Friday, 4 March 2011

Rediscovering "Civilisation"

There are rare defining moments in one's life, when one suddenly says to onself:  "This shaped me".

I experienced this moment of recognition,  last night, on seeing via BBC's  "iPlayer" Part 4 of the BBC's "Civilisation" series. Part 4 is about Renaissance and Italian art filmed in Urbino and elsewhere.

"Civilisation" was a famous BBC TV series about the art treasures of Western European high culture, written and narrated by Sir Kenneth Clark, later Lord Clark, leading notable art critic, commissioned by naturalist, David Attenborough.  It was the first time European and Italian art had been seen in colour on British TV, and partly, for that reason, and also because Lord Clark was highly learned, and urbane, it left a huge impression. I recall watching in awe as great Western paintings, buildings and statues exploded onto the screen.

In those days, someone like Lord Clark, who had been on a cultural grand tour in his early twenties, unlike most British people at that time, was the epitome of the type of immensely learned aesthete, who a lot of adults in the 1970s, aspired to imitate. My age group and older age groups have been vaguely and, for my part unsuccessfully, imitating Kenneth Clark, ever since.

Seeing places like Urbino, at that early age, shaped my desire to travel and to learn more about art. I managed to get there at 18. Clark was the high priest of refinement and high learning for the British. What he says about Urbino is still interesting. It now makes much more sense to me after reading "The Book of the Courtier" by Castiglione. He adds more by putting it into its wider historical and cultural setting. He also opens up priceless treasures off the tourist track and, if sharply rising petrol prices do not shortly prevent all future foreign travel, one can dream of one day funding them. Happily, a book accompanies "Civilisation" the series, or would would have to take notes.

Vague feelings, nurtured by this programme led on, in me, at least, to a vague imaginative yearning for beauty, understanding, history and high aspiration, something 'beyond' the ordinary material, which was probably the first stirrings of what one might call 'spiritual' growth. For me, these feelings moved upwards , like a growing plant, and finally developed into faith. For me, as for C S Lewis, high art and a yearning for beauty, even the joy of beauty, was one of the torches in my conversion to Christianity. Today, I recognise that this TV programme was one of its drivers.

The series "Civilisation" still arouses in me, feelings of longing and aspiration, as yet not entirely fulfilled. This may be due to Lord Clark's erudite narrative, a narrative of the history of the astonishing beauty of Western art, because he was deeply moved by art and able to see the humanity as well as the glory in it, with a highly trained eye and express it in rounded tones.

It may also owe more than I realised at the time to the fact that the inspiration of the great artists, who have left such magnificent treasures behind, was often Christian in origin.  Christianity gave subject matter, quality, humanity and a spiritual dimension to these great artists (such as Giotto), even if it was also the Renaissance that gave art refined proportion.

For more details about the series, which is available through BBC shops see

Part 4 of "Civilisation "can be viewed for a few more days on

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