Don Quijote’s Evil Giants

When you first see the windmills on the great hill of Consuegra you will remember Don Quijote.

windmills at Consuegra, Spain

windmills at Consuegra, Spain

He thought they weren’t windmills but evil giants standing haughtily in front of him; and he bravely tilted his lance and charged.
They do look very strange.

Here is Gustave Doré’s engraving of the mad charge, seen by thousands of readers of Cervantes’ Don Quijote de la Mancha.

Doré gives a terrible-giant appearance to his windmill, which is good illustration; but his windmill is way off.  Spanish windmills don’t look like that.  That is a Dutch or a French one.

Here is a Spanish windmill, the kind Don Quijote charged.

Windmill in La Mancha

Windmill in La Mancha

It is a very, very modest building—in fact, no greater architecture than a child’s sand-castle made with his pail. A simple cylinder of mud and stone, whitewashed, with a cap on it. And of course the propellers or blades, without their sails now because no one makes flour with a windmill anymore.

The propellers are fixed to the hood, which can revolve. Hanging down at the back is a long pole. The miller pushes it to make the propellers face the wind.

Spanish windmills date from the days when Spain “owned” the Netherlands, so the idea came from there.  But the people of La Mancha skipped the fancy decoration and did the minimum to hold up the propellers and house the millstone and the flour. And the miller and his family, of course.

What is a windmill like inside?

Here is a drawing.

The miller and his family lived on the second floor—a very small apartment with a tiny window. Spanish peasants had to choose between light, which brought in awful heat from the sun, and darkness, which meant cool or cooler; and they chose darkness. So their windows were all as small as castle loopholes.

The miller climbed the stairs to the third floor when it was time to work.  That feels like a kind of hot attic. Here he had no choice but to drill half a dozen little windows around so he could see to work. The millstone, a big, flat, stone disk, lies in the room like a table. It revolves on top of another one. The miller pours the grain between the disks and they grind it to a powder. It is very simple.

How do the propellers make the millstone revolve?  A couple of big wooden gears with hand-carved teeth change the direction of the movement from the vertical of the propellers to the horizontal of the millstone.


Before starting to work in the morning the miller had to dress the propellers with canvas, as though they were the sails of a ship. The guides who show you the windmills nowadays love to fascinate with the old jargon. There were names for all the parts of the great “ship” and the millers were experts in wind and weather, like sailors.


Posted in architecture, Cervantes, engineering, great writers, Spain, travel, windmill | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Giddy-up, Aristotle

This looks like a medieval version of Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly singing “True Love.”

Phyllis rides Aristotle

Phyllis rides Aristotle, Cadouin Abbey, France CCA 3.0 Germany license; author Klaus D. Peter, Wiehl, Germany

But it isn’t anything like that. Those aren’t earphones or the man’s microphone but a…bridle. The woman is riding him.

She is Phyllis the Courtesan and he is Aristotle the Philosopher.

What a way to depict one of the greatest philosophers of the world!

Aristotle is complying with Phyllis’s wish, which is her price. She asked him to play horsie and let her ride him around the patio.

Why would she do that?

To humiliate him. She wanted to get back at him for telling his pupil, no other than young Alexander the Great, to stay away from her, that she was a bad influence on him. Alexander went and told her, and Phyllis seethed.

She Gets Back

The next morning, with her long hair hanging and her gown loose, she danced into the courtyard where Aristotle could see her from his study. He looked up from his books and out his window. There, beside the tall cypress trees and the splashing fountain, was interactive beauty and not for a moment could he resist it. Remember how St. Thomas in a similar plight drove away his temptress with a firebrand? Aristotle had a different approach to temptation. His way of deleting it, of getting it over with, was to fall quickly into it. When Phyllis came close to the window, he reached out, grabbed her, and declared his passion for her.

Platz, Philosopher!

“Not so fast,” said Phyllis. “First I’d like you to carry out a little fantasy of mine.” Once mounted, she began to sing a little ditty about the triumph of Love (over learning): “Master Silly carries me. / ‘Love leads on, and so he goes, / by Love’s authority’.”

There are hundreds of surviving depictions of this fantasy, some with Aristotle bridled and saddled, some with a whip in Phyllis’s hands. A few showed Alexander standing by and watching the horse show. Phyllis had told him to look into the courtyard when he heard her sing.

Engraving from Master of the Housebook (fl. between 1475 and 1500) public domain

Engraving from Master of the Housebook (fl. between 1475 and 1500) public domain

“Now I want this to be a lesson to you,” Aristotle told Alexander, ahem-hemming and straightening his beard and his professor’s toga. “If an old philosopher, skilled in self-control [sic], cannot resist the wiles of a woman, then how is a young man like yourself going to do that? All this only goes to prove the point I was making the other day.”

Alexander just nodded now with a smile in his heart. Aristotle was finished. He had lost his authority as a teacher and moral guide to the young Prince.

Aristotle tutoring Alexander the Great by J L G Ferris 1895 (public domain)

Aristotle tutoring Alexander the Great by J L G Ferris 1895 (public domain)

And Phyllis was seen with Alexander even more often.

Lai d’Aristote

It is a story students in the Middle Ages liked to tell about the unimpeachable philosopher Aristotle. He was taken as the great authority on almost everything and this story kicked him where (they thought) it hurt. It was made up by Henri d’Andeli, a thirteenth-century Norman poet and was called the “Lai d’Aristote”.

The Moral?

Different morals were derived from it. One was that Aristotle was a fool. Maybe scholars gave this story an extra push when, with Humanism, Plato’s teachings replaced Aristotle’s. Here is a tapestry illustration of the story:

Aristoteles_and_Phyllis tapestry

Tapestry in the Historisches Museum , Basel, Switzerland, 15th C. (public domain)

It was one of the stock misericords in the great churches and cathedrals of Western Europe. (Misericords are the carved figures on the underside of choir-stall seats).  There is a good one in the Cathedral of Toledo, Spain, but the guard would not let me photograph it.

Another lesson was that guys should avoid dolls, who were instruments of the Devil. Remember how Eve had made Adam eat the forbidden fruit and so got us all kicked out of the Garden of Eden? Here was another example. Maybe money was the root of all evil (after Satan). But higher up the plant and still underground, was Woman.

Devil helping create woman

Devil helping create woman (from The Hidden World of Misericords by Dorothy and Henry Kraus. published by George Braziller, Inc., New York)

This misericord shows the devil, with the help of another unidentified sculptor, creating Woman. She was designed to be a temptress.

A detail of a German Aquamanile from ~1400 showing the good grip Phyllis had on the Master:

Aquamanile from ~1400 illustrating the Lai d'Aristotle Free license  photo by Raminagrobis

Aquamanile from ~1400 illustrating the Lai d’Aristotle Free license photo by Raminagrobis


Posted in 1, Alexander the Great, Aristotle, art, Basel, France, history, Humanism, Lai d' Aristot, middle ages, philosophy, Phyllis, Renaissance, Toledo | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Great Roman Engineering

One of the most impressive Roman constructions you will ever see is the aqueduct of Segovia, Spain.

Aqueduct of Segovia (file photo)

It still brings good water down from the mountains fifteen kilometers away. For most of that distance the closed canal rides on a low wall of Roman concrete. Then for the last kilometer, to cross the valley where Segovia lies, it is supported by great pillars and arches of stacked stones—granite blocks so perfectly hewn that no mortar was needed to hold them in place. By the time the canal crosses the main square of town it is more than 100 feet above the streets and, if you are seeing it for the first time, it takes your breath away.

Aqueduct of Segovia (file photo)

The canal is rectangular and its inner walls are smoothed with fine morter. The typical Roman inclination for a water course like that was a mere one per mil—considered enough to make up for the slowing down from friction as the water flowed through.

When was the aqueduct built? No one knows exactly—facts like that often go under in a land so old and where so much has happened. But recently the archaeologist Geza Alfoldy, a specialist in epigraphy, may have found out. How? Originally there were Latin inscriptions on the aqueduct. They were formed with bronze letters and held in place by drilling holes into the blocks. The holes are still there. For Alfoldy, those holes are as good as the letters; by comparing other monuments with known inscriptions he has decided which letter needed which holes. The Latin writing was the same on both sides of the aqueduct, with slight variation, so Alfoldy used the one side to confirm his reading of the other. He proposed the following:

By order of the Emperor Trajan Nerva, Germanic Caesar Augustus, Pontifex Maximus, Twice Tribune, Twice Consul, Father of the Country, Publius Mumius Mumianis and Publius Fabius Taurus, Segovian Municipal Flavian Duumviri, rebuilt this aqueduct.

If Alfoldy is right, this means, judging by the titles given to the Emperor Trajan, that the inscription was posted on the aqueduct in 98 AD.

Why did the Romans build aqueducts over valleys? It is sometimes said that had they known the principle that water meets its own level they would not have needed to build them. They would merely have brought their canals to the brink of the valley and then, instead of constructing a complex and expensive aqueduct, led the water through a simple pipeline down to the bottom of the valley and back up the other side until it was on a level with the canal, and so could continue its flow.

But this is to insult the Romans. They knew the principle very well (the siphon) and made good use of it in countless places to cross valleys and rivers. A famous example was the siphon channel at Lugdunum, capital of Gaul (near Lyons, France). The pipes were sometimes made of lead, as at Caesaraugustus (Zaragoza, Spain), where one 32 cm. in diameter crossed the wide Ebro River before reaching the city. Most of these were long ago melted down for other purposes. But others were clay and even stone, as at Sexi, Spain, and have survived.

Ceramic pipes found at Ephesus

and stone pipes used for the siphon at Sexi, Spain

(photos and illustration from the catalog of an exhibition at the Museo Arqueológico Nacional, Madrid, in March-July 2002:  Artifex: Ingeniería Romana en España by Ignacio González Tascón

The plan of a Roman siphon, here leveled off at the bottom of the valley

Then why was the aqueduct of Segovia necessary? Couldn’t a siphon have been used?
Perhaps an aqueduct was considered easier to maintain than a siphon channel, perhaps the terrain was not suitable. You may be quite sure the engineers did not build the aqueduct out of ignorance. They will have studied other bridges and aqueducts of all kinds before deciding on this amazing monument. Perhaps its very monumentality was the determining factor.

What are those holes in the old stones? See How Did They Lift Those Stones?




Posted in archaeology, engineering, history, Romans, Spain | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 17 Comments

Cómo pintó Miguel Ángel la Capilla Sixtina

Las manos de Dios y Adán (foto Wikipedia archivo)

El Papa ordena un milagro

El Papa Julio II creía que Miguel Ángel era capaz de hacer cualquier trabajo y le mandó pintar el techo de la capilla. “Pero yo no soy pintor,” Michelangelo protestó, “soy escultor. Con el pincel he hecho muy poco y quiere Vd. que pinte 1000 metros cuadrados sobre un techo curvo!”

“Harás un magnífico trabajo”, dijo Julius. “Mi arquitecto Bramante te levantará el andamiaje.” Era un hombre muy duro, más parecido a un comandante militar que a un papa, y no quería oír protestas. En una ocasión llegó a golpear a Miguel Ángel con su bastón por impertinencia.

Un medallón con el busto del Papa Julio II (Wikipedia foto archivo)

Miguel Ángel fue a casa con gran preocupación y desánimo. Era un hombre ambicioso pero el Papa le estaba pidiendo que hiciera un milagro. Si fallara, todos sus errores estarían permanentemente a la vista de todos. ¿Cómo iba a pintar mejor que los pintores?

El Gran Diseño

Al rato volvió en sí. Aunque nunca había pintado al fresco y tendría que aprender la técnica, consideraba que eso estaba a su alcance. Se puso a trabajar. Bocetó su primera idea: los doce apóstoles y alguna decoración de relleno. Pero pronto le parecía demasiado simple, que así el techo no iba a tener la riqueza que merecía; y obtuvo permiso para un plan más ambicioso.

Lo que entonces concebió fue una pintura enorme de 300 figuras que ilustraban la pre-historia de la salvación, es decir, el tiempo del hombre en la tierra antes de la llegada de Jesucristo.
Esquema de las pinturas en el techo de la Capilla Sixtina, Roma (foto de archivo Wikipedia)

¿Qué es la pintura al fresco?

Para pintar en una pared los artistas utilizaban una técnica llamada al fresco. Mezclaban arena y cal y extendían la mezcla sobre la pared. Aplicaban sus colores en seguida, mientras la pared estaba todavía húmeda o fresca. Los colores fusionaban químicamente con la cal y se hacían imborrables al secarse la pared.
La técnica del fresco es muy antigua y se remonta por lo menos a los egipcios.
No es fácil de aprender. El espléndido retrato abajo, que representa Safo, la poetisa griega, es romana y fue encontrado debajo de las cenizas volcánicas que destruyeron Herculano, Italia.

Safo, en un fresco del antiguo Herculano, Italia

Safo, un fresco de Herculano (foto Wikipedia archivo)

Una llamada a sus amigos

Para sus frescos Miguel Ángel hizo bocetos llamados cartones, pintando con acuarela sobre cartón o lienzo. Entendía de estos bocetos porque había hecho alguno para el proyecto de un fresco en Florencia. Pero no había llegado a copiarlos en la pared. Necesitaba el asesoramiento de los expertos. Escribió a sus amigos pintores en Florencia, pidiendoles que viniesen a Roma a enseñarle cómo empezar. Vinieron de muy buena gana y pintaron parte de su primer cartón en el techo mientras él miraba. Pero después de sólo una o dos semanas Miguel Ángel se dió cuenta de que no podía hacer las cosas a la manera de ellos y los despidió.
Se encerró en la capilla y comenzó, completamente solo, a copiar sus cartones sobre la enorme bóveda de la Capilla Sixtina. Ensayo y error. Fue increíblemente duro.

El esfuerzo físico

La pintura al fresco requiere un gran esfuerzo físico. Todos los días, como un albañil, el artista tiene que preparar su mezcla de yeso y arena y aplicarla a la pared con una llana y paleta, y luego darse prisa para pintar. Debe acabar la pintura antes de que se seque la mezcla por completo. Y pintar un techo es doblemente difícil, porque todo se hace por encima de la cabeza. Sólo los preliminares de ese trabajo, como levantar y sujetar los enormes cartones de sus figuras mientras trazaba las líneas maestras del boceto en el techo, debieron ser agotadores.

A veinte metros de altura, sobre las tablas movedizas de los andamios, Miguel Ángel pintaba, mirando siempre hacia arriba. Frotaba el cuello por el dolor que le daba.
En una carta a un amigo dibujó una pequeña caricatura de sí mismo mientras pintaba un santo en el techo. Tiene la cabeza inclinada hacia atrás todo lo más que podía. Dice su biógrafo que después de la gran obra, su vista fue seriamente alterada durante meses.
La caricatura que hizo Miguel Ángel de sí mismo pintando del techo de la Capilla Sixtina (foto Wikipedia archivo)

A diario se forzó al límite. Prácticamente vivía en la capilla, comía cebollas y pan rancio. “No tengo amigos y no quiero tenerlos ahora”, escribió a su padre.

El Gran Retroceso

Un día, cuando había terminado alrededor de un tercio de la bóveda, descubrió unas manchas extendiéndose sobre sus pinturas. Fue el colmo. Corrió al Papa, rogandole que le permitera dejar el trabajo. “Le advertí, Santidad, que yo no era pintor”, dijo. “Ahora se ha estropeado todo lo que he hecho”.
El Papa envió a un experto para evaluar el daño. Explicó a Miguel Ángel que no era para tanto, que las manchas se podían eliminar. Le enseñó cómo quitarlas y le animó a seguir adelante.

Una bóveda de cañón

El techo es una bóveda de cañón con ocho muescas o grandes concavidades triangulares sobre las ventanas.
En esas y en otros triángulos de las cuatro esquinas, llamados “pechinas”, Miguel Ángel continuó sus representaciones de los antepasados de Cristo e incluso cubrió los espacios más abajo, encima de las ventanas, los llamados “lunetos”.

Los temas

En el centro del techo hay ilustraciones de nueve historias bíblicas. El segmento que representa a Dios creando a Adán es una de las imágenes más famosas jamás pintadas.

Creación_de_AdánDios crea a Adán (foto Wikipedia archivo

Otras escenas famosas son El Diluvio y La Tentación y La Expulsión del Jardín de Edén.

El Diluvio Universal de Miguel Ángel

El Diluvio Universal de Miguel Ángel

El Diluvio Universal (foto archivo de Wikipedia)

La fruta prohibida (Wikipedia archivo foto)

La enorme figura de Jonás de la pared frontal es especialmente admirada por su escorzo, que tuvo que contradecir la curva del techo.

El Profeta Jonás en la Capilla Sixtina

El Profeta Jonás en la Capilla Sixtina

El Profeta Jonás (foto de archivo de Wikipedia)

Los jóvenes desnudos que enmarcan las escenas, retorciendo sin aparente tarea, tal vez estaban destinados a mostrar la lucha fútil del hombre antes de que viniera el Salvador.

El Papa Impaciente

El Papa Julio sentía tanta curiosidad por lo que hacía Miguel Ángel en la capilla que a menudo le hacía visitas. Se maravillaba de lo que veía y quería mostrar tamaño milagro a sus amigos. Al final perdió la paciencia; no pudo esperar a que Miguel Ángel terminara. Tenía mal genio y nunca toleraba una respuesta negativa a sus órdenes.
Aunque sólo la mitad del techo estaba cubierto, el Papa ordenó a Miguel Ángel que desmontara los andamios y abriera la capilla al público. “No puedo”, dijo Miguel Ángel. “Todavía no he terminado.” Llevaba trabajando casi dos años – desde 1508 hasta 1510.
“O te quitas el andamio o te arrojamos de allí”, dijo el Papa. No era una broma. Miguel Ángel no tuvo más remedio que obedecer.

El público Asombrado

La capilla se llenó de gente y corrió la voz que las pinturas eran la cosa más asombrosa jamás vista. Las figuras mostraron un nuevo tipo de belleza y poder. Cada uno de ellos era una obra maestra en su concepción y colores. La visión de Miguel Ángel fue abrumadora.

Las pinturas del techo de la Capilla Sixtina  (Wikipedia foto)

Miguel Ángel volvió a montar el andamiaje en enero de 1511. En un esfuerzo titánico logró terminar la otra mitad del techo el 14 de agosto y el Papa Julio, con gran orgullo, celebró la primera misa en la capilla de su tío Sixto.

Todavía quedaban las pechinas y lunetos por pintar y Miguel Ángel no los terminó hasta octubre de 1512. En total, el techo fue obra de cincuenta y cuatro meses.

Cuarenta años más tarde, otro Papa le encargaría la decoración de la pared frontal de la misma capilla, donde pintaría su Juicio Final.

¿Por qué se llama la Capilla Sixtina?

La capilla con las pinturas de Miguel Ángel fue construida por el Papa Sixto IV. De ahí su nombre, la Sixtina.
Y Sixto IV era el tío del Papa Julio II, el que encargó las pinturas del techo. Julio era famoso por ser un guerrero, un intrigante y un mecenas del arte del Renacimiento.
En aquella época el papado era un cargo reservado a los miembros más influyentes y ambiciosos de la aristocracia.

Ubicación de la Capilla Sixtina en el Vaticano

Vea este espectacular visita virtual a la Capilla Sixtina. Es tan bueno o mejor que una visita real (no hay multitudes, puede usted acercarse a las imágenes hasta casi tocarlas).

Este artículo trata de las pinturas sobre el techo de la capilla. Veinticinco años más tarde, en la pared encima del altar, Miguel Ángel pintó otro fresco–el Juicio Final.  Lea aquí sobre esa gran obra [pronto también en versión española].

La mayor parte de lo que se sabe de Miguel Ángel proviene de sus cartas, de las cuales cerca de 500 han sobrevivido, y de las biografías de Giorgio Vasari y Condivi Ascanio, quienes las escribieron en vida del artista.

El libro de  Ludwig Goldscheider es una fuente autoritativa de información y una verdadera maravilla de fotografía en blanco y negro.















Posted in Adán, art, arte, Capilla Sixtina, epopeya del hombre, michelangelo, Miguel Ángel, Papa Julio II, pintura al fresco, Pope Julius II, Renaissance, sistine chapel | Tagged | Leave a comment

Una carta auténtica de un soldado romano

Escrita en el siglo II por un joven llamado Apión, natural de un pueblo de Egipto.

Se alistó en el ejército romano en Alejandría y se subió a un gran buque-transporte de tropas, que zarpó rumbo a Italia. El barco pasó por una tremenda tormenta.

Tan pronto como Apión llegó al puerto y le fueron entregados su uniforme militar y su primera paga, fue a hacerse su retrato, que mandó a su familia con la siguiente carta:

Apión a su señor y padre Epimachos:
En primer lugar espero que se encuentre bien de salud y que las cosas vayan bien para Vd., para mi hermana y su hija, y para mi hermano. Doy las gracias a Serapis [un dios egipcio] por salvarme la vida cuando, justo al principio, pasé tanto peligro en el mar.
Cuando llegué a Misenum [el puerto romano de guerra, cerca de Nápoles] recibí tres monedas de oro del emperador [¿Trajano?] para gastos, y todo me va pero muy bien.
Por favor, señor padre, escriba y cuénteme sobre su salud, luego sobre mis hermanos, y también para que pueda besar su mano por haberme educado bien y en consecuencia pueda esperar una rápida promoción, si los dioses quieren. Dé recuerdos a Capitón [algún amigo] y a mi hermano y hermana, y a Serenilla [¿una esclava familiar?] y a mis amigos.
Les envio un pequeño retrato a través de Euktemon.
Mi [nuevo] nombre romano es Antonius Maximus.

La carta original, en griego y con bella letra, no fue escrita por el joven soldado sino por un escriba. Dos compañeros de Apión, que se alistaron con él, añadieron sus saludos en el margen izquierdo.

Carta de Apión, un joven soldado romano, a su padre Epimachos, en Egipto.

La carta fue enrollada y sellada como esta:

Carta papira enrollada y sellada para ser entregada

Ilustraciónes de Ancient Times: A History of the Early World de James Henry Breasted, Ginn and Company, 1944

Viajó por el muy eficiente correo militar romano y llegó sin incidente todo el camino hasta el pequeño pueblo egípcio donde, ya hace dos mil años, la leyeron el padre del joven y su familia. Después de morir el padre, la carta se perdió entre los trastos de la casa y los arqueólogos la encontraron  debajo de las paredes derrumbadas. Junta a esta carta había otra de Apión, dirigida a su hermana algunos años más tarde. Ya para entonces el soldado llevaba años destinado en algún lugar del imperio romano y estaba casado y con hijos. Es todo lo que sabemos de él.

El pequeño retrato que envió a su familia era parecido a este:

retrato encáustico de un joven egipcio, de un sarcófago en Fayum, Egipto

Retrato sobre tabla de un egipcio-romano, fijado a una momia en Fayum, Egipto. Los colores se aplicaron con cera (una técnica que se llama encáustica).  De Ancient Times: A History of the Early World de James Henry Breasted, Ginn and Company, 1944, p. 708.

¿Por qué un romano escribe en griego y no en latín?

En esa época los egipcios cultos escribían en griego. Por todo el Mediterráneo oriental el griego seguía siendo la lingua franca. Hasta bien sentado el imperio, los mismos romanos de clase alta hablaban el griego e incluso, era costumbre mandar a los jóvenes a Grecia en un viaje de estudios.  Julio César y Cicerón pasaron cada uno una larga temporada en Grecia con el fin de perfeccionar su conocimiento del idioma.


Mi fuente:  Ancient Times: A History of the Early World de James Henry Breasted, Ginn and Company, 1944, p. 708.  Es una presentación de la historia antigua excepcionalmente bien redactada e informativa que se usó como libro de texto en los institutos americanos durante casi dos generaciones. Todavía se pueden encontrar ejemplares en librerías.



Posted in 1, archaeology, Cicero, history, Romans | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Numantia–or Don’t Mess with Rome

The Roman Empire was a nice package of countries and peoples. But what happened if you didn’t want to become part of it?

The native Spaniards of a little town called Numantia decided that they were damned if they would be bullied by Rome.

They were not damned, as it turned out, but they were annihilated. Rome itself admired them for generations.

Numancia, a painting by Alejo Vera.   The Numantinos kill themselves rather than surrender to Rome. (public domain photo)

A Visit to the Old Town

Now from the top of a pretty hill the guide (also pretty) tells you to look one mile out.

The ruins of Numantia today (public domain photo by Txo)

“See that red marker?” she says.  “That was where one of General Scipio’s camps were, with its tower.” Then she points a little to the left. “And that post marks Camp Two. If you look around you will see the other five.
“The camps were connected with a wall twelve feet high and a ditch ten feet deep. There were watchtowers every fifteen or twenty meters and something like 50,000 soldiers. Numancia was completely surrounded.”
Your imagination builds the wall up again and appreciates the neatness of it all. Then you remember where you are standing and that you are now a Numantino, and some of the old scare creeps in. You don’t stand a chance.

They must have told you that General Scipio, who commanded the army out there, didn’t horse around. He was the general who had wiped Carthage off the map. When he was done with it, the great city was just a charred, bumpy field. His plan for the subjection of your little burg was to reduce her by starvation. He wouldn’t even give you the chance to fight and die a warrior’s glorious death.

Some Brave Soldiers Broke out

There was a weak point in Scipio’s wall where it had to jump over the stream at the foot of the hill. He had tried to block the stream but a commando of brave Numantinos slipped under the wall undetected one foggy night and ran to the Celtiberian towns around to ask for help. They were able to collect a band of patriots and prepared to attack the Romans from the rear and break the siege. But some old Celtiberians who were afraid of what would happen to their people if Rome wasn’t defeated, warned the Romans. What was Scipio’s punishment for the hundred brave Celtiberian youths who had promised to take part in the action?
“Cut their hands off” was his order.

Cervantes’ Play

Miguel de Cervantes himself wrote a play about the heroic Numantinos. The legend was that they refused to surrender and that after first eating wood and leather, they ate their own dead. The few that were left when the Roman soldiers stormed into the town killed themselves.  Skeptical historians think they were simply made slaves—the usual fate of defeated warriors.

Of course Scipio saved the most presentable of them to take back to Rome for his triumph parade.
Needless to say, he razed the town. (See my comment below with the Polybius quote on the usual Roman treatment of conquered towns.)

What do you see today?

Numancia is just outside the city of Soria.

The modern province of Soria, Spain. The ruins of Numantia are just five kilometers from the city of Soria (map from file)

Archaeologists have brilliantly restored some of the old town and its walls and houses. There you can learn better than in any book or museum about those old times.

A modern reconstruction of the  city wall (Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license photo by Multitud)

This is a postage stamp commemorating the Numantinos’ stubborn defiance of Rome.

(photo from file)

Read more about Numantia here.


Posted in archaeology, books, Numancia, Romans, Spain, travel | Tagged , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Meeting Hemingway’s Hero

I knew a bar called Las Panderetas where bullfighters went and I had seen Nicanor Villalta sitting at a table in the corner one afternoon.  I could have approached him right then but I wasn´t ready, and by the time I had figured out what I could say to him he had gone to speak to somebody and the occasion was lost.

Bar “La Taurina” in old Madrid

Bar “La Taurina” in old Madrid(photo from file)

That night and a few other times I rehearsed the conversation I planned to have if I ran into him again.  And about a week later I went back to Las Panderetas and there he was again, sitting at the same table.  I sipped a glass of white wine (chato de vino blanco) at the bar while I went over my questions one more time and built up courage.  You´d have thought I meant to assassinate the guy.
OK.  One last look.  There he is now and looking in my direction.  Here goes.

I walked over to him and spoke just a little too soon, before I had reached him.  “Señor Villalta?”
His table was on a kind of podium and he bent way down to try to hear me.  “¿Perdón?”
“Are you Sr. Villalta the bullfighter?”
“Sí,” he said dryly and sort of defensively.  Maybe he thought I wanted to sell him something or ask him for a dime.
Opposite him at the table was an old guy who took a deep interest in this interview and made me nervous with his watching.

“I´m American,” I began.
“Sí,” said Villalta again.  He was hard of hearing and listened with a grimace and a squint and one ear towards you.
“Last week the American bullfighter Sidney Franklin died.  Do you remember him?”
He didn´t hear me or understand me but fortunately the old guy with him at the table told him what I had said.
“Yes,” said Villalta, starting to look inside himself while he remembered.  “He was very brave.  Muy valiente.”   I wondered if he meant this as a false compliment.  Bravery was a lot more common than quality fighting.  Maybe he was saying that Franklin was brave but no good.
“He was left-handed,” he went on.  His statements came out one by one, decisively, the way old people often make them.  “He did all the pases the other way around.  It was very curious.  But it worked.  He was all right.  Yes, I remember him.”

I could see that that was about all I was going to get out of him on the subject of Franklin. He hadn’t asked me to sit down: I was still standing at the foot of his table/podium and sweating heavily.  Always so nervous.   But I tried to relax and make this conversation look casual.  “Would you let me buy you a drink?” I asked.
“No.”   Bad luck.      He wasn´t enjoying this conversation much.
“And Hemingway, do you remember him?”   The other guy at the table explained that I wanted to know about Ernest Hemingway, the writer.

Ernest Hemingway’s 1923 passport photo  (public domain)

“I think they introduced me to him once,” said Villalta.  You could see he had something against old Hem.
“You are in his book on bullfighting,” I said.
“Yeah, he called me I don´t know what kind of insect.”   I saw the misunderstanding right off.  Villalta cut a strange figure in the ring (and outside of it).  He was disproportioned: tall as a basketball player, with a wee little head on a long neck.  There was something stilt-like about his legs, something stiff about his way of walking.  Though he performed all the pases competently, he wasn´t pretty to see.  “He has a kind of praying mantis style,” wrote Hemingway.

“But Hemingway admired you, ” I said.
“Do you know he named his son after you?”  This last wasn´t rehearsed.  It may not even be true.  I knew one of Hem´s sons was called Nicanor and deduced.
But Villalta wasn´t appeased.  He had made a judgment on Hemingway years before and that was that.  He went back to Franklin.   “Your Franklin wasn´t around very long,” he said.   “I remember an awfully big cornada (horn wound).”
“Did you get many?”
“No!” He almost shouted it.  He looked exasperated, as though for years he had been fighting a recurrent lie.   “Very few.  None.”
Not every bullfighter sees gorings in the same way.  Some brag about them.  Villalta seemed to think that you got gored out of incompetence, mostly, and poor judgment.  That if you understood bulls you didn´t get gored except now and then from bad luck–the wind, the bull´s distraction.

He was one of the very greatest of bullfighters.  He still has the record for ears in the Madrid ring.  He must have made big money in the early ’30s but by the time I knew him he was so poor he had to ask for help.  I went to a benefit fight for him.  He came down into the ring to take the applause of the crowd and one last time made a trip around the ring and even tried to run a little–sideways like they do, with his arms outstetched.  But his old legs were too stiff and he had to give it up and just bow.  In his old suit which was too big for him he looked like a tall scarecrow, or with his little head, like a …praying mantis.

So that’s how I begged an old guy for change.  What he had he gave in the ring to the people who paid for it then.  I  won´t be such an ass as to complain that what I made him give me out of his old  pocket wasn´t worth much.

(photo source)

Here is some of what Hemingway says about him in Death in the Afternoon:

“…When he does a great faena [performance, the torero's work] it is all valour; valour and that magic wrist, and it makes you put up with the greatest awkwardness…You are certain to see him looking as awkward as a praying-mantis any time he draws a difficult bull, but remember that his awkwardness is caused by his physical structure, not cowardliness.

photo of Nicanor Villalta y Serrés (1897-1980) from Death in the Afternoon

Because of the way he is built he can only be graceful if he can put his feet together, and where awkwardness on the part of a naturally graceful bullfighter is a sign of panic, in Villalta it only means that he has drawn a bull which he must spread his legs apart to work with. But if you ever see him when he can put his feet together…then you will forgive him the neck God gave him, the muleta the size of a bed-sheet that he uses, and his telephone-pole legs, because his strange mixture of a body contains enough valour and pundonor [moral imperative, sense of honor and responsibility] to make a dozen bullfighters.”

Though I only guessed about it at the time, it is a fact that Hemingway named his first son after Villalta. (“If the baby had been a girl we would have named her Sylvia. Being a boy we could not call him Shakespeare.  John Hadley Nicanor is the name. Nicanor Villalta the bullfighter.” Letter to Syvia Beach, Nov. 6, 1923)

Hemingway put in a long afterward about Sidney Franklin in Death in the Afternoon.  He says things like this:

“Franklin is one of the most skilful, graceful, and slow manipulators of a cape fighting today…He is a better, more scientific, more intelligent, and more finished matador than all but about six of the full matadors in Spain today, and the bullfighters know it and have the utmost respect for him.”

Sidney Franklin (1903-1976) public domain photo by Carl Van Vechten

Hemingway was proud of his friendship with Franklin, who taught him much about bullfighting. Franklin died in a New York nursing home in 1976.


Posted in 1, bullfight, fighting bull, Madrid, Spain | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments