Understated

A decorated manuscript of Petrarch's Canzoniere produced in Italy in the 15th century. The manuscript goes on auction today at Christie's in London. One of the most beautiful collection of love poems ever written was the Canzoniere by the Italian humanist poet and scholar Francesco Petrarca. But Petrarch didn’t title it as we refer to... Continue Reading →

It’s not the final countdown

A Roman calendar inscription containing the months of the year, the zodiac, festivals and agricultural activities, 1st century AD, Rome, now in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli There is an interesting paradox at the heart of the ancient Roman way of counting the days in the year. The Romans were deeply impatient while at... Continue Reading →

Encoding specificity

If you lose your keys when you're drunk and you want to get your keys back, you should get drunk again. Encoding specificity is a principle in cognitive science which posits that memories are stored contextually - that it's not just the memory that's encoded, but a host of related material which helps at the... Continue Reading →

Universal truths

Orestes killing his mother Clytemnestra There are thousand ways of distinguishing classical comedy from classical tragedy. The ancients Greeks gave us both, the plays, the characters and the way of thinking about them. We are as indebted to Aristotle for showing what moves in us when we’re confronted to comedy or tragedy as we are... Continue Reading →

“Your clouded intellect”

The direction of travel is not always clear, whatever myth or narrative we might subscribe to. The world doesn’t always go from bad to better, whatever mental gifts we might lay out on the altar of progressivism. And Golden Ages, if they ever existed, don’t always succumb to alloys of silver, bronze or lead. But... Continue Reading →

Merely historical

The evolutionary basis of humanity’s obsession with the past must be the demands of performance on human behaviour. To avoid making the same, potentially fatal, mistake again, memory and memorisation are required. To reach tomorrow, remembering and understanding yesterday is key. Fishing stops the moment fish become historians. Ancient historiography, or the practice of doing/writing... Continue Reading →

The pleasure of pain

What if there was so much pleasure in the painful memories of old that we can’t help living in the past? An fMRI study from 2016 revealed that 'when nostalgia was triggered, participants’ brains showed activity in two powerful neural networks: the areas of the brain associated with memory and the brain’s reward system'. Pleasurable... Continue Reading →

A good read

It’s that time of year where the culture and book section of major newspapers and magazines invite us to pick up the best 10/20/100 books to read during the summer holidays, on the beach, on the road, in airport lounges, by the pool. The history of context-specific reading is quite old. The Romans are known... Continue Reading →

Fictive bodies

As Dante arrives on the last terrace of Purgatory, where lust, or 'troppo vigore' (too much vigor) is being purified, he gets a wow-moment from the other souls-in-residence. Everyone is astonished that Dante the pilgrim doesn't, in their words, 'seem to have a fictive body' ('Colui non par corpo fittizio'). They are obviously right. Dante... Continue Reading →

Eternal returns

The words destiny and destination have the same root. They both have an end in sight. We resent endings. Like Ralph Waldo Emerson, we prefer the trip to the destination. We like to be on the road, to cherish the experience. The end is the end. But the end point, though never truly achievable, is... Continue Reading →

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