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HOLMES AND THE PONTIFF PART 1

“I WAS EXCEEDINGLY preoccupied by that little affair of the Vatican cameos,” Sherlock Holmes said, “and in my anxiety to oblige the Pope I lost touch with several interesting English cases.” This, according to no less than Holmes chronicler Dr. John H. Watson in his account of The Hound of the Baskervilles, 1902.

Watson makes no other mention of this pontifical affair, but fortunately the eminent Sherlockian Michael Harrison offers details in his authoritative book, The World of Sherlock Holmes.

The World of Sherlock Holmes, Michael Harrison, Dutton & Co., 1975.

According to Harrison’s whimsy, with even some historical facts, the tale involves salacious art of the second century A.D., a Pontifical Navy founded in 849 with a possible link to Holmes kin 900 years later, Hussars marauding the Vatican in 1849, and then a London auction almost 40 years later that led to an amateur art collector’s revelation. There’s also a complex love match involving Queen Victoria’s grandson Eddy. And a tit-for-tat on the part of the reigning pontiff, Leo XIII.

Who says Sherlockian research is boring? And no wonder this SimanaitisSays recounting calls for Parts 1 and 2, today and tomorrow.

Sherlock Holmes, the world’s first consulting detective. Portrait by Sidney Paget, c. 1891. Image from The World of Sherlock Holmes.

Author! Author! Michael Harrison, pen name of Maurice Desmond Rohan, 1907–1991, was a Sherlockian scholar and author of, among other books, In the Footsteps of Sherlock Holmes, 1972; and The London of Sherlock Holmes, 1972. In 1964, Harrison was honored with the title Irregular Shilling by The Baker Street Irregulars.

Holy Erotica! Harrison writes, “The cameos, Alexandrian work of the second century A.D., were of exquisite workmanship….” However, he notes that “obscenity, not the workmanship” provided their lasting aesthetic value, not to say their appeal to the Vatican, which was founded in the fourth century A.D.

Ahoy, Your Holiness! Following a Muslim raid of Rome in 843, the Marina Pontificia was formed to protect the Papal States.

Flag of the Papal Navy, the papal emblem between Sts. Peter and Paul. Image from crwflags.com.

The Papal Navy helped defeat the Saracens in the Battle of Ostia, the ancient Roman port on the Tyrrhenian coast, in 849.

The Battle of Ostia, a Raphael fresco, 1514–1515.

Holmes/Papal Links. Harrison constructs a (tenuous) papal connection based on Holmes’ comment, “My grandmother was a sister of Vernet, the French painter.” Harrison continues, “Sir Edwin [Edward?] Sherrinford, Holmes’ maternal grandfather, had married Violette, daughter of Antoine Charles Horace Vernet (1758–1835), better known as ‘Carle’ or even ‘English’ Vernet.”

Sir Edward [Edwin?] Sherrinford, identified by Harrison as “the maternal grandfather of Sherlock Holmes.” Image from The World of Sherlock Holmes.

As another example of garbled Christian names, Watson’s literary agent, Arthur Conan Doyle, once misread the detective as “Sherrinford” Holmes in an early manuscript.

Harrison continues, “But this marriage between a Vernet and an Englishman was not without precedent: … a Vernet had married, in a previous century, an Englishman with what must be the most improbable appointment in history: John Parker, Commander-in-Chief of the Naval Forces of His Holiness the Pope.”

Not only improbable, but to me unconfirmable: The Internet raises a slew of Parkers in the 18th- and 19th-century Royal Navy, but the sole John appears to lack any pontifical cred.

In any event, “What’s more natural, then,” Harrison says, “that the Vatican, knowing of Holmes’ family relationship with its former naval commander-in-chief, should appeal to Holmes’ sense of family loyalty to get the late Commander Parker’s still-surviving employers out of several messes?”

Tomorrow, even after Holmes saves His Holiness’s bacon, there’s a prenup squabble between Queen Victoria and Pope Leo XIII. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2018

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