Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Brilliant Books 2 (Non Fiction)

André Chastell: The Sack of Rome

In 1527, the most Catholic King, Defender of the Faith, Bulwark of Christianity and of the Apostolic Roman Church, Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, sent his Spanish tercios into Rome with the orders to destroy the place and massacre its inhabitants. He had a tiny little dispute with the reigning Pope over something or other, and the marginal fact that both were devout Catholics, and that His Majesty pretended to defend the Church against all comers was not considered an objection against such a nice little punitive expedition.

Now if you think that Mr Chastel’s book must consequently be a work full of blood, gore, rape and misery, you are wrong. This, after all, is the Renaissance, where cruelty and refinement, atrocity and art, grossness and sophistication, go hand in hand like infatuated lovers. And that is what you get: a picture of the age in all its aspects, paradoxical, fascinating, mind boggling and complete. I don’t think I have ever read a more comprehensive portrait of that brilliant, yet repulsive age.

Peter Missler: The Treasure Hunter of Santiago

History is full of madmen, but some of them were shocking air-heads on top of that. The worst of those are surely found among the hordes of treasure-seekers which have inhabited every age and every land. Of course, hidden treasure does exist. But the number of deluded, obsessive, idiotic and sheer crazy treasure hunters – men and women who sacrificed everything for the illusion of easy, instant riches – is a thousand times greater than all the hoards of gold ever entrusted to the earth. Mr Missler digs into the tale of a single one of these, the Swiss soap-boiler Benedict Mol, who went to Santiago de Compostela in 1838, sponsored by the Spanish Minister of Finance (!!), to discover a grand treasure sunk by Napoleonic soldiers into the cesspool of a hospital for syphilitics. Those who like reading of mankind’s March of Folly will thoroughly enjoy this one!

Para leer una reseña en Español, haga click aqui

Hard copies and Kindle versions: click HERE

Jerome Carcopino: Daily Life in Ancient Rome

I often wondered if, perhaps, all the archaeologists who knew how to write an elegant sentence had died tragically in the First World War. For the shortage of such scholars in the period which followed that inferno is truly shocking. Where giants such as Gibbon, Mommsen, Burckhardt and Prescott reigned supreme in the 18th and 19th century, in the 20th, the field was taken over by the likes of Stuart Piggott and Marshall Sahlins: bookkeepers who dabble in historical reporting and who manage to chill and kill even the most exciting narrative. Fortunately, from time to time, one discovers a lone soul who still knows how to paint the portrait of an age with flair, insight and human warmth. Mr Carcopino is one such man. His treatment of life in the Augustan age of Rome reads as if he were an eyewitness; and it is so complete, so feeling, so amazing that you come away as if you had spent a two month holiday in the place. An absolute Must for anyone who still understands that the Splendour of Rome has much to teach and tell us moderns!

Juan Campos Calvo-Sotelo: Naufragos de Antaño

Here is one for those who love the sea, who think of England with their eyes closed, and who enjoy the catastrophes suffered by others, while in the comfort of their well-heated, well-provided drawing room. Mr Campos – who himself famously suffers from sea sickness, yet threw himself into maritime history (a sure indication of his exquisite sense of humour) – took half a decade to research a dozen British shipwrecks on Spain’s north-western coast (the aptly named ‘Costa da Morte’, or ‘Coast of Death’), coming up with not only the bare story of each disaster, but with a veritable treasure trove of anecdotes and unknown facts about the ships, the crews, the traditions and the psychology of every man and woman involved. If you happen to read Spanish, this is one instructive and amusing book to take with you to the beach!

Available on the internet: click HERE

Henri Focillon: El Año Mil

Published 952 years after the year it describes, and strangely 7 years after the author’s death, this precious little book has been near forgotten for half a century; to such an extend that I never managed to buy a copy in the original French! Which only goes to show that genius is rarely recognized or acknowledged for its true worth. In just about 200 lightly printed pages, Mr Focillon reconstructs the feel, the facts and all the facets of that One Ominous Year which was the watershed of the Middle Ages, which made all the difference, which marked the Before and the After for generations of men. NOT the kind of reading for those who think David Beckham is an important person, that the recent Olympics were an expression of good taste, or that Saatchi & Saatchi are patrons of the arts on a par with Lorenzo de Medici. But regular readers of Metis Meets Mittington may wish to take a look at Mr Focillon’s splendid tour de force


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