Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Living Above the Shop

Comfortable canons' houses, Kanonicza Street, Cracow
Photo by denvilles duo,  reproduced under the Creative Commons licence.

Although the impact of the recession is clear to see in Little Clarendon Street (Oxford’s boutique shopping street, next to Somerville), where there are plenty of empty shop-fronts, the impressive amount of building work taking place in and around the college suggests a more buoyant story. There is currently construction on all four sides of Somerville – to the north, as the Maths Institute goes up on the Radcliffe Observatory Quarter; to the east, where St. Aloysius’ church is putting up an extension; to the south, where a new Tesco is taking shape, and finally on the western perimeter, where college itself is renovating and extending its Grade II Listed Wolfson building.

All this has been so noisy, that I have fled my Wolfson room and taken refuge in a Fellows’ set, or flat, at the top of the Victorian Maitland building. Moving here has been a reminder of how much the lifestyle of Oxford dons has changed. Although there are still plenty of Fellows who live in accommodation provided by, or within, their college, it is increasingly a minority experience. Nonetheless, living in is, historically, how dons have lived – giving tutorials, writing books, receiving visitors and sleeping in the same connected set of rooms. In my borrowed Maitland set, for example, I have at my disposal an airy living room, study, fridge-freezer and two bathrooms, should I need them. Dwelling in college is still the classic, romanticised perception of how Oxford dons live and should live, celebrated in C.P Snow novels and Tom Sharpe's Porterhouse Blue. Every year, our Freshers look dimly disappointed when I tell them that I don’t live inside Somerville’s walls, but actually come into Oxford every day by train from a major town in the Thames Valley; the don as commuter seems incongruous and unglamorous.

Living on the college site is of course an ongoing legacy of Oxford’s medieval past, and the medieval conception of a university as a community, of celibate and ordained men, similar to a cathedral chapter or monastic house. When I read the 15C minutes of the Cracow cathedral chapter, a surprising portion of their deliberations consist of squabbles about who got to live in which of the chapter’s stunning houses on Kanonicza Street, at the foot of the royal castle. In the Loire Valley, in the hilltop town of Montreuil-Bellay, you can still see the luxurious 15C bath-house provided for the collegiate canons who lived on site. My Maitland set might have a washing machine instead of a steam room, but it is a keen reminder of the ways in which Oxford colleges have for centuries functioned, and still strive to function, as living communities of academics and students, even if the norms of that shared life are constantly evolving.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

The Borgias

Alexander VI goes to Hollywood...
Photo from Wikipedia Commons, Pinturicchio fresco.

On Easter Sunday, with cheeky timing, the first episode of season 2 of The Borgias, a lavish Showtime series starring Jeremy Irons, was broadcast in North America. I received a box set of the first series/season 1 for Christmas, and have been watching my way through it in recent weeks.

The infamous pontificate of the chubby and jolly Rodrigo Borgia, Pope Alexander VI (1492-1503), has long stood at the heart of my interests as a historian, ever since I studied the (now sadly defunct) Oxford final-year special subject on Renaissance Papal Rome. The questions about the 15C which most interested me when applying for graduate study are essentially the same ones which underpin my current research: what forces in the medieval church produced a pontificate of such celebrated seediness, sexual scandal and military brutality? How were the antics of the Borgia dynasty in Rome perceived further afield in Christendom, in kingdoms like Poland, and what effect did they have on the church and its development there?

For these reasons, I curl up on my sofa with a certain amount of curiosity, trepidation and relish to watch my Borgia DVDs. The series is of course sensationalised (but not much!), but I’ve not so far found it trashy, factually footloose or two-dimensional in the way that what little I could watch of The Tudors was. A lot of the characterisations, particularly of Alexander VI’s children, seem pretty spot-on. There is an earnest attempt to educate the audience in the intricate geopolitics of 15C Italy – whether it’s Rodrigo Borgia giving his youngest son a laboured geography lesson in front of a giant map, or the pope drawing a political diagram on his mistress’ thigh for her edification. In particular, the series’ writer Neil Jordan (The Crying Game), has stuck surprisingly close to the sources – a lot of the characters and events depicted in The Borgias seem to come straight from the pages of the diary of Johannes Burchard, our chief source for the court of Alexander VI, and Burchard himself is given various cameos. In the series’ presentation of the political and military history of Italy, there are various echoes of Francesco Guicciardini’s grand narrative of the period, the Storia d’Italia.

Watching the series has, perhaps because of its surprising historical fidelities, therefore felt slightly strange. Seeing on screen, with cinematic clarity, events which as a historian you have been visualising in your head for years feels like an act of necromancy – like watching spirits raised and speaking before your eyes. So much of what historians do is rooted in imagination (‘historical imagination’ is indeed one of the official criteria for Oxford undergraduate entry), that to have someone else do the imagining for you, on a multi-million dollar budget, is an unexpectedly unsettling experience.