Review: The Medici – Godfathers of the Renaissance

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In 2017, a close friend coaxed me into watching an obscure period drama called Medici: Masters of Florence with her, citing its score and casting (of Richard Madden, to be precise) as reason enough. I begrudgingly agreed, purely out of my infatuation for period dramas, not knowing that it would spark an unhealthy and lengthy obsession with the Medici Family and their influence on epistemology and culture.

At the end of the final season (the last two are called Medici: The Magnificent, for those interested), I found myself seeking out books, essays, and frankly any written accounts of the Medici to fill in the gaps of information created by facts left out for the screen adaptation, because as much as I love a good dramatisation of a time long gone, I also like to bore people at parties with niche knowledge (who doesn’t?).

Having perused several short and poorly referenced books on the topic, I came across Paul Strathern’s The Medici: Godfathers of the Renaissance, and after an in-depth study and 50 page markers, I can finally state with confidence that I’ve found just the right book to learn about this family — the most well-rounded and detailed narration of a convoluted timeline and myriad people.

Strathern begins his chronicles of the Medici with Ardingo de’ Medici, the first in the family to become gonfaloniere (high civic magistrates of medieval Italian city-states) in 1296 and ends with Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici, who died in 1743, taking the Medici bloodline to the grave with her. In the 500 years in between, lived some of the greatest men who towered as godfathers of all they saw and liked and left a legacy whose impact we still see today, and some horrible men who brought incredible shame and tarnish upon the same legacy.

Apart from lending money, governing the Florentine Republic, and controlling trade across Italy, nearly every Medici generation also funded and inspired various facets of the Renaissance. While at the time they were famous (or infamous, depending on your interpretation of their reign), as a political and economic dynasty, today they are most famously known for their extensive patronage of the Renaissance and commission of works that formed the backbone of the movement.

The Medici had humble beginnings — known to be God-fearing men, they were extremely cautious in their financial dealings, for usury was a sin, and the likes of Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici insisted on keeping a low profile at all times. This caution slowly moved to the backburner, when at the height of their greatness, political agenda and a desperate need to hold power in Florence came to the forefront for Cosimo Pater Patriae and Lorenzo Il Magnifico. It was at this stage that their patronage of the arts and the sciences flourished, a way to cover up for their growing sin counter, thereby permanently linking themselves to some of the greatest artifacts of the time. By the time the great Medici reputation was run to the ground by less ambitious and honestly, horrific Medicis, usury was no longer the only sin they needed to be worried about.

Strathern peppers the long and twisted timeline with notable figures — the lives and works of artists (Brunelleschi, Donatello, Michelangelo), scientists (Da Vinci, Copernicus and Galileo), politicians (Machiavelli) and religious figures (Martin Luther), described in direct relation to the Medici speaks heavily to the longevity of Medici power and its far-reaching influence. This narrative strategy serves as a helpful point of orientation for those newly learning about the Medici.

A little-known fact that Strathern highlights in this sub-plot is the role the Medici played in shaping both Italian as well as French cuisine that we all enjoy; that their understanding of culinary theory — to bring out native flavours of meat and fish, instead of concealing them — changed what was initially a rather rudimentary of cooking and eating.

Strathern’s research for this book and the level of detail he chooses to indulge in ties the messy history together remarkably well; he focuses on the minutia of the lives of the Medici as well as those inextricably bound to the Medici family, bringing out in explicit detail, what it truly meant to be a Medici and also, to be inspired, encouraged and supported by such a family. His prose is simple but strong, which is what makes the difference between Medicis such as Cosimo Pater Patriae & Lorenzo Il Magnifico and Cosimo III & Gian Gastone all the more stark and revolting.

The aspect of the book that I am not a fan of is the lack of in-text citations and references; Strathern’s research is well-done but not evident. He explains in his author’s note in the end that he meant his book to be a popular one and not laden with heavy referencing, but I believe it would have served the book well to provide references. He does provide an extensive reading list in the end, however, and I for one, am quite excited to go through the list.

My brain does not naturally retain too many dates or too many events in chronological order but Strathern makes it easy to remember the overarching themes and then orient dates and times to those themes. The never-ending dates and wars don’t feel overwhelming at all — perhaps the biggest reason why I will recommend this book to those even remotely interested in the history of the Medici and the Renaissance.

Pair this book with Paulo Buonvino’s impeccably composed soundtrack for the Medici Netflix series and you’ll find yourself reveling in the highs and the lows, the grandeur and the austerity of life in Florence in the 15th century, alongside the Masters of the Renaissance. Meanwhile, my next Medici read will be The Bookseller of Florence by Ross King.

The Creativity of Dreams and How to Manifest Them

The idea to write a piece on the interconnection between dreams and creativity came to me in a dream. I’ve dreamt entire plots of great thriller novels and even their sequels. But this is not just me, and this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Dreaming is a process that occurs voluntarily in the mind, mostly during specific times of sleep. It can be described as a collection of clips, images, feelings and memories – both good and bad. The intensity and the contents of dreams change throughout the sleep cycle, with the most significant of them occurring during REM – Rapid Eye Movement – phase of the sleep. Brain activity is highest during this phase (as measured by encephalograms), which could explain the vividness in dreaming. While dreaming, the brain connects events that have occurred throughout the day, thereby weaving narratives.

Creativity, on the other hand, is one of the human mind’s most inexplicable qualities. It has historically been extremely difficult to determine what creativity stems from. A friend, who studies psychology told me that creativity is a bit of a can of worms in psychology. Creativity is known to create new connections between different brain regions, but only recently have neuroscientists, through fMRI’s, PET Scans and other scanning technologies, been able to study creativity more closely.

Quite unsurprisingly, dreaming and creativity are closely intertwined with each other, so much so that it is almost impossible to study one without the other. Because the brain stitches stories about everything and everyone we encounter, it could lead to the birth of novel ideas, and developing on this idea could quite possibly help sharpen our creativity (even for those who are always whining about how they’re not creative…at all). Dreams have proven to be inspirational – affecting the whole world kind of inspirational – multiple times in the past; in 1818, Mary Shelley dreamt of a scientist who created life and went on to write Frankenstein, one of the most influential science-fiction works of all time. Italian composer and violinist Giuseppe Tartini composed his most famous work “Devil’s Trill Sonata” after the devil played the tune to him by his bedside in a dream. During dreaming and during creative processes, dopamine level increases in the “pleasure centres” of the brain, and this acts as a positive feedback loop to keep dreams and ideas constantly flowing.

“Creativity is a bit of a can of worms in psychology!”

Ignacio Muñoz, research assistant and undergraduate student of Psychology, Jacobs University Bremen.

It is not entirely difficult then, especially for those already creatively inclined, to manifest their creative dreams and project them into prose, poetry and other forms of art. The product can, quite easily be superior to those produced during wakefulness, simply because of the enhanced brain activity.

But is it possible to use this aspect of dreaming in fostering creativity without actually sleeping? Perhaps.

In his book “Writing: A Memoir of The Craft”, Stephen King writes that in both activities, “we learn to be physically still at the same time we are encouraging our minds to unlock from the humdrum of rational thinking.” It is absolutely feasible to train our brain and our mind to silence itself during any time of the day and push it into a where the brain activity does not manifest as physical activity. Daydreaming for example, is one situation where our mind wanders and gives rise to sudden bursts of creative ideas.

Another way to embody creative dreams is dream recall. As unbelievable as it might be (from experience), it is possible to completely recall all our dreams and then, note it down. A key factor that influences our ability to recall dreams is the speed at which we fall asleep and at which we wake up. The longer the state of our hypnagogia – a state of half wakefulness and half sleep – especially when we are waking up, the better our memory of the dream. And if the dream is ingrained in the brain as a memory, it could be used a ‘plot’ for another dream, and the cycle goes on. Relaxing into bed and gradually letting our body take control, hence, could have drastic effects on our creativity. The only people who have very minimal dream recall ability are usually clinically depressed, according to studies, but that is a different aspect of discussion altogether.

Either way, writing books or a plot for a movie based on a dream is not only achievable, but also encouraged. All of our crazy, erratic dreams could be our brain trying to tell us a story, a story that holds the potential to become a great work of art. At the least, it could push each and every one of us to create without any kind of inhibition. We need as much art as possible in the world – philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch believed that good art is a vehicle of truth – and so, maybe it would be wise to harvest anything that allows more art to be created.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll go and finish the three part dystopian tale I’ve been dreaming of for years.


Ushashi Basu


For more, visit:

https://time.com/4737596/sleep-brain-creativity/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dream

https://www.brainpickings.org/2013/10/14/stephen-king-on-writing-and-creative-sleep/

Life As A Synaesthete – A Colourful Chaos

Around 1 to 3% of the people in the world have Synaesthesia – a neurological condition that is characterised by the involuntary stimulation of multiple, unrelated sensory or cognitive pathways at the same time, leading to several interconnected sensory experiences. An example of Synaesthesia would be the association of colours with alphabets and numbers – someone who suffers from grapheme-colour Synaesthesia identifies each alphabet or number with a specific colour and cannot possibly imagine any set of alphabets that is not coloured.

First described in detail in 1880 by Sir Francis Galton, the phenomenon was more often than not ousted as ‘crazy’ and considered an anomaly in society. Fearing ostracism, synaesthetes, for generations, have rarely spoken of their condition; most of them keep it a secret their entire lives.

Synaesthetic experiences don’t just stop at associating letters with colours. Every logical combination of senses – sometimes even more than 2 – can lead to Synaesthesia and there are about 80 documented types of Synaesthesia. Chromesthesia, the most common form of synaethesia, allows the synaesthete to visualise colours in different shapes and forms as soon as they hear any note of music; the opposite also holds true.

Now imagine being able to see every hour, every day, every week and every month of the year before you, carefully laid out in the form of a staircase or a chessboard or a ladder kept at rest. Everything is colour-coded – vacations, weekends, exam days and birthdays – and no colour repeats itself. Your to-do list floats around in this endless space and fits like pieces of a puzzle in this intricate network. Each day that passes by takes you to the next block, like you’re a pawn in a game your brain is playing with time. This madness is known as Sequence-Space Synaesthesia and this is what my brain looks like.

I’m not crazy and I’m not alone, however. Brendon Urie of Panic! At the Disco, everyone’s favourite Billie Eilish, music composer Hans Zimmer, theoretical physicist and Nobel Laureate Richard Feynmann, actress Marilyn Monroe and perpetually misunderstood creative legend Vincent van Gogh – all suffer(ed) from Synaesthesia. For centuries, Synaesthesia has been used extensively as a literary device to describe the intermingling of senses of the protagonist. Although references to Synaesthesia can be found in the Iliad and Odyssey, it became extensively popular in the 19th century in the works of poets Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud. It is also found in F.Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and other works of the 20th and 21st century. In most of these works of literature, Synaesthesia appears as pathologies, romantic ideals or emotional completeness, as Patricia Lynn Duffy writes in the Oxford Handbook of Synaesthesia.

As much as a synaesthete’s mind is mostly absolute chaos, it also serves as a sink of creativity, especially for grapheme-colour synaesthetes and chromesthetes. Such individuals are skilled at using their ability to indulge in and excel at complex creative activites such as music, art and theatre. With my Sequence-Space Synaesthesia, all I ever do is organise and schedule and schedule and organise; the word ‘deadline’, in all its representations in popular culture does not scare me and time holds no meaning for me – it’s a game I need to finish. The upside of having SSS is that I can remember birthdays and anniversaries with an almost freakish accuracy.

How one acquires Synaesthesia is still rather ambiguous – while some researchers believe that it runs in families, it is also believed that brain damage or trauma to the head can result in the development of Synaesthesia. Another theory suggests that single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) – substitution of a single nucleotide at a specific position in the genome – results in decreased pruning or decreased inhibition and increased activation in the synaesthete brain. Cross-talk between different regions of the brain may also account for different forms of Synaesthesia.

One thing to remember about Synaesthesia though, is that it is not a disease and is not directly harmful. Most synaesthetic experiences are pleasant or neutral, but there are reports of these experiences leading to sensory overload. For example, although the Sequence-Space Synaesthesia doesn’t affect me in any kind of social setting, it makes me extremely prone to severe panic attacks about the things I still need to do (even if it is in a year). Something that has helped me keep these moments at bay is Bullet Journaling – systematically and warily noting down everything I have to do, including attending a party, gives me a peace of mind nothing else does.

Synaesthetes often assume that everyone sees the world the same way they do; it comes as a setback (and sometimes as an existential crisis) to know that this way of looking at commonplace things is not all that common. Talking about it may give synaesthetes a different perspective on this condition, but most just don’t mention it and it works. For all we know, it is as normal as breathing.

Ushashi Basu

For more, visit:

https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/what-it-s-like-to-live-with-synaesthesia-a7079241.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Synesthesia

http://uksynaesthesia.com/

Science, Storytelling and Scientific Storytelling

Humans are hard-wired to tell stories. We’re all literary artists in one way or another, using our individual linguistic capabilities to weave interesting stories about our lives – in an attempt to place more significance on who we are as people. Storytelling is perhaps the simplest and most engaging form of “imaginative activity”, holding the power to incite the deepest of human emotions.

Science on the other hand, is one of the most powerful tools that has the ability to change the way humans think and the decisions they take for themselves and their societies. Science holds the power to heal. Consequently, scientific knowledge is becoming increasingly important with each passing day and how scientists convey what they learn has the potential to have profound effects on humanity as a whole.

The scientific knowledge that we gather every day has to be able to inspire action, especially by our leaders and people who govern us. And this need to inspire action based on hard facts and figures obtained in research can only be ignited by the activity humans have participated in for generations: storytelling. According to Pixar’s 22 rules of storytelling, by crafting a story that we are passionate to tell because it serves a real purpose, our stories will have a bigger impact on the world. And there are very few things in this world that are as passionate as scientists giddy from successful results they want to share. However, even in the presence of fervent passion for one’s research, proper scientific storytelling would only be effective when scientists want to convey complex information with not the motive to just throw out everything they know, but the desire to provoke thoughts and to inform the audience with an outward focus.

Scientific storytelling could transfer a lot of valuable information and telling a story out of scientific research isn’t all that remote and difficult as one would normally imagine. Every discovery and every research that was ever born had a story to tell. Humans are also constantly stitching narratives in their head – about how their favourite shirt didn’t fit, how the tomatoes at the supermarket were all rotten and how the glimmer in their lover’s eyes made their day – in fact so much, that almost 65% of all our conversations are personal anecdotes and gossip.

Research shows that although our brains are not constructed to retain facts and figures for a long time, they are incredibly good at perceiving, understanding and remembering stories. Our brains involve themselves when telling or listening to a story – more than one sensory region is activated during a storytelling activity. Storytelling stirs a significant number of emotions and plays with human psychology, thereby engaging more audience. Storytelling is also the only thing that works in order to affect a change in belief and behaviour in the masses. Together, Science and Storytelling are almost like a power couple. An amalgamation of narrative and research data could stimulate the audience not only emotionally, but also intellectually. Subsequently, such a stimulation would allow the story to stay with its listeners for days.

Storytelling has proven to be effective in marketing and large businesses, giving us no reason to believe that it would not work in science. In a 2014 paper, Roald Hoffman, Frank H.T. Rhodes Professor of Humane Letters (emeritus) at Cornell University, wrote that because narrative is not reducible to mathematics, it is not given its due in [our] scientific world…but science does depend on compelling narratives and that science has stories to tell.

Perhaps the quantification of scientific ideas as well the idea that science needs to be ‘dumbed down’ for it to be communicated has vanquished the prose in science. But it is never too late to reinforce the importance of narratives that is found in science. Humans are already manufactured to tell stories and so, all that remains to be done is to spur a willingness to write and narrate a story from what scientists learn. Storytelling has a considerable scientific component; conversely, embracing scientific storytelling could only prove to be the most effective form of science communication.

Ushashi Basu

Featured Photograph (on homepage) by: Anusha Das

Read More:

https://www.theguardian.com/media-network/media-network-blog/2014/aug/28/science-storytelling-digital-marketing

https://www.forbes.com/sites/stevedenning/2012/03/09/the-science-of-storytelling/#565f09212d8a

https://lifehacker.com/the-science-of-storytelling-why-telling-a-story-is-the-5965703

To Science or Not To Science

In 1993, the Royal National Theatre in London opened Arcadia, a play by playwright Tom Stoppard, and highly praised by critics as one of the finest plays written by a contemporary playwright. Arcadia approaches a plethora of themes and subjects, notable ones being thermodynamics, computer algorithms and fractals – subjects primarily concerned with science and mathematics. The play also aims to explore the relationships between the past and the present, order and disorder and certainty and uncertainty, and in doing so, depicts how modes of interpretation change through time and amongst people. In 2006, Arcadia was declared by the Royal Institute of Great Britain as the greatest works of science fiction ever created.

It is acclaimed plays like Arcadia and A Disappearing Number – the latter a 2007 play written and directed by Simon McBurney that inquired into the beauty of mathematics and how it holds within its clutches, human destinies – that allow us to observe and talk about the nature of science communication through theatre and the transfer of ideas between these two fields.

Science and theatre are more entwined with one another than we can perceive. Their meeting ground may not be as extensive as the one in between science and poetry, but is nonetheless, present. Perhaps the most prominent of these similarities is the reliance of the both of them on the craft of interpretation. While science, as we’re all aware of, depends on the interpretation of data obtained from experiments, theatre plays often rely on interpretation of texts, books, movies and other plays. Scientific discoveries and theatre are open to interpretation by not only their creators, but also their, albeit vastly different, audiences. And it is within and through this interpretation that creativity flourishes. Scientists and playwrights alike, are allowed to explore the limits of their imagination with the ‘data’ they possess before they put the ingenious ideas down on paper. Furthermore, science, in all its forms of depiction – for example, posters and thesis defences – is theatrical in many ways. One cannot deny that while presenting his or her work of several arduous years, a scientist expresses passion and eloquence similar to that of a theatre actor.

But common ground aside, how much closer can we possibly bring science and theatre? Can we exploit theatrical devices and theatre to actually communicate science? In a 2010 critique in The Guardian, Alexis Soloski argued and concluded that science plus theatre equalled poor plays [1] and that often, these plays were a drag to watch, as a result of the dumbing down of scientific prose for easier understanding of the audience. It may be possible, that, in an attempt to make sure the audience can keep up with difficult scientific ideas, the beauty of scientific prose is lost and in turn, the essence of the play itself.

However, there exist not a few, but several great plays that blend science into themselves. Some eminent and renowned ones include George Bernard Shaw’s The Doctor’s Dilemma (1906), Bertolt Bertrandt’s The Life Of Galileo (1937) and Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen (1998). The present-day relevance of The Doctor’s Dilemma allows for it to be re-staged again and again. Moreover, foundations such as the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation encourage leading playwrights to explore scientific themes and support theatres that commission, develop and promote plays with high quality scientific content[2]. The Arts Catalyst, based in Kings Cross London, is a non-profit contemporary arts organisation that commissions and produces transdisciplinary art and research[3] and, in the words of co-founder Nicola Triscott, aims to create more symbiotic relationships between the two fields[4]. The Nexus Theatre Company, established as recently as 2017, aspires to make new scientific ideas and information accessible to all[5].

From a broader perspective then, it seems as though there are and have been significant endeavours towards uniting science and theatre and increasing engagement of scientists in theatre. But before a more fluid relationship is established between science and theatre, several questions need to be addressed, the most important of them being “How much science/S.T.E.M. does a play have to contain before it becomes more about questioning the outreach and life-altering effects of science?” Reflecting on the scientific plays mentioned before, it is not difficult to observe a pattern – Life Of Galileo is not only about Galileo Galilei and his scientific discoveries, but also about the dogmatism of the Catholic Church prevalent in the 17th century and its blatant conflict with scientific theory; The Doctor’s Dilemma discusses the constraints of limited medical resources and the complex ethical questions doctors are faced with on a fairly regular basis; Copenhagen questions, through the meeting of Neils Bohr and Werner Heisenberg in 1941, the ideas of nuclear power and the motives behind constructing an atomic bomb. These plays contain as much scientific elements as they do the social and economic implications of scientific development.

The question of how much science one can possibly put into a 120-minute play also presents a larger question – Is the amalgamation of science with any form of art about communicating science through visually-appealing and user-friendly modes or is it inclined towards sparking a conversation regarding the effects of scientific advancements on humanity and its myriad cultures?

The answers to these questions cannot be procured objectively or immediately, and there isn’t one concrete answer. Perhaps the only way we will ever know if science will go on to become a recurring theme in theatre and other manifestations of art is through the one true procedure: experimentation.

Ushashi Basu

For more, visit:

https://www.theguardian.com/stage/theatreblog/2010/jul/26/science-plays-stoppard [1]

https://sloan.org/programs/public-understanding/theater [2] 

https://www.artscatalyst.org/ [3]

https://nicolatriscott.org/2012/04/16/theatre-and-science/ [4]

https://www.nexustheatrecompany.co.uk/ [5]