Sunday, December 21, 2008

Hijacking Ecclesiastes

This is a continuation of my investigation of Carissimi's "Vanitas vanitatum II". You may want to read the previous two entries first.

Here's the translation of the verses near the end of the piece that seemed incongruous.
Scepters, crowns, power,
pomp, triumphs, victories,
honors, ornament, glories,
toys, delights,
ostentation, riches;
all is vanity and shadow.

Where are the famous rulers
that gave laws to the world?
Where the leaders of the people,
the founders of cities?
They are dust and ashes.

Where are the seven wise men,
and the followers of science,
where the arguing rhetoricians,
where are the expert artificers?
They are dust and ashes.

Where are the strong giants,
the preeminent ones,
where are the victorious warriors
who defeated the barbarians?
They are dust and ashes.

Where are the generations of heroes,
where the vast masses of cities,
where is Athens, where Carthage,
and the face of ancient Thebes?
Only their names remain.

Where are the glories of dictators,
where the victories of magistrates,
where the triumphant laurels,
where the immortal dignity
of Roman honors?
Only their names remain.

Scratching my head about why a text written sometime around the height of the Roman Empire would include rhetoric about the futility of long-vanished Roman honors, I went to Wikipedia for more information about Ecclesiastes. According to the article, historians tend to date Ecclesiastes from about 250 BC, give or take a century. It's also a book of the Hebrew Bible, which might have explained the disdain for Roman honors. However, it didn't explain the sense of looking back on a long-dead empire, like the narrator of "Ozymandias".

I decided it was high time I up and read the bloody thing, so I followed the link to the text of Ecclesiastes. Coincidentally, at about this time Karl e-mailed everyone in Continuo Collective his translation of the Vanitas Vanitatum II text from the Book of Ecclesiastes. Both sources told me the same thing: Ecclesiastes doesn't mention Roman honors!

As I read Ecclesiastes I became more and more fascinated at the differences between it and Vanitas Vanitatum II. Beyond Carissimi's inclusion of a theme that wasn't in the biblical text, there's a conspicuous difference in tone. Ecclesiastes is a highly personal, deeply introspective piece; it's the story of a man who's spent his life's vigor striving for earthly reward, only to find that, for all the good it did him, he might never have lifted a finger. Carissimi's additions, on the other hand, are bombastic screeds against a mode of behavior embodied by iconic men of power. Reading Vanitas Vanitatum II alongside its source material makes it look like the work of some eccentric botanist: a flowering cactus grafed onto an apple tree.

Once I noticed Carissimi's jarring shift in both content and tone I got much more curious about his intent. Clearly he was taking the engine of Ecclesiastes and using it to power an anti-classicism machine. It seemed reasonable to think that his employer was sick of hearing about ancient Rome, which made me think of the "Virtual Tourist" exhibit that I wrote about on March 9th and 12th.

The "Virtual Tourist" exhibit illustrated a European fascination with classical Rome during the late sixteenth century. Carissimi wrote his music sometime during the third quarter of the seventeenth century, a period I know little about except for the diary of Samuel Pepys. If, after reading about Carissimi's life and the music of the period, I find that there was another popular resurgence of classicism during Carissimi's lifetime, then I'll have some evidence to back up my hypothesis about his motivations.

Stay tuned.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Vanity gives way to fun and curiosity

Bear with me here. I'm setting the scene for my investigation into the context of Carissimi's "Vanitas Vanitatum II".

At the beginning of the third rehearsal Pat spoke about the text of the vanitas pieces. It seemed to him that Carissimi had used the absolute worst aspects of Ecclesiastes to scare money out of people and into the collection plates. He was very curious to know the circumstances surrounding the writing of the music but, since Carissimi's details are lost to history, he wasn't sure if we could ever find the information. Of course I jumped on the opportunity to do some digging and, with the help of JSTOR, found this article from the April, 1981 issue of Music and Letters. It indicates that not only can't we reliably date Carissimi's music, but we don't even know whether he or one of his students wrote the vanitas pieces!

Speaking of not knowing things... boy, was I in for it. On the weekend before the fourth rehearsal I found out I had to sing a solo in Carissimi's "Vanitas Vanitatum II". I was apprehensive and excited at my first vocal solo in... gosh, I hate it when I do the math and my brain spits out "a decade". Anyway. During the next few days I used every spare moment to practice, using keyboards to help me find the notes. I heard the intervals and progressions; I thought I had the part down. Then I got up there on Tuesday night and most egregiously befouled the proverbial bed. I couldn't hear my part at all - I was feeling around for my notes like a ninth grade choral student sight-reading a part. I felt utterly humiliated, and I knew I had only myself to blame: I'd walked in there looking forward to impressing everyone on my very first attempt at a solo. Pride goeth before a fall, and I knew that my fall was obscenely apropos of the music we were singing: "Vanity! All is vanity!"

During the next week I despaired and sweated. I didn't want to go back to a keyboard because that's part of what messed me up in the first place: the early music we're singing is a half tone off from the modern tones, so I'd practiced the wrong notes. I had no opportunity to run through it with Grace so I resolved myself to muddling through as best I could during the next practice, hopefully figuring out my part a little better by listening to the instruments. Then I thought back to my choral experiences back in the early nineties and realized I'd been coming at Continuo Collective all wrong. When I think back to the Oneida Area Civic Chorale I don't think of how I wowed anyone with my solo from "Oklahoma". I think of how tingly it made me feel to come to know Mendelssohn's "Elijah" intimately, from the inside - of hearing my voice interact with all the other voices in order to build a piece of music. Feeling myself as a cog meshing with other cogs, and hearing us forming something bigger than ourselves, was one of the most sublime experiences I've ever had. Once I remembered this, everything changed. I walked into Continuo Collective last Tuesday night wanting not to wow anyone, but to understand the music and hopefully improve my contribution to it.

I had a few minutes before practice to go through my parts with three of the continuo players. That, along with my changed attitude, made all the difference. I began hearing what my part was doing in relation to the music, and my performance improved. More importantly to the historical discussion, though, I discovered of a pair of mistakes I'd been making at the end of my solo where I demand to know "Where the immortal dignity of Roman honors?" In addition to my tendency to go up a step instead of staying put on the last note, Grant pointed out that I wasn't holding some of the notes long enough. I had been singing the end of the line as though it ended like similar lines earlier in the piece: with an ascending, triumphant exclamation point. But instead my solo called for me to extend the second syllable of the word "honorium" and then descend one step for the last two syllables. This changed the character of the solo entirely for me. Before I'd seen it as a scornfully triumphant excoriation of Roman-style honors. Now it felt wistful as though the singer, acknowledging the perceived glory of ancient Rome, should hold out his hand longingly to an apparition fading into the mist. Wow! That's really neat!


Hold on.

It's all well and good to think of someone from the seventeenth century longing for ancient Rome, but the text of this music is from Ecclesiastes. When Ecclesiastes was written, no one was longing for ancient Rome because Rome was just hitting its stride! So what was going on here?

Stay tuned.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008


Grace and I are singing in Continuo Collective this semester. Grace has spent a number of seasons in the group but it's my first time. Thankfully some of the singing I did years ago was in Latin, otherwise I'd feel utterly overwhelmed. As it is, between the Italian enunciation and the complex chords I feel like I've thrown myself into the deep end of the pool. I'm glad I joined, though, and particularly excited to be a part of the Vanitas Project.

During our first rehearsal we looked at some good examples of vanitas paintings. One of them was Holbein's "Ambassadors", which I wrote about in a February entry. I was excited that we were working on something I actually knew a bit about; between my visit to Paris and Amsterdam, my readings on sixteenth and seventeenth century Dutch history, and my visit to the "Age of Rembrandt" exhibit at the Met, I felt like I had a decent handle on the concept.

Tony made the point that, though vanitas art denounces worldly pursuits, the people who commissioned that art were most likely quite attached to those pursuits. I couldn't agree more; for me, Dutch still life painting is all about the paradox - not to say hypocrisy. Remember, those artists were hired by rich, powerful Dutch merchants to depict a panoply of shapes, transparencies and textures; this showcased not only the artists' talent but also the sundry goods that the patron imported from the far reaches of the world. The Dutch had become the preeminent merchants on the planet, and speaking of the planet... why, they just so happened to have a freshly printed set of atlases by Blaeu. Expensive, but worth it! They were bloody satisfied with themselves, and it showed in those paintings that gave great lip service to the renunciation of worldly pursuits.

If I'm overstating the hypocrisy angle it's because I'm reading Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror and when I think of the hypocrisy of chivalry - a psychological construct that allowed for the ruination of the very people that it purported to protect - it reminds me of the suspiciously pornographic contradictions at the core of vanitas painting. This all goes to explain why, as I worked on my solo in Carissimi's "Vanitas Vanitatum II", I got to thinking - and researching - more and more about his purpose in composing it.

Stay tuned.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Postmodern Prometheus

In the recent movie Iron Man Jeff Bridges' character, industrialist Obadiah Stane, has to deal with an epiphany. He's particularly unhappy because it's a big shiny epiphany that fills the room, and it's not his. Before long Stane will also get big and shiny, and demolish the room. But we don't know that yet.

Tony Stark has just returned from Afghanistan like a walking Joseph Campbell lecture. He's watched American soldiers killed by his own weapons. With Stark Industries shrapnel in his chest, he's almost died by his own design. Under the noses of his captors he's built more machines: a miraculous power source, a device to stabilize the shrapnel, and finally a suit of powered combat armor that he uses to break free. Stark has watched his creativity refracted, seen all the colors: death, salvation and everything in between. He's been burned, and doesn't want to bring humanity any more fire. At his word, Stark Enterprises has stopped producing weapons.

Tony's old pal Obadiah is not pleased - and Jeff Bridges does a superlative job here playing a slimy smooth operator. He pretends to have Tony's best interests in mind while trying to bring him back around to his old devil-may-care weaponsmith self. Throughout this performance Stane masks his distress almost perfectly, only losing his cool once. In the midst of his words sliding off Stark's newfound moral exterior, Stane exclaims "We're ironmongers, Tony!"

This caught my attention. I'd always assumed that "Iron Monger", Stane's name for his version of the Iron Man armor, was a made-up word. In the eighties, when Stane appeared in the comic book, it seemed natural to me that a comic book writer would take the Shakespearian word "fishmonger" and tweak it to create a corrupt-sounding version of "Iron Man". But here in the movie Stane was using the word before he even knew about Stark's armor. It seemed to imply that "ironmonger" was not a new construction, so I looked it up. Sure enough, it's been a common enough word for at least six centuries. The word appears eight times in the diary of Samuel Pepys.

October 23, 1660
...She also took me to her
lodging at an Ironmonger's in King Street, which was but very poor...

November 25, 1662
...Up and to the office all the morning, and at noon with the rest, by Mr. Holy, the ironmonger's invitation, to the Dolphin, to a venison pasty, very good, and rare at this time of the year...

November 28, 1662
...Up and to Ironmongers' Hall by ten o'clock to the funeral of Sir Richard Stayner. Here we were, all the officers of the Navy, and my Lord Sandwich, who did discourse with us about the fishery...

September 7, 1663
...The play being done, I stole from him and hied home, buying several things at the ironmonger's--dogs, tongs, and shovels--for my wife's closett and the rest of my house, and so home, and thence to my office awhile, and so home to supper and to bed.

October 27, 1664
Up and to the office, where all the morning busy. At noon, Sir G. Carteret, Sir J. Minnes, Sir W. Batten, Sir W. Pen, and myself, were treated at the Dolphin by Mr. Foly, the ironmonger, where a good plain dinner...

May 21, 1667
...Mr. Harper at Deptford did himself tell her that my Lord hath had of Foly, the ironmonger, L50 worth in locks and keys for his house...

July 20, 1668
...and so home, and took occasion to buy a rest for my espinette at the ironmonger's by Holborn Conduit...

February 6, 1669
...Thence home, and just at Holborn Conduit the bolt broke, that holds the fore-wheels to the perch, and so the horses went away with them, and left the coachman and us; but being near our coachmaker's, and we staying in a little ironmonger's shop, we were presently supplied with another, and so home, and there to my letters at the office, and so to supper and to bed.
When I think of Pepys's ironmongers I get an impression of skilled craftsman; their cleverness doesn't earn them any particular standing in society, but neither does it bear any moral attachments. I thought this was very interesting, because the word perfectly embodies Stane's side of the moral gulf between him and Stark. If Pepys had beaten his wife with the espinette rest, would the ironmonger at Holborn Conduit be responsible? The notion is laughable. Stane feels the same way about his weapons: he just makes tools that his clients find useful - he's not responsible for what people do with them after they leave the warehouse. Stark used to feel similarly, but not any more.

Thoughts of moral accountability reminded me of Plato's Republic, which I've been listening to lately. In it the character of Glaucon recounts the legend of Gyges, who discovered a ring that gave him the power to become invisible. Glaucon claims that no man could resist the temptation to abuse such a power, and goes on to assert that all attempts to live a just life are merely part of a selfish social contract - if people could get away with injustice with no fear of punishment, they would. The more I thought of this, the more it seemed like an inversion of Tony Stark's epiphany. Gyges stumbles upon an opportunity for power without accountability, and he lacks the strength to resist. Contrast that with Stark's transfiguration, which gives him both the impetus for his creative act and the strength not to abuse his creation.

I was thinking about moral accountability for one's creations, so I suppose it was inevitable that I'd come around to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. This line of thought got more interesting when I thought of the full title: Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. There's been a lot written over the centuries about how Shelley's book was the first science fiction story, and about its core theme of the moral ambiguity of technology - which is ultimately beyond the control of the creator. In that sense, Iron Man could not be a more direct descendent of Shelly's novel. Stark is a Prometheus forever straining toward two opposing asymptotes: improving the human condition through technology, and maintaining control over technology.

This fascinating article about Luddite influence in Frankenstein puts Shelley's novel in a historical context. With its emphasis on the concept that Luddites were not against technology, but rather against implementing it in ways that made life worse for people, it also brings me back around to Tony Stark. Another man might have seen the ends for which his weapons were used and sworn off technology. Not Stark. He reacts to his epiphany not only with a surge of fresh creativity, but by imposing moral boundaries on his creations. He is a consummate control freak. That's where his alcoholism comes from, and it's what makes him a hero for an age in which we keep discovering how little we can control. Like Frankenstein, Stark keeps creating. Like Frankenstein, he eventually comes to be defined by his endless chase after his unbound creations.

Along with thoughts of Shelley, my musings brought me back to an association I had when I first listened to The Republic. Anyone who's read Tolkien will understand the reaction I had to hearing about the ring of Gyges. I had been drifting a bit, listening to the narrative as I walked. But when Glaucon started talking about a gold ring whose power to make the wearer invisible would tempt even the most virtuous man, little exclamation points appeared over my head as I thought of the One Ring.

I always feel embarrassed when I discover that an idea I heard from a modern author is actually thousands of years old. I respond to that embarrassment by examining how the idea flowed from the distant source to the twentieth century spigot. I wondered if Tolkien got his idea from Plato, and then a more interesting question came to mind: Do the differences between Plato's story and Tolkien's reflect an evolution of human morality?

At first I thought of how the ring of Gyges was utterly irresistible, and of how The Lord of the Rings gets a lot of its dramatic tension from the One Ring being not quite irresistible. A very few mortals could be a Ring-bearer, and I thought this crucial difference represented a conceptual shift over the millennia. Perhaps people, at least in their imaginings of themselves, had gotten better.

Now listen up, because this is a perfect example of how a short attention span like mine can get you into trouble. I have not yet finished The Republic. I had to take a break around chapter six because I'd had it up to here with the narrator's plummy tones that so perfectly reflected my growing certainty that Plato was a self-satisfied wankspout. Because I had not yet come to Socrates' conclusions about justice, it was easy for me to forget that the story of the ring of Gyges was Glaucon's story, not Socrates'. Once I remembered this, I searched the text and found the following in chapter X.
Let a man do what is just, whether he have the ring of Gyges or not, and even if in addition to the ring of Gyges he put on the helmet of Hades.
Plato - through Socrates' dialogue - refutes Glaucon's notions, making a case for personal accountability and individual morality. And again, I hear millenia-old echoes in Frodo Baggins and Tony Stark, two variations on an old theme. In one story the object of power is a ring forged by the Dark Lord Sauron, and Frodo is the only one who can destroy it. In the other story, the object of power changes mercurially: first it's a missile, later a suit of armor. That's because the real prize is knowledge, and no one can destroy that. Stark is like a snake that constantly eats its own tail while shedding its own skin. He forges one weapon, it burns him, and the pain propels him on his hero's journey. He comes back changed, with a new weapon, trusting only in himself to use it. But others find a way to steal his new fire, and he must chase it. His Mount Doom is a phoenix. His hero's journey never ends.

Part of me wishes I had something pithy to say about all these connections. I recognize, though, that I'll need a few more years of reading under my belt before I can extract any pith without injuring myself. In the meantime, I'm just going to enjoy hearing the echoes and feeling the pleasant surprise as I recognize themes that have been handed off for so long from mouth to mind. I'll leave you with a quote from Henry V that would have echoed loudly in Tony Stark's mind.
Every subject's duty is the king's; but every subject's soul is his own. Therefore should every soldier in the wars do as every sick man in his bed, wash every mote out of his conscience: and dying so, death is to him advantage; or not dying, the time was blessedly lost wherein such preparation was gained: and in him that escapes, it were not sin to think that, making God so free an offer, He let him outlive that day to see His greatness and to teach others how they should prepare.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

The Warrior Queen's New Clothes are GORGEOUS!

At forty-seven seconds the date 1585 appeared on the screen. Then I saw that Spain is the most powerful empire in the world. OK so far. Next the movie informed me that Philip of Spain, a devout Catholic, has plunged Europe into a holy war. "Well that's a bit one-sided, isn't it?" I said to myself. I started dredging my memory to see if that sweeping statement was even remotely fair to Philip - of whom admittedly I'm no fan - but my time had run out. At one minute and nineteen seconds the third sentence hit.
Only England stands against him.
Wow. Now that's impressive! It took the movie only three sentences spanning thirty two seconds to climb to a height of inaccuracy from which it could proclaim the nonexistence of the Protestant Netherlands. Not to mention the... the... aw, heck, what was the name of that other group of people who stood against Philip II? It's easy to overlook, because it was such a tiny thing - barely a political entity at all, really. It's on the tip of my... oh yeah! THE OTTOMAN EMPIRE!!!

Somewhat crestfallen to have been cast into a universe in which the Dutch Republic and the Ottoman Empire did not exist, I took solace in the costumes - like a child who, despondent after hearing that there's no Santa Clause, finds consolation in knowing he'll still get presents. Honestly, though, my crest never fell that far. The historical fictionalizing was so brazen, so dazzling, that I bypassed annoyance and outrage, moving - like ice sublimating directly to water vapor - to a quiet, almost reverent place. I felt a faint need to applaud this vivid description of the emperor's new clothes.

Beautiful scenery and sumptuous costumes filled the screen. At times the camera showed Elizabeth's intrigues from the unusual point of view of the vaults. I was enjoying myself well enough. Then, like a raspberry seed expertly thrust between my teeth, one of the characters made a passing reference to Parma's men gathering "on the coast of France". Ah. So it wasn't just the Dutch Republic that didn't exist, but the whole of the Netherlands!

Strangely enough, Lord Howard also seems not to exist in this universe - maybe he was in the Netherlands when it ceased to exist - and Drake gets only the briefest of mentions. Sir Walter Raleigh seems to hold the entire fleet together with his rugged, bold, yet sensitive manliness and his unflinching gaze. Then the vastly outnumbered English ships meet the Armada almost yardarm-to-yardarm, and the English start losing ships very quickly. Never mind that in reality the English hardly ever got within seven hundred yards of the Armada. I think the most painful thing here is that the depiction of the ship design is, as far as I can see, very accurate: the Spanish ships have the traditional high castles, whereas the English ships are race-built. I say it's painful because they bothered to get the designs right but, without the corresponding story elements, it's a wasted effort. The design of those ships is what made it possible for the English to literally run circles around the Armada, and the reason why the battle didn't play out yardarm to yardarm!

I have to admit here that I can't suggest an alternative to the battle scenes. Sure, I would enjoy seeing a historically accurate story where we cut back and forth between the Spanish soldiers cursing at the cowardly English dogs for not closing and grappling, and the English soldiers cursing at how unexpectedly ineffectual their newfangled gunnery was proving against the Spanish hulls. But I have no illusions that the peculiar impasse at which the fleets found themselves in the Channel would make an exciting movie.

I was rather pleased that, despite the nonexistence of the Netherlands, at least the movie portrayed the Armada's main problem: the winds that threatened to drive it onto the shoals and precipitated the decision to anchor. Unfortunately it then goes right back to inaccuracy, with the Armada burning in view of Dover. Here's where I think the reality could've made an exciting movie: the cutting of the cables during the fireship attack; the white-knuckle helpless sweep along the coast of the Netherlands; the last-minute change in wind direction that allowed them to escape into the North Sea; the sinking of the first ships and the execution of a captain who allowed his ship to separate from the rest of the Armada; the horrible deaths of so many mariners in the sea and on the land all along the west coast of Scotland and Ireland; and the final, pathetic limping of the surviving ships back to the Bay of Biscay. We did at least get one tragic, beautiful, haunting image from that part of the journey, spliced into the fireship scene: the horse jumping off the ship and swimming in the ocean. This was almost certainly a reference to the records from an Armada ship that, passing to the west of Ireland, sailed through a cluster of hapless, swimming animals from another ship that had foundered.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Words of the Day: Algarve and Triglyph

Before I could wrap up my investigation into the van den Keere world map of 1611, there was one more nagging question I had to answer: "What the heck does 'ALGAR' mean?" That was the caption for one of the forty vignettes of peoples and cities of the world that formed the map's border. I'd found an Algar in Wikipedia right away, but I knew it was too far inland, and too small, to have made van den Keere's top forty list. So I threw it on the pile of mysteries from that map that I had to solve.

After a lot of Googling, a trip to Room 117 of the New York Public Library, and some help from the Director of the NYPL Map Division, I figured out all the vignettes but that one. Then, today, I found this nifty gallery that shows some old maps with "Algarbia", "d'Algarve" and "Algarve". It turns out that the Algarve is the southwestern tip of Portugal - a region that includes Cape St. Vincent, where Nelson had his famous battle. But the icing on the investigative cake was the etymology: Algarve comes from the Arabic al-gharb, meaning "the West". Neat! The Reconquista drove out the Muslims, but not all of their words.

Next up was my other nagging brainworm: "Where does the word 'triglyph' come from, and why does the word for a squarish architectural feature have the prefix 'tri-'?" Why was I wondering this, you ask? Well, last week I was studying up on Palladian architecture in preparation for my visit to the exhibit at the Peabody Library in Baltimore. My head was swimming with lots of shiny new bauble words, and "triglyph" bobbed right near the top. Grace asked me about the tri- prefix during the drive down to Baltimore on Friday night, thus doubling my curiosity. Then it doubled again at the exhibit on Saturday when I saw the word in a surprising place.

Among the books on Vitruvian architecture was a copy of Giacondo's Vitruvius iterum et Frontinus from 1513. It was opened to the grand engraving that filled the first page of "QVARTUS", or chapter four. But what caught my eye was a small bit of print on the last page of chapter three. Below the text, on the right side of the page, was the word "Triglyphis". Since it was in a position I associate with a signature, I said to myself "Hey! Maybe Triglyphis was a classical architect - a contemporary of Vitruvius - and that's what the triglyph was named after!"

Points for creativity, but accuracy? Not so much. Today I looked up the etymology of the word and found the following on
triglyph (archit.) in the Doric order, block with three vertical grooves. XVI. — L. triglyphus — Gr. trígluphos, f. TRI- + gluphé carving.
Clearly this wasn't named after a man. Just as clearly, the "tri-" comes from the three vertically-split segments. Oh well. Goodbye, imaginary classical architect Triglyphis; hello, new etymological friend. Not a bad exchange.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

On Writing Well

I haven't made many blog entries lately, partly because of a book I ran across at The Strand two weeks ago: William Zinsser's On Writing Well. I picked it up and read the blurbs, and it seemed to call out to me. I bought a copy, and by the time I'd read a few pages its voice had risen to a nearly deafening - yet curiously benign - scream. I recognized that I desperately needed to hear what Zinsser was saying: cut out useless words; cut out pretentious words; use a short word if it does the job of a longer one; simplify, simplify, simplify.

One of Zinsser's best suggestions - to read what I write out loud - was so obvious and simple that it hadn't occurred to me. Trying it, I felt like a longtime whittler who'd just seen his first lathe. I found pretentious and tangled constructions that I'd never use in conversation, and when I gutted and reworked the sentences the result not only sounded better - it sounded more like me. It was all exactly as Zinsser said. Until I read his book I didn't understand what it means to "find my voice". It's not about finding a single voice, but about whatever voice I speak with being authentic to me.

I said I haven't made many blog entries lately. Notice I didn't say I hadn't been blogging. If you look at my entry on Ptolemy and Peutinger, you'll see that I've been putting the book's ideas into practice. At least I hope you'll see that, because I spent a lot of time rewriting that entry again and again. I'm keen to know if it helped. If you could tell me if I'm clearly conveying my ideas, and whether my writing is changing for the better, I'd take it as a kindness.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

A Wealth of Online Viewers

Since I started my "Maps: Finding Our Place in the World" entry I've spent probably a week or two researching the Chicago Festival of Maps exhibits. The compulsion that drove me along so many branching investigative paths was unsettling, but both the process and the product of all that digging gave me joy. It also made me aware of the staggering amount of work that's been done to bring old maps and manuscripts to the internet. Check out the new "Viewers" list at the top of my links on the right edge of the screen. I'm delighted with the content of each, and in awe of the amount of work and creativity that went into most.

My favorite viewer is the University of Oregon's tribute to Nolli's Grand Plan of Rome. I especially like exploring the map icons layer, but overall I appreciate how the map engine can overlay political regions, natural features, human-made artifacts and satellite images in a visually digestible way.

Coming in a close second is the British Library's Online Library. Check out the Lindisfarne Gospels or the Golf Book and tell me you didn't gasp. Then, if the multiple layers in the Nolli map weren't enough for you, take a look at the Gough Map. Zoom in to see the woodcut imprints on the Rom Weg Map and the multifarious threats to mariners portrayed in the 1562 Map of the Americas. Lose yourself in the detail that three generations of Cassinis put into their Carte de France. And don't forget that nifty new viewer for the 1659 Blaeu Atlas!

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Venice and the Fourth Crusade - What to Believe?

I almost began this entry by typing something along the lines of "Historiography seems to interest me even more than history." See how the zero-sum game mentality tries to creep in? History and historiography don't compete for my attention; it's their intimate dance that draws my attention! If people didn't do such bloody fascinating and ambiguous things, we wouldn't come up with such fascinating and ambiguous stories about them.

In two lecture series about the Byzantine Empire I heard a lot of intriguing stories: riots started over chariot races, an empire nearly torn apart over religious icons, and even a Crusade that stopped in Asia Minor because its leader decided to go swimming in his armor and got himself drowned. What intrigues me more than these events, though, is the fact that two historians can tell wildly different stories about any one of them.

First I made my way through Lars Brownworth's 12 Byzantine Rulers podcasts, and then I listened to Professor Kenneth W. Harl's lecture series World of Byzantium. Toward the end, I came across a striking difference between the ways in which the two lecturers portray Venice, and particularly the Doge Enrico Dandolo. This entry summarizes Mr. Brownworth's opinion that the Doge was basically a calculating villain who had his eye on Constantinople's riches from the very start. He spun a story about invading Egypt and then pulled a monumental bait-and-switch, knowing that the Crusaders wouldn't be able to come up with the money they promised. Once the Crusaders were indentured to Venice, Dandolo sicced them on the Dalmatian coast of Hungary, ignoring the Pope's outrage. In Zara Dandolo met Alexios IV Angelos, who had headed west to drum up support for a coup. In exchange for help, Alexios promised to end the Schism and reunite the Orthodox and Catholic churches, but Dandolo really had his eye on Constantinople. While the Byzantines struggled to maintain power over the city, Dandolo kept encouraging the Crusaders to invade, which of course they eventually did.

Professor Harl tells a very different story, although he admits from the start that his is only one of several versions. He says that the Venetians had to suspend shipping for a year in order to construct the Crusader fleet, and that when the Crusaders couldn't come up with the money, supplies, and people they had promised, Venice was facing bankruptcy. Therefore "...Dandolo had little choice but to go on crusade himself and work out some kind of installment plan to pay off the debt." Harl emphasizes the fact the the Venetians had already established plenty of trade routes in the east; the concessions they got from the Crusader states dwarfed those from Constantinople, so they had no reason to divert the Crusade there.

I'm not sure that I understand Professor Harl's argument. He seems to be saying that, since the Venetians had a lot of trade in the east, then of course they wouldn't want Constantinople. But since when does having some money make people not want more? Also, I think that "...Dandolo had little choice..." makes a poor excuse for sacking Constantinople. It all seems conspicuously apologist. However, Brownworth's version might be even more suspect. Unlike Harl, he doesn't even note that there are wildly different versions of the story. Also, his version of Dandolo sounds a bit too much like a moustache-twirling villain to be real.

Clearly I'll need to read more before I can lean any further toward either Harl's end of the interpretive spectrum or Brownworth's. This list may serve me well for that. In the meantime, I welcome discussion.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Virtual Tourist 2: Ptolemy and Peutinger

The four-hundred-year-old book behind the exhibit glass didn't engage me right away. I felt a connection only later, after two accidents of timing. Since last night I've tried to figure out how to describe that connection, and I've spent most of that time wishing I could come up with metaphors that don't sound hackneyed. Occasionally my wishes come true. Then there are times like this. That book was like an ancient insect suspended in amber: I was able to connect not only with the tiny artifact, but with the history that flowed around it.

The placard said that the book contained a fold-out image from the Peutinger tablet. "What's that?" I said to myself, and then took out the iPhone I'd bought just days before and Googled it. Between the placard and the internet I learned that the Peutinger tablet is a medieval painted copy on parchment of an ancient pictorial itinerary used by Roman armies and provincial governors. In 1508 the copy made its way into the hands of Konrad Peutinger, an eminent German antiquarian, and was first published in the 1590s.

Less than two days before I read all this, I had been fascinated to learn that Ptolemy's knowledge was unknown in Europe for the thousand years before the Renaissance. Noting that the source for the Peutinger tablet was made near the beginning of that era, I wrote the following in my notes.
!!!Was the Peutinger tablet a transmission vector for Ptolemy??

No, probably not, because it was from the fourth or early fifth century. By then Ptolemy was unknown [in the West], yeah? And this is a perfect example of what Whitfield was saying: the Peutinger tablet was anti-theoretical! It was for keeping control in the empire, rather than figuring out the outer world within an objective framework!
I looked at the book. I looked at the partial image of the Peutinger map on the tiny computer in my hand. The map was clearly schematic: It showed the roads but not the true shape of Italy. I thought of how Ptolemy, who strove to define those true shapes within an objective framework, was all but lost to the West for a millennium, and how the fourth century original of the Peutinger map was made at the dawn of that millennium. When I looked back at the book, I felt like I was touching the flow of history.

Yesterday I saw images of the entire tablet online, and that feeling surged back: the book wasn't just a book. It was a window into the era of cartographic divergence that Peter Whitfield described in The Image of the World.
By the first century A.D. Greek-Roman geography formed one intellectual tradition. All the major scientists were Greek, but writing within Roman institutions; owing much to roman civil and military culture, but representing the development of Greek thought over six centuries. The Greek genius was peculiarly analytical and theoretical, and to this tradition the Romans contributed little if anything. The typical Roman scientist-philosopher was Pliny, the hunter-gatherer of flora, fauna, facts, artefacts, lore and legend, but utterly lacking the analytical impulse. The theoretical spirit reached its culmination in the work of Ptolemy of Alexandria (c.A.D.90-168), who consciously summed up the methods and materials of his predecessors. Ptolemy stood at the end of a line of precocious achievement in classical science. The process by which his work fell into neglect had two main aspects. First, the Roman distaste for theoretical geography; second, the radical discontinuity in learning and literature from the fourth century onwards...
The Peutinger map, with its focus on roads and the distances along them between cities and towns, was clearly designed to be a highly functional tool, but it's not a map in the strictest sense. It's a schematic. Like a modern subway map, it contorts geographical relationships to array all points of interest within the workspace; geography is subsumed under human utility. This is the antithesis of Ptolemy. In his intellectual landscape the mundane world fits into a framework of graticules that seems almost like a Platonic ideal; here too the earth is subsumed but there's a critical difference: it's subsumed under a concept. The people who had the Peutinger map made had no time for such rarefied ideas: they were busy trying to hold together an empire. Controlling the economic and military forces flowing through that empire was like holding onto a gigantic bloodhound: powerful muscles tensed, bones shifted, skin slid freely and the grip was lost. And all this time, Islamic scholars were looking at Ptolemy's notions and saying to themselves "This is interesting. This is worth copying." While one empire fell, a seed of future empires was wending its way through quills far off in the east. I touched a small piece of the detritus from that sweep of history, and I feel honored. I think this is the way museums are supposed to work. I'm just getting that.

What can I say but "WOO HOO!!!"?

This morning on the MapHist list, Dr. Paul van den Brink of the Explokart Research Team at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands announced a new digitized atlas of Blaeu, the "Toonneel des Aerdrycks, ofte Nieuwe Atlas" of 1659. The viewer shows six volumes, including the texts, and was ordered for by the city of Leiden.

The website is in Dutch. I have looked upon the viewer and found it totally sweet.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Virtual Tourist 1: Introduction, Hard Fill Wanted

My four-day visit to the Chicago Festival of Maps was a sort of birthday present to myself. On the morning of my birthday I set out for the Virtual Tourist in Renaissance Rome exhibit. Flush with excitement over the previous day at the Field Museum, and from the cold walk across Hyde Park, I got to the University of Chicago Library soon after it opened at nine o'clock. That I stayed until the library closed at one o'clock, yet still saw only a small fraction of the exhibit, most eloquently conveys its thought-provoking richness.

The exhibit frontispiece tells the story of how the library obtained the treasure trove on display. In 1891 William Rainey Harper, the first president of the University of Chicago, bought the stock of a Berlin book dealer with, among other things, a "unique set of Lafreri's Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae consisting of 1100 plates of which no public library has a set of over 120 plates." The plates are engravings of monuments and antiquities of Rome, most published in the late sixteenth century, the age of Michelangelo and the Counter-Reformation.

I dredged my memory for details from the conversations I had with Grace about the music and art of the sixteenth century, and how the Reformation and Counter-Reformation manifested through them. I thought of the sensuality and palpability of Michaelangelo's human figures, and asked myself "Wasn't Michaelangelo's work more a reflection of the Reformation than the Counter-Reformation?" I hadn't even made it past the frontispiece and it was clear that I needed to do lots more studying. Sitting here writing this entry it's even more clear: I just turned to Grace and said "Didn't Michaelangelo do the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel?" Of course the answer was "Yes". Sigh. Throw Michaelangelo on that big pile of stuff I need to study in the context of the confessional brouhaha of the sixteenth century.

The first item in the exhibit was Francesco Albertini's "Little work on the marvels of the new and old city of Rome. The placard said that this was the type of manuscript guidebook to Rome produced in the Middle Ages, and that the simplicity of the frontispiece is typical for early sixteenth century books inspired by classical antiquity. When I read of the "New and Old Rome" motif that runs through so many of the items in this exhibit I thought back to Nolli's "Grand Plan of Rome", which I'd seen at the Field Museum the previous day. Nolli's map showed, among two thousand points of interest, such classical structures as the Circus Maximus.

The placard said that Albertini's "little work" was published between 1493 and 1510. I tried to place this in context, and the first thing I thought of was the Reconquista. The Spanish completed their reoccupation of the Iberian Peninsula in 1492, but of course they continued to be extremely busy with the Muslim presence on the Barbary Coast. Continuing to rummage in my head, I thought of how, in 1571, Philip II was very invested in keeping Italy under his control, yet making sure it didn't get overrun by Ottoman forces. Suddenly the History of European Art lectures popped into my head: specifically, the bit about the pilgrimage routes through France and into northwest Spain. I looked in my notes and found it: Santiago de Compostela, supposedly the most important pilgrimage site in the eleventh and twelfth centuries.

I thought back to Etzlaub's map of the pilgrimage routes to Rome from 1500, and Paris's map of the pilgrimage routes to Apulia from 1252. This led me to my big question: What happened between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries to shift the focus eastward, from northwest Spain to Rome? Also, how did Spain view these Renaissance "advertisements" for Italy? Was this material part of Italy's striving for independence from spain? How much did the fall of Constantinople play into this?

These are big, intimidating questions, and although there are centuries-wide gaps in my knowledge, at least I feel confident enough now to ask them. I know a few things:

  • In 800, the Pope Leo III was weak enough to need help against the Lombards, but strong enough for Charlemagne to want him as an ally. The crowning of Charlemagne represented a break with Constantinople and a bond with Western Europe.
  • In the years following Henry VIII's initial request for a divorce from Catherine of Aragon in 1525, the Pope became very weak indeed. Spain and France were fighting over Italy, and the degree to which Rome capitulated to Henry's desires was directly proportional to the French army's incursions. When plague struck the army at Rome's doorstep, the Pope regained some influence, but by this time the Papal ambassador had already given Henry the go-ahead.
  • During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the city-states of Italy became extremely powerful, mostly because they supplied, and eventually usurped, the Crusades. I know that, during the Fourth Crusade, Venetian forces attacked first Zara and then Constantinople against the wishes of the Pope, but I have no idea how much the power of the merchant city-states elevated that of Rome.
  • Between the beginning of the Crusades in the late 1090's and the fall of Constantinople in 1204, Italy was not only a source of ships for the Crusades, but a waystation on the route to the Holy Lands.
  • After the fall of Constaninople, Rome would have been even more of a waystation as pilgrims sought alternate routes to the east. When the Crusader states fell, Rome would suddenly have become the easternmost focus of Christian pilgrimage.

Having thought through all this, I wondered if the eastern shift in pilgrimage destinations indicated a refocusing of Europe's collective eye: during the Reconquista, northern Spain would have represented a foothold on which Christian soldiers dug in their heels to push the Muslims south; however, the more the Iberian Peninsula was retaken, the more Europeans must have felt secure in casting their eyes eastward to the newly-minted crisis in the Holy Land. On the other hand, the eastward shift may have had less to do with conceptual geography than with the rising power of the Papacy and the declining power of Constantinople. I think I need to understand Papal history before I can hope to answer my questions, so I've decided that when I finish World of Byzantium I'll be starting in on Popes and the Papacy: A History. Wish me luck. And check back in to see if I've answered those big questions.

Here is a high-resolution zoomable image of Lafreri's title page for his Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae.

Friday, February 29, 2008

Philip II and Victor von Doom

In issues 551 through 553 of The Fantastic Four, the FF get a surprise visit from a future version of their oldest nemesis: Victor von Doom, aka Doctor Doom. Doom has traveled back in time on a purportedly benevolent mission: to warn the team that Reed Richards will go mad with power, and that this will have disastrous consequences for the entire planet. Under normal circumstances the FF wouldn't believe Doom for a second, but they've recently been shaken to their foundations by the events of the Marvel Universe's Civil War, in which Reed made some choices that caused most of the world to lose faith in him. They listen to what Doom has to say, more or less, and then a time portal opens and their future selves - the FF from the future Doom's timeline - show up. They want to take Doom back with them, but the present-day Reed, allowing for the possibility that what Doom says is true, decides to protect Doom. Arguments - and eventually fighting - ensue between "our" FF and their future selves: not simply because the future FF want Doom, but because they remember a version of history where they fought their future selves, and this is all part of preserving the time stream! Eventually the fighting subsides as the present-day FF learn the truth. Here's the conversation between Ben Grimm, the future Doom, Sue Richards, and the future Reed Richards.

You guys are tryin' to keep things the way they were, but Doomsie... is trying ta change history.

As I said. To prevent Reed's madness from destroying the future.

Destroying it how, Victor? You say you're a man of honor... tell us the truth. What's the world like where you come from?

It's paradise.
His dual-layer Dyson swarm provides nearly free and inexhaustible energy. Advances in medicine have greatly extended both the duration and quality of life. There hasn't been a war in over 40 years, hunger and crime are all but unknown, education is universal. Art thrives.

There's still a lot of work to do, but --

But humanity is safe, happy, prosperous and striving for true greatness.
And it's all Richards's fault.

Fault? Are you out of yer blamed mind?

That honor belongs to me! I should be the savior of humanity, not Richards. Doom!

Now you know the truth. Doom came back to the past, intending to correct history so that the future would be the product of his hand.

Fun story, huh? Well, I sure enjoyed it. But it's not just a story.

In 1571 a Christian naval coalition defeated a large Ottoman force at the Battle of Lepanto. The unprecedented cooperation between Western Christian states shows how dire the Ottoman threat had become. Had the battle gone slightly differently, the Christian forces would have been enveloped by the larger Ottoman force and crushed, leaving the eastern Mediterranean and much of eastern Europe open to further encroachment. One would think that any Christian would have felt unalloyed joy at news of the victory, let alone the king of one of the main countries involved. In my experience, though, you can always count on Philip II to behave enigmatically. First, let's put Philip's Catholic faith into perspective. The following is from page 27 of David Howarth's The Voyage of the Armada: The Spanish Story.
But it was not only a political empire; it was also a religious entity, and that was what made it so complex. King Philip was His Most Catholic Majesty. He believed he was appointed by god to defend the truth against infidels and heretics. The pope was Vicar of Christ: Philip, in his own eyes, was Champion of god, the equal of the pope in God's designs. In this sense, his boundaries were vague. There were people all over Europe, caught in the ebb and flow of Reformation and Counter-Reformation, whose loyalties were divided between their country and their church. In almost all of Philip's Catholic domains, Protestants had been exterminated, or pushed far under ground, by the Inquisition. The only exception was the Netherlands. All through his reign they had been in revolt, partly against the shame of foreign rule and partly to protect their Protestant creed: he had to keep an immensely expensive army there, and it had never succeeded in putting the rebels down. But he was not only concerned with his own domains. It was his personal duty, divinely imposed as he believed, to punish Protestants everywhere and rescue Catholics who lived under Protestant rule.
Now, on to Philip's reaction to Lepanto in 1571. The following is from page 294 of Victory of the West by Niccolo Capponi.
Despite his apparent elation over the Christian victory, the king was not totally happy about the league's success. Don Juan had put the Habsburg galleys and soldiers at considerable risk by deciding to join battle - a rash decision to say the least, especially for el rey prudente, and according to a number of Philip's councillors the prince could only thank God if he had come out of it alive. Significantly, the king commissioned only one work of art to commemorate the victory - Titian's Philip II, after the victory of Lepanto, offers the prince Don Fernando to victory, now in the Prado - and to celebrate more the continuity of the Habsburg line than the Ottoman defeat. The six large canvases of the battle by Luca Cambiaso, now in the Escorial, were probably gifts of Giovanni Andrea Doria to the royal secretary Antonio Pérez, acquired by the king at a later date. One has the distinct impression that for Philip the league victory represented a potential source of political trouble, possibly because by weakening the Porte's navy it had altered the balance of power in the Mediterranean and loosened Spain's grip on Italy.
This utterly amazed me when I first read it, and it still makes my jaw slacken a bit. Philip II was the model of a Catholic King of the sixteenth century: as relentless as he was devout. Yet upon hearing of the greatest Catholic victory of his age, his reaction was lukewarm. It didn't matter to him that Christian forces won, as long as he wasn't in control. Even if everything happened that he wanted to happen, it didn't matter as long as it wasn't by his hand. Sound familiar?

The best stories aren't just stories. They're history.

Thanks to Grace for giving me the idea for this entry. It still amazes me that I didn't think of it, seeing as how I was the one who told her about this aspect of Philip's personality.

Well isn't that Special?

So the other morning, on my way to the shower, I was thinking about the Duke of Medina Sidonia and George Washington. OK, that sounded a tad slashy, didn't it? Don't worry, though: I strive to make history exciting, but not that exciting.


Psst! You're supposed to say "So, uh... why were you thinking about Medina Sidonia, the commander of the Spanish Armada of 1588, and George Washington, the Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army from 1775 to 1783 and first President of the United States?"

I'm glad you asked that question! And in such a fine, expository manner, too! Why, I think of the two men often because, odd as this may sound, I'm struck by their similarities: as a nobleman experienced in administering large estates, each was one of the very few men of his time qualified to command large-scale logistical operations; each had the ability to draw upon the resources of his homeland, a vast region whose participation in the coming conflict was absolutely crucial; and each was reduced at several times to writing desperate letters to other commanders who were supposed to be giving him support, but who instead decided not to associate themselves with one who looks to be the loser. There are more similarities, but this is all a story for a future entry.

As I was heading into the shower (again with the inspirations coming to me in the bathroom!) I was thinking of all this, and of how I should blog about it soon, and how I should also do entries about the similarities between Philip II and Henry VIII, and so on. Then a memory surfaced...

As Hugh steps into the shower, we zoom with a reverse dolly so that the background retreats. Insert reverse aging SFX so that Hugh is now 22 years younger. When we dolly in and zoom out, Hugh is standing in a hallway in his high school, looking on as Bob signs Hugh's yearbook.

In 1986, my sophomore year, Bob Cole was the salutatorian of his graduating class. He also played first trumpet in stage band. I played third trumpet, so I knew him about as well as a tremendously geeky sophomore could know an exceedingly together senior. He was a nice young man, and I'll bet he went on to become an outstanding member of his community. At the time of his graduation, though, he mostly just annoyed me. See, my friend Tony and I were totally into our own geeky little world, constantly quoting from whatever science fiction or advanced calculus or crude comedy routine we were into at the moment. Once or twice Bob expressed his irritation at this, saying that I should be bettering myself by reading biographies instead of wasting my time with these fictional worlds. He alluded to this in what he wrote in my yearbook. Now, to be fair, he wrote a lot and most of it was quite nice. The closing sentences were what annoyed me.
Fiction is interesting, but fact is where it's at. Remember also that you'll sleep one third of your life away. So don't waste time! Take care.

Bob Cole

Dick. That's what I thought at the time, and I stand by it. Now, don't get me wrong; we were high-schoolers, and all high-schoolers are dicks in some way or another, so it's absolutely no insult to Bob. Also, Bob was right: I should have been reading biographies. I wish I had been reading biographies. The ignorance I felt two decades later that motivated me to start learning history was a direct result of disregarding Bob's words. But Bob was wrong, too, and here's why: You don't get anywhere with people by preaching. Right or wrong, if you point out a person's deficiencies and tell them what they should be doing, it just ain't gonna work out well. And anyway, it's usually more about the ego of the one giving the advice than about the well-being of the one getting it. Regardless of all that, though, people simply don't take kindly to being told what to do. I want to go back to that moment and whisper in Bob's ear: Bob, don't tell him what to do. Not only is that not gonna work, it's gonna piss him off. If you want him to read history... tell him a story. Tell him a story about a king kneeling in a tiny room - a king who had the power to assemble the greatest Armada the world had ever seen, and hurl it across the ocean at his most bothersome foe, but who never stepped outside that room to meet his commanders, or to observe his vast armies, or to lay his hand on the prow of one of his mighty ships.

When I thought of all this - of how Bob was 100% correct in what he said but 100% wrong in his approach - something crystallized in my head, and I came up with another Law of The Pond Seeker. Now I have three of them, in descending order of priority, like with Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics.

  1. Learn.
  2. Share my enthusiasm.
  3. Don't preach. Do tell stories.

So I ain't gonna preach to ya. I'm gonna tell ya stories. If I do my job right, the rest will come on its own.

Next time: The story of that king.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

So... Why Maps?

You wouldn't think that eighth century Byzantine economics could inspire a guy. The thing about the Muse, though, is that she has no regard for what you or I think. That's exactly as it should be; I believe in waiting humbly for the Muse, and being nothing but grateful if she deigns to swing by. And I believe that the most profound expression of my gratitude is to grab her mane and ride her for all she's worth. I don't ask questions about her destination, and she doesn't ask questions about my mixed metaphors.

A few weeks ago during a morning commute I was listening to Professor Kenneth W. Harl lecture about the ways in which Constantine V stimulated the Byzantine economy. Constantine forcibly imported artisans from around the empire to engage in large building projects in Constantinople. This greatly stimulated the economy by increasing taxes and the exchange of coined money. Constantinople was also the home of state monopolies such as the silk trade. Ho hum. Then Professor Harl got to a good bit about how, back in the days of Justinian, some Nestorian monks had smuggled silk worms out of India in their bamboo rods, and from those stolen worms arose the silk industry that spanned southern Greece, the area now known as the Peloponnese. In Constantine's time, though, it was known as Moria.

Wait. Pause. Rewind. What? Moria?? As in the Mines of Moria from The Lord of the Rings? Well, OK, Wikipedia says it's actually Morea, with an E. Still, it made me wonder about the possible associations as I digested Professor Harl's news that Morea means "mulberry", the tree on which the silkworm does its thing. Constantinople sold silk to Western Europe at a huge profit, so it stands to reason that this region, from which so much Byzantine wealth arose, was named after the plant that made it all possible. The Wikipedia article, though, indicates that the origin of the name is not quite as cut and dried as all that:
There is some uncertainty over the origin of the name "Morea", which is first recorded in the 10th century in Byzantine chronicles. As with many other things in the Balkans, part of the uncertainty stems from the political implications behind each suggested origin of the name.

Popular belief in Greece today is that the name originates from the word moria, meaning mulberry, a common plant in the region. In Greece it is also believed that it is of Frankish origin.

In 1830, the Austrian historian Jakob Philipp Fallmerayer (1790–1861) published the first of his volumes Geschichte der Halbinsel Morea während des Mittelalters ("History of the Morea Peninsula during the Middle Ages"). Based on his analysis of the spread of Slavic place names in mainland Greece, Fallmerayer proposed that the 19th century Greeks had almost no linear cultural connection to the ancients but a large one to the Slavic tribes who had invaded during the 6th and 7th centuries. To support his thesis, Fallmerayer proposed that the word comes from the Slavic word more, meaning sea. Fallmerayer did not find any conclusive evidence as there was no evidence other than several scattered village names to suggest this. The spelling of the name with the omega "Ω" however indicates that the word is likely of Greek origin with the omega being a prolonged "o" sound.
Now that's interesting, and a much more likely origin of the purportedly magnificent abode of Tolkien's Dwarfs; after all, I can certainly see Gimli as a Slavic warrior.

I ruminated on the Tolkien connection as I walked to work. As I went into the bathroom - and isn't it weird how often inspiration hits in the bathroom? - a thought struck me, apropos of nothing but the fact that I happened to be thinking of maps and Tolkien: He put maps in his books, but no other illustrations! That means something! Maps are so important that Tolkien chose them above all other images to include in his printed work.

Turns out I was totally full of crap. It just so happens that I've only read the relatively cheap editions of his books that have no illustrations except maps. There are other editions with Tolkien's drawings of characters and landscapes. In order to acquaint myself with what Tolkien actually drew, as opposed to what I had fancied he drew, I got three books out of my library : The Annotated Hobbit; J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator; and Pictures by J. R. R. Tolkien. They show that Tolkien was quite engaged in drawing his characters and their villages and houses, not to mention many colorful patterns that are reminiscent of Medieval manuscript illuminations. So I was wrong. But then again, perhaps I wasn't entirely wrong. Because even though Tolkien did draw things aside from maps, his drawings of maps seem different than the rest. Unlike the ethereal feeling I get from the other material, the maps seem very solid and real. And then there's the simple fact that there are editions with only maps. Someone thought that it was important to leave the maps in even when all else was stripped out.

But that's not the story.

The story is that I wanted to believe that Tolkien thought maps were special. The only basis I had for this assertion was the single edition I'd read, yet I got excited enough about this "discovery" to become rather crestfallen when I found out otherwise. Once I recognized this desire, it became clear that I think maps are magical, and that I was searching for a way to articulate and justify the fascination that had taken hold of me so abruptly and so thoroughly. The more I thought of it, the more sense it made, because maps are magical. Maps do something that the human brain - especially my brain - can't do, or at least can't do well. Maps show complex spatial relationships, and we're so used to them that we forget how difficult such relationships are to visualize without them. Look at Matthew Paris's map of the pilgrimage route from London to Apulia. Essentially a one-dimensional construct, the map shows simply that the path from this abbey leads to that abbey, and that path from that abbey leads to this mountain, and so on. There are virtually no two-dimensional relationships. This map reveals that visualizing two-dimensional - let alone three-dimensional! - relationships is something that the human brain just doesn't do out of the box. It has to be trained to do it! Maps represent not only a way to help with that training, but a shortcut around it!

Military historians talk a lot about castles and fortresses as examples of force multipliers. The notion is fairly straightforward: there are ways of multiplying the effective force of a few people so that they seem like a lot of people. This usually involves paying a premium to gravity so that you can reap huge dividends later. You get together a bunch of people who, over a long period of time, lift stones from low places and build a particular kind of very high place out of them. Once they're done assembling that high place, they bring themselves, and lots of food and weapons, into it. Now, anyone who wants to get to the people, or the food, or the high place itself, have to fight their way to it from the bottom of the enormous potential well created by all that work. And the people up there who did the work? They have the option to release most of that energy they stored up over the months and years, very quickly: all they have to do is drop things. I said the notion is straightforward. The sheer (ha ha) effectiveness of the force multiplier, though, beggars the imagination if you're hearing the actual numbers for the first time. I know I was absolutely stunned last year when I read the bit in Niccolo Capponi's Victory of the West about the Siege of Malta in 1565. The Ottomans landed on Malta in May with about thiry five thousand men and nearly sixty guns, some of them huge masonry destroyers. Thirty five thousand men! That's more than the Armada carried twenty-three years later! What was even more surprising to me, though, was that Malta - with less than six hundred members of the Knights Hospitaller, four hundred Spanish troops, around four or five thousand Maltese, and fifty artillery pieces - held out against this force until Sicily came to the rescue in September!

Here's what I'm coming to realize: Maps are intellectual force multipliers. When you make a map, you take huge amounts of work done over vast periods of time and you bundle it together. Just consider the amount of work that al-Idrisi did in making his world map. That piece of paper with the continents isn't just a piece of paper: it's a highly-concentrated chunk of negentropy, or order. The waste heat discharged from all that gradual work done over all those centuries to bring together the knowledge distilled into the map hanging on my wall could incinerate the world's armies. And with that energy people can take their brains - which may be ill-suited to the task of visualizing what the map shows, and anyway probably don't have the time, resources or inclination to go across the ocean to find out for themselves what's there - and they can make decisions that change the world. That concentration of power in an unassuming form is, I think, what makes maps so fascinating to me.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Sixteenth Century: Now with 30% more Confessionalism!

The recent In Our Time episode about Rudolf II got me to thinkin'. I made some connections that pretty near blew my mind - yeah, I know, it doesn't take much - and now I feel like I understand the sixteenth century a little better. You be the judge. Here's a transcript of the relevant bits; I gave up on sorting out the voices, so all three of the guests are just listed as "Guest". Their names are listed on the site.
Bragg: There was a university in Prague... there were universities all across Europe, yet Rudolf was attracting these people. What was he offering - his course - that the universities weren't providing?

Guest: Well, Charles University in Prague is a special case because in the aftermath of the Hussite Revolt Prague had been sort of sealed off from the rest of Europe and not fully integrated, so it was in a bad state. But the more general point is that universities were set up effectively to teach the received heritage of the west and to pass it on to the next generation. They were not remotely regarded as research institutes; they weren't set up, they weren't founded, they weren't funded for that kind of thing, and if you wanted funding - salary in the first instance, equipment and assistance in the second, to pursue natural philosophical inquiry, and to move back the frontiers of knowledge to change the accepted order of things, and you were not very independently wealthy as of course Tycho Brahe was, you needed to find a wealthy patron to sustain at least some part of that inquiry. And the obvious concentrations of wealth and prestige were in the courts of Europe - central Europe of course was divided into many individual territorial principalities, so it was very rich with this particular resource. Rudolph was at the summit of that system: notionally for the whole of Europe, and certainly for central Europe. And the other part of the equation is of course that it began to dawn on rulers in the Renaissance period that there was considerable prestige to be attached from being associated with these collections, with the kind of concentrations of knowledge and expertise, and also conceivably with the discoveries, whether mathematical, astrological, or whatever. So there was an incentive for them to patronize scientists - what we would call today scientists on the one hand, alongside artists on the other.

Bragg: He spent some of his youth at the court in Spain...

Guest: Yes, that's right, and that was the main thing he brought back with him. I mean, what he didn't bring back - and this is crucially important for understanding the natural philosphical as well as other aspects of his reign, is the ethos of the Counter-Reformation. Because there was simply no way of translating that from the Spanish half of the Habsburg family to the Austria half, because the political conditions were utterly different. He didn't have a consolidated state like Castile to make the center of his empire, he didn't have the ethos of the Reconquista, five hundred years of expelling first the Moors and then the Jews from the Iberian Peninsula, and of course he didn't have the boatloads of gold and silver coming in from the New World, either, to finance a military campaign, nor did he have the army. So he needed to find a way out of this trap which was building all around him, of his empire dissolving into equally antagonistic confessional factions. And part of the reason he then ends up patronizing this remarkable work in the arts - broadly conceived - including the arts of alchemy and astronomy, shifting into an interest in the natural world, is because here we have a field of cultural significance and creativity outside this fractious confessional demesne. So he's actually responding very creatively to the confessional pressures of the era by shifting the center of gravity of his court in a rather different (one or two of the other guests say "Yeah" in agreement) Now that doesn't tell you his personality, but given that he has a reputation, particularly in his latter years, of actually going mad, of actually sort of losing his grip, this suggests to me a very visionary and a very creative response to an almost impossible situation, one which had been prepared by previous Habsburg emperors, particularly his father Maximilian II, which Rudolf epitomizes and pushes to a new level because it is the only way of escaping from this dilemma that he finds himself in.

Bragg: Anything to add about his character before we wrap on him?

Guest: Yeah, I mean maybe I'm being slightly facile here, but Rudolph's father had a reputation for being extremely liberal, hence you've got this development of the Ultraquists - the believers who tolerate both confessions, Protestant and Catholic. Maybe Rudolph is more that he can't stand either confession particularly, so he doesn't favor either, which gets him into a lot of trouble of course with the church.

Bragg: Well he is, as we said at the beginning of the program, he is trying to get God out of the equation, isn't he?

Guest: He's trying to get the Catholic interpretation of God, perhaps, out of the equation, but there's no doubt that he's attracting people that are extremely devout, extremely spiritual, but they're performing practices that orthodoxy will automatically condemn as being diabolic.

I found the notion of Rudolf actively seeking to balance out the Counter-Reformation with a liberal alternative to be immensely intriguing, and a little suspicious: it had that whiff of twentieth-century thinking about it, so I wondered if there was actual historical evidence that Rudolf thought this way, or if the contributors were stroking a pet notion to the point of distortion, as historians sometimes do. I was thinking of posing this question to the Gunroom and, always keen to put in a Patrick O'Brian connection, I began thinking of Stephen Maturin. Of all the characters in 'the canon', Stephen is the only one who comes across to me as surprisingly modern. The following comes from a conversation in Master and Commander between Stephen and James Dillon, referring to their involvement in the Irish Rebellion of 1798.
'...Even then I no longer cared for any cause or any theory of government on earth; I would not have lifted a finger for any nation's independence, fancied or real; and yet I had to reason with as much ardour as though I were filled with the same enthusiasm as in the first days of the Revolution, when we were all overflowing with virtue and love.'

'Why? Why did you have to speak so?'

'Because I had to convince him that his plans were disastrously foolish, that they were known to the Castle and that he was surrounded by traitors and informers. I reasoned as closely and cogently as ever I could - better than ever I thought I could - and he did not follow me at all. His attention wandered. "Look," says he, "there's a redbreast in that yew by the path." All he knew was that I was opposed to him, so he closed his mind; if, indeed, he was capable of following me, which perhaps he was not. Poor Edward! Straight as a rush; and so many of them around him were as crooked as men can well be - Reynolds, Corrigan, Davis... Oh, it was pitiful.'

'And would you indeed not lift a finger, even for the moderate aims?'

'I would not. With the revolution in France gone to pure loss I was already chilled beyond expression. And now, with what I saw in '98, on both sides, the wicked folly and the wicked brute cruelty, I have had such a sickening of men in masses, and of causes, that I would not cross this room to reform parliament or prevent the union or to bring about the millennium. I speak only for myself, mind - it is my own truth alone - but man as part of a movement or a crowd is indifferent to me. He is inhuman. And I have nothing to do with nations, or nationalism. The only feelings I have - for what they are - are for men as individuals; my loyalties, such as they may be, are to private persons alone.'

'Patriotism will not do?'

'My dear creature, I have done with all debate. But you know as well as I, patriotism is a word; and one that generally comes to mean either my country, right or wrong, which is infamous, or my country is always right, which is imbecile.'
I always thought this sounded a lot like twentieth century nihilism. Yet the Gunroom folks, who know a thousand times more about Patrick O'Brian than I ever will, swear by his ability to "inhabit" the period; it's supposedly almost impossible to catch him in an anachronism. So I had to concede that if my reaction to Stephen was wrong, then my reaction to Rudolf might well be wrong too: perhaps what I perceived as a twentieth-century motivation is actually a universal human motivation. Amid all this angst over the appropriateness of bringing modern interpretations to bear on non-modern characters, I thought of the similar, stronger reaction I had when I read the placard for the Cimerlini cordiform heart map at the Field Museum. It said that "At a time when the world was divided by religious conflicts, some mapmakers thought that it was important to portray a world unified by love and tolerance." At the time, I took umbrage at what seemed to me like a wrong-headed interpretation, only to find out later that the writer of that placard was easily one of the world's experts on Cimerlini and his contemporaries, and on their motivations. I couldn't have been more wrong if I'd tried. While I was thinking of all this, something went click and a big piece of the puzzle that is the sixteenth century fell into my lap: It's all about confessionalism.

In 1517 a man walked up to a wooden door and nailed a piece of paper to it. That it happened to be a church door, and that it's seen as the spark that ignited the Protestant Reformation, has led people to think of this act as one of rebellion. It wasn't. It was the equivalent of you or I going down to our local city hall and filing a complaint. It was only after the Catholic Church and Luther had gone through a few rounds of "Shut up!" "No, you shut up!" that Luther truly became a revolutionary. In other words, times were overripe for religious discord. During the next few decades, confessionalism reached awe-inspiring proportions as Protestants split with Catholics, and then Protestantism itself became so splintered that one has to laugh or cry at the seemingly endless ramification.

In 1566, in the midst of this divisiveness, a man made a heart-shaped map of the world as a way of saying "We are all one."

Toward the end of the sixteenth century, a man looked at all the splintering - of credos and of skulls - going on around him; in an attempt to change the subject, he gathered wizards from all over the land to show the world shiny new things.

Now let's go back to 1588, to a man in a small room, clutching his well-worn rosary beads and trying to ignore the pain in his knees. I've often wondered about that man. Philip II had power the likes of which is quite simply inconceivable. He ruled an empire that reached from the Philippines in the east to South America in the west. He set in motion the greatest armada the world had ever seen. Few dared tell him that his plan for that armada was logistically impossible. Medina Sidonia tried to do so several times, at no small risk to himself, but Philip's councilors of state refused even to pass the last letter along.

Why? What makes humans think it's a Good Idea to give their power to kings? I still feel like I'm light years away from being able to answer that question, but at least now I feel like I understand Philip II in the context of his times a little better. The tendency toward confessionalism was extremely high: people were desperate to define themselves as Catholic or Protestant or Calvinist or Followers of the Great Green Arkleseizure, and then to set themselves against the Other. In this atmosphere, of course people gave their power to a man who could not bear the thought of a single Protestant in all of his vast kingdoms - a man willing to drain the Spanish treasury trying to expunge every last one. Just as today, though, there were people like Cimerlini and Rudolf who reacted to that oppressive divisiveness by trying to bring people together. Philip's power flowed from religion, and the engine of religion ran on a confessionalist gradient. Rudolf was marketing a new kind of engine.

People tend to look upon the sixteenth century as a conflict between confessional factions. Now I see those wars of religion as a subset of a larger conflict between divisiveness and unification. I'm pleased to have reached this new perspective by honing an old tool: Ever since I listened to Professor Brad S. Gregory emphasize the importance of viewing historical characters from within their own context, I've striven never to see history through modern lenses. That mindset has come in uncommon useful when reading about people from Elizabeth I to George Washington. Moments like this, however, make it clear that I've gone overboard. Certainly it's not useful to clutch stubbornly at those modern lenses when there's an old, dusty pair with a more appropriate focal length available; but neither is it useful to reject out of hand anything that sounds modern. After all, I believe firmly that people are people, and that in the most general sense human motivations don't change. I'm dead certain that I would have much more to talk about over a beer with Samuel Pepys than I would with the vast majority of my own peers.

The picture on the top right is of Gustav Mahler. I used it as a stand-in for the fictional Stephen Maturin because Mahler is, to me, the very image of Stephen. Look through some pictures of Mahler and you'll see how hunched he looks, how uncomfortable he seems in his own skin. That's Stephen for you.