Review: Plagues and Peoples

Review: Plagues and Peoples

Plagues and Peoples by William H. McNeill

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Looked at from the point of view of other organisms, humankind therefore resembles an acute epidemic disease, whose occasional lapses into less virulent forms of behavior have never sufficed to permit any really stable, chronic relationship to establish itself.

It is risky to write a book like this. When William H. McNeill set out to analyze the manifold ways that infectious diseases have shaped world history, it was almost an entirely novel venture. Though people had been writing history for millennia, specialized works focusing on the ways that civilizations have been shaped by illness were few and far between. This seems rather strange when you consider that it was only in the twentieth century when disease reliably caused fewer casualties than enemy action during war.

Perhaps thinking about faceless enemies like viruses and bacteria simply does not come naturally to us. We personify the heavens readily enough, and do our best to appease it. But it is more difficult to personify a disease: it strikes too randomly, too mysteriously, and often too suddenly. It is, in other words, a completely amoral agent; and the thought that we are at the mercy of such an agent is painful to consider.

This tendency to leave diseases out of history books has come down to our own day. The 1918 flu pandemic is given a fraction of the coverage in standard textbooks as the First World War, even though the former caused more casualties. Curiously, however, that terrible disease did not even leave a lasting impression on those who survived it, judging by its absence in the works of the major writers of the day. It seems that memory of disease fades fast, at least most of the time. The 1968 Hong Kong flu killed 100,000 Americans that year (which would translate to 160,000 today), and yet neither of my parents remembers it.

This is why I think this book was a risky venture: there was not much precedent for successful books written about the history of diseases. Further, since there was not much in the way of prior research, much of this book must perforce consist of speculation using the spotty records that existed. While this does leave the historian open to the criticism of making unfounded claims, as McNeill himself says, such speculations can usefully precede a more thorough inquiry, since at least it gives researchers an orientation in the form of theories to test. Indeed, in my opinion, speculative works have just as important a role as careful research in the advancement of knowledge.

McNeill most certainly cannot be accused of a lack of ambition. He had completed an enormous amount of research to write his seminal book on world history, The Rise of the West; and this book has an equally catholic orientation. He begins with the emergence of our species and ends with the twentieth century, examining every inhabited continent (though admittedly not in equal detail). The result is a tantalizing view of how the long arc of history has been bent and broken by creatures lighter than a dust mite.

Some obvious patterns emerge. The rise of agriculture and cities created population densities capable of supporting endemic diseases, unknown to hunter-gatherers. Living near large masses of domesticated animals contributed much to our disease regimes; and the lack of such animals was decisive in the New World, leaving indigenous populations vulnerable to the invading Europeans’ microbes. Another recurring pattern is that of equilibrium and disturbance. Whenever a new disease breaks in upon a virgin population, the results are disastrous. But eventually stasis is achieved, and population begins to rebound.

One of McNeill’s most interesting claims is that the great population growth that began in the 18th century was partly a result of a new disease regime. By that time, fast overland and sea travel had exposed most major urban centers to common diseases from around the world, thus rendering them less vulnerable to new shocks. I was also surprised to learn that it was only the rise of modern sanitation and medicine—in the mid 19th century—that allowed city populations to be self-sustaining. Before this, cities were population sinks because of endemic diseases, and required constant replenishment from the countryside in order to maintain their numbers.

As I hope you can see, almost fifty years after publication, this book still puts forward a compelling view of world history. And I think it is a view that we still have trouble digesting, since it challenges our basic sense of self-determination. Perhaps one small benefit of the current crisis will be an increased general curiosity about how we still are, and have always been, mired in the invisible web of the microscopic world.

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Review: A Journal of the Plague Year

Review: A Journal of the Plague Year

A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It was a very ill time to be sick in…

My pandemic reading continues with this classic work about one of the worst diseases in European history: bubonic plague. Daniel Defoe wrote this account when the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction were looser. He freely mixes invention, hearsay, anecdote, and real statistics, in pursuit of a gripping yarn. Defoe himself was only a young boy when the Great Plague struck London, in 1664-6; but he writes the story in the person of a well-to-do, curious, if somewhat unimaginative burgher, with the initials “H.F.” The result is one of literature’s most enduring portraits of a city besieged by disease.

Though this account purports to be a “journal,” it is not written as a series of dated entries, but as one long scrawl. What is more, Defoe’s narrator is not the most orderly of writers, and frequently repeats himself or gets sidetracked. The book is, thus, rather slow and painful to read, since it lacks any conspicuous structure to grasp onto, but approaches a kind of bumbled stream-of-consciousness. Even so, there are so many memorable details and stories in this book that it is worth the time one spends with it.

The Great Plague carried off one fourth of London’s population—about 100,000 souls—and it was not even the worst outbreak of plague in the city. The original wave of the Black Death, in the middle ages, was undoubtedly worse. Still, losing a quarter of a city’s population is something that is difficult for most of us to even imagine. And when you consider that the Great Fire of London was quick on the plague’s heels, you come to the conclusion that this was not the best time to be a Londoner.

What is most striking about reading this book now is how familiar it is. The coronavirus is no bubonic plague, but it seems our reactions to disease have not come a long way. There are, of course, the scenes of desolation: empty streets and mass graves. The citizens anxiously read the statistics in the newspaper, to see if the numbers are trending upwards or downwards. And then there are the quacks and mountebanks, selling sham remedies and magical elixirs to the desperate. We also see the ways that disease affects the rich and the poor differently: the rich could afford to flee the city, while the poor faced disease and starvation. And the economic consequences were dreadful—shutting up business, leaving thousands unemployed, and halting commerce.

Medical science was entirely useless against the disease. Nowadays, we can effectively treat the plague with antibiotics (though the mortality rate is still 10%). But at the time, little could be done. Infection with the bacillus causes swollen lymph nodes—in the groin, armpits, and neck—called buboes, and it was believed that the swellings had to be punctured and drained. This likely did more harm than good, and in practice the plague doctors’ only useful purpose was to keep records of the dead.

Quite interesting to observe were the antique forms of social distancing (a term that of course did not exist) that the Londoners practiced. As now, people tried to avoid going out of their homes as much as possible, and if they did go out they tried to keep a distance from others and to avoid touching anything. Defoe describes people picking up their own meat at the butcher’s and dropping their money into a pan of vinegar to disinfect it. There was also state-mandated quarantining, as any house with an infection got “shut up”—meaning the inhabitants could not leave.

Ironically, though these measures would have been wise had the disease been viral, they made little sense for a disease communicated by rat fleas. (Defoe does mention, by the way, that the people put out rat poison—which probably helped more than all of the distancing.)

One more commonality is that the virus outlasted people’s patience and prudence. As soon as an abatement was observed in the weekly deaths, citizens rushed out to embrace each other and resume normal life, despite the warning of the town’s physicians. Not much has changed, after all.

So while not exactly pleasant to read, A Journal of the Plague Year is at least humbling for the contemporary reader, as it reminds us that perhaps we have not come so far as we thought. And it is also a timely reminder that, far from a novel and unpredictable event, the current crisis is one of many plagues that we have weathered in our time on this perilous globe.

[Cover photo by Rita Greer; licensed under FAL; taken from Wikimedia Commons.]

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Return to Venice

Return to Venice

My first footsteps in Europe were in the airport in Venice. It was in 2007, when I was a sophomore in high school, some time before my sixteenth birthday. Typical of that age, I was awkward, hormonal, pubescent, immature. During this trip, I was exposed to the most beautiful things that I had ever seen, and was largely unimpressed. Teenagers are too wrapped up in themselves to care much for the outside world. I had a digital camera that my mom had lent me; but over half of the photos I brought back from the trip are of my friends, or cats, or other nonsense. The only thing that roused me to enthusiasm was the food, which was quite excellent.

Eleven years later, I finally returned to the city, to see what I had missed. It was quite a lot. 

Me in 2007
Me in 2018

As usual, I was travelling on a budget. This pretty much ruled out the possibility of staying on the island of Venice itself. Small, antique, and exclusively devoted to tourism, accommodations are not cheap. Thankfully, there is the Mestre—the mainland of Venice (not the old city), which is generally quite a bit more reasonably priced. I stayed at an Airbnb in a quiet neighborhood and very much enjoyed the experience.

Frankly, I think staying in Mestre was better than staying in Venice itself, partly because I could get away from the crowds at night. And unlike the island of Venice, this quiet neighborhood had a real community of locals, which certainly improved the atmosphere. I had some beautiful mornings sipping coffee at a corner café, while I watched senior citizens come in for their morning glass of wine. And being close to affordable restaurants and supermarkets was also quite nice.

My memories of my first day in Venice, in 2007, are all a blur. We arrived early in the morning, all of us disoriented and jetlagged. Our hotel was right in the city center. Since virtually all of the buildings on the island are old, the rooms were tiny and the elevator only fit for one or two people. Most amusingly, our bathroom fan made a screeching, wailing noise that I will never forget. All of us badly wanted to take a nap, but our Irish tour guide insisted that we stay awake all day in order to adjust to the jet lag. By the time we had dinner, kids were falling asleep at the table. I nearly did the same.

Coming from Spain, at least I did not have to deal with jet lag this time.

The Mestre is very well connected to the city center with public transportation. In my case, all I needed was about a twenty-minute bus ride. Soon I arrived at the train station, stepped off, and confronted the new but strangely familiar profile of Venice. 

Now, I have called the center of Venice “an island,” but that is not accurate. Rather, it is a collection of small islands—over 100—which are connected with bridges. The city occupies a lagoon between two rivers. This oddity of location is what gives the city its charm. Though Amsterdam and even New York may have more individual bridges, no city I know of is more dominated by the presence of water. But of course, having a city built on a lagoon entails unique challenges. The foundation of the city has been sinking, partly as a result of settling, and partly as a result of pumping groundwater (causing buildings to sink further into the ground). This, combined with climate change-induced rises in sea-levels, have worsened the periodic floods suffered by the city. Already, many ground floors are uninhabitable.

(In 2003, a massive engineering project was initiated, called MOSE, but it stalled because so much money had been siphoned off due to corruption. Work seems underway again, as global warming exacerbates the flooding problem. The flooding in 2019 was the worst in fifty years, causing widespread damage to the city’s cultural heritage.)

Building a city on a lagoon also entails unique transportation challenges. The lagoon is far too unstable for a subway, and the city is too cramped for either trains or buses; so the only option within the old center is by boat. The Venetian equivalent to a bus is the vaporetto, or water taxi, fair sized ferries that patrol the city in 19 lines. Line 1 is popular with tourists, since it goes down the Grand Canal. The other famous option for water transport is the gondola—operated by a single gondolier, pushing the elegant boat through the water with an oar. Nowadays the gondola exists exclusively for tourists, and the price reflects that: 80 euros for about half an hour, and more at night.

As I walked through the city, I have to admit that my first impressions were rather mixed. Venice is obviously and undeniably beautiful; indeed, judged purely in terms of its buildings, I believe it has a claim to being the most beautiful city in Europe. But the atmosphere of Venice is odd and empty. Keep in mind that I was visiting during the high tourist season, in July, when many locals go on holiday (about 55,000 live in the old center). This meant that whatever local life that Venice may have was largely dead. Instead, the streets were dominated by people carrying cameras, and others dragging suitcases. It felt like being in the world’s most beautiful airport. Or perhaps Venice is better compared to an enormous, open-air museum. This meant that one of the chief charms of travel—taking part in local life—was off the table.

Venice is probably at its most lively in the weeks leading up to carnival. During this time, people dress up in beautiful masks and elaborate costumes, now famous throughout the world. You may be surprised to learn that this is a modern tradition, though it has historical roots. Masks were banned in Venice for about two hundred years, from the 18th to the 20th century. It was only in the 1970s that the tradition was revived. When I visited in 2007 it was mid February, and the streets were full of these disguised Venetians. For the most part these seemed to be street performers, however, who only dressed up so that tourists would pay to take photos with them. 

If you look at the old center from the air, you will see an S-shaped gash running through the city. This is the Grand Canal, the largest canal in the city. For many years it was the main artery of Venice, since there was only one bridge which crossed it (the Rialto). As a result, it became something like Fifth Avenue in New York City: a place for the wealthy of the city to flaunt their success. As the canal was the central thoroughfare, the magnificent façades of private palaces face the water, displaying a variety of different architectural styles from the city’s history. The Ponte de Rialto is the oldest of the four bridges that cross the Grand Canal. It provides a lovely view as well as being quite attractive in itself. However, like the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, it is covered in shops, which makes it rather cramped. (For centuries the bridge in this spot was a wooden construction; but multiple collapses convinced the authorities to rebuild it in stone.)

After crossing the bridge, and taking the obligatory photo, I continued making my way to the central square: the Piazza San Marco. This is easily the most famous area of the city. For the most part the plaza is dominated by long buildings composed of many levels of arcades. At the far end is St. Mark’s Cathedral (which I will describe later) and its marvelous campanile, or bell tower. At nearly 100 meters, this tower is the tallest structure in the old city, and quite attractive in spite of its simple form.

Not far off is the clocktower (Torre dell’Orogio), another of the city’s landmarks. Two bronze shepherds with hammers ring the bell on the top, while a winged lion (the symbol of St. Mark) holds an open book below them. (A statue of the Doge once accompanied these lions, but Napoleon had him removed.) Below the lion sits the Virgin and child; and twice a year (on Epiphany and Ascension) mechanical figures of the three wise men emerge from the adjacent door and make their bows as they pass. For the time it was created—during the Renaissance—this was an impressive engineering feat.

The face of the clock itself is also a marvel. The sun travels along the twenty-four hours of the day, against the background of the zodiac. In accordance with Ptolemaic astronomy, the earth sits right at the center of the clock, while the sun, moon, and stars rotate around it. Bad science aside, the clock’s combination of blue and gold is quite pleasing on the eyes.

If you are standing at the end of the square, with the clock tower to your left and the basilica directly ahead, you will see the space open up to your right. This is called the Piazzetta, and it leads directly to the sea. The view is framed by two columns topped with statues—one of St. Theodore (who was one of Venice’s patron saints) and the lion of St. Mark.

Proceeding forward, you arrive at yet another iconic area of the city, the Riva degli Schiavoni, a waterfront promenade. At almost any time of year (except during a pandemic) this place is extremely crowded. Gondolas bounce up and down in the waves, while people sell all sorts of knick knacks from stalls. The waters around this area are typically quite busy, with ferries going back and forth, as this is near one of the mouths of the Grand Canal. The view is characterized by the distant form of San Giorgio Maggiore, an enormous basilica that sits on an eponymous island across the waters. Its campanile looks quite like the San Marco’s, creating a pleasing symmetry.

Now the first major stop on our tour has arrived: the Doge’s Palace. If you are looking out at the water, this palace will be right behind you, though you may not have paid it much attention. In the context of Venice, the building’s exterior is not immediately eye-catching (though I will return to it later). But within is a palace of quite astonishing dimensions. I recommend going early, as there can be long lines to enter. I arrived at around ten in the morning and was basically able to walk right inside. The visit began with a small exhibition space, where I was delighted to find some drawings by John Ruskin. The famous art critic was also a talented draughtsman, and he made dozens of meticulous sketches of the city in preparation for his monumental book, The Stones of Venice. As I happened to be reading the book at the time, this seemed to bode well for my visit.

On display were also the forty-two original capitals of the stone pillars on the palace’s exterior. (Those there now are replacements.) Ruskin considered these capitals—which most of us overlook—to be the most significant artistic statement of the palace, and devoted much attention to their analysis. I will leave my own commentary for the end, and will instead embark now on the palace interior.

But before moving on, it is worth asking: What is a “doge”? This title, sometimes translated as “duke,” is unique to Venice. It is a cross between a king and a president: a ruler given royal prerogatives who was elected for life. The political organization of Venice was somewhat complicated, but suffice to say that it was an aristocracy with a touch of republicanism. The ruling class was basically hereditary; but they were divided into governing bodies—councils, parliaments, senates—and held elections (within their own ranks); and there were some checks on arbitrary power.

If the cases of Athens, Amsterdam, and England can be trusted, there seems to be some connection between a maritime, mercantile orientation and democratic forms of government. This is the case of the Republic of Venice as well, which rose to wealth and power through sea trade rather than conquest (though it was not averse to war). This, perhaps, is one reason why the city’s government—with its separation of powers and its checks on authority—developed the way it did. This also explains the moderate degree of intellectual freedom allowed in Venice, where the censors of the Catholic world could not reach. Venice also had a degree of religious autonomy, as its highest religious figure was the Patriarch of Venice, who himself was elected by the senate (from among its own ranks, of course).

From Venice’s beginnings in the 8th century, as a satellite of the Byzantine Empire, the city-state gradually rose in power and influence. It was a major staging ground during the crusades and profited enormously from trade with Asia along the Silk Road. By the Renaissance, the Republic had the wealth and the means to compete with the Ottomon Empire for control of the Mediterranean. But the “discovery” of America by Europe spelled the end of Venice’s high-point, as trade gradually shifted away from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic. Thus began a long, gradual period of decline which ended in 1797, when Napoleon conquered the city and formally ended the rule of the Doge. All told, the Republic of Venice survived some thousand years.

With this brief history lesson out of the way, let us see how this humble Doge lived. After passing the courtyard (enclosed on the far side by St. Mark’s Basilica), and ascending a flight of stairs, the visitor enters into a succession of brilliantly decorated rooms. The rooms are so ornate, in fact, that it even impressed my fifteen-year-old self. The second time around, I was stunned. Every ceiling is covered with carved engravings and panelling, and every wall is adorned with enormous paintings. Though the palace was built in the 14th century, and thus owes its form to the Venetian gothic, several fires required the interior rooms to be redecorated. Luckily, the great painter Tintoretto was on hand to provide much of the new decoration. The painters Veronese and Tiepolo, and the architect Andrea Palladio, also contributed; so there was no shortage of talent. 

A courtyard in the palace

The palace contains some rooms that you would expect to find in any palace: luxuriant apartments for the ruler and antechambers where ambassadors could cool their heels. (Unfortunately, the Doge’s apartments were closed for renovation when I visited.) But there are also many sorts of rooms that you will not find in any other European palace. There is a Council Chamber, a Senate Chamber, a chamber for the Council of Ten, and rooms for the administration of justice. Judging from the size of the room’s alone, they were not built for a single ruler, but for hundreds. This did not stop them from decorating like kings.

There are simply too many rooms and too much decoration to enter into too much detail. I will let the photos do the talking:

One chamber does, however, stand out for special comment. This is the Grand Council Chamber, which is not only the biggest room in the palace, but one of the biggest rooms in all of Europe. It is simply massive: 1325 square meters (over 14,200 square feet!). The room had to be big because the Grand Council included all of the patrician males over age 25 into its ranks, which amounted to well over one thousand men. This may not sound inclusive to us, but for its day this was radical. One of this council’s tasks was the election of the Doge, who sat on the podium at the far end of the room. Behind this podium is one of the largest oil paintings in the world: El Paraiso, by Tintoretto (though largely executed by his son). The painting stretches over 25 meters and includes many dozens of figures. Ruskin thought that it was an artistic masterpiece, though I found its sheer size more impressive than its artistic quality.

The other noteworthy aspect of the room are the portraits of the first 76 Doges running around the top of the room. These, too, were commissioned to Tintoretto, but were mostly done by his son (the painter was quite old at the time). Each of the Doges is present along with a scroll, on which are written their most important achievements. The one exception to this is Marino Faliero, a Doge who attempted a coup d’etat and was beheaded. In place of a portrait, there is a black cloth for this tratorious duke. History is not kind to the subverters of democracy. (Well, perhaps Julius Caesar is a partial exception to this. Napoleon as well, I suppose.)

Note the black shroud

After the grand tour of the regal rooms used by the Venetian government, I entered the prison. This dreary space has been known as the Pozzi (the wells) and the Piombi (lead), and it deserves both names, as it is a damp space with a leaden atmosphere. (You can tell that the Venetians were concerned with laws and their efficacy, since they built the major prison next to the center of government.) The “old” prison is connected to the “new” prison (built several hundred years apart) via the “Bridge of Sighs,” which was so known because it was the last place a prisoner could see a bit of sunlight and utter a weary sight before his long confinement. In 1756, the infamous Giacomo Casanova effected a daring escape from these prisons by climbing onto the roof.

Thus ended my tour. But before moving on, I ought finally to address the columns on the outside of the building. John Ruskin was extremely fond of the sculptures carved into the capitals of these columns, and devoted ample space to them in his book on Venice. Indeed, by common consent they are masterpieces of gothic sculpture. Inspired by Ruskin, I spent a good thirty minutes examining these columns in detail, and I was glad I did (even though, as mentioned before, the columns currently outside the palace are copies of the originals inside). They generally consist of figures interspersed within vegetable patterns, usually demonstrating some allegorical significance. Rather than launching on a giant Ruskinian rant myself, I will be content with a few photos:

Thus ended my tour of the Doge’s Palace. But I did not have time for a break. After all, St. Mark’s Basilica is right next door.

No monument in Venice better illustrates the city’s role as a conduit between the Catholic and Byzantine worlds. St. Mark’s embodies both influences. Neither wholly gothic nor wholly byzantine, the church is an alluring hybrid structure, unlike anything else in the world. At a first glance, the basilica (it is also a cathedral, though more commonly called a basilica) presented a chaotic forest of towers, domes, and semi-domes. It bears very little resemblance to the towering gothic spires that are so common elsewhere in Europe. Rather than awe the viewer with harmony or height, the basilica is profuse in details of decoration. Mosaic scenes from the life of Jesus—quite lovely in its bright colors and gold backgrounds—adorn the surface, while statues of saints stand guard above.

The most famous figures on the cathedral are the four bronze horses that adorn the roof, right above the entrance. They are Roman copies of Greek originals, supposedly designed by the famed Greek sculptor Lysippos (more probably they adorned a Roman triumphal arch). Certainly they are wonderful works of art. The reason they are here is because the Fourth Crusade went sour, and culminated in the sacking of Constantinople (a Christian city) by the Catholic forces. Napoleon had the horses taken to Paris in 1797, but they were eventually returned after his defeat, in 1815.

The other famous decorations are the tetrarchs. This is a rather odd and unsettling sculpture, made in the fourth century and, like the horses, taken from Constantiple during the Fourth Crusade. By the time this work was made, the Roman Empire was in disarray, and the Emperor Diocletian decided that he needed to divide power between three additional co-rulers in order to maintain order. This sculpture represents the co-dependence of these four rulers. But the four men do not seem like confident allies; rather, they seem scared out of their wits. Certainly it is not a work that inspires confidence—they clutch each other in fearful desperation. The sculpture is also remarkable for the degree of abstraction. The great Roman tradition of realistic sculpture (as epitomized by the horses) had already been lost by this time.

Saint Mark’s owes its name to a Venetian trick. According to the story, two wily Venetian merchants smuggled the saint’s body from Alexandria to Venice in the 9th century. (Supposedly, they covered the body with pork to prevent Muslims from investigating.) The story is extremely difficult to believe, if only because the body would have already been nine centuries old and unrecognizably decayed. However, standards of evidence were not very high in the Middle Ages; and in any case the city had much to gain by being the home of the evangelist’s relics. The story seemed doubly dubious when one considers that, according to legend, the saint’s relics could not be found when construction began on the basilica; Mark himself had to appear to direct the Venetians to his mortal remains.

Well, eternal resting place of St. Mark or not, the basilica is an immortal work of art. Entrance to St. Mark’s is free. All one has to do is stand in a long line and wait. Once inside, you will find yourself in a space quite unlike any other European cathedral. The floorplan is a Grecian rather than a Latin cross, meaning that the building is as wide as it is long. But St. Mark’s is not like a gothic cathedral, which impresses with its architectural majesty. Rather, basilica’s outstanding feature is its decoration. The overwhelming impression is of light, gold, and color. Every inch of the interior is covered in mosaics with gilded backgrounds. Unfortunately, many of these have been retouched or restored, most often with a definite loss in quality. Even so, the whole has a power greater than the sum of its parts—hypnotic in its use of color.

My next stop was the Scuola Grande di San Rocco. Even though this building is called a “school,” it is really the historical seat of a powerful religious confraternity. (A confraternity is essentially a private club that promotes a religious cause. San Rocco—”Saint Roch”—was a saint commonly invoked against the plague.) Though magnificent enough, the façade of this building does not attract attention in the context of Venice. But the inside is special indeed. As in the Doge’s Palace, there are several enormous rooms, all of them richly decorated. Unlike the Doge’s Palace, however, much of the decoration in the Scuola Grande was provided by one man: Tintoretto.

After Titian, Tintoretto is probably the most highly-regarded painter of the Venetian school. Nicknamed “il furioso” for the energy of his brushwork, he was known for working fast and rough. He was no perfectionist. By general consent, the quality of his work is highly uneven. But his style was very well-suited to the semi-darkness of these enormous rooms, where his figures could dazzle with their suggestiveness rather than their perfection of form. His paintings are notable for the drama and movement of their subject, rather than the typical Renaissance solidity and harmony. I would be lying if I ranked Tintoretto among my own personal favorites, though Ruskin was quite wildly fond of him. For me, the wooden carvings in the seats along the walls were, if anything, more charming than Tintoretto’s great pictorial spread. But I do admire his productivity.

After this I made my way to one of Venice’s many museums: the Gallerie dell’Accademia. This museum is the Venetian equivalent of the Uffizi in Florence: housing a massive collection of Italian art, from the medieval period to the 19th century. It is housed in another former confraternity building, this one the Scuola della Caritá. When I visited, parts of the museum were undergoing restorations, and so were unavailable. Even so, the museum has an impressive collection.

As usual, I was most captivated by the works of Hieronymous Bosch. There are three major works by this Dutch painter to be seen. One is the triptych The Hermit Saints, which shows three saints resisting temptation in the wilderness. In keeping with his typical, bizarre style, Bosch represents these temptations in a series of absurd little figures—monsters, skeletons, nun’s heads—that surround these simple, pious men. Another triptych is The Crucifixion of St. Julia, which shows us a bearded woman nailed to the cross. Christians explained the beard with a story about a woman who prayed to God to make her repulsive (and thus protect her virginity); but probably the historical reason involves images of Christ from Eastern Europe, in which Christ’s dress was misinterpreted by Westerners as being that of a woman.

My favorite work, however, is a series of four paintings called Visions of the Hereafter. Here, as usual, Bosch sets his vivid imagination to work picturing the world beyond our own. The most captivating of these images is the Ascent of the Blessed, which shows us the infinite white light that leads to paradise. To our modern eyes, the image cannot but remind us of some space exploration movie. We have used the same sort of image to represent portals to other dimensions or accelerations to speeds beyond light. Bosch proves himself, once again, to be one of the modern age’s visual godfathers.

The museum has works by Titian and Tintoretto, of course. But a more elusive Venetian painter is also on display: Giorgione. A few years older than Titian, Giorgione is normally regarded as one of the great innovators of Venetian painting. The trouble is that it has historically been difficult to definitively attribute works to him. Indeed, an air of mystery seems to surround Giorgione, which is apparent in his painting The Tempest. It shows a young woman suckling a baby, while a traveller looks on with a curious expression. In the background we can see an Italian village, while a storm rages overhead (thus the title).

The execution is quite beautiful indeed. Its meaning, however, is difficult to decipher. To my eye it looks like a depiction of the “rest on the flight from Egypt,” when the Virgin Mary escaped Egypt with the infant Jesus, and stopped to suckle him on the road. But the woman—almost completely naked, and staring rather boldly at the viewer—is unlike any other depicting of the  Virgin. Contemporaries referred to her as a “gypsy” and the man as a “shepherd,” but art historians, straining for cohesion, have proposed obscure stories from classical mythology and fanciful allegorical meanings. Yet none of these interpretations sheds light on the particular power of this painting, in which the heavy and humid atmosphere of a storm, the grey, shadowy light through the clouds, is so palpable. I can see why it was Lord Byron’s favorite.

I cannot leave the museum without mentioning, if not the greatest, than the painter who did the most to show Venice to the world: Canaletto. This was not his real name, of course; he was called “little canal” because his paintings were so often focused on Venice’s many waterways. His paintings are consistently impressive, capturing the city with photographic accuracy. Personally I cannot fathom how much time it would take in order to create such a scrupulously detailed image. But in a world before photography, this was the only way that wealthy nobles could catch a glimpse of the city from afar. Canaletto was more than a mere technician of monumental patience, however. His paintings have a very charming, wistful emotion running through them, a kind of atmospheric joy. They are absorbing and refreshing works.

My next stop was another church: Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari (normally just called the “Frari”). After St. Mark’s itself, this is perhaps the most important church building in Venice. If you only saw the exterior, however, you would be excused for not thinking so. The basilica’s brick façade and relatively plain decoration do not make it stand out in the context of Venice. Nevertheless, it is certainly worth a visit. From the inside, the basilica looks like unlike any church building I have seen. It is an incongruous mixture of dark materials and open windows, of plain surfaces and rich decorations. The entire building does not come together as an organic whole; rather it seems like a warehouse for art and monuments. But it is a beautiful warehouse.

Among the artwork, the best may be the large-scale paintings by Titian. I found the Pesero Madonna especially beautiful for the shimmering effect of the brightly-colored robes. Titian is also responsible for the painting in the main altarpiece, a wonderful depiction of the Assumption of the Virgin. But what really caught my attention were the funerary monuments. The Frari is the resting place of many Doges, as well as some of the city’s most gifted artists. Titian himself is buried here, commemorated by an enormous marble sculpture by Antonio Canova—erected centuries after the artist’s death. Canova himself (arguably the greatest neoclassical sculptor) is buried here, in a stunning pyramidal cenotaph—my favorite work in the whole basilica. I also found myself captivated by the monument to the Doge Giovanni Pesaro (not the same Pesaro as in Titian’s painting). This gruesome monument features black skeletons emerging between African servants, who support the monument’s upper half. It is disturbing for many reasons.

It is worth mentioning another of Venice’s many basilicas, Santi Giovanni e Paolo. In appearance it is quite similar to the Frari, and it likewise is the final resting place of many Doges. However, I think the most impressive thing to see is not inside, but next to this old structure: the equestrian statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni. This was done by Andrea del Verrochio, most famous for being Leonardo da Vinci’s mentor. But he was a great artist in his own right, as this sculpture proves. It is really a marvelous work: the horse is rippling with muscle, and confidently striding forward. The condottiero is both heroic and ruthless: his face is ugly and yet compelling, and his pose one of unquestionable command. It is one of the finest depictions of a military leader.

After all of this glorious art and all of these magnificent monuments, my last stop is rather depressing: the Venetian Ghetto. This is the neighborhood where Jews were forced to live for hundreds of years. In fact, the word “ghetto” itself comes from this area of Venice. The derivation of the word remains rather difficult to pin down. It may come from a German word for street (many of the Venetian Jews spoke a German dialect), or a diminutive form of an Italian word (“borghetto,” or little town), or perhaps from a Hebrew word. We visited the Venetian Ghetto on my school trip, back in 2007; and I still remember our guide explaining that the buildings were taller in this area because the Jews did not have room to build anywhere else.

The Venetian Ghetto is split into two sections, the Ghetto Nuovo and the Ghetto Vecchio (the “new” and “old” ghettos), though this classification refers to when the area was used as foundries, not as a place of Jewish residence. (Indeed, one hypothesis for the word “ghetto” is that it comes from the Italian “getto,” which means to pour molten metal into a mold. Many foundries existed in this area.) Two bridges connect this part of Venice to the surrounding area; and Jews had to be sure to return to the ghetto before the nightly curfew, or face a stiff fine.

One of the two bridges leading into the Venetian Ghetto

Even in my brief time walking through the ghetto, I noticed that there was still a significant Jewish presence here. There are several synagogues, cultural centers, and even a kosher restaurant. There is also several monument to the victims of the holocaust. Fortunately, the Jewish community largely escaped Nazi percesution in Venice, and this was thanks to the heroism of Giuseppe Jona. Jona was a Jewish physician who, like many Jews, was deprived of his profession during the Nazi occupation. He took it upon himself to stay in Venice and to help organize the Venetian Jewish community. In 1943 the Nazis ordered him to help them locate the Jews in the city. Instead of cooperating, Jona burned every document in his possession that could be used, and took his own life. He is memorialized in the Venetian Ghetto, and certainly deserves it.

As I walked through this distinct corner of the city—so strangely marked by tragedy and hope—I reflected on the long history of anti-Semitism in Europe. The Nazis were merely the last and worst in a long line of Jew-haters. Even great works of art are marred by this sentiment. The most obvious example of this is, perhaps, Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, which reflects many of the worst stereotypes of Jews. (Because Shylock is so compelling a character, some have argued that the play is not actually anti-semitic; however, I think the work is incoherent if you consider Shylock the real hero rather than, as I believe Shakespeare intended, the villain.) It is depressing to think that even a man with as free a mind as Shakespeare’s could not entirely escape prejudice. But prejudice runs very deep. The ramshackle buildings of the Venetian Ghetto are a testimony to this lasting hatred and also to the community’s lasting resilience.

This does it for my return to Venice. But listing the monuments does not do justice to the real experience of visiting the city. Venice is one gigantic work of art. Virtually every angle of the old city is picturesque—from the impressive works of architecture to the forgotten corners of run-down buildings. Venice is palpably an abandoned city, a floating relic, which gives it a kind of romantic charm. But the city is also refreshing—for the ocean breeze that blows through it, for the ever-present sight of water. Admittedly, for all of its beauty, Venice does lack the most charming part of any city: street-life. I cannot say it is my favorite European destination. Even so, the memories Venice evokes—of awkward pubescence, of my first window into a wider world—will always make the city special for me.

Before my flight home, I found a café and sat outside sipping grappa, the strong Italian brandy. I have to admit that I actually had no idea what grappa was. I thought it was some sort of wine, and I winced when I took my first taste (I normally do not drink liquor). Even so, sitting outside in the sunshine, sipping on this flaming beverage, I could not help but feel rather satisfied with the way that my life had turned out. When I visited Venice in 2007, I could never have guessed that I would be living in Europe ten years later.

If you know anything about Venice, you will know that this post has left out virtually everything beyond the city center itself. There are many smaller islands that are also worth visiting. But that will have to wait for another post.

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Letters from Spain #20: The Spanish Civil War

Letters from Spain #20: The Spanish Civil War

Here is the final episode of season 2 of my podcast series about life in Spain. This one takes a look at history.

This is the link to the Apple Podcast:

And here is the video on YouTube:

See the transcript below:


As I mentioned in my last podcast, it’s pretty hard to do a podcast about Spanish life when everything has been turned upside down. Normally I take inspiration from what I can see in any given week, or from a recent trip. But I’ve just been seeing the inside of my apartment and, occasionally, of the nearby grocery stores. However, I can’t leave this podcast season incomplete. After all, I just have one episode to go to make a nice, round, even twenty episodes. And since it’s hard to talk about day-to-day Spanish life during the coronavirus times, I thought it would be good to revisit the last time in Spain’s history when daily life was so completely turned upside down.

I’m talking, of course, about the Civil War of 1936-39. Of course, in this podcast I can’t hope to do a real thorough history of this war. If you want that, there are plenty of great books on the market. If I tried to even list the major writers on the war, I’d be here all night. In fact, the Spanish Civil War is only behind World War II in the number of books dedicated to the subject. That is pretty crazy, considering that far more people died in World War I or even the Vietnam War. But the conflict has an enduring fascination, for quite a few reasons.

So here’s the basic background. Spain came out of the 19th century in pretty bad shape. The Napoleonic invasions, in the early 1800s, successfully introduced the idea of constitutional government into the country. After that, things were never quite the same for the Spanish monarchy. There were tensions everywhere: between the monarchy and the church, between the church and the people, between advocates for different branches of the royal family, between the rich and the poor, between liberals, monarchists, carlists, and anarchists, and that’s just the beginning. Spain was steadily losing its overseas colonies, a process that ended in the humiliating defeat in the Spanish-American war in 1898, when the decadence of Spain’s power finally sunk in for a lot of people.

In the early 20th century, Spain was economically backward. Industrialization had come late to the country, and for the most part hadn’t come at all. Spain was still mostly agricultural. Not only that, but the country was highly decentralized, as it is now. Each region had its own organization, its own politics, and many regions had their own languages. In the places where industrialization had taken hold, like in Barcelona and Asturias, organized labor had become a powerful force. Meanwhile, in an attempt to get rid of the corrupt and inefficient government, Miguel Primo de Rivera seized power in a military coup in 1923. (Spain has had a lot of military coups.) He ruled for about seven years, until he too had to renounce power. By then there was popular support for democracy. The king absconded, and the Second Republic was born. 

The Second Republic survived for five tense years, 1931 to 1936. As you can imagine, democratic government didn’t exactly heal the rifts in Spanish society. Political tensions spilled into violence all too often. There were street fights, riots, brutality between bosses and workers, and even a violent uprising in Asturias (which was put down by Franco). Basically nobody was satisfied. There were conservative parties, fascist parties, liberal parties, and anarchists and socialists who thought the entire system was broken—which it undoubtedly was. An unsteady and ineffective center-left coalition was in control in 1936. But that was just the beginning.

The military had secretly begun planning an uprising to seize control, as they had done many times in the past. The spark that set off the conflict was the assassination of José Calvo Sotelo, a conservative politician, who was killed by the bodyguards of the socialist party leader. Shortly thereafter, all around the country, military units attempted to seize control. If the plan had gone perfectly, there would have been no war. But it didn’t go as plan—at least not everywhere. In the weeks following the start of the uprising, on July 17, the rebel forces controlled about a third of the country. This included most of Spain’s north, a lot of the center, and a pocket of the southern coast. The government maintained control of Madrid, as well as the prosperous eastern coast—including Valencia and Barcelona.

At this point, the government didn’t seem to be in such a bad position. After all, they had more fighting men. They had the big cities and the big factories. They had the money. Most of the areas that the rebels conquered had a low population density and were mainly agricultural. If no outside party had gotten involved, then I think it fairly probable that the rebellion would have been defeated. But of course that was not to be. Spain, instead, became the laboratory of Europe, where all of the newly radical ideologies came to clash for the first time.

Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany came to the aide of the rebels, while Stalin’s Soviet Russia offered supplies to the government forces. The rest of the world’s governments, however, wanted no part in the conflict. They were understandably wary of being dragged into another world war, after the terrible experience of the last one (though of course they couldn’t avoid it in the end). So England, France, and the United States signed a non-intervention pact, which forbid them to give or even to sell weapons to the Spanish government.

Meanwhile, people from all over the world began to pour into the country. There were lots of Italian and German soldiers, of course. (My girlfriend’s grandfather was one of these Italian soldiers, which is why she has an Italian last name.) On the Republican side, there were volunteers from all over—Ireland, England, the United States, France, and even some Germans and Italians. For the most part, these were inexperienced, idealistic young men who wanted a chance to fight against fasicsm. George Orwell was one of them. They formed the famous International Brigades.

Needless to say, the idealism and heroism of young volunteers wasn’t enough to stop German tanks and fighter planes and bombs. Simply put, the Republic soon found itself outgunned. Meanwhile, the organization of the rebel side soon consolidated under Francisco Franco, who was relatively young at the time, but who made a name for himself by leading the crack African troops in Spain’s wars to suppress its colonial uprisings in North Africa. (In fact, Franco had been sent to the Canary Islands right before the war, but he managed to return with his North African troops.) The Republican side, on the other hand, did not consolidate so easily. There were many different left-wing parties which had their own organizations, and which often did not agree. When George Orwell finally fled Spain, it wasn’t from the fascists, but from the Stalinists which had seized control in Barcelona.

In a series of bloody battles, the rebel forces gradually wore down the Republicans. Life for the civilian population had also taken a dark turn. There were summary executions on both sides of the lines. Neighbors denounced neighbors, and people were taken from their houses, shot, and buried in anonymous graves. The famous poet, Federico García Lorca, was killed, as well as countless others. To this day, Spain is the country with the most mass graves in the world, after Cambodia. Hundreds of thousands still remain buried across the country, many still undiscovered.

To make a very long and sad story short, the rebels won. Franco seized power in 1939, and he didn’t give it up until his death in 1975. His rule effectively kept the country poor and backward for another thirty years. To this day, the people who grew up in the opening years of his reign—people who are senior citizens now—are very noticeably shorter than their children and grandchildren, largely because of the widespread malnutrition in those years. After Franco’s very timely demise, Spain did finally make the transition to democracy, in no small part thanks to King Juan Carlos I, whom Franco had appointed as his successor. The Spanish constitution was voted into being in 1978, thus inaugurating modern Spain.

As you can see, Spain has historically had a lot of tensions running through it. And the same is true today. Spain still has regional tensions, most notably in Catalonia and the Basque Country. And it is still difficult to talk about the Civil War. Franco’s Spain didn’t end that long ago. Many people alive remember it well. Some people actively supported it. There are still living veterans of the Spanish Civil War, on both sides. In any case, Civil Wars are just inherently painful—the sense of betrayal and distrust is everywhere. Even though America’s Civil War happened a long time before Spain’s, it still causes controversy.It will be interesting to see how this current crisis affects Spain. Maybe nothing will really change, and we’ll all go back to normal. Maybe it will strengthen xenophobia and the populist right party, Vox. Or maybe it will engender a new sense of solidarity and unity in its citizens. I really have no idea. Spanish politics, as ever, are difficult to predict. But Spanish culture is a different matter. Spanish culture managed to emerge from a century of conflict, a bloody civil war, and a repressive dictatorship, and I know that Spanish culture will emerge from this crisis, too. It’s only a matter of time.

Review: The Great Influenza

Review: The Great Influenza

The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History by John M. Barry

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

People write about war. They write about the Holocaust. They write about the horrors that people inflict on people. Apparently they forget the horrors that nature inflicts on people, the horrors that make humans least significant.

Like so many people nowadays, I have been scrambling to wrap my mind around the current pandemic. This led me, naturally, to the last major worldwide outbreak: the 1918 influenza. I have a distant connection to this disease. My great-grandfather (after whom I was named) was drafted out of Cornell’s veterinary school to work as a nurse in a temporary hospital set up for flu victims. I read the letters he sent to his mother, describing the experience.

John Barry’s account of this virulent flu is sobering to say the least. In a matter of months, the flu spread across the world and caused between 50 and 100 million deaths. More American soldiers died from this flu than from the entire Vietnam War. In most places the mortality rate hovered around two percent, but it struck much more fiercely elsewhere. In the Fiji Islands, 14 percent of its population succumbed; in Western Samoa, twenty-two percent; and in Labrador, a third of the population died. And because the disease mainly struck young people—people in their twenties and thirties—thousands were left orphans.

Barry’s book is not, however, simply a record of deaths. He sets the historical scene by giving a brief overview of contemporary medicine. In the early 1900s, modern medicine was just coming into its own. After centuries in which it was thought that bad air (“miasma”) caused illness, and in which bleeding was the most popular “cure,” researchers were beginning to discover viruses and bacteria, and were beginning to understand how the immune system combats these germs. Major public health initiatives were just getting underway. The John Hopkins School of Public Health had been founded, and the Rockefeller Institute was making new types of research possible. It was not the Dark Ages.

The other major piece of historical context is, of course, the First World War. Undoubtedly this played a major role in the epidemic. Not only did troop movements help to spread the disease, but press censorship virtually guaranteed that communities were unprepared. Barry notes how newspapers all across the country consistently downplayed the danger, which ironically only further increased panic. (The pandemic is sometimes called the “Spanish flu,” because the press in neutral Spain was uncensored, and so reported freely on the disease.) The war effort overrode all of the warnings of disease experts; and by the time the disease struck many communities, most of the available doctors and nurses had been sent to the military.

Barry’s narration mainly focuses on the United States. Partly this is because this is where he believes the disease originated (there are several competing theories), partly this is because the disease’s impact in Europe was overshadowed by the war, and partly this is simply because of the amount of easily available sources. I did wish he had spent more time on other countries—especially on India, which suffered horribly. The sections on science—both on the history of science, and summarizing what we know now about flu viruses—were in general quite strong. What was lacking, for me, were sections on the cultural impact of the disease.

But perhaps there are not so many. As Barry notes, no major novelist of the time—Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Lawrence—mentioned the pandemic in their works. I have noticed the same thing myself. I cannot recall a single mention of this flue in biographies and autobiographies of people who lived through the pandemic, such as John Maynard Keynes or even John D. Rockefeller (who personally funded research on the disease). This is perhaps understandable in Europe, where the deaths from the pandemic were swallowed up in news of the war; but it seems odd elsewhere. What is more, the pandemic did not seem to exacerbate existing racial or class tensions. In many ways the virus seems to have swept through communities and then disappeared from memory.

(Barry does have one fairly controversial claim in the book: that Woodrow Wilson contracted the flu while negotiating the treaty of Versailles, and that it caused him to capitulate to Clemenceau’s demands. If this is true, it would be a major historical consequence.)

It is illuminating to compare the 1918 pandemic to the current crisis. There are many similarities. Both are caused by easily transmissible viruses, and both spread around the world. The H1N1 flu virus and the SARS-CoV-2 virus both infect the respiratory system, causing fever, coughing, and in severe cases pneumonia and ARDS (acute respiratory distress syndrome). In both cases, no vaccine is available and no known treatment is effective. As in 1918, doctors are turning desperately to other therapies and medicines—those developed for other, unrelated diseases like malaria—and as in 1918, researchers are publishing at a frantic pace, with no time for peer review. Police are again wearing masks, hospitals are again overrun, and officials are struggling to catch up with the progress of the virus.

But of course, there are many important differences, too. One is the disease itself. The 1918 flu was almost certainly worse than the novel coronavirus. It was more deadly in general, and it killed younger people in far greater numbers—which resulted in a much bigger dip in life expectancy. (Young people died because their immune systems overreacted in what is called a “cytokine storm.”) The H1N1 flu also had a far shorter incubation period. This meant that the gap between infection and the first symptoms was short—often within 24 hours—and patients deteriorated far more quickly. Barry describes people being struck down within mere hours of showing their first symptoms. The challenge of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, however, is the very long incubation period—potentially up to two weeks—in which people may be infectious and yet not show symptoms. This makes it very difficult to keep track of who has it.

The explanation for this difference lies in the nature of the virus. A virus is basically a free-floating piece of genetic code incased in a protein shell. It needs to highjack animal cells in order to reproduce; and it infiltrates cells using proteins that link up with structures on the cells’ surface. Once inside, the virus begins to replicate until the cell literally bursts, spilling virus into adjacent cells, which in turn get infected, and which in turn burst. Each burst can release thousands of copies. The rate at which the virus replicates within the cells determine the incubation period (between first infection and first symptoms), and coronaviruses replicate significantly more slowly in animal cells, thus explaining the slower onset of symptoms. Their greater speed also means that flu viruses change faster, undergoing antigenic drift and antigenic shift, meaning that new strains of the virus are inevitable. The novel coronavirus is (likely) more stable.

Another potential difference is seasonality. Flu viruses come in seasonal waves. The 1918 virus struck first in spring, receded in summer, and then returned in autumn and one last time in the winter of 1919. Every wave hit very quickly—and then left just as quickly. Most cities experienced a sharp drop-off in cases after about six weeks of the first patients. The seasonality of the 1918 flu was partly a result of the genetic drift just mentioned, as the different waves of this flu were all at least subtly different strains of the virus. Atmospheric conditions—humidity and temperature—also presumably make some difference in the flu virus’s spread. COVID-19 may exhibit a very different pattern. It may, perhaps, be less affected by atmospheric conditions; and if it mutates and reproduces more slowly, it may linger around for one long wave rather than several short ones. This is just my speculation.

Well, so much for the virus. How about us? The world has changed a lot since 1918. However, not all of those changes have made us better prepared. Fast and cheap air travel allowed the virus to spread more quickly. And economic globalization did not help, either, as both medicines and medical equipment are often produced overseas and then imported, thus rendering countries more vulnerable to supply-chain disruption than in the past. As we witness countries and states compete for supplies, this vulnerability is very apparent.

But of course we have many advantages, too. Many of the deaths caused by the flu and the coronavirus are not from the virus infection itself, but because the virus renders us vulnerable to secondary infections by bacteria, causing pneumonia. Antibiotics (which did not exist in 1918) can save many lives. Another advantage is medical care. The most severe patients of both epidemics were struck with ARDS, a condition with an almost 100% mortality rate for those who do not receive intensive medical care (using a ventilator machine). In 1918 they were able to administer oxygen, but far less effectively than we can. Even so, even with the best intensive care, the survival rate of ARDS is between 40-60%. And our ability to administer intensive care is quite limited. The ventilator shortage has become a global emergency in itself, as hospitals are overrun.

Medical science has also advanced considerably. Now we can isolate the virus (which they could not do in 1918), test individuals for it, and work on a vaccine. However, testing has so far been unable to keep up with the virus. And the most optimistic estimate of an available vaccine is in a year. Arguably a much bigger advantage is information technology. The press is not censored—so citizens have a much better idea of the risks involved—and experts can communicate with each other in real time. We can coordinate large-scale societal responses to the pandemic, and can potentially even use technology to track individual cases. As we come to better understand the virus, we will be able to use more sophisticated statistical methods to understand its progress. None of this was possible in 1918.

One thing that we will have to contend with—something that is hardly even mentioned in Barry’s book—is the economic toll that this virus will take. Even in the ugliest days of the 1918 pandemic, governments did not require businesses or restaurants to close. War preparations went on unabated. (In 1918, after years of slaughter and at the height of the war, life was simply cheaper than it is now.) Our societal response will likely mitigate the health crisis but will create a secondary economic crisis that may ultimately be more difficult to solve. The solutions to this crisis could be our most lasting legacies. Already Spain’s government is talking of adopting universal basic income. Though of course it is far too early to predict anything with confidence.

Comparisons with 1918 are partly depressing, and partly uplifting. Depressing, because we knew this was possible and did not prepare. Depressing, because so many governments have gone through the same cycle of early denial and disorganized response as they did back then. Uplifting, because we do know much more than we did. Uplifting, because—after our early fumbles—we are finally coordinating as a global community to deal with the crisis. Perhaps most uplifting of all, despite some ugly stories here and there, the crisis has revealed a basic sense of solidarity in the face of a universal threat. Hopefully, unlike 1918, we will not do our best to forget about this one.

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Review: A Manual of Greek Mathematics

Review: A Manual of Greek Mathematics

A Manual of Greek Mathematics by Thomas L. Heath

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In the case of mathematics, it is the Greek contribution which it is most essential to know, for it was the Greeks who first made mathematics a science.

As a supplement to my interest in the history of science, I figured that I ought to take a look into the history of mathematics, since the two are quite intimately related. This naturally led me to the Greeks and to Sir Thomas L. Heath, who remains the most noteworthy translator, divulgator, and commentator in English eighty years after his death. This book is likely the best single volume you can get on the subject, as it covers all of the major mathematicians in some detail while giving a complete overview.

It is also reasonably accessible (“reasonably” being the operative word). Certainly it is no work of popular math in the modern sense; it is not pleasure reading, and Heath assumes a certain amount of knowledge on the reader’s part. A thorough knowledge of algebra and geometry is assumed, and a few words in ancient Greek are not translated. What is more, large sections of the book are essentially extended summaries and explications of Greek treatises, which makes them almost impossible to read without the original text alongside. Personally I would certainly have appreciated more spoon-feeding, as it was quite difficult for me to prevent my eyes from glazing over.

The book is divided primarily by subject-matter and secondarily by chronology. Heath introduces us to notation, fractions, and techniques of calculation, and then on to arithmetic. Geometry, of course, dominates the book, as it was the primarily form of Greek mathematical thought. Heath summarizes the contributions to geometry by Pythagoras and his followers, and the scattered mathematicians we know of in the years between Thales and Euclid. Once Euclid appears, he writes his famous Elements, which encapsulates the entire subject and which rendered many previous works obsolete. After Euclid we come to the divine Archimedes and the great Apollonius, who put the capstone on the tradition. Ptolemy (among others) made great advances in trigonometry, while Diophantus made strides in algebra (as well as inspired Fermat).

Heath’s account of these mathematicians is largely internal, meaning that he is focused on the growth of their ideas rather than anything external to the science. Reading this convinced me—as if further evidence was needed—that I do not have the moral fiber or intellectual temper to appreciate mathematics. Heath writes admiringly of the works of Euclid and Archimedes, finding them not only brilliant but beautiful. While I can normally appreciate the brilliance, the beauty normally escapes me. Ratios, volumes, lines, and equations simply do not make my heart beat.

Indeed, the questions that I find most fascinating are those that are hardly touched upon in this book. Most important, perhaps, is this: What aspect of a culture or a society is conducive to the development of pure mathematics? Though claims of Greek specialness or superiority seem antiqued at best nowadays, it is true that the Greeks made outstanding contributions to science and math; while the Roman contribution to those fields—at least on the theoretical side—is close to nil. The mathematics of Ancient Egypt amount to techniques for practical calculations. Admittedly, as Otto Neugebauer wrote about in his Exact Sciences of Antiquity, the Babylonians had quite advanced mathematics, allowing them to solve complex polynomials; they also had impressive tabulations of the heavenly motions.

Even so, it was the Greeks who created science and math in the modern sense, by focusing on generality. That is, rather than collect data or develop techniques for specific problems, the Greeks were intent on proving theorems that would hold in every case. This also characterizes their philosophy and science: a rigorous search after an absolute truth. This cultural orientation towards the truth in the most general, absolute form seems quite historically special. It arose in one fairly limited area, and lasted for only a few centuries. Most striking is the Greek disdain of the practical—something that runs from Pythagoras, through Plato, to Archimedes.

Of the top of my head, here are some possible factors for this cultural development. The Greek economy was based on slavery, so that citizens often could afford to disdain the practical. What is more, the Greek political model was based on the city-state—a small, close-knit community with limited expansionist aims and thus with limited need for great infrastructure or novel weapons. The relative lack of economic, political, or military pressure perhaps freed intellectuals to pursue wholly theoretical projects, with standards that arose from pure logic rather than necessity. Maybe this seems plausible; but I am sure many other societies fit this description, not just the Greeks. The development of culture is something that we do not fully understand, to say the least.

This has taken me quite far afield. In sum, this book is an excellent place to start—either by itself, or as a companion to the original Greek works—if you are interested in learning something about this astounding intellectual tradition. That the Greeks could get so far using geometry alone—that is, without variables or equations—is a testament to human genius and persistence.

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Quotes & Commentary #67: Thucydides

Quotes & Commentary #67: Thucydides

Not many days after their arrival in Attica the plague first began to show itself among the Athenians. It was said that it had broken out in many places previously in the neighbourhood of Lemnos and elsewhere; but a pestilence of such extent and mortality was nowhere remembered. Neither were the physicians at first of any service, ignorant as they were of the proper way to treat it, but they died themselves the most thickly, as they visited the sick most often; nor did any human art succeed any better. Supplications in the temples, divinations, and so forth were found equally futile, till the overwhelming nature of the disaster at last put a stop to them altogether.


The plague of Athens is one of the most famous epidemics in history. It struck the city-state hard, and played a decisive role in Athens’ loss to Sparta in the Peloponnesian War. The historian Thucydides, who suffered the disease himself, gives a clinical description of the symptoms. Many are rather garden variety: headache, sore throat, a bad cough, diarrhea, and vomiting. Apart from this, victims suffered ulcers on the skin, and a fever so bad that people tore off their clothes. Thucydides also describes an unquenchable thirst. Tens of thousands died—in a city that was not, by modern standards, especially big—including the great statesman, Pericles; and it created ripples in society that lasted for many years after the plague ended.

(It is still unknown what germ caused the Athenian plague. One theory is typhus.)

It is impossible to make any sort of prediction when it comes to the novel coronavirus. In the beginning, I saw much commentary in the news criticizing China’s heavy-handed approach to dealing with the virus. Back then, most of the political commentary centered on whether an authoritarian regime could adequately cope. Now, Western governments are not looking very good by comparison. The outbreak has caught the leaders off guard, and there were many weeks of downplaying the threat before serious action was taken. And, in the end, Europe will likely have to enact many of the same measures as were put in place in China.

People of any political persuasion can find grist for their mills. I have already mentioned the criticism of China’s heavy-handed approach. Marxists are using the shortages at supermarkets as evidence of the shortcomings of capitalism; while conservatives point to the government’s inadequate response as evidence of bureaucratic incompetence. Trump, as usual, has said many false or misleading things, and the economic downturn caused by the virus could possibly hurt his chances for re-election. Bernie Sanders, meanwhile, cites the virus as a good argument for universal healthcare. And so on.

Certainly some of these perspectives have merit. And there is plenty of blame to go around. Judging from the state of things here in Spain, the government was unprepared for the virus, even though they had weeks to observe its progress in China and then Italy. Speaking for myself, the outbreak has been an exercise in humility, since in the past few weeks I consistently downplayed its importance and severity. A week ago I was feeling totally secure, as if my normal life could not be affected. So I do have some sympathy for everyone who underestimated the danger. (On the other hand, the people in power are the ones who are supposed to know, of course.)

To continue my exercise in humility, I think I will refrain from making any definite predictions about the weeks and months to come. There are too many variables. It is unknown how long these measures will have to be enacted; and it is equally unclear exactly what effect this will have on the economy. Further down the line, we cannot predict if, how, or to what extent the crisis will affect the political situation. Big events like September 11 and the 2008 financial crisis had long-lasting political aftershocks, still reverberating today. Will the coronavirus be decisive in the 2020 American presidential elections? Will Spain’s socialist government lose credibility?

The plague of Athens was a major turning point in the history of Ancient Greece. Without Pericles, and reeling from the depopulation, Athens lost to Sparta, which henceforth became the leading power in the Peninsula. The Golden Age of Ancient Greece thus came to an end. How might history have turned out differently if Athens had won instead? Such counterfactuals are impossible to definitively answer. Now, all we can really do is sit in our homes and wait. But perhaps we can take comfort in the fact that, despite all of our missteps, we are far better positioned to deal with the coronavirus than the Athenians were ready to deal with their plague (whatever it was). For one thing, we understand how diseases spread; and thus each of us can do our part to stop it.

Review: The Works of Archimedes

Review: The Works of Archimedes

The Works of Archimedes by Archimedes

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In fact, how many theorems in geometry which have seemed at first impracticable are in time successfully worked out!

Many of the most influential and ingenious books ever written possess the strange quality of being simultaneously exhilarating and quite boring. Unless you are among that rare class of people who enjoy a mathematical demonstration more than a symphony, this book will likely possess this odd duality. I admit this is the case for me. Reading this book was a constant exercise in fighting the tendency for my eyes to glaze over. But I am happy to report that it is worth the trouble.

Archimedes lived in the 3rd century BCE, somewhat after Euclid, in Syracuse on the island of Sicily. Apart from this, not much else can be said with certainty about the man. But he is the subject of many memorable stories. Everybody knows, for example, the story of his taking a bath and then running through the streets naked, shouting “Eureka!” We also hear of Archimedes using levers to move massive boats, and claiming that he could move the whole earth if he just had a place to stand on. Even his death is the subject of legend. After keeping the invading Romans at bay using ingenious weapons—catapults, cranes, and even mirrors to set ships afire—Archimedes was killed by a Roman soldier, too preoccupied with a mathematical problem to care for his own well-being.

True or not, good stories tend to accumulate around figures who are worthy of our attention. And Archimedes is certainly worthy. Archimedes did not leave us any extended works, but instead a collection of treatises on several topics. The central concern in these different works—the keystone to Archimedes’s method—is measurement. Archimedes set his brilliant mind to measuring things that many have concerned impossible to reckon. His work, then, is an almost literal demonstration of the human mind’s ability to scan, delimit, and calculate things far outside the scope of our experience.

As a simple example of this, Archimedes established the ratios between the surface areas and volumes of spheres and cylinders—an accomplishment the mathematician was so proud of that he apparently asked for it to be inscribed on his tombstone. Cicero describes coming across this tombstone in a dilapidated state, so perhaps this story is true. Archimedes also set to work on giving an accurate estimation of the value of pi, which he accomplished by inscribing and circumscribing 96-sided polygons around a circle, and calculating their perimeters. If this sounds relatively simple to you, keep in mind that Archimedes was operating without variables or equations, in the wholly-geometrical style of the Greeks.

Archimedes’s works on conoids, spheroids, and spirals show a similar preoccupation with measurement. What all of these figures have in common is, of course, that they are composed of curved lines. How to calculate the areas contained by such figures is not at all obvious. To do so, Archimedes had to invent a procedure that was essentially equivalent to the modern integral calculus. That is, Archimedes used a method of exhaustion, inscribing and circumscribing ever-more figures composed of straight lines, until an arbitrarily small gap remained between his approximations and what he was attempting to measure. To employ such a method in an age before analytic geometry had even been invented is, I think, an accomplishment difficult to fully appreciate. When the calculus was finally invented, about two thousand years later, it was by men who were “standing on the shoulders of giants.” In his time, Archimedes had few shoulders to stand on.

The most literal example of Archimedes’s concern with measurement is his short work, The Sand Reckoner. In this, he attempts to calculate the number of grains of sand that would be needed to fill up the whole universe. We owe to this bizarre little exercise our knowledge of Aristarchus of Samos, the ancient astronomer who argued that the sun is positioned at the center of the universe. Archimedes mentions Aristarchus because a heliocentric universe would have to be considerably bigger than a geocentric one (since there is no parallax observed of the stars); and Archimedes wanted to calculate the biggest universe possible. He arrives at a number is quite literally astronomical. The point of the exercise, however, is not in the specific number arrived at, but in formulating a way of writing very large numbers. (This was not easy in the ancient Greek numeral system.) Thus, we partly owe to Archimedes our concept of orders of magnitude.

Archimedes’s contributions to natural science are just as significant as his work in pure mathematics. Indeed, one can make the case that Archimedes is the originator of our entire approach to the natural sciences; since it was he who most convincingly demonstrated that physical relationships could be described in purely mathematical form. In his work on levers, for example, Archimedes shows how the center of gravity can be found, and how simple principles can explain the mechanical operation of counterbalancing weights. Contrast this with the approach taken by Aristotle in his Physics, who uses wholly qualitative descriptions and categories to give a causal explanation of physical motion. Archimedes, by contrast, pays no attention to cause whatever, but describes the physical relationship in quantitative terms. This is the exact approach taken by Galileo and Newton.

Arguably, the greatest masterpiece in this collection is On Floating Bodies. Here, Archimedes describes a physical relationship that still bears his name: the relationship of density and shape to buoyancy. While everyone knows thpe story of Archimedes and the crown, it is possible that Archimedes’s attention was turned to this problem while working on the design for an enormous ship, the Syracusia, built to be given as a present to Ptolemy III of Egypt. This would explain Book II, which is devoted to finding the resting position of several different parabolas (more or less the shape of a ship’s hull) in a fluid. The mathematical analysis is truly stunning—so very far beyond what any of his contemporaries were capable of that it can seem even eerie in its sophistication. Even today, it would take a skilled physicist to calculate how a given parabola would rest when placed in a fluid. To do so in ancient times was simply extraordinary.

Typical of ancient Greek mathematics, the results in Archimedes’s works are given in such a way that it is difficult to tell how he originally arrived at these conclusions. Surely, he did not follow the steps of the final proof as it is presented. But then how did he do it? This question was answered quite unexpectedly, with the discovery of the Archimedes Palimpsest in the early 1900s. This was a medieval prayer book that contained the remains of two previously unknown works of Archimedes. (Parchment was so expensive that scribes often scraped old books off to write new ones; but the faded impression of the original work is still visible on the manuscript.) One of these works was the Ostomachion, a collection of different shapes that can be recombined to form a square in thousands of different ways (and it was the task of the mathematician to determine how many).

The other was the Method, which is Archimedes’s account of how he made his geometrical discoveries. Apparently, he did so by clever use of weights and balances, imagining how different shapes could be made to balance one another. His method of exhaustion was also a crucial component, since it allowed Archimedes to calculate the areas of irregular shapes. A proper Greek, Archimedes considered mechanical means to be intellectually unsatisfactory, and so re-cast the results obtained using this method into pure geometrical form for his other treatises. If it were not for the serendipitous discovery of this manuscript, and the dedicated work of many scholars, this insight into his method would have been forever lost to history.

As I hope you can see, Archimedes was a genius among geniuses, a thinker of the rarest caliber. His works are exhilarating demonstrations of the power of the human mind. And yet, they are also—let us admit it—not the most exciting things to read, at least for most of us mere mortals. Speaking for myself, I would need a patient expert as a guide if I wanted to understand any of these works in detail. Even then, it would be hard work. Indeed, I have to admit that, on the whole, I find mathematicians to be a strange group. For the life of me I cannot get excited about the ratio of a sphere to a cylinder—something that Archimedes saw as the culmination of his entire life.

Archimedes is the very embodiment of the man absorbed in impractical pursuits—so obsessed with the world of spirals and curves that he could not even avoid a real sword thrust his way. And yet, if subsequent history has shown anything, it is that these apparently impractical, frigid, and abstract pursuits can reveal deep truths about the universe we live in—much deeper than the high-flown speculations of our philosophers. I think this lesson is worth suffering through a little boredom.

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NY Museums: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

NY Museums: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

This is part of a series on New York City museums. For the other posts, see below:

In a city full of famous art museums, the Metropolitan is undoubtedly the queen. The institution is a behemoth. With a collection containing millions of objects—objects which come from every corner of the world, from ancient times to the present day—the museum has nary a rival in the world for range. And the objects comprising this encyclopedic collection are, inevitably, of the finest quality that money can buy. By now I have seen enough of the great European museums to say confidently that the Met can compete with any of them.

The museum was conceived as a kind of sister institution to the American Museum of Natural History. It was an age when the rich and educated sought to “civilize” the less privileged. Both museums are located near Central Park, a place which itself was designed as a civilizing project—a kind of pastoral refuge from the ills of city life, where the people could learn to appreciate more refined recreational activities: Sunday strolls, picnics, birdwatching, and so on. The Museum of Natural History would bring the light of knowledge to the uneducated, while the Met would show the unsophisticated the value of high art.

The museum’s founders were embarking on a pathbreaking project. There were already plenty of examples of great European museums to learn from. But what would an American art museum be like? When the museum opened in 1872, its collection was modest. Indeed, many of the works it displayed were either prints or reproductions of famous European works. Yet this quickly changed. New York was emerging as the financial capital of the world. Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and J.P. Morgan were among the city’s residents. Since Europe was still considered the cultural epicenter of the West, these newly-minted super-rich naturally spent their piles of gold in buying up as much European artwork as they could.

The Metropolitan benefited immensely from this confluence of money and ostentatious display. Not only did the museum itself have the budget to purchase high-quality works, but it also increased its collection from gifts and bequests. After all, donating beautiful art to a public museum is a good way to demonstrate wealth and civic-mindedness at once. We ought not to criticize, however. There are times when the vanities of the world manage to produce genuine treasures. And the Met is certainly such a treasure.

At present, the museum’s holdings are so vast and varied that no single person, however knowledgeable, could hope to do justice to it all. It would take a team of professional art historians working for years on end to complete even a basic catalogue of the museum’s works, much less an appreciation along aesthetic grounds. And I am no art historian. So in this post I hope only to give you a superficial tour through this enormous institution. (Much of the information and many of the images come from the Met’s website, which is quite well-made. The people at the museum have done the world a service by publishing high-quality public domain images of their collection.)

We begin at the entrance on Fifth Avenue. The museum is difficult to miss. The building stretches out along several city blocks. Fountains shoot and sprinkle outside, and the sidewalk is always thick with crowds. The building is neoclassical in form, its façade a kind of pale white decorated in a pseudo-Roman style. The steps leading up to the main entrance, lined with imposing double columns, are one of the most iconic spots in New York. There are always food stands parked right below these steps, and usually a street performer—a dancing saxophonist, perhaps—plays for the amusement of those sitting on the steps. 

We enter the building, and are faced with a choice: right or left. There are ticket stands on either side. To the left there is a graceful Greek statue of woman, and to the right a stiff Egyptian man seated on a throne. These statues are informative, since the respective galleries for these cultures are located in these directions. For the purpose of getting a ticket, the choice is immaterial: the lines on either side are normally about the same, and usually move pretty quickly.

Now, there was recently a significant change in the museum’s admissions policy. For the past few decades, visitors could pay any amount they liked. Just last year, however, the museum changed its recommended prices to mandatory payments—for everyone except residents of New York State, that is. (Lucky for me, I am still a resident.) Another change, by the way, was the switch from using metal clips to using stickers to identify visitors. I am sure that the Metropolitan has increased its budget by making these changes. But I admit I miss the old, pay-as-you-wish, metal clip Metropolitan. A man from China could pay a dollar, and leave with a nice little keepsake from his visit. I still have some of the old clips in my room. 

Anyways, let us now enter the museum proper. I like to begin with the Egyptian section, not just because it is near the entrance, but also because it represents the chronological beginning of the museum’s collection. Here we can ground ourselves in one of the world’s oldest civilizations before we examine anything else.

The Egyptian section is massive and labyrinthine. Unlike the other departments of the museum, the Egyptian department displays everything in its collection—almost 30,000 objects. To make room for all of this, the halls double around one another, making it sometimes confusing to navigate the collection. But it is a worthwhile use of one’s time to get lost in the art. If you proceed carefully through the department, you can take a very satisfying chronological journey: beginning near the entrance, in prehistoric Egypt, and ending up in the same spot, having gone through the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms, and finishing in the Roman era. 

Now, I love this department, because it has everything. Walking through it, the visitor gets a very complete picture of life in this ancient civilization. Of course there are sarcophagi and mummies, along with amulets, jewelry, and ceramics. Among the most famous of the smaller pieces in the museum is William the Hippopotamus, a beautiful figurine made of faience, which is a ceramic type specific to Egypt. It has a radiant blue color that is delightful to look at.

The museum also has a wealth of larger statues, ranging from the size of a child to the size of a giant. For me, the most beautiful of these is a statue of the pharaoh Hatshepsut. As you may know, Hatshepsut was the only woman to officially become the pharaoh. This presented a challenge for Egyptian artists. The art of Ancient Egypt is distinguished for its astonishing conservatism, preserving the same stylistic features through centuries. A single glance is all we need to know that something is Egyptian. But portraying a woman required innovation, and the artists rose to the challenge. Rather than making her appear masculine, as they did in other works, in this seated statue Hatshepsut appears both feminine and even feline. There is a smooth grace and delicacy to the sculpture which is rare in the usually rigid forms of Egyptian art, and I find it enchanting.

Though not, perhaps, especially beautiful, some of the most illuminating artifacts on displays are sets of models. Made around 1900 BCE, the models were found in the 1930s in a tomb in the Memphite region of Egypt. They show us rare scenes of daily life in Egypt. We can see several boats travelling along the Nile, one of them transporting a mummy, another for hunting. There are also models of more cotidian scenes: a granary, a garden, a house. These models are wonderful little things, since it is as if they were made by the Egyptians for a museum exhibit about Egypt. It is difficult to identify with the people who sculpted enormous statues of god kings, but very easy to see oneself gardening.

The centerpiece of the collection is the Temple of Dendur. The Met actually has large sections of several temples in its collection, from different periods of Egypt’s history, but this is the only complete, free-standing temple in the museum. It is in the center of a large room, surrounded by a little water moat where visitors like to throw coins. Statues of crocodiles and lion-headed gods surround the space. The temple itself is of a fairly modest size, and is from the end of Egyptian civilization. It was built after the conquest of Egypt by the Romans, and commissioned by Augustus himself. While the temple is a lovely work of architecture, what most stuck in my memory were the many graffiti carved into the walls.

When you complete your circuit through the Egyptian section, you will be where you began, right by the entrance. From there, I like to go across the hall and then into the section on Ancient Greece. This part of the museum looks very different. Whereas the Egyptian section is twisting and jam-packed, the Greek section is open and clear. The visitor enters a large hall with a vaulted roof. Free-standing statues are scattered through the space, while friezes line the walls. For any lovers of classical art—with its flowing robes, idealized forms, and restrained emotion—there are dozens of works to admire. While I greatly enjoy the statues, I find myself even more interested in the friezes. Some of these come from Athenian tombs, such as a touching portrayal of a little girl cradling a dove.

The collection contains many excellent examples of art from Classical Athens—art that we readily identify as quintessentially Greek. Besides the statues and freizes, there are many examples of Greek vase art. But the collection also contains works that do not fit this description. Among these are the many sculptures from pre-Classical Greece, which to our eyes can seem more Egyptian than anything. The museum has an excellent example of one of these kouroi: A young man, standing with one foot extended forward. I like the work, since it is an interesting example of a midpoint between Egyptian stylization and Greek realism. The young man is manifestly unreal, and yet the musculature in his limbs and torso is well done. An even older work—from around 750 BCE—is a terracotta vase. Its decoration is very much unlike the red, white, and black images of gods and heroes we normally associate with Greece. Rather, it is covered in a thick pattern of geometrical shapes and tiny like stick-like figures. I quite like it.

The collection of Roman art is perhaps even better than that devoted to Greece. There are several excellent busts of Roman Emperors. I have a long, personal attachment to a bust of Marcus Aurelius in the collection, which to me is the perfect image of a philosopher—calm, wise, detached. I use it as my own symbol now. A much more amusing work is a statue of Trebonianus Gallus. It is a rare example in the Met of art gone wrong. Clearly, whoever made it was not a master. The whole figure is awkward, with a bulging stomach and a head that is manifestly too small. Maybe Rome was not doing so well in the year 250 CE, when it was made.

Statues, being made of metal or rock, naturally preserve very well. But painting is another story. Even though the Greeks had a developed tradition of painting, nothing has survived the ravages of time. That is not the case for Rome, from which we have many well-preserved wall paintings. The Met has an entire room, the bedroom of P. Fannius Synistor, which was buried in the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE. The art on the walls is really wonderful, showing several architectural and natural scenes. It shows us how the Romans gave a realistic impression of space without using the technique of perspective. Having seen my fair share of Roman wall frescoes and mosaic floors, I must say that they had wonderful taste in interior decoration.

As you can see from this example and the Egyptian temple, the Met is big on re-creating interiors. This is a theme throughout the whole institution. I think this is one of the greatest things that set the museum apart from its rivals. The visitor is allowed to walk into history.

Before moving on to the next department, I want to mention the wonderful collection of Etruscan art (from Italy before the Roman period) on the balcony above the Roman section. One of the most outstanding pieces in this section is a bronze chariot from around 550 BCE. Having a preserved chariot is quite rare, so it is a treat to be able to see one so exquisitely decorated.

The Greek and Roman section leads direction to the collection of art from Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. Of course, one can tell at a glance that this grouping is a kind of mishmash of art from non-Western cultures, which in previous days was called “primitive.” In reality the arts of these three continents have nothing to do with each other; and, of course, the amount of geographical space supposedly represented in these galleries is incomparably more vast than that of Greco-Roman or Egyptian art. That being said, at least the Metropolitan has a fine collection of art from these parts of the world, which are too often ignored.

For my part, it is a great refreshment to go from the world of Greece and Rome to this gallery. Our culture has so internalized those classical forms that they charm us more for their “perfections” than for any surprises they contain. Thus it is a pleasure to sample some of the other great visual cultures from around the world, which really do contain surprises for Western eyes.

The grand hall of the collection (gallery 354) is one of the most spectacular in the museum. From the ceiling hangs an enormous collection of shields from Oceania, arranged into a kind of meta-shield formation. I am always reminded, incongruously, of a spaceship. Large sculptures fill the space below the shields. There are some slit gongs from the island of Vanuatu, which double as huge musical instruments and works of visual art. There are funerary sculptures from Papua New Guinea; called malaga carvings, they are beautiful and highly intricate wooden carvings meant to be used only temporarily to celebrate the dead, and then disposed of. (This certainly goes against the grain of Western thinking, wherein we want our art to be eternal.) The bis poles of the Asmata people, another culture in New Guinea, are used for a similar purpose, and are also beautifully carved and then disposed of.

The adjacent section on African art is equally captivating. During my last visit I was particularly attracted to a small wooden carving of a man, called a Power Figure, made by the Kongo peoples. Bent forward slightly, standing with arms akimbo, the statue has a real intensity when seen in person—the exaggerated form only magnified by the many steel nails emanating from the man’s body. More famous is the Benin ivory mask, a real masterpiece, made by the Edo people of Nigeria—one of the great pre-colonial states in sub-saharan Africa. The mask, which represents a powerful queen mother, is clearly the work of experts working within a vibrant tradition. The mask has an elegance and a graceful polish that make it very satisfying on the eye: each detail is finely crafted, and yet they all work together to make a perfect form.

During my last visit, I was especially interested in the section on pre-colonial American art, since I had just finished listening to an audio course on the peoples of North America. I was delighted to find beautiful examples of geometric pottery from the Ancestral Pueblo culture (fascinating to compare to the geometrical designs from pre-Classical Greece). Among the many sculptures on display, one of the most iconic is a ceramic baby from the Olmec culture, made around 1,000 BCE. It is a wonderful piece, surprisingly lifelike despite its stylized face. The folds of fat and the hand placed idly in the mouth serve to make this sculpture a far more realistic depiction of babyhood than the many portraits of the infant Jesus made over 2,000 years later in medieval Europe. 

Moving on in our rapid tour, we come next to the museum’s Department of Modern and Contemporary art. The very fact that the Met has this department is a testament to its uniqueness. I can think of no other museum in the world that has significant holdings of ancient and non-Western art as well as “modern” art. But the Met is devoted to a vision of total universality—the art world’s equivalent of the Museum of Natural History—and so has it all.

The collection as the Met is almost as impressive as that in the MoMA—and that is saying a lot. Though there are so many great works on display, I will restrict myself to mentioning my favorite painting, which is also perhaps the most famous painting in the whole collection: Pablo Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude Stein.

It is an extraordinary portrait, arguably the greatest of the previous century. The painting is revolutionary. Gertrude Stein sits in a kind of abstract, unfinished space. She is not surrounded by her papers and books, but instead sits alone. While previous portraits in European art showed us the heroic and cultured male, handsome and lithe, Stein is hunched-over, short, and tick. Yet her body—mostly concealed under her heavy clothes—has a kind of elemental power on the canvass, even a monumental grandeur. But her face is what attracts the most attention. Rather than faithfully reproducing Stein, Picasso turns her face into a kind of mask. Thus her eyes and nose do not obey the normal rules of perspective and anatomy. Ironically, though this technique necessarily makes Stein’s face blank and inexpressive, the result is a convincing representation of the writer’s presence, of her indomitable energy. There is a charming story that, when told that Stein did not look anything like this portrait, Picasso responded “She will.” He was right: this portrait has helped to define Stein’s image far more than photographs of her. 

I will also mention the largest work on display in this Department: America Today, a mural by Thomas Hart Benton. It consists of ten canvasses, and shows in visual form the America of the 1930s. The work was commissioned by the New School of Social Research—a kind of progressive think tank. I quite like the mural, as I do much of the public art created during the Great Depression and the New Deal. Looking at this work, one feels that we modern Americans were successfully creating our own visual language with which to decorate our public monuments—much like the Egyptians and the Greeks. The inclusion of this large mural is also keeping with the Met’s proclivity for immersive artistic experiences.

Next we come to the massive Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts. Once again, the Met excels when it comes to the re-creation of historical spaces. One of the most beautiful rooms in the Met is an entire patio taken from a Renaissance Spanish villa—the Castle of Veléz Blanco. Not only are the carvings on the arches and columns beautiful, but the space is filled with quite lovely statues of mythical, historical, and religious figures. Just as astounding is a study from the Ducal Palace of Gubbio. Every surface is covered in images made using the technique of wood inlay (intarsia, or marquestry), which consists of piecing together little bits of colored wood in order to make a complex image. The amount of time it must have taken to assemble a whole room this way is frankly stupefying. The result is an extraordinary work of immersive art, whose walls symbolize different areas of human activity. I am sure the room itself is a greater accomplishment than whatever happened inside it.

These two rooms only scratch the surface of the department’s holdings of decorative arts. There is everything one would expect to find in the homes of aristocrats and royalty, from elaborate coffee pots to ornate globes. I admit that, however fine these products are, they are generally less interesting to me than the sculptures.

Some of the museum’s best sculptures can be found in gallery 548, which takes the form of a large atrium. On one side of the space, you can even see the brick façade of the museum’s original building (which is mostly buried in the later constructions). There are two outstanding statues in this space. The first is Perseus with the Head of Medusa, by Antonio Canova. It is an extremely fine work of Neoclassicism, achieving the idealized grace of the Greeks and Romans. Simply as a composition, the statue works marvelously, with the gruesome head balanced by the peculiarly barbed sword, making a strong diagonal. The other great statue (in my opinion) is Ugolino and his Sons, by Jean-Baptise Carpeux. This depicts a story taken out of Dante of an Italian count who—along with his sons and grandsons—was imprisoned and starved to death. We see the count, driven almost to insanity through starvation and despair, surrounded by the tortured forms of his progeny.

Continuing on through the museum, the visitor will next reach the museum’s section of Medieval Art. Now, I feel justified in mostly passing over this department, since the bulk of the museum’s medieval art resides in the Cloisters Museum, uptown (an enchanting branch of the Met). Even so, it must be said that the central room of the Medieval Department is a beautiful space, with a high ceiling and high windows, like a cathedral. An ornate grill (from the Valladolid Cathedral, in Spain) stretches most of the way to the ceiling, and charming examples of sculptures, tapestries, and stained glass give the space a properly church-like atmosphere. This last time around I was particularly impressed with the museum’s small collection of Byzantine art.

From here it is appropriate to go straight to the Department of Arms and Armor. As you can imagine, this was my favorite section to visit when I was a young kid, and did much to fuel my youthful obsession with swords and guns. Even now, I admit I find this section extremely impressive, and I have never seen any collection of historical weapons even half as good. The presentation is excellent. The visitor enters a large hall, where medieval flags are hanging from the ceiling. A group of mounted knights ride through the center, while other armored knights stand guard all around the periphery. One feels that one has entered a jousting tournament.

The suits of armor are fascinating and, often, strangely beautiful. They are like abstract sculptures of human forms, or a kind of proto-machine with moving parts. Though you naturally would think that a metal suit would be extremely cumbersome, you can see innumerable little joints made into the armor, giving the wearers a surprising range of movement. The most beautiful of these many suits on display is that made for Emperor Ferdinand I (brother of Charles V). Every piece of metal is covered in ornate designs. Just as wonderful are the Japanese suits of armor on display. Rather than turning their wearers into metallic turtles, this armor is clearly designed for a different sort of fighting—one requiring more lightness and flexibility. The monstrous grimaces on the helmets would be genuinely terrifying if someone was coming at you wearing this.

Right next to this department is the American Wing. This is one of the areas where the Met is really untouchable. Other museums may have finer paintings or sculptures or what have you, but I do not think any museum has such a complete and rich collection of American art. Indeed, the American Wing could be cut off and moved to a different spot, and it would still be one of the finest museums in the country. Its collection is vast, and it is so wonderfully presented. The visitor enters an enormous courtyard full of benches and statues. The glass wall and roof flood the space with light, making the department a welcome relief from the dark medieval section. Bright, colorful stained glass, and an equally colorful fountain, line the walls; and a beautiful bronze statue of Diana, lightly resting on one foot, occupies the center.

The visitor enters the main collection through a kind of pseudo-façade, as if this is an entirely different building. And, indeed, the visitor suddenly finds herself thrown into a richly-furnished home. In keeping with the museum’s penchant for interior spaces, there are a great many recreations of American interiors from different points in the country’s history. Surely, we have not invented anything as close to time travel as this. Proceeding onward, the visitor next finds a strange sort of room. It is in the shape of a large oval, and on the walls there is an enormous painting of the palace and the gardens of Versaille. When standing in the center of the room, the curving panoramic does create a satisfying illusion of actually standing in France. Just as the study in the Ducal Palace of Gubbio, this painting (by John Vanderlyn) must have taken a nauseating amount of time.

I walked up the stairs, and then found myself in what is called “open storage.” These are the chairs, tables, paintings, lamps, and everything else that the museum has but did not have the space to use. So they hang here, in transparent cases. I recommend a visit to this, if only because it gives you an idea of the enormous amount of material any major museum must be holding in storage.

Proceeding onward, we come to the painting gallery. There are far too many excellent works to name. I was particularly happy to see a portrait of Alexander Hamilton and George Washington—both of which used to hang in Hamilton’s home, up in Harlem. More conspicuously, there is the iconic painting of Washington Crossing the Delaware—almost ludicrously heroic. I was also happy to find Frederic Edwin Church’s painting, In the Heart of the Andes. Church was inspired by the naturalist, Alexander von Humboldt, and included as much scientific detail as he could in this painting. Just as famous is John Singer Sargeant’s painting, Madame X, an intentionally risque (at the time) portrait of a society beauty (her real name was Madame Pierre Gautreau).

I was most delighted to learn that the museum has an entire room designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. I am no expert in the design of houses or in interior decoration, but I must say that it is both a welcoming and an animating space. It is easy to imagine myself reading a good novel within, while watching the snow fall out the windows. 

This completes our long circuit around the museum’s massive ground floor. If we continue on, we reach the Egyptian section again. So now let us return once again to the Great Hall, and then ascend the grand staircase to the museum’s first floor (or second floor, in America). 

Finally we come to the museum’s collection of European Paintings. Now, I must be careful here to avoid getting pulled into an endless catalogue of the museum’s excellent works. Like the American Wing, the Met’s Department of European Paintings could be a self-standing museum, and still be one of the best in the nation. Whether you like Dutch, Italian, French, or Spanish art, you will not leave the gallery disappointed (though German painting is fairly absent).

As you might expect, I am most interested in the Spanish paintings on display. The Met has excellent examples of the three great Spanish masters: Velázquez, El Greco, and Goya. The outstanding work of Velázquez is a portrait of Juan de Pareja, an enslaved man of African descent, which the artist executed in Italy. You will be pleased to hear that the great painter freed Juan de Pareja, who went on to become a skilled painter himself (there is a work of his hanging in the Prado). In any case, when you look at this painting, you do not see a man in bondage. To the contrary, Juan de Pareja appears almost regal with dignity. The painting is beautiful and startlingly realistic. To depict a man of African descent in such a way was a radical gesture on Velazquez’s part. 

Goya’s contribution is a portrait of Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zuñiga, a very young aristocrat. As usual with Goya, the figure has an odd stiffness, and the face is inexpressive. The viewer’s eye is naturally drawn to the scene at the boy’s feet, where two cats hungrily eye a magpie on a leash. This is a strangely morbid scene for a portrait of a youth, and it becomes all the more eerie when one considers that the boy died only a few years later, at the age of eight. El Greco’s outstanding work is his View of Toledo, the best of the artist’s few landscape paintings. As always, the artist’s signature style is immediately apparent: deep, rich colors combined with a dramatic verticality. This style is perfect for the city of Toledo—which is built on a hill overlooking a river, and filled with sharp towers. El Greco manages to imbue this wholly secular and inanimate scene with a burning spiritual intensity.

The number of excellent French painters in attendance dwarfs the representatives of any other nation. My personal favorite is Jacques Louis David. There is a charming portrait of the French chemist Antoine Lavoisier, who was executed during the French Revolution under false accusations. This is quite a historic loss, considering that Lavoisier is normally considered to be the father of modern chemistry. David’s more famous painting is his The Death of Socrates, a historical scene showing the great philosopher’s final moments. Socrates, who was very ugly and was quite old at the time, is shown as a partially nude Greek hero—with a muscular torso to boot. While I am not sure the painting captures the spirit of Plato’s dialogues, it is a brilliantly theatrical image.

On the subject of French painters, I must also mention The Love Letter, by Jean Honoré Fregonard, a delightfully coquettish image of a young woman receiving a note from her secret admirer. (I use this image in my blog’s newsletter.) I would love to keep going—since paintings speak to use in a modern language, easy for us to appreciate—but I will content myself with a short list of the artists in attendance: Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Vermeer, Ingres, Canaletto, Tiepollo, Turner, Klimt, Monet, Manet, Guaguin, Cézanne, Dürer, Memling, Rubens… Really even the list gets too long. The museum’s holdings of 19th century European paintings is so big, in fact, that the collection is held in a different section of the building.

To get there, you must pass a little hallway devoted to drawings, prints, and photographs. Now, you may be surprised to learn that, counted by individual works, this department is by far the biggest in the museum. But only a fraction of the drawings and prints in the museum’s holdings are on display at any given time. Sometimes they are taken out for special exhibitions, such as one on Michelangelo a few years ago. There, I got to see some of Michelangelo’s schematic drawings for fortresses, when he was briefly hired as a military engineer. Besides being innovative designs, the drawings themselves are beautiful works of abstract art.

Continuing on through the paintings of 19th and early 20th century Europe—where you can admire the great impressionists and post-impressionists—you get to the Department of Islamic Art. During my time in Spain I have come to admire Islamic art for its intricate designs, its geometrical sophistication, and its sense of divine calm. Wonderfully creative patterns decorate everything from tiles, to carpets, to pages of the Qur’an. As an example of the last, there is a stunning illuminated Qur’an from Turkey, whose decoration is just as intricate as the Book of Kells in Dublin.

Representational art is relatively uncommon in the Islamic world, as it is explicitly forbidden by the religion, but there are still some examples in the gallery. A particularly beautiful one is a tile panel from Iran, executed in a style that looks to my ignorant eye as if it could be Indian. A seductively posed woman is being courted by a man wearing a European hat. I wonder who made object, for whom, and where it would be placed, since it seems to so flagrantly flout the strictures of Islamic religion.

In keeping with the museum’s love of historical spaces, this section has the Damascus Room. This is a winter reception room from a palace in Damascus, Syria, made around the year 1700. It is a beautiful space. Shelves display ornate ceramics and the gilded covers of Qur’ans. Panels of lovely calligraphy (bearing messages from the Qur’an) and floral designs decorate the walls, and the floor is covered with geometrical tiles. The ceiling is perhaps the most stunning of all, composed of elaborate woodwork. It is such a sophisticated, elegant space; it must certainly have set the tone for any conversations which took place within. 

Next we come to the museum’s relatively small section on the Ancient Near East (Mesopotamia). For the most part these halls are filled with wonderful little objects from long ago, like cylinder seals, jewelry, incense burners, and small-scale statues. Among this last category is a small statue of Gudea, made around 2,000 BCE. It is a work of skilled craftsmanship, showing us a Sumerian king in a rather humble pose. His robe bears an inscription in cuneiform about his accomplishments (typical propaganda). What is striking is the thoughtfulness and even the humility of the king’s gaze and pose. He strikes us as more of a monk than a fearsome ruler. Another outstanding work is the bronze head of an unknown ruler, made between 2300 and 2000 BCE. Though not exactly realistic, I think this work is remarkable for the degree of individualization in the ruler’s features. We are not looking at a generic, stylized male head, but a particular man from 3,000 years ago.

But the real stars of this department are the lamassu: colossal sculptures of human-headed winged lions that flank the hallways. These were made in Assyria, around 850 BCE. Walking through this hallway, flanked by these mythical figures, feels like walking into the past. One detail I particularly like is that the creatures have five legs, as a result of a bit of illusionism. The front two legs are parallel, as if the creature is standing still; yet from the side, an extra leg is added (invisible from the front) to make it look as though the creature is mid-stride when seen from the side. The walls surrounding these stone guardians are covered with friezes in low relief, depicting other mythological scenes. For me, this Assyrian art is as lovely anything in the Egyptian section. 

You emerge from ancient times onto the balcony overlooking the Great Hall. Here you can walk across and enter into the Department of Asian Art. This is one of my favorite areas of the museum, partly because of the art itself, and partly for the way that this department is laid out. Clever planning makes the department seem much bigger than it actually is, and walking through it the first time feels like exploring an old palace or temple.

The viewer enters the department by walking into a grand gallery, filled with enormous works of Chinese Buddhist art. There are large stele, bearing inscriptions and carvings, and a huge sculpture of a Bodhisattva. This may, in fact, be the biggest statue in the museum. It is 13’9’’ tall (over 4 m) and must weigh thousands of pounds. It is also quite beautiful, with richly decorated robes. On the wall is an even bigger paintings of the Buddha of Medicine, seated among a large retinue. It is a magnificent way to enter Asia.

From this large hall, one can either further explore Chinese art, on the left, or enter the arts of India, on the right. For the sake of consistency, we can begin with China. The Met’s collection of Chinese Buddhist sculpture is the largest outside of Asia, and more examples can be seen in Gallery 208. There are so many lovely sculptures. One I particularly like is a ceramic sculpture of an Arhat (or a Luohan, as they are known in China), which is a person who has achieved an advanced state of enlightenment. The sculpture is lifesize; and the man’s tired and worn expression is extremely compelling. His robes are still brightly colored, even though this was made over 1,000 years ago. 

The Met also has a wonderful collection of Chinese drawings, calligraphy, pottery, and much else. But the most stunning room is the so-called Astor Court: a recreation of a Ming Dynasty-era courtyard. This is just another example of the stunning interiors from around the world collected at the Met. Finished in 1981, this installation was built by hand, using traditional methods; and besides being a beautiful work of art, it represented a landmark in cultural exchange between communist China and the United States. You enter through a round doorway guarded by two stone beasts (one is reminded of the lamassu in the Ancient Near East). Immediately you find yourself in a different world. A sheltered walkway surrounds a garden filled with oddly shaped rocks. These are called Taihu stones; they are formed via water erosion at the foot of a particular mountain in China (Dongting), and they are abstract sculptures in their own right.

At the end of the garden is a large room, designed to be used as a study, I believe. Unlike the great European interiors of the Met, this room does not appear at all ostentatious. Rather it is spare, restrained, and tasteful. As in the Damascus Room, it is impossible not to be awed by the high degree of sophistication and elegance of the room and the adjoining garden. I cannot but help imagining myself as a Ming Dynasty scholar, sitting in the garden and contemplating some intellectual puzzle. The space seems to invite contemplation.

Next we shall enter India and Southeast Asia. But before that, I ought to mention the Met’s small but delightful collection of Korean art. It is all in one room, Gallery 233, and I quite like the space. All of the objects are diminutive, and many have a kind of geometrical simplicity and elegance which gives the space its own distinct aesthetic. But we have no time to stop and savor. We walk from China, through Korea, and into India. 

For me, the standout objects in these galleries are the many small figurines of gods. Indian sculpture enchants me for the kind of whimsical energy it often possesses. Though magnificent, the many gods do not seem remote or beyond reach, but rather quite approachable and inviting. These galleries are arranged chronologically, so we begin at around 2,000 BCE—about as old as anything in the Egyptian or the Ancient Near East sections—and move towards the present. To pick just a few of my favorite examples, there is an Avalokiteshvara Padmapani from the 7th century, a Bodhisattva who seems to be coyly beckoning. Or there is a statue of Shiva as the Lord of Dance, wherein the god is shown mid-stride, dancing within a fiery circle.

Another favorite is Yashoda with the Infant Krisha, who is suckling the young diety at her breast. This sculpture is especially resonant for Westerners, since we also have a tradition of representing the sacred mother suckling the divine child. But the style is here so very different. Whereas Mary is de-sexualized as much as possible, Yashoda is nearly naked and her breasts are almost comically large (of course, I am looking at this sculpture as a Westerner). Indian art is, after all, famous for its erotic content. An excellent example of this is a sculpture of a loving couple in a passionate embrace, made in the 13th century. You may be surprised to learn that this was part of the decoration of a temple. Certainly you would never see anything similar on a gothic cathedral!

The last work I will mention is a statue of Ganesha from the 12th century. This elephant-headed god is the bestower of good fortune, and it is customary to make an offering before doing anything important. When I visited a few years ago, I was delighted to find that this practice extended into the museum: there were coins left at the base of the statue. 

We still have Japan to cover, but first we must take a little detour. Standing near the end of the section on India and Southern Asia is a beautiful wooden ceiling. This comes from a Jain temple built in the late 16th century. The staircase underneath this roof leads up to a small gallery on the floor above, this one devoted to the arts of Tibet and Nepal. For my part, this is some of the coolest art that I have ever seen. Though thematically related to art in both the Chinese and the Indian sections, the art here has a peculiar intensity not found anywhere else. An example of this is the painting of Walse Ngampa, a wrathful deity of Tibetan Buddhism. The figure has an electrifying intensity, with two arms wrapped around a terrified victim about to be devoured, while its many other arms are outstretched, holding symbolic objects.

When we descend, we can finally make our way to the section of Japanese art. Here, too, we can find some excellent statues. I particularly like the wooden guardian figures, which flank a statue of the Dainichi Nyorai, or the Cosmic Buddha. These guardian figures are formidable. I am always drawn to their fearsome grimaces. Even more wonderful is Ogata Korin’s ink drawing of waves on a folding panel. Here we can see a non-Western tradition of drawing that is intensely sophisticated. The waves do not occupy any kind of realistic space, but instead seem to emerge from nowhere and engulf everything. The lines of the waves are nothing like the blurry colors of Turner’s seascapes, which gives these waves a disturbing sense of solidity; the leading edge of the water appears sharp and even claw-like. It is a wonderful image.

We have already spent hours and hours in this museum, and yet there is still more to see. From the Japanese Department we can move on to the Department of Musical Instruments. This is housed in two galleries overlooking the section of Arms and Armor. I have never seen a collection of musical instrument that even comes close to the Met’s collection. There are superb examples of instruments from around the world: Italian harpsichords, Chinese pipas (similar to a lute), Native American rattles, Congolese horns, and Japanese drums. Seeing them in this context reminds us that instruments can be very beautiful simply as objects. To pick just one extravagant example, there is an Indian taus (a bowed lute) in the form of a peacock. And, of course, we must not neglect to mention the Stradivarius violins.

This gallery also has paintings with musical subjects hanging on the walls. My favorite is Dancing in Columbia, by Fernando Botero, if only because a copy of it has been hanging in my mother’s living room as far back as I can remember. Two balconies connect the two halves of the instrument department. On one of these is a charming old organ, and on the other is a fantastic assortment of wind instruments, arranged as if they are exploding from a central point. It is an evocative representation of a fanfare. 

By now we have made our way through most of the major sections of the museum. There is only one place left on our tour: the Robert Lehman Collection.

Robert Lehman was a banker who owned one of the biggest and best private art collections in history. Active for a long time on the Metropolitan Board of Directors, he bequeathed his extraordinary collection to the Met, but on the condition that it not be mixed in with the other departments. Thus, the Met built a special space, attached at the back of the building, almost like a spaceship taking off from the main building. The rooms of the department are furnished to vaguely evoke a private home. Personally, I do not like having this department separate, since I do not see any good reason to do so other than vanity. If Lehman wanted his collection separate, he could have done what Frick or Morgan did, and established his own museum. But, in any case, there are some extraordinary works of art to be found, so it cannot be missed.

Robert Lehman seems to have been most interested in European paintings, and that is what we find in abundance. One of my favorites is The Creation of the World and the Expulsion from Paradise, by Giovanni di Paolo. I love the color pallette of the paintings, filled with rich dark hues. But I am most drawn to the representation of the creation of the world: with God holding a series of concentric circles surrounding an image of Eden. Most famous, perhaps, is a portrait by Ingres of the Princesse de Broglie. Ingres’s technique is masterful, brilliantly capturing the rich fabric of her dress and furniture. It is also psychologically subtle, as it shows us a woman poised between shy reserve and self-assuredness.

There are dozens of other great paintings in this collection, and thousands upon thousands of great works in the museum, but this is where our tour must end. I have already written far too much. But the Met is endless—or, at least, it might as well be.

Confronted with such an enormous mass of culture and beauty from all around the world, it is difficult to know how to react. Part of me wonders whether all of these objects really should be here. With the financial resources that the Met possesses, the museum has been able to get nearly anything. But should they? And were all of the objects collected in ways that we would now approve of? Admittedly, the museum is trying to address this last question with their Provenance Project, paying particular attention to works that may have been looted by the Nazis and not restituted to their rightful owners. Personally I wonder about many of the objects in the Department of Oceanic, African, and American arts. 

On the other hand, I think it is important that we do have spaces where we can see the human experience as one enormous tapestry. Traveling from Egypt, to China, to Turkey, to Senegal—in short, to nearly every inhabited corner of the world—and seeing these different traditions unfold through centuries of time: one would hope that this might lead to some insight into our human condition. There are some very obvious lessons, the most obvious one being that humans really like to make art. Other common themes are the relationships between art and power, or art and religion. It is all too much to really digest everything. But I hope every visit provides just a little bit more to chew on.

To conclude rather lamely, the Met is a uniquely excellent museum. Not only does it have vast and high-quality collections, but the museum is unique in many respects. As often mentioned, there is the museum’s emphasis on interior decoration and the arts of daily life. More important is the museum’s attempt to be all-inclusive: incorporating art from all over the world, and from every historical period. The Met’s view of art is expansive, incorporating not only paintings and sculptures, but swords, helmets, harpsichords, photographs, and dresses (the Costume Institute is downstairs). It is a kind of universal storehouse of human activity. I will surely keep going as long as my legs will take me.

Letters from Spain #7: A Walk Through Spanish History

Letters from Spain #7: A Walk Through Spanish History

Here is the seventh episode of my podcast about life in Spain:

For the transcript, see below:


I have to begin this letter on a somber note. This Monday, November 25, was the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. This issue is a big concern in Spain. It seems like there is always a story on the news about a woman who was murdered by a partner, or about men who have sexually abused women without facing consequences. So far this year, 52 women have been killed by their partners, and only 11 of them had filed any kind of police report beforehand. I am sometimes asked by Spaniards if we in America have such a big violence against women problem. Though I am inclined to say yes, it strikes me that in America we do not discuss domestic violence nearly as often as they do here in Spain.

So I decided to see if I could find some figures that I could compare between the two countries. In the United States, in 2005, 1,181 women were killed by an intimate partner. For that same year in Spain, 63 women were killed by partners or ex-partners. Keeping in mind that the population of Spain is about one-seventh the population of the United States, the American figure is still much bigger. So it seems that we in America have a much worse domestic violence problem than they have here in Spain. Though it is sad news, to me it is not very surprising. The easy access to guns in America makes all forms of violence more common, or at least more deadly. The reason we don’t talk about domestic violence as much in America as in Spain, I think, is that in America all of our conversations about violence end up being arguments about guns. In Spain, the issue is normally framed more as a cultural problem—the culture of machismo

As tempting as it would be now to launch into a rant about American gun violence or machista culture, this episode is focused on a slightly more peaceful topic (well, maybe not): the history of Spain. This past weekend, I finally took the time to revisit one of the great museums in Madrid: the Museo de Arqueología Nacional (the National Archaeology Museum). It is a bit out of the way for most tourists, though not much. The museum is housed in the same enormous building as the National Library, which is also worth a visit, if only to see the ornate façade complete with sculptures of iconic Spanish writers (like Lope de Vega or Cervantes). The Archaeology Museum is huge, and fascinating, and very cheap: only three euros, and free on Saturday afternoons.

The museum goes through the prehistory and history of Spain from the earliest times to the early modern period (about the 1700s). Human ancestors have been in the Iberian peninsula for at least one million years. Quite a long time. One of the most famous early-hominid sites in Spain is Atapuerca, near the city of Burgos. (Researchers are still debating what species to assign to the fossils found there.) Around 200,000 years ago, the Neanderthals set up shop in Iberia, and began making all sorts of little sharp stone tools. There were probably homo sapiens, too, and it is possible the two species interbred. They at least influenced one another’s technology. By far the most famous artifact left by the prehistoric humans of Iberia are the cave paintings in Altamira, which were made around 36,000 years ago. The archaeology museum has a beautiful replica of these caves near the entrance, made using traditional methods. If we can judge by these cave paintings, two things have occupied the Spanish for a very, very long time: painting and bulls.

Soon enough in the museum’s collection we get to the development of agriculture, permanent settlements, pottery, metallurgy, and all of the other dubious developments of sedentary life. Sometime around 500 BCE, the Celts came into Spain. (And I bet a lot of people didn’t know that the Celts were in Spain.) You can still see traces of their culture in the northwest corner of the country, Galicia. Meanwhile, the Phonecians (from northern Africa) began to colonize the south of the peninsula. The city of Cádiz has been inhabited since around 1,000 BCE, making it the oldest city in Spain. A bit later, the Greeks started landing on the East coast, establishing the city of Empúries, which is in modern-day Catalonia. They did this around 600 BCE.

Under the influence of the Greeks and the Phoenecians, a new indigenous culture eventually emerged in the East Peninsula, which is now called simply the Iberian culture. The museum has quite a few beautiful examples of Iberian sculpture, such as the so-called Lady of Elche—an imposing woman with Princess Leia hair. In general, Iberian sculpture is distinguished from the typical Greek style by its abstract stylization. Its rediscovery in the early 20th century influenced Picasso. But the culture was not to last, since the Iberian Peninsula eventually was the site of the Punic wars—the clash between Ancient Rome and Hannibal’s Carthage. Rome won, of course, and then incorporated Iberia into the ever-growing Roman Empire. Iberia then became Hispania, and its culture became roman. 

You don’t need to go to the archaeology museum to see evidence of Rome’s influence. There are Roman ruins in Segovia, Mérida, and Tarragona, to pick just three examples. But you don’t even need to look that far: the whole Spanish language evolved from Latin. The museum has some wonderful examples of metal sheets on which Roman laws were published. I like to imagine a Roman lawyer doing his research on a rainy day, standing in his toga outside in the plaza, bent over, reading these laws. In any case, the Romans really Romanized Spain: they built aqueducts, temples, fortresses, bath houses, dams, lighthouses, roads, theaters, amphitheaters—tons of stuff. Talk about a colonial mindset. But at least they had a sense of style. The archaeology museum in Madrid has some beautiful samples of Roman floor and wall mosaics, which in my opinion are in better taste than any of our interior decoration.

Rome lasted a long, long time. Spain was controlled by the Romans for about 700 years, which left an indelible mark on the country. But eventually Rome declined and fell. This left a huge power vacuum, which allowed the Visigoths to move in from the north of Europe. The museum has a few interesting artifacts from this period, but really it was not a time that left a huge archaeological footprint. After all, these were the Dark Ages. The Visigoths only enjoyed their time on top for about 200 years, until they were crushed by the invading Muslims, who came in from across the Strait of Gibraltar.

This was the beginning of Al-Andalus, or Moorish Spain. (The word moro in Spanish is considered slightly offensive, but in English “Moorish” is standard.) This was actually another cultural high point in the history of the peninsula. While most of Europe was still slowly crawling its way back from the Dark Ages, Moorish Spain was an advanced place. New crops and agricultural techniques were introduced, major philosophers like Averroes and Moses Maimonides lived and wrote, and beautiful buildings were constructed, like the Great Mosque of Cordoba or the Alhambra in Granada. The Archaeology Museum has some amazing examples of Moorish art and architecture, as well as some works made by Christians in a Moorish style (which is called mudéjar). The Moors left a sizable linguistic heritage, too, as thousands of Spanish words come from Arabic.

Eventually the power of the Moors fractured, and the power of the Christians in the north grew and consolidated. After many centuries of battles, shifting alliances, and gradual conquest, the Christians pushed south until the last Moorish kingdom—Granada—fell in 1492, and modern Spain was born. Soon the country entered its Golden Age as the pre-eminent global superpower, with colonies all around the world (thanks partly to Columbus), and most of Europe under its thumb. But this was not to last. By the 1700s, Spain was a decidedly second-rate power in Europe, even if it still managed to hang on to its colonies. The museum has some lovely objects from the Enlightenment in Spain, but it must be said that the Age of Reason was a tame affair here compared with, say, France or England. 

This is when the museum’s collection ends. You must go elsewhere if you want to trace Spain’s history to the present day. Even so, I think this brief story gives a taste of why travelling in Spain is so fascinating. So many different cultures shared this relatively small bit of land, and they are all piled up on top of each other. In a single day, you can go from a gothic cathedral, to a Roman bridge, to a Moorish mosque. The cave paintings of Altamira, for example, are situated right next to a beautiful medieval village. This is something that we just don’t have in America, mostly because European colonization so completely wiped out the indigenous cultures. 

Speaking of European colonization, I should also mention Thanksgiving before I end this podcast. Of course, Thanksgiving in Spain means precisely: nothing. Thursday is a work day just like any other. Well, my brother got the day off somehow, but in my case I’ll spend Thanksgiving giving presentations about Thanksgiving to Spanish children who must go through this every year. But I do think that Thanksgiving encapsulates America like no other holiday can. What do we do? We eat until we’re sick, we watch men tackling each other on television, or we watch giant floating cartoons, or we argue about politics, and then the next day we all go shopping for things we don’t need. It is America in a nutshell. My own Thanksgiving celebrations will have to wait until Friday. There is no way a whole turkey is going to fit inside my little tabletop oven. Well, I’ll figure it out.

For now, I’m thankful to be here.