Monday, September 3, 2018

Down the Wikipedia Hole: 6 Degrees of Butterfly Hennins (An Absurdist, Fact-Packed Post)

Before the internet, we had a game called 6 Degrees of Kevin Bacon.  The idea of the game was to connect Kevin Bacon to another person within 6 moves.  This was based on the "six degrees of separation" premise, which posits that any two people on Earth are six or fewer acquaintance "links" apart.

If you think this game is dumb, you're wrong.  Calculating a person's "Bacon Number" is serious business.  Adolf Hitler, for example, has a Bacon Number of 3:
  1. Adolf Hitler was in Ewige Jude, Der (1940) with Curt Bois.
  2. Curt Bois was in Great Sinner, The (1949) with Kenneth Tobey.
  3. Kenneth Tobey was in Hero at Large (1980) with Kevin Bacon.
This isn't that surprising.  The average Bacon number is 2.955, so in 6 Degrees of Kevin Bacon, Hitler is pretty standard.

Now that we have the internet, 6 Degrees of Kevin Bacon is a heck of a lot easier to play.  But while Google and Wikipedia have made 6 Degrees of Kevin Bacon a simpler affair, it's created new games, such as Degrees to Hitler, which usually involves clicking on a random Wikipedia article and trying to navigate, through links, to Hitler's page.  (Variations of this game include trying to "pass through" waypoints.)

The inter-connectivity of Wikipedia has created a well-known phenomena: The Wiki Hole.  The Wiki Hole is also called the Rabbit Hole (a reference to the hole Alice falls into at the beginning of Adventures in Wonderland) or the Black Hole (because like a black hole, the informational hole is inescapable due to how fascinating it is).

Humans are hard-wired to want information.  We crave it like a drug and the internet is an opium den of endless information.  Wikipedia literally has lists of lists.  The metaphorical "hole" is one I fall down pretty regularly, often while researching information for my blog posts, and so I decided to go meta and talk about the most recent Wiki Hole I fell into while making this post.

Originally, this post was going to be about an architectural curiosity: The Widow's Walk.

The topic came up during board game night.  My favorite board game, currently, is called Betrayal at House on the Hill.  It's a cooperative board game wherein you explore a haunted house.

We take board games very seriously.
One house rule, for example, is that if you want to use the ghost goggles, you have to wear the ghost goggles.

Perfect game for this coming Halloween!

We recently purchased an expansion for the game called "Widow's Walk."  Andrew then asked me what a widow's walk is.

Now, I don't know if I've mentioned this before, but I have a passing interest in architecture and interior design.  I follow Kate Wagner's excellent McMansion Hell blog and I collect room porn, specifically neo-modern, open-plan designs.

What I'm trying to say here is, I'm a total badass.

So naturally I knew what a widow's walk was.  A widow's walk is a balcony built on top of a house or jutting off of a roof, and it's called a widow's walk because the wives of sailors would go up there and stare out at sea and wait to see if their husbands were going to return.  It's got a railing and in murder mysteries it's a good place to shove someone off of.

...this was my uninformed opinion of what the heck a widow's walk was and I was pretty accurate.

Except that the whole romantic story of the walk being used for its supposed purpose.  While widow's walks are prominent features of gothic romances, there's actually no historical record of them ever being used by the grieving, lovelorn wives of seafarers.  Widow's walks were also called Captain's Walks and said to be used by captains to view the incoming ships bringing goods.  But there's no record of the walks being used for this purpose, either.  In fact, the primary purpose appeared to be chimney access; the walks were built in close proximity to chimneys to allow for cleaning and, in the cases of chimney fires that went out of control, gave residents the chance to quell the flames with sand or dirt, saving the structure.

The widow's walk hit the height of popularity in coastal cities during the "Age of Sail," a period between the 16th and 19th centuries during which huge sailboats dominated merchant and naval fleets.  Unsurprisingly, Italy was a huge world power during this time, due to their long Mediterranean coast line and historical banking power that came from robust trade routes.

The Dutch fleet was the biggest in the 1500s and 1600s but they could never quite compete with Italy in terms of memes.
The crash of the tulip market in 1637 left the world trade market wide open for Italy.

The widow's walk was in fact derived from Italian architecture mainstay: the cupola.  A cupola is exactly what it sounds like.  It's a dome-like structure that sits on top of another structure (like an overturned tea cup).  Cupolas are everywhere.  Examples of cupolas include belfries, the little "angel seat" on a train caboose, the turret thingies on the top of minarets, and the ventilation caps on barns.

Bam!  Cupola!

There's even one on the ISS.  The "cupola module" is a misnomer, though, since there's no real "up" in space, and cupolas are by definition on the top of a building.

Anywho, one type of cupola is a belvedere.  A belvedere (literally, "fair view") is any structure built to be used as a vantage point.  A widow's walk is both a cupola (a structure atop a structure) and a belvedere (assuming that the shore is pretty, and/or the widow enjoys gazing upon the sea wherein her husband met his untimely death).  Early widow walks were literally just hatches that opened up onto rooftops that had railings, creating a vantage point.  The mythos surrounding it was just Victorian moroseness.  No one used their widow's walk / cupolas / belvederes to stare out to sea longingly.

 "Honey, will you build me a widow's walk?"
"A what?"
"A... a regular walk, I mean.  Totes hoping you don't die at sea."

Now here's where I fell into a Wikipedia Hole.  Up until this point I had spent several hours trying to figure out the subtle differences between a turret, a roof lantern, a belvedere, and a cupola.  But then I noticed that "belvedere" could also refer to Mr. Belvedere, a beloved fictional butler who got a 5-year sitcom run in the eighties, or Belvedere, a lithograph  by M.C. Escher.

M.C. Escher is the optical illusion guy, but I had no idea how contemporary his art was.  He lived until 1972 and some of his work was featured in Scientific American.  He was also a hilarious dick who complained about hippies and who got pissed when Mick Jagger wrote him a fan letter that addressed him by his first name, Maurits.  (“Please tell Mr. Jagger I am not Maurits to him.”)  While reading about his rather grumpy character, I fell into another hole.  

According to Steven Poole, the author of the above article, the lady in the gown who is ascending the stairs in the Belvedere lithograph is a tip of the stupid two-pronged hat to a lady in Hieronymus Bosch's triptych Garden of Earthly Delights.  If you want to fall into a well of information, start with this Wikipedia page, which contains such gems as this:

The focal point of the scene is the "Tree-Man", whose cavernous torso is supported by what could be contorted arms or rotting tree trunks. His head supports a disk populated by demons and victims parading around a huge set of bagpipes—often used as a dual sexual symbol[43]—reminiscent of human scrotum and penis. The tree-man's torso is formed from a broken eggshell, and the supporting trunk has thorn-like branches which pierce the fragile body. A grey figure in a hood bearing an arrow jammed between his buttocks climbs a ladder into the tree-man's central cavity, where nude men sit in a tavern-like setting. The tree-man gazes outwards beyond the viewer, his conspiratorial expression a mix of wistfulness and resignation.[48] Belting wondered if the tree-man's face is a self-portrait, citing the figure's "expression of irony and the slightly sideways gaze [which would] then constitute the signature of an artist who claimed a bizarre pictorial world for his own personal imagination".[43]
I'm guessing the Hitler Degree score on this page is like two or three.

Hitler painted cupolas.

As a kid who grew up with Where's Waldo, I decided to try to find the woman in the Bosch painting that Escher had supposedly copied.  I found her, but I don't believe that she was honestly "copied."  The women are both tiny and facing away from the viewer; the only indication they are the same woman is that they're wearing the same stupid hat.  But that stupid hat was part of high fashion back in Bosch's time.

 I circled her in red for you.  She's on the far right panel, center, on the pink Tree-Man.
Click for full size.

Some more digging revealed that this hat was called a butterfly hennin.

Hennins were coned headdresses (stereotypical "princess" hats) and were super popular in the 1400s.  Hennins could be a single cone, a double cone, or a rounded "flowerpot," which I like to think of as a "hair cupola."  It took me a long time to figure out the name for a hennin which is weird because hennins are featured prominently in popular culture to this day.

For example, Maid Marian in Disney's Robin Hood is wearing a butterfly hennin.  

Or maybe it's just her fox ears.  But I think it's a hennin.

Hennins were symbols of nobility and were considered an extravagant luxury, so it's no wonder a woman wearing one showed up in a "Hell" portion of Bosch's triptych; this was likely a condemnation of hedonism and indulgence.

 The burgundy cones is the hennin.  
The white cloth over it is a wimple.
Take away that wimple and this lady is a spitting image of the Bosch chick.

As for whether or not Escher purposely copied this lady, I'm doubtful.  Escher had seen the Bosch painting in 1922 but lots of portraits of noblewomen featured this particular hat so he could have been copying any number of Renaissance artists.  He didn't make Belvedere until 1958 and I find it hard to believe that he copied a tiny element of a huge painting he'd seen over thirty years ago.  Other writers have made the same case that Escher's woman was the same as Bosch's woman, but no one can confirm it, since Escher is dead and probably wouldn't comment on it anyway.

Regarding his lithograph Snow and his inspiration for it, he wrote: "During the winter of 1935-36, we were in the Swiss mountains, in that gruesome white snowy misery (I hate that white shroud that covers the earth) between high mountains, which I also hate."

Escher was basically Grumpy Cat,
a comparison he no doubt would have hated.

Regarding his lithograph Ascending and Descending, he wrote, “That staircase is a rather sad, pessimistic subject, as well as being very profound and absurd. With similar questions on his lips, our own Albert Camus has just smashed into a tree in his friend’s car and killed himself. An absurd death, which had rather an effect on me. Yes, yes, we climb up and up, we imagine we are ascending; every step is about 10 inches high, terribly tiring – and where does it all get us? Nowhere.” 

(Camus, you might recall, wrote "The Stranger" and is considered, alongside Sartre, to be the father of existentialism.  In a hugely existentialist move, he firmly denied he was an existentialist: "No, I am not an existentialist.")  

By this point my brain was a blob of  informational goo and I felt a bit like I was on one of Escher's staircases.  I'd gone from cupolas to Camus, from Bosch to butterfly hennins, and I accidentally saw some furry porn of Maid Marian along the way.  

Disney, you got some 'splaining to do.
I know she's a foxy lady but this is just too much, man.

And I still couldn't fully explain why a widow's walk is considered a cupola, when it appears cupolas have a roof, and a widow's walk, while enclosed by a balcony, lacks a roof, making it more of a belvedere or a lookout or a balcony than a cupola.

This is so extra.

I consulted Andrew, who said I should write my blog post on mosaic intelligence gathering.  I went to the Wikipedia page and discovered that the Mosaic Intelligence Gathering page has a Hitler Degree score of 3, and also that Stanley Lovell, the head of the OSS's Research & Development Branch, had an idea in 1942 to introduce estrogen into Hitler's food to deprive him of his trademark mustache.

"Can we perhaps get a pair of glasses into his office that will poke him in the eye or something?"  
"Not now, Johnson!  We're trying to figure out how to throw banana peels around Nazi tanks so they like, slide all over the place."
"Truly, war is hell."

It's tidbits of information like that make Wikipedia Holes so magnificently fun to fall into.  And it's also an important reminder that, with the whole of human knowledge at our fingertips, there's no excuse not to research things before we share them with each other.  Resources like PubMed where scientific abstracts are available for free are a good way to fact-check claims made by journalists, who often sensationalize scientific findings.  (Side note: most scientists are happy to send free copies of their papers if you e-mail them.) is another good source for fact-checking.

We may never know if Escher's woman and Bosch's woman are the same, but not for lack of trying.  And we can at least make the argument that their degree of separation score is lower than the average, which is pretty darn good.

Intentionally or not, they are sisters from another mister.  I like to think of them as a cupola and a belvedere: so similar that one might think of them as the same, yet with tiny distinctions that make them unique.  Case in point: Escher's lady is wearing a heavier robe with what appears to be a fur mantle, while Bosch's looks like she'd be better at putting out chimney fires.

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