May 142014
 
9781466868946

Illustration by Allen Williams, for Tor.com

On the one hand, I have been looking forward for ages to reading and then writing something about “The Litany of Earth,” an amazing novelette by Ruthanna Emrys, acquired for Tor.com by editor Carl Engle-Laird.  But on the other hand I personally usually dislike reading reviews, at least traditional reviews of things I have already decided to read.  When a reviewer tells me about what I’m going to experience and what excellent things the author is going to do, it disrupts the reading process for me, makes the things mentioned in the review stand out too boldly, interfering with the craftsmanship of a good story in which the author has taken great pains to give each beat just the right amount of emphasis, no more, no less.  The memory of the review in my mind makes it like a used book which someone has gone through with highlighter, which can be fascinating as a window on a fellow reader, and delightful for a reread, but it isn’t what I want on first meeting a new text, which in my ideal world consists of me, the reader, placing myself wholly and directly in the hands of the author, with the editor’s touch there too to help spot us along the way.  I do not need a co-pilot.  And it is more of a problem, for me at least, with short fiction than with long fiction since the review could be half as long as the story and weigh me down with nearly as much weight as the whole thing carries.  So, today I have set myself the challenge of writing a review, or non-review, of “The Litany of Earth” that isn’t a co-pilot, or a highlighter, and does as much as possible to get across the story’s strengths and the power of the reading experience while doing my best not to change the relative weight of anything in the story, make anything jump out too boldly, leaving the craftsmanship as untouched as it can be.

I have a seven step plan.  (Personal rule: anything with three or more steps counts as a plan. Also, “Profit” is not a step, it’s an outcome, and does not count toward your total of three.)

  1. Recommend you go read “The Litany of Earth” now before I can spoil anything.
  2. Talk amorphously about things the story is doing with structure and world-canon, talking more concretely about a few other pieces of fiction that have done somewhat similar things.
  3. Ramble about Petrarch.
  4. Ramble about Diderot.  Dear, dear Diderot…
  5. Urge you to read “The Litany of Earth” again, last chance before I get out my highlighter.
  6. Talk about “The Litany of Earth” directly.
  7. Sing.

Step One: I strongly recommend that you go read “The Litany of Earth” right now.  It’s free online, and if you read it now you won’t be stuck with an intrusive co-pilot even if I do fail in today’s challenge of writing a non-review.

Step Two: Talk amorphously, and compare the story to other works of fiction.

hb_1972.118.224One of the unique literary assets of current fiction is the proliferation of familiar but elaborate and thoroughly developed fictional worlds which authors can step into and use for new purposes.  There have always been such worlds as long as there has been literature.  Arthuriana is my favorite pre-modern example, a complex and well-populated world rich with explorable relationships and flexible metaphysics ready to be elaborated upon and repurposed.  Geoffrey of Monmouth and Thomas Malory and Petrarch and Ariosto and the traditional artists in Naples who decorated (and still decorate) street vendor wagons with Arthur’s knights each repurposed Arthuriana just like Marion Zimmer Bradley and and Monty Python and Gargoyles and Heather Dale and Babylon 5 and the endlessly hilarious antics of the BBC’s Merlin.  Each of the later authors in the genealogy has taken advantage not only of the plot, setting and characters but knowing that readers have genre expectations.

In the early 1500s when Ariosto began his chivalric and slightly-Arthurian verse epic Orlando Furioso he took advantage of the fact that readers already associated the topic with epic works and grand tourneys and knights and ladies and courtly-love adultery, baggage which let him write a massive and endless rambling snarl of disjointed and fantastic adventurousness so unwieldy that traditional epic structure is to Orlando Furioso as a sturdy rope is to the unassailable rat’s nest of broken headphones and cables for forgotten electronics that I just fished out of this bottom drawer.  c_orlando20furioso2019511No reader, not even in 1516, would put up with it without the promise of Arthurian grandeur to make its massive scale feel appropriate.  (I will also argue that the BBC Merlin, for all its tomatoes and giant scorpions, has not actually done anything quite so unreasonable as the point when Ariosto has “Saint Merlin” rise from his tomb to deliver an endless rambling prophecy about how awesome Ariosto’s boss Ipollito D’Este is going to be.  Fan service long predates the printing press.)  In a more recent continuation of this tradition, modern Arthurian adaptations have given us the previously-silenced P.O.V.s of women, of villains, of third-tier characters, and in some sense it’s quite modern to think about P.O.V. at all.  But even very old adaptations take advantage of how not just setting but genre is an asset usable to get the reader to follow the author to places a reader might not normally be willing to go.  And, of course, in more recent versions authors have taken advantage of exploring silenced P.O.V.s to critique earlier Arthurian works and their blind spots, as a way of reaching the broader blindnesses and silencings of the past stages of our own society that birthed these worlds.

Japan's new "Princess Arthur" lets you date the Knights of the Round Table. It's not actually goofier than what Ariosto did to Arthuriana in the 1500s.

Japan’s new “Princess Arthur” lets you date the Knights of the Round Table. It’s not actually goofier than what Ariosto did to Arthuriana in the 1500s.

“Is ‘The Litany of Earth’ Arthuriana?” you may wonder.  No.  It uses a different mythos.  I bring up Arthuriana in order to remind you of the many great things you’ve seen humans create by using and reusing a familiar collective fiction, and in order to reinforce my earlier claim that one of the great assets of current fiction is that we have many, many such worlds.  If pre-modern Earth had several dozen rich, lively, reusable mythoi and epic settings, the 20th century has added many, many more in which good (and campy) things have and can be done. Star Trek, Sherlock Holmes, Gundam, the massive united comics universes of Marvel and DC, these each provide as much complexity and material for reuse and reframing as the richest ancient epics, more if, for example, you compare the countless thousands of pages of surviving X-Men to the fragile little Penguin Classics collections of Eddas and fragmentary sagas which preserve what little we still have of the Norse mythic cosmos.  Marvel’s universe, and DC’s too, have a fuller population and a more elaborate and eventful history than any mythos we have inherited from antiquity, and my own facetious in-character reviews of the Marvel movies are but the shallowest tip of what can be done with it.

Marvels_(Alex_Ross)The specific case of this kind of rich reuse whose parallels to “The Litany of Earth” are what brought me down this line analysis comes from the Marvel comics megaverse, the unique and skinny stand-alone Marvelsby Kurt Busiek, illustrated by Alex Ross.  What it does with the narrative possibilities of the Marvel universe is very much worth looking at even if one doesn’t care a jot about comics.

Described from the outside and ignoring, for a moment, that these are comic books, the Marvel universe presents us with an Earth-like alternate history in which disasters–supernatural, alien, primordial, divine–have repeatedly threatened Earth, the universe, and, most often, New York City with certain destruction.  These have been repeatedly repelled by superheroes, somewhat human somewhat not, and the P.O.V. from which we the reader have always viewed these events has been as one of the superpeople at the heart of the battle, deeply enmeshed in the passionate immediacy of the short-term drama, nemeses, kidnappings, personal backstory, and who’s dead lately.  Only rarely have we had works that gave us a longer perspective over time, reflecting personal change, evolving perspectives, how being constantly enmeshed in superbusiness makes a person develop and self-reflect, though notably the works that have done so have been among superhero comics’ shining stars (Dark Knight Returns, Red Son, Watchmen.)

Marvels instead offers a long-term and distanced P.O.V., that of a photographer who lives in New York City and, during his path from rookie to retirement, experiences in order the great, visible cataclysms that have repeatedly shaken Marvel’s Earth.  His perspective gives historicity, sentiment, reflection and above all realism to Marvel, using it as alternate history rather than an action setting.  The effect is powerful, beautiful and highly recommended for the way it weaves the richness of Marvel’s setting together with good writing to create a truly valuable work of literature.  But it also reverses an interesting silencing which has been present in the back of Marvel, and superhero comics, since their inception: the silencing of the Public.

marvelsVery much like the women in early versions of Arthuriana, the Public in Marvel (and DC) has not been an agent in itself, but an object to motivate the hero.  The Public exists to be rescued, protected, placated, evaded, sometimes feared.  The Public has cheered P.O.V. heroes, hounded them, betrayed them, threatened them with pitchforks and torches, somehow being tricked over and over again into doubting the heros even after the last seventeen times they were exonerated.  The Marvel Public specifically also persistently hates and fears the X-Men and other mutants despite being saved by them sixteen jillion times, and somehow hates and fears the other heros less even though many of them are aliens or science freaks or robots or other things just as weird as mutants.  It is a tool of the author, manipulated by villains, oppressing misfits, causing tension, but virtually never is the reader asked to empathize with the Public.  The object of empathy is the hero, or occasionally the villain, but the reader is never supposed to identify with or even think about the emotions of the screaming and yet simultaneously silenced mob.  Marvels gives us, at last, the point of view of that mob, or at least one member of it, directing our self-identification and above all our empathy for the first time to something which has been hitherto faceless.

The effect is rather like a stroll through the Uffizi enjoying endless scenes of exciting saints surrounded by choruses of beautiful angels and then hitting the Botticelli room where each angel has a distinctive face and personality and you find yourself wondering what that angel is thinking when it watches Mary come to heaven to be crowned its queen, or sings music for young John the Baptist whose grisly end and subsequent heavenly ascension the angel already knows.  Only when Botticelli invites you to see the angels as individuals do you realize that no earlier painting ever did.  They had a failure of empathy.  They were still beautiful, but here is a rich new direction for empathy which no earlier work has asked us to consider, and which opens up a huge arena we had ignored.  Women in Arthuriana; the Public in Marvel; the angels that stand around in paintings of saints.

Cimabue-Pre-Giotto Alterpiece

Botticelli_1483-85 Magnificat Madonna

In just the same way, “The Litany of Earth” uses empathy and P.O.V. to open rich new arenas in one of our other well-known modern fictional settings.  And the setting it uses has a fundamental and very problematic failure of empathy rooted deep in its foundations, so addressing that head-on opens a very potent door.

And since I can feel the urge to talk about Naoki Urasawa’s Pluto becoming harder to resist, I believe it is now time to nip that in the bud by moving on to the next stage of my plan.

hob_france7aStep Three: Ramble about Petrarch.

Picture Petrarch in his library, holding his Homer.  He has just received it, and turns the stiff vellum pages slowly, his fingertips brushing the precious verses that he has dreamed of since his boyhood.   The Iliad in his hands.  His friends have always whispered to him of the genius that was Homer, his real friends, not the shortsighted fools he grew up with in Avignon, arrogant Frenchman and slavish Italians like his parents who followed the papacy and its trail of gold even when France snatched it away from Rome.  His real friends are long-dead Romans: Cicero, Seneca, Caesar, men like him who love learning, love virtue, love literature, love Rome and Italy enough to fight and give their lives for it, love truth and excellence enough to write of it with passion and powerful words that sting the reader into wanting to become a better person.

images (1)Petrarch was born in exile.  Not just the geographic exile of his family from their Florentine homeland, no, something deeper.  An exile in time.  This world has no one he can relate to, no one whose thoughts are shaped like his, who walks the Roman roads and feels the flowing currents of the Empire, whose understanding of the world connects from Egypt up to Britain without being blinded by ephemeral borders, who can name the Muses and knows how truly rich it is to taste the arts of all nine, and how truly poor one is without.  Antiquity was his native time, he knows it, but antiquity was cut off too early–he was born too late.  His friends are dead, but their voices live, a few, in chunks, in the books in distant libraries which he has spent his life and fortune gathering.  His library.  Each volume a new shard of a missing friend, those few, battered whispers of ancient voices which survived the Medieval cataclysm that consumed so much.  And now, after hearing so many of his friends speak of Homer, call him the Prince of Poets, the climax of all art and literature, divine epic, the centerpiece of all the ancient world, he has it in his hands.  It survived.  Homer.  In Greek.  And he can’t read it.  Not a word of it.  Greek is gone.  No one can read it anymore, no one.  Homer.  He has it in his hand, but he can’t read it, and for all he knows no one ever will again.

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This historical moment, Petrarch with his Homer, is one of the most poignant I have ever met in my scholarship.  A portrait of discontinuity.  The pain when the chain of cultural transmission, of old hands grasping young, that should connect past, present and future is cut off.  The cataclysm doesn’t have to be complete to be enough to disrupt, to silence, to jumble, to leave too little, Greek without Homer, Homer without Greek. Petrarch is a Roman.  They all are, he and his Renaissance Italians, they have the blood of the Romans, the lands of the Romans, the ruins of the Romans, but not enough for Petrarch to ever really have the life he might have had if he’d been born in the generation after Cicero, and with his Homer in his hands he knows it.

ancient-booksPetrarch did his best.  He spent his life collecting the books of the ancients, trying to reassemble the Library of Alexandria, the pinnacle, he knew, of the culture and education which had made the Romans who had made his world.  He found many shards, eventually enough that it took more than ten mules to carry his library when he journeyed from city to city.  He journeyed much, working everywhere with voice and pen to convince others to share his passion for antiquity, to read the ancients that could be read, Cicero, Seneca, to learn to think as they did and to try to push this world to be Roman again, which for him meant peaceful, broad-reaching, stable, cultured and strong.  People listened, and we have the libraries and cathedrals and Michelangelos they made in answer.  And Petrarch never gave up on Homer either, but searched the far corners of the Earth for someone with a hint of Greek and eventually, late in life, did find someone to make a jumbled, fragmentary translation, nothing close to what a second-year-Greek student could produce today let alone a fluid translation, but a taste.  By late in life he had his New Library of Alexandria, and real hope that it might rear new Romans.

Venice's great late Renaissance Marciana Library.

Venice’s great late Renaissance Marciana Library, where Petrarch’s library isn’t.

Petrarch wanted to give the library to Florence, to help his homeland make itself the new Rome, but Florence was too caught up with its own faction fighting for anyone to stably take it.  Venice was the taker in the end, and he hoped his library would make the great port city like the Alexandria of old, the hub where all books came, and multiplied, and spread.  Venice put Petrarch’s library in a humid warehouse and let it rot.  We lost it.  We lost it again.  We lost it the first time because of Vandals and corrupt emperors and economic transformation and plague and all the other factors that conspired to make the Roman Empire decline and fall, but we lost it the second time because Venice is humid and no one cared enough to devote space and expense to a library, even the famous collection of the famous Petrarch. Such a tiny cataclysm, but enough to make discontinuity again.  We have learned better since.  Petrarch had followers who formed new libraries, Poggio, Niccolo, they repeated Petrarch’s effort, finding books.  Eventually princes and governments realized there was power in knowledge.  Venice built the Marciana library right at the main landing, so when foreigners arrive in St. Mark’s square they are surrounded by the three facets of power, State in the Doge’s Palace, Church in the Basilica, and Knowledge in the Library.  And now we have our Penguin Classics.  But we don’t have Petrarch’s library, and we know he had things that were rare, originals, transcriptions of things later lost.  There are ancients who made it as far as Petrarch, all the way to the late 1300s, through Vandals, Mongols and the Black Death, before we lost them to one short-sighted disaster.  Discontinuity.  We have Homer.  We don’t know what Petrarch had that we don’t.

This was one of two historical vignettes that came vividly before my mind while I was reading “The Litany of Earth.”  The second is…

Step Four: Ramble about Diderot.  Dear, dear Diderot…

denis_diderot_2fm4I must be very careful here.  Even though my focus is Renaissance and my native habitat F&SF, Denis Diderot remains my favorite author. Period.  My favorite in the history of words.  So it is very easy for me to linger too long .  But I invoke him today for a very specific reason and shall confine myself strictly to one circumscribed subtopic, however hard the copy of Rameau’s Nephew on my desk stares back.

Three quarters of the way through my survey course on the history of Western thought, I start a lecture by declaring that the Enlightenment Encyclopedia project was the single noblest undertaking in the history of human civilization.  I say it because of the defiant, “bring it on!” glances I instantly get from the students, who switch at once from passive listening to critical judgment as they arm themselves with the noblest human undertakings they can think of, and gear up to see if I can follow through on my bold boast.  I want that.  I want their minds to be full of the Moon Landing, and the Spartans at Thermopylae, and Gandhi, and the US Declaration of Independence, and Mother Teresa, and the Polynesians who braved the infinite Pacific in their tiny log boats; I want it all in their minds’ eyes as I begin.

imagesThe Encyclopédie was the life’s work of a century on fire.  The newborn concept Progress had taken flight, convincing France and Europe that the human species have the power to change the world instead of just enduring it, that we can fight back against disease, and cold, and mountain crags, and famine cycles, and time, and make each generation’s experience on this Earth a little better.  The lion has its claws and strength, the serpent fangs and stealth, the great whales the force of the leviathan, but humans have Reason, and empiricism, and language to let us collaborate, discuss, examine, challenge, and form communities of scientists and thinkers who, like the honeybee, will gather the best fruits of nature and, processing them with our own inborn gifts, produce something good and sweet and useful for the world.  The tone here is Francis Bacon’s, but Voltaire popularized it, and by now the fresh passion for collaboration and improvement of the human world had already birthed Descartes’ mathematics, Newton’s optics, Locke’s inalienable rights, calculus, and the Latitudinarian movements toward rational religion which seemed they might finally soothe away the wars that lingered from the Reformation.  Everything could be improved if keen minds applied reason to it, from treatments for smallpox which could be preventative instead of palliative, to Europe’s law codes which were not rational constructions but mongrel accumulations of tradition and centuries-old legislation passed during half-forgotten crises and old power struggles whose purpose died with the clans and dynasties that made them but which still had the power to condemn a feeling, thinking person to torture and death.

DiderotLoomThe Encyclopédie had many purposes.  Perhaps the least ambitious was to turn every citizen of Earth into a honeybee.  Plato had said that only a tiny sliver of human souls were truly guided by reason–able to become Philosopher Kings–while the vast majority were inexorably dominated by base appetites, the daily dose of food and rest and lust, or by the wild but selfish passions of ambition and pride.  For two millennia all had agreed, and even when the Renaissance boasted that human souls could rival angels in dignity and glory through the light of learning and the power of Reason, they meant the souls of a tiny, literate elite.  But in 1689 John Locke had argued that humans are born blank slates, and nurture rather than an innate disposition of the soul separated young Newton from his father’s stable boy.  The Encyclopédie set out to enable universal education, to collect basic knowledge of all subjects in a form accessible to every literate person, and to their illiterate friends who crowded around to hear new chapters read aloud in the heady excitement of its first release.  With such an education, everyone could be a honeybee of Progress, and exponential acceleration in discovery and social improvement would birth a better world.  So overwhelming was public demand that Europe ran out of paper, of printer’s ink, even ran out of the types of metal needed to make printing presses, so many new print shops appeared to plagiarize and print and sell more and more copies of the book which promised such a future (See F. A. Kafker, “The Recruitment of the Encyclopedists”).

Not just French and Greek, the Encyclopedia even tries to help us read Japanese and other alphabets new and strange to Diderot's contemporaries. A wide, inclusive world.

Not just French and Greek, the Encyclopedia even tries to help us read Japanese and other alphabets new and strange to Diderot’s contemporaries. A wide, inclusive world.

Yet Diderot and his compatriots had another goal which shows itself in the structure of the Encyclopédie as well as in its bold opening essay.  The second half of the 17 volume series is devoted to visual material, a series of beautiful and immensely complicated technical plates which illustrate technology and science.  How to fire china dishes, smelt ore, weave rope, irrigate fields, construct ships, calculate distance, catalog fossils and decorate carriages, all are illustrated in loving detail, with diagrams of every tool and its use, every factory and its layout, every human body at work in some complex motion necessary to turn cotton into cloth or rag into precious paper.  With this half of the Encyclopédie it is possible to teach one’s self every technological achievement of the age.  The first half was intended to provide the same for thought.  With its essays it should be possible to understand from their roots the philosophies, ethical systems, law codes, customs, religions, great thinkers of the past and present, all aspects of life and the history of humankind’s evolving mental world. It is a snapshot.  A time capsule.  With this–Diderot smiles thinking it–with this, if a new Dark Age fell upon humanity and but a single copy of the Encyclopédie survived, it would be possible to reconstruct all human progress. With this, the great steps forward, the hard-earned produce of so many lives, the Spartans at Thermopylae, the Polynesian log boats, will be safe forever.  We can’t fall back into the dark again. With this, human achievement is immortal. Yes, Petrarch, it even details how to read, and print, and translate Greek.

Let’s linger on that thought a moment.  A beautiful, unifying, optimistic, safe, human moment, warm, like when I first heard that, yes, eventually Petrarch did get to read a sliver of his Homer.  Because I’m not going to keep talking about dear Diderot today, much as I would like to.

Fire at the National Archives in Kew London, Feb. 14, 2014.

Fire at the National Archives in Kew London, Feb. 14, 2014.

In 2012/13 we lost 170,000 volumes from the Egyptian Scientific Institute in Cairo to the revolution, 20,000 unique manuscripts in Timbuktu library to a militia fire, and we have barely begun to count the masses of original scientific material burned during a corrupt botched cost-saving effort to reduce the size of the Libraries of Fisheries and Oceans of Canada. More than half of the entries on Wikipedia’s list of destroyed libraries were destroyed after the printing of the Encyclopédie, and the libraries on the list are only a miniscule fraction of the texts lost to disasters, natural and manmade.  It doesn’t even list Petrarch’s library, let alone the unique contents of the personal libraries and works that accumulate in every house now that we’re all honeybees.  Diderot tried so hard to make it all immortal.  He tried so hard he used up all the ink and paper in the world.  Yet if my numbers for printing history are right, in the past half century we have destroyed more written material than had been produced in the cumulative history of the Earth up until Diderot’s day. And that does not count World Wars.  We’re getting better.  On February 14th 2014 a fire at the British National Archives threatening thousands of documents, many centuries old, was successfully quenched with no damage to the collection, thanks substantially to advances in our understandings of fluids and pressure made in the 17th and 18th centuries and neatly explained by the Encyclopédie.  That much is indeed immortal (thank you, Diderot!) but much is so very far from everything. It’s still so easy to make mistakes.

One of the most powerful mistakes, for me, is

18217One of the most powerful mistakes, for me, is this cenotaph monument of Diderot, in the Pantheon in Paris, celebrating his contributions and how the Encyclopedia and enlightenment enabled so much of the liberty and rights and change that defines our era. Voltaire’s tomb was moved to the Pantheon, Rousseau’s too, but for Diderot there is only this empty cenotaph. I went on a little pilgrimage once to visit Diderot in the out-of-the-way Church of Saint-Roch, where he was buried.  There is no tomb to visit.  During the French Revolution, Saint-Roch was attacked and mostly destroyed by revolutionaries (carrying banners with Encyclopedist slogans on them!) who, in their zeal to torch the old regime, forgot that their own Diderot was among the Catholic trappings they could only see as symbols of oppression.  Once rage and zeal had died down Paris and all France much lamented the mistake, and many others, too late.

Did I mention we very nearly lost Diderot’s work too?  A far more frightening loss than just his body.  Diderot didn’t include himself, his own precious original intellectual contributions, in his Encyclopédie.  He knew he couldn’t.  He was an atheist, you see.  A real one, not one of these people we suspect like Hobbes and Machiavelli, but an overt atheist who wrote powerful, deeply speculative books trying to hash out the first moral system without divinity in it, fledgling works of an intellectual tradition which was just then being born, since even a few decades earlier no one had dared set pen to paper, for fear of social exile and ready fire and steel of Church and law.  But Diderot didn’t publish his own works, not even anonymously.  He self-censored.  He was the figurehead of the Encyclopédie.  An atheist was too frightening back then, too strange, too other.  If people had known an atheist was part of it, the project would have been dead in the water.  Diderot left instructions for future generations to print his works someday, if the manuscripts survived, but gambling with his own legacy was a price he was willing to pay to immortalize everyone else’s.  The surviving manuscript of Rameau’s Nephew in Diderot’s own hand turned up by chance at a used bookshop 1823, one chance street fire away from silence.

Step Five: Urge you to read “The Litany of Earth” again, last chance before I get out my highlighter.

Here you get points if you read it before getting this far.  It’s free on Tor.com, but you really liked it you can also buy the ebook for a dollar, and give money to Ruthanna and to Tor, and tell them you like excellent original fiction that does brave things with race and historicity.

Step Six: Talk about “The Litany of Earth” directly.

9781466868946

Illustration by Allen Williams

This is a Cthulhu Mythos story which is in no way horror.   The richly-designed populated metaphysics and macrohistorical narrative of Lovecraft’s universe is here, but as a tool for reflection on society and self, with a narrative that bears no resemblance in to the classic tense and chilling horror short stories I (for some reason) enjoy as bedtime reading. Ruthanna Emrys uses Lovecraft’s world to comment on Lovecraft’s writing and the deeply ingrained sexism and especially racism that saturates it, repurposing that into a tool to make us think more about the effects of silencing and othering which Lovecraft used his skill and craftsmanship to lure us into participating in.  But the message and questions are universal enough that the target audience is not Lovecraft readers or horror readers but any reader who has even a vague distant awareness that the Lovecraft Mythos is a thing, as one has a vague distant awareness of Celtic or Navajo mythology even if one doesn’t study them.  If there is any horror in this story, it is the familiar reality that the things we make and do and are are perishable, that human action often worsens that, and that at the end of all our aeons and equations we face entropy.  But rather than presuming (as Lovecraft and much horror does) that facing that will lead to mad cackling and gibberish, the story presents the real things we do to try to face that: spirituality, cultural identity, and the effort to preserve the past and transmit it to the future.  It turns a setting which was created a vehicle for horror into a vehicle for social commentary and historical reflection.

I suppose I should directly address Lovecraft’s failures of empathy, for those less familiar with his work, or who have met it mainly through its fun, recent iterations in board games and reuses which strive to leave behind the baggage.  Racism, sexism, classism and other uncomfortable attitudes are not unexpected in an author who lived from 1890 to 1937.  We encounter unpalatable depictions of people of color, and equally unpalatable valorizations of entrenched elites, in most literature of the period, from M. R. James to the original Sherlock Holmes.  In Lovecraft’s case, the challenge for those who want to continue to work with his universe is that many of the racist and classist elements are worked deeply into the fabric of his worldbuilding.  Many of his frightening inhuman races are clearly used to explore his fear of racial minorities, while the keys to battling evil are reserved for elites, like the affluent, white, male scholars who control his libraries, and the Great Race which controls the greatest library.

The board game Arkham Horror does many excellently entertaining things with Lovecraft, but minimizes the diversity issues rather than repurposing them.

The board game Arkham Horror does many excellently entertaining things with Lovecraft, but minimizes the diversity issues rather than repurposing them.

While many attempts to rehabilitate and use Lovecraft’s world do so by excising these elements, or minimizing them, or balancing them out by letting you play ethnically diverse characters in a Lovecraft game, this story instead uses those very elements as weapons against the kinds of attitudes which birthed them.  If the scary fish-people represent a demonized racial “other” then let them remain exactly that, and show them suffering what targeted minorities have suffered in historical reality.  By reversing the point of view and placing the reader within the perspective of the “other”, the original failure of empathy is transformed into a triumph of empathy.  Now we are in the place of a woman for whom Lovecraft’s spooky cult rituals are her Passover or Easter, the mysterious symbols her alphabet,  “Iä, Cthulhu . . . ” is the comforting prayer she thinks to herself when terrified, and a Necronomicon on Charlie’s shelf is Petrarch’s Homer.

And we aren’t asked to empathize with only one group. We empathize with those deprived of education, in the form of Aphra’s brother Caleb, taking on the classist negative depictions of “degenerate” white rural families common in Lovecraft’s work.  With the plight of the Jews and other groups targeted in Germany, invoked by Specter’s discussion of his aunt. With those facing physical and medical challenges, invoked in the powerful opening lines where Aphra describes the pleasure she finds in facing the daily difficulty of walking uphill while she slowly heals. And with women, rarely granted any remotely coequal  agency in literature of Lovecraft’s era. Not only is this story a powerful triumph of empathy, but after reading it, whenever we reread original Lovecraft, or anything set in his world, the memory of Aphra Marsh and her tender prayer will forever change the meaning of “Iä, iä, Cthulhu thtagn…”  The triumph of empathy diffuses past the boundaries of this story, to enrich our future reading.

Another striking facet is that this is a story about legacy, continuity and deep history that manages to address those questions using only very recent history. Usually stories that want to talk about the deep past use material from periods we associate with the deep past: medieval, Roman Empire, Renaissance, Inuits, Minoans, anything we associate with dusty manuscripts and archaeology and anthropology and old culture.  Even I in this entry, when trying to evoke the themes and feelings of this story, went back centuries and consequently had to spend a lot of time explaining to the reader the history I’m talking about (what’s Petrarch’s Homer, what’s up with Diderot, etc.) before I could get to what I wanted to do with it.  This story instead uses contemporary history, events so recent and familiar that we all know it already, and have seen its direct effects in those around us and ourselves, or have tried to not see said effects.  As a result, the story doesn’t have the baggage of having to explain its history. Instead of needing footnotes and exposition, it touches us directly and personally with our own history and makes us directly face the fact that we too are part of the link of transmission attempting to connect past to future, and our failures can still heal or harm that just as much as Visigoths, the Black Death or the Encyclopédie. The use of modern history makes it impossible for us to distance ourselves, greatly enhancing its power.

I have already discussed, in my own roundabout way using Diderot and Petrarch and Marvel comics, many of the key themes which make this story so powerful: othering, empathy, reversal of point of view, legacy, silencing, translation and transmission, and discontinuity, how easy it is for the powerful engine of society to make mistakes that cut the precious thread. The power with which this story is able to present that theme demonstrates perfectly, for me, the potency of genre fiction as a tool, not for escapism or entertainment, but for depicting reality and history. The tragic discontinuities created by World War II, the destruction of life, education and cultural inheritance generated not only by the most gruesome facets of the war but also by great mistakes like the treatment of Japanese Americans, are difficult to communicate in full with such accurate but emotionless descriptive phrases as, “people were rounded up and held in prison camps.”  Attempts to communicate the genuine human impact of such an event easily fall so short.  We try hard, but often fail.  As a teacher, I remember well the flurry of discussion which surrounded some High School history textbooks which, in their efforts to do justice to the often-silenced story of interned Japanese Americans, had a longer section about that than it did about the rest of the war.  Opponents of political correctness used it as a talking point to rail against liberalism gone too far, while apologists focused on the harm done by silencing the events.  Yet for me, the centerpiece was the fact that textbooks had to devote that much space to attempting to get the 9780802722775_p0_v3_s260x420issue across and still largely failed to communicate the event in a way that touched students.  “The Litany of Earth” communicates the same event very potently, using the tool of genre to make something most readers might see as only affecting “others” feel universal.  The large-scale horror of Lovecraft’s universe revolves around the inevitability that human achievement, and in the end all life, will fading into nothing.  The Yith and their library are the only hope for a legacy, one bought at the terrible price of what they do to those whose bodies they commandeer.  By creating a parallel between the fragility of all human achievement, preserved only by the Yith, and Aphra’s barely-literate brother Caleb writing of his doomed search for the family library which contained the history and legacy he and Aphra so desperately miss, the fantasy setting puts all readers in Aphra’s place, and the place of those interned, creating universal empathy which no textbook chapter could achieve; neither, in my opinion, could a non-fantasy short story, at least not with such deeply-cutting efficiency.  After reading this story, not only the events of Japanese American internment but many parallel situations feel more personally important, and one feels a new sense of personal investment in such issues as the fate of the Iraqi Jewish Archive. This stoking of emotion and investment is a powerful and lingering achievement.

Structurally, the story interweaves experiences from different points in Aphra’s present–where she encounters Specter–with her past arriving in the city and encountering Charlie and his interest in her lost culture and languages.  The choice to depict the present scenes in past tense and the flashbacks in present tense might seem counterintuitive, but I found it a powerful and effective choice.  Past tense reads as “normal” in prose, so much so that we accept it as an uncomplicated way to depict the main moment of a narrative.  In contrast, especially when we have just come from a past tense section, the present tense feels extra-vivid, raw, invasive.  It feels like a very certain type of memory, the kind  so vivid that, when something reminds us of them, they jump to the forefront of our minds and blot out the here and now with the tense, unquenchable emotions of a very potent then. Trauma makes memories do this, but it is not the traumatic memories of camp life that we experience this way. Instead it is the vividness of tender moments of cultural experience: seeing precious books in Charlie’s study, sharing his drying river, warm things.  The transitions to vivid present tense make the reader think about memory and trauma without having to show traumatic events, while simultaneously highlighting how, in such a situation of discontinuity and cultural deprivation, the experiences which are most alive, which blaze in the memory, are these tiny, rare moments of connection, even tragically imperfect connection, with the ghostly echo of Aphra’s lost people.

For me, the triumphant surprise of the story comes in the end, when Aphra approaches the cultists, and chooses to act. Specter’s descriptions of bodies hanging from trees, combined with our familiarity with the copes of creepy cults in Lovecraft and outside, prepare us mid-story to expect that when Aphra approaches the cult they’ll be evil and insane, and she’ll overcome her resentment of the government and do what has to be done.  Or possibly the reversal will be stronger with that, and the cult will be good and nice, like Aphra, and the take-home message will be that Specter is wrong and Aphra and the cultists are all just misunderstood and oppressed.  It feels like the latter is where the story will take us when we see Wilder and Bergman, and Aphra finds comfort and companionship in participating in a badly-pronounced imitation of her native religion.  Even when we hear about the immortality ritual and Bergman refuses to listen to Aphra’s attempts to make her see that her ambition is an illusion, it still feels like we are in the narrative where the cultists are good but misunderstood, and the tragedy is just that there is such deep racial misunderstanding that even Cthulhu-worshipping Bergman cannot believe Aphra’s attempts to help her are sincere.  It is a real shock, then, when Aphra called in Specter to shut the group down, because the genre setting raises such a firm expectation that “bad cultist” = “blood and gore” that even when we read about Bergman’s two drowned predecessors it doesn’t register as “human sacrifice” or “bad cult.”  Aphra, unlike the reader, is unclouded by genre expectations, and shows us that, precious as this echo of her lost culture is to her, life is more precious still and requires action.  The ghostly echo of Aphra’s people that she shares with Charlie is precious enough to blaze in her memory, but she is willing to sacrifice the far more welcome possibility of being an actual priestess for people who sincerely want to share her religion, when she realizes that their cultural misunderstanding will cost human lives.  And she cares this deeply despite being an immortal among mortals.  The triumph of empathy is complete.

Unlike the numerous vampire stories and other tales which so often present immortals seeing themselves as different, special, unapproachable, and usually superior to mortals, here Aphra’s potential immortality enhances the uniqueness of her perspective and the depth of her loss, but without in any way diminishing her respect for and valuation of the short-lived humans that surround her. The grotesque folder of experimental records which is her mother’s cenotaph does make her reflect on how the loss is greater than the human murderers understood, but does not make her present it as fundamentally different from the deaths of humans, or make her (or us) see her suffering in any way more important or special than that of the Japanese family with whom she lives. The history of Earth that her people have learned from the Yith make her recognize that living until the sun dies is not forever, nor is even the lifespan of the planet-hopping Yith who will persist until the universe has run out of stars and ages to colonize. The Litany of Earth that she shares with Charlie is an equalizer, enabling empathy across even boundaries of mortality by placing finite and indefinite life coequally face-to-face with the ultimate challenges of entropy, extinction and the desire to find something valuable to cling to.  “At least the effort is real.”  This is something Charlie has despite his failing body, that Aphra’s brother has despite his deprived education, that Aphra has despite her painful solitude, a continuity that overcomes the tragic discontinuity and connects Aphra even with her lost parents, with ancestors, descendants, with forgotten races, races that have not yet evolved, races on distant worlds, races in distant aeons, and with the reader.

My favorite book on the history of magic. Primary sources.

My favorite book on the history of magic. Primary sources.

One last facet I want to comment on is how the story portrays magic which is at the same time viscerally bodily and also beautiful and positive.  This is very unusual, and the more you know about the history of magic the clearer that becomes.  Magic, at least positive magic, is much more frequently depicted with connections to the immaterial and spiritual than the bodily: bolts of light, glowing auras, floating illusions, the spirits of great wizards powerfully transcending their age-worn mortal husks.  Magical effects that are bodily, using blood, distorting flesh, are usually bad, evil cultism, witchcraft.  This trope far predates modern fantasy writing.  I have documents from the Renaissance based on ones from Greece discussing magic and differentiating between the good kind which is based on study, scholarship, texts, words of power, perfection of the mind, the soul transcending the body, angelic flight, spiritual messengers, rays and auras of divine power, an intellectual, disembodied and male-dominated “good” magic contrasted, in the same types of texts, with the bad evil magic of ritual sacrifice, sexuality, animal forms, distortion of the body, contagion, blood and associated with witchcraft and with women.  Cultural baggage from the Middle Ages is hard to break from even now, and we see this in the palette of special effects Hollywood reserves for good wizards and bad wizards.  The tender, intimate, visceral but beautiful magic which Ruthanna Emrys has presented is authentic to Lovecraft and to the rituals we associate with “dark arts” and yet positive, a rehabilitation which works in powerful symbiosis with the story’s treatments of discrimination.  Since race and religion are so much in the center of the story, its treatment of gender rarely takes center stage, but in these depictions of magic especially it is potent nonetheless.

I’ll stop discussing the story here, since I resolved to make this review shorter than the story itself, and I’m running close to breaking that resolution.

Step Seven: Sing.

One of the most conspicuous effects when I first read “The Litany of Earth” was that it made me get one of my own songs firmly stuck in my head for many, many hours.  The piece is “Longer in Stories than Stone” and it is the big finale chorus to my Viking song cycle, a piece about the fragility of memory and the importance of historical transmission.  It is a different treatment but with similar themes, and I found that listening to it a few times live and over and over in my head helped me extend the feelings reading the story awoke in me, and let me continue to enjoy and contemplate its messages for several happy hours.  So to celebrate the release of the story (taking advantage of the fact that this blog is no longer anonymous) here is the song, and I hope it will do for you what it did for me and help me extend my period of pleasurable mulling.  I hope you enjoy:

If you want more stories by Ruthanna Emrys go here.  If you want to other excellent short fiction on Tor.com with related themes I recommend “Anyway Angie” and “The Water That Falls On You From Nowhere”.  If you want to see more amazing things Kurt Busiek does by giving P.O.V. to traditionally silenced facets of modern superhero comics beyond just Marvels, try Astro City or the original run of Thunderbolts.  If you want to hear more of my Viking music, there’s some streaming on the Sassafrass site.

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

the-last-judgement-jan-ii-provost

lastJudgmentGiotto

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.

Michelangelo_-_Cristo_Juiz

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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November2011 157 - Copy

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.

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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.

 

Feb 192013
 

Pope Julius II (Portrait by Raphael)

(See also Machiavelli Part I, Part I.5, Part II and Part III)

Long has he waited, the new prince who in 1503 joins Borgia and Medici in stage center of Machiavelli’s tumultuous Italy: Giuliano della Rovere (1443-1513), intelligent, experienced, educated, well-connected, versed in the new old arts of the resurrected ancients, fluent in the subtleties of theology, and politics, and war, crafty, persuasive, bellicose, power-hungry–more than power-hungry, power-starved–and patient.  His is not a willing patience but that silent, vindictive patience which sets in like a sickness when spirit and ambition have been trapped in the stables waiting for the starter’s gun too long.  He had been a Cardinal twenty-one years when the election of 1492 brought him within a few votes of St. Peter’s throne.  He had planned so hard, spent so much, twenty-one years mapping the subtle battlefields of Rome’s Church, only to have the papal tiara snatched away by the Spanish Bull, that filthy Borgia, with his blackmail, and his bribery, the same arts della Rovere tried to use but Borgia, by a hair’s breadth, used them better.  The tension of 1492 made Giuliano della Rovere and Rodrigo Borgia bitter enemies from the instant Borgia became Alexander VI, and della Rovere, scenting the monsters’ nature before most others did, wisely fled to Ostia, thence to France, beyond Alexander’s reach, to wait and plan how to ensure that the throne he had been within a few votes of grasping would, next time, be his.

Long too has the reader waited for this new installment in my Machiavelli series.  I was sick for nearly three full months from mid-October to mid-January of this year (it was a nasty flare-up of a known chronic condition, exhausting but not dangerous).  This blog was one of many activities which I had to postpone while I concentrated on recovery.  Happily I am now recovered, and looking forward to a productive spring, during which I hope to return to my former pattern of producing a fresh post every two-to-three weeks.  I am very grateful all of you for your patience, and for the many kind and encouraging comments and responses I’ve received in the meantime.

Pope Sixtus IV

The della Rovere family rose to papal prominence in much the same way the Borgias had, through a compromise candidate.  His uncle Sixtus IV (pope from 1471-1484) came from a middlingly important Italian family, and was pious and learned enough to be a well-respected cleric.  He became a Franciscan, an act of uncommonly sincere piety for his class, since it was not a promising political move, and eventually became head of the order.  He was probably elected largely due to his piety, since after a couple of bizarre popes, including the fiercely humanist and weirdly progressive Pius II, then the anti-humanist, anti-social, confusing (rouge-wearing!) Paul II, people wanted something safe.  Given worldly power, our Franciscan decided to exercise it, and became engaged in many worldly ends of politics, including fomenting aggression against Ferrara, and encouraging the infamous Pazzi Conspiracy of 1478, which attempted to expel the Medici from Florence by trying to assassinate Lorenzo de Medici and his brother Giovanni (who was killed) by attacking them in the cathedral during mass (the pope’s involvement in the details of the plan were slim but it was still a stain).  Sixtus IV also built a new chapel, called the Sistine Chapel after him, and engaged freely in nepotism, granting Cardinalships to numerous nephews from both sides of his family, including young Giuliano della Rovere, who then waited for his chance after his uncle’s death, precisely as young Rodrigo Borgia had waited after the death of his uncle Callixtus III.

After Alexander’s election, in 1492 della Rovere retreated from Borgia-controlled Rome, but did not sit quietly.  He had spent time at the French court before, and had many friends and the ear of the king.  In France he made himself useful to as many powerful men as possible, and used his knowledge and mastery of statecraft to secure support, and weaken Borgia attempts to court the French king.  In 1494 he was one of the voices who persuaded the king to take advantage of Alexander VI’s squabble with Naples to invade Italy, and Cardinal della Rovere personally rode with the invading forces as they crossed the Alps and carved their bloody path south through his homeland, seizing Milan, threatening Florence, and forever transforming the face of northern Italy.  As Cesare Borgia’s attempts to carve out a kingdom, and strife between Naples and France, turned Italy increasingly into a battlefield, della Rovere was clever enough to foment Italian hatred of the Spanish Borgias, drawing allies who saw him as the safely Italian alternative, despite his involvement in the far more direct French invasion.  But della Rovere was not powerful enough to counter so savvy and ruthless an adversary as Cesare.  The younger cardinal acquired ally after ally, including Florence and Ferrara, and in the end Borgia attempts to woo France were too powerful for even della Rovere to convince the French king that the enemy of his friend should be his enemy.  France allied with Cesare, offered him a half-Spanish French princess and a French ducal title, and assurances of support so long as he upheld French interests in Italy.

Young Julius with his uncle the pope, in the early years when the ambitious young Cardinal was not yet soured by so many years of forced patience.

On August 6th, 1503, pope Alexander and Cesare Borgia dined in their fortress at Castel san Angelo with Cardinal Adriano da Corneto.  Both became terribly sick.  Alexander died.  Cesare recovered, but slowly, after weeks of weakness and horrible suffering (one account describes his skin peeling off, though likely due to attempts to treat the illness rather than the illness itself).  Anyone who could possibly be accused of poisoning has been blamed, including both Cesare and Alexander, who had been uncomfortable partners since well before Giovanni’s death.  It may well just have been food poisoning in a pre-refrigeration world. Whatever the cause, Borgia fortunes were now at a critical moment, and the surviving Borgia prince had had little time to prepare, and was sick in bed, unable to lead troops or conduct negotiations.  He sent troops to loot the palace before the mob did, and it is unclear in the ensuing chaos what treasures were carried off by whom, but by the time it was done Alexander’s corpse is supposed to have been found alone, wrapped in a carpet, in a room from which every stick of furniture and scrap of clothing had been looted.  The body was displayed on the steps of the palace, a swollen, purple and black, stinking mass with its tongue sticking out that witnesses describe as the most vile corpse they had ever seen (and Renaissance people saw a lot of corpses).

Three armies threatened the Papal Election that followed: the armies of France and Naples, en route to fight each other, both camped just outside Rome to make the College and people aware that their kings and cannons were watching and would not tolerate a hostile victory in the vote.  Meanwhile Cesare’s armies were within Rome itself, and while he was too weak to take the field, he was far from too weak to command troops, and to command the eleven Spanish Cardinals who were far more Borgia pawns than anything else.  The conclave was delayed to allow extra time for French Cardinals, and della Rovere, to arrive and participate.

The Tomb of Alexander VI

Cesare had renounced his Cardinal’s hat in order to become a Duke and marry and pass on the Borgia bloodline.  There was no rule that the pope had to be a Cardinal, or even a cleric, and if Borgia forces had been at their peak it is possible Cesare might have pushed to be elected himself.   As it was he did not have the speed or power, so needed to compromise, and bide his time if he wanted to someday be pope.  But who to ally with?

France was determined to have a French pope, and worked hard to advance Georges d’Amboise as their candidate.  The French planned carefully.  Most Italians would never tolerate a French pope, remembering with dread the days of the Avignon Papacy, so Cesare’s contingent of Spanish cardinals was a perfect asset.  France promised to continue to support Cesare and recognize him as master of all his father had granted him if he would give his eleven votes to d’Amboise.  That added to the French cardinals would be nearly enough.  For the remainder, they could count on their good della Rovere and his cousins (whose votes he commanded), and on Ascanio Sforza, Cardinal of Milan, whom they had captured in the invasion, and released on condition that he vote for the French candidate and persuade as many allies as he could to do the same.  The plan had only one flaw: it relied on trusting the Italian Cardinals.

Della Rovere refused to vote for the French candidate.  If France wanted an ally on the throne, he insisted, they would need to elect him.  It would be easy: he was Italian, and an enemy of the Borgia, so all the Italian cardinals would flock to him, and none would support the French without his persuasion.  No amount of reminding della Rovere of the support and aid France had given him in the past made any headway.  France must give him the throne, or watch it fall into hostile hands.

Ascanio Sforza, now free, broke his word to woo his fellow Italians to the French cause.  He did, as a point of honor, vote for France himself, but let his capture and release make him a living argument to his fellow countrymen of the danger France posed.  With him as reminder, no Italian would ever vote for France.

Even the Spaniards turned.  With Cesare weak and sick and possibly about to die, Borgia stooges were looking to new powers to protect them.  For them, the King of Spain was the clear option, and he did not want a French pope, even if Cesare did.

The Della Rovere Arms

The French bloc, triply betrayed, refused to accept della Rovere’s proposal that they vote for him, and would forever after blame him for their defeat.  Since neither could win, and no Spaniard could win, all powers looked for a compromise candidate, someone old and sick and inert, likely to do little and die soon, and all hoped they could regroup and gain a majority by the time of the next election.  Thus  Francesco Todeschini Piccolomini became Pope Pius III.  Nephew of the earlier humanist firebrand Pius II, Piccolomini was from the comparatively neutral town of Sienna, enough of a cowardly Borgia stooge to be tolerable from Cesare’s perspective, and not long for this world.  He reconfirmed Cesare as commander of the papal armies, postponing war and temporarily granting Cesare continued power over his dominions.  His most memorable act as pope was to announce that Alexander VI would not be buried in the crypt of St. Peter’s where popes were (and are) usually laid to rest.  Alexander was too wicked to be in St. Peter’s, he decided, not then, not ever.

September 22nd, Pius III is crowned.  October 18th, Pius III dies.  New election.

Cesare has recovered, and is still commander of the papal armies, but his forces are weakened and his position precarious   He has regained command of the eleven Spanish Cardinals but has no other sure votes.  France has not forgiven della Rovere, but he has worked hard to convince them that, given the general hatred of France, he is the most France-loving man likely to get on the throne.  Now he courts Cesare, offering solemn promises that, if Cesare and the Spanish cardinals support him, he will maintain Cesare in his current position, leave him the papal armies, his titles, his funds, his lands, and make him a close and trusted ally.  The Borgia Kingdom in central Italy will be forever secure, and della Rovere might even help Cesare into a position such that, when he is a bit older, he might succeed della Rovere as the next pope, restoring and finally solidifying the Borgia dream of turning the papacy into a hereditary monarchy.  Cesare will henceforth practically be della Rovere’s adopted son, and they will rule Italy together, with the support of their mutual ally in France, and Cesare’s ties with Spain.  Cesare accepts, the bargain is solemnly sealed, and a few promises to Ascanio Sforza are all it takes to secure the unanimous election of Giuliano della Rovere as Pope Julius II.

Julius takes the throne.

He has Cesare arrested, thrown in prison, stripped of all his titles and property, deported to Spain, and, after some intervening chaos and a brief escape, Cesare is killed.

This is an absolute shock, much, much more shocking than it sounds.  The Roman Pontiff, highest prince in the world, has betrayed and destroyed a noble sovereign Duke to whom he had pledged himself as a bosom ally, and to whom he owed his throne.  Cesare was Julius’ supporter and benefactor, and vice versa.  This alliance was in many ways virtually adoption.  We have read about a lot of broken promises and murders in the course of our Borgia stories, but this is different, utterly and unimaginably different.  When enemies duel or battle each other, those violent acts are honorable.  When enemies poison enemies, or send assassins after each other, that is dishonorable but still reasonably acceptable and common.  When Cesare killed his own man Remirro de Orco, that was new, shocking, different.  Confusing.  This is the same thing but on an unimaginable scale.  The innermost circle of Dante’s Hell is for people who betray their feudal benefactors.  This is that again, only a pope, and also the reverse, a patron betraying a supporter he has promised to defend and treat as an ally.  There is no place for this in Dante’s Hell.

There is also no place for it in the Handbook of Princes genre.  The Prince has betrayed and murdered his closest supporter.  No one can trust him now.   Any pledge he makes is unreliable.  Anyone near him is in danger.  The sword he wields is arbitrary and cuts down friend and enemy.  The rational man and the moral man now both come to the same conclusion: do not serve such a master.  Leave him.  Run.  The vassals of such a lord should abandon him at once, declare the tyrant what he is, unite and take up arms and overthrow him.  That is what must happen.  Machiavelli, good student of politics, knows it, and all through the night when the deed is done everyone expects that in the morning Julius will rise to face an empty throne room, while the banners of his former allies mass against him.

Julius, pope at last

The next morning, everyone turns up and kisses the pope’s ring and feet and politics goes on, and no one even whispers the name ‘Borgia’.  It never happened.  Everyone serves the traitor-pope just as before.

This is the moment that cannot be, as Machiavelli explains in The Prince and more in his letters.  This is where the Handbook of Princes fails.  The virtuous Prince was supposed to be better ruler because he commands the respect and loyalty of his servants, unlike the wicked prince who loses them: untrue.  The virtuous Prince was supposed to enjoy the blessings of God who would make him strong, while the tyrant was unseated: untrue.  The virtuous Prince was supposed to be more effective because good, wise policies have good, beneficial consequences for his people and his nation: untrue.  Uncertain why the last is untrue? Look at what has just happened and what could have happened:

Outcome if Julius II had been virtuous:

Julius seals his pact with Cesare.  After his election, he continues to treat Cesare as a close ally, allows him to control the papal army, and use it to continue waging war in central and northern Italy.  Thousands if not tens of thousands die in combat and more from bandits and disease as the chaos continues.  Cesare secures Romagna and the papal states, then turns on Florence, probably Modena and Ferrara too, on the Venetian land empire, shoring himself up more and more at the cost of chaos.  In the end either the Emperor invades to check Cesare’s rise, or Cesare grows strong enough to make his bid to be Julius’ successor, and bloody civil war erupts whether Cesare wins or loses as he and the rest of Italy battle to see whether or not the papacy will indeed become a hereditary monarchy.  Death toll: tens if not hundreds of thousands.

Outcome if Julius II is a treacherous deceiver:

Cesare is instantly removed.  The wars in central Italy cease.  The suddenness of the change makes it easy for provincial forces, as well as papal forces and city forces, to bring about some degree of stability.  The shock of the suddenness of Julius’ betrayal makes everyone else wary of causing trouble.  Peace is instantly restored, the Borgia Kingdom eliminated, exiles restored, Florence protected.  Death toll: Cesare Borgia, plus, perhaps, a few of his guards and associates.

Conclusion: the Virtuous Prince is not more successful.

Plate decorated with the della Rovere oak

Julius instantly solved a problem no one else had been able to solve in a terrible decade.  The worst days of Italy are gone.  Julius’ vassals did not abandon him, nor did God smite him with skyfire.  The advantages that the Virtuous Prince was supposed to have are invisible.  Julius did it, not through love, but fear.  Perhaps it is more useful to be feared than loved?

More is undermined here than just the Handbook of Princes genre.  Ethics is a problem too.  The Virtuous Pope here, the one who was loyal to Cesare, would have doomed thousands to death and Italy to chaos and conquest.  Julius’ betrayal saved everyone.  Yet, the Christianity and ethics of Machiavelli’s day declare that Julius has done a wicked deed, and will go to Hell for it.  Going to Hell for saving thousands?  This does not sound right.  Is it really a morally wicked deed, Machiavelli asks, to betray and murder Cesare Borgia, and thereby prevent so much evil?  Is this really what ‘good’ and ‘evil’ mean?

Thus Utilitarian Ethics was born.  It is a familiar thought pattern for us, but for Machiavelli (and Europe at that point)  it was a completely new idea, never thought before.  What if this is good?  This act that, by destroying a terrible, wicked, monster of a man, saved a hundred thousand lives?  How can I call it evil?  What if I want to judge the act, not by what it was (betrayal, murder), but by what it did, save Italy (and Florence!) and the world from the Borgia menace.  And if Julius had done the “good” thing, and kept Cesare going, and let all that evil happen when he had the power to stop it with one dark command, could we really call that “good”?  And what of virtue ethics?  Why do I care whether Julius betrayed Cesare for selfish or selfless reasons–he still saved Italy, and so many, many lives.  Doesn’t that matter?  Doesn’t the consequence of an act, its utility, factor into the moral equation?  I think, he says, it does.
This is the advice Machiavelli writes for the Medici when the forced retirement of exile gives him time to write a new Handbook of Princes for a new kind of prince: the princes of Florence, whose duty is to protect Florence–beautiful, unique, burgeoning, irreplaceable Florence–and her citizens–artists, philosophers, poets, statesmen, craftsmen–from the perils of conquest and extermination which constantly threaten her fragile walls.  With France so close, one more civil war could be the end.  This is not a question of selfishness or power for power’s sake, but of the very survival of the nation in their care.   “In order to be virtuous, the people must still be alive,” (paraphrase).  In this situation, he writes, we should study and emulate Julius Caesar, but we should also study and emulate Cesare and Julius II.  If fear will discourage conspiracy, use fear.  If the betrayal and exile of one dangerous faction or family will stabilize the republic, use betrayal.  If breaking a treaty will give Florence the ally she needs to survive, rip up that scrap of paper.  It is the prince’s duty.

This is not a good consequence erasing an evil act, it is the argument that the act itself is not evil because of its good consequence.  Saving a hundred thousand lives, or Florence, is good–the means, therefore, are good, even if the means are a murder.  “The end justifies the means” thus does sort-of ring true, but rather he is saying that we judge the means by its end: what Julius II willed in his heart, Machiavelli would say, wasn’t the betrayal and murder of Cesare, but was the salvation of Italy.  If Julius had defended Cesare, as he promised, and let all those people die, that would have been the evil act.  At times he puts it almost as if the prince here is taking on sin for the people, as if in order to guard those in their protection the sovereign volunteers to damn himself to commit the sins necessary to create an era of peace in which citizens will have the leisure to live virtuously (instead of being dragged into violence, hatred, rape and death).  At other times it feels as if he is saying there is no other real scale beyond the Earthly consequence (no Hell?  Do we smell atheism?).  He never explicitly discusses the religious import of utilitarianism, but the mind of the reader cannot help but jump there instantly.

We now have consequentialism   The can of worms is open, and in my next post I shall explore it, and its religious implications.  But we have also opened another can of worms: the papacy of Julius II.

Julius II brought peace to Italy and saved thousands of lives.  Then he started a new war.  This is Giuliano della Rovere, referred to in his own lifetime and after as the Warrior Pope, and as “Il Papa Terribile”.  This is an infinitely ambitious man made tired and bitter by thirty years of waiting, ten of them wrestling with terrible Borgia enemies.  This is a pope who likes to ride in armor.  His is not an ambition which ends with wealth and power.  He is “Julius” and will remind the world that the pope is Emperor, successor to the Caesars.  Those territories Cesare left behind, that are now vulnerable and rebuilding, he demands them, and sends armies to seize them, and when Venice or other powers try to reclaim their own, he makes war.  France is still stirred up from earlier wars, and still bitter at him.  Naples is stirred up, the Emperor is stirred up, England is eager for conquests, Spain is defensive about its Mediterranean holdings, the Ottomans are expanding, the Swiss are ready with their mercenaries, and Florence is still delicious.  Julius stirs all these powers toward war, demanding in the name of his imperial power that Europe’s princes come in on his side to defend his right to rule Italy.  It is in this phase that the powers meet at Cambrai, a despairing Machiavelli watches the balance of power so carefully, exchanges so many letters with his friends trying desperately to predict who will be at war with whom when the council ends: France & Emperor against England?  France & England against Spain?  Which of the nearby armies, Julius, France, Naples and Emperor, will move first against Florence?  He studies, he worries, he plans, and in the end the council emerges and Julius II has persuaded every crowned head of Europe to join into a Holy League and help him attack Venice and take all the former Borgia territories and turn them into his new papal Roman Empire.  This is a pope determined to wipe away the Borgia stain with blood, and make the pope a true Emperor again.  This is a pope who will be remembered.  He also brings more humanism to the Vatican, stocks its libraries, has his beloved Michelangelo (a complicated dynamic if ever there was one) decorate the new Sistine Chapel with neoclassical art and figures of pagan sibyls mixed among the Hebrew prophets to reinforce the fact that the ancient philosophies revived by the humanists are part of his Christianity as much as anything.  But the humanism he brings is all in service of power: empire, law, Rome, Constantine, reminders of the sovereignty of Rome and Italy and the higher sovereignty of Julius.  He is a pope for whom means seems to mean nothing, and ends everything.  And he is incredibly effective, and remakes the papacy as no one had imagined it could be remade.

Five hundred years ago today, the 19th of February 1513, the order was given for the arrest of Niccolo Machiavelli on suspicion of participating in a conspiracy against the newly-reestablished Medici regime.   The Medici had been in exile in Venice for eighteen years, consolidating their wealth and allies and gathering resources so they could retake the city Piero had abandoned during the French (Borgia-caused) invasion of 1494.  In the intervening years, the Borgias had carved out their Italian kingdom, Giovanni had been murdered, Cesare had turned from a fearsome Cardinal to a more fearsome Duke and conqueror, and then the Borgia years had ended, and the family’s fall left a weak and disorganized Italy ripe for new ambitious families to carve out kingdoms; one of those best positioned to do so were the Medici.  Florence herself had experienced the theocratic rule of the monk Savonarola, then the restored Republic of Soderini, of which Machiavelli was one of the central figures.  When the Medici army of allies and mercenaries recaptured the city, they did not arrest Machiavelli right away.  They ended the Republic and moved into the Palazzo Vecchio, but Machiavelli remained in the city, a cautious but free citizen, until a small nest of anti-Medici conspirators was uncovered.  Among their documents were found a page listing the names of others they had intended to recruit but had not yet approached, including Machiavelli.  It was too much.  Machiavelli was arrested, interrogated, tortured (using a device a similar to the rack), and exiled.  It was in that exile that his forced retirement gave him the time to write the texts which would so transform how we understand politics, ethics and history: the Discourses on Livy treating Republican government, The Prince, and the personal letters which show even more clearly than his polished books how his new political and historical theories were the direct results of his experiences of the Borgias, their rise, their fall, and the new Emperor Julius II who rose to occupy the (bloodied and stained) papal throne.

Thus, today, while Google commemorates the birth of Copernicus 40 years earlier, Florence is marking February 19th 1512 with a procession through the city, in which the crier will call for Machiavelli’s arrest in each quarter o f the city.  It may seem a strangely dark day to celebrate, the imprisonment and torture of our beloved historical figure, but it is in many ways the birthday of political science, the one day which, if disrupted by some time traveler, could deprive us of the produce of that vital exile.  Machiavelli could have been forgiven and hired by the Medici he wanted so desperately to work for.  He could have been executed, or died in the prison, or been tortured enough to die of some infection or hemorrhage.  Instead we have utilitarian ethics, a vein of thought which is so universal in the modern world that we find it almost impossible to think about what “decision-making” meant without it.

Here at last we see both central facets of why Machiavelli is important.  When historians argue about “Who was the first modern philosopher,” those who argue for Machiavelli argue this: he was the first person to use consequentialist ethics, i.e. to believe that an act might be good or bad because of its consequences rather than the act itself, and the first person to practice political science, that is to use history as a set of examples to be studied and compared to rather than as a source of moral tales to be read and absorbed through virtuous osmosis.  We as modern people use both these things every day, so constantly that we struggle to think without them.  When deciding, what is the consequence?  Even if in the end you go with a decision based on Virtue Ethics or Deontology you still think about the consequence.  When looking at events, what historical ones are similar?  We study history to learn from it, and not repeat mistakes, right?  And when we do, we look at economics, oppression, class struggles, technological change, environment, patterns, not just the moral character of king and commander.  These are indispensable elements of modern thought, which define the modern era more clearly and more universally than, for example, any technology.  What is a modern person?  One reasonable answer is “someone who uses consequentialism and political science.”  There may be (and are) other differences, but this certainly is one, and Machiavelli is its father.  Julius and the Borgias were the spark, but he was the one who was there to see and analyze, and describe.

Next Time: “Was Machiavelli an atheist?” and why it is still valuable for historians and philosophers to write book after book about that question even though the only possible answer is, “We don’t know.”   Read the conclusion.

Oct 032012
 

Cesare Borgia.  With him and Lucrezia we have several different paintings which have been identified as possible portraits, but fewer certain ones.

Once upon a time (circa 1475) the whimsical Will that scripts the Great Scroll of the Cosmos woke up in the morning and decided: Some day centuries from now, when mankind has outgrown the dastardly moustaches of melodrama and moved on to a phase of complex antiheroes, sympathetic villains and moral ambiguity, I want history teachers to be able to stand at the front of the classroom and say, “Yes, he really did go around dressed all in black wearing a mask and killing people for fun.”  Thus Cesare Borgia was conceived.

Note: I have discovered that I have a lot to say about the Borgias, so this will be the first of two posts about their impact on Machiavelli.  I will try my best to get the second one out promptly. Thank you, kind readers, for being patient with the long delay between the last post and this.  It was a chaotic September.

See also the earlier chapers of this series: Machiavelli Part I: S.P.Q.F.Part I addendum, and Part II: The Three Branches of Ethics.

The Handbook of Princes:

In the middle phase of the Harry Potter saga, my father phoned me one day to exclaim that if he were Harry he would walk up to Crabbe and Goyle and appeal to them in the name of rational self-preservation.  Voldemort is a terrible, terrible person who randomly kills people who work for him.  Joining his side, or becoming involved with him in any way, is absurdly dangerous.  If you’re a Malfoy or something, and you know he’d come after you if you tried to quit, then joining him is certainly the safest option. But willingly getting involved is rather like plunging enthusiastically into a game of Russian roulette.  I cite this example because its simple appeal to human Reason (Evil is bad! You don’t want to be around it!  Think about it!) is exactly the sort of argument which lay at the heart of the Handbook of Princes genre before Machiavelli got his ink-blackened hands on it. The Princewas far from the first Handbook of Princes.  To the contrary, it argued against a long tradition of manuals of etiquette and collections of heroic maxims which were a common literary form, especially in an age when authors made money from their books only by dedicating them to patrons, who were often more inclined to reward books which seemed directly useful to themselves and their heirs.

Augustus was a great prince. If we read his biography 50 times, we will be too!

A typical Handbook of Princes consisted of a mixture of anecdotes and advice.  The anecdotes were great tales of heroic exploits, focusing on brilliant and successful historical figures (Augustus Caesar, Henry V, take your pick) or on more obscure stories wherein a single figure (usually from Roman history) is remembered for a single noble act.  The presentation focuses on the hero, his character and the virtues (courage, wisdom, patience, generosity, self-sacrifice, industry) which enabled his successes.  These works are histories/biographies in a sense, but unlike the modern versions of those genres, were largely devoid of cultural and historical context, and would never discuss how men were products of their times, or how their successes were affected by class movements or economics.  The men were successes because they were great men, and by reading about their actions and the virtuous decisions which underlay them, the young prince could absorb these virtues and learn to do the same. Moral advice accompanied these moral examples, advice predicated on a combination of logic and the Renaissance universe in which we must remember God is presumed to take a very active part.   The virtuous prince will be more successful than the corrupt or wicked one.  Why?  First, because people will love and respect him, and therefore obey him.  If he acts like Voldemort, reason and self-preservation will drive his followers to realize that it is dangerous to be around him, and he will be abandoned and overthrown.  Tyrants fall to tyrranicides.  Beneficent monarchs, on the other hand, attract loyal followers who want them to stay in power.  People living under a good king will be willing to go to effort to keep him in power.

Castiglione, author of the Book of the Courtier, another high Renaissance descendant of the Handbook of Princes genre, which teaches one how to be an ideal courtier and help to advise and support an ideal prince.

As for dealing with rivals and enemies, i.e. foreign affairs, here too virtue is advised.  The virtuous prince will be more successful.  Why?  Because people will respect and listen to him.  Because chivalrous conduct makes a man outstanding and brave.  Because a virtuous man will have fewer enemies, at home and abroad, and thus be able to sleep at night with a clear conscience and less fear of assassins.  And because God is part of politics in this age.  This culture still believes in trial by combat, that the champion of a virtuous and true cause will always defeat the champion of an unjust one.  The saints will like and bless the good king, and drive plague from his kingdom.  “But bad things happen to good people too!” objects the devil’s advocate.  “What about Job?  What about the fall of the Roman Empire?  What about nuns who get the Black Death tending to people who have the Black Death?”  True, the culture answers, sometimes God sends tests to virtuous men, but by persevering through them with virtue one earns even greater rewards.  There is Providence.  If there is Providence, it is logically never, ever a good idea to do evil.  While the ultimate balance lies in Heaven, even on Earth, in a world with a deep belief in saints and direct divine intervention to answer prayer and protect the chosen, virtue is 100% the right call.  And religion aside, won’t a prince who is loved be showered with support and help?  Certainly Petrarch and his followers, who were so desperate for peace and stability, would eagerly shower any virtuous prince with support and help, and very sincere loyalty. So stands the genre when a young Machiavelli works with Soderini in the Palazzo Vecchio, attempting to run the government of Florence and to achieve stability and peace in a world of chaos and conquest.  This government is the product of Florence’s rebellion against Medici corruption, and everyone knows it exists for the sole purpose of protecting and serving the Florentine citizens and protecting the city and all her works and precious people.  No one in Florence has any incentive to do anything but love and support this government.  Right?

Unmatched in Infamy:

I was in the palace section of the Vatican Museum recently, showing some friends the dark neoclassical frescoes and blue and gilded Borgia bulls which so oppressively dominate Alexander VI’s apartments that no pope has been willing to inhabit that part of the palace since, when a guide came by with her tour group.  She was speaking English as  a compromise language, since she was a native Italian and her group was Korean, but since they were all 75% fluent in English it sufficed for basic communication.  Basic, but not subtle, so when they entered the room she began, “These are the rooms of Pope Alexander VI, he…” and then I saw a look of exasperated despair wash over her face.  How with broken English could she communicate the significance of the Borgia papacy to this group to whom Renaissance Italian politics were so foreign that if she’d told them Michelangelo was a pope, or Duke of Florence, or both, they would probably have believed her.  “He was a very very, very very, very, very bad pope,” she concluded, and shooed her flock on. I applauded her concision at the time, but when she had moved on my friends immediately turned on me and (with the full pressure of a common language demanding thoroughness) asked, “Why was he so bad?  I mean, this is the high Renaissance right before the Reformation – weren’t all the popes incredibly corrupt and terrible?  You’ve been telling us stories about catamites and elephants and brothels all day; what made Alexander VI so exceptional?”

The Borgia Bull. Learn to look for it. (I accidentally terrified my Sicilian tour guide once by spotting it over a cathedral doorway and, being rather startled, pointing at it and shouting “Borgia! Borgia Borgia Borgia!”)

It is a fair question.  The papal throne was indeed at its most politicized at this point, a prize tossed back and forth among various powerful Italian families and the odd foreign king, and Italy remains littered with the opulent palaces built with funds embezzled by families who scored themselves a pope.  My best short answer is this:

  1. They were Spaniards, and the Italians hated that, so all possible tensions were hyper-inflamed.
  2. Instead of the usual graft and simony, they tried to permanently carve out a personal Borgia duchy in the middle of Italy, and when that was going well, they tried to turn the papacy into a hereditary monarchy.
  3. They very nearly succeeded.

The Borgia family came from Valencia in eastern Spain (then Aragon), and were powerful enough there to frequently secure Church offices for younger sons, including the bishop’s miter.  Trivium of the day:  Valencia’s Cathedral is known for possessing one of the best accredited Holy Grails (i.e. more confirmed miracles than any leading rival grail candidate), which means both Rodrigo and Cesare Borgia were briefly custodians of the Holy Grail. The first Borgia pope, Callixtus III(originally Alfonso de Borja, b. 1378, d. 1458), was from Valencia in eastern Spain. During the middle years of his career he was instrumental in getting the royal house of Aragon to accept the compromises which ended the schism, in those years when Europe was going through its antipope-a-month phase.  He was made a Cardinal as a reward, came to Rome, and was elected pope in 1455 as a compromise candidate.  A compromise pope is elected when two or more powerful rivals have a deadlock in which neither can secure the majority necessary to become pope, and neither will let the other win, so they pick someone neutral and extremely old who is guaranteed to die within a couple years, giving the rivals time to level up their bribery skills and try again.  The most notable achievements of his three year reign include a brief crusade, excommunicating Halley’s Comet when its bad luck interfered with his crusade (“Take that!  No communion or last rights for you, comet!”), and securing Cardinal’s hats for two of his nephews, including young Rodrigo.

Rodrigo Borgia as Pope Alexander VI

Rodrigo Lanzol Borgia, later Pope Alexander VI (1431-1503) was only matrilineally a Borgia, the son of Callixtus III’s sister.  He took a law degree at the university of Bologna, and was twenty-five when his uncle became a compromise pope.  Making good use of their manifestly narrow window, Callixtus had the city of Valencia promoted from having Bishops to having Archbishops. He thus made Rodrigo an Archbishop, then a Cardinal, and finally gave him the position of Vice-Chancellor of the Church, an important (and lucrative!) position managing the papal purse, particularly its taxes and military expenditures.  There is no better office from which to be plugged directly into the detailed workings of the Church, and to secure a precarious but powerful position as one of the foremost non-Romans in Rome.  After his uncle’s death, Rodrigo stayed in this position through four more papacies, setting up a permanent household in Rome and there  raising his most famous bastard children.  When his fifth papal election rolled around in 1492, he was nicely on track to be another mildly-entertaining, thoroughly-corrupt Renaissance pope. The papal election of 1492 was one of the great power games of world history.  Anyone seeking to create a board game or one-shot role-playing simulation of an exciting political moment need look no farther.  Twenty-three men are locked in the not-yet-Michelangelized Sistine Chapel.  They can’t leave until someone receives twelve votes and becomes pope.  Everyone has a different goal.  A few want to be pope.  Others want to sell their votes to the papabile (pope-able candidates) for the best price going.  Some want wealth; some have plenty and want to turn it into power.  Some want titles; some have titles but have lost the fortunes that should go with them and are hoping to earn that back.  Some are young and want to make friends and be owed favors; some are old and want young relatives to become cardinals to preserve the family’s toehold in the College.  The Medici Cardinal is sixteen and hoping to cement the family’s hold on Florence.  The Patriarch of Venice is ninety-six, dying, and wants to go back to his impregnable hometown and eat candy.  Ten of the cardinals present are nephews of previous popes, eager to keep nursing from the coffers and to keep their family fortunes safe from rivals.  Eight are pawns of kings and want to secure the clout necessary to get the new pope to grant their masters’ requests should a king want to, for example, divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boelyn (that’s a few decades off but it’s the kind of thing one has to be prepared for).  The previous pope glutted the College with his own relatives but all are too young for anyone to be willing to vote for them, so they have thrown their collective clout behind the cunning veteran Giuliano della Rovere: learned, aggressive, interested in art, interested in the classics, and interested above all in how both can be used as tools of power.  As for Rodrigo Borgia, he has waited a long time.  This may well be his last shot at his uncle’s throne.  Resources: all the wealth, contacts, secrets, tax-returns and dirt he has accumulated in decades managing the papal purse.

The Sistine Chapel is not actually that large a place for thirty-odd men to be trapped for several days.

It was a very complex election, about which we have lots of information, but little that is reliable.  We know there were four rounds of voting, and that Borgia was not one of the front runners in the three leading to his unanimous or near-unanimous victory in the last.  We have records of enormous bribes, offices and territories representing tens of thousands of florins in annual income changing hands.  Some allege that the king of France contributed hundreds of thousands to efforts to get Giuliano della Rovere on the papal throne.  It seems pretty clear that the Borgias smuggled letters offering fat bribes into the chapel inside the food which was delivered for the cardinal’s meals.  One delightful anecdote from the period claims that the 96-year-old Patriarch of Venice was the last critical swing vote, who, having a wealthy family, secure lines of power, a literally impregnable homeland, and not long to live to enjoy the fruits of bribery, sold out for a couple hundred florins and some marzipan, since, when one is locked in the Sistine Chapel with a bunch of clerics for day after day, sweets are precious hard to come by.  In the end even Giuliano della Rovere himself seems to have accepted that, if he could not win, it was better to profit and wait than to remain stubborn and gain nothing.  He was still fit, favored by the King of France, and likely to survive to see another election.   (For more nitty-gritty details on what we think we might maybe know could have happened potentially, see the wiki.)

The Papal Arms of Alexander VI

Thus Rodrigo Borgia became Pope Alexander VI. One point of friction which came up in the course of the election was a proposal to contractually limit the number of new cardinals the new pope could appoint.  All popes strove to load the College of Cardinals with their kin and allies to ensure that their factions had a leg up in the next election, and over the course of the five popes Rodrigo had lived under the portion of stooges and nephews in the college had ballooned like the bubo of a plague victim.  Rodrigo Borgia agreed to a high but reasonable limit (I believe the limit was six, although I could be a little off).   Then, still within the blushing springtime of his papacy, he trashed that limit and appointed twelve!  One of those twelve Cardinal’s hats went to the Archbishop of Valencia, one of his own bastard sons, Cesare Borgia. It was a strange and strained life growing up a Borgia bastard, with a Spanish father but an Italian mother, raised in Rome.  The kids learned Catalan as well as Italian and French, not to mention Latin and Greek, since by 1480 humanism was sufficiently victorious that even a twelve-year-old bastard daughter of nobility received a healthy dose of  Homer.  The Italians considered the Borgias Spanish, but in Spanish eyes they seemed Italian, making them literally at home nowhere.  Even within the walls of their own house, as bastard children of a Cardinal they could not be properly acknowledged, at least not in the earlier parts of Rodrigo’s career. This left them wealthy and well-set-up, but also rootless in a world of enemies.  Our protagonists here will be Rodrigo’s children by the primary mistress of his Roman pre-papal years, Vannozza dei Cattanei.  He had other bastards both before and after, but none that will interest us as much as Giovanni Borgia (1476/7?-1497), Cesare Borgia (1475/6?-1507), Lucrezia Borgia (1480-1519) and Gioffredo Borgia(1482-1518).

A Pope Like No Other:

Rodrigo now had one goal: permanently establish the Borgia as one of the great families of Europe.  He was an old man, and had to move fast.  He bought a ducal title for his intended heir, Pier Luigi.  When Pier Luigi died, he bought one for the next son, Giovanni, and made Giovanni commander of the papal armies.  He married his younger son (Gioffredo, aged 12) to a princess of Naples (aged 16).  He filled the College of Cardinals with stooges who owed their positions and fortunes to the Borgia family, and ensured they had no other allies and many enemies, so they had nowhere to turn if they broke from the Borgia fold.  And he positioned his “nephew” Cesare in the College as a cardinal, just as his uncle had positioned him.

The ceiling of Alexander’s apartment.

All this is expected of a Renaissance pope. He spent lavish sums on redecorating the papal apartments within the Vatican palace, with the Borgia bull all over them.  He took a new mistress, the young and enchanting Giulia Farnese, and soon the papal palace rang with the cries of a newborn papal princess.  He gave vast sums from the Church’s coffers directly to his children, to spend on amassing land and personal troops.  He made corrupt appointments of clerics that fed vast sums into the pockets of allies who never went near the abbeys or peoples whose spiritual well-being they were supposed to oversee.  He used papal military forces to pursue personal family vendettas, particularly against the Orsini and Delle Rovere. All this was also pretty standard for a Renaissance pope.  Here is where it gets exceptional. Cardinals and other powerful figures who opposed the Borgias kept dying–sometimes of symptoms suggesting poison, sometimes of bloody assassinations, sometimes of obviously trumped up court sentences, or of unexplained issues while they were incarcerated in the private papal prison in Castel san Angelo.  The estates of the condemned kept getting confiscated by the holy see, and winding up, not in the papal treasury, but privately in the hands of the popes sons and cousins.  Giovanni was a Duke, and begins demanding to be treated as the equal of the many Italian nobles who had looked down their noses all those years at the half-Spanish mutts.  Cesare, meanwhile, positioned in the papal conclave and with fourteen-or-so other Cardinals appointed by his father and sure to vote his way, was in a good position to succeed his father in the next election.  Now the papacy was ready to become a permanent hereditary Borgia monarchy.

More Borgia Bulls, on Alexander’s ceiling.  The next pope refused to live in those rooms, and made new ones.  Now they keep confusing modern art there.

In 1494 big problems began, somewhat hard to summarize, but largely revolving around the primary rival Borgia had defeated in that hard-fought 1492 election: Giuliano della Rovere.

  • Giuliano della Rovere: “Hey, King of France!  This Borgia pope is evil!”
  • France: “What’s wrong with him?”
  • Giuliano della Rovere: “He’s better at bribing people than I am, and bought the election I was trying to buy! I hate him! I hate him!! I hate him!!!”
  • France: “Is that so?   What a strange and marvelous age we live in.”
  • Giuliano della Rovere: “He’s also Spanish.”
  • France: “What?  We hate those guys!”
  • Giuliano della Rovere: “Please invade Italy!”
  • France: “Srsly?”
  • Giuliano della Rovere: “To oust the evil Borgia pope and free Rome from corruption that isn’t mine!  And if you make me pope, I’ll be your buddy and do whatever you want.”
  • France: “Tempting… say, Naples is in Italy, right?  I seem to remember my distant cousin being King of Naples…”
  • Ludovico Sforza: “Your Highness should totally invade Italy.  On the way in, might I recommend attacking Milan?”
  • France: “Sforza?  Aren’t you the Duke of Milan?”
  • Ludovico Sforza: “No, my nephew is Duke of Milan.  Please invade Italy, attack my home city, and murder my closest relative!”
  • Della Rovere: “Makes sense to me.”
  • France: “You Italians have very strange priorities.  OK.  I suddenly care deeply about this evil Spanish pope. I will oust him!”
  • Sforza & della Rovere: “Hooray!  France is invading Italy!”
  • Italy: “Waaaaaaaaaaaaaah!”
  • France: “CRUSH THINGS!”
  • Della Rovere: “Hey, don’t crush too much!  I want to tyrannize this stuff later.”
  • France: “CRUSH MILAN!”
  • Sforza: “Thank you!”
  • Other Sforza: “You jerk!!”
  • France: “CRUSH FLORENCE!”
  • Savonarola: “Have you considered not crushing Florence?”
  • France: “Oh, I thought you Italians liked being crushed; my mistake.”  *gentle condescending head pat*
  • Machiavelli: “What the… that worked?!  How did that work?!?!”
  • France: “CRUSH ROME!”
  • Della Rovere: “Excellent!  Now, get that evil Borgia pope!”
  • France: “Right.  Where is this evil Borgia pope?”
  • Alexander VI: “Hello, Your Majesty.  Would you like me to make you King of Naples?”
  • Ludovico Sforza: “Great idea!  Go crush Naples!”
  • France: “Did you two read my character sheet or something?  Yes!  Naples!  That is indeed what I want.”
  • Alexander VI: “I hereby crown you King of Naples.  Now you can crush and tyrannize the entire southern half of Italy without consequence.  I shall tyrannize the middle, and you and Sforza can share the top.”
  • Ludovico Sforza: “Here’s a big bat.  Have fun!”
  • France: “I AM THE KING OF NAPLES!  CRUSH THINGS!!!!”
  • Della Rovere: “But, the evil Borgia pope…”
  • France: BANG!  CRASH!!  SMASH!!!  “Sorry, can’t hear you, della Rovere, busy conquering Naples.”
  • Della Rovere: “Borgia bad!  You said you’d oust Borgia!”
  • France: “Yeah, I can see why Borgia out-bribed you at the election.  He’s way better at this evil pope stuff!”  SMASH!!!!
  • Alexander VI: “In the name of Saint Peter, CRUSH THINGS!!!!”
  • Italy: “Wait, did the papal runner-up just invite the French to invade, and then the pope encouraged them to invade more, and then the pope started a new war of his own to seize the ravaged territories?  That’s a new one for the ‘worst popes’ book!”
  • Alexander VI: “Della Rovere did it.”
  • Della Rovere: “Borgia did it.”
  • Savonarola: “THIS POPE IS THE ANTICHRIST!  THESE ARE THE END TIMES!  APOCALYPSE! JUDGMENT!”
  • Everyone: “You know, that explains a lot…”

But he remained the pope,  however destructive his exploits.  He had armies, money, his own prison-fortress, his own courts of law, political instincts honed by decades, detailed knowledge of everyone’s secrets, the authority to grant noble titles (like King of Naples), and the power to damn you to Hell forever and ever.  His every move made him more powerful at the cost of his enemies, so the worse things got, the bleaker the prospect of taking down the Borgia monster.

Lucrezia Borgia

If you can’t take down the monster, one traditional option is to marry it.  Yet in this case, even allying with the pope by marriage, effectively agreeing to permanently condone and support whatever antics he got up to, was not necessarily a permanent fix.  The infamous and enchanting Lucrezia Borgia deserves an entry of her own someday, but I will treat her briefly here.  She was supposed to be one of the most beautiful ladies in the world, with blonde hair which fell past her knees, and a keen and well-trained intellect.  I can testify personally to the latter, since I have read some of the letters she wrote to her father from Milan at the age of fourteen, and the depth of her understanding of the European situation as she warns her father of political turmoil along Italy’s northern border certainly adds plausibility to the impossible competence of a lot of teen-aged young adult and anime protagonists.  In marriage terms, she was the best catch in the world.  Unfortunately, she was too valuable.  Alexander engaged her to one noble, then broke it off in favor of a better one, then a better one (“What’re ya gonna do about it?  Her dad’s the pope!”).  Eventually he married her to a bastard of the Sforza, the ruling family of Milan, then when the Sforza weren’t valuable enough wrangled an annulment (the Sforza objected fiercely: “You can’t do that!  We’re Catholic!  Ending a marriage requires a special dispensation from the pop… oh, right. #%$&!”)  Next Alfonso of Aragon, from the Naples-Spanish royal family.  That one ended in a juicy (and unsolved) murder. All the rumors of corruption that follow corrupt rulers naturally followed the Borgias, and I mean all of them.  Every important person who died was poisoned by the Borgias.  Every body found floating in the Tiber was their fault.  Lucrezia was sleeping with her brothers.  Lucrezia was sleeping with her father.  Giovanni was sleeping with Gioffredo’s wife.  Giovanni murdered his own wife.  Cesare murdered Lucrezia’s second husband out of jealousy because he was in love with her.  Alexander was sleeping, not just with Julia Farnese, but with Julia Farnese’s brother Alessandro.  Alexander was sleeping with the Ottoman Sultan’s brother Cem.  Most of these rumors must be untrue, and experts have spent many years making baby steps toward sorting true from false, but the majority is pretty much impossible to verify.  It does seem to be true that there was a patch in there when so many Cardinals were being murdered that there were active betting pools in Rome where you could lay money on which Cardinal would be offed next.  I myself am half convinced by the numerous accounts that claim that Cesare used to go out in the streets at night and murder people for fun.  I mean, why not?  His dad’s the pope!  Many of the claims may be outlandish, but neither historical facts nor the rule of plausibility can really help us quash them when the facts we do have are so exactly what we would expect if everything was true.  For example, in 1498, two of Lucrezia’s household servants were found dead in the Tiber without explanation, and shortly thereafter she definitely gave birth to a bastard, which was officially declared to be Cesare’s son, then to be Alexander’s son, then to be her half-brother with no claim about who the father was.  What was history supposed to think?  And all this time, the Ottoman Sultan’s brother Cem, who was living in Rome as a political hostage, did spend a suspiciously large amount of time hangin’ with the Borgias.

Shock! Dismay! Much later romanticized image of Cesare, Lucrezia and Rodrigo as the body is brought in.

But these were small things.  In 1497, one of the bodies floating in the Tiber was their own.  Giovanni Borgia, Duke of Gandia, Alexander’s heir.  An untouched purse containing gold worth more than a year’s income to many Romans proved it was not a random murder.  Alexander launched an intense investigation, then suddenly halted it after less than two weeks without any announcement of the result.  No one was convicted.  Rumors blamed the Orsini.  Darker rumors blamed his fellow Borgias.  Young Gioffredo Borgia was accused, on the grounds that Giovanni was supposed to have been sleeping with his wife.  Cesare Borgia was accused on the grounds of… of… frankly, it just seems that everyone who knew Cesare and knew Giovanni and knew the situation just agreed, as if by instinct, that it was Cesare.  Nothing else made sense.  Fratricide–the narrative demands it.

The Dark Prince Rises:

Why kill Giovanni?  [Disclaimer: there is no proof Cesare did kill Giovanni.  I freely confess that my tendency to believe those who claim he did is based solely on (A) its consistency with his later actions, and (B) the fact that it feels narratively right.  There is no proof!]  Cesare was supposed to succeed his father as pope.  But Giovanni, he was the one who got to be a Duke, to marry a princess, to enjoy the lands and castles, and to carry on the Borgia name.  He had been the heir.  The logical next heir should have been Gioffredo.  Instead Cesare took center stage.  He renounced the Cardinalship, becoming the only man in history ever to do so.  His father pressured the French into giving him a princess for a wife, and a Ducal title.  So little did the actual people ruled by nobles matter to the aristocrats who owned them at the time that they decided to make him Duke of a region called Valentinois for the sole reason that, as Archbishop of Valencia, he was already nicknamed “Valentino”, and this way they wouldn’t have to change his nickname.  He took command of the papal armies, and control of the Borgia estates.  But Alexander continued to sort-of treat him as a Cardinal and he continued to sort-of act like one, making everyone worry that they might still intend Cesare to succeed his father as pope even though he was now also intending to succeed as worldly heir.  What did it mean?

This drawing by Leonardo Da Vinci is pretty-much unknown, but an expert whom I have reason to trust told me with confidence that he believes it is a portrait sketch of Cesare.

Titular power was not enough now.  During Giovanni’s years, Alexander had already started signing papal lands over to his son-and-heir, not as temporary leases but as permanent gifts, carving off pieces of the Papal States and creating a private Borgia kingdom out of what had been Rome’s.  You see, titular ducal titles like Gandia and Valentinoi,s to Italian eyes, just meant some faraway nowhereville which gives people money and makes us have to call them “Your Grace”.  Such territories didn’t matter, not like a territory in Italy would matter.  What Alexander and Cesare made now was different.  Alexander gave a big hunk of the papal states to Cesare, as a permanent gift.  The cities within the Papal States were governed by papal “Vicars,” i.e. nobility granted rule over sub-territories within the papal lands much as Dukes and Counts are granted sub-territories in a kingdom by a king or emperor.  These vicars were in theory appointed by the pope and could be replaced by him, though in practice the position was by custom passed along noble lines from father to son.  To depose them all and give their lands to his son as the new vicar was thus technically legal but practically unthinkable, and an as great a shock to the political scene as if a king of France had suddenly deposed half his top nobles.  It also implied Alexander’s intention to leave these territories in Borgia hands permanently.  Next Cesare raised armies and started, on small pretexts, attacking neighboring city-states and territories, ejecting the current rulers and adding them to his private Borgia kingdom.  (“What’re ya gonna do about it?  My dad’s the pope!”)   A new blotch appeared on the European map.  Let me repeat: a new blotch appeared on the European map, a kingdom out of nowhere, carved out in the heart of Italy, a kingdom which no longer belonged to the pope, or any Italian house, but to the Borgias.   Whether Cesare became pope next or not, he would be Duke—perhaps soon King—of an ever-growing chunk of the world.  No pope had done this.  No pope had done anything close to this.

Maps help, even if this is not the best.  The blue section in the middle is the Papal States.  The northern arm is what Alexander carved off for the Borgia kingdom.  Ferrara to the north (Yellow) and Modena (also yellow, west of it) are what became Borgia allies when Lucrezia married Alfonso D’Este.  Notice how Florence’s orange territory is now an inconvenient bite-shaped hole in the side of Cesare’s kingdom.

The new and growing Borgia Kingdom was an especially terrifying force in the eyes of those on its ever-changing borders.  The pattern rapidly became clear: ally with the pope–by marriage or treaty–or you are next on Cesare’s chopping block.  These were not subtle takeovers but outright sieges, with the full brutality of Renaissance warfare.  Even Ferrara—the untouchable no man’s land between Venice and Rome which no man dared disturb lest strife on the Venetian border weaken the power whose fleet was the only barrier between the Turk and Christendom—even here Cesare threatened war.  The threat of war with the Turk meant nothing to him.  He was ready to ravage Ferrara, and would have if the Duke hadn’t speedily married Lucrezia and agreed to condone and acknowledge all his new brother-in-law’s conquests.  So even the untouchable noble house of Este fell into Borgia hands.  And do you know what plump, gold-fatted city-state lay directly west of the patch where Cesare was playing king-unmaker?  Good guess.

Good morning, Mr. Machiavelli.  Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to prevent Cesare Borgia from conquering Florence.  You will serve as our official ambassador to his court.  You will shadow the Duke-Cardinal as closely as possible, report to us about his character and tactics, and develop a strategy to keep him from adding Tuscany to his expanding kingdom.  While at his court, you will need to maintain yourself and your team with grandeur sufficient to make him take us seriously as a political force, but we can’t send you any funds to pay for this, since Borgia has so completely destroyed peace and order in the region that bandits are rampaging through the countryside robbing and murdering all our couriers.  As always, should you or any member of your team be caught or killed, the Signoria will disavow all knowledge of your actions.  This message will self-destruct in a few weeks when your office is inevitably looted and burned, but if you throw it in the fire that will speed things up.

Thus began Machiavelli’s very special education in the conduct of a different kind of prince.

Cesare’s ducal coat of arms, adding the French fleur de lis after he successfully wins the King of France to his side.

Cesare Borgia was both feared and loved.  The “loved” part may seem out of place given Borgia infamy, but it was true.  The papal vicars Cesare replaced had been widely disliked by the peoples they ruled, since most of them were corrupt and more interested in family advancement than their people’s well-being.  Cesare offered something different, and in many cases better.  Better how?  Because the fundamental purpose of government, from the perspective of a butcher or a weaver, is to keep the peace and prevent killing and looting.  Cesare did that.  Cesare did that very, very well.  How?  If someone was caught causing strife in the streets, that person would be executed in the most horrifically graphic possible way and his corpse strung up in public.  Consequence: peace. Two examples of Cesare’s activities in this period crop up particularly vividly in the history books, and in Machiavelli’s “little book on princes.” The first is the case of Remirro de Orco.  Cesare conquered the territory of Romagna (East/middle hunk of Italy), including the city of Cesena.  Such was the chaos resulting from the violent upheaval and expulsion of the old rulers, that the region of Romagna had largely degenerated into chaos, banditry, killing and looting.  Cesare needed to bring order.  He appointed a mercenary captain named Remirro de Orco, one of his more loyal men, and commanded that he bring peace to the area as efficiently as possible by using maximum brutality.  Following Cesare’s order, Remirro carried out numerous executions, using methods gruesome even for the Renaissance, and speedily crushed the region under the iron heel of peace.  No one looted.  No one dared.  After peace was achieved, Cesare inspected the region and confirmed that it was indeed stable, arguably even more prosperous than it had been before his conquests, but that the people were fired with bitterness and rage.  The next morning, Cesare had departed, and Remirro de Orco was found in the town square of Cesena, having been sliced in half, with his gore-spewing entrails strewn across the decorative pavement.  No one doubted it was Cesare’s doing, but to Machaivelli’s astonishment, the effect of this unthinkable betrayal was instant and lasting peace.  The people were satisfied, even grateful, that Cesare had taken revenge upon the brutal oppressor, and the new, gentler vassal he left in place to rule the region was readily obeyed.  They did not blame Cesare for the atrocities loyal Remirro had carried out at his express order – instead they thanked him for avenging them.  Cesare was loved.

Coins minted by you-know-which-pope.

He was also feared, by other loyal vassals who noticed (as my father urged Crabbe and Goyle to) that the villain had a tendency to brutally murder people near him, even loyal servants.  This was unheard of.  The Handbook of Princes says the success of the prince depends on his ability to inspire loyalty and love from his vassals.  The vassal betraying the benefactor is the worst thing in Dante’s Inferno; Dante didn’t even have a section for benefactors who betray their vassals because it simply didn’t occur to the Renaissance political mind that one would ever want to.  But it did occur to Cesare. By this phase, by the way, Cesare’s face had been disfigured by syphilis, and he had taken to wearing a mask.  And dressing all in black.  Yes, ladies and gentlemen, he genuinely did go around dressed all in black wearing a mask, betraying and murdering people.  Sadly, we have no documentary evidence that he went “Wa ha ha!  Wa ha ha ha ha!” The nervousness that swept through Cesare’s vassals leads us to the second amazing incident, the massacre at Senigallia.  In very late 1502, several of the vassals who had supported Cesare in return for receiving power under him and having his help crushing their enemies became increasingly afraid, both for their lives and for Italy and Europe, and plotted against him.   This was really quite rational.  But they were disorganized and uncertain, and did not follow through well.  They heard rumors that Cesare had heard about the plot.  They didn’t quite trust each other not to sell each other out to him.  One problem led to another, and in the end they decided to abandon the plot, confess to him that they had considered treason but renew their vows to follow him to the end, and beg his forgiveness.  They confessed.  He forgave.  They rejoiced.  He invited them to join him for a feast.  They heartily accepted.  He massacred them all.  High on Olympus Hestia sighed, and the vengeful Furies in the depths gnashed their teeth as the Laws of Hospitality lay wounded.  Cesare’s vassals never plotted against him again.

Our most reliable portrait of Machiavelli, made from his death mask.

I will never forget the letter written to Machiavelli by his friend Biagio Buonaccorsi on January 9th 1503, expressing absolute delight and abject gratitude and relief upon hearing that Machiavelli had survived the massacre at which so many of Cesare’s court had been killed.  Throughout this period, dear Niccolo’s friends and family were prepared to read any day that he had been killed, either with Cesare or by Cesare.  And they didn’t manage to send him his salary.  Once they tried giving it to Michelangelo to carry to him when he was en route to Rome, but even Michelangelo turned back in Cesare-ful times of banditry and chaos.  But something else unsettling was happening too.  What of our Handbooks of Princes?  Shouldn’t a betrayal like that make the rest of Cesare’s vassals turn and flee?  Shouldn’t these people rebel hearing rumors of his brutality?  Doesn’t the Handbook of Princes genre teach us that every move Cesare is making should fail?  Then why does every step he takes seem to be a step up?  They’re trying to turn the papacy into a hereditary monarchy, and they’re succeeding. It should be noted that Cesare’s rise does not necessarily completely undermine the advice in the traditional Handbook of Princes.  Providence has exalted tyrants before, and fools have followed them, many out of of fear.  The apparent (psychological) effects of the incidents with Remirro and at Senigallia are hard to explain, but this can still fit traditional narratives, especially if the Borgias fall in some appropriately cataclysmic way, demonstrating the wages of sin and the grisly fate that waits for bad princes and bad popes.  Then Cesare’s story can join our collections of moral anecdotes as an example of hubris and cruelty, while one of his enemies (Guidobaldo da Montefeltro perhaps?) becomes the hero.  But for now, hubris and cruelty seem to be winning the day.

A sample of Cesare’s surviving handwriting, with his signature at the bottom.

Machiavelli’s letters from the period include some of his reflections on these larger philosophical and historical questions, but he does not have the leisure to invent political science just now.  That must wait for the leisurely days of his exile.  On this mission, every second is reserved for Florence.  Seeing all who opposed the rising prince fall one by one, Machiavelli too chose to follow fear’s advice and suggested an alliance.  Florence accepted his plan and, after many careful approaches by their wily ambassador, so did Cesare.  Florence became an official Borgia ally, agreeing to recognize Cesare’s legitimate claim to his newly-carved kingdom and to offer money and resources to help him conquer more.  Florence was safe for now—at least, as safe as Remirro de Orco had been. And it is in this precarious state that we must leave Florence, and Machiavelli, and the triumphant Cesare for a little while, as the spring of 1503 promises Great Change.

Continued in Machavelli IV: Julius II, the Warrior Pope

Venice II: Mask Culture

 Posted by on March 15, 2012  Italy  8 Responses »
Mar 152012
 

Often in class I’m lecturing on some aspect of the Renaissance, of Rome, of Florence, and find myself needing to end a sentence with, “…well, except Venice, but Venice was weird.”

Venice is weird.  Very weird.  More weird than you think it is, and hopefully a taste of Venetian mask culture will make my point.  This is far from a comprehensive treatment, just a little review of tidbits I’ve picked up from the odd lecture here and there, and from visiting many, many mask shops.

Three types of masks roam wild in the shops (and, during Carnival on the streets) in Venice: Festival Masks, everyday masks, and Commedia dell’Arte masks.

Everyday Masks:

Two wise Carnival goers in decorated Bauta, the most comfortable full-face concealing mask.

Yes, there are such things, or rather there were.  Venice was an island capital, ruling a small land empire centered around its lagoon, plus a vast and far-flung naval empire stretching into the distant East.  It ruled numerous coastal cities and fortresses in Greece and the Middle East, and had constant dealings with exotic peoples that gave it great wealth, valuable trade secrets, and made it an object of envy and suspicion from the rest of Christendom.  Its status at the great central port of the Mediterranean made it a center of everything that had a center: trade, commerce, printing, philosophy, literature, fashion, languages, slavery, silk, paper, heresy, plague, prostitution, perfumes, theater, crime, and especially of exiles, as those who made the rest of the world too hot to hold them ran to the impregnable cosmopolitan island where so many strange peoples mixed refugee statesmen and poets and heretics and deposed kings and fallen tyrants could all hide safe from powerful but landlocked enemies.  Even the Medici traditionally picked Venice for their home-in-exile.

Venice was thus a nest of wealth, sin, crime, disease (so much disease!) and, above all, secrets.  Trade secrets were the most substantial, Venice’s glass trade in particular.  On the island of Murano, carefully segregated so the fires, an inevitability in pre-modern glass works, which periodically consumed the little island could not touch the city’s heart, the Venetians developed numerous new techniques which allowed them alone to produce very expensive marvels.  A famous example was their ability to create clear glass, using special quartz pebbles and imported soda ash, in an era when all rivals produced something yellow, brown or green.  They also kept innovating, so that every few generations, when outsiders did manage to smuggle out a secret, they gave up the old trade for a new miracle that only Venice could perform.  At many far-flung palaces in Sicily, in Spain, in the East, potentates prided themselves on local art, local produce, showcasing their nations’ glory, but still ordered the glass from Venice.

How does this relate to masks?  Venice was protective of its secrets, and passed severe laws to prevent their leakage.  Glass workers were strictly banned from communication with just about any outsider, and the Venetian nobility as well were for a long time legally forbidden to ever speak to a foreigner.  This is a sensible precaution, except when one has to, say, run a government, or participate in trade, or anything nobles actually do.  So, the custom developed that nobles would wear masks, and interact with foreigners in an official incognito, even though everyone knew they were nobles.  In fact, so codified was this rule, that I went to a talk on a 17th century case of a man who was very severely punished (imprisoned underground, i.e. in a watery pit!) for using a mask to dupe others into thinking he was a noble while cheating at gambling.  Venice was not amused.

Nobles did not have a monopoly on masks, they merely used them in a signature way.  Others used them in many aspects of Venetian life, for example prostitution.  For example, at one point the Patriarch (i.e. Cardinal) of Venice was concerned for Venice’s morals because the male prostitutes were pulling more business than the female.  An ordinance was passed permitting female prostitutes to display themselves nude in the windows of their establishments, to entice customers and encourage general heterosexuality.  The male prostitutes retaliated by appearing nude in the windows of their establishments wearing masks.  Anything one does while wearing a mask is legally “play” so unless it’s a severe crime (like defacing a Madonna) it isn’t prosecuted.

The everyday masks consist of the Bauta and the Muta (Moretta).

The Bauta is an incredibly comfortable and practical full-face mask, of which the upper part fits tight against the forehead, while the lower part is a triangular beak extending several inches forward.  This shape makes it easy to breath and speak, and not too difficult to eat and drink, without removing the mask.  The top is not rounded to go up to the hairline, but cut off horizontally in the middle of the forehead, to enable it to be worn with a hat.  The tricorn is the traditional companion, and combined with a black hood and long cloak, it makes the wearer into an amorphous, beaked cone.

If one wears any other kind of mask for a while (other than a simple half-mask or domino) one rapidly discovers why the Bauta is the shape it is, and that it really is a mask designed to be practical, concealing the face with minimal inconvenience. Originally the Bauta was leather, but later paper took over.  It was usually white, and often worn with a long black cloak, black hat, and a black hood, making for a very dramatic starkness.  It is the men’s mask.

The lady’s mask (brace yourselves, feminists) is the Moretta, or Muta, or “mute.”  It is a small oval-shaped mask which covers only the center of the face, leaving about an inch of skin visible all the way around.  It has round eye holes but no nostril holes and no mouth hole, and fits tightly to the face.

The curve of the mask largely conceals the shape of the nose, leaving a sense of complete blankness.  The effect of the completely formless, inhuman hole in the middle of the face, with nothing but the staring eyes, is distinctly eerie to behold.

I have no photos of women in muta because no one wears them. I do own one but haven’t photographed myself in it – too creepy.

A true Muta also has no straps.  Instead, a small button is sewn on the inside of the mask just where the lips are, and the wearer holds the mask on by gripping the button between her teeth.  This renders the wearer unable to speak, which, of course, a lady does not need to do.  (Grrrrr)  So prevalent was the Muta that, in parts of the 17th and 18th centuries, if a lady dressed in the finery of the upper classes went out without one, it was considered a declaration that she was a courtesan.  (Because our society still has issues, if you google image search “muta moretta” the first three hits at present are a woman in a muta doing dishes in a modern kitchen in her underwear.)

If shopping for masks in Venice, the Bauta is one of the most practical, usable masks one can choose, and is also easy to find in its authentic white or in a variety of fabulous decorated forms.  The Muta is also not hard to find, though most of the modern ones do have straps.  A well-made, well-sized Muta is guaranteed to creep people out, though if you are petite you may have trouble finding one that’s small enough, becuase it really needs to leave that inch of visible skin all around it or it doesn’t give off the same feeling of utter negation and inhumanity.

Festival Masks

Feathers and gold are just for special occasions.

Festival masks include all the spectacular, elaborate, idiosyncratic constructions of gold and feathers and flowers and animal faces and decoupage that fill the shops and stalls of Venice, and leak out into other tourist centers like Florence and Rome.  Such masks are art objects, eye-candy with little-to-no historicity to them.  Elaborate showpiece masks were indeed created for the pageants at carnivals, and worn at masked balls, but they were never more than costume pieces, and the truly elaborate ones made today of metallic lacework or covered with sparkling crystals are pure invention.  The charming animal masks, I’m sad to say, also have few historical precedents, except that the carnival floats did involve allegorical creatures of every sort you can imagine.

These masks are, when made the traditional way, papier-mâché, made from a special, very strong blue-gray paper which is layered in a plaster mold and held together with a mixture of water and a clear-drying white glue identical to Elmer’s.  (No flour is involved, unlike with elementary-school newspaper papier-mâché).  An original form for the mask is first made in re-usable oil-based modeling clay.  The clay form is covered with plaster to create the mold.  Then thousands of paper masks can be made from the mold.

Blue-gray paper drying inside a plastic mold. In a few hours it will be ready to have the rough edges trimmed off, then to be painted white and decorated.

Because the mold is the negative form, and the paper goes inside it, the first layer of paper you put down is the outer surface of the mask, and finer paper is used to make it smooth.  This technique means that every subtle texture and wrinkle that was on the clay transfers via the plaster to the paper, so you can create masks with very elaborate three-dimensional modeling, for example fine creases in the forehead and cheeks, quite easily, and reproduce the details with perfection every time.  Once complete, the masks are decorated with paint, decoupage and other items, and (when done properly) glazed with the same clear-drying white glue that formed them.  The result is reasonably sturdy so long as no strong pressures are put on it, and the plastic coating generated by the dried glue keeps it safe from small amounts of water, ink, food etc., making for a fairly sturdy product.

Blank masks, ready to become anything. The grotesque ones in the lower part are Commedia dell’Arte character masks.

A large portion of the masks currently for sale are made, not from paper, but from less sturdy mass-produced plastic.  These tend to be cheaper, but also break more easily, and when they do break they break completely, where the paper ones just get a bit bent and develop a fissure in the paint instead of cracking entirely.  The plastic ones also tend to be mass-decorated and less creative, but many of them are still beautiful.  It is also possible to buy blank masks, in both plastic and paper, to take home and decorate – I rarely manage to leave with fewer than 10 blank masks.

As for the cost of masks, on my last visit I observed the following prices:

  • Small, blank paint-it-yourself plastic mask, €2-€7
  • Small real paper paint-it-yourself blank mask (including Bauta) €8-20
  • Small, cheaply-decorated plastic mask (including Bauta) €12-25
  • More substantial and exciting paint-it-yourself blank mask (like a dragon or a lion) €25-35
  • Small, nicely hand decorated real paper mask €20-35
  • Large, more elaborate nicely decorated paper mask (including Bauta) €35-40
  • Wearable half-mask with feathers or fabric or veils or some such €45-60+
  • Large, very elaborate masks: €60 right up into the €200 range
  • Cheap quality real leather masks €30+
  • Authentic top quality real leather masks including stage-quality Commedia masks €150+

Commedia dell’Arte

The finest, most difficult to find, often the most expensive, and always the ugliest masks, are those of the Italian Comedy, or Commedia dell’Arte.  Most famous and popular in the 17th and 18th centuries, it is a great grandchild of Roman comedy, but because so much of the Middle Ages was illiterate, and so little low culture was recorded, we have little knowledge of the two generations in between.

The plays of the Commedia dell’Arte involve a set of stock characters who appear over and over in different scenarios.  Each character has a characteristic costume and signature mask, though individual mask designs can vary within set parameters (one wart or three, curly mustache or bushy mustache) etc.  They are all silly, distorted and exaggerated, and, from an artistic sense, ugly.  This is because the figures are caricature parodies, intended to exaggerate character types the Renaissance and Enlightenment found funny.

A real Harlequin mask.

Many of the characters of the Commedia are famous and familiar, especially Harlequin, but most people familiar with Harlequin still don’t recognize a Harlequin mask if they see one, because the famous diamond pattern we associate with Harlequin is on the clothing, not the mask.  A Harlequin mask is black and pug-nosed with at least one large wart and sometimes a goofy mustache.

Paper Commedia masks abound in Venice and are by far the most economical choice when one wants to collect them all, but the masks that were (and are) used on stage are leather, not paper, and it is still possible to find leather masks in Venice, and elsewhere.  These masks are flexible and much more durable and comfortable.  They are also much more difficult to make, and consequently expensive.  Not only is leather a more expensive material than paper, but the process is more labor-intensive and requires more skill.

Leather mask molds, made of carved wood.

This is largely because the mold is backwards.  In making a paper mask, the mold is negative, and the soft paper goes inside.  In a leather mask the wooden mold is positive, and the leather is stretched over the outside.  This means that for the paper, fine details can be sculpted into the original and included in the mold, so every crease and wrinkle comes across perfectly in every paper copy.  With the leather masks, the outer surface of the leather is smooth, so fine details like wrinkles have to be tooled in by hand on every individual mask, making each product more unique, but also requiring a much more practiced hand.

For this reason there is an enormous difference between low- and high-quality  leather masks, in price and in detail.  Low quality leather masks, which are generally still quite awesome, usually lack any three-dimensional surface details, since they were made by simply stretching the leather over a mold without further tooling.  They also tend to have a rougher, more organic texture.  It is possible to find nice leather masks of this type for as little as thirty or forty euros.  On the other hand, the stage-quality, fully tooled ones are extremely smooth and shiny, and tend to start at 150 euros and go up and up and up.

A lower quality molded leather Pantalone mask (Pantalone = old Venetian merchant character)  Its roughness has a fun, crude feel that reminds me of orcs.

Top quality tooled leather Pantalone, with sheepskin eyebrows and a nice wart. To be worn with pointed white fake beard.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Just set side-by-side a leather stage-quality Commedia mask is generally much less beautiful than  carnival masks which cost less than half as much, but to me it’s worth it. The big difference comes when you put one on.

These beauties don’t need a human face behind them to look fantastic.

Donning a beautiful mask makes you look awesome and somewhat mysterious and exotic, but the masks themselves are independent art, and often look just as fantastic on the shelf or wall as on a person.  A Commedia mask, though, comes to life when it’s on a human face, and suddenly a strange, lively new creature is standing in the room.  I’ve never seen anything quite like the burst of delight that hits a friend’s face when she watches another friend pop on a Pulcinella or a Pantalone, or the absolute transformation of body language of the wearer as he sees himself in the mirror and feels like someone else.  It isn’t putting on a mask, it’s putting on a person, and the exaggerated eyebrows and ridiculous noses have been perfected over centuries to create a delightful, entertaining new life-form, the creature of the Comedy.  At home, where my many, many, too many Venetian masks range across the shelves, it’s the Carnival masks that always make first-time visitors ooh and aah, but when the moment comes to try one on I always reach first for the Commedia.

As for the characters themselves, I’ll review them in another post.

Meanwhile a quick survey:

I’m taking a jaunt to the US this month, and want to bring back some fun goodies for my Italian friends.  What non-perishable, portable, only-available-in-America food can you think of which would be a good present to bring back?  Just don’t say Twinkies – they’re so (in)famous I’ve already had a request!

Mar 022012
 

What is Venice’s carnival actually like?

Venice’s modern carnival is not a traditional folk and fertility festival.  It does not have mummers and green men and pitchforks and man-women and ceremonial uses of straw and swords and alcohol (for that see a friend’s excellent post on a Basque Carnival).  It is also not what it was in the Renaissance, an elaborate civic celebration-reversal, at which the rules of propriety were (witin limits) reversed, as the city displayed its wealth with gilded ships and gem-covered costumes, and paid vast sums to prominent artists to produce elaborate parade floats covered with mechanical universes and moving golden lions and actors dressed as confusing allegories.

What it is now is a very grand tourist attraction at which an already overwhelmingly beautiful and alien city is suddenly populated by fantastical creatures and time travelers in elegant finery and three-cornered hats.

A Fountain by the Doge’s Palace flows with wine. Really.

In Saint Mark’s square a not-very-well-engineered stage hosts mediocre entertainments, from ad hoc costume contests to poorly-microphoned musical acts.  Behind the closed doors of expensive palaces-turned-hotel-restaurant-theater, people pay $200+ a head to attend grand pseudo-period fantasy banquets and masked balls. Venice’s year-round delights also remain: the gold mosaic Basilica of San Marco, the Doge’s palace, unique and world-class museums and galleries.  All this is wonderful but unnecessary.  As I promised the friends who joined me for Carnival this year (and as they can now cheerfully confirm) one does not need any activities or entertainments of any kind to have a blast at Carnival.  One simply has to do one thing: get lost.

Even without its Carnival-only costumed population, Venice is eerily beautiful, and distant-feeling even when you’re there.  If reaching Florence feels like stepping into a cross-section of the past, our ancestors’ world, not ours, Venice feels like a cross-section of the past of a different species.  Everything is too delicate, ornamented with too many curves, too-elaborate windows, too colorful stonework, every surface a faerie facade.  Many of the palaces (there are no non-palaces in Venice) are pink, even the blown glass street lamps pink, but you don’t even notice that it’s pink because the color itself doesn’t register as much as the fact that everything is just a hair more beautiful, calculated for ornament rather than defense or practicality.  Where are the battlements?  Where the ditches?  Where the triangles of struggling grass between ill-laid streets?  This is not a real city, it’s some kind of theater set, all ornament with all the practical parts left out.


A main street in Venice.

Venice is also a maze of twisty passages all unique, and the most difficult city to navigate that I have ever found.  It isn’t just that it lacks a grid system, but that it lacks any main streets whatsoever and consists entirely of meandering alleys.  After all, the main streets are canals, so you can’t walk on them – imagine navigating any other town without being allowed to ever go on any large street.  In addition, no angle is 90°, no street is straight, no two points are connected by any kind of line, and a quarter of the streets are tunnels leading under palaces which have grown to cover them like a forest canopy uniting over an abandoned campsite.  The streets are also incredibly narrow, so one can’t look up at an angle and see that a particular tower or landmark is That Way therefore That Way is East.  The lack of 90° angles makes it very easy to get gradually turned around, and even people very good at navigating frequently end up thinking North is East and East South as a series of turns which seem to be heading consistently in one direction meander in another.  Hence my summary: in Venice one is either (A) in Saint Mark’s Square, (B) on the Rialto bridge, or (C) lost.

Standing on Rialto bridge, therefore not lost.

 

It is, in fact, possible to navigate in Venice, but it requires a huge amount of concentration and constant map checking, so unless one has an appointment, why bother?  Everything is equally beautiful.  It’s an island; it’s not as if you can accidentally fall off the edge and wind up in Padua.  Wherever you go there will be amazing palaces, intriguing mask shops, overpriced pizza, zillions and zillions of winged lions (Saint Mark, the symbol of the city) and you may as well turn left as right at any given point.  It’s like the genius of Tom Sawyer’s Island at Disneyland, where joyful parents can sit down while kids run wild and wear themselves out on the self-contained plastic island which it is impossible for an unaccompanied child to escape.  While on this island, everything is fine.  The city is filled, furthermore, with signs pointing to either San Marco or the Rialto, so, wherever you are, you can find one of these two points and, from it, take the water shuttle to where you need to be.  In fact, I highly recommend finding a hotel as close as possible to Saint Mark’s square (here is my preferred), since then magically Venice is filled with signs directing you home.  Often, of course, a square will have two signs pointing to San Marco in completely different directions; both are correct, because there is no straight line, not in Venice.

Time flies incredibly when one is wandering from alley to alley through an alien wonderland, and no further planned activity is necessary.  Venice cycles through many repeated shops, selling the same mass-produced tourist items which are still worth getting, for the most part, since they’re really nice mass-produced tourist items: velvet pouches and purses, masks, lace, beautiful glass work, masks, silk and satin draperies, masks, art prints, masks, beads, masks, and also masks.  During Carnival masks appear even in the shops that don’t sell masks, and every restaurant and hotel hangs up a few of these mandatory proofs that one is not a stick-in-the-mud.  Between these and the costumes, the days vanish, an afternoon seeming an hour, as one wanders and wanders and simply wanders.  When footsore, one hops on the water bus and rides around the city circumference or along the grand canal, where the most elaborate palace facades face, since, after all, water, not land, is the intended approach to these grand houses.

It is worth mentioning that on the last weekend there is usually something quite spectacular in Saint Mark’s Square (a fire show when I went, with dancers with flaming spears, and a huge dragon puppet that they set on fire) but apart from that, none of the public entertainments are generally as exciting as the city itself.

A flaming cyclops at the Carnival finale.

 

There are four categories of costumes seen on the streets at Venice’s contemporary carnival.

The first are extremely elaborate, colorful fantasy pieces with full-face masks in bold, overwhelming colors and luxurious fabrics, many period but some modern, designed to create the most visually striking thing a human being can still arguably stand up in.  Some are home-made, many rented.  Most commonly one sees couples, pairs, one male one female, intended to be worn together, but sometimes solos and sometimes larger groups.  Such costumes completely restrict one’s ability to do anything, including eat, talk, see more than a tunnel in front of you, and also doom you to the mercy of temperature, and walking too becomes a challenge.  For this reason, these costumes cluster around San Marco square, where they stand to be seen and photographed, and one can spend happy hours in the square going from group to group and enjoying the ingenious whimsy of the tailor’s art.

 

Not all the costumes are designed to look or feel period.  Modern fabrics, contemporary neon colors, and modern themes are worked in.  Some of the more ambitious modern designs move farther and farther from the notion of “Garment”:

The average alley in Venice is about 4 feet wide.  This person will be here all day.

The second category are period pieces, inspired not by the wholly fantastic costumes of those who rode the parade floats in the Renaissance, but by the spectators:

The Eighteenth Century: when pink was still a manly color.

These costumes tend to imitate the period of the peak of the carnival’s opulence and fame, which was not, in fact, in the Renaissance proper, but in the Eighteenth Century, so the costumes one sees are mainly Eighteenth Century.  This means for gentlemen long waistcoats, lacy cuffs and cravats or jabots, tricorne hats, coats with vast pleated tails, richly worked brocades, white powdered wigs, heavy walking sticks, and the kind of leather shoes with buckles or bows that one associates in US culture with the founding fathers.  For ladies, the brocades are even more richly worked, the sleeves usually elbow-length with lace dripping to the wrists, the bodices taut and square with the lacing hidden, the skirts wide, not with circular hoops but with panniers which extend the skirts far out to each side (trivia of the moment, the word derives from baskets hung on either side of a donkey), and the wigs tall with clusters of bizarre objects like feathers and scarves and gems and seashells and toy boats woven into them in what should look like birds’ nests but do manage to register to the mind as hats.  Such costumes are worn sometimes with beautiful but practical half-masks, and sometimes without.

 

Venice: where ladies in hoop skirts go to take pictures of ladies in hoop skirts.

 

Third come irregular historical and whimsical pieces.  Someone always dresses as the Doge.  Other historical figures like Dante or Galileo may crop up.  Some adopt characters from the Commedia dell’Arte, so Pulcinella, Harlequin, others generic 13th or 14th or 15th or 16th or 17th or 19th Century dress.  Into this category then creep more marginal costumes: women in leather bodices and not much else, girls in Renn Fest gear, the odd Naruto or other anime creature, and young people with pink hair and neon green tail coats with sparkly skulls embroidered on them and platform shoes that light up.  Why not?

Only the Doge can have the Doge Hat. It’s the Best Hat.

Tolkein’s Elves put in an appearance.

 

Dramatically posing gothic silver crystal scale bird plague thing?

And last, there are little kids in the kind of cheap costumes as clowns or faeries or witches or batman that one buys mass-produced, just like at Halloween.

By my estimate 15% of the Carnival attendees are in costume.  Another 20% are just in masks, which they buy mostly on arrival to get into the spirit of the thing, and a further 15% succumb to the desire for costume enough to buy a cloak and/or hat to wear over coat and jeans.  Of those in fancy costume almost all are foreigners, mainly anglophone.  Of those just in masks, 50% may be Italian.  Keep in mind that Venice’s tourist population outnumbers its native population at least 3:1 at all times, moreso at Carnival, and that its separate population of resident foreign college students, also substantially anglophone, also outnumbers the native population not quite 2:1, making Venetians less than 20% of the people on the streets.  In fact, there are only 20,000 Venetians and something well over 100,000 outsiders at any given time, and most of the Venetians, for real estate price reasons, have retreated to living on the shore anyway.  A hotel or shop simply makes so much money that it is very difficult to turn that down in favor of a residence.  It is for this reason that it’s not rare to find someone who both identifies as Venetian and grew up in Padua.

Venice at Carnival is also incredibly crowded.  This year I went in the middle of a deadly cold snap, and it was simply very crowded.  In good weather it is so crowded that one can barely walk through the streets.  At one point I literally encountered deadlocked foot traffic, an intersection at which so many people were shoving in from all 4 directions that it became physically jammed with bodies and was impossible to move, and the poor people in the center were literally trapped and unable to escape – after fully 30 minutes of shoving I gave up and went back the way I came.

The question of whether one wants to go to Venice for Carnival thus comes down to how fun one thinks it is to see the city populated with fantastic creatures in among the masses.  Venice is always beautiful, the canals always serene, the sunsets always stunning, the mask shops always open, a simple ride around and around on the water bus always perfect.  During Carnival prices go up, hotels fill, restaurants run out of tables, streets are crammed with people, attendants outside monuments get more fed-up and rude, but in the streets one catches little dream-like glimpses Doges, and Counts and dramatic cloaked figures, and mysterious masked ladies, and fantastic creatures from the historic other-race that instinct tells you built this miracle city.  For me, it’s a fair trade.

Read more about Venice’s Mask Culture.

Jan 202012
 

I have just returned from a jaunt through Sicily, where the change of cityscape was a perfect reminder of how useful the ability to spot saints can be.  I popped into church after church, and by the fourth it was easy to tell we weren’t in Florence anymore, and not just by the prevalence of baroque frufru on the altars.  San Lorenzo was scarcely anywhere to be seen, John the Baptist uncommon at best, Zenobius and Reparata distant memories, while every single church had an altarpiece or, more often, wooden statue of the two virgin martyrs Agatha and Lucy.  Two guesses who are the patron saints of major cities in Sicily.

Saint Agatha (died around 250 AD)

  • Common attributes: Breasts on a platter, breasts cut off, martyr’s palm
  • Occasional attributes: Pliers or pincers or big scissors, dressed in antique Roman-style robes
  • Patron saint of: Victims of rape and torture, single women, wet nurses, protection against volcanic eruptions, and fire, and natural disasters in general
  • Patron of places: Sicily, especially Palermo and areas where Mt. Etna’s eruptions threaten
  • Feast day: February 5th
  • Most often depicted: Standing around with other saints, having her breasts ripped off
  • Relics: Catania (Sicily)

Saint Agatha is, like Catherine, one of the popular set of late Roman beautiful virgin martyr saints.  The story is, like many of such vintage, tangled and unreliable, and follows a fairly stock sequence of romance and persecution, but in Agatha’s case she dedicated her virginity to God but was lusted after by a Roman official, Quintinianus.  He persecuted her for her rejection of him, and sent her to a brothel, but she refused to succumb.  The stories have her make some very sophisticated philosophical arguments against pagan idols.  Eventually he had her tortured, including having her breasts cut or ripped off, though an apparition St. Peter miraculously healed them.  She died in prison.

Agatha is protector against fire because of some of the tortures she endured.  This makes her extremely popular in Sicily, which is dominated by the towering volcano of Mt. Etna.  Some active volcanoes sort-of sit there rather calmly, or lurk building up steam for a millennium or two before destroying Pompeii again, but not Etna.  Etna erupts all the time.   It erupted two or three times last year alone.  Heck, it erupted while I was there, just a little eruption, but enough for the lava to trail visibly down through the snow cap like spilled ink.  Now, usually it just erupts around the crater part where no one lives, but it does erupt enough to destroy some inhabited ground once every few decades, making protection against fire the top question on everyone’s minds.  They have Agatha’s veil there and occasionally get it out and parade it in front of the lava as it’s coming down to try to get it to stop, and, miraculously, it sometimes does.  During one such incident the veil miraculously turned from white to red, confirming its special powers.

Like many martyr saints, Agatha carries the symbols of her martyrdom, in this case usually her severed breasts on a platter.  In art, the challenge is less to recognize this very distinct attribute, than to overcome the average early artist’s complete inability to visualize what breasts sitting on a platter would look like.   One sees a female saint holding a tray with… are those muffins?  Oranges?  Bells?  Bags?  Little pyramidal paperweights?  Oh!  It’s Agatha.

Saint Lucy (Santa Lucia, 283-304 AD)

  • Common attributes: Eyeballs on a platter, eyeballs on a cup or something other than a platter, lamp or cup with a flame in it possibly also with eyeballs in it, martyr’s palm.  Note that despite the eyeballs, she will still herself have eyes.
  • Occasional attributes: Sword, dressed in antique Roman-style robes
  • Patron saint of: Eyesight, blind people, writers (who need to read a lot!) especially Dante.
  • Patron of places: Perugia, Syracuse (Sicily), Malta
  • Feast day: December 13th
  • Most often depicted: Standing around with other saints, especially Agatha
  • Relics: Venice

Lucy was a little later than Agatha and intentionally followed her model, even receiving a visit from Agatha’s spirit.  In Lucy’s case she rejected a pagan bridegroom and wanted to give her dowry to the poor.  The disappointed suitor denounced her, and she was sentenced to be taken to a brothel, but became miraculously heavy, so the guards couldn’t lift her, even when they tied her to some oxen and had them pull.  She was then tortured and killed.

Lucy’s name means light, and this is the source of her association with eyesight.  The story of her having her eyes put out is a late addition, probably derived from the association rather than the other way around.  Renaissance artists are about as bad at drawing eyeballs as they are at breasts, but they generally just paint a pair of non-ball eyes, which are much easier to recognize than Agatha’s muffins.

Lucy was Dante’s personal patron saint, so it is to she that Beatrice turned within the hierarchy of heaven when Beatrice wanted permission to give Dante his tour of the afterlife.  Lucy then went to Mary, who arranged things with the King.

And now, Spot the Saint Quiz Time:

Quiz yourself on the saints you know so far.  (click here for a higher-res image)

Sorry it’s hard to see what she’s holding. Even in the room with the original painting it’s hard to see.

Jump to the next Spot the Saint entry.

A Passion for Porphyry

 Posted by on December 22, 2011  History  5 Responses »
Dec 222011
 

The Vatican museum: hall after hall of ancient Rome.  Shelves crowd the corridors with busts of Caesar, of Cicero, of a hundred obscure Senators, of still more-obscure Romans, anonymous but vivid with two-thousand-year expressions of resolve or grit or whimsy crowded shelf on shelf.  Here sits Penelope still patient, Diana hunting, Bacchus laughing merry, while somewhere in the distance the Sistine Chapel lurks, complacent in its celebrity.  In the Hall of Animals, Roman hounds sniff at Roman horses, rabbits, crabs, crocodiles, camel heads with their enormous, gummy lips, all stone.  The Belvedere Courtyard stunned you with its circle of masterpieces every one of which transformed the history of sculpture: the Belvedere Apollo, the Belvedere Torso that so fascinated Michelangelo, and, as matchless when the Renaissance unearthed it as it was when Pliny called it the best of sculptures 1500 years before, the real Laocoön.  The walls and ceilings of the patchwork labyrinth-palace are such an ocean of gilded cornices and marble tracework that it becomes impossible to tell north from south or ground from upper floors, so all sense of grounded space is long gone as you turn the corner into a grand scarlet rotunda, floored with vivid Roman mosaics.  Statues of gods and emperors loom, more than twice life-height: grim-faced Athena, tired Claudius, the massive gilded Hercules; while the friend beside you stops dead and, slack-jawed, points at a big stone tub in the middle of the room: “Look at the size of that hunk of porphyry!”

Yes, it’s porphyry, a dark, reddish-purple speckly stone, and this room, for the many who enter and ooh and aah and glittering Hercules, is another moment of material illiteracy.  Just as a Catholic spots John the Baptist by his hairshirt, and a fashionista a Gucci handbag by whatever alien cues its curves contain, so from the Roman Republic to Napolean a European knew what porphyry implies: Wealth, Technology, Empire, Rome.

Porphyry has become a generic term for igneous rock containing large spots (crystals), but the source of the name is the Greek word for purple, and the purple form is the true original.  This is referred to as Red Porphry, Purple Porphyry, or, most aptly, Imperial Porphyry.


The Imperial Porphyry found in Italy came from a single mine in Egypt, the Mons Porphyrites.  It was imported by the Romans as a decorative accent stone, for use in tiled floors, as colored columns, or occasionally carved into a vase or sculpture.  Its color invokes Royal Purple, but is also very close to the color of the fabulously expensive shellfish-based purple dye which produced the purple stripe which marked the tunics and togas of the Senatorial class.  This also dyed the completely purple toga worn by those who occupied the rare and severely powerful office of Censor, a special official created only on occasions, whose task was to examine the state of the Senatorial families and judge which were still worthy of office and who should be removed or added to the roster of Rome’s leading citizens.

A Roman statue with a purple toga rendered in porphyry, from the Boboli gardens behind the Medici’s Pitti Palace.

Several Caesars held this special office, so purple, and porphyry, and as their palaces became more opulent it became increasingly an imperial symbol.  In Constantinople, once the capitol moved in the late empire, the imperial palace contained an entire room covered in porphyry, and this was traditionally where empresses gave birth, giving imperial princes and princesses the title Porphyrogenos, “born to the purple”.

Porphyry is extremely hard, also dense and heavy.  Even lifting a substantial hunk of porphyry is a great feat, let alone transporting it by ship from Egypt.  It is also so hard that it takes very strong, well-tempered steel to cut it, and even then, achieving any great degree of precision is very challenging.  The Romans had steel good enough, but it too was lost in the Middle Ages, making Roman porphyry artifacts not only symbols of the Caesars but of the impossible godlike skills of the ancients, which their weak successors could only marvel at.  It was physical, recognizable proof that the Romans could do the impossible.  In addition, the location of the mine in Egypt was lost around the fourth century AD, and not successfully rediscovered until 1823.

Imperial Porphyry has a cousin, green porphyry, or Lapis Lacedaemonius, commonly called Serpentine.  It is just as hard, coming from a mine near Sparta (or near the modern Greek town of Krokees).  It is speckled too though often with larger speckles, many somewhat rectangular or X-shaped.  The combination of rich green and purple, usually set in a white Italian marble background, was an extremely popular decorative element seen all over Rome, in the houses of Rome’s imitators, and especially in palaces and churches which re-used floor tiles looted from Roman sites.  Porphyry ornaments the floors of Rome’s greatest churches, with the size and density of porphyry among the framing stones increasing toward the altar.  The header at the top of this very blog shows a porphyry section from the floor of the Sala della Disputa, the frescoed room in the Vatican which hosts Raphael’s incomparable School of Athens, while the Sistine Chapel Floor (not a phrase you hear often enough) completes the opulence of the other decoration with a dense decoration more purple than white.

In the Middle Ages, then, porphyry meant Rome, specifically the lost power of the Caesars who could reach across oceans and achieve impossible feats.  Anywhere porphyry appeared it was a Roman relic, and anyone who had it could claim thereby to be an inheritor, in some small way, of that lost Imperium.  Porphyry also came, over the middle ages, to symbolize Christ (reddish purple = blood), but in the Middle Ages everything came to represent Christ, from griffins and unicorns to pelicans and pomegranates (no, it’s totally not a co-opted pagan symbol, why do you ask?), so what distinguished porphyry from the zillion other things that represented Christ was still its imperial connection and its technological unachievability.

Re-purposed porphyry in a Church floor, with remnants of its Roman inscription.

Thus everyone who’s everyone wanted porphyry, and if you wanted it, you had to steal it.  The only porphyry in Europe lay in things the Romans built, so every prince and republic and sculptor who wanted this symbol of Roman power had to steal it from the source.  Want to put in a nice porphyry floor for a Church?  Loot it from a Roman temple.  Want to advertise the imperial majesty of Mary Queen of Heaven?  Make the altar out of an old, repurposed porphyry sarcophagus.  If a pope wanted porphyry columns for his tomb, he had no better source than to go to some surviving Roman temple (say, the Pantheon…) and rip out the porphyry, perhaps if he’s polite substituting some less valuable stone to keep the looted edifice from falling down.

Some places already had porphyry brought there by the Romans, and in these cases it was proudly displayed as proof of the noble Roman origins of a town or province.  Even in Florence, on the baptistery which is the literal heart and center of the city, the gilded Gates of Paradise are still flanked by two old, cracked and mended, asymmetrical dark reddish columns, built into green and white facade despite a complete chromatic mismatch.  So old and dull are they that many don’t even notice them upon first or even third visit, but these are porphyry, relics of the Roman-era Church of Santa Reparata, or its predecessor, preserved and re-used here as proud proof of Florence’s Roman roots.

The Uffizi “lupa” i.e. she-wolf

Porphyry sculpture was even more impressive than a tile or column, since working such an adamantine substance into complex shapes required immense time and skill.  Diamond was rare and valuable and not a practical tool for trying to make a large chisel to work large stone, but short of diamond the only means to shape porphyry was to rub it against another piece of porphyry for a very long time, grinding both down, a clumsy, labor-intensive and imprecise technique.  Many, especially the Medici family, poured funds and efforts into researching ways to make a metal sharp enough to carve porphyry, or a solvent capable of weakening it, in hopes of adding this to their list of resurrected Roman achievements.  Even before they succeeded, however, possessing a Roman porphyry sculpture was an even grander boast than possessing simple tiles, and at last now we can understand why, in the Uffizi Gallery, where the great Roman sculpture treasures of the Medici are still housed, one comes around the corner to the very center of the U-shaped gallery, expecting to see in the center some exceptional masterpiece, an Emperor or bold Athena, one sees instead the mangled, limbless torso of an animal.  Look again: those hips, those hanging teats.  This is the mangled, limbless torso of a porphyry she-wolf, the symbol of Rome herself.

A porphyry bust at Versailles.

Naturally, the greatest concentration of porphyry lay (and lies) in and around Rome itself.  The farther you are from Rome, the scarcer (and more impressive) porphyry becomes.  Florence had a couple columns and the odd basin, but for more porphyry they had to buy or steal from Rome, or elsewhere.  The Venetians carried off large pieces of porphyry from Constantinople when they looted it, and still display them proudly as pulpits on either side of the main alter in San Marco.  Porphyry in northern Italy is comparatively scarce, so a Venetian palace with a few roundels in its facade makes a real statement.  Even as far as France, when Louis was decorating Versailles, porphyry was scarce indeed, but what few busts and vases he got hold of went straight into the best places: the throne room, and the Hall of Mirrors where every visitor would see, and understand, Louis = Caesar.

The pope always wins the Who-Has-The-Most-Porphyry Competition, and the Vatican is its grand display case.  The staggeringly enormous porphyry basin in the round sculpture room in the Vatican palace is referred to as Nero’s bathtub, and is the largest piece of porphyry I have ever seen; I would not be surprised to discover it is the largest in the world.

The sarcophagus of St. Helen

One is generally still reeling from trying to imagine the staggering cost and difficulty of creating and moving such an object, when in the next room one encounters an even more impossible vision: two enormous solid porphyry sarcophagi, both taller than a standing person, and covered in deep relief carvings of horsemen, prisoners and acanthus leaves.  This is Rome indeed.  Specifically, these are the sarcophagi of the women of Constantine’s family, including the tomb of his mother, Helen, or more specifically Saint Helen, who traveled to the holy land and brought back the True Cross and the Lance of Longinus and… at least one other major relic, but I can’t right now remember whether it was a nail or part of the Crown of Thorns, or perhaps that piece of the Holy Sponge they have in Rome…  (Spot the Saint moment: Helen’s attribute in art is that she carries the cross.)  Regardless, the two tombs have no Christian imagery, just the most Roman of Roman decorations, horsemen leading vanquished prisoners for Helen, and for the other fertility images.  In deep, impossible relief.  In an era when it was a substantial feat to scrape two looted pieces of porphyry into sufficiently matching shapes to make them seem symmetrical in a floor pattern, there is no purer proof of the godlike power of the ancients.  After that, there is just too much, and every further encounter with porphyry in the Vatican labyrinth feels like one, two, three, five, ten too many.

That guy should be taking a photo of the porphyry!

St. Peter’s is just as much a showroom for porphyry, with columns, tiles, tombs.  Every purple object that, from a distance, makes you think “is that porphyry?” turns out to be the genuine article.  And it’s worth keeping in mind that, except for the most modern pieces, they’re all relocated chunks of what were Roman temples scattered around the city from the Caesars’ days.

One large porphyry round in the floor close to the entrance is supposed to be the stone from the original St. Peter’s on which Charlemagne was crowned the first Holy Roman Emperor (and successor to the Caesars) on Easter, 800 AD.  It’s just inside the entrance in the exact center of the Church, sort of balancing the altar, secular power facing sacred.

Perhaps my favorite piece of papal porphyry, though, is this set of porphyry keys carved and set into other stonework in the threshold of the Church, so every visitor who enters walks across them.  Most ignore them, but in the pre-modern world one glance at heraldic papal keys in porphyry spells a very special kind of awe: not only does the pope have Porphyry but apparently he has the power to carve it into a Christian shape.  Clearly he is Rome’s successor.  With so many visiting feet for so many centuries, the papal threshold keys are also the best proof I know of the extreme hardness of porphyry, since the stone around them is worn down by more than a centimeter, while the keys stick up, unharmed by the tread of millions.  The Florentine Museum of the History of Science has examples of scientific instruments and grinding stones fashioned from porphyry, chosen for its rigidity and inelasticity as well as for its opulence.

It is not easy stopping traffic long enough to take this detail shot of the threshold of St. Peter’s

Note how much more detailed the carving on the marble chest is than the porphyry head on this bust of a late Medici.

The ability to carve porphyry was eventually recovered, and in the 18th century Roman relics were transformed into large numbers of sculptures, especially busts, of rather questionable taste and quality.  Porphyry remains hard to work with, so the very subtle curves and scratches necessary to make a really lifelike human portrait are simply impossible in it.  Its products are always a little too smooth and shiny, the edges of the eyes clumsily cut, the wrinkles a little too smooth, like waves rather than folds.  Also, purple with speckles is not the most flattering skin tone.

Fake porphyry was, naturally, an industry as well, and many of the most famous buildings in Europe contain not only real porphyry but painted fake porphyry, made of plaster or wood painted with the signature purple and speckles.  This was most often done for bases on which statues sat, or for trim around rooms, but the Villa Borghese in Rome contains whole tabletops of fake porphyry, with real porphyry busts nearby to make them plausible.  Porphyry was also a popular ingredient in painted scenes, especially paintings of imagined palaces, and of places intended to be ancient Rome.  And heaven, of course.  The halls of Heaven, where saints and angels pose for altarpieces, have plenty of porphyry.

Reverse of a decorative wooden platter, painted to look like porphyry