The Magic of the Written Word


…the visitor who now enters the Palazzo dei Conservatori at Borgo San Sepolcro finds the stupendous “Resurrection” almost as Piero della Francesca left it. …it stands there before us in entire and actual splendour, the greatest picture in the world.
—-Aldous Huxley, Along the Road, 1925

I had never heard of The Resurrection until a couple of weeks ago. But both The World’s Greatest Paintings and The Private Life of a Masterpiece: Renaissance Masterpieces included it in their discussions. Even though I enjoyed learning why it’s supposed to be such a great painting, it still doesn’t move me. But the story about how Huxley’s words saved the painting and the town during World War II is another matter.

As the British army was fighting its way up Italy, an artillery officer named Anthony Clarke was told to shell Sansepolcro to make it safe for the soldiers to enter. He gave the order, but then remembered Huxley’s description of Piero’s fresco. He ordered his men to stop.

As it turned out the shelling hadn’t been needed because the Germans had already left. So instead of the army court-martialing Clarke for disobeying an order, the townspeople honored him as a hero. The Via Anthony Clarke is still named after him.

This story reminds me of my excitement and wonder when I first learned to read — it seemed like magic. Huxley’s words about a painting averted a tragedy almost 20 years later. If that doesn’t show the magic of the written word, I don’t know what does.

After the war Clarke owned a rare book store in South Africa and wrote 50 scholarly catalogs in the course of his career. He was clearly the quintessential book lover. That, too, warms my heart. Where I was raised people didn’t think much of people who always had “their nose in a book.” Clarke proved that book lovers can be useful too.

What about you? Are you a book lover? Has your life ever been changed by something another person has written?

Thanks to Evan, tammy, bikehikebabe, Rummuser and Ursula for commenting on last week’s post.
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14 Responses to The Magic of the Written Word

  1. Cathy in NZ says:

    Imaging the Renaissance is quite common in those days…the common people didn’t know reading or writing and even if they did books weren’t printed in the way they are now. Most of the writers were classical academics and the like.

    Of course, performances of one kind or other was probably the main way to address the people; however symbols i.e. painting/artworks could be used. Many artists of those times, were employed solely in that medium. And I believe it continues with other artists who either “copy” or rework ideas to suit today/value/needs

    Many early artworks are still missing since wartimes and other such times; along with a trade in stolen items. Italy has a big organisation (I forget name) that tracks the goods and returns them to the rightful places…art crime is rife.

    These are just snippets of what I have learnt at times over the Art History degree and they might not be how you see art history πŸ™‚

    Now, I’m learning a whole more of that era and much earlier but not from the art point of view, exactly…

  2. Mike says:

    Book lover? Yes, from as early as I can remember. As a teen, I would “devour” several books a week during summer vacation. We lived thirteen blocks from the library in our small city in western Nebraska.

  3. bikehikebabe says:

    Were you reading Huxley when I was reading Nancy Drew mysteries; I wonder?

  4. Cathy in NZ says:

    ahhhhh – books! A wonderful print material.

    when e-books were invented and the computer was so important, it was believed that books would be abandoned. apparently the online booksellers have changed all that but in the process bricks/mortar shop have began to disappear. Apparently we are “reading more hard/paper books”. I notice how many of my craft friends get them from overseas because of the free shipping but also I noted last week a girl in my class talking about some cheaper to be had book if you were interested in a certain aspect…

    I buy my textbooks online from either Fishpond or Mighty Ape – both of which I think get them straight from somewhere else but I’m trying to support NZ supplier.

    The computer helps me find some interesting art/craft related books and between Uni and local library services that have inter-library request service, I’m forever picking up books…devouring them, browsing them, utilising them…

  5. tammyj says:

    bhb… LOL!
    i too discovered books early. before i was six i was reading all my stacks of ‘little golden books.’
    my gram taught me to read. and she taught inflection when reading aloud … so i sounded out the excitement or fear or sadness with my voice. made it so much more fun!
    i cannot remember a time not wanting to be ‘in a book.’
    i was called “lazy” once on a summer vacation because all i did was read.
    and i loved your wonderful true story about anthony clarke.

  6. Jean says:

    You say you’re learning a lot more about that era, but not in terms of art. In general I’m more interested in history and biographies than I am in art history, but I since these DVDs are available I figured I might as well make use of them. Thanks for your extra information.

    At the moment I’m also watching Civilisation: A Personal View by Kenneth Clark. He points out the Renaissance, with its emphasis on man as the measure of things, only lasted a few decades because it was limited to the educated. It seems to me for centuries that’s what the church was doing — not just with paintings but also architecture and sculpture.

    That goodness for public libraries! They open up a whole new world. Your interest in reading is no doubt one reason you’ve done so well in life.

    I loved Nancy Drew! I was absolutely hooked on her. But because of my severe eyestrain my eye doctor and mother convinced me I would go blind if I kept reading so much. I didn’t stop reading, but I turned to more serious works. If I was going to sit there alone in the dark I wanted my poor little mind to have something to work on.

    I didn’t start reading Aldous Huxley until high school. Brave New World, of course, but mostly a lot of his essays.

    I love e-books too. If they don’t have pictures, they’re a lot easier on my eyes so I can read longer. Books with pictures are usually better in print. And, of course, a lot of books aren’t available as e-books.

    I agree that the online booksellers hurt the local bookstores, but they’ve made so many more books available. I love to go searching on Amazon.

    I was called “lazy” for a lot more than just one summer! A small price to pay for being able to enjoy books and learning.

    I love the story about Clarke, too. It’s fun to come across tidbits like that.

  7. Jean says:

    “It seems to me for centuries that’s what the church was doing β€” not just with paintings but also architecture and sculpture.”
    Oops, left out a sentence or two. The Church was the one trying to reach the people. You mention performances. Presumably the mass — changing bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ — is a performance of sorts.

  8. Evan says:

    I’m fairly instrumental about books – use them to access information or for entertainment.

    The books that have changed my life are
    Gestalt Therapy
    Awakening the Heroes Within
    Ethics of Freedom
    The Call to Adventure

  9. Cathy in NZ says:

    I wasn’t referencing those type of in-church performances but rather those “outside” as such – the prophets, the street performers and to some extent the town crier – along with other such people. Maybe even a Punch and Judy show/type.

  10. Jean says:

    Thanks for telling us the books that changed your life. I know something about Gestalt Therapy but will look up the other ones.

    I do love having access to books. I still remember the excitement bringing home some of the books I got from the Cornell library about 40 years ago. What excites you that way?

    Ah, I wasn’t thinking in terms of entertainment. You’re probably right about performances. When I asked Google what the poor did for entertainment I found:

    The poor could rarely afford the theater, generally having to stand as groundlings. Executions were seen as a form of entertainment (Alchin, 2005), as was attending public humiliations in the stocks. Another popular public event with spectators, was the trial of witches by use of water trial.

    That wasn’t quite what I was expecting!

  11. Cathy in NZ says:

    Yet again, my language has tripped me up…I hadn’t particularly labelled the street performances as entertainment but rather as a way of revealing to the people how they should conduct their lives – whether they believed was an issue or entertainment would depend on their status I would guess.

    I think about some of the Asian performances of the past and of course the religious prophets who were telling people in the main to be better people. I think also in places of more western world it was about showing people about hygiene for themselves and within their homes.

    A bit like now when a picture tells you to wash your hands, or no entry through to pictures of people to signify which public toilet is for you πŸ™‚ Reminders when involved with traffic/roads and so on…

  12. Jean says:

    I guess I need more specific examples, in Europe. What period of time are you talking about?

  13. Evan says:

    Jean, there were things like the Mystery Plays (late medieval) which was the main way the illiterate (i.e. the vast majority) would have learnt the Bible stories.

  14. Cathy in NZ says:

    Passion Play might be one arena to look at

    Medicine sort of shows, where quackery is sold. Not necessarily going to improve the hygiene but maybe it could. Touting for business. I kind of think that seems to be like travelling salesmen with a horse and cart or standing on a raised box at a fair πŸ™‚

    Maybe early cartoonists were utilised in this field. Comics as well. Looking at Wiki, see something that reminds me of “how-to” cartoons to do with Japan. Newly weds would be given the cards showing them how to do a number of things, we don’t usually need a card for πŸ™‚ (use your f/m imagination)

    I seem to recall something in early Britain when plumbing was available indoors and people had to shown how to manage it all but I can’t remember exactly. Not sure if it was a street perf or print matter, but I would imagine that graphic wouldn’t necessarily do all and mimed actions probably utilised at times…

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