Monthly Archives: November 2009

Pontormo Painting of Medici Child of African Descent

Pontormo (called by the name of his birthplace) was esteemed by the Medicis for his ability to capture the individuality of his sitters, while emphasizing their aristocratic demeanor. Maria Salviati was the wife of famous military leader Giovanni delle Bande Nere de’ Medici (d. 1526) and the mother of Cosimo I (1519-1574), grand duke of Tuscany. The little girl holding her hand here is probably Giulia, a Medici relative who was left in Maria’s care after the murder of the child’s father, Duke Alessandro de’ Medici (1511-1537). As Alessandro was born of a liaison between a Medici cardinal and a servant who, tradition has it, was African, this formal portrait may be the first of a girl of African ancestry in European art. The child was painted over sometime during the 19th century but was rediscovered during a 1937 cleaning of the work.

Although Maria still wears the clothing of mourning for her deceased husband, Pontormo’s elegant style conveys her aristocratic grace through her impossibly long fingers and her fashionably pale color (indicative of a life led out of the sun), which she shares with Giulia.

This painting will be featured in the Walters’ upcoming exhibition Face to Face, the African Presence in Renaissance Europe (opening October 2012).

Be sure to search out and follow the excellent work by Mario Valdes on the African presence in European history.

New Book by Italian Publisher

I have an essay on Edmonia Lewis and her 1865 stay in Florence in this new English language collection by an Italian publisher.

Sirpa lewispassage

. . . 


Johnny Mercer Born 100 Years Ago Today

The great songwriter was born in Savannah, GA, a century ago.

What is there to say or do but just list and list and list . . .

Early Autumn, Skylark, One For My Baby, Laura, Days of Wine And Roses, Goody Goody, Save The Bones For Henry Jones, Too Marvelous for Words, And the Angels Sing, Dream, Accentuate The Positive, Come Rain Or Come Shine, Fools Rush In, I Remember You, Blues In The Night, Tangerine, I Thought About You, Day In Day Out, Moon River, When October Goes, That Old Black Magic, Satin Doll, and on and on.

A profoundly American creative spirit. Of course he had great collaborators and excellent interpreters, get a load of Countee Cullen and Arna Bontemps on the sheet music cover.

OOPS . . .

Just had to share this from the fine posts on  MarioPiperniDotCom:

“How many of these do we not hear about?

Alexios Marakis, a Greek Orthodox priest visiting the U.S., got lost in Tampa and tried to stop and ask directions from Marine reservist Jasen D. Bruce. But instead of offering help, “Bruce struck the priest on the head with a tire iron.” The reservist believed Marakis, who spoke limited English, was an Arab terrorist. Bruce chased the priest for three blocks, “and even called 911 to say that an Arabic man tried to rob him.”

Police arrested Bruce for “aggravated battery with a deadly weapon” and are investigating whether he committed a hate crime.

Yes, it’s a hate crime.”



Goodbye to Brother Blue


Brother Blue and his wife, Ruth Hill

Dr. Hugh Hill,  a spectacular professional storyteller known to one and all as Brother Blue, has died in Cambridge, MA at age 88.

Brother Blue was a true shaman. Once you met and spoke with him, or once you saw and heard him perform, especially out in the open in Harvard Square, or once you were there when he stood to make a comment from the audience at some talk or performance, his image and spirit were forever imprinted upon your own spirit. As he said, he spoke from the middle of the middle of himself, to the middle of the middle of you. The blue butterfly was his symbol and totem.


As one writer put it:

“Brother Blue is to story-telling what John Coltrane is to jazz. Walking down the street in Cambridge, people of all ages, sizes, and shapes light up when they see this griot covered in butterflies, bells, balloons, ribbons, and a banner. Underneath the trappings of a roaming town crier and his allegorical tales of the triumphant underdog is a man fueled by a faith in the transformative power of story-telling & service.

The great-grand-son of a slave-owner and his slave, with degrees from Harvard and Yale, Blue rose within the majority-dominated military, ministry, and academia, and emerged as one of the original Afro-American street-hipster-rappers. The official story-teller for Cambridge, Boston, and even the United Nations Habitat Forum, he is often called the “father of modern story-telling,” and devotes most of his unrelenting energy to the public domain — street corners, parks, subways, prisons, hospitals, and classrooms across the urban mosaic.” (Text adapted from Warren Lehrer’s Portrait series.)


Cheap Client We’ve All Encountered

An Interview With George Washington

For a few years I was the editor of the Longfellow House Bulletin. For each issue I conducted an interview. Here is my most exceptional interview, by far:



In each issue of the Bulletin we include an interview with an individual whose interest in, or whose affiliation with, the Vassall-Craigie-Longfellow House is uniquely important. We are pleased to offer our readers an “interview” with General Washington in his own words at three different intervals during his stay at the Vassall House. We were delighted he gave his candid opinions despite the controversies they might arouse.

September 1775

The Longfellow House Bulletin: In June, shortly before your arrival here in Cambridge, you told the Continental Congress of your hesitation in accepting the appointment as commander-in–chief of  the American forces. What were your thoughts at that time?

General Washington: As I wrote to my wife: so far from seeking this appointment, I have used every endeavor in my power to avoid it, not only from my unwillingness to part with [Martha] and the family, but from a consciousness of it being a trust too great for my capacity…. But it has been a kind of destiny, that has thrown me upon this service, I shall hope that my undertaking it is designed to answer some good purpose. It was utterly out of my power to refuse this appointment without exposing my character to such censures as would have reflected dishonor upon myself and given pain to my friends.

LHB: And what was your opinion of the troops of which you took command?

GW: I found a mixed multitude of people here, under very little discipline, order, or government…. I have already broke one Colonel and five Captains for cowardice and for drawing more pay and provisions than they had men in their companies… in short they are by no means such troops, in any respect, as you are led to believe of them from the accounts which are published, but I need not make myself enemies among them by this declaration, although it is consistent with truth. [There is] an unaccountable kind of stupidity in the lower class of these people which, believe me prevails but too generally among the officers of the Massachusetts part of the Army who are nearly of the same kidney with the Privates, and adds not a little to my difficulties…

LHB: And what was your first assessment of the enemy?

GW: I found the enemy in possession of a place called Bunkers Hill, on Charles Town Neck, strongly entrenched and fortifying themselves. Their force including Marines, Tories, etc. are computed from the best accounts I can get at about 12,000 men. Ours, including sick, absent, etc., at about 16,000.

January 1776

LHB: Mrs. Washington arrived at Vassall House in December when soldier and civilian alike faced another common enemy.

GW: The Small Pox is in every part of Boston…. If we escape [it] in this camp and the country round about, it will be miraculous—Every precaution that can be, is taken to guard against this Evil both by the General Court and myself.

LHB: In the past months there have been great changes in the numbers and the condition of your troops. What strategies did you use to bring about such improvement?

GW: It is easier to conceive than to describe the situation of my mind for some time past, and my feelings under our present circumstances. Search the vast volumes of history through, and I much question whether a case similar to ours is to be found; to wit, to maintain a post against the flower of the British troops for six months together, and at the end of them to have one army disbanded and another to raise within the same distance of a reinforced enemy… [w]hat may be the final issue of the last maneuver, time only can tell. Three things prompt men to a regular discharge of their duty in time of action, Natural bravery—hope of reward —and fear of punishment. The two first are common to the untutored and the disciplined soldier, but the latter most obviously distinguishes the one from the other.

LHB: We hear that Dunmore is encouraging the enlistment of Negro troops.

GW: In December it was represented to me that the free Negroes who have served in this army are very much dissatisfied at being discarded. As it is to be apprehended that they may seek employ in the Ministerial Army, I have presumed to depart from the resolution [of the Continental Congress] respecting them and have given license for their being enlisted. [In August] several Indians of the tribe of St. Francis came here and confirmed the former accounts of the good dispositions of the Indian Nations, and Canadians to the interests of America. A most happy event.

March 1776

LHB: All reports declare the British have fled under the threat of bombardment from the fortifications erected by our troops upon Dorchester Heights in just one night.

GW: The last trump could not have struck them with greater consternation. OnSunday the 17th at 9 o’clock in the forenoon, the ministerial Army evacuated the Town of Boston, and…the forces of the United Colonies are now in actual possession thereof. I have great reason to imagine their flight was precipitated by the appearance of a Work which I had ordered to be thrown up last Saturday night, on an eminence at Dorchester which lay nearest to Boston Neck, called Newkes Hill. The Town, although it has suffered greatly, is not in so bad a state as I expected to find it. The situation in which I found [the enemy’s] works evidently discovered that their retreat was made with the greatest precipitation. They have left their barracks and other works of wood at Bunkers Hill, etc. all standing and have destroyed but a small part of their lines.

LHB: Would you favor us with some of your reflections on these past nine months, sir, as you prepare to leave for Philadelphia?

GW: I believe I may, with great truth affirm, that no man perhaps since the first institution of armies ever commanded one under more difficult circumstances than I have done—to enumerate the particulars would fill a volume—many of my difficulties and distresses were of so peculiar a cast that in order to conceal them from the enemy, I was obliged to conceal them from my friends, indeed from my own army thereby subjecting my conduct to interpretations unfavorable to my character…I am happy however to find, and to hear from different quarters that my reputation stands fair—that my conduct hitherto has given universal satisfaction…

LHB: So to sum up the matter thus far…

GW: It is a great stake we are playing for, and sure we are of winning if the cards are well managed.

Sources: George Washington: Writings, (The Library of America, 1997)

Henry Steele Commanger and Richard B. Morris, eds., The Spirit of Seventy-six: The Story of the American Revolution as told by Participants (New York: Da Capo Press, 1995)

George Washington Papers, at the Library of Congress