This week: The British Museum, the Roman Republic & more.
Collecting the World, with James Delbourgo and Christopher L. Brown: Sir Hans Sloane may now be best known for lending his name to some of London’s chicest, most expensive streets: Chelsea’s Sloane Square, Sloane Street, and Sloane Avenue—that vital artery connecting Chelsea and South Kensington—as well as Hans Street, Hans Place, Hans Road, and Hans Crescent, in the area formerly known as Hans Town, now part of Knightsbridge. But what few know is that Sloane, a London society physician born in County Down, Northern Ireland in 1660, is the original source of one of London’s most treasured cultural attractions: The British Museum. Sloane’s fortune provided for a massive collection of specimens from the natural world, which upon his death was donated to Parliament on the stipulation that Sloane’s executors receive £20,000 for the lot (Sloane himself valued the contents at more than £50,000). While the government took the bequest on, opening The British Museum in 1759, six years after Sloane’s death, not all were convinced of the public good of the collection. Horace Walpole, one of the charter trustees of the museum, said of Sloane and his collection: “He valued it at fourscore thousand, and so would anyone who loves hippopotamuses, sharks with one ear, and spiders as big as geese!” James Delbourgo’s new book, Collecting the World: Hans Sloane and the Origins of the British Museum explores Sloane’s role in the creation of an enduring part of London’s cultural patrimony. He will discuss it with Christopher L. Brown, a Professor of History at Columbia University, next Thursday at Book Culture. —BR
“Christopher Wilmarth,” at Betty Cuningham Gallery (through October 29, 2017): It was Christopher Wilmarth’s great innovation to find the spiritual dimension in metal’s hard edge. In the 1970s, using etched glass, he filled the spaces of his metal sculptures with an ineffable, cloudy mist. A minimalist sculptor of the maximal, Wilmarth set out to “make sculptures that evoke a spiritual disembodied state close to that of reverie,” he said. In the early 1980s, inspired by seven poems by Mallarmé, in a translation by Frederick Morgan, Wilmarth furthered this exploration of glass and air in a series called “Breath.” The minimalist angles of the 1970s and the breath-filled curves of the 1980s are now both on display at Cuningham in sculptural maquettes and works on paper. The artist’s suicide in 1987, at the age of forty-four, still haunts the show, as it does all of Wilmarth’s somber and emotive work. —JP
Alisa Weilerstein and Inon Barnatan at Carnegie Hall (October 17): One item that Jay Nordlinger and I both singled out in our fall preview podcast was this recital on Tuesday at Carnegie Hall with Alisa Weilerstein and Inon Barnatan. Weilerstein is justly one of the most celebrated instrumentalists on the planet, a brilliant cellist in the prime of her career. Her well-rounded program on Tuesday will include Through Your Fingers, a world premiere by Steven Mackey, Rachmaninoff’s Cello Sonata, Mendelssohn’s Cello Sonata No. 2, and Britten’s Cello Sonata, one of the most virtuosic pieces in the genre. —ECS
The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic, by Mike Duncan (PublicAffairs): The year 146 BC was a fateful year for the Roman Republic. It was then that the Romans finally made good on Cato the Elder’s repeated injunction Delenda est Carthago: “Carthage must be destroyed.” The Romans besieged the city and utterly destroyed it, selling what remained of the population into slavery. (They did not, however, sow the fields with salt as you’ve probably been told: that was a nineteenth-century ornament.) In eliminating Carthage, Rome also eliminated its chief commercial rival in the Mediterranean. Theirs was the only game in town now. That same year, the Romans besieged and utterly destroyed the Greek city of Corinth, thus eliminating the only competing source of power in the Greek world. From the Aegean to the hinterland of Spain, Rome now reigned supreme. Did they break out the Falernian wine and kick back to enjoy a leisurely peace dividend? Hardly. As Mike Duncan shows in The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic, with no credible external enemies to battle, the Romans promptly made enemies of themselves. A scant decade after 146, the populist reformer Tiberius Gracchus introduced mob violence into the metabolism of Roman political life. He was murdered by agents of the Senate for his pains, and his brother Gaius replayed his performance a decade later, committing suicide after his own agitation for land reform failed. It is sometimes said that Julius Caesar brought the Roman Republic to an end when he crossed the Rubicon in 49 BC, precipitating the civil war that left him dictator. But Caesar was right when he observed that the Republic had become only a name, its substance worn away by decades of internal strife. Duncan, an amateur historian and accomplished podcaster (his History of Rome podcast fills some 200 episodes) brings this remarkable period of Roman history to life, taking us from the aftermath of the Third Punic War through the populist agitations of the Gracchi brothers, the brilliant if illegal career of the general Marius (Caesar’s uncle), and culminating in the exploits of Lucius Sulla (grandfather of Caesar’s second wife, Pompeia). Marius, another populist, totally reformed the Roman army, made himself Consul six times, and introduced proscriptions to Roman life: the names of political enemies would be posted in the forum whereupon their property and often their lives were forfeit. Marius’s enemy Sulla, an anti-populist, took the proscriptions much further, murdering thousands as he undid most of Marius’s populist reforms. Sulla made himself dictator, then set about endeavoring to reestablish the prestige of the Senate and render autocratic careers like his and Marius’s impossible. Satisfied that he had succeeded, he surrendered power and spent his declining years cultivating his garden and giving dinner parties. But the lesson imbibed by ambitious men, from Pompey the Great and the plutocrat Crassus to Julius Caesar, was the opposite of what Sulla had intended. He sought to hamstring ambition through a complicated network of laws and restrictions. But the take-away from his career was the near-absolute power that was available to anyone who commanded enough troops. By the time Sulla died, in 78 BC, the Republic was over, the credits were rolling, but the crowd had yet to leave the theater. This companionable and sprightly book captures the political drama and human passion of that extraordinary story. —RK
From the archive: “The sketchbooks of Picasso” by Jed Perl (November 1986). On an exhibition of the Spanish Modernist’s sketchbooks at Pace Gallery, New York.
From the current issue: “Constitution Day,” Notes & Comments. On the enduring success of the Constitution of the United States & on George Washington’s Farewell Address of 1796.
Broadcast: Introducing audio articles. A selection of dictated articles from The New Criterion.