Cleopatra: A Life: Stacy Schiff

★★★★★

What do you think of when you think of Cleopatra? The asp? The siren lure of Egypt? Danielle de Niese, dripping with jewels? Elizabeth Taylor? Whatever we think of, it’s almost certainly incorrect. In this beautifully-written biography, Stacy Schiff tries to peel away the centuries of accretions in the form of purple prose, propaganda and the overheated male gaze, to reveal the ruler beneath. Don’t judge this book by its cover. The publisher has done the author no service in that respect. It’s packaged like a lightweight historical novel, with the traditional faceless woman in historical costume and lashings of pink and gold. It deserves better. Intelligent, gripping and extremely readable, this is the best biography I’ve read in some time.

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The Ladies of Llangollen: Elizabeth Mavor

★★★★

Like the Chevalier d’Eon, the Ladies of Llangollen came my way thanks to a work project. When trying to find an introduction to their lives, I judged that Elizabeth Mavor’s book seemed the best option, despite now coming across as slightly dated (it was published in 1971). Yet, for all that, it presents a thorough and sensitive discussion of these two remarkable women, who created an idyllic lifestyle together on their own terms and in defiance of social convention. Drawing on the Ladies’ own journals and correspondence, along with the letters of their immediate circle, newspaper reports and other documents, Mavor’s book isn’t just the sound introduction I was looking for, but an admirably unbiased and scrupulously fair double biography.

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The Swashbuckling Life of the Chevalier d’Eon

The Chevalier d'Eon

I mentioned in my post on Monsieur d’Eon is a Woman that I’d been asked to give a lecture in my professional capacity about the Chevalier d’Eon. I’m pleased to say that it went very well and feedback suggests that the Chevalier’s story exerts just as much fascination today as it did back in the 18th century. Since there’s a lot of misleading information about the Chevalier online, and since this remarkable story deserves to be known more widely, I decided to turn my lecture into a blog post. What follows is, therefore, considerably longer than my usual posts but is amply illustrated. The British Museum has almost sixty prints and other documents relating to the Chevalier’s life in London, many of which I reproduce here. So let’s delve in to a tale of espionage, secrecy, swashbuckling and remarkable self-fashioning.

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Monsieur d’Eon is a Woman: Gary Kates

★★★★½

A Tale of Political Intrigue and Sexual Masquerade

When I reviewed The Chevalier back in June last year, I was interested in the life of the Chevalier d’Eon but didn’t know much beyond what I’d read on Wikipedia. Since then, life has played one of its serendipitous little jokes on me. I was recently asked to give a lecture on the Chevalier in my professional capacity, which means that I’ve spent the last month poring over books written both by and about him. My experience has emphasised exactly how inaccurate The Chevalier is (horribly!), but has also revealed the full complexity of this utterly fascinating life. And, if you want to get the facts, this book is the place to start.

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Thomas More: John Guy

★★★★

A very brief history

I’ve always wanted to like Thomas More, largely thanks to Hans Holbein’s magnificent portrait. It offers such an appealingly naturalistic image of the man. More is intense, slightly homely with that overlarge nose, his eyes crinkling at the corners and his mouth quirked benevolently at the corner. He hasn’t shaved: his jaw is scattered with soft grey bristles. The red velvet and fur-trimmed cloak look incongruous: you get the impression he’s indifferent to worldly finery, his mind resolutely fixed on higher things. We almost forget the artist’s craft: we treat the portrait as a photograph, a direct record of the man. But art isn’t like that. And nor is history. The problem is that history has left us so many Mores – the principled objector; the humanist; the saint; the idealistic author of Utopia; the burner of heretics. How can we find our way through the mire? Fortunately this short, lucid and lively book offers a crash course in all things More – and our guide is one of the world’s foremost Tudor historians.

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Daughter of Heaven: Nigel Cawthorne

★★★

The True Story of the Only Woman to Become Emperor of China

My recent Chinese escapades left me with a burning desire to find out more about the country’s history and culture, so I couldn’t resist this biography of Wu Chao, a remarkable woman in the 7th century who clawed her way up from the status of a lowly concubine to become Emperor of China in her own right. She was, predictably, a fascinating character and her court, in its intrigues, corruption and eventual dissipation, makes the worst excesses of Westeros look like a village fete. Her rise and fall are worthy of a Greek tragedy but, alas, this book isn’t the best way for a newcomer to encounter her story.

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Defacing the Past

Head of Germanicus

Damnation and Desecration in Imperial Rome

(British Museum, London, until 7 May 2017, Room 69a)

We all know what it means to deface something, but pause a moment and think about the word in greater detail: to de-face, to erase identity, to obliterate the memory of a person. It is one of the most profound punishments that history can inflict, for it either condemns a man to oblivion or associates him eternally with the shame of his downfall. This small but carefully curated show, focusing on coins and medals with some pieces of sculpture, looks at how defacement was used as a political punishment in Ancient Rome, and how it grew out of preexisting traditions of damnatio memoriae that have continued in various forms right up to the present day.

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Four Princes: John Julius Norwich

★★★★

Henry VIII, Francis I, Charles V, Suleiman the Magnificent and the Obsessions that Forged Modern Europe

Over the years I’ve assembled a variety of John Julius Norwich’s history books, because he conveniently writes on precisely the topics that fascinate me: Byzantium; Sicily; the Normans in Italy; and so forth. However, although I’ve dipped into all of these books, I’ve rather shamefully never finished any of them, having been distracted for various reasons from savouring Norwich’s sublimely elegant prose. This new history, shorter than the others and full of a delightful liveliness, has the honour of being the first Norwich that I’ve read cover to cover. Taking the unusual format of a group biography, it focuses on the dazzling first half of the 16th century, when four men between them bestrode Europe like colossi. It’s an extremely accessible introduction to the period and the men in question.

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Académie Royale: Hannah Williams

★★★★½

A History in Portraits

Published in 2015, this lavishly-illustrated book offers a engaging study of the Académie Royale, from its foundation in 1648 until its abolition in 1793 as part of the intellectual readjustments of the Revolution. While the Académie’s meetings and statutes are well-documented and have furnished much research over the years, Williams seeks to go beyond a simple chronological history of a great institution. Instead, she interrogates the Académie’s values and networks by reconstructing the lived experience of its members, as far as possible, through an examination of the Académie’s collection of official artists’ portraits. It’s an ambitious idea, but the book pulls it off remarkably well and is all the more appealing for its spirited accounts of machinations, alliances and rivalries in the corridors of the Louvre in the 17th and 18th centuries.

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Emma Hamilton: Seduction & Celebrity

Romney: Emma as Circle

(National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, until 17 April 2017)

If you aspired to be anyone in the 1790s, one of the mandatory stops on your Grand Tour would be the villa of Sir William Hamilton, British envoy in Naples. You would enjoy Hamilton’s learned conversation, admire his remarkable collection of antiquities and, perhaps, take a trip up Vesuvius to admire the steaming crater. And, if you were especially fortunate, you might have the chance to see Lady Hamilton perform her famous Attitudes, a series of tableaux vivants representing famous women from the Classical world. Yet the appeal was as much due to Lady Hamilton’s notoriety as her talents.

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