March 12, 2006


The day before I leave for New Zealand, Linda and I hop over to the Gardner for a one-day symposium on "Pirates, Pizza, and Painting" -- a discussion of cultural interchange in the Eastern Mediterranean in the 14th and 15th centuries -- especially the interchange between the Ottoman court after the fall of Constantinople and Venice.

At the request of a Sultan who was, apparently, deeply interested in the new advances in representational art in the barbaric West, Venice dispatched a prominent artist (Gentile Bellini) with their embassy, along with an assortment of prints. We still have Bellini's work, and we still have those prints. Someone colored them, and someone pasted them into an album of Turkoman patterns resused as a sort of scrapbook, and there they are still.

Lots of interesting questions, asked by some intriguing scholars. Kathryn Kopman-Appel asks, "what did the Jews think of all this art stuff, that seemed so intriguing to the Muslims?" The answer is that they decided early on that two-dimensionsal art wasn't forbidden, but they also decided that Christians were idolaters (though one commentator observed that Byzantine art was do bad that, apparently, Christians were no longer very good at idolatry!) Ironically, the 13th-century Christian attack on the Talmud led Jewish scholars to learn more about Christianity, and that led Jews into using illustration much more freely in their manuscripts.

Nancy Jenkins gave a delightful tour of the development of pasta -- often ascribed to Marco Polo. She believes the Chinese origin of noodles is a mix; once you have wheat cultivation, she thinks, both bread and pasta follow inevitably. You're making porridge as usual, the goats get loose, by the time you catch the goats the porridge has begun to ferment but it's too late to start over and so you cook the stuff and hope no one notices. Put it in the fire and you've got bread; boil it and you've got pasta.

The afternoon was spent with some fine close-reading of drawings and paintings. It's good to know there are people who know so much stuff. There was lots I didn't follow, like the lovely drawing of a Venetian galley attributed to Raphael (and labeled on Deborah Howard's slide "But surely not!" for reasons doubtless immediately evident to those in the audience who belonged there and who weren't software designers out of their element.

Attending symposia out of your field is often more fun and more instructive than sticking to what you know. People worry too much, I think, about what they won't understand. If some of the talk is too technical or too sophisticated, the odds are good that the preceding parts will have been new and fascinating.

Yes, sometimes is gets out of hand. Humanities people in their element sometimes assume that everybody speaks English, French, and Italian. Occasionally in the sciences you'll hit a talk that absolutely requires some math you don't possess. But these mishaps hardly ever happen.