TEDTalks: Elizabeth Lev, Michelangelo, and the Great Theater of Life

What is the unheard story of the Sistine Chapel? Art historian Elizabeth Lev intends to tell us, taking us on a tour through Michelangelo’s series of frescos and what she considers “the great theater of life.”

The Sistine Chapel ceiling. (Public Domain)

Against the backdrop of Columbus’s voyage to the Americas, an age of exploration, Michelangelo took on the Sistine Chapel at the age of 33, commissioned by Pope Julius II in 1508. 133 by 46 feet with a 62-foot ceiling, the chapel was a vast undertaking, even despite the earlier additions by artists like Botticelli and Michelangelo’s teacher Ghirlandaio. Not only that, but as Core scholars will likely remember from lecture, Michelangelo was primarily a sculptor, not a painter. Nonetheless, the Sistine Chapel remains a quintessential name in the history of Western art.

The ceiling is arguably the most well-known feature of the chapel. Nine panels make up the central progression, which contains episodes from Genesis. The ceiling itself, not counting the artist’s work on the altar wall, took 3 1/2 years, during which he spent many long hours painting above his head with a sparse team of others. In the creation narrative, Michelangelo focuses on the figure of God, on the figure’s movement across the frame, and on the act of creation itself, while the forms brought into being–the moon, the sun–take on lesser roles. Here, the role of Creator is stressed and, in turn, a subtle equation of the artist’s work with that original Creation in the very beginning of the book of Genesis. We can imagine the artist with his paint brush poised like God’s finger in the Creation of Adam, one millimeter away, Lev tells us, from issuing the spark of life into a previously lifeless form.

it's eve.

Eve (arguably). Michelangelo, The Creation of Adam, c. 15081512, fresco.

The stories of man and woman–part of the theater of life, as Lev calls it–are intertwined from the start. Clinging to the arm of God, Eve looks down the outstretched arms into the eyes of Adam. In the central panel of the ceiling, she is drawn from his side at her creation. In every scene, the two are inseparable, even as they are exiled from the Garden of Eden. Sybils and prophets, not to mention the episodes from the life of Noah, make up the remaining scenes along the chapel ceiling. Vibrant colors meet the eye at every juncture.

Lev then moves to the altar wall, the Last Judgment scene. Upon Michelangelo’s return to the Sistine Chapel in 1536, some 24 years since the painting of the ceiling, the Reformation has shaken the world, and so the artist took on the theme of destiny. Juxtaposed above a crucifix, the image of a glorified Christ, assuming the role as the final judge, overlooks 391 figures, many of whom show their victory over adversity through instruments and signs of their martyrdom and especially by their muscular bodies.

The Sistine Chapel, Lev says, is like a mirror. As the viewer gazes at the various scenes along every surface, they wonder their role in the great human drama that Michelangelo depicted nearly 500 years ago, a drama that continues into today.

Watch Elizabeth Lev’s TEDTalk here.

Seth Godin on “Soft” Skills

Let’s get things straight: they’re not soft skills. They’re anything but. So claims best-selling author Seth Godin, who abhors the reliance on a linear scale that companies tend to adopt as they consider new and current employees.

“For what is the self-complacent man but a slave to his own self-praise.” – St. Augustine, City of God(in). Image via dillythebun on Instagram.

It’s easy to measure based on a linear scale, Godin says, but the problem is that the scale only extends as far as what he calls “vocational skills.” These are textbook skills–the terms and definitions and strategies one would find on an exam. There is nothing wrong with vocational skills, of course; after all, a coder who cannot properly code is going to struggle if a company hires them for a position in that area. But those unquantifiable skills–“soft skills,” as they are often known–are not getting sufficient recognition in business and organizations. Charisma, diligence, contribution, and communication abilities all fall under this category. Things like critical thinking that a person learns away from the textbook.

Godin’s solution?

So lets uncomfortably call them real skills instead.

Real because they work, because they’re at the heart of what we need to today.

Real because even if you’ve got the vocational skills, you’re no help to us without these human skills, the things that we cant write down, or program a computer to do.

Real skills cant replace vocational skills, of course not. What they can do is amplify the things you’ve already been measuring.

The author doesn’t stop there. He creates five categories, providing an exhaustive list of skills pertaining to each, which then dissolves into a plug for his 4-week intensive workshop. Still, although Godin focuses on its application to the workforce, this list is useful in our own self-improvement. What do we value in ourselves, for example–our vocational skills or our soft/real skills? Do we place enough importance in both areas of our lives?

Read the rest of Seth Godin’s blog post here.

Weekly Round-Up, 2-2-17

Lucky you, there are two link compilations this week! (Find the special Epic Times edition here.) The world of literature and the arts are simply booming lately. Read on:

  • Director Phyllida Lloyd presents the conclusion to a trilogy of Shakespearean plays with her retelling of The Tempest. Set in a women’s prison, it explores themes of reverie and reality with clever interpretations of classic scenes from the play.
  • Clmence Boulouque reviews Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg’s work Moses: A Human Life for the New York Times. Zornberg studies Moses and his humanity, drawing in references “spanning Hasidic masters, George Eliot, Zizek and Beckett, among others.”
  • Accomplished Italian skier Sofia Goggia, besides taking the World Cup circuit by storm, has an affinity for Latin and poetry and is said to have taken a pilgrimage to John Keats’ gravesite in Rome.

Here lies One / Whose Name was writ in Water. The grave of John Keats by Piero Montesacro via Wikimedia Commons. [GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0]

Born this way. Via Fat Cat Art.

That should do it! We hope all this Core-related news provides good fodder for conversation.

From 3QuarksDaily: ‘Alternative Facts’ And The Necessity of Liberal Education

Scott Aikin and Robert Talisse at the 3quarksdaily find occasion in the recent intense disagreement over the crowd size attending the Trump inauguration to proffer the values of a liberal education. We understand this is a convenient pretext, because anything in the news would have allowed them to do just the same, and almost everything in the news is related to Trump. That is to say that both Trump and the news suffer from a lack of education, which is not news. What is valuable about this piece, though the object is trite, is in its taking a particular example of the latest Trump absurdity, and showing very astutely that the histrionics could have been avoided if only the dramatists were a little smarter.

Photograph for 3quarksdaily

Photograph for 3quarksdaily

In the coming months and years, we as a democratic citizenry will need to develop the skills necessary for avoiding and diagnosing such failures of discourse. We need to reacquaint ourselves with concepts like reason, evidence, justification, argument, and objection. We need also to cultivate skills of reading and listening closely, not with suspicion, but with a critical eye and ear. And these skills enable creative and clear thinking, too.

It’s for this reason we think that the humanities and liberal arts are good for democratic citizens. Reading, thinking, and writing about literature and ideas sound to too many like only so much indulgent bullshit, but it’s not. At least when it’s done well.

And it is certainly done well here at the Core Curriculum, and in this liberal corner generally. The average undergraduate at Boston University studying in the humanities has received the kind of rigorous training in critical thinkingthat Kellyanne Conway, a J.D. with honors from Georgetown University Law School, clearly has not. If she did, then she’d understand that one cannot implicate wholesale any one group of people–Muslim, Mexican, Women, African-Americans–unlessthose people are white,of course, which is neither racist nor hypocritical. But that realization demands some critical thinking, an ability we can all gladly boast. If you’d like to learn how to be smart

Read their full post at 3quarksdaily

Weekly Round-Up: Epic Times Edition, 2-1-17

If you are a recipient of the Epic Times, the weekly email newsletter of the Core Curriculum, you may have noticed a familiar inclusion at the bottom of the most recent email. That’s right–we got a special shout-out this week! So in case you missed it, here is the extra round-up created especially for the Epic Times.

David side-eyes Rome to the south. (Public Domain)

  • The Polish government recently bought the Czartoryski art collection, one that is comprised of 250,000 historical manuscripts and documents and 86,000 museum artifacts, including Rembrandt’s Landscape with the Good Samaritan as well as a number of the artist’s sketches.

There you have it. Have a lovely week!

From The Guardian: The Souls of Black Folk

Robert McCrum at The Guardian writes appreciatively of a figure whose kind is desperately wanting in our present time, W.E.B. Du Bois; and he rightly places him in the activist tradition whose standard bearer, Barack Obama, has been replaced by somebody who we can barely stand, representing the opposing tradition. It is not only for its literary merit, then, thatThe Souls of Black Folk, is considered by the folks at The Guardian as being among the top 100 non-fiction books of all time, but also for the activist function it has served in being one of the foundational texts of the civil rights movement.

WEB Du Bois: much of his rhetorical power came from knowledge of the King James Bible. Photograph: Keystone/Getty Images

WEB Du Bois: much of his rhetorical power came from knowledge of the King James Bible. Photograph: Keystone/Getty Images

Du Bois, once one of Americas greatest social activists, has become sadly neglected, but his work was far ahead of its time. The ideas expressed here not only inspired the renewed black consciousness of the 1960s, exemplified by the differing careers of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, but also contributed to establishing The Souls of Black Folk as a founding text of the US civil rights movement. This is at once a work of advocacy, rhetoric and literature, a vital thread in the tapestry of American prose. In the acclaimed 2016 novel Home going by Yaa Gyasi, the narrator describes Sonny reading The Souls of Black Folk in prison: Hed read it four times already, and he still wasnt tired of it. It reaffirmed for him the purpose of his being there, on an iron bench, in an iron cell. Every time he felt the futility of his work for the NAACP, hed finger the well-worn pages, and it would strengthen his resolve. This is how classics of this calibre work their way into the literary bloodstream.

We look to the past for consolation and inspiration. Dubois’ service is therefore one to humanity, only one part of which is the literature that is read for its own sake and sometimes even as agitation. Combining the force of his rhetoric with the justice of his cause, DuBois nobly reminds some of us cloistered in the ivory towers just how dark things used to be out there, and invites us to take a peek yet once again, even if itmeans having to step down and lose a peak of another kind. MLK, BLM…History seems to have a penchant forword-play just as it does rhyme.

Read the full post at The Guardian

Florence, Italy, Comes to Boston: Botticelli at the MFA

Sandro Botticelli and workshop, Venere (Venus) (detail), about 1484-90. Oil on canvas, transferred from wood panel. Galleria Sabauda, Turin.

An exhibition entitled “Botticelli and the Search for the Divine: Florentine Painting between the Medici and the Bonfires of the Vanities” is set to tour the United States this year, and the MFA is one of the stops on its list. A collaboration between our own MFA Boston, the Muscarella Museum of Art in Virginia, and the Associazione Culturale Metamorfosi of Italy, it boasts sixteen paintings by the Italian master Sandro Botticelli, six pieces from his master, Filippo Lippi, and works by Lippi’s son and Botticelli’s pupil, Filippino Lippi. On the exhibition, the director of the Muscarelle Museum, Aaron De Groft, states:

We are extremely proud to be able to bring to this country a ground-breaking exhibition of one of the worlds greatest artists. … The Botticelli show continues a tradition of internationally important exhibitions, following Michelangelo, Caravaggio, and Leonardo da Vinci in recent years, in which exhibitions of great original works of art provide the lens for us to explore the themes and ideas that inspired their genius.

One of the highlights of the show is the inclusion of a painting of Venus, one of two that the artist ever created. (Of course, this doesn’t include the grander and more famous depictions such as the Birth of Venus.) Venere and more will be on view from April 15, 2017 to July 9, 2017 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Read more about the exhibition on Artnet.

Weekly Round-Up, 1-27-17

Good afternoon, scholars. How was your first full week of classes? If it involves Core, then it was probably the height of excitement.

  • A cooking blog called The Little Library Cafe features recipes based on books, including titles by Virginia Woolf, Jane Austen, and William Shakespeare. We’re hoping that the chocolate eclairs based on Mrs. Dalloway find their way onto the menu at the next high tea at the Core House.
  • The very first statue of Jane Austen in the world, which we find hard to believe, is in the works. Marking the 200th anniversary of her death, the statue, by artist Adam Roud, will stand in Market Place, Basingstoke, England. In the meantime, a maquette has been unveiled, granting us a sneak peak at what is to come.

Adam Roud’s maquette (a sort of wax or clay sketch). (Via BBC)

  • Professor Chad. C. Pecknold of the Catholic University of America is experimenting with a seminar on St. Augustine’s City of God–over Twitter. We’re kind of (see: very) interested. Read an interview over on the National Review here.
  • A new musical about Machiavelli? We’re already excited. A sneak peak of Machiavelli the Musical took place last Friday, January 20, at the Golden State Theater in Monterey, California.
  • A group of nine artists called Chitryog have taken to Gurgaon, India, to paint a mural depicting the Bhagavad-Gita and “scientific themes … used to emphasize on the themes of the Gita,” according to Hunny Mor, art director of the Municipal Corporation of Gurgaon, which commissioned the work.

The mural, located in Gurgaons Civil Lines area. (Credit: Manoj Kumar)

That’s a wrap. Study hard, readers. You have the whole semester ahead of you!

Ariel Dorfman: In Exile with ‘Don Quixote’

Lorenzo Coullaut Valera’s 1930 monument to Cervantes in Madrid. Photograph: Luis Garca (Zaqarbal). (Public Domain)

It is October 1973, and men and women crowd the Argentine Embassy of Santiago. A coup has just dismantled the Chilean government headed by Salvador Allende, and novelist and activist Ariel Dorfman finds himself and 30 other refugees gathered around a copy of Don Quixote. As they read aloud, a certain kinship to Cervantes seems to grow amongst them. Victims, prisoners, and exiles, their experiences hearken back to the Spanish author’s five-year imprisonment at the hands of Barbary pirates. Upon his return, met with indifference, Cervantes realized that, while his body may be crippled, his soul was not, and he was free to despair or create in response to that pain. He chose the latter, and Don Quixote de la Mancha was born.

Cervantes realized that we are all madmen constantly outpaced by history, fragile humans shackled to bodies that are doomed to eat and sleep, make love and die, made ridiculous and also glorious by the ideals we harbor. To put it bluntly, he discovered the vast psychological and social territory of the ambiguous modern condition. Captives of a harsh and unyielding reality, we are also simultaneously graced by the constant ability to surpass its battering blows.

Don Quixote fully exemplifies that freedom that Cervantes, Dorfman, and the refugees in the Argentine embassy all honored above all else. And some things remain in our power despite the manacles that surround us, as Cervantes makes evident in the second part of his work:

Sancho Panza has been made governor of a fictitious island by a frivolous duke. The lowly squire proves to be a far wiser and more compassionate ruler than the noblemen who mock him and his master. One night, doing the rounds, he comes upon a young lad who is running away from a constable. The boy gets cheeky, and the ersatz governor sentences him to sleep in prison. Infuriatingly, the prisoner insists that he can be put in chains but that no one has the power to make him sleep: Staying awake or not depends on his own volition and not on anyone elses commands. Chastened by the lads independence, Sancho lets him go.

Today, these manacles, Dorfman reflects, are not often as literal as those that bound the famous Spanish author. Instead, they are “violence and inequality, greed and stupidity, intolerance and xenophobia,” realities that some avoid in a dreamlike state, only to wake up when it is too late. Nonetheless, Dorfman reminds his readers:

“Nobody has the power to make us sleep if we don’t wish it ourselves.”

Read the rest of Ariel Dorfman’s article for the New York Times here.

From The TLS: Whatever her persuasion

(It is a felicity that the elision in the title allows one to pronounce it as ‘Whatever persuasion’, so that it suggests at once something peculiar about Austen but also about ourselves, making it then something not peculiar but universal, acknowledged or not).Dr. Looser (LOE-sir) at the TLS has very likely bemused some readers in her latest article by turning into adverbs words that really must be left as adjectives: ‘conjecturally’, ‘conjugally’, ‘unblinkingly’, ‘glancingly’. It is a nice surprise, but one that we don’t understand. The effect is to have the reader come away with the sense of having read something cringingly. Her purpose was to review two of the latest on Jane Austen. One is a new edition of Mansfield Park, edited by Deidre Shauna Lynch; another is Jane Austen, The Secret Radical, by Helena Kelly, who tries to radically politicize Austen by rediscovering her as a radical.


Bath Gin, made by the Bath Gin Company The Bath Gin Company. Image for The Times Literary Supplement

The boundaries between fact and fiction in Austen-inspired books are strikingly porous. Of the two books under review here, the ostensible work of literary criticism, Helena Kellys Jane Austen, the Secret Radical, more often resembles a novel, offering readers a copious amount of what Kelly herself dubs truthful fictions. By contrast, the edition of Austens novel, Lynchs annotated Mansfield Park, has been amplified into a significant work of criticism, mostly contained in its jumbo side margins. To make this turnabout even more strange, it is Kellys novelish critical work that employs the bombastic rhetoric of right and wrong, while Lynchs edition gives us, within its helpful concatenation of facts, a more reasonable number of mights and perhapses.

The object of this review was good until Dr. Looser began to compare the two while seeming to be unaware that Lynch was performing the task of an editor and Kelly that of a literary critic. Both editor and critic must imaginatively analyze a text, but differ in the scope and liberty with which they may go about doing so. Dr. Looser does explore some questions worth pondering about the blurring of fact and fiction in Jane Austen.

Read her full review at The TLS