Archive for May, 2010


Under the Regency, they lived in a perfumed atmosphere, and there seemed to be some sort of competition to see who could use the most makeup.

Louis XV preferred unadorned ladies.  We know that Mme Du Barry was careful to wear rouge when she wanted to avoid receiving the King.  It was her way of letting him know that she was closing her door to him.

However, during this time of the Gallant King, toilette was very important.  Women spent hours before their mirrors with, close at hand, on a table decorated with lace like an altar, enveloped in muslim like a cradle, all sorts of colours, pastes and philtres to make them younger.

All colours were presented on this new kind of palette.  Mineral red and vermilion, chemical white and vein blue.  The blue was used to paint a net of veins on the breast, to accentuate the whiteness of the skin.

Then there were all different kinds of water.  Water for bleaching and water for making the skin vermilion.  Water to make you paler, when you are too red.  Water for softening the features, if they are too coarse.  Skin water admirable for yellow and bilious complexions.  Water for thin people and water for those who are too fat.

Let us not forget either the milks for getting rid of wrinkles, freckles, suntan and redness from cold weather.  The pomade for removing the marks left by smallpox.  Bands covered with virgin wax, for smoothing and purifying the forehead skin.

To liven up the face, rouge was mostly used.  But there was rouge…  and then there was rouge.  The rouge of the woman of quality was not the rouge of the woman of the court.  The rouge of the middle class woman was not the rouge of the court woman or of the woman of quality, even less that of the prostitute.  It was only a soupcon of rouge.

At Versailles, the princesses wore it very bright and very highly-coloured, and when the women of quality were present at court, they had to have brighter rouge than usual on that day.  Court makeup can be assimilated to theatre makeup.  The ladies of Versailles were on stage.

A letter from Voltaire attests to all the trouble that Marie Leczinska had, to conform with this fashion of illumination, upon her arrival in France.  Women who would have preferred to have abstained from painting their faces, were unable to go without it, for fear of appearing cadaverous in the middle of all of those reddened faces.

As was to be expected, the use of rouge did not take long to spread from the French court into all of the European ones.  Even Russia rushed to adopt it.

Catherine recounts in her Memoires, that the first present made to her by Empress Elizabeth, upon her arrival at court, was the petit pot (little pot).  That was how the china capsule containing the rouge was called.  “To be allowed to use the petit pot” was every young girl’s dream.

In Madrid, the Countess d’Aulnoy, assisting a court lady to dress, saw her dip a brush into a cup full of rouge, and paint, not only her face, including the interior of her nostrils, but also her ears, her hands, her fingers and her shoulders.  This custom, which seemed disgusting to her, had become obligatory.

The most refined women cleaned their faces with a mixture of sugar and beaten egg-whites.  They had difficulty getting rid of the dreadful mastic, which finished by leaving a sort of shiny varnish on the forehead.

Rouge was more than ever in fashion under the reign of Louis XVI.  From the Dauphine down to the lower middle-class, all women used it.  It is not surprising that, at this epoch, the Queen, who had her Fashion Minister, also had her Rouge Merchant.

It was a Mme Josse who was reputed for having the best vegetal rouge, as beautiful and as agreeable as the natural colours.  But she was eclipsed by Mlle Martin who was the only one to have the Queen’s confidence.  She accepted to serve only crowned heads and a few privileged great ladies.  She delivered her product in lovely little pots from the Sevres factory.

In another few years, the Queen would return to the Nature cult preached by philosophers.  Dressed as a milkmaid, she would spend the greatest part of her time in the Trianon sheep enclosures, amusing herself with this pastoral life.

It was too late.  The monarchy was descending into the abyss which she had helped to dig.  The Revolution was on its way, and would leave little time for self-decoration.

Under the Directory, the fashion of Antiquity appeared.  The Greeks and Romans were imitated in everything concerning the art of pleasing.  For example, Mme Tallien plunged her beautiful body into milk reddened with strawberries and raspberries.

The Emperor had only moderate sympathy for perfumes.  On the other hand, the first Empress loved them and also used a lot of colour on her cheeks.

She had so accustomed Napoleon’s eye, that he insisted that all women who appeared before him had to wear it.  “Go and put on some rouge, Madame,” he said to one of them.  “You look like a cadaver.”  And, to another:  “Why are you so pale?  Have you recently had a baby?”

On the arrival of Marie-Louise, there was a complete transformation.  The young Archduchess, whose fresh complexion was adored by her imperial husband, had no need of cosmetics.  In imitation, the ladies of the court finally gave up rouge.

Under the Restoration, the French perfumers invented new recipes, like the eau de Cologne of the famous Jean-Marie Farina, which was a great success.

Fifth and last part tomorrow.

Women weren’t the only ones to decorate themselves.  Some men, those known as the vieux beaux and, at the time, vieux mignons, inundated themselves with perfumes and painted their faces.

It was the King, himself, who set the tone.  His calumniators said of Henri de Valois that he was “uncertain King of France and imaginary King of Poland, Emperor of his wife’s collars and curler of her hair”.  The extravagances of this prince in matters of toilette have remained famous.  He loved to inundate himself with perfumes, daub his face with colours, or soften it with special pastes.

To conserve the freshness of his complexion, the King used a mask prepared with a few ounces of top quality wheat flour and a few egg whites.  He applied this paste upon retiring and only removed it the next day with warm water.  It is said that he got this recipe from the Venitians.

Following the King’s example, his mignons, conserved the whiteness of their complexion and of their hands, by using masks and gloves full of cosmetics, at night.  Here is a cosmetic recipe from 1573, found in Instruction pour les jeunes dames (Instruction for the young ladies):

“I take firstly pigeons from which I remove the legs and wings, then terebenthine from Venice, lily flowers, fresh eggs, honey, a type of shellfish called cowrie, crushed pearls and camphor.  I peel and incorporate all of these drugs together and put them to cook inside the bodies of the pigeons, which I put to distill in a glass alambic in a bain-marie.  I put in the beak of the alambic a little plug of linen on which there is a small amount of musk and ambergris, and I attach the recipient with some lut [paste] to the neck of the screed to which the water is distilled, after which I put the water in a cool place and it becomes very good.”

At the Renaissance, an invasion of cosmetics and perfumes arrives from Italy and they supplant the practice of cleanliness which had characterised the wealthy in the Middle Ages.  Catherine de Medicis, who had had all kinds of perfumes imported, had given a taste for them to her sons.  They oiled and painted themselves like the women and also dressed like them.

Under Marie de Medicis, widowed, then under Louis XIII, perfumes and balms re-appeared in a new vogue.  Diane de Poitiers or Marie Delorme, who contented themselves with simple, water-based lotions, were exceptions.

The Duchess of Montbazon used makeup openly.  Mme de Rambouillet reddened her lips.  Others put rouge on their cheeks, so abundantly, that this applied rouge destroyed the natural rosiness.  Others again, to appear whiter, stayed in bed with unbleached sheets or ate lemons to make themselves pale.

It was from this time that date gloves a la Cadenet, because of that gentleman’s preferred perfume.  He had created the cadenettes, Frangipani gloves, named in reference to the Marquis of Frangipani, and Neroli gloves, for which the Princess of Nerola had found the perfume.

Such habits could not disappear in one day.  Although Louis XIV was antipathetic toward perfumes, he was obliged to tolerate that which he could only stop at the risk of upsetting his most agreeable subjects, and the excessive use of perfumes and makeup continued.

One day, a marquis, whose eyesight was not good, met a duchess who used an exaggerated amount of makeup, in the Versailles park.  He wanted to kiss her but she avoided him by darting behind a statue, which received the kiss.  This drew the remark:  “Plaster for plaster, the error is not great,” from the marquis.

It is also said that the witty Mme Cornuel, meeting one day one of her nieces who had covered her face with a layer of white and pink, exclaimed:  “My God!  My niece, what a lovely mask you have there!…  Your face can be seen through it.”

The King, himself, finished by catching the ambient contagion.  He employed no fewer than eighteen china boxes to keep the various balms which he used.

If Marie-Therese, wife of Louis XIV, contented herself with her natural graces and did not abuse makeup, her brother-in-law spent his time creating himself a face.  As a child, he was often dressed like a girl, and, as these clothes suited him admirably, he liked to dress in them.  He opened formal balls dressed as a woman, a mask on his face, beauty patches on his cheek.  At the court, he played female acting roles.

Saint-Simon painted him, already old:  “Small, with a big stomach, mounted on stilts, his shoes were so high, always decorated like a woman, lots of rings, bracelets, sparkling stones everywhere, with a long wig all established in front, black and powdered, and ribbons everywhere he could put them, lots of all sorts of perfumes.  He was accused of surreptitiously wearing rouge.”

Fourth part tomorrow.

In the times of the Caesars, in the world’s capital, an enormous quantity of infinitely varied perfumes and essences were made.  Criton, doctor to Empress Plotine, gave as many as twenty-five different perfume recipes.

Roman ladies made an immoderate use of perfumes of all kinds, and spent incredible sums of money for this luxury item.  According to Pliny, they used so much of it, that a lady’s approach could be sensed from far away, by the odours exhaled from her hair and clothes.

In the evening, before bed, a Roman lady applied to her face a paste made of bread soaked in donkey milk, an invention of Poppae, Nero’s wife.

This famous courtisan, endowed with great beauty, used on her face a sort of creamy makeup, which formed a durable crust.  It only came off after being washed with a great quantity of milk, which detached it in pieces, leaving behind an extremely white skin.

Poppae made this new makeup fashionable, giving it her name, Poppaeana pinguia, and even used it during her exile, where she took a herd of female donkeys.

For the application of makeup, many people were necessary.  There was a slave for each part of the body.  Those charged with holding the colours, also applied them to their mistress’ face.  Then came those who combed the eyebrows, and those who cleaned and fitted the teeth.

A powerful hierarchy ruled the servants and slaves in charge of cosmetics.  The Cosmetes formed a separate group, and were not to be confused with those who tinted hair or combed eyebrows.

One of the Cosmetes, holding a bowl full of still-warm donkey milk, gently removed with a sponge the cataplasm adhering to her mistress’ face.  Once this was properly cleaned, another Cosmete stepped up to apply the colour.

Before starting this operation, the slave had to blow on a metal mirror, which she then held out to her mistress.  The mistress smelled it and recognized by the odour whether the slave’s breath was healthy and perfumed to her taste by the lozenges which had been given to her for this purpose.  The colour was crushed and mixed with saliva before being applied.

At this time, white lead, or ceruse, chalk and mercury were known.  Mixed with saliva, mercury gave a mixture used like rouge.  However, people preferred to use less nocive products like sorrel or orcanetta, or others, not so agreeable.

Some reds were made from sheep droppings.  In particular, from those attached to their wool.  Crocodile excrements were also collected as well as cow dung, from which a highly recommended powder for chapped skin and freckles was made.  Ladies smeared it over their faces without the slightest repugnance.

Makeup excesses were often mocked and condemned by poets.  Petronius, in his Satyricon, said:  “On her forehead bathed by sweat, streams of makeup flowed, and in the wrinkles of her face there was such a quantity of chalk, that you would have said an old, decrepit wall worn down by rain.”.

The use of all these colours to hide the stigmata of time was also the target of satyrists, like the unforgiving Juvenal:  “That caked face covered by so many drugs and on which the lips of unfortunate husbands get stuck, is it a face or a wound?”  But it was no use trying to reform habits and, in spite of Properce’s wise advice, “the most successful face is still the one given by Nature”, the ladies of Rome continued to use what Cicero calls the “medicines of white and red”.

Women’s use of makeup and perfume ceased to be highly respectable in the Middle Ages, but this was only partially widespread.  As most ladies of the manor led very retired lives and rarely went to town, where perfume shops were to be found, travelling haberdashers furnished them with all of their toiletries.

Here is a list of the necessities of the time:  razors, tweezers, mirrors, toothbrushes, toothpicks, headbands, hair irons, plaits, combs, hand-mirrors, rosewater, cotton, makeup.  These objects were kept in a little piece of furniture called “demoiselle a atourner”, which was a little table with a head and two arms.

The cosmetics and perfumes were placed on the table.  One of the arms carried the mirror, the other, the combs and pins.  On the head, rested the headdress.  This little piece of furniture was usually made of wood.  For ladies of high rank, they were of solid silver.

Women embellished their faces with colours.  Egg yellow, vine water, balms and ceruse composed the makeup, which melted, according to Olivier Maillard, at the first ray of sunshine.  The other parts of their skin displayed in public, such as arms, neck and breast, were also made up.

This would all be incomplete if Madame did not add a few “odorous things”, as Jean Cleree says, to perfume her body.  Musk, for example.  Or some “powders to provoke lust”.

Nothing seems to be too expensive for the enhancement of a lady’s charms.  Neither the objurgations of the husband, nor the declamations of the fashionable preacher, would make her renounce anything capable of making her more attractive.

However, the excessive use of colour was not appropriate at this epoch, for very white skin was recommended.  Women also seemed to be more attached to the ornamentation of their clothes than to makeup.

At this time of free preachers, the elegant lady is recognized by her narrow headdress, armed with long ears like horns, which balances on the summit of her head.  It is the hennin, which obliges women to stoop to pass through doors.  Preachers rant against it, and it disappears, only to return, even more provoking.

A wide forehead, plucked if necessary, with hair hanging in tufts, complete the picture.  If age thins the hair, it is supplemented by hair from cadavers or condemned people.

Third part tomorrow.

I have just found my fifth Kreativ Blogger nominee.  It is Murphey’s Pub.

The writing is superb, and the latest post is absolutely hilarious.

If you haven’t met Murph and his family yet, you must rush over straight away.

The subtitle of the blog is the Mark Twain quote:  “It takes a great deal of sense to write such nonsense.”  That just about sums it up.

I have left a message for him on his blog, which I am about to add to my Blogroll.  So, you’ll be able to click onto it within a few minutes.

I still have two more blogs to find, but I couldn’t wait to share this one.  I’m sure that you will like it as much as I do.

Style and elegance are as old as the world.  The desire to please has led to great quantities of tricks and contrivances to replace the charms that Nature has forgotten, or to perpetuate them when they are prematurely disappearing.

The use of cosmetics and perfumes seems to have even preceded that of ablutions.  Prehistoric men used to tattoo their skins.  Good hygiene and cleanliness were praiseworthy, but decorating oneself and cultivating one’s charms could appear even more so.

In oriental Antiquity, perfumes have always held a large place.  The Book of Esther initiates us into the curious noviciate undergone by the concubines of Assuerus, before being admitted to the royal bed.  They were massaged with myrrhe oil for six months, and for another six months, with aromatic oils and diverse cosmetics employed by the women.

Egypt is the country of Antiquity which consumed the most makeup and pomades.  At least, we can suppose it, because of the enormous quantity of little toiletry tools found in the tombs.  These only concerned a social elite and courtiers.  But it is very probable that the women of humbler origins also had their beauty recipes.

Antimony, but also lead sulphide, were used to blacken the eyelids.  The Egyptian woman plunged a needle of ebony or ivory into a sheath containing stein-t or khol, and drew two black lines which made her eyes look bigger, while giving softness and brightness to her expression.

Then she was presented with a compartmented box, from which she took in turn, white, which corrected the brown tone of her skin, red, which put freshness into her cheeks, blue, which traced veins on her forehead, carmin, which revived the red of her lips, and henna, which gave her fingers the orangey tints of dawn.  A wig completed the operation.

Assyrian women must have proceeded in a similar manner, for the vases found in the ruins contained diverse whites and reds for the face, and the stein-t of the Egyptians.  This makeup will be given the name of stibium by the Romans.

Judith, the stunning widowed beauty, enumerates for us the different things which she used, before introducing herself into the presence of Holophern.  She removes her cilice and her mourning clothes, plunges into a bath, decorates her hair, takes a mitre, festival clothes, sandals, bracelets, necklaces, pendants, rings, jewels, kneels, asking God to make her irresistible, and rises from prayer, transfigured.  She is now sure of conquering.

In Antinoe, a town of Hellenic origin, toiletry accessories were found.  There were handkerchiefs, mirrors in silver or plaster frames, ivory pins for fixing hair, ivory pots containing makeup and pastes, bottles still full of antimony, sheaths of collyrium, needles destined to underline the eyes…

To make their eyes brighter, the women of Antinoe drew blue lines on the edges of their eyelids.  Another line horizontally joined the external angle of the eye to the temple.  Thin at the beginning, it thickened slightly, as it went under the hair.

This art of painting and decorating the face came firstly from tattooing, rather than from makeup.  Geometrical figures, parallel lines, circles, radiant halos, cruciformed rosaces covered the whole body absolutely symetrically.  These designs probably came from Ancient Egypt.

The Greeks spent more time on physical exercises than on toiletry tricks.  Athenian women however, used white and red cosmetics, and the Egyptian khol.  But, unlike them, they did not use other colours, such as green, blue and yellow.  On the other hand, they excelled in the art of nuancing the basic colours to obtain a whole range of beiges, pinks, oranges and browns.

An episode in the life of Phryne gives us a precious illustration of the excessive use of cosmetics.  After a supper given by Praxitele, the famous sculptor, the guests started to play kings.  Men and women, one after the other, gave orders which had to be executed by everyone present.

When Phryne’s turn came, she decided to have clean water brought, and ordered all the women to wash their faces.  So, while Phryne’s face shone in all its glory, the other women presented a lamentable sight.

It is almost upon leaving their beds, as yet unseen by anyone, that the Greek women proceeded to their adornment.  This was finished when the edifice of hair was in place, the eyes were made bigger by khol, and the cheeks illuminated by vermilion, to correct an excessive paleness of the skin.

As in romantic times, women were supposed to look pale.  For the Roman ladies, on the other hand, a complexion too pale was the indication of poor health.  They therefore tried to obtain a rosy glow and, as Ovid says, “the light vermilion which blood refused, is given by art”.

As well as a daily bath, considered by the Greeks as an indispensable hygienic practice, the women had the habit of anointing their whole bodies with solid or liquid perfumes, pomades or oils.  Living in a deeply misogynistic society, Greek women were violently condemned, particularly by satirists, for the use of all of these cosmetics.

The men reproached them their oisivety, which gave them so much time for makeup.  They also saw sacrilege in this determination to modify Nature.

Second part tomorrow.

Poisonous preparations were usually accompanied by spells and black magic.  We know that these two arts are inseparable and that all good poison must be placed under the invocation of Satan and his demons.

The Italians mixed exercises of piety and the most arduous penances with unrefined sorcery.  There are numerous examples of popular superstition at this time.

Muratori recounts that many calamities occur following a sinister presage like, in July 1487, Pope John’s fountain which flows with blood-coloured water.

At other times, the calamities are so terrible that the people and their lords go on prolonged fasts, and prostitutes take no customers.  One of them who, during a period of abstinence, received a young man, out of cupidity, is manhandled by her colleagues, and atrociously mutilated.

As these penitences do not calm Heaven’s anger, it is concluded that these dreadful sufferings are punishment for vice, crimes and debauchery, and expiatory victims are  looked for, among the people.  Two young barbers, convicted of sodomy, are arrested.  They are tied up with their hands behind their backs, and are whipped in the public square.

As for assassins, poisoners, high-ranking thieves, no-one bothers them, and they enjoy the most absolute impunity.  It will be like this up until the XIXth Century.

Around 1810, a Spaniard having been poisoned in Rome by an Italian, the Spanish Ambassador wants to punish the crime.  He protests energetically to the Roman authorities, but meets with obstinate resistance.

The Ambassador insists, and after long and difficult negotiations, obtains the arrest and punishment of the guilty party.  The people of Rome are astounded.  They are used to seeing these crimes go unpunished.

To motivate the police, these crimes have to become some sort of public calamity.  Once it is known that the woman Toffana is a serial killer of grand proportions, she is arrested and judged.  This sinister female, by selling toxic water, had made such a great number of victims, that she had to be neutralised.

When poisoning is “accidental”, the authorities take much less notice of it.  A certain unconsciousness of immorality, indifference to an often inexistent punishment, could be causes of the multiple poisonings of the Italian Renaissance.

Numerous and perverse possibilities exist for killing someone by poison.  Here are a few, from different epochs.

Three centuries before the present era, Agathocle, tyrant of Syracuse, is poisoned by his son with the help of a toothpick.  The effect is immediate.

The Ancient Persians and Turks knew how to poison the stirrup, the saddle, the reins of a horse, and the rider’s boots.

Don Juan will be poisoned by his brother, Philip II, in a similar manner.

Cardinal Pierre de Berulle, founder of the Order of the Carmelites and of the Congregation of the Oratory, is poisoned by a communion wafer during Mass.

Henri VII appears also to have been poisoned during communion by a wafer, and Cardinal de Comeyn, Scottish Chancellor, by drinking consecrated wine.

Pope Clement VII is poisoned by a torch carried before him, to honour him.  In this case, the poison was perhaps arsenic.

Calpurnius, to get rid of concubines whom he no longer desired, gives them poison to drink.  All those having anything to do with them, die too.

A similar event re-appears during modern times.  Ladislas, King of Naples, is besieging Florence.  He tells the city’s inhabitants that, if they deliver to him the most beautiful Florentine woman, he will raise the siege.  The Florentines send him a young virgin of the greatest beauty, daughter of a Greek doctor who, before being separated from her, ties a handkerchief of great price around her neck.

Transported with joy upon seeing her, the King puts her through a complete marriage ceremony.  But no sooner has he obtained his wishes, he dies.  The handkerchief was poisoned.  The effect of the poison had been even stronger because of the prince’s pores being opened by his physical efforts in bed.  The young girl suffered the same end.

Pope Urbain VIII was almost poisoned by Thomas Orsolini and Dominic Branza, an Augustin monk, by a powder poured on a wound.  But, the crime was discovered before it was executed.

Porta, in Natural Magic, speaks of another way of killing, by enclosing narcotic plants in a box for several days.  Plants like belladonna, hemlock, jusquiama and opium.  If you let them ferment, the resulting gas is extremely noxious.  He also speaks of administering the poison during sleep, by putting this open box under the nose of the sleeper.

According to Emile Gilbert, it is possible to explain the death of Jeanne d’Albret like this.  “On the pretext of choosing gloves, she must have been presented with a false-bottomed box, pierced with holes, containing venimous substances in fermentation, whose odour would have been neutralised by some sort of perfume.

“The length of time which she spent breathing in these fumes was doubtless sufficient to occasion troubles in the brain, a loss of consciousness of undetermined length, which necessarily becomes mortal, the absorption of these noxious gases having been direct.”

Henri IV complained one day to Sully that Concini and his wife, who had convinced Marie de Medicis that the King wanted to get rid of her, had also persuaded her not to eat anything which he had sent to her, and to cook her meat in her bedroom.

Later, thought was given to poisoning Henri IV, himself, by a hollow fork, into which “there would be poison which would flow into the morsel which he was served”.

The list of those who used poison is very long.  Poison has been used at all times throughout History, by all sorts of people.

The Borgias did it openly, and seemingly, with no qualms of conscience.  Perhaps it is this which shocks us so much today.

The musicographer, Blaze de Bury, is in conversation with an elderly gentleman, beside whom he is seated, at a performance of Donizetti’s Lucretia Borgia at the Italian Theatre, in Paris.  The stranger claims to be in possession of the recipe of the famous Borgia poison.

“Yes,” pursues the old man.  “I possess by inheritance the ownership of this recipe because, in my family, it is handed down from father to son.  Ah!  Ah!  It’s not banal, is it, such knowledge?”

Blaze de Bury hammers him with questions.  The other just keeps smiling with an enigmatic smile.

The curtain rises and the third act is performed.  At the following entr’acte, Blaze de Bury, very intrigued, puts the conversation back on the same theme.  His neighbour had just been named in front of him.  It was the Duke of Riario Sforza, a descendant of the historic family related to the Borgias.

The Duke promises to reveal the famous recipe to Blaze de Bury, because he is studying Lucretia – he had even rehabilitated her somewhat.  Rendez-vous was fixed for this revelation.  Blaze de Bury made the mistake of missing this appointment, which was a shame, because the Duke left Paris, and the opportunity was never renewed.

Apparently, others had known this mysterious secret, but they neglected to transmit it to posterity.  It is said that the King of Spain, Philip II, possessed it.

The Borgia poison bore the name of cantarella or cantarelliCantarella, a word of popular origin, means “candle”.  According to Paolo Jovio, it is “a sort of whiteish powder, which resembles sugar in a way, and which was tested on a great number of poor innocent people who died in a miserable state”.

But is this cantarella the slow poison of the Renaissance which allows the manipulation of the length of time before death, and permits killing at a more or less long interval after absorption?

One point is sure:  arsenic is the consecrated king of poisons, and constitutes the basis of all toxic preparations, which are sometimes extremely complicated.

The Middle Ages are the time of vegetal poisons.  The time of the solanaceas, of belladonna, of jusquiama, well-known to witches for their therapeutic and toxic properties.  The Renaissance is the time of mineral poisons, whose superiority over their rivals is confirmed.

The science of crime did not want to remain behind Art and Poetry.  It progressed too.  It is true that it is a natural law, that the progress of the spirit serves equally well the cause of good and of evil, and that the moralisation of the human species seems to profit little from the freeing of thought.

The ingeniousness of poisoners is shown, in particular, in the choice of the vehicule in which they could easily conceal the drug.  Each possesses his mortal arm which, like a family jewel, is handed down from father to son.

Savelli poisons by keys prepared for this.  He makes the gift of a carved box to the victim, then gives him the key to open it.  The key has a few asperities and is difficult to fit into the lock.  It therefore has to be forced in.  During this manoeuvre, the recipient cuts or grazes his hand.  The wound is insignificant in appearance, but rapidly worsens.  A drop of poison contained in an invisible bezel having infected the wound, death is inevitable.

Others use death rings made the same way.  It is enough to shake hands with someone, to scratch him with the setting, and the poison begins its work.  Death can be immediate but, most often, it is slow and painful.  Hair and teeth fall out, the skin is covered in ulcers and gangrenous wounds.

A few, all the better to conceal the drug, poison only one side of the blade of a golden knife.  If you cut a piece of fruit with this knife, only one piece is poisoned.

The use of poison starts to be generalised among the people.  Armies in campaign do not neglect this cowardly way of exterminating their enemies.

Brantome, recounting the life of the Grand-Master de Chaumont, cites this lovely act:  to stop the Swiss from coming back to attack Milan, he makes them “all disappear and retire without loss of his people, for he cut off their food supplies and destroyed all their mills, and had all the wine at Gallereas, where they were, poisoned.”.  About two hundred died.  An odd way to fight a war.

This act of the Grand-Master de Chaumont raised no anger nor indignation.  Soldiers did worse things.

Once, among other times, Gascon soldiers swallowed all the gold which they were carrying, before the battle, to stop their enemies getting it.  Their enemies took them prisoner, and learning what they had done, disembowelled them all to get hold of the gold.

As for the cruelties committed by Caesar Borgia and his troops, they depass anything imaginable.  The pillage of Faenza remains sadly famous in the annals of Italy.

The poisoning of sources, wells, fountains, food therefore passes as a legitimate proceeding.  The best arm being the one which kills the most surely.

Poison is also used in duels.  Brantome reports that two lords decide to end their quarrel in the following strange fashion:  they prepare a goblet full of poison and propose that each of the two parties drink half.  An original duel, particularly if the use of counter-poisons was not forbidden.

However, there are even weirder ones, like the strange combat where two adversaries have to walk bare-foot in a room paved with razors.

Seventh part tomorrow.

XVIth Century Italian

The Borgias did not have a monopoly on perfidy, cruelty or violence.  You only have to read the chronicles of the time, the annals of Muratori, to see that at Milan, Florence, Sienna, Parma, Genova, Mantua, Venice, Ferrare, the same barbary engenders the same crimes.

In The Prince, Machiavelli resumes the true principles which guide the politics of his time.  His hero, a mixture of Caesar Borgia and Laurent Medicis, incarnates more generally the soul and the character of the Renaissance princes.

The prince must conserve the domain which he has acquired or inherited, by whatever means.  Morality does not exist in politics.  You don’t govern to do good, but to stay in place.

What a strange contrast!  Art and poetry shine with a singular eclat, encouraged by cruel, debauched princes, who remain sensitive to beauty.  Pagan Antiquity, condemned by austere Christianism because of its agreeable philosophy, comes back into fashion.

Plautus is the favourite author of the Vatican, and poets find their inspiration in the best Latin chefs-d’oeuvre.  The  artists, painters, sculptors, architects enrich Italy with their most gifted conceptions.  It is the time when Michelangelo arrives in Rome, called by Pope Alexander VI.

The Pope is a powerful person but he is not yet placed beyond temporal laws.  The idea of a spiritual authority inherent in the Pope, which would therefore place him above everybody, does not yet exist at the Renaissance.  The population is not globally more scandalised by the Pope’s misdeeds than by those of the other lords.

So, since the Middle Ages, the Pope is a sovereign like the others, often more occupied in defending his material possessions, continually menaced by his neighbours, than in intervening as God’s representative among kings and emperors.  The spiritual value of his charge does not spare him from suffering diverse plots against his person.

The presence in Rome of all of the cardinals of the Sacred College, intriguing, conspiring against their elected sovereign, is for him the occasion for continual hostilities, and anarchy often reigns supreme in the Church States.  Alexander VI must combat this anarchy, by uniting Italy to advantage the papacy, according to some, to advantage his son Caesar, according to others.

Therefore, no scrupules hold back the Borgias.  In Rome and in the peninsula, they make terror reign, multiplying crimes and cruelties.

A few rare spirits, conscious of the indignity into which the papacy is sinking, let out cries of alarm.  Nicolas Clemengis, Savanarola, Pic de la Mirandole, protest loudly against the abuses and excesses of pontifical power.

The innumerable debaucheries of the princes of the Church – the most famous being the banquet of the fifty naked prostitutes – the simoniacal exactions of the Pope and his cardinals making money from everything, selling indulgences and absolutions, the crimes, continual murders and poisonings, all of these turpitudes are described in the famous pamphlet Letter to Sacelli, in The Pope’s Perquisites, in the writings of Savonarola and of de la Mirandole.  They find a faithful echo in Burckard.

What exactly, therefore, is the role of poison at the time of the Borgias?  It well seems – as far as a precise judgement can be made on such a subject – that legend has exaggerated nothing, and that in fact, poison really is one of the favourite arms of the criminals of the Renaissance.  As frequent in political matters as in private life, poisonings are numerous.

The reason is that, at the time, this dangerous arm had never been so well known, and so perfectly able to be hidden.  The Borgias even have their own poison of arsenic, combined with the alkaloids of putrefaction.

For the Italian historian Paolo Jovio, “it was a very white powder, of a not disagreeable taste, which did not suddenly smother the vital spirits like today’s poisons, but which slipped little by little into the veins, leading tardily to death”.

According to Garelli, doctor to Emperor Charles VI, the preparation is very simple.  You sacrifice a pig, sprinkle its abdominal organs with arsenious acids and wait until the putrefaction, slowed by the arsenic, is complete.  There is nothing left to do but dry out the putrid mass and collect the liquids from it.

An excellent poison is obtained in this way.  Much more violent than the arsenious acid.  In the XVIIth Century, alchemists and matrons would renew this process.  It seems that the mixture of the female poisoner Brinvilliers was little different from that of the Borgias.

According to Flandin, a toxicologist, the slow poison of the Borgias is of not very soluble arsenious acid.  The most violent poison is one of these soluble preparations of arsenic, whose effects are rapid, almost instantaneous.

What seems certain is that the Borgia poison is a complex mixture, whose exact composition is still unknown today.

The musicographer, Blaze de Bury, recounted somewhere that he almost learned the terrible recipe, and that he deeply regretted having lost this opportunity.

He was once at the Italian Theatre, where Lucretia Borgia, by Donizetti, was playing.  His neighbour was a little old man with a Hoffmannesque face who, while dozing in his orchestra seat, seemed to be having a dream which, lulled by the music, made him smile in a rather singular, and rather frightening fashion.

It so happened that he abandoned himself a little too much onto his neighbour’s shoulder, and this brusque movement woke him.  With refined politeness, he apologised profusely.  He renewed his apology during the entr’acte.

“Ah!”  he says to Blaze de Bury.  “I was dreaming of a curious thing!…  I was dreaming about the Borgia poison, and that I am the only person today who knows its secret…”  And he gave a small, silent laugh, a little old wizard’s laugh.

A conversation which starts like that has to excite the curiosity of a writer who has devoted himself to historical studies.  Blaze de Bury was all ears.

We shall pursue the conversation tomorrow, in the sixth part.

Voltaire was the first to cast serious doubt on the “biter bit” version of the death of Pope Alexander VI.  The drama appeared to be too romanesque to be true, and he takes delight in pointing out its contradictions.

After having reminded everyone that Alexander was too clever a politician to kill nine cardinals in one go, when he could space his crimes, and open these premature successions one after the other, he questions how Caesar managed to pillage the Pope’s palace, the day following the Pope’s death.  “Was he enclosed in his mule when he carried away the treasure?”

In fact, we know that he asked Michelotto Corella to go and recuperate the pontifical treasure, consisting of 200,000 ducats in gold and jewels.

Burckard, Alexander VI’s master of ceremonies, does not mention any poison in his diary.  We know that we are able to believe the authority of this German bishop who reports, without any commentary, neither praising nor blaming anyone, all of the most atrocious crimes which he had witnessed.

Michelet says:  “Burckard’s accounts have this grandiose character of truthful simplicity, which completely reassures.  I have read and seen a lot of liars.  Lying is not done like this.”  It is therefore reasonable to believe Burckard’s story.  Here is my English translation of the literal French translation of Burckard’s account.  I hope that we don’t lose too much of it in this multi-lingual process.

“On Saturday 12 August in the morning, the Pope felt ill;  the twenty-first or the twenty-second hour, the fever came and remained steady.  The 15 August, roughly thirteen ounces of blood were drawn from him, and the tertian fever came.  On Thursday 17, at midday, he took medicine.

“On Friday 18, around midday or one o’clock in the afternoon, he confessed to Peter, Bishop of Calmense, who then said Mass, and after having, himself, taken Communion, carried the sacrement of the Eucharist to the Pope, seated in his bed.  That done, he finished his Mass, in the presence also of five cardinals, …  the Pope told them that he felt very ill.  At the hour of Vespers, after he had received Extreme Unction from the Bishop of Calmense, he expired in the presence of the President of the pontifical tribunal, the abovementioned bishop, etc.”

A letter from Ambassador de Ferrare to the husband of Lucretia also confirms the thesis of a natural death.

What could have credited the poisoning version, is the appearance of Alexander VI’s body.  It “was so black, so deformed, so prodigiously swollen that it was almost unrecognizable;  a completely putrefied matter was running from his nose;  his mouth was open in such a frightful manner, that one was unable to look at it without horror, nor suffer the stink without being in danger of being infected”.

Philippe de Commines confirms the fact by saying that the body was “all blackened and fetid”.

Does this precocious putrefaction mean poison?  Popular opinion believes that the bodies of poisoned people decompose very rapidly, which is not confirmed by medical observation.  On the contrary, the bodies of those who have succumbed to arsenical intoxication decompose very slowly.

This rapid decomposition is therefore not an argument in favour of poisoning.  In addition, the death of the Pope took place on 18 August, but the first funeral Mass is said on 4 September.  In the middle of Summer, when the heat is extreme, it is not surprising that the body decomposed so rapidly.

A malaria epidemic, and several other guests also ill, credit the thesis that Alexander VI died of illness and not by poisoning.

Pontifical families usually die out through lack of descendants.  Apparently, the last Borgia died in London, at the beginning of the XXth Century.  He was a photographer.  Here is what Paul Ginisty says about it:

“Yes, the last descendant of this family, the man who still carried this redoubtable name, which remains the symbol of tyranny, of sacrilege, of murder, with demoniacal refinements, was a poor creature, who had washed up in London, where he lived with difficulty from his profession of photographer.  How very distant we are from the legend of his frightening ancestor, the atheist Pope Alexander VI, dying himself from the poison which he had so often used.  How very distant we are from these grandiose horrors, from these furious turmoils of ambition, from these fierce passions which stop at nothing, which nothing can control.

“The last of the Borgias took photos of sentimental servant girls wanting to send these images to their boyfriends, and the only order given by this fallen heir of a legion of tyrants was:  “Don’t move.”.  In the end, he whose ancestors had unscrupulously manipulated abominable philtres, was poisoned in vulgar fashion, the unfortunate bohemian, by the none-too-fresh and sophisticated food which the restaurants of big cities reserve for their modest customers. This poison of the doubtful mixtures of cheap restaurants is perhaps slower in its action, but it is no less sure than the famous poison of the Borgia family.”

No history has provoked more polemics that that of the XVIth Century papacy, particularly at the time of the Borgias.  The most violent pamphlets, the most severe condemnations, the most unbelievable panegyrics, have in turn stirred public opinion and deeply led it astray.

The Borgias are usually presented as monsters of cruelty and perfidy.  The innumerable crimes of Alexander VI caused him to be seen as an Antichrist.  There was no form of killing which they didn’t abuse.  Among the lot, poison was the most common and the most used.  But this way of sending undesirable people to another world is current in the Italian society of the XVIth Century.

Fifth part tomorrow.

Rumour has it that Cardinal Giambattista Orsini had drunk poison.  To stop the rumour, Pope Alexander VI exhibits the body, so that everyone can see the absence of marks on the skin, the irrefutable proof of non-poisoning.

The Pope also convokes certain doctors to examine the body.  The doctors have no difficulty in recognizing that the Cardinal’s death was the consequence of a long and painful illness.

But public opinion is not fooled, and sees only that Cardinal Orsini was the pillar of the plot against Caesar Borgia.  His death is therefore an indispensable political act.

Under the Renaissance, doctors have a very particular conception of the exercise of their art.  If paid well, they have no scrupules in sending their patients into the other world, with the same zeal that they put into saving them, if that is their families’ wish.

There is the case of a doctor from the Latran Hospital who, in ambush on a street corner, kills morning worshippers with arrows, then steals their purses.  He also poisons his patients, after having dictated to them, a Will in his favour.

Using the pretext of the plot, the Orsini family is stripped of all its possessions.  Other great names fall, in turn, prey to the Borgias.

Alexander poisons the richest princes of the Church, one after the other.  He doesn’t even wait for Cardinal de Modena’s death, before making an inventory of his succession.  This time, the Pope finds an accomplice in the victim’s man of confidence:  his secretary.

Then, its the turn of Cardinal Mechiel, poisoned by his cook, and whose inheritance, which goes to the Pope, is over 100,000 ducats.

Alexander VI’s own nephew, Cardinal de Monreale, “was removed by the same method as the others, after having been particularly well-fattened.”

Poison became the most common arm.  It made so many victims at this time.

A Malatesta poisons his wife, the daughter of Nicolas d’Este, Duke of Ferrare, because he is convinced of her infidelity.  Laura Malatesta, known as Parasma, the mother of the husband, suffered the same end, and for the same reason.

Another time, a peasant, Marini, brought a phial of poison from Constantinople, to throw it into the fountain at the Viridaris Gate, near the Vatican.  It is there that the servants come to draw water for the services of the Pope, the court, and all the pontifical palace personnel.

The poison was supposed to work five days later, not before.  But, as it was always feared that this water might be contaminated, the fountain was surrounded by high walls.  A small, wooden window, locked, is the only possible opening.

How was the plot discovered?  The accounts are mute on this point, but we know how the guilty man died.  He was paraded on a cart, in the city, naked and covered in chains,  From time to time, he was hit with red hot irons, tongs, pincers.  He was led like this to the Capitol where, in front of the cross, he was knocked out with a club, then finished off with a knife.  The body was cut into four pieces which were hung on the Saint-Paul, Saint-John, the Castle and del Popolo Gates.

This wasn’t the only attempt against the life of Alexander VI.  Multiple plots were hatched against the tyranny of the Borgias.  They were always discovered by Caesar’s police or by the betrayal of a participant.

One time, among others, a musician was arrested.  He had come from Forli to hand poisoned letters to the Pope, enclosed in a reed flute.  The poison is so violent, according to Burckard, that no remedy is able to combat it.

The Pope learns of this assassination attempt.  The arrested musician has no illusions about his future.  He perishes bravely under torture.

All of these assassination attempts and the punishments which they provoke, as well as the murders for adultery, theft, vengeance, terrorise the Roman population.  The latest assassinations, Orsini’s in particular, have horrified the Sacred College.  Each cardinal is feeling menaced by the Borgias’ criminality when, suddenly, the Pope dies.

One week after a banquet in the vineyards of Adrien Castellesi de Corneto, Alexander and Caesar Borgia are taken with violent fevers and vomitting.  Caesar’s state seems to improve while that of the Pope becomes worse.  He dies on 18 August 1503.

Inevitably, rumours of poisoning spread.  It is said that Alexander VI had been victim of his own wheelings and dealings.  The English historian Gordon repeats this popular version, already accredited by Paolo Jovio, Guiccardini, Platina and Bembo.

On this evening, the Pope invites nine cardinals to supper on the Corneto estate.  A faithful servant receives the order to pour the poison, mixed with the wine, for all of the guests, during the course of the meal.  The Pope would therefore get rid of all of these annoying people in one go, and would be able to recuperate their fortunes.

Arriving at the vineyard shortly before the other guests, Alexander and Caesar, exhausted by the heat, – we are in the middle of a heatwave – ask for a drink.  A servant, who has no knowledge of the plot, serves them the poisoned wine.

Suspecting the terrible mistake, Caesar rushes to use a counter-poison.  He has the abdomen of a live mule opened and plunges into it as if it were a bath.  This singular antidote heats the person victim of a cold poison.  The animal’s heat is transmitted to the other’s body and efficiently combats the toxic effects.

That is basically the dramatic and romantic story from Gordon.  The historians of the time, all of them more or less hostile toward the Borgias, believe this version.

There is great morality in the death of Alexander VI, caught in his own trap, victim of the poison which he had prepared for others.  It seems a merited punishment for his monstrous crimes.

Fourth part, including more on the Pope’s death, tomorrow.

%d bloggers like this: