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‘Leonardo and the Last Supper’ by Ross King

Leonardo and the Last Supper by Ross King

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


I still remember an excellent replica of Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” in a tapestry form decorated on the wall of our family living room when I was in elementary school. It was vast and expansive, nonetheless magnificent with the profoundness of the scene and the expressions on the faces in it – all wondrous and curious. Now a stream of time has flown, but the first impression of the art still has become one of the stars in my heart’s constellation. “Leonardo and the Last Supper” by Ross King has added to the star the brilliance with telling stories resurrecting the atmosphere of the time and vividness of the people surrounding the creation and the creator of the art.

The book is an alluring admixture of the biography of Leonardo da Vinci and the history of religion, politics, society, and culture; all skillfully swirled in Ross’s skillful narrative account of the person of da Vinci and his work of the Last Supper. The narrative becomes more intriguing as the chapters replete with entertainingly informative tidbits about personal accounts of people related to da Vinci and involved in creating the Last Supper are ascending. The story’s construction follows how Samuel Johnson, the 18th-century English essayist and cultural critic, narrated the lives of poets in The Lives of the Poets, composed of a brief biography of a poet, personal accounts of the poet, and professional criticism of the works. The reader will first be acquainted with da Vinci’s biographic backgrounds: parents, a well-to-do lawyer father, and a middle eastern slave mother owned by his father’s household. Da Vinci’s struggle with spelling and even harder Latin education, his fabrication of engineering work experience in his curriculum vitae to obtain a military commissioned engineer post when coming to Milan from Tuscany, and so forth. All the information is a telltale factor contributing to da Vinci’s rise to celebrity in his and our times, which is refreshingly informative to learn that the perennial polymath also had feet of clay with colors of contrast.

Ross is a scholar with a novelist’s magic wand to wield his writing power, casting a spell on facts and knowledge with the beauty of language and ease of words, captivating readers of all life paths with gripping narrative skills. Another book of his “Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling,” which I enjoyed with great pleasure, is a helpful companion to this book because both Michelangelo and da Vinci were contemporaries, working under their aristocratic patronage the recalcitrant spirits of creative souls in reins of livelihood. It would also be an excellent reference to the social statuses of artists at that time. Contrary to our images of free-spirited artists, artists worked for their royal, ecclesiastical, and wealthy employers. Therefore, they were not free to choose subject matters for their works because their bosses wanted their power and fame to become works of art, as it were.

Upon closing the last page of Leonardo and the Last Supper, I reminded myself of Plato’s aesthetic definition. Art is a copy of Form, the perfect, pristine Beauty. It exists only in Idea because da Vinci was also a scientist and an engineer who found perfect beauty in perfect numerical and astronomical elements of nature. However, da Vinci’s Last Supper is filled with pathos, contrasts of human emotions, paradoxes of light and dark, good and evil, constantly changing, never-ending. Da Vinci was a humanist, finding beauty in nature as it is, regardless of perfect Form, the unattainable ideal that is out of touch. One thing right about Plato’s Aesthetics is that art is at best entertainment and at worst a dangerous illusion. That says it. Leonardo’s Last Supper is a soul’s entertainment, and so is Ross’s “Leonardo and the Last Supper.”



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’24 Hours in Ancient Rome: A Day in the Life of the People Who Lived There’, by Philip Matyszak – book review

24 Hours in Ancient Rome: A Day in the Life of the People Who Lived There by Philip Matyszak

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Edgar Allan Poe once declared that the great was Greece, and the grandeur was Rome. Rome was not built a day, and it lasted from Before Christ to His After for one thousand years. All roads led to Rome, and foreigners, colonials, and slaves from the foes all wanted to become the proud citizens of the Roman Empire. So, what then was it like living in Rome at its glorious prime? 24 Hours in Ancient Rome: A Day in the Life of People Who Lived There by Philip Matyszak comes and carries off the reader in a time coach to Rome’s grandeur and invites to the daily lives of people there with magic of words.

In terms of residential mode, there were more apartment buildings than villas and detached houses in Rome. Apartments called Insulas had 3 or 4 floors with no bathrooms, which means the residents dumped their bodily wastes in buckets out of their windows to the ground any time of day or night when unfortunate passer-byes would have unpleasant surprise showers from above. The apartment residents were city dwellers whose livelihood was arranged from a fish-stroll attendant to a nightguard, an unlicensed independent prostitute, and primarily others diligent and savvy waiting their time and luck to come.

Rome was a practical society with shrewd politicians and powerful merchants/tradespeople. For instance, baking was a highly respectful and lucrative trade because not many people had well-equipped kitchens to cook or bake at home. Bakers had their representatives in the Senate who would lobby for the increase in the price of bread. Still, the Senate often rejected the proposal because the Senate knew that keeping the price low would maintain social stability lest the mass should not cause riots for a change of living cost.

On the other hand, unless they were aristocratic or wealthy mercantile families, women had not many choices of working with desirable pay or respect. They worked in shops or stalls densely concentrated outside the walls of Circus Maximus for long, arduous hours, wrestling between the demands placed upon their tasks at work and home without due respect. Slave women’s employment was mainly hairdressing and doing domestic chores. It was less rewarding and more demanding, contingent upon the mercy of their lustful masters and the whims and caprice of their mistresses, who often inflicted cruel punishment on their slaves if they irked their temper and nerves on a bad day.

Rome was undoubtedly splendid in its dominance and influence consummate with the longevity, but only a few privileged basked in the sunshine of grandeur. Matyszak puts together tesserae in the mosaic of ordinary Ancient Roman lives in this leisurely entertaining and academically stimulating narrative of his part-fictional and part-actual characters. It becomes each vignette comprising a collective story of human life that still rings true to our modern life. Matyszak is an unlikely, uncommon historian whose erudition and humor put him on the same pedestal as renowned historians, such as Tacitus, Plutarch, Herodotus, and Paul Johnson. His narrative styles are engagingly knowledgeable but surprisingly personable, collapsing a great divide of time between the people of the past and the present reader.

Rome was no fun when you had none. Nevertheless, for all that’s worth, Rome was a great city rich in ethnic and cultural diversity. The energy of urbanity made Rome all the more vivacious and vibrant, bustling with businesses and people, and created opportunities for better lives. It is no surprise that Poe thought highly of Rome.



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‘The Way Mothers Are,’ written by Miriam Schlein, illustrated by Joe Lasker – book review

Nietzsche’s theory of Immanence is about intellectual kind of love of God, Agape, through an elevated perspective of God’s existence manifested in things great and small. That said, this vintage book about unconditional motherly love, first published in 1963, is a charming adaptation of immanence translated in simplicity of language in speaking “charity,” which also means love, as it is derived from “Caritas,” meaning “dear” in Latin. It is a kind of love that Mother Teresa expressed to all, discriminating none to prove superior level of love. And it is this love that Mother Cat has for her son.

The story of the Tabby Cat Mother and Son reads like a poem. Also, the book has adoring illustrations delineated with admiring details on the backgrounds: the wallpapers of rooms, the feline version of Mount Rushmore’s Great Faces, and the carved decorations of charming furnishings – all heartwarming elements that are so fitting to this book about love. The son asks why his mother loves him even when he is a little urchin to his younger sister and is naughty all day. The mother tells him full of affection that she loves him because he is her son and cares for him for who he is, not what he does. The son cat tries to reason his mother’s love for more innocent questions rather than nagging but then finds that the reason she loves him even in his least desirable behavior is lovely. The epiphany of true love also reminds me of Marilyn Monroe’s saying that if one cannot love her in her worst self, that person does not deserve her love. It is not a blatant egoism of a Tinseltown celebrity, but the truth about unconditional love, which is not synonymous with Eros on the heat of passion.

It is a story for all ages whose inner children refuse to grow beyond the evolutionary scale of time. Mark Twain, Lucy Maud Montgomery, and Walt Disney had never outgrown their childhood whose childlikeness became all the more radiant and illustrious with their boundless imaginations conjured in the alchemy of the arts. On a personal note, When I saw a tweet about this book, the forever child in me urged the grown-up me to get it because of the adorable illustrations of the Tabbies reminding me of my tabby cat Toro. I wonder if Toro’s mother might have looked like the Mother Cat because the son cat takes a solid resemblance to Toro. So I read the book to Toro, and he seemed to like it, starting to close his eyes on my desk and then purring softly. And I understand Mother Cat’s love for her son because that is how I feel for my little Toro, whom I adopted when he was nine weeks old. Now he is 11 months old, and although he is a sweetheart, his occasional Zoomies and forceful nibbling surprise me. Still, Toro is my cat. And I say to him every day thus: “I love you, Toro. Never forget that.” I know how the mother cat felt for her dear son.

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Portrait of Vincent Van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh: A Life From Beginning to End by Hourly History

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Here’s a portrait of a man who hated being alone yet found freedom when alone. Austere yet bohemian, religious yet autonomous, he was a paradox himself like the faces of Janus. It was no other than the painter Vincent Van Gogh himself in his well-known portrait looking more in disappointment with the world than in madness against it.

As the late eminent Australian biographer of Ben Jonson Ian Donaldson once put, good biography is anything but a bland, chronological summation of a man’s life, and I am not intent on reciting the dates of from Gogh’s birth to death and in-betweens. Instead, I am all mind in positing what I think he was, other than the man with a bandaged self-mutilated ear because our sensory perception often betrays the truthfulness of what we see when stimulated to the external sensation. Indeed, Gogh was a disturbed man whose sensitivity found no elbow room in the world with which he so endeavored to have a long-lasting content relationship. It is not to say that Gogh was an archetypal self-imposed exiled artist who voluntarily distanced himself from ordinary life scenes. Hardly so. As shown in his letter to his beloved little brother Theo, who helped his misunderstood forlorn artist brother as ever, Gogh tried to be as good-humored and cheerful as he wanted. Still, it was the world that seemed to betray him with blows that bludgeoned his unalloyed wishes and noble aspirations.

Gogh’s paintings reflect his love of realism and reject artificial romanticism without the ideal romantic ambiance in vogue with the time. He was interested in all that existed as they were because discovering beauty in the coarseness of reality was his objective in achieving creative and experiential values. In this regard, Gogh was in the same artistic vein as Francoise Millet, whose paintings Gogh admired because Millet believed that treating the commonplace with the feeling of the sublime was what gave art its true power. The only difference between the masters of art was how to portray it with individual flairs of colors, techniques, and perspectives based on their tastes and judgments. Gogh’s ‘Potato Eaters” might not have that romantic dignity surrounding the hardscrabble peasants. Still, they were unforgettably expressive in the nuanced struggles and strife they had to bear and live with. Perhaps the uneasy cohabitation of the independent spirit and the loving heart distinguished Gogh from his famous peers who had the practical sense to reconcile their creative souls to social needs.

Moreover, Gogh lost a sense of direction when he realized that a man of the cloth wasn’t his cloth. The existential frustrations from the confliction of the will then added to his already innate fragile sensitivity, a hereditary mental trait running in his maternal family. Nevertheless, Gogh continuously endeavored to fend it off and conquer it, even when the citizens of Arles, where he dreamed of building a haven for his kindred spirits, united to expel him from the city he once cherished. However, one good-hearted postman continued to give him a touch of kindness till he voluntarily admitted himself into a mental asylum for the peace of his mind and others’.

To me, Gogh tried to live up to his conviction of good, fulfilled life with exquisite sensibilities, and unalloyed humanity too great for the realities of the world he was born into. His life was life imitating art, and art was not imitating but expressing life as he saw. Yet, be it ever the play of the fate, the more he tried to be good-humored, the more estranged he became because he was an extraordinary artist constantly breaking away from confinement prejudicial to his ever sensitive and creative spirit. Upon reading this elegantly narrated life of Vincent Van Gogh, I realized the truth of the genius only took some time for its brilliance to shine, no matter how long it would take. Who would have thought Vincent Van Gogh, who once sold only one of his works out of hundreds, would be looking at his admirers in the constellation of brilliant painters in heaven? For those who are creators of arts in all genres, famous or hidden, amateur or professional, the story of Vincent Van Gogh will be a consolation to the heart and hope to the spirit that never knows the end.



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‘Ancient Magic’, by Philip Matyszak – book review

Ancient Magic: A Practitioner’s Guide to the Supernatural in Greece and Rome by Philip Matyszak

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Magic in ancient Greece and Rome was an art of crafting natural force with a bit of help from the world of gods and spirits wonderous to the user without fully knowing them. Contrary to traditional orthodox Christian teachings, magic was not associated by default with sorcery privileged to an esoteric spiritual elitist often dark and sinister. To the ancient Greeks and Romans, magic was their belief system, part of their modus vivendi in everyday life from slaves to emperors in the sense that we go to doctors or counselors. In a word, magic, as we understand now, was not so much deviltry as a variety of rituals of individual petitions pleaded for the fulfillment, which even the tremendous ancient minds regarded worthwhile to record.

Before the era of Christianity, the concept of magic was often interchangeably used with the knowledge of natural and supernatural worlds, which the ancients saw as not impossible to cross in between and thus believed the ghosts and the afterlife. Plato and Pliny, the Elder, advised no mortals go to graves alone after dark because there the restless souls of the dead not crossing the Styx, wandered. The most significant of the ghost story is Pliny the Younger’s letter to his friend Licinius Sura. He tells of the philosopher Athenodorus, a stoic astronomer and tutor to Octavian, the future emperor, witnessing a ghost of an old man in shackles showing his improper burial site.

Magic encompasses auguries and omens by the flights of birds, spells, and potions to charm the figures of desires, and the astrological signs in the ascendant at births and the sun, all of which to make uncertain futures known as guides to walk the paths of life to arrive at the fates. Matyszak tells the reader in the capacity of a Virgil leading Dante to the Underworld that seers at Delphi and Cumae were relatively easy to foretell the futures, which were unchangeable. Their acute intuition took a dreamy leap to poetically versed oracle pronouncement in the background of ethylene atmosphere and told what the petitioners could do at their best to deal with what laid ahead of them because there was no more than one fixed future.

The book invites the reader into the world of magic like never before because knowledge is a composite of Herodotus, Plutarch, Pliny the Younger, Socrates, and Plato. They took the extraordinary subject seriously because it was part of their daily lives bordering on a thin line of the spiritual world that was as real as they were. The book is written in a language accessible to all spectrums of education and walks of life. It is philosophy, religion, and history magically mixed in the author’s magic potion of erudition that significantly produces learning charmed in natural wits.



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