Reading better, not more

BooksSeveral months ago, I loaned my copy of Eirik the Red and Other Icelandic Sagas to a friend. One day, in conversation, she mentioned one of the sagas and what was happening. And I had no idea what she was talking about. I had read the book last year in Germany, but even now I can remember few precise details of the sagas contained therein.

The problem was that I had read it too quickly. I hadn’t digested it. I had read it with little attention, flitting through the German countryside on the train or sitting at Burger King in the Leipzig Hauptbahnhof waiting to visit the next city on my tour of German libraries. I hadn’t read it thoughtfully and carefully and reflectively.

This happens a lot, I think, especially to those of us who read a lot. Sometimes you don’t process everything as much as it deserves. You just plough on through even though you may not remember what you’ve just read by the next day or next hour, even.

Some of us do a roundup of how many scores of books we read each year. It’s sort of like back in junior high when readers would show off by discussing how long some book they’d read was. Or, if their own prowess was not enough, some guys would brag about their brothers. I remember one guy proclaiming with pride, ‘My brother has read Shogun!’ And that book clocks in at 1152 pages, according to Goodreads. So there. My brother’s a better reader than you.

But is he?

I think there’s something to be said for competently reading a long book. They tend to be more complex than short ones, athough some of them may just be one thing after another. But reading City of God or The Lord of the Rings is more complex than reading The Confessions or The Hobbit. That’s just the way a well-written long book is — it works out to be more complex than a shorter one by the same author, the space allowing for greater complexity.

But a careless reading of The Lord of the Rings is not necessarily better than a careful reading of The Hobbit.

And so I’ve been trying to become a bit more of a thoughtful reader, pausing between and during books. That’s why more Goodreads reviews have been appearing on this blog lately. I want to find articles and stuff online, too, if I have time. To really absorb and appreciate the books I read. I’ll probably end up reading fewer, but the ones I read, I’ll read better.

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First thoughts upon finishing City of God

City of GodCity of God by Augustine of Hippo

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is simply an initial reaction book review. Further and deeper thoughts will follow on a blog somewhere…

I have finished reading City of God. It is a massive book. It took me a year plus a few months to achieve this, albeit sometimes going weeks without peaking inside. This is one of the largest works from antiquity, and it’s basically an education in a volume — history, the theory of history, theology, biblical scholarship, pagan religion, philosophy, political philosophy, moral philosophy, Christian apologetics, and more, are all treated in this one, giant, compelling (at times, admittedly, dry) volume.

Augustine ostensibly sets out in this book, On the City of God Against the Pagans, to demonstrate the falsehood of polytheistic traditionalists’ arguing that Christianity was the cause of Rome’s sack at the hands of Alaric in 410; at least, that’s what we always say Augustine sets out in this book. If it is, he clearly decided that the only way to do it was to set forth the ‘two cities’ — the City of Man and the City of God, describing each, its origins, and its history, as well as dealing with the polytheist detractors head-on with his reading of Livy that observes that Rome had many disasters when she observed the pax deorum, and that many bad men prosper, so Christianity can’t be to blame for 410.

Augustine’s discussion of Roman history is a joy to read, for it presents us with an alternative reading — God allowed Rome to prosper for his own designs, not due to anything Rome had done. This runs counter to the vision of history abroad amidst many both of the pagans and of the Christians who imagined history as ‘good men prosper while bad men fail.’

This book will also throw you headlong into the Christian reading of the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, as Augustine sets forth the parallel histories, from Adam to the reward of the saints in glory at the bodily resurrection. Here you are immersed in the story of Scripture but also always surrounded by how Augustine’s keen intellect read and interpreted the text, seeking out its meaning meticulously. Modern scholars may disagree with Augustine’s conclusions at times, but his keenness in seeking out the truth and working through difficult bits of the Bible will be eternally laudable.

City of God is not for the faint of heart. It is, as I say, large. It is also, figuratively speaking, heavy. You will have to think your way through this book. You will probably forget some of it as you move on to later parts. But its contribution to so much western theology and philosophy makes it worth the effort. If you want to think hard about history, theology, philosophy, if you want to exercise your brain and consider why the world is as it is, if you want to enter into the world of one of antiquity’s greatest minds, if you want to see what an ancient tour-de-force in philosophy looks like, if you want to understand the fourth and fifth centuries — you should read this book.

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Review: Imperial Rome and Christian Triumph: The Art of the Roman Empire, AD 100-450

Imperial Rome and Christian Triumph: The Art of the Roman Empire Ad 100-450Imperial Rome and Christian Triumph: The Art of the Roman Empire Ad 100-450 by Jas Elsner

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Upon my return home from a five-week stint in Rome on research, I wanted a little something to beef up my knowledge of the art that I saw there, since that’s where my knowledge of the ancient world is not as strong in other areas, like old-fashioned ‘history’, or literature, or even philosophy. I chose this book because I’ve read some of the series’ volume Early Medieval Art by Lawrence Nees and liked it. Furthermore, this book covers the periods I most wanted to investigate — from the High Empire in the 100s through Late Antiquity, ending in AD 450. This is the period when most of Rome’s remaining monuments were erected, and it’s also the period I research.

I thought the book would move chronologically, but it did not. Instead, Elsner takes you through the centuries thematically. The book is divided into three major themes, each of which is further subdivided into different facets of Roman art. The intellectual superstructure of the entire book is the consideration of how art in the Roman world interacts with society, culture, government. How do the changes in the thoughtlife and politics of the era, from the Second Sophistic to the rise of Christianity, from the Good Emperors to the ‘Crisis’, then the Tetrarchy and beyond, impact art? What roles does art play in ‘private’? Is the Roman world ever private? How does the movement of poltical gravity from Rome to the frontiers influence the style and scale of art?

While certain of these questions are addressed head-on as the main subjects of the chapters, they all permeate the book at one level or another throughout. As a result, this volume is not a collection of essays by Elsner, each of which touches upon a different aspect of 250 years of art history. Instead, we have a coherent whole that presents Roman art in a comprehensible manner as one facet of a major, changing society.

In line with so much research in the past few decades in various aspects of the later Roman world, Elsner does not see a grand break from classicism in emergent and early ‘triumphant’ Christian art. Elements of classicism persist into the Middle Ages, while some aspects associated with Late Antique and Christian art are present in the second and third centuries, let alone the pre-Constantinian tetrarchy as well as the art of the fourth-century polytheist Symmachus. Christianity certainly had its own contributions to make to art, given its relationship to text, its monotheism, its drive for theological precision, its status as a formerly persecuted sect; but these factors worked alongside the factors of the classical world to create a new development, not a rupture.

I withhold one star first because I wasn’t sure about all of Elsner’s comments and (perceived) attitudes towards imperial Christianity, and second because he maintains the Second Sophistic in the second century AD as the period when Romans consciously adopted a Hellenistic culture, taking on Greek rather than Roman mythology and philosophy and all that goes with it. To give but one contrary example (I believe many abound), given the interaction of Catullus (d. 54 BC) with Hellenistic poetry, it does not strike me that the Second Sophistic is when Rome assimilated herself into the Hellenistic world. Perhaps, rather, it is the full flowering of that assimilation?

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The Sensational ‘Day of the Triffids’

The Day of the TriffidsThe Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As with The Metamorphosis (the last book I reviewed here) which was also a recommendation from my brother Michael, I came to The Day of the Triffids expecting something a bit more sensationalist. All I knew was that there were these plants called triffids, and they killed people and possibly tried to take over the world.

But, like Kafka, Wyndham isn’t here for the sensationalist, although what he produces is sensational.

Good speculative fiction, whether sci-fi, fantasy, or this sort of mild, near-future SF, takes a new and unique concept and moves beyond horror and shock and action and asks — But what would life be like? How would people survive? What are the practicalities of existence in such a situation? Thus the storyteller takes the story beyond entertainment to art. If you will.

The premiss of the story is that one night, there was some sort of comet that came near to the earth, casting a meteor shower in brilliant green colours in its wake. The next day, everyone who watched that meteor shower has gone blind.

Much of the story is the simple, practical survival realities of what to do in a society filled with the blind. What sort of culture do you develop? What skills are most necessary? What would marriage look like? More immediately — what about food, water, protection from the elements? The entire system has broken down with no one there to care for it, after all. Humans are still the greatest asset on Earth.

This is the world into which our sighted hero is cast, having spent some weeks with his eyes bandaged due to a run-in with a triffid. We follow him as he navigates London and southern England in his quest for survival, hope, and preservation of whatever good remains.

The triffids are the great complication in everything. They are a genetically-engineered species of plant that produces really great vegetable oil. Unfortunately, they also come with a stinger in their tops, which are like those of a pitcher plant, that can reach quite far. And they can walk. And grow to over 2 m tall.

In a world of the blind, there is no defence against such a silent predator. And so they must not only seek out food, water, and shelter, but protection against the triffids whose day has finally come.

So many questions of the human condition are raised in this book, so many issues surrounding society and culture, that it is worth reading. This is not sensationalist sci-fi, although it does have its share of action. This is literature even the literati would like.

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Roman Basilicas: Hunting Late Antiquity

Santa Sabina

Santa Sabina, fifth-century basilica on Aventine Hill, Rome

The Mausoleo di Santa Costanza, as discussed here, was not the only Late Antique building I found on my hunt through Rome. On the day I visited Santa Costanza, I also visited several basilicas and the Baths of Diocletian — not to mention a variety of artefacts on display in the Museo Nazionale Romano. Now for basilicas.

When we think of basilicas today, we immediately think of St Peter’s in Rome or Sacré Coeur in Paris; that sort of basilica, especially the latter, is not so much an architectural term any more as it is a special type of church that has a special papal blessing, if memory serves me right. However, our earliest Christian basilicas are not of that sort.

The architectural origins of the Christian basilica, as with so much other early Christian art and architecture, are classical. (The argument about alleged pagan tainting of Christianity can be had over at this blog, not here.) A basilica is a big, public building in the Roman world. They served many functions — social, economic, judicial. Stuff went down in basilicas.

The earliest named basilica is the Basilica Porcia, mentioned by Livy as being built by Cato the Elder in 184 BC. People kept building them for everyday, secular purposes throughout antiquity; there is one that served basically as a throne room at Trier, the Aula Palatina, and the giant remains of the Basilica Nova of Constantine and Maxentius are a very prominent feature of the Roman Forum today.
Basilica of MaxentiusWhen Constantine made Christianity definitively legal ca 312/3, Christian basilicas started popping up as places for public worship. The basilica at Tyre, for example, opened in the year 316 with a homily by Eusebius — and from as early as that Christian theology of space and buildings was already infusing what went on in basilicas.

The city of Rome is filled with basilicas, popping up all over the place. They started with St John’s Lateran — of which basilica (not counting the baptistery next door) nothing ancient remains, although the current Renaissance building is striking — and continued being built throughout the Late Antique and Early Mediaeval worlds.

My first basilica after visiting Constantina’s lovely, fourth-century mausoleum, was down the hill at Sant’Agnese Fuori le Mura, a seventh-century basilica built by Pope Honorius I that houses the remains of St Agnes in a tiny crypt beneath the apse large enough for five devout Korean women:


Basilica di Sant'Agnese

Saint Agnes flanked by Pope Honorius and some other dudeIt is a classic basilica design — a large, central nave with two smaller aisles to the side, ending in an apse. The orientation, as with all ancient Christian basilicas, is East. Before Vatican II, the priest and people would together have faced East with Saint Agnes, dressed as a Byzantine queen, and Pope Honorius looking down on them. As St Basil the Great says in a famous quotation:

For this reason we all look towards the East in our prayers, though there are few who know that it is because we are in search of our ancient fatherland, Paradise, which God planted towards the East. We fulfil our prayers standing upright on the first day of the week, but not all know the reason for this. -De Spiritu sancto 66, quoted by Andrew Louth in ‘Experiencing the Liturgy in Byzantium’, p. 83.

Louth, in the essay wherein the Basil quotation is found, observes that facing East is as old as our records of Christian worship can take us.

I like Sant’Agnese. We see in this church beautiful, Late Antique mosaics as well as the late ancient innovation of placing arches directly on top of columns. Most of the decoration, save the mosaic, is later, but the effect is undoubtedly much the same as it would have been in the 600s.

My next basilica took me back further in time to the mid-400s (my playing field!). This was San Pietro in Vincoli. The fabric of the basilica is essentially fifth-century. However, none of the ancient decoration is left, and there is a lot of Renaissance embellishment in the way. Nonetheless, San Pietro in Vincoli is much wider, brighter, and airier than Sant’Agnese. This is the sort of space a newly-relocated imperial court or an ascending papacy would like to show off.

Worth noting are St Peter’s alleged chains housed in the church, brought back to Rome from Constantinople during the papacy of my dear Leo the Great, although my trip to the basilica was the first I’d heard of it! Also worth noting is a seventh-century mosaic of St Sebastian:

St SebastianOh, and if you dig things Renaissance, there’s always Michelangelo’s Moses as part of the unfinished tomb of Pope Julius II …

From San Pietro in Vincoli, I took a trip to Santa Maria Maggiore. This basilica dates from the fifth century as well, prior to the papacy of Leo. The apsidal mosaics, stunning as they are, date from 1294. However, the triumphal arch segmenting the apse from the nave sports fifth-century mosaics, and the series of mosaics running along the nave above the columns are also fifth-century originals, sporting scenes from the Old Testament.

Second trip to Santa Maria Maggiore

Triumphal Arch

Triumphal Arch

Triumphal ArchMy final basilica of the day was San Lorenzo Fuori le Mura. This basilica is an interesting bit of architecture, as you can see:

The Late Antique NaveThe Late Antique basilica from the 580s — dating to the period of Byzantium’s rule over Rome — has had a 13th-c nave added onto it at a higher level, then was bisected horizontally, and turned into an apse-cum-crypt. So you can’t really get a feel for sixth-century Roman architecture here. But you can get close to the capitals, which strike me as reused old ones:

Classical capitalAnd you can see the sixth-century mosaics on the triumphal arch:

Byzantine mosaicsThese are the four Late Antique basilicas I saw that day in April — two fifth-century, one sixth-century, and one seventh-century. The mosaics were that Late Antique style typically called ‘Byzantine’, and they all followed the same architectural layout, a wide nave with two side aisles and an apse; all save Santa Maria Maggiore face East.

Other Late Antique basilicas of note in Rome: Santa Sabina (5th-c, stripped of Baroque accretions) and Santa Cecilia in Trastavere (4th-c, lovely 9th-c mosaics and many modern interventions).  The highly traditional, ‘Byzantine’, decoration in Santa Prassede (9th-c) makes it also a basilica of note in this regard. And if you really like mosaics and are going to Rome, don’t miss Santa Maria in Trastavere and San Clemente — the latter has Late-Antique-inspired, 13th-c apsidal mosaics and is on top of what’s left of a fourth-century basilica on top of a Temple of Mithras and an old Roman house.

Bibliography (because I’m that kind of nerd)

Dodge, Hazel. ‘Basilica‘, in Grove Art Online, part of Oxford Art Online, accessed 22 June, 2014.

The Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. Booklet available for purchase at the basilica.

Louth, Andrew. ‘Experiencing the Liturgy in Byzantium’, in Experiencing Byzantium, Claire Nesbitt and Mark Jackson, edd.  Pp. 79-88.


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Kafka’s alluring simplicity

The MetamorphosisThe Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read the translation by Ian Johnston; this was the first book the entirety of which I read on my NOOK eReader, and it went well.

I came to Kafka’s The Metamorphosis expecting it to be more obviously philosophical or moody or existential or something. Thankfully, it’s not. In Johnston’s translation, at least, it is one of the most amazingly straightforward and matter-of-fact works of speculative fantasy I’ve met.

Kafka does not dwell upon how Gregor got into the plight of being a giant insect. It is simply the defining fact of the novella — and the great complication to be overcome. Through the different events that transpire because of Gregor’s condition, there is no extensive analysis or description. It is simply stated plainly.

And young Gregor Samsa’s psychology is also very matter-of-fact. The questions are simply what to do in order to survive. No seeking a solution, no speculation about the fate of the world. How to eat, how to sleep, how to keep from creeping out his family. A certain amount of guilt over no longer being able to provide for his family, I suppose.

There is a practicality to this story’s approach to the fantastic.

This straightforwardness of the novella is its appeal. It draws the reader in and leaves so much of the analysis and thinking up to him or her. It strikes me as stereotypically German (yes, I know that Kafka was a citizen of the Autro-Hungarian Empire from what is now the Czech Republic — but he is a great author in the German language which shows you how new and narrow our nation-states perhaps are) to be so practical, plain, and matter of fact.

Since it’s a novella, it’s quite short. I recommend it.

Now I plan to read China Miéville’s Embassytown, an implicit sequel to an alternate vision of Kafka.

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If finding an academic job fails…

Romulus and Remus!

Romulus Remus, Vatican Museums

When I was in the gift shop of the Capitoline Museums, there was this American (presumably from USA?) guy trying to get the cashier – who was on the phone – to answer a query of his. His question was about the Capitoline She-Wolf. So I spoke up and explained to him the story of Romulus and Remus, gesturing to a magnet with said She-Wolf, saying that they were twin brothers conceived by Mars, and their uncle buried their mother, a Vestal Virgin, alive, while setting the babies adrift in the Tiber. They were saved by a She-Wolf who suckled them, and Romulus went on to found Rome.

I’m pretty sure I left the fratricide out of the picture.

He thanked me, and somehow it came up that I’m a PhD student in ancient history. Then he went to browse some other things while I agonised over whether or not to buy a magnet of Constantine’s big, giant head. (I saved my money in the end…)

A few minutes later, he said to me, ‘Hey, man, since I have an expert here,’ [I love being an expert!] ‘can I ask you a few more questions?’

‘Sure,’ I said.

His first question was about a three-headed dog. I said that his name was Fluffy – jk, I said that that’s Cerberus, the guard-dog to Hell, and that one time Hercules beat Cerberus up and brought him to the upper world.

His next question was if Constantine was the one who ruined the Roman Empire. I said that, no, most scholars are agreed that the Fall of the (Western) Roman Empire Is Not Constantine’s Fault. I said that, in fact, the Empire was very strong for most of the fourth century after Constantine’s reign, since many of his reforms and those of his predecessor, Diocletian, helped bring stability. I said that it wasn’t until a century later, in the mid-400s, that things started falling apart.

His third question was about the images of Jesus being crucified that he’s seen, and he wanted to know why in a lot of them there is a wound in Jesus’ side. So I explained that that’s because the soldiers were going around to break the legs of the people being crucified to make them die faster, but found Jesus apparently already dead. So they stabbed him in the side to be sure, and the wound bled what appeared to be blood and water – which, I said, is actually the plasma separating from the rest of the blood upon death so that it runs clear but everything else looks ‘normal’ — thus, blood and ‘water’.

He thanked me and asked if there was a book I could recommend or a TV show or something so he could learn about this stuff. And, you know me, I spend time thinking about stuff to recommend people so they can get into Classics, stuff that is both readable and accurate. And no books came to mind. Thankfully, I remembered Mary Beard’s documentary Meet the Romans (that I received for my birthday on DVD just before coming to Italy!), so he took its name and hers down on his phone. I told him that Mary Beard is good because she writes stuff that normal people could/would actually read.

My fellow museum-goer left, and I went to browse the books, where I found one of the books I’ve recommended on this blog in the past, The Penguin Historical Atlas of Ancient Rome. But it was too late. At least he had Prof Beard to guide him on his way!

Then I got to thinking – I liked that! I mean, one of the reasons I want to be a professor of Classics is to teach people about Romans and Latin and ancient literature and even ancient art (if I ever feel qualified for that last one!). I really like the Classical world, and I want to see other people become interested, too. I don’t want to keep my knowledge to myself, but share it with other people. And those people needn’t always be undergrads, right?

Fact is, the academic job market is not super-great right now. Obviously, university lecturing would be my first choice of job. Failing that, I’d be interested in teaching Latin/Classics at a private school somewhere (I’m not qualified to teach in the government-run schools, having done no teacher’s college). Third option, as of my trip to the Capitoline Museums?

Tour guide.

Seriously. It’s fun when the subject matter is interesting, you know what you’re talking about, and the people are both engaging and engaged with the subject matter. I always enjoyed giving tours to keen groups at Fort William Historical Park, after all. Mind you, they were mostly children, but not always.

I would not be one of those people standing around near museums and attractions trying to round up randoms off the street, though. I would apply to work for those tour companies that are pre-booked, preferably the ones targeted to people with an interest in history (I see their ads in every issue of BBC History or History Today).

I think it would be fun to teach normal people about ancient things surrounded by ancient things! It would be exhilarating! It would be interesting. I’m sure many days it would be dull, and many tourists would be frustrating. But overall, the academic historical tour guide is not necessary a bad job.

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Seductive Suetonius

I am reading Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, in my spare time right now.* I’ve read three Caesars — Julius Caesar, Augustus, and Tiberius.

Beautiful Cameo of AugustusI posted as my Facebook status the other night that when Augustus (pictured left in a cameo at the Bibliotheque nationale de France that I happily viewed) died, I was a bit sad. It’s true. Suetonius takes you on this journey with Augustus wherein you see the many things he did, allegedly to better the Roman imperium, you learn about his character, all that stuff. And when he dies, with that line about them applauding him if he’d played his part well, and then his last words to Livia — it’s a sad scene.

The Green CaesarJulius Caesar (pictured right as viewed by me at the Altes Museum, Berlin), the first of the Twelve, on the other hand — that is the death you know is coming. This is probably one of the most famous assassinations in all history, if not the most famous. Certainly the most famous ancient assassination. So when the Ides of March come, you don’t need Shakespeare to tell you that bad stuff is going to go down. Suetonius has brought us to this point of inevitability, building it up with portents, omens, soothsayers, and Caesar’s own attitude towards it all. I felt no sorrow. Just the weight of necessity.

Tiberius (left, no photo of mine since that section of the Vatican Museums was closed the day I went!) — well, no one’s sad that Tiberius dies. His biography is interesting in that it starts off with him as a pretty decent senator and member of the imperial family. And then it descends into the dark caverns of Tiberius’ appetite for wine, boys, and song (if you will), his bloodthirstiness, his neglect of the Eternal City, and so forth. So when he dies, there is almost a sense of relief. Almost as though, ‘The city can be free!’

Of course, we all know Gaius’ nickname — Caligula — so we know it won’t be so. The same is true Suetonius’ original audience, I reckon. Who among the senatorial class of the 100s wouldn’t have had the names of the infamous emperors etched into his memory?

Nonetheless, equipped with this knowledge, Suetonius seduces you into his narrative, into his tales. Well, he seduced me, anyway. I felt what I was supposed to feel with all three deaths. He painted for me the portraits he wanted to, and my subconscious was drawn into those images.

Now, I know that the truth of all three of these men is not entirely Suetonius, both in terms of nuance as well as in omissions or additions to the historical record. I’m not a dummy; I know how to read a source better than that.

But Roman historians aren’t just sources — they are writers of literature. Indeed, history is included amongst the branches of literature, not philosophy, in the ancient handbooks. And so, to look at Suetonius as a writer, I find him seductive. His story and his vivid portraits draw me in.

Tomorrow I’ll begin Caligula.

*For work I’m reading Augustine, City of God, and a whole bunch of manuscripts, so the Early Empire = not work.

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Epic review of Paradise Lost (also: Is there ring composition? Discuss)

Paradise LostParadise Lost by John Milton

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It seems silly to write a review of Paradise Lost. ‘You mean Matthew, of all people, liked this book? What a shock!’ And, really, how can one give a star rating to one of the pinnacles of English literature? Obviously my five stars for something like Milton is far more subjective than rating of, say, The Horse, the Wheel, and Language or Discourse Particles in Latin. Nonetheless, to get to the matter at issue:

Read this book.

Paradise Lost is epic.

As you undoubtedly know, it is the tale of man’s first disobedience, and the most interesting character seems mostly to be Satan. In his programmatic statements about the poem, Milton may claim to justify the ways of God to men, but that doesn’t really happen. Mostly, an epic tale of G vs E goes down, crafted out of exquisite, beautiful, finely-crafted English blank verse (no rhymes here, friends!).

It begins, as Homer and as Vergil, with the theme presented in the first line — Of man’s first disobedience — and in medias res. We find Satan and the angels who joined him in rebellion lying on the Lake of Fire in Hell. From Hell, we watch Satan travel to Earth in order to corrupt the Almighty’s new creation — man. And there, we meet Adam and Eve and Uriel, Raphael, and Gabriel.

In wondrously beautiful verse, beating in its iambic rhythm like the human heart, the tales of the War in Heaven and of creation are poured out before us by Raphael, with Adam filling in what happened after the birth of man. So here, as in the Odyssey or Aeneid, the necessary background for the early books is told by the characters themselves in a nice touch of narratology at the centre of the poem. These central books are my favourite part of Paradise Lost.

The inevitable Fall, followed by an encounter with the Son of God, and then the Archangel Michael giving a somewhat over-detailed account of the Old Testament. And it ends, as it began, with exile. I’ve not looked at it, but I wonder if there isn’t a bit of ring composition here? We begin with Satan and his angels exiled in Hell and end with Adam and Eve walking out of Eden. The second major episode of the book is Satan crossing to Earth, as later he crosses back. The centre is telling the past, while later Michael tells the future. I’m not sure; it’s not perfect, but it’s not lacking.

That is how fantastic a piece of literature this is. I don’t care if your religious or not. I don’t care if you’ve not read as much epic as I have. Read this book.

It is beautiful and powerful and will overcome you.

Be forewarned that it is not easy going until Milton’s poetry captures your mind and colonises your brain. This was my third or fourth attempt to read this book. It really helped to have read C. S. Lewis’s A Preface to Paradise Lost first. I’m sure some other similar introductory volume would be worth the time, because it would be a shame to go through life without having read Paradise Lost.

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Renaissance Europe was full of incredable churches with great art bulging out their doors

The title of this post comes from this great article pieced together out of undergraduate history papers. No joke. Real people wrote these things. Since I’m in Florence and was recently in Rome, both of which are great Renaissance cities, when I read that article and saw that sentence, I decided it was time to take a break from ancient and late antique Romans to mention Renaissance stuff.

And, really, if you look at the Duomo here in Florence, there does seem to be ‘great art bulging out [its] doors':


My photo of the Duomo’s main portal last February

Now, although I maintain that Classical learning never died in the Middle Ages, and that mediaeval art and architecture is, rather, ‘other’ instead of ‘worse’, it cannot be denied that in that period commonly called the Renaissance, we have a new direction in the art and architecture of Europe that draws its inspiration more directly and clearly from the Classical past than did, say, the Gothic. It also does a few new things, I think.

I don’t think a Greek or Roman would ever have built, say, St Peter’s Basilica in Rome:

The nave of St Peter's

I actually took this photo!

But it is clearly one of the most iconic and powerful Renaissance structures on earth. It is also the largest church. But what St Peter’s does is seek to embrace certain Greek ideals of balance in form and image and architecture.

Also, it has art bulging out of it everywhere.

A St Peter's dome

A dome at St Peter’s; bulging, but away from you

My favourite Renaissance things, though, are either classicising sculpture, such as this:


Hercules Kills a Centaur (because, why not?); Piazza della Signoria, Florence

Or early, fifteenth-century fresco by the likes of Fra Angelico that is playing with Classical ideas of the human form and perspective and space but has yet to lose its connection to the mediaeval world of the iconic. The following are both from San Marco, Florence, but the first isn’t my photo.

Florence!My final thought on Renaissance art for tonight is tied up with it bulging out the doors of Europe’s churches. Walking through Florence is an unrivalled experience in terms of contact with art, for here we find the highest concentration of art in all of Europe. Hairdressers have paintings on their ceilings. The dome of the Duomo rises above it all, visible all over the city. The Piazza della Signoria has a collection of Renaissance statues in it. Churches like Santa Croce have glistening Renaissance facades.

The art is everywhere. At one level, we cannot deny that it is humanist — it is here to celebrate humanity and our achievements as a race. Yet it is also here to help us transcend the merely human, to stretch towards the divine, just as the Gothic does, only in a different way; the ‘Fra’ before Angelico and Bartolomeo, remember, indicates that these men were friars (Dominicans, in fact, the Order of Preachers). Sometimes the artists were called ‘Divine’ in their day, such as ‘Divine Titian’. This was a reminder of the Image within the artist, the idea of subcreation at play throughout it all.

I hope that if you have the chance to meet some of Renaissance Europe’s churches with art bulging out of them that you, too, can have a divine experience, and rise above the muck of ordinary existence.

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