The Dark Brain of Piranesi

PDF EBook by Marguerite Yourcenar

EBook Description

It should be apparent from my assumed name and image on here that I hold Yourcenar's literary work in high esteem. The Dark Brain of Piranesi PDF EBook At least, I consider the Memoirs of Hadrian a superb book. It is something austere, deeply tragic and forlorn. But Yourcenar did not write only one book.

The Dark Brain of Piranesi is a lot of seven essays which show a deep and probing intellect everywhere - PDF Roman history to contemporary Greek poetry to Swedish novelists and Italian etchers. Yourcenar somehow manages to draw crisp arguments and careful investigations in all of these. A favorite method is to draw comparisons across the varying disciplines of art. The sketches of imaginary prisons by Piranesi bring to her mind the opiate dreams of De Quincey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge; download; the blunt fixations of the Roman historian Suetonius brings to mind the portraits of Hans Holbein.


Hans Holbein the Younger, Portrait of William Warham

From these various examples Yourcenar extracts manifold truths. Piranesi's sketches are bewildering, whether they are Roman ruins or of Borgesian labyrinths. They are, to Yourcenar, winding circles of hell, but with God or the Devil curiously absent from the picture. They defy space and time. They render the world into a living hallucination.


Giovanni Piranesi, The Gothic Arch

One essay which was most stunning to me was the long review of the Historia Augusta, a primary source of Roman history written somewhen in the 4th century, and a collected biography of over a century of Roman Emperors. It begins with the emperor Hadrian and ends with the minor emperors Carinus and Numerian, and is one of the main sources of her own masterly novel. But Plutarch's Lives this is not - the book is studded with factual errors and exaggerations, and unvarnished gossip and exaggeration. Yourcenar spends some time listing these errors like a disappointed history professor with a red pen. But it does contain a deeply human cast of characters. All of their grotesque faults and follies and gnashing emotions reveal a world which to her is deeply modern. As such, modern characters were an inspiration to the ancients.

She confesses that one inspiration to the melancholy emperor Hadrian was Sir Winston Churchill. Churchill?! The happy warrior of the British Empire with the weight of five centuries on his shoulders, as the Emperor Hadrian? But in retrospect it makes sense. Was it not Churchill, who said at the conference of Tehran, that he wanted to 'sleep for a billion years', and that all of human history was 'specks of dust which had settled in the night on the map of the world'? These two somber guardians mirror each other. As for Hadrian's lost lover, Antoninus, Yourcenar searched for contemporary examples of male beauty. She settled for Nijinsky, the ballet dancer.

But to return to the Historia Augusta. This mediocre history is in itself a valuable history of imperial decline. The course of empire ran from its marble-columned peak with the Five Good Emperors in the late 2nd century AD, and it would fall into oblivion over two hundred years later, staggering from crisis, violent usurpation, and collapse in between. In a passage which echoes Yeats' 'Second Coming', she sees the tattered history of Rome as reflecting a crumbling empire. I quote:

The evils by which a civilization dies are more specific, more complex, more deliberate, sometimes, more difficult to discover or to define. But we have learned to recognize that gigantism which is merely the morbid mimetism of growth, that waste which makes a pretense of wealth in states already bankrupt, that plethora so quickly replaced by dearth at the first crisis, those entertainments for the people provided from the upper levels of the hierarchy, that atmosphere of inertia and panic, of authoritarianism and of anarchy, those pompous reaffirmations of a great past amid present mediocrity and immediate disorder, those reforms which are merely palliatives and those outbursts of virtue which are manifested only by purges, those unacknowledged men of genius lost in the crowd of unscrupulous gangsters, of violent lunatics, of honest men who are inept and wise men who are helpless. The modern reader is at home in the Historia Augusta.


Such is the core of her writing and historical analysis. All nations, all peoples, are different. All times, all settings, contrast to each other. Yet all of them are still casted and played by people, and it is the various moods of people which drive human history.

Yourcenar demonstrates her skill here as more than a novelist, but a deeply knowledgeable thinker, one at ease in the spires of French chateaux and musing amidst the ruins of Rome. Like this book? Read online this: Rome from Earliest Times to the Dawn of the Second Punic War (Roman History as Told by the Romans Book 1), The Great Brain at the Academy (Great Brain #4).

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