Friday, 13 July 2007

* The moment a man begins to talk about technique that’s proof that he is fresh out of ideas

* The quote is from one of my gods: the American-"anglo" crime writer, Raymond Chandler

“…the art of urban civilizations tends to be static, solid, and symmetrical. It is disciplined by the representation of the human body and by the mathematical skills attendant upon monumental architecture. To a greater or lesser extent nomadic art tends to be portable, asymmetrical, discordant, restless, incorporeal, and intuitive…”

Bruce Chatwin, essay in The Animal Style, 1970

The most successful contemporary nomads follow the money, not their cattle. Their art is portable, asymmetrical, discordant, restless, incorporeal and intuitive because it follows the winds and tsunamis of the markets, not the skies. They are known as investment bankers. When pressed, and I have pressed some of the most successful, they will admit that it is not the money they seek (there is already plenty of that) it is the thrill, the being better, the self-definition. One says recently: “To be honest, Robin, we don’t really know how to spend the money, but we need the challenge of the next.”

The Renaissance is a “challenged”, self-defining and nomadic era too: for its architects and creators the ultimate challenge of which is the “bettering” of the antique texts which, as they are rediscovered in thirteenth and fourteenth century, inform and shape a burgeoning “humanism”, “science” and “art of perception” - in the most portable, asymmetrical, discordant, restless, incorporeal and intuitive of ways.

What is most interesting about that for me is the art and building which evolves from these ideas is: static, solid, and symmetrical, using the body and “mathematical skills”; often monumental: it fits in with Chatwin’s distinction between the art of the walled-city and the nomadic, say, desert that begins this piece. Perhaps this is because the people who paid for the buildings, arts and texts were so keen, like my modern nomads, to self-define; to be “better” in their city palaces. The frescos of the Palazzo Te can stand in as representative here.

I don’t see motion in the cathedrals or the frescos: I see stolid stories and narratives, polished by the science of mathematics, or engineering, into forms whose simple emotional strengths are still visible – perhaps discernable is the better word – today, whilst the complex frameworks that enabled them have become all but invisible to the un-scholarly, like me. Ultimately they reek of permanence which, as Virgil demonstrates, is in fact a highly sophisticated construction, a fabrication, in “emotional antiquity.” The building of foundations, rather than traditions...

But my perspective is warped and haphazard: I lack wholly the rigour of a man whose Renaissance fame ensures that a piazza is named after him here in Mantua, though his connection to the town is far less than to Florence or Rome, or Venice. A man whose nomadic mind helped to underpin the solid and symmetrical arts that are funded by the ruler-patron men who ran Italy’s great towns and fought each other for top dog status in war and in “taste”. Thinking about this makes me return to the question that is posed by the Gonzagas here: what are the new dreams that the millions earned by the contemporary condotierri inspire? I suppose only history will show us the value of the new über-rich.

I watch Salome in the piazza Leon Alberti, who I know has designed a church here, and who I understand, vaguely, has written on art in a way which influenced Mantegna, but the name isn’t known to me. With the “memory stick” and the web a little becomes clearer: in fact Alberti is revealed as a magnificently betwixt character, one who deserves to be called a “Renaissance Man.” Wikipedia says he is a classic example of the Renaissance’s “Universal Man.”

Alberti’s achievements in architecture, criticism, theatre, theory, and the classics appear amazing; perhaps most of all his achievements as polymath intrigue. A blog entry is not the place to tell his story, but in reading parts of a life of Alberti by Anthony Grafton I’m struck with not just the breadth of achievement; and not just the ways in which his life and works have been re-evaulated and repositioned over time, but most of all by the man’s intellectual and social nomadism. I can’t help but feel that he did things because he needed the challenge of the “next”, and in his culture pretty much anything was possible if your skill matched your ambition, your adeptness at courtly politics was nuanced, and your circle of friends was the right one - consistently. These are not simple things.

Of Alberti’s lasting achievement Grafton writes:

“The humanistic scholars of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries…showed their contemporaries how to see the ancient world from a fixed point in time – their own. They grasped, for the first time, the full chronological distance that stretched, the great social and political changes that had taken place, between the time of Cicero and Virgil and their own day. Alberti showed them how to see the visual world in a similar way: from a fixed viewpoint, and in logically coherent terms. The space of Renaissance painting – and indeed of Renaissance science – reflected the same cultural origins as the time of humanistic scholarship. It was Albertian space, subject to rigorous geometry, as historical time was subject to rigorous philology. Alberti stood revealed as one of the creators of the modern world.”

As someone interested in ideas this is fascinating: worthy of long years of study – as many have done. But delving now into his biography, in the best web tradition: eclectically and haphazardly, I find myself interested in the social dynamic of a man such as Alberti, just as I hope to understand something of Tom’s clearly complex relationship to his bitchy-English court.

Some time in the late 1420s or early 1430s Alberti wrote “On the Advantages and Disadvantages of Letters.” Grafton calls it a “savage little book.” This is the text said to have inspired Nietzsche’s view on history. Its concern speaks to today: the relation of scholarship and education to real life. Alberti does not hold back:

“…see how pale they are, how flaccid their bodies, and how weighed down they seem, as they emerge from their long confinement in the prison of their schools and libraries…”

Tom was a classics scholar; and forever hard up. Bill Gates quit Harvard without a degree…

Scholars are people, Alberti argues, who will never achieve either wealth or power. Most will not even be famous as academics. There were a few growing opportunities in the Italian states for the poor but educated: being a notary, teaching, theology, but the job market wasn’t booming, and was not at all well paid. A fourth area had more promise: was a boom in ideas. This was the study of Latin classics, and the production of new ones. Perhaps the Bill Gates of this arena was Petrarch, who was not only a scholar of the ancient but a producer of new media: Latin literature – but written in the fourteenth century. He's sometimes called the "father of humanism". The young Alberti was part of this new media scene.

The coteries around the “classical” in the early Renaissance remind me intensely of small-scale web communites, particularly at the beginning of the web’s evolution. “…a tight if informal network of well-established scholars and teachers who informed one another as rapidly as possible of the discovery of new classical texts and put them to use as soon as they could in their own work.” Fifteen years ago I remember young geeks explaining Von Neumann or Alan Turing (and the Turing “test”) versed utterly in a history of computing that – until the arrival of the web – remained far from the discourse of social historians, let alone the educated us. (When Will Hutton, then editor of the Observer, wrote “The State We're In”, the top selling non-fiction work of 1996, an “anatomy” of Britain, he failed to mention computers – he does now, I’m told.)

My geeks exchanged ideas by e-mail, had friends everywhere, and knew long before the mainstream media the seismic shifts to come. They were building on computer ideas from their “history”, when we thought that the period they consumed had all been about “Nixon” or “Vietnam”, civil rights, strikes, anarchist terror it was really about Tetris, DARPA, and all those computer languages before DOS …One of these people coined the phrase: the geeks shall inherit the earth. I think even Bill Gates uses that one now.

My geeks came with a history we didn’t know. Ours still believed, just about, in mass media, in newspapers and television. If we had been told then that the founder of a search engine would be the most important person in media, we would have laughed. And we were the early-adopter almost-believers coming out of the analogue Dark Ages. (Many are still there).

The geeks became the modern Da Vincis and Brunelleschis; we became the betwixters, torn between two visions and – as I wrote yesterday – probably throwing out far too many ideas in our strivings to keep up than we should. Alberti, like most of the young humanists, and programmers today, built by piecing together from the existing materials, and new (or new-old) ones that were created or discovered. Alberti adapted the classical: his plays used lines from ancient drama, repositioned. “In his middle years [Alberti] used the art of the mosaic as a metaphor for his own art of writing,” Grafton writes.

The precursor of the Netscape browser?


But the early writings didn’t make him money. “Tell me, please, o student,” he writes, “do you hope to become rich from the tiny fees you will collect when you teach a boy, when one of your little works appears, when you plead a case, when you cure a fever, or when you speak at some length on a question of law? Hardly….the learned don’t become rich, or if they do become rich from learned pursuits, the sources of their wealth are shameful.”

As Grafton says: “Scholar, as Alberti learned from bitter experience, does not rhyme with dollar.” It is here that perhaps one should note Machiavelli’s later life was not enriched by the profits, nor the position, brought by publishing his Prince: it didn’t sell, he remained an outsider politically after the arrival of a new Pope. No, he made money by writing bawdy plays – some of which influenced Shakespeare. Shameful indeed.

Reading of Alberti – his scope, drive, knowledge, learning via the classics, intelligence and capacity for synthesis, even his love of pithy epigram, his need to create art that paid as well as changed things, I think also of Wilde – in another world there must be a monograph to be written on that.

I suppose my question is this: on what do we build, and on what do we forget? What are the tiles of our new mosaic? And are they available via our new technologies, by looking back, or by synthesising the two? It is not so much: is Word 3.0 actually better for a writer than the most recent iteration? Than: if we are creating the foundation myths of the twenty-first century every day what should we build them on: the business strategies of the Fortune 500, or the long history of China? The foreign policies of the USA, or the EU; or the teachings of Ghandi? The Renaissance ideas of bettering the ancients, or the beta-to-3.0 world now? Does scholarship warrant more rewards now than then? Does it deserve them because it changes our perspective, usefully? Is my continuing interest in the ideas echoing around Mantua any more helpful to my quest than a good two-hour tour guide of the town, and then taking the coach onto Padua?

Alberti must return to Betwixt: this is an entry that does him no justice. But for that I need much more than the web can offer. But his technique, creating betwixt ancient, renaissance and the modern, is a paradigm I would love to see reflected somewhere today, be the results static, solid, and symmetrical, or portable, asymmetrical, discordant, restless, incorporeal, and intuitive…

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