Saturday, April 21, 2012
Angelo Soliman: A Famous Mason Meets a Ghastly End
I recently gave an LEO presentation at Red Wing Lodge #8 on Angelo Soliman. I started the presentation by asking how many people had heard of Sir Isaac Newton, Prince Hall, and Benjamin Franklin. After each name that I announced I asked for a show of hands and everyone in attendance raised their hands after each named mentioned. Then I asked for a show of hands of anyone who had ever heard of Angelo Soliman. Not a hand went up, which was no surprise to me, as I had not heard of him up until a couple weeks before my presentation. Who was Angelo Soliman and why, as Masons, should we know his story?
Angelo Soliman, was born Mmadi Make was born around 1721 in what would be today's northeastern Nigeria/Cameroon. He was a member of the Kanuri ethnic tribe and at about the age of 7, was taken as a slave to Marseilles, and later taken to a house in Messina where his education was oversaw by a marchioness. He chose his name out of love of another servant girl, Angelina. In 1734 he was given as a gift to Prince Georg Christian, Furst von Lobkowitz, the imperial governor of Sicily. He was the Prince's valet and travelling companion and once saved the Prince's life in the field of battle. After the death of the Prince he was transferred to the house of Joseph Wenzel I, Prince of Liechtenstein where he rose to the rank of chief servant and tutor to the Prince's son, Aloys I. During this time he was reported to have learned six different languages.
Soliman was considered by many in Vienna to be 'exotic' as he was from Africa and it is widely considered that he was the first African to have lived in Venice. Soliman was also an educated man and was a very skilled chess player who had beaten a chess-play-automat known as the 'Turk.' The 'Turk' was actually a very good chess player seated inside the automat. It was designed by Wolfgang von Kempelen and he would tour around Europe with his invention. Soliman was also a renowned Faro player and won a huge sum, at that time, of 20,000 guilders, or about 940 current U.S. dollars. He invested most of this in a cobalt mine but last it due to the mine's poor administrative management. Shortly after he married a widow of one of Napoleon's generals which angered Liechtenstein,which led to his dismissal. Soliman purchased a small garden home and devoted most of his time studying history and science. His only child, Jospepha, was born in 1772. Upon the death of Liechtenstein, his nephew rehired Soliman and he became to tutor to his son, which brought him an annual salary of 600 guilders.
Between 1781-1786, Soliman became a member of the "True Harmony" Masonic Lodge. The Lodge had many famous members such as Mozart and Haydn. Soliman rose to the level of "Vice-Grand Master of Ceremony," what we would call the Worshipful Master in our modern-day Lodges. It was in this role that he initiated one of the biggest changes in the ritual of the Lodge, one that has reverberated down through the ages. Up until this time, the Lodge was often just a time for Brothers to get together to eat, drink, and be merry. So what did Soliman do to change all of this? He changed the ritual to allow the reading of scientific papers within the Lodge. This was a very risky thing at the time, as The Church could very easily label someone a heretic, or even worse. By implementing this change Soliman opened the door for many famous Masons to be able to speak and present ideas and theories without the fear of The Church finding out. The idea spread quickly throughout Europe and enhanced the reputation of Freemasonry being a society of intellectuals.
It was at this time that Soliman chose 'Massinissa' as his Masonic name, which alluded to the Numidic king of the same name that lived from 240-148 B.C., and was the leader of the new Numidic state, one that was made up of a culture of Carthaginian-Hellenistic roots.
Sadly, Soliman's final years were full of disappointment and tragedy and his 'exoticness' led to a ghastly ending that sounds like it could have come out of a horror novel. In 1796 his house was seized for unpaid debts and was forced to move back to the Liechtenstein Palais where, although he was retired, he was fully paid. On November 21, 1796, Soliman suffered a stroke and died of apoplexy near St. Stephen's cathedral. His body was taken to his home and a death mask was prepared before his body was taken to the Faculty of Medicine at Vienna's old University. Here, in the facility's anatomical theater, his intestines were removed, his skin and skeleton saved, and the rest of his remains were buried in a cemetery on the outskirts of Vienna two days later.
A famed sculptor by the name of Franz Thaller stretched Soliman's skin over a padded wooden model. The model was kept in a wooden chest that was displayed in the Imperial Library as part of it's natural history display. Here his remains resided for ten years before it was used in displays with stuffed wild animals and the stuffed body of a little African girl and the former African zookeeper of the Vienna Zoo. The bodies would be dressed in what was considered to be 'authentic' African garb ans displayed along with the stuffed African animals. In 1848, during a resistance of students and workers, his body was lost, along with most of the museum, when a misguided magazine engulfed the building in flames.
There have been stories and rumored that have existed that Soliman wanted his remains to be preserved for future generations and that his Masonic friends had convinced him to do so. This is very hard to believe as most of his Masonic friends were shocked when they discovered what had happened to his remains. The order must have come from Franz II, the same family that Soliman had served for years. Franz had reversed a lot of the policies of Joseph II, abolishing many of his enlightenment ideas. Also, as tradition hands down through the ages, Franz II had a perverse addiction to human flesh, not unlike the Nazi's who would later make book bindings, lampshades, etc., out of human skin.
Soliman left a lasting legacy that is still being felt today. Aside from his initiating the reading of scientific papers in Lodge, he was also rumored to be the inspiration for Mozart's characters Monostatos, in the 'Golden Flute,' and Bassa Selim, in 'The Abduction from Seraglio.' He is also the inspiration for the character of disgraced servant boy in Robert Musil's novel, 'The Man Without Qualities,' written about the end of the Austrian monarchy. The Wien Museum featured an exhibit last year, entitled 'Soliman: An African in Venice' and it was very well received. I hope that even more is discovered about Soliman in the years to come!
If anyone would like to present a LEO presentation to their Lodge on Angelo Soliman, I do have a power-point presentation that I can e-mail to you.