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So, for those of you who like fancy tiaras and/or heists, here is a fascinating story from Karlsruhe, a city in southwest Germany. At the end of April, a thief (or multiple thieves?) entered the Badisches Landesmuesum, a Baroque Palace which contains historical artifacts from many different eras of German history and brazenly jimmied open a display case containing the tiara of Grand Duchess Hilda of Baden. The diamond crown was apparently stolen during museum hours by a deft thief with the furtiveness and dexterity to defeat the 21stCentury security apparatus of the museum (although the police have precious few leads, so maybe it was more of an inside job than it sounds like).

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The tiara was made in 1906/1907 out of white gold, platinum, and 367 diamonds. It isn’t my favorite tiara, but it has a certain elegance, and it is valuable. I wouldn’t turn up my nose if some archduke gave it to me (though I don’t covet it enough to walk into a museum full of people with a slim jim and wiggle it out of its case while I pretended to look at velvet gloves and fancy hood ornaments). I guess I am impressed that somebody can still do such things though.
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Bluebells in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden

This blog has described cherry blossoms as one of the crowning beauties of spring, but there is a darker and more haunting beauty of the season which might possess equal floral splendor.  Bluebells are woodland flowers which need very little light.  They create dense colonies under full canopy forests where few other plants can grow.  In May, they bloom simultaneously in a shimmering ocean of lavender blue.  If cherry trees are written in a major key of pink and white, bluebells are in a minor key of silver and ultramarine shadows.  At a distance they look like a pool of some exotic liquid, but this illusion vanishes up close (an effect which tends to draw the viewer toward a goal he never reaches). Individual flowers are actually also quite attractive looking like the related hyacinths, but with each blossom hanging like, well, like a pretty little lavender bell.

Carpets of bluebells are a particularly British phenomenon. The flowers colonized Britain late in the ice age, before the seas rose; the flowers thereby avoided competition with many other European woodland plants which never naturally reached the Sceptred Isle.

Because of their otherworldly loveliness, and the way they made familiar woods seem completely alien, bluebells have an ancient and somewhat sinister place in folklore.  Bluebell woods were regarded as portals to fairyland where unwise aesthetes could be trapped between worlds—or children could be stolen outright.

Bluebells feature in Rip Van Winkle style tales of people who wander into the flowers grasping at absolute beauty only to emerge and discover the world has changed by hundreds of years and everyone they knew and loved was dead.  Another tale told about the bluebells is that anyone who hears them ring will soon die—although this story might have a hint of truth since the flowers are poisonous.  If you find yourself disoriented in the midst of a bluebell woods with your ears ringing you might be in trouble (although scientists are poring over the chemically active compounds within bluebells to see if they have potential medical applications).

Bluebells also produce a sticky sap which was used for fletching arrows and binding books in ages past when arrows and books were everyday  items.  The bulbs themselves were also ground into a starchy powder used for…get ready for it…starching Elizabethan lace ruffs.

Portrait of a Woman (Michiel Jansz van Miereveldt, 1628)

Beyond providing a dark portal to supernatural realms and stiffening ill-thought out fashion accessories, bluebells are a sign of ancient forests.  Since they outcompete other woodland plants when beneath dense shade, a large vibrant colony of bluebells indicates that the forest has stood for a long time.  Magnificent bluebell displays are rare in the new world unless you find a place which had dedicated and visionary gardeners a lifetime ago.

An anachronistic portrait of Bolesław the Brave wearing the Crown of Poland

According to legend, the first Polish monarch, Bolesław the Brave, received his crown from the hands of the Holy Roman Emperor, Otto III, in 1000 AD when the two commanders met during the Congress of Gniezno.  Bolesław was one of the greatest kings of Eastern Europe.  His sword was allegedly presented to him by an angel and he famously notched it by striking the Golden Gate of Kiev as that great fortified city fell to his army.

An anachronistic picture of Bolesław notching his sword on the gate of Kiev (Jan Matejko)

Unfortunately the crown of Bolesław was lost only a generation later.  History has speculated that it was carried off to Germany by the Queen of Poland, Richeza of Lotharingia, in 1036.  Whatever happened, the Polish monarchy remained crownless until 1320 when a new crown was crafted for the coronation of King Ladislaus the Short.  Because of this latter monarch’s unfortunate epithet, the new crown was also known as the crown of Bolesław the Brave.  This second crown was carried off by Louis I of Hungary in 1370 but found its way back to Wawel (the seat of Polish royal power) in 1410.  During the Swedish Deluge of the mid seventeenth century, when Poland was invaded and occupied by their cold northern neighbors, the crown was hidden away in Spiš.

The Partitions of Poland

Unfortunately Poland has never lacked for bad neighbors: in 1793 Russia and Prussia arranged the Second Partition of the Commonwealth of Poland which divided Polish territory between the two nations. Poland, which had already been stripped of substantial territory by Austria, Prussia, and Russia back during the partition of 1772, effectively ceased to exist. This situation was unbearable to Tadeusz Kościuszko, the American Revolutionary hero (famous today for the delicious mustard which bears his name).  In 1794, Kościuszko lead a great peasant uprising against the armies of Prussia and Russia.  Kościuszko’s rebellion failed gloriously.  Poland was completely divided by Austria, Russia, and Prussia.  The Polish crown was stolen by the Prussian army (as were the rest of the Polish crown jewels).  These treasures were held by the Prussian king until 1809 when he had them melted down and made into coins.  The jewels were given away to the Directorate of Maritime Trade in Berlin.

The Modern Reproduction of the Crown of Poland

A restoration of the crown of Bolesław the Brave was constructed in 2001 out of Prussian gold, imperfect emeralds, synthetic rubies, and cultured pearls.  This new (third?) crown of Bolesław is kept with the one original item from the crown jewels, the notched sword, Szczerbiec, which has somehow survived the tumultuous history of Poland. The sword was owned by a series of Western European collectors during the nineteenth century, returned to Poland by the Soviet Union in 1928, and kept in Canada from World War II until 1959.  Interestingly Szczerbiec is not the original item either. Bolesław’s original sword was lost in the middle ages (carried off by a disgruntled queen as well?) and the ornamental coronation sword which exists today was commissioned by Ladislaus the Short in the 14th century.  The sword still remains controversial: Ukrainians revile the object as a symbol of hatred used by Polish nationalists to whip up anti-Ukrainian sentiments.

Szczerbiec, the notched sword

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