September 03, 2009


Marcus Aurelius: A Life. By Frank McLynn. Da Capo. $30.

The Annotated Mona Lisa: A Crash Course in Art History from Prehistoric to Post-Modern, Second Edition. By Carol Strickland, Ph.D. Andrews McMeel. $22.99.

     If there was one Roman emperor who most closely approximated the Platonic ideal of government by philosophers, it was Marcus Aurelius, who lived from 121 to 180 A.D. and ruled, jointly or alone, from 161 A.D. until his death. Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, written in Greek between 170 and 180 A.D., anticipate much medieval philosophy and continue to speak to readers today. Frank McLynn’s exhaustively researched biography of the emperor, utilizing numerous primary sources (from Meditations itself to Marcus’ correspondence with his rhetoric teacher, Cornelius Fronto, and much more) as well as commentaries on Marcus through the ages, places the emperor’s work firmly in the context of the wars and political events of his time – and makes that very remote era come alive. Running nearly 700 pages, including 150 of appendices and index, Marcus Aurelius: A Life is a book more to be savored than read at a rapid pace – indeed, McLynn’s frequently lengthy sentences, although well constructed, can take some time to unravel: “Although Marcus sometimes pays lip service to the Stoic view that good and evil arise only from the use of reason and from misperceptions and ‘false representations,’ a strong element in his thinking, in flat contradiction to this (and here we can see the Gnostic element in his thinking), is that evil is a ‘partial’ phenomenon, something that exists in Nature, but not in the realm of reason.” Still, when McLynn wants to make a point quickly, he can and does: Meditations “is a curious work, which has been much misunderstood. …The book – if we may call it that – is a series of personal notes taken on a daily basis, which was a common practice in the ancient world, particularly as an aid to spiritual progress or self-improvement.” Although Marcus never intended Meditations to be published, its survival in two copies – one in the Vatican library, the other in a 1558 edition from a now-lost manuscript – brought Marcus to the admiring attention of such diverse figures as Goethe, John Stuart Mill and Frederick the Great. And Meditations was responsible for much of Alexander Pope’s philosophy as expressed in his elegant Essay on Criticism and, even more tellingly, in his Essay on Man, which McLynn aptly quotes: “All nature is but art, unknown to thee; All chance, direction which thou canst not see; All discord, harmony not understood; All partial evil, universal good; And, spite of pride, in erring reason’s spite, One truth is clear: whatever is, is right.” The philosophical underpinnings of Marcus’ thought are woven expertly by McLynn into the narrative of the Parthian and Germanic wars that dominated his reign, and into family issues involving Marcus and his 30-year marriage to Faustina the Younger: “There is much circumstantial evidence that Marcus found his free-spirited, assertive and sometimes abrasive (the modern euphemism would be ‘feisty’) wife a trial.” Certainly McLynn’s exploration is aided by the fact that Marcus was a multifaceted character and was genuinely concerned with being a good ruler, dedicated to duty and service to Rome and its people. Also, there is fascination aplenty in the wars, revolts, and political machinations of his time. And Marcus’ position as the last of what Machiavelli called Rome’s “five good emperors” – his son and successor, Commodus, was arbitrary, capricious and often embroiled in political intrigue – guarantees the biography a certain heft beyond its sheer physical size. Still, these elements alone would not be enough for a successful study of this ruler and Stoic philosopher. It is to McLynn’s considerable credit that he pulls so many strands of Marcus’ life and thinking so effectively together.

     A far thinner book, Carol Strickland’s The Annotated Mona Lisa knits together even more elements – of which one small one is the Capitoline Hill statue of Marcus Aurelius, dating to 165 A.D. The title of Strickland’s book is a misnomer, implying a narrower focus than this ambitious work actually has. The subtitle, A Crash Course in Art History from Prehistoric to Post-Modern, makes the work’s scope much clearer. In short but information-packed chapters filled with illustrations, intelligent captions, historical data, brief biographies and analyses of paintings, sculptures and architecture, Strickland starts with cave paintings and Stonehenge, moves through Greece and Rome to “the reign of religion” in the Middle Ages, then marches inexorably (and very informatively) through Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, 19th century and more recent art and artists. Although inevitably somewhat superficial – it runs only 206 pages – The Annotated Mona Lisa is extraordinarily packed with information and some interesting opinions. For example, Strickland pronounces Artemesia Gentileschi (1593-1653) “the first feminist painter” and Caravaggio (1571-1610) “the first Bohemian artist.” The sheer volume of material sometimes leads to errors – in Caravaggio’s specific case, Strickland says he died at age 37 rather than 38 – but in general, the book is accurate, intelligent and well argued. Many of its most useful sections are to be found in boxed and tabular layout. The “Romanticism” box, for example, is a once-over-lightly view of the field’s values (“intuition, emotion, imagination”), inspiration, tone, color, subjects, genres, artistic technique (“quick brushstrokes, strong light-and-shade contrasts”) and composition (“use of diagonal”). The tables comparing various artists of the same time period are even more impressive, such as “How to Tell Them Apart” about Manet, Monet, Renoir and Degas – giving, for each, his subjects, colors, style and advice. Strickland’s wide-ranging interests go far beyond traditional definitions of art, encompassing photography (and its relationship to painting), architecture and more. And she does a wonderful job explaining the various “isms” of art: fauvism, impressionism, abstract expressionism, cubism, modernism, etc. Her opinions of specific artists, sprinkled throughout the text, are pithy and pointed: “The opposite of [Robert] Rauschenberg’s passionate, Jack Daniels-swilling welcome of chaos is the cool calculation of Jasper Johns.” And her forays into humor are welcome in a field that tends to take itself very seriously, as when she calls minimalism “the cool school.” The Annotated Mona Lisa is a wonderful introduction to the art world – and beyond – for anyone who wants a better understanding of the meanings behind all those paintings and sculptures in museums, not to mention all those tourist-attraction buildings that sprinkle cities worldwide.

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