Wednesday, 2 November 2016
I was just reading a reprint of the 1900 Baedeker Guide to London, as you do, when I got to its description of the contents of the armouries in the Tower of London. It states that on display are (or at least were in 1900) a couple of suits of armour that were made for the 1839 Eglinton Tournament, one of which was worn by the future Napoleon III.
The tournament took place at Eglinton Castle, which lies on the outskirts of my home town - Kilwinning - hence my interest.
The castle ruins that can be seen today belong to a rebuild of the late 18th, early 19th Century. There was a much older castle on the site - seat of the Earls of Eglinton. It was burned down in the 16th Century, and took the form of a typical medieval Scots fortress. The new castle was built in grand gothic style - similar to those at Inverary or Culzean.
The Victorians had a great love for all things medieval. Just take a look at the decoration for the post fire Houses of Parliament, or for the Earl of Bute's Cardiff Castle. Arthurian figures with big Victorian mustaches abound.
It comes as no surprise, then, that the 13th Earl of Eglinton decided to stage a re-enactment of a medieval joust in the grounds of his castle in 1839. There was a great deal of excitement about the event, and the nearby railway line was even opened in advance of its planned date to accommodate the crowds.
Sadly, the typical weather of the region - relentless rain - made a bit of a damp squib of the occasion.
Now, once upon a time, the BBC's Blue Peter programme used to do a report on the tournament every year - back in the golden era of Valerie Singleton and her co-hosts. It was always a thrill for me as a child to see mention of this local landmark on national television. Sadly the story was always told from the studio in White City, using art work. The presenters never came up to Kilwinning to report from the location itself.
The castle fell into disrepair when the family fell into straitened circumstances (due to death duties) in the mid 1920's.
It was then used by the commandos for training in WWII, which was when it was reduced to the state in which you see it today.
Monday, 24 October 2016
The other day I had to give someone directions to the rear car park of the building where I work in Deptford. This involved a turn into New Butt Lane. This name possibly derives from archery butts - pieces of land where archers fired at targets set up in or on mounds of earth. In medieval times through into the Tudor / Stuart periods, archery practice became compulsory - in order that the male population would have the skills needed for when they were called up to go to war.
Many towns and cities have an area known as the Butts. However, the issue is complicated in that a butt can also simply refer to a strip of land - not necessarily one used for archery practice. Newington Butts, near Elephant and Castle, was often thought to be the site of an archery field, but there is no historical evidence to support this.
The fact that my local road is called New Butt Lane might suggest that this is one of the archery related places, if the "new" refers to the butt rather than to the lane.
Sunday, 9 October 2016
Lying on a flat area between the Tiber and the Capitoline and Palatine Hills, this was Rome's original port district - the Portus Tiburinas. It later became the city's principal cattle market - the forum venalium. Legend has it that the demigod Hercules visited Rome and slew a monster which lived in a cave at the foot of the Capitoline Hill.
In 264 BC, the first recorded gladiatorial fight took place here, as part of a funeral ceremony. It is also recorded that a human sacrifice was conducted here. In order to avert a war, two Gaul slaves - a man and a woman - were buried alive on the site.
Today, the area is a small park surrounded by busy roads - one running alongside the sharp bend of the Tiber, and the other along the foot of the hills. Two temples can be seen, dating from before the Imperial era. Both have survived due to their being converted into churches in the early medieval period.
The circular one is the Temple of Hercules Victor - also known as Hercules Olivarius, as Hercules was supposed to protect the lucrative olive trade. He had a great altar set up to him nearby as well. The building dates to the second century BC, and is Rome's oldest marble temple. 20 Corinthian columns surround the central cella, and it sits on a base of the volcanic tufa rock. It once had an architrave, which would have made it look like a mini Pantheon, but this has long gone. The roof is modern. Its circular appearance led it to be misidentified as the Temple of Vesta for many years.
In 1132 it was converted into the church of S. Stefano alle Carozze ("of the Carriages"). In the 17th Century it was rededicated to S. Maria del Sole ("of the Sun").
Close by is the later rectangular Temple of Portunas. Built between 120 - 80 BC, it is also known as the Temple of Fortunas Virilis ("manly fortune"). Portunas was the god of locks, keys and also of livestock - and so would watch over the cattle being delivered to the market here. The columns are Ionic. The ones holding up the portico are free-standing, whilst the ones along the side and across the back are only half-columns - embedded into the walls of the cella.
This temple was converted into a church in 872 - S. Maria Egyziaca ("of Egypt").
Friday, 30 September 2016
A popular statue form in ancient Greece was the Ephebe - an adolescent male, always presented nude. The philhellene Romans adopted this fashion - as they invariably did with any Greek artworks - and latinised the name to Ephebos. The Ephebe - usually aged around 17 or 18 - was a boy who had been removed from his family setting (generally the supervision of his mother) and placed in isolation so that he could become a man - and was thus ready to do adult things like join the army.
The Romans made a big deal of the transition from youth to adulthood. The Emperor Nero, for instance, held several day's worth of Games to celebrate the first shaving of his beard. The statue - clearly badly damaged - which you can see in the Palatine Museum, set in what was once a convent in the middle of the Palatine complex, used to adorn a Temple of Apollo which Augustus had built right beside his house. Apollo was his favoured God, and is invariably represented as a handsome young man. On the occasion of his wedding to Livia, Augustus had dressed as Apollo, and he believed that it was Apollo who had favoured him throughout the Civil Wars which led to his rise to power. It dates to between 17 - 14 BC.
This particular museum is often overlooked by the many tourists who wander around the Palatine Hill - from where we get "palace" and "palatial". Its exhibits all derive from the excavations on the hill itself - the location for Romulus' (legendary) hut and the later palaces of the Caesars. When Augustus set up home there, it was an exclusive residential district for the rich and powerful. Augustus' home was quite modest in comparison with its neighbours. However, over time, his successors would quickly take over the entire hill and it became exclusively the domain of the Emperors. In the aftermath of the Great Fire of 64 AD, Nero would attempt to spread his palace to two nearby hills - the Oppian and the Caelian - with his Golden House.
Monday, 12 September 2016
Time to move away from Rome for a little while, as we take a look at my own home town. Kilwinning lies in Ayrshire, in South West Scotland. Its original name was Segdoune - from "Sanctoun" - the town of the saint. "Segdon" still appears in a few street names in the town.
St Winning came to Scotland in 715 AD as a missionary from Ireland. He is supposed to have had a vision of an angel telling him where to set up his first church. The prefix Kil- in Scottish town names means "church of -".
Kilwinning Abbey was founded by monks of the Tironensian Benedictine Order - from Tyron near Chartres in France. A group were based in Kelso, in the Borders, and they began building the abbey around 1162. It was completed by 1188. There was some major work done again around 1230. The abbey church was one of the biggest in Scotland - its nave wider that Glasgow or St Andrews cathedrals.
Unusually, the abbey did not have a royal benefactor. The original patron was supposed to be Richard de Morville, Lord of Cunningham and Grand Constable of Scotland. Its early history is vague, as the abbey records were removed during the Protestant upheavals of the 16th Century, and were apparently later given to a local group of antiquaries in the early 18th Century - supposedly to publish, but nothing ever came of this. The records are now lost.
The first Abbot is recorded as taking his seat in 1190.
Revenues came from all over Ayrshire. The Abbot had a house in Glasgow, at the Drygate, and later a palace at Kerelaw.
The masons who built the abbey were responsible for Kilwinning having the Masonic Mother Lodge, only a short distance from the abbey today. As the first lodge in Scotland, it claimed the number "1". When the capital insisted that it should have the No.1 lodge, Kilwinning renumbered itself "0" to stay one step ahead.
With the rise of Protestantism in Scotland in the early 16th Century, the abbey was raided a number of times, and suffered damage. Its statues and stained glass were broken up, and treasures removed. The abbey was finally dissolved in the 1590's.
The buildings were never demolished, however, as it still had to perform the function of a kirk for the local population. The ruins we see today are the result of slow atrophy. With the loss of its lands and revenues, the local people could no longer afford its upkeep, and it slowly fell into ruin.
A lot of stone was quarried away for other building projects - such as the rebuilding of Seagate Castle in nearby Irvine, and Eglinton Castle elsewhere in Kilwinning. At Eglinton is a dovecot - or doocot as we say in Scotland. This originally belonged in the abbey and was moved to the castle stone by stone. The Earls of Eglinton lived in part of the abbey until their castle was built in the 17th Century.
The clock tower is a later addition, but built on original foundations. In 1649, the tower was used as the prison for a suspected witch - Bessie Graham. She was found guilty, and was burned to death in the area to the east of the River Garnock known as the Corsehill - a corruption of Cross Hill, as it used to have a large cross established to guide pilgrims to the abbey. The Corsehill was the site of a number of other witch burnings.
As a child, I used to hear stories that the tower was haunted. The spectre was known as the "Crack-faced Man". This was because he had a livid scar running down the middle of his ashen face. He never stopped you going into the abbey grounds after dark, but you certainly ran and never lingered.
There is a very atmospheric graveyard, and I could never understand how anyone could choose to live beside it.
Today, the various sections of the abbey have now been given signage, so you can tell what it is you are looking at. The tower is open during the summer months as a museum, and gives fantastic views over the entire town, the countryside around, and the nearby Firth of Clyde with the island of Arran dominating the western horizon.
Kilwinning's a nondescript little town in many ways these days, one you pass through going somewhere else, but if you are ever in the area do stop off and have a look around. You could see the abbey, Eglinton and Seagate Castles all in a day.
Eglinton still has the medieval doocot in its park, though there isn't much left of the castle itself (trashed by commando training during WW2). Seagate once hosted Mary Queen of Scots, and Irvine has literary links to Burns and Edgar Allan Poe. Just up the coast you can also visit Ardrossan Castle, which this year celebrated its 470th anniversary.
A couple of other mysteries to round off with. The treasures of the abbey have never been found. Some say that they are still buried somewhere in the grounds. Others say that they were buried on the crannog in Stevenston Loch, to the north of Kilwinning. There is reputed to be a tunnel leading all the way from the abbey to Eglinton Castle, which follows a ley line.
Tuesday, 30 August 2016
Often overlooked by tourists scurrying to or from the steps up to Capitoline - sandwiched between these and the steps of the Victor Emmanuel monument - is a well preserved Roman apartment block (or insula). A rare survivor in Rome itself, this five storey block was buried beneath the 17th Century church of S. Rita, which was built on the remains of an earlier church - S. Biagio "of the Market" which dated from the 12th / 13th Centuries. S. Rita's was demolished in 1927, and the apartment block uncovered.
It is a fresco from the earlier church that you can see roughly at today's street level, though the church was actually built into the 3rd and 4th floors of the insula. The later church got its name from its proximity to Trajan's Market, and this insula was built around the same time they were, in the 2nd Century CE.
The lower portion, which you can now see deep below you, was buried by the rising ground level.
These lower storeys would have contained shops. The fourth floor - due to the hill behind sloping back - was big enough for 11 rooms. These cramped, lightless chambers would have housed some of the very poorest of Romans, perhaps even slaves employed on the Capitoline or on the Palatine, though the latter had extensive slave quarters of its own.
Monday, 22 August 2016
In the 1590's, a substantial villa was uncovered on the Via Lata, in the grounds of a convent. The building appeared to have been constructed in four stages, the earliest in Republican times, and the latest during the reign of Constantine the Great. In the 19th Century, the famous statue known as the Augustus of Prima Porta was found nearby, and the villa was finally identified as that which had belonged to his wife, the Empress Livia. It was known as the Villa Ad Gallinus Alba - from the pure white chickens that were reared there.
There is not a lot to see now of the actual structure, but the fresco walls of Livia's dining room have been reconstructed at Rome's national museum - the Palazzo Massimo Alle Terme.
Diners would have used the room in the cooler autumn and winter months. They would have found themselves surrounded by a beautiful garden of trees and bushes, with a pale blue sky. Birds and animals are to be seen amongst the foliage. The effect would have been like dining al fresco on a warm summer's day.
Very little remains of the vaulting that would have gone above, save for a few pieces of stucco work.
The room in which the dining room frescoes are housed has a number of very comfortable, though somewhat low, padded benches. It is an ideal spot in which to rest your weary feet, and contemplate how the room might have looked had you been fortunate enough to be one of Livia's dinner guests - provided you don't subscribe to the Gravesian image of her as an arch poisoner...