Sunday, December 31, 2006

The museum of cursed art

New York, like other progressive enclaves, has substituted the worship of art for the worship of God. Its museums and galleries lure the faithful, their shows are respectfully noted in The New York Times, and their names appear in guidebooks and on tourists' checklists. Yet one art museum -- despite being located on a fashionable shopping street (Madison Avenue) in midtown, passed by tens of thousands every day, featuring the requisite gift shop and restaurant -- is virtually ignored by the guidebooks and media. I imagine The Times mentions it, if ever, patronizingly.
ding 8 art nouveau purple
The Dahesh Museum displays cursed art. Cursed, that is, by the Art Establishment. It consists of 19th century paintings and sculptures that are not "revolutionary," that for the most part have no political and social message, and that are figurative. The paintings' subjects are historical, mythological, and picturesque. The same could be said of many Renaissance works certified by the experts as masterpieces, but according to them, that's not what the 19th century was about. The only art that matters from the period, they say, is impressionist and post-impressionist. Everything else is naively pictorial and quaint: "academic" is the damning expression. This is what the impressionist darlings rebelled against and saved us from.

Lawrence Alma Tadema,
Joseph, Overseer of Pharaoh's Granaries

The true "academics" are today's institutional academics, mostly college teachers who write textbooks. They are herd animals. In their quest for the Holy Grail of tenure, they take in each other's washing and parrot the same line: modernism is the peak of perfection; the imps and post-imps were heroic pioneers in its development. The other styles in which many artists continued to work, contemporaneously with the imps, can only be derided. By the time these experts have been given their cardinal's capes and tenure, they have long since lost any ability they might once have had for independent thought or unprejudiced observation.

You will gather that I am rather fond of many of these so-called "academic" artists of the 19th century, which is why I visited the Dahesh Museum on a visit to New York last week.

Henri Lehmann, Adoration of the Magi

Certainly, not everything in the Dahesh is great. The same could be said about the Metropolitan Museum or the Museum of Modern Art. But the Dahesh collection includes a number of vivid and impressive items, which display both first-rate craftsmanship and splendid imagination. Unfortunately for the reputation of the artists, it's not the "right" kind of imagination. We have had it tatooed on our brains that scenes of the ancient world, or a fantasy Middle East, are not to be taken seriously (if they're by 19th century artists, who should have known better).
ding 8 art nouveau purple
Henri Lehmann's painting shown above uses a remarkable glowing impasto to suggest the jewels and silk of one of the kings. Jean Lecomte du Nouÿ's Night Scene Near Gezeh, Egypt is a richly evocative canvas showing an adobe-like building in deep shadow under a cobalt sky, the only accent an L-shaped , fiery sliver from somewhere within the building.

Two unusual pictures by Alma Tadema (the museum spells his name without a hyphen, so I will do the same here) are hung. One is the narrow, vertical The Staircase, its central figure -- a woman in Roman costume -- seen from the back, ascending. We are left to ponder what the context could be. Another contrasts with Alma Tadema's usual classical setting: Joseph displays the artist's quasi-time-travel realism, taking us this time to ancient Egypt. Edwin Long's Love's Labour Lost is another essay in exotic and erotic historicism. Realistic, no, but captivating.

Edwin Long, Love's Labour Lost

As I implied in describing Lehmann's Adoration, these "academic" paintings are by no means necessarily just good draftsmanship with color applied; some show an individual, or even a proto-impressionist, technique. In the special exhibition "Napoleon on the Nile" (closing December 31, the day of this posting), which includes works by the artists that Napoleon took with him to document the wonders of the Egypt he invaded with his army in 1798, Joseph Farquharson's Ruins of the Temple at Luxor is painted in soft focus, the air permeated with dust haze, a study in tan and brown that I think Whistler would have admired. An Italian Woman by Léon Bonnat (in the Dahesh's permanent collection) puts you in mind of Corot, even to the splash of red in the subject's necklace.

Rafaelle Monti, Night

For an extraordinary venture into the realms of mystery, the prize of the museum to my mind is Monti's sculpture Night. (What, you've never heard of him? Okay, neither had I. One of the benefits of a museum like the Dahesh is to open doors that remain firmly shut in art history texts.) A shrouded female strides up and forward, like a spirit arising from the earth, holding a shroud blown by winds from regions unknown. Night could easily be the centerpiece of a show of symbolist art, itself a genre that gets only grudging acknowledgement from the Art Establishment.
ding 8 art nouveau purple
According to the museum's web site, "the Dahesh Museum of Art's permanent collection originated with Dr. Dahesh (1909–1984), the pen name of Salim Moussa Achi, an influential Lebanese writer, philosopher, and connoisseur, in whose honor the Museum is named. Envisioning a premier art museum, he collected paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints, photographs, and books by academically trained artists of the 19th and 20th centuries. Friends brought Dr. Dahesh's collection from Beirut to America in 1976 and founded the museum in 1987. For the next few years, the collection was researched and conserved, a location was secured, and exhibitions were prepared, all before opening to the public in 1995."

Dr. Dahesh seems to have been a man who followed his own star, oblivious to the fashionable certainties of received opinion. Good on him. Assuming that Western civilization survives its present Time of Troubles, its artistic taste may eventually catch up with him.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Merry Christmas

Silent Night

May the Light that shines forever illuminate your path.

Thanks for letting me share thoughts with you this year, and I hope you'll continue to stop by.

Probably no more posting until December 31 or January 1. See you then!

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

We must hang separately, if we are not to be hanged together

Lawrence Auster has recently written a number of posts making the case for separation of the Western world from the Muslim world. See, for instance, here and here. Odds are you will be reading a lot about "separationism" as the idea makes its way through the blogosphere, and — who knows? — at some point it might even surface in the mainstream media, always in the forefront of trailing behind what thoughtful people are saying.

Mr. Auster's argument is so articulate as to need no support from me, but I want to register my agreement in my own words.

Five years after 9/11 put Muslim fanaticism and expansionism on the map for most people, there are two basic schools of thought about how to deal with it.

The majority viewpoint, which its partisans see as fair-minded, reasonable, understanding, sophisticated, etc., etc., is that Islam has been itself victimized by a few extremist organizations who give all peaceful moderate Muslims a bad name by flying airliners into skyscrapers, blowing up themselves and bystanders, and other eccentricities. The extremists are said to play on Muslims' resentment against the West for past colonialism and present disrespect, "Islamophobia," and poverty. The remedy is to treat the problem as a civil rights issue and Muslims as victimized minorities (in Western countries), with more government social interventions aimed at producing better understanding and integrating Muslims into majority non-Muslim cultures. Does that sound like a distortion or parody? Well, read this.

This position is popular because, among other reasons, it fits neatly into the political template that dominates the Liberal Establishment and requires no serious readjustments. We're comfortable with victimhood. We like being shamed oppressors. There's one basic problem with the approach, however. There is no reasonable evidence that it is working or that it
ever will. I can't say it's impossible, just that there is no justification for believing it.

A minority (but not a negligible minority) insists that Islam is at war with us, even if we don't want to be at war with Islam, that it is part of a pattern that has been going on for 1400 years and which has been in abeyance only when worldwide Islam was too weak to indulge its fundamental principle of forcing the world to adopt its belief system or else.

Even with all I've learned about Islam in the past five years — and I do not pretend to be any sort of expert — I'm not sure whether this is too simplistic. Certainly it seems questionable to make blanket statements about more than a billion people. But I'm hardly the first to point out that even if lots of Muslims can't be characterized this way, even if the rarely sighted "moderate Muslim" exists underground and is ready to emerge in the millions when the frost recedes, it wouldn't take a billion Muslims to play hell with Western civilization. It would take only a relative handful of technology-savvy terrorists who understand the principles of "asymmetic warfare" and a large group of superficially innocent enablers who might put aside their distaste for terrorist tactics because they believe in the result.

One thing seems unarguable to me: if there is another big-time strike on the order of 9/11, or greater, the first school of thought will become the minority one, and the second, which perceives the situation as war, will be the majority. And the gloves will be off. I don't know any other countries from the inside, but I know my own, and I can tell you that if the next attack carried out by a Muslim cell kills another few thousand, especially if children are among them, there will be no holding back. Therapeutic warfare such as we've pursued in Afghanistan and Iraq will be over for the duration. Everyone knows the vengeance the United States is capable of, but most don't believe we have the strength of will to act on it. There are scenarios, though, where only a demonstration that our restraint is not unlimited could bring a resolution.

I'm not here to argue for total war, but to argue for avoiding it. Only we have to be realistic about what policy is most likely to achieve that. We cannot avoid it by the laughable expedient of pretending that the Muslim threat (or Muslim extremist threat, if you prefer) can be trumped by integration, more "respect," or any other form of social amelioration.

It looks to me like the best way of keeping the situation from degenerating into dhimmitude, civil war or nuclear apocalypse is by separating Islam from the West for the foreseeable future. That means no more Muslim immigration, except for a tiny number of Muslims admitted for specific reasons after very careful vetting. We would also expel Muslims now living in Western countries, paying them generously to leave voluntarily or compensating them equally generously when 86-ing them. Costly? Not a flea on the back of the Homeland Security mastodon.

Without Muslim enclaves, mosques, fire-breathing imams and whatnot in the West, the odds of "the next 9/11" go way down —and the odds of peaceful coexistence, way up. When the Muslim world finally is forced to acknowledge that it can't export its overpopulation, its poverty, and its sectarianism to the West, the chances of reform and perhaps moderation may still not be very good, but they'll be enhanced compared to what they are now.

Unfair to many perfectly unthreatening people? Yes. But also, very likely, the most humane solution. It's certainly better than interning them when and if the West decides it really is at war. And frankly, although I would do everything in my power to prevent it, I'm afraid that next time, there will be sporadic acts of violence against individual Muslims in the West. Unconstitutional? Constitutions can be changed. Impractical? I can think of as many practical problems in implementing separation as you can, but practical problems can be overcome if enough people work at it seriously. If there's one thing Americans are good at, it's solving practical problems, and if others can't manage it off their own bat they can learn from us.

Even discussing separationism will probably help; it might concentrate some minds of Muslims in the West and convey to them that they soon may not be able to game the system anymore by whining about discrimination and "Islamophobia" whenever their actions are criticized. But above all, if Muslims do not want to assimilate to Western society — and they don't; they keep telling us that they don't — what can we do except press for a relatively amicable divorce?

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Speaking the Queen's Bengali

Once a country comprises groups who don't speak a common language, its ruling class can breathe a little easier. Not being able to communicate with each other, people have a hard time getting together to oppose their masters in government and business. So far, the U.S. federal wrecking crew has only managed to turn us into a bilingual nation. As in so many other respects, though, the multi-culti Establishment in the United Kingdom is way out front. The Daily Express notes:
MINISTERS have come under fire after it was revealed that at least £110million a year is spent on translation services for immigrants. … It emerged that one council details its rubbish collection in 15 languages while another pays for one-to-one sessions in Turkish to quit smoking.
Local authorities spend £25 million a year on interpreter and translation services, the National Health Service throws in another £55 million for similar services, and the police and courts spend £31.3 million. In East London, there is a publicly funded current affairs workshop conducted in Bengali, attended by 10 people a week.

To be sure, the situation is said to be "embarrassing" for the government (why are governments always embarrassed once their crackpot schemes are publicized, but not until?). Ruth Kelly, the Communities Secretary — what a title! — has finally admitted the situation "needs to be looked at" and has asked the Commission on Integration and Cohesion — what a title! — to "report on it next year."

But in a country so marinated in social engineering as today's Britain, even such mild display of good sense brings a protest from the lunatics in the government's large, well-padded view-of-the-park cells.
Leonie McCarthy, project manager at Peterborough’s New Link centre, said: “If they need it in their language we make sure they have it because we believe everybody should have equal access to knowledge of the services.” …

The head of the Commission for Racial Equality, Trevor Phillips, said the cost of translation was simply a feature of globalisation and “we should just soak it up”.
That pretty well sums up the Eurocrat's notion of citizenship. Translation is a civil right because everybody is entitled to their share of the dole, even if they haven't stirred themselves to learn the language of their benefactors. The British taxpayer should throw incense on the globalization altar and quit whingeing.

Notice that no one quoted in the story questions the need or desirability of large-scale immigration from Third World failed states that are vastly different culturally to Britain. The only protest is against an egregiously silly detail of the multi-culti project, and even that might not have come up if it weren't for the money angle. That's how indoctrinated the cousins have become.

I see no hope for Britain. It has made its bed. I bring these vignettes to your attention not in any delusion that the downfall of a once-great nation can be reversed, but as examples of what another, perhaps still great nation, can look forward to if both its major parties, its mainstream media, its Social Work Establishment, and its academic mandarins get their way. If this be reason, make the most of it.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Emissionary zeal

Should airline passengers be asked to pay extra to offset the environmental cost of carbon released into the atmosphere by their flights? I'm glad you asked me that.


London's The Telegraph raised the possibility. The story says:
At the annual convention of the Association of British Travel Agents (Abta) in Marbella, Spain, this week, the group pledged to work alongside the Association of Independent Tour Operators and the Federation of Tour Operators to unveil a scheme early next year which would enable holidaymakers to offset their carbon emissions. It is a major step for the travel industry in recognising the need for holiday companies to take responsibility for their impact on the environment.
In that proposal, the industry groups are following the great business tradition of taking responsibility by asking someone other than themselves to pay.
Keith Richards, the head of consumer affairs at Abta [I thought it was about time the Stones guitarist decided on a career change] said: "The carbon offset scheme we will be launching aims to make a clear connection between the money invested and projects in the kind of destinations where people go on holiday. It is important that consumers can make that link as it will encourage more to use the scheme."
A tour operator called First Choice has introduced an "opt out" carbon offset program for all holidays it sells, the story says. ("Opt out" means that the carbon offset payment is theoretically voluntary, I guess; for the moment at least, you have the option of looking the booking agent in the eye and saying, "Give over, mate! I'm not paying over the odds to improve the environment for a bunch of wogs I'm rich enough to buy and sell 10 times over and who won't appreciate my generosity. Besides, I'm a good tipper, never fail to leave the maid 50p for every day me and my bride and six kids are at the resort.")

Where does the money from this "opt out" carbon offset scheme go? The story is a bit shy with details, but says the fee goes to the Travel Foundation, a charity that supports sustainable tourism projects around the world. The foundation, which is headquartered in Carbondale, Illinois, is -- no, no, just kidding about the location.

Not everyone in the travel industry is dead keen on the carbon offset idea.
(When did travel become an "industry"? When did travelers become "consumers" of their destinations?) The original "opt out" contribution would be one pound per adult and 50 pence per child on every holiday sold. The el cheapo airline easyJet objects that "the poor would be priced out of flying." One extra quid per person per holiday doesn't seem like it would deter many travelers, even among the backpacker market segment, but easyJet may have a point if their claim is that fees that start out with a feather-light touch have a way of growing and growing. Then again, do the poor have a sacred "right" to cheap flights? Life, liberty, and the pursuit of cut-rate air fares?


But you asked me what I think about this pay-per-emission lark. In principle, I agree with it. People and organizations should fork over for whatever costs they impose on the body politic, including the entirety of God's green earth. That was one of the refrains of the early years of the present environmental movement, circa 1970, in which I played a small supporting role. The prime example cited then was factories that released their noxious by-products into the air, rivers, or oceans, leaving the consequences to others -- health downgrades or the expense of cleaning up after the polluters. Insisting that corporations that fouled our collective nest pay the price for their acts was, and is, completely reasonable. Again, in principle.

Why do I keep banging on about "in principle"? Because there seems to be no way of enforcing the principle. I remember one guest, some famous investment manager, on the late Lou Rukeyser's TV program responding to a question about whether a new tax would scupper a company whose shares he was recommending. His reply was, "No corporation has ever paid a thin dime of tax, and none ever will." Meaning: no matter what tax is imposed on a corporation (and all its competitors in the same business), the corporation will just pass the cost on to the customer.

In the case we're discussing, then, we neeed to be clear that no "emissions tax" will be paid by airlines (who are in an inherently money losing business anyway, unless they come up with a really clever new model like JetBlue and easyJet, and even then their advantage is likely to be only temporary). So why shouldn't the beneficiary, the traveler, cough up for the damage done to the common environment by the turbine engines that propel him to his sun-drenched destination?

Several complicated issues are involved. The first thing to be asked is, do the carbon emissions from jets actually contribute to global warming? I have no reply because it is a scientific question whose answer has been hopelessly obscured by politics and junk science. A layman can't begin to derive a useful opinion from all the so-called experts who have to be suspected of findings that support their ideology.

Okay, in my sub-Socratic way, I'll assume for the purpose of discussion that carbon emissions from turbine engines are playing hell with the atmosphere at cruising altitudes and the polar ice caps are going to puddle and Manhattan will be obliterated. I'm totally on board with that. Wait, I was just joking, mostly.

So let's sock it to those bloody holidaymakers (British for vacationers) who get to their destination by airliner.

And while we're at it, let's have a carbon offset scheme for every soul who drives a car, which is practically all adults, except academic dweebs who live in high-rise urban slums and walk to their campus closets where they belt out screeds urging the bleeding of air passengers.

Not radical enough? I'm with you, friend. Tell me, who are the greatest emitters of carbon into the atmosphere anywhere? I'll bet you get it in one. Right. Everyone who breathes in oxygen and breathes out carbon dioxide. Yeah, you. Me. The human race. Oh, and all those other mammals.

Well, let's leave out the other mammals; environmentalists like them, and as a rule so do I. Let's just talk about the human population. Six billion and counting.

It is perfectly reasonable to impose carbon emissions costs on travelers. Just so long as we do the same for everyone who adds to the population.

In reality, of course, we do the exact opposite. We reward everyone who adds to the population. Or as the economists would say, if they had any sense about real-world issues, we allow breeders to externalize their costs. We subsidize breeding.


I know that many parents would jib at this, and I understand why: the cost of raising kids right has gone beyond the stratosphere. If you care about them at all, you don't want them going to public schools, and if you want to give your DNA a good push-off into the world, you send them to a high-ranking private college, leaving you $20,000 or more lighter every year. Still, through scholarships and other kinds of indirect subsidies, society will make the burden less than it would be otherwise.

That's only the very well-off we're talking about, though. If you are a poor illegal immigrant, society will pay you to have as many carbon-exhaling children as you want. Your parturition will take place in a public hospital at public expense; your issue will be immediately granted American citizenship, still (for how much longer is debatable) a valuable asset. The Social Work Establishment will immediately step in as co-parent, for your kids as well as for you.

As one said, externalizing the costs.

If there is one iron economic and sociological rule that I have never seen violated, it is this: when society (you, me, everyone who dreads the sight of a 1040 form) allows a person, organization, or company to do what it wants and pass the cost along to society, then there will be more of that behavior.

Let's charge everyone, equally, for the burden they place on our beloved planet.


Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Britain leads the world in race replacement

The Telegraph of London reports that one in 10 Brits lives outside the country, and they're jacking the United Kingdom at a clip of 200,000 a year. They're bailing out to places all around the world (see The Telegraph's map) — 10,000 British choose to spend part of their lives in Bulgaria.

BBC Five radio yesterday broadcast an interview with expats phoning in from the Canary Islands, Spain, Poland, and somewhere else in Eastern Europe I can't remember. Others said they were planning on moving to Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. Why did they leave the U.K. or expect to, the presenter wanted to know. Predictably, most mentioned Britain's lousy weather, high taxes, the lack of decent affordable housing and other such practical reasons, but one or two brave souls — brave perhaps because they were beyond the reach of the U.K.'s "hate crimes" laws — acknowledged that they were sick of political correctness.

Whatever the given reasons, I would suggest that one of the main motivations for the widespread British diaspora is mentioned in the Telegraph article:

The current emigration is more than balanced by the record numbers of foreigners arriving in Britain, with net immigration running at around 200,000 — easily the highest in the country's history.
Official figures show that the non-white British population grew by more than half a million between 2001 and 2003 while the white British population fell by more than 100,000, largely because of emigration and a low birth rate.

Whole countries (with the U.K. leading the pack) are now undergoing the kind of social shift that American cities experienced beginning in the 1950s and that picked up steam in the '60s and '70s: a mass influx of nonwhites to the inner cities induced an equal and opposite reaction as whites moved to the suburbs to escape a perceived growth in crime, disorder, and crowding in the cities. The difference is that now it's countries, not cities, undergoing race replacement as international corporations with jobs on offer in far-flung locations, the homogenization of popular culture, cheap phone calls, and jet travel make moving to presumably greener pastures practical for many people.

Because of its leftist media and government the U.K. may be at the leading edge of the immigrants in-natives out trend, but the same tendency is encouraged in all the European Union countries. In Rome I saw a phenomenon that is now common, I gather, throughout Europe. Within a short walking distance from two of the city's most renowned attractions, the churches of Santa Maria Maggiore and San Giovanni in Laterano, is an immigrant district with all the standard trappings: stores selling cut-rate fashion knockoffs and acres of tacky jewelry, street stalls selling ditto, and lots of young men hanging out. They smoke, they argue with one another, they wait for something that will lift their lives up — basically, pretty much the same things they would have been doing if they'd stayed where they originated. Do they wonder why they bothered? Or are their lives, limited as they are, nonetheless better than anything they could have expected in their former homelands?

I hardly need to add that the Mexican Invasion and the hispanicization of the United States present the same picture.

The race replacement that is occurring so fast and so visibly in Europe and the United States surely has not escaped the notice of the ruling classes. Even if it's only through their inaction, they are behind it. I think it's more than malign indifference, though, it's something they want.

The reasons have been much discussed here and elsewhere in the blogosphere, as well as among many citizens privately when they're confident they won't be called before a diversity board and lose their jobs or their freedom — which is to say, discussed practically everywhere except in the mainstream media.

There is the ideology of liberalism, which says that (a) there is no such thing as race, it's only a social construct, and (b) the white race is the devil and the oppressor of all other races, so anything that can be done to replace white majorities is all to the good. There is the High Priesthood of EU bureaucrats, who scorn national identities and traditions that are sand in the gears of the Great World Unification Project. The International Business Establishment prefers to replace white workers, with their history of unionizing and political freedom, with Third Worlders who will do what they're told and shut up because that's how things have always been for them. The social work branch of the nanny state can't wait to have millions of new clients and programs to administer. In short, a centralized state, driven by economics and leftist politics, designed to serve business and bureaucracy, finds it much easier to direct a population of immigrants they can buy off with dole money, high-rise nests of subsidized housing and social services paid for by taxes on whatever is left of the middle class.

As for the natives panting to reach escape velocity, the pin-striped overlords put up a warning sign: "DANGER. Swinging doors can seriously affect your health. Make certain that the door is securely fastened as you exit the society."

But when the world's "suburbs" like Australia and New Zealand are full up or decide they've had enough refugees, and the United States is North Mexico, where will everyone fleeing the race replacement campaign go? The last helicopter out won't be able to hold everyone who wants to climb aboard.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Roma: 3

I know, I really am going on sixteen to the dozen with these ricordi of Rome. But I prom— uh, I plan to make this the last such posting.

Santa Prassede
Santa Prassede

Right around the corner from Santa Maria Maggiore, set back from a busy commercial street, is another of Rome's ancient churches, Santa Prassede (St. Praxedes). It was built in the ninth century, although much modified and restored since.

The apse mosaic is a fine example of Byzantine-influenced art, but the real jewel in this place is the tiny Chapel of San Zeno off the right aisle. All its walls and its ceiling are covered with ninth century mosaics, including one of Christ as the Lamb of God, an image I always find moving. As far as I know, nothing much has changed in this room since it was made so long ago; it offers not only esthetic, and perhaps spiritual rewards if you are so minded, but it's like a trip back into a world of the late Empire or early Middle Ages whose values were as different from those of today as can be imagined; the Romans of the classical period, skeptical, political, and engineering-minded, were much more like us than were the people who built Santa Prassede.

It was my third visit to the church — I would be happy to return any number of times — but this time I noticed something that had escaped me before. On a pier near the side entrance to the right of the altar is a stone tablet recording the 2,300 martyrs whose remains were ordered moved here from catacombs by Pope Paschal I (817–824).

Contrary to popular belief, during most of the first three centuries A.D., Christians were not persecuted in Rome (although they were probably considered crackpots). Few Romans, especially of the Senatorial class, were very religious and they were no more bothered about Christianity than about the followers of other exotic cults like those dedicated to Isis, Mithras, Cybele, etc. During the reigns of a few emporers, though, particularly Nero, Domitian, and Diocletian, the persecution (more for political than religious reasons) was savage.

I'm dubious about the value of martyrdom. God wants many difficult things from us, including improving our character, spiritual discipline, overcoming self-centeredness and learning to care for others; I'm not convinced being tortured and killed for proclaiming an unpopular faith is a ticket to Heaven. Still, you have to sympathize with the early Christian martyrs and respect those who chose their fate voluntarily.

Those whose relics were moved to Santa Prassede are listed on the tablet (a Renaissance restoration of one from Paschal I's time). I wrote down some of the names:

Marius. Felix. Melix. Diogenes (a Greek, presumably; there were many in ancient Rome). Faustus. Zoe. Juliana. "7 Germani (fratelli)" — seven German brothers. "Martyrs and Virgins" — Paulina. Marina. Daria.

Who were they? What were their lives like? We cannot say. Their names are all we have.

And then there are the others whose names are not even recorded, probably because the inscriptions in the catacombs identifying them, if any, had been effaced by the time their bones were transferred. "62 martyrs." "1124 martyrs."

I was reminded of the description on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier: "Known but to God." In that one respect, at least, we are like the Christian martyrs of Santa Prassede. Only God truly knows who we are. We do not know ourselves.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Roma: 2

More musings from my recent visit to Rome.

One of Rome's pleasures is that civilized dining is still widely available. I am not a gourmet or "foodie"; I don't as a rule particularly like eating in restaurants, but I did in Rome. The city still has an abundance of the kind of restaurant that has all but vanished in New York, London, and most big cities I know: small (often with only a dozen or so tables), waiters who've been there forever and take pride in their work rather than consider it demeaning, no background music, no "theme," no exaggerated emphasis on decor.

In such places, your food may not be wildly complex but it is prepared and served with care, and it's delicious. Romans take
restaurant dining seriously without making a holy ritual out of like Parisians do, and they get on with it. You don't have to sit at the table till you're growing roots before you're done — it's possible to eat a very satisfying meal and be on your way in an hour. It's a splendid interregnum between bouts of sightseeing.

On most menus, the items on offer are translated into English, more or less. Sometimes less is more for entertainment value. My favorite: "Vitella di Lombarda" translated as "Grilled Lumbar Day Veal."
* * *
Fashion notes: Romans (or at least those identifiable as Italians by their language) dress surprisingly conservatively if they're over the age of 40 or so. The women (this season, anyway) seem to go in for muted colors and expensive but not showy fabrics. Men may still try to cut a bella figura, but it's more well-tailored, English country style than flashy. The teenagers and twentysomethings are mostly slobs. The Slut Look is popular with the girls, somewhat softened by the current popularity of long, hippie-ish hair styles. The young guys are right losers and look like they just came from the soup kitchen line. Black is very in with both sexes, making for a drab humanscape in a colorful and vibrant city.
* * *
For all that it can make you feel exuberant and revitalized, Rome doesn't let you go for long without reminding you of death.

The churches that you visit for the art and architecture are, of course, full of tombs. The very floor you walk on is marked by medieval slabs carved with images of churchmen and nobles whose final resting place is below. The main walls and side chapel walls contain more monuments to those who passed on centuries ago, and in the Baroque age — when war and plague could strike people down at any time, and the Church believed a memento mori was bracing for your soul — sculptors weren't shy about depicting mortality in the memorials they designed, which were frequently adorned with carved, hideously grinning skulls or skeletons.

The bodies of saints, or fractions thereof, used to be on display for veneration; nowadays they're mostly decently attired, with masks over what's left of their faces. But for the sepulchers of its honored ones, the Church went to immense expense and hired great artisans to represent with palpable realism the physical forms of cardinals and Popes whose calling was to lead the faithful to the nonmaterial fields of Eternity.
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At last, I was able to visit the church of St. Agnese Fuori le Mura and the adjacent Mausoleum of Constantia (daughter of the Emperor Constantine, who legalized Christianity in the Empire and went on to make it the official religion). I say "at last" because it has been several years since I read a fascinating book about the church and mausoleum, The Geometry of Love. (The book is further discussed in my collected reviews linked to at the sidebar.)

St Agnese large
St. Agnes, from the apse mosaic,
St. Agnese Fuori le Mura

The mausoleum was built in the fourth century and still has orginal mosaics (restored in the 19th century, accurately one hopes). As in the church of Santa Maria Maggiore, it's amazing to see artwork so old in situ exactly where it's been for 1,600 years. The mosaic in the apse of the church is of a vintage only a few hundred years later, showing St. Agnes and two early Popes, in stately Byzantine poses ("O sages standing in God's holy fire" — Yeats).

I joined a tour group of only four or five others — the site is in what looks like a high-class, mostly residential district some distance from Rome's historic center, so it gets few tourists — to visit the catacombs beneath the church and the adjacent area. The narration was in Italian, although I could get the gist of most of it, but the location needed no explanation for its impact. It was unlike anything I'd exprienced before. A huge network of narrow tunnels is lined on both sides with horizontal niches where Christians buried their dead in the early days. The niches are empty now, thanks to grave robbers of the middle ages, but you can still see signs in ancient Latin to identify who had been interred there. We were also shown a larger, cave-like area where a well-off family had their own "plot."

The relics of millennia in Rome make you ponder time. Many of them, like the catacombs, also make you think about time ending for each of us.
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Yet there is something appealing in the way Rome is connected to the past while also very much of the present, unlike museumized cities such as Venice, Florence, or Tombstone, Arizona. Not all that is contemporary in Rome is appealing, not the graffiti-sprayed metro trains or the in-your-face commercialism or many other things, but it's hardly necessary to point out that the city's earlier eras included far worse horrors. In a time when militant Islam wants to replace Western civilization, it's comforting to know that this center to which all roads once led, which was almost literally left for dead after the barbarian conquests and the empire's departure for Constantinople, was regenerated in the Renaissance and has been going strong ever since. In the midst of dramatic, constant changes, Rome as a place of the heart and spirit has endured the passing of ages.

So, arrivederci, Roma: you who have seen everything there is to see of piety, triumph, folly, glory, cruelty, artistry, and all else that makes up the human condition. When I see you again, you will no longer be the same, just as always.

Sunday, December 03, 2006


Rome is a dream. Incongruous elements from different times, eras, styles exist side by side, like the images in your mind while you sleep of people and places illogically co-existing, scenes instantly shifting. I'm not going to try to write a coherent posting about the visit I just returned from, just offer a few impressions.
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Rome means churches. Even people who don't profess any religion or are committed agnostics visit St. Peter's, Santa Maria Maggiore, the Gesu, and many others if they want to understand the essence of this city. "For the art," they say, as if to absolve themselves from any connection with a spiritual world that their scientific skepticism insists they reject. And indeed, the churches contain so much splendor, artistry, and craftsmanship as to be a wonder in themselves. The richness of the materials is stupefying: the colored glass of the mosaics, its reflective brilliance intended to simulate the miraculous light of the Glory too great for people's eyes; the marbles of green, rose, gray, pure white and mixed hues; alabaster; lapis lazuli; gold; silver; and much more. Sculptures, paintings, frescoes, patterned floors. There is hardly a space in some of the churches that hasn't been decorated.

The Catholic church, especially in the Baroque period, saw no contradiction between overwhelming the viewer with the visual world and urging him to faith. It saw art and architecture as a bridge between daily life and Spirit.

Today we use art and good materials in public spaces, if at all, only for impressive company headquarters and shopping malls. The notion of hiring talented artists, designers, and builders to create grandiose buildings to celebrate God -- to the average contemporary mind, either a superstition or a Supreme Niceness -- rather than for commerce or marketing would be almost the ultimate absurdity. But the profit motive has yet to achieve anything like the grandeur to be seen in dozens of Roman houses of worship.

Yes, the extravagance can be cloying. True, although geniuses such as Bernini and extraordinary painters like Caravaggio and Pinturicchio contributed to the decor, much of the art is derivative and second rate. The relics in their own temples under altars or in side chapels may not be "authentic" in the historical sense. But in almost every case, the whole -- often built and added to and revised over centuries -- is more than the sum of its parts.

I was told a story about a priest in Mexico who had all the statues of Jesus and the Virgin and saints removed from his church because he felt the country people in the congregation were worshiping them or concentrating on them so much as to be distracted from God. I can symphathize with his motives, but believe he was mistaken. He did not understand that embodied souls are at different stages of development, some starting on the long spiritual climb through many lifetimes of experience, others having developed more wisdom and a longing to know God in spirit as a result of growth in earlier incarnations. (Reincarnation is heretical in Catholicism, although there is much dispute about whether some of the early Church fathers, such as Origen, taught it.) The priest who stripped the adornment and statues from his church was asking his flock to put away childish things while they were still children. To them, the visible images of the saints and the beauties that surrounded them in church spoke to their intuitive sense of another world greater than this and helped them to connect emotionally with a transcendent reality they could not yet reach through spiritual discipline. To take all that away from them was to remove the lower rungs of the ladder they had to climb if they were to see God in pure spirit.
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Special exhibitions everywhere, announced by posters and banners. Not only does practically every museum have its blockbuster must-see show, but many churches as well. It seems to work, if getting bodies through the door is the goal. The church of Santa Maria del Popolo was having a special Caravaggio exhibit; I never did figure out exactly what it was about, although the two famous paintings (St. Paul's conversion and the crucifixion of St. Peter) were considerably brighter and cleaner than I remembered them, so maybe their restoration was the drawing card.

And boy, does Caravaggio pull 'em in these days. I hadn't realized how trendy he is, although I guess it shouldn't be surprising, since he is now well known to have been homosexual and his work is "edgy." The lines of people waiting to see the Caravaggios in Santa Maria sometimes stretched out the door and down the steps. (As I was staying near the Piazza del Popolo, I frequently went by the church, and was finally able to get in without waiting. My policy is to wait in line no more than 15 minutes for anything.)

Caravaggio: Rest on the Flight into Egypt

Why are tourists such herd animals? There are Caravaggio paintings all over Rome you don't have to wait in line to see -- for instance, at the fantastically ornate Palazzo Doria-Pamphilij, which was practically deserted. (Maybe tourists are afraid to ask how to find it because they don't know how to pronounce it.) The Doria-Pamphilij's two Caravaggios, Rest on the Flight into Egypt and the Penitent Magdalene, are both early works and I prefer them to the ones in Santa Maria, the Museo Borghese, etc. The painter seems not to have yet developed the shadowy, somewhat sinister style he is now famous for: the Holy Family and the Magdalene are both sincere and touching, but without sentimentality. You have to look very closely to notice the ghostly tear on Magdalene's cheek. In the Holy Family painting, Joseph holds up a musical score (for an actual composition that has been identified from the painting) in front of an angel playing a violin, as though it was the most natural thing in the world, like a neighbor dropping in, no conventional Baroque attitudes of religiosity. A donkey overlooks the scene from behind Joseph; he, more than any of the human characters, seems to understand the part they are playing in a divine manifestation.
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Blimey, this is getting long already. That's the way it is when you've been to Rome -- you are so full of experiences and anecdotes that you're hard to shut off. I think I'll take my leave now; more soon, for those who are interested.