Archive for November, 2015


Wednesday, November 11th, 2015

A room with a view

This Italian trip was truly an embarrassment of riches – over & above the Bologna visit noted below. I was originally supposed to go to Italy during the Chinese National Day celebrations, but an unforeseen schedule modification required changes. And so, instead of my usual haunts in the city near Santa Maria Novella, I ended up staying near Santa Croce…. at the Plaza Hotel Lucchesi, in a “room with a view!” On the very first page of that E.M. Forster novel of the same name (noted earlier in the October 2014 posting), Lucy was very unhappy with her pensione room, lamenting: “I want so to see the Arno”…. a wish granted by the gallant Mr. Emerson. My own river view overlooked both the Piazza Poggi & the Piazzale Michelangelo.

Michelangelo’s ‘Florentine Pieta’

A second fortuitous result of the schedule change was that I was still in the city for the opening of the new Opera del Duomo Museum. This spectacular new sculpture museum is located immediately adjacent to the Duomo, at the site where Brunelleschi had his offices when he was building the dome (see the April 2012 posting); and where Michelangelo actually carved ‘David.’ The new museum has some truly memorable pieces: the original Ghiberti’s doors to the Baptistery; Brunelleschi’s wooden models; a full-scale model of the façade of the medieval church that preceded the current version; and another Michelangelo work, The Deposition (often called the ‘Florentine Pieta,’ the artist’s penultimate work of art, and one that he himself damaged, unhappy with flaws in the marble).

Over and above these (unexpected!) treasures, I had a follow-up from my Venice visit earlier this year. On that trip, I mentioned reading Henry James’ The Aspern Papers – a fictional work based on a real-life story about an individual who became a boarder in a pensione in order to obtain some literary papers hoarded by its elderly landlady. In real life, the landlady was Claire Claremont, stepsister of Mary Shelley (author of Frankenstein); stepsister-in-law of Percy Shelley (Mary’s husband & a famous Romantic poet); mistress of Lord Byron, another well-known Romantic poet; and mother of Byron’s daughter, Allegra.

James set his story in Venice, but the real-life saga had played out in Florence, at No. 43, via Romana – just adjacent to the Boboli Gardens (with an entrance on the left in the picture). And so I’ve just read Emma Tennant’s Felony, a ‘second order’ novel – yes, a novel about Henry James writing his novel.

via Romana, 43

Tennant is pretty harsh on James, but the real-life cast of characters in her book is really quite remarkable. It appears that Claremont might also have had an affair with Shelley; James had a complicated relationship with Constance Fenimore Woolson, a best-selling novelist of the 1870s & 1880s (& grandniece of James Fenimore Cooper of The Last of the Mohicans fame), who soon after committed suicide in Venice; and both poets – after rather adventurous lives — flamed-out quite young: Shelley at 29, Byron at 36.

On this trip I decided to check out the Florentine location of all these machinations, using the nearby via Romana entrance as an excuse to wander around in the Boboli Gardens for a bit as well.

Boboli Gardens

But finally…. yes, I did in fact do some work on this trip too! The GE group was a bit smaller in this session – 20 participants, from 14 countries. But given the considerable changes ongoing today on the international front, I completely revamped my four training modules. We began by comparing this group’s views about climate change and mitigation mechanisms with those of other persons in the oil & gas industry. (This group was more pro-active, and a stronger proponent of carbon taxation). After going over theory & Kyoto Protocol results, we considered the numerous markets now being developed all around the world (focusing primarily on Europe, the US & China); considered items being addressed in the upcoming Paris COP meeting; and then discussed future challenges, including complementary technology policies; ‘stranded assets’; and future normative measures (such as the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals).

Obviously a truly memorable Florence visit!


Wednesday, November 11th, 2015

SAIS Europe

On this Italian visit, I took the opportunity to visit a place I’ve obviously heard much about over the past two years…. the Bologna campus of SAIS Europe. Professor Mike Plummer, who runs the place, is well known to many of the Nanjing faculty, since he has considerable experience & expertise in international economics within the Asian region. The visit also allowed me to meet with Prof. Filippo Taddei, who heads the Bologna Institute for Policy Research (and is a senior advisor to the Italian government regarding labor issues); and Prof. Mark Gilbert, a specialist in European history and international relations. Scheduling conflicts did not allow me to see Prof. Manfred Hafner, who teaches ERE courses in Bologna…. a very unfortunate situation since I had last seen Prof. Hafner about twenty-five years ago, when he was a student in one of my energy/environmental courses at Penn! I’m sure I’ll get another chance to visit, though – and look forward to meeting up with him once again.

Bologna towers

I was fortunate as well to have an opportunity to spend several hours as a Bologna tourist… and what a wonderful experience that was! SAIS Europe is located at the University of Bologna, which – dating to 1088 — is considered to be the oldest university in the Western world. The city is especially well-known for its porticos, and I was able to walk from the University area to the historic district in the city center under such cover (even though it was a beautiful day, & such protection wasn’t needed). There were a number of notable highlights: the two towers (the Asinelli & Garisenda towers, much like those found in San Gimignano in a previous posting); the unfinished façade of San Petronio; the statue of Neptune; the Biblioteca Salaborsa, with its glass floor showing centuries of Roman roads & infrastructure underneath; the Archiginnasio, an earlier site of the University, with its famous Anatomical Theater for the medical school; the Basilica of Santo Stefano, a complex of religious edifices; and the truly amazing (and moving) Compianto sul Cristo Morto, by Niccolò dell’Arca, at Santa Maria della Vita. This latter sculpture portrays the death of Christ, and the artist captures the emotions of mourners in a manner unlike anything I’ve ever seen.

Zheng He

Wednesday, November 11th, 2015

Zheng He at Jinghai Temple

Some seventy years before Columbus sailed to the Americas, China’s Zheng He was sailing to S.E. Asian islands, India, the Middle East, and Africa, leading a vast fleet (numbering as many as 300 ships) from the deck of a ‘treasure ship’ that was several times the size of Columbus’ own vessel. He led seven expeditions over the period 1405-1433…. with some claiming that he even got as far as the west coast of the U.S. These voyages established the Chinese as the dominant power within the region (or the entire world, in their eyes), with other countries merely vassals offering tribute to the Middle Kingdom.

Zheng He was a eunuch admiral who did all of this at the behest of the Ming Emperor Zhu Di – and since the Ming capital at that time was Nanjing, it is perhaps not surprising that many of his ships (and certainly the large treasure ships) were built and sailed from a shipyard in this city. And so on a recent beautiful October weekend, I went to visit the site of that shipyard, now a memorial park with relics of its docks & ship-building materials, & complete with a full-size replica of one of the treasure ships.

With the success of the initial voyages, the Emperor ordered a temple built nearby, dedicated to Tianfei, the goddess of the sea. She would protect the sailors on their hazardous voyages, and could ensure the success of the sea-faring missions. The original Jinghai Temple may – or may not – have housed one of the Buddha’s teeth…. a complicated story very well told by Louise Levathes, in her 1994 book When China Ruled the Seas: The Treasure Fleet of the Dragon Throne, 1405-1433.

An interesting part of Levathes’ book describes the political infighting between Eunuchs & Confucians, two powerful groups within subsequent Ming courts after the emperor died…. & the self-imposed, inward-looking retrenchment and actual destruction of naval resources that these court battles brought about.

Replica treasure ship in Nanjing shipyard

Today’s Jinghai Temple is a small remnant of the original one, which was destroyed during the Taiping Rebellion and later during the Japanese invasion of WWII. It has a section honoring Zheng He, and – in another part that many find quite ironic – a section documenting the ‘Treaty of Nanking’ of 1842. That treaty marked the beginning of a ‘Century of Humiliation’ in Chinese eyes, when they lost the First Opium War and were forced to cede Hong Kong over to the British. The treaty was the first of many ‘unequal’ treaties signed over subsequent decades, with China in an exceedingly weak position – the exact opposite of its former days of naval glory. The treaty was negotiated and signed on the British warship HMS Cornwallis, anchored near the temple.

I didn’t realize until reading the Acknowledgments at the end of her book that Levathes had spent time at HNC in 1990, doing historical research. The historians here (formerly Prof. Fowler, noted in earlier postings; and now Prof. Joe Renouard) would no doubt find it fully credible that Ming court intrigue from more than half-a-millennium-ago could have such a lasting impact on today’s world.

The Age of Sustainable Development

Wednesday, November 11th, 2015

Since I worked for several years in the U.N.’s Division for Sustainable Development, and cover topics like the Sustainable Development Goals in my Spring semester ‘Challenges in the Global Environment’ course at HNC, it’s probably not surprising that I keep a relatively close eye on sustainable development (SD) matters. When I noted the really nice reviews that Jeffrey Sachs’ recent book The Age of Sustainable Development was receiving, I decided that I’d better check it out.

Sachs developed the book to support a MOOC (massive, on-line open course) that he teaches on the subject, and the first thing I noticed was that a lot of the charts & slides I used in my own course – on a range of topics, including planetary boundaries and climate change — were included within the text. Some of that was based on Sachs’ previous work; his UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), for example, developed the ‘deep decarbonization’ report I mentioned in a posting last June.

This book is much broader, however, addressing topics like education, health coverage & access to medical care, and historical patterns of economic development — important SD topics that unfortunately receive little attention in my time–constrained & environment-only course. The most pleasant surprise, though, was that the work was so well written, turning relatively dry material into an interesting read. I can see why the reviews have been so positive, & will definitely be including chapters in the syllabus for next Spring’s session.