Tomb of Dracula?

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Well, no, it isn’t.

UPDATE 3 (2020!) – I’ve since realised that Vlad III is almost certainly not buried at Snagov either. See this article.

UPDATE 2 – This article received a lot of online media attention, but somehow I didn’t receive a pingback from Discovery News. Their coverage can be found here.

UPDATE 1 – Not long after I posted this, another sceptic weighed in and managed to spot that the tomb in question is indeed well-known – unsurprisingly given the context, it’s one of the Ferrillo family, Matteo Ferrillo, Count of Muro. There’s absolutely no doubt about it, and anyone from the church in question, or any Italian medieval scholar, could have told the ‘researchers’ this. Unbelievable nonsense that once again, the press fail to fact-check in any way.

It’s been a while, but this one’s brought me out of First World War-related work to comment. The Daily Mail (sigh) is reporting that the grave of Vlad III – the historical Dracula – may have been found. There’s little to go on, though a full view of the tomb in question can be seen here. The tomb was noted by a university student, but the connection is being made by one Raffaello Glinni. He’s the claimant here, and you’ve not heard the last of him…

There are basic errors with the piece – Vlad was not a ‘Count’ like his fictional namesake, he was a voivode (prince). The ‘Carpathians’ were not a Transylvanian family as the 4th image in the Mail gallery implies, they are a mountain range! I can’t wait to see the reality TV show ‘Keeping Up With the Carpathians’. Dracula did not ‘disappear’ in battle, but was likely decapitated and buried at Snagov monastery (though there is some question over this). But these are incidental. The claim itself is built on a premise that is by no means certain, namely that Vlad III had a daughter who supposedly decamped to Italy as a child, at some point ransomed Vlad (by all accounts quite dead by this point) back, and had him buried in a church in Naples. This in itself is an extraordinary claim, as it’s far from clear that Vlad even had a daughter – see this tree of the House of Basarab, of which the Draculesti were a subset. No Maria, no daughter. The historical status quo is that Vlad had only sons.

This site repeats the claim and expands upon it, suggesting that the mysterious daughter was adopted by the widow of Vlad’s contemporary and fellow resistor of Ottoman rule, George Skanderbeg, and given refuge at the court of King Ferdinand I of Naples, where she changed her name to sort-of-but-not-quite conceal her heritage. ‘Maria Balsa’ supposedly means ‘Daughter of the Dragon’ in ‘Old Romanian’. As far as I can tell, whilst balaur is Romanian for ‘dragon’, ‘Bal’ certainly isn’t. Why this supposed daughter would need to conceal her identity, and if she did, why she’d choose a Romanian-derived name, are anyone’s guesses. It’s claimed that both men were members of the Order of the Dragon, but I can’t confirm that either, and I’m pretty sure it’s not true. Elsewhere Alfonso D’Aragona is instead claimed as Maria Balsa’s Dragon Order benefactor. He really was part of the Order, but so what? Lots of European nobility joined the order – it’s a bit like the Freemasonry trope of later on; just because a politician was a Freemason doesn’t mean he’s neck-deep in whatever paranoid historical conspiracy one might dream up.

The Maria Balsa story is several years old, dating to 2012. It was featured in season 6, episode 9 of Italian TV series ‘Mistero’ in 2012, entitled ‘La Figlia Segreta di Dracula’ i.e. ‘The Secret Daughter of Dracula’. From what I’ve seen of the series online, it’s very much ‘Ancient Aliens’ territory; ghosts, alien abduction, and so on. The original claim relates not to the church mentioned in the Mail article (Santa Maria La Nova), but to a different structure; Acerenza cathedral. Guess who made it, and also appears in the ‘documentary’? Yep, Raffaello Glinni. At the time, he claimed that Vlad was buried under the cathedral; clearly he’s revised his hypothesis since then. There’s another madcap suggestion regarding Acerenza, which is that a statue of a monster biting the neck of a woman is also relevant, and supposedly relates to the story of Lilith and the pop-culture suggestions that she might be a progenitor of vampires. The historical Vlad III has absolutely no connection to vampires, folkloric or fictional, beyond the limited connection made by Bram Stoker, so this is a total red herring. The statue itself doesn’t even appear to be that of a dragon, but rather a lion. Glinni also claims that a carved head in Acerenza cathedral with a beard and pointy teeth must also be Vlad, despite no resemblance and the fact that pointy teeth are a feature of the 19th century literary vampire. Bram Stoker took only Dracula’s name and status as a medieval antagonist of the Turks from real history. We would not expect an historical depiction of Vlad III to have vampire teeth!

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Note also the entirely co-incidental saint with serpent/dragon – nothing to do with Dracula or the Dragon Order

Billed as a ‘medieval history scholar’ in the new article, Glinni is actually a lawyer by profession. His name took me to his site, which is sparse but getting there in terms of BS History Bingo. Knights Templar? Check. Freemasonry? Check. Da Vinci? You bet. Gibberings about non-specific magical vortices? Not looking too good. In fact it’s looking like the use of ‘secret history’ to support speculative archaeology. There is an historical document from 1531 indirectly referenced here, which is apparently cited in a 1958 book by D’Elia and Gelao. There’s even a page reference of p.289/290. The only D’Elia/Gelao book I can find is this from 1999, where Maria Balsa is indeed referenced. There’s no doubt that an historical figure of that name existed (wife of Giacomo Alfonso Ferrillo, Count of Muro and Acerenza), and she was apparently Slavic. But if this 1531 chronicle that supports not just this claim but the new tomb suggestion exists, I can find no reference to it. If any Italian speakers can unearth it, please comment below.

So the underpinnings of this story are pretty questionable. What of the new evidence? Do we have anything else to go on? Well, like the Acerenza carving, the effigy on the Santa Maria La Nova tomb also looks absolutely nothing like the surviving depictions of Vlad;

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Which leaves…what? Well, supposedly, the big revelation is in the carved stone dragon on this tomb:

‘Medieval history scholar Raffaello Glinni said the 16th century tomb is covered in images and symbols of the House of the Transylvanian “Carpathians,” and not the tomb of an Italian nobleman. “When you look at the bas-relief sculptures, the symbolism is obvious. The dragon means Dracula and the two opposing sphinxes represent the city of Thebes, also known as Tepes. In these symbols, the very name of the count Dracula Tepes is written,” Glinni told reporters.’

A dragon was certainly the main element in the badge of the Order of the Dragon to which Vlad III’s father belonged. We don’t actually know what Vlad III’s personal coat of arms was, but he may have used the same emblem. But this was a dragon curled around on itself with its own tail wrapped around its neck. The badge varied, but none of the extant Order dragon depictions resemble this Italian carving. The Thebes/Tepes connection seems to be entirely spurious; I can find nothing on it. The sphinxes are simply artistic convention in European art. Thebes itself is a Greek placename, Tepes a Turkish Romanian (thanks Michael!) word for ‘impaler’. Where’s the connection? And why would anyone bother to ‘encode’ a vague reference to a member of the Dracul family. Either they wanted people to know he was buried there, in which case make it clear, or they wanted him forgotten, in which case don’t slap a dragon on his tomb. For that matter, it would be pretty tricky to build a huge monumental tomb, complete with effigy, for someone you’re keeping anonymous. But if Vlad’s daughter was amongst friends in Naples, with the Dragon Order connection, why would they use a generic dragon and not their proper symbol? Is the tomb even anonymous? I find it hard to believe that a splendid monumental tomb like that isn’t recorded as being that of a known Italian noble.

I’m afraid the whole thing is ‘Da Vinci Code’ level conspiracy, not real history. No-one would be more excited than me to discover that Vlad’s final resting place had been discovered, but this ‘news’ is a long way from that. Glinni and co have requested permission to open the tomb, which is something we’ve seen in other outlandish claims about the dead. It’s rare that permission is ever granted, which means the claimants get to a) keep making their claims and b) blame the authorities for suppressing secret knowledge. It’s win-win for this kind of nonsense.

Vlad “They don’t like it up ’em” Dracula

(Titled with apologies to L/Cpl Jones)

This time I’ll be taking a quick look at two fascinating characters, one real, one fictional, who are these days often seen as one and the same. The first, Vlad Dracula (or Tepes) was a 15th Century warrior prince who defended Wallachia from the Turks and though painted a monster by his enemies, remains a folk-hero in modern Romania. The second is Count Dracula, Bram Stoker’s literary classic monster. Many of us today, reading of Voivode Vlad’s real and supposed violent exploits, tend to believe that Stoker must have based his Count upon this very real figure. In fact, the connection between the two is essentially in name only…

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I recently watched an episode of a 2005 TV programme called “Legend Detectives” that dealt with the historic Vlad Dracula. It was a real mixed-bag, containing both interesting history and location filming in Romania, and cringe-worthy attempts at “psychic” reading courtesy of the self-parodying Tony Stockwell. Or was it Shirley Ghostman? Anyway, it was still worth a watch, thanks to the efforts of historian Tessa Dunlop and sceptic Massimo Polidoro. I’d have paid money to hear Polidoro comment on Stockwell’s particularly poor hot-reading antics, but one obvious wince of his towards the end did make me chuckle. He has written a good summary of the TV show and the Vlad/Stoker connection here.

Those two emphasised throughout that the sum total of the Vlad Dracula content in the “Dracula” novel are:

  1. The name, changed to “Dracula” before publication.
  2. Several brief references to Dracula having at some stage fought “the Turk”.

Stoker had always intended to call his anti-hero “Count Wampyr”, until he happened upon both the above tidbits in an 1820 book called “Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia”, by a chap called Wilkinson. Accounts of the time used a modern Romanian translation of his name; that of “Son of the Devil”. However, this was originally an official nickname of sorts with positive connotations; “Son of the Dragon“. The former translation suited Stoker’s satanic spin on Eastern European folklore just fine though, whilst the mention of ancient warfare made the Count appear truly an ancient and immortal warrior. This aspect was played up to great effect in the 1992 Francis Ford-Coppola’s 1992 film version of the story (though the visually stunning harness of red armour he wears resembles nothing from history). Both the name and the medieval back-story are vital elements of the Dracula character as we now know it, yet are nothing more than afterthoughts in the context of the original book. Now, the historical Vlad Dracula was a nasty bleeder, no doubt about it. He did a range of deeply unpleasant things to a variety of different people, including both his enemies and his own people. Most famously, he would stick big wooden stakes up people’s naughty bits and into the ground, and let them slowly die.

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A German woodcut depicting Vlad indulging in his hobbies

This is why the Turks bestowed a second nickname upon him; that of “Tepes” or “Impaler”. But you have to view this in a medieval context, and realise that as Voivode he was fenced in by a numerically superior enemy, and dealing (albeit brutally) with endemic internal corruption. Such terror tactics don’t seem quite as bad in that light. Additionally, some of the activities ascribed to him by his enemies are quite likely to be false or exaggerated, and some supposed connections appear to have been made in quite recent times, such as his drinking the blood of his enemies (though Florescu and McNally claim to have found one reference to Vlad doing just that). In fact, not even his biggest critics tried to imply that he was any kind of supernatural being. The Romanian Strigoi was quite a different animal than the sort of vampire made famous by Dracula. And no, you can’t equate the staking of folkloric and fictional vampires with this instance of jamming bits of wood into people. You might just as well draw a parallel with, say, the equally fictional Robin Hood…

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Why bother learning to differentiate between the two Draculas? After all, the simple link does seem to add considerably to the mythology of the character. Well, for one thing the Romanians aren’t too happy about their historical equivalent of Winston Churchill or George S. Patton being hijacked to sell plastic capes and fake blood (though no doubt it’s a big boost to the tourist industry). But the genie is out of the lamp, and it’s going to be impossible to truly separate the two characters. But we should nevertheless maintain some consciousness of the weak connection between them, and the very real and fascinating history behind the Count’s namesake. Anyone looking to read further on either of these characters should check out the website and publications of recognised authority Elizabeth Miller.