Can Narcissism Partially Explain the Cult of Beauty in Latin Cultures?

Fernando Roca Rey, a Peruvian Torero

Conrad Phillips. Hi Man of Roma, I just came across your blog as I was learning about polyphonic music. I bookmarked your interest in Montaigne and like the Platonic dialogue connection (…) How does Montaigne and narcissism fit into your background? [here the original conversation, MoR]

Man of Roma. Well, narcissism was a sort of a jest in my bio info page, although there is some annoying narcissism in the Mediterranean people, living in the sun, something for example the Britons, from clouds and rough weather, reproach us, not without reason.

But the beauty of classical or Renaissance art cannot be quite understood without considering a certain narcissistic component, in my view. Works of art (like Palladio’s villas or palaces, for example, see the London exhibition) were mainly for great families who sought distinction, éclat. The elegance of a Julius Caesar (here is a post considering this aspect of him), or of most toreros for example, or of the French, who love to correct foreigners who speak their language, can be explained by some vanity as well. It may be a Roman and Greek thing, I don’t want to ennoble it, quite the contrary, but it is in us [see below Narcissus by the painter Caravaggio, 1571 – 1610].

Narcissus by Caravaggio. Click for credits

Montaigne is a constant dialogue I have. He mythicizes the ancient world as much as I do, he talks of himself without any self-love, a sort of high level country philosopher, and a spontaneous philosopher.

I often prefer ideas that unfold, like his do, through scattered notes rather than finished books, more sedentary in my view and less thought provoking.

Ψ

Related posts:

“Italy Was, And Is, Vain”

Gods are Watching with an Envious Eye

Not long ago my friend Mario took me for a drive on his stupendous vintage Lancia Flavia 1500. Although now living in Rome Mario is from Naples, one of the biggest towns of the Italian Mezzogiorno, and he is so proud of his gioiello (jewel) which he seems to care for more than he does for his wife and children.

The trip had been great, the green and smiling countryside north of Rome had shown so sunny and refreshing, and our glowing Lancia had well behaved so far despite its age (1960).

On the way back to Rome along the via Flaminia I exclaimed merrily:

Diavolo, this car is a gem, it has rolled as smoothly as olive oil and we didn’t have any problem during the whole drive.”

Mario snapped with a worried look:

Zitto zitto non lo dire! (hush! hush! don’t you say that!).” He didn’t add much but I knew what he meant:

“Oh you shut the hell up! Do you want the car to break down? Do you want anything bad to happen to us?” as if the mere utterance of happiness would attract us ill luck or the envy from someone.

Well, the envy from whom?

Ψ

A good answer is provided by the modern Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis. When he was very young he once went travelling all over Italy. When he got to Florence (see image above) he felt so happy in front of all those palaces, statues and paintings that he felt that the rights of the humans were somewhat overstepped. As a young and superstitious provincial – he writes in his autobiography – he was terror-stricken for “as I well knew, the gods are envious creatures, and it is hubris to be happy and to know that you are happy.”

So, in order to counterbalance such blissful state of mind, he bought a pair of narrow shoes he wore in the morning and which made him miserable and “hopping about like a crow.” He then changed shoes in the afternoon so he could walk weightlessly and thus vent all his joy. He strode along the banks of the Arno river, he went up to San Miniato etc. but the next morning he went back to his narrow shoes (and to his misery again).

Ψ

More than 23 centuries before Kazantzakis’s trip to Italy, the Greek Herodotus, the first historian of the Western world, wrote about a man extremely fortunate who got everything from life and who was tyrant of Samos, a beautiful island of the Greek archipelago (see a picture by Nasa above). His name was Polycrates and he was so fortunate and his wealth and power so great that one day his friend Amasis, pharaoh of Egypt, wrote him a letter saying:

“Beware Polycrates: such fortune being not allowed to humans, get rid of whatever is most precious and dear to you in order to escape from gods’ wrath.”

Hit by fear and understanding that the pharaoh’s suggestion was wise Polycrates began reflecting on the things he possessed that were the most beautiful, precious and dear to him and among them he chose a stupendous ring with an emerald set in gold he was always wearing day and night. He then went on board of a ship and ordered the sailors put out into the open sea. Once far away from his island he took the ring from his finger and threw it away into the deep.

What happened is that some time afterwards a fisherman caught such a big fish he thought it deserved to be given as a present to the Lord of Samos. He thus brought the fish to the palace and when the servants cut the fish open they saw it contained a beautiful ring and brought it to the tyrant.

Polycrates much to his horror recognizing the ring finally understood that the envious gods had something in store for him.

After a few years he was captured with guile by the Persian governor of Sardis, Oroetes.

His life had been happy and glorious. Ignominious and horrible happened to be his death. Oroetes had him impaled and then crucified.

PS
The next post, Knowing Thyself, connects the three episodes and provides the reader with some explanation regarding Greek gods’ envy.

Living to Our Fullest Potential

Living A Worthy Life

In “Vivere alla massima espressione” (Living to our fullest potential) Dario Bernazza provides a list of the major problems we have to solve in order to live a life “worthy of being lived”.

[Dario Bernazza, Vivere alla massima espressione, Editrice Partenone – Luciano Bernazza & C – Roma 1989]

It is the first of Bernazza’s books we stumbled upon and the reason we were first captured (and which kept us reading) was the fact that a similar list was handed over to us by our mentor since the first days of our encounter (above you can see The Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David, 1787.)

Well, not that we think Bernazza is like Socrates. He though refers a lot to Socrates’ thought, plus certainly Magister, our mentor, was a bit like a Socrates to us.

When Suffering Exceeds Joy

Leaving memories behind and getting back to Country Philosopher‘s book (this is how we like to call Bernazza), we saw in an earlier post how there is like a balance in life.

If liabilities (sufferings) exceed the assets (every pleasant moment, satisfaction or success) our life is a failure (and it would be preferable not to have come into this world). If the contrary occurs, our life is happy and fruitful (or advantageous, as CP puts it).

Liabilities though are not avoidable and are inflicted on us without any mercy, while the assets are not given us as a gift, and we must earn them day by day, bit by bit.

How?

By providing the best possible solution to the major problems of our life. This is our only way of diverting or softening our life liabilities.

The Happiness List

Let us then look at these major issues which, according to CP, we must necessarily address in the best possible way. They are 20. Yes, 20. Exactly. Bernazza is always a bit categorical. Here is the list.

1. Defining a purpose in life
2. Keeping ourselves in good health
3. Serenity of soul
4. Friendship
5. Marriage
6. Children
7. Sex
8. Being reasonably well-off
9. Enjoyment, beauty and the exquisite
10. Loneliness, ennui and feeling of emptiness
11. Choice of studies, job, career
12. Choosing where to live
13. Our behaviour towards others
14. Embracing ‘good’ as an irreversible choice
15. Excess and vice
16. Being equipped with an adequate ethical instrumentation
17. Happiness is a long, sensible (and attainable) personal conquest
18. Will is power
19. Being convinced of the enormous power of honesty
20. The necessity of carefully planning our life

Since we cannot report on every single point of the list, only 2-3 points will be analysed (here and in future posts). As far as the rest, we will only touch upon the things that struck us most.

1. The Purpose of Life

Our life, like a long and complex journey, has to set its goal. So, which is this goal and how can we define it? The argumentation of CP is clear and simple (and probably naïve, but I cannot but feel some truth in it):
Since our life is the only chance of existing we have, after which we will disappear (CP is an agnostic who considers probable our annihilation after death), one should be really convinced that the most irreparable of errors is that of not trying our best to live to the highest possible degree. If our existence is nothing but a blink between two eternities (theories of modern physicists do not seem to interest CP) the purpose of life is necessarily that of living this sole life we have to our fullest potential.

Every single day must be lived to our best, and we must continuously improve this capacity of living to our fullest. This is why we should not ask ourselves – says CP – “why do I exist” (a question we can answer via the twisted efforts of our imagination only) but rather: “how do I exist?”.

The problem is that very few people know what is most convenient to us in our everyday choices, i.e. we do not know what actions shall bring us happiness or sorrow (this previous post discusses this point). If we knew – argues CP – the number of unhappy people around would be smaller. This is why learning how to solve the main problems of life (the list, again) will diminish our life’s liabilities and allow us to live in the best possible way.

Ψ

The discussion on Bernazza’s list is continued here:
Health and Serenity of Soul
From Friendship to Asking Mamma when Looking for “Mr Right”

See also:
Assets and Liabilities in Life

Sex and the City (of Rome). 3

Borghese Hermaphroditus, Louvre. Fair use

Italian version

So far we have wandered about Roman sexuality trying to understand 1) how remote it is from contemporary sexuality and 2) why everything has radically changed in the West since those times.

The first question seems clear. The Romans were very different and fancifully enjoyed pleasures and sex even though they tried not to be dominated by them (see our earlier post on ancient teachings.)

How different they were finds further evidence in statues like the famous Borghese Hermaphroditus shown above and kept at the Louvre Museum in Paris, especially when we think that these statues were very common in the Greco-Roman world. A hermaphroditus is actually a transsexual.

Can you imagine today a VIP’s living room offering the view of a marble transsexual to guests? Well, apart from a few eccentric artistic milieus, I think even open-minded people would be a bit puzzled, wouldn’t they.

The second question is more difficult. I believe that the Christian religion bears some responsibility, although I acknowledge that sexual pleasure & love are tremendous forces to the extent that they can be a social problem to be handled no matter the culture or epoch we live in.

As the Spanish philosopher Fernando Savater put it, we like sex too much, it therefore being potentially dangerous and unproductive, with every society trying to regulate it in a way or another.

Puritanism in its broad meaning, however, (eg loving only what is not pleasurable,) is to be condemned in my view even if it can push us to extremely hard work (puritanism was seen, no need to remind it, as a factor of development in areas of the United States according to Max Weber’s theories – if my memory is not faltering.)

lupaottimigut1.jpg

As always it is a matter of right measure. The Romans achieved great things (like the Anglo-Saxons did) and worked hard to attain them but lived pleasantly and were (mostly) not puritanical (in the early Republic they were.)

Therefore it is not by chance the Latin folks originated from them (Italy, France, Portugal, Spain etc.) tend to savour life with taste, refinement and joy, this incidentally also being a reason why the Italian and the French ways of life are getting attractive and represent today a school (not the only one) of savoir vivre in the West.

Thing being Latin folks are more or less taught since they were babies to cultivate beauty and all it implies.

It is so simple,
as simple and beautiful
as a Greek temple.

Their ancestors in fact, our Ancient Romans, didn’t just eat (as many Anglo-Saxons do, though progress is evident): they invented a highly refined culinary art. Equally, they didn’t just reproduce themselves (as many Christian fanatics do): they invented forms of refined eroticism which allowed them to live a fuller life.

Is it wrong? Is it right?

Should beauty in all its forms be a main part of our life?

A full answer is more coomplicated than it seems, but I definitely think it is right.

Yes, I conclusively think it is right, my sweet readers. Oh I really don’t have many doubts about that.

ψ

Related posts:

Sex and the city (of Rome) 1
Sex and the city (of Rome) 2

Sex and the city (of Rome) 4
Sex and the city (of Rome). A Conclusion.

Caesar, Great Man (and Don Juan)

Sex and the City (of Rome). 1

Callipygian Venus. Fair use

Italian version

The ancient Greco-Romans had a totally different attitude toward sex (so the minor or the puritanical shouldn’t read further.)

Suffice it to have a look at these statues, both beautiful and erotic, to intuitively grasp a sensuality that was open and entirely different from the Western manners of today.

The beauty and natural perfection of these bodies convey in fact the idea – a very simple idea, this very gifted Greek student I recently met would say – that sex wasn’t perceived as lewd or licentious; it was felt instead as one of the joys of life.

It is so simple:
as simple (and beautiful)
as a Greek temple
.

Sex was actually enjoyed naturally though in ways most contemporary folks wouldn’t even imagine, especially when we consider that these statues were somehow linked to rituals and religion.

We can admire above the perfect classical beauty of Venus Kallipygos, while, below, the statue of a Satyr (which a Roman female friend of mine chose among a set and assured me:‘it’s a pretty good erotic sample.’ Well, I couldn’t but yield to her superior discernment.)

Satyr (or Satiro, in Italian)

Venus was the Goddess of love (both carnal and spiritual) while a Satyr was a Dionysian creature lover of wine, women and boys, and ready for every physical pleasure. Child satyrs existed also (which appears such a sad thing to us nowadays) and took part in Bacchanalian/Dionysian religious rituals, usually (or sometimes) involving orgies too.

At this point I’m sure every reader cannot but agree that the Greco-Romans had a VERY different attitude toward sex. No doubt about that. An ENTIRELY different attitude indeed.

lupaottimigut1.jpg

If we could forget that these are classical statues, if we could regard them just as they appear to us and out of their context, we’d surely see them as pornographic.

According to the Wikipedia:

“the concept of pornography as understood today did not exist until the Victorian era. …When large scale excavations of Pompeii were undertaken in the 1860s, much of the erotic art of the Romans came to light, shocking the Victorians who saw themselves as the intellectual heirs of the Roman Empire. They did not know what to do with the frank depictions of sexuality, and endeavored to hide them away ….. The moveable objects were locked away in the Secret Museum in Naples, Italy.”

[For more on these Pompeii erotic artifacts: this post of ours; two other posts, 1 and 2, from Ancient Digger, the former showing a video on the erotic artifacts, the latter discussing Roman sexuality & erotic art; a BBC program on the secret museum. Further readings are listed at the bottom of the page]

Shocking Roman Sexuality

Pan & goat Roman sex

Pan copulating with a she-goat. Click to enlarge and for credits (Wikimedia)

I do not quite agree with Wikipedia on how and when the modern concept of pornography was conceived, seeming this to me a totally Anglo-Saxon centred observation, forgetful of how history can be ancient.

I might be wrong (or right) but who the hell cares, chissenefrega, this whole Victorian thing being incredibly funny.

I can see these prudish Victorians feeling themselves as the heirs of the Romans (which somehow they were, at least in my view) who much to their horror found out how perverted the Romans had been (at least in their view), while together with the Italians they were uncovering all these sexy statues and frescoes.

I am imagining their shocked pale faces and am especially fantasizing about their shamefully and hastily helping the Neapolitans to hide somewhere the abominable truth.

The Neapolitans, incidentally, were at that time probably laughing at them a bit too, being of course much less disturbed by all those “frank depictions of sexuality” (try to guess why, dear reader … ).

Buttock Contest

Aphrodite of the Beautiful Buttocks. Fair use

Getting back to the Ancients, this Aphrodite of the Beautiful Buttocks is uncovering herself and looking back (and down) in order to evaluate her perfect behind.

The reason is again very simple (and very erotic, I’ll confess.) All originated from a buttock contest between two gorgeous sisters.

For which reason, who knows, this statue dedicated to Venus-Aphrodite might exactly represent both the winner and her behind. I mean – it’s sheer historical interest, of course – there’s a chance we are looking at her real ass. Not at usual idealized hindquarters according to Greek aesthetics.

And, the self-evaluation of her buttocks – pretty sure of that – was even more obvious than it appears today since statues were mostly painted in full colour therefore the direction of her gaze was probably more evident, her pupils being painted.

ψ

This cult of Venus-Aphrodite with beautiful buttocks appeared in Greek Syracuse (Sicily, Italy,) according to some ancient author, since this is where the sisters apparently lived.

Again, needless to say, it would be inconceivable nowadays to dedicate a sanctuary, a holy place, to a goddess because of a girl’s hot butttocks (read in the Wikipedia the whole peculiar story of the two lovely sisters.)

Goddess Venus

Esquiline Venus, in all her voluptuousness

Esquiline Venus, in all her voluptuousness, found in 1874 on the Esquiline Hill in Rome (from the Horti Lamiani possibly). Capitoline Museums, Rome. Click for credits and other pictures of her

Venus was the goddess of beauty, fertility and love.

The Roman Venus was born around Lavinium, according to Strabo. If true it was not by chance since Aeneas, the great Roman ancestor and son of Venus, landed in that area and founded the town after Lavinia, his wife. The Romans by the way were children of Venus and of Mars, the God of War: love and war – a weird mix, isn’t it.

This I am thinking while strolling between the Colosseum, to my left, and the temple of Venus and Roma, to my right, between these symbols of life and death. How multihued the Romans were.

The Greek Aphrodite was instead born in Cyprus – where the Greek student comes from, although I do not believe in signs like Brasilian Coelho does.

Vénus de l'Esquilin or Venus Esquilina

Vénus de l’Esquilin or Venus Esquilina, again. Some scholars suggest the model for this statue was Cleopatra herself. Flickr image, click for credits. Musei Capitolini. Roma

Young couples gathered close to the Venus temples for petting, necking and even coupling (green areas with temples where common in late Rome.) People were probably discreet but what is interesting is that their loving felt somehow enhanced, even sanctified by the presence of the Goddess, which is again unimaginable today despite our so-called sexual freedom.

Think of a today’s scenario where men and women flock near a Catholic or an Anglican church, in spring time, or in any time, for petting and all. I mean, even the mere thought could offend a true Christian.

Of course I do ask for pardon though please it’d also be nice if religious people did some effort as well. We are not here to offend religion(s) nor to make a porn site out this blog (which could make us richer though not necessarily happier.) We are here to talk about the Western roots. Now it turns these ancient Greeks & Romans had entirely different sexual mores.

Is it good? Is it bad? Hard to say. We somehow prefer the ancient customs though it is our personal opinion.  That is, we love to think Sex to equal Beauty, love and sex to be a sublime joy that shouldn’t be necessarily related to reproduction (like ALL Popes tried endlessly to teach us.)

lupaottimigut1.jpg

An Oppressive Revolution

OK, one might say. If these are our Western roots, what the hell has then happened? Why had we to undergo such an oppressive revolution which turned one of the joys of life into something indecent?

Was it because of the Victorians? Because of the Muslims? Was it because of the Christian priests and Fathers?

Perhaps the Victorians had later some influence on India, a country were the Kama Sutra was written, the first great text about love and sexual intercourse – beautiful, poetic and scientific – and the Victorians arrived with their not entirely positive influence in this field of human life …

[...if what the Wikipedia says is true.  I need some feedback by my Indians readers. Update: I received extensive Indian feedback one year later]

ψ

As for the West I am sure the answer is to be found during the times when the Roman Empire turned into a Christian Roman Empire, hence from Emperor Constantine onward (4th century AD.)

Not immediately though. It took some time, it surely took some time before we became totally repressed.

The Christians were mainly responsible, in my opinion, for this change of attitude (and for atrocities committed against non-Christians soon after Christianity took over), but it’d be fair to add that numerous pagans had already become a bit more puritanical as a reaction to some excesses.

ψ

One last thing. Are anywhere to be found survivals of such ancient freer attitude towards sex?

I believe so. We have said (Braudel had said) that big civilisations do not die. Plus we had entitled this post Permanences III (but changed its title later.)

Ok. Let’s not spoil what is next in the Sex and the city (of Rome) series.

A Roman Invoking Venus

We’ll conclude:

1) with this Roman copy of Castor and Pollux, or Dioscuri (youths of Zeus) by Praxiteles, Madrid (see below) – also enthusiastically approved by my female friend;

2) with Lucretius’ initial prayer to Venus.

ψ

Lucretius is a great Roman poet. From his verses one can get a good feel of how a real Ancient Roman felt about Venus.

So it is a pretty good conclusion for this Sex and the Romans num. 1 post.

If you are lucky enough to appreciate these verses you’ll live a unique experience, a real time-machine experience. This also classics offer, a time-machine experience.

Try to read these words attentively. You might penetrate the mysteries of a lost, arcane – though still living, still living – world …

Man of Roma

Dioskouroi. Madrid. Praxiteles (Roman copy) fair use

Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura.

Initial invocation to Venus.

“Mother of Rome, delight of Gods and men,
Dear Venus that beneath the gliding stars
Makest to teem the many-voyaged main
And fruitful lands- for all of living things
Through thee alone are evermore conceived,
Through thee are risen to visit the great sun-
Before thee, Goddess, and thy coming on,
Flee stormy wind and massy cloud away,
For thee the daedal Earth bears scented flowers,
For thee waters of the unvexed deep
Smile, and the hollows of the serene sky
Glow with diffused radiance for thee!

For soon as comes the springtime face of day,
And procreant gales blow from the West unbarred,
First fowls of air, smit to the heart by thee,
Foretoken thy approach, O thou Divine,
And leap the wild herds round the happy fields
Or swim the bounding torrents. Thus amain,
Seized with the spell, all creatures follow thee
Whithersoever thou walkest forth to lead,
And thence through seas and mountains and swift streams,
Through leafy homes of birds and greening plains,
Kindling the lure of love in every breast,
Thou bringest the eternal generations forth,
Kind after kind. And since ’tis thou alone
Guidest the Cosmos, and without thee naught
Is risen to reach the shining shores of light,
Nor aught of joyful or of lovely born,
Thee do I crave co-partner in that verse
Which I presume on Nature to compose
For Memmius mine, whom thou hast willed to be
Peerless in every grace at every hour-

Wherefore indeed, Divine one, give my words
Immortal charm. Lull to a timely rest
O’er sea and land the savage works of war,
For thou alone hast power with public peace
To aid mortality; since he who rules
The savage works of battle, puissant Mars,
How often to thy bosom flings his strength
O’ermastered by the eternal wound of love-
And there, with eyes and full throat backward thrown,
Gazing, my Goddess, open-mouthed at thee,
Pastures on love his greedy sight, his breath
Hanging upon thy lips. Him thus reclined
Fill with thy holy body, round, above!
Pour from those lips soft syllables to win
Peace for the Romans, glorious Lady, peace!.”

Of The Nature of Things [De Rerum Natura]
by Lucretius [Titus Lucretius Carus]
(Initial invocation to Venus)
Translated by William Ellery Leonard
(1876-1944)
Project Gutenberg Text

Reference and further reading:

  • Michael Grant and Antonia Mulas, Eros in Pompeii: The Erotic Art Collection of the Museum of Naples. New York: Stewart, Tabori and Chang, 1997 (translated from the original 1975 Italian edition).
  • Walter Kendrick, The Secret Museum: Pornography in Modern Culture (Berkley: University of California Press, 1996) ISBN 0-520-20729-7.
  • Antonio Varone, Eroticism in Pompeii. Getty Trust Publications: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2001.
  • John Clarke, Roman Sex: 100 B.C. to A.D. 250, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2003.
  • “Colonel Fanin” (Stanislas Marie César Famin), The Royal Museum at Naples, being some account of the erotic paintings, bronzes and statues contained in that famous “cabinet secret”(1871) On-line translation of Musée royal de Naples; peintures, bronzes et statues érotiques du cabinet secret, avec leur explication, 1836. Brief introduction by J.B. Hare, 2003.

ψ

Related posts:

Sex and the city (of Rome) 2
Sex and the city (of Rome) 3
Sex and the city (of Rome) 4
Sex and the city (of Rome). A Conclusion

Caesar, Great Man (and Don Juan)

Sex and the city (of Rome). Season II. 1

See also:

Silvestri, Berlusconi and the Emperor Tiberius

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 123 other followers