Friday, February 21, 2014

Curiosity or Research? Guest post by Grace Elliott

The Ringmaster’s Daughter

1770’s London

The ringmaster’s daughter, Henrietta Hart, was born and raised around the stables of Foxhall  Gardens. Now her father is gravely ill, and their livelihood in danger. The Harts' only hope is to convince Foxhall’s new manager, Mr Wolfson, to let Hetty wield the ringmaster’s whip. Hetty finds herself drawn to the arrogant Wolfson but, despite their mutual attraction, he gives her an ultimatum: entertain as never before – or leave Foxhall.

When the winsome Hetty defies society and performs in breeches, Wolfson’s stony heart is in danger. Loath as he is to admit it, Hetty has a way with horses…and men. Her audacity and determination awaken emotions long since suppressed.

But Hetty’s success in the ring threatens her future when she attracts the eye of the lascivious Lord Fordyce. The duke is determined, by fair means or foul, to possess Hetty as his mistress – and, as Wolfson’s feelings for Henrietta grow, disaster looms.


This week I'd like to welcome author Grace Elliott to the blog.  She has just launched her latest historical romance, The Ringmaster's Daughter, and I'm delighted to have her here to tell us about the research that underlies her story.  

First, a little about the author:

Grace Elliot leads a double life as a veterinarian by day and author of historical romance by night. Grace lives near London and is housekeeping staff to five cats, two teenage sons, one husband and a bearded dragon. 

Grace believes that everyone needs romance in their lives as an antidote to the modern world. The Ringmaster’s Daughter is Grace’s fifth novel, and the first in a new series of Georgian romances.

Grace Elliot

Curiosity or Research?

Hello, I’m Grace and I write historical romance but just because I write ‘romance’ does not mean I forsake historical accuracy. History drives my work and provides the premise behind each book. Take as an example ‘The Ringmaster’s Daughter’, set in the fictional Foxhall Gardens, which was inspired by the Georgian and Victorian visitor attraction, the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens.

My research takes two forms – reading papers and non-fiction books pertinent to the period and also visiting the places where my novels take place. I need to know the facts, but I’m also a ‘sensory’ writer. I need to be able to imagine the sights, sounds and smells of a place before I can write about it – and this means walking where my characters would have walked.

Research is not a linear process. A writer doesn’t start off to find out about ‘A’ to the exclusivity of ‘B’ and ‘C’. It was as an offshoot of research for ‘Verity’s Lie’ that I first visited the Foundling Museum, London. My intention was to learn about abandoned children in 19th century London, to see the tokens their mothers left, find out what the children ate and where they slept. As it happened when I went the museum also had an exhibition about Vauxhall Gardens. My knowledge of pleasure gardens was hazy but they were very popular in the 18th and 19th centuries so it seemed silly to pass up the opportunity and so I paid my £7 and went. 

I came away inspired. 

The exhibition opened with an enormous painting showing a panoramic view of Vauxhall Gardens, and a table mounted model of the layout. I saw the tree-lined avenues, the exotic buildings and fanciful lighting schemes and was hooked. My creative juices flowed and I had to know more as it seemed such a wonderful setting for adventure and romance (which indeed, was why the gardens were so popular in their heyday). There were artefacts such as tickets and metal season tickets (polished to a shine by the hands that held them), paintings that once hung on the walls of the supper boxes (and would have been gazed on as patrons ate their slices of cobweb-thin ham), and scores for the music composed by Handel to be played there. I learnt the Foundling Hospital had links to Vauxhall, and famous patrons such as the painter, William Hogarth, and the composer, George Frederic Handel, worked with the gardens on events to raise money for the foundling cause. 

This sent me off on a tangent, on a later date visiting Hogarth’s house in London, to chase the painter’s connection to Vauxhall and investigate his lifestyle. Visiting was another wonderful experience since his home is one of those places where you sense history in the walls, and thrill that you occupy the same space (albeit hundreds of years later) where the great man once lived. It transpired the Vauxhall’s proprietor in the mid 1700’s, Jonathan Tyers, employed master painters to provide high class pictures for the salons and supper boxes…

Curiosity or research? 

I decided to create my own fictional version of Vauxhall, and use ‘Foxhall’ as a common character running through a series of Georgian romances based there. This doesn’t mean the history is compromised, because I adhere to strict accuracy, but it gave me designing my own layout gave me scope for further stories. Indeed, having learnt so much about Vauxhall, January this year I visited the site of the old pleasure gardens (and blogged about it: London Then and Now: Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens ). However, I came away disappointed by the experience.

The gardens closed in mid Victorian times and housing built on the site. During the World War II the houses were bombed and mostly destroyed. In the 1950’s the council decided to return some land to being a green space again, in tribute to the famous pleasure gardens, but also none of the actual landmarks remain to the present day. Sad, very sad. However, all is not lost because the gardens live on in spirit within the pages of The Ringmaster’s Daughter…

You can buy The Ringmaster's Daughter here:

And you can learn more about Grace and about her work in these places:

Subscribe to Grace’s quarterly newsletter here:

Grace’s blog ‘Fall in Love With History’

Grace on Twitter: @Grace_Elliot

I'd like to thank Grace Elliot for joining us today with this interesting look at her research, and I know we all wish her much success with this new book.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

What building most defines medieval Florence?

The other day I was looking through the illustrated Cronica Nuova by Giovanni Villani, a medieval chronicler who lived from ca. 1276 until he died of plague in 1348.  This lavishly-illustrated manuscript dates from the early 14th century, about the time Villani wrote his history of Florence and of other parts of Italy and the world.

The illustrations depict many cities, both close to Florence and far away.  Cities in this time period are shown with towers and other tall buildings, typically sticking up inside a circle of protective walls with formidable gates.  Pretty much every city shown has these characteristics.  And yet, every picture of Florence is unmistakably, distinctively Florence.

What makes it so obvious?  How did people of Dante's time (1265-1321) choose to portray their city?  And what was it that, to the medieval viewer, signaled "Florence" at first glance?

Santa Maria del Fiore

Not the cathedral, Santa Maria del Fiore, with its famous dome by Brunelleschi.  That wasn't built yet.  At the turn of the 14th century, the cathedral was Santa Reparata, a smaller church on the site where the duomo now stands.

Ponte Vecchio

Not the famous bridge over the Arno, now known as the Ponte Vecchio.  Yes, there was a bridge in that spot, and it did have shops lining both sides, but that bridge washed away in the great flood of 1333 and was replaced in 1345 by the bridge you see above.

Both of those pictures are unmistakably Florence, but they are from a period well after Dante.  Neither the cathedral nor the Ponte Vecchio (or, for that matter, the Palazzo della Signoria) is the iconic feature that defined the city in the beginning of the 14th century.

So what was it that defined Florence, for Dante and his contemporaries?  One building:  the Baptistery.

In Dante's day, Florentines believed that the Baptistery had originally been a Roman temple dedicated to the god Mars.  Actually, this version of the Baptistery was built somewhere around the middle of the 11th century, though it was raised on the foundations of an earlier building or buildings.  An earlier baptistery stood on this space, dating from the 5th or 6th century, and it in turn may have been constructed over a Roman structure of some sort.

Illustration from Villani:  Building the Baptistery

The sides of this iconic building are clad in contrasting white and green marble in geometric patterns.  It is distinctive, and as you will see, it's easy to spot in the illustrations to Villani's history.

The Baptistery, Dante's "bel San Giovanni," is, of course, dedicated to Florence's patron saint, John the Baptist.  Until the end of the nineteenth century, huge mass baptisms were held in this building on Easter Saturday every year.

Villani's Cronica summarizes Florence's early history, as it was understood at the time.  Here's his illustration of Florence being destroyed by Totila:

The walls are down, other buildings are toppled, the defenders of the walls are headless, but there stands the Baptistery, intact and instantly recognizable.

Florentine legend dictates that the city was rebuilt by command of the great Charlemagne:

Note the banners with SPQR, indicating the involvement of Rome (hence, the empire), and the anachronistic fleur-de-lys to suggest Charlemagne.  

The iconic building appears again in depictions of a much later time - the late 12th century, during the intercity struggles between the Guelfs and the Ghibellines:

The walls are higher, the angle is different, but there's the Baptistery, leaving no doubt about what city is being shown here.

The Guelf-Ghibelline wars take up a lot of space in Villani's work, since he lived through a lot of them.  Here's Emperor Frederick II and the Ghibellines, chasing the Guelfs out of Florence:

And to give equal time to the woes of the Ghibellines, here's Ghibelline commander Guido Novello and his men, locked out of his city (as described in an earlier blog post here):

In this next picture, the exiled White Guelfs and their Ghibelline allies were more successful than Guido (above) at breaking into the city when it was their turn to try:

And in this last example, when the city was threatened by Henry VII and the new set of walls was not yet finished, you can see the city's militia forming a wall of shields to augment the unfinished stone wall:

Take a look back through these illustrations, which are only a few of those in the manuscript.  In every one, the Baptistry shows prominently, making an instantaneous identification of the city possible.

You might be wondering - I was, anyway - if the illustrators had an equivalent for other cities.  I chose to make a comparison using three cities that were close enough to Florence that they would likely have been familiar to the artists (assuming that Bruges and cities in Sicily, for example, might not have been known to them).  I picked Pisa, Arezzo, and Pistoia, which are, respectively,  53.2 miles, 50.4 miles, and 23.4 miles from Florence. 

Here's an example of how the illustrators chose to depict Pisa:

 I don't know about you, but I can't find much that's instantly recognizable in these pictures, or even anything that convinces me they are all the same city, though the wall and the gates do look similar.  I see two squarish green buildings with yellow roofs, but otherwise - no, not much to link them.

The same applies with Pistoia and with Arezzo.  Here, pictures of each city are shown in a column:

I do think I see a little continuity in Pistoia, namely a squarish green tower with crenellations, but the windows (and its neighbors) are different in each iteration.  Two pictures have a slender pink tower with a yellow pointy roof, but again, the windows are different.  

And in Arezzo the buildings seem quite fanciful, but I don't see much similarity.  Just for comparison, here's a Giotto painting of Arezzo, one of the fresco cycle in the Upper Church of the Basilica of San Francesco in Assisi:

There's a tall pink tower with a bulging top bit that might possibly also be in the middle picture above, but it's hard to tell.  By the way, Villani's Florentine illustrator has drawn square crenellations on the walls, like the ones he would have seen in Guelf Florence, but Giotto - perhaps more observant, perhaps more politically aware - has depicted the swallowtail crenellations that tell us Arezzo was a Ghibelline city.

So I think we can conclude that it was Florence's Baptistery that visually defined the city in Dante's day, and it is our very great good fortune that it still stands today, little different from the way the great poet saw it, even though everything around it has changed.

Photographs in this post and the photo montage at the top are by Timothy Heath, who holds copyright.  Other images are in the public domain, by virtue of being faithful two-dimensional representations of ancient art. 

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Games people played

It may have occurred to some of you from time to time to wonder if certain of my blog posts are nothing more than an excuse to post a lot of really great pictures.

As a historical novelist and a serious student of history, I have only this to say to such idle speculation:  you're absolutely right, and this is one of them.

I found a whole bunch of appealing pictures of medieval board games - mostly chess and backgammon, but a few others as well - and wanted to come up with a post that would use them.  However, when I began to understand just how complicated and extensive the history of such games can get, I realized I was not the person to do it justice.  I'm the one who managed not to learn how to play chess because when I was a little girl my father explained to me about the knights moving in L-shapes, and I decided I'd rather they engaged in guerrilla warfare.  What can I say - I was that kind of kid.

So I'm not going to go into the history of the games, or of how the rules changed over the course of the middle ages, even though these are fascinating topics.  But I will toss out a few anecdotes and literary references, to give us a bit of context for these popular pastimes.  And as usual, I'm focusing on medieval (that is, pre-Renaissance) Italy - long before the fanatic reformer Savonarola tossed gaming boards and pieces onto his bonfire of the vanities in Florence in the late 1400s, where they joined other "sinful" items, including books, musical instruments, paintings, beautiful clothing, jewelry, and much more that we would love to have in museums to study today. 

Savonarola, preparing for the bonfire of the vanities

Fortunately he didn't get them all, so we still have those ancient board games, with their long and unbroken (though not unchanged) traditions.  We know from many paintings and book illustrations that those game boards were not very much different from the ones we know today, and we know from various medieval books on the game of chess, for example, in what ways they did differ from today's games and in what ways they were the same.

Those who really know their chess and backgammon may be able to study particular examples of these games and figure out who's likely to win, because it was typical to show gameboards facing the viewer, against all the laws of physics, to show the details.  This was true of other games besides chess and backgammon, as well:

sideways chess

sideways alquerque

sideways dice (how do they do that, anyway?)

sideways something-or-other

This next artist must have realized it looked a bit odd; he added a little easel, for verisimilitude.

We have quite a number of literary examples of games, usually chess, ranging from a 13th century tale of ill-fated courtly love (French, but popular in Italy) to the lively romps of Boccaccio.  I'll just sketch out those two examples, to give you an idea of what the game of chess symbolized to the medieval reader or listener.

In the wonderful Palazzo Davanzati in Florence, a 14th century palace now a museum of medieval furnishings and domestic architecture, one bedroom has a fresco depicting that French tale, the story of the Chatelaine de Virgy.  In this tale, a chess game is used as a means of seduction, as the wicked duchess attempts to win the love of the noble knight who already loves a different married woman, in the usual courtly-love tradition.  She fails, gets vindictive, secrets are spilled, and it turns into a tragedy of epic proportions, with a body count approaching that of Hamlet.  Good stuff, and terribly popular.

Unfortunately I can't find a picture of the fresco in the public domain, but perhaps this one would substitute, particularly if you note the hair-raising (or at least hat-raising) effect the game seems to be having on the spurned duchess.  Maybe that's what happens when you switch to backgammon.

Backgammon: A hat-raising experience

 Giovanni Boccaccio is always good for a lively look at medieval customs and practices.  In the early part of his Decameron he has the young lady who is currently in charge of arranging recreation for the group announce that chessboards and other games are available, but then she says this:
If you take my advice on this matter, I suggest we spend this hot part of the day not playing games (a pastime which of necessity disturbs the player who loses without providing much pleasure either for his opponents or for those who watch) but rather telling stories... (translation by Mark Musa)
And it's a good thing she did, or instead of having the Decameron there would only have been a bunch of long-forgotten chess matches.

Those who watch

Also in the Decameron, the seventh story of the seventh day (sounds like it ought to be magical, doesn't it?) involves chess as a means of seduction, not unlike the story of the Chatelaine de Virgy.  In this one, the nobleman Lodovico, who is posing as one "Anichino" so that he can be employed by Egano because he's in love with Egano's wife Beatrice, uses chess to win her, cannily and subtly managing to lose, which puts her in a good mood and makes her feel awfully clever.  Here's an illustration from that story:

The odd-looking woman on the right is actually Egano dressed as Beatrice, about to receive a beating from Anichino, who is really Lodovico.  Got all that?  No?  Well, I guess you had to be there. 

 A fellow known as Jacobus de Cessolis (or Jacopo Dacciesole) is said to have written a book on chess, Solatium Ludi Scacchorum, before the year 1200.  Of course, details from this period of history being as elusive as they are, he is also said to have lived between 1250-1322, and to have published his book Liber de moribus hominum et officiis nobilium super ludo scacchorum ("Book of the customs of men and the duties of nobles or the Book of Chess") in the second half of the 13th century.  This work, whenever and whatever it was, was the basis for William Caxton's book on chess (or "chesse," as he called it), an early English book about the game published in 1474.

From Jacopo's book
Since Jacopo was said to be a Dominican monk, and to have based his book on sermons he had given, my money's on the later date, since the Dominican Order didn't become official until 1216 (late December, if you want to be specific).

Having gone from fiction to something between how-to and allegory, we'll now take a quick look at nonfiction.  For example, offhand I can remember at least two examples of people being assassinated while playing chess, which can apparently be a very distracting game (especially if you have a musical accompaniment, as these players do):

chess, with distractions

One such incident was Rizzardo IV da Camino, lord of Treviso, who was absorbed in his game that fateful April 5 in the year 1312 when his assassins - and no one knows for sure who they were - took him by surprise and, as one account says, he was "fatally wounded in the loggia."  That may sound a bit messy or even risque, but all it means is that he was playing chess in the open porch area of his palace.  Dante thinks the murderers were the city's nobles, while others suggest Cangrande della Scala, men from Padua, or even the victim's brother.  It is not known who his opponent was, or who was winning.

The other example that springs to mind is the Florentine leader Betto Brunelleschi, who was said to be the mastermind behind the 1308 death of Corso Donati.  The Donati must have believed it, because it was two Donati youths who, with their companions, came to Betto's home and wounded him repeatedly while he was involved in a game of chess.  According to chronicler Dino Compagni:

"some days later he died miserably, in a rage, without penitence or satisfaction to God or the world, and with the great ill will of many citizens.  Many rejoiced at his death, for he was a terrible citizen."  (Translation by Daniel E. Bornstein)

And finally, let's take a look at an unusual chess competition held in Florence in early 1266, at a time when Florence was under Ghibelline rule.  The podestà of Florence at that time was Count Guido Novello, who must have had a keen interest in chess, for the competition was held at the Palazzo del Popolo, which means the distinguished visitor must have been there at Guido's invitation.  The competition involved a visiting Saracen chess master named Buzzecca, who played against the three finest chess masters in Florence simultaneously, playing two games blindfolded and one over the board.  The Saracen won two games and brought the third to a draw, which was considered a remarkable accomplishment.

I hope you've enjoyed this peek at board games in medieval Italy, and I leave you with this last pre-medieval picture on papyrus:

Illustrations are in the public domain.