Why Should We Read Melville’s Moby-Dick? A TED-Ed Animation Makes the Case

Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick is a major 19th epic and a “Great American Novel” that routinely appears on best-of-all-time lists next to Homer and Dante. This grand literary judgment descends from early 20th century critics who rescued the novel from obscurity after decades of scorn and neglect. When the book first appeared in 1851, no one knew what to make of Melville’s cosmic whaling revenge tale. Reviews were highly mixed, sales dismal, the book flopped.

This Moby-Dick revival happened to coincide with a period of modernist experimentation with narrative structure in the work of writers like James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. Suddenly, Moby-Dick didn’t seem so strange anymore. More like a brilliant, proto-modernist tragedy. But if you expect straightforward seafaring adventure, as the animated TED-Ed lesson above by Sascha Morrell points out, it’s a hard slog. The exhaustive lessons on whales and whaling, chapter-length soliloquies, language so dense, colorful, and allusive.... Leonard Woolf became so frustrated in a 1929 review, he called the book's prose “the most execrable English."

Melville wrote bad sentences, Woolf pronounced. “His second greatest vice is rant or rhetoric…. I cannot see the slightest point in this kind of bombast, and, when it raves on for page after page, I almost pitch the book into the waste-paper basket and swear that I will not read another line, however many people vouch for the author’s genius.” This contrarianism sounds an awful like Virginia Woolf’s take on Joyce’s Ulysses. Like that book, Moby-Dick inspires widespread guilt among those who have been told they should read it, but who can’t bring themselves to finish or even begin.

Who was right: Melville’s early critics and readers (and Leonard Woolf)? Or the millions who have since seen in the novel something profound and prophetic, though no one can say exactly what that is? Why should we read Moby-Dick? For many, many reasons, but most of all the language. The word “rich” doesn’t begin to describe the layering of images: “A mountain separating two lakes,” Morrell says in a striking example, “a room papered floor to ceiling with bridal satins, the lid of an immense snuff box. These seemingly unrelated images take us on a tour of a sperm whale’s head.”

The symbols themselves invite us into other cryptic allegories. Chapter 99, “The Doubloon,” competes with Achilles' shield in The Iliad for metaphoric density, yet like a modernist novel, it fragments into multiple perspectives, each one examining ideas of currency, conquest, myth, ritual, etc., as Ahab bullies and provokes the crew into interpreting a coin nailed to the Pequod’s mast.

If the White Whale be raised, it must be in a month and a day, when the sun stands in some one of these signs. I’ve studied signs, and know their marks; they were taught me two score years ago, by the old witch in Copenhagen. Now, in what sign will the sun then be? The horse-shoe sign; for there it is, right opposite the gold. And what’s the horse-shoe sign? The lion is the horse-shoe sign- the roaring and devouring lion. Ship, old ship! my old head shakes to think of thee.

What Woolf saw as excessive bombast seems to me more like form mirroring function. Melville writes sentences that must echo over the squalls and talk through maddening lulls that bring on strange hallucinations. Like Joyce’s, his language mirrors the discursive tics of Ahab and Ishmael's modes of thought—nautical, theological, political, sociological, mythic, historic, naturalist, symbolist: explorations into a bloody, cruel, ecologically devastating enterprise that drives its demented captain—violently obsessed with a great white beast that has crippled and enraged him—to wreck the ship and kill everyone aboard except our narrator.

Learn about Melville and Moby-Dick in the additional resources at the TED-Ed lesson page.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

What Is a “Casual Game?” Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast #46 Talks to Nick Fortugno, Creator of “Diner Dash”

Famed game designer Nick joins your hosts Mark Linsenmayer, Erica Spyres, and Brian Hirt to consider fundamental questions about the activity of gaming (Nick calls games "arbitrary limits on meaningless goals") and what constitutes a casual game: Is it one that's easy (maybe not easy to win, but at least you don't die), one meant to be played in short bursts, or maybe one with a certain kind of art style, or just about any game that runs on a phone? Nick's most famous creation is the casual Diner Dash, which can be very stressful. Vastly different games from very hard but very short action games and very involved but soothing strategy games get lumped under this one label.

Our conversation touches on everything from crosswords to Super Meat Boy, plus the relation between psychology and game design, whether casual games really play less than hardcore gamers, the stigma of an activity that was for marketing reasons at one point branded as being just for adolescent boys, and even heuristics for beating slot machines.

Some sources we looked at include:

Just so you don't have to write them down, our recommendations at the end were:

You can follow Nick @nickfortugno.

Learn more at prettymuchpop.com. This episode includes bonus discussion that you can only hear by supporting the podcast at patreon.com/prettymuchpop. This podcast is part of the Partially Examined Life podcast network.

Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast is the first podcast curated by Open Culture. Browse all Pretty Much Pop posts or start with the first episode.

When Al Capone Opened a Soup Kitchen During the Great Depression: Another Side of the Legendary Mobster’s Operation

In response to the words "American gangster," one name comes to mind before all others: Al Capone. (Apologies to Ridley Scott.) Though few Americans could now describe the full scope of his empire's criminal activities, many know that he grew that empire bootlegging during Prohibition and that he was eventually brought down on the relatively mild charge of tax evasion. A media spectacle by the standards of the day, the trial that convicted Capone in 1931 was in some sense the natural last act of his publicity-commanding career. Most Caponeologists place the beginning of the mob boss' fall at the 1929 "Saint Valentine's Day Massacre" of seven of Capone's rivals. Later that year came the stock market crash that set off the Great Depression, which offered Chicago's "Public Enemy No. 1" one last chance to win back that public's favor.

Having long traded on a Robin Hood-esque image, Capone opened a soup kitchen in his home base of Chicago to serve the unfortunates suddenly dispossessed by the devastated American economy. "Capone’s soup kitchen served breakfast, lunch and dinner to an average of 2,200 Chicagoans every day," writes History.com's Christopher Klein. "Inside the soup kitchen, smiling women in white aprons served up coffee and sweet rolls for breakfast, soup and bread for lunch and soup, coffee and bread for dinner. No second helpings were denied. No questions were asked, and no one was asked to prove their need."

Capone's willingness to satisfy human needs and desires outside the law kept him rich, and thus more than able to run such an operation, even as the Depression set in; still, he "may not have paid a dime for the soup kitchen, relying instead on his criminal tendencies to stockpile his charitable endeavor by extorting and bribing businesses to donate goods."

Capone's soup kitchen may have helped keep Chicago fed, but it could only do so much to clean up his deteriorating public image, associated as it had become with smuggling, extortion, and violence. "Capone’s soup kitchen closed abruptly in April 1932," writes Mental Floss' Shoshi Parks. "The proprietors claimed that the kitchen was no longer needed because the economy was picking up, even though the number of unemployed across the country had increased by 4 million between 1931 and 1932." Two months later, "Capone was indicted on 22 counts of income tax evasion; the charges that eventually landed him in San Francisco’s Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary. Though Capone vowed to reopen his soup kitchen during his trial, its doors stayed shut." You can learn more about Capone's soup kitchen at My Al Capone Museum and The Vintage News, and even visit its location at 935 South State Street today — though you won't find any operation more ambitious than a parking lot.

via Mental Floss

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Gil Scott-Heron Spells Out Why “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”

Consider the influence of television, even in the digital age. Consider the power that networks like Fox and CNN continue to wield over that nebulous thing called public opinion; the continued dominance of NBC and CBS. These giants don’t really inform so much as sell packaged ideological content paid for and approved by corporate sponsors. There's really no need to update poet and musician Gil Scott-Heron’s radical, 1971 classic “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” unless we wanted to change the names. His voice still speaks directly to the moment we live in.

We exist on a continuum of conditions that have worsened since the late 1960s—despite promises and appearances to the contrary—until they have become intolerable. Scott-Heron wrote and sang about those conditions since his fiery 1970 debut. “Dubbed the ‘Godfather of Rap,’” notes Brooklyn Rail in a 2007 interview, “Scott-Heron has become a ubiquitous and practically de rigueur influence for everyone from hip hoppers and indie rockers to aging literati and dyed-in-the-wool academics.”

One might think Scott-Heron’s classic spoken-word testament "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" speaks for itself by now, but it still creates confusion in part because people still misconstrue the nature of the medium. Why can’t you sit at home and watch journalists cover protests and revolts on TV? If you think you’re seeing “the Revolution” instead of curated, maybe spurious, content designed to tell a story and gin up views, you’re fooling yourself.

But Scott-Heron also had something else in mind—you can’t see the revolution on TV because you can’t see it at all. As he says above in a 1990s interview:

The first change that takes place is in your mind. You have to change your mind before you change the way you live and the way you move. The thing that’s going to change people is something that nobody will ever be able to capture on film. It’s just something that you see and you’ll think, "Oh I’m on the wrong page," or “I’m on I’m on the right page but the wrong note. And I’ve got to get in sync with everyone else to find out what’s happening in this country."

If we realize we're out of sync with what's really happening, we cannot find out more on television. The information is where the battles are being fought, at street level, and in the mechanisms of the legal process. “I think that the Black Americans are the only real die-hard Americans here,” Scott-Heron goes on, “because we’re the only ones who’ve carried the process through the process…. We’re the ones who marched… we’re the ones who tried to go through the courts. Being born American didn’t seem to matter.” It still doesn’t, as we see in the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and so many before them, and in the grievous injuries and deaths from unconstitutional, military-grade police escalations nationwide since.

Scott-Heron asked us to question the narratives. "How do they know?” he sang in “There’s a War Going On” at Woodstock 94, above. How do the self-appointed guardians of information know what’s really going on? Television spreads ignorance and misinformation, as does radio and, of course, social media. This much we should know. But we’ve misinterpreted “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” if we think it’s really about mass media, Scott-Heron always maintained. Before we can engage meaningfully with current events, a revolutionary change must happen from the inside out. No one's broadcasting the truths we first, most need to hear.

via BoingBoing

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

When Afrobeat Legend Fela Kuti Collaborated with Cream Drummer Ginger Baker

At the end of the 60s, superstar drummer and angriest man in rock Ginger Baker was on the verge of collapse. Strung out on heroin, deeply grieving Jimi Hendrix’s death, and alienated from his former Cream and Blind Faith bandmates, he needed a new direction. He found it in Nigeria, where he decamped after driving a Range Rover from Algeria across the Sahara Desert. (A madcap adventure captured in the 1971 documentary Ginger Baker in Africa). Once in Lagos, Baker started jamming with Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti.

The meeting of these two musical forces of nature produced a suite of recordings. “Baker’s drumming appeared on several albums alongside the Nigerian king of afrobeat,” writes Okay Africa, “including Why Black Man Dey Suffer (1971), Live! (1972) and Stratavarious (1972).”

Kuti’s longtime drummer and arranger—and inventor of the “afrobeat”—Tony Allen was highly impressed with Baker's range, and Nigerians, as Jay Bulger writes at Rolling Stone, loved him.

Arriving in Lagos, Nigeria, Baker set up west Africa’s first 16-track recording studio and formed a lifelong friendship with Afrobeat star Fela Kuti. Performing with the musical icon for crowds of 150,000, Baker became famous throughout Nigeria as the “Oyinbo” (White) Drummer. “If Ginger wants to play jazz, he plays jazz,” says the Nigerian drummer Tony Allen. “If he wants to play rock, he starts Cream. If he wants to play Afrobeat, he moves to Nigeria. Whatever he plays, he brings his own pulse and sound. He understands the African beat more than any other Westerner.”

High praise, but Baker didn’t seek the spotlight, his enormous ego offstage notwithstanding. He trained and he learned. Always a collaborative player, by his own description, Baker adapted himself to the needs of the music. In Kuti’s band, he found a well-drilled ensemble and in Fela himself, a kindred spirit with a personality as grandiose and captivating as his own, though Baker’s particular charms were maybe best appreciated at a distance. Hear the loose, sprawling Live! above, with annotations telling the story of the two legends in brief.

Baker and Kuti first met in the early 60s in London when Fela studied at Trinity College of Music. Once they finally connected musically, the sound was explosive, thanks to Baker’s recording studio and Fela’s New Afrika Shrine, the performance space where the live magic happened night after night. Then there are the war stories—not only sex, drugs, and rock and roll, but also the actual Nigerian Army trying to shut down Fela’s compound, which he called the Kalakuta Republic, and which housed his 27 backup singers and his studio. The bandleader was beaten and jailed over and over, and the commune was finally burned to the ground in 1977.

The video above from YouTuber Bandsplaining gives an entertaining synopsis of the Baker/Fela story, though beware, as several commenters have pointed out, it contains several inaccuracies, including at the outset the suggestion that Fela has only recently received widespread recognition. This, of course, is totally false—Latin American musicians have celebrated his fusion of African polyrhythms, big band funk, and psychedelic rock for decades; in Nigeria and elsewhere in Africa, Fela was as big a musical god as Clapton in England, as well as a powerful spiritual and political symbol of Pan-African socialism; and in the US and UK, New Wave bands like Talking Heads made entire albums building on Fela’s inspiration.

One might think of Baker’s collaboration with Fela Kuti and the Afrika ‘70 as an early international supergroup, of the kind that would become commonplace in later decades. But Baker didn’t use Fela’s music as a backdrop for his own brand. He was thrilled just to be there in the band.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

The History of the Batmobile: A Free Documentary

In 2012, Roko Belic directed an hour-long documentary on The Batmobile. Originally released on The Dark Knight Rises (2012) blu-ray, the film explores the history and evolution of the Batmobile in comic books, TV and movies. And it features "notable Batman movie directors including Chris Nolan, Joel Schumacher and Tim Burton, as well as actors Christian Bale from The Dark Knight and Adam West from the 1960s Batman series." Warner Bros. Entertainment has made the film available on YouTube. Watch it above. Or find it listed in our collection Free Documentaries, a subset of metacollection, 1,150 Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, etc..

Would you like to support the mission of Open Culture? Please consider making a donation to our site. It's hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best free cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere.

Also consider following Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and sharing intelligent media with your friends. Or sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. 

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Saul Alinsky’s 13 Tried-and-True Rules for Creating Meaningful Social Change

Saul David Alinsky died 36 years before the election of Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton's first attempt for the presidency. But many feverish screeds on social media, talk radio, and YouTube might have made one think he lurked behind these politicians like Rasputin. Spoken of by many on the right as a servant of the devil, "American Joseph Goebbels," and “dangerous harbinger of insurrection,” Alinsky developed a reputation for insidiousness that may exceed his influence, considerable though it may be.

But liberals and leftists have no special purchase on Alinsky’s legacy. As one thoughtful, eloquent pundit recently wrote, “the Right has taken Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals and shoved it up where #TheResistance don’t shine.” Not long before this charming appropriation, Alinsky’s 1971 manual of political warfare found its way into the hands of some of the same Tea Party organizers who had made his name synonymous with everything they despised about the left. (See Alinsky court his Luciferian comparisons in the 1966 interview above.)

But Alinsky wrote Rules for Radicals for his demographic. From the 30s to the 70s, he organized poor, working people in Chicago and other cities and addressed countercultural and civil rights activists nationwide. The opening paragraph of the book makes it perfectly clear who his readers are:

What follows is for those who want to change the world from what it is to what they believe it should be. The Prince was written by Machiavelli for the Haves on how to hold power. Rules for Radicals is written for the Have-Nots on how to take it away.

Alinsky's reference to Machiavelli sets readers up for a high degree of ruthlessness and realpolitik, and the book does not disappoint. If you’re looking for Anarchist Cookbook-level radicalism, you’d best look elsewhere. While Alinsky talked tough, in an honest Chicago way, he did not recommend violence in his manual. In the Prologue, he denounces “parts of the far left who have gone so far in the political circle that they are now all but indistinguishable from the extreme right.” In recent revolutionary violence, he writes, “we are dealing with people who are merely hiding psychosis behind a political mask.”

Rules for Radicals recommends mostly working within the system—though in the twisted way Machiavelli is reputed to have done (whether or not he’s been interpreted fairly). Below, you’ll find Alinsky’s list of 13 “Rules for Radicals,” offered with his proviso that political activism cannot be a self-serving enterprise: “People cannot be free unless they are willing to sacrifice some of their interests to guarantee the freedom of others. The price of democracy is the ongoing pursuit of the common good by all of the people.”

1. “Power is not only what you have, but what the enemy thinks you have.” Power is derived from 2 main sources – money and people. “Have-Nots” must build power from flesh and blood.
2. “Never go outside the expertise of your people.” It results in confusion, fear and retreat. Feeling secure adds to the backbone of anyone.
3. “Whenever possible, go outside the expertise of the enemy.” Look for ways to increase insecurity, anxiety and uncertainty.
4. “Make the enemy live up to its own book of rules.” If the rule is that every letter gets a reply, send 30,000 letters. You can kill them with this because no one can possibly obey all of their own rules.
5. “Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon.” There is no defense. It’s irrational. It’s infuriating. It also works as a key pressure point to force the enemy into concessions.
6. “A good tactic is one your people enjoy.” They’ll keep doing it without urging and come back to do more. They’re doing their thing, and will even suggest better ones.
7. “A tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag.” Don’t become old news.
8. “Keep the pressure on. Never let up.” Keep trying new things to keep the opposition off balance. As the opposition masters one approach, hit them from the flank with something new.
9. “The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself.” Imagination and ego can dream up many more consequences than any activist.
10. "The major premise for tactics is the development of operations that will maintain a constant pressure upon the opposition." It is this unceasing pressure that results in the reactions from the opposition that are essential for the success of the campaign.
11. “If you push a negative hard enough, it will push through and become a positive.” Violence from the other side can win the public to your side because the public sympathizes with the underdog.
12. “The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative.” Never let the enemy score points because you’re caught without a solution to the problem.
13. “Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.” Cut off the support network and isolate the target from sympathy. Go after people and not institutions; people hurt faster than institutions.

Alinsky’s rules can and have been used for anti-democratic designs. But he defines the U.S. as a “society predicated on voluntarism.” His vision of democracy leans heavily on that of keen outside observer of early America, Alexis de Tocqueville, the French philosopher who “gravely warned,” writes Alinsky, “that unless individual citizens were regularly involved in the action of governing themselves, self-government would pass from the scene.”

Note: This post originally appeared on our site in 2017. In this moment of protest, we're bringing it back.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

What Makes a Cover Song Great?: Our Favorites & Yours

Many years ago I tried to persuade friends I played with in a local indie band to debut a country-punk version of Wu Tang Clan’s “C.R.E.A.M.” live. No one went for it, and looking back, I’m pretty sure it would have been a musical disaster. That 90s hip-hop classic deserves better than our Weird Al-meets-Ween-meets-Wilco approach, which is not to say that such a cover couldn’t work at all, but that Neil Young was more our speed.

Great cover songs come in all styles, and the world’s best musicians (which my friends and I were not) can take material from almost any genre and make it their own (cf. Coltrane). For most people, the cover song is tricky territory.

Hew too closely to an iconic original and you risk a competent but totally unnecessary remake, like Gus Van Sant’s version of Psycho—“all that’s missing is the tension,” as Roger Ebert wrote of that 1998 endeavor, “the conviction that something urgent is happening.”

Stray too far from the source, as I nearly dared to do with “C.R.E.A.M.,” and the effort can seem hokey, tone-deaf, disrespectful, culturally appropriative, and so forth. For some reason, older artists seem to have more grace with others’ material, perhaps because they’ve lived enough to understand it inside and out. Many of my favorite covers, and yours, are in this vein, like two well-known from film and television: Charles Bradley’s cover of Ozzy’s “Changes” and Johnny Cash’s cover of Trent Reznor’s “Hurt.”

The fact that both of these soulful, raspy singers have passed on gives these songs an extra-musical poignancy. They were also two singers well acquainted in life with grief, loss, and hurt. Other cover versions that stick with me include Cat Power’s “At the Dark End of the Street” and R.E.M.’s cover of art-punks Wire’s “Strange.” What makes them great? I could go on about  the merits of each one, but I don’t have a general theory of covers. You’ll find such a theory in the Polyphonic video at the top, however, which asks and answers the question, “how does an artist navigate the tumultuous waters of cover songs?”

The narrator admits the ambiguity inherent in judging a successful cover. “I don’t think there’s a clear set of rules you can stick to that will guarantee success. But I do think there are lessons to be learned from looking at the great covers of the past.” He does so by analyzing three of the most successful covers, both critically and commercially, ever recorded: Jimi Hendrix’s haunted electric take on Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower,” Aretha’s anthemic transfiguration of Otis Redding’s “Respect,” and Cash’s open wound cover of “Hurt.”

All of these songs, in their own ways, transform the source material completely, such that each became a signature for the artist. Dylan, for example, was so impressed with Hendrix’s cover that his live versions began to resemble Jimi’s arrangement. “Strange how when I sing it,” he wrote in the liner notes to Biograph, “I always feel it’s a tribute to him in some kind of way.” That’s a rarified “endorsement of a successful cover,” if there ever was one, Polyphonic says. But there’s more to it than earning the songwriter's approval.

To understand how a successful cover works, retrospectively at least, we have to go back to the source and find the quality the cover artist extrapolated and expanded upon. In Hendrix’s case, that was a “sense of tension and desperation”—announced in his pounding intro, the first howling line of the song, and, of course, in Hendrix’s slinky, spooky, effects-laden guitar runs. He translated the emotional tenor of Dylan's original into a musical vocabulary that was fully his own in every respect.

Covers also evoke a host of personal associations, as the video concedes, that are difficult to navigate to firm conclusions about what makes one a success. We form lifelong relationships with certain songs and may accept no substitutes—or we might, on the other hand, be more drawn to cover versions through a love of the original. That's especially true with covers that alchemically change a song's sound, meaning, tempo, and feel while keeping its intangible emotional essence intact. Leave your favorite covers in the comments below and tell us what you think makes them so great.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Magnificent Ancient Roman Mosaic Floor Unearthed in Verona, Italy

One often hears about renovation projects that tear up linoleum, shag carpet, or some equally unappealing flooring to discover a pristine (and now much more attractive) layer of hardwood or tile beneath. Any building of sufficient age becomes a palimpsest, a collection of era upon era of trends in architecture and design: a look under a floor or behind a wall can potentially become a trip back in time. The same holds for the land itself, at least in the parts of the world where civilization arrived first. "In former Mesopotamia there are hills in areas that should be entirely flat," writes Myko Clelland, better known as the Dapper Historian, on Twitter. "They're actually remains of entire towns, where residents built layer after layer until the whole thing became metres tall."

Or take Negrar di Valpolicella, home of the eponymous wine varietal, one of whose vineyards has turned out to conceal an ancient Roman villa. The discovery at hand is an elaborate mosaic floor which The History Blog reports as "dating to around the 3rd century A.D." So far, the dig under the Benedetti La Villa has revealed "long uninterrupted stretches of mosaic pavements with polychrome patterns of geometric shapes, guilloche, wave bands, floral vaults and the semi-circular pelta."

Though the floor's brilliance may have been unexpected, its presence wasn't: that a Roman villa had once stood on the grounds "was known since the 19th century. Indeed, the name of the winery is taken from the name of the contrada (meaning neighborhood or district), evidence of culturally transmitted knowledge of a grand villa there."

Announced just last week by Negrar di Valipocella, the discovery of this mosaic floor comes a result of the most recent of a series of archaeological digs that began in 1922. "Numerous attempts were made in subsequent decades to find the villa," says The History Blog, "and another smaller mosaic was discovered in 1975 and covered back up with soil for its preservation." Though interrupted by budgetary limitations, the work cycle of the still-operational vineyard, and this year's coronavirus pandemic, the project has nevertheless managed to turn up a strong contender for the archaeological find of the year. With luck it will turn up much more of this 1,800-year-old domus, giving us all a chance to see what other unexpectedly tasteful design choices the ancient Romans made. The images in this post come via Myko Clelland, Dapper Historian on Twitter.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram

How the Visionary Artist Christo (RIP) Changed the Way We See the World

Husband and wife team Christo and Jeanne-Claude produced what is arguably the most grandiose body of work in modern history. Their temporary monuments to the very idea of hugeness were viewable from space and impossible to ignore on the ground: Entire islands wrapped in miles of pink fabric. Gargantuan yellow and blue umbrellas placed up and down the coasts of California and Japan. The Reichstag bundled up in white fabric like a massive, shiny Christmas gift.

These projects left an indelible impression on millions not only in the months after their unveiling, but decades later. The iconic sites the two artists transformed always bear the memory of having once served as a canvas for their creations.

After removing the wrapping from the Biscayne Bay islands, a project he called “my Water Lilies” in honor of Claude Monet,” Christo remarked that Surrounded Islands lived on, “in the mind of the people.” So too will Christo live on—remembered by millions as an artist who did things no one else would ever have conceived of, much less carried out.

The artist, who passed away from natural causes at age 84 yesterday, seemed to savor the controversy and bewilderment that met his incredibly labor-intensive outdoor sculptures. “If there are questions, if there’s a public outcry,” he said of their 2005 Central Park installation The Gates, “we know how the public can be angry at art, which I think is fantastic.” I remember walking through The Gates when it debuted and thinking, as most everyone does at some point in response to his massive outdoor installations, “but, why?”

The effect was undeniably striking, hundreds of saffron flags waving between rectangular steel archways. Spring bloomed around the rows of gates that twisted around the Park’s footpaths, 7,503 gates in all. From a short distance away from the park, The Gates could be breathtaking. Up close, it could be crowded and obtrusive, as masses of tourists and locals made their way through the gauntlet of orange steel structures.

Hardly does it occur to us in museums to ask why the art exists. We enter with lofty, readymade ideas about its value and importance. But we were never given scripts to make sense of Christo’s whimsical intrusions into the landscape. Instead, he and Jeanne-Claude invented new forms and new venues for art, and made the multi-year process of planning and building each work from scratch a part of the work itself.

That process included lobbying legislatures and bureaucracies, sketching and planning, and coordinating with thousands who installed and removed the finished products. Each Christo and Jeanne-Claude creation seemed more ostentatious than the last. “His grand projects,” writes William Grimes at The New York Times, “often decades in the making and all of them temporary, required the cooperation of dozens, sometimes hundreds, of landowners, government officials, judges, environmental groups, local residents, engineers and workers, many of whom had little interest in art and a deep reluctance to see their lives and their surroundings disrupted by an eccentric visionary.”

And yet, “again and again, Christo prevailed, through persistence, charm and a childlike belief that eventually everyone would see things the way he did.” This meant that everyone who had to live with Christo’s creations in their backyards had to see things his way too, for as long as the public art existed. Christo “remained stoic in the face of mounting criticism,” as Alex Greenberger at Artnews puts it. Associated early with Situationism and France’s Nouveau Réalisme movement, the artist shared the latter group’s goal of discovering “new ways of perceiving the real” and the former movement’s commitment to spectacle as a means of mass disruption.

In the short video introductions to some of Christo and Jean-Claude’s most famous works here, you can see how the two revealed new realities to the world, driving up tourism while spurning corporate dollars. Instead, the artists financed their own projects by selling off the drawings and plans used to conceive them. Their operation was a self-sustaining entity, a thriving, successful company of its own. What they made were “beautiful things,” the artist said, “unbelievably useless, totally unnecessary,” and also totally inspiring, infuriating, and unforgettable.

“Christo lived his life to the fullest,” a statement released by his office reads, “not only dreaming up what seemed impossible but realizing it. Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s artwork brought people together in shared experiences across the globe, and their work lives on in our hearts and memories.” Christo hasn’t finished with us yet. The artist died while in the final planning stages of what will be his final work, L’Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped (Project for Paris, Place de l’Étoile – Charles de Gaulle), first conceived in 1962. That project, which will swaddle Paris’s Arc de Triomphe in 269,097 feet of fabric, is still expected to debut in 2021.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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