My kind of Orlando

February 22, 2011

click for summary of poem

From “Taking Liberties,” a review of David R. Slavitt’s new translation of Orlando Furioso, by David B. Hart in Commonweal. 137.13 (July 16, 2010)

During the high Middle Ages, poems written on the “Matter of France”–that is, tales of the paladins of Charlemagne and of Count Roland (or Orlando) in particular–were among Europe’s most beloved literary entertainments… once the Carolingian theme had been stated [The Song of Roland], the variations that followed…departed ever further from the original story’s stern simplicity, and came to incorporate ever more fabulous elements: impossible feats, mythical beasts, magical objects, and superhuman foes.

In the end, the whole tradition culminated in the three great Orlando “romances” of the Italian Renaissance: Luigi Pulci’s Morgante (1478-83), Matteo Boiardo’s Orlando Innamorato (finished 1486, published 1494), and Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso (1516-32). These are, without question, among the wildest fictions in European literature. They are “epics,” perhaps, but are every bit as defiant of the classical unities (not only of time and place, but of tone and texture) as the dramas of England and Spain’s Golden Age theaters. Their stories spill across the entire known world, to say nothing of faerie, hell, and the moon. They recount sieges, military engagements, and single combat, but also tell of giants, sprites, sorcerers, sea monsters, magic gardens, and hidden kingdoms. They lurch convulsively–though somehow quite nimbly–from the hilarious to the tragic to the mystical.

Once upon a time, moreover, they were widely read … Now, however, they gather dust in those shadowy galleries where the Western canon’s most rarely visited monuments are kept. This is a pity. Modern readers may not have much patience for long verse narratives, but these works are anything but forbidding; they can be enjoyed by anyone with an imagination and a sense of humor. Yet Pulci and Boiardo are scarcely remembered today outside Italy. Only Ariosto lingers on in the consciousness of educated persons, and then generally only as an important name.

. . .  Exactly what [Orlando Furioso] is about is difficult to pin down, but this hardly matters. The narrative takes up the various stories begun in the Innamorato, but left unfinished at the time of Boiardo’s death: the infatuation of Orlando with the beautiful sorceress Angelica, daughter of the King of Cathay, and Orlando’s pursuit of her across Europe and into the Far East; the siege of Paris by the Moors; the adventures of Ruggiero, mythical founder of the House of Este (of which both Boiardo and Ariosto were clients); the rampages of the evil Moorish King of Sarza, Rodomonte; and a number of other plot lines. The principal pleasure of the poem as a whole lies in the ingenuity with which Ariosto weaves the tales together in ever more outlandish and intricate complications–and then manages to resolve them all in a single moment of dramatic finality.

click to enlarge

Monty Python? -click for source

Fantasy Land


News from late antiquity, early modern

July 7, 2010


Moving along in Saint Augustines massive City of God, I think he’s pretty much laid to rest the charge that the adoption of Christianity by the emperor and the citizenry of Rome was responsible for its sack by Alaric and its other troubles.  He gives a thorough review of the calamities that befell the Republic and the Empire long before Christ walked the earth and asks sarcastically, why didn’t your gods protect you?   Obviously, it was not the fault of Christianity, since it hadn’t appeared yet.  Morever, excellent rhetorician that he is, he points out that if Christians had been around during the bloodshed of the Gracchi, the various Punic Wars, the civil wars, and so on, the pagans would have immediately argued that it was the presence of Christians that was bringing down the wrath of the gods on Rome.  So since there were no Christians, shouldn’t they blame their own gods?

It’s entertaining to see the lengths to which Augustine will go to make his points, but we have to recall he was writing for an educated audience that was very interested in these ‘spiritual’ questions, and not above enjoying some sophisticated repartee at the same time.  So, he dwells with glee upon the burning of one temple and the incineration of its sacred idol that claimed the life of a high priest who tried to save it.  What!  Your all-powerful gods not only could not save themselves from a mere fire, but couldn’t even lift a finger to save the priest who tries to save them? What sort of gods are these, he asks?  I’m waiting for the clearcut demonstrations of the beneficent power of the Christian god that comes later on.

1200 years later on, I’m halfway through Don Quixote, the novel, or is it a chronicle?, or maybe just a daydream of a bookworm on drugs, and an argument is underway.  The Don, his squire Sancho, and a few local people with some learning are discussing the first part of The Adventures of Don Quixote which was just published.  Everyone’s talking about it!  The second part is coming soon.  [I am reading the second part.]  The characters compare themselves to their depiction in the novel, pointing out inaccuracies and complaining a bit of how they are shown.  The author of the second part will, it is hoped, be better than that of the first.  After all, it is known that there is another version of the story circulating that is a downright fraud, a blatant ripoff of the idea, written and published by some hacks.  For his part, Sancho is peeved that the story is a little too accurate for comfort regarding his humiliation at the inn, when he was hurled into the air on a trampoline-blanket by some tricksters.  Some verbal trickery from the Don assures him that he wasn’t really there, even if his body was.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

June 16, 2010

While the mariners were landing in the New World (see previous post), the Renaissance intellectual literati were carrying on with their pagan wet dream in a dream.  Published in 1499, and a bestseller for centuries, I just finished Hypnerotomachia Poliphili [other posts] and I can confidently say that it is the weirdest book I have read.  Here are a few samples of the text which, as the translator tells us in his forward, has been considerably pruned of invented words and bizarre phrases to make it flow better for the modern reader.

One of the many architectural wonders Poliphilio dreams, and describes at tremendous length:

The threshold of the doorway was made from an immense leek-green stone, whose tough surface was marred with a scattering of white, black, and grey spots and various other indistinct stains.  The straight antis-columns rested on this, standing one pace form the edge of the threshold with their inner sides smooth and lustrous but their outer faces notably carved.  There was not sight of hinges either on the threshold, or above, nor any indications of iron hooks retaining the half-capitals which were of the same stone.  Above this there curved the arched beam or semicircle, with the requisite lineaments and measured fascias of the beam, namely balls or berries and spindles, arranged by tens as if threaded on a string; dog’s ears; sinuous or lapped rinceaux in antique style, with their stalks.  The spine, wedge, or keystone of the arch was worthy of admiration for its bold and subtle design and its elegant finish, which make it a splendid sight to see.

In his dream, Poliphilio meets an enticing nymph:

The white breasts were left voluptuously open as far as to reveal the round nipples,  The little virginal body rested on straight legs, and little feet, some of the bare within antique sandals what were held on by golden thongs that passed between the bi and the middle toes, near the little toe, and right around the heel, to join neatly above the instep in an artistic bow.  Some were in shoes, tightly fastened with golden hooks: others wore boots with soles of crimson and other gay colors, such as were never seen on Gaius Caligula, the first to wear them.  Some had high boots slit around their with and fleshy calves; others, slippers with masterly fasteners of gold and silk. Many wore antique Sicyonian shoes, and a few had fine silken socks, with golden laces decorated with gems.

Still in his dream, he finds Polia, and is invited into a pagan love-fest:

Does Mars dream?

Take your pleasure of me for a all days to come, and you will feel comfort and contentment that make you forget your former torments and past misfortunes:  they will dissolve under my caresses and kindnesses just as the mists, rising and thickening from the all-ruling earth are dispersed by forceful winds, as dust-motes float and vanish in the air.  Now take this amorous kiss’ (here he embraced me in virginal fashion) as the gauge of my inflamed heart, conceived from my excessive love.”  And as he hugged me tightly, my little round purple mouth mingled its moisture with his , savoring sucking, and giving the sweetest little bites as our tongues entwined around each other.

There is much sighing, some dying, some reviving, then dying more, then sighing, and loving and entwining.  But in the end, Poliphilio awakes, and it’s all over.  He curses the jealous sun that rose and ended his nightime bliss.

Meanwhile, back with the strife of love in a dream…

March 29, 2010

Our trusty Poliphilo has met up with his beloved Polia and is led hither and yon by her.  He can barely restrain himself when he sits beside her:  She is so beautiful, so celestially dazzling that his blood is inflamed, he is short of breath, and all he can imagine is throwing himself on her, moving his hands over her breasts, unlacing those delightful red leather slippers with the blue silk laces and half-moon ornaments, and…  Yes, that’s the level of detail he goes into as he sings her praises – he loves her clothes, and every square inch of alabaster glowing skin they conceal.  Which does he love more?  It’s not always clear.  But, he does restrain himself, and she directs him towards some absolutely fascinating classical ruins that he must go see.  How could he resist?  Antique architecture makes his heart beat (and his manhood grow rigid?) as much as Polia’s goddess-like forehead does.

Amidst all the broken architecture are numerous urns and plaques with incriptions in Latin telling of the woes encountered by lovers cursed by fortune.  Included among them is a married couple that died on their wedding night, before consummating their love, when their house collapsed, crushing them to death in each other’s arms.  None of these sorry tales – mostly involving spurned or lost lovers who take their own lives – cools Poliphilio’s love.

The images below show a massive architectural ensemble that Mr. P. finds and describes in great detail.  I was reminded of this painting by Cosima Tura, one of my favorites, that is in the National Gallery in London.  Tura was from Ferrara, midway between Venice, where Colonna, the author the Hypnerotomachia, lived, and Florence.  He painted this at the same time that Hypnerotomachia was being written, but years before it was printed and published in the famous Aldus edition in Venice.    Click on the images to see enlargements.

Perfection: nowhere to go but down

March 19, 2010

In the Preface to Part II of The Lives of the Artists, Vasari presents his theory on the history of western art, an idea that we take for granted today, that the Italians of the 13th century (Cimabue and Giotto) revived the arts that were decrepit and moribund.  He says that they were reborn, a renaissance, and from that point onward to his own day, they continually improved until they reached a peak of accomplishment with the painting, sculpture, and architecture of Michelangelo and his contemporaries.  Today, we call that the High Renaissance.  But…then what?

…and I may safely declare that its art has achieved everything which could possibly be permitted to an imitator of Nature, and that this period has risen so high that there is more reason to fear its decline than to expect further advances.

Nowhere to go but down.  Decline-ism!  The decadence.  The inevitable decay from the classic ideal…

This idea is so deeply ingrained in our thinking, and it fascinates me, but I don’t agree with it.  Perhaps in Vasari’s day it was a new twist on an old  notion, in that he felt the peak had been reached in his own day.  The Greeks had gone on about The Golden Age, sometime long before what we see as the classical apogee of ancient civilization, and felt that they were living in an age of iron.  That the best times, the most beautiful times are long behind us is such a common idea – when I was a kid, things were better…Nowadays, everything is going to the dogs!…People didn’t used to do that sort of thing… – but it is often little more than nostalgia and wishful thinking.  The Golden Age is one of the more serious historicist myths of The Fall:  we were good once, but since then, we have decayed.  With Vasari, it is more of an anxiety.

See how linear his thinking is too!  Picture a graph like this one, with time moving to the right, and artistic accomplishment going up and down.  One line, we move in one direction through time, in one place.  But what if instead of two dimensions, we had three or four, or N?  A peak in one sort of perfection at one time and place is not necessarily superior to a peak somewhere else, in some other context, of some other type.  Of course, Vasari didn’t think that way for a variety of reasons.

The idea of this “natural” cycle in the arts – birth, growth, maturity, decay, death,  and re-birth with luck, is obviously born of the universal experience of life and death that people have.  It’s useful to a point, but the problem is identifying just what’s the peak, and what’s the trough, and doing so in a way that is somewhat objective.  There is also the problem of scale, or temporal parochialism.  Some people, taking a very long view, might see western art as still developing towards some very arcane, ideal state that appeals to them.  Modernists at the turn of the 20th century did not so much worship the past golden age of the Renaissance as feel oppressed and exhausted by it.  Duchamp declared the end of retinal art.  In a way, they confirmed Vasari:  the Renaissance had gone as far as one could go in imitating Nature, so they stopped trying to do that!

The anxiety of being at the peak is common in geopolitical talk as well.  Decline-ism, defeatism. The Decline of the West by Spengler, and Kennedy’s much touted The Rise and Fall of Great Powers come to mind.  In Spengler’s case, it was metaphysical dry rot; in Kennedy, it is the relative decline of one power and the relative rise of another that matters.  Are we on our way up or on our way down?  The funny thing is we don’t know.  In the Middle Ages, everyone knew which way they were headed!  How’s that for progress!

I think this image brings it all together nicely:  modern circus fare in the form of Vanna White, hostess of the TV show, Wheel of Fortune; decadent art brought to you in the form of nudes by Sir Edward Burne-Jones; and High Renaissance art, nudes in the manner of Michelangelo.

Giotto’s ‘O’: The beauty of perfect forms

March 16, 2010

In my last post, I went on about Pythagoras, Number, Nature, etc. etc.  Now, by way of a humorous follow-up, here’s a story from Vasari’s Life of Giotto:

It is no wonder therefore that Pope Benedict sent one of his courtiers into Tuscany to see what sort of a man he was and what his works were like, for the Pope was planning to have some paintings made in S Peter’s. This courtier, on his way to see Giotto and to find out what other masters of painting and mosaic there were in Florence, spoke with many masters in Sienna, and then, having received some drawings from them, he came to Florence. And one morning going into the workshop of Giotto, who was at his labours, he showed him the mind of the Pope, and at last asked him to give him a little drawing to send to his Holiness.  Giotto, who was a man of courteous manners, immediately took a sheet of paper, and with a pen dipped in red, fixing his arm firmly against his side to make a compass of it, with a turn of his hand he made a circle so perfect that it was a marvel to see it Having done it, he turned smiling to the courtier and said, “Here is the drawing.” But he, thinking he was being laughed at, asked, “Am I to have no other drawing than this?” “This is enough and too much,” replied Giotto, “send it with the others and see if it will be understood.”

The messenger, seeing that he could get nothing else, departed ill pleased, not doubting that he had been made a fool of. However, sending the other drawings to the Pope with the names of those who had made them, he sent also Giotto’s, relating how he had made the circle without moving his arm and without compasses, which when the Pope and many of his courtiers understood, they saw that Giotto must surpass greatly all the other painters of his time. This thing being told, there arose from it a proverb which is still used about men of coarse clay, “You are rounder than the O of Giotto,” which proverb is not only good because of the occasion from which it sprang, but also still more for its significance, which consists in its ambiguity, tondo, “round,” meaning in Tuscany not only a perfect circle, but also slowness and heaviness of mind.

click for more

Nature & Number, Pythagoras & Fudge

March 16, 2010

A vibrating string, a perfect structure...

In his Lives of the Artists, Giorgio Vasari writes of Filippo Brunelleschi, the architect of the great dome on the cathedral in Florence,

…we should never turn up our noses when we meet people who in their physical appearance do not possess the initial grace and beauty that Nature should bestow upon skillful artisans when they come into the world…

Filippo was a great genius, but not all that good looking.  Note the use of the word should in the phrase “…that Nature should bestow upon skillful artisans.”  How can Nature do anything that it should not do?  Just whose rules does Nature obey, if not its own?  The idea here, that Nature has done something wrong, made a mistake, had a little hiccough, in making a great genius an ugly man, or at least, insignificant in appearance, may be common to Italy, or to Renaissance thinkers, but it is also part of an immensely deep and broad current of thought in western culture since the Ancients.  Outward beauty reflects inward perfection.  Personal beauty is a manifestation of the soul’s purity.

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

John Keats

And if beauty is the emanation of the soul, why should an artistic genius not be beautiful?  How could it happen?  It’s a violation of the nature of the universe, the ordered universe in which truths are manifest in the order and lovliness of things.  And the most beauteous things of all  are the pure things, the mathematical entities, the Pure Forms of Plato, the Ideas.

Historians of  ideas (Man of Roma included) agree that this great torrent of intellectual traditions has its source with Pythagoras, the student of Thales, and a predecessor of Plato and Socrates.  He was a brilliant thinker, a mystic, an analyst, a mathematician, and the founder of a cult that has lived on to our day in various forms.  In the wonderful collection of brief mathematical lives, Gems of Calculus, he is referred to as 3/5 genius, 2/5 sheer fudge . Bertrand Russell appraises him similarly, and that is no small compliment!

From his followers’ mystical preoccupation with Number, and awestruck encounters with the order of the universe, Plato developed his metaphysical notions, Platonists mixed Plato with eastern cults, early Christians mixed Plato with Christ, later Christians mixed it all up into neo-Platonism, the Renaissance rediscovered paganism, Platonism, and mysticism allied to the beauty of art, and secular and mystical philosophers of the succeeding ages remained in thrall to the notions of:

  • A universe explicable in terms of number (Do I have to point out the obvious pop-Pythagorean nightmare – The Matrix, and Keanu/Neo?)
  • Beauty founded on elegance of formulation, mathematical economy, and aximomatic inevitability
  • Truth as proof, as in geometry
  • Knowledge as proof, as geometry, as deductive reasoning – NOT as mere dirty, error prone, contingent experience
  • The nature of the universe revealed through intellectual intuition and analysis and NOT through experience
  • The truth as imminent, but not obvious

Just a listing of these notions evokes so many associations, it’s clear Mr. P. was onto something big.  Did he invent these ideas?  Probably not.  But he was the first to articulate them in a way that had sticking power in the Western tradition.  I would guess that these notions have their roots far deeper, in the human organisms evolution as an information processing being.  The intellectual excitement of these ideas is a refined form of the fundamental “Aha!” feeling that comes with discovery…of food…of the lever…of the power of fire….

In our own day, these ideas live on, certainly in religious rhetoric, but they are also increasingly problematic as I shall discuss later.  Consider just Thomas Pynchon’s novel, V, in which a young woman, Esther, is having an affair with a plastic surgeon, Dr. Shale Shoenmaker (Dr. Shale Beauty-maker). He wants to give Esther a nose job, she is not sure why she should have one.  It’s a popular comic theme from the 1950’s.  The Mad Magazine song goes,

I once knew a girl with such a big schnoz,
she couldn’t get a boyfriend, or a job!
So she got a nose job!
Yeah, yeah, yeah!

The good doctor tells Esther that he wants to bring out the true beauty within her, make her outward experience in harmony with the inward nature of her soul, rectify, improve on the work of nature.  It is a pure Renaissance Neo-Platonic argument about art, truth, and beauty, but he was being ruthlessly satirical.  And of course, in our Botoxed present, who can deny that we have gotten something a bit wrong with the beauty-truth-body equation?

How did this concept get going?  It was the music.  The Pythagoreans noticed that by causing a string to vibrate and sound a tone, they could create pleasing scales of tones by holding down the string at set increments of its length, effectively shortening the string.  Thus, the musical intervals were codified, if not quite born.  Simple ratios, pleasing scales.  In the visual realm, pleasing proportions, the Golden Mean, which lives on in dimensions of our rooms and the size of a standard piece of writing paper.

Something always puzzled me about this, however, since I am not musical.  How did they know the scales were pleasing, were right? They just heard it, but other people heard differently.  Asian tonal scales are not the same as ours.  The de-tuned scales of the blues and other genres are pleasing to their audiences, but hardly classical.  My nom de plume, Lichanos (more in my By Way of Explanation), refers to a particular ancient scale.  Was it a deviant one?    Was there some fudging of the scales at the creation?  Did they weed out the not-quite-right tones so that only the ones with “good” ratios remained?  I await the response of the archaeo-musicologists amongst you!

I said earlier that this current of thought is not always good – it was very much an impediment to the development of science.  Ideas that were not “beautiful” were discarded.  Ideas not deduced from geometry and pure forms were considered suspect.  Even in Newton’s day, he felt he must prove his theories twice:  once as geometrical demonstrations that fill the pages of his Principia, and once in terms of argument that are derived from his laws of motion and his observations. In science, the truth is not always the beauty of Pythagoras and Plato.  Avogadro’s Number, without which we cannot solve chemical equations, is an ugly number.  Planck’s constant is not pretty either.  The acceleration of gravity (32.2 feet per second per second) is not lovely.  Don’t even mention the contant of universal gravitational attraction!  Even so, the lure of number remains, as an obstacle and as a motivation for science.

This split between two modes of apprehending the universe is represented in Raphael’s famous image of the School of Athens.  Plato gestures upward towards the empyrean realm.  Aristotle points downward towards the earth.

Plato dominated western thought until the great resurrection of The Philosopher, as the schoolmen called Aristotle, in the 12th century Renaissance.  He had his own scientific “issues” and the reign of Platonism was by then, in any case, well established.

The seduction of the geometric!  The fact that geometry revealed incommensurable, irrational numbers only placed a slight speed bump in front of the onward rush of the Pythagorean fleet.

If  a=1, and b=1, then c=square root of 2.  Punch that into your calculator and see what a nice, beautiful number you get!  Still, the Numbers as the final reach of truth, the ultimate ground, the thing in itself carried on.  How was it that mathematics could tell us about this earthly realm?  Fire a missile, from a canon or a slingshot, and it follows a parabolic arc (Gravity’s Rainbow) to its final resting place.  We can predict its path precisely – why?  The disjunction between experience and the pure realm of mathematics is bridged in physics, but how?  Kant wrestled with this and concluded…well, another time.

Today, the debased form of this issue lives on, melded with religious fundamentalism, in the argument against Darwin from Intelligent Design.  How could the world be anything but designed, according to plan?  There is a whiff of the old pagan, Pythagoras, here.

For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. — Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

William Wordsworth

Postscript:  Giotto and Perfect Circles