Areopagus Volume LXXXV

Areopagus Volume LXXXV

Welcome one and all to the eighty fifth volume of the Areopagus. How to begin? With something I saw recently — a lonesome tendril of flowers on a brick wall, sparkling in the rain:

What does it mean? Whatsoever you choose. But mean something I am sure it does. Let the seven short lessons commence...

I - Classical Music

Passa la nave

Adrian Willaert (1559)

Performed by The Vienna Recorder Ensemble
Ship on Stormy Seas by Ivan Aivazovsky (1850)

What a gorgeously atmospheric piece! It seems to me, at least, that much Renaissance music has a melancholy texture. In this case Passa la nave seems to sound lonely, somehow apart from things, as though it were looking in from a dark and wintry garden upon a bright and candlelit banquet inside. Halt! I shouldn't let my imagination get the better of me. And we must also be careful not to confuse our impressions for the actual intentions of the composers and the way people listened to or thought about such music when it was first written.

So, if we are to stick to the hard facts, I should say that Adrian Willaert was born near Bruges in the year 1490. He, like many of his contemporaries, and perhaps to our surprise, travelled a great deal. Willaert left Flanders and studied law at the University of Paris, but before completing his studies he upped sticks once again in order to pursue a musical career. Via Rome he ended up working for the Dukes of Ferrara, and thereafter went to Venice, where he was made Maestro di Capella at St Mark's Basilica. Here he melded Northern European styles with those of Italy, and with his pupils — who came from all around Europe to study with him — pushed Renaissance music in a new direction.

What we hear now is a madrigal, a genre of secular (i.e. non-religious) vocal music that was popular during the Renaissance. It was originally composed for six singers, but this version is performed with period-accurate instruments instead. What is the subject of this madrigal? A sonnet by Petrarch, the 14th century Florentine scholar and father of the Renaissance. Specifically, it is the 189th of his canzoniere, here translated by the 16th century poet Sir Thomas Wyatt:

My galley charged with forgetfulness
Thorough sharp seas, in winter nights doth pass
‘Tween rock and rock; and eke mine enemy, alas,
That is my lord, scteereth with cruelness:
And every oar a thought in readiness,
As though that death were light in such a case.
An endless wind doth tear the sail apace
Of forced sighs and trusty fearfulness.
A rain of tears, a cloud of dark disdain,
Hath done the wearied cords great hinderance;
Wreathed with error and eke with ignorance.
The stars be hid that led me to this pain.
Drowned is reason that should me consort,
And I remain despairing of the port.

Suddenly, it seems, my melancholy reading of Passa la nave is not without justification!

II - Historical Figure

Louis XIV

The Sun King

There is little we can say about King Louis XIV that has not already been said. He was born in 1638, became King of France at the age of five, and ruled for 72 years until his death in 1715. Perhaps all I need remark of his reign is that it was Louis XIV who commissioned the Palace of Versailles. That he was known as the "Sun King" says much; this was a ruler with a colossal personality who reshaped the history of France, under whom France blossomed, and whose influence — for good and bad — has not yet faded. Voltaire compared Louis to Augustus. That is, perhaps, a perfect summary.

But there is a specific and essentially unimportant part of his reign that I find peculiarly interesting. During the Thirty Years' War, which lasted from 1618 to 1648, the French hired mercenaries from Croatia. As part of their traditional uniform these Croats wore knotted scarves around their jacket collars. At some point, seemingly after the war was over, certain of these Croatian mercenaries were brought to Paris. Here, parading before and mingling with the Parisians, their scarves made quite an impression — such that certain members of high society took to wearing similar garments. Under King Louis XIV this passing fashion became permanent. Why? Because he decided to start wearing just such a necktie, made from lace. Here we see him in a portrait from 1701 with a lacy necktie — notice, by comparison, that in the above portrait from 1648 Louis was instead wearing the lacy collar that his father's generation had worn.

What was this new item called? A cravat. Why? Because the word for Croat, in Croatian, is Hrvat. This word the French had a hard time pronouncing (because of the H, of course) and so the French said cravat instead. To wear a necktie, then, was "à la cravat". Why is this apparently unremarkable event so noteworthy? Because what the Sun King wore, his court wore; what his court wore, the rest of the European elite would end up wearing. To give but one example, when Charles II returned to England from exile he brought the cravat with him and established the fashion in England.

This 17th century cravat is the direct predecessor of the modern tie, bowtie, and cravat. The full story of its evolution is interesting in its own right — but perhaps of less importance here. Suffice to say, in short, that Louis XIV's cravat evolved over the next two centuries, gradually becoming simpler and more practical, until the modern tie emerged. So there is every reason to believe that, were it not for Louis' fashion sense and his encounter with the soldiers of Croatia, the tie would never have become a staple of fashion. Otherwise — who knows? Perhaps we would still be wearing ruffs! History needn't only be about grand narratives and great wars; it can also be about tracing the delightfully unexpected bread-crumb trails left behind by the most ordinary details of modern life.

III - Painting

Mary Magdalene at the Sepulchre

Giovanni Giralomo Savoldo (1535)

When I first saw this painting in London's National Gallery it was, I suppose, in an unfortunate place. It hung high on the wall, somewhat difficult to spot already, but totally sidelined by the adjacent (and much larger) Madonna of the Rocks by Leonardo da Vinci. Demanding our attention is Leonardo at his most esoteric and most magical, enchanting onlookers with an almost alien landscape and those strangely glowing, dreamlike faces:

But hidden nearby, and literally hidden behind her robe, turned away from the viewer, is Savoldo's little painting of Mary Magdalene. The most striking thing about it is just how much of the picture is taken up by her satin cloak. Very bold, but the reason this painting works is because Savoldo was a master of material. He turns the satin into an object of fascination, a glittering landscape of its own. You feel as though you could reach out and touch it; that, if you listen carefully, you could hear its rustle.

There is a crescent of luscious satin in Leonardo's Madonna of the Rocks, of course. But for him such material was only one element of a broader pictorial language. Savoldo brings it to the fore and makes it the subject of his painting. He painted several other versions of this scene. They each have slight differences to the background or the colour and detailing of Mary Magdalene's robe. But, in every case, Savoldo's fascination with fabric dominates:

Satin itself is a beautiful material, and Savoldo's lifelike rendering of this material is also, surely, beautiful. But is it meaningful? Well, whether or not such exacting realism makes for good art is a quandary I leave to you. But there may be more than mere workmanship to this. According to the Gospels it was Mary Madgalene who discovered the door of Christ's tomb rolled away, and there encountered either an angel or the resurrected Christ himself. Is the surface of Savoldo's satin shimmering in the glow of celestial light? Perhaps! Still, whether Savoldo used this scene as an excuse to experiment with or show off his photorealistic talents, rather than using his skills to illustrate and illuminate the story itself, is another question that demands debate.

IV - Architecture


In the beginning...

This is probably not a place you have seen before — even though it is older than the Pyramids of Giza. It is a city, called Mohenjo-Daro, in southern Pakistan. It lies several miles from the Indus River and it was founded at some point in the 4th millennium BC. The people who lived here and the culture they created, which extended across modern-day Pakistan, India, and Afghanistan, has since come to be known as the Indus Valley Civilisation.

Along with Harappa, several hundred miles further north, Mohenjo-Daro was one of this society's two major urban centres, though several other cities in the region have been uncovered. Whether they were part of a unified kingdom or whether they were individual city states is unclear. But, in truth, there is much we do not know about the Indus Valley Civilisation. Like the question of literacy. They made extensive use of symbols, inscriptions, and seals, but if these constitute an actual written language is undecided. Thus, of course, we do not know what the people who built this city called it themselves.

In any case, there are some things we can parse from these ruins. Mohenjo-Daro is notable above all for its urban planning: several blocks laid out in a regular pattern, divided by paved streets and built on a network of wells, canals, sewers, and baths. The people who designed this place were clearly masters of water management and knew how to create a well-built, ordered urban environment.

Consider the Great Bath, a large pool built with baked bricks and bitumen to make it waterproof:

The bricks used in Mohenjo-Daro are precisely shaped and of various standardised sizes. This city evidently did not emerge through a rudimentary or arbitrary building process, but was constructed by skilled and knowledgeable bricklayers and architects working in what seems to have been a codified architectural tradition.

The stumps of staircases indicate that some of the houses here had multiple storeys, along with interior courtyards and private baths. Signs of social stratification? Altogether we find houses, assembly halls, public baths, granaries, fortifications, and marketplaces. This was more than a mere outpost of civilisation; it was a city with a population estimated to have been somewhere between thirty and fifty thousand.

But as the centuries wore on, archaeologists have deduced, Mohenjo-Daro waned in importance and Harappa became the prime city of the Indus Valley Civilisation. Eventually Mohenjo-Daro itself was abandoned and slowly but surely capsized, like a sinking ship, beneath the soil of the epochs. It was only rediscovered properly in 1920, when it was identified as a site of serious age and importance by the archaeologist R. D. Banerji.

Though the Indus Valley Civilisation melted away in the 2nd millennium BC, the things it pioneered and its cultural achievements were not totally erased. The precise nature of its influence on the civilisations that later arose in the region remains a subject of dispute, but beyond doubt is the fact that these ruins represent one of the first major and lasting steps toward civilisation, toward the world we are all now living in. To give just one example, the idea of "a street" seems totally unremarkable to us, but for more than ninety-nine percent of the history of life on Earth there was no such thing. Here, in Mohenjo-Daro, was one of the first times that human beings ever walked down a street. The most unremarkable of events — and therefore, simultaneously, among the most remarkable.

V - Rhetoric

Quotes of Choice

A big part of rhetoric is quoting other people. Most of the time that means dropping in a line apocryphally attributed to Mark Twain, Albert Einstein, or Oscar Wilde. Simply quoting somebody else does not make you right — this is merely an appeal to authority — but illustrating a point by using the words of another is entirely legitimate. And, as ever, this is not a modern phenomenon. Among the Progymnasmata, those ancient textbook exercises for students of rhetoric, was one that required students to relate the saying of a famous person and explain its meaning.

Well, two thousand years later, one can hardly listen to a speech or interview without hearing quotes. This makes sense, of course, but it seems so often that people quote exactly the sort of person you would expect them to — somebody they agree with. Much more striking, surprising, and effective is when we quote from the unlikeliest of sources. There is a beautiful line about this from the letters of Seneca, written to his friend Lucilius in the 1st century AD about how to live a Stoic life:

Any truth, I maintain, is my own property. And I shall continue to heap quotations from Epicurus upon you, so that all persons who swear by the words of another, and put a value upon the speaker and not upon the thing spoken, may understand that the best ideas are common property.

What is Seneca driving at? Epicurus, to whom he refers, was the founder of Epicureanism. Without going into detail, we need only say that Epicureanism was in many ways opposed to the ideas of Stoicism. And yet Seneca was not afraid of quoting somebody who was, ostensibly, "on the other side". He believed truth was universal and that even a person he considered broadly wrong could still be right about certain things. "The best ideas are common property" is a marvellous and wise observation: nobody, no side, has a monopoly on truth. We improve our lives by remembering this — and also, it seems, our rhetoric.

VI - Writing

Letters & Bricks

William Morris, much-quoted in these digital pages, once said something about how the arts of any society inevitably rise and fall together. What does that mean? That the design of the humblest dwelling always reflects that of the richest, that the way we make cutlery reflects the way we make music. This may sound like a troublingly broad generalisation, but upon inspection it turns out to hold more than a little water. To give one example, styles of writing inevitably seem to embody and reflect the broader artistic trends of the day.


Sir Thomas Wyatt was mentioned earlier — he was the man who introduced the sonnet to England in the 16th century. So here was a new form of poetry, carefully ordered and distilled into a harmonious model by several generations of Italians. This seems to match the neoclassical architecture that had recently been repopularised there: just as this new form of poetry was built upon specific and codified literary ideas, the loggias and palazzos of the Renaissance were being designed according to equally specific and rigorously codified architectural rules.

Farewell love and all thy laws forever;
Thy baited hooks shall tangle me no more.
Senec and Plato call me from thy lore
To perfect wealth, my wit for to endeavour.
In blind error when I did persever,
Thy sharp repulse, that pricketh aye so sore,
Hath taught me to set in trifles no store
And scape forth, since liberty is lever.
Therefore farewell; go trouble younger hearts
And in me claim no more authority.
With idle youth go use thy property
And thereon spend thy many brittle darts,
For hitherto though I have lost all my time,
Me lusteth no lenger rotten boughs to climb.


You know Baroque Architecture when you see it — overwhelmingly ornate, fabulously elaborate, and at times almost frivolous. How else could we describe the prose of John Milton, writing in the 17th century? Though he is most famous for his poetry, Milton wrote plenty of tracts and pamphlets on all manner of controversial contemporary issues. Baroque architecture was far more extravagant in Continental Europe than in England, and yet Milton's prose seems to match something like St Paul's Cathedral, the construction of which began one year after Milton's death.

We boast our light; but if we look not wisely on the sun itself, it smites us into darkness. Who can discern those planets that are oft combust, and those stars of brightest magnitude that rise and set with the sun, until the opposite motion of their orbs bring them to such a place in the firmament, where they may be seen evening or morning? The light which we have gained was given us, not to be ever staring on, but by it to discover onward things more remote from our knowledge. It is not the unfrocking of a priest, the unmitring of a bishop, and the removing him from off the presbyterian shoulders, that will make us a happy nation. No, if other things as great in the Church, and in the rule of life both economical and political, be not looked into and reformed, we have looked so long upon the blaze that Zuinglius and Calvin hath beaconed up to us, that we are stark blind. There be who perpetually complain of schisms and sects, and make it such a calamity that any man dissents from their maxims. 'Tis their own pride and ignorance which causes the disturbing, who neither will hear with meekness, nor can convince; yet all must be suppressed which is not found in their Syntagma. They are the troublers, they are the dividers of unity, who neglect and permit not others to unite those dissevered pieces which are yet wanting to the body of Truth. To be still searching what we know not by what we know, still closing up truth to truth as we find it (for all her body is homogeneal and proportional), this is the golden rule in theology as well as in arithmetic, and makes up the best harmony in a Church; not the forced and outward union of cold, and neutral, and inwardly divided minds.


The unity of the arts is not only a matter of style, but also of substance. The 19th century Gothic Revival saw European architects looking to the Middle Ages for inspiration, and Tennyson did the same with his Idylls of the King. Just as architects were rebuilding Medieval spires and gargoyles reassumed their place on towers and parapets, Tennyson brings King Arthur and the Round Table back to life in his retelling of Medieval legends.

And under every shield a knight was named:
For this was Arthur’s custom in his hall;
When some good knight had done one noble deed,
His arms were carven only; but if twain
His arms were blazoned also; but if none,
The shield was blank and bare without a sign
Saving the name beneath; and Gareth saw
The shield of Gawain blazoned rich and bright,
And Modred’s blank as death; and Arthur cried
To rend the cloth and cast it on the hearth.

Art Nouveau

The sensuous, elusive poetry of Stephane Mallarmé seems precisely suited to the flowing forms and luxurious elegance of Art Nouveau. This was a movement that appeared in Belgium in the early 1890s and was, in many ways, expressly influenced by the poetry of Mallarmé and others like him.

From golden showers of the ancient skies,
On the first day, and the eternal snow of stars,
You once unfastened giant calyxes
For the young earth still innocent of scars:
Young gladioli with the necks of swans,
Laurels divine, of exiled souls the dream,
Vermilion as the modesty of dawns
Trod by the footsteps of the seraphim.


Then, in the 1920s, we get the experimental style of writers like Faulkner, the stripped-back prose of Hemingway, and the avant-garde poetry of people like André Breton. Whatever literature had been just a few decades earlier, it was now something totally different. The same transformation was happening, albeit more slowly, in the domain of architecture. Does Hemingway's austere prose not match the unornamented, plain geometry of Bauhaus architecture?

Some one asked Georgette to dance, and I went over to the bar. It was really very hot and the accordion music was pleasant in the hot night. I drank a beer, standing in the doorway and getting the cool breath of wind from the street. Two taxis were coming down the steep street. They both stopped in front of the Bal. A crowd of young men, some in jerseys and some in their shirt-sleeves, got out. I could see their hands and newly washed, wavy hair in the light from the door. The policeman standing by the door looked at me and smiled. They came in.


A reasonable theory or not? And, if it is, how does our modern style of writing reflect our broader artistic character? These are not questions to which I ask of you answer — but such questions are, I believe, worth reflecting upon. We inevitably feel like we write as our true selves, somehow independent of our cultural landscape. Morris' idea about the unity of the arts — how the way we write is influenced by the architecture around us, and vice versa — challenges that.

VII - The Seventh Plinth

Last week's question to test your critical thinking was:

What makes writing good?

Here were some of your answers:

Daniel R

What makes writing good is when the words place palpable images in your mind. It's when the flow of intrigue moves so seamlessly that you lose sight of number of pages or time consumed. Then when you have put it down, you feel changed in some way.

Bonnie M

Good writing makes me willing to consider the opinions expressed.

Michael M

What makes writing good? It depends.What does it depend on? A variety of elements.
Rules, for example. There are rules for good writing. Get to the point. Use the active voice. Vary your adjectives. Etc. In this publication, you often cover ancient rules for good writing, some of which still apply, But there is good writing that doesn't follow the rules.
Type, for example. A well-written manual for a microwave almost certainly is written differently from a well-written suspense thriller or a well-written rap song. A well-written play almost certainly is written differently from a well-written front page newspaper story.
Audience, for example. A well-written book for modern American pre-teens almost certainly is written differently from a well-written book for mid-19th century American pre-teens.
And so forth.
I suspect that, generally, good writing is like good art - you know it when you see it. Good writing/art connects the author/artist with the reader/audience. Individual preferences, culture, environment, genetics all play roles in making this connection. I could list movies/songs/books/articles, for example, that I thought were well-written. Some would agree but others would not.
The wishy-washiness above, however, does not mean that good writing can't be taught. It can, and it is - in schools worldwide. This is done because what is taught is narrowly defined. Examples:Here is a bill being debated in Congress. Write a letter to your Member of Congress attempting to persuade her/him to vote for/against the bill.It is now the second semester. Each of you read at least one personal choice book during the first semester. Write a review of that book (according to these guidelines) for next year's students.You are a newspaper reporter. You have spent a week gathering details of this story. Here are your details. Write your story in 300-400 words.
These and a myriad other examples, of course, depend on students already having mastered simpler components of good writing, such as subject-verb agreement, noun-pronoun agreement, adjective versus adverb understanding, etc.
What makes writing good? I suspect you asked your readers the question not because you wanted "the answer" but because you (and you think that we) would find the collection of answers interesting. I bet you're correct.

Gerhard G

Enlightening, enjoyment, concision.
Jill M
I used up my euphuistic word allowance in my answer you generously included in this week’s newsletter. So here’s my answer to this week’s question: Good writing surprises.

David R

Being already in my 70’s, my time is ever more precious. There is only enough time to read a tiny fraction of the universe of writing that is vying for my attention. In retirement, I am free to pick and choose, and so, increasingly quick to give up on any written document that fails to fulfil its initial promise, preferring to give my attention to one of the other candidates for my attention.
Ergo: for me, that which is “good” writing is, very simply, that which is good enough to hold my attention, which is to say, the reward that reading it gives me outweighs the time that it is taking me to read it.
It occurs to me now, however, and alarmingly, that in these days of ever-dwindling attention span, my opinion as to what is “good” writing might be no different from what the youth of today thinks. The thought horrifies me.
So, as ever, I’m deeply curious to read the answers you get from other readers

Deborah G

Good writing uses precise vocabulary and varied sentence structure. It flows logically, allowing the writer’s voice to shine through and engage the reader.
Coincidentally, I've been pondering this very question for the past few months. Most of my life, I've read mainly nonfiction, but about three years ago, found myself increasingly drawn to stories. One six-book series particularly captivated me. The plot was fast-moving and intricate, and all the storylines were tied up in satisfying and heartwarming ways. I recommended the series to several friends but often found myself saying, "The author is not a great writer, but if you look past that, you're in for a treat."
This led me to wonder why I was semi-apologizing for an author whose work I enjoyed. I noticed the author used clichés and tended to repeat herself, almost like filler. Her characters were defined but not particularly nuanced. The books were set in supposedly gorgeous locations, though I constructed most of the images myself rather than being swept into a vividly created world. Despite these flaws, I genuinely enjoyed her work. She was an expert storyteller.
Reflecting further, I realized part of why I loved her series was that it felt like a vacation. I never struggled to understand the meaning, nor was I challenged. This has lead me to understand that part of what I consider “good writing” also includes being challenged in some way to either broaden or deepen my world. Yet….


Good writing is the result of two things, both within the writer's control. The first is an understanding of your purpose--to inform, to entertain, to remind, to question, to advocate, to console--and of your medium and venue, be that speech, short story, court brief, pitch book, eulogy. The second is a respect for your audience--both the one that is intended, and the one that is not intended but happens by--don't waste their time, don't ignore them, don't be false to them, and above all don't insult them.

As the rabbi said, "the rest is commentary--and go study!" (By which, of course, he means read!)

Tariq M

Good writing reveals a new dimension of expressive possibilities of language and it does it with semantic clarity, flow of linguistic material and ease of constructions.

Question of the Week

And for this week's question...

Can we ever separate the art from the artist?

Email me your answers and I'll share them in next week's newsletter.

And that's all

We set out with concision — with concision we conclude. I give you the first stanza of Alexander Pope's An Essay on Criticism:

'Tis hard to say, if greater want of skill
Appear in writing or in judging ill;
But, of the two, less dang'rous is th' offence
To tire our patience, than mislead our sense.
Some few in that, but numbers err in this,
Ten censure wrong for one who writes amiss;
A fool might once himself alone expose,
Now one in verse makes many more in prose.

I pray that I have not misled your sense, Gentle Reader. Cheerio!


The Cultural Tutor

The Cultural Tutor

A beautiful education.

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