The Week’s Not Over Yet

Between the years 1350 and 1353, Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio wrote a collection of one hundred tales published as The Decameron. I’d never read them, and in the interest of full disclosure, I admit that other than a few translated excerpts while writing this post, I still haven’t. But I am intrigued by the premise.

Written in the common man’s Italian (at the time), the collection is set against the backdrop of a 1348 outbreak of the Black Death. The stories are presented as though they are shared among ten friends holed up in a villa outside of Florence, responsibly minding their social distance and avoiding the plague like . . . well, the plague.

Thanks to this guy and Project Gutenberg, you can spend your time stuck at home with nothing to do reading about a bunch of people stuck at home with nothing to do. Raffaello Sanzio Morghen, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Seven women and three men during a fourteen-day period are tasked with entertaining the others with a story each night. Two days are reserved for chores and two for worship, leaving ten evenings of ten stories, one hundred stories in all.

If you’re familiar with the Canterbury Tales you may realize that Boccaccio’s work probably had a pretty big influence on Chaucer who pretty much did the same thing several decades later except in the common man’s English (at the time) and with more religious pilgrimaging and less plagueyness.

I have read the Canterbury Tales, both in modern translation and in Middle English, and discussed them pretentiously, and written academic papers about them. But I’ve never been on a religious pilgrimage.

I have, however, been in quarantine, holed up for two weeks at a time in my house during a plague. If the last time I read the Canterbury Tales, you’d asked me which of those I was more likely to experience, I’d have guessed wrong.

I can see why isolation and storytelling might have been a pretty good idea. Spread of the Black Death in Europe Flappiefh, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve been thinking about Boccaccio and The Decameron because I’ve had a lot of time on my hands. This has been quite a week here in the household of practical history. I know that by now most of us have had those weeks at one point or another since early this year when the world went sideways, but this has definitely been one of ours.

It actually began a little bit before this week when my husband who works in healthcare was informed that his hospital system plans to close the department in which he works. His job as he knows it will apparently be gone at an occasionally determined time in the near future. Except we recently learned that might not really be true, except that it definitely is sort of true. Probably. We’re confused, too.

And then there’s our fifteen-year-old who was told two weeks ago that he’d been potentially exposed to Covid-19 in school. That meant he had to remain home in quarantine for 14 days, or for 10 days after developing any symptoms if he tested positive and took a couple days off for chores and two for worship. Or something like that. It’s also kind of confusing.

It was bound to happen at some point. Tistip, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

So that’s some of the background. Then this past weekend, our 13-year-old, who had been doing his thing with mask and appropriate social distancing while more or less keeping away from his brother as much as possible, developed a fever and tested positive for Covid-19. Apparently, the wrong kid was quarantined.

Now he’s isolated and the rest of us are homebound, including the 15-year-old who proved negative for Covid-19 when tested after his brother’s positive result. Originally, he would have been released from quarantine yesterday, but since he has presumably been exposed to his brother, the 14 days begins again. From what point, we’re not entirely sure, as the answer to that questions seems to depend primarily on who you ask and what they had for breakfast that day.

Of course, that no longer matters anyway. On Tuesday of this week, after a painfully long publicly broadcasted meeting in which the elected members of our school board proved they don’t read emails or listen, it was decided that our district’s high schools and middle schools would move to virtual learning due to staffing difficulties caused by rolling quarantines.  

Virtual school isn’t ideal, but I think it’s much better than 45% percent attendance and constant staff shortages. Image by Tumisu from Pixabay

So, we’re at home. And that’s fine. There are a lot of people all over the world in similar predicaments, and we’re fairly well set. Symptoms have so far fallen into the short-lived and mild range, and we have the supplies we need, or the ability to have delivered whatever we don’t. We just have to figure out how to fill our abundance of extra time.

I’m thinking we may start requiring family story time each evening. There are only four of us and I haven’t done the math, but as we might all be in quarantine for fourteen days after each of us develops any symptoms, I think we could make it to a hundred.

We probably have the material. Boccaccio’s narrator Dioneo offers some guidance to his tale-tellers on eight of the ten days, demanding examples of power and fortune, examples of the power of human will, tragic love stories, happy love stories, clever stories that save the storyteller, tricks women play on men, tricks any person plays on anyone else, and examples of virtue. I bet we have it all covered.

And the week’s not over yet.

Puzzled Over the Novel Corona Virus

At the start of the 1930s, life looked pretty gloomy here in the United States. What had been a roaring economy had experienced a collapse of the magnitude that sent a lot of previously employed people scrambling to get by. Like so many others, that’s when Frank Ware and John Henriques suddenly found themselves with a lot of time on their hands.

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Just some of the social distance shenanigans that have occurred in my living room in the last few weeks.

I’m sure a lot of us can relate to that particular dilemma. There are, of course, lots of “essential workers” maintaining critical supply lines and taking care of the desperately ill. Many of the rest of us are fortunate enough to be working from home through mandated social distance. But there are a lot of people throughout the US and around the world who have been forced into, hopefully temporary, unemployment while our world works to shake off Covid-19.

And judging from the many pictures on my social media feeds, a lot of folks are turning to jigsaw puzzles to pass the time and keep their minds sharp. That’s exactly what Frank and John did. Frank was a gifted artist and John was a skilled woodworker. Both of them liked puzzles.

And so, the two teamed up to create wooden jigsaw puzzles, ushering in the concept of irregular edges, specially shaped pieces made to order, and a par completion time, so that puzzle-doers could be extra frustrated and also have the pleasure of feeling badly about themselves.

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My current living room situation. The dog is loving his puzzle table den.

The puzzles were a hit with a public that didn’t have much entertainment budget. Frank and John filled special orders, but they also began offering many of their puzzles for affordable rent. Each one came in a black box without the benefit of a guiding picture.

As most puzzle manufacturers were looking for ways to mass produce a cheaper product, Frank and John’s “Par puzzles,” were handcrafted, high-quality works of art that found an enthusiastic audience. The rental program ended in the 1960s, but the puzzles have become collectors’ items. And the Par Puzzles Company, begun in 1932 in New York, is still going strong today, continuing to offer unique, high quality, hand-crafted puzzles for upwards of a thousand dollars each.

puzzle shelf
It is my sincere hope we don’t make it through all of these before this is said and done.

According to their website, they even still have a few in stock, which is nice, because rumor has it puzzles are becoming almost as difficult to obtain as toilet paper. I’ll probably stick to the much cheaper mass-produced cardboard version normally available from hobby and discount stores. I enjoy jigsaw puzzles when I’ve got plenty of time to do them. Fortunately, I already have a shelf full of them waiting for a time such as this.

Perhaps I’ll start a rental business.

Stay healthy, my friends!

Fake It ‘til You Make It

In 1496, Cardinal Raffaele Riario of San Giorgio purchased an ancient marble sculpture of a sleeping cupid from Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco of the House of Medici. The cardinal must have been delighted with the artistry of the piece, its exquisite detail found only among the works of the ancient greats, because even after he discovered the sculpture was really a modern creation, he remained impressed with the young forger who had pulled it off.

The artist was then twenty-year-old Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, who you probably know as the Michelangelo widely remembered for lending his name to one of the teenage mutant ninja turtles. He also painted a pretty famous ceiling.

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You might have heard of this little thing he did over in Vatican City. Sistine Chapel Ceiling painted by Michelangelo. By Aaron Logan, from http://www.lightmatter.net/gallery/italy/4_G & Talmoryair / Public domain

But before any of that, he was a young artist just trying to break into that mystical world in which it’s possible to make a living based upon one’s creative endeavors. There’s a chance that he was entirely innocent in the whole art forgery scheme and that it was either Lorenzo, or the shady art dealer he employed, who treated The Cupid with acidic earth. It’s also possible that a very young man was influenced by an unscrupulous banker who knew he could make a lot more money off a classical sculpture than he could a modern one.

Whoever was ultimately responsible, it was only Lorenzo who got the blame. While Cardinal Riario didn’t take kindly to being swindled and was quick to demand a refund of his investment, he also recognized talent. The cardinal invited Michelangelo to Rome and commissioned a piece he later decided he didn’t want. Still, the artist’s credibility began to grow.

It makes sense to learn as much as possible by studying, and at least initially, imitating the great artists who have come before. Of course, it’s also true that chemically treating your pieces to make them fraudulently appear older and passing them off as the works of a different artist is probably over the line. Way over.

But I’m not sharing this story because I think artists should begin their careers with forgery. I’m sharing it because there are times when we all find ourselves flailing a little bit, trying to learn a new task, to break into a role we want to fill, and we don’t know exactly what we’re doing, so we fake it a little until we do.

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Hang in there. We’ll all be back to our normal routines eventually. photo credit: woodleywonderworks first drop of water is the best drop of water via photopin (license)

I suspect a lot of us are there right now. Social distancing has forced many of us to work at home, struggling to master new technologies and skills that make that possible. And for many of us, our children are doing the same. That means we’ve also suddenly been thrown into becoming teachers, facilitating academic learning for our children with the materials teachers quickly pulled together, even though many of them previously didn’t really know how to do that and certainly never expected to have to.

From what I’ve seen, and in our experience, the teachers have been wonderful. And you know, the parent have been, too. Everyday my social media feed is filled with pictures of at home learning—kids working alongside and with their parents. I’m also seeing the sharing of online resources and suggestions between parents, offers of help from educators, and yes, a little bit of commiserating when homeschool students are not as cooperative as their makeshift teachers hoped they would be.

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I mean he really was a pretty good sculptor. David by Michelangelo. Jörg Bittner Unna / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)

For the time being, we’re all faking it a little. Will there be some academic slips? Probably. Are there some students whose home environments are not as conducive to learning outside of a structured classroom? I’m sure there are. Are there lots of parent who simply cannot work from home and are struggling to figure out childcare, let alone homeschool? Of course.

Still, I think this experience of just making it work, of doing our best to imitate the professional teachers and provide our children with whatever we can, will likely produce some beauty. It will definitely result in some unique learning opportunities for our kids, who like Michelangelo, will move on having survived the experience.

Allegedly, while Michelangelo’s star rose, his Cupid changed hands a few times, often displayed among legitimate classic sculptures because it was good. Eventually the piece wound up in the possession of England’s Charles I and was most likely lost to fire in London’s Whitehall Palace in 1689.

I don’t know anything about art valuation, but if I had to guess, that sculpture, forgery or not, would be worth quite a lot of money today. I don’t know about you, but I’ve heard of this Michelangelo guy. He may have started out faking it, but he ended up making it.

And we will, too.