Prester John


Prester John from Hartmann Schedel’s Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493

In the time of the crusades, Europeans were looking for any allies in their battles against the Muslims for the Holy Land.  Medieval writings often feature a fabulously wealthy Christian king in the East.  This was Prester John.  He was believed to be a member of the Nestorian Church, which was an independent Eastern Christian church that did not fall under the purview of the patriarch in Constantinople.  He was supposed to be an ally against the Muslims for the crusaders to take advantage of.

The story of Prester John was first recorded by Bishop Otto of Freisling Germany in his Chronicon published in 1145.  It was based on a report from Bishop Hugh of Gerbal in Syria to the papal court at Viterbo, Italy.  According to the story recorded in the Chronicon, Prester John was a powerful Christian king who was the descendant of the Magi who visited the Christ Child.  He was also said to be a formidable fighter who defeated the Muslim kings of Persia in battle taking their capital of Ecbatana.  The only reason he did not recapture Jerusalem was because he could not cross the Tigris River.  There was no more on the story until a letter appeared in 1165.  Copies of a letter from Prester John to the Byzantine emperor Manuel I Komnenos began circulating.  In this letter, Prester John’s kingdom is described as having crystal clear rivers of emeralds, massive amounts of gold, majestic animals and the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel.  This myth also morphed into having Prester John’s kingdom being next door to the Garden of Paradise.  A good ally to have.  This letter were so persuasive that Pope Alexander III sent a return letter addressed to Prester John in 1177.  It was being taken east by Alexander’s personal physician Philip.  It is addressed to “the illustrious and magnificent king of the Indies and a beloved son of Christ.”  Nothing more is mentioned of Philip or what happened to him and the letter.

However, all of this was fictional.  It is thought that the battle being referred to was fought between the Mongol khan Yelu Dashi and the Seljuk sultan Sanjar in 1141.  The Mongol khans who fought in this battle were not Christians, but Buddhists.  However, many of their followers were Nestorian Christians.  It’s also possible that Europeans that were unfamiliar with Buddhists may have assumed they were another sect of Christianity.  The letter published in 1165 was fiction, however, it was translated from its original Latin into a variety of languages and distributed throughout Europe.  Then word returned from the Fifth Crusade that Prester John’s grandson, King David, was fighting the Saracens.  The problem?  It wasn’t King David conquering all these lands.  It was the Mongol ruler Genghis Khan.  They tried to bend this new development around the legend by saying one of his favorite wives was a Nestorian Christian and that he was tolerant of other religious faiths as long as they didn’t make trouble.  However, this didn’t really fit the narrative and the legends moved away from Prester John being a central Asian king.

Some additional legends, linked Prester John to kingdoms in Africa even though the original story placed him in Asia.  Marco Polo had discussed Ethiopia as a Christian land fueling the rumors.  In the 15th century, Italian and Portuguese explorers began searching for Prester John in Africa.  Portuguese explorers began connecting a kingdom in present-day Ethiopia with Prester John’s realm.  They made contact with the kingdom of Zara Yaqob, and decided this kingdom was the source of the wealth of Solomon.  Prester John was identified with the negus, or emperor, of the kingdom.  In fact, ambassadors from Zara Yaqob attended the Council of Florence and identified as representatives of Prester John.  They were extremely confused.

By this time, the legend was dying out as exploration of Africa and Asia by the Europeans were not finding this fabled kingdom.  However, the legend did inspire generations of explorers, soldiers and dreamers


Enrico Dandolo’s Revenge or The Fourth Crusade

Conquest Of Constantinople By The Crusaders In 1204

Enrico Dandolo had an ax to grind.  At first, it seemed like he had a pretty good life.  He was born in the early 12th century to an influential Venetian noble family.  His father was Vitale Dandolo, who was a famous jurist and diplomat.  His uncle, another Enrico Dandolo, was the patriarch of Grado, the highest ranking churchman in Venice.  Young Enrico followed in his father’s footsteps and went on many diplomatic for the Republic.  He was a shrewd politician and survived a disastrous mission Constantinople in 1171.  The Byzantine Empire was the biggest kid on the block, and had seized the goods of thousands of Venetians living in the Empire and threw the people in prison.  The initial mission was a complete mess, and ended up with the Doge being killed by a mob.  Dandolo survived and made many diplomatic trips to Constantinople, Ferrara and Sicily.  It is said one trip to Constantinople, Enrico lost his sight.  One story says that he so vigorously defended the rights of the Venetians living in Constantinople, the Byzantine emperor had him blinded.  However, Groffroi de Villehardouin, a chronicler of the fourth Crusade, reports Dandolo lost his sight from a blow to the head.  However, he lost his sight, it did not quench his ambition or his ability, and stoked a growing hatred for the Byzantine Empire.

At a time when most men were settling down, Dandolo began his rise to power.  He became the forty-first Doge of Venice on June 1, 1192.  He was 84 years old and blind to boot.  However, he wasn’t about to rest on his laurels.  He had a score to settle with Byzantium.  By the end of the 12th century, there had been three crusades to retake the holy land with varying degrees of success.  The Third Crusade had just ended with the Treaty of Jaffa, which left the city of Jerusalem under Muslim control.  No one much liked that.  The Saladin died, and his successors looked easier to beat.  So in 1198, Pope Innocent III immediately began calling for a new crusade to free Jerusalem.  Unfortunately, no one was much interested as literally everyone in Europe was busy with something else.  

Finally in 1202, the  army of mostly French recruits, marched to Venice, who had agreed to provide them with transport to Cairo.  Slight problem, no one had any money to pay the Venetians.  This turned into a huge problem for Venice as they had sunk all their ready cash in building a fleet for the crusaders, which put their shipbuilding economy on hold.  Plus there were 12,000 soldiers wandering around with no money and bored out of their minds.  That wasn’t going to end well.  A deal was struck.  The crusaders could go to Cairo, if they captured the port of Zara on the Dalmatian coast for Venice on the way.  Zara was a Christian city, but no matter.  They would get some cash plus revenge for the Dalmatians not aligning themselves with Venice, the crusaders would get where they needed to go.  Win win.   Not exactly in the eyes of Pope Innocent III, who put tried to put the kibosh on the plan by threatening to excommunicate everyone if they went through with it.  Everyone kind of forgot to tell the rank and file that, and they took Zara anyway.

So, now that Dandolo was officially excommunicated he was now free to do exactly what he wanted, and he smelled profit and revenge.  While all this was going on,

Tomb of Enrico Dandolo in Hagia Sofia in Istanbul Photo Credit-

there was a power struggle in Constantinople.  Isaac II lost the throne and his brother was crowned as Alexios III.  Isaac’s son, another Alexios, was not keen on losing his inheritance, and cast about for allies and found one Enrico Dandolo.  Dandolo had the crusader army sale not for Cairo, but for Constantinople with Isaac’s son in tow.  He was to be proclaimed basileus for the tidy sum of 236,000 silver marks.  Yet another problem-  Isaac’s son did not have that kind of money.  Alexios decided to keep that to himself as the crusader army and Venetian ships attacked Constantinople.  They almost lost, but eventually Alexios III lost his nerve and fled.  Young Alexios was crowned Alexios IV as co-emperor with his old father, Isaac II.  It was time to pay up, but Alexios decided to try to to skip out on the debt.

When the Venetians found out they were pissed.  They refused to leave the city until they got every cent, and eventually the crusader army and the citizens of Constantinople were brawling in the city streets.  The citizens were fed up and brought in a new basileus, yet another Alexios who became Alexios V.  This Alexios was very anti-Latin, as the crusaders and Venetians were called.  Dandolo knew they weren’t going to get any money from him, so they declared him a usurper and let the crusader army loose on the great city of Constantinople.  Not exactly what Pope Innocent had in mind, but he eventually got his cut so he let it slide.

The city fell to the crusader army on April 13, 1204 and it is estimated that 900,000 silver marks was looted out of Constantinople.  Jerusalem wasn’t conquered and the Muslims were never engaged in one battle.  The only people who fought were Christians against Christians, which greatly belittled the worth of the Pope’s word.  Innocent fought that battle for years after.  However, everyone made their money and Dandolo got his revenge.  However, the price for his revenge was quite high.  The Byzantine Empire had been the bulwark against the Muslims for years and this little escapade had weakened it significantly.  There was a series of “Latin” rulers, but within sixty years the Greeks were back in charge.  However, it never recovered and became an easy mark for the Ottoman Empire.  


Bona Sforza

Bona in 1517

One would generally think the Queen of Poland would be….well….Polish.  In this case, she was not.  Bona Sforza, as her name would indicate, was Italian.  However, as the wife of King Sigismund I she exercised great power over the country.

A member of the powerful Sforza family of Milan, Bona was born on February 2, 1494 the second child of Gian Galeazzo Sforza, sixth Duke of Milan and his wife Isabella of Naples.  Fun fact, Isabella is thought be some to be the inspiration for the Mona Lisa.  Raised in Bari and Milan, she was educated by the imminent Italian humanists Antonio de Ferraris and Crisotomo Colonna.  From them she learned mathematics, history, classical literature, Latin, , law, theology, geography, natural science, and how to play several instruments.  Bona was also raised on stories of the dangers of the Ottoman Empire and the great explorers of the day.  In short, she was a perfect Renaissance princess.  Sadly, Bona was the only one of her four siblings to live to adulthood.

As part of a powerful family, Bona was expected to make a good marriage.  One problem.  Her great uncle  Ludovico Sforza was constantly at odds with everyone.  He was in a feud with both France and the Pope, so options in France, Italy or Spain were extremely limited.  So the family turned east, and with the help of the House of Hapsburg secured a match for Bona with the widowed Sigismund I of Poland.  The prospect must not have been that exciting for a young girl as her future husband was called “Sigismund the Old”.  Bona was no spring chicken herself, being unwed and 24, but Sigismund was twenty-seven years older than her and quite rough around the edges to the polished Italian lady.  Despite all this, the two were married on April 18,1518 and Bona was crowned Queen of Poland.

As can be expected, the first few months were difficult.  Bona was coming into a culture and climate that was vastly different than the sunny Italy of her youth.  Even the food was different as the diet was heavy on meat and missing the vegetables she was used to.  Bona became known as the Culinary Queen, as she introduced  “włoszczyzna”, literally Italian vegetables, to the area.  She planted a garden near Wawel castle complete with celery, carrots, parsley and leeks.  These vegetables made their way into the Polish and Lithuanian diets along with the words for these vegetables.  She also introduced Italian artists to Poland, including her court favorite Bartolommeo Berrecci.  HIs masterpiece is the Sigismund Chapel at Wawel Castle Cathedral in Kraków.  It is considered “the most beautiful example of the Tuscan Renaissance north of the Alps”.

Bona and Sigismund had six children, however, if the Polish court thought Bona was only going to be a mother of heirs, they were sadly mistaken.  Raised in the centers of power in Italy, Bona began building her own base of support from the Polish nobility.  She was also able to leverage her relationship to the Medici Pope Leo X to influence clerical appointments in her favor.  Despite her upbringing and the help of the Habsburgs in securing her marriage, Bona came down on the side of the Ottoman Empire against the Habsburgs.  Her correspondence with Hurrem Sultan, the legal wife of Suleiman the Magnificent, is thought to have been critical in saving Poland from attempted invasion by the Ottoman Empire.  This correspondence has been lost to time, however, Hurrem sent personal gifts to both Sigismund and his son.  Hurrem was originally from Poland, and all signs point to them having a close relationship.  

Of her children, one son and four daughters survived to adulthood.  Her daughters went on to become powerful in their own rite:  Queen Isabella of Hungary, Duchess Sophia of Brunswick-Lüneberg, Queen Anna I of Poland and Queen Catherine of Sweden, Duchess of Finland.  However, her son and heir became her greatest disappointment.  Sigismund II August succeeded his father after his death in 1548.  However, Sigismund August did not inherit the ruling ability of either his father or his mother.  He concentrated on romance and art rather than running the kingdom.  His first wife was the choice of his father and Bona bitterly opposed it.  Elizabeth of Austria was a Hapsburg, and was in frail health.  The journey from Austria to Poland exacerbated her epilepsy and she began having daily seizures.  Her father-in-law was sympathetic, but Bona was openly hostile.  Sigismund August was indifferent.  He found his new wife unattractive and busied himself with affairs.  Elizabeth made the mistake of calling Bona by her title “the Old Queen”, which Bona detested.  Not a great way to get in good with your mother-in-law.  The poor girl died two years into the marriage.

At this point Sigismund August was on the marriage market again, and Bona expected to get him a more suitable wife this time.  However, that was not on Sigismund August’s mind and he married his outstandingly beautiful mistress Barbara Radziwiłłówna.  Not only was she not Bona’s choice, but she was a Lithuanian Calvinist from an ambitious family.  Bona had worked diligently to keep Protestantism from taking root in Poland, even though she allowed Protestant views to be discussed.  Having one as Queen?  Not happening.  Bona was livid and was not quiet about it.  She headed the campaign to annul the marriage, which included slut shaming Barbara, accusing her of poisoning her first husband and witchcraft to seduce the young king.  The marriage was recognized despite Bona’s efforts and Barbara was crowned Queen of Poland on December 7, 1550.  Bona was removed from court and moved to Mazovia, and was supposedly content with her farms and orchards.  However, when beautiful Barbara died mysteriously in May 8,1551, rumors went round that she had been poisoned on Bona’s orders.  Then rumors went round that this was not the first time Bona had removed a distasteful daughter-in-law.  Remember poor sickly Elizabeth.  Bona was Italian.  They did those things, you know.

Eventually the rumors got to be too much and Bona returned to the Bari of her childhood eight years after the death of her husband.  Her son had married another Hapsburg, this time Catherine of Austria, and she wasn’t going to fall into the line of suspicion if another daughter-in-law got sick.  However, Bona herself was the one who became ill and died under mysterious circumstances.  It is believed that at the instigation of her old enemies the Habsburgs, she was poisoned by her trusted officer, Gian Lorenzo Pappacoda.  Apparently, Philip II owed Bona quite a little bit of money.  Pappacoda forged the will the day before to forgive the debt.  He was rewarded with a title and an annual salary.

Sigismund August died without an heir, so all of Bona’s consternation about his bride was for not.  His sister Anna and her husband Stefan Batory took the throne and ruled as King and Queen.


The Lost Tomb of Alexander the Great

Augustus Caesar venerates the mummy of Alexander in 30BC by Showmer Photo credit-
Augustus Caesar venerates the mummy of Alexander in 30BC by Showmer Photo credit-

Alexander the Great conquered the known world, but died unexpectedly in Babylon in 323 BCE at 32 years old.  His death left his empire in disarray, and his generals scrambled to save pieces of it  even as Alexander’s funeral preparations drug on for two years.  At one point, one of these generals, Ptolemy, took control of both Egypt and the great general’s body.  According to Roman historian Curtius Rufus, “Alexander’s body was taken to Memphis by Ptolemy, into whose power Egypt had fallen, and transferred from there a few years later to Alexandria, where every mark of respect continues to be paid to his memory and his name.  This was a big deal as Macedonia tradition was that the heir to the throne asserted their claim by burying their predecessor.  The priests at the temple of Ptah embalmed Alexander’s body, but did not want it to stay in Memphis.  Legend says they said he would not rest wherever he was laid.  Plutarch said representatives were sent to the oracle at the serapeum, and it said Alexander should lay in his name sake city of Alexandria.  It was moved to the Soma, a walled enclosure in the royal district where the Ptolomaic kings were laid.  Carved into the rock underneath was a beautiful tomb where Alexander lay in state in a crystal coffin.

Alexander’s tomb became a place of pilgrimage in the ancient world, and was visited by several Roman emperors.  The future Emperor Augustus visited the tomb after his victory over Cleopatra and Marc Antony.  He brought flowers and a golden diadem, and according to Dio Cassius a piece of his nose broke off when Augustus touched it.  The priests spun it as a blessing from Alexander to his new heir, but who really knows?  According to Suetonius, Caligula took the cuirass of Alexander from the tomb and wore it about on dress up occasions.  The last emperor to visit was Caracalla in 215 CE.  The last mention of the tomb was in early 4th century CE in an oration addressed to the emperor Theodosius that Alexander’s body was still on display in Alexandria.  Soon after Theodosius outlawed the worship of pagan gods.  This edict included Alexander, who had been deified and was worshiped as a god king.  Soon after, all trace of Alexander’s body and tomb disappears.  He is listed by Theodoret in the early 5th century CE as being among the famous whose tombs were unknown.

What happened to such a famous landmark?  Historians believe the Soma was destroyed in 365 CE when a tsunami hit the Alexandria and other parts of the Eastern Mediterranean.  There are reports of ships being sent into the roofs of buildings, so it would not be out of the realm of possibility that this kind of natural disaster could have destroyed the Soma.  However, there are reports later than this of the body being on display, so it would make sense that it had been moved when the Soma was destroyed.  There are also references to a mosque or tomb of Alexander from Arab texts in the 9th and 10th centuries CE.  A map of Alexandria drawn in 1575 shows a building with a minaret and chapel and is labelled “Domus Alexandri Magni”, Latin for “House of Alexander the Great”.  When Napoleon invaded Egypt, he saw an empty sarcophagus in the courtyard of the Attarine Mosque, which was located where the 1575 map shows “House of Alexander the Great”.  But where is the body?  Stories from local guides say the body is hidden in a secret chamber in the new mosque built to honor Nabi Daniel or the prophet Daniel.  However, there is another theory.

Historian Andrew Chugg put forth a theory that the body of Alexander the Great isn’t in Egypt at all.  He theorized the disappearance of the mummy corresponded with the wave of Christianity through Egypt.  Theodosius’ edict did apply to Alexander as he was worshiped as a deified king.  About this time another mummy appeared in Alexandria- that of St. Mark the Evangelist.  This is curious ancient Christian writers such as Dorotheus, Eutychius and the Chronicon Paschale report St. Mark’s body as being burnt by pagans.  However, there is an apocryphal document which states a “miraculous storm” came up and allowed Christians to save St. Mark’s body from the fire.  Guess when this anonymous document was found in Alexandria?  In the 4th century CE, right around the time Theodosius outlawed the worship of pagan gods.  What a coincidence.

The story gets stranger from there.  The mummy stayed in Alexandria until it fell under Arab rule.  In 828 CE, two Venetian merchants smuggled the mummy out in a basket.  They supposedly kept the Alexandrian port officials from inspecting the basket too closely by covering the body with perfume and pork.  It was spirited back to Venice, where it was installed in the Basilica of St. Mark with much pomp and circumstance.

Hellenistic funerary sculpture of a shield with a starburst motif discovered in the foundations of St Marks in Venice. Photo Credit-
Hellenistic funerary sculpture of a shield with a starburst motif discovered in the foundations of St Marks in Venice. Photo Credit-

So does the body of Alexander the Great rest in Venice masquerading as a saint?  No one knows.  In 2008, a large block of sculpture was found embedded in the foundations of the Basilica near the tomb of the saint.  It has been identified as a funerary relief from a high status tomb of the 3rd century BCE.  The stone bears a life sized shield with the starburst emblem of Alexander’s family and a single edged sword called a kopis.  No one has any concrete theories on how it got there.  An easy way to settle this would be to test the remains, but the Roman Catholic Church has not granted permission for this.  So the mummy remains shrouded in mystery.


Artemisia Gentileschi

Artemisia Gentileschi, Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting, 1638–9, Royal Collection (the painting may be a self-portrait)
Artemisia Gentileschi, Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting, 1638–9, Royal Collection (the painting may be a self-portrait)

Artemisia Gentileschi was one of the greatest female artists of the baroque age. A brilliant follower of the Caravaggio, she utilized his technique of chiaroscuro in her works. Modern critics have called her paintings the “real successors to Caravaggio with a muscular personality all their own.” However, as with most female artists she faced blatant sexism as well as other barriers despite her obvious talent.

Born in Rome on July 8, 1593, Artemisia was the eldest child of Tuscan painter Orazio Gentileschi and his wife Prudentia Montone. As a child, she was drawn to her father’s workshop and showed more artistic talent than her brothers, a fact that did not make traditionalists happy. Many of her paintings were confused by patrons as being done by her father. Her mother died when she was twelve, which left her mainly in the company of men. Her father struck up a friendship with numerous artists in Rome including Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. Both Artemisia and her father’s style was heavily influenced by Caravaggio.

As she got older, Artemisia applied to the Academy of Art, but was refused entry because of her gender. Her father supported her talent and arranged for her to have a private teacher. He hired Agostino Tassi, with whom he was decorating the vaults of the Casino della Rose. Tassi must have seemed like a good choice, however, this was the biggest mistake he could have made. Unbeknownst to Artemisia and her father, Tassi was, to put it succinctly, a scum bag. According to Mary Garrard’s book Artemisia Gentileschi, Tassi was known to have raped both his wife and sister-in-law. His wife was missing and presumed dead, and most people believed Tassi had something to do with her disappearance. In short, he was the last person anyone would want in close contact with their seventeen year old daughter.

Tassi quickly became obsessed with the young Artemisia and spied on her and hired men to watch her around the clock. He became insanely jealous at the thought of her with another man, and went out of his way to prevent her from marrying someone else. Finally, he made his move convincing an older friend of Artemisia’s to let him into the house. He trapped her in her bedroom and raped her. According to testimony at the later trial, Artemisia fought back by scratching his face and even stabbing him with a knife, but he was too strong. Upon finding she was a virgin, he promised to marry her. Great. Who wouldn’t want that guy as a husband? Because she was afraid he would not marry her and she would be shamed, Artemisia continued a sexual relationship with Tassi. However, Tassi refused to marry her. There was a little matter of his first wife and the fact he was a scum.

When Artemisia’s father found out, he pressed charges against Tassi for rape. Tassi denied it, and claimed Artemisia was having sex with at least five other men. He also claimed Artemisia was writing erotic letters to many other men. Small problem. Artemisia could not read or write. He claimed his presence at her house was to safeguard her honor. Tassi’s testimony was so ridiculous the judge had to stop the trial several times to ask him to stop lying. Unbelievably though, his testimony was taken as is. Artemisia was subjected to torture to prove hers. First, she was given a gynecological exam by midwifes in front of the judge to see if her virginity had been taken recently. If that wasn’t enough, she was subjected to the sibille. These were ropes tied around her fingers and tightened like thumbscrews. Let’s let this sink in. The rape victim was tortured to ensure the veracity of her testimony. As the ropes were wound around her fingers, Artemisia screamed at Tassi, “This is the ring you gave me and these are your promises!” As the ropes were tightened, she repeated over and over, “It is true, it is true, it is true, it is true.” Tassi was convicted and ordered to be banished from Rome for a year. However, he was a favorite of Pope Innocent X. The sentence didn’t stick.

Judith Slaying Holofernes (1614–20) Oil on canvas 199 x 162 cm Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence
Judith Slaying Holofernes (1614–20) Oil on canvas 199 x 162 cm Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

Unsurprisingly, Artemisia needed a change of scene and was married to Pieratonio Stiattesi from Florence and moved there. In 1618, she had a daughter with him named Prudentia after her mother. In Florence she was the first woman accepted into the Accademia delle Arti del Disegno, and enjoyed much success. Since she was female, Artemisia had the decided advantage of being able to use live female nude models. This was not allowed to male artists of the day. She was taken up by Granduke Cosimo II de’Medici and rubbed elbows with Galileo Galilei and Michelangelo Buonarroti the younger, the nephew of that Michelangelo. She often painted Biblical themes, and one she returned to often was that of Judith beheading Holofernes. Unlike other artists, her Judith has taken control of the situation and is actively harming Holofernes. The second version of this theme is currently in the Uffizi Gallery of Florence and many critics believe this was a version of revenge. I wonder if Holofernes ever looked like Tassi. Also, her time with Galileo must have rubbed off as the blood spatter in this painting is in accordance with his discovery of the parabolic path of projectiles.

She returned to Rome in 1621 after her marriage disintegrated and cast about ways to support herself and her daughter. She bounced about from Rome to Venice to Naples and then her work caught the eye of King Charles I of England. In 1638, she joined her father in London at the English court remaining there even after her father’s death. When civil war broke out in England, it is unknown what she did, however, evidence points to her being in Naples by 1649. It is unknown when exactly she died or what happened to her daughter, who was also a painter. Some have theorized Artemisia died in a plague which swept Naples in 1656. However, art historian Charles Moffat believes Artemisia may have committed suicide, which would explain why her cause of death was not recorded.

She leaves behind a legacy of bold work, which transcends time and gender.


Sources available on request