Venice: a “repository of consolations”

Henry James by John Singer Sargent, 1913.

Henry James comments on the enduring appeal of Venice.

It is a fact that almost every one interesting, appealing, melancholy, memorable, odd, seems at one time or another, after many days and much life, to have gravitated to Venice by a happy instinct, settling in it and treating it, cherishing it, as a sort of repository of consolations; all of which to-day, for the conscious mind, is mixed with its air and constitutes its unwritten history. The deposed, the defeated, the disenchanted,
the wounded, or even only the bored, have seemed to find there something that no other place could give.

One-Sixers: Writing the Capitol Insurrection Roll of Shame

One-Six is now right down there with Nine-Eleven as one of the lowest points in American history. A One-Sixer is someone who participated in or otherwise supported this January’s Capitol Insurrection. One-Sixers fall broadly into four categories.

  1. Trump, and the mob who stormed the Capitol at his instigation.
  2. Senators who signalled their approval of or indifference to the Insurrection by voting against the second Trump Impeachment.
  3. All others in public office who maintain their allegiance to Trump, whether out of self-interested concern for their re-election chances or an erroneous belief that the impeachment is unconstitutional.
  4. Any American of voting age who is sufficiently unAmerican to maintain their allegiance to Trump and/or condone the Capitol Insurrection.

Whatever the outcome of the impeachment trial, one hopes that the names of the instigators, perpetrators and supporters will be resolutely recorded for posterity. Exegi monumentum aere perennius, as one might say.

Plea not to enslave Christian negroes, 1596.

January 2 1596. Agustino Nani, Venetian Ambassador in Spain, reports to the Doge and Senate on the arrival of the Congolese ambassadors. Their entreaty was addressed to Philip II of Spain and Portugal. At first sight it seems somewhat brazen and distinctly unchristian, in that it would effectively allow Portugal to trade in non-Christian negro slaves, leaving Christian converts free. It was, however, underpinned by pressing if unpalatable economic realities. I add below an extract from a SAHO article on slavery in the Congo together with a link to the full text.

Two Ambassadors, uncle and nephew, have arrived here from a King of the Congo provinces, to renew their obligations towards his Majesty, as King of Portugal, and to beg him to prohibit the Portuguese in the region of Cape Verd and along that whole coast, from buying the negroes who are Christians. Some of the Portuguese, stimulated by the ease with which these negroes could be sold as slaves owing to their natural qualities, have been making large purchases; and this has led the neighbouring princes to capture these negroes in order to sell them again.
Furthermore, for their better education in the Catholic Faith, the Ambassadors desire leave to build a cathedral church and demand the appointment of a bishop of their own, for at present in their spiritual affairs they are compelled to go to the Bishop of St. Thomas.

For a full account of slavery in the Congo see SAHO. Here is a relevant extract from their article.


A major obstacle for the Kingdom of Kongo was that slaves were the only commodity which foreign powers were willing to trade for, and this meant that Kongolese kings had no international currency other than people. Slaves became the tool through which Kongo developed and sustained their material, cultural and diplomatic ties with the European powers. Kongolese nobles could buy slaves with the local currency, nzimbu shells, and the slaves could in turn be traded for international currency. As an example of how slaves were used as an international currency we can see how the Kongolese authorities paid the Catholic church in slaves for bishops to preform various religious duties in the Kingdom.

Smoking in England: the early days

March 1618. Orazio Busino, the Venetian Ambassador’s Chaplain, disapproves of smoking, recently introduced by Sir Walter Raleigh, pictured above.

One of the most notable things I see in this kingdom and which strikes me as really unbelievable is the use of the queen’s weed, properly called tobacco, whose dried leaves come from the Indies, packed like so much rope. It is cut and pounded and subsequently placed in a hollow instrument a span long, called a pipe. The powder is lighted at the largest part of the bowl, and they absorb the smoke with great enjoyment. They say it clears the head, dries up humours and greatly sharpens the appetite. It is in such frequent use that not only at every hour of the day but even at night they keep the pipe and steel at their pillows and gratify their longings. Amongst themselves they are in the habit of circulating toasts, passing the pipe from one to the other with much grace, just as they here do with good wine, but more often with beer. Gentlewomen moreover and virtuous women accustom themselves to take it as medicine, but in secret. The others do it at pleasure. So much money is expended daily in this nastiness that at the present moment the trade in tobacco amounts to half a million in gold, and the duty on it alone yields the king 40,000 golden crowns yearly. Throughout the city pipes and tobacco are sold in most of the shops, so that these with the others where they merely sell ruffs and wristbands, would of themselves form a large city. This is in truth an affair of vanity and smoke and his Majesty therefore abhors it. It is prohibited throughout the Court, though not by a decree. In my opinion no other country ought to introduce tobacco, for it enters cities with vapouring ostentation and then, after being well pounded, departs loaded with gold, leaving the purses of its purchasers empty and their wits addled.

Joanna the Mad, Queen of Castille

Zuan Badoer, Venetian Ambassador in Spain, reports on the unhappy queen’s delusions.

The King’s daughter, Doña Juana, who was the true Queen of Castile, widow of King Philip, was in Spain. She is considered mad, and the King says so. She expects her husband to come to life again, and carries his body about with her in a coffin. She says that this resurrection will take place at the end often years, of which only three lack for its expiration. She never eats but when it suits her. She visits private houses (caxa di citadini), saying she chooses to remain there, and with difficulty is she taken back to her own dwelling. She resides in the town of Tordesillas.

Christmas dinner with James I and his favourites

Orazio Busino, chaplain to the Venetian Ambassador in London, describes riotous Christmas festivities at the court of James I. Busino disapproves: “Should your lordships writhe on reading or listening to this tediousness you may imagine the weariness I feel in relating it.”

At about the 6th hour of the night the king appeared with his court, having passed through the apartments where the ambassadors were in waiting, whence he graciously conducted them, that is to say, the Spaniard and the Venetian, it not being the Frenchman’s turn, he and the Spaniard only attending the court ceremonies alternately by reason of their disputes about precedence.

On entering the house, the cornets and trumpets to the number of fifteen or twenty began to play very well a sort of recitative, and then after his Majesty had seated himself under the canopy alone, the queen not being present on account of a slight indisposition, he caused the ambassadors to sit below him on two stools, while the great officers of the crown and courts of law sat upon benches. The Lord Chamberlain then had the way cleared and in the middle of the theatre there appeared a fine and spacious area carpeted all over with green cloth. In an instant a large curtain dropped, painted to represent a tent of gold cloth with a broad fringe; the background was of canvas painted blue, powdered all over with golden stars. This became the front arch of the stage, forming a drop scene, and on its being removed there appeared first of all Mount Atlas, whose enormous head was alone visible up aloft under the very roof of the theatre; it rolled up its eyes and moved itself very cleverly. As a foil to the principal ballet and masque they had some mummeries performed in the first act; for instance, a very chubby Bacchus appeared on a car drawn by four gownsmen, who sang in an undertone before his Majesty. There was another stout individual on foot, dressed in red in short clothes, who made a speech, reeling about like a drunkard, tankard in hand, so that he resembled Bacchus’s cupbearer. This first scene was very gay and burlesque. Next followed twelve extravagant masquers, one of whom was in a barrel, all but his extremities, his companions being similarly cased in huge wicker flasks, very well made. They danced awhile to the sound of the cornets and trumpets, performing various and most extravagant antics. These were followed by a gigantic man representing Hercules with his club, who strove with Antaeus and performed other feats. Then came twelve masked boys in the guise of frogs. They danced together, assuming sundry grotesque attitudes. After they had all fallen down, they were driven off by Hercules. Mount Atlas then opened, by means of two doors, which were made to turn, and from behind the hills of a distant landscape the day was seen to dawn, some gilt columns being placed along either side of the scene, so as to aid the perspective and make the distance seem greater. Mercury next appeared before the king and made a speech. After him came a guitar player in a gown, who sang some trills, accompanying himself with his instrument. He announced himself as some deity, and then a number of singers, dressed in long red gowns to represent high priests, came on the stage, wearing gilt mitres. In the midst of them was a goddess in a long white robe and they sang some jigs which we did not understand. It is true that, spoiled as we are by the graceful and harmonious music of Italy, the composition did not strike us as very fine. Finally twelve cavaliers, masked, made their appearance, dressed uniformly, six having the entire hose crimson with plaited doublets of white satin trimmed with gold and silver lace. The other six wore breeches down to the knee, with the half hose also crimson, and white shoes. These matched well their corsets which were cut in the shape of the ancient Roman corslets. On their heads they wore long hair and crowns and very tall white plumes. Their faces were covered with black masks. These twelve descended together from above the scene in the figure of a pyramid, of which the prince formed the apex. When they reached the ground the violins, to the number of twenty-five or thirty began to play their airs. After they had made an obeisance to his Majesty, they began to dance in very good time, preserving for a while the same pyramidical figure. and with a variety of steps. Afterwards they changed places with each other in various ways, but ever ending the jump together. When this was over, each took his lady, the prince pairing with the principal one among those who were ranged in a row ready to dance, and the others doing the like in succession, all making obeisance to his Majesty first and then to each other. They performed every sort of ballet and dance of every country whatsoever such as passamezzi, corants, canaries see Spaniards and a hundred other very fine gestures devised to tickle the fancy (fatte a pizzego). Last of all they danced the Spanish dance, one at a time, each with his lady, and being well nigh tired they began to lag, whereupon the king, who is naturally choleric, got impatient and shouted aloud Why don’t they dance ? What did they make me come here for ? Devil take you all, dance. Upon this, the Marquis of Buckingham, his Majesty’s favourite, immediately sprang forward, cutting a score of lofty and very minute capers, with so much grace and agility that he not only appeased the ire of his angry lord, but rendered himself the admiration and delight of everybody. The other masquers, thus encouraged, continued to exhibit their prowess one after another, with various ladies, also finishing with capers and lifting their godesses from the ground. We counted thirty-four capers as cut by one cavalier in succession, but none came up to the exquisite manner of the marquis. The prince, however, excelled them all in bowing, being very formal in making his obeisance both to the king and to the lady with whom he danced, nor was he once seen to do a step out of time when dancing, whereas one cannot perhaps say so much for the others. Owing to his youth he has not yet much breath, nevertheless he cut a few capers very gracefully.


The encounter of these twelve accomplished cavaliers being ended, and after they had valiantly overcome the sloth and debauch of Bacchus, the prince went in triumph to kiss his father’s hands. The king embraced and kissed him tenderly and then honoured the marquis with marks of extraordinary affection, patting his face. The king now rose from his chair, took the ambassadors along with him, and after passing through a number of chambers and galleries he reached a hall where the usual collation was spread for the performers, a light being carried before him. After he had glanced all round the table he departed, and forthwith the parties concerned pounced upon the prey like so many harpies. The table was covered almost entirely with seasoned pasties and very few sugar confections. There were some large figures, but they were of painted pasteboard for ornament. The repast was served upon glass plates or dishes and at the first assault they upset the table and the crash of glass platters reminded me precisely of a severe hailstorm at Midsummer smashing the window glass. The story ended at half past two in the morning and half disgusted and weary we returned home.

Should your lordships writhe on reading or listening to this tediousness you may imagine the weariness I feel in relating it.

The death of Ottoman Sultan Murad III

January 1595. Marco Venier, Venetian Ambassador in Constantinople, reports to the Doge and Senate on the death of Sultan Murad III – Mehmed III’s father.

The rumour of the Sultan’s death has spread down to the very children; and a riot is expected, accompanied by a sack of shops and houses as usual. I have hidden the Embassy archives, and brought armed men into the house to protect it and to see that it was not set on fire.

The new Sovereign arrived this morning at the hour of salaam. I saw him arrive and disembark at the Kiosk. In the eleven days which have elapsed since the death of the Sultan Murad, several executions have taken place in order to keep the populace in check Inside the serraglio there has been a great uproar, and every night we hear guns fired—a sign that at that moment some one is being thrown into the sea.

As regards the death of Sultan Murad, I must repeat that he was attacked by his old epilepsy while receiving the Capudan in audience. He was carried inside and suffered all night. Next day he began to mend and progressed so favourably that they almost thought him out of danger, when a second fit came on; this kept him for two days and two nights languid, feeble, like one dead. It was followed by a retention of the urine which caused him to call out in pain, and on the top of the other illness carried him to the grave. He refused all medical attendance and all medicine; even when in health his habit of life was strange; and they say, though it is hardly credible, that he eat no bread, but lived on solid meats, thick soups, sheep’s marrow, and other aphrodisiacs, for he lay immersed in lust. His funeral was a sad sight; nineteen unhappy children, strangled as is the law of the land, followed their father to the tomb. He leaves twenty-nine daughters and six wives with child; if males are born they will share the fate of their brothers.

Ottoman Sultan Mehmed III has his 19 brothers strangled

January 1595. Marco Venier, Venetian Ambassador in Constantinople, reports to the Doge and Senate on the accession of Mehmed III. One of the Sultan’s first executive orders was to have his nineteen brothers strangled – fratricide was not uncommon in the Ottoman royal line and was seen as an excellent way of removing sibling opposition and rivalry.

The new Sultan seems to be a resolute man, and terrible. The moment he arrived at the Serraglio he went to look on his father’s corpse; then his nineteen brothers were brought before him, one by one. They say that the eldest, a most beautiful lad and of excellent parts, beloved by all, when he kissed the Sultan’s hand exclaimed, “My lord and brother, now to me as my father, let not my days be ended thus in this my tender age”; the Sultan tore his beard with every sign of grief, but answered never a word. They were all strangled, all the nineteen; and that same day late in the evening the dead Sultan was carried to the tomb with less pomp than usually accompanies persons of even low degree. The new Sultan, dressed in purple cloth, followed the corpse to the first door of the Serraglio; Ferrad and the other Pashas, dressed in black, attended it further. On the bier, which in this country is borne head first, was placed a small turban with aigrettes. The bier was covered with cloth of gold with a jewelled belt of gold across it. It was placed on a piece of ground near St. Sophia under a great magnificent military tent; and round it will soon arise the mortuary chapel, where the coffin will repose on a lofty platform in the middle, and all round lower down will lie the nineteen sons, who were not carried in procession that day owing to the late hour, but were taken out the day following. At present they are all in plain wooden coffins, but later these will be covered and adorned.

The day of his brothers, funeral the Sultan placed in Divan his tutor, Mehemet of Mecca; a man held in high esteem, wise, and not avaricious. Ferrad is in great favour with the Sultan for the way in which he kept the city quiet during so many days of interregnum. The Sultan has given his seal to no one yet. Sinan will soon be here, in spite of a false rumour of his death. His Majesty has made great changes in the Serraglio; he has expelled all the buffoons, the dwarfs, the eunuchs, and the women; they were all sent to the old Serraglio; the amount of goods they carried out with them was incredible, the carriages, chests, and baskets of the whole city hardly sufficed.

They say that the secretary to the late Sultan will retain his post The present to the Janizaries is one hundred and twenty purses of ten thousand sequins per purse.

The Sultan is about medium height, strong and well made, and wears a black beard and two huge moustaches.

Rudolf II – an engaging Holy Roman Emperor, given to dangerous experiments.

March 1591. Giovanni Dolfin, Venetian Ambassador in Germany, reports to the Doge and Senate on the Holy Roman Emperor’s dangerous experiment with gunpowder. Rudolf II was a keen patron of the arts and amateur of the occult sciences. He very much liked the portrait Arcimboldo painted of him in the character of Vertumnus (above). Below for comparison is a more conventional rendition by Hans Von Aachen.

A week ago, while the Emperor was reading a book upon fireworks he suddenly conceived the idea to try an experiment with some spirits of wine and gunpowder. As he was leaning over the the boiling spirits, which had been boiled and re-boiled, and was therefore almost pure spirit, it flamed up and burned a part of his beard, both his eyebrows, and his cheek. Thank God he has suffered very little, though the danger was great. He is in retreat at present.