Monday, October 26, 2020

The Shores of the Adriatic – The Austrian Side – The Künstenland, Istria, and Dalmatia by F Hamilton Jackson 1908


Interesting to read this account of a journey – not the author’s first to the area – while travelling through part of it. The writing makes me regret I did not include a trip to Aquileia in our itinerary. It makes one realise that it’s not possible to do everything and that there is an awful lot of human history to see.

The striking thing about Hamilton’s book is his forensic approach of church architecture and decoration. It seems that each and every ecclesiastical site is for him a veritable museum full of artefacts, artistic styles and architectural techniques. Even the smallest of churches is treated with the same meticulous eye and pen.

A second and utterly memorable part of his work is how his historical paradigm is so completely different from that of the contemporary traveller. He spends most of his time in Austria. It was indeed only in the 1950s that Trieste, for instance, became part of Italy. Piran was a Venetian city. Places have been part of Yugoslavia, Hungary, Papal States, Venice, Genoa – and more than once! Serbia, Byzantine empire, Roman empire, Greek, Slovenian, Croatian, Kingdom of Naples, Norman… Our eyes can only see the world it has experienced. And so when the contemporary traveller visits places like these, we somehow cannot shake off the assumption that the historical evidence ought to fit into the same paradigm. We all know that Maribor used to be Marburg, that Bratislava used to be Pressburg, that it was once the capital of Hungary… But how much of this is merely part of our specific and therefore biased assumptions? Hamilton seems fully aware at all times that the very identity of these places has been transformed many times, but he is also aware of the fact that the most powerful influence is always found in the identity of those who live there. His approach to culture is rather anthropological for today’s tastes, but he is usually sympathetic, except when exigencies of travel intervene. It must also be recorded that there have been, even recently, major population movements, expulsions and attempted genocides. It’s all part of the history… human, at that…

The quality of his portrayal makes me want to revisit the area quite soon and travel down the coastal towns and islands of the Adriatic. There is much to see, though the ramshackle quaintness he encountered is certainly no longer in evidence.

A surprising and often-encountered aspect of the book is the number of times he and his party of travellers are stopped by police, immigration officers and the like on grounds of security. They were carrying cameras and the official types could not comprehend that people wanted to record architectural details such as mullions and roofs. They must surely be spies or thieves or both. In an era where there is a photo every centimetre, where we travel freely without borders and even use the same currency across countries, one has to utterly thankful for the changes. Tell that to the British.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Costa Blanca Arts Update - Claudi Arimany plays Mozart Flute Quartets and Marco Tezza plays Schubert, Janacek and Schumann


Friday, Saturday and Sunday, the middle of October, and Alfas del Pi has three concerts in the renewed cycle of La Sociedad de Conciertos de la Música Clásica. Friday and Sunday were solo piano recitals by Marco Tezza, while on Saturday, in Casa Cultura, we heard Claudi Arimany and the Beaux Arts Trio in Mozarts four flute quartets.

The Mozart quartets offer about an hour of music. As soloist, Claudi Arimany called the tune and chose generally fast tempi for the allegros, including the rondos. This is not demanding music, but it is pleasurably tuneful, memorably so. But there are also moments of elegance. It is this mix of the simple and sophisticated, the utterly ordered alongside elements less predictable that has maintained the popularity of Mozarts music for over two centuries. It was a perfect opportunity for Claudi Arimany to display his unquestionable virtuosity, whilst Joaquin Palomares, David Fons and Gonzalo Meseguer, the members of the Beaux Arts Trio, played their substantial part.

The two piano recitals by Marco Tezza presented the Alfas audience with something of a challenge. The Friday programme was Schubert’s Sonata in B flat D960 coupled with In The Mists by Leos Janacek, whilst on Sunday he repeated the Schubert, but coupled it with Schumann’s Gesänge der Frühe, opus 133.

Schubert’s last sonata for piano is a challenging work under any hands. It is one of the longest piano sonatas ever written and its deceptively light textures often give way to dark, depressed corners of the human psyche as its composer contemplated what was to prove a fatal illness and an approaching death that was only weeks in the future. And, given he had suffered symptoms for several years, he was certainly aware of the process.

The work’s tempi markings are possibly ambiguous, but most pianists stick at least roughly to the broad moderato of the first movement in the even broader andante of movement two. But the first movement is moderato qualified by the composer with “molto” and the andante of the second with “sostenuto”. The mind could spend quite some time working out how to be “very” moderate or indeed how walking maybe “sustained”, other than by not actually stopping.

Now it appears that most pianists interpret the first movement’s pace at the allegro end of moderato and the second’s andante towards adagio. The notable exception to this pattern was Sviatoslav Richter, whose YouTube performance of the piece from 1972 is timed at over forty-seven minutes, with the opening moderato running to twenty-four minutes. Most performances, however, do not run to such lengths. Alfred Brendel, for instance, albeit ignoring a repeat or two, could deliver the work in just over thirty-five minutes.

Imagine, then, the level of surprise when, preparing to introduce the concert, Marco Tezza asked me to request that there should be no applause between movements because the piece would last no less than fifty-five minutes. And it did. I would not have been surprised if he had said thirty-five minutes. I would have questioned forty-five, but fifty-five just passed over me, so unexpected it precluded reaction.

And it was the first two movements that stretched time. Rather than a life story told at a story-teller’s pace, the movement became an autobiographical reflection, a series of questions, perhaps from a dying composer’s rambling diary, all of which led to the repetition of “Did I deserve this?” It is a work I have heard hundreds of times, but Marco Tezza’s performance was immediately something different when, at the end of the opening phrase, I became conscious for the first time that there is a clashing semitone in the harmony. The second movement became a long bout of self-pity, interspersed with what came across as memories, telling of better times in the past that contrasted ever more bleakly with the dark present.

Movements three and four were more conventional, but because of what had preceded them, they took on the sense of denials, expressing an inability to face up to the reality that had demanded attention in the first two.

I admit that after the Friday concert I was not convinced. After Sundays concert when he repeated the work, I was. Its an approach that will not replace the existing B-flat sonata in my head but will now live forever alongside it as a different take on what had become the composer’s uncomfortable reality. And, by the way, the Janacek In The Mists on Friday night and the Schumann Gesänge der Frühe on Sunday both contributed to and indeed emphasized the feeling of introspection. On both occasions, we were sent home with a little encore, Chauncey Olcott’s arrangement of My Wild Irish Rose, played, believe it or not, very slowly and introspectively. Music is a very powerful language, especially when understated.


Monday, October 19, 2020

Theodoric the Goth: Barbarian Champion of Civilization by Thomas Hodgkin (1897)

The fifth and sixth centuries of the Christian era are often listed as part of what we dismissively label as the “Dark Ages”. These times saw the fall of Rome, repeatedly, and the following centuries that were not well documented, compared to what had gone before. For many of modern mind, this era marks the end of what was assumed to be the civilizing influence of the Roman Empire on the world as it was known. This assumption is immediately challenged by the title of Hodgkin’s provocative and detailed account of the life of Theodoric and his dynasty.

History, when truthfully and fairly examined rather than pre-judged is always more nuanced than populist assumptions allow.  There were not many of Rome’s emperors, especially those from the later years of the empire, that can claim to have done much for civilization. Constantine, of course, two centuries before the period covered by this book had adopted Christianity as the Empire’s official religion and had moved the imperial capital to Byzantium. But on closer examination it can be argued neither of these acts was driven by anything other than pragmatism or perhaps the vanity we still associate with absolute power. For Constantine, Byzantium was simply closer to home than Rome and the iconography of the new religion provided opportunity for political self-promotion in a way that would not offend those who retained previously established beliefs. Early Christian art in the period after Constantine’s adoption of the religion suggest that it was the Emperor, himself, who became the acceptable image of Christ, if perhaps not God. And it was this image that persisted for several centuries before the long-haired, bearded and heavily romanticized image we generally associate with the name became currency.

Anyone who has visited Ravenna knows the artistic achievement of the so-called barbarians. There was perhaps no great innovation in their work, but the very fact that continuity is an identifiable trait again contradicts the populist view that civilization was brought to an end by these sackers of Rome.

It is true that for many decades Theodoric and his dynasty were associated with warfare, power struggles and political intrigue. But was this any different from what had preceded their rule? Probably not very much, not so different from what went before to justify the label “barbarian” that we generally attach to the era.

Hodgkin’s book has much detail, and sometimes that detail is quite hard to assimilate, especially so since many people appear to share names. But reading an account of this era is nothing less than eye-opening for anyone not familiar with the all-important detail that so often contradicts the popular view. The Barbarian Champion of Civilization is thus capable, like all good historical accounts, of challenging these received opinions, encouraging re-evaluation and thus enlightening dark minds in perhaps darker ages.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Orlando by Virginia Woolf

Orlando by Virginia Woolf claims it is a biography. A young man, the eponymous Orlando, is in London in the sixteenth century. At the outset, we meet him in an attic, having fun with a severed head and a sword. Virginia Woolf also tells us to expect Orlando at a later date to become a woman. It is destined to be a book of surprises.

He is, of course at court. Where else? He rubs shoulders with Tudor bigwigs, even monarchs. Of course, he is at court. Where else might such a character reside? Bloomsbury, perhaps… A few years later he even looks up at the dome on Saint Paul’s Cathedral, many decades before it was built. Despite its historical settings, Orlando does not much care for accuracy. It is not long before this biography becomes something decidedly less definable, though its author continues to invoke her declared intention of presenting the life of an individual.

Orlando, both the book and the character, is rather hard to define. Though it ostensibly focuses on the life, or perhaps lives of an individual, the book is not a biography, even a fictional one. It's not really a novel either, since it offers neither thread of plot, nor characterization, nor description of relationships. There is a lot of name dropping, and many references to historical figures, but history it definitely is not, the author often preferring to drop personal opinion almost at random alongside a name. Orlando meets and even spends time with several literary figures from the past, notably Pope, who is even quoted from time to time.

The writing is often poetic, but Orlando is not poetry. Neither is it a poetic novel. Some markers are needed, so here are some highlights from the text to illustrate both the inventiveness of Virginia Woolf and also how the text often appears disjointed, like random flashbacks into a dream.

“What’s the good of being a fine young woman in the prime of life”, she asked, “if I have to spend all my mornings watching blue-bottles with an Archduke?”

“Life and a lover” – a line which did not scan and made no sense with what went before – something about the proper way of dipping sheep to avoid the scab. Reading it over she blushed and repeated,

“Life and a lover.”

He started. The horse stopped.

“Madam,” the man cried, leaping to the ground, “you’re hurt!”

“I am dead, sir!” she replied.

A few minutes later they became engaged.

Orlando lives for the better part of 400 years, at least within these pages, and has numerous different lives, both as a man and a woman. He is a man, becomes a woman, marries and has children, and then becomes a man again. He or she is a writer, a poet, a courtier, whatever the page appears to demand for him, or her. Orlando displays a little in the way of character, let alone consistency within these different identities. The character increasingly feels like a vehicle for the personal gripes of its creator. On several occasions, the reader seems to occupy the back seat in a taxi, with the driver repeatedly saying, “And another thing…”, over her or his shoulder.

It may or may not be relevant, but it has to be noted that Virginia Woolf, for all her talent as a writer, for all her skills as a constructor of dream-like word pictures, was mentally unstable, and became more so as she aged. The unfortunate observation about Orlando is that the book appears to be a series of randomly assembled, almost disconnected thoughts, illusions, memories, prejudices, spiteful digs and opinionated rant. Orlando is also no less of an achievement for any of this, however, since it contains some real gems, but also much that is impenetrable and obscure.

What is clear, throughout, is Virginia Woolf’s 1920s version of feminism. It provides a thread that binds together the bones this book, but it is a thread that is far from golden, and the skeleton thus constructed has little recognizable form or shape. Also, in fact, she often seems sanguine, almost defeatist in her analysis, more often than not equating “female” with poverty, ignorance or failure, even when the female characters themselves, as individuals, are nothing less than assertive. It could be, of course, that she is projecting stereotypes associated with the people she describes, but it is hard to be convinced of this, since consistency is not a word that can be used in describing Orlando, which is a unique book, its success a genuine achievement of a vivid and strange imagination.

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Costa Blanca Arts Update - Suite Havana, paintings by Anthony Miró in Palau Altea

Suite Havana is a newly inaugurated exhibition of paintings by Anthony Miró, hung in Palau Altea on Spains Costa Blanca. It complements and amplifies an existing show of the artist’s sculpture, an exhibition entitled de mar a mar, throughout the town. Altea is a long-established artists’ town, a white town whose appearance might suggest its location on a map might have slipped north from Andalusia by a couple of hundred kilometres. But this is Valencia and Altea is a Valencian town hosting Anthony Miró, very much a Valencian artist.

But despite its homegrown nature, the exhibition Suite Havana, like the sculptures of de mar a mar have done for several months, will provoke controversy and calls for its removal amongst that segment of the town’s population for whom sexual taboos retain their significance. For, like his sculptures, the subject matter of the paintings in Suite Havana is sensuality, sexuality and sex, three different facets of the same taboo. But whereas the three-dimensional bronzes portray both positive and negative images of various sexual acts, the paintings in Suite Havana portray only naked or near-naked Cuban women. And they are all beautiful women, all desirable, all at first sight arguably ideals of their type. This, in itself, does not separate them from the Greek pottery or poetry-inspired images of the sculpture, since ancient Greece was not noted for the realism of its own depiction of the human form. But the gender specificity does.

Whether Western art of the Christian era portrayed sensuality as its prime message before Titians Venus of Urbino is a matter for the art historian, which I am not. But for me that particular painting is representative of a turning point in the history of art. Titians Venus is naked. Her left hand cups her pubic area, conveniently hiding its detail. There is nothing new either in art or life. But what is immediately different about the Venus of Urbino is that she engages the viewer. And she smiles. There is an engagement in her expression, almost a recognition, indeed a recognition that may even be personal, but equally it could be contractual. We could be her friend or her lover, but we could equally be her customer, with a hand to reveal its detail only after a contracted payment is made. The taboo here may go well beyond mere sex and sexuality. It may indeed extend as far as prostitution, deception and even might reach as far as a notion of pleasure, even worse, pleasure for its own sake. Its an image whose public display would be controversial today, let alone in mid-sixteenth century Venice.

A century or so later, Rembrandt was painting his canvases that glowed with the human reality. He produced images of ordinary people powerful enough to provoke even todays observer with feelings of recognition, sensations of association, and the desire to greet by name, a need almost to renew an acquaintance. As observers, we cannot fail to feel the humanity, the proximity to our own experience, an empathy with what we assume are the subject’s concerns. But is this quality diminished, enhanced or unchanged by our knowledge that, largely still hidden from public view, there are hundreds of drawings and sketches by Rembrandt the depict the erotic, the sex act, the aroused genitalia and expressions of sexual ecstasy? Do we find humanity to an equal degree in such images? Does our knowledge of this side of Rembrandt´s interests change the way we view his ability to penetrate the human psyche?

And, as a third observation on the theme that is in danger of overstatement, how do we personally react to Courbet’s Origin of the World? Courbet - we now assume – was of the realist school, the group that grew out of the Brabizon painters of the early 19th century, where the everyday was both subject and object of interest. For those who do not know this particular work, its in the Musée d’Orsay and depicts, no more and no less than, a close-up of the hirsute genitalia of an unnamed, unknown and an identifiable woman, a viewpoint of a torso that might be achieved just before oral sex. After many years of not seeing light of day, the work is now in the gallery for all to see. It stays the right side of voyeurism, opinion has it, but why, how or in whose opinion is rarely possible to define.

There exist other examples, of course. Velasquez’s Venus was painted some years after that of Rubens. In both paintings a voluptuous back view is presented and in both the viewer is engaged via a mirror held by Cupid. Goya’s unclothed Maya stares at her viewer and she incurred the wrath of the Inquisition. Manet’s Olympia caused a scandal as late as the mid-nineteenth century in Paris, of all places, where brothels were an accepted part of commercial life, where there were at least 150,000 registered prostitutes and where the state took fifty per cent of the transactions in taxes. And it was a woman, Mary Richardson, who attacked the Velasquez in London in 1914. She later said she did not like the way men gaped at the picture, though the initial motive was to protest against the arrest of a suffragette leader.

It has often been said that female nudes in painting exist for the eyes of men. The women depicted, the nostrum has it, are always ideal types, worthy of voyeuristic scrutiny, of elevation to the status of the pornographic. The twentieth century did challenge that notion, especially via the work of artists such as Lucian Freud or Tracy Emin, both of whom have their own complex relationships with sexuality. Indeed, at the opening of Suite Havana in Palau Altea, a companion of mine stated that in her opinion these seemed to be works painted for men.

It is time to describe the work themselves, lest the critique take centre-stage over the content. Suite Havana is a collection of 50 or so naked or near-naked Cuban women. Each painting features one or sometimes two models. Most paintings feature a named individual and she is often returning the gaze of the viewer, just as Titians Venus does. Facial expressions vary from neutral to inviting, from distance to ecstasy. Some works concentrate on particular parts of the body and some subjects are wearing pants or a bikini. All the women are beautiful.

The paintings are mainly acrylic on canvas. There are a few abstract prints, but the style is predominantly what might be called photorealism. These are named, identifiable women, posing naked for us to look at. And, because of the realism of the style, the viewer must get very close to these images to appreciate how they differ from photographs. There are outlines here and there, sometimes in black or blue or white. There are added lines that accentuates something extended from the image itself, for example a lengthened lock of hair, a circle accentuating the buttocks. And most of the women are lying on beds. Just like the one-dimensional imagery of Courbet’s Origin of the World, these subjects are in your face. And clearly intentionally so.

But lets suppose they were all wearing enough scanty clothing to be socially decent, to break no taboos, and let’s introduce a product of consumer capitalism into the fray. The smiling woman then becomes an enticement to buy, to consume, to associate the perhaps subliminal pleasure the image creates with the featured product, without ever wanting explicitly to suggest that the woman is part of the product being sold. Suppose we remove the womans name from each title and replace it with that of the product. I use only generics as examples: toothpaste, 4 x 4 gas guzzler, washing powder, fast food outlet, dishwasher. We all know this is a woman. We all know that women have breasts and genitalia. We all know that these are being offered alongside the commercial product. Why is it seen as taboo if these qualities, these realities, which we all know exist, are revealed? Does our collective problem lie in the suggestion that these women might just be selling themselves? I wish I could answer the question, but asking it is the important act.

I now read that the artist’s Instagram account has been threatened with closure because he has promoted his exhibition with some of its publicly displayed images. Suite Havana and work like it always asks the same question. The medieval European mind was clear at least institutionally that nakedness was a matter of shame. The Renaissance forced a reassessment of this attitude, and it is a reassessment that is still underway, despite Titians, Rembrandt’s, Courbets and other artists’ contributions.

The images themselves are pleasing, in their provocative, arousing and challenging way. They might promise ecstasy, but sometimes the detail differs, such as in the canvas where across the womans lower abdomen there is a scar of a Caesarian or a hysterectomy, with a strange, almost umbilical cord of thread trailing towards it from the navel. My friend pointed at the womans labia and declared she thought it looked like a wound. I was reminded of Margaret Atwoods feminist work, The Gash.

Suite Havana is a collection that would cause some people offense. My advice to such people is, “Dont go there”. But, as ever in art, the questions are always more interesting than the answers. The beauty of these images and their capacity to move anyone who does seek the experience is indisputable.



Thursday, October 8, 2020

Thought on The Golden Ass by Apuleius

In her book Pompeii, Mary Beard counsels wisely, saying that no one can read confident, unequivocal significance into anything dug up in an archaeological site, since we do not know if this particular object was representative, a prized possession, rubbish, discarded, lost, cherished or whatever. What, then, is any contemporary reader to make of perhaps the only piece of Latin fiction from ancient Rome to have survived intact? The Golden Ass by Apuleius in its translation by Robert Graves is certainly readable. It is certainly farcical. But does it prove, for instance, that in ancient Rome, it was quite normal for human beings to change into asses? Or that Roman asses write good Latin?

Imagine an age, two millennia hence, when printed words have become irrelevant, since texts can be downloaded, pre-understood, directly into the brain. Suppose an archaeological dig in the remnants of the only twentieth century city to have been discovered unearthed only one book, a novel from the thriller or crime section of an airport bookshop. One wonders what contemporary readers might conclude about a society from millennia past that appeared to be obsessed with doing violence to young women, since that might appear to be a common thread in much pulp fiction. One is reminded of an episode of Star Trek where Kirk and Spock find themselves in a society where everyone dresses and behaves like film-set Chicago gangsters, because once upon a time a spaceship landed there to leave behind a book about Al Capone.

Perhaps we are missing something in the Golden Ass. Perhaps the regular references to different gods held real significance for the ancients that went beyond storytelling. Perhaps… and so what if it did? Our understanding of the text would be no deeper, our ability to read the book would not be enhanced.

What does strike a modern reader is just how much time Lucius, the book’s principle character, spends thinking about and pursuing opportunities for sex. Or perhaps Apuleius’s text survived from a particular section of the bookshop. Despite some obvious differences, what is very interesting about the Golden Ass is just how mundane and even familiar are many of the situations in the sitcom. Human beings to have seem to have very similar weaknesses within these pages from two millennia ago as they do today. And Lucius’s intensely moral destiny is perhaps similar to a Hollywood denouement, where a hero rides stoically into the sunset, eventually proving to be just too pure, too good for this world. Some things do not appear to change.

Monday, October 5, 2020

Hidden Agendas by John Pilger


We consume journalistic opinions on contemporary events almost without realizing it, or perhaps we used to. We expect commentators to express their view, which we then absorb. We agree with it or differ and then move on, often to the next so-called analysis. Of course these views influence our thoughts, but we are critically aware, and accept that not everyone thinks as we do.

It is quite rare to find collections of such pieces, however, rarer to assemble them long after the events they describe and rarer still to produce, as a result, a book which is worth reading from cover to cover. Hidden Agendas by John Pilger is such a book. And reading Hidden Agendas with today's label “fake news” in mind is both and enlightening and rewarding.

First published in 1998, Hidden Agendas collects pieces by its author on various topics, their subjects spanning several decades. There are pieces on the Cold War and, importantly, on the struggle for independence of the East Timorese, going right back to 1974 and the collapse of what was left of the Portuguese Empire. John Pilger also describes his own country’s, Australia's, relations with its own identity and its indigenous peoples. He travels to Burma to describe daily life as well as its poisoned politics and offers analysis that from today's perspective is no less than fascinating. He describes the start of the UK’s Blair era, with New Labour’s leader declaring his intention to realize a Thatcherite dream. We revisit the miners’ strike in the mid-1980s, already viewed from a distance of 15 years. He also touches on the Hillsborough tragedy in a piece on the Sun’s journalism and reminds us that on Merseyside the newspaper is still vilified today because of its coverage of these events. Ironic isn't it that's a contemporary reader can now look back at this analysis from 20 years ago, knowing that for the victims of Hillsborough an inquiry has finally delivered justice, whereas for those of vilified and imprisoned after Orgreave an inquiry is still denied. It seems perverse that justice seems to need deaths.

But by far the most interesting parts of Hidden Agendas are those that deal with the author’s autobiographical accounts of working as a journalist. He begins in Australia, where the media were owned by cartels whose interests they largely promoted. He moved to UK, where something similar was evolving. John Pilger's description of life in the Daily Mirror is thoroughly engaging and impresses because there is a genuine feeling that the newspaper was interested in truth first and posturing second. He offers a convincing defence of the Mirror’s campaigning style and then laments that by 1998 the newspaper had already become just one of the rest.

John Pilger’s often biting criticisms of the print media are, if anything, even more poignant in today's online jungle. At least the media owners he describes were largely self-declared in their allegiances, to such an extent that the posturing was often predictable. In today's Internet miasma, where populism seems to rule and where the origins of opinions are often hard to identify, it is useful to be reminded by John Pilger that the opinion presented as opinion can never be “fake news”, whatever that might be. Opinion masquerading as “fact” is quite simply a lie.

The political Right has never been impressed with John Pilger’s work. But whatever one thinks about the content of his opinion pieces, Hidden Agendas illustrates that he does not give up on causes. The long, hard and largely unnoticed battle on East Timor testifies to his commitment to justice on behalf of those denied it. And, on topics such as the Hillsborough tragedy, mainstream media, at the time, may even have branded Pilger’s position as extreme, or even as “fake news”, since it contradicted the trumped-up story being peddled by the mainstream media. Reading these opinion pieces by John Pilger, one is presented with the contemporary reality that “fake news” is probably opinion that someone doesn't like, opinion that is more easily dismissed with a label rather than by counter argument. Hidden Agendas also reminds us that the only important opinions are those that are proven correct.

Saturday, October 3, 2020

Mary Beard’s Pompeii


Mary Beard’s Pompeii succeeds in several quite different and sometimes surprising ways. This is a guidebook, a history, a survey of social relations, a description of culture and religion, a catalogue and analysis of art, and an archaeological record.  It is also an excellent read, highly informative, enlighteningly descriptive and scrupulously accurate.

Pompeii is a complicated site. At first glance, it may appear to be very simple. One day in 79 AD a coastal town in modern-day Campania, near Naples, which was then at the heart of a Greco-Roman culture, was buried under volcanic ash that spread from the eruption of the nearby Mount Vesuvius. The town was completely destroyed, smothered under metres of ash. The disaster progressed quickly giving the town's inhabitants little chance of escape, let alone a chance to gather their possessions. This naive description might thus suggest that all archaeologists need to do is uncover what the ash buried, and first century life in a Roman town will be revealed.

The reality, however, is somewhat different. The volcano did erupt and did bring about the end of Pompeii. But the town had previously in AD 62 suffered an earthquake, which had damaged many buildings, some of which was still not repaired in AD79. And Pompeii has been excavated many times. Some digs a couple of centuries ago extracted treasures for the titillation of monarchs, before volcanic ash, original construction materials and much of the historical and other material was randomly piled back to fill the holes. On the other hand, some areas have never been excavated and others still wait to be uncovered, but possibly not for the first time. Much work in previous centuries was undocumented, so who would know? Only the finds, and only some of those, were lodged in museums, and the provenance of many of those remains unclear.

Such a complicated history presents tremendous difficulties for modern archaeologists. There are many layers of possible interpretation, many potential complications. A great strength of Mary Beard's book is that she always acknowledges these difficulties and, where simplistic, convenient or fashionable positions might create more attractive copy, consistently she is cautious with her assertions and considered in her conclusions. Refreshingly, where evidence is lacking, contradictory or merely open to interpretation, she usually leaves the matter open, thus allowing the reader to appreciate how hard it is to be definitive about the unknown.

Descriptions of everyday life in the first century AD are in many ways reassuringly familiar, with one significant exception. The modern reader may be rather shocked by how much daily life seems seemed to revolve around sex. But Mary beard does point out several times that this may be an overstatement. One is tempted to imagine how a modern town might be seen, if, once buried and uncovered, all that could be identified were advertising hoardings along a street where the only shop not to be obliterated sold sex toys. Our contemporary lack of knowledge about Pompeii's inhabitants is illustrated by our inability to decide what might have been stored in the terracotta jars that were built into many of the town’s shop fronts. Mary Beard points out that theories they might have contained wine or oil are undermined by the simple fact that terracotta is porous, so it is more likely they contained dry goods. In one shop, a jar may have been a till, because it was found to contain a stash of small coins. But who knows whether the shop’s owner, frightened by a sudden eruption, merely tipped a box of small coins into the jar in a vain attempt to fill the box with more valuable possessions that might be carried?

The area of life that was clearly different in first century AD was that of religion and beliefs. There seemed to be a market in gods, as well as one in goods, and most buildings seem to have paintings or altars dedicated to a panoply of deities, drawn from several different traditions. Whether people did pick and choose, or whether people’s origins or ethnicity dictated allegiance, we simply do not know.

Pompeii clearly did have its own version of mass entertainment, both in theatre and amphitheatre. There was even a famous riot after a disputed contest, where supporters from a nearby town fought with locals. It made regional news. There was also a local language that was not Latin, but we have precious little of its literature.

A concept such a slavery, which in the modern mind is inextricably linked with the trade of recent colonial powers, is yet another aspect of ancient Roman life that is more complicated than contemporary assumptions allow. Mary Beard regularly refers to the complexity of these relationships throughout the text and long before then end we feel we really have learned something about a culture that quite suddenly feels much more distant than a mere couple of millennia.

Mary Beard's Pompeii is a brilliant book that is worth reading in itself. But anyone who has visited or plans to visit the site will find it brings the experience or memory completely to life. It is a comprehensive description of the site and its culture, but makes clear that there are still stones to be turned. Unusually, however, readers who previously might have thought they were well-informed on the history, culture and archaeology of Pompei might just find, after reading this book, that they knew rather less than they thought.

Friday, October 2, 2020

Vienna 1683 by Heny Elliott Malden

 Vienna 1683 - The history and consequences of the defeat of the Turks before Vienna, September 12, 1683, by John Sobieski, King of Poland and Charles Leopoldo, Duke of Lorraine by Henry Elliot Malden 1883


Written two hundred years after the siege, this history of the Christian victory of Sobeieski was enacted around several of the hills near where we were staying in Vienna. Most telling part of the book is its end, where Sobieski leaves as victor, but leader of a nation that would soon lose everything, while those allied with him went from strength to strength and at Poland's expense.

Thursday, October 1, 2020

Giacomo Puccini by Wakeling Dry


Another Project Gutenberg book is a short biography and critical appraisal of Puccini, written around the time of Madame Butterfly's premiere. It's after Boheme, Manon Lescaut and Tosca, but before Turandot, of course. Puccini was certainly a man of his kind, and unapologetic to boot. Attitudes towards music and especially towards things people are unfamiliar with never fail to amaze.

Leda by Aldous Huxley


It's a set of poems and short prose pieces that Project Gutenberg provided. I have not come across these before. In the title piece, Leda, Huxley offers these lines...


The smell of his own sweat

Brought back to mind his Libyan desert-fane

Of mottled granite, with its endless train

Of pilgrim camels, reeking towards the sky

Ammonian incense to his horned deity;

The while their masters worshipped, offering

Huge teeth of ivory, while some would bring

Their Ethiop wives - sleek wine skins of black silk,

Jellied and huge from drinking asses' milk

Through years of tropical idleness, to pray

For offspring (whom he ever sent away

With prayers unanswered, lest their ebon race

Might breed and blacken the earth's comely face).

Do we read Brave New World differently once we know these lines? Or do we ascribe to Huxley merely the adopted assumptions of his times?