Thursday, March 27, 2014

Domenichino, "Landscape with Ford" at the Doria Pamphilj Gallery

This is not one of the top tourist highlights of the Doria Pamphilj Gallery -- people fly by this little painting by Domenichino on the way to Valesquez's piercing portrait of Innocent X, or Caravaggio's Rest on the Flight to Egypt.  But I was taken by the analysis of the painting offered by Jonathan Doria Pamphilj, the latest in the line of the family to own this massive palazzo and collection, which dates back some 400 years.

Like Wallace Steven's poem, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,  the painting's foreground lays before us the "beauty of inflections" and the "beauty of innuendoes," the joyous now of the pair crossing the ford, the anticipation of the passage by the family on the right, and the looking-back of the woman on the other side, for whom the experience is now becoming memory, a form of "innuendo."

Architectural Nostalgia

For more than two decades, since the end of the Berlin has discussed and planned for the rebuilding of the Schloss, the home of the Prussian kings in the heart of Berlin.  I assumed that someone would wake up and say-- Genug!  Enough!  But I was stunned to find on my visit to the city a forest of cranes busily building the new/old Schloss, with "extreme authenticity" (so said the sign on the three story facade they built to whet our appetite for this architectural fantasy).  The recreation of this historic building with a dubious history on which to hang Berlin's image required the destruction of the Palast der Republik, the home of the East Germany government -- indeed the destruction of that building may have been the main goal of the whole project.  (My colleague here at the Academy, Reynold Reynolds produced a beautiful film about the final destruction of the building, called The Last of the Republic). East Germans protested -- some called it "Ost Nostalgie" -- nostalgia for the old East Germany -- but it was to no avail.  Instead, the heart of Berlin has lain empty for two decades awaiting something better.  This eerie of fantasy of recreating a Prussian monument is not it.

And now I read an effective critique by Sam Jacobs of another nostalgic reconstruction, this time of the Crystal Palace, south of London.  Jacobs correctly says that this is "zombie architecture":

"Its return as a ghost, zombie or otherwise undead form of architecture should be seen for what it is: a ghoulish pull on our tender heartstrings in the service of large scale development. Its construction, like the Infomart in its cheap cartooning of history, would only make our sense of loss greater."

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

San Clemente -- In praise of interpretation that is "almost alright"

I have heard the rushing waters of San Clemente in my head on numerous occasions since we visited.  The sound, and then the sight and taste of those waters, deep in the church, down at level of Republican Rome two thousand years ago, thirty feet below today's city, is what most captivated me -- and generations of visitors -- at San Clemente.  But I was thinking recently of how rudimentary the interpretation there is.  No audio guides.  Little signage.  And I liked that.  I don't mean to suggest that I was deluded into feeling like I was going to an unknown or untouched sight.  Lines of tour groups and grouchy ticket-takers are quick reminders that you are in a popular place.  But there was something "almost alright," as Robert Venturi said, about the underdeveloped interpretive program. There is enough that is rough and unfinished to allow you to discover your way down, down, down through narrow passages to the mythraeum of the Roman villa on which the church was built, and then through small, dirt-floor rooms to the waters.

I have never believed that an historic site "speaks" to us on its own, that its history will somehow be learned simply by standing on a site.  History demands a telling.  But there are also places and times when we should step back and allow for more unexpected discovery.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Textures of Ostia Antica

A few notes on Wallace Stevens, "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird"

It is often used, overused, and misused.  I am likely guilty of all three.  But I find verse five of Thirteen Ways of Looking at Blackbird captures as only a poet can all the complexities of the idea of event and after-memory.  Stevens himself said that “this group of poems is not meant to be a collection of epigrams or of ideas, but of sensations."[1]  I have found the poem to be one that comes up again and again as I have written about issues related to memory and place.

I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

We are asked to choose between two attitudes toward life.  The “beauty of inflections” speaks to action, the movement, a “bending inwards,” from the Latin --  bend in, curve, or, in grammatical terms, a change in the shape of a word.  And innuendo  -- although it is often used it to intimate something disparaging about someone, it here implies the after-image, the echo in time, and memory.   The blackbird whistling – an event we can immediately picture, and hear.  “And just after” – the moment when an event in time starts to be assimilated into our minds, and our memories.  And the instant – and it is instantaneous -- that happens, the moment an event is transformed, sometimes quickly into something else, with layers of meaning attached.

Do we enjoy, or are we moved, by an action, a moment in the present, or do we more cherish the memory of the event?  Where do we land in showing our affection for what poet Peter Strekfus-Green sees as the poles of “perception and interpretation – sign and signification.”

The stanza asks us to choose and at the same moment tells us that choosing is impossible.  “On the level of the metaphors,” writes Beverly Maeder, “there is an impossible choice between poetry itself and its resonance in the mind.”[2]   “I do not know which to prefer” because to choose would be inhuman.  We need both – an ability to hear that whistle, and an ability to remember.  We hope to “notice the color purple in a field,” as Alice Walker wrote, and we hope to appreciate the lingering memory.  The warp and woof of inflections and innuendoes, event and memory, is unending. These must be in balance – or at least we must aim toward balance -- as must the building of the new, and the preservation of the old.    Out of balance and we are headed toward despair.

Note:  Thanks to Peter and Heather Streckfus-Green for sharing some insights on this poem with me.

[1] Kenneth Lincoln, Sing with the Heart of a Bear: Fusions of Native and American Poetry, 1890-1999. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.  Quoted at on 3.23.2014.

[2] Beverly Maeder,Wallace Stevens’ Experimental Language: The Lion in the Lute. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999. Copyright © 1999 by Beverly Maeder.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Ostia Antica

I spent the day in Ostia Antica with Tom Leslie and Esther Schor.  A twenty minute subway ride from Porta San Paolo, then a short walk, and you are at the entrance to one of the best-preserved Roman towns.  

It does not take long at Ostia to lose the tour groups,  You move a few blocks off of the Decumanus Maximus and you find yourself along in weeds, stumbling on extensive mosaics, wall paintings, and the remains of a mythraeum.  We ignored the orange hazard tape, which was put up recently in the wake of some collapses due to rain and flooding, and made our way to the edge of town, toward what had once been the beach of this crucial port.  (The beach is now another two mile away; the Tiber, which once ran alongside much of the northern side of the town, long ago turned, leaving an oxbow of fields).  We found some of the most spectacular mosaics one of the largest of the bath complexes.  And then we walked through fields to the synagogue which once stood on the beach and is considered the oldest synagogue outside of Israel.  Adachiara Zevi's foundation, Arte in Memoria, since 2007 has biannually invited artists to develop works that will temporarily be installed in and around the synagogue.  We all (to be fair, two of us were Jewish, and have strong interest in Jewish history and culture) found this to be the most captivating part of the day.  Even though the works were uneven in their impact on us, we all loved the idea of artists being invited in to re-present to visitors the synagogue, and the lived reality of this diverse, pan-Mediterranean port city of two thousand years ago.

Throughout the day, and then last night, I kept asking what I increasingly ask at these ruins:  what were we after?  None of us were classical scholars, or architectural historians of this period, but we sought out with some persistence specific sites listed in the guidebooks, the remains of a three-story apartment building, a mythraeum with a ladder-themed mosaic, showing the now-obscure stages of, well, enlightenment.  What were we hoping for?  Where we we driving at?  

We hoped to find material pathways into understanding a little more about the people who inhabited these now-ruins.  At the synagogue, of course, we paid our respects, and hoped for some further insight into our beliefs, or connections to this religion and people.  But most of all, I believe we went to these ruins simply to connect to the distant past.  We marveled at the age of the buildings which still stand, the carriage ruts in the stones, an inscription in front of an inn urging that the thirsty come in and have a drink.  We sought out the remarkable survival of a square foot of wall painting, the line of guild storefronts, the steam pipes in a bath house.

What we'll remember is less about the people of Ostia (although the idea that this was a truly cosmopolitan port town, in a way more interesting that the summer vacation spot called Pompeii) than that, for an afternoon, we flew over time and had a fleeting -- invented, limited, probably erroneous -- connection to these people and that time.

 If you were wondering where the image of the Statue of Liberty comes from....

One of the most interesting of the artistic interventions around the synagogue is Michael Rakowitz's Gheniza in Ostia.  A gheniza is a storage area for worn-out Jewish religious books before their ritual burial.  Rakowitz created a series of quick-and city columns  made of clay pipe material clustered around a tree adjacent to the synagogue.  The comparison to chimney's is to inevitable not to be intended.  It is at once harrowing and somehow comforting, that these columns -- or chimneys, or figures -- are clustered in a beautiful field, sheltered by the tree.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

On stubbornness, stiff-necks, and rebelliousness

Sometimes I have been hit immediately by a site in Rome, and I can't stop thinking about it.  Other times, a building, a painting -- that of Lorenzo Lotto in the Borghese, for example, or San Clemente --  creeps into my thoughts slowly.
I have passed the small church on the Tiber, just opposite the Gran Templo -- the Great Synagogue -- numerous times and have noted with curiosity the fact that an image of Christ is painted on the front, along with a Latin inscription, and, what appears to be a translation, in Hebrew.  This seemed bizarre.  But the answer is simple. (And I was fortunate to be in the company of Martha Ackelsberg, Esther Schor, and Carol Weinbaum when trying to figure this out).  This church, San Gregorio a Ponte, was just on the other side of the walls of the Ghetto.  It was from this church (and others) that sermons were read and listened to, by law, by the Jews of the Ghetto.  The inscription is from Isaiah 65:2:
פֵּרַשְׂתִּי יָדַי כָּל-הַיּוֹם, אֶל-עַם סוֹרֵר--הַהֹלְכִים הַדֶּרֶךְ לֹא-טוֹב, אַחַר מַחְשְׁבֹתֵיהֶם.
"I have spread out My hands all the day unto a rebellious people, that walk in a way that is not good, after their own thoughts;"
A bit earlier in Isaiah, in 48:4, is one of more famous ideas, on this similar theme: 
 מִדַּעְתִּי, כִּי קָשֶׁה אָתָּה; וְגִיד בַּרְזֶל עָרְפֶּךָ, וּמִצְחֲךָ נְחוּשָׁה.
"Because I knew that thou art obstinate, and thy neck is an iron sinew, and thy brow brass;"
The "stiff-necked" people.  Difficult.  Rebellious.  This is the accession that was projected onto the Ghetto, from across the wall.
But I can't but think that some of those Jews forced to listen to sermons and look at those words, didn't scoff derisively:  "Stiff-necked, indeed.  How else I have we remained here, committed to a religion which has regularly brought venom upon us?  Stiff necks has kept us alive."  I have been reading George Steiner's Real Presences, which notes that it has been the "reading without end," the circles of debate and discussion of the core texts of the religion that "has proved to be the instrument of improbable survival (p. 41)."  

Friday, March 21, 2014

Tony Kushner

This line, uttered in Tony Kushner's play Slavs! by Prelapsarianov, "the oldest living Bolshevik, came up in conversation yesterday.  Perhaps, just perhaps, it will make it into some thing I am writing!

"How are we to proceed without theory? Is it enough to reject the past, is it wise to move forward in this blind fashion, without the cold brilliant light of theory to guide the way?... You who live in this sour little age cannot imagine the sheer grandeur of the prospect we gazed upon."

More textures of Rome (and one of Berlin)

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Santa Maria del Priorato

With the help of the ever-effective Giulia Barra, a group of 25 of us made our way on Tuesday morning through to the other side of the infamous keyhole of the Knights of Malta, to visit one of Piranesi's only built works, a major renovation of the church inside the Knights of Malta complex on the Aventine, which he completed between 1764 and 1766.


I couldn't help but drop into one of the most beautiful early churches in Rome, Santa Sabina, which dates to the 5th century and was brought back, in many of its elements, to its early form by Antonio Muñoz in the 1930s.

We were treated to a wonderful tour by Maya Maskarinec, a fellow at the Academy and an expert on this period.   She showed us a painting which had just been uncovered in 2010.  It was unclear the date of the painting...until they pulled away some of the bricks on a later supporting arch to reveal the right side of the painting -- and an 8th century date.

We also stopped by the adjacent park to catch the view to St. Peter's, framed by orange trees -- here are the remains of those picked by passersby.

And as we left, we passed by the ruins of a poster on a nearby wall, which made me think of the work of my old friend Mark Woods, a brilliant photographer in New York.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Measuring the Value of Higher Education

Here's a piece I just wrote about what really matters in higher education.

Max Page: Measuring up at UMass — why inspiration counts, even if it can’t be tallied

Here is a story about one student’s education at the University of Massachusetts.

One of my thesis students from our architecture program recently came back to campus to participate in the opening ceremonies of an exhibition she worked on while a student. She works as an architect and has what 

Commissioner of Higher Education Richard Freeland considers the supreme measure of the education we provide at the university – a professional license. I’d like to suggest that her acquisition of a license is the least important measure of what we at UMass did with and for her.

When I first had this student in class she was energetic but lacked intellectual self-confidence. I was unsure of how well she would develop into a self-directed architect. I was pleased that she enjoyed my courses — which were on the philosophy of architecture and the history and theory of historic preservation. Over the course of three years in our program, I had her in class three times and then served as one of her thesis committee members.

I watched, increasingly pleased, as she became confident, intellectually curious and creative. She began to speak out in class, and to push back against ideas and designs she thought were deficient. She broke away from her earlier education as an engineer and pushed the boundaries of her artistic vision. She is now a different person — not just a different architect — than when she joined our program.
In her new home and job she is helping to remake the culture of her firm after just a few months on the job; she is seeking out opportunities to teach at a nearby undergraduate architecture program. She is entering competitions and serves on a national architecture professional board.

I believe passionately that over the course of her life, this first paid job and license are the lesser parts of what she learned at UMass. She has told me that she gained so much more, and so much that is intangible, which will shape her role as a worker and citizen, and even as spouse and perhaps mother. On her recent visit, she spoke glowingly about her education at UMass and how courses – the design studios taught by my colleagues as much as mine – inspired her to think anew about architecture and her purpose as a designer.

The key word was not “trained” but “inspired.” The message here is not that we should be uninterested in our students getting jobs. I am glad this student has a good job, can pay back her debts and build a financially stable life. And I think we should undertake programs to help students translate their arts and humanities learning so that employers can see their value in the workplace.

And I offer this story not to brag about what me and my colleagues accomplished as her teachers – there were no doubt many other influences on her. Instead, I tell this story in order to offer a test question to those who seem so eager to squeeze our education down to something that can be measured by a number: How will you measure what this student accomplished, and what I, in a small way, helped her do?

There is a reason that Freeland chose “professional licensure” as a measure of what we do at our public colleges and universities: it is a number that can be compared to other states.

But before we embrace this “accountability” regime – which is really a “counting” regime — I need to know how they are going to measure the expansion of my student’s brain and her heart, how they will measure her renewed conviction to the architectural profession, and a new intellectual strength that has allowed her to propose new ideas and speak up, in class and in public meetings.

What “proxy” measurement will they use to capture the value of her education – the number of buildings built? Competitions won? Amount of money earned?

If you can’t measure it – and I don’t believe you can – then you will have failed to measure the most important work of education we did together, as professor and student. When we start substituting “measurable” proxies for what we really do at UMass, then we aren’t just “making the best of a bad situation” but contributing to it.

There is no good proxy for measuring the education of a whole person, which is why for a millennium higher education has been measured by the accomplishments of faculty and students to society, through their works of beauty, and their life-saving efforts and discoveries, through their service and their participation. 
There is no alternative to telling story upon story of our radiating influence in the Commonwealth and beyond.
Story upon story add up to the legacy of UMass. That is something you can count on.
Max Page is a professor at the University of Massachusetts and member of Educators for a Democratic Union, a progressive caucus within the Massachusetts Teachers Association. He can be reached at Max Page

Making Jewish History in Rome

Martha Ackelsberg, her partner, Judith Plaskow, and I made our way on Saturday evening to the reading of the megillah on Purm at Beit Hillel, the new progressive, egalitarian synagogue here in Rome.  Judith and Martha both read portions of the megillah, one of them in English and the other in Hebrew.  They were joined by others reading portions in Italian, French, Russian, Yiddish, and Spanish.  The rule is you must hear the megillah on Purim -- but it can be in any language!

We were told that this was the first reading of the megillah by men and women together in Rome's Jewish history.  I didn't ask for evidence, but it seems very possible.  I was glad to be present. We were at what is best described as a storefront stiebel, on Via dei Salumi, not a hundred yards from Spirito di Vino, a restaurant housed in the remains of a 12th century synagogue, when Trastevere was the home of most of the Jews in Rome, before they were forced, in 1555, into the ghetto across the Tiber.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Foro Italico

Valentino Follo, director of the archaeology collection at the American Academy and one of the foremost experts on the Foro Italico, and Håkan Hökerberg, a researcher at the Swedish Institute who shares many of my interests, walked around and discussed the fate of the Foro Italico.  Because of an upcoming game the main areas of the Foro were closed (including the infamous mosaics, the largest mosaic project since ancient times).  But we managed to see the swimming complex,  Luigi Moretti's spectacular Casa delle Armi, and the tennis courts.  Moretti was perhaps the finest of Mussolini's stable of architects and also the most troublesome for us now, as he was an avowed fascist.  You cannot look at this buildings and think that he was someone forced to design for Mussolini, someone who  grudgingly built for the regime.  He proudly took on some of the important projects, including being the leading planner for both Foro Italico (where he did the Casa delle Armi fencing building as well as Mussolini's personal gym) and the EUR.  He was briefly imprisoned at the end of the war but went on to have a long career as an architect and editor in Italy.

Anyone wrestling with how to deal with  the fascist legacy has to reckon with Moretti and ask:  what do we do with these buildings, especially in a climate, in Italy, but across Europe, where the right wing and even fascist parties are on the ascendancy.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Cobblestones for Health

The carpeting of Rome is cobblestones.  Those square, chiseled blocks of volcanic rock are as important to the city's look and feel, especially beneath one's feet or the tires of a taxi, as the travertine and marble. (There are, however, rumblings -- sorry for the pun -- that replacement cobblestones are coming from China or Vietnam and not the hills around Rome). They are sometimes called Sampietrini, "little St. Peter's" because it was Bernini's piazza in front of St. Peters where the first black forest of cobblestones were planted.  In the way the view to St. Peter's locates you in the city, the cobblestones are bumpy reminders of the "eternal city."   Hated by many (car drivers in particular), they are beloved for the tactile reminder that you walk upon layers and layers of history here.

And, in a way that gives a preservationist great joy, I have learned that  there is research showing that walking on cobblestones can be good for your health, especially for older people.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Berliner Schloss -- wie doof!

Berlin is the birthplace of some of the most important "counter-monuments" (in the words of my friend and colleague James Young) in the world, inspiring artists around the world who confront their own nations' awful pasts, to challenge the way we should and could remember, in ways that does not aid forgetting, but may in fact support activist remembrance.  

And yet the biggest building project in Berlin, in the very heart of the reunified city, at the ceremonial and cultural center, is the building of the Berliner Schloss, the home to the Prussian kings.  Much destroyed in World War II, completely demolished in 1950 by the new German Democratic Republic as one of its earliest acts, replaced but the new country's capitol building, the Palast der Republik, the Schloss seems the ultimate phoenix, destined to rise again.  For decades now, perhaps since the moment it was demolished in 1950, many in power (fewer among the citizenry) have felt that the final reunification of Berlin would come not with the fall of "die Mauer" (the Wall) but with the rise, out of the multiple layers of ashes, of the Berliner Schloss.

I had thought someone would come to their senses.  

But despite shifting political parties and the rising and falling economy, the commitment was made not simply to build again on the site (they cleared away the Palast der Republik -- see a powerful film about the final removal of this important site in the history of the DDR by my American Academy colleague, Reynold Reynolds), but to rebuild the Schloss with "extreme authenticity" (sic).  One corner of the Schloss project was built several years ago, to indicate how glorious it will be to have this massive marble pile again.  And now the project is in full force.  It will be façadism of course --  the Schloss on the outside, and some cultural institutions and -- of course -- shopping on the inside.

And hope for the reconstruction of another building nearby, Schinckel's Bauakademie, is bolstered by a full-scale trompe l'oeil.

And amidst all the governmental buildings, evidence is readily available that Berlin has finally caught the bug of creating luxury towers in the heart of their city.  

Roma and Sinti Memorial, Berlin

My feelings toward Berlin -- and Germany -- wax and wane.  I suspect that given that my father's connection begins in 1927, when he moved with his family from Kosice, Czechoslovakia, and that our family is heading toward a century of engagement -- as welcomed residents, hated outcasts, eager tourists, skeptical observers, academic collaborators, business partners -- the rolling hills of emotion will continue.

Most recently, I have looked to Berlin as a beacon of historical hope, given its relentless (some say excessive) confrontation with its Nazi past.  Given the willingness of so many places -- and it seems to be on the rise, in Spain, in Hungary, in the Ukraine, continuing in Japan, and so on -- to hide from the truth of the the various atrocities of the past century, I am newly impressed with Berlin's (and Germany's) insistence that they do their best not to forget.

The monument to the Roma and Sinti peoples, and the subtle but significant changes to the language of the "documentation center" beneath the holocaust memorial and elsewhere in the city's museums, is the latest effort to explore and acknowledge all the facets -- using a metaphor we apply to diamonds seems wrong -- all the knife edges of the Nazi extermination strategies.

Interestingly the new memorial, which sits inside the Tiergarten, between the Brandenburger Tor and the Reichstag -- really in the shadow of the Reichstag, which is exploited in the design -- is officially a part of the Foundation for the Memorial to the Murdered European Jews.  It is a "spinoff" of the Jewish holocaust memorial.  One can say a lot about this, but at the very least:  here is a people that still has little organizational or political standing within the country.  But enough: enough allies, and enough politicians with consciences, or guilt, to finally garner this recognition to the 500,000 who were targeted and murdered from the very beginning.