During the Renaissance, French kings and queens built many palaces, in an area known as the Loire Valley. The royal family would travel from palace to palace to get away from Paris, the way you might head to a lake house. The Loire Valley is not very close to Paris. It’s about 110 miles from Paris to the palace of Chambord, for instance. I wondered how long it took sixteenth century travelers to make this journey—and why there were so many palaces.
First, the distance. Under the best of conditions (good roads, decent weather, level ground), humans can walk four miles per hour over long distances. Horses can’t do much better–maybe five mph—but a lot less if they’re pulling something or if roads are in awful condition. A horse can canter at 20 mph, but it can only do that for six to eight miles at a time, after which it will slow down and walk, or stop completely. So it would have taken a long time to get from place to place. Under the best conditions, a journey from Paris to Chambord would have taken three weeks.
But in fact, it took a lot longer than that. Because in the sixteenth century, the royal court didn’t just hop on a horse and head to their country home. They took everything and everyone with them, loading all the stuff onto the backs of horses and mules.
When Catherine de Medici was queen of France, she traveled with her ladies and gentlemen, foreign ambassadors, pet bears, servants, retainers, attendants, apothecaries, astrologists, tutors, musicians, cooking pots, food, clothing, portable triumphal arches, wall hangings, and furniture.
And the reason there were so many palaces is simply that the court in Renaissance times –thousands of people–had to move around from estate to estate so as to find new hunting grounds. Once they’d exhausted the food supply in the area, they moved on to the next estate. Also, the sanitation was dreadful. After thousands of people had taken up residence in and around a great estate for a few weeks, filth piled up, and with it, stench and disease.
The royal procession could be miles long. When Catherine de Medici’s court packed up and left for a new palace, the beginning of the royal caravan sometimes entered a town before those traveling at the back of it had left the last one.
Sara Albee's recent book is Why'd They Wear That?, published by National Geographic in 2015. Get ready to chuckle your way through centuries of fashion dos and don'ts! In this humorous and approachable narrative, you will learn about outrageous, politically-perilous, funky, disgusting, regrettable, and life-threatening creations people have worn throughout the course of human history, all the way up to the present day. For more information, click here.
MLA 8 Citation
Albee, Sarah. "Renaissance Road Trips." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/renaissance-road-trips.
Diego Velazquez (1599 – 1660) was a famous Spanish painter. He had a slave named Juan de Pareja (1606 – 1670). Call him an indentured servant if you want, but it’s more accurate to say he was Velazquez's slave, as he was not at liberty to leave. For years, Pareja prepared brushes, ground pigments, and stretched canvasses for the artist. While he was at it, Pareja observed his master carefully, and secretly taught himself how to use the materials, and how to paint.
Pareja was referred to as a Morisco in Spanish. One way to translate the word is that he had mixed parentage (the offspring of a European Spaniard and a person of African descent). Another way to translate the word is that he was a Moor—someone descended from Muslims who had remained in Spain after its conquest by Ferdinand and Isabella.
In 1650, Velazquez was preparing to paint a portrait of Pope Innocent X. As practice, he painted Pareja, who had accompanied the artist to Italy. Here is the portrait.
It's a pretty amazing picture, isn't it?
Velazquez got all sorts of praise for it from the artists in Rome—he was even elected into the Academy of St. Luke.
According to some sources, Velazquez would not allow Pareja to pick up a paintbrush. But one day, when King Philip IV was due to visit Velazquez, Pareja placed one of his own paintings where the king would see it. When the king admired it, believing it to be by Velazquez, Pareja threw himself at the king’s feet and begged for the King to intercede for him. Whether or not that story is true, Pareja did become an accomplished painter, and impressed the king so much that he ordered Pareja freed.
Pareja remained with the Velazquez family until his death.
It was hard to find examples of his paintings, but here are two that are attributed to him.
Sarah Albee's latest book is Poison: Deadly Deeds, Perilous Professions and Murderous Medicines. You can read a review that gives you a dose of what's in this book.
MLA 8 Citation
Albee, Sarah. "The Painter Was a Slave." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 25 Oct. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/the-painter-was-a-slave.
The insect pictured is called Paraponera clavata, commonly known as a bullet ant. It can grow to be about an inch long.
They’re among the world’s most venomous insects, and are supposed to deliver the most painful sting of any insect, according to J.O. Schmidt. He’s an entomologist who’s been stung by pretty much every hymenopteran possible and who developed a pain scale rating that lists the relative pain caused by insects. His ratings go from 0, where the sting is as mild as the little zap you might feel while walking across a carpet in your socks, up to 4, where you might as well just lie down and scream. Bullet ants get a 4+. When he later revised his index, he described bullet ant stings as “pure, intense, brilliant pain, like walking over flaming charcoal with a three-inch nail in your heel.”
But wait, it gets worse.
The ants have abdominal stridulatory organs—that means they can shriek at you when threatened, which alerts the rest of the group to come boiling up out of the nest to help impale you.
There’s a tribe of people in Brazil, deep in the Amazon forest, the Sateré-Mawé, who use bullet ants as an initiation rite to manhood. Boys have to slip on gloves that resemble oven mitts. Live bullet ants are woven into these gloves, with the stingers pointing toward the wearer’s hands. The boys have to keep the gloves on for ten minutes. Evidently paralysis of the arms sets in rather quickly, so it’s after the gloves come off that the real pain and convulsions begin—and they last at least 24 hours.
Did I mention these ants also shriek?
Did you know that bugs played a role in history? Sarah’s book Bugged: How Insects Changed History tells the story.
MLA 8 Citation
Albee, Sarah. "Bites of Passage." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 26 Apr.
Celebrating the History of Science
and the Science behind History
A common punishment for those accused of a crime in seventeenth century Europe was to be sent to the galleys. That meant spending the rest of your life at an oar in the dark, stinking hold of a ship.
Wind and oars were the only known propellant of the age. Paid employment at the oar had been tried and dismissed. The only reliable way to produce the necessary speed and endurance to chase down (or escape from) enemy ships or Barbary pirates was to use the whip on your oarsmen, something that didn’t go over well with paid employees. But as condemned criminals were plentiful in that era, it wasn’t difficult to find oarsmen.
When in 1685 Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes—a law passed by his grandfather Henry IV that had ensured the freedom of Protestant worship in France—many French Protestants (known as Huguenots) who tried to flee the country were sent to the galleys.
What was life like as a galley slave? We know something about it from letters and memoirs of Huguenot convicts.
After a long and often grueling march to the ports, the convicts would be sorted into groups of five—these would become the people with whom one would eat, sleep, and work, often until one died of old age or overwork or both. Each group of five men manned an eighteen-foot oar–and there might be fifty oars on a ship. The convicts remained chained to their places. With each stroke, they had to rise together and push the oar forward, and then dip it in the water and pull backward, dropping into a sitting position. During battle, rowers might be required to maintain full speed for twenty-four hours straight, and be fed biscuits soaked in wine without pausing in their exertions. Those who died—or lost consciousness—were thrown overboard.
Horrific, yes. But there were at least some brief respites from the wretched existence, periods of time when the wind’s sails propelled the ship and the rowers could rest. And when the ship overwintered in port, the life of a gallérien became almost tolerable. They had room to lie down and sleep. Many gallériens learned to knit, and others were already skilled wig makers, tailors, and musicians—and were allowed to employ their trades in rotating weeks ashore.
In his memoirs, a Huguenot named Jean Marteilhe wrote about his capture in 1701 as a boy of 17, and his experiences as a galley slave having been chained together with other deserters, thieves, smugglers, Turks and Calvinists for 6 years from 1707 to 1713. His account is entitled Memoirs of a Galley Slave of the Sun King.
Sara Albee's book Why'd They Wear That? is published by National Geographic. Get ready to chuckle your way through centuries of fashion dos and don'ts! In this humorous and approachable narrative, you will learn about outrageous, politically-perilous, funky, disgusting, regrettable, and life-threatening creations people have worn throughout the course of human history, all the way up to the present day. For more information, click here.
MLA 8 Citation
Albee, Sarah. "Row, Row, Row Your Boats." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 22
Mar. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/
Celebrating the History of Science
and the Science behind History
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571 – 1610) came from humble origins, the son of a stonecutter. He moved from Milan to Rome while in his twenties, looking for painting commissions in the newly built churches and palazzi that were springing up there.
Caravaggio became known as a master of realism—populating his paintings with contemporary, ordinary people—many of them rogues and ruffians from the mean streets of Rome. People were shocked by his realistic paintings. They were used to looking at devotional paintings showing choirs of angels and golden shafts of light beaming down from heaven.
A big part of Caravaggio’s problem is that he felt (correctly) that he was underappreciated as a painter. He was hot-headed and quick to pick a fight, and kept getting into trouble. In 1594 he was arrested for hurling a plate of artichokes at a waiter, and he was forever getting involved in Roman street brawls.
In 1606 he really messed up. While he was playing an early version of tennis, palla a corda, with a close friend, a wealthy acquaintance named Ranuccio Tomassoni walked by with a couple of his relatives and challenged Caravaggio to a game. They played. Each thought he’d won. They drew swords. They chased each other around, hacking away. Caravaggio was slashed twice, but then buried his blade in his enemy’s stomach. Ranuccio died shortly thereafter, and Caravaggio’s friends dragged Caravaggio away to a nearby house to bandage him up.
The police came after him, and Caravaggio fled for the hills outside of Rome. He became a fugitive from the law. He was convicted of murder in absentia, and sentenced to death.
For the next few years, he continued to paint while on the run. His reputation as an artist was growing. Still pursued by the law, he fled to Malta in 1607, got in trouble there, and fled to Sicily. By 1609, he was widely known as a master painter, and he traveled to Naples to await word from the Pope that his petition to be pardoned might be approved. While there, he was ambushed by four assassins, who stabbed him around the face and neck. He managed to survive the attack, but was left disfigured.
When his papal pardon finally arrived, in 1610, he set sail for Rome but fell ill on the way with a fever—probably malaria. He died in 1610.
Sara Albee's latest book is Poison: Deadly Deeds, Perilous Professions, and Murderous Medicines. , Vicki Cobb reviewed this fascinating book-- poisons are in more places than you can ever imagine. Get A Dose Of This!
MLA 8 Citation
Albee, Sarah. "Renaissance Bad Boy." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 5 Jan. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/Renaissance-Bad-Boy.