January 31, 2011
I am just beginning a new biography of Galileo by Heilbron, and what an unusual biography it is! Rather than giving us a blow-by-blow of the life of the great man in embryo, we are almost immediately tossed into the chaos and ferment of late Renaissance Italian intellectual life. Perhaps the details of Galileo’s early life are few and far between anyway. But, more surprising, the attitude of the writer towards his famous, sainted subject is frequently one of ironic detachment and humor. No hagiography here! It’s an exhilarating and fresh approach to a man who is crucial in the history of modern science, but whose own accomplishments seem relatively slender compared to Newton and some others.
One of the most entertaining and unusual elements of the biography is its focus on Galileo as an aspiring literary lion of Florence. He wrote criticism of poetry, fought in furious and futile intellectual battles over the relative merits of Tasso, Dante, and Ariosto, was instrumental in diagraming the true extent of the Inferno as described in The Divine Comedy, and was influenced by the ironic epic, Orlando Furioso, as much as he was by Aristotle. Not exactly a typical resume for a giant of early modern science. (Of course, we conveniently forget that Isaac Newton spent more time on numerology and alchemy than he did on physics.)
I have been hearing about Orlando for so many years now, it’s time to read it.
September 23, 2009
Lots of commentaries on Fellini’s 1960 film, La Dolce Vita, make much of the fact that it contains many allusions to Dante. Is this surprising, that an Italian artist should do this? No more than that an English speaking writer would quote Shakespeare or the King James Bible.
A long film, a rich film, a simple story. A man searching for…a way out of the shallowness, ennui, and spiritual desolation of his life. A beautiful woman loves him, but maybe she’s the wrong one for him. She would need a little more sophistication to wrestle him to the ground, so he grinds her up and spits her out. He is disgusted by his “friends,” but who else does he have? The man he seems to admire commits a grisly suicide. His father? He hardly knows him, and genuine article that he is, he has a few of his own illusions to deal with. Maybe Marcello is just too handsome for his own good.
At the end, he encounters again the beautiful young girl from a little cafe he met earlier. A profile like an angel. She beckons to him, but he can’t hear her across the waves. He goes back to his degenerate orgiasts who are leaving the beach where they were gawking at an enormous “sea monster” the fishermen brought in. Might there be a shred of hope left for him?
The most famous sequence features Anita Ekberg and the Trevi Fountain in Rome. Another beckoning blonde, but this is no angel from an Umbrian frescoe. It’s a Swedish-American pagan goddess offering erotic transcendence. At least until the municipal authorities turn off the fountain’s water supply…