Saturday, May 31, 2014


The twin leaning towers of Bologna, symbols of the city, for good or ill.

The Sala Borsa's main hall contains a glass floor so you can see down into the roman ruins, which you can go down to and view from elevated metal walkways.

A straightforward, widely held sentiment, certainly in "red" Bologna

Bologna is distinguished by its miles of covered walkways, like this one on Via Zamboni, by the University of Bologna, oldest university in Europe.

The Bologna store of the national bookstore chain, Fetrinelli, features local leftist intellectual heroes, like our Massachusetts' own Noam Chomsky

Friday, May 30, 2014


Deadlines are ahead -- book proposal, article for the Boston Globe, and preparation of my tour through the historical center with the Trustees of the Academy -- so I will just post some photographs from my travels north last week.

Daniel Libeskind's 9/11 memorial in Padua, across from the Scrovegni Chapel containing Giotto frescoes. It was unexpected to see this huge monument here. 

Equestrian Statue of Gattamelata by Donatello, 1453, in front of the Basilica di Sant' Antonio.

The amazing, reconstructed wood roof of the Church of the Eremitani, close to the Giotto chapel.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Bologna Bombing

Bologna was the victim of a bombing on August 2, 1980, which killed 85 and wounded more than two hundred. A crater left by the bomb remains in the waiting room along with images of the disaster, and a shattered wall overlooking the tracks.  A clock on the platform is frozen at 10:25 a.m, the moment of the bomb explosion.   In the main square there is a large memorial on the side of the Sala Borsa, now a library and community center.  Images of each victim are there, with a title:  Victims of Fascist Terrorism.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Brueghel, and Auden and Stevens

My friend David Goldston, with whom I just traveled to Bologna, Padua, Parma, Ferrara, and Ravenna, found himself reminded of these two poems which speak to this Brueghel painting.  

Pieter Brueghel, The Fall of Icarus   (Museum of Fine Arts, Brussels)

Musee des Beaux Arts
W. H. Auden

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Landscape with Fall of Icarus
William Carlos Williams

According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring

a farmer was ploughing
his field
the whole pageantry

of the year was
awake tingling

the edge of the sea
with itself

sweating in the sun
that melted
the wings' wax

off the coast
there was

a splash quite unnoticed
this was
Icarus drowning 

Saturday, May 24, 2014


I have found myself fascinated -- even writing a previous blog post -- by the varied images of the Annunciation, one of the most oft-portrayed scenes from the Christian Bible.  Why, you might ask, as I have certainly asked, am I so interested in these images?

I think the answer is twofold.  First, what this scene seems to portray at essence -- forgetting the religious symbolism and biblical references -- is an effort of one individual to communicate something of profound importance to another individual.  While the portrayals of that effort to communicate are so varied the story remains the same across all the varieties.  How do we gain the attention of another, and have them hear our message, and listen openly to their response?

Of all the annunciations I have seen -- and I purchased at the Friary of San Marco in Florence a packet of postcards of sixteen of the most famous annunciations in Italy, which all unfold down to the floor -- the ones that most captivate me are those where Mary seems to reject the angel, or at least resist the call.  These vary from outright hostility, to turning away, to shyly awaiting further information.  The theme of the reluctant prophet, going back to Jonah and Moses, is fascinating to me:  deeply human and honest about the unwillingness of all of us to trust a call, or to be willing to take on tasks we do not think we are up to.

The annunciation story in the Christian bible contained the dialogue between the angel and Mary.   And yet they also speak to everyone:  because who has not been asked to truly listen, and not failed?  And who has been asked to take on what for them seemed liked a monumental task that they were were quite certain they were incapable of completing or completing well, and not resisted?

Simone Martini and Lipp Menni (1333), Florence, Uffizi

Fra Angelico (1432-33), Cortona

Fra Angelico (1438-45), Florence, San Marco

Leonardo Da Vinci (1472-75), Florence, Uffizi

Sandro Botticelli (1489-90), Florence, Uffizi

Mariotto Albertinelli (1497), Duomo, Volterra

Lorenzo Lotto (1534), Recanati

Friday, May 23, 2014

Look Familiar?

The top image is the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, designed by Eero Saarinen and finished in 1965.  The bottom image is the arch that was planned for the 1942 Universal Exposition in Rome, by Mussolini and his architects.

There was quite a debate when Saarinen entered the design competition for the Gateway Arch in 1947, with the image of Mussolini's plans not far in the past.  But the architect, and the jury, rejected the notion that there were any fascist ideological overtones that would poison the form which was to celebrate Jeffersonian democracy and the westward course of, well, empire. 

Thursday, May 22, 2014

A Sleeping Baby, an Epitaph, a Murder, and Cannibalism

A series of words and images that passed before my eyes over the past couple of days are connected by their awful theme.  But why they have stuck in mind, and what they all mean together, will take a while to figure out.

I was reading Dante's Inferno for the first time since high school.  I remembered the famous Ugolino, but had forgotten his crime, described in the deepest pit of hell, the ninth circle.  The father, who is Count Ugolino della Gherardesca (1220-1289), is accused of treachery in Pisa and is locked away in a tower with his children and grandchildren, and ends up devouring them rather than mourning them. Here is sickening sacrifice made real.  In place of Jesus' metaphor offering of his body (by which he means his words of gospel), and in place of Isaac's offering of his body, which must be halted for the covenant to be made between God and Abraham and the Hebrew people, Ugolino takes the offer of the children literally.

'Father our pain', they said,
'Will lessen if you eat us you are the one
Who clothed us with this wretched flesh: we plead
For you to be the one who strips it away'.
(Canto XXXIII, ln. 56–59)

… And I,
Already going blind, groped over my brood
Calling to them, though I had watched them die,
For two long days. And then the hunger had more
Power than even sorrow over me
(Canto XXXIII, ln. 70-73)[3]

The next day I visited the national art museum in the majestic Palazzo Barberini above the Trevi, complete with two grand stairways, one by Borromini and one by Bernini. The Palazzo is just down the hill from two competing churches by those two masters -- San Carlo alla Quatro Fontane (Borromini) and Sant'Andrea al Quirinale (Bernini).

But among all the images in the museum -- including one of the few remaining Caravaggio's in Rome I had not seen -- was this lovely one by Guido Reni.  It is a sweet view of a sleeping cupid.  

But somehow, my mind instantly went to the epitaph by Ben Jonson for his young son who died.  At the moment, I didn't even remember that it was Jonson, or the words, other than I remembered being moved by them.  They are likely familiar to you:

Farewell, thou child of my right hand and joy;

My sin was too much hope of thee, lov'd boy,

Seven years thou wert lent to me and I thee pay
Exacted by thy fate on the just day.
O, could I lose all father, now. For why
Will man lament the state he should envy?
To have so soon scap'd World's and flesh's rage,
And, if no other misery, yet age?
Rest in soft peace and ask'd say here doth lie
Ben Jonson his best piece of poetrie.
For whose sake, henceforth, all his vows be such
As what he loves may never live too much.

Reni's sweet image of the sleeping baby had become, perhaps because of my reading of Dante, a picture of a dead child. Perhaps the evoked, without my knowing it the famous phrase:  "Rest in soft peace....."

Across the room was another Reni painting, this one of the young Beatrice Cenci, who at twenty-one killed her sexually abusive, violent father, and was put to death for the crime at the San Angelo bridge near the Vatican in Rome. Hers became a cause celebre of the time, and was inspiration for artists and writers over the coming centuries -- including, some say, Caravaggio in depicting Judith Beheading Holofernes, a painting that stands a few yards away in another room. Beatrice Cenci herself is buried a few hundred yards from the Academy, in San Pietro in Montorio.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

"The Cold Brilliant Light of Theory" -- further thoughts

In the first gallery at the Galleria Borghese, the audio guide tells the story about a famous horse and rider sculpture, Marco Curzio a Cavallowhich was mounted on the wall, the most visible sight for those entering the Gallery up the main front steps.  It is a Greek sculpture of a horse that has lost its rider.  Cardinal Borghese, the maker of this great collection and gallery, hired Pietro Bernini (father of the soon-to-be more famous son, Gian Lorenzo Bernini) to create a new rider. It is impossible to tell, from a distance, that this is an ancient and a modern sculpture combined. It was common to provide a prosthetic arm or leg to ancient sculptures, to complete that which was lost, in the hopes, through repair, to regain that apparent heroic clarity of the ancient heritage.

The first gallery currently also has four Giacometti figures, originally commissioned by Chase Bank for its plaza in Manhattan.  The whole room here is filled with Greek and Roman statuary of the noblest kind.  But I find Giacometti’s figures to be much more noble than the Greek and roman – Jove, Dionysus, the satyr, and other Roman VIP’s.

Walking Man, has a scarred heart, almost as if someone had tried to break it open and sliced it in the effort. I did not notice the last time I was at the Gallery that the figures have large, heavy feet.  The sculptures are thin, rail-like figures but they are nonetheless rooted firmly in the earth – they look like the heavy basis of Egyptian mummies, or, with feet together,  as some are, like angels in the Torah.

Fragile, strong, but also sad. They seem to be distrustful of heroic ideals, and the kinds of ideals propagandized by the Greek and Roman sculptures in the gallery.

I have been thinking and writing about the basic tension in art and architecture between the pure and convincing, the stalwart and principled versus the “complex and contradictory” as Venturi would say, the unresolved, the questioning, the cautious.  There is our nearby to the Academy one of the greatest examples of the former – Bramante's Tempietto, so uplifting in its proportions and solidity and clarity.  And then, at San Pietro in Vincoli, there is Michelangelo’s Moses, not still, but a figure in motion, Freud argued, insecure and unresolved.  

I have always thought that I gravitated toward the Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, those who sing with conviction, the ballad and the soaring melody.  I have gravitated toward the proud principles of the play, Inspector Calls, which has these lines near the end:

Inspector: But just remember this. One Eva Smith has gone – but there are millions and millions and millions of Eva Smiths and John Smiths still left with us, with their lives, their hopes and fears, their suffering and chance of happiness, all intertwined with our lives, and what we think and say and do. We don't live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other. And I tell you that the time will soon come when, if men will not learn that lesson, then they well be taught it in fire and bloody and anguish. Good night. 

But I have been questioning this of late.  I think of the Michael Frayn play Copenhagen, and the instability and memory and meaning, and about John Cage’s  pieces, Imaginary Landscape IV and 4’33 composed while he was living on Monroe Street on the Lower East Side, and where he opened his windows to mingle the city’s music and his own. In came the indeterminate sounds of this immigrant neighborhood and the still-vibrant industrial waterfront nearby. I think about the essay about the British scientist, Jacob Bronowski and his call – while standing in one of the pools of mud at Auschwitz – to resist certainty and the kind of conviction that ends up killing people.

And I think of the book I read twenty years ago, but has remained in the back of my mind, a touchstone -- Ernest Becker’s Denial of Death.  Becker makes the uncompromising argument that we seem doomed to make mayhem and start wars and kill others in pursuit of victories and achievements that will make us feel like death can be kept at bay, or that life is in fact meaningful.  Are our convictions more frightening because they are more violent in direct proportion to their clarity of purpose?

And then I think of my favorite piece from the Cinque Mostre exhibition at the Academy in the spring of 2014. Mimmo Jodice’s Demetra Opera 1 is a photograph of a broken bust of Demetra – the left half of her check and jaw were gone – which is completed by a white mold, held together by a person’s – the artist’s? -- hand, as if he was giving Demetra a warm squeeze, perhaps a prelude to a kiss.

It is a sweet gesture – an effort to repair the damage and then bring the sculpture alive. But there is something not quite right: the cast the artist made to fit the face, doesn’t quite match, so the lips don’t meet and the face as an awkward skew to it.  Perhaps it was meant for a different repair job.  Or perhaps it is simply impossible to go back.  We try to repair, to bring back the past, to make the past whole again, but like the photograph of the repair, it doesn’t quite fit.   Jodice’s photograph doesn’t have the existential weight of the Giacometti but it too holds its distance from the certainty of marble, and the certainty of ideology.

And now I feel myself swinging back again. I think of Tony Kushner’s character, Prelapsarianov – “the oldest living Bolshevik” – who declares, with great vehemence and sadness in Perestroika:

How are we to proceed without theory? Is it enough to reject the past, is it wise to move forward in this blind fashion, without the cold brilliant light of theory to guide the way?... You who live in this sour little age cannot imagine the sheer grandeur of the prospect we gazed upon.

Can we act with conviction without a coherent analysis of the world and its ills?  When does that conviction become destructive?

Tuesday, May 20, 2014


It is dangerous to generalize about a city or country from some small detail or event.  But it also feels impossible to ignore idiosyncratic behavior that stands out as different from what one is used to.

I have to feel like there is something revealing about the bizarre dance that has occurred around the closed stairway down from the Ganicolo to Trastevere.

There are a number of ways down from the Academy to Trastevere.  There is a very long steep set of stairs and hill which leads to Via Garibaldi.  This has been open and used since I arrived here, although it was half blocked by a fallen tree a couple of weeks ago.

There is a staircase with twelve stations of the cross which leads up to the Spanish Academy and San Pietro in Montorio.  It has been closed the entire time I've been here, and well before, I understand.

There is, finally, a stair that leads down from very close to San Pietro in Montorio and the fascist era memorial to the Garibaldi heroes (Roma o Morte! it declares, quoting Garibaldi).  The first short set leads down to Via Garibaldi; the next portion leads down to Via Goffredo Mameli.  If you are heading to Testaccio or the south side of Trastevere this set of stairs is much more convenient.

A couple of months ago, in the wake of torrential rains, some of the large stones of the wall of the stair fell into the pathway.  Very quickly orange hazard tape went up blocking people from going up the stairs.  Many of us here at the Academy saw, however, that the locals were simply going underneath the tape. We followed and found that the stairs were completely fine, with maybe a few loose stones in the pathway. The orange hazard tape was soon ripped down completely.

Then came large wire mesh gates in front of the path.  I assumed this meant we really, really should not go up the stairs.  But, again, we noticed that locals just picked up the heavy gate, moved it aside, and climbed up the perfectly passable stairs.

You see where this is going:  For the past two months, the gates have gone up, more serious looking than before, and people just move them aside, knock them down, or squeeze through the gap.  They go up again, we take them down. There is no one enforcing the ban on walking up the steps, and no punishment of those who do  And, of course, no one is working on fixing the loose stones. 

The dance goes on. 

Monday, May 19, 2014

Carlo Scarpa

I have been writing an essay about Carlo Scarpa, the Italian designer and architect, whose museum design work in historic buildings is the benchmark on which all other designers are judged.  I had high expectations for seeing his work, which is mainly in the Veneto region (Venice, Verona).  His work exceeded my expectations.  I'll write more, or share parts of the essay later. But I wanted, much belatedly, to share these images from what I think is his masterpiece, the Castelvecchio museum in Verona.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Monte Testaccio

It is a mountain in the middle of a low-lying plain that is the neighborhood of Testaccio.  On top, where I walked with a group of fellows from the Academy a few days ago, there are wildflowers and grasses that sway in the wind. Trees have grown up on the edges of the hilltop and frame views across Rome on all sides.  It has the making of a lovely park.

It is all artificial.

The whole twenty-thousand square meters of his hill are made up of broken amphoras -- millions and millions of amphoras broken and stacked up starting in the centuries before the Common Era.  Amphoras from Spain and North Africa, bringing olive oil, fish sauce, and many other commodities, were transported to Rome, unloaded at the docks in Testaccio (this is before the larger port at Ostia), and then carried in other containers into the city.  (The debate about who has the better olive oil, Italy and Spain, rages today, and there have been several exposes about Italian olive oil really coming from Spain.  But two thousand years ago most oil was imported from Spain).   The empty amphoras were deemed unusable and were broken into small sections and stacked carefully.  Over a few hundred years, archaeologists estimate there are up to 200 million amphoras stacked, creating a mountain that was once a good bit higher than its current 115 feet height.

Think of it very much like today, where we buy a plastic bottle of water, use it once, and then throw it into the garbage.  (I know none of the readers of this blog do that (!), but it does happen, millions of times a day).  Monte Testaccio is testament to the consumer throwaway economy of the Roman empire,  where goods were drawn from its empire to fulfill the expanding desires of the capital.  Sound familiar?

These sherds were stacked not by some modern archaeologists but by those who maintained this city dump, two thousand years ago.

Note: Much of this information comes from the invaluable Rome: An Oxford Archaeolgoical Guide, by Amanda Claridge.