Roaming in Rome: the Vatican

Roaming in Rome: the Vatican

While I do have some scruples about including the Vatican in my series about Rome—since it technically is not a part of Rome—I think excluding it would be paying too much attention to official opinion at the expense of geographic fact. This post will complete my long and laborious series about Rome. (Click here for the introduction; here for churches; here for basilicas; here for museums; and here for Rome’s ruins.)

To state the obvious, the Vatican is unique. The smallest state in the world, both by population and area, the Vatican is also distinguished for being a theocratic monarchy, governed by the bishop of Rome, the Pope. The Vatican’s economy is also unique, supported almost entirely by tourism.

The Vatican is not as old as you might imagine. In former times the Pope was as much a secular ruler as a spiritual guide; the Papacy had its own proper country, known as the Papal States—which lasted from the time of Charlemagne to the nineteenth century—which controlled a sizeable hunk of the Italian boot. This state was swallowed up by Italy during the rise of Italian nationalism after the Napoleonic Wars. The Vatican as we know it today was established in 1929 in the Lateran Treaty. It is thus only a little older than my grandmother.

Aside from the pilgrims, many millions of secular tourists visit the Vatican each year, and all of them to see three things: the Vatican Museums, the Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter’s Basilica. This is what I saw, and this is what I’m here to tell you about.

hallway-of-maps
The Gallery of Maps

The Vatican Museums

The first thing you should know about visiting the Vatican is that you must buy your tickets ahead of time. (Here in the link.) If you don’t, you will be one of the hundreds of people waiting—probably in vain—in the enormous line that stretches out the museum’s entrance and curves around the Vatican’s walls. I felt a mixture of pity and, I admit, self-congratulation upon seeing this line, its members sweating in the relentless sun, unremittingly pestered by tour guides.

I scheduled my visit to the Vatican for my first full day in Rome. I did not trust myself to figure out the public transportation, so I walked, which took me about an hour and a half. I was also so worried about missing my entrance-time that I didn’t stop to eat or drink. Added to this, it was hot and humid, and I slept poorly the night before. So when I arrived, I was sticky with sweat, dehydrated and dizzy, my stomach filled with foam, disoriented by the heat and sleep deprivation, my legs a bit shaky, my heart pumping like mad, my body full of adrenalin. It was, in other words, a normal vacation day for me.

The Vatican Museum is one of the largest and most visited museums in the world. Begun in the fifteenth century by Pope Julius II, it displays some of the finest pieces in the papal collection, and thus some of the most important works in Western history. There are over 20,000 works on display, so I could not—and at any rate I don’t want to—give an overview of the whole collection; I will content myself with some highlights.

augustus-caesar
Monumental Bust of Caesar Augustus

The real shame of the Vatican Museum is that most tourists (myself included) rush through it to get to the Sistine Chapel. I don’t blame the tourists: when you have something like the Sistine Chapel waiting for you, it is hard to take your time. Nevertheless, in the process visitors walk past one of the most impressive museums in the world.

Before visiting, I had hardly an inkling of the size and scope of the museum’s collection. In the Museo Gregorio Egiziano, for example, there is an enormous collection of Ancient Egyptian artifacts, including mummies, sarcophagi, papyruses, statues, and even reproductions of the Book of the Dead; the museum boasts a similarly complete collection of Etruscan art. In another wing, much further along the visit, is a collection of modern religious art. Added to all this is a seemingly endless collection of Greek and Roman statues. In the Museo Chiaramonti, for example, such a huge number of busts and sculptures—of emperors, heroes, and gods, all white marble—are pilled up on top of one another that it seems as though you’ve wandered into a warehouse of a sculpture factory.

statue-in-shadow

The museum is notable not only for its works, but for its spaces. In the Sala Rotunda (“round room”), larger-than-life statues occupy niches in a circular room, built to imitate the Pantheon; and in the middle of the room is a gorgeous ancient mosaic. The Gallery of Maps is a long hallway; the decoration of the ceiling is unspeakably ornate—totally covered in floral designs, patterns, paintings, and decorative moldings—lit up with a golden glow; and its walls, as befitting its name, are covered in a series of lovely maps of Italy.

pine-cone
Cortile della Pigna

The Cortile della Pigna, or Courtyard of the Pine Cone, takes its name from the Fountain of the Pine Cone. This fountain, of Roman origin, was moved in 1608 from its original location near the Pantheon to decorate a large niche in the courtyard’s wall. (At the time, this courtyard was twice as large, and was known as the Cortile del Belvedere; the Apollo Belvedere used to be displayed here, which is where it gets its name.) In the center of this courtyard is a version of Arnoldo Pomodoro’s famous statue, Sfera con sfera—a large golden sphere, cracked and broken, with another similarly damaged sphere inside. There is also a monumental bust of Augustus, who was given a new hairdo in during the Renaissance.

golden-sphere

Among the hundreds of excellent sculptures, my favorite is Laocoön and His Sons—a work that can also be said to be the founding piece of the Vatican Museum. The statue was made sometime around the first century BCE (we think), and later found its way to the palace of the Roman Emperor Titus, where it was praised by the Roman writer Pliny the Elder (first century CE). At some point in antiquity the statue was lost; it was only rediscovered during the Renaissance, in the February of 1506. The antiquarian and art-loving Pope, Julius II, was immediately informed of this discovery; Michelangelo went to investigate and sent an enthusiastic report of the statue; and one month later, Julius had the magnificent sculpture on public display in the Belvedere Courtyard. The statue now stands in the Museo Pio-Clementino.

laocoon-and-his-sons

The statue depicts a moment from Virgil’s Aeneid. The Greeks have given up trying to knock down the walls of Troy; instead they are following Odysseus’s sneaky plan, to gift them the Trojan Horse. The big, wooden horse is wheeled up to the walls, and the Trojans obligingly come out to admire it; soon they decide to bring the horse inside the walls. Laocoön, a priest, is the only person against this plan. “Beware of Greeks bringing gifts!” he says. At that moment, spurred on by the malevolent gods, two enormous snakes appear and strangle both him and his two sons. The Trojans interpret this as an omen, thinking that the gods disapproved of Laocoön’s skepticism. In reality, the gods were on the Greeks’ side.

The statue is extraordinary. Far removed from the Classic Greek ideals of perfect form and sublime grace, it is full of suffering and fear. The bodies are contorted and twisted, the faces scrunched up with pain; the snakes’ slithering bodies are wrapped around arms and legs, tying all the figures together into a writhing mass of limbs. Every detail is exaggerated. Indeed, the statue could have been melodramatic, even silly, if not for its perfect execution. Every detail seems just right: the arrangement of the figures, the anatomy, the posture, the expressions, the technical execution. It is one of those few masterpieces of art that impress themselves upon the memory after a split-second of viewing.

I stood for a long while admiring the work. How could so much movement be conveyed by immobile stone? How could an entire story be told instantaneously? The feeling evoked by the statue is one of gruesome tragedy. Laocoön will die even though he was right, and his sons will die even though they are innocent of any crime. All of them will die publicly, and in immense pain, for nothing, and with nothing to look forward to except oblivion. The image is much too exuberantly violent to be melancholy, much too grisly and ghastly to be beautiful. It is, rather, sublime: instead of conforming to your aesthetic sense, it overawes you, trampling over all your tastes and preconceived notions, soaring above all your attempts to measure or define it, leaving you simply dazed at the power of human art.

I could spend hours and pages in ecstasies over other works in the museum, but I will exercise self-restraint. The only other individual works I will mention are Raphael’s frescoes.

These were commissioned by that same Pope Julius II, in 1508, to decorate the papal apartments. They occupy four rooms, now called the Raphael Rooms: the Sala di Constanto, the Stanza di Eliodoro, the Stanza della Segnatura, and the Stanza dell’Incendio del Borgo. Needless to say, each one is a masterpiece and worthy of study. But by far the most famous of these are in the Stanza della Segnatura. This was the first room that Raphael completed. At the time, this room contained the Pope’s personal library, which is why Raphael set about creating intellectual allegories.

No place in the world more perfectly captures the Renaissance blending of art and science, of classical education and effective government, of pagan philosophy and Christian theology. In the Disputation of the Holy Sacrament, Raphael depicts theology as a collection of saints, popes, and religious poets engaged in a discourse on the nature of God, while Jesus and the Father sit enshrined above. In The Parnassus we find an allegory poetic inspiration, Apollo and the Muses stand with a collection of melodramatic bards and troubadours, all crowned with laurels, crowded on top of a hillside. (Dante is the only figure to be represented twice in the fresco sequence, appearing both among the theologians and the poets.) And in the Cardinal Virtues, both human and divine virtues are depicted in allegorical form, the human virtues—prudence, fortitude, and temperance—as women, and the divine virtues—charity, hope, and faith—as accompanying cupids.

The last and incomparably most famous is the School of Athens. Even if you don’t know its name, it is an image you have undoubtedly seen countless times. At least three books in my library have this painting as their cover image. It is one of the iconic images of Western art: a symbol of the Renaissance, of humanism, of philosophy, of science, and of the entire intellectual tradition. Like other iconic images—The Mona Lisa, Guernica, The Creation of Adam—it is somehow unforgettable: every detail is classic, perfect, and instantly memorable, and it is carried with you the rest of your life.

school-of-athens-whole

In his classic documentary, Civilisation, Kenneth Clarke tells us that Raphael’s works must be looked at long and hard to be truly appreciated. Rather like Mozart’s music, Raphael’s art is so perfectly balanced, so immediately appealing to the senses, so intuitively intelligible even to the ignorant, that it seems as if they are devoid of serious substance. Raphael’s painting is just so seeable. The painting unfolds itself to you; it almost sees itself for you. The viewer is not asked to do any work, just to enjoy. Every relevant detail is taken in at a glance. Again, like Mozart’s music, everyone might agree that Raphael’s work is pretty, charming, and pleasant, but many might not guess that it is also profound.

To sense this profundity, you must learn to unsee it before seeing it again: you must fight the immediate familiarity, the apparent ease, and try to see the painting as it might have appeared to its first viewers: as striking, imaginative, triumphant, and so utterly convincing that one man’s individual vision soon became a model for classic grace.

This is, of course, much easier said than done. It is especially difficult if you are standing in the middle of a crowded room, buffeted by tour group after tour group, trying to find a good angle to photograph the painting. By this time, I was thirsty, hungry, and feeling not a little claustrophobic from the swelling crowds. I tried to look at the painting long enough to see what Clarke saw; but the contrast between Clarke calmly meditating on the painting in solitude, and myself sweating and painting in the noisy crowd, was too much to overcome. After fifteen minutes of staring, I turned and left. I was about to enter the Sistine Chapel.

Sistine Chapel

(No photos are allowed inside the Chapel, so I don’t have any. But if you want, there is a virtual version of the Sistine Chapel that you can find here. I recommend viewing it while listening to Georgio Allegri’s beautiful “Miserer mei, Deus,” composed for performance in the Sistine Chapel.)

Stepping into the Sistine Chapel is an unforgettable mixture of sublime awe and petty annoyance. Security guards are posted all around the room, keeping the gaping tourists out of main channels, preventing the entrance and exit from getting blocked, and repeatedly reminding tourists that no photos are permitted. Hundreds of people were packed into the room, all of them standing elbow to elbow, standing singly or in tight groups, everyone with their eyes turned upwards. It reminded me of those cartoons in which turkeys drowned themselves by looking up, mouths agape, during a rainstorm.

The hushed and hurried sounds of voices, some whispering, some laughing, reverberated in the stone chamber, creating a decidedly unmeditative din. Every five minutes or so, a voice crackled onto a PA system and told everyone, in four or five languages and to respect the sacred space. This created about thirty seconds of respective silence until the talking irrupted again, and the process started over. Even in this place, the most important space in the world for Western art, a holy place for Catholics and humanists alike, we recreate the same silly dynamic as in a middle school classroom.

Even without Michelangelo’s frescos, the Sistine Chapel would contain enough artwork to make it a necessary visit for any art-lover. To pick just one example, Botticelli’s Temptations of Christ, an obvious masterpiece, is on one of the lower walls, along with numerous other paintings of similarly high quality. And yet it is nearly impossible to pay any attention to these paintings; indeed, I bet most visitors don’t even notice them. Michelangelo’s ceiling frescos are so overpowering that you cannot look at anything else. Every visitor stares helplessly up at the ceiling, painfully craning their neck like Rodin’s statues.

The work is so famous that it seems superfluous to say anything about it. Everybody has seen it. Everybody knows the story of Michelangelo, tortuously arching his back on the scaffold, slowly and scrupulously completing the frescos almost single-handedly. Michelangelo even wrote a sonnet about his own discomfort (this is a translation by Gail Mazur):

I’ve already grown a goiter from this torture / hunched up here like a cat in Lombardy / (or anywhere else where the stagnant water’s poison). / My stomach squashed under my chin, my beard’s / pointing at heaven, my brain crushed in a casket / my breasts twisted like a harpy’s. My brush, / above me all the time, dribbles paint / So my face makes a fine floor for droppings!”

(You can read the rest of the poem here.)

Both artwork and artist have been turned into one of the great creation myths of European history. The work even seems to allegorize its own heroic origin: Just as God, sublime and omnipotent, reaches out with one delicate figure to delineate the reclining figure of Man, so did Michelangelo himself give form to the ideal image of Man. Here is the perfect symbol of creativity.

The Sistine Chapel was commissioned by the same Julius II—the most important of the Renaissance Popes, perhaps—and interrupted Michelangelo’s work on the Pope’s tomb. This tomb, by the way, was never completed on the scale originally imagined. The half-finished sculptures that were to form a part of it are now considered to be among Michelangelo’s masterpieces, such as the Dying Slave in the Louvre. Although originally planned for St. Peter’s Basilica, the tomb, as eventually realized, is in San Pietro in Vincoli, a church near the Colosseum; this tomb is now most famous for its statue of Moses.

The most striking thing, aside from their awe and splendor, about Michelangelo’s frescos are their focus on man. I use “man” deliberately, because the vast majority of the figures are men, aggressively so. Michelangelo does not portray landscapes, vegetation, or animal life; there are hardly any objects to distract us from the people. Michelangelo was entranced by the body—its musculature, its skeletal structure, its twistings and turnings, its living flesh. This is most striking in his Last Judgment, an obscene explosion of naked bodies.

The Catholic Church has traditionally had a fraught relationship with the human body, to say the least; but Michelangelo seems not to have shared this aversion. If you believe that humanity was made in God’s image, his fascination for the human form is sensible: by studying the human, you might get a glimpse of the divine.

I end this section feeling much as I did when I walked out of that room: overwhelmed. What are you supposed to say when face to face with such a work of art? How are you supposed to feel? How can you even understand what you’re seeing, much less properly appreciate it? Can you, through any means, do justice to the experience? Michelangelo’s frescos are, for me, like Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Beethoven’s final symphony: a work that reduces me to the same stunned speechlessness as the starry sky.

list-of-popes
A List of all the Popes from inside the Basilica

St. Peter’s Basilica

By the time I left the Vatican museum—winding my way down the double-helix staircase—I was hungry, thirsty, and totally dazed. I bought an overpriced coca-cola from a vending machine, gulped it down, and then bought a bottle of water. Soon I was out on the street again. I had just seen some of the greatest art in the world; but every trace of aesthetic pleasure vanished in the hot sun.

I wanted to go home and sleep, but I didn’t have time to waste. I still had to go see the Vatican’s Basilica.

San Pietro in Vaticano is the church at the very center of the Catholic world. It is the last of the four major basilicas (I’ve written about the other three elsewhere), and the most important. The building, as it appears today, is actually the second St. Peter’s Basilica; the first was built during the time of Constantine, and had fallen into such disrepair during the Avignon Papacy that it was clear repairs were needed. The infinitely ambitious Pope Julius II—the ever-present specter of this post—was not content with mere repairs, however, and conceived a project far more daring: to tear down the original St. Peter’s and rebuild it on an even grander scale.

If you bear in mind that the original church was one of the most venerable, most historical, and most important churches in Europe, not to mention one of the biggest, you can get a notion of how bold this plan really was. Julian wanted not only to rival, but to surpass the great ruins of Rome that still towered above everything else in the city.

A contest was held for designs of the new building, and Donato Bramante’s design was the winner; he called for a Greek cross and a massive dome, modeled after the Parthenon’s. One hundred years earlier, the architect Brunelleschi had designed the massive dome the cathedral of Florence, still the biggest brick dome in the world, and both Bramante wanted to build something even bigger. But construction was slow in getting off the ground; and it wasn’t long before both Bramante and Pope Julius died. The leadership eventually passed to Raphael, who altered the design to include three main apses; but Raphael died, too, and the project changed hands many times again. When Charles V’s troops sacked Rome, in 1527, this didn’t help matters. Eventually Michelangelo, then an old man, begrudgingly took on the job; and nowadays his contributions are regarded as the most important.

The Basilica sits at the end of St. Peter’s square. This is a massive plaza, closed to vehicles, that is enclosed by two sprawling colonnades that welcome the visitor in a gigantic embrace. The square was designed by Bernini during the 17th century, and is visibly a product of the Counter-Reformation: grand, impressive, and crushingly huge. The colonnade is four columns deep, and is topped by a row of statues that are difficult to identity from the ground. In the center of the plaza is an Egyptian obelisk, originally taken from Egypt during the reign of Augustus (a visible marker of the continuity between the Roman Empire and the Roman Church).

st-peters-square

On any given day, the plaza is probably one of the most diverse places on earth. Visitors from hundreds of countries, sporting clothes of every imaginable style, speaking a befuddling mix of styles, crowd the massive square. The one thing they all have in common—at least on a sunny, summer day—is that they’re sweaty, and busy taking photographs.

I was certainly sweaty when I got on the line to enter the Basilica. To pass from the plaza to the Basilica, you need first to go through security: this means waiting in line for the metal detectors. After you pass through security, however, you can waltz right inside. The Basilica is free to visit, which means that you can still see one of the great works of Renaissance architecture even if you forget to buy tickets for the Vatican Museums.

When you walk into St. Peter’s, the first and most persistent impression is the sense of space—open space, empty space, expanding space flooded with light. Everything is on such a huge scale that it is difficult to keep it in perspective; the ceiling is far above you, but sometimes does not appear so high up because everything is proportionally large; and it is only when you compare the little men and women scurrying about on the floor that you realize how big is everything.

st-peters-basilica

The next impression, for me, was an overpowering sense of splendor and fine taste. As in so many Italian churches, but on an even more magnificent scale, the decoration of every surface is lush: shiny, colorful, and finely textured. Statues adorn nooks and crannies—heroic statues of popes and saints—each of them of the highest quality; and yet there are so many, and each is so consistently masterful, that no single thing particularly attracts your attention. Instead, all of the decoration and the statues create an atmosphere of awe.

st-peters-dome

Seeing the dome of St. Peter’s from the inside is somewhat surreal. It is so big, and so far away, that it is difficult to gauge exactly how big and how far away it is, exactly. Underneath the dome is one of the most famous works in the Basilica, Bernini’s Baldachin. This is a canopy, somewhat like a pavilion, that sits above the main altar. And it is gigantic: stretching to 30 meters (98 feet) in height, it is the largest bronze object in the world. (And despite this, it still looks tiny in the massive space of the Basilica.) The most distinctive and, for me, the most attractive feature of the work are the twisting, swirling columns that support it.

Bernini's Thing.jpg

After wandering my way through the Basilica for a while—open-mouthed, exhausted, too dumbstruck and tired to really process any of the experience—I turned to leave. But there, on the way to the exit, was the most famous artwork of all: Michelangelo’s Pietá. The statue now sits in a side-chapel near the front portal, protected by a shield of bulletproof glass. (I learn from the Wikipedia page that this glass was not always there. In 1972, a mentally disturbed Australian geologist attacked the statue with a geological hammer, while shouting “I am Jesus Christ!” He managed to destroy Mary’s arm and nose, and it was only through painstaking reconstruction that the statue was restored to its previous appearance. The world is an odd place.)

pieta

The statue is extraordinary. Jesus lays sprawled on Mary’s lap, while she looks down at his lifeless body. Jesus’s face is impossible to see clearly, since it is turned limply toward the sky; but Mary’s face is fully visible. For a woman old enough to have an adult son, she is strikingly youthful and beautiful. Her expression is a masterpiece: so quietly sad, so mournful, and yet not despairing; a tranquil and meditative grief. The viewer can’t help but recall all the images of the Virgin with the Christ Child, rosy-cheeked and smiling, sitting on her lap; now Christ still sits on her lap, a grown man, gaunt, tortured, and put to death. The mother gave life to the son, and now he is gone; but the son will return, and he will give life to mankind. Death and life are united in one image—the tragedy of mortality and the injustice of the world, and the hope of immortality and the justice of the universe.

I stood there for a long while, admiring the statue, and then turned to go. There was only one thing I had left to see: the crypt. St. Peter’s contains the remains of over 100 people, most of them Popes, most of them located in the crypt underneath the Basilica. This crypt is free to visit. To get there, I walked around the side of the building and then down a staircase.

What surprised me, most of all, was its plainness. The walls are white and mostly devoid of decoration; the tombs are relatively simple—at least, compared to everything else I had seen that day. If memory serves, many of the tombs had little plaques near them, explaining who the Pope was and what were his most notable accomplishments. I paused to read some of these, but I find that I normally don’t remember much when I do this, so I skipped most. (In retrospect, I was right: I don’t remember anything I read.)

At the end of the crypt I came to one far more ornate than the rest. It was not a sarcophagus, but a whole shrine—filled with gold and marble—visible through a glass window. I noticed many people pausing, crossing themselves, and praying before the tomb. Who was he? Then I remembered: it was the tomb of St. Peter himself.

According to the story, St. Peter was crucified here on Vatican Hill, during the reign of Nero. He was crucified head downward, at his own request, so as not to die in the same manner as his savior. Peter is traditionally regarded as the first Pope, largely because of this passage from the Gospel of St. Matthew (16.18-19): “I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hell will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” It was for this reason that Constantine decided to build the original St. Peter’s in this spot.

In the 20th century, archaeologists investigated the area underneath the Basilica’s main altar—right underneath Bernini’s Baldachin. Several burials, tombs, and bones have been discovered under the Basilica. It seems that the area had been used as a gravesite before even the Christian era; coins and even animal bones were discovered. In 1968 it was finally announced that the bones of St. Peter’s had been identified. How any bones could be confidently attributed to St. Peter is another question; what matters, I suppose, is that they were given the official sanction, which makes them officially St. Peter’s bones.

Whenever I visit a cemetery, a tomb, or a graveyard, I think about human finitude. Our bodies are so frail, and will inevitably fail one day. Death comes for us all. And when I see these big stone structures we build for our bodies, it seems as if they are attempts to cope with this finitude. Maybe I will die, but my tomb will survive, and my name will be known, and my memory will live on. But this form of immortality is sterile. What is a tomb but a pile of rock? What is a name but a puff of air? What is a memory but a vague light flitting in darkness?

But when I see Laocoön and His Sons, The School of Athens, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter’s Basilica, it gives me pause. So much imagination, effort, will, knowledge, and force is compressed into these things that they seem as if they cannot die. This is fanciful thinking, of course. Everything can die, and everything will. But how could anything so splendid be undone, even by destruction? These works seem to transcend their earthly matter and break into the realm of pure forms, immaterial and everlasting. Why I feel this way, and why I choose to express myself using metaphysics and metaphors, I can’t quite say. What I can say is that these works of art do give me a certain feeling of faith: a faith in the human spirit.

Review: Orwell’s Essays

Review: Orwell’s Essays

A Collection of EssaysA Collection of Essays by George Orwell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What I have most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art.

George Orwell is one of the inescapable writers of the last century. Far from becoming irrelevant, his works seem to become more significant with each passing year (as most recently evidenced by the present administration’s strained relationship with the truth). Orwell himself said that the “final test of any work of art is survival,” and his works seem on track to pass this final test. His dystopian novel recently became a surprise best-seller, almost seventy years after its initial publication. That is more than mere survival.

And yet it isn’t for his political insights that I opened this collection of essays. It was rather—and I feel somewhat silly saying this—for his writing style. Orwell’s writing is, for me, a model of modern prose. His style can accommodate both the abstract and the concrete, the homely and the refined, the pretentious and the vulgar; his prose can satisfy both the academic and the artist, the intellectual and the layperson, the Panurge and the parish priest. It is unmistakably modern, even sleek, while obviously informed by the tastes and standards of the past. It is fiery, angry, and political, while remaining intimate, human, and honest.

Something that repeatedly struck me while reading this collection was an inner conflict in Orwell’s worldview. There are two sides of the man, sometimes in harmony, and sometimes at odds: the writer and the activist. Orwell the writer is captivated by the rhythms of words, the sounds of sentences; he loves ruminating on a strange personality or a memorable story; he is enchanted by the details of daily life. Orwell the activist is outraged at injustice and uncompromising in his moral sense; he sees people as a collection of allies and enemies, taking part in a grand struggle to bring about a better society.

Orwell himself discusses this tension in his little essay, “Why I Write.” In a more peaceful age, he thinks, he could have been an entirely aesthetic writer, perhaps a poet, not paying much attention to politics. It was his firsthand experience of imperialism, poverty, and fascism that activated his political conscience. Specifically, it was the Spanish Civil War that “tipped the scale” for him: “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism.”

Be that as it may, Orwell seems to have repeatedly struggled to reconcile this aim with his more humanistic side. In his brilliant essay on Dickens, for example, he spends page after page trying to analyze Dickens as a kind of social philosopher, examining Dickens’s views on work, on the state, on education, and so on. Since Dickens was anything but a philosopher—as Orwell himself admits—this repeatedly leads to frustrating dead ends, and fails completely to do justice to Dickens’s work. It is only in the last section, where Orwell drops this pretense and treats Dickens as a novelist, that the essay becomes deeply insightful. Indeed, it soon becomes clear—it seems clear to me, at least—that Orwell likes Dickens for his writing, and not his activism, however much he may wish to think otherwise.

Other essays exhibit this same tension. In his essay on vulgar postcard art, for example, he notes how backward is the social worldview expressed in the cards; but he is obviously quite fond of them and even ventures to defend them by likening their humor to Sancho Panza’s. His essay on boy’s magazines follows an identical pattern, exposing their conservative ideology while betraying a keen interest, even a warm fondness, for the stories. In his appreciative essay on Rudyard Kipling’s poems, he even goes so far as to defend Kipling’s political views, at least from accusations of fascism.

It is largely due to Orwell’s influence, I think, that nowadays it is uncontroversial to see the political implications in a movie cast or a Halloween costume. In all of these essays, Orwell worked to undermine the naïve distinction between politics and everyday life, showing how we absorb messages about standards, values, and ideologies from every direction. He did not merely state that “All art is propaganda,” but he tried to show it, both in his analyses and his own works. At least half the time, he is utterly convincing in this. (And indeed, Orwell was such a brilliant man that, even when I think he’s involved in a pointless exercise, he makes so many penetrating observations along the way— incidentally, parenthetically—that his writing fully absorbs me. )

We owe a tremendous debt to Orwell for this insight. Nevertheless, I can’t help thinking that there is something terribly limiting about this perspective. All art may be propaganda, but it is not only propaganda; it is not even primarily so. There needs to be room in criticism, as in life, for the non-political. We need to be able to enjoy a novelist because of his characters and not his views on the state, a poet for his lines rather than his opinions, a dirty joke or a trashy magazine just because we want a laugh and a break. Orwell would agree with me up to a point, I think, but would also say that every decision to be “non-political” implicitly accepts the status quo, and is therefore conservative. This may be true; but it is also true that such “non-political” things are necessary to live a full life.

Where I most disagree with Orwell is his conviction that the media we consume—magazines, post cards, popular novels, television—nefariously and decisively shape our worldview. For my part, I suspect that people absorb their opinions more from their community, face-to-face, and then seek out media that corresponds with their pre-existing views: not the reverse. Media may reinforce these views and give them shape and drive, but I don’t think it generates them.

All this is besides the point. I admire Orwell, for his fierce independence, for his sense of outrage and injustice, for his facility with words, for his attempt to blend art and truth. In sum, I admire both the writer and the activist, and I think his work should be read until judgment day.

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Review: A Guide to the Good Life

Review: A Guide to the Good Life

A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic JoyA Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B. Irvine

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There will be—or already has been!—a last time in your life that you brush your teeth, cut your hair, drive a car, mow the lawn, or play hopscotch.

In my review of Feeling Good, a self-help book, I noted the lack of practical philosophies in the modern world. Far from an original insight, I now see that this idea is a relatively common criticism of contemporary education and modern philosophy. The other day, for example, I stumbled upon a YouTube channel, the School of Life, an educational project that tries to teach life lessons rather than academic knowledge. This book, an attempt to revive ancient Stoicism, is part of the same loose movement.

William B. Irvine set himself the task of making Stoicism viable and palatable in today’s world. To put it bluntly, this meant rummaging through the Stoic classics to make a self-help book. Whereas the classic Stoic authors—Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and Epictetus—dispensed practical advice without much order, Irvine tries to create a systematic practice that any reader can follow.

Irvine’s system consists of several mental exercises, or tricks, that the novice Stoic can use to gain tranquility. The most important of these is negative visualization: take a moment to imagine how things could go wrong, how you could lose what you have—your health, job, or spouse—and how everything you take for granted might never have existed at all. This will counteract what Irvine calls “hedonistic adaptation,” which is when we get used to the good things in our lives and lose the ability to enjoy them. Hedonistic adaptation is the real enemy of tranquility, because it forever enchains us to desire—as soon as one desire is satisfied, we have another one, and the process repeats without us getting any happier.

Another Stoic exercise is the internalization of goals. First, determine the extent to which you can control the outcome of any situation; then, make sure you only worry about that part which you can control, and don’t trouble yourself about the rest. If you are going on a first date, for example, don’t make it your goal to impress the person—since you can’t directly control whether someone likes you or not—but make it your goal to try your best. In the language of self-help, that is, focus on the process and not the product, the effort and not the outcome.

The last major technique can be better described as an attitude rather than an exercise. This is to take a fatalistic attitude towards the past. Since what happened in the past is beyond your power to alter, don’t trouble yourself with “if-onlys” or fill up your mind with regrets. Instead, try to cultivate amor fati, love of fate; learn to appreciate the good in what has happened, rather than think of all the ways it could have been better.

The general attitude that a Stoic wishes to cultivate is a mixture of enjoyment and detachment: the ability to enjoy all of the little pleasures of daily life without becoming so attached to anything that you are incapacitated without it. It is rather like the attitude of a spectator at a play: heartily enjoying the show, while keeping in mind that all the action is staged and not worth getting upset over. With this mentality you could, in theory, be satisfied with anything, and maintain your tranquility under any circumstances.

These, in nutshell form, are the book’s major pieces of advice. The rest of the book is divided into a brief historical sketch of Stoicism, a series of short chapters about applying Stoicism to specific challenges, and a broader cultural criticism from a Stoic perspective. The latter of these was the most interesting—Irvine isn’t a fan of political correctness or of grief counseling. He also has a lot of advice about responding to insults, some of which I thought was obvious, some of which I thought was wrong, and most of which made me wonder: Why is he talking so much about insults? Is poor Irvine getting insulted all the time?

My main criticism of this book is its style. Perhaps because Irvine was trying to appeal to a popular market, the prose is painfully simple, and filled with unnecessary clarifications and wearying redundancies. “Repetitive” is a charitable description. Added to that, I often got the feeling that he was purposefully avoiding delving deeply into any topic, for fear of losing any novice readers, which irked me.

The important question is: Do the techniques work? I have been having some fun imagining my life going horribly wrong: my metro being crushed underground in an earthquake, my computer bursting into flames and blinding me—getting struck by lighting on my walk to work, all of my friends leaving me en masse, and so on. Somehow, this exercise does tend to put me in a cheerful mood. I also agree with Irvine about desire—why hedonism doesn’t produce contentment, why connoisseurship is counterproductive, why it’s wise to accustom oneself to some disappointment and discomfort.

At the very least, this book is an interesting experiment: trying to revive a dead philosophy of life for the twenty-first century. Now, to put Stoicism into practice, I’m going to imagine this review not getting any likes.

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El Valle de los Caídos

El Valle de los Caídos

Introduction

Any tourist to Berlin will soon be reminded of its ugly past. Monuments to the Nazi movement, to the Holocaust, to the Berlin Wall, and to the Stasi secret police are everywhere. This abundance of tragic memorials might be shocking at first, even depressing; but the very fact that they exist is an encouraging sign. The conflict, persecution, oppression, and violent terror that killed so many and ripped the city apart—it isn’t hidden away, but openly discussed, commemorated, taught to children, so that it is not forgotten and never repeated.

A tourist in Madrid, by comparison, can be forgiven for never guessing that there was ever a Spanish Civil War at all. The most notable monument to that bloody conflict hangs in the Reina Sofia: Picasso’s Guernica. But there are no museums, no educational centers, no memorials. Why? Perhaps it is all too recent; after all, Franco died in 1975, and he had supporters right until the end. And yet the Berlin Wall fell even more recently, in 1989, and Berlin is full of references to its famous barrier. So mere historical proximity isn’t the answer

This question is taken up in Giles Tremlett’s excellent book, Ghosts of Spain. Spaniards, he says, are still so divided on the issue of Franco that it is impossible to present the Spanish Civil War in any kind of neutral way. Any mention of the war is bound to upset one side or the other, threatening to reopen old wounds, to aggravate societal tensions that once ripped the country in half.

The only solution that seems to satisfy nearly everyone is—silence. For a long time, both sides abided by a pact of forgetting, pacto de olvido, pushing the war into the half-forgotten background, letting it collect dust in the basement. As we will see later, this is becoming less and less true recently, but is still very much the norm.

With the political situation in my own country becoming more alarming by the day, I cannot afford to be a part of this pact of forgetting. I do not think it is wise to forget, nor to remain silent, especially now. We cannot indulge in historical ignorance. Averting our eyes away from painful events only makes it more likely that they will reoccur. With this in mind, I traveled to the most imposing monument to Facist Spain, El Valle de los Caídos, to hear distant echoes of Spain’s silent past.

 

Facts and Figures

El Valle de los Caídos, the Valley of the Fallen, is situated about an hour’s drive outside the city of Madrid, in the Guadarrama mountains. It is a Catholic basilica tunnelled into a hillside, its main altar deep underground. The basilica is situated in a natural preserve that covers over 13 square kilometers, in a picturesque area among woodlands and granite boulders.

The Valley is not exactly easy to get to using public transportation. The first time I tried to visit, I took the bus line 664 from Moncloa, which stops at the edge of the Valley, leaving you with six kilometers to walk after that. But I missed the stop completely and ended up in El Escorial. The better option, I think, is to take either the 664 or the 661 to El Escorial; from there, you can take a special bus that leaves every day at 3:15 pm, and drops you off right in front of the monument. This bus returns at 5:30 to El Escorial (two hours is more than enough time to visit), and from there you can return to Madrid.

The Valley took nineteen years to complete; construction lasted from 1940 to 1959, and cost over one billion pesetas. (I don’t know how much that would be in euros.) The two principal architects were Pedro Muguruza Otaño and Diego Méndez, who consciously built the monument in a Neo-Herrerian style—a revival of the architectural style of Juan de Herrera, the architect of El Escorial. But according to the official guide book

… in large part, the Valley is a personal creation of Francisco Franco, since it was his idea to have the monument crowning the rock where the sepulchral crypt would open that contains the remains of the fallen; his is the Program of the Abbey and the Center of Social Studies, after overruling the original idea that there would be a military barracks; his the choice of the site; his the decisions about thousands of little details throughout the construction and, finally, his the choice of the various projects of the Cross and the architects.

(My translation from the Spanish edition.)

The Valley took so long and cost so much money to build because of the massive engineering challenge of building it. The mountain had to be hollowed out, and careful calculations had to be made regarding the vertical and lateral stability of the rock. The rock that was excavated to make the basilica is the same rock that paves the large terrace out front.

Aside from the feat of engineering, the Valley is impressive simply for its size. If part of its interior had not intentionally been left unconsecrated—to avoid competition with the mother church—it would be a bigger Basilica than St. Peter’s in Rome. Even more striking is the cross atop the monument, which is the largest cross in the world; it stretches to 150 meters (500 feet) in height, and is visible from a distance of 32 kilometers (20 miles). A funicular—which wasn’t working when I was there—takes visitors up to the base of the cross. Inside the cross is an elevator and a stairway, which lead up to a hatch in the top; but tourists aren’t allowed here.

The Valley is officially meant to commemorate the fallen combatants of both sides in the Spanish Civil War. On the opposite side of the mountain from the basilica is a Benedictine Abbey, where the monks hold a perpetual mass to the dead. (I’m not sure if this abbey can be visited.) Interred somewhere within the complex—I think in chambers connected to the side chapels—are the fallen soldiers. According to the Spanish-language Wikipedia page, there are 33,872 combatants buried there.

 

My Visit

When I walked off the bus, I was surprised to see snow on the ground. This was the first time I’d seen snow from up close in Spain. The atmosphere was dense with fog, a mist that seemed to suffocate all sound, leaving the surroundings in an eerie silence. There were about twenty of us on the bus, mostly younger people, mostly Spanish.

We followed the signs towards the monument, walking down a simple road, passing a café, towards a large hill that loomed overhead; its top was totally shrouded in fog. The scene gave me a sense of foreboding—the jagged rocks jutting from the hillside, the pine trees laden with snow, the opaque air, the absence of sound. The landscape seemed to be whispering an unintelligible something.

I walked on, and suddenly a form emerged through the fog: a concrete arch, about thirty feet high. This was the front of the monument. Soon the path opened up into a large empty space, a flat terrace covered with snow. I walked into the middle of this terrace, my feet scrunching in the snow, leaving a lonely trail of footprints. From there I could see the monument’s façade. A semicircular row of arches curved around me in a massive embrace. In the middle was the door, and above that a pietá, or lamentation, showing the Virgin Mary bent down over the dead Christ’s body.

There was something cold and sterile about those concrete arches, lifelessly repeating in perfect order like a row of tombstones in a military cemetery. They impressed at first, but had nothing behind them: doorways leading nowhere, meaning nothing. The dreary grey of concrete was only drearier in the fog. I moved towards the door and looked up at the statue. The Virgin looked so absolutely alone out here in the wilderness, up on the mountain amid the rocks and snow: petrified grief, forever mourning.

I passed through the door, decorated with bas reliefs of the Life of Christ, and went inside. This was the basilica, built in the mountain’s belly. A long tunnel stretched out before me, dimly lit. I could hear the soft mechanical hum of ventilation. Footsteps and conversation softly echoed in the cavernous space. A sign on the wall told me to be silent, for I was entering a “sacred place.”

Through another doorway, and I was standing in another tunnel, this one much larger. In the hallway, yellow bulbs glowed like torches; their light was reflected on the polished surface of the floor, making every surface shimmer with a pallid glimmer. I was deep in the earth now, buried under a mountain of rock, far from the sun’s rays and the cool breeze.

Along the walls, tapestries were hung. I looked and saw scenes of chaos: warriors on horseback attacking crowds, multi-headed hydras trampling people underfoot, angels with swords held aloft, fire and smoke and rays of light, battles and beatific visions, and always God, enshrined with light, watching from above. This was the apocalypse, depicted in eight sequential images along the hallway: the Antichrist, the four horsemen, the beast, and the final judgment. In small nooks, underneath giant bas reliefs, altars hung from the walls, telling the story of the Virgin Mary: the annunciation, the visitation, the adoration of the Magi.

My phone was in my hand and I was busy taking pictures, when a woman dressed in black walked by and yelled “No fotos, caballero.” I continued on, pausing here and there to examine a tapestry and an altar, but feeling somehow distracted, maybe even drained. There was something oppressive about the space. Like the façade outside, this hallway seemed sterile, lifeless, inhuman. The perfect symmetry of the decoration—the tapestries and altars arranged in exactly regular intervals, opposite one other, repeating and repeating—and the mathematical precision of every line and angle: there was no warmth in it, no life, only calculation and design.

I ascended a staircase, and found myself among rows of pews. Overhead, on platforms along the walls, were four statues of shrouded figures. Before me was the main altar. Christ hung from a crucifix made from tree trunks, staring up at the ceiling in merciful agony. Now I stared at the ceiling, too, as I stepped into the center of the basilica.

Over me was an enormous dome, golden and flooded with light. It was magnificent. Christ sat enthroned in the center, by far the largest figure, while dozens of believers ascended up towards him in a mountain of men and women. I walked around the circular space, agape at the sight, slowly making my way to where I began. Then I walked around again, this time pausing to investigate the small chapels on either side. They were dedicated to “the fallen.” In one chapel, a man was kneeling in prayer. Who was he? What was he praying for?

In my third pass around the space, I noticed something on the ground. I approached and saw these words written on a concrete slab: Francisco Franco. So this was it; this was the dictator’s tomb. I paused for a long while and stared down at the grave. Here he was, the man who kept Spain under his boot for forty long years. And what was he now? A pile of dust underneath a concrete slab. But he was not forgotten. A bouquet of white and red flowers sat above his name, neatly arranged. The flowers looked fresh. Who left them here? And why?

As I stood there, looking down at the grave, a strange feeling began to take hold of me. An icy hand gripped my insides and twisted; my knees felt weak; sweat ran down my back. Was this a dream? Suddenly a sound snapped me out of the trance. “¡NO FOTOS!” yelled the woman in black at a tourist; and her words, carried by her strong voice, filled up the space and broke, for a moment, the suffocating silence.

I walked around the room once more, and then I fled—walking through the tunnel, through the door, and back into the open air. I went down the front stairs and into the courtyard. In a corner, someone had built a snowman. The poor fellow was already starting to melt. It was the best thing I’d seen all day.

I turned to look at the monument once again. The fog had receded somewhat, giving me a better view of the mountainside. Up above, breaking through the mist like a ship pushing through stormy waves, was the cross. It was just an outline, a faint silhouette in the semi-darkness, standing far up above everything in the surroundings.

img_7141_fotor

I came to the Valley of the Fallen to see a monument to fascism—to the malignant strain of Spanish nationalism that had allied itself with Catholicism and controlled the country for so long. But what I found instead was a monument to human vanity. It was vanity that had cleared away this terrace and had designed this façade; it was vanity that had tunneled into the earth and had elevated this enormous cross; it was vanity that had tried to overpower nature and turn this mountain into a monument to human glory.

It was human vanity—vain in its intentions, vain in its fruits. It was human vanity, spurred by that eternal illusion of earthly power: immortality. But all stone cracks, and all metal rusts, and everything human turns to dust. Nothing of this world will last, not wealth, not glory, not power. For all its permanence, this stone sarcophagus might as well be that snowman, melting in the sun.

 

Controversy

The third-most visited monument under the direction of the Patrimonio Nacional, the Valley is undoubtedly the most controversial. Indeed, how can it not be? Whatever Franco may have said or thought about its ostensible purpose—commemorating both sides of the war indifferently—the Valley is an obvious monument to Spanish Fascism: nationalistic, Roman Catholic, Falangist, megalomaniac.

Added to this is the uncomfortable fact that part of the labor that went into the Valley’s construction was done by Spanish prisoners of war of the defeated side. Granted, from what I can find, it seems that these prisoners constituted a rather small percentage of the workforce; what is more, the labor was voluntary and allowed prisoners to commute their sentences. Nevertheless, the thought that Republican soldiers contributed their sweat and toil to a monument celebrating their defeat, can’t help but inspire discomfort.

This is not to mention Franco’s tomb. Francisco Franco is the only person interred in the Valley who didn’t die in the Civil War. What is more, for such a widely despised figure, he is given quite an honorable burial: right in the center of the Basilica, still carefully adorned with flowers. There are many who think his remains should be removed, and others who think they should at least be moved to the mausoleum on an equal footing with the rest of the deceased. The Right counters that this gesture would be pointless, purely symbolic, and would needlessly disturb the populace. So his remains remain.

I should also mention that the other twentieth-century, right-wing dictator of Spain, José Antonio Primo de Rivera, is buried in the center of the Basilica, too. Unlike Franco, he did die in the Civil War; but this does not explain why his tomb is honored above the others.

In his book, Ghosts of Spain, Tremlett describes a Falangist rally that he witnessed inside the Mausoleum. The flag and symbol of Franco’s party were proudly waved, and Franco’s daughter was even in attendance. These rallies were formally outlawed in 2007, as part of the Historical Memory Law. In 2009 and 2010, when Spain was in control of the socialist party, the monument was closed several times. This was ostensibly for safety reasons, though the Right saw it as a sign of suppression. When the socialists were voted out of power in 2011, masses resumed in the Basilica.

The most pressing question, it seems to me, is what should be done with the monument? At present, the Valley of the Fallen is presented as just another historic Catholic Basilica, like El Escorial, with informational plaques about its artwork and design. A visitor, totally innocent of Spanish history, can conceivably visit the monument and never guess that it was connected with a Fascist government, and have no inkling of the controversy that now surrounds it. I think this is not an acceptable situation.

In 2011, an “expert commission” was formed under the socialist government to give advice on the future of the monument. They proposed setting up an interpretive center, to explain to visitors why it exists. They also suggested that remains of the soldiers be identified, and their names inscribed on the terrace outside, and that Franco’s remains should be removed completely. These seem like sensible and good suggestions to me, but the conservative government, upon their ascension to power, announced that they had no intention of following them.

I think this situation needs to change, and soon. As one of my students said, if you see the monument with “non-political eyes,” it is a beautiful and astonishing work. But there is no separating the Valley from its politics; and any attempt to do so is itself a political act—one that tacitly approves of what the monument stands for. History can’t be swept under the rug, especially now; it must be confronted, interpreted, understood, and taught. Reframing the Valley will be a challenge, but it is also an opportunity for Spain to come to grips with its past.

Afterthought

I went to the Valley, in part, to gain perspective on my own country. What I found troubled me. Surprisingly, it was not the monument’s political ideals, profoundly conservative, that did so; nor was it the religious element. As I hinted above, the most disturbing part of the Valley, for me, was the megalomania that inspired its creation.

The impulse to erect a giant cross on top of a mountain and to carve out the world’s biggest basilica underground strikes me as the same impulse, in different form, as the one that spurs people to fight about their inauguration audience size or to constantly boast about their wealth and intelligence. It is the urge to be admired, to demonstrate power, to dominate others. This urge does not seem to me primarily political, but psychological, perhaps even primal.

It is amazing to see how the petty insecurities and lusts of the powerful are translated into physical form—into the Valley of the Fallen, or into Trump’s Tower. What do these constructions tell us about tyranny?

To me, it seems that the real danger is not, and has never been, an ideology, however much I find some ideologies disgusting. The real danger is the ascension to power of a certain type of person, usually a man: self-aggrandizing, bullying, egotistical, and ruthless. A man who is afraid of what he doesn’t understand, who sees everything through the lens of his own sensitive self, who regards all agreement as a sign of submission and all disagreement as an impudent challenge to be squashed.

Such men can do, and have done, lasting harm to democracy. The Valley of the Fallen is a monument to this fact, one that we should keep in mind.

Review: History of Western Music

Review: History of Western Music

A History of Western MusicA History of Western Music by Donald Jay Grout

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The audience for “serious” music—art music of a certain complexity that requires some effort to understand—has never been more than a small fraction of the population.

What seems like a long time ago, I worked in a university music department as a professor’s office assistant. At the time, I was trying to improve my meager understanding of art history by reading E.H. Gombrich’s excellent Story of Art. Seeing art as an integral part of civilized society, in the context of historical change—rather than as decontextualized globs of color on canvass—really helped me to appreciate it in a way I could not before; and I wondered if the same might not be possible with music.

One day I asked my boss if there was a book similar to Gombrich’s about music, and he responded with one word: “Grout.” Finally I’ve gotten around to following up his recommendation.

A History of Western Music is the standard music history textbook in use on college campuses, at least in the United States. Its first edition was written by Donald Jay Grout; later editions were revised, first by Claude V. Palisca, and then by J. Peter Burkholder. I bought the fifth edition, mainly because it was cheap. Between the previous edition and this one, Palisca had entirely rewritten the book, removing the last remaining traces of Grout’s prose. So in this review I’ll being talking about Palisca.

Any author of a general music history textbook deserves some sympathy. First, it is proverbially difficult to write about music. The poor writer is forced to choose between a vague string of adjectives, metaphors, and images, discussing the music’s subjective effects; or he can resort to the technical language of music analysis, which at least allows him to be precise and objective, but at the cost of being inaccessible to music newbies.

Somewhere between these two extremes is the narrow path that Palisca tries to tread, sometimes precariously—veering too much in one direction, and then too much in the other—but for the most part ably. Even so, this middle path carries its own cost: dryness. Since Palisca can neither describe his own tastes and aesthetic responses, nor make any incisive analyses with music theory, he is forced to be a somewhat unexciting guide—the fate of most textbook writers.

The other major challenge is compression. How do you fit 2,000 years of music history into 800 pages? How do you give a decent overview of medieval plainchant, Italian opera, German romanticism, and American minimalism, while also providing the names, biographies, and accomplishments of the major composers, as well as integrating the relevant cultural history—all in enough time to teach it in two semesters? The obvious answer is that you can’t, and Palisca doesn’t. There is simply too much material to do justice to it all. But he does succeed in giving his reader a generous spoonful of all the main dishes.

If I measure this book by my own progress, I must deem it a success. Beforehand, I had only a scattered and incidental knowledge of the major composers. I could rattle off a few names, but I didn’t know who influenced whom, who lived when, who was part of what movement; and I could only name about two composers who lived before J.S. Bach. Now, not only do I feel much more knowledgeable, but the chronological framework will make it easier to learn more.

One of my most pleasant discoveries was the wealth of wonderful music that was written before J.S. Bach even took his first breath, in 1685. There was Leonin and Perotín, Guillaume de Mauchaut, Guillaume Dufay, John Dunstable, Henry Purcell, Claudio Monteverdi, and Arcangelo Corelli, to name just a few of my favorites. Most surprising for me was how much I enjoy sacred music. Like the shadowy interior of a gothic cathedral, the music is tranquil, meditative, and otherwordly—pregnant with tragedy and hope.

So this book does its job. What prevents it from being as great as, say, E.H. Gombrich’s history of art, Kenneth Clarke’s history of civilization, or Bertrand Russell’s history of philosophy, is the lack of authorial personality. In all three of those works, the author is not afraid to opine and speculate. Palisca, by contrast, rarely offers his own judgment, and does not venture to make any theories. His writing is neutral and plain, simply serving up information. There is nothing wrong with this, of course; and many would think that it’s the correct approach. But I think that when you’re dealing with an art form, it is neither possible nor even desirable to be “objective.” Gombrich, Clarke, and Russell are experts, and thus have refined taste. Seeing how they think about their subject, and how they feel about it, is as much an education as the information they present.

As I went through this book, I downloaded and listened to most of the representative pieces discussed in each chapter. I ended up with a long playlist (which you can see here), which I replayed over the course of few weeks before writing this review. I recommend that any curious listener do the same. Several historical trends seem apparent when you do this.

First is the obvious rise of instrumental music, as music shifts from purely vocal, to vocal with instrumental accompaniment, to mainly instrumental. The second is the rise in the prestige associated with secular music, and the attendant fall in the importance of sacred music. The composer becomes increasingly important as time goes on, exerting ever more control over the performance, while the performer becomes merely an executor rather than a collaborator. With many notable exceptions, art music also seems to grow in harmonic and rhythmic complexity, at least in the time since Haydn and Mozart, until the traditional rules of harmony break down entirely.

Something strange happens in the twentieth century, especially in the second half. Music—along with literature and art—seems to split into a dichotomy: erudite and inaccessible, and popular and oversimplified. The first camp, represented most perfectly, perhaps, by Milton Babbitt, write music that does not make sense to the untrained human ear, while popular songwriters make catchy tunes with little depth. This division seems to correspond to sources of income: the university patronizes experimental music; while popular music is obviously commercial. To me it seems that neither of these extremes are desirable, but I don’t know a way out of this dilemma.

Now that I know more about European history than ever before, I can’t help drawing connections between composers’ styles and their cultural moment. The impish, dancing, and perfectly balanced melodies of Mozart now remind me of Voltaire’s prose, suffused with Enlightenment ideals of harmony and wit. I also mentally associate the fall of religious vocal music, and the concomitant rise of secular instrumental music, with widespread changes in attitude towards nature: Nature went from being conceived as animated by intelligence and oriented around humankind, to an impartial force, indifferent to humanity, driven only by mechanical laws.

I also wonder why so many first-rate composers—Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, and Brahms, to name only some—are from German-speaking countries? (And I might also ask why relatively few first-rate painters have arisen from these same countries.) Is this something to do with language? With the Protestant Reformation? I’m sure there are a few monographs about this, somewhere.

To bring this review back to its purported subject, I think that this book is a competent, well-researched, and intelligent overview of the history of western music. And with this rather bland statement, and with this song, I will make my final bow.

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Review: How to Live, a Life of Montaigne

Review: How to Live, a Life of Montaigne

How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an AnswerHow to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It had the perfect commercial combination: startling originality and easy classification.

With the state of the world—especially of the United States—growing more unsettling and absurd by the day, I felt a need to return to Montaigne, the sanest man in history. Luckily, I had Bakewell’s book tucked away in the event of any crisis of this kind; and I’m happy to report it did take the edge off.

How to Live is a beguiling mixture. While purportedly a biography of Montaigne, it is also, as many reviewers have noted, a biography of Montaigne’s Essays, tracking how they have been reread and reinterpreted in the centuries since their publication. This double-biography is structured as a series of answers to the question: How to live? In the hands of a less able writer, this organizational principle could easily have become a cheap, tacky gimmick; but Bakewell’s skill and taste allow the book to transcend biography into philosophy—or, at the very least, into self-help.

Bakewell herself is hardly a Montaignesque writer. Her prose is disciplined and controlled; and though she must weave philosophy, history, literary criticism, and biography into a coherent narrative, she keeps her material on a tight rein. While Montaigne serves as the “massive gravitational core” of his own essays, holding all the disparate topics together by the force of his personality, Bakewell herself is mostly absent from these pages. Instead, she gives us a loving portrait of Montaigne—the man, his times, and his book. And this was especially interesting for me, since Montaigne, despite writing reams about himself, never manages to give his readers a coherent picture of his life or his society. Bakewell’s book is thus most recommended as a compliment to Montaigne’s Essays, providing a background for Montaigne’s rambles.

Montaigne himself was interesting enough. Best-selling author; modern-day sage; dissatisfied lawyer; literary executor for his deceased friend, Étienne de la Boétie; translator of the obscure theologian, Raymond Sebond; and the reluctant mayor of Bordeaux: Montaigne wore many hats, and most of them well. He even played an important role in the negotiations and maneuverings that took place after the death of Henri III over the question of succession. Today, however, Montaigne is remembered more for his painful descriptions of his kidney stones than his political accomplishments.

The career of Montaigne’s reception was, for me, even more interesting than the story of his life. At first, he was interpreted as a later-day Stoic sage, a Seneca for the sixteenth century. In the next generation, both Pascal and Descartes didn’t like him, the former because Montaigne was too cheerful, the latter because he was too comfortable with uncertainty. The philosophes were fond of Montaigne’s secularism, though they had a very different conception of good prose. Rousseau and the romantics liked Montaigne for his praise of naturalness, his fondness for exotic customs, and his exploration of his own personality. Later, more puritanical generations chided Montaigne for his open attitude towards sex and his detached attitude toward society. Nowadays Montaigne is seen as a prophet of the postmodern, with his emphasis on shifting perspectives and the subjectivism of truth.

As far as Montaigne’s pieces of advice go, I’m happy to report that I was already putting most of them into practice. I don’t worry too much about death (no. 1), I like to travel (no. 14), and, to the best of my knowledge, I have been born (no. 3). I am particularly adept at number 4, “Read a lot, forget most of what you read, and be slow-witted,” though I’m still working on number 13, “Do something no one has done before.” Well, as much as I’d like to be original, I’m happy following in Montaigne’s footsteps; indeed, I agree with Bakewell in thinking that Montaigne’s example is more useful now than ever. I will let her have the final word:

The twenty-first century has everything to gain from a Montaignean sense of life, and, in its most troubled moments so far, it has been sorely in need of a Montaignean politics. It could use his sense of moderation, his love of sociability and courtesy, his suspension of judgment, and his subtle understanding of the psychological mechanisms involved in confrontation and conflict. It needs his conviction that no vision of heaven, no imagined Apocalypse, and no perfectionist fantasy can ever outweigh the tiniest of selves in the real world.

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Review: People of the Sierra

Review: People of the Sierra

The People of the SierraThe People of the Sierra by Julian Alfred Pitt-Rivers
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Writing is an activity which links a person with the world of formality.

Julian A. Pitt-Rivers was, in the words of his mentor E.E. Evans-Pritchard, “in every sense a son of Oxford and an Oxford anthropologist.” Julian was the descendant of an aristocratic family. His grandfather, Augustus, the pioneering archaeologist, was along with Sir Edward Taylor a founder of the anthropology department at Oxford. (The famous anthropology museum in Oxford is named after him.*) Julian’s father, whose absurdly long name I will not write—alright, fine, it is George Henry Lane-Fox Pitt-Rivers—was enormously wealthy. A vigorous anti-Semite and Eugenics proponent, George was jailed during the Second World War. Julian himself, among his other accomplishments, was tutor to the King of Iraq.

With a pedigree like that, it’s easy to see how his book became a classic in the field.

My interest in The People of the Sierra was sparked, naturally, by it being about a village in Spain. But for those with an interest in anthropology, such as myself, the book is significant independent of your specialty. This is because this book was one of the first ethnographies published about a community in Europe. True, it was a small, poor, agricultural community, and it was in a region of Europe commonly regarded as exotic, but it is Europe nonetheless. As such, the book is a landmark in the field.

The book’s classic status is due not only to its groundbreaking subject matter, however, but also to its high quality. Julian Pitt-Rivers was a true disciple of his advisor, E.E. Evans-Pritchard. Everything from the writing style to the analysis bears the traces of EP’s influence. And this is a good thing, for EP was one of the great masters of ethnography.

The central theme of Pitt-Rivers’s analysis is the contrast between the local and the national forces that shape the pueblo. In nearly every sector of life, there are two social structures at play. The first is that of the pueblo; it is self-contained. Moral rules are enforced by the community; there are certain—unwritten but universally known—appropriate ways of acting, and infractions are punished by loss of respect. The second structure is that of the state. Its authority is derived from somewhere far outside of the pueblo. Its laws are explicit, and infractions are punished with fines or jail time.

This theme is explored from a variety of different angles. One chapter, for example, explains the practice of giving members of the town nicknames. These nicknames are never used to a person’s face, and yet everybody in the village knows them. Indeed, you might know a person’s nickname without knowing their surname. Surnames are important, most of all, in dealings with the state. Thus you can see the contrast between local and national, informal and official, even in people’s names.

Tension exists in this state of affairs, because these two systems are often out of alignment. Many things are regarded as immoral which are not illegal, and vice versa. An important concept, for example, is vergüenza, shame, which is the regard that one pays to the social norms of the pueblo. To call someone a sinvergüenza is a serious insult; to be without shame is to be almost inhuman, since it puts you beyond the realm of society; it is to be a pariah. By contrast, it’s obviously not illegal to be without shame, and many of these pariahs are employed by the state as informers.

This is the book’s theme in a nutshell. For me, however, the book’s lasting value has far more to do with its style than its substance. Pitt-Rivers’s writing is remarkable more for what it excludes than for what it includes. There is not a word of jargon in these pages; a polysyllabic word is never used when a shorter one will do; sentences are crisp and short; there is no pretentious name-dropping, no unnecessary citations.

The book itself is brief, and yet Pitt-Rivers’s writing is so economical that he manages to give a full-blooded picture of the community. The first two sentences give an adequate taste of what follows: “This book is about a Spanish town. More precisely, it examines the social structure of a rural community in the mountains of southern Spain.”

Why social scientists no longer write like this, I cannot say. So read this, if only to remember a time when clear, strong English was used in anthropology.

__________________
*Thanks to Wastrel for bringing this to my attention.

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Review: People of the Plain

Review: People of the Plain

The People of the PlainThe People of the Plain by David D. Gilmore

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Since the day of this altercation they have not communicated; however, each serves as an excellent source of gossip about the other.

What drew me to this book was not only its subject—a village in Spain—but its author.

David D. Gilmore was my first anthropology professor. His classes were unforgettable. Standing over six feet tall, solidly built, he towered over the lecture hall. Professor Gilmore was the very picture of a professor. He had a preference for tweed jackets, complete with elbow patches; and his hair was equally professorial, an electrified shock of snowy white. His voice needed no amplification; it boomed throughout the space, keeping even the most sleep-deprived students semi-conscious.

What I remember most, however, was not his appearance, but his attitude. He had an understated ironic humor, and couldn’t help punctuating his classes with sardonic comments. After one of these comments, he would pause and grin very slightly. A few of the students, myself included, snickered; the majority scrunched up their brows, unsure if it was a joke. Unperturbed, Professor Gilmore then continued the class.

To my youthful eyes, this ironic sensibility seemed to pervade his entire attitude towards life. It was not only a sense of humor, but a philosophy, allowing him to maintain a sense of perspective and take nothing too seriously. I could not help concluding that studying anthropology—living abroad, in another culture, away from his native prejudices—engendered this witty sort of wisdom. By the end of the semester I had switched my major to anthropology, and Professor Gilmore was my advisor.*

I am delighted, therefore, upon reading his first book, to find that Professor Gilmore was an excellent anthropologist in addition to a striking professor.

As the title page indicates, and the rest of the pages make clear, this book is largely a response to Pitt-Rivers’s classic ethnography, The People of the Sierra. In that book, Pitt-Rivers maintained that the pueblos of Andalusia are governed by a powerful egalitarian ethos. Class is not acknowledged to exist, and friendships crosscut differences of wealth and power. Indeed, Pitt-Rivers considered all recognized forms of authority to be imposed from outside the pueblo, not arising within it.

The pueblo that Gilmore studied was quite different. Significantly larger, and situated on the plains rather than in the mountains, Gilmore’s village—he calls it Fuenmayor but it’s a pseudonym—is remarkably stratified. Three distinct social classes exist: the señoritos, the rich, landowning gentry; the mayetes, the middle class; and the jornaleros, the landless, working, migrant poor. These classes had existed for at least a hundred years, and their contours were engrained into the culture of the village.

The mutual isolation of the classes borders on absurdity. Friendships and marriages between members of different classes are nonexistent. Brother will shun brother if he “loses class.” There are three different seating sections in the movie theater, three different sections of pews in the church, and three different sections in the town cemetery. Señoritos are patriarchal, whereas jornalero women have far more power than men in the home. Señoritos are piously Catholic, while jornaleros rarely attend mass and openly scorn the church. The rich view the poor with contempt, and the poor view the rich as hateful oppressors. The mayetes, for their part, focus on keeping themselves afloat.

The picture that emerges is of a society strongly divided, almost bursting at the seams with social tensions, kept together only by the oppressive force of Franco’s regime. (The fieldwork was done in 1973.)

The book, although short, is stuffed with information and anecdotes. Gilmore is always careful to compare the opinions of his informants with objective data, including statistics of land ownership, crop growth, and church attendance. Thankfully these data are usually illustrated with field anecdotes (which are half the fun of any ethnography). I especially appreciated these, because his ironic sensibility shone through:

The mayete is also known occasionally to affect a broad-brimmed fedora hat, which for some reason the workers find indescribably hilarious. One day I appeared in a working-class tavern sporting a new straw fedora, purchased earlier in the city. After a moment of amused silence, one of the laborers shouted, ‘Hey, look at this new mayete we have here!’ Loud, prolonged laughter followed; yet my friends could not explain their merriment.

As an academic work about the anthropology of Andalusia, this book is therefore excellent: well-written, thoroughly researched, and original. But as a piece of personal nostalgia, it is priceless.

_________________

*This is how I introduced myself to Professor Gilmore. In this first class, we did a unit on monsters. One of these monsters was the Windigo, a cannibalistic beast from Algonquian folklore. I found this monster fascinating and wrote a silly poem about him. I believe these were the first two lines: “Oh, Windigo, Windigo / Beast of blue and indigo.” It was certainly not a masterpiece. Nevertheless, one day after class I showed Professor Gilmore a copy of the poem. He seemed genuinely amused. It was an auspicious beginning.

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Roaming in Rome: Ruins

Roaming in Rome: Ruins

 

It was at Rome, on the 15th of October 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the bare-footed friars were singing vespers in the temple of Jupiter, that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city first started to my mind.

—Edward Gibbon, Memoirs of My Life and Writings

This post is a continuation of a series about Rome. (See here for the introduction; here for my posts about churches; here for basilicas; here for museums; and here for the Vatican.)

By “ruins” I mean all the buildings and monuments that antedate Constantine’s death (337), and were built some time during the Roman Republic or the Roman Empire. I will say no more. The ruins of Rome need no introduction, so I won’t introduce them.

hadrians-column

Trajan’s Column

I was stressed, sweaty, tired, and running a little late. Today was my day to visit the Vatican. I needed to get to the ticket office on time, or risk losing my entry to that sacred place. The only problem was that, because I didn’t trust myself with navigating Rome’s metro, especially not when so much was at stake, I opted to walk; and this meant over an hour of trekking, at full speed, on a humid sunny day, as I followed my phone—which occasionally froze and required me to restart the map program—through the unfamiliar city.

Nothing could stop me or slow me down: not the lure of food, not the heat of the sun, not the ambling tourists that crowded the sidewalks. The only thing that could halt me steps was, as it turned out, Trajan’s Column.

I had first seen this monument in art history class; even now I can vividly remember how awed and impressed I was at the craftsmanship displayed by the Romans in this work. The column, I should explain, was made to celebrate the military victories of Trajan. It stands 30 meters (98 feet) tall, and even higher if you include the pedestal. Twisting along this length, covering the entire surface, is a series of bas reliefs depicting Trajan’s military campaigns. The detail is fine and exquisite: hundreds and hundreds of figures, legionaries, barbarians, and beasts of burden, in all varieties of poses and positions, marching and fighting up and down the column. We see Trajan laying siege, crossing rivers, celebrating victory; trumpeters blowing their horns, animals being led to the sacrifice, barbarians being tortured and trampled underfoot.

hadrians-column-close

I must immediately admit, however, that all this detail was mostly invisible to me. You see, the column now sits in a parking lot—quite forlornly, I think—and it isn’t possible to get close enough to really appreciate the bas relief. It would be better if there were some sort of scaffold surrounding the column. As it stands now, the tourist must gape up from a distance.

There is a platform on the top, which can be reached by climbing up the steps inside the column. Originally the work was topped with a statue of an eagle, later replaced by a statue of Trajan himself. This statue was, in turn, later replaced by a statue of St. Peter during the Renaissance. Nowadays the Fords and Hondas that surround the column add an extra contemporary flavor. Thus time and changing fashions conspire to render the old glory of the Roman emperor obsolete and ridiculous. And yet, even now, there is no way to look upon Trajan’s Column without imagining that same emperor standing on the top, looking proudly out at his city and his empire, the ruler and conqueror of all within view and beyond the horizon in every direction.

 

pantheon-outside

The Pantheon

I turned a corner, and there it was: the Pantheon. I wasn’t even looking for it; I had been searching for the Trevi Fountain. Only in Rome can you unintentionally stumble upon one of the most famous buildings in the world.

The exterior of the building is striking enough. In front is a portico, supported by eight Corinthian columns. Sticking out behind this portico is a somewhat bulbous mass, a circular structure made of plain, drab concrete. The surface is discolored from centuries of rain, leaving ugly water stains, and is cheerlessly grey, even in the bright summer sun of Rome. But contained within this somewhat unpromising exterior is one of the most beautiful spaces in history.

The Pantheon’s name, which means “all the gods,” reveals its original function as a temple. (I read on the Wikipedia, however, that there is some doubt about whether all the Olympian gods were actually worshipped there.) It was built during the reign of Hadrian, in about 120 CE, and is one of the best-preserved buildings from ancient Rome. Indeed, it seems hardly fitting to include the Pantheon in my post on “ruins,” since it is a fully functioning building.

The building was mobbed when I arrived. A line extended out the door; the surrounding area was packed with people; and inside there was hardly an inch of elbow room. This is unsurprising, considering that the ancient temple is right in the center of Rome, free to visit, and one of the most famous edifices in the world.

Since the beginning of the medieval period, the Pantheon has been used as a Christian church. It was this re-consecration and repurposing that saved the building from oblivion. (The official name is the Church of St. Mary and the Martyrs.) There is an altar at the far end of the building; and statues of Mary and various Saints stand guard around the perimeter of the building. The final effect is somewhat like standing in the Mezquita in Cordova: the Christian trapping look out of place in building whose architectural language is so different from a usual church.

pantheon-roof

The real highlight of the Pantheon is its ceiling. Even today, there is no unreinforced concrete dome larger than the Pantheon’s. It is a magnificent architectural feat. To me it scarcely seems believable that the Romans, without computers or calculators or even protractors, could have designed and executed something so geometrically precise. The coffering is so clean and regular that it looks digital.

pantheon-whole

In the center of this dome is an oculus, or opening, that lets sunlight pour into the building. A bright, yellow spot of the sun’s rays illuminates the interior like a searchlight, traveling around the space as the sun moves in the sky. On the floor below this opening are drains, so that the building doesn’t flood in the rain.

I sat down on one of the pews facing the altar, and stared up at the magnificent ceiling, suspended so enchantingly above me. This temple had been built for many gods, and had been re-dedicated to One; but as I sat there, it was easy to see what that the Pantheon was really consecrating: the force of human genius.

titus-sunsetTriumphal Arches

The architecture of Rome speaks the language of power. It has been imitated around the world, in ancient and modern times, to symbolize dominance and military might.

You can see this in the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, or the Porte Saint-Denise in the same city; you can see this in Madrid, with the Puerta de Alcalá; you can see this in London, with the Wellington Arch; you can see this in New York City, with the Washington Square Arch; and you can see this most clearly, perhaps, in Berlin, with the Reichstag Building and its neoclassical portico, the towering Berlin Victory Column inspired by Trajan’s Column, and the Brandenburg Gate, one of so many triumphal arches to be inspired by Roman examples.

One of the earlier and most influential of these Roman arches is that of Titus, located just outside the Roman Forum, on the famous Via Sacra. Built in the first century CE, it has only one arch. The inside of this arch is coffered with floral motifs. On the inner walls, on both sides, are reliefs commemorating the victories of Titus, the emperor Domitian’s older brother. I remembered from my art history class that this arch is notable for having one of the earliest depictions of a Menorah, which is pictured in the frieze celebrating Titus’s conquest of Jerusalem.

minorah

Larger and grander is the arch of Septimius Severus, which is in the Roman Forum itself. This was completed in 203 CE, and dedicated to the military victories of Septimus Severus and his sons against the Parthians. It has three arches—a large one in the center, and two smaller ones flanking it—and its façades are covered with reliefs depicting military campaigns. One of Septimius Severus’s sons, Caracalla, eventually had his brother Geta assassinated; and Geta’s name and image were removed from all monuments.

septimus-arch

The largest of the three triumphal arches is the Arch of Constantine, completed in 315. This arch is situated between the Coliseum and the Roman Forum; originally it spanned the Via triumphalis, the road that generals and emperors traveled when they entered the city in triumph. It is an interesting stylistic jumble, since it was built out of spolia, or the remains of earlier pieces, which leads to juxtapositions of artistic periods. I can’t help but seeing this gesture—appropriating Rome’s glorious past—as a sign of the empire’s decadence. Indeed, Constantine’s arch, while the largest, was also the last triumphal arch built in Rome.

constantine-arch

The Palatine Hill

The Palatine Hill, Roman Forum, and Colosseum are included on the same ticket. This is important to know, since it makes buying your ticket much more convenient. Most people buy their tickets at the Colosseum ticket office, which can mean quite a long wait on line. You might have better luck doing as I did, and buying your tickets at the Palatine Hill ticket office, on Via San Gregorio 30. There wasn’t a single person ahead of me; in three minutes I had my tickets and was strolling around the Palatine Hill. And this was on a Saturday!

The Palatine Hill is one of the Seven Hills of Rome; and of these seven it is the most central. According to legend, this hill was where the she-wolf, Lupa, nurtured the abandoned Romulus and Remus, and where Romulus, after killing his brother in a fit of pique, decided to found the city that bears his name. The less-mythological origins of this hill are also interesting; archaeologists have discovered settlements dating back to the Bronze Age, the remains of which you can see displayed in the Palatine Museum. Both in fable and in fact, then, the Palatine Hill is at the heart of Rome’s history.

As you stroll up the hill, a jumble of sun-baked brick strikes your eye. Arches tower over arches, in a rolling, chaotic mass of rusty red. I could not guess what any of these skeletal structures had been used for. I was first reminded of the abandoned Yonkers Power Plant, near my home in Sleepy Hollow, a similarly empty pile of brick. Yet that ruin, far younger, is somewhat ghoulish; it still echoes with the sounds of departed life. These bones of Rome had been washed by the rain of a thousand seasons, and bleached by the sun of a thousand summers. They were dead and sterile; they seemed to be part of the landscape, growing from the soil, rather than anything put there by people.

palatine-hill

But of course people did build these structures—very powerful people. These ruins are, most of them, the remains of palace complexes of erstwhile emperors; the biggest of these is the Flavian Palace (Domus Flavia), which owes its ultimate form to Septimius Severus, but there are also temples and aristocratic houses from the Republican period. Another notable structure is the one known as the Stadium of Domitian, which looks like a hippodrome for chariot races, except that it is obviously too small to fulfill that purpose. This has led to some speculation as to its function; the most popular theory is that it was the emperor’s private gardens.

angel-wings
Marble wings in the Palatine Hill Museum

Because there were so many different buildings, from different eras, jutting up against one another and superimposed on top of one another, it was difficult for me to get a sense of what it used to look like by walking around the ruins. Instead, I was given a sense of time, of lost time; a feel for the lapsed years that disappeared into an unknown past. So many generations had come and gone on this hill, dismantling, repurposing, renovating, and expanding the work of their predecessors. These were people like me, with their own ambitions and ideologies, their own perspectives; and some were the most powerful men of their time. And now look what is left.

retaining-walls
Palatine Hill retaining walls

Aside from its ruins, the Palatine Hill is worth visiting simply for the view. Standing atop of the hill, surrounded by the remains of an ancient empire, you can see modern Rome stretch out before you. St. Peter’s stands proudly in the distance; to one side is the Circus Maximus; and standing above the enormous retaining walls, which extended the hill’s scope to accommodate the ever-growing imperial palace, you can see the whole Roman Forum.

img_4946

The only thing, besides the burning Roman sun, that detracted from my visit were the art installations set up around the site. Take, for example, Mark Lulic’s piece, The Death of the Monument. This is just a large sign that says “Death of the Monument” in bright red letters. Now, in my opinion this piece obviously has no aesthetic merit, since it looks like an unimaginative advertisement. Its only purpose, then, can be conceptual. And as one might expect, accompanying this work is an explanatory caption, written in pretentious art jargon. I will quote an example:

Persuasive and seducing like in the best mass communication marketing tradition, the admonition transforms into an illogical presence of the artwork, which is a monumental negation of itself. The visual impact conveyed through a specialized and unconscious mechanism acquires instinctively a conceptual form, leading us to raise some questions: doesn’t the death of the monument coincide with its birth?

And so on in the same vein.

I find this disturbing on many levels. First, I am against any work of art that lacks both aesthetic and intellectual interest, and requires a condescending and badly written plaque in order to explain the art to the viewer. Good art should never need to be explained, only experienced. This is putting aside the sacrilege of putting such mediocre art in the middle of the Palatine Hill, turning a profound historical visit into a trip to a mediocre art gallery. The artist’s bad taste has been compounded by the bad taste of whoever let him install his art here. And this piece is only one example of many that pollute the Palatine Hill. Such art is a depressing index of our current cultural moment.

roman-forum

The Roman Forum

The Roman Forum (Forum Romanum) sits in a valley underneath the Palatine Hill. This forum was, for many hundreds of years, the heart of Rome; it was a center of commerce, trade, worship, and political power. Now it is center of tourism.

Looking down from that hill, you can see the Forum in its entirety. What you see is a jumble of columns with no roof to support, domes hanging over open air, fragmentary walls slowly crumbling to dust, the foundations of demolished buildings, and doorways leading nowhere; you see arches celebrating long-dead emperors, fountains sacred to long-dead heroes, temples dedicated to long-dead gods: the ruins of an entire civilization.

temple-of-castor-and-pollux

It would take many thousands of words to describe all of these ruins individually. I will only mention a few in passing. The Temple of Castor and Pollux, built around 500 BCE, is now little more than three towering Corinthian columns supporting the smallest bit of roof. The Temple of Saturn, built about the same time, is somewhat more complete, still possessing all of its front portico; in the old temple building, now long-gone, the Romans used to keep the official scales for weighing precious metals. The old Palace of the Vestal Virgins—where virgins lived a life of solitude, tending a sacred flame—has been lost; but several statues of the blessed women still grace the forum.

Perhaps the most impressive ruin, at least for sheer size, is the Basilica of Maxentius. This was completed during the reign of Constantine. Now only three of the basilica’s three concrete barrel vaults, coffered to save weight, remain standing. Rising to 39 meters (130 feet), it was the largest building in the Roman Forum; even now it is so large that it looks scarcely out of place amid the modern city. How on earth Romans managed to construct a building so large, with little internal support, is beyond my feeble understanding and imagination.

The most complete building in the Roman Forum might be Santa Maria Antiqua. Built in the 5th century, this is the oldest Christian monument in the forum, and one of the most important examples of early Christian art. The reason it has been so well-preserved is because an earthquake buried the church in the 9th century, and it stayed sealed under the rocks for over 1,000 years, until finally it was re-opened in the 20th century. This makes the church something of an unintentional time-capsule. What was revealed, upon its re-discovery, was a wonderful assortment of frescoes, their vivid colors preserved by the sterile air. These frescoes are especially valuable, since they provide a window into the pre-iconoclastic period of Christian art.

santa-maria-antiqua

For my part, although I am ignorant as to their scholarly importance, I could not but be moved by these ancient, decaying portraits of angels and saints. In the dim light and dusky air, amid the faded ink and chipped plaster, the serene eyes of the first Christians stared back at me from across centuries—a triumphant victory, however temporary, against Time’s sharp tooth.

 

colosseum-entire

The Colosseum

Finally it was time to visit the last ruin. Blinking in the hot sun, overwhelmed by all I had seen—far too much to take in for one day—I walked away from the forum and towards the most famous building in Rome. I still remember seeing the Colosseum in pictures in my sixth grade history class. I remember learning about the gladiators, the battles between wild animals and condemned prisoners, the executions of Christians, the mock-naval battles. Now I was finally here.

Purists will insist on calling it the Flavian Amphitheater. This was its original name, which it took from the name of the dynasty who built it. Construction began in 72 under Vespasian, and was completed in 80 by Titus; then Domitian, also a Flavian emperor, couldn’t resist making a few modifications of his own. It is known as the Colosseum—or so the theory goes—because of the colossal statue of Nero that used to stand nearby. (According to Wiki, this statue was 30 meters, or 100 feet, tall. Now no trace of it remains, save its base. How something like that disappears isn’t easy to fathom.)

colosseum-and-constantine

The Colosseum is the biggest amphitheater ever built. It could hold somewhere between 50,000 and 80,000 people. Its tall outer walls reach a height of 48 meters (157 feet). Elliptical rather than perfectly circular, it is 189 meters (615 feet) long and 156 meters (510 feet) wide; its perimeter stretches to about 550 meters (1,800 feet).

But these numbers seem pale and lifeless compared to the experience of seeing it with your own eyes. It is a mammoth structure. As you stand on the hillside facing its outer walls, the building fills up your entire field of vision. Its walls tower above you, dwarfing the hundreds of people scurrying about its edges. Circumambulating the building takes five long minutes. The tall outer wall only extends about halfway round the structure; where it has collapsed, you can see the rows of interior arches that supported the many rows of seats inside. The entire area around the Colosseum is packed with tourists, tour guides, and vendors. Selfie sticks jut out left and right; groups pose for photo after photo; aggressive guides try to sell you their services.

Even though I had a ticket, I had to wait a few minutes on a long line. The security was pretty tight; everyone had to scuttle through a pair of overworked metal detectors. When you are finally inside, the most striking thing is the place’s familiarity. I had already seen so many photos of the place that every curve of its outline was already known to me. This happens with every iconic monument. It takes an act of will to see the place as it really is, rather than as a cultural symbol. I tried to blink away my preconceptions, to see the Colosseum afresh, as a hunk of stones laden with history; but so many notions had already molded my reaction that I felt strangely disconnected.

colosseum-interior

There is nothing especially beautiful about the Colosseum’s interior. Every part of the building is the same shade of brown; and its partially collapsed state makes it seem like a rolling mass of dun-colored stones in some lonely desert. The building is so filled with windows and arches that it is practically transparent; what remains today are just the building’s bones, its vital organs having long been reduced to dust. Today there are two levels available to visitors, though in the past there must have been at least four (and many more rows of seats). As I walked in the covered corridors that circumscribe the amphitheater, I was reminded when I was in Madrid’s bull ring, Las Ventas: and in that moment I could dimly imagine how it must have felt to be a Roman bustling through a crowd, trying to find his seat, so he could watch a bloody spectacle.

Beautiful or not, the building is grand and impressive. Merely as a feat of engineering, it is enough to inspire awe. Putting aside its massive size and its thoughtful organization, allowing visitors quick exit and entry, the Colosseum also boasted a system, called the hypogeum, of trap-doors and hidden chambers that allowed gladiators and animals to enter the ring from many different spots. What remains of this elaborate system can be seen in the amphitheater’s arena.

The now-absent floor of the Colosseum was made of wood and covered with sand. The hypogeum was below this, which consisted of walls, cages, and tunnels, two levels deep. Complex pulleys, and even hydraulic equipment, were used to haul men and animals onto the stage. Animals as big as elephants could be introduced this way. Tunnels also connected the Colosseum with nearby stables and gladiator barracks, allowing the “performers” to enter into the arena unseen by the crowd. Before this hypogeum was built, the arena could be flooded with water to have mock-naval battles.

The ultimate irony of the Colosseum is, of course, that something so grand and inspiring, the result of so much knowledge and work, could be used for such barbarous purposes. Slaves condemned to kill other slaves, exotic animals brought to be butchered, prisoners mauled by lions en masse. This is only another example of the sad human truth, that our greatest gifts and capabilities, our art and our technology, can be employed in the service of the darkest side of our nature. This is why we must focus our education on ends as well as means.

 

cover-photo

Afterthought

Edward Gibbon decided to write his magisterial history of Rome’s decline and fall after seeing her ruins. Upon witnessing these remains of a long-dead empire, the contemporary visitor cannot help but ask the same question as did Gibbon: how did such a powerful civilization collapse and fail? How is it possible that the people who built the Pantheon and who decorated Trajan’s column could vanish?

History teaches few lessons more clearly than this: that all human order requires constant reinforcement, or it will fall into disorder. Gibbon said much the same thing when he reminded us that “all that is human must retrograde if it does not advance.” Rome’s progress from the proud conqueror who erected arches celebrating her victories, to the aging empire of Constantine that looked backward to Rome’s glory days, to the sack of Rome by Alaric in 410; her progress from the glorious marble wings you can see in the Palatine Hill Museum, to the sad faces that stare back at you from the walls of Santa Maria Antiqua; her progress from the engineers who could create the concrete dome of the Pantheon, to the middle ages when the secret of making concrete had been lost: What does all this mean for us? Are we staring into our past, or our future?

And yet, did Rome really fall? Here I am, writing in a Latinized language, in a European country whose laws and institutions were influenced by Rome’s, and whose language, Spanish, grew directly out of Rome’s. Here I am in Spain, one of the many countries of the European Union, an effort to unite the continent largely inspired by Rome’s example. Order, when neglected, may fall into disorder; and perhaps it always does. But the ideal of order persists: it persists in the memories of men and women, it persists in books and the spoken word, and it persists in monumental ruins—in broken columns, crumbling amphitheaters, and cracked foundations—that serve as a beacon for future generations.