Friday, January 31, 2014

Unpacking my Library

Following in the well-worn footsteps of Walter Benjamin, I have unpacked my tiny library of books.  To try and find meaning in the selection of books which now sit on one half of one shelf in the studio is a bit hilarious, as what ended up in my suitcase was, but he end of my packing frenzy, virtually a random selection from a stack about three or four times larger.  Some books I eliminated because I found that there were copies in the Academy's excellent library.  Others were too heavy.  And then there are those that seemed to have jumped in on their own; I was surprised to see them when I unpacked my suitcases.  A film version of me packing and unpacking these books would have a Charlie Chaplin quality to it -- books flying in and out, suitcase packed and sealed, suitcase unsealed and unpacked, books being weighed in hand, tossed in, tossed out.

Here's the list, in no order:

Giuseppe Lampedusa, The Leopard
Avishai Margalit, The Ethics of Memory
George Steiner, Real Presences
Michael Katz, The Irony of Early School Reform in Massachusetts
Sabina Murray, Forgery
Donna Leon, Death at La Fenice
Guy Raffa, Danteworlds:  A Reader's Guide to the Inferno
Max Page, ed., Memories of Buenos Aires
Eleanor Clark, Rome and a Villa
Lionel Trilling, Sincerity and Authenticity
John Varriano, A Literary Companion to Rome
Lonely Planet, Italy
Giovanni Verga, I Malavoglia (The House by the Medlar Tree)
Rough Guide, Venice
Aryeh Cohen, Justice in the City: An Argument from the Sources of Rabbinic Judaism
Ross King, Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling
Marguerite Feitlowitz, A Lexicon of Terror: Argentina and the Legacies of Torture
Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine
Robert Huges, Rome: A Cultural, Visual, and Personal History
Borden Painter, Mussolini's Rome
Georgina Mason, The Companion Guide to Rome
Robert Kahn, Rome: The Essential Insider's Guide
Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death

The library of an adult-onset Attention Deficit Disorder victim!

Or someone trying -- valiantly?  desperately? -- to bring together thinking about memory, preservation, place and cities together with activism on behalf of unions and public institutions.

Pete Seeger, part 2

Some readers thought my post about Pete Seeger failed to recognize that sweet children's songs were hardly the most important legacy of the singer and activist.  I agree.  Seeger was involved in virtually every progressive battle of the last sixty years of the 20th century and into the 21st.  Here's a good piece from The Nation about Pete's unending commitment to building a better world.  And for those of a liberal bent (which, in my experience, has increasingly meant skepticism about unions), it is worth remembering that at the core of his activism was a belief that labor unions were the essential vehicle for creating a more progressive nation.  People having a voice at the workplace and the strength to resist corporate power and push for laws and policies that benefit working people is the foundation for a more progressive country.

Abiyoyo has its David and Goliath overtones.  But Solidarity Forever speaks to Pete Seeger's values more directly.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Pete Seeger

Two memories:

As kids, our favorite record (before we discovered the Beatles) was Pete Seeger's Children's Concert at Town Hall.  Here's the Cheshire.  Fifteen Miles on the Erie Canal. Put your Finger in the Air.  It Could Be A Wonderful World. We had no idea, of course, that the reason Pete Seeger was doing all of these children's concerts was that he was blacklisted because of his near-conviction by the House Un-American Activities Committee.  We just loved singing along to those songs.  And for Sash and myself, This Land Is Your Land was the national anthem.  I think as a kid I sort of thought it was.

In college, I remember Pete Seeger singing at the Schubert Theater in New Haven.  As the concert was coming to an end, Pete asked for suggestions.  The overwhelming response was Abiyoyo.  He seemed a little puzzled.  But for that generation of students, that story song with the sound effects of the boy's ukelele, the father's saw and the "zup-zup" of his magic wand brought us back to childhoods in living rooms listening to Pete Seeger albums.

Here's Pete Seeger singing Abiyoyo:

And then there's the Lincoln Memorial Obama inauguration concert, ending with This Land Is Your Land:

Reflections on Our Town (not Rome, but Grover's Corners, New Hampshire)

I waited in line at TKTS in Times Square back in 2009 hoping to get a ticket for a different show.  But by the time I made it to the front of the line, very little was available.  At the last minute, my friend David Goldston and I decided to get tickets for Our Town, playing at the Barrow Street Theater in Greenwich Village.  It felt like a letdown to me – a mid-century American play, no one famous in it.  Not what I wanted to see on my big night in from the sticks.

But down we went, and had one of the most powerful evenings of theater I have ever experienced.

This well-known – too, well known -- play is presented with the audience surrounding the stage, just inches from the actors.  As prescribed by Wilder there is “No curtain. No scenery.”  The Stage Manager sets up the stage with a few tables and chairs as the audience is coming in.   And then those opening lines:

“The play is called ‘Our Town.’  It was written by Thornton Wilder…..the name of the town is Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire – just across the Massachusetts line:  latitude 42 degrees 40 minutes; longitude 70 degrees 37 minutes.  The First Act shows a day in our town.  The day is May 7, 1901.  The time is just before dawn.”

The hint of an underlying theme about architecture, community, and place is there in the opening lines.  Is this place, Grover’s Corners, defined by its geographical location?  Of course not.  It will be defined by people, and their loves and losses, and memories.

The Barrow Street production was stark in its sparseness.  As the evening wears on, you feel the complete emptiness of the town as a physical place.  It is all about these humans and their mundane – and yet, for them, hugely important, interactions.

And then.

In the third act, young Emily Webb, now dead, is in the graveyard with her mother-in-law.  She is granted the Trojan Horse of a gift – the chance to return to one day in her life.  She wants to come back to the morning of her twelfth birthday in her childhood home.  As he drifts into the experience, all of a sudden, the black curtain at the front of the theater, is rapidly pulled open, and there is a full-blown perfect recreation of the scene of the family in their kitchen.  Period clothing, curtains and dishes and furniture. And bacon is frying in the pan and quickly that incomparably enticing smell wafts across the theater.  It was a true jaw-dropping moment.  I actually gasped. 

And I have never forgotten it. 

An hour of the drama had pulled us into a world of words and relationships, and we had forgotten about physical place.  Only when Emily is offered the chance to go back – that is to remember, in the hopes of returning or recovering – are we brought into the physical world of textures and light and smell.  The rich, colorful light and scene, and the sound of that bacon sizzling and the rich, animal smell wafting into the theater – it was simply overpowering.

Emily did not revisit her earlier life.  She was given the chance to return – via memory.  And it turned out that the memory was so much more powerful and life-like than anything else in her reality.  The memory was more poignant and painful in its contrast to the present-day in which the play takes place. 

Charles Isherwood, the New York Times reviewer, noted that the old notion that this was a nostalgic play about the good old days was, in this production:  “Nowhere to be seen, and good riddance. ‘Our Town’ is not a play about the evaporated glory of simpler yesteryears. On the contrary, it whispers to us the urgent necessity of living in the here and now — which is all anybody in Grover’s Corners ever had, all anybody anywhere really has.”

He says this of the surprise revelation in the third act:

“It’s a beautiful feat of stagecraft that departs from tradition but transmits the essence of Wilder’s philosophy with an overwhelming sensory immediacy.”

But the shock of the moment is much more painful than Isherwood describes.  Wilder certainly argued, not only in this play, but in his other writings, that we should not inquire “why or whither, but just enjoy your ice cream while it is on your plate.”  And he gives to Emily Webb in that third act the line “does anyone ever realize life while they live it...every, every minute?"

But I think the lasting impact of that moment, why I, with a rather pitiful memory, can bring myself back to this moment which such immediacy, is how it spoke to something so fundamental that I, and we all, have wrestled with:  what is the relationship of memory and place, between a real place and the memories of that place?

I felt a stunning awakening to something that is perhaps quite obvious:  It said this:  our memories can be far more real and life-like than reality.  Or perhaps this:  if we are not careful, the present will be in black and white, and the past will be in full color.

If we save a place, do we offer a way for people to smell the bacon sizzling?  Or is that simply the dream of people dead, sitting upright in a cemetery, anguished about what they failed to appreciate while alive?

Ghosts of Fascism

There are, of course, grand monuments to fascism here in Rome -- the Foro Italico (formerly Foro Mussolini) and the EUR being the most spectacular.  And there are endless "fabric" buildings -- schools, post offices, government offices -- and streets and squares, some seamlessly integrated into the layers of historic Rome.  And then there are the signs on buildings and monuments inscribed with "Mussolini Dux" and the symbol of the fascists -- the fasces, the bundle of wooden rods, often with a blade attached -- on everything from drainage pipes to buildings and post office boxes.  Valentina Follo, in charge of the archaeology collection at the Academy, has set me going on finding these elements of the urban landscape which escaped the post-war effort to rid the city of Mussolini's name and fascist symbols.  Here is one, on a sidewalk cover.

And another, somewhere along the wall walk this past Sunday:

Rainbow over Rome

From the Passeggiata del Gianicolo, during our walk around the walls this past Sunday.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Eric Salerno

I was pleased to be able to be a link between Brooklyn and the Bronx in the late 1940s and Rome today, on behalf of the Weinbaum family.  I had a very nice lunch and conversation with journalist Eric Salerno, a reporter and editor on Israel and the Middle East for Il Messaggero.   He, along with his father and mother, were deported from the United States in the 1950s for their political views (thanks to the McCarren Act).  Here is his book about the harassment by the FBI -- a story which deserves to be translated into English.  Eric's mother was a friend of Carol Weinbaum's mother, from the textile factories of the Garment District in Manhattan.  After many years of trying to find Eric's mother, Carol found Eric and the connection was made.

I met him in his apartment building which dates back to the 700s [sic] and we had a great meal nearby, talking about Jewish life in Rome, the life of a journalist writing about Israel (not always pleasant!), and his various books -- on the Mossad in Italy, and Italian concentration camps in Libya.

We have a next plan for him and his partner Suzanne to come up to the Academy for dinner. I have no doubt there will be many people eager to speak with him.

As wonderful as the waiter was, his photo skills were not the best.

A little panorama from the Academy

Two churches

My father dragged us to churches all across Europe, and my and brother and I fought him every step of the way.

But now...

Here are two of the most beautiful little churches I know, just a hundred yards from one another.  

San Carlo Alle Quattro Fontane (Borromini, 1646) and (the last image), Sant'Andrea al Quirinale (Bernini, 1661).

Tuesday, January 28, 2014


Every morning as the water heats up in my Moka coffee pot, I look out the window of the 2nd floor kitchen.  The view across the street includes a formal garden in a building owned by the Academy but rented out to the American representative to the Vatican.  Beyond, down the hill of the Janiculum, is the city center.  And framing the view are a group of remarkable umbrella pines, to me the symbol of the city.  They are more powerful even than the ruins. When I first flew into Rome, in 1984, I remember seeing the pines from the plane.  I was reminded of this when I arrived last Monday morning in the rain.  I saw a huge stand of the trees near the coast and know that my Roman adventure had begun.

What is it about these trees that so evokes a place?

I hope to spend more time exploring their story – their natural history and human history – in the coming weeks.

For now, I think I’ll listen to Respighi’s Pini di Roma (Pines of Rome), which Eric Nathan pointed me to.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Bureaucracy, Italian Style

My Italian colleagues may believe there is something uniquely awful about Italian bureaucracy.  But I have heard this as well from colleagues in Argentina and Germany, and the United States.  We almost revel in decrying the awfulness of bureaucratic entanglements.  But I think that each country or city contributes its own particular seasoning to bureaucratic frustrations.  

I love public life and government, as you all well know.  But I am not immune to the petty frustrations that come along sometimes, to test our mettle.

Today, I take the plunge into Italy's bureaucratic soup, in pursuit of my required permesso di soggiorno."  I think it means that I pay a bunch of money both to acquire and file a series of forms which will make my extended stay in this country legal.  I paid nothing for my study visa -- thank you, Italy -- but will be a good bit more for this forms, which includes, to be fair, a contribution to the health care system.  (Of course, to get my visa I had to prove that I have health care that will cover me while in Italy!).

Gianpaolo, a very helpful staff member at the Academy, filled out the forms for me and explained the process.  

I take the forms to the post office and will pay a series of fees for the permesso.  However, although I will pay the fees at the post office, I must go to a tobacco store to purchase the marco di bollo, the stamp that will show that in fact I paid.  In other words, I buy the receipt in one place, for the payment in another.  I will then get a receipt and an appointment for another visit to an office on the edge of the city where I will prove who I am, prove that I am here to study, prove that I paid the fees.  I was urged, as well, to make a copy of the post office's own copy of my receipt -- that is, the one THEY keep in order to return to me my formal card a few months from now -- because it often gets lost in their files.  "Make a copy on a full-size piece of paper," Gianpaolo suggested, "so it is easier for them to find."  Okay!

And then, as is common everywhere, in all bureaucratic encounters,  I will wait.  And at some point, likely months from now, I will be notified that I must return to the post office to pick up the actual card, which will show that I am legally able to be here.  Then, probably a week later, I will fly home.

Buona fortuna!

Weary Feet

I walked the entire length of the Aurelian Walls yesterday – a good 12 miles.  Jan Gadeyne, professor of archaeology, led his students from the Temple University program, along with a bunch of us from the Academy and a host of others.  It was about 50 or sixty people during a counter-clockwise walk around the city. Jan has led this walk 48 times over the past twenty-five years.  It was a fantastic introduction to the city, as we weaved in and out of the walls, seeing the neighborhoods that ring the historic center.  As a former tour guide, I especially appreciated Jan's good balance of information, enthusiasm, and just plain walking.

More on the walk later, but suffice it to say that today's cold rain is providing an easy excuse to stay in doors and rest my weary feet!

Here are a few photos I took along the walk.

Friday, January 24, 2014

A few more views of and from the Academy

Words about the Pantheon

Here are a few of my favorite comments about the Pantheon

From Eleanor Clark, Rome and a Villa (New York: Atheneum, 1982; orig. 1950):

The spaces are shocking.  They are close too, and give no warnings, so that suddenly the Pantheon or the huge volutes of Sant’ Ignazio are crowding right over you; you are not allowed to stand off, it seems you are not allowed to admire at all; it is as though a giant mother were squashing you to her breast. (p. 53)

The sense of touch is especially strong here, the space being tiny in relation to the dark immensity of the Pantheon columns and their associations.  There is a jungle craziness in the proportions, crushing on short acquaintance, of which the modest obelisk with a cross on top and the water, the whole raised by a few steps, are the secrete balancing point…There is something of the sacred grove about this square, which affects its more or less hobo occupants, and it is surely from the sense of this that Piranesi gave so strange a perspective to his best etching of it, putting the Pantheon off at an impossible distance with the little fountain grandly spreading in the foreground. (p. 79)

From John Varriano’s A Literary Companion to Rome (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1991):

The Pantheon “has this great advantage:  it requires only two moments to be penetrated by its beauty.  You stop before the portico; you take a few steps, you see the church, and the whole thing is over.” 

--Stendhal (p. 156)

….its begrimed surface, its fissures and mutilations, and the half-effaced inscription of its architrave, give it a maimed and invalid appearance.

            --Hippolyte Taine, Italy, Rome and Naples (1868)

The Pantheon stands in a narrow and dirty piazza, and is shouldered and elbowed by a mob of vulgar houses.  There is no breathing-space around, which it might penetrate with the light of its own serene beauty….On one side is a market; and the space before the matchless portico is trewn with fish-bones, decayed vegetables, and offal. 

            --George Hillard, p. 157

Shalt thou not last? – Time’s scythe and tyrants rods
Shiver upon thee – sanctuary and home
Of art and piety – Pantheon! – ride of Rome!

            --Byron  (1812-1818),  p. 158

By ar the most beautiful piece of ancientry [sic] in Rome is that simple and unutterable Pantheon to which I repeated my devotions yesterday afternoon.  It makes you profoundly regret that you are not a pagan suckled in the creed outworn that produced it.  It’s the most conclusive example I have yet seen of the simple sublime.

            --Henry James (1869), p. 158

The great slanting beam…was visible all the way down to the pavement, falling upon motes of dust or a thin smoke of incense imperceptible in the shadow.  Insects were playing to and fro in the beam, high up towards the opening.  There is a wonderful charm in the naturalness of all this…So the sunbeam would represent those rays of divine intelligence which enable us to see wonders and to know that they are natural things.

            --Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Marble Faun (1860), p. 159

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Tasso's Oak

The poet, Torquato Tasso (died 1595), spent his last years at the monastery of Sant'Onofrio.  He is said to have planted an oak by which he would sit and write.  Literary admirers from Goethe to Henry James and John Cheever came to pay their respects.

The oak survives, sort of.  Held up by rusty I-beam's, it is a poignant work of preservation.

But this is the difference between Rome and New York.  The Stuyvesant Pear Trees (which I wrote about in The Creative Destruction of Manhattan) were planted not that long after Tasso died (around 1647, by the new Governor of New Amsterdam, Peter Stuyvesant) and lasted until 1867, when a collision on what was now 13th Street and 3rd Avenue felled the dying tree.  The New York Times reported on the event.  Unlike the Tasso Oak, which appears quite dead but is preserved on the spot, well over 400 years ago, the Stuyvesant Pear was promptly taken down with a health slice deposited in the New-York Historical Society where you can visit it today.

Santa Maria della Concezione (I Cappuccini) -- The Undeniability of Death

On Day 2, I jumped at the chance to walk up to the crypt at the capuchin church and monastery, where there is a most disturbing crypt.  

In a series of small chapels underneath the church are dirt floors -- soil from the Holy Land -- wherein monks were buried.  But arranged into symmetrical forms, almost as ornament along the walls, and on the ceilings, and as light fixtures are....human bones.  Using the remains of nearly 4000 bodies believed to Capuchin friars, buried here (and disinterred after 30 years) or brought from other monasteries, in flight from persecution, someone -- not exactly clear who -- created these installations.  Skulls we may all have seen.  And whole skeletons.  But the use of every bone as building material -- hip bones, vertebrae, fingers, shoulder blades -- is something I had not seen.  I expected  campy excursion and it was rather more disturbing.

Is it a reminder of the transience of life -- as in the lines in the first chapel:  "What you are now we used to be; what we are now you will be"?

Or is it the macabre obsessive work of a mad monk?

One of the themes of my work here is about how preservation deals with the passing of buildings and how we might have a better attitude toward 'architectural death.'  Perhaps the crypt at Santa maria della Concezione may have some lessons.  But I am not quite sure.

Cathedral Envy

This missive from Rabbi Phil Graubart popped into my email this morning, a day after I spent three hours walking to and through several churches, monasteries and St. Peter's:

"As a Jew visiting Italy, I was struck by a common disease - cathedral envy.  I wandered through dozens of dazzling churches, enormous structures, architectural masterpieces in and of themselves, but also filled with the finest art the Western World has ever produced.  And then, of course, I visited the synagogues.  Fine places, more impressive, I suppose, than anything we have here in San Diego. But, still, they pale in every way in comparison to even the smallest churches all around them.  And so I get a little jealous, but also I ask myself an unfair but important question: while the Christians were constructing their spiritual masterpieces, what were we doing?"

He answers it, in part, by reference to a debate in the Talmud:

"The Talmud takes a stab at answering the question directly in a beautiful story about Rabbi Joshua and Rabbi Eliezer strolling through the ruins of the Second Temple.  Rabbi Joshua breaks down in tears, but Rabbi Eliezer continues on, whistling a tune, utterly unaffected by the rubble all around him.  A few miles later, they pass another ruin, this time a small, modest building.  Rabbi Eliezer, who didn't cry while walking past the destroyed temple now breaks down in tears.  His companion is puzzled.  "You didn't cry over our sacred sanctuary, but you weep over these stones?"  "How can I not cry," Eliezer responds.  "This was a building that fed hundreds of hungry orphans every day, and look at it now."  The Second Temple - Herod's temple - was the St. Peter's of its day - an intimidating masterpiece.  But Rabbi Eliezer finds true spirituality in an altogether different structure - a soup kitchen."

Add this to my ongoing internal debate about my love of architecture and preservation, and my love of Judaism and its skepticism of architecture, lest they become idols.

I spent yesterday in a wonderful walk with my new friend Tom Mayes, general counsel for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.  We walked along the Passegiate del Gianicolo, a ridge-line walk with grand vistas over the city.  When I went to an exhibit on views of Rome, at the Carlos Museum at Emory, the curators noted that most of the views of the city were made from the Janiculum, indeed likely from these very lookouts.  Our understanding of the overall geography and look of room has been shaped for centuries by the view out my window!  Here is one of the grandest, by Vasi, in 1765.  The Fontana Acqua Paolo, just steps from the Academy, is on the very far right;  St. Peter's is on the far left.  

In order to help a Dutch couple who sought directions, we made a quick diversion to the San Pietro in Montorio, just a hundred yards from the Academy where Bramante's Tempietto, a gem of the High Renaissance (from 1502) is located (featured, most recently, in the film, The Great Beauty).  

And then it was on to the 15th-century Monastery of Sant-Onofrio, best known as the end-of-life home for the poet Torquato Tasso, and then to Saint Peter's.  (Much more on this later). 

 Monastery of Sant' Onofrio

 Tempietto by Bramante (1502)

 Saint Peter's Basilica (with seating for the Wednesday morning Papal Audience)

Bernini's columns at St. Peter's

In our return trip, back over the Tiber, and down Via Giulia and then through Trastevere again, we passed a dozen more significant churches.  They say there are something like 600 historic churches in Rome.  I am not sure "cathedral envy" is where I will end up, but rather at "cathedral exhaustion."