August 10, 2007


One might well ask why I have shelved, as it were, my page about Joseph Duveen among the history books. Surely the man responsible for the greatest transfer of European art from the Old World to the New ought to be visited among artists and other creative types in the Audience branch of Portico. Perhaps. I might put a link up over there someday. But the page belongs where it is. Duveen's achievement as a top-of-the-line art dealer, working at a time when the publicity of auctions was distasteful, was acutely historical, in that it couldn't have happened much before or after his allotted term on Earth. Although a man of great culture, Duveen is best understood as a virus that found its window of opportunity. Conditions were propitious; Duveen attacked; and the Metropolitan Museum of Art itself, boasting the Bernard Altman collection that Duveen assembled, would be a far poorer place without the legacy of Duveen's opportunism.

And then there's the National Gallery in Washington. The founder and principal benefactor was the unhappy Andrew Mellon, but the guy who did all the legwork was Joseph Duveen. Both men died before the museum opened its doors, in 1941, but it remains a joint monument.

I hope that this page will inspire you to seek out a remaindered copy of Meryl Secrest's flawed but impressive biography. Duveen is an ultimately unknowable man to know about. 

Dates>History Books>Duveen.

July 23, 2007

The Classical World

When I was a student, the classical world - everything from Gilgamesh to the Dark Ages - bored me silly. I didn't see the people of Greece and Rome as human beings. No, they were teachers, people who wanted me to do better. It never occurred to me that they had no idea that we were (and are) their future. I really thought they knew. The teachers did, of course.

I did everything I could think of to reduce my exposure to classical antiquity. This was largely a matter of avoiding Latin classes. But by the time I got to prep school, I was already sufficiently dubious about my resistance to buy a Latin textbook and try to teach myself something on the side. Nowadays, of course, I am sickened by the thought of the legacy that I might have enjoyed (just as I enjoy the legacy of France's Grand Siècle). But I regarded myself  as very clever when I was in school.

The Classical World.

February 19, 2007

Books on Monday: Fire in the City

Anybody with an interest in history will know "who Savonarola was," but what does this mean? Yes, he's the "Bonfire of the Vanities" guy who inspired Florentines to burn their gewgaws at Carnival - an improvement over the regular custom of throwing rocks at people. But thinking about Savonarola means trying to think fifteenth-century thoughts - trying to see the world without our far more reflective and knowingly psychological habits of mind. In his new book, Fire in the City, Lauro Martines does a very good job of teaching us how to do pull this off.

Read about Fire in the City at Portico.

September 25, 2006


On the one hand, I'm with Édouard, of Sale Bête, when he tells his readers in France that we aren't all nuts: Hilzoy at Obsidian Wings writes (yet another) passionate denunciation of the failure of the rule of law in the United States.

On the other hand, I'm with Tony Judt, writing in the London Review of Books, where, in his manly way, he spits on and kicks around the remnants of American liberalism.

To Mr Judt I say: What took you so long? And why do you lump The New Yorker together with other Bush-appeasing organs, given its publication, just weeks after the "war" began, of Seymour Hersh's TPFDL exposé?

And to Hilzoy (and Édouard) I say: when are you going to suggest the kind of intimate things that I need to be able to say to galvanize the people around me into doing everything imaginable to avoid a civil war in this country? We've already had one civil war, and it was an almost total flop. (When will Black Americans finally come out and say so? - It was that dismal a failure!)

We need a post-Civil Rights party, one that understands that many Black Americans - perhaps a majority - are objectionably conservative about sexual matters. Such is our conundrum at the moment. 

May 01, 2006

Ian Dunlop's Louis XIV

There are two great figures in modern French history, and Napoleon isn't one of them. I don't know where he figures - in the history of totalitarianism? - but for France at least he was Not Great. My nominees are Louis XIV and Charles de Gaulle. They taught their countrymen to be proud of being French, and I believe that they did so in ways that were benign as regards other countries. This theory has a real problem: Louis XIV was hardly benign to other countries.

But I want to talk about the Louis XIV who marketed France. Who branded it, as it were, even though no one knew about branding then, or knew about it as well as we do. Notwithstanding his disastrous wars, most of which served no known commonsense purpose, Louis made France into The Model, the place everybody else had to imitate. Do you really think that Schönnbrünn or Hampton Court, Peterhof or even the United States Capitol would have happened without him? No, of course you don't.

Louis XIV brings the Roman god Janus to mind. On the one hand, he was forward-looking about centralization and common-sense administration. On the other, however, his social thought was hardly more advanced than that of an ostentatious Burgundian duke. This makes him very hard to judge.

Continue reading about Louis XIV at Portico.

October 28, 2005


In August of 1453, King Henry VI of England ceased even to appear to be a competent monarch. He fell into a mysterious catatonia that lasted about eighteen months, and emerged with an irremediably tarnished reputation. In May of 1455, at St Albans, forces led by the Duke of York defeated the royal army, and the Wars of the Roses began. When, thirty years later, Henry Tudor defeated Richard III, English government was on a new footing. The transition from Henry VI to Henry VII is arguably the most interesting in English history. In 1453, England was unmistakably medieval. It was something else in 1485.

For what it's worth, the cause of Henry VI's illness was genetic. His grandfather, Charles VI of France, spent most of his long life running in and out of madness. Royal unsteadiness, in both cases, created a power vacuum. In France, the king's powerful brothers fought to control access to royal power. In England, where Henry VI came to the throne as a child without siblings, the factions that would eventually launch a string of short-lived civil wars gathered around the king's cousins, descendants of the prolific Edward III and his equally philoprogenitive son, John of Gaunt.

"Lancastrian" and "Yorkist" are anachronistic terms that nobody used in the fifteenth century. "Lancastrian," in fact, meant little more than "anti-Yorkist." The Yorkist party gathered round Richard, Duke of York, descended from Edward III via two different ancestors. York would die at the threshold of victory, in 1460, fallen in the battle of Wakefield. In the following year, his eldest son would climb the throne as Edward IV. Edward turned out to be a good king in that he used his strength to introduce many streamlining innovations to the functioning of government, most notably in the field of fiscal management.

The Lancastrian party was led by Margaret of Anjou, Henry VI's queen. Margaret was vilified from the start as a transgressive woman who rejected her rightful role (submissive spouse) to interfere with Yorkist control of government. Even when her husband regained his health, he failed to demonstrate any monarchical backbone whatsoever. Margaret rallied the Lancastrian cause largely to protect the interests and claims of her son, Prince Edward. As a woman, however, she could claim no authority of her own. It was only as the representative of her husband and her son that she could act. An interesting recent book by Helen E Maurer, Margaret of Anjou: Queenship and Power in Late Medieval England (Boydell, 2003) strips away the myths about Margaret and replaces them with a carefully reconstructed context, in which Margaret's position is shown to have been untenable.

I have never read a history book quite like this. Professor Maurer scrupulously presents her evidence as it would have been seen by its actors - without foreknowledge.

Continue reading about Margaret of Anjou at Portico.

September 20, 2005

The Origins of Conversation

The idea of literary salons used to interest me a lot. I dreamed about having one. I saw salons as large tea parties, with groups of people getting together at set times to discuss interesting things. The host's job was to build up a list of interesting guests. I learned about competitive salon-running from Proust, but it was the salons of the Enlightenment that interested me. How did they work? It was hard to find out. Historians would mention them in passing, as a group, as if they were interchangeable. Every now and then, one would hear of Madame Geoffrin or Madame du Deffand in isolation. But one had no idea of what the events were like. Was there food? Was everyone assembled in a big circle? How often did guests have to sit through (endless) readings? In time, the desire to have my own salon, or even to attend somebody else's, flipped, turning into a desire to stay away and leaving only a residue of curiosity about the old days.

When I read Peter France's review of The Age of Conversation, I thought, better not. The review suggested that author Benedetta Craveri was trafficking in nostalgia for vanished, doomed elegance. And, as Mr France pointed out, nobody really knows what the conversation in great Parisian salons was really like, because nobody kept a transcript. (Almost all contemporary writing about salons was tendentious, aiming to flatter or dismiss the salons and their hostesses, not to inform a reader.) 

Craveri refers to this negative aspect of "the art of conversation," but she is more inclined to celebrate the positive achievements of the new politeness, which she rightly sees as quite separate from the royal court. Salon culture, centered in the great town houses of the nobility, is seen in Craveri's book rather as a refuge from public affairs, the creation of a beautiful world of leisure. If court politeness has the cold polish of marble, town politeness is "easy," relaxed, entertaining. From this perspective, true politeness is a moral quality, whereby the self is abnegated (concealed, Pascal would have said) in order to further the happiness of the group—although there is a tricky frontier here between complaisance (obligingness) and insincere flattery

Mr France also pointed to problems with Teresa Waugh's translations, although he did not identify any. My conclusion upon finishing the review was that I had a lot of other books to read.

This was no protection against fingering the book at the Met's gift shop. I happened to open to a particularly interesting passage, one that Mr French alludes to. It was about...

Continue reading about The Age of Conversation at Portico.

August 03, 2005

Colin Jones's Paris

Paris, The Biography of a City, by University of Warwick professor Colin Jones (Viking 2005), is a must for anyone who shortlists Paris among the world's very best cities. Such lists are necessarily kept primarily by travelers and historians, and not by natives. It is not the lot of most people to know many cities well, and those whose it is are never native to all the ones they know. In essence, cities are unfathomably vast accumulations of people. We cannot really grasp that about them, though, any more than we (or most of us) can conceive of distance in light-years. But just because cities are made up of people, ticking off a list of famous sites is not thinking about cities. To think about a city is to consider the areas in between the monuments, where people are primarily found. We imagine street scenes, working with postcards and personal experience. We conjure neighborhoods as best we can. We recall historical events and important recent developments. We draw from the literature that any great city is bound to generate. We try to answer the question: What is it like to be there?

Paris may be a widely favorite city because it presents itself to the imagination with a thoroughly Gallic order. A river snakes through the middle and around two islands. A spiral of  twenty delineated districts, the arrondissements, coils out from the city center. The ordinary buildings are similar, and typical of Paris, while the taller buildings that you can find anywhere stand on the outskirts. A ring road marks the edge of town: Paris itself is no longer growing. And it is "Parisian." Actually, my little summary is studded with misunderstandings, but it would be pedantic to point them out. Like Manhattan and unlike London, Paris is fairly easy to get a handle on.

While the history of Paris precedes Caesar's account, today's Paris is not even two hundred years old. There are older, much older buildings...

Read more about Paris at Portico.

February 25, 2005

An Apparently Widely Unread Book

How things change. In 1989, when David Fromkin published A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East (Henry Holt), I couldn't have been less interested. I dimly recall the title, but I never handled the book or heard of anybody reading it. So I'd probably have gone on obliviously if it hadn't been for Amazon's practice of bundling related books. You don't save anything by buying these bundles (Amazon's prices are already fairly discounted), but you do make discoveries. As it happened, I recently wanted to buy a friend a paperback copy of Margaret Macmillan's Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World, and there it was, Mr Fromkin's book, as a suggested companion purchase, and I couldn't have been more interested. I bought the bundle at once.

It won't do any good, but I'll declare at the outset that this book is required reading for all Americans. That's the bullying sort of remark that I try never to make, but my sense of avertable tragedy has overwhelmed my manners. It is impossible to read End All Peace without being conscious, on almost every page, of the folly of the American misadventure in Iraq; it is also impossible not to hope that, if more people knew that the modern Middle East was fashioned in another, kindred folly of good intentions and fond conceit, then the misadventure might more quickly be brought to a close. Finally, there is the Cassandra touch, of having learned from a book that it might have been read before it was too late.

Continue reading "An Apparently Widely Unread Book" »