May 5

“Angelica and Medoro” by Lorenzo Lippi (1606-1665)
National Gallery, London

Of Lorenzo Lippi, born today in 1606, I can find almost nothing biographical in English, and have none of the language skills necessary to go foraging in the Italian for information. I like to presume he was a late descendant of Fra Lippo Lippi - "by your leave" - but maybe Lippi is to Florence what Cohen is to Golders Green or Patel to Whitechapel or Singh to Wolverhampton. Certainly he tried to divest himself of the name, employing the alias Perlone Zipoli instead. Certainly he could paint, as evidenced by "Angelica & Medoro", though 'e ain't a patch on his more illustrious preponym.

And why do I care anyway, if he was just some minor Italian painter from half a millennium ago?

The answer lies, through word-association, in the concept of personal history, which is the founding theme of this book, the leitmotif that runs through every single page of it. To explain how Lippi fits that theme, and the particular instance of said word-association, I need to tell a story first.

In Miami, where I had been appointed Head of a Jewish school, the students were expected to study American history, but other than one or two kids whose European grandparents had retired to Miami from the eastern seaboard (New York, Philadelphia, Boston) and brought their children and therefore their grandchildren with them, about 98% of my students were non-Americans: Cuban refugees from the 1950s and 1960s, Argentine refugees from the 1980s and 90s, Colombian, Mexican, Venezuelan refugees arriving literally on a daily basis in flight from drug cartels and despotic quasi-Socialist regimes and military juntas and general economic catastrophe. Teaching Genoese Columbus as the discoverer of America was meaningless to kids who had already grown up on Spanish Vasco de Gama and Amerigo Vespucci, for whom the Mayflower pilgrims meant nothing, for whom the Thirteen Colonies were geographically further from their experience than Costa Rica or Havana or Guadalajara, and to whom the destruction of native civilisations was told very differently in South America than it was in the north, and anyway they knew all about the destruction of civilisations, because that was why most of their grandparents, or great-grandparents, had fled Europe for the Americas in the first place, some in the 1490s, some in the 1940s.

The teachers came to me, the new Head, to solve a dilemma my predecessor had told them just to get on with: how do we make this interesting, when it isn't personal. To which the answer seemed rather obvious: find ways to make it personal.

We (mostly they) invented a course during my second year, and ran it through every grade we had, from Kindergarten to 8, levelled to the ages of the kids. It began by setting them a simple homework task: how many countries are there in your immediate family? Mark them on a world map (appropriate worksheet provided), put names and relationships on the back, and bring in any photos that your parents are prepared to risk you damaging (we will photocopy and return them the same day). 

From two hundred and thirty children, we ended up with sixty-seven countries, including two that no longer existed, and half a dozen whose borders had shifted so the ancestral town was no longer where it was (my maternal grandparents fitted this: what was Poland in their day was now in Belarus). Some kids came back with 8, 9, even 10 countries (my grandpa was born in Lithuania, but they moved to France in the 1930s; he joined the resistance in Poland and after the war was in a displaced persons' camp in Cyprus before he got permission to emigrate to Colombia... all manner of similar stories).

Then phase two: how many of these relatives are now in the USA, and where? Maps, photos, details. To supplement this latter, though of course it inevitably supplemented the former too, 
we had the kids interview their now North American aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents, and find artefacts brought or bought here from those other countries, with photo albums in geographically divided sections, and assignments about the history of those countries (mostly the personal, Jewish history), sharing the research in groups because no one could cover every country represented in their family, but there was usually someone else from there. 

The kids loved it - their parents and grandparents loved it even more, and packed the exhibition that we mounted at year's end. The kids didn't do much American history that year, but they did World History on the grand scale, and Personal History on the even grander, and from the educational perspective it doesn't really matter what you study in the specific in order to learn the skills and acquire the tools you need in the general, if you want to be a good historian; and these kids were learning them, with passion, because it was theirs, and so they cared. 

It could only be done once though, for any generation, and so, the following year, without ever abandoning the personal, we harnessed the work back into the national curriculum, so that the older kids could meet senior school entrance requirements, which compelled them to encounter the alien world of White Anglo-Saxon Protestant American history, which is what you are expected to study in all American schools.

In truth, those Miami classrooms were no different from any you might enter in any inner-city school today, in most parts of the world, where you can be guaranteed to find a global community, Polish Catholics sitting next to Punjabi Hindus, next to ... you don't need me to make your local list. But the question that my teachers asked is yours as well. How do you teach "National History" to these children, whatever "National" might be in your context, without it becoming mere acculturation of the preferred perspective of the ruling powers?

And now, what has this to do with Lorenzo Lippi (Florence, 1412-69)
? Absolutely nothing. Or everything really - a matter of my personal history. Just hearing the name was enough to trigger the memory, and with the memory a beaming smile. From Lorenzo Lippi to Fra Lippo Lippi, a very much greater painter (see the deliberately chosen example below), whose story is told in a poem by Robert Browning, which I studied for English Literature A level back in 1973, and which was the poem, more than any other, that turned me on to writing poetry, and especially the dramatic monologue which I have used in poems, plays and novels down the decades, to writing anything at all in truth, including, eventually, this blog-page.

Filippo Lippi, "Disputation in the Synagogue", 1465

Much personal history, waiting to be recounted, in these amber pages too:

Soren Kierkegaard, Danish philosopher, born today in 1813

Karl Marx, German socialist, born today in 1818

and a very sad note, which I shall not extend, that Napoleon Buonaparte, French Emperor, died today in 1821. Sad because he started as the man who tore down the ghetto walls, who carried the Edicts of Tolerance with him wherever he went, whose ideals, learned from the French Enlightenment, are the sine qua non of today's Equal Opportunities and the continuing battle against racism, sexism, genderism, classism, and every other fragmentationism of the human worldism - but who ended his life as just another despotic tyrant and GER (GER is explained on May 2).

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