Wednesday, April 30, 2014


I got up this morning at 5:30 and joined Brad Cantrell and John LaBombard on an early-morning photography walk into the historical center.  No matter how large or dense a city, around 5:30 a.m., there is almost no one around.  Piazza Navona, Piazza Rotonda around the Pantheon, Trevi Fountain, Spanish steps, Ara Pacis, Ponte Sisto -- all completely empty, save for the lone dog walker or photographer-tourist with a similar goal.  The light was beautiful -- deep blacks and grays, punctuated by more yellows and oranges with each passing minute, until finally it turned bright white, just as the noise and traffic picked up.  The color and shadows will start to come out again eight hours from now.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

A Palazzo and a Puppet Theater in Palermo

Like Tom Sawyer, American Academy Director-Elect Kim Bowes managed to get each of us to take on a piece of the task of running the Sicily expedition most of the fellows went on a few weeks ago. I suggested we go to Palazzo Abatellis, the regional art museum in Palermo, whose exhibition areas were designed by architect Carlo Scarpa.  She said yes, and suddenly I was enlisted in giving an introduction to the museum.  By chance, Dan Hurlin, a puppeteer and professor at Sarah Lawrence, planned for us to visit the puppet theater of Palermo -- Opera dei Pupi -- immediately after.  These appeared to be wonderfully diverse experiences, but utterly unrelated.

As we looked around the workshop of Opera dei Pupi, and received a brief presentation from one of the owners (it remains in one family's hands), I couldn't help but think that these different cultural institutions were bound together.  One of the joys of these puppets -- and everyone was grinning like a happy child at the town fair -- is the craftsmanship of their construction.  We are ready and willing to be transported into another place and time in part because of the love and care with which these miniature sets and figures have been created.  We are prompted to be open and generous not merely by their beauty, but by the obvious hand work and personal touch involved.

At Palazzo Abatellis, which is one of Scarpa's earliest exhibition design works, before his museum work at the Castelvecchio in Verona, I was struck by how Scarpa prepares us to appreciate the works of art by each of his interventions -- pedestals, painted backgrounds, picture frames, and the procession in and out of the building.  We walk in and are immediately aware of a craftsman at work, a craftsman whose focus is on drawing your attention to the works of art, and the building in which it is housed.  We usually place museum designs on a spectrum of intervention, from receding into silence in order to "not get in the away of the art," to intervening too aggressively in order to make a statement of their own.  Scarpa's work is on a different register altogether:  his orientation is toward architectural gestures which inspire respect and even awe.  He does this by pulling you toward the work, around it, re-presenting it to you, asking you, very simply, to pay attention.

Monday, April 28, 2014

On Giacometti and the “Cold Brilliant Light of Theory”

In the first gallery at the Galeria Borghese, the audio guide tells the story about a famous horse and rider sculpture which was mounted on the wall, the most visible sight for those entering the Gallery up the main front steps.  It is a Greek sculpture of a horse that has lost its rider.  Cardinal Borghese, the maker of this great collection and gallery, hired the son of Bernini to create a new rider. It is impossible to tell, from a distance, that this is an ancient and a modern sculpture combined. It was common to provide a prosthetic arm or leg (but not penis, apparently – those knocked off were left knocked off) to ancient sculptures, to complete that which was lost, in the hopes, in the repair, to regain that apparent heroic clarity of the ancient heritage.

The first gallery currently also has four Giacometti figures, originally commissioned by Chase Bank for its plaza in Manhattan.  The whole room here is filled with Greek and Roman statuary of the noblest kind.  But I find Giacometti’s figures to be much more noble than the Greek and roman – Jove, Dionysus, the satyr, and other Roman VIP’s.

Walking Man, has a scarred heart, almost as if someone had tried to break it open and sliced it in the effort. I did not notice the last time I was at the Gallery than the figures have large, heavy feet.  The sculptures are thin, rail-like figures but they are nonetheless rooted firmly in the earth – they look like the heavy basis of Egyptian mummies, or, with feet together, like angels in the Torah.

Fragile, strong, but also sad. They seem to be distrustful of heroic ideals, and the kinds of ideals propagandized by the Greek and Roman sculptures in the gallery.

I have been thinking about the basic tension in art and architecture between the pure and convincing, the stalwart and principled versus the “complex and contradictory” as Venturi would say, the unresolved, the questioning, the cautious.  There is our nearby – Bramante the Tempietto, so uplifting in its proportions and solidity and clarity.  And then there is Michelangelo’s Moses, in motion, Freud argued, insecure and unresolved.  I have always thought that I gravitated toward the Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, those who sing with conviction, the ballad and the soaring melody.  I have gravitated toward the proud principles of the play, Inspector Calls:

Inspector: But just remember this. One Eva Smith has gone – but there are millions and millions and millions of Eva Smiths and John Smiths still left with us, with their lives, their hopes and fears, their suffering and chance of happiness, all intertwined with our lives, and what we think and say and do. We don't live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other. And I tell you that the time will soon come when, if men will not learn that lesson, then they well be taught it in fire and bloody and anguish. Good night.   (p. 51 of the downloaded text)

But I have been questioning this of late.  I think of the Michael Frayn play Copenhan, and the istability and memory and meaning, and about John Cage’s  pieces, Imaginary Landscape IV and 4’33” composed while he was living on Monroe Street on the Lower East Side, and where he opened his windows to mingle the city’s music and his own. In came the indeterminate sounds of this immigrant neighborhood and the still-vibrant industrial waterfront nearby. I think about the essay about the British scientist, Jacob Bronowski and his call – while standing in one of the pools of mud at Auschwitz – to resist certainty and the kind of conviction that kills people.

And I think of the book I read twenty years ago, but has remained in the back of my mind, a touchstone -- Ernest Becker’s Denial of Death.  He makes the uncompromising argument that we seem doomed to make mayhem and start wars and kill others in pursuit of victories and achievements that will make us feel like death can be kept at bay, or that life is in fact meaningful.  Are our convictions more frightening because they are more violent in direct proportion to their clarity of purpose?

And then I think of my favorite piece from the Cinque Mostre exhibition at the Academy in the spring of 2014. Mimmo Jodice’s Demetra Opera 1 is a photograph of a broken bust of Demetra – the left half of her check and jaw were gone – which is completed by a white mold, held together by a person’s – the artist’s? -- hand, as if he was giving Demetra a warm squeeze, perhaps a prelude to a kiss.

It is a sweet gesture – an effort to repair the damage and then bring the sculpture alive. But there is something not quite right: the cast the artist made to fit the face, doesn’t quite match, so the lips don’t meet and the face as an awkward skew to it.  Perhaps it was meant for a different repair job.  Or perhaps it is simply impossible to go back.  We try to repair, to bring back the past, to make the past whole again, but like the photograph of the repair, it doesn’t quite fit.   Jodice’s photograph doesn’t have the existential weight of the Giacometti but it too holds its distance from the certainty of marble, and the certainty of ideology.

And now I feel myself swinging back again. I think of Tony Kushner’s character, Prelapsarianov – “the oldest living Bolshevik” – who declares, with great vehemence and sadness in Perestroika:

"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."

Can we act with conviction without a coherent analysis of the world and its ills?  When does that conviction become destructive?

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Four Popes, Two Saints, a Million People

All week long, people have been flowing into Rome in anticipation of today's canonization of two former popes, with two living popes (one retired, one in charge) officiating. Polish Catholics especially were here in force (Polish was the primary language on my plane back from the U.S. last weekend) to honor John Paul II.  There are so many fascinating issues swirling around this event -- the first ever canonization of two popes at once; the sense that they are honoring one liberal and one conservative Pope in order to assuage the different wings of the Church; the rapid pace with which John Paul was canonized; the ongoing drama of ex-Pope Benedict and current-Pope Francis interacting.  This was definitely a unique event in the history of Rome and the Church.

I wandered over to the Vatican late morning (the Academy is just a 15 minute walk away).  All was quiet on streets and on the Janiculum (the hill we live on). Perhaps the predictions had been exaggerated.  And then as I made my way down the hill I heard Gregorian chants coming from huge speakers before hitting a wall of people.  I could go no further than the Tiber and the bridges.  Every square inch in and the around the Vatican was packed.  Most of the thousands I saw couldn't even see a screen.  They were standing or sitting around listening to the event on their smartphones.  Many who had camped out all night were in fact sleeping through the big event -- the moment when Pope Francis actually declares that these men are saints.

I made my way through the historic center and into Piazza Navona, which was also packed with people craning for a view of the large screen set up at one end.  I couldn't push my way past praying, kneeling believers to get even a glimpse.  Last night and throughout today, churches were open and bells were ringing to the mark the event.

One benefit is that I made it into one of the architectural jewels of the city, Sant Ivo, the church in the original building complex of La Sapienza university.

Saturday, April 26, 2014


Piazza Adolfo Hitler has been renamed.  The plaza in front of the Ostiense Station, designed with Hitler's visit in May of 1938 in mind, has been wiped clean of references to a visit which was a signal moment in the history of Italy in the 20th century -- the final capitulation of Mussolini to Nazi-style fascism.  The Mussolini obelisk at the entrance to Foro Italico can remain, but references to Hitler, of course, cannot.  The parking lot in front of Ostiense is now called Piazzale dei Partigiani, in honor of partisans who fought against the Nazi occupation.

I finally made it to Ostiense, to look at what remains from that time and that singular event.  As is typical here, there is no public interpretation, nothing to describe and discuss the reason for the construction of this station or the signal event that defines it.  Instead, we have remnants, in the architecture and, even more, in the decorative program.  Imitating the mosaic style of Ostia Antica (which lies just a few miles to the west), mosaics on in the portico out from of the station, are not bombastic in the way the Foro Italico mosaics are.  They refer to the detente with the Catholic Church, secured in 1929, and offer a map of the Roman empire, with a black eagle surveying the once and future joint fascist empire.  And then there are the scales -- of justice, I presume -- about to be tilted by the weight of a sword.

These remnants remain, even inside the supermarket that has taken over a corner of the station.  Amid  olives and toilet paper, biding their time, are scenes from the Roman and mythological past.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Liberation Day

I returned from the U.S. yesterday, in time to attend the Liberation Day parade today, April 25, which is the official holiday marking the end of fascism and German occupation.

The parade brought out the Oldest Living Partisans to march from the Colosseum down to the Piramide, past the Parco della Resistenza, on a broad avenue built by Mussolini to welcome Hitler to Rome.  The crowd was small and leftist, with Communist flags as common as Italian ones.  The Jewish group -- La Brigata Ebraica -- was well represented.  Only after we left (I went with my friend and colleague Håkan Hökerberg from the Swedish Institute) did we encounter another group of paraders, and lots of police -- it was another leftist group with a strong Palestinian flag-bearing contingent.  They were separated to prevent trouble, which nonetheless erupted when they got closer to each other in the square.

Håkan and I were both intrigued by one of the speeches, in which the speaker declared that it was a "shame" that the remnants of fascism are all all around, including the mosaics at the Foro Italico -- declaring "il Duce, il Duce" -- and its obelisk, declaring still "Mussolini Dux."  For some Italians, those sites and words, still enrage.

I left with a t-shirt in hand:  "Yesterday Partisan, Today Anti-Fascist."

I then spent an hour strolling atop the Palatine, among the ruins of the homes of 300-years worth of Roman emperors.  On the Campidoglio, one can find the original "man on horse" monument -- that of Marcus Aurelius.  And on the Palatine, you find the first "palace" whose location gave the name forever to large homes of the wealthy and powerful.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Shakespeare Was Never Here

To state the obvious:  Shakespeare was never in Italy.  Romeo and Julie is a play.  That is, it is a work of fiction.  Because of these two facts, there cannot be, nor ever was, Juliet Capulet's balcony.

That did not stop thousands of tourists from coming to Verona in order to find the famous balcony.  And it did not stop the city, with lire and now euros in their eyes, from designating a certain house with a balcony on a courtyard, conveniently on Via Cappello (note the similarity to "Capulet"), the Casa di Giulietta.  The square with Dante's statue, and the palace where he wrote much of Purgatory, is largely empty.  So, too, is the Roman Amphitheater.  History and Literature have nothing over Romance and Sex. On this slow spring day, there were hundreds of people -- with school kids and Japanese tourists in the majority -- crammed into the 50-by-30-foot court, in order to write notes to Juliet (answered, we are told, but a society of Juliet followers), go up to the balcony and have their picture taken, or -- most popular by a long shot, among boys and girls, men and woman -- a big squeeze of Juliet's bronze breast.

Here are my images of this site of hormonal excess.  I only wish I had a photograph of me taking a photograph of a young Japanese woman, at her request.  She politely asked that I take a photo of her with her cell phone.  I asked if she wanted to be under the balcony, or she wanted me to wait so she could go up and stand on the balcony.  She looked at me with some surprise and perhaps a little pity, and then promptly walked up to the statue and put her hand right where the previous four hundred people today had put it.  She smiled broadly for the camera.  Travel mission accomplished.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Madeleine Moments

I reread this piece in preparation for my "shoptalk" at the American Academy and thought it was worth sharing.

All We Know of Heaven

by Max Page
Apologies to architects: Memory often does not demand a designer, other than the individual mind. The most powerful sites of personal memory are often the anonymous places made full of meaning by an individual. Such is the case with one of the more forgettable corners in an unforgettable town.
On your way to see the Emily Dickinson Homestead, where the poet once drew for inspiration on her own “old Grounds of memory,” you would be forgiven for walking right by the dusty northwest corner of the Amherst town common, next to an ill-conceived parking lot bitten out of the grassy rectangle, otherwise nobly framed by the buildings of Amherst College on one end and the Richardsonian town hall at the other.
But for me, looking down at this ragged edge of the Amherst town common is like peering into a Technicolor well, rippling with my own past.
It was in 1966 that the Amherst Common Peace Vigil began, running on Sundays from noon to 1:00 pm without fail into the early 1970s, making it one of the longest-running protests against the Vietnam War. The tradition has waxed and waned, but to this day, our own version of Hyde Park Speakers’ Corner draws antiwar protestors to make their plea to passing motorists and pedestrians.
I see myself there, on my father’s shoulders, as he strolled back and forth, smiling, with a pipe in his mouth, no doubt. The image I have is from across the street, so it may be a memory constructed from family stories, and those black-and-white photographs stuck into the fat albums that line my childhood home. Memory is no “sacred Closet” as Emily called it (all of us from Amherst are on a first-name basis with the poet), where memory is a solid object that rests unchanging, if gathering dust. Memory is more like the “reverential Broom” she mused about, whisking words and images, sounds and smells together to construct an emotion-filled scene.
My memory of sitting atop my father’s shoulders —  the shoulders that are now a visibly old 89 years of age — is not something that has resonated forever, with a consistent, kryptonite glow. No, this memory site has waxed in power, as my father has declined and as my own activism has grown. This memory gives me both my father back — at the height of his full, ebullient life — and a foundation for my own political efforts today.
I was told a few years back that the town had placed a memorial plaque in the ground. But I could never find it, until one day I saw it, covered in dusty dirt. It seemed a shame, like no one cared to keep the plaque clean. But now it strikes me that this is as innovative a memorial as I could imagine: It is visible only if there are people, marching and protesting, kicking up dirt and awakening outrage, reminding us why we find ourselves at this very spot, still working to heal a broken world.