“…the Poets in their writings have bragged of the subtilty of Mercurius, and of the cunning of the goddesse Laverna who was the Theeves Patronesse.”
–from The Sonne of the Rogue, or, The Politick Theefe with the Antiquitie of Theeves, by Carlos Garcia, translated by William Melvin (1638)
In olden times, the master thieves of Ancient Rome would travel to a hallowed grove on the Via Salaria and kneel at the altar of a headless goddess. Here, in the sombre gloom of the trees, they clandestinely paid their respects to their protectress, Laverna.
In those days, Laverna was effectively mischief enshrined, an enigmatic deity who lent her support to underhanded enterprises. As the de facto first minister of fate (Necessitas—or Ananke in Greek), she severed livelihoods asunder. Armed with a destiny-rending stiletto, she carried out the orders of Necessitas by dashing to pieces the hubristic certitude of mortals.
It is in this figurative sense that Laverna can be considered the godmother or padrona of rogues; those men and women who—for incomprehensible reasons—introduce random stressors into society. Aided by her sly consigliere Mercury, Laverna makes these tricksters her unwitting deputies, agents of change in Necessitas’s great cosmic game. Brazen, eccentric, rootless, unpredictable, and often downright villainous—Laverniones (as they were called in Roman times) can be construed as the literal embodiment of Virgil’s famous phrase: “Fortune favours the bold.”
Yet—thankfully—it would be inaccurate to conclude that fortune has always favoured this venturous clique. The truth is that many have lived their lives like the character Wolfstein in Percy Shelley’s St. Irvyne. In the book, Wolfstein is described as a self-loathing and dissolute heir to a wealthy Bohemian nobleman. He exiles himself to the “wild and trackless deserts of the Alps”, teams up with a gang of brigands, and lets his romantic idealism and untempered melancholy drive him to make one bad decision after another. Eventually, Wolfstein comes under the magnetic influence of a Salamancan alchemist named Ginotti. Ginotti claims to hold the secret to eternal life, but his machinations only result in his and Wolfstein’s annihilation.
In the Middle Ages, motley crews of wayward, Wolfstein-types could be found poetising, scheming, and brawling in university halls and taverns all over Europe. These were the scholastici vagantes: truants, college drop-outs, songsters, and clerics who lived by their wits and played fast and loose with the law.
The anonymous author of the Liber Vagatorum (1500) described these early modern Jack Sparrows as “beggars or adventurers” who had a penchant for wearing yellow robes, a passion for treasure-hunting, and a flair for self-aggrandisement (still a common trait among self-professed gurus). The author summed up his analysis by warning that the scholars’ actual trade was good old charlatanry. “Beware of these scholars,” he warned, “for wherewith they practise is all lies.”
According to the fifteenth-century naturalist Conrad Gesner, one of the most celebrated of these frauds was Johann Faust. Linking Faust to the physician (and by some accounts—gold counterfeiter) Paracelsus, Gesner surmised that both had emerged from an educational milieu at the University of Salamanca. Although little is known of Faust’s actual life, fabulists from Christopher Marlowe to Johann Wolfgang Goethe have portrayed the doctor as an ennui-ridden academic who conspired to achieve fortune and glory by hook or crook.
Faust’s plan, of course, did not go as expected—or so the legends go. Like Wolfstein, his fatal pact with infernal forces bound him the consequences of his actions by actual skin in the game.
Thus, in homage to the semi-mythical and fictional misadventures of Faust and Wolfstein, this issue chronicles the antinomian lives of history’s most artful dodgers. A kind of real-life rogues’ gallery, it showcases the dastardly deeds of those who—perhaps impelled by Laverna’s hidden promptings—wasted away in their fortune-hunting exploits.
Over the years, Monaco has built up a glitzy reputation as a playground for movie stars, magnates, and jet-setters. Readers may be surprised to learn, however, that the Rivieran Sybaris has a special heritage of roguery that stretches back hundreds and hundreds of years. Like Tortuga, Saint-Malo, and Tripoli, Monaco was once a haven for pirates. This observation was first made in Renaissance times by historiographers like Ubertus Folieta, who described Monaco as a cesspool of merciless deadbeats and marauders.
These men, many of whom were members or associates of the royal house of Grimaldi, became the banes of the Ligurian Sea. Taking advantage of the rocky terrain, they ensconced themselves in the country’s natural fortresses high above the sea. From here they scanned the coast, scoping out prey like true sea hawks. Apparently, this state of affairs lasted until the modern era. “The Princes of Monaco,” writes one essayist in the nineteenth-century Medical Record, “were little better than robbers and pirates down to the close of the eighteenth century.”
Though pirates are now nowhere to be seen (having been replaced by slick international racketeers) Monaco is still a fortune-hunter’s paradise. High rollers flock to the country like bees to honey and their gambling losses become the winnings of the Grimaldi dynast himself (the major stakeholder in the Société des Bains de Mer, Monaco’s nationwide casino corporation).
As for Monaco’s cuisine, one can say without hesitation that the nation’s most roguish dish is Bouillabaisse. Composed of an assortment of fish, molluscs, and crustaceans, the stew is literally and astrologically “under the power of Mercury” (as designated by Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa). Its origin can be traced to the thriftiness of Provençal fishermen. Since it was eaten in Monaco in Charles Godfrey Leland’s time, it is hard to imagine that Bouillabaisse was not eaten by pirates and coastal dwellers in earlier periods (albeit in a less complicated form). The following recipe (deriving from French master chef Charles Durand) appears in A Journey Due South: Travels In Search Of Sunshine (1885):
François Villon, The Gangster
It would not be unjustified to call François Villon the representative picaro of the Middle Ages. Born in the vicinity of Paris in 1431, he studied at the University of Paris and was awarded his master of arts in 1452. Like his fellow students—many of whom were lettered but had no immediate prospects —Villon spent a great deal of time roughhousing in taverns and attempting to sow his oats (not unlike today’s university undergraduates).
In doing so, he often brushed shoulders with Paris’s dregs of society and broke bread with hoodlums associated with the Coquillards, the city’s loose-knit network of “connected guys”. The Coquillards assisted Villon in some of his early run-ins with the law, which seem to have commenced in 1455 when Villon inadvertently (or so he claimed) killed a priest. The gruesome crime, which resulted in Villon’s temporary banishment from Paris, was perhaps the act that signalled the completion of his postgraduate “field experience”.
In December 1456, the newly-minted gangster met up with a handful of would-be fortune-hunters in a tavern located in the Latin Quarter. There, they hatched a plan to burgle the nearby College of Navarre (then part of the University of Paris). They pulled off the heist later that night. Everything went as planned: the robbers made off with five hundred gold crowns and slipped back into the Parisian underworld.
Two months later, however, the criminals were identified by the man who had served as their lookout, Guy Tabary. Tabary ratted on the crew over drinks—and the subsequent investigation spurred Villon’s exile. Villon disappeared for good in 1463 (perhaps the devil carried him off to hell in Faustian fashion), leaving behind a wealth of bawdy and satirical writings, the most famous of which—Le Testament—is now considered one of the masterpieces of French Medieval literature. Villon also composed a few poems in thieves’ cant, the secretive dialect of his Coquillard friends. The stanza below is taken from Jordan Herbert Stabler’s translation of Villon’s Ballads in Jargon. Note Villon’s warnings about the trickster’s fate:
Villon had many admirers, but it is interesting to note that he had a special influence on Charles Godfrey Leland. In his Memoirs, Leland remarked that he would “never forget the feeling” of stumbling on Villon’s books in his local library. Elsewhere, he wrote that Villon was an “intimate friend” of his. Leland, of course, did spend a few postgraduate years in Paris during which he participated in the French Revolution of 1848. His description of his freedom-fighter attire and bravado is blatantly picaresque—a striking evocation of Villon and the scholastici vagantes:
“As I was armed with dirk and pistols, wore a sash, and was unmistakably a Latin Quarter etudiant, as shown by long hair, rakish cap on one side, red neck-tie, and single eye-glass, I was everywhere treated as a man and brother, friend and equal, warrior, and— by the girls— almost like a first-cousin.”
Sophia Bluhstein, The Master Thief
Born and raised in the ghettos of Odessa, Sophia Bluhstein went on to create one of the most notorious gangs in Tsarist Russia. She first gained infamy, however, for her high-stakes heists, which often required a great degree of dissimulation. As pointed out in The Thinker’s Garden, Bluhstein was also a polyglot who easily accessed wealthy circles in cities like Saint Petersburg, Moscow, Vienna, Brussels, Constantinople, Paris, and London. At one point she was said to be one of the most glamorous socialites in Europe, a bon vivant who in the course of a year could spend tens of thousands of pounds on lavish parties and luxury goods.
She was also said to be irresistibly magnetic, with eyes that could persuade her victims to do exactly as she intended. The greater part of her career seems to have ended when she was arrested for attempting to steal the Shah of Persia’s diamonds. In a dramatic turn of fate, authorities banished Bluhstein to a labour camp in the outer reaches of Siberia; a place Western journalists sensationally described as “hell on earth”.
Eventually, she was given permission to retire in the coastal port city of Vladivostok, where she set up and ran her own hotel. Not long after her death, filmmakers broadcasted mythologised versions of her life story to a whole new generation. Today, however, she is remembered as the very real precursor to the street kingpins and oil barons who currently hold sway over Russia’s vast criminal syndicates.
Don Ciro, The Bandit King
Possibly the most intriguing outlaw of Risorgimento-era Italy was Ciro Annicchiarico. Gifted with what were probably exceptional rhetorical abilities, Don Ciro first studied to become a preacher. However, as tradition has it, Don Ciro—like many of that profession—felt inclined to cast his pastoral duties aside for the pleasures of the flesh. Suffice to say, Don Ciro’s intended did not share his feelings. Naturally, the man of God did not take his spurning lightly. He assassinated his beloved and then turned the blade on her family, ruthlessly murdering them, one by one.
Don Ciro was jailed for these crimes but escaped after four years, fleeing to the backwoods of Apulia. Here he lived, by his own admission, “in the gloomy solitude of the forest, and the loathsomeness of the cavern.”
Over time, the renegade priest gathered around himself a collective of similarly predatory and manipulative persons and established an extortionist organisation called The “Decisi”. He then tried to give the group a revolutionary or (as Eric Hobsbawm, the author of Primitive Rebels calls it) “Jacobin” spin. To do so, Don Ciro elected to communicate his objectives with Freemasonic symbols and anti-monarchial buzzwords.
In practice, the Decisi were really nothing but an efficient network of proto-mobsters who kept the public in subjection through rumour-mongering, intimidation, and theatrics. Don Ciro apparently also made random appearances across the land to promote the idea that he was untouchable. According to the Irish military man Richard Church (who ultimately brought an end to the bandit’s crime spree in 1817) Don Ciro—like modern Mafiosi—had an uncanny ability to disguise himself. Nonetheless, when he did appear in public, he tended to wear a flamboyant getup that savoured of what many today would associate with Golden Age pirates:
“He was a perfect Proteus in disguises, — as a woman, as a beggar, as a priest, as a friar, as an officer, as a gendarme. His usual dress was of velveteen, highly faced with many rows of buttons, and belts in every direction ; and he was always armed with pistols and stiletto, carbine, or rifle. He always carried poison with him in a small case, within a red pocket-book. He also always wore several silver chains…On his breast he wore rows of relics, crosses, images of saints, and amulets against the evil eye. His headdress was a high-peaked drab-colored hat, adorned with gold band, buckle, and tall black feather, and his fingers were covered with rings of great value.”
Legend has it that after his defeat by Church, Don Ciro was condemned to be executed by a firing squad but only perished after one of his executors shot him with a silver bullet.
Giacomo Casanova, The Libertine
Due mostly to his loquacity and aptitude for self-promotion, Giacomo Casanova has gone down in history as the quintessential trickster. A libertine through and through, Casanova hustled for a living and plied his trade by devising elaborate scams. To do this he cosied up with aristocrats (such as the immortality-seeking Madame d’Urfe) and exploited their vanities. Much has already been said about Casanova’s eclectic biography and excesses; nonetheless, one episode particularly stands out as the clearest demonstration of his knavish genius.
The full story, which has been commented on by the likes of Colin Wilson and Eliza Marian Butler appears in his Memoirs. In the tale, Casanova recounts how he convinced the antiquities-obsessed Capetani family from Mantua of his paranormal abilities. Casanova initially gains their trust by astonishing them with cold readings. The Capetanis then offer him a tentative “finder’s fee” and invite him to an acquaintance’s estate in the Papal States in the hopes that his magical prowess will help them acquire a long-lost, cursed treasure. Longing to “play the part of the magician” (like the scholastici vagantes) and excited at the prospect of free room and board, Casanova agrees to participate in the venture and proceeds to devise a treasure-hunting ritual.
What ensues next is a series of events during which Casanova engages in method acting avant le lettre and struggles to resist making sexual advances on his host’s eldest daughter. When the full moon finally arrives, Casanova cloaks himself in a handmade linen robe, strolls into the house courtyard, and places himself in a magic circle (made of sheets of paper). Armed with a sacred knife from the Capetani private museum and a makeshift wand, he commences with some presto-chango gibberish. To his surprise, a storm gradually begins to surge around him. Genuinely frightened but at the same time not wanting to appear like a mountebank, Casanova continues his act until the tempest subsides.
Later, Casanova—fearing the prying eyes of the Inquisition—weasels out of his commitment by forging instructions from the storm spirits and handing them to one of his clients:
“I produced, in reality, a few minutes afterwards, a document…adding that the treasure consisted of diamonds, rubies, emeralds, and one hundred thousand pounds of gold dust. I made him take an oath on my pocket-book to wait for me, and not to have faith in any magician unless he gave him an account of the treasure in every way similar to the one which, as a great favor, I was leaving in his hands. I ordered him to burn the crown and the ring, but to keep the other things carefully until my return.”
Casanova then completes the swindle by selling the museum knife back to the Capetanis for a thousand Roman crowns.
All this perfectly illustrates the degree to which the Venetian adventurer was willing and capable of making the most out of opportune situations. Like his predecessors, the wandering scholars, Casanova was a man whose creativity and capacity for deceit knew no bounds. In many ways he was Laverna’s most fortunate son, living well until his sixties and retiring to the quiet chateau of a Bohemian count. Our next and final lavernio however, was not as lucky nor—it seems—as quick-witted.
John Evans, The Astrologer
Born in Wales but educated to master’s level at Oxford, John Evans initially settled in Staffordshire with his family. It was here that he tried his hand at preaching, taking up a post as the vicar of Enfield (modern-day Enville). Perhaps he dreamed of a real future in public moralising; nevertheless, fate had other plans. Parishioners gradually wised up to the fact that Evans had an immoderate love for ale and a propensity for promiscuity. They subsequently took up their pitchforks, so to speak, and ousted him from the curacy.
After his ostracisation, Evans re-branded as a pedagogue. He set up a kind of preparatory school in his house and taught mathematics, foreign languages (Hebrew, Latin, and Greek), and penmanship. Although he supplemented his income by composing almanacs, Evans failed to adjust to his circumstances and moved his family to Farringdon in London. This atmosphere of cheats and drifters did nothing to reform Evans’s morality but it did help him to attract new business.
By the early 1630s, the former vicar had developed a reputation as a conjuror and was raking in a small fortune from his newest wares: antimonial cups. In 1632, Evans took on as an apprentice the man who would become one of the most famous astrologers in Caroline-era England: William Lilly. Lilly, who acknowledged that Evans was well-versed in ceremonial magic, remembered his tutor as drunkard and deviant. They parted ways when Lilly observed Evans purposely giving a client misleading advice.
Evans continued to freely market his poisonous potions as cure-alls until 1635 when the Royal College of Physicians took him to task and convinced Archbishop William Laud to destroy the remaining copies of his advertising pamphlets. Laud’s censure was effective, but it did not entirely put the kibosh on Evans’s business. According to Bernard Knapp, Evans—ever the rascal—hit the road and spent the Interregnum period picking up preaching gigs in Somerset and Gloucester. The last stage of Evans’s life—if there ever was one—is a mystery. His biographer, Anthony Wood, wrote that he “knew not of his end, because he lived in several places and in an obscure condition”.
See what Thinker’s Garden Fantasts are doing this summer!
- WORLDWIDE: Launch of Darmon Richter’s “Monumentalism” digital gallery. Where: www.monumentalism.net When: NOW. Who: Featuring Darmon Richter.
- WORLDWIDE: Launch of Francesco Dimitri’s English debut novel, The Book of Hidden Things. Where: Amazon. When: NOW. Who: Featuring Francesco Dimitri.
- LONDON, UK: Art in the Crypt Gallery Exhibition. Where: Crypt of St Pancras Parish Church. When: 28 July. Who: Featuring Sasha Chaitow.
- LONDON, UK: Starlight Storytelling in Richmond. Where: A secret location near Richmond Rail/ Underground Station When: 28 July. Who: Featuring London Dreamtime.
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