Biographies

They’re about people, right?

Gotta Have That New World Smell (Columbus Day)
Uncovering the unsordid history behind the not-quite discoverer of America

Every American schoolchild is probably familiar with that famous poem about Christopher Columbus, so if some of you schoolchildren out there know it could you please send it to me? Because I can’t think of it right now and I’m too lazy to Google it. In the meantime, let’s take a look at the day behind the man behind the day celebrated as the time Equatorial Guinea declared its independence from Spain in 1968, except we call it Columbus Day, and we celebrate it because a Spanish guy discovered the Bahamas 600 years before Carnival Cruise lines.

Colorectal Polyps and Colusa, Illinois

Although Columbus is traditionally celebrated as the first European to discover America, it is now commonly known that that honor goes to Leif Ericson and his Vikings, who beat the Packers 26-10 sometime in the 11th century at a settlement called “L’Anse aux Meadows” in Newfoundland (Official Motto: “We’re Not Only A Dog, We’re A Country!”). Even so, Columbus has secured his place in history, right between colorectal polyp and Colusa, Illinois, as the discoverer of the New World®. #NewWorldColumbus #NWRocks #IndigenousSlavery

That New World Smell

Columbus began his journey where most explorers do: at the local bank, which in this case was the King and Queen (Ferdinand and Isabella) of Spain. After lobbying for two years he was finally able to procur funding from the court in the sum of 1.14 million maravedis, or 555,000 guildergroats, or 3.5 million guineafrancs; an amount so large that in today’s dollars it could only be measured in Kelvin. So, while Isabella and Ferdinand presumably waved their hankies from the dock, Columbus set sail on August 3 in a small fleet consisting of a large carrack called the Santa María, two smaller caravels, the Pinta and the Nina, and three tiny caramels named Dick, Bartholomew, and Leon, which Columbus kept in his right pantaloon pocket. After a voyage of however many units Spanish people used to measure the time it takes to sail to the New World with back then, a lookout on the Pinta spotted land at 2:00 in the morning while he was watching the Late, Late Show. He immediately alerted the Captain, who was able to verify the discovery and alerted Columbus by firing a lombard, who, being part of the Lombards Local 128, later sued Columbus for wrongful termination, but that’s another story. Calling the new land “San Salvador“, because Finland was already taken, Columbus began a long career of making scholars write history books about him of which you can read if you want to know more. After three more trips the intrepid explorer decided to settle in what is now Haiti while it still had what he called “that New World smell”.

Columbus Day Cards and Frank Sinatra

Columbus’s voyage has been celebrated since colonial times in the United States; many cities celebrated the 300th anniversary of his landing in 1792 by taking a day off from wearing their itchy powdered wigs. In 1892 President Benjamin “Yes, I Was A President, Too” Harrison called upon the people of the United States, apparently with a gigantic megaphone, to celebrate Columbus Day on the 400th Anniversary of the day he landed, which was October 12 if you haven’t been keeping score. The first state to officially recognize Columbus Day as an official holiday was the famous, tropical seafaring land of Colorado in 1906. In 1934 Generoso “Not Actually A Real” Pope, an Italian leader in New York City, along with the Knights of Columbus lobbied to make Columbus Day a Federal Holiday, until they realized that “lobbying” did not mean hanging out at the bar in the foyer of the Biltmore Hotel on West 47th Street hoping to score some free drinks. It wasn’t officially recognized as a federal holiday until 1937, when the Hallmark Company reluctantly agreed to make a couple of Columbus Day cards: “New World? I was just getting used to the old one!” and “Roses are Red, Violets are Blue, Columbus sailed under the auspices of the Catholic Monarchs of Spain in the context of emerging western imperialism and economic competition between European kingdoms through the establishment of trade routes and colonies in 1492”. Many Italian-Americans celebrate Columbus Day as a reminder of their heritage, for although Columbus wasn’t an American, he did apparently like to listen to Frank Sinatra.

So the next time you’re eating a caravel, watching the Vikings beat the Packers, or just firing your lombard, remember Columbus, the man who’s memory we honor in the most American way possible: by not getting our mail for a day.

Photo Credit: puritani35 cc

All About Michelangelo: Part 2 (Pope Orange Julius and Della’s Signature Pizza)
Our second, pizza-infused, mostly apocryphal account of the maker of the world’s nudest art.

See Part 1 here.

Just to bring you up to date on our first episode about Michelangelo, here are the highlights: spoiled capicola, snowmen and Pope Tag. Now that you’re caught up, we can go to Rome.

Rome in 1496 was, surprisingly, much like it is today, except with less crumbling, run-down 500-year-old buildings, fewer cars, no reality TV shows, etc. It was into this world that Michelangelo, at the age of 21, entered in order to continue his sculpting career, because “Communication Design Management Specialization” at Devry University hadn’t been invented yet. It was here, at the age of 24, that he finished his first great masterpiece, a “pieta” (pizza) consisting of pepperoni, crumbled bacon, gorgonzola cheese, and just a little oregano in the sauce. As he was eating this, he was also working on a sculpture of the Virgin Mary grieving over the body of Jesus, which, coincidentally, was also called a “pieta”. It was deemed by local sculpture reviewers as “A revelation of all the potentialities and force of the art of sculpture. See it with someone you love. Marble-ous! Five stars. (check out more of my reviews at pietariffic.com.)” It currently resides at St. Peter’s Basilica, right across the street from Pizzeria Tavola Calda, which has great, cheap food. If they like you, the owners give you a free piece of cake.

In 1499, Michelangelo returned to Florence where he was asked by the Guild of Wool to create an immense, 10-foot tall statue of a stocking hat, I suppose as some sort of promotional stunt. Instead, Michelangelo offered to complete one of their 40-year-old unfinished projects depicting David as a symbol of Florentine freedom, which apparently has something to do with unashamed, gigantic nudity. This, his most famous work, was originally to be installed on the gable of the Florence Cathedral, but, since no one could find an industrial-grade military helicopter to lift it there, it was decided it would be easier to place it in the Piazza della Signoria (“Della’s Signature Pizza”) and sell small, plastic versions of it in a gift shop. This statue established Michelangelo as an artist of great skill and artistic insight, and brought him more prestigious commissions, offers, and an appearance on The Today Show, where he taught Natalie Morales how to sculpt a bust of Al Roker out of a block of cheese. “David” is now located in the Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze, or “Gallery of Fire Knowledge”, where its nude figure sustains approximately 15,000 sniggers, titters, and embarrassed whispers from school boys each year.

Michelangelo returned to Rome in 1505 at the invitation of Pope “Orange” Julius II, where he was commissioned to build a tomb for the Pope, consisting of a three-story building with 40 statues and 100 of those wacky inflatable tube guys dressed as archbishops. He was given a timeline of 5 years because I guess that’s when the Pope was planning to off himself and fall into his tomb. But, due to interruptions including other projects and more Today Show appearances, it took over 40 years to complete, probably much to the relief of the Pope, but not his inheritors, who had caught a peek at his substantial life insurance policy. Many of the 40 statues completed for the tomb are now located in other museums so that school children in those cities can also be forced to look at culture on their field trips. One of these interruptions was to become an epic work of such beauty, scope and endurance that it can hardly be described without saving it for the next installment, so I guess that’s what we’re going to do.

All About Michelangelo: Part 1 (Battle of the Centaurs and Pope Tag)
Our debatable profile of one of the world's greatest chiselers.

Michelangelo (full name: Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni; nickname: Mickey the Brush), was, much like Mozart in the realm of music, born a long time ago. He was considered one of the greatest artists of anyone’s lifetime, but since he lived primarily in his, it worked out well that he was particularly famous in just it. One of the greatest artists in the western world, his work as a painter, sculptor, architect, engineer and ninja turtle is unsurpassed in its influence, and becomes even more amazing when you realize he didn’t even have Photoshop. Living in what we now call the High Renaissance, and what he called at the time “Just us bunch of people living in Italy”, he has become a model of the typical “Renaissance Man”, along with his rival Italian Leonardo Da Vinci, with whom he would often fight over girls with and challenge to drag races down by the river.

Enjoy your stay at this exceptional… wait a minute

[pullquote type=”right”]Born in 1475, Michelangelo lived in what is present-day Tuscany, Italy, for 88 years, which we know because scientists cut him open and counted his rings, upon which he died in 1564.[/pullquote]Michelangelo is quintessentially ‘New York’: a 4-star grand master of a hotel on the corner of 51st and 7th Avenue. A tapestry of influences, it is wrapped up in authentic Italian elegance, chic style and – wait… sorry; I googled the wrong thing; that’s the Michelangelo hotel in New York. Let’s see… back arrow, there we are. Born in 1475, Michelangelo lived in what is present-day Tuscany, Italy, for 88 years, which we know because scientists cut him open and counted his rings, upon which he died in 1564. As a young boy, he was sent to school to study grammar, but spent most of his time doodling sketches of rocket ships and impossibly cool race cars in his Trapper Keeper. Living in Florence, which was the hub of art and learning at the time, he was able to obtain an apprenticeship with a local painter named Ghirlandaio. Quickly realizing that Ghirlandaio was a house painter and just needed a crew to paint apartment complexes, Michelangelo was fortunate in being chosen by Florence’s ruler Lorenzo de Medici to attend the Humanist Academy (Motto:”It’s An Academy Just For Humans!”) where he studied under a bunch of Italians whose names all end in either “o” or “a”. It was here, at the age of 15, when most of the other boys were playing “Pope Tag” and “I Hope I Don’t Die In Poverty From Smallpox”, that he completed his first sculptures, the Madonna of the Steps and Battle of the Centaurs (which was later made into a movie starring John Travolta).

Snowmen and spoiled capicola

With the death of Lorenzo de Medici in 1497 Michelangelo had to leave the security of the court. After a few unsuccessful years attempting to make a living as a street sculptor, he received a request from the Medici court to make a “snow sculpture” after a rare Florencian snowfall. Unfortunately, this sculpture has been lost to the ages because it melted, but we can only imagine it’s corncob pipe, button nose, and two eyes made out of coal. This return was short lived, as the following year saw the rise of Savonarola, a widespread gastro-intestinal disease caused by spoiled capicola, and, coioncidentally, also a guy who didn’t like secular art and culture. Michelangelo left Florence for Venice, and then Bologna [insert Oscar Meyer joke here], where he was able to obtain a commission to carve some figures of the Shrine of Saint Dominic, patron saint of Italian First Names. By the end of 1494 things had calmed down in Florence, and he returned to begin work on a commission for the Medici family called St. John the Baptist (with head) which came with the unusual request to make it look like “an ancient work” that was just unearthed so it would fetch more money. The jig was up, however, as jigs had not yet been invented, and the buyer, St. Louis Cardinal Raffaele Riario, discovered it was a fraud. However, instead of throwing Leonardo into artist jail, where he would be sentenced to painting highway stripes, the Cardinal was so impressed with his work that he invited Michelangelo to come work for him in Rome.

Where will our wild sculptor’s adventures take us next? Will he be able to stay away from the bad capicola? Can you do a Hail Mary in Pope Tag? Check in next time as we continue our somewhat skeptical profile of Michelangelo.

All About Our Minor U.S. Presidents: Millard Fillmore
Why let Lincoln and Kennedy get all the glory, when we have a load of presidential mediocrity to explore.

Unless you’re an American History professor in a small liberal arts college in the Midwest who wears those corduroy jackets with the patches on the elbows and smokes a pipe and drives a vintage VW bug with a fading flower power sticker still on it, you probably think that’s what all American History professors are like. Well, that’s why they’re not going to help you appreciate the unsung heroes of the presidential seal; the non-Lincolns and un-Roosevelts and others who aren’t famous just because they didn’t have the luck to be serving during a war or something. But don’t worry, we’re here to pick up the slack.

This time: Millard Fillmore

[pullquote type=”right”]Fillmore was also the last Whig president, meaning he was probably bald but too embarrassed to show it in public.[/pullquote]Aside from the fact he had one of those 19th-century names for which you get you beat up at recess (Grover, Chester, Rutherford, etc.) Millard Fillmore was probably not such a bad guy. He was our 13th president, starting in 1850, and one of the few who took office because of the death of his predecessor, although we suspect it may have been like that movie “Dave”, except Millard Fillmore was played by himself instead of Kevin Kline, and he didn’t get to kiss Sigourney Weaver. Fillmore was also the last Whig president, meaning he was probably bald but too embarrassed to show it in public. He is consistently listed as one of the bottom 10 presidents, although we’re not sure why, as the list also includes his running mate Zachary Taylor, who was great as two of the kids in Home Improvement.

Log cabins and Big Mama Cass

Fillmore, like most presidents should be, was born in a log cabin, his being located in New York. His parents were also named Fillmore, in particular, Nathaniel and Phoebe, and raised him to believe that someday, like any American child, he could grow up to use an indoor toilet. He began his career in Buffalo (Official Motto: “We Gave You The Wings! (But Sorry About All The Snow)”, where he rose through the political ranks as a lawyer, a representative, and something called a “comptroller”, which is obviously a misspelling — thanks, Wikipedia. He entered politics in 1828 as a member of the Anti-Masonic Party, whose main goal was to eradicate the use of red fezzes and those tiny motor scooters. He joined Zachary Taylor as his running mate in the Presidential election of 1850 (Official Motto: Yes! We Don’t Have To Wear Whigs No More!”). The Taylor-Fillmore ticket won, defeating Democrats Lewis “Big Mama” Cass and William Orlando “Bloom” Butler. A third party, the Free Soil party, took only 10% of the vote, possibly because they didn’t realize that there was an awful lot of soil in the country, and most of it was already incredibly free.

Dissed by the Whig party

When Taylor died suddenly in 1850, Fillmore took over as President, whereby his entire cabinet quit, mostly because they were tired of being called a “cabinet”. His new cabinet included Daniel Webster, inventor on the online dictionary, and his main focus during his presidency became how to keep the country united during a time of debate over slavery, which turned out to be pretty much impossible. At the end of his term, Fillmore was dissed by the Whig Party by not being chosen as their candidate for President in 1854, but, not knowing what the word “dissed” meant at the time, it didn’t really bother him too much. After the Whig Party broke up in 1856 because of “creative differences”, Fillmore joined the American Party as their bass player and made an unsuccessful Presidential bid in 1856, coming in third behind a guy who could play drums with his knees and a waltzing baby kangaroo. Deciding to retire from politics, he returned to Buffalo to enjoy some wings and wait for football to be invented so he could watch the Bills play on a big screen TV at Applebees, but, alas he died before any of those things could be invented, which is probably fortunate.

Although his historical reputation as a President is mediocre, Fillmore will always be remembered as that one guy who was President after that other guy, and before the other guy I can’t remember either, but definitely before Lincoln, I’m pretty sure. And so we salute you, Millard, even though we’re not wearing a corduroy jacket with patches on the sleeves.

All About Bach: Part 3 (Curse of the Johanns)
The latest and last in our dubiously researched biography of Bach.

Things were going pretty well for Bach in 1720, considering most of the toilets were still outside and iPhones only had 1 inch screens. But then, tragically, Bach’s first wife died while he was on a trip to Carlsbad (not the one with the caverns.) He wasted no time getting his mojo back, however, as he married Anna Magdalena Wilcke the following year, who, although she had the kind of name you had to spell out when asking for restaurant reservations, was a gifted soprano. She was also 17 years younger than Bach, which probably puckered the powdered eyebrows of the local aristocracy, and landed him in the headlines of the local tabloids: “Lokalmatador heiratet junge Küken, damit er mehr Johanns erstellen!” (“Local boy weds young chick so he can make more Johanns!”). And make more they did, as at least 4 more Johanns of various sizes appeared over the next 21 years.

On to Leipzig

In 1723, Bach was appointed Cantor (“Lead Singer”) of the Thomasschule (“Thomas School”) at the Thomaskirche (“Thomas Church”) in “Thomas Town” — sorry, in Leipzig (Official Motto: “Cool! We Have ‘Zig’ In Our Name!”). This began his “choral” phase, where one of his main duties was to compose new “cantatas” (Spanish for “finely milled eighth notes”). Bach composed over 300 cantatas while in Leipzig, although around one hundred have been lost to posterity, which refuses to give them back but is willing to trade for some “Rush: Live” tickets and the Franco-Prussian War. Some of these cantatas include O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort (Oh Ewigkeit, You Dunder Wart!), Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (Watch Out, Or You’ll Ruffle All The Stimmes!), and Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (No, Sir; I Do Not Know The Way To Holland).

Choral works including a Mass of something

[pullquote type=”right”]In March 1729, Bach took over the directorship of the Collegium Musicum from Georg Phillip Telemann, who was fired after a losing 1728 season.[/pullquote]In March 1729, Bach took over the directorship of the Collegium Musicum from Georg Phillipp Telemann, who was fired after a losing 1728 season. The Collegium Musicum was a secular performance group which provided Bach with an outlet for his instrumental compositions, as well as more exposure among the public, and important town professionals. It regularly performed in such places as the Café Zimmermann, a local coffeehouse, where young hipsters wearing square spectacles and skinny breeches would comb their beards in appreciation. In 1749, Bach visited King Frederick II at Potsdam (Official Motto: “No, We Don’t Have A Dam Made Entirely Of Pots”), where the King famously challenged Bach to improvise a fugue based on a theme he provided, while juggling 3 china plates and hopping on one leg. Bach was only able to do the fugue part, but it did result in one of his more famous pieces, the Musical Offering, which consisted of fugues, canons, and occasional bursts of small arms fire. His last large work was the Mass in B Minor, considered one of the greatest choral works of all time, along with that boy choir section from You Can’t Always Get Want You Want by The Rolling Stones.

Death brings a Whiter Shade of Pale

As most humans occasionally will, Bach died on July 28, 1750 at the age of 65, just before receiving his first Social Security check for $45.68. He left a legacy of incredibly important works, including Ouvertures, Airs, Gavottes, Passats, Elantras, Bourrées, Settees, Loveseats, Motets, Hotets, Gigues, Pigues and Figues. His Suite No. 3 in D major (BWV 1068, BVD, 10W40 Synthetic Blend) contains an “Air” section, which, as arranged by August Wilhelm, became famously known as Air on the G String, whose title we absolutely refuse to create a joke for. It was famously covered by Procol Harum in its 1967 hit A Whiter Shade of Pale, which really angered Bach, as he could not collect any royalties, being that he was by then completely dead. Although recognized in his lifetime more as a teacher and performer, his stature as a prominent composer began to grow to Shaquille O’Neal-sized importance during the 18th century, as composers such as Felix “The Cat” Mendelssohn began performing his works to enthusiastic crowds, most of them now related to Bach and suspiciously named Johann. Today, he is recognized as one of the most important composers who ever died, leaving a legacy that still has impact on your local NPR station’s playlist today.

All About Bach: Part 2 (Umlauts and Ill-Tempered Claviers)
The continuing story of everyone's favorite musical wig wearer.

PART TWO OF A SERIES (SEE PART ONE)

In January of 1703, just after graduating from St. Michael’s, Bach was appointed court musician in the chapel of Duke Johann “Wayne” Ernst III in Weimar (Official Motto: “Pronounce The ‘W’ Like a ‘V’ You Stupid American”). While there, his reputation as a keyboardist began to spread, and he became the organist at St. Boniface’s in Arnstadt, his only request being that he never have to play “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida”. St. Boniface boasted a new organ that used the “modern tempered” system which allowed a wide range of keys to be used, some of them even in tune. However, things became tense between Bach and his employer, as Bach complained about the quality of singers in his choir (some were actually mannikins from the local wedding dress shop) and his employer was upset that Bach took two months off to visit renowned organist Dietrich “Big Fingers” Buxtehude in Lübeck, a city known mostly for its cool umlaut. In 1706 Bach took another organist job at St. Blasius (Patron Saint of Apathy) church in Mühlhausen (Official Motto: “Lübeck Stole Our Umlaut Idea”). This job offered him better pay, improved conditions, a padded organ bench, a mannikin-less choir, and a bunch of surly teenagers to pump the organ. It was during his stay at Mulhausen that Bach married his second cousin Maria Barbara Bach, a crafty move by her, in that it kept her from not having to change her last name on her driver’s license. They had seven children, who were also conveniently named Bach, some of whom also became important composers, but we can’t talk about them, because we have to keep this under 700 words.

Fist fights and ill-tempered claviers

Bach left Mülhausen in 1708, as the city was running out of teenagers with strong legs, and returned to Weimar, where he took a job again with the Third Duke Johann Ernst, this time as organist as well as Konzertmeister (“Master of the Konzerts”). During this time he composed mostly keyboard and orchestral works, being particularly attracted to the Italian style, in which one or more solo instruments alternate section-by-section with the full orchestra throughout a movement, and then join together at the end for a massive, on-stage fist fight. It was here that he began to assemble the preludes and fugues that would become one of his signature works. He called it “The Well-Tempered Clavier“, because the ill-tempered claviers were just too hard to train, and would tend to bite during long movements. There were two volumes; each contained a prelude and a fugue in every major and minor key, and few other keys only dogs can hear. Eventually, Bach fell out of favor at Weimar, and was dismissed, even being jailed for a period, possibly for harboring a distempered clavier.

Suites and dances

From here, Bach accepted a job as Kapellmeister in Köthen (Official Motto: “The H May Be Silent But We Got Us An Umlaut”) for Leopold, Prince of Anhalt-Köthen. Most of his work here was secular and included orchestral suites, cello suites, toot suites, and suites with a pull out sofa. This was also where he composed the famous “Brandenburg Concertos“, so named because “Köthen Concertos” was too hard to spell on typewriters without umlaut keys. Bach also began to embrace dance music, composing such hits as “Get Off Your Corset And Dance”, “Fräulein’s Be All Up In My Wig” (Feat. Fourth Duke Archibald of Baden-Baden) and “My Umlaut Can Take Ü There, Liebchen” (Feat. “Bourgeois Breeches”).

But although Bach may have been king of the dance floor, tragedy and some new Johann’s were looming in his future.

NEXT TIME: Leipzig (Official Motto: “Cool! We Have ‘Zig’ In Our Name!”)