Majorca to the British Museum: The places that inspired The Serpent Papers

Majorca to the British Museum: The places that inspired The Serpent Papers

1.  Puig de Randa, Majorca
While many associate Majorca with sand and sea, I think of monasteries and machinations of medieval empires. My favourite historical site is Puig de Randa is a lone mountain in the southern stretch of Majorca known locally as the muntanya mistica, or mystical mountain. And it’s easy to see why. Puig de Randa boasts one of the most heart-stopping views around and is the home of three sanctuaries – Santuari de la Nostra Senyora de Cura, Santuari de Nostra Senyora de Gràcia, and L’Ermita de Sant Honorat. I came here in 2012, when The Serpent Papers was a nascent idea that kept me up at night. I had developed an idiosyncratic fascination with the medieval writer and philosopher Ramon Llull, who lived on Puig de Randa during his intimate hermitage in the late 13th century. Legend had it that Llull received a vision of a divine language here, living in his cave on the western flank of the mountain. This vision developed into his Ars Magna ­­– one of the great triumphs of his career. Standing in front of the Cova del Beat Ramon Llull, (a tiny cave you can visit on Puig de Randa) I began to invent an alternative history, circling around an alchemist who rescued a tongueless on women on this slope centuries ago.
 
2. Valldemossa, Majorca
A breathtaking village high in the Majorca’s wild Serra de Tramuntana (a coastal mountain range and UNESCO World Heritage Site). Famous for its Carthusian Monastery, Valldemossa’s illustrious visitors have included Rubén Darío and Jorge Luis Borges. I stayed here in November of 2012 looking for echoes of Ramon Llull, who walked the valley in contemplation. Recommended reading if you make the trek? George Sand’s A Winter on Majorca. The French writer sojourned in Valldemossa with her lover Frédéric Chopin and his piano. A century or so later, the English poet Robert Graves moved just up the road to Deià (if you didn’t already need a reason to pack The White Goddess into your suitcase). All of which serves to qualify this sleepy, mountain village as an epicentre of awesomeness.
 
3. El Teatre Lliure, Barcelona
In my novel, Natalia Hernández and Orio Duran are both actors at the Theatre of National Liberation in Barcelona – but this a theatre of invention (it’s history along with its location deliberately porous). The Theatre of National Liberation takes inspiration from the Teatre Lliure – or Free Theatre – a bastion of Catalan dramatic culture resting at the foot of Montjuïc. Founded in 1976, the big Lliure is now located across from the Institut del Teatre, the drama school I attended for my masters in 2010. We got cheap tickets as students at the Lliure and I took full advantage of the opportunity. I felt my soul dip and soar and expand as I watched the plays unfold before me, often alone in the audience, filled with an insatiable curiosity.
 
4. The London International Palaeography Summer School
This takes place every June at Senate House – just north of the British Museum in Bloomsbury. Hosted by the Centre for Manuscript and Print Studies at the University of London, the summer school consists of a series of intensive courses in manuscript studies and palaeography. Next summer the listings include codicology, vernacular editing and the making of illuminated manuscripts. It’s open to everyone – and if you’ve ever had a hankering curiosity about the nuts and bolts of devotional or liturgical manuscripts, I can’t recommend it enough. You do have to fill out an application and pay to attend, but you don’t have to be a professor or a post-graduate to enjoy the experience. Perks include a short-term membership to the Senate House Library where you can spend summer hours with facsimiles of palimpsests (should the passion move you) and dry little sandwiches for lunch.
 
5. The Enlightenment Gallery at the British Museum
Housed in the stunningly restored former home of the library of King George III, the Enlightenment Gallery opened in 2003. The rich oak and mahogany floor, gilded balconies, and exquisite plasterwork add to the magical feel of an evocative space devoted to the history of the Enlightenment. When I returned to London, I spent hours here looking for sibyls and snakes, gravitating to the cases of Religion and Ritual, Art and Civilisation and Ancient Scripts. In time I dreamed up Captain Ruthven, the 19th century scholar of the mysterious alchemist Rex Illuminatus. My favourite objects on display are intimate in comparison to the bulk of many of the treasures in the British Museum. Diminutive in scale, but powerful in scope of imagination. Highlights include Dr. Dee’s Mexica Mirror & Champollion’s notes on translating hieroglyphs. Come early enough on a weekday morning and the entire gallery will be yours to explore in relative solitude.
 
The Serpent Papers by Jessica Cornwell is out on 29th January from Quercus for £14.99.