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Civilisations: BBC presenters pick their cultural high points

Mary Beard, David Olusoga and Simon Schama choose objects, artwork, architecture and culture from throughout history

Published: Friday, 13th April 2018 at 3:37 pm

The presenters of new BBC2 series Civilisations pick the high points of humanity’s cultural achievements…


Mary Beard chooses…

Wine cooler

Athens, fifth century BC

Wine cooler (Getty from RT mag, EH)

Ceramics in classical Athens, like this wine cooler by Euphronios, or the one that caused a scandal at the British Museum, are not only a window onto the domestic world in the fifth century BC — they also raise questions about just what it is to be civilised.


Tintoretto, 1565

Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Venice

Crucifixion (Getty from RT mag, EH)

Christianity has had periods when it destroys images, just as much as other religions, but look at this amazing painting of the crucifixion of Christ in Venice and you see that it’s really doing its job — you don’t have to be a paid-up member of the church to be moved by it.

Sancaklar Mosque

Istanbul, 2012

Sancaklar mosque (Alamy from RT mag, EH)

It’s only six years old, but it looks as if it’s always been there and it is partly underground — so it’s a mosque that isn’t what we’d conventionally think of as a mosque. It’s also interesting in that women and men worship side by side, in adjacent spaces. Mainly I love the stunning beauty of it.

David Olusoga chooses…

Benin ivory mask of Queen Idris

Unknown, early 16th century

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Benin ivory mask of Queen Idris (Alamy from RT mag, EH)

The idea that Africa was the “Dark Continent” and that people there lived in isolation is blown away by this object from the 16th century, which shows a culture capable of great skill and creating beautiful objects. The Portuguese traders in her crown also show a society that’s part of a world of trade and interaction.

Double-headed serpent

Aztec sculpture, 15th/16th century

British Museum, London

Double-headed serpent (Getty from RT mag, EH)

There are few events in world history as cataclysmic as the crushing of Mexican Aztec society by Spanish conquistadors, led by Hernán Cortés, who landed in Mexico in 1519. Hardly any Aztec objects survived, but this mosaic serpent did. It is exceptional — 2,000 pieces of turquoise and coral have been laid over a wooden frame to create a shimmering effect.

Nelson’s ship in a bottle

Yinka Shonibare, 2010

National Maritime Museum, London

Nelson's ship in a bottle (Alamy from RT mag, EH)

I’m biased because Shonibare is also British-Nigerian, but I think Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle says something about the 21st century; people across the globe are interacting and trying to work out how to make our different histories and viewpoints work together, getting it wrong but also, sometimes, wonderfully right.

Simon Schama chooses…

Fisherman (from 36 views of Mount Fuji)

Hokusai, 1830—1832

Not on display

Fisherman (Getty from RT mag, EH)

The most famous Hokusai painting is of a wave, but this is a single heroic fisherman, his whole body is taut and tense. Not only is it a kind of epic representation of heroism, it’s also a gorgeously abstracted dreamscape.

Self-portrait as the allegory of painting

Artemisia Gentileschi, 1630

Royal Academy of Arts, London

Self-portrait (Getty from RT mag, EH)

I love this picture. There were lots of women artists working in the Renaissance, but there are no other paintings like this by an Italian artist who came to London. It’s an extraordinary, physical, symbolic presentation. She’s saying, “I’m a professional, with my sleeves rolled up.”

Great British Bake Off


The Great British Bake Off Celebrity Special (Channel 4, EH)
(Channel 4)

Culture is never supine, it never lies down and lets itself be trampled over. So, although I’m not clairvoyant, if I had to pick something from right now I’d think it could well be a box set of The Wire, or The Sopranos. Or, actually, The Great British Bake Off!

Civilisations begins on Thursday 1st March at 9pm on BBC2


This article was originally published in the 24 February-2 March 2018 issue of Radio Times magazine


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