The Romantic Warning

rom1The romantics have often been regarded as reactionaries, because of their unwelcoming attitude towards the great mutation that the industrial revolution was about to produce in their countries. A revolution is a radical, somehow violent change, whose consequences are often unpredictable, but  early romantics instinctively felt that the great transformation the world was undergoing wouldn’t have been free of charge.

Modern man, once left his “natural state” and thrown into the dynamics of a materialistic and competitive society, dominated by the threat of clock time, would have seen the nature of his certainties collapse with the consequent urgency of redefining a new scale of values. But what kind of values can a materialistic society produce? Wealth? Success? Career? Can a society, whose imperative is “time is money” and whose members are only small mechanisms of a careless system, be considered as an amelioration of the previous one in terms of quality of life and, why not, happiness? Certainly not.

That’s why the romantics kept on fighting strenuously against “modernity”, advocating the superiority of the values produced by the “old” world. If men abandoned their Eden, their natural state, just like modern Adam and Eve, they would only find pain, hard labor, misery, hence slowly becoming insensitive and indifferent. Therefore, they began to strive using their lines as weapons, lines that they had deliberately simplified in order to reach with their message the heart of as many people as possible. They talked about the importance of memory, the beauty of nature, the necessity of a world of sensibility without restraining from the impulse of imparting a moralizing lesson.

But the process couldn’t be stopped and somehow they were defeated by the course of events. The great industrial change had spread all over the country and towns, like mushrooms, kept on growing disorderly and faster and faster. At the altar of “modernity” man was sacrificing his greatest gifts as well: his creativeness, his sense of taste and harmony. Man now needed to put at the top of his scale of values beauty, many artists claimed. The most optimistic were convinced that educating people to beauty would have meant to improve man’s ethical sense at the same time, but the majority of them thought that it was too late to teach anything to anybody and kept themselves away from the rude and insensitive masses. The first five decades of folly of the twentieth century and two world wars swept away the few certainties and values left and men seemed now motionless seated on a “heap of broken images” of the past waiting for their Godot like Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon. We are still waiting.

The White Man’s Burden

wm1When Theodore Roosevelt read  Rudyard Kipling ‘s poem: “The White Man’s Burden: The United States and The Philippine Islands”, was so very favourably impressed that he copied the poem and sent it to his friend Senator Henry Cabot Lodge with the following comment : “rather poor poetry, but good sense from the expansion point of view“. The publication of the poem in McClure’s Magazine in February 1899  coincided with the beginning of the Philippine-American War and U.S. Senate ratification of the treaty that placed Puerto Rico, Guam, Cuba, and the Philippines under American control. In his poem Kipling invited the U.S: to take up the “burden” of the empire, as Britain and other European nations had done. Kipling thought that the white man had the duty to help the less fortunate peoples of the empire and the goodness of their civilizing mission would have crushed any resented opposition even if, choosing the word “burden” to define this glorious accomplishment, Kipling somehow underlined that it was not such a simple task. More than one hundred years after the publication of this poem, just reading through the pages of any newspaper, we know there must have been something underrated in that optimistic vision.

wm2The fact is that the “civilising mission” consisted not only in expanding a more modern economic and social system – certainly more for the sake of the civilizers rather than the  civilized – but imposing those values and habits typical of western cultures without caring much of the sensibility of the “captives” that Kipling defined in the poem “half devil and half child”. In these last two expressions there is all the blindness and hypocrisy of an age. The natives were seen as devils, that is “sullen”, dark , evil; therefore, they needed to be redeemed. At this point we should remember the role of the Church in promoting the idea of the expansion of the empire as fundamental for the spreading of the Christian faith. Since the discovery of America, economic and religious issues had always gone hand in hand, in fact. However, that childish trait should have made easier the “salvation” of those poor souls, because of their “natural” naivety and gullibility. Needless to say that such representation earned Kipling bitter accusations of racism.

wm3Certainly in those words there was nothing new, but a prejudice which had been commonly shared for ages; therefore, the civilizing mission of the white man was deliberately indifferent of those values expressed by the cultures of the subdued peoples of the empire, which were considered inferior. Even Robinson Crusoe, after all, was a prototype of this vision. He feeds Friday, teaches him British good manner and even if they are alone on a desert island the master and servant relationship is preserved: Robinson wants to be called “Master” and names his companion “Friday”, rather than giving him a proper name; therefore, he does not seem to consider him a person, he just wants him to remember the day Robinson/ the Master saved him and then he proceeds with his own private civilizing mission. Had he been interested, he would have made the effort to ask his name, but maybe it sounded too democratic for the time.

Sikh officers of the British 15th Punjab Infantry regiment, shortly after the Indian Mutiny, 1858But is it really possible to cohabit just fixing the rules of a master/servant relationship based on an alleged superiority, without caring about the nature of that servant? There is a great risk, in fact. It could happen that  the Fridays in the world one day might rebel, just because of the carelessness of a Robinson for whom a little detail may be meaningless, while it is, actually, so meaningful for them, just like a trivial cartridge, for instance. We are talking about the Sepoy Mutiny in 1857. The British had issued the Sepoys, the native Indian soldiers of the Bengal Army, with new gunpowder cartridges. To load their rifles, the soldiers had to bite the cartridge first, but this simple action was considered an insult to both Hindus and Muslims, as they believed that the cartridges they were supplied with were greased with lard (pork fat) which was regarded as unclean by Muslims and tallow (cow fat) which angered the Hindus, as cows were equal to goddess to them. The Sepoys’ British officers regarded these claims unimportant, and suggested to grease a batch of the new cartridges with beeswax or mutton fat.  For the Sepoys this was evidence that the original cartridges were indeed greased with lard and tallow. Hence, a meaningless cartridge became the cause of a meaningful uprising that in all Indian History books is regarded as India’s first War of Independence.

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The Den of Christmas Spirit

cri2cri3If you watch the bright Christmas lights with eyes of wonder, while walking in the familiar streets of your city like a little child, if you get lost for hours in a mall searching for gifts to put under the tree picturing the joyful reaction of those who will receive them, if you are thrilled only at the idea of gathering around a dinner table with your family and friends or simply if you find yourself sitting at the window hoping for the snow to come ( I might actually wait for years or decades here in Rome), well, this is the spirit of Christmas that comes to visit you at this time of the year. But rather, if you are annoyed by the people who crowd in frenzy streets and shops and if you are anguished and appalled by the imminent visit of your friends and relations and if a sense of nausea arouses, just thinking at the presents you’ll have to buy or the faces you’ll have to see, or if you just don’t stand at that window, because in case it really snowed, Rome would be paralyzed and we would pay the consequences for weeks and weeks, what does that mean? That you are an insensitive, cruel, selfish human being? Not exactly. It means that you suffer from the bah humbug” syndrome. I’m not joking, this is science or better: Science with capital letter.

 cri1A group of Danish medical scientists in their own spirit of holiday fun, published a study in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) asserting that the spirit of Christmas does not actually come to visit us every year, but rather, it resides in us and precisely in our brain.That is why this tradition with its blissful and magical atmosphere has lasted for hundreds and hundreds of years. A team of researchers of Rigshospitalet hospital, in collaboration with the University of Copenhagen, set out to locate exactly where the old spirit of Christmas hides in the brain using modern MRI machinery to study the changes of oxygenation and blood flow that occur in response to neuronal activity. So, they divided participants into two groups, one of people who had strong Christmas traditions and the other with people who did not celebrate it. The latter group included Pakistani, Indian, Iraqi and Turkish people who expatriated or were born in Denmark. People who did not celebrate it, but still felt a strong connection to the holiday were excluded, as were people who did celebrate but had a negative association with it. In short, 20 people were examined while they were watching  84 images with Christmas themes alternated to scenes of everyday life. For example, they were shown a street decorated with lights and then an ordinary street. 

cri5Among the participants who were placed in first group,  the researchers  have identified five regions of the brain which lit up like Christmas trees when holiday images were shown. These regions are commonly associated with spirituality and they control the sense of touch and body language interpretation . This led the researchers to determine there is a “Christmas spirit network” in the human brain. It’s in these brain areas that the spirit of Christmas resides. Therefore, those who do not like Christmas and believe that it is all nonsense, are actually affected by what scientists call bah humbug” syndrome.  A syndrome that affects millions of people, especially adults and that could be cured.  The researchers, in fact, suggested that locating the Christmas spirit in the brain can help reverse that sad syndrome. Maybe someday there will be a complex machine that can generate the Christmas spirit in people, and why only at Christmas time? Couldn’t we enjoy it every single day of the year?
In the meantime, I wish you to fully enjoy your Christmas spirit and have a great time.
Merry Christmas.
Stefy. :)

My lover, Lord Alfred Douglas.

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Lord Alfred Douglas, nicknamed Bosie, was a young aristocrat and poet, the youngest son of the Marquess of Queensberry. He looked like an angel: fragile, with a very pale complexion, blonde hair and blue eyes, but often appearances can be deceptive and this case was no exception. The story of his relationship with Wilde began in 1892. Bosies’s  cousin, Lionel Johnson, had lent him a  copy of The Picture of Dorian Gray“, and after reading it  fourteen times in a row” he wished to be introduced to the author and so at the end of June 1891 Lionel Johnson accompanied his cousin in Tite Street and introduced him to Oscar Wilde. At the end of June 1892 Douglas needed Oscar’s help, because he was being blackmailed. Oscar, thanks to his lawyer George Lewis, solved all and since then they started to date and by the end of December 1893 they had become inseparable. The rumors about their lives ran all over London. The writer had little desire to hide that relationship and Bosie was even more eager to show it, as he wanted everyone to know that he was Oscar Wilde’ s “favorite”. In a letter to his friend Robert Ross Oscar writes:”My dearest Bobbie, Bosie has insisted on stopping here for sandwiches. He is quite like a narcissus – so white and gold (……..)Bosie is so tired: he lies like a hyacinth on the sofa, and I worship him”. Oscar was even introduced to Bosie’s mother, Lady Bracknell, and he made her one of the characters of his most popular comedy: “The Importance of Being Earnest“.

wi.3However, Bosie was not that “angel” he apparently seemed to be,  but rather,  he was usually described by his closest friends as spoiled, reckless, insolent and extravagant. He used to spend money on boys and gambling and expected Wilde to contribute to his expenses. It was Bosie who introduced Oscar to the circles of young  male prostitutes, rent boys who were readily available in spite of (or perhaps because of) the moral climate of the straight-laced Victorian Period. Wilde did nothing but follow him dispensing money, gold or silver cigarette cases and other gifts. He once said that attending these young guys was like feasting with panthers. Alfred Taylor (son of a manufacturer), Sidney Mavor (future priest), Maurice Schwabe and Freddy Atkins, Edward Shelley for a short time and Alfred Wood, a boy of seventeen, who blackmailed him obtaining 30 pounds, were some of those “panthers” who crowded Wilde’s chamber.

wi.5Since 1893 Wilde preferred to stay in a hotel to avoid scandals in order to meet freely and secretly his young lovers, but Douglas, instead, was not interested in hiding at all: he always entered from the main entrance. His friends were concerned and disappointed mainly because Bosie’s imprudent behavior exposed Oscar to very serious risks: it openly violated the “Criminal Law amendment Actof 1885 , an amendment which made “gross indecency” a crime in the United Kingdom. His friend Pierre Louys visited Wilde in the hotel with his wife Constance, who tearfully pleaded her husband to come home, but it was a failure.

wi.2Wilde’s first serious risk was the case of Philip Danney, a sixteen year old son of a colonel who on Saturday went to bed with Douglas, with Wilde on Sunday  and on Monday with a girl at Douglas’s expense. When the young man then returned to school, he was not able to produced a justification for the school days he had missed, the whole thing was discovered. His father went immediately to the police, but on the advice of his lawyer, as the guy seemed unwilling to make the name of Wilde, he realized that it was better not to act, even because his son risked to be imprisoned. After a furious fight with Oscar, Alfred Douglas left for Cairo, while Wilde hid in Paris and somehow he regained a certain serenity and he also went to applaud  the poet Paul Verlaine, who had recently been released from prison after his troubled vicissitudes with Rimbaud. At that time he also found his creativity back, as he wrote among other things The Canterville Ghost“, but the sudden return of Douglas ended his desire to write. Once again everything was as it used to be.

wi.12Alfred’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry, had tried in vain to convince his son to end the relationship, furthermore he was disappointed as Bosie had left Oxford without achieving a degree and he could not see any prospect of his taking up a proper career. He threatened to “disown [Alfred] and stop all money supplies” and to “make a public scandal ” if he continued his relationship with Wilde. Alfred ‘s answer was  “I detest you” on a postcard. It was clear that he would take Wilde’s side in a fight between him and his father. Queensberry also planned to throw rotten vegetables at Wilde during the premiere of The Importance of Being Earnest, but, forewarned of this, the playwright was able to deny him access to the theatre.Queensberry, now exacerbated, publicly insulted Wilde by leaving, at the latter’s club, a visiting card on which he had written: “For Oscar Wilde posing as a somdomite“–a misspelling of “sodomite.”

wi.11Against the advice of his closest friends, Wilde was convinced by Bosie to sue the Marquess for libel in a private prosecution. It was the wrong choice.  Queensberry was arrested, but he not only avoided conviction demonstrating in court that the charge was not true, but Wilde found himself involved in a new trial with the accusation of “gross indecency”. Witnesses, private letters, it had not been difficult to find evidence. Three days after the beginning of the trial, on April 29, Wilde wrote from prison a moving letter to Bosie, who had gone to Paris in the meanwhile. On 25 May 1895  Wilde was sentenced to two years and three months of hard labour, first at Pentonville, then Wandsworth, then in the famous Reading Gaol

wi8The prison regime was tough: the poet had serious health problems and by the way, falling awkwardly because of a collapse, he got himself a wound in his right ear that probably would cost him his life five years later, because the infection degenerated and turned into meningitis. Meanwhile, Wilde had vainly hoped for solidarity and support from his beloved Bosie, who instead had turned away from him proving coldness and callousness; the boy  even told him, during his illness, that when (he) was not on (his) pedestal (he) was not interesting.”Hurt and disgusted by the attitude of his lover, Wilde wrote from jail a very long letter entitledDe Profundis, in which he expressed his sorrow and his contempt for the vanity and the inconsistency of Lord Alfred, repudiating him formally. Wilde was not authorized to send it, so when he was released, he gave the manuscript to his friend Robert Ross, with the  instructions to send a copy to Bosie, who however denied for life to have received it.The letter was published only in 1905, five years after the poet’s death.
wi.10The prison experience had affected him deeply, since then he cultivated the dream of escaping from the world that had sentenced him and refused his way of being. He moved to France and lived in Paris for four months trying to rebuild his life and trying to forget the man who had brought him to ruin. But love is stronger than reason. He got back in touch with Douglas and  they decided to spend the winter together in Naples.The two lovers lived on Posillipo hill, at Villa Giudice. Although Wilde was traveling as Sebastian Melmoth, his arrival in the city became public soon, the news was even reported by the newspaper Il Mattino” in an article by Matilde Serao.
wi.9When they were in Capri, at the Quisisana, as soon as they sat down to dine, the owner invited them to go somewhere else as some fellow countrymen, who had recognized the poet, did not  tolerate to be in his proximity. The incident did not remain confined in the island and the two were again on everyone’s lips and the scandal forced the relatives of both to find a remedy. The British Embassy was involved and the two were deprived of their income. Wilde was thus dispossessed of his small income granted by his ex-wife, while Bosie’s funds were cut by his mother. Bosie‘s mother paid the bills of the couple, and forced him to go back home, while Wilde went to Taormina with the little money received from the mother of his lover. In February 1898 he left for Paris.

wi.6The relationship with Lord Douglas was now finished. Bosie had finally abandoned Wilde, probably for fear of being disowned by the family. In 1902, Douglas married Olive Eleanor Custance, heiress and poet. They had a son, Raymond, who suffered from a severe form of schizophrenia and died in a nursing home in 1964. The marriage ended soon in a legal separation, but there was no divorce. In the last years of his life, Douglas lived mainly thanks to his maternal inheritance. His father, in fact, had squandered much of his fortune. After the outbreak of the Second World War, he left London and took refuge with a couple of friends in Lancing, West Sussex, where he died of heart failure in 1945.

 

The Miracle of the Sun

abu 3abu 1Whenever we think about the prodigious monuments of the past like Stonehenge, the pyramids in Egypt and Mexico, The Mohai of Easter Island, for example, we cannot but see them as surrounded by an aura of magic. Some of them are huge tombs erected for the pharaohs or the rulers of the time, but for what concerns many others we may just suppose the reason why they were erected. Take the case of  Stonehenge: was it an observatory, a temple, a market place or a truce ground? Who knows? However, they were all thought to be huge as if they were meant be seen not only by people as symbol of the terrifying power of the ruler, but by somebody above, as link between the earth and the divinity. That is why they were usually built on plains, deserts or on the top of the hills: they had to be clearly visible to the gods. One clue that the builders were often with their nose up to the sky is the alignments chosen for these monuments, which seem to follow astronomical events like solstices, equinoxes or in the case of the pyramids of Giza it has been said that they “were a terrestrial map of the three stars of Orion’s belt“. One thing is for sure, the makers of the past knew the laws of nature very well, with such a degree of precision that sometimes cannot be surpassed by modern engineers with all the technological devices at their disposal. One of these cases is at Abu Simbel.

abu 4Abu Simbel is a village in Nubia, southern Egypt, near the border with Sudan.There you may find the two Abu Simbel temples, which are very likely  the most impressive, fascinating temples I have ever seen in my life ( I live in Rome, remember ;) ). They are two massive rock-cut temples situated on the western bank of Lake Nasser, about 230 km southwest of Aswan. The twin temples were originally carved out of the mountainside during the reign of Pharaoh Ramesses II in the 13th century BC, as a lasting monument to himself and his beloved queen, the beautiful Nefertari, to commemorate his victory at the Battle of Kadesh.The main temple was dedicated to two sun gods, Amen-Re and Re-Horakhte. Standing 100 feet (33 metres)  tall, the temple was carved into a sandstone mountain on the banks of the Nile. Four colossal statues of Ramses, each 66 feet (22 meters) high, guard the entrance to the temple. Rising to the pharaoh’s knees are smaller statues of family members: his mother, Nefertari, and his son . A second temple at Abu Simbel is dedicated to Nefertari and the goddess Hathor. It seems that Nefertari, who was already sick and exhausted by the long navigation down the Nile, died as soon as she entered the temple.

abu 5On passing to the interior, a shadowy light emphasizes the mysterious and evocative atmosphere of the place. Going through a vast rectangular hall flanked by eight Osiris pillars ten meters tall arranged in two rows, representing Osiris with the features of Ramses, you reach the  sanctuary, the most intimate and secret part of the temple: a small room, four meters by seven, where  the statue of the deified Ramses II  sits together with the triad of “Ptah”, “Amen-Ra” and “Harmakhis”. It is in this place that the so-called “miracle of the sun” happens: twice a year, the rising sun penetrates the heart of the mountain and illuminates the statues in the sanctuary gradually flooding them in light. It takes about twenty minutes for the light to pass. According to the ancient Egyptians, the sun rays would thus recharged of energy the figure of pharaoh. Ptah is never struck by the sun’s rays, in fact, he is the god of darkness and the dead.  This event happened twice a year, the 21st of February and the 21st of October, the former seems it was the day of Ramses’s birth, while the latter was the day he was crowned .

abu 2You have to know that the Abu Simbel temples do not sit in their original location. Because of the construction of the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s,  rising waters flooded a number of important archaeological sites along the banks of the Nile and dislodged thousands of people who lived in the area. Even the temples of Abu Simbel were threatened, therefore, Members of the United Nations Education, Science, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) coordinated a massive construction project that moved the temple back 690 feet to its present site. Piece by piece, the two temples we cut into massive blocks of sandstone up to thirty tons and were carefully reassembled on a new steel and cement “mountain,” safe from the water’s edge. And you know what? Despite the measurements, calculations, technology, well, it has not been possible to reproduce “the miracle of sun” when it was originally planned, that is, the 21st of February and October, but the days of illumination have shifted by one !! :D

 

 

The Twin Globe

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glo8In the heart of the Villa Borghese park, hidden among the trees and surrounded by a lavish vegetation, you may find one of the most unexpected sights, for sure: the Globe theatre. Yes, that Globe: a full-scale reproduction of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, copied from the original designs, and almost identical to the one that now stands on London’s South Bank. Rome’s version of the Globe was built over the course of three months and inaugurated in 2003 to celebrate the centenary of Villa Borghese. The theatre is designed in a circular shape with a stage that juts out into the middle of the audience, and an open roof (that’s why the theatre is open in the summer and early autumn seasons). It’s built of oak and has a capacity of 1250, including the standing space in front of the stage, which are, of course the cheapest places.The entire project was financed by the Silvano Toti foundation – the late Silvano Toti was a builder and patron of the arts.

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20150924_104215Gigi Proietti, one of the most outstanding Italian actors, has been the artistic director of the Silvano Toti Globe Theatre since 2003, but he has never acted in any of the plays. Of course, Elizabethan comedies and tragedies are mostly represented, in fact the special architectural features and the essentiality of the scenes allow a cathartic relationship with the works of the English Renaissance drama. I can say that for sure, as,  only few days ago I went to the Globe with some of my students and colleagues to see the morning representation of Shakespeare’s “Comedy of Errors” directed by Chris Pickels.

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When the old Bard wrote “All world is a stage“, he had not considered one little detail: in the world many languages are spoken. This edition of “The Comedy of Errors”, in fact, was the first English-speaking production at the beautiful Globe theatre in Rome, only, the public was not exactly made of native English speakers and the plot of this play not so easy to follow. The story of two pairs of twins  – masters and servants –  who not only had the same features but also the same names, Antophilus and Dromio, led to many misunderstandings not only on stage but also among the public. Tell me, who is he? Antipholus of Syracuse or Ephesus?Mah?? However, the language of art won eventually, so that everybody was able to enjoy the many very funny moments of the show. The Bard is always right, after all. 20150924_11225620150924_131812

I did love the company of actors, all of them. The Bedouin Shakespeare Company, is a touring company founded in 2012 by two enthusiastic young actors, Edward Andrews and Mark Brewer, with the patronage of the Royal Family of Abu Dhabi. Their main aim is to bring the universal themes and language of Shakespeare in the countries around the world, that’s why they were not at all uncomfortable with a non native English-speaking public. Their “Comedy of Errors”  premiered at the Silvano Toti Globe in Rome to fly out to the UAE and then finishing in London at the Arcola Theatre, November 1st. Therefore, you are still in time to enjoy a great show and don’t forget to visit the Globe, next time you come to Rome!!! :)