Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Nothing in Common Goes South, Day #2

I expected Palladian elegance and the separation of church and state; what we found in Charlottesville was an extraordinary preponderance of orange. A whole lot of orange. I do not refer to pumpkins or foliage, but orange finery, orange flags, orange banners, and orange clothes of every persuasion.
This was because Charlottesville, home to UVA and Jefferson’s elegant home & garden, was in the grip of college football frenzy; and it turns out that I have spent my entire life ignorant of the American tradition known as college football, and its attendant noises, rituals, apparel and processions. We arrived in Charlottesville on the eve of a major football game with Clemson U. I was shocked to learn that the UVA team was sure to lose; yet that fact did not seem to dampen anyone’s spirits. Revelry was general over Charlottesville.
I don’t think that both teams purposefully both had orange as their school color, but this synchronicity certainly permeated the town. Maybe if you follow college football you will tell me that it often happens that two teams with the same color will play other, making it hard to distinguish them on the field, at least for the uninitiated. I just found it odd, and rather challenging, and spent too much time in Charlottesville trying to perceive subtle differences of hue and tone in the orange accouterments being sported all over town.

But no, it was not all orange and football. We did indeed tour Monticello, the Palladian home of Jefferson and a major tourist attraction. The Visitor Center – with café, gift store and theater – is larger than the actual house.
Our guide at Monticello was a lovely woman of a certain age who kept looking pointedly, almost quizzically, at CSB. Now if I had been the one to point out that she kept looking at him, as if she knew him, or had known him, then perhaps you might say I was imagining this. But CSB was equally certain that our guide, Peggy M, was eyeing him, and he became increasingly uncomfortable with her attentions as we made our way through the mansion. Did I increase his discomfort by gaily nudging him and asking if they had perhaps dated in some former life? Or by mentioning that she seemed quite nice and perhaps he should engage her in conversation and try to figure out what was what? Should I have alluded to the fact that he was a head taller than anyone else in the room, and hence made a handsome focal point? Poor CSB.
I should have been paying less attention to the guide’s ogling and more attention to what she said about Jefferson’s homemade copying machine and the Rumford fireplace. Yet something about the Rumford fireplace stuck with me, and once we departed Monticello I went straight to Google and learned a little about the checkered career of Count Rumford, née Benjamin Thompson in Woburn, Massachusetts. So little that on getting home I sought a biography of this odd duck – via the excellent auspices of Inter-Library Loan.
Benjamin Thompson was born in 1753 in Woburn, Massachusetts, where his childhood home still stands and is owned by the Rumford Historical Society. They have on display a copy of the portrait of Rumford done by Gainsborough, though the location of the original appears to be unknown.
I feel confident that you don’t want to know all the lurid details of Rumford’s life, but here are a few salient ones:
His taste for scientific experiment was early evidenced when he and his boyhood BFF Loammi Baldwin flew kites during electrical storms, and performed surgery on pigs.
He had a lifelong fascination with fireworks.
At the age of 20, Benjamin wisely married a somewhat older and much richer woman in New Hampshire, by whom he had a daughter. Then he chose the wrong side in the Revolutionary War, acted as a spy for the British, and ultimately had to flee across the ocean, leaving behind his wife and daughter.
In England he found favor with the king, pursued his scientific interests and had numerous affairs.
Later Benjamin went to Bavaria and the court of Elector Carl Theodore, to whom he became indispensable. So indispensable that he was made a Count of the Holy Roman Empire. (I was shocked to learn that the HRE still existed at this late date.) For his Count-ish title, Thompson chose Rumford, the New Hampshire hometown of his abandoned wife. While in Bavaria Count Rumford had numerous affairs, founded an exemplary Institute for the poor, and designed the English Gardens. (Through which I once strolled with beloved #1 son, and was shocked - operative sensation here - to espy an entirely naked family picnic, in the middle of the very lovely Englischer Garten, in the middle of Munich. We also saw surfers. Surfing on the smallest wave possible.)
Back in England, Rumford engaged in the experiments that would result in his excellent design for the Rumford fireplace. But otherwise, England grew too hot for him and he returned to the continent.
At age 50, he remarried (this entailed getting his previously abandoned daughter in the USA to send him a copy of his first wife’s death certificate) Marie-Anne Lavoisier, the 43-year-old widow of Antoine Lavoisier, the great French chemist who was separated from his head by the Revolution. But yet again, marriage did not suit, and they divorced within two years. Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford, died of ‘nervous fever’ in 1814 at Auteuil. The funeral was ‘a lonely affair.’

One of the very first things I did upon getting back home was to assail certain dear friends with my newfound knowledge re the Rumford fireplace: so efficient, such a godsend for the chilly folk. Their response? Well, duh. Of course they knew all about the Rumford fireplace. The Rumford fireplace was/is, for the cognoscenti, right up there with the Franklin stove as the industry standard. The fireplaces in our house are – yes, - Rumford fireplaces.

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