1 August 2017

Back to Brunelleschi

In June this year I was invited to Florence to give a paper, entitled ‘Colonial Science beyond Imperial Borders: Early Twentieth Century Scientific Networks on the Sino-Tibetan Frontier’ at a two day seminar organised by the Department of History at the European University Institute. The seminar took place in the Villa Scarlati, set in its beautiful grounds in the hills of Fiesole, just a short bus ride out of town from the centre of Florence. It was an excellent seminar which examined many non-traditional aspects of imperial history, challenging many of the concepts of empire and imperial expansion, looking beyond the normal boundaries of more familiar colonial realms and territories. I met many academics and fellow PhD students from many different countries, making good connections and finding plenty of interesting food for thought in relation to my own research. It was wonderful too, to be back in Florence once again.

Florence is one of the most magical cities in the world. I never thought I’d end up becoming so attached to the place, let alone so familiar with it. The first time I visited was in the winter of 2003. I stayed two nights while working at the Pitti Palace Museum. On that particular visit I didn’t have much time to explore. Working by day meant I only got the chance to wander round the empty streets after dark when everything was shut, but this was more than enough of a taster to whet my appetite. I became enchanted by the place. At the end of that trip, when I left Florence in the pouring rain, looking out of the rain streaked taxi window I knew I’d have to come back and explore properly one day.

Nearly ten years later I did return. It was August 2012, and every day was drenched in sunshine and heat – but this didn’t put me off exploring the city until I was footsore. A central part of this trip was a growing fascination with the incredible architecture of the magnificent Duomo, and the role of the architect, Filippo Brunelleschi in particular. Reading Ross King’s excellent book, Brunelleschi’s Dome (Penguin, 2000), at the time, I set out to explore every inch of the enormous cathedral (you can read more about that trip here). For me, Brunelleschi is but one facet of a long-standing fascination with the Renaissance and the history of science which flourished in the city state of Florence. Art and engineering, anatomy and painting, architecture and astronomy – all of these subjects uniquely combined in the confluence of this place at that particular time; it’s no mere hyperbole to say that the remarkable flow of knowledge and ideas which emanated from Florence has shaped the world we continue to live in to this very day. I’ve long been fascinated by the vast, encyclopaedic interleaving of different disciplines which were personified in so many of the city’s most famous citizens: Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Galileo, Dante, Donatello, Giotto, Amerigo Vespucci, and Leon Alberti Battista. 

My interest in all this probably began with a visit to an exhibition about Leonardo da Vinci at the Hayward Gallery in London in the late 1980s, when I was aged about 12 years old. The exhibition focussed on Leonardo as a scientist and engineer. I was particularly struck by two aspects of Leonardo’s scientific work: his studies of human anatomy (you can read more about that here), and his invention of many remarkable machines. The exhibition comprised a mix of his original drawings set alongside working models based upon his plans with detailed explanations of his ideas. Many of the machines he’d dreamt up were purely theoretical, such as his famous birdman flying machine and corkscrew helicopter. Of course, most of these machines would never have got off the ground and remained simply as pure flights of Leonardo’s fancy – entirely impractical given the available materials and technologies of the time – there is no record that anyone ever attempted to construct any of them for real. 

But some were genuinely practical. He specialised in hydraulic engineering as well as military architecture, and it is known that he was engaged or advised on some projects of this kind alongside his better known artistic commissions – Charles Nicholl’s life of Leonardo, titled Leonardo da Vinci: The Flights of the Mind (Penguin, 2004), is a fascinating read, and in this respect really brings Leonardo to life as a working man. His design for an armoured vehicle, a kind of prototype-tank, was one drawing featured in the exhibition which stuck in my mind. This particular drawing had been lent to the Hayward by the British Museum, and many years later I was lucky enough to hold this very same drawing in my own hands after I began working at the BM – in fact I’ve couriered and installed it in several other exhibitions in different parts of the world and I hope it has exerted the same fascination for visitors (young and old alike) to those exhibitions too. 


It has been speculated that Leonardo’s fascination with machines may well have begun when he was a child, as he would undoubtedly have seen – first-hand, on a daily basis – the enormous scaffolds, cranes, pulleys and winch systems which were created to build the magnificent Duomo. It’s easy to picture Leonardo as a young boy watching these amazing machines in action, and it’s not hard to imagine the kind of impression they might have made upon him. He must have been fascinated.


And for architectural historians that fascination has never faded. The question as to how Brunelleschi put his ideas into action, particularly with regard to the building of the great dome, with its innovative self-supporting brickwork and double-shell design, is something that deeply intrigues modern scholars too. In this respect Brunelleschi’s machines as much as his innovative architectural ideas are an equally fascinating thing to contemplate. Remnants of these machines still exist, along with sundry descriptions and financial records found in the Duomo’s archives; these disparate fragments have been the subject of modern studies – such as the book by Ross King, which I’ve already mentioned. On this recent trip I bought myself another, slightly more technical book on this topic: Brunelleschi: Studies of His Technology and Inventions by Frank D. Prager & Gustina Scaglia (Dover, 2004 [first published by MIT Press, 1970]). On my previous trip in 2012 I somehow ran out of time, and so I hadn’t been able to visit the little museum at the back of the Duomo which houses the original models Brunelleschi made when designing the dome. 

This time I made sure I didn’t miss it. I also had a better camera with me on this summer’s trip, and so as an addendum to the previous Waymarks post which I wrote on the building of the dome, these are some better photos of the Duomo and Brunelleschi’s working models, as well as the final resting place of the great man himself, set beneath the marvellous marble floor with its intricately tiled optical illusions – it’s a magnificent building, and one which I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of exploring ... Perhaps, when I complete my PhD I should think about applying for a Post-Doc fellowship at the EUI and get to know Florence even better?

Also on 'Waymarks'


15 July 2017

Mind Maps of the Past & Present

The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past

History is a construct, a matter of perception; it's also personal and fixed firmly in our particular present. And, according to most of the reviews which I've read, the same seems to apply to people's perceptions of the merits and faults of this book.

I found it entertaining, engaging, and effortlessly readable - but then I am intrigued by works which ruminate or pontificate on 'how' and 'why' we 'do' history. It reads rather like having a chat with your favourite college professor (perhaps after you've finished their particular course) in the relaxed atmosphere of a bar given the lightness, informality, and humour of the author's tone; and in that sense it is a reflective book which doesn't seem surprising when you understand the book is derived from a series of (somewhat valedictory) lectures. I found it a thought provoking work, even if I didn't wholly agree or share in all of its theses. It meanders through a vast number of (rather self-conscious) metaphors to make many of its points and returns to some of them a little too often to labour certain aspects, which at the end - in seeking to come full circle - I felt left the book feeling somewhat inconclusive, but then that too seemed to be the overarching point: that history is essentially unknowable, or, to put it another way, history is a construct, a matter of perception ...

As a historian presently exploring my own approach, I have to confess, I am rather drawn to this kind of academic navel gazing. Hence I've no doubt I shall at some point return to The Landscape of History for a repeat reading.

On History
by Eric Hobsbawm
(Abacus, 2008)

Make no mistake. This is a heavy-weight set of meditations on historiography. Thoughtful and thought-provoking, but in parts it is highly dense and heavy going. Some years ago now I did my first degree in a distinctly Marxist Anthropology Dept., and so I was surprised (and somewhat startled!) to find I could follow and found the chapters on Marx particularly illuminating. Likewise, I found the later chapters on the 'Annales', History from Below, counterfactuals, and, post-modernism/identity history all made very fruitful reading. Hobsbawm is widely regarded as a formidable historian, and, as a first taster, in reading this book I can well see why!  

Onwards to his The Age of Empire, 1875-1914 and his Nations and Nationalism since 1780 ... I may be some time.

For a more comprehensive overview of Hobsbawm and his works this is an interesting article: reflecting upon Hobsbawm's Long Century by Joseph Fronczak (June 2017)

Making History, Drawing Territory: British Mapping in India, c.1756-1905
by Ian J. Barrow
(Oxford University Press, 2004)

This book describes itself as: "A unique study of British possession and territorial legitimacy in India as represented by colonial maps, this book focuses on various strategies used by map-makers and surveyors to embed a past into their narratives, and concludes that maps were used both to demonstrate a history of territory and, importantly, to justify the possession of land in colonial times in the Indian subcontinent."

An interesting and curious read. Making History, Drawing Territory covers a remarkable amount of ground (excuse the pun) for such a slim book, yet tends to spend more time saying what it's going to say rather than actually saying it! The author does seem very aware that he is writing in the shadow of several rather more substantial works in this field, most notably Matthew Edney's excellent Mapping an Empire (University of Chicago Press, 1999), yet most interestingly Barrow strives to shift the hitherto predominant focus of academic enquiry in this field away from the purely scientific to consider the more social aspects of analysis and interpretation, and thus opens up a number of intriguing questions which perhaps a longer and more in-depth examination might have made for a more rounded and satisfying work - instead it reads rather like a set of five loosely connected essays introducing similar themes, in this sense it's an excellent 'primer' text. A worthwhile and engaging read nonetheless. Incorporating a rich array of primary and secondary sources, as well as fold-out reproductions of many maps, I would certainly very much recommend this book to anyone interested in the history of cartography, British imperialism, and the trigonometrical survey of India.  

 My reviews for The LSE Review of Books


1 July 2017

Of Time & Tide - Reflections on the River Thames

Living near the River Thames I’m often struck by the fact it is so empty these days. It was much busier when I was a child, so the decline in river traffic is a fairly recent phenomenon. I suspect the Thames hasn’t been so quiet in centuries. Photographs and old newsreels from the last century show it teeming with all sorts of vessels, from great ships, powerful tugs, and the lovely distinctive Thames sailing barges, down to small skiffs and tenders. Today the river traffic is mostly tourist party boats, the fast commuter clippers, and the even speedier rib boat rides. But the Thames is still a “working river” – tug boats still haul barges filled with the city’s waste down river, and at high tide large cruise ships occasionally make their incongruous way upstream to moor alongside HMS Belfast. Sometimes, sitting near a window in my flat, catching a glimpse of one of these out of the corner of my eye as it passes by can be quite disconcerting; as, masked by the riverfront buildings, these ships look like a tower block that has decided to up sticks and slink off through the city. These happenings are made all the more eerie because their massive engines are so silent, yet the powerful vibrations of their screws turning in the comparatively shallow channel of the riverbed manage to rattle all the cutlery in my kitchen drawers.

 A Look At Life - Down London River, 1959

It’s impossible to live by the river and not become fascinated by its history. In the narrow maze of riverside streets, many of which are still cobbled, you can find echoes of the past. Old signs; converted warehouses and disused pumping stations; old docks and inlets; waterman’s steps; and cosy old pubs, such as the Prospect of Whitby or the Town of Ramsgate, that have been in business for hundreds of years. Then there’s the ever changing weather and the regular rise and fall of the tides. It often feels like the river has its own micro-climate which is distinct from the rest of the city, as here a mile’s distance can make all the difference between rain and shine.

Black Eagle Wharf, Wapping, c.1850s

The Remains of Napier Yard, Millwall

Not far from where I live is a curious site, beside Millwall. Set back from the paved riverside walkway and preserved in a shallow grassy hollow are the archaeological remains of a massive slipway. Consisting of a huge set of heavy timbers (now sadly decaying), laid out in long rows running parallel to the river; these piles are the remains of a shipyard – called, Napier Yard (at low tide, if there’s not too much mud, you can sometimes see these great wooden timbers extending down the foreshore). It was here, 160 years ago this year on November 3rd, that one of the great feats of Victorian industrial engineering was launched – the SS Great Eastern. Or, at least, this was the date on which the launch of the ship was attempted. In actual fact, it took a further three months to float the ship off the slipway. Its great weight meant that the timbers had subsided more than had been expected, particularly at the bow end, which meant the ship was not sitting level. Thousands of people had gathered that November day to watch the launch and so must have been disappointed when the huge ship failed to budge. Charles Dickens was among them, and penned the following word sketch while observing his fellow spectators:

“They delight in insecure platforms; they crowd on small, frail, housetops; they come up in little cockle boats, almost under the bows of the great ship … Many in that dense floating mass on the river and the opposite shore would not be sorry to experience a great disaster, even at imminent risk to their own lives.” (quoted in Croad, p. 156)

The SS Great Eastern, Napier Yard, Millwall, 1857

Sadly a workman in the Napier shipyard was accidentally killed during the failed launch. When the crowds did eventually disperse I can’t help wondering if Dickens stopped by at The Grapes on nearby Narrow Street, a favourite haunt of his (and mine) on which he is said to have based his description of "The Six Jolly Fellowship Porters" inn in Our Mutual Friend (1865). The original steam powered rams were not strong enough to push the ship down the timbers, and so, with the use of hydraulic rams and a conveniently higher tide than usual the ship was eventually launched sideways into the river as planned on January 31st 1858.

At the time the Great Eastern was the largest ship afloat. Designed by the famous engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the ship suffered a number of setbacks in its early career which have dogged its memory with many people still thinking of it as an unlucky ship, yet the crowning achievement of its working life was celebrated last year, when – 150 years before – on July 27th 1866, the Great Eastern arrived at Newfoundland, having set off two weeks before from Ireland, the ship had successfully laid the transatlantic telegraph cable that began a revolution in global communications. Arthur C. Clarke gives a fabulous re-telling of this historic feat in his book, How the World was One: Beyond the Global Village:

Brunel, at Napier Yard, 1857

“In the Atlantic Cable, the fabulous ‘Great Eastern’ met her destiny and at last achieved the triumph which she had so long been denied.
                This magnificent but unlucky ship had been launched seven years before, but had never been a commercial success. This was partly due to the stupidity of her owners, partly to the machinations of John Scott Russell, her brilliant but unscrupulous builder, and partly to sheer accidents of storm and sea. Seven hundred feet long, with a displacement of 32,000 tons, the ‘Great Eastern’ was not exceeded in size until the ‘Lusitania’ was launched in 1906, forty-eight years later. She was the brain-child of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the greatest engineering genius of the Victorian era – perhaps, indeed, the only man in the last 500 years to come within hailing distance of Leonardo da Vinci. […] He was as much an artist as an engineer, and the remorseless specialisation that has taken place since his day makes it impossible that any one man will ever again match the range of his achievements.
                Of these, the ‘Great Eastern’ was his last and mightiest. Though she was five times the size of any other ship in the world, she was no mere example – as some have suggested – of engineering megalomania. Brunel was the first man to grasp the fact that the larger a ship, the more efficient she can be, because carrying capacity increases at a more rapid rate than the power needed to drive the hull through the water (the first depending on the cube of the linear dimensions, the second only on the square). Having realised this, Brunel then had the courage to follow the mathematics to its logical conclusion, and designed a ship that would be large enough to carry enough coal for the round trip to Australia.
                To provide storage space for the huge coils of wire, three great tanks were carved into the heart of the ship. The drums, sheaves and dynamometers of the laying mechanism occupied a large part of the stern decking, and one funnel with its associated boilers had been removed to give additional storage space. When the ship sailed from the Medway on 24 June 1865 she carried 7000 tons of cable, 8000 tons of coal and provisions for 500 men. Since this was before the days of refrigeration, she also became a sea-going farm. Her passenger list included one cow, a dozen oxen, twenty pigs, 120 sheep and a whole poultry-yard of fowl.” (pp. 71-73)

Presumably the majority of the animal 'class' of passenger didn’t make it all the way to Newfoundland.

After the successful laying of the transatlantic cable the Great Eastern went on to lay over 30,000 miles of undersea telegraph cables, including one across the Arabian Sea from Yemen to India.

The telegraph cable laying machinery on the deck of the SS Great Eastern

The ‘unlucky’ epitaph of the great ship arose for a number of reasons, including a major explosion on board soon after she was launched, plus the fact the ship bankrupted a succession of different owners, but one of the most persistent legends is that the source of her bad luck was discovered when she was eventually broken up over a period of eighteen months on the River Mersey in 1889-1890. It was rumoured that the skeleton of a dead riveter was found in the cavity between her inner and outer hulls (some versions of the rumour even claim there were several skeletons, including one of a child), but Arthur C. Clarke dismisses this – as he states in a footnote: “This story is much too good to be true, and isn’t.”

The grappling hook for lifting the telegraph cable on the SS Great Eastern

That said though, I can’t help but find myself thinking of the ghosts of times past and the ships that once populated this stretch of the river where I live when I wander along its banks. Looking out across the tidal reach here always puts me in mind of a poem by Thom Gunn:

        The Conversation of Old Men

         He feels a breeze rise from
         the Thames, as far off
         as Rotherhithe, in
         intimate contact with
         water, slimy hulls,
         dark wood greenish
         at waterline – touching
         then leaving what it
         lightly touches; he
         goes on talking, and this is
         the life of wind on water.

         By Thom Gunn
        Collected Poems (Faber, 1993)

It’s strange to think that the wooden timbers of the Napier shipyard have outlasted all of it – the shipyard, the great ship, and even the Thames shipbuilding industry itself. Looking at that field of timbers in their serried ranks, and then casting your eye out over the stretch of water alongside, it’s easy to picture the Great Eastern, that majestic old ship (the prototype of those massive cruise liners which occasionally chunter up and down this improbable channel), a visionary leviathan, long laboured into being, eventually setting out from here to change our world forever. In many respects she is the first true ghost of our modernity, and this is the very visible spot where she was born. 

The SS Great Eastern beached on the Mersey, waiting to be broken up, 1889

Sources & Further Reading:

Arthur C. Clarke, How the World was One: Beyond the Global Village (Victor Gollancz, 1992)

Stephen Croad, Liquid History: The Thames Through Time (Batsford, 2003)

Also on ‘Waymarks’

All colour photographs were taken by me; click on the image for the source of the B&W archive photographs.