Why learn Latin?

Nescire autem quid ante quam natus sis acciderit, id est semper esse puerum. Quid enim est aetas hominis, nisi ea memoria rerum veterum cum superiorum aetate contexitur?

Cicero, Orator Ad M. Brutum

For the last week or two I’ve been fairly obsessively ruminating about my personal biographical relationship to some little spots around the Bay of Naples and the sweep of history upon which that relationship is contingent. And for a number of years I’ve been ruminating about the absolutely vital necessity of a Liberal Arts education for all citizens of a free society. If citizens are not trained in the arts of life in a free society (the Liberal Arts), any other training or education is the manufacturing of Orwellian cogs for a grey, meaningless social machine.

This morning a tweet by Kelly MacFarlane, a “Contract Academic” at the University of Alberta, got me a little more obsessive about getting some of these thoughts down on (virtual) paper. Ms. MacFarlane asked “What can we do to make Latin More Appealing to more students?”

I replied “I find this a troubling question. Latin IS interesting. Students must be shown why/how it is. Trying to doll it up is misrepresentation.” What I meant, in more than 140 characters, is that marketing a Latin course as something other than “learning to read the language of the Romans and to appreciate their literature and thought and all that appreciation implies” is misrepresentation. Learning Latin probably isn’t going to get you a good job. But learning Latin, like any of the Humanities, will very likely make you better at whatever job you get. It might give you intense entertainment on your commute. Other than that, pretty much all I have to offer is meaning.

Ruminations and a couple of text messages

A week or two ago as I was obsessively ruminating, I wrote to a friend one evening:

I find it exciting that just now I’m linking up Virgil and Pliny the Younger who described the eruption of Vesuvius and the death of his uncle, Pliny the Elder who described the painting of the Greek painter Apelles which description led me to paint my series of little paintings of the area around the Bay where Vesuvius erupted and Pliny (elder) died and Pliny (younger) studied, and Virgil lived and wrote, and Aeneas descended to meet his past and his future, and where I wrote and studied and marveled and . . .

I just had a vision of me as a University lecturer in an alternate universe, bawling my eyes out as I describe to a gaggle of baffled undergrads what poetry and history and life can do when it’s all working right.

It’s probably a good thing I left Academia; weeping would probably be frowned on by the arbiters of tenure.

I also wrote to my friend about some homemade wine:

I might save the apple wine for later in the summer with a crowd. Vinalia might be time to open a half bottle of last Fall’s bucket of juice from Italy and read some Ovid or something.

In those two sentences I have linked a traditional Roman festival and Latin poetry to a laughing summer afternoon outside in the sun with friends and neighbours putting about a hundred pounds of apples from another friend’s backyard trees through a meat grinder. The glorious fragrant pulp went into plastic vats to be fermented into country wine. The reference to “Vinalia” is to the twice a year celebration of the grape in Ancient Rome, Vinalia Urbana, the festival of the new wine, and Vinalia Rustica, the festival of the grape harvest. On further consideration, it seems obvious to me that the poetry of Tibullus would be more appropriate than Ovid for either festival, and certainly for an Alberta high-summer backyard neighbourhood festival celebrating those apples we had processed together.

If you knew Latin, you’d fully understand the above paragraph and the following bit of verse. And you’d probably be pretty good at whatever job you have.

nec Spes destituat sed frugum semper acervos
praebeat et pleno pinguia musta lacu.
Tibullus, I.i.

What does all this have to do with getting undergrads interested in Latin?

When I was in grad school studying Anglo-Saxon poetry I often was asked “what are you going to do with that?”

My long answer was “I’d rather drive a cab with a Master’s Degree in Anglo-Saxon poetry than drive a cab without one.”

My short answer should have been “Live.”

My best answer, an answer that I only found with time is “Live with meaning.”

Cicero wrote in a letter to his friend Varro: “Si hortum in bibliotheca habes, nihil deerit.” Ad Familiares IX, 4

I’ve always imagined that Cicero’s garden and library were often visited by friends and neighbours, that Cicero “networked” with living, present people as well as with his books.

“pulcherrimarum clade terrarum”

We are a network of experiences, of memories applied to each other, to the present, and to the future. We are not the product of our personal history, we, at this very moment, are our personal history made manifest, a history which includes what we read, what we see on Netflix, the games we play, the people we have met, the places we have been, our family . . . . The richer our personal history, the deeper our references and experiences, the more we have personal connections to the deep history of our families, of our nations, of our cultures, and of humanity itself, the richer, deeper, and more alive we are, the more meaning our time on this whirling ball of rock has, whatever we may be doing in the present moment.

When young, the network is loose. It’s hard to see how things fit together, we search for meaning, too often we give up. Trust me, it gets tighter. A point will come as you pursue you living and learning, whether that learning involves Latin or another language or languages, when everything starts to fit together, where everything is linked to everything else in a glittering, beautiful, tragic and joyful web of association and causality and meaning. The depth is plumbed gradually, but my own life has shown me that within a couple of years of first taking Latin, experience was enriched, landscapes came to deep life, and things began to fall into place. And I began to understand other languages. And even others. It all meant something.

Making a loaf of bread in the Bakery of Modestus

Because of Latin, and travel in youth, when I knead bread I am connected, to my mother, of course, at whose knee I learned to bake bread, but, more deeply, I am connected to a man named Modestus who owned a bakery in Pompeii. Modestus most likely died on August 24, 79 A.D., shortly after enjoying Vinalia. But I have a photo I took many years ago of his bakery, and I have another photo of my mother standing in that bakery many years later, after I had painted a little picture of Modestus’ grain mill and oven. And I painted that picture because of the words of a man who died that same day, in that same Hellish disaster.

When I knead bread, I am connected to my mother, who taught me to bake bread, and who stood in the Bakery of Modestus where I had stood years before, and to people who died half a world away and two thousand years ago.

The Bakery of Modestus, Acrylic, 4″ x 6″

We are connected in this way because I learned Latin.

Below is a reverse timeline that may show some of the depth of connection that Latin has brought to my life.

A Reverse Timeline

Sometime before the end of 2006 A.D., a middle aged Canadian man started painting some tiny paintings using only red, yellow, black, and white paint.

Sometime after the end of 2005 A.D., a middle aged man from Canada chanced upon a passage about a Greek painter in a natural history written by an uncle who had launched the ships under his command to investigate a volcanic eruption, an eruption which soon claimed his life.

In late summer of 1983 A.D. a young man from Canada was having a wonderful time admiring the landscape and studying in the library of the Villa Vergiliana, in Cumae, Italy, just over the ridge from Misenum, on the Bay of Naples. He wrote in his journal:

I’m in heaven, or perhaps Hades. I’ve got a vast (comparatively) library at my disposal, including The Idylls of the King and Dryden’s Aeneid; and Avernus is on one side while the Sybil’s cave is on the other. Up on the roof I can see for miles. We’re staying in the Villa Vergiliana, a possession of the American Virgilian Society. I’ll never have enough time here. . . .

In the spring of 1981 A.D., a young Canadian was happily studying in an introductory Latin course at the University of Alberta. The professor had big ambitions for his students and they rose to the challenge. As the leaves budded out in the North Saskatchewan River Valley, these students, Latin neophytes a few months before, were reading their way through an epic description of a descent into Hell at Cumae and Lake Avernus. This glorious poetry had been written two thousand years earlier by a man from Gaul who was quoted by a man from Como in his description of his own descent to Hell.

Around 110 A.D., a middle aged man from Como in Northern Italy, who had studied as a volcano erupted, was asked by an historian friend to describe the events around the Bay of Naples during a late August week in his youth, when Vesuvius buried Herculaneum, Pompeii, and dozens of other cities, towns, and villages.

In late summer of 79 A.D., a young man from Como was contentedly studying literature at his uncle’s villa in Misenum. The Vinalia Rustica, the great festival of the grape harvest, had concluded a few days before. Every expectation was that in the spring the Vinalia Urbana, the festival of the new wine, would be celebrated in the towns and villages on the slopes of Vesuvius and in the villas along the bay.

As the young man studied, his uncle, commander of the Roman fleet at Misenum and author of an important work of Natural History, climbed to a high point of land to observe an unusual cloud on the far distant opposite shore of the Bay. He stood studying the cloud with a scientist’s eye and soon decided his ships should be launched for a closer look. That closer look soon turned into a rescue mission.

In 77 A.D., the uncle who would die on a scientific expedition turned rescue began to write his monumental Natural History. That Natural History contained a brief passage about an Ancient Greek painter who had miraculous abilities with a remarkably limited set of four colours.

Sometime before 19 B.C., a man nearing the end of his life who had once lived at Cumae wrote a line of verse that would be quoted by a man from Como as he undertook to describe his own journey in flight through Hell on Earth across the Phlegraean Fields near Lake Avernus.

In the late summer of 49 B.C., a yet-young man from Cisalpine Gaul was living at Cumae, carefully observing the volcanic countryside, and studying, creating the mind, the sensibility, the developed consciousness, that would produce some of the greatest poetry in World Literature.

In the depths of mythic time, a hero arrived from Troy to the shores of Italy at Cumae. After retrieving the Golden Bough, he consulted with the mystical Sybil and then, on the banks of Lake Avernus, in the heart of the Phlegraean Fields, that hero descended to the Underworld, met with the dead, learned of his past and of his future, and returned to the land of the living through the Gate of False Dreams.

And, because I learned Latin, I was there. For all of it.

Why study anything?

Because I studied Latin with Dr. Bob Buck in 1981-82, I grew to love the poetry of Virgil, was able to read the letters of Pliny the Younger and the Natural History of his uncle, Pliny the Elder. Because I could read Latin, I learned of the Greek Painter Apelles. Because I could read Latin I painted a series of paintings which launched a funny little late-life career.

But, most important to me, those months in Dr. Buck’s class helped give to my life a rich depth of meaning. I am a network of experiences. I am linked to Apelles, to Virgil, to Pliny the letter writer and Pliny the Naturalist. I have stood on the same ground. We have wondered together at the power of Vesuvius. We have looked deeply into other lives and other times with the tools forged by study and tempered with a life in society, and we have found meaning.

If that doesn’t make Latin interesting . . .


The Apellean Sketches

Sometime before the end of 2005 I chanced upon a passage in the writings of Pliny the Elder:

quattuor coloribus solis inmortalia illa opera fecere — ex albis Melino, e silaciis Attico, ex rubris Sinopide Pontica, ex nigris atramento — Apelles, Aetion, Melanthius, Nicomachus, clarissimi pictores, cum tabulae eorum singulae oppidorum venirent opibus. nunc et purpuris in parietes migrantibus et India conferente fluminum suorum limum, draconum elephantorumque saniem nulla nobilis pictura est. omnia ergo meliora tunc fuere, cum minor copia. ita est, quoniam, ut supra diximus, rerum, non animi pretiis excubatur.
It was with four colours only, that Apelles, Echion, Melanthius, and Nicomachus, those most illustrious painters, executed their immortal works; melinum (a white clay) for the white, yellow ochre for the yellow, red ochre for the red, and lamp black  for the black; and yet a single picture of theirs has sold before now for the treasures of whole cities. But at the present day, when purple is employed for colouring walls even, and when India sends to us the slime of her rivers, and the corrupt blood of her dragons and her elephants, there is no such thing as a picture of high quality produced. Everything, in fact, was superior at a time when the resources of art were so much fewer than they now are. Yes, so it is; and the reason is, as we have already stated, that it is the material, and not the efforts of genius,  that is now the object of research.

Natural History, Book XXXV, Chapter xxxii

Feeling a desire to explore the possibilities of such a limited palette, I searched for a subject which would be personal but which also had a depth of history which might allow me to reach back through Pliny to the Greek painters of which he wrote.  I stripped down my own palette to something like the colours Pliny describes, to concentrate on the “genius” of the painting rather than the materials.   I searched through snapshots I had taken a quarter of a century ago while working as a graduate student on an archaeological dig in the mountains of Basilicata and found my subject.  With only zinc white, lamp black and red and yellow ochre, I began work on a series of tiny (6 inches by 4 inches) views of the landscape of southern Italy.  Most depict the area around the dig I worked on;   a few are views of landscapes and ruins around the Bay of Naples where Pliny died during the eruption of Vesuvius almost twenty centuries ago. 

The first Sketch, “Diana Herculania I” is an image that I had wanted to paint somehow for a quarter century, the product of a quick snapshot with a pocket Instamatic camera on a hot day in the ruins of Herculanium.  This first experiment with the limited palette is timid:  the sky is yellow ochre and the brush was far too coarse for the little canvas

Diana Herculanea I, Acrylic, 4″x6″, 2005

A few years later, in Sketch 16, I revisited the image with a little more confidence (and a smaller brush):

Diana Herculanea II, Acrylic, 4″x6″, 2007

In 2007 I contributed four of these tiny paintings from the incomplete series to the Art Gallery of Alberta’s “Free For All”, a salon exhibition in honour of the closing of the old Gallery and in celebration of the new Gallery to come.  My four paintings, “Morning in Lucania”, “San Giovanni di Ruoti: View from Room 58”, “Poseidonia II”, and “San Giovanni di Ruoti II” (Apellean Sketches 3, 7, 9 and 10) seemed to me to be overwhelmed by the unexpected thousands of art works the Gallery received for the show.

Morning in Lucania, Acrylic, 4″x6″, 2005

San Giovanni di Ruoti: View from Room 58, Acrylic, 4″x6″, 2006

Poseidonia II, Acrylic, 4″x6″, 2006

San Giovanni di Ruoti II, Acrylic, 4″x6″, 2006

Shortly after the exhibition opened, however, I had a phone call from Patrick Jacob, at that time the owner of two private galleries in the small town of Eastend, Saskatchewan.  He invited me to visit the town and the surrounding area between the prairie and the Cypress Hills, suspecting that the landscapes would suit the style I had been working in.  In the end I spent time in two summers in southwest Saskatchewan, producing quite a large collection of paintings, a number of which Mr. Jacob bought for his galleries. I found when painting summers in southern Saskatchewan that a limited palette was still ideal, although I found it very necessary to substitute Pthalo blue for the black of the Apellean Sketches.

Eastend Sketch 9, Acrylic, 6″x6″, 2008

A result of these explorations over two years and more are the twenty-four Apellean Sketches, most of which capture views from a single mountainside over the course of a few weeks of summer twenty-five years ago.  By imposing on myself some of the limitations which confronted the Classical painters, by looking at the scenes over the shoulders of painted figures, by attempting to hold onto stormy Mediterranean skies using only black and white pigments, I offer in these tiny paintings  a taste of the thousands of years of history that saturate this – or any – small patch of ground.

In Chapter xxxvi of Book XXXV of his Natural History Pliny also writes of Apelles “that he knew when to take his hand away from the canvas.”

I hope I’m learning that lesson as well.

The twenty-four Apellean Sketches were on public display together for the first time at the Visual Arts Alberta Association Gallery in Edmonton for the month of February, 2010.

All material copyright © John Richardson (like you didn’t know that.)