In spite of the wintry weather, my Tulipa turkestanica are in flower. They are always the first tulips of spring in my garden, and clearly have a toughness that belies their size and delicacy. They are remarkably heliotropic: even on a dull day they will follow the course of the sun, and if the petals actually get touched by the rays (it hasn’t happened much so far this year!) they will flex right back, closing again once the brightness has passed.
When Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq was travelling to Constantinople in the spring of 1555, he reported, ‘As we passed through these districts [between Adrianople (Edirne) and Constantinople] we were presented with large nosegays of flowers, the narcissus, the hyacinth, and the tulipan (as the Turks call this last). … The tulip has little or no smell; its recommendation is the variety and beauty of the colouring.’
Busbecq (1522–92) was one of those splendid people who was interested in everything. Born in the village of Bousbecque, north of Lille (now in France but in what was then the Spanish Netherlands), he was officially a subject of the king of Spain, but his family had a long tradition of service to the dukes of Burgundy, and it was with the imperial side of the Habsburg dynasty that his loyalties lay. He was illegitimate, but his father had him legitimized by Charles V himself, and his first public role was as representative of the Emperor Ferdinand at the marriage of his nephew, Philip II of Spain, to Queen Mary in Winchester Cathedral on 25 July 1554.
On his return from this journey, he was summoned to Vienna in order to receive instructions and make preparations to travel to Constantinople as the Imperial ambassador to the court of Suleiman the Magnificent – a dangerous, and perhaps completely hopeless job. (The previous incumbent had been thrown into prison by Suleiman for two years: when he was released, his health was destroyed, and one of Busbecq’s first tasks was to visit him on his deathbed for a handover briefing.) The main role of the new ambassador was to try and establish a border between Ottoman and Imperial lands – a defensive necessity for the Habsburgs, but which the Turks, who had the upper hand militarily, were in no hurry to settle. There were also constant problems, from bickering to all-out insurrection, with the Hungarians, who unsurprisingly took every opportunity to rebel against their Ottoman conquerors: Suleiman, also unsurprisingly, assumed that the Empire supported all these endeavours.
En route to Constantinople, and once settled in the city, Busbecq wrote four long letters to his friend, fellow-student and diplomatic colleague, Nicolas Michault, describing everything from the nosegays of flowers to the fish in the Bosphorus and the ways in which the rival sons of Suleiman (and their children) were tortured and put to death. These letters are published in English translation in the first volume of The Life and Letters of Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq (1881). They were originally published in Latin (of which Busbecq was an acknowledged master) in the 1580s (by Plantin in Antwerp), though the modern editors claim that there was no original intention to publish: ‘Probably these letters would not have been half so amusing, or half so instructive, if Busbecq had intended them for publication’.
The second volume is not (in my opinion!) anything like so interesting: it consists of the letters written by Busbecq to his imperial masters Maximilian II and Rudolf II at the time when he was acting as the ‘guardian’ of the princess Elizabeth of Austria, recently widowed queen of Charles IX of France. Her interests, the possibility of her re-marriage, and the settlement of the financial wrangles over her dowry, took a great deal of watching over, but the necessary formality of these letters, and their focus on the matter in hand, make them rather harder going – though there are (inevitably biased) insights into the gruesome Valois court and the malign influence of Catherine de Medici. But it does have, as an appendix, as useful brief history of Hungary which puts the first ambassadorial mission into context.
The first volume opens with a ‘life’ of Busbecq, beginning with his home and his ancestors, and taking many side-swipes at less diligent historians (mostly French and Americans) on the way. Lacking more than the bare outlines of his education (at Louvain, then Paris, Bologna and Padua), the editors indulge in the pastime of imaginary conversations with his neighbour and mentor, George Halluin, a friend of Erasmus, which seek to explain to a British, Protestant, audience why an intelligent young man at the height of the humanist/Reformation revolution should stay so resolutely Catholic. But once Busbecq’s own narrative begins, things liven up very quickly.
The journey to Constantinople, via Buda, Belgrade, Nis, Sofia and Edirne, is perilous enough: it is the middle of winter, roads are rough, inns are bad or non-existent, food is poor (‘I can assure you that barley porridge is a very palatable food, and it is, moreover, recommended by Galen as extremely wholesome’). But good humour and enthusiasm (assisted by wine, which is acquired by sending servants ahead to obtain it from local Christian communities) bring Busbecq and his party safely to the City, where he is found accommodation and closely watched over by a ‘cavasse’, a Turkish minder who kept an eye on his comings and goings, and locked the doors at night. Busbecq complains about his ‘imprisonment’, but in fact his lodgings were big enough to accommodate a menagerie (to keep his party entertained and prevent them from brooding, apparently) consisting of monkeys, bears, wolves, deer, gazelles, lynxes, ichneumons, martens, sables, and a pig. He also keeps birds: eagles, ravens, jackdaws, ducks, cranes and partridges. One of the lynxes pined and died when one of the servants, to whom it had become attached, was sent away for a few days. One of the cranes fell in love with a Spanish soldier who Busbecq had ransomed: she would not let him out of her sight, and eventually laid him an egg.
Busbecq had to travel round the country at the beck of the sultan, and records with relish what he sees and hears: on one expedition, he came across the ‘Monumentum Ancyranum’, the copy of the Res Gestae Divi Augusti, a record of his life and deeds which the emperor Augustus caused to be engraved on monumental buildings around the empire. He had the inscription copied as far as was possible: this was the first time it had been seen by a Westerner. Angora goats, ‘yooghort’, a tribe of Goths, ancient coins, and plants are all noted, and it is known that he sent coins, bulbs and dried specimens back to his friends in Vienna, including the great botanist Clusius. Was one of these the tulip which he was given in nosegays during his journey? I can’t, at a quick search, find any detail, except that the lady tulip, Tulipa clusiana, was not actually associated with Clusius until Redouté painted it in 1802, which is a shame.
The origin of the word ‘tulip’ itself is of course confused. ‘Tulipan’, as given by Busbecq, is generally translated as ‘turban’, though its basic meaning is a muslin or gauze-like textile (from which turbans were made, presumably). The Turkish word for tulip is ‘lale’ and derives from the Persian. (The Lale Devri, or ‘Tulip Age’ was a twelve-year period of peace and prosperity in Turkey between 1718 and 1730.) Turks allegedly liked to decorate their turbans with tulips: was it this that gave rise to Busbecq’s misunderstanding, or were the flowers nicknamed ‘tulips’ because they had a turban shape? Either way, by the 1570s, the word had been adopted into most European languages as the designator of the flower (though ‘tulipant’ remained the word for a turban): tulip (Eng.), tulipe (Fr.), tulipano (It.), Tulpe (Ger.), tulp (Dutch).
So it looks as though we have to blame Busbecq not only for this false etymology, but also for Tulip Mania (on which see an article in Harper’s Magazine of 1876, which mentions a fabulous blue/white tulip called Miss Fanny Kemble) in the seventeenth-century Netherlands, to say nothing of my own very expensive bulb habit. Of course, if it hadn’t been Busbecq, some other traveller of a botanical bent would have made similar discoveries, but it’s very unlikely that they would have been written up in such a fascinating and readable account.