Prostitution in Renaissance Italy: The “Necessary Evil”

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A 15th-century depiction of a brothel. You can imagine the man walking in saying, “Well, at least the prostitutes are women.”

In the wake of the fourteenth-century plague, which killed over half of Italy’s populations, cities were faced with a crisis. To make matters worse, Italian men seemed uninterested in repopulating the peninsula, struck by a sin worse than death—same-sex attraction. Fifteenth-century preacher Bernardino of Siena railed that “even the Devil flees in horror at the sight of this sin.”

Italian cities responded by encouraging prostitution. In 1403, the government of Florence opened an office to promote prostitution in order to prevent the worse sin of sodomy. Venice legalized prostitution in 1358 and created a brothel district in the commercial heart of the city, the Rialto.

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Cesare Vecellio’s “Public Whore” waves a flag and wears high-heeled chopines. (1598)

Prostitution was a reality of life in Renaissance Italy. But in spite of its legality, Renaissance Italians had a mixed opinion of the profession. The medieval church had declared prostitution a “necessary evil,” drawing on St. Augustine of Hippo’s proclamation that “If you do away with whores, the world will be consumed with lust.” Thomas Aquinas likewise declared in the thirteenth century that “If prostitution were to be suppressed, careless lusts would overthrow society.” Aquinas likened prostitution to a sewer in a palace—if you took it away, the building would overflow with pollution. Or, more specifically, “Take away prostitutes from the world and you will fill it with sodomy.”

Prostitutes, then, served as receptacles of sin, protecting the rest of society from male lust. And, in particular, they kept male passions focused on women, rather than other men.

But legalization did not mean prostitution was an esteemed profession. It was heavily regulated, as cities passed laws to ensure that honorable citizens could avoid the corrupting influence of prostitutes. Venetian prostitutes had to wear a yellow scarf in public. In 1384, Florence passed a law forcing prostitutes to wear bells on their heads, gloves, and high-heeled shoes.

Let’s talk for a minute about these special shoes—they were called chopines, and they likely originated with Venetian prostitutes. These heels could be up to twenty-four inches high (and I thought four inch heels were tricky!). Patrician women were so enamored with the style that laws forcing prostitutes to wear the shoes were passed to discourage “good” women from donning them. Those efforts failed.

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Pietro Bertelli’s flip-up courtesan shows off the woman’s chopines as well as her undergarments. (c. 1588)

Renaissance prostitution was meant to channel male lust in appropriate directions, and as such, prostitution reinforced gender norms. Venice, for example, encouraged women to run brothels, because men relying on the earnings of prostitutes inverted normal gender relations. The city worried that men who lived off of women’s earnings would become dangerously lazy and fall into a life of crime. In an ironic twist, this attitude put a great deal of power in the hands of “matrons,” who were integrated into Venetian business at multiple levels.

Expensive, educated courtesans were also able to use their position to enhance their independence. Tullia d’Aragona, a sixteenth-century Roman courtesan, published multiple books and owned many houses. Another famous courtesan, Veronica Franco of Venice, was a published poet of great distinction. When King Henry III of France visited Venice in 1574, the city hired Franco to entertain him. These two women were widely admired for their works, and had a degree of freedom unmatched by their married cousins. Another courtesan, Angela del Moro, served as the model for Titian’s Venus of Urbino.

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Titian’s Venus of Urbino, thought to portray his companion Angela del Moro, a Venetian courtesan.

Legalized prostitution reinforced gender norms, but in limited cases it provided opportunities for women to assert power. As madams or courtesans, women could own property, publish, and achieve social acclaim. Yet for the majority of Renaissance Italian prostitutes, it was a hard life, and often not one they chose. Prostitutes were exploited by the brothels and by the cities, often treated no better than the sewers to which Aquinas likened them. They existed on the margins, their exploitation justified for the “greater good” of society.lionandfox_coverfa-small

Sylvia Prince is a history professor and author. Her debut novel, The Lion and the Fox, is set in the cutthroat world of Renaissance Florence, and follows Niccolo Machiavelli as he solves the murder of a Medici. It also features male and female prostitutes, as well as a female brothel owner. Find out more at Sylvia’s website www.sylviaprincebooks.com and find her on Facebook and Twitter @sprincebooks.

Sources

Brackett, John K. “The Florentine Onesta and the Control of Prostitution, 1403-1680.” Sixteenth Century Journal, v. 24, no. 2 (Summer 1993), pp. 273-300.

Clarke, Paula C. “The Business of Prostitution in Early Renaissance Venice.” Renaissance Quarterly, v. 68 no. 2 (Summer 2015), pp. 419-464.

Mormondo, Franco. The Preacher’s Demons: Bernardino of Siena and the Social Underworld of Early Renaissance Italy

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Love Below Stairs: Rembrandt and His Maids

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Bathsheba at Her Bath. Rembrandt (1653)

Tales of masters involved with their maids have as much allure today as they did in history. In the news, we read sordid tales of Hollywood stars romantically involved with their personnel and the scandal reports of shameless household help preying on vulnerable celebrities. But what makes these relationships so intriguingly immoral? Is it the element of adultery because many of the employers are married? Or is having a relationship in the workplace what makes this arrangement taboo?

Analyses of the behavioral patterns between employers and employees fill volumes of psychology books. A certain power imbalance arises when two people enter into a vocational relationship. The employer has the upper hand, holding not only the threat of termination over the employee’s head but also holding the purse strings. One could say, the employer holds an employee’s very existence in his hands. As with any power imbalance, there is a risk that this power could be abused. Or a more commonplace risk could arise: a romantic relationship could develop in the workplace. These risks compound the intrigue, especially when the employees are working in private homes.

Let’s concentrate on the recipe for a good master and maid tale: a household hires a housekeeper. The household does not fit into the modern concept of the nuclear family in a loving marriage. Maybe this is a marriage arranged for business and social reasons. For some reason the husband and wife live together but separate. The husband may travel frequently. The wife may be preoccupied with childbearing. The housekeeper has daily and intimate contact with the master. A kind word, a smile, a wink, a touch, a kiss…The master feels he has the right to take his maid, however he desires, with her consent or against her will. Maybe some gratuity changes hands.

These tales often concentrate on male employers and their use and misuse of their female help. Surely, male household employees are misused as well, but the majority of these cases involves women. The proof of female employees caught in unsavory circumstances is often obvious in the form of an unwanted pregnancy and the subsequent fall from grace forever.

In his book The Unwanted Child: The Fate of Foundlings, Orphans and Juvenile Criminals in Early Modern Germany, Joel Harrington reports the case of a young maid and her descent into disrepute by bearing a child, the result of a unwanted pregnancy caused by her employer. During Harrington’s research, he notices that the legal records were crammed full of reports of maids involved in fornication, abortion, abandonment and infanticide cases. He reasons that “domestic service entailed geographic and thus social displacement. Most young women…served fairly near their homes but far enough away to require a new social network.” Considering the stage in their development, that being late teens and early twenties, the young women were exposed to a multitude of “voluntary and involuntary sexual relations.”

They were almost completely dependent on their employers for food and board and leaving even abusive circumstances would result in forfeiting pay and termination of the contract, as well as shame to their families. “A maid impregnated by her employer was in fact the most common adultery scenario among married men throughout the early modern era.”

As with many historic vocational relationships, payment would only ensue at the end of the employment contract, be that a year or two years, and termination could mean forfeiting all the wages due. Historically, the best-paid women employees, like cooks and nannies, were maybe paid as well as their worse-paid male counterparts. But there were ways maids could better their positions. The master may have hinted that there were extra jobs to do and money would change hands. Maybe even a promise of marriage would preceded a sexual encounter. Although, in his book, Joel Harrington says, “…marriage was at best a cruel delusion.”

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The French Bed. Rembrandt (1646)

To be fair, there are reports in historical records of genuine love and affection between masters and maids, even if the relationships between them did not end in marriage. A famous example of a master involved with his maid(s) is that of the Dutch painter, Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn. Born in 1609 in Leiden, Holland, and educated there too, he soon made himself a name and moved to Amsterdam in 1631, a promising career budding. There he met his art dealer’s cousin, Saskia van Uylenburgh, and in 1634, he married her. The couple lived in better circumstances even though a dark cloud shrouded their affluence. Saskia bore three children and none of the three infants survived. Then in 1641, Sakia gave birth to their son, Titus. Saskia sadly died a year later. During the time of Saskia’s illness, Rembrandt hired a governess, Geertje Dircx, to help him raise Titus. Around that time, he also hired a housemaid, Hendrickje Stoffels.

Rembrandt’s relationship with Geertje was an intimate one, to the point that he gave her a silver marriage medal, although not engraved. At this time he painted his most sexually explicate works like The French Bed (above) and The Monk in the Cornfield (below), considered pornographic for the 1640’s. He also gave Geertje some of Saskia’s jewels. Although Rembrandt and Geertje were betrothed, even though he later disputed this, they never married. He would have lost Titus’ trust fund, money set up in Saskia’s will, had he remarried and he could not afford to do that. Even though Rembrandt was a successful portrait painter, he was known to live above his means and had money problems.

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The Monk in the Cornfield. Rembrandt (1646)

When did the relationship between Rembrandt and Geertje sour? When did Geertje notice that Rembrandt preferred the young maid, Hendrickje? Maybe when Geertje noticed that Rembrandt looked “…at the young woman (Hendrickje) an instant longer than was quite necessary between a master and a maid,” as reported in the book Rembrandt’s Eyes by Simon Schama. Maybe when Geertje began to hint that a Christian marriage was what she really wanted. Maybe the problem escalated when Geertje noticed that Rembrandt took Hendrickje into his bed and no longer wanted her.

In 1649, Geertje was ousted, out of the relationship and out of the house. Rembrandt demanded that Geertje make a will leaving the jewelry he gave her to his son, Titus, should Geertje die. Geertje could ‘use’ the jewels, promising never to sell or pawn them, and he would pay her a yearly stipend, as long as she made no further demands on the artist. Hendrickje was even summoned in front of commissioners to testify that Geertje had agreed to this arrangement in front of witnesses and had no further claim on Rembrandt. The situation escalated further when Geertje pawned the jewels and continued to escalate until Rembrandt testified that Geertje was of “unsound mind.” Her detention ensued. In 1651, Geertje was confined to the Gouda Spinhuis, a correctional spinning house for wayward women. Even after her release in 1655, she continued to pester him.

In the meantime, Hendrickje proved to be a valued companion for Rembrandt, although he never married her, either. The immoral relationship did not go unnoticed by the Dutch Reformed Church. Hendrickje was summoned by the Church Council in 1654 when the swellings of her pregnancy were noticeable. She was “informed of the full depths of her depravity and wickedness…and formally banned from the Lord’s Supper, the Calvinist communion.”

Rembrandt painted what was considered the most beautiful of his nudes, the last nude painting of his career, in 1654, Bathsheba at her Bath (top), supposedly modeled by Hendrickje. They had a daughter, Cornelia, in 1654. Hendrickje remained with Rembrandt as his companion and business administrator until she died in 1663. Rembrandt died in 1669.

main-photo-very-smallLaura Libricz was born and raised in Bethlehem PA and moved to Upstate New York when she was 22. After working a few years building Steinberger guitars, she received a scholarship to go to college. She tried to ‘do the right thing’ and study something useful, but spent all her time reading German literature. She earned a BA in German at The College of New Paltz, NY in 1991 and moved to Germany, where she resides today. When she isn’t writing she can be found sifting through city archives, picking through castle ruins or aiding the steady flood of musical instruments into the world market.

Her first novel, The Master and the Maid, is the first book of the Heaven’s Pond Trilogy. The Soldier’s Return and Ash and Rubble are the second and third books in the series, to be released 2017. A great way to get in touch is through https://about.me/lauralibricz for all the important links to her books and social media!

Sources

Harrington, Joel. The Unwanted Child: The Fate of Foundlings, Orphans and Juvenile Criminals in Early Modern Germany. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2009.

Schama, Simon. Rembrandt’s Eyes. New York: Random House / Alfred A. Knopf, 1999.

Stop by Sartle for more on Rembrandt’s work here

Art is the Best Revenge: Painting Justice with Artemisia Gentileschi

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Artemisia Gentileschi. Self-portrait, 1638-9.

Centuries before feminism had a name, post-Renaissance artist Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1653) made waves with exemplary work in a male-dominated medium. Raped at seventeen, she channeled her trauma into her art, raising questions about the mistreatment of women with paintings of staggering beauty and brutality. Of fifty-seven known paintings, forty-nine feature female heroines from history and mythology in positions of strength, many of them also survivors of sexual assault.

Artemisia Gentileschi was born in Rome in 1593. Her father, Orazio Gentileschi (1563-1639), was an established artist who taught her to paint while she was growing up. By the age of sixteen, she already showed great promise, but was rejected by more formal academies. Wanting to nurture his daughter’s talent, Orazio arranged for Artemisia to be tutored by a friend of his, artist Agostino Tassi (1578-1644).

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Susanna and the Elders. AG, 1610.

Perhaps the first hint that Tassi was not exactly a gentleman can be found in Susanna and the Elders (1610). The Biblical Susanna was a virtuous young woman who was sexually harassed by some of the older men in her community. While many male artists had depicted Susanna as compliant or even flirtatious, Artemisia’s heroine is anything but: she is disgusted and exposed, shielding herself from two men almost falling over each other to leer at her.

By 1612, Orazio had taken Tassi to court for raping his daughter. Artemisia testified he had forced himself on her, and she had fought him so savagely that she removed a chunk of flesh from his penis. After the rape, Tassi pressured her into having an ongoing sexual relationship with him with the promise he would eventually marry her. Tassi was already married and could fulfill no such promise, but continued to abuse Artemisia until her father brought charges against him.

It wasn’t Tassi’s first run-in with the law. He had already been tried for rape, incest, and the attempted murder of his wife. Artemisia, his latest victim, was a well-behaved young woman of eighteen. So what happened?

They tortured her.

Although Tassi’s defense was contradictory and blatantly false, the court didn’t believe Artemisia’s claim that he had raped her. She was subjected to a humiliating physical exam in front of the court to prove she was no longer a virgin, her character was questioned, she was accused of promiscuity, and then she was tortured with thumbscrews while her rapist watched. Over months of witness testimonies and torture, Artemisia never once changed her story and Tassi was eventually convicted. He chose banishment from Rome over imprisonment, but he was back within a few months. By now it was common knowledge that he was a real piece of work, but he had friends in high places: Pope Innocent X was a big fan of his landscapes.

Tassi may have escaped justice through the courts, but Artemisia wasn’t done with him. Now a far superior artist to her one-time tutor, she took her revenge in a series of masterful paintings depicting women equal to or dominating men. At least half a dozen show women physically assaulting men, such as the story of Judith and Holofernes:

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Judith Slaying Holofernes (1612, and again in 1620): As the story goes, Judith was a Jewish widow. When her town was attacked by Assyrian general Holofernes, she took advantage of his attraction to her by going to his tent with him and then decapitating him as he was passed out drunk. This story has been interpreted by several notable artists including Botticelli, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, and even Kilmt in the twentieth century, but Artemisia’s is undoubtedly the most graphic. It was owned by the Medicis, but hidden for years as it was considered too brutal to display. Two versions of this were painted, the first just after Tassi’s trial.

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Caravaggio’s Judith (left) and Gentileschi’s Judith (right)

This painting is a clear tribute to Caravaggio’s work of the same name, but Artemisia takes it further. Artemisia’s Judith is more mature and self-assured. While Caravaggio’s Judith hesitantly beheads her attacker with a look of distaste on her face, Artemisia’s Judith is all business. She looks almost bored as she hacks off Holofernes’ head as if it’s something she does–or has thought of doing–every day.

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Judith and Her Maidservant (1613-14) : Here we see Judith leaving with her maidservant, sword in hand. Holofernes’ head is in a bag, bottom left. Her hairpin here depicts David, who likewise removed the head of Goliath.

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Judith and Her Maidservant With the Head of Holofernes (1625): In the last of this series, the head is bottom center as Judith and her maid escape into the night.

And then there’s Jael and Sisera (1620):

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Sisera was a Canaanite leader who had ruled over the Israelites for many years. Following his defeat by the Isrealites, Sisera sought refuge in Jael’s tent, only to have a tent post hammered into his brain once he fell asleep.

Artemisia painted heroines she could relate to, such as Lucretia, the classical victim of rape, and other famous “fallen women” like Mary Magdalene and Cleopatra. Lucretia and Cleopatra are shown in the moments prior to suicide: instead of despair, they seem to question the idea that they ought to take their own lives. Surely a woman is worth more than the concept of “honor” attached to her body?

Artemisia seemed to think so. She married another painter and worked as an artist her whole life, fulfilling commissions for the Medicis and England’s Charles I. She was a friend of Galileo, painted a ceiling for Michelangelo’s nephew, and inspired countless other women artists to follow in her footsteps during her lifetime.

As for Tassi, his work has fallen into obscurity and he is now primarily known as Artemisia’s rapist. I wasn’t able to find a portrait of him, but we might be able to guess what he looked like…

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Jessica Cale

Further Reading:

Brash, Larry. Artemisia Gentileschi.

Christiansen, Keith, and Mann, Judith. Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi

Sartle. Category: Artemisia Gentileschi

 

Death in the Walls: How Scheele’s Green Poisoned Victorian Britain

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The Arsenic Waltz. Punch, 1862. Cartoon mocking the popularity of arsenic dyes.

Now held up by some as people of taste, the Victorians were magpies, associating clutter, knickknacks, and complicated patterns with comfort. Minimalism was not part of the conversation, and behind the dozens of paintings, engravings, and reproductions you could expect to find on the walls of an upper middle-class household, the walls would be bursting with a kaleidoscope of color.

Mass production allowed people on almost any income to paper and carpet their houses cheaply. Cylinder printing and the development of artificial dye following chemist William Perkin’s discovery of mauveine in 1856 meant that even the most modest of Britain’s houses could be colorful. Elaborate patterns with multiple colors were popular, the brighter the better. Plaids and three-dimensional flower patterns sold well, and many of the more expensive patterns were detailed with gold leaf that would fade to brown with the passage of time. To the modern eye, many of these would be frankly nauseating, and we are not the only people to think so.

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The Great Exhibition of 1851. If you listen closely, you may be able to hear William Morris vomiting outside.

As a response to the wildly popular French Industrial Exposition of 1844, Britain held the Great Exhibition of 1851. Intended to showcase industrial design from around the world, it ran from May until October in the Crystal Palace, a temporary structure erected for the purpose in Hyde Park. It was so popular that an estimated six million people–one third of Britain’s population at the time–visited, generating enough revenue in ticket sales to not only cover the cost of the event, but the surplus was used to found the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Science Museum, and the Natural History Museum. Queen Victoria herself visited three times.

The exhibition was a hit, but not everyone enjoyed it. William Morris attended and according to Liza Picard, he “so deeply, viscerally, deplored the examples of modern taste on view there that he had to leave, and be sick outside.” That’s right, the decorative arts on show at the Great Exhibition were so horrible that William Morris vomited. When he recovered, he got to work. Ten years later he founded the firm of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Company (later known just as Morris and Co.).

William Morris became a leader of the Arts and Crafts movement, a response to the haphazard aesthetic resulting from mass production, cheap materials, and artificial dyes cluttering the nation’s sitting rooms. As a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Morris viewed the middle ages with a certain nostalgia, longing for a time of artistic and moral integrity before the advent of disposable furnishings. He founded Morris and Co. to produce furniture, tiles, textiles, and other household items using high quality materials and traditional methods. Although his ideals were socialist at heart, only the very wealthy were able to afford them at the time. One of their most popular products that remains popular to this day was their wallpaper. Morris’ Acanthus pattern from 1876 was printed with thirty blocks and fifteen different colors of dye.

Decor to Die For

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Embroidery Woman. Georg Kersting, 1817

Scheele’s Green was a vibrant, arsenic-heavy pigment so popular it could be found throughout Britain and much of the Continent throughout the nineteenth century. It was used as a dye in wallpaper, carpet, paint, clothing, children’s toys, candy, cake decorations, and artificial flowers. Everyone used it to dye their products, including William Morris. It was so popular, Britain was said to be bathed in it. It is estimated that by 1858, there were one hundred million square miles of Scheele’s Green wallpaper in Britain alone.

As early as 1839, German chemist Leopold Gmelin noted that damp rooms papered with the color produced a toxic acid within the walls and warned the people of Germany against using it by publishing his findings in Karslruher Zeitung, the daily newspaper. Reports of illnesses and deaths in Britain supported his findings.

Soon after Gmelin published his report, four children from London’s Limehouse district tragically fell ill and died of respiratory troubles after their room was papered in green. When the paper was tested, it was found to contain three grains of arsenic per square foot, a lethal dose for anyone, let alone children. Girls employed in the construction of artificial flowers in Clerkenwell were poisoned over time by the arsenic used to dye the leaves.

In 1857, physician William Hinds reported extreme nausea, cramps, and light-headedness every night in his study after he had papered it with Scheele’s Green. Suspecting the paper, he had it removed and his symptoms resolved. He concluded that, “a great deal of slow poisoning is going on in Britain.”

Although arsenic was found in many common products, it was the wallpaper that caused the most serious issues. They didn’t have to lick it to fall ill, either. Wallpaper dyed with Scheele’s Green could poison the house’s occupants slowly by releasing poison dust into the air. The dust was inhaled or absorbed through the skin. The Lancet reported that the playroom of a three-year old boy who had died from it was covered in arsenic dust. His was not the only room full of it; arsenic dust could be found lining the picture frames, shelves, knickknacks, and all of the eclectic clutter that covered the Victorians’ walls and floors.

Unfortunately, Arsenic poisoning could not be prevented by a thorough dusting. In 1891, Italian physician Barolomeo Gosio confirmed the damp and mold living in the wallpaper paste and the walls of the houses metabolized the arsenic to produce a poisonous gas later identified as trimethylarsine.

Throughout the nineteenth century, there were countless reports of related illnesses and deaths. People wasted away in bright green rooms, or died suddenly when green candles were lit. Arsenic is also a powerful carcinogen, so those not poisoned quickly could still face serious health problems over time. The toxicity of the dye was compounded by the fact that windows were kept closed against the pollution in the air outside, keeping the occupants boxed inside walls emitting poison gas.

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William Morris’ Trellis pattern (1862) was one containing arsenic pigment

Even William Morris, the champion of quality furnishings, used the pigment in many of his pieces produced between 1864 and 1875. It’s worth noting that Morris also owned Devon Great Consols, the largest arsenic producer in the world at that time, and his profits from it made the founding of Morris and Co. possible. Although his own workers in DGC were frequently ill and periodically dropped dead of lung disease, Morris dismissed the suggestion that arsenic might be the cause. The toxicity of Scheele’s Green had been suspected since the 1830s, but Morris assumed if the danger was real, it would have been publically confirmed. Fortunately, the company that produced his wallpaper, Jeffreys and Co., were convinced enough to change their green dye in 1875. Morris also resigned as director of DGC the same year.

The turning point for Scheele’s Green came in 1879 when a foreign dignitary visiting Queen Victoria became seriously ill in a guest room papered in the color. Victoria was so horrified, she ordered all the green paper to be removed from Buckingham Palace immediately. Following the queen’s example, the public stopped buying green wallpaper or sought brands that used arsenic-free dye. Years after it was replaced with the far less toxic zinc green, Scheele’s Green was repurposed as an insecticide.

After fifty years of deaths appearing to be caused by the wallpaper, the National Health Society drew up a bill asking for a total ban on the use of arsenic in household products in the 1880s. Unfortunately, arsenic production was extremely profitable, and the bill was rejected by the physician MP who received it. Parliament dismissed it and did not discuss it again.

No legislation was ever passed in Britain preventing the production of arsenic wallpaper.

Happy Halloween,

Jessica Cale

Sources

Ball, Philip. William Morris Made Poisonous Wallpaper. Nature, June 12th, 2003.

Flanders, Judith. Inside the Victorian Home. Norton, 2003.

Haslam, Jessica Charlotte. Deadly Decor: A Short History of Arsenic Poisoning in the Nineteenth Century. Res Medica, Journal of the Royal Medical Society. Volume 21, Issue 1.

Meharg, Andy. The Arsenic Green. Nature, June 12th, 2003.

Paterson, Michael. Life in Victorian Britain. Constable & Robinson, 2008.

Picard, Liza. Victorian London. St. Martin’s Press, 2005.

Further Reading: If you’re curious about The Great Exhibition, click here to view Dickinson’s Comprehensive Pictures of the Great Exhibition of 1851 online. Loads of wonderful colored illustrations.

Monsters Are Real: Hieronymus Bosch and the Medieval Mind

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The Garden of Earthly Delights, Hieronymus Bosch. Undated triptych.

Hieronymus Bosch, born Jeroen Anthonizoon van Aken, was born around 1450 in the market town of ‘s-Hertogenbosch in Brabant in the Netherlands. Very little is known about the man himself outside of the work he left behind. Part Flemish tradition, part surreal fever dream, his unflinching depictions of the follies of man and nightmarish vision of hell offer the modern viewer an unparalleled look into the medieval psyche. His work is a window into the religious fervor of the middle ages through which we can see questions of morality, harsh lessons on the nature of sin, and the pervasive fear of eternal damnation.

He is, without a doubt, the most metal painter of the Renaissance.

Bosch was one of the first artists known to paint primarily from his imagination. When travelers and traders brought stories of the middle east and Iceland to ‘s-Hertogenbosch, he incorporated their descriptions into his work, giving his landscapes a distinctly foreign flavor. Animals appeared in paintings that he had never seen in person, notably a little silver giraffe in the left panel of The Garden of Earthly Delights (above. In case you don’t see it right away, it’s between the bear and the striped porcupine, beside the two-legged dog).

As a teenager, Bosch witnessed a massive fire that destroyed more than 4,000 houses in ‘s-Hertogenbosch and killed countless people and livestock. Fire is a recurring theme in his work and particularly vivid are his flaming skies.

Unlike many artists, Bosch enjoyed success during his lifetime due in no small part to the Church’s patronage. His art may have been a calling, but it was also his profession, and he worked mainly on assignment. We may be able to glean a little about his worldview from his paintings, however. Many of his humans are grotesque and inherently sinful, and his judgement of them is clear. His work suggests a deeply pious man with a sharp intellect, a visionary imagination, and a rather dark sense of humor.

The detail demands your full concentration. In order to take in all the monsters and nightmarish punishments, you can easily lose an hour staring into hell. This is no vague impression of hellfire or in the older tradition, ice, but a painstakingly detailed depiction of the imagined horrors of damnation that is both oddly comic and deeply disturbing. It draws your attention in a way that is not coincidental; as most of his work was commissioned by the Church, it was intended to encourage meditation and to inspire the kind of fear of divine punishment that would keep the churches full come Sunday. Given the intent was to scare people straight, it’s no wonder that his depictions of hell are particularly detailed and imaginative.

Bosch’s surrealist vision was so ahead of his time, it looks like something that would fit more easily alongside Dali than in the Northern Renaissance. It’s difficult to look at it without immediately thinking of hallucinogenic drugs that could not have existed in the Netherlands in the 16th century.

LSD might have been a long way away, but there are over more than a dozen species of poisonous mushrooms in the Netherlands, including the Death Cap and the iconic red and white Fly Agaric that was thought to have inspired Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Most of these would have been found in the dense forest surrounding ‘s-Hertogenbosch. By the sixteenth century, the the Fly Agaric had been used in Northern Europe for spiritual as well as culinary purposes for some time, while the Death Cap can easily be mistaken for other edible varieties of mushrooms.

We’ll never know for certain whether Bosch used mushrooms, but as Grunenberg points out, “in The Haywain, there is evidence suggestive of Bosch’s knowledge of the Amanita muscaria mushroom and the apocalyptic hallucinations it can induce.”

Bosch’s monsters have been attributed to mushrooms, rancid rye bread, alchemy, Freudian theory, and even a mystical sex cult, but the truth was probably more mundane.

It was the middle ages. Monsters were everywhere.

St. John’s Cathedral in ‘s-Hertogenbosch was under construction over the course of Bosch’s entire life. The cathedral is decorated with intricate monsters and angels, so not only was Bosch not the only one seeing them, he wasn’t even the first. While we might not think of most supernatural beings as part of the Christian tradition today, in the middle ages, many still believed in magic and mythical creatures were thought to haunt everything from forests and ponds to the very air they breathed. He used arcane symbolism to communicate his meaning, so many of the aspects that confuse us today would have made more sense at the time.

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The Last Judgment, Hieronymus Bosch. Undated triptych.

Death was a constant threat and people turned to the Church for salvation. It was not in the Church’s best interest to comfort them. It was fear that brought them in, and fear that drove them to purchase indulgences as insurance for the afterlife. Interestingly enough, Bosch himself was a member of the Illustrious Brotherhood of Our Blessed Lady, a deeply religious organization that was sustained through the sale of indulgences. The Brotherhood claimed indulgences purchased for the dead could pull souls directly out of hell, and after getting a good look at what that might have been like, it’s no wonder people would have wanted to save their loved ones from it.

After his death, all of Bosch’s paintings were snapped up by collectors across Europe until at one point, every single piece was in a private collection. Philip II of Spain – husband of “Bloody” Mary and patron of the Inquisition — was a huge fan, and bought up most of Bosch’s work. As a result, Spain still has the best collection of it today. According to the monk Fray José de Siguenza, Philip had a now unknown companion piece to Bosch’s The Seven Deadly Sins in his bedroom and was said to meditate on it every day.

Bosch has become more popular again over the last few years, and now you can find his paintings on everything from leggings to coloring books. You know, in case you want to take your meditative coloring to the next level of religious contemplation.

To end on a high note, in The Garden of Earthly Delights, there is music painted onto the butt of one of the souls in hell. Jim Spalink has actually recorded this and you can listen to it on YouTube. The result is haunting, distinctly Renaissance, and beautiful in a deeply, deeply creepy way. I’m listening to it now and it’s actually freaking out my cat, so Lord knows what kind of Boschian creatures are lurking between the bars. Maybe don’t play it by yourself in the dark and in the middle of the night, like I am.

Or do. 

In the meantime, I’ll be trying to calm down my cat.

Jessica Cale

Sources

The Atlantic. Hieronymus Bosch, the Trendiest Apocalyptic Medieval painter of 2014.

Byrne, David. 11 Things I learned from the Hieronymus Bosch Show.

Cooper, Paul M. M. Hell in a Handcart: The Secrets Behind Hieronymus Bosch’s The Haywain.

Grunenberg, Christoph and Harris, Jonathan. Summer of Love: Psychadelic Art, Social Crisis and Counterculture in the 1960s.

Hickson, Dr. Sally. Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights. Khan Academy.

Schuster, Clayton. The Last Judgment, Hieronymus Bosch. Sartle.

Zeidler, Anja. Heironymus Bosch’s The Seven Deadly Sins Table Painting.