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:
Winter is also, I dare say, a time for reading. Long nights, if not by the fire then at least by the lamp, and a book on the lap. Or, in the 21st century, a digital device! Times change and we cannot but go with the tides. Another Volume of the Areopagus washes in on the waves of the world wide web...
"Largo" from Serse
George Frideric Handel (1738)
Performed by Tito Schipa
Massacre of the Innocents by Pieter Brueghel the Elder
First: the music itself. "Largo" is one of the names given to an aria from an opera called Serse, written in 1738 by George Frideric Handel, the Anglo-German master of Baroque music, for the King's Theatre in London. It was a failure; Serse closed after just a handful of performances and was never performed again in Handel's lifetime. One wonders how he felt. All that effort, all those long nights, all that careful thought and delicate feeling... condemned to oblivion. It was only a century after Handel's death that this aria was rediscovered and repopularised. Little could Handel have known that what was in his lifetime a failure would become, for later generations, one of his most beloved works. Serse is the Italian name for Xerxes, the 5th century BC emperor of the Persians; he is now famous for leading a failed invasion of Greece, the most well-known event of which was the stand of the 300 Spartans at the Gates of Thermopylae. This aria is sometimes called Ombra mai fu, meaning "never was a shade" — its opening words.
But... why Handel's Largo? Because this was the first piece of music ever broadcast on AM Radio. On Christmas Eve in 1906 the radio pioneers Reginald Fessenden and F.W. Alexanderson made a broadcast from Brant Rock in Massachusetts and opened it with Handel's Largo, followed by a Christmas message. It was only telegraph operators at sea who heard their broadcast, but what comfort it must have brought them! Why is this so noteworthy? I suppose there is some trivial fascination about "first evers" and "last evers". But, more importantly, this broadcast of Handel's Largo marked a fundamental and perhaps irreversible shift in the nature of classical music — of all music, in truth, and much more besides. Let me put it this way. Before radio, and before the invention of sound recording technology like the gramophone, how would one have listened to music? You would have had to be in the same room as the person or people singing and playing, of course. Thus music was always limited by space and time: you had to be in a particular place (a church or concert hall, usually) at a particular moment. No longer! The French poet Paul Valéry wrote with supreme eloquence about the way in which music had been liberated from the concert hall by the invention of gramophones & radio and the wonders it had done for humanity:
I do not mean to say whether this change is good or bad — all we can say for sure is that things have, definitively, changed. When we listen to music on the radio or on the internet we must realise that this is not how most people, for most of history, heard or understood what we now mean by the word "music".
Today: four brief biographies in one section. And when I say brief, I mean... brief! I shall tell you but a handful of facts about four men, that we may see what we can learn from them. Diocletian, Maximian, Galerius, Constantius. Perhaps these names ring a bell. They were all joint-emperors of the Roman Empire in the early 4th century AD, each ruling over a quarter of Roman territory. This unusual arrangement was instituted by Diocletian when he came to the throne in 284 AD. By "came to the throne" I mean that his soldiers proclaimed him emperor and he (sort of) defeated a rival claimant on the battlefield. The Empire was in chaos. Its borders were under siege. Its bureaucracy was bloated and inefficient. Inflation was out of control. There was unrest at home and chaos abroad. This period has since been called "The Crisis of the 3rd Century" — the Roman Empire was on its knees. Enter Diocletian, who transformed its administration, secured its borders, and even tried (albeit unsuccessfully) to deal with inflation; the Western Empire survived another century and a half thanks to his work, and the Western Roman Empire (aka the Byzantine Empire) was built on the bureaucratic systems he instituted.
Diocletian also instituted a new form of rule whereby the empire, which he realised was too large for one man to rule, was divided between four emperors. He appointed a man called Maximian as a fellow augustus — senior emperor — and appointed below them two junior emperors, or caesares: Galerius and Constantius. This union of four rulers was called the Tetrarchy, most famously depicted in a striking porphyry statue which was taken to Constantinople, looted during the Fourth Crusade, and taken to Venice, where it stands as part of St Mark's Basilica to this day.
Fascinating stuff. But here is what, I think, stands out as most revealing about these four men — and, by extension, the Roman Empire. For when we hear the word "emperor", what do we imagine? A nobleman, surely, or an aristocrat of some sort, born to ancient lineage and bred for power, whether they are set to inherit the throne or must claim it for themselves by force of arms or political manoeuvre. And rightly so, for most "emperors" of history, from around the world, were indeed of that character. But these four Tetrarchs were not quite like that. Diocletian was the son of a freed slave from Dalmatia (modern-day Croatia), possibly a scribe; Maximian was the son of a shopkeeper from Pannonia (modern-day Serbia); Galerius was the son of a shepherd from Serdica (modern-day Sofia in Bulgaria); and Constantius, despite later attempts to paint himself as a descendant of aristocracy, was seemingly born to a commoner family somewhere near the Danube. When we hear the words "Roman Emperor" we do not tend to think of four peasants from the Balkans — but that is who the Tetrarchy were, even once they elevated themselves to the status of gods and bent the world to their will.
I do not mean to say that the Roman Empire was a beacon of social mobility; but, clearly, there was social mobility, and perhaps more than we usually think. Think of Pallas, a freed slave who rose to run the treasury under Emperor Claudius in the 1st century AD and became one of the richest men in the Roman Empire. But, regarding the Tetrarchy, the telling thing is where their social mobility lay — the military. That was the primary vehicle for improving one's lot in life in Ancient Rome. Any given peasant, from any part of the empire, provided they were sufficiently competent, could rise to the very top of the most powerful state in the known-world. For, with the backing of the military, any popular general could make his stake for the throne, thus giving credence to that famous aphorism of Tacitus:
Jan van Eyck (1436)
The Flemish painter Jan van Eyck is an artistic superstar thanks to The Arnolfini Wedding. It is one of those paintings that has firmly entered the realms of popular culture and appears, along with the Mona Lisa, Starry Night, Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring etc. as one of the "poster boys" for art. But Jan van Eyck was not a one-hit wonder. For centuries he was credited with inventing oil painting — although this do not seem to be true, what is true is that Jan van Eyck was one of the first masters of this novel medium. The Arnolfini Portrait is sufficient proof of that; art of such glistening detail had never been created before in Europe. In any case, van Eyck's other paintings are equally delightful, if not even better than his most famous. Here we see the Annunciation, the name for the scene in the New Testament where the Angel Gabriel informs Mary that she shall give birth to Jesus. It is a diptych; there are two connected panels.
Van Eyck's Annunciationis wonderful example of two specific art techniques: trompe l'oeil and grisaille. First: trompe l'oeil. This comes from the French for "fool the eye" and refers to highly illusionistic art which creates a deceptively realistic impression of depth and three-dimensionality. We feel as though we could reach out and touch the things depicted in this painting. Notice that van Eyck places Gabriel and Mary against a background of polished black marble so that we can see their reflections; this only adds to the sense of realism. So too the shadow of Gabriel's wings on the jamb of the door where he stands. Grisaille, meanwhile, refers to any painting done exclusively in greyscale colours. The point of this technique is to imitate the appearance of stone or marble statues. This is an interesting choice in its own right, and grisaille paintings inevitably create a peculiar, almost ghostly atmosphere. But, combined with his use of trompe l'oeil, van Eyck's Annunciation becomes something more. The two techniques complement one another and fool our brains into thinking that we are looking at two real statues — notice how van Eyck has given the robes of Mary and Gabriel the delicate sheen of polished marble sculptures. Perhaps this is merely a gimmick — other interpretations of the Annunciation, even by van Eyck himself, tend to be more evocative and meaningful — but it is a triumph of optical illusion and a testament to the almost unmatched technical skills of Jan van Eyck as an artist. His Arnolfini Wedding, we may conclude, was not an one-off.
The Leaning Tower of Pisa
The Leaning Tower of Pisa is one of the world's most famous towers, if not the most, known to us all by an endless litany of witty tourists' photographs. Little wonder, given its gravity-defying tilt! But, as with anything that becomes so monstrously famous, the thing itself fades into the background and we know it merely as an image with a name, as a sort of silhouette devoid of context. So let us shine some light on this "Leaning Tower of Pisa" — what is this tower? who built it? why hasn't it fallen down?
The first thing we should say is that the Leaning Tower of Pisa is a campanile. This is an Italian word which refers to any freestanding belltower — freestanding meaning that it is built separately and unconnected to its church. Whereas the bells of Lincoln Cathedral, for example, are in the colossal tower soaring up from its nave, those of the Florence Duomo are in Giotto's Campanile, just to the side of it. Here you can see two of the Leaning Tower's seven bells, cast between the 13th and 18th centuries, each with a different name:
And so I suspect, unless you have visited it yourself, that you did not know the Leaning Tower of Pisa stands (or reclines?) beside a vast and beautiful cathedral on a broad green square in the heart of the city. That is the cathedral for which the Leaning Tower's bells are tolled — the Cattedrale Metropolitana Primaziale di Santa Maria Assunta. This was built during Pisa's zenith, when it was a wealthy and powerful maritime republic directing merchant and naval fleets across the Mediterranean. It was the gold from Pisa's trade and conquest that paid for the construction of her grand and still-astonishing cathedral.
So, why is the tower leaning? Because its foundations have given way. Simple enough. But there's more to the story than that. See, construction on the campanile started in 1173 under the architect Diotisalvi and wasn't completed for another 199 years. And it was during the construction process that the tower's foundations first shifted. But the architects and masons and engineers ploughed on, and they devised several ingenious solutions to ensure that the tower, even if slanted, would be structurally sound. As the tower grew in height they built the walls of each floor higher on one side than the other, for example, and they distributed the weight of its materials unevenly so that, even if the tower looks off-kilter, its centre of gravity is more or less over the base. And it worked! 800 years later the tower is still standing, albeit having undergone a series of stabilisation works, most recently carried out in the 1990s. At the time there were proposals to try and make the tower completely vertical, but these were declined because to do so would have damaged Pisa's tourism industry; thus they decided to maintain its lean.
As for the interior of the tower? Suffice to say, it does not look as one might expect...
But, we must say, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, even regardless of its legendary leaning, would be famous in any case as a masterpiece of architecture and an exemplar of the Romanesque style. Row after row of round-arched arcades carved from glittering limestone and snow-white marble, each decorated with an endless variety of capitals, whether flowers or hideous beasts, typical of Romanesque architecture. We may say the same of Pisa Cathedral; its striking facade, a four-tiered cacophony of colonnades, is almost entirely unique. Indeed, the "Pisan Romanesque" is considered its own style; this is Romanesque Architecture at its most delicate and most exuberant. And on the other side of this cathedral is the Baptistery, a splendid building in its own right and — notice the gabled arcades — a masterpiece of Italian Gothic. The three buildings taken together form a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And, surely, deservedly so. This is an unmatched triumvirate of three almost perfect buildings, shimmering even today in the Tuscan sun.
The Leaning Tower of Pisa — or, I suppose we should say, the Campanile of the Cattedrale Metropolitana Primaziale di Santa Maria Assunta — is a marvellous building regardless of its famous tilt, a lasting monument to the glory days of the Pisan Republic, when it was one of Europe's richest and most important cities, and a testament to the wonders of Romanesque Architecture.
Perhaps you are familiar with that linguistic quirk whereby somebody says something along the lines of, "will you be watching the game tonight?" to which a second person responds, "abso-bloody-lutely!" This peculiar habit of ours has a name: tmesis. It comes from the Greek for "cutting", because in so speaking we "cut" one word in two halves and stick another between them. I don't suppose you need me to give you any more examples of tmesis. One hears it — usually with an expletive as the "cutting" word — almost every day.
Tmesis applies more broadly — it refers not only to the intrusion of one word into another, but of any word placed between two other words that would not usually be separated. So if I asked, "do you like 18th century poetry?" and you say, "no bloody way!" that is also tmesis. Similarly, tmesis occurs whenever we place a word between the core verb and particle in a phrasal verb. What is a phrasal verb? Something like "come in" or "go ahead" or "bear with". In these examples it is come, go, and bear that are the core verbs, while in, ahead, and with are the particles. Thus "come on in" is tmesis, along with "to slowly go".
If you are familiar with the notion of "split infinitives" then you may have surmised that they are a subgenre of tmesis. The best way to think of an "infinitive" is as the form of a verb we would find in a dictionary, i.e. "to fail". And so a "split infinitive" is where we place a word between the infinitive verb and its particle: from "to fail" to "to completely fail." Certain grammarians have raised objections to the use of split infinitives, but they are a fixture of the English language (and others!) and one suspects they shall remain. Just another string to our linguistic bows, perhaps, and another way of manipulating and crafting language to make it beautiful, memorable, and persuasive.
No doubt many of you, like me, will have at some point used the phrase "tow the line." What does it mean? To do as one is told. But what is this "tow" and what is this "line"? Well, the metaphor should, in fact, be written as toe the line. It originated in the British Navy in the late 18th century as part of some ceremony or game or punishment whereby sailors were lined up with their toes on the edge of a plank. But we have entirely forgotten where this phrase came from and its meaning has become literal rather than metaphorical; thus we can write "tow the line" and not realise that we are, technically, writing the wrong word. This is an example of a "dead metaphor".
The reason we call such metaphors "dead" is because they no longer evoke any imagery for us; their meaning has become entirely literal. Were I to say that I have "pulled out all the stops" in writing this volume of the Areopagus then you would simply understand that I have given it great effort and tried to create something ambitious and opulent; you would not picture in your mind's eye the "stops" of an organ, which is what this metaphor originally referred to.
I do not mean to say there is anything wrong with using dead metaphors. George Orwell certainly did, but I shall leave such judgment to you. Rather, I think, it is a fabulous example of how language and society evolve and interact. Because, although some metaphors become dead through overuse ("head over heels in love" should conjure the image of somebody falling over, but rarely does) it is often the case that they die because the imagery they refer to has become, itself, meaningless to us.
Think of "rewind". It means to play a video in reverse, does it not? Well, some of you may remember that once upon a time we watched video tapes with spools of film that needed physical rewinding. What of a "deadline"? That is when we have a specific time set to achieve a specific task, is not? Once upon a time it referred to a line that was drawn around prisons which, if prisoners crossed, they would be shot. Perhaps our deadlines don't seem so frightening now... the examples go on and on. Is it not marvellous that you and I can understand the word "footage", i.e. in the sense of "video footage", without knowing that this originally referred to the literal footage of a reel of film, which was measured by length in cutting rooms. Language is created in reference to some contemporary fact of the modern world, the world changes and the fact disappears, but language lives on and preserves it.
What to conclude from this? First of all, of course, that the very words we unwittingly use are eternal proof of just how much the past shapes the present, even invisibly. And, secondly, I suppose it should encourage us to invent our own metaphors rather than relying on literalised language we have been taught to use by rote. I don't mean to suggest we should fill our writing with neologistic nonsense, but the world is waiting for new metaphors — why shouldn't you be the one to give it them?
A fortnight ago I asked you:
What does it mean to "be a good person"?
Here were some of your responses...
And for this week's question, to test your rhetorical talents...
Invent a new metaphor.
Email me your answers and I'll share them in next week's newsletter.
By the time the next Areopagus arrives Christmas Day shall have come and gone. To those who observe this celebration I wish you a most merry of Mondays; and to one and all I offer hopes for prosperity, health, and joy. But even as I write these words a chill wind shakes the windows in their panes; blessed I am to have a home, and warmth, and a peaceful pillow to lay my head upon. Keats comes to mind...
Alas, 'tis time to think myself asleep. Goodnight, wherever ye be, and a week hence we shall meet again!
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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 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...
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