The BBC’s Battle of Civilisations: Simon Schama takes on Kenneth Clark

I am an admirer of Simon Schama.  He is one of those commentators whose fluent writing and mode of expression conveys depth with ease, not surprising in so accomplished and erudite an historian.  His social media commentary is sharply hostile to nonsense and the dangers he sees around him today.  His presence in front of a camera is impishly charming and in front of a work of art or historical significance is filled with wonder that is both boyish and wise. He grapples with the Holocaust as a great moral indignation that yet remains unknowable, its evil ineffable. In another age, he would be regarded as one of the great humanists.

Kenneth Clark likewise comes across as a both learned and gentle.  His toffily clipped sentences and rolling r’s segment and condense his insights into how Western civilization came about.  I’ve been watching, if you haven’t guessed already, the first couple of episodes of his ground breaking and sensationally popular 1969 documentary series Civilisation, courtesy of YouTube.  He covers the period I’ve been reading and blogging about recently, the transition from the Dark Age of Vikings to the early Middle Ages of the Nomans and Capetians.  Clark pinpoints the difference as that between wandering and permanence, as crystalline and all-encompassing an explanation as you’re likely to find anywhere.  I’ve been fascinated by how formative the 12th century was to so much that was foundational to Europe; attitudes, religion, laws, government, nation states, culture, even science.  As he concludes in episode two, Clark himself believed that it was this century that imparted the impetus to the development of Western Europe in subsequent centuries.

The connection between Schama and Clark? Schama, alongside Mary Beard and David Olusoga, is hosting a new BBC series called Civilizations, to be broadcast between March and April.  In his FT column last weekend, he does pose the question what they can add to Clark’s achievement.  The hint is in the added ‘s’: “And of course the answer is the rest of the world.”  He assures us that the intention is not to replace the Judaeo-Christian with the ‘citizen of nowhere’ but to find the truth in the fruitful connection.  To be fair Clark looked for that too, seeing the rise of Marian devotion as an inspiration from the Byzantine church, for example.  And he pointed to the statues of Chartres Cathedral as being inspired by the draperies on Roman statues that the sculptor must have seen, possible in southern France.  Yet it clear that Schama and his colleagues are taking on much more, squeezing into a mere nine episodes man’s civilisation across the globe from the Stone Age “to last week”, as he put it: Clark, he says, had thirteen just for the West.

Such differences notwithstanding, we’re in for something of a show down.  In the meantime, I’m going to sit back in the company of Clark before getting the popcorn and watching Schama.  Great stuff!

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