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Some famous snowmen in history

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While snowbound last week I reread ‘The history of the snowman’ by Bob Eckstein. The book records that an unusual cold spell hit Florence early 1494 and on 20 January the citizens awoke to find that snow had fallen heavily in the night.

The city’s young ruler, Giovanni di Lorenzo di Piero de Medici, asked a teenage friend to build a snowman in the palace courtyard. The 18-year-old obliged by creating a snow sculpture that observers reckoned was the most beautiful snowman ever made. The young sculptor was one Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, known today simply as Michelangelo.

Unfortunately, no one — not even the sculptor himself — recorded what the snowman looked like, so we will never know why this ephemeral work of art attracted such praise.

While researching his book, Bob Eckstein did manage to track down an image of a snowman from more than a century earlier than Michelangelo’s. An illuminated manuscript dated 1380, now in the Royal Library at The Hague, includes a grotesque cartoon snowman alongside a solemn passage about Jesus Christ. The earliest known drawing of a snowman, it has been interpreted as an anti-Semitic representation of a Jew being melted by fire.

Eckstein’s book also reports that the first recorded lewd snowmen (and snow-women) appeared in 1511, when the residents of Brussels, in a fit of anti-establishment anger, filled the city streets with hundreds of pornographic and political snow sculptures.

In another chapter, Eckstein’s book describes a snowman-related debacle in North America during the 1689–97 war between England and France. On 8 February 1690, 25 militiamen were on duty in Schenectady, New York State, to protect the 150 civilian inhabitants.

The weather was so cold that the village gates had frozen open. But the sentries did not believe anyone could be out and about on such a night and so went off to warm themselves, leaving two rifle-wielding snowmen on guard. The snow patrol failed to fool a 200-strong raiding party of French Canadian soldiers and Native Americans, who filed silently through the gates and ransacked and burned the village, killing 60 villagers before melting away into the night with 27 prisoners.

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