After sharing a table (complete with a perfectly roasted lamb) with Louise’s lovely family in West Hendred outside of Oxford, Louise, Erin J., and I took the rascally little pup out for a stroll. Here are some photos from our adventure.

This is the Holy Trinity in West Hendred, a 13th century church, now part of the Church of England.

The church was scraped of all frescoes and decoration during the Reformation times, but remnants are still quite apparent along its walls.

Even the pup appreciates a good medieval tile when she sees one.

I realized while taking this photo that I have an unusually large collection of shots from around the world which capture the backsides of gravestones. I’ve always been taken by the ruin, molds and ivies, I suppose. Perhaps a future post will show more of these.

And so begins our walk, with a late afternoon sun shower.

The ladies, and I (in shadow).

Louise and I, lost in the prompt that Erin gave to us, to look “medieval and pregnant.”

Postcard shot. Rainbow + farmhouse.

So many rainbows on this day…

No shortage of medieval churches here. Check out the ironwork on this one’s door.

Erin was so kind to pump us some water.

…and a burial mound fit for an unknown king.

Such a pretty walk in Oxford.

The tarantella. Its name is related both to Taranto (where I’ll be going in early June), one of the largest cities of Apulia, and to the taranta or tarantola – the venomous tarantula spider native to the region.

By common agreement of physicians and natural philosophers, the disease was at one time widely dispersed in Apulia, in extreme southeastern Italy. It was so much so that Cesare Ripa, in his Iconologia when personifying the various regions of Italy, summarized the main traits of the cult in his depiction Apulia as a woman dancing with tarantulas scattered on her gown and musical instruments at her feet.

The cult of Tarantism (and, by its prevalence and complexity of ritual by the sixteenth century can we justifiably refer to it as a cult), arose in the middle ages from obscure roots that may reach as far back as pre-Christian possession rites. It has persisted – at least in a lessened form – until as late as 1959, when the Italian anthropologist Ernesto de Martino observed 35 cases of it near Galatina in the Salentine peninsula.  He conducted his observations between June 28th and June 30th, as June 29th is the festival of Sts. Peter and Paul, a day in which is customary for victims of various ailments to travel from regional villages to the chapel of St Paul in search of cures.

The spider was central to the cult. When the spider bit a victim, numerous physical and mental symptoms ensued, all catalogued extensively by early modern observers, including learned physicians and Jesuits living in the region.  The poisonous bite was said to usually render the victims torpid, melancholic or semi- or fully unconscious, and occasionally brought them to the verge of death.

There was universal agreement that, from this state, the victims, called tarantati, were restored to health by a kind of musical exorcism. The melodies involved in this rite came to be known as tarantelle by the mid-seventeenth century, when Athanasius Kircher was writing his account of tarantism.

The names of a few of these melodies survive from as early as the late fourteenth century, and Kircher published some polyphonic tarantellas in his treatise.  Already we see in Kircher’s examples the tarantella could – but did not necessarily – assume the compound meter and fast tempos made famous in later, stylized tarantellas.

Kircher included eight songs used to cure tarantism in his 1641 text, remarking that these tarantellas were ordinarily ‘rustic extemporizations’. All but one are in simple duple metre, unlike the traditional tarantella, and all have regular phrases made up of eight beats with a caesura after the fourth and a point of repose on the seventh or eighth. Melodic figures characteristic of the tarantella include repeated notes, the alternation of a note with its upper or lower auxiliary, scalic motion, leaps and arpeggios.

[MUSIC SAMPLE: Tono Hypodorio tarantella]

The tarantelle were generally performed by musicians that traveled from town to town during the summer months when tarantism was at its height, demanding high fees for their musical therapy. (Although, in Kircher’s treatise, we read that the musicians of Taranto were paid from the public purse).  The chief, and first, task of the musicians was to find which tarantella worked, trying first one tarantella and then another on the victim. This was necessary because it was widely accepted that different spiders and different victims responded to different melodies.  We’ll return to Kircher’s explanation of this shortly.

In the Sertum papale de venensis, which is one of the oldest documents on the subject of tarantism dating from 1362, Guglielmo de Marra writes that the spider emits a sort of song when it bites:

“tarantula producit quendam cantum tempore sui morsus.”

The strange concept expressed in this document, although quite obscure, is that the melodic bite of the spider makes possible the re-evocation of the bite in musical terms. The musicians’ task then was thus to discover the tarantella appropriate to the spider who had done the biting. At the sound of the fitting tarantella, the victim would be roused to a dancing frenzy that could last for hours at a time, and extending over a number of days.  In the end the victim was cured, at least temporarily, for it was common for the illness to recur at regular, often yearly, periods and to require repeated musical and choreographic therapy.

For Kircher, there was a correspondence between the music and the poison, based on the nature of material qualities – specifically, the humors. In his Sive de arte magnetica, Kircher writes of a particular experiment with a spider:

…this experiment set up in the city of Andria, in the Ducal Palace, in front of one of our Fathers and the whole court. The Duchess, in order that this wondrous prodigy of nature were displayed more clearly, had the tarantula object of study placed on top of a slender straw, balancing over a vessel full of water. Then she summoned a citharist. The tarantula at first did not betray the smallest sign of motion, but then, as soon as the citharist started to play the sound that had a special affinity with the humor of the spider, not only did the animal appear to be jumping with frequent hopping of its feet and agitation of the whole body, but it seemed to be expressing through its leaping exactly that particular leap that corresponded to the musical rhythm. When the citharist stopped, the spider too stopped leaping. We should add that while the people who were assisting at the experiment in Andria thought this to be an exotic phenomenon, later the inhabitants of Taranto regarded it as something ordinary.

The poisonous magnitude of the tarantula resulted from the specific bodily complexion of the spider, from its environment, and from the disposition of the victim’s body, therefore the healing process must be a mechanical process involving physical qualities.  Kircher asserts that particular humors are more greatly affected by particular sounds and instruments, and reckons there are healing powers to these sounds if they are properly used with regard to the physical disposition of both victim and attacker. Thus we read in his account of one healing:

It is most true that diverse persons with tarantism are affected with diverse instruments and diverse tunes and airs, but this is to be imputed to the diversity of complexions and temperaments either of the tarantula’s, which poison them, or the persons themselves. For such that are themselves melancholic or intoxicated by the poison of the duller and more sluggish sort of tarantulas are ever affected and sympathize rather with the music of drums, trumpets, and other strong-sounding instruments, than with that of lutes and stringed instruments. For since the humor (black bile, which was related to melancholy) is thick and slow and the spirits follow the disposition of the humors, to their stimulation and dissipation, a greater force of motion is required. It is written that a girl of Tarento that was affected by Tarentism could not be excited to dance by any instruments but those of loud drums, exploding cannons, the sounds of trumpets and similar instruments that cause violent sounds. The heavy venom, meeting with a body of cold and phlegmatic complexion, required a strong commotion of the air and spirits to be dissipated.

An interesting facet of Kircher’s explanation is that the poison within the body of a spider’s victim was not activated externally from the actions of the living spider (that action being to release the poison), but it acted as a sort of little automaton that has been let loose inside the body through the bite of the animal.

When the tarantula with its bite injects a certain subtle humor, which is like a sort of vehicle for the hidden penetrating poison, it happens that this humor, stirred up by periodic heat waves during the summer, spreads itself through the body, especially in the arteries, muscle and the innermost fibres. Thus in this way the poisonous humor prepares little by little to receive the rhythmical motions, and once it is thus predisposed, finally, after the muscles have been irritated according to the rhythmical pattern, the patient is forced to burst into jumps against his or her will.

Amazing. And, all theories of collective hysteria aside, to think that the phenomenon of tarentism has been observed up until the 1950s is astounding. Whether or not the effect of the musical antidote still prevails, I do not know. I can only hope for the observational experience that our dear Athanasius would have enjoyed himself when I visit Taranto in June.

Please stand by.


I’ve been working hard trying to identify some early 16th century Venetians and foreigners who may have been in the Veneto in 1508. These names all appeared in a list that Luca Pacioli printed in his edition of Euclid’s Elements of 1509. He printed these names as the “flower of the men,” meaning the cream of the crop that attended his lecture on Euclid’s geometry in August of that year.  Since it’s an incredibly unique document for its time, I’m currently trying to figure out what importance we can eke out from it regarding the  intellectual culture in Venice in maths and geometry.  If you are interested in helping me to identify, here is the list at:

It would be intriguing if this list led us to discover the earlier formations of an academy in Venice but, even if not, to have such biggies as Aldo Manuzio, Fra Giocondo, and the many other recognizables here at one place and in one time is quite remarkable.

Muchos gracias if you recognize anyone!



Remember, remember the fifth of November,

the gunpowder treason and plot,

I know of no reason

why the gunpowder treason

should ever be forgot.


Happy Guy Fawkes weekend, everyone! Last night there were fireworks in Victoria Park to commemorate that fateful 5th of November when Guy Fawkes walked into the House of Lords in the Palace at Westminster with all intentions to kill King James I, his family, and most of the aristocracy in what we now recognize as the Gunpowder Plot of 1605.


Why do we celebrate this somewhat glum historical event with such glee? It’s a little dark, isn’t it? Well, that’s the British for you. What we are actually celebrating is the King’s escape from assassination. Guy Fawkes was found in the cellar of the palace on the night of November 5th with his barrels of gunpowder. The names of his co-conspirators could not be extracted from him by torture, so after four days he was ordered by King James to be hanged, drawn and quartered – an awfully messy choice of torture. But Guy Fawkes threw himself from the gallows instead, thus breaking his own neck and bypassing the “drawn and quartered” segment.


And he lives on each November 5th and weekend surrounding, as Londoners set off fireworks throughout the city and participate in what is also known as Bonfire Night. In the 18th Century, children would often burn effigies of Guy Fawkes on these nights, asking for “a penny for the guy” on street corners (the sketch above is of a pre-burning procession of the guy). Thus in Britain the term “guy” has come to mean a strange, oddball, kind of character, while the American term has since been generalized to refer to, “some man.” I haven’t seen any effigies on this Bonfire Night, but something tells me that effigies don’t get great reception these days.


Anarchists of the 20th Century would also use the image of Guy as propaganda, often pairing images of him with the phrase, “The only man ever to enter Parliament with honest intentions.”


Guy Fawkes was also ranked 30th in the 2002 list compiled by BBC of the 100 greatest Britons. This is where I lose the British a bit, but I do suggest you peruse this list if you have the time. They seem to get the characters right, but their choice in sequencing is pure hilarity at points.


Oh yes, and I did not do a Halloween post, because it’s just a little different over here. I’ll leave you with Fry and Laurie to explain.

Ship in a bottleAstrology shopBusker

In a Station of the Metro

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;

Petals on a wet, black bough.

– Ezra Pound

This poem entered my mind as I was heading into the Russell Square tube station after drinks with some fellow Warburgians this evening. This is an incredible poem, I think. Just 14 words in total, but so explosive with its imagery.

The metro station that Pound is imagining is in Paris somewhere, which is quite distant culturally and geographically from London. I don’t know what he saw, and I’m sure the view was nothing like mine tonight on the way into the tube, but I think what he may have been aiming for is that moment – that very ephemeral, specific moment – when a sight of beauty appears among the everyday ugliness of the world.

The world we live in can be an overwhelmingly ugly place sometimes, as I’m sure mostly you city-dwellers will agree with this wholeheartedly, but those moments when it just can’t be, when something is stirred within you and your soul, upon its own urging, kicks into gear and becomes the vacuum for all things ugly; when ugly just cannot be. Isn’t it wonderful, isn’t it just freakin’ phenomenal this momentous shift when, surrounded by strangers and most likely in a place with which you are not entirely familiar, you look around yourself and you may feel your heart skip a beat for a moment or suddenly you take in a unrhythmic breath or maybe a feeling comes over you that is even weirder, and you just think, “My god. This gift of consciousness is radical.”

I may have lost some of you there. I mean, really what I’m trying to say essentially can’t be put it words. Philosophers have been attempting to whittle this one down for ages and it has just become a miserable topic to discuss what it is to be. This is so astounding to me sometimes because, as I think Pound might have agreed if the argument had ever come around to him, there are so many different degrees of being. I think sometimes, like I felt tonight, were are so damn fortunate to grasp that usually unattainable beauty that that must be it. That must be being.

And, like Pound, if I were to tell you exactly what I experienced, it would be such an utterly dull story for you. This level of greatness is something that only a 14 word poem, comprised of purely parallel imagery, can possibly come close to. Oh, such genius! It’s better that this is a topic for the poets and not the philosophers.

Here’s a picture of Ezra Pound, who was really quite something in his youth with that mustache.


The Warby


Warby logo


The emblem of the Warburg, which appears above its entrance and on all of its publications, comes from the 1472 woodcut printed at Augsburg of Isidore of Seville’s De natura rerum, On the Nature of Things. I couldn’t obtain a clearer image (perhaps it would help if I wasn’t lurking about so much after hours and took a proper daylight photo), but what we’re meant to see is the interdependence of the four elements that comprise the world – air, water, fire, and earth – with their pairs of opposing qualities – cold and hot, dry and moist. This tetragram is tops.

Tower Bridge

After much anticipation, I’ve landed here in London and have managed in the past 3 weeks to 1. Get lost on a daily basis, 2. land a nice flat near Whitechapel, and 3. take that stunning photo above of the Tower Bridge. Yes, I really did take that photo and, no, that is not London Bridge. It’s often mistakenly believed to be London Bridge, so you’ll have to just trust me on this one.

London Bridge is just a swift raft ride down the Thames westward. It’s quite a flat thing without much in the way of ornamentation, but it is a noble placeholder as there has always been a bridge on the site since Roman times.  As the song claims, it did fall down – many, many times. First, the Romans left it to crumble in disrepair when they withdrew from Brittania in AD 288.  The area was filled in by the mid-5th century, when the Anglos and Saxons began the hard work of ethnically cleansing the area of its Celtic inhabitants before revamping the city and throwing down the red carpet for Christianity, which stabilized the political institution of London and brings us basically to the London we see today.

Ahem, actually, no. Did you really think that I’d skip over 1500 years of history, especially when it involves the battle-happy Vikings? The Vikings, coveting London’s prosperity, turned from raiders to conquerors, invading the city in 842 AD, burning it to the ground in 851 AD, then eventually occupying in 871 AD (Never date a Viking – clearly too much drama).  King Alfred the Great (the only English king to ever be so-called Great) finally retook the city after 15 long years, but the Danes still owned half of England, so wars popped up here and there for over the next century. Poor King Æthelred the Unready couldn’t quite hold his own against the Vikings during his reign so, in true Unready fashion, he fled to Normandy. At that point the Danes took advantage of the weakened Saxon leadership by making themselves at home in London and constructing the city’s walls.

Back to the doubtful origin of London Bridge, the rhyme. The song supposedly comes from an old Norse tale involving King Æthelred the Unready’s return to the city at the Battle of London Bridge with his 19 year old ally, Norwegian Olaf, in tow. It is thought that Olaf II pulled down the bridge in attempt to divide the Danes who held the City of London, thereby regaining the city for the Anglo-Saxon King Æthelred. There are other theories as to the provenance of the song, including one that has much to be contested with involving the sacrificial burial of children alive in the foundations. Both of these theories do not answer the question of who “My fair lady” is, so it’s safe to say that the jury is still out on whether or not the song actually refers to a historical event in the life of London Bridge. I favor the Viking Attack theory for storytelling value, but UK medieval history is not at all my specialty, so I’d defer to the experts if I knew any.

As far as I know, Tower Bridge [pictured above] does not have a story quite as compelling. Construction began on the bridge in 1886, but it did not receive its vivacious paint job until the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977. Fairly recent history. In the meantime, London Bridge fell down a couple more times. It was destroyed in 1091 by a storm and tornado, and yet again in 1136 by fire. There were more fires in 1212 (resulting in the death of about 3,000 people)  and 1633, and then a total revamp of the bridge in the early 19th century which opened in 1831. That bridge eventually needed replacement and was bought by the American oil entrepreneur Robert P. McCulloch for 2 and a half mil in 1968. You can see it today in Lake Havasu City, Arizona.

So there’s your primer on two of London’s bridges.