Friday, 10 August 2007

Transmission time @ the Cappella degli Scrovegni

The strangely scientific logo for the Scrovegni museum...

It is very hard to look honestly at Giotto’s art after reading Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion”. It is not hard to let yourself immerse in the frescos of the Scrovegni chapel in Padua and feel a sense of pleasure – though the emotion is perhaps better expressed as a nice engagement with image, colour, space, history, memory (for Giotto is not a new find, he’s an old friend, we’ll always have Assisi), moment – it is possible to shut out the 24 other people present, especially if being anti-“tourist” isn’t part of the aesthetic experience – and, most of all, faith. Faith, that is, in art’s capacity to mean something personally, and collectively.

From Padua's Disney store

But it is hard after 840 brutally rational paperback pages – that’s a double read – not to question just exactly what that something might be. Just what is being transmitted to us? And is this “thing”, to use a Dawkins word, a “meme”? Even without Dawkins forceful clarity about the improbability of God, the terrible power of religion to encourage belief without reason, there is a huge gap looking at this “masterpiece of European civilisation,” as the literature has it. That gap is an understanding of the source material, that’s to say, God: alive, non-existent, Old Testament Patriarch or Great Software Designer; Jesus, son of Man, and God; or deluded first century Jewish martyr. The lacuna is religion: even if we believe in “n” something, what we’re looking at here isn’t it. Not unless we believe in a highly literal Christianity, that the word of the Bible is how it is, and was.

Oh yes: people still do.

In the courtyard of the British Library over the past few weeks American groups sit before a man who looks like Michael Moore after the Atkins diet. From a Photostat hymn-sheet he “explains” – with the Library as backdrop and cultural reinforcement – how the Bible, indeed the King James Bible of 1611, is, to paraphrase, more accurate than the faggy-commie BBC. “There are doubters,” he says, “But they just don’t know. They are WRONG.”

The effect of the Giotto frescos in the Scrovegni chapel is a marvellous cinematic punch: an obvious observation, but nevertheless true. Wide and multi-screen, with a giant Day of Judgement on the south wall: all eyes turn to “hell” in the bottom right hand corner, because – frankly – that’s where the action is. But I keep thinking of Dawkins’ “My red is not your red, my blue, your blue…”. And the words of Giorgio Agamben, Professor of Aesthetics at Verona, the man recommended to me by Shaun, the “prodigy”, one night in Bloomsbury.

In his “The Man without Content” Agamben writes:

“When we are before a work of art we no longer attempt to penetrate its innermost vitality, identifying ourselves with it, but rather attempt to represent it to ourselves according to the critical framework furnished by aesthetic judgement…”

Not for a minute can I feel a connection with fourteenth century visions of Heaven & Hell, grasp the early Renaissance zeitgeist; the only point I feel is that the rich Scrovegni family built the chapel to help ease their dead father’s way through Purgatory. He was a usurer, and was going to have to pay his debts before rising up to Heaven. It sounds so stupid, doesn’t it? And it led to this magnificent giant spectacle of “meaning”.

On the other hand I can place Giotto on a page with Cimabue; can chart his influence on Raphael, Michelangelo, Mantegna…I can know about the market value of Giotto’s; and which museums own some.

Dawkins makes the point that artists have always had to make money, and the church, and religious scenes, was the only patron and the only subject for painters and sculptors in the middle ages and most of the Renaissance. And they believed. People did. And so these geniuses painted biblical scenes, and took their money. But what, Dawkins wonders, if it had been the Scientists who had the money? What if Copernicus or Galileo, or Cremonini had been the Patrons, not another Pope?

Perhaps in a parallel universe that is the case.

Kiss of Judas by Giotto

Because we can’t understand what these paintings meant, or the emotions or intellectual feelings they induced; their traditional function to transmit a message in fifteenth century Italy. Not clearly. Suddenly I feel close to Tom Coryat, copying out his Latin texts, noting down, collecting without purchase: as we do today with Leica and Sony, seeing but not. Every sign and signifier and symbol and allegory can be studied, of course: but not standing in the Scrovegni chapel: here we have 20 minutes, and most of the work is still too far away. Here we are consuming just to consume. It’s not all bad: I leave uplifted, but confused. It doesn’t help.

Agamben puts it all much better than I can:

“For, contrary to what one might think at first sight, the breaking of tradition does not at all mean the loss or devaluation of the past: it is, rather, likely that only now the past can reveal itself with a weight and an influence it never had before. Loss of tradition means that the past has lost its transmissibility, and so long as no new way has been found to enter into a relation with it, it can only be the object of accumulation from now on. In this situation, then, man keeps his cultural heritage in its totality, and in fact the value of this heritage multiplies vertiginiously. However, he loses the possibility of drawing from this heritage the criterion of his actions and his welfare and this the concrete place in which he is able, by asking about his origins and his destiny, to found the present as the relationship between the present and the future. For it is the transmissibility of culture that, by endowing culture with an immediately perceptible meaning and value, allows man to move freely forward toward the future without being hindered by the burden of the past. But when a culture loses its means of transmission, man is deprived of reference points and finds himself wedged between, on the one hand, a past that incessantly accumulates behind him and oppresses him with the multiplicity of its now-indecipherable contents, and on the other hand a future that he does not yet possess and that does not throw any light on his struggle with the past. The interruption of tradition, which is for us now a fait accompli, opens an era in which no link is possible between old and new, if not the infinite accumulation of the old in a sort of monstrous archive or the alienation effected by the very means that is supposed to help with the transmission of the old…the accumulated culture has lost its living meaning and hangs over man like a threat in which he can in no way recognize himself. Suspended in the void between old and new, past and future, man is projected into time as into something alien that incessantly eludes him and still drags him forward, but without allowing him to find his ground in it.”

Yes, that’s just what I meant to say. Good man, this Agamben. Dawkins too.

Postscript to the Rain

Last night it rained for eight seconds, which still briefly emptied the square. One brave couple sat it out. I asked Luca, a waiter, what the problem was. Why were there no umbrellas. "We don't have a licence. And to get a licence is a big deal, you have to talk to the local government. And then the fucking bureaucracy begins...Italy: capital of bureaucracy. You want another Campari-spritzer?"

Why not, it is only rain.

Thursday, 9 August 2007

Stream of rain and consciousness

Shaun believes the English novel died in 1943 with the “Establishment’s” rejection of “Finnegans Wake”. Especially Virginia Woolf; and she was dead within a year. He is 27, tells me quickly he is “precocious”: next term he starts teaching literature in England. Somewhere coastal. His PHD, just completed, is on a group of English authors from the 1960s I’ve never heard of. Experimental sorts, Shaun says.

He will republish them sooner or later: new media makes small print-runs easy today. I tell him about my pursuit of Thomas Coryat across Europe. “All been done,” he says. “Very bourgeois. What? Do you live in Hampstead as well?”

Shaun tells me to read Giorgio Agamben, an Italian intellectual, who has a line on such things. He also did a number on the American Patriot Act in a volume on Government and the Law called “States of Exception.” Not a rant, it’s mostly about the Greeks, the Senate and all that. Agamben believes that the twentieth century was about governments everywhere declaring “exceptional” circumstances to ignore their own laws. He teaches at Verona, perhaps I’ll meet him there.

“The problem with the experimental novel,” Shaun says, “is that nobody wants to read it. I like that.” His friend, a dark haired Ursula from Iceland, is “comparative literature”, finishing on James, Foster and de Maupassant, soon enough. “Bourgeois,” says Shaun, rolling a last cigarette...

At late there is a minor Paduan renaissance; perhaps fifty have made it to the central square. A biker or two turns up. But the noise is still like a BBC Radio play: a pre-recorded mumble of commentators. The occasional dog-walker passes by with thunder-frightened Spaniel in tow. Tomorrow is Giotto, God & Richard Dawkins and I was hoping to be thinking of more than the Death of the English novel conversation of weeks ago. But it comes back anyway. Probably something to do with reading "The God Delusion" yesterday; not much room for experimental novels in that.

You’re bourgeois, Tom Coryat: you probably knew that already. I hear from Shaun that there’s an Australian who has done a lot of good work about the colonial discourse in nineteenth century travel writing.

I’m betting it’s not in stock at the station newsstand in Padua. Hoping, to be honest.

Padua Requiem

“There is one speciall thing wanting in this citie, which made me not a little wonder; namely, that frequency of people which I observed in the other Italian cities. For I saw so few people here, that I thinke no citie of all Italy, France or Germany, no, nor of all Christendome that countervaileth this is quantity, is lesse peopled: so that were the students removed, the number of whom is sometimes abouve one thousand five hundred…this citie would seeme more than halfe desolate: yet their Praetorium or Senate house that I have before described, I observed sometimes to be pretty well frequented with people. It was tolde me, having inquired the reason of this scarcity of inhabitants, that most of the nobler Patavine families doe live out of the citie, partly in Venice, and partly in their villaes and Palaces of retrait in the countrey, and doe very seldom make their aboad in Padua. But the reason why they abandon the citie, and preferred other places before it, no man told me…”

If Padua is the equivalent of, lets just say, Bath in England, or Chambéry in France, in terms of size and scope and history, then it comes third of three in dealing with the weather. Officially Paduans are bad in the rain. And tonight there is big rain: I’ve brought it from England, no doubt.

Crowds the size of an Inquisition-survivors self-help meeting circa 1610 are on the streets; the mood is sullen, as if Francesco Totti has just missed a penalty in the world cup final. Africans try to sell umbrellas, but listlessly: in Paris, and in far worse May-time conditions, the umbrella business was spectacular. Here there’s not even an attempt at marketing.

Sure Padua has Galileo on the books, then Bath has Jane Austen, Chambéry makes a decent claim for Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and how those three Canon-giants stack up is harder to decide. But for a town with a magnificent six hundred year old fresco drama on time and the seasons, it seems very ill-prepared for not-sun. Here I watch the down-side to outdoor culture: climate change, I suppose. I wonder: will all Italians be tucked up at home on front of the computer screen playing online games in two generations?

An hour after the worst of the storm there are precisely 17 people drinking in the main square. I turn around and it is 13. At the next table a woman experiments with a long black cigarette holder: it brings the first laugh of the night. August: out of season Italy. Joy-riders take to driving around the square in their Italian Job 2 Minis. And now I think about it, where are the restaurants anyway?

I’m back in the living world, not the library and I’m reconfiguring my imagined Padua minute by minute. I’m guessing the town hasn’t had its cultural make-over yet. Thus the architects visions of modernity and “future” in the Palazzo della Ragione. Yet I can’t believe I am so close to Venice. Where are the kebab suburbs, and the Chinese restaurants? I’ve walked the town quite well, and seen perhaps seven restaurants: five for the coach-set by St Anthony’s Basillica.

I ask the waiter where the restaurants are. “What you want?” Food. “Go right, right again, then left.” He says. I go right, right, left and expect to find queues. Instead a small place half-full of locals, mostly not eating. There are roly-poly men at the bar talking the talk; and two women describing unspeakably bad male behaviour. It’s barely ten at night and the mood is down-beat.

The plates at the tables are empty, and though there is conversation there’s little volume save the bar-side Bards. I spy a nose ring and feel like Galileo spotting a new planet. Is it the legacy of history, the fact that once these streets were the very fulcrum of intellectual Europe, which makes for such a torpor now?

“No, they’re not in the centre, on the outside more, you have to walk,” says Lucia, a dentist. She thinks I am looking for a university first of all: I’ve done enough of those for the day. She laughs at her friend’s text message, then puts on a pink leather jacket, grimaces at the weather and reminds me not to eat here as she leaves. “There is a place near the centre, but it’s very expensive,” she warns. “If you want Italian meat you have to walk.”

The line sounds like an early Lou Reed lyric, from a song that turns up only on limited edition 4CD boxed-sets. I finish another Campari-spritzer, smile at the roly-poly men, and don’t go in search of Italian meat, but wander home. I feel as if I’ve entered a very private family grief.

Post rain music

After the first storm twenty minutes of pleasure: Ravel, Vivaldi and Bach outside the Palazzo Bo, empty streets suddenly fill, as if in reconnection with some other time when music was everywhere in the streets. The violins remind me of other northern towns: Cremona, Mantua, Vercelli. The violinists’ case is quickly full of Euros, two musicians who have spotted a gap in the cultural market of this cultural town.

“…I heard that when the number of students is full, there are at the least one thousand five hundred here: the principall faculties that are professed in the University, being physicke and the civill law: and more students of forraine and remote nations do live in Padua, then in any one university of Christendome. For hither come in, many from France, high Germany, the Netherlands, England, &c. who with great desire flocke together to Padua for good letters sake, as to a fertile nursery, and sweet emporium and mart town of learning. For indeed it hath bred many famous and singular learned men within these hundred yeares, and a little more…”

Wednesday, 8 August 2007

Time out in Padua

"There is one moral of all human tales;
‘Tis but the same rehearsal of the past,
First freedom, and then glory – when that fails
Wealth, vice, corruption, - barbarism is last.
And History, with all her volumes vast,
Hath but one page"

Byron, Childe Harold

This morning I am summoned by bells. And if the clock tower is on time then I wake at 148 o’clock. Back on the Tom-track the issues of time and rhythm seem important today: where last night the central palazzos were quiet, almost discrete, centres of Campari-spritzer drinking, this morning they are bustling market places. I am returned to the rhythm of “squares” with their daily dialectic between commerce, communication and cold-beer-contemplation. That is to say, betwixt the fruit stalls and the evening cafés and gelato shops, and the mid-afternoon longeurs of siesta-time, there is a sense of “time” that drifts back from today, and the Sisley store and Vodaphone shop around the corner with its lone busker playing lounge versions of “Layla”, to a medieval Padua, long before Tom. It is the sense of Italy “time” and its permanence as the way of life here outside the big cities.

Because I quite dread the NASDAQ of Venice I feel quite strange saying that the absence of foreign tourists last night – it was pretty much a solid Italian I heard spoken all over town – was disappointing. But it was: Padua has given us so much in its long and distinguished history; it’s a lovely town, “faire” as Tom would say. So where is everyone? Venice, I am sure.

Close to the hotel is the Palazzo della Ragione, the first stop. This morning is a riot of peaches and barter, haggles and oranges. Climbing marble stairs above a vaulted market the sound of a battery powered amp playing acoustic Nirvana sounds out above the din of commerce. The single first floor room of the Palazzo is big: not Fontainbleu big; but plenty enough. Once this was where judges held court. For a hundred years or so the high ceiling was a riot of “real sky” complete with the stars and planets as they were known in the 1300s. Design was by Pietro d”Abano, professor of medicine and natural philosophy at the University; actuality by the genius Giotto. All was lost in a great fire in 1420.

With Renaissance restoration and a raising of the ceiling came what I see now – give or take a myriad of smaller restorations. The effect is stunning: four walls, north, south, east and west covered in frescos that tell the story of “time”. They show what we’d call the human archetypes depending on the season, the month – the time. For Middle Age Humanity, that is. August (Leo) is depicted as a young woman with ears of wheat: she’s wearing a long dress. The month is about fruit picking. [I note my month, November (Sagittarius) is described: “this allegory probably represents a boar hunt.”

There is a man playing the bagpipes, a woman on the guitar. Scholars in their studies, religious scenes, and enough visual story-telling to keep JK Rowling in plots for decades. And three visitors.

Everything in the hall is about looking up, except the modern exhibition by a group of modern architects of mock-ups for a new Paduan theatre. These are displayed on Plasma at ground level, and most of the simulations look like the kind of buildings that are destroyed in episodes of Thunderbirds, in the 1960s. There’s a big horse with big balls, as well.

Without a map we get lost; without a guide-book we don’t know what we look at. Without a text book we don’t know what Palazzo X or Basillica Y has or means. Without sitting down for weeks with many text books we can’t know if that Meaning is Significant. I look at the frescos in the Palazzo della Regione with bemused wonder: as spectacle they work, as visual narratives I actually need to be on a ladder just to get at the details – or looking at a book. And once I can see them I have a million ways to misinterpret those details – the bagpipes, for example.

“December: this month shows a peasant slaughtering a pig. Capricorn: the sign is shown, in Medieval tradition, as a rampant goat. Saturn: this planet is depicted as an old man biting his fingers, in the first of his two houses.”

I wonder how much scholarship time I would need to put in just to understand those three sentences in any meaningful way? And would it help anyone?

Across the square and around the corner is the Palazzo Bo, home to those rioting Bovistas that ran naked in protest at the Jesuit college in 1591. Here is some of the university, old and new. A modern abstract sculpture involving Galileo isn’t as interesting as a wooden frieze which reminds me of an art work I once saw in the ruins of Sarajevo’s post-Yugoslav wars library. I can imagine the students running around as I make my way through empty side streets towards the location, if not the house, where Galileo lived. There is a modern sign on the Via Galilei, and, a few buildings down, a nice store selling “Sanderson” fabrics. Behind the gates to what was once the medical faculty of Renaissance Padua’s university is a 60s housing block.

Americans in skull caps are finally sighted near what was once the Jewish ghetto.

“Padua provided one of the richest opportunities for Jews to familiarize themselves intellectually and socially with some of the best of European civilisation. From the sixteenth century until well into the eighteenth, Jewish students came there from all over central and eastern Europe and returned to serve in their communities and elsewhere. The experience not only provided socialisation among Jews from varied backgrounds but also required them to interact with Christians from all over Europe.”

Today one man says: “Don’t bother going inside [St Anthony’s Basillica] just get the brochure and look at the pictures. Inside the – inevitably huge – tour-bustling basilica the same thoughts of time and rhythm are augmented by a nagging question about looking at anything religious. The thoughts of time lead me to write my first ever mathematical equations. I don’t think they would impress Galileo.

T + Tr + RL = H
T + RL – Tr = P

Where T = Time, Tr = Tourist, RL = Religious Location, H = Hell, P = Purgatory.

This leads on to the more advanced equation T + Tr + D + RL = CH squared

Where D = Digital Camera, and C = Complete

As I don’t believe, I look to religious art or architecture for other things: occasionally, as say with Giotto’s frescoes in Assisi, they are highly moving – but for aesthetic, that’s to say, humanly constructed, reasons. As I wander St Anthony’s carefully trying to avoid relics and Saints, for goodness sakes it is the twenty-first century, after all, and half a mile away Galileo’s house merits a meagre brown sign, I try to imagine if Tom’s belief system allowed him access to something more like understanding here.

In the circular ornamental park, the Prato della Volle, complete with narrow canal and dinky bridges, and surrounded by basilicas, and ancient buildings of all kinds, another American, a woman, shouts: “I want that old building in the picture.”

In a way I’m sort of with her, though I’ve been looking at “Old buildings” for eight weeks now; and by now Tom had been looking for over twelve. I imagine a world to come when the camera, when pointed at an object, identifies it using GPS and a global database of “place”, so that once downloaded a tourist, or a scholar, or an exile, can say: “that’s me in front of the “Osservatario Astronomica” in Padua.

It’s closed, of course, when I get there. Open only at weekends. Next door in the modern Astronomy Faculty the receptionist is online and engaged with a roll-player game that involves headphones. He points leftwards, but doesn’t say the building is closed.

Edwin Muir writes: “One of the most disturbing sources of late-Renaissance anxiety was the collapse of the traditional hierarchical notion of the human self…individuals during the Renaissance looked inward for emotional sustenance and outward for social assurance, and the friction between the inner and outer selves could sharpen anxieties.”

Most of all: “the sense of sight lost its primacy as the superior faculty, the source of “Enlightenment”

It is strange how “sight” is now so greatly the “superior faculty,” seeing or photographing, posing or rebuilding the body – to be looked at. The difference betwixt 1608 and today being that while we all look through the telescope these days, we often have absolutely no idea what we are looking at, merely that we have. That we look, and are looked at. Anything else is just talk…


Those Pictures

Oh Venice, city of Angels

Diesel jeans just in case you wondered, are Italian, the owner is from Padua.

And is he not happy with the prices in Venice either

"Mr Rosso (52), who comes from nearby Padua, said that they had enjoyed the orchestra that plays at Florian's but had been stunned when they found that the bill included an extra charge of €5.80 a head for "entertainment".

"My wife and I had a spritzer each, for which the charge was €22," he told 'Il Giornale'. The price of the drinks was steep enough on its own, "but it's the music charge that scandalises me most of all", he said."

Tuesday, 7 August 2007

There are supposed to be pictures today

but Padua's cafes are tough. Perhaps all the nice abstract Paduas will come tomorrow with Giotto..and God via Dawkins

My observations of Padua

…”It hath five market places that are continually exceeding well furnished with manner of necessary things. Many faire stony bridges. It is of a round forme like Paris. ..This City may compare with any City of all Italy for antiquity, saving three, Ravenna, Volaterra in Hetruria, and Mantua….

But seeing I now enter into some discourse of Livies house, me thinks I heare some carping criticke object unto me, that I doe in this one point play the part of a traveller, that is, I tell a lye, for how is it possible (perhaps he will say) that Livies house should stand to this day, since that yourselfe before have written that Padua hath beene eftsoones sacked, and consumed with fire? How comeeth it to passé that Livies house should be more priviledged from the fury of the fire, then other private houses of the City?

I answer thee that it is very probable, this building whereof I now speake, may be the very house of Livie himselfe, notwithstanding that Padua hath beene often razed and fired. First, for that the very antiquity of the structure doth signifie it is very ancient. For I observed no house whatsoever in all Padua that may compare with it for antiquity. Secondly, because I perceived that it is a received opinion of the Citizens of Padua, and the learned men of the University that Livie dwelt therein. Thirdly, for that I am perswaded that the most barbaroud people that ever wasted Padua, as the Hunens and Longobardes, were not so void of humanity, but that in the very middest of their depopulating and firing of the City, they would endeavour to spare the house of Livie (at the least if they knew which was his) and to preserve it to posterity for a monument of so famous a man….

…There is no street that I saw in the whole citie, but hath fair vaulted walks in the same, which are made in this manner: There is a long rowe or range of building that extendeth itselfe in length from one end of the street to the other, and is inserted into the walls of the houses of the same streete. In many places it is some twelve foote high, being arched at the roofe, and about five foote broad, that two may well walke together in it….these walkes doe yeelde the citizens two singular commodities: the one, that in the Summer time they may walke there very coolely even at noone, in the very hottest of all the canicular [the rising of the Dog Star, August 11th, hence dog days] dayes, as under a pleasant and safe shelter, from the scorching heate of the sunne: the other that in the winter they defend them both from the injury of the raine (for in these they may walk abroad farre from their houses dry in the middest of a violent storme) and not a little from the byting colde, the force whereof they will more feele in the open streetes. Besides, as I said before, it is a great ornament to the Citie….The first Jewes that I saw in all Italy were in Padua, where there is a great multitude of them."

Monday, 6 August 2007

Stardust Memories

Five hundred and sixteen years ago, at the same time that the University of Padua was enriched by the arrival to the Chair of Mathematics of one Galileo Galilei, a man who would be one of the most controversial and enigmatic scholars in history, the local students started a spring-time of rioting.

A second and perhaps even more enigmatic academic also joined the University in this year (as the most famous, and the highest paid, professor in “Italy” – Padua had the largest budget of any Italian university at this time). His name was Cesare Cremonini. And he will be forever famous, thanks in part to Bertolt Brecht, as the man who wouldn’t look through Galileo’s telescope. And, so, symbolises the apparent blindness of late Renaissance/ early Baroque intellectual, religious and political “orthodoxy” or “conservatism” to the radical ideas of Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler about our place in the grand scheme of the universe. He is something more than that, of course – once we go “betwixt”.

So too, the radical trio – but I’ll leave that to the new scholars.

First those riots: for almost three centuries the prestige of Padua’s university was unchallenged. It was the de facto university of buoyant Venice, ten miles away, but unlike many of the nascent city-universities of “Christendome” it gave no special preference to local scholars. It was a genuinely “pan-European” centre, not just a local Venetian university, one that welcomed scholars of all faiths and nationalities – even the English. By the 1530s it boasted the best medical faculty in Europe; it claimed the first professor of botany or pharmacology, the first botanical garden; the first clinical facility. Autopsy was invented here, pretty much. William Harvey was a post-graduate; Sir Henry Wootton, Ambassador at Venice in Tom’s time, learnt statecraft and spy-craft and, as we’ll see, the art of lying abroad.

Venice, coming shortly as I’ve written for too many days now, really was an interesting place: for it combined mercantile genius (waning just, by the time of Tom’s visit) with what can seem a glorious tolerance and patronage these days. Edmund Muir writes:

“The Venetian and their allies defended religious scepticism (even atheism), scientific experimentation, sexual liberty (Even pederasty), women’s rights to an education and freedom from parental tyranny, the presence of women on the stage, and the seductive power of the female voice in opera.”

(Here, in further context, I mention a favourite quote, over eighty years old itself, and I have no idea if modern scholarship has turned over its premise. A.N Whitehead wrote in “Science and the Modern World” in 1925: “In the year 1500 Europe knew less than Archimedes who died in the year 212 BC.”) It is a quote I ponder a lot on this trip thinking about how much we still know. Where too, the new creative Renaissance that should come with our – increasingly beleaguered – liberal tolerance? I guess it’s here, in modes of communication, in visual media, text and science, but I wish we knew a little more about it publicly, a little less La Lohan.

But if it can be said that late sixteenth century Padua specialised in any one idea - it had long led the way in medicine and law, and acted as a kind of diplomatic finishing school for politicians and ambassadors from all over Europe – that thing would be doubt. It was a kind of a condition of the times.

In his “The Waning of the Renaissance” the modern academic, William J Bouwsma, shows how from around 1550 to 1640 the cultural world of Europe was ‘full of contradictions’; how its thinkers constituted a ‘community of ambivalence’, and the creative freedom characteristic of the early Renaissance ‘was constantly shadowed by doubt and anxiety.’

And it is the conditions which bring about this ambivalence, shadow, doubt, contradiction and anxiety that is most pertinent to the riots in Padua, in 1591, and to the “Betwixt” modern era. To the now, where the punctured wheel of post-modernity can often seem perennially “repaired” only through either the accumulation of Gonzaga-style riches (or debts) or the adoption of absolutist (and radical) faith. Doubt we don’t do so well at the moment, despite the excellent sales for “The God Delusion”. Doubt is, it feels, for wimps; doesn’t look good on a PowerPoint; or play well in a “Shoot-Em-Up,” or political address (Obama just advocated strikes on Pakistan, if required, I note, sadly). Doubt seems like the purgatory of corporate, or born-again, culture; the playground of disengaged academia. Perhaps we just need to look at it through a telescope, rather than a bottom-line or election-booth, and see if it can help our confusing times.

Bouwsma writes of Tom’s era:
“…the hidden source of cultural change is anxiety, which in the case of the late Renaissance was produced by a surfeit of creative liberty that collapsed categories, blurred distinctions, and breached boundaries, the very bulwarks of cultural order that calm existential anxieties. By the late sixteenth century the creative freedom of the Renaissance had generated anxieties that became unendurable for many. They sought to cope by erecting new forms of order. The culture wars resulted from the tension between the desire for liberation and the need for order, between those who explored the limits of cultural tolerance under the protection of Venice and those, mostly outside Venice, who abhorred the emotional, intellectual and spiritual anarchy that resulted from such tolerance.”

To these eyes that reads as a very modern statement. Into the socio-cultural arena of late Sixteenth century Europe’s collapsing certainty came (as these things do today) the antithesis of doubt: came, in fact, The Word 2.0. In 1591 the local Jesuit college in Padua had grown from humble beginnings to offer serious competition to the University, its rapid expansion financially under-pinned and supported by many more conservative Paduan and Venetian families who grew increasingly concerned by the spiritual and moral “decline” of the university, which had been cast in the worst possible light in the Jesuit’s sermons.

The Jesuit faith was only fifty-seven years old (or fifty-one depending on the time-line) in 1591. The Jesuits’ mission was conversion to Catholicism – as “soldiers of God”; its sub-text was the prevention of the spread of Protestantism, though neither of these ideas was part of its founder’s initial plan; that came after Ignatius Loyola offered his services to the Pope, who could see rich earthly promise in the Jesuit’s world-view and took full advantage. Incorporating many of the ideas of Renaissance Humanism, the Jesuit approach is intellectual and emotional, looks to an inner sensitivity through meditation – to find God in all things. But theological advancement was not enough for some; the advances in post-Copernican science was creating ambivalence, shadow, doubt, contradiction and anxiety even if many of its chief proponents still believed in some kind of God, or at least didn’t publish things that would bring his existence into question.

During the spring of 1591, graffiti attacking the Jesuits appeared on the walls of their college in Padua, and then in July on two successive days Bovisti [Paduan students who took classes in the Palazzo Bo] surrounding the Jesuit college shot off guns, smashed windows, and painted more anti-Jesuit graffiti. The riots had begun. Were they based on thought or ignorance; ideological struggle or neighbourly jealousy? Every reading is possible.

“On July 12, a group of university students, including young Venetian patricians from prominent families, stripped off their clothes, dressed themselves in sheets, and marched on the Jesuit college, flashing women and children along the way. Once inside the college they threw off the sheets and ran around naked, shouting obscenities at the Jesuit fathers and the younger students. The ringleaders of this adolescent prank faced heavy fines, but the incident actually increased hostility toward the Jesuits in Padua.”

Edmund Muir writes.

But here the paradoxes shoot ahead of the prejudices (even Brecht’s), to paraphrase Rousseau. “All sides of the culture wars shared in the heritage of Renaissance humanism, particularly its emphasis on the historical appreciation of sources, a critical understanding of the thought of the ancients, the problems of imitating nature in science and the arts, the evocative capacity of language to persuade, and its fallible capacity to represent.” Muir writes. And so Padua in the riots of 1591 or the Galilean Revolution of 1610 cannot be seen as a dialectic or right and wrong, progress and intolerance, instead more of a Beirut of interests out of which epoch-defining ideas emerge.

For example, the man who soon took the lead in defending the anti-Jesuit students of his university (and winning on their behalf: the Jesuits were banished from the entire Venetian dominion between 1606 and 1657)…was its most popular Professor…. Not Galileo Galilei, but Cesare Cremonini, the man we think of as “denying” modern science.

Cremonini, like Galilei, is a subtlely betwixt character. His motto in Latin was: Intus ut libet, foris ut mores est. This is Latin for: “In private think what you wish, in public behave as the custom”. He was thought one of the best philosophers of his era, and I think he was close to coming of the Atheist closet through his rigorous reasoning – perhaps he was only held back by his motto. It is not that he single-handedly destroyed the idea of the immortality of the soul (though his ideas were highly influential within the slightly later Venetian “libertine” movement that – anonymously – went for God’s jugular) but that he guided so many later scholars in the direction of Reason and Logic – and Earthly Pleasures: they liked that a lot. Looked at another way his refusal to look through Galileo’s telescope can be seen as intellectually rigorous: “Cremonini was on the verge of making Descartes’s move [I think therefore I am] and one can see why he was unwilling to see – that is, through the telescope.” Muir writes. “The senses cannot be trusted unless logic is also applied.”

Meanwhile, the Jesuits – for a period the intellectual as well as, perhaps, the moral wing of the Catholic church – honoured Galileo in 1610, following the publication of the Starry Messenger (1616 was when the trouble started). As Arthur Koestler writes:

“They praised and fêted Galileo, whom they knew to be a Copernican, and they kept Kepler, the foremost exponent of Copernicanism, under their protection throughout his life.”

And Koestler goes further, naming different names in his book of shame, "The Sleepwalkers": “…the inertia of the human kind and its resistance to innovation are most clearly demonstrated not, as one might expect, by the ignorant mass – which is easily swayed once its imagination is caught – but by professionals with a vested interest in tradition and in the monopoly of learning.” He adds that Galilei’s strident character probably didn’t help – how often is it the personal?

“Galileo had a rare gift for provoking enmity…the cold, unrelenting hostility which genius plus arrogance minus humility creates among mediocrities…”

Koestler concludes: “The academic backwoodsmen have been the curse of genius from Aristarchus to Darwin and Freud; they stretch, a solid and hostile phalanx of pedantic mediocrities, across the centuries.”

I wonder in 100 years time which “academics”, think-tankers, pundits and theorists (of politics, economics, geology and physics - say) will escape a similar blanket description? Or to put it another way: will Richard Dawkins still be read in 2108? Will String Theory be proved? Or God’s existence? Global warming? How will stem-cell research be doing? And who’ll be quoting Ian McEwan? Or Rush Limbaugh?

And, how come Cesare Cremonini is still being written about? Because he thought interestingly, I suggest. Because he, no more or less than Galileo, was daring to be different with his (private) atheism, or something close. The inquisition investigated him just as much as Galileo – we discover from documents in the Vatican library discovered only a few years ago. Remember than witches were still being burnt alive at this time (Kepler’s mum was nearly fried because she was a little hideous and lippy, to paraphrase Koestler). Denying God wasn’t fun, not for anyone. And being the best-paid academic in Italy was probably quite fun. In so many ways being a modern politician is just like being a Renaissance and post-Renaissance thinker or scientist. So many questions are best unanswered. And the brightest are not always the best.

Later in "The Sleepwalkers" Koestler writes:
“Atheists were the exception among the pioneers of the scientific revolution. They were all devout men who did not want to banish deity from their universe, but could find no place for it – just as, quite literally, they were unable to reserve sites for Paradise and Hell….Theology and physics parted ways not in anger, but in sorrow, not because of Signor Galileo, but because they became bored with and had nothing more to say to each other.”

I return to another quote of A.N Whitehead from the middle of the twentieth century, it seems rather accurate even now, in a certain fundamental light: “The churches…have put forward aspects of religion which are expressed in terms either suited to the emotional reactions of bygone times or directed to excite modern emotional interests of non-religious character…”

Nearby me in the Scrovegni chapel here in Padua sits extraordinary restored religious art work by the fourteenth century painter, Giotto di Bondone that – I hope – is timeless, spiritual and effortlessly moving; is undoubtedly part of the “western canon”, and makes for excellent “real” postcards. “Giotto”, unlike “Galileo” whose ideas have been refined, augmented and turned into metaphor, can thus still mean something now. The genius of Galileo is effectively denied at prayer meets from The Beltway to Tora Bora every time the “vested interests” of backwoodsmen and “emotional interests of a non-religious character” slug it out around the world without ever a sight of a new Starry Messenger – with a secular face, or from on high – or the arrival of mass atheism.

Giotto, though he can be read and reread according to his times, and ours, remains a fixed point somehow in 2007, even if he’s less famous than Andy Warhol or Tracy Emin today. Galileo & his “logical” sometime mate, the probable atheist, Cesare Cremonini, seem as far away as the famous moons and planets which caused all the problems back in the day. If fact, they seem a lot further away than a God for whom the new world seems a very clear and present danger and battleground.

Whether he exists or not.

I am looking forward to Giotto di Bondone: perhaps he will simplify things, though not the God question. That’s already certain.

At least Two Stories; One Man

Ok: back to the get-go, shirt in sweat-mode. In the next dew days I'm going to try and define the Betwixt, and Tom's modest contribution, in the context of Padua, Venice & Verona while I enter the serious tourist life for a while.

As I wait for Giotto, (tickets 48 hours in advance, etc...) here is the start of a different and "betwixt" view of Padua's greatest son, and Time magazine's Man of the (last) Millennium. A new book, by Michael White...

"Galileo's story instantly became the stuff of myth, an exemplary tale that could be told in several ways: man versus authority, science versus religion, conscience versus church. In some accounts he is a hero, in others a coward, in yet others an apostate. In the 20th century, Brecht, in his subtle and complex play The Life of Galileo, and Arthur Koestler, in his controversial history of science The Sleepwalkers, gave contradictory interpretations of the same story. Michael White, a brilliantly lucid exponent of scientific history, takes an unequivocal line on the material, bluntly stated in his title: Galileo Antichrist."

From the Guardian. More on this key moment of science, art, politics and religion later. It is so interesting how an act, a moment, can be read in so many ways.