My commented excerpts of Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation can now be read orderly, starting with chapter 1 (here). Keep in mind that when I typed those excerpts last year Civilisation was still unavailable online. Typos are my fault, not of Clark’s editors.
This piece has been chosen for my collection Day of Wrath. It was slightly modified and presently can only be read as a PDF within the book, ready for printing in your home for a truly comfortable reading. Cheers. The author
Originally I posted this article on April 25, 2012. But now that I have been postulating that the One Ring of greed and power—that we might start calling “the Aryan Problem”—could be the main factor in the West’s darkest hour, I am moving it at the top of this blog.
Below, some excerpts of “Heroic Materialism,” the last chapter of Civilisation by Kenneth Clark. (For an introduction to these series, see here.) Ellipsis omitted between unquoted passages. Also, the headings don’t appear in the original text:
The westerners’ new god: Mammon
Imagine an immensely speeded up movie of Manhattan Island during the last hundred years. It would look less like a work of man than like some tremendous natural upheaval. It’s godless, it’s brutal, it’s violent—but one can’t laugh it off, because in the energy, strength of will and mental grasp that have gone to make New York, materialism has transcended itself. It took almost the same time to reach its present conditions as it did to complete the Gothic cathedrals. At which point a very obvious reflection crosses one’s mind: that the cathedrals were built to the glory of God, New York was built to the glory of mammon—money, gain, the new god of the nineteenth century. So many of the same human ingredients have gone into its construction that at a distance it does look rather like a celestial city. At a distance. Come closer and it’s not so good. Lots of squalor, and, in the luxury, something parasitical.
One sees why heroic materialism is still linked with an uneasy conscience. The first large iron foundries like the Carron Works or Coalbrookdale, date from about 1780. The only people who saw through industrialism in those early days were the poets. Blake, as everybody knows, thought that mills were the work of Satan. ‘Oh Satan, my youngest born… thy work is Eternal death with Mills and Ovens and Cauldrons.’
The [slave] trade was prohibited in 1807, and as Wilberforce lay dying in 1835, slavery itself was abolished. One must regard this as a step forward for the human race, and be proud, I think, that it happened in England. But not too proud. The Victorians were very smug about it, and chose to avert their eyes from something almost equally horrible that was happening to their own countrymen.
In its early stages the Industrial Revolution was also a part of the Romantic movement. And here I may digress to say that painters had for long used iron foundries to heighten the imaginative impact of their work with what we call a romantic effect; and that they had introduced them into pictures as symbolising the mouth of hell. However, the influence of the Industrial Revolution on Romantic painters is a side issue, almost an impertinence, when compared to its influence on human life. I needn’t remind you of how cruelly it degraded and exploited a mass of people for sixty or seventy years.
What was destructive was size. After about 1790 to 1800 there appeared the large foundries and mills which dehumanised life. Long before Carlyle and Karl Marx, Wordsworth had described the arrival of a night shift ‘that turns the multitude of dizzy wheels, Men, maidens, youths, Mothers and little children, boys and girls, Perpetual sacrifice.’
The terrible truth is that the rise in population did nearly ruin us. It struck a blow at civilisation such as it hadn’t received since the barbarian invasions. First it produced the horrors of urban poverty. It must have seemed—may still seem—insoluble; yet this doesn’t excuse the callousness with which prosperous people ignored the conditions of life among the poor on which to a large extent their prosperity depended, and this in spite of the many detailed and eloquent descriptions that were available to them. I need mention only two—Engels’s Conditions of the Working Classes in England, written in 1844, and the novels written by Dickens between 1840 and 1855. Everybody read Dickens. But his terrible descriptions of poverty had very little practical effect: partly because the problem was too big; partly because politicians were held in the intellectual prison of classical economics.
The images that fit Dickens are by the French illustrator Gustave Doré. He was originally a humorist; but the sight of London sobered him. His drawings were done in the 1870s, after Dickens’s death. But one can see that things hadn’t changed much. Perhaps it took an outsider to see London as it really was.
At the beginning of this series I said that I thought one could tell more about a civilisation from its architecture that from anything else it leaves behind. Painting and literature depend largely on unpredictable individuals. But architecture is to some extent a communal art. However, I must admit that the public buildings on the nineteenth century are often lacking in style and conviction; and I believe that this is because the strongest creative impulse of the time didn’t go into the town halls or country houses, but into what was then thought of as engineering. In fact, all modern New York started with the Brooklyn Bridge.
In this series I have followed the ups and downs of civilisation historically, trying to discover results as well as causes; well, obviously I can’t do that any longer. We have no idea where we are going, and sweeping, confident articles of the future seem to me, intellectually, the most disreputable of all forms of utterance. The scientists who are best qualified to talk have kept their moths shut.
The incomprehensibility of our new cosmos seems to me, ultimately, to be the reason for the chaos of modern art. I know next to nothing about science, but I’ve spent my life trying to learn about art, and I am completely baffled by what is taking place today. I sometimes like what I see, but when I read modern critics I realise that my preferences are merely accidental.
Western civilisation has been a series of rebirths. Surely this should give us confidence in ourselves. I said at the beginning that it is lack of confidence, more than anything else, that kills a civilisation. We can destroy ourselves by cynicism and disillusion, just as effectively as by bombs. Fifty years ago W.B. Yeats, who was more like a man of genius than anyone I have ever known, wrote a famous poem.
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
From Kenneth Clark’s The Other Half: A Self-Portrait (ellipsis omitted between unquoted excerpts):
The last words of the programme were shot in Saltwood, in my study. As if in sympathy the camera broke down, and a new one had to be sent from London. But at last the final words were spoken, including the prophetic lines by Yeats, which I had heard him read soon after he had written them; I walked in to my library, patted a wooden figure by Henry Moore, as if to imply that there still was hope, and out of shot.
It was all over. The crew came over to the Castle for a drink. We had become a band of brothers and were not far from tears at the thought that we should not meet again. I may be fanciful, but I think something of this feeling of comradeship is perceptible in the film. It seems ridiculous to say that the happiest years of my life took place when I was sixty-eight, but so it was.
The communication with simple people was one of the things about the programmes that particularly annoyed intellectuals of the left, who believed that they had a prescriptive right to speak to the working classes. Academics were furious at the simplification of their labours. In fact my approach to history was unconsciously different from that now in favour in universities, which sees all historical change as the result of economic and communal pressures. I believe in the importance of individuals, and am a natural hero-worshiper. Each programme had its hero—Charlemagne, the Abbot Suger, Alberti, Erasmus, Luther and Montaigne, Mozart, Voltaire, Jefferson, Rousseau, Wordsworth, and finally Brunel. One whole programme is called The Hero as Artist. The majority of people share my taste for heroes, and so were glad of an historical survey that emphasised outstanding individuals rather than economic trends.
When the series was shown in the U.S.A. things got out of hand. The number of letters quadrupled, and some of them were rather dotty.
When I arrived in Georgetown to stay with my old friends David and Margie Finley, Carter Brown, the Director of the Gallery [National Gallery at Washington], rang me to say ‘For God’s sake don’t go in through the front door. You’ll be mobbed’. I went in by the back door and down a long underground corridor to a press conference. After it was over I was led back along the same corridor so that I might walk the whole length of the Gallery upstairs. It was the most terrible experience in my life. All the galleries were crammed full of people who stood up and roared at me, waving their hands and stretching them out towards me.
I then went downstairs and retired to the ‘gents’, where I burst into tears. I sobbed and howled for a quarter of an hour. I suppose politicians quite enjoy this kind of experience, and don’t get it often enough. The Saints certainly enjoyed it, but saints are very tough eggs. To me it was utterly humiliating. It simply made me feel a hoax. I came up to lunch with red eyes, and tried to put the experience out of my mind. But, as the reader will have realised, it would not let go, and has not gone. And I record it because I must be one of the few ordinary, normal men on whom this kind of experience has been inflicted. The Finleys drove me home in silence. They felt as embarrassed as I did.
Speech on receiving the National Gallery of Art medal
When I tried to read the great German philosophers, I turned over the pages of Kant and Hegel, and I couldn’t make head or tail of them. I felt absolutely frustrated and humiliated, but I had to go until I thought I understood something, and at least acquired a new mental process.
Now although I believe that this part of education is the most important part, it has a great defect. One may achieve intellectual discipline, but one doesn’t remember a single thing that one learnt in that way, because one doesn’t absorb it. I can’t translate the simplest Latin inscription, and if you ask me what Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason is about I couldn’t tell you.
Education has another aspect—what you learn through delight. It is by falling in love with a subject, a period, a style, an individual hero, that one absorbs something so that it becomes a part of one’s living tissue, and one never forgets it. ‘Give all to love,’ your great underrated poet said. It’s true of education as well of life. And the first advice I would give to any young person is, when you fall in love with Roman baroque or with the essays of Montaigne or with whatever it may be, give up everything to study that one, all-absorbing theme of the moment, because your mind is in a plastic condition. A plastic period usually takes place between the ages of about fifteen to the age of twenty-two; and anyone who is learning at that moment will never forget what he has learnt. Read and read, look and look; you will never be able to do it so intensely again. I often wonder if in the last fifty years of grubbing away and reading in galleries and libraries I’ve learned anything compared to what came to me in those plastic moments.
My goodness, if people really began to be sceptical and use their minds, in order to see through cant and humbug and after self-serving lies, advertisers and public relations men and a number of politicians, and even a few favourable philosophers, would be out of business. And the way that education does this is not only by training people to use their minds, but by teaching them history. When you read history you learn that people in the past were just as clever as we are, in fact at some periods they were a good deal cleverer.
I would like to think that these programmes have done two things: they have made people feel that they are part of a great human achievement, and be proud of it, and they have made them feel humble in thinking of the great men of the past.
For an introduction to these series, see here.
Below, some excerpts of “The Light of Experience,” the eight chapter of Civilisation by Kenneth Clark.
Ellipsis omitted between unquoted passages:
I am in Holland not only because Dutch painting is a visible expression of this change of mind [the revolution that replaced divine authority by experience, experiment and observation], but because Holland—economically and intellectually—was the first country to profit from the change. When one begins to ask the question, ‘does it work?’ instead of ‘is it God’s will?’ one gets a new set of answers, and one of the first of them is this: that to try to suppress opinions which one doesn’t share is much less profitable than to tolerate them.
Nearly all the great books which revolutionised thought were first printed in Holland. What sort of society was it that allowed these intellectual time-bombs to be set off in its midst? Inside the old almshouse of Haarlem, which is now a picture gallery, there is plenty of evidence. We know more about what the seventeenth-century Dutch looked like than we do about any other society, except perhaps the first-century Romans. Each individual wanted posterity to know exactly what he was like.
One can’t imagine groups like this [Rembrandt’s Syndics] being produced in Spain or seventeenth-century Italy, even in Venice. They are the first visual evidence of bourgeois democracy. Dreadful words—so debased by propaganda that I hesitate to use them. Yet in the context of civilisation they really have a meaning. They mean that a group of individuals can come together and take corporate responsibility; that they can afford to do so because they have some leisure; and that they have some leisure because they have money in the bank.
Amsterdam was the first centre of bourgeois capitalism, the chief banking centre of Europe. I don’t say much about economics in this book chiefly because I don’t understand them—and perhaps for that reason believe that their importance has been overrated by post-Marxist historians. But, of course, there is no doubt that at a certain stage in social development fluid capital is one of the chief causes of civilisation because it ensures three essential ingredients: leisure, movement and independence.
In studying the history of civilisation one must try to keep a balance between individual genius and the moral or spiritual condition of a society. However irrational it may seem, I believe in genius. I believe that almost everything of value which has happened in the world has been due to individuals.
Nevertheless, one can’t help feeling that the supremely great figures in history—Dante, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Newton, Goethe—must be to some extent a kind of summation of their times. They are too large, too all-embracing, to have developed in isolation.
Rembrandt is a crucial instance of this conundrum. It is very easy—indeed rather more convenient for the historian—to imagine Dutch art without him; and there was no one else in Holland remotely comparable to him—nothing like the group of poets and dramatists who preceded and accompanied Shakespeare. Yet the very fact that Rembrandt was so immediately and overwhelmingly successful, and went on being successful—his etchings and drawings never went out of fashion—and that for twenty years almost every Dutch painter was his pupil, shows that the spiritual life of Holland needed him and so had, to some extent, created him.
However, any attempt to relate art to society gets one into a false position. The greatest of all pictures based on the facts of vision wasn’t painted in the scientific atmosphere of Holland, but in the superstitious, convention-ridden court of Philip IV of Spain: Las Meninas, ‘The Ladies in Waiting’, which was painted by Velasquez about five years before Vermeer’s finest interiors.
The enlightened tidiness of Hooch and Vermeer and the rich imaginative experience of Rembrandt reached their zenith about 1660. During that decade the leadership of intellectual life passed from Holland to England. Towering above all these remarkable scientists [Boyle, Hooke, Halley, Wren] was Newton, one of the three or four Englishmen whose fame has transcended all national boundaries. I can’t pretend that I have read the Principia, and if I did I wouldn’t understand it any more that Samuel Pepys did when, as President of The Royal Society, it was handed to him for his approval. One must take on trust that it gave a mathematical account of the structure of the universe which for three hundred years seemed irrefutable. It was both the climax of the age of observation and the sacred book of the next century.
What is civilisation? A state of mind where it is thought desirable for a naval hospital to look like this and for the inmates to dine in a splendid decorated hall.
The strange thing is that none of the nineteenth-century writers (except Carlyle and Ruskin) seemed to notice that the triumph of rational philosophy had resulted in a new form of barbarism. If, from the balcony of the Greenwich Observatory, I look beyond the order of Wren’s hospital I see, stretching as far as the eye can reach, the squalid disorder of industrial society. It has grown up as a result of the same conditions that allowed the Dutch to build their beautiful towns and support their painters and print their works of philosophers: fluid capital, a free economy, a flow of exports and imports, a dislike of interference.
Every civilisation seems to have its nemesis, not only because the first bright impulses become tarnished by greed and laziness, but because of unpredictables—and in this case the unpredictable was the growth of population.
For an introduction to these series, see here.
Below, some indented excerpts of “Grandeur and Obedience,” the seventh chapter of Civilisation by Kenneth Clark, and my brief comment.
Ellipsis omitted between unquoted passages:
In my previous post criticizing Erasmus I mentioned how the modern mind is too coward to approach the main psychosis of Christendom, the doctrine of hell. Unlike the previous entries on Civilisation, of the episode about the Counter-Reformation I’ll barely quote the essentials to annotate what I have just said in that post. Clark said:
The first thing that strikes one is that those who say that the Renaissance had exhausted the Italian genius are wide off the mark. After 1527 there was a failure of confidence; and no wonder. Historians may say that the Sack of Rome was more a symbol than a historically significant event: well, symbols sometimes feed the imagination more than facts—anyway the Sack was real enough to anyone who witnessed it.
If you compare the lower part of Michelangelo’s Last Judgement, which was commissioned by Clement VII as a kind of atonement for the Sack, with a group in Raphael’s Disputa or with the Creation of Adam, you can see that something very drastic has happened to the imagination of Christendom.
Michelangelo had been reluctant to undertake the Last Judgement; under Clement’s successor, Pope Paul II, he was persuaded to continue it although with a rather different purpose. It ceased to be an act of atonement, or an attempt to externalise a bad dream, and became the first and greatest assertion of the Church’s power, and of the fate that would befall heretics and schismatics. It belongs to a period of severity, when the Catholic Church was approaching its problems in rather the same puritanical spirit as the Protestants.
Paul III took the two decisions that were successfully to counter the Reformation: he sanctioned the Jesuit order and instituted the Council of Trent. [The Counter-Reformation] was also a period of austerity and restraint, typified by the leading spirit of the period, St Carlo Borromeo, whose legendary asceticism is commemorated in this picture.
How had that victory been achieved? In England most of us were brought up to believe that it depended on The Inquisition, the Index, and the Society of Jesus. I don’t believe that a great outburst of creative energy such as took place in Rome between 1620 and 1660 can be the result of negative factors, but I admit that the civilization of these years depended on certain assumptions that are out of favour in England and America today. The first of these, of course, was belief in authority, the absolute authority of the Catholic Church. This belief was extended to sections of society which we now assume to be naturally rebellious. It comes as something of a shock to find that, with a single exception (Caravaggio), the great artists of the time were all sincere, conforming Christians.
And so what most repulsed Nietzsche, the restoration of Christianity after the Italian Renaissance, was consolidated.
For an introduction to these series, see here.
Below, some indented excerpts of “Protest and Communication,” the sixth chapter of Civilisation by Kenneth Clark, after which I offer my comments.
Ellipsis omitted between unquoted passages:
The dazzling summit of human achievement represented by Michelangelo, Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci lasted for less than twenty years. It was followed (except in Venice) by a time of uneasiness often ending in disaster. For the first time since the great thaw civilised values were questioned and defied, and for some years it looked as if the footholds won by the Renaissance—the discovery of the individual, the belief in human genius, the sense of harmony between man and his surroundings—had been lost. Yet this was an inevitable process, and out of the confusion and brutality of sixteenth-century Europe, man emerged with new faculties and expanded powers of thought and expression.
In this room in the castle of Würzburg are the carvings of Tilman Riemenschneider, one—perhaps the best—of many German carvers in the late Gothic style. The Church was rich in fifteenth-century Germany, and the landowners were rich, and the merchants of the Hanseatic League were rich; and so, from Bergen right down to Bavaria, sculptors were kept busy doing huge, elaborate shrines and altars and monuments like the famous group of St George in the old church at Stockholm: a supreme example of late Gothic craftsman deploying his fancy and his almost irritating skill of hand.
The Riemenschneider figures show very clearly the character of the northern man at the end of the fifteenth century.
First of all, a serious personal piety—a quality quite different from the bland conventional piety that one finds, say, in a Perugino. And then a serious approach to life itself. These men (although of course they were unswerving Catholics) were not to be fobbed off by forms and ceremonies. They believed that there was such a thing as truth, and they wanted to get at it. What they heard from Papal legates, who did a lot of travelling in Germany at this time, did not convince them that there was the same desire for truth in Rome, and they had a rough, raw-boned peasant tenacity of purpose. Many of these earnest men would have heard about the numerous councils that had tried throughout the fifteenth century to reform the organisation of the Church. These grave northern men wanted something more substantial.
So far so good. But these faces reveal a more dangerous characteristic, a vein of hysteria. The fifteenth century had been the century of revivalism—religious movements on the fringe of the Catholic Church. They had, in fact, begun in the late fourteenth century, when the followers of John Huss almost succeeded in wiping out the courtly civilisation of Bohemia. Even in Italy Savonarola had persuaded his hearers to make a bonfire of their so-called vanities, including pictures by Botticelli: a heavy price to pay for religious conviction.
The Germans were much more easily excited. Comparisons are sometimes an over-simplification; but I think it is fair to compare one of the most famous portraits, Dürer’s Oswald Krell, with Raphael’s portrait of a cardinal in the Prado [above]. The cardinal is not only a man of the highest culture but balanced and self-contained. Oswald Krell is on the verge of hysteria.
Those staring eyes, that look of self-conscious introspection, that uneasiness, marvellously conveyed by Dürer through the uneasiness of the planes in the modelling—how German it is.
Four pages later Clark devotes several pages to Erasmus of Rotterdam, whom Bronowski praised even more in The Ascent of Man. I have quoted Clark at length on the German character because I believe that Nietzsche was spot on in blaming Luther and Protestant hysteria for the restoration of Christianity when Christendom was falling apart in the times of the Renaissance popes. But in the next entry I will try to convey some of my antichristian thinking by taking the Catholic Erasmus to task. Meanwhile let’s continue with Clark’s views:
In 1506 Erasmus went to Italy. He was in Bologna at the exact time of Julius II’s famous quarrel with Michelangelo; he was in Rome when Raphael began work on the Papal apartments. But none of this seems to have made any impression on him. His chief interest was in the publication of his works by the famous Venetian printer and pioneer of finely printed popular editions, Aldus Manutius. Whereas in the last chapter I was concerned with the enlargement of man’s spirit through the visual image, in this one I am chiefly concerned with the extension of his mind through the word. And this was made possible by the invention of printing.
Printing, of course, had been invented long before the time of Erasmus. Gutenberg’s Bible was printed in 1455. But the first printed books were large, sumptuous and expensive. It took preachers and persuaders almost thirty years to recognise what a formidable new instrument had come into their hands, just as it took politicians twenty years to recognise the value of television. The first man to take advantage of the printing press was Erasmus. He poured out pamphlets and anthologies and introductions; and so in a few years did everyone who had views on anything.
This should remind us of our own age! Take heed of the elucidating excerpts from a 2009 interview of James Bowery by Jim Giles.
Bowery said: “We are essentially living under a theocracy. I call it Holocaustianity but other people call it political correctness. It’s essentially a canon of morals that have taken over Christianity, and the primary sins of this religion involve ‘racism’ which is an undefined word, and anti-Semitism (sexism is certainly down their list; it is like a venial sin, not a mortal sin). So people have been indoctrinated in this by the media and the academia. The government has passed legislation about these morals to make them violation of law. So people [in the 21st century] are essentially in a medieval mindset, living in a theocracy. It’s just that it is not operating under that name… Right now people are essentially in a State where there cannot be a Protestant Reformation. You can’t have other religions than this State religion of political correctness” (39:40).
And later during the interview Bowery added: “Let me go back to my point about the theocracy, and the dissolution of the theocracy in Europe. The Gutenberg press created a situation in which the monopoly of the Church on the written word was broken. A large portion of what the Church was about was media control. So through the media control they could indoctrinate the populations and maintain, you know, a revenue stream. The Gutenberg press broke that. Now all of a sudden you get lots of other voices. As I said, I have been working in this Internet stuff since the early days” (1:29:42).
And that is altogether crucial for our cause. Bowery concludes: “I knew this time was coming. The Internet is the new Gutenberg press. And the theocracy is being taken apart because its control of the media is being taken apart. And we are getting a new Protestant Reformation and following on the heels of that, people are going to say: ‘Look: We have our own beliefs… This is the way things should be.’ Even the Jesuits just couldn’t stand up to that. I don’t think the Jews can’t either.” (1:31:35).
That’s exactly why Erasmus was so notable, as the nationalist Internet bloggers will be equally notable from the standpoint of a latter-day Clark in the coming ethno-state, once the current theocracy falls apart.
Both Erasmus and Luther were involved in important translations of the Bible that shaked the medieval worldview. Although in the next episode Clark spoke highly about Counterreformation art, after the last indented quotation he said: “Whatever else he may have been, Luther was a hero; and after all the doubts and hesitations of the humanists, and the hovering flight of Erasmus, it is with a real sense of emotional relief that we hear Luther say: ‘Here I stand.’” However, at the same time Clark was also dismayed that the Protestants smashed the colored glasses of beautiful Catholic churches, and that artistic images of the Virgin were decapitated.
But it had to happen if civilisation was not to wither, or petrify. And ultimately a new civilisation was created—but it was a civilisation not of the image, but of the word.
But even the Protestant reaction had to be triumphed over, this time by secularism.
It is refreshing to see, in the closing remarks of the episode, Clark praising Montaigne as “completely sceptical about the Christian religion” and of Shakespeare as “the first great poet without a religious belief.”
For an introduction to these series, see here.
Below, some indented excerpts of “The Hero as Artist,” the fifth chapter of Civilisation by Kenneth Clark, after which I offer my comments.
Ellipsis omitted between unquoted passages:
In the Middle Ages men had been crushed by this [ancient Roman] gigantic scale. They said that these buildings must be the work of demons, or at best they treated them simply as natural phenomena—like mountains—and built their huts in them.
But by 1500 the Romans had begun to realise that they had been built by men. The lively and intelligent individuals who created the Renaissance, bursting with vitality and confidence, were not in a mood to be crushed by antiquity. They meant to absorb it, to equal it, to master it. They were going to produce their own race of giants and heroes.
In what is commonly described as the decadence of the papacy, the Popes were men of unusual ability who used their international contacts, their great civil service and their increasing wealth in the interests of civilisation. Nicholas V, the friend of Alberti and the humanists, was the first man who saw that papal Rome could revive the grandeurs of pagan Rome.
Pius II, a poet, a lover of nature and of beauty in all its forms, yet gave up his life in an attempt to save Christendom from the Turks. Even Sixtus IV, who was as brutal and cunning as he looks in the wall-painting by Melozzo da Forlo, founded the Vatican library and made the great humanist, Platina, its first prefect. Pope Julius II was able by magnanimity and strength of will to inspire and bully three men of genius—Bramante, Michelangelo and Raphael. Without him Michelangelo would not have painted the Sistine Ceiling, nor Raphael decorated the papal apartments, and so we should have been without two of the greatest visible expressions of spiritual power and humanist philosophy.
The above paragraphs remind me what Nietzsche said almost at the end of his Antichrist: that without the Reformation and Counter-Reformation these rather pagan popes would have brought Christianity down. Clark continues:
The old St Peter’s was one of the largest and most ancient churches in the western world, and certainly the most venerable. Julius decided to pull it down and put something far more splendid in its place. The first step in this visible alliance between Christianity and antiquity was taken when Julius decided to pull down the old basilica.
The men of fifteenth-century Florence had looked back eagerly to the civilisation of Greece and Rome. They sought for ancient authors and read them with passion, and wrote to each other in Latin. Their greatest source of pride was to write prose like Cicero. But the man who really assimilated antique art and recreated it, with all its expressive power made more vital and more intense, was Michelangelo.
Seen by itself the David’s body might be some unusually taut and vivid work of antiquity; it is only when we come to the head that we are aware of a spiritual force that the ancient world never knew. I suppose that this quality, which I may call heroic, is not part of most people’s idea of civilisation. It involves a contempt for convenience and a sacrifice of all those pleasures that contribute to what we call civilised life. It is the enemy of happiness.
And this of course can only remind me of Harold Covington’s extreme contempt for those so-called “nationalists” who watch TV while eating so tasty Nachos that only grow their bellies; always reluctant to come home and fight for the creation of a new nation. Clark continues:
And yet we recognise that to despise material obstacles, and even to defy the blind forces of fate, is man’s supreme achievement; and since, in the end, civilisation depends of man extending his powers of mind and spirit to the utmost, we must reckon the emergence of Michelangelo as one of the great events in the history of western man.
[His drawing of Battle of Cascina] was the first authoritative statement that the human body—that body which, in Gothic times, had been the subject of shame and concealment, that body which Alberti has praised so extravagantly—could be made the means of expressing noble sentiments, life-giving energy and God-like perfection. It was an idea that was to have an incalculable influence on the human mind for four hundred years.
And this brings us back to Rome, and to the terrible Pope. Julius II was not only ambitious for the Catholic Church: he was ambitious for Julius II, and in his new temple he planned to erect the greatest tomb of any ruler since the time of Hadrian. It was a staggering example of superbia; and Michelangelo at that time was not without the same characteristic. I need not go into the question of why the tomb was never built. There was a quarrel—heroes do not easily tolerate the company of other heroes. Nor does it matter to us what the tomb was going to look like. All that matters is that some of the figures made for it survive, and they add something new to the European spirit—something that neither antiquity nor the great civilisations of India and China had ever dreamed of. As a matter of fact the two most finished of them were derived from antiques, but Michelangelo has turned them from athletes to captives, one of them struggling to be free—freedom from mortality?—and the other sensuously resigned.
People sometimes wonder why the Renaissance Italians, with their intelligent curiosity, didn’t make more of a contribution to the history of thought. The reason is that the most profound thought of the time was not expressed in words, but in visual imagery.
For centuries writers on Michelangelo have criticised Julius for taking him off the tomb, on which he had set his heart, and putting him to work on the painting of the Sistine Ceiling, although he always said he hated the act of painting.
Michelangelo’s power of prophetic insight gives one the feeling that he belongs to every epoch, and most of all, perhaps, to the epoch of the great Romantics, of which we are still the most bankrupt heirs. It is the attribute that distinguishes him most sharply from his brilliant rival, Raphael. Michelangelo took no interest in the opposite sex; Leonardo thought of women solely as reproductive mechanisms. But Raphael loved girls as much as any Venetian.
The convention by which great events in biblical or secular history could be enacted only by magnificent physical specimens, handsome and well-groomed, went on for a long time—till the middle of the nineteenth century. Only a very few artists—perhaps only Rembrandt and Caravaggio in the first rank—were independent enough to stand against it. And I think that this convention, which was an element in the so-called grand manner, became a deadening influence on the European mind. It deadened our sense of truth, even our sense of moral responsibility; and led, as we now see, to a hideous reaction.