Subscribe to Feed
‘Tim White Duck’
Shape-shifting pop-rock enigma, David Bowie, is to give something back to the continent which supplied him with controlled substances for much of the 1970s.
The ‘David Bowie is’ exhibition, which ran to critical and popular acclaim at London’s Victoria and Albert (V&A) museum for six months in 2013 will transfer to São Paulo’s Museum of Image and Sound (MIS) on January 31st.
The multi-media retrospective features over 300 hundred objects – handwritten lyrics, original costumes, set designs, films and Bowie’s own instruments – which trace the sui generis career of the so-called ‘Thin White Duke’ – or ‘Tim White Duck’ as Brazil’s O Globo newspaper improbably referred to him in a recent article.
The collaboration with MIS follows the announcement that the V&A is to establish a partnership with Rio’s future design museum, the Museu da Moda, to be housed at the Casa da Marquesa de Santos. A neo-classical V&A-like pile located conveniently close to the Imperial Palace, the Casa takes its name from its former resident, Domitila de Castro Canto e Melo, the Marquise of Santos and mistress of the first Emperor and ‘Liberator’ of Brazil, Dom Pedro I (1798-1834).
Domitila was the most notorious lover of the priapic Emperor whose compulsive promisucuity rivalled that of the pale pop Duke in his cross-dressing pomp (‘I’ve had so much sex and drugs,’ Bowie once told Morrissey, ‘I can’t believe I’m still alive.’ ‘I’ve had so LITTLE sex and drugs,’ Morrissey replied, ‘I can’t believe I’m still alive.’) Pedro is thought to have fathered as many as 120 illegitimate children, including four with the Marquise herself and one with French dancer, Noemy Thierry (who he impregnated while negotiations for his marriage to Archduchess Maria Leopoldina of Austria were at an advanced stage. Thierry’s baby died soon after being born and the distraught Emperor, somewhat macabrely, had it embalmed and kept in a cupboard, in the royal palace, for nearly 10 years).
The future Marquise was scarcely the most obvious candidate for the post of imperial consort. Said to be “averagely attractive” and “uncommonly fat”, when the Emperor first met her, in 1822, she was a married mother-of-three and bore the fresh scars of a near-fatal knife attack unleashed by her jealous husband. The Emperor nevertheless lost himself in her seductive sloe eyes, paid off the husband and embarked on a tumultuous affair that would ultimately lead – like Edward VIII’s with Wallace Simpson – to his abdication. (The husband, Felício Pinto Coelho de Mendonça, was awarded a lucrative sinecure in exchange for agreeing to the annulment of his marriage and to stop pestering his former spouse. When an outraged Pedro discovered that Felício had written a letter disparaging their affair, the accomplished horseman-Emperor rode forty miles to personally beat him up. A penitent Felício restricted further contact with Domitila to grovelling requests for advancement and intercession in his attempts to sell land to an English gold-mining concern. The sale of the land, to the ill-fated “United Macaúbas and Cocaes National Brazilian Mining Association”, headed by the serial Victorian fraudster, Edward Oxenford, would only be concluded by Felício’s cousin, the Baron of Cocais, in 1833, long after the Marquise had lost her influence at court).
Dom Pedro I: Emperor, Liberator and prolific philanderer
Pedro and Domitila’s torrid affair – said by one biographer to reek of moist, crumpled bed sheets – survived both Pedro’s impregnation of her older sister (not the first occasion on which the Emperor seduced members of the same family) and Domitila’s subsequent attempt to have said sister assassinated. Pedro’s consuming passion was evident in the more than 170 letters sent to his lover, signed variously “Big Devil” (“Demonão”), “Firey Fire” (“Fogo Foguinho”) and “The Emperor”, and illustrated with pornographic doodles of his ejaculating penis. (On one occasion, the romantically-inclined monarch sent Domitila whiskers from his moustache in lieu of his heart, and in another less conventionally romantic moment, according to historian, Alberto Rangel, clippings of his pubic hair. He also despatched detailed updates of the venereal symptoms that hampered the operations of his royal “three-piece machine”.)
In 1825, in a clumsy and monumentally insensitive bid to legitimise his extra-marital affair, Pedro raised Domitila to the position of Maid of Honour to his long-suffering wife, the Empress Leopoldina. Leopoldina now had to put up with the intimate attentions of the “monstrous seducer” from the moment she left her chambers every morning. An accomplished natural scientist and linguist, and the scion of one of the most illustrious royal houses in Europe, marooned in the bumpkin court of her serially unfaithful husband, Leopoldina sank into depression and wrote to her father, Francisco I, begging fruitlessly to be allowed to return to Vienna. She died a year later, at the age of 29, her demise hastened by a boot to her pregnant stomach delivered by the Emperor, furious at her refusal to attend an event at which the Marquise would also be present.
The much-loved Empress’s death was widely mourned, no more so than by Rio’s slaves who regarded her as a protector and patron, and were said to have cried, “Our mother has died. What will become of us?” Domitila was held responsible and her house – the Casa da Marquesa de Santos – pelted with stones. Within three years, she had been permanently banished from the court as Pedro sought respectability in a new marriage to the minor European royal, Amélia Augusta Eugênia Napoleona de Beauharnais, the alluring grand-daughter of the Empress Josephine, and the first princess to accept the reviled monarch’s proposal following ten rebuttals. But Pedro’s political credibility had been fatally tarnished and, in 1831, a series of crises forced him to abdicate the Brazilian throne and seek refuge on the British gunship, HMS Warspite. (As he helped the new Empress up the ladder into the ship, the incorrigible Emperor’s parting-shot was to advise her, “Careful as you go, my dear, you’re not wearing any knickers.”)
On his return to Europe, the Duke of Braganza (as he now called himself) embarked on the final redemptive chapter of his life, displaying unexpected heroism in the war to restore his usurped daughter, Maria II, to the Portuguese throne. Besieged for over a year in the city of Porto by the forces of his brother Miguel, the former domestic-abusing debauchee emerged as a hands-on, Henry V-like soldier-king, criss-crossing the rain-drenched city in military cape and muddy boots, digging trenches, mounting canons, visiting the wounded in hospital, eating with the rank and file, and, inevitably, having affairs with the locals (he fathered his final ‘illegitimate’ child on a brief stop-off in the Azores prior to the start of the war). The siege of Porto was finally lifted after the British were persuaded to send Pedro support in the form of 5 steam-driven warships commanded by Admiral Charles Napier. Napier would later observe of Pedro that, ‘his good qualities were his own; his bad owing to want of education; and no man was more sensible of that defect than himself.’ Pedro’s acute awareness of his educational shortcomings was evident in his declaration to his son and successor, Pedro II, shortly before his abdication: ‘I intend that my brother and I will be the last badly educated members of the Braganza family’.
The Liberator of Brazil died at the age of 36, within months of leading his troops to victory, fatally weakened by war, tuberculosis and, possibly, venereal disease. He would have been consoled, however, to learn that his son, Dom Pedro II, would grow up to be a dedicated scholar and gifted linguist. When Pedro II visited his distant cousin, Queen Victoria, in England, his austere habits and insatiable, polymathic curiosity prompted her to record: ‘The Emperor goes about everywhere & sees everything, but does not go into society. He gets up a 5, & is already out at 6!!’ One can only speculate what Pedro II would have made of the notion that the institution to which his cousin, Victoria, leant her name, the V&A, would one day be associated with another, housed in the residence of his father’s mistress and mother’s nemesis: the Casa da Marquesa de Santos.
The Marquise of Santos: averagely attractive and uncommonly fat but possessed of beautiful black eyes
Domitila lived out her last days in her São Paulo mansion, hosting literary salons and charitable events, and supporting a prostitute’s association and another for single mothers (she herself would give birth to a total of 14 children). Isabel Burton, wife of the polyglot explorer, writer, soldier, ethnologist, spy, fencer and sometime Santos consul (1865-1868), Sir Richard Burton, became friendly with the Marquise when she and Burton were living in São Paulo:
‘I used to see a great deal of her … She had been obliged to adopt up-country habits, and the last time I saw her, she received me en intime in her own kitchen, where she sat on the floor, smoking, not a cigarette, but a pipe. She had beautiful black eyes, full of sympathy, and intelligence, and knowledge. She was a great bit of interest to me in that out-of-the-way place’.
Isabel Burton was evidently not the first person to find Domitila ‘a great bit of interest’ or to be struck by those ‘beautiful black eyes’.