Posts Tagged ‘Stephen Orgel’

Legends of lucre, dreams of rule – Marco Polo, Queen Elizabeth, and Gina Lollabrigida

Sunday, April 22nd, 2012
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“How did he do it? And can we get some?”

That was the Age of Exploration’s takeaway on the story of King Solomon, said Steven Weitzman, author of Solomon: The Lure of Wisdom.  He was one of 18 authors speaking at Peter Stansky‘s annual “A Company of Authors,” celebrating the books published at Stanford over the previous year.  (I’ve written about Steve’s book before, here.)

Explorers sought not Solomon’s wisdom but rather his fabled lucre, and many of the fantasies centered on the biblical city of Ophir, said to be rolling in pots of gold.

We still have Christopher Columbus‘s very own edition of the book of Marco Polo‘s travels.  In the spot where Polo describes the island Cipano (i.e., Japan), Columbus scrawled in the margin “Ophir.” That’s how obsessed he was.

And then he went to look for it.  Of course, that’s not where he wound up.  He found himself on the coast of Panama instead.

A hundred years later, in 1596, Doña Isabella Baretto (Steve described her as “first female admiral in history”) took control of the fleet when her husband,  Spanish explorer Álvaro de Mendaña de Neira, died in the Solomon Islands.  But when she piloted the remaining crew into the harbor of Manila, the people hailed the haughty, regal widow in the streets as … the Queen of Sheba.

See?  They were stilling thinking about Solomon, far from the shores of Panama.

The book that launched a looting

The Queen of Sheba herself plays a big role in the fantasy life of the centuries.  In 1871, an ancient ruin discovered in Zimbabwe was thought to be the palace of the Queen of Sheba, and hence the last remnant of Solomonic architecture, echoing the glory of the Temple of Jerusalem.  (The local inhabitants were assumed to be too inept to have devised such sophisticated buildings themselves – it had to be an outside job.)

Of course the theory was debunked, but not before it inspired H. Rider Haggard‘s 1885 King Solomon’s Mines, and not before the “Great Zimbabwe” site was thoroughly looted.  “Solomon is steeped in pop culture,” said Steve – or perhaps the other way around.

Indiana Jones is our enduring contemporary souvenir of this legend.  For another, cheesier reminder, see the youtube video below.  Nothing like yesterday’s hot cha stuff to give you a fit of the giggles today – something young people should keep in mind when they take “sexy” photos of themselves.  Think of your children.  You don’t want them to ROTFLMAO, do you?

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C'est moi

“I am Richard the Second. Know ye not that?”

Famous Shakespeare scholar Stephen Orgel, author of Spectacular Performances: Essays on Theatre, Imagery, Books, and Selves in Early Modern England, recounted the famous quote in context.  The queen was examining historical documents with her archivist, William Lambarde, when her eyes fell upon one about the reign of King Richard II.

The comment came towards the end of her reign, following Earl of Essex’s rebellion in 1601 and his subsequent execution. He had paid the Chamberlain’s Men to perform the troupe’s old chestnut – Shakepeare’s Richard II, chronicling the travails of the histrionic monarch – at the Globe on the eve of the rebellion.

Of course, the queen was referring to Essex’s attempt to plant the theme of deposed monarchs in the public mind, lining her up for the next heave-ho.

Then Orgel told us the bit we don’t normally hear, what the queen and her archivist said afterward.

She went on to natter with the archivist, asking him if he’d like to see the portrait of the Richard II she’d found and restored, which she’d stashed away somewhere in the palace (the basement, perhaps).

C'est moi, aussi

You guessed it.  She showed him the now-famous portrait now in Westminster Abbey – it’s the only portrait of Richard II that has survived.

It bears a striking resemblance to her own coronation portrait in 1559.  “Why would Elizabeth represent herself as her tragic ancestor?” Orgel asked.  One reason came to mind: Elizabeth’s throne was far from secure; she was the bastardized child of a monstrous father and a disgraced and beheaded queen. She survived imprisonment and two childless siblings to get the throne and was forever after fighting assassination plots.

Richard II was, in fact, the last English monarch to belong to an uncontested dynasty, with an uncontested claim to the throne. He was succeeded by the upstart Bolingbroke, who became Henry IV, and left the realm to the short-lived Henry V, whose infant son, Henry VI, proved a disastrous king, leading to the bloody War of the Roses – from which Elizabeth’s grandfather, the  son of a Welsh knight, Henry VII, famously picked up the crown from the battlefield and put it on his head.

Apparently Elizabeth had not thought of the more ominous associations with Richard II when she sat for her splendid portrait, glittering like all the gold in Ophir.