THE BRITISH LIBRARY

European studies blog

6 posts from October 2018

19 October 2018

Saving a city wiiiiiith a (red) herring!

Around the 3rd of October I visited the current display of items from the archives of Michael Palin in our Treasures Gallery, where the scene with ‘The Knights Who Say “Ni”’ from the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail sprang to mind. The leader of the Knights, played by Palin, tells the hapless King Arthur that if he fails to deliver a nice-looking (and not too expensive) shrubbery he ‘must cut down the mightiest tree in the forest, wiiiith…. a herring!’

I knew I was going to have herring with white bread and a hot pot of vegetables at the party that Friday to celebrate The Relief of Leiden, when the Sea Beggars brought barrels full of salted herring with white bread (a luxury for most people at the time) to the starving citizens of Leiden, on 3 October 1574. The city had lain under siege from the Spanish for five months and food had pretty much run out. 6,000 of the 15,000 people living in the city at that point had died. The population had come close to rebellion and demanded the surrender of the city at a meeting of the town’s council on 8 September.

LeidensOntzetFruinmap
Map showing the siege of Leiden, from Robert Jacobus Fruin, Het Beleg en Ontzet der Stad Leiden in 1574. (The Hague, 1874). 9405.aaa.42.

The councillors were faced with the difficult task of keeping the peace, whilst also persuading the desperate citizens to hold on just a bit longer, for they knew that help was on the way.

That confrontation went down in history as one of the most dramatic events of the siege. The drama came from Burgomaster Pieter Adriaansz van der Werff (1529-1604) who offered his own body as food for his people, in an act of utterly unselfish heroism. However, it turns out that this was a bit of a red herring.

LeidensOntzetvdWerffMattheus Ignatius van Bree, ‘De zelfopoffering van burgemeester Van der Werf’ (1816-1817). Museum De Lakenhal, Leiden 

The story of the self-sacrifice of Burgomaster Van der Werff first appeared in the second edition of Jan Fruytiers’ Corte beschrijuinghe van de strenghe belegheringhe ende wonderbaerlijcke verlossinghe der stadt Leyden in Hollandt ... (‘Short description of the severe siege and miraculous relief of the city of Leyden in Holland….’)

LeidensOntzetFruytiers1577Title page of Corte Beschrijuinghe van de strenghe belegheringhe ende wonderbaerlijcke verlossinghe der stadt Leyden in Hollandt,  2nd ed. (Delft, 1577). 9405.dd.8.

Funnily enough, Van der Werff had not featured in the first edition of the Corte beschrijuinghe, published in 1574. This may have something to do with Jan van der Does, also known as Janus Dousa. He had been commander of the city’s defence forces during the siege which put him well into the thick of it, alongside Van der Werff. He also happened to be a poet.

LeidensOntzetJDousaportr

Portrait of Jan van der Does from his Nova Poemata ... (Leiden, 1575). 11408.a.18.

In 1575 Van der Does published Odae Lugdunenses in which he criticises the conduct of Van der Werff and some of his colleagues, accusing them of contemplating surrender to the Spanish. Quite the opposite of heroic behaviour!

LeidensOntzetNovaPoemata Jan van der Does, Nova Poemata, containing the Odae Lugdunenses

This volume was printed on the press of the brand new University of Leiden, bestowed on the city as the first university in the Northern Netherlands in 1575, by Prince William of Orange, in gratitude to the people of Leiden. (Or so the story goes – we actually have no evidence of this.) Van der Does was its first librarian.

The second edition of Fruytiers’ Corte beschrijvinghe…. appeared two years later, in 1577. The story of Van der Werff’s heroism was reprinted in the 1646 as well as in the 1739 (augmented!) editions and so  lodged itself firmly in the collective memory of the Dutch about the siege.

Is it too far-fetched to think that the burgomasters nudged Fruytiers to write a ‘revised’ edition of the Corte beschrijvinghe, adding the self-sacrifice story, as a red herring to distract from their past conduct? We will probably never know the truth.

But never let the truth get in the way of a good story! And what a story it is, even without Van der Werff: the siege, the hunger, the radical decision to inundate the land, and the daring actions of the Sea Beggars; what drama! No surprise then that the play Belegering ende het Ontset der Stadt Leyden by Reynerius Bontius became the most popular play in the second half of the 17th Century. First published in 1645 it saw no fewer than 111 editions up to 1825 and numerous performances well into the 19th Century.

The Library holds editions from 1650, 1660, 1693, 1729, 1738, 1740, 1805 and 1821.

LeidensOntzetBontius11755bb18TtlpTitle page of Reynerius Bontius, Belegering ende Ontsetting der Stadt Leyden. (Leyden, 1660). 11755.bb.18

Bontius himself and many editors after him changed and added to the play, undoubtedly adding to the myth-making, until it became quite something different from the original. It was not performed much in the 20th Century, the most recent performance took place in 2005. It had become somewhat stale, like white bread a few days old.

What does not get stale, however is the party on 3 October, when Leiden and many places beyond celebrate Leiden’s Relief with white bread, hutspot and … herring!!!

LeidensOntzetherring Leidens Ontzet party at the Dutch Centre on Friday 5 October 2018, with herring and white bread (Photo M. Kingma).

Marja Kingma, Curator Germanic Collections 

References:

C.L. Heesakkers, Janus Dousa, dichter van Leidens Beleg en Ontzet : Lezing gehouden voor de leden van de Vereniging Oud-Leiden op 15 februari 1977. https://www.oudleiden.nl/pdf1/1977_10.pdf

Leiden University, Department of Dutch Language and Literature, Reynerius Bontius - Belegering ende het ontset der stadt Leyden – 1645 https://www.let.leidenuniv.nl/Dutch/Ceneton/Bontius/index.html

Lakenhal Leiden, Verhalen, Leidens Beleg en Ontzet https://www.lakenhal.nl/nl/verhaal/leidens-beleg-en-ontzet

 

16 October 2018

Václav Hübschmann’s satirical illustrations in the magazine Kopřivy.

Humour and satire played an important role during the First World War and in recent research have been called “the art of survival” (as in Libby Murphy’s 2016 study). Jaroslav Hašek’s comic masterpiece The Adventures of The Good Soldier Švejk, which was published in 1923, remains the most read and best known example of the Czech humour. Hašek definitely experienced many influences of the European tradition of satirical magazines, which were thriving from as early as the mid-19th century, such as the Italian L'Asino, the French Le Charivari, the German Simplicissimus, or the British Punch, to name just a few. However, here I would like to give a glimpse of the Czechs’ own tradition of satire and humour, which might not feature so prominently outside Czech and Slovak culture.

The three satirical magazines established before the first Czechoslovak republic (1918- 1938) were the conservative Humoristické listy (‘Humourist Pages’), the Social-Democratic Kopřivy - list satirický (‘The Nettle: satirical pages’) – both produced in Prague, and Rašplí (‘Rasps’) published in Brno. Several other, probably less established magazines, like Malé humory (Little Humour), Košťátko (Broom) and Mládeneček (Baby), were published in Austria.

Of these titles, the British Library, unfortunately, holds only an incomplete set of Kopřivy (PP.8006.cu). The magazine was launched in Prague in 1909 and ran through the inter-war years until 1937. While flicking through the 1913 issues, I noticed that illustrations by one artist appeared in almost every one. This artist was Václav Hübschmann, who was born in Prague in 1886 and died in Prčice in 1917. The surname Hübschmann is better known even to art historians in relation to Václav’s elder brother, the architect Bohumil Hübschmann (Hypšman after 1945,). Václav Hübschmann also worked as a theatre designer, and therefore his short biography is recorded in a volume on the Czech theatre. Some of his works are held in galleries and museums (e.g. the Moravian Gallery in Brno), but I could not find much about this artist who died at the age of 31.

Here are some of his illustrations from Kopřivy, which I hope our readers will like and enjoy as much as I did.

Untitled_03082018_134606

Poor prospects. “Daddy, will we be fasting for the whole year, so that we see the golden piggy-bank that the caretaker didn’t allow in last year?”

Untitled_03082018_134633In the Hotel “Bulgaria”: Would you like your breakfast or travel first, Sir?

Untitled_03082018_134706Poem “A young proletarian”

Untitled_03082018_134740

State care for emigrants: “Why should I not go to America, where I’m not going to be a soldier? – It hurts, lad, as you want to avoid a war tax”.

Untitled_03082018_134812Talk to the deaf person. Taxpayer: “So, what would you say? Who stole the money? I’m calling the police…” – Dr Groš: Nothing happened” (Karel Groš (1865-1938) – a Czech politician and statesman, mayor of Prague (1906-1918).

Untitled_03082018_134846Elections in Prague. “The devil owes us these elections. So that one would keep thinking for fourteen days what new promises should I make”.

  Untitled_03082018_134933Dr Groš to the honourable members of the racing club. “See, how I raced to glory… It’s all for a couple of thousand, which contributors paid with just one hand…”

Untitled_03082018_135007

Intercession of the Tsar-peacemaker. “Brothers, stop shedding Slavic blood… Don’t create dirty competition”

Untitled_03082018_135046A contemporary politician is depicted leading a troop of legendary warriors prophesied to come to the aid the Czechs in their hour of need

Untitled_03082018_135213Confiscation of confiscated. “A what is this title, Sir? There is nothing…”

Untitled_03082018_135246“I’m really sorry for you, Mrs Brázdová, that your husband is a socialist. And yet, you are a good Catholic.” – “You know, Father, he wanted to teach me socialism as well, but I told him: you cannot teach an old dog new tricks”.

 

Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator East European Collections

References/further reading

Libby Murphy, The Art of Survival: France and the Great War picaresque (New Haven, CT, 2016) YC.2017.a.12777

Oldřich Toman, Politická karikatura Mikoláše Alše v brněnské Rašpli roku 1890 (Brno, 1983) X.809/64015.

Jiří Valenta (ed.), Malované opony divadel českých zemí. (Prague, 2010) YF.2011.b.1490

12 October 2018

A long-lived Spanish book and a short-lived English king

Mexia tp C.20.e.15Title-page of Pedro Mexia, Silva de varia lection ... (Valladolid, 1551) C.20.e.15.

John Gough Nichols in his Literary Remains of King Edward VI (London, 1857; C.101.c.2.) gives a small ‘catalogue of such of the books in the Royal Library now preserved in the British Museum’ (pp. cccxxv-cccxxxviii), including:

SILUA DE VARIA LECTION, cōpuesta por el magnifico cauallero Pedro Mexia nueuamēte agora en el año de mil y quienientos [sic] et cinquenta y vno. Valladolid, 1551,
On the last leaf are these lines, written in a very neat Italian hand:
Il pouero s’affatica molto in cercar quel che gli manca. Et il ricco in conseruare quello che egli ha. Et il virtuoso in domander [sic] quel che gli bisogna.
[Google now identifies these line as coming from Doni’s Zucca (1551)]

Mexia inscription The manuscript inscription from the last leaf of Silva de varia lection ...

Nicols continues:

These lines resemble so much King Edward’s best hand that they may have been regarded as his. On the sides of the book are impressed these arms, in colours – Gules, on a chevron between three fleurs-de-lis or as many hurts, which render it a doubtful whether this was really one of the King’s books.

In the British Museum Library’s main catalogue of printed books (known as ‘GK’) this hardened to: “On the verso of the last leaf is written an Italian proverb, most probably in the handwriting of Edward VI., to whom the volume belonged.”

If Nichols was sceptical, T.A. Birrell was even more so: as he points out, the ‘E VI’ on the spine need mean no more than that the book was printed in his reign (p. 13).

And what could be less revealing of identity than a fine Italic hand?

The Tudors were all good linguists. Edward’s Greek and Latin were excellent, possibly better than his French: “conversing with him in Latin, Edward asked [Hieronymus] Cardano about his recent book which had been dedicated to him. There then ensued a debate upon the nature of comets, during which Cardano considered Edward ‘spoke Latin as politely and fluently as I did’” (Skidmore, p. 240).

I’ve no evidence of his knowledge of Spanish. There are no manuscript annotations in (t)his copy of Mexia, before you ask.

Whether this copy was Edward’s or not, it was a much-read book in its time throughout Europe. It’s a compendium of miscellaneous, curious knowledge, some of it useful and some of it useless (if knowledge is ever useless). Subjects include: did early men live longer than the moderns? The history of the Turks (a hot topic in 1540); the history of the Amazons; why a small head and broad chest is a bad sign; do mermen exist? Who was the first person to tame a lion? And many many more.

It attracted the attention of the Inquisition, who demanded the chapter on Pope Joan (I, ix) to be expurgated.

Mexia IndexThe entry for Silva de varia lection from the Novus index librorum prohibitorum et expurgatorum, issued by Cardinal Antonio Zapata (Seville, 1632) 617.l.27., p. 829 

Inquisition notwithstanding, Mexia was a best seller in Spanish (27 editions from 1540 to 1673), Italian (23 from 1544 to 1682), French (36 from 1552 to 1675), English (six from 1571 to 1651) and Dutch (four from 1588 to 1617).

What to me is interesting is not only the number of editions but that Mexia fell from favour in the 1670s and had disappeared by the 1680s.

Birrell charmingly calls it a “bedside book”, and although I don’t actually keep it by my pillow, I can attest from personal experience that it’s certainly good to dip into.

Barry Taylor, Curator Romance Studies

References

T. A. Birrell, English Monarchs and Their Books from Henry VII to Charles II, The Panizzi Lectures 1986 (London, 1987) 2719.e.1586

Chris Skidmore, Edward VI, the Lost King of England (London, 2007) YC.2007.a.8001

10 October 2018

Centenary of the Vernadsky National Library of Ukraine

The National Library of Ukraine was founded in August 1918 when, after the Revolution of 1917, statehood was briefly restored in Ukraine. The idea of a National Library had been developing in Ukrainian intellectual circles before the Revolution.

A law signed on 15 (2) August 1918 by Hetman Pavlo Skoropadsky created the Interim Committee for the Establishment of the National Library, under the supervision of the Minister of Education and Arts, Mykola Vasylenko. The lack of premises and a weak material base hindered the development of the Library, but in August 1920 the first reading room was opened. In addition to the main catalogues (alphabetical and classified), the special catalogue Ucrainica was started.

In 1919, at the request of the Moscow Soviet authorities, the Library was renamed “The All People’s Library”. During the first years after the Revolution the Library received considerable numbers of books as a result of the Soviet authorities’ liquidation of pre-revolutionary organizations and educational institutions. Many rich people who owned large libraries were imprisoned or went abroad, and some of their collections were also transferred to the Library.

By the late 1920s, the holdings of the All People’s Library were similar to those of other large European national libraries. It obtained new premises in the centre of the city, near Kyiv University, and published its own journals.

VernadskyZhurnalAc.1101.fCover of issue 3 of Zhurnal bibliotekoznavstva ta bibliohrafii (Journal of librarianship and bibliography; Kyiv, 1927-1930 ) Ac.1101.f.

In 1929 the Moscow authorities began to suppress Ukrainian cultural institutions and the intelligentsia. Stepan Posternak, the Director of the Library, and Jaroslav Steshenko, a leading bibliographer, were arrested. In the early 1930s a large group of librarians were accused of nationalism and lost their jobs; some of them were arrested. Four Library Directors – Posternak, Nichipir Mikolenko, Anton Yaremenko and Vasyl Ivanushkin – were shot in 1937/1938. Steshenko died in a Gulag camp.

In 1934 the All People’s Library of Ukraine was renamed the Library of the Academy of Sciences. The Soviet authorities established strict control over all spheres of political, public and professional life. During these years, censorship of librarianship and ideological pressure increased significantly. The Second World War was also a very hard period for the Library. Some valuable collections were evacuated to Ufa (Russia). The remaining literature was partially taken away to Germany by the Nazis and only after the war were some fragments returned.

In the post-war years, under the guidance of the prominent bibliographer and librarian Yuri Mezhenko, the Library quickly resumed its work. It received a deposit copy not only of all Ukrainian imprints but also of all material printed in the Soviet Union. Thanks to international book exchanges with libraries and scientific institutions all over the world, including the British Library, it acquired a rich collection of foreign scientific publications. However, politics once again intervened in the Library’s work. As Director from 1945 to 1948, Mezhenko initiated and managed the creation of a bibliography of Ukrainian books published since 1798, and prepared an article about it for the Library’s journal. As a result, he was removed from his position. Yaroslav Dashkevych, a prominent bibliographer who led this project for the West Ukrainian imprints, was arrested and imprisoned for several years.

VerbnadskyMezhenko_Shev (002) Photo of Mezhenko (by kind permission of the Department of Manuscripts and Textual Studies of the T. Shevchenko Institute of Literature of the Academy of Sciences of Ukraine)

The Library, renamed in 1948 the State Public Library of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, continued to function as a library of the Academy of Sciences. In 1965, it once again became the Central Scientific Library of the Academy of Sciences of the Ukrainian SSR. As the bulk of its readers were researchers, its science and humanities collections were developed. In 1988 it was renamed after Volodymyr Vernadsky

In 1989, the Library moved to a new building which had been under construction for many years and was completed under Mykola Senchenko’s leadership. Most of the collections were transported there.

VernadskyНаціональна_бібліотека_України_імені_В._І._ВернадськогоThe new library building (Photo by Leonid Andronov, from Wikimedia Commons CC BY 3.0)

In 1996 the Library regained the status and name of National Library of Ukraine. Today it is a major research library, whose collections include around 15.5 million items – from cuneiform tablets and Egyptian papyri dating back as far as 2000 BC to digital documents. Among its many unique items are the 10th-century Kyiv Glagolithic Folios and the Gospel of Peresopnytsya, the first translation of the Gospels into vernacular Old Ukrainian.

About 100,000 documents come to the Library collections annually. In addition to receiving a copy of every publication produced in Ukraine, the Library acquires a copy of all Ukrainian theses and continues to conduct international book exchanges, although on a more limited scale. The National Library is the only United Nations Depository Library  in Ukraine. 

Among the Library's many electronic resources, the digital library of Ukraine’s national historical and cultural heritage includes thousands of documents; the Ukrainian National Biographical Archive has been created, as well as electronic archives of the prominent Ukrainian scholars Mykhailo Hrushevsky  and Volodymyr Vernadsky.  

Every year international library and information conferences are organized here. The Library issues professional journal Bibliotechnyi Visnyk (‘Library Herald’; Kyiv, 1993- ; 2719.k.1994),  collections of works as  Naukovi pratsi Natsionalʹnoï biblioteky Ukraïny imeni V. I. Vernadsʹkoho (‘Scientific works of the V. I. Vernadsky National Library of Ukraine’; Kyiv, 1998- ; 2719.e.3692),  Ukraïnsʹka biohrafistyka (‘Ukrainian biographical studies’; Kyiv, 1996- ; ZA.9.a.8459), Rukopysna ta knyzhkova spadshchyna Ukraïny (Kyiv, 1993-; 2702.b.357). The abstracting journal Dzherelo (‘The Source’; Kyiv, 1995- ; 2725.g.3161) is published in collaboration with the Institute for Information Recording of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine.

VernadskyBibliotechnyiVisnyk

Issue 4/2011 of Bibliotechnyi Visnyk devoted to libraries in the United Kingdom. 2719.k.1994

The Library’s rich newspaper collection amounts to about 240,000 annual bound volumes.

VernadskyNewspapers

 Some catalogues held in the British Library  of newspapers and serials in the Vernadsky Library’s collections 

The Library holds a unique collection of Jewish musical folklore consisting of original recordings of folk music from 1912 to 1947 on wax cylinders. In 1995 this collection was included in UNESCO’s “Memory of the World” register. The British Library holds a detailed catalogue of this collection (Fonoarkhiv ievreĭskoï muzychnoï spadshchyny, Kyiv, 2001; 2725.g.3276)

VErnadskyCatalogsCatalogues held in the British Library of various collections in the Department of Manuscripts of the National Library of Ukraine

The worldwide research community was pleased to receive the 20-volume bibliography Knyha v Ukraini 1861-1917 (‘The Book in Ukraine: 1861–1917’), compiled by the Library’s bibliographers.

The Library’s centenary is an excellent opportunity to expand its interaction with domestic and foreign scientific and cultural institutions, libraries, information centres, universities, and publishing houses. A special conference celebrating the anniversary will be held in November in Kyiv.

Nadiya Strishenets, Leading Researcher, Vernadsky National Library of Ukraine

Further reading

L. Dubrovina, O. Onyshchenko, Natsional’na biblioteka Ukrainy imeni Verndas’koho, 1918-1941 (Kyiv, 1998) 2719.e.3534

L. Dubrovina, O. Onyshchenko, Istoriia Natsional’noi biblioteky Ukrainy im. V. I. Vernadskoho, 1941-1964. (Kyiv, 2003). YF.2007.a.30791

L. Dubrovina, O. Onyshchenko, Istoriia Natsionalʹnoï biblioteky Ukraïny imeni V. I. Vernadsʹkoho : 1965-1991 (Kyïv, 2008). YF.2009.a.17361

IUriĭ Oleksiĭovych Mezhenko (1892-1969): materialy do biohrafiï, compiled by T. A. Ihnatova, N. V. Kazakova, N. V. Strishenets (Kyïv, 1994). 2719.e.3344

N. V. Strishenets, Bibliohrafichna spadshchyna IUriia Mezhenka (Kyiv, 1997). 2719.e.3489

05 October 2018

‘The Mafia doesn’t exist’

Of the over 1000 books on the subject of the mafia held at the British Library, about 700 were published after 1992, when the murders of Judges Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino made the whole world talk about the Sicilian mafia. Before then, in the 1980s, it was not uncommon to hear that ‘the mafia didn’t exist’, or that it only existed in Palermo, but not in the rest of Sicily. Denouncing the businesses of Sicilian Cosa Nostra, and its ties with the Italian government, had a high price to pay for too many intellectuals. Just to mention two, in 1978, Giuseppe ‘Peppino’ Impastato, and, in 1984, Giuseppe ‘Pippo’ Fava, paid for their work with their lives. Peppino Impastato was a political activist, who didn’t leave many writings behind. The other Giuseppe, on the other hand, was a celebrated playwright, a writer and an investigative journalist, so we have collected most of his works since the 1970s and have recently acquired the full run of the magazine that he edited until his murder, and which was the reason for his murder, I Siciliani.

Giuseppe_Fava

 Giuseppe ‘Pippo’ Fava (Picture from Wikimedia Commons)

Coming from rural Sicily, Pippo Fava moved to the town of Catania to study law, and then became a professional journalist in 1952. He wrote for several newspapers and magazines, also establishing himself as author for theatre and cinema (he co-wrote the movie Palermo or Wolfsburg, which won the Golden Bear at the 1980 Berlinale). Given the task of editing Il Giornale del Sud, Fava recruited a team of young journalists and photographers to help him carry out some serious investigative journalism. When he was fired by the owners, who would have preferred him to avoid writing so much about the mafia, he used his charisma and influence to persuade these young journalists to join him in creating a fully independent and self-funded monthly magazine, a loud voice for the anti-mafia movement in Sicily, I Siciliani.

Siciliani covers Issues of I Siciliani 

Poor in budget but rich in ideas, Fava started with a very clear agenda of the topics to tackle. He wanted people to see Sicily as it really was. Showing the bad was a moral and ethical duty. Murders were photographed and reported without filters, corruptors were named and shamed. The damage to the environment caused by industrial and building speculation was clear to him, and he was not ashamed to talk about it. His stories are still relevant. His most important contribution was identifying the links between national politicians and the mafia, and stating that the mafia was effectively ruling the country; this was something Pippo Fava was saying out loud at times when nobody was ready to hear it (Pippo Fava’s last interview with Enzo Biagi, December 1983). But I Siciliani also portrays normal life, showing both the rich and profound culture of the island and as the urban lifestyle that must have surprised those who thought of Sicily as the land of The Godfather.

In the first issue, dated January 1983, in his first editorial, Fava was the first to talk about the Catanian mafia, whose existence everyone else was trying to deny. He names the powerful entrepreneurs behind it; he shows their faces, as well as that of Bernardo ‘Nitto’ Santapaola, the local mafia boss.

I siciliani1Giuseppe Fava, ‘I Quattro Cavalieri dell’Apocalisse Mafiosa’ (above) and Bernardo Santapaola (below), from I Siciliani, Issue 1, January 1983.

Santapaola

It wouldn’t be long. One year later, that same man ordered his murder. Pippo Fava was killed on 5 January 1984, on his way to pick up his grandniece from a theatre rehearsal. I Siciliani tried to survive for a few more years, penniless, mostly relying on subscriptions and a few brave advertisers who didn’t fear the isolation of the magazine.

If you read it now, I Siciliani is still as shocking, powerful and compelling as it was 30 years ago. The issues are still there. The love for the place is still there. Nothing ever changes in Sicily: If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change. (Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, Il Gattopardo)

Valentina Mirabella, Curator of Romance Collections (Italian) @miravale

References/Further Reading

I Siciliani (Sant’Agata li Li Battiati, 1982-[1985]) ZF.9.b.2335

Giuseppe Fava, Gente di rispetto (Milan, 1975) X.909/34407

Giuseppe Fava, Passione di Michele (Bologna, 1980) X.950/20292

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, The Leopard (London, 1974) X.908/28903

02 October 2018

‘This art, at once so beautiful and so ungrateful…’ Celebrating World Ballet Day

‘Terpsichore is a jealous goddess,’ warns the ‘Advice to Those Contemplating the Study of Dancing’ which opens A Manual of the Theory and Practice of Classical Theatrical Dancing, in which Cyril W. Beaumont and Stanislas Idzikowski expound the methods developed by the famous Italian ballet-master Enrico Cecchetti. The authors leave aspiring dancers in no doubt that ‘those who seek fame among her votaries must sacrifice at her altar years of patient study and hours of physical labour’. Fortunately, there have always been those determined enough to persevere with the rigorous training necessary to succeed in ballet and assure the continuation of this art form.

Manual of Classical Dancing 07911.gg.3Cover by Randolph Schwabe for A Manual of the Theory and Practice of Classical Theatrical Dancing (London, 1922) 07911.gg.3

Many would-be dancers first develop their ambition through attending a performance of The Nutcracker or Coppélia; others devour the works of authors such as Lorna Hill (A Dream of Sadler’s Wells and its sequels) or Jean Estoril (Ballet for Drina, the first of a series charting the young heroine’s progress from early childhood to professional success in Drina Ballerina). Typically, their protagonists have to struggle with financial hardship, unsympathetic relatives and similar obstacles as well as the formidable demands of a classical ballet training.

Naomi Capon’s Dancers of Tomorrow provides a balanced account of such a training, designed, perhaps, to reassure parents as well as to leave ballet students in no doubt about the challenges they face. Illustrated with photographs taken at the Sadler’s Wells School (as it then was), it describes ten-year-old Ann Blake’s admission to the School despite her father’s misgivings and her studies within a curriculum where equal emphasis is laid on a good general education to equip those who, like her friend Barbara, prove unsuitable for further training to undertake a different career. The author emphasizes the hard work and concentration required from the outset and Ann’s realisation, on making her stage début as one of the Morning Hours in Act III of Coppélia, that ‘it’s only the beginning’.

Why are so many dancers of the future still drawn to ballet despite the prospect of years of extreme physical exertion and gruelling discipline? Very few can hope to achieve the glamour and acclaim surrounding the greatest dancers of the past, such as Marie Taglioni, whose fame even spread to the remote Russian province of Tver, as E. M. Almedingen recounts in Little Katia, based on the memoirs of her great-aunt:

‘One of the visitors […] from St. Peterburg was devoted to ballet. Once Uncle Nicholas appeared, a white gauze scarf in his hands, and started pirouetting about in the middle of the hall. The elegant gentleman […] asked: “May I ask what you are trying to do, Nicholas?” “I am not Nicholas, my dear friend, […] I am Taglioni.” After that, the visitor did not indulge in further monologues about the great dancer.’

Taglioni 558.g.33 Bayadere
Illustration from Six Sketches of Mademoiselle Taglioni ... Drawn from the life by A. E. Chalon... (London, 1831) 558*.g.33.

Other ballerinas and danseurs nobles also inspired evocations of their grace in other media, as seen in Robert Montenegro’s work celebrating Vaslav Nijinsky:

Nijinsky Tab.761.a.3. Spectre Le Spectre de la Rose from Vaslav Nijinsky : an artistic interpretation of his work, in black, white and gold (London, [1913]) Tab.761.a.3.

The work of the great stage designers can be regarded as art in its own right as well as part of the spectacle; many prominent artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries collaborated with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and other companies to create strikingly original sets and costumes. Among the finest examples of these are those devised in 1921 by Léon Bakst  for a production at London’s Alhambra Theatre of The Sleeping Princess (the title was modified as the dancer portraying Aurora, Lydia Lopokova, did not consider herself a ‘beauty’ in the conventional sense).

Bakst LR.23.a.8. Princess AuroraPrincess Aurora (above) and Prince Charming (below), illustrations from The Designs of Léon Bakst for The Sleeping Princess (London, 1923) L.R.36.a.8.

Bakst LR.23.a.8. Prince Charming

At times of national privation and austerity such as the periods after two World Wars, these productions satisfied a need for lavish and sumptuous beauty, capturing the imagination and offering a glimpse of a world where drabness and rationing had no place, even though ‘the wonderful velvets were coarse and dirty, and the laces looked like limp pieces of rag when they no longer whirled in the dances’, as young Ann discovers on her first visit backstage. It was also with a performance of The Sleeping Beauty that the Royal Opera House  reopened in 1946 in a legendary production designed by Oliver Messel and produced by Ninette de Valois: clothing coupons had to be used to provide costumes, while the sets were constructed using cheap canvas and paint.

The success of this production, starring Margot Fonteyn and Robert Helpmann, inspired a surge of renewed interest in ballet as an art form and the publication of books devoted to it. One of the authors involved in this was Caryl Brahms, renowned not only for classic guidebooks such as A Seat at the Ballet and Footnotes to the Ballet but the wickedly funny satires which she penned with S. J. Simon, A Bullet in the Ballet and Six Curtains for Stroganova, featuring not only the inimitable impresario Vladimir Stroganoff and his temperamental troupe but also delicious allusions to Marie Rambert (‘Assez de chi-chi!’), Arnold Haskell and other figures of the contemporary ballet world.

Some ballets, such as Cecchetti’s Eve, whose heroine escapes her creditors by joining an expedition whose crew is wiped out by hungry polar bears, are unlikely to be revived. Today, though, ballet flourishes as vigorously as ever, with all the tenacity and vitality which it exacts from those who keep its traditions alive.

Susan Halstead, Subject Librarian (Social Sciences), Research Services

References

Lorna Hill, A Dream of Sadler’s Wells (London, 1950) 12833.b.27

Jean Estoril, Ballet for Drina (London, 1957) 12839.e.21.

Jean Estoril, Drina Ballerina (London, 1991) YK.1991.a.932

Naomi Capon, Dancers of Tomorrow (Leicester, 1956) 7923.ff.8

E. M. Almedingen, Little Katia (London, 1966) X.990/512

Caryl Brahms, A Seat at the Ballet (London, 1951) 7900.ff.46

Caryl Brahms, Footnotes to the Ballet (London, 1936) 07908.ff.57

Caryl Brahms and S. J. Simon, A Bullet in the Ballet (London, 1937) NN.27474.

Caryl Brahms and S. J. Simon, Six Curtains for Stroganova (London, 1945, reprinted 1964) X.909/960

Olga Racster, The Master of the Russian Ballet: the Memoirs of Cav. Enrico Cecchetti (London, 1923) 10634.d.23