Announcing a new page on Ex Urbe (in the Food section), an international Gelato Atlas, listing gelato locations in many cities and countries around the world. It includes my own reviews and suggestions and reviews posted by Ex Urbe readers. Hopefully this will help everyone find good gelato near you!
Meanwhile, we have only a few days to go before the opening of the new Thor movie. I will be sure to post a plot-so-far summary before the movie opens, so people who will enjoy it can have a refresher of my “unbiased” interpretation of what’s “really” going on in the Marvel movieverse, to enhance your viewing experiences.
My “unbiased” review of the new movie will follow, and after that I intend to start a new history and philosophy series comparable to the Machiavelli one, plus a couple more installments of Spot the Saint.
But first, some site updates to help things run more smoothly.
Also, I have noticed the site is loading slowly and having periodic errors where it says it’s unavailable, or that it has a database error. I wanted to create a poll to ask readers how often this has affected you (so I could use that to decide whether to switch to a new hosting service) but attempting to create a poll made the website crash and shut down (not a good sign for my hosting service). I would be grateful if readers could respond to this post to let me know if you have experienced bugs with Ex Urbe not loading properly, or other site issues, so I can know if the problem is a big one. Also, please let me know if you have read regularly and not experienced any problems, since that too is helpful to know. If the problem is causing people serious inconvenience then I will switch to a new hosting service soon – if it is not too bad, then I will wait until a few other deadlines are off my plate and then switch over. Thank you.
Friends traveling with me are often perplexed to see me stick my head in a gelateria’s door and instantly proclaim it good or bad, despite not having approached close enough to smell, let alone taste, the contents of the brilliant, alluring bins of swirling color. It can be done. There are visible signs of good and bad gelato, so today I am sharing my gelato-assessment method, applicable in Italy and around the world, and hopefully of service to you (especially to several specific friends who are going to Italy soon).
First I want to clarify that pretty much all gelato is delicious, even what I term “bad gelato.” The very humblest kind of gelato is made from pre-packaged powdered mix, consisting of sugar and (usually artificial) flavors and colors, which can be mixed with milk and popped straight into the gelato machine. The sweet, cold, creamy dessert this produces is still quite yummy, the way cheap candies or grocery store cookies are yummy despite their mundane provenance. One is certainly happier eating this gelato than no gelato, but in an area saturated with Great Cuisine, like Florence, or Rome, or Montreal, it is seldom worthwhile to settle for the adequate when the sublime lurks around the next corner.
I also stand by my conviction that the quality of gelato is far more variable than that of ice cream, and far harder to predict from flavor options alone. Ice cream depends on the fat of the cream to help keep it soft, and also on salt as well as sugar, giving it an inherent mix of flavors which are lend well to complex mixes of flavors (triple fudge marshmallow peanut butter banana chocolate chunk blackberry swirl) and are also very effective at concealing it if the ingredients (especially the cream itself) are of middling quality. Gelato is fundamentally just sugar and milk, or sugar and fruit in the case of a sorbetto, and the flavors are usually simple (hazelnut) or extremely simple (fior di late, pure milk). Thus, you can taste it very easily if gelato contains poor milk, poor fruit, or artificial chemicals (many respectable places still use chemicals to help the gelato coagulate and remain the correct degree of softness in the freezer), far more easily than you can taste the same chemicals supplementing the more full-bodied base flavors of ice cream. Thus high quality gelato is (in my opinion) better than the best ice cream because it showcases its excellent ingredients better than the ice cream does, but bad/cheap gelato tends to be worse than bad/cheap ice cream because ice cream’s natural fattyness and saltiness effectively conceals poor ingredients and artificial additives. Notice also that the best grocery store gelato brands (like Talenti) wisely tend to focus on flavors which combine multiple ingredients (salted caramel, cherry and chocolate, mint chocolate) since mixed flavors more effectively conceal the softening additives which grocery store gelato needs to contain to let it last overnight.
Speaking of lasting overnight, another difference between gelato and ice cream is that ice cream keeps better. Both substances are suspensions of tiny ice crystals, which gradually clump to form larger and larger ice crystals, which is why old ice cream has lots of hard bits in it, and sometimes freezes into a solid block. But gelato forms these much faster than ice cream does, since fat and salt slow the clumping process, so gelato without additives can’t even last overnight without freezing into a block, whereas ice cream can. This means the best gelato must be made anew every day in small batches, increasing the labor and meaning anything unsold at the end of the day is a pure loss for the gelateria. In contrast, ice cream can last several days, even a week, so ice cream places have lower labor costs and lower losses on unsold product, a key reason why ice cream parlors can be supported by much smaller communities whereas gelato places require a high population center to ensure that sales move quickly — or else they have to include additives which make the gelato taste funny.
“But I can’t have gelato, I’m vegan and/or lactose intolerant.”
I want to briefly combat this assumption. At its heart gelato is indeed milk-based, but good gelato places also make fruit-based sorbetti, which at their best are pure fruit with sugar, and no dairy at all, while some lower quality ones are mixes of water and fruit extracts, like frozen limeade. These are perfectly safe for vegan and lactose intolerant people, and many dairy-lovers also love, or even prefer, sorbetti to dairy flavors. Occasionally the fruit flavors contain egg whites to help them stay solid, but this is uncommon in my experience. If this is a concern it is usually easy to find out by asking. In addition, more and more serious gelato places have started offering a few flavors based on soy milk or almond milk, to open up gelato more to people who can’t have dairy, and to make use of new exciting flavor possibilities offered by new bases. When I attended the 2012 International Gelato Festival in Florence, I think about a quarter of the competing flavors were dairy-free, possibly more, including both exotic fruits and creamy flavors based on non-dairy milks. And all were delicious.
Now, the test:
#1) Look at the color of the fruit flavors. Banana, apple/pear, or berry flavors (frutti di bosco) are the easiest tell. If the fruit gelati are made of pure, real fruit then they will be the color that fruit would be if you crushed it: berry flavors a deep dark off-black purple/red, apple white or brownish or yellowish sometimes with flecks of peel, and banana a rather unappealing shade of gray. If, on the other hand, banana is a cheery yellow, apple a perky spring green and berry flavors are the light-ish color of blueberry yogurt, then the gelato before you is a mix of milk with food coloring plus fruit extracts or artificial fruit flavor. Pistachio similarly should be the color of crushed nuts, not bright green. The artificial fruit gelati can still be delicious, but only pure fruit sorbetti will give you the overwhelming flavor of top quality fruit gelato which tastes more like fruit than the fruit does, hyperconcentrating the fruit’s flavors and bringing them out with sugar. This matters even if fruit isn’t your thing: making the gelato out of pure fruit is more laborious and expensive than using flavor extracts, so a gelateria with a brilliant dark frutti di bosco is one that is definitely trying to produce the best, and thus also likely to produce a superior chocolate, crema, etc. Now, sometimes mixes of fruit with dairy can be good, so a blueberry-yogurt-colored frutti di bosco isn’t always a bad thing, but the pure fruit ones are more difficult and more expensive, so they are always a good sign, even if the opposite is not necessarily a bad sign. Looking for fruit colors is generally my first test, and if a place passes that’s often enough to say “Yes!” without worrying about other elements of the test. But if still in doubt:
#2) Is the gelato mounded up in huge tall piles? Gelato is soft and fluid, and over time it will naturally flow down, like pudding. The only way to get it to stably stay in a big tall mound is either to freeze it solid (no longer yummy), or to add chemicals that help it remain solid (which can usually be tasted since there is no salt and little fat to conceal them). Thus big, tall, enticing mounds of gelato can be a warning sign. The best gelato will usually not stick above the rim of the bin, unless it has just been brought out. Many very good gelato places don’t even have an open bin, but keep the gelato in round metal containers with lids deep inside the counter. This means you can’t see the color of the gelato, but is generally a good sign, since anywhere that doesn’t show off the visuals of its gelato is usually good enough that it knows it doesn’t have to, and cares more about protecting the gelato than about showing it off. You do need to watch out, though, since some places that serve cheap gelato delivered by vans from warehouses receive it in flat bins with plastic wrap over the top, which is then unwrapped and served. So while tall mounts of gelato are a bad sign, flat bins aren’t a guarantee of quality. Metal lids pretty much always mean good quality.
#3) Look at the flavors of fruit offered: are there seasonal fruits? Once again this is a sign relevant to both fruit lovers and those indifferent to fruit. All gelato places will produce lemon, strawberry, and other popular flavors year round, but a gelato place which pays careful attention to the seasons, producing watermelon, apricot, and peach in summer, fig, apple, and pear in autumn, citrus in winter, and diverse berries in spring is another sign that the people in charge care about quality, and are therefore willing to put in extra effort to master a fleeting seasonal fruit which will only be profitable for about a month a year. This too bodes well for the quality of all the flavors. Similarly if you see a bright orange apricot flavor offered in December, safe money says that is a 100% artificial flavor, and many of the others probably are as well.
#4) Look at the translucency of the lemon. A small gelato place may not have any of the more telltale fruits, but lemon is pretty much always in stock. Is the lemon an opaque, creamy white that looks rather like the white cream-based flavors? If so, it is milk mixed with lemon extract. If, on the other hand, the lemon is translucent white or subtly yellowish off-white, so the edges of it are almost transparent like the transparent outer edge of an ice cube that’s in the process of melting, then it is just water and fruit extract. This again is a bit more difficult and expensive, because it requires better lemon juice to taste good, and is harder to make stay firm, so again it means the gelato makers have put in more effort.
#5) Do they offer fior di latte, or fior di panna? These flavors, made from pure milk and pure cream respectively, are the basic form of gelato. It means they are the flavors that most clearly expose the quality of the milk, and most clearly betray the presence of artificial additives. In Italy, virtually all gelato places will offer fior di latte, and any one that doesn’t is conspicuous. Abroad, especially in the US, it is much more rare, because it exposes inferior ingredients, and few non-Italians know what this flavor is (Americans, for example, always ask for vanilla instead, because we’re not used to the idea that the pure white version of a frozen desert could be so good as to require no flavor, not even vanilla). If a non-Italian gelato place offers fior di latte, it’s often a good sign. If an Italian one offers fior di panna, that is a sign that they have put in extra serious effort into maximizing the flavor of their dairy (and cream is more expensive than milk) so also good. But if they only offer fior di latte with chocolate chips, or with flavored syrup drizzled all over it, they could be showing off their syrups, or they could be covering inferior milk.
#6) Do they offer hazelnut (nocciola)? This flavor is, gram for gram, usually the most expensive to produce, and to make genuinely powerful. For that reason, many gelato places save funds by offering chocolate-hazelnut flavors, bacio or Nutella, but not pure hazelnut. Others compensate with artificial or weak hazelnut.
#7) Still in doubt? Now you’re ready to ask to taste something to see if the place is good, but what? Usually you’re going to order two or more flavors, so asking to taste them all in advance is often a bit much. Traditionally people recommend tasting the hazelnut, since if it has a powerful, good flavor it means they are sparing no expense. Tasting fior di latte can also work well, since it is the core of all the other cream-based flavors, so if it is strong and pure the rest will be. Another good choice can be to taste a fruit to see if it’s good quality, or anything unusual or subtle, like basil.
What do I do if the gelato place is “bad” but it’s the only one around and I want a gelato?
Despair not! You can still have a delicious experience at a mediocre gelato place, you just need to choose your flavors appropriately. Usually if a gelato place is mediocre, it is working with inferior milk, and may have to put additives in the gelato to make it stay soft overnight because they can’t afford to make a new batch every day. These problems can be tasted easily in pure, simple flavors like fior di latte or the fruit sorbets, but you can choose flavors that conceal them, and thus still have a good experience. Chocolate is a reliable fallback in almost all circumstances. Another thing to look out for in mediocre gelato places is a complicated flavor mixing two or more flavors, like tiramisu. A place local to me here has very disappointing sorbets, but respectable chocolate, tiramisu, and pistachio, and remarkably good creative original flavors like root beer or “Elvis” (chocolate, banana, peanut butter) which are well balanced and conceal the mediocre undertones nicely. Lemon is also a good fallback. Whenever I have a rough travel day in Italy, I go to the train station gelato place and get a nice cold lemon, and even the terrible gelato they have in a train station is still miraculously curative after a rough day.
My next gelato-related project is to assemble an International Gelato Atlas listing gelato places around the world, to help everyone who has worked up an appetite find good gelato wherever you travel. So far it has lots of listings for the USA and Italy but a few for a whole lot of other countries too. If you know of a good gelato place, please post about it in the comments here, and I will add it to the list. Please specify (A) location, (B) how much of the above test it passes, (C) if its gelato is all natural, (D) recommended flavors, (C) other attributes you consider worth mentioning, and (D) website if there is one. Hopefully together we can make a world wide gelato map capable of combating the symptoms of dreaded gelato withdrawal no matter where we roam!
Two quick announcements, then something fun to share.
First, comments were disabled for a little while. Now they are enabled again. Apologies to everyone who wanted to discuss Beccaria – I hope you still want to discuss him, and now you can.
Second, people have been reporting trouble subscribing by RSS. I have investigated, and it seems that, while Firefox, Explorer etc. are fine, Chrome won’t do RSS (for this site or any site) unless you install a Chrome extension for RSS. Googling “Chrome extension RSS” will supply a variety of equally viable methods. However, for those who are struggling with RSS and can’t get it working, I have created a mailing list which you can register for in the right-hand sidebar. Whenever I make a new post I will e-mail the list to alert people. I recommend, however, that you use RSS instead of the mailing list if you can, because RSS will definitely alert you without, whereas the mailing list is hampered by my ability to remember to do it.
Meanwhile, I will take this opportunity to present another of my favorite objects in the Florentine Museum of the History of Science (aka. Museo Galileo): the Noon Cannon. This is a strange variant on a sundial. A tiny cannon, well under a foot long, is mounted outside, ideally in the gardens of a grand estate. It is fixed in place on a stone slab, with a lens positioned above it. At precisely noon each day, the lens focuses sunlight onto the canon, heating up the powder charge and making it go off. If every morning you load the cannon with a little bit of gunpowder, then you will be reliably alerted to noon by the sound of a small explosion from your garden. The effect is sort-of like a water clock except, instead of tranquil trickling and the tap of wood on stone, there is a ka-boom.
I think the specimen in the museum is probably from the Eighteenth Century, possibly the Seventeenth, but I can’t remember off the top of my head. Of course, no one in our era can see a Noon Cannon and not instantly think of its potential uses in an old-fashioned murder mystery. Simply put shot in the Noon Cannon along with its daily charge, lure the victim to the garden at the specified time, and you can be miles away having an alibi while the Noon Cannon does the rest. “The Colonel put real shot in the Noon Cannon? How dastardly!” The killer could even mess with the lens to make it fire at an unexpected time, then play around with other sources of a substitute noise, a hunting rifle or a champagne cork to simulate the 12 PM shot… it writes itself…
“Make everyone read Beccaria!” is one of many sentiments I share with François-Marie Arouet, better known as Voltaire.
This post was prompted by two things.
The first was this comment responding my post about the two recent Borgia TV series, which mentioned TV depictions of horrific pre-modern executions.
Jen: “I am watching the final episode of The Borgias, Season 2, in which Savonarola is tortured and burnt at the stake, and again I find myself wondering – what was the supposed justification and thinking behind these acts? What did the church think burning people achieved? I know it was meant to be symbolic in some way, but of what I don’t know. I just do not understand why people were capable of such hideous acts of evil and why they did not realise that it was evil? How on earth could they reconcile this acts with their supposed devout religious beliefs??? Why was torture used without a second thought? So many questions about humanity and religion. Why did it take so long for us humans to develop a moral compass, and to value compassion?”
Addressing all these questions would take me deep into fraught realms of psychology, speculation, and accusation, and also deep into unhappy contemporary controversies over torture and capital punishment, none of which I want to stick my foot in. I do believe I can respond in one useful way with an historical portrait of one important moment in the history of this question. This is also one of those great undersung moments of real history which is so unilaterally good that it can all make us feel that much more proud to be human.
My second prompt was a recent experience with jury duty. There was some excitement among my friends when I was summoned for jury duty, speculating about how exactly I would get myself disqualified, since they were confident no attorney in the land would want me. I did rather want to be on the jury, in the name of interesting life experiences, so I started out trying to be inert and quiet, but eventually the defense attorney brought up that he saw from the sheet that I was a professor and asked me what I taught, and it was clear from that that I was pre-disqualified whatever I did, so decided thereafter to be honest. The jury selection scene was so stereotypical as to be almost a parody of itself, with a clean-cut young city slicker prosecutor with a distinctively stylish haircut, black pinstripe suit, rimless glasses who had such a boyish face he might have passed for an undergrad, facing off against a gray-haired defense attorney in a corduroy jacket and jeans with a southern drawl and a giant belt buckle shaped like Texas.
In his slow, meandering style (and with a gratuitous, emotionally manipulative photo of a mother cradling a baby on his Powerpoint, which was absolutely unrelated to any aspect of the case at hand) the defense attorney proceeded to go along the line and ask each potential juror what they thought the purpose of judicial punishment was: deterrence or rehabilitation. When asked to define “deterrence,” he explained it as “punishment, let’s get ’em, eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth.” He went along getting a ratio of about two rehabilitations to one deterrence until he got to me. I froze a moment, pursed my lips, then delivered what was honestly absolutely the most restrained impassioned speech I could manage. “You’re conflating two different types of justice,” I said (rough reconstruction). “Eye for an eye justice isn’t deterrence, it’s retributive justice, and the two are radically different. Retributive justice selects punishments with the goal of inflicting some punishment on the guilty party in order to achieve some kind of justice, balance, repentance, or fairness. Deterrence-based justice instead selects punishments based on what effect the punishment will have on the general population as a disincentive discouraging the crime in question. The two are not only different but, from an historical perspective, directly opposed, and their opposition is at the heart of all post-Enlightenment judicial codes including our own, thanks to the influence of Voltaire and Cesare Beccaria.” By this point the court stenographer declared me her eternal enemy and halted the proceedings so I could spell Cesare Beccaria for her, slowly, twice. Both the lawyers gave that special sort of “And this is why we don’t put people with Ph.D.s on juries” smiles at me, but I was satisfied to find that two other prospective jurors after me did speak up and say, “I agree with the professor, retribution isn’t deterrence.”
It is the moment of the birth of this distinction that I want to visit today. This moment addresses Jen’s questions about why medieval governments and the Church used so much violent torture, not by analyzing the Middle Ages, but by revisiting the first moment that the very questions Jen asked were asked by someone else, and thereby entered the central conversation of European thought, with real and wonderful consequences.
Some other day I will sing the praises of the Enlightenment in their full glory. For now suffice to say that the Age of Reason deserved its title. In the seventeenth century, the new philosophers, especially Descartes and Francis Bacon, had birthed the new and exciting idea that, by applying Reason and systematic analysis to things, human beings could find ways to alter them to make them more rational and better, for the good of all humankind. They saw Reason as a tool supplied by Nature and/or God to let human beings govern themselves and improve their condition, with the power to achieve anything humanity could dream of if we work carefully enough and long enough. In this spirit, intellectuals investigated engines, spinning methods, the circulation of the blood, birthing procedures, baking chemistry, light, optics, physics, and refrigeration, and discovered many new things which promised greatness, and some which were already delivering. As the eighteenth century approached, the methods which had been being applied primarily to what we might call hard sciences (with the terrifying exception of the shadowy “Beast of Malmesbury” a.k.a. Thomas Hobbes, whose fascinating infamy I hope someday to treat as I have Machiavelli’s) began with increasing frequency to be applied to other matters: government, law, justice (see Montesquieu and Locke), religion (Rousseau, Paine), and eventually crimes and punishments. If human institutions are held up for examination before the Light of Reason, claims the Method, they can be revised to be more rational and better, also better in line with Nature – with these improvements we will make a better world. It was this effort which was spearheaded by the great lights we remember: the Encyclopedia Project, Voltaire, Diderot, d’Holbach, d’Alambert, Franklin, Jefferson, and taken even further by other more chilling figures like La Mettrie and Sade.
Cesare Beccaria was from Milan, a nobleman and jurist under the Hapsburgs. He and other excited young intellectuals were enthusiastic readers of the firebrand treatises of Voltaire and others which trickled down from France. In that spirit, they set up their own intellectual circle jokingly named “L’Accademia dei pugni” (the Academy of Fists). Beccaria was interested in applying Reason’s razor to the ancient law codes he was now empowered to enforce (in the name of foreign but theoretically enlightened rulers in a conquered but civilized land). The young Beccaria, who was only 26 at the time, collaborated with Pietro and Alessandro Verri and produced, in 1764, a tiny little treatise On Crimes and Punishments. It was released anonymously, to protect its radical authors. It was thereafter translated into French where it became an immediate sensation, particularly since Voltaire, The Pen Mightier than Any Sword, embraced the treatise like a long-lost child, wrote a commentary on it, and shoved it at everyone. Though there were three minds behind the treatise, Beccaria was chosen to author it because of his flare for rhetoric. You can see it in the opening lines, which precisely express the first time someone asked Jen’s big question “Why did Europe of that era use such gruesome punishments?”:
Some remains of the laws of an ancient conquering people, compiled on the authority of a prince who reigned twelve centuries ago in Constantinople, later mingled with Lombard customs and collected in hodge-podge volumes by unofficial and obscure commentators–this is what forms the traditional opinions that in a large part of Europe are nonetheless called “law.” Moreover, it is today as pernicious as it is common that an opinion of Carpzov, an ancient custom cited by Claro, or a torture suggested with irate complacency by Farinacci, should be the laws unhesitatingly followed by those who ought to dispose of the lives and fortunes of men only with diffidence. (Young translation, Hackett, 1986)
In On Crimes and Punishments Beccaria examined the purpose of extreme punishments, thereby exposing, certainly not the only answer, but a set of answers which he then used to propose a shocking new way to think about punishment: deterrence.
Beccaria begins from the extremely Enlightenment position of considering the pleasure-pain principle the natural core of human (and animal) life. Animals, people among them, pursue happiness and flee unhappiness: pleasures including food and love but also virtue and success; pains including physical pain, deprivation, shame, and death. The purpose of a legal system is to ensure and protect a situation which will secure the most happiness for the most people. Just as a farmer must examine his methods to choose the techniques that will produce the most wheat of the best quality, so must the jurist examine his laws and punishments and choose those which will best protect and cultivate the common happiness of the people.
Beccaria follows Montesquieu, following Locke, in his political fundamentals. He believes in Laws of Nature, among them the rights to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. He believes that governments are instituted by a Social Contract, created by humans for mutual protection and benefit. Fearing their defenselessness in the State of Nature, early humans united together, sacrificing a small portion of their liberty to create the sovereignty of the state so it could protect them “against the private usurpations against each individual.” In this system, governments were not created by God with divine right, as was the traditional view, but they do have divine sources in that Reason and Nature are divine creations, and Reason is God’s gift to humanity to let humans protect and govern themselves. He therefore will not accept arguments that invoke religious justification against Reason, because in the dominantly Deist spirit of the Enlightenment, even an Italian Catholic believes that God is Light and Reason and therefore that if Reason and divine edicts seem to contradict there must be a mistake somewhere. Reason and religion, if both true, will always, the age believed, align. In his treatise on the small topic of crime and punishment, therefore, Beccaria sees himself contributing a footnote to preceding treatises on rational government, rational law and rational religion, Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws foremost among them. And by “he sees himself contributing a small footnote,” I mean in the most sweet and adorable way, as this passage sums up:
The immortal President de Montesquieu touched hastily upon this matter. Indivisible truth has compelled me to follow the shining footsteps of this great man… I shall count myself fortunate if I, as did he, can earn the secret gratitude of the little-known and peace-loving followers of reason and if I can inspire the sweet thrill with which sensitive souls respond to whoever upholds the interests of humanity! (Introduction)
And he took up this great topic with the overt intention of beginning an international dialog, inviting replies thus:
Whoever would wish to honor me with his criticisms, I repeat, should not begin, then, by supposing that I hold principles which are subversive either of virtue or of religion… But anyone who will write with the decency that becomes honorable men and with enough intelligence to free me from proving elementary principles, of whatever character he may be, will find me not so much a man eager to reply in his own defense as a peaceful friend of the truth. (Address to the Reader)
In all this, it is important to remember that, in Beccaria’s examinations of “Why do we use torture?” and “Why do we execute people?”, he does not have modern psychology in his analytic repertoire. He cannot, as we would, suggest that public executions were social catharsis, venting aggression in a controlled way, as sports would later. He cannot discuss the psychological relationship between the authority and the condemned, or talk about how sentences reinforce personal power or vent subconscious drives. He acts, as all pre-Freud thinkers do, on the belief that all human behavior is based on active, conscious decision-making. Some actions may be unexamined, i.e. based on bad logic and false conclusions, and actions based on imperfect information lead to error, but they are still based on some form of mental calculation, and the better examined they are, the more likely they are to be right. The judges enforcing the old mongrel legal code, part Roman, part Lombard, which Beccaria asks us to question, do so, in his view, in an unexamined way, falsely believing that that code is good and right in itself, or at least serves their ends. They have not examined it under the light of reason and asked what the utility is of each law and punishment. But they still decide to enforce this law code rationally, consciously, knowingly, not for hidden reasons deep in the root of the inaccessible mind.
What, Beccaria asks, is the purpose of legal punishment?
By Beccaria’s metric, all activities of the state must serve its primary function, that is, to provide the most happiness to the greatest number of citizens. This follows from the principle that the state is founded on the basis of reason for the protection and happiness of the people. Any aspect of the government, and within that of the legal system, which does not help serve this mandate to protect and distribute happiness will be rejected as irrational. All punishments, then, must serve to increase human happiness. He agrees with Montesquieu that “every punishment which does not derive from absolute necessity is tyrannical.” (ch. 2) From this he concludes three principles: (1) That only law, and not individuals with some kind of special authority, can justly impose punishments, (2) that if punishments derive from a social contract which binds all people equally, then all people equivalently bind the state equally and are entitled to the same treatment and the same punishment under the law, and (3) that excessively cruel punishments which have no benefit to public happiness have no justification and are tyrannical, and contrary to the virtue of reasoning people.
How do we determine the appropriate severity for a punishment? It should, he argues, be measured based on the harm done to the nation by the crime, and the punishment should be proportional, and focused on preventing the crime. In other words, deterrence. Ever the Enlightenment scientist, Beccaria likens self-interest to gravity, a powerful and universal force driving people toward action which can only be stopped by an opposing force. Thus when self-interest directs toward crime, that drive must be countered by an opposing one: fear of punishment. Prevention of crime, then, is the sole justification for judicial punishment in Beccaria’s analysis, not retribution, nor the at-this-point-largely-undreamed-of idea of rehabilitation.
Can the cries of a poor wretch turn back time and undo actions which have already been done?… The purpose of punishment, then, is nothing other than to dissuade the criminal from doing fresh harm… punishments and the method of inflicting them should be chosen that, mindful of the proportion between crime and punishment, will make the most effective and lasting impression on men’s minds and inflict the least torment on the body of the criminal. (ch. 12)
He does, however, review (in ch. 7) what he sees as other traditional justifications for proposing punishments, and it is here that his treatise gives us a snapshot of what one legal expert saw as the logic underlying the mass of gradually-accumulated law.
Some people, he says, have measured crimes on the basis of the dignity of the injured party (an interesting metric, and one the modern world has left far behind). Here he would be thinking of how a crime of a commoner against a nobleman is far more harshly dealt with than one against another commoner. If this is the system of logic, we can see why offenses against the Crown or against a lawful feudal lord could be punished with great severity, if they are read as injuring the Dignity, Grace, or Person of the sovereign. To use the Robin Hood example, if one hunts the king’s deer this seems like a minor injury if we see it as harming the deer, forest, or warden, but if the offense is seen as being one against the dignity and rights of the king then, by rank proportion logic, a punishment sufficient to avenge an offense against such great dignity must indeed be extreme. Yet, Beccaria argues, this type of reasoning cannot be the true metric people are using, because if so then crimes against God, i.e. blasphemy or irreverence, would be punished far more gruesomely and severely than the assassination of a monarch. Crimes against God were indeed punished very severely in his era (see the extreme examples of burning at the stake), but the assassin of a king was certainly regarded with more hatred, and executed with more gruesome creativity. In addition, actual burning at the stake for heresy or blasphemy or even witchcraft was, in the era of the Inquisition Beccaria was familiar with, exceptionally rare. Extreme cases like that of our dear Giordano Bruno did indeed end with blood and fire (a particularly visceral reality for me since he was burned alive a few paces from the apartment where I used to live in Rome). But in the Italian Inquisition such cases were rare, exceptions, usually examples brought on by some special political circumstance, and the usual sentence for blasphemy or even devil worship was being forced to sit through a bunch of boring religious re-education seminars and recite a lot of prayers (see the work of Nicholas Davidson on the Inquisition in Venice). Clearly, Beccaria concludes, the logic of the current law cannot always be that the punishment is chosen to be proportional to the dignity of the victim, but that type of thinking does seem, to him, to be an inconsistent but present factor in the thought behind the gore.
Other people, Beccaria says, have proposed that the punishment should be in proportion to the crime, i.e. “that the gravity of sin should play some part in the measurement of crimes.” In other words, that the purpose of punishment could be to achieve some kind of abstract balance or justice, righting wrongs, giving criminals their just deserts, etc. This reasoning he sees behind some aspects of the current law, and certainly it fits an eye for an eye and a life for a life, though doesn’t quite help us understand the practices of hacking off a hand for theft, or sawing a man in half from crotch to head for committing murder on a day that irritated the pope. But choosing punishments to balance the gravity of sin Beccaria says is also contrary to Reason. His argument? He asks us to look at “the relationships between men and men, and between men and God.” The former, he says, are relations of equality in which issues of common utility are primary, since those are what form the relationships between people. Thus utility, not abstract justice, should govern such relationships, and thus if punishments are to be based on relations between people, then utility, i.e. deterrence, should be the deciding factor. As for relations “between men and God,” it is here that Beccaria puts the idea of abstract, cosmic, or universal justness demanding that a crime be punished. He then argues that it is not humanity’s task to pursue universal justice.
If [God] has established eternal punishments for anyone who disobeys His omnipotence, what insect will dare to supplement divine justice? What insect will wish to avenge [wrongs against] the Being Who is sufficient unto Himself, Who cannot receive impressions of pleasure or pain from objects, and Who alone among all beings acts without being acted upon? The seriousness of sin depends upon the unfathomable malice of the human heart, and finite beings cannot know this without revelation. How, then, can a standard for punishing crimes be drawn from this? In such a case, men might punish when God forgives and forgive when God punishes. If men can be in conflict with the Almighty by offending Him, they can also be so by punishing.
It is interesting for the modern observer to note how directly Beccaria equates notions of abstract justice or balance with the idea that crimes are offenses against God. At no point in his treatise does Beccaria undertake to argue against any concept of secular universal justice. Justice is, for him, either a question of balancing individual relations between people, where utility should reign, or it is a matter of religion. Sin, with all its religious weight, is the word he chooses when discussing the idea of proportional punishment–people, he says, think punishment should balance sin, not evil, or wrong. It does not occur to Beccaria that anyone might propose a secular moral code demanding that killers get their just deserts, etc. The only secular principles he would accept are those of Nature and Reason, though for him, as for so many Enlightenment figures, these factors are far from secular in his understanding. Despite Pierre Bayle’s comparatively recent but (in)famous argument to the contrary, Beccaria is still very much thinking in the era when even such a radical as Thomas Paine believed that an atheist could not be a citizen, would not respect the law, and would never have any reason to refrain from crime.
These, then, are Beccaria’s notions of what logic lay buried under the accumulated traditions and contradictions of pre-modern European law: avenging the dignity of the injured party, and proportioning punishment to sin. He rejects both of these as irrational, saying we may justly assign punishment only when it secures public happiness. For those who have read my Machiavelli entry on the three branches of Ethics, note here how Beccaria is arguing that human relations must be analyzed using utilitarianism, confining deontology to divine questions, though one can certainly make the case that he is applying a kind of deontology of his own, using his understanding of Nature and Reason as his abstract internal laws. This kind of Reason-based deontology, closely aligned to utilitarianism, is common among those Enlightenment figures who invoke Laws of Nature, or so-called self-evident principles.
Deterrence reigns, for Beccaria, as the keyword of the day. The purpose of punishment is to discourage crime, not to achieve balance or to avenge the dignity of the injured party. From this conclusion, Beccaria then derives a set of new and original guidelines for how punishments should be selected. Among them we find the following ideas:
Preventing crime is more valuable than punishing it.
Punishments for crimes should be proportional to the harm done to society by the crime.
Punishments should be as mild as they can be while still being an effective deterrent.
Every crime offends society, but only some crimes threaten the state with destruction, and it is on the latter that laws and punishments should focus.
Honor (the “despotism of opinion”) is not a clear and consistent moral code but a vague and blurry accumulation, hard for us to articulate and understand because it is so personal, much as an object too close to the eye is blurry and hard to focus on. Conflicts between honor, society’s self-interest, and the law have long caused strife.
Dueling is destructive, and in punishing those who cause strife by dueling the party who caused the offense should be held culpable, not the party who challenged him to the duel who “through no fault of his own, has been constrained to defend something that the laws on the books do not assure him, that is, the opinion which others hold of him.” (ch. 10)
Secret denunciations are more tools of calumny than justice and cause more harm than good (it was a widespread practice at the time to have boxes wherein citizens could deposit secret denunciations accusing each other of crimes, especially sodomy and blasphemy, and this was widely abused).
The more promptly punishment follows crime, the more powerful a deterrent it will be.
Since the criminal is doing pleasure-pain calculus, it is less important that the punishment be gruesome than that it be inescapable. The certainty of a mild punishment which is still bad enough to more than counter the benefit of the crime is more effective than a severe punishment which the criminal has a realistic hope of evading.
Crimes against property can be punished with fines, but crimes against persons must be punished with corporal punishment (which includes imprisonment/unfreedom) because otherwise people are reduced in dignity to objects bought and sold. He targets this sentiment particularly against the wealthy, who, in his era, generally paid a fine for crimes including murder, instead of suffering personal punishment.
Banishment is appropriate for those who have been accused of an atrocious crime which is not certain, and who cannot therefore be tolerated to remain. But the property of the banished person should not be confiscated by the state, since that is too powerful an incentive to corruption.
Punishments should be visited on individuals, not whole families, because punishing families as a unit encourages a spirit which thinks of the family as a political unit, rather than individual citizens, and this spirit is opposed to republican sentiment. Such a system would have people think of the paterfamilias as a monarch, and make the nation see itself as ten thousand tiny monarchies instead of fifty thousand free-thinking citizens. (From modern eyes, this is a great example of a sentiment widely agreed with in the modern era, that the individual and not the family should suffer for a crime, but justified by wholly period logic not present in modern legal discourse.)
Crimes are best prevented by combining enlightenment with liberty. The best possible preventative is perfect education.
Crimes can also be prevented by the state awarding rewards for virtue.
And, of course, at the heart of the new ground he intends to break, ground not treated by Montesquieu in whose footsteps Beccaria so reverently treads, lies torture:
What is the purpose of torture?
One proposed purpose, he begins, again trying to puzzle out what logic lies behind the present laws so he can point out its flaws, is that torture helps secure confession and extract truth. Torture’s usefulness as a method of extracting truth had long been a key assumption of the law, so much so that under some legal systems confessions were only admissible if they were extracted under torture, since that was considered the most reliable system (see Roman policies on interrogating slaves, where torture was a necessity before the court would listen). Beccaria then makes the argument (new in his day) that pain breaks innocent people too, so torture will force false confessions from the innocent. Thus, he concludes, torture is not a reliable path to truth, so the goal of extracting information does not rationally justify the use of torture. If torture has any real utility, it must therefore be as a punishment, rather than an interrogation tool. This leads to a very novel and yet, to us, very familiar argument:
A man cannot be called ‘guilty’ before the judge has passed sentence, and society cannot withdraw its protection except when it has been determined that he has violated the contracts on the basis of which that protection was granted to him. What right, then, other than the right of force, gives a judge the power to inflict punishment on a citizen while the question of his guilt or innocence is still in doubt?
In more familiar words, innocent until proven guilty. The argument is more utilitarian than moral: techniques which secure false confession are injurious to justice and society. He further argues that torture is better for the criminal than for the innocent man, a weird but interesting argument. Torture provides the criminal the chance to say “Hey, I deserve this pain, but if I endure it they’ll acquit me and I’ll be spared worse pain,” helping him bear it, while the innocent man suffers not only torture but the despair-inducing knowledge of knowing that he suffers unjustifiably, so if he is found guilty he suffers an injustice, and if he is acquitted he still suffers unjust torture. And on the practice, common in his day, of torturing the guilty to try to force him to confess to other crimes in addition to the one he is accused of, here Beccaria dips into some of his most biting rhetoric, writing: “This is equivalent to the following line of reasoning: ‘You are guilty of one crime; hence it is possible that you are guilty of a hundred others. This doubt weighs on me, and I want to reassure myself by using my criterion of truth. The law torments you because you are guilty, because you may be guilty, because I want you to be guilty’.”
Torture cannot therefore, Beccaria concludes, be useful before conviction, and must used only after conviction, as a punishment, not a tool. But what function does it serve then? The purpose of torture could be to purge or cleanse the soul with pain. This idea is closely tied to religion, not just to Christianity but to a much broader palette of belief systems which hold that pain can discipline the body, clarify the mind, and cleanse the soul. In a broader sense (placing Beccaria’s discussion in context) Christian ideas of Purgatory and Plato’s depiction of the soul’s cleansing before reincarnation both use this idea that fire and pain can burn away past sin and also past bad moral/intellectual development, removing the weight of sin and past dark thoughts, making the soul pure, light, and open to truth. This is also reflected in monastic practices of mortification of the flesh, in the West and East. In this model, the idea is that the pain of an excruciating death is actually good for the convict by helping cleanse the soul and increasing the chances that the criminal will reform, either mending wicked ways and leading a good life thereafter, or, in the case of lethal tortures, paying for the crime before death, increasing the chance of getting into Heaven. Beccaria is so concise and articulate that it keeps being most efficient to just quote him directly:
Another ridiculous reason for torture is the purgation of infamy; that is, a man judged infamous by law must confirm his deposition with the dislocation of his bones. This abuse should not be tolerated in the eighteenth century. The underlying belief is that pain, which is a sensation, purges infamy, which is simply a moral relationship… It is not difficult to go back to the origin of this ridiculous law… This custom seems to be taken from religious and spiritual ideas which have so much influence on the thoughts of men, nations and ages. An infallible dogma assures us that the blemishes which result from human weakness and which yet have not deserved the eternal wrath of the Great Being must be purged with an incomprehensible fire. Now infamy is a civil blemish, and, since pain and fire remove spiritual and disembodied stains, will the spasms of torture not remove a civil stain, namely infamy? (Ch. 16)
In other words, he believes that the concept of Purgatory, and related beliefs that spiritual suffering purges sin and cleans the soul, led people to presume that physical suffering could purge the worldly equivalent of sin, “infamy” or criminality.
This is linked to the idea of certain crimes–mainly intellectual crimes such as heresy, blasphemy, or witchcraft–being somehow contagious, or harming the community of people who contact the criminal, either by spreading, or by inviting divine wrath which might, when punishing one sinner, withhold blessings from neighbors as well, so the plague or famine affects the whole city, doing public harm. Thus the purpose of torture could be to cleanse, not the convict, but the city or society. Here we turn naturally to the questions of heresy, blasphemy, atheism and other crimes of thought which loom ever over the populace, especially over the intellectual. This question Beccaria… evades… for now.
What is the purpose of gruesome execution? Here again torture fails Beccaria’s utility test. Beccaria argues that death is a sufficiently ultimate punishment that anyone who would not be deterred from a crime by death would not be deterred from it by death plus agony. If the sole purpose of punishment is to deter crime, heaping extra punishment on top of death counts nothing. In fact, he goes further. Over time, he argues, as gruesome executions are repeated, and seen as spectacles, the hearts of people are hardened and the torture loses its edge as a deterrent. Since fear is at the heart of deterrence, Beccaria argues that what really matters in cases of Ultimate Punishment is not the actual severity of the punishment but the fact that it be Ultimate. Whatever the severest punishment of a society is, that will command the most fear from the would-be criminal. He posits two imaginary civilizations, one having as its Ultimate Punishment some brutal and protracted death, and the other perpetual slavery. He argues that the two will be equal in how successfully they deter crime, since in both the punishment will loom in the imagination as Ultimate Punishment, instilling the same fear. An interesting theory. As for making a public spectacle of executions, he argues that this trains people to think of execution with a mixture of fear, scorn, pity and perverse enthusiasm. With moderate punishments, though, fear is the only reaction, making them more effective deterrents. “The limit that the legislator should assign to the rigor of punishment, then, seems to be the point at which the feeling of compassion begins to outweigh every other emotion in the hearts of those who witness a chastisement…” (ch. 28). One flaw in the death penalty, he says, is that it means one crime supplies only one example of punishment to the nation, while a lifetime’s hard labor may let the nation continue to see and remember the crime, criminal, and punishment, and so be deterred lifelong. This, of course, posits a system in which the populace has the opportunity to see the “enslaved” prisoner at work, and thereby be constantly reminded of the fruits of crime – Beccaria’s world is one of rock pits and chain gangs, not closed prisons which keep the imprisoned populace out of the public eye and memory.
Beccaria therefore advocates mildness of punishments, and argues against the death penalty, not because he thinks it is immoral, but because he thinks it is less useful than lifelong punishments. He also argues that it might make people suspect the law of hypocrisy, when those employed to punish homicide commit it, and that this confusion could undermine public respect for the law. Executions, he says, encourage bloodlust in the populace, and decreases, he thinks, rather than increasing, deterrance. But his argument against it is not entrenched – he is far more interested in arguing against gruesome punishments than against death, which he presents simply as a reasonable option which is not to be preferred while others are more effective. He does throw the full flower of his rhetoric into his argument against the death penalty, but not in order to move the reader’s passions to horror at how terrible it is to execute people. Instead he stresses how much everyone would rejoice and love their monarchs if the monarchs discarded the old laws and instituted new laws based on the Light of Reason. “How happy humanity would be if laws were being given to it for the first time, now that we see beneficent monarchs seated on the thrones of Europe!” (ch. 29). Today’s enlightened princes, he argues, genuinely want to make good and better laws, and in this Age of Reason they could finally strike down the old and muddled law and replace it with something rational and good, saving all humanity from the tyranny of archaic and defective law codes. He finishes this section with a sentiment very alien and unexpected to the modern reader: “If such monarchs, I say, allow ancient laws to remain, it is the result of the infinite difficulty of stripping errors of the venerable rust of many centuries. This is a reason for enlightened citizens to desire more ardently the continued increase of their authority.” In other words, he believes that the best way to eliminate torture and gruesome executions is to have an absolute authoritarian monarch, who, moved by the spirit of the Enlightenment, and empowered to rewrite law and government as he will, will make a better, more rational government. Here modern readers, raised to associate “innocent until proven guilty” and bans on “cruel and unusual punishment” with democratic anti-authoritarian sentiments, experience a moment of healthy historical whiplash.
Toward the very end, after his outline of a new ethic of punishment and his declaration of confidence in enlightened monarchy, Beccaria at last turns, timidly, to that most dangerous of issues, that is the punishment of heresy, blasphemy, atheism, etc. I say most dangerous because this is the arena which could get our author in very deep and potentially lethal political trouble. At this moment, the violence of the Wars of Religion continues to flare, fresh religious persecutions and burnings are constantly in the news, and Beccaria must be a good Catholic or risk paying a lethal price which had become more and more common as Reformation concerns spread. If the pre-Reformation Inquisition’s most common punishment for heresy was a tedious course of lectures, this deep into the age of heavily politicized religious violence it was rarely the slow and methodical inquisitors and more often the swift secular magistrates, or the mob, who burned or massacred. Beccaria is a proud, free-thinking optimist who wants to reform and improve the human condition. His heart has thrilled at Voltaire’s calls for religious tolerance, at the pro-peace “Irenist” movement that had finally let England stop massacring its citizens over the differences between transubstantiation and consubstantiation. But he is also a Milanese Catholic and knows what fate awaits he who dares wake the barely-sleeping dragon. He does not even dare name the issue he addresses in “Chapter 39: On a Particular Type of Crime“. It is single brave paragraph, which I will quote almost in its entirety, so as to give you a full taste of the artful irony and quiet grief of this intellectual forced to bridle himself, to make the mandatory profession of support for religious persecution. Yet, through the coat of lies he must paint across his message, the passion of his objection shines, clear as a star:
The reader of this work will notice that I have omitted a kind of crime which covered Europe with human blood and raised those terrible pyres where living human bodies fed the fire. It was a pleasing entertainment and an agreeable concert of the blind mob to hear the muffled, confused groans of poor wretches issuing out of vortices of black smoke–the smoke of human limbs–amid the crackling of charred bones and the sizzling of palpitating entrails. But rational men will see that the place where I live, the present age, and the matter at hand do not permit me to examine the nature of such a crime. It would take me too long and too far from my subject to prove how a perfect uniformity of thought is necessary in a state, the example of many nations to the contrary not withstanding; how opinions that differ only in a few subtle and obscure points altogether beyond human comprehension can nonetheless disturb public order if one of them is not authorized to the exclusion of the others… It would take me too long to prove that, however odious the triumph of force over human minds may seem, since the only fruits of its conquest are dissembling and, consequently, degradation; however contrary it may seem to the spirit of gentleness and brotherly love enjoined by reason and the authority we most revere; it is still necessary and indispensable… [In this treatise] I speak only of crimes that arise from human nature and from the social contract. I do not address myself to sins; their punishment, even in this world, should be governed by principles other than those of a narrow philosophy.
A sad self-portrait peeks through here. Odious force has triumphed over human minds and degraded Beccaria. He, and his partners, must dissemble. Yet the conquest is not full. He has hope still that his little treatise will be read by kindred spirits, by those “sensitive souls [who] respond to whoever upholds the interests of humanity,” by those fellow readers of Locke and Montesquieu who will read between the lines and recognize him as a “peaceful friend of the truth.” His hope is not in vain.
What were the consequences of young Beccaria’s little treatise On Crimes and Punishments?
It spread like wildfire. There it penetrated the salon culture whose radical intellectual experiments had inspired Beccaria’s Accademia dei pugni. And it reached Voltaire. Voltaire, who exercised literally unprecedented influence, as a new age saturated with printing houses made it possible for the first time for an independent intellectual to support himself, and see that his ideas reached every corner of literate Europe with unheard-of speed. Voltaire, whose wit and incisiveness made everyone who could sit up and listen, not only intellectuals but the great public he entertained. Voltaire, who had just come through the terrible crisis of the Lisbon Earthquake, the death of his beloved Emilie, and in Candide (1759) proclaimed his conviction that it is the duty of a thinking person to cultivate the human garden. This moment began the latter stage of Voltaire’s career, when he moved from popularizing Enlightenment ideals to direct political activism. He campaigned against religious violence and judicial murder. He spoke out against particular cases and trials and fired France with outrage and calls for reform. And he made sure everyone read Beccaria.
And it worked.
Rarely in the history of thought do I have a chance to say the outcome was so simply good, but it worked. Within their lifetimes, Voltaire and Beccaria saw real reform, a sincere and solid transformation of the legal codes of most of Europe, the spread of deterrence-based justicial thought. Within decades, judicial torture virtually vanished from European law. The laws of America, and of the other new constitutions drafted in the latter 18th century, all show the touch of Beccaria’s call. It worked. The change was not absolute, of course. Torture, the primary target, retreated, as did the notions of retributive justice, avenging dignity, and purging sin. But prisons were still squalid, punishments severe, and other things Beccaria had campaigned against remained, capital punishment primary among them. But even here there was what Beccaria would call progress. The guillotine lives in infamy, but it too was a consequence of this call for enlightened justice: a quick, egalitarian execution, death with the least possible suffering, and equal for all, giving no advantage to the noble, who had long been able to hire an expert and humane headsman while the poor man suffered the clumsy hackings of an amateur who might take many blows to sever a writhing neck. Most states judged death still necessary, but agreed that law and punishment should bind all men equally, and that unnecessary pain did not serve the public good. It is strange to call the guillotine a happy ending, but it was in a small way, and even more victorious was the dialog that birthed it. The first country to ever abolish the death penalty was the Duchy of Tuscany, which did so on Beccaria’s utilitarian grounds rather than principle (Hey, look, Machiavelli! Your new branch of ethics, flourishing in Florence!).
Between them, Beccaria and Voltaire made people think seriously and critically about the tortures which had been employed so long without consideration of their purpose. Beccaria asked people to ask themselves why we use torture, and the reading public did just that. Judges examined the questions, jurists, even kings. And they did change things. Even the sad and careful chapter about “a particular type of crime” had its impact. After all, in the eighteenth century so many carried the torches of reform that even among the magistrates and priests and censors whose job it was to suppress threats to the status quo, many were secret sympathizers, in favor of the changes they were employed to slow, and willing to read Beccaria’s chapter “on a particular type of crime” and realize (as we can’t fail to) his true meaning, but give it the stamp of approval anyway, and hope wholeheartedly that it would do some good. It did. Not universal good, not perfect. It needed a next step, and there were many atrocities it did not manage to prevent, especially in the colonial world. But it did real good nonetheless. The days of European governments and Churches sawing men in half gave way. And when later on there were movements to reduce violence against slaves and conquered peoples, these too owe some thanks to the 26-year-old jurist from Milan who turned his friends’ idealistic ambition into such potent prose.
The target of Beccaria’s treatise was not torture itself, nor the death penalty, nor even the concept of retributive justice. His target was the unquestioning acceptance with which his age enforced the mass of traditional opinions which was then called “law.” We have not eliminated torture from the world, but, in the nations touched by the Enlightenment at least, that unquestioning acceptance of old laws has been conquered. We still have much to fix, many more steps to take in the footsteps of Voltaire and Montesquieu, but if, when I turn up for small town jury duty, the defense attorney begins by asking the jurors our opinions about the purpose of punishment, then, even if he blurs deterrence and retribution, even if the court stenographer doesn’t know how to spell Beccaria’s name, Beccaria is present in the conversation, and the fact that there is a conversation is his victory. And ours.
This past May I had the double good fortune of being invited to give a paper at Oxford, and having it be an actually beautiful sunny day. So, since travel has prevented me from finishing my next historical post on time (it is half finished, and will address a question from the comments about why pre-modern European judicial systems used so much torture, and also why they stopped), I thought I would fill the gap by sharing some of my photography of Oxford at its most stunning. I visit universities and their libraries all the time, including very important ones and very ancient ones, but visiting Oxford always feels different. Intimidating. Special. The builders of the great universities set out to convince the world that they were the masters of culture and learning. Oxford and Cambridge succeeded. I know rationally how they rank relative to other universities: strong in some areas, weak in others, struggling from the effects of recent economic and political policy changes; but they still get me with their historical charisma, reinforced throughout my childhood in literature and film. Part of it is that I grew up Anglophone, and reading many British books. Part is that I grew up watching much too much BBC, since for most of childhood PBS was the only channel we got, and BBC mysteries and dramas are still just about the only entertainment both my parents and I will sit through. That combination left Oxford and Cambridge with an ineradicable cachet that no amount of modern awareness of university rankings can erase. I had expected that visiting the truly ancient Italian universities would diminish the effect: Bologna’s medieval classrooms, Padua’s operating theater, Galileo’s employment records. It didn’t. It remains true that “I’m giving a talk at Oxford” has a thrill unmatched by “I’m giving a talk at [frankly much more important venue]” for no reason except that those who worked to entrench Oxford at the heart of the Anglophone definition of “learning” did their work well. It’s more powerful at Oxford than at Cambridge too. Both give the thrill, but Oxford wins at one of the most visceral and permanent forms of propaganda: architecture. Enjoy!
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.”
There was a Borgia boom in 2011 when, aiming to capitalize on the commercial success of The Tudors, the television world realized there was one obvious way to up the ante. Not one but two completely unrelated Borgia TV series were made in 2011. Many have run across the American Showtime series The Borgias, but fewer people know about Borgia, also called Borgia: Faith and Fear, a French-German-Czech production released (in English) in the Anglophone world via Netflix. I am watching both and enjoying both. This unique phenomenon, two TV series made in the same year, modeled on the same earlier series and treating the same historical characters and events, is an amazing chance to look at different ways history can be used in fiction.
I am not evaluating these shows for their historical accuracy. I have been fortunate in that becoming an historian hasn’t stopped me from enjoying historical television. It’s a professional risk, and I know plenty of people whose ability to enjoy a scene is completely shattered if Emperor Augustus is eating a New World species of melon, or Anne Boleyn walks on screen wearing the wrong shade of green. I sympathize with the inability to ignore niggling errors, and I know any expert suffers from it, whether a physicist watching attempting-to-be-hard SF, or a doctor watching a medical show, or any sane person watching the Timeline movie. But over the years as my historical knowledge has increased so has my recognition of just how hard it is to make a historically accurate show, and how often historical accuracy comes into conflict with entertainment. More on that later...
As for the Borgias and the other Borgias:
The Borgias (Showtime) Borgia: Faith and Fear (International & Netflix)
Bigger budget (gorgeous!) Smaller budget
Shorter series/seasons Longer seasons, enabling slower pacing, more detail
Bigger name actors Extremely international cast (accents sometimes strong)
More glossing over details More historical details (can be more confusing as a result)
Makes Cesare older than Giovanni/Juan Makes Giovanni/Juan older than Cesare (<= historians debate)
Focus on Cesare as mature and grim Focus on Cesare as young and seeking his path
Lots of typical TV sex and violence More period-feeling sex and violence
Generally less historicity Generally more historicity
What do I mean by “more historicity”? While I enjoy both shows–both will pass the basic TV test of making you enjoy yourself for the 50 minutes you spend in a chair watching them–the international series consistently succeeded in making the people and their behavior feel more period. Here are two sample scenes that demonstrate what I mean:
Borgia: Faith and Fear, episode 1. One of the heads of the Orsini family bursts into his bedroom and catches Juan (Giovanni) Borgia in flagrante with his wife. Juan grabs his pants and flees out the window as quickly as he can. Now here is Orsini alone with his wife. [The audience knows what to expect. He will shout, she will try to explain, he will hit her, there will be tears and begging, and, depending on how bad a character the writers are setting up, he might beat her really badly and we’ll see her in the rest of this episode all puffy and bruised, or if they want him to be really bad he’ll slam her against something hard enough to break her neck, and he’ll stare at her corpse with that brutish ambiguity where we’re not sure if he regrets it.] Orsini grabs the iron fire poker and hits his wife over the head, full force, wham, wham, dead. He drops the fire poker on her corpse and walks briskly out of the room, leaving it for the servants to clean up. Yes. That is the right thing, because this is the Renaissance, and these people are terrible. When word gets out there is concern over a possible feud, but no one ever comments that Orsini killing his wife was anything but the appropriate course. That is historicity, and the modern audience is left in genuine shock.
The Borgias, episode 1. We are facing the papal election of 1492. Another Cardinal confronts Rodrigo Borgia in a hallway. It has just come out that Borgia has been committing simony, i.e. taking bribes. Our modern audience is shocked! Shocked, I say! That a candidate for the papacy would be corrupt and take bribes! Our daring Cardinal confronts Borgia, saying he too is shocked! Shocked! This is no longer a matter of politics but principle! He will oppose Borgia with all his power, because Borgia is a bad person and should not sit on the Throne of St. Peter! See, audience! Now is the time to be shocked! No. This is not the Renaissance, this is modern sensibilities about what we think should’ve been shocking in the Renaissance. After the election this same Cardinal will be equally shocked that the Holy Father has a mistress, and bastards. Ooooh. Because that would be shocking in 2001, but in 1492 this had been true of every pope for the past century. In fact, Cardinal Shocked-all-the-time, according to the writers you are supposed to be none other than Giuliano della Rovere. Giuliano “Battle-Pope” della Rovere! You have a mistress! And a daughter! And a brothel! And an elephant! And take your elephant to your brothel! And you’re stalking Michelangelo! And foreign powers lent you 300,000 ducats to spend bribing other people to vote for you in this election! And we’re supposed to believe you are shocked by simony? That is not historicity. It is applying some historical names to some made-up dudes and having them lecture us on why be should be shocked.
These are just two examples, but typify the two series. The Borgias toned it down: consistently throughout the series, everyone is simply less violent and corrupt than they actually historically, documentably were. Why would sex-&-violence Showtime tone things down? I think because they were afraid of alienating their audience with the sheer implausibility of what the Renaissance was actually like. Rome in 1492 was so corrupt, and so violent, that I think they don’t believe the audience will believe them if they go full-on. Almost all the Cardinals are taking bribes? Lots, possibly the majority of influential clerics in Rome overtly live with mistresses? Every single one of these people has committed homicide, or had goons do it? Wait, they all have goons? Even the monks have goons? It feels exaggerated. Showtime toned it down to a level that matches what the typical modern imagination might expect.
Borgia: Faith and Fear did not tone it down. A bar brawl doesn’t go from insult to heated words to slamming chairs to eventually drawing steel, it goes straight from insult to hacking off a body part. Rodrigo and Cesare don’t feel guilty about killing people, they feel guilty the first time they kill someone dishonorably. Rodrigo is not being seduced by Julia Farnese and trying to hide his shocking affair; Rodrigo and Julia live in the papal palace like a married couple, and she’s the head of his household and the partner of his political labors, and if the audience is squigged out that she’s 18 and he’s 61 then that’s a fact, not something to try to SHOCK the audience with because it’s so SHOCKING shock shock. Even in other details, Showtime kept letting modern sensibilities leak in. Showtime’s 14-year-old Lucrezia is shocked (as a modern girl would be) that her father wants her to have an arranged marriage, while B:F&F‘s 14-year-old Lucrezia is constantly demanding marriage and convinced she’s going to be an old maid if she doesn’t marry soon, but is simultaneously obviously totally not ready for adult decisions and utterly ignorant of what marriage will really mean for her. It communicates what was terrible about the Renaissance but doesn’t have anyone on-camera objecting to it, whereas Showtime seemed to feel that the modern audience needed someone to relate to who agreed with us. And, for a broad part of the modern TV-watching audience, they may well be correct. I wouldn’t be surprised if many viewers find The Borgias a lot more approachable and comfortable than its more period-feeling rival.
Borgia: Faith and Fear also didn’t tone down the complexity, or rather toned it down much less than The Borgias. This means that it is much harder to follow. There are many more characters, more members of every family, the complex family structures are there, the side-switching. I had to pause two or three times an episode to explain to those watching with me who Giodobaldo da Montefeltro was, or whatever. There’s so much going on that the Previously On recap gives up and just says: “The College of Cardinals is controlled by the sons of Rome’s powerful Italian families. They all hate each other. The most feared is the Borgias.” They wisely realized you couldn’t possibly follow everything that’s going on in Florence as well as Rome, so they just periodically have someone receive a letter summarizing wacky Florentine hijinx, as we watch adorable little Giovanni “Leo” de Medici (played by the actor who is Samwell Tarly in Game of Thrones) get more and more overwhelmed and tired. Showtime’s series oversimplifies more, but that is both good and bad, in its way. The audience needs to follow the politics, after all, and we can only take so much summary. The Tudors got away with a lot by having lectures on what it means to be Holy Roman Emperor delivered by shirtless John Rhys Meyers as he stalked back and forth screaming in front of beautiful upholstery, and he’s a good enough actor that he could scream recipes for shepherd’s pie and we’d still sit through about a minute of it. The Borgia shows have even more complicated politics for us to choke down.
Now, historians aren’t certain of Cesare’s birth date. He may be the eldest of his full siblings, or second.
The difference between Cesare as elder brother and Cesare as younger brother in the shows is fascinating. Showtime’s Big Brother Cesare is grim, disillusioned, making hard decisions to further the family’s interests even if the rest of the family isn’t yet ready to embrace such means. B:F&F‘s Little Brother Cesare is starved for affection, uncertain about his path, torn about his religion, and slowly growing up in a baby-snake-that-hasn’t-yet-found-its-venom kind of way.
Both are fascinating, utterly unrelated characters, and all the subsequent character dynamics are completely different too. Giovanni/Juan is utterly different in each, since Big Brother Cesare requires a playful and endearing younger brother, whose death is already being foreshadowed in episode 1 with lines like “It’s the elder brother’s duty to protect the younger,” while Little Brother Cesare requires a conceited, bullying Giovanni/Juan undeserving of the affection which Rodrigo ought to be giving to smarter, better Cesare. Elder Brother Cesare also requires different close friends, giving him natural close relationships with figures like the Borgias’ famous family assassin Michelotto Corella, who can empathize with him about using dark means in a world that isn’t quite OK with it.
There are other age-heirarchy-related differences as well.
Younger Brother Cesare gets chummy classmate buddies Alessandro Farnese and Giovanni “Leo” de Medici, who must balance their own precarious political careers with the terrifying privilege of being the best friends of young Cesare as he grows into his powers and toward the season 1 finale “The Serpent Rises.” All this makes the two series taken together a fascinating example of how squeezing historical events into the requirements of narrative tropes makes one simple change–older brother trope vs. younger brother trope–lead logically to two completely different stories. I think both versions are very powerful, and the person they made out of the historical Cesare is different and original in each, and worth exploring.
The great writing test is how to do Giovanni/Juan’s murder. Since some people do and some don’t know their gory Borgia history, part of the audience knows it’s coming, and part doesn’t. Historians still aren’t sure who did it, whether it was Cesare or someone else, and what the motive was. Thus the writers get to decide how heavily to foreshadow the death, how to do the reveal, what character(s) to make the perpetrator(s), and what motives to stress. I will not spoil what either series chose, but I will say that it is very challenging writing a murder when you know some audience members have radically different knowledge from others, and that I think Borgia: Faith and Fear used that fact brilliantly, and tapped the tropes of murder mystery very cleverly, when scripting the critical episode. The Borgias was less creative in its presentation.
But what about historical accuracy?
I said before that I am not evaluating these shows for their historical accuracy. Shows ignoring history or changing it around does bother me sometimes, especially if a show is very good and ought to know better. The superb HBO series Rome, which does an absolutely unparalleled job presenting Roman social class, slavery, and religion, nonetheless left me baffled as to why a studio making a series about the Julio-Claudians would feel driven to ignore the famous historical allegations of orgies and bizarre sex preserved in classical sources and substitute different orgies and bizarre sex. The original orgies and bizarre sex were perfectly sufficient! But in general I tend to be extremely patient with historically inacurate elements within my history shows, moreso than many non-historians I know, who are bothered by our acute modern anachronism-radar (on the history of the senes of anachronism and its absence in pre-modern psychology, see Michael Wood: Forgery, Replica, Fiction). For me, though, I have learned to relax and let it go.
I remember the turning point moment. I was watching an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer with my roommates, and it went into a backstory flashback set in high medieval Germany. “Why are you sighing?” one asked, noticing that I’d laid back and deflated rather gloomily. I answered: “She’s not of sufficiently high social status to have domesticated rabbits in Northern Europe in that century. But I guess it’s not fair to press a point since the research on that hasn’t been published yet.” It made me laugh, also made me think about how much I don’t know, since I hadn’t known that a week before. For all the visible mistakes in these shows, there are even more invisible mistakes that I make myself because of infinite details historians haven’t figured out yet, and possibly never will. There are thousands of artifacts in museums whose purposes we don’t know. There are bits of period clothing whose functions are utter mysteries. There are entire professions that used to exist that we now barely understand. No history is accurate, not even the very best we have.
Envision a scene in which two Renaissance men are hanging out in a bar in Bologna with a prostitute. Watching this scene, I, with my professional knowledge of the place and period, notice that there are implausibly too many candles burning, way more than this pub could afford, plus what they paid for that meal is about what the landlord probably earns in a month, and the prostitute isn’t wearing the mandatory blue veil required for prostitutes by Bologna’s sumptuary laws. But if I showed it to twenty other historians they would notice other things: that style of candlestick wasn’t possible with Italian metalwork of the day, that fabric pattern was Flemish, that window wouldn’t have had curtains, that dish they’re eating is a period dish but from Genoa, not Bologna, and no Genoese cook would be in Bologna because feud bla bla bla. So much we know. But a person from the period would notice a thousand other things: that nobody made candles in that exact diameter, or they butchered animals differently so that cut of steak is the wrong shape, or no bar of the era would have been without the indispensable who-knows-what: a hat-cleaning lady, a box of kittens, a special shape of bread. All historical scenes are wrong, as wrong as a scene set now would be which had a classy couple go to a formal steakhouse with paper menus and an all-you-can-eat steak buffet. All the details are right, but the mix is wrong.
In a real historical piece, if they tried to make everything slavishly right any show would be unwatchable, because there would be too much that the audience couldn’t understand. The audience would be constantly distracted by details like un-filmably dark building interiors, ugly missing teeth, infants being given broken-winged songbirds as disposable toys to play with, crush, and throw away, and Marie Antoinette relieving herself on the floor at Versailles. Despite its hundreds of bathrooms, one of Versailles’ marks of luxury was that the staff removed human feces from the hallways regularly, sometimes as often as twice a day, and always more than once a week.We cannot make an accurate movie of this – it will please no one. The makers of the TV series Mad Men recognized how much an accurate depiction of the past freaks viewers out – the sexual politics, the lack of seat belts and eco-consciousness, the way grown-ups treat kids. They focused just enough on this discomfort to make it the heart of a powerful and successful show, but there even an accurate depiction of attitudes from a few decades ago makes all the characters feel like scary aliens. Go back further and you will have complete incomprehensibility.
Even costuming accuracy can be a communications problem, since modern viewers have certain associations that are hard to unlearn. Want to costume a princess to feel sweet and feminine? The modern eye demands pink or light blue, though the historian knows pale colors coded poverty. Want to costume a woman to communicate the fact that she’s a sexy seductress? The audience needs the bodice and sleeves to expose the bits of her modern audiences associate with sexy, regardless of which bits would plausibly have been exposed at the time. I recently had to costume some Vikings, and was lent a pair of extremely nice period Viking pants which had bold white and orange stripes about two inches wide. I know enough to realize how perfect they were, and that both the expense of the dye and the purity of the white would mark them as the pants of an important man, but that if someone walked on stage in them the whole audience would think: “Why is that Viking wearing clown pants?” Which do you want, to communicate with the audience, or to be accurate? I choose A.
Thus, rather than by accuracy, I judge this type of show by how successfully the creators of an historical piece have chosen wisely from what history offered them in order to make a good story. The product needs to communicate to the audience, use the material in a lively way, change what has to be changed, and keep what’s awesome. If some events are changed or simplified to help the audience follow it, that’s the right choice. If some characters are twisted a bit, made into heroes or villains to make the melodrama work, that too can be the right choice. If you want to make King Arthur a woman, or have Mary Shelley sleep with time-traveling John Hurt, even that can work if it serves a good story. Or it can fail spectacularly, but in order to see what people are trying to do I will give the show the benefit of the doubt, and be patient even if poor Merlin is in the stocks being pelted with tomatoes. (By the way, if you’re trying to watchthe BBC’s Merlin and decide it’s not set in the past but on a terraformed asteroid populated by vat-cultured artificial people who have been given a 20th century moral education and then a book on medieval society and told to follow its advice, everything suddenly makes perfect sense!)
I am not meaning to pick a fight here with people who care deeply about accuracy in historical fiction. I respect that it bothers some people, and also that there is great merit in getting things right. Research and thoroughness are admirable, and, just as it requires impressive virtuosity to cook a great meal within strict diet constraints, like gluten free or vegan, so it takes great virtuosity to tell a great story without cheating on the history. I am simply saying that, while accuracy is a merit, it is not more important to me than other merits, especially entertainment value in something which is intended as entertainment.
This is also why I praise Borgia: Faith and Fear for what I call its “historicity” rather than its “accuracy”. It takes its fair share of liberties, as well it should if it wants a modern person to sit through it. But it also succeeds in making the characters feel un-modern in a way many period pieces don’t try to do. It is a bit alienating but much more powerful. It is more accurate, yes, but it isn’t the accuracy alone that makes it good, it’s the way that accuracy serves the narrative and makes it exceptional, as truffle raises a common cream sauce to perfection. Richer characters, more powerful situations, newer, stranger ideas that challenge the viewers, these are the produce of B:F&F‘s historicity, and bring a lot more power to it than details like accurately-colored dresses or perfectly period utensils, which are admirable, but not enriching.
In the end, both these shows are successfully entertaining, and were popular enough to get second and third seasons in which we can enjoy such treats as Machiavelli and Savonarola (Showtime’s planned 4th season has been cancelled, though there are motions to fight that). Showtime’s series is more approachable and easier to understand, but Borgia: Faith and Fear much more interesting, in my opinion, and also more valuable. The Borgias thrills and entertains, but Borgia: Faith and Fear also succeeds in showing the audience how terrible things were in the Renaissance, and how much progress we’ve made. It de-romanticizes. It feels period. It has guts. It has things the audience is not comfortable with. It has people being nasty to animals. It has disfigurement. It has male rape. When it’s time for a public execution, the mandatory cheap thrill of this genre, it goes straight for just about the nastiest Renaissance method I know of, sawing a man in half lengthwise starting at the crotch and moving along the spine. The scene leaves the audience less titillated than appalled, and glad that we don’t do that anymore.
Are they historically accurate? Somewhat. They’re both quite thorough in their research, but both change things. The difference is what they change, and why. If Borgia: Faith and Fear wants do goofy things with having the Laocoon sculpture be rediscovered early, I sympathize with the authors’ inability to resist the too-perfect metaphor of Rodrigo Borgia looking at this sculpture of a father and his two sons being dragged down by snakes. It adds to the show, even if it’s a bit distracting. But if The Borgias wants to make Giuliano della Rovere into a righteous defender of virtue, they throw away a great and original historical character in exchange for a generic one. It makes the whole set of events more generic, and that is the kind of change I object to, not as an historian, but as someone who loves good fiction, and wants to see it be the best it can be.
(I do get one nitpick. When Michelangelo had a cameo in The Borgias, why did he speak Italian when everyone else was speaking English? What was that supposed to communicate? Is everyone else supposed to be speaking Latin all the time? Is the audience supposed to know he is Italian but not think about it with everyone else? I am confused!)
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’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.
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.
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.
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.
Saints 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.
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.
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:
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.
I am going to spend the next 5,000 words complaining about library architecture. Let’s see if I can keep you excited.
(NOTE: This post contains many images, so you may want to read it on a large screen. It also includes Renaissance paintings with nudity, so be prepared. Also, I am happy to report that my Kickstarter was a great success and raised a over 200% of its goal. This will let me organize more performances and other expansions of the project. Many thanks to the readers who chipped in.)
Michelangelo was a profoundly angry person. Manifold grievances accumulated over his unreasonably long life: against picky, stingy, and fickle patrons, against incompetent suppliers and cracked marble, against rival artists and their partisans, against ungrateful and ambitious students, against frustrated love and the Renaissance criminalization of homosexuality, against manipulative popes and his Florentine homeland which never did enough to protect him from them, against lawsuits over fees and contracts whose endlessness swallowed years of productivity, against painting, which he kept getting sucked into even though he hated it (Michelangelo’s bumper sticker: “I’d Rather Be Sculpting”), not to mention against plague, famine, war, debt, Borgias, Frenchmen, Pisa, and all the usual butts of Renaissance Florentine hatred.
We see Michelangelo’s accumulated wrath in late works, like the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel. The much earlier Sistine ceiling (1508-12) is a coherent progression of Old Testament scenes framed by luxurious painted fake architectural elements covered with naked men lounging around in pleasant poses that would be easy to carve out of marble (“See what I’d rather be sculpting!”). It has strange elements, among them the fact that each biblical scene is held up by four naked men (“Look what I could sculpt!”) sitting on pillars painted to look like carved marble held up by two more naked men (“I could use marble!”) flanked by other naked men made to look like gilt bronze (“Bronze is great too!”), for a ratio of sixteen gratuitous naked men to each Bible scene (“Please let me sculpt something!”).
Strange and novel as it was, the Sistine ceiling was a brilliant and comprehensible expansion of the artistic ingredients of its era, one which all comers could understand and enjoy. It was instantly hailed as a masterpiece and much admired and praised, and it instantly made complex painted fake architecture the standard vogue for fresco ceilings, displacing the popularity of the old blue-and-stars. In contrast, Michelangelo’s Last Judgment on the altar-side wall of the chapel, painted more than twenty years later (1536-41), is a chaotic ocean of exaggeratedly muscular bodies massed without order or structure, and even the most beloved Spot the Saint stars are barely identifiable.
Here, for reference, are a couple examples of more standard Last Judgments. Note the traditional layout: Christ the judge in the center, with Mary at his right and John the Baptist at his left. On either sides, ranks of the blessed watch in prayer and reverence, usually with Peter and Paul prominent among them. Below, tombs are opening and the dead emerging, and on Christ’s right (our left) the blessed are being raised to Heaven, while on the left the damned are led off to Hell.
Michelangelo’s is radically different. Calm, ordered structure has been replaced by a sea of chaotic, disorganized clusters of figures, and masses of muscular flesh.
Easy-to-recognize figures fade into the muddle. Here, for example, are some Spot the Saint friends in familiar forms, and in his:
We now recognize that Michelangelo’s Last Judgment is a masterwork, and while individual modern people may like it or not depending on taste, we do not, like its original patron, find it so terrifyingly challenging that we want to paint it over, but we can certainly see why it shocked people as it did, and sometimes still does.
The Sistine Chapel is not a library, but I present this sketch of Michelangelo’s rage to help you understand the vestibule into which we are about to stray.
The Laurentian Library (Biblioteca Laurenziana), where I often work, was commissioned by the Medici in 1523. With their second pope (Clement VII) solidly enthroned and Florence subdued, they wanted to add the world’s most sophisticated library to the already stunningly sophisticated architectural masterpiece which was the neoclassical Medici church of San Lorenzo. The library had many goals—to entice scholars, safeguard the collection, glorify the city—but above all the project aimed to ensure that the Medici’s famous collection of rare books and scholars was suitably displayed, an advertisement to all visitors that they were Europe’s most learned noble house (“We’re nobles now! We bribed the right dudes!”). Petrarch’s successors had spent over a century filling Florence with rare classics and commentaries from the far corners of the accessible Earth, and time and wealth funneled these into Medici hands. Thus, the Laurenziana at its birth was staggeringly close to being what humanists had dreamed of: a new Alexandria, collecting ancients and moderns, pagans and Church Fathers, poets and clerics, Greeks and Latins, even Hebrew sources and many translated out of Arabic, assembled and organized for the use of a newly-learned world. Such a gem deserved a worthy jewel box.
When Michelangelo was commissioned to take on the San Lorenzo library, his patrons wisely instructed that he leave intact the mathematically-perfect neoclassical external structure of the church, and its elegant cloister. All Michelangelo’s additions are internal, the layout of windows and benches, panels and decoration.
Reached by an unassuming door to the left of the church façade, the cloister remains to this day a welcoming and peaceful haven, whose cool, citrus-scented air washes away the city’s outside bustle. This architectural vocabulary was familiar to any Renaissance visitor, with the rows of pillars and the single central tree which formed the heart of any monastery, though with slightly more perfect ratios, giving it a neoclassical edge.
Thus it is with an air of awe, comfort and anticipation that our Renaissance visitor ascends the steps to the upper floor to enter the famous library.
“IT’S GONNA EAT ME!” I have no better summary of the whiplash moment as one steps into Michelangelo’s vestibule. What is this sprawling black staircase oozing down at me like a lava flow? What is this vast dark space, crowded and empty at the same time? Why is the light so far away? How is this airy and gloomy at once? Things! Things all over, columns, niches, railings, frames, all crammed in too tight, so they seem about to burst out and spill all over you, like an overstuffed suitcase.
Photography cannot do it justice since so much of the effect is being suddenly surrounded by this on all sides. The more familiar you are with how architecture of the era is supposed to work, the more powerful the shock. Nor is the shock negative: the room is amazing, beautiful, harmonious, just also tense, overwhelming, alien. Right and wrong at once. At first one’s reaction is a mass instinctive “What the?!” but as you stay and start to think about it you realize how each individual feature is made of familiar architecture and yet makes no sense. These dense, paired columns are stuck inside the wall where they do nothing—the point of a column is to not have a wall. These aren’t columns, they’re column-like things trapped in a wall. These blank dents, they’re niches, with stands for sculptures that aren’t there and clearly are never supposed to be there. These blind windows, window frames around solid wall, there’s open air outside them, there is no reason to have rows of window frames without windows except that he wanted that, blind darkness where the shapes of the frames teach your eye to expect light. Why are these pediments fractured and jagged? Why do these frame struts remind me of an Egyptian tomb? What are these huge curving swirly things stuck into the wall? They don’t do anything? They just loom! Why do these three staircases merge into one? It doesn’t do anything useful!
In fact, this whole enormous room is completely unnecessary. There is nothing in here except a set of stairs whose only purpose is to get you to up to where the main library is, yet the ceiling of this room is above the ceiling of the library, because he actually added an extra half story to it just so more architecture could be there looking menacing. This room is three times as tall as it needs to be, just so Michelangelo can fill it with terrifying stuff! Shock turns to awe. The fake architectural elements painted on the Sistine ceiling are now real, but purely as objects of imagination. The architect has broken free of utility entirely, and wields architecture as pure communication, aimed toward the single purpose of overwhelming all. Columns, windows and other forms are free to be anywhere, like poetry written in a language that doesn’t have required word order, so a poet can put anything anywhere for maximum impact.
The Laurenziana is not the library architecture I intend to complain about today. Rather I cite it as an example of successful architecture, which stuns and amazes, and achieves what it set out to. Michelangelo’s scaaary scaaaary staircase is gorgeous, shocking but gorgeous, like when an unsuspecting public first met Kafka, or Nietzsche, or Dangerous Visions, and came away staggering: “I didn’t know you could do that!” You can, and if you make Michelangelo angry enough, he will. One too many Medici commissions had fallen through, and he himself had to leave most of the library to assistants, arming them with models and sketches as he was dragged off yet again to Rome for yet more papal commissions which would inevitably go sour.
He also left us the reading room beyond the vestibule, a restorative paradise of symmetry and order, with warm stained glass and row on row of welcoming wood benches with the books on their chains ready for scholars’ hands. On the tiled floor and inlaid wooden ceiling, decoration with organic themes—garlands and scrolls with Medici slogans—counterbalances and soothes away the heartless, grim geometry of the vestibule outside.
The books are no longer kept in the reading room, but in more protected quarters downstairs, so visitors can come into this part freely, and experience the three successive plunges into quiet cloister, looming vestibule, and heavenly reading room, and stroll along the seats where our humanist predecessors pored over the Virgil and the Lucretius and so many other wonders. A friend I went with once called it a secular pilgrimage site, and rightly so. The clumps of people who speak a dozen languages in awed whispers tiptoe along the tile with the same reverence and thrill of connection that I see fill people in St. Peter’s or San Clemente. Often someone stops to squat beside the lists posted on each bench, calling a friend’s attention to some especially beloved author: Lactantius, Porphyry, Averroes’ commentaries, Catullus, Theophrastus, Ficino. It is the opposite of a graveyard—inscriptions row-by-row of who survived.
Beyond the reading room, a little museum area displays a rotating selection of the books themselves: Byzantine medical books, our oldest Virgil, illuminated Homer; and a little gift shop offers temptations including what may be the single best-thought-through piece of merchandising I have ever seen: a lens cleaning cloth featuring the illuminated frontispiece of Ficino’s translation of Plato, dedicated to Cosimo de Medici, so Neoplatonism can literally help you see more clearly.
Some fun treasures displayed at the Laurenziana museum (which is only open before noon):
I have worked at many libraries similar to the Laurenziana: the Ambrosiana in Milan, the Marciana in Venice, the Estense in Modena, Oxford’s Bodleian Library, the Vatican of course; all grand historic buildings advertising their learned patrons with luxurious halls and stunning facades. The gorgeous old reading rooms of the American Library of Congress and Harvard’s Widener and Houghton Libraries achieve much the same effect. Others are housed in more modern buildings, the Villa I Tatti outside Florence which houses the Berenson Library, or the library of the Danish Academy in Rome which showcases modern Danish design. Some of the modern buildings are, I will admit, not particularly attractive, but places like the Cambridge University Library and the Roman Biblioteca Nazionale are at least comfortable and reasonably practical.
The prince of modern library buildings in my own experience is the British Library in London. A quick examination of it will provide a perfect, last point of contrast before we move on to the true subject of today’s post, a library so dreadful I have felt it necessary to show you others first, in order to help you understand the shock and dismay of we who have grown accustomed to spending our research hours basking in beauty only to be cast into dystopia.
The British Library is, to start with, conveniently located on the same block as the King’s Cross hub of London’s underground, in the heart of a city, a comfortable stroll down lively shopping streets and past seductive bookstores to the British Museum and the theater district beyond. It is surrounded by London’s signature layered architecture, samples of many centuries commixing amicably, like so many dog breeds rough-housing in a park. Its designers chose brick for the structure, in order to blend with the stunning historic St. Pancras Hotel next to it, augmented by a grand welcoming gate, and a pleasant courtyard with outdoor café and sculptures.
Within, the library is bright and airy, with several different dining options and well-labeled levels. Chairs of a wide variety of different shapes and types wait for the convenience of patrons of different body types who find different things comfortable. Card services are downstairs, but no card or ID of any kind is necessary to walk straight up the steps into the “Treasure Room” on the left, which displays a rotating selection of true prizes of the collection: original copies of the Magna Carta, the first draft of Alice in Wonderland, the Beowulf manuscript with the page proofs from Seamus Heaney’s modern translation displayed beside it, the first score for the Pirates of Penzance, Wilfred Owen’s poetry journal with Siegfried Sassoon’s hand-written corrections, Robert F. Scott’s diary, and dozens of other relics which make this free and open display room another worthy pilgrimage spot.
Closed stacks are a necessity at such a library, but a selection of several thousand of the most attractive volumes are displayed in a glass-walled interior tower within the structure, so you can see the giddy acres of gilded leather spines, while the rest of the comfortable space is decorated with informational posters about temporary exhibits on topics from sci-fi to propaganda, and whimsical bibliophile art, like the Book Bench and “That thing at the B.L. where you move your head back and forth and it does that thing.” “Eeh?” you say? Confusion is natural. Many a time I have tried to describe this thing to people who have never been to the B.L. and failed utterly, while with people who have been, without fail all I have to say is “You know, that thing, when you’re going down the stairs, where you go like this,” (bob head left and right) for the person to say, “Oh, yeah! That thing!” and bob their heads slowly back and forth the same way. Even photographs fail, but since amateur video technology has taken a leap forward in the last year, I can at long last coherently present to you what may be the most fun piece of bibliophile art in the world. Its actual title is “Paradoximoron,” (created by Patrick Hughes) but all are agreed it should forever be known as “That thing at the B.L. where you move your head back and forth.” (Below are two photos from different angles, then a video.)
Long could I sing the praises of the convenience and practicality of the British Library, but today is not a day for library anecdotes. Today is for architecture, and it is time now to face up to its dark underbelly.
Those who, like me, work on rare books often discuss libraries. When I tell a fellow specialist I am going to a particular city to do research, the instant question is, “Which library?” since Florence, Rome, Venice, London, and other great capitals house several major collections, generally including a main city library, a separate state archive of government documents, libraries of key noble families or monasteries, and one or more institutes which offer modern secondary sources, academic journals, and critical editions. Just as one can bond with a friend over shared experience of a favorite shop or restaurant, specialists bond over memories of the libraries where careers, discoveries, and even marriages are made.
When I tell someone, “I’m going to Paris for research,” I get the same question, but with a wholly different tone: protective, timid, scared, “Which library?” The veiled grief is the same which, in troubled times, might follow “Big news at the office today” with the tremulous question: “Good big news or bad big news?” Research in Paris can be great news: the Louvre, the bakeries, the Pantheon, and if one is fortunate enough to be working on books at the old Bibliothèque Nationale one can enjoy the same elegant gilt wood and stonework one expects, both of great European libraries, and of Paris, whose general city-wide style is elegant bordering on opulent, with occasional pockets of modern avant-garde and gothic grace.
But there is a fearsome alternative.
The new Paris Bibliothèque Nationale is one of the infamous failures of modern architecture. Located inconveniently far down a subway line near nothing in particular, it achieves the impossible: wasteland isolation in the midst of Paris itself. This is not the kind of avant-garde that is hated at first but then becomes an icon of its era, like the Eiffel Tower or the Centre Pompidou or Michelangelo’s Last Judgment. First I will show you. Then I will talk you through the depths.
What are we looking at? We are right now, believe it or not, on top of the library. This sprawling, nearly football-field-sized sea of unpainted colorless wood planking is both the roof of the library, and its entrance, since the layout requires you to climb on top, so you experience a feeling of abandoned wilderness as the beauties of Paris vanish away below you, leaving you exposed to wind and sky. The complete absence of color enhances the feeling of post-apocalyptic desolation.
Four identical L-shaped towers of featureless glass rise from the corners. Their completely transparent faces reveal row upon row of identical interior spaces half-shielded by slanted barrier walls of unpainted wood, with occasional glimpses of mass-produced furniture providing the only hint of life. I have never seen a living person in these towers, and cannot start to fathom their purpose.
Bars of reflective silver-gray metal fence off the precipices around the outside of the raised wooden walk, and in the extreme periphery cubes of bush isolated within metal cages represent a vague homage to garden. In the center, emptiness, a cast rectangular pit opens down, and one can just barely lean far enough over a fence of silvery steel bars to glimpse the scraggly, dark tops of trees growing in the depths. It is down into this pit that we must descend to gain access.
The whole is so aggressively lifeless that the occasional passing pigeon becomes an exciting reminder of nature. Apart from the sky (which, on a merciful day, is blue) the only color are the enormous signs in brilliant yellow block writing labeling the two entrances OUEST (West) and EST (East), since otherwise the featureless symmetry of the structure makes it impossible to tell which way is which—the internal labyrinth enhances this confusion, and it is easy to emerge completely uncertain which way lies exit and which way nothing.
We descend via a long conveyor belt along a slanted entry ramp of colorless metal, which provides a better view of the spindly trees in the courtyard. This is no garden, but an attempt at something “natural”, with woodsy trees and unkempt brush growing underneath. But walled as they are on all sides by towering walls, the trees cannot get as much light or wind or water as nature intends, so they are all thin and wiry, and most require metal struts to keep them standing, creating a sickly parody, neither forest nor garden, artificial without artistry. It is easy to imagine a dystopian future in which this struggling false ecosystem is the last surviving preserve of “forest” maintained by gardeners who barely understand how trees are supposed to work on an Earth swallowed by the urban waste above.
We enter through glass doors and are examined by guards and instructed to deposit all our worldly goods in lockers, transferring the necessities to clear plastic boxes. This step is not uncommon—even the British library requires lockers and clear bags—but here one cannot lock things up personally. Instead we must hand our possessions over to brisk attendants who spirit them out of sight, giving us a numbered paper tag in either blue or yellow (or green, remember the green option). Stripped and de-bagged, and with our card in hand (if we brought the esoteric materials necessary to secure one) we are prepared to enter.
A cold steel turnstile brings us to mirrored metal doors, then into what feels like an airlock, a completely featureless claustrophobic metal cube with doors on both sides, so we must let the first set close before we can open the second. It is clear that they can lock them down in an emergency, but how or why, or what one would do if trapped within the airlock, is utterly unclear:
The area beyond is like nothing I have ever seen: a vast space, looming above and dropping deep below, through which an escalator descends, too tiny, like a single stalactite in the vastness of a cave. The only windows are so high above and so deeply set that they are no more than taps through which light emerges, and I could not honestly swear that it is sunlight and not some substitute.
Beyond the first escalator lies another, just as dizzying, though here at last the floor is in sight:
The walls of this dizzying area, which extends around a corner and down another two stories in one long chasm, are covered with (I kid you not) woven steel wire. These raw, unpainted metal walls, punctuated only by large metal bolts to hold them in place, reflect off the mirror-polished steel escalator framework to create an architecture not unlike the way I would imagine the interior of a robot. There are no familiar shapes or substances: no window frames, doors, moldings, not even walls or paint, so the rubber banister of the escalator becomes the only curved or friendly substance in the space, unless one counts the vastness of the industrial orange carpet on the distant chasm floor. In an interview, the architect said the woven wire walls were supposed to evoke the feeling of chainmail. Because nothing says “comfortable space to read and study” like a material designed to repel savage medieval combat.
On the chasm floor we face turnstiles, and must present our reader cards to be scanned and approved, or beeped at by irate machines which instruct us to go to a computerized kiosk and argue with a computer who has some grudge against our library card. Presuming we pass inspection, another silver airlock gives us admittance to the library itself. The interior space is one enormous rectangle of unbroken corridors, carpeted in brilliant red, while the rest is still glass and unpainted wood looming many stories above us, and stretching on and on and on. The computer has assigned us a random desk, hopefully in a subsection relevant to our research interests, and we wander the lengths of the box looking for the right letter.
The pit, or “courtyard”, with its “forest”, is directly beside us on the other side of the glass wall as we seek our spot, bowed trunks and breeze-tossed weeds a far cry from the Laurenziana’s citrus garden, but at least better than more steel. But we can’t reach it. There is no access from the reading room area to the courtyard—we can stare through the slightly dirty glass at life, but can’t actually emerge to stroll among the trunks or smell the leaves.
The reading rooms themselves are also huge connected spaces, reaching the length of the library, so a cough from one desk reaches half the library, though the incomprehensibly high ceilings help absorb sound. Periodically the rows of numbered seats are broken up by help desks where sympathetic librarians wait ready to help you wrestle with the automated system. The work desks themselves are fine, and once Friend Computer consents to deliver your materials it is perfectly straightforward to do a day’s work, once one recovers from the entry process.
Leaving is its own Kafkaesque process. One returns one’s library materials and heads out the lower airlock to the chainmail chasm, where the turnstile again scans your card and permits exit, or squeals its electric fury and demands that you return to fix some unspecified check-in error. If the computer decides to set us free, we emerge through another airlock, there to beg for the return of our worldly goods, and must wait in one of two lines depending on whether we received a blue or yellow ticket. We, in fact, received a green ticket, and mill around in some confusion until we collect twelve other people with green tickets and start clogging things until they consent to send a grudging drudge to take us to an area not usually used for this (or anything) where the green ticket bags have (who knows why?!) been transferred. We get our bag if we are lucky. If we are unlucky we receive confused instructions to descend again and try a different exit. The library is, as I mentioned, symmetrical, so there are, in fact, four chainmail escalator chasms, and one can easily choose the wrong end, emerging to an identical-looking check-out desk where you have to go all the way through the line to discover you are in a completely different place. But, if Fortune can peer through the wire walls enough to smile on us, we find the right exit and obtain our stuff (Beloved stuff! Look how not-made-of-metal it is! Look how it has colors! Like brown, and beige, and blue!). Now we exit past the guards, the glass doors, the steel rails that guard the tops of spindly trees, and ascend the (usually not actually switched on) conveyor belt to find ourselves deposited again in the colorless vastness of the wooden decking above. The overwhelming feeling, especially as everyone is fleeing at day’s end, is that this is not a space designed for humans to be in it. Or for life to be in it. Whatever unfamiliar intelligence this place was built for, I have not met it. The wise know when to flee.
Only upon returning to ground level, when the Parisian skyline and nearby fun façades and bustling streets return to view, does one grow calm enough to analyze this experience. On purpose, someone built this. This is not an urban wasteland generated by cost-cutting, or a sudden recession. This was a very expensive, high-profile public works project designed to display the pride of Francophone scholarship. And Paris did this! Paris! Paris, whose average street corner department store has woven ironwork and imperial grandeur. People who study architecture and urban planning know the details of the commission, the who and when and why of its construction, but the first-hand experience is just so dehumanizing that I cannot understand how any intentional act of human civilization—of Paris’s civilization—took some wood and glass and metal and created Orwell. And I am far from alone in my confusion. In fact, the whole neighborhood around the library is a little nexus of consolation for those doomed to approach it: a movie theater offers instant escapism, food carts bring Paris’s culinary richness, and human civilization shows itself most pointedly hilarious when, on the first corner one reaches after evacuating the wastes above, one finds a pub named “The Frog and British Library.” In other words, “Don’t you wish you were at the British Library?” Yes. Yes, I do.
But for all this, there is one metric by which the French Bib Nat is a bizarre success. I have long kept a joke ranking of libraries I use, rating them by how successful they are at preventing people from getting at books. This facetious metric helps me remain cheerful in the face of particularly impenetrable libraries, like the Capitolare in Padua, which is only open from 9 AM to noon on weekdays not sacred to saints the librarians particularly like (they like a lot of saints), and which so excels at protecting its books from people that it took me three visits to Padua before I managed to get in for a precious two hours and see two books. By this metric the Vatican is one of the world’s most successful libraries, and the British Library the absolute worst.
But there is a less joking side to this. In a perverse sense, people are the enemy of books: we touch them, rip them, bend their covers, get our oily finger pads all over them, etc. The safest book in the world is one sealed away in frigid, nitrogen-rich darkness, far from human touch. The two duties of the librarian, to protect the books and serve the patrons, are directly antithetical. I believe this is a big part of why some librarians are so hyperbolically gung-ho about digitization, since touching can’t hurt a digital book. The majority of librarians, of course, love readers and want books to be used, even though all are aware that use damages them. Especially in the case of rare books that can’t be easily replaced, libraries must seek a balance in which people use books a moderate amount, so the books can last while the work gets done. The Paris library achieves this balance to a near perfect degree, since it is so intimidating and inhospitable that no one ever, ever goes to work there unless it is absolute necessity. Only researchers who have to go will go, and if there is any way to avoid using those books everyone takes it. Result: productivity with minimal book use, ensuring maximum book survival. The balance might even be praiseworthy if it had been intentional. In fact, Michelangelo’s sinister Laurenziana vestibule achieves something of the same effect, since anyone who steps into it immediately flinches back, which certainly drives away some portion of visitors who have no acute need to brave the oozing stairs to reach the reading room above. Thus we have identified a powerful tool for protecting library collections: scaring off readers with terrifying architecture. Let’s hope it never catches on. If it does, I trust you’ll all help me track down the perpetrators and feed them to Michelangelo’s staircase.
Periodically readers ask me if there is a “tip jar” or other way to support Ex Urbe and say thank you for my work. Normally the answer is no, I do it out of pure enjoyment and the desire to share the places and periods I study. But short-term there is a way.
I compose music (polyphonic a cappella and mythology-themed folk music), and have just launched a kickstarter to raise money for my next project. I have been working on this set of songs for ten years, and have given my mythological subject the same care I have given the Renaissance in my posts, so it has come together to be quite something (though I do say so myself). I can’t post a direct link here because I still want to preserve the public anonymity of this blog, but if any readers would like to support me, or check out the project, please e-mail me (JEDDMason at gmail dot com) and I will send you the link. Thank you.
Meanwhile, for your enjoyment…
I want to introduce you to my favorite artifact at the “Museo Galileo,” the Florentine museum of the History of Science. It is a unique artifact, a “Military Compass.” Designed in the seventeenth century, it is the epitome of a gentleman’s weapon: a dagger which splits apart to become a geometric compass, so the educated wielder can use it to measure ground, calculate the sizes of fortresses, distances, and aim artillery:
A hinge in the hilt allows the blade to snap apart. The two halves are marked as rulers, and a weight drops out of the handle into the center to form a central measure, making it possible to use it as a compass, a level and for many other types of calculations. The pommel flips open to reveal a small magnetic compass, and pieces fold out from inside the hollow blade to provide additional tools for calculation. But if it is folded up, it is as deadly as a dagger should be. Such weapons were far from commonplace, more curiosities, status symbols and showpieces, but they were certainly designed to be usable. We have records of them as early as the 16th century, when one was designed for a Medici commander.
Instructions for the use of such a weapon are preserved in an anonymous 16th century Italian manuscript, also on display:
The museum also preserves other gentlemen’s instruments, such as walking sticks with concealed barometers, telescopes and other paraphernalia far more impressive than a cane-sword, but this one has always caught my imagination as something which encapsulates the ideal of the warrior-scholar-adventurer-noble which is so much at the heart of romantic notions of the “Renaissance man”, both our notions and the ideals they had in the period. I want to read a book where the protagonist carries this. I want to read ten books where the protagonist carries this. Also, as a reminder that the past never fails to sex-segregate no matter how unnecessary it is, they also have items intended for ladies of the period at the museum, including a “lady’s microscope” which is petite, delicate and carved out of ivory.