Back in July I almost managed to convince myself that mathematics was beautiful.
And certainly, the result of mathematics at least is often quite beautiful:
The bit of mathematics illustrated above is a favourite of nature, and goes by the name of the Fibonacci sequence. Today, however, we’re going to ignore nature to see instead what man can do with a bit of mathematics. Or rather, what one particular man did with a bit of mathematics.
Shells and galaxies curl in spirals, stripes run down on the sleek hide of tigers and zebras, waves and sand dunes rise in crescent shape. Some patterns – like the leaves of a palm tree – win you over with their strong, simple lines, others – like crystals and snowflakes – with their intricate geometry. And mankind copies nature: floral motifs proliferate in embroidery, decorative tiles combine into complex matrices, spiral staircases rise towards glass ceilings. The geometry of architecture, natural symmetry, repetition and variation…
The beauty of patterns seduces the eye and the mind.
In the Museum of Prado in Madrid and the Museum of Fine Arts in Seville you can see a number of paintings by the 17th century Spanish painter, Francisco de Zurbarán. Now I don’t know about you, but I don’t recall ever having heard Zurbarán’s name when I was in school, although admittedly art history was no longer part of the grammar school curriculum by then.
The first time I took notice of Zurbarán was, in fact, in the Prado, seven years ago now – I must have seen him in the National Gallery in London before, but the National Gallery is so vast and so full of masterpieces of all styles that I passed him by. The Prado was different. Not that it’s short of masterpieces from all over the world, mind, but I went there specifically to look at Spanish paintings. I wanted to see Goya and El Greco and Velázquez… and while doing so, I came across Zurbarán.
Should we admire or despair of those single-minded people who dedicate themselves to the pursuit of a pet obsession? Who put what we’d consider a ‘normal’ life on hold to disappear into the wilderness spending years in research?
I’m talking about the likes of Milman Parry, who traipsed around the remote mountains of pre-WWII Yugoslavia for a decade, recording folk songs in an attempt to gain an insight into the oral tradition as surviving since the time of Homer… Or Walter Muir Whitehill, who, similarly obsessed, spent nine years in Spain at around the same time, discovering and cataloguing Romanesque churches in the most godforsaken locations. (Both Harvard academics, I notice.) I came across this second one, Muir, while reading Roads to Santiago by Cees Nooteboom.
My second favourite profession I would have gone for if I had the choice when I was young? Marine archaeologist.
I just mention this because in the past half-year I was haunting the now closing Sunken Cities: Egypt’s Lost Worlds exhibition of the British Museum which told the story of Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus, two cities that sank into the Mediterranean Sea (in Aboukir Bay, previously only known to me as the place where Nelson defeated the French). The site is being excavated by the team of Franck Goddio – the marine archaeologist who seems to get to excavate all the best sunken things in the world. (This is envy speaking.)
Venice, the ultimate tourist destination, was already popular as far back as the 16th and 17th century: it was one of the obligatory stops on the so-called Grand Tour, when wealthy young men – principally English – travelled for a few years in Europe to complete their education. The Grand Tour was, in a manner of speaking, a posher and lengthier forerunner of the modern gap year. Or – if we’re less charitable – of the package holiday. In any case, the Grand Tourists invariably wound up in Italy; and we owe them a number of varyingly entertaining travel accounts as well as far too many paintings of young Englishmen posing in togas in front of well-known Italian landmarks.
There’s a new exhibition about to open in the National Maritime Museum of Greenwich, titled Emma Hamilton: Seduction and Celebrity. For the sake of those among you who ‘didn’t win first prize in the lottery of life’: Lady Hamilton is famous for being the lover of Admiral Nelson, the victor of Trafalgar and the saviour of England.
I first heard of Nelson when I was about seven and the Hungarian Television broadcasted the 1941 black-and-white tearjerker, That Hamilton Woman. Being too young to grasp that the handsome Royal Navy officer on screen was in fact Laurence Olivier, rather than Nelson himself, at the end of the film I was left with a life-long admiration for Nelson, a life-long dislike for Bonaparte and a complete unawareness of who Laurence Olivier was.