Sunday, April 30, 2017

Mona Lisa selfie

      To my credit, I did not plan to visit the Louvre during our recent trip to Paris. For several reasons. First, I saw it during my last trip, 24 years ago. Been there, done that. Second, and more importantly, my wife didn't have fond memories of what she recalled as hulking time-darkened medieval works plastering across endless, packed galleries. And third, both of us much preferred the Impressionist art at the Museum d'Orsey, which we went to immediately.
      But we were in Paris nearly a full week, and the expected exerts a gravitational pull. Something we had already noticed in Florence, when a friend of our son's insisted we visit a certain sandwich shop. The line in front of the shop was long, we waited a half hour, while other shops were empty. When we got our coveted sandwiches they were ... just okay. A reminder that the wildly popular is sometimes better, sometimes not.
    So the tractor beam of the Louvre eventually pulled us in. And once there, we shuffled, zombie-like, toward the Mona Lisa, like salmon fighting their way upriver. You have to. There are mute signs, with just her black and white image and an arrow, to both satisfy the common urge and to reduce wear and tear on the guards. Plus, the idea of going to the Louvre and not seeing the painting, it feels almost perverse, like going to Fort Lauderdale and not seeing the ocean. 
     On the way to see the star, we enjoyed the Louvre more than we thought. It was brighter, the pictures, fresher. Maybe a quarter century of general cleaning and restoration. Maybe our tastes are more refined now.
    And it was worth it just for the shock of arriving at the large room containing the Mona Lisa. It's a madhouse, jammed with visitors, all trying to get pictures of themselves with the Mona Lisa in the frame.
    Even before you glimpse the painting, a wave of humidity, sickly sweet, slightly perfumed, hits you in the face. The moisture from all those bodies. It's like being in a crowded locker room with art.
    And why? Because the Mona Lisa is the most famous painting in the world. And this particular painting is the most famous of all paintings because ... any idea? No, not the smile. She was just another one of Da Vinci's works, no different than this "Portrait of a Woman" which museum-goers flock by with nary a glance on their way to the Mona Lisa. 
     But in 1911, a worker named Vincenzo Peruggia, hired to cut a pane of glass for the painting, instead rolled it up, tucked it under his coat, and walked out of the museum with it. The Mona Lisa was so not famous that it took a day for anyone to notice it was missing. And it stayed missing for two years, the Da Vinci tucked in his trunk while the theft made more and more headlines -- at one point Picasso was a suspect, and the chief of the Paris police resigned out of embarrassment. It was only returned after Peruggia, who like most criminals was no Lex Luthor, tried to sell it to the Uffizi Gallery. 
    So that's what you're crowding to see--the after-echo of a true crime mystery. That's why the crowds are there. But why all the photos? Hard to take in a throng, the image muddied by the protective glass. You could buy a perfect postcard in the gift shop for 1.2 euros. But that wouldn't satisfy the "Kilroy was here!" impulse that has us in its thrall, the Facebook urge to document our precious selves. A manifestation of the brainless egotism that has so thoroughly gripped our times.  I'm not excluding myself, though I generally resist the urge to include myself in photos. I know what I look like.
    The Mona Lisa is so popular it almost can't be perceived. Like Grant Wood's "American Gothic." You see it and think of the parodies. To be honest, I far more appreciated Da Vinci's "Portrait de la Femme," in the next room. I can't tell if the painting is substantively finer, or just less familiar, which are pretty much the same thing in the art world. Nothing kills a work more than over-exposure, and attention has in essence ruined the Mona Lisa. The Mona Lisa's smile is famously enigmatic, but this unknown woman seemed, to me, downright hostile. As if she's saying, "Go ahead, fawn over the bitch in the next room." I looked for a postcard in the gift shop of her, but of course there were none to be had, among the hundreds and hundreds of duplicates of M.L.
       This has to be a transitional phase, all this picture taking. A little gap between the time when we used film, which cost money, and limited our number of shots, and the time when we wear some device that constantly films our surroundings, as a matter of security. No wonder we revere the past, or at least our ragged perceptions of what it might have been  like.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

"Another voice, then"

     It is surprisingly easy to overlook the Baptistery of San Giovanni, a plain—well, plain relative to its surroundings — octagonal building sitting in the courtyard of the vastly larger, vastly more stunning, ornate and magnificent Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, commonly called the Duomo.
     The first time I went to Florence, in 1999, I didn't even go inside the baptistery. 
     But that was before I caught what my wife recently called "your Dante thing," and on my recent trip I made a point of ponying up the 12 euro entrance fee and going inside to take a peek, even as my loved ones took a pass. 
     This is, after all, the place where Dante was baptized on March 26, 1266. It is not often you get to sit in a room 750 years old. There is a wonderful, spare beauty to the altar, which looks like this.

     I spent a long time looking straight up, at the mosaic ceiling. It looks like this:

     As I did, a thought came to me. The thought went something like this:
     You know... that ceiling. It sorta echoes the entire structure of The Divine Comedy. You've got Satan below. You've got the mortal world above, then the angels above. Here Dante gets all this credit for imagining the nine rings of hell, and the complex design of his masterpiece. Maybe he got the idea for the whole thing merely by looking up.
    Nah, I thought. That can't be. If it were possible, I'd have heard of it. Seven hundred years is a long time. Who knows when the ceiling was even decorated? 
     In 1225, it turns out. Forty years before Dante's birth.
     Okay, I would have certainly read about it. I've certainly read enough Dante commentary. My idea of fun, embarrassing as it is to admit. This isn't some Dan Brown novel where important clues sit out in plain sight waiting centuries to be noticed. Amateurs do not discover important aspects of literature heretofore unnoticed. If it were at all a valid thought, somebody would have had it and mentioned it. 
    Turns out, somebody did. When I got home, I immediately pulled down my go-to guide for all things Dante, Barbara Reynold's masterful, Dante: The Poet, the Political Thinker, the Man. The world's foremost Dante scholar doesn't mince words while describing Dante's upbringing:
     Images of evil were depicted everywhere. In particular, the cupola of the Baptistery was decorated with mosaics arranged in rectangles, placed symmetrically, representing Hell, Purgatory and Paradise, the Last Judgment and, of special importance for the Commedia, a grotesque figure of Satan, with three mouths, two protruding snake-like from the sides of his head, each devouring a sinner, an image with which Dante was familiar from earliest childhood. His presentation of Lucifer in Inferno resembles it closely, even to the sinners being crunched in his three mouths.
   Ah good, not original to me, but at least I'm not off-base either. The detail she's referring to is this.
     What I think this little episode illustrates the value of seeing something for yourself, versus reading about it in a book. I'm all for books. Still, I had certainly read the lines in Reynolds' book, then promptly forgot them. 
     But seeing the mosaic on the ceiling of the Baptistery -- that isn't going to slip out of mind anytime soon.
      My wife and son had bowed out—save 24 euros, gone to get some cappuccino, leave dad to his madness. I didn't blame them. And honestly, I was glad for the time alone, to sit not only where Dante squalled as a baby, but where he yearned all his life to return.
     In Canto 25 of Paradiso, he pines for the place:
Should it ever come to pass that this sacred poem
to which both Heaven and earth have set their hand
so that it has made me lean for many years, 
should overcome the cruelty that locks me out
of the fair sheepfold where I slept as a lamb
foe of the wolves at war with it, 
with another voice then, with another fleece,
shall I return a poet and, at the font,
where I was baptized, take the laurel crown.
     I like the "made me lean for many years." Just another frustrated writer bitching about the paltriness of his reward. Which is no doubt why I like Dante so much. Not for Beatrice, not for all the Florentine politics or Catholic cosmology. But for the swollen, aching ego, so real across the centuries. Something I relate to.
     Also the "with another voice then, with another fleece..." What exactly does that mean? There's a lot of obscure stuff in the Commedia -- to this day nobody can figure out what "between Feltro and Feltro" means. Maybe he meant that he's hoping to come back, perhaps disguised. "Vello" means fleece, but it also means "veil." Or... not to put on airs ... but maybe he was referring, not to himself returning at all—hope of that was fading as he wrote Paradiso, which was not discovered until as his death. But maybe he was thinking of other people, of strangers, speaking in other voices, wearing other garb. To, maybe, guys like me. Who, if the poem was as popular as Dante seemed convinced it would be, might shamble by, centuries and centuries later, to sit for 20 minutes on a bench, and think about him, and grant him the honor he so hungered to receive at that spot.

The relevant lines quoted above from Paradiso Canto 25 are carved in marble, generally unnoticed, outside the Baptistery. 

Friday, April 28, 2017

"This is as actual a part of living as being born"

     Concrete sounded terrible.
     "You don't sound so good," I told him.
     "I'm very weak," he replied. "I don't think I will be able to call you. I have edema all over my body. My nephew is a doctor and he says I have maybe weeks. I think that might be optimistic. I think more likely days."
     He would die the next day, April 5
     Concrete had been phoning me at the newspaper for 15 years. Once a week, once a month--it's not like I kept track. To comment on columns. To talk about stuff. He had a blunt, rounded Chicago voice, massaging his "t's" into "d's.
     "Hi, it's Concrede..." he'd say.
     He was pleasant and informed and often complimentary. But still, for years I viewed him as something of a nuisance. I had things to do. I'd surf the web while we talked. It's not something I thought much about. I had no idea, for instance, why I called him "Concrete" -- his business, maybe.
     But over the past few months, he got sick—heart failure—and started to die. I began paying closer attention. A heart transplant was not an option.
     "I can't see taking a heart from someone younger," he said. "I'm not Dick Cheney."
     He could have fought harder but, at 69, he didn't see the point.
     "It's not like I'm jumping at death, but you gotta be realistic," he said. "Seventeen years ago I had a triple bypass, so I've actually outlived most people with the condition I had. Things are coming to the conclusion. This is as actual a part of living as being born. I know it's a cliche but it's true."
     I was concerned he was alone, but, the oldest of seven children, six boys and a girl, he had relatives around.
     "I feel terrible being a burden to them," he said. "My nephew carrying me down the stairs. I liked it better when I carried him."
     What's it like, knowing that you are going to die soon?
     "In a way it's almost a gift," he said. "I get to say thank you to people, to try to make amends to people I've offended by commission or omission. To forgive those who've done things to me."
     Was he worried about what might come after death?
     "Reason only carries you so far," he said. "That's where things like faith come in. I hope for some survival of awareness. I can't be sure there is. I've fallen back on Christian tradition. There are things beyond what our brains can comprehend."
     He had a lot of good memories.
     "My niece Dana on my shoulders, leaving the Auto Show, the kids waving bye-bye to everyone as they were going out of a the Auto Show. It's a nice memory. My God, I've been thinking of so many good memories, things when I was a kid, my dad, funny things. Seven kids, one bathroom, I once tried to see if the toilet would swallow a potato."
     Any regrets, besides that?
     "Oh God," he said. "I wish I had years and years, I had plans with my brothers, stuff like that. You have to let all that go. People are saying good-bye to me. I'm saying good-bye to everybody. There's a sadness to it, an anger phase, I've come to acceptance ... though I'm also still angry about it. I'll probably die that way."
     Toward the end, I thought to ask something I had never asked before
     "Concrete, what's your name?"
     "My name is Michael Rosewell," he said. "It's an English name. My great-grandfather was a remittance man. The family was paid to leave England and never come back."
     Why did I call him "Concrete"? I had written something about touring the engine room of a ship in the mid-Atlantic.
     "I told you that in Vietnam we experimented with concrete hulls for ships, and you started to call me 'Concrete,'" he said. "When it's over I'll have someone call you..."
     True to his word, the day before I left on vacation, I got a phone message from his brother.
     "He never married, never had any children," said Joseph Rosewell. "He always felt like the nieces and nephews were the children he never had."
     Rosewell died in Garfield Ridge, in the house his parents bought 66 years ago. His brother said he was greatly missed.
     "He was the leader, he was highly intelligent, you could see that, could sense that right away," said Rosewell. "He was always ready to share things. He loved to talk, loved to have us sit around and chat, hey, have a cup of coffee with me, one thing turn to another and we were having a great conversation."
     I can vouch for that. I never met the man, but felt bad, missing his funeral. The day I arrived in Rome, the first church I came upon was a lovely 16th century cathedral, the Trinità dei Monti. at the top of the Spanish Steps. I put a coin in the box and lit one of the short round votive candles and said a prayer for Michael Rosewell.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

More for me

     Don't get me wrong. I like money as much as the next guy. Maybe even more so.
     If you were to say, "Would you like some more money, Neil?" I would immediately reply, "Yes, please!" and hold my cupped hands out for your to pour the money in.
     And yet. When Trump announced his big tax cut Wednesday, my immediate reaction was not: "Goody, more for me." 

     Instead, it was the same furrowed concern that greets every Trump proposal. Did he think this through? Did anyone? What gets pitched over the side so American taxes, low already, can go even lower? We've already seen funding slashed for environmental protection, the state department, the arts budget gone. What's next? 
     What about the deficit? I thought Republicans were crazed to slash the deficit, all important when it comes to funding programs that help poor kids. Not a dollar for them unless the dollar is cut somewhere else. 
     All out the windows. Suddenly we are boosting the national debt by trillions of dollars so Apple can pay a lower tax rate than it already does.
     And me too. Though, like the stock market bump, I'm not spending it yet. Given Trump's dismal record of accomplishment, there is little reason to suspect a connection between what he says he's going to do and what he indeed will do. Who knows? Today's promise is tomorrow's shrugged-off rhetoric. It's like those Jewish groups clutching themselves in relief this week because Trump uttered some reassuring words about the Holocaust. You want to snarl: "Really? He's still a liar. Just because his lies are words you want to hear, at the moment, doesn't change that."
     And how much will this widen the yawning divide, between those who struggle for crumbs, and guys like me who live in a padded world of steady salaries and health benefits and insurance and better health care for my dog than millions of Americans enjoy for themselves?
    A lot, I bet. Based on narrow self-interest, I should be glad, because my pot gets sweeter. But self-interest can be defined in more than one way.
    A young man of my acquaintance expressed what I thought was an embarrassing placidity over the advent of Trump—a common reaction of the young, I'm distressed to note, lumping Trump into the same box with the politicians and parents, the sagging old world.
     Is he not, I wondered, concerned?
     Nah, he said, he wasn't Muslim, he wasn't Hispanic, or any of the other special focuses of the animus of Trump and his administration. None of this would likely affect him. He'd be fine.
     I carefully considered my reply, and said:
     "But you are affected," I said. "You have to live in the country where it's happening."

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

"Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable"

     James Joyce hated Rome. For reasons that had much to do with him and little with the Eternal City. He was 24 years old, drifting with his new family, forced to work in an Italian bank, copying letters -- up to 200 a day. “Rome reminds me of a man who lives by exhibiting to travellers his grandmother’s corpse.” he wrote to his brother.
     Harsh. Yet a damnation that echoed in my ears, not only while revisiting the wonders of the Vatican Museum, its arching gilt hallways stretching to the horizon, but to other cities as well: to Florence, for instance, at the Uffizi, with its harem of Botticellis, and the Galleria dell'Accademia, Michelangelo's David a marvel undiminished by 500 years.  

   Wondrous. But also half a millennium old, nearly. Doesn't anybody in Italy do anything magnificent anymore? Besides Ferraris, I mean. Everything of value seemed either 500 years old or baked that morning.
     As if to answer my question, as soon as we set foot in Venice, my 21-year-old, with the radar for the Happening Thing of the Moment the young innately possess, announced there was someplace he wanted to go. My wife and I tagged after him like a pair of pull toy ducks as he hurried through narrow alleys and across little bridges to the Palazzo Grassi to see the Damien Hirst show, "Treasures from thee Wreck of the Unbelievable."
     Hirst is a British artist. Going in, I knew exactly two things about his work: one, he created those huge glass boxes with sharks and cows suspended in formaldehyde; and two, a decade ago he crafted a diamond encrusted platinum skull that embodies the insanely inflated values of the contemporary art world....

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Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The most beautiful library in Paris

    I could put on airs and pretend I knew it was there. 
    But the truth is, I didn't.
    The way I found myself in the Bibliothèque nationale de France -- the National Library of France -- is this: I was visiting Paris for the third time last week, had been to the Louvre and the Museum d'Orsey, Notre Dame Cathedral and the Arc de Tri0mphe, the Opera and the Eiffel Tower. What, I wondered, did I want to do new? 
     I really like libraries. Not for the books, per se, but for some intangible grandeur they preserve. Maybe the idea of books having value, once, and perhaps still. They're just beautiful. I'm not sure I can explain it. 
    So I plugged in "Most beautiful library into Paris" into Google and came up with this. I think it was the distinctive beige ceiling, with its round skylights, that made me have to see it for myself. 
     The Richelieu Reading Room, as the above space is called, because its address is 58 rue de Richelieu is open only to researchers. Which I learned when the guard tried to turn me away. It was ironic. In many cultural institutions through Italy and Paris, journalists are admitted free -- either out of respect or pity. But here, where there was no charge, I couldn't get in. I appealed to the guard, who said he didn't speak English, and summoned an administrator who did. I explained to her that I am a journalist from Chicago who wanted to step into the reading room.
    "People are doing research," she said. "They do not want to be disturbed." I realized she perhaps thought I was there to quiz people, perhaps about the upcoming presidential election. I assured here I wouldn't talk to anybody. I just wanted to see the place. She waved me in, another victory for French flexibility. I thought of the guard at the Library of Congress -- whom readers of my Chicago memoir might recall -- would flatly refused to let my 7-year-old son see the reading room because he wasn't a registered researcher like his dad.
"Please return the books to their place."
    The room was worth the struggle. 
    If it looks extra fresh for a 143-year-old library, that's because it just reopened last May after five years of renovation work. 
     Tracing its roots to 1368, and the royal library founded by Charles V, the library has 14 million volumes, and is the repository for books published in France. Of course it has other buildings than this stupendous space, constructed in 1868, designed by Henry Labrouste.        At the time it was the Imperial National Library, and the room was the Salle de Travail--the workroom -- for the Department of Prints. Finished in 1873, it holds 80,000 books over three stories of shelves, seats nearly 330 readers, is divided into nine domes by 16 cast iron columns supporting spherical cupolas, "the successful disposition of which marks a distinct advance in the art of architecture," according to the Oct. 24, 1891 issue of The American Architect and Building News,  which noted its  "grand imperial effect."
    Indeed. Though the place was criticized when new. A British visitor in 1870 noted "the lighting of the new room is by no means satisfactory, there being too much light in summer and too little in winter. indeed, on more than one occasion last winter the reading room had to be closed before four o'clock, owing to the want of light."
     The library was not gas-lit for obvious reasons -- the technology was still crude, and gas lights tended to cause fires, a particularly problem in a library holding not only the literary patrimony of France, but ancient Greek manuscripts.
    Although that was part of a general takedown, criticizing it for being noisy, poorly ventilated, lacking blotting paper, and decorated by medallions of writers exaggerating French contributions to literary, containing "three errors for which a child at school would be whipped." 
   Getting in was a challenge from the start, I was pleased to note. Though the librarians, "and indeed all those in any way connected to the establishment" were "polite and affable," those seeking admission had to submit "application at the bureau de l'administration" and show "that they have some definite object in view."
     "Foreigners are generally requested to make an application through their ambassadors, but for the benefit of English readers we may mention that the production of the British Museum reading ticket will immediately admit for the bearer a card of admission."
     In view of that, I got off light. I spent maybe 15 minutes, tops, in the reading room, photographing it from various angles, and sitting quietly at space No. 186.  There I noted that, whatever advantages the internet certainly possesses, quite a number of young French people had taken it upon themselves to use the library on a sunny Thursday morning.

     For more than you'd ever want to know about the history of the French national library, including Jacobin leader Francois Hanriot's proposal, during the French revolution, that it be burned "partly, it would seem, because he was anxious to destroy the Fleur-de-lis and other armorial  bearings stamped on the books" plus minute observations of its condition in 1870, including a general disparagement of the new reading room, and many catty remarks on French vanity versus the unquestioned superiority of all things British, see this unsigned article in the April, 1870 Westminster Review, beginning on page 207.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Bebe Vio raises her foil against anti-vax hysteria

     You don't need to speak the language to have your attention snagged by the April issue of the Italian edition of Rolling Stone magazine.
     The cover is a fashion shot of Paralympic fencing champion Bebe Vio, dressed in Dior, her dark brown hair short, her deep blue eyes staring straight at the camera. The scars on her face are concealed by makeup, but those on the stump of her right arm are on display as her left prosthetic hand points directly at the viewer.
     "Vaccinatevi!" the headline reads.
     In English, "Vaccinate!"    

     It's tempting to think of resistance to vaccination as being a particularly American form of selfish ignorance, like belief in healing crystals or denial of climate change. But the phenomenon is, sadly, global. While some 380,000 people die each year of meningitis, mostly in Africa and other underdeveloped regions, a significant number of parents in supposedly developed countries still resist vaccinating their children. Italian Rolling Stone calls it a "real civil battle" and Vio, 20, is their poster child in the fight.
     Born in Venice, Vio was 11 when she contracted meningitis — the Centers for Disease Control suggests children of 11 or 12 get inoculated against the disease, with a booster shot at 16....

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