Monday, June 30, 2014

The Anne Frank House in Amsterdam

The line forms before the 9 a.m. opening and remains hundreds of people long the entire day until closing time at 9 pm.  Could an historic site ask for anything more?  For those who work in public history and historic preservation, is this not the stuff of our dreams?

Or is there something disturbing about the allure of this place?

The Anne Frank House, Amsterdam.

I continue to believe that the Diary of Anne Frank was manipulated by virtually everyone that touched it after the war, including her father, Otto Frank, but also a lineup of translators, playwrights, Hollywood producers, politicians, Holocaust memory activists -- everyone.  They removed references to Judaism, her fury toward the Nazis, her disgust with her parents, and her dark view of humanity, in order to reconstruct a more politically palatable and useful image for a 1950s United States.  That images has continued to prove useful.  I largely agree with Cynthia Ozick, who used a New Yorker essay (reviewing among other books, an excellent revisionist history of the diary by Ralph Melnick, an historian from western Massachusetts) to eviscerate the misuse of the story of Anne Frank to promote, in her mind, a forgetting about the Holocaust, cloaked in a story of adolescent struggle and good wishes for all humanity.  She said it in her usual uncompromising way:   "The diary has been bowdlerized, distorted, transmuted, reduced; it has been infantilized, Americanized, sentimentalized, falsified, kitschified, and, in fact, arrogantly denied."  And her 1997 New Yorker piece ends with this breathtaking line: 

"It may be shocking to think this (I am shocked as I think it), but one can imagine a still more salvational outcome: Anne Frank’s diary burned, vanished, lost—saved from a world that made of it all things, some of them true, while floating lightly over the heavier truth of named and inhabited evil."

This was the line in my mind as I approached my visit.  I was prepared to be disgusted and to scoff at the universalizing sentimentality of the displays and the responses of visitors.  When I heard the American college students gasp "This is messed up!" and "Can you imagine having to live in such a small space?," I cringed.

And yet, I found the procession up through the warehouse at 263 Prinsengracht to the "secret annex" deeply moving.  There, I said it.  In spite of my knowledge about the history and manipulation of the Diary, I found the Anne Frank House very moving.

The Nazis emptied out virtually everything from the Secret Annex and Otto Frank, who retained virtual veto power over the museum's displays during his life, insisted that the annex not be recreated. The irony is that the curators did recreate the annex in painstaking detail, photographed it, and placed some of those images on the wall.  Around the world, other Anne Frank museums used those images to make the recreations not allowed in Amsterdam.  In general, I believe in this approach and am skeptical of the attempt to recreate a moment in time, as if we can remake the past.  Because there is no effort to rebuild the scene in Amsterdam, visitors must focus on the procession through the space, up the stairs, through the hidden entrance, up the steep ladder stairs, and let the few remnants from that time -- the pencil markings showing the two girls' changing heights over the two years in hiding, the magazine pictures and postcards Anne pasted onto the wall -- spur the imagination. You do find yourself thinking not abstractly about the Holocaust but about one family, and one young woman's energetic mind, full of aspiration for a life of writing, and love.

This is aided by the museum's clear editing of its interpretive program, perhaps in response to critics like Ozick and Melnick.  The very first words in the museum come from Anne's Diary:  "I have opinions, a religion, and love," and "We will always be Jews as well."  The emphasis on Anne's Jewish heritage is almost too much, as we know that the Frank's were German Reform Jews, and with a limited commitment to Jewish practice.  (Ozick herself has been criticized for inventing Anne Frank as well in her own wishful image -- as a young woman who felt herself to be first and foremost a Jew). The museum also has an extensive section on the aftermath, so that the story does not end nebulously with the betrayal of the secret annex.  Videos show images of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, and an interview with one of her friends who saw her just days before she died.  All this is anticipated at the start of the museum visit with the first video, which opens with scenes of piles of dead bodies at one of the concentration camps.  One cannot leave the Anne Frank house thinking that it was simply a generic story of exciting if dangerous wartime hiding.  The murder of this family and millions of others is made patently and graphically clear.

I did not leave pleased, however.  There is a stunning omission, which carries over into the inevitable gift shop that concludes even this museum experience.  We hear Otto Frank, interviewed on television after the war, speaking about the surprise of reading his daughter's diary.  He is given the almost final word in the museum, when he declares that "most parents don't know, really, their children."  In the same room, are some of the first editions of the diary in English, with Eleanor Roosevelt's endorsement of the diary as displaying a "shining nobility of spirit."  But nowhere is the editing of the diary discussed, other than a small note that Otto Frank produced a diary for publication based on the initial diary, Anne's revisions, and other notes she wrote.  There is no discussion of the five additional pages discovered more than a decade ago which reveal Anne's feelings about her father and mother. In the bookstore, there are copies of the diary in a dozen different languages, but, if I am not mistaken, they are the so-called "definitive" edition which is, despite its name, neither definitive nor complete.  And finally, in a bookstore filled with dozens of books about Anne, the secret annex, and Amsterdam in wartime -- many in English -- there are no copies of the books by Ralph Melnick and Lawrence Graver, the revisionist historians of the diary.  Rather than acknowledging the ongoing controversy over this most famous of books from World War II, the experience is wrapped up neatly for visitors, along with postcards and blank replicas of Anne's red plaid diary.

This may be no accident.  For the Anne Frank Museum has served a very important purpose, which is to perpetuate -- if not always consciously or intentionally -- the image of the Dutch as saviors to so many Jews.  It is true that some 25,000 Jews were hidden and protected by courageous citizens.  But I only learned on this visit -- and this is a testament to my ignorance, but is also indicative of the power of the mythology of Dutch bravery and goodness -- that a greater percentage of Jewish citizens of Holland were sent to Nazi concentration camps than from any other country in Europe.

Will the tourists who make this the number one attraction in Amsterdam leave the Anne Frank knowing this fact?  Or will they leave with a warm flush of emotion, that will quickly be displaced by a canal-side beer or a bite of stroopwafel?

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Talmud and Goldman Sachs

I wrote the following piece in the midst of the 2007/08 financial meltdown and the revelations about the casino capitalism that led to the disaster, and which we rescued so that they could begin again.  I think there is something here that relates to my work on preservation, such as questions of what exactly constitutes the "real," or "the thing itself," in the words of the writer Richard Todd.  On a simple level, the conundrum of invisible and untethered investments "instruments" seem to suggest a reaffirmation of the power of historic preservation's wish to save the "stuff" of the past.  But the piece, I think, looks beyond this more straightforward idea to wonder about what are the legitimate and meaningful connections to the past, ones that have real anchors in our lives today.  

The Talmud and Goldman Sachs

“Collateralized synthetic credit default swaps.”  The Talmud saw this coming.

Just as Goldman Sachs was being called on the carpet to explain the latest mechanism it and other banks had used to fleece the public, I was studying a portion of the Talmud that seems altogether distant from today’s financial inventions, and yet it is eerily relevant.

The Mishnah is the definition of brevity.  It lays out the problem with little fanfare, little hoopla, and little explanation.  The importance, or at the least relevance, of the issue at hand is assumed and to narrate it would be redundant or somehow condescending to the reader.  Read, discuss, argue – that is the purview of the Gemara, where the rabbis never met an issue that couldn’t be unpacked to fill a house the size of the world.

The issue at hand in Tractate Bava Metzia is this:  what happens if I ask you to take care of something of mine and under your care the thing is stolen or damaged?  The answer of the Mishnah seems clear enough: if you take an oath that you did nothing wrong, then you are absolved of all blame.  Case closed.  If you don’t take an oath, and pay me for the lost object or animal, then you are entitled to the payment (double if the animal is recovered; quadruple if it has been slaughtered) from the thief, if he is apprehended.

Simple?  Of course not.

There is much that follows from this situation.  For example, there is a debate about whether you get the milk and the shearings of the animal being watched if you later “acquire” it by paying off the original owner. No, say the rabbis – you are understood to have acquired the animal very close to the time that it disappeared, even if you had it safely in your care for many weeks before it was stolen.

But there is a moment early on in the Gemara that shoots through to today from a thousand years ago and seemed made for the travesty of Goldman Sachs.   The debate focuses on whether or not this compensation (for a stolen animal) can be transferred from the owner to the caretaker, at the very start, that is, when the owner first deposits the animal.

The rabbis seem deeply concerned about this notion.  Rami bar Hama instantly objects to a line of reasoning that endorses the transfer of some future double or quadruple compensation from some potential thief.  “Surely a person cannot transfer ownership of something that has not yet come into the world!”  The animal has not disappeared; it has not been determined that a thief stole it; the thief was not discovered;  the thief has not agreed to, nor has the ability to make the payment; the payment has not  been made.  The compensation that the owner is ready to transfer “has not yet come into the world.”

Rami bar Hama acknowledges that in some cases it may be possible to trade something that has not yet come into being.  For example, it is reasonable to sell crop “futures,” as they are naturally occurring.  The fruit of a palm tree is in all likelihood going to produce fruit next year.  It is reasonable to trade on that likelihood.  But this unnatural, human exchange that requires a series of unlikely event to occur? 

The outrage expressed by Rami bar Hama  is not based on a romantic notion that we should only live in a barter economy, and only deal in wholly tangible things. But it represents a healthy skepticism about exchanges that take place further and further away from the real object of exchange.  A market in mortgages is one thing; a market in a bundle of mortgages is another; and a market in protection against the default of mortgages that have been chopped and diced and never actually sold (and are therefore “synthetic”) is another.  The rabbis of the Gemara are rightly worried about the social and economic fiascos that can multiply as we start to trade in things that have not yet come into the world.

It is something the bankers at Goldman Sachs who sell synthetic collateralized default swaps might want to think about while studying Talmud, in prison. 

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Mussolini studio

I was recently told that when Mussolini came to visit the Academy for open studios -- yes, the same open studios we held here a couple of weeks ago -- he made his way up to the second floor studio over the main entrance, where the flags of Italy and the United State fly when the Academy is open for big events -- and spoke to the crowd of staff and fellows.  That's my studio.  At the window I have been joyfully looking out of, where I have been reading and writing about Mussolini and fascism, and where I now have a Futurist abstract bust of Il Duce -- that's where Mussolini stood.

I understand there is a film of his visit, which I need to locate.  I am intrigued and disturbed by this revelation.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Van Gogh and the Problem of "Integrity"

In the Van Gogh Museum I came across a famous image, "The Bedroom," (1888) which shows the artist's bedroom in Arles.  The label notes that due to Van Gogh's use of unstable paints, the colors have dramatically faded.  Here's what it looks like today:

Van Gogh, "The Bedroom,"  1888

And here is a computer reconstruction, as it might have looked, before the colors faded:

And, just for fun, here is a physical recreation of the original bedroom:

One of the most important principles of historic preservation is that a building must have "integrity," that is, it must have sufficient original materials and have sufficient original appearance to convey the building in its "era of significance." Buildings that have been altered in dramatic ways -- additions, subtractions, coverings -- can be deemed to have insufficient integrity to be historic and therefore deserve the protections (limited as they are) of the National Register status.  Our system acknowledges and celebrates architecture which can substantially reveal what the architect intended.

I wonder, then, how we think about a painting like "The Bedroom."  For a man best known for his colors, can we truly call this a Van Gogh if the colors have faded so far from what the artist intended? Should this be displayed in a Van Gogh Museum, or should it be taken down and labeled as a "compromised" Van Gogh.  Doesn't this kind of debate only highlight the fundamental problem with the notions of "integrity" and its spouse, "authenticity"?

An Academy Moment

Having stayed up too late to watch the United States almost win their game against Portugal (they let in a goal twenty seconds before the end, leading to a tie), I was quite tired.  So, I decided to take a walk to wake myself up. I took the book I was reading, Steen Eiler Rasmussen's classic introduction to architecture, Experiencing Architecture, the first book I read on architecture in college, and walked over to the Vatican to look at the Sangallo's Porta Santo Spirito, the fortified gateway from the 16th century discussed at the opening of chapter 2 of Rasmussen's book.  This is the most direct gateway into the Vatican from the Academy but I had never noticed it.  It was exciting to be able to read about it in the book and stroll over to see the real thing.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

My Photographs in Architecture Boston

Here are some of my photographs (and, of course, some commentary!) of my time in Italy, in Architecture Boston's summer issue:

Adriane Coorte, "Still Life with Asparagus," c 1697, and "A Bowl of Strawberries on a Stone Plinth," c. 1696

There is something utterly enticing about Adriane Coorte's still lives, especially these two in the Rijksmuseum.  White asparagus and deep red strawberries are the luxurious products of plenty that arrive in the spring. The Dutch Golden Age desire to order the world (not the tight string binding the white asparagus) and to revel in its sensual joys are evident here.

The Pioneer Valley where we live in Massachusetts is sometimes called the Asparagus Valley.  But I associate its rich agricultural history and bounty with strawberries.  Some of my fondest memories of returning to Amherst are of picking the first strawberries with the kids at the Food Bank Farm.

Later the same day after seeing the Coorte paintings at the Rijksmuseum I went to the Anne Frank House and saw, on the wall of pictures that remains as Anne pasted them there, a postcard of some strawberries.  In her diary on July 8, not a month before the family was betrayed, and just a month after D-Day, as the Allies advanced from Normandy toward eventual victory, Anne noted the joy felt by the inhabitants of the secret annex as they ate their way through a remarkable gift of a crate of strawberries, listening to the radio, and imagining the possibility of freedom again - going to school, and maybe, the following spring, picking their own strawberries. 

Moretti, and the Problem of Loving the Architecture and Hating the Ideals

Though it is worn and degraded from time and change, Luigi Moretti's youth sports facility from the 1930s, originally known as La Casa della Gioventu Italiana del Littorio -- the house of  fascist youth -- remains one of the finest works of that period.  By finest, I mean in terms of architecture, although as I write those words, I recognize that I am contradicting my general belief that separating architecture and ideology is dangerous business.  Moretti was a true believer in Mussolini, to the very end, and not just an unwilling architectural soldier (though those architects who quietly were against Mussolini but nonetheless designed buildings for the regime should not blithely be given a free pass).  The function, form, and ornamentation of the building are of a piece -- the glorification of the regime, the investment in the fascist youth in preparation for future combat, and a celebration of Italy's new empire.  The exterior declares:  "It is important to win; it is more important to fight."  Inside the front entrance, oddly accompanying an image of Icarus, the boy who flew too close to the sun, are the words calling on the youth to be the future.  The bust of Mussolini stood at the end of the axis of the main entrance hall; and still today a ten-foot by fifteen-foot map is embedded in the wall, almost completely taken up with Africa.  Italy's two colonies -- Libya and Ethiopia -- are highlighted, but the implication is that the whole continent awaits the uplift to be brought by the fighting fascist youth being trained in this building.

The massive map of Africa, showing Italy's two colonies, Libya and Ethiopia.   The round sculpture replaces a bust of Mussolini which once sat there.  It has disappeared, although the eagles that once adorned the balcony over the front entrance will be reinstalled. (One needed balconies on fascist-era buildings, in case Il Duce came by and needed to give a speech).

In this conference room, reliefs of "previous" emperors Caesar, Augustus and Flavius sit above the fireplace.

On the first floor, the stairs are rectilinear; from the second to the third floor, Moretti let loose.

Luigi Prisco, the project architect

Monday, June 23, 2014

Vermeer, "The Little Street," c. 1658

Standing in front of this Vermeer ("The Little Street," 1658), I immediately thought of the Edward Hopper image, "Early Sunday Morning" (1930), a painting I saw at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, just after the New York Times called to ask me to write a piece in reaction to the steam pipe explosion in midtown Manhattan, which killed a pedestrian.  I had about 24 hours to write the piece for the Sunday edition.  I came across Hopper's still and serene image of old storefronts on Seventh Avenue, with their sense of quiet and serenity, and also desperate emptiness caused by the Great Depression, and found a way to incorporate it into the piece.

The Vermeer is much less disturbing because of the people engaged in their solitary activities.  But if you look closely, you'll see that the building is rendered in great detail while the people are abstracted. The city is in control here. the stage set for human action.  It will persist, accommodating generations of people and their lives.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Pieter de Hooch, "Interior with Women at a Linen Cupboard," 1663

I was in Amsterdam last sometime in the 1970s -- perhaps forty years ago, when we lived in Germany. I distinctly remember walking down some stairs to see Rembrandt's Night Watch.....and nothing else.  I have no memory of the rest of the museum.  And now I found myself unmoved by that painting, which is the star attraction of the museum.  The rest of that grand gallery, however, filled with Rembrandts, Vermeers, Hals, Steens, is amazing.  It look me an hour to get through this one room.

Fifteen years ago (before checking, I would have said five years ago!), I went to the Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford, to see the first comprehensive retrospective of the work of this long-neglected Dutch Golden Age artist.  I haven't forgotten it and always find myself gravitating to his images, when I see them.  They are as powerful as the more famous Vermeers.  

Here is one, "Interior with Women at a Linen Cupboard," from 1663, which I found myself staring at in the Rijksmuseum.  

Washed, dried, stacked, folded linens heading to a shelf in the prized cupboard -- perhaps the most valuable object in the house -- standing in the front hall of an Amsterdam row house.  Pieter de Hooch captures prosperity and well-being of the Dutch 17th century perfectly. We look through the house to the back, and across a canal to the next house where, presumably, a similar ritual is taking place.  But all of this would be satisfying, but a bit staid, without the child with the hockey stick in the doorway. Prosperity and practicality, stolid grace and cleanliness cannot and should not keep out play. The next moment, after the painting takes place, could involve, we are led to imagine, the puck flying across the checkered floor, caroming off the walls, maybe even knocking over a table, or even breaking one of the precious window panes. Order needs the balance of disorder.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Rembrandt and Hals on Marriage

I loved these two images of marriage in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

This couple, portrayed by Rembrandt, chose to dress up as biblical figures for their portrait -- the title is "The Jewish Bride." Caravaggio used regular people (including himself) in biblical images.  But here's the biblical references are an overlay, a play to bring out the true focus, two real individuals in a marriage.  Amsterdam invents the portrait as a portrait, without required Catholic overtones of the work of the Roman painters of the same period.  I love this image.  His hand is across her heart, while she looks off in the distance.  But her fingers are on his hand, as if to say: "Don't move your hand. Stay here forever, so I can be close, while I dream."

Nearby is Frans Hals painting, "Portrait of a Couple in a Landscape," captures this couple (probably Isaac Abrahamsz Massa and Beatrix van der Laen) in an unusual portrait, so different from the formal portraits more typical of the time, where the couple would face each other, man on the left and woman on the right, in two separately framed paintings. Here Hals has the two together, relaxing in a landscape, she leaning on his shoulder.  And Beatrix, whose face is at the center of the painting, offers the most enchanting and captivating smile I think I have ever seen in a painting.  There are all kinds of symbols in the painting -- one of the plants was a believed aphrodisiac, while the other refers to male fidelity.  But the heart and soul of the painting is Beatrix's smile -- displaying a sense of well-being to be found in this private corner, with a view out to the a classical settled landscape.  All is well, says the painting.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Water, Waste, and Activism

Because I brought this article up to Elizabeth Fain Labombard and John Labombard today as talked about the water that once flowed in the Roman aqueducts, I thought it was worth posting.  I think Eve sent this to me a while back.  It is a terrific piece that reminds us that our decision to take a three-minute shower might feel virtuous but should not be confused with addressing the problem.  Individual virtue is not the same as public activism.

Thursday, June 19, 2014


An hour and a half on the 75 bus, followed by the number 5 trolley along Via Casilina brought me, Elizabeth Fain Labombard and her husband, John, out well beyond the historic center, to what is simply called, at least by my landscape architecture friends, "the periphery." I have waxed, if not eloquently then long, about many of the buildings and works of art within the heart of Rome. And I was earlier this spring especially taken with the carefully protected Appian Way park, which gives the sense of a pristine countryside surrounding the ancient road.  But like so many historic cities, the real, unplanned and protected edges bear virtually no relationship to the center.  Just a mile or two beyond the Aurelian wall, one finds a chaotic world of farms pushing up against shopping malls, new highways, dead Santiago Calatrava projects, housing complexes that each could be a case study in planning failure, but also small villages that seem to be, in Venturi's famous phrase, "almost alright."

The morning started urbanely enough, with a walk to Richard Meier's “Dives in Misericordia” church, built for the 2000 Jubilee celebrations.  

Built at the heart of a series of palm-shaped housing complexes, of the gloriously awful 1970s variety, it is a surprisingly beautiful church.  I am not a fan of the Ara Pacis museum he built along the Tiber, so I was not expected to be moved by his next building in Rome.  The three curved walls, symbolic of the ship of the church, frame a warm, indirectly lit sanctuary.  I even felt echoes of Steve Holl's Seattle church, The Chapel of St. Ignatius, one of my favorite modern churches.

Our journey quickly became more, well, rustic after our visit to the clean white world of Richard Meier.  Elizabeth had charted our journey alongside one of the Roman aqueducts, which rise up out of the earth, stand tall and proud, and then sink down as the topography changes, almost underground, and then return again, sulkily moving across the land as a low wall. For miles and miles across miles of the periphery out to the mountains and the source of the water the aqueduct can be seen, less and more destroyed, cannibalized, and left alone.

We started along a highway but soon found ourselves tramping through fields to follow the line of stones.  Though the aqueduct is public and people are allowed to cross private land to get to it, the private owners ignore this rule -- fences were everywhere, and we ended up crawling through and over a half dozen fences to keep to our commitment to follow the public line of the aqueduct.  We also encountered two very fierce dogs, a whole lot of bees, and very testy used car-lot owners, who did not appreciate our taking photos that included the aqueduct and their containers.  One wonders what are in those containers....

Perhaps the most compelling moment, came at the end of morning, when we walked through a little settlement and followed the aqueduct as it disappeared in the backyards of peoples' homes, serving as a wall between gardens, a divider between the car mechanic and the cafe, before disappearing again into a rising hill.

The aqueduct should be more accessible.  It should be better interpreted.  It should be better cared for.

But, still, the aqueduct lives, not in a museum, not in a park charging admission, but amid the people of Rome, a friendly backyard companion, always there, posing questions.

What more do we want from our historic places?

Wednesday, June 18, 2014


Two Sundays ago, on June 8, I went with a group of Academy fellows down to the Pantheon, to attend Pentecost mass.  No, I have not converted.  I went to experience a sublime sight -- sublime whether or not you are Catholic.  At the end of the service, as a metaphor for the flames that came down to the believers in Jerusalem, firefighters (yes, firefighters) tossed down thousands of rose petals through the oculus, that twenty-foot wide opening that defines this miraculous building onto the cheering crowd. The laughter and shouts of joy were infectious among the thousands of us who were packed into the building.

As I waited for the grand finale, I had conflicting thoughts.  Listening to the singing brought me back to my chorale days in high school, where Christian music was the heart and soul of our repertoire, as it is of most classical music.  I loved that time, and the music we sang, and felt the wash of nostalgia come over me as I listened.  But I couldn't help as well but feel repelled, as I have often feel in the churches of Rome and Italy.  So much glorious music and art that is inextricably tied to, even built upon, centuries of anti-Judaism.   When everyone turns to each other to say "peace be with you" I felt it a bit ironic.  A lovely gesture but, in this context, painfully ironic.  So much of this -- the building, the city, its "eternal" history was built not on peace at all. No doubt the wish of peace was heartfelt by the people all around me.  But there was nagging sense of annoyance about the tradition. Religious spaces ask us to think about our highest ideals, which has the unintended -- perhaps intended? -- effect of also shining a light on our hypocrisies.

Those were the thoughts during the mass.  But I found myself joining in the thrill, the childlike excitement, when baskets of red roses were sent fluttering down through the beam of light down onto the waiting crowd.

And here's a brief video of the event:

Ellis Island, and my Family

I am just back from a lovely weekend in New York with my family.  We managed to see two musicals -- Wicked and Pippin -- and take a pilgrimage to Ellis Island.  (We are fairly sure that my father, and Eve's grandmother were not processed for immigration on the island, but on the boats they were traveling on).  Before they arrived, I also managed to get to the Futurism show at the Guggenheim, and the nearby "Degenerate Art" show at the nearby Neue Galerie, which recreates the art shows designed to highlight art -- usually contemporary, and predominantly Jewish -- that was deemed "degenerate" by the Nazis.  It was a parallel movement to Hitler's desire to loot all of the collections of "good" art from around Europe, and create a new massive new museum in Germany.  This is the subject of the Monuments Men book and film (which I saw on the flight over and was, alas, pretty awful).

Here are a couple of photographs from the visit.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Post Office

As I have said before, all countries, like all religions, have their particularly confounding traditions, rules, and bureaucracies.  I wrote before about my first encounter with the post office.  Because of email, phones, Skype, Facetime, blogs, I simply haven't used the post office.  But I wanted to mail  something today.  You know how this story goes -- an hour of my life lost in the windowless world of the Poste Italia.

This time I knew to push the appropriate button on the ticket machine -- in order to get in the queue.  P025.  Soon P021 came up then P022 and P023 and P024.  This was looking the start of a beautiful day.  And then, no more "P" numbers.  All of a sudden it was as if the holders of "P" tickets were an outcast group, destined to sit on the fringes of the room, peering in to the exclusive world of the As, Bs, and Cs, where happy smiles and prompt service seemed to greet everyone.  15 minutes.  20 minutes. A half hour.  Click, click, click -- the upper classes were streaming by, and while the lower caste was bypassed.  I was getting indignant and self-righteous.

And then.  P025.  I actually let out a cheer.

I walked up, handed by small package, and even spoke a few appropriate sentences in Italian to the agent, who promptly weighed the package and placed a metered stamp on it.  Success. I then asked for stamps of identical value, as I wanted to send a few more such packages -- same contents, same weight.

Trouble.  See, this was a post office.  They don't sell stamps there.  Just as they don't sell the special stamps you need for the permesso di soggiorno, even though the post office is the place where you must submit the application and where they affix the stamp, so, too, you can't actually buy stamps at this post office.

On the way back to the Academy ruminating on how I will regret on my deathbed having lost an hour of my life in the post office in Rome in 2014, I ran into Christina Pugliese, who explained that, well, you buys stamps in the corner store, usually just called a tobacco store.  Of course, you'll need to know how much it costs to send a package of a certain weight and contents to the United States.

You might to go back to the post office to find that out.

Thursday, June 5, 2014


Ferrara is a beautiful city north and east of Bologna, the home of a spectacular Duomo, a stunning castle with moat, one of the first Renaissance planned districts in Italy, amazing palazzi.  But my entire visit was colored by my reading of Giorgio Bassani's The Garden of the Finzi-Continis.  I had already visited the Gardens of Ninfa, which inspired Bassani and where he wrote much of the book.  Ferrara is so vividly described in the novel, down to the marble cannonballs in the courtyard of the castle, bikers riding along the ancient walls above the cemetery, and the the Corso Ercole, the spine of the new Renaissance development.

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis is a heartbreaking story, where your knowledge of the ending -- most of the Jews of Ferrara are sent to their deaths -- only heightens the drama of this slowly evolving, never-achieved romance between the narrator, who seems to be a version of the author and the brilliant, aloof, mysterious Micol Finzi-Contini.  The noose around Jewish life is steadily tightened, but up to the very last page, the holocaust is held at bay, while the dance between the narrator and Micol continues, awkwardly and disappointingly, at least to the narrator.

The visit brought me out of my lull brought on by the flutter of churches and their gorgeous decorations in Ravenna and Parma and Bologna, and reminded me of the awful history of Jews in this country.   Every city has its ghetto, following the first one, in Venice, in 1519, and every one is virtually devoid of Jews, save for the few stragglers who hid in the war, or survived the camps.  Ferrara had one of the largest Jewish communities in Italy and there are plans for a new Jewish museum here, which was a compromise with the plans of Rome for a national Shoah memorial museum, which is to be designed by my new friend Luca Zevi in the park of the Villa Torlonia.  In the meantime, an earthquake of several years ago has left the existing synagogue and museum closed.

To anchor these 17th century columns opposite the Duomo, Jewish graves were harvested for the job.  A guidebook to the city proudly claims that this shows how Jews are part of the "foundation" Ferrara.  

The Duomo

The statue of Girolamo Savonarola towers over the outdoor market

Palazzo dei Diamante

Street in the ghetto

The synagogue on Via Mazzini, the one, in the novel, the Finzi-Continis founded as virtually their private  shul.

The archways of the ghetto

The entrance to the cemetery, and the chapel (below), which serves as inspiration for the opening pages of the book, where the narrator describes the garish new crypt built by the newly wealthy Finzi-Continis, and where only one of their children is buried, the only one not to be killed in the Holocaust.

Bassani's grave, oddly placed off on its own, away from any other graves, but in the shadow of the wall, with bicyclists peddling by overhead.

Bassani on the cemetery in the prologue of The Garden of the Finzi-Continis:

"But once again, in the quiet and torpor (even Giannina had fallen asleep), I went over in my memory the years of my early youth, both in Ferrara and in the Jewish cemetery at the end of Via Montebello.  I saw once more the large fields scattered with trees, the gravestones and trunks of columns bunched up more densely along the surrounding and dividing walls, and as if again before my eyes, the monumental tomb of the Finzi-Continis.  True, it was an ugly tomb -- as I'd always heard it described from my earliest childhood -- but never less than imposing, and full of significance if for no other reason than the prestige of the family itself.

And my heartstrings tightened as never before t the thought that in that tomb, established, it seemed, to guarantee the perpetual repose of its first occupant -- of him, and his descendants -- only one of all the Finzi-Continis I had known and loved, had actually achieved this repose.  Only Alberto had been buried there, the oldest, who died in 1942 of lymphogranuloma, whilst Micol, the daughter, born second, and their Ermanno, and their mother Signora Olga, and Signora Regina, her ancient paralytic mother, were all deported to Germany in the autumn of 1943, and no one knows whether they have any grave at all."