Bamyan, Battle of Carrhae, Edward T. Hall, El Greco, Ginevra de’ Benci, Illinois Institute of Technology, James Morris, Kushan Empire, Leonardo da Vinci, Marcus Licinius Crassus, Marshall Williams, Northwestern University, Palmyra, Pan-Asian Highway, Parthians, Proxemics, Roy McMullen, The Burial of the Count of Orgaz, The Silk Road, William Kloman
This issue’s cover features Leonardo da Vinci’s portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci, which had just been purchased by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, for a then-record $5 million. Contributing Editor Walter Karp writes about the painting’s history and its subject:
Also in this issue:
The fortunes of this road have fluctuated down the centuries. Sometimes it followed this path, sometimes that; now it was blocked by wars, brigands or zealots; now secure beneath the protection of conquering empires – a road of many stages and legends, stretching from the frontiers of China at one end to the Mediterranean coast at the other. The trans-Asian route was the tenuous link between the two supreme civilizations of the earth, and there was a time when it seemed almost ready to unite them, East and West, in the marvellous richness of a common culture.
The powers at each end of the route knew nothing of one another. Each was only a rumor. The Chinese had heard whispers of cultivated nations far beyond the Asian steppes – possibly their first inkling that there existed any civilized people other than themselves. The Romans knew that somewhere far to the east, beyond India, there lived a powerful people to whom the Greeks had given the name “Seres”; but just where the country of the Seres was, and what kind of people they were, nobody knew. Nobody in the West had seen a Chinese. Nobody in the East had seen a European. Eratosthenes’ map of the world, drawn in 220 B.C., begins to peter out at the Tigris and ends altogether at the Ganges Delta, which is shown pouring into the unknown seas of the farthest East. Rome and China were like islands separated by an uncharted ocean.
By the middle of the first century B.C. the gap was closing. The four empires along the route had given it a certain security. The Han emperors had subdued much of the wild country on the western marches of China, south of the Gobi, making the route safe against Huns and Tibetans. The Kushans firmly policed the eastern approaches to the Pamirs, the Parthians controlled the western. The armies of Rome, under the command of the proconsul Crassus, were vigorously at war with Parthia in eastern Syria. Only a single great impulse, of war or of commerce, was needed to pierce the veil that lay between the eastern and western civilizations.
Crassus led the Romans at the Battle of Carrhae in 53 B.C.:
As the Parthians moved in for the kill they suddenly unfurled some majestic battle standards, such as the Romans had never seen before – brilliantly dyed and made of a material unimaginably sumptuous. Tradition says it was the abrupt appearance of these arcane devices that finally broke the morale of the legions; certainly the banners lingered in the Roman memory, and in the and it was the fascination of that astonishing fabric, first glimpsed by the Romans upon the battlefield of Carrhae, that brought the trans-Asia route to life and established a thin and transient connection between Rome and China.
Gibbon says it took two hundred and forty-three days to travel from China to the Syrian coast; if modern trade routes are anything to go by, many a bale lay for weeks at a time under a trader’s counter waiting for clearance, or a bill of lading or camel space – or simply forgotten. Still nobody knew the Silk Road from end to end, and no European had set eyes upon the inconceivable settlements of highest Asia beyond the Pamirs: Aqsu and Hotien, Qara Shahr and Kokand, or the remotest of all, Sera Metropolis, the silk capital, somewhere in the heart of China.
Eventually the secret of silk making leaked out of China, which withdrew behind its frontiers, and the route was abandoned and forgotten. Morris describes 1960s plans for the Pan-Asian Highway : ‘But even these Olympian enterprises stop short at the Chinese border, and the dotted lines of the projected routes shy warily south. The contact of the Silk Road has never fired; the void separating China from the West remains a hazard and a tragedy.’
In ‘Anatomy of a Masterpiece: The Burial of Count Orgaz’, Roy McMullen describes El Greco’s painting:
Anyone who doubts the transfiguring power of art should reflect on the genesis of The Burial of Count Orgaz. The central incident in El Greco’s painting…is a rather vulgar and morally pointless miracle. Most of the circumstances preceding and surrounding the execution of the work smell of money – literally to high heaven. Yet the result is a genuinely mystical masterpiece and, for us at least, a vivid image of several crises.
Here, refracted by the neurotic sensibility of a Cretan immigrant, is that discouraging moment in the history of European thought when one part of the Renaissance lost its rationalist nerve and turned back towards the Middle Ages. In terms of art history, here is one of the high points of the sixteenth century mannerist style, with its warping of a classical language into unclassical statements. At the level of national history, here are Spain’s nobly unteachable hidalgos, assembled for a class portrait two years before the Armada revealed their obsolescence.
In ‘E.T. Hall and the Human Space Bubble’, part of Horizon’s ‘Men of Ideas’ series, William Kloman interviews the anthropologist Edward T. Hall, who developed the study of proxemics, the human use of space and the effects that population density has on behaviour, communication, and social interaction. His book The Hidden Dimension had been published the previous year:
“New York City may already be dead. We may not be able to bring it back. And if we lose New York it could be the death of the nation.”
The speaker was an anthropologist named Edward T. Hall; his audience a select gathering of scientists, city planners, architects, and environmental experts at the Smithsonian Institution last spring. A man who has made a career of probing the communications blocks that exist between cultures, Hall has developed ideas about men’s varying needs for space that could have important implications for the future of our urban centers. Recently appointed to a professorship in the study of intersocietal communications at Northwestern University, he is one of a growing number of scientists seeking ways of making our cities fit for human habitation…
Besides food, water, and shelter, Hall says, we need a certain amount of space in which to conduct our lives. Each organism, he has written, “no matter how simple or complex, has around it a sacred bubble of space, a bit of mobile territoriality which only a few other organisms are allowed to penetrate and then only for short periods of time.” The bubble varies in size, depending on such factors as the emotional state, immediate activity, position in a social hierarchy, and cultural background of the individual. What may be a comfortable living space for a Latin American who requires a certain amount of physical contact with his fellows, may be unbearably crowded to an Englishman, who requires a somewhat large bubble of space around him to feel at ease. Similarly, other unspoken needs – for variety, visual beauty, and quiet – differ from one culture to another.
We must begin to study these needs, recognizing that if we do not take them into consideration, life can become intolerable. Given the cosmopolitan nature of our cities, we must design dwellings, office buildings, and transportation systems in accordance with the diverse requirements of the people who must use them. The melting pot, Hall says, is an illusion.