Polymath Rossellini shares the fruits of her broad knowledge of literature, philosophy, art, and history in this dense yet highly rewarding work in which readers “return to the early times of our history with the intention of rediscovering the building blocks of our contemporary personality.”
The author, who has taught at Columbia, Harvard, and other prestigious universities, begins with the ancient Greeks and works her way through the eras of the Romans, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance. Collaborating with others is an innate human characteristic, and few civilizations illustrated that trait better than the Spartans and Athenians. The Spartans were isolationist while the Athenians were open and embracing of their culture. In both societies, a person’s social group determined who they were and what was expected of them. The author appropriately devotes a good portion of the book to Greece and the development of philosophy, focusing on the legacies of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Alexander the Great as well as the development of art, drama, and the theater and the role of mixed government. The Roman Republic carried that idea through with a perfect mix of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, which prevented the tyranny of the few or the many. Rossellini then moves on to the growth of Christianity, which distrusted reason and separated the mind from the soul. Suddenly the church, rather than the state, was essential to survival. Art was idolatry; doubt denied salvation, and guilt became the overriding mood. The church became a temporal leader, controlling kings and calling for the rise of the Crusades. In the Middle Ages, cities grew rapidly while infrastructure improved and universities and scholarship flourished. The author ends with humanism and the Renaissance, completing a highly satisfying journey across centuries of culture.
This is no beach book. Rossellini gives us illuminating classes in art history, Western civilization, philosophy, and religion, all rolled into one book that must be read closely and pondered fully.