What Folly

Desert_View_Watchtower_Panorama

The original definition of a Folly was “a costly structure considered to have shown folly in the builder”.  In this regard the Marino Casino in Fairview, Dublin, Ireland is the perfect example of a folly.  Constructed by James Caulfeild, the 1st Earl of Charlemont on his grand estate, it was built as a residence for his daughter.  A diminutive and perfect example of neo-classical Italian style architecture constructed in the 1760’s and 1770’s.

Caulfeild and his architect, William Chambers, spent a fortune on the dwelling to construct an optical illusion. They toured Europe for inspiration, sourced materials from all over the world, such as the timber used to construct the parquet floors.

From a distance it looks like a single room pavillion decorated with columns, porticos, urns and classical friezes.  Within it is a perfectly proportioned and very human scale three bedroom house with kitchen and workrooms in the basement, reception rooms on the ground floor and bedrooms hidden on a second story that is invisible from outside.

The beauty of Marino Casino is that it is the only building remaining after the destruction of the Charlemont Estate.  Built to enhance the view from the main house, it now stands as a kind of symbol to the impermanence of power.  Like the head of Ozymandias.

The photo above shows the Indian Watchtower at Desert View on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon in Arizona.  It is neither Indian nor a Watchtower.  It is another beautiful folly.

Designed by Mary Colter, the american architect born on this day in 1869.  She was one of very few females in architecture at the time and developed a reputation as a perfectionist.  The Desert View Watchtower is a classic steel and glass erection of the 1930’s which is then veneered to present itself as some ancient relic of an Indian Nation that never was.  Built to look like a renovated ruin, a common tradition in folly building.

In classical landscape gardening a folly served as a focal point for the gaze.  It helped to frame a view.  The follys themselves took inspiration from ancient Greek and Roman temples, Crusader commanderies, Norman keeps, Tudor mansions or even natural features like gorges or caves.  Wealthy young men and women might pick up some “souvenirs” of their grand tour of Europe and these could be cemented into a folly to give it more authenticity.  The follys of England and Ireland serve in this regard as a testament to the vandalism of the upper classes, the pinnacle of which is Lord Elgin’s Marbles in the British Museum.

There was a good side to the folly story.  During the Great Hunger in Ireland follys were constructed as a form of famine relief.  Pointless work to build useless buildings as an excuse to give money to starving families.  In those days it was unacceptable to Liberal Protestant Victorians to just hand out free food to Irish Catholics in distress.  There had to be a work ethic!

Ozymandias; by Percy Bysshe Shelley

I met a traveller from an antique land,
who said “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
and wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
tell that its sculptor well those passions read
which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
the hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
and on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
the lone and level sands stretch far away.”

 

Goths of Rome

Goths

Two Goths pose with a smiling girl dressed in black.

These days if you find Goths in Rome they are likely to be nihilistic teenagers with pale skin, dressed head to toe in black.  If they seem over emotional they may be emos rather than goths.  Tribes of teenagers sacking the city of Rome may seem absurd but in ancient days the Gothic armies were probably heavily manned by teenage warriors.

The first and most famous invasion was the “Sack of Rome” by the Visigoths under Alaric.  When people speak of “Barbarians at the Gates” it is a direct reference to the Sack in 410 AD.  Not the first sack of Rome, but the first since the attack by the Gauls under Brennus some 800 years earlier.

Once breached Rome fell prey to many new opportunists.  The Vandals carried off any portable wealth that the Visigoths left when, led by Genseric, they sacked the city 455 AD.

The Goths rounded off the “4 Sacks of Ancient Rome” in 546 AD when the Ostrogoths under Totila sacked the city.

The Ostrogoths also tried in 537 AD when Belisarius occupied the City in his reconquest of Italy for Emperor Justinian.  Belisarius was Justinian’s favourite general, victor over the Persians at the battle of Dara, victor of the Vandals, the man who saved Constantinople from the Nike riots, when the people of new Rome rioted because of the shortage of good running shoes. OK, maybe that’s a lie.  The Greek for victory is Nika, from the Goddess of victory, Nike.  The password for the rioters was the word they shouted at the chariot races, so they were the Nika riots (victory riots).  When Phil Knight decided to make running shoes he decided to call them after the Greek Goddess of Victory, and as a point of information the final e in Nike is pronounced as it is in all Greek female names such as Phoebe, Penelope, Ariadne and Chloe.

It was on this day in 537 that the Siege of Rome by the Ostrogoths began.  There was no Ostrogothic sack of Rome in 537, which kind of gives a hint to how the siege will end.  Strangely enough I am currently reading Robert Graves “Count Belisarius” and by coincidence I reached the Siege of Rome on exactly the anniversary of the Siege of Rome.

As a novel Count Belisarius is not a patch on I Claudius which is a masterpiece.  The account of Belisarius reads far more like a history book than a novel.  Unlike with Claudius the author fails to bring the characters to life as living breathing people.  It is an interesting and very accurate account of events, but it struggles as a novel.

Bellisarius

The missing Menorah

Titus.png

On this day in AD 70 the siege of Jerusalem ended with the destruction of the Second Temple by Titus, son of Vespasian, at the head of a Roman army.

According to the historian Josephus the Menorah of the temple was taken as spoils of war and brought back to Rome.  It was carried in the Triumphal Procession of Vespasian and Titus and is recorded on the Arch of Titus.

Using the spoils taken from Jerusalem Vespasian constructed the Templum Pacis, the temple of peace in the Forum of Vespasian.  The Menorah was stored in the temple for hundreds of years until the sack of Rome by the Vandals in 455 AD.

The Vandals brought the Menorah back with them to their capital in Carthage, in the Roman African province, modern day Tunisia.

One hundred years later the Vandals had become soft from living on the fat of the land.  Their armies were no longer the terror of the western Mediterranean.  Emperor Justinian of the Eastern Roman Empire sent his favourite general, Belisarius, to retake Africa for Rome.  In 533 AD Belisarius defeated the armies of King Gelimer and his brothers.

According to the historian Procopius the Menorah was found amongst the treasures of the Vandals and was taken to Constantinople.  It was displayed in the Ovation given by Justinian to his victorious general.  Gelimer was prostrated before the Emperor, and was allowed to live out his life on a Roman estate.

According to Procopius Justinian gave the Menorah back to the Jews in Jerusalem.  On the one hand it is hard to believe that such an ardent Christian emperor would have given this treasure to people he regarded as little short of heretics.  On the other hand he may have looked at the fate of the Second Temple, Rome and Carthage and wondered if he really wanted to keep the Menorah in his capital.

Whatever the truth this is the end of the tale for the Menorah.  It is never seen again.  Some say it is hidden in the Vatican City and the Vandals never found it.  Others say it was looted from Jerusalem when the Persians sacked the city in 614 AD.  Some think it was in a ship that sank in the Tibur when the Vandals were leaving Rome and that it lies at the bottom of the sea outside Ostia.  Others think it was still in Jerusalem during the Crusades and was taken by the Knights Templar.  Whatever the truth it is a tempting theme for a “Da Vinci Code” style adventure, or a new quest for Indiana Jones.

Psalm III : by Allen Ginsberg
To God: to illuminate all men. Beginning with Skid Road.
Let Occidental and Washington be transformed into a higher place, the plaza of eternity.
Illuminate the welders in shipyards with the brilliance of their torches.
Let the crane operator lift up his arm for joy.
Let elevators creak and speak, ascending and descending in awe.
Let the mercy of the flower’s direction beckon in the eye.
Let the straight flower bespeak its purpose in straightness — to seek the light.
Let the crooked flower bespeak its purpose in crookedness — to seek the light.
Let the crookedness and straightness bespeak the light.
Let Puget Sound be a blast of light.
I feed on your Name like a cockroach on a crumb — this cockroach is holy.

 

African Vandals

Belisarius

General Belisarius

The Battle of Tricamarum ended the rule of the Vandals in North Africa, Dec 15th 533.  I have always felt sorry for the Vandals.  Originating in the Baltic Shield area of Scandanavia / Northern Germany they were shunted through Europe by pressure from other tribes.  Constantine gave them permission to move from modern day Poland southwards of the Danube to Pannonia, an area now covered by Austria /Hungary.

When the Huns began to raid the Roman empire the Vandals & Alans found themselves in an exposed position.  They shifted westwards through Gaul, crossed the Pyrenees and settled in North Western Spain.  The Visigoths followed them and pushed them further south.  They established themselves in southern Spain, giving their name to the region of Andalucia.

Then they migrated across to Africa and established a kingdom in the former territory of Carthage in modern day Tunis.  For a time they held sway in the region, extending their reach to Sardinia, Corsica, Sicily, Malta and the Balearic Islands.  When they sacked Rome in 455 they for all time associated their names with the act of Vandalism.  In 534, a mere 80 years later, they were wiped out by Belisarius, the famous general of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I.

The last king of the Vandals was given estates in modern day Turkey where he lived out his final days.  I can’t imagine it was a happy retirement, and inspired this poem.

 

Gelimer in Galatia

With iron fist I rule
this soft slave army
maintaining broad estates
that sour my stomach
which was made for coarser food.

I was raised on brutal fare,
the savage greatness of my folk
in days when we sacked Rome
and carried off her wealth
to our African kingdom.

My wet cousin, Hilderic King
I ousted with my brothers
for his milksop conversion
to Eastern Heresy
and the favour of that Roman Emperor.

Three years free I led my Vandals
before my nemesis landed
and slew my brother Ammatas
the day I executed
my cousin Hilderic, prisoner.

My last hope died on the winter sands
bathed by blood of my blood, Tzazo,
his regiment, my faithful soldiers
my city, my heart,
but not my life.

A hard, cold mountain winter
glued the ribs to our bellies
and though I refused to kneel
not once but twice
at last I bowed my head.

I marched in triumph once
before cheering Roman crowds
through Constantinople’s streets
bound in chains to celebrate
the glory of Justinian.

King without a crown,
with these fine lands, soft subjects,
suitably tamed
stripped of regal pride
I delivered the words they gave me.

“Vanity of vanities, all is vanity”

Vandalised

Seattle-vandals

Cathage celebrates two really bad days on this anniversary.  Firstly the Carthaginians under Hannibal lost the Battle of Zama on this day in BC 202, and then in AD 439 the Romans lost the city to the Vandals under Genseric.

Genseric, king of the Andals and the Alans,  went on to sack Rome itself, from which we get the modern term “Vandal”.  The Vandals pillaged the city but did not destroy it or set it on fire.  They broke a lot of glass windows, painted walls with graffiti and left with a lot of electronics, TV’s and other valuable consumer goods.  That last bit might be a lie.

From the tribe “Andals” we get Andalucía in southern Spain.  We also get the term popping up in G.R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones.  Jorah Mormont is apparently an Andal.

Furthermore Game of Thrones has a city called Qarth.  The original name of Carthage under the Phonecians was “The New City” or Qart-hadast.

Finally, just to clear up any confusion, the Hex key was not invented by the tribe of Alans.  The clue is in the spelling.  They are Allen Keys, not Alan keys.

 

When the world turned

La_Rendición_de_Granada_-_Pradilla.jpg

On this day,  January 6th in 1492, the world turned.  Ferdinand and Isabella entered Granada, ending over 700 years of Muslim occupation of Spain.  The Joint monarchs, Isabella of Castille and Ferdinand of Aragon, ended a journey that began in the year 718 at the Battle of Covadonga when Pelagius led his small Asturian army to glory against the Umayyad Caliphate.  The Muslim armies swept across the Strait of Gibraltar in 711 and by 719 they were across the Pyrenees and fighting in southern France.  For the next 700 years the Spanish and Portuguese Christians fought the long road to drive the Muslim armies from “Al Andalus” ( the land of the Vandals).

The taking of Granada had a profound impact upon the entire world.  For the first time the Spanish could turn from looking inwards to looking outwards.  Instead of devoting their energies to the reconquista, the reconquering of their hereditary home, they could look beyond their natural borders.

In Granada Christopher Columbus presented to Ferdinand and Isabella his scheme to round the world and reach the spice islands by sailing west across the Atlantic.  The Catholic Monarchs decided to sponsor Columbus and funded him to the tune of three ships.

So it was that in 1492 Europe discovered a “New World”.

An Irish Giant

Columbanus_at_Bobbio

Ireland is often called the ‘Isle of Saints and Scholars’.  The reason for this is Celtic Orthodoxy.  During the dark ages, and the 5th Century in particular, civil systems in Europe broke down.  The Roman Empire fragmented under the migrations of Goths, Vandals, Alans, Suebi, Burgundians, Franks, Huns, Lombards etc.  The Christian Church in the West lost cohesion and direction in this period.  Heresies flourished in the vacuum of central control.

Continental reformists tried to hold it together, the most famous being St Augustine (who resolved the Faith Vs Belief dichotomy and established the “City of God” as an ideal that could withstand the loss of place) and St Benedict (who gave the best known of the Monastic rules).  Benedict died in 543 AD, the year in which St Columbanus was born.

Columbanus is the monk who most represents what people mean when they talk of the isle of saints and scholars.  Columbanus brought Celtic Orthodoxy to Europe.  The Irish Monks began a pagan conversion mission with Germanic tribes that can be argued to have persisted in one form or another until the Eastern and Western Churches met in the Baltic States in the 14th Century Northern Crusades.

The story goes like this.  Christianity came to Ireland in the early 5th Century, when Europe was in turmoil.  A strong Celtic monastic tradition was founded and the monasteries were the dominant clerical force in Ireland.  The Irish Monasteries were insulated from the turmoil in Europe, and the invasions of pagan Angles, Saxons and Jutes experienced in England.  They acted as a reservoir for orthodox Christianity.  They also served as a well of education.  Nobles from all over Western Europe sent children to Irish Monasteries for an education in a safe environment.  Many of these children returned to their own lands as educated Christians.  They were a cohesive force for the development of Christian cooperation, and paved the way for the ascent of Christian kings in Europe such as Clovis and the Merovingian dynasty.

Arianism was more pervasive than Catholicism in the Frankish courts when Clovis came to power.  His alignment with Catholicism was controversial and may have lost him some military support.  Ultimately it gained him allies from non-Frankish races, such as the Britons and the remaining Gallo-Roman aristocracy.

Without Clovis we would not have had a unified Frankish kingdom in the West.  Without the Franks Charles Martell could not have risen to power.  The Armies of Islam could have smashed Europe unopposed in the 8th Century.  We would never have had Charlemagne and the Holy Roman Empire.  The Irish Monastic Education system was the little acorn from which the Holy Roman Empire grew.

From Ireland St Columba established missions to Britain from his Monastery in Iona in Scotland, seeking to convert the pagan Picts of Scotland and the Anglo-Saxon tribes of England.

At the same time St Columbanus took Irish missions to mainland Europe.   The significance of his mission might be suggested by the fact that he took 12 companions or ‘apostles’ with him.   Of these two Columbanus can be seen to have had the more significant effect on the wider stage.  In Europe he established Celtic monasteries in France and in Italy.  He challenged the emergence of heresies such as Arianism and Nestorianism.  In doing so he was criticizing Papal Authority, because he questioned why the Papacy was allowing the dilution of orthodoxy.  He established an Irish monastic tradition on the European mainland which demanded a response from Rome.

Many Celtic practices differed from those in Rome.  The rule of Columbanus was stricter than the rule of Benedict.  The tonsure was visibly different, the Celtic monks shaving the front of the head and the Romans shaving the crown.  The date of Easter was calculated differently also.  All of these things brought the Irish monks on a collision course with Rome.

Columbanus, by coincidence, was born in the year Benedict died, and died on this day in the year 615AD.   Over the following decades the Papacy rebuilt its influence and Roman practices replaced those of the Irish.  It was 50 years before the clash between the Celts and Rome was fully and finally resolved by the Synod of Whitby in the Jute Kingdom of Northumbria, in England.

The legend of Ireland, as an isle of Saints and Scholars, was attributable to actions that happened largely in a period of only 50 years but had impacts over thousands of years.