History

A Key Link to Modern Art

Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes

In 2012, a major traveling exhibition of Caravaggio’s work was shown at Buenos Aires’ Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes.  It was entitled Caravaggio y Sus Seguidores (Caravaggio and His Followers).

I didn’t go.

But a few years later, my wife was given the catalogue of that exhibition, a beautiful heavyweight, glossy volume, as a gift and I tossed it onto my to-be-read pile, thinking it would probably be interesting.

Now, most of you will likely be wondering of what possible interest the catalogue of an exhibition I didn’t see could possibly be.  It’s a valid question, but the truth is that here at CE a) we like art and b) we like books, so it was a no-brainer.  Even if I hated it, I would at least have learned what it was like to read an auction catalogue.

Caravaggio y Sus Seguidores - Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes

I didn’t hate it, though.  Quite the contrary.  The book was a fascinating collection of essays on several topics.  The first was a biography of the painter himself, the second a discussion about the works, both by the man himself and by some of the painters who followed his innovative footsteps.  Finally, the volume closed with a history of pre-8th-century art in the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes.

In a nutshell, Caravaggio was a fascinating figure both as an artist and a person.  He was involved in duels, murder and dissipation, and he spent his later years on the run from the law (an interesting situation considering his high profile).

Of course, it was as an artist, not an amateur murderer, where he made his mark.  His combination of chiaroscuro technique (of which he was a pioneer) with psychological realism (which wasn’t to be imitated until centuries later) was utterly new at the time, and broke all kinds of ground.  This is why the collection of his imitators / followers–even though he never had his own school–is so impressive.

So that’s what the book was about, and yes, it was mostly new information.  But what really jumped out at me from the text was the awful difficulties presented in attempting to assign attribution to unsigned paintings four hundred years old with gaps in their history.

A good chunk of the text is devoted to explaining why a certain painting is presented to us as being by a particular painter, often despite centuries of attribution to another.  Apparently imaging techniques that came into use in the past 30 years or so have rendered many of the expert opinions of the past obsolete.

Now the text was pretty dry, but reading between the lines, I imagine that the arguments back and forth are pretty heated.  Will they turn murderous, the way Caravaggio’s often did?  I hope not… but with so many of the people involved being Italian, I imagine passions will run hot and tempers will flare.

Another body or two could only add to his legacy.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose latest novel is a thriller entitled Timeless.  You can check it out here.

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Casting a New Light

I live about forty blocks from a street named FitzRoy.  A lot of streets, places and geographical elements in Argentina are named after old Robert, as well as his boat (called the Beagle) and passenger (some guy named Darwin).  It’s not particularly surprising, considering that all three made their names in large part because of the time they spent exploring the waters around Argentina and Chile.

Most people will assume that Charles Darwin was the most interesting character on those particular voyages, and perhaps they are correct–he’s certainly the one whose effect on popular culture (not to mention religious controversy) has been most pronounced…

this thing of darkness by harry thompson

And yet, the critically acclaimed novel This Thing of Darkness, by the late Harry Thompson, makes a compelling case for the naval officer Robert FitzRoy as the most interesting man aboard.  Certainly, he comes off as a man whose honor could never be besmirched, and a modern man in some regards.

Of course, in other ways, he is also portrayed as a man of his times (the first half of the 19th century), especially in certain inflexibility and in his religious outlook.  Nevertheless, his character in this book makes one question the silly postmodern conviction that being an officer and a gentleman is somehow a bad thing.  If there’s one thing the modern world could use more of it’s people like Robert FitzRoy.

Apart from casting FitzRoy in the role of the Hero–deservedly so–the book is notable for making a six-year-long voyage of hardship and unspeakable tedium read like an action/adventure romp.  While Thompson probably took large liberties with the characters of the men involved (and delved into their minds with unbridled imagination), he also created a page-turning novelization.

Does he commit the crime of superposing his modern views on some of the characters and events?  Sadly, yes (judging the actions of the past by the standards of today is, of course, imbecilic) but he does TRY to avoid it, even if he’s not completely successful.  As a result of this effort, we gain a picture of this time as a moment in history in which scientific observation was in a life-and-death struggle with the philosophical status quo that had guided man through the enlightenment… and that means that Thompson succeeds where so many other modern writers failed.

This is a good book.  It will make you yearn for the age of exploration and seethe at the injustice of the colonial system, but most of all, it will keep you reading.  Also, it will teach you a bunch of stuff you didn’t remember about Darwin’s voyage.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer who also explores historical times.  His novel The Malakiad is a romp set in ancient Greece which… well, let’s just say it isn’t exactly based on facts.  You can check it out here.

Aristocracy… The Natural State of the World?

Madame Le Guillotine

In 1789, a bunch of people in France decided their nobles were a bit too tall and began shortening them by use of the guillotine.  A little over a hundred years later, bored Russian intellectuals raised an army and killed off the Romanovs for want of anything better to do (the above might be a slight simplification of actual historical events).

In both cases, the earlier aristocratic way of life was wiped off the map, supposedly forever.

Of course, by the time of the Russian Revolution, the French had replaced their aristocracy with captains of industry who drove enormous motorcars and drank expensive champagne and made the court of Louis XVI look like a bunch of unwashed yahoos (all right, the French are always unwashed, but you know what I mean).

I suppose that if one takes a socialist view of things, you could say that it’s only natural that the capitalist society born of the Industrial Revolution would spawn gross inequalities, but that would also be a lie.  If one looks at the Soviet state a few years later, one would find the same inequalities between the Party elite and everyone else.  Within the limits of the disastrous Soviet economy–communism is not a system that motivates people to generate wealth–there existed an aristocracy.  Sure, they had crappy cars and their Dachas were not particularly sumptuous, but compared to everyone else, they lived like kings.

And the pattern is repeated everywhere.  Among every single group of humans whether living in free market economies or closed systems there arises a group that everyone else envies, that has more stuff than others, or access to a more enjoyable form of life.

French Life in the 1930s

An aristocracy in all but name.

Why, though.  Weren’t aristocrats supposedly a cancer on society that the countless revolutions were aimed at eradicating?

Supposedly.  But reality says that the revolutions only succeeded in changing the names, not the structure.  There is still a tiny portion of the world that has all the fun while everyone else is on the outside looking in, resentment growing day by day.

And this is why I never listen to the people who argue for the redistribution of wealth on a global scale.  They’re ignoring every lesson history has ever taught, and expecting everyone else to blithely ignore them as well.  Of course, fanatics always have a “Yes, but that was a special case” argument, but when every single time turned into an exception, one begins to suspect that those exceptions are actually the rule, and that the utopians are a bit misguided.

So, instead of spending our time trying to give the wealth of the planet to a completely different minority group, I propose that the readers of Classically Educated dedicate their lives to hedonism and itellectuality.  You can’t see the flaws of the world through the bottom of a bottle, and, as Blake said, we should open the doors of perception (the substances you use for that purpose are your own business…).

I know this isn’t my greatest insight ever, but one needs to understand that it’s Monday morning, and you can’t expect too much.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist whose latest book, Timeless, has a lot of hedonism wrapped up in the trappings of intellectuality (a romantic thriller hinging around a book written by a monk is almost the definition of that combo).  You can check it out here.

The Golden Age of Speed

Used book stores in Argentina are a hit-or-miss proposition when it comes to books in English.  On one hand, since most people are much more proficient in Spanish, a lot of places don’t bother to have a decent stock of books in other languages but on the other, since Argentina is way off the beaten path of English-language collecting (it’s not Hay-on-Wye by any stretch of the imagination) and since there was a huge influx of immigration from Britain in the second half of the nineteenth century and first half of the twentieth, it’s still possible to find interesting and odd (as opposed to valuable) books in the piles.

The Book of Speed

One of my more recent discoveries is a book of essays entitled The Book of Speed (the one in the image isn’t my copy–mine is moth-eaten and ragged and the dust jacket is long gone).  This one is a compilation of essays by notable celebrities of the time, including men who broke the land and water speed records, such as Malcolm Campbell and George Eyston) and airplane manufacturer Geoffrey de Havilland (paternal cousin of Olivia, who acted in the screen adaptation of Gone with the Wind and countless other films).

But the true fascination is that the book was compiled in 1934, which comes through beautifully in several aspects.  The most notable, perhaps, is the innocence with which German vehicles such as the Do.X flying boat are describes as technical marvels by this British book.

The second is the style of writing, in which the British Empire is still a palpable character and in which there is a delightful mix among the men writing the book.  Some are military, some are from the aristocracy, and some have pulled themselves into the text by their bootstraps–but all are treated equally as experts in their field.  It was a time of transitions, but one where the old ways were still alive and well.  It’s extremely easy to see, just from reading this book, why the loss of Empire hit Britain so hard: the way of life that was lost truly did have some exceptional qualities that modern life can’t begin to approach.

Book of Speed - Speed in Modern Warfare Chapter

That glory of living, the gusto for human advancement comes through loud and clear, but it isn’t the central tenet of this book.  That would be the search for going ever faster and, ironically, destroying the leisurely pace of life they don’t even know they’re celebrating.  Unbeknownst to them, and unlike other books that serve as an elegy to the same era, the authors of this book are describing the very things that ended the way of life they’re talking about.

Speed is everywhere: on land, in the air, on the water.  Trains, planes, automobiles, ocean liners, war boats, Zeppelins–each has its place in the text.  And the photos serve as a fascinating backdrop.  Most pictures from this time period are either of war (especially things like the Spanish Civil War) or of the buildup to war, so seeing the civilian side is amazing.

It’s certainly worth the fifteen dollars or so a demolished copy would set you back on ebay.  If you want a high-quality example, you may need to budget many times that.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine author whose most popular book is the far-future novel Siege.  You can check it out here.

Hitler’s Last Gamble Brought to Life

Tiger Tank

The Battle of the Bulge is one of the most legendary actions of WW2.  It might not be up there with the D-Day landings, The invasion of Poland, the Siege of Stalingrad or the attack on Pearl Harbor, but it’s definitely in the second tier, and, like all the rest, many misconceptions about it survive.  I know I certainly didn’t know all that much about the details–to me it was always just about German Tiger tanks in a snowy forest demolishing numerically superior allied forces.

The truth is more complicated, of course, so we return to WWII to have a look.  Now, for those who’ve been following this blog over the years, WWII means film and excerpts from Stacy Danielle Stephens’ excellent novel-in-progress, but today we turn to a nonfiction book that aims to be the definitive record of the Battle of the Bulge.

Ardennes 1944 - The Battle of the Bulge - Anthony Beevor

Now, whenever someone says the phrase “definitive history” in my presence, I’m immediately assaulted by a sense of utter ennui.  Definitive means exhaustive and authoritative, and that usually corresponds to boring.

But Anthony Beevor’s book Ardennes 1944: The Battle of the Bulge, is anything but boring.  It’s a nonfiction book–an exhaustive, authoritative nonfiction book–that reads like a thriller.  The real people depicted are shown in much the same light, with their strengths and weaknesses, heroism and foibles, as would be the characters in a novel.  The effect it electrifying, and keeps you turning the pages to find out what happened next.

Of course, there is a lot of detail.  Anyone reading this will learn a lot that they never knew–or didn’t remember–about these cold days in 1944.  You’ll also be reminded that war wasn’t just about soldiers prancing around in armored vehicles–civilians were often caught in the crossfire, and played ambiguous roles as well, both as victims of atrocities and willing or unwilling accomplices to one side or the other.

Finally, the book places the battle of the bulge in strategic context with regards to the rest of the war and explains how events on the Eastern Front, as well as in the Pacific Theater created the conditions for a tremendous battle.

It is a complete book – history and entertainment in one convenient package.

Recommended.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine author.  He is the author of Incursion, a novel of interstellar war played out over centuries.  You can see the novel here.

Looking Back on New York Royalty

Prince of the City by Robert Daley

There’s something about stories of corruption, especially corruption among police officers that makes for compelling reading (and in some cases, viewing, but we’ll get to that later).  Corruption is one of the most human of vices, and seeing just where the tipping point is in different individuals adds to the interest. When you combine that with the intricate warren of life that is woven together in the tapestry that is New York City, compulsion can quickly turn to fascination.

Prince of the City is the book written by Robert Daley about the corruption and ultimate testimony of Detective Robert Leuci, a New York officer who was part of an elite investigative unit.  It was a unit that helped put more criminals in jail than any other, with conviction rates through the roof and which did more to help society solve its crime problem than any other.

But it was also rife with corruption.  These cops, while cleaning the streets, would keep the change.  Percentages of confiscated money would disappear, busts that they knew wouldn’t lead to convictions were negotiated for cash, informants were paid with drugs.

Detective Robert Leuci

Unlike a lot of books from the eighties that dealt with problems inherently seventies in nature, this one became a bestseller, was filmed and is still in print today (although I think it’s only available as en ebook at the moment).

Why?

Because apart from being compelling for the human element, it’s well-written and expertly woven together (Robert Daley was already known to me as the author of The Cruel Sport, but he does just as well in this very different milieux).

That much we already knew, but there’s another element in the mix.  Though Daley only comes out and says it in a few cases, the feeling is that the cope involved in the inevitable fall all feel that prosecuting them was a mistake perpetrated on them by small-minded parsimonious bureaucrats, people so obsessed with the rule book that they can’t see the big picture.

And one is left with a sense, that they just might be right.  There is no doubt they were corrupt, but even with all the facts on the table, one is left thinking that they were doing more harm than good.  That they were essentially good men fighting crime in the most effective way they knew… and reaping certain benefits they felt they deserved.

I recommend this one to essentially everyone.  It’s a character study and a compelling story rolled into one… and even better, it will make you think at the end of it.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is the author of the well-received novel Siege, as well as several other novels and short stories.  You can find Siege here.

Celebrating the Human Need to Explain the Inexplicable

Umberto Eco

Ever since the first hominids developed language, humanity has felt the need to fill in those blank spaces on the map.  Whether that terra incognita was just across the next ridge or somewhere in the south seas, the profusion of legendary lands created to explain what might be there is stunning.

In fact, we still do it today: science fiction writers fill the darkness of space while, more metaphorically, spiritualists and fantasy writers try to satisfy people’s need to know what, if anything, happens when we die.

One of our favorite subjects here at CE is Umberto Eco (don’t believe us?  Look here or here or here) so we’re glad to say that he’s tackled the subject of legendary lands in his own inimitable fashion–namely in a medievalist and exhaustive way.

The Book of Legendary Lands - Umberto Eco

In The Book of Legendary Lands, he defines “legendary” as an inexistent place that, nevertheless, contemporary people actually believed in.  So you get an analysis that goes from the Garden of Eden to Hyperborea, from Atlantis to the Aryan kingdoms the Nazis wanted to believe in.

Now this is a hefty book, and Eco can often be quite… how to say this diplomatically?.. obscure in his wording when he wants to be, so I was expecting a long, plodding–albeit ultimately rewarding–read.

On that front, I was pleasantly surprised.  Eco, by his own admission, has a passion for the medieval that drove him in his career, and it comes through in his prose when working in that era.  The Name of the Rose became a bestseller not only because it was brilliant but because it was written in accessible (all things being relative, of course) language that allowed everyday readers to connect with the era and the characters.  It’s a beautiful book.

This one is also beautiful, with the added benefit that it’s lavishly illustrated.  As the text advances, you get contemporary illustrations, everything from medieval manuscript illuminations to paintings by Dante Gabriel Rosetti.  It’s quite the mix, but it works.

Of course, this is a book aimed at popular consumption, but it’s a scholarly work at the same time, researched by an expert whose loss the field won’t easily recover from.  Eco famously collected books of  what he called “fakes”, or things that were demonstrably untrue–this volume draws a lot from this.

Finally, perhaps most delightfully, Eco gives his own opinion on the wisdom of certain beliefs.  He’s understandably easier on the ancients–after all, science was still embryonic when they were creating Atlantis–but he comes down pretty heavily on Victorian mystics and Aryan cultists, as well as other modern actors.  Deservedly so.

In conclusion, find a copy of this book.  You will enjoy it, you will learn from it, and you will like the pretty pictures.  You can thank me in the comments.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is the author of several novels set in places that don’t exist (or that don’t exist yet).  His novel of an Earth changed beyond recognition by humanity’s conscious choice to evolve, Outside, can be purchased here.

And We Are All Mortal

Thirteen Days Film Still

Marya Kazakova as the Soviet Woman waiting outside Robert Kennedy’s office while Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin attempts to postpone World War Three, tentatively scheduled for the following morning.

 

Our series of posts reviewing movies that deal with JFK’s presidency continues today with Stacy Danielle Stephens’ review of Thirteen Days.  For the previous posts in the series, see here, here and here.

Other than two contemporaneous documentaries, there aren’t any noteworthy films about the 1960 US presidential election, at least as far as google cares.  Likewise, in cinematic terms, The Bay of Pigs has been frequently referenced but rarely depicted.  So with the exception of November 1963, only thirteen days of October 1962 define the Kennedy presidency in film, and only twice have those thirteen days been presented to audiences in a substantial production.

Ironically, 2000’s Thirteen Days isn’t based on Robert Kennedy’s book; it just uses the title to great advantage; an advantage that 1974’s made-for-TV docudrama, The Missiles of October, which was based on Robert Kennedy’s book, gave up in alluding to another book, Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August.  If you’re confused, just imagine how Robert MacNamara felt.  As the Kennedy administration’s Secretary of Defense, he’d personally experienced every moment of those thirteen days at their most immediate and intense, and when he was told Kevin Costner was starring as the main character–well he surely envisioned himself as that character, and must have been immeasurably flattered.  But he had to ask, just to be sure, and when producer Peter Almond, who had arranged a private screening for MacNamara, said, “Kenny O’Donnell,” MacNamara immediately refused, adamantly, to watch the movie, because in reality, O’Donnell was among those least aware of what happened during the crisis; he was a personal appointment secretary, and his job was nothing more than tracking and choreographing politically beneficial occasions, and keeping the President punctual.  Something like the guy on the carrier deck holding the paddles.  Undeniably an important position, but of a necessarily limited importance, particularly when contrasted with someone at the highest levels of command.

Robert MacNamara failed to understand the phenomenal value of a well-placed fictive device, at least until he later relented and viewed Thirteen Days, which he then described it as “absolutely fascinating … a very constructive and responsible portrayal…”  That fascination, which is sadly absent from The Missiles of October, doesn’t arise from the responsible presentation of factual details, which both films do well, but from placing those details in personal perspectives; most frequently by allowing Kevin Costner to portray Kenny O’Donnell responding to these moments, or acting upon those events, as they are revealed to him, and in turn to the viewer, through the fabrication of O’Donnell as a character who is essentially fictional in spite of being a real person who was also a close friend of Robert Kennedy.

As with any illusion, the effectiveness of it is established through a deft sleight of hand.  The opening credits present themselves on a backdrop of short clips evoking the zeitgeist of the conflict through the confluence of the two concurrent international contests–the space race and the arms race.  And as the last of the credits fades out along with these images, we find ourselves at the O’Donnell family’s breakfast table.

The O'Donnel Dinner table from Thirteen Days

The implicit cliche goes unsaid, but remains clear; all the more so for being tacitly inferred; the first of these thirteen days begins like any other day.  A detail made all the more effective for its triviality is Kevin’s report card, which he tries to slip past his dad by saying it’s a permission slip.

Kevin O'Donnel's report card from Thirteen Days

Of course, dad notices just a heartbeat before putting pen to paper, and this image retains a recurring resonance each time the elder O’Donnell rebukes or reproves either Jack or Bobby, or when he reminds everyone that press secretary Pierre Salinger had to be kept in the dark throughout the crisis, or when he spells out to a journalist the consequences of reporting rumors the White House is unwilling to confirm.  And true to form, the film concludes with the last of the thirteen days ending like any other day, with Bobby standing beside Jack, and saying, “We’re out here, Kenny.”

A Perfect Big Dipper

 

1001 Days that Shaped the World - Peter Furtado

Those of you who have been following along (bonus points if you were here during the LJ days), know that I have a thing for list books.  I’ve been watching the 1001 Movies You Must Watch Before You Die (latest installment here) in order, and then someone gifted me the book 1001 Days that Shaped the World.

Now, I can’t really take the same approach as with the movies until my time machine gets back out of the shop.  They say it will be ready next week, but they’ve been saying that since November of the year 2472, so not sure whether to believe them anymore*.

So instead of living each of the days listed, I had to settle for another unorthodox way of enjoying this book: reading each entry in the order they printed it–which is to say reading the book cover to cover.

Now these aren’t really books that are best enjoyed by reading it that way.  These books are probably the ultimate bucket-list creators and dippers.  By dippers, I am referring to those books you dip into (hence the name) whenever you need to recall a particular fact or event.

What I particularly enjoy about this one is that the author, Peter Furtado, doesn’t let his politics shape the book.  A real risk in this kind of volume is to make evident one’s own leanings by removing events that don’t align with your political bent.  In reading this one, it’s impossible to know whether the author leans left, right or believes that unicorns are evil.  And that is wonderful in this day and age, especially in a book that would have been utterly ruined and rendered meaningless if someone’s politics had been involved. His professionalism as a curator is hugely beneficial (protip: if you’re running a book, an event or anything else that isn’t specifically political–or which doesn’t have big yellow disclaimers about the content–and your politics show, that is unprofessional).

So I enjoyed this one, learned a huge amount, and recommend to all of you on either side of the spectrum.

I like these books a lot.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer. His novel Outside tells of really important events that happened a few hundred years from today. If you don’t have a time machine, you may want to buy it here.

 

*Did you see what I did there?

The Golden Years of the Big Apple

Illustration for Manhattan 45

I probably should have bundled this review together with my post about the Venetian Empire because today’s book was also written by the indomitable Jan Morris.  The reason I didn’t is twofold: first off, I want to keep the posts about Italy separate from other things because the whole Italian-reading period in my life coincided with the writing of a novel.  The second reason is that I forgot that today’s book was next in the queue.

 

Manhattan '45 by Jan Morris

The book in question is Manhattan ’45, and, like the Venetian book, the one I read was a Folio Society edition, one that, with the day-glo pink highlights and evocative period photographs was ver inviting to read from a visual standpoint.  The prose, as seems to be the norm when it comes to Morris is also welcoming and colloquial – Morris is clearly a popular writer as opposed to a stuffy historian.

Equally clear is the affection that Morris has for this particular subject.  WWII was ending, the world could move on to other things… and it was a time of joy and expectation in the densely packed metropolis.  One could quite easily have thought that New York was the center of the world immediately after the war, and one would quite likely have been right.  It’s a great subject to write about, if a slightly obvious one.  Still, Morris got there first, so everyone else will always be the imitators.

It’s a great book to learn about the city as it was precisely at that time… and perhaps therein lies its weakness.  Though charming, the snapshot of a city, no matter how quirky, isn’t memorable in the way the hundreds-of-years-long exploits of an empire and its charismatic leaders can be.  This one is a book to dip into when you want to be transported elsewhere, but not one that you’ll remember details of later.  It’s like looking at pictures of the British countryside.  You can’t relive the sensation unless you’re actually interacting with it right now.

The true downside?  It’s nearly impossible to share.  You can’t sit at a party and tell a pretty girl (or boy) something you gleaned here.  “There used to be a Clarke’s on Third Avenue in the shadow of the El Train” just doesn’t evoke the same feeling that reading about the underworld beneath the tracks does.

Either way, I enjoyed reading it, and dipping back into it to write this review, so I’m happy I purchased it.  But if I had to choose a Morris, I’d go with Venice every day.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist whose latest book is a comic fantasy set in ancient Greece entitled The Malakiad.  Check it out!  Paperback and Ebook.