Russell Shorto

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Finding Vermeer

Friday, November 20, 2015

An art historian at the University of Amsterdam has identified, with as close to certainty as one is likely to get, the location of one of the iconic paintings of the Dutch Golden Age, Vermeer’s “Little Street.” It was always known to be in Delft, the only city Vermeer painted, but, though others tried, no one could pinpoint the spot. Using maps, water tax records and mathematics, Frans Grijzenhout reasoned that Vermeer must have been standing on Vlamingstraat opposite what are today house numbers 40 and 42. One large clue was the double gate in the painting: a rarity in the 17th century city. The houses of today are different but the size of the lots is precisely the same.



Thursday, September 17, 2015

cover My book “The Island at the Center of the World” is being developed as a dramatic series for PBS. As if that isn’t big enough news, the great Ridley Scott has signed up to executive produce, along with David Zucker, whose credits include “The Good Wife” and, currently, “Killing Jesus.” The writer of the series — Ed Redlich, renowned for “The Practice,” “Shark,” and the current show “Unforgettable” — is working on the pilot script right now. Arvind Ethan David is the producer who optioned the book and brought all the parties together. His company, Ideate Media, will produce the series together with Scott Free, Ridley Scott’s company, Things are moving quickly — stay tuned!

You Change Laws

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

We got a rare hint of actual political wisdom from a politician when Hillary Clinton responded to a Black Lives Matter activist: “I don’t believe you change hearts. I believe you change laws.” Is that not how it went with the end of slavery, with women’s suffrage, with every political advance in the civil rights movement, with every step in the struggle for women’s equality, with Obamacare? Each time around, it’s not a battle to win hearts and minds of those on the wrong side of history. It is a battle to marshal political forces, to enact laws, and then to enforce them. You don’t hope for or expect the opponents to come around in their hearts. You expect that, through continued enforcement, you will win over their children and grandchildren. It’s a long haul.

Speaking of New Netherland

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

I’m hosting an irregular series of podcasts on the topic of the former Dutch colony of New Netherland, which gave rise to New York (and much else). The first–an interview with renowned historical painter Len Tantillo–is online now. Len’s meticulous attention to historical detail makes his paintings veritable windows into what was. Here, for example, is his rendering of Hanover Square, in Lower Manhattan, in the mid 1600s:

Hanover Square

The Edge of the World

Friday, June 5, 2015

Michael Pye’s new book is bristling, wide-ranging and big-themed. It’s the sort of historical work whose thesis is virtually impossible to prove, but it’s also a reminder that history isn’t an exact science. At its most meaningful, history involves a good deal of art and storytelling. Pye’s book is full of both.

In “The Edge of the World,” Pye concentrates on a murky era — the Middle Ages — and on a region of Europe that seems always to have been blanketed in mist, the North Sea. “This cold, gray sea in an obscure time made the modern world possible,” he declares in his introduction. In the pages that follow, he doesn’t prove that grand statement so much as toss handfuls of paint at it, in many places coloring it in while obscuring it in others.

Continue to my review in the New York Times Book Review.

The Two Popes

Friday, May 15, 2015

Sandro Magister is the most astute Italian journalist covering the Vatican. He has a better read on its inner workings than anyone else. He has just written a remarkable piece in which he peels away the media hype surrounding Pope Francis and shows what is actually happening in Francis’ pontificate. Magister says that while in the media Francis is a revolutionary who is sweeping out the old guard and old ways and instilling a new focus on the poor and, much to the consternation of conservatives, calling for change in the way the Vatican looks at homosexuality, divorce and climate change, the reality is quite different. The central power in the Vatican is the Curia, and, Magister notes, there has been no change in it: The Curia “is still there and completely intact. Nothing has been dismantled or replaced.” The Vatican’s career diplomats, he goes on to say, “are more firmly in power than ever.”

As for the big issues of homosexuality and divorce, the Pope talked publicly about them, and made a huge stir with his “Who am I to judge?” comment. But Magister notes that since Francis encountered hostility to change from the inner circle he has largely returned to boilerplate language on these topics, “without swerving a millimeter from the strict teaching of his predecessors Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI.” Magister says the Pope has since last October spoken out against these issues 40 times, and has refused to give a “placet” to France’s proposed Ambassador to the Vatican, who is gay.

Magister concludes: “the media continue to sell the story of the ‘revolutionary’ pope, but the true Francis is farther and farther away from this.”

Meanwhile, the conservatives in the Vatican have by now realized that they have an unexpected gift in Francis. He has turned around the Vatican’s largely negative image. He is providing cover. And, for them, business can continue as usual.

PEN and Charlie Hebdo

Saturday, May 2, 2015

For the few people who may be interested in the thinking behind my decision to put my name with 144 other writers in speaking out against the decision by PEN to give its Freedom of Expression Courage Award to the French magazine “Charlie Hebdo,” here is a brief outline. I fully agreed with the “Je Suis Charlie” wave of support in the aftermath of the attack in Paris. I am an advocate of unfettered free speech. I abhor violent efforts to restrict it. Further, I am no fan of religion, of any sort.

The PEN issue, however, is somewhat different. It is an award. An award ought to go to the best exponent of whatever it is honoring. While I support Charlie Hebdo’s right to speak and criticize, and found that it certainly took courage to do what they did, I concluded that, in terms of the larger effort to reduce the influence of religion on humanity, which is what I view the magazine’s purpose to be, and which is laudable in my mind, it was muddled. Its writers and artists may not be racist at all, but in my estimation the overall effect of the magazine has been to play on puerile racial and religious stereotypes. I don’t see this as an especially damning criticism, and I believe that I am largely in agreement with the objectives of Charlie Hebdo (as far as I understand them, and my knowledge of the French language and French culture is limited). But to me it means that such an award should go to a different advocate of free expression, of which there are many. I understand that awards like this are often meant as broad gestures, but smaller issues—such as the quality of the effort to achieve one’s ends—should be taken into consideration.

Finally, I strenuously reject the tendency to see such matters in black-and-white terms. I think it’s possible for a reasonable liberal thinker to come down on one side or the other. I imagine that a great many people who have strong opinions for or against the decision to give the award to Charlie Hebdo essentially share a similar set of beliefs, but differ in where they place emphasis.

poems from a moravian parking lot

Monday, April 20, 2015

My friend Michael Martin has just published a book of poetry, and I would like to recommend it to anyone in need of medication or other form of reorientation. I won’t quote from a poem but will instead speak of titles. The first poem in the collection is called

On The Eve Of Her Retirement, On A Cross-Atlantic Flight, A United Airlines Stewardess Picks Up The Microphone And Says Goodbye

Then comes

Public Service Announcement From Last Night’s Dream

followed by

Car Wreck Outside The Dinner Party

And so on. It’s beautiful stuff, especially if you are open for redefinitions of beauty. And you can find it: here.

In Ireland, Chasing Yeats

Friday, April 17, 2015

I will arise and go now…

Surprisingly often, when I get up from a chair to leave a room, those six melodramatic words will unfurl in my mind. Somehow William Butler Yeats’s poem “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” which, like millions of other people, I first read in college, stays rooted in me:

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree…

And I’m off, not to the dentist or the shopping mall but, mentally, striding emerald slopes, making for a place of myth…

Latest piece in the NYT Travel section…

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