Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Architecture Tourist watches TV: Sir Kenneth Clark's Civilisation

"Why is medieval and renaissance architecture so much better than our own?"

"Greatest educator of the last 50 years? Well, the late Kenneth Clark has to be in anybody's Top Ten. His 13-part TV documentary Civilisation (that's the British spelling), first aired in 1969, is a marvel." John Derbyshire.

Watch Grandeur and Obedience.

Have you seen "Civilization" or read the book? I don't think there is an easier or more serious way for architecture tourists to begin an armchair study of art history and why it matters. The series is now 40 years old and like the art it stands the test of time, so far.

We can now watch several episodes online. The one on my mind right now is "Grandeur and Obedience." It's about the Baroque era: Michelangelo, Bernini, Titian, Caravaggio, and the breathtaking art and architecture commissioned by the popes of that era. Learn a bit about the design of St. Peters.

This quote stays with me:

"Of course there was exploitation before the 16th century but never on so vast a scale. In the middle ages it was usually accompanied by real popular participation... But the colossal palaces of the popes were simply private expressions of greed and vanity...These rapacious parvenus spent their short years of power competing as to who should build the largest and most ornate saloon. In doing so they commissioned some great works of art. And one can't help admiring that shameless courage. At least they weren't mean and furtive...But their contribution to civilization was limited to this kind of visceral exuberance. The sense of grandeur is no doubt a human instinct but carried too far it becomes inhuman.

"I wonder if a single thought that has helped forward the human spirit has ever been conceived or begun in an enormous room."

Civilization rewards repeated viewings. I hope you'll try at least on episode. If you can convince your children to watch, all the better.


  1. I'll have to check it out. Sounds like this guy has the usual sort of modern interpretation of the classical, that everything is about power and ego. I think the great buildings are built just to be beautiful.

    Great blog BTW, and thanks for commenting on mine.

  2. Hope you will check him out. I think Civilisation set the bar for art / history documentaries. I don't think it's been done better. Of the recent things on the tube, "Treasures of the Historical Trust" and "The Power of Art," it's easy their roots. Kenneth Clark conveys more depth and breadth in a single sentence than most, quite human all the while.

    He begins by saying we know history from deeds, words, and art. You need all 3 to understand, but art is the most trustworthy.

  3. Agreed. It is a monumental series. If you enjoyed this, I recommend Jacob Bronowski's 'The Ascent of Man', John Robert's 'The Triump of the West' or any of James Burke's earlier work. These are more historical/scientific in focus, but are nonetheless fascinating.

    Boots, I would be interested to hear your views on Clark's 'modernism'. IMHO, Clark was primarily interested in aesthetics and the implications one can draw from them about the men who made the art and the times in which they lived. This would be in contrast to the contemporary structuralist/deconstructionist take on art, which seems to hold that aesthetic judgments are really about power dymanics and "hegemony". Your thoughts?


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