Felipe Fernández-Armesto’s ordeal

March 3 2007

A coincidence. I decided to do this post on Fernández-Armesto, picked up his book Civilizations, and there, before the preface, as a kind of motto, was the same passage that I quoted yesterday from Sophocles’s Antigone. It’s a modern translation, therefore very different from Gilbert Murray’s.

Continuing this blog’s series on ordeals suffered by UK historians, here via YouTube are Professor Fernández-Armesto’s elaborate accounts of what happened to him on January 4 this year in Atlanta. Wikipedia gives the other side of the story.

Anyone who wants to hear all three segments will have nearly half an hour of delicious Felipe Fernández-Armesto to listen to.

Fernández-Armesto is the king of the superdons and a Davos man. A popular-only historian. I had the pleasure of meeting him at a World Economic Forum lunch in New York in November 2001, a few weeks after 9/11. (I was staying in an apartment a few feet away from Ground Zero.) After the lunch, we and one or two others went over to the Guggenheim, where there were two exhibitions on – one of Norman Rockwell and one of Baroque and modern Brazil, called Brazil: Body and Soul.

The Rockwell – all cornflakes and Labor Day family outings in cars – was in ordinary exhibition rooms and hung on white walls. It was a large show. From it, you emerged into the main circular space, about half way up. Every part of the walls and circular walkway had been painted jet black. Towering up in the middle, nearly 50 feet high, was the huge main golden altar from the Benedictine church of São Bento, Olinda, Pernambuco, north of Recife. The most fantastic and awe-inspiring statement of a tropical Baroque which you could possibly imagine and a hair-raising contrast with the Rockwell.

Could it have been on that very day that the prolific Fernández-Armesto had the idea of a book called The Americas: The History of a Hemisphere, a synoptic history of both Latin and Anglophone Americas which appeared in 2003? He seemed distinctly lost in thought in the Guggenheim.

The book mentions Brazil’s great Baroque sculptor Aleijadinho, who was much in evidence in the exhibition:

“the mulatto cripple Aleijadinho, born in about 1732, the illegitimate son of a Portuguese carpenter and his slave. After a supposedly wild youth, which may be a pious fiction, he was divinely chastised with leprosy, muscular dystrophy, partial paralysis, and the loss of his toes. He carved masterpieces outside churches in Minas Gerais, with a chisel tied to half-paralysed fingers. His embittered, contorted style climaxed in his last sculptures, a series of twelve prophets at Congonhas do Campo. The animation, emotion, and decorative detail would have been impossible for the sculptor’s crippled hands but for the local soapstone, which is soft when freshly quarried and hardens on exposure to air.”

Felipe Fernández-Armesto, who is now teaching at Tufts, tells us on YouTube that he is applying for a Green Card. I can’t imagine that he will have any difficulty, but one of his recent books, Amerigo: The Man Who Gave His Name to America, about Vespucci, might have been intended to seal his relationship with America.

His page at the site of Queen Mary, University of London, says: “Reviewers have likened him to Gibbon, Montesquieu, Toynbee, Braudel and A.J.P. Taylor.”

His writing does have tremendous range, dash and bravura, but it is not as rich as Toynbee’s. On the other hand, most people will find him more congenial and readable. He is also a Welthistoriker. In fact, his latest book is The World: A History, which I must get. It seems to be aimed squarely at the American educational market.

The Queen Mary page quotes Raymond Carr in The Spectator: “Like the Phoenician traders, who laid out their wares on the beach in order to attract the barbarians, he lays out before us not only his images of civilizations but the problems that their emergence and decay pose. We are duly dazzled.”

The image is a good one: perhaps it comes from Felipe. Fernández-Armesto’s anecdotes and images (his stock seems inexhaustible) are displayed like that, and do dazzle us. But having read and been absorbed by Civilizations, I can remember almost nothing about it. Toynbee is also accused of dazzling us, “but”.

Toynbee was ecologically-aware in his old age, and his Mankind and Mother Earth begins and ends with majestic passages on the natural environment. But he cannot be called an “environmental historian”. On the other hand, that is exactly what Fernández-Armesto intends to be. Civilizations is described in the blurb as “a radical cultural history of mankind’s fragile relationship with nature”. Toynbee’s book does not really succeed, except in the broadest Toynbeean sense, in being what it calls itself: a “chronicle of Mankind’s encounter with Mother Earth”.

I can’t find an image of the Olinda altar which does it justice. (How did they get it into the Guggenheim building?) But here are Aleijadinho’s The Scourging of Jesus in a series on the Passion in the basilica at Congonhas in Minas Gerais, and his Jonah from the series of prophets mentioned by Fernández-Armesto.

jesus.jpg jonah.jpg

7 Responses to “Felipe Fernández-Armesto’s ordeal”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    Fernández-Armesto’s page at Tufts says: “A general history of Spanish civilization is in progress.”


  2. […] Felipe Fernández-Armesto’s ordeal […]

  3. davidderrick Says:

    Felipe Fernández-Armesto responded to this post by writing in an email:

    “I do think Toynbee was an environmental historian – one of the unacknowledged pioneers in the field – but he was so much else that one hardly notices. His Mankind and Mother Earth, though not a great book by his standards, makes the environmentalism explicit.”


  4. […] Toynbee was not, I thought, in a modern sense, an environmental historian, but Felipe Fernández-Armesto commented on an earlier post: […]

  5. davidderrick Says:

    He speaks what I call Lady Margaret Hall English.


  6. […] New York 2002. Davos in exile. […]

  7. davidderrick Says:

    The book that came out last year is not a general history of Spanish civilisation, but a Hispanic history of the United States, provocatively entitled, addressing the emerging demographic majority, Our America.


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