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.

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