Democracy, Tyranny, and Art

The Battle of Anghiari

How political and artistic freedom don’t always overlap

While shooting the movie The Third Man, Orson Welles, who played the main character, decided to improvise with the dialog and added the following rant to the script:

In Italy, for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love, they had 500 years of democracy and peace — and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.

It’s an interesting thought but it definitely doesn’t do justice to the Swiss.

To begin with, the first known cuckoo clock was actually a possession of August von Sachsen, who, like many other provincial German rulers during the Renaissance, had a penchant for sophisticated eccentricities.

The most significant Swiss invention to date is a set of fonts, which is more ubiquitous than Coca Cola. This set was created by Swiss typographer Max Miedinger in 1957 and was named Helvetica, after the Latin name of his homeland.

Today, Helvetica is the de facto standard in modern graphic design, spurred by the rise of the International Typographic Style. Like most things that claim universal appeal, it is bland, neutral, faceless, inexpressive and unemotional.

This is exactly why it’s so invisibly omnipresent. Helvetica is the default font on your iPhone. It’s used in logotypes for countless popular brands like Lufthansa, McDonald’s, Gap, Orange, Motorola, Panasonic, American Apparel, BMW, Target, J.C. Penney, Kawasaki, Zanussi… Even Arial, the font family that secretaries around the world have come to love and cherish, is a Helvetica rip off, Microsoft-style.

This ubiquitous typeface and the design philosophy that underlines it have a cult following which, in its attempt to purify modern design from any unnecessary detail, has reached a level of fanaticism that could make any suicide bomber blush.

If there is a dark side to democracy, as Orson Welles implied, it must be that sometimes, in a very ironical way, the cultures that thrive under it may develop striking limitations in their blind pursuit of compromise. By contrast, societies which are run by despotic and undemocratic principles may spark unparalleled freedom of thought.

Illustration: Peter Paul Rubens’s copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Battle of Anghiari. Allegedly from left to right: Francesco Piccinino, Niccolò Piccinino, Ludovico Trevisan, and Giovanni Antonio del Balzo Orsini.

This article was first published on Medium on August 16, 2013.

When Your Own Satire Bites You in the Ass

Writing satire is not easy, especially when you’re supposed to mock real people. To get a real idea how dangerous it can be, take a look at this alleged Barack Obama gem. It’s actually written by “actor, writer, filmmaker, comedian, and author” Albert Brooks, and it’s supposed to mock Vladimir Putin’s recent New York Time op-ed.

Of course Putin deserves all the mocking he can get. What he doesn’t deserve is this writer’s ignorance because it turns the entire joke on its head and leaves the reader gasping for air for all the wrong reasons. Let’s start with this epic line:

Mr. Putin, we put a man on the moon and you barely got a monkey home safely.

Did you hear this? It wasn’t a tsunami splashing. It was half of Russia simultaneously pissing on the floor laughing. You know, once upon a time, when Americans still bothered to properly fund their educational system, people actually knew that the first man in space was Russian. It was NASA who struggled with monkeys. The Russians rarely considered using those animals because, to every American’s surprise, Russia is actually not located in the tropics and monkeys aren’t freely available for space tossing.

Trashing the Russian space program and claiming America’s got the upper hand is hilariously tragic not only because historically Russians were way ahead in almost all aspects (first satellite, first dog, first man, first woman, first spacewalk) but because today America cannot send a single astronaut in orbit without relying on Russian rockets. Of course, people like the author of this tragic attempt at satire, are the same ones who let their own country’s space program deteriorate so much that when people say moonwalk, they think of Michael Jackson, not of Neil Armstrong. Funding wars around the globe is much more important than space shuttles.

It’s one thing to put down exceptionalism, but before you do that, you at least have to produce one Broadway show, or make one commercial airliner, or invent one type of salad.

This is the saddest point of the article. I know that refuting it would be useless because the author would probably never understand why. The Russian Broadway is called Bolshoi Theatre and is slightly classier. It was also founded in 1776. Russia has been making commercial airliners for ages and their salad is among the most popular ones in Europe even though it was invented by a Belgian guy.

So yeah, very funny. It would have been funnier if the author opened Wikipedia and read a few things about Russia to being with. There’s a lot of real stuff to mock but none of it is in this article.

Atlas of Prejudice 2 Coming Soon

Atlas der Vorurteile 2 von Yanko Tsvetkov

After selling more than 10 000 copies in Germany in only 6 months and subsequently appearing in English and Russian, the Atlas of Prejudice is ready for a sequel.

In fact I have been preparing it ever since I finished the first book because 80 pages weren’t enough to collect all the ideas I had. The format was already predetermined, so I couldn’t go above it. This is one of the limitations of working with publishers. In my case it was the only one because my publisher in Germany, Knesebeck Verlag, gave me absolute freedom about every aspect of the book, front to back.

It’s easy to forget how much trust such a decision requires, especially with new authors who haven’t proven themselves commercially. Appreciating creativity is one thing but betting a significant part of the budget of your company on it is much more complicated. I am very thankful about that.

Now that we have not only creative ideas but also a solid financial success behind us, Knesebeck Verlag and I are going to continue our collaboration on the next version of the book, the Atlas of Prejudice 2. It’s scheduled to appear in February 2014 on the German market and it will expand the project beyond national stereotypes. The cover, which I just finished, may give you an idea about the new direction. The rest is contained in the draft annotation that describes the project at its current stage:

It’s easy to forget that each and every one of us is culturally biased. A real explorer is able to recognize this psychological flaw and steer clear of it when he gets in touch with a different culture. For the truly adventurous, the world is not a tourist destination but a stage, a platform on which nothing is certain and everything changes all the time.

People who are able to rise above their own cultural limitations often appear as weird. But this weirdness is often projected upon them by the limitations of our own minds we like to describe as “normal”.

In order to truly explore human nature we have to burst the cocoon of cultural preconceptions in which we so eagerly wrap ourselves. We have to overcome the fear of losing our own identity in the process. We have to reject the idea that we are simply products of our societies and rediscover our true roots that run much deeper than any social, cultural, or political accidents.

This book is for those of us who have both the courage and the sense of humor to recognize that.

Stay tuned.

Atlas of Prejudice: The European Age of Incest

Get the Atlas of Prejudice on Amazon US | UK | Germany | France | Italy | Spain


The short essay The European Age of Incest and the map Europe According to Charles V (1555) are taken from the first volume of the Atlas of Prejudice by Yanko Tsvetkov. The book was first published on the German market in 2013 where it became an instant hit selling more than 10 000 copies. The English version of the book was published worldwide on August 11 and is currently available on Amazon.

There weren’t any iPhones in the Middle Ages and nobody today assumes the opposite. Even though we are aware of the immense technological gap between our time and the medieval period, there are some political differences which aren’t so easy to spot. One of the most significant is that the term nation didn’t actually exist. The concept of a national state emerged during the 17th Century, after the Thirty Years’ War.

In 16th Century Europe, states covered the territories owned by the aristocracy associated with a particular crown. Whole regions switched ownership as frequently as Imelda Marcos switched shoes. Royal marriages were political acts through which empires were consolidated or partitioned. Unwilling to share power with strangers, ruling aristocrats started to marry their close relatives, which along with the benefits, brought many genetic disorders.

One of the most powerful monarchs Europe had ever seen, Charles V, by the grace of God, Holy Roman Emperor, forever August, King of Germany, King of Italy, King of all Spains, of Castile, Aragon, León, Navarra, Grenada, Toledo, Valencia, Galicia, Majorca, Sevilla, Cordova, Murcia, Jaén, Algarves, Algeciras, Gibraltar, the Canary Islands, King of Two Sicilies, of Sardinia, Corsica, King of Jerusalem, King of the Western and Eastern Indies, Lord of the Islands and Main Ocean Sea, Archduke of Austria, Duke of Burgundy, Brabant, Lorraine, Styria, Carinthia, Carniola, Limburg, Luxembourg, Gelderland, Neopatria, Württemberg, Landgrave of Alsace, Prince of Swabia, Asturia and Catalonia, Count of Flanders, Habsburg, Tyrol, Gorizia, Barcelona, Artois, Burgundy Palatine, Hainaut, Holland, Seeland, Ferrette, Kyburg, Namur, Roussillon, Cerdagne, Drenthe, Zutphen, Margrave of the Holy Roman Empire, Burgau, Oristano and Gociano, Lord of Frisia, the Wendish March, Pordenone, Biscay, Molin, Salins, Tripoli and Mechelen, was a product of centuries of exquisite royal incest.

As a consequence, he suffered from severe case of mandibular prognathism, a genetic disorder which develops an abnormally extended chin, a condition that colloquially carries the name of his dynasty—Habsburg jaw.

He was unable to chew his food properly, suffered from indigestion and usually ate alone. Logically, the abundance of such genetic defects also meant abundance of power, wealth and land.

There is a famous quote attributed to him: “I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, and German to my horse.”

Apart from letting us know that in the early 1500s horses were fluent in German, those words are a testament to His Majesty’s cosmopolitan spirit.

Being the undisputed ruler of Spain, Charles V had direct access to the immense resources of the Spanish colonies in America. Centuries ahead of his time in terms of fiscal innovation, he borrowed heavily from Genovese bankers, using the loans to finance wars and chase the French out of Northern Italy. On their way home, they famously brought with them Leonardo da Vinci who was seduced by Francois I, the king of France himself.

That’s one of the reasons the Mona Lisa is now in the Louvre but don’t blame Charles V about it. Nobody could have foreseen that a common portrait of a woman with questionable beauty could one day become the most famous painting in the world.

Francois I was the arch-enemy of Charles V. Un­­able to forget the Italian loss, the French king resorted to extreme measures. He allied himself with the only man who could rival the power of Charles V: Suleiman the Magnificent, the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire.

For the first time in history a Christian kingdom entered into a political alliance with a Muslim power. Suleiman twice laid siege on Vienna, wreaking havoc among the Catholic world. When he retreated, probably out of negligence, he forgot several bags of coffee and a basket of croissants. The Austrians found them irresistible and stole the recipe, which was in turn stolen from them by the French, who today consider it part of their cultural heritage.

Atlas of Prejudice (English Edition) Out NOW!

Atlas of Prejudice by Yanko Tsvetkov

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE. The Atlas of Prejudice, also known as the book which was written in English but was first published in Germany, is a continuation of the highly successful Mapping Stereotypes project by visual artist Yanko Tsvetkov. Started in January 2009, the project soon became a viral online sensation. It even received Twitter’s equivalent of an Academy Award:

Two years after, the Guardian newspaper summed up its qualities with the grammatically correct sentence: “No matter where you’re from, you should be able to find something here to offend you.”

The project was gradually expanded to contain more than 40 stereotype maps, which the author describes as cartographic caricatures ridiculing the worst excesses of human bigotry and narrow-mindedness. (I’m speaking in 3rd person to make myself look important.) The essays that accompany them narrate the story of the project and contemplate humanity’s affair with prejudice since the dawn of civilization. They offer an even deeper but equally hilarious perspective on our inherent tendency to randomly blame people simply because someone convinced us that they ate our breakfast.

According to this book, the first domesticated animal was not the dog, but the scapegoat. The razor-sharp irony of the author will guide you through the delusions of the ancient civilizations of Greece and China, reveal the stupefying amalgam of superstition and paranoia of the Middle Ages and it will leave you begging for more with a grotesquely hilarious prediction about the future of Europe.

You can get the book on If you live across the Ocean, there’s Amazon UK.

Update: The Russian edition of the book, Атлас стереотипов и предрассудков, was published by Alpina Non Fiction in September 2013. The second volume of the Atlas of Prejudice is scheduled for publication in Germany next year by Knesebeck Verlag.

Gazpacho Recipe According to Americans

Gazpacho Recipes from all over the World

What It’s All About

Gazpacho is a cold summer soup coming from Spain, the ancient homeland of all Hispanic people, which nowadays is ruled by Europe.

Enjoying this raw and sometimes overwhelming mix of fresh ingredients is an acquired taste, so this recipe is for those of you who would describe themselves as culinary adventurous.

Things You Should Know Before You Start

It’s always a good idea to take precautions when you deal with fresh ingredients. As live products who haven’t undergone thermal or chemical treatment, they are potential carriers of harmful bacteria and viruses.

Remember to always buy your products form a trusted grocery shop. In case of doubt, ask your local grocery shop assistant about the sanitary procedures. Never touch fresh fruits or vegetables with your hands! Bacteria is sticky, especially in a moist environment. Because most of the essential gazpacho ingredients like tomatoes and cucumbers consist primarily of water, which means an extremely high level of moisture, you should handle them with extra caution.

Another potential danger may come during transportation. In hot climates, and I assume you would want to consume gazpacho in summer, fresh vegetables rot easily. The process actually starts immediately after the tomato is removed from the plant. If handled improperly and kept in non refrigerated storage spaces, the amount of bacteria increases by the hour. The seeds inside the vegetable have been known to germinate when the temperature is too high, so perhaps it would be a good idea to bring a cooler with you and keep the ingredients inside it until you come back home.

Once you get to the safety of your kitchen, you can carefully unpack everything directly under running water, so you can prevent potential contamination of your utensils. After a good rinse, put the ingredients on a large plate and gently rub them once or twice with a kitchen paper soaked in antibacterial soap. Rinse again and let them stay in the refrigerator until you are ready to make the gazpacho.

Ingredients and Equipment

Here’s the actual list of ingredients according to Andalusian tradition. As it’s always the case with ethnic food, some things will be impossible to find. For example Europeans consume stale bread, which is a habit they inherited from ancient times. For some reason they still insist on doing it (A pinch of history: they even beheaded Marie Antoinette because she wanted to replace their stale bread rations with cake). Another difficult thing to find may be Andalusian onions.

1/2 lb. tomatoes
1/4 lb. Vidalia onion
1/4 lb. cucumber
1/4 lb. green bell pepper
1/4 lb. red bell pepper
3 table spoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon vinegar
2 ounces of Doritos

To process the ingredients, you will need the following appliances and utensils:

1 Vitamax High Performance Turbo Instablender
1 Avalon Advance Multifiber Ultrastrainer
1 Slice’n’Dice knife
1 Black Hole Jumbo Superpitcher
1 Grab’n’Dump spoon
1 ZeepLock plastic bag

If you don’t have the exact same stuff at home you can use alternatives. As always, I would advice caution. You know the rule: if it ain’t branded, it’s probably Chinese.


Now that you have everything you need, let’s start the preparation process. Cut the tomatoes in large pieces, while carefully removing the stems and scooping out the seeds. You don’t want one of those stuck between your teeth because they may cause excess plaque, caries an abscess or even cancer. Do the same with the bell peppers. Slice the onion and the cucumber in small cubes. Add everything into the Vitamax High Performance Turbo Instablender.

Take the Doritos, place them in a plastic ZeepLock bag and crush them emphatically. Carefully add the golden Doritos powder to the Vitamax High Performance Turbo Instablender. Finally, pour in the olive oil and the vinegar. Start the Vitamax High Performance Turbo Instablender at low speed, then gradually increase and let it blend until the mixture becomes silky smooth.

Start pouring the gazpacho in the pitcher through the Avalon Advance Multifiber Ultrastrainer. Periodically remove the accumulating sediment. When done, drop several ice cubes and add salt according to your taste. Enjoy your gazpacho fresh. Never let it sit for more than an hour because it may accumulate bacteria. Do keep in mind that, if left unattended, the vitamins in the mixture will self destruct in about 30 minutes. Leftovers can be kept in a freezer for up to a week.