Archive for the ‘Italy’ Category

The following is based on part six of Jacob Bronowski’s BBC series on the history of science and invention, “The Ascent of Man” (1973). It is about astronomy up to the time of Galileo (pictured):

Cultures all over the world have some knowledge of astronomy – if only to know when to plant. But often it never goes beyond that.

The Mayans, for example, had the number zero before Europe did and a much better calendar too, yet they did not study the motions of the stars.

Easter Island was the same: people came there by accident but had no way of leaving because they had no model of the heavens. They were stuck there as the stars passed overhead, their secrets unread.

It seems the New World lacked a model of the heavens because they lacked the wheel. The Greeks built their model on the wheel: wheels within wheels, forever turning. It was Ptolemy who wrote down that  model in all its glory in about the year 150. It stood for over a thousand years.

In 1543 Copernicus put the sun, not the earth, at the centre – for sound Renaissance reasons. To the man in the street it seemed unnatural.

Then in 1609, a lifetime later, all that changed when Galileo in Venice, Italy pointed a telescope at the stars. What he saw proved Copernicus right.

The Catholic Church at the time was battling against the Protestant heresy. Taking a hard line, it believed that faith should rule. Galileo believed that truth should persuade.

In 1611 the Vatican starts to keep a file on him. In 1616 they tell him he can no longer hold or defend the Copernican system as proven fact.

Galileo waits till a more intellectual pope came to power, Pope Urban VIII in 1623. He is the one who hired Bernini to work on St Peter’s. But he is also the one who had the birds in the Vatican gardens killed because he did not like the noise.

In 1624 Galileo came to those gardens and had six long talks with the pope. He asked the pope if he could teach Copernicus. The pope said no. But Galileo continued to believe the pope was on his side. He was profoundly mistaken.

Galileo returned  to Florence and wrote “The Dialogue on the Great World Systems” (1632). Because the book did not present Copernicus as fact but merely debated his ideas, Galileo thought he was safe. But just to make sure he got four imprimaturs from Church censors.

It did not work. The pope stopped the presses and tried to buy back all the copies. Then in 1633 he called Galileo before the Inquisition. They threatened him with torture, twice, and forced him to state that Copernicus was wrong. Silencing him, the Church banned his book for over 200 years.

That all but killed science in Catholic countries. Now the cutting edge of science moved to the Protestant north. Indeed, in the year that Galileo died, in 1642, on Christmas day was born Isaac Newton in England.

See also:

Read Full Post »


marthawashI used to play this song to death. The woman in the video is model Katrin Quinol from Guadeloupe. She is only lip synching. The voice belongs to Martha Wash, who got no royalties from the music video till she took Black Box to court.

Tell me what you want and nothing more, more, more….

I don’t know
I don’t know
I don’t know anybody else

I’ll tell you what I know so well
Your love is standing tall and swell
Why! Come on out and hear him say
Gonna get you now! Gonna get to you!
We’re livin’ by this inspiration

Come on, baby, come on!
You ‘n’ nobody else
Come on, baby, come on !
Just walk this way
Come on, baby, come on !
You ‘n’ nobody else
I wanna take you ! So close to you !

Just gotta touch me, touch me
Just gotta touch me, touch me
Just gotta touch me, touch me
Just gotta touch me, touch me

Can’t you say it to my eyes, to my face ?
There’s no need to wait
Gonna get you now ! Gonna get to you !
We’re livin’ by this inspiration

Come on, baby, come on!
You ‘n’ nobody else
Come on, baby, come on !
Just walk this way
Come on, baby, come on !
You ‘n’ nobody else
I wanna take you ! So close to you !

Just gotta touch me, touch me
Just gotta touch me, touch me
Just gotta touch me, touch me
Just gotta touch me, touch me

I don’t know
I don’t know
I don’t know anybody else

I don’t know
I don’t know
I don’t know anybody else

Just gotta touch me, touch me
Just gotta touch me, touch me
Just gotta touch me, touch me

Just gotta touch me, touch me

Read Full Post »

Tips on visiting Rome


I have been to Rome twice and just got back from my second time, so while it is all still fresh in my mind, here are some tips on visiting the Eternal City:

  1. Make sure to see the Vatican Museum and St Peter’s. Some will try to talk you out of it because of their feelings about the Catholic Church. Do not listen to them. The Vatican Museum is one of the best in Europe – it is where Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel is as well as Raphael’s “School of Athens”. St Peter’s is huge, like a big train station, but it does have Michelangelo’s “Pieta”, the one where Mary is holding Jesus after he died on the cross. Knowing and loving Western art matters more than knowing and loving Catholicism. The Renaissance popes were not holy monks, but rich princes with good taste in art.
  2. Know some Italian. It seems most Italians study English in school, but only one in four or five will know enough English to be able to help you.
  3. Buy a Roma Pass and a good bus map. A Roma Pass will give you unlimited public transport in Rome for three days and free or discounted entrance to two museums. Most people seem to jump on and off buses without a ticket, but you will certainly need it for the Metro, the underground train.
  4. Bus stops are at signs that say “Fermata” or which have bus numbers with lists of their stops.
  5. The main sights to see (divided into three separate walking tours):
    • Day One: Colosseum, Palatine Hill, Forum
    • Day Two: Vatican Museum, St Peter’s
    • Day Three: Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, Pantheon, Piazza Navona. Leave time to just hang out at the Steps and the Piazza.
  6. Wear good walking shoes. Many of the good sights are within walking distance of each other.
  7. When waiters ask you “Would you like so-and-so?” make sure you know how much so-and-so will cost before you say yes.
  8. Tips: Waiters do not live on their tips, but you can leave two or three euros if you like.
  9. Try the pizza and ice cream.
  10. If you can get up early enough in the day, consider visiting:
    • Florence and Pisa (three hours to the north)
    • Naples, Pompei, the Amalfi Coast (two and a half hours to the south)
    • Take the bus to one of the outlying towns.
  11. The “Rough Guide to Rome” is generally good except that it is hard to find points of interest on the maps. Read as much of it beforehand as you can, following your interests.
  12. It is best to go with just one other person. Having more than two people in your party will tend to limit your experience of Italy and its people.
  13. Racism: black males seem to make at least some shopkeepers uneasy.
  14. Like the attractions at Disney World, the best time to visit museums is in the morning and late afternoon.

See also:

Read Full Post »

Rosina Ferrara

Rosina Ferrara (1861-1934) was a beauty from the island of Capri off the coast of Italy. You see her picture in art museums all over the world because artists loved to paint and draw her, especially Frank Hyde and John Singer Sargent. For them she had an exotic beauty, one that reminded them of the women in ancient Greek art.

She had light brown skin, black curly hair and eyes like a panther. She looked like she was part Arab and part Greek. Some say that on her mother’s side she is related to Barbarossa, the Turkish pirate. She came from the town of Anacapri where the people are markedly Arab-looking.

Charles Sprague Pearce, a painter from Boston, said of her:

the tawney skinned, panther eyed, elf-like Rosina, wildest and lithest of all the savage creatures on the savage isle of Capri

Capri is a beautiful island near Naples. In the 1800s artists and writers loved to go there to do their work. The island was not only famous for its beauty, but also for its beautiful women, who looked exotic to the French, British and Americans. In the French imagination it was the sort of place where you might fall in love with a fisherman’s daughter (and later leave her).

And on that beautiful island of beautiful exotic women, some said that the most beautiful of all was Rosina Ferrara.

She was discovered by the French artist Chatran when she was about age 14. She became a model for Edward Vaux and then the British artist Frank Hyde.

Sargent arrived in Capri in 1878 when she was 16 or 17. He went to visit Frank Hyde, telling him what kind of model he was looking for. He showed her Rosina:

When he saw her he was so fascinated with her that he made three studies in profile of her, all of which he painted in my studio.

Sargent would go on to paint her 12 times during his year on Capri. Sargent tends to make people taller and thinner than they are, but he is good at catching their mood.

Sargent did not pay her for modelling, by the way. Instead he gave her a sculpture he made of her.

In addition to Chatran, Vaux, Hyde and Sargent, she has also been painted by George Randolph Barse (husband), Alfred Stevens (lover), Charles C. Coleman (good friend), Jean Benner and Charles Sprague Pearce (that painter from Boston). Many of these paintings are in private collections.

In 1883 she had a daughter, Maria Carlotta. No one knows who the father was. Some say it was a prince. She was famous enough and beautiful enough where that would not be out of the question.

In the middle 1880s she was the mistress of Alfred Stevens, a Belgian painter.

In 1891 she married an American painter, George Randolph Barse, and went away with him to live in America, in upstate New York in Katonah. She died of pneumonia at age 76 in Flushing, Queens in New York City.

See also:

Read Full Post »

In the July 2008 issue of Vogue Italia, an Italian fashion magazine, all the models will be black! I thought I would never live to see such a thing! As long as I can remember Vogue has been telling the world that thin white women are the most beautiful – and most of the world seems to believe it. But now this! It makes my heart sing!

I do not read Vogue and my wife assures me I have no fashion sense, but I still want my own copy when it comes out in June! I know it sounds kind of nuts, but it is almost as if the world will be black for a day.

The cover will fold out and show Liya Kebede, Sessilee Lopez, Jourdan Dunn and Naomi Campbell.

So far we know at least these models will be in the magazine:

  • Chanel Iman
  • Iman
  • Naomi Campbell (20 pictures)
  • Alek Wek
  • Alva Chin
  • Arlenis Sosa Pena
  • Gail O’Neil
  • Karen Alexander
  • Tyra Banks
  • Veronica Webb
  • Yasmin Warsame
  • Liya Kebede
  • Jourdan Dunn
  • Sessilee Lopez
  • Toccara Jones
  • Pat Cleveland

Jourdan Dunn said not too long ago about race and fashion:

London’s not a white city, so why should all our castings be white? I go to castings and see several black and Asian girls, then I get to the show and look around and there’s just me and maybe one other coloured face. They just don’t get picked. I hope it’s because the designer just didn’t think they were good enough as a model, but I don’t know.

Franca Sozzoni, the editor, agrees. When asked why she is doing an all-black Vogue, she said: “Because nobody is using black girls. I see so many beautiful girls and they were complaining that they are not used enough.”

When asked what if the issue fails because not enough Italians buy it, she said, “Maybe in our country it is not the best idea. But I don’t care. I think it is not my problem if they don’t like it – it’s their problem.” She is great!

Steven Meisel, who has already shot all the pictures for the issue and will be given 100 pages, is all for it too. He is one of Vogue’s top photographers, the one who did Madonna’s “Sex” book in 1992. He hopes an all-black Vogue will lead fashion magazines and designers to use more black models.

Iman, who probably has the best insight on this, is not getting her hopes up:

I still don’t like us (black models) to be a caricature. They’ll think, “Okay, we did it.” And then they’re done with it, and we’ll have to wait till next year … When you see commercials and movies and every other form of art in terms of entertainment, you never have this conversation. So it is so outdated. I can only say that one of the reasons is that models have never had unions, so there is no one to say, “This isn’t right.”

It is set to come out in Europe on June 26th, the following week worldwide.

Here is a video showing 49 pictures:

(video no longer available)

– Abagond, 2008.

See also:

Read Full Post »


Simonetta Vespucci (1453-1476), “la bella Simonetta”, was the most beautiful woman in Florence, Italy in her day. She was so beautiful that men were still painting her more than 20 years after her death. She is the woman you keep seeing over and over again in Botticelli’s paintings, like the “Birth of Venus”.

Botticelli painted her as the Virgin Mary, Venus and Athena. Piero di Cosimo painted her as Cleopatra and Procris. Poliziano and Lorenzo the Magnificent wrote about her in verse – as did Gabriele d’Annunzio in our own age. Many other poets and painters honoured her as well with their works. You can see her today on some of the money in Europe.

She had brown eyes, white skin and long, flowing dark yellow hair. She had what in those days was considered to be a perfect figure.

In Botticelli’s paintings she looks a bit sad, but also like she is in a dream.

Lorenzo the Magnificent read her look differently: that she was not just beautiful on the outside but had a beautiful soul too: she was serious, never had an unjust feeling, was not proud or stuck on herself and had an excellent mind. She walked and danced with grace, a sign of the inner balance of her soul.

She was the perfect Renaissance woman.

She was born in either Genoa or Portovenere, the place where they say Venus arrived in Italy. At 15 she married a cousin of Amerigo Vespucci, after whom America is named. Her husband brought her to Florence, the city ruled by the Medicis. Because her father-in-law was an important man there, the Medicis soon came to know her.

Two Medici brothers, Lorenzo and Giuliano, fell in love with her. Lorenzo was too busy with affairs of state, but Giuliano pursued her.

At the La Giostra games in 1475 Giuliano rode into battle under a flag with her picture on it and the French words “La Sans Pareille” – the woman without parallel. Botticelli had made the flag. At the games she was named the “Queen of Beauty”.

Some say that Giuliano won her heart that day and they became lovers. Others say that she refused him.

A year later, at the age of 23, she became very sick and was coughing up blood: she had tuberculosis.

There is a strange story that Giuliano tried to keep her alive as a vampire: better that than to see her die. In that story she becomes a vampire and hides in the tower overlooking the main square. When she is cornered she jumps to her death.

In any case she died that spring. At her funeral thousands followed her body to its grave.

It seems that Botticelli had fallen in love with her too: after he first saw her, she was the only woman he ever painted, even after her death. He never married and was laid to rest at her feet.


– Abagond, 2007.

See also:

Read Full Post »

Sophia Loren (1934- ) is an Italian film actress. She starred in dozens of films in the 1950s and 1960s, both in Italy and in Hollywood. Most were between bad and forgettable, but what people remember is her amazing beauty.

According to this blog she is the most beautiful woman in the world. I have never seen a more beautiful woman than Sophia Loren at her height. Not in any other country nor in any other age. She is more beautiful than I thought a woman could be.

She was tall (1.74 m). Counting her shoes and her hair, she was taller than most men. She had large breasts and an hourglass figure with plenty of meat on her bones. She had high cheekbones, thick lips, black hair and, most of all, big, beautiful eyes.

“Beauty is how you feel inside,” she once said, “and it reflects in your eyes. It is not something physical.”

Growing up she was so thin she was called Stick and Toothpick. “I was tall, thin, ugly and dark like an Arab girl. I looked strange. All eyes. No flesh on my bones.” Her figure filled out later: “Everything you see I owe to spaghetti.”

Jean Negulesco, who directed “Boy on a Dolphin”, said: “She was beautiful: she was big, big eyes, big nose, big lips, big body. It was Mother Earth in all her glory.”

She grew up in poverty and war in Naples without a father. Her beauty was the road out, the road to Rome where she and her mother went to become actresses. Her mother had once won a Greta Garbo look-alike contest.

In 1950 she came in second in the Miss Italy beauty contest. She tried her luck at becoming Miss Rome, but again came in second. But this time one of the judges who was taken by her beauty was a film producer – and her future husband: Carlo Ponti.

Ponti got her an acting teacher. He also wanted her to do something about her big nose and her big hips, but Loren, thankfully, thought better of it.

He put her in dozens of films and also broke her into Hollywood. He made sure she starred opposite the leading men of Hollywood of the time, like Cary Grant and Gregory Peck.

Loren was also in eight films by Vittorio de Sica and starred in over a dozen films opposite Marcello Mastroianni.

But despite all this, and despite her undoubted beauty and acting talent, she was never the box office hit that Elizabeth Taylor was. And, unlike Taylor or even Cary Grant, hardly anyone watches her films any more. No one was able to turn her beauty and acting into a fortune or even a film for the ages.

Because she was so beautiful many did not take her seriously as an actress. But her performance in De Sica’s “La ciociara” (1960) was so good that, even though it was all in Italian, she still won the Oscar for Best Actress in America.

Even at 71 she still looked great: good enough to make the Pirelli calendar for 2007 with the likes of Penelope Cruz and Hilary Swank.


See also:

Read Full Post »


The Lord’s Prayer in Italian:

Padre Nostro, che sei nei cieli,
Sia santificato il tuo nome.
Venga il tuo regno,
Sia fatta la tua volontà,
Come in cielo, così in terra.
Dacci oggi il nostro pane quotidiano,
E rimetti a noi i nostri debiti,
Come noi li rimettiamo ai nostri debitori.
E non ci indurre in tentazione,
Ma liberaci dal male.

Italian (960- ) is the main language of Italy and southern Switzerland. About 70 million people speak it. It is also spoken in Savoy, Nice and Corsica, parts of France that Italy once ruled, as well as in Istria in the east, now divided between Slovenia and Croatia.

Millions of Italians have moved overseas to North and South America and Australia. Yet few of their children and grandchildren – like Madonna, Rudy Giulilani or Eva Longoria – can speak Italian.

The largest overseas Italian-speaking area is in the wine country of Rio Grande do Sul, the part of Brazil near Uruguay.

Italian seems like Spanish. But Italian words are closer to Latin. Like in Latin and unlike Spanish, double consonants still matter in Italian and plurals are made by changing the vowel at the end, not by adding an s.

After the fall of the Roman Empire in the West, Latin continued to be spoken in Italy, but it slowly changed into Italian. It first appears in court testimony in the 960s:

Sao ko quelle terre per quelle fini que qui contene trenta anni le possette parte sancti Benedicti.

which you would now say as:

So che quelle terre per quei confini che qui sono contenuti per trenta anni le possedette la parte di San Benedetto.

But until the 1800s Italy was divided into city-states, each with its own sort of Italian. Worse still, the Italian of the north could not be understood in the south.

In other countries, the language of the capital became the language of government and education. Not so in Italy: Rome did not become the capital of Italy till the 1800s. Too late.

By the late 1500s Italian writers, no matter where they came from, wrote in the Italian of Tuscany, made famous by the works of Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio.

Through the work of Pietro Bembo and the Accademia della Crusca in Florence, the Italian of Petrarch and Boccaccio – but not Dante – became the model of pure, written Italian. It helped that Tuscan Italian is halfway between northern Italian and southern Italian.

Why not Dante too? Dante did not write in pure Tuscan Italian. He put southern words into his writing so that he could be understood throughout Italy.

In the 1800s Alessandro Manzoni brought that model up to date. It became the Italian of government and education, being spread by the schools, the army, television and films.

Half of all Italians – mostly those who are young and have an education – speak it as their main language. Older people still speak in the dialect of their part of Italy.

See also:

Read Full Post »


The image “https://i0.wp.com/www.bau.pt/weblog/botticelli-venus-768.jpg” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510) was a Renaissance painter from Florence. He is famous for two paintings: “The Birth of Venus” (part of it pictured here) and the “Primavera”. Both hang in the Uffizi in Florence.

Although he was famous in his own day, he was soon outdone by Leonardo and Raphael. By 1500, when he was 55, his work already seemed old-fashioned. He was forgotten for centuries till the late 1800s when Pater, Ruskin and the pre-Raphaelites rediscovered him. He has influenced not just the pre-Raphaelites but also the Art Nouveau style of the early 1900s.

He painted for the powerful Medici family and the churches of Florence. In 1481 and 1482 he went to Rome to help paint the Sistine Chapel for the pope.

A true son of the Renaissance, he painted not just Christian themes – including many Madonnas and angels – but Greek and Roman themes too. He was one of the first.

“Primavera” means spring. The three women you see dancing in the painting are the three months of spring. The painting is set in the Garden of the Hesperides

The “Birth of Venus” was the first painting in the Christian West of a naked woman. It is based on “Venus Pudica”, a statue from ancient times – and yet his Venus is very much like his Virgin Marys.

The woman Botticelli painted as Venus is believed to be Simonetta Vespucci. You see her in the “Primavera”, “Venus and Mars” and some other paintings.

Simonetta was a beauty of her day and perhaps a lover of one of the Medicis. She is a cousin by marriage of Amerigo Vespucci, after whom America is named. She died at 23. When Botticelli finished the “Birth of Venus”, she had been dead for nine years. He asked to be laid to rest at her feet when he died. And so he was.

Botticelli’s real name was Allessandro di Mariano Filipepi. He did poorly in school, so his father sent him to a goldsmith to learn a trade. Later, however, Botticelli was sent to Fra Lippi to learn painting.

Botticelli was influenced by the philosophy of the Renaissance Neoplatonists Ficino and Poliziano. Love and Beauty and all that.

Botticelli took his art theory from Leon Battista Alberti. Like Alberti, he wanted to bring back the lost glories of Greek and Roman art.

Although the people in his paintings seem natural they are not. The neck of his Venus is too long, for example. But Botticelli was not interested in making painting “true to life”.

To Botticelli, painter and poet were brothers, not painter and scientist. People did not see this quality in him until the invention of photography changed the way they looked at art.

Botticelli was working on drawings for Dante’s “Divine Comedy”, a book he loved. He never finished but we have 92 of his drawings.

Botticelli could make 50 to 100 florins (100 to 200 crowns) a painting. His best years were from 1475 to 1495.

See also:

Read Full Post »

The florin of Florence, 3.5g of gold. Used all over Europe by 1300.

The florin of Florence, 3.5g of gold, used all over Europe by 1300, what Grimm fairy tales call a piece of gold.

Leonardo da Vinci mentions money and prices in his notebooks, almost in passing. He tells how much he paid gravediggers, for instance, and how much it costs to have your fortune told.

Leonardo counted money in lire, soldi and dinari:

  • 1 lire = 20 soldi
  • 1 soldo = 12 dinari

It is one soldo, two soldi.

Like the English pound, shilling and pence, these come from the Roman system of of libra, solidus and denarius. But the money in Italy lost its value far more quickly than in England so that by Leonardo’s time the soldi had pretty much the same value as Shakespeare’s penny.

The coins that Leonardo mentions (with their rough value in metric pennies, which have 0.5 grams of silver):

  • ducat (120)
  • florin (120)
  • Rhenish florin (120)
  • scudo (110)
  • grossoni (40)
  • lire (20)
  • carlino (4-8?)
  • soldo (1)
  • dinari (0.083)

Ducats and florins were two crowns each ($26 in current money) , while a lire was a third of a crown.

The ducat was the gold coin of Venice, just as the florin was the gold coin of Florence. Both had 3.5 grams of gold and were accepted all over Europe. They are called “pieces of gold” in the Grimm stories.

The soldo and lire are silver coins. I put six lire to a florin, but in practice it was not that fixed. You might get anywhere between four to seven lire for a florin, depending on the going rate between silver and gold.

Leonardo generally got paid in ducats and florins. His income went up and down a lot, but in the long run he made about 50 to 100 ducats a year. That is equal to about a painting a year.

At the end of his life Leonardo worked for the king of France, who paid him 400 ducats a year. Compare that to Michelangelo, who got between 200 to 450 ducats for his sculptures.

One ducat was spending money for Leonardo, but for one of his students it was ten days’ pay.

In 1499, just before the fall of Milan, Leonardo had 600 ducats in the bank. In his will he gave his brother 400 ducats.

Some prices from his notebooks (in soldi):

    225 a metre of velvet
    140 bed
    140 ring
    120 to bury someone - bier, gravediggers, priests, the works
    100 lined doublet
     45 crockery
     40 cloak
     40 jerkin (up to 120)
     40 pair of hose (up to 120)
     30 for canvas
     23 a metre of cloth (for a shirt)
     22 gardener
     21 sword and knife
     20 anise comfits
     20 cap
     20 glasses
     20 lock
     18 for paper
     16 for gravediggers to bury someone
     13 shirt
     13 jasper ring
     11 sparkling stone
     11 what a student of his could make in a day
     11 to the barber
      6 have your fortune told
      5 pair of shoes (up to 14)
      4 a dozen laces
      3 rent a room for a day
      3 melon
      1 salad

See also:

Read Full Post »


Galileo (1564-1642) was a founder of Western science and the first to look at the night sky through a telescope. What he saw brought him face to face against the Catholic Church. The Church condemned and silenced him but they could not silence his ideas.

He was one of the first to use experiments to do science, where ideas are put to the test to see if they are really true. He found holes in Aristotle’s physics.

The telescope made things far away seem nearer. Galileo did not invent the telescope but he was the first to point it at the night sky. It was like going up into the sky yourself.

He was the first to see the mountains on the moon, the stars in the Milky Way, the spots on the sun, the moons of Jupiter and the the waxing of Venus.

This all came as a shock.

In the universities they taught the theories of Ptolemy and Aristotle: the sun and all the planets circled round the earth and the heavens were perfect and eternal. The Church never declared Ptolemy and Aristotle to be doctrine, but the theories of both had stood for hundreds of years and seemed like eternal truths.

But as Galileo found, they were not. His experiments in physics and what he saw through his telescope cast serious doubts upon both. He found that Copernicus was right after all: the planets did not orbit the earth but the sun.

Until Galileo, the theory of Copernicus was merely interesting, but now he had proof that it was true.

With the facts on his side he wrote a book about Copernicus. In it three friends argued about whether Ptolemy or Copernicus was right. One was for Copernicus one for Ptolemy and the other was making up his mind.

Galileo framed it as a dispute because the Church had told him not to teach or write about the theory of Copernicus as if it were true. But it was hardly even-handed: the defender of Ptolemy was called Simplicius.

The wrath of the Church came down on him. He was surprised: the pope was his friend and a lover of science. Galileo was a pious, sincere Christian who only wanted to guide the Church to new truths. He felt that his enemies in the universities were pulling strings.

Galileo was called before the Inquisition. He was questioned, made to confess that Copernicus was wrong and then he was silenced. He was to go to prison, but later it was agreed he could live at home but not come and go as he pleased.

He retired to his country house near Florence where he lived the rest of his days with his daughter. He never said another word about Copernicus, but there he wrote “The Two New Sciences”, laying the foundation of the new physics that would destroy Aristotle and be developed by Newton.

He died in 1642. That Christmas Newton was born.

See also:

Read Full Post »

Aldus Manutius

Aldus Manutius (1449-1515) is a hero of mine. He founded the Aldine Press in Venice during the High Renaissance. He printed the great works of the Greeks and Romans in books so beautiful that they are still sought after today and yet at the time were cheap enough for a craftsman to buy.

The Aldine Press printed not just the Greeks and Romans, but also the great Italian and Renaissance writers, like Dante, Petrarch and Erasmus. In addition it printed books about religion, the latest overseas discoveries and other books of learning. It printed books in Greek, Latin and Italian.

His trademark is the dolphin and anchor.

Manutius printed his books not in the thick, heavy, hard-to-read black letter type of Gutenberg and the Germans, but in a clear, easy-to-read Roman type – what most books are printed in today. He based his Roman type on the letters found on Roman buildings and in Petrarch’s own handwriting. It was believed that this was the way Cicero wrote, but the style only goes back to the time of Charlemagne.

Manutius is the one who came up with italics. We use italics to draw attention to words, but he used it to print whole books, like his Virgil. It was designed to be graceful and yet take up less space than regular print. This allowed him to make his books smaller and therefore cheaper and more useful.

Where Gutenberg printed large Bibles for churches. Manutius printed books that were small enough and cheap enough for a craftsman to buy and take anywhere. They could fit in your bag or even your pocket.

Notice the change that took place between Gutenberg and Manutius: where Gutenberg used the printing press to make something cheaper and faster (huge church Bibles), Manutius used it to make something new, something we take for granted today (books that are small, cheap and easy to read).

By doing this Manutius increased the rate at which knowledge and new ideas spread. And, because of the sort of books he printed, his press helped to drive the Renaissance itself.

Manutius not only wanted his books to be of the most use to the most people, he also made sure his books were beautiful.

Manutius was a Greek scholar turned printer. He loved the Greeks and wanted to make sure they saw print. These books were his great love and he spared no pains to make sure that what came out of his press was the best. Not just in physical beauty, but also in the scholarship that went into them.

His editors were not just Greek scholars like himself, they even spoke Greek among themselves and with him to do their work.

The Aldine Press was the first to print many of these works. In doing this, Manutius has helped to preserve them for the ages.

Sometime after his death his brother-in-law took over the press and its reputation began to suffer. Later, however, his son and then his grandson brought back its former glory. The press was in operation for over a hundred years, from 1494 to 1597.

See also:

Read Full Post »

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) was the painter of the Mona Lisa and the Last Supper. He was one of the greatest painters of the Renaissance. He was also an inventor and a man of science, as we know from his marvellous notebooks. He is the definition of genius. Although his art made him famous, it was his military inventions that made him the most money.

Until the French Revolution in 1789, his most famous painting was the Last Supper: the Mona Lisa was the private possession of the king of France. It was not until the overthrow of the king that the Mona Lisa became well known.

Although we have seen the Mona Lisa countless times in countless ways, somehow it still has a pull on us. It was certainly the painting that Leonardo liked best: he took it with him everywhere and kept working on till the end of his life.

He learned to paint from Verrocchio, who taught him to observe closely and think about the underlying structure. This became the foundation not only of his painting but also his science.

We take this sort of thinking for granted now, but up until his time men got their science from old books and painted nature the way they thought of it, not the way it really looked. So, while both Leonardo and Botticelli knew how to paint a woman, Botticelli’s trees look man-made.

And Leonardo’s eye was quick: he drew pictures of birds in flight that we did not know were right till centuries later when we slowed down films of flying birds.

Leonardo’s mind was very fertile, maybe too fertile:

  • He found it difficult to finish what he started.The Last Supper took him years to finish. Two of his greatest works were never finished.
  • He invented new ways of painting but used them before they were proven.This led to the ruin of his Battle of Anghiari, which might have turned out to be his greatest work. It is also why the Last Supper has not held up over the years.

Throughout his life he kept notebooks. He carried them everywhere. In them he drew and wrote about his ideas, observations, inventions and paintings.

He had a vast curiosity. He wanted to know the secrets of nature. Why does the wind blow? How is the human body made? How do birds fly? He was especially interested in water, wind, the earth, shadows, plants, animals and the human body.

Leonardo wanted to learn how to fly. He watched birds endlessly to figure out how they did it. He finally made wings for himself. They were enough to keep him in the air for a bit, but not enough to fly.

Even though a lot of his paintings were religious (the Church had money), he was not all that religious himself. He doubted Noah’s Flood and had a low opinion of the Church. But in his final years he became more serious about religion.

– Abagond, 2006.

See also:

Read Full Post »

%d bloggers like this: