The ancient Greek superhero Hercules always has a status of a modern-day Mount Hollywood celebrity with Paparazzi-conscious showmanship. He also reminds me of an advantaged individual who could get away with wrongdoings. Hercules was an impulsive egoist and an irascible aristocrat for what was worth the ancient Greek superhero, a paragon of masculine heroism with a view to celebrity. This uncommon biography about the superhero whose name still rings red herrings after millennium flows of time evolves around the legendary performance of the Twelve Labors, anchoring them to the historical events of a man with a colossal ego.
With a wealth of knowledge on ancient Greek history and extensive research on the subject, Matyszak puts in the capacity of Hercules’s counsel per se in the tribunal between humanity and divinity, who searches for truth based upon factual findings. Matyszak’s defense for his now divine client Hercules is erudite and comprehensive, with exhibits drawn from classical Greek and Roman historians and writers whose wits and reasons were anything but those of Hercules. In addition, the author’s trademark storytelling narrative makes the story of the ancient Greek killer all the more vivid and engaging that each chapter holds the attention of the reader in the phantasmagorical display of images as depicted in Grecian urns or vases.
Notwithstanding the attractiveness of the narrative and the narrator, there are reasons I disapprove of Hercules as a hero, an antithesis of the other half-god, half-man Jesus of Nazareth in millenniums later. The Labors resulted from his egotistical attempt to free himself from the guilt of killing his family in moments of passion. However, he was neither remorseful nor appropriately punished for killing his music teacher Linus whose head his recalcitrant prince pupil Hercules shattered with a lyre he was trying to teach him how to play the way it should. As a prince of Thebes, Hercules had no qualms of consciousness for killing his elderly music teacher whose social status was beneath him, and gods condoned it because he was a son of Zeus.
His peremptory sense of entitlement knows no boundary because of his arrogance and hubris. For example, during his Fourth labor of capturing Erymanthian Boar, Hercules killed almost the entire race of centaurs, driving them to near extinction. But Hercules himself was the cause of the killing spree because he intimidated Pholus, a wise, kindly centaur, to open a jar of undiluted wine, a gift from Dionysus to centaurs, who became intoxicated and attacked Hercules out of stupor. Yet, his killing of the drunken centaurs was not even a subject of guilt and was regarded as collateral damage because centaurs were known as lustful creatures. But didn’t Hercules also sleep around with women – and only the beautiful – wherever he went to, and sire children, one of whom became the founder of the Scythians?
To summarize, the story of Hercules boils down to a conclusion that Hercules was a representative figure of a human whose essence is both divine and mortal, always on a chariot race with two horses of desire and reason. Some revisionists claim Hercules was an ancient Greek psychopath who took pleasure in killing people, beasts, and demi-gods. To me, a psychopath loses either the shackle of the ego or the supervisor of the superego, running a mind chariot alone even it drives to a pit full of fire. Methinks, Hercules was a cossetted brat without disciplines that controlled his power of reason, which is apart from mental acuteness or ingenuity. Adler’s will to power embodies the figure of BC man-God hero without regard for compassion and charity. Hercules was anything but Samuel Johnson’s conception of a biographic figure who empathizes for the common characteristics of life in the principle of universal judgment and sentiments. I now know why Christianity has won favors from poor and ordinary people and become the subject of persecutions from emperors and kings because Jesus of Nazareth, begotten by God and born of Virgin Mary, is gentle yet strong, kind but firm, which seems simple but divine.
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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