Brief Review of ‘The Rise and Fall of The House of Medici’ by Christopher Hibbert

The Medici are one of those families of which a reputation centred around ostensible luxury has arisen over the centuries: vaunted for their sophistication and prosperousness and vilified for their ‘usury’ and corruption. What cannot be denied is their effect on Florentine, and Italian, history as well as their effects on all cultural developments that ensconce the renaissance.

This book is one I bought a long time ago and has subsequently been sitting on my bookshelf, content to be left alone. And so, with some anticipation, now that I have widened the scope of what I read, I picked it up and was instantly absorbed. A fairly small book, given it covers several centuries, it is over 300 pages long. Hibbert, a popular writer, is a perpetual biographer of the past; the temporal range of his writings cover well above a Millenia of human history.

It would be a gross mischaracterisation to portray this book as one one written in the vein of a ‘grand narrative’ or ‘diplomatic history’ of many history books even if the Medici were at the forefront of Florentine political life for several centuries. Rather, Hibbert organises his book as essentially a series of separate but interlinked biographies of the most popular member of the Medici family. This is punctuated especially by a constant focus on renaissance culture; various sculptors and artists make their way into Hibbert’s prose and there is an occasional whiff of the classical cultures of Greece and Rome hanging over his descriptions:

 

“Yet for Florence, as Cosimo had foreseen, the Council had far happier consequences. As well as profiting the trade of the city, it was an important influence on what was already being spoken of as the Rinascimento. The presence of so many Greek scholars in Florence provided an incalculable stimulus to the quickening interest in classical texts and classical history, in classical art and philosophy, and particularly in the study of Plato, that great hero of the humanists, for so long overshadowed by his pupil, Aristotle. (Hibbert; p.164)

The sensitivity Hibbert shows to the wider cultural influence of the Medici is interspersed throughout, and it is thoroughly delectable to read; his descriptions of the patronage of Michelangelo by Lorenzo is heavily touched upon as well as Cosimo’s interactions with Brunelleschi. Hibbert naturally focuses on the earlier years of the Medici: their nascence, fantastic rise, and stay at the apex of Italian city-state politics for two-three centuries. The later years of the Medici (16-18thC) occupy a smaller proportion of the book which is no great tragedy as the earlier Medici were certainly the more interesting to read about as opposed to the Tuscan rulers of the later Medici family.

Of course, Hibbert is attentive to religious matters, particularly the two Medici Popes and especially Leo X. What is at the fore of Hibbert’s re-telling of the fortunes of the Medici is his succinct but bountiful prose; he has clearly inquired into every facet of the Medici’s history and brought out the best and most alluring stories. Granted, there is a deficit of social history but that is to be expected in a popular book of this kind, whose primary readership are perhaps less interested in the conditions of the lower Italian classes in 14th Century Florence than the opulence and refinement of the Medici and other noble families in Florence.

There is little in the way of negativity that I can write about the book save that I dislike that many plates and illustrations, like with this book, are placed in the centre of the book. This, I actively dislike yet I can imagine it being a practical publishing issue but it would be good to not have to constantly flick through a book to see an illustration of what an author is describing.

Nevertheless, the extensive bibliography, notes on artworks; portraits; sculptures and buildings are to be commended, if only for the opportunity it provides for readers to find more books based on the notes. The book is a fantastic introduction to the Medici family and by extension, some elements of the Rinascimento.

Stoic Logic.

“By the term ‘Logic’ today we usually mean the formal analysis of arguments. While this sort of abstract reasoning was an important part of logic in antiquity, ancient logic was much broader that its modern counterpart. ‘Logic’ translates ‘logike‘, and ‘logike‘ is that part of philosophy that examines logos – reason, language or argument – in all of its forms, including formal arguments, rhetorical arguments, speech, grammar, philosophy of language and truth (i.e. epistemology). The formal abstract reasoning that now constitutes logic was known in antiquity as one part of dialectic, and dialectic was just one part of  ‘logike’.

Stoicism. John Sellars. 2006. (Pg 55.)

An excellent summation of the disjuncture between the contemporary meaning of logic and its ancient meaning.

 

 

Woolf and Friendship.

Whilst reading Mrs Dalloway, a particular paragraph was impressed in my mind:

The strange thing, on looking back, was the purity, the integrity, of her feeling for Sally. It was not like one’s feeling for a man. It was completely disinterested , and besides, it had a quality which could only exist between women, between women just grown up. It was protective, on her side; sprang from a sense of being in league together, a presentiment of something that was bound to part them (they spoke of marriage always as a catastrophe), which led to this chivalry, this protective feeling which was much more on her side than Sally’s. For in those days she was completely reckless; did the most idiotic things out of bravado; bicycled round the parapet on the terrace; smoked cigars. Absurd, she was – very absurd. But the charm was overpowering, to her at least, so that she could remember standing in her bedroom at the top of the house holding the hot-water can in her hands and saying aloud, ‘She is beneath this roof…She is beneath this roof!’

Of this type of friendship, I have always lacked a way of describing it till I read the above paragraph in Mrs Dalloway. Woolf fleshes this out with some panache. I was taken aback reading it. Woolf reaches into the psyche and lays bare not even Clarissa’s motivations but her being at that very moment of time. Sally is more than just a reflection, but a point in the world for her to pour her soul into, and love unconditionally and have no expectation of any return. It is a love somewhere between what the Greeks would call philia and agape. This feeling is seemingly ephemeral and Woolf captures that so vividly in the above passage. This part of the novella is one I may return to later.

Pikes on a Ship: Defence of the Achaeans.

Reading about the past is a delightful pastime. What is even more illuminating is the moment when text and image match, especially with ‘primary sources’. This is especially invigorating the further back one goes in time, particularly in the ancient world where visual depictions of reality and abstractions can at times be indecipherable (a simple issue, I think, resulting from temporal distance). Art in the ancient world is at times a matter of our perception, let alone the reaction of those who viewed ‘art’ in the ancient world.

Classical literature is often littered with visual descriptions of singular moment recorded by paintings or sculpture, and even more conspicuously, Mythology. Statues of Herakles, other mythological heroes and Gods and Goddesses abounded in the ancient world. Of Course, Ekphrasis is quite common in parts of ancient Greek literature, but a description of warfare from Homer’s Iliad that is also displayed in a painting from the Minoan-era is even rarer. One example is in Homer’s Iliad, when the poet narrates the defence of the Achaean’s camp from the ferocious onslaught of Hector and the Trojans and in true Homeric style, he describes the event in over several books with seemingly tangential yet highly pertinent details that add more colour to his verse in a cool and satiated style.

In book 15:

“So the Trojans swept over the wall with a loud yell, driving their chariots on, and began a close-combat fight by the sterns: the Trojans from chariots, with double-edged spears, and the Achaeans, after climbing high on to their black ships, with the long jointed pikes that they had lying in the ships for fighting at sea, clothed at their point in bronze.”   The Iliad, Book Fifteen. Oxford World’s Classics, translated by Anthony Verity.

Verity writes in his endnotes to how a Theran fresco displays this phenomenon, where pikes are used on ships, being glued together. I confess I have no idea how they would have been used in such a context, but it is the display of it in painting that captures my imagination. The image below shows, after much looking, what I think Verity alludes to in his endnote to the above quote:

Bronze-age Ship with pikes.

Bronze-age Ship with pikes in the bow.

 

The image is taken from the Athens National Archaeological Museum and the painting is located in Akrotiri, Santorini. I believe it is dated to around sometime in the first half of the 2nd Millenium BC. Anyway, it is a joy to behold.

Regarding Translation of Plato’s Imagined Republic.

“The title Republic is a bad translation of the Greek politeia. The Greek word does occur a number of times in the book, as well as forming the title, and in this translation it has invariably been rendered as ‘political system’. Politeia is the public and political life of a community; in Latin this is res publica, ‘public business’; Greek words used to be referred to by their Latin or Latinized titles: hence Republic. The book, however, is not by any stretch of the imagination a treatise on republicanism or Republicanism. Nevertheless, the title is immovable.”

Introduction to Republic, translated by Robin Waterfield. Oxford World Classics.

It is because of information like this that I do prefer Oxford World Classics (OWC) over Penguin Classics. The bibliography, notes and introduction in OWC make them, I think, the best popular series of world literature.

Regarding Warhol at The Whitworth Art Gallery.

If there is one artist who had subsumed the various aesthetics and styles of the the Modernist & Post-Modernist artists, and brought it to it’s qualitative apotheosis (at least what I think) then that artist is Andy Warhol and his oeuvre, pop-art. In an exhibition at the Whitworth Art Gallery, Andy Warhol’s pieces, lesser known and more popular, are brought to life.

The exhibition brings together a number of his works, mainly held otherwise at other galleries in the UK. Art post-1900’s has baffled me; mainly, I think because of the erosion of traditional and ‘objective’ value that has been in the repertoire of traditional art history. Whether that is progressive and good or bad and ridiculous, is entirely for each self to ponder in his/her own time. Rightly, and tediously, this brings to the fore the question of ‘art’ itself, and Warhol is a perfect vehicle with which to briefly broach this, I think.

 

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Andy Warhol self-portrait.

 

There is no doubt his imagery is striking, and his craft exudes from all of his pieces.

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Skulls. On loan from the Tate.

 

There is a bizarre mixture of the themes of death, idolatry and capitalism rife throughout the exhibition, and although the themes are largely confined to various rooms, they make for an unwanted smorgasbord of pessimism. Is his work beautiful?; the way we might consider Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel beautiful?. I do not think so, primarily because of the value of Warhol’s ideas; he is not trying to evoke a sense of sterile beauty ensconced within a meta-narrative seen in Renaissance paintings but something entirely different. It is the individualism of his experiences and society’s transformation that I think are rife throughout the exhibition, and just as potent today as they were relevant thirty or even forty years ago. His ‘Skulls’, I think is a prime example of his thoughts about death, his brief sojourn there but also engages with the themes of originality and authenticity. With just a few tweaks to the colour palette, what is authentic and original suddenly becomes more complex than attributing an artist as the progenitor as any given painting or photo, or indeed, ascribing originality to it.

 

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Christ $9.98 (negative and positive) 1985-6.

The ‘christ’ painting I thought was particularly playful and ironic, in light of his general art and what is now considered art.

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Hamburger. On loan from the Tate.

 

Walter Benjamin wrote that the removal of ritual and the advent of mechanical reproduction of art led to a wholesale change in art and society as a whole, that ritual underlay much of what we might consider art for the majority of human history, and that technological advances since the advent of photography have destroyed the ritual aspect of art only to be replaced by the political. I disagree with him, but his insight into art is valuable, and there is no doubt that with the changing nature of art since modernity, the political courses throughout art, especially here, in Warhol’s art in the exhibition. His imagery deftly points towards the capitalistic nature of ‘Americana’, and of society and its descent into capitalism with all its ideological glories. But fundamentally, and this point vexes me, it seems pop-art and Warhol can only be understood in the ideological construct of the day (which permeates even now). Whether this is what Warhol intended, that he ‘owns’ the nature of his work and can only be understood in the context of his existence, I do not know, but the response his work elicits is framed by a particular narrative.

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Dollar Sign. 1981.

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Gun. 1981.

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Electric Chair. 1967.

 

I thoroughly enjoyed the exhibition, and I do think Warhol’s pre-eminence in art is deserved, even though I am not particularly a fan of this type of art. Nevertheless, this exhibition is the best exhibition I have been to in a while. It is on at the Whitworth Art Gallery till the 16th April.

Southbank Mosaics

Late last year, I decided to undertake a class for beginners in making mosaics at Southbank Mosaics, a not-for-profit social enterprise located in St.John’s Crypt, South Bank, London. They run courses all year round that last several weeks, targeted towards differing levels of experience. The courses tend to be run by tutors at the social enterprise but occasionally, artists or tutors from elsewhere will occasionally run courses*.

The mosaics course ran for two and a half hours a day, one day a week for six weeks. It was a beginners course but there were two or three other participants in the class who were more advanced, and received their training from the tutor (Paula) accordingly. I had learnt, to some minor degree, how to make a mosaic piece whilst volunteering at Southbank Mosaics earlier but that was only the direct method whereas the indirect method was to be taught in the class. All throughout the classes, Paula was a fantastic tutor whose teaching was fantastic. Providing steady advice, she was always on hand whenever I made an unfortunate mistake.

Prior to the class starting, all participants had to choose a design or image from which they would draw inspiration or try to replicate, in our own way. As I was reading on Xenia paintings at the time (Xenia was a theme of still life displaying hospitality in ancient art) I gravitated towards images of seafood and fruits displayed in Roman paintings or mosaics. The actual image I used in the end is linked here which I cannot display in this blog for licensing reasons. It turns out however, that the image of the fish is from a later period than I thought it was, and the imagery points towards some christian themes, perhaps,  rather than that of Xenia (a mistake I made in haste). The mosaic in question comes from the House of Eustolios on the floor, Kourion, Cyprus, mid 4th Century AD. The Mosaic I made is:

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Using the indirect method, I glued mosaics onto a piece of kraft paper that was the same size of the wooden board that forms the base of the above piece. Of course, this was preceded by hours of cutting and sizing the tesserae that I used in the piece which included ceramic and vitreous glass. In drawing inspiration from the image of the fish I linked to earlier, I also wanted to replicate, in this rather unorthodox context, the black background seen in the Third Style of Roman paintings, particularly from the Imperial Villa at Boscotrecase which I really adore.

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In choosing the colours, I thought inverting the background would be interesting as well as choosing a colour palette for the fish that was either ostentatious (an exotic fish) or reminiscent of colours from one or two abstract mosaics.

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As you may have made out, the laying style is a smorgasbord of differing types. Typically, we were told to lay in the style of Opus Tesselatum where tesserae are arranged horizontally but not in a grid, which I believe is particularly effective for the mosaic I made, so as to display movement and depth. However, due to time constraints brought about by my less-than-average skill at making mosaics, there were times when I had to resort to Opus Regualatum where tesserae are arranged in a grid-like manner. Opus Tesselatum is displayed below:

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Of course, there are imperfections, but for the most part, a good portion of the background in the above picture is done in the Opus Tesselatum style, whereas the image below show a large amount of Opus Regulatum laying style which is easier to do in a hurry:

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After the tesserae were laid onto the kraft paper, black cement was applied to a wooden board the same dimensions as the kraft paper, after which the mosaic was placed over the cement and pressed down into it. After drying for a reasonable amount of time, the kraft paper was removed and grout was used to fill in the gaps between the tesserae. After more time to dry, the almost-completed mosaic was lightly scrubbed with a sponge to remove dust and other imperfections that had accumulated on the surface during the process of mounting the mosaic onto the wooden base.

I found the classes really quite interesting and helpful as well as an experience worth pursuing. I am glad with the mosaic I came away with. More information about Southbank Mosaics can be found here.

 

*Occasionally, a tutor from the renowned Spilimbergo Mosaic School will teach courses on the actual methods used by the Romans.

p.s. Southbank Mosaics also have a replica of the Alexander Mosaic, made by the staff and volunteers at Southbank Mosaics. They have also partially filled in the areas of the left of the mosaic which have been lost to posterity. It is worth seeing!!