As 2019 begins to wind down, we take stock of the year and note the gaps left by our losses. One such loss is Theodore (T. K.) Rabb, professor emeritus of history at Princeton University, who passed away this January. Born in Czechoslovakia in 1937 to a Jewish family which would be lucky enough to escape to the United Kingdom, and raised in England where his academic brilliance earned him a place at Oxford, he had intimate experience of the horrors and glories of that thing he would call “the West,” how it could raise both the dreaming spires of Oxford and the smokestacks of Auschwitz. When he took up topics such as the Peloponnesian War or Thirty Years’ War in his classroom, not even the most entitled students complained that they didn’t want to hear about “boring wars”: he made it clear that in mankind’s martial frenzy everything was at stake. And when he spoke of things like the Peace of Westphalia as one of the most important things that had ever happened (“the modern West’s first general attempt at religious toleration”), you could feel that his conclusions were more than conclusions: they were deeply felt convictions rooted in his own experience. He was professing.

At Princeton in the 1990s he was one of the Lions of Western Civ, a small cadre of aged professors who taught things like the Wars of Dynastic Succession and Dante and Montaigne. Though only in his fifties at the time, to those of us who were his students he seemed so old—an impression greatly amplified by his poor health and perennial crankiness—it seemed entirely possible that he had been personal friends with the authors we read. Rabb’s behavior encouraged this belief: when students read passages from Machiavelli, Rabb would smile and shake his head, as if in admiration of an old cunning foe; when confronted with a painting by Caravaggio, he would bite his lip and a look of sadness would pass over his face, as if the painter had been a wayward son, a brilliant child who had gone off the rails and died far too young.

Rabb’s greatest contribution to Princeton’s campus life was the “Humanities Sequence,” a four-course survey of Western Civilization, from Homer to Hume (a fifth course covering the last two centuries was added later), which he introduced together with Robert Hollander and John Fleming. Several things distinguished this course from similar efforts elsewhere: though text-based (the “Great Books”), it was intensely interdisciplinary: there were movies, plays, trips to the Princeton Art Museum, the Firestone Library’s Rare Book Room, and of course, Rabb’s beloved Frick Collection in New York. This was the outgrowth of Rabb’s own scholarship: he had co-founded the Journal of Interdisciplinary History and had written time and again on the importance of historians working with more than just texts. Enrollment for the course was cunningly assured by making it an honor: students had to apply, and only thirty were accepted (“We thought, ‘How can we get Ivy League students to attend?’ Create an admissions process!”). No instructional expense was spared: three professors taught these thirty students, who all attended three seminars and two lectures every week. To treat the same material from three different perspectives—often along disciplinary (the historian treating the material differently from the English professor, etc.), but frequently along personal lines—was eye-opening, and saved the course from the distortions of any single academic personality.

At least one lecture a week would be about art. Rabb himself had said in a newspaper interview, “If you can bring just one work of art into the classroom, these great images may stick with the student long after what the teacher said leaves the student.” After a quarter-century, I remember both the images and what the teacher said. I remember him standing at the head of the lecture hall before Bellini’s Saint Francis in the Desert, Poussin’s Et in Arcadia Ego, and Hals’ Portrait of Rene Descartes. Part of the impression was Rabb’s sheer awe at these works: he would turn to them after introducing them, and for a moment lose himself in their majesty, and then point out their profundities: “Notice the light … looking at this portrait of Descartes you would think he was just a head, a source of thought, but for the bottom right, where his hand—curiously positioned and not at all at rest—glows as a secondary source of light.” Then he would turn to us. “What does this say about the man?”

A memorial of Rabb’s uniquely effective mode of teaching using images can be found in what would turn out to be his last book, Why Does Michelangelo Matter? The title is something of a misnomer—only one of the book’s forty-six essays is about Michelangelo. The book is actually a collection of Rabb’s essays about art, most of them reviews of art exhibits which he wrote for The Times Literary Supplement, the Los Angeles Times, The Art Newspaper, and the New York Times.

In almost all of them, he resorts to his favorite teaching technique, namely the posing of an interesting question. And so the essays have titles like, “Why is Velazquez So Revered?” “How Did One Buy Art in Early Modern Italy?” “Has Vermeer Been Overpraised?” “Why is Venice Beautiful?” “How Is the Emperor Charles V to Be Assessed?” “Is There a Distinctive Spanish Art?” “Why Is Leonardo Worth Studying?” “Why the Interest in Piero Della Francesca?” Questions like these would stop us students in our tracks: formulating answers to them taxed our capacities both to retrieve information and to assess value in complicated ways. And to watch Rabb pose his own questions and answer them is almost to have him at the head of the lecture hall again—it should be required reading for anyone looking to teach the history of Europe or its art.

A fine example of the man’s work can be found in the title essay. It begins with a paradox. We seem to live in what Rabb called an “age of hype and empty celebrity,” far removed from late Renaissance and early Baroque periods. No one thinks the values of the sixteenth century are about to make a modern comeback. And yet Rabb describes the British Museum staying open until midnight in order to accommodate a record-breaking crush of visitors for its 2006 exhibit of Michelangelo drawings—an exhibit which ran for six months. He continues:

A few weeks after seeing the show, I was in Rome, where more people seemed to be standing in front of Michelangelo’s Pietà than in the whole of the rest of St. Peter’s. When I ventured to the Sistine Chapel—assured that this was a quiet time before the crowds came for Holy Week—the slow-moving line, three-deep, started so far away that it took an hour to reach the entrance, and once inside it was barely possible to move.… My guess is that in one week, perhaps in one day, more people came to see Michelangelo’s work for themselves than in the entire first century after the chapel was completed.

We live in the era of this paradox. From the universities, one hears—and with good evidence—a choir of complainants singing the death-dirge of the humanities, the great books, and the entire concept of “high culture.” And yet beyond the campus gates high culture plays to record-breaking crowds. One recent list noted forty-six annual Shakespeare Festivals in the U.S. The Metropolitan Museum of Art is now busy almost every day of the year, despite no longer closing on Mondays. You cannot even get into some Italian museums without reservations. Indeed all throughout the world the major museums are constantly full. And new artists are being added to the canon: formerly minor artists such as Vermeer and Caravaggio now rival in popularity the greatest of the greats, and once-empty rooms of their works are now flooded with a constant stream of appreciators.

Rabb makes a fine guide to understand some of the reasons why these works of art have kept their old appeal, or have become even more important over time. After discussing Michelangelo’s exuberant and strange passion for the body, his restless ingenuity, and his demonstration of power and command, he roots his ultimate appeal in his constant pursuit and constant failure: “Michelangelo may have sought perfection, but it could not be achieved … the questions are too urgent, the ideals too elusive, the problems never fully solved.” And so above the altar of the Sistine Chapel is both heaven and hell, as visible reminders of both success and failure:

Staring at the damned souls just above eye level in the Last Judgement, they [the spectators in the chapel] were coming to terms, not with a scene of joy or delight, but with an unblinking look at the very nature of human existence. They may not have shared Michelangelo’s assumption that existence is subject to the implacable judgement of heaven, or that their lives are shaped by the story that began on the ceiling above them and ends with the scene in front of them. But they could not avoid confronting the implications of that huge, swirling fresco. Magnificent though we humans are, we always fall short. We may address our problems, but they can never fully be solved. Because the ideal is so close, however, the search must never stop. More than any other artist, Michelangelo makes us probe and think. And that is why he continues to matter.

For Rabb, art was not merely pretty wall decoration; it had meaning. Michelangelo meant striving and failing; Piero meant mystery and grace. Unfortunately Rabb wrote only one essay about modern art, a review of the show Glitter and Doom, a collection of German portraits done in the 1920s:

To go through this exhibition was to endure an assault on the senses. The Metropolitan [Museum of Art] even warned, in a wall label at the entrance to the show, that the images could be disturbing to children. One’s assumption has to be that they were disturbing to all. On both the occasions I went I felt compelled, as I emerged, to visit an exhibition elsewhere at the Metropolitan, full of Cezannes and Van Goghs, in order to cleanse my palate, to restore some sense of equilibrium by reminding myself of the role of art as a creator of beauty.… For the historian the most telling lesson of the exhibition is that the humiliation and self-laceration distilled into these portraits can last only so long. It was inevitable that German society would eventually pursue new ambitions, a renewed sense of purpose. The grim outcome of that quest we know only too well.

If 1920s art was a kind of presage of disaster, I am left with the question: what did Rabb think our own contemporary art means? Another notice of his death, by his editor at The Art Newspaper, quotes him on this topic, “I have the feeling that, when the pendulum swings, people are going to wonder what was wrong with us.”

But though he was cranky and curmudgeonly, he was not really a pessimist. He said of himself, “I’m an idealist who always hopes the world’s great institutions will actually seek the public good rather than the interest of those in power.” We his students could tell that this was one of the things he really believed in, one of the sacred things. And he retained belief in a God who communicated with us. One time, when going through a period of uncertainty, I asked him, “Do you believe that God speaks to us through events?” He looked at me with a kind of paternal affection and said, “All the time, John.” That this man, who had seen and contemplated so much of man’s inhumanity, could say such a thing, reassured me. It still does. And I smile when I think of him now, no longer confined to the galleries, but taking up his place with the Old Masters themselves.  

John Byron Kuhner is former president of the North American Institute of Living Latin Studies (SALVI), and editor of the Paideia Institute’s online magazine In Medias Res.

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