Tuesday, November 18
My mom called off class today to celebrate the release of The Two Towers Extended Edition. Wish they'd do that here; now that's a real holiday. As it is, I'll be attempting to decipher Leibniz and Hume for the forseeable future. (sigh)
Monday, November 17
I wasn’t initially sure why I’d gotten the invitation, or exactly what was going on. My friend S. had gotten some from a nun and had passed one on to me a few weeks earlier while I was at my desk in studio. It certainly looked striking enough, an oversized parchment-colored ticket with the intricate gold and scarlet mandorla-shaped insignia of an organization that called itself in neat blue-inked italics the Araldi del Vangelo, the Heralds of the Gospel. Presumably some local little sodality, I thought. Understatement of the month.
Gli Araldi del Vangelo sono lieti di invitare la Signoria Vostra e I familiari alla Solenne Ceremonia in omaggio al Cuore Immacolato di Maria.
I could decypher that esily enough, as well as the date and place, the pontifical parish of San Gioacchino in Prati. Then this evening, just as I was thinking about dinner, I realized that lunedì 17 novembre p.v. was today, and alle ore 19:30 was less than an hour away.
So, I puzzled out the location of San Gioacchino, knotted my tie and hurried across the Tiber towards the looming silhouette of Castel Sant’ Angelo. The cupola of St. Peter’s was ringed with golden-orange floodlights, the dome glowing a subterranean silvery-green. San Gioacchino stood some ways north of the old fortress, and after skirting the moated park that ringed the Castel, I finally came across the church. Its high dome, pierced with lit windows, seemed like a heaven full of stars outlined against the purple night.
The façade was covered in a tangle of scaffolding and gauzy tarps, and I glimpsed the vague figures of a monk and a nun maneuvering a little table into place in the vestibule. I came closer, my eyes narrowing in puzzlement. I saw the gleam of polished high cavalry boots, a huge embroidered crusader cross. He wasn’t a friar—he was one of the Heralds. He had to be. I stood in awe at this formidable figure, bustling about with the table and setting up rosaries and enameled medals with the little nun’s assistance. But then I stepped across the threshold of the church and was dazzled beyond belief.
The church was packed. It was an immense space, almost blindingly bright with light, the vaulted nave rising high above me, rich with gilding and intricate frescoes full of chivalrous knights and holy kings. Dozens of tapers blazed on the distant high altar held in the outstretched arms of two immense marble angels swirling amid stony clouds presenting a terrestrial globe in gold and blue to the semi-Byzantine Christ above in the apse. And then there were the Heralds.
Some paced in the back, keeping order amid the crowd that overflowed out of the pews. Their splendid knightly habit was military and monastic at the same time, a knee-length white tunic and brown tabard marked with an immense scarlet and white Santiago cross, its sharp point stretching down to their polished boots. A chain girded their waist, with a great looped rosary clicking at one hip. Brass papal keys gleamed at their high military collars, peeping above long folded-back pointed hoods. And the whole sanctuary was filled with them in tiered ranks, a vast military orchestra of trumpeters, trombonists and choristers arrayed in perfect order.
Suddenly, as soon as I had entered, I heard a trumpet ring out loud and clear, and a procession of Herald drummers and supernumeraries slowly moved down the nave with perfect soldierly precision. Drums beat with heart-stopping vigor as they processed towards the narthex, and—and then the doors of the principal portal swung open. The drummers froze like guardsmen on parade, crossing their drumsticks with a sharp wooden click. There was a moment of perfect silence. Incense screened the church, and then came the image of the Virgin of Fatima, carried aloft on the shoulders of four robed Heralds. Loud, foundation-shaking cries of Evviva il Cuore di Maria! Viva! pierced the music as the Heralds slowly made their way to the altar step.
The ritual was to be a Solemn Crowning of the Virgin’s image, and it had all the splendor of the grandest of coronations.
It was amazing. It was utterly amazing. I strained and stretched to see what I could see, the richly-attired Herald bandsmen, representatives of other sodalities in white and blue cloaks in the first rank of pews, a priestly
officiant in a fringed golden cope. And then the girl choristers, delicate young lady heralds only a few years younger than myself. They stood just beyond the musicians, these innocent creatures, looking remarkably dignified in their golden-brown tunics and crusader tabards and powerful boots. Their sweet, strong faces were earnest and solemn, dark hair and auburn hair and fair hair pulled back and clubbed at the nape of the neck with matching brown ribbons and silver hair-clips. Flowers of Catholic womanhood.
The musicians played a blood-stirring rendition of a Handel piece and then came more shouts of acclamation from Heralds and people and more resonant trumpet calls and pounding martial drums. Incense rose plumelike from a swinging thurible, clouding the church with gilded smoke.
I notice a foppish young priest in the curious habit of the Oratory slide in the back, the lappets of his long black cloak swinging as he moved up one side-aisle.
Then came the Imposition of the Rosary on the image. An honor guard of Heralds moved slowly towards the sanctuary with the clockwork timing of an Arlington sentry. Behind them walked a young boy with a scarlet and white sash bearing the circlet on a cushion.
One of the assisting priests places it in the statue’s outstretched hand. A Herald steps to the podium to proclaim the Triumph of Mary, terrible as an army with banners. Then came more Handel, Let my right hand be exalted, and afterwards the choir intoned a Gregorian Veni Creator, the silvery, birdlike high sopranos of the heartbreakingly pure young ladies seeming as familiar and as innocent as the voices of the Women’s Liturgical Choir back at Notre Dame I remember hearing sing at vigil mass. Amid all the exotic pomp and martial blare, I could feel a touch of home, could feel at home.
Finally, the sacred moment had come, with majestic flourishes of brass and drums, and the choir brought forth an overpowering, bilingual Marian rendition of the Coronation Anthem Zadok the Priest. I was manic with excitement, my eyes swiveling wildly to record the whole glorious color-soaked scene.
And all the people rejoiced. Rejoiced. Rejoiced. Rejoiced and sang, God save the Queen, long live the Queen. May the Queen live forever. Amen. Alleluia.
The Heralds slowly lowered the sedia on which the Virgin stood, and the principal priest placed the high-arched crown atop Her effigy’s carven head. Then the Queen’s attendants lift her up on the litter as high as they could, straining with every muscle to show the new monarch to her subjects. Drums thudded and trumpets blared with bellicose fervor as the Heralds processed towards the narthex and then forward again to Her throne in the sanctuary, a flurry of crossings and genuflections sweeping the crowd. We proclaimed Her Queen of Glory, assured in victory, acclamations shouted back and forth with ritual excitement between Herald and congregation.
I think the musicians played, of all things, the Triumphal March from Aida, but my memory's a bit vague on that point. I believe the program and it says that.
Then we all recited the Consecration, pledging ourselves to Mary, and recollections of the old campus came back stronger than ever. I trip over the Italian words but remember the substance. We, my friends and I, had made the same, or similar, Consecration each fall and spring over the last two years. But it wasn’t homesickness, but a deep link, a continuity, another touch of Mary’s spreading, worldwide cloak.
The rite concluded, after a round of the Hallelujah Chorus, with the singing of the stirring Inno Pontifico, the long-ago anthem of the Papal States, full of praise for the immortal Rome of martyrs and saints. The organ thunders and the drums roll. I feel every impact of drumstick and drumhead in my marrows and eardrums, and I thank God for it. And then the long procession of Heralds and musicians, gonfaloniers, choristers and clerics files out the door right past me, and I am reminded once again of Notre Dame, the University of the Virgin, these stalwart young Catholic men and sweet, oh so sweet and devout young women.
The girls, especially, move with conscious ritual, their chests puffed out, their chins raised high, their backs ramrod straight as soldiers on parade. And their big red-leather hymnals folded beneath their arms. Their faces seem as familiar and ordinary as the faces in the dining hall, the faces in a dorm hallway, the girl who sits behind you in Geometry. Praise God for such a marvelous—such an ecstatic—such a stirring scene in praise of She Who is as terrible as an army with banners.
…Roma immortale di Martiri e di Santi,
Roma immortale accogli i nostri canti…
I wait behind as the crowd slowly begins to dissipate and watch the Heralds roll up their standards in the rear of the church, disassembling the great brass poles on which the immense banners hung. In the midst of Roma immortale a few minutes earlier, one of the Heralds had nearly lost control of his gonfalon, the sturdy metal lance wildly tipping in his hands and the serrated tails of the flag brushing off two old ladies’ chapel veils.
I watch them furl their banners, and I watch the thick crowd that envelops the central nave as votaries pay their homage to the Queen with a kiss on the image’s foot. I notice Herald friends reacquaint themselves in the side aisles, parents chat with tunicked daughters, exchanges of smiles and laughter, a bobbed head. Little fragments of other peoples’ lives slip past me in a foreign language. The Oratorian in his elegant high white collar seems to be rearranging the chairs in the sanctuary.
I watch the girl Heralds gather in little conversational knots, lovely to behold in their casual innocence. They seem more animated, human in their conversation. Their features seem more individual now despite their uniforms and identically pulled-back glossy dark hair. Some are pale and delicate, even northern and freckled, others strong-featured and olive. Straight teeth, crooked teeth, touches of charming irregularity. All seem small and lean in their magisterial garb. A pair sit in one side chapel and strike their chests in some curious penitential exercise and then go back to gossiping, eyes swiveling over the chapel’s intricately-painted vaults.
Meanwhile, the young men and the older Heralds greet one another or gawk animatedly at a lurid wax virgin-martyr displayed in the curve of a niche. One novice in a pale brown tunic, hooks a caped blue uniform cloak over his robe and looks about for parent or brothers. Two others, flanking the statue as the Queen’s guard, exchange whispered confidences behind the Virgin’s back. It is the most pleasant thing in the world to sit here and watch these young spirits.
I was distant, separated by nationality and language, but I felt close to these young people, united by an ancient faith and a common mind. I only wished I could hear it, hear those common words, those eccentric Catholic Nerd jokes or bold promises of Marian loyalty from their lips, to hear and to understand it. But there was a language between us, and so I am content to commune silently, to drink it in, and to savor this Catholic splendor before it flickers into a faded memory.
Though I get the courage to tell one of the girls “Canta bene” and she says grazie and I am willing to leave it at that.
And then I turn my attention to the Queen once again. The line of votaries is just beginning to shorten, but it’s growing even darker outside and I don’t know the neighborhood well. It looks like it will be a while. I kneel and say a brief prayer to Her and Her Son, and slip back into the evening from whence I came. I am still ecstatic with excitement at this world of knightly pledges to the real, queenly dignity of this celestial Virgin.
I am still somewhat confused as to who these modern-day knights in their boots and tabards are, whether local or worldwide, lay or professed, but nonetheless tonight I have seen enough to fill volumes. The drums still roll in my ears, and my knees are weak, my head vague with giddy excitement at the triumph of the Virgin. I take one final glance at the window-pierced dome of the lofty church as I stand out on the piazza sidewalk beyond.
It was, by far, the best evening I have spent in Rome.
The Piccola Farnesina, Rome, around 1911
A King at Home
Everywhere else he goes he must accept the strict rules of the shop, inn, club, or museum that he happens to enter. He can eat his meals on the floor in his own house if he likes. I often do it myself; it gives a curious, childish, poetic, picnic feeling.
—G.K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong with the World
Professor D. is ecstatic. The Palazzo Piccola Farnesina, so-called with flamboyant inaccuracy, is finally free of scaffolding. It’s the first time he’d seen it in two years. We stopped by there this morning in the middle of our Monday morning walk-cum-lecture for Architectural Theory Class. I’d noticed it the day before when I crossed the Corso Vittorio Emannuelle and was astonished to discover a pleasant-looking new Renaissance building that had deposited itself in the middle distance just beyond Sant’ Andrea della Valle, squarely in the crook of the wide street’s distant curve.
I’d assumed I’d just been unobservant up until now until we found ourselves in front of the tiny palazzo and D. excitedly explained how it had suddenly materialized there, free of tarpaulins and construction workers.
It’s a bit hard to take in at one glance. A waggish soul would be tempted to call it ‘cute,’ or at the very least, strange. It is delicate, almost freestanding, and tiny, smaller in height and breadth than the neighboring bleached-white façade of the Palazzo Massimo alla Colonna or the gargantuan Cancelleria.
It’s also charmingly asymmetrical, the piano nobile stepping back around a high walled garden court facing south towards Piazza San Pantaleon. One wing of the u-shaped contrivance is a single bay, the other three or four at least, set with level but unequally-spaced windows.
Every detail is perfectly attended to, if perhaps slightly unconventionally placed, every molding in order with a certain Francophone elegance. The name’s confusing, as it brings to mind the real Farnesina, a pleasure palace (or “love shack” as my fellow arkie Cynthia irreverently calls it) built across the river and later bought up by the Farnese. Agostino Chigi was behind the construction, and anyway, the fresco cycle is a bit racier than this quaint little dollhouse of a palazzo.
It’s not really a Farnese palace at all, but instead the gigli or fleurs-de-lys that stud the banding of the façade are the insignia of a much humbler French churchman, Thomas Leroy. Sometime his home is called, appropriately enough, de Regis, a Latinization of his name taking it at face value: of the King. While French, his architect was Italian, the ubiquitous Sangallo the Younger.
The peculiar equilibrium of the cool if eccentric façade testifies to his genius, as well as those subtle details that threaten to upset the balance just enough to give it life, like a serpentine belt course neatly going up and over a set of paired windows. The stone itself seems as plastic as stucco.
When we look at our ideal image of the city, we’re used to thinking of ordinary homes as the background, the fabric, the civic bread-and-butter of the architect that serves as a demure stage-set for the great cathedrals and palazzi and monuments. Still, it is healthy to stop and look at this curiosity, if only to remind us that a man’s freedom is bound up in his home, and perhaps every now and then deserves to be manifested architecturally.
Chesterton once wrote something to the effect that only at home could we truly be free, do whatever we feel like, wear a dressing-gown and slippers or paint the rafters green: “The home,” he writes with his indefatigable charm, “is the only place of liberty. Nay, it is the only place of anarchy. It is the only spot on the earth where a man can alter arrangements suddenly, make an experiment or indulge in a whim. For a plain, hard-working man the home is not the one tame place in the world of adventure.” Instead of rotting our minds with movie theaters and bar-hopping, a young man or young woman can turn to that great adventure that is the family instead. And sometimes that is literal anarchy, for better or worse.
Leroy exercised this whimsical freedom for himself and the greater good of his household. And ultimately, for the good of the city. The character of the Piccola Farnesina, perhaps, is not as canonically Roman as one might have wished, but for all that the Corso is enriched by its presence.
Modernism made two mistakes: one was to heard workers into soulless blocks of flats to shape the world of the future, and the other was to create a tetherless suburbia that seems to continually float on the edge of a dozen cities, neither green hinterland or solemn stony townscape. Neither understands this sacred whimsy, either substituting unfettered variety or dull monotony for the happy medium that is brought about through the simple unconscious genius of the craftsman.
Le Corbusier, that great Swiss watchmaker of an architect, once designed a block of pristine white apartments, their insides marked with none of that bourgeois clutter that was holding the working class back. They were clean, simple—free. Within two months, the forward-thinking proletarians had filled their new homes with false fireplaces, dusty Victorian furniture and God-knows-what-else worse. And so they were free.
Mies van der Rohe took it a step further, pressuring the condo board of one of his pet Chicago projects to decree that the residents could only keep their window curtains open, closed or precisely half-open. It’s a fragile architecture that can’t handle a little bit of dirt, grime or chance. It’s a fragile city that can’t handle the occasional deviancy from plan, the slight kink in the boulevard, the single eccentric arch or peculiar window-frame.
If you look at the work of the anonymous craftsmen that shaped the subtle fabric of the city of Rome, they know how to harmonize their buildings with the surroundings, but not at the expense of a spark of freedom, of dignity, even humor. Perhaps the Piccola Farnesina is a grander exemplar, a wilder exaggeration of this principle, but that does not make its reality any less true.
Thus Chesterton: “The home is the one place where [you] can put the carpet on the ceiling or the slates on the floor,” if you so desire. Perhaps we don’t feel like it, but at least there is always that echo of a possibility as the rallying point for a free citizenry. Old Agostino’s love shack, full of courtiers and servants, was probably a far less free place than a humble little row-house on Via de Baullari, or perhaps even Thomas Leroy’s peculiar little palazzo with its wonderful, subdued whimsy.
He was a courtier, but a minor one, and his house, far less grand than the enormous homes of Papal nephews and black nobility is one of the first I’ve seen that has spoken of that search for gentle wildness that ends in domestic serenity.
We peered in through the grillwork of the garden entry, into a cozy entrance-court, a little barrel-vaulted hallway framed by a dainty Palladian motif, attractively scaled-down arches and pilasters and columns. The scale was as eccentric as the rest of the structure, the grand archway seeming far bigger than in reality. Walking through that archway makes you feel feel like a giant, a towering monarch. A king or a queen. De Regis. It’s not so strange. After all, isn’t a man’s house the one place where he should most feel like a king?
Sunday, November 16
The old Milanese church of Santi Ambrogio e Carlo in the Corso is one of the most splendid churches in Rome. I'd only seen it before today in peaks and glimpses through the curious plexiglass sentry box that some unfeeling modern restorer had placed over the great central doors like a sort of space age instant narthex. But beyond the clear plastic, it is a marvel.
I'd set aside two hours this afternoon to view an exhibition on the history of the Knights of Malta and the other equestrian orders that was supposed to be going on at the Palazzo Venezia, about twenty minutes away from the studio. However, the lady in the gift shop quickly informed me that I was a year ahead of schedule and to come back later since there was another art show in progress. Once again, Italy refuses to make sense.
So, feeling moved by the spirit of the flaneur and having nothing better to do, I took a stroll along the Via del Corso. The street's entertainment value remains unrivaled even after more than two months in Rome; though today, I felt more even adventurous and began to stray down sidestreets to find graceful little churches, pleasant piazze, cozy shopwindows. I even stumbled upon San Silvestro, the English church in Rome. It had been hiding under a camoflauge of scaffolding all this time. A fragment of the skull of St. John the Baptist was on display in one of the side-chapels.
And then there was Santi Ambrogio e Carlo. I'd walked by it a dozen times before, but it was either late or early, post-dinner walks or pre-class wanders in the cool morning. Its dome was high and ornate, rising above an elaborate Baroque facade that, slightly set back from the road, had an even more dominating and solemn presence than most of Rome's great churches.
Inside, it's baroque, wonderfully flamboyant baroque. Yet it has a certain serenity that overrides the manic restlessness that often rises to the turbulent surface of that style. Gilding rings the elaborate cornices and remarkable Corinthian column capitals, elements that verge on the sculptural, but below, down to the simple bases and pedestals, the only decoration is the rich varegated pink and striped grey of the tromp l'oeil marble paintwork. It gives an elegant lightness to the heavy piers and bulbous mouldings, reflecting the rosy blue frescoed skies overhead.
I strolled along the ambulatory, listening to the organist practicing a pleasant, gentle Bach piece at some unseen console. A few priests wearing in velvet-collared cloaks over their cassocks moved along the side-aisles. There's a dozen reasons to love the church, the relic of St. Charles kept behind the high altar marked with his elaborate Gothic-lettered motto, humilitas, the altar of the Sacrament in the south transept with its massive allegorical figures of Faith and Adoration voluminously veiled and bearing a heavy book, a great cross, a blazing Host and chalice. And there's Bach again, playing in my head as I remember it.
Walking out, then I noticed one weirdly discordant note. Right on axis with the central door, and thus the crossing, the altar, and the relic, on the balcony level of the building directly opposite, was the hideously comic plastic effigy of none other than Ronald McDonald. There was a Golden Arches inset into the ground floor of the apartment block facing the church. It hardly seemed a fitting end to my visit, and so I turned around for one last pleasant gaze at the high altar.
That's a much better way to end a memory.
St. Margaret of Scotland, today's saint
Haggis and Goulash
Today on the church calendar is set aside in honor of St. Margaret of Scotland, who wasn't really Scottish. She's quite a lady. She was actually a curious mix of Saxon and Hungarian, and only Scottish by marriage. Not only that, but she was related to Bl. Gisele, the wife of St. Stephen, the Apostolic King of Hungary, and her uncle was St. Edward the Confessor. She ended up married to Malcolm III of Scotland, whose previous wife had been named Ingibjorg for some reason.
In addition to the standard pious prayer life and various other Catholic queenly thingies, she also gave great support to the Faith in her adopted country, founded monasteries and churches left and right and also managed to get her jeweled gospel book dropped into a river. It was miraculously recovered undamaged, though the English stole it and stuck it in some cupboard at the Bodeleian Library. Typical.
She helped introduce continental fashion and manners, English-style parliaments, feudalism, Benedictines and foreign merchants into Scotland. Not too shabby, and on top of that, her youngest son, David, was made a saint as well. She also foretold the day of her death, this day in 1093, four days after those of her husband and one of her sons. Her life was written by Turgot of Durham or the monk Theodoric, who is described, perhaps as an understatement, as "somewhat obscure." Rather more mystifying is that her chapel in Edinburgh Castle was at one time, technically speaking, part of Nova Scotia. You know, the one in Canada.
A relic of her head was kept by the Jesuits at Douai, where it got trashed during the French Revolution. It seems the rest of her (and her husband, Malcolm) ended up in an urn in the Escorial, though when Bishop Gillies of Edinburgh asked for them back, nobody in Spain could remember where they'd put them only four hundred years earlier.
Anyway, check out her biography here and also here, and don't forget to ask for her prayers today, even if the feast is occulted by the celebration of Sunday. And if any of you people get some nutty idea about tossing the caber around, well, on your head be it.
Hans Memling. Musician Angels. 1485. Koninkijk Museum, Antwerp.
High Mass at San Gregorio
I’m ashamed to admit it, but it’s true. I was thinking mostly about my skipped breakfast when I turned off Piazza Nicosia down towards the unassuming alleyway where the tiny church of San Gregorio ai Muratori stands. It’s Rome’s indult Latin mass parish, a church of what my friends and I jokingly call the Frat House, that growing new order known as the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter.
It’s a grubby, lifeless little street on Sunday mornings, blinds drawn and shutters closed, a few parked cars and the open snackbar with its down-at-heels bamboo matting testifying to some sliver of neighborhood activity. Then there’s the bicycle parked in front of the church’s grimy, classical doorway, but it always seems to be there.
It was about 10:25 and the four rows of pews were full of congregants, solemn-looking young men in ties and blazers, a middle-aged tourist in a greasy ponytail, and then there was a bearded, impeccably dressed and coiffed gentleman seated one row back. A young man in a suit moved over to him, slipping an expensive tweed topcoat over his shoulders, flamboyantly mismatching his silk scarf and muted plaid blazer.
Something about the tilt of his head, moving back over the small group of kneeling churchgoers for a familiar face suggested a hint of the politician. Perhaps his assistant, small, compact, gel-haired, knotty-muscled and perfectly dressed, was a bodyguard. He stood by the door throughout the mass.
I finally found a seat next to a crop-headed German in wire glasses and a demure young lady with a Carmelite face, framed by a white head-shawl. She was carefully paging through her English-Latin St. Andrew’s Missal. I knelt. My eyes moved, perhaps carelessly, over the tiny oratory’s playful stone-grey cherubs and the tarnished gilt sunburst ringing the descending dove of the Holy Spirit. Elaborate renaissance stuccowork snaked over every surface of the sanctuary.
There was the faint Christmas smell of candle-wax, and I noticed the tiny steady flames of the six altar candlesticks glowing against the darkened and expansive image of Our Lady appearing to St. Gregory. And there was something of Advent in those delicate, isolated flames after coming in from the slight morning chill.
Two clerks in cassocks and surplices carefully set up the missal, turning the pages precisely to the proper of the day. There was a smile passed between then, perhaps a murmured joke, but they all genuflected as they moved back and forth across the footpace of the altar. I noticed the ornate silver frames of the mass cards, the printed irregular columns of the Canon’s text forming an elaborate baroque shape almost like a sarcophagus. I hadn’t noticed those before on previous visits.
Then I remembered it was the third Sunday of the month, 10:30, the parish’s monthly high mass. I heard stirrings through the half-open door of the sacristy, hints of practiced chant or murmured vesting prayers, the click of a censer just starting to smoke. I felt anticipation lick at my soul. I was still somewhat drowsy from waking up, but I soon found myself awake, alert, ready. Light winked on the bulbous brass profiles of the candlesticks.
The sacristy bell clattered, and I heard the small schola in the loft overhead begin the Gregorian melody of the introit. First came the thurifer, incense boat and censer in his upraised hands, eyes cast down solemnly, his broad medieval sleeves falling in precise folds. Then came the other clerks with glowing tapers, moving in a great circular motion from the sacristy around through the miniscule nave and then up into the sanctuary. Last came the subdeacon, deacon and priest, black birettas crowning their heads, white vestments gleaming with silk diapering and golden trim. Heavy maniples hung at their wrists, hands folded neatly at their chests. Another priest stood in the back, carefully watching, his hands hidden in the sleeves of his cassock. And so the mass began.
The mass setting was a polyphonic one, in the great tradition of Lassus and Palestrina, but uniquely suited in its simplicity for the tiny church. It was difficult to tell the composition of the schola, kneeling there beneath the loft, but by sound alone you could feel the character of the different choristers. The single deep Gregorian tone of the introit chant was exchanged for a gentle, spare Kyrie, high, ethereal sopranos and a deep, rich bass sometimes fading into the background with perfect deference, a raw tenor moving in between with graceful flourishes.
It was not museum-quality singing or chanting, lacking the cold precision of recordings for a real, unvarnished, delicate sound. Occasionally a hint of hoarseness crept into the chant of the deacon intoning the gospel or the melismatic flourishes of the tenor, but it was all the richer for its quirks.
In the sanctuary, the sotto voce prayers of the clerics, their repeated and gracefully natural bows, seemed to run in perfect time to the Gloria, to the Sanctus, to the chanted Creed and the rich interwoven melodic lines of the offertory motet. It didn’t seem synchronized or mechanical, but that both their ornate observance of the old Tridentine rubrics and the metrical perfection of the anonymous polyphony was a reflection of some greater cosmic harmony that kept perfect heavenly time without clock or metronome.
Those gestures seem almost as beautiful and sacred as the actual texts of the mass, motions with slow perfection so unfamiliar to the eyes of my post-post-Vatican II generation. There was the gracious dip of the biretta at the name of Jesus, the gentle spew of dovelike perfumed smoke back and forth from the bobbing thurible, the liturgical kiss of the assistant on priestly hand and censer-chain. There were the simultaneous bows of deacon, subdeacon and priest, or the complex motions of the murmured Confiteor as the two bowed assistants turned to the priest at the words et tibi, pater, as obvious and ritually intelligible as a spoken word. And to you, Father, I confess. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.
It was solemn but it was easy, as natural as the turn of the seasons and the rising of the sun, the clerks and deacons falling into an order and hierarchy mirroring God’s tiered creation on both earth and heaven. There were other impromptu memories, too, like the glimpse of the thurifer slipping back into the sacristy to re-light the censer, the candle flame transforming it into a wood-paneled Georges de la Tour vignette.
The politician kept looking around with a peculiar smile. The young lady hardly ever glanced up from her missal.
At long last came the Pax, the sign of peace, the Tridentine sign of peace, seldom glimpsed in this day and age. It was perhaps the most beautiful gesture I have ever seen, a slow ceremonial embrace, the interlocking movement of hands on shoulders and hands on elbows, a discrete bow of the head, a withdrawal, a nod. Pax domini sit semper tecum. Et cum spiritu tuo. The priest exchanged it with the deacon, the deacon with the subdeacon, the subdeacon with the four clerks, human order and celestial hierarchy. Seraph to cherub, cherub to throne, throne to domination. For the heavenly liturgy of the Book of Revelation was incarnate here.
And then, just as the Agnus Dei began, I realized I didn’t feel so hungry anymore.
Saturday, November 15
More choice tidbits from the funniest priest alive:
On Gnosticism: "This is our baby, this is our problem child."
On the Gnostic concept of the Redeemer: "We'll call him 'Sparky.' "
On the Manichees: "They were a fun group. You should imagine some of their parties."
"To claim you're as inspired as the Sacred Scriptures, hey, get a life..."
On Gnosticism, again: "Wacko! It's going to get fun, boys and girls."
On Gnosticism, yet again: "...we've got this Demiurge dude...wouldn't that make a good name for a basketball team? 'Hello, we're the St. John's High Demiurges...we will destroy you.' "
Puzzled responses on the Patripassionist heresy: "Yeah, that's the sort of response it should be getting."
Student: So [the Arians were saying Jesus] is Superman.
Fr. O: Yes, that's about right.
"Semi-Arians, not to be confused with semiNarians..."
"Semi-Arianism was like semi-chococolate chips..."
"See what you'll get to talk about tonight when you have nothing else to do? 'Hey, let's talk about Nestorianism, great!' "
"Eutychianism, it was a name brand...You've got generic Nestorianism and then you have Eutychian Nestorianism..."
On Pelagius: "Eeerrrt, wrong! Thanks for playing!"
"And now, the Semi-Pelagians, our last contestants for the evening!"
And one last thought:
"The old word for 'self-esteem' is 'pride.' "
Tonight the seminarians from the North American College (Fr. O's young charges) will be coming over for the kickoff of our Catholic Movie Night series. Tonight's showing: Ben-Hur and enormous subway sandwiches (tacos, originally, but that fell through). Fun. So, I intend to enjoy myself. (What do you mean, "how is Ben-Hur Catholic?")
Incidentally, the soccer team for North American is appropriately known as the North American Martyrs, and you gotta love that. Given the name, they used to get creamed by the now-defunct ND Arkie team, the Flying Buttresses. I'm not sure why because all the seminarians I've met thus far are about ten feet tall and huge. According to some sociologist-or-other that means they're likely to make Monsignor but not Bishop, maybe because the mitre would get knocked off every time they went through the church doors. No clue.
Meanwhile, the next stop on the Venice web-tour will be Padua, with thoughts on St. Anthony's incorrupt tongue. Then on to beautiful Venice at high tide, with some observations on its historic constitution and its citizens, famous as the rudest Italians on the peninsula. Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go stick some pinnacles to the top of a church front.
Friday, November 14
After his repeated
Q. Who made the following statements:
"When marriage is redefined so as to make other relationships equivalent to it, the institution of marriage is devalued and further weakened. The weakening of this basic institution at all levels and by various forces has already exacted too high a social cost."
"...a same-sex union contradicts the nature of marriage..."
"Persons in same-sex unions cannot enter into a true conjugal union. Therefore, it is wrong to equate their relationship to a marriage."
"There is to be no separation between one's faith and life in either public or private realms."
Ratzinger? John Paul II? Nope. Give up?
Would you believe ...... the US Bishops?
In honor of his feastday (which was actually yesterday, oops), check out St. Britius's story at the ever-useful Catholic Forum site. Now wouldn't you expect St. Blog's resident wild and crazy guy and favorite man in black, Fr. Bryce Sibley, to have a rather colorful patron? Rather an understatement given that St. Martin of Tours compared Britius during his disordely early years with Judas. Furthermore, St. Britius got run out of town (twice) when he was appointed bishop. Only after forty years of exile and pennance was he able to properly claim his see. He is patron saint of stomach diseases.
You might describe him, at least in his scheming pre-bishop mode, as the Edmund Blackadder of the sanctoral cycle. Those of you who get the joke may quote me on this.
Yesterday was also the feast of St. Homobonus, a medieval tailor who, when he died, had fallen flat on his face in a cruciform posture during mass. They didn't figure out he had gone to his reward until the liturgy was over. Just be glad it wasn't a Forty Hours devotion. Then there's St. Stanislaus Kostka, who once received communion from St. Barbara, and St. Didacus, patron of San Diego in California. Lastly, there's some Welsh friend of St. Paternus (who?), St. Gredifael of Dyfed, who seems to have hit the jackpot in the bad saints' names lottery. Oh those crazy Welsh.
being another stop on a journey to Venice
Bologna is a university town, and it is often hard to separate the college from the community. The campus is the city, and its buildings weave unexpectedly in and out of the fabric. The old alma mater studiorum is also its own town, with the students electing and deposing their professors with the liberality of an Italian medieval commune.
It’s a fickle city, flickering back and forth between papal rule and local tyranny. It had once been the intractable enemy of Julius II, but when he emerged as the town’s champion against invading armies, he was greeted by raucous cheers. The result is a town (in)famous for leftist politics and rebellious behavior, dotto, grasso e rosso, learned, fat and communist-red. Italy invented the sullen left-wing college student, though sometimes he turns into Benito Mussolini instead.
One of Bologna’s more enduring landmarks is Italy’s other leaning tower, a stark, lean, flat-sided brick pinnacle listing uncomfortably at the intersection of four or five crowded streets. Next to it stands an even more slender watchtower, crowned with a tiny cupola outlined against the rainy grey sky.
It looms over the skyline in a dozen antique illustrations as starkly as an anachronistic Renaissance factory chimney, its warped sister always crookedly standing to one side. The combination of straight and crooked is the perfect symbol for Bologna, and you even see the two peculiar turrets in the ubiquitous miniature city San Petronio, the city’s patron, holds in every image.
Then there’s the fact that on one of the streets running alongside the spired side-aisle of the cathedral I caught a whiff of what I assumed to be burning tires. One of the professors informed me it was marijuana. Probably explains the crooked tower. Under these circumstances, I’m not really sure how the local architects prevent the city’s numerous and picturesque loggias and porticos from caving in. Almost every major street is lined with them, shielding its citizens from the rain in this cold, wet town. They somehow stay up.
At the same time, it is also a city adorned with churches and a long history of Papal rule. The looming medieval palazzo comunale is adorned with an elaborate frontispiece ensconcing a gargantuan bronze effigy of old Julius II, which, for the longest time had been disguised as San Petronio with an immense metal mitre and crozier.
The original statue had been cast in record time by Michelangelo during his grudging stay in the city, but was shortly melted down after the Pontiff’s enemies seized the city and recast into cannon. Only the triple-crowned head remained, now housed in a local museum. The current statue is a replica and very clearly Julius, though, in muddled Bolognese fashion, the inscription overhead still salutes him as Divus Petronius, protector et pater.
One of Bologna’s many churches is San Petronio, which might be the Duomo, or might not. Our professors and our guidebooks contradicted one another on the subject. It is a massive structure, its façade a curious collision of incompleted brick underlay and elegant Gothic marble facing. On the sides, the transepts stop idiosyncratically in mid-bay, perhaps frozen by some intrusion of the plague. People have been trying to refinish the front for centuries, from Vignola’s curious half-Gothic, half-classical design to some truly hideous Fascist-Romanesque proposals from 1933, one with the principal portal inscribed with a defiant civic Libertas. Inside, it is full of northern, refrigerated light, more the world of Bach than Palestrina with its whitewashed vaults, elaborate grillwork and Germanically baroque altar-pieces. San Petronio is in there somewhere, though we never quite found him.
By far, however, the most interesting of the city’s churches is the vast labyrinth of Santo Stefano, a strange Romanesque monastery complex that grew with weird organic order over a period of centuries. Churches lead into other churches, cloisters into other courtyards until you lose and find yourself again. In the first church, the old Santo Stefano, the votive candleholders are crusted with wax, while the high sanctuary is filled with dusty, smoky light washing the funereal black marble of a distant altarpiece.
Beyond it stands the Santo Sepolcro, a strange rotunda symbolically replicating the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem with its circle of columns and the murky dome far overhead. It seems abandoned, the massive cauldron-like lamps hanging from the arches unlit, a handful of guttering candles and silvery subterranean electric light piercing the shadows.
At the center stands the actual Sepulchre, irregularly-shaped, with a wooden cross, draped with a shroud, rising at its highest point. A little door, gridded like those old French images of the Child Jesus as the holy prisoner in the Tabernacle, was inset into the base, allowing penitents to prostrate themselves and look into that womb of the Resurrection, or a good copy at least. A marble inlay of a skull grins up from a tomb set into the floor. Calvary. Golgotha. The place of the skull.
Even the cortiles are almost empty of visitors. Moss grows between the riverstone paving, while bloated Romanesque faces hover overhead, and the stucco’d flank of the church pales from blood red to crumbling purple and bare brick. I sat alone in a little family chapel for a few minutes, dark and dim and unlit save for the merciless blank light of the cloudy sky. A faded fresco stood over the altar, while female angelic caryatids supported the altar-shelf as they discretely covered their breasts, a curiously earthy detail.
Alone. Does no one go to church in Bologna?
It may have been empty then, but as I walked out, Santo Stefano seemed filled with devotees, votive candles blazing. The Cathedral had been full for mass when we stopped in early that morning, while I had inadvertently walked in on an elaborate Vesperal service at another church that evening, pews filled. Not bad for a famously rosso town.
In addition to San Petronio (wherever he is), there are two other saints buried here. St. Catherine of Bologna’s incorrupt body, darkened by candle-smoke, sits enthroned in her old convent, while the more famous St. Dominic lies in a more conventional tomb to the south of San Petronio. I unfortunately missed St. Catherine due to bad research, but there was no way I was going to not check out San Domenico.
When we visited the church that morning and I loaded up on Dominican souvenirs in the gift-shop, I discovered they had Vespers that evening. Having gone to a Saturday vigil mass the night before in Modena—after which we had gone out to a Malaysian restaurant and eaten coconut chicken—I decided I would stop by that evening. Vespers with St. Dominic. Splendid.
With class and touring over, I lingered in the nave of the Cathedral. Mass was going on in the distant sanctuary, the baroque baldacchino a luminous sentry-box in the darkness. Banks of hundreds of votive candles blazed on either hand, throwing burnished light on the gilding and dark wood of the side-chapel reredos. As doors closed and opened, they flickered in the cold night air.
The white baroque plasterwork of San Domenico, however, was blindingly well-lit. I heard the invitatorium being sung in Italian at the other end of the church and hurried to one of the front pews. I listened as a young cantor in the black and white robes of the Dominican order sang, in strangely lackluster vernacular, the various psalms of the day. He stood to one side of the altar, while the celebrant was seated behind it on a raised sedilia. The rest of the brothers sat rather haphazardly, some in full preaching dress, others in plain white tunics, along the benches in the transepts. One of them looked about four feet tall.
It seemed strangely impoverished. Not fifty feet away I had glimpsed one of the finest oratories in Europe, lofty-vaulted and adorned with miraculous inlaid choirstalls, the immense missal-stand decorated with an image of St. Francis and St. Dominic embracing like the seeming opposites faith and reason, peace and justice. And now it was empty, the ancient chants abandoned for some paltry substitute. That, and it looked like the cantor’s white capuce was out of control. I later discovered he was wearing a faintly preposterous scarf underneath his hood.
But then something happened. They sang the Magnificat, and it seemed like a portal opened into another world. Solemn bows studded the chanting, and then, suddenly, two friars picked up the elaborate candelabra placed before the altar and led us in a grand procession to the middle of the church, moving towards the Lady Chapel that stood opposite the tomb of the Saint.
Suddenly, the black and white figures clustered around the altar, facing ad orientem towards the image of the Virgin above enshrined amid a whirl of gilded cherubim. The Tonus Monasticus setting of the Salve was sung, and then came more Latinate chanting from a lectionary. Another ancient responsory was begun and then we processed to the tomb, the Arca de San Domenico.
It had been grilled off by a high metalwork screen when we had visited that morning. But now it was open. We moved towards it, the friars circling the tomb, and more prayers were sung to implore the help of their holy patron. And then the ritual ended and we were left there to venerate the ark, a spired marble monument standing ensconced in an ambulatory-like apse. Some of us moved towards the back to make our reverences, and I realized there was a prie-dieu there I hadn’t noticed before. It was set before the niche enshrining the relic of his skull.
And so I bent down and knelt and saw a little glimpse of blackened bone beneath the glittering gold and glass. A stiff silver half-figure of the saint crowned the urn, bearing a tiny book—a real book with velvet cover and turnable parchment pages—in its hand. It was St. Dominic, the hound of God. It was his very cranium, this domed valve of sanctity that had caged the thoughts and prayers of his holy mind. I later discovered the young Michelangelo had done one of the sculptures that crown the tomb, one I had completely missed.
But nothing could compete with that fragment of holiness I had glimpsed, both the monks and their founder.
I think I've found something even tackier than the Seminarian-of-the-Month calendar. I am given to understand they sell a product called a "Popesicle" near the Vatican. Think of all the theological analogies you could get into with that...I mean, "feed my lambs"? Okay, I better stop before I start a new heresy. It could be worse. I seem to remember on the last papal visit to Miami, they distributed tee shirts that said something like "Viva la Papa" instead of "Viva el Papa," which means, literally, "Long live the Potato!" On the other hands, maybe Pringles might be able to work a marketing tie-in...
CD Review. Tupasi Maria: Chant Sacre de indiens Guarani, Chiquitos et Moxos and El Homenaje de los indios Canichanas y Moxos a la Reina Maria Luisa de Borbon (1790). Ensemble Louis Berger (first) and Capilla de Indias (second). K617/Harmonia Mundi.
One of the first posts I wrote on the Shrine was a review of several excellent recordings of the music of colonial Latin America, an undeservedly forgotten part of Catholicism’s vast choral repertoire. At that time I was only starting to become acquainted with the French label K617 and their marvelous series entitled Les Chemins du Baroque, a spectacular assortment of Spanish and French colonial sacred and secular works ranging from the polyphony of Montreal and the Abenaki missions in frozen Quebec to the refinement of the choirs of Mexico City and the exotic Jesuit baroque of the Paraguayan and Bolivian missions.
Simply looking at the names of early music compositions is a joy with the strange and wonderful associations their titles bring up. The Spanish Missa del Mappamundi, the ominous Hapsburg ditty L’homme arme or Guerrero’s extraordinary Battle Mass, whose name seems a wonderful class of sacred and secular, the Church Militant incarnate. K617’s catalogue does not disappoint; paging through it you find exotic and wonderful titles for music that, in most cases, you have no earthly idea what it sounds like.
What is one to make of an album advertised as being a selection of Negro Spirituals in Baroque Brazil, including, most extraordinarily, a setting of the Te Deum? Boggles the mind. Then there’s another Battle Mass, this one from New Spain, placed alongside some Sor Juana Inez poems set to music under the striking title Phoenix of Mexico. Or, on another album, there's a Peruvian church hymn with the incomprehensibly idiosyncratic title Salga el torillo—something like “Let the little bull come forth”? And how can one resist a recording of a Paraguayan Jesuit opera about St. Ignatius of Loyola—if only to find out what language they wrote it in, Latin, Spanish or some mishmash of exotic Indian tongues?
I’ve not listened to San Ignacio yet, because it seems to be out of print, but the other two Jesuit baroque pieces in the K617 repertoire are ornaments to any collection of sacred music. It’s hard to describe them, but I can try.
So, here goes. The hilarious journalist P.J. O’Rourke (Rolling Stone's alleged foreign correspondent) once described the interior décor of an eighteenth-century Paraguyaan mission as being “two thousand square feet of crazed whittling” painted in drug-trip colors. A less charitable soul would probably describe Tupasi Maria and Canichanas y Moxos as sounding like Handel and Monteverdi on Speed, but that would miss the point.
Tupasi Maria features a variegated assortment of native hymns, litanies, a mass by Bassani, and a grand Sonata Trio by the Argentine immigrant Zipoli. The choral pieces switch back and forth from track to track from vernacular to Latin and back again.
The period instruments were all carefully recreated by the Ensemble players, and preserve the pleasant rawness of the distant location without going sour. The hymns run the gamut from the extraordinary trumpets and almost Venetian drama of Chapie Zuichupa and the Latin Canite Plaudite to the solemn, sober, and spare Yai Jesuchristo, displaying the splendid and flexible capacities of the archaic tromba marina, a sort of droning monochord, to serve as accompaniment to a single mournful soprano.
The mass, Missa a la fuga de San Joseph, is as extravagant and sophisticated as one would have heard at that time in any chapel in Naples or Spain. As with the other pieces, the isolation of Paraguay allows anachronistic references from Renaissance polyphony and polychoral works to comfortably rub shoulders with every last flourish of the baroque. Indeed, European travellers as late as the 1830s, seventy years after the expulsion of the Jesuits, were greatly impressed by both the high quality of the baroque mass settings that were sung in these tiny villages as well as the technical skill of the choir and orchestra.
The other album, Canichanas y Moxos is perhaps more of an acquired taste, verging on the surreal at points, but I highly recommend it to the trained ear. The works performed are largely secular, and almost all written in the tongue of the Moxos; discovered in the Archivo General in Seville, they were written in honor of the festivities surrounding the wedding of Carlos IV and his queen Maria Luisa in 1790, twenty years after the expulsion of the Jesuits.
An unexpected treat is also included by several sacred works, one from Moxos, and the others from the cathedral archives in Santiago Cathedral. These are by far the most enjoyable. The best is the indigenous Corpus Christi song El dia del Corpus, where native flutes and ocarinas blend quite well with the baroque harmonies of the organs, dulzians and harpsichords. Then there is the more mannered Lauda Jerusalem, sitting mildly between the native pieces like a slightly bewildered Spanish viceregal official in lace cuffs, up until the final Gloria Patri when it breaks into an exuberant indigenous coda.
In the final work, the pleasant if generic piece Sagrado N. (you fill in the saint of the day, in this case, Sagrado Francisco), one gets the bizarre intrusion of Bolivian rattles and bird-calls. It seems that the mission Indians occasionally liked bringing noisemakers to Matins to interrupt the music in a sincere, if perhaps surreal and disruptive display of faith. This was not received fondly by the clergy, especially since sometimes uproarous dancing broke out. I suppose it shows that liturgical abuses never change.
While I enjoy the sacred pieces the best, the little songs from Moxos in honor of the king and queen are rather pleasant. Serving as the principal content of the album, they display an ossified baroque style, sometime vigorous and sometimes as gentle as a lullaby. Several instrumental works are also included, sounding like ethereal transcriptions of the heavier melodies of the European baroque. Their sound is frothy and even platonic, full of high violins, flutes and harps. Their notes seem to float over the barren chacos of Paraguay on the backs of splendidly naïve baroque cherubim.
The centerpiece, though, is the apex of the musical homage to the new queen, the so-called Loa. It brings together virtually every flourish from the indigenous and European repertoires with amazing concordance. Organs, maracas, rattles, violins and viols play together without the slightest contradiction. It stands as a monument to the cultural genius of the long-gone Jesuits who had taught the Indians to play with both native exuberance and European precision.
The rediscovery of these works, especially today when we are only beginning to understand the nature of the New Evangelization begun at Vatican II, speaks volumes about the nature of enculturation. Rather than simply intabulating mass texts into foreign tongues, clumsily trying to translate theological concepts into vernacular music, or, for that matter, dropping unadulterated European hymns on them, the Jesuits of Paraguay created a whole new musical culture intelligible both to Spanish creoles and Indian converts, a truly Catholic sound that merits comparison in its unexpected sophistication with the baroque of Europe.
Also, for that matter, that a handful of isolated Jesuits and Indians in a dirt-poor outpost of the Spanish empire could do light-years better than the average suburban parish with all the resources of the twenty-first century at its disposal, well, it says an awful lot.
Saint Benedict is praying for you! To learn more
about this holy monk go to the Patron Saint
Index at http://www.catholic-forum.com.
Which Saint Would You Be?
brought to you by Quizilla
Thursday, November 13
Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity is praying for
you! To learn more about this gentle Carmelite
saint go to the Patron Saint Index at
Which Saint Would You Be?
brought to you by Quizilla
Saint Clelia is praying for you! To learn more
about this lovely young saint go to the Patron
Which Saint Would You Be?
Thanks to Mike Roesch for the link.
Tuesday, November 11
Notre Dame Navy ROTC Color Guard for the Veteran's Day Vigil at the Clarke Memorial
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
On this Veteran's Day, remember to say a prayer in thanksgiving for all those who have defended our country, and those who continue to do so today.
We are so blessed as Catholics to also be able to pray for the soldiers who have fallen in the line of duty.
Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine; et lux perpetua luceat eis.
The Mannerist Earthquake
being another stop on a journey to Venice
We were warned about Mantua. Professor D., ever the optimist, gleefully insisted we would probably catch some unspecified and medieval pestilence from the lakes that surround this chill ducal town. The sky was pale and flat, hovering with strange unbalance over the thick dark greenery that ringed the grounds of the Palazzo del Té, a palace whose name—derived either from words for tea or, more extraordinary, hovel—seems as flippant and incomprehensible as its architecture.
In the history books, it’s listed as Mannerist in style, a term which creates about as many problems as it puts to rest. Tuscan mannerism had hovered on the edge of our brief pass through Cortona, grinning at us through grotesque masks and winking at us from the curving, broken pediments of the cattedrale’s altarpieces. But it had refused to show itself. Even when one faces it head on, as at the Porta Pia in Rome, it defies definition.
It’s an ephemeral movement, and its members seem to vary from textbook to textbook; Giulio Romano, Parmigianino, sometimes even Michelangelo. It had no Quattro Libri, no sacred text, no canonical structure. Even the definitions are vague and unsatisfying. Vasari, in his gossipy, inaccurate but nonetheless classic Lives of the Artists described it as maniera, a sort of selective and eclectic borrowing of the best, not touching on its mesmerizing fascination with the bizarre, which in turn obsesses the historians of today to the exclusion of the search for perfection, and the search for smiles.
Mannerism is meant to make us smile.
At least the Palazzo del Té does, this magnificent frescoed hovel. Built by Giulio Romano, it was a pleasure pavilion for the Gonzaga Dukes of Mantua, long since extinct. The Gonzagas are largely forgotten today, remembered uncharacteristically for producing a Jesuit saint and more typically for the mythical duke of Rigoletto. However, the palace is too witty and sophisticated for the debauched singer of La donna è mobile. Professor D. described it as being something more akin to improvisational jazz.
At first glance, it seems conventional enough, a hollow-square villa with an expansive cortile and airy loggia overlooking fishponds and a vast scenographic Doric hemicycle. But as you look closer, as you explore, eccentricities rise to the surface of the dark waters of the garden pools and you see the strange orange-scaled fish that slither in the depths, and you laugh in wonder.
Around the cortile, the architectural elements seem to come alive and play, loosed from their stony moorings. The cornice is fractured: triglyphs slip from their sockets as if shaken by an earthquake. Meanwhile, the arches seem heavier than necessary, bolstered against the shock with redundant keystones and astructural pediments. It’s a joke, an inside joke between Giulio and his Duke, because only the Duke in the warmth of his palazzo knows what tremor has symbolically convulsed the rock-solid bulk of his cortile.
The frescoed apartments are the key to this mannerist earthquake, and one room in particular. We moved towards it, passing beneath stormy painted night skies and cherubs perched atop moonlit clouds. And then, the Room of the Giants.
The whole room is frescoed, ceiling flowing into walls in a tumble of billowing purple and white smoke as the grotesque, pink-muscled Titans are cast down from Mount Olympus by the blazing jagged thunderbolt of Jupiter. His eagle stands enthroned above beneath a billowing rainbow-hued canopy. There are grimaces and frowns as they tumble stonily into the netherworld, one forlorn Titan even seeming to raise his hands in a despairing attitude of prayer towards the very deities he had sought to uproot. Stones tumble in great zig-zags, fragments of entablature suspended in mid-air. Vasari with gleeful ghoulishness notes Giulio’s fresco is the height in realism, as when the fireplace is lit it seems as if Hell itself is opening to swallow up the rebellious giants.
Giuliano is breaking the rules to be clever, but also to tell a story.
Sometimes mannerist license seems purposeless, even immoral. At least Giuliano Romano’s house in Mantua has reasons for cleverness with its off-center door and protean pediment-turned-belt course as a tour-de-force of his artistic prowess. But the old palace that houses the local branch of the ministry of Justice on the edge of the old city is decorated with hideous grotesque caryatids, the plague buboes of one gigantic old crone decorously hidden by the autumn-leafed trees lining the boulevard.
In Mantua, we leave behind the mannerist fantasies of its outskirts and cluster beneath the great Germanic baroque dome of Sant’ Andrea, marking the vast octagonal bronze-crowned vault that houses the two cruets of the blood of Christ. St. Longinus brought them here two millennia ago, one of the three sets given to him, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea for safekeeping amid the turmoil of the early persecutions.
The church’s façade and nave was designed by Alberti as the model of Renaissance decorum and restraint from mystical proportions that even are commemorated in the inscription over the door, unus ex septum, one from seven. It seems, however, curiously flat, its pilasters barely more than frames fitted to the archetypal triumphal-arch façade. Within is darkness and solemnity, a far cry from the sturm und drang of Giulio’s capolavoro in the palazzo.
The mannerists were marvels, but can wit alone sustain the lifeblood of architecture?
It doesn’t, because it doesn’t have to. Mannerism was not a movement, but a personal choice, a private style. There are many rooms in the mansion of classicism, and despite the stringent dogma of Le Duc or Ledoux, one of those rooms is full of comedians like Giuliano. Because precisely he knows when not to be funny. The palace is comprehensible precisely because he doesn’t break the rules every time, because his columns are columns and his windows are windows. He challenges us, but still gives us, as in a dream, a familiar face or place to hang onto, giving familiar charm to old details.
And he also knows that pleasure palaces should be funny and churches shouldn’t. One of his last works is tempered with that wise sobriety, testifying to the wealth and variety of maniere that the treasure-house of tradition stores. It is serene and simple, colonnaded aisles leading up to a solemn sanctuary, perhaps even more sober than Alberti’s grand church a few piazzas away. It is the work of an architect at peace with himself, a man smiling in the serenity of half-remembered jokes of youth and knowing, in the end, that he crafted his wit with a clean conscience.
Well, Mr. Brown's much-discussed, er, literary masterpiece is becoming omnipresent around here. Not willing to go out and browse at the lovely little Almost Corner Bookshop in Trastevere, some of my friends have been passing around its execrably-written prequel, Angels and Demons. I wouldn't mind except people are starting to go see The Ecstasy of St. Teresa because it's in the book and not, um, because, well, it's The Ecstasy of St. Teresa, the coolest freaking statue on earth. Also, I'm getting a little tired of fielding questions about The Secret Opus Dei Conspiracy To Take Over the World And Force Everyone To Change Their Name to Josemaria And Take Cold Showers Every Day.
(Incidentally, I have yet to find a Catholic World Conspiracy out there, at least one accepting members. The Knights of Malta stopped returning my phone calls. So, please write if any of you are seeking new recruits, as I would like to be Holy Roman Emperor after the Revolution. No blood-oaths, please, but I'm fine with the word "extirpate.")
Anyway, Fr. O. and his seminarian buddies are planning on giving a lecture on the book in the hopes of perhaps chasing away some of those chimeras. For those of you who can't come to Rome and hear him speak, well, there's the next best thing, check out this nice little summa on the subject from the folks at Envoy Encore.
Ironically enough, there are moments when, speaking as a writer, I'm more offended by his purple prose than his preposterous theology. So I prefer to blissfully ignore Dan Brown. As long as we use common sense and recall Church history when questioned, there's not much else we need do to to respond to the book. Unless Bud McFarlane, Michael O'Brien and the Wachowskis want to team up and write a techno-thriller about Opus Dei priests in cassocks karate-chopping the Priory of Sion's backside. Hm, that might just work...um...never mind.
Okay, you can get back to work now. And now we will return to our regularly scheduled Roman travelogues and mannequin nun fashion shows.
Monday, November 10
a mannerist morning in Rome
Michelangelo's last work before his death is a truly bizarre piece of architecture. The Porta Pia, one of the ancient city gates of Rome, stands on the threshhold of the old Via Nomentana that stretches far out into the countryside. It looms over the asphalt, striped with esoteric patterns intended to complicate the life of passing pedestrians, a monument that is either charming, weird or perhaps even foreboding. Some people call it a stage-set for urban life, a backdrop for the miniature theatrum mundi that is Rome or any city.
Other people consider its details, its grotesque masks, broken pediments and monstrous triglyphs the licentious work of a laughing, aged madman. I would normally agree, tending towards the canonical in my taste, but today I didn't. To me, it seemed blocky and muscularly Tuscan, its eccentricities the translation of heavy fortress portals into heavier Doric. It seems less a joke than a puzzle; it is too powerful to be humorous. The grotesque mask over the gate seems less a smile than a grimace, the triumph of the papal escucheon above over the wincing enemies of Christendom, consecrated by the blood of the fallen Papal zouaves slain here in 1870 in their last defense. The gate's surreal details, like those of Ledoux's bunker-like neoclassical customs houses, are not meant to elicit a smile but simply impress the traveller with its power, to overwhealm and disorient. To lose oneself in that domination is marvelous, at least for a little while.
My friend V., usually a free spirit, wasn't convinced. She thought the peculiar deviations of the old master seemed illogical, neither to tell a story or highlight some marvelous structural crescendo. It was antinomian, though she didn't use that word. And perhaps she was right; the mannerist Michelangelo had almost broken every rule in his final joke on earth, leaving us no references to grasp as we wondered at this peculiar monument. Whether it is a monument to humorous strangeness or mystical strangeness or dominating strangeness, it still remains unsettling.
Professor D., dismissing the class, pointed us down the Via XX Settembre to San Carlino, a monument to an another erratic genius, the Baroque suicide Borromini. The rest of the group trailed off, but I tried to wave a few of us over across the street. V. was the only one interested, however, and so we stepped into the glowing world of curves and countercurves that Bernini's brooding rival had created in a space smaller than one of the crossing-piers of St. Peter's. The coffering of the illusionistic oval dome rising to the Holy Ghost enclosed in a gilded triangle, and that spirit seemed to suffuse the luminous white interior, full of effortless grace and light. The inverted volutes, peculiar details and turning, edgeless corners seemed to make sense, to have a mathematical, even Pythagorean rightness about them for all their flamboyant drama.
We wandered back into the sacristy and out into the tiny, famous little cloister that Borromini had done first and caused the Trinitarian monks to invite him back for more of the same. V. was in heaven. Her taste is simple and logical, vernacular timelessness to my thirst for Tridentine drama and mystical gilt. She'd probably call it the Pilgrim Church and I'd say it was Church Militant, not that either perspective is wrong. But it means we look at the world in different ways. Yet we were both entranced by the tiny, quiet cloister, with its pure whiteness, its wrought-iron wellhead, its witty balustrades and subtle curving corners. Overhead, a sliver of the cupola was outlined against the pure cool blue sky. The only ornament was simple banding, spiced with quiet Borromenian dashes of magic like the semi-Gothic faceted capitals.
After all, it was a wondrous space both catholic and Catholic.
Then things started getting mannerist on us, and I don't mean in the architectural sense. I found a half-open doorway. I had to explore. Ever since my friend Dan found St. Dominic's cell at Santa Sabina after some sub rosa exploring (after walking in on someone's confession), I've been trying to top him in the random door-opening sweepstakes. So, pressed by curiosity, I slowly and quietly stepped up the first couple of treads, putting my finger to my lips and signalling V. to come along.
She was skeptical, cautiously murmuring a warning. This struck me as amusing, as V., well, she has a peculiar way of plunging into the thick of things and thriving. Walking through Roman traffic with her head held high, strolling to the Porziuncola in Assisi barefoot at five in the morning in the middle of a power failure, or ignoring a police barricade to get to the bottom of whatever protest of the day is crowding the Piazza Venezia. She makes it work. The rest of us simply shrug it off, though I prefer slightly less exciting ways of living life. But that's just me.
But you'd think a staircase and a few old (and seemingly invisible) friars would be nothing for her. For timid me, maybe, but today was a mannerist day and everything was turned around. I pressed forward and she followed, tenatively at first, and then eager to explore. It was strange and dreamlike as we wound up the corkscrew steps, passing through regions of chiaroscuro alternating with reflected light on the bare white plaster. There was no central pillar on the narrow spiral, the edge undulating like a Gaudi fantasy. V. was amazed, gasping out, "It's like a DNA helix!"
Bright, anonymous, tile-floored hallways floated past us through open doors, the two stories of monastic cells that housed the Trinitarian friars whose church this was. Finally, we came to a curve shrouded in darkness, and a tiny wooden door propped shut with a stanchion. I rummaged around and slowly slid the prop off its hook, and V. sounded skeptical again.
She wasn't when I opened the door. We were lost in the light, and found ourselves on a terrace high above the serene cloister. Beautiful orange trees stood below bathed in sunlight, ringed by the ashen-orange tile roofs of an unrestored wing of the monastery, while right above us stood Borromini's extraordinary and almost unknown lantern, spinning up to its orb and cross with a helicoid curve identical to the weightless stair we had just ascended.
We were there for maybe two minutes, but I will never forget the view.
We cautiously made our way back down, stole out the hallway--after I considered making another illegal detour, but decided against it--and stepped back into the crowded world of the Via XX Settembre. The Porta Pia seemed to hover suspended in the distance like a flying mountain. To me, coming out of that sleepy monastic dreamworld, this surreal gate with its massive bulk suspended on the horizon seemed supremely right. Michelangelo of course had never met Borromini, who would create his marvels decades after the Tuscan's death, and Borromini's license and frantic depression was different from the Florentine sculptor's lethargic melancholy and mannerism. But still, the two harmonized with marvelous concordance.
V. is still unsure about the Porta Pia. I can't blame her. Nonetheless, for her part, she thinks San Carlino is her favorite Baroque church. I couldn't agree more. Now, the only problem is at least five of my friends and a professor want to check out those stairs and I imagine it'll be harder to sneak past the Trinitarians with those sorts of numbers.
It looks like we have another resource for our Roman Catholic Nuns of North America Field Guide. The manequins are kind of creepy, though.
Thanks to Fr. Bryce (now at his new location!) for the link.
Sunday, November 9
Well, if they do, I've got an idea for an O.P.-themed novelty dessert. You see, the Magnum gelato people have released a bunch of ice cream bars themed after the seven deadly sins. I had Avarice today with lunch, tiramesu flavor with coffee swirls. Mmm. So why doesn't someone else come up with some saintly semifreddi? Let's call this one the St. Peter of Verona Sundae. Take a scoop of chocolate and a scoop of vanilla and place them side by side. Then drizzle some strawberry sauce over it and stick a rectangular sugar-wafer across the top, the long side cutting into the scoops.
Okay, if nobody gets the joke, check out this painting. And no, I have no need to see a licensed therapist.
Anyone got other suggestions?
Temptation of St. Anthony.
being a few moments on a journey to Venice
Night falls early and heavy as Italy slowly slouches towards winter. We had passed across the Appenines before, a fog-shrouded transit from Urbino to Arezzo, on a cold, white morning. However, this time, the bus was passing the opposite direction from the foothills of Tuscany into the plains of Emilia. It was late afternoon and growing swiftly dark.
Our route from Cortona to Bologna took us over the peaks again, veiled in rainy semidarkness and milky fog. The dark mist shrouded the hill towns with sinister mystery. Civic campaniles became desolate watchtowers, verdant hills seeming more like wilderness. Wide vales vagely sloped beneath us. The trees that crowned the hilltops were chillingly skeletal, and we caught glimpses of dead peeling corn crops in the fields. Houses clung to steep hillsides, whitewashed and half-Slavic, like something out of Jonathan Harker's journals. Even the trees seemed different, real pines of a strange Nordic blue-green, their pointed tops and curving branches seeming like a Transylvanian steeple. Halloween was coming up, and someone had drawn a big happy pumpkin on the fogged-up front window of the upper tier of the bus. It looked a little too much like a death's head.
We smile at Italian superstition, the way it occasionally blurs and seeps into Italian religion, the cross next to the good-luck spike of coral, decadent Renaissance popes having their horoscopes cast by Galileo, and the ever-present fear of la stregheria, witchcraft. But in that gloom, it would not have taken much to imagine the most fearful spirits dwelling here, dark ancestral demons of Etruscan necropoli or Ostrogothic werewolves snarling in the thick, evergreen air. It rains in Italy, it gets dark in Italy, and people are afraid in Italy. Sometimes we have to remember that.
Superstition is futile, but fear has a purpose. Sometimes it is good to be afraid; we expect too much from our ancestors sometimes as they huddled around their primitive campfires. The frightful dark concealed wolves as well as werewolves, grave-robbers as well as graves. Foolhardiness can get a man killed. It's only when we step back and imagine the night without the warm seats of our cars and the light of streetlamps that we understand the adversity those long-ago tribesmen or medieval pilgrims had to face.
Fear keeps things at a distance; sometimes laughter can put evil in its place, but the the way demons and ghouls have become figures of fun in the popular culture of today seems unhealthy. Maybe even more unhealthy and irrational than trusting in lucky charms or misusing the God-given sacramentals of the Church. Laughing at superstition sometimes comes full circle to a rejuvenation of that old perversion. For, as I walked past the well-lit windows of a dozen bookstores from Bologna to Venice, it seemed that the old demons had come out in force for Halloween, and they weren't the charming rubber-mask Count Chocula kind.
You see, witchcraft is fashionable in Italy these days. As in American pop culture, they've gone from fearing la strega to laughing at her and finally, it seems, venerating her as wiccan cultists. The bookstore window displays are only the beginning. Even the newsstands sell toys for the Italian branch of the Mary-Kate and Ashley set with hideous colorful packaging labelled, inexplicably, Witch World. You can laugh and call it a child's game, but as you stand there in bewildered contemplation and recall that the number of church exorcists in Italy has been increased over the last decade from 8 to 800, it gives you a momentary chill. There's a reason for that change, and it's no laughing matter.
We must count our blessings, pray for God's will and do the best to perservere. At least this time, it's just fog and rain, and the bus is cozy and warm. And that preposterous pumpkin, finally, looks like it's smiling.
Saturday, November 8
Another Olympic Theater, and Fair Verona
being another stop on a journey to Venice
“…but he made of the entire city a theater, too.”
—Jorge Luis Borges, “The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero.”
One rainy morning in Vicenza, we saw the Teatro Olimpico, a masterwork by the dying Palladio that was completed by his disciple Scamozzi. There are three theaters by that name in Italy. We had seen one already in that other curious, theatrical city, Parma. As we wound our way through the crooked Renaissance anterooms of the old fortress where the Olympic Academy had been housed. I was talking with my friend V., who eagerly asked me to tell her something about the theater as we stepped through the curtains of a side door into the base of the cavea. As I looked out, I found I could not.
I was speechless. I stuttered something, and she too understood. It was amazing. The perfect concinnitas, utter harmony, of the Renaissance backdrop crowned with statues of the Olympian academics in theatrical ancient dress, the magnificent perspectives of the angling sidestreets through the arches, the painted clouds overhead. It was a perfect mirror of reality, and we could see it in all its beauty all at once with dizzying sublimity.
The theater is a God’s eye view of the world, and if you are not God, sometimes it can be almost unbearable in its splendor. I tried to sketch, but I couldn’t bring myself to draw anything important beyond a few pilasters and obelisks, something more bearable for a mortal eye.
No wonder they call it Olympic.
However, as I remember that morning, I can’t help thinking back, not just to Parma’s theatrical spectacle, but to a silent evening I spent a few nights earlier, in Verona.
When I set out for the centro storico of Verona, I had planned to write about the logic behind the planning of traditional cities. Not consulting my map, I promptly began walking in the opposite direction from the old town across Ponte del Popolo. I was following a vast illuminated cross that seemed to hang in the sky, set atop some murky pediment I could never quite see. I had assumed it crowned the Duomo.
I checked my map at the other side of the bridge at Piazza San Tomasso, patron of doubt, and backtracked across the dark waters of the Adige. I looked back for a moment and considered the few lights speckled a vast and gloomy outcropping rising above the indistinct domes of the city’s flank.
I was neither sleepy nor hungry that evening, so I chose instead to stroll, giving my walk an unfamiliar sense of purposelessness. I had dined late and well in Mantua that afternoon under a vault festooned with the faded eagles of the Gonzaga, and planned to miss dinner that evening.
I passed the classical yellow-stucco façade of a theater as I moved down a sidestreet, the interior lights shutting off as I walked by. As I continued, I moved through a succession of empty cloistered spaces, of an eerie de Chirico futility. One of the inner courts of the old town hall. The next morning, in daylight, I saw a handful of beggars crumpled asleep under the vast loggia. I saw a long medieval stairway leading to a door crowned by a gold mosaic, the so-called scala de ragione leading to the palazzo della ragione. The stair of reason and the palace of reason, the curious Italian name for a civic assembly hall. It seemed somehow ironic in the cold, empty courtyard. Overhead loomed a tower washed with the vague illumination of golden floodlights, theatrically striped in marble and brick.
I moved out into another square, equally enclosed by elaborate arches and high, now semi-Venetian palazzi. A few tourists were taking tardy photos with underpowered digital cameras. The only other inhabitant I could see was a blank, foreboding marble Dante atop a pedestal. Dozens of memorial inscriptions and sooty escutcheons hung on the walls.
On my right hand, beneath an irrational arch that supported nothing, stood a forest of high Gothic pinnacles, a maze of knightly tombs behind an elaborate wrought iron fence. The sepulchers were raised high on pilasters, crowned by gravity-defying equestrians in full armor, the canine crest of the Scala family atop their barrel helms. Washed with moonlight from an invisible white spotlight, they seemed the perfect spot for Hamlet to seek his father or Romeo to die atop Juliet.
The disorientation continued. I finally reached the main square, seeing a strange mix of ornate Venetian and stony, sober solid comune medieval, the theatrical variety of Parma, but I also felt an overwhealming sense of abandonment. The city seemed peculiarly unreal, because the city was empty. The ornate Renaissance façade of the palazzo at the far end of the narrow piazza seemed oddly flat with its shallow shadows.
Above me, the narrow, high townhouses, floodlit by civic Klieg lights, were crowded with semi-Tudor balconies, the kind that Serlio had recommended decorate the stages of comedies because of their rude, vernacular, grab-bag nature. I had already passed through grave, sinister spaces not unlike those he had assigned for the backdrops of tragedy. I could not say sure what genre I was in, this foreboding brew of stately, gloomy classicism and crowded humor, now palled with darkness.
The piazza’s monuments were archetypal, a magnificent Venetian lion, a medieval pinnacle or two, not so much like Parma’s eclecticism as an idealized prop that could have heard the speeches of any character from Shylock to King Lear. Or Romeo.
I was in the city of Romeo and Juliet, and I realized that I was walking through an abandoned stageset. Parma might have seemed at first like a play with its erratic and mongrel changes of scenery, but Verona seemed the empty storehouse where all the dead magic of the theater had been entombed. It was no longer charming but sinister. Take a wrong turn down a passage and the buildings might be five feet or five inches high like Scamozzi’s perspectival Palladian stage-set.
One stall out of dozens was still open under a pointless umbrella, cheap wares spread out in the light. They looked mostly like sentimental alabaster figurines of the city’s two great doomed lovers passionately kissing rather than falling on one another in death.
I found what looked like the main shopping street, lit with myopically bright white lights, refrigerating this narrow band of urban fabric into a pale, wintry mall. Sidestreets trickled off into purple darkness. It was almost empty, too. I stopped in a tabacchi because it was still open and I liked the statues of knights in the window and bought a disposable camera, though I didn’t use it until the next morning. A Japanese tourist snapped pictures of the elaborate, well-lit window displays full of decapitated mannequins.
Everything seemed fleeting: the magnificent biforium windows belonged on a Folger Shakespeare Theater set, and even the ice-cream seemed insubstantial as merengue, as if the product of some bastard recipe cooked up by Estragon and Vladimir rather than Romeo and Juliet. At least I knew they bled and loved rather than the existential ghosts of modern theater.
I took a crooked dark sidestreet back from the closed city and found myself eventually back at the oddly-named and rather sinister-looking Café Bukowksi across from the hotel and drew the curtain across the evening. As I walked back, I had seen the illuminated cross across the river every time I looked down an alleyways.
I had walked through a theater, a play; and there is nothing more than being trapped in a fictional world that modern man fears. Theatrical is the worst of slurs. We crave authenticity, which means that theater, full of deception and disguise, has no place in our psyche.
Borges wrote in his “The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero,” that it was impossible for history to imitate theater. It suggested a crack in reality, that something was dreadfully wrong. For our own part, it seems almost unimaginable today that an actor could stir up an angry populace, that Rome’s senate banned stone theaters lest they be used as fortresses by some clever demagoguing thespian. The thought of the Risorgiomento’s Italians rebelling to the “subersive” strains of Va, pensiero seem almost comic to us in retrospect.
After all, plays are about of characters that quietly disappear after the curtain falls.
We don’t have time on our schedules to be inspired by mere actors. Modern life has no room for rhetoric and ritual. It suggests duplicity, sweet-talking, scam artists. That you’re hiding something dark and hypocritical. Or worse, that you’re dreaming and taking refuge from reality in some foolish escape. Prisons require escape, and “the only people who fear escapism are jailors,” as C.S. Lewis once remarked.
More importantly, because theaters require plays, and plays require authors. We like watching plays, don’t we? We’re in control; we see everything, every last stratagem and plot, and see them collide with frightening efficiency as Oedipus staggers blindly to his doom or Medea cackles in triumph. Or perhaps, for a happier turn, when Jack has his Jill with fastidious coincidence: Hermia and Helena are finally matched to their correct mates and Bottom the weaver left in peace.
Those delightful characters that disappear after the curtain falls. It seems silly they could do anything but shock or delight us. Anyone who took them seriously seems almost as comic as those Palladian academicians atop the columns in their anachronistic togas. Artificial. Frivolous. Not authentic. Nobody could make myths a polestar for their life, we think, maybe a bit too loudly.
It is especially curious we seem so fearful about bringing theater into everyday life because the image of the city as a theater, and the theater as the world, the great theatrum mundi was a powerful image in the past, a sign which took on an almost mystical importance to any Christian humanist. Pope Alexander VII even spoke of the great Bernini square of San Pietro as, quite literally, un teatro. It’s no surprise, then, that that the word liturgy comes from the Greek word leitourgia. This is sometimes translated as “work,” but this definition is imprecise. A leitourgia was a spectacle, a theatrical work, presented for the populace’s education and enjoyment. Marx, missing the point, would dourly call it the opiate of the masses.
Yes, theater is about deception, disguise and frivolity. And funny, funny people. Of course. But it’s also about something else. It’s about virtue and vice, order and reason. We’d sooner forget about that, but it is that trickle of lifeblood that endures when Bottom’s donkey-headed ghost has been consigned to the costume trunk. It’s about virtue and vice and order, because every play has a logic, because every play has a story, and every story has a moral. And every story also has an author.
We don’t like to think about that last point, especially in our own lives. After all, God is the author of the longest-running play in history, which is history. Too many issues, and too much at stake to fill our minds.
Theater is hieratic, orderly, where hubris brings down the prideful and the sacrifices of the downtrodden and the deeds of the valiant—whether Antigone, Don Quixote or even our friends Romeo and Juliet. are memorialized with the holiness of a martyrology. Piety, loyalty, chivalry, love. In short, all the things that make life bearable. True theater is civilization.
God is the author of the great play that is the world; it can be almost frightening to realize this. But only until we realize He also willed himself to be a character in that same play, for our own sake.