ‘Em, uses Iraqi fetal tissue to remain youthful looking, supposedly a shock-horror revelation although, in this cynical world, the story leads only to a surge in the band’s record sales and a bout of hangings and executions in Iraq among the officials responsible.

Laney is employed to scour DatAmerica (which appears to be the corporate version of the internet) for links, connections, ‘nodal points’, assembling clusters out of the vast oceans of data which hint towards news and gossip which the TV channel can use.

But Laney quits the job at Slitscan after a job wrecking someone’s reputation goes too far, and he finds himself staying in an expensive hotel, ‘the Chateau’. Here the security guard, Rydell (who we recognise as the hero of Idoru‘s predecessor, Virtual Light), recommends an opening he knows about out in Tokyo, which turns out to be a tip he heard from another character from Virtual Light, the Japanese sociologist Shinya Yamazaki (still making notes in his electronic notebook with a lightpen as he did in the earlier novel) who’s now working for a new employer.

So, on this recommendation, Laney the node detector flies out to Tokyo and is met by Keith Alan Blackwell, an enormous Australian with one ear missing and a body criss-crossed by scars. Laney is tired, jet-lagged and wants to know what the job is about.

Meanwhile, in a parallel storyline, a teenage girl, Chia Mackenzie from Seattle (page 85) also flies out to Tokyo. She is an advanced user of plug-in digital reality programs, a favourite being ‘the sandbenders’ (the hand-made product of a commune she describes on page 138) which she plugs in, then puts on the eyephones and whoosh! she’s walking around Venice in the moments before dawn, accompanied by her ‘Music Master’, a thinly disguised digital David Bowie. So she’s a teenage pop music fan.

Mackenzie is a big fan of the band Lo/Rez which appears to consist of two people, Lo the Chinese guitarist and Rez, the half-Irish singer (page 94), famous for their album, Dog Soup. Lo/Rez have a worldwide fanclub among pubescent girls and Chia is a member of the Seattle fan club. In the opening chapter we find her and a couple of girlfriends all jacked into cyberspace and discussing the scandalous news that singer Rez has declared he wants to marry a virtual woman, nothing more than a system of programs. One of the girls, Kelsey, has access to her dad’s frequent flyer account and so she buys Chia a plane ticket to Tokyo so she can go over there and find out what is going on and report back to the rest of the teenage Lo/Rez fans.

On the plane to Tokyo Chia is befriended by a suspicious-looking woman, a fake blonde with hair implants, one of which she pulls out and inserts in the DNA control which is now common at these airports of the future.

The blonde calls herself Maryalice (page 47), hands Chia a suitcase to take through passport control for her, and then disappears: clearly there’s something dodgy in the case, clearly Chia is very naive. Without her realising it, Maryalice also slipped something into Chia’s hand luggage, a cigarette carton-sized metal object

The narrative is carefully structured. The Laney and Chia plotlines alternate neatly like a tennis rally throughout the book. But there’s also extensive use of flashback to fill in backstory. It is a nicely engineered text.

Laney has barely unpacked before he’s met and is taken out for drinks and sushi by the enormous Blackwell, with skinny little sociologist Yamazaki in attendance and so, in a series of flashbacks, Laney tells his backstory i.e. the job at Slitscan and why he quit.

We learn Laney quit because he was tasked with finding out about a young woman, Alison Shires, who was having an affair with a famous movie star, and so was a ripe target for a Slitscan scandal program. But Laney’s supernatural ability to scope data had made him increasingly fearful that Shires was going to kill herself, till one feverish night he went round to her apartment, let himself in (being a data hacker he knows all her security numbers) only to find her slitting her wrists. Laney stops her, patches the wrists up, but trips and bangs his head which stuns him long enough for her to get up, walk into the kitchen and shoot herself.

The cops come quickly, but more importantly so do representatives of a media outlet called ‘Out of Control’ which makes TV programmes about TV programmes and want to screw Laney’s employers, Slitscan.

Upset by how they set him onto Alison Shires but gave the poor woman no help, Laney agrees to stiff his old employers. So the Out of Control people put him on a contract, give him lawyers to help with the cops, and put him up at the luxury hotel, ‘the Chateau’, packed with their staffers and lawyers and producers. So this is how he comes to meet Rydell, the hero of Virtual LIght, now reduced to working as a security guard there (page 69) and who, when he learns Laney is a digital whizz, gives him the tipoff about the job in Japan.

On the plane flight Maryalice had told Chia about her boyfriend Eddie, and he meets them at the airport and they offer Chia a lift into town and then invite her up to their apartment. From the whole treatment, I’d be astonished if Chia doesn’t get caught up in some criminal scam… and indeed, it’s only at this point, about a quarter into the book, that we discover that Chia is, indeed, only 14-years-old, not a young woman at all, but genuinely a naive child (p.86).

Back in the bar, Blackwell finally explains who he is to Laney. Blackwell is chief of security for the world-famous band Lo/Rez which we’ve heard so much about (page 72). Somebody has ‘got at’ Rez (maybe the Russian ‘Kombinat’, which appears to be a name for Russian organised crime) and Blackwell wants Laney to use his node analysis skills to find out who (page 73).

Meanwhile, Eddie and Maryalice take Chia up to their apartment above a bar, which turns out to be more like a warehouse, stuffed with cartons and a bank of monitors managed by a Japanese named Calvin. When Eddie and Maryalice lock themselves into the office and start having a row, Calvin whispers to Chia asking if she’s ‘part of it’ and when she says, ‘No, part of what?’, he hustles her out of the apartment, into a talking elevator, tells her how to get to the nearest tube station and the hell away before it’s too late.

So off scoots Chia and uses a public digital docking port to contact a Tokyo member of the international fan club for Lo/Rez (like the Bay City Rollers of my youth, like the Take That fans of a few decades ago). She hooks up with a local member and goes to her house. This local fan is Mitsuko, aged 13. Hmmm. So this plotline is about teenyboppers, about gushy teenage girls. The two girls pop on earclips which translate from English to Japanese and the reverse so they can talk to each other.

We learn more about ‘the Sandbenders’, virtual tech built by a commune in Oregon: to use it, you slip silver thimbles over your finger and thumb tips and affix wrist straps, put on eyephones and then you are in the virtual reality program of your choice, in Chia’s case, a beautified version of Venice, empty of tourists, just before dawn (page 89).

Idoru On page 92 we discover what an idoru is. It means ‘idol-singer’ in Japanese. This particular idoru is a virtual woman. A digital creation. Unreal. She is named Rei Toei. She is a ‘personality construct’, a congeries of software agents, the creation of information-designers (as Yamazaki explains it on page 92).

Chia is invited to a meeting of the Tokyo chapter of the Lo/Rez fanclub, which confirms more than ever that it is a fanclub of teenage girls, linked in hyperspace, dedicated to revering Lo/Rez. There is some cultural relativity stuff comparing American and Japanese fans i.e. the Japanese, even though schoolgirls, are formal and considered and first of all give Chia a thorough history of the creation of their ‘chapter’, then politely turn to her to give a similar history of the Seattle ‘chapter’. However, being a crude Yank, Chia ignores all that and blurts out her question about Rez – ‘Is it true he wants to marry a virtual woman?’

By this stage it is crystal clear that the Chia storyline and the Laney storyline are both about Rez and the virtual woman, and the reader can see that they will, at some point, converge.

It’s worth noting that the characters jack into cyberspace more in the first fifty pages of this novel than in all of Virtual Light put together (one of the weaknesses of that book) and that when they do, the descriptions of their cyber-experiences are brilliant, in a way Gibson patented and excels at. The description of the haunting empty cyber-Venice; or the meeting place the Tokyo chapter have created (since none of them are physically in the same room), a pagoda created from digital data; and the way the half dozen teenage girls in it have created their digital avatars, all this is vividly and brilliantly done.

After Chia’s left the Tokyo fanclub meeting, she has has a separate online meeting with a friend from the Seattle chapter, Zona Rosa, who lives in Mexico City and is famous for her bad temper and for the vast private cyber-program she’s created, an Arizona desert-type environment complete with lizards and cacti.

Anyway, this Zona tells Chia that someone is snooping after her data and has contacted their mutual friend Kelsey, the girl who used her dad’s frequent flyer points to buy Chia’s plane ticket. I.e. the standard thriller trope ‘Someone’s after you!’.

But the cyber-environment is brilliantly described: it’s cool how Zona’s encryption program is represented by a lizard she at first is holding, then places on the lapel of her jacket to signify that she’s turning up the security settings. That’s the kind of vivid realisation of the codes and protocols people create in this cyberworld which Gibson really excels at, which he made his own.

Back to Laney who now understands who’s hired him and why. Blackwell takes him back to an office full of other digital techs and monitors etc, introduces him round, then asks him to jack into the system, being DatAmerica, the world’s largest set of cyberdata, and look for Rez’s personal data.

With his eyephones on, Laney sees random artefacts, binoculars, a palm tree by the sea, a link fence around a stone fort. He’s been sent in to find digital traces of Rez, but can see nothing. In fact it’s eerily void of digital traces…

Meanwhile, Chia meets Mitsuko’s 17-year-old brother Masahiko. He is a digital denizen, an otaku (‘a Japanese term for people with consuming interests, particularly in anime and manga’, in Masahiko’s case a consuming interest in virtual reality hacking) who spends most of his time curating ‘the Walled City‘ a secretive digital community.

Laney returns to his hotel to find a fax (a fax!) from Rydell telling Laney a bunch of techs and staff from Slitscan came to the Chateau searching for Laney, seem have discovered that Rydell has rung him a few times in Japan, so they left and told one of the garage attendants they were going to Tokyo, presumably after Laney, it’s not really clear why.

I.e. more or less the same thriller trope as we just saw applied to Chia, namely ‘They’re coming to get you!’

Meanwhile, Matsoku takes Chia on a subway ride, then through umpteen streets, past hi-tech Tokyo buildings and adverts to track down ‘the Monkey Boxing Club’. Why? because it was in this club that Rez grabbed the DJ’s mic and announced to the world that he intended to marry an idoru, a virtual reality woman. They interview the disgruntled wiry DJ (Jun) who tells them that Lo/Rez’s people promptly bought up the club and closed it down, making all employees sign non-disclosure agreements.

Remember the roomful of techs Blackwell introduced Laney to, before he put on the eyephones and entered the matrix and tried to find traces of Rez? Well, one of them now turns up at his hotel, a slender young woman named Arleigh McCrae (page 129).

In line with the book’s extensive use of flashbacks, Laney proceeds to tell her the story of why he was dropped like a hot potato by Out of Control. He was lazing by the pool at the Chateau when his minder, Rice Daniels, arrived with a wise old lawyer, Aaron Pursley, who gets Laney to confirm that when he was at a federal orphanage in Gainesville from age 12 to 17 the authorities experimented on him with an experimental new behaviour drug, 5-SB. Well, long-term studies of this drug now show it is connected to male patients becoming psychotic stalkers. I.e. if it comes to a lawsuit between Slitscreen and Out of Control, the latter’s lawyers will be able to assert that Laney didn’t go to see Alison Shires to protect her but because he is a fame-obsessed psychotic due to his early drug experience.

Laney has to admit that all these facts are correct, at which point the lawyer packs up his bag and leaves – and within hours Laney, his evidence now worthless for the TV show, finds his contract with Out Of Control has been terminated and the company ceases to pick up his hotel bills (pages 131 to 134). He’d been dumped. He’s on his own. It was at this point that Rydell, knowing the situation and having, in fact, experienced something similar himself, made the suggestion about the job in Tokyo…

Back in the present, Arleigh takes Laney out for a drink (to a downstairs bar themed after American chewing gum) and gives him the backstory of Blackwell. Turns out Blackwell rescued Rez when he gave a concert at a high-security Australian gaol and was kidnapped by Italian inmates. Blackwell, also an inmate, got into the cell where Rez was being held and killed three of the Italians with a tomahawk before the other two fled, Blackwell released Rez and handed him over to the authorities. Rez’s lawyers got Blackwell released from prison a few months later and he’s been Rez’s bodyguard ever since.

Remember how Maryalice, as well as making Chia take her bag through customs, slipped a hard rectangular object into her hand luggage? When she rediscovers this, Chia is in two minds about whether to dump it at the various locations she visits, but doesn’t… The reader rightly suspects a lot of the plot is going to be about this mystery object…

Now Chia and Masahiko are on a tube train going to meet someone at a restaurant when Masahiko receives a message on his tablet warning him that Russians are at the restaurant (above which he and his sister live) asking after them. Masahiko suspects it’s the Kombinat, the Russian criminal underworld who have been mentioned off and on throughout the novel.

In a gaming arcade they meet a mate of Masahiko’s, Gomi Boy. Gomi Boy explains that he and Masahiko have both got responsibilities to maintain ‘the Walled City’, and that, when they heard enquiries were being made about Chia’s cashcard, Gomi Boy went to Masahiko’s and removed his computer, for protection.

Gomi Boy says that a bit later Eddie and Maryalice’s car turned up at the restaurant where they were going to meet (Chia remembers the description of the car, it’s a Daihatsu Graceland). Gomi Boy asked some nearby skaterboys to report if anything else unusual happened and they phoned 20 minutes later to report a smaller car turning up and three bulky Russians getting out and going into the restaurant.

To summarise the story so far

We now know that Eddie and Maryalice are after Chia and the Russian mafia are also asking after her. By now Chia is really, really scared and wants to go home. But she can’t ‘port’ or call her friends from a public portal, she’ll be traced, similarly she cannot now buy anything with her cashcard, which has also been traced and tagged. She’s stuck.

Rock bands with teenybopper fan clubs, bars with silly themes (right at the start there’d been a Kafka-themed bar, then the one plastered with bubblegum brands), noisy amusement arcades, skateboard gangs, cheesy TV shows, nerdy teenagers obsessed with computer games and gadgets and showing off smoking. Brilliant though the cyberspace descriptions are, many aspects of the plot strike me as not really being fiction for adults. Surely it’s teen fiction? Young adult fiction?

More plot developments

This dawning suspicion was reinforced by the next scene, in which Masahiko and Gomi Boy decide it’s a smart move to check into a Tokyo love (i.e. sex) hotel, because it’s a good place to port and or use cashcards anonymously.

(The hotel is humorously named the Hotel Di, presumably after Princess Diana, but with the same kind of tuppenny pun on the verb ‘die’ that you get in James Bond movie titles.) This prompts a passage about a 14-year-old girl (Chia) opening various cupboards and discovering various sex aids, dildos and rubber vaginas, sitting on the bed and it starts to move up and down etc. All this, I imagine, was intended to be comic, but in 2021’s neo-Victorian moral climate, came over as distinctly dubious.

Meanwhile, Blackwell takes Laney and Arleigh to a club which was created within days of the catastrophic Tokyo earthquake, atop a ruined building, with the lights turned out, and ironically titled ‘The Western World’. And it is here that Laney, Blackwell and Arleigh sit down with half a dozen Japanese minders and finally meet Rez himself and, even more impressively, his hologram girlfriend, THE idoru of the title.

The descriptions of virtual reality are more frequent and vivid in this than the previous novel and now we discover that a particularly disconcerting aspect of the idoru is that, when Laney looks at it, just looks, he feels like he’s falling into a vast bottomless pit of pure information: the idoru has a hypnotic, vertigo-inducing effect on the digitally sensitive like Laney. THis is weird and strange and imaginatively persuasive.

Back to Chia and Masahiko in the love hotel. Chia is plugged into the net and we get more super-vivid descriptions of Chia moving through a number of virtual realities, including Masahiko’s room, Zona Rosa’s huge desert landscape, then back to the Venice which is her own personal playground. But she senses something is wrong and when she takes off the eyephones, discovers Maryalice sitting on the bed pointing a gun at her. Oops. They’ve tracked her down.

Cut back to the party at the ‘Western World’ nightclub. Laney goes for a pee, sees a hulk he thinks must be Russian mafia combing his hair in the men’s loo, and has only just returned to the dining room when all the lights go out, there’s screaming, people are knocked over, Laney falls down, is picked up by a member of Lo/Rez – drummer Blind Willy Jude. Jude turns out to have a handy pair of infrared goggles which he pops on and guides Laney through the stampeding crowds and broken glass to the concrete steps, down the thirteen flights of stairs back down to ground level.

On the way they collect Arleigh and Yamazaki and, as they emerge into the street to find cops surrounding the building and phoning for helicopters, they are joined by Rez. So he’s alright, hasn’t been kidnapped or anything. Arleigh gets her hands on the TV crew van and they all jump in.

Cut back to Chia in the room at the love hotel, who has a perfectly civilised conversation with Maryalice who puts down the gun – and it turns out it was a joke cigarette lighter, anyway. Maryalice lights a cigarette, rustles around in the fridge looking for margarita and explains what she got Chia to smuggle through customs in her bag for Eddie.

It is a ‘nanotech assembler’, the thing they program to make all the nanotech skyscrapers sprouting up all over earthquake-damaged Tokyo. To be precise, it is a ‘Rodel-van Erp primary molecular programming module C/7a’ (page 211).

Usually, these things are tightly controlled, but Eddie bought this one and wanted it smuggled into Tokyo so he can sell it to the Russian Kombinat. Chia realises this is the thing in the carrybag she’s been toting all over Tokyo and begs Maryalice to take it please – but Maryalice says it’s too late, the Russians are coming for it and Eddie will stand back and let them kill everyone who knows about it. Sorry, babes.

Meanwhile, Arleigh is still driving the crew van with the guys who escaped from the fight at the Western World. She takes them back to the hotel where she and Laney are staying. Laney, Arleigh, Rez, Yamazaki go to her room and wait for Blackwell to arrive, which he soon does, telling Rez he’s dumb to marry a hologram, but Rez insists she is the future. Exhausted, Laney slips out their room and slopes off to his one, opens it only to discover… bloody Kathy Torrance from Slitscan TV sitting at the end of his bed watching a porno. What the devil is she doing in Tokyo?

Cut to Chia in the love hotel, where she and Masahiko jack into cyberspace and meet people from ‘the Walled City’ which turns out to be a community of very advanced hackers. One, ‘the Etruscan’, gets money for Chia from her father’s secret bank account.

Zona arrives (online). Chia reveals to all of them what she hadn’t so far mentioned, namely that she has this contraband in her bag. Masahiko whips out the nanotech assembler, scans it and confirms that it is the latest version of nanotech assembler, very illegal, automatic life sentence for all of them.

There follows a detailed explanation of the origin of ‘the Walled City’ as a place whose denizens wanted to preserve the freedom and anarchy of the original internet before governments started putting up restrictions, ‘an outlaw place’ (page 221). The descriptions of Chia floating through random surreal hyperspace, and investigating the canyons and rooftops of the Walled City are brilliantly evocative.

Cut back to Laney in his hotel room. Kathy Torrance explains that Slitscan TV have cut and spliced Laney’s face onto the body in the porno, which is of a man who appears to be raping a girl. She says they’ll make it public and also publicise the notion that the 5-SB drug made him a psychotic stalker i.e. destroy his reputation, unless he agrees to spy on Rez for Out of Control. He’s trapped.

Cut back to Chia in cyberspace. Zona, with typical aggression, tells Masahiko and Gomi Boy they must attack, also mentions she’s sensed some intruder in her desertworld. Chia says she also has glimpsed the same in Venice, and takes them all into her Venice recreation. She sees her Music Man walking towards them, but then the Venice scenery slowly gets blanked out with snow and they see that the figure walking towards them is… the idoru!

Cut back to Laney in his hotel room with blackmailer Kathy Torrance. Yamazaki phones him repeatedly from down in the car park, they’ve got things set up for him to go into cyberspace and explore Rez’s files with the addition of the fandom data, hundreds of thousands of teen girl thoughts, ideas, observations.

Laney tells Kathy he’ll think about her offer but she says there’s nothing to think about. So, deeply troubled, Laney catches the lift down to the car park, limps to the van where the techies are fixing things up, jacks into cyberspace and… encounters the idoru.

She was there before him. She shows him a small gig Lo/Rez did when Rez lectured the audience about ‘new modes of being‘. This phrase has been repeated several times throughout the novel, it is a leitmotif.

Cut back to Chia, as she talks to the idoru in Venice while Zona sulks. (It’s a joke among the Seattle chapter of the Lo/Rez fanclub that Zona Rosa, based in Mexico City, is wildly aggressive, but Chia has told her to shut up and so she shrinks to the size of a burping frog.) All this is weird and brilliantly described and jogging along nicely when someone takes Chia’s eyephones off and she discovers that Eddie the scary crim has got into the love hotel room. He stuns Masahiko with a stun gun, then turns and asks her, ‘Where is it?’

Cut back to Laney in the car in the underground car park. He has only just starting exploring cyberspace with the idoru when he is tapped on the shoulder by Yamazaki, removes his eyephones and is introduced to Michio Kuwayama, Chief Executive Officer of Famous Aspect corporation, who developed the idoru program.

Kuwayama invites Laney into his Land Rover in the car park, close the doors so the others can’t overhear and the idoru appears between them, a shimmering phantom. The idoru explains that she is already united with Rez, they are becoming a new mode of being. Kuwayama-san explains that this is about Futurity, they are creating futurity.

Cut back to Chia in the hotel bedroom with Eddie and an evil Russian named Yevgeny. From their conversation we learn that the Russian mafia guys knew that the teenage girl who Maryalice picked up on the plane and used as a mule (Chia) was involved with some rock band, so they’d only gone along to the party at the Western World to find out more. It certainly wasn’t some sinister kidnap plot, as Blackwell had feared, and they hadn’t expected it to turn into a huge fight and incident. As a result of all this confusion Yevgeny doesn’t trust Eddie at all.

In the middle of all this exposition, Maryalice (who had been passed out on the bed, having drunk the hotel fridge’s entire supply of miniatures) sways up off the bed gripping her little toy gun, pointing at Eddie who thinks it’s real and forcing him and the Russian back into the bathroom.

But Maryalice makes the mistake of firing it and, since it is a toy, all that happens is a little cigarette lighter flame comes out – at which point Eddie goes ballistic and grabs her and starts hitting her. So Chia grabs the stun gun Eddie had used on Masahiko and stuns him, with the result that both Eddie and Maryalice start shaking with electric shock.

Masahiko had slammed the bathroom door on the Russian, but the latter is very strong and starts to turn the metal doorhandle, so Masahiko lets go and Chia zaps the doorhandle with the stun gun, too. Very exciting fast action!

Masahiko and Chia are debating what to do when the doorknob turns again and the Russian emerges, having used one of the rubber vagina sex toys stored in the bathroom to insulate his hand (incongruous comedy). Just as he steps menacingly towards the two kids, the main door opens and Blackwell arrives, accompanied – to Chia’s delight – by Rez himself! Blackwell takes out his trademark tomahawk (the one he murdered the Italian kidnappers in prison with and has carried ever since) and we suspect the Russian is not long for this world.

But what follows is not the massacre gunfight you might have expected, but a civilised negotiation. All sides establish that the thing in Chia’s bag is the nanotech assembler. The Russian reluctantly admits his people were hoping to use it for expensive buildings and factory creation in Russia. Blackwell tells Rez not to believe it, that they only want to build drug factories.

But at this point there is a surreal development. The characters inside the room become aware that someone has announced on social media that Rez has died in the love hotel and has told all Tokyo’s teen nymphet Lo/Rez fans to go and pay tribute, light candles and hold a vigil. Looking out the window Blackwell et al see it’s true. There’s now a vast concourse of teenage girls outside the hotel and growing by the minute.

At the self-same moment, Laney, plugged into cyberspace from the car park of his hotel gets the same message. He tears off his eyephones and yells to Arleigh that they must drive to the Hotel Di as quickly as possible, so Arleigh yells at the other techs and team members to guard all the kit and she and Laney set off on an exciting high-speed drive across Tokyo.

What had happened is that Zona, back in Mexico but tuned into the cybercall with Chia, so that when Eddie tore off Chia’s eyephones the call continued and Zona saw everything that happened. Zona was previously legendary for her high cybersecurity and had kept her identity totally secret but, seeing her friends in big trouble, she had taken the risk of revealing her identity by contacting the Tokyo branch of the Lo/Rez fanclub and telling them (the fiction) that Rez had died, and to organise the vigil, and then broadcast it to as many people as she could reach.

Hence the crowds of pubescent girls assembling outside the hotel which are becoming such a public nuisance that everyone learns that police helicopters and cop cars are on the way.

At this point all parties in the hotel room realise there’s no way they can have any kind of fight and get away with it, so Blackwell and the Russian in a surly truce, Rez and Chia and Masahiko, take the elevator to the car park just as Arleigh arrives in the crew van. They all climb aboard and then drive carefully through the hordes of weeping Japanese teenage girls, get free of them and hack it back to the hotel.

Coda

And that is the end of the main plot. That’s the story. The last few chapters are brief and tie up loose ends:

Laney confesses to Blackwell that he’s being blackmailed by Kathy Torrance, so Blackwell says ‘Leave it to me, I will have a very personal conversation with her’. Among other things we have learned during the course of the book that two of Blackwell’s techniques involve a) nailing people’s hands to the bar or table b) chopping their toes off one by one. Seems probable he won’t actually have to do that to terrify Kathy so much that she drops the blackmail attempt.

So Laney is in the clear, he has fulfilled his job and a one-page chapter finds him in bed with Arleigh, they’ve clearly had sex, they’re an item and later that night he phones Rydell, who tipped him off about this whole job in the first place, to tell him everything turned out just fine.

Chia has the longest chapter. Rez pays for her to fly back to Seattle first class and we have a fairly lengthy look into her mind and feelings and see her maturing, growing up, realising the reality of her pop star crush is very different from her fantasy. On one level, the novel could almost be interpreted as a teenage girl’s ‘coming of age’ story.

The most problematic thing about the ending is the marriage of Rez and the idoru. I haven’t managed to bring it out so far, but in the later phases of the book there were references to the way Rez believed the nanotech assembler could facilitate his marriage to the idoru. That this would happen somehow via the creation of shiny new high-rise buildings out in Tokyo Bay.

I’ve read this passage several times and I remain mystified what this actually means in practice. It feels very like a kind of imaginative sleight-of-hand whereby Gibson evades any sort of logical ending and gives us this semi-mystical one except that, unlike the conclusions of all three Sprawl trilogy novels, is not so much mind-blowing as just puzzling.

Worldview details

Gibson supplies hundreds of vividly imagined, incidental details which contribute to the sense of a totally convincing futureworld, including:

  • overnight there are rumours of rocket attacks and chemical weapons in the former Financial District, doesn’t bother any of the characters, suggesting they live in a semi warzone (page 51)
  • fridges talk, tell you what’s inside them and to close the damn door (page 53)
  • logging into the virtual world to contact friends or whoever is called ‘porting’ – ‘I have to port’ (page 75) because you plug into a ‘dataport’ (page 77)
  • a revolutionary new technology of nanobuildings which literally build themselves by tiny elements of the building intelligently replicating, like watching a candle burn but in reverse – ‘They are like Giger paintings of New York’ (page 81) watching them ripple and move makes Laney feel queasy
  • toilets flush then disinfect themselves with UV light (page 78)
  • elevators talk, well, you tell them where you want to go (page 78)
  • Chia’s phone uses GPS to locate people she’s calling (page 85)
  • Masahiko interacts with the Walled City program via a slender rectangle, much like a modern tablet
  • ‘meshbacks’ is a general term for what we call chavs
  • cigarettes are banned in America and the authorities have gone back through movies and digitally erased them (page 156)
  • the Kombinat seems to be the name of the government in Russia which is actually a mafia government (page 157)
  • cars drive on gasohol, leaving an oddly sweet polluting smell behind

Cyberpunk prose

Gibson writes highly finished, stylised, jazzy, jive prose, no doubt about that – he takes the hard-boiled prose style of the 1940s noir writers, Hammett and Chandler, itself subsequently pared down and refined by generations of American airport thriller writers, and then mixes it with his own highly distinctive combination of high tech jargon and low-life street life. Imagined tech is mashed up with multimedia imagery, skyscraper and 4-by-4 consumer products, neon signs, shiny chrome hotel rooms, black Range Rovers; the text keeps presenting vivid contrasts between the precise spec of high-end, shiny products and streets full of broken glass from the great earthquake, patrolled by hoods and skaterpunks.

It’s a dazzling mix which Gibson handles with extraordinary verve and confidence, creating hundreds of examples of vivid, chrome poetry.

The rain was running and pooling, tugging reflected neon out of the perpendicular and spreading it in wriggly lines across sidewalk and pavement. (page 161)

Blackwell thunked the door behind him, then opened the front, should’ve-been driver’s side door and seemed to pour himself into the car, a movement that simultaneously suggested the sliding of a ball of mercury and the settling of hundreds of pounds of liquid concrete. (page 161)

‘Who owns the building?’ Laney asked, watching Blackwell float up the stairs in front of them, his arms, in the matte black sleeves of the drover’s car, like sides of beef dressed for a funeral. (page 164)

Here is a description of Chia’s first shadowy encounter with ‘the Walled City’ in cyberspace, which brilliantly conveys Gibson’s vision of it as shifting shapes and images, more sensed than ‘seen’:

Something at the core of things moved simultaneously in mutually impossible directions. It wasn’t even like porting. Software conflict? Faint impressions of light through a fluttering of rags. And then the thing before her: building or biomass or cliff face looming there, in countless unplanned strata, nothing about it even or regular. Accreted patchwork of shallow random balconies, thousands of small windows throwing back blank silver rectangles of fog. Stretching either way to the periphery of vision, and on the high, uneven crest of that ragged facade, a black fur of twisted pipe, antennas sagging under vine growth of cable. And past this scribbled border a sky where colours crawled like gasoline on water. (page 182)

Gibson can write this kind of thing by the mile and I find it beguiling and entrancing – he creates real electronic dreams.

He uses another characteristic effect – the pregnant pause, the ominous intimation, the hint that something momentous is hovering just out of range of eye and mind which recurs again and again in Gibson’s novels, giving them a constant sense of mystery and threat:

Between stations there was a grey shudder beyond the windows of the silent train. Not as of surfaces rushing past, but as if particulate matter were being vibrated there at some crucial rate, just prior to the emergence of a new order of being. (page 137)

Reservations

Fiction about and for teens?

Although it’s about other things as well, the weight of the novel feels dominated by the story of a teenage fan of a famous rock band. The amount of time Gibson devotes to describing the Seattle club of teenage girl fans and the Japanese fan club, and then the way the novel climaxes with all those teenage girls crowding round the Hotel Di… it felt like they… It helped to make it feel like Idoru is, at bottom, a book for teenagers or young adults.

Embarrassed teenage attitude towards sex

This sense of it not quite being a book for adults crystallises in the couple of chapters featuring sex. When Chia and Masahiko explore the ‘love hotel’ room, her discovery of the various rubber sex aids is played for laughs. ‘Yuk,’ she says, wrinkling up her nose at the rubber vaginas or extra-large dildos. So the reader sees adult sex urges and aids through this young teenager’s basically virginal, innocent eyes.

This makes the short scene right at the end which finds Laney in bed with Arleigh feel strangely… out of place. Grown-up sex somehow doesn’t fit into this book. The narrative is much more at home with made-up rock bands and their teenybopper fan clubs, taking us to bars with silly theme bars (the Kafka-themed bar, the bar plastered with bubblegum brands, the ‘Western World’ bar, notable for having a large plastic replica tank in the middle of the dance floor, and so on).

Teenage environments

It’s a book of noisy amusement arcades, skateboard gangs, cheesy TV shows, nerdy teenagers obsessed with computer games and gadgets, who show off by smoking (banned) cigarettes. Even the main adult character, Laney, is himself immature, naively impressed by swanky hotels and shiny cars, impressed in the way a gawky teenager would be.

Dated rock music

Another issue is Gibson’s taste in music. His novels feature rock bands with silly names like Chrome Koran (isn’t that a terrible name?) or Dukes of Nuke ‘Em (a ‘hideous ‘roidhead metal band’).

But it’s not that these are silly names, it’s that the entire idea of ‘rock’ music seems rather retro nowadays, in 2021, a time of female singers (Beyonce, Taylor Swift, Adele) and rap artists from Kanye West to Stormzy. Gibson’s obsession with rock bands feels a bit dated.

Digging deeper into this theme, there are references to:

  • Chia’s Music Master hologram being modelled on David Bowie (he’s not actually named but there’s a reference to his unmatching eyes, which is a famous Bowie factoid)
  • the way this hologram refers to the Procol Harum song Whiter Shade of Pale (1967)
  • the way Rez is referred to in a BBC music documentary as ‘the next Hendrix’ (p.131)

All these old references remind the reader that the third novel in the Bridge trilogy is named All Tomorrow’s Parties after the Velvet Underground song sung by Nico and released way back in 1967.

Hendrix, Procol Harum, Nico. They’re all from over half a century ago. That’s old, in fact it’s Dad Rock. So it’s a paradox that Gibson, who made a reputation for inventing the cyberfuture before it happened is, in this central respect, a central theme to all his later novels, so deeply conservative.

The odd centrality of old-world television

The numerous descriptions of what Laney and Chia see when they jack into cyberspace are genuinely visionary, beautiful and compelling. But back out in the real world (when they’re not jacked in) it’s an oddity that a key element in the plot is, surprisingly, Television.

Some people might find the satire about TV programmes which make a living dishing the dirt on celebrities, and then another TV programme which makes a living dishing the dirt on programmes which dish the dirt on celebrities, amusing and witty satire. But taking the mickey out of TV for being mostly trash feels very dated to me, reminds me of those Clive James TV shows from the 1980s which took the mickey out of Japanese TV, and the scores of programmes which have copied this simple idea.

Nonetheless, television companies and programmes are a surprisingly big component of many of Gibson’s books.

Thus the previous novel, Virtual Light, opens with Rydell being taken up by a reality TV show and the climax of that book relies on the fact that Rydell is again taken up and his story told by the same TV show – Cops in Trouble – whose lawyers spring him and his beautiful assistant, Chevette, from gaol, make them sign exclusive contracts, and make them media stars for a few weeks.

Similarly, in this novel, the central theme of the opening hundred pages is Laney’s experience working for another reality TV show company, Slitscreen, complete with a supposed exposé of its trashy, exploitative values.

My point is that this is all very old media. Rock bands and television, Hollywood producers and lawyers. I know a whole load of futuristic details have been bolted onto it, and I know a key element in the novel is the repeated and brilliant evocations of cyberspace, and yet… somehow, the core vibe feels very nineteen seventies.

A teenage coming-of-age novel?

In the end, the marriage of idoru and Rez doesn’t really come off. I read the last passage a couple of times, but still didn’t understand how they were being united in what was basically a property development project. Here’s Chia reflecting on her experiences:

But mainly it was the City taking up her time, because Rez and [the idoru] were there, shadows among the other shadows but still you could tell. Working on their Project. Plenty there who didn’t like the idea, but plenty who did. The Etruscan did. He said it was the craziest thing since they’d turned the first killfile inside out. Sometimes Chia wondered if they all weren’t just joking, because it just seemed impossible that anyone could ever do that. Build that, on an island in Tokyo Bay. But the idoru said that that was where they wanted to live, now that they were married. So they were going to do it. (pages 291 to 292)

All the way through, characters including Rez refer optimistically to ‘new modes of being’ and Rez refers to his partnering the idoru as an ‘alchemical marriage’, but when it comes down to it, in these last pages, Gibson fails to give us any sense at all of what that actually means.

Whereas the absolute final chapter, an extended reflection on Chia’s feelings once she’s safely back home after her Big Adventure, is much more effective at somehow encapsulating the book’s essential adolescence.

It is fitting that the novel ends not with the evanescent idoru concept but with the much more solid and traditional trope of Chia, the adolescent girl, feeling she’s grown up a bit now and is no longer so in thrall to the Lo/Rez mystique, having seen the reality of his life, of adult life.

This final chapter helps crystallise your sense that the novel is less ‘a vision of a dystopian future’ (as the blurb on the back puts it) and far more a rather sweet, teenage girl’s ‘coming of age’ story.


Credit

Idoru by William Gibson was published by Viking Press in 1996. All references are to the 1997 Penguin paperback edition.

Other William Gibson reviews

Volpone or The Fox by Ben Jonson (1606)

Michael Jamieson edited the old Penguin paperback edition of Ben Jonson’s three greatest hits which are Volpone (1606), The Alchemist (1610) and Bartholomew Fair (1614). Jonson is often depicted as Shakespeare’s greatest rival in the second half of his career, as Christopher Marlowe (d.1593) was the leading figure right at the start. Maybe – but there were other notable playwrights around during this period, such as Beaumont and Fletcher.

The real point of linking their names is that Jonson was working in a completely different comic tradition from Shakespeare and so his comedies present the sharpest possible contrast with Shakespearian comedy.

Shakespeare’s comedies are light and graceful, generally set in a fantasy world (Midsummer Night’s Dream) or a faraway land (the fictional Illyria of Twelfth Night) and, although they do include lower-class characters who are clumsy, stupid and bawdy, for the most part the plot is about fine lords and ladies (the Duke of Athens, the Queen of the Amazons and the like), who speak in elegant poetry, and the plays’ comic complications are rounded off by wonderful marriages.

The humour is light throughout. They are Romantic comedies. They aim to delight by transporting you into an often magical otherworld.

By contrast, Jonson’s humour is harsh and satirical. His plays aim to instruct the audience by exposing the errors of city dwellers. They are set very much in the contemporary world – two of his three greatest hits are set in contemporary London. The characters are low lives, thieves and deceivers, frauds and imposters, their gulls and victims, and although they do speak in blank verse, it is a less elegant verse, stuffed with the street argot and slang of the time. And none of his plays end in happy marriage celebrations – the reverse, they end in the exposure and humiliation of the central crooks.

Shakespeare’s comedies have to do with festivals and magic. Jonson’s aim is completely different, he comes from a tradition which, as the poet and courtier Sir Philip Sidney (d.1586) put it, believes that:

Comedy is an imitation of the common errors of our life, which the poet presents in the most ridiculous and scornful sort that may be.

In the prologue to his earlier play, Every Man In His Humour, Jonson very clearly distinguishes between the two traditions, one of wonder and fancy, one of realistic satire. He dismisses the first type as dominated by special effects and impossibilities, where babies are born, grow to manhood and old age all in one play, where huge wars are represented by a couple of actors with rusty swords who nip backstage to get fake blood put on fake wounds, the kind of plays which:

… make a child now swaddled, to proceed
Man, and then shoot up, in one beard and weed,
Past threescore years; or, with three rusty swords,
And help of some few foot and half-foot words,
Fight over York and Lancaster’s king jars,
And in the tyring-house bring wounds to scars.

He [the current author] rather prays you will be pleas’d to see
One such to-day, as other plays should be;
Where neither chorus wafts you o’er the seas,
Nor creaking throne comes down the boys to please;
Nor nimble squib is seen to make afeard
The gentlewomen; nor roll’d bullet heard
To say, it thunders; nor tempestuous drum
Rumbles, to tell you when the storm doth come;

Instead Jonson vows to  portray the everyday world as it actually is, as his audience actually experiences it:

… deeds, and language, such as men do use,
And persons, such as comedy would choose,
When she would shew an image of the times,
And sport with human follies, not with crimes.

To ‘show an image of the times/and sport with human follies, not with crimes’ – this is a handy distinction: comedy deals with folly and stupidity, tragedy deals with crimes. That’s the dividing line. And he repeats the idea in the prose preface to Volpone itself, emphasising:

the doctrine, which is the principal end of poesie, to inform men in the best reason of living.

And he invokes the example of ‘the ancients’,

the goings out of whose comedies are not always joyful, but oft times the bawds, the servants, the rivals, yea, and the masters are mulcted; and fitly, it being the office of a comic poet to imitate justice and instruct to life.

So:Shakespearian comedy exists to enchant and delight; Jonsonian comedy is designed to teach and instruct, that was his often-expressed intention. How well does he achieve it in Volpone?

Volpone

Volpone is set in Venice, a city associated at the time with mercantile greatness, huge wealth and great corruption. (According to Martin Seymour-Smith’s edition of Every Man In His Humour, Venice was described in another contemporary play as ‘the best flesh-shambles in Italy’ and ‘Venetian whores the best in Europe’).

The central character Volpone, is a monster of greed and duplicity. In fact Jonson provides a verse summary of the plot in the form of a seven-line acrostic poem spelling out his name:

Volpone, childless, rich, feigns sick, despairs,
Offers his state to hopes of several heirs,
Lies languishing: his parasite receives
Presents of all, assures, deludes; then weaves
Other cross plots, which ope themselves, are told.
New tricks for safety are sought; they thrive: when bold,
Each tempts the other again, and all are sold.

I.e. Volpone persuades a series of dupes to make him gifts of gold, jewels etc, leading all of them on to believe they will be made heirs to his fortune when he dies. In other words, they are as greedy and selfish as he is.

Cast

VOLPONE, a Magnifico.
MOSCA, his Parasite.
VOLTORE, an Advocate.
CORBACCIO, an old Gentleman.
CORVINO, a Merchant.
BONARIO, son to Corbaccio.
SIR POLITICK WOULD-BE, a Knight.
PEREGRINE, a Gentleman Traveller.
NANO, a Dwarf.
CASTRONE, an Eunuch.
ANDROGYNO, an Hermaphrodite.
GREGE (or Mob).
COMMANDADORI, Officers of Justice.
MERCATORI, three Merchants.
AVOCATORI, four Magistrates.
NOTARIO, the Register.

LADY WOULD-BE, Sir Politick’s Wife.
CELIA, Corvino’s Wife.
SERVITORI, Servants, two Waiting-women, etc.

Animal imagery in Volpone

Anyone with a smattering of Italian would have realised the main characters have names which are simply Italian words for animals, and in any case each animals name is translated and explained on the character’s first appearance: Volpone = fox, Mosca = fly, Voltore = vulture, Corbaccio = raven, Corvino = crow. Mosca refers at one point to a physician named Signior Lupo = Mr Wolf, Lady Would-Be is at one point referred to as a kite, at another to a she-wolf.

But these are not just any kind of animals, these are all animals which feed on carrion, i.e. other dead animals and rotting meat. Volpone knows this – at one point he consciously plays the part of an almost dead, already rotting corpse, in order to attract society’s scavengers:

Now, now, my clients
Begin their visitation! Vulture, kite,
Raven, and gorcrow, all my birds of prey,
That think me turning carcase, now they come;

Mention of wolves echoes or maybe deliberately invokes the Latin proverb which dates back at least as far as Plautus in the 2nd century BC, namely: ‘ Homo homini lupus est’ meaning ‘A man is a wolf to another man’, or people are wolves to each other, or simply – humans are like wolves. That is very much the worldview of the play.

Act 1

It opens with Volpone waking up in the big bed which dominates the stage and asking his servant Mosca to throw open the cabinet full of his wealth, a scene in which Volpone explains his situation (parentless, wifeless, childless) and how he has been duping his greedy clients out of precious gifts for three years, by pretending to be at death’s door and implying he will leave them each, everything.

This draws new clients daily, to my house,
Women and men of every sex and age,
That bring me presents, send me plate, coin, jewels,
With hope that when I die (which they expect
Each greedy minute) it shall then return
Ten-fold upon them;

Volpone and Mosca mock people who work for a living, poor fools. Volpone’s way is far better, better even than robbing churches!

Almost immediately Mosca brings on Volpone’s servants consisting of a dwarf, a eunuch and a hermaphrodite, vivid symbols of the unnatural infertility of Volpone’s household, and they perform a ridiculous little masque mocking, of all things, Pythagoras’s theory of the transmigration of souls.

Then visits are paid by some of the greedy scavengers, namely Voltore the lawyer who has brought Volpone a golden plate, and Corbaccio who brings him a bag of bright chequins i.e. Venetian gold coins. The comedy – and it is very funny – derives from the way Mosca plays on the hopes of these deluded fools, and the extent to which he can push them e.g. he persuades doddery old Corbaccio to draw up a will disinheriting his own son, and naming Volpone his heir. Mosca assures him that Volpone will do the same and he is bound to predecease him, at which point Corbaccio will inherit all.

There is plenty of theatrical business such as Volpone hurrying to get dressed in old man’s clothes before he sees Voltore, and psyching himself into the role of an ailing old man at death’s door; or simple gags such as Corbaccio is hard of hearing and keeps comically misinterpreting Mosca who is forced to shout, but which allows him to mutter insults which the audience can hear:

MOSCA [quietly]: Your worship is a precious ass!
CORBACCIO: What say’st thou?
MOSCA [loudly]: I do desire your worship to make haste

This could be a line from panto or Allo Allo, from broad farce four hundred years later.

Next to pay a visit is Corvino, who has brought a precious pearl. To all of them Volpone acts as at death’s door while they chat to Mosca who leads them on and strings them out with a world of false promises. Directly contrary to Jonson’s comedic theory, a lot of the pleasure derives from watching two expert con-men at work.

After Corvino pushes off, Mosca and Volpone rejoice at their morning’s work. Lady Politic Would-be the English nobleman’s wife arrives at the door but Volpone doesn’t want to see her. He wants to drink and revel like the Turk. The conversation turns to Corvino’s wife, a legendary beauty named Celia. Immediately Volpone says he must have her. Mosca warns that she’s protected by a guard of ten spies each. Hmmm. They’ll concoct a plan.

Act 2

Scene 1 Peregrine, an English gentleman abroad and one of the few honest and sensible characters in the play, has bumped into Sir Politic Would-be and quickly realises the latter is a gullible fool, prepared to believe every conspiracy theory, and regales him with ‘wonders’ from back home in England e.g. a whale swimming up the Thames, which Sir Politic knowingly explains to Peregrine is probably a Spanish spy. The man’s an idiot.

Which is confirmed when Volpone turns up with Mosca, dressed up as a famous mountebank or snake-oil salesman, Scoto of Mantua. They set up a bank or bench, raise a crowd, and Volpone proceeds to give an extended and long-winded sales pitch.

Why he’s bothering to do it in this out-of-the-way corner of Venice becomes clear when he calls for money for his wonder, cure-all elixir and the window above him, in the wall against which he’s set up his stall, and the beautiful Celia throws down her handkerchief with money in it. Volpone sings her praises, just as her jealous husband, Corvino, arrives home and tells Volpone to buzz off, beating him as Volpone flees.

Scene 2 Back at his house, Volpone tells Mosca he’s in love. He tells his loyal servant that all his plate and treasure is at his disposal if he can find some way to get him to Celia, and ‘horn’ her husband i.e. make Corvino a cuckold i.e. have sex with Celia.

Scene 3 Enter a furious Corvino dragging Celia behind her and accusing her of being a whore for opening the window and revealing herself to the mob below. Corvino is mad with jealous rage:

First, I will have this bawdy light damm’d up;
And till’t be done, some two or three yards off,
I’ll chalk a line: o’er which if thou but chance
To set thy desperate foot; more hell, more horror
More wild remorseless rage shall seize on thee,
Than on a conjurer, that had heedless left
His circle’s safety ere his devil was laid.

Scene 4 Mosca arrives. Corvino is initially hopeful that Volpone has died and left him his fortune, but Mosca dashes him by telling him it’s the reverse: Volpone has made a recovery after taking Scoto of Mantua’s elixir. This makes Corvino even more furious, seeing as it as Scoto he caught chatting up his wife in front of a vulgar crowd.

Mosca then changes the tune somewhat, explaining that four doctors from the College of Physicians are even now at Volpone’s and, having discussed a range of colourful Renaissance cures, have agreed one common cure – Volpone needs sex with a ravishing young woman! Now, the thing is, whoever provides that young woman and cures Volpone will almost certainly be made his new heir – one of the doctors has already offered his daughter!

So Mosca now explains to Corvino it’s a race against time to remain Volpone’s heir. Corvino makes the obvious suggestion, let’s hire a whore, but Mosca was ready for that. No, he explains, it must be someone without tricks and guile: does he not know a pure simple virginal woman who he can control and guide?

Corvino steps aside to soliloquise: is it a sin? sex is a mere bagatelle, in the end. No-one will know and he stands to inherit a fortune. Mosca watches him agonise and we the audience watch the con-man work his magic.

Corvino returns to Mosca and agrees: hurry back to Volpone and tell him he will send his wife immediately. Mosca tells him to wait till he calls. Yes, dear Mosca, says Corvino, loyal Mosca, good Mosca. And Mosca hurtles off chortling.

Scene 4 Corvino calls Celia back to him. She enters weeping after the terrifying dressing-down she received earlier. Now Corvino amazes her by telling her he was just fooling! He’s not a jealous man at all! And to prove it, he tells her to dress up in all her finest outfit and jewellery and make-up, they’re invited to a feast at Volpone’s that evening.

Act 3

Scene 1 Enter Mosca with a wickedly gleeful soliloquy about how great it is to be a parasite:

I fear, I shall begin to grow in love
With my dear self, and my most prosperous parts,
They do so spring and burgeon; I can feel
A whimsy in my blood: I know not how,
Success hath made me wanton. I could skip
Out of my skin, now, like a subtle snake,
I am so limber. O! your parasite
Is a most precious thing, dropt from above,
Not bred ‘mongst clods, and clodpoles, here on earth.

Who should come along but Bonario, son of old Corbaccio who we saw Mosca persuading to disinherit in Act 1. He tells Mosca he despises him. Mosca bursts into tears and assures him he has his best interests at heart, why, even at this moment, Mosca knows that Bonario’s father is writing him out of his will. Bonario says: ‘show me’.

Scene 2 Volpone is bored. He gets his three zanies, the dwarf, the eunuch and the hermaphrodite to begin a competition to explain which of them is best and why but hasn’t got very far before a servant announces the arrival of Lady Would-Be.

Lady Would-Be is immensely vain, bullying her two serving women when she discovers even a hair out of place. Volpone is appalled at her arrival and oppressed at her domineering conversation. When he says he feels ill she assails him with a flood of medicines and remedies, then moves on to art and poetry, naming a long list of favourite poets, while Volpone gives us raging asides. Basically she is the stereotype of the unbearably garrulous pseudo-intellectual woman, the bluestocking, letting loose ‘a hail of words’. Her unstoppable verbiage and Volpone’s comic agony at her presence reminds me a bit of Captain Haddock and Madam Castafiore.

Mosca arrives in the nick of time, and relieves Volpone by telling Lady Would-be he has just seen her husband being rowed in a gondola with the most notorious courtesan in Venice towards the Rialto. She hurries out to catch him. Volpone is overcome with gratitude.

Now Mosca leads Bonario in and hides him with a view to letting him see or overhear his father disinheriting him.

Unfortunately, Corvino chooses this moment to arrive with Celia who, as we have seen, he intends to prostitute to Volpone. Mosca is appalled. He told him to wait till called. Now there’s going to be a train crash of clients. Mosca parks them on another part of the stage, then tells Bonario to walk apart in a gallery, the other end of the gallery, to wait there till called. Bonario does so but, unsurprisingly, is suspicious.

Back to Corvino. He is shown at length persuading Celia that having sex with Volpone is nothing, is good for his health, the man can barely walk, it will be nothing, if he was giving her to a lusty Italian or Frenchman, why, yes, that would be remiss – on he drones making up excuses, while Celia grows more and more horrified and begs for mercy, as he drags her towards Volpone’s bed, says she’d rather drink poison, eat burning coals.

Mosca advises Corvino to leave them, so they both exeunt and it is a tremendous moment when Volpone, who had up till then been lying feebly on a couch coughing, suddenly bounds to his feet, full of energy and life, terrifying poor Celia even more. He proceeds to give a dazzling speech about how they will be true lovers, he will give her all his treasure, they shall eat off gold and dissolve pearls in their wine, and then envisions them recreating all the Greek myths of sex before playing the parts of all the modern nations i.e. acting out a million sexual fantasies.

Celia persists in her honour and begs to be defaced or given leprosy so her beauty ceases to provoke and she can live in virtue. At which point Volpone loses patience and goes to simply rape her. At this critical moment Bonario springs out of his hiding place, throws Volpone to the floor and like a Romantic hero, takes her away from this den of infamy, vowing vengeance on the foul fiend.

On the floor Volpone, bemoans this sudden reversal and possible crushing of all his plans. Enter Mosca who has been beaten up by Bonario on the way out and is bleeding. What shall they do? There is a knocking on the doors and Volpone panics, thinking it is the police sent by Bonario, and says he can already feel a red hot brand as punishment being seared into his forehead.

Enter old Corbaccio who is surprised to see Mosca bruised and bleeding. Quick-witted, Mosca explains to Corbaccio that his son, Bonario, has heard about the plot to disinherit him and came to murder Volpone and him, Corbaccio, but Mosca fought him off. Corbaccio is taken in and vows even more to disinherit his son.

However, during this explanation, Voltore the lawyer has also entered and overheard part of this, and sneaks up on Mosca and calls him a parasite and liar, leading him on just like he’s leading Corbaccio on. So now Mosca has to think on this feet again and comes up with the story that he is egging on Corbaccio in the hope that his son murders them both i.e. his father Corbaccio and Volpone – at which point Voltore will inherit! He’s doing it for him, honest. In fact he goes on to tell about Bonario being in hiding and grabbing Corvino’s wife – who he had brought on an innocent social visit – and fighting his way out of the house with and cock and bull story about Volpone being about to rape her. If he succeeds, Volpone will be imprisoned and Voltore will never inherit!

Now Voltore is a lawyer, so he immediately starts thinking how to defeat Bonario. He and Corbaccio exit. Mosca collapses exhausted. Volpone congratulates him on spinning such a dazzling tissue of lies!

Act 4

Scene 1 A street in Venice Peregrine, ‘a gentleman traveller’, appears to be a decent honest chap, and we find him being lectured by Sir Politic Would-be who has a whole string of projects afoot, each more preposterous than the next, from a monopoly of herring to a scheme to identify whether the plague is aboard quarantined ships, a wise piece of advice to the Venetian state to ban the use of match boxes, and so on.

Enter the equally verbose Lady Would-be with a servant, escorted by Nano. If you recall, she was told by Mosca that her husband was dallying with a notorious courtesan. Now she storms up to him and accuses him of infidelity, then turns on Peregrine and accuses him of being a woman in disguise! Sir Politic is so outraged he storms off and Peregrine stands his ground in astonishment.

Enter Mosca. When Lady Would-be says she is assailing the courtesan he (Mosca) told her about, Mosca says no no no no it is not this gentleman, he is a man and he saw him land this morning. No, the courtesan in question has been arrested and taken before the Senate. Lady Would-be humbly apologies to Peregrine, in fact overdoes it so much it seems almost like a sexual offer, before Mosca takes her off towards the Senate to see the true culprit. The viewer has a shrewd suspicion this will turn out to be Celia. Peregrine stands there astonished at the bizarre couple he has just met.

Scene 2 The Scrutineo or Senate House Mosca has assembled the three gulls, Corvino, Corbaccio and Voltore, and keeps all the plates spinning by telling them all he’s working just for them. He has briefed them to lie.

Enter judges, Bonario and Celia. The four magistrates discuss what they’ve heard from Bonario and Celia i.e. the plot to prostitute her and how Bonario saved her, and all agree that the youth has a good reputation and she is of spotless virtue.

But then Voltore starts speaking and turns the story upside down, making Bonario a wicked murderer who has been having a licentious affair with the girl and stormed into Volpone’s house expressly to murder his father and claim the inheritance. He lines up his witnesses, namely Corbaccio he swears his son is an unnatural parricide, and Corvino who swears his wife is a hot whore.

It is notable that they both use animal imagery, reinforcing the sense that we are dealing with humans who have sunk to bestial level.

CORBACCIO: I will not hear thee,
Monster of men, swine, goat, wolf, parricide!
Speak not, thou viper.

And:

CORVINO: This woman, please your fatherhoods, is a whore,
Of most hot exercise, more than a partridge,
Upon record… Neighs like a jennet.

Corbaccio, Corvino and Voltore pile calumny on calumny until Celia faints in horror. Mosca is next to give testimony and says his wounds (obviously clearly visible) are proof of the young man’s violent attack. He then says there is yet another witness, this time of Celia’s debauchery, and they call Lady Would-be who enthusiastically points out Celia as a harlot, joining in the animal theme by calling her a chameleon and hyena. (She is not in on the scam; surely this is because she is just stupid and gullible. NB No. In act 5 it is made clear she, too, was briefed and lied against Celia consciously.)

Finally, Volpone is brought in on a stretcher. Voltore makes much of his feeble condition and mockingly asks if this wreck of a man could be a lecher and rapist when he can’t stand and is barely breathing. The magistrates are convinced by Voltore and when they ask Celia and Bonario for their defence the latter say they trust to their innocence and heaven, to which the magistrates, with unconscious satire, reply that that is no proof in this court.

Volpone is carried out and the two young people are sent to the cells while the magistrates tut about young people these days.

Finally, Mosca deals with each of the gulls in turn – Corvino, Corbaccio, Voltore and finally Lady Would-be herself, assuring them, one by one, that they are the sole heirs of Volpone’s riches. And so they all depart.

Act 5

Scene 1 Volpone’s house Enter Volpone and Mosca who can’t believe they got away with it. Volpone has palpitations, they’ve never done ‘the act’ before in public, and in a court of law, God, the stress! Mosca emphasises that it is their masterstroke, they daren’t go any further.

That said, Volpone immediately conceives a new height of knavery. They will pretend he’s died. He’ll get the servants to put it around town that he passed away as a result of the stress of the trial… and that Mosca has inherited it all. Quickly he asks Mosca to hand him one of the standard will templates which are in the closet and scribbles Mosca’s name into it. They cackle over how the three men and woman lied their heads off in the court.

Barely have the servants gone to raise a hue and cry about Volpone’s death than they hear the first knock on the door. Mosca arranges the desk with notes and papers as if he’s reviewing the estate and Volpone hides so he can watch the Humiliation of the Dupes.

This proceeds in a highly structured way with Voltore, Corbaccio, Corvino and Lady Would-be arriving quickly to find Mosca concentrating on going through a long list of possessions. He hands them the will and one by one they pass it round, each in turn asking Mosca, ‘Surely this is a joke?’ and Mosca giving each one quite a lengthy speech describing their greed and vanity and how stupid they’ve been and telling them to go home and repent.

With each humiliation we cut away to Volpone behind the arras clapping  his hands with glee. When they’ve finally all gone, Volpone comes out and congratulates Mosca for a rare entertainment. To cap it, he suggests that Mosca dresses as a commendatoro or court official and walks the streets to find the four victims and twist the knife.

Actually, Mosca says, he knows a commendatoro personally. He’ll get him drunk, pinch his costume and bring it back to Volpone. (This reminds me of Brainworm getting Formal drunk and stealing his clothes in Every Man In His Humour).

Scene 2 At Sir Politic Would-be’s lodgings Suddenly an entirely new sub-plot. Peregrine, irked by his encounter with the Would-bes earlier, has conceived a practical joke. He has dressed up as a merchant and paid three other merchants to join in. Now he pleads hasty admittance to Sir Would-be’s presence and hastily tells him that evidence has been sworn against him that’s he’s been overheard scheming to betray Venice to the Turk. They are coming for him! They will torture him!

At that moment the three merchants Peregrine has recruited start banging on the door and shouting. In a mad panic, Sir Politic begs Peregrine to help him clamber into a giant tortoise shell he keeps in his rooms. He will pretend to be a tortoise! He quickly tells his servant to burn all his notes lest they incriminate him.

The three merchants burst in and ransack the place then come over to the giant tortoise. They play their role of state officials and Peregrine pretends to be an innocent bystander. They start kicking and goading the tortoise. Slowly it moves and in doing so reveals garters and gloves i.e it is a man. They lift the shell off him and fall about with laughter.

Peregrine takes off his disguise, introduces himself as the man he and his wife plagued this morning, says now they are quits, and departs. Sir Politic, by himself, laments that the story will be told in pubs and piazzas and he will become the laughing stock of the town. He will leave Venice.

Scene 3 Volpone’s house I suppose that little sketch gave Volpone and Mosca the stage time they needed to have got hold of their costumes. Now we see Volpone masquerading as a Commendatore and Mosca as a Clarissimo. They congratulate each other on their disguises and Volpone exits. At which Mosca soliloquises that he plans to scam his boss and become owner of all. This final scam is called The Fox Trap.

Scene 4 A street Volpone in disguise encounters and badgers Corvino, Corbaccio and Voltore, guying them by congratulating each in turn on coming into their fortunes now the old fox is dead. Of course this drives them to distraction with chagrin and humiliation. Corvino, for one, threatens to turn violent but, at key moments, Mosca walks across the stage, now wearing the fine clothes of a Clarissimo. The point is that these fine clothes denote his new rank as a member of the aristocracy, putting him on the same rank with the three dupes, he – a former servant – to their vast chagrin.

Scene 5 The Scrutineo The magistrates and most of the cast, being Bonario and Celia, Corvino, Corbaccio and Voltore. His final galling encounter with Volpone-in-disguise seems to have turned Voltore’s brain. It appears to be at that moment that he realises what a fool he’s been.

VOLPONE: When I provoked him, then I lost myself.

Now, in front of the whole court, he recants all his former testimony, says it was a lie and he was put up to it by Mosca. Celia thanks heaven. The other two gulls, Corvino and Corbaccio, swear Voltore’s gone mad, cleaving to their story even when the magistrates question them.

Scene 6 A street Volpone alone curses his stupidity on always wanting to take the joke further.

VOLPONE: To make a snare for mine own neck! and run
My head into it, wilfully! with laughter!
When I had newly ‘scaped, was free, and clear,
Out of mere wantonness! O, the dull devil
Was in this brain of mine, when I devised it…
… These are my fine conceits!…
What a vile wretch was I, that could not bear
My fortune soberly? I must have my crotchets,
And my conundrums!

Indeed. Now he bumps into the dwarf and eunuch and hermaphrodite who tell him that Mosca told them to go and holiday,m and give him the keys. In a flash Volpone realises that Mosca means to seize his house and fortune. And remembers that he gave him a version of the will with his name written into it!

Scene 7 Back at the Scrutineo The magistrates are now inclined to believe Voltore and that Bonario and Celia are innocent, but call for Mosca to be brought. Volpone is still in disguise and makes a few answers about Mosca, but then reveals himself to Voltore – says he is still alive and that Voltore is still his heir.

One of the magistrates had earlier referred to Voltore acting like a man obsessed. Volpone now suggests that he really do act like a man possessed, fall to the floor, froth at the mouth, then return to the original story (Bonario is a would-be parricide, Celia is a whore), save Volpone and be made heir to his fortune.

Quite unbelievably Voltore agrees, promptly falls to the floor, froths, raves etc. The other two desperate liars, Corvino and Carbaccio, egged on by Volpone (in disguise) swear they see a devil fly out of his mouth in the shape of a bat. Then he slowly recovers his wits and, when the magistrates ask if he recognises the paper in which he has written down the (true) series of events says that, Yes, he recognises the hand (Volpone watching all this trembles) but everything written in it is false (Volpone silently cheers) throwing the magistrates into even deeper amazement, and Celia back into despair.

At this point Mosca arrives, dressed very grandly, in fact so grandly that one of the four magistrates makes an aside that he’d make a good husband for his daughter. Volpone has room to elbow his way over to him and whisper in his ear that things are desperately hanging in the balance (‘All’s o’ the hinge’), Voltore spilled the beans once, but now he’s got him safely back onside. Mosca must reveal that Volpone is still alive.

But he doesn’t. Despite Volpone hissing in his ear, Mosca answers the magistrates with the candour of a sad and honest man that, alas, poor Volpone is dead. There follows a furiously frenzied interplay as Mosca dolefully tells the magistrates his master is dead, while Volpone hisses in his ear that he’ll give him half his estate. Not enough, Mosca whispers back.

At that point there’s a further complication because when the magistrates ask who told them that Volpone was still alive, some of them turn to Volpone-in-disguise-as-an-officer and say it was this officer. Well, declare the magistrates, have him taken away and whipped for a liar.

Thus it is, that facing the prospect of an immediate whipping, facing the prospect of Mosca inheriting his entire estate, and overhearing the fourth magistrate musing out loud about marrying his daughter to Mosca, blow it! Volpone decides he might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb and strips off his disguise, revealing to an astonished cast that he is still alive!

Swiftly he accuses Mosca and the three men as being conspirators and gulls. To be honest I don’t think he gives nearly enough of an explanation to clarify the full sequence of events but, be that as it may. the judges proceed to pass swift and exacting justice.

Mosca, as a servant masquerading as a citizen, is ordered to be whipped and condemned to the galleys for life.

Volpone is told that, as a gentleman, he cannot be whipped, but his entire treasure will be confiscated and given to a hospital. And since he has acquired his fortune by faking the symptoms of gout, palsy etc he will be thrown into prison and set in chains until he does actually develop those symptoms.

Voltore will be struck off as a lawyer and exiled.

Corbaccio is deprived of all his estate, which is given to his son, and sent to a monastery to study how to die well.

Corvino will be rowed around the canals wearing a hat with long asses ears before being put in the stocks, and is ordered to send his much-wronged wife back to her father with her dowry trebled.

Let all that see these vices thus rewarded,
Take heart and love to study ’em! Mischiefs feed
Like beasts, till they be fat, and then they bleed.


Thoughts

Volpone is obviously a big leap forward on Every Man In His Humour in terms of dramatic coherence and power. The central figure of Volpone and the trope of his gulling all the ‘clods and clodpoles’ unifies the play, and the double act of Volpone and Mosca has tremendous verve and power.

So much so that the critique I developed for Every Man seems even more true here, namely the fundamental contradiction which I’ve tried to summarise as Jonson’s Divided Morality.

What I mean is that, on the surface – in his prologues and introductions and dedicatory epistles and other critical writing – Jonson insisted that comedy plays a didactic role and should aim to mock and ridicule foolish, crooked behaviour onstage in order to leave the audience feeling chastened by seeing their own foibles and pettinesses taken to extremes and made absurd onstage.

However, what you see onstage tends to have the opposite effect. Everything in the poetry and action and dialogue and gags and scams that you actually see onstage attracts you to the baddies, makes you laugh or gasp at their outrageous scams, and you find yourself cheering whenever they reappear after an absence. Imaginatively you are on the side of the huge outrageous liars.

That said, this neat dichotomy is complicated by the fact that, maybe it’s the dupes who are meant to play the role of instructing the audience.

I can see how, for example, the audience watching Corvino hot to prostitute his wife for a fortune, or Corbaccio who is constantly on the verge of suggesting to Mosca that they actively murder Volpone – watching either of these grotesques, members of the audience might detect in themselves thoughts which have, in some times and places, tended along the same lines and so be horrified to see them taken to such outrageous extremes. Maybe that is what Jonson intended.

Everyone who sees or reads the plays agrees that the punishments seem very harsh. There’s a surface-level way of assessing them for their time and place, comparing them to actual punishments in Italy or England for the kinds of ‘crimes’ the malefactors have committed.

But there’s also a more psychological interpretation. I’m tempted to think that Jonson-the-moralist, in dishing out such aggressive humiliation and punishment to his creations, is overcompensating for the moral laxity and imaginative indulgence which Jonson-the-playwright has given his characters all along.

At some level, Jonson the strict moralist is administering a beating to his own wayward, anarchist imaginative impulses. He is punishing himself.


Related links

Jacobean comedies

Elizabethan art

17th century history

Restoration comedies

French Impressions: Prints from Manet to Cézanne @ the British Museum

The British Museum Department of Prints and Drawings

The Department of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum contains the national collection of Western prints and drawings, in the same way as the National Gallery and Tate hold the national collection of paintings. It is one of the top three collections of its kind in the world and home to around 50,000 drawings and over two million prints dating from the beginning of the fifteenth century up to the present day.

French Impressions

This is a lovely FREE selection of prints from the age of the French Impressionists, a wide ranging selection of nearly 80 key works by artists including Manet, Degas, Cézanne, Gauguin and Toulouse-Lautrec. It’s a golden opportunity to view rarely seen artworks by some of France’s most famous artists.

Divan Japonais by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1893) showing the dancer Jane Avril seated next to the critic Édouard Dujardin watching the singer Yvette Guilbert perform on stage, wearing her trademark long black gloves © The Trustees of the British Museum

But the exhibition is more than just a selection of images: it presents a fascinating and authoritative history of print making and distribution in 19th century France.

Print production The exhibition explains how prints – and in particular etchings – became markedly more popular in the 1860s among France’s growing middle classes, people with money but without the means to afford large oil paintings. At the same time artists became more interested in the expressive possibilities of print-making, a quicker, a more affordable, and a reproducible medium.

Prints reached a wider audience than ever before through the proliferation of illustrated journals and specialist magazines, as well as in portfolios commissioned and financed by enterprising print publishers such as Ambroise Vollard.

Manet After some explanation about the difference between lithography, etching, woodcut and engraving, the exhibition settles into a tour of characteristic prints by the forty or so artists featured, starting with Manet. He is represented not only by several prints but also by a copy of the enormous illustrated volume devoted to the poet Stéphane Mallarmé’s translation of Edgar Allen Poe’s talismanic poem, The Raven, which was produced in a limited edition illustrated with Manet’s striking black and white images, and signed by the artists.

Berthe Morisot Next to Manet are works by two woman artists, Berthe Morisot (who Manet knew and often painted – there are two portraits of her by him) and Mary Cassatt. Cassatt was American and moved to Paris in 1874. In 1891 she went to see an exhibition of Japanese prints at the Musêe des Beaux-Arts which had a profound effect on her. She immediately started making a set of ten colour aquatints which combine thin but distinct lines and delicate washes of pale colour and flattened areas of decoration.

The coiffure – fourth and final state by Mary Cassatt (1891) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Japonisme Which brings us to the influence of Japanese prints on French. As Japan opened up to the West as part of the Meiji Restoration, brightly coloured woodcut prints began appearing on the western market from the end of the 1850s. In 1872 the critic Philipe Burty coined the term ‘Japonisme’, meaning

understanding Japanese art, culture and life solely through contact with the art of Japan

The Japonisme section of the exhibition features a print of a crayfish, fishes and prawns by Utagawa Hiroshige from 1832, next to an earthenware platter decorated with a lobster by Félix Bracquemonde who made a series of 25 prints for the crockery service all based on Japanese designs.

Henri Rivière Nearby is one of the treats of the show. Artist and designer Henri Rivière was best known for his shadow theatre performances at Le Chat Noir nightclub (as recently covered in the Barbican’s big exhibition about arty nightclubs).

Hokusai He’s here because in the 1880s he conceived the idea of taking Hokusai’s Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji as the starting point for his own series of views of the Eiffel Tower, as it was being constructed. Here’s the Hokusai print the curators have selected:

Tea house at Koishikawa. The morning after a snowfall by Katsushika Hokusai (circa 1830)

And here’s the Rivière: spot the influence! The Eiffel Tower prints chart the slow construction of the tower in thirty-six scenes, in all weathers including, as here, in heavy snow.

The Eiffel Tower under Construction, seen from the Trocadéro (1902) by Henri Rivière

You can see all thirty-six prints on this website:

Toulouse-Lautrec If they’d been popular earlier in the century, prints underwent an explosion of popularity in the 1890s. Advances in colour printing paved the way for the brilliant designs of Henri Tolouse-Lautrec among many others. Lautrec made a living by producing illustrations for the proliferation of publications in the 1890s which sought to capture the glamour and glitz of the capital, as well as for the explosion of nightclubs which Paris witnessed.

La Revue Blanche One of the most influential magazines of the period was La Revue Blanche founded and edited by Alfred Natanson, remembered mostly for its connection with literature, but it also included prints and illustrations, including the ones on display here by József Rippl-Rónai, Paul Ranson, Felix Vallotton and Maurice Denis.

Pierre Bonnard There’s a selection of prints from Pierre Bonnard’s first series of twelve prints commissioned by Vollard in 1899 and some really evocative colour prints by Édouard Vuillard. They’re simple Paris street scenes but half abstracted into pleasing designs and patterns. It’s not Impressionism and not Abstraction, but a pleasingly decorative half way house between the two.

La Pâtisserie by Édouard Vuillard (1899) © The Trustees of the British Museum

There’s a whole wall of French artistic heavy hitters: in quick succession you can see prints by Degas, van Gogh, Pissarro, Puvis de Chavannes, Renoir and Cézanne.

Cézanne The Cézanne is interesting: it is of Les Baigneurs, one of only eight prints ever made by the artist and a recreation of on his best-known paintings. In fact, the wall label tells us that Cézanne made at least 200 images of bathers, an obsession which is interesting in its own right.

Les Baigneurs (grande planche) by Paul Cézanne (c.1898) © The Trustees of the British Museum

I feel ambivalent Paul Cézanne. I loved him as a boy but the recent National Portrait Gallery exhibition of his portraits put me right off him, and I’m not sure I really like this image, no matter how famous it is. Maybe it’s because it feels like an image designed for another medium (oil paint) which the impresario Vollard had to persuade Cézanne to make, unlike the Vuillard which feels like an image which has been conceived and produced with the medium of print in mind.

Richard Ranft In a different way, the image below is obviously designed to take advantage of the defined lines and vivid colours enabled by 1890s print technology. What’s not to like about this scene from the circus by the less well-known artist Richard Ranft?

L’Ecuyere by Richard Ranft (1898) © The Trustees of the British Museum

A Swiss artist and former student of Gustave Courbet, Ranft produced many images depicting the daily lives and diversions of fin-de-siecle Parisian society. He was also a painter and illustrator, contributing popular images to many of the new journals and magazines. The acrobatic circus horseback rider was a popular subject, and Ranft’s version of it appeared in L’Estampe Moderne, a series of print portfolios, in 1898.

Gauguin There’s a brilliant double portrait by Gauguin – in the contrary experience to Cézanne, the recent big Gauguin exhibition at the National Gallery made me love him more and want to explore much more of his work.

Whistler But I’ll end on a figure who is a little apart from all the other artists on display insofar that he was not only not French, he wasn’t even European. It’s easy to walk by the three black and white prints by the American James McNeill Whistler on your way to the more brightly colours Toulouse-Lautrec or Ranft posters, but these relatively small prints from Whistlers series of pictures of late Victorian Venice, are wonderful.

Whistler was, according to the curator, ‘the supreme master of etching and a key figure in nineteenth-century printmaking. Declared bankrupt in 1879, Whistler accepted the offer from the Fine Art Society to produce twelve prints of Venice over a three month period. A year later Whistler returned and made a further 50 etchings, hence the existence of a Venice Set from 1880 and The Second Venice Set of 1886.

This is from the second set and the delicate streaking of the ink in the upper and lower parts convey the shimmering reflection of the buildings by a typically Venetian canal, making it seem as if the sky is as liquid and luminous as the water.

Nocturne: Palaces 1880 by James McNeill Whistler (1886)

Reflecting on the Whistler’s subtlety and sophistication leads you to compare it with the highly stylised works of Toulouse-Lautrec, the fine art works of people like Gauguin or Cézanne, with the deliberately bright and popular art of Richard Ranft , with the dreamy and mysterious works of Nabis like Félix Vallotton, or the intimate scenes of half-naked women bathing and drying themselves by Cassatt or Degas. Wow. What a brilliant, exciting and enjoyable array of the best prints of some of the greatest artists who’ve ever lived, as well as a fascinating selection of works by less well-known figures which are equally and sometimes more beautiful.

Had you heard of Paul Helleu or Jacques Villon or Armand Séguin or Suzanne Valadon or Charles Maurin or Ker-Xavier Roussel or Angelo Jank before? Me neither, but all of them are good, and some of them are surprisingly vivid and modern.

Angelo Jank This print is a startling image by Angelo Jank (1868-1940), a German animal painter, illustrator and member of the Munich Secession. He specialized in scenes with horses and riders.

It’s an illustration for Léo Desmarais’ work Les Miroirs, which is so obscure I can’t find anything about it on the internet. It’s a plate from the magazine L’Estampe Moderne which appeared in 1897-1899 as a series of 24 monthly instalments, each containing four original lithographs, like this striking one of a woman with a brilliant green parrot.

What is going on? Who is the blonde woman? Why is she holding an apple? And why is a brilliantly green parrot looming down at her?

La Femme au Perroquet by Angelo Jank (1898) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Strangely unlike anything else in the show and deceptively modern, it might be from the 1960s. The exhibition is like this, full of unexpected treats and treasures. And it’s FREE!

Curator

Jennifer Ramkalawon, Curator of prints and drawings, British Museum


Related links

Other Impressionist reviews

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

Eco-Visionaries: Confronting a planet in a state of emergency @ the Royal Academy

This is an exhibition of art and architecture on the theme of climate change and environmental destruction. It begins with the usual alarming facts and figures, which any educated person who reads a newspaper or watches the news or listens to the radio, should already know almost off by heart:

  • the world is facing an ecological catastrophe
  • the ten warmest years ever recorded have all occurred since 1998
  • we must reduce CO2 emissions to zero by 2050 (at the very latest) to avoid catastrophic global warming
  • which is already resulting in melting ice caps, retreating glaciers, rising sea levels and more extreme weather events
  • humans have accelerated the ‘normal’ background rate of species extinctions 1,000-fold with the result that we are living during the Sixth Great Extinction
  • the world’s population is predicted to grow by 20% over the next three decades to reach 9.7 billion
  • yadda yadda yadda

21 works

Rather than editorialise, I will list the exhibitions 21 works, giving links to their websites, where available, for you to follow up and read about yourself.

Texts in single quotations marks are from the wall labels or the artist’s own explanations. My own occasional comments are in italics.

Introduction

The curators introduce the exhibition thus:

‘Eco-Visionaries examines humankind’s impact on the planet and presents innovative approaches that reframe our relationship with nature. Through film, installation, architectural models and photography, the works in this exhibition interrogate how architecture, art and design are reacting to a rapidly changing world, beyond mainstream notions of sustainability.’

In the corridor leading towards the show there’s a simple timeline of dates from the industrial revolution onwards, recording natural disasters, growing awareness of how human activity devastates the natural world, the first theorising about global warming, the setting up of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 1988 (1988!) and so on down to this year.

1. Domestic Catastrophe No.3  by HeHe (2018)

“An aquarium containing a domestic globe, a motor to turn the globe and electronic valve or drip feed which releases a fluoresceine tracing dye onto the sphere. As the sphere turns, the green dye wraps itself around the sphere, enveloping it in what appears to be a thin gas or atmosphere that surrounds the planet Earth. The difference between emissions and atmosphere, the ‘man-influenced’ and the ‘natural’ climate cannot be easily defined.”

This is like a big cubic aquarium with a school-globe of the world-sized model of the world slowly turning within a thick liquid. On the bottom of the aquarium is a thin layer of sand and the slowly turning globe spins this sand into little dust devils and typhoons which is rather entrancing.

2. A Film, Reclaimed by Ana Vaz and Tristan Bera (2015)

“The ecologic crisis is a political, economic and social crisis. It is also cinematographic, as cinema coincides historically and in a critical and descriptive way with the development of the Anthropocene.”

The bit of the film I saw included clips from Hollywood movies, including some end-of-the-world film with buildings exploding and, soon after that, a clip from Blade Runner, a pleasingly random selection which could come from any one of thousands of art films, documentaries or even loops of movie clips you see played in nightclubs. As in, it didn’t convey any meaning whatsoever to me.

3. Tilapia by Tue Greenfort

A set of depictions of fish in black and white on paper, done to make them look like fossils. It’s based on human interference in the ecosystem of Lake Victoria which has led to the almost complete extermination of tilaplia fish. They were made by covering dead tilaplia specimens with inks and pressing them against the paper.

“A series of black-and-white prints arranged as a shoal of tilapia fish, one of the most consumed varieties of fish in the world but also one of the most invasive and predatory species.”

Tilapia by Tue Greenfort

4. Serpent River Book by Carolina Caycedo (2017)

“A 72-page accordion fold artist-book, that combines archival images, maps, poems, lyrics, satellite photos, with the artist’s own images and texts on river bio-cultural diversity, in a long and meandering collage. The fluctuating publication can frame many narratives. As a book it can be opened, pleated and read in many directions, and has a performatic potential to it, functioning as a score, or as a workshop tool. Serpent River Book gathers visual and written materials compiled by the artist while working in Colombian, Brazilian, and Mexican communities affected by the industrialization and privatization of river systems.”

5. Madrid in the air: 24 Hours by Nerea Calvillo (2019)

Madrid in the Air: 24 Hours monitors the skyline of Madrid over a 24-hour period, uncovering the almost invisible veil of pollutants in the air.”

In the Air is a visualization project which aims to make visible the microscopic and invisible agents of Madrid´s air (gases, particles, pollen, diseases, etc), to see how they perform, react and interact with the rest of the city. The visualization tool is a web-based dynamic model which builds up the space the components generate, where through data crossing behavior patterns emerge. The results of these data feed a physical prototype of what we have called a “diffuse façade”, a massive indicator of the air´s components through a changing cloud, blurring architecture with the atmosphere it has invaded and mediating the activity of the participants it envelops.”

“The project highlights the contamination of air in cities caused by vehicle engines, industry, factories and farming.”

It was a film of a camera fixed in a static position at roof level looking out over Madrid and a strange pink or green gauze-like veil hovering over the city, sometimes thickening or advancing – being a visualisation of the soup of pollution we all live in.

6. The ice melting series by Olafur Eliasson (2002)

A series of 20 black and white photos showing very small pieces of glacial ice (four to 10 inches long) melting into the black stones and rubble of a terminal moraine in Iceland.

The Ice Melting series by Olafur Eliasson (2002)

7. Alaska Chair by Virgil Abloh (2018)

“Originally designed as a wooden chair for IKEA, the Alaska Chair is a paradoxical commentary on the effects of our everyday lives and mass-consumption habits on the global rising sea levels and climate change. This work was inspired by the concept of acqua alta, an Italian term used to describe regular floods in Venice, caused by high tides and warm winds. The chair is partly submerged by the rising flood waters, with a doorstep wedge symbolically representing the short-term, makeshift solutions we have for tackling climate change. Yet by casting the work in bronze, a material intended to last, the work reflects on how environmental catastrophe is a tough, long-term problem that is not easily fixed by simple solutions.”

Alaska Chair by Virgil Abloh (2018)

I liked the ‘Do not touch’ sign. The environment is going up in flames but ‘Don’t you dare touch my lovely work of art with your grubby fingers!’

8. The Breast Milk of the Volcano by Unknown Fields (2017)

“Over half the world’s reserves of lithium, a key ingredient in rechargeable batteries in phones, laptops, electric cars and drone technology, is found in the salt flats of the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia. This film poignantly examines how even the cleanest energy utopias can have dramatic consequences in material, resource and economic exploitation. Accompanying the film is a lithium battery designed by the artists. It refers to an Inca origin myth of the Salar de Uyuni in which the salt flats were formed by the breast milk and tears of a mother volcano mourning the loss of her child.”

(If you’re wondering why this sad and plaintive video appears to have the half-stoned voice of Elon Musk presenting Tesla Energy over it, you’re not the only one but it’s the same with all the versions of the video scattered across the internet.)

9. The Substitute by Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg (2019)

The Substitute draws upon rare zoological archival footage as well as experimental data from artificial intelligence company DeepMind, will enable visitors to come faceto-face with a life-size digital reproduction of a northern white rhinoceros. The last male of the subspecies died in 2018.”

“On March 20, 2018, headlines announced the death of Sudan, the last male northern white rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum cottoni). We briefly mourned a subspecies lost to human desire for the imagined life-enhancing properties of its horn, comforted that it might be brought back using biotechnology, albeit gestated by a different subspecies. But would humans protect a resurrected rhino, having decimated an entire species? And would this new rhino be real?”

10. P-Plastoceptor: Organ for Sensing Plastic by Pinar Yoldas (2014)

“Polypropylene is the second most common plastic after polyethylene. P-Plasticeptor is a sense organ which can detect polypropylene polymers in the ocean. The organ takes its name from its sensing capabilities for polypropylene and its shape that almost resembles the letter P.”

An Ecosystem of Excess: P-Plastoceptor: Organ For Sensing Plastics by Pinar Yoldas (2019)

There are two works, the P-Plastoceptor, and another fictitious organ, Somaximums presented in vitrines as if in pickled alcohol specimen jars. I think they’ve both been invented, made up with rather arcane satirical intent.

11. Our Prehistoric Fate by Basim Magdy (2011)

“Our Prehistoric Fate, 2011 was commissioned by the 1st Time Machine Biennale of Contemporary Art. D-O ARK Underground in Konjic, Bosnia and Herzegovina. The biennale took place inside a massive nuclear bunker in the mountains 60 km. away from Sarajevo. The bunker was commissioned by Josip Broz Tito as a last refuge for him, his family and top Yugoslavian generals in case of a nuclear attack. It took almost 30 years to finish the project. Tito died a year after its completion without ever setting foot in it. Needless to say, the nuclear attack never happened. Two large Duraclear prints hang on Yugoslavian military lightbox displays with clamps in the war strategy room of the bunker where decisions were meant to be made and maps of the situation on the ground were meant to be evaluated. The first claims ‘The Future Belongs To Us’ in large bold letters, the second is an encyclopedia illustration from the 60s that captures an Ankylosaurus, a prehistoric creature we know very little about, as it approaches a pond to drink.”

Our Prehistoric Fate by Basim Magdy (2011)

12. Designs for an overpopulated planet by Dunne and Raby (2009)

“Based on United Nations predictions that at the current rate of ecological transformations there will not be enough food to feed the planet in 2050, Foragers, from the series Designs for an Overpopulated Planet, are speculative full-scale models proposing how to radically change the human diet and digestive system to ensure survival. These devices would allow humans to extract nutritional value from synthetic biology and develop new digestive systems like those of other mammals, birds, fish and insects which are able to digest and process barely edible resources such as tough roots and plant matter.”

Installation view of Designs for an overpopulated planet by Dunne and Raby (2009) Photograph by the author.

Two surreal ‘eating tubes’ along with a photo of how to use one out in the wild.

13. Pollutive Matter-s (three scenarios) by New Territories (S/he) (1997-2002)

14. The Dolphin Embassy by Ant Farm (1974-78)

“The Dolphin Embassy was a research project that never was built and that attempted to study the communication between the human being and the dolphins. It would have been built with asbestos cement and it moved with a solar panel and a motor. Besides the quality of the drawings, the interest of this proposal was in the social relations that the Dolphin Embassy was proposing between humans and the dolphins”

15. 3.C.City: Climate, Convention, Cruise by WORKac and Ant Farm (2015)

“3.C.City: Climate, Convention, Cruise is a speculative design for a floating city inspired by different architectural projects created by collective Ant Farm in the 1970s, including the drawings for The Dolphin Embassy. The city is designed to facilitate dialogue and debate between humans and other species, blurring the boundaries between ecology and infrastructure, public and private, the individual and the collective. Unbound by national allegiances, the design includes a vessel with housing, a research lab and an interspecies congress hall. The programme is completed with greenhouse and garden areas, an algae farm for biofuel production and a water-collection river, all covered by an inflatable wall and solar panel shingles.”

WORKac’s long section of Dolphin Embassy

“The idea is that it’s a floating city not bound by any national borders. People can come together to live in a different way and discuss important issues of the day.”

16. Biogas Power Plant by SKREI (2017)

“According to the London Assembly one year’s worth of the average urban borough’s food waste could generate enough electricity to power a local primary school for over ten years. Biogas Power Plant is a prototype for an individual biogas production unit which could use domestic waste to create and store energy to make houses self-sufficient. The unit is designed to be connected to the National Grid yet able to operate without relying on an external power supply or waste-management system.”

Biogas Power Plant by SKREI (2017) Photograph by the author.

17. Island House In Laguna Grande, Corpus Christi, Texas by Andres Jaque/Office for Political Innovation, with Patrick Craine (2015-ongoing)

“The fifty-island archipelago of Laguna Grande, on the south coast of Texas, is one of the biggest wild island-barriers of the world. This archipelago contains some of the most ancient animal and vegetal species adapted to saline aquatic ecosystems and protects the lagoon from the pollution resulting from the nearby presence of oil platforms. The islands are the habitats where mammals and other coastal species overnight, and they are endangered by the combined effects of climate change and the incremental increase in the acidity of the water. Island House in Laguna Grande is not designed as an architecture for humans, but built instead to empower the environmental diversity of Laguna Grande. The structure collects and preserves rainwater and, through the mediation of sensors on the ground, sprays water to dilute toxicity and combat drought.”

Andrés Jaque / Office for Political Innovation with Patrick Craine, Island House in Laguna Grande, Corpus Christi, Texas, 2015-ongoing © Courtesy of the artists

18. Soil Procession by Futurefarmers (2015)

“On June 13, 2015 a procession of farmers carried soil from their farms through the city of Oslo to its new home at Losæter. Soil Procession was a GROUND BUILDING ceremony that used the soil collected from over 50 Norwegian farms from as far north as Tromsø and as far south as Stokke, to build the foundation of the Flatbread Society Grain Field and Bakehouse. A procession of soil and people through Oslo drew attention to this historical, symbolic moment of the transition of a piece of land into a permanent stage for art and action related to food production. At high noon, farmers gathered at the Oslo Botanical Gardens joined by city dwellers. Tractors, horses, wagons, wheelbarrows, musical instruments, voices, sheep, boats, backpacks and bikes processed to Losæter where the farmers’ soil offerings were laid out upon the site and a Land Declaration was signed.”

Seed Procession 2016 by Futurefarmers. Part of Seed Journey (2016–ongoing). Photograph by Monica Lovdahl. Courtesy of Futurefarmers

19. The Meteorological Garden / Central Park, Taichung, Taiwan, 2012– 2019 by Philippe Rahm architectes, in collaboration with mosbach paysagistes and Ricky Liu & Associates

“The ambition of our project is to give back the outdoors to the inhabitants and visitors by proposing to create exterior spaces where the excesses of the subtropical warm and humid climate of Taichung are lessened. The exterior climate of the park is thus modulated so to propose spaces less hot (more cold, in the shade), less humid (by lowering humid air, sheltered from the rain and flood) and less polluted (by adding filtered air from gases and particle matters pollution, less noisy, less mosquitoes presence).”

Installation view of photos and models of The Meteorological Garden / Central Park, Taichung, Taiwan (2011 – 2019) by Philippe Rahm architectes in collaboration with mosbach paysagistes, Ricky Liu & Associates. Photograph by the author.

20. The Green Machine by Studio Malka Architecture (2014)

“The Green Machine is a mobile structure intended to regenerate and fertilise the ground of the Sahara Desert, one of the world’s most inhospitable climates. Resembling an oil platform that has been made redundant by dried-up seas, the project is a self-sufficient urban oasis able both to exploit the rich resources of the desert and to provide food, water, housing and energy for a local community. This concept resembles available technologies to generate a structure that could produce 20 million tonnes of crops each year in a hostile environment. Solar towers, wind turbines and balloons that capture water through condensation come together with the inventive use of modified caterpillar treads that plough, water and sow the soil as the autonomous structure slowly moves across the land.”

The Green Machine (2014) by Studio Malka Architecture. Courtesy of the artist

21. win >< win by Rimini Protokoll (Helgard Haug, Stefan Kaegi and Daniel Wetzel)

The last exhibit in the show requires you to wait in a queue to go through a sliding door. There’s a roped off queue stations, like in my local post office, and a big digital clock counting off the seconds till the next batch of visitors can go in. What are you queueing for?

Once through the sliding door, a small number of people (nine, I think) can sit on two low, shallow curved benches only a couple of yards away from a wall, and into that wall has been cut an enormous circle of glass. It is an aquarium! A massive aquarium in which are swimming quite a few, maybe as many as twenty beautiful jellyfish, about a foot in diameter, slowly wafting around what is clearly a large space behind the wall, lit by a gentle blue illumination.

There are headphones for each visitor and if you put them on you then listen to a 16-minute-long audiopiece about these jellyfish. You learn that they are Moon jellyfish (Aurelia aurita) and that they can be found in oceans around the world. And the audioguide goes on to give a dramatic description of the fight or survival which is coming, which has already started, among the world’s species as air and sea temperatures increase, CO2 levels increase, and ecosystems around the world are devastated.

And guess who many ecologists think are likely to win? As far as I can tell this video includes the entire audio track.

Exhibition participants

  • Virgil Abloh (Rockford, US)
  • Ant Farm (Chip Lord, Doug Michels and Curtis Schreier) (California, US)
  • Nerea Calvillo (Madrid, Spain)
  • Carolina Caycedo (London, UK)
  • Dunne & Raby (London, UK / New York City, US)
  • Olafur Eliasson Hon RA (Copenhagen, Denmark)
  • Futurefarmers (San Francisco, US and Gent, Belgium)
  • Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg (London, UK)
  • Tue Greenfort (Holbæk, Denmark)
  • HeHe (Le Havre, France)
  • Andrés Jaque / Office for Political Innovation (Madrid, Spain / New York City, US)
  • Basim Magdy (Asyut, Egypt)
  • Malka Architecture (Paris, France)
  • Philippe Rahm architectes (Paris, France)
  • Rimini Protokoll (Berlin, Germany)
  • SKREI (Porto, Portugal)
  • Unknown Fields (London, UK)
  • Ana Vaz and Tristan Bera (Brasília, Brazil / Paris, France)
  • WORKac (New York City, US)
  • Pinar Yoldas (Denizli, Turkey)

Thoughts

I laughed out loud when I read the wall label claiming that the exhibits are ‘provocative responses’ which amount to ‘a wake-up call – urging us to acknowledge and become conscious of our impact on our environment’.

A wake-up call to who? To the several thousand middle-aged, middle-class, well-educated types who visit the Royal Academy? They are already super-awake, over-awake. It’s not the behaviour of a few score thousand posh people in London you have to influence: it is the behaviour of billions and billions of poor people around the world.

As for us rich people, Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change 2010 to 2016, a few years ago gave a simple recipe:

  • become vegetarian
  • sell your car
  • never take another plane flight
  • review all your investments, pensions and savings and transfer them to carbon-free, environmentally friendly sectors

That’s the most basic, elementary steps which all of us should take. And will we? No.


Related links

Reviews of other Royal Academy exhibitions

Byzantium: The Decline and Fall (2) by John Julius Norwich (1995)

This is a review of the second half of the third volume in John Julius Norwich’s weighty and famous three-volume history of the Byzantine Empire, from the founding of Constantinople in 330 to the fall of the same city to the Ottoman Turks in 1453.

The third volume covers the period from the catastrophic Battle of Manzikert of 1071 in which the Byzantine army was massacred by the new power in the Middle East, the Seljuk Turks, through to the final triumph of the Ottoman Turks and the miserable fall of the city.

It is a long, miserable and frequently appalling book to read. It took a big effort to get over the emotional trauma of reading about the sack of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusaders in 1204, so traumatic I devoted a detailed blog post to it.

Byzantium: The Decline and Fall contains so much brutality, cruelty, violence, so much destruction, rape and sending into slavery that it is hard to process and hard to cope with, emotionally.

As mentioned in my review of the first half, it depicts a world of unending conflict, in which all nations, rulers, emperors, kings, princes, khans, sultans, emirs and warlords are unceasingly engaged in endless conflict with each other, in which no treaties last, no peace endures, and each spring armies are mustered the length and breadth of Europe and Asia, on that year’s campaign of war and conquest.


Key events

1202 Fourth Crusade assembled at Venice. 1204 The Fourth Crusade captures Constantinople. A Latin Empire of Constantinople is formed, with other territories parcelled out to crusader lords and upstart Greeks asserting new Byzantine ‘successor states’.

1209 – 1229 The Albigensian Crusade against heretics in the south of France.

1243 The Battle of Köse Dağ in which the invading Mongols devastate the Seljuk Turks. The Turks never recover, but disintegrate into a host of emirates and small successor states. One of the smallest of these, in north-west Anatolia, would be ruled by Othman who would become the semi-legendary founder of the Ottoman Empire.

1261 Emperor Michael VIII Palaeologus recaptures Constantinople, not in a battle but almost by accident when the main Latin army is away.

1274 Union of Lyon – at the Second Church Council of Lyon the fourteenth ecumenical council of the Catholic Church the Byzantine emperor Michael VIII made various pladges to reunite the Eastern church with the Western i.e. to submit to papal power and to change rituals and wordings to agree with the Latin rite. This was a bid to gain help from the pope and Latin nations but the Greek population and most of the clergy rejected it, and it was later repudiated by Michael’s successor, Andronicus II.

1282 The Sicilian Vespers – the Norman rulers of Sicily were a persistent threat to Constantinople, repeatedly mounting large expeditions to cross the Balkans and attack the city. The Sicilian Vespers was a rebellion of the native population of Sicily against their arrogant French overlords, which massacred them and for a generation neutralised that threat.

1291 The Fall of Acre, the last Crusader kingdom of Outremer.

1299 date traditionally given for the founding of the Ottoman Empire.

1354 The Ottoman Turks capture Gallipoli on the northern, European shore of the Bosphorus and henceforth use it as a bridgehead into the Balkans.

1389 After victory at the Battle of Kosovo (15 June) the Ottoman Turks take over most of the Balkans, depriving Constantinople of agricultural land and manpower.

1402 Tamburlaine devastates the Othman Turkish army at the Battle of the Chubuk Plain. If he had stayed and conquered more of Anatolia he might have wiped out Ottoman Rule but he ceased his Western campaign and turned East where he died the next year, leaving the Ottomans to regroup and renew their threat against Constantinople.

1453 May 29 – Fall of Constantinople Sultan Mehmed II’s forces capture the city, leading to a day of unprecedented massacre, pillaging and rape.


Key issues

The post-sack era

For sixty or so years after the sack of 1204, the history of the Byzantine Empire was one of a succession of Greek emperors based in Nicaea trying to unify the squabbling Greek statelets, negotiate with the new Latin rulers of Constantinople, while also managing relations with the Turks to the East and the Bulgars and Serbs to the North.

Family squabbles

Throw in repeated internecine rivalry within the extended families of the emperors themselves, and problems created by a series of religious divisions and you have an extremely complicated story to tell. The situation around the two sacks, in 1204 and 1453, are particularly complicated, but Norwich tells it all with admirable clarity, and finds the time to give a brief summary of the overall achievements of each of the emperors, men (and some women acting as regents) who were condemned to struggle with the steadily declining situation.

Schisms

The Arsenites took their name from the Patriarch Arsenius who excommunicated the emperor Michael VIII for his treatment of his young co-emperor and rival, John Lascaris (Michael had him blinded and confined to prison for the rest of his life). Michael had Arsenius deposed and replaced in 1267 but the Arsenites only grew in number and zeal, providing a powerful opposition for the rest of Michael’s reign.

The Hesychasts (from the Greek hesychasm meaning ‘holy silence’) teaching a meditation technique which could help the faithful attain a vision of ‘the divine, uncreated light which had surrounded Jesus Christ at his Transfiguration’. The practice spread sparking, as new movements do, reforming zeal among its adherents, and opposition to all the compromises and fudges of the orthodox establishment, until the church became divided into bitterly opposing factions of hesychasts and traditionalists, a schism which spilled over into politics and took up the energy of successive emperors throughout the 14th century.

The Catholic Church

By the 1200s the Roman Catholic Church demanded control over the Eastern Orthodox Church and was firmly of the view that the Easterners were schismatics, little better than heretics, a view dating from the actual schism of 1054, but accompanied by a background of suspicion and dislike.

In the last 250 years of its existence the empire was forced to approach the Papacy numerous times, begging for help against the encroaching Turks, in return for which the emperor pledged to convert his people en masse to Catholicism, at the 1274 Union of Lyon, and again in the 14th century. But this ploy never worked out because:

  1. all the senior Orthodox churchmen refused to co-operate
  2. the Greek people passively resisted all changes
  3. the papacy never came up with the material aid to the struggling empire which the emperor had bargained for

Crusades

We all know about the conventional and numbered sequence of crusades against Muslims in the Holy Land (and Egypt). Reading this book makes you aware of quite a few other ‘crusades’. I was surprised to learn of the many times Western princes and kings tried to get the pope’s approval for almost any armed venture by persuading him to call it a ‘crusade’.

  • 1190 the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa tried to secure papal blessing and the name of ‘crusade’ for his planned attack on Constantinople (p.161)
  • In 1265 Charles of Anjou and Provence, younger brother of King Louis of France, persuades pope Clement IV to declare Charles’s war against the pope’s arch-enemy, King Manfred of Sicily, a ‘crusade’ (p.225)
  • In 1280 the same Charles of Anjou (having defeated Manfred and become King of Sicily) persuades the pope also call his next campaign, a vast amphibious attack against Constantinople, a ‘crusade’ against the Eastern schismatics and heretics (p.249)
  • In 1396 Pope Boniface IX gives the name of ‘crusade’ (and historians call the Crusade of Nicopolis) to the vast army assembled by King Sigismund of Hungary. 10,000 French knights and 6,000 Germany knights joining Sigismund’s 60,000 who all set off down the Danube and, outside the city of Nicopolis, are massacred by the Turks. According to Norwich ten thousand captured prisoners were beheaded in the Sultan’s presence. (p.355)

Reading about the many, increasingly petty and secular, ‘crusades’ devalues them. Like the papal mechanism of ‘jubilees’ when all debts were meant to be forgiven, or the pope’s increasingly liberal use of ‘excommunication’, the term ‘crusade’ soon loses all religious meaning and becomes just another diplomatic tool in the endless series of conflicts which are the Middle Ages, just another tool in the armoury of popes struggling to maintain the independence of the Papal States and the authority of the Catholic Church.

The joke papacy

The devaluing of the idea of the ‘crusade’ was just part of the general absurdity of the papacy in the Middle Ages. The shenanigans surrounding the election of the popes, the interference of various kings (the King of France and the Holy Roman Emperor in particular) and the repeated setting up of popes and anti-popes by rival factions, who promptly excommunicated each other and all their followers, reduced the concept of God’s one representative on earth to a laughing stock.

As I count it, there were no fewer than 21 anti-popes in the period covered by this book (1080 to 1453), and it was also the period when the papacy left Rome altogether and based itself in Avignon (from 1309 to 1376) where it fell under the domination of the French King. It is utterly typical of the period that the French ‘exile’ was triggered after Pope Boniface VIII was arrested and beaten so badly by soldiers of King Philip IV of France that he died.

Venice

Venice was responsible for the sack of Constantinople and plays the role of bad guy for the remaining 250 years of the empire, repeatedly attacking and burning the city, often as part of its ongoing and intensely bitter feud against Italy’s other maritime state, Genoa. The sequence of events is long and very complicated but Norwich gives the sense that, right up to the very last moment, Venice was guided purely by commercial self-interest, determined to screw as much land and trading advantages out of the Byzantine Empire as possible even when the ’empire’ amounted to little more than a half-ruined city. Only in the last few months of its existence do the Venetians seem to have realised that the loss of Constantinople and the unimpeded ownership of the entire Balkan Peninsula by the Turks would put them on the Adriatic coast right opposite themselves. Too late they offered to send the emperor ships and troops, decades too late, maybe a century too late.

Mercenaries

After the Battle of Manzikert in 1071 the Seljuk Turks were effectively free to move into Anatolia. The process wasn’t immediate but within a decade they had taken control of the whole central portion of Anatolia, submitting the native Greek Christians to Muslim rule and laws. Most importantly Anatolia had been for a thousand years the source of a) food b) fighting manpower to the Eastern Empire. With its loss, the empire had to turn increasingly to paying for mercenary soldiers to fight its cause.

The loss of Anatolia had long since deprived Byzantium of its traditional source of manpower; for many years already it had had to rely on foreign mercenaries. (p.259, referring to the year 1300)

As the book progresses, you become aware that mercenaries fought on all sides. It was, for example, striking to learn that when, in 1211 the Seljuk Sultan of Iconium, Kaikosru, attacked the Byzantine forces of the emperor Theodore, both armies contained a contingent of Latin mercenaries at their core (p.190).

This sets the tone for the ever-increasing use of mercenaries by all sides: for example, the young general Michael Palaeologus – before he himself seized the throne – was sent into exile and ended up leading the Sultans Christian mercenaries in battle against the Mongol invaders in 1256 (p.205).

  • In 1258 Michael, now emperor, despatches an army against his Greek rival in the west, the Despot of Epirus: and this Byzantine army contains contingents from Hungary, Serbia, as well as Cuman and Turkish mercenaries (p.208)

‘Multicultural’ is not at all the right word, but the universal use of mercenaries brings home one of the many differences from our own ties. In our day we associate an army with the country which funds and organises it. We think of armies as being national. In those times an army could be made up of an extremely heterogenous group of man fighting for all kinds of reasons.

  • In 1302 a Byzantine force was caught just outside the city of Nicomedia by a Turkish army twice its size commanded by a local Ghazi named Othman. It wasn’t a decisive battle, the Byzantines turned and fled, the Turks proceeded west to the coast, ravaging all the towns and settlements they passed through. Historically the encounter is notable because it marks the first appearance of the legendary Othman, founder of the Ottoman Empire. But for the point I’m making the important thing is that the Byzantine force was largely composed of Alan tribesmen. (p.263)

As the reliance on mercenaries increased, successive emperors of Byzantium found themselves trapped  into paying the spiralling costs of even basic defence. More and more income was diverted to pay the insatiable demands of foreign fighters. Thus when around 1350 Symeon, Grand Duke of Muscovy, sent a large quantity of gold to pay for the restoration of the St Sophia church, the emperor of the time was forced to use the entire sum in order to pay mercenaries, Turkish mercenaries – Muslim mercenaries. The Grand Duke was not pleased.

Because if their pay wasn’t kept up, mercenaries were a dangerously double-edged weapon.

  • In 1263 Michael sends a fleet and army against the King of Achaia (one of the breakaway Greek kingdoms created after the 1204 sack of Constantinople), an army of some 15,000 men a third of who are Muslim Seljuk mercenaries. (p.220) This did not end well as half way through the campaign the mercenaries, who had not been paid for six months, suddenly demanded their wages and when these were not forthcoming, deserted to the other side (p.222)

This of course was the weakness of mercenaries: if you ran out of money, they stopped fighting for you and, as the years went by, the Empire became increasingly strapped for cash. The most notable example of this was the Grand Catalan Company.

The Grand Catalan Company

This was a powerful group of mercenaries led by Roger de Flor between the Sicilian Vespers in 1282 and Roger’s assassination in 1305. During this period they evolved to become one of the most efficient fighting forces in the Mediterranean and were hired by the Byzantine Emperor Andronicus II Palaeologus to fight the increasing power of the Turks.

Norwich gives a fascinating account of the colourful career of Roger himself (sent to sea aged eight, pirate captain by the age of 24) and of the brilliant campaign they undertook against the Turks. He explains that, if only the Catalan Company had followed up its initial victories against the Turks and pushed on into Anatolia it is conceivable that the Empire might have been able to seize much of the territory back, re-establish its agriculture and earlier model of military service and generally been restored. But the Catalans, as mercenaries, were only interested in loot and broke off the campaign to return to the sea and their treasure stores. 

It was fear about their increasing independence and refusal to obey orders which prompted the emperor to permit his other group of mercenaries – the Alans – to carry out a massacre of the Catalan Company during a feast at which Roger himself was murdered (the Alans had a long-festering grievance against the Catalans). The surviving Catalans went on a wild rampage through Adrianople (where the assassination took place) and beyond. It’s fascinating to learn that the memory of these massacres lasted so long that the monks of nearby Mount Athos prohibited the entrance of Catalan citizens until as recently as 2000.

Marriages

As explained in a previous blog post, in the absence of all international bodies or agreed norms of behaviour, one of the few ways rulers had of trying to control the chaos of endless international rivalries and war, was through family and kinship ties. Specifically, the tool of marrying off your brothers or sisters or sons or daughters to the children of other rulers you wished to secure an alliance with, or to structure the inheritance of property, specifically territories and kingdoms.

  • In May 1197 the Emperor Alexius III was obliged to stand impotently by while his niece, Irene, daughter of the blinded ex-emperor Isaac II, was married off by Henry VI King of Sicily to his own younger brother Philip of Swabia. (p.164)
  • When Henry of Hainault, Latin ruler of Byzantium, died in 1216, the Frankish barons elected his brother-in-law Peter of Courtenay to succeed him. In France at the time Peter set sail for the East with an army of 5,500 men, landing in Epirus and laying siege to the town of Durazzo. The town proved impregnable and Peter and most of his men were captured in the mountains of Albania and thrown in prison, never to be heard of again. His wife, Yolanda, had sailed direct to Constantinople where she adopted the title of Empress and regent for their new-born son. She consolidated her position by giving the daughter of her brother, Henry (who was named Mary) to the Emperor of the Byzantine government in exile in Nicaea, Theodore Lascaris.
  • When the Latin Emperor Robert I (the son Yolanda acted as regent for) died in 1228, leaving an eleven-year-old boy, Baldwin II, as his successor, the Latin barons offered the throne of Byzantium to an ageing adventurer and one-time King of Jerusalem, John of Brienne. John reluctantly accepted on the understanding that 11-year-old Baldwin would immediately marry his (John’s) own four-year-old daughter, Maria, and that she be given a sizeable dowry in the form of land. (p.195)
  • In 1235 John Asen emperor of Bulgaria signed a treaty of alliance with Nicaea which was sealed by the marriage of his daughter Helena to the son of the Nicaean Emperor John Vatatzes. (p.197)
  • In 1249 John Vatatzes secured a treaty of friendship with Michael II, Despot of Epirus (and illegitimate son of the despotate’s original founder, Michael I) by marrying his granddaughter Maria to Michael’s son Nicephorus. (p.200)

And so on and on.

In fact I noticed that there is a slowly increasing mention of treaties in the text, and it would be interesting to know how the concept of ‘the treaty’ changed and evolved over this long period and how it related to the early development of ‘the nation state’, whether there was an increasing recognition of the legal standing of treaties, or whether they remained agreements between individual leaders.

Whatever the theory, pieces of paper remained cheap and easy to tear up, whereas bonds of blood and marriage (and so grandparentage of the children of these unions) remained a primeval force understood by all sides.

  • In 1256 Tsar Michael Asen of the Bulgars was assassinated and succeeded by a boyar named Constantine Tich. Tich saw the strategic usefulness of an alliance with Byzantium and so he repudiated his wife in order to marry Irene, the daughter of Byzantine Emperor Theodore II. (p.205)
  • Early in 1258 Manfred of Sicily, the bastard son of Frederick II, invaded Epirus. The Despot of Epirus, Michael, was at that moment besieging the Byzantine city of Thessalonica so he decided to ally with Manfred against the Nicaean Empire, negotiated a deal with him and sealed it by giving Manfred the hand of his eldest daughter, Helena. (p.207)
  • In 1291 Charles II of Anjou proposed an alliance with Nicephorus, Despot of Epirus, against Constantinople, which he cemented by marrying his son, Philip, to Nicephorus’s daughter, Thamar. (p.260)

Child marriages

I was struck by the number of marriage contracts which involved very young children.

  • In 1136 Raymond of Poitiers, son of William IX, Duke of Aquitaine, married Constance, daughter of Bohemund II of Antioch, aged six, in order to give Raymond legitimacy as the new ruler of the Crusader Kingdom of Antioch. (p.77)
  • In September 1158 Theodora Comnena, niece of Byzantine emperor Manuel I Comnenus, was married to King Baldwin III of Jerusalem. She was 12, he was 28. (p.122)
  • On 2 March 1180 the Patriarch Theodosius celebrated the marriage of Princess Agnes of France to Alexius Comnenus of Constantinople. She was nine, her husband was ten. (p.137)
  • In 1244 the Nicaean Emperor John Vatatzes strengthened his position vis-a-vis the Latin kingdom by marrying Constance, the illegitimate daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. Constance was just 12-years-old and forced to take the Byzantine name Anna, and married to a man forty years older than her who was, as everyone knew, having an affair with one of her own waiting-women. (p.199)
  • In 1282 an ambitious new ruler came to the throne of Serbia, Stephen Miliutin, who within a year declared support for Charles of Anjou (the threatener from Sicily) and allied with the Despotate of Epirus (on the west Balan coast). The Byzantine Emperor Andronicus realised he had to neutralise this threat and when he heard that Miliutin’s legal wife had died (he was said to keep at least two concubines) he offered his own sister in marriage. Interestingly, the sister, Eudocia, flat out refused to be married and so Andronicus turned to the next best thing, his own daughter Simonis. Simonis was five years old and Miliutin 40. Amazingly, the little girl was taken by a Byzantine deputation to Thessalonica where the wedding was carried out by the Archbishop of Ochrid. Miliutin was thrilled that her dowry included most of the territory of Macedonia (which he coveted) and he agreed to allow little Simonis to remain in the Serbian nursery ‘for a few more years until she was old enough to live with him as his wife’. It is interesting to note that many people at the time saw this as immoral, and that the Patriarch of Constantinople, John XII, resigned in protest. (p.261)
  • In 1284, Andronicus II married Yolanda (who was renamed Eirene as Empress) who was eleven at the time. (p.275)

You could see this as the exploitation of the young, or as treating women as pawns – but I see it as treating people as pawns.

Everyone in any kind of position of power might well have had their own identity, character, wishes, plans and all the rest of the fol-de-rol surrounding ‘personality’ and ‘individuality’ which we in our post-Enlightenment, post-religious, consumer society take for granted. But eminent people living then existed primarily as pieces on a vast chess board, to be switched, taken, or sacrificed without a moment’s hesitation, as the game demanded.

  • Manfred of Sicily was defeated by the merciless Charles of Anjou at the Battle of Benevento on 26 February 1266. Only after three days was Manfred’s body found and Charles then denied it a Christian burial but had it placed by the bridge at Benevento so that every passing soldier in his army could throw a stone at it and build up a burial cairn. Manfred’s wife, Helena of Epirus, and is three young children were imprisoned at Nocera. Of the four, three never appeared again: one son was still there in the same prison 43 years later. (p.225)
  • In December 1355 the Emperor John V sent a desperate letter to Pope Innocent VI begging for help. If the pope would send him 500 knights, a thousand infantry, fifteen transport ships and five galleys, John promised to oversee the conversion of the Greek Orthodox church to Roman Catholic rites and personnel. In addition he would send his five-year-old son, Manuel, to be raised a Catholic and disposed of as the pope saw fit. (p.326)

Youth

Very young some of these children may well have been but then, almost everyone was young. Lots of the rulers died in their 30s or 40s. Norwich repeatedly comments that rulers in their 60s were old for their time. And there are some staggering examples of how much was expected, and achieved, by people of incredible youth.

  • In 1268 Manfred of Sicily’s nephew Conradin marched south from Germany in a bid to save his family’s inheritance from the aggressor Charles of Anjou. On 23 August Charles shattered his army at Taglioacozzo. Conradin captured, subjected to a kangaroo court and then beheaded in the market square in Naples. He was just sixteen and the last of the Hohenstaufen dynasty. (p.225)

The most striking example of youth achieving astonishing things is the final capture of Constantinople itself by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II the Conqueror. Norwich shows in detail how Mehmed led Turkish forces to defeat the crusade led by John Hunyadi after the Hungarian incursions into his country broke the conditions of the truce Peace of Szeged, and then goes on to explain the thinking behind his final assault on Constantinople, and describe in great details both the preparations for the siege – by land and by sea – and a day-by-day account of the siege, breach and fall of the city. The attacking Turks gave themselves up to an orgy of violence and destruction, massacring and raping civilians, desecrating, looting and torching the churches. Through the mayhem strode the Sultan, surrounded by his bodyguard, to the vast church of Hagia Sophia, which he had already decided would be converted into the largest mosque in the world. He knelt and kissed the floor and thanked Allah for his victory.

And he had achieved all this – by the age of twenty-one!

The generality of the heartless, calculating treatment meted out to everyone was symbolised for me by the widespread blinding of the powerful when they were brought low or presented a threat – not as a punishment, but to neutralise them as a threat.

Blindings

From the eight or nine hundreds onwards it became customary to blind rival emperors you had overthrown and/or their male children, in order to permanently prevent them becoming a threat. It was considered less cruel than simply murdering them.

  • In 1077 the general Nicephorus Bryennius made a bid for the throne, but was captured and blinded by Nicephorus III Botaneiates. (p.64)
  • 1204 following the fall, sack, and occupation of Constantinople, the Emperor Alexius V ‘Mourtzouphlos’ was blinded
  • In 1218 Boril of the Bulgars was overthrown by his cousin John II Asen and blinded. (p. 193)
  • 1230 John Asil of Bulgaria defeated Theodor of Thessalonica and had him blinded. (p.197)
  • In 1295 the Empire’s foremost general, Alexius Philanthropenus, rose up in revolt. He was quickly defeated, captured and blinded. (p.262)
  • In 1373 the Ottoman Sultan Murad’s son, Sauji, rose against him. The Sultan quickly defeated the rebel forces and had his son blinded. (p.336)

But the most disgusting of the many, many blindings in this book is of a helpless eleven-year-old boy.

  • John IV Lascaris was only seven years old when he inherited the throne on the death of his father, Theodore II Ducas Lascaris. He was put under the regency of the bureaucrat George Muzalon who was hugely unpopular and swiftly murdered by the nobility (in church). The leader who emerged was the successful young general Michael Palaeologus who usurped the regency and then, on January 1, 1259, made himself co-emperor as Michael VIII. (Michael was, in fact, John’s second cousin once removed.) After Michael’s conquest of Constantinople from the Latin Empire on July 25, 1261, Michael needed to secure full control of the Byzantine inheritance and so four months later he had John IV – who he’d left behind in the palace at Nicaea – blinded on Christmas Day. It was the boy’s eleventh birthday. He was then sent to a prison in Bithynia where he lived for another fifty years. Many at the time were disgusted by this act and it led to Michael’s excommunication by the Patriarch Arsenius Autoreianus. (p.212)

Political mutilation in Byzantine culture

All this can be set against what became an embedded habit of the Ottoman Dynasty which was that, upon the death of each Sultan, his sons fought for power and the victor had all his defeated rivals strangled. This wasn’t just a bad habit practised by the occasional wicked sultan – it was enshrined in Ottoman law.

Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror’s Law of Governance imparted the right of executing the male members of the dynasty to his son in order to prevent an interregnum.

To prevent attempts at seizing the throne, reigning sultans practiced fratricide upon accession, starting with Murat I in 1362. Both Murad III and his son Mehmed III had their half-brothers murdered. The killing of all the new sultan’s brothers and half-brothers (which were usually quite numerous) was traditionally done by manual strangling with a silk cord. As the centuries passed, the ritual killing was gradually replaced by lifetime solitary confinement in the ‘Golden Cage’ or kafes, a room in the harem from where the sultan’s brothers could never escape, unless they happened to become heir presumptive. Some had already become mentally unstable by the time they were asked to reign. (Wikipedia)

Slavery

I also cannot get over the way slavery is so casually mentioned. Again and again entire populations of towns, cities and regions are led off into slavery. We are told slavery was ubiquitous throughout the Muslim lands, but also appears to have been common in the Byzantine Empire, and was practiced by all the lesser peoples fringing the narrative, like the Bulgars and Hungarians and Serbs. I am puzzled why the ubiquity of slavery across Europe and the Middle East for most of the Middle Ages isn’t better known, isn’t made more of – especially when you consider the enormous fuss which is made about the African slave trade carried out by the West European nations from the 1500s onwards.

  • After the Turks seized Gallipoli they began conquering Thrace, taking Didymotichum in 1361, Adrianople in 1362. ‘In every city and village that was captured, a large part of the population was transported to slavery in Asia Minor’ (p.328)
  • When the Turks seized the city of Thessalonica in 1430, they looted all the churches and burnt many of them to the ground, massacring most of the male population and selling some seven thousand women and children into slavery. (p.395)
  • In preparation for the final siege the Turks took the nearby island of Prinkipo. the garrison was burnt alive in their fortress, the entire civilian population was sold into slavery. (p.424)
  • The monk and scholar George Scholarius was sold into slavery along with all his fellow monks (p.442)

Why is black African slavery discussed, raised, debated and lamented on an almost daily basis in books, films, art galleries and the media – while the European and Asian slave trade is completely and utterly absent from all forms of culture whatsoever, except tucked away as a minor detail of histories of the classical world and Middle Ages?

Weren’t the huge numbers of people sold into slavery in the 1100s, 1200s, 1300s and 1400s just as much human beings with lives and hopes and fears, as the people sold into slavery in the 1600s, 1700s and 1800s?

So why commemorate the one and not the other?


Byzantine emperors (1204 – 1453)

Theodore I Lascaris (1205 – 1222)

Son-in-law of Alexius III, Theodore was elected emperor by the citizens of Constantinople on the day before the city fell to the Crusaders. He fled to Nicaea, where he organized the Greek resistance to the Latins. Crowned emperor in 1208. He managed to stop the Latin advance in Asia and to repel Seljuk attacks, establishing the Empire of Nicaea as the strongest of the Greek successor states.

John III Ducas Vatatzes (15 December 1221 – November 1254)

Born around 1192, John became the son-in-law and successor of Theodore I in 1212. A capable ruler and soldier, he expanded his state in Bithynia, Thrace and Macedonia at the expense of the Latin Empire, Bulgaria and the rival Greek state of Epirus.

John Vatatzes had been a great ruler… one of the greatest, perhaps, in the whole of this history. (p.203)

Theodore II Lascaris (1254 – 1258)

Born in 1222 the only son of John III, he succeeded on his father’s death. His reign was marked by his hostility towards the major houses of the aristocracy, and by his victory against Bulgaria and the subsequent expansion into Albania.

John IV Lascaris (1258 – 1261)

Born on 25 December 1250 as the only son of Theodore II, John succeeded on his father’s death. Due to his minority, the regency was exercised at first by George Mouzalon until his assassination, and then by the young successful general Michael Palaiologos who, within months, was crowned senior emperor.

After the recovery of Constantinople in August 1261, Palaiologos sidelined John IV completely, and had the 11-year-old boy imprisoned and blinded. John IV died c. 1305.

Michael VIII Palaeologus (1259 – 1282)

One of the hero emperors, this confident young general campaigned against the Latins and Greek rivals and it was forces under his command who discovered Constantinople was virtually unguarded, the Latin garrison being away on a campaign against some island, and so sneaked in and took the city by surprise. Michael had to be woken up at his camp two hundred miles away to be told it had happened. He quickly marched on the capital and was greeted with acclaim by the long-suffering Greek population.

Andronicus II Palaeologus (1282 – 1328)

Son of Michael VIII, he was born on 25 March 1259, named co-emperor in 1261, crowned in 1272, and succeeded as sole emperor on Michael’s death.

Favouring monks and intellectuals, Andronicus neglected the army and his reign saw the collapse of the Byzantine position in Asia Minor. He named his son Michael IX co-emperor. In a protracted civil war, he was first forced to recognize his grandson Andronicus III as co-emperor and was then deposed outright.

Andronicus III Palaeologus (1328 – 1341)

Son of Michael IX, Andronnicus deposed his grandfather Andronicus II in 1328 and ruled as sole emperor until his death. He was ably supported by John Cantacuzenos, his reign saw defeats against the Ottoman emirate but successes in Europe, where Epirus and Thessaly were recovered.

John V Palaeologus (1341 – 1376) part one

Only son of Andronicus III who neglected to crown him co-emperor or formally declare him his heir, so that at his father’s death a destructive civil war broke out between his regents and his father’s closest aide, John VI Cantacuzenos, who ended up seizing power and being crowned co-emperor.

The conflict ended in 1347 with Cantacuzenos recognized as senior emperor, but he was deposed by John V in 1354 during another civil war. Matthew Cantacuzenos, raised by John VI to co-emperor, was also deposed in 1357. John V appealed to the West for aid against the Ottomans, but in 1371 he was forced to recognize Ottoman suzerainty. He was deposed in 1376 by his son Andronicus IV.

John VI Cantakcuzenos (1347 – 1354)

A maternal relative of the Palaeologoi, he was declared co-emperor on 26 October 1341, and was recognized as senior emperor for ten years after the end of the civil war on 8 February 1347. Deposed by John V in 1354, he became a monk, dying on 15 June 1383.

Andronicus IV Palaeologus (1376 – 1379)

Son of John V and grandson of John VI, he was born on 2 April 1348 and raised to co-emperor c. 1352. He deposed his father on 12 August 1376 and ruled until overthrown in turn in 1379. He was again recognized as co-emperor in 1381 and given Selymbria as an appanage, dying there on 28 June 1385.

John V Palaeologus (1379 – 1390) part two

Restored as senior emperor, John was reconciled with Andronicus IV in 1381, re-appointing him co-emperor. He was overthrown again in 1390 by his grandson, John VII.

John VII Palaeologus (April 1390 – September 1390)

Son of Andronicus IV, John was born in 1370, and named co-emperor under his father in 1377–79. He usurped the throne from his grandfather John V for five months in 1390, but with Ottoman mediation he was reconciled with John V and his uncle, Manuel II. He held Constantinople against the Ottomans in 1399–1402, and was then given Thessalonica as an appanage, which he governed until his death on 22 September 1408.

John V Palaeologus (September 1390 – February 1391) part three

Restored to senior emperor, he ruled until his death in February 1391. If you count the time from his first ascension to the throne John V reigned longer than any other Byzantine emperor.

At one of the most desperate moments of its history, the Empire was governed by a ruler who was neither intelligent nor far-sighted, and who possessed virtually none of the qualities necessary to a successful statesman. (p.347)

Manuel II Palaeologus (1391 – 1425)

Second son of John V, he was born on 27 June 1350. Raised to co-emperor in 1373, Manuel became senior emperor on John V’s death and ruled until his death. He travelled to the West European courts seeking aid against the Turks, and was able to use the Ottoman defeat in the Battle of Ankara to regain some territories and throw off his vassalage to them.

John VIII Palaeologus (1425 – 1448)

The Empire of which, on 21 July 1425, the thirty-two-year-old John Palaeologus became sole basileus was effectively bounded by the walls of Constantinople; and Constantinople now presented a dismal picture indeed. (Norwich p.388)

Eldest surviving son of Manuel II, John was born on 18 December 1392. Raised to co-emperor about 1416, he succeeded his father on his death. Seeking aid against the resurgent Ottomans, he ratified the Union of the Churches in 1439 i.e. in a desperate bid to secure help from the Pope and the Western powers, he promised to subjugate the Eastern Orthodox Church to Rome.

Constantine XI Dragases Palaeologus (1449 – 1453)

The fourth son of Manuel II and Serbian princess Helena Dragaš, he was born on 8 February 1405.

As Despot of the Morea since 1428, Constantine distinguished himself in campaigns that annexed the Principality of Achaea and brought the Duchy of Athens under temporary Byzantine suzerainty, but was unable to repel Turkish attacks under Turahan Bey.

As the eldest surviving brother, he succeeded John VIII after the latter’s death. Confronted by the aggression of the new Ottoman sultan, Mehmet II, Constantine acknowledged the Union of the Churches and made repeated appeals for help to the West but in vain. Refusing to surrender the city, he was killed during the final Ottoman attack on 29 May 1453.


Related links

Reviews of other books and exhibitions about the Middle Ages

The Sack of Constantinople in 1204

There was never a greater crime against humanity than the Fourth Crusade.
(Sir Steven Runciman, 1954)

Until I read John Julius Norwich’s account of the Fourth Crusade, which ended with the devastating sack of Constantinople in 1204, I hadn’t appreciate what a seismic and unmitigated disaster it was.

Norwich’s account of the Latins’ destruction of the biggest, richest city in the world was so harrowing I was depressed for days and found it difficult to continue reading the book in which he describes it, Byzantium: The Decline and Fall.

Like reading detailed accounts of Hiroshima, I just felt that…. after seeing humanity revealed in such appalling colours, why… why go on with anything?

For me, personally, the reason to go on is to understand better. Not to understand perfectly, which I am confident, or acknowledge, is beyond human wit. But just because perfect understanding is an impossible platonic absolute, doesn’t mean that some understanding isn’t better than none. And, for me, personally, understanding things brings sweet mental joy.

And so, just like Norwich’s detailed description of the Sack of Rome by Alaric and the Visigoths in 410, a detailed description of the Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople makes it so much more comprehensible. Only if you follow the events in the most detailed way possible do you realise that a distant event which is often treated as a single thing – the Sack of Constantinople – was in fact a complex concatenation of accidents and misunderstandings and misjudgments and bad agreements. It took the malevolence of some people (the doge of Venice), the chancer’s gamble of the pretender to the Byzantine throne Alexius III, and then the passive acquiescence of the majority of the crusaders, to take place. Reading the details makes you realise that a) this is how ‘history’ i.e. human events, work, in complex unexpected ways, where all kinds of spokes are stuck into the machine and b) makes you realise how the nature of human life, human experience, human societies, and big political events, doesn’t change much. I’m thinking of the sequence of events which brought about Brexit, and which we are still in the middle of. The results aren’t as murderous and destructive as the sack of Constantinople – but they are recognisably the product of the same confused, chaotic species.

In other words, reading about the sack itself is grim and depressing, but the knowledge and insight it gives you into human nature and how human affairs operate, are powerful and liberating.

Summary

This is the short version you’re likely to read in books focusing on other subjects, such as the crusades as a whole, or the Middle Ages.

In April 1204 the Latin, Western soldiers of the Fourth Crusade laid siege to Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire. On 12 April the crusader armies breached the city’s defences and stormed the city. Attacking Venetian forces tried to use fire as a defensive shield but it quickly got out of control and burned unchecked through the city. As if that wasn’t catastrophic enough, once the crusaders had established a bridgehead, they proceeded to spend three days pillaging and looting the city.

The Greek emperor fled and leaders of the ruling families were driven into exile, so the crusaders chose a Latin ruler – Baldwin of Flanders – who was crowned Emperor Baldwin I and inherited about a quarter of the territory his Greek predecessors had ruled This Latin rule of the Byzantine Empire was to last just under 60 years, before a Greek ruler and army re-established Greek power.

After the city’s sacking, most of the Byzantine Empire’s territories were divided up among the Crusaders, but Byzantine aristocrats also established a number of small independent splinter states, one of them being the Empire of Nicaea, which would become the kernel of Greek resistance and – after a long series of small wars, setbacks and struggles to reunify Greek leadership – would eventually recapture Constantinople in 1261 and restore the Greek tradition and religion to the city of Constantine.

But the restored Byzantine Empire never managed to reclaim all its former territorial or economic strength, and eventually fell to the rising Ottoman Sultanate in 1453.


Background

The Latin West and Greek East of Christendom had been growing apart for centuries, with the pope in Rome arrogating more and more power and authority to himself, insisting the Eastern church submit to his authority, and Western clerics as a whole coming to regard the Eastern Orthodox church as schismatic and in error on a wide range of theological and procedural issues. Norwich’s three volumes of Byzantine history are littered with theological, administrative and geopolitical arguments between the papacy and the emperor or Patriarch (head of the Eastern Church) of Constantinople. This helps explain the indoctrination of western crusaders that the Byzantines were exotic, untrustworthy, almost heretics.

But the real focus of the story is the growing rivalry between the maritime republic of Venice, whose wealth was based on shipping and trading across the Muslim Middle East to the ‘Indies’ where spices and pepper came from, and Byzantium as the established power in the region. Successive emperors of Byzantium had been obliged to make trade treaties with Venice and given Venetian merchants extensive privileges in the city, such as an entire quarter down by the docks for their use and trading rights across the Empire’s territories and islands.

The sack had three causes:

  1. long-term mistrust between Latin Westerners and Greek Byzantines
  2. the long-term rivalry with Venice which wished to supersede Byzantium as the main power in the eastern Mediterranean
  3. a short-term, proximate cause which was a string of accidents to do with the mismanagement of the Fourth Crusade, which were ruthlessly exploited by the doge of Venice, Enrico Dandolo, to fulfil point 2.

East-West relations

1. Mass arrest of the Venetians 1171

Latin Catholics from the rival cities Venice and Genoa dominated the city’s maritime trade and financial sector, having secured concessions from successive Byzantine emperors, which resulted in a virtual maritime monopoly and stranglehold over the Empire by the Venetians.

Rich Italian merchants grew very rich and so did the Byzantine aristocrats who allied with them, leading to popular resentment among the middle and lower classes in both the countryside and in the cities.

The Venetians resented that their main Italian rivals, the Genoese, also had extensive quarters in Constantinople, and in 1171 the Venetians attacked and largely destroyed the Genoese quarter. The Emperor retaliated by ordering the mass arrest of all Venetians throughout the Empire and the confiscation of their property (a move he had probably been meditating for some time – the Genoese attack gave him a pretext). As with all civil unrest, there were also rapes and the burning of houses. Infuriated, the Venetians launched a naval expedition to attack Byzantine interests, which failed, but the encouraged the Empire’s enemies, specifically the Serbs – to take advantage of the unrest and launch land attacks.

Relations were only gradually normalized, reaching an uneasy peace in the mid-1180s.

2. The massacre of the Latins

But the simmering resentment didn’t go away and burst out anew in the Massacre of the Latins which took place in Constantinople in April 1182.

After the death of Emperor Manuel I in 1180, his widow, the Latin princess Maria of Antioch, acted as regent to their son and became notorious for the favoritism she showed to Latin merchants and the big aristocratic land-owners.

In April 1182 she was overthrown by the ageing general Andronicus I Comnenus. He marched on Constantinople and entered the city in a wave of popular support. But the celebrations quickly got out of hand and escalated into mob violence against the hated Latins. The ensuing massacre was indiscriminate: Latin men, women and children were attacked in the street, their houses burnt down, Latin patients lying in hospital beds were murdered. Houses, churches, and charities were looted. Latin clergymen received special attention and Cardinal John, the papal legate, was beheaded and his head dragged through the streets at the tail of a dog.

Andronicus finally took control and curtailed the rioting, but the massacre obviously left profound bad feeling. The Normans under William II of Sicily in 1185 sacked Thessalonica, the Empire’s second largest city, while over the next decade or so, the German emperors Frederick Barbarossa and Henry VI both tried to get papal approval to mount an attack on Constantinople.

The Fourth Crusade

Henry VI’s failed expedition

This fraught relation between East and West, and especially between Byzantium and Venice, was the difficult background to the Fourth Crusade and largely explains what happened next.

The Third Crusade had ended in 1192 with a treaty signed between Richard I of England and Saladin, leader of the Saracen forces, agreeing that Jerusalem would remain under Muslim rule but that Christian pilgrims and traders would be assured safe passage to visit the city.

Almost immediately the failure to liberate Jerusalem led to calls for a new crusade to finish the job. In 1195 there was one of those large-scale western incursions into the area which aren’t included in the canonical ‘crusades’ but which Norwich describes in just as much detail – the steady rumble of expeditions, wars, raids, alliances and defeats which fill Norwich’s pages and help put the crusades into a broader context of unending conflict.

Henry VI, the second son of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, organised a new Eastern expedition and in the summer of 1197 a large number of German knights and nobles, headed by two archbishops, nine bishops, and five dukes, sailed for Palestine. There they captured Sidon and Beirut, but then the army heard that Henry himself had died at Messina in Sicily on his way to the Holy Land and many of the nobles and clerics returned to Europe. Deserted by much of their leadership, the rank and file crusaders panicked before the advance of a Muslim army from Egypt, and fled to their ships in Tyre. Thus ended this brief Western foray.

Pope Innocent III preaches the fourth crusade

Pope Innocent III succeeded to the papacy in January 1198 and immediately began preaching a new crusade. The kings of Germany, France and England were all distracted by dynastic squabbles, but the pope managed to get a leader in the shape of Count Thibaut of Champagne who, in 1199, committed to the crusade and began rallying knights. In the event, Thibault himself he died in 1201 and was replaced by an Italian count, Boniface of Montferrat.

Richard the Lionheart’s advice – attack Egypt

Now, on his return from the third crusade in 1192, King Richard of England had given his opinion that the main goal of any future crusade should be to seize Egypt. Jerusalem is far to the south of the east Mediterranean coastline and experience had shown that, going the land route through Anatolia (modern Turkey) tended to focus the military efforts of the crusaders on the territory they passed through – on Cilicia and Syria and Antioch and so on, in the north of Palestine – whereas Jerusalem is far to the south, much closer to the heart of what had been the Fatimid Dynasty in Egypt.

The idea being that whoever held Egypt would find it easy to secure Jerusalem as a strategic add-on and would have a strong secure hinterland. The leaders of the fourth crusade took all this on board and planned from the beginning to launch a naval campaign against Muslim Egypt.

The deal with Venice

However, an invasion of Egypt would require ships and the only Christian kingdom with the maritime capacity to help was Venice. Thus Boniface and the other leaders sent envoys to Venice, Genoa, and other city-states in 1200 to negotiate a contract for transport to Egypt.

Venice agreed to help. Specifically, Venice agreed to build the ships necessary to transport 33,500 crusaders across the Med. The agreement made for a full year of preparation on the part of the Venetians to build numerous ships and train the sailors who would man them. All this would take place at the cost of her own commercial activities. Venice also negotiated for permanent possession of ports seized in the Holy Land. The crusade was to be ready to sail on 24 June 1203 and make directly for the Ayyubid capital, Cairo. The agreement was ratified by Pope Innocent, with a solemn ban on attacks on Christian states.

However, nobody had enforced commitment to the Venice plan on the heterogenous armies and forces scattered all across Europe, and so various contingents sailed under their own steam from a variety of European ports. The number of crusaders who actually turned up at Venice in the appointed month of May 1202 was about a third of the expected 33,500.

Reasonably enough, the Venetians, under their aged and blind Doge Enrico Dandolo, would not let the crusaders leave without paying the full amount agreed to, some 85,000 silver marks. The crusaders could only manage 35,000 silver marks between them. This was disastrous for the Venetians, who had suspended their usual trading for a year, trained sailors and so on, in order to fulfil the deal.

Doge Dandolo proposes an attack on Zara

It is now that the Doge Dandolo starts to emerge as the wicked genie of the expedition. Dandolo proposed that to pay off their debts the crusaders should help Venice with a spot of bother: the port of Zara in Dalmatia had traditionally been dominated by Venice but had rebelled in 1181 and allied itself with King Emeric of Hungary. Dandolo told the crusaders they could pay off their debt if they helped Venice seize back control of Zara.

Now King Emeric was himself a Catholic and had taken the cross in 1195, so many of the crusaders understandably refused to countenance attacking Zara, and some, including a force led by the elder Simon de Montfort, returned home. Also, as soon as he learned about the proposal, the Pope wrote a letter to the crusading leadership threatening excommunication if they attacked another Christian state. However, this letter was kept secret from the ranks of the crusader army, which proceeded to take ship across the Adriatic and besiege Zara in November 1202.

Although the inhabitants of Zara hung banners from their buildings with crosses on to point out that they were fellow Christians, the crusaders quickly breached the walls and proceeded to ransack and pillage the city. Giving way to crude greed, the Venetians and other crusaders came to blows over the division of the spoils.

When Innocent III heard of the sack of Zara, he sent a letter to the crusaders excommunicating them and ordering them to return to their holy vows and head for Jerusalem. The leaders kept this letter from the troops, and replied to the pope that they had been forced to do it by the Venetians, having had no alternative between carrying out the attack or calling off the whole crusade.

The pope relented and in February 1203 rescinded the excommunications against all non-Venetians in the expedition. Somewhere someone must have done a study of just how ineffectual papal excommunications were in the Middle Ages.

The fatal deal with Alexius IV Angelus

Meanwhile, the nominal leader of the crusade, Boniface of Montferrat, had left the fleet before it sailed for Zara, to visit his cousin Philip of Swabia. At Philip’s court he found the exiled Byzantine prince Alexius IV Angelus, Philip’s brother-in-law and the son of the recently deposed Byzantine emperor Isaac II Angelus. (Isaac II had been deposed and blinded by his older brother, Alexius Angelus, who then claimed the throne as Alexius III. Alexius IV wasn’t Alexius IV yet, but would be if he could only reclaim the throne.)

Now Alexius proceeded to make the two would-be crusaders an offer: if they could get the crusaders to sail to Constantinople, and overthrow the reigning emperor Alexius III Angelus, and restore his father and himself to the Byzantine throne, then Alexius would:

  1. use the wealth of the Byzantine Empire to pay the entire debt owed to the Venetians
  2. give 200,000 silver marks to the crusaders
  3. give 10,000 Byzantine professional troops for the Crusade
  4. pay for the permanent maintenance of 500 knights in the Holy Land
  5. offer the service of the Byzantine navy to transport the Crusader Army to Egypt
  6. place the Eastern Orthodox Church under the authority of the Pope

This fantastic offer was passed on to the leaders of the Crusade as they wintered at Zara and they enthusiastically agreed, seconded by Doge Dandolo – although the latter knew that Alexius could never keep these promises: he knew that Byzantium didn’t have that much money and would never agree to submit its church to Rome. Dandolo did, though, see at a glance the benefits for Venice in such an arrangement, which were:

  • revenge for the massacre of the Latins and other historical grievances
  • seizure of Constantinople’s significant wealth
  • by reinstating a large Venetian colony in the city, gaining a permanent commercial advantage over Venice’s rival, Genoa

Even now there were dissenters among the crusade’s leaders who (correctly) thought it was no part of a crusade against the Muslims to attack the mainstay of Christian power in the East. Led by Reynold of Montmirail, they sailed directly on to Syria.

Diversion of the crusade to Constantinople

But the majority of the fourth crusade now set sail for Constantinople in April 1203. The fleet consisted of some 60 war galleys, 100 horse transports and 50 large transports (manned by 10,000 Venetian oarsmen and marines). The Pope hedged and issued an order against any more attacks on Christians unless they were actively hindering the Crusader cause, but he did not condemn the scheme outright.

The crusaders attack Constantinople

When the Fourth Crusade arrived at Constantinople on 23 June 1203, the city had a population of approximately 500,000 people, a garrison of 15,000 men (including 5,000 Varangians), and a fleet of 20 galleys. Norwich emphasises that the city’s defences had been left to decay by the useless emperor Alexius III Angelus, and most of the galleys had fallen into disrepair.

The crusaders delivered their ultimatum demanding that that the emperor Alexius III should abdicate to make way for his nephew, Alexius IV. The emperor refused. The crusaders attacked the suburbs of Chalcedon and Chrysopolis. When about 200 ships, horse transports, and galleys delivered the crusading army across the narrow strait of the Bosphorus from Asia to Europe, Alexius III had lined up the Byzantine army in battle formation along the shore but, when the crusader actually knights charged, the Byzantine army turned and fled.

The Crusaders followed south along the shore and attacked the Tower of Galata. From this tower stretched a massive chain across the Golden Horn, the strait of water up the east side of the city, preventing entry to enemy ships. The crusaders took the tower and lowered the chain, allowing the Venetian fleet to sail up the Golden Horn. This is a narrow strip of water and the crusader galleys were able to come up close against the city’s seaward walls. Here they presented the pretender to the throne, Alexius IV, but were surprised when the people and soldiers of Constantinople jeered from the battlements. The crusaders had been told the people were in the grip of a cruel dictator and that they and Alexius would be greeted as liberators. Now they began to realise this was not true.

The crusaders set about attacking the city, combining an attack on the land walls at the north-west, with attacks on the sea walls from the fleet in the Horn. Eventually a breach was made and the crusaders entered the city. They were forced back by the Byzantine response and set a fire to keep off their attackers. This fire got out of control and was the first of the disastrous fires which were to burn through a large part of the city, this first one leaving an estimated 20,000 people homeless.

Alexius III made one last foray out to face the crusaders, but compounded his reputation for cowardice and ineffectiveness by turning his 8,500 men back in the face of the crusaders’ smaller force of 3,500. The impact of the fire and of this dismal capitulation led to a collapse in morale among the defenders. Alexius fled the city with his favourite daughter and courtiers.

The Byzantine officials now quickly declared the runaway emperor deposed and restored blind old Isaac II to the throne.

This presented the crusaders with a dilemma. The main, official, justification for the whole expedition was supposed to be restoring Isaac and his son, Alexius IV, who had proposed the whole scheme in the first place, to the throne. Now the Byzantines had called their bluff and restored Isaac. The crusaders responded that they would only recognize the authority of Isaac II if his son was raised to co-emperor, but the Byzantines again called the crusaders’ bluff by immediately agreeing to this, taking Alexius into the city and hurriedly arranging for his coronation at Hagia Sophia where he was crowned Alexius Angelus IV, co-emperor.

Alexius is unable to pay

As Norwich makes all too plain, Alexius now realised what a dreadful error he had made. The mismanagement of the Angelus dynasty over the previous decades had left Byzantium’s coffers bare, and Alexius III had made it worse by fleeing with as much imperial treasure as he could carry.

Alexius IV now ordered the seizure and melting down of priceless icons and church plate to use their gold and silver to pay off the impatient crusaders who were waiting across the Golden Horn in the suburb of Galata. Forcing the populace to destroy their most precious icons to satisfy an army of foreign schismatics did not endear Alexius IV to the citizens of Constantinople. Alexius negotiated a six-month extension to his pledge to the crusaders, making it now fall due in April 1204. Alexius IV then led 6,000 men from the crusader army against his rival Alexius III in Adrianople, with a view to seizing back the treasure his uncle had stolen and whatever could be ransacked from the Empire’s second city.

The Great Fire of Constantinople

But during the co-emperor’s absence in August 1203, rioting broke out in the city against the arrogant Latin occupiers, a number of whom were killed. In retaliation armed Venetians and other crusaders entered the city from the Golden Horn and, among other mayhem, discovered a church which had been converted into a mosque to cater to Constantinople’s not insignificant Muslim population. Citizens, both Greek and Muslim, rallied to the defence of this building and, to cover their retreat, the Latins started a fire, which – as is the way with fires – quickly spread out of control.

This became the ‘Great Fire’ of Constantinople which burnt from 19 to 21 August, destroying a large part of the city, consuming many ancient palaces and churches, and leaving an estimated 100,000 homeless. Amid the ruins the demoralised citizenry struggled on, while the crusaders waiting impatiently for their money.

The overthrow of Alexius IV

In January 1204, blind old Isaac II died, probably of natural causes, and rule now passed to his lamentable son, Alexius IV. The Byzantine Senate elected a young noble Nicolas Canabus to be co-emperor, in what was to be one of the last known acts of this ancient institution. However he declined the appointment and sought church sanctuary. Who can blame him?

Now during this period of crisis a nobleman called Alexius Ducas (nicknamed Mourtzouphlos, referring to his bush eyebrows) had led Byzantine forces during the initial clashes with the crusaders, winning respect from both the army and the people. And so it was Mourtzouphlos who one night entered the bed chamber of Alexius IV, told him there was rioting outside and the people were baying for his blood, led him through secret passages in the palace, to a dungeon where he chained and locked him up. Then returned to join his supporters and have himself proclaimed Emperor Alexius V. A few weeks later Alexius IV, the man who had caused all this trouble with his foolish promise to the crusaders, was strangled.

Alexius immediately took control of the Byzantine resistance and had the city fortifications strengthened, as well as recalling loyal troops from the provinces to bolster the Constantinople garrison.

The crusaders and Venetians, incensed at the murder of their supposed patron, demanded that Mourtzouphlos honour the contract that Alexius IV had made. The terms, if you remember, were to:

  1. use the wealth of the Empire to pay the entire debt owed to the Venetians
  2. give 200,000 silver marks to the crusaders
  3. give 10,000 Byzantine professional troops for the Crusade
  4. pay for the maintenance of 500 knights in the Holy Land
  5. offer the service of the Byzantine navy to transport the Crusader Army to Egypt
  6. place the Eastern Orthodox Church under the authority of the Pope

The crusaders renew their attack

Alexius V refused for the simple reason that there was nowhere near that much money in the imperial treasury. In March he ordered the forcible expulsion of all Latins from the city, which , and so in April the crusaders launched another attack on the city. Alexius V’s army put up a strong resistance, hurling projectiles onto the crusader’s siege engines, shattering many of them, and bad weather also hampered the attackers.

Pope Innocent III again sent a message ordering the crusaders not to attack, but once again the papal letter was suppressed by the clergy and never made public. While the Latin crusaders prepared to attack the land walls the Venetian fleet drew close to the sea-walls in an attempt to storm them.

On 12 April 1204, the weather conditions finally favoured the crusaders. A strong northern wind helped the Venetian ships get close to the seaward walls while on the land approach, the crusaders managed to make a hole in the walls through which a force of crusaders was able to crawl and overpower the defenders.

The crusaders captured the Blachernae section of the city in the northwest and used it as a base to attack the rest of the city. Alexius V fled the city accompanied by his wife and mother-in-law. In the Hagia Sophia Constantine Lascaris was acclaimed emperor but, when he failed to persuade the Varangian guard to continue the fight against the crusaders, in the early hours of 13 April he also fled, leaving Constantinople abandoned to the control of the Latins.

The sack of Constantinople

Over the centuries Constantinople had become a museum of ancient and Byzantine art. Having secured control of the city the crusaders proceeded to systematically sack and devastate it for three days. Churches and palaces were ransacked. Vast numbers of works of art were stolen, or melted down for their precious metals, or just burned and destroyed. Thousands of citizens were murdered or raped.

Despite the pope’s threat of excommunication, the crusaders destroyed, defiled and looted and set on fire the city’s churches and monasteries. Priests were abused, defrocked or murdered. In the greatest church in Christendom, Hagia Sophia, the crusaders melted down the silver iconostasis, smashed the icons, burned the holy books, and set on the patriarchal throne a prostitute who sang bawdy songs as the crusaders got drunk and pissed on the holy relics.

It was now that the Venetians stole the four statues of horses which they set up over the portico of St Mark’s cathedral in the main square in Venice. A large bronze statue of Hercules, created by the legendary Lysippos, court sculptor of Alexander the Great, was destroyed. Like countless other artworks, the statue was melted down for its metal value.

It was said that the total amount looted from Constantinople was about 900,000 silver marks. After the dust had settled the leaders of the ‘crusade’ made a big pile of their takings and divided up according to a pre-arranged deal. The Venetians took 150,000 silver marks that they reckoned was their due, while the crusaders took 50,000 silver marks. A further 100,000 silver marks were divided evenly up between the crusaders and Venetians. The remaining 500,000 silver marks were kept back by crusader knights and gangs.

When Innocent III heard of the conduct of his crusaders he was beside himself with rage. The whole episode sharply highlights the limits of papal power, and the ineffectiveness of even of the strongest weapon the pope possessed, that of excommunication. Various popes excommunicate numerous kings and emperors and princes throughout Norwich’s book and it never seems to have the slightest effect. In fact I wonder if there is a single example of the threat of excommunication making anyone (anyone of note, any leader) change their behaviour. In his shame the pope wrote:

As for those who were supposed to be seeking the ends of Jesus Christ, not their own ends, who made their swords, which they were supposed to use against the pagans, drip with Christian blood, they have spared neither religion, nor age, nor sex. They have committed incest, adultery, and fornication before the eyes of men. They have exposed both matrons and virgins, even those dedicated to God, to the sordid lusts of boys. Not satisfied with breaking open the imperial treasury and plundering the goods of princes and lesser men, they also laid their hands on the treasures of the churches and, what is more serious, on their very possessions. They have even ripped silver plates from the altars and have hacked them to pieces among themselves. They violated the holy places and have carried off crosses and relics.

The fourth crusaders

The naval attack on Egypt was never carried out. Only a relatively small number of the members of the Fourth Crusade finally reached the Holy Land. About a tenth of the knights who had taken the cross in Flanders arrived to reinforce the remaining Christian states there, plus about half of those from the Île-de-France. What a farce.

The Fourth Crusade – if indeed it can be so described – surpassed even its predecessors in faithlessness and duplicity, in brutality and greed. Constantinople in the twelfth century had been not just the wealthiest metropolis in the world, but also the most intellectually and artistically cultivated and the chief repository of Europe’s classical heritage, both Greek and Roman. By its sack, Western civilisation suffered a loss greater than the sack of Rome by the barbarians in the fifth century or the burning of the library of Alexandria by the soldiers of the Prophet in the seventh – perhaps the most catastrophic single loss in all history. (Norwich, p.182)

The aftermath – a Latin emperor and the Greek successor states

When the looting was quite finished and large parts of the once-glorious city burned to the ground, the crusaders convened to appoint a Latin emperor to take control of the city and the Byzantine Empire. Doge Dandolo wisely withdrew from the field of candidates and Boniface of Montferrat was deliberately rejected because of his family ties with the Greek regime. Several other crusader leaders were overlooked till they settled on the inoffensive Baldwin of Flanders. The Empire was now partitioned:

  • Boniface went on to found the Kingdom of Thessalonica, a vassal state of the new Latin Empire.
  • The Venetians founded the Duchy of the Archipelago in the Aegean Sea.
  • A Duchy of Athens controlling most of Greece.

Byzantine refugees founded their own rump states, namely:

  • the Empire of Nicaea, just across the Bosphorus on the Asian mainland, under Theodore Lascaris (a relative of Alexius III)
  • the Empire of Trebizond far away on the south coast of the Black Sea
  • the Despotate of Epirus on the Dalmatian shore opposite Italy

While Crete, Rhodes, Caphalonia and Corfu were permanently handed over to Venice.

Partition of the Byzantine Empire into The Latin Empire, Empire of Nicaea, and Despotate of Epirus after 1204 (source: Wikipedia)

Its enemies take advantage of the ruin of the Byzantine Empire

Norwich’s book takes a decisive turn after the sack of Constantinople. Up till then the reader had a reasonable grasp on the notion of one Byzantine Empire and one Byzantine emperor, who faced a sea of opponents to north, west and east.

But now there were no fewer than four emperors – the Latin one in Constantinople, the Greek one in Nicaea, one in faraway Trebizond and an aspirant one in Epirus (not to mention the Holy Roman Emperor based in Germany). Each of these are led by rulers who aren’t content with their holdings but immediately started scheming against each other, and involving the leaders of the lesser states – the Duchy of Athens, the Principality of Achaea and so on.

For the next fifty years or so, all these characters conspired against each other, fought against each other, made and broke alliances with each other – all the time doing the same with the many enemies who continued to surround and menace the Empire, from the Bulgarians and Serbs in the north, to the Seljuk Turks in the East.

Several of the major Greek and Latin protagonists in the events died or were killed soon after the fall of the city. The betrayal and blinding of Murtzuphlus by Alexius III led to his capture by the Latins and his execution in 1205. Not long after, Alexius III was himself captured by Boniface and sent to exile in Southern Italy. He died in Nicaea in 1211.

On 14 April 1205, one year after the conquest of the city, the Latin emperor Baldwin was decisively defeated and captured at the Battle of Adrianople by the Bulgarians. In 1205 or 1206, the Bulgarian Emperor Kaloyan mutilated him and left him to die (others suggest he was kept captive in the famous Baldwin’s Tower in the Bulgarian capital Veliko Turnovo, where he died under unknown circumstances). Either way, he only lasted a year as the ruler of the Latin Empire and that Empire was to lead a stunted, blighted life, menaced on all sides and deprived of all economic livelihood.

Baldwin was succeeded by his brother Henry of Hainault who appears to have been a wise and fair king, liberal to his Greek subjects, and who – beside battling the troublesome Bulgarians – reached a peace settlement with the Greek Empire based in Nicaea.

The Latin Empire always rested on shaky foundations but it took nearly sixty years before the city was finally retaken by the Nicaean Greeks under Michael VIII Palaeologus in 1261. But it was a ruined wreck of a city, as Norwich’s desolate description makes clear. Many of the churches and palaces still lay abandoned ruins. The population had collapsed. The city was never to recover.

Conclusion

The sack of Constantinople was a major turning point in medieval history. The Crusaders’ decision to attack the world’s largest Christian city was controversial at the time and has been ever since. Reports of Crusader looting and brutality horrified the Orthodox world and crystallised bitter opposition to the barbarian West.

Relations between the Catholic and Orthodox churches were blighted, arguably right up to the present day. Norwich makes the point that, as the Turks drew nearer in the coming centuries, most Byzantines, whether aristocrats or peasants, preferred the idea of subjection by the Muslims to the barbaric destructiveness of the West Europeans. The Byzantines had a saying, ‘Better a turban than a cardinal’s hat,’ and they meant it.

So much for East-West relations, but the main and obvious result of the sack was that the Byzantine Empire was permanently crippled. Broken up into a number of successor states, it was never to be really unified again, never able to muster the resources in men and goods necessary to hold off its enemies, especially the Ottoman Turks who would begin their rise to power 200 years later.

The actions of the Crusaders thus directly accelerated the collapse of Christendom in the East, and in the long run facilitated the expansion of Islam across the Bosphorus and right into the heart of Europe. In 1529 the Ottoman Turks led by Suleiman the Magnificent were to lay siege to Vienna.

So you could argue that the net effect of the entire crusading enterprise was not only to leave an enduring legacy of bitterness throughout the entire Muslim world and among the Greek Orthodox eastern world – but also to hand the Middle East, all of Anatolia and half the Balkans over to Muslim occupiers.

Was ever a mass social movement and religious undertaking so utterly and completely counter-productive?


Related links

Reviews of other books and exhibitions about the Middle Ages

The Tragedy of the Templars: The Rise and Fall of the Crusader States (2) by Michael Haag (2012)

The Turks were aliens; the crusaders were not.

Haag’s book is opinionated in a very unacademic way. He has certain hobby horses, vehement ideas – about the central role played by the Templars in the crusades, and about justifying the crusades by completely rethinking their context, portraying the crusades not as violent attacks against peace-loving Arabs, but as justified attempts to help oppressed Christians in the Holy Land – which he gives vent to repeatedly and almost obsessively so that, eventually, the detached reader can’t help having misgivings about the objectivity of what they’re reading.

Nonetheless, that big reservation stated right at the start, this is a very interesting and thought-provoking book.

The Tragedy of the Templars signals its unorthodox approach by going back not ten or thirty or fifty years before the founding of its ostensible subject, the Order of the Knights Templars (in 1139), but by going back one thousand four hundred years earlier, to the conquests of Alexander the Great – and then giving a sweeping recap of all the wars and vicissitudes which struck the Middle East from 300 BC through to the eruption of the Muslims from Arabia in the 630s AD.

The book has notes on every page and an excellent bibliography at the back, and yet it sometimes reads like the opinions of a crank, determined at any cost to convince you of his deliberately revisionist point of view. This comes over most obviously in the very unacademic use of repetition. Again and again he drums home a handful of key points. These are:

Haag’s key points

– the Crusades were not an unprovoked outburst of Western, racist, colonialist, greed and violence

– they were a rational response to repeated pleas for help from figures like the Patriarch of Jerusalem and the Emperor of Byzantium

Why the pleas? because:

– even as late as the First Crusade (1095-99) the majority population of the Levant, of Jerusalem and all the other holy cities, let alone of Anatolia and even of Egypt – were Christians:

Christians had remained the majority at Damascus until the tenth century and maybe into the eleventh. (p.208)

Five hundred years after the Arab conquest, Egypt was still a substantially Christian country (p.211)

The Nubians were Christians, as were the majority of Egyptians (p.235)

– these Christians had suffered under the lordship of the Muslim Arabs who came rampaging out of Arabia in the 700s and quickly conquered north up the coast of Palestine into Syria, eastwards conquered the old Persian Empire, and westwards conquered Egypt and beyond

– but, despite centuries of inter-marriage, the Arabs remained an aristocracy, thinking of themselves as lords, knights, emirs and rulers over a broad population of subservient serfs – and these serfs remained predominantly Christian

– through the three hundred years from the mid-700s to the mid-1000s these Christian populations suffered from being second-class citizens, forced to wear clothes which identified them as dhimmis and, occasionally, when the oppression got really bad, forced to wear halters round their necks or be branded

– meanwhile they were forbidden to repair existing churches, build any new ones, and had to stand by while existing ones were often desecrated and destroyed in periodic waves of persecution or forcibly converted into mosques

So Haag’s central point, rammed home on scores of occasions, with all the data he can muster, is that it was not the Crusaders who were the foreign invaders – it was the Muslim Arabs. It was the Arabs who had invaded and conquered Christian Egypt, Christian Palestine, Christian Syria and raided into Christian Anatolia.

Bethlehem where Jesus was born, Nazareth Jesus’ home town, the River Jordan where Jesus was baptised, Jerusalem where Jesus was crucified and rose again, Tarsus where the apostle Paul came from, Antioch where the followers of Jesus were first named ‘Christians’, Damascus, on the road to which Paul had his great conversion experience – all these lands had, by about 400, become solidly Christian and were ruled by the Christian Roman Empire.

It was the Arabs who invaded and conquered them and subjected the Christian inhabitants to all kinds of discrimination and persecution. Christians were forbidden to build new churches or repair old ones. Thousands of churches were destroyed or converted into mosques. There were periodic massacres which triggered pleas from Christian leaders in the region to the Emperor in Constantinople for help, with the result that the Byzantine Empire and the Muslim invaders in the East were permanently at war.

And it wasn’t just the Arabs who were the alien invaders…

The Seljuk Turks add to the chaos

What specifically triggered the Crusades was the arrival of a third force on the scene, the Seljuk Turks, who swept out of central Asia, converted to Islam, and conquered Muslim Persia including the capital of the Abbasid Dynasty, Baghdad, in 1055.

From the 1060s the Seljuks besieged and took various cities in Palestine, as well as probing the eastern edges of Anatolia – the borders of the Byzantine Empire. Their ultimate goal was to tackle the Fatimid Dynasty based on Egypt. The Turks had converted to the majority or Sunni brand of Islam. A territorial ambition to seize Egypt – centrepiece of the Muslim lands – was compounded by the fact that the Fatimids were adherents to Shia Islam, which Sunnis regard as a heresy.

The Fatimids, for their part, also wanted control of (at least southern) Palestine, in order to create a buffer against the insurgent Turks. This meant that the two Muslim opponents clashed in various battles, at various times throughout the later 11th century, taking and retaking bits of Palestine from each other.

Meanwhile the Byzantine Empire was reeling from its defeat by the Turks at the momentous Battle of Manzikert in 1071, after which:

the empire lay open before bands of Turkish tribesmen, who looted, murdered and destroyed as they marauded westwards until in 1073 they were standing on the Bosphorus opposite Constantinople. (p.76)

As an anonymous chronicler put it:

Almost the whole world, on land and sea, occupied by the impious barbarians, has been destroyed and has become empty of population, for all Christians have been slain by them and all houses and settlements with their churches have been devastated by them in the whole East, completely crushed and reduced to nothing. (quoted on page 76)

It was not the Crusaders who were invading; it was the Seljuk Turks who, in the years after 1071, invaded, conquered, devastated and took control of a vast central region of Anatolia which had been part of the Roman Empire and solidly Christian for at least 600 years.  When the First Crusade arrived 25 years later it was to recover solidly Christian lands which had been invaded and to liberate its Christian inhabitants.

Anyway, the Byzantine Emperor survived the Turkish siege and soon began launching retaliatory raids into Syria and against Muslim strongholds in Palestine. So that’s Turks and Byzantines warring across the region.

And the Turks had brought with them bands of Turkomens, tribesmen of similar ethnic origin who didn’t, however, submit to Seljuk centralised authority and so raided, kidnapped and murdered across the region at will.

And the area had become infested by nomadic Bedouin, who took advantage of the prevailing chaos to also raid and kidnap and murder. Haag quotes liberally from the accounts of Christian pilgrims from Western Europe who made the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean and then found every step of their way to the Christian Holy Places fraught with the necessity to pay bribes to countless Muslim officials, and to pay armed guards to protect them from all manner of marauders and kidnappers.

Muslim destruction of Christian shrines, churches and towns

In 1077 Turkish forces led by Atsiz bin Uwaq laid siege to Jerusalem, destroying the surrounding orchards and vineyards. The city finally capitulated on promise of good treatment but Uwaq reneged on the deal and massacred about 3,000 of the Muslim population. He went on to devastate Palestine, burning harvests, razing plantations, desecrating cemeteries, raping women and men alike, cutting off ears and noses. He destroyed Ramla then went on to Gaza where he murdered the entire population, devastating villages and towns, burning down churches and monasteries.

In other words, the advent of the Seljuk Turks into the Middle East inaugurated a new era of chaos and disorder in the Holy Land

The Muslim East was wracked by misgovernment, division, exploitation, fanaticism an aggression. (p.79)

And this was widely reported by Christian pilgrims who returned to Western Europe (if they survived) telling tales of kidnap, rape and extortion, tales which had a cumulative effect at local, regional and national levels.

Back in 1009 al-Ḥākim bi-Amr Allāh, the sixth Fatimid caliph, embarked on an attempted ‘annihilation’ of Christians in the Levant, and called for the systematic destruction of all Christian holy places which culminated in the destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

This was the church built over two of the central holy sites in Christian tradition, the site where Jesus of Nazareth was crucified, at a place known as Calvary or Golgotha, and Jesus’s empty tomb, where he is said to have been buried and resurrected.

On Al-Hakim’s orders the church of the Holy Sepulchre was razed to its foundations, its graves were dug up, property was taken, furnishings and treasures seized, and the tomb of Jesus was hacked to pieces with pickaxes and hammers and utterly obliterated. Al-Hakim’s orders led to as many as thirty thousand churches being destroyed across the region or converted into mosques. News of the utter destruction of one of the holiest sites in Christendom shocked and appalled Christians from Constantinople through to Rome and into the Kingdom of the Franks. How much longer were the holiest sites in Christendom to remain at the utter mercy of fanatical opponents?

It was against this setting that Haag lists the repeated pleas for help, from the Byzantine Emperor and the Patriarch of Jerusalem, among others, which struck a chord, above all, with the Pope in Rome who, more than anyone else, heard eye-witness reports from pilgrims high and low about the mounting chaos in the region, about the wanton violence inflicted on pilgrims, and the wanton destruction inflicted on the Holy Sites themselves.

Seen from this perspective, the Crusades are not the unprovoked eruption of a bellicose West. The question is not why the Crusaders came, the question is why they took so long to respond to the pleas for help from their persecuted fellow Christians.

The Reconquista

The other really big idea I took from the book was that the Crusades happened in parallel to the Christian reconquest of Spain. I sort of knew this but Haag’s book really binds the two processes together, explaining how the Templars (the nominal subjects of his book) played as big or maybe a bigger role in the liberation of the Iberian Peninsula from Muslim control as they did in the Holy Land in the early years, anyway).

He points out how Popes and senior church figures called for the Christian knights of North and West Europe to put aside their differences and fight the Muslims in both places. When you look at a map of the Mediterranean Haag’s use of the phrase ‘war on two fronts’, fighting ‘on two fronts’, really makes sense.

The map below, from Wikipedia, clearly shows a) how the Muslims conquered the East, the West and the Southern coast of what had once been the Roman Christian Mediterranean and how, as a result, all the Mediterranean islands – Sicily, Sardinia, Crete, Cyprus – became battlefields for the centuries-long ‘assault by Islam against a Christian civilisation that had once embraced the whole of the Mediterranean’ (p.93)

If you were a Christian knight it wasn’t just a case of joining a Crusade to the Holy Land (as Haag points out, the term ‘crusade’ wasn’t coined until centuries after the things themselves had ended – contemporaries wrote about ‘taking the cross’). It was a question of where you chose to sign up to the global effort to stop and repel the invading Muslims – in Spain, in Sicily, in Cyprus or in Egypt or the Holy Land.

Map of the main Byzantine-Muslim naval operations and battles in the Mediterranean

Crusades wicked, Reconquista OK?

The big question all this left me asking is – Why is the ‘Crusade’ to liberate the Christian Holy Land from Muslim rule nowadays always criticised and castigated in the harshest possible terms as a racist, violent and greedy example of Western colonialism, whereas… the parallel ‘Crusade’ to liberate the Iberian Peninsula from Muslim rule, which was fought by much the same knights fighting for the same spiritual rewards offered by the same Pope… is totally accepted?

Does anyone suggest we should hand Spain back over to Muslim rule, to its rightful Moorish owners? No. The question is absurd. Does anyone suggest we should apologise to the Muslim inhabitants of Spain who were expelled 500 years ago? No. The notion is absurd.

Is it because the Crusades are perceived as consisting of violent attacks on Muslims living in a land they’d inhabited for hundreds of years? Well, the Reconquista was drenched in blood.

Or does the stark difference in historiographical thinking about the two Crusades mean that morality in history – how we judge the morality of past events – simply boils down to their success? The Christian Crusaders managed to expel the Muslims from Spain by about 1500, it has been a solidly Christian land for the past 500 years and so… it is accepted as the natural state of things…

Whereas the Christian Crusaders who tried to hang onto the Holy Land were always doomed to failure by virtue of the endless waves of new invaders streaming in from Asia (first the Turks, then the Golden Horde of Genghiz Khan’s Mongols) which were always going to outnumber the Christians’ dwindling numbers… and so… their effort is seen as reprehensible and subject to all the insults and abuse modern historians and the politically correct can level at them.

Yet the two Crusades were carried out by the same kind of knights, over the same period, inspired by the same ideology, and offered the same rewards (seizure of land and the remission of sins).

Is one a totally accepted fact which nobody questions, and the other a great Blot on the face of Western Civilisation, simply because one succeeded and the other failed?

The West

Not far behind that thought is the reflection that the West is simply called the West – is the West – because Muslim conquerors conquered the East.

‘The West’ was not some great insurgent triumphant entity – it is all that was left after the rampaging Muslims seized all of North Africa, all of the Middle East and most of Spain, then, in the 1100 began the process of seizing all of what we now call Turkey.

Previously Christendom had encompassed the entire Mediterranean and the lands around it. In this basic, geographical sense, the West is the creation of Islam.

The Knights Templar

So what about the ostensible subject of the book, the Order of the Knights Templar? Well it takes a while to get around to their founding in the 1130s… and then, in the rather unscholarly way which the reader soon gets used to, Haag goes out of his way to praise their involvement – claiming they were decisive or vital in almost every encounter with the Muslims over the next two hundred years – and to exonerate them from all accusations of greed, inaction or treachery brought against them by contemporaries. For example,

– when the contemporary chronicler William of Tyre criticises the Templars for their involvement in the murder of an envoy from the ‘Old Man of the Hills’ (p.251) – Haag dismisses William’s criticism as biased.

– Haag claims that the Crusader states – by the 1100s often administered by the Templars – were far more religiously tolerant than the surrounding Muslim states. When the Templars didn’t support an ill-fated Frankish expedition against the Fatimids in Egypt, Haag makes excuses for them. And so on.

So there’s lots of detail about the Knights Templars (when they were set up, their location in Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem, the vows they took, names of the founders and much, much more).

But, again, I was rather dazzled by one Big Idea about the Templars, which is the notion that they were the first multinational corporation. They were established after the First Crusade had established the Crusader states in Palestine, to guard the Holy Places and protect pilgrims. Quite quickly they began offering banking services i.e. they set up branches in London, Paris, Rome, on the Mediterranean islands – because if you were going on pilgrimage to the Holy Land it was wise not to carry a big sack of gold which all manner of Muslim pirates, kidnappers and bandits might steal from you. Better to deposit the gold in London or Paris or Rome, and receive a chit or docket proving the fact, while the Templars recorded the fact on their increasingly sophisticated ledgers.

Within a hundred years they were on the way to becoming official bankers to the King of France. They made huge loans to the King of England and helped finance the Reconquista. By their constitution they answered only to the Pope in Rome. The point is that – not being allied with this or that European prince or king – they were strikingly independent. No-one had any interest in ‘conquering’ them, there was nothing to conquer except a set of international financial services.

Land and tithes in the West, gold and banking facilities across Europe, and by the time of the Battle of Hattin it is estimated the Templars, along with the Hospitallers (the other great order of knights) held maybe a third of the land of Outremer, the kingdom beyond the sea (i.e. the Christian kingdoms in the Holy Land established after the success of the First Crusade).

I found these ideas about the economic roots of their power and wealth more interesting than the blizzard of detail Haag also gives about the Templars’ involvement in various battles and strategic decisions. He follows the story right through to the events leading up to the suppression of the Knights Templar by King Philip IV of France who persuaded the Pope to suppress the order on trumped up charges of blasphemy, heresy and homosexuality, when his real motivation was simply to write off the enormous debts he’d incurred with the order to fund his prolonged war with England.

Saladin

As part of his program to debunk every myth about the Crusades, Haag really has it in for An-Nasir Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub, commonly known as Saladin (1137-1193) who defeated the Crusaders at the Battle of Hattin in 1187, then seized Jerusalem later the same year, events which triggered the third Crusade (1189-92) in which Saladin was confronted by Richard I of England, both becoming heroes of legend for centuries to follow.

Haag places Saladin carefully in the succession of Turkish leaders who wanted to overthrow the Fatimid Dynasty in Egypt and establish their own kingdom. Haag goes out of his way to point out that:

– Saladin was not an Arab, he was a Turk; in fact he wasn’t strictly a Turk, but a ‘Turkified’ Kurd (p.233), having been born in Tikrit of Kurdish family, his father rising within the ranks of the Turkish army to become a city governor

– Saladin spent far more time waging jihad against his fellow Muslims than against the crusaders

[between 1171 and 1186] Saladin had spent no more than thirteen months fighting against the Franks; instead he directed his jihad almost entirely against his fellow Muslims, heterodox in many cases but most of them far from being heretics (p.262)

– this is one of the points Haag really dins home with endless repetition seeking to emphasise that Saladin was not a Muslim hero defending Muslim Palestine from marauding Crusaders – he was a Kurd fighting under the banner of the Seljuk Turks, against his fellow Muslims in Egypt and Syria, in order to establish a dynasty of his own

As the Cambridge History of Islam explains, Saladin’s army was ‘as alien as the Turkish, Berber, Sudanese and other forces of his predecessors. Himself a Kurd, he established a regime and an army of the Turkish type, along the lines laid down by the Seljuks and atabegs in the East.’ In capturing Egypt, and in all his wars against the Muslims of Syria and the Franks of Outremer, Saladin was not a liberator; like the Seljuks and like Zengi and Nur al-Din, he was an alien leading an alien army of conquest and occupation. (p.234, emphasis added)

– Saladin wrote letters and issued edicts claiming he was fighting a jihad against heresy and the infidel – in both cases Haag claims, he was hypocritically assuming a religious mantle to conceal what were basically the same lust-for-power motivations as all the other petty emirs and viziers competing in the region, a record of ‘unscrupulous schemes and campaigns aimed at personal, and family aggrandisement’ (Lyons and Jackson’s biography of Saladin, quoted on page 262)

– Haag goes out of his way to contrast Saladin’s fierce campaigns against what he regarded as Muslim heretics (especially Ismaili Islam, which he explains as a form of dualism), with the religious freedom operating in the Crusader states of Outremer, even quoting a contemporary Muslim chronicler, Ibn Jubayr, who admits that many Muslims preferred to live under the rule of the Franks who didn’t care what style of Islam they practiced, where they were treated fairly in the law courts, and taxed lightly (p.243).

– far from being the chivalrous knight of legend, Saladin routinely beheaded captured prisoners of war, as well as massacring the populations of captured towns, or selling all the women and children into slavery, for example:

  • after taking the Templar stronghold of King’s Ford in 1179 Saladin took 700 prisoners, who he then had executed
  • all the Templars and Hospitallers who survived the Battle of Hattin (4 July 1187) were, according to an eye witness account, lined up and hacked to pieces with swords and knives (p.274)
  • when Jaffa refused to yield to Saladin, it was eventually taken by storm and the entire population either massacred or sent off to the slave market at Aleppo
  • after taking Jerusalem, Saladin was reluctantly persuaded to allow the inhabitants to go free if they could pay a ransom; about 15,000 of the population was sold into slavery; all the churches had their spires knocked down and were converted into stables

As with Haag’s treatment of the entire period, his treatment of Saladin is detailed, compelling and, you eventually feel, strongly biased. I dare say the facts are correct, but Haag continually spins them with the very obvious purpose of undermining the legend of Saladin the chivalric defender of Muslims.

But to the casual reader, what really comes over is the immense violence and cruelty of everyone, of all sides, during the period. Muslims massacred Muslims. Muslims massacred Christians. Christians massacred Muslims. When Richard the Lionheart took Acre after a siege, he executed 3,000 Muslim prisoners, including women and children. All sides carried out what we would consider war crimes, because all sides were convinced God was on their side.

And all sides took part in the slave trade. Populations of captured towns were liable to be sent off to the great slave trade centres such as Ayas on the coast. I was genuinely surprised to learn that both the Templars and the Hospitallers took part in the slave trade, shipping captives taken in Palestine to work for the houses, especially in southern Italy and Christian Spain (p.229).

In the last decades of Outremer, as town after town fell to the Turks, the men would usually be slaughtered but their women and children would be taken to the slave markets of Aleppo or Damascus. Many thousands of Frankish women, girls and boys must have suffered this fate, as well as great numbers of native Christians.

Otherwise the great centre of the slave trade in the late thirteenth century was the Mediterranean port of Ayas, in the Armenian kingdom of Cilicia. Marco Polo disembarked at Ayas in 1271 to begin his trip to China at about the same time that the Templars opened a wharf there. the slaves, who were Turkish, Greek, Russia and Circassian, had been acquired as a result of intertribal warfare, or because impoverished parents decided to sell their children, or because they were kidnapped, and they were brought to Ayas by Turkish and Mongol slavers. (p.230)

Slavery is mentioned a lot throughout the book. I would really like to read a good account of slavery in the Middle Ages.

Steven Runciman’s negative interpretation of the crusades

Haag in several places criticises Sir Steven Runciman, author of what, for the second half of the twentieth century, was the definitive three-volume history of the crusades, published from 1951 to 1954.

Haag’s criticism is that Runciman was a passionate devotee of Byzantine culture and the Greek Orthodox church – for example, the Protaton Tower at Karyes on Mount Athos was refurbished largely thanks to a donation from Runciman.

And so Runciman considered the sack of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusaders one of the greatest crimes in human history. His entire account is heavily biased against the crusaders who he portrays as ‘intolerant barbarians’ and, in the famous conclusion to his history, calls the entire enterprise a long act of intolerance and a sin against the Holy Ghost.

This is important because:

It is no exaggeration to say that Runciman single-handedly crafted the current popular concept of the crusades. (Thomas F. Madden, 2005)

And his three-volume history, still published by Penguin, created the impression which

across the Anglophone world continues as a base reference for popular attitudes, evident in print, film, television and on the internet. (Christopher Tyerman, Fellow and Tutor in History at Hertford College, Oxford)

Looking it up, I can see that Haag’s criticism of Runciman – that he was consistently and obviously biased against the crusaders, and that his negative interpretation has been massive and widespread and continues to this day – is now widely shared.

Reflections

The big picture lesson for me is not that this, that or the other side was ‘wrong’ or ‘right’ (and Haag’s interpretation has successfully undermined my simple, liberal, politically correct view that the Crusades were xenophobic, colonial massacres by showing how extremely complicated and fraught the geopolitical and military situations was, with a complex meshing of different forces each fighting each other).

The more obvious conclusion is that all sides in these multi-levelled conflicts shared values and beliefs and codes of conduct and moral codes and ethics which are wildly different from ours today – almost incomprehensibly different – drenched with a religious fanaticism few of us can imagine and prepared to carry out atrocities and cruelties it is often hard to believe.

It is in this light that the shambolic fourth (1204), fifth (1217-21) and sixth crusades (1228-9) must be seen – less as the violent intrusions of a homogenous Superpower into the peace-loving affairs of poor innocent Muslims – more as forms of time-honoured attack, war and conquest (and ignominious defeat) which had been practiced by all mankind, over the face of the whole world, since records began.

The 4th, 5th and 6th crusades may well have been blessed by the Pope (who also didn’t hesitate to excommunicate them and their leaders when they wandered off-target) but in practice followed the entirely worldly, calculating, selfish, power-hungry agendas of the various European princes and kings who led them.

Already, during the third crusade, the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa had openly plotted with the Serbs, Bulgarians, Byzantine traitors, and even the Muslim Seljuks against the Eastern Empire and at one point sought Papal support for a crusade against the Orthodox Byzantines. Feeling between Latin West and Greek East was becoming ever more polarised.

It is this which helps explain why the so-called fourth crusade ended in the shameful sack of Constantinople in 1203-4. The Venetians were promised a huge sum if they built ships to carry 35,000 warriors to the Holy Land. They stopped all commercial activity to build the fleet. When the knights arrived they were more like 12,000 and the Venetians were told they would only be paid a third of the promised sum. After fractious negotiations, the Venetians came up with a compromise solution – the existing Crusader force would seize the port of Zara in Dalmatia. Zara had been dominated economically by Venice throughout the 12th century but had rebelled in 1181 and allied itself with King Emeric of Hungary and Croatia. It was a Christian city, but the ‘crusade’ proceeded nonetheless, and Zara fell to the combined Venetian-Crusader forces, after which it was thoroughly pillaged. Then, after further complicated negotiations, the crusaders were prevailed upon to attack Constantinople, capital of the Greek Byzantine Empire, by the Venetians, led by their blind Doge Dandolo. The Venetians had long been commercial rivals of the Greeks, and it was said Dandolo had himself been blinded by Byzantine forces in a much earlier conflict between them. There were many more complications – for example the crusaders were told they were fighting to liberate the deposed Byzantine emperor but, during the resultant siege, this emperor was hastily restored by the population of Constantinople, which robbed the attack of its prime goal. Didn’t stop the ‘crusaders’ from finally storming the walls and sacking the Greek capital.

The point is not that this was appalling. The point is that it quite patently has nothing whatsoever to do with the Holy Land or Muslims or liberating the Holy Places and all the rest of crusader rhetoric. It was quite clearly commercial and political warfare of the kind going on all across the world at the time, in a world awash with armies and fighting princes, kings, khans, emperors, sultans and so on, not to mention Chinese emperors and Mayan and Aztec kings.

Same goes for the long-delayed and wandering expedition of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, which he grandly titled the Fifth Crusade, and which led up to him being crowned king of Jerusalem on 29 March 1229 but which was obviously more to do with his personal ambition than any ’cause’, let alone representing anything called ‘the West’. Frederick was excommunicated by the pope three times for pursuing his utterly selfish aims. He only stayed two days in Jerusalem. By this stage the once famous city was a dump, filled with ruins and churches turned into stables. As soon as decent, Frederick took ship back to Europe and got on with the serious job of building up his empire.

The fall of the Templars

And the point – that beneath a thin veneer of religious rhetoric, all these events were just dynasty-making, invading, conquering, and commercial conflicts of a familiar and entirely secular kind – is reinforced by the last few pages of Haag’s book, which chronicle the downfall of the Templars. King Philip IV was hugely in debt to the Templars. He decided to take advantage of the fact that the last Christian enclave in the Holy Land, Acre, had fallen in 1291, and the last little offshore island, Arwan, had fallen to Muslim forces in 1303, to turn on the Templars with a whole string of trumped-up charges of heresy, sodomy and so on which, despite the efforts of the pope to support an order which was nominally under his control, succeeded. The order was convicted of heresy, its leaders were burned at the stake and – the point of the exercise – King Philip’s huge debts were cancelled.

None of this is very edifying. But it is all very, very human.

Maps

There are only three maps in the book but they are excellent, clear and easy to read and they include all the place names mentioned in the text. I can’t find the name of the map designer but he or she is to be congratulated.


Related links

Reviews of other books and exhibitions about the Middle Ages

Mantegna and Bellini @ the National Gallery

This is a rich, complex and demanding exhibition in all kinds of ways. For a start it was packed out. I took the ticket lady’s advice to go see the 18-minute long film introduction to the show, off in the auditorium to one side of the Sainsbury Gallery, but this meant I didn’t enter the exhibition proper till 10.30, by which time it was so packed that it was difficult to move around and you had to queue to see many of the paintings.

Secondly, it requires you to listen to a daunting amount of art history and scholarship. The art history is central for this is an exhibition which traces the development of the two painters, pointing out with minute attention to detail their differing interests, styles, areas of expertise and actual careers i.e. the cities they lived in, the courtly patrons they worked for, and so on.

In addition there are quite a few paintings and drawings whose accreditation has until recently, or is still, disputed i.e. you are looking at works which may or may not be by either Mantegna or Bellini, and find yourself listening to learned arguments about who, when and why this or that drawing or painting was made.

Biographies

Giovanni Bellini (1435?–1516) and Andrea Mantegna (1431–1506) were two of the greatest artists of the Italian Renaissance.

In the 1440s the Bellini family ran the most established and successful artistic workshop in Venice. It was overseen by Giovanni’s father, Jacopo Bellini, one of the greatest artistic inventors of his day, pioneering new visual and intellectual ideas in his influential drawing books.

So Giovanni Bellini was born into what was in effect artistic royalty, and given every possibly chance of a good start in his career. By contrast, Andrea Mantegna was born the son of a humble carpenter, and was an entirely self-made man. Born near Padua his prodigious talent brought him into the workshop of Francesco Squarcione – who in fact adopted him as his own son – and inspired in him a lifelong love of the art and architecture of the antique world.

News of the up-and-coming prodigy reached Jacopo Bellini, who made the entirely practical business move of marrying his daughter Nicolosia to the budding genius in 1453. Bellini and Mantegna were now brothers-in-law, and spent the rest of their lives in contact, in artistic rivalry, borrowing ideas, themes and details from each other’s works right to the end of their lives.

For a decade or so they worked in close physical proximity and the exhibition pairs their paintings on the same subjects, showing how they exchanged motifs and techniques – ways of handling figures, animals, elements of landscape – until, in 1460, Mantegna left to spend the rest of his life working for the Gonzaga family which ruled Mantua.

Two styles

Throughout its six rooms the exhibition brings together major works by both artists, from Britain and abroad, paintings as well as rare sketches and drawings and sculptures and friezes – which allow you to trace a) their similarities and differences b) their individual evolutions c) their lasting influence on later art.

You can get a quick understanding of the two approaches by comparing two depictions of Christ’s agony in the garden. Apparently the notion of depicting Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane waiting, while the apostles slept, for Judas to come and betray him, probably derived from the inventive drawing books of Jacopo Bellini, but it is fascinating to have the two artists’ treatments of the identical subject hanging side by side and the audio-commentary gives a detailed comparison.

The Agony in the Garden (about 1455–6) by Andrea Mantegna. Egg tempera on panel © The National Gallery, London

The Agony in the Garden (about 1455–6) by Andrea Mantegna. Egg tempera on panel © The National Gallery, London

In Mantegna’s version you notice:

  • the architectural feel of the composition, with very detailed rocks creating a claustrophobic, full feel to the composition and tightly framing the sleeping apostles
  • the foreshortening of the body of the sleeping apostle – Mantegna was one of the first artists in the West to systematically experiment with painting foreshortened figures in perspective: he was so proud of this that he signed the painting in the rocks directly above the sleepers
  • the tightness of the way the road curves from the sleepers round the rocks to the crowd of soldiers and citizens being led by Judas Iscariot to betray Jesus
  • the architectural details of the city of Jerusalem in the background which, when you look closely, has been done with great precision, including a campanile and a copy of the Roman Colosseum
  • there are some rabbits in the road next to one of the apostle’s feet; there are lots of rabbits in Mantegna’s works

No contrast with Bellini’s treatment of the same subject.

The Agony in the Garden by Giovanni Bellini (about 1458-60) Egg tempera on panel © The National Gallery, London

The Agony in the Garden by Giovanni Bellini (about 1458-60) Egg tempera on panel © The National Gallery, London

Whereas Mantegna’s is packed and stacked with lines and planes – of the busy terraces of rocks and road and distant buildings – Bellini’s composition is much more open, and the central slope Christ is praying on is surprisingly bland and smooth. The audio-commentary points out that Bellini had a go at a Mantegna-style foreshortened figure in the centre, but hasn’t brought it off as well as the Paduan.

Instead, the audio-commentary points to the clouds. They are a surprisingly realistic depiction of the pinkness of dawn, drawing on contemporary Flemish landscape painting. The clouds are not just part of the background as in the Mantegna, but carefully crafted in order to create an atmosphere. Same with the city on the hill to the left. If you look closely (and the joy of visiting exhibitions is that you can look really closely at all these wonderful paintings) you see that the buildings lack detail (windows or doors) and are soft and hazy – much as you would actually see buildings in the far distance in sunny Italy.

This comparison brings out the way that Mantegna is interested in architectural detail and framing, of not only buildings but of people. His works have great clarity and are often full of learned details – he is an intellectual painter – but can also feel harsh and forbidding.

By comparison all Bellini’s works have a softness about them. Whereas Mantegna is interested in line and content, Bellini is interested in tone and atmosphere.

Mantegna = compositional innovation
Bellini = atmospheric, natural landscapes

Mantegna versus Bellini

By and large, whenever I saw a painting from a distance, before I could read the label, I could tell the two artists apart: Bellini’s always have soft outlines, Mantegna’s always have much more defined, sometimes almost cartoon-clear outlines.

By and large I much preferred the Mantegna. Wherever possible the exhibition places paintings on similar subjects by the pair together, so you can compare and contrast, for example their contemporaneous depictions of Saint Jerome in the Desert. Mantegna’s Jerome is set among characteristically lined, striated, and precise rock and is packed with detail – Bellini’s image is much sparer and softer and the composition is emptier, less busy, more atmospheric.

Really looking at these, again, I think I prefer the Mantegna because it is more medieval: he is interested in the saint’s flat-brimmed red hat, in his wooden sandals, in the wooden rack hanging from nails in his cave, in the owl – presumably signifying wisdom – perching at the top of the cave, and so on. I find these details interesting, diverting, charming – and so find the Bellini empty and bland and so you are left solely to concentrate on the bad draughtsmanship of both man and lion.

Similarly, there are direct comparisons between their treatments of Christ’s descent into hell, and the presentation of the infant Christ at the Temple.

Here’s an early Mantegna which shows his love of classical architecture and the way he uses it to frame his compositions. You can look at this painting for quite a long time, enjoying the use of the pillar and broken arch to support the punctured saint. The detailing of the frieze on the stonework is exquisite, as it is in the rubble at his feet or the faces in the broken frieze behind him. The more you look, the more breath-taking the detail becomes. And that’s before you begin to investigate the background, where you can see the three archers who have just done Sebastian to death, strolling casually along the road to the left on their way back to the city across the river, which is itself painted in tiny finicky detail. But it’s the architectural solidity of the composition which is dominant.

Saint Sebastian by Andrea Mantegna (about 1459–60) Egg tempera on poplar © Gemäldegalerie, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Saint Sebastian by Andrea Mantegna (about 1459–60) Egg tempera on poplar © Gemäldegalerie, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

The future of painting

I preferred Mantegna all the way through until we came to the last few rooms. Here, suddenly, Bellini metamorphosed into the Future of Painting and Mantegna suddenly looked old and wooden. Suddenly Bellini was making paintings of Greek mythical subjects which had a softness and haziness, a kind of sweetness about them, which looks like Titian, which looks forward to the next hundred years.

In my ignorance, when I saw this across a crowded room, I thought the bucolic setting and very bright colours meant it was by Poussin. It is in fact still a Bellini, but worlds away from the stilted drawing of Jerome. That was 1460. Now it is nearly fifty years later and Bellini has made extraordinary strides in the art of composition and colouring. Instead of an empty desert he gives us a lazy relaxed pagan landscape in which a whole host of Greek mythical characters are lounging and flirting.

The Feast of the Gods (1514–29) Giovanni Bellini, with later additions by Dosso Dossi and Titian. Image courtesy of the Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

The Feast of the Gods (1514–29) Giovanni Bellini, with later additions by Dosso Dossi and Titian. Image courtesy of the Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

The commentary tells us that Titian (1488-1576) was much influenced by Bellini whose workshop he trained in from 1507, and that Titian almost certainly ‘refined’ and ‘improved’ this work by Bellini. You can feel one master handing on the baton to Titian, who will have a transformative effect on Western art. Suddenly, in late Bellini, you feel like you are confronting the future of Western art.

On the opposite wall of this, the fourth and largest room in the exhibition, are hanging three enormous, absolutely huge (2.66 x 2.78 m) paintings depicting the Triumph of Caesar. Mantegna originally created nine of these monster paintings between 1484 and 1492 for the Gonzaga Ducal Palace in Mantua. Acknowledged from the time of Mantegna as his greatest masterpiece, they remain the most complete pictorial representation of a Roman triumph ever attempted.

The Triumphs of Caesar IV: The Vase-Bearers (mid-1480s – before 1506) by Andrea Mantegna. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018

The Triumphs of Caesar IV: The Vase-Bearers (mid-1480s – before 1506) by Andrea Mantegna. Egg tempera on canvas.  Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018

The structured nature of the composition is awesome. You can feel the intelligence and care which has gone into positioning every element, and Mantegna’s unparalleled knowledge of every element of classical life, which he had spent a lifetime studying.

Still, placed next to the Bellini gods, it feels stagey, and it feels dated. In them Mantegan reaches a kind of peak of magnificence of the architectural composition which he pioneered, and this kind of grand historical painting will go on to be perfected by artists like Veronese. But a glance at the softer, subtler shapes of the Bellini feast tells you that it is his style which will go on to dominate future art.

To see what I mean compare these portraits from the final room of the exhibition. Here is Mantegna demonstrating, as throughout his career, an interest in line and composition. Note the amazing detail on the fabric of the Madonna, and the gauntly ‘realistic’ expressions of the faces of her parents.

The Holy Family by Andrea Mantegna (about 1490–1500) © bpk / Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden / Elke Estel / Hans-Peter Klut

The Holy Family by Andrea Mantegna (about 1490–1500) © bpk / Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden / Elke Estel / Hans-Peter Klut

Now compare with a Virgin and child (with Saints Catherine and Mary Magdalene thrown in for good measure) by Bellini.

The Virgin and Child with Saints Catherine and Mary Magdalene (about 1490) by Giovanni Bellini © Su concessione del Ministero dei beni e delle attività culturali e del turismo, Museo Nazionale delle Gallerie dell'Accademia di Venezia

The Virgin and Child with Saints Catherine and Mary Magdalene (about 1490) by Giovanni Bellini © Museo Nazionale delle Gallerie dell’Accademia di Venezia

This reproduction doesn’t do it any justice. In the flesh this is a quite hauntingly, atmospheric painting. The way the softly painted women emerge from the Stygian background is quite magical.

The commentary emphasises that Mantegna’s portraits were often painted with egg tempera or using glue, a technique which resulted in an often dull matt finish, a finish which brought out the line and composition he considered so important.

By sharp contrast, by his later years, Bellini has mastered the use of oil paint to create works of tremendous atmosphere and depth. Although the figures in this painting are not exactly naturalistic, the use of oil joins them together with a real psychological power. Plus Bellini has become a real master of painting details in oil. I marvelled at the exquisite detailing of the pearls and jewels lining the cloaks of Catherine and the Magdalene. This reproduction doesn’t begin to convey what an intense and powerful painting this is in the flesh.

Bellini wins

If this was a football match I’d have said Mantegna was leading 1-0 until the 89th minute and then Bellini stole up and won it with a late equaliser and a winning goal in extra time.

All the way through I had preferred Mantegna’s statuesque line figures and his use of classical architecture and symbolism to adorn paintings historical and mythological. Then, in the last couple of rooms, in  his full maturity, Bellini seems to soar to an entirely new place in terms of technique.

Doge Leonardo Loredan by Giovanni Bellini (about 1501-2) Oil on poplar © The National Gallery, London

Doge Leonardo Loredan by Giovanni Bellini (about 1501-2) Oil on poplar © The National Gallery, London

This reproduction also doesn’t do justice to the original. You could stand for hours just marvelling in Bellini’s use of oil paint in this large portrait, especially in the unbelievable detailing of the Doge’s gown.

The commentary makes the subtle point that the left side of his mouth, in sunlight, is firm and set, whereas the right side, in relative shade, bears the hint of a smile. This can be taken as an allegory of the character required to be leader of a city, a mixture of light (justice) with shade (forgiveness and humour).

In these last few works you can see why the curators claims that without these works imbued with their creativity and innovation, Renaissance art by the likes of Titian, Correggio, and Veronese, would not exist as it does today.

There is much, much more to see at this terrific exhibition, much which repays really intense historical, scholarly, intellectual and aesthetic engagement. It’s an effort, but the rewards are tremendous.

Room by room

One – Beginnings

Introduces the cultural environments of the two cities that shaped Mantegna and Bellini – Padua and Venice. Shows how the tastes of dominant patrons and their working environments (including the family-run workshop) played a role in the development of the artists. Highlight: ‘The Jacopo Bellini album’ on loan from the British Museum (which has lent 18 works to the exhibition). Jacopo’s sketchbook is a key starting point for ‘Mantegna and Bellini.’

Room two – Explorations

Examines the mutual impact of each artist on the other during the years of their closest creative exchange, around the time of the marriage that made them brothers-in-law. A number of juxtapositions compare and contrast their approach to near identical compositions e.g. ‘The Descent into Limbo’ and ‘The Crucifixion’.

Room Three – Pietà

Focuses on the origins and development of a distinctive new type of image in Christian art, the Dead Christ supported by Angels. Works include sculptural reliefs (such as Mantegna’s ‘Grablegung Christ’) as well as works on paper (Mantegna’s Pietà, 1456–9) and Bellini’s tempera on panel ‘Pietà’ from the Uffizi Gallery.

Room Four – Landscape

Explores the enormous importance of Bellini’s particular contribution to the history of art – the depiction of beautifully observed landscape, natural light, and atmosphere as a key element of the composition and meaning of religious works, including Bellini’s ‘Resurrection of Christ’

Highlight: first chance to see the newly restored National Gallery work, ‘The Assassination of Saint Peter Martyr’ (about 1507).

A number of pairings will reveal the differences in approach to landscape between the two artists – and also reveal the ways in which Bellini’s exceptional talent had a lasting effect on Mantegna (such as in his astonishingly accurate view of Mantua in his ‘Death of the Virgin’, 1462).

Room five – Devotional Paintings and Portraits

A focused insight into a particular contribution to Italian Renaissance art – the development of the ‘sacra conversazione’ in which the seated Virgin and Child appear in the company of saints (‘in conversation’) as if occupying the same space and breathing the same air.

Mantegna’s ‘Holy Family’ (1495-1500) and ‘Madonna and Child’ (1455–60) will be placed next to Bellini’s ‘Madonna and Child with two Saints’ and ‘The Virgin and Child’ (about 1475).

Room six – Antiquity

Features some of the largest and most spectacular loans, which showcase Mantegna’s particular brilliance in the use of antique models and subjects to drive innovation in his art.

Highlight: three of his great ‘Triumphs of Caesar’ (The Bearers of Standards and ‘Siege Equipment’, ‘The Vase-Bearers’, and ‘The Elephants’, c.1484–92) , monumental tempera on canvas works measuring almost three metres square, lent by Her Majesty The Queen.

Contrasted with these will be sculptural monochromes by Bellini, including ‘An Episode from the Life of Publius Cornelius Scipio’ (about 1506) and ‘Two men in antique dress’, along with one of his final paintings, ‘The Drunkenness of Noah’ (about 1515).

In case you need any more persuading, Dr Caroline Campbell, Director of Collections and Research at the National Gallery and curator of ‘Mantegna and Bellini’, says:

Exhibitions focusing on 15th-century art are rare as the works involved are often fragile and so cannot travel very often – therefore ‘Mantegna and Bellini’ really is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to explore the relationship and work of these two artists who played such a pivotal role in the history of art.

Curator’s introduction


Related links

Reviews of other National Gallery exhibitions

Conquerors: How Portugal Forged the First Global Empire by Roger Crowley (2015)

Our Lord has done great things for us, because he wanted us to accomplish a deed so magnificent that it surpasses even what we have prayed for… I have burned the town and killed everyone. For four days without any pause our men have slaughtered… wherever we have been able to get into we haven’t spared the life of a single Muslim. We have herded them into the mosques and set them on fire… We have estimated the number of dead Muslim men and women at six thousand. It was, Sire, a very fine deed. (Afonso de Albuquerque describing the Portuguese capture of Goa on 25 November 1510, p.286)

In 1500 the Indian Ocean was the scene of sophisticated trading networks which had been centuries in the making. Muslim traders from the ‘Swahili Coast’ of Africa traded up the coast to the Red Sea and across land to Cairo, heart of the Muslim world, while other traders crossed the ocean eastwards to the coast of India, where Hindu rajas ran a number of seaports offering hospitality to communities of Muslims and Jews in a complex multi-ethnic web.

The trading routes were well established and the commodities – such as pepper, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and mace – were managed via a familiar set of tariffs and customs. Even if you were caught by one of the many pirates who patrolled the sea, there were well established procedures for handing over a percentage of your cargo and being allowed to continue on your way.

All this was dramatically changed by the sudden arrival in 1497 of the super-violent Portuguese, who had orders from their king and from the pope:

  • to destroy all Muslim bases and ships
  • to establish European forts at all convenient harbours
  • to bully all local rulers into proclaiming complete subservience to the King of Portugal
  • to build churches and convert the heathens to Christianity

This is the story of how an idyllic, essentially peaceful, well ordered and multicultural world was smashed to pieces by the cannons, muskets and unbelievable savagery of barbarian Europeans. This book is a revelation. I had no idea that the Portuguese ‘explorers’ of the ‘Age of Discovery’ were quite such savage sadists.

Massacre of the Miri

Probably the most notorious incident, which epitomises the behaviour and attitudes of the invaders, was the massacre of the Muslim pilgrim ship Miri.

The Portuguese sent their ships to conquer the Indian Ocean in large groups or ‘armadas’.

On September 29, 1502, the fourth great Portuguese Armada spotted a large merchant ship carrying Muslim pilgrims returning from Mecca. The ship, the Miri, was identified as belonging to al-Fanqi, thought to be the commercial agent representing Mecca – and the interests of the Muslim Mamluk dynasty in Cairo – in Calicut, one of the commercial seaports on the west India coast.

Portuguese Captain Matoso cornered the pilgrim ship which surrendered quickly, the captain and passengers imagining they would be able to buy off these ‘pirates’ in the traditional manner. But these were not pirates; they were Christians or, as they would come to be recognised around the Indian Ocean, sadistic, uncivilised barbarian murderers.

Commander of the Armada, Vasco da Gama, ignored all the offers of gold or cargo. His Portuguese crew plundered the ship, stole all its cargo and then made it plain that he planned to burn the ship with all its passengers – men, women and children – on board. As this realisation sank in the civilian passengers desperately attacked the Portuguese with stone and bare hands, but were themselves shot down by muskets and cannon from the Portuguese ships.

On October 3, 1502, having gutted the Miri of all its valuables, the Portuguese locked all the remaining passengers in the hold and the ship was burnt and sunk by artillery. It took several days to go down completely. Portuguese soldiers rowed around the waters on longboats mercilessly spearing survivors.

All in all it was a fine example of:

The honour code of the fidalgos with its rooted hatred of Islam and its unbending belief in retribution and punitive revenge. (p.144)

the honour code which, as Crowley emphasises, inspired the Portuguese voyages of conquest and terror.

The Calicut massacre

It helps to explain this behaviour, and put it in context, if you know about the Calicut Massacre. Back in December 1500 the Second Portuguese India Armada, under the command of Pedro Álvares Cabral, had gotten frustrated at the slow pace at which his ships were being filled with spices at Calicut, the largest spice port on the western coast of India, despite having made an agreement with its raja or zamorin.

To hurry things along Cabral ordered the seizure of an Arab merchant ship from Jeddah, then loading up with spices nearby in the harbour. Cabral claimed that, as the Zamorin had promised the Portuguese priority in the spice markets, the cargo was rightfully theirs anyway.

Incensed by this theft, the Arab merchants around the quay started a riot and led the rioters to the ‘factory’ or warehouse which the Portuguese had only just finished building to store their booty. The Portuguese onboard the ships in the harbour watched helplessly while the Calicut mob successfully stormed the ‘factory’, massacring 50 of the Portuguese inhabitants, including some Franciscan friars.

Once the riot had quietened down, Cabral sent to the Zamorin asking for redress. When it wasn’t forthcoming, Cabral seized around ten Arab merchant ships in the harbour, confiscating their cargoes, killing their crews, and burning their ships. Blaming the Zamorin for doing nothing to stop the riot, Cabral then ordered all the guns from his fleet to bombard Calicut indiscriminately for a full day, wreaking immense damage, killing many citizens and starting fires which burnt entire quarters of the town.

Crowley shows us again and again how one bad deed, a bit of impatience or a slight cultural misunderstanding was liable to blow up, in Portuguese hands, into explosions of super-destructive wrath and mass murder.

The crusader mentality

It helps to understand the Portuguese approach a bit more if you realise that the Portuguese kings – John I (1481-1595) and Manuel I (1495-1521) – didn’t send out explorers and scientists – they sent warriors. And that these warriors were still steeped in the aggressive anti-Muslim ideology of the crusades.

Crowley’s narrative sets the tone by going back nearly a century before the Portuguese entered the Indian ocean, to describe the ‘crusade’ of an earlier generation when, in 1415, Portuguese crusaders attacked Ceuta, an enclave of Muslim pirates on the north coast of Africa. The Ceuta pirates had been a pest to Portuguese shipping for generations, and the Portuguese finally had enough, stormed and sacked it.

Having established the sense of antagonism between Muslims and Christians, Cowley leaps forward to the next significant moment, to when the Muslim Ottoman armies took Constantinople in 1453. The fall of Constantinople to the Muslims sent shocks waves throughout Christian Europe.

  • It made Christian kings, and their peoples, all over Europe feel threatened
  • It cut off trade routes to the East, for spices and so on

1. The quest for new routes to the spice trade

In other words the fall of Constantinople provided a keen commercial incentive to navigators, explorers and entrepreneurs to come up with alternative ways of reaching the Spice Islands by sea. While in the 1490s Christopher Columbus was trying to persuade the King of Spain to fund his idea of sailing west, around the world, to reach the Indies, the King of Portugal was persuaded to fund expeditions in the opposite direction – down the coast of Africa with the hope that it would be easier to cruise around Africa and reach the Spice Islands by heading East.

The spices in question included the five ‘glorious spices’ – pepper, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and mace – but also ginger, cardamom, tamarind, balms and aromatics like wormwood, Socotra aloe, galbanum, camphor and myrrh.

Also brought back from India were dyes like lac, indigo and dyewood and precious ornamental objects and materials like ivory, ebony and pearls. All these good fetched up to ten times as much on the quaysides of Lisbon or Venice as they cost to buy in Calicut. But that was when they had been transhipped from warehouses in the ports of the Middle East. The conquest of Constantinople reduced the transhipment trade and led to a more aggressive attitude from Muslim traders, which badly hurt the commercial prosperity of Venice, in particular.

2. Outflanking Islam

But the aim of the explorers was not only to get commercial access to the spice trade. throughout the Middle Ages it had been widely believed that Christianity had been carried by the apostle James and others, deep into Africa, into Arabia, and even as far as India.

So there was a military element to the expeditions. Christian strategists thought that, if the explorers could make contact with the Christian communities which were believed to exist in faraway India, and were able to link up – then together they would be able to surround, the European armies attacking from the west, the newly awakened Indian Christian armies attacking from the East.

In other words, alongside the element of exploration, ran an aggressive continuation of the fierce anti-Muslim, crusading mentality of John and Manuel’s medieval forebears.

This helps to explain the unremitting anti-Muslim hostility of the commanders of all the great Portuguese Armadas to the East. Not only did their kings demand it, not only was it part of their explicit, written instructions (which survive to this day), but their conquering mentality was backed up by the full force of the pope and the Holy Catholic Church.

The whole European apparatus of state power, religious intolerance, and the technology of war – metal armour and huge shipboard cannons – was brought to bear on the inhabitants of the Indian Ocean.

Wage war and total destruction… by all the means you best can by land and sea so that everything possible is destroyed. (The Regimento or instructions given by King Manuel I to Dom Francisco de Almeida in 1505)

Thus it was that warrior-sailors like the Sodré brothers or the du Albuquerque cousins received orders quite simply to destroy all Muslim ships and trade between the Red Sea and Calicut.

Sadism and intimidation were seen as legitimate tactics. The reader loses count of the number of local hostages, ambassadors and civilians who are taken by the Portuguese who, if anything displeases them, proceed to hang their hostages from the yardarms, before dismembering them and returning their scattered body parts to their horrified relatives waiting on shore. This happens lots of times.

When Vicente Sodré intercepted a large Muslim ship carrying a full cargo of treasure, commanded by the wealthy and well-known merchant Mayimama Marakkar, Vicente had Marakkar stripped naked, tied to the mast, whipped and then subjected to the Portuguese practice of merdimboca or ‘shit in the mouth’ – the name says it all – with the added refinement that the Portuguese forced Marakkar – an eminent and pious Muslim – to eat pork and bacon fat (p.141).

Deliberately offensive, determined to rule by Terror, fuelled by genocidal racism, unflinching, unbending and merciless, the Portuguese conquerors, in this telling, seem like the Nazis of their day.

Conquerors

So this is the story which Crowley’s book tells: the story of how tiny Portugal, at the far western tip of Europe, managed in thirty or so years, from the late 1490s to the 1520s, to establish the first global empire in world history – in reality a set of connected outposts dotted along the west and east coasts of Africa, the west coast of India – before moving on to explore the East Indies – all the while pursuing this policy of unremitting intimidation and extreme violence. It’s a harrowing read. Noses are slit and hands chopped off on pretty much every page.

Conquerors is divided into three parts:

  1. Reconnaissance: the Route to the Indies (1483-99)
  2. Contest: Monopolies and Holy War (1500-1510)
  3. Conquest: The Lion of the Sea (1510-1520)

Over and above the narrative of events, we learn a couple of Big Things:

1. How to round the Cape of Good Hope

The navigational breakthrough which allowed all this to happen was the discovery of how to round the Cape at the southernmost tip of Africa. For generations Portuguese ships had hugged the coast of Africa as they tentatively explored south and this meant that they struggled with all kinds of headwinds, shoals and rocks, particularly as they rounded the big bulge and struggled east into the Gulf of Guinea. The net result was that by 1460 they had established maps and stopping points at the Azores, Madeira, but only as far south along the African coast as the river Senegal and Sierra Leone.

The Great Breakthrough was to abandon the coast altogether and give in to the strong north-easterly winds which blew sailing ships south and west out into big Atlantic – and then, half way down the coast of Brazil, to switch direction back east, and let the strong west winds blow you clean back across the Atlantic and under the Cape of Good Hope. See the red line on the map, below. This immensely significant discovery was made in the 1460s.

That’s if things went well. Which they often didn’t – with calamitous results. Crowley reports that of the 5,500 Portuguese men who went to India between 1497 (the date of Vasco de Gama’s first successful rounding of the Cape), 1,800 – 35% – did not return. Most drowned at sea.

All the armadas suffered significant loss of life to shipwreck and drowning.

Outward and Inbound routes of the Portuguese Indian Armadas in the 1500s (source: Wikipedia)

Outward and Inbound routes of the Portuguese Indian Armadas in the 1500s (source: Wikipedia)

2. The accidental discovery of Brazil

The Second Portuguese India Armada, assembled in 1500 on the order of Manuel I and commanded by Pedro Álvares Cabral, followed the strategy of heading west and south into the Atlantic in order to catch easterly winds to blow them round the tip of Africa. But the ships went so far that they sighted a new land in the west, landed and claimed it for Portugal.

It was Brazil, whose history as a western colony begins then, in April 1500, though it was to be some time before anybody made serious attempts to land and chart it, and Crowley makes no further mention of it.

3. Rivalry with Venice

I knew the Portuguese were rivals with the Spanish for the discovery and exploration of new worlds. I hadn’t realised that the creation of a new route to the Spice Islands rocked the basis of Venice’s maritime trade and empire.

Venice had for generations been the end point for the transmission of spices from India, across the Indian Ocean, through the Red Sea to Suez, across land to Cairo, and by ship to Italy. This was all very expensive, especially the transhipment across land. Venice was rocked when the entire supply chain was jeopardised by the new Portuguese sea route, which resulted in huge amounts of spices and other exotic produce ending up on the quays of Lisbon at a fraction of the Venetian price.

With the result that the Venetian authorities sent spies to Lisbon to find out everything they could about the Portuguese navigators, their new routes and discoveries. They also sent emissaries to the Sultan in Cairo, putting pressure on him to either take punitive measures against the Portuguese, or to lower the taxes he charged on the land journey of Venetian spices from Suez to Cairo and on to Alexandria. Or both.

The sultan refused to do either. Venetian fury.

The rivalry of Venice is sown into the narrative like a silver thread, popping up regularly to remind us of the importance of trade and profit and control of the seas 600 years ago, and of the eternally bickering nature of Europe – a seething hotbed of commercial, religious and political rivals, all determined to outdo each other.

Prester John and a new Crusade

Medieval Christendom was awash with myths and legends. One such tale concerned a mythical Christian King who ruled in wealth and splendour somewhere in Africa, named ‘Prester John’.

When King Manuel sent out his conquerors, it was not only to seize the spice trade of the Indian Ocean, but to make contact with Prester John and unite with his – presumably massive and wealthy army – to march on Mecca or Cairo or Jerusalem, or all three, in order to overthrow Islam for good and liberate the Holy Places.

Vasco de Gama had this aim at the back of his mind as he set off to round the Cape, and so did Afonso de Albuquerque who, at the end of his life, was still planning to establish Christian forts on the Red Sea and to locate the mysterious John in a joint crusade against the Muslim sultan of Cairo.

If anyone was Prester John it was the self-styled ’emperor’ of Ethiopia, who some of the Portuguese did travel to meet, although he turned out – despite all his pomp and pageantry – to be completely unprepared to help any kind of European Christian Crusade against his Muslim neighbours, not least because they completely surrounded and outnumbered him.

Still, it is important to remember that the whole point of funding these expensive armadas into the Indian Ocean wasn’t primarily to open up new commercial routes: for the king and his conquerors, that was a happy side aim, but the Key Goal was to link up with the kingdom of Prester John and the imagined Christian kingdoms of the East, in order to exterminate Islam and liberate the Holy Places.

Crowley’s approach – more adventure than analysis

Crowley’s approach is popular and accessible. He prefers anecdote to analysis.

Thus the book’s prologue opens with a giraffe being presented to the Chinese emperor in Beijing in the early 1400s. This had been collected by the Chinese admiral Admiral Zheng He, who led one of the epic voyages which the Yongle Emperor had commissioned, sending vast Chinese junks into the Indian Ocean in the first decades of the 15th century. The flotillas were intended to stun other nations into recognition of China’s mighty pre-eminence and had no colonising or conquering aim.

The Yongle emperor was succeeded in 1424 by the Hongxi emperor who decided the expeditions were a waste of time and so banned further ocean-going trips, a ban which within a few decades extended to even building large ocean-going vessels: small coastal trading vessels were allowed, but the Ming emperors hunkered down behind their Great Wall and closed their minds to the big world beyond.

One way of looking at it, is that the Hongxi emperor handed over the world to be colonised by European nations.

The point is Crowley gets into this important issue via an anecdote about a giraffe, and doesn’t really unpack it as much as he could.

A few pages later, the main text of the book opens with a detailed account of the erection of a commemorative cross on the coast of Africa by Diogo Cao in August 1483. It was one of several he erected on his exploratory voyage down the west African coast.

In both instances Crowley is following the time-honoured technique of starting a chapter with an arresting image and dramatic scene. The problem is that when he proceeds to fill in the background and what led up to each incident, I think his accounts lack depth and detail. For example, my ears pricked up when he mentioned Henry the Navigator, but Henry’s life and career were only fleetingly referenced in order to get back to the ‘now’ of 1483. I had to turn to Wikipedia to get a fuller account of Henry’s life and importance.

Once on Wikipedia, and reading about Henry the Navigator, I quickly discovered that ‘the invention of the caravel was what made Portugal poised to take the lead in transoceanic exploration’, because of the light manoeuvrability of this new design of ship.

A 15th century Portuguese caravel. it had three masts and a lateen or triangular sail which allowed the caravel to sail against the wind.

A 15th century Portuguese caravel. it had three masts and a lateen or triangular sail which allowed the caravel to sail against the wind.

Crowley certainly has some pictures of caravels, and describes them a bit, but doesn’t really give us enough information to ram home why their design was so game-changing.

It may be relevant that Crowley studied Literature not History at university. He is continually drawn to the dramatic and the picturesque, and skimps on the analytical.

To give another example, Crowley periodically namechecks the various popes who blessed the armadas and gave instructions as to the converting of the heathen and fighting the Unbeliever. He briefly mentions the famous Treaty of Tordesillas of 1494, whereby Pope Alexander VI brokered the deal deciding which parts of the New World would belong to the rivals Spain and Portugal. But there is nowhere any real analysis of the enormous role the popes and the Catholic Church played in the geopolitics behind all this exploring and conquering.

Instead, Crowley is continually drawn to the most vivid and melodramatic moments: battles are described in terms of who got an arrow in the eye, and strategy is more seen as deriving from the raging impatience of this or that Portuguese commander than from higher-level geopolitical imperatives.

The personal, not the wider geo-political situation, is what interests Crowley in Europe and Indian and Islamic politics.

Crowley’s style

Crowley writes the short staccato sentences of a popular thriller – fine if you’re looking for poolside entertainment, but not enough if you’re looking for something with a little more analysis and insight.

It was time to move on. However, the wind thwarted their departure. The wind turned. They were forced back to the island. The sultan tried to make peace overtures but was rebuffed. Ten nervy days ensued. (p.67)

This is thriller writing, or the prose style of a modern historical romance.

Either Crowley, his editors or his publishers decided that hos book would be best marketed as popular, accessible, hair-raising history. Thrilling, gripping and often quite horrible history.

In the rain, with the continuous gunfire, in a tropical hell, soaking and sweating in their rotting clothes, they were increasingly gripped by morbid terror that they were all going to die. (p.275)

He gives us gripping individual scenes, but not so many real insights, let alone overarching analysis or ideas.

Thus, despite the book being some 360 pages long, and including lengthy end notes, I felt I’d only scratched the surface of these seismic events, had been told about the key dates and events, and seen quite a few hands being cut off – but was left wanting to understand more, a lot more, about the geographical, economic, technological and cultural reasons for the success of Portugal’s cruel and barbarous explorers and empire makers.

This feeling was crystallised when the book ended abruptly and without warning with the death of the bloodthirsty visionary, Afonso de Albuquerque, in 1415.

For sure he was a central figure, who grasped the strategic importance of seizing Goa, who tried to storm Aden, who arranged a native coup at Ormuz, who burned Muslim towns and ships without mercy, who chopped the hands and ears off his hostages by the score. By page 330 he had become the dominant figure of the book, almost as if it the book was at one stage intended to be a biography of just him.

So the book ends with his death in 1515 but … the Portuguese Empire had only just got going. There would be at least another century of colonising effort, in Brazil, on the coast of Africa, and further East, into Malaysia, Japan and China. A century more of adventures, wars and complex politicking.

None of that is here. Crowley briefly refers to all that on the last pages of his book, before a few sententious paragraphs about how it all led to globalisation and modern container ships. But of the real establishment and running of the Portuguese Empire which stretched from Brazil to Japan there is in fact nothing.

The book’s title is therefore a bit misleading. It should be titled something more like The generation which founded the Portuguese empire. That would excuse and explain his relatively narrow focus on de Gama, Cabra and Albuquerque, and on the king who commissioned their exploits, Manuel I. Maybe adding Manuel’s dates – 1495-1521 – would make it even clearer.

In fact, with a bit of rewriting, the book could have become Manuel I and the conquerors who founded the Portuguese Empire: that accurately describes its content.

The current title gives the impression that it will be a complete history of the Portuguese Empire – which is why I bought it – and which is very far indeed from being the truth.


Related links

The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Monet and Architecture @ the National Gallery

This is a staggeringly brilliant exhibition for a number of reasons.

1. It is about an aspect of Monet’s work – the importance of all kinds of buildings to his art throughout his career – which has never been explored before but turns out to shed fascinating light on his art.

2. It brings together 78 works loaned from an astonishing variety of galleries across America and Europe to create a unique opportunity to see so many, and so varied, Monets together in one place. Sometimes big exhibitions are based largely on a gallery’s own collection, but not here: I counted over forty galleries and collections that works have been borrowed from. And not only that; almost a quarter are loaned from private collections. This really is a once in a lifetime opportunity to see so many works – from all round the Western world – all in one place.

3. Monet really was a genius. The first three or so rooms are interesting and contain good things, but the last two rooms, full of the works of his maturity, are quite stunning – spaces in which you feel you should be on your knees praying to the more-than-human brilliance of this complete master of oil painting.

4. They’ve really gone to town on the extras for the exhibition, with not only a fascinating audioguide but in the cinema room off to one side, a long film explaining the importance of architecture in Monet. The free printed guide contains not only a detailed timeline of Monet’s life but maps of France, Italy, London and Venice showing the precise locations where many of the paintings were made.

And the gallery has co-operated with Google Arts to produce a dedicated website / online experience which allows you to see the paintings in digital clarity, alongside text explaining their creation, all playfully titled Monet Was Here.

Seven rooms

There are seven rooms. The first three look at different ways Monet used rural and village buildings, buildings set in landscapes, to point and focus the composition. The next two look at his depictions of Paris and the Paris suburbs, from the smoky railway station of the Gare St Lazare, to the new bridge being built at Argenteuil, to busy scenes at seaside resorts, to some wonderful street scenes in Paris.

Then the last two, the Temples of Monet – the penultimate room has a wall of paintings depicting the facade of Rouen cathedral in changing light with, opposite them, a wall of wonderfully atmospheric paintings of London, Waterloo bridge and the Houses of Parliament.

And the final room is devoted to ten shimmering, magical paintings of the queen of the Adriatic, Venice.

The village and the picturesque

At the start of his career Monet used strong designs, powerfully constructed. In this example, bright colours (green grass, aquamarine sea) boats and distant smoke, but all crystallised by the hut in the foreground.

A Hut at Sainte-Adresse (1867)

A Hut at Sainte-Adresse (1867)

In the 1870s Monet visited Holland where he played with the influence of the great 17th century Dutch painters of landscapes and interiors. This is a rare example of a Monet where the viewer is entirely enclosed by buildings.

Footbridge at Zaandam, 1871 by Claude Monet. Musées de Mâcon © photo Pierre Plattier, Musées de Mâcon

Footbridge at Zaandam, 1871 by Claude Monet. Musées de Mâcon © photo Pierre Plattier, Musées de Mâcon

Thus the first few rooms explore numerous aspects and experiments with buildings, in townscapes, by the sea, amid fields, from close up, seen on a shimmering horizon, playing with the impact and focus they bring to a composition.

By the sea

All through his life Monet painted sequences showing the same view, or different views of the same subject, like a chemist repeating the same experiment, trying to get at the core of a reaction.

Monet spent a lot of 1882 on the Normandy coast and painted a number of works which feature a modest custom officer’s cottage on the cliffs. Sometimes centre stage, sometimes tucked away or almost hidden, the exhibition includes three of these works to show how Monet took a building as the central focus around which he could experiment. In two of them it dominates the composition but – can you see it in this picture?

The Cliff at Varengeville (1882) by Claude Monet. Private Collection, USA, Courtesy of Richard Green Gallery, London © Photo courtesy of the owner

The Cliff at Varengeville (1882) by Claude Monet. Private Collection, USA, Courtesy of Richard Green Gallery, London © Photo courtesy of the owner

In 1888 Monet travelled to the south of France, staying at Antibes which he painted from the spit or ‘cap’ across the bay. This vantage point allowed endless experimentation with the effect of the shimmering sunlight on the blue Mediterranean.

Antibes from la Salis (1888) by Claude Monet. Private collection © Photograph courtesy of Sotheby’s

Antibes from la Salis (1888) by Claude Monet. Private collection © Photograph courtesy of Sotheby’s

These Antibes paintings include recognisable landmarks – the tower of the cathedral and the medieval castle of the Grimaldi family – but the commentary points out how, in many of his paintings, Monet very deliberately chose not to include more modern elements. For example, there’s a cluster of paintings he made of the picturesque Italian town of Bodighera, which he visited and painted in 1884, and from which he quietly excised newly built holiday homes or the new railway line.

Mist and snow

But Monet isn’t all Mediterranean sunlight. One very vivid painting is a depiction of his home village of Giverny, a few miles west of Paris, in the snow.

Monet is always conscious of the effet, the effects of changing light and weather and even of the clarity or mistiness of the air. In this snowscape it is the dimly visible buildings of Giverny, the architectural elements, which give the painting a sense of depth and volume, and the composition a focus for the eye, while the paint does the work of creating a mood.

Snow Effect at Giverny (1893) by Claude Monet © New Orleans Museum of Art

Snow Effect at Giverny (1893) by Claude Monet © New Orleans Museum of Art

Impressions not precision

At about this point I should mention that Monet isn’t a particularly accurate painter of architecture. His buildings are not mathematically precise renditions of the squares and angles which modern buildings and bridges must necessarily consist of.

I recently visited the Dulwich Picture Gallery’s excellent exhibition of Edward Bawden and I very much enjoyed the way that, whether he’s doing a watercolour of his back garden or a linocut print of Covent Garden market, Bawden’s lines are all clearly defined and mathematically precise.

Albert Bridge (1966) by Edward Bawden. Trustees of the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery © Estate of Edward Bawden

Albert Bridge (1966) by Edward Bawden. Trustees of the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery © Estate of Edward Bawden

Monet’s buildings are never this precise, even when he is painting bridges or railways stations or other highly engineered structures.

Monet’s buildings, like his trees and other elements, are created by shimmering and often vague daubs of paint, overlaid and juxtaposed to create an atmosphere, a mood, an impression, rather than efforts at precise delineation.

Because I, personally, tend to like clear defined lines, I felt ambivalent about the series of big paintings Monet did of the new Gare St Lazare in Paris in 1877, a cluster of which hang here.

The commentary makes the clever point that they are a subtle subversion of the landscape genre, with a metal and glass roof replacing the sky and the shimmers of steam replacing the foliage of trees.

Maybe so. But after looking for some time I realised that I actively dislike the inaccurate draughtsmanship of the engineered roof, lamps and above all of the beautiful and ornate steam engines. All this is a kind of lost opportunity to show gleaming metal, precisely engineered structures, rivets, pistons and coupling rods. They seem to me a kind of acknowledgement of modernity which somehow misses the point of modernity.

The Saint-Lazare Railway Station (1877) by Claude Monet © The National Gallery, London

The Saint-Lazare Railway Station (1877) by Claude Monet © The National Gallery, London

Monet’s use of urban motifs

Monet’s use of contemporary urban subjects in a manner more appropriate to his style is demonstrated in The Boulevard des Capucines, Paris painted in 1873.

The commentary makes the interesting point that the painting captures the view from the first floor of the building where the first ever Impressionist Exhibition was to be held the following year, and where this very painting would be exhibited. Always interesting to learn snippets of art trivia.

And I couldn’t help thinking that there’s a large amount of L.S. Lowry in the way Monet paints his people, or at least his crowds of tottering nine-pin-like figures.

But the real visual interest is obviously in the shadow which casts a great diagonal line across the composition. It is the contrast between light and shade which really pulls Monet’s daisy, the drama it gives to the composition, the way your eye is pulled in by the great diagonal and then wants to explore the different effets of shade and direct sunlight.

So much so that if you look closely at the big buildings on the opposite side of the boulevard, you notice that they are leaning backwards – they are not accurately and strictly vertical. Architectural accuracy is not what he’s about.

The Boulevard des Capucines, Paris (1873) by Claude Monet © The State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow

The Boulevard des Capucines, Paris (1873) by Claude Monet © The State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow

This slight wonkiness is a feature of many of the paintings. It was apparent in one of the earlier seaside paintings where an enormous white cliff seemed to be bulging out and threatening to collapse onto the beach below. The walls of the rural buildings in a number of the early village scenes seemed to meet at odd angles as if about to topple over. There’s a striking early painting of rural houses with Dutch gables reflected in the river (Houses on the Banks of the Zaan, Zaandam) where the wall of the left is leaning outwards at a perilous angle. In all of them the lines are wonky and unvertical, hazy, not ‘true’ in the engineering sense.

The point is – who cares, when he paints like this?

On the Boardwalk at Trouville (1870) by Claude Monet © Photo courtesy of the owner

On the Boardwalk at Trouville (1870) by Claude Monet © Photo courtesy of the owner

In this, as in several other seaside paintings shown side by side, the point is not the mathematical precision of the booth on the left, or the hotels on the right, of the steps down to the beach or of the planking of the boardwalk – these are all elements which go to create the overall effet.

In both boardwalk paintings the important thing is not the precision but the tremendous dynamism given by the plunging perspective of the boardwalk itself, which draws you quickly right into the heart of the painting which is all about vibrant colour, space and life.

Rouen, London, Venice

The previous five rooms have contained 50 or so good and sometimes outstanding paintings – for me the Trouville paintings and Giverny in the snow stood out, and there’s a painting of the Japanese bridge over Monet’s world-famous lily pond for fans of his garden paintings – all accompanied by fascinating and insightful commentary.

But walking into the last two rooms is like walking into a different world. Here you are brought face to face with half a dozen examples each of his famous series of paintings of the facade of Rouen cathedral, opposite a selection of the series of paintings he made of the Thames in London, before you enter the final room devoted entirely to his late paintings of Venice – and it is as if you have died and gone to art heaven.

I have rarely felt so overwhelmed and awed by such an array of astonishingly beautiful artworks.

Rouen

By the 1890s Monet had perfected his technique of having multiple canvases of the same view on the go at once, and painting each of them at a specific time of the day, switching to the next one at the clock moved on, the sun rose, and the play of light and shadows changed.

Cities were easier to do this in since he needed the space to house quite a few wet canvases and all his equipment, somewhere he could leave it all overnight. The three cities represented here – Rouen, London, Venice, were all tourist resorts famous for their great architecture.

Monet painted some 30 canvases in Rouen, between February and April 1892 and the same months of 1893. He rented various rooms from shop owners opposite the cathedral which explains why there are two distinct points of view. The five massive paintings of the facade of Rouen cathedral show that slight difference in vantage point but above all Monet’s godlike ability to capture the changes in light and colour on this elaborate and detailed architectural facade, with quite stunning results.

Rouen Cathedral (1894) by Claude Monet. Private collection © Photo courtesy of the owner

Rouen Cathedral (1894) by Claude Monet. Private collection © Photo courtesy of the owner

London

Monet first stayed in London in 1870-71 to escape from the violence of the Franco-Prussian War and the civil war in Paris which followed (a historical moment documented by the recent Tate Britain exhibition Impressionists in London).

In September-October 1899 he returned and stayed on the 6th floor of the Savoy Hotel overlooking the Thames Embankment, returning for another visit in January to April 1902. In total Monet made an impressive 100 canvases of London.

He painted the view from the Savoy he painted the view west towards Waterloo Bridge. Later he got permission to paint the houses of Parliament from the newly built St Thomas’s Hospital on the opposite bank of the Thames. In both views what interested him was the play of light.

This was made much more interesting but sometimes frustrating, by the high level of pollution in London’s air not to mention the erraticness of the English weather which made capturing exactly the same light at the same hour on successive days a challenge.

This section about London included one of the many half-finished canvases Monet made, a strikingly vague sketch of the Embankment including Cleopatra’s Needle. The commentary points out that with his London paintings, as with those of Rouen cathedral and Venice, Monet developed the paintings up to a certain point, alongside extensive sketches and notes, and then finished the paintings back home at Giverny.

Two of the Parliament paintings really stood out for me, one where the sun is flaming red and the Thames is on fire. Right next to it the exact same view at night with the moon a divided into fragments by cloud and reflecting shivers of silver all over the river surface.

But the one I really couldn’t tear myself away from was this stunning painting of an orange sun struggling through the London smog to glimmer and fleck red-gold highlights on the Thames. The painting is all about light and colour, it is a masterpiece of what oil painting can do to fill the visual cortex with pleasure – and yet the vague architectural structure of London Bridge with its neat arches, just barely visible through the smog, is a vital part of the composition in the way it enables the light to exist, to function, to perform.

Waterloo Bridge, Sunlight in the Fog by Claude Monet

Waterloo Bridge, Sunlight in the Fog by Claude Monet

Venice

Monet visited Venice in 1908, staying for two months in apartments on the Grand Canal. The floating city under a Mediterranean sun was crying out to be depicted by the greatest impressionist of all. He produced 37 canvases, of which nine are on show here.

No people. No human activity is portrayed. Just the play of unearthly pink and eggshell blue in this watery paradise. (On a practical note, observe how the buildings on the right have the characteristic Monet lean; to my eye all of them look out of ‘true’, bulging out slightly over the water – but, as mentioned before, who cares.) they are quite staggeringly, luminescently transcendent works of art.

The Grand Canal (1908) by Claude Monet © Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

The Grand Canal (1908) by Claude Monet © Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

Scholarly conclusion

The rational, historical, art scholarly conclusion is that Monet used a very wide range of buildings, more than has previously been recognised, as motifs in his paintings:

  • as the basis of designs and patterns and compositions
  • as symbols of modernity and the bustling city
  • or to emphasise rural tranquility or isolation

In all cases using buildings to create, point and highlight his subtle emotional and psychological effects. Then, later in his career, he uses buildings as the subjects of some of his most dazzling, experimental and awe-inspiring works, the London, Rouen, Venice paintings.

Emotional conclusion

Often by the end of an exhibition I’m full to overflowing with facts and impressions and a little relieved to walk back out onto the street, but I found it genuinely difficult to leave this one, in particular to leave the room full of Monet’s London paintings.

I spent a good ten minutes looking from one to another and back again, walking out the room then finding myself drawn back in, to marvel all over again at Monet’s unprecedented handling of paint and the breathtaking creation of gorgeous, transcendent, shimmering works of art.

I’ve rarely encountered such a feeling of pure, unalloyed beauty and wonder in an art exhibition.

Exhibition videos

This is an introduction to the role of architecture in Monet’s life by Christopher Riopelle, The Neil Westreich Curator of Post 1800 Paintings at the National Gallery in London.

And here is Richard Thomson, exhibition curator and Watson Gordon Professor of Fine Art at the University of Edinburgh, introducing The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Monet & Architecture.


Related links

Reviews of other National Gallery exhibitions

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