Book Review: Michel Pastoureau’s captivating history of the world’s most popular color

Original, entertaining and enlightening, “Blue” — translated from its original French — is also beautifully illustrated.
Updated 26 March 2018
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Book Review: Michel Pastoureau’s captivating history of the world’s most popular color

Michel Pastoureau’s captivating history of the world’s most popular color reveals blue’s ever-changing cultural role from prehistoric times to the modern day.
Original, entertaining and enlightening, “Blue” — translated from its original French — is also beautifully illustrated.
French artist Yves Klein’s “Blue Sponge Relief” is a brilliant choice for the back cover. Essentially a monochromatic work, using Klein’s patented ultramarine “International Klein Blue,” it conveys a sense of the infinite and creates a magical effect, drawing the reader into its unique and unforgettable shade, just as Pastoureau’s writing draws you into his book.
One of the most surprising facts in the book is that blue does not even feature in the earliest primitive cave paintings. Reds, blacks, browns and all shades of ochre are common, but blues and greens are conspicuously absent, and the use of white is also rare. Blue also played an insignificant role in the European culture of the Middle Ages. It was not even used in painting to depict the sky, which was commonly colored white, red or gold.
The Egyptians, and other peoples of Central Asia and the Middle East, however, considered blue to be a lucky color; it chased evil away and brought prosperity. Whereas the Romans believed that blue was barbaric and that bright blue eyes were ugly.
Nowadays, of course, blue conjures images of the azure sky, an inviting sea, and it expresses feelings of tranquility, serenity and peace. Blue is not an aggressive color. It is reassuring and breeds hope and trust. The United Nations, UNESCO and European Union have all chosen blue for their flag.
“A color is a social phenomenon,” writes Pastoureau. “It is society that ‘makes’ color, defines it, gives it its meaning.”


What We Are Reading Today: Reading Machiavelli

Updated 19 September 2018
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What We Are Reading Today: Reading Machiavelli

Author: John P. McCormick

To what extent was Machiavelli a “Machiavellian”? Was he an amoral adviser of tyranny or a stalwart partisan of liberty? A neutral technician of power politics or a devout Italian patriot? A reviver of pagan virtue or initiator of modern nihilism? Reading Machiavelli answers these questions through original interpretations of Niccolò Machiavelli’s three major political works— The Prince, Discourses, and Florentine Histories— and demonstrates that a radically democratic populism seeded the Florentine’s scandalous writings. John McCormick challenges the misguided understandings of Machiavelli set forth by prominent thinkers, including Jean-Jacques Rousseau and representatives of the Straussian and Cambridge schools.
McCormick emphasizes the fundamental, often unacknowledged elements of a vibrant Machiavellian politics: The utility of vigorous class conflict between elites and common citizens for virtuous democratic republics, the necessity of political and economic equality for genuine civic liberty, and the indispensability of religious tropes for the exercise of effective popular judgment.
Interrogating the established reception of Machiavelli’s work by such readers as Rousseau, Leo Strauss, Quentin Skinner, and J.G.A. Pocock, McCormick exposes what was effectively an elite conspiracy to suppress the Florentine’s contentious, egalitarian politics. In recovering the too-long-concealed quality of Machiavelli’s populism, this book acts as a Machiavellian critique of Machiavelli scholarship.
Advancing fresh renderings of works by Machiavelli while demonstrating how they have been misread previously, Reading Machiavelli presents a new outlook for how politics should be conceptualized and practiced.