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.

May 102012
 

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

Palazzo Vecchio (Palazzo della Signoria):

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

Baptistery:

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

Duomo (cathedral) and Belltower:

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

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

San Marco:

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

Santa Croce:

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

Ponte Vecchio:

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

San Lorenzo:

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

Orsanmichele:

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

Mercato Centrale & Mercato San Ambrosio:

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

Venice II: Mask Culture

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

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

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

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

Everyday Masks:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Festival Masks

Feathers and gold are just for special occasions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Commedia dell’Arte

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

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

A real Harlequin mask.

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

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

Leather mask molds, made of carved wood.

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

Meanwhile a quick survey:

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

Mar 022012
 

What is Venice’s carnival actually like?

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

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

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

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

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


A main street in Venice.

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

Standing on Rialto bridge, therefore not lost.

 

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

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

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

A flaming cyclops at the Carnival finale.

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

Tolkein’s Elves put in an appearance.

 

Dramatically posing gothic silver crystal scale bird plague thing?

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

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

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

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

Read more about Venice’s Mask Culture.

A Passion for Porphyry

 Posted by on December 22, 2011  History  13 Responses »
Dec 222011
 

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Uffizi “lupa” i.e. she-wolf

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

A porphyry bust at Versailles.

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

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

The sarcophagus of St. Helen

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

That guy should be taking a photo of the porphyry!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.