June 24


Two entries on this occasion, theoretically unconnected: one about Dante, the other about Nelson Mandela - and yes, the year is 1890, 28 years before Mandela was born, 569 years after the death of Dante. The strange ways in which history happens, gets recorded, gets remembered - and changes in the process.

1. A fresco of Dante Alighieri

Supplementary to my novel "A Journey In Time", which charts the universal history of June 27th (my birthday - no one ever chooses arbitrary dates!), but which has self-evidently left out billions of episodes, most of them because they do not merit the recording. This one does not really belong on June 27th anyway, though it also does, for reasons that will become apparent, but June 24th is the right place to locate it, unless September 14th, which was his actual death-date. The passage below is from Harriet Rubin's splendid "Dante In Love", pp 229/230:

After his death, Florence wanted Dante back. "Ah! The shame of having to record that a mother was envious of her own child," Boccaccio vituperated to the city fathers. "He [Dante] cannot do to Florence dead what living he would never have done... Hardly can I believe that, if dead bodies are capable of feeling, that of Dante would wish to leave the place where it lies now to return to you." Ravenna, Boccaccio said, "bathed in the blood of martyrs, is a more hospitable home." Guido [Cavalcante, Dante's "first friend"] staged a contest for a design of a fitting burial place for Dante. Not long after his bones were assumed to be safely in the ground, the Florentines moved in and tried to dig up the corpse of Dante Alighieri. On December 22 1396, Florence made a formal demand for his remains. Ravenna refused. Another demand came on February 1, 1492, and a third refusal came in 1529, when Michelangelo offered to build a tomb for "the divine poet". Then an official party was dispatched. It was the bad luck of the magistrate of Ravenna that he had that month refused to pay the enormous salaries of the Papal Swiss Guard, and the Pope, Leo X, had held them in Cesena, leaving Ravenna undefended. The Florentine envoys arrived in the dead of night and raised the stone lid of Dante's tomb. To their astonishment, they found it empty except for a few bone chips and withered laurel leaves. Their report concluded:

"It being believed that in his lifetime [Dante] made the journey through Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso, so in death it must now be assumed that in body as well as in spirit in either one or other of the realms he has been received and welcomed."

So the matter was left until, in 1890, documentation was found that a Franciscan had, centuries earlier, broken into the sarcophagus and removed the bones for safe-keeping elsewhere in Ravenna. The records revealed where the monk hid Dante's remains. Once recovered, they were put on display in Ravenna for three days, from June 24 to June 26, 1890. People came from everywhere to say they had seen the great Dante Alighieri. On June 27, all that could be buried of Dante was entombed in a great white vault surrounded by a tiny garden in Ravenna."

detail from Luca Signorelli's "Dante fresco", 
Chapel of San Brizio, Orvieto Cathedral

2. The fresco in celluloid 

I am fascinated by the ways in which novels and movies determine history, sometimes when they don't even pretend to be accurately historical. 

So this second piece is rooted in a 2009 visit to the cinema (sorry, movie theatre: the visit took place in America) to see the film "Invictus", in which Matt Damon made a brave attempt at playing rugby and Morgan Freeman a quite brilliant one at playing Nelson Mandela. The movie is set at the time of the 1995 Rugby World Cup, hosted in South Africa at the very moment that apartheid was being dismantled, an opportunity brilliantly seized by Mandela to unite whites and blacks and coloured people under a common banner when the alternative might very well have been civil war and bloodshed. The movie's title comes from the "fact" that Mandela had the poem of that name by William Ernest Henley written on a scrap of paper in his prison cell on Robben Island during the decades of his incarceration there. As captain François Pienaar, played by Damon, struggles to get his team up to standard, Mandela invites him to Pretoria, and gives him a copy of the poem, hoping it will inspire Pienaar and his team as it had inspired him. It works. South Africa lifts the Rugby World Cup. And all is for the best in the best of all possible Hollywood South Africas.

Except that, in reality it wasn't "Invictus" - the entire movie is promulgated on a falsehood, a convenient fiction; or possibly a research error. In reality, what Mandela gave to Pienaar was an extract from Theodore Roosevelt's "The Man in the Arena" speech from 1910.

So with the elevation to heroic status of Lawrence of Arabia, owing somewhat less to his actual heroics than to his depiction by Peter O'Toole in the David Lean movie. 

So too the elevation to sainthood of Oskar Schindler. Some years ago I watched a British television documentary, a biography of Oskar Schindler, who had been acclaimed as a "Righteous Gentile" after the publication of Thomas Keneally's book - Schindler's List in some countries, Schindler's Ark in others - and then Steven Spielberg's movie, but who this documentary showed to be a great deal less than a righteous gentile, and a great deal more of a practised conman who used his Jewish slaves coldly and calculatedly to secure his own safety from a war crimes trial when the final defeat of Nazism took place. Yet, as with "Invictus", as with Lawrence, the world now believes the book version, and especially the film version, and this despite our full awareness that movies are regularly "based on" or "inspired by" historical events, and are rarely an attempt to write whatever a "faithful and accurate" account might be anyway.

Richard III, unknown artist, c 1590
There are countless examples of this - and I invite my readers to share others that they know. Shakespeare's travesty of Macbeth is already on this blog - see August 15 - but is by no means unique among the revised accounts of history for which a debt is owed to the Bard. Richard III is the most currently conspicuous - Richard only became "Crokeback" when Shakespeare invented him as such, and did so as a means of parodying the Lord Chancellor Robert Cecil, who was indeed mildly hunchbacked, or at least a sufferer from the early signs of osteoporosis - but giving the hump to Richard was rather better than giving the hump to Cecil. Yet now that hump has become so "historical" that the skeleton of a hunchback, disinterred beneath a Leicester parking lot in 2013, has been "confirmed" as his corpse, and the corpse is now fact, like Christian relics of the True Cross in the Middle Ages; while the only residual dispute is over tourism opportunities.

In the era of Soviet Communism, when people were in power one day and in Siberia or the grave the next, newspapers and schoolbooks were updated continuously, and the process was known as the "airbrushing" of history. Prior to that it was called "whitewashing", and for a very good reason, one which has itself been "whitewashed", rather like the maquillage painted on her face to cover up the smallpox scars - because boy! does she now have a pure and perfect reputation as the Virgin Queen. The first Queen Elizabeth, I mean. Muse of the Golden Age of English Literature, and of the theatres too, much encouraged by her, and not only for the plays - what Elizabeth really loved was the bear-baiting: still more torture of the innocent. Ah yes, whitewashed.

Actually it was her father who started it, but like most things in his life he did it very badly. When he broke with Rome to establish the Church of England, he didn't just dissolve the monasteries and sell off the abbeys and transform the Catholic churches into Protestant ones, he also tried to remove every last vestige of Catholicism from those churches, which included - and I'll bet you didn't know this, because it has been completely airbrushed out of our telling of English history - the whitewashing of every single wall and pillar.
Until then churches had been gloriously multi-coloured, their fluted pillars ornate like the palm-tree pillars of Moslem mosques, only done with paint, not tiles. Interior walls and vaulted ceilings were entirely frescos, just like the one of Dante at Orvieto above, or the Danish church on the left (itself a modern "restoration", but the Danish philistines used limewash rather than whitewash: much easier to remove): a Piagetian classroom for the illiterate, telling the Biblical tales, Hebrew "Old" as well as Christian "New", or recording the lives of the English martyrs - St Alban, St Thomas Becket, dozens of others. 

 They might have been third-rate, or they might have been English Giottos and Andrea del Sartos, but we will never know, because, when Elizabeth came to the throne and saw how thin the whitewash was, how faded already, how easy it would be for some restorer to come along, one day in the future, and revive them as part of the restoration of Catholicism, she gave instruction to repaint, and then repaint again, as many coats as necessary to ensure that restoration would be rendered quite impossible. And so it is. "The Lost Fresco Art of Mediaeval England". An interesting point of contrast with "The Golden Age of English Literature".

Elizabethan whitewashing has gone on and on until today, propagandising her as the greatest monarch England ever had, when in fact she supported an informer network worthy of the KGB, and was responsible - indirectly, obviously, through her agents; her hands where as pure, clean white as her church walls - for more torture of her own people than all the other English monarchs put together; almost all of her victims Catholics. She was also the Founding Patroness of the "British Empire" - a term coined by the Head of what was not yet MI6, but still her international spy network, the scientist and mystic John Dee (whose code-name, incidentally, was 007); and that empire, the base of our economy today, was built on piracy. The so-called "Golden Age" only started after the defeat of the Armada - thirty years after she came to the throne; and the significance of the Turkish second front in defeating the Armada is simply ignored on GCSE and A level history curricula.

There are countless other examples, one of which - the changing of the ending of Anna Michaels' novel "Fugitive Pieces", in its film version - I have written about in my essay collection "Homage To Thomas Bowdler". That is a slightly different case however; the changing of a fictionalised account of history rather than a fictionalisation of the history itself; though the impact may well be comparable.

Of those that alter history itself, none is more insidious than the reduction of all pre-Norman British history to folk-tales and fairy-stories - other than a scanty survey of the Romans, Anglo-Saxons and Vikings, British history in schools and universities begins with the Norman conquest, and what is called "English Literature", in spite of its inclusion of Dylan Thomas (Welsh), W.B. Yeats (Irish), Sir Walter Scott (Scottish) et al, and while students may well study the Anglo-Saxon "Beowulf" as a linguistic and cultural source, the Welsh "Mabinogion" and the Irish "Táin Bó Cuailnge", despite being two of the great works of world literature, are not on the reading list, not even in English translation; while the centuries of Celtic hegemony before they were expelled to the remotest corners of Greater England, and their very different way of organising society, patterned like the pre-Hellenic Greek, the Davidian Hebrew, the Aztec, Mayan and Inca, and many others, on an attempt to mirror on Earth the organisation of the cosmos by the gods - not even on the curriculum. Tales of immense mythological and aetiological significance, equivalent to the Biblical and the Homeric and the Vedic, reduced during the Middle Ages to those splendid little love stories and courtly fantasies and dragon-hunting epics, which crowned a human Arthur as a chivalric king, and gave his cosmic court a decidedly English round table on which to eat its decidedly French meals - agneau au vin, roti de porc, pommes frites. More whitewash.

The history that was once taught through oral and written tales, or through frescoed paintings, is now achieved through films - my theme before I distracted myself. But how do we know we can trust them? 

Emilio Estevez's film "Bobby" for example, which recounts, according to its own blurb, how "the lives of a retired doorman (Anthony Hopkins), hotel manager (William H. Macy), lounge singer (Demi Moore), busboy (Freddy Rodriguez), beautician (Sharon Stone) and others intersect in the wake of Robert F. Kennedy's assassination at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles", all of which made for a very compelling movie, until you learned from the credits that all of those characters were entirely fictional and therefore what actually happened that night at the Ambassador must have been very different.

Or there is ITV's Tutenkhamun’s Tomb TV mini-series from 2016, whose final two parts depend on the love-affair between archaeologist Howard Carter, who discovered the tomb, and Lady Evelyn, the daughter of Lord Carnarvon, Carter's chief financial supporter; alas, there never was such an affair, but the second half of the series would have been very boring without it, so the writers wrote it in.

Heading to Marylebone Library in central London, to find a desk where I could finish writing this, I happened to walk along Duke Street, and there, on the wall at number 4 like a fresco in metal, one of those plaques that adorn so many London buildings, this one square and grey, and therefore unofficial - the official plaques are blue and circular. "Simon Bolivar", it reads. "El Libertador, the great Latin American statesman and patriot who liberated Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, Peru, Venezuela, stayed in this house in 1810." El Libertador!? This, indeed, is how he is remembered. This, indeed, was the model that he learned at the feet (or mostly the dining-room table) of Napoleon Buonaparte, from his heroic liberation of Europe. Does that already make you question it? So you should. And then see my other pieces about him, on July 5 of this blog-book, and on the Bolivia page of "The World Hourglass".

The Rugby World Cup in South Africa ended with the host nation's victory over New Zealand on June 24th 1995 - the reason for my otherwise random and arbitrary choice of date for this blog-page.

Below you can read both of the "Invictus" pieces, the Henley poem copied here because it's brief eough to do so, the Roosevelt speech by means of hyperlink, it being far too long to copy, though I have left a taster of its opening, below.




Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.


Excerpt from the speech "Citizenship In A Republic"Delivered at the Sorbonne, in Paris, France on 23 April, 1910

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat...

read the whole speech here

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