Off to Italy again. This seems like a good time to share a link to a video of an illustrated talk Ada gave at the Lumen Christi institute in Chicago in February. It’s a fascinating overview of the place of San Marco in Florence, with lots of excellent pictures. It’s like an audio version of an Ex Urbe post, with Fra Angelico, the meaning of blue, the Magi, the Medici, Savonarola, confraternities, and the complexities of Renaissance religious and artistic patronage.
And here’s one of the pictures mentioned but not shown in the presentation, a nine panel illustration by Filippo Dolcaiati “The History of Antonio Rinaldeschi.” It depicts the real historical fate of Rinaldeschi, who became drunk while gambling and threw manure at an icon of the Virgin Mary. A fascinating incident for demonstrating the functions of confraternities, and for demonstrating how seriously the people of Florence took the protection offered by saints and icons.
The new Mayor of the city of Rome, Ignazio Marino, just announced his intention to destroy one of the city’s central roads, the Via dei Fori Imperiali, and turn the area around the old Roman Forum into the world’s largest archaeological park. Reactions have ranged from commuters’ groans to declarations from classicists that this single act proves the nobility of the human species.
This curious range of reactions seems the perfect moment for me to discuss something I have intended to talk about for some time: the shape of the City of Rome itself. We all know the long, rich history of the Roman people, and the city’s importance as the center of an empire, and thereafter as the center of the memory of that empire, whose echo, long after its end, still so defines Western concepts of power, authority and peace. What I intend to discuss instead is the geographic city, and how its shape and layers grew gradually and constantly, shaped by famous events, but also by the centuries you won’t hear much about in a traditional history of the city. The different parts of Rome’s past left their fingerprints on the city’s shape in far more direct ways than one tends to realize, even from visiting and walking through the city. Rome’s past shows not only in her monuments and ruins, but in the very layout of the streets themselves. Going age by age, I will attempt to show how the city’s history and structure are one and the same, and how this real ancient city shows her past in a far more organic and structural way than what we tend invent when we concoct fictitious ancient capitals to populate fantasy worlds or imagined futures. (As a bonus to anyone who’s been to Rome, this will also tell you why it’s a particularly physically grueling city to visit, compared to, say, Florence or Paris.)
Sigmund Freud had a phobia of Rome. You can see it in his letters, and the many times he uses Rome as a simile or metaphor for psychological issues, both broadly and his own. He fretted for decades before finally making the visit. Part of it was a cultural inferiority complex. Europe’s never-fading memory of the greatness of the Roman empire was intentionally magnified in the Renaissance by Italian humanists who set out to convince the world that Roman culture was the best culture, and that the only way to achieve true greatness was to slavishly imitate the noble Romans. Italians did this as a power play to try to overcome the political weakness of Italy, but as a result, in the 19th and 18th centuries, many intellectuals in many nations were brought up in a mindset of constantly measuring their own nations only by how far they fell short of the imagined perfection of Rome. Freud was one of many young intellectuals in Germany, Poland, and other parts of Europe who were terribly intimidated by the Idea of Rome, and the sense that their own nations could never approach its greatness.
But Freud had a second fear: a fear of Rome’s layers. In formal treatises, he compared the psyche to an ancient city, with many layers of architecture built one on top of another, each replacing the last, but with the old structures still present underneath. In private writings he phrased this more personally, that he was terrified of ever visiting Rome because he was terrified of the idea of all the layers and layers and layers of destroyed structures hidden under the surface, at the same time present and absent, visible and invisible. He was, in a very deep way, absolutely right. Rome is a mass of layers, the physical form of different time periods still present in the walls and streets, and when you study them enough to know what you are really looking at, they reach back so staggeringly far, through so many lifetimes, that if you let yourself think seriously about them it is easy to be overwhelmed by the enormity of it all.
I will begin by discussing a single building as an example, and then the broader structure of the city.
The Basilica of San Clemente:
San Clemente is a modestly-sized church a couple blocks East of the Colosseum, one of many hundreds of churches in Rome, and, in my mind, the most Roman. It was built in honor of Pope Clement I (d. 99 AD), an important early cleric who traveled East and returned, making him one of the most important linking figures between the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox worlds. One enters the church from a plain, hot street populated by closed doors plus an antique shop and a mediocre pizzeria. Outside the door is a beggar disguised as someone who works for the Church trying to extort money from tourists by convincing them that they have to pay him to enter. Within, a lovely, lofty church with marble columns, frescoed chapels, a beautiful stone floor, stunning gold mosaics in the nave, and a gilded wood ceiling. It is populated by milling tourists, and perhaps a couple of the Irish Dominicans who are now its custodians. It is reasonably impressive, but when we pause and look more closely, we realize the decoration is not as simple as it seems. Nothing matches, for a simple reason: No two pieces of this church are from the same time.
The basic structure of the church, the actual edifice, is from the twelfth century. But nothing else.
Look at the columns first: beautiful colored marble columns with delightful translucent swirls of stone. But they don’t match: they’re different colors, even different heights, and have non-matching capitals and different size bases to try to make them fit. These columns weren’t made for this building, they are looted columns, carried off from Roman buildings all around the city and repurposed for this Church. These columns, therefore, were cut about 1,000 years before the construction of this church.
The floor too is Roman mosaic tile, inlaid with pieces of porphyry and serpentine, materials unachievable after the empire’s fall. If they are here, they were carried here after the 12th-century Church was built and re-used.
What else? There is the stunning mosaic. It looks like nothing else we’ve seen in Rome, and with good reason. It looks Russian or byzantine, a totally different style. Foreign artists must have come in to create this, not in a Roman style of decoration at all but one more Eastern. Our Eastern Church devotees of Saint Clement have been here.
We turn around next, and spot a lovely side chapel with frescoes of a saint’s life, in a familiar Renaissance style. We might have seen this on the walls of Florence, produced in the late 1400s or earlier 1500s, and can immediately start playing Spot the Saint.
But next we make the mistake of looking up, and realize that this massive hanging gilded wood ceiling is entirely wrong, with overflowing ribbons and a dominant central painting of a much more flowy, ornamented, emotional, voluptuous Baroque style than everything else. The artist who painted those modest Spot the Saint frescoes would never drown a scene in little cherubs and clouds like this, nor would that ceiling ever have been near these Roman columns.
The upper walls too have Baroque decoration. Even an untrained eye is aware something is wrong. The practiced eye can tell instantly that the ceiling must be late sixteenth century at the very earliest and is more likely seventeenth or eighteenth, three hundred years newer than the Spot the Saint frescoes, which were two hundred years after the mosaics, which are two hundred years after the church was built using stolen Roman materials that were already 1,000 years old. Freud, exploring the church with us, has vertigo.
Next we look down.
What’s this? What are these arches in the wall next to the floor? Why would there be arches there? It makes no sense. Even in a building that used secondary supporting arches in the brickwork there would be a reason for it, a window above, a junction, and they would end at floor level. Our architecture-sense is tingling.
So we go down stairs…
Welcome to the 4th century Roman basilica which the 12th century upper church was built on top of. Here we see characteristic dense, flat Roman bricks, and late classical curved-corner ceiling structures laying out what used to be an early Christian church. This church was 800 years old when it was buried to build the larger one above it. The walls are studded with shards of Roman sculpture, uncovered during the excavations, bits of broken tombs, halves of portrait faces and the middle of an Apollo, and a slab with a Roman pagan funerary inscription on one side which was re-used and has an early Christian inscription on the other side, in much cruder lettering.
And here too there are frescoes. Legend has that Saint Clement’s remains were carried from the East back to Rome in 869 AD, and this lower church is the place they would have been carried to, as we see now in a fresco depicting the scene, painted probably shortly thereafter.
Other 9th century frescoes (300 years older than the church above) show the lives of other now-obscure figures who were important in the 800s. One features a portrait of an early pope (Leo IV), the only known image of this largely-forgotten figure. Another features Christ freeing Adam from Limbo, and to their left a man in a very Eastern-looking hat, another relic of the importance of this church as a center for Rome’s contact with the east.
Another wonderful fresco, of the life of a popular hermit, features a story in which a pagan demands that his servants carry the saint out of his house, but he goes mad and believes a column is the saint, and flogs and curses his slaves as he forces them to carry the column. In this fresco we find inscriptions in Latin, but also a phrase coming out of the man’s mouth (a very crude one cursing his slaves as bastards and sons of prostitutes) which is the oldest known inscription in a language identifiable as, not Latin, but Italian. The Italian language has come to exist between the construction of this church and the construction of the one above. (The inscription is at the bottom in the white area above the column, hard to make out.)
You can see it better in this reconstruction:
One more fresco is worth visiting: the Madonna of the funny-looking hat.
When archaeologists opened up the under layer, they found a Madonna, probably 8th century, which then decayed before their eyes (horror!) due to exposure to the air. Underneath they found another Madonna (delight!) wearing this extremely strange hat. They looked more closely: the Christ child in her lap is not original, but was painted on after the Madonna. This is not a Madonna at all, it is a portrait, and that hat belongs to none other than the Byzantine Empress Theodora. Someone painted a portrait of the empress here (who used to be a prostitute, I might add), then someone else redid her as a Madonna, then, a century or two later, someone else painted over that Madonna with another Madonna, now lost, who presumably had a more reasonable hat.
Wandering a bit we find more modern additions, post-excavation. One of the most beloved 20th century heads of the Vatican Library has been buried here, just below the now-restored old altar of the lower church. And the tomb of St. Cyril [or possiby it contains Cyril and his brother Methodius – there is debate] is here. They are the creators of the Glagolitic alphabet (ancestor of the Cyrillic), surrounded by plaques and donations and tokens of thanksgiving from many Slavic countries who use that alphabet. Below is a modern mosaic, thanking them for their work:
And nearby there are stairs down… Freud needs to stop and breathe into a paper bag.
There are stairs down because this is not the bottom layer, not yet. The 4th century church was built on top of something else. We descend another floor and find ourselves in older, pre-Christian Roman brickwork. We find high vaults, frescoed with simple colorful decoration, as was popular in villas and public buildings. Hallways and rooms extend off, a large, complex building. Very complex. Experts on Roman building layout can tell us this was once a fine Roman villa of the first century AD. In that period it had sprawling rooms, a courtyard, storerooms… but its foundations aren’t quite the right shape. If we look at the walls, the layout, it seems that before the villa there was an industrial building, the Mint of the Roman Republic (you heard me, Republic! Before the Empire!), but it was destroyed by a fire (the Great Fire of 64 AD) and then rebuilt as a Roman villa. Before it was a church… before it was another church.
Except… there are tunnels. There are narrow, meandering tunnels twining out from the walls of this villa, leading in strange, unpredictable directions, and far too tight to be proper Roman architecture. This villa was on a slope, and some of these rooms are dug into the rocky slope so they would have been underground even when it was a residence. Romans didn’t do that.
Houston, we have a labyrinth, a genuine, intentional underground labyrinth, and with a bit more digging we find out why. This was a Mithraeum, a secret cult site of the Mithraic mystery cult, which worshipped the resurrection god Mithras. Here initiates dwelled in dormitories for their years of apprenticeship, waiting their turn to enter the clandestine curved vault, sprawl on its stone couches, and participate in the cult orgy in which they take hallucinogens, play mind-bending music, and ritually sacrifice a bull and drink its blood in order to achieve resurrection.
We wander still farther, daring the labyrinth, much of which has not yet been excavated, and come upon another room in which we hear the bubbling of a spring. A natural spring, miraculously bubbling up from nowhere in the depths of Rome. Very probably a sacred spring.
While Freud sits down to put his head between his legs for a while (on a 1st century AD built-in bench, I should add) we can finally piece this muddle of contradictory and mismatched objects together into a probable chronology:
Once upon a time there was a natural spring bubbling up at this spot in what was then the grassy outskirts of early Rome. It is reasonable to guess that a modest cult site might have sprung up around this spring, honoring its nymph or some such, as was quite common. In time, the city expanded and this once-abandoned area became desirable for industrial use as the Republic gained an empire. The Republic’s Mint was built here, making use of the convenient ice cold water, and likely continuing to honor its associated spirit. Decades pass, a century, two, Rome expands still further, and chaos raises an Emperor. After the Great Fire of 64 AD, it becomes convenient to move the Mint out of what is now a desirable central district of the expanding city, so the site is purchased by a wealthy Roman who builds his house here. Decades pass and the builder, or his son, is converted to the exciting cult of this new god Mithras who promises his followers, not the gray mists of Hades, but resurrection and eternity. Since he is wealthy, he converts his home to the use of the cult, and digs tunnels and creates the underground Mithraeum. For a generation or two this villa hosts the cult, but then Constantine comes to power and a new cult promising an even more inclusive form of salvation comes into vogue. The villa, which is now three hundred years old, is buried, a convenient architectural choice since the ground level of the city has risen several times due to regular Tiber floods, so the old house was in a low spot. A new church is built on top, and serves the Roman Christians of the local community for a few generations. The fall of Rome is usually marked at the first sack by they Visigoths in 410 or the sack by the Vandals in 455, but the conquerors are also Christian so the church stands and still serves the neighborhood, though its population is much smaller. Now the main Emperor moves to the East, and in the 500s, when the church is about 200 years old, someone paints a portrait of the empress on the wall, then a generation later someone else decides a Madonna is more appropriate, and puts a baby in her lap. Two or three more generations go by and Cyril and Methodius bring the bones of Clement from the East, and they are buried here, a great day for the neighborhood! Commemorated with more frescoes.
Another century, two, we are well into the Middle Ages, and this old Roman building is old-fashioned and very low since the ground level has risen further. The local community, and devotees of St. Clement, decide to build a new church. They loot columns and flooring from other Roman sites, and bury the old church, producing the 12th century structure above, but using the walls of the older one as the foundation, so the arches still show in the walls. The new church is very plain, but is soon decorated using mosaics provided by Eastern artists who come to visit Clement and Cyril. After a few generations the Renaissance begins, and we call in a fashionable Florentine-style artist to fresco one chapel. A few centuries later Pope Clement VIII comes to power and decides to spiff up San Clemente, initiating the internal redecoration which will end with the ornate baroque ceiling.
Oh, and somewhere in there someone slapped on a courtyard on the outside in a Neoclassical style, because it became vogue for buildings to look classical, so we may as well add a faux-classical facade onto this medieval building which we no longer remember has a real classical building hidden underneath. Not long after the Baroque redecoration is begun, the nineteenth-century interest in archaeology notices those arches in the walls, and starts digging, re-exposing the lower layers. Devotees of St. Cyril and lovers of history, like the head of the Vatican Library, begin to flock to San Clemente as an example of Rome’s long and layered history, and so it gains more layers in the 20th century as donations and burials are added to it. Every century from the Republican Roman construction of the Mint to the 20th century tombs is physically present, actually physically represented by an artifact which is still part of this building which has been being built and rebuilt for over 2,000 years. Not a single century passed in which this spot was not being used and transformed, and every transformation is still here. And all that time, from the first sacred spring, to the Mithraism, to today’s Irish Dominicans, this spot has been sacred.
This is Freud’s metaphor for the psyche: structure after structure built in the same space, superimposing new functions over the old ones, never really losing anything.
This is Rome.
San Clemente is exceptional in that it has been largely excavated and is accessible, but every single building in Rome is like this, built on medieval foundations which are built on classical ones. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone into a random pizzeria and found a Renaissance fresco, or a medieval beam, or Roman marble. I’ve gone into a cafe restroom and discovered the back wall was curved because this was built on the foundations of Pompey’s theater (where Caesar was assassinated). I’ve gone into churches to discover their restrooms used to be part of different churches. Friends have this experience too. During my Fulbright year in Italy I had a colleague who was studying Roman altars, half of which you could only get at by ringing the bell of strangers’ apartments and saying: “Hello! I’m an archaeologist, and according to this list there’s a Roman sacrificial altar here?” to which the standard response is, “Oh, yes, come on in, it’s in the basement next to the washing machine.” I have another friend who thinks he’s found a lost chapel frescoed by a major Renaissance artist hidden in an elevator shaft. Another friend once told me of a pizza place with a trap door down to not-yet-tallied catacombs. I believe it.
As with San Clemente, so for Rome: layers on layers on layers:
If San Clemente’s narrative starts with a sacred spring and the Roman Mint, Rome’s narrative starts with scared people on a hill.
Welcome to the archaic period. You are a settler. Your goals are securing enough food to stay alive, and avoiding deadly threats. The major threats are (A) lions, (B) wolves, (C) wild boar, (D) other humans, who travel in raiding parties, killing and taking. You are looking for a safe, defensible spot to settle down. You find one. The Tiber river, which floods regularly producing a fertile tidal basin rich with crops and game, takes a bend and has a small island in it. At that same spot there are several extremely steep, rocky hills, almost like mesas, with practically cliff-like faces. In such a place you can live on top of the hill but hunt, farm, and gather on the fertile stretch below. And you can even sail up and down the river, making trade and travel easy. Perfect.
The very first settlement at Rome, in the archaic period, was a small settlement on the Capitoline hill, one of the smallest hills but closest to the river. (Are you, perchance, from a country? With a government that meets in a “capitol” building? If so, your “capitol” is named after the Capitoline hill, because that’s how frikkin’ important this hill is!) The valleys around are used mainly for farming, but also for burials, and the first tombs are very simple ones, just a hole with dirt, or sometimes a ceramic tile lid. The buildings in this era are brick decorated with terra cotta. Eventually the first major temple is built on the Capitoline hill, with a stone foundation but still terra cotta decoration, and is dedicated to Jupiter. Its foundations remain, and you can see them, in situ, in the Capitoline museum which will be built on the same spot a few millenia later.
This hill turns out to be a great place to live, and the population thrives. In time the hill is too crowded. People spread to the neighboring hills, and start building in the little valley in between. As the population booms and spreads to cover all seven hills, the space between the first few becomes the desirable downtown, the most important commercial center, where the best shops and markets are. This is the Forum, and here more temples and law courts and the Senate House are built.
In time, defensive walls go up around the area around the hills, to make a greater chunk of land defensible. In time, the walls are too constrained, so another set goes up around them.
As the population booms and Rome becomes a serious city, serious enough to start thinking about conquering her neighbors and maybe having a war with someone (Carthage anyone?), this area is now the super desirable downtown. The commercial centers migrate outward to give way to monuments and temples, the Mint is built out on a grassy spot past where there is not yet a Colosseum, and the hills near the Forum become reserved for sacred spaces, state buildings, and the houses of the super rich. On one, the Palatine hill, a certain Octavian of the Julii builds his house, and when Caesar is assassinated and the first and second triumvirates result in an Emperor, it becomes the imperial palace. (Does your capital contain a palace? If so it’s named after the Palatine hill, because Augustus was so powerful that all rulers’ grand houses are forever named after his house).
Rome again spills over her walls and builds even farther out. The great fire of 64 AD destroys many districts, but she rebuilds quickly, and what was the Mint is replaced by a villa which soon becomes a Mithraeum. Rome reaches its imperial heights, a sprawling city of a million souls, and the seven hills that were once defensive are now sparkling pillars of all-marble high-class real estate, and also very tiring to climb.
With Constantine, Christianity now becomes a centerpiece of Roman life, and of the city’s architecture. Major Christian sites are built: St. Peter’s, St. John Lateran, St. Paul’s Outside the Walls, etc. These sites become pilgrimage centers, and economic centers. They are scattered in far corners all around Rome, but all the sites have something in common: they are in corners. The major Christian centers of Rome are all on its periphery, not in the center. There are two reasons for this.
First, and simplest, the center of Rome was, by this time, already full. Sometimes you could find an old villa that used to be a mint to build a small church on, but the center was full of mid-sized temples, which could be rededicated but not replaced, and huge imperial function spaces and government buildings, plus valuable real estate. If you want to build a big new temple to a big new God, you need to do it in the not-yet-developed areas around the city’s edge.
Second, many of these sites were built on tombs, like St. Peter’s, built across the river in the cheap land no one wanted. Roman law banned burying the dead within the city limits, because disturbing a tomb could bring the wrath of the dead upon the city, but if you build immovable tombs in the middle of your city it makes city redevelopment impossible, so they have to be outside. This is the origin of the necropolis or “city of the dead”, the cluster of tombs right outside the gates of a Roman city, where the residents bury their dead. Some major Roman Roads, like the Via Appia, are still lined with rows of tombs stretching along the street for miles out from where the city limits used to be defined. Thus early Christian martyrs were buried outside the city, and their cult sites developed at the edges of the city. The land which became the Vatican, for example, was across the river, full of wild beasts and scary Etruscan tribesmen in archaic Rome, then was used for a necropolis in Imperial Rome, had enough empty cheap land to build a big circus (where much of the throwing of Christians to the lions happened, since only in such cheap real estate could you build a stadium big enough to hold the huge audiences who wanted to come see lions eat Christians), and finally Constantine demolished the circus and necropolis to build St. Peter’s to honor St. Peter who had been martyred in that circus and buried in the necropolis in secret 300 years before (when San Clemente was still a Mint). St. Peter’s, and the other Christian sites, bring new importance to Rome’s outskirts. We now have a bull’s-eye-shaped city, in which imperial government Rome is the center, and Christian Rome is a ring around the outside, with rings of thriving, happy commercial and residential districts in between.
410 and 455 AD: outsiders arrive and plunder the city. Many thousands are killed, and the beautiful center of Rome is ransacked, temples toppled, looted, burned. In the Forum, the raiders throw chains around the columns of one of my favorite layered Roman buildings, the temple of Antoninus and Faustina. The Visigoths try to pull the columns down with their chains, and fail, but slice gouges deep into the stone which you can still see today. To re-check time, the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina was built in 141 AD, when San Clemente was a villa with an active Mithraeum in it. When it received these scars in the Visigothic raid, the Mithraeum had been buried, and the church built on top was just starting to be decorated. And underneath the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina we have found archaic grave sites which were 1,000 years old when the temple was built 2,000 years ago–the people buried in those graves very likely drank water from the spring that still burbles up under San Clemente. As for the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina, a few centuries after its near-miss, the temple will be rededicated as the major Roman church of San Lorenzo, due to a legend that it was on these temple steps that Saint Lawrence was sentenced to be grilled alive. And not far from it, the Lapis Niger was excavated which contains a language which has not yet become Latin, much as San Clemente’s frescoes preserve one which is becoming Italian. One language evolved into another, then into a third, but this spot was still being used, just like today.
Rome was sacked, but afterwards Rome was still there. The Goths didn’t just take everything and leave – the Ostragoths who followed the Visigoths decided to become the new Roman Emperors and rule Italy. The surviving Roman patrician families started working for the new Gothic king, but still had a Senate, taxes, processions, traffic cops, and did all the early Medieval equivalents of keeping the trains running on time. A century later, in the 540s, the Plague of Justinian hits and Rome loses another huge hunk of its population. But it still ticks on, and there is still a Senate, and a people of Rome.
So what was different? From a city-planning sense, the key is that the population was much smaller. In a sprawling metropolis designed to hold a million people, we now had maybe twenty thousand. Thus, as always happens when a city’s population shrinks, real estate was abandoned. But instead of abandoning the outskirts, people abandoned the middle. Rome was important mostly as a Christian center now, with the pope, and pilgrims coming to major temples, so they occupied the edges, and that’s where the money was. Rome becomes a hollow city, a doughnut, with an abandoned center surrounded by a populated ring. We have reached Medieval Rome. The city population lives mainly over by the Vatican, in the once empty district across the river, and a few other Christian sites around the edge. The middle of the city has been abandoned so long that the Tiber has buried the ruins, and people graze sheep in what used to be the Forum. The old buildings are now little more than quarries, big piles of stone and brick which we can steal from if, for example, we happen to need some nice columns to build a new church on top of this old church of San Clemente.
Enter the Renaissance, Petrarch, and humanism. Petrarch writes of the glory that was Rome, and convinces Italy that, if they can reconstruct that, they can be great again, just as when they conquered the Goths and Germans. Popes and lords become hungry for the symbols of power which Rome once was. Petrarch reads his Cicero and his Sallust, and visits the empty center of the city. This is the Capitoline Hill, he says, where once stood the Temple of Jupiter, and where the Romans crowned their poets and triumphant generals. Wanting to be great again, the popes volunteer to rebuild the Capitoline, as do the wealthy Roman families, who sincerely believe they are descended from the same Roman Senators who kept the bread and circuses running on time through Visigoths and more. Michelangelo and Raphael crack their knuckles. New palaces are built on the Capitoline Hill, neoclassical inventions based on what artists thought ancient authors like Vitruvius were talking about. In time the population grows, and Rome’s wealth increases thanks to the Church and to the PR campaign of Petrarch and his followers. The empty parts of the inner city are re-colonized, by Cardinals building grand palaces, and poorer people building what they can to live near the Cardinals who give them employment. But it is all built out of the convenient stone that’s lying around, and on top of convenient foundations that used to be the buildings of Constantinian Rome when she boasted 1,000,000 souls.
Rome grows and refills and grows and refills from the outside in, with the Capitoline as a new center artificially reconstructed by Renaissance ambition. As the 18th and 19th centuries arrive, the city is full again, but the middle ring, between outside and center, is all the newest stuff, to the historian and tourist the least interesting. This is why everything that tourists come to see in Rome is a long bus ride from everything else, and why you have to go up and down a million exhausting hills to get anywhere. Rome has a belt of cultural no-man’s-land in and around it, separating the center from the Christian outskirts, and making it forever inconvenient.
In the 18th and 19th centuries we also start to have archaeology, and dig up the Forum, and begin to protect and reconstruct the ancient monuments, and recognize that this largely abandoned patch of valley behind the Capitoline Hill is, arguably, the most important couple blocks of real estate that has ever existed in the history of the world. We paint Romantic paintings of it, and sketch what it must have looked like once, and it becomes part of the coming-of-age of every elite young European to make the pilgrimage to it (that Freud so fears!) and see the relics of what once was Rome. Everywhere else the classical layer is under a pile of palaces and churches and pizzerias, but here in the precious Forum valley, between those hills that sheltered the first Romans, we have lifted the upper layers and exposed Rome’s ancient heart.
HELLO! I AM MUSSOLINI! I AM THE NEW ROME! MY EMPIRE WILL LAST 1000 YEARS! MY STUFF IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN THIS ANCIENT STUFF! WHEN I AM DONE, NO ONE WILL CARE ABOUT CLASSICAL RELICS ANYMORE! I AM GOING TO KNOCK DOWN ALL THE ANCIENT STUFF AND BUILD MY STUFF ON TOP!
Specifically Mussolini built a road straight through the middle of the Forum. Fascism was a strange moment in human history, and Rome’s, and left a lot of scars. One of them is the Via dei Fori Imperiali, a grand boulevard running along the Forum and around the Capitoline, which Mussolini built so he could have processions, and to declare to the world how sure he was that no one would care about the Roman relics he was paving over. They would not care about the Temple of Jupiter, or the Renaissance palace on top of it, but about the new monuments he carved into the city’s heart. Those, and he, would be remembered, Caesar and Augustus forgotten.
To quote my favorite column by the old Anime Answerman: “Dear kid, please tell your friend that no one has ever been more wrong in the entire history of time.”
Mussolini, like the Visigoths, came but did not entirely go. One of his remnants is a system of large boulevards scarred into the face of the city, intended for his grand Fascist processions. Many of these are now difficult to eliminate, since car traffic in Rome is already a special kind of hell (fitting as a subsection of Circle 7 Part 2, I’d say, violence against ourselves and our creations, though it could be 4, hoarding/wasting, or yet another pouch of 8). The worst offender, though, is this road which is currently still covering up about a quarter of the ancient Forum, and also separates a quarter of the remaining Forum from the other half. It is this road that the new Mayor proposes to eliminate. The extra Fascist decoration which Mussolini added to the “wedding cake” will stay, the right call in my opinion, since Fascism is now one of Rome’s layers, just as much as the Visigothic scars on the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina. But lifting the road away will give us the true breadth of the Forum back in a way no pocket diagram can replicate. The transition will be painful for the FIATs and Vespas that now swarm where long ago the early Romans fought Etruscans and wild boar, but it is also an important validation of the Forum’s status as Rome’s most special spot. Everywhere else is layers. Everywhere else, when there’s Baroque on top of Renaissance on top of medieval, we leave it there. The altar stays behind the washing machine, and the need to open yet another catacomb is smaller than the need to have a working pizzeria. But in the Forum the layers have been lifted away. This one heart of one moment in Rome’s history, or at least one patch of about seven active centuries, we expose and preserve in honor of the importance that little spot has had as the definition of power, empire, war, and peace for Europe for 2,000 years. Thus, I hope you will all join me saying thank you to Mayor Marino.
The Forum is our relic of Rome’s antiquity, but it is not, for one who knows the city, the true proof that this is a great ancient capital. That would be clear even if not an inch of Roman marble remained in situ. The proof of Rome’s antiquity is its layout, the organic development of a wildly inconvenient but rich city plan, with those impassable hills at the center, the Tiber dividing the main city from the across-the-river part which is still the “new” part and still politically distinct, with its own soccer team, even after thousands of years. Antiquity is the nonsensical distribution of city mini-centers, the secondary hubs around the Vatican and St. John Lateran, the crowded shops clinging to the cliff-like faces of the hills, the Spanish Steps which are there because you have to go up that ridiculous hill and it’s really tall. Antiquity is not the Colosseum, it’s the fact that the Colosseum is smack inconveniently in the middle of a terrible traffic circle, definitely not where anyone would put a Colosseum on purpose if the modern city planners had a choice. Antiquity is structure, the presence of layers, unlike young, planned cities where everything is still in a place that makes sense because that city has only had one or two purposes throughout its history. Rome has had many purposes: shelter, commerce, conquest, post-conquest/plague refugee camp, religious capital, center of cultural rebirth, new capital, finally tourist pilgrimage site. All those Romes are in a pile, and the chaos that pile creates is the authentic ancient city. Rome is that cafe bathroom with a curved wall that proves it is where Caesar was assassinated. In another thousand years I don’t know what will be there, a space-ship docking station or a food cube kiosk, but whatever it is I know it will still have that curved back wall.
FOOTNOTE: For those who care, the context of that Anime Answerman quotation:
Kid writing in: “Dear Anime Answerman, my friend tells me that Inuyasha is a more violent show than Elfen Leid, and I don’t believe them, but I can’t tell them they’re wrong because my Mom won’t let me watch Elfen Leid.”
Answerman: “Dear kid, please tell your friend that no one has ever been more wrong in the entire history of time.”
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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:
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+
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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:
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.
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?
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.
Drum roll please… time for the results of my Guess the Purse – Guess the Price challenge:
I often stroll through what I call the “thousand dollar purse” district, but even I stopped short the first time I spotted Purse #2 in the window. Did they put in an accidental extra digit? I was used to trying to guess from a distance whether any given purse cost 200 or 400 or 600, but nothing had quite prepared me for quintuple digits.
I had known fashion items in the ten grand range existed, so it wasn’t that which shocked me as much as my complete inability to tell why that particular purse cost ten times what its neighbor did. Not only did I not know, but I couldn’t even begin to understand how I might know, yet at the same time I’m very aware that for people connected with the world of fashion, all it would take is a glance to tell. It was a language barrier. Like how an architect fluently interprets the vocabulary of a facade, a mechanic the sounds of an engine, or a medieval person can recognize saints at a glance. A moment of feeling what illiteracy must be like.
Except at the same time, Reason rebels: 10,900 euros! It’s a purse! It’s a glorified sack! I could make one in 20 minutes out of fabric or duct-tape, and the materials can’t possibly cost more than a few hundred. Nice ones are nice, and I have some bags I’m very fond of, but… is it from the Moon? Made of the hide of the last surviving wyvern? Does it cure disease and repel undead? Is it electronically synched with a satellite which will shoot pickpockets with lazers from space? Was the leather bathed in the healing liquor which drips from the tomb of Saint Catherine of Alexandria ? Is it perhaps like George Jetson’s suitcase, and folds out into a car? I’d pay fifteen grand to never have to park again, but anything less…
Now, I don’t dislike fashion. I quite enjoy looking at interesting clothes, studying costume history, making costumes, looking at shop windows, get excited over a particularly rich fabric or elegant coat tail, and I do pay serious attention to how I myself dress. Fashion is a form of communication. That’s how I primarily think of it: a social tool whose vocabulary of gender, class, situational, ethnic, geographic and subcultural cues let people communicate to others a kind of instant introduction and self-presentation.
When a dolphin meets another dolphin the first thing they do is urinate at each other, because by tasting each other’s urine in the water they can tell a lot about each other: age, gender, health, “Hello, I’m a juvenile female who just pigged out after a long journey without enough food.” “Well, hello, I’m a middle-aged female local to this area and in heat; get stuffed.” Clothing accomplishes the same, in balance with function, comfort and expense, of course. On a bus or subway one doesn’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to know a lot about what class and type of professional or hobbyist most people are trying to seem. I have a great respect for people who manage to use clothing to present themselves in ways which make them seem exciting and also give a good sense of who they are, and I strive to do so myself, and, in my case, maintain several different wardrobes (nerd, professional, historical, otaku) for presenting myself when I hop from hat to hat among my many spheres.
Like language, clothing as communication requires one to work within a set vocabulary. As an astute economics textbook I read on the matter once pointed out, it might be that to some person encasing herself in a two-foot-diameter aluminum tube perfectly summarized her thoughts about herself, but if she walked to a room like that no one would be able to interpret it, so it would fail as communication. Tweed jacket with leather elbow pads = professor, black with spikes = punk with all its countercultural associations; you can’t reverse or change that until the whole culture does, or no one will know what you mean.
But the fashion industry is something different: it changes constantly, every season, and it’s in its very changeability that it somehow communicates. Bowtie = quirky/geeky/old-fashioned; wearing the latest fancy thing that’s currently in shop windows, whatever that may be = fashionista. Thousand dollar purses do have a function, which is to communicate that this is a person of sufficient wealth and education and with the proper tastes to want one.
Returning to the familiar ground of the Renaissance, a blue garment or a lady with pearls woven through her hair is a declaration to passers-by of social class, and important for enabling the correct interaction between classes, and for making political and economic contacts and alliances. When Alessandra Strozzi writes in her letters of having a daughter married wearing hundreds of florins worth of pearls sewn to her garment, the wedding procession was an invaluable advertisement of the family’s wealth and status and its connection to its neighbors, which played a significant role in the political interplay between Strozzi, Medici and other rival powerful families in the city. This has a function, and even a wedding dress that cost as much as a house did have a function, and I respect that.
The problem comes in contemporary fashion from the fact that now one often has to be such a fashion-conscious person in order to interpret correctly, because to the untrained eye this year’s black Gucci purse looks exactly like last year’s black Gucci purse. It’s a private dialect spoken only among a specific type of wealthy, trend-minded elite.
This season’s trends prove precisely why the private dialect of high fashion baffles me where other regions of fashion seem reasonable and, indeed, fun. This season’s “look”, as one can’t help but notice on a stroll past Florence’s boutique windows, focuses on huge, rough, bulky, shaggy knitwear, mostly in brown, beige, gray or black, with accents in orange and teal.
Huge, shaggy knitwear of precisely the style that knitting hobbyists–a slice of society associated with old-fashioned handicrafts, tradition, nerd culture, and the shy prim crafts-doing girl type–produces. There is no way that I can perceive to tell the difference between these 300 euro Ralph Lauren shawls and scarves and something one might request from a grandmother, or see growing longer panel by panel at a con.
Communication has failed. Generally speaking,the presumed goal of a fashionable trendy dresser is to communicate to the layman that they’re generically nicely dressed and upper class or upper middle class, while to communicate to the expert that they’re savvy enough to know that boutique X rather than boutique Y is the correct space to spend a few hundred on sunglasses in 2011. This season’s fashion accomplishes B but fails at A, since passing such an outfit in the street, my first thought would be “oh, that person knits or knows someone who does,” not, “ah, that person is a fashionable dresser.” The vocabulary of fashion has left communication behind. The dialect is now incomprehensible to the bulk of the country.
As for the extreme edges of fashion, and fashion advertising, which too often leaves you uncertain even what they’re selling, there one can only revel as in surrealist art. Here are two choice specimens from the Milan train station billboards. What am I supposed to want to buy?
I mentioned a few weeks ago a busy week including a Joust. The Joust in question was the Giostra della Stella (Joust of the Star), is held in Bagno a Ripoli, formerly its own town, now legally a Florentine suburb. When it was annexed (20th century) in order to maintain civic identity it started having a reconstructed joust every autumn. This is not a tourist event–indeed it is hard to reach by any means, and nearly 100% of the audience were locals–but a civic pride event, and competition.
The town of Bagno a Ripoli is divided into four historic quarters, the quarters of the Mill, the Horse, the Tower and the Standard-Bearer, each with its own crest and coat of arms, and horseman. The four competitors, professionals brought in from out of town, joust for the honor of the four quarters, to loud and enthusiasm from the spectators. Shields and pennants bearing the quarters’ arms decorate the field and street, and the townsfolk dress in t-shirts and colors to designate their sides.
The joust is held at night, in the dark, hence the lack of good photos. One reason for the darkness is the temperature and blazing sun, but the other is that the afternoon is reserved for a different contest: an old-fashioned sports day competition between the quarters’ teams.
This I do have photos of, as the warring quarters compete at tug-of-war, sack races, a race with an egg balanced on a spoon, and, on the nearby roadside, running while pushing a wooden hoop along with a stick, and running while pushing a partner on a wooden cart. The tug-of-war was by far the most dramatic competition, with much preparation and debate and measuring to the inch where each starting foot is placed, while each actual competition lasted only a few seconds before one side fell, grumbling, in the dust.
Junior flag-tossers enter the field
I wish we did this in MY middle school
The flag tossers were also extraordinary, with an exhibition by the junior trainee flag tossing team, and a stunning performance by the adult team with double flags, one in each hand, which were tossed and spun in mesmerizing close-quarters patterns and tossed from person to person in complex, interwoven dances.
I have no decent photos of the joust itself because this is a night joust, held by electric light in a charming field well after dinner, so crowds can enjoy the late summer outdoors without baking in the sun. I can only describe, therefore, the stunning costume pageant which precedes it, in which at least a hundred participants in perfect sixteenth century costume parade along the street to take their seats in the reserved stands. The thoroughness and variety of the costuming puts most Florentine pageants to shame. Musicians in the town livery began the parade, and the town militia, and the Podesta of the town with his ministers following behind the city standard. Monks and an abbot joined them, touch-bearers, peasants with baskets of harvest foods, and a portable maypole which skilled children circled even as they processed. There were noble representatives of specific grand houses of Florence and its allies too, each group including lord, lady, clients, servants, even children in tiny doublets or toddlers’ bodices, all led by a standard bearer with the family crest, so a sharp eye might pick out a Strozzi and a Medici among the crowd. The detail was exquisite, from the strings of pearls woven through the ladies’ hair to the heavy texture of the gentlemen’s trailing sleeves. Many of the lords’ and ladies’ costumes were recreations from specific portraits, and even the gems embroidered onto layered pleats were executed to perfection. To perfect the display of civic pride, the part of the Podesta, in his long velvet, was played by the actual top official of the town, and several other leading magistrates participated as his entourage.
The Joust itself was a style I had never managed to see before myself. I am, of course, serious about watching jousts, both from attending numerous Renn Fests and from calling Maryland home, whose state sport is still jousting (though in 2004, despite the noble efforts of many, this noble remnant of grander days was perniciously adulterated by the election of lacrosse as the state “team sport”). I may not be so elite a jousting snob as I am a gelato snob, but I am picky, and this was excellent.
The “star joust” uses small, light horses, trained for speed, who race full tilt around a small looped race course while the rider attempts to capture a metal star with a hole in the center using–not a lance–but a sword. The rider must make two loops in 30 seconds, making one attempt at a star each time, receiving points for each star captured, and in case of a tie in points, speed is the tie-breaker. Three rounds of increasing difficulty are held, using stars with smaller and smaller center holes, and the later stars give more points. So trained for speed are these slim horses that, unlike the heavy, docile animals used at American fairgrounds, these were spirited to the point of disobedience, balking from unfamiliar objects, bursting into short jolts of speed without instruction, and one knight needed five attempts to get the beast to take him close enough to his lady to receive her favor.
The display of athleticism, on the part of horse and rider, was gorgeous, and in the electric light the smooth backs and haunches of the horses rippled and shimmered like silk, especially on the pale gray one that looked like polished pewter. One could see through the thin fur and taut skin the motion of the muscles, and, since the horses went one-by-one, the gallop was all startlingly quiet, not the thunder of hooves one generally hears with many horses racing, but a light percussion, barely audible except when the horse passed close.
Equally fascinating was the cheering, or rather the booing, of the crowd. The math will tell you why. In a town divided into four quarters with one rider representing each, three quarters of the audience are disappointed whenever one rider does well. Thus, the booing will always be as loud if not much louder than the cheering, and however much praise may rain down from sympathetic slopes, the capture of a star always solicits a general moan. Given the usual adrenalizing effect cheers have on an athlete, I do wonder what chill a string of gasps and curses instills. This was ever so much more true of the rider in red and white representing the quarter of the Standard-Bearer, because, (as a kindly old local rumormonger explained) due to one of those sorts of dramatic falling out incidents that often destroys a school club or bowling team, that quarter did not have a team in the earlier day’s athletic contests, and had no team spirit. Thus, when that rider succeeded, everyone, the whole crowd, booed, or condescended to recognize his skill with a spattering of disjointed, grudging applause. In fact, it was this lest popular horseman who triumphed that evening, to the general satisfaction of… me? No one else? The rider cast in that role was, in fact, the most experienced, and this was his eighth victory at this particular joust, though a different rider was riding the horse which (with a different man on his back) won last year.
A true shadow, which very nearly thwarted the joust entirely, fell across the camp mid-way through, and incited a half hour of eerily legend-like suspense. The sword broke. Mid-way through, it got dinged or bent or something, and the announcer in his grand robes declared a halt. Men in colorful livery scattered across the grounds checking equipment. They didn’t have a spare. There was only the one sword, and without it the jousters milled aimless in the courtyard, their horses becoming increasingly touchy and obstreperous as they milled the hedged waiting box. It was at this point that it occurred to me that we were at a joust, and somebody lost the sword, and squires were off looking for one, and while Italy seemed an unlikely place for a boy to suddenly become King of England, this was still quite the circumstance. In the end they turned to the costumed crowd, and asked all the gentlemen, the Medici, the Strozzi, the knights and guardsmen, to all bring their swords to the front so the officiators could select the one most physically similar to the lost official version. Thus we confirm that it is vital for half the crowd to come to any joust in costume. The sword replaced, the joust concluded with the victory of the very excellent knight-whom-no-one-liked, and fireworks. And a long, awkward attempt to get a taxi home at midnight.
I made a day trip to Bologna, our neighbor to the north, home of one of the greatest old universities, world-renowned in the Renaissance for its medical school. A friend who studied professors’ families and households had invited me to join her on a boat tour of the medieval underground canals which were constructed to allow for easy transportation of goods throughout the city. The tour, alas, was canceled due to insufficient water for the boats to move, but being stranded in Bologna for an afternoon with an expert on its history is no large hardship.
We visited a complex of seven small medieval churches, built successively at different times and gradually connected together into a chimerical complex in which one steps out of a long Gothic nave only to step into an octagonal Byzantine one, then on into a colorful brick cloister that might have been built in Venice, and so on, style by style room by room. The cathedral is entirely baroque, and since Bologna was never quite so affluent as Florence, especially in the Baroque period, a masterpiece in painted fake marble, painted fake architecture, even painted fake porphyry, but with a few remnants of its displaced Medieval predecessor lurking in corners here and there.
We also visited some exceptionally expressive wooden and terracotta sculptures – both media underrepresented in Florence’s great galleries of stone and bronze, and took a meandering walking tour of the city’s long medieval streets and Renaissance facades (much to the chagrin of my friend’s daughter whose panino we were commissioned to deliver at 1 and didn’t place in her hands until around 4). Many of the raised porches survive on massive dark medieval wooden beams, something almost absent in Florence which neoclassicized everything it could touch. Again terracotta is a great component of these old facades, which families constructed to impress on passers-by their wealth and distinction, and not only saints but grotesques and even character portraits are common accents between arches and columns. Again the touch of the great northern neighbor Venice is conspicuous in the rich pinks and peaches of these narrow roads, and in the window trimmings, elaborate and white like wedding cakes, as well as in the occasional winged lion.
I was delighted to be reminded that Saint Dominic is buried in Bologna, the founder of the Dominican order with its great tradition of scholarship and pursuing truth, for which I have particular affection. Bad timing relative to evening mass kept my pilgrimage brief this time, but I must return, both to examine the great saint’s tomb, which dozens of famous hands contributed to making a true masterpiece of Renaissance sculpture, and to enjoy leisurely contemplation of the life of monastic scholarship he pioneered. Also gelato. Knowing I answer to “gelato snob” my guide took me to two exceptional establishments, one tucked inconspicuously in a portico which offered extraordinary seasonal real fruit flavors including Pear with Cinnamon and Spiced Apple, both of which were stunning, and a second, large and clearly famous place (delightfully close to Dominic’s resting place) which offered Ricotta with Sicilian Lemon, pear, and a Granita di Pompelmo Rosa (pink grapefruit granita) which packed the full, intensified ferocity of the most aggressive natural citrus.
“Medici balls!” I cried as we reached the university, and there they were, bulbous and grandiose over a gateway. My companion, mainly a social historian, had apparently taken little notice of pope Clement’s marble signature, and correctly observed that the building must have been renovated during his papacy, but to me it was a more striking moment. The Medici crest, with its collection of five or six balls, representing medicinal pills (Medici <= Medico <= doctor) is on virtually every decoratable surface in Florence, a universal reminder of the great patrons, their many projects, and their eventual victory, so when I leave Medici country I always enjoy the telling contrast of their absence, and the presence of some other local symbol, the Venetian Lion of St. Mark, or the…
Oh good grief.. excuse me, I hear trumpets …
(half an hour later) Right. Not a big thing, just a parade and concert by the brass band of the Florentine civic militia corps of something something that have amazing hats.
Where were we? Medici balls in Bologna. It hit me just as it was intended to, a shocking, unexpectedly long reach by the neighbors who were certainly never lords in Bologna, but still had their fingers in the university which was Bologna’s pride and fame. I was impressed; centuries later I was still impressed.
There was also a Roman legionary cohort camped in the main square. But since the trumpeters have slowed me, the Legio I Italica Novae Moesia (67-425 DC) must wait for another day.
Hopefully next time the canals will have enough water for me to tour the underbelly.
There is a district, just west of the center of Florence, which I refer to as the “Thousand Dollar Purse” district.
Here the truly extravagant end of European fashion displays itself for the delectation of the envious masses.
Here one can spend $500 on sunglasses, $1,000 on boots, and ooh and aah over purses whose merits elude my understanding. Yet I know to that, to the stylish, the differences are as obvious as when I glance at an altarpiece and tell a Saint Sebastian from a Saint Jerome. It is a language, and I do respect the effort it takes to achieve fluency.
In preparation for a more substantial post on the subject of thousand dollar purses, I present a simple guessing game. I challenge you to guess the prices of the three black purses shown below. I will not pull any cheap tricks and include a purse from the sensible end of town: all three of these purses cost over a thousand dollars. My challenge: Guess the price of each! To whoever gets closest I’ll give the prize of suggesting my next topic. Or if you’re not confident enough in your knowledge of high fashion to guess the prices, simply guess which of the three purses do you think costs the most.
By the way, the Prada jacket shown above on the left left costs 3,950 euros, and the purse she’s holding costs 2,700 euros. The Gucci dress at the above right is 2,700 in green, 3,500 in pink. Oh, also, the green dress should be worn with a 500 euro belt and 585 euro shoes, and the little purse is a mere 1,350.
Now, the challenge! Guess the price – guess the purse:
Purse #1: the unnecessarily quilted reptile purse
(up close, it’s not reptile leather, it’s smooth leather quilted to look like reptile leather)
Purse #2: the inconveniently-small reptile purse
(No, there’s no shoulder strap, just the wrist loop, so it constantly occupies a hand.)