Archive for November, 2009


November 23, 2009


There is a curious little plate in the collection of the Philadelphia  Museum of Art.  The plate was made in 1786 by a potter named Johannes Niess in Montgomery County, PA.  It is about 11″ in diameter.  The plate’s sgraffito style of decoration is typical of pottery from that region.  The decoration depicts a dance scene with two colonial era couples.  Each couple consists of an officer and a well to do woman.  A fiddle player off to the left, is also in officer attire.

The scene is said to depict a particularly elaborate gala known as the “Mischianza.”  The British Army officer corp during the Revolutionary War was particularly fond of this type of revelry.  Especially General William Howe and his staff.  General Howe commanded the forces occupying Philadelphia, previously the capitol of the rebellion, during the 1777 – 78 winter.  General Washington’s Continental Army shivered in the snow at nearby Valley Forge.  Observers believe that had Howe attacked the Valley Forge encampment, he would have destroyed Washington’s army and probably put an end to the uprising.  Instead, Howe squandered the winter in frivolous entertainment.  In the spring, Washington slipped away.  Soon afterward, Howe’s army was forced to evacuate Philadelphia.  On his departure Howe threw an unforgettably (some said unforgivably) extravagant party – the Mischianza.  The Mischianza plate is a commemorative depiction of this sordid tale of Howe’s squandered chances.

What makes the plate curious, at least to me, is the legend inscribed around the plate’s rim.  Many sgraffito plates from south eastern Pennsylvania at the time bore writing, in German, around the rim.  The Philadelphia Museum of Art’s collection of these plates is perhaps the best in the country. The sayings could be moralisms, local wit, biblical phrases, etc.  On some plates, the sayings offer a jarring juxtaposition to the imagery they surround.

That’s where the curiosity comes in.  Or, I should say, shock.  This plate was obviously meant for display, not everyday use.  But who on earth would want to prominently display on hearth or cupboard a plate with “Our Maid, the ugly pig, always wanted to be a housewife. Oh, you ugly slut. 1786” scrawled around the rim?

The Pottery and Porcelain of the United States. Edward Atlee Barber.  G.P. Putnam’s Sons/New York.  1909.

1776. David McCullough.  Simon and Schuster.  2005.

Bartmann Greybeard; A Cautionary Tale.

November 8, 2009

In 1610 Cardinal Maffeo Berberini received a copy of “The Starry  Messenger” by Galileo Galilei.  This treatise on observations Galileo made with his newly invented telescope forever changed our understanding of the universe.  Berberini was impressed.  He befriended the Florentine astronomer.  Galileo must have been pleased, because the Cardinal became Pope Urban VIII in 1616.  Galileo was invited to the Vatican to discuss his fascinating new discoveries.  Bellarmine

But church bigwigs got nervous.  They told Urban in no uncertain terms that Galileo was, in fact, challenging God and Church.  Pope Urban ignored what he knew to be right and acquiesced to the powers that put him, and kept him, in the Holy See.

The heat came in the form of Cardinal Roberto Bellarmino, the “hammer of the heretics.”  The Roman Inquisition had recently burned Giordano Bruno, a Dominican Friar who suggested the Earth revolved around the Sun.  But Bellarmino let Galileo go with a warning.  When Galileo defended his ideas in “The Assayer,” Bellarmino put his foot down.  Galileo was forced to recant his discoveries.  Scientific inquiry took 300 years to recover.  Galileo went to his grave muzzled by the strictures of the Cardinal.  And Bellarmino went on to fight the Reformation in the Low Countries.

People began associating the Cardinal’s name with the widely popular “bartmann,” a salt fired stoneware jug with a greybeard face applied to its side.  The bartmann had been made in Germany’s Rhineland pottery district since the previous century.  But why associate Bellarmino with this jug?  Was it sarcasm?  Endearment?  Who knows?  The name “Bellarmine Jug” stuck, though.  What’s more, as the jug’s popularity spread, all sorts of notions began attaching themselves to it.  Liquids kept in it could heal the sick.  Witchcraft could be warded off by keeping one buried under the house…

How effective any of that was, I can’t say.  But despite the Bellarmine Jug’s popularity, or its psychic powers, I’m pretty sure Galileo never owned one.

Galileo’s Daughter.  Dava Sobel.  Walker & Co./New York.  1999.

If These Pots Could Talk.  Ivor Noel Hume.  Chipstone Press.  2001.

Stoneware: White Salt-Glazed, Rhenish and Dry Body.  Gérard Gusset.  National Historic Parks and Sites Branch, Parks Canada, Environment Canada/Ministry of the Environment, Ottawa, Canada.  1980.

The Concise Encyclopedia of Continental Pottery and Porcelain.  Reginald Haggar.  Hawthorn Books/New York.  1960.