Baroque in Rome

Review of the exhibition at the Palazzo Cipolla

As someone who has lived in Rome on and off over the past seven years, I found this exhibition on the Baroque in Rome particularly enjoyable. It helped me gain a greater understanding of this city whose history is so woven into the surfaces of its streets and squares, the facades of its buildings and their interiors.

The sculpture, paintings and architecture of the 17th century form some of Rome’s most characteristic sights. The Piazza Navona, for example, was transformed during this time. The Palazzo Pamphilj, the Church of Sant’Agnese and the Fountain of the Four Rivers, comprising the piazza’s most dramatic architecture, were all either completely re-designed or constructed at the height of the Baroque period. All are found within the same photo taken by millions of tourists each year.

My reference to photography is deliberate. These tourists are unwittingly perpetuating a practice that was heavily pursued through works of Reni, da Cortona, Rubens and Bernini: the dramatic potential of capturing the moment. This was one of the key ideas of the Baroque movement.

File:Guido Reni - Atalanta and Hippomenes - WGA19271.jpg

The drama of the moment is paramount throughout the exhibition at the Palazzo Cipolla. In the first room we stand before energetic scenes such as Guido Reni’s Atlanta and Hippomenes, floundering mid-race, yet frozen in time. Reni depicts the image with extraordinary grace: the protagonists’ skin and shadows are softly rendered yet prominent against the dark backdrop. Through the angles of their limbs, the artist cleverly carries the viewer’s eye in an arc across the canvas.

But above all we see biblical stories reflected dramatically through the Baroque art on display. Da Cortona’s Angels Scaling the Foreheads of the Children of Israel, for example, is viewed from the surface of the sea, at night, a confused sight of angels flying above the boats that contain the children of Israel, marking crosses upon the desperate passengers’ foreheads. The painting represents a vision of the Apocalypse, with the division of risen souls on the Day of Judgment. The chaotic scene is illuminated by a glowing crucifix held aloft by an angel.

Another sensational moment is captured by the Bolognese sculptor Alessandro Algardi with his bronze statuette, Saint Michael Overcoming the Devil. Saint Michael, sporting feathered wings, stands over the Devil. His right arm is raised. His left holds a chain fixed to a manacle that clasps the arm of the devil that is in flames beneath, writhing, mouth and eyes open, frantic.

Baroque artists were encouraged to captivate their audiences. They were expected to capture all the drama of the Christian narrative in order to draw crowds into the churches that fell under the papal domain. Politics demanded it. Luther’s damning theological critique of Catholicism provoked the Council of Trent, which led to the Counter Reformation. Consequently, art had to persuade: it invoked drama, magnificence and the intense spiritual expression of Caravaggio.

Together, this movement created what the art historian Robert Hughes has described as “the last great universal language of spirituality”. This language can be clearly understood at the Palazzo Cipolla exhibition.

Catholic Herald

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The Tyranny of Experts

“It is time at last for the debate that never happened to happen. It is time at last for the silence on unequal rights for rich and poor to end. It is time at last for all men and women to be equally free.” Thus ends The Tyranny of Experts, William Easterley’s latest insightful book about international development.

Since the early 20th century, and after World War II, argues Easterley, the architects and managers of international aid – governments and “experts” – have unanimously favoured an apolitical approach to development that attempts to achieve economic growth through centralized, technocratic means.

Through this “blank slate” vision of development these “experts” have neglected the rights of poor people. As a result, they have actually undermined poor people’s prospects for greater material wealth over the long term. Easterley suggests that the racist colonial belief in poor people’s inability to think for themselves is sustained through mainstream development practice today.

The Tyranny of Experts draws heavily on the ideas of 20th century Nobel prize-winning economist and philosopher Friedrich Hayek. One of Hayek’s most popular books, The Road to Serfdom, challenged the wisdom of top-down central planning. Easterley takes his cue, arguing that development should be achieved via what Hayek described as “spontaneous order” rather than the “conscious design” favoured by Hayek’s contemporary, Gunnar Myrdal, and successive generations of development economists.

Easterley invokes Adam Smith’s notion of the ‘invisible hand’ of the market to illustrate how individuals seek opportunities within complex systems when incentives exist. Easterley wants the “experts” to focus more on creating these incentives by pushing for poor people to be granted their political and economic rights. These rights are intrinsically good, he argues, plus they help individuals pursue the market opportunities that will ultimately lead to national growth. He uses the phenomenal success of South Korean car giant, Hyundai, founded by Chung Ju Yung, to make his point.

Unfortunately, the latter half of the book is problematic. Easterley uses too many threads of research simultaneously, including a continuous reference to the history of Greene Street, New York, as a weakly conceived example of how “spontaneous solutions” triumph over central planning.

Though it loses some coherence, The Tyranny of Experts nonetheless compels us to re-examine the purpose and methods of international aid.

Bullfighting

 

bullfight

Ten days ago I watched a ‘bullfight’ in Jerez. We were there during the Feria. At the time, it was hard to process the experience of watching a bull slowly killed by a small group of men on a sandy floor.

The crowd are elegant. They wear suits and ties and elegant floral dresses. Those who sit in the sun have fans. People drink sherry out of small glasses. They applaud when the bull comes lumbering out.

It charges out of the gate. The first thing one notices is how much muscle it possesses. The whole body is rippling; the haunches creased with muscle that wobbles over his back. You notice its size. Most of the them are more compact, lower to the ground, than you’d expect. But they move fast. And stupidly. They have no expression. Dumb, is the word. They look around confused. They reach the edge of the circular ground. A man with a pink cape gets the bull’s attention. It moves towards him with trite gusto.

The ease  with which the man moves away from the bull makes one pity the bull immediately. We’re smiling at our superiority from the start. The picadors emerge. They weaken the bull. The armoured man on the protected horse emerges. He plunges a spear into the bull for ten seconds. He twists the spear in deep. The bull now is severely weakened. No longer does he run with gusto. He’s breathing deeply. His stomach contracts and expands greatly with each deep breath.

The picadors spring balletically towards it and plant decorated pins onto the arch of the bull’s neck. Blood seeps down his neck. The toredor spins the bull around him, to the joy of the crowd. The bull’s stomach is now wrenching fast.

Eventually he plunges a sword deep into a spot on the bull’s neck. I assume it carries through to the bull’s heart. If he misses the spot, the bulls stays alive. When this happens the crowd whistle. They do not approve of this. It is unfair to the bull! It is bad sportsmanship.

To me this ‘show’ of mercy to the bull seems absurd. The animal never had a chance in the first place. There’s no logic to their thinking. Sure, by hitting the spot you assure a less painful, drawn-out death. But you’re wounding the bull throughout its time in the stadium with the initial spearing and the pins.

The toredor eventually kills the bull. The crowd cheers. The bull lies on its side, tongue dangling. Sometimes its feet twitch as it dies. Horses come in with chains to drag the bull away. The trailing body leaves a smooth wide line over the sand as it is dragged towards the pen. Its feet remain taught. The banality of death.

I almost cried at times during the six fights we watched. The killing of animals was of course shocking in itself. But it would be hypocritical to oppose it while I eat meat, slaughtered in factories.

What is disturbing is we are paying to be entertained by the killing of animals. I looked across to examine the faces of the crowd and felt very alone and somewhat afraid. Like how I could feel sometimes on a dance floor when lots of people are on drugs.

And in a sense, what I was watching was the same. A kind of mass hypnosis. A sense that since others are there, participating, it’s ok. And my fears about human weakness came to the fore. Our hypocrisy. Our stupidity. The apparent ease with which can legitimise something in numbers. Weakness in numbers.

 

 

 

Globalization And Its Discontents

I have just read Joseph Stiglitz’s Globalization and Its Discontents (2002).

Stiglitz was the Chief Economist at the World Bank and Chairman of President Clinton’s Council for Economic Advisors. He won the Nobel prize for Economics in 2001.

He has formidable expertise and experience and has succeeded in writing a book about economics that is both readable and compelling.

His basic argument runs that the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the international economic institution responsible for supporting countries facing economic crisis, was largely responsible for the failure of globalization in the 1990s.

The IMF, states Stiglitz, continuously adopted an out-dated and dogmatic adherence to market fundamentalism – the belief in letting the free market deliver economic stability and growth. Their policy to achieve this, in East Asia and Russia, was incoherent and went against the basic tenets of Keynesian economics.

The IMF’s failed policy prescriptions included fiscal austerity, high interest rates, rapid trade liberalization, liberalizing capital markets and privatization.The IMF’s institutional “fear of default” also comes in for criticism.

I enjoyed this book though I found the focus a little too narrow; it rarely deviates from its specific critique of the IMF. Surely other players should come into consideration if you intend to address the failings of a phenomenon as broad as globalization? Only the World Trade Organization, the U.S. Government and the World Bank, are addressed in this context.

The “behind the scenes” actions of corporations and foreign governments in influencing policy are ignored. Here Stiglitz misses an important trick. I would also have liked to see more analysis of how poor economic decisions directly affected people in these developing countries; the repercussions of, for example, liberalization policies were often enumerated only very vaguely.

Stiglitz undoubtedly succeeds in revealing the impudence and irresponsibility of the IMF’s interventions in developing countries. But I wonder how else it could operate? The “international bureaucrats” to which he so often refers must work according to very tight timelines. Sometimes these seemingly mundane factors help to explain their lack of flexibility or foresight.

But it’s nevertheless shocking to learn how much the IMF is governed by the narrow interests of the Western financial community, whose investments are recouped via the multi-billion dollar cash injections into these developing economies, while their poor lose their jobs and livelihoods and the middle classes foot the tax bill that ensues.

Stuffed and Starved

I have just finished reading Raj Patel’s ‘Stuffed & Starved’ (1st edition, 2008). In this brilliant polemic, he addresses most of the key factors underpinning the world food system.

Patel argues convincingly that the large food corporations are socially pernicious. His range is of research is really impressive. I also liked the tone he uses; he never speaks from a position of authority. He uses vignettes to paint the bigger picture. He lets others talk. And some of his ideas and insights are so illuminating.

Though Patel  seems to steer clear of any major political or structural analysis. Government policies and the role of global governance institutions, outside of the WTO, are barely addressed.  I got the impression that Patel implies that it is these corporations who are responsible for the ‘starved’; that they are leaving populations destitute. I would have liked a clearer argument on food security here. I think the responsibility for food security lies more with the governments within these countries than foreign corporations. But the role of government lies largely outside of Patel’s narrative.

In any case, this is, as Naomi Klein described it, a “dazzling” book and well worth a read.

Feeding Frenzy

“Can we feed a world of 9 billion by 2050? Is the current market turmoil an early sign that the global food system will not cope?” These are the questions that Paul McMahon seeks to answer in his highly readable book, Feeding Frenzy. Written in short, clear sentences and rarely lapsing into jargon, McMahon succeeds brilliantly in describing the food supply challenges we currently face.

Feeding Frenzy’s opening chapter gives us a succinct history of food from 10,000 years ago to the present day. The rest of the book covers the key threats to ‘food security’, such as population growth, finite food resources, the growing use of biofuels, climate change, unstable markets and self-serving traders, all of which saw food prices spike in 2008, causing a global food crisis, with riots flaring across the developing world.

 

Feeding Frenzy also looks at the macroeconomic obstacles; the fact that today many developing countries import most of their food, rendering them vulnerable to price rises. Two later chapters outline multinational commodity corporations’ scramble to secure ‘supply chains’, as well as food-importing governments’ efforts (through sponsored companies) to acquire land, in so-called ‘land grabs’. These moves see commercial actors seize control of supplies, with the dangerous potential to engineer price rises, while the ‘grabs’ undertaken by state bodies may insulate their domestic consumers from wider market volatility, but they also restrict global supplies, thus threatening food security in other countries.

McMahon gives a clear overview of these scenarios and sets out the essential steps which, he argues, must be taken: free trade in global commodity markets; enabling small farmers in poor countries to grow more food; agro-ecological approaches to farming (such as Henri de Laulanie’s rice-farming intensification system, applied in Madagascar and now adopted in forty countries worldwide); and the restructuring of markets to support food security over commercial gains.

Feeding Frenzy is really a rebuttal of those alarmists who believe we are failing to meet growing demand with adequate supply. McMahon argues convincingly that we have the natural resources to produce enough food to feed our richer, more populous and climatically varied world by 2050; we just need to rationalize our food supply systems.

 

Times Literary Supplement

 

Ethiopia: The Last Two Frontiers

John Markakis’s latest book, ‘Ethiopia: The last two frontiers’, presents a political history of Ethiopia covering the period 1916 to 2010. Focusing on the transformation of a multicultural empire into a modern nation state, Markakis continuously leans on the “centre/periphery” dynamic as a method of analysis. In the vein of subaltern studies, he seeks to give agency to “peripheral” peoples in the state-building process.  Using a vast range of historical, political and anthropological sources, Markakis describes Ethiopia’s northern and central regions as comprising the “centre”. The “last two frontiers” are the two peripheries: the “highland periphery”, essentially the Oromo-dominated southern highlands, and the “lowland periphery”, inhabited by the Oromo but also by major pastoralist groups such as the Afar and the Somali, as well many other smaller ethnic groups.

Split into five parts, the book begins with a discussion of the main peripheral peoples, followed by a history of the modern Ethiopian empire from the nineteenth to the twentieth century, under Emperors Menelik II (1844–1913) and Haile Selassie (1916–74). During this period, Amharic became the lingua franca, excluding non-speakers from power. Both highland and lowland peripheries were subjugated: exploited for labour, taxes and tribute. Markakis then assesses the period of Dergue rule after the deposition of Haile Selassie, in 1974, in which the Marxist dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam succeeded in expanding the state apparatus until his overthrow in 1991. The fourth part describes how the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), led by Meles Zenawi, sought a state and national identity that would encapsulate Ethiopia’s diversity, empowering the three-quarters of the population that were not Amhara. Subsequently re-formed into the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), their brand of government has blended leftist nationalist ideology with a pragmatic drive to commercialize agriculture in the south. The final part of the book assesses the impacts of federalism on the diverse ethnic groups populating the southern regions.

Markakis believes the EPRDF has overseen an expansion of the state, with more schools and hospitals established in previously neglected regions. Pluralism has been feted. But beyond basic services and symbolic gestures, he argues, the “regime” has kept a “tight reign” and is “lacking in imagination” when it comes to offering real political power to peripheral regions.

‘Ethiopia: The last two frontiers’ reflects Markakis’s immense knowledge and passion for Ethiopia. Although the tone, structure and style could be lighter, readers will nevertheless find much worth in this expansive and original study.

 

Times Literary Supplement