Oracle of History

Guiding you through the ages

Archive for the category “Society”

Painting Through Time

I’ve always been fascinated by paintings. Sometimes it feels like a portal into another world or time period. From an academic stand point, it makes sense, especially if they are paintings from a time when there were no photographs. It’s important to remember, however, that these paintings are what these people want us to see.

Can you imagine someone 100 years from now, judging our society from the memes we leave behind on the internet? Perish the thought!

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That being said, paintings can be an amazing source of knowledge about a time period. It gives us a visual reference of how they want to be portrayed. Here, I will list some of my favourite paintings and the historical importance behind it.

Seaport with the Embarkation of Saint Ursula, 1641, by Claude 

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Seaport with Embarkation of Saint Ursula, 1641 by Claude. Downloaded from the National Gallery website for non-commercial purposes. 

As someone who has studied the conversion of the Roman Empire from Paganism to Christianity, I love the retelling of Saintly stories. Religion is a very common theme in paintings, especially Christian stories in a Western world that relied on it for many of its values and morality.

The story of Saint Ursula is interesting because there is no confirmation of her even having lived. Unlike many male saints, there isn’t a collection of written work that we can point to as proof that she existed. The legend is based on an inscription at the Church of Saint Ursula in Cologne. What is even more interesting is that her martyrdom was taken out of the General Roman Calendar after it was revised in 1969. Maybe because it couldn’t be verified?

The story goes that the British Princess Ursula left to join her future husband, a pagan governor in Gaul (now modern-day France). She came across the channel with 11,000 virginal handmaidens, but before she married she decided to conduct a pilgrimage to Rome by traveling across Europe. According to legend, she met her untimely death in Cologne where the Huns, who were not known for the Christian charity, beheaded her along with all her handmaidens. The Church of Saint Ursula is supposedly located where some of these beheadings happened.

The painting fascinates me because, Claude, the artist, would have painting this over a thousand years later. It shows that not only the legend was thought valid, but it must have been part of the stories of martyrdom told in Church at the time. The painting itself is laced for foreboding since anyone familiar with the story will know that Ursula and her handmaidens would meet an unfavourable end.

Picture Gallery with View of Ancient Rome, 1757, by Giovanni Paolo Panini

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This painting was commissioned by Count Étienne François de Choiseul, the Ambassador of the French King Louis XV to Rome.  It is one of four paintings, meant to show the glory and beauty of Rome. The other paintings show St Pete’s Basilica as well as views of “Modern Rome” (well, modern for the 1750s).

I like this one because it shows the value that people put on the ancient monuments, even then. It makes me wonder if the history of Rome would have been harder to uncover if it hadn’t been for society’s obsession with the Ancients. The painting also shows how little these ancient monuments have changed since this was painting. A testament to historical preservation and priorities.

It’s also a testament to the artist who not only had to paint an art gallery, but had to create many smaller pieces of artwork in great detail. The longer you stare at it, the more is revealed.

A Regatta on the Grand Canal, about 1740, by Canaletto

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Canaletto was famous for his paintings of Venice, mostly sweeping tableaus of life in the city. One of the great events of Venetian life was (and still is!) the Carnival, but did you know that there is also a regatta that starts the festivities? This painting shows us just that.

It’s part of a series of twelve paintings about the Grand Canal, the Carnival being a very popular subject for painters. This painting showcases a race with colourful banners demonstrating people’s support for a particular team – not much different than how we show support for sports teams today. It also gives us a glimpse of what Carnival might have been like all those years ago. The Carnival regatta has been an institution since 1315. I wonder what it was like the first time they raced?

I particularly love this painting because it brings the Grand Canal to life, showing a colourful and joyous moment in Venice. It makes you want to jump right through the frame and join the celebration. On a personal note, one of my life goals is to be in Venice for Carnival and this certainly gives me the itch to travel.


Bonus Painting 

After looking at these paintings, I can’t help but think how strange it must have been to live in a different country and only know the world through paintings. What happened when they heard about a big international event? Maybe they said something like this….

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History repeats itself

I know what you are thinking, what a generic title for a blog post on a history blog. However I believe it is important to take a look at this concept since the outcome of the U.S. election.

So many people were shocked by the win of President Elect Trump, but why is that?

The idea of history repeating itself has been around for thousands of years and yet some people do not believe in its existence.

Therefore I will take you on a journey of how ideas of historic recurrence developed:

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The Ancients 

In the Ancient world several philosophers and thinkers (such as Poseidonius, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, and Zosimus)  foresaw the demise of the Roman Empire due to the fate of their predecessors – Assyrians, Persians, and even the Macedonians.

What these philosophers saw was that all of previous great Empires went through a cycle of immense power, disunity, and then fall. I challenge you to find an Empire that did not do the same.

The fall of the Macedonian Empire is particularly interesting due to their most famous leader – Alexander the Great!

The Renaissance

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Niccolo Machiavelli,  an early writer and thinker on politics, saw the repeating nature of Florentine politics. He believed in a fluctuation of vice and virtue within society. Virtue creates peace, which leads to idleness and vice. A cycle that keep repeating itself.

This theory is, obviously, very indicative of its time. An Italy divided into city states, constantly at war with each other and against encroaching Empires. There was an emphasis on the role of political virtue in society. Not unlike today when we hold politicians accountable for their actions.

For reference, watch the TV show The Borgias. Although its historical validity can be questioned, it gives a good idea of the fighting between city states.

Modern Interpretation

Karl Marx even brought his thoughts to the table in 1852, agreeing with Hegel that all great moments in world history are repeated twice. Marx added, “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” What is most interesting about was that he wrote this in the context of the recent coups d’etat of Napoleon’s nephew, Napoleon III in 1851.

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This case alone shows the repetition of actions within a short time frame. Which brings to mind the  famous quote from George Santayana that is often misattributed:

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”

If these repetitions happen within living memory, are we doomed either way?

With the outcome of the 2016 U.S. election, it seems that we are doomed to repeat it. As a historian, the striking similarities between the rise of President-Elect Trump and Adolf Hitler are hard to ignore – something that I will not go into detail here because there are many accounts of this. All we can hope is that he will not continue that legacy.

The purpose of this blog post was to inform people about how the notion of history repeating itself has been around for thousands of years and that it is our job to be prepared for the next cycle in the best ways we can.

To end on a high note here is a little video treat about seeing into the future:

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