Monday, October 14, 2013

Review: The Enigmatic Caravaggio

I have just finished reading Matt Rees' "A Name In Blood" - a historical novel on the life of Caravaggio - I would hesitate to call it a biography though it certainly is a retelling of his life.

Alessio Boni as Caravaggio 
Most people with an interest in renaissance art and artists would be familiar with this notorious and yet enigmatic artist, his famous works, and his untimely and mysterious death. Just recently I had watched a two part series on Caravaggio starring Alessio Boni on SBS - and this is what drew me to Rees' book - I was searching for answers as to how this man met his ultimate demise, and Rees certainly puts forward a plausible theory.

From the Web Museum:
"Caravaggio was born Michelangelo Merisi on Sept. 28, 1573, in Caravaggio, Italy. Orphaned at age 11, he was apprenticed to the painter Simone Peterzano of Milan for four years. At some time between 1588 and 1592, Caravaggio went to Rome and worked as an assistant to painters of lesser skill. About 1595 he began to sell his paintings through a dealer. The dealer brought Caravaggio to the attention of Cardinal Francesco del Monte.

Early in 1608 Caravaggio went to Malta and was received as a celebrated artist. Fearful of pursuit, he continued to flee for two more years, but his paintings of this time were among the greatest of his career. After receiving a pardon from the pope, he was wrongfully arrested and imprisoned for two days. A boat that was to take him to Rome left without him, taking his belongings. Misfortune, exhaustion, and illness overtook him as he helplessly watched the boat depart. He collapsed on the beach and died a few days later on July 18, 1610."

Caravggio - A Life:
Caravaggio - wikipedia
Caravaggio - Biography dot com
Caravaggio - from Caravaggio dot com

Books on Caravaggio:
Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane by Andrew Graham-Dixon
Caravaggio: The Complete Works by Rossella Vodret
Caravaggio And His Legacy by J. Patrice Marandel
Discovering Caravaggio: The Art Lover's Guide … by Stefano Zuffi 
M : The Man Who Became Caravaggio by Peter Robb 
Caravaggio: A Life by Helen Langdon 
Caravaggio by John T. Spike 
Caravaggio: A Novel by Christopher Peachment 
Caravaggio: A Passionate Life Hardcover by Desmond Seward 
Caravaggio by Catherine Puglisi 
Caravaggio: The Artist and His Work by Sybille Ebert-Schifferer 

The Art of Caravaggio:
Caravaggio - at Art dot com 
Caravaggio - The Metropolitan Museum of Art 

Caravaggio on the Screen: 
Caravaggio on SBS (2008) 
Caravaggio - YouTube 

Caravaggio in the News: 
Derek Jarman's Caravaggio - Press Release

Saturday, October 12, 2013

October Additions

As the last of the September additions arrived in the post a couple of days ago, October's list has been sent off. Here are the tomes for October:

Elfrida by Elizabeth Norton
Contrary to popular belief, Anglo- Saxon England had queens, with the tenth-century Elfrida being the most powerful and notorious of them all. She was the first woman to be crowned Queen of England, sharing her husband King Edgar's imperial coronation at Bath in 973. 

Cnut: England's Viking King 1016-35 by M.K. Lawson
King Cnut ruled England from 1017 to 1035 and left behind him a legacy of peace, law and order. However, the beginnings of his kingship were less auspicious. He was a cruel and vicious warrior, who invaded England with his father Swegen Forkbeard, perhaps at a tender age.

The Military Leadership of Matilda of Canossa, 1046-1115 by David J. Hay
This is the first account in English of the entire, forty year military career of one of the most powerful women of the Middle Ages. Challenging the boundaries between military and gender history, it explains how one famous noblewoman rose to the defense of the reforming papacy, defeated the Holy Roman Emperor and turned the tide of the first great war between Church and State.

Jack the Ripper's Secret Confession by David Monaghan
While Jack the Ripper spread fear throughout the East End of London in 1888, another man stalked the streets hunting flesh. He called himself Walter. Walter printed up his memoir of sex under the title "My Secret Life". This book shows how this notorious work of Victorian pornography reveals that its author had the means to be Jack the Ripper. (Yes, I am an avid Ripperologist)

The Byzantine Lady by Donald M. Nicol
A lively collection of ten biographies of aristocratic women of the Byzantine empire in its final years.

Women Who Run with Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes
Within every woman there is a wild and natural creature, a powerful force, filled with good instincts, passionate creativity, and ageless knowing. Her name is Wild Woman, but she is an endangered species. Though the gifts of wildish nature come to us at birth, society's attempt to "civilize" us into rigid roles has plundered this treasure, and muffled the deep, life-giving messages of our own souls. Without Wild Woman, we become over-domesticated, fearful, uncreative, trapped. 

The Anarchy of Stephen and Matilda by Stephen M. Taylor
Join Matilda Plantagenet in her violent struggle to overcome sexism in medieval England. Share her aspirations as she attempts to balance love and motherhood with the ultimate political career. Experience her frustrations as she battles sins of the flesh, dogmas of the Church and her archnemsis, the beguiling Stephen of Blois. (I am seriously hoping that this is not a novel but  non-fictional account of this period).

Monday, October 7, 2013

Empress Dowager Cixi

Bel Mooney's review of Jung Chang's "Empress Dowager Cixi" from the Mail Online:
She was a version of Margaret Thatcher, in a different age, an alien culture. From humble origins yet a natural leader, she used a powerful mixture of intelligence and natural charm to get her way, fighting a single-minded path to the top.

Autocratic and determined, she would let few things or people stand in the way of her ambition to change history.

The lady knew how to manipulate men who were weaker - which was most, even in a male-dominated culture. Powerful rivals held no terror for her, and heaven help those who made her their enemy.

Depending on whether you’re a detractor or an admirer, she was ruthless or tough-minded, devious or shrewd, cruel or simply pragmatic according to the standards of the age. Nobody can argue that this stateswoman made a significant mark on history, yet history’s jury is still out.

Was she an innovator or a despot? The answer is almost certainly - both.

Other Links:
Article on Cixi featured in the Smithsonian Magazine:

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Book Critics & Their Reviews

A couple of articles questioning where have all the critical reviews gone:

From the Atlantic Wire: Where have all the mean book reviews gone?
Literary critics have gone soft. Despite all the snark, sass, and anger in media and online today, one area has become remarkably nicer — book reviews. A look around the latest literary criticisms leaves you feeling upbeat, even excited about coming books, much to their publicist's delight. So where have all the hatchet jobs gone?

There really is something lost in the lack of hatchet reviews nowadays. They're fun! And even for the author, they might not be so bad. The Internet feeds on anger and hatred, and this can spill over to books. 

From the New RepublicThis Guy Thinks We Shouldn't Have Negative Book Reviews. Two Thumbs Down!
In a strange and unconvincing essay in The New Yorker, Lee Siegel, who made his name as a slashing and smart critic (for a time at The New Republic), writes that he is through with negative book reviews. He mentions a Clive James essay from several months back which lamented the lack of nasty reviews in American publications. But Siegel notes, correctly, that politeness has not been a permanent feature of American reviewing, and goes on to mention the harsh pieces that appeared in the inagural issue of The New York Review of Books fifty years ago.

Lee Siegel's article - Burying the Hatchet - featured on the New Yorker, which started it all:
I didn’t realize how strong my revulsion against negative reviewing had become until some months ago I read, in the New York Times, an essay by the critic Clive James titled “Whither the Hatchet Job?” James laments the inability of American critics to lay into their scrivening colleagues with the exuberance practiced by their British counterparts. “America,” James wrote, “does polite literary criticism well enough. And how: there is a new Lionel Trilling on every campus.” In contrast to the soporific American scene James sets the thriving vitality of book reviewing in Britain, where “ripping somebody’s reputation is recognized blood sport.”

And Clive James' Wither the Hatchet Job which is featured on the New York Times:
In Britain, the realm of book reviewing is still known as Grub Street though the actual Grub Street vanished long ago. But its occasionally vicious spirit lives on; one of the marks of Grub Street is that the spleen gets a voice. Ripping somebody’s reputation is recognized blood sport. Shredding a new book is a kind of fox hunting that is still legal today.

Such critical violence is far less frequent in America. Any even remotely derogatory article in an American journal is called “negative,” and hardly any American publication wants to be negative.

Fascinating Book Reviews

Two book reviews caught my eye today so I thought I would share them with you here.

The first is Jim Cullen's review of Reza Aslan's "Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazereth" which featured on the History News Network:
Aslan believes the detachment of Jesus from his immediate political context was greatly facilitated by the apostle Paul, who, despite never knowing Jesus personally, managed to wrest control of the movement away from those (notably Jesus's brother, James) who did, and who tried to keep the Judaic dimension of his life central. It was Paul who made Jesus of Nazareth Jesus Christ, Hellenizing him for a broader (and often more educated) audience. Aslan, however, clearly prefers Jesus the man, who he concludes is "every bit as compelling, charismatic and praiseworthy as Jesus the Christ. He is, in short, someone worth believing in." 

The second is Lee and J.J. MacFadden's review of "Food in Medieval Times" by Melitta Weiss Adamson which featured on the TriCities dot com:
The book begins with a timeline, starting in 451 A.D. and ending in 1500 A.D. In the introduction, we are told that the Europeans in this time period were unfamiliar with the potato, tomato, turkey, corn or cacao. We are also informed that cookbooks from this time period did not survive very well; nearly all of those that did survive are from the 14 and 15 centuries, lending little to no information as to how food was prepared in the early Middle Ages. In addition, these cookbooks were compiled and copied by the educated elite, which means the food of the lower classes remains somewhat of a mystery.

Investing In Rare Books

As a lover of books, and an avid collector of tomes both old and new, I came across this interesting article which appeared in The National on investing in those gems from the past and, sometimes, our not so distant present.

It is the stories behind the stories that really appeal. The tantalising inscriptions, long-forgotten messages and illegible scribbles.

”Books are a physical touchstone to the past,” says Margaret Ford, the international head of the books department at Christie’s. “And something that makes it personal, like a signed copy - that association is extremely special. Just knowing that book was actually in that author’s hands at some point in time, or knowing that I’m holding something that Churchill once held. Or owning an early edition of Virgil from 1470 - something that is more than 500 years old - and being able to hold that in your hands.”

There is nothing better than rummaging through a book sale or book store to find that old dusty gem that you want for your own personal library.  There are many such tomes on my over-stacked shelves - many well read, many unread, but all treated with love and care.  To say that the age of the book has long been overtaken but its digital cousin is a fallacy - books will always remain with us - especially when the world is still full of us bookworms who are also insatiable collectors.