Thursday, December 29, 2011

Auld Lang Syne: History and Meaning

We’ve all heard it, that bittersweet song sung at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve. I must confess that I could never reconcile the hope of new and wonderful beginnings with this woeful tune, so I did a little research on a tradition I found so dichotomous.

The song was first published by the Scottish poet Robert Burns in 1796, but its true genesis is not definitively known. Burns published the song after hearing an old man singing it in a tavern in the Ayrshire area of Scotland. And like so many folk tunes, it could have been born hundreds of years before that. Burns himself wrote to a friend, “The following song, an old song, of the olden times, which has never been in print, nor even in manuscript until I took it down from an old man.” There is, however evidence of Burns using not only what he heard the elderly gentleman sing, but utilizing bits from other old songs, inserting some of his own talent in the places in between.

For Americans, it was Guy Lombardo who popularized the song; it became a standard offering from Guy Lombardo and the Royal Canadians, but was first played by the band in the states at a New Year’s Eve party, at the stroke of midnight, at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City.

But the magic of the song, the ability to touch even the coldest heart, has traversed the globe. Songs based upon the melody, and the underlying meaning of the song, appear in France as “This is just a goodbye, my brothers (Ce n'est qu'un au revoir mes frères) and is sung at moments of great farewell, as it is in Peru, Germany, Greece, and Chile. In Hungary and Japan, it is a popular graduation song. And in Taiwan, it is used as a funeral song.

The genesis revealed, the song itself remains, still, an enigma for most people. The title can be translated in a variety of ways to bring the singer to a heartfelt meaning. The literal translation is, “old long since.” But that doesn’t help much. If more idiomatic translations are used, it flows through to, “long, long ago,” “days gone by” or “old times.” Singing the first line of the chorus, “For Auld Lang Syne” is, in essence, singing, “for the sake of old times.” Ah, finally, a sentiment in keeping with the moment. As we raise our cup “for the sake of old times,” we are promising to remember those who have passed with kindness. But if we look a little more deeply at the translation, we find a stronger sentiment, one of hope, one of dedication to those who are with us in this moment.

Scottish Verse (Translation)
Should auld acquaintance be forgot, (Should old acquaintance be forgot,)
And never brought to mind? (And never brought to mind?)
Should auld acquaintance be forgot (Should old acquaintance be forgot,)
And auld lang syne. (And long, long ago.)

For auld lang syne, my jo, (And for long, long ago, my dear)
For auld lang syne, (For long, long ago,)
We'll tak a cup o' kindness yet, (We’ll take a cup of kindness yet,)
For auld lang syne. (For long, long ago.)

And surely ye'll be your pint-stowp! (And surely you’ll buy your pint-jug!)
And surely I'll buy mine! (And surely I’ll buy mine!)
And we'll take a cup of kindness yet, (And we’ll take a cup of kindness yet,)
For auld lang syne. (For long, long ago.)


We twa hae run about the braes (We two have run about the hills)
And pu'd the gowans fine; (And pulled the daisies fine;)
But we've wander'd mony a weary foot (But we’ve wandered many the weary foot)
Sin auld lang syne. (Since long, long ago.)


We twa hae paidl'd i' the burn, (We two have paddled in the stream,)
Frae mornin' sun till dine; (From morning sun till dine;)
But seas between us braid hae roar'd (But seas between us broad have roared)
Sin auld lang syne. (Since long, long ago.)


And there's a hand, my trusty fiere! (And there’s a hand, my trusty friend!)
And gie's a hand o' thine! (And give us a hand of yours!)
And we'll tak a right guid willy waught, (And we’ll take a draught of good-will)
For auld lang syne. (For long, long ago.)

So what has my research into this tradition truly revealed? For this humble author, who has learned more than her fair share of life’s lessons, it is this, and to you all I wish…

That the calluses of your life be rubbed away;
That the beauty of your life find a place in your heart,
and are remembered from day to day.
And may the road that stretches out ahead,
be filled with nothing but kindness instead.

Happy New Year to one and all

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Christmas: Of Days Gone By

As we surround ourselves with the good cheer of the season, its difficult as a writer of historical fiction not to ponder on Christmases of years past. As I have a knack for picking events that seem to occur during warm weather months (most definitely a Freudian coincidence), it seems fitting to delve into the winter months and the crowning glory of the season.

As any devotee of history knows, it is more than likely that Jesus was born sometime in May, not December, but this is knowledge gathered in modern times with devices and techniques unavailable until a few decades ago. It leaves one to wonder, then, how did December 25th come to be the celebration date of that momentous birth. The most logical explanation brings one to the Mithric Mysteries.

An enigmatic religion practiced most popularly from the 1st to the 4th Centuries in the Roman Empire, the name of Mithras appears to represent that given to their one god. The religion itself, while highly complex and distinctly popular with the Roman Military, shares a great many coincidences with Christianity. Baptism, communion, guardian angels are just a few of the similarities. But their celebration on December 25, the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun, is almost a mirror image of traditions still in practice today. Believed to be born of a virgin woman, the myth of Mithras includes resurrection after death and the ascension to heaven in human form. It is all this, and more, which no doubt induced Emperor Constantine and the Council of Nicea to choose this date in 325 AD to commemorate the birth of Jesus.

While it’s probably a good bet that fine spirits of the liquid variety have always been a part of these celebrations for times untold, the activities themselves have evolved in a number of ways. The early celebrations of Christmas, in Italy and all through Europe, more readily resembled Twelfth Night and the luxuries discussed in the Twelve Days of Christmas, a festival lasting from December to the Epiphany, on January 6. As these days were also fraught with the constant battle and persecutions between the Protestants and the Catholics, it’s safe to assume that there were many years and many families who kept such celebrations on a quiet, more intimate tone, though even the Medicis themselves were known to take part in the festivities at various times, playing the parts of the Magi in the Mystery Plays.

The one constant from the Renaissance era and the celebrations of Twelfth Night that remain today (dare I say almost to our detriment) is the custom of gift giving, a tradition instituted to mirror the gifts of the Magi given to the baby Jesus. Christmas Carols began in the 15th Century by Saint Francis of Assisi, who also introduced the tradition of a Manger when he created his own with the use of living livestock.

However you may celebrate, from wherever your traditions may come, may we all remember the true message of the season…Peace on Earth, Good Will toward All Beings.

Friday, December 16, 2011

A Palace for the Ages: Le Louvre

In To Serve a King and next year’s The King’s Agent, much is mentioned about Francois I’s obsession with acquiring the eras greatest works of art, as well the artists. In each case, I credit Francois and the lead factual character in The King’s Agent, Battista della Palla, with launching the collection that would become the superior compilation of masterpieces now housed in the magnificent Louvre. But what of the palace itself?

In the late 12th century, Paris was Europe’s biggest city, blossoming under the forty-three year reign of King Philippe Auguste, as did the monarchy’s own power and influence. But such greatness is often accompanied by jealousy and other rulers of the day coveted the city as they would the world’s most beautiful woman. Before leaving for the Crusades, King Philippe had a rampart built around Paris. To reinforce its defenses, the king erected a fortress as well; the high walls and imposing edifice constructed along the right bank of the River Seine formed an imposing edifice and protection for the city’s populace. That fortress came to be known as the Louvre, the name most credibly noted as deriving from the Latin Rubras, meaning ‘red soil.’

In those early days the single building structure was used as a prison, armory, and a royal treasure stronghold. Round bastions stood at each corner and at the center of the north and west walls of the mounted quadrilateral measuring seventy-eight by seventy-two meters. In the south and east walls, defensive towers flanked narrow gates.

By the 14th century and the inception of the Hundred Years War, even greater defenses were called for and construction of an earth rampart was prompted by Etienne Marcel, provost of the merchants of Paris. The work was completed under Charles V. With the addition of this rampart to the city’s defenses, the fortress became superfluous and it began its transformation into a royal palace. With much of the design work by architect Raymond du Temple, the fortress became resplendent with ornately decorated rooftops, elaborately-carved windows designed to bring more light into the structure, and interiors sumptuous with paneling, tapestries, sculptures and other works of art. The grandest addition, the grande vis, was a breathtaking staircase adorned with sculptures of the royal family.

After the death of Charles V in 1380, the renovation of the Louvre slowly ceased, the country’s coffers diminished by the strain of war and the plethora of other royal residences requiring upkeep…la Bastille, Vincennes, Fontainebleau. The work honoring the magnificent structure known as the Louvre would not again be honored until the reign of François I.

What came first…François’ love of art and his need for a fitting palace in which to flout it, or a magnificent palace longing to be festooned by resplendent art? When the king, returned from years of imprisonment in Spain, scarred—physically and mentally—by resounding defeats on the battlefield and in the political arena, he decided to make the Louvre the official royal residence and the true renovation of the medieval fortress began. François found the castle dark and airless, much like the rooms of his prison, which no doubt instilled an even greater need for restructuring of the mansion he would call home. The great tower was destroyed and the medieval fortress gave way to the Renaissance palace.

This demolition marks the true turning point of the essence of the palace, as the old gives way to the new, as the king eradicates the west wing and replaces it with distinctly Renaissance style structures designed by Pierre Lescot and decorated by Jean Goujoun. The encompassing renovation began in 1546, but Francois’ death a year later would find the work continued by his progeny.
And continue it they did, with great relish. Under Henri II and his son, born Charles IX, ruling as Henri III, the palace was transformed. A new façade, the King’s Pavilion, and a new dungeon overlooking the Seine are but a few of the major points of the renewal

As regent to her son Charles IX, Catherine de’ Medici had the Tuileries Palace constructed, a pleasure palace which remained unfinished as her relish for luxury emptied the kingdom’s coffers. Henri III directed work on the Little Gallery, a jumping off structure for the connection between the two buildings. Under his son, Henri IV, The Grand Hall, built between 1595 and 1610 was constructed along the water that directly connects the royal apartments at the Louvre and ending at the Pavilion de Flore of the Tuileries. Stretching 450 meters, the Grand Hall is crowned by the Hall of Kings on the floor above.

The assassination of Henri IV by Ravaillac, a religious fanatic, put the expansion on hold for many years, until his son came to reign. Under the ‘modern’ Louis kings, more demolition of old buildings would take place and the Louvre compound would expand four fold. But the trauma Louis XIV endured while within the walls of the Louvre—a cold and ignored childhood, an attempted coup by the ranking nobility—turned him against the palace and toward Versailles, where the French royalty would live out the remainder of their usefulness.

For more than a hundred years, from 1670 until the French Revolution, the Louvre served not only as the state cultural and learning center, but as a city for artists and their families. It is during these years that the palace makes its most important transformation, into the artistic mecca that it is today, officially becoming Le Museau Central des Arts in 1793.

Today the Louvre is the largest art museum in the world, housing approximately 35,000 pieces of every medium, art of such a precious nature that, during both World Wars, the French government removed all its masterpieces and hid them. To this day, the hiding place is unknown to all but a few chosen members of the French government...should the need for its secrecy ever arise again.

And in the walls of this royal bastion, in between the stones and the bricks and the marble and the splendor that is the Louvre, resides the history of a nation and the passion of its kings.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

To Galileo with Love: Excerpts: The Effortless and The Arduous Vol. 2

I recently learned that my 2010 release, The Secret of the Glass, finished as a finalist in the USA Book News Best Books of the Year contest. It is, of course, always an honor to receive such an accolade. But it was especially true to receive it for this book. It was a story I connected to on a very personal level, due, in large part, to the presence of Galileo. To consummate the celebration, I offer an excerpt from The Secret of the Glass, one which celebrates Galileo's triumphant moment:

The diverse group of men gathered at the base of the campanile. They turned toward Pasquale and nodded or waved in greeting. Many of the faces looked familiar though their names remained elusive; she had seen them before, dressed in council robes at the Ducal Palace.

One face leapt out at her, one whose name jumped readily to her tongue. She knew every detail of the countenance; the chiseled contour of the high cheekbones, the long slim nose, and the full lips. It was the face that haunted her dreams. Teodoro Gradenigo stood head and shoulders above the others, his long, lithe shadow stretching out across the herringbone patterned pavement stones, reaching out to her. What was he doing here? Was he a friend to da Fuligna? The questions exploded in her mind, making her dizzy with possibilities. She shimmied back further into the shadows, her harsh breathing echoing back to her in the arched tunnel.

Pasquale quickened his pace. He returned the group’s greetings, rubbing his hands together as if relishing the moment. After a few short snippets of conversation, their heads spun in unison toward the palazzo.

Sophia sucked in a gasp of air as she found the object of their attention. Heading toward the assembled group strode Il Serenissimo himself, dressed in civilian clothing, accompanied by three other men—a friar in a roughly hewn cassock, Signore Sagredo, dressed to the hilt, as always, and Professore Galileo, carrying a long, slim leather satchel.

Fear thrummed in her veins, not for herself, but for the endearing scientist. What business would da Fuligna have with him? Was he a threat to the man and his important work? She found only more questions where she craved answers. Her hands pushed against the still cool stones at her back, as if she could push the professore away from any impending danger, real or imagined.

The base of the square brick monolith was less than a hundred yards away and the men’s voices carried in the constant breeze blowing inward off the ocean, toward Sophia and her hiding place.

“We are ready, signore,” Doge Donato said to Galileo after acknowledging the obeisance of the group. “Show us.”

“No, no, Your Honor.” Galileo pointed to the green and white rooftop and the pyramidal spire topped by the golden archangel Gabriel over nine hundred meters above. “When you can see clearly, it is best to find a place where there is much to see.”

A few of the men appeared skeptical, the older ones in particular, but all of them followed the Doge through the narrow door leading to the interior and the hundreds of stairs within.

The men disappeared into the bell tower and Sophia set off at a run, lifting her skirts off the ground, heedless of the surprised smattering of shoppers milling about the mostly empty piazza, scattering the hundreds of pigeons who lived within the square into the sky, the abrupt flapping wings loud in the peaceful quiet. She threw herself up against the brick wall next to the door and listened as the voices drew away from the entrance, echoing up the confining staircase of the campanile.

For the love of God, what are you doing?

The frantic thought flashed through her mind, but she gave it little consideration, she couldn’t. If she did, the fear would paralyze her completely.
Waiting impatiently for a scant few seconds, she stole a furtive glance inside and saw only a narrow brick-walled opening—barely wide enough for two averaged-sized men to walk abreast—and light gray, uneven stone stairs leading to a narrow landing. The first flight of stairs was empty; the group had ascended the landing and turned the corner.

With a deep, fortifying inhalation, Sophia entered the small foyer and began the almost inconceivable climb to the top. She paced herself, not moving too quickly, making sure never to catch up with the men ahead of her. Their grunts of exertion echoed down to Sophia, their intensifying body odors lingered behind and mingled with the stone dust released into the air, disturbed by their footsteps. So many in the group were slow with age, trudging up step after step, stopping often to inhale deep draughts of air with rattling breaths and to wipe the perspiration off their brows and hairless heads.

Higher and higher they climbed, slower and slower they moved.The sun rose in the morning sky and the meager light from the small rounded windows at each landing filtered into the staircase, the dust dancing in its glow. Sophia crested another flight, turned another corner, her own young and healthy heart thudding against her chest. An unobstructed beam of sunlight found her, and she crouched low, back into the shaded pit.

The group arrived at the top. Sophia slunk up the last flight of stairs on her hands and knees, keeping close against the cold stone, covering the front of her gown with the gray, sooty dirt.

Peeking above the uppermost step, she peered furtively into the square landing above. The last of the men to reach the pinnacle clustered together, leaning upon one another in an exhausted group, holding each other up as they caught their breath.

Sophia lunged, using their huddling, groaning mass as a cover, sneaking past them to hide behind the farthest and largest bell. Within the safety of its unlit silhouette, as her own ragged breath slowed through quivering nostrils, Sophia looked around. Her full bottom lip lowered in unfettered astonishment. Though she had lived in this land, passed by the tall base of this obelisk all her life,
she had never hurdled its stairs, had never seen this magnificent architecture waiting upon its zenith.

The rounded peaks of the belfry’s white stone arches created symmetrical shaped shadows upon the large dado supporting the spire and the five intricately wrought bells of varying sizes. Sophia had heard their mellifluous tones all her life—they were the music of the passing years. She hid behind La Marangona in the northwest corner, the largest bell of them all. Named for the carpenters of the land, the marangoni, its deep clang began and ended the workday. La Trottiera called magistrates to meetings and the Pregadi the senators to their chamber, while La Nona announced mid-day. The smallest—called Renghiera by some, Maleficio by others—whose high haunting tones made the cittadini cringe, announced executions.

“Over here, if you please, Your Honor.”

Sophia heard Galileo’s call and stole a stealthy peep around the curved edge of the bell. Diagonally opposite from Sophia’s position, he stood in the southeast corner of the tower, beckoning the Doge to join him, and extracting a strangely shaped device—long and circular—from his bag.

The other men swarmed around them against the parapet, their hair dancing in the buffeting, powerful wind of the lofty altitude, their low murmurs and questions tripping over one another.

Galileo held one end of the lengthy, round cylinder up to his left eye and pointed the other end out toward the lagoon.

“My God!” His cutting whisper, like a fervent prayer, silenced the quizzical, conjecturing voices around him. Without another word, he offered the instrument to the Doge.

Galileo sparkled as a dumbstruck, enraptured smile spread upon his face, like a man who had seen his newly-born child for the first time.

Donato took the device and held it up to his eye, mimicking Galileo’s posture, pointing it out to the glittering ocean. The large man jerked back his head as if struck, and thrust the tube away from his face. The attentive men gathered around him came onguard, heads spinning about searching for the threat, hands drawn to hilts. The Doge’s large, horse-like face turned to Galileo, probing the scientist with his questioning glare.

“Yes, yes, it is real.” Galileo’s long beard quivered from his chin. He smiled with childish joy at Sagredo and the priest who stoodclose beside him.

The Doge shook his head as if to deny the man’s words, but put the instrument back to his eye.

“Holy Mother of God.” Donato’s breathy whisper ripped the expectant silence to shreds. “It is a miracolo!”

Sophia forced herself not to crow aloud, forced back the joyous laughter that bubbled within before it could forsake her hiding place behind the large bell. She knew what this device was, why this group had gathered upon this tall summit. Galileo had finished his creation, and from the shock upon his face and that of the Doge, it worked stupendously.