Thursday, 30 April 2020

Covid glossary

A Challenge -  something we have failed at
"The Science" - which of the varied opinions, theories, analyses is most useful politically
Open / Transparent -  anything we can't keep hidden
Ending the Lockdown - planning based on guesswork
Promises - obsolete statements
Flattening the curve - why there is another peak
Press Conference - an opportunity to parade well-rehearsed words that add up to nothing
Media Interview -  ditto
Leadership (BJ) - making a lot of blustering noise that adds up to nothing
Brexit - we are leaving, or not
Care Homes - highly profitable enterprises
Ethnic Minorities -  a group of people against whom we once discriminated and still will when all this is over
Those at risk - those who can be sacrificed.

(Contributions welcomed)

Saturday, 25 April 2020

acronyms and arrogance

During current crisis we are assailed with acronyms. To give one example, an intensive care unit becomes an ICU. Oh yes, we also have PPE.
This is part of a broader and pernicious trend.  I still take Nature on a regular basis, having written a column for a number of years. At one time I could understand about one third of the content, could see what is going on in another third and could not grapple with the other third. Now, the great majority of the articles are closed book to me. Synopses are dominated by acronyms to which I do not have access and the articles themselves by torrents of data translated into graphs of a kind I can't handle.
Given my forthcoming (when?) back operation I have had to learn that CSF = cerebrospinal fluid. If it leaks, I am in trouble.
What is the purpose of acronyms? To economise, but not to a really significant degree. Their main purpose is make the user sound knowledgeable, like an insider and a professional. They are an affectation. They also carry a kind of high-tech air like all the acronyms that plague computer-speak.  How many know what a URL stands for? We may know what it does. But it stands for 'Uniform Source Locator', which is as incomprehensible to me as the acronym. 

I am the founder and sole member (to date) of SAAC. This is the Society for the Abolition of ACronyms. Yes, I know it's not a proper acronym, but that applies to many (most?) these days. There are also many organisations for which bizarre names have been concocted because they provide a good acronym.  

This is loosing battle - like most of mine - but I'm not giving up. 

Sunday, 19 April 2020

virus, science, and more on the scrapheap

'We follow the science'. That or something like it has been the politicians' mantra. But there is no such thing as "the science". There are well-informed. clever people who pursue research, ranging from specialist modellers of probabilities and possibilities to  racing researchers set on the holy grail of a vaccine. We hear that vaccines are not far away. We hear that a vaccine is never going to do the job against this 'clever' virus.  We hear that we will be out of the wood (according to various timescales) or that we will have to live (and die) with the virus for the foreseeable future. We are told that people with antibodies are safe. We hear that we do not know whether we can acquire immunity from a second infection.  With a such a new and unpredictable virus, there are huge uncertainties.  Translating these uncertainties into policies is the politicians' job. When they get things wrong they get the blame (unless their name is Trump). But the scientists should also share the blame. They appear on the media (flattered and self-important) to make ex-cathedra pronouncements based on their particular skill-sets. "The evidence tell us...". Evidence only tells us something there is a theory and/or a set of assumptions. I am concentrating on what is actually happening, listening to the news and hearing the main scientific pronouncements, but the rest seems to me to be media noise. Hooray for Radio 3. Science is hugely powerful and very necessary, but "science' tells us many things. Which of these things do we "follow"? There will be huge winners and losers in this game of scientific snakes-and-ladders.

A footnote on the Sumption survival of the fittest thesis.
State what seems to be unassailable premise: ‘old people are more likely to die that younger ones’. What flows from this,  by a series of steps which have the air of logic, is that if everybody cannot be treated, the old should not be.
But the initial premise has tacit assumptions / biases in it. The ‘old’ are singled out, not infants, pregnant mothers, the disabled, those on social care, those in care homes, those with severe mental problems… The only outcome of the premise is that the old should be left to die.
If I start from the ethical premise that everyone has the same right to a further year (on other unit of time) of life and be given assistance to achieve that goal (unless the quality of life is such as to bring this into question), the outcome is utterly different. At the end of the year, the same equation kicks in. The old will of course on average die more quickly than younger people , but a caring society should not pursue remorseless  if tacit policy to cleanse of society of old people.
Of course, I am biased in this. My birth certificate tells me that I am "old". I would like to think this is fake news, but it seems to be true.

Sunday, 12 April 2020

NHS - Immigration - Virus

The MRI scan of my back was set up by someone of Asian ancestry. The scan was made by someone of (probably) far eastern ancestry. Both the NHS physiotherapists were of Asian ancestry. The local post office is run by a husband and wife of Asian ancestry (who are trying to get me a large bag of rice from the cash and carry since the Co-op is not coping with shelf-strippers). The local store and newsagents is run by a family of Asian ancestry. The 'Indian' restaurant is doing take-aways.. and so on.
They have been pleasant, helpful and professional. They are essential members of our community and are at risk in the frontline.
And yet we read of the Home Office refusing to fast-track or register qualified practitioners and willing workers who do not fit with their hostile immigration rules. An organisation like the Home Office can be collectively racist even if the individual members are not. The net effect of procedures and criteria, with each person / department protecting their own backs, in the face of their political masters and tabloid press, is racist.
This is a time when we can all show our friendship and gratitude to who have chosen to join and participate in our community.

Thursday, 9 April 2020

spinal stenosis

Today an MRI scan on my back to determine what precisely is wrong and what, if anything, can be done about it. The test was conducted at the Manor private hospital in Oxford, which goes against my principles. However the NHS refused a scan and were not too much bothered if I am assigned to the scrap heap. The virus is the (only) thing. Two days ago I tested how far I could walk in Blenheim park. My right leg is only partly functional. I struggled to the pleasure gardens and back, not much more than I mile. 3 months ago this would not have counted as a walk, let alone exercise. By the evening I had difficulty in walking at all. As I said before, it's notable how perspectives can change.

A few years ago I wrote a bit of formatted prose on a neighbour whom I could see in the lane from the window of my study on the first floor. It was printed in the booklet of his funeral service. It has a new resonance for me, now that mobility is a challenge not an assumption.

The Man with Two Sticks

A man frail and tall, not old in counted years,
Shuffles inch by inch from the shadowed lane
With a caring lady who can hardly go so slow.
The radiant sun enters his upturned eyes.
 A quantum of the youthful energy for which he yearns.
Where is the laughing running boy who knew
Nothing of impediments?

“I will get the car” she says, striding up the gentle slope,
Released into normalities of time, space and locomotion.
A low wall is close but separated from him
By a daunting distance of straining effort.
He reaches out for the stony seat with a probing stick,
Turning bit by unwilling bit to crease and settle.
An old lady goes by arthritically. She is envied.

The black car arrives. 
He is folded and loaded. 
To go to somewhere once familiar, once easy,
Now transformed into a theatre. Of impossibilities.

An inch is a foot is a yard is a mile.
A day is a week is a month is a year.
Their will and love annealed in the flame of patient hope.
The channel is swum. Everest is conquered.
“All on your own, yes, all on your own”,
His mother’s reward for infant steps. Long ago. 

Monday, 6 April 2020

on the Judge's scrapheap

The former high court judge and general man of opinions, Lord Jonathan Sumption, wrote a challenging piece in The Times, sent to me by a friend. In attaching it I am probably breaching copyright but I could not find any contact address on the internet I've inserted some comments. He may well be right overall. But his prescription stands a good chance of chucking me on the scrapheap.
Maybe that is also right overall.

Coronavirus lockdown: we are so afraid of death, no one even asks whether this ‘cure’ is actually worse

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyses needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” The words are Franklin D Roosevelt’s. His challenge was recession, not disease, but his words have a wider resonance.

Fear is dangerous. It is the enemy of reason. It suppresses balance and judgment. And it is infectious. Roosevelt thought government was doing too little. But today fear is more likely to push governments into doing too much, as democratic politicians run for cover in the face of public panic. Is the coronavirus the latest and most damaging example?

Epidemics are not new. Bubonic plague, smallpox, cholera, typhoid, meningitis, Spanish flu all took a heavy toll in their time. An earlier generation would not have understood the current hysteria over Covid-19, whose symptoms are milder and whose case mortality is lower than any of these.

What has changed? For one thing, we have become much more risk-averse. We no longer accept the wheel of fortune. We take security for granted. We do not tolerate avoidable tragedies. Fear stops us thinking about the more remote costs of the measures necessary to avoid them, measures that may pitch us into even greater misfortunes of a different kind.

As someone who (statistically at least) is nearer the bottom on the wheel or fortune than many, I am reluctant to acquiesce to dying conveniently. 

We have also acquired an irrational horror of death. Today death is the great obscenity, inevitable but somehow unnatural. In the midst of life, our ancestors lived with death, an ever-present fact that they understood and accommodated. They experienced the death of friends and family, young and old, generally at home. Today it is hidden away in hospitals and care homes: out of sight and out of mind, unmentionable until it strikes.

I think the idea that death was in effect domesticated in earlier eras is oddly romantic. The Boccaccio account of the bubonic plague that I posted here does not suggest that the ravages of disease were comfortably 'accommodated'. Death was what it always has been. Essentially nasty.

We know too little about Covid-19. We do not know its true case mortality because of the uncertainties about the total number infected. We do not know how many of those who have died would have died anyway — possibly a bit later — from other underlying conditions (“comorbidities”, in doctor-speak).

What is clear is that Covid-19 is not the Black Death. It is dangerous for those with serious existing medical conditions, especially if they are old. For others, the symptoms are mild in the overwhelming majority of cases.

The prime minister, the health secretary and the Prince of Wales — all of whom have caught it and are fine — represent the normal pattern. The much publicised but extremely rare deaths of fit young people are tragic but they are outliers.

Yet governments have adopted, with public support, the most extreme and indiscriminate measures.

We have subjected most of the population, young or old, vulnerable or fit, to house imprisonment for an indefinite period.

We have set about abolishing human sociability in ways that lead to unimaginable distress.

We have given the police powers that, even if they respect the limits, will create an authoritarian pattern of life utterly inconsistent with our traditions.

We have resorted to law, which requires exact definition, and banished common sense, which requires judgment.

These things represent an interference with our lives and our personal autonomy that is intolerable in a free society. To say that they are necessary for larger social ends, however valuable those ends may be, is to treat human beings as objects, mere instruments of policy.

And that is before we even get to the economic impact. We have put hundreds of thousands out of a job and into universal credit.

Recent research suggests that we are already pushing a fifth of small businesses into bankruptcy, many of which will have taken a lifetime of honest toil to build. The proportion is forecast to rise to a third after three months of lockdown.

Generations to come are being saddled with high levels of public and private debt. These things kill, too. If all this is the price of saving human life, we have to ask whether it is worth paying.

The truth is that in public policy there are no absolute values, not even the preservation of life. There are only pros and cons. Do we not allow cars, among the most lethal weapons ever devised, although we know for certain that every year thousands will be killed or maimed by them? We do this because we judge that it is a price worth paying to get about in speed and comfort. Every one of us who drives is a tacit party to that Faustian bargain.

The inability of people ('society') to understand  risk is one of the great anomalies in human behaviour. Does anyone ever educate children about what risk is and how it can be handled? I've been on boards where we have conducted risk assessments. Little was really understood, and the fact that the risks were all neatly tabulated on some sheets of paper seemed to neutralise them, courtesy of  a managerial exercise,

A similar calculation about the coronavirus might justify a very short period of lockdown and business closures, if it helped the critical care capacity of the NHS to catch up. It may even be that tough social distancing measures would be acceptable as applied only to vulnerable categories.

But as soon as the scientists start talking about a month or even three or six months, we are entering a realm of sinister fantasy in which the cure has taken over as the biggest threat to our society. Lockdowns are at best only a way of buying time anyway. Viruses don’t just go away. Ultimately, we will emerge from this crisis when we acquire some collective (or “herd”) immunity. That is how epidemics burn themselves out.

In the absence of a vaccine, it will happen, but only when a sufficient proportion of the population is exposed to the disease.

As someone who is 'vulnerable' by dint of age, I am reluctant gamble on my resistance to further the march of 'herd immunity'.  I feel I still have much to do. As always, I think my next book is to be the really good one. I am happy to accept personal restrictions, until such time as the 'absence of a vaccine' is rectified. 

I am not a scientist. Most of you are not scientists. But we can all read the scientific literature, which is immaculately clear but has obvious limitations. Scientists can help us assess the clinical consequences of different ways to contain the coronavirus. But they are no more qualified than the rest of us to say whether they are worth turning our world upside down and inflicting serious long-term damage. All of us have a responsibility to maintain a sense of proportion, especially when so many are losing theirs.

Sunday, 5 April 2020

The Black Death

Refreshed by being able to spend some time in the garden. Sorting out ceramic pots on my terrace, with a distant view of Blenheim Park, which will disappear as the trees green over. The Duke stands high on his triumphant column, rigidly unmoved by events. The mere view of buds swelling, fresh bright greens, produces an inner uplift by some kind of organic resonance.

It seems to me that there is a bizarre kind of privilege in experiencing the current crisis, amongst the biggest to afflict humankind - much to the appreciation of other organisms that are now thriving without the plague of our civilisation. My garden is seething with nature.

We read of other great cataclysms as historical events, sanitised by distance and by knowing what was to come. This now is the real thing; we are an integral part of it and we have little sense of what is to come, individually and collectively. This will leave a great  mark on history, not least because of governments' reaction and the rules they have imposed.  What that mark will be seen to be involves such huge unknowns that I cannot really achieve the mental embrace that would make comprehensive sense of it now and what is coming.

We have it bad, but as a historian, there is a perspective, In the 'Black Death', which ravaged Europe from 1346 onwards, Florence lost 60% of its population.  We have the most vivid eyewitness account by the great author, Giovanni Boccaccio. It is contained in his Decameron, in which a privileged group of seven young women and three young men and fled to isolation in a villa outside Florence.  They exchanged stories. In current circumstances, Boccaccio's scene setting does not make pleasant reading. But it does put things into dreadful perspective:

"In the year of our Lord 1348, there happened at Florence, the finest city in all Italy, a most terrible plague; which, whether owing to the influence of the planets, or that it was sent from God as a just punishment for our sins, had broken out some years before in the Levant, and after passing from place to place and making incredible havoc all the way, had now reached the west. There, spite of all the means that art and human foresight could suggest, such as keeping the city clear from filth, the exclusion of all suspected persons, and the publication of copious instructions for the preservation of health, and notwithstanding manifold humble supplications offered to God in processions and otherwise, it began to show itself in the spring of the aforesaid year, in a sad and wonderful manner. Unlike what had been seen in the east, where bleeding from the nose is the fatal prognostic, here there appeared certain tumours in the groin or under the arm-pits, some as big as a small apple, others as an egg; and afterwards purple spots in most parts of the body; in some cases large and but few in number, in others smaller and more numerous--both sorts the usual messengers of death. To the cure of this malady neither medical knowledge nor the power of medicines was of any effect; whether because the disease was in its own nature mortal, or that the physicians (the number of whom, taking quacks and women pretenders into the account, was grown very great) could form no just idea of the cause, nor consequently devise a true method of cure; whichever was the reason, few escaped; but nearly all died the third day from the first appearance of the symptoms, some sooner, some later, without any fever or other accessory symptoms. What gave the more virulence to this plague, was that, by being communicated from the sick to the hale, it spread daily, like fire when it comes in contact with large masses of combustibles. Nor was it caught only by conversing with or coming near the sick, but even by touching their clothes, or anything that they had before touched. It is wonderful, what I am going to mention; and had I not seen it with my own eyes, and were there not many witnesses to attest it besides myself, I should never venture to relate it, however worthy it were of belief. Such, I say, was the quality of the pestilential matter, as to pass not only from man to man, but, what is more strange, it has been often known, that anything belonging to the infected, if touched by any other creature, would certainly infect and even kill that creature in a short space of time. One instance of this kind I took particular notice of: the rags of a poor man just dead had been thrown into the street. Two hogs came up, and after rooting amongst the rags and shaking them about in their mouths, in less than an hour they both turned round and died on the spot.

These facts, and others of the like sort, occasioned various fears and devices amongst those who survived, all tending to the same uncharitable and cruel end; which was, to avoid the sick and every thing that had been near them, expecting by that means to save themselves. And some, holding it best to live temperately and to avoid excesses of all kinds, made parties and shut themselves up from the rest of the world; eating and drinking moderately of the best, and diverting themselves with music and such other entertainments as they might have within doors; never listening to anything from without to make them uneasy. Others maintained free living to be a better preservative, and would balk no passion or appetite they wished to gratify, drinking and revelling incessantly from tavern to tavern, or in private houses (which were frequently found deserted by the owners and therefore common to every one), yet strenuously avoiding, with all this brutal indulgence, to come near the infected.

And such, at that time, was the public distress that the laws, human and divine, were no more regarded; for the officers, to put them in force, being either dead, sick, or in want of persons to assist them, every one did just as he pleased. A third sort of people chose a method between these two: not confining themselves to rules of diet like the former, and yet avoiding the intemperance of the latter; but eating and drinking what their appetites required, they walked everywhere with perfumes and nosegays to smell to, as holding it best to corroborate the brain: for the whole atmosphere seemed to them tainted with the stench of dead bodies, arising partly from the distemper itself, and partly from the fermenting of the medicines within them. Others with less humanity, but perchance, as they supposed, with more security from danger, decided that the only remedy for the pestilence was to avoid it. Persuaded, therefore, of this and taking care for themselves only, men and women in great numbers left the city, their houses, relations, and effects, and fled into the country, as if the wrath of God had been constrained to visit those only within the walls of the city, or else concluding that none ought to stay in a place thus doomed to destruction."

Thursday, 2 April 2020

Salvator Mundi and Dante (small revsions)

If I leave it until the eve., I have run out of steam to blog. A lack of exercise (confinement and very bad back) are not doing me any good.

At one time, I had over 3000 following my blog. Now it is just in double figures. Perhaps the title of this one will give it a boost.

I had been sitting on the news that the Louvre had published a book on the Leonardo Salvator Mundi, which made a very fleeting appearance in their bookshop before being hastily withdrawn. The book by Vincent Delieuvin included new technical analysis, and was intended to be ready when the Paris exhibition opened. As we know the painting was not in the show. The odd rogue copy escaped - and compounds the Louvre's embarrassment about a national museum 'promoting' an artwork in private hands. Their book essentially validates what Margaret Dalivalle, Robert Simon and I wrote in our book for Oxford University Press, which the press have essentially buried for some unknown reason. Throughout they made a big mess of the book, particularly visually. Maybe our complaints account for their lack of interest in it. For me, never again with OUP. The press are outsourcing much of the editorial and production stages of books to disastrous effect.

See the accurate story about the SM in the 'Art Newspaper'

I had been keeping the story for the Oxford and Edinburgh literary festivals (I am banned from Hay, apparently). But we know what has happened to the festivals, sadly.
The ownership is assumed to be Saudi Arabian - but I have seen no hard evidence to that effect.

Since this is an art-historical blog, I will say a bit about the book I am currently writing (for an as-yet unknown publisher). A this stage, It is called "Let there be Light". Dante and the art of Divine Radiance, for the 700th anniversary in 2021 of the poet's death. A rather long formal outline follows! I have chapter 2 in draft, specifically on Dante's optics and the failure of his sight. This chapter is getting its first scrutiny by the exceptional young scholar of Italian literature, Maria Pavlova of Warwick University, who provided crucial support for the Mona Lisa book.
(Is there, I wonder, a chance of someone pinching the idea?  If someone can do it properly according to my [undisclosed] deadline, they are welcome to try.

"Let there be Light". Dante and the art of Divine Radiance

Dante, Shakespeare and Goethe are arguably the greatest European writers. They share not only untrammelled imaginative capacity, but also a huge base in learning. For all three (somewhat controversially in the case of Shakespeare) their learning embraced the sciences of their eras. The texts by the three authors also paint compelling visual images. Of this literary trinity, Dante enjoyed the most immediate succession in the visual arts.

Dante’s Vita Nuova (New Life) and Convivio (Banquet), in which he provides commentaries to sets of his own poems, use optical themes in the service of his love for Beatrice. The latter openly demonstrates a good grasp of Mediaeval optics in the visual dialogue between the poet and his beloved lady.

His Divina Commedia, written during the first and second decades of the 14th century while in exile from Florence, is without rival in its vision of hellish realities and heavenly glories that lie decisively beyond our accessible experiences. The poet is conducted successively on tours of Hell and Purgatory by the revered Roman poet Virgil, who is a pagan, and finally guided through the spiritual realms of Paradise by his beloved Beatrice, who had in effect been beatified by Dante after her early death in 1290. Hell, the first of the three books, is the most vivid, replete with strikingly varied repertoire of notable sins and picturesque sinners – in keeping with the cliché that the devil has the best tunes. Purgatory  follows, a halfway house in which certain sinners who had not adequately repented and were not reconciled to the Church can nevertheless be purified for admission to heaven. It is also peopled by characters with memorable stories to tell.  The sublime realm of heavenly Paradise is less varied verbally and visually as Dante and Beatrice ascend though spheres of spiritual wonder.  The divine spirits inhabit upper zones radiant with glowing light and infused by sweet sounds. But there are limits to the number of ways in which pure goodness can be characterised. There is only so much variety that can be extracted from virtuous figures clad in white “nighties”.

A major running theme in the Divine Comedy, particularly in the Paradiso centres on Dante’s acts of seeing, conducted according to optical rule with respect to the kind of visual experiences that can be accomplished on earth, and the overwhelming of his earthly senses by heavenly light, which does not obey his rules of geometrical optics. This sets an obvious challenge for artists.

Unsurprisingly, Inferno has exercised a special fascination for commentators and illustrators. It has even inspired a popular video game. However, if we approach the visual impact of Dante from another direction – from that of the artists’ stock repertoire of devotional images of Biblical figures, virtuous saints, spiritual events and heavenly realms – emphasis switches to the Paradiso and its dazzling vision of the beauties of heaven. Unsurprisingly, there is a strong affinity between Dante’s vision of the divine realm and the portrayal of heaven in 14th-century Italian art, radiant with reflective gilding and golden rays of intense light. This tradition extends from Giotto to Fra Angelico in the 15thcentury. As had been the case in early Christian mosaics, real light reflected from gilded surfaces served to denote the radiant glories of the infinite heavens and the presence of specific rays of non-natural light. Most self-respecting miracles were accompanied by discernible radiance. The use of gold allowed divine light  to be clearly differentiated from the standard illumination of objects within the space of the painting.  

The problem comes with the switch to consistent naturalism of space, form and light during the 15th century. If a highlighted form within a picture uses the brightest tones of which paint is capable, how is divine light to be characterised? Internally consistent  naturalism excludes recourse to actual gold.  Alberti in On Painting (1435-6) insists that the painter should not use actual gold in depicting a golden object but exhibit high skill in using paint to imitate the lustre of gold. The notably ingenious solutions used by major artists to differentiate natural and divine light provide the focus of the latter part the book. The artists include Piero della Francesca, Bellini, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Titian, Bernini and Pietro da Cortona and Baciccio.  Raphael emerges as the knowing hero of the enterprise.

The book opens with a broad look at the massive role of light in religious traditions, as expressed in the Bible by the separation light from darkness in the opening verses of Genesis (from which the title of the book comes). Light became the subject of intense scientific exploration in the Middle Ages in Islam and Christianity. The mathematical precision of direct light, reflection and refraction was taken as a decisive sign of the glorious perfection of God’s design.  Optics combined rationality and rapture. Dante was deeply interested in this optical tradition, which lies behind a number of his accounts light in the Paradiso. The science of optics provides our earthly explanation of heavenly effects that lie ultimately outside our finite understanding. The final breakdown of the poet’s sense of sight in the face of the most sublime of heavenly visions is characterised in terms of Mediaeval optics. 

A chapter will be devoted to how illustrators of the Paradiso grappled with divine light. The artists range from the glorious Giovanni di Paolo in the Renaissance to the visionary William Blake and the intense Gustav Doré in the 19thcentury. 

The blinding of Dante sets the tone for the artists’ portrayal of unseeable brightness. When Saul falls from his horse in Michelangelo’s Vatican fresco, the hand with which he shields his eyes casts no shadow. Divine light does not obey earthly rule. Raphael shows himself in a series of paintings to be the greatest master of spiritual radiance. Correggio works his radiant magic in his dome illusions. When Baciccio evokes the glories of the name of Jesus in the huge vault of the Jesuit Church in Rome he does so with an ineffable light that explodes from the IHS logo though encircling clusters of glowing angels, whose pink bodies are bleached by the extreme luminosity of the light source. 

Perhaps the largest and most conspicuous portrayals of the radiant heavens were the massive theatrical spectaculars that were staged to mark major religious festivals and great dynastic occasions. Typically the stage sets involved massive dome-like constructions within which the planets orbited.  These visual and musical extravaganzas came to be known as Paradisi. There are scant visual records of them, but some written descriptions survive and allow us to understand how they related to the portrayal of heaven in paintings and played a major role in realising the Dantesque vision.

The Dantesque quality of these and other visions of divine light are not demonstrably in each instance attributable to a direct attempt to emulate Dante in the Paradiso, but they are part of the diaspora of Dante’s vision. For some artists, their knowledge of Dante is likely to have played a direct role, not least for Raphael and Michelangelo. There is also the impact of Dante’s sources, most notably St. Augustine. We also need to take into account the influence of Dante on how other writers summon up visionary experiences. And there were artists who gleaned the Dantesque vision from preceding artworks. Like the penetrative light that Dante describes in the Paradiso, his dazzling vision diffused on a ubiquitous basis, in a way that lies beyond the pedantic questions of direct influence.
Behind all this is an enormous and enduring question. If God exists in a realm ultimately beyond the limits of our understanding and the data of science, how can we ever truly know God? This question is as pressing and insoluble in today’s physics and cosmology as it was in the Middle Ages, when the doctrine of the “double truth” was developed to embrace the philosophy of Aristotle within the framework of Christian doctrine. The stakes behind by Dante’s vision of Paradise could not be more momentous.