In Splendid Isolation

Four weeks into lockdown and you’re finding it difficult to see an upside. Living cheek-to-jowl 24/7 with your partners and family, indulging in orgies of baking, boxsets and boredom, you conclude, is hardly conducive to keeping your spirits up.

But all is not lost. There is a tried-and-tested way to make this work.

History proves that those who have flourished in quarantine – voluntary or otherwise – those who have succeeded in transforming their house-cells into a truly splendid isolation – all had one thing in common.

They were all – by and large – barking mad.

Consider one Xavier de Maistre, a 27-year-old French officer put on six-week house arrest in 1790 for dueling. Admittedly, the room in which he served his sentence was spacious and came with a butler, but what made de Maistre flourish in this situation was that he took a perverse delight in his enforced isolation.

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Francesco – you-can’t-get-much-more-private-than-a-coffin – de’Medici

All hail Francesco de’Medici, the richest, most powerful man in Renaissance Italy. He lived in a stonking great palace and put the fear of God into everyone. You’d think he’d have been able to lay his hands on a bit of peace and quiet, wouldn’t you?

Well, you’d be wrong.

Apart from being the Grand Duke’s princely pad, the Palazzo Vecchio doubled up as the headquarters of the Florentine government. In the Salone dei Cinquecento – at 1,145 square feet, probably the largest room in Europe – the 500-strong membership of the People’s Assembly would gather. What a noisy, raucous place it must have been. Crowds of colourfully-dressed politicians doing deals. Their dogs running around marking their territory. Servants milling around moaning about their paltry pay. Everyone overlooked by the military heroes depicted in Giorgio Vasari’s murals plastered over the 59-foot-high walls. Commissioned to commemorate the city’s martial prowess,

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Sleep: Who Needs Eight Hours?

In Robert Harris’s thrilling new mystery The Second Sleep, the author transports us to a time when humans used to sleep in two distinct chunks. A fact that remains a surprise to many of us, in pre-industrial Europe, households retired to bed after dusk for a ‘first’ sleep. A few hours later, they rose for one or two hours’ nocturnal activity, then returned to bed for a ‘second’ sleep until dawn.

What on earth were they doing in that hiatus between the first and second sleep? A whole range of things is the answer. Moonlit pursuits ranged from sewing, smoking, praying, chopping wood, imbibing ‘a hott drinke’, reading, visiting neighbours and, of course, sex: indeed, a doctor’s manual published in sixteenth-century France recommended indulging in a spot of procreation ‘after the first sleep’ for the simple reason that then people derive more ‘enjoyment’ from it and thus ‘do it better.’

According to the world’s expert on this subject,

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The Unprivate Privy Part Two

Nobody knows exactly when the chamber pot first put in an appearance, but it came into its own in the seventeenth century, diarist Samuel Pepys referring to it as an essential bedroom accessory. Waking early one December morning and not being able to find one, he’s ‘forced to…piss in the chimney.’ Piss-pots – frequently made of silver for richer patrons – were sometimes kept in the social parts of the house, signalling that relieving yourself was hardly a private affair. In the dining room, the sideboard frequently featured an in-built pot cupboard which bladder-bursting revellers could fill, before returning to the table to replenish their glasses.

To the French, this practice provided yet more proof that the English were a race of philistines. During a visit to Suffolk in 1784, François de la Rochefoucauld was appalled at the ‘indecent’ custom of using the ‘sideboard to pee.’ Yet, not everybody was so circumspect,

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The Unprivate Privy – Part One

Though visiting historic homes is a favourite leisure activity of the Great British public, what it really wants to know – when it descends on a stately home – is how the owners went to the toilet. Most of us who plead guilty to this are amazed to discover that in the past spending a penny was rarely a private experience.

Take Roman times. Doing your business then was usually a communal affair. Sharing a low wall of three or four holes carved out of the top, once you’d preformed, you’d wipe your arse with a handful of fig leaves. Or, you might opt for a sponge attached to a stick resembling a modern pan scrubber. While patrons sat side by side, trying to ignore the stench, servants kneeling at their master’s feet in an open gutter, would rinse out the soiled sponges. Some even carried theirs with them;

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A Hundred Things to do in Bed

As comic genius Groucho Marx once remarked, ‘Anything that can’t be done in a bed isn’t worth doing at all’. Turns out, there’s a hell of a lot you can do in your bed – much of it downright whacky.

Fancy yourself a twenty-first-century Picasso? No need for an easel – just hop into bed. You wouldn’t be the first: when the elderly Matisse became confined to bed, he took to sculpting there. Meanwhile, his contemporary, Fantin-Labour, sketched in bed. Insulated from the cold with an overcoat, scarf, gloves and top hat (he couldn’t afford a fire), he’d draw for hours. Thanks to bed-side visits paid by his friend Whistler, we have a record on canvas. Bed-ridden Mexican artist Frida Khalo also painted in bed. An easel was fixed to her four-poster, and a mirror to the inside of the canopy so she could paint self-portraits.

Famous composers – including Puccini – penned some of their best works from a horizontal position.

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