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Archive for the Category » Renaissance «

Photo Tour: Hatfield House (Queen Elizabeth I’s Childhood Home)

During my summer 2000 sojourn in England, working on a software project, I tried to see as much as possible during my weekends. Many of the places I visited were either related to the book I was writing at the time (later published as Twist of Honor), but some were purely for my own edification, to see for myself the location of certain historical events I’d read about.

The July morning started off sunny, so I decided to head to Elizabeth the first’s childhood digs, Hatfield House. Like Henry VIII’s palace, Hampton Court, Hatfield House is public-transportation-accessible– in fact, the Hatfield train station is right across the street from the gates to Hatfield Park. It took about 20 minutes from King’s Cross station by train, and the countryside north of London is very pretty– rolling hills, horse pastures, and hedges.

There are actually two Hatfield Houses: the old house, a late-medieval brick mansion built for a bishop in the 1490′s, later acquired by King Henry VIII after the Dissolution of the Monasteries and partially demolished in the early 1600′s when the Cecil family decided to build a new house next door; and the Jacobean house, finished in 1612, which is where the Cecil family (the current Marquess of Salisbury) has lived since the 17th century.

Elizabeth I grew up in the old Hatfield House, which was built around a large courtyard, similar to Hampton Court. Only the Great Hall part of that house remains, known now as the Banqueting Hall. It’s normally open to visitors, but I didn’t get to go inside today because there was a wedding reception in progress.

The oldest part of the Jacobean house is also open to visitors– the Cecil family still lives in the house, but they’ve moved to one of the renovated wings. The place is enormous… it’s a pity that we weren’t allowed to take photos inside the house, because a lot of the old decor and furnishings remain. (2013 update: the official Hatfield House website features a number of photos from inside the house.)

The chambers are wood-paneled and high-ceilinged, the ceilings carved and gilded in most of the rooms. There are portraits of Cecils and their royal friends hung everywhere on the walls. The first Cecil raised to nobility, as Lord Burghley, was Elizabeth I’s trusted advisor and Chief Minister for most of her reign. Another Cecil served as Prime Minister multiple times under Queen Victoria.

One of the most interesting things about being a really old building is seeing the little signs of wear and tear– the steps in the staircase are hollowed from thousands of feet, and the oaken planking that serves as the flooring in the upper stories is a little uneven, and the house itself has sort of sagged and settled over the centuries, so that the floors in some chambers are no longer level.

All of the rooms open to visitors were quite impressive, but my favorite was the library. It was floor-to-ceiling books (10,000 of them, some of them dating back to the 1560′s), had a gorgeous view over the side garden (the docent was a dear and let me snap a photo of the knotwork hedges from the window, since you can’t really see the patterning from the ground level), and a really fascinating collection of original historical documents on display.

Among the highlights– several letters penned by Elizabeth I to William Cecil, a letter from her brother Edward to Henry VIII (in Latin, with lots of corrected bits), a deposition signed by Henry VIII regarding the annulment of his marriage to Anne of Cleves, and a letter written by Elizabeth when she was 15 to her sister, Queen Mary Tudor, denying that she was pregnant or living in scandalous circumstances.

Another cool display was downstairs in a long gallery called The Armoury. The suits of armor displayed there hadn’t been worn by any ancestors, though– they were Spanish, part of the booty awarded William Cecil after the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588.

And finally, a funny story about more recent happenings. The family was one of the first to have a telephone and electricy installed in the house, in 1881. However, the electic system was pretty dangerous, and the wiring in the Great Hall frequently burst into flames during dinner parties. According to the tour book, “the family members sitting beneath would nonchalantly throw up cushions to put the fire out and then go on with the conversation.”

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Bodies And Shadows: Caravaggio And His Legacy, At LACMA

Last weekend, I drove to Los Angeles to visit with a good friend, and to indulge in one of my favorite pastimes–visiting museums.

On a warm, sunny Southern California winter afternoon, we toured the Page Museum at the Rancho LaBrea tar pits, with its unrivaled collection of Ice-Age fossils. There’s nothing like getting a real idea of the size of a mammoth by standing next to a reconstructed skeleton, tinted a mellow dark brown by millennia of immersion in asphalt, and realizing that you don’t even come up to its knee!

By happy coincidence, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) is located next door to the Page Museum. And even happier, they are currently featuring a special exhibition, Bodies and Shadows: Caravaggio and his Legacy.

Now, I’ve been interested in Caravaggio since reading two compelling books about his life and art:

The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece, a real-life detective mystery about the search for one of Caravaggio’s paintings, and M : The Man Who Became Caravaggio, a controversial biography of the artist that paints a vivid picture of his life and times.

Both books paint a fascinating portrait of a man who was simultaneously sensitive and gifted with a brush, while also living the life of a street tough with a long arrest record, a hard drinker, and even a murderer. And to me, his paintings have always had more life to them than the stylized, impossibly perfect figures of saints and angels of many of his contemporary artists.

Commissioned to create paintings illustrating various incidents from the Bible or allegorical subjects, he used his apprentices, carpenters, painters, prostitutes, and other denizens of his working-class Roman neighborhood to bring characters to vivid life–callused feet, dirty fingernails, and all. ¬†Even his still-lifes of fruits and flowers are bursting with sensual vitality (and in some cases, rot).

In addition to his gift for depicting naturalistic figures in classical or Biblical settings, his use of light and shadow was unparalleled and influential. One of the interesting features of the exhibition was the grouping of contemporary and later paintings around each of the six Caravaggios on display, showing aspects of that influence.

Caravaggio died relatively young–at age 38 or 39, possibly waylaid and murdered on his return to Italy from exile abroad, though some have speculated that he fell ill and died after making landfall, or possibly succumbed to complications from lead poisoning (which might also account for some of his bizarre and paranoid behavior in the final years of his life).

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