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.

Jul 122013
 

Alessandro_Gherardini_-_Saint_Jerome_penitentSaint Jerome

  • Common attributes: Book, lion, skull, cardinal’s hat, withered old man
  • Occasional attributes: Cardinal’s robes, crucifix, rock
  • Patron saint of: Translators, archivists, librarians, libraries, students and school children
  • Patron of places: Saint-Jérôme (Quebec)
  • Feast day: Sept 30 (June 15)
  • Most often depicted: In the wilderness contemplating death or Christ, writing in a book, hitting himself in the chest with a rock, having an angel blow a trumpet in his face, receiving his last communion before death
  • Relics: Santa Maria Maggiore, in Rome

For scholars, few historical figures are as central as St. Jerome (c. 347 – 420 AD), the great translator of the early Christian world.  Jerome was responsible for first translating large sections of the Bible from Greek and Hebrew into Latin, producing what would become the Vulgate, the standard Latin Bible which filtered Christian Europe’s understanding of scripture for over a thousand years.  Whenever you hear standard Church Latin chanted or quoted, it’s Jerome’s Latin, and he was responsible for such quirky translation moments as translating the “rays of light” which are supposed to radiate from Moses’ brow as “horns”, leading to horns or horns made of light becoming Moses’ perennial Spot-the-Saint-like-dude attribute.  He also wrote and translated other major works, including the Chronicon of Eusebius (a multi-calendar record of assorted events from Abraham to the late 300s which tells us a lot about early attempts at history and record keeping) and many commentaries, saints’ lives and other treasures of the not-otherwise-well-recorded past.  (A faithful facing page English-Latin translation of Jerome’s Vulgate bible was recently printed by the gorgeous new Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, for those interested in getting directly at the Latin form which shaped Catholicism so much.)

Jerome will never win a "most cheerful Saint to hang out with" competition, but I still want to discuss linguistics with him.

Jerome will never win a “most cheerful Saint to hang out with” competition, but I still want to discuss linguistics with him.

Jerome’s parents were Christian, but he himself started out pagan and had a truly top-notch classical education which left him quoting Cicero and Virgil all his life.  He enjoyed the traditional wanton youth that wealthy Romans so often enjoyed, then converted, and plunged himself into repentance and guilt.  Thereafter his primary activities were visiting catacombs to contemplate death, spending time alone in the wilderness contemplating death, and writing.  His life was dominated by a conflict between his profound love of the Greek and Latin classics, and deep shame that he still loved something he now considered wrong, corrupt and sinful.  He supposedly vowed at one point to never again read a non-Christian author, and there are anecdotes of him being repeatedly distracted mid-devotion by an overwhelming desire to read Cicero, particularly as he slogged through the rough and clumsy Latin of early Christian authors.  Jerome attempted to conquer this desire through mortification of the flesh (hence the paintings of him beating himself in the chest with a rock), but eventually determined to help others and himself by translating Christian texts into elegant Latin, so those who, like him, craved gorgeous prose could sate themselves, and not be tempted, as he so constantly was, to sneak some classics between sermons.  This made Jerome not only a founder of the Medieval literary canon, but a model for later authors, especially in the Renaissance, who wanted to figure out how to balance enthusiasm for Ovid and Homer with their Christian faith.  He was also a model for monks and hermits, since he was so dedicated to the hermetic life that even when he was made a bishop it was only on condition that he could continue to live in the wilderness contemplating death and writing alone.  While he is not patron of any particular monastic order, he appears frequently in monastic art as a general role model and core author of scholastic education.

Jerome's lion sits patiently as he contemplates the ablative absolute.

Jerome’s lion sits patiently as he contemplates the Ablative Absolute.

In addition to translating and collecting texts, Jerome took part in heresy fights, and wrote powerful and far-reaching pamphlets against the heresies of his day, like Origenism and Pelagianism.  Sometimes his activities were so effective that he got in trouble.  In Rome, for example, he convinced a few too many eligible young aristocratic ladies to become nuns, and was eventually driven out by families angry at losing the chance for politically advantageous marriages.  He left Rome for Antioch, but even here occasionally stirred up the odd angry mob when he wrote too fiercely against a rival sub-sect.

As I write it out here, his story is not particularly remarkable for a saint’s life, and he doesn’t have an exciting martyrdom or particularly flashy miracles.  What he does have is something far more unusual: a meaningful scholarly presence that is still discussed today by theologians and, more broadly, by historians.

Here Jerome has no beard, and is wearing his robes, and has a nice office instead of a cave and a rock, but he still has the telltale lion and industrious attitude.

Here Jerome has no beard, and is wearing his robes, and has a nice office instead of a cave and a rock, but he still has the telltale lion and industrious attitude.

In my daily work it’s common enough for me to be reading about Saint Luke, or Saint Bartholomew, or Saint Francis, to be studying their iconography, their followers, their influence, but with Jerome it’s different.  Jerome I look at as a source, and an interpreter: what he says about the date of a certain figure’s death, what he thought about the causes of a particular intellectual or political rift, comparing his reading and interpretation with those of other historians of his and later eras including our own.  Even with someone like St. Augustine I’m usually studying his ideas, not consulting his guidance in studying someone else.   Jerome is a secondary source, in essence, a predecessor and colleague of current historians, while the others are all primary sources, or, for those who left no writing, topics rather than sources at all.  It makes Jerome feel strangely more human, and I admit that I almost always forget to put the “Saint” in front of his name.

In art, Jerome is invariably depicted as a scrawny old man, almost always bearded.  He usually has his flat red Cardinal’s hat discarded on the ground somewhere nearby, but is wearing only a loincloth, or his red robes pulled down so as to work like a loincloth, leaving his care-weathered torso bare.  Occasionally, though, he is depicted in his full red robes, particularly when he is standing around among other saints, instead of off in the wilderness.

"HELLO! I AM AN ANGEL! CAN YOU HEAR ME?!"

“I’M AN ANGEL! CAN YOU HEAR ME?!”

 

There is a legend that Jerome removed a thorn from the paw of a rampaging lion, and so tamed it.  He is often accompanied by his lion, making it easy to mix him up with Saint Mark, especially since both of them usually have beards and books.  Rule of thumb: look for the cardinal’s hat.  If there is a cardinal’s hat and the lion has no wings then it’s Jerome.  If there is no hat, and the figure is wearing apostolic robes (i.e. a colorful toga-like drape), or if the lion has wings, then it’s Mark.  Sometimes St. Jerome is depicted at work being visited by angels, or hearing an angel blow the trumpet of the Last Judgment, which is often awkwardly framed so it looks like an angel blowing a horn in Jerome’s face.

Jerome is one of the original “Four Doctors of the Church,” and is often depicted with his three comrades, Saints Augustine, Ambrose and Gregory the Great.  I will discuss the set of four in another entry, but it means that if you ever see a set of four saints of which two have bishop hats, one has a papal tiara, and the fourth has a cardinal’s hat, you’re probably looking at the four doctors, and the cardinal is probably Jerome.  Especially if he looks like he might be thinking about Cicero.

0926cosmasanddamian1Saints Cosmas & Damian (Cosimo & Damiano)

  • Common attributes: Distinctive red hats, twins
  • Occasional attributes: Medical equipment
  • Patron saint of: Doctors, surgeons, barbers, taking care of kids, and of the Medici family
  • Patron of places: Mostly places the Medici used to own
  • Feast day: September 26 (or 27)
  • Most often depicted: Performing a miraculous leg transplant, being beheaded
  • Relics:  Cyrrus (in Syria), skulls at the Convent of the Poor Clares in Madrid

Cosmas and Damian are precisely the sort of saints that are not secondary or primary sources.  They are supposed to have died around 287 AD in Roman Syria, and effectively count as one saint despite there being two of them, since they are twin brothers who did everything together, including being martyred.  They were doctors, specifically surgeons, and are supposed to have worked for free for the poor.  Their most celebrated miracle was a miraculous leg transplant, from an Ethiopian (dead) donor onto a (presumably) Syrian or Roman patient, depicted in art with a very dark leg being transplanted onto a pale patient.

Angelico_Fra_2010-The_Healing_of_Justinian_by_Saint_Cosmas_and_Saint_Damian_San_Marco_Altarpiece

The historical pattern of Christian persecutions in the Eastern Roman Empire involved periods without much persecution followed by acute bouts of it, usually brought on by political pressures or the need to vent public dissent on a scapegoat.  The persecution of Diocletian fit this pattern exactly, and it was from this particularly massive and nasty one that Cosmas and Damian’s martyrdom story arises.  The full account says they were tortured but refused to give up their faith.  They were first hung from crosses for a while, then shot with arrows, and finally beheaded.  Some accounts have them beheaded along with a number of younger siblings, or possibly orphans they were caring for.

saint-cosmas-and-saint-damian-before-lisius-1440

Cosmas and Damian being sentenced in the persecution.

Cosmas and Damian were patron saints of the Medici family (Medici = doctor, Cosmas = Cosimo), so, despite their obscurity, they are extremely prominent cast members in any game of Spot the Saint involving Florentine artists.  In fact, spotting the pair of them in a painting, particularly if Lorenzo is with them, is a pretty powerful indicator that a Medici paid for whatever this is.  That makes them useful to art historians who are trying to identify the source and history of an otherwise unknown piece of art.  In fact, Cosmas and Damian are so closely tied to the Medici that they not only gave the name “Cosimo” to so many Medici named Cosimo, but the Medici sometimes had themselves painted in portraits as their patron saints.  In the pair below, the right half is a copy (by our good ol’ Medici stooge Vasari) of a classic portrait of Cosimo the Elder in his traditional Florentine merchant red hat and robes, but the addition of a halo has turned him into St. Cosimo, accompanied on the left by a portrait of Vasari’s patron Duke Cosimo I as Damiano, completing the pair.  Definitely the kind of hubris the Medici only displayed after they were in power.  The age difference between the “twins” is a little awkward, more so when you remember we are looking at men separated by several generations:

Giorgio-Vasari-Cosimo

When painted, Cosmas and Damian usually seem to be in their thirties or forties.  Their most reliable attribute is that they have matching hats, usually distinctive round red hats.  These are presumably doctors’ hats, and they generally wear red robes with them.  This is only a semi-reliable tell, however, since those hats and robes are actually just how Florentine doctors dressed, so it only holds true in Florentine paintings of them.  I remember going to Venice and seeing them in green and going “What the?!”  But since they aren’t depicted very often except by artists on Medici payroll, they usually look Florentine.  Other attributes–pill boxes, medical tools, medical spoons–are less reliable.  The easiest tell, of course, is that there are always two of them.  I found that after a few months in Florence I picked up the inexplicable capacity to recognize Cosmas and Damian in paintings even when they had no attributes at all.  I would say it’s proof that I’ve been in Florence too long, but you can never be in Florence too long.

And now, Spot the Saint quiz time!

There are ten figures in this one.  You can identify eight with certainty, and the final two you should be able to identify categorically as being a specific type of saint, and you can be sure of one of them from the fact that this was painted in a monastery called “San Marco”.  If you could read the text on the book you’d also get the last one.  You should also be able to tell who forked over the cash, and what order of monks it was made for.

Fra_Angelico_SanMarcoDormatory

Skip to the next Spot the Saint entry: the Four Doctors and Saints’ Hats.

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!

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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 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…

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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.

 

A Passion for Porphyry

 Posted by on December 22, 2011  History  13 Responses »
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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

Oct 312011
 

Since I talked recently about the Heavenly Court, comparing the office of Patron Saint to nobility holding landed titles, I would like to pause a moment to discuss Florence’s two former patron saints.  Just as cities and counties move from noble house to noble house and dynasties replace each other over the course of meandering politics and war, so cities can change hands from saint to saint.  John the baptist is not, in fact, Florence’s first patron saint, but its third (fourth, if you count the very early patronage of San Lorenzo).

Saint Reparata (Santa Reparata)

  • Common attributes: Crown, martyr’s palm frond
  • Patron saint of: nothing specific, really
  • Patron of places: Florence, Nice
  • Feast days: October 8th
  • Most often depicted: Standing around with other saints
  • Relics: Nice Cathedral

Santa Reparata falls into that palette of early martyr saints which historians constantly point out may be mythical.  If she existed, she did so in Caesaria in Palestine, and was martyred under Decius.  She was saved from being burned alive by miraculous rain, was then forced to drink boiling pitch, but still refused to recant, so was beheaded. Thus she falls into the same general late Roman virgin martyr category as Saint Catherine of Alexandria, but was never nearly so popular.  Her relics were (much later) brought to Nice.

Santa Reparata doesn’t have much distinctive iconography becuase she is a very obscure saint, and never depicted, really, except in her own territories of Florence and Nice.  Much as you don’t find portraits of a low-ranking baron in faraway cities, you don’t find Santa Reparata in Rome and Paris, she’s just not high up enough in the heavenly court.  She often has a crown–as martyrs frequently do–and a palm frond–ditto–but other than that she’s just a girl in late Roman clothes.

How then can you spot her?  She’s one of the saints you have to sort by taxonomy, i.e. looking for generic attributes then using common sense.  “There’s a woman here with a palm frond and no other attributes–wait, I’m in Florence, so it’s probably Reparata!”

Florence was Santa Reparata’s major cult site throughout the Middle Ages.  Her church stood in the center of the city opposite the baptistery.  When the growing power of Florence demanded a correspondingly large and impressive cathedral, and inclined them toward higher ranking patron saints, the city had to secure special permission to consecrate the replacement church to the Virgin.  The Duomo stands on the former site of Santa Reparata, and parts of the original church are visible if you go down into the crypt.   The Duomo which replaced it is Santa Maria del Fiore, St. Mary of Flowers, the flowers referring to the Florentine Lilly and the papal rose, since it was personally dedicated (and permitted) by Pope Eugene IV who was in town in 1436 doing, you know, pope things.

Saint Zenobius

  • Common attributes: Bishop
  • Occasional attributes: Florentine red fleur de lis, flowering tree
  • Patron saint of: Florence
  • Patron of places: Florence
  • Feast days: May 25
  • Most often depicted: Standing around with other saints, resurrecting somebody
  • Close relationships: St. Ambrose, St. Eugene and St. Crescentius
  • Relics: Florence, Santa Reparata crypt

Saint Zenobius was the first bishop of Florence.  He supported St. Ambrose in battling the Arian heresy.  He brought several people back from the dead, and his relics resurrected a dead elm tree.  He used to be buried in San Lorenzo in Florence, but was later moved to Santa Reparata/the Duomo.

Saint Zenobius is one of these cases of an early Christian who did a good job and was pious and therefore got to be a saint just for that, without getting martyred or founding a giant order or anything.  I support this, but it means his primary role was in Christianizing Florence and putting it on the map, so he is not and never will be particularly beloved outside his native town.

Zenobius is particularly valuable for Florence since he’s a saint who’s actually from Florence.  The more one studies hagiography, the more one realizes that Florence had a rather embarassing paucity of saints.  Milan had Ambrose, Padua had Antony, Verona had Peter Martyr, Sienna had Bernardino and Catherine, Assisi had Francis and Claire, Dominic died in Bologna, even Pisa had Rainerius, while Florence… Florence…

Peter Martyr defeats a possessed horse, a minor miracle but it totally happened in Florence!

There was that one time Peter Martyr dropped by and defeated a possessed horse, and Francis and Dominic visited, and Bernardino of Sienna, but with such illustrious saintly neighbors, many from less powerful cities, Florence really needed a local saint, not just a patron but an actual Florentine, or it frankly looked bad.  Florence was one of the five largest cities on Earth during the Renaissance–shouldn’t it produce at least one local saint?  And the fact that the Medici had arranged for the city to bury the infamous antipope John XXIII in the Baptistery didn’t help matters.

The Florentines made a decent sainthood case for Dante (which I heartily support), and the optimistic Dominicans at San Marco have carefully preserved the relics of Savonarola just in case, but getting someone made a saint requires approval from the pope, and both Dante and Savonarola were… how to put this delicately… well, Dante made a special place in Hell for popes and wanted the papacy’s earthly power to be overthrown by the Empire, while Savonarola declared that the pope was the Antichrist (which, given that the pope in question was Alexander VI, aka. Roderigo Borgia, may not have been far off, but  it didn’t exactly endear Savonarola to said Antichrist’s successors, nor did the fact that Savonarola’s writings were so popular with Reformation leaders).  So both Florence’s leading candidates for sainthood were flatly on the wrong side of the official approval process.  Plus Dante was banished from Florence, so his relics are in Ravenna (not helpful), and the Florentines killed Savonarola, and he was from Ferrara originally anyway.  Not the best show, oh magnificant republic, and not the best P.R. situation for a city which already had a reputation as a bizarre and wicked sin-pit, whose economy was based on usury, whose greatest poet and saint-candidate declared that Florence’s name was famous throughout Hell, and whose name in verb form (“Fiorentinare” i.e. make like a Florentine) genuinely was a medieval euphemism for sodomy across Europe.  So, Saint Zenobius it is!

Zenobius, in partnership with Reparata and, to a lesser extent, Lorenzo, were the city’s patrons for many centuries.  Eventually Florence increased in importance (and relic possession) and the city became one of the territories possessed by that most favored of courtiers (and cousin to the King!) John the Baptist.  But, like any good fiefdom, Florence still honors its lower local patrons too.

Zenobius is impossible to recognize in art most of the time, since he has no unique attributes.  Even the facade of the Duomo had to label him so people would be sure.  He was a bishop, so he dresses like a bishop, but so do at least fifty other saints.  Sometimes he has a flowering branch, representing his resurrected elm tree, which helps, but usually all you can do is say, “I’m in Florence and there’s an unidentified bishop saint; maybe Zenobius?”  Occasionally a Florentine red fleur de lis is put on his clothing somewhere as a clue, but not always, and the fleur de lis wasn’t a Florentine symbol until many centuries after Zenobius’ death.

Saint Zenobius had two deacons who worked for him, Eugene and Crescentius.  They also get to be saints, because they worked hard and did a good job (reason enough for me).  They dress like deacons (i.e. like San Lorenzo does) and are easily recognizable because if St. Zenobius is standing around with two guys dressed like deacons then they’re Eugene and Crescentius; they are never depicted in any other contexts.

We now have our set of Florentine saints.  If you see a painting or mosaic that has Lorenzo and John the Baptist and a random bishop and a woman with a crown and martyr’s palm and nothing else, it’s a pretty certain guarantee that it was made in Florence.

AND NOW, QUIZ YOURSELF ON SAINTS YOU KNOW SO FAR:

You know everyone in this picture except the woman on the right hand side; but with her, you should at least be able to tell one important thing about her.

Skip to the next Spot the Saint entry.

The Heavenly Court

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jump to the next Spot the Saint entry.

Sep 102011
 

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

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

What a sweet Venetian street (and canal) corner.

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

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

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

Wait a minute – what’s that?

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

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

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

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

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

Addendum:

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

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

 

San Giovanni Baptista (St. John the Baptist )

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

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

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

John the Baptist is an intimidatingly-important saint.

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

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

Florence’s baptistery ceiling makes it clear

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

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

 

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

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

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

San Lorenzo (St. Lawrence)

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

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

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

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

Jump to the next Spot the Saint entry.

Good morning, Giotto!

 Posted by on August 7, 2011  History  1 Response »
Aug 072011
 

This morning the Campanile is having some inspections & cleaning.

The city of Florence would like it to be known that 7:00 AM is the correct time to get up and admire Giotto’s bell tower.

Perhaps you didn’t hear me.

IT’S 7 AM!  DONG!!!  I’M A BELL TOWER!  DONG!!!  LOOK AT ME!  DONG!!!  YOU WEREN’T STILL SLEEPING WERE YOU?  DONG!!!

Needless to say, sleeping in is an impossibility in an apartment a few blocks from, not one, but eight separate audible bell towers, which all ring with different degrees of force and verve at different times, all day.  Every day.  Especially Sunday.  The main campanile, though, designed by Giotto and started in 1334, is the hefty one, and guarantees a long, productive morning out of everyone.  Actually, the bell tower (or Campanile) was not finished to Giotto’s design, but he still gets credit, since he is, after all, the much-beloved heart and founder of Renaissance art.

Yes, it is that big, and it's three blocks from where I'm trying to sleep.

Why?

Five minute art history lesson: amaze your friends and impress your parents by being able to tell at a glance the difference between Medieval and Renaissance art!  Yes, it’s that easy.

To explain why Giotto matters I will take you to the first main room of the Uffizi gallery to look at three identical altarpieces depicting the Madonna enthroned with child and angels.  All derive from that era in which almost all art (I’m not talking 3/4, I’m talking 90%) consisted of nearly-identical, stiff iconic images of saints.  In fact, it’s safe to say 50% of them are the Madonna and Child.  This is an era of art that some people find beautiful but many find tedious and repetitive, and both camps are, in my opinion, right.  It is also the perfect way to demonstrate what Giotto did, and why everyone considers him the beginning of Renaissance art.

Madonna Ruccelai (Duccio di Buoninsegna; 1285)

Above is a lovely Madonna by Duccio di Buoninsegna, an excellent late medieval master.  (Click for a bigger version).  Note the beautiful and detailed patterns on the drapes behind the Madonna, rendered in elaborate colors and veined with gold leaf which would have glittered hypnotically in the church candlelight.  It’s beautiful.  Note too that Mary has pretty-much no anatomy.  She’s a big blue blob with a knee, and stars on her robe (one of Mary’s attributes, since Mary is the Queen of Heaven so gets stars).  The angels too are lovely with detailed wings, floating in a stack in non-space.  And her throne, elaborately patterned, knows nothing of perspective.  The whole thing is nearly-identical to a Byzantine icon.

Now, jumping up a few years:

Maestà di Santa Trinita (Cimabue, 1290-1300)

This Madonna, by the excellent and progressive artist Cimabue.  New things are going on here.  Mary has a lot more anatomy: feet, drapes outlined in gold.  The angels, with their lovely wings, are not floating vaguely but are in front of each other as if actually in the same place.  The throne has no formal linear perspective, but does have breadth due to being broader in the front than in the rear.  This is again lovely.

Now, check out Giotto’s:

Ognissanti Madonna (Giotto, 1314-27)

Houston, we have volume.  Look at Mary’s body; she has a chest, weight.  Look at the baby; you can tell how thick his arms and legs are.  Look at the kneeling angels, how you can see the volume of their thighs.  And check out the saints standing on either side: they’re standing in space.  In a plane.  Not just in front of each other but on an actual floor, like people standing in a room.  Their halos are starting to get in the way too, setting the stage for the era when halos will turn from gold discs to smaller arcs, to make room for other objects occupying the same space.  Look at their faces, how they have the proportions of real faces.  Mary less than the others, but the angels’ eyes are in the vertical center of the head, their brows, chins, noses, all in correct proportion.  If he had secretly snuck in a portrait of a real human onto one of those standing saints it would look the same.  Look how the shading on the drapery isn’t just lines but actual shadow so it looks really 3-dimensional.

All checked out and ready for the week.

When you look at it by itself, yes, it’s another fairly monotonous painting of the Madonna, but with more realistic figures we can now move toward realistic space, realistic facial expressions, people interacting with objects, foreground, background, landscape, architecture.

With this we can have a Renaissance.

And with this you can literally glance at a painting, look at how the figures are proportioned, and tell the difference between something from the Renaissance and something that’s in the Medieval/Byzantine/eastern tradition (since, after all, they still make icons of Mary as a shiny blue blob, they just don’t do it much in Italy…)

And I didn’t make you get up at 7 AM to do it either.  DONG!!!

Aug 072011
 

Uffizi and Palazzo Vecchio

On July 30th Florence, the Uffizi gallery, Google and numerous other Earthly powers celebrated the 500th birthday of Georgio Vasari (1511-1574).

Both praising and describing Vasari are challenging, since no one could in fairness call him one of the Renaissance’s best painters, nor one of its best architects, nor even one of its best biographers. His Lives of the Artists is certainly what has brought him the most fame, but this collection of brief biographies of Renaissance artists is not only dry but unreliable, both in the poor-fact-checking-sense and in the extreme and unblushing bias which is as ubiquitous in pre-modern biography as tomato sauce on an American pizza. We read Vasari today only because he was these artists’ only biographer, and needs must as the paucity of sources drives. Yet, if Vasari was surpassed by many in arts and letters, walking the streets of Florence today I can think of few who touch him in footprint. He was a Great Figure of the Renaissance, one whose touch I feel constantly as I cross squares and explain architecture to new-made friends, to whom I find myself constantly repeating, “Of course, that bit wasn’t like that back then—it was redone by Vasari.” In brief, Vasari redid the Palazzo Vecchio. At length, in order to avoid making Vasari seem to be a petty, place-seeking stooge, I’m afraid I have to go back a ways…

Once upon a time the Roman Empire ended, and with it the network of roads and trade and safety that had strung cities together into a web of economy and culture. Small, unsteady kingdoms followed, but in Northern Italy at least, while cities formally passed from prince to distant prince, the absence of real central infrastructure and enforcement left them virtually alone. Italy’s cities became citystates, ruled by remote powers, pope or Emperor, in name only, while in reality they governed themselves, walled islands of population and production, independent and, at first at least, many republican. They had Rome as their model, an elite voting population and elected offices, not quite the same as the old republic but close enough to breed patriots as proud as Cicero. But these little city republics, like Rome’s, weren’t stable. Faction fighting bred civil war, brought on partly by ambitious families but more often by that Hobbesian principle that anyone powerful or rich enough to be envied by his neighbors can never sleep safe at night until he has deprived said neighbors (through subjugation or execution) of the ability to kill him in his sleep. Winners became rulers and one-by-one the city republics became the seats of lords and dukes and counts and other-titled princes. (This is all oversimplified, of course, but the romantic narrative is more important than the gritty details when our purpose is to understand what the Palazzo Vecchio means as a symbol of what was.)

Florence held out longest of the great cities (excepting Venice; we must in all things except Venice, since Venice is that special), Florence the stubborn, free, fractious, strange Republic. Over and over it nearly fell, as ambitious nobles and entrenched vendettas (think Montagues and Capulets) made the streets stream with blood and the road with exiles, Dante among them. From a pure body-count perspective there is no way around admitting that the surrounding cities that did turn to monarchies were better off, stable, efficient, comparatively immune to faction fighting, but free Florentines would never sacrifice liberty and dignity for ease and calm—and this includes the vast, disenfranchised majority who were not members of the voting elite but still took pride in their Republic.

San Gimignano still has its towers (wiki pic)

After one near-tyrant too many, the Florentines decided to create a system of government which could never, ever let anyone gain enough power to take over, and so conceived the Signoria, a system so bizarre that if someone made it up in fiction no reader would think it plausible. The Florentines had long since exiled, killed or at least banned from government all their nobility. The private towers of the powerful families, which had once turned Florence into a forest of tiny battle-ready fortresses, were knocked down, their palaces burned, and a new law forbid any private citizen from building tall towers which could be used as private forts to defend elite families as their goons battled in the streets below. What remained as the elite were members of the merchant guilds, the great trade families who controlled cloth production, oil, wine, medicine, bureaucracy and, that great Italian invention, banking. A Signoria, or council of elected rulers, was created in 1282, a vaguely-defined political body also used by several other Italian republics. Florence’s unique system of “scrutiny and lot” was introduced in 1328, in which each qualifying member of the great guilds over thirty years of age was examined for fitness and then his name was put in a bag. Every two months nine names were pulled out, and these nine men became the Signoria, the ruling council, to rule the city for two months. At the end of these two months new names were drawn, so no one ever ruled alone, and no one was in office anywhere near long enough to form a personal power base. There were no elections to fix or sway with bribery and campaigning, so all would remain fair and stable and happy ever after. In theory, at least.

 

The Palazzo Vecchio

The Palazzo Vecchio (begun in 1299, the year before Dante went to Hell), was built to house the Signoria, and while in office they were held within the palace and never permitted to leave, since outside they could be bribed, kidnapped, even contaminated by passing heretics or devils (horror!). The palace was built on the crater left when the victorious Guelphs razed to the ground the palaces of their Ghibelline rivals (think Montagues on the smoldering graves of Capulets) and instantly became the symbol of the unity, stability and prayed-for longevity of the noble Republic.

The apartments of the Signoria, grandly decorated with painted wooden ceilings, were on the top floor. The ground floor was originally open, a place where people could gather and talk and trade. It was later closed in so a garrison could defend the palace from attack. On the lower levels, representatives of the people receive the laws sent down by the Signoria, and could vote to accept or reject them. An intermediate floor between the council level held the scribes and clerks and secretaries who kept the system running.

Yes, Assassin’s Creed fans, there really was a prison in the tower, and if someone you know was imprisoned there, that means he was very, very naughty.

Finally the great tower was a symbol of the supremacy of the republic, and at the top a special prison was built to hold the most dangerous traitors against the state, who were sometimes executed by being hanged off the tower itself.

A completely unfounded but nonetheless delightful urban legend holds that the semicircular battlements on top of the tower, associated with the defeated Ghibelline faction in contrast with square battlements used by Guelphs, represented the vicious, Ghibelline-leaning traitors imprisoned there.

Problem is, the Signoria system had one vital flaw:

(A new Signoria is elected)

Duke of Milan – Hello, Signoria. I’m the Duke of Milan. Congratulations on your election. Have a fruitcake.

(1 week passes as the Duke’s message is carried from Milan to Florence)

Signoria – Nice to meet you, Duke of Milan. Thanks for the fruitcake. We knit you this nice scarf.

(1 week passes as the Signoria’s reply is carried back)

Duke of Milan – Thanks for the scarf. Now that we’re friends, would you like to make a treaty for mutual defense against the French?

(1 week passes)

Signoria – Sure, we hate the French. What do you propose?

(1 week passes)

Duke of Milan – I propose committing X many troops, Y many florins, and everyone involved gets cookies every Thursday in honor of St. Ambrose.

(1 week passes)

Signoria – We want to send W many troops and Z many florins, and we demand that the cookies be distributed in the name of St. Zenobius.

(1 week passes)

Duke of Milan – Perhaps X many troops but Z many florins, and the cookies can be distributed in the name of both saints?

(1 week passes)

Signoria – Who are you? What are you talking about? We don’t want to give our troops and florins to someone we’ve never talked to! And we abhor cookies!

(1 week passes)

Duke of Milan – You had another election, didn’t you? Hi, Signoria, I’m the Duke of Milan. Have some fruitcake. Now, about the French…

No Tyrants within these Gates (David agrees).

Needless to say, the Signoria system was not popular with foreign powers who needed to negotiate with Florence’s government, nor with Florentines who needed to negotiate with Florence’s government, since the toothlessness which made the Signoria tyrant-proof also made it about as streamlined as a hedgehog. It certainly didn’t help that the guild members generally had no experience of government, and two months is far from long enough even to learn the ropes. Hence the rise of the Medici.

You see, there’s this brilliant thing called ‘banking’ which means you can leave your money with people in one city, and then go to another city and receive the same amount of money (minus a small fee), without having to carry bags of gold with you on the road where, in the absence of a real empire, bandits and adventuring parties roam free. The savings, in cash and in not getting your throat slit, made this option instantly popular, and the Italian families who did it instantly wealthy. The Medici managed to finagle the position of Official Bankers to the Pope, which meant that it was their job to escort donations, church taxes, land rents, indulgence fees and every kind of income from every church in Christendom back to Rome, taking a healthy cut. This rapidly made the Medici just about the wealthiest private people since Crassus.

Cosimo de Medici (1389-1464) was the one who applied wealth to politics. If you have enough money to keep a third of the city of Florence on your payroll, then you can tell all your clients “Do XYZ if you’re elected to the Signoria,” and then even if you can’t contact them while they’re inside, a third of the Signoria on average will still do what you want. Then, if the Duke of Milan wants to negotiate, instead of negotiating with the fleeting and inexperienced Signoria, he can negotiate with Cosimo, a stable, long-term political contact who will still be there in a year’s time. And eventually if Cosimo finds a way to bribe the men whose job it is to pull the names out of the bag, then things get even easier.

Was this Medici takeover tyrannical? Absolutely, since it directly perverted and controlled the Republic. Was it good for Florence? Absolutely, since Cosimo’s unofficial rule lent great stability, and he spent his enormous wealth on neoclassical architecture, public art, libraries, translating Plato, plumbing, a perfect mix of useful and sublime contributions to the glory and everyday living of his fellow Florentines.

There was resistance, of course. In 1433 Cosimo was arrested and imprisoned in that same Palazzo Vecchio tower where so many dangerous traitors and would-be tyrants enjoyed a last, grim vista of the city they tried to enslave. He escaped, bribing the cell guard with 300 florins and the captain with 700 florins, and is reported to have said they were the two stupidest men in history since he was the wealthiest man in Italy and would have happily paid tens of thousands of florins for his liberty. At the next election, by a total and not-remotely-bribery-related coincidence, all the members of the new Signoria decided to invite him back.

There were more tumults after Cosimo’s return – weak Piero’s succession, the bloody Pazzi conspiracy, assassin priests, the French invasion, the Black Friar Savonarola (stories for another day) – but the important part is that Cosimo never officially ruled anything. Legally he was a private citizen and remained so through his life. So did his successor Piero, and his successor, much-loved Lorenzo de Medici, a perfect humanist prince except that he was never technically prince of anything. The Signoria system continued, officially, with Medici control behind the scenes, and while it did so did Florentines’ patriotic zeal and, with it, enmity against the Medici tyrants.

Duke-worthy Offices

For more than a century the Medici kept being opposed, thrown out, restored, struggling to maintain control of their infamously fractious and rebellious city, until in the early 1500s there was one overthrow too many. The Medici raised a fresh army, marched in, got rid of the Signoria and in 1531 finally had themselves crowned Dukes.

Returning to Vasari…

Architecture remained the physical embodiment of Florence – its government, its church, its people – and the Palazzo Vecchio was by now the solid, permanent embodiment of the authority to rule. The Medici moved in, literally occupying the Signoria’s seat, a permanent end of the Republic. The old palace needed to be redone, and it was Vasari’s job to turn this icon of the long-loved Republic into a symbol of its death and rebirth as a glorious Medici monarchy.

The palace itself he had redecorated with new, more beautiful (and expensive) gilded ceilings, pseudo-Roman frescoes, and a beautiful but unsubtle mural of the Medici besieging Florence, with the simple message: you are here, my troops are here – think about it.

Vasari’s “Siege of Florence”

He also tore down the old quarter by the Palazzo Vecchio where the merchant guilds had had their headquarters and created the Uffizi, “offices”, a long, folded neoclassical loggia surrounding a new public square. Inside the guilds were installed into new, nicer, more mathematically harmonious and luxurious lodgings provided by their new ducal master. Below, the new square was comfortable and shaded by the galleries, perfectly situated to be the new center of commerce and civic gossip, again dominated by the elegant silhouette of the duke’s new offices above. Florence’s civic heart was literally transplanted into the duke’s architectural grasp. The offices were then decorated again with Roman-style grotesque frescoes, antiquities, the family’s collection of Renaissance masterpieces, busts of Roman emperors, and portraits of Medici family members and their famous vassals and political allies.

Vasari’s addition

The surface of the Uffizi is all perfect neoclassicism, elegant symmetrical gray window frames and pediments in harmonious mathematical precision, creating a square which feels at the same time new and ancient, and above all planned, intentional, in contrast with the eclectic mix of different eras’ facades which surrounded every other square in Florence and, pretty much, in all of Italy. Even before the installation of the statues of Cosimo Pater Patriae and Lorenzo il Magnifico, the feeling of standing in the square below the Uffizi is the best possible summary of the events: the chaos and liberty of the Republic have been replaced by an educated, organized, neoclassical, irresistible force. Vasari carved that lesson in brick and stone, and made it clear.

He also created the Vasari Corridor, a closed, elevated walkway which starts at the Palazzo Vecchio itself, connects it by a high (dukes only!) bridge to the Uffizi, then on the far side connects the Uffizi to a long hallway which runs well above head height along the river, across the Ponte Vecchio with its tight-crammed sparkling goldsmiths’ shops, through the houses and rooftops of the quarter across the river, and ends at the Palazzo Pitti, a much larger,

The Vasari corridor

grander second palace which Vasari’s scheme connected with the first. The Palazzo Vecchio was, after all, more than two hundred years old, and a bit cramped and old-fashioned, built for cobblers and dyers, not for dukes. The Pitti Palace had worthier apartments (worthy to house the kings of Italy in the early days of the unification). Now the Duke could walk in assassin-proof safety from palace to palace, even across the river, and more, now the Duke’s movements were a central part of the city’s face. Florentines going about their daily business would (and still) follow along the ducal way, enjoying the shade provided by the walkway above, while all across the city one could see the corridor along the bridge, tying the two halves of the city together like a great artery. Its pulse was the Duke.

Was Vasari a fawning Medici stooge? Essentially. Was anybody NOT at this point? Not who had a job. Artists need patrons, and the Medici were a wealthy, cultured, politically savvy, respectable and above all stabilizing force for a city that had gone through a dozen regime changes in two generations. Vasari was not one of the Renaissance’s greatest painters, nor its greatest architects, nor its greatest authors, but I will nominate him unreservedly for the title of greatest communicator.

Vasari’s Space

He packed the feeling and intensity of what had happened, two hundred years of chaos and gradual transition, into a series of physical spaces which perfectly teaches the viewer what happened and what this great change meant, even if the viewer doesn’t actually know the specifics of the great events which created these great spaces. Architecture, painting and interior design combine to create a very specific tint of awe, one which really does communicate both what was lost and what was gained.I know no comparable grand architectural scheme—not the Vatican Palace, not St. Peter’s, not the castles of Milan or Naples or even Versailles—which succeeds in channeling history so complicated into a simple view. Florence’s history, as you can tell, needs concise summary or it turns into a saga. Vasari turned it into a vista, and was in that perhaps a better biographer of Florence than he was of his fellow artists.

For that achievement, on his five hundredth birthday, he deserves congratulations.

Jump to an Overview of Florence’s Museums, or Venetian Carnival.