Here are a few of the gems contained therein. (As always, click to enlarge):
On the magazine’s cover is Flower Garden by Childe Hassam. A feature article within covers an exhibit at the North Carolina Museum of Art (in Raleigh) entitled Childe Hassam and the Isles of Shoals. I could not help feeling that it was providential that I should happen upon this issue of this magazine. Childe Hassam was a friend and associate of Celia Thaxter’s; Thaxter and her family ran a resort hotel on Appledore, the archipelago’s largest island. In addition, she was an artist and a poet.
A smaller island in The Isles of Shoals group was called Smuttynose. It is an appropriately sinister name. In 1873 a horrific double murder occurred there. Celia Thaxter describes what happened in “A Memorable Murder,” a lengthy essay published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1875. It is a heartbreaking account, a true Murder of the Innocents, a transgression for which there could never be any atonement.
I first encountered this story two years ago in Harold Schechter’s True Crime anthology. It has haunted me ever since.
As May turned to June, the Roman people were invited to celebrate a profound mystery: the turning of the centuries and the dawning of a new cycle of time. Entertainments were staged; chariot races held; lavish banquets thrown. First, though, for three days in succession, the gods were given their due of sustenance and blood; and by night, illumined by the torches which had been handed out free to the entire population of the city, the Princeps himself led the celebrations. To the Moerae, the three white-robed Fates who directed the city’s destiny, he offered a sacrifice of lambs and goats; and then, to the goddess of childbirth, a gift of cakes. A golden age was being born – and just in case there was still anyone who had failed to take in the message, a poem composed specially for the occasion by Horace was sung on both the Capitol and the Palatine, with the aim of ramming it home. ‘Grant riches, and progeny, and every kind of glory to the people of Romulus.’ Many who heard this prayer sounding out across the Forum, hymned by a choir of girls and boys of spotless probity, and framed by a skyline edged with gold and gleaming marble, would doubtless have reflected that the gods had already obliged. ‘Truth, and Peace, and Honour, and our venerable tradition of Probity, and Virtus, long neglected, all venture back among us. Blessed Plenty too – why, here she is with her horn of abundance!’
Yes, the times were Golden for the Romans under the benevolent stewardship of the Princeps, otherwise know as Gaius Octavius, otherwise known as Imperator Caesar Augustus. (Names were fluid – and very confusing, at least to me – in ancient Rome.) At any rate, it’s been a while since I’ve had this much fun reading about ancient Rome. Historian Tom Holland does a terrific job of bring this remote time and place to vivid and sometimes disconcerting life.
(How disconcerting? Well, I’ve just finished reading a description of the use to which a fabulously wealthy Roman named Hostius Quadra put the mirrored walls of his bedroom:
The mirrors on his walls boasted a particularly distinctive feature: everything reflected in them appeared larger than it actually was. ‘So it was that the freak made a show of his own deviancy.’
The author proceeds to specifics, but this being a family oriented blog, I shall quote no further.)
Holland’s prose is engaging; his view of the past tinged alternately with irony and wonder. It’s a marvelous book, and I highly recommend it.
As it happens, I recently encountered an article in the Wall Street Journal by Joseph Epstein, a writer I esteem highly, in which he extols the virtues of a work by Montesquieu on ancient Rome. It’s entitled Considérations sur les causes de la grandeur des Romains et de leur décadence. This can be translated as Considerations of the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and of Their Decline. According to Epstein, Considerations is “…a lesser-known work but one deserving the highest acclaim.” Herewith an excerpt:
It was a maxim then among the republics of Italy, that treaties made with one king were not obligatory towards his successor. This was a sort of law of nations among them. Thus every thing which had been submitted to by one king of Rome, they thought themselves disengaged from under another, and wars continually begot wars….
One cause of the prosperity of Rome was, that all her kings were great men. No other history presents us with an uninterrupted succession of such statesmen and such captains.
In the infancy of societies, the leading men in the republic form the constitution; afterwards, the constitution forms the leading men in the republic.
Considerations appears to be replete with such provocative observations. Of course, the fact that it was written in 1734 and that we are reading it in translation makes it rather a challenge to take on. The author’s full name is Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu. He was a leading figure of the French Enlightenment.
Finally, I’ve been listening to one of the Great Courses entitled “Famous Romans.” The material is presented by J. Rufus Fears. Professor Fears punctuates his narrative with war whoops; he’s an exhilarating and enthusiastic raconteur. I could not help envying the students who had the good fortune to be in his classes.
I found to my dismay that J. Rufus Fears, Professor of Classics at Oklahoma University, passed away in 2012. He was 67 years old. David L. Boren, current president of the university (and former senator) praised Fears as “one of the greatest teachers in the history of our state.” One of his former students, in a moving tribute, declares that “Dr. Fears taught a class that was basically everything I had hoped college would be.”
I’ve also been enjoying yet another of Taschen’s wonderful art books – that’s Gaius Julius Caesar on the cover. And the Khan Academy’s Smarthistory series offers a rare glimpse inside Livia’s villa:
What a giver of joy she has been! We said goodbye to her today with sadness in our hearts, but also with gratitude for the good times we shared.
This house was a happier place when she was in it.
“His landscapes are unprecedented; his still lifes almost sacramental; his fables are real and human.”
And yet, with all of this, it’s in his portraiture that Diego Velasquez’s genius utterly excelled:
His portraits are not just the living, breathing likeness, but the seeing, feeling being in the very moment of life and thought. Nobody has ever surpassed his way of making pictures that seem to represent the experience–the immediacy–of seeing in themselves.
Laura Cumming in The Vanishing Velasquez
These Taschen art books have become great favorites with me. The local library system owns quite a few of them. Just enter “Taschen” in the keyword field and you’ll get a list.
This portrait inspired Francis Bacon to create his “Screaming Pope” series. Officially titled “Study after Velasquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X,” Bacon painted over forty-five variants on this theme. Here are three:
Is it just me, or are these like something out of a nightmare?
At the other end of the spectrum, here’s the magnificent portrait of Juan de Pareja:
I well recall the excitement generated by the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s acquisition of this masterpiece, The year was 1971; the cost was upwards of $5.5 million dollars. We couldn’t wait to catch a glimpse of it, my mother and I. And now, though I’ve seen it many times since, it never fails to astonish.
Here are the three novels in the trilogy:
I just finished Dictator. Words fail me, but luckily they did not fail Robert Harris. Quite, in fact, the opposite:
I remember the cries of Caesar’s war-horns chasing us over the darkened fields of Latium— their yearning, keening howls, like animals in heat— and how when they stopped there was only the slither of our shoes on the icy road and the urgent panting of our breath.
It was not enough for the immortal gods that Cicero should be spat at and reviled by his fellow citizens; not enough that in the middle of the night he be driven from the hearths and altars of his family and ancestors; not enough even that as we fled from Rome on foot he should look back and see his house in flames. To all these torments they deemed it necessary to add one further refinement: that he should be forced to hear his enemy’s army striking camp on the Field of Mars.
The story of Cicero’s turbulent life and dramatic death is told to us by Tiro, a former slave who remained in Cicero’s service as scribe and factotum after Cicero had freed him. Tiro supposedly invented a type of shorthand writing; moreover, it is said that he penned a biography of Cicero. This document has never come to light – at least, not until Robert Harris resurrected it through the power of his imagination. It is a brilliant conceit, brilliantly executed.
Whether writing about contemporary political intrigue or ancient history, Robert Harris produces works that are compelling, convincing, and altogether satisfying.The Fear Index was a high tech thriller, at times difficult to follow but nonetheless enjoyable. The Ghost is a riff on post-Blair Britain and America. It was turned into a terrific film entitled The Ghost Writer:
Pompeii was about…well, the volcano of course, but Harris fleshes out the story with fascinating characters and incidents. (There is something uniquely powerful about fiction in which an impending catastrophe looms over the narrative and you know it’s coming but the characters don’t. One thinks of Beryl Bainbridge’s Every Man for Himself about the sinking of the Titanic. And of course, Ruth Rendell’s Judgement in Stone, with its famous opening sentence that at the time – 1977 – astonished the world of crime fiction: “Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.”)
Finally there is An Officer and a Spy, in which Harris tells the story of the Dreyfus Affair through the eyes of Lieutenant Georges Picquart. In the course of the novel, Picquart becomes increasingly convinced of Dreyfus’s innocence and ends up putting his career and even his freedom on the line as he doggedly pursued the truth of the matter.
So I wish to salute Robert Harris, master storyteller.
For a musical accompaniment, may I suggest the finale of The Pines of Rome by Ottorino Respighi. You may have to adjust the volume as this piece attains its blazing climax!
The Vanishing Velasquez: A 19th Century Bookseller’s Obsession with a Lost Masterpiece, by Laura Cumming
In this book, the author tells a fascinating if convoluted story. I admit that I lost the thread several times. But it didn’t matter. Laura Cumming’s exquisite writing and keen powers of observation take you to a whole other place, a magical realm saturated with the genius that was Diego Velasquez.
The scene is a darkened tavern filled with objects, each gleaming in its own spotlight. A red onion, an egg, a white bowl balancing a silver knife, a brass vessel full of reflected glory: all appear as if laid out on an altar, singular, mysterious and sacramental. Velasquez pays the greatest respect to each humble item, and each is painted with mesmerizing beauty. Even the strung melon cradled by the young boy on the left shines like some strange new gift to the world.
More to come on this, at a later time.