Remembering the Apollo 1 Tragedy
By the winter of 1967, President John F. Kennedy’s goal of “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth” by the end of the decade appeared to be in doubt. A three-month delay in the delivery of a newly designed spacecraft had pushed back the Apollo program’s first manned mission to February 1967, and repeated testing failures plagued the most complex flying machine ever engineered.
The three men set to blast off on Apollo 1—rookie astronaut Roger Chaffee and veterans Virgil “Gus” Grissom and Ed White—had issues with the new craft as well. They voiced their concerns about the quantity of flammable nylon and Velcro in the command module with Joseph Shea, manager of the Apollo Spacecraft Program Office, before presenting him with a gag version of their crew portrait in which their heads were bowed and hands were clasped in prayer. “It isn’t that we don’t trust you, Joe, but this time we’ve decided to go over your head,” read the inscription.
Gag photo of Apollo 1 crew in prayer. (Credit: NASA)
In spite of the incredible danger inherent in space travel, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) had launched 16 manned space flights in its Mercury and Gemini programs without a single casualty. “Success had become almost routine for us,” NASA flight director Gene Kranz wrote in his book ilure Is Not an Option.” “The country had gotten complacent.” Perhaps NASA had gotten complacent as well. In spite of orders from Shea, the flammable materials were never removed from the Apollo 1 command module.
With 25 days left before the scheduled launch, the crew of Apollo 1 climbed out of a NASA van into sparkling Florida sunshine on January 27, 1967, and ascended the tower of launch pad 34 for a routine simulated launch test. Clad in their spacesuits and carrying their portable air conditioning packs like office workers toting briefcases, the astronauts crossed the 218-foot-high catwalk with vistas of the blue Atlantic waters washing up on the white beaches of Cape Canaveral before climbing inside their command module perched atop a massive booster rocket.
Portrait of the Apollo 1 prime crew for first manned Apollo space flight, Edward H. White II, Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, and Roger B. Chaffee. (Credit: NASA)
The “plugs-out” test, during which the module was disconnected from the launch pad’s electrical systems and operating under its own power, was classified as non-hazardous since the rocket was unfueled. To make the countdown rehearsal as realistic as possible, the launch pad team sealed the hatch after the astronauts were strapped into their seats inside the cabin pressurized with pure oxygen.
Throughout the afternoon, minor glitches and communication issues between the spacecraft and Mission Control in Houston caused repeated delays. Hours behind schedule, early evening darkness settled around the launch pad as the simulated countdown reached a hold with 10 minutes left as attempts continued to resolve the radio issues. “How are we gonna get to the moon if we can’t talk between two or three buildings?” quipped a frustrated Grissom at 6:30 p.m.
Less than a minute later, the engineers watching the capsule cabin on a closed-circuit television screen were startled by a flash. A spark that likely came from faulty electrical wiring behind a panel door below Grissom’s feet suddenly ignited in the capsule. Fed by the cabin’s pure oxygen, the spark took only seconds to morph into an inferno that tore through the flammable nylon netting and Velcro surrounding the astronauts.
“Hey! We’ve got a fire in the cockpit!” yelled one of the astronauts. Horrified engineers watched on their screens as smoke filled the cabin while White desperately attempted to release the cumbersome hatch. “We have a bad fire! We’re burning up!” came another screaming transmission from the cockpit.
Pad safety workers grabbed extinguishers and rushed to the capsule, but the dense smoke reduced visibility to nearly zero. Even rescuers wearing smoke masks were overcome by toxic fumes, and the tremendous heat burned through their gloves.
Chaffee, White, and Grissom training in a simulator of their Command Module cabin, January 19, 1967. (Credit: NASA)
It took more than five minutes for the pad crew to open the complicated latch system on the hatch. By that point, it was far too late. The astronauts had virtually no time to unstrap themselves from their seats, let alone escape the flash fire. Burning at hotter than 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, the blaze melted the astronauts’ space suits and oxygen tubes. The crew likely lost consciousness and died from asphyxiation from inhaling toxic gases. The process of removing the men from the charred capsule couldn’t begin until six hours after the fire, and it took 90 minutes to extricate their bodies, which were fused to the nylon of the cabin interior.
“We did not do our job! We were rolling the dice, hoping that things would come together by launch day, when in our hearts we knew it would take a miracle,” an emotional Kranz told his flight control team three days after the tragedy. “We were too ‘gung-ho’ about the schedule, and we blocked out all of the problems we saw each day in our work. Every element of the program was in trouble, and so were we.”
The charred remains of the Apollo 1 cabin interior. (Credit: NASA)
Just weeks before his death, Grissom had told a reporter, “If we die we want people to accept it. We hope that if anything happens to us it will not delay the program. The conquest of space is worth the risk of life.” NASA indeed pressed ahead with the Apollo program, but more than 20 months elapsed before American astronauts returned to the skies. During that time, NASA made thousands of changes to the Apollo spacecraft, including redesigning the hatch, altering the cabin atmosphere to include nitrogen and replacing flammable materials from the interior.
“It was perhaps the defining moment in our race to get to the moon,” Kranz wrote of the fire aboard Apollo 1. “The ultimate success of Apollo was made possible by the sacrifices of Grissom, White and Chaffee. The accident profoundly affected everyone in the program. There was an unspoken promise on everyone’s part to the three astronauts that their deaths would not be in vain.” Out of the ashes of the Apollo 1 tragedy came crucial safety and performance improvements that allowed NASA to fulfill Kennedy’s pledge in July 1969 by landing Neil Armstrong and Edwin 𠇋uzz” Aldrin on the moon and returning them safely to Earth. Before departing the lunar surface, the Apollo 11 astronauts left behind a reminder of their fallen colleagues𠅊 commemorative medallion bearing the names of Grissom, White and Chaffee.
Is the Aeneid a Celebration of Empire—or a Critique?
Since the end of the first century A.D., people have been playing a game with a certain book. In this game, you open the book to a random spot and place your finger on the text the passage you select will, it is thought, predict your future. If this sounds silly, the results suggest otherwise. The first person known to have played the game was a highborn Roman who was fretting about whether he’d be chosen to follow his cousin, the emperor Trajan, on the throne after opening the book to this passage—
I recognize that he is that king of Rome,
Gray headed, gray bearded, who will formulate
The laws for the early city . . .
—he was confident that he’d succeed. His name was Hadrian.
Through the centuries, others sought to discover their fates in this book, from the French novelist Rabelais, in the early sixteenth century (some of whose characters play the game, too), to the British king Charles I, who, during the Civil War—which culminated in the loss of his kingdom and his head—visited an Oxford library and was alarmed to find that he’d placed his finger on a passage that concluded, “But let him die before his time, and lie / Somewhere unburied on a lonely beach.” Two and a half centuries later, as the Germans marched toward Paris at the beginning of the First World War, a classicist named David Ansell Slater, who had once viewed the very volume that Charles had consulted, found himself scouring the same text, hoping for a portent of good news.
What was the book, and why was it taken so seriously? The answer lies in the name of the game: sortes vergilianae. The Latin noun sortes means lots—as in “drawing lots,” a reference to the game’s element of chance. The adjective vergilianae, which means “having to do with Vergilius,” identifies the book: the works of the Roman poet Publius Vergilius Maro, whom we know as Virgil.
For a long stretch of Western history, few people would have found it odd to ascribe prophetic power to this collection of Latin verse. Its author, after all, was the greatest and the most influential of all Roman poets. A friend and confidant of Augustus, Rome’s first emperor, Virgil was already considered a classic in his own lifetime: revered, quoted, imitated, and occasionally parodied by other writers, taught in schools, and devoured by the general public. Later generations of Romans considered his works a font of human knowledge, from rhetoric to ethics to agriculture by the Middle Ages, the poet had come to be regarded as a wizard whose powers included the ability to control Vesuvius’s eruptions and to cure blindness in sheep.
However fantastical the proportions to which this reverence grew, it was grounded in a very real achievement represented by one poem in particular: the Aeneid, a heroic epic in twelve chapters (or “books”) about the mythic founding of Rome, which some ancient sources say Augustus commissioned and which was, arguably, the single most influential literary work of European civilization for the better part of two millennia.
Virgil had published other, shorter works before the Aeneid, but it’s no accident that the epic was a magnet for the fingers of the great and powerful who played the sortes vergilianae. Its central themes are leadership, empire, history, and war. In it, an upstanding Trojan prince named Aeneas, son of Venus, the goddess of love, flees Troy after its destruction by the Greeks, and, along with his father, his son, and a band of fellow-survivors, sets out to establish a new realm across the sea, in Italy, the homeland that’s been promised to him by divine prophecy. Into that traditional story Virgil cannily inserted a number of showstopping glimpses into Rome’s future military and political triumphs, complete with cameo appearances by Augustus himself—the implication being that the real-life empire arose from a god-kissed mythic past. The Emperor and his people alike were hooked: within a century of its author’s death, in 19 B.C., citizens of Pompeii were scrawling lines from the epic on the walls of shops and houses.
People haven’t stopped quoting it since. From the moment it appeared, the Aeneid was the paradigmatic classic in Western art and education as one scholar has put it, Virgil “occupied the central place in the literary canon for the whole of Europe for longer than any other writer.” (After the Western Roman Empire fell, in the late fifth century A.D., knowledge of Greek—and, hence, intimacy with Homer’s epics—virtually disappeared from Western Europe for a thousand years.) Virgil’s poetry has been indispensable to everyone from his irreverent younger contemporary Ovid, whose parodies of the older poet’s gravitas can’t disguise a genuine admiration, to St. Augustine, who, in his “Confessions,” recalls weeping over the Aeneid, his favorite book before he discovered the Bible from Dante, who chooses Virgil, l’altissimo poeta, “the highest poet,” as his guide through Hell and Purgatory in the Divine Comedy, to T. S. Eliot, who returned repeatedly to Virgil in his critical essays and pronounced the Aeneid “the classic of all Europe.”
And not only Europe. Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin liked to quote Virgil in their speeches and letters. The poet’s idealized vision of honest farmers and shepherds working in rural simplicity was influential, some scholars believe, in shaping the Founders’ vision of the new republic as one in which an agricultural majority should hold power. Throughout the nineteenth century, Virgil was a central fixture of American grammar-school education the ability to translate passages on sight was a standard entrance requirement at many colleges and universities. John Adams boasted that his son John Quincy had translated the entire Aeneid. Ellen Emerson wrote her father, Ralph Waldo, to say that she was covering a hundred and twenty lines a day Helen Keller read it in Braille. Today, traces of the epic’s cultural authority linger on: a quotation from it greets visitors to the Memorial Hall of the 9/11 Museum, in New York City. Since the turn of the current century, there have been at least five major translations into English alone, most recently by the American poet David Ferry (Chicago), in the final installment of his translation of Virgil’s complete works.
Still, the Aeneid—notoriously—can be hard to love. In part, this has to do with its aesthetics. In place of the raw archaic potency of Homer’s epics, which seems to dissolve the millennia between his heroes and us, Virgil’s densely allusive poem offers an elaborately self-conscious “literary” suavity. (The critic and Columbia professor Mark Van Doren remarked that “Homer is a world Virgil, a style.”) Then, there’s Aeneas himself—“in some ways,” as even the Great Courses Web site felt compelled to acknowledge, “the dullest character in epic literature.” In the Aeneid’s opening lines, Virgil announces that the hero is famed above all for his pietas, his “sense of duty”: hardly the sexiest attribute for a protagonist. If Aeneas was meant to be a model proto-Roman, he has long struck many readers as a cold fish he and his comrades, the philosopher György Lukács once observed, live “the cool and limited existence of shadows.” Particularly in comparison with his Homeric predecessors, Aeneas comes up short, lacking the cruel glamour of Achilles, or Odysseus’s beguiling smarts.
But the biggest problem by far for modern audiences is the poem’s subject matter. Today, the themes that made the epic required reading for generations of emperors and generals, and for the clerics and teachers who groomed them—the inevitability of imperial dominance, the responsibilities of authoritarian rule, the importance of duty and self-abnegation in the service of the state—are proving to be an embarrassment. If readers of an earlier era saw the Aeneid as an inspiring advertisement for the onward march of Rome’s many descendants, from the Holy Roman Empire to the British one, scholars now see in it a tale of nationalistic arrogance whose plot is an all too familiar handbook for repressive violence: once Aeneas and his fellow-Trojans arrive on the coast of Italy, they find that they must fight a series of wars with an indigenous population that, eventually, they brutally subjugate.
The result is that readers today can have a very strange relationship to this classic: it’s a work we feel we should embrace but often keep at arm’s length. Take that quote in the 9/11 Museum: “No day shall erase you from the memory of time.” Whoever came up with the idea of using it was clearly ignorant of the context: these high-minded words are addressed to a pair of nighttime marauders whose bloody ambush of a group of unsuspecting targets suggests that they have far more in common with the 9/11 terrorists than with their victims. A century ago, many a college undergrad could have caught the gaffe today, it was enough to have an impressive-sounding quote from an acknowledged classic.
Another way of saying all this is that, while our forebears looked confidently to the text of the Aeneid for answers, today it raises troubling questions. Who exactly is Aeneas, and why should we admire him? What is the epic’s political stance? Can we ignore the parts we dislike and cherish the rest? Should great poetry serve an authoritarian regime—and just whose side was Virgil on? Two thousand years after its appearance, we still can’t decide if his masterpiece is a regressive celebration of power as a means of political domination or a craftily coded critique of imperial ideology—a work that still has something useful to tell us.
Little in Virgil’s background destined him to be the great poet of empire. He was born on October 15, 70 B.C., in a village outside Mantua his father, perhaps a well-off farmer, had the means to provide him with a good education, first in Cremona and Milan and then in Rome. The inhabitants of his native northern region had only recently been granted Roman citizenship through a decree by Julius Caesar, issued when the poet was a young man. Hence, even after his first major work, a collection of pastoral poems called the Eclogues, gained him an entrée into Roman literary circles, Virgil must have seemed—and perhaps felt—something of an outsider: a reserved country fellow with (as his friend the poet Horace teased him) a hick’s haircut, who spoke so haltingly that he could seem downright uneducated. His retiring nature, which earned him the nickname parthenias (“little virgin”), may have been the reason he decided not to remain in Rome to complete his education. Instead, he settled in Naples, a city with deep ties to the culture of the Greeks, which he and his literary contemporaries revered. In the final lines of the Georgics, a long didactic poem about farming which he finished when he was around forty, the poet looked back yearningly to the untroubled leisure he had enjoyed during that period:
And I, the poet Virgil, nurtured by sweet
Parthénopé [Naples], was flourishing in the pleasures
Of idle studies, I, who bold in youth
Played games with shepherds’ songs.
I’m quoting David Ferry’s translation of the poem. But the word that Ferry translates as “idle” is somewhat stronger in the original: Virgil says that his leisure time was ignobilis, “ignoble,” a choice that suggests some guilt about that easygoing Neapolitan idyll. And with good reason: however “sweet” those times were for Virgil, for Rome they were anything but. The poet’s lifetime spanned the harrowing disintegration of the Roman Republic and the fraught birth of the Empire—by any measure, one of the most traumatic centuries in European history. Virgil was a schoolchild when the orator and statesman Cicero foiled a plot by the corrupt aristocrat Catiline to overthrow the Republic by the time the poet was twenty, Julius Caesar, defying the Senate’s orders, had crossed the Rubicon with his army and set in motion yet another civil war. It was another two decades before Caesar’s great-nephew and heir, Octavian, defeated the last of his rivals, the renegade general Antony and his Egyptian consort, Cleopatra, at the Battle of Actium, and established the so-called Principate—the rule of the princeps (“first citizen”), an emperor in everything but name. Soon afterward, he took the quasi-religious honorific “Augustus.”
The new ruler was a man of refined literary tastes Virgil and his patron, Maecenas, the regime’s unofficial minister of culture, are said to have taken turns reading the Georgics aloud to the Emperor after his victory at Actium. Augustus no doubt liked what he heard. In one passage, the poet expresses a fervent hope that Rome’s young new leader will be able to spare Italy the wars that have wreaked havoc on the lives of the farmers whose labor is the subject of the poem in another, he envisages the erection of a grand temple honoring the ruler.
Because we like to imagine poets as being free in their political conscience, such fawning seems distasteful. (Robert Graves, the author of “I, Claudius,” complained that “few poets have brought such discredit as Virgil on their sacred calling.”) But Virgil cannot have been alone among intelligent Romans in welcoming Augustus’s regime as, at the very least, a stable alternative to the decades of internecine horrors that had preceded it. If Augustus did in fact suggest the idea for a national epic, it must have been while Virgil was still working on the Georgics, which includes a trailer for his next project: “And soon I’ll gird myself to tell the tales / Of Caesar’s brilliant battles, and carry his name / In story across . . . many future years.” He began work on the Aeneid around 29 B.C. and was in the final stages of writing when, ten years later, he died suddenly while returning home from a trip to Greece. He was buried in his beloved Naples.
The epic’s state of completion continues to be a subject of debate. There’s little doubt that a number of lines are metrically incomplete, a fact that dovetails with what we know about the poet’s working method: he liked to joke that, in order to preserve his momentum while writing, he’d put in temporary lines to serve as “struts” until the “finished columns” were ready. According to one anecdote, the dying Virgil begged his literary executors to burn the manuscript of the epic, but Augustus intervened, and, after some light editing, the finished work finally appeared. In the epitaph he composed for himself, Virgil refers with disarming modesty to his achievement: “Mantua gave me birth, Calabria took me, now Naples / holds me fast. I sang of pastures, farms, leaders.”
Virgil was keenly aware that, in composing an epic that begins at Troy, describes the wanderings of a great hero, and features book after book of gory battles, he was working in the long shadow of Homer. But, instead of being crushed by what Harold Bloom called “the anxiety of influence,” he found a way to acknowledge his Greek models while adapting them to Roman themes. Excerpts of the work in progress were already impressing fellow-writers by the mid-twenties B.C., when the love poet Propertius wrote that “something greater than the Iliad is being born.”
The very structure of the Aeneid is a wink at Homer. The epic is split between an “Odyssean” first half (Books I through VI recount Aeneas’s wanderings as he makes his way from Troy to Italy) and an “Iliadic” second half (Books VII through XII focus on the wars that the hero and his allies wage in order to take possession of their new homeland). Virgil signals this appropriation of the two Greek classics in his work’s famous opening line, “Arms and a man I sing”: the Iliad is the great epic of war (“arms”), while the Odyssey begins by announcing that its subject is “a man”—Odysseus. Virtually every one of the Aeneid’s nine thousand eight hundred and ninety-six lines is embedded, like that first one, in an intricate web of literary references, not only to earlier Greek and Roman literature but to a wide range of religious, historical, and mythological arcana. This allusive complexity would have flattered the sophistication of the original audience, but today it can leave everyone except specialists flipping to the endnotes. In this way, Virgil’s Homeric riff prefigures James Joyce’s, twenty centuries later: whatever the great passages of intense humanity, there are parts that feel like a treasure hunt designed for graduate students of the future.
It is, indeed, hardly surprising that readers through the centuries have found the Aeneid’s first half more engaging. As in the Odyssey, there are shipwrecks caused by angry deities (Juno, the queen of the gods, tries to foil Aeneas at every turn) and succor from helpful ones (Venus intervenes every now and then to help her son). There are councils of the gods at which the destinies of mortals are sorted out at one point, Jupiter, the king of the pantheon, assures the anxious Venus (and, by implication, the Roman reader) that the nation her son is about to found will enjoy imperium sine fine, “rule without end.” As for the mortals, there are melancholy reunions with old friends and family and hair-raising encounters with legendary monsters. Virgil has a lot of fun retooling episodes from the Odyssey: his hero has close calls with Scylla and Charybdis, lands on the Cyclops’ island just after Odysseus has left, and—in an amusing moment that does an end run around Homer—decides to sail right past Circe’s abode.
BUICK MODEL 10
A moderately popular early bid to build a car for the masses
How many built: 23,100 between 1908 and 1910
Starting price: $900
Nickname: ‘The White Streak’
A Buick Model 10 at the Long Island Automotive Museum in New York State, circa 1950s.
Carsten/Three Lions/Getty Images
When General Motors incorporated in the fall of 1908, its CEO, William 𠇋illy” Durant, went on a buying spree, building his empire by gobbling up the lion’s share of the competition within the first year. (He couldn’t convince rival Henry Ford, the other visionary of the burgeoning industry.) Buick, the first company Durant acquired, became GM’s core brand. And the Model 10, painted all white with snappy brass trim, was Buick’s most popular model.
The defining characteristic of the four-cylinder Model 10𠅊nd of every Buick since—was its overhead-valve cylinder head, a.k.a. the “valve-in-head” engine that gave superior performance. All Model 10s were marketed as a vehicle for “men with real red blood who don’t like to eat dust.” Despite arriving on the scene just before Henry Ford’s first Model T splashed onto the market, the Model 10 didn’t take off in the same way. Production ended when Buick realized it could build on its reputation𠅊nd its efficient valve-in-head engine—to sell more expensive cars at higher profits.
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The portrait of Dante
“Worldly repute is but a breath of wind, which cometh now from here, and now from there, and shifts its name, because its quarter shifts”. In Purgatory Canto XI, Dante falls into temptation of pride by alluding to his fame as a man of letters. Shortly after his death, Dante was already celebrated as a great poet and philosopher thanks to the anecdotes recounted by Giovanni Boccaccio in his Trattatello in laude di Dante.
Crooked nose, prominent chin, sharp edges, an unmistakable profile. This is how Sandro Botticelli celebrates the greatest poet of all time, the “father” of the Italian language. In his depiction of the Supreme Poet, he was inspired by the models handed down by fourteenth- and fifteenth-century iconography, starting with the fresco of the Giotto school in the Bargello chapel, without forgetting how Boccaccio describes him: “the poet was of medium height and in his later years he walked a bit hunched, with a serious and soft allure. He was always dressed in the most decent outfits, such as befitted his ripe years. He had a long face, his nose aquiline, and his eyes large rather than small. His jaws were large and his lower lip protruding. He was brown skin, his hair and beard were thick, black and curly, and his countenance was always sad and thoughtful.”
A severe, authoritative profile, where the laurel crown, symbol of glory, frames the scarlet hood. The painter had a boundless veneration for Dante. A passion that absorbed him so much that he neglected all other activities. Vasari recounts: “[. ]being a whimsical person, he commented on a part of Dante, made illustrations for the Inferno, and put them into print over all of which he wasted a great deal of time, and since he did no other work he brought infinite disorder to his life”.
The artist made the drawings of the first nineteen cantos of the Divine Comedy for Baccio Baldini's engravings. He then set to work on a huge project that presumably lasted throughout the 1490s. The ninety-two parchments with illustrations of the poem, commissioned by Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de' Medici and now kept in Rome and Berlin, testify to his genuine devotion to the work.
Vasari further recounts: “It is also related that for a jest Sandro accused a friend of his of heresy to the vicar. The friend appeared and demanded who accused him and of what. Learning that it was Sandro who said that he held the opinion of the Epicureans that the soul dies with the body, he asked to see his accuser before the judge. When Sandro arrived he said, “It is true that I hold this opinion of this man, for he is a brute. Do not you yourselves think him a heretic, since without any education, and scarce knowing how to read, he writes a commentary on Dante, taking his name in vain?”. A further testimony to his great devotion.
Another extraordinary painter who portrayed Dante, with the same inspiration as Botticelli, was Agnolo di Cosimo, better known as Bronzino. Between 1532 and 1533, according to Vasari, Bartolomeo Bettini, a Florence-based intellectual, asked Bronzino to paint a portrait of the great poet. A tribute to poetry and literature. Dante is here depicted holding his most famous work, the Divine Comedy. He does not look at the viewer but rather turns towards the landscape behind him, which is none other than a representation of Hell:
“Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost”.
The whole work is extremely faithful to the story. Detailed and simple.
The great poet does not only catch the attention of Italian artists. Eugène Delacroix, a 19th-century French painter, took inspiration from Inferno canto VIII to paint The Barque of Dante, where Dante is accompanied by Virgil. The two poets are represented on a small boat. Phlegyas, the keeper of the swamp in the fifth circle of Hell, leads the boat. The painting depicts the city of the Dead, surrounded by the marsh, encircled by walls of glowing metal. The damned who attack the boat are the wrathful and sullen, serving their eternal punishment in the swamp. Dante seems intimidated by the sight of the damned emerging from the mire and Virgil, his guide, comforts him. Delacroix strategically chose Dante's subject. The work was destined for the Paris Salon of 1922 and the imagery of the Divine Comedy had become one of the main themes of Romanticism.La barca di Dante, 1822. Eugène Delacroix
Dark tones, cold colours in most of the surface of the swamp and sky while in the foreground we find warmer colours, like Dante's hood and Virgil's cloak. On the left are the orange-red glow of the fire consuming the city of the Dead. The light revealing the bodies of the characters comes from above, as if the scene were being told on a stage, and paints the drapery and anatomies in a grazing manner.
Seven hundred years after his death, Dante still inspires many people. He was a master of literature who, even today, offers us essential, true and relevant metaphors for life.
Opening image: Portrait of Dante, 1495. Sandro Botticelli
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We are at the height of Romanticism, it’s the second half of the 19th century, the Gothic meets the Flamboyant, the Baroque and the Rococo. It’s the time when Romanticism takes its aesthetic to a whole new level, a style known as Dark Romanticism. Many artists marked this period with their extraordinary works, such as William Blake and his illustrations and poems, Goethe and his Faust, John Milton and The Lost Paradise, Mary Shelley and her Frankenstein, Polidori and his Vampyre…
But the work I am presenting to you today draws its inspiration from a much older story. It is with Dante Alighieri and the poet Virgil that we will explore the hell of the 14th century as presented in the Divine Comedy, which shows a journey between Purgatory, Hell, and Heaven.
Agnolo Bronzino, Allegorical portrait of Dante Alighieri, 16th c. Gallerie degli Uffizi, Florence. Source: Wikimedia
In his book, which has inspired many for 700 years, the poet Dante recounts his spiritual confusion. Lost between vices and virtue, he descends to the depths of the earth and explores the darkness of human nature on an initiatory journey to places where the souls of all the deceased are gathered, from the illustrious to the forgotten, thus reminding us of our equality in the face of God.
In the scene offered here, we are in the eighth circle of Hell, which gathers falsifiers and counterfeiters. Capocchio, a heretic , alchemist, is bitten on the neck by Gianni Schicchi, who had usurped the identity of a man already dead in order to gain his heritage.
Sandro Botticelli, Map of Hell, Divine Comedy, 1480-90 Vatican Library, Rome. Source: Wikimedia
Meet John S. Mosby, "Gray Ghost" of the Confederacy
A New Jersey Yankee now living in the area of Virginia known as "Mosby's Confederacy" during the Civil War, curator Kathleen Golden shares what she finds so interesting about John S. Mosby—the ranger, fugitive, friend of President Ulysses S. Grant, diplomat, and inspiration for a 1950s television show—on his 180th birthday.
Although I was surrounded by Revolutionary War history as a kid growing up in New Jersey, I much preferred the Civil War. Whether it was the family road trip to Gettysburg or the stamp album I had featuring all of the generals that got me hooked, I now consider myself very lucky to work among Civil War objects. In the Division of Armed Forces History here at the National Museum of American History, the collections related to John S. Mosby are my favorite.
During the Civil War, "Mosby's Confederacy" encompassed 1,800 square miles, including today's Fauquier, Loudon, Clarke, Warren, and Prince William counties. It's been 150 years since Mosby formed the 43rd Battalion Virginia Cavalry, more popularly known as "Mosby's Rangers," but there are still many ways to explore Mosby's story.
Mosby was a small town lawyer who joined the Confederate Army when his home state of Virginia seceded from the Union, and who became General Jeb Stuart's best scout, earning himself both a command and the nickname "Gray Ghost." He was so valuable to the Confederacy that many Union officers tried and failed to capture him (he, however, captured Union General Edwin Stoughton). Robert E. Lee, Commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, is said to have remarked, "I wish I had 100 men like Mosby."
At the war's end, Mosby was a fugitive with a bounty on his head but received a pardon from President Ulysses S. Grant. A friendship based on mutual admiration rose up between the two, and Mosby became a Republican who worked to repair the fractured Union. Southerners, however, viewed this as a betrayal to their cause, and Mosby was shunned by the people who formerly revered him. Threats of bodily harm to him and his family forced Mosby to give up his law practice and leave his home in Warrenton, Virginia. He moved to Washington, D.C., where he continued to practice law and also worked as a diplomat.
By the time of Mosby's death in 1916, the people of Virginia had softened their feelings towards him. He laid in state at the Fauquier County Courthouse in Warrenton, Virginia, and was buried in Warrenton Cemetery. The publication of Virgil Carrington Jones' book Ranger Mosby in 1944 led to renewed interest in the dashing cavalryman in the 1950s came the television show The Gray Ghost, which aired in syndication from 1957-1958.
Today, the Mosby Heritage Area Association runs tours and educational programs to educate folks about Mosby's Confederacy. I visited some of these sites not long ago on a sunny Sunday afternoon. You can also visit the Stuart-Mosby Civil War Cavalry Museum in Centreville, Virginia.
But if you want to see some really cool objects used by Colonel Mosby, come to the National Museum of American History! His uniform and crutches are on display in The Price of Freedom: Americans at War.
Kathleen Golden is an associate curator in the Division of Armed Forces History. Even though she has lived in the state of Virginia longer than she lived in New Jersey, she still gets called a Yankee—affectionately, she thinks. Kathleen has previously blogged about Winchester the horse, Stubby the dog, and World War II hero Audie Murphy.
How Giorgio Vasari Invented Art History as We Know It
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THE COLLECTOR OF LIVES
Giorgio Vasari and the Invention of Art
By Ingrid Rowland and Noah Charney
Illustrated. 420 pp. W. W. Norton & Company. $29.95.
It is rare that a biographer of artists becomes the subject of a biography. You don’t think of biographers as romantic figures or swashbuckling types, and their lives are not generally momentous. Unlike artists, who are almost professionally obliged to spread their emotions dazzlingly wide, biographers need to be organized and neat. They go around collecting the scraps left behind — letters, diary notes, apartment leases — while lamenting the inevitable gaps in the documentation surrounding most any life.
Giorgio Vasari did all this, but he did it before anyone else, arguably inventing the field of art history. His life was as remarkable as that of any of those Renaissance masters whose adventures he chronicled. Although the vignettes he related were notoriously untrustworthy, you can choose to be generous and contemplate the thousands of facts and critical opinions he managed to get right. Ingrid Rowland, a prominent scholar of Renaissance art and history, and her fellow writer and historian Noah Charney, wear their erudition lightly in their gracefully written biography, “The Collector of Lives: Giorgio Vasari and the Invention of Art.”
Born in 1511 in the town of Arezzo, which is southeast of Florence, Vasari was esteemed during his lifetime as a painter and an architect who worked for the mighty Medici clan. Officially, he was a Mannerist painter, which was like being in a place where the sun is always going down. It was his fate to work in the aftermath of the High Renaissance, to visit the Vatican and look up at the Sistine Chapel ceiling and know that the contest wasn’t close. Contemporary artists had no chance of matching the accomplishments of the past. As a painter, Vasari was solidly average. But he did possess a talent for admiration. The same habit of reverence that doomed his artwork to bland imitation served him well as a biographer.
His magnum opus, “The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects,” was published in 1550, when Vasari was in his late 30s. It offers a group portrait of the artists of the Italian Renaissance, starting with Cimabue in the 13th century and culminating 300 years later with Michelangelo, who was Vasari’s oft-declared favorite and also his friend. Once, in an act of biographical overtime, Vasari braved a crowd of anti-Medici rioters to rescue an arm of Michelangelo’s statue “David,” which lay broken on the ground in three pieces, the casualty of a hurled bench.
Or so Vasari recounts in his “Lives.” He was capable of narrative embellishment when the facts were not sufficiently dramatic. Rowland and Charney are fully cognizant of his flaws. They acknowledge that “much of his information is wrong, sometimes by his own deliberate choice.” They bemoan his frequent use of unnamed sources. One of his favorite phrases was scrivono alcuni, which means “some write.” Who was “some”? They must have had Deep Throats in the Renaissance, too.
Astoundingly, as Rowland and Charney make clear, no one before Vasari had written a series of artist biographies. There were lives of poets, lives of philosophers there were rollicking lives of depraved rulers of the Roman Empire. But those subjects belonged to the upper classes. Artists, by contrast, were regarded in much the same way as cobblers or blacksmiths — manually skilled but with limited formal education, mainly because their learning took place from an early age in bustling workshops.
Vasari, on the other hand, had studied Latin in his youth and could recite passages of Virgil from memory. He was uncharacteristically literate for his time and superbly qualified to write his “Lives.” If some of his stories are hyperbolic, and he did like to gush, he should be credited for having elevated the prestige of both artists and art. His achievement was to show how a work of art, unlike a cobbler’s boot, is not just the product of manual dexterity but of a singular personality that imposes its own sensibility and rules. Among his best-known anecdotes is that of Giotto, who in 1304 won an important commission in Rome by demonstrating his skill in less than one minute. He painted a perfect O in red without moving his arms or using a compass. Apparently, he just rotated his hand, in a gesture of stunning conceptual elegance.
What do we know of Vasari’s own origins? He was descended from generations of potters, and the name Vasari derives from vasaio, the Italian for “potter.” Spurning the vocation of his father and his grandfather, the young Giorgio took his inspiration from his great-uncle Luca Signorelli, a well-known Florentine artist who nurtured his interest in drawing. “Learn, little kinsman,” Signorelli sweetly exhorted the boy. As his schoolmates played outdoors, Giorgio would sit sketching inside the cool, quiet space of churches, which is where you went in 1520 if you wanted to contemplate top-flight examples of painting and sculpture.
In his own telling, Vasari characterizes himself as a frail child who suffered from chronic nosebleeds. His great-uncle Luca proved useful in this area, too. He tried to stanch the boy’s bleeding with stones reputed to have healing powers. As Vasari recounts, after Luca heard that “my nose bled so copiously that I sometimes collapsed, he held a piece of red jasper to my neck with infinite tenderness.”
Vasari’s mother is treated by the authors with puzzling dismissiveness. When we meet Maddalena Tacci, we are told nothing about her, only that Vasari once joked that she gave birth to another child “every nine months.” Today, such a joke does not register as funny, and it would have behooved the authors to tell us how many children Maddalena had, or where Giorgio figured in the birth order (in fact he was the firstborn son).
In 1527, when Vasari was 16 and studying in Florence, he learned that his father died of the plague that had descended on his hometown. A few years later, when he was living in Bologna, Vasari decided to return home to Arezzo because he was “worried about how his brothers and sisters were faring without their parents,” as the authors write.
Yet his mother was still alive then. She outlived her husband by three decades, dying in 1558, according to standard reference books, such as the Grove Dictionary of Art. It is a little strange, in a biography of this quality, to find the mother of the protagonist rubbed out, as in one of those Disney films in which the moms are killed off at the outset in the interest of dramatizing the embattled status of the hero.
As such an oversight might suggest, the biography as a whole settles for breeziness and even glibness when close analysis is needed. The missing information about Vasari’s family life is unsettling precisely because Vasari tended to view artists as if they made up a big Italian family. By connecting artists whose lives spanned three centuries, he produced one of the first books to insist on the continuity of art. Long before Harold Bloom advanced his theory about the “anxiety of influence,” Vasari recognized that the struggle for artistic excellence pits living artists against the most formidable precursors.
It took an audacious leap for Vasari to see himself as the defining chronicler of his era, the preserver of life stories, the collector of paper scraps. You might say, based on his recollections of his sickly childhood, that he began life as a sensitive boy alert to the threat of physical extinction. In his work, he attached himself imaginatively to a family that would never die — the family of art history, in which he continues to hold a place of pride as its industrious and chatty paterfamilias.
Why The Creepy Images Surrounding Michael Rockefeller's Disappearance Only Begin To Tell The Story
The son of New York governor Nelson Rockefeller and one of the heirs to the Standard Oil fortune, Michael Rockefeller had a passion for traveling to faraway places and experiencing the unexplored and untouched. This desire for adventure took Rockefeller to the remote reaches of Papua New Guinea in 1961.
The Asmat people who lived in Dutch New Guinea, as the massive island off the coast of Australia was then called, had severely limited contact with the outside world. Thus, Rockefeller found the uncharted territory he was looking for when he arrived there — but he was tragically unaware of what he was in for.
He and Dutch anthropologist René Wassing arrived in the area by boat on Nov. 19, 1961. Although they were a long 12 miles from shore, Rockefeller reportedly told Wassing, "I think I can make it." He jumped into the water and headed for land — but was never seen again.
Eliot Elisofon/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images The southern coast of New Guinea, where Michael Rockefeller went missing.
Because he was a member of a super-rich American dynasty, the Harvard graduate's disappearance prompted a massive search. Ships, airplanes, and helicopters combed the region for any sign of life. They found nothing.
"There is no longer any hope of finding Michael Rockefeller alive," the Dutch interior minister said after a nine-day search.
Rockefeller's official cause of death was initially listed as drowning. However, National Geographic reporter Carl Hoffman offered a far more disturbing thesis in his 2014 book, Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism and Michael Rockefeller's Tragic Quest for Primitive Art.
Hoffman claims to have uncovered evidence showing that Rockefeller made it to land where he was decapitated by the Asmat people before they ceremonially cannibalized him, eating his brain and using his thigh bones to make daggers. Though other scholars have doubted Hoffman's research, he has stood by his claims.
See the creepy historical photo that preceded his death, as well as dozens of other disturbing images from decades past, in the gallery above.
After looking at some of the best creepy historical photos ever taken, see more astoundingly bizarre photos from history. Then, check out some of the most fascinating rare historical photos in existence.