Saturday, 5 December 2009

Global University

Desmond invites stars to help start global cultural university

(SIMON CARSWELL Finance Correspondent)

BUSINESSMAN DERMOT Desmond has invited 163 luminaries from the fields of music, film, theatre, literature, academia and business to submit ideas to help him establish a “global university” for culture and the arts.

Mr Desmond first floated his idea to establish a university of the arts at the Global Irish Economic Forum, the brainstorming event held at Farmleigh in Dublin which was attended by well-known Irish figures from around the world.

The financier wrote this week to the 163 individuals inviting them “to be a founder, a designer and an architect of this initiative” and requesting their expertise to assist in the initiative he is calling “Cultural Odyssey”.

Mr Desmond said in the letter that Ireland should “exploit its deep and world-renowned cultural legacy and talent to establish a global university focusing on culture and the performing arts”.

“As the world economy continues its inexorable shift to becoming knowledge-based, we have many competitive advantages,” Mr Desmond wrote. “The combination of our cultural pedigree and our technological leadership suggests to me that we can create a lasting opportunity for Ireland’s future generations.”

Mr Desmond enclosed a list of people he has invited to participate in the project. They include musicians Bono and U2, Enya, The Corrs and Van Morrison; Hollywood actors Daniel Day-Lewis, Colin Farrell and Liam Neeson; film directors Neil Jordan and Jim Sheridan; and writers Brian Friel, Roddy Doyle and Sebastian Barry.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin has also been asked to participate in the project. Among the business figures invited to submit ideas are telecoms and media entrepreneur Denis O’Brien, former Intel chief executive Craig Barrett, and Gary McGann, chief executive of packaging group Smurfit Kappa.

Mr Desmond has invited participants to join private discussions on the project’s website. The discussions will range from “syllabus development to architectural concept, from education futures to entertainment futures, from physical location to models of excellence for university design”.

The businessman says the process will be “a fluid, dynamic, responsive approach to collaboration, and your input will change the shape of the conversation”.

Mr Desmond says the project should be united with other similar cultural initiatives within the third-level sector.

This would “optimise the outcome” and “ensure absolute fairness and integrity in any proposal we bring to Government”, he said.

“It is my belief and conviction that the unique Irish spirit is undefeatable,” Mr Desmond says in his letter. “It is this uniqueness that makes you the outstanding world talent that you have become.

“Through the combination of these elements, we can all be part of creating a new chapter in Ireland’s history for future generations.”

The Irish Times, Sat. 5 Dec 2009

* * * * * * * * *

Do we not already have a university of the arts? Or several, really? They're called...universities. Institutions such as Trinity College Dublin, for example. I do not understand why we should spend all this money setting up a university when the arts and humanities departments in the ones we have are being starved of funding. And these are the universities that produced some of these great figures, as if they achieved what they have in spite of their education and not because of it. The mention of output should alone be cause for blood running cold. What does that mean and how can it be envisaged as relevant to the arts? I'm all for thinking dynamically and critically, qualities often great admired by university teachers and tutors amongst their students. Why do we need a new university? I don't think the case has been sufficiently made.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

The Sacred Made Real (National Gallery London, 21 Oct 2009 - 24 Jan 2010)

Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664), 'Saint Luke contemplating the Crucifixion', 1630s. Oil on canvas. 105 X 84 cm.
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado (Cat. 4/X6135).

This beautiful exhibition traces a very interesting interaction in seventeenth-century Spanish art between sculptors, who carved and then prepared their work with white gesso, and painters, who finished the work, delicately layering it with flesh tones of remarkable verisimilitude (a process known as encarnación). Many of these wooden pieces remain relatively unknown outside of Spain and indeed many remain outside the purview of standard histories of art. This is because they are not works of art at all, but rather objects of devotion still in use. But as the curator of the exhibition, Zavier Bray, clearly shows, they are of an extremely high artistic quality. What he also notes is the influence of these sculptures on artists. In the example of Valázquez's 'Christ after the Flagellation contemplated by the Christian Soul' (probl. 1628-9), he notes that the little boy, representing the soul, is being invited by the angel to look at Christ's back. This was a space in some sculptural pieces that was reserved for particularly bloody and gruesome attention and Velázquez's experience as a painter of such figures of Christ would have easily given him an insight into such compositions.

There is something very remarkable about many of these pieces and it is hard to remain unmoved by them. Particularly powerful is the 'Sala de Profundis', Room 6, which has a few benches by the walls and a single image, Zurbarán's 'Saint Serapion', 1628. It hung in the mortuary chapel of the Mercedarian monastery in Seville. The space is quiet and sad. The piece is understated. It will remain with me for some time.

Go to see this exhibition.

Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664), 'Christ on the Cross', 1627. Oil on canvas. 290.3 X 165.5 cm
The Art Institute of Chicago, Robert A. Waller Memorian Fund, 1954.15.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Rose Book-Collecting Prize 2009-2010

Cambridge University Library is offering students the chance to win £500 by building their own book collections.

The Rose Book-Collecting Prize was endowed in 2006 and is believed to be the first of its kind offered by any European university. As well as the £500 prize money, the winner will be offered 10 years’ free membership of the Friends of Cambridge University Library.

The contest is open to all current undergraduate and graduate students of the University registered for a Cambridge degree. To enter, students should submit a list of their collection together with a short essay, explaining the theme and significance of the collection, by the first day of the Lent full term. Shortlisted candidates will be invited to talk about their collection to the judges.

The judges will make their decision based on the intelligence and originality of the collection, its coherence as a collection, as well as the thought, creativity and persistence demonstrated by the collector and the condition of the books. The value of the collections will not be a factor in determining the winning entry – a coherent collection of paperbacks is a perfectly valid entry. Previous shortlisted entries include ‘Collecting the Gothic’, ‘Missionary travels in the South Seas’, ‘The handwritten record: manuscripts and annotated books’, and ‘German and Austrian travel and first hand experience in Asiatic dominions of the Ottoman Empire, 1871–1918’. In 2009, the prize was won by Boris Jardine (Trinity Hall) for his collection ‘Modernism in print’. For examples of winning topics at other universities, see winning collections.

The prize will be awarded in the Easter Term. It has been funded by Professor James Marrow and Dr Emily Rose in honour of Dr Rose’s parents, Daniel and Joanna Rose.

Professor Marrow said: “By establishing a prize through the UL, we want to stress and call attention to the importance of a great central library, which is the focus of the research activities of the university, and which serves a much wider range of purposes than the college libraries.

“Book collecting brings people together and we hope that a prize administered through the UL will help collectors from different colleges in Cambridge to meet one another and enjoy the company of an enlarged group of similarly-minded individuals.”

Book collecting prizes are fairly common in North American universities. Started by Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania, in the 1920s, these contests have encouraged generations of young collectors to become booksellers, librarians, and accomplished bibliophiles.

Full details of the Rose Book-Collecting Prize and how to enter are given on the UL web page at

Closing date is Tuesday 12 January 2010.

Monday, 26 October 2009

Notes on a Scandal, and some Watches

This video has recently been released by Vedomosti, a Russian business daily newspaper. These are extraordinary timepieces, pieces of art really. I realize that only a tiny number of people will ever be able to enjoy them and those people will have to be very wealthy. Money often comes at a price, I know this too. But while the owners may not be good people, the watches are amazing. The most expensive is that belonging to Vladimir Resin, the deputy mayor of Moscow, who wears a DeWitt La Pressy Grande Complication. Medvedev is wearing a Breguet Classique Moon Phase; the Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov wears a Bovet Fleurier Minute Repeater. Valentina Matviyenko, the governor of St Petersburg, wears a Harry Winston Avenue Captive (worth about $26,000 while declaring an income of $58,777!). There's a good showing of Ulysse Nardin, Breguet and Patek Philippe. Interesting too is the absence of certain brands: delighted, for example, to see no JLC. With the exception of the Breguet Classique and perhaps the Patek Annual Calendar, which are both very classy watches I will admit, the others are all bling and no watch!

Thursday, 22 October 2009

CFP: Error: Aspects and Approaches, Lincoln College, Oxford 16-17 April 2010

ERROR: Aspects and Approaches

An international Conference at the University of Oxford, April 16-17 2010

This conference is aimed at early career scholars and graduate students. A volume of proceedings comprising selected papers will appear in the Medium Ævum Monographs Series. Contributions are welcomed from diverse fields of research such as history of art and architecture, history, theology, philosophy, anthropology, literature and history of ideas.

Papers will be 20 minutes or less. Please email 250-word abstracts (text only, no attachments please) to by 5th January 2010.

Suggested topics might include:

  • Misunderstanding; Miscommunication; Misinterpretation; Misattribution; Mistranslattion
  • Scribal error; Mismatch (image vs. text); Retractions; Textual variance
  • Factual error; Received error
  • Personification of error
  • Mistaken identity
  • Political mistake
  • False confessions; Lying
  • Confusion; Deception
  • Knightly errance
  • Theological error; Spiritual error
  • Scientific error
  • Disharmony/Discord
  • Medievalism; Early Modern and later (mis)corrections
  • Epistemology; Logic
  • Crime and misdemeanour

The conference fee is expected to be in the region of £25 (twenty-five pounds). We hope to organize a conference banquet in Lincoln's lovely hall on the Friday night and will provide details of this as soon as they are available. All updates and further information can be obtained from

H. Wayne Storey, Transcription and Visual Poetics in the Early Italian Lyric (Garland, 1993)

The return to Cambridge this term began with a quick visit to the local bookseller: joy. Part of the library of a distinguished bibliographer in early Italian print culture had become available and I picked up a few marvellous things. Mainly stuff I've used and wanted, and I had to leave a few things behind too. Very pleased with Franca Brambilla Ageno, L'edizione critica dei testi volgari, Medioevo e umanesimo, 22, 2nd rev & exp edn (Padova: Antenore, 1984); Nicolas Barker, (ed), A Potencie of Life: Books in Society: The Clark Lectures, 1986-1987, British Library Studies in the History of the Book (London: British Library, 1993); Michele Barbi, La nuova filologia e l'edizione dei nostri scrittori da Dante al Manzoni (Firenze: G.C. Sansoni editore, 1938, 2nd ed. 1962); Alfredo Stussi, Introduzione agli studi di filologia italiana, Manuali: Filologia e critica letteraria, (Bologna: Il Mulino, 1994); Ezio Raimondi, Tecniche della critica letteraria, Piccola biblioteca Einaudi, 440, (Torino: G. Einaudi, 1983); Ezio Raimondi, La dissimulazione romanzesca: antropologia manzoniana, Intersezioni, 72 (Bologna: Mulino, 1990); Guglielmo Cavallo and Roger Chartier (eds), Storia della lettura nel mondo occidentale (Roma: Laterza, 1995); Arrigo Castellani, (ed), Nuovi testi fiorentini del Dugento, 2 vols (Firenze: Sansoni, 1952 - can't believe I found this) and Corinna Salvadori, Yeats and Castiglione: Poet and Courtier (Dublin: A. Figgis, 1965 - delighted to have this). However it is H. Wayne Storey, Transcription and Visual Poetics in the Early Italian Lyric, Garland Reference Library of the Humanities, v. 1753 / Garland Studies in Medieval Literature, v. 7, (New York: Garland Pub, 1993) that I am really pleased to have found since I was about to order it from the States.

This is an important and interesting book about the early lyric anthologies and the hermeneutics of scribal/authorial compilatio. As the author says in his introduction, 'The proposal is a simple one: that some early Italian poets composed their lyrics with an eye to the manuscript forms in which their poems would be copied and circulated' (p. xxi). The following is what one might call a 'brief notice': the book is in two parts, the first deals with 'Pre-Petrarchan Experiments in Written Poets', comprising four chapters. The first, 'From the Margins: Origins and Theory of Appropriating Official Space', second, 'Transferring Visual Ambiguity: Semantic-Visual Orientations of a Medieval Text', third, 'The Editorial Redefinition of Margins: The Memoriali bolognesi and the Literary Culture of Chigiano L. VIII. 305', and fourth, 'Guittone's Last Booklet: The Visual-Semantic Orientation of the Trattato d'amore'. The second part of the book concentrates on 'the visual poetics of Petrarch's Rerum Vulgarium Fragmenta' in three chapters: first, 'Petrarch's Concepts of Text and Textual Reform', second, 'Rerum Vulgarium Fragmenta: Manuscripts and Scribal Forms', and third, 'Organizing Strategies: Aperture and Closure in Petrarch's Fragmenta'. It is an excellent book and well worth reading.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Don Paterson, Rain (Faber, 2009)

Don Paterson is one of the most extraordinary poets writing in the UK at the moment. What is extraordinary is that he writes extraordinary poetry. What is even more extraordinary is that he keeps doing it. Again and again. And now Rain, his first collection since the gorgeous Landing Light (2004) has been published and gone and won the Forward Prize. Not only that but last year's prize for best poem was won by one of the poems in this collection. It is all deserved, richly so.

His work is characterized by a great formality that never makes its presence over-felt in the line, coupled with a simplicity and directness of imagery that will leave you stunned in its wake. This collection is marked by an elegy for the poet Michael Donaghy. This seven-part sequence entitled 'Phantom' sits alongside the other long poem, the utterly wonderful and magical 'Song for Natalie 'Tusja' Beridze'. I've read criticism that this threatens to unbalance the collection but considering that he was closely associated with Paterson in their muscial group 'Lammas' I think that it is entirely appropriate. I read the two side by side actually, one informing the other.

The first poem in the collection is called

Two Trees

One morning, Don Miguel got out of bed
with one idea rooted in his head:
to graft his orange to his lemon tree.
It took him the whole day to work them free,
lay open their sides, and lash them tight.
For twelve months, from the shame or from the fright
they put forth nothing; but one day there appeared
two lights in the dark leaves. Over the years
the limbs would get themselves so tangled up
each bough looked like it gave a double crop,
and not one kid in the village didn't know
the magic tree in Miguel's patio.

The man who bought the house had had no dream
so who can say what dark malicious whim
led him to take his axe and split the bole
along its fused seam, then dig two holes.
And no, they did not die from solitude;
nor did their branches bear a sterile fruit;
nor did their unhealed flanks weep every spring
for those four yards that lost them everything,
as each strained on its shackled root to face
the other's empty, intricate embrace.
They were trees, and trees don't weep or ache or shout.
And trees are all this poem is about.

There's so much to say about this poem, about the work of poetry, about what poetry should do and what poetry actually does and that mysterious and vast space in between. These poems explore this space with a deftness and a great sureness.

This is a beautiful collection from a great writer.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Miglior acque has been on holiday and before that working on the book. He's been reading nice books too, some of which he'll blog on soon. Top of the list is the wonderful new Hilary Mantel novel Wolf Hall, which has been shortlisted for the Booker. It tells the story of Thomas Cromwell from his origins up to July 1535: it is beautifully written. Also read was Stieg Larsson's Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the first in the Millennium Trilogy, good stuff and looking forward to reading the rest of them. Peter S. Hawkins, Undiscovered Country: Imagining the World to Come (Church Publishing Inc, 2009) is a beautiful meditation on the afterlife read alongside the Commedia. Valentin Groebner's Defaced: The Visual Culture of Violence in the Late Middle Ages (NY: Zone Books, 2004) is an excellent essay on violence and its representation in the middle ages (going to read Susan Sontag's Regarding the Pain of Others on the plane this afternoon - heading back to Cambridge now).

Have been thinking of investing in Alberto Asor Rosa (dir.), Letteratura italiana, 18 vols (Einaudi, 1982-1996): I've been using it a good bit lately and think it would be great to have to hand. Am I crazy? The postage from Italy is a scandal (literally).

Thursday, 17 September 2009

In Our Time with St Thomas Aquinas

Sandro Botticelli (attrib), St Thomas Aquinas, O.P. (c.1225-1274),
Abegg-Stiftung Museum, Riggisberg, Switzerland

Listen to Martin Palmer (Director of the International Consultancy on Religion, Education and Culture), John Haldane (Professor of Philosophy at the University of St Andrews), and Annabel Brett (Lecturer in History at Gonville and Caius College, University of Cambridge) talk about St Thomas Aquinas with Melvyn Bragg on BBC Radio4's In Our Time.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

The Chaucer Blogger is Back

After a long and lamented silence, Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog is back with learned musings the economic downturn and King Richard issuing laws on Twitter. Great fun. Picked up, with thanks, via JJ Cohen on In the Middle.

Friday, 28 August 2009

Cranky Dante

Do keep an eye on The Cranky Professor who is making his/her way through the Commedia and blogging on each canto.


What follows is the mission statement of, a collaborative writing project, or perhaps, concept, that sounds very interesting, even if I haven't got the foggiest what it might actually achieve:

One author can write a classic, but what could a thousand working together achieve? If serves no other purpose than to answer this simple question, then so be it. welcomes everyone. On any page (including this one) you can be an author, an editor, a reader and a critic—you can even view a detailed log of ALL previous changes to EVERY page, and compare any point in its history to any other.

Have you been thinking of a great idea for a story, but for one reason or another you have not developed it? Post it—who knows, maybe someone will write the first chapter! Best of all, if the idea turns out to be a big hit, the proof of your invention and any contribution toward it remain for the whole world to see.

We are excited to see what materializes in these next few weeks and months. is a tool for writing collaboratively and on a scale unprecedented, but will it produce masterpieces and enrich our own and future generations? Well, not necessarily. The only certain thing is that a golden opportunity awaits.

We wish you the best of luck writing, editing, reading, criticizing, and exploring this exciting new chapter in our written art. Please, after viewing the copyright page, help us by uploading existing classics so we can watch their new forms unfold. (Sorry Mr. Shakespeare, this applies to everyone.)

See you on the field,

Philip Miner


* * * *

Things have been quiet on miglior-acque lately as I'm writing furiously, or often I'm just furious as I write. I'm trying to get a MS finished and off to the publishers and have been feeling too guilty to blog. Last week I was away at the beautiful wedding of Cris and Shane in Chicago and I just loved the city. While there I took a quick trip to the University of Chicago Library (the Special Collections Research Center in the Regenstein Library to be precise) where I looked at a Boccaccio manuscript. It was such a pleasurable experience. A very helpful librarian gave me the manuscript and directed me to a comfortable reading room where she got on with her work and was friendly and helpful when I needed her. I say this because I've been working in another library over this summer, in the manuscripts department, and the experience is one of utter despair and heartbreak. I've never had a MS consultation so micromanaged before. Even consulting the modern printed books from the shelves is a huge task in itself. When I wanted to use a UV lamp, I realized I'd just asked for a liver transplant. Get me back to the UL quick! While in Chicago I visited Powell's books and was very pleased with what I found. A great stock of medieval books. I had to be restrained needless to say, the bags were not going to take it well when having to be stuffed with books (and they travel badly really). I picked up a copy of Pace & David's Variorum edition of the Minor Poems (Part One), as well as Jody Enders, Rhetoric and the Origins of Medieval Drama and Paolo Valesio, Novantiqua, which I tried to read about ten years ago and couldn't understand a word of it. It actually looks rather interesting. I've been picking up some nice things here in Dublin too. Like Richard Kearney's Wake of Imagination, which I'm enjoying though suspect when he gets onto the medieval stuff I'll be tutting; Peter Burke, The European Renaissance: Centres and Peripheries, which looks excellent; and Umberto Galimberti, Gli equivoci dell'anima. A certain distinguished professor has been streamlining his bookshelves after retirement in Cambridge and I've been picking them up. I was really delighted to pick up Panofsky's Abbot Suger and Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism, as well as some other medieval art stuff (such as a lovely copy of Kathleen Scott, The Caxton Master and His Patron). There's been a good amount of middle English stuff about too and I've been so happy to get F. P. Pickering, Literature and Art in the Middle Ages, Offord's edition of the Parlement of the Thre Ages, Beadle's anthology of The York Plays (Arnold, 1982, and hard to find), Hodgson's edition of the Cloud of Unknowing (EETS), and Alexandra Barratt's lovely Longman anthology of Women's Writing in Middle English. But I was most pleased with Scattergood edition of The Poems of Sir John Clanvowe (Brewer, 1975). I love the way that it is set too, in a kind of typewriter typeface, there's a sense that it was done on Brewer's kitchen table and one can really imagine him saying the famous line he uttered to a young scholar in the Press's early days, the world needs this book but not many copies of it. One rarely sees s/h copies of Clanvowe around, so that's just marvellous.

Have also been enjoying the discussion over on In The Middle on the critique of prose that is seen to exclude, on creativity and on blogging and anonymity. All gives me a lash as I re-read every sentence and wonder who on earth will be reading any of it.

I can't go on, I'll go on.

Saturday, 8 August 2009

Robert Bartlett, The Hanged Man (Princeton UP, 2004)

Lordy, it's been a while since I last posted. Apologies. I've been trying to finish something before term begins and it is taking much longer than I had hoped. Sigh.

I have very much enjoyed reading Robert Bartlett's book The Hanged Man: A Story of Miracle, Memory, and Colonialism in the Middle Ages (Princeton University Press, 2004). It is aimed at a broad audience, not exclusively academic; the highly engaging writing style will ensure such a wide audience.

The story is relatively simple, if somewhat striking. Around 1290 a notorious brigand called William Cragh was hanged in Swansea. The process of execution did not go smoothly: the gallows broke and while Cragh was considered dead, he was hanged again for good measure. This second hanging assured everyone that he was dead and the man was taken down and brought away. An eye witness (William de Briouze junior) described the dead man:
His whole face was black and in parts bloody or stained with blood. His eyes had come out of their sockets and hung outside the eyelids and the sockets were filled with blood. His mouth, neck, and throat and the parts around them, also his nostrils, were filled with blood, so that it was impossible in the natural course of things for him to breathe air through his nostrils or through his mouth or through his throat ... his tongue hung out of his mouth, the length of a man's finger, and it was completely black and swollen and as thick with the blood sticking to it that it seemed the size of a man's two fists together. (p. 6).

I provide this dramatic and rather gory account because it does not look like a man in that shape would be capable of much, let alone recover. But that is what he did, living for another fifteen years or so. As he was being prepared for burial those present noticed him moving. The Lady Mary de Briouze, stepmother to the eyewitness cited above, wife of the lord, he who condemned Cragh to death, had prayed to Thomas de Cantilupe to protect the man, and it was this event that lead to an investigation in 1307 into Thomas's sanctity. Bartlett sifts through the documentation of this investigation (now in the Vatican Archives) and provides a rigorous analysis and contextualization of what is found there. So there's a fascinating chapter on 'Time and Space', pp. 53-67, in which he discusses how the accounts describe distance and time. Distance, for example, is referred to in the length of crossbow shot, and time in terms of how long it takes to walk between places. There is a tradition that he who is hanged once cannot be hanged again, one that seems to be in the background of Piers Plowman B 18. 380-4, 'It is noght used on erthe to hangen a feloun | Other than ones' (cf. C 20. 421-422). This is not exactly the scenario here, in that it does not appear to be an imperfect hanging, but a case of resurrection. Cragh had prayed to the right saint, since Cantilupe was particularly associated with resurrections. Apparently resurrections were still rather unusual in the late thirteenth century:
'a careful study of 4,756 miracle accounts from eleventh- and twelfth-century France found only sixty cases of resurrection; that is, 1.26 percent. Thomas de Cantilupe's forty is thus a number equivalent to fully two-thirds of the miraculous resurrections over these two centuries in France. It is worth noting, however, that resurrection grew more common over the course of the Middle Ages. While they form only 1.26 percent of miracles recorded in eleventh- and twelfth-century France, they constitute 2.2 percent of miracles examined in thirteenth-century canonization processes and 10.2 percent in fourteenth-century ones' (pp. 51-52).

This is fascinating: why is there such a leap in resurrection miracles in the fourteenth century?

In sum, this is a riveting story, marvellously written. Read it.

I've been picking some interesting things up lately too (here in Dublin). Found a very nice copy of Helen Barr's Socioliterary Practice in Late Medieval England, and also Gianni Vattimo's The Transparent Society, which is marvellous. I then picked up his Beyond Interpretation, which I'd bought several years ago and never read, and am increasingly drawn to his work. Have also managed to pick up some very nice s/h philosophy, mainly Heidegger, but some Caputo, too who is quite fascinating. I also picked up a copy of the lovely Tel quel anthology from 1968 entitled Théorie d'ensemble (Éditions du Seuil).

On my desk now is the score of Scarlatti's Griselda (1721), and that's the next thing I'll post about.

Monday, 8 June 2009

The Grimani Breviary

The publishing house Salerno Editrice, based in Rome, has just announced the publication of a splendid facsimile of Venice, Bibl. Nazionale Marciana, MS Lat. I 99 (2138), the so-called Breviario Grimani, named after its owner Cardinal Domenico Grimani. The manuscript comprises 832 folios, 28 x 19.5 cm (11 x 7 ¹¹/16); justification: 15.5 X 11.5 cm (6⅛ X 4½ in.); 31 lines of gotica rotunda in two columns; 50 full-page miniatures, 18 large miniatures, 18 small miniatures, 12 bas-de-page calendar miniatures.

The Grimani Breviary is the most elaborate and arguably the greatest work in the history of Flemish manuscript illumination. Purchased by Cardinal Domenico Grimani by 1520 for the enormous sum of five hundred ducats, it brought together the leading illuminators of the time, including the Master of James IV of Scotland (probably Gerard Horenbout), Alexander Bening (the Master of the First Prayer Book of Maximilian?), the Master of the David Scenes in the Grimani Breviary, Simon Bening, and Gerard David. More important, each of these artists created for this manuscript some of his most exquisite and original miniatures.
Thus Thomas Kren, Maryan W. Ainsworth and Elizabeth Morrison in their catalogue entry, No. 126 in Illuminating the Renaissance: The Triumph of Flemish Manuscript Painting in Europe (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2003), pp. 420-424. One can hear the frustration in their tone when they wrote about the massive amount of work still to be done on this manuscript: 'Indeed, the two-day examination of the manuscript by Maryan W. Ainsworth and Thomas Kren proved woefully inadequate to the task of sorting out all of the stylistic and technical issues that the book raises' (p. 420), a frustration all more acute since the manuscript was not actually displayed in this exhibition.

After you finish drooling, read Michael Camille, 'The Très Riches Heures: An Illuminated Manuscript in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction', Critical Inquiry, 17 (1990), 72-107; and see too Sandra Hindman and Nina Rowe, (eds), Manuscript Illumination in The Modern Age: Recovery and Reconstruction (Evanston, Il: Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, 2001).

If anyone would like to buy me this facsimile for a birthday or Christmas, or Easter, or really, any other day of the week, please feel free. It is selling, apparently, for €22,000.

Sunday, 7 June 2009

Getting Medieval on the BBC

Great long silence lately on my part: apologies. I've been busy, writing like crazy, travelling, and teaching. Was in Oxford yesterday for a school's dinner with my old second years. Lovely to see them again. Lovely. They'll do well.

Picked up a couple of lovely things in Oxfam books:, but most happy with J. B. Whiting's Proverbs, Sentences, and Proverbial Phrases from English Writings mainly before 1500 (Cambridge, MA & London: Belknap Press & Oxford University Press, 1968) for a cool seven squids. Also picked up a copy of Anne Carson's Decreation and have been making my way v e r y v e r y s l o w l y t h r o u g h i t. I've been lucky to pick up a number of other things lately. For example, the second edition of Barbi's edition of the Vita Nuova (Bemporad, 1932), in super condition, from the library of an Irish priest! I also found a copy of Gombrich's Aby Warburg: An Intellectual Biography, 2nd ed. (Phaidon, 1986), which I cannot wait to get into.

Over the past while the BBC has been broadcasting lots of stuff on poetry, including medieval poetry. Michael Wood has a programme on Beowulf, and Simon Armitage has one on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. While the first on Beowulf is quite good, though there's a bit too much lunatic fringe about it and looking meaningfully into meres and the like. But generally it was ok.

I was quite looking forward to Armitage on Gawain, thinking that he would talk about translating the text, how he went about it, what poetic challenges he faced. And there are glimmers here and there of this. But mainly it is not very good. Not very good at all in fact. He makes just a few references to the Middle English, including testing out words on local northern farmers to see if any of it sounds familiar (admitting he was disappointed he didn't find them speaking in fluent Middle English NW Midland dialect...). The rest is filmed 'on location', but based speculatively on where that location might be. There isn't a trace of a medievalist to be found. Michael Wood discussed Heaney's translation of Beowulf with the man himself. Why didn't Armitage talk to Bernard O'Donoghue about translating the poem, as a poet and a medievalist. (I'm tempted to wonder why O'Donoghue did not do the documentary himself). It was a real missed opportunity.

One worrying thing was his reference, twice, to the Green Knight picking up his head and putting it back on his shoulders. This first happens when Armitage opens the film, and then while talking to someone who'd been healed at the well of St Winefride (in Holywell), he repeats it while comparing the gesture to the miracle of the said saint, whose severed head is reattached by Saint Beuno and restored to life.

The Green Knight never replaces his head on his shoulders. What happens is far more interesting and a poet of Armitage's creativity and imagination should not be so deaf to this. The Green Knight's head is kicked about the court for a bit as his torso remains. This torso reaches down and picks up the head and opens his eyelids and speaks. When he gets back on his horse he does so continuing to hold his head in his hand. The scene is one of an extraordinarily careful management of the horror. Putting his head back on his shoulders would have been positively banal by comparison.

For þe hede in his honde he haldez vp euen,
Toward þe derrest on þe dece he dressez þe face,
And hit lyfte vp þe yȝe-lyddez and loked ful brode,
And meled þus much with his muthe, as ȝe may now here:
'Loke, Gawan, þou hatz hette in þis halle, herande þise knyȝtes;
To þe grene chapel þou chose, I charge þe, to fotte
Such a dunt as þou hatz dalt—disserued þou habbez
To be ȝederly ȝolden on Nw Ȝeres morn.
Þe knyȝt of þe grene chapel men knowen me mony;
Forþi me for to fynde if þou fraystez, faylez þou neuer.
Þerfore com, oþer recreaunt be calde þe behoues.'
With a runisch rout þe raynez he tornez,
Halled out at þe hal dor, his hed in his hande,
Þat þe fyr of þe flynt flaȝe from fole houes.
To quat kyth he becom knwe non þere,
Neuer more þen þay wyste from queþen he watz wonnen.
What þenne?
Þe kyng and Gawan þare
At þat grene þay laȝe and grenne,
Ȝet breued watz hit ful bare
A meruayl among þo menne.

(SGGK, ll. 444-466, ed. Tolkien & Gordon, rev. Davis, [1967], p. 13)

He held the head up straight with his hand,
and turned the face towards the king who sat on the throne.
He raised his eyelids and stared at him open-eyed;
then with his mouth said the words you will hear.
'Be sure, Gawain, you're ready, as you have sworn
to seek conscientiously until you find me,
as you've said in this hall, in these knights' hearing.
Seek out the Green Chapel, I urge you, to get
such as blow as you have struckf. You've earned the right
to be promptly repain on New Year's morning.
Most people call me the Green Chapel Knight;
so, if you ask, you won't fail to find me.
Therefore come, or be called a defaulter.'
With a violent tug he pulled the reins round,
and galloped out the hall door, his head in his hand,
so that fire from the flint sparked off the hooves.
To what country he went no one there knew,
any more than they knew where he'd come from at first.
What next?
The king and Gawain then
laughed at this green man.
But they had to face the truth
that this was unnatural.

(trans. Bernard O'Donoghue [Penguin, 2006], p. 16).

I should say that his translation does not make this mistake; it seems to be a kind of misremembering. I know I'm being a bit snippy about this as a mistake, and it is a mistake. But it is also interesting. It is as if Armitage wishes to make the Green Knight whole, to restore him to a fully human form as soon as possible after Gawain decapitates him. This is in such contrast with the Green Knight himself, who might be said to accentuate his non/in-human form. And this is a very important part of his character and of the story. It also feels like a kind of injustice to the violence of Gawain's act. He performs an act of great violence, described in detail: the blade shatters the bone, and goes through his neck with such force that the edge of the blade bites into the ground. This too is important.

Sunday, 3 May 2009

Dancing at Lughnasa, by Brian Friel at the Old Vic (dir. Anna Mackmin), until May 9th 2009

Now in the last week of its run at the Old Vic in London, this production of Brian Friel's beautiful play Dancing at Lughnasa (pronouced Loooo-Na-Saa, for the non-pagans) can only be described as a remarkable triumph. The play is told in flash-back sequences by the young Michael Evans, who remembers his childhood in a rural Donegal house of five women. The women have just welcomed back Uncle Jack, a missionary priest for a lifetime in Uganda, who has returned in a state of confusion. His gradual recuperation, and the realization that Jack has been sent back from his parish for becoming more native than the natives themselves, is traced out against the backdrop of the annual Lughnasa festivals, especially the harvest dance. The women desperately want to go, and in a carefree moment of delight resolve to go, dancing around the kitchen in ecstatic excitement. Kate (Michelle Fairley), the eldest sister, the only one with a steady income as the local schoolteacher, has a change of heart and insists it would be improper for women of their age to be seen at such an event. And the chance of something fun and wonderful evaporates. And all that is wonderful (in the sense of being full of wonder) evaporates throughout the rest of the play.

The women desperately want to get away, and this yearning is palpable throughout. But responsibility is important too, and Christina, who has had Michael out of wedlock, takes a job in the local factory to earn an income and hates every day of it for the rest of her life. Rose and Agnes go off to England and die there, destitute. This is recounted in a truly heartbreaking moment by Michael, in what is a masterpiece of understated acting by Peter McDonald. The rest of the cast are extremely strong. Niamh Cusack plays Maggie with wonderful sensitivity, and Andrea Corr, playing Chris, is really excellent. There are moments in the play where it was clear that her tears were not acted. (I say this as I was blubbering myself!). The set design is super too, as it is part of the Old Vic's experiment with theatre in the round. The result allows for all sorts of interesting things, such as Michael's continual circling of the kitchen space, watching the sisters and what's happening to them. It adds to the poignancy of his memories as an adult.

Dancing at Lughnasa is a great great modern play, and this is a great production. GO TO SEE IT if you can.

Monday, 27 April 2009

McKeon on Toibin

Read Belinda McKeon's Irish Times article on the Irish writer Colm Tóibín here.
His new novel, Brooklyn has just been published by Penguin Viking.

Monday, 6 April 2009

Roberto Benigni, Tuttodante (Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London)

Over the past number of years the Italian actor Roberto Benigni has been performing the work of Dante Alighieri to delighted and enthusiastic audiences around Italy and now, around the world. He is known for his exuberance and energy, and these were much in evidence last evening at Tuttodante in his single London date on his world tour. Every Italian in London seems to have turned out for the show and were in festive mood when he appeared on stage. He decided to do the show in English, and this became a recurring gag throughout the performance, an assurance that he was, in fact, speaking in English. His English was, in fact, a lot better than he let on, as he often used idioms and slang words that would not be characteristic of a beginner. The audience were clearly delighted when he did turn to Italian and would sometimes shout out ‘in italiano!’ I imagine that the decision to do the show in Italian was one of consideration for the audience in London, but I do rather wonder if it was entirely successful. But there was something moving about him trying to find the right word, using a language that was a mixture of Italian and English, a plurilinguismo worthy of its subject-matter.

I remember when Benigni devised this show and came to Bologna with it: tickets were impossible to get hold of and I did not get to see it. When this opportunity arose, I was more than ready to seize it, with both hands. (I was invited to the show by my generous benefactor at Pembroke.)

Benigni is a man of extraordinary energy and passion and his love of Dante is clear, sincere, and profound. But most of the show was taken up with what might be called a preamble, a funny and at times excoriating set of observations on the absurdity of contemporary Italy. A key figure in this comedy is Silvio Berlusconi, and Benigni often referred to Berlusconi as a highly sexual man, a man who likes to be photographed with pretty girls, in various states of undress, etc. Andreotti, too, made an appearance, characterised as a man who has been granted eternal life in Italian politics. Benigni then proceeded to a long introduction to Inferno 5, the canto of the lustful in the first circle of Hell, interspersed with explications and close readings. Particularly powerful was the way in which he deployed a profoundly affective reading of the New Testament, especially the woman touching the hem of Christ’s garment, in his reading of Francesca’s Amor ch’a nullo amato amar perdona (Inf 5. 103). It was much appreciated by the audience who burst into applause, and it was, for me, an indication of a brilliance that I was not quite expecting. The performance culminated in a recitation of the full canto, beginning to end. It was a fitting way to end the evening.

What I enjoyed about this was the strong sense that it was explaining itself; the poetry took centre-stage and was given room to breathe. What was clear too was Benigni’s sense of the poem’s searing relevance to contemporary society, that it is as much an indictment of our time as it is of Dante’s own time. This is the performance of a committed, engaged, and public intellectual, a man trying to make sense of his world, with a certain knowledge of the injustice that marks it, and deep sense of indignation at the continuance of those wrongs. What is striking is that I could be talking as much about Dante there as I am about Benigni.

Thursday, 2 April 2009

Michael Symmons Roberts, The Half Healed (Cape, 2008)

This is Michael Symmons Roberts's fifth collection of poetry and I'm really enjoying making my way through it. He returns to the theme of the body, but this time in the context of violence and destruction. Much of the collection is set in war torn cities, with the image of the hotel, abandoned, gutted, destroyed, as a recurring motif. These hotel rooms can be the site of a couple making love in 'Armistice', or there's the beautiful deserted room in 'Room 260', with its pristine abandoned perfection that is touched only once a year, in mid-July: by 'a perfect | coin of gold light prints onto the wall: | a gift of imperfection, | blemish in the blackout seal.' It is a kind of Newgrange soltice scene. The imagery is complex and enjoyably so. The name 'Intercontinental' recurs, which is meant to resonate the way it does. Symmons Roberts has a great sense of how some of these words and names can be completely transformed by some action, by events. There is a series of poems call 'Last Words', commissioned by the BBC to commemorate 9/11 and which takes as its theme the text messages sent by those in the planes that flew into the Twin Towers. There is anger in these poems, but it is controlled, never allowed to take over. The poems have, too, a great melancholy, a great sense of loss, of what we have lost. There's a lot at stake. The religious language, used by the poet so often and so effectively, and the way that language is transformed or carried out of meaningfulness is another powerful theme that resonates throughout the collection (and his work more generally).

I print in full a poem entitled 'Hooded'.

Six men, hooded, face a wall on knees,
hands bound behind their backs.
How did it come to this?

Ancentral, printed deep, a lineage
through hangman, ku klux klan,
back through the polar pioneers

to foxglove, bluebell, capuchin,
robin and red riding back
to killers, cobras, kings in hiding,

anoraks and duffels, pac-a-macs,
a lizard's ruff on burning sand,
a harebell, snail shell, cadillacs

with soft tops, trout tucked in weed,
shelter, uniform, ashes and sack,
a fashion choice, a rule, a creed,

back to blind, wink, skin-shade
to protect the blue, brown, green,
so yes, the first hood was an eyelid.

And now we hood our enemies
to blind them. Keep an eye on that irony.

This work is strong, important and beautiful.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

April: National Poetry Month

April is the cruellest month, but it is also National Poetry Month in the United States.
The wonderful poster was designed by Paul Sahre.


Yesterday I saw Bodies: The Exhibition at the Ambassador in Dublin. So bodies have been on my mind lately. The specimens on display are real, and the way the exhibition is marketed it is considered to be a teaching aid. In the words of the organizers: "This method of preservation creates a specimen that will not decay. This offers thousands of unique teaching possibilities for educators at all levels, including medical professionals, archeologists and other scientists."

With current technology, I do rather wonder whether they needed real bodies, other than for the sensational aspect. And they way that they have prepared some of the specimens, such as the arteries, is with a process called 'corrosive casting', which means that they fill the vessels with a liquid that sets and they then corrode the arteries around them, leaving the polymer in the shape of the vessels. So what you're seeing is a polymer specimen in the shape of an original, rather like what they did to reveal the bodies under the ash at Pompei. Other specimens are actual bodies treated in a special preservation process.

Very few of the bodies were female, all of the others were male; it is interesting that the male bodies were represented in active poses, playing tennis, volleyball, conducting an orchestra. The female specimens were used to illustrate adipose tissue (i.e. fat) and the female reproductive system (and another raising her arms in praise of the heavens). In other words, I found an interesting gender discourse at work in the exhibition.

I did find the message of the exhibition a bit uncertain. For example, they displayed specimens of a smoker's lungs and then placed a perspex box beside it for the cigarette boxes of visitors who have decided to give up. Then other points urged visitors to appreciate the complexity of the body and to begin to treat their own body better. But I'm not sure at all that this is how and why the individual items were displayed. As an account of the body, each component individually works, but I feel that holistically a convenient message was imposed that feels a tad preachy.

What I really wanted to know was who they were; who were they playing tennis and volleyball with? And most important of all, what piece of music was the man with the baton in hand conducting? Surely, no matter how complex your body is, it's what you do with it that really compels.

* * *

To this end, I think that the really marvellous exhibition 'Assembling Bodies' at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge is a good deal more successful. It runs until November 2010 and I intend to return. It covers an extremely wide range of issues. Organized around seven thematic headings, it comprises both artifacts and art objects; the whole exhibition fits into one room on the second floor, so it is easy to take in at a visit but provides enough to keep one ruminating. The thematic headings include: Assembly of Bodies; Measuring and Classifying; Art and Anatomy; The Body Multiple; Extending and Distributing; Genealogies and Genomes; Body and Landscape. A very good catalogue has been prepared for the exhibition. Well worth a visit if you're in Cambridge.

* * *

And as if the gods were conspiring to keep me thinking bodies, I have just picked up a copy of this new collection of essays on the theme of Dante and the human body, which comes out of the UCD annual Lectura Dantis (in this case, held between 2003-2004). It comprises: Simon A. Gilson, 'The Anatomy and Physiology of the Human Body in the Commedia'; Vivian Nutton, 'Dante, Medicine and the Invisible Body'; Joseph Ziegler, 'The Scientific Context of Dante's Embryology'; Simone de Angelis, 'Sanatio and Salvatio: "Body" and Soul in the Experience of Dante's Afterlife'; Manuele Gragnolati, 'Nostalgia in Heaven: Embraces, Affection and Identity in the Commedia'; Elizabeth Mozzillo-Howell, 'Divina Anatomia: Laying Bare Body and Soul in the Commedia'; Vittorio Montemaggi, ' "La rosa in che il verbo divino carne si fece": Human Bodies and Truth in the Poetic Narrative of the Commedia'; Oliver Davies, 'World and Body: A Study in Dante's Cosmological Hermeneutics'. Have already looked at Mozillo-Howell's very interesting essay (thoroughly resonant for the Bodies exhibition), and of course Montemaggi's very excellent essay.

Sunday, 29 March 2009

DLR Poetry Now Festival 2009

This year's DLR Poetry Now Festival has been extraordinarily good. I heard Belinda McKeon's opening address on Thursday, a deeply engaged and serious meditation on the role of poetry in modern life, taking a cue from Auden's poetry makes nothing happen. She began with Husserlian phenomenology, moved on to empathy, and then wove her observations into an acknowledgment of the work of all the participating poets. It was skilled, humane, and reinforced in one, yet again, just how important poetry is; how important.

On Thursday, Robert Pinsky gave an opening lecture, which I missed (I write this red-faced), and on Friday evening the first reading took place, featuring Sujata Bhatt, Paddy Bushe and Paul Batchelor, followed later by Harry Clifton and Tomas Venclova. These too, alas, I missed, but I heard they were fantastic.

Saturday had readings from Valzhyna Mort, Ellen Hinsey & Ian Duhig, all extremely enjoyable. Mort read in Belarussian and some translations. She was strong and urgent. Hinsey read some work on violence, drawn from International War Crimes testimony. It was compelling and almost impossible to listen to without breaking. Duhig's reading was super, full of anger and a searing sense of justice. Later Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin read, with her characteristic understated humour, wearing her learning lightly, followed by the remarkable Tomaž Šalamum who read in Slovenian and English. Finally, Frank Bidart read. He was gorgeous.

I speak of Bidart with a bit of affection because he lead a poetry workshop in the morning in which nine poets participated. I was lucky enough to be among them. He was gentle and humane and such a careful reader. He ran way over time in his utter fastidiousness, giving time to everyone, wanting to read and re-read poems aloud incorporating suggested changes, repunctuations. It was also a great pleasure to meet and read the work of the other poets. One in particular, Padhraig [PJ] Nolan, designed the programme and the beautiful broadside for Heaney's birthday. His blog is as measured as his poetry: read it.

On Saturday another very special event took place: a celebration of Seamus Heaney's 70th birthday. A group of poets read Heaney's work, with the great man sitting in the front row. Everyone chose something that meant a lot to them, and Venclova read a Lithuanian translation of 'Mid-Term Break'. It was an experience to hear a translation in a language I do not know of a poem I know better than my own hand. Deeply deeply moving. A very special birthday gift was presented to him: a painting entitled 'Inheritance' by the great Hughie O'Donoghue. Heady stuff when the greats are in conversation with each other.

Today had the Strong Reading and Award for Best First Collection. Ciaran Berry's The Sphere of Birds (Gallery); Patrick Cotter, Perplexed Skin (Arlen House); Áine Moynihan, Canals of Memory (Doghouse); and Simon Ó Faoláin, Anam Mhadra (Coiscéim). The very deserving winner was Ó Faoláin who gave a super reading of his work, full of humour and humility but with a great sureness of touch. He seemed so comfortable but not too comfortable. Mary O'Malley, the judge for this year's competition, cited his flexibility, and it was much in evidence.

The final reading (to a packed house I might add) had Adam Foulds read from his extraordinary The Broken Word, which I immediately bought afterwards and started to read in full. Then Colette Bryce read, from her three collections. There was something so formal but relaxed about her work. I confess that I did not know either of these poet's work but have come away with books under arm and am hungry for more. The final poet to read was Carol Ann Duffy. She was funny, reading poems from The World's Wife, and elegiac, reading poems from Rapture. She had such a presence on stage, understated but very self-assured (right down to the little bow she took at the end, the only poet I saw do such). It was a terrific reading, and a terrific way to end. Belinda graciously thanked all who participated, poets, audience, staff, the lot. I look forward to next year. It is simply not to be missed.

I went away feeling enriched and blessed.

Monday, 23 March 2009

Mieke Bal

Read anything you can get your hands on by Mieke Bal. I've just picked up a copy of her Lethal Love: Feminist Literary Readings of Biblical Love Stories (Indiana U.P., 1987) and am hooked on it. I've already read her Murder and Difference: Gender, Genre & Scholarship on Sisera's Death (Indiana U.P., 1992) and greatly enjoyed it. She's well known as a cultural theorist, biblical scholar, and feminist critic, but that's only the beginning. Her website gives an indication of the richness and breadth of her work. She also seems to have a good number of Irish graduate students, all working on really fascinating things.

Read Mieke Bal.

Saturday, 14 March 2009

In Search of Art: Marina Carr, Marble, The Abbey Theatre

Last night had the penultimate performance of Marble, Marina Carr's new play at the Abbey Theatre. Carr has never shirked from writing the elemental forces that truly terrify and Marble is no different. The play opens with two old friend, Art (Stuart McQuarrie) and Ben (Peter Hanly), in a swanky hotel drinking brandy and smoking cigars. Art tells Ben that he'd had a dream about Ben's wife the night before, that he'd made love to her in a beautiful marble room on a marble bed. This image of marble becomes the a motif throughout the play, almost a refrain from the four characters. It turns out that Catherine (Aisling O'Sullivan), Ben's wife, had the same dream about Art, even though they hardly know each other. Instead of considering this as just one of those coincidences (sure!), the lives of these two couples begin to unravel. Art's wife, Anne (Derbhle Crotty) is determined to control the reality around her, planning everything and deciding when to go to bed before she gets up. When confronted with Catherine's increasingly erratic behaviour, she only grips more fiercely onto what she has.

Carr shifts the setting from rugged landscapes to the urban. The action takes place in hotels and fancy restaurants, and luxurious homes in the suburbs where the most taxing thing a housewife will have to do is go to the shops to buy washing up liquid. The women are desperate. They have found themselves in these desolate lives, in landscapes as desolate and lonely as a bog in the midlands. The dream generates a reality that is as unreal as anything they've encountered and their attempts to embrace that is desperate to watch.

The set design was very good, sensitive to the surreal, the tricks of the eye and the mind. And the subtext of Giorgio de Chirico was very interesting. De Chirico is famous for melancholic scenes in monumental space, often with marble figures lying in the open, beside arches, waiting for something to happen.

For all of the power of the play, there is something not quite right about it. I don't know whether the acting was a little tired, or whether the writing was a little uncontrolled. I have a sense that the forces at work between the words were not quite fully ready; there is an unfinished quality about the writing and a slight sense of a paralysis of awe about it that did not satisfy.

Friday, 13 March 2009

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Slow Reading and Slow Writing: A Return to the Art of the Essay

Have a read of Lindsay Waters, 'Slow Writing; or, Getting Off the Book Standard: What Can Journal Editors Do?', Journal of Scholarly Publishing, 40 (2009), 129-143, where he talks about the tyranny of the monograph in the academy and calls for a return to the art of the essay. He takes a fairly savage swipe at Žižek and his lack of clarity, and the tone of the article sometimes makes me a little uncomfortable. Perhaps this is not so much to do with me disagreeing, but more because I ask myself whether I am guilty of writing hermetically, for three other people who have written on the subject, or whether I do manage to express myself to an interested reader.

The article is deliberately provocative, and the critique of jargon is interesting, and likely won't be much appreciated by many, shall we say, theoretical scholars.
We need to slow down and remember that the essay has been the main form for humanistic discourse. The book is an outlier. Many of the writings that changed the direction a scholarly community was marching toward were essays. Think of Edward Said’s ‘Abecedarium Culturae’ or Paul de Man’s ‘The Rhetoric of Temporality,’ to stay in recent history and not begin, as I easily could, an epic catalogue from Montaigne’s ‘De l’amitié’ onward. Some of the most important books are collections of essays not unlike journals, sometimes assembled with no pretence at forging a unity of them, such as John Freccero’s Dante: The Poetics of Conversion. (pp. 132-133)
In an article that looks at what the role of editors can be in this new world of the essay, he might have mentioned that Freccero's book might not have seen the light of day nor taken the form it did had it not been for the editorial work of Rachel Jacoff. And it might also be said that for publication purposes, edited volumes are not actually counted (they aren't for the RAE). This too surely needs to change.

Whatever one's views of Waters' article, surely one can never be reminded often enough of the importance of good writing, of craft, of making oneself understood and of being clear. Ars longa, vita brevis.

Thursday, 5 March 2009

Bonæ Litteræ

You'll have noticed a new link on my blogroll which is Bonæ litteræ, by the rather excellent Dr David Rundle, a scholar of English renaissance humanism. These are various and occasional musings on Renaissance humanism, manuscripts, scribes, and a great many other learned things. Well worth reading.

World Book Day 2009

Today is World Book Day.
Happy World Book Day.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Love and Marriage in Renaissance Florence (Courtauld Gallery, London, 12 Feb-17 May 2009)

Now showing at the Courtauld Gallery in London is an exhibition dedicated to cassoni, or painted marriage chests. This is an area that has been the subject of much study in the last twenty or thirty years and cassoni have emerged as an extremely important aspect of domestic art in the Italian renaissance. A recent exhibition, curated by Cristelle Baskins, at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, centred on painted marriage chests and the catalogue is another important contribution to the field (Cristelle L. Baskins, Adrian W.B. Randolph, Jacqueline Marie Musachio and Alan Chong, The Triumph of Marriage: Painted Cassoni of the Renaissance (Pittsburgh: Periscope Publishing, 2008; ISBN: 9781943772867). This Courtauld exhibition, curated by Caroline Campbell, is an intimate affair, and that is very intentional. There are just ten items on display, all fitting (fairly) comfortably in a single room. The centrepiece is undoubtedly the famous Morelli chest, painted by Biagio di Antoinio (1446-1516), Jacopo del Sellaio (1441-93), and Zanobi di Domenico (active ca. 1464-74). These two imposing chests depict 'Camillus and the Gauls' and 'The Schoolmaster of Falerii', with two spalliere depicting Horatius Cocles and Mucius Scaevola and Lars Porsenna, respectively. These are the only cassoni to survive with their spalliere intact, so they are very important in thinking about how the cassone worked with its related items. While they are now almost attached to the cassoni Campbell asserts, I think quite correctly, that they would have been placed much higher up on the wall and she points to their rather low view-point as evidence. She also speculates that they may have formed a continuous panel. The viewer (Renaissance, modern) had their eye drawn both vertically and horizontally; the whole room was part of the effect, not just a framed item bracketed away from the rest of the room.

Another fascinating pair of panels are by Giovanni Toscani (around 1370/90-1430), depicting scenes from Boccaccio's Dec II 9, the story of Ginevra, Bernabò and Ambrogiuolo, dating to about 1425. This is an interesting one because only one of the panels (the first), now in the National Gallery of Scotland, was known in any detail. The other, in a Private Collection, has been brought together for this exhibition and it is great to see them together. The panels attest to the popularity of Boccaccio in the early fifteenth century, but what is even more interesting is the way that much of the story hinges on a trick involving a chest, and so the chest itself figures prominently in the first panel. Campbell makes some very interesting remarks about this panel, the way that Ginevra assumes a masculine role and how the artist chooses to depict her dressed as a man in the final scene even though the text explicitly states that she had changed into her feminine clothes. Ginevra is only shown twice as a woman, 'probably to mask the unusualness of her behaviour' (p. 86). There would be much to say about such a dynamic. In fact, Campbell wonders about the choice of Boccaccio as a source for the iconography and links the move away from Boccaccio, and love stories, about mid-century, to more martial themes to the change in commissioning patterns of painted marriage chests, when it became the responsibility of the groom's family rather than that of the bride.

One of the most stimulating aspects of this material was the attention that Campbell paid to the literary texts in the possession of Morelli, in particular a compendium associated with Morelli now in the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze (Pal. 359). 'The unassuming appearance, contents and lack of illustrations of this chapbook, purchased form "Zanobi Deleicha", make it very typical of surviving manuscripts of this type. Its contents mirror the core genres of stories depicted on cassone frontals: Roman poetry, contemporary Tuscan verse, ancient Greek, Roman, biblical and modern history. As such it provides a good framework for exploring the subjects depicted on cassoni and spalliere panels, and decoding their meanings.' (p. 34). This is good stuff and I intend to learn more.

Another pair of panels, by Lo Scheggia (1406-86) are exhibited, depicting 'The Journey of the Queen of Sheba' and 'The Meeting of Solomon and Sheba', both dating to around 1450. These are both in private collections and so it is a treat to see them exhibited. Another panel by a Florentine follower of Lo Scheggia, dating to around 1460, depicts 'The Siege of Carthage and the Continence of Scipio' (Courtauld P.1966.GP.129). There is another chest depicting the Battle of Pharsalus, in which Caesar defeats Pompey, by an unidentified artist, dating to around 1470-5 (Courtauld F. 1947.LF.3). The final pair of panels are in the collection of the Earl of Harewood at Harwood House, depicting 'The Rabe of the Sabine Women', and 'The Reconciliation of the Romans and the Sabines', dating to around 1480.

Go to the exhibition. And buy the catalogue: Caroline Campbell, with contributions by Grame Barraclough and Tilly Schmidt, Love and Marriage in Renaissance Florence: The Courtauld Wedding Chests (London: The Courtauld Gallery in association with Paul Holberton Publishing, 2009), ISBN: 9781903470916.

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Mick Imlah (1956-2009)

Mick Imlah died on 12 January, aged just 52. His first collection of poetry in 20 years, The Lost Leader (Faber, 2008) had recently been published and had won the Forward Prize. He had also been shortlisted for the TS Eliot prize. His death is a terrible loss to contemporary poetry. The Lost Leader is a huge and powerful poetic history of Scotland. I print one poem from the collection:


Love moves the family, but hate
makes the better soldier;
why would the boxer scatter his purse,
sell up his soul, be Ugolino evermore,
for the soft-hard piece of his rival’s ear—
were it not for the lovely taste of hate;
if it didn’t award him a pleasant pillow
of hate to soften the stone of his cell?
Dante, who loved well because he hated,
Hated the wickedness that hinders loving

Read reviews here, here, here, and here. Read obits here, here, here, and here. And this.

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Gone Cuckoo

I have been remiss here in leaving it so long to post. One thing happened, then another. And then it was now.

Last evening I watched The Natural World on BBC iPlayer, which talked about the Cuckoo. Prof. Nick Davies, an expert and fellow of my college, talked about the bird and its pretty awful behaviour. I know that it is silly to think in moral terms about the behaviour of birds but I found it all rather...well chilling actually. The cuckoo doesn't build a nest of its own. I had known this. It was the rest that I was a bit sketchy for me.

The cuckoo lays its eggs in other birds' nests, making room for it by eating the eggs it finds there. When this is done, and it manages to get the shape and colour to match, the egg hatches and the reed warbler begins to look after the cuckoo as its own chick. Then, the blind and featherless monster chick senses the other eggs in the nest and throws them out of the nest. In one piece of footage, David Attenborough cooly talks us through the chick pushing another hatched reed warbler chick out of the nest. All this while Prof. Davies walks around College and the Fens during a beautiful summer's day. One scene has him looking around rivers and trees, spectacularly shot, then he's in the College Library looking up learned books about egg-collecting (now illegal). And then you realize you are watching a kind of cuckoo snuff movie.

I'll never look at a cuckoo clock in the same way again. Ruined, I am.


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