Man of Roma

Traduzione in italiano

I am a man of Rome, Italy. Some of my ancestors, many centuries ago, were already citizens of Rome. So I guess I am a real Roman, or sort of, since some barbaric blood must unquestionably flow in my veins, Germanic probably and Gallic from the Alpine region.

My mother tongue is Italian, not very different from the Latin spoken by the common people at the times of the late Roman Empire.

The reason I am attempting to communicate in this Northern language – which I do not master entirely and which, though a bit chilly to my heart, I find not entirely deprived of charm – is that variety excites me like a drug and I am tired of talking mostly to my countrymen, this lingua franca, English, allowing me hopefully a wider exchange of ideas.

Why this blog

 

One reason, I have said, is wider communication.

But what can a Roman of today say to the world? Such a big statement (if there weren’t the Web to make it not entirely such.)

I think it is a great privilege to be born and to be raised here, such a special place, to the extent that something must have penetrated, something distinctive and worthy of being transmitted – in order to be able, in our turn, to receive.

I hope for comments from Western and non-Western people, since Rome and the Romans have a mediation nature that comes from the Mediterranean.

Rome in some way is more Mediterranean than European.

However, as she was already universal during the ancient Roman days, she has continued to be universal as a religious centre, like Mecca or Jerusalem, which makes Rome something way beyond Europe (*).

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Religion will not be a central topic here (there excepting ancient religions, of course) since, greatly respecting all faiths I personally have none, being an agnostic.

I like to think that I am similar to those Romans of the past who counted mostly on knowledge and reason (the followers of Epicure, Ἐπίκουρος – one among many possible ancient examples.)

 

Three Reasons for Uniqueness

 

Ages have passed since this great city was the capital of the known world, this role now being played by New York, London or Shanghai, perhaps.

Rome is though unique in the first place because “among all the greatest cities of the ancient world – Nineveh, Babylon, Alexandria, Tyre, Athens, Carthage, Antiochia – she is the only one that has continued to exist without any interruption, never reduced to a semi-abandoned village but rather finding herself often in the middle of world events and, equally often, paying for that a price (**).”

Secondly, and more importantly, Rome is the city of the soul (as Byron, Goethe and Victor Hugo put it,) of our authentic Western soul, since Europe and the West were shaped here and these roots are sacred – to me surely, and I think and hope to most of us.

These roots we have to rediscover in order to better open up to others in a new spirit of humanitas and conciliation (two chief components of the everlasting Roman mind.)

We all here in the West must encourage a totally new attitude which may enable us to better face both our present crisis of values and the radical changes looming ahead which might cause our swift decline.

Lastly, Rome, the eternal city, is unique because she is also one of the most beautiful cities in the world, if not the most beautiful.

Beyond her imperial testimonies, her stupendous urban spaces and squares, even small piazzas and alleys radiate that “sacred aura” which comes from the millennia and to which ever increasing multitudes from every land come to pay their tribute.

The capital of our beloved and civilised French cousins, Lutetia Parisiorum (it’s how the Romans called Paris, after the Parisii, a tribe of the Gallic Senones,) was not but a village until the year 1000 AD. “1700 years younger than Rome! It shows, one can feel it (***).”

Fragments Sent in a Bottle

 

Scattered fragments of this special identity inserted in a bottle and sent across the Web: this shall be the activity of this blog.

The conveyor of the message is not so important in relation to the greatness of the source and to one ingredient this conveyor might, willingly or unwillingly, possess: he perhaps being like a fossil from a distant past which is dead though, astoundingly enough, alive yet in so many Italians.

Let us admit it. In some central and especially southern areas of this country, minds and habits survive that may puzzle foreigners, historical remnants whose disadvantages towards modernity appear evident. Are they only disadvantages?

All Things Considered

This and other topics will be discussed here by a 60-year-old Roman (2014: 66) whose knowledge can be located at a medium level, with interfaces towards the upper and the lower layers of knowledge.

He will try his best to transmit something useful to others (and to himself) having been an ancient-history & literature educator for 16 years, then converted to Systems Engineering & Training for the last 14 years.

He hopes this blog will allow him to brush up humanities back, which is daunting at his age (not to mention the crazy idea of blogging in English, Italian and bits of other languages.)

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If not profundity of knowledge, he might though have an advantage (still to be proved) over many foreign commentators even born in one of the  ex-provinces of the ancient Roman Empire.

The plus of being a witness from right here.

The advantage of being a Man of Roma.

 

Over at Richardus’. Are Men and Women Born Different or Do They Become Such?

Who are we, how do we get our gender identity? Click for credits

We were having a conversation over at Richardus’ coffee shop together with Dafna, Geraldine, Sledpress, Cheri, Cyberquill and Paul Costopoulos on several topics, from Alan Turing (his mathematical genius and homosexuality) to ethology – founded by the Austrian Nobel prizes Konrad Lorenz and Karl von Frisch and by the Dutch-born British Nobel prize Nikolaas Tinbergen – and up to studies comparing animal and human behaviour (human ethology).

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At one point, referring to the sad case of Turing, Richardus observed:

“The story certainly taught me to accept wholly those who are harmless but different. This quiet, troubled, self-effacing, honourable genius leaves a great legacy.”

[For the sake of discussion] I replied:

“Most of those who are different are harmless. We often assume a priori that what is different is harmful. An evolutionary defence mechanism I guess. In stone age we lived in small tribes and whenever we stumbled upon someone very different 90% he / she was dangerous. Such behaviours are not easily erased but they can be overcome in some way and they should. … blah blah”.

Alan Turing
Alan Turing. Image via Wikipedia

And I mentioned ethology (a kind of evolutionary psychology.)

Sledpress: “Oh I want to know more. Some of the most enlightening things I have ever read have involved the concept of hard wired brain responses to the environment.”

Dafna: “dear MoR, thank you for the term human ethology. i will research the topic. it may shed some light on my own condition. is it a respected field?”

MoR: “Dafna,‘respected’ is a relative concept. Who is respecting? K. Lorenz and the rest are more studied in Europe than in the US for example.”

I am convinced many clashes between men and women would be avoided (or sort of) if we understood that the two genders are hard-wired differently and if each gender studied the ‘other wiring’ since school.”

K. Lorenz shared the 1973 Nobel Prize with N. Tinbergen and K. von Frisch for their studies on social behaviour patterns in animals

Paul Costopoulos: “You mean men and women are different? Hide MoR, you are in danger.”

Sledpress: “Good Lord we all know men and women are different. Women don’t kick their used underwear under the bed.”

Richardus:

Love, love, love
Is just like a Settlers Powder
Two little packets of different hue
Men in the white
Women in blue
It’s all right if you keep them apart
The only danger is
As soon as you put them together
FZZZZ – they start to fizz.”

Sledpress: “Actually, to be perfectly serious, I think it’s important to remember that we are more alike than we are different. If you want me to throw something, just mention the name of John Gray, that ‘Men Are From Mars Women Are From Venus’ guy. He even seems to know how I like to have sex. He thinks.”

Simone de Beauvoir
Simone de Beauvoir. Via Wikipedia. Click for image source and credits

MoR: “I agree with you Sled. ‘We are more alike than we are different’ as you say. Don’t we belong to the same species??

Let us leave alone those male imbeciles who think they know women better than women themselves: they don’t.

When for ex. Simone de Beauvoir affirms that “one is not born a woman but one becomes one” … as if being feminine (or masculine) were a sheer cultural construct, well, well, well …

[I wanted to add (but didn’t): as if, had I been forced to play with dolls, now I’d chase boys … actually it’s like I were (kinda) forced into dolls, with two sisters and 8 female cousins ALL of us often living together. That is why my next writing will consist of a poem I wrote some time ago in honour of my ‘eldest brother’, ie my best male friend from the age of 4 till 18]

Man and Woman, less different than we think, but different nonetheless. Click for image attribution

I mean, we men have penises, beards, different silhouettes etc… Women have vaginas, swollen breasts, less body hair as a tendency, different silhouettes (God be blessed). Last but not least different DNA chromosome structures (XX-XY).

How can we assume behaviour is unrelated to such physical differences and only culturally determined. We need evidence etc. etc.

Which brings us again to ethology among the rest which by comparing dozens of different species (there including humans) – as Darwin suggested – also as for their sexual behaviours etc. etc. …”

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Ora nel prossimo post la poesia al mio fratello maggiore.

Roba da anni 50s-60s? Certo, ricorda quel periodo. Vedrete però voi.

Another Autumnal Music. Wasn’t Italy Always Sunny? No, Night is All Over Us

Rome's Tiber. Wasn't Italy always sunny? Is Fall (or tempest) arriving? I am silly, drinking wine, but 'in vino (tristis) veritas'. Click for attribution and to zoom in

Since I have not time for writing having a few practical problems to solve (even Manius at my new blog has been neglected but now I know where the heck he is in Ancient Britannia thanks to Richard.)

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And since a few readers seem to have dug my ‘autumnal’ pieces, here is Fall Music num 2 based again on improvisation. It is dedicated to them.

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Fall, ok, but with a stormy twist.

A Roman being a Roman, what did you think …

PS. The sheer joy of having like an immense organ with thousands of sounds to choose from (even imaginary instruments …) is hard to describe.

Unfortunately I can’t play a keyboard any more.

This is also autumnal.

Seven Aspects of Antonio Gramsci’s Thought

Andreas Kluth, the Hannibal man, asked me to write something about Gramsci in 300 words. I failed. These are 795 words.

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I studied Gramsci in my twenties and he surely helped me greatly. I think important to say his thought to be:

1) in progress, more formative to me than any sedentary conclusions, building up upon a list of themes & reflecting on them in fragmentary notes from thousands of different viewpoints and within a dreadful context – fascism arising, jail isolation, uncertainty for his own life. All so compelling and mind expanding;

2) dialogic and dialectic.

Dialogic.
G’s ideas bounce on one another also in relation to other authors’ even-opposite ideas – Gramsci ‘discusses with the enemy’ so to say. A solitary dialogue though, since jail solitude brought him to solipsism, which creates like a tragic, bewitching (and a bit claustrophobic) atmosphere.

The many ‘tools’ he created such as ‘cultural hegemony’ (close to ‘seduction’), or his notion of ‘intellectuals’, stem from such inner dialogue, which can be baffling to people used to clear definitions – I well understand – but, such brain storming is contagious and the attentive reader is taught to form his / her mental dialogues on anything he / she researches.

Dialectic. It refers to Heraclitus & Hegel, implying that all in history is ‘becoming’ & a contradictory process with actions, reactions, conciliations etc. Gramsci’s dialectic is concrete, anti-idealistic. For example, the Rousseauesque pedagogy – the ‘laissez-faire’ of ‘active’ schools – was seen by him as a reaction to the coercive Jesuitical schools, so not good or bad ‘per se’. But he tried to favour an education where both the elements of discipline and fascination were present.

Antonio Gramsci’s ashes in the Protestant ‘Cimitero degli Inglesi’ in Rome

Any idea had to be seen in its historical context and was hence transient (Marxism included.) When the Russian revolution burst he wrote it was a revolution ‘against the Capital’ (ie against Marx’s theories,) a scandal within the Comintern.

In many respects he considered America much more progressive than Stalin’s Russia;

3) polymathic. Gramsci is wide-ranging, like the men of the Renaissance. Besides there are similarities between his ideas and Leonardo da Vinci’s, and their writing styles too;

4) anti-platonic. Nature is ruled by blind forces, with no intelligent design. He follows the Italian tradition of Lucretius, Vico, Leonardo, Machiavelli, Leopardi, in contrast with the Platonic (and hegemonic) tendency expressed during the Renaissance by Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola;

5) anti-élite. Anti-chic, and certainly not the ‘smoking Gitanes and wearing black turtlenecks’ type of intellectual – to quote Andreas -, to him knowledge & refinement are not classy and must be spread to everyone. Born to a backward Sardinian peasant milieu he had succeeded in becoming a great European intellectual, which made him believe that everyone could be a philosopher at various degrees, and that a solid education of the working class was possible;

6) greatly written. Croce, Gramsci, Gobetti, Gentile were all great writers, like Hegel and Marx were. G’s texts are like permeated by a Hölderlin’s Heilige Nüchternheit (sacred sobriety.) As Giorgio Baratta observes, “his style, sober and exact, opens wide spaces that make the reader fly, but the flight is not grandiloquent.” His works have been recognized since they were first published as masterpieces of our language and literature. His Prison Letters have the depth of Tolstoy, an author close to him in many respects;

7) historic. Italian, European and world history are considered, from the end of the ancient Roman Republic onwards, and innumerable aspects are analysed. For a young Italian like me it meant an invaluable know-yourself experience. What I had passively learned at school could finally bear some fruit, also the teachings of my father, that I could fully appreciate only after reading Gramsci.

Gramsci’s history is as close to us as family’s history can be. It’s his magic. It touches the soul deeply.

It is also the concrete history of ideas circulating in the various socio-economic groups at a given time, with catalogues of magazines, newspapers, movements, intellectuals (often categorized with humorous nicks: it’s his peasant culture showing now and then), with the aim of understanding the currents and exact mechanisms of cultural hegemony.

He does that as for Italy, other European and non European countries. He analyses the elements that, in his view, make the United States the ‘hegemonic force’ in the world and also identifies like some cracks in this hegemonic structure, in their being too virgin and too young as a nation, with a melting pot of too many cultures.

Too long a story. Americanism in Gramsci is so crucial I’m thinking of a post where, in a dialogue occurred in the 30s, a few fictional European characters try to explain to readers their view of America, ie Gramsci’s view.

The United States – as Gramsci put it – are “the greatest collective effort ever existed to create with unheard of rapidity and a consciousness of purpose never seen in history a new type of worker and man.”

Note. An inspired introduction to Gramsci is Giuseppe Fiori’s Antonio Gramsci: Life of a Revolutionary (1970).

PS. Gramsci and Croce are well known in the English-speaking countries. The British ex prime minister Gordon Brown said Gramsci was one of his mentors. No idea if this is complimenting Gramsci or not… 🙂

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More on Antonio Gramsci:

American Engineer, German Philosopher & French Politician: Gramsci’s Ideal Blend for the Modern Leonardo da Vinci
“America, the Greatest Collective Effort Ever existed”. Antonio Gramsci
Is America Too Young to Maintain its Cultural Hegemony in the Long Run?

Related posts:

Democracy, Liberty & the Necessity of a Solid Education of the People
Culture, Kultur, Paideia
The Last Days of the Polymath

American Engineer, German Philosopher & French Politician: Gramsci’s Ideal Blend for the Modern Leonardo da Vinci

Our conversations take us wherever they like so before talking about my instructional experience in Russia I’ll present a few passages by Antonio Gramsci (1891 – 1937) written in the 1930s while he was in prison.

Gramsci is considered the father of democratic communism [a thing, to say the truth, that remained in his mind and was never realised.]

All his works, and notably his Prison Letters and Prison Notebooks, are not only amazingly valuable for their intellectual & moral depth – acute analyses of Italian & European history, literature, theatre, philosophy, linguistics, political strategy etc. -, they have also been recognized since their appearance in 1947 as masterpieces of our language and literature.

His powerful brain was feared by both the Fascists and the Russians, and it pained me so much to learn that his Russian wife Julka or Julia Schucht (see her below with their sons, Delio and Giuliano,) together with her sister Tatiana Schucht, were probably spies for the Gpu (Kgb.) [Also a few of Gramsci’s and Julka’s descendants confirmed that.]

[Magister and Gramsci were the mentors who saved me from being a savage – although I am still a bit: you migh read here]

I was surprised to find the words – Gramsci’s words -, that to me best describe the importance of classical education in our country – ie the connection to our roots, this blog’s theme -, in the inspiring web pages of a certain Max Gabrielson, a Latin & Greek teacher at the Wilton High School in Wilton, Connecticut, considered one of Connecticut top performer schools according to the Wikipedia.

With such words from his Prison Notebooks Gramsci refers to the classical education delivered in the Italian Ginnasio and Liceo that, compared to his school days, had been changed a bit by the first important reform of Italian education (Gentile‘s & Croce‘s, 1923) after the unification of Italy 60 years earlier (1860-70.)

[An education that didn’t change much even until my days and my daughters’ days. No change at all? Well, it progressively became comprehensive mass education (with its pros and cons) so that its solidity, like a merum from the ancients, was diluted in the years – the wine being still there, but its inebriating effects having almost dissolved]

Let us listen to Antonio Gramsci describing the deep meaning of such education:

“In the old school the grammatical study of Latin and Greek, together with the study of their respective literatures and political histories, was an educational principlefor the humanistic ideal, symbolized by Athens and Rome, was diffused throughout society, and was an essential element of national life and culture. Even the mechanical character of the study of grammar [criticised by Croce and Gentile, MoR] was enlivened by this cultural perspective. Individual facts were not learned for an immediate practical or professional end. The end seemed disinterested, because the real interest was the interior development of personality, the formation of character by the absorption and assimilation of the whole cultural past of modern European civilization […] Pupils learned Greek and Latin in order to know at first hand the civilization of Greece and Rome — a civilization that was a necessary precondition to our modern civilization: in other words, they learnt them in order to be themselves and know themselves consciously.

‘In order to be themselves, to know themselves consciously …”

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Gramsci criticises in 1932 the multiplication of vocational schools that in his view aimed at perpetuating social differences. Moreover, a true democracy needed adequate people:

“The labourer can become a skilled worker, for instance, the peasant a surveyor or petty agronomist. But democracy, by definition, cannot mean merely that an unskilled worker can become skilled. It must mean that every ‘citizen’ can ‘govern’ and that society places him, even if only abstractly, in a general condition to achieve this. Political democracy tends towards a coincidence of the rulers and the ruled (in the sense of government with the consent of the governed) …”

As for K-12 education we see today a tendency to focus on 3-4 subjects only in countries such as Great Britain with students aged 15, a big mistake in my view especially now that we have to compete with lands that do most of the basic manufacturing to the extent that we need extra added-value creativity in our products.

Gramsci would certainly have agreed. Born to a backward Sardinian peasant milieu, with big family and health problems, his intellectual success influenced his view that a more comprehensive education of the working class was possible.

He was in fact irritated by his wife’s inclination to guess specialised interests in their 2 very young sons (one time she thought Delio could become an engineer, another time a poet etc.)

Gramsci’s wife, Jiulia Schucht, with the 2 sons, Delio (on the right) and Giuliano. She was – hideous detail – a spy for the Gpu (Kgb). Amazing how Giuliano resembles his father.

Gramsci wrote to her from his cell:

“To say the truth, I don’t much believe in such precocious display of tendencies and I haven’t much faith in your capability of discerning what professional aptitudes they might have. I should think that in both our sons, as in all children, there are likely to be found all sort of inclinations – the practical side, the theory and the imagination, and that it would consequently be more appropriate to guide them towards a more harmonious blend of all intellectual and practical faculties, since the time will come when specialisation in one or the other of these will occur on the basis of a personality vigorously formed and totally integrated.”

Gramsci then continues, expressing to her his humanistic faith in human possibilities and his 1930s ideal of the fully developed man:

“Modern man should be a synthesis of the qualities which are traditionally embodied in these national characters: the American engineer, the German philosopher and the French politician, thus recreating so to speak the Italian man of the Renaissance, the modern Leonardo da Vinci become ‘mass man’ and ‘collective man’ without sacrificing his own strong personality and individual originality.”

Post Scriptum. Gramsci reflected on many aspects of the American society (his notes on Americanism and Fordism are crucial) while he was quite worried about what was happening in the Soviet Union after 1930.

Differently from his mentor, Neapolitan Benedetto Croce, basically Hegelian, Gramsci was very much connected not only to German Kultur (he was into Hegel too and had a perfect knowledge of German – plus French, English, Russian, Latin and possibly other languages) but also to French culture: thanks to ascholarship won in 1911 he had studied in Piedmont at the University of Turin.

In 1921 he co-founded the Italian Communist Party. He then spent 2 years in the Soviet Union where in a sanatorium (his health was precarious) he ‘strangely’ met a beautiful woman, Jiulia (Julka) Schucht, who will become his wife. Back to Italy in 1924 he became head of the party. Being no orator but making use of a one-by-one-persuasion strategy he had won the majority of party delegates by totally fascinating them.

In the same year he was elected at the Italian Parliament. In the Fall of 1926, at the age of 35, he was arrested at 10:30 pm in his home located outside Porta Pia, a nice Roman area efficaciously depicted by the Italian poet Grabriele D’Annunzio. He will die at 46 after 11 years of prison.

Soon after the arrest he wrote to his wife:

“I am sure you will be strong and courageous, as you have always been. Now you will have to be even more than in the past, so that our sons may grow well and be in all worthy of you [italic is mine, MoR.]”

More on Antonio Gramsci:

Seven Aspects of Antonio Gramsci’s Thought
America, the Greatest Collective Effort Ever existed”. Antonio Gramsci
Is America Too Young to Maintain its Cultural Hegemony in the Long Run?

Related posts:

Democracy, Liberty & the Necessity of a Solid Education of the People
Culture, Kultur, Paideia
The Last Days of the Polymath

“Will Fascism Come Back? Easy, a Bit is There Already.”

Giorgio Bocca, Italian essayist and journalist

“Will Fascism come back? Easy, a little of it is already there, the ongoing formation of the new regime is perceived by the rancour, the desire for defamation, the irrepressible desire to silence those who oppose the new order. In the renewed but eternal fascism there is also contempt for the composed reason replaced by the reason of those who shout louder, by the hubbub that rages every evening in the televised debates in which supporters of the sultan are placed in the front row and on instructions from the master yell as rabid curs, preventing others from speaking.”

[Giorgio Bocca, Annus horribilis, Feltrinelli Milano, 2010]

Silvestri, Berlusconi and the Emperor Tiberius

After the No-B(erlusconi)-day last saturday Dicember 5 in Rome (a great success I am witness of) the singer–songwriter Daniele Silvestri has posted on Youtube a rap called L’imperatore Tiberio.

[It reminds me just a bit of the traditional Tammurriate danced in the South of Italy and possibly related to the ancient rites of Dionysus Bacchus – watch this.]

The rap is captivating, the insertion of Totò (a great Italian actor) is exhilarating, and the song time is beat with the syllables of “Ber-lus-co-ni di-me-tti-ti”, i.e. ‘Berlusconi resign.’

L’imperatore Tiberio
aveva donne di lusso

a cui teneva un discorso
sul ginocchio sinistro.

Poi emanava un editto
che toglieva di mezzo

chi chiedeva giustizia,
chi ne dava notizia.

E si vantava Tiberio
coi suoi amici più illustri

con gli aneddoti sconci
divertiva i ministri.

Ma sfuggiva i giudizi
sui reati commessi

nascondendo pasticci
per motivi fittizzi.

Emperor Tiberius
Had women luxurious

Whom he used to lecture
They sitting on his knee.

He then issued an edict
With which he got rid

Of those who asked for justice,
Of those who gave the news.

And bragging was Tiberius
With friends the most illustrious

With anecdotes obscene
His ministers he entertained.

But he escaped verdicts
On crimes committed

By hiding his mess
With points fictitious.

Read how Mary Beard in the UK Times compares Berlusconi to the Roman emperor Tiberius.

And, thanks to zeusiswatching, here’s the life of Tiberius by the Roman historian Suetonius – not for minors ok?

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Related posts from our blog:

Caesar, Great Man (and Don Juan)
Is Berlusconi’s Power About to Decline?
October 3. Demonstration Held in Rome to Defend Media Freedom

UPDATE: Just a few hours ago Berlusconi was hit in the face with a model of Milan’s cathedral and knocked to the ground.

He had just finished a speech during a political rally in the centre of the Italian Northern city. According to ANSA the alleged attacker had received many years of treatment for mental disease. Berlusconi is now being taken care of in a Milan hospital and his condition doesn’t seem serious.

A signal of how harsh the political climate is getting in our country, and a horrible gesture to be firmly condemned whatever opinion we may have of Berlusconi and his policy.

October 3. Demonstration Held in Rome to Defend Media Freedom

Freedom of Press in danger in Italy

Tomorrow “October 3rd a demonstration will be held in Rome [3:30 pm, piazza del Popolo] to defend media freedom—not in a remote dictatorship, but in Italy itself. Journalists who have called the protest have good reason to worry. In Freedom House’s 2009 survey of media independence, Italy was downgraded to ‘partly free’ and placed 73rd in a list of 195 countries (only just above Bulgaria.) In this respect, at least, Silvio Berlusconi’s Italy is distancing itself from western Europe and becoming more like weaker democracies farther east.” [The Economist, Muzzling the messengers, Oct 1st 2009, Rome]

The British weekly paper thus concludes:

“Not since Mussolini’s time has an Italian government’s interference with the media been more blatant or alarming. Journalists, and other Italians, have every reason to protest.”

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Additional Info

An article on this demonstration written by Roberto Saviano, author of Gomorrah, is published concurrently by The (London) Times, Die Zeit, El Pais and Le Figaro.

Here some basic information about Berlusconi’s power over the Italian media, plus a recent collection of international articles regarding Silvio Berlusconi.

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You can also read from our blog:

Is Berlusconi’s Power About to Decline?

Silvestri, Berlusconi and the Emperor Tiberius

Is Berlusconi’s Power About to Decline?

Berlusconi and Patrizia d'Addario. From the Italian daily newspaper La Repubblica

The whole world is chatting about the Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s lifestyle. The news are full of details regarding alleged wild parties in his luxurious residences (see below Villa Certosa in Sardinia.) According to these reports all sorts of women attended these festas, including alleged under-age girls and paid escorts (see above Patrizia D’Addario) attracted to a possible career in TV or in politics (see Wikipedia for details.)

Berlusconi, sometimes depicted as a decadent Roman emperor (Mary Beard in the UK Times compared him to Tiberius,) is seen by many as possessing in ways grotesque the flaws usually ascribed to Italians, a lack of sexual restraint and a loose morality, among the rest.

And in fact many Italians voting for him say they like his way of life and admire him for being rich, powerful and for the number of women in his court. This is the way I am – he said replying to journalists asking if he was planning on changing his lifestyle after the scandals – and I cannot change at my age. Italians want me like that and support me.

Berlusconi's pharaonic mansion in Sardinia: Villa Certosa. Click for credits

Other Italians however vote for him because they prefer the right-wing coalition program to a left deprived of ideas and of real leadership. The opinion of a right-wing Italian fellow blogger, Wind Rose hotel, is that being a conservative doesn’t necessarily mean to be a fan of Berlusconi. I’m sure these Italians would prefer a more prudent behaviour by our Prime Minister, although it is to be noted that Berlusconi’s success owes a lot to his frankness which makes him different from the average byzantine Italian politician.

Traditionally Italians care little about a politician’s private life, his private vices being easily forgiven whenever his political action is deemed effective (we have discussed Italian cynicism and some possible historical causes.)

Many Italians are though starting to get embarrassed, to say the least. The line between the private and public sphere seems blurred to them if it is true that women’s sexual favours were /are later rewarded with a political career in the Italian or the European parliament. Someone is talking of Berlusconi’s possible resignation.

“Mr Berlusconi’s court – writes the British Independent – has no soothsayers to warn him of the Ides of March, but the sudden emergence of hostile noises from the Catholic Church is the modern Italian equivalent of that – especially as the Catholic Church continues to hold immense sway over public opinion.”

We are going to see how far Italian cynical indifference will go. Personally I don’t think Berlusconi will resign easily, unless something unprecedented occurs. He is still very powerful, though weakened, and he controls much of the Italian media, plus a lot depends on whether he will succeed in keeping the Italian economy going.

Whether these scandals are doing any real damage to him or not, the uneasiness of the Catholic Church – whose realpolitik is hard put to it – should not be under evaluated, although an additional element has to be considered in my opinion.

Berlusconi and Putin. Click for creditsBerlusconi’s ambition of playing as a separate negotiator with Russia, Iran and the Middle East is irritating both the EU and the USA. An example is Berlusconi’s support of Russia’s South Stream gas pipeline, seen as a rival to the planned Nabucco pipeline backed by the USA and the EU. The South Stream (see image below) is in fact considered dangerous by them since it would extend Russia’s blackmail influence over Europe.

A good example of Berlusconi’s foreign politics. He is so proud of being a personal friend of Putin, although it remains to be seen whether this friendship (or any other independent move) will prove profitable in the long (or even short) run.

South Stream gas pipeline map. GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2. Click for credits
South Stream gas pipeline project map

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If you want to know more:

Sex and the City (of Rome) which regards Italian sexuality and links to posts on this matter.

“Italians are Cynical, Amoral, Religiously Superficial”, on the possible roots of Italian cynicism.

See also:

Caesar, Great Man (and Don Juan)

Traces of Paganism in Italians

Eluana, or Man’s Ultimate Freedom. Ending One’s Life. 2

Lucretia stabs herself after rape. Joos van Cleve, Flemish artist, 1485 - 1540. Click for credits

Rape and death of Roman Lucretia

To her husband’s question, “Is all well?,” Lucretia replied:

“Far from it; for what can be well with a woman when she has lost her honour?
The print of a strange man is in your bed. Yet my body only has been violated;
my heart is guiltless, as death shall be my witness.” …

Taking a knife which she had concealed beneath her dress, she plunged it into her heart,
and sinking forward upon the wound, died as she fell.

(Livy Book I. 57-60)

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A discussion about the acceptable reasons for ending one’s life (see our previous post) can profit from the opinion of our forefathers, the Ancients, and from that of the Renaissance men, who channelled ancient thought into modernity.

This post is not a paean to suicide. I am sure Eluana Englaro and Terry Schiavo loved life: was theirs an acceptable life though?

Most of the quotes are taken from the French Renaissance writer Montaigne (II:3), whose Gutenberg English text is available in the translation of Charles Cotton (1630 – 1687). See also the original French text.

Note to readers

To many, old writings are a terrible bore.
They are wrong in my view.
Ancient writings, actual time machines connecting the past to the present, are mind expanding and one of the pleasures of life.

Capitoline She-Wolf. Rome, Musei Capitolini. Public domain

“The wise man lives as long as he should, not as long as he can” said Seneca, who nobly committed suicide when accused of an attempt on emperor Nero’s life. And Cicero said that while “life depended upon the will of others, death depended upon our own.”

Greco-Roman writers like Plutarch expressed great appreciation for anyone who showed this kind of ultimate dignity.

Tacitus admires Boiocalus, a German chief, “who said to the Romans that he and his tribe might lack enough land to live upon, but land sufficient to die upon could never be wanting.”

Plutarch tells us of this Spartan boy “sold as a slave and by his master commanded to some abject employment, who said: ‘You shall see whom you have bought; it would be a shame for me to serve, when freedom is at reach,’ and having so said, threw himself from the top of the house.”

Ancient thought didn’t always condone suicide. Plato didn’t accept it and the Roman poet Virgil (Aeneid, IV, 434-437) destined those who committed suicide to a region of the afterlife where they were overwhelmed by sadness (tenent maesti loca).

But the prevalent Roman ideal was that of the stoic sage who counted on reason and self-control and who was not afraid of pain or misfortune (see our post ‘On solitude‘). Should life become unbearable, or should one face great dishonour, the Romans of both sexes were not hesitant to commit suicide.

Death was considered an act of ultimate freedom and this was deeply ingrained in the Roman tradition. “Nature has ordained only one entrance to life – said Cicero – but a hundred thousand exits.”

Death was less important than the way of death, which had to be decent, full of dignity, rational (and sometimes theatrical,) while to the Christian mind, self-killing being a sin, suicide is often a desperate, irrational action fruit of depression.

Among famous examples of suicide are Lucretia, Brutus and Cassius, the assassins of Julius Caesar, Mark Anthony (and Cleopatra,) Cato the younger (see picture below), Seneca, Lucan, Petronius Arbiter etc. plus a good number of emperors, Nero, Maximian, Otho, Quintillus etc.

Common people as well considered dignity more important than life in many cases.

Cato of Utica reading the Phedo before comitting suicide. Jean-Baptiste Romand & François Rude (1832). Photo by M. Romero SchmidkteRoman stoicism deeply influenced the West despite the victory of Christianity. “For much of modern Western history, Stoic ideas of moral virtue have been second to none in influence” (Ecole Initiative, Early Church On-Line Encyclopedia.)

We see examples of noble death in Shakespeare, who, like all his contemporaries from Renaissance, felt the influence of ancient thought. The imagination of the Victorian British was captured by Cato’s death (see image on the right), «clawing out his own entrails to avoid Caesar’s despotism — as a courageous and noble death.”

Montaigne, imbued with Roman stoicism, refers how “Alexander laying siege to a city in India, those within, finding themselves very hardly set, put on a vigorous resolution to deprive him of the pleasure of his victory, and accordingly burned themselves together with their city, despite his humanity.” He seems to praise that the Indians preferred a death with honour rather than a life without it.

Montaigne adds a moving example:

“Nothing can be added to the beauty of the death of the wife of Fulvius, a good friend of Augustus. Augustus having discovered that his friend had vented an important secret he had entrusted him withal, one morning that he came to make his court, received him very coldly and looked frowningly upon him. Fulvius returned home full of despair, where he sorrowfully told his wife that, having fallen into this misfortune, he was resolved to kill himself.
To whom she frankly replied, ‘Tis right, seeing that having so often experienced the indiscipline of my tongue, you could not take warning: but let me kill myself first,’ and without more ado she ran herself through the body with a sword.”

Montaigne, quoting Pliny the elder, observes that the mythical Hyperboreans, “when weary and satiated with living, had the custom, at a very old age, after having made good cheer, to precipitate themselves into the sea from the top of a certain rock, assigned for that service” (see our series on the Hyperboreans.)

“Unbearable pain and the fear of a worse death seem to me the most excusable incitements for suicide” is Montaigne’s conclusion.

He was a sincere Christian. But he found inspiration and solace in the teachings of antiquity.

Eluana, or Man’s Ultimate Freedom. Ending One’s Life. 1

A pro Euthanasia demostration before Italy's parliament in Rome

The case of Eluana has again sparked a heated debate in Italy about the right to end one’s life. Eluana Englaro’s sufferings ended on Feb 9 2009. Her family had requested the omission of treatment since their daughter had been kept artificially alive for 17 years.

Italy’s prime minister Silvio Berlusconi first tried to ‘save’ Eluana with a decree rejected by our President Napolitano. Thence he desperately tried to pass a bill before Eluana’s death. He arrived late. Now he’s about to pass a bill that will impose ‘artificial life’ indefinitely, despite the prior will of the person (the so-called ‘living will’, pre formulated in the event of incapacity) or the desire of the person’s family. This bill will be voted tonight at the Senate and at the lower house in the next days, despite the hostility of the Italian High Court and of the President of the Italian Republic.

(I’m translating Italian labyrinthine politics: this bill was about the ‘living will’ but a last minute prearranged amendment de facto nullified this will. Classic)

I wonder how many people in Italy (or abroad) really believe that Berlusconi and many politicians of his coalition are so religious. Many think – me included – that this is the umpteenth occasion they found to strengthen their grip on power and on institutions, since Berlusconi plans to change the Constitution and the support of the Catholic church in this country is always a powerful political factor.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi

The Church and strict Catholics applaud. ‘Life’ to them must be saved at any cost.  I respect this belief and I respect the Catholic Church, which is somewhat a remnant of what was Rome, and the Pontifex Maximus, or Pope, the last surviving magistrate of ancient Rome.

But, if I respect Catholic beliefs, are strict Catholics respecting the beliefs of others?

I mean, in a free democratic state, how can a religion or a government impose their will on an individual or his family in such private matters? How can they trample on what is, to few (or to many,) their ultimate freedom, death? In name of what? Of so to say absolute truths believed only by a part of the population?

(We’ll skip the historical fact that the first Christians condoned suicide)

What if one belongs to another religion? What if one has no religion? Shouldn’t people be free thinking (and given free choice) and isn’t personal freedom enshrined in the Italian constitution?  (art. 13, inviolability of individual freedom)

Isn’t this an expropriation of our civil rights?

This is the problem with some people: all they want is power. This is also the problem with decent people who believe in absolute truths: these truths escape doubt and inquiry and, seen as undeniable, are considered by them mandatory also for those who don’t believe in them.

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This I’m thinking while watching on TV all these politicians, some sincere and some not, cheering about the upcoming victory of ‘life’.

France, Italy and the Legacy of Rome

The Roman Empire at its peak. Rome, via dei Fori Imperiali

Rome’s legacy is greater than we think – “language, literature, legal codes, government, architecture, engineering, medicine, sports, arts, etc.” – and the Roman Empire has been a powerful myth in the course of the centuries.

After Rome’s fall in 476 CE, the Holy Roman Empire, thus called since 962 CE, started to develop in 800 CE when Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne in Rome as ‘Emperor and Augustus of the Romans’.

Such Empire, Frankish, Germanic (and later Austrian, dissolved in 1806 only) considered itself as the heir of the “First Rome” (the Western Roman Empire,) while the Hellenized Eastern Roman Empire, Byzantium, was called the “Second Rome” and remained unconquered until 1453 CE.

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When also Byzantium (Constantinople) fell, even the Islamic conqueror Ottoman Mehmed II thought he was continuing the power (and idea) of Rome and tried to “re-unite the Empire” although his march towards Italy was stopped in 1480 CE by both the Papal and Neapolitan armies.

After the fall of the Second Rome someone began to refer to Moscow as the “Third Rome“, since the Russian Tsars felt they were the inheritors of the Byzantine Empire’s Orthodox Christian tradition.

[2014 update: allow us to remind that the sovereigns of the two great continental empires dissolved in WWI, the German and the Russian, both bore the name of Kaiser and Tsar, id est Caesar.

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So many heirs of Rome! Seems like a futile historical game.

It is not.

Let us see how other nations went on claiming the Roman heritage.

The Victorians, the Italians and the USA

Benito Mussolini. Wikimedia. Public Domain

The British Victorians, for example, who felt they were somewhat the spiritual successors of the Romans.

Or both the Italian patriots, who unified Italy, and later the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.

They felt like the heirs of ancient Rome and the creators (again) of a “Third Rome”: after the capital of the Pagan world – they argued – and after the capital of Catholicism, Rome was now to become the capital of a totally New World.

A disproportionate idea, without a doubt.

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And the Americans? They also like today to find similarities between their might and the superpower of the ancient times (try to google America, new, Rome: you’ll get an interesting number of results.)

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We will though today talk about France (skipping Spain for the sake of brevity.)

Can’t France in fact lay claims as well?

The First French Empire

France inherited many elements from Rome, after the conquest of Gaul by Julius Caesar: language, food habits, behaviours, genes, technologies and a fundamental aestheticism, among the rest.

We have already mentioned the connection between Charlemagne and the birth of the Holy Roman Empire. Less obvious are similarities like that between the French Foreign legion and the Roman legions as for training, combat habits, management of terrain (construction of roads etc.) and so on.

Portrait of Louis XIV by Hyacinthe Rigaud. Wikimedia

Much more significant though is the state tradition of Rome which, according to some scholars, has been preserved in the French monarchic centralism and in the state national spirit of the French people.

The person who shaped this centralism (later continued by Napoleon) was probably Louis XIV (1638 –  1715, see image above,) one of the greatest kings ever. He was called the Sun King (le Roi Soleil) and was associated with Apollo Helios, the Greco-Roman god of the Sun. He also encouraged classicism in the arts and Voltaire compared him to the Roman Emperor Augustus.

Other great personages such as Napoleon Bonaparte (or even Charles de Gaulle, why not) bear the traces of the Roman heritage. Napoleon was inspired first by the Roman Republic. Roman-like, he became First Consul of the French Republic.

Then, after receiving the crown from Pope Pius VII (in Paris, this time) on December 2 1804, he became Emperor of the French people and encouraged a classicist Empire style in architecture, decorative arts, furniture and women’s dresses based on Ancient Hellenic attire (see below,) a style soon popular in most parts of Europe and its colonies.

Napoleon identified himself with Caesar, was continuously studying his works and succeeded in becoming one of the greatest generals ever, like Caesar and Alexander.

Empire silhouette Dresses. 1804. Metropolitan M. of Art. Fair use
Two dresses, ca. 1810. Courtesy of http://www.metmuseum.org

The French and the Italians.
Who Envies Who?

Antonio Gramsci, in Notebook IX of his Prison Notebooks, reflects on some words written by Victor Hugo (1802 – 1885) in Histoire d’un crime:

“Every man of heart has two fatherlands in this century: the Rome of the past and the Paris of today … This ancient fatherland – Gramsci argues – associated with the modern one supposes that France is the heir of Rome. Something that was said, and is especially said, today, to displease no small number of people.”

Well, something said to displease whom? Our philosopher probably referred mainly to the Britons and to the Italians.

Focusing on the Italians, one can wander and wonder with Gramsci whether a real francophilia ever existed in our country (Notebook XXVIII.)

France was always admired in Italy – Gramsci observes. France meant the French Revolution, the participation of a large share of the population to the political cultural and state life, it meant a decorous parliamentary activity and many other things that the young Italian state could not exhibit. The Italian francophiles have often concealed a strong dislike and a substantial envy.

I would add that some envy is also felt today by our French cousins when they behold our historical richness, the beauties of our towns etc.

This envy surfaces every time we do something better: with soccer, Ferrari, with the world-wide diffusion of our cuisine & fashion – and so forth.

But let us do ourselves a favour. Let us be honest.

If the French may envy us, we envy them more.

Capitoline She-Wolf. Rome, Musei Capitolini. Public domain

Related posts:

Stress and Joy. Conquest and Sorrow
Julius Caesar’s Conquest Of Gaul. When West / North Europe & The Mediterranean ‘Embraced’ (1)

Buddhism, Science and the Dalai Lama

We talked in the previous post of a decline of the Roman Empire type of situation here in the West. Omitting economical and political aspects this time, we rather concentrated on some cultural aspects of today’s Western (America + Europe) decline which resemble a bit what was happening in the minds of the inhabitants of the Ancient Roman empire: new sects and religions gaining ground, void, ethical confusion etc. with, at the end, a winning new religion, Christianity, conquering the population’s hearts (with a little help from the Emperors) and soon becoming the official religion of the Empire.

(Needless to say, it is only for the sake of analysis that people usually separate economical, political, social and cultural phenomena. Actually they are tightly interrelated and belong to the same sphere: Man)

Let’s now zoom in on one of the non Western religions that are gaining ground, Buddhism. We will consider some of the reasons why this belief, compared with the Abrahamic religions, could be more endowed to confront with modern science, which might further favour its penetration (at the top of the page, a Buddhist temple at Fréjus, France; above, the current Dalai Lama).

In some books the current 14th Dalai Lama reveals his position on science and on the relationship between scientific rationality and religious irrationality. “If scientific analysis conclusively showed that certain beliefs of Buddhism are false – argues the Dalai Lama – it would be necessary to accept those scientific discoveries and abandon those beliefs.” Wow, what a big difference, we should be honest to admit, vis-à-vis the presumptions of infallibility asserted by our Catholic religion …

Buddhism seems better equipped in its approach to science since, as the Dalai Lama says, “it grants maximum authority to experience, secondly to reason and only lastly to scriptures” while the Religions of the revealed Books (the Abrahamic religions) seem to consider these elements in a reversed order.

Additionally the encounter between Science and Buddhism seems also favoured by a fundamental disposition common to both: they do not believe in God or even in a soul, since Buddhism prefers to concentrate, among other things, on conscience. Buddhism and science “share a fundamental reluctance to postulate a transcendent Being as origin of all things.” Basically it is the denial of any metaphysics.

A Rescue Guide in Times of Crisis

In general I believe this simple thing: science provides a lot of answers but still voids are left (what is the meaning of life? How do we choose between right and wrong? Are there any absolute values? etc.) that might progressively be filled up, although so far they are not, thus leaving those who rely on science only with questions unanswered and inner tranquillity precarious. Humanities are able in fact to make up for further answers (philosophy) and for reconciling our soul through beauty (art).

(The problem is complex and it is discussed in the debate regarding the two cultures – the sciences and the humanities – and regarding the so-called third culture)

As far as we are concerned, in fact, novels, poems, music, paintings, philosophy, all humanistic culture, in conclusion, can somehow fill these voids. And religion? Of course religion can fill these voids too, but, although we have a lot of respect for those who have a faith, we are not religious (agnostic, not atheist), our position being that of the Roman philosopher and poet Lucretius. So we are not disposed to easily believe in revealed things or tales – hope we do not hurt anyone’s feelings – which were satisfying for men living thousands of years ago but, frankly, not as much for today’s man.

Buddhism, being a philosophy and religion without a God seems more modern (even though some aspects of Mahayana Buddhism, for example, consider the Buddha as a God). Buddhism does not force us to believe in dreams in order to find a ubi consistam, namely a guide, a point of reference.

The truth is we are not even Buddhist. We have no parachute. But we like it this way.

References

Official Dalai Lama Web Site.

The Universe in a Single Atom
The Convergence of Science and Spirituality – by H.H. the Dalai Lama, Morgan Road Books, New York, 2005.

Mind Science
– An East – West Dialogue – by H.H. the Dalai Lama with Herbert Benson, Robert A. Thurman, Howard E. Gardner, Daniel Goleman, Wisdom Publications, USA, 1991.

See also www.mindandlife.org for reports on various confrontations between the Dalai Lama and various scientists.

Decline of the American Roman Empire

Louvre, Paris, photo by Guillaume Blanchard
Osiris, Isis and Horus. Louvre, Paris. Photo by Guillaume Blanchard

I didn’t want to talk about politics too much in this blog, desiring rather to deal with our Western (Mediterranean, Roman) roots, with ancient habits still surviving today, with Rome past and present, philosophy, history, arts etc.

Three recent discussions though brought me into global politics again:

  1. One occurred in the Canadian Commentator’s blog, also indicated by Theresa from Arkansas in her blog and dealing with the possible decline of the American Empire.
  2. Another discussion took place here in my blog and dealt with a tighter European unification (which I see as a good way of fighting against Europe’s decline): a really LONG discussion among Alex and Andy (two nice Englishmen living in Milan, Italy) and Man of Roma.
  3. Finally, a third discussion among Rob and MoR (in his and in MoR’s blog, 1 & 2) and Indian Ashish and Falcon. It dealt with this void here in the West which we perceive as far as morals and values, plus a lot of other stuff.

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Ok. What these three discussion had in common? Well, such minutia as the possible decline of the West, also vis-à-vis new emerging countries. I was also being asked by both Theresa and the Commentator to try a comparison between the Roman Empire and the Empire of the United States.

Ok, I’ll try, but:

  1. Allow me to expand it to the entire West (America + Europe) instead of dealing with US decline only and …
  2. allow me to restrict it to the possible effects such Western decline is having on culture, ideas and beliefs of the people involved.

Will this mean I’ll get back to my blog’s track? I do not know, really, but here we are, here is global politics again (though my own way) 😉

Spiritual Désarroi

The heat is getting so appalling in here that thoughts become weird and erratic. I’m typing with sticky fingers, ants invading my human space in search of cooler air. Wondering if all this can be an extra motive why I accepted this topic again and why I feel like musing on ideas of decline…

Well, actually what we see here in Europe and America are all these people turning towards oriental religions, Hinduism, Buddhism, or doctrines like Scientology, or even Neo-pagan movements growing in Anglo-Saxon countries and probably originating from a disappointment towards Christianity and its different varieties (above, an image of the Neopagan Goddess and the moon).

A woman, a friend of mine, is starting to adore some crazy coloured stones she always brings along wherever she goes. Amazing, no doubt. And what about this person very close to me who turned to Sathya SaiBaba, the Hindu saint, long ago? Or this relative of mine who, once relocated in France, embraced the Muslim religion? (my mother never got over it, I’ll confess).

Many Muslims, vis-à-vis such Western spiritual crisis (and relativism), react in different ways, from a total acceptance of consumer society values up to forms of moral rejection or even active reaction (which unfortunately also lead to terrorism). But that’s another story. Let’s stick to the point.

As the Roman Empire. An Analogy

Referring to Western contemporary societies, numerous commentators and artists have talked of a decline-of-the-Roman-Empire type of situation. It is an interesting analogy, since in those old days the official Roman religion wasn’t so attractive any more and innumerable oriental cults were spreading among the different classes of the Roman society.

Italian Archaeologist Rodolfo Lanciani ( 1846 – 1929 ) for example unearthed the remains of the Temple of Isis in Rome, who was imported by the Romans from Egypt and set on the banks of the Tiber, the sacred river of Rome. We have also mentioned in a previous post how Egyptian rites and culture fascinated the Romans at the times of Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony (and in other times).


(Ants are now walking on my keyboard. I HAVE to make a pause and gently push them away….)

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Since among all those foreign cults the final winner was the Christian sect, would it be totally absurd to wonder if once again there will be a winner? We mean – and it might be the heat – is it possible that again some faith (new or old) could profit from today’s Western void (which seems to affect Europe much more than America)? Italian Oriana Fallaci feared Islam would be the winning belief about to conquer Europe…. Well, we do hope that no Abrahamic religion (Christianity, Islam and Judaism) will prevail, for a number of reasons, some of which we can mention in the next post …

(ants and heat allowing… I need to buy AC, good also for mosquitoes, no doubt about it)

A fascinating depiction of Western void is offered by the acclaimed movies Le Déclin de l’empire américain (The Decline of the American Empire, 1986) and Les Invasions barbares (The Barbarian Invasions, 2003) by the outstanding French-Canadian director Denys Arcand, both illustrating in an eloquent way this emptiness affecting at least two generations.

by Denys Arcand

(to be continued tomorrow; we will associate this topic with Buddhism, science and the Dalai Lama. See you tomorrow then.)

Western Values, Again (2)

Relativism, Yes

The commentator thus commented my first comment to Rob’s post, saying: “Was the above (specifically regarding our values versus terrorists) a defence of moral equivalism?”. Well – apart from endorsing Islamic terrorism, which of course I don’t – if being a relativist means (as I think it means) not believing in absolute truths valid forever and outside any historical and social context, yes, I am a convinced relativist. Also democracy to me is relative (I can see many readers jumping up in their chairs).

Separation of state and religion, ok, I like it a lot, but this is not enough to proclaim our superiority over other civilizations (such as the Islamic) plus why should secularism be an absolute truth? As regards democracy, it doesn’t seem in my view the ideal solution for some people, plus it is not granted, as many analysts now start to recognize, that economical growth automatically will lead to more democracy. The case of Russia and China is often indicated as instructive from this point of view. And I believe it really is.

This reminds me when all the world applauded (me included) when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev started to swiftly democratize the Soviet Union. At the same time all the world protested (me included) when the Chinese students asking for more democracy (hence imitating the Russians) were crushed by the military in the Tien An Men Square in 1989 (watch above a famous movie regarding that tragic episode).

But then, what the heck has happened? Who the heck was right? The Russians (who accelerated democracy) or the Chinese (who hindered it because they thought it would tear down a country of 1.5 billion people)? I have lived almost one year in Russia (in the year 2000) and I have witnessed the almost TOTAL collapse of a society and all the terrible consequences that ensued (this country now pulling itself together thanks btw to its new Caesar, or Tzar, Mr. Putin: can this be by mere chance?).

I know Anglo-Saxons are very sensitive about this democracy thing. They use it as a propaganda weapon, not many doubts about it, but there is something deeper. If democracy was invented by the ancient Greeks, only the British and the American people in modern times were capable of creating truly great democracies (plus, isn’t the Indian democracy – the biggest in the world – somewhat derived from Great Britain as well? I hope Falcon won’t be upset 😉 ).

We admire the Anglo-Saxons for what they have achieved, for this great contribution and influence in all this. But if they do not really try hard to understand the rest of the world, especially those very old civilizations so different from theirs (and ours), and if they do not get out of their mental schemes, I am afraid their decline (and ours, unfortunately) will be swifter than expected. They (especially the Americans) cannot expect they can export their political solutions (that took so many centuries to develop, from Magna Charta on) to totally different historical and social environments (like Iraq or Afghanistan) which might embrace these solutions in the long run, who knows, although it is not granted at all, I am sure it is not granted at all, not many doubts about it. In any case, I am for democracy, that’s for sure. I just wanted to add some elements of reflection.

The Ugliest of Tyrannies

I know almost nothing about Professor Norman Geras’ thought but in your quotations, Rob, he condemns the:

“apologists for terrorism, the mumblers and rootcausers, the people seemingly capable of understanding everything except the need for drawing a clear line between those who uphold the politics of democracy and those dedicated to their destruction. The left today …is a loose movement which is able … to mobilize … to oppose conflicts fought by the Western democracies against the ugliest of tyrannies and/or reactionary social and political forces…”.

Well, first of all I do not consider myself belonging to the left any more, hence many things he says here and elsewhere do not regard me much; secondly, I see in his words some hypocrisy, sorry to say that, exactly like in Tony Blair’s words (but I may be wrong and I’ll try to read more of his writings).

The thing is I am not blaming America for being a superpower and for fighting (sometimes badly, I’ll admit) for her interests. I love and admire America. And I believe she is a true democracy. But – as I said – I also believe that empires and powers (such as the Romans, the Turkish Ottomans, the Victorians, the USA etc.), are not ruled mainly by idealism or ethics; they are rather ruled most of all by Realpolitik, namely by practical considerations regarding their interests.

So, according to Norm, as you call him, am I an apologist of terrorism if I say that a democracy like America now says she fights against “the ugliest of tyrannies” (it is still to be proven for which reasons) while, at the times of Henry Kissinger, she fought for “the ugliest of tyrannies” (Greek colonels, ruthless dictators all over South America etc.)?
My opinion is that this passage by Norm is a bit abstract and apologetic, not to mention a few apparent doses of historical amnesia.

All the best,

Man of Roma

Western Values, Again (1)

This post originates from a debate I had with Falcon, Ashish and especially Rob and regarding: values, the West, the Islamic extremists etc. First Rob replied to a comment of mine saying I raised too many issues so it’d be too arduous to fully accept the challenge. But the same I can say of his post (an even more complex reply to my comment lol), so I’ll just consider some topics mentioned by him (plus Ashish’s and Falcon’s remarks) and will talk freely without too much organization, being a bit tired after a long work trip (and hoping I won’t say too many silly things lol).

Is Decadence Advancing (or Just Old Age)?

Western leaders are talking so much about values. But where is the line between what they really feel and political propaganda? I am referring to the Tony Blair’s speech quoted by Rob but this of course is not only true of Western leaders. This is also true of almost any leader. Although on the whole I see some decadence advancing in our part of the world, which might correspond to the natural cycle of civilizations, more or less like what happened to the civilization of ancient Rome. I mean, Western leaders can try to propose their societies (and their values) as models, but what are the real ideas we are exporting around the world?

Just an example taken from today’s entertainment field. At least two movie industries are now flooding the world with their films: Hollywood and Bollywood, the former selling all over the world, the latter selling all over Asia (Muslim countries included) but now starting to be appreciated outside Asia as well. I may be wrong but Bollywood moviegoers seem to entertain themselves in a much healthier way, while American movies (not to mention US video games) are now so painted with blood, stupidities and disgusting violence (apart from some technological perfection which in any case is not much influential over the quality of content) that the final educational result on the public tends in my view towards new forms of barbarism (see above a view of the Hollywood boulevard: source).

Blind Hatred plus Moral Disgust?

I abhor the Islamic fascists, as you call them, Rob. And I am not neutral. Quite the contrary. These repugnant people have made the world much worse than it was before, in my opinion. But if we do not understand that many of them are also motivated by some sort of moral disgust towards some ways of the West, we miss an important point.

Take Bali, Indonesia. The islamofascists hit Kuta twice in 2002 and 2005 with some bombs and killed hundreds of people, mostly Westerners. I have been to Bali a few times and I believe it is not by chance they hit the Kuta beach area so much.

Bali is the only Hindu island in a country, Indonesia, mostly Muslim. This was symbolic to them, not many doubts about it, but I think a main point was also they hit right a place in Bali (Kuta) where the Westerners most succeeded in totally corrupting the local people who are now selling themselves in various ways for money, while in other parts of this great island the Balinese retain their unbelievable dignity and their incredibly refined cultural values, yes, so refined that even peasants look like princes (look above at the pure beauty of these two Balinese dancers: source).

Although by this I do not mean the West has no values, and the non-West has. And we are not the only ones to use values as ideological weapons, as I said before. Ashish, this young Indian blogger, puts it very synthetically: “Religion [and any idealism, I think he means, MoR] is merely the vehicle, the true goal is world supremacy. Does the west prevail over the east or is it otherwise? … The bosses only care about the profits [oil for the west, power for the clerics], be it the West or the Middle East. Religion is merely a way to get yourself an army, because nobody fights as ruthlessly as a fanatic!” Very well said indeed.

A comment from another Indian blogger also in his twenties, Falcon, who writes: “Let’s face it, a large no. of Islam followers have their rationality almost blinkered by faith. They may be very humble and polite and would gladly discuss religion and point out its greatness and fallacies but try touching Islam and they get defensive.”

Well, it is true, also some Mulsim students of mine behaved like that. But I remember things were a bit different before September 11. What I believe is that, especially the new Muslim generation is living like a generational wave. That terrible, unbelievable terrorist attack (nothing cannot be compared to it) has unfortunately fascinated too many young minds. Sept 11 is not the only factor, but the development of things in Turkey (once the most secularized Muslim Nation) is very instructive in my view. How long will this woeful wave last? Hard to say. It will none the less pass away, I am sure of it (or is it my hope and ideals blinkering me now?).

Left & Right

You quote intellectuals from the left, Rob, thinking it can make some difference to me. It doesn’t. The left is only my origin and I do not belong to any faction any more. It is a complicated topic not to be discussed here, but I try to reason with my mind only, not caring where good (to me) ideas come from and in my view what really counts has very little to do with this dichotomy.

For example, words such as reactionary elements do not mean anything to me. And they do not mean anything to the new generations. Listen again to Falcon commenting this post of mine: “Could somebody explain to me what exactly reaction mean? What was the action we did that we are facing a reaction?”. He then continues, going maybe towards some sort of relativism: “As long as there will be a feeling, that one set of ideals and values are better than the others there is bound to be a struggle for supremacy. Islam can teach us a lot things, just like any other religion. The only question is: are we ready to learn?”

Man of Roma

(to be continued)

Which are our Western Values?

Rob wrote an interesting post, Support Shiv Malik’s book, regarding various things among which a speech Tony Blair delivered to the Los Angeles World Affairs Council in August 1, 2006. As Rob writes, Tony Blair “called for a complete renaissance on foreign policy to combat reactionary Islam:”

“Whatever the outward manifestation at any one time – argued Blair, then Prime Minister – it is a global fight about global values; it is about modernization, within Islam and outside of it; it is about whether our value system can be shown to be sufficiently robust, true, principled and appealing that it beats theirs. Islamist extremism’s whole strategy is based on a presumed sense of grievance that can motivate people to divide against each other. Our answer has to be a set of values strong enough to unite people with each other.
This is not just about security or military tactics.
It is about hearts and minds about inspiring people, persuading them, showing them what our values at their best stand for.” [italics by Rob]

This is my comment:

“A very good post, Rob. I will only comment on one aspect where we probably are of different opinion.”

“This complete “renaissance” on foreign policy to combat Islam fanatics, seen as a global fight about global values … mmmm, nice talk indeed. Tony Blair is a valuable man in many respects and he is not deprived of some greatness. I admired him for example in his last day as a prime Minister, where he showed dignity and courage.”

“But let us face it: how can Mr. Blair think he/we/the West can win this battle for values? Which were the values that provoked the Iraqi war? Finding (non existent) mass destruction weapons? Exporting democracy? Everybody now has a clearer idea why that war was started: for power in the region and for oil. Ok, that is realpolitik. Every power plays its game in the world chessboard. None the less, I am asking myself, are we especially entitled or do we have any special chances to win such a battle on global values? Isn’t there instead a lack of values in the West? Isn’t Blair’s talk you quote hypocritical to a large extent?”

“This war has provoked the death of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians (the number of US casualties being in comparison irrelevant). The Italian Berlusconi government joined the so to say happy bunch, my only consolation being that the VAST majority of Italians were totally against that war.

Best regards,

Man of Roma

“PS
Not that I think the Islamic fanatics have better values. But are we sure our set of values is really much more “robust, true, principled and appealing” that it is so clear that it can beat theirs?”

Isn’t the British Trojan Horse a Short-Sighted Animal?

Trojan Horse from ‘Troy’ movie. Fair use

[Update: today 4/9/11 the conversation, about the Britons as EU’s Trojan horse, goes on here together with a few dear blog buds from Canada, the UK and the US]

ψ

Let us consider two articles, one appeared in Newsweek (last Feb 4), another in the Financial Times (March 19, 2007).

I. Newsweek (original article):

The American economy is slowing down (I am summarizing here and there) and while the United States is sneezing, the rest of the world won’t probably catch a cold. In other words, and for the first time, “the rest of the world will cushion America’s slide (…) . The fastest growing big economies in the world – China, India, Brazil – appear set to continue their robust growth – argues influential American columnist Fareed Zakaria – (…) and this will help the United States” also because of the U.S. dollar’s decline which makes American exports cheaper and investments and tourism in America more attractive.
[That is to say, while first the Americans were helping the world in moments of crisis still buying foreign goods thus helping foreign economies, now the contrary is true, this being the first time such a thing happens; Man of Roma’s note].

These and other trends represent a great change in the global economic order. “Power is moving away from the traditional centres of the global economy – the Western nations – to the emerging markets. To put it more bluntly: the United States is in the beginning of a period of relative decline. It may not be steep or dramatic, but the fact that it’s happening is clear. Even if one assumes a slowdown – Fareed Zakaria continues -, the other big economies will still grow at two and three times the pace of the West. Over time they will take up a larger share of the global economy – and the United States and Western Europe will have thinner slices. This is not defeatism. It is math.”

II. Financial Times (whose unsigned comment sheds light on the situation, and relative economic weight, of the European Union; original article):

If the European Union weren’t there “there would be less trade among the nations of Europe, more macroeconomic instability; Spain and Ireland would probably not have achieved their spectacular economic transformation (…) one of the most striking images of European integration is the sight of motorways full of trucks from countries such as Romania and Lithuania. Air travel liberalisation has perhaps contributed more than any other policy to bring the people of Europe closer (…) The EU is currently the world’s largest economy, a position it is certain to lose over the next 50 years due to the rise of China and India. Size in this instance does not really matter. But what would matter hugely is if the EU became so lacking in ambition and purpose that it lapsed into genteel decline.”

The article provides some advices on how to better face future challenges: more economic integration, more globalisation and aperture to emerging markets etc. Strangely enough, a tighter political union – which would seem ideal to get over this pernicious (according to FT) “lacking in ambition and purpose” – is one of the advices not offered (and unsaid) by FT to the Continent … 😉 .

 

Now my question is: in the context of this overall foreseen decline of the West and of these huge transformations ahead of us (India and China alone are maybe 40% of the entire world population), is this divide et impera policy (or divide et vive, divide and survive) towards mainland Europe – traditional in UK and much understandable until a few years ago – still valid today, still forward thinking? I mean, this subtle (not too subtle sometimes) action of hindering at all costs the making of one big European nation, is it still corresponding to the British (and American) interests themselves?

Aren’t the British (and the French) lost in an opiate dream that they can still play a world role of some importance (America being different, of course) and does this dream justify the demolition (or even just the delay) of a European nation? Tending to condone the French – I told you I’m unassuming – not only out of sentimental weakness (they have been a lot pro Europe together with the Germans, after all), and given for granted that the guys at the British Foreign Office are more intelligent than Man of Roma, could anyone then help me to understand why this British Trojan horse isn’t a short-sighted animal?

Italian version

Why Musical Improvisation is Utopian

Utopian Medieval Town

Why musical improvisation is utopian? Because it is a place of the spirit that does not lead to any place. Utopia is a Greek word made of ‘ou’(= no) and ‘τόπος’ (= place), so its meaning is actually ‘in no place’. This is the reason why we say that musical improvisation is utopian. This idea in fact belonging to my generation – that improvisation was the big thing that could produce new insights & musical discoveries – led to nowhere.

In the 1970s musical improvisation as a theory and practice greatly influenced musicians. It was based on concepts like intuition, immediate action and reaction, and on the idea of mysterious mental faculties not far from Zen which were thought to favour the discovery of new patterns and unexpected solutions. Maybe it is not by chance that J. D. Salinger was attracted to Zen (see our post on digression in speech and writing; there is a subtle link between that post and the present one).

As far as we know (and our taste goes) improvisation has rarely created anything really interesting, with its tendency towards superficial results we can observe for example in some (or many) jazz pieces. Great composers and pianists like Chopin and Liszt used to be oustanding improvisers as well but their piano impromptus were seldom published and in any case were regarded by their creators as works inferior in quality (listen below to the Fantasie-impromptu in C-sharp minor by Chopin played by Valentina Igoshina; it is a work Chopin was not very proud of … well, maybe it is not too profound, but Chopin is Chopin … 😉 ).

In 1975 the American pianist Keith Jarret carried out a tremendously successful jazz improvisation at the Cologne Opera House in Germany. It was the famous Köln Concert that created a new fashion of piano solo music based on improvisation and which in my view is a beautiful piece of music but here too we note flaws like excessive repetitions and passages confused and predictable (you can listen to the beginning of this work thanks to YouTube).

Note. This Köln Concert – not to mention the splendid Impromptu by Chopin – is great stuff, I do not want to diminish it, being an explosive mixture of jazz with a scent of classical, blues, gospel and rock, all so inspired and “flowing with human warmth” (quote from Jazz: The Rough Guide, Rough Guides Ltd, London, 1995.) Just try to follow my point though and compare for example this Chopin’s Impromptu with other compositions by the same Polish-French musician.

An interesting aspect of improvisation is the high level of concentration required by the artist to produce anything decent, which some critics say it can favour a strong empathic relationship with the public. This is true but one can equally say that the same thing occurs during an inspired execution of composed music, namely music which did not spring out extemporaneously and was instead previously well constructed and thought over.

A great interpreter is in fact able to relive with renewed freshness a work composed even centuries earlier, which equally allows him to involve the public in ways empathic and with the added value of a work which is deeper and better constructed.

In short (and as far as we understand) the process of musical construction (composition) produces better results compared to this more or less spontaneous way of creating music called improvisation. What we are saying of course applies to other arts as well, such as theatre, dance, literature or rhetoric (i.e. public speaking, or writing, with the goal of persuading the audience): Romans like Marcus Tullius Cicero and Julius Caesar carefully prepared their speeches, even though, when necessary, they were able to improvise.

This doesn’t mean that improvisation isn’t a valid creative tool. We can play our instruments and express ourselves freely, or we can speak on the microphone of a computer in search of ideas for our writings. The resulting matter though should go through a post-production phase. It should, in other words, be purified and wisely inserted into the compositional process.

Italian version

ψ

See also:

Digression vs Sticking to the Point
A Novel in the Hands of the Killers

Improvisations by MoR:

Two Piano Improvisations
A Dionysian improvisation



Music, Politics and History

Dimitri Shostakovich birth house. Wikipedia. GNU Free Documentation License

20th-century Music? Eastern Europe

The Russian composer Dimitri Shostakovich (1906 – 1975) is not boring or academic. He is profound. It took me decades to really appreciate his music.

It is hard to understand why sometimes beauty requires a long path to be fully grasped while other times it is so easily attainable.

Shostakovich is a master in everything he does, symphonic & vocal music, piano-solo music, chamber music (the quartets etc.). His polytonal solutions and the sense of dislocation they produce seem much more interesting to me than Russian Prokofiev’s (1891-1953).

Prokofiev’s music is more brilliant but I definitely prefer Shostakovich’s. One can really get so much peace from his depths. Great music – like great literature and thought – can provide inner peace and education of the soul.

Listen to this “unedited live performance by Wendy Warner – cello – and Irina Nuzova – piano – of Shostakovich’s Sonata Op. 40 for Cello and Piano, 4th movement, at the Phillips Collection” – Youtube.

Russian contribution to 20th-century music – and eastern Europe’s contribution- is immense.

Many eastern European musicians (take for example composers like Arvo Pärt and György Ligeti) are perfect musical craftsmen, are very inspired and really capable of going beyond Romanticism without destroying musical beauty.

One of the reasons of this success is due, in my opinion, to the fact that greatest music regions such as Austria and Germany got lost for years in hopeless, neurotic experimentation (serialism etc.). This decadence does not include Paul Hindemith (1895–1963), a very interesting composer I am so eager to know better, while Richard Strauss (1864–1949), being a late Romantic, belongs to the 19th century. This is my personal view, I’ll repeat it, and surely many people will not agree.

I remember I was a youth in Rome between the 1960s and the 1970s and while trying to study musical composition privately I became more and more disillusioned (and disgusted) when I realised that no other music would have been accepted outside the Neue-Wiener-Schule type of music (Second Viennese School), i.e. twelve-tone or serial-technique music.

I wouldn’t be surprised if women somewhere in the world had abortion while listening to it (I have to check, it MUST have happened somewhere damn!)

This feeling of oppression we felt (some of my fellow music students sharing my view though not all of them) may be due to the Roman musical provincialism of that time, but I assure you that those days, for wannabe composers, were really dull and depressing in many other Italian and European places as well…

Dimitri Shostakovich on a postal stamp. From Wikipedia. Fair use

Two things should be noted here I believe.

1) The crisis of Germany in the last century – political, cultural, psychological – after each world war: it has been discussed a bit in this blog and it implies many tragedies, although tragedy seems to befit the Germans (follies of the Nibelungs, the Italian journalist and historian Indro Montanelli used to say: he though loved the Germans). This crisis seems however to be fully overcome. The German-speaking people of the southern regions are less tragic, or they are a bit, though attenuated by so to say Latin measure and taste.

As far as very recent German contemporary music goes, we know very little about it.

2) To this German crisis it has to be added the end of the Austrian Empire (Kaiserreich Österreich) occurred at the end of WW1. Such empire was a remnant of the Holy Roman Empire, a direct remnant in its turn of the Roman Empire. The great Austrian writer Joseph Roth gives us a refined though melancholic account of finis Austriae, ie the end of Big (enchanting) Austria.

Both the German & the Austrian crisis in various phases of the 20th-century created (among excellent contributions) waves of pessimism in many cultural fields – to make it simple.

This greatly influenced the European Continent’s 20th-century Zeitgeist (‘spirit of the age’), it influenced my generation (take Freud, or Adorno, a bit gloomy, to cite only thinkers etc.; of music we’ve already spoken) and all Italy as well, a neighbour of the German-speaking areas, an intense relationship occurring between the 2 poles.

To-and-fro influence mechanisms, history is so fascinating! Germanization of Italy during my generation (during 1800 and 1900 to be more correct, although French influence was strong too) and much earlier romanization of the southern German-speaking folks at the times of the ancient Romans and also much later until the apex of our decadence (1700s-1800s.) We already mentioned Bavaria and Regensburg (ancient-Roman fortress Castra Regina along the Roman-Empire Limes or borderline) in a previous post, which correspond to parts of the Ancient-Roman province of Raetia, while to the east we had the Roman province of Noricum, coinciding more or less to modern German-speaking Austria.

Cultured Italians (few are left) realise how close these South German-speaking people are to us. I personally feel this encounter between Roma and Germania so special and sacred.

This is why I now feel like talking about one of the most sublime outcomes of this encounter. It is a splendid musical fruit – this post is dedicated to music, after all – whose apparent simplicity hides a really hard-to-get beauty – since it is one of the most perfect beauties ever produced by man. The outstanding composer and pianist Ferruccio Busoni (half Italian and half German btw) was able to grasp this beauty only at a later stage of his life.

Germans & Italians Meet.
Taste and Knowledge

Mozart in 1780, portrayed by Johann Nepomuk della Croce. Detail. Wikipedia. Public domain

Speaking of the infancy and of the first adolescence of Mozart, the American musicologist Donald Jay Grout (History of Western Music) argues (not having the original text, I am translating from the Italian 1993 Feltrinelli 7th edition, Storia della Musica in Occidente, pp. 509-510):

“After 1760, the two principal national idioms [i.e. musical idioms, MoR] were the Italian and the German. Italy still remained the fatherland of music and the mecca for any student who aimed at becoming a composer … Which were at that time the differences between Italian and German music?”

Jay Grout answers at the end of the paragraph with the words of appreciation the Austrian composer Haydn – composition teacher of both Mozart and Beethoven – had addressed to Mozart’s father:

“In front of God and as an honest man, I’m telling you that your son is the greatest composer I have ever known, either personally or by name. He has taste and, what counts more, he has the deepest knowledge of composition.”

“These – Jay Grout argues – were the two essential elements: taste, instinct for what is appropriate, awareness of limits; and knowledge plus technique in order to say what one has to say in a complete, clear and persuasive manner. Generally speaking, it can be said that taste was the speciality of the Italians, while knowledge was that of the Germans; Mozart in his style combines both.”

Italian version

ψ

Related posts:

Permanences I
Roman Limes. Between Two Worlds
From the two Sides of the Roman Limes
Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli’s Chilly Genius

See also:

How Can Japanese Little Girls Play European Classical Music Perfectly?
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