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.