The weather could only keep us from St. Peter’s Basilica for so long, and we made it this week. It was worth the wait.
We have stopped doing tours of the Basilica with professional guides and now utilize the expertise of novitiates, usually American, who are studying in Rome. The rationale makes sense: while professional guides are incredibly knowledgeable about the art, its relationship to past art, the architecture, the history, etc., it’s hard for them to bring the same sense of sacred space that someone immersed in the church can. Both of the novitiates we used this time were excellent, able to provide all the same information offered by previous guides but with the addition of the Catholic perspective.
I won’t have any pictures for this post, as I’m having trouble getting them from my phone, but as always I have thoughts:
- La Pieta . I wish everyone had the opportunity to bask in its glow.
- The bronze baldicchino by Bernini felt almost sinuous in its counter-reformation affirmations. I’ve not spent much time with it in the past (mostly because I do not get baldicchinos), but as a counter-argument to Protestant minimalism it feels stronger than much of the other work in the basilica.
- The climb to the cupola felt easier than usual, perhaps because it wasn’t a thousand degrees. The air up there always feels like it comes directly from the mountains…
- The Scavi tour was really cool as well. Our guide set the tour up as a narrative about the dig as it proceeded, and the stakes that all felt. He enjoyed the drama, and we were right there with him.
- The Roman way with their dead – building houses and breaking bread and wine with them – feels almost completely antithetical to our relationship with our ancestors in the States. Our cult of youth and ability to forget our history is sort of impressive in a frightening way.
I have no idea how Bernard Cornwell does what he does. He’s incredibly prolific, and his novels help me see time periods that I shouldn’t be able to. They’ve also gotten better – Uhtred is an infinitely better, more believable character than Richard Sharpe from Cornwell’s first series.
Oh yeah, the plot. Uhtred of Bebbanbourg is a second son who lives at the time of successive waves of Danish invasions of England. Alfred becomes the only English king able to fight them, and Uhtred becomes a nobleman who, being raised by Danes, understands how they function.
- Uhtred’s disdain for Christianity contrasts with my vision of Christianity in its early days as an outlaw religion. Of course, this novel takes place 800 years after Christ, but the two world views are in some ways diametrically opposed, and the fact that the two can interact and even come to agreements sort of amazes me.
- The two intersect in the fact that both imagine the world ending. They have different definitions about who among us will still be here at the end.
- The depictions of war and its brutality are neatly aligned with what happens to those who oppose the Danes – rape and murder are common. Bending the knee can sometimes save people, but in general the strong come take what they want, which makes the appeal of Christianity that much clearer.
- Alfred’s greatness is displayed in his piety and his ability to strategize. He’s far better than the other English kings at building alliances and using information to determine courses of action, and his insistence on having priests write everything down means that he’s not simply relying on his memory. As Havelock taught us the way memory works for contemporary humans is much different than it did in our pre-literate forebearers but the problems remain the same, and Alfred helped solve them by relying on scrolls.
- Onto the next…
This novel happens in a world torn apart by geological instability, with surface upheavals nearly wiping out all life at irregular intervals, and humanity desperately trying to find ways to survive. That doesn’t mean that this is a Star Trek prime directive type of world with all of us working together because we are human, goshdangit. Power gets incremented into social structures in familiar but horrifying ways.
- As is clear from the overview, this novel resonated with me mostly due to the way it describes how power becomes institutionalized. No one is obviously evil – instead, folks like the guardians are simply doing what they were trained to do. They might even believe that their actions are world-saving, although we seem far beyond that…
- It builds a world that had me looking for reference points that simply weren’t there. After I stopped looking the enormity of what Jemisin is doing became clearer – she’s interested in power, especially as it manifests itself socially, and she’s utilized the structures inherent in the world to look at how connections with the primal forces of our geology have the potential to shape how we relate with each other.
- The sell-by date on the planet also neatly contrasts with the Michael Crichton, Jurassic Park, life-will-find-a-way happy dance. Yeah, maybe, but only if the enormous power that resides in the molten rock that exists just below us as we hurtle through the deathly cold of space says sure, for a while…
- I also tagged this as ‘gestalt’ because of the ways that the oregenes function. They can essentially draw upon the energy inherent in rock (and the environment around them) to do all sorts of stuff, and their function in this novel is purportedly to prevent the types of geological upheaval that will wipe out life. The utilization of this kind of mind power functions differently than the obsession with magery and sorcery that becomes an easy out in a lot of fantasy, and Jemisin is doing some interesting stuff. I look forward to the rest of the series…
You know your musical expectations of Italy are out of whack when…
- The cool-looking pony-tail guy sitting beside you, the one who kissed the punk rock girl, fires up his iPhone, puts on his headphones, and you hear…Bon Jovi.
- The museum guard at the MARCO Museum of Contemporary Art sees your an American (of a certain age) and prints a ticket to the exhibit of, wait for it, Pink Floyd. You hate the Floyd of Pink…
- The beautiful, lyrical tones of the people talking behind you on the train make you say, wow, Italian is such a beautiful language, and then you realize that they’re talking in Spanish.
- Along the same lines, you get a silly grin listening to the beautiful voice of the female train conductor, only to realize that she is telling you that this train is no longer taking you to your destination.
Ah, Roma indeed…
I visited this museum after an early afternoon tour of St. Peter’s Basilica, which made for a long but worthwhile museum day of the sort that I haven’t had in a while. The National Gallery works chronologically from the late Victorian period until now, with most of the contemporary pieces reactions to the Victorian and early Modernist artifacts in the museum. A couple of thoughts:
- The lions out front were awesome – unfortunately, my picture makes it look like he’s dead, but this lion is actually asking for a belly rub.
- I’m not an expert on museum design, but the process fascinates me, and the National Gallery’s working theme for the next couple of months is Time Out. The program description argues that the program’s point is to enact a Derridean disruption of how we think about time in the discourse about art, an interesting take and one that I found myself constantly referring back to.
- My instinct is often to think of later artifacts as critiques of earlier ones, but I think that this juxtaposition helped me think more about the ways in which that conversation works. Certainly critique is a part of it – three huge paintings that in my mind glorified imperial conquest were juxtaposed with two sculptures done by vets that gave a much more confused view of the experience of being in combat. Still, the paintings kept my eye a long time – there was so much going on in them, complete with gloriously dead soldiers and blood and gallant officers and all that shtuff, whereas the sculptures were jumbles of material that looked to make no claim to accuracy from a historical perspective but instead said ‘this is what war looks like on the ground.’
- The main contrast then was between the absolutely static painting, which encouraged me to let my eyes wander around it, to the dynamism of the sculptures that seemed to writhe and make me uncomfortable in what I am assuming is a very intentional way.
- There’s more to be said about this spot but I’m hoping to get back…
I’m not doing a day-by-day this time, mostly because I’m not sure I have anything to add to what I talked about when I blogged last time. I’m not new here, and although of course Rome changes as well as the perspective that I bring to it I don’t think it makes sense to take the same approach. For the folks I’m here with, though, this is their first time, and that’s a valuable perspective for me to see…
That being said, the basilica of Santa Giovanni Laterno struck me particularly hard this time. I had previously thought about it as being awful in the original meaning of that term, so powerful that it felt impossible to comprehend on a human level. The statues burst out at the observer, and the paintings are full of vigorous life that brings a power that is clearly not from this world, and one that I should be terrified of.
I got a different feeling this time, one of performance and theatricality. The dynamism seemed far more interested in communicating the church as theater. None of the scholarly literature about it says this, and I’m sure I’m wrong, but even the paintings were surrounded by theatrical curtains pulled back (painted, of course), and the scenes were far more dynamic than the other churches in which the proper pose is one of static worship, with eyes focused on God. In Santa Giovanni Lateran, when your eyes go up to the ceiling they are caught in a geometric maze of golden keys and pope hats rather than enticements to prayer. St. Peter is invoked with a fury, and the invocation involves the earthly self.
I also was struck by the importance of writing in this basilica this time. Of course, theater is written, but we also got a scene of St. Paul writing while starting directly at his heavenly inspiration, and another saint is shown with quill in hand. All this stuff is written down…