Sunday, October 18, 2009

Trieste Day 3

Up early for a short walk to Maximillian’s Castle on the coast, Miramare. Built in the late 19th century by Maxmillian, it sits on a promontory the views from inside are of the sea on all three sides. Inside there’s a suite of rooms built like a ship’s cabin to make Maximillian, the mariner, feel at home. Other than this it’s the standard royal palace with a heavy dose of Northern, Austrian restraint. The gardens are wonderful, with a mix of natural woodland and formal vistas that sweep down to the Adriatic sea. It’s full of exotic botanical plants and trees.

There’s also a bird sanctuary which specialises in humming birds. Destruction of the tropical forest is putting many species at risk, so they’re studying and breeding them here in Italy. There’s around 350 species up and down the Americas from Canada in the North to the southern tip of South America. You get to walk inside a greenhouse and see them fly around your head. They fly differently from other species in that they can hover, even fly backwards, like tiny helicopters. They have to feed on nectar every 20 minutes or they die, as their heart beats at over 1200 beats per minute. Other species included sun birds, Royal Starlings, a Pelican, Flamingo, Cranes, Parrots and so on.

Bus back to Trieste Airport, which has about one flight per hour. I was the only person in the business lounge Got to hand it to Ryanair – cheap, on time and, if you sit in the emergency seats (easy to get – just board at back of plane, plenty of leg room.

Trieste Day 2

Plenty of time before my second lecture in the afternoon, so I listened to some interesting stuff about Creative Commons, recording lectures for re-use by students etc.

Late afternoon I got a lift into Trieste by another speaker. The road into town down the coast follows a lovely promenade that goes on for miles. The city is orderly with a grid of pedestrianised shopping streets and a single canal that cuts into the heart of the city centre. The church at the far end is a sort of Palladian Villa/Pantheon affair and quite ill-proportioned.

We all met in the main square (biggest in Europe apparently) which is open on one side to the sea. Everyone and everything on this coast looks to the sea. The canal, main square, Miramare Castle, the promenades and the boats - they're everywhere. It's the light that gives the place its
Sunny but chilly so went for a Cappuccino in one of those Viennese-like Cafes. Then for dinner next to the short canal followed by a gelato from the best gelato place in town!

Trieste Day 1

Stansted to Trieste, passing over the snow-covered Alps, the Dolomites and the plain in North Eastern Italy. Then a bus down the beautiful Adriatic coast to Gregnano, with the sea on my right hand side. Like the Amalfi coast it’s a green and white, wooded limestone landscape with the sun reflecting off the surface of the sea all afternoon.
Arrived just in time to set up, test my video, listen to William (from Glasgow curiously) give his lecture, before I started. The audience was largely people from developing countries, Zambia, Zimbabwe, S Africa, Egypt, Thailand, India, Sri Lanka and so on, whereas the lecturers were all Anglo-Saxon European or North American bods. In any case both sets of people were delightful. You learn a lot about the state of the world on a short lecture visit like this.
Ate in a restaurant on the shore overlooking the harbour. Marco had promised me a top-class pizza, and was true to his word.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Rome Day 4 - Palatine and Forum

The Palatine was the Beverly Hills of Rome, with Imperial palaces, swimming pools and luxury beyond imagination. The stumps of the huge palaces survive as do the foundations of the pools and gardens. Only in The House of Augustus and Livia do we see real interiors and wall painting. Then to the Forum, wit h its Sacred Way, Arch of Titius (with Menera from Jerusalem), Arch of Septus Severus (with Parthian prisoners), curia (house of the senate and the basilicas and temples that made this the centre of the world for hundreds of years. Even now the sheer scale and expense are obvious. The forum was, from Caesar onwards, a place not only to do commercial and legal business, but to show to the world that Rome was its supreme master. It was designed to impress. The colonnades, statues, temples and scale of the buildings were impressive.

We dropped into see the Ecstasy of St Therese on the way to Termini station, although better known than Bernini’s other work, it seems to have a certain orgasmic notoriety, which overwhelms its aesthetic merit. What it does, is point towards the recognition of the role of sexuality in art. This work is crudely executed and an odd composition, but here expression says it all.

Again on the sexual origin of art, Miller credits Nietzsche as the first post-Darwinian evolutionary aesthetic theorist. The Birth of Tragedy was published in 172 a year after Darwin’s Descent of Man and explicitly states the sexual ‘Dionysian’ origins of art. A cultural courtship model based on sexual selection is developed by Miller who sees art as having a strong inherited genetic capacity. This is nothing short of the evolution of culture and an agenda that is now uncovering cognitive adaptations, their reproductive costs/benefits, variability and heritability. Nietzsche failed to understand Darwin’s basic theory of natural selection and had no sophisticated theory of sexual selection. He was prescient, however, in that he was the first, after Darwin, to advance and elaborate a theory of aesthetics rooted in human sex drives.

OK, enough of the philosophy. Rome is a truly wonderful city with layer upon layer of art, whether it be architecture, painting or sculpture. Only Istanbul comes close as a city with such historical depth. A lot pricier this time and although the food was great, the service was pretty shaky.

Rome Day 3 - Palazzo Pamphilj

Palazzo Pamphilj

Right in the centre of Rome this palace is an ugly selection of dark rooms crammed with paintings, furniture and sculpture. Worse still, the owner ahs decided to explain it all in an audio guide that sounds like Bertie Wooster on acid. The first room has wall to wall paintings, literally commissioned by the square yard to fit the walls. It’s a hideous room, used, as the master of the house says, by bankers – what a surprise. It’s a symbol of complete, tasteless greed.

The one saving grace is Velasquez's Pope Innocent X painting, set in a small room on its own. He sits in his blood-red cloak against blood-red walls and a blood-red hat, the white lower garment just exaggerating the contrast. It is simply one of the greatest portraits ever painted.

Among the hundreds and hundreds of badly hung paintings are several gems, including a Titian, two Carvaggios and several Claude Lorraine's.

Trajan's Forum

This whole complex is now open to the public and contains fragments of marble that show how monumentally impressive the original structure would have been with its libraries, basilica and market. The market, on three levels is not dissimilar to a modern shopping mall with dozens of shops.


Up the hill behind Tavestere to the progenitor for St Pauls, Capitol Hill and thousands of other domed structures around the world. This was Bramante’s invention, a dome raised up on a column, surrounded by columns on a 3:4 ration (diameter to height). It’s a small and delicate structure.

Continuing on the aesthetics theme, art, in particular, poses a problem for evolutionary theory as it doesn’t seem to have a explicable survival function as it seems, on appearance, to be a costly, time consuming activity that should have been selected out. Art, for Miller, is part of the ‘extended phenotype’ with its origins in ochre pigments, cave paintings and figurines. Art provides possible sensory biases and/or fitness indicators.

Rome Day 2 – Palazzo Barberini

Palazzo Barberini

Rome’s Palazzios are huge defensive buildings designed to exude power from the outside and show off your spending power on the inside. Barberini has a Borromino spiral staircase and a huge Salon with a Cortona frieze on the ceiling (curiously the walls are scraped clean and grey). You can lie back on the couches to explore the huge scene. The other rooms have a great collection of paintings, hung so that there’s at least one masterpiece per room. It starts with Raphael’s La Fornarina, her naked torso, ring and arm band revealing his infatuation. There are several Mary Magdalene’s with her flowing hair., a Henry Viii by Holbein, and others.

Good to see that the gypsies are still trying to rob people using the young child in arms, cardboard and pickpocket technique. I’ve never been to Rome without getting accosted like this. I know that I should be upholding liberal values and trying to understand the plight of the Gypsies, but I still don’t understand why they resort to simple theft, when it so obviously backfires. Any sympathy you have for their predicament or poverty fades when you’re robbed by a mother flashing a baby to distract you while her sister dips your pockets.

Interesting chat at evening meal in Tavestere on aesthetics. The sexual selection theory, first developed by Darwin but, it has been argued, largely ignored by prudish Victorians, then revived and recently elaborated I terms of the costs of survival. Perceptual biases may also play a role here, leading to preferences for high contrast stimuli in terms of colour, brightness, loudness and so on. Self expression and variability in art forms can be explained by the advantages afforded by amplifying aesthetic differences. This has interesting consequences for art as, for example, the worth of a work of fiction may not have much to do with its correspondence to truth, but it’s ability to impress potential mates with one’s intelligence and productivity. The sexual selection hypothesis also explains the difference in productive output between males and females as males are competing more intensely than females.

Geoffry Miller is a contemporary proponent of sexual selection as the key driver in aesthetics, part of a general theory that sees reproductive success is the key driver in evolution and not, principally, natural selection. It is sexual selection, he claims, that shapes many of the apparently bizarre ornamental, physical phenomena in species. He also claims that aspects of human cognition have been shaped as sexual ornamentation. The brain has all sorts of aesthetic biases, as our goal is often to be sexually attractive, rather than rational and truthful. This does explain the extraordinary effort that Renaissance art puts into ‘sin’ with acres of naked flesh and fabulous collections as expressions of power.

Rome Day 1 - Villa Borgese

Early arrival at Leonardo da Vinci airport then train to Termini and walk down past Maggiore to Hotel Palatino. Met with the rest of the lads and off for lunch before taking Metro to Villa Borgese, which we’d booked in advance.

Villa Borgese

Bernini’s greatest sculptures are here; David, Aeneus, Rape of Proseprine, Apollo and Daphne, each in the centre of a spectacular room. David Is frozen in that exact moment just before the release of the stone from his sling, so that all of the tension is in his twisted torso. Fantastic facial expression is one of extreme effort – way different from classical contemplative expressions.. Aeneus carries his father with the flame of the hearth in his hand and is a study of loss, not gain. Apollo embraces Daphne just as she escapes by being turned into a laurel. It is a surreal image but the metamorphosis is superb as the uniform colour and texture of the marble turns the transformation into a single blended form. The two Bernini busts of Pope Borgese are side side by side and you can see the crack in the head that led to the copy being made. Bernini gets his fat face in the round and the buttons strain in their button holes. Canova’s Pauline Borgese is sumptuous. She’s half naked holding the apple (Aphrodite’s prize) on cushions that sink with her weight. This is my second visit and it’s great to have the space to walk around these pieces, as the rooms are large and visitor numbers limited. One oddity is the sleeping hermaphrodite, a copy of a Greek original by Polycles.

The whole villa was given over to a major exhibition showing Carravagio’s paintings next to Bacons. Why? I have no idea. There is not real link, historical, aesthetic or otherwise. It’s one of those ‘sound like a good idea’ exhibitions that simply don’t work in practice. Nevertheless, gathering most of Rome’s Carravagios up into one place was too good an opportunity to miss.

Rome is a great place to put aesthetic theories to the test, as there’s a surfeit of art and experiences to savour. If, as I think, Geoffrey Miller and others, as evolutionary psychologists, have got a workable theory that has wide explanatory power as well as a causal explanation, then where better to reflect on it’s worth. They claim, like Hume, that the aesthetic response is embedded in human nature, a universal response to create, exhibit and enjoy beautiful things. This is die to it’s role in sexual selection, in attracting a mate and reproducing. Just as birds of paradise display their ornate wares, so do men and women. I like this as other philosophical explanations tend to focus on necessary,and sufficient, criteria for the definition of rat, or depend upon some notion of a community of practice that simple begs the question as to how that community defines art.

Walked back via a couple of Baroque churches then out to dinner at La Matriciana. This is roman food ‘old style’ with a waiter who looked as though he had been there for 50years. But good solid simple dishes that were perfectly prepared. Pasta is always perfectly al dente. Only flaw were the desserts, but Italian desserts are always a tad predictable.