“I have fallen into an abyss. I live in a world so curious, so strange. Of the dream that was my life, this is the nightmare.”
— Camille Claudel to Eugène Blot, Montdevergues Asylum
The late 19th century sculptor Camille Claudel is best known for her relationship to the sculptor Auguste Rodin. But whereas history has painted her as Rodin’s muse (and indeed she was), she was a top artist in her own right and many scholars believe that it is her work that shaped Rodin’s even more than she influenced his.
Claudel met Rodin at the age of 19 when she was studying at the Academy Colarossi in Paris with the sculptor Alfred Boucher. When Boucher returned to Italy, he asked Rodin to take over Claudel’s instruction.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
“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.
But the men with the biggest influences on Voltaire’s thinking were philosopher John Locke, scientist Isaac Newton, and William Shakespeare, whose plays Voltaire found both vulgar and compelling. Writing to a friend in Paris, Voltaire exclaimed:
“If you had seen a whole play of Shakespeare’s, as I have, you would think that our love scenes were pretty feeble.”