The art (literally) of espionage

And other recent highlights from the Ideas blog.

A detail of the Jaisalmer Fort model
A detail of the Jaisalmer Fort model

When is art a tool of war? On the blog BLDGBLOG, a historical anecdote drawn from architectural historian Massimo Scolari’s new book “Oblique Drawing” gives a remarkable example. The story dates from the 1529 siege of Florence:

“During the night, Tribolo and an assistant secretly built an accurate relief model in cork, several meters wide, of the city and its fortifications. It was smuggled out of the besieged city in various pieces concealed inside bales of wool. This allowed the pope, aided by Baldassarre Peruzzi, to direct operations from a distance.”

The ruse worked. After laying siege for 10 months, papal forces—aided by their cork model—retook the renegade Republic of Florence on Aug. 10, 1530. Tribolo, the creator of the model, went on to enjoy a life of patronage under the grateful, reinstalled Medici.


Art has often been a tool of espionage, as it turns out. Scolari tells of Goethe, who in 1786 had a sketch he’d made of an abandoned castle confiscated by suspicious Italian authorities, and of 16th-century “painter-spies” who used their occupation as a cover to depict enemy fortifications. (Physical models, such as the Florentine cork relief or the sandstone carving of Jaisalmer Fort in India shown here, were particularly rich sources of information in the pre-satellite era.)

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Over the years, governments have caught on. As one commenter noted, it’s been illegal in Britain for a century to create art that “might be or is intended to be directly or indirectly useful to an enemy.”


Despite the romance of all those Dickensian holiday scenes, 19th-century London stank. And the biggest stink of all arose from the Smithfield live cattle market, right smack in the City of London, where each year more than 200,000 cows and 1.5 million sheep clomped through on their way to slaughter.

Getty Images

Today, the idea of so many live animals in the center of the world’s biggest city seems ridiculous. It struck many 19th-century Londoners the same way. As University of Texas historian Robyn Metcalfe explains in her recently published book “Meat, Commerce, and the City,” in 1855, after decades of debate, Parliament passed a bill evicting the market to the suburb of Islington. The move presaged the removal of livestock markets from industrializing cities around the world.

Metcalfe cites a number of factors that led to the end of the market, which had been a dense, smelly mess since the Middle Ages. These included an emerging utilitarian approach to urban planning that preferred straight lines to the market’s cramped, winding corridors; public health worries in the wake of two cholera epidemics; and the development of a railroad that could convey meat quickly into the city center.


By the early 20th century, urban agriculture had become a contradiction in Europe and the United States, and municipalities passed zoning laws banning the raising of livestock within city limits. But the tide may be reversing. Just this month, the Detroit City Council approved development of a gargantuan 140-acre tree farm within the city (though no cows or sheep are intended just yet), and last year locavores in Oakland agitated for the right to raise and slaughter animals in their backyards.


The United States, like many nations, extends a unique degree of toleration to religious beliefs. Religion gets special consideration in the Constitution, and as a society, we

tend to think that there’s something particularly worth protecting about religious beliefs compared to other kinds of beliefs. But, asks University of Chicago philosopher Brian Leiter in his new book “Why Tolerate Religion?”, is there really?

Leiter gives the example of two boys, each of whom brings a knife to school: One is a Sikh carrying a ceremonial dagger, the other, a boy from a rural family that has maintained a tradition of knife-carrying for generations. Authorities are likely to be much more understanding towards the Sikh boy, Leiter suggests, than to the rural boy, who may get suspended.

Philosophically, he argues, there’s no good reason to distinguish between the two boys’ actions. “Toleration may be a virtue, both in individuals and in states, but its selective application to the conscience only of religious believers is not morally defensible,” he writes. He concludes that the best case for religious toleration is the case for toleration more generally—that we build a better society when we’re willing to let stand practices and views that depart from what we personally hold to be right.

Kevin Hartnett is a writer who lives in Ann Arbor, Mich.