Animadversions: On the “Cultural Olympics”

by Suzanne Kiernan

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When I heard about the proposed Sydney Cultural Olympics, intended to mark a new century and a new millennium, I was reminded of the Cultural Olympic Games inaugurated in Rome at the opening of the eighteenth century. Could the Rome Cultural Olympics be a precedent of sorts for those that are being prepared for us, even now, by anxious arts bureaucrats and facilitators, as a $21 million trimming to the grand event whose total outlay is $600 million–while the social cost is as yet unknown? They’re not, of course; there’s no comparison, but there are perhaps some reflections to be had from a consideration of them.

Cultural Olympics were one of the observances of the Rome-based Accademia degli Arcadi. The Arcadians were devoted to the renewal, reform and modernisation of “letters”, and were part of a burgeoning print-based culture having as an important part of their implied charter the widening of their own constituency. It was an Academy in the Humanist mould of serio ludere, and when the members were in convocation, they thought of themselves as inhabiting an ideal homeland, coextensive with a quasi-mythical geography of Ancient Greece, with a pastoral economy. It called itself a “democratic republic of Letters”. “Arcadia” was, of course, a virtual space.

In Arcadia, time was measured in Olympiads (an Olympiad corresponding, as we know, to four years of the Gregorian calendar) and at the conclusion of each Olympiad the Olympic Games were held, consisting in this instance of contests of wit and eloquence, debates, riddle-solving, extemporised poetry and other mind-games. Music was supplied by Corelli and Scarlatti (Alessandro, not his son Domenico), Bernardo Pasquino, Niccolò Jomelli and others even less remembered; the German-born Handel — a great Italian composer before he became a great English composer — was a guest, and his music was performed in the Arcadian gatherings. Under the aegis of the Academy a legendary organ contest took place in 1708 between the 23-year-old Handel and Scarlatti, in which an admiring Scarlatti acknowledged defeat.

As time went by, the Academy acquired land on the Janiculum, by deed of gift from the King of Portugal in 1725, and from the time of the inauguration of a new and permanent open-air theatre there in 1726, that is where the Rome “Cultural Olympics” were played for years to come. The neo-classical amphitheatre designed by architect Antonio Canevari is still there on its dedicated site, along with its garden setting. An assembly-room finished in 1730 must be what appeared to queer American bluestocking Vernon Lee as a “damp, decaying casino in the suburbs” of transpontine Rome when she “discovered” it in the late 1870s. In conformity with the metaphoric pastoral geography of this Republic of Letters, the complex as a whole is known as the “Parrhasian Grove” (Bosco Parrasio) of mythological association.

The ramps and paths with which the Bosco site is laid out take the form of a double Baroque staircase, notably close in design to the expansive social scenography of Francesco de Sanctis’ stairway linking the Piazza di Spagna and the Church of the Trinità de’ Monti. Indeed, the “Spanish Steps” were under construction in the same years in which the Bosco Parrasio was laid out, but despite a similarity of ground-plan between the Scalinata di Spagna and the Bosco Parrasio — so close as to have given rise to a “vulgar” tradition that both were by the same architect — the two could not be more dissimilar in intention.

Where the sumptuous late-Baroque Scalinata is public and rhetorical and strongly unified, the Bosco is intimate, conversational, and must be experienced as pleasurably fragmented. This, in fact, is the very site of that “civil conversation” by which the modern eighteenth century so often defined itself. This — the conversational model, rather than the (ant)agonistic model of “Olympic Games” — was the blueprint for eighteenth-century culture, and the “athletes” competing in Arcadian amphitheatre nestled into the slope of the Janiculum were exercised, appropriately, in the Liberal rather than the martial arts. However, the agonistic metaphor for cultural production and performance was not entirely whimsical, nor aberrant, when the Arcadian academicians inaugurated their Cultural Olympics.

Training for the Olympics in the ancient world was a means of ensuring in peace-time that there was a critical mass of young athletes prepared for war. And in a sense, the Arcadians were sharpening their wits and flexing their debating skills in readiness for war. There had been an attack on Italy from across the Alps, or so it was perceived in Italian literary circles.

In 1687 a French critic, the Jesuit Dominique Bouhours, published a book on the rules of taste in poetic composition. It went into several editions over several decades, and was translated widely (an English edition came out in London in 1705, titled The Art of Criticism: or, The Method of making a Right Judgement upon Subjects of Wit and Learning). Bouhours’ “school” of criticism is rational and “legislative”, an approach that was to be carried on into the eighteenth century by the Mémoires de Trévoux, a long-running monthly magazine of the Jesuit culture aligned with the Moderns rather than the Ancients, its full title identifying it as a magazine ofcriticism in the sciences and the arts.

Bouhours’ book upset Italian critics because it attacked the poetry of the current century, and by extension, the entire Italian poetic tradition, finding it decidedly inferior to the French (the modern French tradition being identified with the Port-Royalist neo-classicism of the works of Corneille and Racine). Being taken to task by a French Jesuit must have been galling to Italian men and women of letters, but what made it particularly galling was the fact that there was wide agreement with Bouhours in Italy. The Arcadian Academy was formed both in response to this attack from across the Alps, and in response to the condition of Italian letters that it diagnosed: that is to say, it was formed to defend and reform Italian letters at the same time.

Debates and discussions over Bouhours’ offensive from across the Alps were consolidated in a book appearing in Bologna in 1703, Giovan-Gioseffo Orsi’sConsiderazioni sopra la Maniera di ben pensare nei Componimenti ; it gave rise to exchanges of volleys of pamphleteering, and went through many editions over the next 40 years. In the 1735 Modena edition, the publisher, in a preface summarising the issue and the stages of the ongoing debate, refers to the participants on either side as “accomplished athletes” (valorosi atleti).

A dead metaphor, very likely; yet in 1700 or thereabouts, the (ant)agonistic model for the operations of culture was apt, given the Arcadian Academy’s formation in this climate of defence of Italian literary culture against French critical attack, and clearly, there is a considerable quotient of cultural nationalism in the enterprise. A standard rhetorical question, and one that was ceremoniously debated in the Arcadian Academy, is whether in times of war it is appropriate to foster the liberal arts — and when the war is in the liberal arts the answer is a clear affirmative. Nor should it be overlooked that, given the military pro-activity of France from 1680 up into the ‘teens of the eighteenth century, there might be a faint echo of non-metaphoric sabre-rattling and grapeshot too.

The Olympic games’ originary relation to military training is reflected in marathon race as one of the high-profile events in the modern Olympic games, its name taken from the Battle of Marathon fought against the Persians in 490 BC. History, or legend, has it that an unknown despatch runner ran 23 miles with news of its outcome, collapsing and dying on his arrival from the stress (recent cases of this kind of collapse among athletes have been dubbed “meltdown”). This is possibly not the kind of outcome that the proponents of cultural Olympics had in mind, either in eighteenth-century Rome or for those programmed to begin in Sydney in September this year.

There are, however, instances in recent years of an agonistic underpinning to works of performance art that are more than — or quite other than — the simple and familiar use of contest or competition as a theme or rudimentary plot device. What I am thinking of are works like Lloyd Newson’s ballet As if, seen in Australia in the early ’90s when he came with his London-based company DV8 to a Melbourne International Festival of the Arts. In As if, the scenario was not simply one of antagonistic confrontation, but rather one in which dancers were pushed agonistically to a limit of physical endurance and performance that risks and sometimes results in real stress and injury; in As if you had an extraordinary reversal of the relation of reality to representation, replacing the latter with enactment.

Another instance of the agonistic principle carried into contemporary art is John Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1 (1990), also known as his “AIDS Symphony”, where in the third movement (“Chaconne: Giulio’s Song”) there is a sustained ‘cello part, not strictly a solo, but a leading part, that physically pushes the instrumentalist to a limit of ultimate exhaustion, infringing any conventional notions of an “aesthetic economy”. There are central ethical and aesthetic issues raised in and by extraordinary works like these. But however much the agonistic view of culture is implied — or perhaps urged — in the very notion of the “Cultural Olympiad”, its purpose will not be to make us think.

Rather, we are told it will make us “proud”. The Sydney 2000 Cultural Olympics — now called the “Olympic Arts Festival” and referred to acronymically, and unfortunately, as OAF — will be unabashedly nationalist. It will have more to do with marketing the ready-made, the opportunistically novel and the self-congratulatory than with affirming the new and the critical, which, behind all its masks and screens, its foppish ambages and its perhaps rather foolish “Olympic” contests in extemporised Anacreontics and Petrarchising sonnetteering , was in the end what those “Arcadians” were about.


Suzanne Kiernan was editor of The Sydney Review 1995-1996; she currently lectures in Italian studies at the University of Sydney and can be contacted at [email protected].

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