Robespierre: Incorruptible or Tyrant?

Robespierre: The Man who Divides Us the Most is a new book on the revolutionary Maximilien Robespierre (1758-1794). Written by prominent French intellectual Marcel Gauchet (b. 1946), it presents a personal view of the problem of Robespierre. For the supporter of humanism and secularism, Robespierre is both a hero and villain, embodying the best and worst of human nature. Rather than a biography that mines primary sources, Gauchet’s book traces Robespierre’s actions during the Revolution. Even today, Robespierre has supporters (who consider him a misled pioneer of human rights) and detractors (who view him as a reckless, paranoid autocrat).

Gauchet is a philosopher, professor of social sciences and prolific author. Gauchet comes at the subject as a moderate Socialist with liberalist tendencies. (By British standards, he would be considered a left of centre.) In the introduction to Gauchet’s book (originally published in 2018), David A. Bell and Hugo Drochon frame Gauchet’s argument. They give biographical sketches of Robespierre and Gauchet to inform non-French readers about background. The translation reads well but the decision not to translate long titles of speeches and pamphlets will vex non-Francophones.

Well-educated (as a lawyer), intelligent and hardworking, Robespierre was a member of the Legislative Assembly when the Revolution commenced. He was initially a principled liberalist, arguing for a constitutional figurehead monarchy, the extension of the franchise and ending capital punishment. He was a tireless advocate for acceptance of the Declaration of the Rights of Man. Initially an unimportant figure, Robespierre’s eloquent speeches attracted admiration. Part of the Montagnard faction in the newly elected Convention in 1792, Robespierre became ever more extreme.

By the spring of 1793, Robespierre was at the head of the Committee of Public Safety, the new Republic’s government. He used his legal training and oratorical skills to justify the Terror, during which over ten thousand were executed as counter-revolutionaries after show trials. According to Robespierre, the torrential bloodletting and curbs on freedom were only ever extraordinary measures, temporary, contingent and regrettably necessary in the face of counter-revolutionary activities domestic and foreign. When Robespierre’s accelerating regime of fratricide was on the verge of threatening virtually every member of the Convention, the members turned on him. Denounced and arrested, Robespierre was sent to the guillotine on 10 Thermidor, Year 2 (28 July 1794).      

The legacy of the French Revolution (in France) was the establishment of a secular state, institution of democracy, the supremacy of humanism as a national value, the enforced fusion of the wishes of individuals with the intentions of the state and the authority of the state to control and kill citizens in the furtherance of its continuation. Robespierre’s intentions were utopian and it is precisely because they were impossible that the failure to implement his policies in practice led to violence. When an ideologue encounters opposition, it is merely a test of his resolve and his enemies are the enemies of the people and it is in the name of the people that the ideologue will put to the sword their enemies.

This quote shows Robespierre at his most trenchant. “There are now only two parties in France, the people and their enemies. All these rogues and scoundrels, who eternally conspire against the rights of man and against the happiness of all peoples, must be exterminated. […] There are only two parties, one of men who are corrupt, the other of men who are virtuous.” Here we have the cry of the political radical throughout the ages, echoing unchanged.

Gauchet has precepts which – while it would be insulting to describe as unexamined – verge on the banal. The Revolution was terrible because of the bloodshed but the establishment of democracy was worth it. (“The truth is that the ends were just and the means were horrifying.”) Was it? There are strong arguments against democracy (as presented in my article here), and Gauchet’s blithe assumption asks too much of a critical readership. French monarchists and staunch Catholics actively opposed democracy until the early decades of the Twentieth Century.

Robespierre was no atheist. His promotion of the Cult of the Supreme Being – an abstraction of rationalism, scientism or humanism, call it what you will – was not the act of a cynical atheist but the act of a believer. His own need for religion led him to found a state religion, in order to unify people and provide a spiritual justification for the radical social changes wrought by the Revolution. Robespierre (according to Gauchet) probably had to force through the decree of the worship of the Supreme Being despite the hostility or scepticism of the Committee for Public Safety. It was the deep antipathy of the Convention towards that decree that sparked Robespierre’s show trials of moderates, which frightened and angered members and led to his downfall.  

Gauchet finds much to admire in Robespierre: his opposition to slavery, his championing of the common man, the support for human rights, his brilliant speeches. Gauchet, as a centrist, perhaps predictably considers Robespierre neither “saint or the demon that he has so comprehensively and so complacently been made out to be. The roles of heroic martyr or bloodstained monster in which most historians have tried to confine him are of little use in discovering who he was and what his life meant.”

Gauchet interprets his subject as driven by circumstances. He was made by 1789 and was transformed into an extremist by the storming of the Tuileries Gardens on 10 August 1792. Gauchet rejects interpretations that dig into Robespierre’s biography or attempt to provide a psychological explanation to his actions. The result is that Gauchet’s Robespierre can seem like mechanical soldier, walking implacably in any direction into which he is set, like a chattering automaton without free will.

Gauchet (and modern French intellectuals) erroneously divides people into those who revile Robespierre for his murderous callousness but admire his ideals and those who regret his excesses but consider his aims and achievements ultimately worth the price. There is a disregarded third group – those who reject the values of the French Revolution. Ultimately, Robespierre can only seem heroic if you consider his values worthwhile and his values definitely are contestable.

Gauchet’s Robespierre sets out the autocratic and liberal facets of his subject but it goes no further because Gauchet cannot see further, with one exception. Gauchet writes something insightful when he describes Robespierre’s fatalism before his removal from power. Robespierre’s religious devotion to the cause of the emancipation of the French people had a martyr-like quality. “Ultimately, self-abnegation, the surrender to something greater than oneself, could be motivated only by the conviction that by acting in this way one could once more act in accordance with the design of the supreme arbiter of all things. In the absence of a shared recognition of some higher authority than man, there could be no justice among men.”

Robespierre: The Man who Divides Us the Most is, notwithstanding the limited perspective of the author, an accessible current-day overview of a pivotal figure in French history.

Marcel Gauchet,  Malcolm DeBevoise (trans.), Robespierre: The Man who Divides Us the Most, 3 May 2022, Princeton University Press, cloth hardback, 200pp + xxii, £28, ISBN 978 0 691 21294 4

(c) 2022 Alexander Adams

To see my books and art visit http://www.alexanderadams.art

The Ancients on Farming

How to be a Farmer: An Ancient Guide to Life on the Land is the latest addition to the Princeton classics library. It gathers writings by different authors. Editor and translator M.D. Usher writes, “A unifying element is provided for in the choice of selections, which focus on Greek and Roman attitudes, dispositions, and reflections on what it means to live, work, and think in a landscape.” He has focused on general arguments and discussions of the benefits of country life, as opposed to any technical information, which is to be found in instruction manuals written by the ancients. As more and more people notice the deracinating effects of urban life – crime, alienation, stress, lack of privacy, absence of trust – so the interest in rural life burgeons.

The authors selected are Hesiod, Plato, Lucretius, Varro, Horace, Longus, Columella, Pliny the Elder and others, including anonymous authors. Verse is mostly rendered as prose, though the original text is presented in metre. Short introductions and notes help to explain oblique references or backstories to these excerpts.

Hesiod writes of nature not waiting for man and that the imperatives of weather, season and growing cycle act as foe to sloth. He notes that competitive spirit pits farmer to match or exceed his neighbour, quoting the proverb, “Potter vies with potter, carpenters with their kin;/beggar rivals beggar, and bard begrudges bard.” Although he does counsel amity between neighbours. On frittering away one’s energy on distractions, Hesiod enjoins his brother:

Take these matters to heart. Do not let the Strife that delights in evil keep your heart from work while you attend hearings and gawk at disputes at assembly. If a man does not have a good year’s livelihood stored indoors, harvested in due season – Demeter’s grain, what the Earth brings forth – he has little concern for disputes and assemblies. Once you’ve sated yourself on that, go right ahead and advance your disputes and conflicts in your quest to acquire another man’s goods.

Elsewhere, Hesiod tells of eternal truths, that are just.

For such [righteous] people, the Earth produces life aplenty: in the mountains, the oak produces acorns on its branches, and bees in its trunk; their woolly sheep are weighed down, heavy with fleeces; their wives birth children that resemble their parents, and they thrive with good things all of their days. They do not embark upon ships: rather, the grain-giving land produces their crops.

Note Hesiod’s implicit criticism of itinerant merchants seeking foreign goods (the travelling traders) and his suggestion about the unfaithfulness of individuals living outside of nature’s allotted roles, which are implicitly good because they work. A man in harmony with nature prospers; his wife bears his children; he has no need to travel or trade abroad. It is the city life and foreign travel that lead to strife and imbalance between men, between husband and wife and between man and nature.   

Plato suggests (in his The Republic) how a city is organised by specialists in each field serving the community as a whole, working more efficiently and co-operatively. Virgil’s Georgics are the greatest surviving idyllic (or bucolic) odes of the Romans. His presentation of the farmer’s lot is partial. “Meanwhile, his sweet children hang upon his neck for kisses. His household is wholesome and guards its integrity. His cows come into milk with udders full, and the goat-kids grapple with one another, horns opposed, on the cheerful lea. The farmer himself observes a holiday, sprawled on the grass.” Later, Virgil has his Bacchanalian farmers throwing javelins and wrestling each other.

Horace locates the content farmer as his own man, far from controlling external influences. “Happy is he who, far away from financial affairs, works his ancestral lands, using oxen he owns, as did people of old, wholly debt-free.” He avoids war, the sea and the wiles of politicians. For the ancients, the farmer is a natural aristocrat. (Musonius Rufus declared farming was a pursuit conducive to philosophical reflection.) The farmer is detached from the mob; he is steward of the land. He must distain the vagaries of man to work at the pace of nature. He labours and his family and slaves labour beside him. He protects and feeds others in return for their loyalty and diligence. He is not elected and is deposed only when he fails in his duties as steward and provider, according to natural law. He raises his sons to follow the wisdom he learned from his father. The sons inherit because they are trained to inherit and to farm, forming a sacred chain of tradition.

Columella execrates the rise of the gentleman farmer, who owns a large farm that depends upon slave labour. The absent landlord loses touch with the reality of plants, animals and tasks entrusted to employees. He notes that the industrious wife of previous eras, who shared in the farmer’s wealth and contributed to the standing of the farmstead and the family, had fallen into indolence and luxury when the farmer becomes wealthy. “These days, however, most women are awash in luxury and idleness to such an extent that they don’t deem even the supervision of wool-making a worthy endeavor and find home-spun garments loathsome. Perversely, the clothes that please them most are those that cost a fortune, amounting almost to the value of a whole estate.”

Once again, we encounter an academic fretting over gender bias and slavery in ancient sources. One would have thought that as historians, selectors would welcome and preserve the differences of the ages recorded in ancients’ words, rather than offering propitiatory apologias. One suspects that selectors are more worried about the grumbling of progressive professors than any outcry by general readers, the latter of whom do not expect the past to mirror the concerns of today’s elites. M.D. Usher has nothing to apologise for and the ancients need no apologies proffered on their behalf. The ancients had – astonishingly – different biases to those of modern academics. Selectors and translators, let the authors speak frankly and credit readers with the judgment to evaluate their own responses to the ancients.    

Princeton University Press does us all a good service by publishing these selections and keeping the classics alive for us. How to be a Farmer: An Ancient Guide to Life on the Land is a highly enjoyable selection and will be avidly read by idealistic communalists and traditional conservatives leaving for the countryside – and by all of us who wish they could do the same.  

Various, M.D. Usher (trans., intro.), How to be a Farmer: An Ancient Guide to Life on the Land, Princeton University Press, 2021, hardback, cloth spine, 272pp, Greek/Latin/English text, $16.95/£12.99, ISBN 978 0 691 21174 9

© 2021 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art


Aristotle on Innovation

It is said that the Greeks were reluctant to innovate. The prime example given is the steam engine (aeolipile) of Hero of Alexandria. It was a steam turbine, where steam from a boiler was fed into a ball on pivots; the ball had vents for the steam, the ejection of which caused the ball to rotate. It was treated as a novelty and a feat of ingenuity but never used by the Greeks to do any practical function. Yet, when we look at the architecture and art, we can see small constant refinement in methods and tools. The changes in language and ideas over the centuries show curiosity and openness, even if the technology remained fairly stable. While scientific and philosophical ideas developed rapidly in Greece, we find evidence that innovation is different from science. Innovation is tinkering; it is the spotting of certain phenomenon and characteristics of materials or mechanisms and adapting and combining those into new machines or procedures.

The question of change applies in all fields. Innovation in the field of weaponry can allow a city to defeat another. Innovation in agriculture may lead to better harvests or the cultivation of previously unproductive land. Innovation in the way a city is governed can lead to discord and instability. Innovation in religion may lead to heresy and collapse in faithful observance. Change in itself is neither good nor bad though it may do good or bad.     

In the latest selection from the classics, published by Princeton, Armand D’Angour has selected, translated and introduced texts by Aristotle (384-322 BC), Athenaeus of Naucratis (c. C150-250 AD) and Diodorus Siculus (c. 90-30 BC).

Diodorus is quoted on Dionysius of Syracuse assembling a uniform army and attracting armourers of the highest ability. Aristotle is quoted on the subject of change, criticising the proto-socialism of Socrates and authoritarianism of Plato. He suggests that citizens be able to own personal property and guard the privacy of their families, allowing that some common property (such as land) may be shared to mutual benefit. Aristotle sets out the foundations of liberalism: “A state is not made up only of many people, but of a variety of kinds of people; a state cannot simply be constituted of similar individuals. It’s not like an alliance, whose usefulness depends simply on numbers, not on different kinds, of men.” He refutes common ownership of everything but leaves open the door to a fragmented society, where factions compete for power and favour. This extract from Aristotle’s Politics (book 2) will make interesting reading for those interested in finding a balance between common good and private autonomy.  

The most famous anecdote from Greece is of Archimedes solving the problem of how to calculate the amount of gold used in the creation of a crown. The complexity of the form (and the possibility of hollows) meant that it was difficult to ascertain how much gold had been used in the object and whether it had been adulterated with other metals. Archimedes sank into his bath and saw his body displaced water and he realised that displacement and weight could be used to determine the mass of the crown. This could then be compared to the weight of pure gold of an established volume – to be multiplied up to the volume of the crown. Any discrepancy would indicate the use of non-gold in the crown, thus revealing any deceit on the maker’s part. Comprehending the solution, Archimedes arose from the bath, yelling “Eureka!” (Gr: I have it!).

Archimedes was a naval architect. From Moschion (via Athenaeus) comes an account of Archimedes designing the Syracusia, a warship for Hieron Syracuse. “Hieron arranged for wooden pegs, belly timbers, rib timbers, and whatever material was needed for other uses come partly from Italy and partly from Sicily. He procured esparto from Spain for cables, hemp and pitch from Rhone valley, and other necessary materials from many different places.” He outlines the elaborate construction, including bronze rivets, later sheathed in lead to protect them from corrosion. Archimedes used a windlass of his own design to get the ship into the sea. The huge vessel had space for multiple levels of oarsmen, a garden, library, gymnasium, a fish tank and temple with a stone floor. The ship was a warship, and had battlements, watchtowers, grappling hooks and a baluster. An Archimedes screw was the bilge pump. Hieron gave Syracusia as a gift to Ptolemy II of Alexandria. It was the only voyage it made.   

Diodoros describes the innovative tactics that allowed the Thebans to defeat the mightiest army in Greece at the Battle of Leuctra. Due to general Epaminondas’s uneven distribution of forces in his line, the Spartan phalanx was twisted – one side advancing fast and the others held back. Out of position, the Spartans were attacked from behind, breaking their formation. “Epaminondas’s corps pursued those fleeing, cutting down in large numbers any who resisted, and gained for themselves a most glorious victory. For since they had engaged the strongest of the Greeks and, though fielding a smaller force, had miraculously overcome many times their number, they won a great reputation for their heroism. The highest praises were accorded to the general Epaminondas, who chiefly by his own valor and by his brilliant strategy had defeated in battle the hitherto invincible leaders of Hellas.”

The short introductions are handy guides and the choice provides a broad range of aspects to innovation. The quoted texts are given in English and the original Greek; the other material is in English only.

Aristotle, Armand D’Angour (trans., ed.), How to Innovate: An Ancient Guide to Creative Thinking, Princeton University Press, 2021, hardcover cloth spine, 138pp + xxi, Greek/English text, $16.95/£12.99, ISBN 978 069 121 3736

© 2021 Alexander Adams

To view my books and art visit www.alexanderadams.art

Sacred Chola bronzes

[Image: Uma, “Capital style; ca. 900, bronze, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Bequest of Cora Timken Burnett, 1956.]

The Thief Who Stole My Heart: The Material Life of Sacred Bronzes from Chola India, 855–1280 is the “first book to situate the sacred and sensuous bronze statues from India’s Chola dynasty in social context”. This book is an attempt to synthesise art historical and connoisseurial appreciation of temple bronzes of the Chola dynasty (855-1279) but also to consider the social, economic and religious significance of the bronzes. The Chola dynasty flourished in South and South-Eastern India and northern Sri Lanka; its influence expanded over of the territory of Bengal and Malaysia. Its art is considered by some to be the Indian renaissance. Author Vidya Dehejia, professor of Indian and South Asian art at Columbia University, claims that this book a first full attempt to cover the breadth of the reception and production of the famed temple bronzes.

Dehejia faced certain hurdles in preparing this handsome book. Firstly, not all of the bronzes are either documented or even listed. Secondly, getting reliable data on the bronzes is difficult, not least because – as sacred objects – access to them is limited and photography of some is forbidden. Thus, even making an overall assessment of the estimated 3,700 statues over hundreds of holy sites is a task so large that it will require further even more work. One question the author raises is where did roughly 153 tons of copper used to cast the statues come from, considering there are no copper deposits in the Cholas region? She thinks that evidence of copper mines in Sri Lanka probably indicates trade or conquest prompted Chola expansion to Sri Lanka. Additionally, the pearl fisheries of Sri Lanka were greatly valued by Chola kings.  

These devotional works were fitted with fixings for carrying poles and – in temples – are routinely clothed, daubed with substances and have offerings applied. Years’ worth of accretion of incense, ointments and soot have patinated the statues that are kept in situ in temples. Some statues have been removed to museums (in India and worldwide, especially Great Britain and the USA). The author explains the subjects of the statues, which are of gods and goddesses (mainly Shiva, Uma, Skanda, Vishnu, Kali, Ganesha) and saints. Included are plentiful photographs of statues dressed in their holy-day finery, showing how worshippers have seen these statues for over a thousand years. In the Valuvur temple in Nagapattinam, the brahmins put a diamond-studded foot cover on the raised foot of dancing Shiva.   

As Dehejia explains, the original sculpture that be modelled in a mixture of wax, resin and oil. This is then coated with plaster, surrounded by sand and molten bronze poured in, which replaces the original model entirely. This makes the Chola bronze solid, not hollow as the lost-wax method generates. “All Chola bronzes are the product of this direct lost-wax process in which the mold must be broken to release the image. There is no mold left for reuse, so each Chola bronze is a singular piece that may not be replicated in any mechanical fashion.” Statues are sometimes worn smooth by the touch of priests. Periodically, worn details would be cut back in by sculptors. Some statues and laws on copper plates have been unearthed in recent years, offering further knowledge of the period. In 1310 an invading army of Muslims was pillaging temples for valuable materials, so priests in the region buried their statues and the threat of defilement and destruction lasted until 1378. The hiding places of the bronzes and valuables was secret information. It seems that not all of the bronzes were recovered at the time.

Dehejia notes that the earliest of Chola bronzes (c. 855/860) display remarkable accomplishment. “No evidence exists of hesitant beginnings. Where did this Master come from? Where is his other work? Might it emerge from an underground burial site? Since the entire art of processional bronzes was in its infancy, we must assume that the artist who created this couple [Shiva and Uma] in the mid-ninth century trained as a sculptor in a wood- or stone-carving workshop. The markedly flattened form of the images that is strikingly evident in side view is noteworthy; it is almost as if the figures were extracted from a bas relief in stone or wood.”

[Image: Shiva as Wondrous Dancer, ca. 970, Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, DC,
Purchase-Charles Lang Freer Endowment and funds provided by Margaret and George Haldeman.]

The domination of Shiva worship outstrips worship of other deities. “[…] of the 311 temples in the extended Kaveri delta (the present-day districts Tiruchirappalli, Thanjavur, and Nagapattinam), 295 honor god Shiva, while only 16 are dedicated to god Vishnu.” It seems that the sinuous lithe forms of dancing Shiva (Shiva as Lord of the Dance, often with four arms) in bronze statues came from Chola Shiva worship and accelerated the preference for Shiva over other gods.

The tapering torso, smooth chest, wide shoulders and elongated face is typical of Shiva and some of the other male statues. The figure type of the women is famous: the wide hips, sloping shoulders, elongated torso, narrow waist and large bust (sometimes exposed). The men exude strength and grace; the women are fecund and youthful. Faces of gods are generally serene. Sometimes figures are accompanied by smaller companions, children and animals. These sometimes support the main figures structurally, as do other forms, such as halos of fire (aureole) and mandalas. Deferral to elegance over verisimilitude is apparent, with some poses being improbable or impossible.

The stone carvings are considered and amply illustrated. The author sees many parallels between the stone and bronzes. The stone (the type is not described) is weathered when exposed to the elements and thus the bronzes are better examples of the sculpture of the period. Most of the bronzes are kept inside the temples. The weathering and alteration of inscriptions in stone walls – sometimes so extensive that they cover all the ground-level walls, alcoves and pilasters – has made reading dedications and instructions difficult. Also written on the walls are donations made by the devout.  

Dehejia discusses the co-existence of Tamil Hindus and Sinhalese Buddhists on Sri Lanka. The Cholas were Hindus but understood the value of patronage of Buddhist temples as well as supporting the Tamil merchants’ Hindu temples. Apparently, the sculptors also made Buddhas and Dehejia compares holy statues of Hindu and Buddhist subjects and finds many stylistic and technical points of overlap.

An overview of the classes of individuals who founded the temples is assessed by Dehejia, following the known inscriptions in Sanskrit and Tamil. She concludes that women donors frequently donated statues of Uma. Artists in this period are anonymous. There has been an effort to discern separate masters in certain places and eras, in order to permit an artist-centred appreciation of sacred art, as is possible in modern Europe. Dehejia tentatively assigns specific statues to certain single unnamed masters.

The standard of the art is excellent. The grace of the figures and skill of the artists are comparable to art of any era and region. The stylised and hieratical character of the bronzes can make them look to the uninitiated as led by formalist concerns, but Dehejia explains the subtle psychology expressed in certain groups – for example, the shyness of Uma before her wedding and protective but insistent guidance of her protector. The restrained expressions belie the distinct characterisations of individual gods.

“Today, many small Chola-era temples, including Vadakkalathur, Tandantottam, and Tiruvilakudi, have no bronzes at all. In the light of the smuggling that, unfortunately, has accompanied the thriving art market in India and overseas, all bronzes from many temples have been removed to safe-houses, referred as “Icon Centers”. […] When sequestered in Icon Centers, these exquisite bronzes with deep religious significance and aesthetic reputation are not available to priests, to devotees, or to art lovers, thereby deptiving the bronzes of their many consequential levels of meaning.”

Dehejia’s book does much to illuminate the meaning and importance of the holy statues of the Cholas. The illustrations are generally very good, the level of information is appropriate for the educated non-Hindu reader. The appendices, notes and glossary make the book a self-contained reference work on the subject. Highly recommended.

The Thief Who Stole My Heart: The Material Life of Sacred Bronzes from Chola India, 855–1280 is part of the A.W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts National Gallery of Art, Washington Center for Advanced Study in Visual Arts Bollingen Series XXXV: 65.

Vidya Dehejia, The Thief Who Stole My Heart: The Material Life of Sacred Bronzes from Chola India, 855–1280, Princeton University Press, 2021, hardback, 336pp, 242 col./3 mono illus., $75/£58, ISBN 9780691202594

© 2021 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art


“The evolutions of revolutionary architecture”

“The neologism is beloved of technocracies, cults and dictatorships; the regime of the USSR had traits of all three tendencies. The lexicon of the USSR sprouted neologisms like mushrooms: Cominform, Comintern, Glavlit, Gosplan, Komsomol, Proletkult, Sovnarkom. VKhUTEMAS was an abbreviation of Higher Art and Technical Studios, a Bolshevik-founded art training school founded in Moscow in 1920. It was set up alongside the even more shortlived INKhUK Institute of Artistic Culture(Institut Khudozhestvennoy Kultury/Институт Художественной Культуры), which only existed from 1920 until 1924, by IZO-Narkompros, the Department of Fine Arts of the People’s Commissariat for Education. Despite being backed by the state, it failed to survive as long as the Bauhaus…”

Read the full 3-book review at The Brazen Head here: https://brazen-head.org/2021/06/11/the-evolutions-of-revolutionary-architecture/

Ancients on Scepticism and Humour

Humour is one of the things that is difficult to judge and transmit, especially across cultures and eras. Consul, rhetorician and sceptic, Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC) was also famed as “one of the two funniest men in history”[i]. Both in the Senate and the law court, Cicero was notorious for being hardly able to contain his wit and hold back his barbs when it would have prudent so to do.

Michael Fontaine, editor and translator of this selection of Cicero’s texts relating to humour, presents comedian Mark Saltveit’s assessment of stand-up comedy. Improvised spoken comedy is dependent on context – exploiting a mood or spiking a person’s transitory attitude – and that comic sensibility cannot be taught, even if turns of phrase, delivery, timing and so forth can be imparted and improved upon. Fontaine has gone for a deliberately broad translation (rather than a literal or detailed one) in order for us to get the mood and meaning.

Cicero wrote that he thought humour was hard to analyse and impossible to teach. He divides spoken humour into – on one hand – quips and retorts and, on the other, prepared routines. The quickness of quips dazzles and that in itself adds to the delight of listeners. “In general, our comebacks are more impressive than our unprovoked cut-downs, for two reasons: (1) the quickness of a person’s mind appears greater in a response, and (2) comebacks are indicative of good manners, since they suggest we never would’ve said anything if we hadn’t been attacked.”

In oratory, making the audience laugh is advantageous because (1) people side with you, (2) “Everyone admires a zinger”, (3) “It crushes an opponent: trips him up, ridicules him, deters him, defeats him”, (4) “It shows you that the orator himself is sophisticated, that he’s educated, urbane” and (5) “It eases hurt and breaks the tension”. He writes about adopting the manners and argot of the city or country to make a humorous point.

As for boundaries, Cicero says the only rule is “THOU SHALT TELL NO UNFUNNY JOKE”. Even deformities can the subject of ridicule, according to Cicero. The sort of humour he admires can be cruel. “When a friend was wailing that his wife had hung herself from a fig tree, the Sicilian said, “Any chance I could get a few cuttings from that tree to plant?””

His examples are – regrettably – not very funny, notwithstanding the difficulties in cultural and linguistic distance from us. “A: What are you crying for, dad? B: What, I should be singing? I just lost my case in court!” (Sound of crickets here.) I guess it’s the way you tell them.

The best is as following: “[…] Soldier, Titius, liked to kick a soccer ball around at night ad was suspected of breaking some important statues. When his friends why he hadn’t shown up for his platoon’s morning workout, Terentius Vespa quipped, “Oh, it’s okay – he said he broke an arm.”” “A: In your view, what kind of man gets caught in flagrante delicto? B: A slow one.” Not bad.

How to Tell a Joke: An Ancient Guide to the Art of Humor is not a source book for best-man speech jokes. However, it is a useful reminder that while wit – and admiration for wit – is constant, jokes are rarely as durable. Wit can also be dangerous, as Cicero found to his cost. “Cicero was hunted down and murdered twelve years after publishing this treatise […] by Mark Anthony, a politician-turned-warlord that Cicero had roasted in a merciless series of political speeches.”

Sextus Empiricus (fecit c. 200 AD) was a sceptic of the Pyrrhonist Empiric school. Sextus is an important writer because of the extensive body of his writings which not only survived but also influenced founders of the Enlightenment. Sextus followed the teachings of Pyrrho of Elis (c. 360-270 BC), who supposedly travelled to India on Alexander the Great’s campaign to the Indus, where he met Buddhist and Ajñāna holy men. There are no claims to Sextus being an originator but of being a notable late exponent of Pyrrhonistic thinking, which was known for its radical scepticism in place of advocating a positive worldview. Although the Pyrrhonist school is not considered Stoic, its ataraxia (imperturbability) is a detachment common to Stoicism, Ajñāna and Buddhism.

Richard Bett has selected some of Sextus’s writings in How to Keep an Open Mind, mainly consisting of extracts from Outlines of Pyrrhonism. Sextus presented scepticism not a philosophy but as a method of questioning knowledge and received wisdom. “The skeptical ability is one that produces oppositions among things that appear and things that are thought in any way whatsoever, from which, because of the equal strength in the opposing objects and accounts, we come first to suspension of judgment, and after that to tranquility.”

The weakness of the setting up of a series of oppositional propositions in order to establish equilibrium is that it allows the sceptic to excuse himself from taking a qualified position in favour or opposing a proposition that has a predominance of evidence undermining it. It can become a system to insulate the sceptic from committing and – in a sense – even engaging fully. However, Sextus was aware of this trap and advised using the technique to question theories of reality and knowledge, rather than applying such analysis to matters of daily life. In a similar way, we can see Post-Modernists ignoring their own principles when it comes to living life and only applying deconstruction of language in the fields of politics, philosophy and intellectual pursuits and then only when advantageous.  

Bett offers Sextus as a model for detachment in an age of polarisation. “[…] if we don’t try to go all the way with Sextus, but still take his method seriously where we can, we may find something useful. To conclude: if Sextus can serve as a model for us, it is perhaps as a model of willingness to look at all sides of any question and not to judge things too quickly – something we could probably use more of in the present state of the world.”

Sextus outlines the method of scepticism and why it is used. “We say up to now that the skeptic’s aim is tranquility in things to do with opinion and moderate reactions in things that are forced on us.” “Arguments to Have up Your Sleeve” is a section dedicated to 15 modes or approaches that allow sceptics to undermine claims to certain knowledge. Sextus warns against inductive reasoning because it is not inclusive of all examples, which allows a degree of uncertainty about the universality of conclusions drawn from induction. Sextus provides a touchstone for the sceptical position generally in late antiquity.

As is usual in the series, extracts of text in the original language faces an English translation, with introduction, glossaries and footnotes in English. These handsome little hardbacks continue the series in a set format with attractive designs and thereby extending Princeton’s library of the ancients.  

Marcus Tullius Cicero, Michael Fontaine (ed., trans.), How to Tell a Joke: An Ancient Guide to the Art of Humor, Princeton University Press, March 2021, hardback, cloth spine, 292pp + xxxiii, English/Latin text, £13.99, ISBN 978 069 120 6165

Sextus Empiricus, Richard Bett (trans.), How to Keep an Open Mind, Princeton University Press, April 2021, hardback, 225pp + xlviii, English/Greek text, £13.99, ISBN 978 069 120 6042

© 2021 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

Piranesi Unbound

In Piranesi Unbound Carolyn Yearkes and Heather Hyde Minor reframe discussion of Piranesi not as solely or principally as a printmaker/artist but “as a writer, illustrator, printer, and publisher of books”. They posit that the product was ultimately the book rather than individual prints or – in our age of catalogues raisonnés and universal access to a lifetime’s oeuvre – a body of prints, and that consequently it was the individual books that provided Piranesi’s a metric of his own success. Our consumption of Piranesi’s art has distorted our appreciation of it and left us ill-equipped to understand how Piranesi saw his work.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778) arrived from Venice aged 20, with an ambition to become an architect. His skill for as an architectural draughtsman led to him recording the ruins of Rome in his painterly, exaggerated picturesque style in drawings and etchings. His books of etchings – mainly the Views of Rome and Imaginary Prisons – presented architectural views and fragments of antiquity, which came from Piranesi’s efforts as an archaeologist-antiquarian.

Piranesi produced prints for authors but soon moved to producing prints of his own subjects, both individually and bound as books. He collaborated with scholars on texts for his books, later writing alone. The texts assisted in selling bound collections of prints by adding intellectual coherence to views of disparate buildings and antiquities. The authors outline Piranesi’s career and method of operation. His drawing on the spot before motifs was complemented by invented and observed figures. Piranesi etchings often have diminutive figures to demonstrate the size of buildings; they also exhort viewers to behold the wonders of the ancients. Numerous illustrations show us sketches where the artist refines ideas and improvises.

The authors analyse Piranesi as a book producer. A chapter covers the way Piranesi used off-prints, faulty sheets and test proofs as waste paper on which he would sketch. (Over 60 sketches on printed sheets are extant.) It is significant that Piranesi had to send sheets to a book printer in order to have text printed. Although specialist engravers could cut letters on to figural plates, for whole pages of text, moveable type was required, which was under the purview of a text printer. “No matter how successful he became, Piranesi never owned a letterpress. Printing with movable type set in trays and printing from copperplates were two distinct specialities in eighteenth-century Rome, requiring different presses and teams of skilled laborers.” Type printing was relief matrix and copperplate was intaglio (recessed) matrix.

The printed sheets used for sketches are analysed, with sources identified. (Not all the sources are Piranesi’s books.) The artist designed his own letterforms and etched decorative vignettes of initial capital letters. The authors note that cataloguers have paid inconsistent attention to these vignettes, the plates for which have been lost. “Reference works on Piranesi’s prints typically divorce images from their texts, summarizing his books as lists of illustrations, and organizational problems abound within them.”

Copies of Piranesi’s books were bound once they were sold, with presumably sample books held by Piranesi’s publisher-bookseller. Many collectors had books bound to their own specifications, sometimes with a family escutcheon. There is discussion of the various patrons who supported Piranesi. Many were British gentlemen on the Grand Tour. Researchers will welcome the list of dedicatees of extant (and some lost) copies of Lettere di giustificazione scritte a Milord Charlemont (1757), which forms a summary of Piranesi’s patrons. “From the individual copies emerges a sweeping panorama of the artist’s professional world. Patrons and clients, printers and artists, nobles and clergy: all of them appear within the small frame of Piranesi’s dedicatory print.” Thumbnail biographies are accompanied by portraits. Fittingly, Piranesi Unbound is profusely illustrated and well designed.

The author’s note the way Piranesi reflected objects of antiquity and cast letters (from Roman inset inscriptions and contemporary cast type) in his prints, playing with illusionism. This is also seen in Piranesi’s texts illustrated as carved inscriptions on ruined stonework. On the title page of Lapides Capitolini sive Fasti Consulares Triumphalesque Romanorum (1762) has the form of a carved tablet with seals and coins placed on it. “When Piranesi etched or engraved a coin, he almost always showed it life-sized, or near life-sized, reveling in the verisimilitude of having an impressed object appear as if set down on the paper.” Piranesi was forever etching real and invented inscriptions on depictions of objects, demonstrating his playful creativity and visual wit.     

Hampering appreciated of Piranesi as book maker is the fact that many books have been split up and pages either separated for display or dispersed. Piranesi himself sold individual sheets to buyers who did not want or could not afford entire books. The chapter on the binding of Piranesi’s books includes photographs of the sumptuous bindings: leather with gilded figures and borders. There is a photograph of a copy that has had most of its pages cut out. These are aptly called “carcasses”. A chapter deals with the fate of prints, books and plates following the artist’s death. It seems Piranesi’s books were acquired by antiquarians, historians and numismatical experts, as well as by artists and architects.

There is a point here that applies to all art. We are becoming accustomed to the dematerialised digitised art work. Even if we are consuming art on the printed page, the image has been through digitisation and tweaking. Sizes have been adjusted to suit the page, tones altered to be optimised through a printing press, margins have been trimmed and straightened. Viewing art on a computer screen may allow greater flexibility in viewing and increased resolution, but it further translates a physical item into an arrangement of pixels. Even those of us who have seen or handled original prints, there is a certain relief about the printed illustration or computer file. We do not have to take care handling a printed sheet; we do not have to make an appointment and travel to a library to study an image; we can flip instantly between pictures and access unique works we could never see in person. There is a certain eager resignation to accept that art-as-object can be viably supplanted by art-as-image and there are advantages that cannot be gainsaid in the advances in printing and internet image access.

Piranesi Unbound is a thoroughly researched and stimulating discursive study of Piranesi as a creator and seller of books. This will be a valuable book for students of Piranesi, book arts and patronage in Eighteenth-Century Rome.  

Carolyn Yearkes and Heather Hyde Minor, Piranesi Unbound, Princeton University Press, 2020, hardback, 240pp, fully illus., $65/£54, ISBN 978 0 691 20610 3

(c) 2021 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art


[i] P. 4

[ii] P. 15

[iii] P. 72

[iv] P. 125

[v] P. 110

Janis Tomlinson: Goya

“The life and art of Francisco Goya (1746-1828) are woven into the history of Europe in Janis A. Tomlinson’s stimulating new biography. His was a life which overlapped the tail end of the Inquisition, the rise of the Enlightenment, revolution, war and the end of the Spain as a major colonial power.

“Goya is often seen as the embodiment of the old Spain: dark, poor, superstitious and living under an absolute monarch. The artist was born in Fuendetodos, near Zaragoza. He began his apprenticeship assisting in gilding frames and altarpieces with Francisco Bayeu (1734-1795). Failing to gain entry to the Royal Academy, Goya undertook a study tour of Italy, from 1769 to 1771, gaining familiarity with advanced Italian art. In these pre-royal patronage years, Goya received income from collector Martin Zapater. Much of our knowledge of the painter’s character and career come from letters written by Goya to Zapater….”

Read my full review in The Critic here: https://thecritic.co.uk/francisco-goya-the-embodiment-of-old-spain/

Seneca on Generosity, Horace on Contentment

In the latest selections from the classics, we receive advice from the ancients regarding perennial subjects, published in Princeton’s attractive pocket-sized volumes.

Seneca the Younger (4 BC-65 AD) wrote De Beneficiis (On Benefits) around 59 AD. Stoicism can sometimes be presented as justification for aloofness and indifference. The mantra of self-reliance and resistance to the sway of emotion aligns with anti-social tendencies. These are not entirely accurate readings but easy assumptions to make. Therefore, the issue of altruism is important in Stoic ethics. Beneficiis means benefits, gifts, favour or good turn, so Romm has varied his translation of the word dependent on context, also using “giving” as a gerund when talking about the practice of bestowing benefits. This edition is extracts of the original Latin facing the English translation.

Seneca believes true giving is not transactional. Reciprocity or gratitude – although they may be forthcoming – can neither be expected or demanded. Giving is a matter of character and ethics. “Here’s the mark of great and good hearts: To seek good deeds for their own sake, and to look for good people even after meeting bad ones.” Thus knowing how to give is congruent with having a balance of outlook. Seneca recommends mindful giving, describing profligate or thoughtless giving as a loss. He warns that slights and ingratitude leave more of a mark than gratitude. Seneca is too generous in encouraging the reader to give regardless of the reception afforded the gifts. He lays the reader open to exploitation by the cynical and the political. His advice displays a certain want of discernment.  

According to Seneca’s code, generosity must be accompanied by a lack of chiding or account keeping. A gift given grudgingly is like a loaf of bread laced with stone grit. He describes instances of giving: “Alexander the Great […] was about to give a city to someone. When the man to whom he was giving it took his own measure and rejected the gift on the grounds that it would spur envy, saying it did not consort with his station, Alexander replied: “I’m not asking what’s fitting for you to get, but what’s fitting for me to give.””  

Seneca condemns ingratitude, seeing it as a moral lapse on the part of the recipient and disrespectful towards the giver. From his perspective, ingratitude is akin to sin because God gives us gifts great and small in abundance and failing to appreciate them is a failure to acknowledge our good fortune. Failure to acknowledge a worldly gift is a reflection of similar poor judgement. Giving and gratitude are marks of fellowship, a connection that separates man from the beasts and therefore an indication of man’s unique moral nature. Seneca ties giving and gratitude into a conception of cosmic order at the end of his treatise.

Romm’s moral wrangling over Seneca’s use of male pronouns is entirely redundant. Readers of good faith understand that societal expectations of ancient Rome are not those of today. In one passage, Seneca writes of deducing the correct gift for a recipient and of making errors. “We’ll at least be careful not to send any useless gifts, such as hunting gear to woman […]” Romm steps in with a footnote admonishing Seneca’s sexism. It is not a sexist statement. Worldwide, the majority of those who hunt due to necessity or pleasure are men. Seneca is correct whereas his translator is only politically correct. This book reminds us why we revere on the sages of Rome not the sagacity of Romm.

Horace (65-8 BC) was a highly esteemed poet from the court of Emperor Augustus. His poetry ranges from the lyric to satirical. He composed lyrics for state events, commissioned by Augustus, who counted Horace as a friend. This selection of odes and satires has been chosen and translated by Stephen Harrison. The original Latin texts are provided with English translation and surrounded by commentary that is generally informative, brisk and well judged. There are sections on contentment, friendship, love and death.  

How does it come about, Maecenas, that none of us can live

Content with the lot that choice has accorded or chance has cast in our way,

But rather praise those who follow different paths?

Criticism of envy was a staple of Horace, as was contentment at one’s station in life. This is a pointed counter to the entitled ingrates who defile cities and burn businesses. Carpe diem is a refrain for Horace. “Endure whatever will be! […] Harvest the present day, trust minimally in the next.” “Sweet is the hour that comes that’s not expected.”

Horace wrote a panegyric to the country life, implicitly contrasting the delights of his country villa with the heat, smell and cramped conditions of Rome. “Is the water that on city blocks strains to burst the lead piping | Purer than that which hurries along in a downward stream?” Horace advises modesty and appreciation of the simple essential pleasures of life. It is usually a person’s nature that determines their contentment rather than their material circumstances. Acquisition of riches does not lead to contentment. However, Horace was aware of criticisms that could be made against himself. He calls himself “a hog from Epicurus’s herd.”

Many poems concern Horace’s patron Maecenas, an important political advisor to the Emperor. In one poem addressed to Maecenas, Horace writes

If some force were to steal you away earlier than me,

You, one half of my soul, why should I hold back the other,

Equally dear to no one else and destined not to be whole

Should I survive you?

As it happened, Horace did die a mere two months after Maecenas’s death. On Cleopatra’s death, Horace wrote she grasped “serpents | Rough to touch, so as to drink deep | The dark venom with her body.”

As with the previous volume, the translator feels he has to excuse his subject’s ideas. “[Horace’s] commendations of Roman racial exceptionalism and Rome’s aspiration to world domination, like those of his friend Vergil, are hard to read in our times, though they were much more congenial to readers of past colonial eras.” They are not “hard to read”. What sort of trembling emotionally labile readers does Harrison expect to be shocked by discovering than that an inhabitant of ancient Rome had different views to some people today? Again, leave us to decide what it is in Horace’s writing with which we agree or disagree.

Perhaps editors at Princeton University Press should have a word with their translators and ask them to dial down their political commentary. The readership is quite informed enough to draw their own conclusions about parallels and disparities between Rome and our societies. In their quest for relevance, these translators achieve merely topicality. While their translations are robust, the commentary is sometimes partisan. It would be a shame if this overwhelmingly admirable series from Princeton were to be tainted by the label of the “politically correct classics”.

Seneca, James S. Romm (trans./intro.), How to Give, Princeton University Press, 2020, hardback (cloth spine), 288pp, English/Latin, $16.95/£13.99, ISBN 978 0 691 19209 3

Horace, Stephen Harrison (trans./intro.), How to be Content, Princeton University Press, 2020, hardback (cloth spine), 256pp, 2 mono illus., English/Latin, $16.95/£13.99, ISBN 978 0 691 18252 0

© 2020 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit http://www.alexanderadams.art


“The Melancholy of Obsolete Futures”

“Brutalism has seen a surge in interest among young people keen on bold uncompromising Modernist design. Whole books of moody photographic studies of concrete buildings are snapped up by fans of urban life and retro design. A crop of new books explores the Brutalism of socialist states.

“While Constructivism and avant-gardism in fine art came to prominence during the October Revolution, it was suppressed in favour of Socialist Realism by the mid-1930s. In architecture more adventurous forms and materials persisted, although in the minority. Under Stalin there was a degree of stylistic conformity and austerity, yet adventurous architecture was not seen as “bourgeois formalism” as it was in art. Following the death of Stalin in 1953, historicism receded and a greater variety of art, design and architecture (including Modernist architecture) became possible. While supposedly for the masses, many of the showpiece constructions were moribund from the start: inverted ziggurat hotels that were barely occupied and shopping centres with few consumer goods to offer. Much of this architecture was completed less than a decade before the economic and political collapse of the Eastern Bloc….”

Read the full review online at The Critic here: https://thecritic.co.uk/melancholy-of-obsolete-futures/