‘On the Trail of Art Looters’ by Amanda Foreman – The Wall Street Journal

A relief from Rome’s Arch of Titus showing the spoils of Jerusalem. PHOTO: DEAGOSTINI/GETTY IMAGES

Since 2014, Islamic State has been doing its best to destroy all traces of pre-Islamic culture in Iraq and Syria. Hammers and explosives aren’t its only tools. The antiquities trade is worth billions, and the self-styled caliphate is funding itself in part by looting and selling ancient treasures.

In late May, the Journal reported that U.S. and European Union authorities were scrutinizing a pair of art dealers as part of a wider investigation into who has been facilitating the market for ancient coins, statues and relics stolen by Islamic State. The dealers say they have done nothing wrong.

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‘Don’t sneer at historical fiction, it’s keeping the past alive’ by Amanda Foreman’ – The Telegraph

I know it’s old hat to complain that students are becoming more stupid by the hour. But can you blame me when the Cambridge historian John Guy revealed to a Hay Festival audience this week that he keeps meeting prospective students who admit to knowing nothing of Tudor politics outside of Hilary Mantel’s novels.

I mean, what idiot turns up unprepared for an Oxbridge history interview and expects to be taken seriously? When you’re applying to one of the world’s best universities, do you a) read voraciously to ensure that you outsmart the competition, or b) parade your total ignorance of even the most basic tenets of your chosen discipline?

This shouldn’t need spelling out, but here goes: if you plan on discussing a particular era, then make an effort to know it before the interview. Read the books of at least two different academics and have an opinion on whose arguments you find most persuasive. Continue reading…

‘A History of Colors and Their Owners’ by Amanda Foreman – The Wall Street Journal

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

In 2009, a graduate student working in a chemistry lab at Oregon State University accidentally created a new, brilliantly blue pigment while experimenting with manganese oxide and other materials. Dubbed “YInMn blue” after its chemical makeup, the pigment quickly spurred a research paper and a patent application. And soon the gorgeous new color will be available to all of us: Crayola recently announced that it would introduce a blue crayon “inspired” by YInMn and kicked off a contest to name it. Continue reading…

“Where ‘King Arthur’ Came From, and Why the Film Failed” by Amanda Foreman – The Wall Street Journal

Charlie Hunnam, that sword and that stone, in ‘King Arthur: Legend of the Sword.’ PHOTO: WARNER BROS. PICTURES

In the movie business, even the stuff of legend is no sure bet: The box-office returns for the latest version of the perennially popular Arthurian stories, “ King Arthur : Legend of the Sword,” have marked the film as one of the biggest flops yet for 2017.

What went wrong? High on the list of critics’ complaints was the rewriting of Arthur’s character and story to make him seem more down-to-earth and less like the virtuous leader of legend. The Journal’s Joe Morgenstern called the film “a choppy hunt for the grim, the grungy, the darkness of dungeons and the clamor of a war-torn world.” Continue reading…

‘The Mystery of Genius’ by Amanda Foreman – The Wall Street Journal

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

“Genius,” a new National Geographic miniseries on Albert Einstein starring Geoffrey Rush, tries to peel back the great physicist’s eccentric public persona and examine the human being underneath, warts and all. But even if we could discover everything about Einstein’s life and character, would that tell us anything about the nature of genius?

People have been puzzling over the concept for more than 2,000 years, as Darrin M. McMahon points out in his comprehensive history of genius, “Divine Fury.” In classical antiquity, genius wasn’t considered a talent or the result of effort but a divine spirit. The ancient Greeks believed that every individual was born with a daimon, an innate spiritual power bestowed by the gods that guided a person’s actions and ultimately decided his fate. The Romans shared this basic belief in a heavenly spirit that resides in us. Continue reading…

‘The Pleasures and Perils of the Garden’ by Amanda Foreman – The Wall Street Journal

HR28T4 POMPEO BATONI LUCCA 1708 – 1787 ROME SUSANNA AND THE ELDERS PHOTO: ALAMY

When the British philosopher Sir Francis Bacon wrote in a 1625 essay that “God Almighty first planted a garden, and indeed, it is the purest of human pleasures,” he knew that his readers would immediately think of the Garden of Eden, the setting for humankind’s downfall in sin. So which was it, a place of simple delights or of awful temptations? Historically, it turns out, gardens have been both. Continue reading…

‘In Praise of the Humble, Sometimes Bawdy Limerick’ by Amanda Foreman – The Wall Street Journal

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

It’s National Poetry Month, so let us praise the humble limerick, in spite of (or perhaps because of) its bawdy, silly rhymes. After all, it’s the only literary form to encompass the poetic genius of both St. Thomas Aquinas and Krusty the Clown from “The Simpsons,” who starts but never finishes the ditty, “There once was a man named Enis…”

Most people know the limerick’s rigid meter and rhyme scheme—the first, second and fifth lines should rhyme with each other, as should the shorter third and fourth lines. But no one really knows where the limerick began or why it’s named for a small Irish city rather than for Peru or Tobago, home to many an Old Man and Young Lady featured in said poems. Continue reading…

‘Baseball, From a Pharaoh to Hoboken, N.J.’ by Amanda Foreman – The Wall Street Journal

PHOTO: THOMAS FUCHS

Say goodbye to the winter blues. On April 2 the sport of kings is set to resume: no, not horse racing but baseball, the oldest ball game on record.

At the dawn of civilization, our ancient ancestors learned how to write, build temples, sail the seas—and play ball. It will probably come as no surprise to baseball fans that the Egyptians placed the game (or their proto-variation of it) on a par with life and sex. According to Prof. Peter Piccione at Charleston College, the term “seker-hemat,” often translated as “batting the ball,” began as a fertility ritual performed in spring festivals. It’s believed that the ball represented the head of Osiris, god of the underworld. Continue reading…

‘The Long, Long Fall of Monarchy’ by Amanda Foreman – The Wall Street Journal

A portrait of Czar Nicholas II, published in a French newspaper in 1896. PHOTO: LEEMAGE/UIG/GETTY IMAGES

A hundred years ago, on March 14, 1917, just before midnight, the ministers of Czar Nicholas II informed him that the army was on the verge of mutiny. “What do you want me to do?” the Russian emperor reportedly asked. “Abdicate,” they replied. After a few minutes’ silence he agreed to go, thus bringing down the curtain on three centuries of Romanov rule. Continue reading…

‘A Brief History of Sledding’ by Amanda Foreman – The Wall Street Journal

The sled symbolizes the all-American way of life—with its freedom, simplicity and comfort—that Kane lost when he gained his riches. It should be no surprise that another quintessential American classic, Frank Capra’s 1946 “It’s a Wonderful Life,” also has an iconic scene of children sledding on a wintry day. Continue reading…