Saturday, August 31, 2013

Was Early America Far More Convivial than 21st Century America?

While I have not been seeking it, I have come across  information about George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and life in Ohio in the 1830s that indicates that early Americans might have been far more convivial than we are today--Facebook and other social media notwithstanding.

Benjamin Franklin: a very friendly man.
Take Benjamin Franklin. According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal on the newly refurbished museum on Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia,  "Visitors should leave behind any midcentury notions of a nuclear family. The museum shows Franklin lived in households brimming with nonrelatives. In Philadelphia, for instance, he resided with his mother-in-law and grandchildren as well as 'houseguests, boarders, apprentices, and free and enslaved servants.'"

This corroborates Steven Mintz's Huck's Raft: A History of American Childhood, which reports that in early America, a family was considered everyone who lived in a household, including servants, apprentices, long-staying guests, adopted children or orphaned children living with the family, and anyone else on hand.

'Wherever Franklin lived, he established a household with friends and family members,' Remer curator] says. 'To his friends, he had this incredible ardor. He was so sociable.' Indeed, she says, Franklin had some 600 correspondents—people he wrote to on regular basis; these letters are 'not just quick notes' but 'are so full of warmth and love,' Remer says. 'These are people with whom he has real intellectual and emotional rapport.'" [emphasis added]

Then there is George Washington. According to Ron Chernow's George Washington: A Life, in the 16 years from their marriage til Washington departed Mount Vernon in 1775 to command the Continental Army, the Washingtons had more than 2,000 guests at their home, sitting at one time or another round the dining room table. Since Washington was a reluctant politician and wanted nothing more than to attend to all his business and agricultural activities at Mount Vernon, I think it would be wrong to assume that he was merely working to cultivate a social network as a means of gaining power. He and his wife simply loved talking and being with other people.

The Dining Room at Mount Vernon: Seems that places at the table were rarely empty.
The Washingtons also opened their home for long periods of time to various relatives and orphaned children. They adopted their two youngest grandchildren, after Martha's son Jack Custis died. It was always a full house at Mount Vernon, bursting with the sound of children and conviviality.
The last example of the amiability of Americans is from a fascinating book, American Grit: A Woman's letter from the Ohio Frontier, edited by Emily Foster. The book comprises letters written mostly by Anna Briggs Bentley, who moved to Ohio from Maryland with her husband and six children in 1826. The Bentleys moved near other Quakers, so they had a ready-made community around them, as they built their first house and struggled to eke out a living off the Ohio land.
What Mrs. Bentley describes in rich detail in writing to her mother and siblings in Maryland is that whenever anyone was sick in the area, a neighbor always appeared to help. When her own child was at death's door, she writes:
"We had set up with her ourselves til yesterday when they heard of it at Levi Miller's and Hannah came over in the afternoon, made pies and baked them, got supper. Susan Holland hailed Franklin when he returned from the Dr. When she was informed how Deborah was, she had her saddle put on [her horse], mounted her, and came here prepared to stay til a change takes place. Dear, kind girl. My hearts owns her as a sister. She is a most experienced and tender nurse. She has gone over the whole house, cleaned and put all to rights, and is now bending over the washtub after setting up all night. And she staid away from a wedding, too, to come."
Early American houses: filled to the brim? 
Such a scene is described many times in the letters, as neighbors always went to help a household that was in need.
The Bentleys also had a large household, not only of their own children, but of any hands they had hired to help them farm, of an older widow who had no money and came to live with them as a seamstress, and of nieces, nephews, and friends who came to visit for periods of time, as long as weeks and months.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Light Tricks

Where did this strange box of light come from in the back corner of my kitchen, not adjacent to any window, I wondered this morning.

Ah ha, the mirror in the dining part of the room....

A wild beam of light is bouncing off a car as the sun hits its chrome and has found its way 50 yards away to the mirror in my house--the beam shooting upward on the right side of the mirror. This beam has also thrown this little sun onto my kitchen floor.

I look outside to find the source, but...

it's not to be seen, at least from my angle. Oh...

"the heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork."

 Psalm of David, 19:1.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Fine Arts Friday: Piero Della Francesca's Misericordia Polyptch

Centerpiece of the Misericordia Polyptch by Piero della Francesca, 1445-1461
Reading about this altarpiece in The Healing Presence of Art by Richard Cork, I was struck that such an image is what our new Pope Francis has been trying to convey as the challenge of mercy before the church today. The Holy Father has been calling upon  both clergy and laity  to extend themselves, not just their money, but their hearts to the poor and the suffering.
Piero della Francesca was commissioned to paint the altarpiece in 1445 for the Compagnia di Santa Maria della Misericordia, one of the oldest and most powerful confraternities devoted to the care of the poor and community in Piero's home town of Sansepolcro, Italy.
As Cork relates: "The advent of the Black Death transformed the confraternity's aims. Before then, the Misericordia had focused its works of mercy on impoverished people and housed them, rent-free, in 'hospices for the poor.' But when the plague struck [1340s], the confraternity realized that they should learn to encompass the needs of the community as a whole. Aided by hundreds of bequests from Sansepolcro's wealthier inhabitants, the Ospedale della Misericordia swiftly expanded to cope with the town's accelerating economic problems in the early decades of the fifteenth century. By the time Piero began work on the Misericordia commission, hardship within the town was approaching the crisis point. In response the confraternity strove to perform the seven acts of mercy defined by Christ as necessary preparation for salvation. Diane Cole has described how the Misericordia 'distributed alms and food to the sick. It succoured foundlings, ministered to condemned prisoners, and provided lodging and food to indigent pilgrims who came to Sansepolcro. Perhaps a new altarpiece for its church was deemed essential to serve the Misericordia and its growing constituencies within the town.'"
At the center of Piero's altarpiece is the Virgin Mary opening her cape in protection to the people of the town, believed to be leaders of the confraternity, including one hooded flagellant. Above Mary is the image of Christ on the cross, with Mary and Saint John the Beloved in grief below. In the middle layer are Archangel Gabriel with Mary on the other side to signify the Annunciation. Flanking them are Saint Francis (on the right) and Saint Benedict (on the left). It was this configuration that reminded me of the themes in the homilies and statements of our new Pope.

"I thought of wars .... and Francis (of Assisi) is the man of peace, and that is how the name entered my heart, Francis of Assisi, for me he is the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects others." -- Pope Francis
Flanking the Mother of Mercy are Saint Sebastian and John the Baptist on the left and Saint John the Evangelist and Bernardino of Siena on the right.  Along the lowest layer of the altarpiece are scenes from Christ's Passion: the agony in the garden, the flagellation, the entombment, the empty tomb, and Christ's miraculous encounter with Mary Magdalene. The insignia of the confraternity is at the two lower corners.
Here in the decades after the Black Death, Europe was reeling from the devastation the plague had wrought, killing one-third of the population, young and old, rich and poor. The outpouring of organizations like the confraternity to aid and succor those in need must have been critical not only in alleviating physical suffering but also in bringing hope to a population that had experienced catastrophe.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

For From the Lap of the Mother...

Madonna del Libro by Sandro Botticelli, 1483

A statue of the Madonna and Child in the Church of Badia in Sansepolcro, Italy, has an inscription under it that says:

"From the lap of the mother shinest the wisdom of the Father."

I could not find a photograph of this statue, so turned to Botticelli for help to illustrate this beautiful thought.

I learned about the statue in Richard Cork's The Healing Presence of Art: A History of Western Art in Hospitals.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Fine Arts Friday: The Legend of the Foundation of the Hospital

 Legend of the Founding of the Hospital, by Lorenza Cecchietta, 1441.

(Click on the painting to see it in a larger size.)

This fresco stands in the Sala Pellegrinaio in the Spedale di Santa Maria della Scala, in Siena, Italy. The Spedale di Santa Maria was a hospital founded in the ninth century. In the center of the fresco is an usual sight: infants are climbing a ladder to heaven where they receive a helping hand from the Blessed Mother. According to legend, the hospital was founded by a cobbler named Sorore. The hospital was a way station for pilgrims, until Sorore's mother had a dream that infants were ascending heaven from a ladder at the site of the hospital. This dream spurred the transformation of the hospital from a pilgrim station to a foundling hospital. In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, a building called a hospital could serve many functions, all offering protection or aid. On the right side of the fresco, a young child enters the hospital as a man offers money to the hospital attendant for the child's care.

Earlier, this hospital's walls were adorned with frescos by the great Sienese painter of the 14th-century painter, Simone Martini, but they have since disappeared. The building served as a hospital until 1996.

I read about this hospital and this story in Richard Cork's The Healing Presence of Art: A History of Western Art in Hospital.

 Spedale di Santa Maria della Scala, Siena. The Virgin Mary was the city's patron saint, and the lost frescoes by Martini depicted scenes from her life.