The Scariest Library

 Posted by on June 26, 2013  Travel  7 Responses »
Jun 262013
 
The Sistine Chapel.

The Sistine Chapel.

I am going to spend the next 5,000 words complaining about library architecture.  Let’s see if I can keep you excited.

(NOTE: This post contains many images, so you may want to read it on a large screen.  It also includes Renaissance paintings with nudity, so be prepared.  Also, I am happy to report that my Kickstarter was a great success and raised a over 200% of its goal.  This will let me organize more performances and other expansions of the project.  Many thanks to the readers who chipped in.)

Michelangelo was a profoundly angry person.  Manifold grievances accumulated over his unreasonably long life: against picky, stingy, and fickle patrons, against incompetent suppliers and cracked marble, against rival artists and their partisans, against ungrateful  and ambitious students, against frustrated love and the Renaissance criminalization of homosexuality, against manipulative popes and his Florentine homeland which never did enough to protect him from them, against lawsuits over fees and contracts whose endlessness swallowed years of productivity, against painting, which he kept getting sucked into even though he hated it (Michelangelo’s bumper sticker: “I’d Rather Be Sculpting”), not to mention against plague, famine, war, debt, Borgias, Frenchmen, Pisa, and all the usual butts of Renaissance Florentine hatred.

We see Michelangelo’s accumulated wrath in late works, like the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel.  The much earlier Sistine ceiling (1508-12) is a coherent progression of Old Testament scenes framed by luxurious painted fake architectural elements covered with naked men lounging around in pleasant poses that would be easy to carve out of marble (“See what I’d rather be sculpting!”).  It has strange elements, among them the fact that each biblical scene is held up by four naked men (“Look what I could sculpt!”) sitting on pillars painted to look like carved marble held up by two more naked men (“I could use marble!”) flanked by other naked men made to look like gilt bronze (“Bronze is great too!”), for a ratio of sixteen gratuitous naked men to each Bible scene (“Please let me sculpt something!”).

This is actually a featureless vault.  All the moldings and structures are Michelagenlo's invention, imagining architecture he would enjoy creating (and covering with naked men).

The Sistine ceiling is actually a featureless vault, not flat but smooth-ish, curved subtly by the underlying structure but about as flat as it was possible to make it. All the moldings and structures you see here are Michelangelo’s invention, imagining on a flat surface the architecture he would enjoy creating (and covering with naked men).

Strange and novel as it was, the Sistine ceiling was a brilliant and comprehensible expansion of the artistic ingredients of its era, one which all comers could understand and enjoy.  It was instantly hailed as a masterpiece and much admired and praised, and it instantly made complex painted fake architecture the standard vogue for fresco ceilings, displacing the popularity of the old blue-and-stars.  In contrast, Michelangelo’s Last Judgment on the altar-side wall of the chapel, painted more than twenty years later (1536-41), is a chaotic ocean of exaggeratedly muscular bodies massed without order or structure, and even the most beloved Spot the Saint stars are barely identifiable.

Il_Giudizio_Universale

Here, for reference, are a couple examples of more standard Last Judgments.  Note the traditional layout: Christ the judge in the center, with Mary at his right and John the Baptist at his left.  On either sides, ranks of the blessed watch in prayer and reverence, usually with Peter and Paul prominent among them.  Below, tombs are opening and the dead emerging, and on Christ’s right (our left) the blessed are being raised to Heaven, while on the left the damned are led off to Hell.

Last Judgment

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Michelangelo’s is radically different.  Calm, ordered structure has been replaced by a sea of chaotic, disorganized clusters of figures, and masses  of muscular flesh.

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Easy-to-recognize figures fade into the muddle.  Here, for example, are some Spot the Saint friends in familiar forms, and in his:

JohnTheBaptistDetail

 SaintPeterDetailSistine

Lorenzo

Catherine

MichelangeloDetail

We now recognize that Michelangelo’s Last Judgment is a masterwork, and while individual modern people may like it or not depending on taste, we do not, like its original patron, find it so terrifyingly challenging that we want to paint it over, but we can certainly see why it shocked people as it did, and sometimes still does.

The Sistine Chapel is not a library, but I present this sketch of Michelangelo’s rage to help you understand the vestibule into which we are about to stray.

Florence's church of San Lorenzo, built by the Medici, with attached library.  The big dome is a later Baroque addition.

Florence’s church of San Lorenzo, built by the Medici, with attached library. The big dome is a later Baroque addition.

The Laurentian Library (Biblioteca Laurenziana), where I often work, was commissioned by the Medici in 1523.  With their second pope (Clement VII) solidly enthroned and Florence subdued, they wanted to add the world’s most sophisticated library to the already stunningly sophisticated architectural masterpiece which was the neoclassical Medici church of San Lorenzo.  The library had many goals—to entice scholars, safeguard the collection, glorify the city—but above all the project aimed to ensure that the Medici’s famous collection of rare books and scholars was suitably displayed, an advertisement to all visitors that they were Europe’s most learned noble house (“We’re nobles now! We bribed the right dudes!”).  Petrarch’s successors had spent over a century filling Florence with rare classics and commentaries from the far corners of the accessible Earth, and time and wealth funneled these into Medici hands.  Thus, the Laurenziana at its birth was staggeringly close to being what humanists had dreamed of: a new Alexandria, collecting ancients and moderns, pagans and Church Fathers, poets and clerics, Greeks and Latins, even Hebrew sources and many translated out of Arabic, assembled and organized for the use of a newly-learned world.  Such a gem deserved a worthy jewel box.

LaurenzianaWhen Michelangelo was commissioned to take on the San Lorenzo library, his patrons wisely instructed that he leave intact the mathematically-perfect neoclassical external structure of the church, and its elegant cloister.  All Michelangelo’s additions are internal, the layout of windows and benches, panels and decoration.

Reached by an unassuming door to the left of the church façade, the cloister remains to this day a welcoming and peaceful haven, whose cool, citrus-scented air washes away the city’s outside bustle.  This architectural vocabulary was familiar to any Renaissance visitor, with the rows of pillars and the single central tree which formed the heart of any monastery, though with slightly more perfect ratios, giving it a neoclassical edge.

Thus it is with an air of awe, comfort and anticipation that our Renaissance visitor ascends the steps to the upper floor to enter the famous library.

Exposici—n

“IT’S GONNA EAT ME!”  I have no better summary of the whiplash moment as one steps into Michelangelo’s vestibule.  What is this sprawling black staircase oozing down at me like a lava flow?  What is this vast dark space, crowded and empty at the same time?  Why is the light so far away?  How is this airy and gloomy at once?  Things!  Things all over, columns, niches, railings, frames, all crammed in too tight, so they seem about to burst out and spill all over you, like an overstuffed suitcase.

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 Photography cannot do it justice since so much of the effect is being suddenly surrounded by this on all sides.  The more familiar you are with how architecture of the era is supposed to work, the more powerful the shock.  Nor is the shock negative: the room is amazing, beautiful, harmonious, just also tense, overwhelming, alien.  Right and wrong at once.  At first one’s reaction is a mass instinctive “What the?!” but as you stay and start to think about it you realize how each individual feature is made of familiar architecture and yet makes no sense.  These dense, paired columns are stuck inside the wall where they do nothing—the point of a column is to not have a wall.  These aren’t columns, they’re column-like things trapped in a wall.  These blank dents, they’re niches, with stands for sculptures that aren’t there and clearly are never supposed to be there.  These blind windows, window frames around solid wall, there’s open air outside them, there is no reason to have rows of window frames without windows except that he wanted that, blind darkness where the shapes of the frames teach your eye to expect light.  Why are these pediments fractured and jagged?  Why do these frame struts remind me of an Egyptian tomb?  What are these huge curving swirly things stuck into the wall?  They don’t do anything?  They just loom!  Why do these three staircases merge into one?  It doesn’t do anything useful!

Michelangelo_Firenze_Biblioteca Laurenziana 2

There is no need for this!

There is no need for this part to be extra tall!

In fact, this whole enormous room is completely unnecessary.  There is nothing in here except a set of stairs whose only purpose is to get you to up to where the main library is, yet the ceiling of this room is above the ceiling of the library, because he actually added an extra half story to it just so more architecture could be there looking menacing. This room is three times as tall as it needs to be, just so Michelangelo can fill it with terrifying stuff!  Shock turns to awe.  The fake architectural elements painted on the Sistine ceiling are now real, but purely as objects of imagination.  The architect has broken free of utility entirely, and wields architecture as pure communication, aimed toward the single purpose of overwhelming all.  Columns, windows and other forms are free to be anywhere, like poetry written in a language that doesn’t have required word order, so a poet can put anything anywhere for maximum impact.

The Laurenziana is not the library architecture I intend to complain about today.  Rather I cite it as an example of successful architecture, which stuns and amazes, and achieves what it set out to.  Michelangelo’s scaaary scaaaary staircase is gorgeous, shocking but gorgeous, like when an unsuspecting public first met Kafka, or Nietzsche, or Dangerous Visions, and came away staggering: “I didn’t know you could do that!”  You can, and if you make Michelangelo angry enough, he will.  One too many Medici commissions had fallen through, and he himself had to leave most of the library to assistants, arming them with models and sketches as he was dragged off yet again to Rome for yet more papal commissions which would inevitably go sour.

He also left us the reading room beyond the vestibule, a restorative paradise of symmetry and order, with warm stained glass and row on row of welcoming wood benches with the books on their chains ready for scholars’ hands.  On the tiled floor and inlaid wooden ceiling, decoration with organic themes—garlands and scrolls with Medici slogans—counterbalances and soothes away the heartless, grim geometry of the vestibule outside.

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LaurenzianaFloor

November2011 161The books are no longer kept in the reading room, but in more protected quarters downstairs, so visitors can come into this part freely, and experience the three successive plunges into quiet cloister, looming vestibule, and heavenly reading room, and stroll along the seats where our humanist predecessors pored over the Virgil and the Lucretius and so many other wonders.  A friend I went with once called it a secular pilgrimage site, and rightly so.  The clumps of people who speak a dozen languages in awed whispers tiptoe along the tile with the same reverence and thrill of connection that I see fill people in St. Peter’s or San Clemente.  Often someone stops to squat beside the lists posted on each bench, calling a friend’s attention to some especially beloved author: Lactantius, Porphyry, Averroes’ commentaries, Catullus, Theophrastus, Ficino.  It is the opposite of a graveyard—inscriptions row-by-row of who survived.

Beyond the reading room, a little museum area displays a rotating selection of the books themselves: Byzantine medical books, our oldest Virgil, illuminated Homer; and a little gift shop offers temptations including what may be the single best-thought-through piece of merchandising I have ever seen: a lens cleaning cloth featuring the illuminated frontispiece of Ficino’s translation of Plato, dedicated to Cosimo de Medici, so Neoplatonism can literally help you see more clearly.

Some fun treasures displayed at the Laurenziana museum (which is only open before noon):

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Venice’s Marciana library. Certainly passes the architecture test.

I have worked at many libraries similar to the Laurenziana: the Ambrosiana in Milan, the Marciana in Venice, the Estense in Modena, Oxford’s Bodleian Library, the Vatican of course; all grand historic buildings advertising their learned patrons with luxurious halls and stunning facades.  The gorgeous old reading rooms of the American Library of Congress and Harvard’s Widener and Houghton Libraries achieve much the same effect.  Others are housed in more modern buildings, the Villa I Tatti outside Florence which houses the Berenson Library, or the library of the Danish Academy in Rome which showcases modern Danish design.  Some of the modern buildings are, I will admit, not particularly attractive, but places like the Cambridge University Library and the Roman Biblioteca Nazionale are at least comfortable and reasonably practical.

Oxford’s Bodleian library. The current reading rooms have been moved, but one still gets to savor kings and gargoyles.

I took this photo standing on top of the dome of St. Peter's.  In a few seconds I will turn slightly left...

I took this photo standing on top of the dome of St. Peter’s. In a few seconds I will turn slightly left…

VaticanLibraryVoiewLabeled

And there is where I have to go to work when it’s Library day.

BritishLibrary1The prince of modern library buildings in my own experience is the British Library in London.  A quick examination of it will provide a perfect, last point of contrast before we  move on to the true subject of today’s post, a library so dreadful I have felt it necessary to show you others first, in order to help you understand the shock and dismay of we who have grown accustomed to spending our research hours basking in beauty only to be cast into dystopia.

The British Library is, to start with, conveniently located on the same block as the King’s Cross hub of London’s underground, in the heart of a city, a comfortable stroll down lively shopping streets and past seductive bookstores to the British Museum and the theater district beyond.  It is surrounded by London’s signature layered architecture, samples of many centuries commixing amicably, like so many dog breeds rough-housing in a park.  Its designers chose brick for the structure, in order to blend with the stunning historic St. Pancras Hotel next to it, augmented by a grand welcoming gate, and a pleasant courtyard with outdoor café and sculptures.
British Library Panorama.

BritishLibrarySculpture

Within, the library is bright and airy, with several different dining options and well-labeled levels.  Chairs of a wide variety of different shapes and types wait for the convenience of patrons of different body types who find different things comfortable.  Card services are downstairs, but no card or ID of any kind is necessary to walk straight up the steps into the “Treasure Room” on the left, which displays a rotating selection of true prizes of the collection: original copies of the Magna Carta, the first draft of Alice in Wonderland, the Beowulf manuscript with the page proofs from Seamus Heaney’s modern translation displayed beside it, the first score for the Pirates of Penzance, Wilfred Owen’s poetry journal with Siegfried Sassoon’s hand-written corrections, Robert F. Scott’s diary, and dozens of other relics which make this free and open display room another worthy pilgrimage spot.

May2013 506Closed stacks are a necessity at such a library, but a selection of several thousand of the most attractive volumes are displayed in a glass-walled interior tower within the structure, so you can see the giddy acres of gilded leather spines, while the rest of the comfortable space is decorated with informational posters about temporary exhibits on topics from sci-fi to propaganda, and whimsical bibliophile art, like the Book Bench and “That thing at the B.L. where you move your head back and forth and it does that thing.”  “Eeh?” you say?  Confusion is natural.  Many a time I have tried to describe this thing to people who have never been to the B.L. and failed utterly, while with people who have been, without fail all I have to say is “You know, that thing, when you’re going down the stairs, where you go like this,” (bob head left and right) for the person to say, “Oh, yeah!  That thing!” and bob their heads slowly back and forth the same way.  Even photographs fail, but since amateur video technology has taken a leap forward in the last year, I can at long last coherently present to you what may be the most fun piece of bibliophile art in the world.  Its actual title is “Paradoximoron,” (created by Patrick Hughes) but all are agreed it should forever be known as “That thing at the B.L. where you move your head back and forth.”  (Below are two photos from different angles, then a video.)

 Paradoximoron1

Paradoximoron2

 

Long could I sing the praises of the convenience and practicality of the British Library, but today is not a day for library anecdotes. Today is for architecture, and it is time now to face up to its dark underbelly.

Those who, like me, work on rare books often discuss libraries.  When I tell a fellow specialist I am going to a particular city to do research, the instant question is, “Which library?” since Florence, Rome, Venice, London, and other great capitals house several major collections, generally including a main city library, a separate state archive of government documents, libraries of key noble families or monasteries, and one or more institutes which offer modern secondary sources, academic journals, and critical editions.  Just as one can bond with a friend over shared experience of a favorite shop or restaurant, specialists bond over memories of the libraries where careers, discoveries, and even marriages are made.

When I tell someone, “I’m going to Paris for research,” I get the same question, but with a wholly different tone: protective, timid, scared, “Which library?” The veiled grief is the same which, in troubled times, might follow “Big news at the office today” with the tremulous question:  “Good big news or bad big news?”  Research in Paris can be great news: the Louvre, the bakeries, the Pantheon, and if one is fortunate enough to be working on books at the old Bibliothèque Nationale one can enjoy the same elegant gilt wood and stonework one expects, both of great European libraries, and of Paris, whose general city-wide style is elegant bordering on opulent, with occasional pockets of modern avant-garde and gothic grace.

But there is a fearsome alternative.

The new Paris Bibliothèque Nationale is one of the infamous failures of modern architecture.  Located inconveniently far down a subway line near nothing in particular, it achieves the impossible: wasteland isolation in the midst of Paris itself.  This is not the kind of avant-garde that is hated at first but then becomes an icon of its era, like the Eiffel Tower or the Centre Pompidou or Michelangelo’s Last Judgment.  First I will show you.  Then I will talk you through the depths.

 BNParis deckingjpg

What are we looking at?  We are right now, believe it or not, on top of the library.  This sprawling, nearly football-field-sized sea of unpainted colorless wood planking is both the roof of the library, and its entrance, since the layout requires you to climb on top, so you experience a feeling of abandoned wilderness as the beauties of Paris vanish away below you, leaving you exposed to wind and sky.  The complete absence of color enhances the feeling of post-apocalyptic desolation.

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Four identical L-shaped towers of featureless glass rise from the corners.  Their completely transparent faces reveal row upon row of identical interior spaces half-shielded by slanted barrier walls of unpainted wood, with occasional glimpses of mass-produced furniture providing the only hint of life.  I have never seen a living person in these towers, and cannot start to fathom their purpose.

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Bars of reflective silver-gray metal fence off the precipices around the outside of the raised wooden walk, and in the extreme periphery cubes of bush isolated within metal cages represent a vague homage to garden.  In the center, emptiness, a cast rectangular pit opens down, and one can just barely lean far enough over a fence of silvery steel bars to glimpse the scraggly, dark tops of trees growing in the depths.  It is down into this pit that we must descend to gain access.

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The whole is so aggressively lifeless that the occasional passing pigeon becomes an exciting reminder of nature.  Apart from the sky (which, on a merciful day, is blue) the only color are the enormous signs in brilliant yellow block writing labeling the two entrances OUEST (West) and EST (East), since otherwise the featureless symmetry of the structure makes it impossible to tell which way is which—the internal labyrinth enhances this confusion, and it is easy to emerge completely uncertain which way lies exit and which way nothing.

We descend via a long conveyor belt along a slanted entry ramp of colorless metal, which provides a better view of the spindly trees in the courtyard.  This is no garden, but an attempt at something “natural”, with woodsy trees and unkempt brush growing underneath. But walled as they are on all sides by towering walls, the trees cannot get as much light or wind or water as nature intends, so they are all thin and wiry, and most require metal struts to keep them standing, creating a sickly parody, neither forest nor garden, artificial without artistry.  It is easy to imagine a dystopian future in which this struggling false ecosystem is the last surviving preserve of “forest” maintained by gardeners who barely understand how trees are supposed to work on an Earth swallowed by the urban waste above.

We enter through glass doors and are examined by guards and instructed to deposit all our worldly goods in lockers, transferring the necessities to clear plastic boxes.  This step is not uncommon—even the British library requires lockers and clear bags—but here one cannot lock things up personally.  Instead we must hand our possessions over to brisk attendants who spirit them out of sight, giving us a numbered paper tag in either blue or yellow (or green, remember the green option).  Stripped and de-bagged, and with our card in hand (if we brought the esoteric materials necessary to secure one) we are prepared to enter.

A cold steel turnstile brings us to mirrored metal doors, then into what feels like an airlock, a completely featureless claustrophobic metal cube with doors on both sides, so we must let the first set close before we can open the second.  It is clear that they can lock them down in an emergency, but how or why, or what one would do if trapped within the airlock, is utterly unclear:

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The area beyond is like nothing I have ever seen: a vast space, looming above and dropping deep below, through which an escalator descends, too tiny, like a single stalactite in the vastness of a cave.  The only windows are so high above and so deeply set that they are no more than taps through which light emerges, and I could not honestly swear that it is sunlight and not some substitute.

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Beyond the first escalator lies another, just as dizzying, though here at last the floor is in sight:

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The walls of this dizzying area, which extends around a corner and down another two stories in one long chasm, are covered with (I kid you not) woven steel wire.  These raw, unpainted metal walls, punctuated only by large metal bolts to hold them in place, reflect off the mirror-polished steel escalator framework to create an architecture not unlike the way I would imagine the interior of a robot.  There are no familiar shapes or substances: no window frames, doors, moldings, not even walls or paint, so the rubber banister of the escalator becomes the only curved or friendly substance in the space, unless one counts the vastness of the industrial orange carpet on the distant chasm floor.  In an interview, the architect said the woven wire walls were supposed to evoke the feeling of chainmail.  Because nothing says “comfortable space to read and study” like a material designed to repel savage medieval combat.

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On the chasm floor we face turnstiles, and must present our reader cards to be scanned and approved, or beeped at by irate machines which instruct us to go to a computerized kiosk and argue with a computer who has some grudge against our library card.  Presuming we pass inspection, another silver airlock gives us admittance to the library itself.  The interior space is one enormous rectangle of unbroken corridors, carpeted in brilliant red, while the rest is still glass and unpainted wood looming many stories above us, and stretching on and on and on.  The computer has assigned us a random desk, hopefully in a subsection relevant to our research interests, and we wander the lengths of the box looking for the right letter.

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The pit, or “courtyard”, with its “forest”, is directly beside us on the other side of the glass wall as we seek our spot, bowed trunks and breeze-tossed weeds a far cry from the Laurenziana’s citrus garden, but at least better than more steel.  But we can’t reach it.  There is no access from the reading room area to the courtyard—we can stare through the slightly dirty glass at life, but can’t actually emerge to stroll among the trunks or smell the leaves.

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BNParis 580The reading rooms themselves are also huge connected spaces, reaching the length of the library, so a cough from one desk reaches half the library, though the incomprehensibly high ceilings help absorb sound.  Periodically the rows of numbered seats are broken up by help desks where sympathetic librarians wait ready to help you wrestle with the automated system.  The work desks themselves are fine, and once Friend Computer consents to deliver your materials it is perfectly straightforward to do a day’s work, once one recovers from the entry process.

BNParis 577Leaving is its own Kafkaesque process.  One returns one’s library materials and heads out the lower airlock to the chainmail chasm, where the turnstile again scans your card and permits exit, or squeals its electric fury and demands that you return to fix some unspecified check-in error.  If the computer decides to set us free, we emerge through another airlock, there to beg for the return of our worldly goods, and must wait in one of two lines depending on whether we received a blue or yellow ticket.  We, in fact, received a green ticket, and mill around in some confusion until we collect twelve other people with green tickets and start clogging things until they consent to send a grudging drudge to take us to an area not usually used for this (or anything) where the green ticket bags have (who knows why?!) been transferred.  We get our bag if we are lucky.  If we are unlucky we receive confused instructions to descend again and try a different exit.  The library is, as I mentioned, symmetrical, so there are, in fact, four chainmail escalator chasms, and one can easily choose the wrong end, emerging to an identical-looking check-out desk where you have to go all the way through the line to discover you are in a completely different place.  But, if Fortune can peer through the wire walls enough to smile on us, we find the right exit and obtain our stuff (Beloved stuff!  Look how not-made-of-metal it is!  Look how it has colors!  Like brown, and beige, and blue!).  Now we exit past the guards, the glass doors, the steel rails that guard the tops of spindly trees, and ascend the (usually not actually switched on) conveyor belt to find ourselves deposited again in the colorless vastness of the wooden decking above.  The overwhelming feeling, especially as everyone is fleeing at day’s end, is that this is not a space designed for humans to be in it.  Or for life to be in it.  Whatever unfamiliar intelligence this place was built for, I have not met it.  The wise know when to flee.

BNParis 378Only upon returning to ground level, when the Parisian skyline and nearby fun façades and bustling streets return to view, does one grow calm enough to analyze this experience.  On purpose, someone built this.  This is not an urban wasteland generated by cost-cutting, or a sudden recession.  This was a very expensive, high-profile public works project designed to display the pride of Francophone scholarship.  And Paris did this!  Paris!  Paris, whose average street corner department store has woven ironwork and imperial grandeur.  People who study architecture and urban planning know the details of the commission, the who and when and why of its construction, but the first-hand experience is just so dehumanizing that I cannot understand how any intentional act of human civilization—of Paris’s civilization—took some wood and glass and metal and created Orwell.  And I am far from alone in my confusion.  In fact, the whole neighborhood around the library is a little nexus of consolation for those doomed to approach it: a movie theater offers instant escapism, food carts bring Paris’s culinary richness, and human civilization shows itself most pointedly hilarious when, on the first corner one reaches after evacuating the wastes above, one finds a pub named “The Frog and British Library.” In other words, “Don’t you wish you were at the British Library?”  Yes.  Yes, I do.

The randomly-selected building across from my cheap hotel in Paris.  With this as the architectural average, the BN becomes even more absurd.

The randomly-selected building across from my cheap hotel in Paris. With this as the architectural average, the BN becomes even more absurd.

But for all this, there is one metric by which the French Bib Nat is a bizarre success.  I have long kept a joke ranking of libraries I use, rating them by how successful they are at preventing people from getting at books.  This facetious metric helps me remain cheerful in the face of particularly impenetrable libraries, like the Capitolare in Padua, which is only open from 9 AM to noon on weekdays not sacred to saints the librarians particularly like (they like a lot of saints), and which so excels at protecting its books from people that it took me three visits to Padua before I managed to get in for a precious two hours and see two books.  By this metric the Vatican is one of the world’s most successful libraries, and the British Library the absolute worst.

But there is a less joking side to this.  In a perverse sense, people are the enemy of books: we touch them, rip them, bend their covers, get our oily finger pads all over them, etc.  The safest book in the world is one sealed away in frigid, nitrogen-rich darkness, far from human touch.  The two duties of the librarian, to protect the books and serve the patrons, are directly antithetical.  I believe this is a big part of why some librarians are so hyperbolically gung-ho about digitization, since touching can’t hurt a digital book.  The majority of librarians, of course, love readers and want books to be used, even though all are aware that use damages them.  Especially in the case of rare books that can’t be easily replaced, libraries must seek a balance in which people use books a moderate amount, so the books can last while the work gets done.  The Paris library achieves this balance to a near perfect degree, since it is so intimidating and inhospitable that no one ever, ever goes to work there unless it is absolute necessity.  Only researchers who have to go will go, and if there is any way to avoid using those books everyone takes it.  Result: productivity with minimal book use, ensuring maximum book survival.  The balance might even be praiseworthy if it had been intentional.  In fact, Michelangelo’s sinister Laurenziana vestibule achieves something of the same effect, since anyone who steps into it immediately flinches back, which certainly drives away some portion of visitors who have no acute need to brave the oozing stairs to reach the reading room above.  Thus we have identified a powerful tool for protecting library collections: scaring off readers with terrifying architecture.  Let’s hope it never catches on.  If it does, I trust you’ll all help me track down the perpetrators and feed them to Michelangelo’s staircase.

 

May 102012
 

A quick review of the architectural centerpieces of Florence.  Prices and hours may change arbitrarily (this is Italy, after all).

Palazzo Vecchio (Palazzo della Signoria):

  • The old seat of government of the Florentine Republic, later taken over as the seat of the Medici Dukes.  The different parts of the building are a micro-history of Renaissance Florence right before your eyes.  Going to see the outside is a must.  You can pay to go inside, to see the ducal decorations, the offices where all the great humanists used to work, and Dante’s death mask, which is kept there because why not.  Among the decorations are some beautiful intarsia (inlaid wood) doors with portraits of Dante and Petrarch, plus the original of Donatello’s Judith.  You can also see the enormous Hall of the 500, which Savonarola had built, and its over-the-top decorations.  You can’t go up the tall tower where the prison was.
  • Cost: Seeing it from the outside, and entering the lower story, is free.
  • Time required: 20 minutes to just look at, 2 hours for the museum.
  • Hours:  Changing all the time, but usually 9 am to 7 pm, but sometimes 2 pm to 7 pm, and sometimes open super late, often on Thurs or Tues.
  • Website:  http://www.museicivicifiorentini.it/en/palazzovecchio/ 
  • Notes:  See my discussion of it: http://exurbe.com/?p=37

Baptistery:

  • The old heart and symbol of the city, sacred to its patron saint John the Baptist.  The baptistery is right in front of the cathedral, and the oldest of the grand buildings erected to show off Florence’s affluence.  The outside features the Gates of Paradise, with Ghiberti’s gilded bronze relief sculptures, one of the greatest moments in Renaissance sculpture.  Seeing the outside is free, but it is worth paying to go in, because the entire interior is covered with gorgeous gold mosaics in stunning condition, including a fabulous depiction of Hell.  Also Florence’s antipope is buried inside (closest thing they had to a pope before the Medici), and outside keep an eye out for the Column of St. Zenobius nearby.
  • Cost: 4 or 5 euros to go inside.
  • Time required: half an hour
  • Hours: 12 pm to 7 pm weekdays, open 8:30 am to 2 pm on the first Saturday of the month.
  • Notes:  The tickets are sometimes sold at the entrance of the baptistery, but sometimes in a confusing archway to the right of it (if you stand facing the gates of paradise).  People will usually point you the right way.  You get a slight discount if you get the baptistery ticket along with a ticket to climb the Duomo and go to the Museo del Opera del Duomo.

Duomo (cathedral) and Belltower:

  • The grandest church in Christendom when it was built, and still so beautiful that, when you’re standing in front of it, it’s hard to believe it’s real.  The outside is a must-see.  The dome was the greatest engineering marvel of its day, and still astoundingly humongous.  The inside is also worth seeing, with colored marble floors, high clean vaults, and the dome frescoed with a particularly excellent last judgment, with a great Hell-scape.  On the right hand wall look for the tomb of Marsilio Ficino (who restored Plato the the world) and on the left the painting of Dante standing in front of Florence, Purgatory, Heaven and the gates of Hell.
  • You can, separately, pay to climb the dome.  It is taaaaaaaaaaaaall.  Climbing it lets you see the inside between the two layers of the double dome (which is how a dome that big stays up), and lets you see the fresco on the inside of the dome up close.  The view on top is spectacular but a lot of people get major height fear and vertigo up there, even people who don’t usually, due to the dome’s dizzying slant.  Also the cramped area between the domes is rather claustrophobic, giving you the world-class claustrophobia-acraphobia combo!
  • You can also pay to climb the belltower but it’s not hugely worth-it, unless you want to see the bells bells bells bells bells bells bells bells.  In general, though, if you want to climb something, go for the Duomo.
  • Cost: Free to enter the cathedral.  You have to pay to climb the dome.
  • Time required: Half an hour for seeing the cathedral, a couple hours for climbing the dome.
  • Hours: 10:00 am to 5:00 pm, with some complicated exceptions. Check the website with an Italian friend.
  • Website: http://www.operaduomo.firenze.it/monumenti/duomo.asp
  • Notes:  Climbing the dome has a long line a lot of the year, as does the cathedral itself even though you don’t pay; they only let a certain number of people in at a time. (Ex Urbe’s humble assistant Athan can confirm that the line is long and the climb cramped even in January.)

I stole this photo, but there is no other way to show you. Mea culpa.

San Marco:

  • No photography allowed in the monastery, so I can’t offer decent photos.  This is the major Dominican monastery and church (in contrast with the Franciscans at Santa Croce).  The church itself is free, while you have to pay to go to the monastery museum, but it’s only 5 euros and very worth-it.
  • The church is mostly baroque at this point, but contains the tombs of the Renaissance scholars Giovanni Pico della Mirandola and Poliziano.  Also a byzantine mosaic Madonna, a nice annunciation, the tomb of St. Antoninus, and an angry bronze statue of Savonarola.
  • The monastery section is the real centerpiece.  Every cell in the monks’ living area was frescoed by Fra Angelico, as were the refectory and other important spaces.  This rare chance to see Renaissance paintings still in their original context lets you understand how they were used and interacted with in daily life.  While almost every room has a crucifixion scene, each one is unique, highlighting some different emotional or theological aspect of the crucifixion, in a perfect example of how Renaissance artists moved on from the repetition of icon making to make each piece offer the viewer a unique new angle on the subject.  You can also see Savonarola’s room and relics, and the room Cosimo de Medici had made for himself when he paid for the renovation of the monastery, so he could come there to have a break from public life sometimes.
  • Cost: Free for the church, 4 euros for the monastery section.  It is on the Friends of the Uffizi pass.
  • Time required: 2+ hours
  • Hours: 8:15 to 1:20 pm weekdays, 6:15 to 4:50 weekends.  Closed odd numbered Sundays and even numbered Mondays.
  • Website: http://www.uffizi.firenze.it/musei/?m=sanmarco
  • Notes:  The priest will usually glare at anyone who comes into the church and makes straight for Pico’s tomb.

Santa Croce:

  • On the East end of town, Florence’s major Franciscan monastery church came to be the major burial place for famous Florentines.  Includes the tombs of Machiavelli, Galileo, Michelangelo, Fermi, Marconi (who invented the radio), Bruni (who invented the Middle Ages), the cenotaph of Dante, and dozens and dozens of other tombs crammed into every surface.  Also excellent Giotto and Giotesque frescoes, and other exciting art.  The orphanage it used to house taught orphans leather working, and it still contains a leather working school.  Also contains one of the surviving tunics of St. Francis of Assisi.
  • Cost: 5 euros!  Expensive!
  • Time required: 2 hours
  • Hours: 9:30 AM to 5 PM except Sundays, when it opens at 2
  • Website: http://www.operadisantacroce.it/
  • Notes:  It tends to be quite cold inside.

Ponte Vecchio:

  • The old bridge, covered with tiny jewelry shops.  This has been the heart of Florence’s gold trade for a long time, and is incidentally one of the most valuable shopping strips on Earth.  At night the tiny little shops lock themselves up in wooden shutters and look like giant treasure chests, which is really what they are.  The view of this bridge from the next bridge down (Ponte Santa Trinita) is also worth seeing.  Be sure, while on the bridge, to greet the statue monument of the incomparable Benvenuto Cellini, Florence’s great master goldsmith/ sculptor/ duelist/ engineer/ necromancer/ multiple-murderer, who wrote one of humanity’s truly great autobiographies.
  • Cost: Free.
  • Time required: half an hour, more if you want to shop
  • Hours:  Shops shut around sunset.

San Lorenzo:

  • My photos do not do this church justice, but they don’t let you take pictures inside.  San Lorenzo is a little complicated because you have to pay separately to go in the different areas:
  • The main part of the church (which costs 3.5o euros) is a mathematically-harmonious, high Renaissance neoclassical church full of geometry and hints of neoPlatonism.  I recommend going in it after Santa Croce and Orsanmichele, since the contrast of its lofty, light-filled spaces and rounded arches gives you a vivid sense of how much architecture has changed in so little time.  Here you can see the excellent tomb of Cosimo de Medici (il vecchio), and some other early Medici tombs, as well as some Donatello reliefs and the remains of Saint Caesonius (no one knows who he is or how he got there, but he’s clearly labeled as a saint, so no one’s willing to move him).  This ticket also gets you into the crypt below the church, where you can see the bottom of Cosimo’s tomb, and a collection of really gaudy reliquaries.
  • Separately, the library attached to the cloister courtyard at the left of the church (which also costs 3.50 euros, but you can get a combined ticket to it and the church for 6) contains the reading room with the desks where the great Laurenziana library was housed.  It is very much a scholarly pilgrimage spot to see one of the first great houses of the return of ancient learning.  The old reading desks are still there where the books were chained, and still labeled with the individual manuscripts.  To get in you also get to (or rather have to) go up Michelangelo’s scary scary staircase.  The library periodically has small exhibits of exciting manuscripts, most recently on surgery, and on the oldest surviving copy of Virgil.  The library is only open in the morning!  Its gift shop sells some fun things including a lenscloth decorated with a reproduction of the illuminated frontispiece of the Medici dedication copy of Ficino’s translation of Plato – ultimate history/philosophy nerd collectable.
  • Separately, the Medici Chapels in the back of San Lorenzo (under its big dome; costs 5 euros, but is on the Friends of the Uffizi card, unlike the other two [why?!]) contain the later Medici tombs, those of Lorenzo de Medici, his brother, the next generation of Medici, and the Medici dukes.  The earlier Medici tombs here have some Michelangelo sculptures on them, while the later ones are in a ridiculously over-the-top baroque colored marble chapel which knocks you breathless with its unbridled and rather tasteless opulence.  One friend I visited with subtitled the chapel: “Baroque: UR doin’ it WRONG!”  An excellent excercise in trying to grapple with the evolution of taste, and why certain eras’ taste matches our own while others don’t.  Also you get to see more over-the-top sparkly reliquaries.
  • Hours:  Different for each bit.

Orsanmichele:

  • The former grain market and grain storage building at the heart of the city was turned into a church when an icon of the Madonna there started working miracles.  Because it was the official church of the merchant guilds of Florence, the different guilds competed to supply the most expensive decoration for it, so the outside is covered with fabulous statues, each with the symbols of its guild above and below.  Seeing the outside is quick and easy.  Seeing the inside is trickier and not always worth cramming into your schedule, but the inside is also beautiful, a very medieval feeling, with saints painted on every surface.  A museum above (open rarely, mainly Mondays) holds the original sculptures, which have been replaced on the outside with copies for their own safety.  But since the sculptures were designed to be seen in their niches, the copies in situ look better than the displaced originals in my opinion.
  • Cost: Free
  • Time required: half an hour
  • Hours: 10 am to 5 pm. Closed on Monday.
  • Notes:  Occasionally hosts concerts.  On the outside is a booth where you can get tickets to the Uffizi without waiting in the Uffizi line.

Mercato Centrale & Mercato San Ambrosio:

  • Not historic, but the two great farmer’s markets of the city are definitely worth visiting, and great for both lunch and souvenir shopping.  Cheese, salumi, spices, sauces, fruits, veggies, oil, vinegar, truffle products…  The Mercato Centrale (near San Lorenzo) has more touristy things and things to take home, while San Ambrosio has more things to eat right now or cook at home, but both have both.  At the Mercato Centrale I particularly recommend eating fresh pasta at Pork’s (order tagliatelle with asparagus, or all’ Amatriciana (with tomato, onion and bacon) or tortellini with cream and ham (prosciutto e panna)), and/or having a porchetta sandwich.  You can also try tripe or lampredotto if you’re brave.
  • Cost: Free
  • Time required: 1+ hours
  • Hours: Morning through early afternoon.
May 022012
 

It’s been a while, so here are some extra trixy new saints to add to our challenge.  (Note, the Renaissance images featured in this post will feature nudity, so if you’re not comfortable with that skip this entry):

John the Evangelist (Giovanni Evangelista)

  • Common attributes: Eagle, book, pen, Roman robes, EITHER beautiful young man OR old man with very long beard
  • Occasional attributes: Chalice with a snake or dragon crawling out of it, often dressed in pink
  • Patron saint of: Friendship, everyone in the bookmaking industry (writers, editors, compositors, booksellers, bookbinders, print makers, engravers), protection from burns, protection from poison
  • Patron of places: Asia Minor, Umbria, Wroclaw Poland, Sundern Germany, lots of weird places like Cleveland and Milwaukee and Boise Idaho
  • Feast day: December 27th, also May 6th (his surviving being boiled in oil).
  • Most often depicted: Standing around with other saints, mourning at the Crucifixion or Deposition, asleep in Christ’s lap at the Last Supper, being boiled, in a set with the other three Evangelists
  • Relics: Ephesus (church has now been turned into a Mosque)

Due to the popularity of Crucefixion scenes, the most commonly depicted apostle in Renaissance art is not, shockingly, Peter, nor Paul, but John the Evangelist, who, like the fainting Virgin and tearful Magdalene, makes a mandatory cameo at the base of every cross.  Add to this the frequency with which artists decorate four matching surfaces (four vaults, four doors, four pinacles above central images) with the Four Evangelists, and the frequency with which John is depicted writing his Gospel or witnessing events of his Gospel, and he becomes one of the most familiar faces in our list.

Familiar but tricky.  John the Evangelist, or “the Beloved”, presumed author of the Gospel of John, is a great challenge to saint spotting for three reasons.  First: he often has no attributes, and has to be identified from his general bearing, location and activities.  Second: he appears at two completely different ages, which can throw one off.  Third: when young he often looks so female to the modern eye that the mind leaps straight to our list of female saints, looking for spiked wheels and eyes on plates, without considering the fact that this might be a boy.  The fact that he appears so often in the same scenes where Mary Magdalene makes sense to appear makes the two of them frustratingly easy to mix up.

John’s radically fluctuating age is due to the fact that he is believed to have lived a very long time, and did important things at many different points in his life, unlike martyrs who are pretty-much always shown at the ages they were when they died.  He was established as having been very young (and handsome) during Christ’s life, and can be spotted among full sets of apostles by being the most handsome, and often the only one without a beard.  He then went on to live a very long life preaching and writing, and survived numerous near-martyrdoms: He was arrested and beaten by Domitian, but remained impervious.  He was then poisoned, but he blessed the chalice and the poison turned into a snake or dragon and ran away (Where did it go?!  Is it still out there?…), hence his attribute of holding a cup with a snake in it.  He was then boiled in oil, but that didn’t work either, and he escaped to Ephesus where he lived a long and pious life.  He also supposedly got into a conflict with some worshipers of Artemis at one point, who tried to stone him, but the stones bounced off, and then at his invocation two hundred of them were killed by lightning, and then resurrected, in one of the largest mass-resurrections in the palette of saintly miracles.  But because none of the implements involved in these stories actually killed John, he does not carry them around with him in Heaven (i.e. in art), so while Lorenzo and Catherine and Paul have convenient death tags, John remains elusively short on attributes.

John is depicted either as a beautiful youth, or as an old man with a very long beard.  Modern gender tag conventions make his youthful form particularly easy to mistake for a woman, mainly because of his hairstyle, which is usually long and loose down to his shoulders or shoulder blades.  This style looks feminine by modern standards, but was not by Renaissance standards.  In Renaissance art, pretty-much no woman would ever have hair nearly that short.  Women’s hair is generally to the elbows, and is worn tied up in an elaborate hairstyle, or at least covered by a veil.  Loose hair with nothing tying it up is the style of a knight or dashing nobleman, never a woman.  The to-modern-eyes feminine presentation of John the Evangelist is enhanced by the fact that, at least in Tuscan art, he’s usually dressed in pink.  I don’t know why this is, and it certainly isn’t a solid rule, but just as the Virgin Mary is almost always in a blue robe, John is almost always in pink, which was not gender-coded in the Renaissance as it is now, but does rather add to the overall effeminacy of the young “beloved”.

The Four Evangelists have four winged animals that represent them: the Winged Lion for Mark, the Winged Bull for Luke, the Winged Person i.e. Angel for Matthew, and the Winged Eagle for John (no, no one has a non-winged Eagle as an attribute).  Sometimes just the animal is used to stand in for the evangelist, with no human figure at all.  The evangelists’ animals are sometimes depicted covered with lots of eyes, but more often John just has an eagle hanging out next to him.  This, combined with John’s youth and beauty, strongly invokes the Greco-Roman image of the handsome Ganymede being carried of by Zeus in the form of a lustful eagle, and puts John solidly with Sebastian in the palette of “sexy saints,” i.e. saints who are sometimes used as an excuse to show a sexy male body in a world in which eroticism, particularly homoeroticism, was controversial, yet religious content often eased criticism.  We have Renaissance diatribes in which theologians rail against the sensuality of paintings in aristocrats’ collections, citing nude Venuses and scandalous Ganymedes, but the same treatises often explicitly say that nudity is A-ok in religious art, because the bodies of John, Sebastian and Mary Magdalene point the soul toward heavenly thoughts rather than Earthly.  Looking at them, though, it is sometimes hard to see the difference:

Michelangelo’s Rape of Ganymede

John the Evangelist. Note the pose of the legs, and the position of the eagle.

The old John, author of the gospels, is often depicted with the other three evangelists in a set, but sometimes he is depicted as just a bearded sage with a book and an eagle, or, less helpfully, with just a book, or even less helpfully as just a bearded man, though, often, still in pink robes.  Sometimes, to mix things up, he’s just an eagle.

One way to spot John when he has no attributes is by his customary position.  At a Crucifixion, John is always depicted near the foot of the cross, mourning dramatically, accompanied by Mary Magdalene, the Virgin Mary and ladies attending to the Virgin, usually including Margaret.  Thus, if there are several beautiful mourners at Christ’s feet, the one with the shortest hair is John.  The gender tags remain trixy, however, and unless one knows what to look for in the hair styles, it can be difficult to tell the difference between John and Christ’s other major mourner, Mary Magdalene.

Mary Magdalene

  • Common attributes: Long loose hair
  • Occasional attributes: Ointment jar (often made of alabaster) or cup, skull, naked except for her hair
  • Patron saint of: Penitent sinners, converts, the contemplative life, apothecaries, women, reformed prostitutes, protection against sexual temptation
  • Patron of places: Atrani, Italy
  • Feast day: July 22nd
  • Most often depicted: Standing around with other saints, grieving at the Crucefixion or Deposition, anointing or embracing Christ’s feet, in the wilderness being a hermit, being airlifted to heaven by angels, with Christ in the garden attempting to touch him while he refuses (“noli me tangere”)
  • Relics: Either Constantinople OR the French hemitage on La Sainte-Baume, depending who you ask

Ah, Mary Magdalene, unofficial patron saint of conspiracy theorists, historical mystery fiction and feminist historicist conflicts.  There is either way too much information about Mary Magdalene or way too little, depending on what sources you listen to.  Our goal is to present the version which appears in Renaissance Art, as opposed to the skillion other versions, from Mary “Equal of the Apostles”, to Mary thesystematically-suppressed founder of a long-lost feminist Christianity, to… I don’t actually know what she is in the Korean comic “Let’s Bible!” but given that Jesus is a teenage girl with no pants and Satan is a Mexican guitarist, I think I am safe in assuming that she is a talking spider plant.

In the Gospels, apart from a vague reference to her being cleansed of “seven devils”, and being Lazarus’ sister (even this is debated), she pretty-much only appears during the Crucifixion process, at which she is a named and specified witness of (A) the Crucifixion, (B) the fact that the tomb is empty, and (C) the Resurrection.  Renaissance artists depict her consistently at all these things, accompanied at the Crucefixion and tomb by the Virgin Mary, the confusingly vague “Other Mary”, and at the Crucifixion by them along with John the Evangelist and, often, Margaret.

Gregory the Great (in 591 AD) is credited with establishing the idea that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute, who renounced and reformed her evil ways when she converted, and it is this version who populates Renaissance art as the second-most-commonly-depicted woman after the Virgin.  She is thus usually a very beautiful, sensual young woman, the cultural antithesis of the Virgin, and a figure which lets Renaissance religious art have a conversation about female sexuality in a way that the endless martyred virgins like Catherine and Lucy can’t facilitate.  The legend also has Mary Magdalene go out into the wilderness after the Crucifixion and live as a hermit, allowing her to be used as a prototype for serious female participation in the extreme religious life of total commitment, contemplation and self-denial which made hermits and, later, monks such a central part of medieval Christian ideas of true religious life.  Remember that, until St. Francis’s revolutionary program of bringing religious life to the urban lay population, the term “religious” in European culture meant a hermit, priest, monk or non, who were considered the only people with meaningful religious lives, and the only ones likely to go to heaven without being martyred.  The archetype of Mary Magdalane, female hermit, opened this to women.

As champion and representative of the Contemplative Life, Mary Magdalene is patroness of contemplative philosophers, and of the Dominican order, which so values contemplation as a path to the divine.

A depiction of the “Noli me tangere”

While the Mary Magdalene story could serve to open some doors of religious activity to women, it also closed some in the form of the “Noli me tangere” scene.  This scene, frequently depicted in art, was when the resurrected Christ appeared to Mary (before he did to anyone else) and, when she attempted to embrace him, said “Don’t touch me” (Noli me tangere).  This scene is sometimes used to justify refusing to allow women to be priests, where they have to consecrate and touch the body of Christ.  The scene in which Thomas, after doubting the resurrection and saying he won’t believe until he touches Christ’s wounds, is then actually allowed to touch Christ’s wounds is used to demonstrate that men can touch him but not women.  The fact that Mary Magdalene was allowed to anoint Christ’s body when he was dead leads to all sorts of confusing cultural attempts to figure out the correct divisions of male and female physicality in liturgical, medical and funerary situations which I will not attempt to sort out.

“Penitent Magdalene” in hermit mode, with skull

The thing which makes Mary Magdalene recognizable 95% of the time in art is the fact that she has long loose trailing hair.  This derives from (A) the pre-modern association between loose hare on a woman and wantonness/ sensuality/ prostitution, and (B) a medieval legend that, when Mary renounced being a prostitute and threw away her luxurious seductive clothes, her hair miraculously grew to cover her nakedness.  And even though the miracle of her long hair happens at a certain point in the logic of her linear narrative, the same special relationship with time that allows renaissance artists to cheerfully depict toddler-aged John the Baptist in a hairshirt and carrying a staff allows them to depict Mary Magdalene’s miraculously long hair at any point.

Another fun Mary Magdalene legend moment, also medieval, describes the fact that she refuses to eat while in the wilderness, so to keep her alive angels air-lift her to Heaven every day where she is fed divine manna and then set down again.

All this makes Mary Magdalene the top choice saint for painters who want an excuse to depict a sexy woman, just as the usually-nearly-naked Saint Sebastian is the top choice for depicting a sexy man.  Saint Sebastian can be depicted as a fully clothed guy holding an arrow, but is usually a luscious youth with a gauze-like loincloth, and in the same way Mary Magdalene can be a haggard penitent hermit, or she can be a luscious nude, chest heaving with ecstatic (religious) excitement, indistinguishable from Lady Godiva.  Thus we encounter extremes with Mary, as we do with John, ranging, in her case, not in age, but in sensuality, from the extreme of Titian’s Magdalene, whose luscious hare carefully covers everything except the naughty bits, to Donatello’s gaunt and stunning hermit.

Donatello’s Version

Titian’s Version

The disparity of how Mary Magdalene is depicted is perhaps best summarized by who artists tend to pair her with, since saints are most often spotted in symmetrical groups flanking Christ or the Virgin, and thus every one needs a partner symmetrically opposite.  Often “reasonable Magdalene” (as I think of her) beautiful, in nice clothes, with long flowing hair and her jar, is paired with John the Evangelist, the two beautiful, young people who loved and were emotionally close to Christ the man.  In contrast, “hermet Magdalene” is usually paired with John the Baptist (her hair paralleling his hairshirt), or to the old wasted hermit Saint Jerome, so the pair of them can kneel on rocks and beat their breasts and contemplate skulls and crucifixes in the wilderness in parallel.  Finally “sexy Magdalene” is usually alone, as an excuse to have a naked lady.

But don’t forget to look for the jar – she does have it sometimes.

Population of a Crucefixion Scene:

With John and Mary Magdalene under our belts, it is now possible to sort the population of a standard Crucifixion scene.  Generally not all of these figures are present, but the scenes often include:

  • Virgin Mary, generally wearing a hood/veil, and depicted fainting into the arms of companions
  • Mary Magdalene, with long beautiful hair, generally embracing the foot of the cross, or otherwise grieving very conspicuously, with arms flung wide
  • John the Evangelist, also grieving conspicuously, occasionally helping those who catch the fainting Virgin
  • St. Margaret and “The Other Mary”, nondescript women catching the Virgin Mary while she faints
  • A skull at the base of the cross, supposed to be Adam’s skull, because he was buried at the same place that the cross was set up
  • The Good Thief and the Wicked Thief, crucified on two other crosses on the either side of Christ, with the Wicked Thief on Christ’s left having his soul carried of by a (usually adorable) little devil.
  • St. Longinus, the centurion who stabbed Christ with a spear, depicted carrying a spear, sometimes on horseback.  May or may not have a halo, since at the moment he does the stabbing he hasn’t yet converted, so some artists show him not-quite-yet a saint and therefore halo-free
  • Other non-saint figures, including the soldiers playing dice to see who keeps Christ’s clothes, an unappealing man mocking Christ’s thirst by offering him a sponge dipped in vinegar on a long pole (the Holy Sponge!), and assorted random witnesses who are sometimes so plentiful that it starts to feel like they must be time travelers gathering to watch the occasion
  • Angels with cups (the holy grail) catching the dripping blood
  • Other random saints who logically shouldn’t be there, like John the Baptist, or Francis or Dominic, or whoever is the local patron saint is, stuck in by the artist and shown as witnesses, contemplating the scene and grieving, or, in John the Baptist’s case, pointing at Christ.

The population of a Deposition, when they take the body down and mourn it, is about the same.

Samples:

Quiz Yourself on the Saints You Know So Far:

 The next level of challenge in saint spotting is judging when you do and don’t know figures.  In the image below, you should recognize five of the seven figures.  (One figure is deceptive, since the figure on the left holding lilies is, in fact, a portrait of a more obscure local figure made to look like a more famous one, but you should be able to identify who he’s pretending to be).

Some comments on the old figure second from the right (read these after you have done your best to identify everyone in the picture).  It is often possible to figure out a fair amount about a figure even if you don’t know who it is from looking at details of costume.  Looking at this figure, you can tell first what religious order he is a part of from his clothes, and from the extra decorated band on his habit you can tell he held a high rank, probably a bishop.  Now, note his halo.  See how, while everyone else’s halo is a circle, his is instead a bunch of linear rays coming from his head?  Artists sometimes use this technique, employing two different halo styles in one painting, to differentiate full saints (with the round halos here) from someone who is beatified, i.e. who has gone through the first three stages of becoming a saint but not the last one.  Someone who is beatified has been examined officially by the Church, which has determined that the person is in Heaven and capable of using their position in heaven to intercede with the divine on behalf of people, but who has not yet had the three confirmed miracles necessary to establish sainthood.  Historically, beatification was controlled more by local officials, so that bishops had the authority to beatify local people, while sainthood always required Vatican approval.  Reverting to our Kingdom of Heaven terms for a moment, someone who is beatified is at court, but hasn’t yet succeeded in securing any notable favors from the king, so is a less certain benefactor than an established court favorite like John the Baptist or St. Francis.  For example, Pope John Paul II is currently beatified, but not yet officially a saint.  Long-term, cult followings for figures who are beatified but never canonized are sometimes actively discouraged by the Vatican, which usually has a reason for denying sainthood to such a figure if they do.  For example, Charlemagne was beatified but never canonized, and when the power struggles between Pope and Emperor as rival claimants to imperial power got tougher, the Vatican actively suppressed the cult of Beato Carlo Magno in order to monopolize heavenly authority – this, however, is why Charlemagne is sometimes depicted with a halo, and his remains are stored in fancy reliquaries and treated as holy relics.

Reliquary of Charlemagne

Thus, whoever this figure in the painting is, you can tell by looking, has been beatified but not yet canonized at the point that the painting was done.  Since beatified figures are usually only popular in the areas where they lived, when you see a beatified figure like this, it’s a safe guess that the painting was done in the figure’s home town, or somewhere (s)he was active, and that it may well have hung over the beatified figure’s tomb, or in a church where (s)he worked.

The presence of two different distinct styles of halo is thus a marker that can help you nail down a painting’s origin.  Note: some artists use linear halos for everyone, so you can’t always say a linear halo = a beatified figure, rather what you need to look for is two different types of halo in one painting.  At other times artists use the same technique to differentiate other weird kinds of things, for example an altarpiece I saw at the Academia last week which had round halos on a bunch of female saints and linear halos on some allegorical ladies who were hanging out with them.  This can also be used to differentiate saints from angels, and from Virtues, like Temperence and Strength/Fortitude, who also hang out in Heaven when they’re not busy crushing Vices underfoot or participating in Tarot readings.

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The Heavenly Court

 Posted by on October 21, 2011  Spot the Saint  1 Response »
Oct 212011
 

The ceiling of the baptistery in Padua, with the court of Heaven centered around Christ

Following up on a comment (an as I sit here in my high medieval tower hearing the winds howl through the stone) I want to discuss the institution of Patron Saints.

To me, the key to how Patron Saints were understood in the Middle Ages and Renaissance is the concept of the Heavenly Court.  Heaven was often imagined (especially by the less educated classes) as a direct parallel to feudal Earth, that is as a court, with God in the role of ruler, i.e. Emperor, King, Duke, whatever sort of Signore (lord) people are used to.  Heaven in this model is the capital city, and the saints are the courtiers who enjoy the favor of the Lord and are invited to His court.  Mary is the Queen of Heaven, and literally the Lady presiding over the heavenly court.

In normal feudal life when someone needs a favor from a lord, i.e. a tax break, help repairing a bridge, an office, permission to marry in odd circumstances, the settlement of a dispute, one doesn’t go directly from peasant life to the king, one goes through intermediaries, petitioning a local lord, who petitions a higher-ranking noble, who then sends the petition on to the sovereign, or, if nervous that the sovereign might be harsh, to the Lady of the court, who is supposed to be more likely to be sympathetic.  The most powerful saints, Peter, Paul, John the Baptist, are the inner circle of favored councilors, and newcomers like St. Francis of Assisi sometimes join the ranks of inmost courtiers.

Mary, the queen, is the best positioned to secure favors, and, being the societally idealized mother archetype, is expected to be kind, generous, forgiving and nurturing.  And remember that the Latin word “gratias”, often translated as grace, can also be translated as political influence or political favoritism.  Thus “Hail Mary, full of political influence…”

 

The courtiers of Heaven assemble to watch the coronation of the Queen. You should be able to spot Peter, Paul, John the Baptist and Lorenzo among their ranks.

 

 

Beatrice presents the newcomer Dante to some of the heavenly court.

Thus, in Dante’s Commedia, when Beatrice (a virtuous, deceased citizen of Heaven) wants permission to have Dante escorted through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise, she does not go directly to God to ask permission.  She goes first to Saint Lucy, patroness of eyesight and some aspects of scholarship and one of Dante’s personal preferred patrons.  Saint Lucy then presents Beatrice’s petition to the Virgin Mary, and Mary, then, presents it to her Lord/Son who gives final permission.

Focusing on the model of God as Emperor, the pope then is his vicar on Earth, which is to say the Emperor is resident in his distant capital but rules a foreign city through a vassal, as the Holy Roman Emperor might be resident in Germany but nominally rule Ferrara from a distance through the Duke of Ferrara, his vassal.  Priests, then, are the bureaucratic agents of that vassal, who are trusted by the distant Emperor and can send messages to him and expect answers, and the hierarchy of the clergy is thus the hierarchy of a subsidiary Lord ruling under a distant overlord.  This, in 1400, makes perfect sense.

The mass of intermediaries seems irrational given our modern individualist model of a world (and therefore universe) of dignified equals (liberty, equality, brotherhood here and in Heaven), and the Protestant model which focuses on a direct relationship between individual and god reduces the value of saints as intermediaries, but in the feudal world feudalism is normal, and the absence of this structure would be rather terrifying.  Your average peasant doesn’t want to imagine himself directly in front of the King without the kind protection of his local patron.

Now, the Patron Saint bit makes sense when you realize that the nobility generally correspond to places: the Duke of Ferrara, the Marquess of Provence, the lord of this or that.  Many nobles rule different scattered territories in different places, as the King of Spain might also be Duke of Athens, for example.  But there are also Crown territories that belong directly to the monarch, rather than belonging to a vassal.  The king may grant these crown territories to a vassal at any time, as a reward for good service, or a show of his love, and different vassals may also acquire territories through marriage, or conquest, or election, etc.

John the Baptist, there on the left, is well-positioned to request favors for his territories, like Florence.

Thus, London is a city which, in the heavenly hierarchy, has been granted to Saint Paul.  Philip the Apostle received the nation of Uruguay much as Spanish and English nobles received hunks of the New World once they became relevant to European courts.  Thomas More was granted the city of Arlington, Virginia once it came into existence, but like any noble who hasn’t yet gotten a particular territory, he was still in the heavenly court before this and enjoyed the favor of the heavenly King, he just didn’t yet have the noble title Patron of Arlington, VA.  Sometimes a town goes from having one patron saint to a different one, or gains a second, just as feudal holdings change hands.  Meanwhile, before these places acquire patron saints, they are Crown Territories, governed directly by their Lord.

Patron saints of particular occupations and types of people also roughly correspond to medieval institutions.  A Wool Guild has its earthly patron in the nobles or wealthy leaders who run it, and children do in the nobles or city lords who pay for orphanages; and they have heavenly patrons too, so if Florence’s gild of locksmiths looks to St. Peter and armorers and weapon makers to St. George, that too makes nice feudal sense.

This is, of course, one of the clearest ways of seeing how extremely medieval a lot of the accumulation of Catholic doctrine is, and why the modern progress of individualism and democracy has made some of that accumulation awkward in the modern world.  Things which were obvious to medieval minds now have to be explained and justified to modern ones not used to the same assumptions about the Heirarchy of Nature etc.  Rituals, allegories and similes which were developed by Medieval people to explain doctrine to Medieval people are being adapted and reframed by moderns for moderns.  Attempting to explain a patron saint to someone who doesn’t have the medieval concept of “patron” is no simple task.  I struggle in my teaching all the time to help students wrap their minds around temporally alien concepts like this, and there’s nothing harder.  The fact that contemporary Catholic theologians have succeeded so well in re-framing and reexplaining so many of Medieval Christianity’s concepts in modern terms is, from a teaching standpoint, very impressive.

This mismatch is also another indicator of how strange Renaissance Florence was, with its Republican government.  Feudalism, monarchy and hierarchy, was the norm, not just in political realities but in the way people thought, their general assumptions.  Even the republican Florentines didn’t imagine Heaven as a republic, they imagined it as a feudal monarchy.  The guilds would rebel violently against any single master on Earth, but were happy to look to their patron saints, and to John the Baptist as the city’s heavenly governor.  The inscription over the Palazzo Vecchio makes it clear: republic-loving Florence still happily submitted to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, but not to anyone else.  In the medieval world, then, hierarchy and monarchy were not just the norm but literally worked into the fabric of Heaven and Earth; to have something so different required a truly extraordinary mental leap–though it is certainly debatable whether we should read the leap as forward to modernity, backwards to Athens, or sideways to the unique moment that was Republican Florence.

Jump to the next Spot the Saint entry.

Sep 102011
 

It’s a bunch of people standing around; thrilling, right?

In galleries, museums, and even on the art-spotted streets of Florence, friends and I love to play “Spot the Saint” – trying to identify the saints in art without looking at the blurb.  I know it sounds flippant to make a game of it, and perhaps it is flippant, but it is also in an important way authentic.  Renaissance art, religious art especially, is aesthetic, but it is also narrative.  Sculptures, paintings and other artifacts were created to retell and comment on stories and people whom the audience was expected to already know.  Being able to identify different subjects, especially saints, by their vocabulary of recurring attributes is a kind of cultural literacy which all Renaissance people had, but most modern viewers lack.  We are the illiterate ones, from the Renaissance perspective, when we come to an altarpiece unable to tell Paul from Peter or Augustine from Jerome.  If you understand who these figures are and what they mean, a whole world of details, subtleties and comments present in the paintings come to light which are completely obscure if you don’t understand the subject.  Time after time I’ve taken friends, who didn’t have much interest in Renaissance or religious art before, and after a few rounds of “Spot the Saint” in the Uffizi had them declare that it suddenly made a lot more sense, and carried a lot more meaning.

What a sweet Venetian street (and canal) corner.

Renaissance art often focuses on details that are absent from the main versions of stories, showing the emotional expressions and making you think about the experiences of secondary characters present at scenes (almost like fanfic, in fact).

There is a wonderful example which (curses!) the internet cannot supply me with a photo of, an altarpiece by Alessandro Gherardini housed in the elusive and rarely open Santo Spirito church, across the river.  It shows Christ crowning the Virgin Mary (a very common scene) accompanied by St. Monica and St. Augustine.

(On Augustine see my post on the Doctors of the Church).

Wait a minute – what’s that?

This is not in any way exciting until you think about the fact that Monica is Augustine’s mother, who watched patiently throughout his wild and chaotic youth (wild by any standards – he joined the Manichean cult, and ditched her in Italy while hitching a boat to Africa with no warning), but she kept on, patient and loving, until he finally—through his own independent studies—explored and eventually embraced the Christianity she loved so much, and became one of its great Doctors.  The altarpiece makes you think about the touching parallel between the two mothers’ love for their sons, and how proud Monica would be in Heaven watching Augustine’s growing greatness, and eventually getting to present her beloved son to Mary and her beloved Son.

Why, it’s San Lorenzo!  With his grill!

But if you can’t spot the saints, it’s all a bunch of random figures.

Recognizing saints is also valuable for figuring out who made a piece of art, and why.  Even an expert in a lifetime can’t memorize every single Florentine art treasure and its history, but a layman in a few days can learn enough to tell from the contents and context of a painting how to read a lot about its past and goals.  Some saints are specific to cities; see something with a prominent St. Mark and you can smell Venice, while St. Zenobius is never seen outside Florence.  Some are specific to types of patrons: is your altarpiece full of Dominicans?  Probably the church that commissioned it was too.  Full of female saints flanking Mary Magdalene?  It’s time to suspect it may have been commissioned for nuns, or by a female patron.  Renaissance masterworks didn’t come down to the modern age with convenient explanatory tags already attached: we wrote them, and the historians who did so used these same clues to figure out their origins.

Thus, this will be the first of many “Spot the Saint” posts, by which I hope to introduce the characters and thus open up the story of the art I see every day.  Each entry will introduce a couple of new saints and how to recognize them, so we can all play, and understand.  Since I am in Florence, I will concentrate first on the saints I see every day:

Addendum:

One friend, through more rigorous online hunting than my own, has very kindly provided this low-quality and slightly blurry photo of the altarpiece of Augustine and Monica at the coronation of the Virgin which I discussed above.

Santo Spirito, the church where it is housed, strives to fulfill its mission to protect the church from dangerous activities, like people going to it, looking at its art, or taking decent pictures of its treasures.  I love to visit it, both for the gorgeous contents and architecture, and to spite its over-zealous guardians.  It’s easier to go in these days, but a few years ago you practically had to have a Florentine accent to be admitted.

 

San Giovanni Baptista (St. John the Baptist )

  • Common attributes: Hairshirt, robes, tall stick with a cross on it, wild medium-length hair
  • Occasional attributes: Beard, scroll saying “Ecce agnus dei”, pointing at things, sheep or lamb, rarely a book or something with a lamb on it
  • Patron saint of: baptism, lambs, horse hoof care, printers, tailors, invoked to combat epilepsy and hailstorms (some of these are shared with several others, as is often the case).
  • Patron of places: Florence, Turin, Genoa, Cesena, Umbria, a zillion other Italian towns,Jordan, Puerto Rico, Newfoundland, French Canada
  • Feast days: June 24, August 29, January 7
  • Most often depicted: Standing around with other saints, baptizing Christ, pointing at Christ, pointing at viewer, pointing at heaven, visiting young Christ when they’re both kids, standing at the left hand of Christ during the apocalypse and overseeing the sorting of those damned to Hell, being imprisoned by King Herod, being beheaded, having his severed head delivered to Salome on a silver platter.
  • Here he’s pointing at the baby Jesus, lest the viewer, like Mary, be distracted by ever-distracting Saint Sebastian.

    Close relationships: Christ’s second cousin, son of Mary’s much older cousin Elisabeth and of Zachariah (both descended from Aaron); birth prophesied by Gabriel.

  • Relics: Scattered around.  His tomb is in Egypt, but his head is in Rome and Munich and Damascus and Bavaria and many other places.  Florence has his right index finger and part of a forearm.

John the Baptist is an intimidatingly-important saint.

Not only is he a blood relative of Christ, and the pioneer of baptism, his grim task at the resurrection is vividly depicted in the numerous Last Judgment images which traditionally decorate the rear walls of churches.

And if Mary is so important partly because of her role as the kind protector sitting at the right hand of Christ to mitigate the wrath and protecting her faithful during the second coming, John the Baptist does the opposite.  I certainly wouldn’t want to tick off a city under his personal protection.

Florence’s baptistery ceiling makes it clear

As Florence’s patron saint and protector, John the Baptist appears all over the place in Florentine art, and they never tire of painting him pointing at things, both to remind the viewer of his importance as the one who “points the way” to Christ, but also because they have that finger.  You can still see it, in fact, in the Museo del Opera del Duomo, but it used to be housed in the Baptistery, which is the historic heart and symbol of the city.

And a place that made a strong impression on a certain Dante when he was a little boy.

 

You don’t want to tick off the guy in that chair!

The main thing for spotting John the Baptist, though, is the hairshirt, depicted as some kind of fuzzy fur.  Sometimes it’s under a robe, sometimes it’s all he’s wearing.  Even in bronze or stone, it’s always clear:

Ghiberti’s statue on Orsanmichele – I wish this were my photo, but I don’t have a ladder.

San Lorenzo (St. Lawrence)

  • Common attributes: carries an enormous iron grill, dressed as a deacon (wearing a dalmatic tunic), short, tonsured hair
  • Occasional attributes: palm frond (any martyr can carry a palm frond), often dressed in red or pink
  • Patron saint of: cooking, chefs, barbeque, librarians, libraries, notaries, administrators, tanners, paupers, comedians, some other things
  • Patron of places: Rome, Canada, Rotterdam, Sri Lanka, Canada
  • Patron of people: Medici Family
  • Feast Day: August 10th
  • Most often depicted: Standing around with other saints, being roasted alive, being sentenced to death by the Emperor Vespasian, distributing alms to the poor
  • Close Relationships: He’s one of the Deacons of the Church who oversaw its finances in early days, so is associated with other early deacons, and early martyrs, like St. Stephen
  • Relics: They burned him so there are only bits.  Florence has some.  The grill is in Rome.

I already discussed San Lorenzo and his most excellent patronage of the poor in my post about the celebrations of his feast day.  As a prominent early martyr he is very commonly depicted with other martyrs.

“Flip me over, Caesar,” from the martyrdom of San Lorenzo, fresco in the Santuario della Madonna del Colle

He’s a favorite in Florence because he was a keeper of money, and the many moneylenders of the Italian banking circuit (not least the Medici) were eager for examples of virtuous people who dealt with money, so they could justify their financial obsessions and deflect accusations of usury.  That a man who was grilled alive is patron saint of cooking and specifically roasting and barbeque proves there is a sense of humor to these things, as does the fact that his witty last words, “Flip me over, Caesar, I’m done on this side,” earned him eternal fame as Patron Saint of Comedians.  True grace under (over?) fire.  Also: patron of cooking AND libraries?  There’s a saint dear to my heart.

Jump to the next Spot the Saint entry.