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Holy See: A peek inside the oldest embassy in the world | International

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The gala dining room of the Spanish Embassy to the Holy See in Rome hosts three fabulous 18th century wool and silk tapestries. They depict scenes from the adventures of Telemachus, made at the Royal Tapestry Factory, based on sketches by Rubens. The tapestries are supposed to recreate the arrival of the son of Ulysses to the island of Ogygia, received by Calypso, a great banquet and, finally, the disagreement and the hasty flight when he realizes the perfidious intentions of Calypso. They are also an illustrative summary of the diplomatic career, some would say: the delivery of credentials, the mundane life in the assigned place and the kick in the butt when they call from the capital to assign a new destination, who knows where. This is well remembered by the 155 different ambassadors who have represented Spain’s affairs before the Holy See, the oldest legation in the world, over the last 400 years.

Every great era has its Cold War. And the one at the time was being waged in the center of the Italian peninsula. It was a battle for control and influence in the greatest spiritual center of the West, which was then in Rome and belonged to the Papal States. Italy and Spain were on opposite sides of that contest. The epicenter of that political, economic and religious battle was halfway up a small Roman hillside. Above were the French. And below, in what would become a definitive conquest, the Spanish. That was when the Catholic Monarchs decided to move the permanent seat of their embassy to the Holy See. A move that allowed the renaming one of the most famous squares in Rome today – Piazza di Spagna, until then called Piazza Trinitatis – and to establish what would be known in today’s parlance as their flagship store.

One of the rooms of the Spanish embassy to the Holy See.
One of the rooms of the Spanish embassy to the Holy See.

On Tuesday, Isabel Celaá, the current incumbent, presided over another chapter of the commemorative events that opened earlier this year with an installation by painter Esteban Villalta Marzi. Celaá, Spain’s former minister of education, took up her new post just a few months ago. But the list of ambassadors is long: from Garcilaso de la Vega (senior) to Angel Sanz Briz, known as the Angel of Budapest, who died in the palace in 1980 and whose name appears in the Garden of the Righteous for saving more than 6,000 Jews by issuing false passports when he was Spain’s consul in Hungary. At first, they were called orators, pontiffs who built bridges between one state and another. And one of the first chosen was Gonzalo de Beteta, whom the Catholic Monarchs sent in 1480 to Rome, the arbitrator for 15 centuries of these matters halfway between heaven and earth. In 1622, the Duke of Alburquerque, the first to do so with a fixed seat, moved in. And the decision entailed renting and then buying the Monaldeschi palace, home of the Spanish embassy from that moment. Thus, France and Spain were separated in the center of Rome by a staircase between the Church of Tirinità dei Monti and the new Spanish emblem.

The diplomatic adventure then ran from the hand – and the pocket – of the ambassador on duty. One had to be a nobleman or a great aristocrat to make a full-fledged investment that granted a sort of passport to the Viceroyalty of Naples, as Letizia Rodriguez, personal secretary of Spanish ambassadors for 36 years and one of the people who knows this Baroque palace best, notes as she walks through the rooms of the headquarters. The Count of Oñate bought the building in 1647 for 22,000 Roman escudos of the time (four people could live on four escudos for a month). He then had it completely remodeled by Francesco Borromini. The artist designed the entrance gallery, the vault of the main hall, the courtyard and the imposing square staircase, which broke with traditional schemes. In this way, and after a significant investment, it became something like a royal court, in which the ambassador felt like a monarch in his own right and was even allowed to greet visitors lying on the zampanaro, a kind of bed.

'Alma salvada' (left) and 'Alma condenada', the two busts by Bernini that the embassy houses.
‘Alma salvada’ (left) and ‘Alma condenada’, the two busts by Bernini that the embassy houses.

The political and propagandistic dimension of the headquarters was enormous. Beyond baptizing the square with the name of Spain – only two other palaces achieved the same, those of Venice and Florence – the embassy became a fabulous cultural center. Velázquez painted The Forge of Vulcan in what was once the bakery and is now the laundry and a center of cultural patronage. It was mainly during the 17th century and the period of the cardinal ambassadors (Francesco and Troiano Aquaviva) that the embassy attracted guests such as Casanova and, among other things, the chapel was built that still houses the delicate relics of St. Letancio, the incorrupt little body of a boy about nine years old (it has just been checked by a pathologist who has confirmed that everything is still in order), a martyr of Carthage in the year 180. A gift from Pope Clement XI, the relics might seem somewhat disturbing today, but at the time they were an extraordinary present. Today, too, they seem so in the midst of a sobriety that is broken only by the occasional parties organized by the cultural advisor on duty, traditionally located in the premises of this embassy.

Most of the rooms – with the legend of the ghost Friar Piccolo included – are lined with the fabric still woven by a factory in Caserta for Buckingham Palace and the White House. The heritage accumulated among those red quilts is incalculable, although there is little doubt that the two works sculpted by a young Bernini in 1619, Condemned Soul and Saved Soul, are the pinnacle of the embassy. The two busts rest in a room accessed through the collection of 36 Flemish, French and Italian tapestries – three of them from 1522 – deposited in 1921 by Antonio de Orleans Bourbon, Duke of Galiera, with this note: “To keep them from bad-faith creditors.” That is, so that they would not be seized over debts.

The Church’s unit of measurement is the century, but the mission to the Holy See will continue to celebrate its fourth centenary in the remaining months of the year. When everything passes, its walls will continue to see all kinds of diplomats and ambassadors, who will perhaps feel like monarchs, but for whom it would be convenient to carefully observe that triptych of Telemachus and Calypso to remember that in Rome, most of them are just passing through.

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Britney Spears responds to ex-husband’s ‘hurtful’ claims that her children don’t want to see her | Culture

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Singer Britney Spears responded on Sunday to claims made by her ex-husband Kevin Federline about her relationship with their two children, Sean Preston, 16, and Jayden James, 15.

In an interview which will be aired on ITV news, Federline said that the two teens had not seen their mother for months. “The boys have decided they are not seeing her right now. It’s been a few months since they’ve seen her. They made the decision not to go to her wedding,” he said, as reported by The Daily Mail.

In June last year, Spears married personal trainer Sam Asghari. The ceremony was attended by personalities such as Donatella Versace, Madonna, Paris Hilton, Drew Barrymore and Selena Gomez, but not her closest family or children. After the wedding, Spears and Asghari bought a house, valued at $10 million, near Federline’s home.

Federline, a former dancer, had a tumultuous romance with Britney Spears in 2014. The two met while recording a music and started dating. They were soon engaged and married just three months later. But the pair divorced two years later, citing “irreconcilable differences.” Federline has since married volleyball player Victoria Prince, with whom he has two daughters.

In the interview, Federline blamed the alleged fallout between Spears and her children on the singer’s Instagram account, which often features revealing photos. “‘Look, maybe that’s just another way she tries to express herself,’” Federline explained as what he has said to his sons. “But that doesn’t take away from the fact of what it does to them. It’s tough. I can’t imagine how it feels to be a teenager having to go to high school.”

Federline also spoke about the controversial legal conservatorship that gave Spears’ father, Jamie Spears, complete legal control over her finances and day-to-day existence from its signing in 2008 to its end in November last year. According to the former backup dancer, the conservatorship “saved” the singer. “This whole thing has been hard to watch, harder to live through, harder to watch my boys go through than anything else,” he said in reference to the process to end the guardianship.

But Spears has denied Federline’s “hurtful” claims. “It saddens me to hear that my ex-husband has decided to discuss the relationship between me and my children,” wrote Spears. “It concerns me the fact that the reason is based on my Instagram … it was LONG before Instagram … I gave them everything. Only one word: HURTFUL.”

The singer added that her mother advised her to give her children to Federline while she was under the conservatorship.

Spears’ new husband Asghari also rejected the claims. “There is no validity to his statement regarding the kids distancing themselves and it is irresponsible to make that statement publicly. The boys are very smart and will be 18 soon to make their own decisions and may eventually realize the ‘tough’ part was having a father who hasn’t worked much in over 15 years as a role model.”

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Margot Robbie’s self-confessed ambition has made her the highest paid actress of the year | Culture

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Self-doubt is Margot Robbie’s greatest motivator, and competes with ambition in the Australian actress’s psyche. She couldn’t believe her own eyes when she first saw herself on a giant ad for the Pan Am TV series in New York’s Times Square. “I still have the photo,” she told EL PAÍS a few years ago, somewhat wistful for the days when she was still a nobody. The script of The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), the Martin Scorsese film that put her on the map, touted her as “the most beautiful blonde in the world,” but she didn’t believe the hype. “I remember saying to a friend, ‘I haven’t worked in six weeks.’ I’m sure there’s nothing out there for me,” laughed Robbie. But Hollywood didn’t share her skepticism. In July, Variety magazine ranked Robbie as the highest paid actress of the year when her US$12.5 million salary for the upcoming Barbie movie was announced.

Margot Robbie may be this year’s highest paid actress, but 17 men made even more money, led by Tom Cruise who was paid US$100 million for Top Gun: Maverick. Her Barbie love interest, Ryan Gosling, was paid the same as Robbie, even though she has the titular role, more evidence that pay parity in Hollywood is far from being a reality. Robbie ranked ahead of Millie Bobby Brown (US$10 million for the Enola Holmes sequel); Emily Blunt (US$4 million for Oppenheimer); Jamie Lee Curtis (US$3.5 million for Halloween Ends); and Anya Taylor-Joy (US$1.8 million for Furiosa).

Robbie’s misgivings about her career aren’t shared by other industry giants. Martin Scorsese compared her to Carole Lombard for her comedic genius, Joan Crawford for her toughness, and Ida Lupino for her emotional range. He described Robbie as having a surprising audacity, and recalls how she clinched her role in The Wolf of Wall Street by stunning everyone with a tremendous, improvised slap of Leonardo DiCaprio during her audition.

Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling during the filming of director Greta Gerwig's Barbie in California, June 2022.
Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling during the filming of director Greta Gerwig’s Barbie in California, June 2022.MEGA (GC Images)

Robbie showed the same boldness when she lobbied director Quentin Tarantino for another role opposite DiCaprio in Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood (2019). She sent the director a letter telling him how much she admired his films, especially her all-time favorite, True Romance (1993). The letter probably wasn’t necessary, as Tarantino already had the I, Tonya star in mind to play Sharon Tate in his new movie, describing her to EL PAÍS as an actress with a visual dynamism and personal qualities that you don’t see every day.

Robbie has wanted to work in movies ever since her start in Neighbours, the long-running Australian TV series that is coming to an end after 9,000 episodes and 37 years on the air. “Of course I’m ambitious. My career motivates me. I came to the United States with a plan, and I’m always looking ahead,” she told us. Even as a child growing up in Queensland (northeastern Australia), Margot Elise Robbie displayed her business smarts and drama queen chops when she decided to sell all her brother’s old toys from the sidewalk in front of the family home.

She jokes about her childhood, but part of that little girl always comes out in the wide variety of characters she plays. She has had all kinds of roles in little-known films like Suite Française and Z for Zachariah, and also in box-office hits like Suicide Squad and Birds of Prey. She won Oscar nominations for playing driven women in I, Tonya (2018) and Bombshell (2020). “Yes, many of the women I’ve played share my ambition – this is a tough industry. But I’m full of doubt like anyone else. You never know how things will turn out,” she said.

 Margot Robbie and her husband, Tom Ackerley, at Vanity Fair magazine’s Oscars party, March 2018.
Margot Robbie and her husband, Tom Ackerley, at Vanity Fair magazine’s Oscars party, March 2018. Jon Kopaloff (WireImage)

Seeking more control over her films, Robbie founded production company LuckyChap Entertainment in 2014 with her husband, British filmmaker Tom Ackerley, and some friends. She hopes to use LuckyChap as a vehicle for herself and other actresses, as she did with Promising Young Woman starring Carey Mulligan, a black comedy thriller film that won writer/director Emerald Fennell an Oscar for best original screenplay. “Margot is an extraordinary person,” said Fennell. “That’s why she’s doing so well as a producer who is determined to try different things and give women a voice.”

Robbie met British assistant director Tom Ackerley on the set of Suite Française in 2013. They began a romantic relationship the next year and moved in together right after attending their first Golden Globes gala for The Wolf of Wall Street. Married since 2016, the couple and co-workers in LuckyChap have a bright future ahead, judging by all the work that is piling up for Robbie. In addition to Barbie, she will appear in Amsterdam, directed by David O. Russell; as silent film star Clara Bow in Babylon, directed by Damien Chazelle; and has a role in Wes Anderson’s Asteroid City. As if that wasn’t enough to keep Robbie busy, a remake of Ocean’s Eleven awaits her; she will play opposite Matthew Schoenaerts in the post WWII drama, Ruin; produce a remake of Tank Girl; and play a female Jack Sparrow in another installment of Pirates of the Caribbean. Surely Margot Robbie doesn’t have any more doubts about her career.

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Salem’s last witch regains her honor | Culture

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As statues of slave owners and slave traders continue to fall in the United States, the embers of the bonfires that burned women accused of committing spells and witchcraft are also being extinguished. In the umpteenth revision of history to try to exonerate the victims, the most recent episode concerns the last official Salem witch, Elizabeth Johnson Jr., from the massive 1692 and 1693 trials in the English colony of Massachusetts. Thanks to the initiative of a middle school teacher and her students in Andover, located in the same county as Salem, her spirit can now roam free. The enthusiastic students began the vindication process in 2020 and persuaded Massachusetts state senator Diana DiZoglio (D), who took up the cause and pushed for Johnson’s pardon, which was announced last week.

It has taken 329 years for Elizabeth Johnson Jr.’s name to be cleared definitively. She was the last of the Salem witches to be exonerated. While Johnson was spared a death by hanging, she was stigmatized until she died at 77, an uncommonly long life for the time. Historians say that Johnson showed signs of mental instability and was single and childless, all of which were signs of witchcraft during that period. She pled guilty before the court of inquisitors. Almost 30 members of her extended family were also implicated, as if witchcraft were contagious, hereditary, or both. Johnson, her mother, several aunts and her grandfather, a church pastor, were tried as well. According to historian Emerson Baker, the author of a book about the Salem witch trials, her grandfather described Johnson to the judges as a “simplish person at best.” Most likely, the judges would have equated “simplish” with different during that superstitious and pre-scientific period.

The fact that Johnson didn’t have any descendants deprived her of anyone to vindicate her good name, as relatives of the other defendants did. The first attempt to do so happened at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Then, in the 1950s, Massachusetts passed a law exonerating those found guilty, but it failed to gather all the names. A 2001 attempt at justice excluded Johnson because, after her conviction in 1693, she was formally presumed to be dead (executed).

The social hysteria against everything that deviated from the norm, against the minimal exercise of free will, was implacable against women, as Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible (the playwright adapted it for the big screen in 1996) and recent variations remind us. The theme lends itself very well to artistic creation, but in real life it amounted to opprobrium for those who suffered it and represented a cause for scorn among puritans.

Illustration of the 1692 trial of two Salem witches. The Granger Collection.
Illustration of the 1692 trial of two Salem witches. The Granger Collection.The Granger Collection / cordon press

Salem was more than a witch trial. According to historians, it was a collective exorcism fueled by a puritanical inquisition based on paranoia and xenophobia, a gratuitous auto de fe that unleashed people’s worst instincts: fear and the human tendency to blame others for one’s own misfortunes. At least 172 people were indicted in the 1692 trial. About 35% confessed their guilt and were spared the gallows; according to sources, around twenty insisted on claiming their innocence and did not escape that fate. The rest of the detainees were acquitted or sentenced to prison. The Salem witch trials represented a collective bogeyman through which one can foresee the later threat of the Ku Klux Klan. It is hard not to wonder what bonfires would have burned today on the pyre of social media and extreme polarization.

The great Salem witch hunt can be re-read through the prism of gender. As the adage goes, se non è vero è ben trovato (Even if it is not true, it is well conceived). Witches, like those in Salem and the woman in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter (made into a film in the 1950s), were demonized for going off the rails. The dominant society’s puritanical stance against any kind of heterodoxy or freestyling, against rebels with or without a cause, led people to be targeted for dressing exotically by puritanical standards or for daring to drink at a tavern, a sacrilege for the morals of the day. It’s not difficult to draw a straight line from the bonnet of a witch on the gallows to the handmaid’s white bonnet in Margaret Atwood’s novel: all were women who were demonized, objectified, and scapegoated for deeper ills.

Beyond gender, other historians emphasize the socioeconomic dimension of the Salem witch trials, which combined a deep-seated inequality with racism, the United States’ original sin since well before the Declaration of Independence. The trials targeted colonial society’s most vulnerable during a period of economic instability that unleashed fierce rivalry among Salem families. According to historian Edward Bever, society was permeated by interpersonal conflict, much of it stemming from competition over resources. People did whatever they could to survive, from physical aggression to threats, curses, and insults. One of the first women accused, Sarah Osborne, was a poor widow who dared to claim her husband’s land for herself, defying the customary laws of nature, which granted the inheritance to sons. The accusation of witchcraft ended Osborne’s claim. Tituba, an indigenous slave, was accused of being a witch because her racial origins differed from the norm. Sarah Good was also poor, but she defended herself against the humiliations of her neighbors, which led her to the gallows; her daughter, Dorothy Dorcas Good, was Salem’s youngest victim: she was arrested at only four years old and spent eight months in prison.

Since then, history has not changed the fact that vulnerable women pay the price for circumstances beyond their control. That the Puritans of the time considered women—the evil heirs of Eve —prone to temptations such as the desire for material possessions or sexual gratification was only an added factor. Poor, homeless, and childless, these women in the shadow of society’s dominant morality were fodder for the gallows. But Elizabeth Johnson Jr. didn’t just manage to save her life; 329 years later she recovered her honor as well.

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