Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Secret of Kells

Today being St. Patrick’s Day, I’m reminded of a plug I meant to give for a movie I saw for the first time a few weeks ago. The Secret of Kells is a delightfully animated film which involves a fictional story (populated by some quasi-historical characters) about the creation (and preservation) of the famed Book of Kells. The animation style is refreshingly and uniquely stylized in a way that pays homage to the artistry of the text around which it revolves.

As a rather interesting aside which I was unaware of prior to watching the film, a tall central siege tower, as is prominently featured in the movie, was indeed a feature of the Abbey of Kells, and possibly of other Celtic monasteries of the period. As my pastor pointed out to me in a conversation about the film, this fact lends a new dimension to these lines from the well-known Irish hymn Be Thou My Vision.

Be thou my breastplate, sword for the fight;
Be thou my dignity, thou my delight;
Thou my soul’s shelter, thou my high tower:
Raise thou me heavenward, O Power of my power.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Antonio Gotto: A Centenary Tribute

One hundred years ago today my great-great grandfather Antonio Gotto passed away, at age 103. Aside from a few additional family anecdotes that have been handed down, his obituary provides virtually all of the knowledge that my family has retained about our fascinating ancestor and his apparently colorful life and experiences. (Due to his extreme old age, his death was a matter of significant local interest, and his obituary, given below, appeared on the front page of the evening paper.)

The Nashville Banner, Wednesday Evening, March 13, 1912

Antonio Gotto, a stone mason by trade, and probably the oldest citizen of Davidson County, died at 9:45 o’clock this morning near Una [then a suburb of Nashville, today a community east of Murfreesboro Road, just south of Nashville Int’l Airport].

Mr. Gotto was a man of wide information and experience and he stood high among those who knew him, having the respect of all. He came to the United States from his native town, Genoa, Italy, while a young man, and entered upon his trade in this country. He was one of the skilled workmen employed on the present State Capitol, and he also worked on all the culverts and other similar work on the Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis Railway. He continued active work until about ten years ago, when he was forced to retire because of his advanced age and the ailments resulting therefrom.

Mr. Gotto had traveled not alone in this country but in Central America as well. While in the latter country in 1860 he witnessed the execution of William Walker by the Honduran Government.

January 8, 1912, Mr. Gotto was 103 years of age. His wife preceded him to the grave four or five years ago. Several children were born to Mr. and Mrs. Gotto, the sons being Willard, George, Ed, Nathan, and Joe
[my great-grandfather], and the daughters, Alice Mrs. Eugene Gresham, Mary, Mrs. George Fox, Maggie and Mrs. Arthur Ridley.

Mr. Gotto was a citizen of Davidson Country for more than half a century, living at the home place near Una for fifty years. As an evidence of his activity even during his latter years, it is of interest to note the fact that Mr. Gotto, at the age of 94 walked from his home to Nashville and on to Belle Meade, and then back home.
[That distance would be well over 30 miles, altogether.]

Mr. Gotto’s last illness lasted about two or three weeks, during which time those who watched at his bedside feared he would never survive his final illness. The death of this well-known citizen this morning showed that their fears were well founded.

In addition to a couple of photographic portraits of Antonio, my mother has a large (about 18" x 12") photograph of the old “Gotto home place” which was apparently taken sometime around the turn of the 20th century. The house was demolished in 1999, but I got permission to retrieve a few relics, including a couple of the smaller logs from the cabin portion, and two of the unique stained-glass window frames that can be seen here. I turned one into a mirror for my grandmother, and the other hangs in the front foyer of my home.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The King of Western Swing and the Duke of Lancaster

Today we celebrate the legacies of two vastly different men, born on the same date, centuries apart.

Bob Wills was born on this day in 1905, in rural Texas. (His birthday, incidentally, falls on the anniversary of the Fall of the Alamo, an association of which he was no doubt especially proud.) As the fiddle-playing, cigar-chomping, jive-talking frontman for his group The Texas Playboys, Bob pioneered what was eventually dubbed Western Swing: an innovative combination of country and western and big band jazz. The group was not only exceedingly popular, at times out-selling more mainstream acts such as Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey as they performed at large dance events all across the southern and western U.S., they were ahead of their time in a number of respects as well, most notably for their prominent use of amplified electric guitars (and mandolins). (The group’s sole appearance at the Grand Ole Opry, in 1944, caused a legendary scandal when they defied that organization’s ban on drum kits.) Some of the band’s greatest hits include: Maiden’s Prayer, New San Antonio Rose, Take Me Back to Tulsa, Home in San Antone, Faded Love, Bubbles in My Beer, and Basin Street Blues.

John of Gaunt was born March 6, 1340, the third surviving son of powerful British monarch Edward III. Though he never wore the crown himself, he nonetheless cast a very long shadow (literally as well as figuratively: the man was apparently about 6' 7" tall) over England and her subsequent history. His vast holdings made him the richest man in England during his time, and his colorful life included 3 marriages, an ultimately unsuccessful bid for the thrones of the Spanish kingdoms of Castile and Leon (claimed through his second wife), prosecution of several military campaigns in France, de facto leadership of England for several years (during a time when both his father and older brother, Edward, The Black Prince, were too ill to rule), patronage of Geoffrey Chaucer, and support for the proto-Reformer John Wycliffe. After his death, his son, Henry Bolingbroke deposed (and possibly murdered) John’s nephew Richard II to become King Henry IV. All subsequent English monarchs, down to the present day, are descendants of John of Gaunt.

In Shakespeare’s play Richard II, the dying John of Gaunt speaks these lines in an oft-quoted patriotic tribute to England:

This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,. . .