Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Travels to the East

Jean de Thévenot, from
"Relation d'un voyage fait au Levant" (1664)
In 1652, at the age of eighteen, a wealthy Frenchman named Jean de Thévenot finished his studies at the University of Paris. He celebrated his achievement with a grand tour that would take him, not just through Europe, but unexpectedly half-way around the world, where among other things he would find glass being made. 

In Rome, he befriended fellow Parisian, Barthélemy d'Herbelot, where they conspired to travel together to the Levant. 

Circumstances detained d'Herbelot and after waiting five months in Malta, Thévenot gave-up on his companion and set out on his own to Constantinople. Four years later, in 1659. He returned home only to prepare for an even more epic adventure, one that would last until his 1667 death in Azerbaijan from an accidental pistol shot. 

Thévenot kept a travel diary, he picked up languages easily and endeavored to blend-in to local culture as much as possible. Throughout his travels he made keen observations of people, customs and of the natural world around him. He published a volume of his adventures to great acclaim, two more would follow after his death. In 1687 his work was translated into English, when it found a whole new audience. 

Of special interest to us are his numerous observations about the glass trade. This was a subject to which he had no special interest or connection, but his natural curiosity and communication skills open a window into an otherwise poorly documented piece of the glass history puzzle.

On Malta, even before embarking for the Far East, he notes that “sore eyes” are a problem because of the bright sun on the white (limestone) earth of the island “which makes many commanders and knights wear green spectacles”; certainly an early incarnation of sunglasses. [1] In Constantinople (today Istanbul) he visited the great mosque Hagia Sophia and remarked “it is full of lamps and curiosities in glass balls, of which one for instance, contains  a little galley, well rigged, another a model of the mosque in wood and the rest a great many pretty knacks of that nature.” [2] Having booked passage out of Alexandria, Egypt on an English gun boat, he explains that the sailors kept track of their speed with a “little slat and very thin piece of wood tied to a line and when they throw it into the sea, they turn a half-minute sand glass […] every seven fathoms of the line making a mile in an hour.” [3] This is the origin of the nautical unit of speed known as the 'knot', the method of paying out line spaced with knots tied in the line at intervals of  8 fathoms - 47 feet 3 inches (14.4 m). This method of reckoning progress with a line was used well into the nineteenth century, the units are still used today, both for boats and aircraft.  A vessel travelling at 1 knot along a meridian travels approximately one minute of geographic latitude in one hour. [4]

In Damascus, Syria, he visited the great mosque there (Umayyda). Some natives kindly offered to take him in, disguised with a turban on his head, but he declines, fearing that if discovered, he will be forced to choose between his life and his Christian faith. Nevertheless he walks around the tremendous structure and observes that “The pavement is all of lovely stones that shine like lookinglass” and he continues “I went up to the terrace-walks, to the windows of that mosque, which are made like the windows of our churches and have panes of glass set in plaster, which are wrought into figures.” [5]

West of Aleppo, Syria, on the banks of the Euphrates River, Thévenot explains that, “barks loaded with glass (of which I will presently speak,) go to Bassora [Basra].” A ‘bark’ or ‘barque’ was a small three masted sailing ship. “While I was at Aleppo, the Sheik Bandar hired a bark to carry five or six hundred cases of glass, which he sent to the Indies.” And “I wondered to see that they who baled up these chests for the Sheik Bandar, tumbled them so rudely that they broke all the glass; but they told me, that it mattered not, though it were all broken into pieces, because the Indian men and women buy it only to have little pieces set in rings, which serve them for lookinglasses to see themselves in. That glass is all over laid with quicksilver on one side and is a very salable commodity in the Indies and profitable to the merchants.” [6]

One implication from this passage is that the named Sheik Bandar ran a glassmaking operation in Aleppo. It is interesting to note that Florentine glassmaker Antonio Neri had an uncle, his father’s brother Francesco, who was a merchant living in the Tuscan enclave inside Aleppo about sixty years earlier.

In the next installment we will continue to follow the thread of glassmaking references in the chronicles of Thévenot’s travels which take him to Persia, where he finds a glassmaking center.

[1] Jean de Thévenot, “The Travels of Monsieur Thevenot Into The Levant” (London: H. Clark, 1687) v.1, p. 6.
[2] Ibid, p. 22.
[3] Ibid, p. 268.
[4] See Wikipedia
[5] Ibid, v.2, p 17.

[6] Ibid, p.40.

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