Saturday, April 12, 2014


«Κάτσι βρε πιδάκι’μ  για όνουμα τ’Θιού να σι χτινήσου. Τούφις τούφις γίνκαν τα μαλλιά’ς!» It was with these words that my grandmother would initiate a daily chase around the house, brandishing a particularly gruesome hairbrush. Having finally cornered me in the bathroom, she would then proceed to attack my tangled locks with gusto, tearing away at the knots with the enthusiasm of a master sheep shearer, as I struggled ineffectually against her apron. A brisk tap on the head with the end of the brush signified the end of my trial and I would be despatched, teary eyed and smooth scalped, into the garden. For some reason though, the word toupha, meaning a clump of hair, came to signify an article of exquisite torture, leading me to cringe every time we would sing the carol: «τούφες χιόνι πέφτουνε στο παραθυράκι» during Greek school Christmas pageants. Instead of warm fires and Father Christmas as evoked by the carol, I would conjure up images of demented snowmen coming in through the window attacking my hair with iron rakes.  Even today, I cannot utter the word toufa without a sense of uneasiness and foreboding.

Paradoxically enough, the word 头发, pronounced tóufa, actually does mean hair in Mandarin Chinese, leading at least one crackpot Greek linguist to raise this as proof that the soldiers of Alexander the Great not only reached China, but also set up a chain of successful hairdressing shops throughout the length and breadth of the Middle Kingdom. The truth of course is that tóu means head, and fa means hair, signifying head hair, for Chinese does make a distinction between different types of hair to be found on the body.

Our modern  toupha, on the other hand, comes from the Byzantine Greek τοῦφα or τουφίον, being  a plumage of the hair or bristles of exotic animals, used to decorate horsemen's helmets and emperors' crowns. As the headdress developed, most probably under Persian influence, it gradually became increasingly elaborate, sporting such exotic additions as peacock feathers, as Byzantine Emperors sought to increase their prestige and street credibility.

One of our earliest depictions of the toupha come from the restlessly itinerant Italian humanist and antiquarian  Cyriaco of Ancona, in the thirteenth century. When he was in Constantinople, he attempted to sketch as best he could the gigantic bronze statue of the Emperor Justinian. Said imposing megastatue was made of gilded bronze, and stood on a column 50 metres high. The most remarkable thing about the statue itself,  other than its size, was the headdress, which Cyriaco was pleased to learn, was called a toupha. Particularly imposing in size, this toupha had fallen from the statue in the ninth century and was artfully replaced through the employment of some dangerous acrobatics. A  rope was stretched between the roof of the Great Church of Hagia Sophia and the summit of the column by means of an arrow along which someone could tightrope-walk to the statue. The emperor Theophilus, a known connoisseur of the toupha,  rewarded the intrepid tightrope-walker with 100 gold nomismata for this tremendous exploit, though his disdained from doffing his toupha to him.
The toupha had been in use for quite a while before Justinian. Coins from the reign of Empreror Constantius II (337-361) show him wearing one, along with a tuft of hair at the front that looks like the crest of an ancient Greek helmet. Thus when Justinian came along, some two centuries years later, the wearing of the toupha had by then become a well- established component of imperial paraphernalia, to be worn when an emperor rode in procession to celebrate a triumph, oblivious as to how hair loss specialists of the future would be inspired by the wearing of the toupha, to create their own strand by strand hair replacement treatments, thus providing retired cricketers with a secure livelihood.

 Gradually, in colloquial language, toupha or typha came to mean a tiara, and the twelfth century historian, Joannes Zonaras, even records that a verb, τυφόομαι, meaning "to be filled with extreme arrogance”, was derived from it, much as we would remark that someone has a “big head,” today.

Representations of the toupha survive also in woven form. One hundred and seventy years ago, an extraordinary piece of fabric was discovered in Bamburg, Germany, in the tomb of Gunther, Bishop from 1057 to 1065. The bishop was buried with a brilliantly coloured tapestry he had obtained in Constantinople, depicting a tyche , or representation of Constantinople,  presenting a toupha to either the emperor John I Tzmiskes  or Basil II the Bulgar-Slayer, as a rewarding for defeating the Bulgarians. In a form that pre-dates similar civic allegories that would later be adopted in Venice, the tyche appears to be adorned as a bride, the tapestry thus stressing that the Emperor is married to the City, much as the Doge of Venice annually through his ring into the Venetian lagoon, symbolizing Venice’s marriage to the sea.  The hapless cleric did not live to enjoy his remarkable souvenir. He died while on his Constantinopolitan pilgrimage and his toupha tapestry was buried with him.

 One of the last wearers of the toupha would have been the second-last Emperor, John VIII Palaiologos, who wore his toupha as part of his sales pitch, as he toured Western Europe in search of funds and an army to help him repel the Ottoman onslaught.   His elaborate costume, (costume being the operative word as the jewels in his get up were made of glass, the emperors having pawned their rocks a long time ago in order to prop up their tottering realm) captured the imagination of Florentines, when in 1439, the Emperor John attended the Council of Florence, there to work out the details of a union between the Eastern and Western Churches. Young artists such as Benozzo Gozzoli, felt compared to portray the picturesque emperor, in all his imperial finery.

 Twenty years after the conclusion of the Council of Florence, Benozzo Gozzoli painted his remarkable frescoes in the Chapel of the Magi, in the Medici Palace. One of the Magi in his ‘Adoration of the Magi’ is definitely inspired by the Emperor John, whom he portrayed  sporting  carefully curled hair, exotic Eastern robes, imperial red buskins, and a toupha , this time in the form of a crown bejewelled with the rubies and pearls with red, white, and green feathers. It is not known to what extent Gozzoli’s representation of the toupha is authentic or whether he sought to improve or augment the one he saw the emperor wear. Some scholars speculate that the Emperor did not wear the toupha in Florence, which was the scene of his humiliation, claiming that had he worn such an exotic headpiece, Florentine artists would have flocked en masse to represent it.

 From elaborate headpiece that survives today only in the Mardi Gras and in the modern Greek parlance, to tufts of matted and knotted hair, the toupha has had a long and venerable history. One can only surmise whether the history of the Greek monarchy could have been any different, had the kings of old resolved to don the toupha and out-trump all but the campest of politicians, in the glamour stakes, or had Kolokotronis, possessor of a not so insignificant toupha himself, had assumed control of Greece and adopted it as part of his official regalia. For the latter days are inexpressibly, unbearably, unaesthetic.

First published in NKEE on Saurday 12 April 2014