Books I read lately

I can’t recall what led me to purchase this book but remember finding it a fascinating historical study at the time. Now that Laurent has picked it up off the shelf and read it I’m tempting to go back for a second read.

Larry Muffin At Home

Some years ago Will got a book entitled  ” When London was the Capital of America” by Julie Flavell. The book is the story of colonial America and though we forget it prior to 1776 London was the Imperial Capital of all British North America, it included the 13 original colonies and the territories south, after 1763 it also included all of Canada which had passed from French domination to British after the end of the Seven Year War and the Treaty of Paris.

Flavell debunks a lot of myths about America before 1776 and its white colonists. It was the practice for American colonists especially those with money to send their sons and daughters to London or Geneva for a proper education and to learn manners and etiquette and to become proper gentleman and ladies. This was very important for social status in the American colonies, you could not…

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Throwback Thursday

One of the oh so many joys of living in Rome was taking a walking tour with Nancy.  She is an American art historian who has lived most of her adult live in Italy and has a wealth of knowledge – both technical and anecdotal – on Italy ancient and modern. And she also seems to have access to things that you just don’t see on the average tour. On one occasion she managed to set up a private evening tour of the Vatican Museum and the Sistine Chapel. After visiting it in a group of only 20 I was never able to go back during the crush of regular opening hours.

On another occasion she arranged a peek into the rare book collection of the Biblioteca Angelica – one of the first public libraries in the Western world. I thought I’d reblog three posts I wrote back in 2010 after that visit. At the end of this first repost there are links to the other two. I had several others in the works that were left unfinished and languishing in that very large “drafts” folder.

Willy Or Won't He

A week ago Tuesday I spent the morning at the public library here in Roma – well okay not just any old public library but one of the earliest public libraries in Europe. Biblioteca Angelica was founded in 1604 by Bishop Angelo (hence Angelica) Rocca, a writer and collector of rare books. He was also in charge of the Vatican Printing House during the pontificate of Pope Sextus V. He entrusted the care of some 20,000 volumes to the Monks at the convent of St Augustine, provided a building, an annuity, and regulations for its operation: the principle rule being that it was open to all people regardless of income or social status. It has functioned as a public library since 1609 and except for a few periods of renovation and civil upheaval has been a major source of learning and research material to anyone over the age of 16…

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Quote…. Unquote

coverIn at least one previous post I’ve mentioned my fondness for the writings of Washington Irving and how we used his Tales of the Alhambra (1832)as our guide book on a visit to the fabled palace in Granada.  Irving is not much read these days except perhaps in the odd children’s anthology.  It is hard to imagine that there was a time when he was one of the preeminent authors in the English speaking world and considered one of the fathers of American literature.  His writing has often been criticized – both in his own time and ours – as lacking in sophistication or having any purpose other than to entertain – as if the ability to entertain is not sufficient in itself.  Keeping that element of entertainment in mind I went to The Gutenberg Project and  downloaded a copy of Old Christmas, the five essays on an English country Yuletide that Irving included in his The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.

Washington Irving in 1820 by Gilbert Stuart Newton

Irving had gone to England in 1815 to act on behalf of his family business which had suffered losses due to the embargoes  during the War of 1812.  However despite his attempts to salvage the company it eventually went bankrupt leaving him jobless with little prospect of employment.  He was urged to return to America by his brother William, a Congressman who had arranged a political appointment for him.  But Irving turned down the offer  to stay in Europe and continue  writing.   For the first time he assumed the character of Geoffrey Crayon, a not quite innocent abroad, to chronicled, amongst many other things, his travels in England.  Mixed in with the travels of said Gent. were literary criticisms, romanticized history, mystery tales, a detective story and two of his most famous works:  Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.  In America The Sketch Book was a serialized paperback edition that first appeared in June of 1819 and new installments appeared periodically until September of 1820.  The British edition was a two volumed hardbound book published in July 1820.

Bracebridge Hall as imagined by R. Caldecott in the Frontispiece of Old Christmas.

The Christmas stories appeared in the 5th installment on January 1, 1820 and describes an unexpected country Christmas at the fictitious Bracebridge Hall – based on Aston Hall near Birmingham where Irving had been a frequent guest.  Irving was to use Aston again for his Bracebridge Hall or The Humorists, A Medley, an episodic novel expanding on the nature of the place and its people.

The copy of Old Christmas that I downloaded  was the 5th edition (1886) of a book originally published in 1875.  The Preface states that: Before the remembrance of the good old times, so fast passing, should have entirely passed away, the present artist, R. Caldecott, and engraver, James D. Cooper, planned to illustrate Washington Irving’s “Old Christmas” in this manner. Their primary idea was to carry out the principle of the Sketch Book, by incorporating the designs with the text. Throughout they have worked together and con amore. With what success the public must decide.

Crayon tells us that he had set off on a tour of Yorkshire in December and on the 24th day of that month found himself in a public coach with, it would appear, no particular destination in mind.  Being Crayon (Irving) he gives us a full description of the coachman and the young gentlemen returning home from school who were his fellow travellers as well as the people and events at the stops along the way.

At this final stop for the evening in an unnamed village he chances upon Frank Bracebridge, a travelling companion from one of his European jaunts.

Our meeting was extremely cordial; for the countenance of an old fellow-traveller always brings up the recollection of a thousand pleasant scenes, odd adventures, and excellent jokes. To discuss all these in a transient interview at an inn was impossible; and finding that I was not pressed for time, and was merely making a tour of observation, he insisted that I should give him a day or two at his father’s country-seat, to which he was going to pass the holidays, and oldchristmas_0077which lay at a few miles’ distance. “It is better than eating a solitary Christmas dinner at an inn,” said he; “and I can assure you of a hearty welcome in something of the old-fashion style.” His reasoning was cogent; and I must confess the preparation I had seen for universal festivity and social enjoyment had made me feel a little impatient of my loneliness. I closed, therefore, at once with his invitation: the chaise drove up to the door; and in a few moments I was on my way to the family mansion of the Bracebridges.

We are then taken through the two days of festivities of a Christmas in the “old-fashion style” with the good Squire, Master Simon, the Parson and the various guests, servants and villagers at Bracebridge Hall.  Squire Bracebridge favours the British traditions of Yuletide – some driven out of practice in the time of the Commonwealth, a few even then being pushed aside by the fad for the new European (German?) ways, and others simply faded from use.  A yule log still burns on his hearth; the hall is hung with the greenery of his pagan ancestors, a harper “twanging his instrument with a vast deal more power than melody” attends his banquets, a boar’s head is paraded in to the old Latin canticle, a wassail bowl is passed around the table and the guests play at mummery and blind man’s bluff.

Caput apri defero
Reddens laudes Domino.
The boar’s head in hand bring I,
With garlands gay and rosemary.
I pray you all synge merily
Qui estis in convivio.

Through Crayon’s wondering eyes the beginnings of Christmas Day in the country are set before us.  We witness to the joy of the young members of the household as they greet Christmas morning; a hearty Christmas breakfast (none of your tea and toast for the Squire!); a brisk walk around the grounds; and – the passage I enjoyed the most – a country church service with droning from both the parson and the church band.

The festivities that follow include hearty food and good ale for the locals, morris mummers, wandering musicians and country dancing.  The day is capped by a magnificent feast which begins with the parade of the Boar’s Head, ending with the cheer of a large silver Wassail bowl.  What follows are games, dancing, the telling of ghost stories and an impromptu masque led by the Lord of Misrule, once the leader of ancient Yuletide celebrations

Crayon often describes all these festivities with amusement but never mockingly; in fact there is a great deal of affection in his portrait of both the good Squire and his desire to return to the feasts and festivities of his childhood and his ancestors.  And he leaves it all on a high note as the good Squire looks on as his family, friends and retainers celebrate Christmas with all “the joviality of long-departed years”.

Crayon (Irving) ends his chronicle much in the manner of an old play with what use to be called the apology – a speech in one’s own defense.

But enough of Christmas and its gambols; it is time for me to pause in this garrulity. Me thinks I hear the questions asked by my graver readers, “To what purpose is all this?—how is the world to be made wiser by this talk?” Alas! is there not wisdom enough extant for the instruction of the world? And if not, are there not thousands of abler pens labouring for its improvement?—It is so much pleasanter to please than to instruct—to play the companion rather than the preceptor.


What, after all, is the mite of wisdom that I could throw into the mass of knowledge? or how am I sure that my sagest deductions may be safe guides for the opinions of others? But in writing to amuse, if I fail, the only evil is my own disappointment. If, however, I can by any lucky chance, in these days of evil, rub out one wrinkle from the brow of care, or beguile the heavy heart of one moment of sorrow; if I can now and then penetrate through the gathering film of misanthropy, prompt a benevolent view of human nature, and make my reader more in good humour with his fellow-beings and himself, surely, surely, I shall not then have written entirely in vain.

I believe I can satisfy Mr Irving that in my case he did not write in vain; and assure the Messrs. Caldecott and James that in my eyes they have succeed splendidly.

On this day in 1997: The British Firearms (Amendment) (No. 2) Act 1997 comes into force, banning all handguns with the exception of antique and show weapons.

Throwback Thursday

In the past 38 years we have moved 12 times: sometimes entire households; other times bits and pieces; sometimes it’s been across oceans other times just to a new apartment upstairs.  Often we have been splitting up a household to two different destinations, sometimes consolidating two inventories into one.  With each move we vow that there will be less stuff come the next one – that has yet to happen but we can always hope.

We’ve now been in the one spot for over four years – a bit of a record I believe – but a move is looming on the horizon.  Our landlord has told us that come the late spring he plans to sell the apartment so I guess it would be best to start going through our treasures and winnow out the chaff.

My friend Spo over at UrSpo was talking about going through books a few days ago and I have to admit that, for me at least, getting rid of books is always a major challenge.  In the mad grip of “we have to downsize now because Spring is only seven months away” Laurent has been going through many of his books and carting them off to the local library. I have yet to join this barbaric culling frenzy but I know it must be done, though perhaps not with the urgency that has driven him to donate The History of Polish Military Aircraft (in Polish) to the unsuspecting library.

The problem is that when I start going through books I begin to thumb the pages, read a passage here or there, look at a picture or two and …. well there goes a day lost and with alarming frequency a book back on the shelf.

I looked back on a post I wrote as we began to pack up for the last move in 2011 and though there will be fewer CDs and books I can tell you there will be one book that will go back on the shelf and come with me in the next move.

On this day in 2007: Android mobile operating system is unveiled by Google.

Willy Or Won't He

When you have to pack up house and move once every three or four years it becomes more and more of a chore. As the years pass you accumulate what George Carlin use to call in his monologue “Stuff”. And if you’re like I am that stuff runs the gamete from Art to Ziploc bags with miscellaneous nuts and bolts in them. (I thought I was pushing it with that last one so I could do the A to Z thing until I found said Ziploc bags in our tool box earlier today!) And before every pack up comes the big “if you haven’t used it in the past two years get rid of it” movement.  And it started here yesterday.

Clothing of course make up a good part of the inventory but fortunately my weight loss has made it easier to pick out what will come to Canada…

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Going To The Library – Part I

A week ago Tuesday I spent the morning at the public library here in Roma – well okay not just any old public library but one of the earliest public libraries in Europe. Biblioteca Angelica was founded in 1604 by Bishop Angelo (hence Angelica) Rocca, a writer and collector of rare books. He was also in charge of the Vatican Printing House during the pontificate of Pope Sextus V. He entrusted the care of some 20,000 volumes to the Monks at the convent of St Augustine, provided a building, an annuity, and regulations for its operation: the principle rule being that it was open to all people regardless of income or social status. It has functioned as a public library since 1609 and except for a few periods of renovation and civil upheaval has been a major source of learning and research material to anyone over the age of 16 ever since.

I believe the crest above the library entrance is that of the founder Bishop Angelo Rocca – however I’m a little confused by the Cardinal’s hat incorporated into it as I don’t believe he ever reached that exalted rank. Though it may also reflect the enormous contribution of Cardinal Passionei to the collection.

In 1661 Lukas Holste, the curator of the Vatican Library, gave his collection of 3,000 printed volumes to the Augustinians. During the period of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation its position as a repository of Augustinian thought and writings means that it is one of the prime research centres for history of that period. The acquisition in 1762 of the huge library of Cardinal Domenico Passionei, collected as he traveled through Protestant Europe as a Papal envoy, meant that books that had been banned where now in a public library.

It was during this period that the monks commissioned Luigi Vanvitelli to rebuild the reading room in 1765. It is this same room that is still in use today. Since 1873 the library has been the property of the Italian state and is currently undergoing restoration and reorganization.

Some Biblioteca Angelica facts:

It houses:

  • over 200,000 volumes in its Heritage Collection
  • 100,000 of which were edited between the 15th and 19th centuries
  • 24,000 unbound manuscripts
  • 2,700 Latin, Greek or Oriental documents
  • 1,100 incunabula – books printed before 1501
  • 460 unbound maps
  • 10,000 maps bound in volumes
  • over 120,000 volumes in its Modern Collection
Though the collection is now indexed on computer there are still facsimile copies of the first catalogues available around the room. The first handwritten record of the entire contents of the library was begun in 1748 and finally complete in 1786.

I will be putting up a few posts on some of the rare books in the collection in the next few days. (A left click below will take you to those few posts.)

Going to the Library – Part II – Travel Guides

Going to the Library – Part III – Rare and Wonderful

10 febbraio – Santa Scolastica