The Vanderbilts were arguably the most prominent family of the Gilded Age, but time has slowly eroded their fortune and legacy.
Wikimedia CommonsThe legendary wealth of the Vanderbilt family had its origins with Cornelius Vanderbilt. He left school at age 11 and borrowed $100 from his mother to buy a boat four years later. In 1829, he bought his own steamboat, which he turned into a fleet of 100 steamboats by the 1840s. Other boatmen called him “Commodore,” a nickname that would remain with Cornelius throughout his life.
A Monopoly On New York
Wikimedia CommonsThree-quarters of American commerce came through New York City’s harbor at the time, much of it on Vanderbilt’s fleet. But the Commodore didn’t stop there. After the Civil War, he expanded the family business into the railroad industry, managing to attain a monopoly on trains entering and leaving the city.
William The Blatherskite
Wikimedia CommonsCornelius had a less than ideal relationship with his two sons, often calling elder child William Henry Vanderbilt a “blockhead” and “blatherskite.” It was William who inherited the bulk of his father’s wealth when Cornelius died in 1877, however, an amount worth $100 million.
Wikimedia CommonsCornelius left his eight daughters less than a million each, and his younger son also received a substantially lower sum. The Commodore’s will was contested by family in very public trial. It dragged on for more than a year and half, but William H. emerged mostly victorious. Within nine years of inheriting his father’s fortune, he had doubled it.
The Third Generation
Wikimedia CommonsWhen William H. died in 1899, the Vanderbilt dynasty began its downward slope. The fortune was willed to William H.’s sons, Cornelius Vanderbilt II (whose house at West 57th St., New York City is depicted) and William Kissam Vanderbilt.
messynessychic.comWilliam Kissem Vanderbilt married Alva Erskine Smith, who went about winning over New York high society through a series of elaborate social events. In 1883, she threw a massive ball that would finally cement the Vanderbilt’s place in the New York hierarchy of the Gilded Age. Every female guest that night went home with a piece of jewelry from Tiffany’s.
A Lavish Lifestyle
Wikimedia CommonsInstead of expanding the railroad West, the family began to spend more and more on lavish palaces and parties. Alice Vanderbilt built the Breakers in fashionable Newport, Rhode Island for $7 million.
Wikimedia CommonsThe Vanderbilts came to own a total of 10 mansions on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Between 1889 and 1895, George Washington Vanderbilt II used up a substantial portion of his inheritance building the Biltmore estate in Asheville, North Carolina.
The Fortune Crumbles
Wikimedia CommonsBy the 1920s, new federal taxes were taking a toll on the Vanderbilt’s wealth. The mansion at 1 West 57th street was torn down. Other family properties were sold off during the Depression for a fraction of what they cost to build. Only one of their New York City mansions survived.
The Vanderbilts Today
Bravo/NBCUniversal/Getty ImagesOver the years, the Vanderbilt fortune was dispersed between more heirs, and the transport industry that brought them such wealth changed dramatically. Great-great-great-grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt and CNN reporter, Anderson Cooper, told the world on Howard Stern’s radio show: ”My mom’s made clear to me that there’s no trust fund.”
Vatican City’s Sistine Chapel is one of the most sacred tourist destinations in the world.
As it celebrates its 502nd opening anniversary this November, let’s take a peak behind the scenes at the secrets, side notes, and sexy conspiracies of the famous Sistine Chapel.
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The Sistine Chapel wasn’t an architectural feat of the 15th century. It stole its dimensions and layout from the Biblical descriptions of the Temple of Solomon in the Old Testament.
Except for one thing: it doesn’t have a processional front door. There’s no way in from outside and no way out. You have to enter it through the papal palace. So don’t ever be trapped in there during a fire.
It’s also super boring from the outside. There’s no fancy facade work or embellishment at all. Which is kinda weird considering its where they’ve elected and crowned most of the popes from 1492 upwards.
But the chapel’s commissioner Pope Sixtus IV seems to have wanted it that way. And he’s the one who ordered it built, held the first mass in it on August 15, 1483, and who its named after (the Latin Sixtus becomes Sisto in Italian, hence ‘Sistine’), so whatever he said goes. But it would be his nephew Pope Julius II who would go on to make its insides famous.
The Sistine Chapel has become synonymous with the artwork Michelangelo installed on its ceilings. But even if he’d never added his two cents worth of paint, the Sistine Chapel would be artistically famous.
The overshadowed artwork on the wall like this fresco was painted by Sandro Botticelli, of naked Venus rising from the sea on a seashell fame.
Funnily enough, Michelangelo often found himself in the position painting alongside other masters works of art. He painted the same room as Leonardo Da Vinci in Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio a few years later. Though it’s unlikely Michelangelo was ever in the same room as Da Vinci or in the Sistine Chapel at the same time as Botticelli. He’d already finished his murals decades before.
That left only the ceiling for Michelangelo to tackle—even though it was already painted solid blue and inset with gold stars by Umbrian artist Piermatteo d’Amelia.
This is an etching of what it would have looked like before Michelangelo touched the ceiling.
Michelangelo didn’t want to work on the Sistine Chapel. He was super keen and focused on his current sculpture piece for Pope Julius II’s future tomb. He considered himself a sculptor not a painter. And he didn’t want to be taken off the project to go paint things.
But Pope Julius II cleverly misplaced the rest of the funding for the sculpture and Michelangelo was forced to accept the new commission and pick up a paintbrush. Don’t worry, he got to go finish the sculpture several years later.
Misperceptions Of Posture
There’s a movie about Michelangelo’s work on the Sistine Chapel that has overdramatized his refusal to paint and the methods Pope Julius II went to to get him painting.
But the Charlton Heston and Rex Harrison movie “The Agony and the Ecstasy” didn’t confuse audiences on that point as much as they’ve left a lingering legacy of confusion regarding something else: how Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel. The set producers went with the idea that Michelangelo and his assistants were lying down as they painted on scaffolding nearly touching the ceiling itself. That’s become our pop culture conception of the activity, but it just wasn’t so. Yes, the scaffolding was cool. But it left them all standing and reaching up overhead to paint.
Michelangelo hated it. He hated having to learn all about painting so quickly, he hated having to paint with his arms up to the ceiling day in and day out, and he even initially hated the proposed painting subjects.
When Pope Julius II first commissioned the work, he wanted the ceiling to only feature the Apostles. Michelangelo told him to shove it and expanded on the subject matter himself. Michelangelo also wrote an epic rage poem about how much he hated working on it to his friend Giovanni da Pistoia.
To make up for changing the subject matter on his patron, Michelangelo hid an homage to Pope Julius’ family in his artwork.
Many of the naked young men (codeword: ignudi) in the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling have bunches of acorns around them. These were added in reference to Julius II’s family name, Rovere, which means the oak.
Adding Insult To Injury
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And that wasn’t the only bit of extra symbolism Michelangelo snuck into the ceiling.
His Garden of Eden is off kilter and doesn’t include the infamous apple tree of sin. Oh there’s a tree alright. But its a fig tree—which is traditional in Jewish lore, but not in Christian. In fact, most of the chosen subjects are purely Old Testament and encoded with Jewish symbolism, leading some art historians to question whether the whole ceiling was meant to ask whether the Christian church had forgotten its roots in Judaism and its original message, an insult to the popes.
The biggest discrepancy in the insult theory is Michelangelo’s portrayal of God. Christianity is the only Abrahamic faith that lets people give God a face. So if he was going gung-ho on Jewish symbolism he wouldn’t have painted the Almighty sitting in the middle of the ceiling.
In fact, before Michelangelo’s depiction of God, he was usually depicted a hand or a light burst in western art—not something in physical human form. Michelangelo changed the game on everyone by painting God as a person. And it’s his older, white bearded male deity that has become the archetypal representation for the Christian God ever since.
Going Back For More
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Michelangelo finished the ceiling frescoes in 1512 after four solid years of painting. He painted God last, saying that he wanted to make sure his fresco technique was up to par before tackling the central subject matter. It was only after the scaffolding was removed that anyone was ever able to see the whole bit of artwork at once, including Michelangelo. At least half of the ceiling had been covered at all times during work by the beams and towers of the scaffolds.
But Michelangelo wasn’t done with the Sistine Chapel just yet. He returned to it twenty-two years later in 1536 to spend five years painting “The Last Judgement” on the wall above the altar.
And other artists weren’t finished with his work either. The 1564 Council of Trent under the ultra-prudish Pope Pius IV deemed all the nudes on the ceiling and the walls to be in poor taste, and paid to have them covered up.
They hired poor artist Daniele da Volterra to come in and add fig leaves, draped clothing, plants and animals, and whatever else he could use to cover up everyone’s private parts with extra underclothes. Unfortunately, his desecration of some of the world’s most well renowned art has earned him the nickname Il Braghettone by posterity. It basically means Mr. Big Pants.
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Unless they’re busy with the conclave or crowning of a new Pope, the Sistine Chapel is open to tourists. A lot of tourists.
The Telegraph estimates that 25,000 people visit the Sistine Chapel every day, which adds up to about five million people a year. Given that entry is kinda expensive (and rising steadily), that means that the Sistine Chapel alone pulls in an annual income of 80 million Euros(+) per year for Vatican City. Not bad for a tiny autonomous nation.
Historians have long struggled to explain notorious Roman Emperor Caligula’s behavior. During his short reign, Caligula did everything from engage in public incest to order an innocent 12-year-old to be raped and murdered—making him one of the most hated people in Roman history.
He Wasn’t Considered Very Good Looking
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Caligula—whose real name was Gaius—was born into a Roman dynasty. His father, respected general Germanicus, used to bring him along to battles, and dressed him up in a miniature version of Roman battle gear. The troops were enamored with the little general, and gave him the nickname “Caligula,” which meant, “little boots.” Eventually, Caligula grew up, but he wasn’t considered particularly handsome. He was tall, gangly, pale, and had a bald head but a super hairy body. When he first took the throne, Roman citizens mocked him and claimed he looked like a goat. Eventually, Caligula got fed up with the mockery and made it a crime for anyone to mention goats in his presence.
He Was Super Paranoid And Had His Family Members Killed
While Caligula’s crazy behavior started when he outlawed the act of mocking his appearance, he soon became extremely suspicious of almost everyone in Rome. A few months after Caligula was appointed Emperor, he became seriously ill. Caligula, who believed someone had tried to kill him with poison, never truly recovered from the illness. Although his health was restored in a bodily sense, he was mentally never the same. After the incident, he became extremely paranoid and obviously a little insane. In some of his first acts of paranoia, he accused his loved ones of treason and ordered to have them murdered or exiled.
Initially, most of Rome was happy to have Caligula as a ruler. He won over his people when he granted members of the military large bonuses, got rid of unfair taxes, and freed anyone who had been sent to prison unlawfully. However, after he fell ill, he started behaving really erratically. While some dubbed him insane, modern historians believe there is evidence that suggests he was suffering from epilepsy and lived in constant fear of seizures. He was known to stand outside and speak to the moon, and the effects of a full moon were once linked to epileptic episodes. He was also fond of just staring off into the distance and was constantly irritable, which are both signs of hyperthyroidism.
He Murdered People Left And Right
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If Caligula had spent his time as Emperor staring off into space and lashing out at his family, his legacy probably wouldn’t have been so bad. But, as luck has it, his extreme paranoia, emotional instability, and limitless power all came together to mold him into one bloodthirsty killer. After just a few months as Emperor, he started ordering seemingly anyone who crossed him to be murdered. His behavior became outlandish, and before long almost all of Rome hated him.
For some reason, hanging or chopping people’s heads off doesn’t seem out of character for an Emperor—and probably wouldn’t even be considered that evil in the scheme of things. But Caligula wasn’t just murder crazy—he was torture crazy. He derived loads of pleasure out of torturing people, and even turned torture sessions into public events. He once had a man tied down and beaten with chains for three months, bringing him out of a dungeon and onto the street where people would gather when they smelled the man’s gangrenous brain.
In addition to publicly beating people, Caligula liked to mutilate people’s bodies. Apparently, his favorite torture device was the saw. He had a special saw blade that was modeled after the human spine and could cut someone along the spinal cord from the top of the chest to the crotch in one swoop. The worst thing about the blade was that it caused blood to rush to the victim’s brain, making it impossible for them to pass out. That, of course, meant they actually had to endure every moment of the torture.
As if a gross serial killer saw blade wasn’t bad enough, Caligula also like to chew on the testicles of his victims. He would have someone tie down a victim, and then he would slowly nibble on the testicles while they were restrained upside down. Obviously, Caligula had an insatiable appetite for torture. One of his favorite public events, the Circus Maximus, involved throwing criminals into big pits where they were devoured by starved wild animals. He particularly loved when the hungry lions would go after victims. Once, when the criminals ran out before the lions were brought on, he had random people pulled from the stands to participate in the deadly event.
He Thought He Was A Living God
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Eventually, Caligula fell off the deep end when he started publicly exclaiming he was a living God, and ordered his Roman Empire to treat him accordingly. One of his first acts as a living God was ordering the construction of a bridge between the palace and the Temple of Jupiter (the most significant temple in Rome) so that he could regularly hobnob with other deities. Additionally, Caligula started dressing up like Gods, demigods, and goddesses—including Hercules, Mercury, Venus, and Apollo. As if the costumes and outrageous orders weren’t enough, he also referred to himself as “God” in the third person and had the faces removed from god statues in Roman temples and replaced with his face.
Amongst all of the bloodthirsty murders, Caligula tried to have his horse Incitatus (Galloper) appointed as a priest and consul. Caligula took the instatement so seriously he actually had a huge pure marble stable built for the horse and filled it with the most lavish furnishings. Of course, the horse never sat on the luxurious chairs or couches, and instead preferred to hang around the servants who fed him oats mixed with gold flakes.
He Had A Whole Family Publicly Executed
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Perhaps one of the most evil acts Caligula ever committed came when he had an entire family publicly executed. The debacle began when a Roman citizen had the guts to insult the hated leader to his face. Caligula responded by ordering guards to tie the man down and beat him with chains. At the same time, he sent other guards to gather the man’s family, and one by one he had the children publicly executed from oldest to youngest.
The crowd was so disgusted with the spectacle they started to revolt, and Caligula responded by focusing on the last remaining member of the family, a 12-year-old girl. The girl was a sorry sight—she had just watched her entire family get murdered, and was sitting sobbing in the street. According to Roman law, Caligula couldn’t execute her because she was still a virgin. As a way around that, Caligula coldly ordered the executioner to rape and then strangle her.
He Was Rumored To Have Had Public Sex With His Sisters
While his murder and torture rampages are pretty well documented, few people actually made official records about his acts of incest. In fact, only one historian, Suetonius (who was known to be pretty gossipy) published claims that Caligula had sex with his sisters in the open at banquets while guests walked around them. Other chroniclers, who lived the same time as Caligula, never mentioned his sisterly trysts.
While some ancient historians claimed he was into incest, others, who were persuaded by the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim faiths, believed he was straight up possessed by a demon. Eventually, Caligula’s bad reputation got him killed a year before his 30th birthday. And, fittingly, he was stabbed to death in public right after he left his favorite event, the Circus Maximus. In the end, Caligula was so hated by the Roman people that they left his body to rot in the street and his remains were eaten by dogs.