Travels with Vasari; Melvyn Bragg's Radical Lives

Travels with Vasari is a two-part documentary we've had on the PVR for the last 4 years or thereabouts. It's presented by Andrew Graham Dixon and is about Vasari, and Renaissance Italy. Vasari was an artist in Italy in the 16th Century but nowadays he is much more famous for the book he wrote called "Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects". Dixon explained that this is the first work of art criticism and art history as we know those subjects today, and that Vasari can be credited with inventing them. The two programmes had a little bit of Dixon talking about Vasari himself (his life, some of his art) but mostly it was a tour round Italy looking at examples of the works that Vasari wrote about. The book was organised as a sort of progression throughout the Renaissance towards what Vasari thought was its crowning glory - the paintings of Michaelangelo. As his subject was the lives of the artists he obviously provided some biographical details for each one as well as discussing their art - but in many cases he stretched the truth or invented things out of whole cloth (for instance casting one artist as a murderer, yet investigative work in the 20th Century showed that said artist died 4 years before his putative victim ...).

A good series, I'm not sure why we left it so long before watching it. It also reminded me that somewhere I have a book covering the broad sweep of the history of art via a series of example paintings, and while at one point I was going through it at a rate of a painting a day, I don't think I ever finished. Must dig that back out again.


Melvyn Bragg's Radical Lives was two biographical programmes about two of the great British radicals. Bragg started the first programme by reminding us that while Britain has never had a successful revolution, and it's flirtation with being a republic ended by inviting the monarch back, nonetheless there have been some notable radical thinkers born in our country. The first programme looked at the life of John Ball - a name that isn't necessarily familiar to everyone, but I think most people will've heard the phrase "When Adam delved and Eve span, who then was the gentleman?" which is one of Ball's. John Ball lived during the 14th Century and was instrumental in leading what is now known as the Peasants Revolt. The subject of the second programme was Thomas Paine, an 18th Century radical who was born in England but participated in the American War of Independence (on the American side) and the French Revolution. He wrote several influential pamphlets - like "Common Sense" which was influential in the decision of the fledgling US to declare independence, and "Rights of Man" which was in part a defence of the French Revolution.

Bragg told the stories of these two men as separate tales, but linked them together and to William Tyndale (who he's previously made a programme about) by the way that their great influence was derived from their use of English to communicate their ideas. And not just English (which was radical enough in Ball's time all on its own) but plain English that was understandable by everyone rather than just some intellectual elite.

Interesting programmes about two men I didn't actually know much about beyond their names.


Other TV we watched last week:

Episode 2 of Rule Britannia! Music, Mischief & Morals in the 18th Century - Suzy Klein talking about 18th Century British music and how it impacted and was impacted by the history of the time.

Episode 2 of Tropic of Capricorn - Simon Reeve travels round the world following the Tropic of Capricorn.

Episode 2 of Lost Land of the Tiger - three part series about looking for tigers in Bhutan.

Episode 1 of Britain's Great War - Jeremy Paxman looking at what happened in Britain during WWI.

The Search for Life: The Drake Equation - one off programme about the possibility that there is life on other planets, looking at each of the factors of the Drake equation in turn to see what we now know about the probabilities. I didn't always agree with what was being said (for instance I'm not particularly convinced the photosynthesis is as dead certain to develop as they were saying, it's only evolved once on earth after all). It was also marred somewhat by the visual style which was clearly done by someone who thought the subject of the programme was dull so needed to be jazzed up with shaky cams. Overall, good but not as good as it could've been.

Do We Really Need the Moon? - a delightful programme presented by Maggie Aderin-Pocock about the moon. She talked about the origin of the moon, what it was like in the past, what it will be like in the future. And a lot about how it has shaped the earth and life on earth. Possibly she credited the moon with a bit too much influence sometimes, but her enthusiasm carried the programme along.