Welcome one and all to the sixty ninth volume of the Areopagus. So dark the nights, so brief the days! But I must confess that these late weeks of Autumn are always welcome to me. There is something about the darkness which lends itself to deeper thought and reflection, I find, and that it is the long and starless nights which make me most love the sun that rises and burns away the fogs of dawn. All of which is a long-winded way of saying that there are few things I love more than staying up all the Autumn night to write. As Lord Byron said, and as I have quoted before, and as I would have engraved upon my plate:
And there you have it. Now, before the sun rises, we have an Areopagus to peruse...
The Planets: Neptune, the Mystic
Gustav Holst (1917)
Performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Mysterious Planet by Victor Hugo (1854)
Gustav Holst's Planets is among the most famous works of all 20th century classical music. He wrote it between 1914 and 1917, during the dark days of the First World War. There are seven parts in this suite, each of them named after and themed around the seven planets of the Solar System. Mars, the Bringer of War is far and away the most well-known. Its popularity is immense and its influence, too, has been wide-ranging. Fans of Star Wars or Gladiator will recognise motifs in the soundtracks of John Williams and Hans Zimmer borrowed directly from Holst's Mars. And, I should mention, anybody familiar with the hymn I Vow to Thee, My Country will know that it was based directly on Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity. Despite a few who demurred from some of his more experimental methods, the British public and the world at large has been in love with the Planets ever since their debut in 1918.
But I would like you to read what Imogen Holst, Gustav's daughter, wrote about that original premiere:
For Imogen Holst it was Neptune which stole the show — this, the seventh and final part, was unforgettable. Thus I have included it for you here, not only because of the music itself but also because you perhaps have, despite knowing Mars and Jupiter, likely not listened to Neptune. The rest of the planets are purely instrumental. But here we are greeted by a wordless female chorus from offstage; the only vocal element in the whole suite. A suitably mysterious atmosphere abounds, then, only enhanced by Holst's used of dissonance. Far from the melodious joy of Jupiter or the bombastic drama of Mars, this Neptune is a haunting finale to the Planets. We have embarked upon a veritable journey of the sort that only music can be provide.
What about Pluto, you might ask? It was only discovered in 1930, shortly before Holst's death, and so throughout the 20th century a number of composers attempted to write an eighth part for his suite. But, with Pluto's relegation to the status of dwarf planetry a few years ago, Holst's Planets has become complete once again.
The Father of Food Science
Nicolas Appert, born in 1749, had a topsy-turvy life. The first twenty years of it were spent in rural France, one of eleven children who helped run their parents' inn. He then opened a brewery with his brother and later became chief confectioner to the Count Palatine of Zweibrücken. In 1789 Appert got caught up in the French Revolution. And though he was initially a supporter of the cause, cheering on as they executed Louis XVI, during the Reign of Terror he was, like so many others, arrested and imprisoned. Alas — and thankfully! — Appert avoided execution and was released in 1795. At this point the French military announced a large financial reward for anybody who could create an effective means of preserving food; this would be a vital advantage in war if French soldiers could maintain provisions over longer periods of time.
So Appert got to work. He tried putting food in old champagne bottles or glass jars, sealing them with cork and wax, and then boiling them... and it worked! This was inspired by what French peasants had been doing for centuries; the difference was the Appert approached with a scientific and an industrial mindset. For the next decade he developed and improved upon this process, until in 1806 he had more or less perfected it. Alas, the government did not give him that reward of twelve thousand francs and Appert, a shoddy businessman in any case, declared himself bankrupt. Things changed four years later. In 1810 the government said they would pay him the money if he made his methods public; Appert did so, and the secret of his world-changing discovery was out. Thus, in that same year — 1810 — a British inventor called Peter Durand adopted Appert's methods and chose to use tin cans instead of glass. Within two years food was being canned in factories and the age of industrial food preservation had begun. Appert lived to the grand old age of 91, having opened a canning factory himself, but not without a few more mishaps, including the destruction of his factory during the Napoleonic Wars and a refusal of the Légion d'honneur. He died in 1851 and was buried in a pauper's grave.
Appert never knew why his methods worked; he only knew that they did. For at that point we had no notion of bacteria, or that heat killed them; it was Louis Pasteur who proved this in 1861. Not that it mattered. Within his lifetime food preservation had already changed the world — and continues to be one of the pillars upon which modern civilisation firmly rests. For can you imagine a world without canning? It's hardly worthy considering the total impact of Appert's discovery, whether politically, economically, socially, or culturally. Just think of the millions who have been saved from hunger and starvation by the magic of preserved food! Could the First World War have taken place without canning? Perhaps not; it was bully beef that the soldiers survived on, after all. And we might never have made it to the Moon without the science of food preservation. These are but a handful of examples; the list goes on and on.
It is not my place to see who or what is most important in history. Only, I hope to ask the question and perhaps invite you to reconsider how we usually evaluate the past. Nicolas Appert — like Cai Lun, the inventor of paper about whom I wrote a few weeks ago — is not a man of whom we speak in the same reverential or condemnatory terms as the Napoleons and Julius Caesars and Genghis Khans of history. But, one might argue, it is inventors like him who have truly shaped the world in which we live. In any case, next time you open a tin of canned food, remember to thank Monsieur Appert. On my part, at least, the world would be a much worse place with baked beans...
A Lesser Known Masterpiece
Michelangelo's Last Judgment is only slightly less famous than his ceiling in the Sistine Chapel, the focal point of which — the Creation of Adam, featuring God reaching out to Adam — has become one of the world's most iconic works of art. But the art of the Italian Renaissance, and of the Mannerist and Baroque phases which followed, is not reducible to the famed Florentine triumvirate of Leonardo, Raphael, and Michelangelo. Some have argued, in fact, that it was the Venetians who were the real masters of the period. Well, regardless of who was or was not "better", I offer for you here perhaps the finest work of Jacopo Robusti, who alongside Veronese and Titian completes the triumvirate of great Venetian artists. Robusti is better known to us as Tintoretto, of course — a reference to his father's work as a cloth dyer. "Il Furioso" they called him; "the Furious One", for his ill-temper and his habit of working at great speed.
The Ducal Palace in Venice was, and remains, one of the world's great buildings. In 1577 a fire destroyed much of the building's Medieval interior, including a large 14th century painting by Guariento which dominated the wall behind the Doge's throne. The Palace was duly restored; thus the contrast between its Late Renaissance or Baroque interior and its Gothic exterior. Tintoretto made it clear to the authorities that he hoped for the commission to replace Guariento's painting and even prepared a large sketch as part of his submission to the Council; they chose Veronese instead. Yet Tintoretto's prayers were answered, albeit darkly, and Veronese died before he started work. Thus the commission fell to Tintoretto, then seventy years old. He made significant alterations to his original sketch and started work in 1588. It would be one of, if not the, largest canvas paintings in the world, at over eighty feet wide and thirty feet tall. Hence Tintoretto painted it in several sections at the nearby Scuola vecchia della Misericordia, from which it would then be moved to and installed at the Ducal Palace, where Tintoretto and his assistants — including his four children, all of them painters — added the final details.
When Il Paradiso was revealed to the public Tintoretto received universal acclaim. It is the size of a tennis court, after all, and is a scene of such manifold complexity — though united into a coherent composition — and of such vigorous colour and movement, that one can scarcely take it all in. There it stood, overlooking the Great Council of Venice, at that time not merely a tourist hotspot but one of the world's richest and most important cities. This was not merely art for art's sake; this was civic art of the highest order, intended to crown and represent and inspire the city itself. In the end it has become an emblematic work of Mannerism — this was the phase that followed the High Renaissance and preceded the Baroque, an age of increasing drama and colour and often marked by a sort of awkwardness or confusion, and even artificiality, which was perhaps inevitable at a time of experimentation as artists tried to shake off the immense shadow of the High Renaissance.
Perhaps we can best summarise Paradiso, and Tintoretto more broadly, by the goal he set himself and even inscribed above his doorway:
That means "the design of Michelangelo and the colour of Titian". Did he manage to unite them? Only you can decide.
Architecture of the Night
One of the most curious and brilliant concepts in urban design is the Architecture of the Night, sometimes called Nocturnal Architecture. As a named idea it first emerged in the 1920s. And that is because, although we've been lighting our cities for centuries, it was with the invention of powerful electric lights that a new sort of nocturnal urban landscape became possible. The first experiments had come in the late 19th century with the World's Fairs, particularly in Paris in 1889 and Chicago in 1893. Consider the Eiffel Tower, built for the 1889 Exposition Universelle — then the world's tallest building by far — rigged up with spotlights. It was clear to all who attended, and clearer yet in Chicago four years later, that the days of candles and gas lamps were over; the Age of Electricity had begun. Thus by the 1920s the importance of light had become obvious — not only for illuminating buildings and streets but also in advertising. For people who had lived through the change it's hard to imagine just how much brighter cities had become.
But not everybody thought electric illumination was being used properly. As one critic said of London's Piccadilly Circus: "This is hideous and discordant... no architectural scheme runs through the electric signs." Hence architects, designers, and urban planners started thinking more carefully about how to use lighting. In 1929 Gordon Selfridge even said "light is as necessary to architectural production today as was colour to the painter."
And it was the American Art Deco architect Raymond Hood, who designed the Rockefeller Center and the American Radiator Building, who seems to have first coined the term Architecture of the Night. Hood considered it a nascent art form which was still in its infancy, and if we look at Raymond Hood's Rockefeller Center we can see just how seriously he had approached its illumination. This is far from the "discordant" Piccadilly Circus; here we have lighting carefully curated to enhance the sheer scale, the lofty drama, and the soaring lines.
Architects like Hood realised that lighting wasn't arbitrary — used properly it could enhance the design of a building and improve the appearance of a city overall. Or, used carelessly, electric lighting could turn cities into aesthetic and psychological hellscapes of confusion. Perhaps the Chrysler Building represents the pinnacle of this first age of Noctural Architecture, with a lighting scheme designed by William Di Giacomo and Steve Negrin. Nearly a century later it still fires the imagination with the interplay of light and shadow so typical of Art Deco.
Urban growth slowed during the 1940s, before exploding into life again after the Second World War and continuing breathlessly through to today. Lighting has also developed dramatically, and so the Architecture of the Night has entered another Age. Consider Tokyo by night, or perhaps the Sky Beam installed atop the Luxor Las Vegas Hotel in 1993 — it is the world's single most powerful light and can be seen from nearly 300 miles away. Raymond Hood's prediction that Architecture of the Night was barely getting started has proven true. One wonders what he would have made of this sort of thing.
Now, the whole concept of Nocturnal Architecture rests on the simple fact that lighting causes both buildings and entire cities to look completely different at night. Consider Singapore's Gardens by the Bay. During the day a strange metal structure; by night a technicolour fantasy.
There's a peculiar way in which our modern Architecture of the Night — which is all about colour — harks back to the stained glass windows of Medieval Cathedrals. A purity of form: colour and light are elemental forces, and thus more direct than any other form of art. And there's important science to this: lighting has a colossal impact on our psychology, health, and behaviour. After all, we evolved according to the sun and the day-night cycle. Thus Noctural Architecture isn't only about aesthetics; it is also about public health.
But the Architecture of the Night isn't only about new buildings; it has also allowed us to illuminate older buildings in ways never before possible. Cathedrals, already awe-inspiring, have only been enhanced by the great swathes of light now cast upon them. And nor is it only about skyscrapers. The Architecture of the Night is about everything we build, from roads to football stadiums. Like the Allianz Arena in Munich, home of FC Bayern, which lights up in different colours, or any given bridge, so many of which around the world have multicoloured LEDs installed along their spans and cables.
Perhaps the Architecture of the Night is more important than ever. Our urban environments are expanding rapidly and, wherever you have a town or city, you need lighting. Why shouldn't we think about our lighting more carefully, then? As Raymond Hood realised a century ago, lighting is an art form of its own, with immense aesthetic and artistic potential to enhance our urban environments. Not to mention the psychology of light, which can make us happy or depressed, energised or tired, comfortable or confused. Technology has realised Hood's dream; the possibilities for turning our cities into carefully curated kaleidoscopes of light and colour, of illumination and shadow, are nearly endless. It seems almost fantastical, but if we take more seriously the notion that, in the 21st century, our night-time cities are in some sense very literal cities of light, then that will only lend itself to healthier and more beautiful urban environments.
The Progymnasnata was a sort of syllabus for students of rhetoric in the ancient world. They would have studied first under a Grammarian and then, in their middle teenage years, been placed under the tutelage of a Rhetorician. These progymnasmata were preliminary exercises, thirteen in all, with increasing levels of difficulty, to be mastered by students of rhetoric until they were ready to write declamations and speeches, whether for the law courts or in political assemblies. Thus each of the progymnasmata focussed on a specific element of rhetoric. In all cases they were compositional — i.e. about different categories of speech or writing — rather than technical — i.e. regarding devices, vocabulary, or use of language.
One of the progymnasmata is called chreia, which comes from the Ancient Greek word for "useful", but which we would most likely translate as anecdote. We all know just how powerful anecdotes can be; they are miniature stories which contain proof of some greater truth, and are inevitably more memorable than mere statements of that truth or, say, hard statistics. The ancient chreia, however, was more specific than what we usually mean by anecdote. Students were expected to relate some brief and apposite story about a famous historical figure, and then to elaborate on what the story means and why it is relevant. Thus some anecdote about "a shopkeeper I met the other day" etc. would not, technically, be chreia. Rather, when the poet Rainer Maria Rilke introduced his letters of advice to the young painter Balthus with a story about the sculptor Auguste Rodin, that was chreia:
Or, from the ancient world, when Plutarch wrote of a famous encounter between Alexander the Great and the Cynic philosopher Diogenes of Sinope:
They needn't all be quite that long, of course, but you can see what the chreia is. Here we have two legendary personalities — Alexander and Diogenes — and a curious tale about them which seems to contain some spark of wisdom. This is a story which has been shared and retold time and time again down the centuries; I suspect I have even used it as an anecdote for some reason or other myself.
Crucially, the chreia is more than mere quotation. Thus when John F. Kennedy said this in his "City on a Hill" speech in 1961:
It was not chreia but quotation. Look to the example I drew from Rilke, above, to see true chreia in action. Rilke shares a brief story about Rodin and then elaborates on its meaning and relevance. But the chreia is not only the domain of ancient history or fine arts; it is universally applicable and we may draw our examples from anywhere. How often have you heard people share an anecdote about Muhammad Ali's comeback from his loss to Joe Frazier as a way to motivate somebody else to keep going? That, like Plutarch referring to Alexander and Rilke to Rodin, is the real substance and purpose of chreia. And, should you ever forget, students of rhetoric were taught this little adage to help them remember:
Whence the Golden Ages?
In 1579 a poet and playwright called Stephen Gosson wrote something called The Schoole of Abuse, containing a pleasant invective against Poets, Pipers, Plaiers, Jesters and such like Caterpillars of the Commonwealth. One year after that Sir Philip Sidney wrote his glorious Defence of Poesy, and ten years later Edmund Spenser composed the Teares of the Muses. All three were, to varying degrees, laments for the state of modern English literature. Consider a stanza from Spenser's poem:
If you were to read these three little laments of Gosson, Sidney, and Spenser, you would be minded to believe that English literature — its poetry and its stage drama — were in dire straits, and that the late 16th century was something of a literary dark age. Strange to think, then, that even as these works were being written a new generation of English playwrights was beginning to mature who, it has been suggested, are the greatest ever to grace the land: Kit Marlowe, Thomas Kyd, Ben Jonson, Thomas Webster, Thomas Middleton, and... William Shakespeare. So too with poets: John Donne and the Metaphysicals were about to come to the fore, along with Robert Herrick and the Cavaliers, and not to forget that in 1608 a certain John Milton would be born. Had Gosson, Sidney, and Spenser known what was right around the corner then they would surely have laughed at their diagnoses of the state of English literature.
But another possibility, and perhaps even more likely, is that Gosson et al would have condemned the likes of Shakespeare, Donne, and Milton anyway. For when somebody has decided that "things are bad", they will more often than not refuse to change their mind. And this represents, I think, an even more important lesson. Four centuries later we can scarcely dream of a crop of playwrights so talented as those who dominated the Golden Age of Elizabethan Theatre; but perhaps, like Gosson, we are merely refusing to see what is right before our very eyes, and in four centuries people may look back fondly on our times as a Golden Age of some form or another.
All of which draws me to think of something Thomas Carlyle once wrote about the Future:
A Train with a View
Forgive me if this not quite the sort of material I usually share with you, but not so long ago I visited a place dear to my heart and was there exposed to what, I suppose, is among the most extraordinary views in the world. Thus, my stated aim for the Areopagus being that it ought be interesting, useful, and beautiful, I offer you something which is, simply and profoundly, beautiful.
How often our hearts are filled with disquietude; how often our brows are furrowed with the querulous doubts of yesterday and of tomorrow; how often our minds are not our own, but belong to some other time and place, held their by doubts, anxieties, hopes, dreams, and fears! This view has never failed to bring me back to myself, to banish all else, and leave me breathless at the sight of the rows of red-brick terraces and heavy-tiled gables, the all-over greens and golds of the tree canopies, and rising above it all the battlements of the castle and the many-towered heights of the cathedral.
If any particular views hold a similarly important place in your hearts, then do let me know.
Last week's question was:
What is your favourite joke?
And here are some of your witticisms...
And for this week's question to test your critical thinking:
Can money make a person truly happy?
Email me your answers and I'll share them in next week's newsletter.
A peal of thunder sounds to the north as I write these words. And so I pull down my copy of the Upanishads, those ancient words of Hindu wisdom, to read again from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad — the Forest of Wisdom. It contains a passage which T.S. Eliot famously adapted into The Waste Land, translated by him as "What the Thunder Said." Ever since reading the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, and having admittedly forgotten that it even featured in Eliot, I always think of this whenever I hear thunder:
Make of that what you will. Au revoir et bon nuit, Good Night, buonanotte etc. etc.!
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A beautiful education.
Areopagus Volume LXXVI Welcome one and all to the seventy sixth volume of the Areopagus — simultaneously the closing of 2023 (I wrote it "last year") and the opening of 2024! But first, as they say, I interrupt your broadcast to make an important announcement: this will be the last Areopagus until February. There are some projects at hand that demand full attention. And so it would be a disservice to you, my Gentle and Perceptive Readers, were I to divide my attention between those projects...
Areopagus Volume LXXV Welcome one and all to the seventy fifth volume of the Areopagus. Winter is at the door; the Solstice has passed and with it many an ancient festival is upon us. Jollity, mystery, sanctity, loneliness, passion — 'tis a season for feelings many and all deep. It was John Milton that first came to mind when, in the cheerful chaos of London, I saw the Christmas lights today: Ring out ye crystal spheres!Once bless our human ears (If ye have power to touch our senses so)And...
Areopagus Volume LXIV Welcome one and all to the seventy fourth volume of the Areopagus. Something different this week. People often ask me what books I would recommend. Inasmuch as I have any right to do such a thing, that is what I have chosen to do. And so, it being the Christmas Season, I offer you a metaphorical "advent calendar" of twenty four books. Some of them you may recognise from previous volumes of the Areopagus; others, I suspect, will be completely new. The criteria for my...