Did Michelangelo design the uniforms of the Vatican’s Swiss Guard? In short: no way

swiss guard

It’s a common belief that Michelangelo designed the uniforms of the Pontifical Swiss Guard. But, in fact, they are based on armor common throughout Renaissance Europe.

During the Renaissance, Swiss mercenary soldiers were considered among the best in Europe. When Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere became Pope Julius II in 1503, he asked the Tagsatzung to provide him with a guard. The Tagsatzung — a/k/a the Diet of Switzerland – was the governing body of Switzerland prior to formation of the Swiss federal state in 1848.

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Suffering and self-promotion: the Urdu ghazals of Mirza Ghalib

The only known photo of Mirza Ghalib, taken in 1868.

The only known photo of Mirza Ghalib, from 1868.

Mirza Ghalib was a 19th century poet who lived in India during the last years of the Mughal dynasty. He is best known today for his 234 ghazals in Urdu (a language similar to Hindi).

Ghazals originated in seventh-century Arabia. Originally, they celebrated wine, women and music, or anguish over lost love. By the eleventh century, however, the theme of lost love had acquired philosophical overtones. In Ghalib’s ghazals, separation and suffering are indistinguishable from life, and the beloved is often a metaphor for God.

Ghalib himself understood suffering all too well. He was born Mirza Asadullah Baig Khan to an aristocratic family descended from Seljuk Turks. His father died when he was a child. At the age of 13, he wed an 11-year old in an arranged marriage.

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Saint Denis: the patron saint of headaches feels your pain

saint denis notre dame

Statute of St. Denis, Notre-Dame, Paris.

Being beheaded can really mess up your day. But according to Christian tradition, after Saint Denis was decapitated, he simply picked up his head and kept walking and preaching. So it’s perhaps no surprise that Denis (pronounced “duh-KNEE” in French) is the patron saint of headaches.

St. Gregory of Tours tells us that Denis was born in Italy in the 3d century A.D. In 250, he was sent as a missionary to Gaul (modern-day France), where he became the first Bishop of Paris.

Paris, however, was still largely a pagan city. And the Parisians didn’t take kindly to Denis converting so many to Christianity. They took Denis and two of his companions to the highest hill in Paris — Montmarte — and decapitated them.

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Mansa Musa – the “Black Moses”


From a 14th century Catalan atlas, Mansa Musa holding a nugget of gold.


In the 14th century, Mansa Musa of Mali (c. 1280 – c. 1337) ruled a kingdom stretching from the Atlantic Ocean in the west to beyond the bend of the Niger River in the East. And according to a 2012 analysis, Mansa Musa was the richest person ever.

Musa’s wealth came from Mali’s extensive production of salt and gold. In the north, slaves worked the Taghaza salt mines, while in the south the legendary Wangara gold mines provided more than half the world’s gold.

Mansa Musa is often referred to as the “Lion of Mali.” But in the Mandinka (Mandigo) language, Musa means “Moses.” This has led some historians to call Mansa Musa the “black Moses.” And it’s an appropriate nickname, given that Musa’s real fame came from his 1324 Hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca.

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Hagar and the Well of Zamzam: how a woman discovered one of the holiest sites in Islam



Hagar and Ishmael in the Desert by François Joseph Navez (Belgian, 1787–1869)


The Well of Zamzam is located near the Kaaba (Cube), the holiest place in Islam. Both the Kaaba and the Zamzam Well are inside the Holy Mosque (Masjid al-Haram) in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.

One of the Five Pillars of Islam is the Hajj pilgrimage to the Kaaba. During the Hajj, pilgrims drink from the Zamzam well. To understand why Zamzam water is so important to Muslims, a bit of religious history is in order.

It begins with the story of the biblical patriarch, Abraham, and his wife, Sarah. Slightly differing versions of the story appear in the Bible and the Koran (Quran). But the essentials are:

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The French Wars of Religion and the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre


Painting of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre by François Dubois. The body of the Admiral Coligny’s body hangs from a window at the right rear. Catherine de’ Medici is shown at the left rear emerging from the Château du Louvre to inspect a heap of bodies.

The Saint Bartholomew’s Day massacre began on August 24, 1562 in Paris, France. Over a five-day period, Catholic mobs slaughtered some 3,000 French Huguenots (Protestants) who had come to Paris for the marriage of the king’s sister to Henry of Navarre (the future Henry IV of France). Although Catherine de Medici, the mother of the French King, has long been blamed for inciting the massacre, it is unlikely that she did so.

The massacre was one of the earliest events in the French Wars of Religion, a series of armed conflicts between Catholics and Protestants that took place throughout France during the second half of the 16th century.

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Chocolate – the food of the Gods


Chocolate comes from the cacao tree or, as it’s botanically known, Theobroma cacao. The word theobroma comes from Greek θεος (theos), “god,” + βρῶμα (broma), “food.” So chocolate is literally the food of the gods.

Theobroma cacao is native to the American tropical rain forest. It is a delicate tree that can survive only in a narrow band extending 20 degrees either side of the Equator.


Cacao trees are small and delicate, usually no more than 20-40 feet high. They need taller trees (such as hardwoods) to shelter them from the elements. Continue reading

An eye for an eye: the Code of Hammurabi

Hammurabi (standing), receiving his royal insignia from the god Shamash (relief on the upper portion of the stele of Hammurabi's Code, the Louvre Museum, Paris).

Hammurabi (standing), receiving his royal insignia from the god Shamash. (relief on the stele of Hammurabi’s Code, in the Louvre Museum, Paris).

Hammurabi was the sixth king of the First (Amorite) Dynasty of Babylon. He reigned for 43 years — from 1792–1750 BCE – over most of ancient Mesopotamia. He is best known for the Code of Hammurabi — 282 laws covering everything from medical malpractice to a minimum wage.

Contrary to popular belief, the Code of Hammurabi is not the oldest known written code of laws. That honor belongs to the Code of Ur-Nammu, written in the Sumerian language in Mesopotamia during the 21st century BCE.

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The Ig Nobel Prizes for science: first you laugh, THEN you think

It’s that time of year, when actual Nobel Laureates award other scientists prizes for research that seems unnecessary, questionable, or downright absurd.

Does the world really need artificial replacement testicles for dogs? In three difference sizes and degrees of firmness, no less?  Should there really be a U.S. patent for the combover?

The Ig Nobel Prizes – the brainchild of the magazine Annals of Improbable Research – are handed out every September in a ceremony co-sponsored by the Harvard-Radcliffe Society of Physics Students and the Harvard-Radcliffe Science Fiction Association.

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The absolutely, positively true adventures of Voltaire, Part 3 of 3: whatever happened to Voltaire’s brain?

hommage to voltaire

“I have never made but one prayer to God, a very short one: Oh Lord, make my enemies ridiculous. And God granted it.”

— Voltaire, from a letter to Étienne Noël Damilaville

In 1733, the 39-year old Voltaire began a relationship with the Madame du Châtelet, a married mother of three. The pair would spend the next 15 years studying the natural sciences and becoming the leading French proponents of the work of English mathematician Isaac Newton.

But on a visit to Paris in 1744, Voltaire embarked on a new affair. His new lover was his sister’s daughter, Marie Louise Mignot (a/k/a Madame Denis). For obvious reasons, Voltaire and Madame Denis never married, though they lived together as husband and wife and stayed together until Voltaire’s death over 40 years later.

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