Saturday, 14 July 2007

Not forgetting...

Sing along here

Or come to London next year for new songs from an old, old story - now updated to Nazi-occupied Paris.

Europe, with hope

"Our intellectual potential needs its own spaces, for Europe's sense of purpose and for Europe's good. Culture must simply be given the room it needs, without specifying in advance what this room should be. Europe must be prepared to take this risk, and it must have the courage to give scope to its pictures and its sounds, its stories and its poetic inventions, and to its sciences as well, even if that involves effort and expense that do not immediately pay off. Europe should not necessarily be guided by its culture, but it must allow its culture to accompany it. That is where our innermost strength lies. America is too materialistic in its thinking to consider taking such a step. In Asia, and that includes the "new tigers" China and India, culture does not enjoy this status; there is not such high regard for "the individual" and "what is one's own", nor is there such a highly developed sense of neighbourliness and community."

German film maker, Wim Wenders

Read it all here

"Millions to dreams" - here's one to dream about

"The culture-rich country lacks a major museum for contemporary work, but in Venice, businessman-art collector François Pinault sets out to correct that."

From today's LA Times. Venice suddenly seems less daunting. A bit.

News Alert: The Italian War on Terror

When asked the secret of his success the world’s greatest comedian interrupts the question to shout: “timing”. I feel a little like the world’s worst reporter today as I read that in Padua, forty kilometres away, terrorist arrests have been made. And I am pondering Leon Alberti and the Postmodern “malaise”.

Everything is “timing”.

Quite what this means I am not sure. Here are the facts as they can be found online:

“Italian police said Friday they have arrested two men in northern Italy accused of being members of a radical leftist terror group similar to the Red Brigades. The two were arrested late Thursday in the northeastern city of Padua, said anti-terror police official Eugenio Spina.”

Here is an earlier story, from February.

"Police conducted raids across northern Italy, breaking up a Red Brigades-style terror group that was planning kidnappings or kneecappings of victims, Milan prosecutors said.

Police said they arrested 15 suspects in Milan, Turin, Padua and other northern Italian cities Monday. "We prevented dangerous persons who considered themselves in war with this state from carrying out violent actions," Prosecutor Ilda Boccassini told a news conference in Milan."

Recently an Italian told me: “It’s all very well England being open and free and liberal but it isn’t tough enough with the bad people.” But how do you decide who is bad? “Look, if they have a website and on it they state their intentions – you know, to kills Jews, destroy Israel. Then surely that is enough?”

I wonder what the Italians have on the two – or four suspects (for a while today there was an article online about “four Algerians”, it’s gone now). Perhaps by the time I reach Venice I’ll know.

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…

Thursday, 12 July 2007

Forwards and back

“Tis all in peeces, all coherence gone;
All just supply, and all Relation”

Tom’s friend, John Donne & his poem “Anatomy of the World”.

“We sail out of the harbour, and the countries and cities recede”

Virgil, The Aeneid

The idea of “postmodernism” is betwixt: full of forward and backward looking, rootless because our present seems to breed such obvious discontents, clashes, and inequities, whilst painting a picture of warp-speed technological advance from beta to 3.0 – Karl Popper-esque building on building, until Darwinianly replaced - and displaying with obvious effect the rewards which come with riding on its narrowing comet-tails.

The result of the Postmodern malaise can be nostalgic in nature when considering our future: born-again Christianity and the aggressive branches within Islam are two constructions that prioritize the absolute value of ancient words and laws in imagining a future “end” sometime (are they a “product” of postmodernism?). And in polar opposition to this - the classical “post” modern position - the disappearance of many controlling ideas – the notion that the cosmos may have purpose, the phrase the “death of God” sums this up, or that governments can have genuinely equality as an aim – has taken away an encyclopaedia full of foundation myths, the very basis of much social solidity and support, and most essentially a “centre”. What’s left is mobility, the market, the shareholders, suburbs, and the greatest income inequality for 200 years.

“When the compasses, the set-square, and the ruler are askew, all the calculations made with them and all structures raised according to their measurements, are necessarily out of true and ready to collapse.”

Montaigne “Apology for Raymond Sebond” 1580

The nostalgic component of the postmodern illness is easily sensed when travelling, seeing a “simpler” way; the slower diurnal rhythms and communal ways (and the rich palimpsest of histories I feel myself clutching at) of Italian towns are a beguiling example. The picture-book families at dinner, the wonder of Gonzaga palaces, are seductive social myths. But even here an amateur futurist, or a shrewd businessman, can see that fissures are growing. Western society is shifting towards cities, despite the New Myths of technology’s “mobility”; labour is increasingly centred on large conurbations that cannot always take the strain. The physical stuff has moved to China. Divorce rates are at 50 per cent in Italy.

So if the pull of a well-designed Renaissance Italian town is to its centre, the pull of ill-designed Europe (and America) is to its financial centres, not to remote working, or decentalized business, or politics; or community building around the town square. And the city’s “gated” god is the New, not the Established.

This is the foundation point of the other side of our dissatisfactions with the Postmodern: the refusal to entertain that previous ideas can help now; the idea that what is lost is lost – our world has changed too much for the lessons of history, or the previous structures of society, to provide solutions to a globalizing, monetarily-nomadic, culture and set of cultures moving rapidly into a physical/virtual hybrid whilst its very environment, the Earth, sinks not so slowly, and overheats all too quickly. The Death of History, a neo-con called it.

The optimism of Rousseau, and the Enlightenment seem distant myths today, as antique as Virgil, or Tom. The twentieth century did for most ideas of social revolution with one exception: science and technology, which increasingly (perhaps always, though the process now seems more extreme) appears part of that un-revolutionary concept, business.

Things were different in Tom’s time. Down the road in Padua, Galileo was studying, adding to the Copernican “revolution” and moving us further from the “centre” of things yet seemingly closer to the true nature of our real selves. Science, telescopes, microscopes, perspectives, controversies about the very nature of our existence in the world, were shocking – but seemed progressive, and were undoubtedly a transformation in human understanding, part of Thinking as well as Business. Now we know that progress comes at a heavy communal cost: we’re often stuck with ourselves, alone and (sometimes) centred, and waiting for the 4.0 update, or the latest Google “alert”.

[People] “showing a greater fondness for their own opinions than for the truth…sought to deny and disprove the new things, which, if they had cared to look for themselves, their own sense would have demonstrated.”


I think this morning that my journey is a pleasant, and probably very conservative, exploration of the nostalgic postmodern betwixt because I don’t want to seek out all the new foundations we’re building (post-God, nihilistic and virtual) without also holding on to some of the past that is fast speeding away. Examples of this are everywhere, anyway. Instead I am clutching…at my age, perhaps.

“Everything we believe in has become hollow; everything is conditioned and relative; there is no ground, no absolute, no being in itself. Everything is questionable, nothing is true, everything is allowed.”

Karl Jaspers. Der Philosphicshe Glaube, trs Karsten Harries.

In Padua I will have to further confront Galileo, Alberti: science, perspective, the infinite universe, God. Today I am thinking about all this because of one pink objet trouvée. Someone has left yesterday’s “Financial Times” newspaper – from England, I think – on the next table. In one section, “Digital Business”, a special report, the front-page headline is “Where Do We go from Here?” In my case: Este. In technology’s case: Version 7.0.

“It is easy these days,” writes Alan Cane, “to be overtaken by the future.” He quotes Don Rippert, chief technology officer of the world’s largest consultancy, “Accenture”. The company name is meant to allude to its corporate vision and accentuate the future. Born out of Arthur Andersen (Enron’s accountants, recently) Accenture leads a life not dissimilar to Virgil’s Rome: its Empire is vast, its Caesars, rich, and its foundations mythic, lost to pre-history (or the first of January, 2001, for the more historical out there).

Rippert says: “Younger people see e-mail as something older people do. I thought it was novel, next generation technology, but to young people its: ‘you should post to my site on Myspace. You should text message me, you should instant message me, why would you want to e-mail me? I don’t even check my inbox any more.’” And thinking about this sentence, together with the following eight pages of the special report, has taken up the rest of my day.

“…new Philosophy calls all in doubt,
The Element of fire is quite put out;
The sun is lost, and th’earth, and no mans wit
Can well direct him where to looke for it.”

Donne, “Anatomy of the World”.

Because, of course, Rippert wants e-mail out: its death would signal so much consulting work in the next “new Media” for Accenture. E-mail is, maybe, twenty years old now. Forty if we start with DARPA basics. Printing is over 600 years old, and still going stong-ish…

I started eight weeks ago to explore Tom’s Europe, and today’s reality, using not just what I know, but also what I could find, in books, magazines, online, and through conversations, in person, by e-mail; via blogs, sometimes. Though the results are mixed, and the output eclectic, I am finding my way: I think I’m learning. I have my tools, and though they’re not perfect, they do.

But the reality of the wired world, for normal travellers like me rather than Blackberry wielding business folk whose fortress hotels come with free wi-fi, is almost as unknowing and random as Tom’s journey. Books and people still help more than my computer. Terror laws in Italy mean that wi-fi is illegal in an internet café; many don’t have individual hard-drives (preferring a central server) so using a memory stick is impossible. Wikipedia, as I have written, is “fallen”, much of its information corrupted; search, despite Google, is still haphazard: if I search for myself, this blog doesn’t appear for pages, for example. When I need to know something definite my best bet is often to phone home for an answer: just like Who Wants to be a Millionaire? with its “Phone a friend”.

And yet technology marches on, and without any self-doubt seemingly. Two years after Tom’s visit to Padua, one of its most glittering academics writes of the new discoveries enabled by the invention – in 1607 – of the telescope: four new planets emerge, and with them a techtonic shift in the way we see the world. “All these facts were discovered and observed by me not many days ago with the aid of a spyglass which I devised, after first being illuminated by divine grace,” Galileo writes in “The Starry Messenger” of 1610. [A book that was rushed back to King James in England by the Venice Ambassdor/spy , Sir Henry Wotton].

But sometimes we don’t want to see: just as Accenture’s CTO grimaces as he describes “the death of e-mail”, so Cesare Cremonini, head of Philosophy at Padua university, and Galileo’s friend, wrote to him saying he would not use the telescope, as it would “confuse him.” Another colleague, Giulio Libri” told Galileo such observations were impossible, leading the “father of science” to hope that, after Libri’s death, he would see a few of the new planets on his way to Heaven.

Technological progress, and shareholder imperative, renders us almost permanently betwixt at the moment and tells us that the latest telescope is undoubtedly the best. It is a betwixtness that renders a five year old computer almost redundant, suitable only for John and Connie to circuit bend, the outdated version 2.7. If only violins were the metaphor for now.

Instead mobility in technology and communications is at the centre of these progressions now, has been for over two decades, first with phones, now with data and information-retrieval, community-building, retail, and all the myriad other services which once were based on a fixed computer, located in a precise location. According to Andrew Hibbert of Microsoft’s Cambridge laboratories [England-branch] “computers will increasingly become a prothesis for civilisation’s overburdened memories.” Which is putting it optimistically, I suspect. But it is the vision I have as I try to imagine future travel, connected to place, culture and community through physical and virtual bonds. What I am sensing reading the FT today is not the “shock” of the new, but the profits available in constantly “changing” the new. Whether for the good or not. How nice to see that vinyl is making a come-back, though the record deck in a hi-fi store in Mantua’s centre costs two thousand euros.

Today it isn’t just the mobility in technology or the mass of knowable, digitized information that is endlessly chipping at foundation, our sense of belonging; it is also our rootlessness, and – for many – the fact of so many less myths or faiths to believe in: for many there’s now only our most personal one, The Self. As I’ve quoted before: “Europe has never existed, one has genuinely to create Europe,” said Jean Monnet, “father of Europe” and one of the main architects of the post-war European Union. Now we seem to be moving to a variation on Monnet’s theme: “we don’t exist, and we have genuinely – or plausibly – to create ourselves.”

And with what? Facebook? So much of the rhetoric of the web is about individual expression and community building; so little about what that actually means.

Here is one vision of “travel’s” future from John Gage, chief researcher at Sun Microsystems: “Couple Google’s plans to map the surface of the earth to an accuracy of 20cm with global positioning systems – which means the position of the 2bn-3bn existing mobile devices could be located to within a metre – with IPV6 [the latest internet protocol] and we have the makings of a police state as well as incredible logistical power.”

Of course you have to be looking for the police state, a fear Americans (who have never known such a thing, despite the conspiracy theories) seem most vexed about: another way of seeing the potential of this technology would be to imagine a traveller arriving tomorrow in Padua who could not only orientate herself of the city, learn of its churches, cafés and the communities that she might enjoy, but once there could – every 20cm – know exactly what she is looking at, its history, in varied interpretation; and find others around who share these interests to have coffee, conversation, jokes, sex or dinner with. These interests could be about Renaissance ideas on Perspective, or lo-fi Italian rock music; fashion or print-making; Formula One or hedge-funds. That is the foundation of the betwixt community, surely?

“From 10 to 20 years ahead, your only guidance is demographics,” says Andy Mulholland, CTO at Capgemini. “what people have grown up with and what they see as normal.”

“Normal” is one of those words: in “Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking” Malcolm Gladwell says we “thin slice” the world, use an unconscious ability to detect and process “key information” in our world to make “snap” judgements and decisions. This is “normality” within the business context. A context whose temporal imperatives often seem to have merged with life itself. If technology is about speeding process, shouldn’t postmodern life be about bringing a balance, a slowing, rather than a mere copying of a machine’s processing power?

Similarly, journalists continue to valorize “teenagers” as showing us the way forward with technology. What they do will be “normal” soon enough, is the new and uncontested thesis. “Never in history have youths had so many ways to isolate themselves from the adult way as now,” Ian Limbach writes in another FT article. He continues that, far from being a brain-dead, befuddled, community, “today’s teenagers really just value technology as a means to being more connected with friends. This is about gossip, flirting and the lastest music…just 20 per cent consider themselves technology lovers…what youths do care about is feeling part of a community, building an individual identity and being entertained.” All research from MTV/Nickelodeon/MSN Research, “Circuits of Cool/Digital Playground Survey.” Published later this month. Check those sponsors and ask of their shareholder needs…

Which all illustrates that what is getting lost with our perspective on technology – a field driven by economic necessity in future-planning terms by what is “normal” for the current teenage generation – is not just the idea of “reflection” rather than the “snap decision”, but also, in this current security-conscious era, the potential “wonder” of it, rather than technology’s Trojan horse role as ultimate Big Brother or hermetic ninth circle of games-playing hell. When Sun’s chief researcher begins to sound like Galileo’s friends, not wanting to look through the telescope, then the polarities of the postmodern – looking forward and back – have vanished. He’s saying ‘I don’t like what I see’, without saying that he – more than most – has the opportunity to build our connected future another way, to see the meeting of Google, GPS, data and “place” as the most wonderful chance to reconnect us with history and people.

“I recently got a Slingbox as a present…I travel a lot so I’m excited to think I’ll be able to watch movies I’ve got on my Tivo [at home] when I’m in my hotel room…When I worked for Clinton’s chief of staff, Erskine Bowles, he was always saying: ‘Great people know Great people’, and this has become the company mantra. I’m a big fan of Facebook, the photo and software sharing site…So I carried on doing this [blogging] when we were restructuring in September 2006. One day I blogged about what was on my IPod, only to face a media storm with comments like: ‘Why is this guy going on about what’s on his IPod when he’s laying off people?’ I’m a bit more careful.”

Jason Goldberg, Chief Executive of Jobster, an online recruitment service, interviewed today in the FT.

If we are the stories we inhabit, then today our newspaper story is Orwell without Rabelais, Easyjet without Tom Coryat, Romeo without King Lear: the future without a past. And, in Jason Goldberg’s case, profit without “shame”. Clutching at the hauntings still tangible on Tom’s route seems a good idea right now. Just as affirming not just the architecture and art here, but also the books written and the lives lived through history, not just the home-videos uploaded to You Tube (which I do love). And, of course, the people to talk to at the next table.

And these clutchings would be even easier if technology’s scope was aimed at more than arranging the dating habits of mid-western teenagers, or enabling us to watch English Pop Idol in Padua, and accepted the idea that – as Paul Taylor, its “personal technology expert” writes in perhaps the only heartening sentence in the entire Financial Times “special report” – “if you have found something that works for you and delivers what you want, the best idea is to stick with it as often the ‘bells and whistles’ that are attached to new gizmos just get in the way.”

Books, conversation, thinking, reflection – and the best that technology can deliver in terms of information and bringing people together: that would work for me. I’ve got enough bells already, ringing from the many churches here, and the whistles I can do myself.

Though never as confidently as the young Italians, pausing from a mobile phone conversation, or a coffee.

Wednesday, 11 July 2007

Flimsy Perspectives

The origin of things is wholly the work of that which imagines, thinks, wills, feels.

Friedrich Nietzsche.

This morning over coffee a young English “classics” post-graduate who is probably going to start an education course in New York this autumn says to me: “Of course Virgil wanted ‘The Aeneid’ burnt after his death, it wasn’t as he wanted it, he wasn’t happy. It’s amazing how flimsy these things are. If they burnt it, we would never know.”

I feel the same about everything I discover. How easy it is to miss the story, or view it under strange lighting, through the wrong lens, a foreshortened perspective; I can’t even guess at what I have missed or distorted so far. Isn’t that the “Secret” of Umberto Eco’s “Name of the Rose”? a burnt classic: was it Aristotle’s poetics…?

Virgil’s statue was destroyed here in 1399, as an idol, because at that time poets were to be regarded as liars, I read. Why? When did they come back into fashion? Was it Dante? Does it matter? Who reads poetry now?

When the artist Andrea Mantegna began to work for the Gonzaga family here in the middle of the fifteen century “art” was still considered a craft, not part of the relatively new “humanist” curriculum, taught and exported from academic centres such as the famous university in nearby Padua. The Gonzagas might have been in command here, but their territories weren’t enough to pay for their lavish lifestyle and extravagant tastes: they hired themselves out as Condotierri, mercenary generals. Guns for hire. Those guns helped to pay for a few of the humanist gems of the Mantuan Renaissance.

The house Mantegna commissioned and designed for himself is a short walk from the Gonzaga’s Palazzo Te. He built it to show his worth in the town, it was and still is said. Mantegna was a sort of self-made man, after all. Now the house is a minor “modern” art gallery, with the most fantastic computer-based installations about the construction, Mantegna himself, and the academic resources available on the artist. In one of the mathematically perfect rooms a cinema screen is installed and a great film about the artist is on continual loop. New media and classical architecture in harmony on the subject of an artist, who for thirty years helped to define “Art”.

The curator is quick to explain there are no works by Mantegna here, just the audio-visual. There is no furniture either, nor glimpses, or hauntings: just the virtual house on screen – which, curiously, is enough for me. “And the space itself, and the circular courtyard,” I say. Which is airy and calm. “Yes,” he says. “And the film is very good.”

”The Painted Room” written in 1976 by the experimental Danish author and poet, Inger Christensen (just check out her Wikipedia entry, and ask yourself had I really heard of her?) constructs a tripartite view of the Gonzaga court at Mantegna’s time. Here, one of her narrators describes the artist’s ‘attitude’ and her first vision of the casa Mantegna:

“If I know him aright, he has delusions of grandeur as do so many of the vagrant brats the state has adopted. Not by installing them in society. The upper class is too timid and too canny to do that. No, by letting them install themselves as a separate, self-governing, association, like the church: so these two areas in which talent and a fervent fear of God are all that counts….[of the house] The ground plan alone, which he has drawn, says it all. Throughout the centuries perfection in geometry has been reserved for the upper classes. But naturally this is something that this upstart must also have! Even if the wife and children have to live under the stairs, or in the pantry and wine cellar…”

It is said that Christensen will win the Nobel prize for literature one year…

In Dawson W. Carr’s monograph on Mantengna’s Adoration of the Magi (for the Getty Museum “Studies on Art”) he writes that in later life Mantegna was “a great cynic.” And by 1500 his “vision” outmoded. “Atmospheric naturalism” was the rage.

Very soon I will be in Padua, home once of Livy the Historian. Perhaps he can help. Or Alberti, Leon Battista Alberti…

Tuesday, 10 July 2007

John and Connie's Optically Controlled Synth / Theremin.

Live from Lyon

Apt to Linger

“We spend our days looking for the secret of Life. Well, the secret of Life is Art!”

“My first idea was to print only three copies: one for myself, one for the British Museum, and one for Heaven. I had some doubts about the British Museum.”
On his poem, “The Sphinx”

“I can live for ten francs a day (boys compris)…”
Letter to publisher, Leonard Smithers, on “Italy”

The betwixt Irish polymath and aesthete Oscar Wilde might have entered my story in Paris: he died there in 1900. “Either the wallpaper goes or I do.”* Or at Père-Lachaise, where Jacob Epstein’s 1912 monument to Wilde may have improved my mood, though I doubt it; or even with Victor Hugo who is said to have slept through his audience with the young career-making Wilde sometime in the 1880s.

He could have entered with Shakespeare - whenever The Man decides to impose himself on this journey fully, it will be Venice or Verona, I guess - as Wilde’s “The Portrait of W.H.” is an interesting addition to the canon of literature about who Shakespeare was, and exactly who he loved. I might have written (though do today) about Wilde last week, with the street theatre ballet performance of Salome, the subject of his own controversial play: in French so as not to épat too many of the London bourgoise. (Edgar Saltus said the last line of Salome made him shudder. “It is only the shudder that counts,” Wilde replied). His “Duchess of Padua,” though not a great piece of theatre could have been the peg when I reach the town, soon enough. Or it might have been Wilde’s youthful fluency in Greek; his love of Virgil, the man of Mantua. There are his European years with “Bosie” or without, after imprisonment in Reading jail and all those “profound” poems. There is Wilde’s confusing relationship to Romanticism, a topic which will feature heavily in the German part of this journey. Frankly Wilde is such a European sensibility, and perhaps even more pertinently, his image has been so consistently remade over time, an excuse could be found almost anywhere.

But instead I will admit simply that Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray” is the first novel I have read on my journey; and the pleasing coincidence (or not) that one of its major characters, Sir Henry Wotton (a Wildean self-portrait, surely?), shares his name with the famous spy, politician and diplomat that ran the English embassy in Venice during the time of Tom Coryat’s visit, and saved our man from a beating after a robust exchange of opinions about religion. We’ll get to that in Venice.

On pausa, reflecting a little on what has come before, and the “wiki” of allusions and influences that have been thrown up as I am crossing Italy, I find myself this afternoon wanting to exorcise Tom for a few hours, and not by reading the Guardian online or in expensive overseas edition sans sports results. The solution? Wilde.

The Italian publishing house “Giunti” has offices in Milan and Florence; its scope is broad and in Italian, naturally, but in its “Classics” series, it offers a range of out of copyright fiction in English. The small list includes Jane Austin, Emily Bronte, Defoe, Hawthorne, Henry James, Lawrence, Melville, Shakespeare, Swift, Thackeray (his classic of the 100 Years War, Barry Lyndon, not the Rabelaisian Vanity Fair), Wharton, Twain, Lewis Carroli, Conan-Doyle (?) and…The Picture of Dorian Gray, at seven Euros. Dorian Gray is free online, of course, but today I want to read on paper, not a screen.

On the first floor of a well-stocked modern bookshop here, where “Breakfast on Pluto”, Ali Smith, Hanif Kureshi and a host of other modern writers in English are available in Italian, I can’t help but ponder the imbalance. I remember having the same feelings the first time I went to Bucharest, capital of Romania. In a fine bookshop close to the university I found a broad range of translated modern fiction: from Ian McEwan upwards. The question is always the same: why do the English speaking countries translate so much less “other” literature? I always assume it is just that I haven’t found the contemporary Italian, French, German or Dutch classics because I don’t want to: but I look hard enough. In Nevers or Lodi, Montreuil and Mantua I have found numerous translated modern English fictions. Is this about the irresistible rise of “English” as the world’s language, or about the resistible decline in “our” interest in “foreign” literary cultures? I will have to wait for the statistics, which must exist somewhere online.

Anyway: a café (though not the “de Paix”), some Camparis and Canapés; and Dorian Gray.

I have forgotten what a graciously modern novel Dorian Gray is; how it appears utterly contemporary at times, and at others the perfect gothic novel his great uncle, Robert Maturin, author of Melmoth the Wanderer, never wrote; or the manifesto of a (particularly articulate) contemporary artist schooled in the finest marketing and PR techniques and guerrilla campaigns. A picture of David Bowie or Damien Hurst, indeed. “I am afraid it is rather like my own life – all conversation and no action…”

With such an elegant and aphoristic writer it is easy to forget the broad range of knowledge that Wilde possesses in so many fields. Richard Ellmann writes this of Wilde’s preparation for his version of Salome: [his] “knowledge of the iconography was immense. He complained that Ruben’s Salome appeared to him to be an “apoplectic Maritornes.’ On the other hand Leonardo’s Salome was excessively incorporeal. Others, by Durer, Ghirlandaio, van Thulden, were unsatisfactory because incomplete. The celebrated Salome of Regnault he considered to be mere ‘gypsy’. Only Moreau satisfied him, and to liked to quote Huysmans’s description of the Moreau paintings [in Paris]. He was eager to visit the Prado to see how Stanzioni had painted her, and Titian, about whom he quoted Tintoretto’s comment, ‘This man paints with quivering flesh.’”

Lautrec's Oscar

There were many other influences before Salome was written: not least the idea of Sarah Bernhardt dancing naked on stage in Paris. Watching the three Italian ballerinas perform Salome here last week little of the quivering passion or edge remained, only the surface – which, I suppose Wilde might have liked, but probably not. (The veil sequence was done as a shiny video “thong” advertisement, like an MTV slot, much to the sorrow of the teenage boys with telephoto lenses in the row in front of me expecting live action; and of little interest to the Polish producer of Woman v.2, who sat with the two remaining members of his troop: the rest, he told me, had gone home to Poland. They were, it is perhaps worth noting, the two naked female actors of the previous night: they’d been to Venice for the day, “for the first, but not for the last time”, says, Woman v.2 (ii).

If we take four of the protagonists in Dorian Gray: the author, Oscar; ever-youthful, murderous Dorian; the worldly, plagiaristic Henry Wotton; and the murderee-painter of the deadly portrait, Basil, then The West is in its face-lifting, breast-enhancing “Dorian” phase; the cultural success stories in the download charts, at the Biennales and the multiplexes are in their “Oscar” moment. I’m feeling rather “Sir Henry” and I am wondering is there some new Italian or German Wilde still un-translated into English? Some universalizing “betwixt” artist who is still without the right PR mentor and Frankfurt Bookfair rights deal? Or is she in “circuit-bending” or the oracle of “Second Life” these days? Or worse still: killed, like Basil Hallward, by a careless and indifferent youth-obsessed audience?

Dorian Gray is full of fragments: beyond the perfect Faustian story, the gay sub-text, the historical allusions and the meditations on beauty there is some fabulous, and deceptively simple, prose. Wilde’s genius resides partly in this effortless-ness, not dissimilar to the prose of Bruce Chatwin. Both shared not just homosexual-leaning bisexuality, but a brutal work ethic to go with narrational genius. And there’s Oscar’s wit of course:

I adore simple pleasures, they are the last refuge of the complex.
Always! That is a dreadful word.
People say sometimes that Beauty is only superficial…but at least it is not so superficial as Thought is.
We are punished for our refusals.
People are afraid of themselves, nowadays.
Courage has gone out of the race. Perhaps we never really had it.
[Poets] Know how useful passion is for publication.
Days in summer are apt to linger.
When we are happy we are always good, but when we are good we are not always happy.
The only things that one can use in fiction are the things that one has ceased to use in fact

Most of all, though, in this re-reading (Dorian is one of those texts to be re-read throughout life, a sort of marker on where one is – like Gatsby or Lear, The Big Sleep and Moonraker) is the certainty that Wilde is the Prince Regent of Betwixtness: rooted and nomadic; learned and light; a unique explorer in space and thought – and deed. In reading him - unlike that other great Irish nomad, Joyce – comes the sense of a mind living not for his grandest of tours, nor for his roughest of rent boys or the loudest of curtain calls, but for the foundation myths of art and creation itself.

As I think again about the frescos of the Palazzo Te here in Mantua, whose authors names I have already forgotten, though not their images, Oscar’s Preface offers the perfect closure: “To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim,” he writes. Perhaps this is why I like the frescos so much.

“As he looked back upon man moving through History, he was haunted by a feeling of loss. So much had been surrendered! and to such little purpose.”

Towards the end of his life Wilde often joked that the British public wouldn’t let him live in the twentieth century; I am glad this most twentieth century of artists didn’t see the Somme – or hear that Hitler burnt Heine’s poetry. He can remain forever in-between the aesthetic and the “modern”, the Classic Betwixt Man. The bridge between Baudelaire and David Bowie, as it were.

*Actually, at the Hotel D’Alsace, the quote being: “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or the other of us has to go.”

The Betwixt Pillow

Monday, 9 July 2007

Emotional Antiquity

At a dinner recently in London I was, again, the only English person present. What were the people there? They were Peruvian, African-Indian, Israeli, Romanian, American and Italian. At one stage the conversation was about “Englishness,” a subject that divides not just a cosmopolitan North London crowd, but English people from abutting post-codes in the capital, through the south, north, east and west of the country; by ethnic background, social class, profession, relationship to the monarchy, political party, wealth and…

…and then there are the myriad views of the ex-patriot exiled English overseas.

Englishness is up for grabs - again. The conclusion at the dinner was that “nobody really gets the English” and I wasn’t really any help for I recognised none of the descriptions offered. Then again three of the party were in global finance, a phrase just as elusive as Englishness. All of the party had children in private schools - whose classes are full of cosmopolitan betwixt-ness, such social mixtures as Argentine-American, Peruvian-Indian, Israeli-Romanian, Hungarian-French or Slovene-Belgian.

What will be the foundation myths of that generation? Will they will held together by ideas of Englishness? The children are English by education and social gravitational pull. Will the stories of England be in any sense useful, socially, financially or culturally, to them in adult life? And what, also, of Europe? Does that concept have sticky traction today when a London schoolgirl can just as easily support Barcelona as Manchester United at football? Or are we creating the conditions for the idea of community to be something quite different, independent of place? And not just where “Englishness” is concerned, but the idea of nationhood itself?

“Europa was the subject of one the most venerable legends of the classical world. Europa was the mother of Minos, Lord of Crete, and hence the progenitrix of the most ancient branch of Mediterranean civilization. She was mentioned in passing by Homer.”

Norman Davies, Europe.

The epic poetry of Virgil, born in Mantua seventy years before Christ, is often said to be a “foundation myth”. His most famous work, “The Aeneid”, to be the “story” that solidified the social foundations of Rome, and the Roman Empire. It was not the first epic: these are found also in many parts of the world, but it does encompass many of the themes of my investigation of Tom Coryat, his vision of Europe, and the tiny journey of new Europe I am making. The poem was not completed when Virgil died in 19BC: his greatest work was the product of the last decade of his life.

The Aeneid is a great story, a powerful myth, and a social tool. In my reading, most of all, the protagonist of the poem, Aeneas, is a classical “betwixt” figure. He “exists” for us, as for contemporary Romans, as a bridging device between the past that is ancient Troy and a future which will, after his death, become Rome and Empire; he also sits – as a classical hero – betwixt the gods and man. Is it such a shock that the Renaissance and what followed was consumed with such classic texts; such issues of before and after? After the Medieval hegemony of God, and before the rise of the Enlightenment Individual with his Rights of Man - for example.

If my thesis is right and we are now, once again, in a markedly betwixt – somewhat anxious - era of geographic, environmental and technological shift (I think now that all of history can, if reviewed with appropriate gaze, be seen as a ‘turning point’ or a moment betwixt) then what are the forms that bind us?

Tom occasionally mentions conversations on his travels, yet we know he spoke no French, German or Italian: it is Latin that is his lingua franca. So far on my journey two languages have dominated: English, and Microsoft Windows. Neither binds us, or forms a reason for community, but it does help us to connect. When I was a student backpacker in Europe in the 1970s I called the tentative conversations I often had “Pink Floyds”. For music – in English – was often a common chord, a way of finding commonality. Much later in Eastern Europe Radiohead played a similar function. But is OK Computer! or The Wall a binding contemporary “myth”? There’s little doubt that modern music concerts play a part in cosmopolitan community building in ways that little else can: football is still tribal, though it does bring nations together once every four years. But music is not a myth like Englishness, or “Latinate culture.” Perhaps it is all the better for that: before Homer “stories” were usually sung.

One of the first issues – I have – with The Aeneid, is that I read it in translation. It is my “Pink Floyd” conversation with the history of “Italy” (and “Europe”) as I make my hesitant way towards Venice. Today my Aeneid is a 1990s vernacular reading by the American, Stanley Lombardo. In this very choice I am distancing myself even further from Virgil, making the shift that in “Virgil’s Aeneid, a Reader’s Guide” David Ross describes simply: “Readers of the Aeneid tend to forget Virgil was a poet…his poetry depends so often on allusion, in often rather subtle ways, to his poetic inheritance. Without an acquaintance with the poets and contexts to which Virgil alludes, we will miss a great deal, inevitably…”

Sitting in a Mantuan café and reading the “poetry” as slowly as is possible through the twelve books of “The Aeneid” I am losing almost everything, but one thing is definitely not lost, even if the poetry is: the immense visual power of Virgil’s story. Ross describes it thus:

“It has been pointed out that Catullus’ scenes are static, as if he had in mind a painting, but Virgil often follows the development of a scene as if through the lens of a cinema camera. Our eye follows from one image to another and on to another.”

And to this we can add that Homer, the great poet before Virgil, author of The Iliad and the Odyssey, arrives and creates his epics at the summation of an even older oral, musical, tradition of stories told in song. Sound and Image: powerful myths of commonality, and as old as civilisation itself.

The modern myths created through popular music and cinema (perhaps television…computer games…virtual worlds), are all capable of bringing us together to enjoy (and interpret) stories. Yet, once again, we are now betwixt. The era when we all consumed the same things - the same music, the same films, books, the same television – is fading as we “personalize”. My generation’s new foundation myths crumble under the weight of YouTube, I-tunes, satellite television and Facebook; World of Warcraft, Second Life and the many varieties of “mash” culture. We look to younger people, ensconced in digital communities where friendships are made through cultural and social – sexual - preference, rather than, say, geography, as the building blocks of our unknown future. They feel very precarious; but are they any weaker than the foundations of national myth?

In a few weeks’ time I am going to encounter the Germanic myths, the Niebelung sagas, Rheingold, Wagner and who knows what else. These fill me with trepidation for I know what comes with these myths – a nationalistic, nation-state driven, motivation, and a terrible modern history. Virgil is different: though it is a story of war and death, it is also a story of reconciliation, of peoples “exiled by fate” who create a future. The Aeneid, despite its theatrical godly interventions, is supremely human in the end I feel as I read on. Human, because it describes hesitation and uncertainty and duty so well: heroically, I suppose.

But there is also a quite different reading of The Aeneid that comes through, one that is about the creation of a past that can echo with the utterances of Hitler about Germanic “past”, or Milosevic on his “Serbia.” It sounds with Putin’s statements about mirroring the Russia of Peter the Great, just as with English visions of Agincourt or the Second World War.

Here are a few “facts”. The Troy which Aeneas flees with the invasion of the Greeks is over 3000 years old. Troy “fell” in 1184BC. It would take five hundred years for the hero cults to Aeneas to be established; only by the third century BC Aeneas, the Trojan, was firmly located as a part of the pre-history of Rome.

The long blank canvas of Rome that existed in 200 BC, could easily form a metaphor for, say, pre-Mayflower America, or “dark-age” England. And into that blankness came stories: the myths of paternity for Aeneas, son of Venus, or Romulus, son of Mars. Of the “seven” kings between these two “founders” almost every fact is – ultimately – fiction. Looked at another way, as Ross writes:

“As soon as Rome began to play an important role in the Mediterranean, it needed to establish its past, and it was free to invent as much as it wanted. For the ancient Romans, Troy provided an emotional antiquity.”

Because Troy was not Greek. In making the father of Rome a Trojan the sense of inferiority to the previous “civilisation”, the Greeks, could be avoided. Suddenly, by adopting as history what were the legends and myths handed down by aristocratic families between the sack of Troy (home of Homer) and the “now” of “Caesar”, the Roman Empire found ballast, moral authority, and divine resource. A nation is born. What was England before Harold? After the Restoration of 1660? When it joined the “Common Market”; when it first built the “Special relationship” with America?

As David Ross asks of the Roman “story”, and we all must wonder: “Did any Roman actually believe in all this?” Similar questions could be asked of the story-tellings and tellers in any culture. As I read Tom’s grandiose asides about England and his King (and his Prince) in the “Crudities”, I often wonder: does he really think this, or is this part of the deal to be an insider at court, able to get a passport and travel when so few others could?

Or is Tom’s nomadism actually about his rejection of much of Jacobean England? That he continues to argue loudly – sometimes, by the time he is in Asia on his second and fatal journey, he sounds little more than a fundamentalist protestant bore – against other religions suggests either not, or that religious faith was the one thing that held fast Tom’s sanity as he ventured further and further from the safety of Odcombe.

These questions are one of the reasons for my journey: an impossible attempt at understanding another man, dead for almost 400 years, is really an attempt to see where I am, we are, in the story of Tom’s Europe, Europe itself, and the nature of modern myths and story-tellings. Already I’ve seen many kinds of myth: new and old, from the origins of literary Anglo-Saxon in Vercelli through to the role of Ferrari in film in Turin: each story fractures, sends us off somewhere else. Which is where the power (perhaps the myth) of the internet to restore connection, to reform story-telling, resolve narratives, is most worrying me. In one sense this is the “Casaubon complex” of wanting to know everything; in another the realization that we all live in so many parallel and complex stories today and though we’ve learnt the importance of jettisoning some in order to move forwards the reality is not so simple.

In Cremona twenty-something Italians, Donatella and Milena, iterate their belief in God, and an afterlife. In the internet cafés of Italy – the terror law of 2005 might suggest – resides a new Trojan horse, a narrative (or set) utterly contrapuntal to the myths of European “civilisation”, Edmund Burke’s doctrine that “No European can be a complete exile in any part of Europe.” And this horse, we read, is filled with terror; with nihilistic visions of a world without heathens, the Great Satan America. Robert Service, the Oxford academic and Russian expert, said recently that those educated but disenfranchised youths who 100 years ago looked to Marxism as a route to social nirvana might now be attracted to the ideas of radical Islam. We know that within the web there exist many stories, many tellings of our world now and its history that do not appear in Western text-books. Is this world Babel, or just another battle for narrative supremacy?

Norman Davies, in “Europe” asks the question that my journey makes manifest each time I hear a haunting, or slow because of the history of opera, or a Serbian woman’s story of “Raelian” intervention; each time I visit an internet café and “read” its inhabitants, wonder who they are phoning, what they are typing. He says: “The main problem nowadays is to decide whether the centrifugal forces of the twentieth century have reduced that heritage [Europe’s] to a meaningless jumble or not.”

Meaningless jumbles are easy to imagine when trying to contemplate Europe’s capacity for self-destruction and delusional stories, and not just in the century past. After Tom’s journey comes a 100 Years War in Europe; Tom’s heirs, the Grand Tourists, are the product not of 1620, but 1720, for instance. Perhaps this should wait for Germany. Or the new Dan Brown.

The key to reading The Aeneid, I suspect, is some understanding of Virgil’s time. He lived as the Roman republic collapsed, to be replaced by the autocracy of strong Emperors: individual leaders, not wise senators. By the time of Virgil’s adolescence Rome was an anarchic, gang-run city where factions were all; like New York in the 1890s, say, or Shakespeare’s Verona. When he was 21 Caesar began a civil war. In 42 BC, after the defeat of Caesar’s assassins, Brutus and Cassius, Virgil's estate near Mantua was confiscated.

He is writing at a time of great social change, when there is a need for social continuity – conservatism, even. This is the poet who invents “Arcadia” in his Eclogues and Georgics, after all. But to leap forwards: why was an English film made about Emma Hamilton in 1941? Did the English not see Churchill as Nelson, Hitler as Napoleon? What was the relationship of Wagner’s the Ring to the Nazi vision of the Reich? Milosevic’s remembering of the fourteenth century battle of Kosovo in a speech in “Yugoslavia” in 1989? Culture binds, broadcasts allusions: breeds some form of community, through time and place, often one that is excluding. It provides, in David Ross’s words, “Emotional Antiquity”.

In Virgil’s “Aeneid and the Roman Self” Yasmin Syed writes of first century BC Rome….”the aristocracy of this period was intensely interested in positioning itself in a framework of historical and mythological descent, thereby articulating their own perception of their identities.” She quotes Cicero’s “Academica”, on Varro, a roman historian and genealogist:

“For we were strangers in our own city and wandering around like guests, and your books have brought us home, so to speak, so that we could at last understand who and where we are…”

Syed continues: “By articulating Roman identity both politically and culturally, the Romans in some sense invented the concept of nationhood. Greek identity was, after all, a cultural not a political, identity…”

It sounds very similar to the attempts made by the Gonzagas in the fifteenth century Mantua, doesn’t it? Or nineteenth century nation-states. Twentieth century dictatorships. The EU…

After Virgil’s death his poetry was taught throughout the Roman Empire as a mirror on the “right” way to live. Augustine wrote of Virgil: “As little boys they read Virgil so that, absorbed into their delicate minds, the great, most famous and best of all poets cannot easily be erased from memory by oblivion.”

But this was far more than worship of a great poet, Virgil’s heroic stories, Syed writes, were “seen as planting the seeds of morality in people’s minds at an early, impressionable age.” A morality, interestingly, that in one part reveals that to be a “Roman” was not so much about where you came from, as what your morality is.

As Virgil writes via Aeneas:

“I was surprised by the great number
Of new arrivals I found, women and men,
Youth gathered for exile, a wretched band
Of refugees who had poured in from all over,
Prepared to journey across the sea
To whatever lands I might lead them."

“…men at arms,
What has forced you to travel routes unknown?
Where are you heading? What is your race,
Your home? Do you come in peace or war?”

Questions that can still be very hard to answer today if we think about them enough, particularly as we seem uniquely resourced to deconstruct any narrative.

I think, instead, of Ulrich, a German whose art eschews history, who sees art’s function as a mediation between material and space. Is that the answer to Norman Davies’ question have “the centrifugal forces of the twentieth century…reduced that heritage [Europe’s] to a meaningless jumble or not”?

I don’t know, though there are few examples of abstract minimalist sculpture leading to wars, I suspect. Mantua is proving as fertile as the lands in Virgil’s Eclogues; a staging post for the masked theatrics of Venice.

Tomorrow I’ll write about the first book I’ve read since this journey began: Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray”.