Accidental Presidents: Eight Men Who Changed America, by Jared Cohen – a Discussion with the AAUW Readers

September 19, 2019 at 9:15 pm (Book clubs, Book review, books, History)

  Okay, I admit it – I’ve complained about book groups being burdensome and borderline irrelevant. I want to read what I want to read, when I want to read it! Thus have I cried out, the lament of a fanatical reader.

But I have to say, there are times when book groups more than justify their existence. In fact, they can be just plain great. I attended just such a discussion this morning.

First off, Jared Cohen’s Accidental Presidents was so filled with fascinating revelations that it was a joy to read. Cohen’s book covered eight presidents who assumed office upon a president’s death. Four of the fatalities were due to assassinations; the others were due to illness of the Chief Executive.

John Tyler survived  a catastrophic explosion aboard the warship USS Princeton. The young woman he was in love with was also on board, escorted by her father. Her mother had been withholding permission for her to marry him; however, after losing her husband, she relented, and they were soon wed. So: a poignant love story  emerged from a scene of horror. (Tyler became president upon the death of William Henry Harrison.)

One must, of course, relive the killing of Lincoln and the evils that resulted from Andrew Johnson’s ill disguised sympathy for the defeated Southerners.

I was saddened once again to read of the death of James A. Garfield, surely one of the most honorable, decent, and compassionate men ever to serve the public. He never even wanted to be president, yet chose this path when his party and his friends convinced him that he was needed. Anyone who is interested in what happened to Garfield needs to read The Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard. I never thought a history book could break my heart, but that one did.

There was so much more: Millard Fillmore, who succeeded Zachary Taylor; Theodore Roosevelt, who succeeded William McKinley; Calvin Coolidge, who succeeded Warren G. Harding: Harry Truman, who succeeded Franklin D. Roosevelt; and finally, the great tragedy of our own era, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and the pursuant struggles of Lyndon Johnson. Stories about each of these critical moments in U.S. history had me mesmerized.

Page after page of Accidental Presidents astonished me. I could not help wondering: Was I ever actually taught American history? Obviously not  in a meaningful way, or a way that stayed with me, or a way that awakened to me to the fact that this subject could be so riveting.

It was evident from the reactions of the participants in the discussion that they shared my enthusiasm for this book and its subject matter. The amount of knowledge brought to bear, the questions raised, the points brought to light, all made for an exceptionally stimulating session. Jean’s insights about the South, gleaned from her granddaughters’ experiences; Phyllis’s memories of growing up in Kentucky, Peggy’s perspective as a person of Korean heritage, Doris’s first hand knowledge of the workings of the Federal government – these and many more  contributions flowed freely. I sat there thinking, What an exceptional, and exceptionally impressive, group of women!

I felt deeply fortunate and grateful to be among them.

Presidents John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, Chester A. Arthur, Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, and Gerald Ford. (Ford was not included in Jared Cohen’s book.)

 

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‘It’s a fascinating subject, the study of this venerable civilization….’ – Queens of Egypt at the National Geographic

May 2, 2019 at 8:14 pm (History, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington))

Yes, there she is, in all her beauty and mystery: Nefertiti, Queen of Egypt, wife of Akhenaton, the iconoclast Pharoah who instituted worship if the sun as the sole deity of the kingdom. But this exhibit at the National Geographic is not about him. Rather, it is about her, and the other notable queens whose reigns span this remote and exotic era.

The bust pictured above is a copy of the original, which was found in Amarna by a team of German archaeologists led by Ludwig Borchardt. It currently resides in the Egyptian Museum of Berlin, much to  the annoyance of its country of origin, which has been trying to get it repatriated since 1924. Museum officials claim that the bust is too fragile to travel.

Meanwhile, it is listed on Time Magazine’s list of Top Ten Plundered Items.

I digress. But it’s hard not to, when dealing with so vast a subject.

Six queens are highlighted in this exhibit. The first is Ahmose-Nefertari; her dates are 1539 BCE to 1514 BCE.

I quote from the exhibition guidebook:

Ahmose-Nefertari was the first queen of the 18th dynasty and of the New Kingdom. She was a powerful and influential queen who enjoyed widespread acclaim. After her death, she and her son were deified in Deir-el-Medina, where she was worshiped as a goddess of resurrection.

Ahmose-Nefertari   1539-1514 BCE

Hatshepsut (1479-1425 BCE), rather singular and remarkable, reigned as Pharoah for some twenty years in the mid-fifteenth century BCE. (The exact dates are disputed.) To emphasize her masculine qualities, she was sometimes depicted as bearded:

Hatshepsut with beard

 

Hatshepsut, clean shaven, as it were

The third queen was Tiye (1390-1340 BCE):

Tiye is found at the nexus of powerful rulers, being the Great Royal Wife of Amenhotep III, mother of Amenhotep IV, who became known as Akhenaton, and grandmother of Tutankhamun. Still, she held her own in the game of power.

Queen Tiye 1390-1340 BCE

Tiye’s mummified remains were discovered in the Valley of the Kings in 1898:

Then, there was Nefertiti, wife of AmenhotepIV/Akgenaton (see above).

Nefertari was the Great Royal Wife of Ramesses II. At a time when life expectancy was all too brief, Ramesses II reigned for an astonishing sixty-six years. He ascended the throne in 1279 BCE, ruling until his death in 1213 BCE.

Ramesses lived to be ninety-six years old, had over 200 wives and concubines, ninety-six sons and sixty daughters, most of whom he outlived. So long was his reign that all of his subjects, when he died, had been born knowing Ramesses as pharaoh and there was widespread panic that the world would end with the death of their king. He had his name and accomplishments inscribed from one end of Egypt to the other and there is virtually no ancient site in Egypt which does not make mention of Ramesses the Great.

Ancient History Encyclopedia

Here is the beautiful Nefertari:

Nefertari 1279-1255 BCE

As the passage above indicates, Ramesses was plentifully supplied with wives and concubines. But Nefertari was his great love. On the wall of her tomb enclosure he caused the following to be inscribed:

“My love is unique — no one can rival her, for she is the most beautiful woman alive. Just by passing, she has stolen away my heart.”

Just by passing, she has stolen my heart….

As well as  being a loving helpmate, Nefertari was apparently an accomplished woman in her own right:

She was highly educated and able to both read and write hieroglyphs, a very rare skill at the time. She used these skills in her diplomatic work, corresponding with other prominent royals of the time.

Wikipedia

In 1904,

Nefertari’s tomb in the Valley of Queens was unearthed by a team of Italian archaeologists. It is an exceptionally gorgeous burial place.

 

This picture depicts Nefertari playing an Egyptian board game called Senet. According to Wikipedia, the rules of this game are not precisely known, yet a site called Discovering Egypt provides a  fairly complete description of how the it is played.

The Geographic exhibit had two stations set up side by side, and folks were trying their hand at it.

Finally, Cleopatra, the last Queen of Egypt(51-30 BCE). What can one say about this storied woman? Perhaps we had best leave it to Shakespeare:

‘Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety: other women cloy
The appetites they feed: but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies;’

……

‘The barge she sat in, like a burnish’d throne,
Burned on the water: the poop was beaten gold;
Purple the sails, and so perfumed that
The winds were lovesick with them; the oars were silver,
Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made
The water which they beat to follow faster,
As amorous of their strokes. For her own person,
It beggar’d all description: she did lie
In her pavilion, cloth-of-gold of tissue,
O’erpicturing that Venus where we see
The fancy outwork nature: on each side her
Stood pretty dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids,
With divers-colour’d fans, whose wind did seem
To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool,
And what they undid did.’

Antony and Cleopatra, Act II, Scene 2

What did Cleopatra look like? The exhibit featured this sculpture, purportedly of her:

Yet it’s my understanding that no one is certain of the answer to this question and that the most reliable likeness is to be found on a coin:

For a more in depth look at  the life of Cleopatra, see this article from the Smithsonian Magazine. This piece features a number of striking images, including, inevitably, that of Elizabeth Taylor.

I also recommend Stacy Schiff’s biography. What I remember best from this book is the author’s description of the city of Alexandria. It sounded so glorious, I wanted to go there immediately. Alas, a period of some two thousand years separates us from that magnificent ancient city.

The Geographic exhibit was about more than just the queens. For instance, there was a set-up whereby people could inscribe their own names and see what they would look like in hieroglyphic script. I found a site online where you can do the same thing, courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Here’s what my name looks like: You can try it with your own name by clicking here.

One of the most fascinating components of the exhibit concerned Deir el-Medina. This was a village composed of artisans whose brief it was to help build the tombs in the Valley of the Kings. It was located on the west bank of the Nile in Thebes. There was a recreation of the place being shown on a large screen in a dimly lit room. I kept circling around and coming back to it. I’d just sit on the bench and stare. In short, I was mesmerized.

Our docent – a wonderfully knowledgeable young woman – passed around two items of great interest. One was a swatch of linen of the type that would have been used in the mummification process. The other was a piece of actual papyrus. This last was thrilling to me. It felt like a kind of nubby parchment. It was strange  to hold it in my hand and rub it gently between my fingers.. I was reluctant to give it up.

Numerous archaeologists won fame in the course of their explorations in Egypt. The exhibit featured one, a woman – two, actually – of particular interest, whom I’d never heard of: Margaret Benson (1865-1916) and her friend Janet Gourlay (1863-1912). There’s a detailed recounting of the life and professional accomplishments of Margaret Benson on the site of Egyptologist William H. Peck.

Janet Gourlay, left, and Margaret Benson

In 2013, an historical novel came out about ancient Egypt. Written by Kerry Greenwood, it was called Out of the Black Land. Once I got it, I could do nothing but read it. It brought the era of the rebel Pharoah Akhenaton so vividly to life that I was  seeing it in my dreams. I particularly remember the description of Queen Tiye, Akhenaton’s mother, struggling to give birth, her women grouped around her providing help and support.

An amazing  book.

“It is a fascinating subject, the study of this venerable civilization, extending back to the childhood of the human race, preserved for ever for our instruction in its own unchanging monuments like a fly in a block of amber. Everything connected with Egypt is full of an impressive solemnity.  A feeling of permanence, of stability, defying time and change, pervades it.  The place, the people, and the monuments alike breathe of eternity.”

R. Austin Freeman, The Eye of Osiris: A Detective Romance, 1913

 

 

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‘One of the most arresting jobs of ancient – as well as modern – sculptures was to be some kind of antidote to death and loss.’ – How Do We Look by Mary Beard

October 12, 2018 at 1:09 pm (Art, History)

  What a lovely gift to art lovers  and history buffs this book is! Renowned classicist Mary Beard has ranged far and wide to set before our eyes stunning images of ancient art. In some cases, the works and locales are familiar – Greece, Rome, Egypt – but even in these places, she introduces us to previously unseen objects – unseen by me, at any rate. Some examples:

 

This is the mummy of a Greek youth, between the ages of 19 and 21. It is owned by the British Museum. It dates from some time in the second century AD. The inscription on the painted stucco case reads: “Artemidoros – Farewell.”

The Boxer_of_Quirinal, dated somewhere between 330 and 50 BCE

Unlike the heroic, flawless athletes usually depicted in classical sculpture, this boxer is battered by past injuries and seems to be nearing the end of his career as a pugilist.

Boxing was always an important part of the ancient athletic repertoire, and the conceit of this sculpture is that the man must once have had a fit and toned body – but it has really suffered. The anonymous artist has focused on a wreck of a human being, devoting all his skill to a broken nose and cauliflower ears, flabby from all those blows. In fact, he appears to be still bleeding from fresh wounds. The blood is shown in copper and the bruises on his cheeks are brought out by a slightly different colour of a slightly different bronze alloy. It is almost as if the  bronze has become the mans skin.

Mary Beard, in How Do We Look

Compare him, for instance, to the Belvedere Apollo, the subject of Johann Winkelmann‘s rapturous description:

In gazing upon this masterpiece of art, I forget all else, and I myself adopt an elevated stance, in order to be worthy of gazing upon it. My chest seems to expand with veneration and to heave like those I have seen swollen as if by the spirit of prophecy, and I feel myself transported to Delos and to the Lycian groves, places Apollo honored with his presence—for my figure seems to take on life and movement, like Pygmalion’s beauty.

Back to  the subject of rough sport: Behold the Olmec Wrestler:

Made of basalt and described as nearly life size, this piece was found  by a farmer in 1933 in Veracruz, Mexico. (One is tempted to imagine his astonishment when, upon turning up a clod of earth, he finds himself confronted by this strange, otherworldly object.) There being little or no archaeological context with which to work, the Wrestler is extremely difficult to date – anywhere from 1200 BCE to 400 BCE. He is called a wrestler for lack of anything else to call him. He may not be a wrestler. He may even be a fake. If he is, he’s a mighty compelling one.

Probably the single most amazing surviving art from the Olmec culture – and certifiably genuine – is represented by the gigantic heads:

These heads, seventeen of which have this far been recovered, vary in height from between four and five feet to just over eleven feet. At least one weighs as much as fifty tons.

Above you see one of the the La Venta Heads. There are three more, located at La Venta Park, a premier archaeological site in Mexico.

Again, Mary Beard:

It is hard not to feel just a little bit moved by the close encounter with an image of a person from the distant past. Despite that distance in time, and despite the fact that he is, after all, just a face of stone, it is hard not to feel some sense of shared humanity.

But oh, the questions raised and not answered by this strange artifact of a remote time and place:

Ever since it was rediscovered in 1939, it has defied explanation. Why is it so big? Was he a ruler or perhaps a god? Was it a portrait of a particular individual, or something much less specific than that?Why is it just a head – and not even a complete one at that, but severed at the chin? And what on earth was the image for? It was carved using only stone tools, out of a single block of basalt that came from more than fifty miles away from where the head was found. It could not have been made without huge amounts of time, effort and human resources. But why?

Many other such phenomena are surveyed in this slender volume, packed as it is with riches. How Do We Look is a companion to the tv series Civilizations: From the Ancient to the Modern:

Episode Two featuring Mary Beard can be viewed in its entirety here.

 

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‘…nothing less than ugly, crazed and botched murder.’ – The Race To Save the Romanovs, by Helen Rappaport

September 26, 2018 at 8:30 pm (Book review, books, History, Russophilia)

 

 

‘What happened in the basement of the House of Special Purpose on Voznesensky Prospekt, Ekaterinburg, in the early hours of 17 July 1918, was nothing less than ugly, crazed and botched murder.’

This is Helen Rappaport’s blunt assessment of one of the twentieth century’s most notorious multiple murders (and  this, in a century  that was not short of similar atrocities).

Some race. It was destined to fail, even before it began. Irresolute posturing, procrastinating, general confusion, outlandish proposals – all characterized the action and inaction of the European powers in the year between Tsar Nicholas’s abdication and the annihilation of all seven members of the Royal Family and four of their faithful retainers.

This is a very complicated story, and Rappaport tells it with detailed precision. It’s only when  she gets to the inevitable and terrible end that she allows her own feelings of outrage to percolate through to the surface of this narrative.

In the course of writing this book, Helen Rappaport uncovered some new  – and newly relevant- material. An enormous amount of digging and sifting, in several languages, was done. I’m awed by what she and her research assistants – to whom she gives generous credit – have accomplished here. They had to untangle a skein of evidence with regard to which European monarchy, or what agency, might have effected a rescue of Russia’s imperiled royal family. Politics entered heavily into the question, and the fact of World War One raging across the continent complicated the situation greatly.

George V of England and Tsar Nicholas II were first cousins. Yet for mainly political reasons, the British were extremely reluctant to harbor the Romanovs within their kingdom. Various plans were bruited by others, but in the end, none reached fruition – at least, not in time.

King George V and Tsar Nicholas II

In her Postscript – entitled “‘Nobody’s Fault’?” – Rappaport offer a succinct summation of the fate of the various monarchies of Europe:

Whatever the degree of responsibility of the King of Great Britain, the Kaiser of Germany and their various European royal relatives in the terrible fate of their Russian cousins, there is no doubt that the murder of the Romanovs at Ekaterinburg in 1918 was a pivotal event in the long history of European monarchy. It dealt a body blow to an institution that had persisted against the odds, through centuries of revolution, acts of terrorism and the constant threat of republicanism. The Great War that set its stamp on the twentieth century, destroying so many of these seemingly inviolable monarchies, proved that their days were numbered. In the post-war years they would all have to adapt as constitutional monarchies or be forced from power.

Of the British monarchy in particular, Rappaport observes:

In the post-war world, George V and Queen Mary shrewdly set out to entrench their more personal style of monarchy at the centre of national life, a trend that was continued by their son George VI and has probably reached its apotheosis in the reign of their granddaughter Elizabeth II.

Tsar Nicholas II was never cut out to be Emperor. When his autocratic father Alexander III died unexpectedly at the age of 49 in 1894, Nicholas was appalled. He was utterly unprepared for the enormous task of ruling Russia. Unfortunately, as the years went by, he did not rise sufficiently to the task. Russia’s  absolute monarchy was hopelessly anachronistic but Nicholas couldn’t see that fact clearly; at any rate, he did nothing to modernize the institution, even while  the country itself began to industrialize and to become increasingly restive for a variety of sociological and political reasons. Nicholas’s wife Alexandra dominated him, and her convictions were even more backward looking than his own.

Fate hung heavily over this family, at the center of the storm. Alexandra gave birth to four daughters in a row before a son was finally born. Alexei proved to be afflicted with haemophilia, an hereditary blood disease for which there was no effective treatment in the early 20th century.

Now that the Soviet Union no longer exists as such, the Romanovs have been rehabilitated. When their remains were discovered and verified, they were interred with all the solemn pomp of the Russian Orthodox Church in 1998.

If you view this video on YouTube, you can read Boris Yeltsin’s speech, given on the occasion.

Ekaterinburg, where the Romanovs met their end, has of late become a pilgrimage site. Yeltsin said:

By burying the remains of innocent victims, we want to atone for the sins of our ancestors. Those who committed this crime are as guilty as are those who approved of it for decades. We are all guilty. It is impossible to lie to ourselves by justifying senseless cruelty on political grounds. The shooting of the Romanov family is a result of an uncompromising split in Russia society into “us” and “them.” The results of this split can be seen even now.

Obviously some Russians feel the need to make a good faith effort to atone for those sins.

I would recommend The Race To Save the Romanovs to those who, like me, are fascinated and haunted by their story.

 

 

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London, Day Two: the British Museum, second post

December 23, 2017 at 3:54 pm (Art, History, London)

If you have only one hour to spend in the British Museum, these are some of the objects you’re advised  not to miss:

In this space, there will be more on the British Museum. In the meantime, here is a video on the Parthenon Sculptures:

 

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‘The Osage found themselves surrounded by predators—“ a flock of buzzards,” as one member of the tribe complained at a council meeting.’ – Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

July 8, 2017 at 2:15 pm (Book review, books, History)

 

Yet another Osage chief, Bacon Rind by name, enlarged on the subject at a congressional hearing, testifying that the whites had

“bunched us down here in the backwoods, the roughest part of the United States, thinking ‘we will drive these Indians down to where there is a big pile of rocks and put them there in that corner.’  ” Now that the pile of rocks had turned out to be worth millions of dollars, he said, “everybody wants to get in here and get some of this money.”

Pile of rocks worth millions? What happened was this: After being driven from their land in Kansas, the Osage finally settled – were permitted to settle – on the stony ground of northeast Oklahoma, in the early 1870s. It was thought that in this region, so inimical to agricultural usage, the Osage would be left alone.

And so they were, until these began to appear on the landscape:

The Osage owned not only the land, but also the mineral rights pertaining to that land.. Oil barons like J. Paul Getty and Frank Phillips came calling; they paid enormous sums for the right to drill on Osage property. Unexpectedly, almost unimaginably, members of the tribe became wealthy. They spent lavishly on houses and cars. They were living the good life. At first.

It’s not hard to envision the reaction of their white neighbors. First, astonishment. Then resentment. These could have been borne. But they were followed by something far more dangerous: greed. Greed, in its most insidious yet ruthless guise, masquerading as friendship and benign caring. In particular, with regard to one William Hale, Hamlet’s bitter exclamation concerning his uncle comes to mind:

That one may smile and smile, and be a villain….

William Hale, supposed friend of he Osage; in reality, their scourge

The wave of crime that decimated the Osage’s rightful gain and culminated in multiple murders, committed by varied and nefarious means, was ultimately traced back to him and his henchmen. The period in the 1920s in which these depredations occurred became known as the Reign of Terror.

Who did the above tracing? To being with, local and state law enforcement. At first, the crimes having been so cunningly executed and forensic evidence gathering being so new and largely untested, the investigation proceeded at the proverbial snail’s pace. It didn’t help that while some investigators were committed and resourceful, others were being suborned with threats and payoffs. It was indeed a fiendish set of circumstances, with the deck heavily stacked against the Osage victims, real and potential.

Eventually, a key development kick started a series of breakthroughs. Because in  some cases, the crimes had been committed on federal land, the federal government was  duly brought in. A little known and relatively small agency, an arm of the Department of Justice, assumed responsibility. At the time it was called the Bureau of Investigation. Its low profile was about to change dramatically, largely because it was headed up by a man who was young, smart, incredibly focused and utterly driven:

Hoover and  the Osage had the great good fortune to have an agent in the field who was indefatigable in his pursuit of justice. His name was Tom White.

Tom White and J Edgar Hoover

Mollie Burkhart and her long suffering family are the heart and soul of Killers of the Flower Moon.

Mollie Burkhart, center, with sister Annie at left and another sister Minnie. Annie was shot and killed execution style, Minnie died of “a peculiar wasting illness,” their mother Lizzie was almost certainly poisoned, yet another sister, Rita, was killed when her house was bombed.

The story David Grann tells in this book should never have been allowed to lapse into obscurity. It is both mesmerizing and enraging and needs to be remembered. Although the Osage paid a terrible price, justice was done, at least to some extent. Grann believes that there are more murders than those officially acknowledged in the public record. What a job of research he has done here; I cannot praise his efforts highly enough. It’s the good fortune of readers that his skills as a researcher are matched by his gifts as a storyteller. Still, I think he remains haunted by “the ones that got away.” We should all feel the same.

Click here to view a segment on David Grann and Killers of the Flower Moon aired on April 30th on CBS Sunday Morning.

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Inez Milholland Boissevain, Sophie Irene Loeb, and Grace Quackenbos Humiston

June 12, 2017 at 9:50 pm (books, History, True crime narratives)

  I am learning a great deal from Brad Ricca’s fascinating book. Mrs. Sherlock Holmes is chiefly the story of Grace Quackenbos Humiston, attorney at law and crusader for the oppressed and maltreated, especially those found among the immigrant population in this country in the early years of the last century. Peonage, a cruel system that kept workers in debt and tied to their employers indefinitely, was bad enough – but there’s more. Grace also worked to free those wrongly convicted of murder and sentenced to death. The case of Charles Stielow in particular is a real cliff hanger. As with all the cases that came her way, Grace worked tirelessly on this one. She was helped in her efforts by two equally extraordinary women: Sophie Irene Loeb and Inez Milholland Boissevain. Plagued by ill health and prone to push herself to the limit, Inez died in November of 1916 at the age of thirty.

Sophie Loeb wrote a eulogy in the Evening World titled “The Example of Inez Milholland.” Loeb wrote of her “dear, dear friend” by telling readers that you could always find her not in the usual spots for women, but in asylums, Sing Sing, and political marches. “How easy it might have been for so lovely a creature as she to sit idly by,” Sophie wrote. “But no. She could not enjoy the world while it suffered … she went forth to fight and used every asset to gain something for others, even unto the very end.” Inez, according to Sophie, was

An example for the idle rich girl who is poor indeed, whose time hangs heavy because it is full of nothingness. An example for the pretty girl who believes that all life means is to smile and dress. An example of the woman of brains who hides them under her marcel wave because she has become a parasite. An example for the woman who thinks that she can gain love when she acquires a man’s bank account. An example for all womanhood.

Grace Quackenbos Humiston 1869-1948

Sophie Irene Loeb 1876-1929

Inez Milholland Boissevain 1886-1916

How I wish I could have known them!

 

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‘Come to us and we will comfort you…’ – Sarah Goodridge and Daniel Webster

November 25, 2016 at 11:23 pm (Art, History)

So there I was, perusing my newly acquired art book from the Metropolitan Museum, when I came across a startling image that seemed totally out of keeping with the book’s general content. But let’s back up for a minute – or several minutes.

The book is called American Portrait Miniatures. img-news-met-mini-1_162030661934 The Met has a wonderful collection of these gem-like masterworks. (They usually  measure about two by three inches.) Here are some examples:

Portrait of a Lady byby Thomas Seir Cummings, ca. 1827

Portrait of a Lady by Thomas Seir Cummings, ca. 1827

Portrait of a Gentleman and His Daughter by Francois M Guyal de Guiron, ca 1805

Portrait of a Gentleman and His Daughter by Francois M Guyal de Guiron, ca 1805

Mrs William Gordon Ver Planck and Her Son Samuel Hopkins Ver Planck, ca 1828

Mrs William Gordon Ver Planck and Her Son Samuel Hopkins Ver Planck, ca 1828

Kate Roselie Dodge by John Wood Dodge (the artist's daughter), ca 1854

Kate Roselie Dodge by John Wood Dodge (the artist’s daughter), ca 1854

The making of portrait miniatures was one area of art in which women were able, as it were, to make their mark early in the world of art history. One of the first was the Venetian painter Rosalba Carriera (1673-1757).

Self-Portrait as Winter by Rosalba Carriera 1731

Self-Portrait as Winter by Rosalba Carriera 1731

Antoine Watteau [1684-1721] by Rosalba Carriera 1721. One of my favorite painters, looking so melancholy and no wonder; his life, so brief yet full of brilliance.

Antoine Watteau [1684-1721] by Rosalba Carriera 1721. One of my favorite painters, looking so melancholy and no wonder; his life, so brief yet full of brilliance.

L'Embarquemtn pour Cythere (Embarkation for Cythera) by Jean-Antoine Watteau, 1717

L’Embarquement pour Cythere (Embarkation for Cythera) by Jean-Antoine Watteau, 1717

From the essay “The Revealed and the Concealed,” by John Updike:

The painting of miniature portraits, to be kept in lockets and leather cases, had become, in the decades before the daguerreotype n the 1840s, a thriving artistic industry, and one of the few in which women could succeed. The delicacy of the work–laying fine strokes or stipples of transparent watercolor upon small squares or ovals of ivory–was thought especially suited for feminine talents.

And this brings us to Sarah Goodridge. Born in Templeton, Massachusetts in 1788, Goodridge showed artistic ability early and was encouraged by her parents to develop her talent.  At that time, however, educational opportunities for women were severely limited. She took instruction where and when she could, and was to a large degree self-taught. Here is some of her work:

gilbertstuart-1825by-sg

Gilbert Stuart, ca 1825-1827

Daniel Webster 1825

Daniel Webster, 1825

Self-Portrait

Self-Portrait, 1830

Sarah Goodridge painted several likenesses of Daniel Webster. They were friends – possibly more than friends. In 1828, shortly after the death of his wife Grace, Goodridge sent him a miniature that was – well, rather unique, at least for the times and  the country in which they were living.

Updike again:

Visitors to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s display of American portrait miniatures from the Manney Collection in the winter of 1990-1991 were startled to encounter, amid the staid Victorian visages in their tight bonnets and stocks, these luminous bare breasts.  Beautifully palpable and framed by a continuous swathe of gauze, they float ownerless and glow like ghosts, or angels, in some transcendental realm whose dark atmosphere lurks in the corners.

He continues:

There is a certain confrontations; severity about the precisely frontal presentation. The exquisitely tinted and shaded white skin and lipoid softness have the symmetry of armor. And a suggestion of challenge balances that of invitation. Do we imagine  plea, a silent chastisement, emanating from these so vivid but ethereally disembodied breasts?

This daring and unprecedented work of art is called Beauty Revealed.

In his magisterial biography of Daniel Webster, Robert V Remini informs us that “…Daniel Webster was a passionate, romantic man all his life, however much he hid his feelings from public view.”

He needed female society and contact, and in this period of  bereavement he appears to have developed a strong emotional bond with Sarah Goodridge….

If Goodridge was cherishing hopes of a marriage proposal, she was doomed to disappointment. No matter how intense their relationship may have been, Webster needed to marry money. Goodridge, living by her wits  and her talent, was comfortable but not wealthy. Webster proceeded to wed Catherine LeRoy, a New York merchant’s daughter, in 1829.

As for Sarah Goodridge, she remained single for the rest of her life. Following Webster’s death, Beauty Revealed remained in the possession of  his heirs and descendants, along with the artist’s easel and paintbox. (The family maintained that Sarah Goodridge had been Daniel Webster’s fiancée.) The painting was eventually given to Christie’s to be auctioned, purchased  by a  gallery, and  acquired from thence by collectors Gloria and Richard Manney. The Manneys utlimately donated their collection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

As to Sarah Goodridge’s intent on gifting Daniel Webster with Beauty Revealed, Updike has a pretty good idea of what it was:

Come to us and we will comfort you, the breasts of her self-portrait seem to say. We are yours for the taking, in all our ivory loveliness, with our tenderly stippled nipples.

(And who else could have said it quite this way but the inimitable, not to say irreverent, John Updike?)

 

 

 

 

 

 

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“…the glory that was Greece, / And the grandeur that was Rome.” – The Classical World by Nigel Spivey

October 16, 2016 at 1:15 pm (Art, History, Italy)

spivey  A marvelous book on ancient history, as these  excerpts must show:

Freud had followed the excavations at Troy with passionate interest, and eventually came to liken his own methods of psychoanalysis to an archaeological process of ‘peeling away’ layers in quest of some residual ‘truth’ that had become ‘mythical’ over time….the significance of Freud’s reaction to the marble relics of classical Athens lies precisely in the sensation that caused pangs of filial piety. The Acropolis was symbolic not only of Athens at the height of her ancient glory in the mid-fifth century BC, but of civilized values generally. So for Freud, and for many others, it symbolizes a bourn, a destination, for the human spirit, amid the amber glow of columns standing on a rocky mass.

The Acropolis in Athens, Greece.

The Acropolis in Athens, Greece. [click to enlarge]

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The sources…tell us that Alexander, though well proportioned, was not a physically large man…Yet…by consensus, [he] possessed a commanding presence, radiating from his eyes. These generated much comment, regarding their size, colour and glistening quality, but above all their contribution to a ‘heavenwards gaze.’ Accordingly, many images of Alexander show him as if transfixed by some distant prospect. Admirers took this as a symptom of his ‘divine inspiration’ (enthousiasmos). He appeared superhuman.

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The Alexander Mosaic, originally from the House of the Faun in Pompeii, now preserved in the Naples National Archaeological Museum (I have seen it!)  [click to enlarge]

Alexander on Horseback

Alexander on Horseback, Hellenistic bronze

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The villa of Livia Drusilla, wife of Caesar Augustus

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The paintings from this room, relatively well preserved, are among the loveliest pictures from antiquity — at least, in their cumulative effect; they create a vista that seems like an earthly paradise. Only when we peer closer do we notice a strange level of biodiversity here. Flowers that bloom in the spring, such as blue periwinkles, appear with fruit that mature in autumn, such as quince. Birds — quails, thrushes, nightingales — animate the foliage, regardless of their migratory habits. Such is the marvel of the Golden Age created by Augustus.

Livia Drusilla

Livia Drusilla

Caesar Augustus

Caesar Augustus

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Aeneas escaping Troy, carrying his father Anchises on his back and holding his son's hand. Terra cotta figure found in Pompeii, now in the Naples National Archaeological Museum

Aeneas escaping Troy, carrying his father Anchises on his back and holding the hand of his son Ascanius. Terra cotta figure found in Pompeii, now in the Naples National Archaeological Museum

The commission to compose an epic about Rome’s arch-founder Aeneas was, we are told, reluctantly undertaken by Virgil. He worked upon it for a decade, licking its lines into shape (as he put it) as a mother bear would tend her cubs. He died, in 19 BC, without finishing it to his satisfaction, and asked his friends to burn the manuscript. Fortunately for us, those friends disobeyed the poet’s wishes.The Aeneid survives as proof not only that epic could be written, after Homer, but also that epic could grow, in moral scope,  beyond Homer….With Virgil, the epic tradition resonates with concerns of justice and sympathy, earning him the critical accolade of writing ‘civilized poetry’. His capacity ‘to harmonize the sadness of the universe’ – the dictum approved by scholar-poet A.E. Housman as poetry’s purpose – has endeared Virgil to pessimists down the ages; in his time, however, Virgil articulated a vision of Roman identity that made the construction of empire a mission of laborious benevolence.

The Aeneid, Book VI, translated by Seamus Heaney
(excerpt published in the March 7 2016 issue of the New Yorker)

Elsewhere Anchises,
Fatherly and intent, was off in a deep green valley
Surveying and reviewing souls consigned there,
Those due to pass to the light of the upper world.
It so happened he was just then taking note

Of his whole posterity, the destinies and doings,
Traits and qualities of descendants dear to him,
But seeing Aeneas come wading through the grass
Towards him, he reached his two hands out
In eager joy, his eyes filled up with tears
And he gave a cry: “At last! Are you here at last?
I always trusted that your sense of right
Would prevail and keep you going to the end.And am I now allowed to see your face,
My son, and hear you talk, and talk to you myself?

This is what I imagined and looked forward to
As I counted the days; and my trust was not misplaced.
To think of the lands and the outlying seas
You have crossed, my son, to receive this welcome.
And after such dangers! I was afraid that Africa
Might be your undoing.” But Aeneas replied:
“Often and often, father, you would appear to me,
Your sad shade would appear, and that kept me going
To this end. My ships are anchored in the Tuscan sea.
Let me take your hand, my father, O let me, and do not

Hold back from my embrace.” And as he spoke he wept.
Three times he tried to reach arms round that neck.
Three times the form, reached for in vain, escaped
Like a breeze between his hands, a dream on wings.

What is purported to be Virgil's tomb, pointed out to us as we sould on the shore of the Bay of Naples, with Vesuvius behind us.

Burial vault purported to contain  Virgil’s tomb, pointed out to us as we stood on the shore of the Bay of Naples, with Vesuvius at our backs (in 2009)

Publius Vergilius Maro, known as Virgil 70 BC-19 BC

Publius Vergilius Maro, known as Virgil
70 BC-19 BC

 

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Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar, by Tom Holland

July 29, 2016 at 8:00 pm (Book review, books, History, Italy, Music)

Dynast11  I finally finished it. I didn’t think I would, but I did.

So: what was it like, spending in excess of four hundred pages in the company of the mighty, world-conquering Caesars? You may judge for yourself….

When people think of imperial Rome, it is the city of the first Caesars that is most likely to come into their minds. There is no other period of ancient history that can compare for sheer unsettling fascination with its gallery of leading characters. Their lurid glamour has resulted in them becoming the very archetypes of feuding and murderous dynasts. Monsters such as we find in the pages of Tacitus and Suetonius seem sprung from some fantasy novel or TV box-set: Tiberius, grim, paranoid, and with a taste for having his testicles licked by young boys in swimming pools; Caligula, lamenting that the Roman people did not have a single neck, so that he might cut it through; Agrippina, the mother of Nero, scheming to bring to power the son who would end up having her murdered; Nero himself, kicking his pregnant wife to death, marrying a eunuch, and raising a pleasure palace over the fire-gutted centre of Rome. For those who like their tales of dynastic back-stabbing spiced up with poison and exotic extremes of perversion, the story might well seem to have everything. Murderous matriarchs, incestuous powercouples, downtrodden beta males who nevertheless end up wielding powers of life and death: all these staples of recent dramas are to be found in the sources for the period. The first Caesars, more than any comparable dynasty, remain to this day household names. Their celebrity holds.

Celebrity, admittedly. But notoriety might be closer to the mark.

Here’s the genealogy of the Caesars:

 

Julians.jpp

[Click twice to enlarge]

In Holland’s telling, Julius Caesar was indeed as dangerously ambitious as  Brutus claimed. He was a genuine threat to the Republic. But perhaps the Republic was doomed anyway. Aside from subduing the Gauls – no small feat – Caesar’s greatest gift to the Roman people was his appointment of his great-nephew Octavius as his heir.

 

Augustus von Prima Porta (20-17 v. Chr.), aus der Villa Livia in Prima Porta, 1863

Imperātor Caesar Dīvī Fīlius Augustus (born Gaius Octavius) 63 BC – 14 AD

(The names will drive you crazy, if nothing else does first.)

Augustus was a reasonably good ruler and, by our standards anyway, a reasonably decent man. And his wife Livia was one of  the more powerful, memorable, and upright female presences in Roman history.

She was the mother of the emperor Tiberius, paternal grandmother of the emperor Claudius, paternal great-grandmother of the emperor Caligula, and maternal great-great-grandmother of the emperor Nero.

from the Wikipedia entry

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Livia Drusilla, also know as Julia Augusta 58 BC – 29 AD

 

 

statue of Livia Drusilla at Paestum

Statue of Livia Drusilla at Paestum

Alas, from here it was downhill all the way. Tiberius, successor to Augustus, seemed worthy at his reign’s outset, but he became increasingly erratic, finally withdrawing to his estate on the cliffs of the Isle of Capri, high above the waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea off the coast of Sorrento. Here he indulged in grotesque orgies far from the prying eyes of Roman citizens. (But of course. tales of what was going on eventually reached the capital, a place where people indulged lavishly in rumor mongering and gossip.)

The following are pictures taken by me in Italy in 2009:

The approach to Capri by boat

The approach to Capri by boat

As we circled the island, our guide first told us about Tiberius; then he pointed to some jagged rocks sticking straight up out of the water. There, he said, is where the Sirens lured ships to their doom:

2009 May - Walking the Amalfi Coast 182-X2I was stunned. We had gone from history to prehistory, and were now reaching all the way back to the kingdom of myth.

Next comes Caligula, great-grandson of Augustus.

Ever since his childhood, …Caligula had displayed a taste for dressing up. Capri, that wonderland of stage sets, enabled him to give it free rein. Wigs and costumes of every kind were his to try on, and opportunities to participate in pornographic floor-shows freely granted. Tiberius was happy to indulge his great-nephew. He knew what he was leaving the Roman people in the form of their favourite – and he had ceased to care. ‘I am rearing them a viper.’

Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, aka Caligula 12 AD - 41 AD

Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, aka Caligula 12 AD – 41 AD [Photo by Louis Le Grand]

Next up: Claudius:

Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus 10 BC - 54 AD

Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus 10 BC – 54 AD

Up until now, my knowledge of Claudius derived exclusively from the TV series I Claudius, in which Sir Derek Jacoby so memorably portrayed the seemingly hapless ruler.

Derek Jacobi as Claudius. THe series caused a sensation on this side of the Atlantic and vaulted this brilliant actor to instant stardom.

Derek Jacobi as Claudius. The series created a sensation and vaulted this brilliant actor to instant stardom.

Somehow I remember Claudius as being a better man than he seems to be in Tom Holland’s telling. Oh, but he was positively saintly compared to his successor, the incredibly loathsome

Nerō Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus 37 AD – 58 AD

Nero had a wife, Poppaea Sabina, whom he adored and whom he had obtained for himself by putting her husband, his closest friend, out of the way. (oh – and Nero himself had also been married, too poor, dull Octavia; she, too, was got rid of.)

As ambitious as she was glamorous, the radiance of Poppaea’s charisma exemplified everything that Nero most admired in a woman. Even the colour of her hair, neither blonde nor brunette, marked her out as eye-catching: praised by Nero as ‘amber-coloured’, it was soon setting the trend for fashion victims across the city.

But the beautiful and vainglorious Poppaea Sabina made a fatal mistake: she nagged the ruler of the known world, thus committing the unforgivable sin of discomfiting him.. Never mind that she was heavily pregnant with their child; Nero kicked and beat her to death. No sooner had he done this than he was filled with remorse. The kingdom was scoured looking for another who was just like her. The closest he could get to achieving that goal was embodied in the person of a young boy whom he called Sporus. Nero joyfully took possession of this prize: “…it was as though his dead wife had been restored to him. So completely did he imagine himself to be gazing on her face again, caressing her cheeks and taking her in his arms, that Poppaea seemed to him redeemed from the grave.” But the youth needed to be kept smooth cheeked and beardless forever. How to prevent the onset of puberty? There was only one way: Sporus was castrated.

Meanwhile, Nero’s mother had moved heaven and earth to make sure he attained Rome’s highest office.

Nero and Agripppina

Nero and Agrippina

How was she ultimately rewarded?

Nero and Agrippina had spent an harmonious evening at a villa he was then occupying on the Bay of Naples. Then , as a gesture of filial devotion, he presented his mother with the gift of a yacht.

Greatly affectionate, he gave her the place of honour next to himself, and talked with her until the early hours. By now, with night lying velvet over the Bay, it was too dark for her to take a litter back home; and so Nero, informing his mother that her new yacht was docked outside, escorted her down to the marina. There he embraced and kissed her. ‘For you I live,’ he whispered, ‘and it is thanks to you that I rule.’ A long, last look into her eyes – and then he bade her farewell. The yacht slipped its moorings. It glided out into the night. Lights twinkled on the shore, illumining the curve of ‘the loveliest bay in the world’ while stars blazed silver overhead. Oars beat, timbers creaked, voices murmured on the deck. Otherwise, all was calm.

Then abruptly the roof fell in.

By some brilliant luck – read helpful fishermen who happened to be nearby –  and her own native strength and resourcefulness, Agrippina was able to attain land and return, bleeding but alive, to her villa. But her good fortune was short lived; Nero was not through with her yet:

A column of armed men came galloping down the road. The crowds outside were roughly dispersed; soldiers surrounded the villa, then forced their way in. They found Caesar’s mother in a dimly lit room, attended by a single slave. Agrippina confronted them boldly, but her insistence that Nero could not possibly have meant them to kill her was silenced when one of the men coshed her on the head. Dazed but still conscious, Agrippina looked up to see a centurion drawing his sword. At this, rather than protest any further, she determined to die as who she was: the daughter of Germanicus and the descendant of a long line of heroes. ‘Strike my belly,’ she commanded, pointing to her womb. Then she fell beneath the hailstorm of her assassins’ swords.

As for the famous fire of 64 AD that Nero supposedly waited out while playing the fiddle, that’s a slightly erroneous legend. He didn’t play the fiddle; he played the lyre. And he played the lyre so he could accompany his singing performances. Nero sang everywhere and anywhere there was a stage – or not –  and an audience. He entered innumerable vocal competitions and naturally enough was awarded first prize in every one of them.

Nero as he might have looked at one of his 'shows'

Nero as he might have looked at one of his ‘shows’

Down through history, unconfirmed rumors have held that Nero himself torched the city. The accusation was made during his own lifetime. He in turn blamed the Christians, thus initiating their persecution.

Soon it became clear that Rome had had quite enough of this particular despot:

‘Murderer of mother and wife, a driver of chariots, a performer on the public stage, an arsonist.’ 70 The list of charges was long. Few in the upper echelons of Roman society doubted that Nero, if permitted to live, would add to it. To kill a Caesar was, of course, a fearsome thing; but by early 65, enough were convinced of its necessity to start plotting Nero’s liquidation.

The deed was finally accomplished in 68 AD. Knowing his death at the hands of the Senate and the Praetorian Guard was imminent, Nero took his own life.

‘What an artist perishes with me.’ So Nero, with his customary lack of modesty, had declared as he steeled himself to commit suicide. He had not exaggerated. He had indeed been an artist – he and his predecessors too. Augustus and Tiberius, Caligula and Claudius: each, in his own way, had succeeded in fashioning out of his rule of the world a legend that would for ever afterwards mark the House of Caesar as something eerie and more than mortal. Painted in blood and gold, its record would never cease to haunt the Roman people as a thing of mingled wonder and horror. If not necessarily divine, then it had at any rate become immortal.

Thank you, Tom Holland, for this book. You are a terrific storyteller, and this was one wild and totally engrossing ride.

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A number of fiction titles, some read by me and some not, kept entering my thoughts as I was reading Dynasty. Not all of them were directly related to the specific time frame covered in this book, but they did deal with some aspect of ancient Rome.

These I have not read but have long known of and hope to get to some day:

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These were the first two books to appear in Steven Saylor’s Roma Sub Rosa mystery series. I’ve read nearly all of them and recommend them most highly. (Later titles actually go back in time – see the link provided above.)

Roman_Blood_cover  17406306411

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KeyJaro  I read this novel when it first came out in 1988 and loved it. Benita Kane Jaro, who lives in this area, came into the Central Library shortly after I’d finished her novel, and we had a chance to chat. I’ve always meant to go back and read the two subsequent books in her Ancient Rome Trilogy – The Lock and The Door in the Wall.  I’m delighted that that Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers are keeping these works in print. (The Key, newly purchased, is currently on my night stand.)

Finally, there is this: once read, never to be forgotten: 12172 . Marguerite Yourcenour’s masterpiece, decades in the making, was first published in France in 1951. It is not a fast read; rather, it is slow, majestic, and deeply rewarding.

This passage is quoted in Wikipedia:

Of all our games, love’s play is the only one which threatens to unsettle our soul, and is also the only one in which the player has to abandon himself to the body’s ecstasy. …Nailed to the beloved body like a slave to a cross, I have learned some secrets of life which are now dimmed in my memory by the operation of that same law which ordained that the convalescent, once cured, ceases to understand the mysterious truths laid bare by illness, and that the prisoner, set free, forgets his torture, or the conqueror, his triumph passed, forgets his glory.

IMG_20160728_201332  This is my own copy of Memoirs of Hadrian. I’ve had it since 1982 and intend to have it always.

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Tom Holland’s translation of The Histories of Herodotus came out in 2014.  61HHV3wB42L._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_  It’s a regular doorstop of a tome, so this reader is both grateful and admiring. I’ve long wanted to read Herodotus on the Egyptians, and I believe Holland’s lively prose reworking will facilitate this goal:

After the meal at any party where the hosts are well-to-do, a man carries round the likeness of a corpse in a coffin, carved out of a block of wood and painted to look as lifelike as possible, which in size can be anything between one and two cubits. Showing it to each guest in turn, he says: ‘Look on this carefully as you drink and enjoy yourself, for as it is now, so will you be when you are dead.’ Such is the practice at any drinking-party.

Well, not exactly a laugh a minute, those Egyptians – at least, in this particular setting.


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Let’s conclude with The Pines of Rome by Ottorino Respighi. If you don’t have the time to hear the entire symphonic poem, then go forward to 15:25 on the drag bar and listen to the final section, “The Pines of the Appian Way.” This is the most heaven-storming music imaginable. If you ever have the chance to hear it performed live – drop everything and go!

The Pines of the Appian Way is a representation of dawn on the great military road leading into Rome. Respighi recalls the past glories of the Roman Republic. The legions approach to the sound of trumpets, where possible in the form of ancient Roman buccine, instruments best imitated by the modern flügelhorn, and the Consul, elected leader of the Republic, advances, as the sun rises, mounting in triumph to the Capitol.

From the Naxos site

 

 

 

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