New Museum Exhibition Shows Off Rare Handwritten Letters From History’s Most Famous Figures

An autographed letter from 7-year-old Victoria, future queen of England, to her uncle, 1826.
An autographed letter from 7-year-old Victoria, future queen of England, to her uncle, 1826.
Collection of Pedro Corrêa do Lago

There’s something special about seeing the handwriting of one of your heroes. Just ask anyone who has gotten a celebrity’s autograph. The unique power a signature holds is at the center of an upcoming exhibition at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City, The Magic of Handwriting: The Pedro Corrêa do Lago Collection.

As part of the display, the museum features drawings, signed photos, and rare letters from figures throughout history—from line drawings Michelangelo used to order marble for the facade of a basilica he was contracted to build in Florence to a previously unpublished, signed photo of Rasputin.

A line drawing with a marble order from Michelangelo
Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475–1564). Pen and ink drawing with autograph instructions for a marble order for the facade of San Lorenzo, [Florence, 1518]. Collection of Pedro Corrêa do Lago.

The materials on display are just part of the collection of Pedro Corrêa do Lago, a Brazilian art historian and author who started writing to prominent celebrities when he was 12 years old, asking for their autographs. Over the next 50 years, he assembled a massive collection of autographs, manuscripts, and other handwritten materials that date back to 1140. The 140 items on display at the Morgan make up just a tiny fraction of the 100,000 autographs he owns.

The items are divided up into several different categories: art, history, literature, science, music, and entertainment. Many of them have never been shown before in a public exhibition.

Handwritten mathematical equations by Albert Einstein
Albert Einstein (1879–1955). Autograph mathematical manuscript, ca. 1940s. Collection of Pedro Corrêa do Lago.

The exhibition includes treasures like a 12th century papal bull signed by four different medieval popes (three were cardinals at the time of signing) and a Catholic saint, Guarinus of Palestrina. There are documents and letters signed by royalty, including Richard III and Elizabeth I of England and Mary, Queen of Scots; there is a rare letter from Leon Trotsky to Frida Kahlo, written as the two were ending their affair; and an autographed draft of a letter Jean-Paul Sartre wrote to the Swedish Academy in 1964, asking them not to give him the Nobel Prize (they awarded it to him anyway). There is a draft of a poem William Butler Yeats wrote on the back of a letter, and a signed mathematical manuscript from Albert Einstein.

Below is a handwritten bill for 20 therapy sessions with Sigmund Freud. Freud charged American neurologist Roy Grinker 100 Austrian schillings per hour, or the equivalent of $20 or $25 at that time, for psychoanalysis sessions.

A handwritten note on stationary from Dr. Freud
Sigmund Freud (1856–1939). Autograph invoice signed, to Roy Grinker, written on a personal correspondence card, Vienna, 30 June 1934. Collection of Pedro Corrêa do Lago.

Artist René Magritte sent this letter to photographer and filmmaker Francis Lee, suggesting Lee make use of the sequence of drawings included (of a man removing his gloves, hat, and head) in a film:

A two-page letter with drawings of men in top hats
René Magritte (1898–1967). Autograph letter signed, to Francis Lee, Brussels, 22 January 1946. Collection of Pedro Corrêa do Lago. © 2018 C. Herscovici / Artists Rights Society

This is one of two surviving letters from Oscar Wilde to Bram Stoker. Wilde wanted Stoker, who worked at London’s Lyceum Theatre, to set aside a ticket for him that night:

A handwritten letter from Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde (1854–1900). Autograph letter signed, to Bram Stoker, London, [1879 or 1880]. Collection of Pedro Corrêa do Lago.

This draft of the opening of Swann's Way differs slightly from what Proust eventually published. Notably, it doesn't include what would become the first sentence: “For a long time I used to go to bed early."

A ripped page from a Proust manuscript
Marcel Proust (1871–1922). Swann’s Way (Du côté de chez Swann), autograph manuscript draft of the opening passage, ca. March–April 1913. Collection of Pedro Corrêa do Lago. Image used with permission of the Proust Estate.

The Magic of Handwriting: The Pedro Corrêa do Lago Collection will run from June 1 to September 16, 2018 at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City.

10 Questions About Columbus Day

ihsanGercelman/iStock via Getty Images
ihsanGercelman/iStock via Getty Images

Every American student learns that Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue and landed in the New World in 1492. Winifred Sackville Stoner, Jr.'s poem "History of the U.S." has made it impossible to forget the date (although the couplet actually predates her birth), and many federal workers get a day off every October to recognize the explorer's arrival in the New World. You know the who and where, but here are 10 more answers to pressing questions about Columbus Day.

1. When did Christopher Columbus become a cultural icon?

By the early 1500s, other navigators like Amerigo Vespucci and Francisco Pizarro had become more popular and successful than Columbus had been with his off-course voyages. According to The New York Times, historians and writers in the latter part of the 16th century restored some of Columbus’s reputation with great words of praise for the explorer and his discoveries, with his fellow Italians proving particularly eager to celebrate his life in plays and poetry.

2. How did Christopher Columbus's popularity reach the United States?

Blame the British. As the American colonies formed an identity separate from their mainly English roots, colonists looked to figures like the "appointed of God" Columbus to symbolize their ideals. "By the time of the Revolution," writes John Noble Wilford, "Columbus had been transmuted into a national icon, a hero second only to Washington." Columbus's American legacy got another shot in the arm in 1828 when a biography (peppered with historical fiction) by Washington Irving transformed Columbus into an even more idealized figure who sought to "colonize and cultivate," not to strip the New World of its resources.

3. When was the first Columbus Day?

The first recorded celebration took place in 1792 in New York City, but the first holiday held in commemoration of the 1492 voyage coincided with its 400th anniversary in 1892. President Benjamin Harrison issued a proclamation in which he called Columbus a "pioneer of progress and enlightenment" and suggested that Americans "cease from toil and devote themselves to such exercises as may best express honor to the discoverer and their appreciation of the great achievements of the four completed centuries of American life."

If Harrison had had his way, though, the holiday would have been celebrated on October 21. He knew that Columbus landed under the Julian calendar, not the Gregorian calendar we use today—making October 21 the correct date for anniversary celebrations.

4. Did anyone actually celebrate Columbus Day in the 19th century?

Italian Americans embraced Columbus as an important figure in their history and saw celebrating him as a way to "be accepted by the mainstream," the Chicago Tribune notes. The Knights of Columbus, an organization formed by Irish Catholic immigrants in 1882, chose the Catholic explorer as their patron "as a symbol that allegiance to their country did not conflict with allegiance to their faith," according to the group's website. Following President Harrison’s 1892 proclamation, they lobbied for Columbus Day to become an official holiday.

5. When did Columbus Day become an official holiday?

The holiday first found traction at the state level. Colorado began celebrating Columbus Day, by governor's proclamation, in 1905. Angelo Noce, founder of the first Italian newspaper in the state, spearheaded the movement to honor Columbus and Italian American history. In 1907, the Colorado General Assembly finally gave in to him and made it an official state holiday.

6. When did Columbus Day become a federal holiday?

With Franklin D. Roosevelt as president, lobbying from the Knights of Columbus paid off, and the United States as a whole observed Columbus Day in 1934. Thirty-four years later, Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Uniform Holiday Bill, which designated Columbus Day as a federal holiday.

7. Why does the date of Columbus Day change every year?

Columbus Day was originally celebrated on October 12, the day Columbus landed in the New World, but the Uniform Holiday Bill took effect in 1971 and changed it to the second Monday in October, as well as moved the dates of Washington’s Birthday, Memorial Day, and Veterans Day to Mondays (Veterans Day would be moved back to November 11 in 1980 after criticism from veterans’ groups). The act of Congress was enacted to "provide for uniform annual observances of certain legal public holidays on Monday, and for other purposes."

8. Does every state observe the Columbus Day holiday on the same weekend?

In Tennessee, Columbus Day comes with an asterisk. The state’s official holiday observance calendar reads that Columbus Day is the second Monday of October, or "at the governor's discretion, Columbus Day may be observed the Friday after Thanksgiving."

9. Which states don't celebrate Columbus Day?

In Hawaii, the second Monday of October is known as Discoverer’s Day, "in recognition of the Polynesian discoverers of the Hawaiian Islands, provided that this day is not and shall not be construed to be a state holiday," KHON2 writes. According to the Pew Research Center, only 21 states treated Columbus Day as a paid state holiday in 2013. South Dakota, New Mexico, Maine, and the District of Columbia celebrate Native Americans Day or Indigenous People's Day as a paid holiday. Several cities, like San Francisco and Cincinnati, celebrate Indigenous People's Day.

10. How do other places around the world celebrate Columbus Day?

In Italy, Columbus Day (or Giornata nazionale di Cristoforo Colombo) is listed as one of the national or international days of celebration and is still on October 12, but it's not a public holiday. Some countries have chosen to observe anti-Columbus holidays like the Day of the Indigenous Resistance in Venezuela and Nicaragua, Pan American Day in Belize, and the Day of Respect for Cultural Diversity in Argentina.

Quid Pro Quo Has a Nefarious Etymology

MangoStar_Studio/iStock via Getty Images
MangoStar_Studio/iStock via Getty Images

While some altruists will happily lend a hand without expecting anything in return, most of the world runs on the idea that you should be compensated in some way for your goods and services.

That’s quid pro quo, a Latin phrase which literally means “something for something.” In many cases, one of those “somethings” refers to money—you pay for concert tickets, your company pays you to teach your boss how to open a PDF, etc. However, quid pro quo also applies to plenty of situations in which no money is involved. Maybe your roommate agreed to lend you her favorite sweater if you promised to wash her dishes for a month. Or perhaps, in return for walking your neighbor’s dog while he was on vacation, he gave you his HBO login credentials.

No matter the circumstances, any deal in which you give something and you get something falls under the category of quid pro quo. According to The Law Dictionary, “it is nothing more than the mutual consideration which passes between the parties to a contract, and which renders it valid and binding.” In other words, if everyone on both sides understands the expectation that something will be given in return for a good or service, your contract is valid.

Based on that definition, quid pro quo hinges on transparency; all parties must understand that there’s an exchange being made. However, this wasn’t always the case. As the Columbia Journalism Review reports, Merriam-Webster’s dictionary entry states that quid pro quo was used in 16th-century apothecaries to denote when one medicine had been substituted for another, “whether intentionally (and sometimes fraudulently) or accidentally.”

So, if you were an unlucky peasant with a sore throat, it’s possible your herbal remedy could’ve been swapped out with something less effective—or even dangerous. Though Merriam-Webster doesn’t offer any specific examples of how or why this happened, it definitely seems like it would have been all too easy to “accidentally” poison your enemies during that time.

Just a few decades later, the term had gained enough popularity that people were using it for less injurious instances, much like we do today.

[h/t Columbia Journalism Review]

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