The Old Croton Aqueduct trail runs behind my house, and I’ve been walking along its tree-shaded way for well over a decade now. As a kid, I thought “aqueduct” was just a name, until my mom told me that, buried underneath the pebbly ground, there is a tunnel that used to carry water to New York City from Croton, a few dozen miles north. Even so, it never occurred to me to learn about the aqueduct. This a striking but common phenomenon: we travel to foreign cities and go on tours, but neglect the history in front of our eyes. It wasn’t until I began traveling abroad that I started to realize the scale and significance of the old aqueduct, and set myself to investigate it.
The first step was to walk it. The original aqueduct ran about 40 miles from the Croton Reservoir down to the Receiving Reservoir (now the Great Lawn in Central Park), and further along to the Distributing Reservoir in Midtown Manhattan (which is now the Main Branch of the New York Public Library; parts of the old reservoir are preserved in the building’s basement). After the reservoir was phased out of service in the 1960s, a large chunk of the land—26.2 miles of trail, to be exact—was donated to New York State, to form a historic park that stretches from Croton, through Ossining, Scarborough, Tarrytown, Irvington, Dobbs Ferry, all the way past Yonkers to Van Cortland Park in the Bronx. I have walked most of this, first going south to Yonkers and then north to Croton. If you walk all it you can get a certificate from the Friends of the Old Croton Aqueduct.
For most of the way, the Old Croton Aqueduct is a dirt or grass path, about ten feet wide or narrower, with a well-worn channel in the middle. It goes through some historic areas, taking the walker alongside the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, through the park of Lyndhurst (former residence of Jay Gould, railroad baron), and near Sunnyside (former residence of Washington Irving), as well as into the wonderful Rockwood Park. The trail is not always so scenic; sometimes you are basically walking through people’s backyards, and there are a few intervals where you have to exit the trail and walk through a neighborhood to get to the next stretch.
The walker will notice a few different structures along the way. The most common are the ventilators, which are hollow stone cylinders with a shaft that allowed fresh air to reach the water below. I believe these were built to prevent pressure from building up inside the tunnel. Less frequent are the weirs, square stone buildings with metal gates inside, that could be dropped like a guillotine to divert the water in case repairs were needed (and since the growing population of New York put heavy strain on the aqueduct, they frequently were). In this way, the entire aqueduct could be drained in two hours. These weirs are situated above rivers, where the waters could be redirected. There is one above the Pocantico River in Sleepy Hollow, another in Ossining over the Sing Sing Kill, and another in the Bronx over the Harlem River, all tributaries of the Hudson.
In Dobbs Ferry stands one of the old Keeper’s Houses, where the aqueduct’s superintendents used to stay. There used to be six of these along the aqueduct, but the one in Dobbs Ferry is the only one that still stands. It is an inconspicuous white house now, but not long ago it lay completely in ruins; the restoration was just completed in 2016, by the Friends of the Old Croton Aqueduct along with the State of New York. This house is open on weekends and is well worth a visit. It contains many exhibits about the aqueduct, with historical photos, engineering drawings, and maps, and also has several short videos you can watch.
Much further north, in Ossining, is an impressive bridge that carries the water over the Sing Sing Kill. Below, there is a raised walkway where you can stroll alongside the brook. Three times a year there are guided tours of the aqueduct that actually bring you inside the tunnel. I haven’t gone yet but I plan to.
The most impressive structure along the way is, of course, the New Croton Dam—a beautiful and massive monument of the previous century. Made of cyclopean stones, standing at almost 300 feet tall, and stretching to 2,188 feet (almost the exact altitude of Madrid, coincidently) the dam is still immensely impressive. It is also beautiful, with the stair-like spillway allowing water to cascade down to the river below in an artificial waterfall. This dam, begun in 1892 and completed in 1906, replaced the Old Croton Dam, a much smaller structure completed 50 years earlier, now submerged and invisible under the expanded Croton Reservoir. This old dam was briefly put back into use in the 1950s, when a severe flood put cracks in the new dam, necessitating repairs. Standing on top of the new dam, hearing the rushing water below you, looking out at the massive reservoir, you get a sense of how much water a major city like New York needs.
Another monumental structure sits on the southern end of the old aqueduct: the High Bridge. This bridge, opened in 1848, is the oldest bridge still standing in New York City. It originally resembled a Roman aqueduct, with tall stone arches carrying the water high overhead, just like the famous aqueduct in Segovia. Indeed, one remarkable thing about the Croton Aqueduct is that it uses the same principle the Romans used all those centuries ago—namely, gravity—transporting the water on its 40 mile trip with a slight incline, 13 inches per mile. The bridge had to be built so high (140 feet) to maintain this slope. However, in the 1920s people began to complain that the bridge’s arches were an obstacle to ships traveling through the river, so the middle stone pillars were demolished and replaced with a long steel arch. The bridge was officially closed in 1970, apparently because of vandalism, and wasn’t opened until 2015—an astonishingly long time, if you ask me.
The man primarily responsible for planning and engineering the original aqueduct was John B. Jervis, who must be one of the great engineers of 19th century America. The water tower he designed still stands on the Manhattan side of the High Bridge, looking like the turret of some erstwhile castle. Upon completion of the project, Jervis himself rode in a rowboat through the tunnel all the way from Croton to New York. I don’t know how long it took him, but it takes the water 22 hours to make the journey.
The original aqueduct and dam were commissioned in the 1830s after it became apparent that New York badly needed more water. Outbreaks of yellow fever and cholera, caused by contaminated water, killed thousands; and the Great Fire of 1835 destroyed hundreds of buildings, largely because the fire department lacked the water to stop it. Manhattan is an island of marshy ground surrounded by brackish water, and before the Croton Aqueduct was built the only water supplies were local wells which could be easily polluted. The opening of the aqueduct was something of a sensation. People used to visit the main reservoir on 42nd street to stand atop the pharaonic structure—inspired by Egyptian architecture—and see Manhattan.
The scale of the project is impressive: stretching about four times longer than the Aqua Appia in Rome (although, to be fair, I think the Romans built several aqueducts longer than the Croton Aqueduct), and requiring whole landscapes to be reshaped to maintain the aqueduct’s incline. The tunnel underground is made of brick and waterproof concrete, and was constructed mostly by 4,000 Irish laborers who made a dollar or less for ten-hour days. At the time, it was one of the biggest engineering projects in the United States; nevertheless it wasn’t long until the ever-growing population of New York outstripped the capacity of the aqueduct. Indeed, it was largely thanks to the increased supply of fresh water that the city was able to grow so quickly. Thus the aqueduct, designed to be used for centuries, was supplemented in 1890 by the New Croton Aqueduct, a larger tunnel that runs parallel to the old one. The Old Aqueduct stopped delivering water to the city in the 1950s.
This book, part of the Images of America Series, is mostly focused on the construction of the New Croton Dam. The story of this construction is told with dozens of old photos, along with commentary by Christopher Tompkins. You don’t exactly get a linear narrative this way, but the images alone are worth the price. It baffles the mind to think of what these men accomplished—redirecting a river, and erecting a structure 300 feet tall with cut stones, flooding an entire valley and displacing many communities, using technology that looks, to my eyes, scarcely more advanced than the Egyptians. That’s an exaggeration, of course; they had steam shovels to excavate and the railroad to bring stone from the quarry. But I can’t imagine how difficult it would have been to move those massive stones in a time before modern cranes, using only wooden derricks and pulleys and counterweights.
It is amazing to me that so much history—an engineering feat and a chapter in the history of New York—lay buried right behind my house, and that I’ve been walking along this trail for so many years, oblivious. Don’t wait until you travel to learn about history, to explore and go on tours. Take Thoreau’s advice: “Live at home like a traveler.”
Below are images taken from the High Bridge of informative plaques in the walkway.
This is a continuation on my first post about life in Berlin, focusing on the darker side of the city’s history.
Memory is not passive—either in a person or in a country. We choose what we remember; we can shape how we remember it; and our memories, in turn, shape how we act. History is messy, the truth is neither plain nor simple, and in human affairs there is no such thing as an apolitical fact. Opposing groups emphasize different episodes of history, interpret (or misinterpret) those episodes incompatibly, and sweep aside inconvenient episodes that do not fit their narratives. These narratives are not just background; they provide groups with their identity, giving them a historical trajectory and a goal to strive for. Thus it is not just for the dead, but the living, that we must attend to how history is remembered.
Nowhere is this need more apparent than in Berlin; nowhere can we see more clearly what power historical memory can wield. It is said that knowledge is power, but in history we had better say narrative is power. For the past is past, and not around to refute politicians who twist it to their advantage. The historical past is, to a large extent, a creation of the present; and it is recreated every time a book is written, a speech is delivered, or an article is published in the newspaper. The past that the Nazis created was of a mythic Germany, of a virtuous and heroic people, unduly hampered by foreign elements and racial impurities. The past that the Soviets conjured was of a dark night of bourgeois repression only recently lifted by the liberating proletariat army. As we all know, these narratives gave rise to atrocities—atrocities which, if the narratives had triumphed, we would remember as victories—and thus we are now faced with the task of remembering differently.
For this reason, a trip to Berlin is both horrifying and heartening—horrifying because of the crimes committed there, heartening because those crimes are not being ignored or swept aside. I have mentioned elsewhere that you can visit Madrid and never guess that, less than a hundred years ago, there was a horrendous civil war that ended with mass executions. The same cannot be said of Berlin. Indeed I think Berlin is a model of how historical atrocities should be framed and memorialized. The city has every reason to be proud.
Monuments of Death
The first of these somber monuments I visited was the rather cheerfully named Checkpoint Charlie. The name is really just Checkpoint C (Charlie is the NATO phonetic marker for “C”). Checkpoint Charlie is the most famous border crossing between East and West Germany.
As you may know, defection from East to West was high during the postwar years, particularly among the young and well-educated (not population most countries want to lose). To prevent this, the border between East Germany and West Germany was sealed off, and strict regulations put in place about leaving the country. But for many years the border crossings in Berlin remained much easier to get through (this was because the city was jointly controlled by the four occupying powers), making Berlin a kind of gateway to freedom for many hoping to flee the Soviet Union. All this ended in 1961 with the erection of the Berlin Wall. By that time, East Germany had lost 20% of its population.
In truth the checkpoint isn’t much to look at. It’s a small, white guardhouse with some sandbags sitting out front. There were two men in uniform carrying American flags. I was unsure whether they were actual American soldiers or enterprising men in costume accepting money to pose with tourists. In any case, the most memorable image of Checkpoint Charlie is the sign that says “YOU ARE LEAVING THE AMERICAN SECTOR” in four languages—English, French, Russian, and German. On the other side of the sign, for those entering the American Sector, we are kindly reminded to “OBEY TRAFFIC RULES.”
The official Checkpoint Charlie Museum is nearby. I didn’t go, since I heard mixed reviews. I don’t have anything more to add about this famous landmark, other than that it was strange to be standing in that otherwise entirely ordinary road, and imagine tanks rolling in, diplomats being escorted by soldiers, and the fate of the world hanging on the de-escalation of tensions surrounding this border crossing. In politics, small flames can set off very large explosions. Seen with un-political eyes, Checkpoint Charlie is a shack on a road. Seen with historical eyes, it is one of the axes of world history.
From Checkpoint Charlie it is a five-minute walk to my next monument, the Topographie des Terrors. This is a fairly new exhibit—opened only in 2010—built on the ruins of the old Gestapo headquarters, where their prisoners were tortured and killed. As befitting its name, The Topography of Terrors is an open-air museum dedicated to the history of Nazi atrocities. This history is arranged as a timeline, with plentiful pictures and information panels giving examples and details of the National Socialist regime.
Most of this information will not be new to anyone with a basic knowledge of the Holocaust or the Nazi movement—although familiarity hardly dulls the sickening horror of it all. The museum is more valuable for its ability to convey the atmosphere of the time, especially with the numerous Nazi propaganda posters on display. Nothing sums up an ideology with the stark simplicity of a propaganda poster. We see a hardworking German Aryan worker struggling to work, while weighted down by the lazy inferior races; we see bald-faced incitements to hatred against Jews; we see rallies for the workers at home to fight as hard as the soldiers in the field; and then there are the usual posters warning citizens to black out their lights during air raids and to watch out for spies.
Scattered among the posters are profiles of the fallen. One profile which struck me was of a man with epilepsy, Otto Mathewes, who was put into a sanatorium by his family, sterilized by the Nazis, and ultimately sent to a death camp to be killed. I knew that the Nazis targeted those they deemed racially impure—Jews and Roma—as well as homosexuals; but I did not know that the Nazis would put to death somebody with epilepsy—a treatable disease, or at the very least one that could be managed. For me, as for many, the most perplexing thing about the Nazi movement is how an entire population could be goaded into cooperating with their murderous policies. Most populations, it seems, can be persuaded to go to war, which involves killing outsiders. Yet the Nazis didn’t only wage war, but killed citizens of their own country. Why wasn’t there widespread resistance? Hannah Arendt’s phrase about the “banality of evil” comes to mind; but I suppose this question is not one to be answered with a phrase.
Among the propaganda posters, I found a chart showing the different paths for Nazi youths to follow to become full-fledged Nazi adults—for women, from Jungmädel (young girls) to Mütter und Hausfrauen (mothers and housewives), for military boys from the Hitler youth to the military. Looking at that chart, I feel a mixture of disgust and amusement. Such a regimented society, with caste-like roles and ranks for everyone, is repressive in the extreme. And yet, for all its nefarious intent, this organization strikes me as hopelessly juvenile. Indeed it is even campy, as if the whole country is to be organized like the Boy Scouts. Considering this chart, it is easy to see why many Germans did not consider Hitler a serious threat before he rose to power. His mind was packed full of this stuff—juvenile, campy plans designed to appeal to a boyish desire for ritual, hierarchy, and order. The line between the notions of an oaf and the ideas of an autarch is disturbingly fine—perhaps ultimately just access to power.
The exhibition also includes a model for Welthauptstadt Germania, “World Capital Germania,” the proposed city to be constructed over Berlin after Germany won the war. This plan, drawn up by Albert Speer, is discussed by Robert Hughes in his documentary The Shock of the New as an example of the architecture of power. Everything about the design is meant to provoke awe. The scale is enormous; the proposed dome of the Volkshalle would easily dwarf St. Peter’s and the Pantheon. Again, we see here the big imaginations of little minds. It is the same mixture of a juvenile yearning for order and a boyish admiration of strength that we see in the chart.
Coincidentally, the Topography of Terror is located right next to the longest extant stretch of the outer Berlin Wall. It is little more than a wreck now, so full of holes you can see right through it. That ruin completes the picture of atrocities, giving the visitor a glimpse of what came after the Nazis were defeated.
It is a short walk from the Topography of Terror to the Holocaust Memorial, more properly called the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Designed by the American architect Peter Eisenman, it opened in 2005, and is situated near the Brandenburger Tor. The memorial is strikingly abstract. There is no information to be found, no names of victims, no sculptures or symbols, nothing that can provide the visitor context. Instead, the visitor finds a field of concrete slabs, 711 of them, ranging in height from 8 inches to over 15 feet. These slabs are arranged in rows and columns, slightly askew, and the monoliths grow as the visitor enters into the monument.
I admit that my first impression was one of disappointment. There just isn’t much to look at—just identical grey blocks, stretching out like a miniature city. Is the meaningless abstraction of contemporary art really appropriate for commemorating the Holocaust? But I revised my opinion as soon as I walked into the memorial. The blocks slowly grow until they encompass you and limit your line of sight to four narrow passageways. I felt uncomfortable, even unnerved. It is easy to get separated from friends, and difficult to find them once lost. There is no telling who you will see if you turn a corner. Muffled voices come from all directions. I am not prone to this, but I felt a kind of crushing claustrophobia in the monument, a sense of being hopelessly lost and in danger, and I hurried to get out.
As many have noted, the memorial lends itself to many interpretations. The concrete slabs are shaped like coffins, and the rows of blocks strike many as a graveyard. The gradual increase in the slabs’ height as you walk into the memorial, rising until all lines of vision are cut off, is symbolic of the gradual limiting of the Jews’ options as the Nazis stripped them of rights, property, liberty, and life. The mechanical regularity of the slabs suggests the inhuman efficiency of the Nazi killing machine. But more important than these interpretations is the feeling evoked by the monument, the uncomfortable, suffocating feeling of being trapped. It is a cold and comfortless place, although kids are often found playing hide-and-seek within. Indeed the monument invites use as a playground, and it is easy to imagine people skipping from block to block and dashing through the columns. And perhaps this, too, forms an essential part of the monument, showing us that children can turn even bleak concrete into innocent fun.
The monument does not impress everyone; it has been controversial from the beginning. Richard Brody wrote a piece in The New Yorker criticizing the memorial for being too vague and for not including the names of the victims. (As he notes, the names on display in an information center under the slabs, along with other documents about the atrocity. But this information is not well marked, and both Brody and myself missed it.) More recently there was a social media story about Shahak Shapira, who took pictures of tourists taking selfies in the memorial, and juxtaposed them with images of the holocaust—terming it the ‘yolocaust’. I admit that it doesn’t surprise me that people take selfies at the memorial. Nowadays, people will take a selfie with the murderer who just broke into their house, and spend their final moments counting likes.
For my part, I thought it was a moving and effective work of art, even though I was skeptical at first. While I can see why some criticize the lack of names or context, I think the silence of the memorial is what gives it such emotional power; it is a silence that invites us to contemplate the absence of all those men, women, and children, those who were taken and can never return.
Berlin’s other famous memorial is not within easy walking distance. The Berlin Wall Memorial (Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer) is located to the north, next to another surviving section of the wall. It was opened to the public in 1998, within a decade of the reunification. It is much more “traditional” than the Holocaust Memorial, with explicit messages, historical recreations, and information about the victims. Nearby is the Chapel of Reconciliation, an oval-shaped church made of thin strips of wood—you can see through the walls from the inside—built over the foundations of an older church demolished to make way for the wall. A statue of a man and woman in a desperate embrace reminds us how many families were split by that barrier.
The main attraction of the memorial is a section of the wall reconstructed to look as it would have when it was dividing the city in two. This recreation is bounded by two high steel walls, preventing visitors at ground level from looking inside. The viewer needs to climb a tower across the street, right next to the memorial building, and look down from above. From there you can see that the Berlin Wall was really two walls, an exterior and an interior, both of the same drab gray appearance. It is steel-reinforced concrete, too tall to climb easily, too strong to ram with any normal car. Between the two walls is what was called the “death strip,” an empty area full of gravel raked smooth, with a small road running through the center so that army vehicles could quickly move to different sections. This strip was deadly because any potential escapees would be totally exposed there, easily visible to those in the guard tower nearby. There is no cover from searchlights or from firearms. Street lights kept it constantly illuminated. Caught there, you would be a sitting duck.
Although it was a beautiful sunny evening, and although it is surrounded by green parks and bushy trees, the wall section struck me as inhuman, dreary, and squalid. It is the picture of homicidal efficiency—a barrier designed with intelligence and foresight to accomplish immoral ends. The same question occurs to me here as occurred to me at the Topography of Terror: How could people—presumably normal, neighborly people—be persuaded to build something like this? The sheer absurdity of building a wall to keep people in rather than out, to stop an exodus of people fleeing from their own country, must have struck everyone involved. And yet the wall was built, construction crews dragged the concrete into place, soldiers manned the watchtowers, and government officials devoted time and energy to its maintenance and improvement.
Inside the memorial center are old letters, recorded interviews, and information panels about those whose lives were affected by the wall. There are stories of people fleeing, being caught in the attempt, and getting shot down by guards. One famous escape story is of Wolfgang Engels, who stole an armored personnel carrier and rammed it through the wall, getting shot in the process but making it out alive. East German Soldiers at the wall were instructed to shoot anyone attempting to cross, even women and children. Nevertheless, about 5,000 people successfully escaped; well over 100 were killed in the attempt. Some of the escapees dug tunnels, some even flew balloons—indeed, the last casualty of the wall, Winfried Freudenberg, died in 1989 when he fell from his homemade balloon. Guards on the Western side could not help anyone on the death strip, or they risked being fired on by the East German guards. This led, most famously, to the death of Peter Fechter, who was shot in the death strip and left to bleed to death, as hundreds looked on from both sides.
The last place I visited was the Berlin-Hohenschönhausen Memorial, an old Soviet and then Stasi prison. This is situated far away from the other major sites, in the east of the city. But it is well worth the trip. The only way to visit the prison is on a guided tour. My tour guide, a young woman, was excellent—extremely knowledgeable and compelling. According to her, some of the guides are actually former inmates in the prison. In any case, I can say that it was one of the best guided tours of my life. My visit was both informative and moving, and I hope you get a chance to go.
As I said, the Berlin-Hohenschönhausen is a prison formerly used by the Soviets and the Stasi. Before that, it was used by the Nazis as a communal kitchen. When the Soviets conquered Berlin, the building was used hold prisoners—accused Nazi collaborators. The building was not designed for this. The Soviets put their prisoners in the food cellars in the basement—big subterranean rooms with no windows. Conditions for prisoners were atrocious. The cells were unheated and terribly cold in the winter. The Soviets did not distribute clothing to the prisoners, so if they were unlucky enough to be thrown in without a coat, they had no recourse but to freeze. The cells had no bathroom, only a single chamber pot—without even a lid, so the place constantly reeked—that was seldom emptied. Soldiers had no showers, and no medical attention. If memory serves, the guide said they were fed once a day, and poorly. Death from starvation, cold, and sickness were common. Beatings and other forms of torture were used to extract confessions. Conditions were so inhumane that many attempted suicide; but since there was nothing in the cell, no sharp objects or chords, even this was difficult.
Conditions improved somewhat when, in 1951, the Stasi took over. Instead of using the old food cellars, they built an actual prison building. The cells were above ground, with windows, and had a toilet, a sink, and a mirror. The guards didn’t carry guns, for fear that the prisoners might steal one. In the hallway outside the cells, running along the wall, is a chord that, if tugged, sets off an alarm. Prisoners were not allowed to speak to each other, or even exchange glances, outside the cells. According to the guide, the Stasi used psychological forms of torture more often than beatings. Interrogators would try to gain the prisoner’s confidence, to use a mixture of threats and friendliness to get what they were after. Sometimes more stringent forms of torture was used, like sleep deprivation. In any case, prisoners had to sleep with their arms outside the blanket; and guards would come several times a night to shine a light inside the cell, checking that their arms were in view. The only outside recreation they were allowed was in what was called the ‘tiger cage,’ a small enclosure with high walls and a caged roof.
Incredibly, the prison was completely unknown to the public while it was in use, even though it is a large compound in the capital. This is partly why it remains standing in such pristine condition. Almost nobody knew about it; so after the fall of the Berlin Wall, angry demonstrators didn’t come pouring in the gates. Part of the tour included the unmarked van used to pick up prisoners without detection. According to the guide, after the wall fell, former prisoners sometimes bumped into their erstwhile interrogators. In one anecdote she recounted, the interrogator refused to apologize; but in another, the interrogator said he was sorry for what happened.
I have recounted the tour as best as I remember it; but this brief summary does not capture the feeling of standing in those dark cells, seeing the interrogation rooms—eerily office-like—and thinking of all the people who suffered and died here while their loved ones waited in total ignorance of their whereabouts. The whole environment was designed to be dehumanizing, to make life as uncomfortable and as fearful as possible for the inmates.
This completes my short experiences with the somber memorials of Berlin. There is not much more to be said. I left Berlin with a keen awareness of the terrors that took place within recent memory, and with a deep respect for the citizens’ commitment to remembering these terrors. These monuments are built to commemorate crimes, crimes that reveal the lowest depths of our nature. That these monuments were built—in the very heart of the country where these crimes took place—shows us the heights we can rise to.
Here goes another travel post delayed by a year. Now, however, I don’t feel quite so bad, since I learned that the famous travel writer, Patrick Leigh Fermor, wrote his account of his youthful travels over 40 years after the trip itself. So maybe I’m not such a nincompoop after all. (For part 2 of this post, about the ugly history of Berlin, click here.)
Germany in Mind
Germany: The very word looms over my whole conception of the world.
Like so many of my bewildered generation, when I was in high school I spent a lot of time watching television. The problem, then as now, was that nothing was on. In desperation my brother and I often turned to the History Channel. If we were unlucky, Modern Marvels would be on—a show about the history of automobile manufacturing, or how screws evolved from nails, or something similarly dry. (This was before the History Channel became the Conspiracy Theory Channel, and had no programs about ancient aliens.)
The good stuff were the World War II documentaries. Grainy footage of soldiers marching across barren landscapes, the whistling of bombs released from bombers, stupendous explosions and the bright streaks of tracer bullets fired from fighter planes—all these scenes of battle, so captivating to young boys, were mixed up with footage of one man: Hitler. Every documentary was sure to feature that stiff, stern, mustachioed man yelling shrilly, punctuating his pronouncements with jerky gestures.
It is an injustice to the German language that so many people are exposed to it through the oratory of that execrable man. Naturally, the language in that tyrant’s mouth is violent, aggressive, ugly, shrieking, garbled—as were his thoughts. But the abuse of one man ought not to cast aspersions on a whole language. Spoken well, German can be gentle, sweet, and tender.
I fell under its spell from my very first exposure. In the sixth grade we had a language survey, covering bits of Italian, Spanish, French, and German, to see which language we wanted to study. At the end of the term we were asked to rank our favorites. For me there was no question. It had to be German. The language was strangely akin to English, and yet so different in spirit: purer, stronger, more elemental. I put German as my first choice; and because I was required to list a second and third choice, I absently put down Italian and French. This decision came to haunt me later, for it was soon revealed that there wasn’t a German teacher. I took Italian as my main language—which exposed me to lots of excellent food, but which held no appeal to my immature mind.
These vague childhood impressions were soon supplemented by more definite knowledge. In a college literature class I was exposed to Thomas Mann, who soon became my first literary passion, a model of erudition and eloquence that simply dazzled me. Shortly after that, by a complete coincidence, somebody in my a capella group mentioned that he was teaching himself German using tapes; and when I showed an interest, he offered to lend them to me. I snatched at the opportunity; and from the first tape, the long-dormant passion for German was reawakened.
Once again I found myself enamored of the language—the magnificent German tongue, which combines rustic roughness with intensity of thought, earthiness with cerebral density, not to mention seriousness with silliness. (Click here to experience the silliness.) The next semester I enrolled in a German class, even though it had little to do with my major. For my twenty-first birthday I went to a German restaurant in New York City, Hallo Berlin, and ate sausages and sauerkraut and drank Weißbier, and felt absolutely stuffed and happy; and my fondness for the country has continued unabated ever since.
And all this still leaves out the dozens of the figures from Germany’s history—musicians, poets, philosophers, and scientists—who have puzzled my mind and saturated my spirits. From Bach to Beethoven, from Goethe to Nietzsche, from Kant to Heidegger, from Einstein to Weber, the Deutscher Geist has dominated my intellectual and my artistic interests. The horny grammar and spiky consonants of the German language, the labyrinthine fugues of Bach and the devious arguments of Kant, spiced with sour mustard and cooled with foamy beer—all this had combined, since I was in university, to form an impression of the Germans as somehow special. I wanted—no, I needed—to go see Germany for myself. And I finally did, however briefly, with my trip to Berlin.
First Impressions of Berlin
You might say that all this expectation could only lead to disappointment. This is half true. Nothing could possibly match the absurd image of Germany I had built up over the years: a city dominated by high-tech robots giving every citizen hours of leisure, a society of engineers who philosophize in their free time, every one of them relaxing in a beer hall downing Schnapps and singing Lieders in group harmony—it’s absurd, I know, but I really couldn’t imagine Germany being any other way.
The aspect that Berlin first presented to me was rather ordinary. I took a bus from the airport to the city center (Berlin is very well-connected) and I remember looking out the window and seeing: a city. That’s it—not a space-age colony, not a rustic paradise—a city, comparable to Madrid or Rome. But there was no doubt that I was in Germany. The people on the bus couldn’t be anything but German.
It is always a shock coming from Spain to Northern Europe. By and large, Spaniards are shorter, with slightly darker skin, and blacker hair. The Germans are the opposite in every respect: pale, tall, and blonde. (I’m speaking in generalities of course.) Even at a glance, there is no mistaking a bus-full of Spaniards for a bus-full of Germans.
There is also a striking difference in dress. Spanish people—despite their generally open attitude towards public displays of affection (Americans are often shocked by the kissing that goes on in metros and restaurants)—on the whole dress somewhat conservatively. Clothes tend not to be very revealing, either on men or women. (I have reason to believe, however, that this is slowly changing.) If you wear shorts and sandals before June, you will be stared at. What’s more, Spanish people tend to dress more formally than Americans; you can see women wearing elegant dresses on any day in the week—even among friends—and Spanish offices are seas of suits and ties.
Germany, from what I could see in Berlin, is quite different. Indeed I’d say the German attitude towards fashion is far closer to ours in the United States: tank-tops, belly shirts, short-shorts, flip-flops, and every other type of skimpy clothing under the sun is embraced. But there is one major respect in which the Germans differ from Americans: they are not puritans.
You see, compared to Europeans, Americans are prudes when it comes to the body. Flip open a German magazine—not a pornographic one, but any old magazine—and you can see exposed breasts. Advertisements in Berlin feature, not only scantily clad women, but also the exposed male body—hairy, bulging, and thick (see the two examples above). This feature of their culture was revealed to me, in the most literal sense, when I was strolling through the Tiergarten (the central park of Berlin), and found myself suddenly surrounded by naked men lounging on the grass in broad daylight. Part of me was scandalized (think of the children!), but another part was very amused.
Now, I honestly have no idea why Spaniards dress more conservatively but kiss in public, why Germans dress skimpily and sun themselves naked in parks, and why Americans dress skimpily but avoid both kissing in public and public nudity. But I imagine the explanation has a lot to do with religious history.
The city of Berlin apparently has a reputation among Germans. I spoke to a couple of German students a few months before my trip, who told me that Berlin was the poorest region of the country. The city was dubbed “poor but sexy” by its own mayor. According to what I can find, Berlin is heavily in debt and is subsidized by the rest of the country, with the worst education in the country and an abnormally high crime rate. My Airbnb host explained that the city attracted a lot of artists and bohemian types because it’s bad economy made it a cheap place to live. The whole city gives off a hipstery vibe, with lots of street art, outdoor markets, and nifty stores; and like many aspiring artists, the city of Berlin is financially supported by its family.
Aside from its grungy aspect, Berlin is notable for its layout. The city has no discernable center. All the major monuments seem scattered about at random. The city stretches out in every direction without any obvious plan or natural boundary. I believe this lack of apparent center or scheme is due to two major factors: that the city was pummeled into rubble during the Second World War, and that it was rebuilt while it was divided into different zones, each controlled by different countries. (Yet I have just read in Stefan Zweig’s autobiography that Berlin lacked a center even before the First World War, so I can’t say.) The longstanding division between East and West has left a permanent mark on the city.
I said above that my elevated expectations of Berlin could only lead to disappointment. But this was only half true. For everything Berlin lacked in space-age technology and opera-singing metaphysicians, the city made up for with unexpected charm. I felt immediately comfortable in Berlin, in a way that I rarely feel in foreign cities. Everyone I spoke to was friendly; the city felt safe and even cozy, like one giant neighborhood. Hipsters drank beer in the streets and friends bounced a balls in the park. There was a sense of intimacy, of familiarity, which I could not explain but which I nevertheless felt. (I have a friend who tells me he hated every minute of being in Berlin, so clearly this feeling is not universal.) Aside from this feeling of general contentment, I also found that Berlin is full of fascinating history; and this is what I’m here to tell you about.
A Note on Food, Immigration, & Transport
You may be interested to learn that, outside of Turkey itself, Berlin is the city with the highest population of Turks.
This, indeed, was the immigration ‘problem’ German people worried about before the Syrian Refugee Crisis: that there were so many immigrants coming from Turkey, and many of them were not integrating as fast as most people desired. They weren’t learning German and mixing in German society, but living in Turkish neighborhoods speaking Turkish. This was regarded as an alarming development.
Parenthetically, this is an interesting illustration of the different attitudes towards immigration in the United States and continental Europe. For all the xenophobia that has raged in the United States—and now more than in any decade of recent memory—Americans, at least in cities with high immigrant populations, are far more comfortable, on average, with immigrants keeping their language, dress, diet, and so on, than are Europeans. The controversy in France over the burkini, for example, simply could never happen in the United States. We have more than enough islamophobes, thank you very much, but lawmakers wouldn’t even contemplate passing legislation about acceptable forms of swimwear.
Note that this is not because Americans generally have a more positive opinion of Islam than French people do. To the contrary, I think the reverse is probably the case. But in America we do not have such a strong sense of “Culture”—traditional ways of dressing, eating, dating, speaking, and so on, that pervade every aspect of daily life—as exists in, say, France or Germany. Rather, in keeping with our traditional individualism, Americans conceive of choices in dress, diet, love, and speech as based on individual preference rather than having much to do with tradition. There are traditional sectors of American society, of course; but they are traditional by free choice. And no single tradition (except perhaps vague notions of “freedom” and “democracy”) would be accepted by any large fraction of the population.
Now, I should clarify that I am not denying that there is no such thing as American Culture; nor that the French and Germans are not individualistic; all I’m saying is that Americans don’t like to think of ourselves as living in accordance with any culture except the one we choose through our own free will. And if somebody wants to mess with that decision, they can go read the Constitution!
I am getting off track here. Well, the point is that Berlin has a lot of Turkish people. As a result, Turkish food has become wildly popular, and justly so. I once listened to two German students describe in raptures all their favorite kebab spots. The best kebab spot in any city is, apparently, a source of hot dispute among the locals.
If I can join in on this argument, I’d like to advocate for Mustafa’s Kebab. It is not even a restaurant, but a food stand selling different types of kebab. Trust me: go there and order one. All the ingredients are fresh: the crispy cucumbers and carrots, the refreshing feta cheese, the perfectly grilled meat—it is marvelous, simultaneously delicious and surprisingly wholesome, not to mention affordable, which is why there is always a long line. I ate there the first day and then went back the next.
Apart from this heavenly experience, the other famous dish in Berlin is the Currywurst. This is just sausage and fries with a creamy curry sauce. The combination of sausage and curry did not strike me as particularly promising, but I trust the Germans, and I had the meal twice. Both times I thought that, indeed, curry on sausage was odd; but I like curry, and I like sausage, and fries are always welcome. I enjoy it; but it is a greasy, heavy meal, not ideal for physical activity of any kind.
Speaking of avoiding physical activity, I should add a note about public transportation. Unlike in either New York or Madrid, the transport system in Berlin uses the honor code. You are trusted to buy a ticket and to verify it before every trip. But there is no barrier, gate, or turnstile preventing you from getting on. Bus drivers don’t check; the metro and the tram are hop-on, hop-off. It took me three trips on the transport system to figure out that, yes, I was expected to pay (I watched a few dutiful Germans verify their transport cards before boarding).
This prompted me to look up if it was common to avoid paying, since I had already taken three free trips by accident and nobody had noticed. This brought me to this fascinating article. Apparently there is a relatively small but dedicated band of Berliners who daringly ride the metro without a ticket. This is known in German as schwarzfahren (literally, “black going”—what a wonderful language!). But there are risks. Plainclothes officers, known as Kontrolleurs, ride metros and trams all day, randomly checking if people have a valid ticket. If you are caught without a ticket you can get fined for 40€ as a first-time offense. Granted, there is a chance of escaping the car once you see the agents begin checking, but this is far from assured. I took eleven or twelve trips while I was there and never witnessed any check. But for those intrepid souls looking to fight the man and seek perilous thrills by schwarzfahren, be warned.
Monuments of Life
I made one major mistake when visiting Berlin: I didn’t book a tour of the Reichstag building ahead of time. The Reichstag building (the word Reichstag, which means parliament, literally means “kingdom day”) is the current parliament building. It was originally constructed back in the 1890s, when Germany was an Empire, to house the Imperial Diet; it then burned down in mysterious circumstances in 1933, giving the ascendant Nazi party a convenient excuse to start jailing political enemies. After that, the building lay unrepaired and unused during the Nazi era and the Cold War; and it wasn’t until the reunification in 1990 that the building was finally refurbished and put back into use by the current parliament, the Bundestag (Bundestag literally means “federation day”).
Whatever the building’s history, I couldn’t visit it, since you need to book your tour in advance. (Follow this link.) I went up and asked if there were any free spots available, but there weren’t any until Tuesday, the day after I was going to leave. From the outside the building is impressive: a grand palatial edifice in neoclassical style. As I’ve mentioned in my post about Rome, Roman architecture has been adopted worldwide as the architecture of power; and nowhere is this on greater display than in Berlin. The front pediment of the Reichstag building features a Parthenon-esque frieze of Grecian gods surrounds the German coat of arms, an eagle derived from Roman military standards. Under all this is written Dem Deutschen Volk (literally, “The German People,” but the use of the dative “Dem” implies “To the German People”). Apparently, Kaiser Wilhelm II found the democratic ring of these words distasteful. Considering that he was the last Kaiser, I suppose the joke is on him.
The Reichstag building stands near the equally famous Brandenburg Gate (Brandenburger Tor). This is another example of Roman-inspired architecture, modeled after the triumphal arches in that ancient city. Its construction was ordered by the Prussian King Frederick William II, to celebrate the defeat of the Batavian Revolution; and like any worthwhile piece of political propaganda, it commemorates a victory that never happened: the revolution was only momentarily delayed, and eventually succeeded.
The gate originally replaced an older, fortified gate in the city walls. (At this point in history, the walls had become obsolete anyway.) Much later, during the Cold War, the Brandenburg Gate came to serve a far more nefarious purpose: to keep the citizens of East Germany in rather than to keep invaders out.
The Brandenburger Tor stands on the erstwhile border of East and West Berlin; formerly, the Berlin Wall encircled the gate in a sinister embrace. During this time, the dual symbolism of a gate, as a barrier or a portal, as a something can divide or connect, gave the monument a special meaning. Reagan gave his famous plea to “tear down this wall” standing before the Brandenburger Tor; and now, after the breakup of the Soviet Union, the gate is an enduring symbol of European unity.
Atop the Brandenburg Gate is a quadriga, a statue of Victory being drawn in a chariot by four horses. This statue has its own political history. After Napoleon defeated Prussia in the Battle of Jena (which Hegel famously overheard while completing his opus, The Phenomenology of Spirit), the French marched into the city through the gate, and then Napoleon took the quadriga back with him to Paris. (Rather petty, I think.) The quadriga was returned to Berlin after Napoleon’s eventual defeat. Then, during the Second World War, the gate was smashed up in the fighting, and the original quadriga was almost entirely destroyed; only one horse’s head survived, now on display somewhere in a museum.
Proceeding through the Brandenburg Gate, you reach the Tiergarten (literally “animal garden,” since the park originated as a private hunting grounds for the king), which is the central park of Berlin. The park is huge: at 210 hectares, it is one of the biggest parks in Germany. It is also absolutely enchanting. The paths wind lazily through the park, under overhanging trees, across green fields, past perfectly reflective lakes and the occasional statue or monument, with bikers riding by and friends playing catch (and older German men sunning their naked bodies)—it’s all lovely (except for the nudists). Somehow the Tiergarten combines the unplanned beauty of a nature reserve with the comfort and charm of English gardens; the park is at once wild and tamed. Without a doubt, it is the finest park I have visited in Europe.
(I do admit, however, that the sight of people practicing sports and exercising often puts me in a foul mood. I have never liked sports or exercise; and the thought that people would defile a beautiful park like this with activity aimed only at physical fitness or pleasure, fills me with despair. Parks should be for quiet contemplation and for reading—for improving the mind and achieving tranquility—not for bulking up the body and for inducing meaningless excitement! I know I’m being silly here, but it’s hard to contemplate the meaning of existence with the constant sound of people kicking a soccer ball and yelling at each other. This is not a criticism of the Tiergarten, but of humanity.)
In the center of the Tiergarten is yet another notable Roman-inspired construction: the Berlin Victory Column. Like all victory columns, this one takes its inspiration from Trajan’s Column in Rome. The Berlin Victory Column was commissioned during the 1860s to commemorate Prussia’s victory over Denmark; and when Prussia went on to defeat Austria and France, the commissioners decided to top the column with a shining bronze statue of Victory for good measure. The Berlin Victory Column is truly a tower; the combined height of the statue and the pillar is 67 meters, or 220 feet. (For comparison, the Statue of Liberty, base included, is 93 meters.) It was moved to its current location by the Nazis, in anticipation of their plan to turn Germany into Welthauptstadt Germania (World Capital Germania—more on this in my next post). You can climb the more than 200 stairs to the top if you pay a fee. I wasn’t tempted.
Although this qualifies as a monument to death rather than life, I should mention here the Soviet War Memorial that sits in the Tiergarten. It is a monument to the 80,000 Soviet soldiers who died during the Battle of Berlin, during the Second World War. As luck would have it, the monument was constructed in what later became West Germany; as a result, during the Cold War honor guards from East Germany came every day to stand watch; and civilians from East Germany were prevented by the Berlin Wall from visiting the monument that commemorates their “liberation.” History’s can be rather droll. The monument is yet another example of Roman-inspired architecture, taking the form of a gently curving Stoa. Two howitzer artillery pieces and two T-34 tanks flank the monument, and a striding statue of a soldier—unmistakably Soviet in his heroic pose—caps off the display. It is hard to know what to feel about all this. While I was there, a German man began yelling at a couple of teenagers and threatening to call the police; this only added to my confusion.
From this memorial it is a 25 minute walk to our next site: Museum Island. This is a complex of five state-owned museums on an island in the Spree river.
The most famous and most visited of these is the Pergamon Museum. This museum was opened in 1930 to display some of the large-scale archaeological discoveries recently made by German researchers. I have a habit of running into lengthy, ecstatic descriptions when I write about museums, as displayed in my post about the British Museum, so I will attempt to limit myself to a brief comment.
The Pergamon Museum is named after its most famous exhibit: the Pergamon Altar, a beautifully preserved temple from the Ancient Greek city of Pergamon. Unfortunately, the exhibit was closed in 2014 for remodeling, and won’t be open against until 2019 or 2020; so I did not get to see it.
I did, however, get to see the Ishtar Gate, which might be even more beautiful. This is a gate constructed in the walls of Babylon during the reign of King Nebuchadnezzar II, in the sixth century BCE. Its function is as decorative as defensive. Made of bricks glazed with lapis lazuli, the gate must have shone like cobalt in the sun; and its azul surface is covered in exquisite bas-reliefs of dragons and bulls. As it stands, the gate in the museum is not entirely original: some bricks were created using the original technique to complete the structure. In any case, I think the Ishtar Gate is easily among the most beautiful works of art from the ancient world: I was stunned when I saw pictures of it in Art History class, and stunned when I saw it in Berlin.
Beside the Pergamon Altar and the Ishtar Gate, the museum has two more monumental exhibitions: the Market Gate of Miletus and the Mshatta Facade.
The Market Gate of Miletus was built by the Romans in the second century and destroyed by an earthquake a few hundred years later. In 1900 the insatiably curious German archaeologists found the destroyed gate, excavated it, and transported the pieces to Berlin. Its reconstruction involved the use of many new materials, which was controversial; then World War II inflicted further damage on the old ruin, requiring further reconstruction. For something with such a violent past, so often rebuilt, the gate is convincingly ancient and absolutely impressive. It is a two-store facade with rows of columns, rather like the backdrop of the amphitheater I saw in Mérida, Spain.
The Mshatta façade is perhaps even more impressive. It is a section from a wall of an Ummayad Palace, excavated in present-day Jordan, built in the eighth century. The wall is exquisitely decorated with fine animal and vegetable motifs carved into the surface. This monument, like seemingly everything in this city, was also damaged in World War II. The Mshatta façade is the largest, though perhaps not the most beautiful, exhibition in the museum’s section on Islamic art. There were decorated Korans, luxurious rugs, sections of columns, roofs, and walls covered in wonderful geometrical arabesques. No culture in history, I suspect, has developed the art of ornamentation to such a pitch of perfection as in Muslim culture: every surface, every nook and cranny, every piece of furniture and written word, is executed with care and taste.
It is possible to buy a combined pass for all the museums on Museum Island—the Pergamon Museum, the Bode Museum, the Old National Gallery, the New Museum, and the Old Museum—but I had neither the time nor the money for that. After the Pergamon Museum, I could realistically only visit one more, and I chose the Old National Gallery. But this was a hard choice to make. The Neues Museum has the iconic bust of Nefertiti, still gorgeous and regal after three millennia. The Altes Museum looked even better, with an impressive and extensive collection of Greco-Roman statues—not to mention the lovely neoclassical building itself. But after the Pergamon Museum—and after seeing the British Museum a few weeks earlier—I’d had enough of the ancient world.
The building of the Alte Nationalgalerie yet another stately neoclassical construction; and the visitor, upon ascending the front steps, is greeted by equally stately neoclassical sculptures and busts of famous Germans. The pure white marble and technical finish of these sculptures immediately struck me as cold and academic, as does most art that imitates a dead culture.
The paintings inside—which mostly consist of portraits, landscapes, and still lifes from the 18th to the 19th centuries—ranged from the forgettable to the truly excellent. Of particular interest, for me, were the portraits of Hegel (stern old metaphysician), the brothers Grimm (as skeletal as their stories), and Alexander von Humboldt (a dashing dandy).
The finest paintings on display were those by Caspar David Friedrich, whose portraits of humanity dwarfed and mocked by nature—silhouetted figures under glowing suns, buffeted by tides and rain, or lonely men solemnly contemplating a vast expanse or the desiccated ruins of some dead culture—capture and express the same sentiment as Shelley does in “Ozymandias”: the overwhelming awareness of human finitude. Other than these works, however, I mostly enjoyed the few impressionist and post-impressionist works on offer.
The courtyard outside the Nationalgalerie is one of the most peaceful and pleasant spots I found in Berlin. The river flows nearby, with barges carrying tourists drifting past, and on the far bank are still more tourists basking in the sun. From here it is a very quick walk to Berlin Cathedral. This stands at the end of an equally picturesque plaza, full of Germans and foreigners lounging in the grass and kids playing with the central fountain.
At a glance you can tell that Berlin Cathedral is not particularly old. The central dome and the four smaller domes which surround it are all made of copper, I believe, and have the same pale green color as the Statue of Liberty. The statues of saints and angels surrounding the front portal are tinted this same algae-green. This creates an odd effect when combined with the fine neo-Renaissance building, like parts of an old ship welded onto a resplendent bank; but for all that, the cathedral is an impressive sight.
Originally built in the early 1900s, as a kind of Protestant version of St. Peter’s, it was damaged and partially destroyed, like everything, during the Second World War. Situated in East Germany, it was unsure whether the government—officially hostile to religion—would reconstruct the cathedral. Eventually they did, but the cathedral’s most famous and beautiful wing, the Denkmalkirche was destroyed, as a symbol of the Hohenzollern dynasty. Political pettiness has always been with is.
It is worth the fee to visit the Berlin Cathedral. The interior is finely decorated and cheerfully bright. Of particular interest to me—since I had just finished reading a book about the Reformation—were the sculptures of Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and Melanchthon standing high up above the main altar. The visitor can, if she so wishes, climb all the way up to the dome of the cathedral to see Berlin. I enjoyed the climb; but I must say that the view—ugly apartment buildings and construction sites—did not make me feel inclined to wax poetic or to fall into raptures about the beauties of the city.
In any case, you can also visit the crypt in the basement, where several members of the Hohenzollern dynasty are buried. Compared with, say, the royal crypt in Spain’s El Escorial, this one struck me as simple and subdued. Some of the coffins are quite plain and unremarkable. A few are elaborately carved, gilded, and decorated. As in the El Escorial, there are quite a few coffins for young children and infants. Before the age of vaccines and modern medicine, even the most powerful of the world couldn’t keep their children safe. But this brings me to the second part of this post: death.
I’ve just returned from visiting the new special exhibition in the Prado: Treasures of the Hispanic Society of America. It is fantastic. I had no idea that the Hispanic Society—a relatively unknown and ignored museum in uptown Manhattan—had such a vast and beautiful collection. The special exhibit adds a completely new dimension to the Prado; it is like having an entire additional museum inside the original one. It opened on April 4th and will continue until the 10th of September, and so I recommend you go see it while you can.
The Hispanic Society of America is a museum and library dedicated to Spanish and Latin American culture. It is housed in an impressive Beaux-Arts building in Audubon Terrace, situated in uptown Manhattan. (I’ve never visited or even seen the museum; and since it will be closed until 2019 for renovations, it seems as if I won’t be seeing it anytime soon.)
The museum was founded in 1904 by the exceedingly wealthy and Spain-obsessed Archer Milton Huntington, heir to the Huntington railroad fortune, who commissioned the Audubon Terrace three years later. This building complex (so named because it was built on land formerly owned by the famous naturalist), although beautiful, was not the ideal location for a museum. Being so far uptown, inconveniently distant from the tourist center of Manhattan, the Hispanic Society has attracted relatively few visitors over the years—and this, despite having the finest collection of Spanish art outside of Spain, and despite being free to visit.
The new exhibition in Madrid’s Prado has recently changed this. The Hispanic Society lent its collection to the Prado as part of a mutually beneficial exchange. The Society’s building in New York is in need of repair. Its lack of air conditioning makes it a poor environment to preserve cherished works of art; and there is not enough space to display the Society’s huge collection. The Hispanic Society also lacks the funds necessary to restore some of its priceless paintings. The Prado, in exchange for being allowed to borrow the collection, agreed to undertake these renovations at their own expense. Along with the help of the bank BBVA, the museum is even paying the transportation and exhibition costs. When interested are aligned, cooperation can accomplish marvels.
Even more important than the restoration and renovation work, the Prado’s special exhibit has already helped to make the Hispanic Society more well-known. By the end of the exhibit, 400,000 visitors are expected—and this is incredible, considering that the museum was getting only 25,000 visitors per year in New York. (I am getting most of this information from the excellent article recently published in the New York Times about the exhibit.) Considering what I’ve seen today, it is a shame that the museum languished in obscurity for so long; it certainly deserves a more ample reputation.
It is impossible to talk about the Hispanic Society without discussing its founder. Archer Milton Huntington’s fondness for all things Spanish is particularly peculiar, considering that he was active immediately after the United States fought and won the Spanish-American War in 1898. This was a period of scant respect for Spanish culture, and a period of cultural anguish in Spain (which eventually culminated in an artistic and intellectual revival by those known as the Generation of ‘98; more below).
Huntington used his vast fortune to purchase archaeological artifacts and old manuscript collections, along with works of art in nearly every medium, including several by Spanish masters. (I wonder what I would do if I were born into such a wealthy family; probably not anything nearly so admirable.) But he was careful to extend his activities to the present day as well. Huntington formed close ties with the contemporary Spanish painters Zuloaga and Sorolla, and commissioned the latter to paint several works for the Society. Indeed, what is sometimes regarded as Sorolla’s masterpiece, The Provinces of Spain—14 giant murals depicting Spanish life—was commissioned by, and remains in, the Hispanic Society.
The exhibit in the Prado is organized chronologically, from prehistoric Iberia to the early 20th century. Every object on display is fascinating. The visitor is greeted by copper-age pottery, from around 2,000 BCE, decorated with fine geometrical patterns. We then swiftly move into Roman times: a mosaic, the torso of a goddess, delicately decorated bracelets. There is an exquisite belt-buckle from the Visigothic period, and a pyxis (a small ceramic vessel) from the Ummayad caliphate period of Moorish Spain—covered in vegetable motifs of stupefying beauty. Even more stunning is the so-called Alhambra Silk, from a later period of Moorish Spain, woven with the same intricate, mathematical patterns as the tiles in that famous palace in Granada. Reliquaries, funerary statues, and, most memorably, gothic door-knockers with fantastic beasts—iron dogs, lions, and dragons snarling in wait for the visitor—give yet another intimate look into the Spanish past.
One of the Hispanic Society’s prized possessions is its extensive collection of rare books and manuscripts. There is a private letter from Carlos V to his son, the eventual Philip II, advising the young man how to govern in Carlos’s absence. Illuminated bibles and even a copy of the Torah, every inch of every page decorated with care and skill, along with official grants and royal decrees, bearing both elaborate ornamentation and the original leaden seals—all this is collected for the visitor’s pleasure. I cannot fathom how much time it would have taken to create even one of those books. Everything had to be done by hand; and since every page was beautified with elaborate drawings and designs—even documents of state, which presumably needed to be produced in some haste—I am led to imagine scores upon scores of scribes and artists in the service of the king and the church.
I was especially gratified to find the historic maps on display. It is always fascinating to see old maps; they capture so much about the worldview of the time. There is one map of Teocaltiche—a province of Mexico—drawn up, if memory serves, either by the missionary or the colonial governor stationed there. It is an extraordinary thing: instead of a useful tool for navigation, it is a cartoon featuring naked natives practicing human sacrifice, battling the Spanish invaders with bows and arrows, and in general causing all sorts of chaos. The thing is clearly the work of a European mind, horrified by the “savages” he encountered. More beautiful is the map of the world by Giovanni Vespucci, nephew of the more famous Amerigo Vespucci. This map is impressively accurate, for the most part, in addition to being attractively made. The shape of the American continents is left vague and undefined, mostly because Europeans hadn’t gotten around them yet.
The most prized items of the collection are the three paintings by Velazquez. There is one portrait of a little girl—unnamed, but perhaps a relative of the painter—which showcases Velazquez’s talent for capturing charming young faces. Even better is Velazquez’s full-length portrait of the Conde Duque, Gaspar de Guzmán, Philip IV’s most powerful minister, a kind of Spanish counterpart to Cardinal Richelieu. He stands proudly, dressed in velvety black, looking every inch the ruler. The Hispanic Society also boasts an excellent portrait by Goya of the Duchess of Alba. She is dressed as a Maja (a lower-class resident of Madrid who tended to dress splendidly; there was apparently a fashion for adopting lower-class dress at the time) and pointing proudly down at her feet, perhaps to signify that she owns the land. It is a wonderful picture; there is so much energy in the Duchess’s feature and pose.
I thought that the exhibit would end with Goya, but the Prado has dedicated another floor to the collection. After an escalator ride I found myself surrounded by even more excellent paintings. Of these, the most important and impressive is a series of portraits by Sorolla—an excellent and perhaps underrated portraitist—of notable Spanish intellectuals and artists from the time, including most of the prominent members of the Generation of ’98. This includes the novelist Pío Baroja, the philosopher Miguel de Unamuno, and the poet Antonio Machado, along with Azorín himself, the essayist who coined the name “Generation of ‘98” (the generation of artists and intellectuals whose lives were shaped by Spain’s defeat in the Spanish-American War in 1898). All of the portraits are remarkable examples of the portraitist’s ability to capture a complex personality in a gesture, a posture, and an expression.
Along with these works by Sorolla—which also includes two of his enchanting beach scenes—the collection also includes some notable works by Zuloaga. My favorite of these was his The Family of the Gypsy Bullfighter, which manages to combined startling realism of feature (I was immediately reminded of Ribera) with more modernist touches of color and shading. This blending of traditional and modernist seems to have been a persistent feature of his paintings, and allowed him to please both parties. He was particularly praised—both by Huntington and by Unamuno, at least—for his ability to capture the ‘essence’ of Spain. (This was a time when many countries were preoccupied with their ‘essences’.)
This little essay has been hastily dashed out, with enthusiasm and love, for a heretofore underappreciated cultural institution. I naturally feel a particular attachment to the Hispanic Society, since it is from New York and connected to Spain. After visiting this exhibit, it is impossible not to share, at least in part, Huntington’s passion for all things Spanish. What a wonderful breadth and depth of history is collected here.
I’ve fallen far behind in my travel posts, and now I find myself in the embarrassing position of writing about a trip I took over a year ago. It also seems that, no matter how hard I try to be brief, I end up writing more and more. Well, enough prefatory remarks; on to business.
For an American, there is something religious about visiting London for the first time. We have been hearing about the place all our lives. Dry humor, pints of beer, red phone booths, black taxis, fish and chips, bad teeth, good tea, bad weather, good tikka masala, the British Invasion, the British Parliament, the British Empire, Queen Elizabeth, Queen Victoria, Shakespeare, Dickens, the Beatles, Monty Python, Dr. Who, Harry Potter—London is the focal point of all our stereotypes, good and bad, of England and the English.
This is important for us Americans, since England is the only other country whose media we regularly consume. English media is so important for us because of our shared language. Unlike in Spain—where English-language songs often play on the radio (and people sing these songs without understanding the lyrics), and where American shows, overdubbed in Spanish, are extremely popular—in the United States we don’t listen to music in a foreign language if we can help it, and we only watch television that was originally made in English (overdubbing looks silly). This provincial preference for English media limits our options of foreign media mainly to England and Australia, and England has been the clear favorite.
A consequence of this popularity of English media is that Americans have internalized a highly partial picture of the English character. We associate the English with sophistication, elegance, wit, good manner, royalty, and the historical past.
This is almost the polar opposite of the English reputation in Spain. You see, Spain is an excellent travel destination for English holidaymakers—cheap, close, and sunny—and as a result, lots of English tourists come to Spain looking for a good time. A “good time” entails drinking, of course, and thus there are lots of drunken English people stumbling around city centers on any given night. As a result, Spaniards think of the English, not as genteel aristocrats, but as tipplers.
(Parenthetically, the English also have very different alcohol consumption habits than the Spanish. On a Friday or Saturday night, people in Spain begin drinking in earnest after dinner—which means 11 pm at the earliest. They often don’t even leave their apartment to go to bars and clubs until 2 in the morning, and don’t return home until dawn the next day. In London, on the other hand, drinking begins as soon as people leave work, at 5 pm. This is due, in part, to an old law in London that required pubs to close down at 11. So the English stop drinking when the Spanish barely start.
(This difference in schedule is supplemented by a difference in speed and volume. Spaniards are rarely visibly drunk. I have seen very few Spanish people stumbling from alcohol; instead, they focus on maintaining a level of comfortable tipsiness for a long period of time. Compared with Brits, Spaniards sip their drinks, and eat a lot while they drink. English people, by contrast, get properly drunk, and fast, much like many Americans do. As a consequence, Brits can be very loud drinkers—in my experience, at least. This is an especially interesting contrast, I think, since in every other circumstance Brits tend to be mucher more quiet than Spaniards.)
Of course, both the American and the Spanish stereotype is an over-generalization; they are based on very partial exposures to the English character. Partial and false as they may be, however, these stereotypes did succeed in endowing England with a certain contradictory mystique—a place full of witty drunkards, elegant and boisterous, cultured and slovenly? I needed to go see London for myself, to catch a glimpse of the reality behind the reputation.
My problem was that, at the time, I was particularly low on funds. And however distorted all the other stereotypes may be about London, this one is true: London is expensive. Well, it’s expensive if you enjoy eating, sleeping indoors, using transportation, and doing any activity besides walking and sitting outside. This was a few months before the Brexit referendum, and the pound was still strong.
As a result, my short trip to London—barely 48 hours—became a frantic exercise in traveling cheaply. I didn’t buy an oyster card, and I didn’t use the Tube or the buses. I ate “meal deals”—pre-packed sandwiches at Tesco supermarkets, not terribly delicious—instead of paying for dinner in a restaurant. And I focused on visiting museums, which are free in London, instead of other popular sites.
Arrival & First Impressions
As usual, I traveled with Ryanair. My plane arrived in Stansted, the smallest of London’s airports, where I had to fill out a form and wait in a long queue to enter the country. The English, it seems, are almost as paranoid about their borders as we are in the United States. From Stansted, I took the so-called Stansted Express to London’s central Liverpool Station. The ride took about an hour, and was not cheap. This is a typical Ryanair experience: the flight is inexpensive, but uncomfortable; and you land in an unpopular airport far outside the city. I am a loyal customer.
I sat in the train—dazed from lack of sleep, filled with nervous energy, physically miserable but mentally awake—and stared out the window in disbelief. Was I really here? Was this England, the land of dry humor and wet weather? I gazed out at fleeting patches of green countryside as the train sped by, and savored the delightful names of the train stations between Stansted and London. (Of course I can’t remember any of the names now; but as I look on Google maps, I find such gems as Matching Tye, Hartfield Heath, Hastingwood, Theydon Bois.)
English novels—from Austen, to Dickens, to Rowling—have powerfully shaped the American imagination of the past; and thus, by association, English place-names strike many Americans as irresistibly charming. Each name seems to be the title of another great novel, filled with irony and romance, and written with quaint wit. Likewise, the English countryside—a neatly trimmed park, whose rolling hills are covered in a grey mist—is featured in so many films that even the snatches of green I saw out the train window filled me with delight.
These feelings of romance and fantasy are, I suspect, nearly universal for Americans visiting England, and specifically London, for the first time. England is the only foreign country we regularly see in television and movies. This gives the experience of visiting England the effect of stepping into a movie set—everything is familiar, and yet unreal. The same thing happens, I believe, to many who visit New York for the first time. Many people have independently told me that it felt like they were in a movie, since so many landmarks and features were familiar to them from films.
The train arrived, and I got out to go find my Airbnb. I was on edge. The combination of sleep deprivation (the flight was terribly early) with the usual stress of navigating a foreign city (my phone didn’t have service), plus the feeling of unreality that comes from actually being in a place which I’d been hearing about all my life—all this combined to make me edgy and oversensitive. The double-decker red buses, the black taxis, the cars driving on the wrong side of the road, the eccentric road signs (including the delightfully existential “Change Priorities Ahead”), pubs with absurd names (“Ye Old Cheshire Cheese,” on Fleet Street), the red phone booths scattered seemingly at random (apparently, the city had once sold all these phone booths, only to regret the decision and then repurchase as many as they could)—my first impressions of London did contain many of ye quaint olde stereotypes that I expected.
But one thing that, as a New Yorker, always surprises me when I visit a new city is the lack of skyscrapers. Madrid has only four buildings which can reasonably be called skyscrapers, and they’re located in the north of the city, far outside the center. London has its own share of skyscrapers, to be sure. But walking around in London has nothing of that vertiginous feeling that New York produces, the feeling of being crushed by steel and glass, the feeling of constantly craning one’s neck. I had always thought of London as being a huge and imposing place, so this lack of skyscrapers did disconcert me somewhat.
In many other respects, however, London can be easily compared with New York: the bustling streets, the flashy billboards and ever-present advertisements, the endless shopping, the infinite variety of chain restaurants, the ethnic diversity, the smell and the grime. London even has the same phony Buddhist monks trying to scam tourists into giving them money. (You can find a great story about them here; and in case you’re wondering, if someone is aggressively asking you for money, you can safely assume that they’re not a Buddhist monk.)
As I discovered when I got to my Airbnb, one way that London is incompatibly different from both my country and Spain is the style of its outlets. I had to buy a power-adaptor there; and like everything in London, it wasn’t cheap. Be wise and buy one ahead of time.
These were my first impressions, hazy and distorted, as I walked from the station to my Airbnb. Already I was running short of time. It was midday Friday, and my flight home would leave early on Sunday. So I set out to the first place on my list, the National Gallery.
A Note on Cuisine and Language
I should preface my trip to the National Gallery with a mention of a small restaurant, the Breadline, which can be found nearby. I decided to eat there because it had fish and chips—I know it’s silly, but I couldn’t leave London without eating that iconic meal—and because its prices were eminently reasonable. The food was plain and basic, but nonetheless, for me, extremely satisfying. I even returned the next day to try an English breakfast, which I quite liked.
English food has a poor reputation, and I understand why; it is hardly a cuisine designed to have universal appeal. Nevertheless, if those two meals can be trusted to give a fair representation (an open question), I can say that I am a fan. There is something about greasy fried potatoes and fried fish, covered in white vinegar, that just feels right to me. And sausage and beans for breakfast is brilliant.
While I was eating, a young British man came in and said “A small white coffee to take away.” This is an excellent example of the differences between British and American English. This sentence, uttered in New York, would produce only bafflement. You would have to translate it to “A small coffee with milk to go,” if you wanted to be understood. I run into these differences constantly as I teach English. Before coming to Spain, I thought the differences between British and American English were minor and negligible, besides the accent; but I was wrong. Working with British textbooks and materials can be extremely frustrating, since often I don’t know what certain expressions or words mean—which is embarrassing when my students ask. Not only that, but there are a few subtle grammatical differences between the dialects, such as in the use of the perfect tense. But this is a digression of a digression; now to the museum.
The National Gallery
It is immensely satisfying to simply walk into a museum, without fees or lines, like it’s your own home. The experience is even better when the museum is one of the best in the world. The National Gallery is only behind the Louvre, the British Museum, and the Metropolitan in visitors per year; and this is especially impressive considering the museum’s collection is comparatively small, easily viewable in three hours or so. But for those with any sensitivity to art, these three hours will be among the most rewarding of your aesthetic life; for the National Gallery’s collection is remarkable both for its breadth and its excellence. The only museums I’ve visited that compare in the average quality of the paintings on display are the Prado in Madrid and the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. Every room in the gallery contains a masterpiece, often many.
Indeed, there are so many wonderful paintings—paintings I had seen and loved in art history books—that I cannot even hope to mention all of them in this post, much less describe the impression each one made on me. Nevertheless, I can’t resist the temptation to dwell on some of these exquisite works of the human imagination.
The first painting which attracted my attention was the portrait of Erasmus by Hans Holbein the Younger. This is an extraordinary demonstration of the portraitist’s art; instead of a photographic image, capturing the physical surface of the famous writer, we get a glimpse of the writer’s mind. As in any excellent portrait, the inner is made manifest in the outer without compromising the realism of the portrait. His sharply angular face bespeaks cleverness; his gaunt features reveals a life dedicated to the mind and not the body; his half-closed eyes and serene expression show calm intelligence and a wisdom that sees beyond earthly troubles. We also catch a hint of Erasmus’s self-complacent vanity: he looks a little too comfortable in his fine fur robe, and his hands rest a little too easily upon a volume of his own writings. Is there a more convincing portrait of the scholar?
Holbein has an even more famous work on display at the museum: The Ambassadors. This is a portrait of two aristocratic ambassadors (their identity was long debated), in a room which includes an exquisitely-rendered still-life of several objects—a lute, several globes, a psalm-book, and various instruments of navigation. But the most memorable, and bizarre, feature of this painting is the giant anamorphic skull in the center. Anamorphic means that it is purposefully distorted when viewed head-on, and must be seen from a specific perspective to be seen properly. When viewed from the front, the skull is just a strange grey diagonal shape; but when you walk to the painting’s left, the skull comes into focus. I can only imagine the technical virtuosity required of a painter to pull off this trick with such consummate perfection; when seen properly, the skull is finely detailed, beautifully shaded, and anatomically accurate. Holbein painted this tour de force in 1533.
The National Gallery also possesses what is probably the most famous papal portrait in history: Raphael’s portrait of Pope Julius II. Julius was the most important of the high renaissance popes; he is responsible for the beginning of the Vatican museum, Michelangelo’s commission to paint the Sistine Chapel, and Raphael’s commission to paint the Vatican Library. Not only that, Julius originated the idea of tearing down the original St. Peter’s and building a new one. Such a man must have had enormous energy and a deep sensitivity to art. And yet in Raphael’s portrait we see him weary, worn-out, and melancholic. He is gently gripping a handkerchief in one hand and his chair in the other; his eyes are hollow, and the wrinkled skin of his face droops loosely from his skull. He seems to be just feebly holding on to the last chords of life, staring at his own end with resignation. Such terrible realism was entirely new in papal portraiture.
Before going to the National Gallery, I didn’t look up any of the famous pictures that could be found there; so I was surprised and delighted when I found myself face to face with one of my favorite pictures, Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait. I remember first seeing this portrait in Ernst Gombrich’s Story of Art, and being stunned. In the context of its time, 1434, the portrait is startling for its realism and its domestic subject: a marriage contract taking place in a bedroom. To a modern eye, perhaps the portrait no longer seems terribly realistic; the husband, with his pale expressionless face and his oversized clothes, always looks like he belongs in a Tim Burton film to me; but this only adds to its charm. The little toy-sized dog in the foreground—as adorable as ever—and the mirror in the background—showing us the whole scene from reverse in a distorted perspective—add to the painting’s undeniable power.
There are dozens more paintings—of equal importance and beauty—that I could devote an unworthy paragraph to describing; but this would only swell this post to unartistic dimensions. Yet I cannot move on without mentioning the National Gallery’s collection of Italian Renaissance art. This includes Piero del Pollaiolo’s masterpiece, The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, a landmark in the realistic use of perspective, with the saint enricled by crossbowmen.
Even more important is one of the two versions of Leonardo da Vinci’s Virgin of the Rocks. The other one is in the Louvre, and is usually considered the original; but I think the Gallery’s version, with its deeper shades and more dramatic chiaroscuro, is lovelier. Apart from its beauty, this painting is notable for its setting. Leonardo, as is typical of him, creates a carefully naturalistic background for this traditional Biblical scene. In previous eras, the background of paintings was almost entirely neglected; monochrome gold foil set off the human figures. But in Leonardo’s masterpiece, the background—a cave, which was an unprecedented choice—swallows up its subject. Such careful attention to rendering nature was something new in history.
I also cannot move on without mention of Rembrandt. The National Gallery has several of Rembrandt’s most highly regarded works, including two of his self-portraits. Looking into the eyes of a famous artist, as he stares back at you from a self-portrait, is an unnerving experience; suddenly the gap in space and time that separates your lives vanishes; the artist has transcended death, and even transcended life; his focused gaze, dry pigment on a canvas, will outlast even your own living flesh. On a less dramatic note, the Gallery also has one of Velazquez’s most famous works: The Rockeby Venus, famous for being one of the few female nudes in Spanish art (one other being Goya’s La Maja Desnuda).
I will muster my self-control and mention only two more works.
By common consent, the greatest painter in English history is Joseph Mallord William Turner; and several of his finest works can be seen at the Gallery. Of these, my favorite is Rain, Steam, and Speed—The Great Western Railway. A locomotive emerges from a tempest, a black tube bursting through grey fog. Every line and color is blurred as if seen from an out-of-focus camera. All we can see in the background are hints of blue sky, a bridge, and a lake where some people are rowing in a little boat.
In this paintings, Turner seems to have both anticipated and surpassed the impressionists in rendering momentary flashes of life. The swirl of indistinct color is absolutely hypnotic; yet the painting is not merely pretty, as are many impressionistic paintings, but a convincing symbol of the relationship between human technology and natural power. The train punches through the mist, in a confident gesture of industrial might; and yet the stormy clouds that swirl all around menace the lonely black locomotive. Both the train and its surrounding are impressive, even sublime, but also inhumanly vast and cold; and the two slight figures in the rowboat below reveal our true vulnerability in the face of these forces.
The last painting I’ll mention before forcing myself away—even remembering the Gallery is a pleasure—is Bathers at Asnières, by Georges Seurat. This painting was completed in 1884; but it was not until many years after Seurat’s death that it was recognized as a masterpiece. It depicts several middle-class Parisians relaxing by the Seine on a hot summer day. The technique Seurat used is almost pointillistic in its precise use of strokes and colors, relying mainly on bright horizontal daubs. The combination of statuesque modeling and poses—the bathers’ heavy bodies and horizontal orientation remind me of an Egyptian frieze—with Seurat’s delicate treatment of brushstrokes, makes the painting look crystal-clear from a afar and blurred from up close. The treatment really captures the feeling of heat: how everything can seem perfectly clear in the summer sun, and yet distant objects are blurred.
Complementing this tension between form and vagueness, is an emotional tension between fun and desolation. At first glance the bathers are having a wonderful day. They are at leisure, enjoying the sunshine, the smooth grass, and the cool water. But then you notice how isolated is each one of the figures. They are all in their own world; many seem lost in thought. Their expressions are emotionless; their hunching posture bespeaks weariness. The factory spewing smoke in the background adds another hint of gloom.
To me, the painting is a devastating portrait of the isolation and meaninglessness of contemporary life. We imagine the figures working 9 to 5 jobs in offices during the week, performing mechanical tasks that mean nothing to them. Then they go to their usual restaurant for a bite to eat and then to their apartment to sleep. When with their friends, they drink and talk of trivialities. On a holiday, they come here, and stare into space, unable to articulate to themselves or anyone else the strange sense of emptiness that engulfs them whenever they have a free moment. It is a comfortable world that conceives of nothing beyond wealth and luxury; and its members, when released from their usual routine, can think of nothing to do. Convention dictates that they come here to ‘relax’. The painting is the perfect complement and illustration of Albert Camus’s The Stranger: it is a painting of a world of strangers, to one another and to themselves.
The next day, I headed to one of the other great museums in London: the British Museum. Originally I planned to include my account of that great institution in this post; but I ended up writing so much that I decided that the British Museum deserved its own separate essay, which you can find here.
Brief Snatches of London Life
When I wasn’t visiting museums, I had a few spare hours to wander around the city. This allowed me to glimpse, all too briefly, most of the major sights in London—the places that must be given a mention and a respectful nod in any post about that old city.
The first landmark I insisted on seeing was Big Ben. A trip to London without seeing that venerable clocktower would be like a trip to Pisa without its leaning campanile. I was so ignorant when I visited London (and remain, despite strenuous efforts) that I didn’t even know that Big Ben was attached to the British parliament building, the Palace of Westminster. It was a delightful surprise to find these two landmarks joined together.
Although it looks gothic, the palace is of fairly recent construction. The old Westminster palace burned down in 1834 (Turner witnesses the fire, and painted several pictures of it). The new building was designed by Charles Barry, who used a Gothic revival style in his plan. I doubt there is any parliament buildings in the world so elegant, so imposing, and so charming. Few experiences in London, if any, can do a better job of creating that Hollywood sensation of being in a movie than standing on the Westminster bridge, seeing that palace and the clocktower, and hearing the ringing bells of Big Ben chime out the hour.
From there I walked away from the bridge, pausing to examine the statue of Winston Churchill (covered in pigeon droppings) in the nearby plaza, and went to Westminster Abbey. In my very limited experience, this is easily the most beautiful church building in London. I can’t say much about it, because I didn’t go inside—it was closed by the time I arrived, and in any case I didn’t want to pay the steep entry fee—but I can say that its façade is exquisite, especially the north entrance. Funnily enough, Westminster Abbey is not an abbey—at least, not anymore. Originally it was an abbey of the Benedictine monks, but after the Protestant Reformation, and after a brief stint as a cathedral, the abbey was designated a church. For the last 1,000 years it has been the site of coronations and royal weddings.
The walk from Westminster Abbey to Buckingham Palace is about 15 minutes—slightly longer if, like me, you walk through St. James’s Park. I highly recommend this, since the park is absolutely lovely.
Architecturally, Buckingham Palace isn’t much to look at; it presents itself as a cheerless, square, grey block. The building was not originally designed as a royal residence; it only became the seat of the monarchy in 1837, during the reign of Queen Victoria. The palace takes its name from the Duke of Buckingham, who originally had it built. It sits at the end of the Mall—a major road often used for processions—in a roundabout in which stands the golden Victoria Memorial, which commemorates that famous queen.
Even so, neither the monument nor the palace would attract a great deal of attention, I suspect, were it not for the Queen’s Guard. Equipping guards with antique weapons and dressing them in bright red outfits with fluffy tall hats seems to be one of those conspicuously impractical things that wealthy and powerful people do to showcase their wealth and power. Your average rich entrepreneur or politician could not afford to keep a corps of totally inefficient guards performing ceremonial movements all day (which are, naturally, supplemented by other guards using modern weapons, keeping careful watch, and wearing less conspicuous clothes). Here is an incident that demonstrates the guards’ mainly ceremonial role: in 1982 a man managed to evade the palace guard and make his way to the Queen’s bedroom, where he was apprehended by the city police.
I spent some time watching the guards march back and forth, their limbs as stiff as a wooden nutcracker. Purely as athletic performers, the soldiers are undeniably impressive: the timing, the coordination, the posture, the endurance—it must require excellent physical condition and serious training to keep up the routine, especially considering that they wear those clothes even in hot weather. The guards now mainly function as a tourist attraction and an amusing symbol of British culture; but to be fair, the Queen’s Guard aren’t the only soldiers to wear funny clothes (think of the Swiss Guard in the Vatican) or to engage in elaborate ceremony purely for show (think of the tomb of the unknown soldier in Washington D.C.).
By the time I left the British Museum the next day, I only had about 6 hours left before I’d have to go to sleep and say goodbye to London. The best way to get the most out of this time, I figured, was a free walking tour. The guide was excellent, and the tour just what I wanted. Unfortunately I don’t remember the name of the company or of our guide; he introduced himself as the only American tour guide in London—so he shouldn’t be too hard to find. (But apparently this isn’t true; a Google search reveals an American woman named Amber who also gives tours.)
The tour focused on the City of London. You may not know—I certainly didn’t—that the “City of London” refers to the original part of the metropolis, founded by the Romans way back when. This original City of London is now only a tiny fraction of the greater metropolitan area; indeed, it is quite a small place, having an area of only one square mile. This city is far older than England; it has enjoyed special privileges (or, to use the phrase of the Magna Carta, “ancient liberties”) since the Norman Conquest; and even now it retains the privilege to create many of its own regulations, independent of the greater metropolitan area or of England herself. The city has laxer building codes, which explains why so many of London’s skyscrapers are found there, and also looser financial regulations, which explains why it remains the center of London’s economic life. The City of London is home to the Bank of London, the London Stock Exchange, and Lloyd’s of London (the insurance market).
The tour began at Temple Station. Our guide took us along the river and then down Fleet Street, giving us bits of details about London’s past and present. We walked by Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, one of the oldest and best known pubs in London, famous both for its silly name and its dark, windowless interior; and this prompted our guide to embark on a long, impassioned explanation of London pub culture. Though an American, he was clearly a convert to the pub way of life; he had strong opinions about what made a pub good or bad; and he had pub recommendations for nearly any area of the city. (I was so inspired that, after the tour, I went into a pub to get a drink; but the beer was so expensive and so mediocre that my disappointment was even more bitter than the beer.)
Soon we reached St. Paul’s Cathedral. The tour didn’t pause for us to go inside; and, in any case, the entrance fee is formidable enough to discourage penurious travelers like me. Among other things, St. Paul’s is famous for having one of the tallest domes in the world. But the present St. Paul’s replaced an older, even taller cathedral (well, it was taller before its spire was destroyed by lightning), which was badly damaged in the Great Fire of London in 1666. The present building was designed by Sir Christopher Wren, and completed in his lifetime. Wren was, if not the greatest, at least the most prolific architect in England’s history. He designed and oversaw the construction of no less than 52 churches after the Great Fire. The architect himself is buried in the crypt of the cathedral, in a modest grave that says “Reader, if you seek his monument—look around you.”
From there we moved on to the Monument to the Great Fire, also designed by, you guessed it, Sir Christopher Wren. As our guide pointed out, the monument—a tall doric column that originally rose far above its surroundings—is now hemmed in by neighboring buildings and dwarfed by modern architecture. The guide used this as an example of the tendency of Londoners to be more interested in the future than the past.
To emphasize this point, he directed our attention to the skyscraper at 20 Fenchurch Street, a bizarre, top-heavy construction, completed in 2014, whose shape quickly earned it the nickname ‘The Walkie Talkie’. This building won—and earned—an award for ugliness. (It was also discovered that the building’s concave shape focused the sun’s rays strongly enough to damage cars, ignite doormats, and fry eggs; a screen has since been installed to prevent this from happening.) But the Walkie Talkie is only one of the many skyscrapers that have sprung up in the City of London in recent memory, despite concerns that these tall monstrosities will dwarf and obstruct historic buildings.
From the cathedral, we went down towards the river and ended up under London Bridge. Many people, including me, assume from the nursery rhyme that London Bridge is a tourist attraction; indeed, the justly famous Tower Bridge, which spans the Thames nearby (see below), is often mistakenly called the London Bridge. Sad to say, the current London Bridge is a brutalist piece of concrete and steel, a minimalistic slab of stone that stretches across the Thames, without charm, beauty, or really any distinguishing quality.
The nursery rhyme dates from a time when a different London Bridge spanned the Thames. The ‘Old’ London Bridge, built in 1209 and demolished in 1831, rested on stone arches and was covered in wooden buildings (which proved to be a fire hazard). It was famous for being the site where the severed heads of those executed for treason, dipped in tar and impaled on pikes, were displayed for passersby to take heed. William Wallace’s head was the first to play this role.
In 1831, the ‘New’ London Bridge was built to replace the crumbling medieval construction; this bridge also rested on arches, but it was taller and so allowed bigger ships to pass underneath. In the 1960s it was discovered that London Bridge was falling down (sinking into the riverbed) and had to be replaced. In true English entrepreneurial spirit, the bridge was sold; an American oil tycoon, Robert McCulloch, bought the bridge, disassembled it, shipped it to the United States, and then reassembled it in Lake Havasu City, Arizona—a little piece of English history in the American south. The current behemoth was finished in 1972.
The tour came to an end front of the Tower of London. Once again, I didn’t go inside that old castle—I am really exposing myself as a pathetic traveler, I know—but contented myself with walking around the perimeter. From the outside, the Tower of London doesn’t seem to merit the name “tower”; the White Tower, the central citadel which sits at the center of the castle complex, is less than 100 feet tall—almost invisible in the context of London. The castle is quite venerable; it was first constructed by the Normans in the 11th century, and was expanded in the preceding two centuries. At present the Tower of London is a large complex with two concentric layers of stone walls surrounding the central keep, and some additional buildings such as a chapel and a barracks. The outer wall is surrounded by a moat, now left dry. Besides the castle itself, visitors can see several historical objects on display, such as Henry VIII’s armor and—most notably—the Crown Jewels of England.
The Tower of London has played an important and often a nefarious role in English history. For a long time it served as the British version of the Bastille, as a prison for traitors and other political pests. Anne Boleyn, unfortunate wife of Henry VIII, is the most famous prisoner ever to be held and executed in the tower; legend has it that her ghost still travels through the old castle, her severed head under her arm. But as I stood there looking at that stone pile, I thought only of Thomas More, the British intellectual who dreamed of a utopia with freedom of religion, and who was imprisoned in the tower and then executed for being true to his Catholic faith (also by Henry VIII). More’s head was eventually covered in tar and displayed on a pike on the old London Bridge.
The tour guide ended with a short speech, which I will try to reproduce here:
“In this tour, we’ve seen many different types of power. We have the political and military power of the Tower of London, the religious power of St. Paul’s cathedral and the Church of England, and the economic power of the London Stock Exchange. And this, ultimately, is what the City of London has always been about: the use of power to control its own destiny. It’s a place oriented towards the future, constantly striving to master whatever is the next form of social power in order to maintain its dominance in the world’s affairs.”
And this strikes me as perfectly true.
From the Tower of London I made a quick walk to the nearby Tower Bridge. This is the iconic bridge often mistakenly called the London Bridge. It’s a pretty sight, with two neo-Gothic towers supporting two platforms, one higher and one lower. Built in the 1890s, its design, by Sir Joseph Bazalgette, was innovative: a combined suspension bridge and drawbridge. The idea (according to the tour guide) was to allow pedestrians to keep using the bridge even when the drawbridge was drawn up to allow ships to pass.
Pedestrians soon learned, however, that walking up the stairs in one of the towers, crossing the upper platform, and then walking down the stairs in the other platform, took even more time than just waiting for the drawbridge to close again. Accordingly, pedestrians hardly ever used the upper platform, which came to be frequented mainly by criminals and prostitutes; it was closed in 1910. Nowadays, you need to pay an entrance fee to go up to the upper walkway. This is just another example of a brilliant idea that doesn’t take into account basic human realities: an innovative plan for a bridge that ignores the time and effort needed to climb several flights of stairs. It is certainly pretty, though.
As my last stop I made my way to Shoreditch, a neighborhood which had been recommended to me by a Londoner in my Spanish class. Shoreditch is London’s Williamsburg: a previously working class neighborhood that has been gentrified, and is now home to trendy restaurants and technology companies. The area even looks like Williamsburg, with narrower streets and older, shorter buildings, full of colorful shops and cafes. The population, too, is almost indistinguishable from its New York counterpart: men with large mustaches, plaid shirts, and suspenders; women with half their heads shaven, nose rings, and small, tasteful tattoos—in a word, hipsters. I felt right at home. The gentrification is so extreme as to be beyond parody; there is, for example, a cafe, the Cereal Killer Cafe, that serves only breakfast cereal.
To illustrate my own complicity in the world of hipsterdom, I went to a cafe famous for its rainbow-colored bagels, the Brick Lane Beigel Bake. This little cafe is open 24 hours a day, it is cheap, and it is excellent. I didn’t order a rainbow bagel, but instead a ‘hot salt beef’ on a roll. The beef comes with pickles and strong, superb mustard. I had two (for a very reasonable price) and I was stuffed. Another positive mark for English cuisine.
My time was up. My flight was leaving at seven the following morning, which meant I had to wake up at four to give myself enough time to walk to the train station and take the train to the airport.
All told, I spent less than 48 hours in London. I was constantly tired, hungry, and physically exhausted. I ate little, I slept less, and I walked almost constantly—more than 10 hours each day. I spent as little money as I could, and still the trip was expensive. I learned as much as I could, but left the vast majority of the city unseen and unknown. The trip was a physical ordeal and a financial hardship. But in return for all this trouble, I encountered, however briefly, one of the great cities of the world.
The British Museum is a project of the Enlightenment. It is one of the oldest—older than both the Louvre and the Prado—and the biggest museums in the world. Its collection began when Sir Hans Sloane, a doctor and naturalist, bequeathed his private collection of “curiosities” to the state. The collection grew from there, with the goal of encompassing all of human history under one roof. And because the British Empire soon came to dominate half the globe, this ambition was not so ludicrous as it may at first appear. Ironically, you can probably find finer artifacts in the British Museum than in the countries that the exhibits represent.
The museum’s massive collection is housed in an equally massive neoclassical building designed by Robert Smirke. Its collection is divided by era and area: Prehistory, the Ancient Near East, Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece, South Asia, East Asia, the Americas, Africa, and Oceania. Wandering around the museum is like getting lost in a copy of a World History textbook brought to life. The collection is so vast and detailed that the visitor is simply overwhelmed. There is far too much information to take in and process in one visit—even in a dozen visits. Each artifact on display deserves deep study; and when each room is full of hundreds of these artifacts, there is not much you can do except dumbly gape. Likewise, there is not much a writer can do except emulate Sir Hans Sloane and collect curiosities.
I began in the Ancient Near East: Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilization. There is something sacred about the simple fact of age. Seeing ancient artifacts is the closest we get to time travel. The passing years corrode all material things, just as the gentle flowing of a stream eventually cuts through rock. The physical bodies of these ancients have long decayed; everything they knew and loved is gone. And yet, 5,000 years later, the messages they carved still preserve an echo of their voice.
Every time I look at a cuneiform tablet—its crisscrossing wedges and lines unintelligible to me, but visibly a language—I find myself profoundly moved. For all I know, the message is a record of a banal commercial exchange—so many goats for so many bushels of hay—but the simple fact of writing something down, of imprinting words indelibly, signals the beginning of that noble and doomed war against time—the war we call ‘civilization’.
Seeing these first scratches in stone is like catching a glimpse of the universe a few seconds after the big bang. It marks the commencement of something entirely new in history: the ability to transfer knowledge across generations; to develop literature, philosophy, mathematics, and science; to create unchanging codes of law to fairly govern societies; to make the shadows of thought external and permanent. Less fortunately, the beginning of writing also marks the origin of bureaucracy and accounting—indeed, this seems to have been its original purpose, as communities grew too big to be governed by word of mouth.
Perhaps the most impressive object in this section is the Standard of Ur. (This is one of the objects chosen in Neil MacGregor’s series, A History of the World in 100 Objects. You can listen to the segment here. I wish I had read the accompanying book, which looks excellent, before my visit to the museum; it’s on my list.)
It is called a ‘standard’, but nobody really knows what it was used for: a soundbox for a musical instrument or a box to store money for sacred projects—who can say? All we can really determine is that it almost definitely was not a standard, since the drawings are too detailed to be seen from far away. The object dates from 2,600 BCE and consists of a box whose sides depict scenes of war and peace, in three lines of images that look like a comic book. On the war side, we see an army marching off to battle, with armored footsoldiers and men in chariots; below, these charioteers trample enemies underfoot. On the reverse side, we see men seated at a banquet, drinking, while a harpist and a singer provide background music. Below, men are herding animals and carrying sacks of goods on their back, presumably to offer them in tribute to the king.
This standard was found in the site known as the Royal Cementary of Ur, along with objects seen on both the War and the Peace side. Judging from the numerous skeletons in the tomb, it seems that the Sumerians had a practice similar to the Egyptians: upon the death of kings and queens, the royal attendants were put to death to serve their master in the afterlife. I always shudder when I hear about these practices. Drinking poison to follow your king in death seems to be the height of unjust absurdity. I feel angry on behalf of the attendants who lived in oppression and who did not even find freedom in their master’s death. And yet, despite my anger, I can’t help feeling a sort of awe at the level of devotion displayed by this practice. To identify so strongly with a leader that you follow them in death seems hardly human; just as an ant or a bee colony dies with its queen, so these human groups voluntarily put themselves to death.
Violence and oppression thus form the subject-matter of this artifact and surround its discovery. On one side we see the king marching off the war and killing enemies; on the other side the king enjoys the tribute of his hard-working subjects. Nowadays it is impossible to see the society depicted on the Standard of Ur as anything but monstrous: a predatory upper-class stealing from the poor, and then sending the lower-class off to war to defend their bounty and to capture slaves.
But it is worth asking whether the beginning of civilization could have been any different. Humans had just begun farming and forming cities. For the first time in the history of our species, we were living in large, permanent settlements alongside strangers. For the first time, we had enough resources to allow some people in the community to specialize in tasks other than gathering food: priests, soldiers, musicians, administrators, rulers, and artisans. The accumulation of resources always invites raids from without and crimes from within; and fending off these attacks requires organization, leadership, and violence. A community simply couldn’t afford to be anything but authoritarian and militaristic if it hoped to survive. It is an unfortunate fact of human history that justice and security are often at odds—a fact we still confront in the question of surveillance and terrorism.
As a parting thought, I just want to note how remarkable it is that we can look at something like the Standard of Ur—a luxury product made 5,000 years ago, by people who spoke a different language, most of whom couldn’t write, who had a different religion, who lived in a different climate, a people whose experience of the world had so little in common with our own, a people who lived just at the beginning of history—we can look at this object and find it not only intelligible, but beautiful. We experience this same miracle when we read the Epic of Gilgamesh—a story still moving, 4,000 years after it was written down.
In my first anthropology class we learned that humans are cultural creatures, fundamentally shaped by their social environment. But if this were true—if our inborn nature were something negligible and our culture omnipotent—wouldn’t we expect a civilization which flourished in such different circumstances to give rise to art that we couldn’t even hope to understand? And yet, so universal is the human experience that, 5,000 years later, we can still recognize ourselves in the Standard of Ur.
This constancy of our nature is not only manifested in great works of art. For me, the most touching illustration of this are the little baubles and trinkets, the sundry domestic items that give us a taste of daily life in that faraway age. We see the universal human urge to beautify our bodies demonstrated by the jewels of Ancient Greece, Persia, and Egypt, the rings, earrings, pendants, necklaces, armlets, and bracelets which still glitter and charm today—indeed, designs inspired by ancient examples can be bought in the museum store. We see this also in one of the oldest board games ever discovered, the Royal Game of Ur, whose game-board and game-pieces are instantly recognizable by the modern visitor. A cuneiform tablet has also been found which explains the rules, allowing scholars to play the game 4,500 years after its creation (though I can’t find out whether they enjoyed it).
Yet if the continuities are striking, so are the divergences. I feel the gap that separates the present from the ancient past most poignantly whenever I look at a papyrus scroll covered in Egyptian hieroglyphics. Fewer human artifacts look more alien to me than these bits of ancient writing. Lines of simple images—eyes, storks, sparrows, hawks, snakes, scarabs, and many I can’t recognize—run up and down the papyrus, in a parade of symbolic forms. On the top and in the corner are larger drawings, depictions of mythological scenes, illustrations of dead gods and long-forgotten myths. What is most striking is how the writing is a kind of picture, and the pictures a sort of writing; the visual and the verbal are combined into a web of meaning, absolutely saturated with significance.
The thing that is so fascinating about the culture of ancient Egypt is that, for hundreds and thousands of years, through the rise and fall of dynasties and the passing away of dozens of generations, there is a unified, complete, and instantly recognizable aesthetic. It is immediately obvious to any visitor that they have entered the Egyptian section, whether in the first dynasty or the twentieth.
There is undoubtedly something terrifying about this continuity—terrifying about the thought that a society based on gross injustice persisted, with its culture nearly unchanged, for a span of time that dwarfs that of our own Western culture. But it is also easy for me to imagine the deep satisfaction enabled by such a complete mythology—a symbolic worldview that decorates every surface, imbues every hour of the day with importance, structures the year and explains the cosmos, penetrates into the depths of reality and even looks beyond the veil that separates life from death. I feel similar stirrings when I look at an illuminated manuscripts from our own Middle Ages, an artifact not so different from the Egyptian scrolls.
In any exhibition on ancient Egypt the mummies are always the stars—those shrunken, dried corpses carefully wrapped and sealed in stone sarcophagi to be sent down the eons. When I was there, a crowd was gathered around a mummy of a woman named Cleopatra, perhaps in the mistaken belief that she was Mark Antony’s famous paramour. Yet the most moving object in the Egypt section, for me, is the colossal bust of Ramesses II. (This was also featured on The History of the World in 100 Objects; you can listen to it here.)
Ramesses II was one of the most effective leaders in all of Egypt’s history. He was born about 1,300 years before the common era, and lived 90 long years, making his reign not only the most iconic, but the longest of ancient Egypt. An energetic general, statesman, and administrator, he was most of all a builder. He presided over the construction of dozens of colossal statues, temples, monuments, and palaces. It was this Ramesses who inaugurated the Abu Simbel complex, whose great temple includes four colossal statues (20 meters, or 66 feet high) of Ramesses himself, carved directly from the hillside. Ramesses was also responsible for the so-called Ramesseum, not a tomb, but a temple complex built for the worship of him, the deified Ramesses, during his reign and after his death.
The bust of Ramesses in the British Museum was taken from this Ramesseum. It is only a fragment: the base of the statue, in which the pharaoh is seated, is still in the Ramesseum. Napoleon’s troops first tried and failed to move the statue; then the British hired an Italian adventurer to do it, who used a combination of pulleys, hydraulics, and old-fashioned manpower. As Neil MacGregor notes, it is a testament to the power and ingenuity of the Egyptians that, 3,000 years later, their statues still require technical tours de forces to move. Imagine the discipline, organization, and sheer amount of sweat and backbreaking effort to move the original stone?
Cracked and battered as he is, the statue still has the effect that its creator intended: the impression of calm omnipotence. The pharaoh looks down serenely from a great height—imperturbable, immovable, eternal. Such a work is clearly the product of a culture in its prime, when artistic execution and social organization were raised to the pitch of perfection. As a mere display of technique, the statue is remarkable: the ability to transport such a massive block of stone, and then to chip away and polish the surface until all that remains is a perfect image of power. And you can imagine how effective these images were as propaganda, in a time before television or telescreens.
In life, Ramesses was as close as any human can get to complete power. In death, he was worshipped as a god. His name and his face have come down to us from over 3,000 years ago. This statue has outlasted whole kingdoms and countries; and there is a good chance it will keep persisting, even when (God forbid) the British Museum is no more. So you might say that, as propaganda, the statue has been an unmitigated success. And yet, Ramesses himself, his empire, and his entire culture—all of them have passed into memory, leaving only their stones and their bones. Impressive as the bust undeniably is, it is also undeniable that it now stands as a sample of Egyptian statuary, to be gawked at by visitors, impressed but certainly not worshipful.
All wood rots, all iron rusts, and everything human turns to dust. Shelley, upon hearing reports of this very bust of Ramesses II, put this sentiment into famous lines:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
The final irony is that those immortal lines, like Ramesses’s bust, have outlasted their makers and will likely last as long as there are humans who worry about the finitude of life.
If there is any hope of immortality, it is through the communication of our ideas—something demonstrated most poignantly by the Rosetta Stone. That ancient document—an administrative decree about taxes and tithes—now stands in the British Museum as a testament to the ability of different cultures in different places and times to understand one another. In the modern world it has become trendy to agonize about the impossibility of translation and the gulfs that separate different cultural worldviews. But humans have been translating since the beginning of history; and the very fact that we can decipher a long-dead language, written in an archaic script, using another translation of an ancient language written in another archaic script, shows that communication can transcend wide differences of perspective.
I have already spent far too much space describing the treasures of the British Museum. But I cannot leave off without a mention of the Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon.
The Parthenon, as everyone knows, is the most important and iconic ruin from Ancient Greece. Built during Athens’ golden age as a temple to their patron goddess, Athena, it has been both a church and a mosque in its long life. The Ottomans even decided to use the temple to store ammunition—guessing that their enemies, the Venetians, would never dare to fire at such a hallowed edifice. This guess was incorrect; in 1687 a Venetian bomb detonated the ammunition inside, causing a massive explosion that left only the building’s husk intact. Then in 1800 an art-loving British aristocrat, the Earl of Elvin, in highly dubious circumstances, excavated sculptures and friezes from the ruined Parthenon to decorated his home. But a costly divorce forced him to sell his home and his collection to the British government. As a result, the parts of the Parthenon, in the next chapter of their long and battered history, found their way into the British Museum.
Unsurprisingly, this acquisition is controversial. Imagine if a museum in England had a part of Mount Rushmore. Americans wouldn’t be happy, and neither are the Greeks. The Greek government has been trying to repossess the collection since 1983. There are many arguments averred for sending the marbles back to Greece. The most compelling is the simplest: that the Parthenon is one of the most important cultural monuments in European history, and should be as complete as possible. In any case, the legality of the original transfer has always been questioned: it’s possible that Elvin didn’t have official permission from the Ottoman Empire. In England, public opinion was divided at the time—Lord Byron famously thought it was inexcusable vandalism—and seems to be in favor of returning the collection nowadays. The British Museum is (also unsurprisingly) in favor of keeping the marbles.
For my part, it seems unquestionably just to return the Elgin marbles to Athens. I do admit, however, that I was grateful for the opportunity to see the Parthenon friezes in the British Museum. The display is excellent, allowing the visitor to clearly see the friezes and the statues. If the marbles were inserted back into their original places in the Parthenon (if this is even possible), then they wouldn’t be as clearly visible. And if the marbles were merely displayed in a museum in Athens, then I’m not sure there would be any improvement of presentation. Nevertheless, it does seem that strict justice demands that the marbles be returned.
As for the Elgin marbles themselves—the friezes, metopes, and pediments that line the wall of one enormous exhibit in the British Museum—what is there to be said? The sculptures are likely the most studied and analyzed works of art in Western history; and not only that, they are perhaps the most influential. Almost from the start these works have defined and illustrated classical taste. Indeed, the Parthenon has served as such a ubiquitous model for later artists that it is nearly impossible to respond to them as genuine works of art. They are immediately familiar; you feel that you’ve seen it all before, even if this is your first time in the British Museum.
To the modern eye, the Parthenon sculptures can appear cold, austere, and timeless—perfect human forms carved from perfect white marble. It is scandalous to imagine that these frigid sculptures were once painted with gaudy colors; and inconceivable that, once upon a time, these paragons of artistic orthodoxy were once innovative and daring works that broke every convention.
A visitor to the British Museum can catch a glimpse of the originality of these works if they visit the Babylonian and Egyptian sections first. Moving on from those precursors to the Greeks, you can see obvious continuities—heros and gods, mythological beings and legends, religious processions and rituals—but the changes are even more striking. In the Parthenon, we see a new thing in history: a confident belief in the powers of human intelligence and creativity. Unlike the static and rigid bodies of Egyptian pharaohs, sitting straight up and look straight ahead, we see bodies twisting, turning, leaping, extending, straining—in other words, we see the human body in motion, propelled by its own force. This is not a society that believes in stable order, but in ceaseless striving.
The new perspective is illustrated most clearly by the metopes depicting the centauromachy: the battle between the human lapiths and the half-human half-animal centaurs. In Egyptian mythology, many of the gods were half-animal; and Sumerian palaces were often guarded by the sphinx-like lamassus. In both of these cultures, the natural world, the world of animal life, was seen as a source of power and cosmic order. Yet in the Parthenon the half-animal creatures, the centaurs, are agents of chaos and destruction—creatures who must be conquered and vanquished. For better or for worse, this urge to conquer our own animal nature has been with us ever since.
There are so many more—thousands and thousands more—works that deserve deep contemplation in the museum’s collection, but I will stop here. Yet as I take leave of the British Museum, I want to leave you with one parting thought.
No institution I have seen better illustrates both the enormous strengths and the limitations of the Enlightenment than the British Museum. And because the Enlightenment is very much still with us, it is vital that we understand these strengths and limitations.
Its strengths are undeniable, especially in the context of history. As compared with what came before it, the conception of humanity and history embodied in the museum is undoubtedly an advance. Europeans began to be interested in non-Europeans cultures. Their sense of ancient history began to extend far beyond Ancient Greece and the tribes of Israel. Instead of focusing on their own country or their own religion, Europeans could conceive of humanity as a whole, with a single origin and a common destiny. The museum also demonstrates the democratic spirit of the Enlightenment. The knowledge is put on display for all to see and learn, not sequestered in schools or guarded by jealous academics. Just as the friezes of the Parthenon illustrate the confidence in human intelligence, so does the British Museum exemplify the new, boundless confidence in human reason—the belief that the world is intelligible, that we can communicate our knowledge to anyone, and that our knowledge is not bounded by creed, language, or nation.
But the museum also demonstrates the limitation of this universalist aim. For the idea of a museum that encompasses all of human history relies on the idea that we can create a neutral context in which to understand that history. This underlying notion is clear at a glance: each room—plain, white, full of right-angles—is filled with objects wrenched from their original context. Some of this context is restored, but only as information on panels. My question is: can a modern visitor, looking at a bracelet from ancient Egypt, reading about that bracelet on its accompanying caption, really grasp what this bracelet was to the jewel-maker who created it or the aristocrat who wore it? For comparison, imagine walking into a museum filled with objects from your room, except each object is carefully labeled and sits on its own display. Could any visitor understand what life was like for you?
My point is that there is something inescapably artificial and sterile about the museum. In attempting to create a universal history, a neutral context for information, the museum transforms its objects and imposes a new context. The original meaning of each artifact, how they were used and understood by their creators, is abolished; and instead, each artifact becomes a piece of evidence in a specifically Enlightenment story about the growth of humankind.
To put this another way, the Enlightenment attitude fails to come to grips with how our attempts to understand the world transform what we’re trying to understand. When knowledge is seen as impersonal, existing in a neutral context, simply a matter of seeing and describing, then knowledge becomes blind to its own power. And the British Museum is, among many other things, a demonstration of British power: the financial, political, and military means to scour the world and collect its most valuable objects into one location. It is also a demonstration of British intellectual power: the power to understand all of human history, to see truly and to interpret correctly, to escape provincialism into neutral universality.
I need to pause here. I sound as if I am being harshly critical of the British Museum, and indeed I am. But the truth is that my brief visit was staggering. I saw and learned so much in such a short time that I cannot possibly deny that I think the museum is valuable. The reason I level these criticisms at the British Museum is not because I think this intellectual project it represents is bankrupt or futile, but because, with all its flaws and limitations, with all its political and economic underpinnings, it seems to be the best we have yet achieved in humanity’s understanding of itself. I see these challenges not as reasons to despair—any intellectual project will have its limitations—but as spurs to creative solutions.
Some gentlemen have made an amazing figure in literature by general discontent with the universe as a trap of dullness into which their great souls have fallen by mistake; but the sense of a stupendous self and an insignificant world may have its consolations.
I did not think a book like this was possible. A work of fiction with a thesis statement, a narrator who analyzes more often than describes, a morality play and an existential drama, and all this in the context of a realistic, historical novel—such a combination seems unwieldy and pretentious, to say the least. Yet Middlemarch never struck me as over-reaching or overly ambitious. Eliot not only manages to make this piece of universal art seem plausible, but her mastery is so perfect that the result is as natural and inevitable as a lullaby.
Eliot begins her story with a question: What would happen if a woman with the spiritual ardor of St. Theresa were born in 19th century rural England? This woman is Dorothea; and this book, although it includes dozens of characters, is her story. But Dorothea, and the rest of the people who populate her Middlemarch, is not only a character; she is a test-subject in a massive thought experiment, an examination intended to answer several questions:
To what extent is an individual responsible for her success or failure? How exactly does the social environment act upon the individual—in daily words and deeds—to aid or impede her potential? And how, in turn, does the potent individual act to alter her environment? What does it mean to be a failure, and what does it mean to be successful? And in the absence of a coherent social faith, as Christianity receded, what does it mean to be good?
As in any social experiment, we must have an experimental group, in the form of Dorothea, as well as a control group, in the form of Lydgate. The two are alike in their ambition. Lydgate’s ambition is for knowledge. He is a country doctor, but he longs to do important medical research, to pioneer new methods of treatment, and to solve the mysteries of sickness, death, and the human frame. Dorothea’s ambitions are more vague and spiritual. She is full of passionate longing, a hunger for something which would give coherence and meaning to her life, an object to which she could dedicate herself body and soul.
Lydgate begins with many advantages. For one, his mission is not a vague hope, but a concrete goal, the path to which he can chart and see clearly. Even more important, he is a man from a respectable family. Yes, there is some prejudice against him in Middlemarch, for being an outsider, educated abroad and with strange notions; but this barrier can hardly be compared with the those which faced even the most privileged woman in Middlemarch. For her part, Dorothea is born into a respectable family with adequate means. But her sex closes so many paths to action that the only important decision she can make is whom she will marry.
Dorothea’s choice of a husband sets the tone for the rest of her story. Faced with two options—the young, handsome, and rich Sir James Chettam, and the dry, old scholar, Mr. Casaubon—she surprises and disappoints nearly everyone by choosing the latter. Dorothea does this because she knows herself and she trusts herself; she is not afraid of being judged, and she does not care about status or wealth.
The first important decision Lydgate makes is who to recommend as chaplain for the new hospital, and this, too, sets the tone for the rest of his story. His choice is between Mr. Tyke, a disagreeable, doctrinaire puritan, and Mr. Farebrother, his friend and an honest, humane, and intelligent man. Lydgate’s inclination is towards the latter, but under pressure from Bulstrode, the rich financier of the new hospital, Lydgate chooses Mr. Tyke. In other words, he distinctly does not trust himself, and he allows his intuition of right and wrong to be swayed by public opinion and self-interest.
Dorothea’s choice soon turns out to be disastrous, while Lydgate’s works in his favor, as Bulstrode puts him in charge of the new hospital. Yet Eliot shows us that Dorothea’s choice was ultimately right and Lydgate’s ultimately wrong. For we cannot know beforehand how our choices will turn out; the future is hidden, and we must dedicate ourselves to both people and projects in ignorance. The determining factor is not whether it turned out well for you, but whether the choices was motivated by brave resolve or cowardly capitulation. You might say that this is the existentialist theme of Eliot’s novel: the necessity to act boldly in the absence of knowledge.
Dorothea’s act was bold and courageous; and even though Mr. Casaubon is soon revealed to be a wearisome, passionless, and selfish academic, her choice was nonetheless right, because she did her best to act authentically, fully in accordance with her moral intuition. Lydgate’s choice, even though it benefited him, established a pattern that ends in his bitter disappointment. He allowed himself to yield to circumstances; he allowed his self-interest to overrule his moral intuition: and this dooms him.
(Eliot, I should mention, seems to prefer what philosophers call an intuitionist view of moral action: that is, we must obey our conscience. Time and again Eliot shows how immoral acts are made to appear justified through conscious reasoning, and how hypocrites use religious or social ideologies to quiet their uneasy inner voice: “when gratitude becomes a matter of reasoning there are many ways of escaping from its bonds.”)
Eliot’s view of success or failure stems from this exploration of choice: success means being true to one’s moral intuition, and failure means betraying it. Dorothea continues to trust herself and to choose boldly, without regard for her worldly well-being or for conventional opinion. Lydgate, meanwhile, keeps buckling under pressure. He marries almost by accident, breaking a strong resolution he made beforehand, and then goes on to betray, one after the other, every other strong resolution of his, until his life’s plan has been lost entirely, chipped away by a thousand small circumstances.
Dorothea ends up on a lower social level than she started, married to an eccentric man of questionable blood, gossiped about in town and widely seen as a social failure. Lydgate, meanwhile, becomes “successful”; his beautiful wife is universally admired, and his practice is profitable and popular. But this conventional judgment means nothing; for Dorothea can live in good conscience, while Lydgate cannot.
But is success, for Eliot, so entirely dependent on intention, and so entirely divorced from results? Not exactly. For the person who is true to her moral intuition—even if she fails in her plans, even if she falls far short of her potential, and even if she is disgraced in the eyes of society—still exerts a beneficent effect on her surroundings.
Anyone who selflessly and boldly follows her moral intuition encourages everyone she meets, however subtly, to follow this example: as Eliot says of Dorothea, “the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive.” Eliot shows this most touchingly in the meeting between Dorothea and Rosamond. Although Rosamond is vain, selfish, and superficial, the presence of Dorothea prompts her to one of the only unselfish acts of her life.
From reading this review, you might get the idea that this book is merely a philosophical exercise. But Eliot’s most miraculous accomplishment is to combine this analysis with an immaculate novel. The portrait she gives of Middlemarch is so fully realized, without any hint of strain or artifice, that the reader feels that he has bought a cottage there himself.
Normally at this point in a review, I add some criticisms; but I cannot think of a single bad thing to say about this book. Eliot’s command of dialogue and characterization, of pacing and plot-development, cannot be faulted. She moves effortlessly from scene to scene, from storyline to storyline, showing how the private is interwoven with the public, the social with the psychological, the economical with the amorous—how our vices are implicated in our virtues, how our good intentions shot through with ulterior motives, how our hopes and fears are mixed up with our routine reality—never simplifying the ambiguities of perspective or collapsing the many layers of meaning—and yet she is always in perfect command of her mountains of material.
A host of minor characters marches through these pages, each one individualized, many of them charming, some hilarious, a few irritating, and all of them vividly real. I could see parts of myself in every one of them, from the petulant Fred Vincey, to the blunt Mary Garth, to the frigid Mr. Casaubon, to the muddle-headed Mr. Brooke—almost Dickensian in his comic exaggeration—to every gossip, loony, miser, dissolute, profilage, and tender heart—the list cannot be finished.
Perhaps Eliot’s most astounding feat is to combine the aesthetic, with the ethical, with the analytic, in such a way that you can no longer view them separately. Eliot’s masterpiece charms as it preaches; it is both beautiful and wise; it pulls on the heart while engaging the head; and it is, in the words of Virgina Woolf, “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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—TheMona 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.
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.
(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!”
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.