Baroque! - From St Peter's to St Paul's; Guilty Pleasures

Baroque! - From St Peter's to St Paul's was a three part series presented by Waldemar Januszczak about Baroque art and architecture. The three programmes moved in geography (covering Italy, Spain & the Netherlands, and Britain respectively) and forwards in time. He started off with the story of how baroque art has its roots in the Counter Reformation - basically intended to propagate the "right" Christian message via eye-catching art. In particular as a response to the more austere Protestant sensibility, a sort of "you say we have too much art? we'll show you too much art!". As the movement took off in Spain (via Naples - a Spanish colony) the religious subject matter became darker and more visceral. Baroque artists also became the court painters of the era. Januszczak was entertainingly dismissive of the Hapsburg rulers of Spain & the Spanish Netherlands (and to be fair, there's a lot there to to be dismissive of) while extolling the virtues of their taste in art. The Spanish court paintings were one of the vectors that introduced baroque art & architecture to England - Charles I's visit to Spain when he was hoping to marry a Spanish princess brought him into contact with the court culture and painting. This wasn't to be the baroque movement's first jump to a Protestant nation - that was the Netherlands. Once the baroque took a hold in England it was given extra space to grow because of the Great Fire of London - about half of the last episode of this series was about the various churches (including St Paul's) which were rebuilt in a baroque style after that disaster.

I've found it hard to write about what was in the programmes, because a lot of the point was (unsurprisingly) the visuals - Januszczak showed us a lot of paintings and buildings both well known and not. The style of the programme was gloriously over the top, as befits the subject matter. Well worth watching :)


This week we also watched both parts of a series that we've had on the PVR for ages - Guilty Pleasures. This series was about how modern attitudes to luxury have been shaped by our cultural roots. It was presented by Michael Scott, who's a classicist, so it's no surprise that the first episode was about the influence of the Ancient Greeks; the second episode was about the influence of medieval Christianity. In Ancient Greece he followed three strands of Greek attitudes to luxury - the first of these was the Athenian democracy that spent time and legislation on trying to prevent ostentatious private luxuries by channeling the urge to consume into public luxuries. And tried to tie society together by having ritual communal luxuries - like sacrificing large numbers of cows which would then give every citizen some meat. The Spartans in some ways had their downfall through unsuccessfully navigating this tension between public & private luxury. As prominent Spartan citizens began to gather wealth to themselves rather than live in the spartan communal fashion their society began to decline. And the last society he touched on in that episode was the Macedonians who embrace luxury (for the ruler) much more than the Athenians or Spartans - they use their wealth as a propaganda tool and to enhance the division between the ruler and the ruled (unlike the more egalitarian principles of Athens or Sparta).

By the middle ages luxury has become a sin. Having contact with luxurious things is supposed to lead you into ever worse sin - fine foods, fine clothing is just a precursor to other indulgences. Scott also talked about how the Black Death actually led to increased luxury for the people who survived. People at the lower reaches of society in particular gained land and better pay because there was a lack of labour available. Which increased the feelings of guilt around luxury. Another factor was that the plague was seen as God's punishment on people, and so at higher levels of society people took a second look at their lives and came to the conclusion that God was not pleased about their sinfulness (including their luxuries).

And Scott tied it together at the end by thinking a little about modern attitudes to luxury, in particular in the wake of the 2008 banking crisis. The Greek influences can been seen in how we generally react to conspicuous consumption as divisive, and the medieval influences are most obvious in the very idea of a "guilty pleasure".


Other TV watched this week:

Episode 2 of The Stuarts - a series about the Stuart Kings of England & Scotland, presented by Clare Jackson, and about how they shaped the United Kingdom and how they were shaped by it. Broadcast on the Scottish version of BBC2 only.

Episode 1 of Bible Hunters - series about the search for early texts of the Bible in Egypt.

Episode 1 of Time Traveller's Guide to Elizabethan England - this was part of the BBC's Tudor Season in 2013. It's a series about life in Elizabethan times from the perspective of the differences between now and then, what you'd need to know if you could travel back there.

New Secrets of the Terracotta Warriors - Channel 4 one-off programme about the terracotta army found buried near the Emperor Qin's grave in China. Partly about the history of Qin era China (the first unification of the country in c.200BC, and partly about the techniques currently being used to learn more about the terracotta soldiers. A little shallow.

Episode 1 of The Great British Year - series about British wildlife and countryside over the whole year. Lots of gorgeous shots of animals, and timelapse sequences of landscapes.

Britain's Most Fragile Treasure - Janina Ramirez programme about the East Window in York Cathedral. How it was made, who made it, how it's being conserved, and what the various scenes and stories are.