Tuesday, August 25, 2009

"The Farm At Laken"

I never appreciated Peter Paul Rubens until 2003, when my middle brother and I visited Munich’s Alte Pinakothek for the first time.

I remember that day vividly. It had been a beautiful Sunday morning. My brother and I had attended early service. Our plan for the rest of the day was to spend the morning at the Alte Pinakothek and the afternoon at the Bavarian National Museum.

We never made it to the Bavarian National Museum that day.

My brother and I had anticipated, inaccurately, that our visit to the Alte Pinakothek would be complete by 1:00 p.m. Our belief had been a reasonable one, since the main galleries of the Alte Pinakothek consist only of nine large exhibition rooms, alongside which are a series of smaller exhibition rooms. Anyone looking at the floor plan of the museum might easily conclude that a half-day would provide more than ample time in which to view the permanent collection.

It does not. Virtually every painting in the collection is a top-tier masterpiece, and it requires a full day to get through the collection, as my brother and I were to learn.

By the fourth room of the Alte Pinakothek (which is the second of the nine large exhibition rooms), my brother and I were falling to the floor, gasping for breath. We were encountering so many major masterpieces, one after another, in succession, that our heads were spinning.

My brother and I made it through half of the collection before we were overwhelmed and had to stop for lunch. We went downstairs to the museum restaurant and ordered a full lunch, excitedly discussing what we had just witnessed. After lunch, we returned upstairs and resumed our visit to the collection, picking up where we had left off.

The first room we visited in the afternoon was the large exhibition room lined with Rubens and Rembrandt paintings, all oversized, with one or two Van Dyck paintings thrown in for good measure. This was the room in which hangs “Rubens And Isabella Brant In The Bower Of Honeysuckle”. My brother and I fell in love with the painting instantly.

Until I encountered “Rubens And Isabella Brant In The Bower Of Honeysuckle”, I had never liked Rubens’s work. At the time, I had always viewed Rubens as a painter prone to Baroque excess. For me, Rubens was typified by his giant allegorical paintings, such as the twenty-four massive canvases (now in the Louvre) commissioned by Marie De Medicis for the Luxembourg Palace in Paris, canvases that never appealed to me because I saw them only as overstuffed, overdone, overwrought conceits. (And, in my defense, I must note that the Marie De Medicis paintings were created not by Rubens himself but by craftsmen in Rubens’s workshop—although the craftsmen had worked from Rubens’s own oil sketches.)

Seeing the affecting double portrait of Rubens and his bride at the Alte Pinakothek that Sunday afternoon in 2003, I was able fully to appreciate Rubens for the first time. That single painting made me look at Rubens in a new light, and to begin to appreciate his limitless genius.

It was after that visit to the Alte Pinakothek that I engaged in some serious reading about Rubens the man and Rubens the artist. From my reading, I learned, among many other things, that paintings in Rubens’s own hand were entirely different in quality from paintings created in Rubens’s workshop.

The men working in Rubens’s workshop painted to order. They were, more or less, in the commodity business, albeit an up-market commodity business.

Whenever Rubens himself picked up a brush, he worked for his own pleasure and satisfaction.

He was an artist.

Among things I have learned in the past six years, I have learned never to be disappointed in a painting in Rubens’s own hand.

In 2007, when we visited The Picture Gallery at Buckingham Palace, we examined another great Rubens masterpiece, entirely in his own hand, and in a genre mostly unassociated with the great Flemish master: landscape painting.

Rubens was a great landscape painter, but there is very little evidence of this in the U.S. Few Americans even realize that Rubens was a master of the genre, and this is because there are few, if any, first-rate examples of Rubens landscape paintings in American public collections. Most Rubens landscape paintings remain in Europe—and in private collections, no less, seldom seen by the public.

The Royal Collection owns several Rubens landscape paintings, but the only one on view during the 2007 Summer Opening at Buckingham Palace was “Milkmaid With Cattle In A Landscape”, now more often known as “The Farm At Laken”.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640)
Milkmaid With Cattle In A Landscape (“The Farm At Laken”)
The Royal Collection, London

Oil On Canvas
34 3/8 Inches By 50 3/4 Inches

“The Farm At Laken” is generally considered to be the prize among Rubens landscape paintings in The Royal Collection.

It is one of Rubens’s earliest works in the genre, but also one of his finest. It provides evidence that, once Rubens embarked upon a new genre, he was able to master it fully and immediately.

Rubens painted landscapes for his own pleasure. Indeed, in the very last years of his life, excepting a few family paintings, Rubens painted landscapes and nothing but landscapes—and always for his own pleasure.

Rubens’s landscape paintings were not commissioned, and they were not sold. Rubens generally kept his landscape paintings for himself, or offered them as highly-prized gifts to his closest personal friends. All Rubens landscape paintings are entirely in the artist’s own hand, which cannot be said of any other genre of his work. Even Rubens family paintings were sometimes farmed out, in whole or in part, to assistants.

Based upon ancient correspondence, there is some evidence that “The Farm At Laken” hung in the Rubens family dining room during the artist’s lifetime. Such would suggest that the painting was one of Rubens’s very favorite examples of his own work.

A remarkable degree of activity is portrayed in the painting without the canvas appearing in the least overcrowded. The painting is appealing at first glance—yet prolonged examination offers multiple rewards not apparent unless one spends time with the work. A wealth of interesting detail emerges, from the Classical poses of the two female figures in the foreground—borrowed from one of the artist’s own contemporaneous Classical paintings—to the farmer plowing in the distant field. Incident is everywhere.

The artist’s theme is the bounteous nature of the seasons. Fruits and vegetables are being gathered for the winter, while at the same time a distant field is being prepared for spring planting, on which occasion the whole cycle will begin anew.

Scholars have ascertained that the topography and church portrayed in the painting were painted from life. It is now known that Rubens painted this canvas immediately outside the Belgian village today known as Laken (which is how the painting acquired its modern name).

While the church in the background no longer stands, it survived into the 20th Century. It was a critical piece of evidence in permitting scholars to identify the particular landscape that inspired Rubens.

As an example of landscape painting, “The Farm At Laken” is fully worthy of the pure landscape painter. It is the equal of anything by Claude Lorrain or John Constable.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

"The Family Of Jan Brueghel The Elder"

Perhaps the most restrained of all paintings by Peter Paul Rubens—and another painting known to have been painted entirely in Rubens’s own hand—is “The Family Of Jan Brueghel The Elder”. Rubens created the painting as a gift for his close friend, one of Antwerp’s most successful artists.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640)
The Family Of Jan Brueghel The Elder
The Courtauld Institute Of Art, London

Oil On Canvas
50 Inches By 38 Inches

The date of the painting is a source of some dispute. The current owner of the painting, The Courtauld Institute Of Art in London, suggests that the painting was completed in 1613, which is surely an inaccurate date.

Since the painting portrays Brueghel, his second wife, Catherina Van Marienberghe, and their two oldest offspring, the painting may be dated by the apparent ages of the children. Elisabeth and Peter appear to be five and six years old, respectively, so the painting must certainly date from 1615.

“The Family Of Jan Brueghel The Elder” is one of the greatest treasures to be seen at The Courtauld. The painting overwhelms anything else displayed in the same room.

When we last saw the painting, in 2007, it overwhelmed nearby paintings by, among others, Giovanni Bellini, Anthony Van Dyck and Rembrandt Van Rijn. Nothing else in the room could compete for the viewer’s attention with “The Family Of Jan Brueghel The Elder”.

Brueghel and his family are portrayed, deliberately, as members of Antwerp’s prosperous and respectable middle class. In the painting, Rubens intended to demonstrate that artists were the social and professional equals of physicians, lawyers, notaries and courtiers—and that they were entitled to the same level of respect.

Brueghel and Catherina are attired in black, demonstrating grave dignity and respectability about their persons. In contrast, the couple’s children are dressed much more colorfully.

Brueghel hovers over his family at the back of the canvas, wearing a solemn black hat; the suggestion is that he is enveloping his family in fatherly kindness. Catherina has one hand around Peter, while her other hand meets one hand of Peter and both hands of Elisabeth. This meeting of hands occurs in the very center of the canvas and is meant to portray familial love and devotion, a parallel with “Rubens And Isabella Brant In The Bower Of Honeysuckle”.

Each member of the family is shown wearing a completely different ruff, and each member of the family is shown to possess an individual personality. Even five-year-old Elisabeth, known in life for her shyness, is portrayed as unique, the only sitter afraid to look out from the canvas, with both small hands reaching out for the protective hands of her mother.

Rubens’s portrait of this warm and loving family does more than provide posterity with its best-known image of one of the great painters of the day—it has come to represent the familial ideal of 17th-Century Flanders, a time and place known for its embrace of close family ties.

The devoted family portrayed so nobly in “The Family Of Jan Brueghel The Elder” was not to last.

A cholera epidemic struck Antwerp in 1625. Of the four Brueghel family members portrayed in Rubens’s great painting, only Catherina was to survive the outbreak.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

"Rubens And Isabella Brant In The Bower Of Honeysuckle"

Perhaps my favorite Peter Paul Rubens painting anywhere is “Rubens And Isabella Brant In The Bower Of Honeysuckle”, a painting I was able to see again while we were in Munich.

The clarity of the painting comes across fully in the photograph above.

The richness of the painting comes across fully in the photograph at the end of this post.

“Rubens And Isabella Brant In The Bower Of Honeysuckle” is one of countless Rubens paintings on display in Munich’s Alte Pinakothek, which owns one of the world’s largest caches of Rubens masterpieces.

The painting is one of the most charming and irresistible paintings ever created. Painted in 1609, the year of Rubens’s marriage to Brant, the painting is a full-length double portrait of the young couple, probably created immediately before the marriage. Some scholars have speculated that the portrait was intended as a gift for Brant’s parents.

Aside from the honeysuckle, which may have been painted by Jan Brueghel The Elder, a master of flower painting and a close friend of Rubens, the painting is entirely in Rubens’s own hand.

Most Rubens paintings in the U.S. are not in Rubens’s hand. Most such paintings were created in Rubens’s workshop by his army of assistants, to whom Rubens would issue general instructions. When the assistants were done with their work, Rubens would add finishing touches himself.

Paintings created by Rubens’s assistants are much more variable in quality than paintings in Rubens’s hand alone.

Paintings in Rubens’s own hand are—invariably—stunning. They carry an individuality and a flourish that his workshop paintings could not possibly match. The richness and subtlety of color in Rubens's own paintings could never be duplicated by assistants. Moreover, owing to his virtuoso brush technique, Rubens was able to provide his own canvases with a level of finish that was much more sophisticated than assistants could ever learn to render.

Paintings in Ruben’s own hand are among the greatest paintings ever set on canvas. They are the works of a genius of the highest order.

I am privileged to have seen many of these masterpieces in different museums and galleries throughout Europe. Rubens was surely the greatest of all masters of the oil medium.

In “Rubens And Isabella Brant In The Bower Of Honeysuckle”, the devotion of the young couple is immediately apparent, capturing the viewer’s attention in an instant.

In life, the couple’s devotion was equally genuine and deep. They were to live happily and peaceably together for seventeen fulfilling years.

Isabella’s premature death in 1626 ended the marital bliss. In grief, Rubens ceased painting for almost one full year.

At the time of his marriage, Rubens was an impossibly dashing young man. His relaxed, confident pose and jaunty dress reveal him to be a man full of self-assurance and energy. However, there is not a whiff of swagger or arrogance in the young man in the portrait, despite his world-renowned talents—and Rubens certainly was entitled to display a degree of arrogance now and then, given that he was showered with enough artistic and non-artistic gifts to have been distributed among fifty men.

Isabella was a young, inexperienced woman at the time of her betrothal. She is portrayed as a sweet, gentle innocent, ready to devote her life to the handsome man that has captured her heart. In the painting, it is Isabella’s clothing that is perhaps more individual than Isabella the woman, and this is somehow fitting, given Isabella’s youth and sheltered upbringing.

The richness and finery of Isabella’s clothing are among the glories of the painting. Capturing contrasting textures of cloth was always a Rubens specialty, and this particular talent is nowhere more apparent than in this painting. Of special note, in the painting, the gold stripes on Isabella’s skirt look like gold appliqué, although Rubens used nothing but oils to capture the look and brilliance of gold.

The very center of the painting, purposefully, shows the young couple’s intertwined hands, a sign of their love and devotion.

It is an indescribably touching work of art.

It is also one of the great artistic treasures of our world.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640)
Rubens And Isabella Brant In The Bower Of Honeysuckle
Alte Pinakothek, Munich

Oil On Canvas
70 Inches By 54 Inches

Friday, August 21, 2009

The War Effort

But the fact was that the fall of Singapore had left [Churchill] angry and depressed. A force of 100,000 British soldiers had lain down their arms, despite outnumbering the Japanese invasion force four to one. “They should have done better,” he lamented.

What use was it, that he himself displayed a warrior's spirit before the world, if those who fought in Britain's name showed themselves incapable of matching his rhetoric?

He was not alone in his poor opinion of Britain's fighting men. The chief of the general staff, General Sir Alan Brooke, wrote in his diary: “If the Army cannot fight better than it is doing at the present, we shall deserve to lose our Empire.”

Nor was the judgment a new one. Back in 1941, following defeats in Greece, Crete and North Africa, Sir Alexander Cadogan of the Foreign Office wrote: “Our soldiers are the most pathetic amateurs, pitted against professionals. The Germans are magnificent fighters, veritable masters of warfare. We shall learn, but it will be a long and bloody business.”

A year had gone by since then and, with the fall of Singapore, Cadogan added: “Our Army is the mockery of the world!”

It was the absence of any scintilla of heroic endeavour at Singapore, any evidence of last-ditch sacrifice of the kind with which British armies through the centuries had so often redeemed the pain of defeats, that shocked Churchill.

There was no legend to match that of Rorke's Drift in Zululand or the defence of Mafeking in the Boer War, only abject defeat—surrender to a numerically inferior enemy who had proved themselves better and braver soldiers.

He was confident that America's recent entry into the war would enable Britain to survive. But how could the nation hold up its head in the world, be seen to have made a worthy contribution to victory, if the British Army covered itself with shame whenever exposed to a battle?

The bigger problem for Churchill was in the United States—the ally who had only just joined the war against Hitler but was crucial if victory was to be won. There, a perception was growing that Britain was too yellow to fight. This worried Churchill because he suspected it might be true.


There were similar concerns voiced about the workings of the Home Front. If his fighting men were letting him down, then Churchill had reason to believe he was not getting the best out of the country's civilians either.

The majority of the British people remained staunch and united in their war effort. Yet class tensions ran deep. Few workers broke ranks during the Dunkirk and Battle of Britain periods, but as those crises receded, there was less urgency about the struggle for national survival.

In 1942, amid the continuing military defeats, a weariness and cynicism pervaded the country. Industrial unrest and strikes revealed fissures in the fabric of national unity which are seldom acknowledged.

To be fair, many wartime industries achieved remarkable results. The Labour politician and War Cabinet member, Ernest Bevin, mobilised the population, and especially the women, more effectively than any other belligerent nation, save possibly Russia. At the same time, some factories suffered from poor management, outdated production methods, lack of quality control and a recalcitrant work-force.

These were shortcomings that had hampered the nation's economic progress through the previous half-century, but they were not resolved by the war.

Strikes were officially outlawed, but the legislation failed to prevent wildcat stoppages in coal pits, shipyards and aircraft plants, often in support of absurd or avaricious demands. Some trades unionists adopted a shameless view that there was no better time to secure higher pay than during a national emergency, when the need for continuous production was compelling.

Nine thousand men at Vickers-Armstrong walked out in Barrow in a dispute over piecework rates. When a tribunal found against them, the strikers still refused to resume work and the dispute dragged on for weeks.

Lesser stoppages were over the use of women riveters, and refusal by management to allow collections for the Red Army during working hours.

In the engineering and shipbuilding industries in 1942, 526,000 working days were lost to strikes, rising to a million in 1944. In the aircraft industry, 1.8 million days were lost in 1943, rising to 3.7 million in 1944. All of this suggests a less than wholehearted commitment to the war effort in some factories.

Nor was it confined to labour relations. In dockyards, workers were guilty of systematic pilferage, including lifeboat rations. U.S. seamen arriving in Britain were shocked by the attitudes they encountered as trucks and tanks were damaged by reckless handling during offloading.

Max Hastings
The Finest Years: Churchill As Warlord 1940-1945

To Be Published In The United Kingdom On September 3, 2009
To Be Published In Canada On October 15, 2009
To Be Published In Australia On November 1, 2009
Publication In The United States Not Yet Arranged

Friday, August 14, 2009

"We Must Keep Him Fresh . . ."

By the end of April [1940], it was plain that the allies faced defeat in Norway. Churchill himself [as First Lord Of The Admiralty] bore much of the responsibility. He had asked of Britain's armed forces far more than they were capable of delivering.

But Neville Chamberlain was prime minister. It was he who, in the eyes of the British people, had presided over a disaster. On May 7, 1940, the House of Commons met to debate the Norway debacle. Chamberlain sounded bitter, petulant, beaten.

When a vote was called the following night, 33 Tories voted against their own party, and a further 60 abstained. Though Chamberlain retained a parliamentary majority, it was plain that his Conservative government had lost the nation's confidence. This was not merely the consequence of the Norway fiasco, but because through eight fumbling months most of its ministers had exposed their lack of stomach for war.

An all-party coalition was indispensable. Labour would not serve under Chamberlain. Winston Churchill became Britain's prime minister following a meeting between himself, Chamberlain, Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax and Tory Chief Whip David Margesson on the afternoon of May 9, at which Halifax declared his own unsuitability for the post, as a member of the House of Lords who would be obliged to delegate direction of the war to Churchill in the Commons.

In truth, some expedient might have been adopted to allow the Foreign Secretary to return to the Commons. But Halifax possessed sufficient self-knowledge to recognize that no more than Neville Chamberlain did he possess the stuff of a war leader.

The historian David Reynolds has observed that when the Gallipoli campaign failed in 1915, many people wished to blame Churchill. After Norway nobody did.

“It was a marvel,” Churchill wrote in an unpublished draft of his war memoirs. “I really do not know how I survived and maintained my position in public esteem while all the blame was thrown on poor Mr. Chamberlain.”

The British people showed themselves much wiser than the old ruling class, by applauding the change as most of the grandees did not. They understood that Winston Churchill, alone among their politicians, was the man for the hour.

He himself may have perceived his good fortune that he had not acceded to the premiership in earlier years, or even earlier months of the war. Had he done so, it is likely that by May 1940 his country would have tired of the excesses which he would surely have committed, while being no more capable than Chamberlain of stemming the tide of fate on the Continent.

Back in 1935, Stanley Baldwin explained his unwillingness to appoint Churchill to his own Cabinet: “If there is going to be a war—and who can say there is not?—we must keep him fresh to be our war Prime Minister.”

Max Hastings
The Finest Years: Churchill As Warlord 1940-1945

To Be Published In The United Kingdom On September 3, 2009
To Be Published In Canada On October 15, 2009
To Be Published In Australia On November 1, 2009
Publication In The United States Not Yet Arranged


Thank you, Mr. and Mrs. Ferguson, for your kind and thoughtful gift.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Barry Strauss's Trojan War

For centuries, the events portrayed in “The Iliad” were accepted as myth, believed to have had only the most tenuous basis—if that—in actual events from antiquity.

Homer’s epic poem of gods and goddesses, love and hate, retribution and honor, was acknowledged to constitute a rollicking-good tale, but the story itself was assumed to have had no foundation in historic personages or events.

The main event in “The Iliad” was, of course, The Trojan War—and, until the late 19th Century, The Trojan War was accepted as a purely imaginary conflagration.

Scholarly assessments of the myth-versus-reality aspect of The Trojan War began to change in the 1870’s, when amateur German archeologist Heinrich Schliemann, during an archeological expedition in Western Turkey, stumbled upon the ruins of an ancient city. After only a few months of digging, Schliemann announced to the world that he had discovered the lost city of Troy.

Archeologists from all over Europe rushed to the scene of Schliemann’s “discovery”, and within weeks were able to confirm that Schliemann had indeed uncovered a great ancient city, a city that in many particulars matched the description of Troy provided by Homer himself almost three thousand years earlier. Even the surrounding topography matched the topography detailed by the author of “The Iliad”.

More curious still, archeologists were able to ascertain that the buried city had been destroyed in a disastrous and cataclysmic fire occurring coincident with a military battle sometime around 1200 B.C. These findings were consistent with the manner of the city’s destruction and the time period portrayed in Homer’s epic poem.

Excavations at Troy have continued for the last 140 years. For over a century, most—but not all—Classics scholars have accepted Schliemann’s site as the city of Troy (stone tablets discovered at the site within the last twenty years bear the name of the city in Hittite, the language in use in Anatolia during the time of The Trojan War).

The rediscovery of Troy required a reexamination of the basis of the Homeric epic. Within a few years of the onset of archeological diggings at Troy, the existence of The Trojan War became an accepted historic event, freed from the chains of myth and enshrined as a genuine—and seminal—event in Western Civilization.

In short, based solely upon archeology at Troy, The Trojan War was elevated from mythology to history by Classics scholars. The Trojan War has been accepted as a real occurrence ever since (although there have always been a few holdouts).

Other than the writings of Homer, and other than the archeological finds that have been uncovered at Troy, very little is known about The Trojan War. Enormous feats of conjecture and guesswork typify the standard histories of the conflict.

Barry Strauss’s “The Trojan War: A New History” attempts to bring Trojan scholarship up to date (Strauss’s massive bibliography is the most valuable portion of his publication), presenting a one-volume treatment of the war, its causes, and its denouement.

Alas, in analyzing The Trojan War, Strauss must resort to conjecture as much as any other Classics scholar—and, to my taste, Strauss often goes too far.

Trying to bring his story to life by the incorporation of mundane detail about life in Greece and Anatolia circa 1200 B.C., Strauss frequently enters the realm of pure fiction. He tells the reader, for example, what clothing Helen Of Troy wore (down to the multi-hued colors of her garments), the jewelry with which she adorned herself, how she coiffed her hair, and the scent of her perfumes. All such details are pure guesswork on Strauss’s part, without foundation or support in historical record.

Strauss seems especially intrigued by the clothing worn in 1200 B.C., whether by the Greeks or by the Trojans, and he harps on this issue at length—a very secondary consideration for his story, all in all—as if a discussion of clothing might bring long-forgotten civilizations to life.

Further, Strauss, like a novelist, actually ascribes states of mind to various principle characters. The reader is told, for instance, what Helen Of Troy was “thinking” and “feeling” at various times in the story, such as when she absconded with Paris to Troy. Such matters are best left in the hands of romance novelists.

Strauss also invokes modern comparisons inaptly. He is especially fond of comparing historic figures with modern counterparts, and these comparisons are often bizarre. (One such instance is the likening of an ancient Greek ruler and his wife to—of all persons—Argentina’s Juan and Eva Peron!) These comparisons do not ring true, and add nothing of value to the presentation of historic figures.

Alarmingly, on occasion Strauss gets detail wrong. Inaccurate detail inevitably makes the reader question the accuracy of scholarship.

Some of the inaccurate detail was dumbfounding. My favorite example was Strauss’s misnaming Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, whom Strauss assigned the Christian name Ernst. Goodness!

I do not wish to make too much of such faults. What is good about the book far exceeds what is bad.

Of overriding importance, Strauss attempts to separate fact from fiction in the story set forth in “The Iliad”. This is the greatest value of his book.

Strauss asserts, quite reasonably, that the cause of The Trojan War was not Helen Of Troy’s great beauty but the fact that Helen and Paris had raided Sparta’s treasury and moved it to Troy.

Strauss’s argument that the number of ships sailing forth from Greece—more than one thousand in Homer’s telling—was a gross exaggeration, pure poetic license on Homer’s part, is similarly quite reasonable.

Strauss also ascribes to poetic license Homer’s claim that The Trojan War lasted ten years. Strauss argues, weakly, I believe, that “ten years” simply meant “a very long time” in Homer’s day, and that The Trojan War in fact lasted only a fraction of a decade.

I think Strauss is not on solid ground in making this claim. The Trojan War was the World War II of its era. Even with 20th-Century technology and transportation, World War II required six years to resolve. Given the primitive technology and transportation of The Bronze Age, for The Trojan War to have lasted as long as ten years would have been entirely unremarkable.

Other claims by Strauss are weaker still.

Among the most absurd: Strauss’s analysis of the power and accuracy of archery during The Bronze Age, an analysis that is risible. Strauss’s claims about the art and power of the longbow in 1200 B.C.—which he believes to have been considerable—are impossible to accept by anyone who has studied the technology of archery at Agincourt.

Most controversial of all is Strauss’s assertion that there was no Trojan Horse. Strauss argues that The Trojan Horse was nothing more than a literary device on Homer’s part. Strauss contends that Homer invented The Trojan Horse, intending it to stand as a metaphor for trickery and deception.

To me, this particular claim does not ring true.

Since Homer was writing for an audience knowledgeable about The Trojan War, it is unlikely that Homer would have created from whole cloth such a significant incident, let alone an incident upon which the final denouement of his tale hinged.

I also question whether Homer—who was Greek, and writing for Greeks, the victors in The Trojan War—would have fabricated what was a major turning point in his nation’s history, and have done so purely in the pursuit of literary metaphor. Such a claim strikes me as nonsensical.

“The Trojan War: A New History” is a very frustrating book.

It presents, cogently, what we know about the war from Homer and from modern excavations. The narrative is lively, and the story moves, making the book accessible to non-scholars.

Much of the book’s fabric, however, is fiction, a result of the author attempting to flesh out characters and bring to life for the general reader The Bronze Age. These maneuvers, reader-friendly though they may be, mar the book as a work of scholarship.

I suspect that Strauss’s volume is best treated as a curious reader’s contemporary supplement to “The Iliad”—and I suspect that such is exactly what his publisher wanted.

Nonetheless, I doubt that “The Trojan War” will prove to be of lasting value (other than its exhaustive bibliography). Further, I predict that Strauss, twenty years from now, will wish that he had never written the book.


A prime undercurrent of “The Trojan War: A New History” is the author’s belief that The Trojan War possesses great relevance for today’s world.

Strauss does not strike this theme with a sledgehammer, but the book makes clear that Strauss passionately believes that The Trojan War offers lessons that contemporary decision-makers would be wise to heed.

Strauss portrays the war between the Greeks and the Trojans as a war between rich and poor, civilized and uncivilized, advanced and primitive.

In Strauss’s eyes, the Trojans were wealthy, civilized, advanced and worthy, while the Greeks were poor, uncivilized, primitive—and highly envious of Trojan wealth, culture and power. Indeed, in Strauss’s telling, Greeks were practically barbarians when compared with the people of Troy.

How does a successful society whose wealth and culture provoke strong envy and resentment among its rivals manage to survive in precarious times?

Addressing this difficult question is the subtext of Strauss’s entire volume. In fact, I suspect that Strauss would like to write a book devoted to this very subject.

Troy fell for a variety of reasons. While Homer ascribes Troy’s fall to the actions of gods and goddesses who repeatedly intervened upon mere mortals (on both sides) throughout the course of the war, Strauss attributes Troy’s fall to its inability to understand the nature of the threat it faced and to act accordingly.

Compared to the Trojans, in Strauss’s telling the Greeks were “thugs”, “fanatics” and “warriors”, prepared to engage in tactics unthinkable to the more civilized Trojans.

In contrast, Troy lacked the tough, hardened diplomacy and warfare necessary to prevail against its more primitive (and perhaps more determined) rival, or so Strauss suggests. Even more fatally, Strauss contends that Troy lacked cunning, a vital component of a winning strategy in any lengthy military engagement.

Strauss does not set forth so much as allow readers to invoke for themselves parallels between the Greek/Trojan conflict circa 1200 B.C. and today’s wars—variously cold, warm and hot—between Western democracies and Islamic radicals.

Nonetheless, it is unmistakable that Strauss harbors grave concerns about the West’s ability and resolve to wage war against barbarians. He implies that willpower and fortitude, as well as belief in the rightness of one’s cause, are necessary elements to bring a long-term conflict to a successful resolution—and he further implies that the West may lack such qualities.

“Soft power” was not successful in ancient times, and is unlikely to be successful today.

Such is the unspoken assumption threaded throughout Strauss’s text.

That, perhaps, is the primary lesson Strauss wants readers to take from “The Trojan War”.


Strauss is an author worth reading. Professor Of History and Classics at Cornell, he has authored several books—as well as numerous scholarly papers—in his chosen field.

I plan to read Strauss’s “The Battle Of Salamis” and “The Spartacus War” in the very near future.

I suspect that those two volumes are not geared toward the “mass audience” as much as “The Trojan War” and, as a result, will be more grounded in ancient texts and less prone to vivid speculation.

I had never previously encountered Strauss.

My father had purchased “The Trojan War: A New History” in 2006, the year in which the book was first published, but he had never read the book. He had skimmed it for half an hour, and had decided that the book was not worth his time.

I took “The Trojan War” with me on our trip—I thought it might be suitable reading for our long flights as well as for down time (if we had any)—and I found the book to be worthwhile if problematic.

As a consequence, and on my recommendation, my father is now going to read “The Trojan War”.

Addendum Of 2 November 2009: A further item of note on "The Trojan War: A New History" appears here.

Monday, August 10, 2009

"Don Giovanni" At Theater An Der Wien

While we were in Vienna, we attended a performance of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” at Theater An Der Wien.

For us, the attraction was the theater itself more than the opera performance, although I always welcome the chance to hear “Don Giovanni”, perhaps the greatest opera ever written.

Theater An Der Wien is one of the most historic theaters in all of Europe—and one of the most beautiful, too, at least in its refurbished state.

The first proprietor of the theater was Emanuel Schikaneder, friend of Mozart, librettist of “The Magic Flute”, and originator of the role of Papageno.

Beethoven’s first version of “Fidelio” premiered at Theater An Der Wien, as did four Beethoven symphonies (numbers 2, 3, 5 and 6) as well as Beethoven’s Violin Concerto and Piano Concerto No. 4.

Schubert’s music for “Rosamunde” was first heard in Theater An Der Wien.

Johann Strauss’s “Die Fledermaus” and Franz Lehar’s “The Merry Widow” received their first performances in the theater, as did numerous other light operas by composers such as Karl Millocker, Carl Zeller, Richard Heuberger and Oscar Strauss.

Between 1945 and 1955, Theater An Der Wien served as home of the Wiener Staatsoper while the famed opera house was being rebuilt after destruction during the war.

Joshua’s mother very much had wanted to attend an opera performance while we were in Vienna, and “Don Giovanni” was our only option. The Wiener Staatsoper and the Wiener Volksoper are always closed during the month of August. I had assumed that Theater An Der Wien would be closed during the month of August, too—but when Josh and I checked the theater’s website, we saw that a run of performances of “Don Giovanni” was scheduled to begin on August 1 and that the second of six performances would coincide with our stay in Vienna. We snapped up tickets as soon as online booking opened, knowing that the performances would be sure to sell out.

For the last three years, Theater An Der Wien has once again become a venue for opera, mounting nine or ten productions each year in stagione. Its productions feature international-level conductors, singers, designers and directors. With Theater An Der Wien now offering opera presentations, Vienna effectively has three opera companies, just like Berlin, although guest choruses and guest orchestras are engaged for all Theater An Der Wien productions. (The Arnold Schonberg Choir and the Austrian Radio Orchestra had been engaged for “Don Giovanni”). The quality of productions at Theater An Der Wien is thought to rival the quality of productions at the nearby Staatsoper.

Sparks must have flown at rehearsals for this production of “Don Giovanni” because, three days before the production was scheduled to open, the original conductor was replaced.

Vienna newspapers reported that conductor Rinaldo Alessandrini had to cancel all “Don Giovanni” performances because of a “short-term illness”—but, in Viennese-speak, a “short-term illness” means that Alessandrini was asked to leave the production. Alessandrini, clearly, had fought with the orchestra or the stage director or one or more of the singers—and, just as clearly, had been the losing party in the battle. Riccardo Frizza was the replacement conductor.

Frizza would hardly be my first choice as a “Don Giovanni” conductor—but then neither would Alessandrini.

Frizza’s leadership on August 4 was not good. It was, fundamentally, not “Mozartean”.

Mozart’s sublime harmonies and modulations amounted to absolutely nothing under Frizza’s baton. The bar-by-bar shifts in mood from sunniest sparkle to darkest despair were absent in Frizza’s music-making, as was any sense of drama and forward momentum. Mozart’s music simply bounced along, pleasant but uneventful, like music from the Galant period. Frizza might as well have been conducting Quantz.

Absent effective leadership from the pit, there is no point in performing a Mozart opera. Vocalists alone, no matter how good, cannot possibly save a performance. All they can do is manage to offer a well-sung number here and there.

And that’s pretty much what the Theater An Der Wien audience encountered: some fine individual numbers interspersed in an otherwise unremarkable musical fabric.

Theater An Der Wien’s cast was a good one.

Erwin Schrott sang Don Giovanni. Hanno Muller-Brachmann sang Leporello. Bernard Richter sang Don Ottavio, Markus Butter sang Masetto, and Attila Jun sang the Commendatore.

Aleksandra Kurzak (in magnificent voice) sang Donna Anna. Veronique Gens sang Donna Elvira. Nina Bernsteiner sang Zerlina.

This was as fine a roster of singers as might be assembled, anywhere, for “Don Giovanni”. It was regrettable that such a fine array of singers had to contend with such inadequate support from the pit.

When we had ordered our tickets online, Josh and I had gotten into our heads the notion that Theater An Der Wien’s “Don Giovanni” was to be a new production.

We were mistaken. This “Don Giovanni” was not a new production. It was a revival of a Keith Warner production premiered in Vienna in 2006 and shared with The Royal Danish Opera in Copenhagen.

The physical production, cheap and unattractive, was set in the corridors of a modern hotel. Predictably, doors opened and closed constantly as in a Feydeau farce. This device instantly became tiresome.

Attempts at humor were broad, not pointed. Class distinctions between characters were conveyed in the heavy-handed manner typical of the current crop of British stage directors, who invariably turn everything into John Osborne’s “Look Back In Anger”. The production was unbelievably inept.

Persons encountering Mozart’s masterpiece for the first time would have departed Theater An Der Wien shaking their heads in disbelief, wondering how “Don Giovanni” could possibly have held the stage for more than two centuries.

And such was precisely the reaction of Josh’s mother . . .and father . . .and sister . . .and brother . . .and Josh himself.

I felt like I had to apologize to everyone at the conclusion of the performance for dragging them to such a gruesome presentation, wasting their time if not actually ruining one of only two evenings we spent in Vienna.

I do not understand how Warner gets work. He is as untalented a director as I have ever encountered.

Warner’s reputation in the U.S. is very low. Indeed, the only Warner American engagements I can recall were back in the 1990’s. All were at minor opera venues such as Boston, Charleston, Cooperstown . . .and Saint Paul.

Warner was invited to direct a Minnesota Opera production of “Carmen” in the early 1990’s and, inexplicably, he was invited back to direct a Minnesota Opera production of “The Flying Dutchman” in the late 1990’s. Both productions were disasters, conspicuous examples of crassness and tastelessness.

I do not believe that Warner has worked in the U.S. since.

That is a good thing.

The man is a hack.