Modern taste

Ancient and medieval writers competed among themselves in writing books and treatises on friendship, affection, love and everything else which brings people together, mutuality and cooperation. On the other hand, we have no matching treatment of hatred, division, and hostility, and if the latter topics are ever discussed, they are in the context of the former, as, following Aristotle and Augustine, darkness is the absence of light and evil is the deprivation of good.

It never occurred to a pre-modern author to focus on reprehensible moral, epistemic or esthetic qualities. There is no book on deceit, on ugliness or evil. The taste or fondness for these topics emerges in the modern period. We prefer Dante’s Inferno to his Paradiso precisely because we are moderns. No medieval commentator of the Commedia would have express his or her sympathy for that part of the Comedy associated with darkness, suffering and punishment. We seem to revel in these ideas, we pay the entrance fee to the museum of torture. 

‘You want it darker’, Leonard Cohen warned, ‘but you killed the flame’. With so much darkness around us, I have to wonder why we seek darkness even in art. But I suppose we make the world in our image, and then we kill the flame.



The democracy of maps

Land has long been private, but space has always been public, shared, universal. Moving through space is the most fundamental prerogative of a free being, human or not. The problem is not moving through space, but knowing where to go. After all, the condition of being lost has nothing to do with the freedom to move. You’re lose, evet – and especially – when you have all the space in the world.

All the space in the world. Space doesn’t have any meaning until it’s conquered, and one of the many things human cultures have always done was to set out on the conquest of space. Just like astronomy, calendars, temporal divisions and clocks constituted so many spoils during the human conquest of time, cartography and maps represented the chief gain from the conquest of space.

With Google Maps at our fingertips, it’s hard to think that there was a time when maps, like space, weren’t shared and universally available. In fact, for most of the history of cartography in the West, from Anaximander in the 6th century BC to the 16th century, useful maps – the ones that got you somewhere – were jealously guarded, almost like industrial secrets. Knowing where to go, usually for business and trade, offered an important competitive advantage. During the Age of Discovery, everyone had an idea of where the new lands were thanks to world maps circulating in books and atlases, but to get from one place to another, to avoid obstacles and ensure a smooth sailing or land journey, was knowledge in the hands of few enviable men.

The democratisation of maps cannot be understated. Almost anyone today has access to the most accurate maps and charts. For a fee, one can even purchase flight and nautical charts, the most precise cartographical tools. Although many of the tools required to make such incredible navigational instruments are not truly shared or made public – the GPS satellite network is an example –, we reap the benefits of this important type of democratisation.

Epic beginnings

Epic poems are like presidential terms, the first 100 days are crucial. The opening verses of an epic poem set the tone for the rest of the composition. Anyone who’s ever read Homer, Virgil, Dante or Milton, even superficially, will recall the opening verses of these poems, even if perhaps not more than that. Some if these opening gambits are downright famous, often to the exclusion of all other lines: sing, o Goddess, I sing of the man and the arms, nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita.

The opening lines establish expectations, lay out the plan for the poem and sketch out the borders within which the poet will deploy the arsenal. Openings, however, can also organise insurrections and signal future transgressions.

Canto II of Dante’s Paradiso opens with one of the boldest statements in the history of epic poetry:

O you who are within your little bark,
eager to listen, following behind
my ship that, singing, crosses to deep seas,

turn back to see your shores again: do not
attempt to sail the seas I sail; you may,
by losing sight of me, be left astray.

The waves I take were never sailed before;
Minerva breathes, Apollo pilots me,
and the nine Muses show to me the Bears.

This is one of my favourite sections of the Comedy. Dante is not original here, but he is majestic and transgressive. The three terzine work as a gloss on the Aeneid. In book 6, Virgil recounts Aeneas’ journey to the Underworld. Dante modelled the entire Divine Comedy, and especially Inferno, on this part of the Aeneid. But when he comes to Paradiso, Dante must leave the Aeneid, and all classical poetry, behind. The journey continues to the Heavens, the underworld realms are far behind/below. Going up means leaving the classical predecessors behind. There is no room for Rome in the Empyrean. But it seems that the past is inescapable, for the opening verses of Canto II of Paradiso quoted above echo the Aeneid loud and clear. In the Aeneid, the Sibyl warns Aeneas that the descent to the Underworld is not for everybody: ‘stay far, far away, you uninitiates’. With these words, Virgil, who was rewriting Ulysses’ own descent to the Underworld in the Odyssey, warns the readers that undertaking such a journey (and writing about it!) is not for everybody. Dante cleverly chose to overlook Virgil’s warning in Inferno, where one expects to find this literary echo, and instead brings it full-on in Paradiso, the most daring part of the Comedy.

Stay far, far, away, you uninitiates, you who are in your little boat, in the wake of my daring vessel. Your only chance of crossing the sea of imagination and creativity is to sail closely behind or get on board, otherwise you’ll drift away and lose yourselves. Inferno had been sailed before, but Paradiso is something else entirely – so stay close, I need divine inspiration, and you need me!

A single line in the Aeneid generates a whole creative world, which Dante sketches in just nine lines. Paradiso, we are told, is not going to be like anything we’ve read. You may see glimpses of Homer and Virgil in Inferno, but Paradiso will be the ultimate challenge. And indeed, what Dante sets out to do in the last canticle of the Comedy is unprecedented. His ‘ship’ will cross the sea of the ineffable, will reach the edge of the imaginable where silence lies, once everything’s been told and revealed.

The month of the emperor

A great practice, now lost, in European culture has been that of renaming the months of the year. The month of August, since we’re approaching its height, was not always called August. In ancient Rome, it used to be called Sextilis, the sixth month; in Anglo-Saxon England, Weod-mōnaþ, literally ‘Weed month’. And many other cultures and languages which now use a form of the word August (Août, Agosto, etc) had employed a different word for it in the past. Under novel influences, words simply change. Architectural styles on famous landmarks used to change too, before we discovered another art, that of museification, the naughty sister of our historical consciousness. The past ceased to flow into the present, and we were left standing in a graveyard of artefacts, objects of study and admiration, but cut out from the world of the living. 

The ancient Roman months of Sextilis was renamed August in 8 BC by senatorial decree in honour of Octavian, the first Roman ’emperor’ and Augustus, since the month of August was, the senate ruled, ‘most fortunate to this empire’.

In 1793, the French revolutionaries proceded to a complete overhaul of the calendar, whereby the month of August (in fact the period between 18/19 August to 16/17 September) became known as Fructidor, the fruit season, from the Latin fructus for fruit. It was the West’s last attempt to rename the months of the year or reform the calendar more widely. An attempt as bold as it was unsuccessful. August was back, the emperor re-entered Rome. 

I did it my way, a modo mio

Frank Sinatra’s hit My Way and Lucio Dalla’s canzone Piazza Grande were released only three years apart. Everyone knows Sinatra’s piece, but few outside Italy will have heard of Piazza Grande. Fewer still are perhaps aware that Sinatra’s enduring hit was set to the music of a French song. The lyrics, however, are original and account for the song’s undying appeal. They also bring the song closer to Dalla’s Piazza Grande, to which it serves as a paradigmatic counterpart. I’d like to explain why.

My Way is the creed of the self-made man, the catechism of the industrial-age hero, whose belief in his own power of self-determination and free-will is able to unlock the resources allowing him to rise above contingency and become master of his own destiny. This is the New Man of the capitalist order, the Hercules of renewed works and hours, a model of triumph, pride and self-proclamation whose adventum into the 20th-century forum is celebrated as much as envied. My Way is the dream of the man at the end of history, who may have regrets and remembered setbacks, but whose energy and will have the power to create worlds ex nihilo, starting with his own, to provide a new blueprint for the future of humanity. In this steel-age Confessions, there may be concessions, buts, howevers and neverthelesses, but the bottom line is, as the chorus keeps reminding us, that ‘I did it my way’. It is a triumph and a celebration.

Lucio Dalla’s Piazza Grande approaches the same material with different eyes, a different mind and, what’s more important, a different heart. As the song remains unfamiliar for most of us, it’s worth saying a few words about its general tenor. The title refers to the main square, the beating heart of any Italian town, which the singer has made his home, surrounded by stray cats and strangers, whose loves, hopes, fears and defeats he shares and is utterly privy to.

Dormo sull’erba e ho molti amici intorno a me,
gli innamorati in Piazza Grande,
dei loro guai, dei loro amori tutto so,
sbagliati e no.

I sleep on the grass and I have a lot of friends around me;
the lovers in Piazza Grande,
I know everything about their troubles and loves, wrong or not.

The poet recounts his precarious condition in sweet cadences, his desire for love and prayer, fellowship and dreams. Accepting the piazza as his home, he tentatively traces a universe of longing, an existential state of poverty contented nonetheless with the crumbs under the table, the beauty and truth hiding in the grass, under the benches in the piazza.

Yet, just like Sinatra’s My Way, Dalla’s song celebrates the deployment of the individual free will, the sense of responsibility, source of the starving, homeless poet’s actions. Just like the hero of My Way, the vagabond on the bench risks a ‘a modo mio’ (my way), which becomes as much part of the chorus as ‘I did it my way’ is for Sinatra’s Gatsby:

A modo mio
Avrei bisogno di carezze anch’io
A modo mio
Avrei bisogno di sognare anch’io.

My way I, too, would need affection
My way I, too, would need to dream.

Dalla is never closer to Sinatra than when he proclaims:

Ma la mia vita non la cambierò mai mai
A modo mio
Quel che sono l’ho voluto io.

But I’ll never change my life,
My way,
What I am is what I wanted.
What I am is what I wanted. I did it my way.

The languages match, the psychologies are similar, but there is an impassable ocean between Sinatra’s triumphalist hero (‘I faced it all and I stood tall’) and Dalla’s downhearted derelict. The former is checking the balance and is finding himself in credit. The latter welcomes his wretched Geworfenheit (being-thrown-into-the-world), cherishing the small pleasures, overlooking the cosmic injustices, and taking possession of the best spot on earth, under the open sky, ‘amid the cats who have no owner, like me’ (tra i gatti che non han padrone come me attorno a me).

Deorbiting the oikoumene

The immersive point of view of itinerary maps like this one by Matthew Paris (made in the 1250s, now British Library, Cotton MS Nero D I) made cartography personally relevant. 

Cartography is a cultural miracle. That we should have developed a ‘map consciousness’ was never in the books, never inscribed in the human way of seeing things. And maybe maps are not about seeing. Maps are not views from nowhere – the illusion of objectivity -, but views from everywhere. They are not birds-eye views (a bird has a point of view from somewhere), but the result of many cultural, intellectual, scientific, literate developments extending over long periods of time. The first maps were, despite the deception of visuality, literary constructions, with the observer immersed in his or her work. Maps existed before projections were understood. They were periplures, journeys connecting dots endowed with meaning and determined by the traveller. The most sophisticated ancient maps were personal projects, culturally determined and psychologically relevant.

The ‘journey’ from within the map to outside of it was long and arduous. It depended on a cluster of other journeys whereby the human mind trained itself to abstract and construct, to count and approximate, in other words, to feel at ease in the realm of the invisible in order to establish the visible beyond what may be seen by any one individual.

The ancient Greeks used the word oikoumene to refer to the inhabited world. But there was a world beyond that of humans, uninhabited, unreachable, invisible. The journeys to the underworld, from Homer to Dante and beyond, developed topographies easily plotted on maps. Even the Western Church fell within the ambit of this map consciousness. The invisible becomes tangible just like a map, showing what there is by means of what there isn’t (its representation, projection, grid, etc). Plotting the oikoumene was the first staging point towards revealing what lies beyond – and when that beyond became imaginable, the Western mind seized it with all its might, and sought to conquer it – in more than one way.


Always on the move

We like to explain the development of human society and culture by way of revolutions. The agricultural revolution, the Axial Age of philosophical revolution, the monotheistic revolution, the industrial revolution, etc. In the sequence of revolutions whereby human society (most often understood as the Western society), there is one revolution that stands, in my view, above all others. This is what may be called the revolution of movement.

European thought has always struggled with the relationship between permanence and motion, being and process. The heavens moved, but the Earth stood still, but what if it also moved? An idea which took a long time to take off. The same with languages, peoples, cultures, traditions, even nature. Movement has always been an accepted idea (how could it be otherwise), but its relationship to permanence and essence, the fruit of a strong ancient development, was hard to resolve.

The challenge was kept in tension by a commitment to both abstract philosophy and empirical observation. Dante realised languages shift, that the Italian of his ancestors would have been different from his own, but how could he conclude that they’ve always shifted and evolved? His commitment to the received wisdom of the biblical account, the paradigm at the time, inflected his findings in ways which we now know to be inaccurate. So what? In the long run, this struggle between two orders of knowledge proved most fruitful and pushed science (understood in the largest possible sense) towards new horizons. We have come far, but the challenge remains.

In a flake of dead skin

A whole person is contained in a flake of dead skin peeling off after too much sun exposure. The smallest cell contains the whole organism, and it all begins with the smallest possible unit, growing and multiplying, then dwindling and dying.

Similarly, an idea contains a whole world of possibilities, crossroads, contingencies but also a measure of necessity, the result of a host of other contingencies, organising themselves and clustering together for cooperation or competition. Ideas emerge when the soil is ripe, but the soil is not enough to explain why one idea takes off while another dies out. All ideas are time- and location-specific, and while a number of causes may account for their success, an emergent idea ultimately defies explanation. We may try to explain why Christianity or Marxism became popular ideas in history, every explanation will be provisional, subject to improvement and review.

Everything begins with a droplet, a cell, a word, a gesture. It’s up to us to see the tear inside the tear, the tidal wave within the globule, the earthquake stirring within the roar.


In the midst of our identity political age, we tend to forget that the ancient world was equally concerned with identity – and more particularly, with identification. From Homer to the Bible, the question of who’s who or what occurs again and again in ancient narrative accounts, feeding a growing preoccupation with being, human nature, selfhood and one’s relationship with others.

In a world without identity cards or clear ways of marking off identities, the latter were in a state of flux. Identification was difficult, and this challenge was reflected in epic poetry and other types of narrative. Odysseus managed to escape the Cyclops because he played the identity card, presenting himself as ‘Nobody’, which allowed him to leverage a linguistic trick arising from an ambiguity. When he arrived home on Ithaca after more than twenty years away, his wife Penelope didn’t recognise him. Another trick, another story of identification.

Mistaken identities, misidentifications and the trouble of persuading others of one’s identity (or several) permeates ancient literature. In the Gospels, Doubting Thomas’ identity as a literary figure is predicated on his own identity conundrum, namely how to identify the risen Jesus and ground that knowledge in evidence. St Thomas, the doubter of sacred identity.

Sacred identity has its own place in literature and historical accounts. For how can one be sure to identify the presence of the divine amid competing voices and noises. The chasm between Judaism and Christianity is one of identification, of one group making a positive ID where the other doesn’t.

The struggle of ancient identification is captured by the concept of anagnorisis, the recognition of a figure by another based on a process emerging from the narrative. This is made possible by fluid identities, sources of conflict and resolution.

The literacy of leaders

In the 360s BC, Plato understood that politics and philosophy each have their own logic. Invited to Sicily by his pupil Dion to talk philosophy with the tyrant of Syracuse Dionysus I, Plato clashed with the latter, and almost died trying to escape back to Athens. He made two further journeys back to Sicily, hoping to awaken in the tyrants of Syracuse (Dionysus II and then Dion) the principles of his political philosophy. It didn’t work. Instead, Plato ended up risking his life again each time.  The myth of the philosopher-king was filing for bankruptcy.

Plato may have set the bar a bit too high for future generations of leaders. Philosopher-kings, keep dreaming, how about literate kings? The record of European literacy of leaders is rather low. The Roman emperors were admittedly literate, but Marcus Aurelius stands out alone in his ability to ground late ancient leadership in philosophical thought. It is remarkable that no premodern European leader reflected on leadership. It was left to thinkers, historians and theologians to build political theories and extract the principles of leadership.

The literacy of political leaders was at its lowest in the medieval period. The Germanic kings which filled the power vacuum left by the Romans didn’t have time for literacy – most couldn’t read or write. We remember the English king Alfred for his role in the translation of parts of the Bible into Old English also because the backdrop is so dire: Charlemagne himself never quite managed to write properly, his biographer Einhard informs us, though he decried the low levels of literacy among his clergy.

The ancient and medieval model of leadership was disconnected from questions of literacy, philosophy and intellectual performance. Other things were required of European political leaders. The enlightened absolutism of the 18th and 19th centuries may have temporarily destabilised the old model, but it never quite managed to make power, knowledge and wisdom collide fruitfully in the person of the European political leader.