Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Looking for the Comforts of Home

Recently my Mom gave me a bunch of letters from my Uncle, who was killed in  WWII, a Bombardier who perished over Bremen, Germany in August 1944. I never knew him, and these are a treasure, being introduced to someone who I have always heard good things about, but through his letters to his mother, I see the character of the person, the selflessness, the concern for his family, the responsibility and duty to his nation not only accepted but seen as an honor. He wrote practically every day from the time he left for training in late 1943 to the day before he died.

Got me to thinking about letters from 18th Century soldiers to their families and friends. My WWII letters are somewhat browned with age, but still in pretty good shape. Letters from over 200 years ago may be a different thing. Of course, letters written by famous commanders such as Gen. Washington survive and are displayed in museums and archives, but every day folk's correspondence is not always easy to find, or was kept in the best way possible.

As technology keeps changing, we are losing more and more hand written correspondence. Tweets, emails, etc have taken the place of what is generally and sarcastically known as "snail mail". But, to me, the an actual letter delivered to your mail box suggests that someone took the time to communicate, to choose the stationary, to write in detail, to (and this many be the most important!) choose their words most carefully. Once words are committed to paper, and placed in the mail slot, they are irretrievable. You better have been careful! 

For our purposes from the Enlightened Age, here's a sampling the American Revolution, from 1777:

Lieutenant WILLIAM BARTON of the Fourth and later the First New Jersey Regiment;To his father, Gilbert Barton of Allentown, N.J.,
(Whitemarsh, 22 November 1777) "...I expected to have been at home before this, but cannot Obtain leave Untill we go into Quarters, I have sent some clothes by Mr. Griggs which is one pair of Breaches two Jackets three pr Stockings...l am removed from the company I was in which was Capt. Lyon's and am know in Capt. Holmes Compy. as first Lieut, there are many officers resigning which is Like to make a Great deal of Promotion...my love to my Mother Sisters & all inquiring frinds..."

And, another from 1778 from Barton again, mentioning Valley Forge:

..."Camp Valley Forge, Feb. 18th 1778...I should wrote oftener but have been in expectation of Coming home but this day find my expectations blasted, and have no maner of hope to get home Untill April...I have Received my Coat & boots by Capt. Weycoff and am Inform'd you have procured me some shirts which I am Extremely Glad of as l shall be in Great need of them in a short time. I'me at this Present time in health, and hope these may find you all in Perfect health, if to the reverse at any time Please to give me inteligence Thireof and I shall come home at all Events. I have not Receiv'd a Letter from you since at home, should be very Glad to be favour'd with a few lines if Convenient and Likewise a few pounds of Sugar and A little Chocolate...there is a Scarcety of those articles in this Place...Camp does not very well agree with me..."

In the letters I am currently reading and copying, I see the every day life of an air man, a bombardier, in this case, asking for his Mom to send some heavy wool knit socks, or hoping she'll send some paper (as it was rationed), so he could write home. He also asked for some chocolate or gum to hand out.  In Lt. Barton's letter, you see him ask for stockings, some sugar, or chocolate. Not much has changed when looking for the comforts of home!

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Get a Room!

On May 7th, 1789 President George Washington attended a ball in his honor, which became the model for the official inaugural ball, held for Madison ten years later! From Madison's inaugural to the present day, this celebration has become tradition, though I'm sure it was not the media event it has become today.

Washington took the oath of office on April 30, 1789, then the special ball was held a week later in New York, as it was the temporary seat of the US federal government. The event was located in a building on Broadway near Wall Street. Martha, his wife, could not attend as she was packing up things at Mt. Vernon before she left for "the Big Apple". Can you imagine that kind of thing happening today. The "little woman" at home attending to domestic chores?!

Anyway, George arrived along with some other statesmen and their wives, and even danced a couple dances! It is said he liked to dance, was graceful, didn't step on anyone's toes, and held up a good conversation. It is said he liked the minuet! Vice President John Adams and family were there as were some French and Spanish dignitaries. Eliza Hamilton, Alexander Hamilton's wife, recorded some of her impressions in a memoir.
John Adams and Thomas Jefferson had their official parties, too, but still sedate, and dignified as was befitting the office. By 1809, Dolly Madison threw a huge gala for James Madison, her husband. 400 people in attendance at Long's Hotel in Washington DC. She, being her flamboyant self, got the ball rolling so to speak for the events we now witness. Bigger, grander, more celebrity-attended, more "can you top this"! And we can look forward to this now every four years.

And having been to one, I can speak from experience. Even though it now occurs in January, and the weather is generally extremely cold, no one is bundled up against the wind and/or snow. Shoulders are bared, cleavages exposed in deep V-neck gowns, lots of foundation, powder and lip liner, and yes, a great deal of botox. Men and women's faces, as the evening goes on, are flushed with excitement, fueled with cocktails.
People talk to one person, while looking over their shoulder to see if they are missing anything or anyone better to attack with copious qualities of charm and influence. It's quite a spectacle. And actually, the President and Mrs. must attend more than one ball. They make the rounds, have a chat, an official dance and then they're off to the next. And now days, we have the overt PDA. Get a room!

 What would the founding fathers think if they were a fly on the wall?!

Monday, May 4, 2015

Now Fade Away

Recently I have been watching a lecture series about Leonardo da Vinci, his paintings, his sculptures, his drawings, his fresco work. The man had a curiosity for everything. He was an artist and an engineer in his view of the world. He wanted not only to render the beautiful, but know everything about how things worked.

This morning the lecture subject was The Last Supper, a mural fresco painting that Leonardo created in the late 15th Century, from 1495-1498. It was commissioned by Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, for the convent refectory (dining area) of Santa Maria delle Grazie, in Milan. As we all know, it depicts the story as told in John's Gospel, 13:21, the disciples breaking bread with Jesus, and he telling them that he will be betrayed. A powerful message for the diners. At that time, the meal was generally eaten in relative silent, perhaps the abbot or abbess reading a bible passage. The mural towers above the dining area.

Painted on an exterior wall, the effects of humidity were devastating, and paint did not properly adhere to the mural surface. This damage was happening as early as 1517! By 1556, the work was described as ruined, the figures unrecognizable. How sad. And so, restoration was considered, but first, for the refectory's convenience, a door was cut into the wall. This was in 1652, and it was later closed up, but that damage was done as well. You can still see the area where the door was placed.

In the 18th Century, the following occurred:
A first restoration began in 1726 by artist Bellotti, filling in missing sections of the work with oil paint and then a coat of varnish. Bad move!
In 1768, a curtain was hung over the painting, and though for protection, it trapped more moisture, and when the material was removed, there was further flaking.
Another restoration effort began in 1770, by a relatively unknown artist Giuseppe Mazza. He stripped off Bellotti's work, and began repainting most of the mural. There was public outrage, and he was stopped.
In 1796, French revolutionary anti-cleric troops used the refectory as an armory, and in their protestation, threw stones at the work, and scratched out the eyes of the apostles. The room was later converted to a prison.

The 19th Century saw other attempts to recreate the mural, repair the damage, but it was not until the late 1970's to 1999 that technology allowed for the work to be preserved as we see it today.
Of course, nothing lasts forever, but we can now see Leonardo's efforts as best as they can be seen. The good intentions of our 18th Century counterparts took their toll, but as they sometimes say, the good never dies, it just fades away.