Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Tommaso Mocenigo

Tommaso Mocenigo (1343 - 1423)

Tommaso Mocenigo was Doge of Venice from 1414 right up to his death from a long illness in 1423. 

Mocenigo was an admiral  and merchant by profession. He traded in pepper with Syria. Prior to being Doge, he was Duke of Candia (the Venetian name for the island of Crete) and in 1405 was named Procurator of San Marco. In his younger years he was also elected to the Council of Ten, Venice's highly secretive security body.

Under his reign, he encouraged commerce, and Venice's dominion over the sea was at its apogee.  It is said that knowing well that he would be too ill to benefit from a new palace, he organised for the reconstruction of the ducal palace, then known as the Ziani Palace, and commenced the library of Venice.

Prior to his death, in 1423, Mocenigo made an impassioned plea to his Pregadi (Senate) warning them against electing Francesco Foscari as his successor. The brazen and military minded Foscari, he said, would ruin Venice. The main difference between these two men was that Foscari favored military expansion into terrafirma, while Mocenigo was all about the sea and peaceful trade.

Mocenigo is buried in the Basilica dei Santi Giovanni e Paolo. 

Tomb of Mocenigo

Various excerpts from The Mascherari: A Novel of Venice, featuring Doge Mocenigo.

“Tommaso Mocenigo is very ill,” he explained, gesturing gravely toward the Doge apartments to our left. “He has been confined to bed for weeks already. When the New Year commences next March, do not be surprised if the patricians are called upon to appoint a new Doge. It is not known how many months Tommaso has to live but I feel his time is near.  And between you and me,” he whispered, “our young procurator, Francesco Foscari*, would want this time to be nearer still.” - Almoro Donato from the Council of Ten 

As the door opened, I saw that it was a much afflicted man, pale in face with a thin aquiline nose and eyes so transparently gray that they seemed to belong to another world. By the sunken cheeks on his pallid face I took him to be at least eighty in years.
Bonna notte,” he began, his frail voice, at first, barely audible.  - Antonio da Parma describes his encounter with Doge Mocenigo

“I understand you, Antonio.” His voice rose. “In the words of our great Petrarch, ‘you wish to go beyond the fire that burns you’.  I see it in your eyes.  This sentiment you have, that something must be, I know it well.  I know how it devours and urges.
“Then I will ask you to yield to what must be.  Pay heed to your inner voice, as I do mine.  Let it guide you to your destiny.  - Tommaso Mocenigo in The Mascherari: A Novel of Venice

“I bid you go, Antonio. Pray for me, your Doge, that I may persuade my Pregadi and save Venezia from the wars Francesco Foscari would have her wage upon my death.  You do that for me, Antonio?” - Tommaso Mocenigo in The Mascherari: A Novel of Venice

_____*Francesco Foscari - was elected Doge shortly after Tommaso Mocenigo's death. Despite the tradition of electing patricians who were at least 60 years of age, Francesco was only 49 when he became Doge. 

Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Year I Tie the Knot

I haven't written much on life for a while and it leaves one to wonder whether I may have gotten lost somewhere in 15th century Venice, while scribing The Mascherari. Fear not, the twenty-first century is well and truly my reality.

I think.

Since the end of 2014 is looming fast, I thought it might be a good idea to express my gratitude for the wonderful things that are coming my way next year.

Because 2015 sure promises to be a freaking ride!


So firstly, The Mascherari will be available on Paperback. (Did I say this post would only be about 'life'? Too bad. I lied.) 356 pages of time travel set in 15th C Venice on cream paper.  I am working hard at it right now.

With this, can I say how grateful I am for having writer friends? I counted over twenty on Facebook the other day and felt truly blessed. It's wonderful to connect with like-minded people who love history, love writing and go through the same hardships, the same fears, the same hopes and damn, who just love reading! And to think that three years ago, I only had a couple writer friends. I love the surprises that life brings along the way.

Since I am on the topic of books, I'll mention another historical novel. This time it's one classic beast written by an Australian journalist in the 19th century. For the Term of His Natural Life is one of the darkest novels I've read and it's very much in my mind at the moment as I'll be heading to Tasmania (where the novel is set) in early January and am looking forward to visiting Hobart and Port Arthur.

This is a huge deal for me. In my twenty-nine years in Australia, since arriving at aged 10, I've never seen Tasmania. I can't wait! What a great start to the year.


Still on the subject of books and writing and writers, I am very much looking forward to attending the first Historical Novel Society Australasia Conference and to meeting some special, talented people. Oh my goodness, and I get to meet Colin Falconer in the flesh! That's The Colin Falconer who has written over 30 books and is one of my favorite historical novelists and an AMAZING human being.


2015 is also doubly special as I'll be tying the knot with my partner of over 5 years. Oh my Lord Poseidon, that's like, 6 months away...

I've not even got a dress.

We have chosen the venue in Brisbane so that's a start. I am on the lookout for a good photographer but I'm not too worried: given my partner's background is film, the reception will likely be the equivalent of a large film crew. No kidding. That includes my lovely friend make-up artist, Billie Weston.

She did this to me five years ago:

I am fondly looking forward to my wedding day (that I haven't really planned yet...) and to seeing my friends again.

Because you know what? I do have an invite list. Invite lists are always a pain when you are young but when you are turning 40 next year (oh my God, did I say that?), invite lists are easy. The only difficult part is that I'll be missing out on the presence of so many people who live overseas and who I've never met in person and only wish I could.

You reach an age where it becomes obvious who you want in your life and who you want to share your special experiences with.

Which brings me to the inevitable...


I am indeed turning 40 next year. There's no turning back. I'll never wear 9-inch heels again. (Ok, maybe just a little bit.)

Like, WOW.

Me? Cute little me? Asian shorty me? 40 years old. Like, Wow.

I remember as a kid when someone told me they were 40. I would think they were ancient. (Like bloody old.)

And now I think, are you kidding, that's just the start of my adventure! :)

Because another upcoming joy for 2015 is Summer. Summer and all the love I have for this wonderful seaside place called Coogee and which has been my home for over 14 months.

I am immensely grateful to live in a place I could only dream of ten years ago. Grateful, for every walk I take along the magical ocean and every sunset and wave that paint a picture perfect landscape every second of the day.

I can't tell you how much I love this place.

And having unveiled sun-bathed Coogee, I'll get to the point. The point, the point, the point, is that...

And I feel a little embarrassed revealing this,

This summer, thanks to this shopping-porn-of-a-site called SammyDress, I actually have a bikini to wear for each day of the week. How cool is that? I have a Sky blue and leopard print bikini, a flimsy orange bikini that would make a Brazilian babe salivate, a classic white and red striped bikini, a halter neck snake-skin bikini, a very 80s dark green bikini with gold metal rings, a bling (and wog-ish) Gold & Black bikini, and a hippie style pastel print bikini. I'm all set!

Because you only freaking live once!

And there comes the icing on the cake: I also know what I'm getting for Xmas. These are the funnest and least pretentious presents I've ever received because let's face it: weddings are expensive.

So present number one is swimming goggles - to see underwater and swim and shit. (And like, for pretending I'm a mermaid in my orange bikini while swimming around Coogee. It all makes sense now!)

And present number two -  is a blowtorch.

With butane gas.

So that I can burn the shit out of my creme brulee.

Because I am SO making crème brûlée all over 2015.

And Croquembouche.


Sunday, August 10, 2014

Minotaur Fantasies

When I was a young girl, I was a huge fan of the French-Japanese animated production, Ulysses 31.

Two of my favorite Ulysses 31 episodes were, Ulysses and the Sirens and Ulysses and the Minotaur. All the episodes drew me into Greek mythology but these two stood out.

Read about Ulysses 31 and the Minotaur (or skip to the next section)

In this fantastic sci-fi version of the Greek tale, Theseus and Ariadne-who sports a punk-like androgynous blue hair style-are forbidden lovers a la Romeo and Juliet. Ariadne fails to persuade her father to spare Theseus; King Minos imprisons him in the labyrinth where he is fated to die at the hands of the Minotaur.
Luckily, Ariadne happens to be a super pilot; she boldly flies her vessel to the Minotaur planet in the hope of saving Theseus before this one is mauled by the Minotaur.

On her way, she meets our hero, Ulysses, who has been told-somewhat cryptically-by Aegeus that 'wherever his son, Theseus, is imprisoned lies the secret path back to planet Earth'.  Given that Ulysses is keen to return home, he decides to help Ariadne save Theseus.

Upon landing on Minotaur planet, Sheerka (think: Apple's Siri, but in command of Ulysses' spacecraft) warns them that it is a labyrinth where they will be easily lost. No kidding, Sheerka. The ever resourceful Ariadne happens to have a necklace, whose beads are none other than tiny geo-location emitters. The group uses these beads to track their journey into the labyrinth. Unfortunately, the labyrinth is a dynamic fortress with shifting walls and landscape, reminiscent of Alex Proyas' Dark City. So much for those beads.

Ulysses and Ariadne finally find Theseus and...come face to face with the trident-bearing blue-skinned Minotaur who looks very much like some Indian deity. A battle ensues. When all seems lost, Ulysses throws his laser saber to Theseus and this one finally defeats the Minotaur.

It is then that Ulysses realizes the meaning of Aegeus' words-the path to Earth was never to be found in Minotaur planet, but rather, was a secret possessed by the Minotaur himself. Ulysses feels stupid and misses out yet again on an opportunity to return to Earth. But, we, Ulysses 31 fans don't really care and we hope he remains stranded in space forever so that we can continue to watch this wonderful series.

You can watch the episode here. (In French)

My obsession for this episode was not surprising. Just like mermaids, labyrinths and mazes have fascinated for centuries. Thanks to the legend of Theseus and the Minotaur and to labyrinth engraved coins found at Knossos in Crete, one of the best known mazes in the Western world harks from the Minoan Kingdom. Lesser known are further depictions of ancient labyrinths, some carved into rocks, which have been found in Cornwall, India, Peru, Arizona, the island of Sardinia, Galicia in Spain, the UNESCO heritage listed rock drawings of Val Camonica in Northern Italy, and in Morocco.

The World's Largest Maze

This fascination for mazes has even led one man eccentric to build what will be the world's largest maze. Set to open in fall 2014 the maze of Fontanellato near Parma, Italy will be a 7 hectares, eight-pointed star-shaped labyrinth built entirely of bamboo plants with hedges growing as high as 5 meters. This giant labyrinth is the pet project of publisher, art collector and bibliophile, Franco Maria Ricci.
If you fancy a trip to Italy next year, why not hop past Parma and get lost among the bamboo hedges?

Italy's Amazing Mazes

But why stop at Parma? Take your pick. Among those countries with a history of mazes, Italy stands out today by having some of the most fascinating green mazes in the world.

Even in the 18th century, when Napoleon wasn't busy dismantling the Venetian Arsenale and appropriating the wealth of the Venetian navy, he made a visit to Villa Pisani (built for the Venetian family of St Stephan Pisani, starting in 1721), famous for its maze of boxwood hedges. Situated in the town of Stra, the Villa Pisani maze consists of 12 concentric rings with high hedges leading to a central tower. It is said that Napoleon ventured inside this maze and got himself lost. I wish he had stayed there forever.

Speaking of Venice, many history authors, including Peter Ackroyd, have written of its architecture as being labyrinthine. This is actually not a coincidence; let's take a look at the symbolism associated with mazes and some of their uses throughout history.

Baffling Evil Spirits

An ancient belief holds that evil spirits can only travel in a straight line. Perhaps this is what has led many medieval cities from Morocco (Fez, Marrakech), Greece, Spain and Italy to be constructed in roughly labyrinthine manner, with an intricate network of narrow streets some of which bend or end abruptly, others which join up in unpredictable ways. In 1999 while visiting the old town of Toledo, I myself became lost a number of times to the point of anxiety.

This complex architecture was presumably designed to ward off 'evil' and ensure the security of the local dwellers. More likely it was a strategy to aid residents in their defense against potential invasions, given that foreign attackers would more easily find themselves disoriented.

Here, the meaning associated with the labyrinth imagery is that of an 'impenetrable fortress' or a place heavily defended and which is not easily entered. The meaning extends beyond the legend of Theseus, to places like India. For example, Iranian geographer Abu'l-Rayhan Al-Biruni uses a labyrinth illustration in 1045 AD to depict the impenetrable Ravana fortress at Lanka, which according to the Ramayana epic was where the demon Ravana abducted Sita, wife of the hero Rama. Similarly, in the Byzantine period, the 13th century Islamic geographer, Al-Qazwini, made use of a labyrinth drawing to depict a map of Constantinople.

Roman Culture

The legend of Theseus and the Minotaur was very popular with the Romans and through their conquest, the iconography of the Minotaur and the Labyrinth were propagated in Northern Africa and throughout many places in the Mediterranean world. The cultural significance may have ranged from honoring a classical tale, to the idea of conquest, to bravery, to the slaying of bestiality which aligns with the military and imperialist principles of the Romans.

As far as slaying a half-bull creature, the slaying of the Minotaur is vividly reminiscent of the Cult of Mithraism which the Romans practiced. Here, Theseus effectively becomes the Persian entity, Mithras, and slays the bull.

Earliest known Mithraic monument
Rome, ca.98-99 A.D

The labyrinth legend may have also seeped into the 'popular' culture of the period where it hinted to danger, a guarded secret, or to the dwelling of someone less than hospitable. For exampe, in one excavated house in the ruins of Pompeii, one can read the engraved inscription, "Labyrinthus hic habitat Minotaurus" (The Labyrinth; here lives the Minotaur) which in this case sounds like "Beware of Dog". But who knows.

The Etruscans-also a people subjugated by the Romans and whose cultural influence in Italy has been traditionally overlooked as a result of Roman supremacy-already possessed labyrinth depictions in their own art.

For example, on the below Etruscan art strip found on the late 7th century Tragliatella pitcher, the labyrinth image has been labeled "Troy".  Here the labyrinth comes to symbolize once again the "impenetrable fortress" and hints to the battle at Troy.  Indeed, in some regions of antiquity,  labyrinths were known as “Troy towns” -in the sense that Troy had once been constructed to be impenetrable- and the legend held that at the center of the labyrinth, there resided, not a Minotaur but rather a young woman in need of rescue. This woman was commonly thought to be Helen of Troy.

But we will see, later in this article, how the heavy copulation imagery depicted to the far right has led to a wildly different suggestion for the Etruscan symbolism of the labyrinth. For now let's skip ahead to the Middle Ages.

Pilgrimages of the Soul

During the Middle Ages, large labyrinths became featured on the pavements of a number of cathedrals, notably throughout Italy and France. In this period, the labyrinth was conceived as a metaphor for the journey of life and the cleansing of the soul, leading to enlightenment. It was used as a penitent's journey for those who were too ill or too old to take part in the pilgrimage to the Holy City of Jerusalem and or to Santiago de Compostela in Spain.

The penitent would pray and move along the path of the labyrinth on his knees until he reached the center or had gone around a number of loops. It was thought that upon completing their designated path, the penitent had cleansed his or her soul and had attained spiritual growth. From a psychological point of view, this labyrinth metaphor provided a valuable means for meditating, relaxing and finding oneself purified.

Labyrinth Pavement in Chartres Cathedral, France

Getting Lost in Pleasure

The use of hedges in gardens date back to Roman times. In turn, garden mazes may have first been mentioned in 13th century in Belgium. Such mazes developed for entertainment purposes, allowing people to take long pleasurable strolls, engage in conversation, exercise, take part in secret courtships or play games. The patterns and shapes of these hedge mazes vary greatly.

Chateau de Villandry Gardens
Loire Valley, France

Recent Findings - The Maze as a Symbol of Femininity

I indicated earlier that there is possibly a different meaning to the Etruscan labyrinth, one which might hark back to an earlier Bronze Age period. This is indeed the argument of recent researchers.

A prehistoric cave painting of a labyrinth depicted in the Polyphemus Cave, found 9 km North of Trapani in northwest Sicily, has been dated to 3000 BC.  This painting, older than the rock carvings at Val Camonica (which at their earliest are from 1800 - 1000 BC) may well be the oldest known labyrinth in the world.

The labyrinth image is painted in red and measures approximately 50 cm in diameter. It lies in the ceiling of a niche in the cave. The original image is believed to have covered the entire niche vault and slanted down to the wall of the niche. Research suggests that the labyrinth bears a feminine significance - akin to a uterine or vulvar symbol. The use of red paint-which in Paleolithic and Neolithic periods was associated with blood and the color of the female reproductive organs, and therefore with birth and regeneration- also lends support to this claim.

Due to the position of the painting in the niche- which can best be seen while lying down- it has been suggested that the cave may have been a place of sexual ritual. This is to say that a couple would enter the niche, lie down and engage in procreation while gazing at the labyrinth figure above.

Similarly, the Etruscan labyrinth described earlier may be none other than a female uterus or a symbol of regeneration.  This suggestion is supported by the findings on the Tragliatella pitcher (shown in non-PG detail below) which depicts a couple making love beside the labyrinth symbol.

What do you think?

From the 31st Century to the 15th Century
Thanks to watching too many Ulysses 31 cartoons in my youth (and maybe following a bout of historical research), I couldn't help but feature a maze in my latest writing. Nothing fancy, but it's in there somewhere.

In the historical novel, The Mascherari,which is set in 15th century Venice, the characters become lost in a hedge maze in an island near Venice. While the maze remains fictional, the historical background renders it no less plausible.

After writing The Mascherari, I took a visit to Hyde Park, in Sydney.
Unlike the glorious Italian mazes, Hyde Park is no labyrinth but it adjoins St Mary's Cathedral. In front of the cathedral is Archibald Fountain. Designed by French artist, François-Léon Sicard, and completed in 1926, it is a lavish fountain graced by three statues.

Two of these made me smile.

One is a statue of the Goddess Diana holding a bow. The other depicts Theseus slaying the Minotaur.

They were perfect.

More reading:

Rigoglioso, Marguerite, "The Oldest Labyrinth in the World? The Polyphemus Cave Painting." Caerdroia - The Journal of Mazes and Labyrinths. Volume 29, (1998):  pp 14-22. 

Saturday, July 26, 2014

The Old Woman in a Basket

The Cumaean Sybil

Southern Italy is quite the hotbed for pagan practices. Even today after hundreds of years, there still remains a shroud of secrecy around the witches of Benevento, a town not far from Naples. While I delved on the witches of Benevento in my novel, The Mascherari, today I want to explore another mysterious place in Southern Italy, the village of Cuma.


Like Naples, Cuma lies in the province of Campania. It is a village which corresponds to the 8th century BC Greek settlement of Cumae. 

Once upon a time in Cumae, there lived a virgin prophetess, the famous Cumaean Sybil (from the Greek word sybilla = prophetess). Like the other Sybils of antiquity (there were a few), she had the power to read into the future. Apparently she even prophesied the coming of Christ.

Randy Apollo

According to legend, the Sibyl of Cumae acquired her powers by attracting the attention of the sun god Apollo. Much like all randy Greek gods, Apollo was quite smitten by young virgins and was determined to bed the Sybil. He offered her anything she wished if she would accept to spend a single night with him. 

It is said that she picked a handful of sand and said, "As many birthdays must be given to me as there are particles of sand." 

Apollo granted her wish. She acquired a thousand years of life, along with her divine wisdom. 
But the young woman had no intention of honoring the bargain and summarily refused Apollo's advances. 

Apollo, furious at getting no action (it's a pattern in Greek mythology and in modern slighted men), decided to get even; he did not rectify her omission to request eternal youth such that the Sybil was cursed to age with every one of those thousand years. 

The Old Woman in the Cave

Where did the Sybil of Cumae live? Now it gets a little creepy.

She lived inside a dark cave which according to Virgil, had one hundred entrances. Atlas Obscura mentions that the "official" Cave of the Sibyl was uncovered near Naples, in 1932, by archaeologist Amedeo Maiuri, who was in charge of excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum for many years.

The Sybil Cave

The discovered cave has many entrances (though not one hundred), along with cisterns and galleries, and its longest passage measures 5 meters high by 132 meters.  At the end of the long passage, there lived the Sybil who sat in a tiny niche. 

Entrance to the Sybil Cave, Cumae

While this cave is a fascinating archaeological site, its shape has since been attributed to Etruscan origin. It is believed that Etruscan slaves of the Romans would have cut it around the 6th century BC which makes it a little younger than the Sybil cave referred to by Virgil. 

The Seer

In the past, people would visit the Sybil for help. She either sang her prophecies or wrote them on oak leaves that she then left at the mouth of the cave for people to read. If no one came to collect them, the wind would simply blow them away. 

Her prophecies were complex and written in verses. So enigmatic were they that every meaning and its opposite could be interpreted (a little like your regular astrology column).  Sometimes she bound her prophecies into books or scrolls which she then guarded. 

In this manner, she possessed several scrolls about the future of Rome. The legend says that around 500BC she traveled to Rome with nine scrolls filled with her wisdom. 

I particularly like this representation of the Cumaean Sybil by 19th century painter, Elihu Vedder. I love the determination in the Sybil to carry the scrolls to Rome and ensure their safety. Actually when I first stumbled upon this painting I thought it was the picture of a dude. But that is probably because she was by then many hundreds of years old. 

The Cumaean Sybil
Elihu Vedder (1876)

What happened when this woman reached Rome? That is another legend.

The Sybil in Rome

Rome was then reigned by Tarquinius Superbus (the very name makes one shudder).
One day Tarquinius the Proud was sitting around eating grapes and having his toes sucked by his Nubian slave, when he saw this old lady striding into Rome bearing nine scrolls and thought, "What THE..."

Little did he know that this shriveled old lady with the moustache was the wise Sybil. 

What did he know, Tarquinius? He was probably too eager to tend to his orgies and could not once imagine that these nine scrolls were so important as to foretell Rome's future. So when the Sybil offered him the nine scrolls for an outrageous price, he balked. I'm guessing the answer was probably more something like, "Get stuffed."

In retaliation, and without a word, the Cumaean Sybil took three of the nine scrolls and burnt them.
Then she turned to Tarquinius and offered him the remaining six scrolls at the same price as before.
Tarquinius was getting a little tired of this old crank, so again, he refused.
Bad move.
Again, the Cumaean Sybil burnt three scrolls so that now, only three were left.
In a foreboding manner, and knowing the worth of her own prophecies, she offered the three remaining scrolls to Tarquinius at the original price.

Perhaps the king took fright at her assurance. Either way he understood that these were valuable scrolls and that if there was a chance these three remaining scrolls could save Rome or ward off perils in the future, he might be better off purchasing them... 
And so he did.

The Sybilline prophecies as these were called became a famous source of power and knowledge. They were kept on Capitoline Hill in Rome and were consulted on important occasions by the Senate.

In 82 BC, the books were destroyed in the burning of the Temple of Jupiter.

The Tragedy of the Sybil

For having slighted Apollo, the Sybil gained eternal life without eternal youth. 

What happened to the Sybil when she was almost a thousand years old? It is said that she aged so much that she withered to a tiny form until there was nothing left of her, save her voice. 

When she had reached a tiny size, the people of Cumae suspended her in a basket in a public place.
(Kind of like what animator, Tex Avery does to every mother-in-law character in his cartoons.)

In the famous Roman novel, Satyricon, written by Petronius under Emperor Nero's reign (37- 68 AD), a boastful Trimalchio recounts having seen the Sybil hanging in her basket. 

Local boys asked her, “Sybil, what do you want?” and she replied: “I want to die.”

Be careful what you wish for.

I leave you with this moving chant from one of my all time favorite music bands, Dead Can Dance. 

Song of the Sybil - Dead Can Dance

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Mascherari - Magdalena

In The Mascherari, my protagonist, Antonio da Parma, is haunted by visions of a beautiful and mysterious woman. Her name is Magdalena. For months after completing the novel, I pondered over Magdalena's features and over who I could best use to illustrate the raw quality of her beauty. I was pleasantly surprised when I chanced upon a photo of a long admired actress with an Italian origin.

Here it is, then; a portrait of Magdalena on canvas. It is based on a dark-haired version of the young Ornella Muti. She is perfect.

Chapter One

     Journal of Antonio da Parma

     He dreams on a gondola as it glides in silence.  Sound asleep, he lies, beneath a fiery dawn, while the palace’s Eastern wing rises above, and casts golden shadows upon his face.
     This is how I may have appeared to my guide as I drifted off, while he strained with the oar, drawing us closer to the Ducal stones, closer, beneath the towering Campanile, closer to this monstrous Republic of galleys with its islands and canals, into the heart of this lagoon fortress gilded by the sun’s first rays, and past her mansions of Istrian stone, whose glorious facades looked on, across a sea of silk and glistening foam.
     Curious, isn’t it?  How I saw her.
     I would see her differently now.
     Daughter of Venus, Venezia, you rose from nothingness. The memory of you…
     How could this not be my first diary entry?  For it was that day, as I arrived in Venezia, that I experienced my first vision.
     She was standing on the Rialto Bridge.  I write, standing, but now that I remember–and it is hard to recall after all that has transpired since–I think, yes... I think she was floating.  I swear that I never once saw her feet touch the ground.   I remember the fluttering hem of her gown and the way it thinned into a vaporous mist. I remember that I crossed myself and whispered the names of the saints upon seeing her face for the first time.
     She stood alone. She was watching me.
     And I, I saw only her.
     She seemed to have eluded the vanity of Venetian women.  Perhaps she did not live in our times. She cared not for the blonde locks they coveted, had not shaved her forehead in the new fashion, and wore no silk, nor jewelry.  Her hair–I crossed myself again–for it was night, and her black locks were like the manes of a strega; insolence upon her shoulders.
     Oh, the dark beauty of that face.
     I saw, even from afar, the longing eyes beneath their sultry lashes and the parting of her lips as she whispered.  She resembled those Southern women or perhaps those forbidden beauties of Constantinople into whose eyes one dares not stare too long, for fear of some lurking evil.
     It struck me at this instant. I ignore how, it struck me that this woman was a harbinger of some fateful event, one that I was soon to encounter, here, in Venezia.
     The sun rose, filtering light through the rios, casting flames upon her black hair. My gondolier’s vessel meandered through the lagoon.  Light shone on the Canal Grande.
     Still in dream, I gazed at her form but she drew away. No, she floated away, vanishing to the other side of the bridge. And as the morning rays bathed Rialto Market, not a trace of her remained.
     The loss of her wounded me.  Abandoned by the unsettling vision, I rose from my slumber.  I awoke to the stern Ducal Palace looming over our gondola.  It lay still.  As silent as its secrets.
     Later that morning, I spoke of my vision to Almoro Donato, member of the Consiglio dei Dieci.  He told me what I did not want to hear.
     “Antonio. Antonio, you grieve, my friend. But it must end. Yes, don’t you see? You must find a new wife, si?  With so much beauty in Venezia, a man like you—“
     “Basta.  I am already past the fourth decade. I care not for another wife.  It was not her I saw in the dream.  The woman, there was something about her—”
     But he interrupted me.  I think he has studied me carefully over the years. I suppose his position demanded it.  It was under his recommendations that Venezia had appointed me, a Florentine, for the second time. The Consiglio dei Dieci had a well-earned reputation for respecting nobody’s secrets and my employer was a master spy.  He gave me that look of wariness, that short disapproving glare which I remembered from years before.
     “Ah, Antonio, see how you drift again. Your preoccupations always lead you into visions. But remember your place, avogadore.  I will ask you to prepare for your future role within the commune, yes? We will have none of that in the Republic, will we?”
     He looked at me again.
     “Will we, Antonio?”
     I may have shrugged my shoulders, but the foreboding manner of his words taunted me, even then.
     As we crossed inside the palace’s entrance hall, I waved away my unpleasant feelings. I cast aside my dream.  Already Venezia tugged at my soul but I attributed my ill-feeling to his sermon.
     “Tommaso Mocenigo is very ill,” he explained, gesturing gravely toward the Doge apartments to our left. “He has been confined to bed for weeks already. When the New Year commences next March, do not be surprised if the patricians are called upon to appoint a new Doge. It is not known how many months Tommaso has to live but I feel his time is near.  And between you and me,” he whispered, “our young procurator, Francesco Foscari, would want this time to be nearer still.” He cleared his throat. “Antonio, the Consiglio would prefer it if you remained in Venezia until then.”
     I started. “Until March?”
     His eyes narrowed. I understood that I had little choice.
     I calculated that I would remain in Venezia until at least the commencement of Lent.
     And the realization struck me.
     Carnivale is upon us; diabolic days where madness surges and unfolds, unrelenting. Where the masses of Venezia, the popolani, forget themselves into debauchery and descend ever deeply into the odious core of their fettered being.  Carnivale, a season of obscene songs and erotic dance, when the masked rival for attention while making believe they are free.
     I never long so dearly for the rolling hills and scented valleys of Tuscany as when I find myself in the Republic during the infernal period of Carnivale.
     I refrained from sharing my thoughts and moved inside the Consiglio dei Dieci gathering room for my briefing.
     It was after my visit to the palace, when my gondolier had led our boat through the nation of Santa Croce, that I encountered the first abomination.


Thursday, June 26, 2014

Four with a Five Wing

Yes, it's all true. I'm a loner. 

From the age of five, when I preferred to roam the playground alone, lost in thoughts, rather than play with other children, right up to my insistence, as an adult, on having lunch by myself every day at work - despite invitations from co-workers that I do like - I mostly enjoy being alone.

I live in my head, and I imagine things that make me wonder, at times, if the likes of Salvador Dali and Patricia Highsmith have not found a corner of my brain from which they command me to do their bidding.

Over almost four decades, I have had to surmount extremes in introversion and sensitivity, in order to function 'normally' in a predominantly extroverted world that abounds with stimulus.

Beneath the seemingly aloof, collected veneer, I am constantly adjusting, recovering, and moderating my own - often violent - reactions to what I perceive as overbearing, crippling and vivid stimulus, all around me.  I am getting better at it...

Human micro-expressions, voice tones, traffic noise, bright lights, weather changes, intonations of conflict, loud music - the world can be an overly jarring place, and only in the comfort of my own mind or else, in nature's embrace, can I find true peace.

Living this life can be exhausting and I am often physically tired, in need of an escape, or else riddled with migraines.

Call me precious. One day I will find a balance!

My Enneagram type is Four. Many writers who have delved into the ancient Sufi philosophy which is the Enneagram, will discover that they are Fours. As such, it is hardly unique.

Still, I could not help but smile at this apt comic interpretations by Clare Cherikoff:

And then there is this, which is my subtype:

"The Four with a Five Wing"

 It is so spot on that I just had to share some quotes from: http://enneagram.tribe.net/thread/beb08410-b129-4c19-b32a-0ede58786629
Healthy, gifted individuals of this subtype are probably the most profoundly creative of all the types because they combine intuition with insight, emotional sensitivity with intellectual comprehension, frequently with stunningly original, even prophetic, results. 
 This is where I hope to be someday: prophetic; but I am not there, yet. Some of my novel characters are certainly prophetic, and so I can relate to this. This statement accurately encapsulates my aspirations.
Four with a Five-wing burn brighter than Fours with a Three-wing, but at the risk of burning themselves out faster.
 Hence the migraines. Hence the recurring exhaustion with everything, and with living...
Average persons of this subtype are given not merely to self-absorption, but to philosophical and religious speculation. Their emotional world is the dominant reality, but with a strong intellectual cast. People of this subtype tend to be extreme loners, more lacking in social connectedness than the other subtype.  
This entire post is an example of the said self-absorption.  
Thus, their artistic expressions more completely substitute for the person than in Fours with a Three-wing. 
 This last point is interesting. There have been situations where, by no fault of my own, I have fooled people into thinking that they know me, when all they actually know is my artistic expression (whether in writing or visually expressed, especially through clothing). Humans are awfully simplistic and will use all manner of heuristics, judgments or else incorporate prejudices of all sorts in order to arrive at an opinion of someone. 
These people also frequently have an otherworldly, ethereal quality about them; they are extremely independent and unconventional to the point of eccentricityThey also tend to be secretive, intensely preoccupied with their thoughts 
 Are you kidding? I live in my head; I float outside of my body; no, wait...do I have a body? 
and purposely enigmatic in their self-expressions
Let us just say, that if I do not wish to share something with someone, I won't.  At the same time,  I can make it appear as though I have just shared a large part of myself, while in fact, I have revealed nothing. 
Their creative ideas may also be somewhat unusual, possibly even surreal 
I swim in the surreal and so I completely agree with this. 
 Members of this subtype care little for communicating with those who cannot understand them
Most people can't and won't suffer an eccentric (and they are absolutely justified). I would much rather not burden them. 

Friday, June 20, 2014

Memories of Dakar

Almost seven years ago, I wrote about my childhood in Dakar, the memories I have kept, and the amazing local women who helped take care of me, but this post brings with it some evocative images and thoughts that I thought worthwhile to share.

Avenue Jean-Jaurès

I was born in Dakar, Senegal where I lived at least 7 years of my life in an apartment, on Avenue Jean-Jaurès, with my parents and grandparents. You can see it here. It is a noisy and busy street with relatively tall buildings. Here, building constructions seem to linger on for years. I remember that as a four year old, I would be frightened of the pounding at construction sites, which I called  " le Tam Tam".

"Tam Tam" is actually the name of a traditional Senegalese drum whose sound is wonderful, but that was my way of describing the noise which, as an introvert, I already found difficult to live with.

Avenue Jean Jaurès was relatively safe, and on Sundays, from the age of six onwards, my sister and I would walk together to church all the way to the Cathedral of Notre Dame.

Cathedral of Notre Dame

Shopping in Dakar was completed by our maids who spoke Wolof and knew where to find everything and how to bargain in the markets. We usually ate plenty of fish.

a market in Dakar where supermarkets did  not exist

On weekends, we would regularly drive to the Pointe des Almadies and visit the resort there where I learned to swim, and where I would invariably pretend to be a little mermaid.

Hotel des Almadies - the pool was my Sunday joy

Our apartment was simple and functional with four bedrooms and two bathrooms for six-seven people, yet as expats, we were living in luxury compared to the majority of Dakar's slum dwellers. On my way to school, I saw signs of poverty everywhere, including limbless children getting around in wooden wheeled carts. But I never once stepped inside a slum, or what the locals would call, bidonville. I regret that now.

Bidonville in Dakar

Senegal is a poor country and my parents tried to shelter me from the cruel realities of life as much as they could. I remember that one day, I must have been about five years old, my dad was driving us to the coast, and we took a different route. I did not know it, but we were heading towards a slum district. We drove past what to me resembled large cardboard boxes and masses of greyish houses stacked so near together, that one could not even see what lay inside this maze.

I asked  my Dad where we were, and what we were doing here. I was absorbed by this alien place, a place so unlike the palm lined resorts, so unlike the pleasant breezy Corniche on the coast.  I could have never suspected that this ugly place was home for most of Dakar's inhabitants.

My mum told me to sit still but I hassled her with questions. My parents replied that people lived here, that this was their home. I remember that my jaw literally dropped and I entered a state of denial. I was persuaded that my parents were lying to me, telling me things, only to keep me quiet.

"That's not their home. How can they live in cardboard?" I asked. It was a notion I found so horrifying and unpractical that I was convinced that it must be a lie.

My Dad parked the car and stepped out. He said he had to meet someone and pay him. So I waited with my mum and sister, looking on with anxiety as my Dad stepped to the edge of the bidonville and disappeared behind a grey wall. I thought he must be playing a prank on me and was merely pretending to go and see someone, given that nobody in their right mind could live here.

I know that on that day, a truth had awakened in me, even though I buried it deep and tried not to look upon it.

What I had called, 'cardboard', was in fact flimsy building material but it seemed like the right thing to call this brown material at my age. I had not even acquired the vocabulary for describing what I saw.

It seems that slums in Senegal have resorted to using garbage as a building material. Even with the risk of disease and stench, even with a pride for cleanliness, they will have no choice, due to poverty, but to use garbage so as to lift up their homes from the bog and avoid death.

Dakar had the power, very early on in my life, to make me see the world. Really see it. It is a gift that I cherish. Because the majority of those who live in wealthy countries, just as I do now, have no conception of what the world looks like and, often, I think it hardens them. It would be a jaw-dropping experience for them to understand that just as the majority in Dakar lives in slums, the majority of the world's population survives on nothing. Almost one billion people in the world (one seventh) live in urban slums. In India, the world's second most populous country, people are more likely to have a mobile phone than access to a toilet with 50% of people still defecating in the open.

So that's all I wanted to say.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Swimming In the Collective Consciousness with Wojciech Kilar

As writers - artists, often we are let loose; we become searchers; we seek, swept on an endless trail of letters, ideas, music and images.

We hunger for more, enraptured by our quest; we seem to find ourselves, again and again, within the subtle interconnections between what we have loved, what we love, and what we grow to love.

The memory of what we have loved is re-ignited with every new discovery that we make, and there is enlightenment in this reunion with our nature.

But later we find, that our nature is not our own. Because by some unexplained happenstance, we flit back, we return, time and time again, to those who have inspired us, and there, through some subconscious force, we are awakened by them. By their side, we come to create.

In this pattern, the face of our obsessions slowly surfaces, and with it, the ties that bind us to those who have made us, come to be revealed.  It becomes evident that in this web, this collective consciousness, we have a place; snug, we fit. And those we look up to, are close, much closer than we could ever imagine.

Do you often experience this? As a writer? When all the stories, ideas, artwork, cinema or music that you have loved, and whose essence have shaped you, are somehow woven by the same thread. That everything you admire or that fascinates you, is related; magically.  That the more you look into these, the more you see that those obsessions are tightly bound.  That they have, not just one, not two, but numerous links between them, and that when all those inspirations are laid out, that you fit, in there, at the very center.

When you discover this center, you are surprised to discover that it is not yours alone. Your origin, those individuals whose art has imbued your psyche - you commune with them. They are there, by your side.

As a child, how I loved Jacques Prévert's and Paul Grimault's Le Roi et L'Oiseau. This 1980 French animation sets Hans Christian Andersen's The Shepherdess and the Chimney Sweep within a dystopian kingdom, ruled by a narcissistic despot.

It is the story of two fated lovers, who must try to save their relationship from the tyranny of a king enamored of the shepherdess. The surreal intrigue is compounded by the fact that it is the king's portrait who, having emerged from his own canvas and sent the real king to the dungeons, sets off a ruthless chase for the Shepherdess and the Chimney Sweep.

With the help of my favorite character, L'Oiseau - a gregarious and anti-authoritarian mockingbird who protects them at every turn - the couple flee through the canal city, a world reminiscent of a sci-fi Venice, where they are chased by a black-clad, sbirri-like secret police.

This animation, which borders between lyricism and social satire, was the joy of my childhood. It is deep, with levels that I am still discovering. Its imagery often evokes Salvador Dali landscapes, where unbearable emptiness stretches across intricate details of spires, bell towers, endless steps and mechanical contraptions, stirring with it, paranoia and anxiety. To think that Salvador Dali has been my favorite artist since my mid teens.

There is much to like about this surrealistic masterpiece of French cinema.  As an aside, my favorite scene takes place in a cell where the Chimney Sweep has been imprisoned by the King's men, and is about to be devoured by a pack of lions.  Seeing this, the mockingbird urges his fellow cell mate, a blind musician, born in an underground subculture and who has never seen the sun, to play a happy tune with his accordion so as to distract the lions. And so the music plays on.

But the mockingbird, a master storyteller, and fluent in several languages (including "Lion"!) has a plan.  As part of the 'entertainment', and still accompanied by the happy ballad of the blind accordion player, the mockingbird begins to recount the poor Chimney Sweep's tragic love story to the hungry felines. Together with sound effects, and heightened pathos, the bird tailors the story to match the lions' interests, until the beasts' indignation towards the King reaches a climax. They force open the cage and free all the prisoners, before marching towards the tyrant.

That's the Bird. Protector and Catalyst...

But the real jewel of Le Roi et L'Oiseau, and the soul of this post, is the astounding soundtrack, by Polish composer, Wojciech Kilar. His wonderful music is in my bones. It is part of me, just as Le Roi et L'Oiseau has seeped deep into my psyche.

Wojciech Kilar returns again, later in my life, as the composer for Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992) and later, he brings his dark arts to Roman Polanski's The Ninth Gate (2000).

The Ninth Gate, a film based on the novel adaption of The Club Dumas, has been a vivid inspiration for my upcoming novel, The Mascherari. I remember watching the film and feeling irrevocably drawn to it, believing that I had always known it. It's a strange feeling that one. Then again, perhaps it is Kilar's music which holds the key to my memory.

Reflecting on The Mascherari, if I were to look into the face of Venice, in the manner I have drawn it, with The Council of Ten's shadow looming over my protagonist, with its secret police- its sbirri, at every turn, I come face to face with the menace I remember in Le Roi et L'Oiseau.  In my creation, I return to what I have known, and through this, I remember that Wojciech Kilar's haunting notes are never far.

Thank you Mr Kilar, for the music and for the inspiration.

Wojciech Kilar died in 29 December 2013. But his music lives on. 

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Mascherari - Left-Handers and Witches

I was born and raised a Roman Catholic, and in my teens, I attended a private Catholic school which had as its patron saint, a renown inquisitor of the name, Saint Dominic.

My school was not too strict but I do remember an incident that had me reconsider.  You must know that as a teenager, I was quite fond of reading out Tarot cards.

Ok, let's just let it all hang out, once and for all. I was, in fact, ruthlessly pagan.  I practiced anything, from graphology, palmistry, tarot card readings to astrology and numerology.  We didn't have the internet in those days - that is, no online apps that could automatically spit out charts upon entry of a birth date and time - I had to contend with a planetary almanac and my calculator, so that I could use my formidable mathematics skills (I did, in fact, top maths in my school) in order to map out my friends' and family members' astrological charts.

So that was me, outside school and homework. Wicked.

My Tarot 'self ' for my many Tarot readings.

And then The incident happened. One day, I was sitting with a couple of friends, in a dark corner of the school library. I began to lay out my Tarot cards (I had a Marseille pack) and to read out what I could of my friends' fortunes.  Little did I know that the librarian had spotted me. She at once began to scream and shoo me out of the library, telling me that I was a wicked girl, and that these cards were against the Christian religion, and that I was SINNING. Bla bla bla.

That was in 1991.

I can only let you imagine the illumination I felt later, at the age of 20, when I devoured Zoe Oldenbourg's magnificent, Massacre at Montségur, and came face to face with the injustice of the Cathar persecution, including, at the hands of Saint Dominic himself.

It seems, that during my school years, I had sided with the wrong guy by association, and I did not even know it! The tragedy...

Dominic (with a halo) and other Cistercian abbots 
crush helpless Cathars underfoot. As you do.

Sometimes things just click into place.

Writing my second novel, The Mascherari was immensely pleasurable. It was my opportunity to dive fearlessly into pursuits that have always been second nature to me, without guilt, without shame.  The Mascherari is a historical novel set in 1422 Venice.  It takes place between the Winter Solstice and La Befana.

While most of the research was historical, and had me delve into all aspects of Venetian society during the early 15th century, a certain component of the research covered esoteric subjects - like Tarot reading, the phases of the moon, Italian Stregheria, magical amulets, and even old Roman cults.

Today, I am pleased to announce that The Mascherari will be released on 13 August 2014, to coincide with International Left Handers Day.

I chose this date for several reasons.

In ancient and medieval times, in many parts of the world, left-handed people were traditionally associated with witchcraft and an evil nature.  The Catholic Church itself declared that left-handers were servants of the devil.  Such people would be sent to the bonfire. As it turns out, Joan of Arc’s supposed left-handedness was one of the justifications (among a few) that were employed to brand her a witch, until she was burnt at the stake.

In Italian, the word for left is 'sinistra', while in Latin, the word for Left-handed is 'sinestra'. Both words provide the root for our modern word, 'sinister', and I certainly hope my readers will enjoy a little of the sinister in The Mascherari.

13 August is perfect for another reason.

Not only is The Mascherari's author left-handed (and possibly a witch!) but 13 August, long before being declared International Left Handers Day in 1976, also happened to be, for centuries, the Feast Day of the Goddess Diana.

Just think. Diana is the Queen of all witches.

I wonder if the individuals who settled on 13 August as Left Handers Day were perfectly aware of the significance of this date when they chose it.  I have often speculated on whether their act was a perverted endorsement of the age old accusations of witchcraft laid upon left-handed people. "Yes, actually, we are all witches. You were right all along."

Hell, I'd go with that.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Making Faces

As a person with an INFJ personality profile, I have always been a sensitive creature.

I remember in Dakar, when I was six, my sister's friend, Sandra Ghaffari, had invited us both to her birthday party. We played many games.  And during one such game, the birthday girl gave each participant a folded piece of paper where she had written down her 'secret' thoughts about that person.

When it came to my turn to receive a note, I unfolded it in anticipation, only to be mortified. While my sister had the honor of reading, "You are my best friend", or something of that nature, I received the incredibly cruel, "You are a rotten banana".

Don't laugh. In French, it translates to, "Banane pourrie!"

My poor little ego was battered. All along, I had thought that Sandra had invited me to her birthday party because she liked me. How wrong I was! It seemed, that in her eyes, I had only tagged along as the annoying little sister. I remember leaving the circle, deeply hurt, and crying in my corner. I later confided in my sister that Sandra had been mean to me.

From then on, Sandra Ghaffari became my number one enemy. Oh, yes! As an INFJ, I certainly have a blacklist. (It did not help that I was possessive of my sister - you probably guessed that.)

And yes, Sandra Ghaffari was the girl's real name. Oops. You know what they say about writers? Don't piss them off. Ha!

But seriously, there have been moments in my life where rejection, or the perception of being rejected, has been incredibly painful. I think I wrote of it in a couple of blog posts, including this one, and of course, this one.

Tying into rejection, is the problem of perception. And ultimately, of image.

Like many women, image has been a problem for me.  From the time I wore braces for almost three years, to the long period where I developed anorexia, image has baffled and tormented me with the question of, 

How to be physically who I am inside? 

I know, now, that to be physically who-you-are-inside is impossible. It doesn't matter what you try, you will fail.

Image, I now see as either hard work, supreme art, physical effort, or incidental - but never a true representative of a person. At this point in my life, I play with artifice, because I enjoy it and because I am fortunate to be able to afford it. I love clothes, costume and beauty in all forms, just as I am fully conscious of their limits. For example, I would much rather read someone's words to learn of who they are, than look at them. In the same manner, I would rather someone read me to get to know who I am.

This is something that most people do not understand - that what I write, is very much closer to who I am than the visible ever will be. The visible is completely fabricated.

I learnt something about myself recently. I was not even reading a self-help book or anything too deep. I learnt of it through one of those model contest shows.

No kidding.

I forgot the name of the show. I'm not loyal to television in general and I tend to skim lightly through shows at random. Anyway, one of the modeling contestants was receiving feedback about her photo shoot. The judge observed her photos for a moment, and then he asked if she had at all been bullied or put down often during her childhood. She confirmed that she had. At this, the judge, who also happened to be a male model, explained that he could read this through the attitude she carried with her in each photo. In other words, her attitude was a defense reaction to the intruding eye of the camera.

His words really resonated with me. I began to understand, why, it is in fact rare, for me to even smile naturally in a photo shoot. There is always the default attitude, that tendency to hide behind a mask and to play the role of someone else - someone stronger, elusive or aloof - and to not let anyone in. I think this attitude is also part of my very private (and sensitive) personality.

Many would agree that a camera is a contraption that has the potential of making its subject feel vulnerable. It is why so many people run away from the camera. They hate the camera's intrusion and its false 'revelation'. They understand, deep inside, that one's image is limiting and that cameras can enforce a narrative that one might not want. And so, when the lens is on you, judging you, which really, is akin to any social situation where one might end up feeling small or inadequate, it carries with it an element of choice - do you allow it to make you feel vulnerable, or do you remain out of reach so that nothing can harm you. I think that is essentially the difference between a direct, warm smile to the camera and an attitude.

As an author who understands the need to market and to have an online presence, together with photos, the prospect of vulnerability and criticism becomes very real. At the same time, there comes the opportunity to create a narrative or to play with artful imagery - a wonderful process that mirrors writing.

To slip in and out of a role and create a character - I love that thrill.