Saturday, October 24, 2009

Peace of Westphalia Day

I'm excited about writing this blog entry because I get to spread the word that today is Peace of Westphalia Day. 361 years ago today, representatives gathered in the town of Münster signed two documents, the Treaty of Onsabrück and the Treaty of Münster, that ended the Thirty Years' War. Not many people celebrate this holiday in the way it deserves, with a full day off from work, lots of decadent food, and reading my books on the subject, but I think that will change once I get the word out and people start to realize what they are missing.

Okay, I might be a little biased on the subject. Hardly anyone knows what the Peace of Westphalia is or even what century it occurred in, which means I probably could have picked a better subject to pour my heart and soul into writing a book about. Heck, hardly anyone knows that October 24th is United Nations Day -- the U.N. charter was signed on this day in 1945 -- so I can hardly expect its predecessor by 300 years to catch on.

Someone recently asked me a good question: what is my favourite personality from the Peace of Westphalia? I had never considered that before. No one knows the negotiators, so my first thought was Blaise Pascal, who was active at the same time. Pascal really is a fascinating figure, but I later realized that I should have said Cardinal Mazarin. Mazarin was the effective head of French government during the Congress of Westphalia while King Louis XIV was still a boy. Not many people know him, although I suspect a lot of people have heard of his predecessor, Cardinal Richelieu, who directed French government during the reign of Louis XIII. There wouldn't be much point in discussing Mazarin's politics, but he is an interesting figure in so many other ways.

For one thing, Mazarin was an Italian (originally Mazarini). Like Catherine de Medici, another Italian at the French court, he helped bring Italian culture to France; for instance, he put on the first opera in France in 1647. He collected art and books lavishly; his enormous book collection, which he bequeathed to the crown, became the foundation for the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. Until recently, his Parisian palace also housed most of the collection and the reading room for the library. A number of cultural artefacts carry his name, some of which I can trace to him for sure, others with less certainty. The first brilliant diamond cut is called the Mazarin cut. He is the namesake of the Mazarin desk (or bureau Mazarin). He owned a copy of the Gutenberg Bible, the first book printed in Europe, which is also known as the Mazarin Bible. A famous piece of Japanese laquerware, the Mazarin Chest, probably derived from his collection. There is a shade of blue called mazarine. I once found a floor pattern named after him, but I can't find a reference to it now. My favourite Mazarin object is the Mazarin cake (or tort). It comes from Sweden, but it is not out of the question that it was named for the cardinal. France did have close relations with Sweden during his rule: Sweden was France's ally and co-signatory of the Peace of Westphalia. It was ruled, by the way, by Queen Christina, who is fascinating in her own right. I have no evidence connecting Mazarin with the cake of the same name, but really, how many people could it have been named after?

If you want to get a fictional view of Mazarin, you can read "Twenty Years' After," which is a sequel to "The Three Musketeers" that takes place during 1648 -- the same year as the Peace of Westphalia. Umberto Eco's book "The Island of the Day Before" also includes Mazarin as a character, although a minor one.

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