Welcome to the Literary Road Trip and my Spotlight On . . . Mitchell James Kaplan. Mitchell is an author you will be happy to get to know. His debut, By Fire, by Water was published this last spring by Other Press.
Mitchell's historical novel centers around Luis de Santángel, the chancellor to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. The chancellor's life encompassed the Spanish Inquisition, Columbus's famous voyage, the ousting of the Muslims from Spain, and much, much more.
So, what does all this have to do with Pennsylvania? You might just be surprised. Here's Mitchell's tale. (To see Mitchell's photos full size, click on the images.)
I first came across mention of the Boal Mansion, and the desk of Christopher Columbus that supposedly resided there, while researching a novel set in fifteenth-century Spain. At the time, I lived in southern California. Although prepared to travel to Granada and Madrid, I hardly felt it necessary to stop in rural Pennsylvania to see an old table. The Genoese mariner had never set foot on the shores of North America, I knew. How could his desk, where he presumably penned the famous Journal, have ended up fifteen hundred miles north of Haiti?
A few years later, as luck would have it, I found myself living near Pittsburgh. My novel was being published. While driving home from a meeting with my editor in New York City, I noticed an exit sign that indicated the road to Boalsburg. I remembered that desk. Why not check it out? Given my changed circumstances, the overhead for such a trip would be minimal. It was only two hours from home.
I contacted the owner, Christopher Lee, to set up a visit. A direct descendant of David Boal, the Irish immigrant who began construction of the mansion nine generations ago, Christopher has made it his life’s work to restore and preserve his family’s heritage. That heritage includes the legacies of Robert E. Lee and Josephine de Beauharnais (yes, that Josephine, the wife of Napoleon), as well as Christopher Columbus.
Dressed in a T-shirt and short white pants, he meets me at the door of the home his family has occupied since 1789. As he leads me across a wide lawn, we immediately discover a shared passion for history. For Christopher as much as for me, history is personal: it’s about identity, family, roots. The soft-spoken Princeton-trained historian dwells with centuries of ghosts. He knows their habits, quirks, and stories intimately.
He pulls open the massive wooden door of a stone chapel and starts to usher me inside. I stop him, already intrigued. “This door. Tell me about it.”
“It’s from around 1600, hand-carved mahogany panels in a European oak frame,” Christopher explains. He points to one of the scenes carved into a panel. “This is a crucifixion scene, as you can see. I usually don’t point it out to visitors, because it was getting worn down from people kissing it. But since you’re Jewish, I guess you can know.” He chuckles.
Once inside, I am transported back to Spain. The chapel is crammed with paintings, statues, and furniture from the fifteenth through eighteenth centuries. “How did all this stuff get here?”
“It was brought over by my great-grandfather, on my mother’s side, Theodore Davis Boal. As a young man, he studied architecture in Paris and ended up marrying a woman named Mathilde Denis de Lagarde, whose great-grandfather was the son of Josephine and whose aunt was Victoria Montalvo, the lady-in-waiting of the queen of Spain. Victoria had married Diego Santiago Colón, a direct descendant of Christopher Columbus.”
My head is spinning, but I think I’ve captured the essence. “So your family married into the Columbus family?”
“Yes. Victoria lived in the Columbus castle in Asturias. What you see around you are the contents of the family chapel in that castle.”
It certainly looks authentic. So does Christopher. “You still haven’t explained how it got here.”
“Victoria named Mathilde in her will. In 1909, after Victoria died, Mathilde and her husband, Theodore Davis Boal, brought it all over. They had this structure built of local stone to house it. The dimensions are approximately the same as those of the chapel in the castle.”
I’ve been in the homes of industrialists, surgeons, and politicians, but I’ve never seen anything like this. Christopher confirms matter-of-factly: “It’s certainly the most significant Columbus family collection in North America.”
Yeah, I reflect, as in the only one.
At the end of the chapel stands an altar decorated with paintings of St. Francis of Assisi, St. Jerome, St. Bartholemew, and St. John the Evangelist. “St. Jerome’s foot is on a lion,” Christopher explains. “It looks like a monkey because in the fifteenth century, they didn’t know what a lion looked like.”
As I step toward the altar, my eye falls upon the silver reliquary at its center. “That contains pieces of the True Cross,” Christopher points out.
I turn back to him. “Excuse me?”
He nods. “It was given to Joseph Columbus by the bishop of Leon in 1817, together with a letter that I still have. The two of them were friends and advisers to the king. The bishop explains that these pieces of wood were brought to Spain from Jerusalem in the fifth century.”
I ask Christopher about the other pieces: the gold-and-silver chalice; the paintings of sybils on either side of the altar; the renaissance vestments that hang on a stand. “Remember,” he tells me. “This was a consecrated chapel in Spain, and it’s still a consecrated chapel here. It’s not just about art. It’s not just about the legacy of Christopher Columbus and his heirs. It’s also about their faith.” He shows me a kneeler, a so-called prie-dieu, on which Mathilde Denis de Lagarde’s French prayer book still sits, and a Spanish lace mantilla she may have worn.
At the back of the chapel, he opens one of the confessionals. It is filled with Columbus family documents, 165,000 pages of them, in neatly tied bundles. On parchment and paper, these archives include letters, accounts, and a 1595 manuscript on the history of Asturias, all written by hand.
“Aren’t you worried they could decompose . . . or that someone could break in and steal them?”
“We have a climate-control system with de-humidification, as well as an alarm.”
I nod, trying to look convinced. No matter what kind of security system he has, it ain’t the Beinecke rare book library, where I used to pore over medieval manuscripts while in college. Changing the subject, I point to one of the many paintings that adorn the walls. “This looks more Flemish than Spanish.”
Christopher nods. “That’s because it is. It’s called The Lamentation. Painted in 1535 by Ambrosius Benson. You’ll find other paintings by him in the Louvre and the Prado.”
I ask about a number of other objects before popping The Question. “So where is Columbus’s desk?” Looking around I don’t see anything that remotely resembles a desk.
He leads me to a large chest on a stand, with gold fittings. “This is the only artifact in North American that Christopher Columbus personally owned.”
It opens like a secretary desk. The front becomes the writing table.
“How do you know he really owned this?”
“I’ve had it dated, and it does come from that period. Besides, you see these guilded cockle shells? These are not typical decorations on a vargueno of that time. They’re the insignia of St. James of Compostela, for whom Columbus named his son Diego.”
Diego and James are indeed the Spanish and English forms of the Hebrew name Ya’akov, but this seems a weak argument. St. James of Compostela is the patron saint of all Spain, not just of Christopher Columbus.
“It comes down to family tradition,” Christopher admits. “For centuries, the family has said this desk belonged to Columbus personally. We are talking about his family after all. If you can’t put your faith in family traditions, where can you put your faith?”
That pretty much gets to the heart of it. As we walk back across the lawn, I think about Christopher’s family’s faith and my own family’s, how our two traditions have danced together and separately through the centuries, how they intersected during Columbus’s life and changed the world forever. But that’s another story.
Pretty amazing, isn't it? Well I can vouch for the story because I live about two towns over from Boalsburg and know all about the chapel and the mansion. I can only imagine Mitchell's reaction when Christopher started his personal tour. Just think, there is a direct link to By Fire, by Water not very far from my home.
The trailer for Mitchell's book is a great introduction to not only the novel but also the time period:
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Mitchell James Kaplan, a graduate of Yale, has lived and worked primarily in Paris and Los Angeles as a translator, screenwriter, and script consultant. Currently, he resides in Mt. Lebanon, Pennsylvania, with his wife and two children. Kaplan plays classical and jazz flute and is a licensed private pilot. By Fire, By Water is his first novel. To learn more about Mitchell and his novel, be sure to visit his website.
For more posts in the Literary Road Trip project, visit the LRT link page. Thanks to Jenn of Jenn's Bookshelves for hosting this fabulous project.