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I recently went to Rome – mostly as a romantic getaway – but also to get a better idea what Rome would have looked like to the medieval emperors who came down to be crowned by reluctant popes. A lot of the main historic sites have been fundamentally remodelled (St. Peter, St. John Lateran, Santa Maria Maggiore), but more survives than one thinks.

The first thing to remember is that by the time say Henry IV or Frederick Barbarossa come to Rome, many of these churches are already unfathomably old. The first great period of church building in Rome was during the fourth and fifth century. Emperor Constantine funded the construction of the two great basilicas of Old St. Peter and the Basilica of the Lateran. But as the share of Christians in the population grew from 15-18% under Constantine to being the vast majority by late fifth/early 6th century, new churches needed to be built all across Rome.

These early churches were mostly new built over virgin land or land previously used for residential or industrial purposes, not over existing pagan temples. The building was usually in the form of an ancient Roman basilica. These basilicas were originally secular buildings used amongst other things to hold court cases with the judge/governor/emperor sitting in the apsis dispensing justice.

There is one still extant imperial basilica, in Trier that dates from the time of Constantine.

Basilica Trier

In early Christian churches, the judge’s seat was replaced with the altar but otherwise the architecture remained the same. And this apsis was than lavishly decorated with mosaics, depicting Christ in the place where the emperor would usually have sat. This mosaic here is the oldest and most beautiful in Rome dating back to around 390 AD.

Santa Prudentia (Rome)

Imagine you come from say a great Carolingian monastery like Corvey with beautiful early medieval interior decorations, and then you look at this. Nobody during this period was able to create such natural expressions or depiction of movement. It must have been a complete shock to see…

The Basilica of Santa Sabina

The best way to get an impression what these early churches looked like is to visit Santa Sabina on the Aventine hill. The church was built between 422 and 432 and is largely unchanged in its structure today.

If you stand inside you can experience what a space like old St. Peter would have felt like. Not at all dark and “medieval”, but bright, symetric with clean lines. Windows were in clear glass, letting the bright Roman sun into the building. All eyes look down towards the Apsis where all teh important things, like teh coronation is happening.

Santa Sabina, Interior

Though Santa Sabina does no longer have the brilliant Mosaics that once covered its apsis, it has another, truly astounding piece of decoration, its doors, which are original from the 5th century.

Santa Sabina doors (~430 AD)

Let me repoeat this. This is a set of cedar doors made in ~430 AD. The image cannot really convey what they look like. The wood is still shiny, the carving beautiful and detailed, as if no time had passed.

I know the doors in the Pantheon are older and larger, but still, these must be the second oldest doors still in operation anywhere in the world. And if you go to Santa Sabina, you share the space with some Dominican friars, the kids from the primary school opposite and a small number of full-on history geeks (Birkenstocks and all) – well worth it (also got a great view over the city from the park).

The Mystery of the Destruction of Old San Clemente

The next church to look at is San Clemente, which is interesting for two reasons. The first one is its marvellous mosaic that covers the whole of the apsis.

San Clemente Apsis Mosaic (c. 1200)

This work of most likely Byzantine artists is a little younger than the others we will be looking at here but it contains such marvellous little details that again display the incredible craftsmanship of these unknown artists.

The church of San Clemente is full of other fascinating things,  such as the grave of Saint Cyril and a beautiful renaissance chapel to Santa Catarina.

But the most interesting stuff is underground. San Clemente was built over what was initially a private house, then became an industrial complex, some argue the mint where the empire would strike its coins. It at least in part became an apartment block with a sanctuary for the cult of Mithridates in its centre. By 392 all these buildings had been filled in and a church built on top.

This church was redecorated in the 9th and then in 11th century. And then something strange happens. The whole church is getting destroyed, filled in and a new church is built on top of it around 1099 to 1120.

All these underground structures have been excavated and can be visited., something well worth doing. If you go, buy the ticket online before you enter the church, it is 2€ cheaper and connection is better outside.

During the excavations they found part of the fresco decoration of the church that was destroyed, depicting the story of Saint Clement. And that is where the mystery starts.

San Clemente Lower Basilica – the Rescue of a Child

Initially people thought the church was destroyed during the sack of Rome by Robert Guiscard in 1084, which I talk about in Episode 36: (

But they could not find any signs of burning so the suggestion was the lower church had been deliberately destroyed. But why? Some argue it was because the street level had risen and so the old church was constantly flooded.

Image of Saint Clement Lower Basilica

But there could be another reason. The images in the old chapel depicted the Saint Clement, which in the 1080s was a dangerous name. As you know Henry IV had elevated Wibert of Ravenna to be antipope Clement III. Painting a church with the deeds of the antipope’s namesake was an affront. And moreover, who was the titular deacon of San Clemente in the 1080s? Hugh Candidus, or Hugh the White. You remember him? He is the cardinal who fell out with Gregory VII and alleged the pope was living in sin with Matilda of Tuscany and was up to all sorts of shenanigans (check out Episode 35).

Hence pope Gregory and his successor, Pope Paschalis II who was deacon of San Clemente after Hugh the White  had motive and means to literally bury the antipope Wibert and his enabler Hugh the White. If that is true, it would be a rare case of church destruction on ideological grounds.

San Cosmas and Damian vs. Castor and Pollux

The foundation of this church was in 527, when Theodoric the Great, king of the Ostrogoths , and his daughter Amalasuntha arranged the donation of two buildings on the Forum to the Church under Pope Felix IV. These building were the Temple of Peace and the “temple of Romulus”

Three interesting observations can be made about this. Firstly, the king was consciously not acting in his own name, but as the agent of Emperor Justinian I in Constantinople. Modern historians may have pretended that the Roman Empire came to an end in the West in 476, but the inhabitants of Rome were not aware of this fifty years later. Secondly, the area of the Roman and Imperial fora was still functioning as part of the city and had not yet fallen into complete ruin. Thirdly, this was the first Christian church to be founded in the area. Again, despite modern popular historical imagination, much of the nobility of Rome was still hostile to Christianity in the 5th century and this may have prevented the provision of churches in the cultic centre of the city before this one.

The new church was not a titulus or a monastic church, but was a diaconia. This meant that it was a centre for the Church’s charitable activities such as helping poor people. When the pope united the two buildings to create a basilica devoted to the two holy Greek brothers and doctors, Cosmas and Damian, he may have been wishing to continue the free public medical services formerly based in the Temple of Peace. There may also have been a deliberate contrast with the ancient pagan cult of the divine twin brothers Castor and Pollux, who had been worshipped on the other side of the Forum in the Temple of Castor and Pollux.

The whole structure was changed many times and today the entrance is no longer on the Forum but from the Via dei Fori Imperiali which has its advantages, i.e., no entrance fee. Go there, even if all you need is shelter from the August heat. It has a lovely shaded little cloister.

But that is not the only reason you may want to get there. The apse of the new church was decorated with a mosaic, representing the parousia (coming at the end of time) of Christ. This work was immensely influential, and art historians have been able to trace its inspiration in mosaics in later Roman churches. It stands nowadays as one of the foremost examples of the old Classical style of depiction starting to mutate into the (then novel) Byzantine style.

San Cosmas & Damian

The mosaics are masterpieces of 6th century ecclesiastical art. The apse mosaic is especially fine, but you need to remember that you should be standing seven metres lower than you actually are, in order to see it as the creators intended. There is a coin-operated light for it at the head of the center aisle in front of the alter.

In the middle is Christ at his parousia, or Second Coming as triumphal judge at the end of time. He is standing on the red clouds of dawn, and is dressed in golden robes with a single monogram I which stands for either Iesus or Imperator. In his left hand he holds the rolled-up scroll of the Torah, which only he is able to interpret. To the left is St Paul, and to the right is St Peter. They are introducing SS Cosmas and Damian to Christ, and it is not possible to tell which is which because the mosaicists followed the tradition that they were identical twins. They are carrying martyrs’ crowns. To the far left is Pope Felix IV, who as founder holds a model of the church; this figure was restored in the 17th century. The reason for this is that Pope Gregory XIII saw fit to alter the figure to show Pope Gregory the Great in the previous century, and a very bad job was done. The Baroque restorers put it right. To the far right is the martyr St Theodore. The figures stand in front of a river labelled Iordanes (Jordan) and are flanked by palm trees.

Note the phoenix on the left-hand palm, a symbol of the resurrection.

San Cosmas & Damian Phoenix

Below Christ is another representation of him, this time as the Lamb of God accompanied by twelve sheep representing the Apostles. The Lamb stands on a hill with Jerusalem on the left and Bethlehem on the right, and from the hill flow the twelve Rivers of Paradise labelled Gion, Pison, Tigris and Eufrata (Euphrates).

Santa Prassede and the running pope

After the destruction of Rome during the Gothic wears (535-554) the city’s population collapsed. The low-lying areas were gradually abandoned and became hotbeds of malaria and other diseases.

There was no longer the money to build splendid rectangular basilicas on brownfield sites. The church began to invade the now abandoned pagan temples, using fallen masonry to create new structures. These are often oddly shaped and Roman columns protrude from the walls.

When pope Paschal I (817-24) began the construction of Santa Prassede, he did intend to create a classic basilica, but it did not really work. the surveying during the construction was seriously badly done and the edifice is “wonky”. The nave walls and colonnades are not parallel, neither are they straight. The transept is not at right angles to the nave’s major axis, and neither are the façade and the atrium.

But it is still standing and it houses one of the greatest early medieval interiors in Rome. Two 9th century mosaics stand out, those on the triumphal arch in the centre of the nave.

The overall theme is the Second Coming of Christ and the End of Time, based on the description given in the “Apocalypse of St John” (Book of Revelation).

On the triumphal arch, the one closest to the nave,The Heavenly Jerusalem is depicted as a walled and gated enclosure with its golden walls set with jewels. In it, Christ accompanied by two angels is venerated by two queues of apostles and saints; to the left, the first two are Our Lady and St John the Baptist, and to the right the first is St Praxedis. At the ends of the queues are Moses and Elijah. The city gates are guarded by another pair of angels, and a further two escort more saints through flowery meadows, with the right hand group led by SS Peter and Paul.

Below this composition, on either side of the arch, are two crowds of people holding crowns and palm branches. These are the multitude of the martyrs. 

And then there is the Apse Mosaic – just look at it

And if you look for some historic context, here is a tale from 1118

The papacy had recovered from the depth of its depravity in the 10th century thanks to a string of powerful popes, namely Leo IX, Gregory VII and Urban II. By 1111 the tide was however turning. Pope Paschalis II made a most unexpected offer to emperor Henry V to return all the lands and privileges the church had received over the centuries in exchange for the emperor no longer interfering with church affairs. That backfired terribly as literally everybody hated the idea, except for the pope and the emperor. Paschalis lost all authority in Rome. The two great Roman families of the Frangipani and the Pierleoni began fighting over control of the seat of Saint Peter.

When Paschalis died in 1118 the Frangipani made their move. The cardinals had elected the former pope’s chancellor as pope Gelasius II. On the day of his election, the Frangipani captured him, put him into a windowless cell and tortured him mercilessly. Censius Frangipani allegedly hissed at him like a giant snake, grabbed the pope by the throat, struck him with his fists, kicked him, drew blood with his spurs and dragged him away by his hair. Had he not been rescued by a mob paid for by the Pierleoni, Pope Gelasius would hold the record for the shortest Pontificate. This way he lasted a year and a bit. In his last months he could not hold the Vatican and hence celebrated mass at the church of St. Prassede, an amazing and truly ancient but size wise very modest building. If you are in Rome, go there it is a wonderful refuge from the hustle and bustle of the city.

Anyway, whilst saying mass he was attacked by Censius Frangipani again and only escaped on a swift horse. His attendants found him hours later sitting in a field, muttering incoherently – still wearing his papal vestments. Gelasius had enough. He left Rome to travel to France and died in the safety of the abbey of Cluny.

His successor Calixtus II was able to regain some semblance of control, but the next election, Honorius II ended with even more bloodshed.

If you want to follow the whole story, including detail about the divisions in the church and the city of Rome around 1130, listen to Episode 45 of The History of the Germans or read the transcript, both available here:…/episode-45-triple…/

Santa Prudenziana

My greatest find on the whole trip was however Santa Prudenziana. Santa Prudenziana, if she existed, was the sister of Santa Prassede but her church is even more undeservedly overlooked.

And overlooking it is easy. The church sits in a non-descript street below Santa maria Maggiore and is itself a couple of metres below street level. The façade is less than impressive and I would have instinctively walked past had I not looked for it.

But this is a true treasure trove. This basilica is recognised as the oldest place of Christian worship in Rome, dating back potentially to the time of the Apostles but more convincingly to the time of pope Pius I (140-155). The popes would reside in this complex until Constantine offered them the palace of the Lateran in 313.

In around 390, the church received its mosaic, which is of prime importance, not just because of its beaty, but also because of its subject.

The magisterial figure of Christ, seated on a gilded throne embossed with jewels and cushioned with purple fabric, recalls ancient representations of Jupiter. The apostles are dressed in togas, like Roman senators. Such images reflect the fundamental change in the role of the church. No longer a persecuted minority that has to hide from authority, Jesus (or god) is now in charge, determines the order man has to live by. You can see visually how the church goes from providing spiritual guidance to being an unquestionable authority, a process we have heard so much about in the podcast.

Image of mosaic in Santa Prudenziana

Today this tiny church is serving the global community of Catholic Filipinos, the largest Christian community in Asia.

I could go on for hours from here. And maybe I will write another post looking at secular medieval buildings in Rome. But if you ever go, sure, do all the classic Roman and renaissance things, but if you have a bit of time on your hand, check out these treasures. They are so worth it. (and also listen to the History of the Germns Podcast – also worth it)

Among the most splendid objects in the great churches of Cologne are large architectural shrines containing relics associated with local as well as biblical saints.

The most celebrated of these is the reliquary for the bones of the Three Kings which dates from around this period. But there were many more. These ambitious goldsmiths’ works are among the greatest artistic achievements of their time.

Refined decorative fragments like the small rectangular plaques shown here are often all that remain of these monumental objects as many of these shrines were dismantled or even destroyed following the secularization of church property in this region in the first decade of the nineteenth century. During later efforts to restore shrines, some fragments were replaced and the originals sold to collectors and museums.

If you want to hear how the Three Kings ended up in a splendid box in Cologne, follow the History of the Germans Podcast which is about to cover this soon. Available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and all major podcasting platforms.

Metropolitan Museum New York

Accession Number: 17.190.2136

Derived from the Latin words for water (aqua) and hand (manus), an aquamanile (plural: aquamanilia) is an animal- or human-shaped water vessel used in hand washing, an essential component of religious and secular rituals in the Middle Ages. Aquamanilia were the first cast vessels of medieval Europe. Usually cast in copper alloy through the lostwax process (cire perdue), the hundreds of surviving examples date from the twelfth through fifteenth century. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has one of the most important collections of aquamanilia in the world, with examples at The Cloisters and in the main building on Fifth Avenue, in both the medieval galleries and the Lehman Collection.

To see the whole collection, check out the brilliant Met digital collection here:

Here are some examples.

Aquamanile in the Form of a Lion 12th century North German

The lion, because of its exceptional strength, was associated in the Middle Ages with Christ and was the animal most frequently employed for aquamanilia. The vessel was filled through the opening at the top of the head, and water was poured from the spout in the mouth.

Aquamanile in the Form of a Rooster 13th century German

The rooster’s majestic tail feathers splay in rhythmic arcs as he crows, full-throated. The artist who modeled the bird boldly balanced the body on its tiny talons.

Aquamanile in the Form of a Mounted Knight

This aquamanile, in the form of a horse and rider, exemplifies the courtly ideals of knighthood that pervaded Western medieval culture and influenced objects intended for daily use. It depicts a type of armor that disappeared toward the third quarter of the thirteenth century. Unfortunately, the shield—which probably displayed the arms of the owner—and the lance are no longer extant.

Aquamanile in the Form of a Dragon ca. 1200

The most commonly seen zoomorphic aquamaniles are lions, but dragons, griffins, and many other forms were also produced.

This striking vessel represents a dragon, which is supported by its legs in front and on the tips of its wings behind, with a tail that curls up into a handle. It was filled through an opening in the tail, now missing its hinged cover. Water was poured out through the spout formed by the hooded or cowled figure held between the dragon’s teeth. In addition to its visual power, this aquamanile is distinguished by fine casting, visible in the carefully chased dragon’s scales and other surface details.

Aquamanile in the Form of a Crowned Centaur Fighting a Dragon1200–1225

The crowned centaur (probably Chiron, the king of the centaurs),wielding a sword in his right hand, appears about to slay the dragon attacking his left side. Already representing a fantastic beast, the form here is further enriched by the dragon whose head and neck, grasped in the centaur’s left hand, form the spout.

Aquamanile in the Form of Aristotle and Phyllislate 14th or early 15th century

The subject of this celebrated example is the moralizing legend of Aristotle and Phyllis, which achieved popularity in the late Middle Ages. Aristotle, the Greek philosopher and tutor of Alexander the Great, allowed himself to be humiliated by the seductive Phyllis as a lesson to the young ruler, who had succumbed to her wiles and neglected the affairs of state. Encouraging Alexander to witness his folly, Aristotle explained that if he, an old man, could be so easily deceived, the potential consequences for a young man were even more perilous. The ribald subject indicates that this aquamanile was made for a domestic setting, where it would have doubled as an object of entertainment for guests at the table.

Aquamanile in the Form of a Griffin ca. 1425–50

This magnificent aquamanile in the form of a griffin with (separately cast) outstretched wings can be grouped stylistically with the unicorn (64.101.1493) and a few other examples that were probably produced by the same Nuremberg workshop in the second quarter of the fifteenth century. The aquamanile was filled through a hole between the ears, and water was poured from the spigot in the chest, likely a rare surviving original element.

Aquamanile in the Form of a Griffon ca. 1120

Last but not least, this fantastic medieval Aquamanile is one of the oldest and most beautiful. Unlike the others above, this is in the Kunsthistorische Museum in Vienna.

Its beak serves as the spout; the fill opening is located on the arched tail that forms the handle. Lavishly embellished with niello and silver damascened and gilt decorations, it is among the earliest and finest extant aquamaniles.

It was made around 1120/1130 in Helmarshausen founded by Otto III that flourished in the 12th century. Its scriptorium and metalworks. It produced amongst others the Gospels of Henry the Lion which was sold for £8.1m pounds in 1983, making it the then most expensive book ever sold.

The monastery declined as it was fought over by the great archbishops of Cologne and Mainz and was finally dissolved in the Reformation.

Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien,

Kunstkammer Inventar No. 83

#OTD, January 26th 1699 the Great Turkish war ended when the Sublime Porte, the Holy Roman Empire, the Republic of Venice, the Tsar of Russia and the Kingdom of Poland signed the peace of Karlowitz.

The peace of Karlowitz marks a turning point in European history, bringing over 200 years of Ottoman expansion into Europe to an end. In 1683 the Turkish army had besieged Vienna and without the help of the Poles led by King John III, Sobiesky, the city would have fallen. After the siege of Vienna had ended war raged mostly in Hungary.

In July 1697 after years and years of inconclusive fighting the emperor appointed Prince Eugene of Savoy to be the new commander in chief. Within a mere three months Eugene delivered the most comprehensive victory over a Turkish army seen to this date.

At Zenta the Turkish army was crossing the river Tisza thinking the enemy was still a long way away. Their artillery was on a pontoon bridge and hence useless, allowing Eugene’s troops to overrun the position on the shore. Imperial troops also managed to occupy sandbanks in the river allowing them to attack the Ottoman rear. 25,000 Turkish soldiers fell, the entire artillery was lost, as were the supplies.

As a consequence Sultan Mustafa II (1695-1703) had to sue for peace. In the negotiations at Karlowitz the Habsburgs gained Hungary, parts of Croatia and Transylvania, Poland received Ukraine and other areas back that had been occupied by the Turks and Venice gained the Peloponnese.

The Turkish army never really recovered from this defeat and was in constant retreat until World War I. Eugene of Savoy became the most famous military figure in Europe and built himself the marvellous Belvedere Palace in Vienna, where he lived alone as “Mars without Venus”.

And the Habsburgs began building their empire in South-Eastern Europe. The Bavarians and other German states who had sent troops received the emperors eternal gratitude and plunder, but no land or positions.

As always for more German history check out my podcast History of the Germans on most podcasting platforms or on my website

#OTD, January 25th, 1881 the “red countess” Sophie von Hatzfeld, mother of the German Social-Democratic movement died in Wiesbaden.

She was born into an aristocratic family, the counts of Hatzfeld-Trachtenberg. To smooth a long-running feud between another branch of the Hatzfeld family Sophie was married aged 17 to her cousin, Edmund von Hatzfeld-Wildenburg-Weisweiler. He was a wealthy but debauched man who maintained a harem of mistresses in his castle in Kalkum. The marriage hit the rocks almost immediately. Sophie claimed to have been mistreated and assaulted by her husband.

In 1833 Sophie left her husband and began a life of travel. She entered into new love affairs that rarely lasted. When her family insisted she should behave with more decorum, she answered that “what is suitable for her husband, the count, she should be allowed too”. By 1846 she demanded a divorce. Most unusually she demanded her husband to pay maintenance sufficient to maintain her standard of living.

Sophie hired the then 20-year old Ferdinand Lasalle as her lawyer. What followed was a 5-year epic trial fought in 36 different courtrooms. Lasalle was an early socialist who got prominently involved in the 1848 revolution. He would later found the Allgemeiner Deutscher Arbeiterverein, the first socialist/social democratic party in Europe. The ADAV would later become the SPD, today one of Germany’s major political parties.

Sophie supported his efforts. She famously arrived to a revolutionary meeting in Dusseldorf in a carriage flying the red flag alongside the black-red-gold flag of liberal Germany.

Sophy was already 41 when she met Lasalle who was in his 20s. Whether they had an amorous relationship has been subject of gossip for a long time. When Lasalle died in a stupid duel in Geneva in 1864, Sophie inherited his archive and continued his legacy until her death aged 71.

She was a beautiful woman, who would appear in low cut dresses, smoking a cigar and saying – “why shouldn’t I, because I am woman?”

For more interesting German women, check out the History of the Germans Podcast on all major podcast platforms or on this website

#OTD, January 21, 1868 the German chemist Felix Hoffmann (no relation) was born in Ludwigsburg. He was involved in two ground breaking drug developments whilst working at Bayer AG.

In 1896 he synthesized diacetylmorphine out of morphine and acetic anhydride. He was motivated to produce a highly effective painkiller as he witnessed his father’s painful rheumatism. The drug was so effective, its users felt “heroic” which is why it was marketed under the brand name Heroin. Bayer realised that there were some serious side effects and stopped producing Heroin in 1913. A year late the use of the drug was banned without prescription.

In 1897 Hoffmann worked on producing comparatively pure acetylsalicylic acid. The product was licensed and distributed by Bayer AG under the brand name Aspirin.

Aspirin became a huge money spinner for Bayer. The US was one of its largest markets. Upon the US entry into WWI in 1917, Bayer’s assets, including a plant producing Aspirin, trademarks and know-how was seized and sold to Sterling Inc. Sterling Inc. would own the Aspirin trademark in the US until 1994 when Bayer bought it back for $1bn.

The role of Hoffmann in the development of Aspirin was later disputed. Walter Sneader, a professor at the University of Strathclyde claimed that the innovation was the work of Arthur Eichengrün, a colleague of Hoffmann. Sneader claimed that Eichengrün had designed the process and left the execution to Hoffmann “who did not really know what he was doing”. Eichengrün was supposedly written out of history due to his Jewish faith. Bayer did vigorously deny this claim referencing detailed documentation in his laboratories. Specifically, they state that Aspirin was ascribed to Hoffmann in 1896 and not in 1934. Eichengrün left Bayer in 1908 and claimed invention of several products but not of Aspirin.

For the Bayer press release:…/bayer_110999.html

For more interesting stories from German history, please check my this blog and my podcast here:

#OTD, January 20th, 1488 the humanist, hebraist and cosmograph Sebastian Münster (1488-1552) was born in Ingelheim.

He came from modest beginnings and rose to be rector of the university of Basel and the “German Strabo and Esra”. He was a true renaissance man with wide ranging interests, a renowned expert in Greek and Hebrew as well as in mathematics and astronomy.

He is most famous for his “Cosmographia”, the first attempt to provide a comprehensive “description of the whole world and all that is in it”. Cosmographia not only contained the latest maps and views of many well-known cities, but also included an encyclopaedic amount of detail about the known — and unknown — world, and was one of the most widely read books of its time.

Aside from maps, including the first map showing the Americas as separate continents, the text is full of engaging accounts: portraits of kings and princes, costumes and occupations, habits and customs, flora and fauna, monsters, wonders, and horrors.

He collected all available information from existing literary sources, interviews of travellers and merchants and his own investigations. For instance his chapter on India, based on Marco Pol and Strabo, contains descriptions of the use of elephants in agriculture, the caste system, but also a long section on dragons fighting elephants as well as huge serpents, enormous scorpions and griffins.

Colombia university has produced a great page on the Cosmographia with links to individual pages and the famous woodcuts – well worth checking out (

Older Germans may remember him mainly for his image on the old 100,- Deutschmark bill, a rare sight at the time, at least for me.

For more on German history, check out my website, and my podcast History of the Germans, available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and wherever you get your podcasts from. Season 3 – the Hohenstaufen has just started!

#OTD, December 31st, 1881 the painter Max Pechstein was born in Zwickau, one of eight children of a textile worker.

He trained initially as a decorator and then from 1902 to 1906 at the Kunstakademie in Dresden. He joined Die Brücke, a hugely influential association of expressionist artist. His works, together with those of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Erich Heckel, Emil Nolde and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff were ground breaking in the development of German expressionism.

When Die Brücke broke up around 1913, Pechstein went to Rome and afterwards to Paris. By 1914 he was inspired by Gauguin and travelled with his wife to Palau, a pacific island and then a German colony. Surprised by the outbreak of war he was captured by the Japanese who released him upon an oath of neutrality. He returned via the US working as a coal trimmer on the steamer bringing him home.

He served in WWI on the Somme an experience that compelled him to join radical socialist movements after the war. Despite his radical views he became a professor at the Prussian Academy of Arts and a successful artist until 1933.

As a politically committed artist, Pechstein soon became a victim of the repressive measures of the Nazis: In 1933 he was forbidden to paint or exhibit, removed from his teaching post, and in 1934 he was expelled from the Preußische Akademie der Künste. 326 of his works were confiscated.

The exhibition “Entartete Kunst” (“Degenerate Art”) showed several of Pechstein’s works.

After the war he was reinstated. He died in 1955.

Image: Max Pechstein: Selfportrait, 1918

For more on Pechstein see for instance:…/colle…/artist/artist_id-4533.html

Merry Christmas to you all and thanks for all the encouragement and support throughout this year. It really means a lot to me.

Podcasting is a lonely business and getting an occasional positive comments, rating or even a  review makes all the difference. And if you become a Patron, that means even more. As one recent reviewer said: “Let‘s put it this way: you can perhaps fathom the quality of this podcast when I tell you that it motivated me, known to be stingier than a Swabian, to finally sign up for Patreon and pay for a subscription as long as I will listen to further episodes”. Thanks Syromand all the other Patrons!

As for the Podcast, regular service will resume on January 20th when we go into the glamorous century of the Hohenstaufen. I am so excited to talk to you about the heroes of my childhood, Frederick Barbarossa who tried to put together what his great-grandfather Henry IV had broken, Henry VI who used the ransom of Richard the Lionheart to buy himself a kingdom. Then we have Philip of Swabia, murdered for reasons still not fully understood leading to the loss of the crown to Otto IV of the House of Welf, the Hohenstaufen’s archenemy. Otto IV’s defeat at the battle of Bouvines not only brought about Magna Carta, but also the reign of the greatest, most extraordinary figure of the Middle Ages, Frederick II of Hohenstaufen, Emperor, King of Sicily and ornithologist extraordinaire. He spoke fluent Arabic and negotiated Jerusalem out of the Muslim Emirs of the near East, only to be excommunicated by the Pope so often, he spent more time under the ban than within the Holy Mother Church. The papacy finally calls for a crusade against the Hohenstaufen that ends with the 16 year-old Konradin being beheaded on the market square of Naples. The Hohenstaufen’s enemies, the House of Welf did considerably better. They today occupy the throne of the United Kingdom.

But whilst you are waiting there is something you may enjoy on its way. One of my favourite fellow podcasters, Benjamin Bernier of the Thugs & Miracles Podcast (@ThugsAndMiracles) has kindly agreed to be interviewed by me. Despite my inept questioning he gives you not only an exciting and well-founded perspective of what happens over on the opposite shore of the Rhine River as well as great insights into why anyone would be mad enough to embark on a project like his, covering all French monarchs from the fall of the (Western) Roman Empire to the Fall of the Guillotine…

Have a lovely Christmas and in case you want to do it properly, hang the Christmas tree from the ceiling, decorate it with apples, nuts and Lebkuchen, light it with real candles and shake it on the 12th day of Christmas, as they (first?) did in Freiburg in 1419. (Could not find a picture from 1419 but here is inimitable Karl Lagerfeld’s take on the upside down Christmas tree from 2017