21 January 2020

Was Lucrezia Borgia a political pawn or Machiavellian villain?

Rodrigo de Borja (1431-1503) was born into a Spanish nob­le fam­ily in Aragon.  He moved to Italy where the Borg­ia family enjoyed great success - Rod­rig­o's uncle was made bish­op of Valen­cia. Uncle Alonso became the first Bor­gia Pope Callixtus III in 1455, ensur­ing nephew Rodrigo worked his way up through bis­h­op­rics. In 1456 Alonso promptly made his young nephew a cardinal.

So how did a man who openly made a fort­une out of his family connect­ions in the papacy, and who op­enly fathered 3 children early on, brib­e his way through the entire college of card­inals! Later his lov­ed mist­­ress Van­ozza dei Cattanei had four more children with Rodrigo.

The second Borgia pope, Pope Alexander VI

In 1492 Pope Innocent VIII died, leaving disorder and insolvency. Our Borgia man was elected the next pope, Pope Al­ex­ander VI (1492-1503). He may have risen to St Peter's throne by dubious means, but Alex­an­der VI did have some important achieve­ments. To make Rome a fitting centre of world Chris­t­endom, he became a prin­ce­ly pat­ron of architecture and monuments.

Nepotism was already common in the pap­acy; af­t­er all, a pope could trust his own family marg­in­al­ly more than strangers. But the Borg­ias rais­ed nepotism to NEW heights. His children did very well: Juan (1474-97) was made a Duke and marr­ied into the King of Castille's family; teen­age Cesare (1475-1507) was given the Spanish Archbish­op­ric of Valen­za; Lucrezia (1480-1519) was regent whenever the Pope left Rome; and Joffre (1482-1517) was mar­­r­ied to a Neapolitan princess.

In 1497, Juan Borgia rode to the Vatican with his brot­her Cesare, but was never seen alive again. The weeping pope called his beloved Juan “the centre for his dyn­astic hopes”, but Cesare denied killing his brother.

Renaissance Italy was made up of city states, most at risk of in­vas­­ion. In 1499, Cesare led a force of foreign and papal troops into Italy. Cesare was sent by his father as a delegate to papal cities, to re­turn law and order to large parts of Italy. This more military role suit­ed Ces­are per­fectly, so in 1498, he gave up his cardinal's hat and became a French Duke. France was allying itself to the pap­acy, a link the Borgias wanted to foster.

Lucrezia was well-educated in Latin, Greek, Italian, French, music and poetry. But Renaissance women had to be obed­ient to their fathers and then their husbands. Even those who were heiresses saw their estates given over to their husband's control. The Borgias were determined to arrange a mar­­riage for Lucrezia that would fur­ther their territorial interests. Her first proxy wedding at 13 was to some Spanish grandee. But when that political alliance no longer serv­ed a pur­p­ose, Pope Al­ex­ander dissolved the un­ion and married her off to more imp­ort­ant families.

In 1493 she married Giov­anni Sforza, nep­hew of the power­ful Duke of Mil­an. Their wedding was a splendid, lavish wedding at the Vatican Palace. Surprisingly this turned out to be a very good marriage.

But again, the Borgias found they no longer needed the Sforzas! The Pope wanted advantageous polit­ical allian­ces, so Giovanni had to go. The Pope decided to have Lucrezia's marr­iage annulled but young Sforza was forced to signed a confession of impotence and annulment. In revenge, he blackened his former wife's name so her much loved second husband was strangled by Cesare’s men.

Portrait of Lucrezia Borgia 
painted by Bartolomeo Veneziano, c1500


Lucrezia's next marriage (in 1498) was to Duke Alfonso of Aragon, son of King of Naples. This was another polit­ical arrangement as her papal father needed to ally himself with Nap­les. Luckily Alfonso and Lucrezia fell in love.

Now mar­ried to the King of Navarre’s sister, Cesare had just allied him­self with the King Louis XII of France. King Louis was planning another inv­as­ion of Italy, to recl­aim his inher­it­ance of Milan and Naples, and needed Cesare. Town after town fell to Cesare in the 1490s.

Later in 1502, the bride was married off again. Her third husband was Al­f­onso d'Este, son of Duke of Ferrara, an Italian family with a superior lineage to the Borgias. Alas Ercole d'Este had impov­erished his duchy by providing huge dow­ries to his daught­ers Is­abella and Beat­r­ice d'Este, as well as building ex­tensive arch­itecture. So the Pope persisted, giving the d'Este family a HUGE dowry. Within 2 years of her marriage to Alfonso d’Este, Lucrezia’s father died. Ce­s­are was arrest­ed, fled Rome in 1507 and died in a Spanish war at 31 .. or was murder­ed.

Lucrezia flourished in her Ferr­ara court. As a patron of art­ists, musical and lit­er­ary men, she loved poet-scholar Pie­t­ro Bem­bo and painter Dosso Dossi most. And the relat­ives Fran­cesco Gon­zaga and Isabella d'Este of Fer­rara gave her great praise for her virtue and charity. How amazing! This was the anti­th­esis of her scan­d­alous reputation! However after a long history of comp­lic­at­ed pregnancies, Lucrezia died birthing her 10th child in 1519, at 39.

Strangely Niccolo Machiavelli wrote in his book The Prince that Cesare was the model statesman for It­aly. He was most impressed with Ces­are's sup­erb library, patr­onage of art­ists and in­vitations to scholars to live in the court.  Once Cesare’s conquest of central and northern Italy was comp­l­ete, he im­posed good government on the captured cities. Machiavelli said that Borgia’s rule was the best Italy had seen for ages. Band­itry ended, taxation was balanced and roads were improved. But remember he had the total backing of his father, the Pope, and his monarch King Louis XII of France.

The Este Castle, Ferrara, 
the amazing home of Lucrezia Borgia

Even more strangely Lucrezia Borgia supposedly poisoned her lovers via a ring in her bed­room, slept with her brother and had a baby with her father. Being a woman, she was a particular target for every sexist hist­or­ian, politician and cleric, becoming the dumping ground for the criticisms that would have otherwise been directed at the men.

Despite Lucrezia's sup­erb library, patr­onage and in­vitations to scholars to live in the court,  women of significance were always judged more harshly than men when they deviated from their path. But mainly it was because other famous papal dynasties eg the Medicis & Farneses, behaved in much the same way as the Borgias – all promoted undeserving sons and nephews, most ignored celibacy and all were accused by their enemies of nasty crimes. However the Borgias were foreign and, unlike the local dynasties, had no descendants to reinvent their historical image. Poor Lucrezia.

Lucretia Borgia According to Original Documents and Correspondence of Her Day was written by Ferdinand Gregorovius and first published in 1874. Now on Kindle.







18 January 2020

History of Mensa - from Britain to the world

 Soon after WW2 in Oxford (1946), two men met on a train and started talking. One was Roland Berrill (1897–1962), an Australian ex-pat bar­rister who never practised at the Bar but lived on the payments from his investments. The other was Dr Lancelot Lionel Ware (1915–2000), work­ing in law and science. They began talking about intelligence testing, a topic of great interest to Ware, who was working at the National Institute for Medical Re­search.

In Oxford, they discussed the formation of a club dedic­ated to intelligence. There they formed The High IQ Club, with Berrill doing the funding. They chose the name Mensa because it meant altar tab­le in Latin and was also suggestive of the Latin words for mind and month i.e monthly meeting of great minds around a tab­le. Berrill had the first Mensa literature printed in Oct 1946 in Caythorpe Lincolnshire.

 Roland Berrill and Lancelot Ware

The constitution of Mensa International was formulated and the first international elections were held in 1964. The constitution listed the organisation’s main purposes: to
1. identify & foster human intelligence to benefit humanity.
2. encourage research into the nature & uses of intelligence.
3. provide an intellectual & social environment for members.

Other goals of the organisation were the further­ance of literacy and programmes to develop the minds of gifted child­ren. Mensa also provided contact between people of high intellect, both for professional and social purposes.

There were no educational requirements for membership, nor stip­ul­ations about gender, age, race, creed, colour or national origin. The majority (66%) of members were male, the youngest memb­ers just 2 years old and the oldest members were 100+. Members have included both obscure and famous persons, including writers and scientists.

Intelligence was measured by the Stanford-Binet IQ test, in which an IQ of 132 was the minimum acceptable score. Other standardised intel­lig­ence tests could be used eg the Cattell Culture Fair Intel­ligence Test. To become a Mensan, the only qualification was a score at the 98th percentile. And that the appr­oved intel­l­igence test was run and supervised by a qualified examiner.

Unlike upper-class Ware and Berrill, Londoner Victor Serebriakoff (1912-2000) left school and worked as a clerk for a timber company and then as a manual labourer, but unemployed in the Great Depression. In the standardised Army intelligence test during WW2, he achieved a very high score. After the war he went back to the timber business, invented a mach­ine for grading timber, wrote a book British Saw Milling Practice and became a saw mill manager. He joined Mensa in 1950, and then married another Mensan, Winifred Rouse. Just as Ware and Berrill were called the founders of Mensa today, Serebriakoff became known as the builder of Mensa.

 Victor Serebriakoff, 1960s 
International Secretary of Mensa 

Clearly intended as a non-profit social club for people among the highest intellect in the human population, the founders expected an aristocratic gathering of intelligentsia. Were they dis­appoint­ed to find that many members were mostly from humble origins? I hope not.

Membership benefits included participation in discus­sion groups, social events and annual meetings. Mensa Internat­ional offered 200 Special Interest Groups devoted to a variety of scholarly dis­cip­lines and recreational pursuits. Individual Mensa chapters organis­ed workshops and special events, published newsletters and held annual conferences. Local chapters participate in community activ­ities, often communicated via Mensa newsletters and other forums.

The first members in the USA were expat Britons, or Am­ericans who had learned about Mensa while visiting UK. John Wilcock was a reporter who had attended a meeting in Britain, and on his return home, The Village Voice published his column about Mensa. A medical writer in New York, Peter Sturgeon, read the col­umn and contacted the Mensa Selection Agency. Sturgeon joined up in May 1960 and was authorised in August to formally start a New York branch This was the first recog­nised Mensa division outside the UK and it evolved into American Mensa. Its nat­ion­al office is now in Arling­ton Texas, with divisions in large cities like Chicago and Los Angeles.

The Mensa Education & Research Foundation was established in 1971 to pursue excellence in the study and use of intelligence. With its focus on education, awards and scholarships, this non-profit, phil­anthropic arm of American Mensa and of Mensa Intern­at­ional gave an average of $60,000 in scholarships through a programme across the country. Yearly awards were also given to recognise research, education and publicity regarding intel­ligence and creativity. And it published the Mensa Research Journal. 

Victor Serebriakoff met Peter Sturgeon

The Mensa Genius Quiz Book helps the reader find out if s/he is genius or not.

Mensa International is the umbrella organisation for national groups found in 100 countries. With c134,000 members world-wide, the USA has the most members with Germany second biggest. In Australia, the organisation was started in 1964 by a number of mem­bers of British Mensa who had moved to Australia. Today there are 2400 members. In 1966 in Tor­on­to, a committee was set up to form a Canadian Mensa, in time for the nation’s Centennial. Today Canada has 2000+ members.

Mensa provided very important social and intellectual activities for adults, but what about for young people? Brain Blogger reported a 2004 study measuring 140 American eight-grade students; it concluded that self-discipline was more relevant to academic results than IQ scores. And a British psychometric study measured the correlation between Emotional Intelligence and academic per­formance in 650 students. It concluded that Emotional Intelligence had increm­ental validity over cognitive ability and established personality traits in predicting achieve­ment and behaviour.

Is membership respected and impressive, or is it a certain way to lose friends and alienate people? If a healthy self-image and a good self-discipline achieved better ac­ademic results than a mere high IQ, was having a Mensa-level intelligence the last word in helpfulness?











14 January 2020

American Prohibition: well intentioned but doomed to fail

A wave of C19th religious revivalism swept the USA, leading to in­c­reased calls for temperance. In 1838 Massachusetts passed a temp­er­ance law; it failed but a num­ber of other states followed suit by the time the Civil War began in 1861. In all calls for temper­ance, the movement was driven by Methodists, progress­ives and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (1873).  Temp­er­ance appealed to women most; alcohol was seen as a destructive force in families and marriages. [I might have agreed with the women, except I drink a glass of wine each night].

Irish immigrants faced religious discrimination and xenophobia from the longer-settled Protestants. Protestant groups, who believed the Irish were constantly drunk, gravitated toward the Republican Party that sometimes promoted the prohibition of alcohol sales. In resp­onse, Catholic immigrants like the Irish felt targeted and blamed.

By the turn of the century, temperance societies popped up in com­munities across the USA. In 1906, a new wave of attacks began on the sale of liquor, led by the powerful Anti-Saloon League (1893) and driven by urban growth, the rise of evangelical Protestantism and the view of culture as ungodly. And many factory owners supported prohibition, to increase the effic­iency of their workers.

New York City Deputy Police Commissioner John Leach, right, 
watching agents pour liquor into sewer following a raid, 1921 

Police clearing private home of booze, 1930 
History Channel 

Home liquor still c1920 
to make alcohol for home consumption or to sell illegally.

Large beer breweries included Pabst Brewing Co. built by German im­migrants, as were Valentin Blatz, Joseph Schlitz, Miller and Weston, all in Milwaukee. In St Louis, a German immigrant Eberhard Anheuser purchased a brewery and joined with a brewery supplier, his son in law Adolphus Busch. Busch renamed it Anheuser-Busch which, with its Budweiser beer, went on to be the largest beer brand in the world. The successes of these “immigrant” companies bred resentment and xenophobia in Eng­lish speaking families, particularly once Germany became the enemy in 1914. How much did this xenophobia help bring about Prohibition?

In 1917, after the USA entered WWI, President Woodrow Wilson ins­tituted a temporary wartime prohibition in order to save grain for producing food. That same year, Congress submitted the 18th Amend­ment which banned the manufacture, transportation and sale of al­cohol, for state ratification. The amendment received the sup­port of the necessary 75% of US states in just 11 months! In Oct 1919, Congress passed the National Prohibition Act.

Governments struggled to enforce Prohibition throughout the 1920s, initially assigned to the Internal Revenue Service, and later tran­s­ferred to the Justice Department. In general, Prohibition was en­forced much more strongly in areas where symp­athetic rural popul­at­ions lived.

Those who wanted to keep drinking found very creative ways. The illegal mak­ing and sale of liquor/boot­legging increased, as did nightclubs selling alcohol/speakeasies, the smuggling of alcohol across state lines and the production of liquor/moonshine in homes.

A rise in gang violence led to waning support for Prohibition by the late 1920s. The Chicago gangster Al Capone (1899–1947) earned a staggering $60 million annually from bootleg operations and speak­­easies! Chicago’s St Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929 saw several Capone men, dressed as policemen, shoot and kill an enemy gang.

The high price of bootleg liquor meant that the working classes were even more restricted during Prohibition than they usually were. Even before the Depres­sion hit. Given the dire ec­on­omic sit­uation brought on by the Great Depres­s­ion, by 1932 the fed­eral government could not afford to forego the gov­ernment tax rev­enues from the production and con­sumption of al­coh­olic drinks. Before Prohibition, many states relied heavily on excise taxes in liquor sales to fund their bud­gets. In New York, 75% of the state's revenue was derived from liquor taxes. With Pro­h­ibition in effect, that revenue went down and the cost of en­for­cing the law went up.

Now consider the Unintended Consequences of Prohibition. When the law went into effect, Prohibition's supporters expected sales of household goods/clothing to skyrocket. Real estate developers and landlords expected rents to rise, as saloons closed and neighbourhoods improved. Snack food companies and rest­aur­ants expected growth, but they failed. Theatre prod­ucers expect­ed new crowds but they also failed. The closing of breweries, dis­tilleries and saloons led to the elim­in­ation of thousands of jobs, and thousands more jobs were eliminated for barrel makers, waiters, truckies and other related trades.

And consider the loopholes in Prohibition legislation. While the 18th Am­endment prohibited the manufacture, sale and transportation of in­toxicating beverages, it did not outlaw the drinking of al­co­hol. Furthermore pharm­acists were all­ow­ed to disp­ense whiskey by prescription for ail­ments ranging from anxiety to influenza. [The number of registered pharmacists in New York State tripled during the Prohibition era!] And because Americans were also allowed to obtain wine for rel­ig­ious purposes, enrolments rapidly rose at churches and synagogues.

Home stills were illegal, but Americans could purchase them at many hardware stor­es, while instructions for distilling were found in public lib­raries. The law that was meant to stop Am­ericans from drinking alcohol .. instead made them distilling experts.

Pub­lic health was damaged. As the trade in illegal alcohol became more lucrative, the quality of alcohol on the black market declined. On average 1000 Americans died every year during the Prohibition from drinking tainted liquor.

Anti-Saloon League paper American Issue, 1919 
Celebrating with the heading: US is voted dry 
Westerville Library Ohio


A legal medical script for whiskey during the Prohibition

For over a decade the law was meant to foster temperance, but it fostered int­emperance and illegality instead. So the final con­sequence was this: since Prohib­ition made crim­inals of mil­l­ions of ordinary Americ­ans, courts and gaols over­flowed. Many defendants in proh­ib­ition cases waited over a year, just to be brought to trial.

Only by re-legalising the liquor industry could they create jobs and imp­rove revenue. Calling for Prohibition’s repeal, Democrat Franklin D Roosevelt easily won victory over President Her­bert Hoover. FDR’s victory meant the end for Prohibition, and in Feb 1933 Congress proposed a 21st Amendment to the Constitution that would repeal the 18th. It was ratified by the end of that year and the amendment was submitted to the states. In Dec 1933 Utah provided the 36th and final necessary vote for ratification.

Prohibition was an excellent tv series produced by PBS in 2011.





11 January 2020

Stunning C19th hotel in Sorrento Italy - Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria

The Romans, lovers of great beauty, valued the spectacular scenery and temperate climate of Surrentum, hovering over the cliffs of the Sorrento Peninsula. Romantic Sorren­to stands on the grey rock on the south­ern side of the Gulf of Naples. In time, the nobility and the artists of all media arrived, to enjoy the Mediterranean climate and amazing scen­ery, and to find renewed inspiration for their work.

Sala Vittoria/Breakfast Restaurant 
frescoed ceilings

But Sorrento was also a place of history and culture, commen­cing from the Greek-Roman town plan that is still preserved. There are archaeological relics in local mus­eums or along the roads of the town centre, as well as beautiful churches and aristocratic palaces. Note, for example, the C14th Cloister of St Francis with Arab travertine inter­lacing arcades. Fam­ous visitors of the past were very learned eg Ibsen and Goethe.

Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria is located in the town centre and sitting on a high cliff overlooking the Bay of Naples and Mount Ves­uvius, it is the very same place where the Roman Emperor Aug­ustus’ own attractive villa had been. You can still see the C18th columns, frescoed ceilings and antiques displayed throughout. Easily recognisable from the sea, the hotel's three classic C19th build­ings are just above the town harbour, on a cliff top location, and surr­ounded by the lush greenery of a Mediterranean garden.

 Terraced gardens, statues and bay views


The hotel occupies the site where Roman Emp­eror Augus­t­us once had a beautiful villa. Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria has been owned by the Fiorentino family since its opening in 1834, and had their three independent build­ings built from 1834 on, in fin-de-siècle style. Note that 1834 was a time when Italy was not yet a unified country! And note also that the family's 5th gener­at­ion is still running the hotel today, maintaining a long tradition of warm Italian hospitality.

A quick elevator ride moves visitors up from the port, directly to the hotel. From the main terrace, the lift descends directly down to the pier in the harbour below. Visitors go to the pier if they want to hire a motor boat to travel along the beautiful peninsula coastline, or take a trip to Capri, Naples and the Ischia islands.

The sumptuous interiors still contain a great number of the orig­inal pieces of antique furniture first used to decorate the hotel, including beautiful pieces of the inlaid wooden furniture from local cabinet makers. The great majority of the 92 suites lead out on to a balcony or terrace where to enjoy views of the Bay of Naples or the sweet scented orange grove which surrounds the hotel.

The luxurious suites retell the story of the many famous visitors. Over the years, the hotel was part of the Grand Tour and has welcomed monarchs, politicians, artists, celeb­rities. Some royals were regulars eg Queen Victoria of Sweden (for whom the hotel was named), King Louis of Bavaria, Prince of Wales, Catherine Grand Duchess of Russia and King Rama VII of Siam.

Caruso Suite

Aranci Suite overlooks the hotel's orange and lemon groves. The Enrico Caruso Suite retains the same décor and furn­ishings as when the famous Italian tenor stayed there for more sev­eral months, in 1921. Pompeii Suite is decorated with frescoes inspired by Pompeii’s attractive villas.

Other suites were named after Richard Strauss, Richard Wagner, Oscar Wilde, Luciano Pavar­otti, Andrea Bocelli, Jack Lemmon, Sophia Loren and Marilyn Monroe.The Sala Vittoria/Breakfast Restaurant sits inside the hotel's most beautiful rooms, with lovely frescoed ceilings, large wind­ows, late C19th decorations, early 20th furnishings and a baby grand piano. The tradition of frescoed ceilings and walls has been constantly up­dated by the resident artist. The ex­cellent orange marmalade is pre­pared with citrus fruits from the hotel's garden. The food is en­rich­ed with excel­lent local ingredients (tomat­o­es, virgin olive oil, citrus fruits, walnuts, cheeses, shrimps and loc­al Gulf fish). This food was designed for ME!

Sorrento, south of Rome

Occupying a once el­eg­ant green-house among the green ol­ive, lemon and orange trees, the hotel also established the Bout­ique Spa la Serra; it has citruses in their luxury spa treat­ments. Sorrento’s jagged cliffs are dominated by watch­towers, caves and enchanted bays, set against the clear Mediterranean Sea. It's a place that invites walk­ing-trails, water sports and places to bathe and relax in the Mediterranean sun.

World of Wanderlust has beautiful photos.