Civilisations – BBC 2 (it’s getting better!)


This series started slowly, but it’s improved drastically; and the last two episodes, “The Triumph of Art” and “First Contact”, really did get it spot on.  The aim of this programme, Civilisations rather than Civilisation, was to tell the history of art on a global scale, as a deliberate contrast to the Eurocentric picture presented by the 1960s series.  Setting out with that sort of aim, however worthy, can go rather wrong sometimes.  Remember Eldorado?!   In the first episode of this series, they tried too hard and jumped about all over the place.  However, Simon Schama and David Olusoga got it bang on in the episodes just broadcast.

Mention Renaissance art, and you think of Italy.  I remember our history A-level teacher asking us to name some Renaissance figures, and – this being 1990 – everyone chorusing “Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raffaello and Donatello”.  Ask me now to name some Renaissance figures, and I’ll give you the same answer.  Sorry!   I never even liked those silly turtles … but say “Renaissance art” and you think Italy.  Wonderful, glorious, sunny, colourful Italy!

Well, we got Italy.  Of course we did: it would have been all sorts of wrong if we hadn’t.  But, in the same episode, we also got the Ottoman Empire, the Mughal Empire and Spain.

Ask me about Suleiman the Magnificent, and you’ll get a long lecture on the Battle of Mohacs, the First Siege of Vienna, the conquest of Belgrade and the Knights of St John being thrown off Rhodes.  Because that’s what we do, don’t we?  We primarily associate Suleiman, even though we call him “the Magnificent”, with war.  Yet we primarily associate Italy at the same time (yes, OK, part of the same time, I do know that the Renaissance went on a lot longer than Suleiman’s reign did!), the period of the Italian Wars – yep, wars, the clue’s in the name – with art.  That’s very silly, really J.  Incidentally, whilst this programme must have been filmed some time ago, the inclusion of the reign of Suleiman was really rather timely – partly because Viktor Orban rather worryingly appears to think that we’re still living at the time of the Battle of Mohacs, and partly because Suleiman was the son of the Ottoman emperor who conquered Syria … and the Ottomans did quite a decent job of ruling Syria for 300 years or so, before it all went pear-shaped.

Anyway, back to art – and the glorious Suleimaniye Mosque.  If someone’s sufficiently interested in the Ottomans to know about Mohacs et al, or even just if they’ve been to Istanbul, they’ll know about the Suleimaniye Mosque.  But it’s highly unlikely to be the first thing that springs to mind when you think about Suleiman, despite the fact that it bears his name (having said which, hands up everyone who hears the words “Sistine Chapel” and immediately thinks “Ah, yes, Pope Sixtus IV”), and the name of Mimar Sinan, the architect, isn’t known in Britain at all.  Western images of the Ottoman Empire tend to involve either scimitars or harems.  But it’s absolutely stunning – both the building itself and the artwork inside it.  Simon Schama suggested that Suleiman and the Renaissance-era popes were after the same thing, to try to surpass the Hagia Sophia.  I think that might have been pushing it, but sometimes you have to do that to try to make a link and make a programme flow!   But how fascinating to have the glorious art of Suleiman’s Ottoman Empire and the glorious art of Renaissance Europe presented side by side.  I don’t think I’ve ever thought of that before.

I’m better at making links with wars, because that’s what we’re used to.  Here goes!  Back to the Battle of Mohacs.  Hungary – which was, incidentally, probably the first place outside Italy to get really stuck into the Renaissance, and which should probably have got a mention in this programme but didn’t – was split, and the part which didn’t go to the Ottomans ended up under the control of Ferdinand Habsburg, who, when his brother Charles V died, also ended up as Holy Roman Emperor.  I’m making a link here: I’ll get to it in a minute!  The Spanish part of Charles’s domains passed to his (Charles’s) son Philip II, who was succeeded by Philip III, and then by Philip IV.  What about the Renaissance in Spain under the three Philips, then?  Nah?  Too busy being Black Legend-ish?  Too reactionary-Catholic?  When you think about Renaissance art, you just don’t really think about Spain – Aragon and Castile – do you?

But how about Velazquez?  All right, this was possibly cheating a bit.  The art of Velazquez came well after the glories of the High Renaissance and the art and architecture of the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent.  But they weren’t so far apart that it was inappropriate to put them all into one programme, to make comparisons between them, and to talk about the links between them.   We bandy about terms like “the West” and “Europe”, and sometimes forget that even parts of Western Europe have sometimes seemed a bit cut off from that.  Spain never normally gets a look-in when Renaissance art’s being discussed.  It was very interesting to see it included.

How about the Mughals?  Akbar the Great?  Jahangir?  Shah Jahan.  Ah, yes, we all know about Shah Jahan – he built the Taj Mahal!  And the Red Fort.  Mughal political and social history is sadly very little-known in the West, but, although it’s unlikely that many viewers would have heard of the I’timad-ud-Daulah, built by Shah Jahan’s stepmother as a mausoleum for her father and described by Simon Schama as “perfect”, everyone’s heard of the Taj Mahal.  It’s far better known in the West than the Suleimaniye Mosque is.  In fact, I think it’s probably far better known in the West than most of the architecture – I said “architecture”, not “art” – of Renaissance Europe is.  But, although, as with the work of Velazquez, it wasn’t built so long after the Renaissance that it was appropriate to discuss them together, I’ve never seen that done before.  The idea of the programme is for the viewer to appreciate all forms of art, not just to compare and contrast them, obviously, but it is fascinating to compare and contrast them, and to think about them on a world scale.  We just don’t normally do that.  We’re not taught that way.  We do things in bits!   This was a very ambitious series, but it’s working now.  It really is.

And (OK, I know that starting sentences with “and” and “but” isn’t very nice, but I’m not writing an English literature essay), apart from a few slightly tenuous links, it never felt forced.  And it never felt … what’s a good way of putting it?  Overly politically correct?   There’s a trend now, especially with some people writing about literature, to go on and on about people in the West disrespecting Eastern culture, and even to try to make the viewer/reader feel guilty.  This didn’t do that at all.  It was about appreciating everything.  East, West, areas of Europe seen as being artistic leaders and areas of Europe seen as being reactionary – there was a glorious flourishing of art and culture in all of them.

The next episode started with how sad it was that some beautiful Benin bronzes had ended up in the British Museum, being disrespected by people who thought African art was primitive; and I thought, oh dear, here we go.  I’m not saying that it’s not sad; but the previous episode had been so positive, and we get more than enough negative stuff on TV and in the press as it is.   However, it turned out that that wasn’t the tone of the “First Contact” episode at all: it actually was really positive.  We tend to forget the positive stuff.  It’s easy, now, to forget that, in the days of the Voyages of Discovery, the West had huge respect and admiration for Eastern culture, and was after the things that the East produced and the West didn’t or couldn’t.  That was also true of the early days of British involvement in India.  And Western countries, and Russia, were desperate to set up trading links with China.

I’m talking about “the East”, but the programme began by talking about West Africa, and you’d be inclined to say that there wasn’t the same respect in Europe for West Africa that there was for, say, China.  Was that more because of lack of knowledge and lack of contact than anything else?  There was never a Silk Road linking Europe to Africa, the way there was between Europe and Asia … and Benin bronzes never became part of Western culture in the way that Chinese pottery or lacquerware did.  But David Olusoga showed us artwork from Benin, depicting the Portuguese traders who went there in the 15th century, and also showed us how Portuguese art and architecture showed African influences.  He also went on about how a rhinoceros influenced the spread of printing – er, I’m not convinced about that, but it sounded good!  This sort of thing is never discussed.  It’s usually all about the slave trade.  Of course, we should talk about the slave trade, but let’s talk about these positive aspects of “first contact”, as well.

Then on to the Spanish in Mexico and elsewhere in the Americas.  It is really difficult – and I love Spain! – to do this without getting Black Legend-ish!   Long before the days of colonial guilt, you wouldn’t find too many English historians talking about the Spanish in the Americas without getting Black Legend-ish!   So well done and thank you, David Olusoga and the BBC, for looking at it positively and talking about syncretic faiths and syncretic cultures.  I haven’t yet made it to Mexico, but I could have cried when I saw the destruction wrought by the conquistadors on the wonderful buildings, especially the religious buildings, in Peru and Bolivia … but I was also fascinated to see how, in Lima and Cusco and elsewhere the images of Mary and Jesus and other religious figures were dressed in real fabrics, and people had brought, for example, toys to “give” to the images of the baby Jesus.  You don’t see that in Europe.  In Bolivia, at Copacabana – the beach in Brazil is named after a shrine at Lake Titicaca! – the image of the Virgin Mary kind of doubles as the moon goddess: both are worshipped.  There are elements of this in the West Indies as well: voodoo is essentially a syncretism of Christianity and African spiritualism.  And the Day of the Dead festival, on which the programme concentrated, combines Catholic and Aztec traditions wonderfully well.   The influence worked both ways, as David pointed out – Spanish art began to show South American influence.

This has always gone on.  We’ve just marked Easter – which was probably (there’s some debate about it) named after a Germanic goddess called Eostre.  Passover and Easter might commemorate different Bible stories, but they both involve lambs and eggs, and the Easter Bunny tradition goes back to    The Romans were very good at pairing up their gods and goddesses with local gods and goddesses – Minerva was equated with Sulis, of Aquae Sulis fame, and with Athena.  Christmas is a glorious syncretism of Yuletide festivities – trees and mistletoe and Yule logs and so on – and the Christian Nativity story.  There are issues when cultures collide and combine, and people can get quite upset about it – don’t get me started on people referring to Father Christmas as “Santa Claus”, and people in countries where Christmas presents are traditionally brought by the Christ Child get even more upset about the Santa takeover! – but there are positives there too.  And it’s certainly a lot more positive than the usual presentation of the meeting of European and African or Asian cultures as negative and racist.

Some of this wasn’t strictly about art, but never mind!  The next bit was, though – the Netherlands and Japan, maybe not the most obvious of pairings.  You think of the Dutch in Indonesia, and of Japan as shutting itself off from the West, but we were shown how that wasn’t really the case, and there were contacts there … although Japan, which, like China later on, was put off by annoying missionaries, sought to restrict Western influence, whereas the Netherlands went mad for Eastern artwork and Amsterdam became the major market for it.  Britain went mad for it as well: you’ve only to look at the contents of any stately home to see that!

It finished up with the British in India.  Well, it had to – that’s what most viewers would probably have thought of if asked about cultural contact.  The Royal Pavilion in Brighton had already been mentioned, by Simon Schama in the previous episode: this was more about paintings, and some of the early buildings.  The White Mughals era, for lack of a better way of putting it, was a real meeting of cultures, and … well, as I’ve already said, look at the contents of any stately home, and think about the influences of Asia.  And look at the Indian paintings we were shown in this episode, and think about the British influences.  Everyone’s got so much to learn from everyone else.

It ended on a negative note, though, with the rather incongruous construction of the Neoclassical Government House in Kolkata/Calcutta, modelled on Kedleston Hall.  It’s a gorgeous building, but it looks a bit daft and out of place in India.  Then again, putting ancient Greek style buildings in 18th century Washington DC was a bit daft too … er, but that’s totally irrelevant.  I don’t know how next week’s episode (this week’s is about “colour and civilisation”, and will give me an excuse to get soppy about Venice, hooray!), about imperialism, is going to pan out, but it would be nice if it could focus on some positives.

We get enough negativity, and sometimes it feels as if some people, unable to accept that “the past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”, are trying to turn everything about history into something negative.  How wonderful to see some aspects of history which have very often been shown as something negative shown as anything but.  Brilliant from the BBC and the presenters.  This series really has come on in leaps and bounds since it started, and I’m so glad they I persevered with it!













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