Old Roman Specularis Mines

Spain used to be a kind of Eldorado. It was fabulously rich in minerals. Rome and Carthage both financied their wars with Spanish gold and silver.

Roman gold mine of Las Medulas, Leon, Spain    GNFD photo by Rafael Ibez Fernandez

There were mines working all over the peninsula: copper mines, like the Riotinto in Huelva; gold mines, like Las Médulas in León; silver mines, like El Centenillo in Linares. And in the booming first century, the Romans opened lapis specularis mines near Cuenca.

Lapis specularis is a variety of gypsum (selenitic) that forms crystal sheets and they were used as window panes.

Lapis specularis

In the old world a window was just a hole in the wall—the English means “wind eye”.   Glass had been invented long before but it was blown glass, used only for small vials and decorative beads.No one had figured out how to make glass in sheets.
One day some Roman had the idea to stick a piece of stone crystal in the window hole. That let in the light and, at the same time, kept out the weather and the draft. It was a small piece of crystal and it wasn’t very transparent, but it made a big difference in the room.

Builders soon began looking around for bigger, clearer crystals and found one called lapis specularis. It is nearly as clear as glass and it could be split into fine sheets and cut easily to size. Plus, it did not seem to weather or to change in any way in heat and cold.

Some entrepreneurs saw the potential and sent out scouts all over the Empire to find deposits. Good lapis specularis, says Pliny in his encyclopedia called Natural History, comes from mines in Asia Minor and North Africa but the best comes from an area of 100,000 passi around a little town in Spain (Hispania) called Segóbriga.  Pliny was in Spain in 74 AD and saw the mines himself.

Nero’s Skylight

The Emperor Nero ordered lapis specularis for a skylight in his Temple of Fortune and it was used in the same way in some public baths in Rome. The sheets are usually less than a foot square but they can be put together like the segments of stained-glass in the old cathedral windows. The Emperor Tiberius had a greenhouse made of hundreds of crystal sheets. Rich men everywhere wanted the new windows for their villas. They became a great fad. Even carriages were made with lapis specularis windows.

Roman bath      a painting by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema

Other uses were found for it too. It was pretty, it sparkled. When ground up and mixed with the sand of the racetrack and the amphitheater, lapis specularis gave the shows a special circus twinkle.

A scene from the movie Ben Hur

A Roman mosaic showing a chariot and triumphant driver        Archaeological Museum, Madrid

The boom lasted for just over a hundred years.  Slaves worked mines everywhere and sent the plaster in ships to Rome.  Men got rich, mining towns like Segóbriga began to blossom with monumental buildings paid for by their new-rich families.

Ruins of the Roman town of Segóbriga, Spain

The End Came Suddenly

But then sheet glass was invented and plaster windows were suddenly out. Lapis specularis was no longer of any interest. The mines were abandoned and the whole business was forgotten. For centuries historians reading Pliny weren’t even sure anymore what lapis specularis was. And the location of the famous town of Segóbriga was disputed. The mines were 100,000 passi around that city; but what was the length of a Roman passus?

What the Archaeologists Found

Starting in the eighteenth century, archaeologists excavated a buried city near Cuenca and found proof that it was Segóbriga.
They agreed on the size of a Roman passus, approximately 1.478 meters. That meant that Pliny’s 100,000 passi were about 147 kilometers. If the town of Segobriga is the center, then the mines should be inside a radius of 73.9 kilometers around the city.

They started checking out strange caves near Segóbriga and saw that they were in fact the lapis specularis mines Pliny had been talking about. No one had paid much attention to them for a thousand years. Many Spanish towns have caves and labyrinths under them, of unknown origin. These were a few more. Some were considered dangerous holes and traps to stay away from, others, half-collapsed, were hidden altogether. In the 1980s archaeologists excavated a couple of the known ones. Recently experts like Juan Carlos Guisado have found a dozen more.

Exploring a Roman lapis specularis mine near Segóbriga, Spain

Inside the Lapis Specularis Mines

Specularis mines are underground tunnels like ant colonies. Miners picked away at the earth until they found good crystal, then hauled it up to the surface in buckets. To get at minerals such as copper, where the proportion of metal to dirt is high, it pays to open a big pit. But lapis specularis comes in little deposits or incrustations only here and there in the ground, so the best method is to tunnel through the earth until you hit the crystal, chip it out, then go on until you find more, moving no more earth than is necessary to keep your way clear.

The miners moved forward by the light of little oil lamps set in niches in the wall, and they left a pillar of earth here and there to keep the roof from falling in. Pliny says it was dangerous and miners often died from collapses.

Ancient gravestone showing miners in the siver mines of Cástulo

Lucerna or oil lamp used in the specularis mines around Segóbriga

And now?

A few years ago a visit to one meant putting on a miner’s helmet with a carbide lamp attached and crawling through a deep hole in the ground until you came to a big chamber where you could stand up. But now several of the mines have been opened and offer guided tours to visitors.
The walls are full of pick gouges—made by men two thousand years ago. The broken-off point of a pic is still rusting in a few of them.
There is ancient graffiti on the walls. Over the centuries a few people went down into the mines—a very risky thing to do. It is easy to get lost in the labyrinth, especially in the darkness after your little oil lamp goes out. So far, no Latin writing has been found. The slaves who worked in the mine were no doubt illiterate and many must not even have spoken Latin well. There is Arabic graffiti from the time of the Arab occupation, between 711 and 1100 or so. And a seventeenth-century Spanish signature looking like one of Shakespeare’s or Cervantes’, with a looping rubrica underneath.
Outside some of the mines archaeologists found a miners’ cemetery. Around it were fragments of ceramic cups with a name (Greek) scratched on the base. Cups and little eye-wash dishes were a slave’s only possessions.

See this great site on the specularis mines.


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Caesar’s Dignity Bridge

“Find me a place where the river is nice and wide,” Julius Caesar told his tribunes. “And sort of mean.”

The “Tusculum portrait”, possibly the only surviving bust of Caesar made during his lifetime (public domain photo)

They came back with a couple of options. Some scholars think Caesar chose a stretch of the river near Cologne, others think it was near Koblenz or Bonn. The Rhine is nearly a quarter of a mile wide at those places and “mean”—with a strong current and a full twenty feet deep. In Caesar’s time there was a thick forest on both banks.

What was he up to?

He had decided to go after the Germans (the Germani) on the other side of the river. The Rhine was the border between Germany (the Germani) and France (Gallia). The Germans crossed it and raided Gallia from time to time and they had to be taught never to do that again.

mapgalliaparts-marked Map of ancient Gaul (file)

They had just come over the river and the invaded Gauls had called on Rome to protect them. Caesar went to the rescue and in a fierce battle annihilated a German army and sent the survivors scurrying back across the Rhine. They figured they were safe there and that had to stop.

“Now that he [Caesar writes in the third person] had seen how easily the Germans were induced to invade Gaul, he wanted them to experience fear…when they realized that the army of the Roman people was both capable of crossing the Rhine and brave enough to venture it.” The Germans were not going to be able to hide behind that river anymore—not from Rome.

There were other good reasons to cross. A little tribe called the Ubii, who lived on the other side, were allies of Rome and they had sent word to Caesar that they were being threatened. Could he send some soldiers over to show the Germans that Rome would protect them?
Caesar wanted to punish some tribes that had just fought against him, too, and had escaped across the river.

How was he going to take his army over? With dignity, of course. The Ubii promised to provide boats to ferry his soldiers across but “he was not convinced that such a method of crossing was in accord with either his own dignity or that of the Roman people. So despite the extreme difficulty of the task which lay before him of constructing a bridge (because the river was so broad, swift, and deep), he nevertheless concluded that he must attempt a crossing by bridge—or not take his army across at all.”

He put down the map of the river and picked up the bridge design his engineers had worked out: “ Gentlemen, it is not wide enough.”
They looked puzzled. Their bridge was five whole meters wide—enough to accommodate five fully-armed soldiers marching side-by-side.
“I don’t want a dinky bridge,” Caesar told them, “something that will just do. This bridge is supposed to knock the Germani out. It ought to scare the bastards. It ought to show them the kind of thing Rome can do and will do for her friends and against her enemies. Make it twice as wide. ”

A few hours later the engineers came back with the bridge as wide as a modern two-lane highway.
Caesar nodded at the change but his eye went right to another problem:
“Can’t we do something to protect our piles? When they see what we’re up to, the Germani are going to fill the river with logs, and with a current like that one they’ll knock the devil out of our bridge.”

“We could station men in rafts to intercept the oncoming logs,” said one of the engineers.”

“And a shield of some kind?” said Caesar. “How do you protect a fighting man? With a shield. How might you protect a bridge? With a shield. We could put wedge-shaped fences in front of the piles. Besides deflecting enemy obstacles they would divide the waters and reduce the force of the current on our bridge.”

“Very good, sir.”

caesar-bridge-shields Bridge shields (source unknown, 100falcons file)

“How long is it going to take us to make this thing?” Caesar asked.
The engineers knew he was in a hurry so to please him they had come up with a nearly impossible deadline for themselves. “Twenty-five days,” they said and held their breath, “including felling the trees and cutting the logs and branches.”
“Oh, come on,” said Caesar. “You men have built dozens of bridges and all the material is right here at hand. This bridge has to go over that river in record time. Let the men work in shifts all night and give them good protection from cavalry. It would be nice if the Germani scouts didn’t even know we meant to build a bridge until we started. How about ten days to gather material and ten days to span the river? If you fellows can’t do it, just say so and we’ll scrap the bridge. Maybe I was wrong about my engineers and what they can do.”

Caesar was a genius at influencing men, making them come his way. This was one of his old tricks. He had used it just after taking command of Gaul when his newly-recruited legions heard they would fight the big, fierce Germans and got scared. There were rumors of mutiny. Caesar addressed them: “I don’t believe you men are cowards or would really let Rome down. But just to see who will do his duty and who won’t, I’m going to break camp tomorrow morning. Anyone who wants to follow me to glory can come along. If the whole bunch of you chicken out I won’t mind. My loyal Tenth Legion and I will face the enemy and do the job by ourselves.” Of course the ashamed soldiers joined him in the morning. Now the engineers were challenged to do the impossible.

In ten days, chopping day and night, the soldiers had the logs and branches ready. And in ten more days they built Caesar his bridge while the unbelieving Germans watched from the other side. Awed. Scared. The Romans were coming after them.

Caesar’s bridge over the Rhine (public domain photo by Lo Scaligero)

When the bridge was finished, Caesar paraded his army across in wide rows, the cavalry first, their horses draped with colorful trappings, then the foot-soldiers, with horns blaring, flags waving, and the near-sacred standards held high in the air.   They met no resistance on the other bank. The Germans had fled and were hiding in the forest.
Caesar spent 18 days trying to find the enemy, burning the villages that he saw and razing the corn fields. Then, figuring he had accomplished his mission, he marched back across the dignity bridge.

And tore it down.

caesar_bridge-model Model of Caesar’s bridge  across the Rhine (Museo nazionale della civiltà romana, Roma; ©**) courtesy of http://www.livius.org/ra-rn/rhine/rhine.html

This story is taken from Caesar’s own account in his Commentaries (also called The Gallic Wars), Book Four, chapters 16-19. I have used the translation of Carolyn Hammond

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Caesar Escapes Just Like Indiana Jones

See him: the tough old general swimming for his life, keeping under water as much as he can while the arrows splash all around him in the water.
He holds his notes in the air.  A general needs his papers.

And where is his scarlet robe—the one he always wore in battle so his soldiers would recognize him?

Perhaps he gave it to an aide before hopping off the little boat, which was sinking because too many soldiers were jumping into it. The historian Appian says the Alexandrians captured the robe and hung it up as a trophy.


How did he get into such a mess?  Where was he going?

He was making for one of the larger Roman ships that lay farther out.
As soon as he reached it, he ordered them to send lifeboats back to save as many men as they could. He had lost the battle.

What battle?

He was trying to control the harbor of Alexandria, to close one of the exits to enemy ships. His troops from Syria would be coming in and he had to make sure they would land safely.

He and his soldiers were in real trouble.  They were boarded up in a corner of the city, trying to hold off the attack of the entire Egyptian army.  There wasn’t enough food and even their drinking water was poisoned.
They had only one chance of surviving: reinforcements from Syria. He had sent out a call for more troops  as soon as he arrived in Alexandria, and now they were on their way and he had to secure the harbor for them and keep command of the sea.

But how could he do that if he had only a few men and boats?

To start with, he set fire to the Egyptian warships in the dockyards—that was the only way to prevent their being used against the incoming Roman troop ships.  There were perhaps a hundred, many of them huge quadriremes and quinqueremes,  fully equipped for battle.  (The fire got out of control and burned down the most valuable building in the world: the Library of Alexandria, with its five hundred thousand scrolls.)

Then he hurried to seize the causeway  that led from the docks to the Island of Pharos, where the Great Lighthouse stood.  There was an opening in the causeway for ships to pass through on their way out to sea.  He built a little fort there and began filling the passage with big rocks to block it. The Alexandrians came to resist him with all their might.


To fight them Caesar quickly landed more troops from boats along the causeway but there wasn’t enough room for so many soldiers to deploy and they stumbled over each other and blocked their own retreat as the enemy came charging. They all ended up jumping back into the little boats.

Caesar himself describes the moment of great danger [he writes of himself in the third person] : “As long as he was able by exhortation to keep his men by the bridge [over the opening] and the fortification, Caesar was exposed to the same danger; when he saw that they were all giving ground, he withdrew to his own vessel.  He was followed by a crowd of men who began forcing their way on board and made it impossible to steer the ship or push it off from land; whereupon Caesar, who had guessed that this would happen, jumped overboard and swam out to the ships standing farther off. From there he sent small boats back to pick up his men in difficulties and saved a considerable number.  As for his own ship, it sank under the pressure of numbers and was lost, with all the men on board.” (Civil War 21.6)

And the little detail of his holding his papers out of the water as he swam?

That comes from Plutarch. He calls it a “story” to show that he took it only for what it was worth, viz., the color.  “This was the time when, according to the story, he was holding a number of papers in his hand and would not let them go, though he was being shot at from all sides and was often under water. Holding the papers above the surface with one hand, he swam with the other.”
(Life of Caesar, section 49)


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Cervantes Leaves His Pretty Wife and Looks for a Job

A few days after his wedding Cervantes must already have suspected that he had made a mistake.

Monument to Cervantes’ wife in Esquivias, Toledo, Spain

His wife was pretty and passably wealthy but he couldn’t stand her little town. How was he going to spend the rest of his life on a farm? He had wasted his youth first marching around Italy and then playing cards in an old Turkish bath in Algiers while he was a prisoner of the pirates. Would he waste the next best years being a country gentleman, hunting partridges and rabbits and husbanding vineyards?

Cervantes’ wife’s farmhouse in Esquivias, Spain

(See Cervantes’ House Restored)

Every chance he got he left the farm and went to Madrid to see old friends, including maybe his lover La Franca and their daughter.
But it seemed like it was always time to return to the damned farm.

Wasn’t he glad to see his young wife? No one knows. Perhaps he really loved her, perhaps he had only married her for her money. However that was, after nineteen months he pulled out of Esquivias.
“I’m going down to Seville to look for a job,” he told Catalina.

He had a good friend there, a former comic actor named Tomás. Tomás had decided that making monkey-shines on a stage was never going to bring him much money so he left Madrid and went home to Seville, where he ran an inn now. It wasn’t just any inn—it was probably the most luxurious one in Seville. The best people in town stopped in there—nobles, rich empresarios, high government officials. “Come on down south and stay at my place,” Tomás had written to Cervantes. “Good jobs are dealt out here at my tables over drinks. I can introduce you to some very important people. Probably in less than a week you will nail something.” Cervantes had grown up in Seville and loved the booming city. It was the biggest, the busiest city in Spain at the time. “Save me a room,” he wrote Tomás. “I’m coming.”

He stayed at Tomás’s inn for two weeks. What kind of talk did he hear? Spain had just beaten the Portuguese in a decisive naval battle and everyone was euphoric—cocky. “That’s one enemy down,” said the men at the inn. “Now let’s go get those damned English.” They had heard about the execution of the Catholic Queen Mary Stuart and wanted revenge on the Protestants. “And we’re getting sick and tired of those English pirates, who have been getting away with murder for decades. It’s time to hang the whole lot—right, boys?” And they would raise glasses of wine and vow to undo the English. King Philip saw that the whole country was in a mood of revenge and heroism and he decided to take advantage of it. “How many ships do you think we can assemble?” he asked the Duke of Alba. “The time is right to win back England for the Church.” For the Crown too.

One day while the inn was crowded with customers Tomás called Cervantes over. “See those two men by the window? The fat one is Antonio de Guevara. The King has just appointed him Head Comissary for a great Armada. That other fellow is Diego de Valdivia, Guevara’s adjutant. I’m going to introduce you to them. They are looking for commissaries to collect provisions for the fleet. The money is very good.”

The two nobles told Cervantes exactly what he would have to do. “The King needs wheat and oil to make the sailors’ biscuits. Of course the Crown cannot afford the huge sums necessary to pay for all that. But His Majesty is sure every Spaniard will want to cooperate in the undertaking, which the Almighty has surely ordained.”

“I see,” said Cervantes. “Requisitioning. The grain and oil will be collected by force.”

“Correct,” said the big Guevara. “Our commissaries will collect from each landowner an amount that we have fixed. You will simply go to his residence and present the official writ. Then at the granary you will supervise the actual transferral of the grain and oil to the King’s siloes. The Crown will pay you twelve reales a day.”

“And if the landowner or farmer refuses to open his bins?”

“As His Majesty’s commissary you will have full powers to oblige him to do so. Should the man refuse to cooperate, you will have him imprisoned.”

Cervantes was back on the farm when his offical appointment came through. What did he tell Catalina as he prepared to go south? Neither knew he would spend the next fifteen years collecting taxes in all the towns and villages of Andalucía. “Your mother wanted me to administer your family fortune, right?” he must have said. “Well, within two years I will double it—or my name is Charlie.”

He did and he didn’t. At one time he had thousands of maravedis in his hands but they disappeared mysteriously. “There are really only two ways he could have lost that money,” says a biographer. “Either he made bad investments or he gambled it away.”

Cards in the Spanish deck

“Cervantes must have been quite a card-shark,” says another of his biographers, “after all those years in the army and in the Turkish bath. In his stories he shows familiarity with all the games of the time.”
Perhaps at the gaming table they called him Charlie.


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A Spanish Pompeii?

Sort of. At least it was a real Roman city with all the fixings and it was buried and lost to history for a thousand years. The difference is that Pompeii was covered up all at once by volcanic dust and Segobriga was abandoned and slowly buried in mud and weeds.

It is an exciting place to visit, just a little more than an hour from Madrid, going east on the Valencia road. It is called Segóbriga (not Segovia, another great place to see). It is on a hill with a brook flowing around it in beautiful, rolling country—wheatfields and evergreen oak woods. That is just as it must have been in Roman times.

The hill when excavations began at Segobriga, Spain

The hill when excavations began at Segobriga, Spain

Segóbriga had everything a Roman city should have. There was a theater, an amphitheater, a circus (racetrack), a basilica, a temple, baths, a cistern and sewers, a cemetery. It might almost be a modern re-creation for educational purposes. But it is the real thing! There were gladiators in its amphitheater, old Latin plays in its theater, emperor worshippers in the temples, magistrates walking around in togas, and slaves.

A performance in the old Roman theater during the International Theater FestivalA performance in the old Roman theater during the International Theater Festival

The amphitheater of Segobriga, SpainThe amphitheater of Segobriga, Spain

The story of most ruins is lost to history, so you have guess what happened there. But not for Segóbriga—that is the best part of all.

There are ancient references to her with information and stories enough for a good novel. No less an authority than Pliny the Elder, the author of the Natural History, talks about her. He was there! And what does he say?

An old translation of Pliny's Natural HistoryAn old translation of Pliny’s Natural History

Segóbriga was a mining town. The mines brought her great wealth and made some of the local families rich, and they built the monuments for their hometown.
Mines? What Mines? Is there coal or some mineral around there?

No coal, no metal. Plaster.

How can you get rich on plaster?

Plaster, or rather GYPSUM, in its crystal state is transparent. Rocks of it split into fine sheets. What can you do with those?

Lapis specularis from an old Roman mineLapis specularis from an old Roman mine

In ancient Rome buildings had windows (“wind eyes”—square or rectangular holes in walls to let in light and air) but no glass panes. To let in the light they necessarily had to let in the cold or the heat too. Probably most of the time people kept those windows blocked with a curtain or a shutter.

The idea to use the sheets of crystal gypsum for window panes came to someone around the turn of the millenium, i.e. AD 1. An architect imported some big ones from Spain and used them as skylights to light the public baths in Rome. Then the rich started doing the same for their houses and villas. In time, the gypsum was used as window-glass.

It was a fad. It coincided with the big economic boom of the first century. Buildings, private and public, were going up everywhere. “The best lapis specularis in the world,” says Pliny, “comes from an area of 100,000 paces around a little town in Spain called Segóbriga.”

If you are lucky enough to make friends with a young enthusiast from the nearby town of Osa, you may put on a miner’s helmet with its carbide lantern and crawl down into one of the long-since abandoned mines to see the endless galleries and the pick gouges made 2000 years ago by Latin-speaking slaves. That mine will soon be open to the public.

Inside a specularis mine. There is ancient graffiti on this column.

Inside a specularis mine. There is ancient graffiti on this column.

There is one more cool feature—the remains of a Christian basilica—one of the oldest ever found. After the Roman Empire declined and Spain became Christian, Segóbriga became the seat of a diocese. Its bishops attended the synods in Toledo and are on record until the eighth century, when the Arabs invaded Spain and came through with fire and sword. End of basilica. And, more or less, end of Segobriga. At the ruins of the basilica you can see the tombstone of a seventh-century bishop, one of the last.

Gravestone of a seventh-century bishop of Segobriga

Gravestone of a seventh-century bishop of Segobriga

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A White Fawn Whispers to Sertorius

One morning a hunter brought a snow-white fawn into camp and presented it to Sertorius.

One of Argonne’s famous white deer makes a rare appearance on a misty morning (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license photo)

Sertorius smiled to see such a beautiful and curious animal. He was happy for a gift like that from the Lusitani. He needed all the support he could get.

He had it tied to his tent. In time it became tame and gentle and he let it follow him around camp. It obeyed his orders—it came when he called and walked off when he told it to leave. Somehow it didn’t mind all the uproar of camp, all the thousands of soldiers. It listened only to Sertorius.

He was astute. Not for nothing was he known as the Roman Hannibal. Probably already as soon as the white deer began following him around he had the idea to say it came from heaven, from the goddess Diana, and that it talked to him and revealed her secrets. The Lusitani were all superstitious—it was easy to get them to believe a story like that.

Whenever he received secret information, he said the deer had whispered it to him. If news came to him that the enemy had made an incursion into his territory he told his men to arm themselves, that the doe had warned him in a dream of an imminent attack. When he heard of or suspected some mutiny or treachery among his soldiers, he said the fawn told him to be on the lookout. And when news reached him of the victory of one of his generals, he hushed the messenger and brought out the doe all covered in garlands. “Good news,” he announced to his soldiers. “Blessed news. Let us offer sacrifice to the gods because good fortune has come our way. I’ve been told.” And he turned to the fawn, who looked back at him with great, loving eyes.

“By these devices,” says Plutarch, “he made the people tractable, and so found them more serviceable for all his plans; they believed that they were led, not by the mortal wisdom of a foreigner, but by a god.”

Meanwhile, everything began to go well for Sertorius and his army of Lusitani barbarians. His power grew and grew. He had started out with only a handful of real Roman soldiers and a motley band of Libyans from Africa. In Lusitania (modern Portugal) he picked up four thousand targeteers and a few hundred horsemen. That was all—that was his army.
With that he waged war against four Roman generals and one hundred and twenty thousand foot-soldiers, six thousand horsemen, and two thousand archers and slingers. Most of the cities in Spain were hostile too and closed their gates to him.
“But nevertheless, from so weak and slender a beginning,” says Plutarch, “he not only subdued great nations and took many cities, but was also victorious over the generals sent against him.”

Who was this Sertorius anyway—and what was he doing fighting on the side of the barbarians against the Romans, his own people?

There was a civil war going on in Italy.

 Lucius Cornelius Sulla – a denarius portrait issued by his grandson (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license photo)

A general named Sulla, after winning a great victory in the East, had come back to Rome with his army and started killing his adversaries. He was on the side of the senate and the old patrician families. Sertorius was a leader of the other side—the people’s party. He had to flee or be murdered. For months he was on the run all over the Mediterranean and Africa. Finally he accepted the call of the Lusitani to be their leader and he began organizing an army.

He began organizing a second Rome, a more just Rome, from Spain. His reputation as a fearless soldier and a great leader had already spread over Hispania. He knew how to win the confidence of his men with shows of clemency and also frequent victories. Yet his situation was always very precarious.

Pompey the Great, 106-48 BC ( public domain photo)

Now Pompey,  the greatest Roman general of all, had come to Hispania with a vast army to end his revolt.

And just when Sertorius needed all the help he could get to keep his army confident, an aide announced that the doe was gone. No one had seen it for days.
Yet Sertorius was lucky one more time. Some men found the doe wandering in the hills at night and brought it to him. “Keep this quiet,” he told the men, and paid them good money.

He hid the doe and allowed a few days to pass. Then one morning he came out of his tent with strange cheerfulness and strode to the tribunal, where he did his daily business. “I’ve had a wonderful dream,” he told the barbarian leaders. “Great good fortune is on the way.”
Then he climbed up onto the tribunal and began to work.

“And now,” says Plutarch, “the doe was released by her keepers at a point close by. She spied Sertorius and bounded joyfully towards the tribunal, stood by his side and put her head in his lap and licked his hand as she had always done before. Sertorius returned her caresses appropriately and even shed a few tears, whereupon the bystanders were struck with amazement. Convinced that Sertorius was a marvellous man and dear to the gods, they escorted him with shouts and clapping of hands to his home, and were full of confidence and good hopes.”

He beat Pompey.

Read more about They Called Him the Roman Hannibal


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El David o el Bloque sin Valor

David_von_MichelangeloEl David de Miguel Ángel. Es el momento antes de la batalla con Goliat. GNU-FDL Foto deRico Heil (User:Silmaril)

El David de Miguel Ángel salió de un bloque de mármol estropeado que no quería nadie. Las limitaciones de su material obligaron al artista a superarse; y creó su gran obra maestra. ¿Cómo lo hizo?

Había oído hablar de un gran bloque de mármol de casi cinco metros de alto que llevaba años abandonado en un patio. Cuando fue al ayuntamiento a preguntar por él se le dijo que el gobernador-alcalde lo había prometido a un escultor llamado Sansovino. Otro oficial le corrigió al primero, diciendo que él tenía entendido que era para Leonardo da Vinci; pero en cualquier caso, lo mejor sería olvidarse de él porque no valía para nada.

“¿No le han dicho?” preguntó el oficial. “Un tipo llamado Agostino di Duccio empezó a sacar una figura hace años y, ni corto ni perezoso, pero tonto, sí, hizo un agujero justo por el medio. Si hubiera sido un agujero limpio, quizá tendría solución. Pero a continuacíon, el gracioso va y quita piedra a los dos lados del agujero, como para fastidiar el bloque ya bién del todo. Un montón de escultores han ido a echarlo un vistazo y todos han vuelto rabiosos y algunos casi llorando. Era un bloque hermoso, sin el más mínimo fallo. ¡Qué imbécil,  di Duccio! Era para matarle.”

Miguel Ángel conocía la historia y, allá en Roma, mientras esculpía la Piedad, se preguntaba si el bloque de verdad estaba tan mal y si él no podía sacar una figura de él, aún con su agujero. Que una docena de otros escultores no hubiesen sido capaces de hacerlo no le importaba nada.

“Me dejaría ir a verlo?” preguntó.

En el patio del Departamento de Obras de la catedral pasó mucho tiempo con la gran piedra. Yacía como un obelisco caído entre las malas hierbas. Dió vueltas a su alrededor, sacó medidas, se quedó pensando.

“Ahora puede Vd. comprender por qué la gente lo ha rechazado,” dijo el viejo portero con su anilla de llaves. Miguel Ángel no le respondió.

Tan pronto como llegó a casa se puso a dibujar y a hacer un pequeño boceto de cera de un David, que era el tema de di Duccio. Cuando estaba seguro de que podía sacar su figura del bloque, fue a pedírselo al alcalde. Después de pensarlo un rato, Soderini dijo: “De acuerdo. Al fin y al cabo no vale nada ya, y no puedes estropearlo más.”

Miguel Ángel extrajo la figura con tanta precisión que todavía se pueden apreciar en algunos sitios la antigua superficie del bloque y las marcas del cincel de di Duccio.

 David tan grande como Goliat

Tiene más de cinco metros de altura. Representa el David de la Biblia, el pastor que mató a Goliat con una piedra de su honda y más tarde se convirtió en el rey de Israel.

 Miguel Ángel empezó a trabajarlo en 1501 y, según Condivi, su biógrafo, lo esculpió—lo “ventiló”, como dicen los canteros—en sólo dieciocho meses. Si eso es cierto, es casi  obra de un mago.

¿Dónde lo ponemos?

Se convocó una conferencia de artistas para decidir sobre su ubicación. Entre ellos se encontraban  algunos de los artistas más famosos del renacimiento italiano: Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli y Filippino Lippi.
Votaron erigir la gran estatua a la entrada del Palazzo Vecchio, el palacio y antiguo ayuntamiento de Florencia.

450px-Firenze.PalVecchio05El Palazzo Vecchio, Florencia (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license foto de JoJan)

En 1872 fue trasladada a la Academia (un museo), donde se encuentra actualmente.

800px-David_by_Michelangelo_in_The_Gallery_of_the_Accademia_di_Belle_ArtiEl David en la Accademia de Belli Arti de Florencia (Creative CommonsAttribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported foto de Clayton Tang

Unos años más tarde, esta réplica se colocó en el sitio original:

239px-MichelangeloDavidRéplica del David de Miguel Ángel delante  del Palazzo Vecchio, Florencia (Creative CommonsAttribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license foto de Massimo Catarinella)

Un símbolo de la libertad

Se propuso como un símbolo de la libertad. Los habitantes de Florencia se habían enfrentado valientemente a su gobernante tirano, Perfrancesco de Medici, y lo habían echado de su ciudad. Este nuevo David recordaría a quienquiera gobernara Florencia en el futuro que debiera proteger a su pueblo de la injusticia, como había hecho el rey David.

Cómo la transportaron
El traslado de la enorme figura del taller de Miguel Ángel a la plaza del ayuntamiento planteó un serio problema. Dos hermanos (Sangallo) finalmente lo resolvieron. Construyeron un armazón de madera del cual colgaron la estatua con cuerdas gruesas. De esta manera se balanceaba mientras la transportaron y absorbió las vibraciones sin romperse. La cuerda de la que colgaba tenía un ingenioso nudo corredizo que apretaba con el peso. El transporte se llevó a cabo de la manera tradicional, es decir, construyendo delante de la estatua un camino de tablones de madera , colocando debajo del bloque unos rodillos de hierro y tirando adelante con torno y cuerda.


El David fue dañado en 1527, cuando una vez más los Medici fueron expulsados de la ciudad. Alguien tiró un banco de una ventana del palacio y partió el brazo izquierdo. Las piezas fueron recogidas y restauradas por Vasari. Las juntas son visibles.

brazo de david Brazo izquierdo del David, que muestra las juntas de las piezas pegadas (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.  foto de  User:JuanMas)

Grandes elogios y algunas críticas

Vasari dice que “cualquiera que haya visto [el David] no tiene necesidad de ver otra cosa de ningún otro escultor vivo o muerto.” Así lo valoraban muchos de sus contemporáneos. Era la estatua por excelencia. Un crítico moderno, Justi, la llamó “la estatua más perfecta de Miguel Ángel de un hombre desnudo”.

Pero no todos los críticos le pusieron la máxima nota. Algunos pensaron que el David no parecía lo suficientemente joven. La Biblia lo describe como un niño y la figura de Miguel Ángel tiene el cuerpo de un hombre casi completamente desarrollado. Otros, como Jakob Burckhardt, opinó que Miguel Ángel había cometido un error al tratar de representar la figura de un adolescente en proporciones colosales. “Sólo las personas adultas pueden ser convenientemente ampliadas”, escribió.

Otras figuras de David

Miguel Ángel no fue el primero en hacer una estatua del rey de Israel.
Ya había algunas excelentes estatuas de David en Florencia. De ellas, las de Donatello y Verrocchio son las más famosas.

El David de Donatello

Donatello, uno de los primeros grandes escultores florentinos, creó este David alrededor de 1445, antes de que naciera Miguel Ángel.

Florence_-_David_by_DonatelloEl David de Donatello (Creative CommonsAttribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported foto de Patrick A. Rodgers)

Es la figura de un niño, que sostiene la enorme espada que ha quitado a Goliat, pero su cuerpo es una curiosa mezcla de formas masculinas y femininas. Al igual que el David de Miguel Ángel, tenía una significación política. También celebraba el derrocamiento de un tirano.

El David de Verrocchio

Verrocchio fue el maestro de Leonardo da Vinci y una tradición dice que el propio Leonardo posó para su David.

david-1475.jpg!BlogEl David de Andrea Verrocchio (wikipaintings foto)

Una copia. En otra versión  pasa el gran obstáculo de la cabeza de Goliat levantando su pie con la facilidad de un niño. Pero su rostro es serio.

Al comparar estas figuras de David hay que recordar que la de Miguel Ángel mide más de cinco metros de altura, y es de mármol. Las otras dos tienen menos de un metro y son de bronce, una técnica muy diferente.

Para la planificación de una figura tan grande Miguel Ángel tuvo que tratar de imaginar cómo se la vería desde abajo y a mucha distancia, y ajustó algunos detalles para “corregirla” desde esas perspectivas. La cabeza, por ejemplo, es muy grande. La mano derecha se mantuvo grande y baja probablemente con el fin de acentuar la inclinación del torso, que da vida a la figura.
A diferencia de todos los demás Davides, la de Miguel Ángel no lleva ninguno de los emblemas del profeta bíblico.  No hay ni espada de Goliat ni  cabeza cortada. La honda que sostiene en la mano izquierda no es reconocible como tal y la piedra (en realidad, una diminuta columna de mármol) dentro de la mano derecha no es siquiera visible. De hecho, los florentinos de la época no se referían a la figura como “el David”, sino simplemente como “El Gigante”.

El hombre capaz de hacer todo

Fue la primera de las figuras titánicas en piedra y pintura que Miguel Ángel realizó y podría también representar al hombre orgulloso, fuerte y hermoso de los filósofos humanistas del que Miguel Ángel había oído hablar cuando era adolescente. O al hombre del Renacimiento que creía que era capaz de hacer todo lo que quería.

El artista joven

Miguel Ángel nació en 1475. Empezó a dibujar y pintar cuando era muy joven y pronto fue patrocinado por un aristócrata poderoso (Lorenzo el Magnífico) que montó una escuela para enseñar escultura a los jóvenes y favoreció a Miguel Ángel. Le invitó a vivir en su palacio y a asistir a las clases con sus hijos, impartidas por profesores eruditos. Así, mientras esculpía sus primeras figuras, se educó con los mejores profesores de Italia.

Por aquél entonces los italianos comenzaron a descubrir e investigar la antiguas culturas romanas y griegas, que parecían ofrecerles una fuente inagotable de sabiduría.


La Escuela de Atenas de Rafael: retratos de los profesores humanistas y artistas de su tiempo como los grande filósofos de la Antigüedad. Stanza della Segnatura , el Vaticano. Se cree que Miguel Ángel es la figura de la túnica morada que escribe sobre el bloque de mármol (foto del dominio público)

¿Qué es un humanista?

Los filósofos a los que Miguel Ángel escuchó en el palacio de Lorenzo de Medici se llamaban “humanistas” porque convirtieron al hombre en un héroe. Pusieron a un lado las consideraciones abstrusas de la edad media acerca de Dios y se concentraron en el hombre, en sus logros y en su lugar en el plan divino del cosmos. Todo desde la punto de vista “humano”, de ahí “el humanismo”, su doctrina.
¿Qué lugar ocupa el hombre en la cadena de los seres que Dios creó, desde los ángeles hasta los animales?  La cumbre, decían los humanistas: él es el fin mismo de la creación de Dios. El hombre es el vínculo entre los dos mundos, el cielo y la tierra, entre lo divino y lo humano. Incluso los ángeles allá arriba deberían envidiarlo porque él, a diferencia de ellos, fue creado con la capacidad de elegir su destino.

El David de Miguel Ángel es ese hombre orgulloso de los humanistas, del Renacimiento. Ya no es un niño—acaba de convertirse en hombre, un hombre que despierta después de miles de años de infancia, de servidumbre.  Es un hombre independiente, bello y fuerte. Frunce el ceño mientras hace una elección, la elección que es su prerrogativa única.

Nunca más se verá el hombre a sí mismo tan magnificado, tan maravilloso. Ya no es posible. En la edad media formaba parte de una comunidad avergonzada, pecaminosa. Y en años posteriores el hombre volvió a convertirse en un prisionero sin opciones reales. Al llegar a nuestro tiempo, era un manojo de complejos y un peón impotente en algún esquema humano. Lo vimos hambriento, roto, amontonado en pilas y tirado como basura. De nuevo no era nadie, menos que nadie. Un moderno David golpeándose el pecho es tan tonto como King Kong.

En cierto modo, los héroes de Miguel Ángel eran demasiado grandes para el mundo, que nunca supo qué hacer con ellos una vez que la filosofía humanista se había extinguido. No había suficiente ternura en ellos, carecían de la simpatía del muñeco. Así que se quedaron girando, brillando como magníficos orbes celestes, lejanos e ininteligibles.

 Miguel Ángel esculpió su famosa estatua de la Piedad cuando tenía sólo 23 años y comenzó El David tres años más tarde.


Las mejores fuentes generales son
Las vidas de los grandes artistas, de Giorgio Vasari, publicada por primera vez en 1555; y la Vida a Miguel Ángel de Ascanio Condivi, unos años más tarde, ambas en vida de Miguel Ángel.

Posted in 1, art, michelangelo, Miguel Ángel, philosophy, Renacimiento, Renaissance | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments