Archive for June, 2006

medici money

June 29, 2006

Having holidayed in Florence and seen the Medici palaces and treasures, MLW quickly read Tim Parks’ run down on the history of Medici banking and power in Florence. Then she handed it on to me.

Being a somewhat critical soul, I have some things to say about the book. My main gripes are that Parks adopts an arrogant tone, and that he constantly relates the banking and political history he’s recounting to contemporary homosexual figures. Usually with little relevance, and that’s my gripe. Write a book about Florentine banking, or one about Florentine homosexuality, but don’t force the two together.

Anyway, moving on to the interesting stuff… I wanted to highlight three things I’ve learned from the book so far.

The key thing about operating a bank in Catholic Italy in the 15th century was that usury (charging interest on money lent) was classed as a sin by the Church. So, one of the ways the bank made money was through exchanges across Europe. For example, 1000 florins borrowed in Florence to be paid out in England was lent at 40p to the florin (40 000p). It was then assumed that the period of lending was the accepted standard time it took to travel from Florence to England, three months. The merchant draws the pounds in England and uses them to buy wool. The banker in England then writes the replayment slip, assuming another three months until repayment in Florence, and the florins are now valued at 36p each. So, the merchant repays, in Florence, 40 000p/36 = 1111 florins. That’s 11% profit in six months for the Medici bank, and actually no money has physically moved between banks. Very neat. This system of exchanges was also part of how the bank as holding entity balanced its books between its various branches around Europe without having to physically move coin too often. The imbalance was created by so much money flowing into Rome as tithe, and so many goods flowing out of Italy into Northern Europe and netting cash when sold there.

The next thing I learned (and will give a sketchy recounting of here) is how the government of Florence was consitutited. This is actually quite complicated, and as with the exchange concept, Parks does a good job of leading one through it all and towards some dim light at the end of the tunnel. The most interesting thing to learn, though, I think, is that the governing council of Florence was drawn by lot (chits in leather bags representing the key guilds) every two months! So, every two months, you could be called to govern, which meant leaving your home and business and moving into the Palazzo del Signoria to wield absolute power for a short time. Crazy but brilliant, in its way. Of course, all sorts of machinations went on behind the scenes and the history of the Medici at this time is one of how they used their money made in banking to indirectly gain control of government.

Finally, this morning on the train I reached a point in the story where the second of five Medici’s Parks is interested in has lived his life and dies. He is Cosimo, son of Giovanni de Bicci, brother of Damiano (who died at birth), and father of Piero. He had built on the work of his father and the bank was flourishing, and he ruled Florence unofficially. Parks relates how Cosimo, who suffered from gout, spent most of his life expecting to die quite soon. This gave him great drive to see things completed before he expected to die, and because he kept not dying he completed a lot of things! But as he grew older the gout grew worse until he would weep when he had to be moved. Ruling a pan-European banking network that moved money and goods all over Europe, Cosimo struggled to move between rooms in his palazzo and had to be carried up stairs. He retreated to the windowless and frescoed chapel at the heart of his palazzo (which is like a fortress – we kept bumping into it in Florence), and dealt with the great men of his age in a dim religious light, the backdrop a fresco of the procession of the three Magi, featuring Cosimo and his son as two of them, with wild animals accompanying them. When he died, he was buried under the floor of San Lorenzo, the family church, in the very centre of the nave.


reading for Q2, 2006

June 26, 2006

It’s not quite the end of Q2 in the reading calendar, but as I’m unlikely to finish anything else before Friday I thought it was safe to publish my list of things I’ve read in the last three months.

In NTC terms, this is the course work. This was the reading for Q1, 2006.

  1. Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self by Claire Tomalin
  2. Everman’s Rules for Scientific Living by Carrie Tiffany
  3. Dark Rain by Conor Corderoy
  4. Of Man by Thomas Hobbes
  5. Star Trek 4 by James Blish
  6. Animal Farm by George Orwell
  7. The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
  8. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
  9. Star Trek 3 by James Blish
  10. Star Trek 2 by James Blish
  11. Star Trek 1 by James Blish
  12. Staying On by Paul Scott
  13. Hiroshige’s views of Mount Fuji by Oliver Impey
  14. Other People by Martin Amis
  15. Star Trek 12 by James Blish
  16. Geisha by Lesley Downer
  17. Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata
  18. Transparent Imprint by Mike Barnard
  19. The Sea by John Banville


June 23, 2006

Some tidbits from Claire Tomalin’s Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self

This book opens with an electrifying description of a most terrible fight between Pepys and his wife, Elizabeth. Elizabeth wakes Samuel, ‘angry and tearful’:

What was really upsetting her, she said, was that she was lonely. She suffered so much from loneliness that she had written him a letter expressing her unhappiness, she reminded him, and handed it to him two months ago. But he had refused to read it and burnt it without even glancing at her carefully chosen words. (pxxxiii)

She reveals that she kept a copy that she begins to read out aloud to him. Pepys is alarmed by the idea of the contents of the letter getting out into the world. He demands she tear it up; she refuses. He leaps out of bed, snatches her papers and stuffs them into his breeches as he struggles into them. Half dressed, he begins to pull out the papers and tear them up, one by one. Eventually he destroys almost all her papers, burning the pieces in a rage, including all his love letters to Elizabeth (although he calmly spares documents such as a will and a deed). ‘We know all this because he described it himself’ in his Diary.

There is an excellent, blood curdling, description of the operation Pepys underwent to remove a stone in his bladder. He was made to follow a special diet in preparation, and before surgery began he ‘was offered a specially prescribed drink made of liquorice, marhmallow, cinnamon, milk, rosewater and the whites of fifteen eggs’. Then he was bound tightly to the operating table with linen straps and held down by four men – no anaesthetics or alcohol. The surgeon cleaned his scalpel with almond oil and then…

The surgeon got to work. First he inserted a thin silver instrument, the itinerarium, through the penis into the bladder to help position the stone. Then he made the incision, about three inches long and a finger’s breadth from the line running between scrotum and anus, and into the neck of the bladder, or just below it. The patient’s face was sponged as the incision was made. The stone was sought, found and grasped with pincers; the more speedily it could be got out the better. Once out, the wound was not stitched – it was thought best to let it drain and cicatrize itself – but simply washed and covered with a… plaster of egg yolk, rose vinegar and anointing oils… (p63-4)

Pepys survived, although the surgeon’s next four patients did not.

Pepys lived through some of the most interesting events in English history, including the regicide, Cromwell’s interregnum, the Restoration, London burning, and the plague.

Tomalin recounts how King Charles II asserted his authority after the Restoration, and took his father’s revenge:

And Pepys was horrified when he learnt that the bodies of Cromwell, Ireton and Bradshaw were to be dug up and hanged on a gallows on the anniversary of Charles I’s execution. In the Diary he called Cromwell ‘Oliver, as he had been known in the days of his protectorship, and deplored ‘that a man of so great courage as he was should have that dishonour’ – adding carefully, as if in fear of an eye over his shoulder, ‘though otherwise he might deserve it enough’. (p117)

Pepys the pragmatist. I’d not known that Cromwell’s body was exhumed. Tomalin goes on to describe howthe body was put on display (sixpence per person was charged for a close look), then beheaded and the head placed on a spike outside Westminster Hall. It stayed there throughout Charles II’s reign – 25 years – ‘as a warning against rebellion and republicanism’.

In one section of her recounting of the Diary, Tomalin picks out some excellent phrases that Pepys has noted.

And his brother Tom’s description of their Joyce cousins: ‘they are sometimes all honey one with another and then all turd’. (p261)

Finally, in case you ever mispronounced or misspelled Pepys’s name, don’t feel bad – it was subjected to a variety of treatments during his lifetime, including Peppiss.

what’s your smell?

June 19, 2006

Anthony Cronin quotes Samuel Beckett describing the powerful nostalgia of a scent present in the air in childhood, that links you, when smelled again, to your childhood memories:

the lemon verbena to whose scent he refers, a flower which, by the time Sam was a toddler, already grew in profusion round (sic) the hall door, giving forth 'a fragrance in which the least of his childish joys and sorrows were and would for ever be embalmed'.

For me, it's jasmine.

Japanese phrases

June 17, 2006

MLW vistied Stanfords and acquired a Lonely Planet Japanese phrase book for our impending trip to Japan. I have been flicking through it and I must say that, although I am keen on having a bit of an adventure, I hope I don't need to use the following phrases:

funayoy shimashta (I feel seasick.)

kore o shinse shinakereba naranaino o shirimasen deshta (I didn't know I had to declare it.)

heya ni kagi o nokoshita mama kagi o kake te simaimashta (I'm locked out of my room.)

meri kurisumas * I think you can guess this one – we're there for 2 weeks in October, so needing to use this phrase would represent a problem.

donna riyu de kokuso sareru no des ka (What am I accused of?)

yuketsu wa shitakunai des (I don't want a blood transfusion!)

Ozu’s Noriko trilogy

June 14, 2006

A Japanese film director named Yasujiro Ozu made three wonderful films that are known as the Noriko trilogy, as the main character is a 28 year old woman named Noriko (played by the radiant Setsuko Hara). They are:

  1. Banshun (Late Spring), 1949
  2. Bakushu (Early Summer), 1951
  3. Tokyo Monogatari (Tokyo Story), 1953

MLW and I watched the first film and loved it. It's in black and white, with jaunty music, and generally feels quaint in a 1950s kinda way – you know, cardigans and bicycles with baskets and clean trains. The film begins with a circle of Japanese women performing traditional tea ceremony, sitting on the floor and dressed in kimono. Noriko is within a traditional home, and is close to her widowed, academic dad. Late SpringNear the beginning of the film, a visitor asks Noriko 'How old are you?' and she replies, 'Twenty-eight' and he says, 'Shouldn't you be getting married?' (or words to that effect). And this is the crux of the film: should Noriko stay unmarried and look after her father, or should she 'abandon' him for marriage? Along the way, Noriko must face the first signs of a changing culture and a changing role for women. She considers applying for a job as a typist. She sometimes wears Western clothes, depending on who she's with and what she's doing. Etc. The film runs its course; beautiful and thoughtful and real. Ozu's direction is calm and quiet and allows the elements of the film to do their thing – the actors act, the characters develop, the scenery sets the scene etc. No over-egged puddings in sight. To watch a film like this is such an intimate experience; you are drawn into the story more fully because it doesn't try particularly hard to catch your attention. It feels real, and you invest yourself in it somehow.

So. The first film ran its course and we eagerly awaited the arrival of the second film in the post (thanks to amazon's dvd rental service). We had, of course, expected the story to pick up where it had left off. Well. Quelle surprise. The second film begins and you quickly recognise Noriko, but there is confusion: the empty house is now full of people – children and parents and grandparents. The actor who played Noriko's dad is now her brother (and looking a lot younger). Their parents are both alive and well. Early SummerAnd then someone asks Noriko, 'How old are you?' and she replies, 'Twenty-eight' and he says, 'Shouldn't you be getting married?' And suddenly you realise that this second film is not a continuation of the first but rather a reconfiguration of it. Ozu deals with this in so many subtle ways. For example, this time Noriko already has a job as a typist. All the familiar camera angles in her home are reversed or altered, so that like the characters, the setting is the same but different (v. subtle this one but brilliant). In this film, Noriko's struggle is for independence. Her parents want to see her married before they retire to the countryside. In the first film she accepted that her husband would be chosen for her, but in this film she wants to do the choosing. The other aspects of her life and culture are likewise refigured. But the film is delivered in the same vein, although there is just a touch more light and humour in this one, I think.

Tokyo StoryWe were not that surprised to find, therefore, that something similar happened in the third film. This time, Noriko is the daughter-in-law of the actor who was her father in the first film and her brother in the second. Now Noriko is the widow. Her parents-in-law come to Tokyo to visit their children, but their children's lives have no space for them. So it is Noriko who shows them love and hospitality, and again the question of Noriko's age and marriage (re-marriage in this case) are central to the film. The culture, the country, the people have changed again, becoming less recognisable to the old parents than in the previous two films. In the first film you saw tea ceremony, in the second a Bhuddist temple, and in the third an open-topped bus tour of Tokyo. This is a sad film, we felt, for a number of reasons.

Together, the films are remarkable. Each on their own, these films are remarkable. The lives of the characters resonate in your own life when you watch the films. Intimate and present, these films are amongst the best I've seen (and I've seen a few).

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And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.

June 11, 2006

Yes, I have been reading Of Man by Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury (as the cover of the abridged Penguin Great Ideas edition give the author’s name – this is volume 31 of the Great Ideas series). It has been a most enjoyable read, and the condensed version is about all I can cope with between work, the train and trying to stay alive – Hobbes’s life of man QED!

Here are some choice tidbits, that struck a chord with me. First – Hobbes gives a definition or description (depending on how serious you are) of philosophy:

By Philosophy, is understood the Knowledge acquired by Reasoning, from the Manner of the Generation of any thing, to the Properties; or from the Properties, to some possible Way of Generation of the same; to the end to bee able to produce, as far as matter, and humane force permit, such Effects, as humane life requireth.

As Hobbes gives us a run down of philosophy as it has been practised, he sees fit to warn:

…there is nothing so absurd, that the old Philosophers (as Cicero saith, who was one of them) have not some of them maintained.

I was particularly struck by Hobbes’s description of a free man:

A Free-Man, is he, that in those things, which by his strength and wit he is able to do, is not hindred to doe what he has a will to.

Hobbes develops the idea of how a free man operates:

But when the words Free, and Liberty, are applyed to any thing but Bodies, they are abused; for that which is not subject to Motion, is not subject to Impediment: And therefore, when ’tis said (for example) The way is free, no liberty of the way is signified, but of those that walk in it without stop.

Hence the implication for free speech:

So when we speak freely, it is not liberty of voice, or pronunciation, but of the man, whom no law hath obliged to speak otherwise than he did.

Hobbes goes on to describe free will in the same sense, and then shows how liberty and ‘feare’ are consistent, as are liberty and necessity. These properties come together in a certain way to form a commonwealth:

But as men, for the atteyning of peace, and conservation of themselves thereby, have made an Artificiall Man, which we call a Common-Wealth; so also have they made Artificiall Chains, called Civill Lawes, which they themselves, by mutual covenants, have fastned at one end, to the lips of that Man, or Assembly, to whom they have given the Soveraigne Power; and at the other end to their own Ears. These Bonds in their own nature but weak, may neverthelesse be made to hold, by the danger, though not by the difficulty of breaking them.

I find this a compelling predicament – that we are bound by a weak thing, made strong by the danger, not the difficulty, of breaking it.

Hobbes also lays into old philosophy and Roman Catholic doctrine. He criticises some of these for having:

…a quality, not onely to hide Truth, but also to make men think they have it, and desist from further search.

To stop questioning is as bad as to be wrong.