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After peering back through the mists of time to the mythical origin of ancient Greece’s ancient center of prophecy, Dodona (which was purportedly founded by a black, talking pigeon) I bet you are asking yourself “hey wait, do black pigeons exist in nature?” The answer is a glorious and emphatic yes! The black imperial pigeon (Ducula melanochroa) is a splendid black pigeon (with a bit of white trim along its wings) which can be found living throughout the Bismarck Archipelago.

Although I found this to be of great ornithological interest, I found it to be geographically challenging.To wit, where on earth is the Bismarck Archipelago? Does Germany have a hitherto unknown chain of black-pigeon haunted isles stretching out into the Baltic? Germans will be relieved (albeit a bit disappointed) to learn that it does not. The Bismarck Archipelago obtained its name during the desperate last phase of European colonialism, when imperialists-run-amuck stuck flags (and un-regional names) on anything that wasn’t fast enough to get away from steam powered battleships. The Bismarck Archipelago is a chain of very volcanic islands off the north east coast of Papua New Guinea with a collective area which is approximately equal to Vermont and New Hampshire combined.

The discovery of a substantial part of the world wholly unknown to me is sort of a consolation prize for the fact that I can not find out very much about these black imperial pigeons (other than the fact that they exist). I doubt they had much to do with anything that was happening in Greece long ago (or ever), but it is extraordinary to see how diverse animal life is on our home planet and to know that even in the age of the internet there are entire species–and places–which keep their mysteries.



We have been talking about planned cities of the past and of the future.  Almost every urban culture in history has fantasized about how to make cities better, and some civilizations have actually put these ideas into practice (or tried to do so). But when it comes to crafting cities in the mind and then actually building them in the real world, nobody rivals China.  From the 12th century BC through the present, the world’s most populous city has, more often than not, been Chinese.  Densely populated urban environments are a defining feature of Han culture. And during all that time, strong central authority and hierarchical planning of all aspects of society has been an equally prominent aspect of Chinese civilization.

As you might imagine, such a mixture has left a long history in Chinese letters. The Kao Gongji (Kao Gong Ji) was written in the late Spring and Autumn period around 500 BC (although the oldest surviving copy only dates to 1235 AD).  The book generalizes about may different sorts of practical skills and trades, but it reserves special attention for how princes should build their capitals.

The style of these ruling cities is as imperious as you would imagine: The Kao Gongji dictates a walled palace/administrative nucleus in the center of a large capital city.  This pattern was common in many early states particularly in southern China.

To quote the book directly:

“When the builder constructs the capital, the city should be a fang (a four-sided orthogonal shape) nine li on each side with three gates each. Within the city are nine longitudinal and nine latitudinal streets, each of them 9 carriages wide. On the left (i.e. east) is the Ancestral Temple, on the right (west) are the Altars of Soil and Grain, in front is the Hall of Audience and behind the markets.”


This idea (which literally placed the king/emperor squarely at the center of all aspects of society) was put into practice in the ancient capital of Luoyi, and it manifested again and again in the layout of China’s other capitals.  Indeed, although the Mongols and the Qing had moved beyond such rudimentary urban plans, the fundamental concept is even present in Beijing.


5c17c34df71391c4e9bd07fd3bda91bbThe Brazilian Goldsmith Carlos Martin manufactured the Imperial Crown of Brazil in 1841 for the coronation of Emperor Dom Pedro II.  The crown is also known as the Diamantine Crown—because it is covered with 630 diamonds—ooh, so sparkly! I guess, the crown also has 77 large pearls too, but nobody really talks about them.  The imperial crown of Pedro II replaced the unremarkable crown of the extremely remarkable Dom Pedro I, a revolutionary and reformer who was responsible for many of the things which went right for Brazil.  We’ll have more to say about him later this week.

With 8 magnificent golden arches meeting beneath an orb and cross, the crown of Brazil echoes the crown of Portugal…and rightly so, since the great South American nation began as the most magnificent Portuguese colony (although Goa, Macau, Agola, and Mozambique were quite nice too).  Here is a picture of Emperor Pedro II looking exceedingly magnificent (and perhaps a bit silly too) as he opens the annual Parliamentary session in 1872.


So lovely was the crown of Brazil that is was the central motif of the Brazilian flag until the monarchy was abolished in 1889.  Unlike other crowns which were sold or stolen after independence, the Brazilian crown has remained in posession of the Brazilian republic and can currently be seen at the Imperial Palace in the City of Petrópolis.




Emperor Kōmei was the 121st Emperor of Japan.  He reigned (or perhaps, more accurately he “served as a titular figurehead”) from 1846 through 1867, when he died from smallpox at the age of 35. Western powers forcibly pried open Japan during the reign of Kōmei: Commodore Perry’s fleet of black ships made their famous trade visit in 1853.  The shock of this transformation allowed Kōmei to begin to wrest political power back from the shogun (a hereditary military dictator, who was the true ruler of Japan).  Kōmei’s reign thus directly paved the way for the Meiji restoration and the rapid industrialization of Japan.


The Crown of Emperor Kōmei (photo by Barakishidan)

I mention all of this as an introduction to his amazing hat.  Kōmei’s crown has survived.  It is an exquisite beaded square surmounted by a glorious sun–an unsubtle reminder that the emperor of Japan is the direct descendant of the sun-goddess Amaterasu.  The regal headdress has been sitting on a fancy shelf somewhere gathering fancy dust since 1867.



It should be noted that, in Japanese imperial tradition, crowns are not invested with the same importance as they are in European monarchies. Ironically, the real crown jewels of the Crysanthemum throne are not crowns at all.  In fact they seemingly don’t exist at all. The imperial regalia consist of a sword, a mirror, and a jewel which have been handed down since the time of Amaterasu, who used these items in the struggles which formed the world.  Yet the sword, mirror, and jewel are themselves shrouded in mystery. Not only are they reputedly of ancient supernatural construction, they have also been thrown into the sea and lost.  Most fortunately they were recovered by natural and unnatural means, however, ordinary mortals are forbidden to look at them, so nobody has seen them except some sinister aristocrat priests, who assert that they really truly almost certainly probably exist in secret locations.

So, if you are keeping score, the emperor was not really an emperor (but instead a golden mask for a squalid strongman); his ancient supernatural treasures likewise do not really exist.  This digital picture of a wacky beaded hat is just about the most real thing about the world’s most ancient monarchy.


Most of the crowns of history are gone. Long ago they were lost or broken or stolen. Kingdoms fall. Raiders and thieves carry off the crown jewels which are then picked apart and melted down for gold. Famous national symbols like crowns are also deliberately destroyed for political reasons. This blog has told the story of many such missing crowns—for example the crown of the Tudors, the crown of the kings of France, the crown of the arrogant little banker-prince of Liechtenstein, and the crown of Poland. Such is life—silly hats cannot last forever, no matter how precious their manufacture or how blood-sodden their history. Considering this, it is strange that we have the crown of one of history’s most controversial monarchs—and that said infamous crown is somehow relatively obscure.

The Crown of Napoleon

The Crown of Napoleon

Napoleon Bonaparte was one of history’s greatest conquerors. He needs no introduction, but I am going to give him a short biography anyway (ha). Bonaparte was a gifted soldier and political manipulator who rode the chaos of the French Revolution to national power at the end of the 18th century. As dictator of France from 1799 onward he proceeded to conquer most of Europe until he was defeated and permanently deposed in 1815. As ruler of France, Napoleon initially styled himself as “First Consul” but as his authority grew, he adopted the more nakedly authoritarian title of “Emperor of the French in 1804. For his coronation ceremony at Notre Dame, he needed an appropriate crown (since the traditional crown jewels of France had largely vanished during the revolution). Napoleon opted to use two crowns for the ceremony: the first was a plain gold laurel meant to evoke the imperial grandeur of ancient Rome. The second crown, however, was specially made for Bonaparte and it is this crown which still survives at the Louvre.

The Coronation of Napoleon (Jacques-Louis David, ca. 1807, oil on canvas)

The Coronation of Napoleon (Jacques-Louis David, ca. 1807, oil on canvas)

The crown of Napoleon was made in mock-medieval style with eight half arches holding up a gold globe with a cross. The reason the crown is still intact and was not sold by the French state (or stolen by Prussians or Germans) is that the precious stones in the crown are not really that precious.   Instead of diamonds, rubies, and emeralds, the crown of Napoleon was set with shell cameos and carved carnelians. These carved pieces evoked the grandeur of ancient Rome (and followed the fashion of French empire) but did not compare with the huge gaudy gems which were popular for European crowns later in the 19th century.   When Napoleon went to Saint Helena, his crown stayed in Paris, but subsequent Bourbon monarchs (and even Napoleon III) eschewed the crown for other royal symbols.

The Crown of Napoleon

The Crown of Napoleon

History’s thieves, plunderers, and auctioneers all likewise ignored the crown regarding it as a fishpaste and gilt style prop rather than an actual precious relic. It can still be found in the Louvre, a bit threadbare but not substantially the worse for wear thanks to its handicraft “Etsy” aesthetic!


In dynastic China, the color yellow was considered to be the most beautiful and prestigious color. Yellow was symbolically linked with the land itself and the turning of tao: thus yellow became associated with the mandate of heaven–the emperor’s divine prerogative over the middle kingdom. Huang Di, the mythical first emperor of China (who was worshiped as a culture hero and a powerful magician/sage) was more commonly known as “the yellow emperor”. Yellow was extensively employed in the decoration of the royal palaces and the royal personage. During the Ming dynasty, when a yellow glaze was discovered for porcelain, it was initially the exclusive provenance of the imperial household.

A Ming Dynasty Stem Cup (ca. 1488-1505)

A Ming Dynasty Stem Cup (ca. 1488-1505)

Here is a stem-cup in imperial yellow from the Ming dynasty. It bears the mark of the Hongzhi period (Hongzhi reigned from 1487-1505). A five clawed dragon, the symbol of the emperor crawls along the side of the piece. The cup perfectly exemplifies the elegant lines and perfect calligraphic grace of middle Ming aesthetic ideas. Additionally the age of the hardworking and morally upstanding Hongzhi was an era of peace and happiness. Alone among all Chinese emperors in history, Hongzhi elected to marry a single wife and keep no concubines. Palace intrigues were thus kept to an all-time low (although the plan backfired somewhat when his sole heir took up a life of prodigal indulgence).

The Hongzhi Emperor in a yellow robe

The Hongzhi Emperor in a yellow robe

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June 2023