Wednesday, October 29
It's not often one runs across a really beautiful website, but I would expect nothing less from master Catholic artist and author Michael O'Brien. His website, StudiO'Brien, is a feast for the eyes, the ears, the mind, and the soul. So, make your self a cup of tea, settle down in front of your computer, and prepare to be touched and enlightened by the art and articles.
Paintings not to be missed: Saint Thomas Becket, and The Two Deaths
Disclaimer: This is a Flash site and not for the Faint-of-Bandwidth
Monday, October 27
It would be much appreciated if all the St. Blogsters could keep a friend and fellow Domer in your prayers. He's from SoCal, and his house is awfully close to the wildfires out there.
S. Florian, ora pro nobis
Sunday, October 26
I must apologize for the lack of posts over the last few days. I've wandered off on another of my scholarly jaunts around Italy, this time up to the Po River Valley and the old terra firma of the Venetian Republic. I've seen Parma's French streets and Austrian spires. I've heard a brass band blast away Guantanamara and then go eat Malaysian food in Modena. Today I visited the tomb of St. Dominic in Bologna, a rainy city dear to us Whapsters, as some of you already know. Dominic is still very present here. At Vespers, I heard his friars chant the Salve as we went to venerate the relic of the saint's skull. A transcendent moment.
But there's plenty of normal Italian lunacy here too. Bologna's a college town. A college town which is home to one of the oldest universities in the world, where the students hire and fire their own professors at will. Hmmm. Well...never mind. Moving right along. The city's nicknamed dotto, rosso e grasso, "learned, red and fat," which I think sounds better in Italian. The learned bit, well, duh. The red is because, well, Italy invented the angry young pinko sympathizer (NB. He later turned into Benito Mussolini). The fat part is also obvious as Bologna, home of lunch meat and everyone's favorite spaghetti sauce is the seat and heart of Italian cooking, or so they like to claim. Given the meal I just ate, hey, it works for me.
And tomorrow, we're on the road again. We'll soon be on our way to the cities of Verona and Mantua, famous for the doomed love of Romeo and the dooming lust of Rigoletto's lecherous Duke. And then, off to Byzantine Venice with its bulbous domes and watery lanes. Venice is a place which is also very dear to the denizens of the Shrine; it was the home of Renaissance composer Giovanni Gabrieli in addition to being the setting for part of the last Indiana Jones movie. Naturally, one brings to mind the other. Anyway, expect to hear from me again after All Souls' Day when I will be sure to fill you in on my numerous adventures and even more numerous meals.
Don't worry. All this walking helps ward off me bringing a bit of the grasso home with me.
Thursday, October 23
When I woke up at six, it was raining again. Or perhaps the rain had continued through the night. When I had gone to bed, the sky had looked an uncertain, washed-out violet sheathed with an impenetrable layer of clouds. Cardinal Pell was saying one last mass at San Clemente that morning before his return to his see in Australia, and I was hoping to meet my antipodean friends one last time. I slipped into a side door after a long trudge down the rainy Via S. Giovanni in Laterano. And I was lost in the silence of the ancient church.
Beneath the basilica's ornate, porphyry-inlaid floor, three levels of churches and crypts and pagan catacombs had lain undiscovered until a century-and-a-half ago by a Dominican archaeologist named Mullooly who is buried amid his Roman maze. At the deepest point lies a cavelike Mithraeum, the cult hall of a strange and sinister sect known as the Mithraists. It was the only of their temples not to be purposely destroyed after the collapse of paganism.
I slipped into the choir enclosure, glimpsing a few familiar faces from the reception two nights ago, and sat down on one of the wooden benches. Around me, the ancient stone walls rose up, enclosing us securely within the church's pillared nave. A chamber within a chamber. The light was vague as twilight, serenely uncertain, and the golden mosaics of the apse sparkled slightly in the sparse floodlights.
They say Romanesque, with its simple balance and perpetual stasis, is the most prayerful of architectures. And even ithe whirling green mosaic vines that sprouted from the foot of the great lapis-blue cross seemed to have a solemn hypnotic solemnity.
Between them sat the four evangelists in black and white, looking curiously like the Dominican priests that served the basilica. Below them the deer panting for the stream quenched his thirst alongside the many-eyed peacocks of immortality. Overhead swarmed the oxen and eagles of Revelation while the hand of the Father reached down from an exotically literal tent of the heavens to plant the cross of His Crucified son on the earth.
Mass was said in the high, raised sanctuary by the Cardinal and twenty white-robed priests, some with monastic capuces under their chausibles. The Cardinal stood enthroned in their midst at the center of the apse, the light glittering on the silvery embroidered shoulders of his robes. His face was in incipient shadow. The faint wintery glow of the four tapers set on the altar seemed to fill the little pillared ciborium over the altar like a lantern set in the half-darkened church. He was enclosed like we were, secure in a small sanctuary of grace.
A reading from St. Paul was recited from the high inward-facing ambo of the choir, and then after one of the clerics had chanted the Alleluia verse, the Gospel was proclaimed as well. Cardinal Pell gave his homily from the lofty altar, speaking of the sactrifices of St. Clement, patron of the church. His anchor sigil was everywhere in the basilica.
It was a sign of the virtue of hope, but here it was a sign of the blood of martyrdom. St. Clement's violent grave had been a watery one, cast originally into the depths of the Black Sea before his relics had been returned to Rome by St. Cyril. I remembered the prayers of the Consistory urging the new Cardinals to defend the faith with their blood, and I then glimpsed the tiny scarlet dot of the Cardinal's skullcap.
The cantor intoned a Gregorian Sanctus and I found myself swept up into the solemn, still song as my lips made simple notes I thought I didn't know. Then came the Canon, recited by the Cardinal with a surpliced assistant on his left hand and another bishop on his right. Linus, Cletus, Clement, Sixtus.
After mass, we were led down to the crypt by an Irish friar. Down to the deepest, darkest level of the Mithraeum. A few grates glimmered in the ceiling far overhead. Green lichen clustered weirdly on vague, crumbling coffered vaults, while a stagnant pool of water gathered beneath the entrance to the Mithraean cave. An altar stood at the far end of the sanctuary, flanked by facing benches, not unlike the choir where we had just heard mass.
The Mithraeans are a mystery, a dark and sinister mystery. We know little of their religion, save for that their initiates were gladiators and soldiers, all male. Persian writings speak of their myths and Roman remains of their worship, but only fleetingly.
A hero named Mithras had sprung like a spark from an immaculate rock, and only he could bring universal peace by slaying bloodlessly a cosmic bull. Instead, a scorpion had bitten it. Blood had been shed, and chaos and sin infected the world. There were seven levels of initiation into the cult, each more secret than the next, while the rite of entrance itself was a grotesque baptism in the blood of sacrificed cattle.
The Mithraeans are only mentioned twice in any known Latin text, in Origen, where he notes their meal of bread and wine was not truly a Eucharist. We know little else of them save that their sanctuaries were the only pagan temples purposefully razed after the fall of Rome rather than falling into simple decrepitude.
The psychoanalyst Carl Jung, in one of the darker, occult moments of his youth, fell into an obsession with Mithra and claimed that Christianity and Mithraism, extinct as it was, were locked in a perpetual combat. He thought, perhaps, he might be the messiah to revive the cult. Mercifully, he did not, though he lived to do other mischief.
Indeed, perhaps, there are similarities between our rites and theirs, but their myths seem a pale hopefing for the blood of the cross. It is as if the Mithraists were groping towards some primordial truth that they knew they could not grasp and could never hope to understand. Like the Sibyls and the preincarnate Logos of the Greeks, their prophetic moment came and went, and perhaps they never realized it themselves.
The most dangerous errors are the ones that seem close to the truth. Julian the Apostate, in his war on Christianity, sought to reestablish the cult. Perhaps this is the reason those bloodsoaked temples were buried under tons of soil and forgotten.
The similarities are superficial in retrospect. The Mithraists were a religion of warriors, and only for warriors, a secretive male world. But the Church has Her own gladiators, the martyrs, and these witnesses come from all walks of life. I recalled St. Clement in his tomb or St. Catherine in the frescoes of the upper church, straight and slim in a nunnish black shift as she ticked off a string of philosophical arguments on her fingers. Not far away in the newer basilica was a prayer scratched in spidery, caligraphic Greek on an image of St. Christopher. A prayer for safe return from the Crusades.
We moved into the original, middle basilica after passing through a bizarre subterranean maze of dead-end rooms and crumbling Roman cement that almost seemed, in the pale green-blue light, like stalagmites and stalactites. We paused to hear our guide speak as the weird luminous colors transfixed his long white robes like tanslucent alabaster. However, the old church was pale and well-lit, with orderly Roman brick vaults. Retaining arches for the upper basilica had obscured the nave, but the scheme had a familiar clarity that the dim crypts below had lacked. It was a relief, as luminous as the coming of Christ.
I looked down into a grilled opening and saw the lower chambers beneath me washed in an eerie blue light and looked up to see a fragmentary, jeweled Byzantine Madonna, her head encircled by a flat, Asiatic yellow halo. Two female saints stood on either hand, the martyrs Catherine and Euphemia. Two more gladiators for the Faith, the universal Faith open to all, men and women alike.
And Cardinal Pell, this stocky, prelatial ex-footballer, he was a gladiator too, for sport once and for God now. I was glad to have him with us on the tour, his strong, heavy features cut by the sharp shadows of the crypts. I'd looked up at him as he smiled, and he smiled back.
It was soon time to leave, and we all dispersed into the driving icy rain. I said a final fairwell to my Australian friend as he ducked into the subway station near the Colosseum to take the metro back to meet his wife and child at the hostel. Then I bought an umbrella from an immigrant vendor uninterested in bargaining and slowly trudged back into the everyday. Though maybe it's not so simple as that, since gladiators need an arena, and sometimes that arena is beyond the threshhold of our temples.
request the honor of the company of
(written in slightly haphazardly)
at a Reception to celebrate the creation
as Cardinal of the Church
His Eminence George Cardinal Pell
Archbishop of Sydney
at 7.00 pm on Tuesday, 21 October 2003
at the Palazzo della Rovere
3 Via dei Cavalieri del Santo Sepolcro, Roma 00198
Decorations will be worn
Well. I'm not entirely sure how my Australian friend and his wife finagled an invitation for me to a reception at the palace of the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre, but I was overjoyed. Incredibly overjoyed. Like freaking awesome. And, yes, the slang is there for comic affect (insert laugh track here).
You already know well that I am, so to speak, a Dominican groupie, but I'm also a Papal Orders fan, as my little adventure in Assisi will show you. The idea of possibly meeting a Cardinal and maybe even a couple of Grand Officers or even just a knight or two, well, that would be memorable.
And it wasn't too unrealistic an expectation. One of our hosts was, after all, a KC*HS. Which I knew meant Knight Commander with Star of the Holy Sepulchre, if you just need further proof of my hopeless geekiness. And who knows who else might be there? Should I run into the Grand Master himself in the course of the evening, well, I imagine it would be what my pal Dan back at Notre Dame would call, en hommage a le Official Ninja Website, a totally sweet occurrence.
On the other hand, I had half-an-hour to go until it started and I was dealing with tissuing an awkward (though nicely symmetrical) set of shaving cuts and was hoping not to get blood on my last clean dress shirt. That and it looked somehow like there was only one dark sock left at the bottom of my drawer. I was going to meet a scarlet Prince of the Church and Princes of the Church, well, they occasionally need architects. And it's the Cardinals, not the architects, that are supposed to do things ad effusionem sanguinem, and not with a Gillete disposable razor.
Somehow, I pulled myself together, and, as I sauntered out of the hotel, slightly off schedule, I thought I had cleaned up nicely, thank you so very much. My grey flannels were creased where they were supposed to be creased, my top brass blazer button was fashionably unbuttoned, and my Murano brand tie with the little Pantheon ceiling coffers was elegantly knotted. Nobody was going to notice that my black socks had different patterns on them, just so long as I didn't sit down all evening.
I even had a decoration to wear, per the invitation. Not, of course, the star of St. Januarius or the White Elephant of Denmark (or even a Knights of Columbus dingbat) but a little pin from one of the state Quiz Bowl competitions we'd won back in high school. Hey, it works.
My friends and I (with their well-behaved baby daughter in tow) found our way to the Palazzo, an open door beckoning us up a flight of stairs lined with antique engravings of Roman scenes and ancient chivalric insignia. We found ourselves in a grand room on the piano nobile. Someone was giving and oration and it looked like we hadn't missed much.
I suddenly realized that Cardinal Pell was standing before a little dais--a dais with a throne--there was a cardinal all in scarlet standing not three yards away and I was--well, it had to be--I was in the throne room of the Grand Master of the Order.
One of our hosts (Mr. d'Apice, the KC*HS), resplendent in a sober black suit sparked with the order's scarlet enamel cross at his neck, was narrating something rather long and involved about Australian history and relating it to the career of His Eminence, from his youthful days as a heavy-duty rugby plater to his being raised to the purple only a few hours earlier.
I started recognizing people and names and habits. The well-coiffed young lady standing a few feet away from me had gotten her face on the television screen at the Consistory. She'd read the second of the Prayers of the Faithful in sonorous antipodean English. All around me were the scarlet sashes of Propaganda Fide seminarians.
And then I realized George Weigel was standing behind me. I said hi and introduced myself again. He remembered me from my lengthy questions I'd dropped on him at the Domus Guadalupe after his lecture there last week. Somehow, he didn't seem to be terribly astonished that I was here for no logical reason.
The speech continued. My Australian friend moved towards the frescoed wall where his wife and young daughter had taken a seat beneath the window. I had a look around the room, the cotton-candy early-Renaissance colors of the illusionistic frescoes splendidly lit with floodlights. I took a moment to salivate over the elegant display of medals in a marquetry display case in one corner.
Then I realized, with the applause, it was time to move into the next room. An assortment of canapes had been neatly laid out in classic Italian style. We toasted His Eminence George Cardinal Pell and sang the (incorrect) English version of "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow." And then I helped myself to some pate and tried to mime to the waiters that the acqua minerale naturale was not naturale enough. Oh well. I think someone then presented the Cardinal with the star and sash of the order in a Moroccan leather case and then it got set on a sideboard. Worth investigating later.
And so then I got to work schmoozing. There were potentially cool people around and I didn't want to miss my shot at meeting them.
I'm pretty good at receptions, even if I don't know most of the people there. I had a couple of false starts after unsuccessfully trying to ride on George Weigel's coattails. I realized fairly quickly he had better things to do than introduce me to his cool bishop friends. I favor a fairly direct approach, and quite surprisingly, it worked. "Dominican? Big fan of your order!" "Knight of St. Gregory? Honor to meet you!" "I think that's a portrait of Pius VII up there on the wall, you know. I tried to write a novel about him once."
It only backfired once, which isn't too bad of a record. I tried to chat about the Knights with a dour Palestinian priest in a cassock whose witticism about the financial instability of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem turned out to be no joke. It was a bit too late to take back my hearty laugh at this point. He didn't seem too interested at my attempts to identify the darkened oil portraits of churchmen hanging on the scarlet walls.
I decided to cut my losses and excused myself.
Still, I'd met some amazing people. My chatter about Pius VII had led to a long and pleasantly involved conversation about Church History with an enthusiastic Redemptorist moral theologian. He told me to drop by the Alponsinum out near John Lateran sometime.
Meanwhile, showing a copy of one of my drawings to our very own KC*HS, Mr. d'Apice, caused him to say, "you should put more heraldry in." Pavlov was ringing his bell for sure. Shields, flags, tournaments and chivalry are like catnip to me, and so I quickly realized I'd met the only other person in the world with whom I could compare notes on cardinal's shields, gallero tassels and that pressing question, "Archbishop Heim: so good or no good?" Raise your hand if you have no idea what I'm talking about. Ah, I thought so. I'll move on.
Anyway, he was appreciative and gave me his card. I plan to write him plenty if I cook up some new theory about fleurs-de-lys or what to do if your torse is showing. Maybe he can pass it onto the Garter King of Arms or the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod. I mean, knights probably know people like that, don't they? At the very least they must use the same drycleaning service for all those ceremonial robes.
Later, I sneaked over to the sideboard and had a peek inside the case at the Cardinal's new medals, enamel and brass winking in the darkness. Coolness.
I also exchanged some pleasant words with that fashionable young lady lector from the mass (Hi Alexis, if you're reading this). She was well-turned-out in knee-length tweeds and was articulate, intelligent and highly orthodox. I'd assumed she was the Cardinal's niece or somesuchlike, but she was actually here to represent Australia's Catholic youth and their hopes and dreams. And their demand that catechism teachers at least know which end of the crucifix points up. Her experiences at Catholic schools, in her faith and life mirrored those of my friends back at Notre Dame. I'd met my first Australian Catholic nerd, certainly a momentous occasion.
There were some Pell females there, maybe an actual niece or two, or cousins, sisters and aunts, including a rather intimidating, glacial Amazonian Princess Di-lookalike who had to be at least seven feet tall in heels. Yeesh. I decided to pass on talking to her chin.
My Australian friend, watching the time, decided it was best to steer ourselves towards the Cardinal himself, who was now ensconced in one corner of the Room eating the last of the canapes off a tray held by the non-KC*HS host. I had my Matt-does-Albrecht Durer drawings in a tube under my arm and the Rome Studies Program Director's card in my wallet. Notre Dame, you know, always likes clerical visitations.
I'll say this about Ozzie rules football-players-turned-cardinals. They're very friendly. My Australian friend gave me a little intro, and I took the ball and ran with it. His Eminence listened with interest as we filled him in on the wonders of Notre Dame and classicism and beautiful new churches. I unrolled my work before him and he patiently took in all the details and symbols of my interpretations of the Mystical Marriage of St. Catherine of Siena and the Ecstasy of St. Teresa. He was due for an interview and probably already running late, so I was grateful for the few minutes. He promised to visit the school some time, and I actually believe he will some day.
The caterers and stewards (the Sepulchre knights do a mean canapé, let me tell you) were ushering us out of the suite of rooms and hearding us back to the main hall. I had just a few more glimpses of the empty Grand Master’s office, which was where I had chatted with the enthusiastic Redemptorist. Then back out through the enfilade, rooms going past in the semidarkness in a blur of cardinal scarlet and gloomy official portraiture.
The evening was over, and the little crowd dissipated quickly into the golden-orange and purple of a street-lit Roman night. I shook hands with my Australian friend and his wife and patted their baby daughter on the head one last time. My friend says their little girl is becoming quite a good observer, always focusing on the best paintings or sculpture in every church they visit. Coming to Rome so young, she'd seen more in her first six months than most people ever experience. This evening alone, well, it had to be quite an addition to her growing collection of sights and sounds that perhaps she doesn’t understand yet.
And one to mine, too. I'll remember kissing the Cardinals ring, certainly, but I'll never forget either the knights and priests and laymen and Propaganda Fide seminarians in their peculiar cassocks and, of course, Australia's first Catholic nerd, wherever she is now. But most of all, I’ll remember that the Cardinal saved a little time for me, a stranger from well outside his diocese, when he could have been seeing a reporter and perhaps furthering his career another inch or two. If they’re anything like Pell, I think we could do with more ex-footballers in the College of Cardinals.
Hey, at the least, maybe we could further ecumenism by having rugby matches with the World Council of Churches. But seriously, many blessings on His Eminence. I will look forward to hearing of his future adventures with much hope.
Tuesday, October 21
I was, to be frank, just the slightest bit down the night before Mother Teresa’s beatification. I shouldn’t have been.
We’d just finished up a rosary accompanied by the singing of one of Notre Dame’s own fair flowers of Catholic womanhood, Miss Danielle Rose Skorich. She is, if one can use the term for such a modest girl, a bit of a local university celebrity. She graduated two years ago with a CD of her own music to her credit. She’s got another one coming soon, twenty songs, one for each mystery of the rosary.
Considering I don’t listen to much music written after about 1763 (Ignacio de Jerusalem, Matins for the Virgin of Guadalupe), you know if I’m making an exception to the rule, she’s gotta be good. She is.
Danielle Rose was in town for the beatification, as she has always has had a deep connection to the Missionaries of Charity. After a series of events that have more than a hint of providence, she ended up being given a rose from Mother Teresa’s last birthday cake shortly after the nun’s death. So any visit from Danielle is bound to cheer you up. She’s about one of the bounciest, sweetest girls you'll ever meet. The fact she typically dresses like a head-on collision of Woodstock and Santiago de Compostela only adds to her appeal. And I mean this in the best possible way.
Still, the fact I would probably be standing for three or four or five hours the next day in the rain with God knows how many pickpockets nipping at my hips was pouring copious amounts of cold water on the grace I ought to have been experienced.
Some of my friends, the real die-hards, kept saying they were going to get up at five, or four, or three, or stay up all night so they could get the best seats. Meanwhile, I was more concerned about where I was going to get breakfast. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. I felt faintly petty.
I finally arranged to meet a friend by Ponte Sant’ Angelo the next say at seven-thirty, and I started to cheer up a bit. Still, I was sure, absolutely sure, that I was going to be stuck out at the far end of the Via della Concelazione squinting at a TV screen with wall-to-wall rosary vendors. Much to my surprise, as I dashed up the Ponte Sant’ Angelo to find my friend Tom perched on one of Bernini’s railings, the little piazza in front of the fortress was almost empty. People were still slowly making their way towards the square beyond.
And the clouds were slowly drifting away to reveal stunning skies.
As I moved closer with him towards the barricades, it looked almost like I might be able to catch up with the hard-core people who were probably by now falling asleep on their feet. Tom had, however, lost his ticket. He rummaged calmly through his bag to make sure. No good. Finally, he decided to wait for a couple of his friends who were going to be passing by in an hour-and-a-half with extra tickets.
Tom insisted on waiting behind, despite the fact that if I flourished my ticket enough the Carabineri and Polizia and Vatican Security probably would have left us alone. He wasn’t convinced, and told me I should move on. I ran into him in Trastevere two days later, and he had finally gotten in with his other friends. He was glad to hear about my adventures.
I'm getting ahead of myself. So, anyway, I hesitantly went beyond the barricade. Inexplicably, I suddenly felt a warm feeling of anticipation, even a whiff of excitement. The air was cool, clear, brisk.
I was alone. Breakfast had been scarfed prosciutto and bread in the studio kitchen; and, as I moved closer to the piazza, still about one-third empty, it looked like I wasn’t going to see anyone I knew for the next four hours. But I felt…well…I felt surprisingly happy. I had made it. I was here for the beatification of one of the most holy people of the twentieth century.
I slowly threaded my way around the maze of partitions and finally sat down by the southern edge of the entrance into St. Peter’s Square, all alone. I felt strangely free as I surveyed the great, sun-washed yellow travertine façade of the church.
An enormous tapestry hung from the Benediction Loggia. Only the ornate floriated border was visible; the image at the center was veiled. Mother Teresa, soon to be Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, servant to the poorest of the poor. I was alone in the square with Mother Teresa and thousands pilgrims who I’d never met. Last night, I would have been thinking I had no one to talk to, or that I had lost the cap to my water bottle somewhere on the Via. Instead, I just felt overwhelmed by—
I’m in Saint Peter’s Square, and I’m going to see the Pope beatify one of his closest friends.
It got even better. I may have thought I was by myself. But I wasn’t for long. That was when Sister Kathleen showed up.
She was a big sturdy young nun in full brown robes with a digital camera slung around her neck. She’s the coolest nun ever, by the way. Well, the coolest living nun, anyway.
(Her name has been changed to protect the guilty, by the way.)
Rome is full of providential and almost comical chance meetings, as I was finding out. I’d actually met Sister a week before, at the talk George Weigel had given at the Domus Guadalupe. I’d met lots of nuns there, and not all of them had a very good handle on English. I was sketchy on her name, rank and serial number, and for a couple of moments there I was afraid I was going to spend my morning standing next to a monoglot German. I was mistaken.
She was hilarious, magnificent, devout. Her order was the Franciscans of Perpetual Adoration. It had, much to my surprise, a sizable foundation and school in Mishawaka, Indiana. Mishawaka, ten minutes from Notre Dame, is famous as the home of Grape Road. Grape Road has stores with everything a student could ever need, provided he or she has an irrational desire for cheap Swedish furniture, art supplies or sale table books.
It’s only when you meet folks from next door in front of St. Peter’s you understand how universal this Catholic gig really is.
Though the strangers around us were also doing a pretty good job in teaching us that as well in a different way. Sister Kathleen and I had a grand time as we watched the parade of humanity move past us. I gave up on sitting down on my folding stool within the first ten minutes. It was marvelous. It was exciting. It was full of grace.
It was also like one gigantic Vatican street party. I’ve never seen happier people.
The whole world loved Mother Teresa; and pretty much the whole world was there that morning. The square quickly filled up as Sister Kathleen and I chatted loudly and cheerfully, talking about everything from my thoughts on church architecture to the consecrated and marital vocations, as well as trading anecdotes about our various wild adventures in Rome. Every now and then I glanced up and had a look round. I’m not sure which was more heartening, talking to the nun or looking around. So many people from so many places.
There were, of course, the Albanians, whose banner was labeled with a message reminding us of their nation’s status as the blessed’s birthplace. They’d taken up the high ground on the north colonnade, and the black eagle of Skanderbeg once again blazed in the sunlight on its fluttering scarlet field.
A tour group from Wadowice, the Pope’s hometown, stood just across the aisle, making sure everyone knew exactly who they were with a twenty-foot banner stretched taut overhead. Right next to them, a couple of Chilean girls balanced precariously on the barricade railing as their purple-robed bishop blessed his flock. That wasn’t the end of it, either.
Sitting behind us was a fair-skinned, blue-eyed girl wearing what only could be described as a Muslim head veil over her very ordinary streetclothes. I never quite figured out what this out-of-place Circassian was doing here, but she seemed a welcome addition. Elsewhere, priests in cassocks and birettas flickered through the crowd, along with some peculiar, slow-moving monks in turquoise and white, “some really weird charismatic group from the Midwest,” Sister explained chattily. Her words, not mine!
Plenty of surprises to go round. I didn’t even crack the book I had brought to read. It would have of course been physically impossible, but also my surroundings had the premium on entertainment. Some diminutive Asian nuns momentarily appeared next to us in the crowd and the next thing we knew they had somehow gotten onto the other side of the partition twenty feet away. A white-haired, ruddy-faced alumnus in a Notre Dame baseball cap like mine waved at me from across the way. I gave him a Go Irish thumbs up.
And then there was the fellow in the Cat-in-the-Hat chapeau waving two enormous flags with the Pope’s coat-of-arms on them. He kept blocking everyone’s view of the TV screen positioned near the north side of the entrance. Not like we needed it as we could see clear towards the green-wreathed steps of the Basilica.
The bells tolled eight-thirty, nine, nine-thirty and suddenly we realized (as one of the pilgrims asked us to keep our talking down) someone was reading something in a weirdly monotone English. We had reached the preparatory readings before mass. A lector was standing at the ambo, almost invisible in the distance, quoting from the writings of Mother Teresa. I flipped around in my program to find myself scanning the section for the preparations leading up to the ceremony and found what the reading was and followed along, feeling the wisdom of the little Albanian woman. Sister and I fell silent, or at least smiled and whispered, and laughter turned to excitement, and perhaps even just a sliver of that elusive and holy emotion, joy.
One thing I think proves the truth of the Faith is that when Catholics enjoy themselves, nothing is spared. I’ve talked about the Via Corso, of course. Piazza San Pietro is even wilder in terms of street theater, and far more edifying. Rather than venerating Gucci cargo-cults, these wonderful, strange and humble pilgrims had all been brought together by a wrinkled little woman in a sari who had never set out to change the world, but just make it better, one leper, one invalid, one untouchable at a time. To a secular mind, it’s simply insane. To me, it’s glorious.
And it’s a great reason to rejoice and be glad. And party like a cenacle on fire.
Reading followed reading as people continued to file into the square. The Sistine choir began to sing hymns, of Christ’s thirst, not for water, but for love; of Christ present in the poorest of the poor; and finally, the words of Mother Teresa as a conclusion: “Joy is a net of love by which we catch souls—because we are full of joy, everyone likes us and wants to be in our company to receive the light of Christ.”
I realized then the bells were now tolling continuously, and steaming incense wreathed a processions of deacons, priests and acolytes moving towards the great canopy over the altar from the doors of the Basilica. A shockwave went through the crowd as soon as the mitred figure of the Pope appeared, and he strained tiredly to pronounce the opening prayers in Latin. But suddenly, for all his exhaustion and slurring, the crowd, however many millions there were spilling down the Via all the way to Castel Sant’ Angelo, was perfectly silent as he spoke.
The age-old ceremony of Beatification followed, and after the Archbishop of Calcutta had read out the hagiography of the future beata, the Pope pronounced the Latin formula as best he could. The whole square intoned a great Amen and the Schola broke into the singing of Alleluias and lauding motets to God as a great heart-shaped reliquary was brought forward by Indians in vivid saffron and green saris and robes. Soon, the Gloria was sung, back and forth between choir and congregants, the nun and I dutifully following the Gregorian notation in our program, bowing at Domine Fili unigenite, Iesu Christe, who had suffered to bring us Joy.
By now I hardly gave any thought to my legs. Sister occasionally sort of rocked back and forth; I thought she was squirming until I realized she was trying to keep from going stiff. I followed suit.
There’s not such an easy solution for other sorts of pain, as I saw. The first reading was recited in English. “Because of his affliction, he shall see the light in fullness of days; through his suffering, my servant shall justify many, and their guilt he shall bear.” Verbum Domini. Deo gratias.. The mingling of sadness and happiness, pain and joy, seemed omnipresent. Here was the Holy Father, accepting his own Calvary, while at the same time he elevated to the ranks of the blessed someone who he himself had known personally.
Mother Teresa wrote once, “You cannot have Joy without Sacrifice,” and I couldn’t help thinking of this as I remember the Pope’s halting prayers throughout the Mass. He could have handed the mass over to the Camerlengo or the Dean of the Holy Roman Rota, but instead, he persevered. His words came and went through the concelebrated Eucharistic canon, but he still strained to raise the Host at the elevation, an expression of primordial innocence and suffering on his old face as the tower bell struck once.
We pressed close to the rail once Communion began. Pairs of priests, one holding a white umbrella, the other bearing a ciborium, fanned out along the barricades. Sister told me that once we received it was best to leave as quickly as possible lest we be crushed against the railings and hear the final blessing from the street. I grabbed onto her arm and we wormed our way through the crush of humanity reaching desperately for the host, arms thrust into the air with grabbing fingers. Meanwhile, the Pope sat in his cathedra, perhaps wondering at all this, this confusion, this chaos.
No joy without sacrifice.
We stepped away and ducked down a quiet side street, moving slowly and glad to stretch our legs again. We heard the apostolic blessing from Via de Concelazione, the crowd starting to thin out, and knelt as the Holy Father strained to pronounce the tripartite formula. And then, Ite, missa est.
We moved through the crowds, taking it all in, amazed. So many people—the sheer numbers, let alone the variety of the pilgrims, all races and nations, was mind-boggling. Finally, after a long walk, after a whole mile down the Via, we reached the end in a tangle of carabineri directing traffic and news center vans with satellite dishes on their roofs.
Eventually, I said goodbye to Sister Kathleen. I promised to drop by the Domus the next time they had a lecture, thanking her for her wonderful conversation. We went our separate ways smiling.
Mother Teresa may have written there is no joy without sacrifice, but she also said, “When you are full of joy, you move faster and you want to go about doing good to everyone.” I felt like running, myself, I was so happy. I later discovered the die-hard early birds had gotten some comfy seats up front for all their trouble. Still, I wouldn’t have traded my five hours standing for any throne in the world. That’s joy.
I attended the Consistory for the creation of thirty new Cardinals this morning, held in St. Peter’s Square. Some friends of mine, a young Australian engineer-turned-sculptor, his lovely Spanish wife and their sweet, inquisitive six-months-and-two-days old little daughter, were on pilgrimage to Rome for the occasion. George Pell, Archbishop of Sydney, would be receiving the red hat today. I gladly joined them for the ritual.
The four of us sat only a handful of rows back from the great stagelike travertine steps of the Basilica, looming over us beneath a vivid Italian sky. I had left my hotel under Tiepolo clouds, gold melting to gilded pink, and now the fickle Roman fall weather had given us a sky as blue as the Virgin’s cloak.
Only a few days earlier, I had stood for five amazing five hours in the same square for the beatification of Mother Teresa. That morning had been joyous, all the pilgrim weirdness of Rome giving the solemnities the ecstatic mood of a hagiographic block party. Now, the exotic travelers around me, even the rites of the Consistory seemed to take on, not the saintly excitement of the beatification, but the sacral patina of antiquity.
Around me were emissaries from every tradition in Christendom, new and old. Near the altar already were representatives of dozens of religious orders, Carmelites in white and brown, piebald Dominicans, Trinitarians with their crusader’s crosses on chest and cape, Maltese knights in black. A few rows behind us were a concourse of priests in red-buttoned electric purple cassocks with identical soft-sided briefcases.
As the seats around us filled up and the clock bells tolled nine-thirty and ten, we feasted our eyes on our neighbors. Ghanians and Nigerians, fluttering their tricolors, stood across the aisle. I saw only of them first, his head shaved, his bare chest draped in an African toga in hallucinogenic pinks, greens and corn-yellow. We caught a glimpse of orate golden sandals as we passed. He was wearing tortoiseshell-rimmed glasses.
Soon, sturdy Yoruba matrons in whirling gold turbans, Nigerian nuns in elaborate bright blue veils, and Ghanian aristocrats with silver-studded circlets in their close-cropped hair had joined him. Above us, on either side of the sanctuary, European nobles in sober black tailcoats, their chests bright with sashes and medals, stood and chatted in small knots. Between them, cassocked priests moved with quick, precise steps back and forth between the empty Cardinals’ seats and the vivid yellow and scarlet of the flowers spilling down the steps.
Earler, I’d spotted a black Swiss guard standing soberly along one wooden partition, seeming as if he were the conjunction of these two different, but in the end harmonious, worlds of chivalry and kingship that had come to pay homage to the Princes of the Church.
Then there were the Poles, who seemed, at first, a bit more prosaic. A brass band composed of blonde Slavic teenagers in matching maroon ties and jackets suddenly appeared in the rows in front of us and proceeded to unpack their instruments. They were literally all over the place during the ceremony, interrupting the rites with ear-splitting fanfares whenever his newly-minted Eminence Stanilaus Cardinal Nagy, S.C.I., got a mention.
More exotic, unbelievably splendid, were their countrymen standing some ways behind us. These humble Poles seemed to personify that gorgeous democratic splendor that is the birthright of Catholic Europe, the world of peasant maypoles and village feast-days. They almost seemed more glorious than the aristocrats of Italy and Africa.
Young, high-cheekboned girls in vivid folk costume, flowers wreathing their heads, stood beyond the barricade, accompanied by their fathers and brothers in embroidered vests and round hats. One little boy was dressed in the blue and aramanth of a Napoleonic lancer, oversized white epaulets weighing down his shoulders. He was crowned by a towering square-topped antique military helmet that looked bigger than his whole head.
Their older sisters and young mothers, in their identical costumes, were more beautiful than the most delicate of Meissen shepherdesses. Some were partridge-plump, others slender and elegant. Their colors were eye-soaking. They wore low, tight red bodices laced up the back with trailing yellow cords beneath ruffled blouses, full black woolen skirts tasseled in gold and green and crimson. Lace-trimmed white petticoats fluttering around their scarlet-stockinged calves.
Some had incongruous modern haircuts, some cropped short, some blonde-frosted or pony-tailed. Another costumed young woman walked with peculiar, almost mechanical, mincing step atop her spindly high-heels. But their splendid, timeless costumes put the last five centuries of taste to shame, just as the Catholic glories of their culture rebuked the modern world that still encircles their borders. I fell hopelessly in love at least twice.
Red stockings, red seminarians’ fascia flapping beneath white surplices. Red cassocks. Red was everywhere there in all its gradation, from the crimson of the velvet hangings and canopy, to fuscia of the bishops, even amid the variegated tulips wreathing the open-air sanctuary. As the new Cardinals processed in to the thunder of the organ and the tolling of bells, their orange-red robes joined the color-spectrum. Nigerian flags fluttered in the breeze. And then came the Pope, surrounded by churchmen in purple, arrayed all in gold, his pastoral crucifix carried behind him. The Crucifixion, the scarlet Passion.
After a series of Latin orations and the lengthy litany of proper names and titular churches, the liturgy of the Word began, and the scarlet returned to our minds. Red was in the words of the Gospel, proclaimed in chanted tono recto by a golden-dalmaticked deacon amid swirling incense. Christ asked His disciples, in the Latin of the Vulgate, “Potestis bibere calicem, quem ego bibo?” Can ye drink of the Chalice I will drink from? The cup of suffering, the cup of the crucifixion.
Could these stocky, grave prelates accept this ultimate sacrifice? Some had no choice. One already, it seemed, was on his way towards Calvary. There were thirty-one cardinals proclaimed by this consistory, but only thirty were named. One was kept in pectore, in the breast of the Pope, a secret cardinal whose life would be forfeit should the red hat become visibly his. Perhaps a persecuted priest of China or one of the new Cardinal-Archbishop of Khartoum’s countrymen. This red hat which they would receive, for the “praise of God and the ornament of the Apostolic See,” as the prayers ran, was only given in the expectation it would remain the crown of the prelate ad sanguinis effusionem, even to the spilling of scarlet blood.
As the schola sung the interlacing strains of Palestrina’s Tu es Petrus, billowing delicately like the incense at the Gospel, I saw the silver trays on which rested the scarlet birettas. Silver trays like the platter St. John’s head had rested upon, a relic, now lost, that the chivalric legends of the Middle ages reckoned to be almost as holy as the Grail, that cup of suffering.
And on their heads were placed the red birettas, one by one, as the commentator read out their tituli, the numerous ancient churches in Rome, many bearing the name of martyrs of long ago. San Giustino, Sant’ Agata dei Goti, Santa Prisca.
Somewhere, there was a church in Rome with an empty Cardinals’ shield that belonged to that unknown priest or bishop, perhaps huddled in a darkened cell or looking over his shoulder for the footfalls of secret police. Meanwhile, the Poles played a fanfare again as the aged Cardinal Nagy tottered up the Papal dais. Another Cardinal accidentally put his biretta on sideways.
But these are strong men, body and soul. Cardinal Pell himself played Australian-rules football at the highest level in his youth. Perhaps they may not shed blood, but they will elect the next pope, a task in which dying to self may prove just as important to the fulfillment of God’s plan.
God only knows when it will be the Holy Father’s time will be to go. These putative successors to Peter are from all over the world, as Catholic as the beautiful Polish maidens and Nigerian monarchs. They are from Brazil, from Croatia, from Guatemala and France, from Hungary and Spain and the Sudan, even from Philadelphia. What will they ever have in common and how will they work out their scores of difference when they cast their ballots under the bright Catholic colors of Michelangelo’s frescoes?
When I left, the Poles were still blasting away in competition with the tolling bells and the organ postlude. Though as I strolled away, and took a few parting glances at Vietnamese Oratorians, the Slavic beauties in their doll-like dresses, and Nigerians in their eye-popping robes, I saw a Highland bagpiper in full Stuart tartan kilts playing Scotland the Brave as the cross of St. Andrew waved overhead. (Keith Michael Patrick Cardinal O'Brien, Archbishop of St. Andrews and Edinburgh.) Then I realized he was playing almost in time to the thud of the Polish band’s big bass drum a hundred yards away. Harmony, or about as close as you can get outside Sistine choirboys.
We’re Catholics. Unam sanctam catholicam et apostolicam ecclesiam. And sometimes it takes the polyglot kaleidoscope of Roman pilgrims to make us realize that’s more than enough to bring a billion men and women together under one sign, the bleeding scarlet sign of the Cross.
Sunday, October 19
Nos, vota Fratris Nostri Lucae Sirkar, Archiepiscopi Calcuttensis, necnon plurimorum aliorum Fratrum in Episcopatu multorumque christifidelium explendes, de Congregationis de Causis Sanctorum consulto, Auctoritate Nostra Apostolica facultatem facimus ut Venerabilis Serva Dei Teresia de Calcutta Beatae nomine in posterum appeletur eisque festum die ipsius natali idest quinta Septembris, in locus et modis iure statutis, quotannis celebrari possit. In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti.
R. Christus vincit, Christus regnat, Christus imperat.
Since most of our readers have been following the fight for Terri Schiavo's life down in Florida, I won't blog the details here, but I would like to add my thoughts. It occurred to me tonight that perhaps the most fitting way to pray for Terri would be fasting. Not only is it one of the most effective forms of prayer I know, but it will be an expression of solidarity with her plight.
I've gone through phases now and then (usually during Lent, when those ubiquitous "rice bowls" are out), when I feel a twinge of guilt at meals for my American decadence, etc... So often, people in the Third World go without good food and water because tyrannical regimes deny them. Remind me again how America is morally superior?
Saturday, October 18
Considerations on Costume and Props
I’d run halfway across the centro storico to get to San Gregorio ai Muratori for their Friday evening Latin mass, and, naturally, discovered that I got their schedule wrong and I had an hour and a half to wait. I initially planned to walk back to the Architecture School and sit it out. Maybe have a page through the big picture book of photos of Pius XII I’d bought at the Libreria Editrice Vaticana that morning—it has, of all things, a Rockwellesque newspaper illustration of his Holiness shaving with an electric razor in the company of his pet canary. I have to admire a pope who has room for both that and a triple tiara in his iconographic repertoire.
Anyway, I was in the mood to waste time. I’d finished my latest paper and didn’t really have much in the way of work to do anyway that afternoon.
I didn’t get back until a full two hours later, and I ended up accidentally missing mass in the process after forgetting to wear my watch and discovering an untapped vein of early music CDs during my wander down the Corso, none of which I got around to actually purchasing.
In short, Italy had sucked me into its operatic streetscape again. It starts out slowly, as you stop by a bookstall you’d not seen before and the next thing you know you’re scoping out future gelato spots and admiring equally the lunatic window-displays and the sublime architecture. It’s a fantasy world. The fact that no Italian street clock even remotely agrees with the next—even when they’re within a few yards of each other—leaves you in a charmingly weird discrepancy in the space-time continuum when, at best, one can approximate a vague local time after taking the average of all those schizoid dials.
Anyway, it did start out with a bookstall. Actually a little encampment of them on a sidestreet leading towards the fashionable Via del Corso, the La Scala of Italian street comedy. I poked around, saw the leather spines of a two-volume set of the Opere Completa of Manzoni, and made my way around to the front of the stall. Soon, I was a couple booths down paging through antique proclamations from the Risorgiormento bearing the engraved coats of arms of Popes, Neapolitan kings and the odd cardinal or two. They were quite reasonably priced, actually, for papers dated 1861.
The selection of items was surprisingly heterogeneous. Antique medals, a small but select sampling of authentic junk. Then, more inexplicably, there were black-and-white photograph albums full of Lauren Bacall-ish blondes in cumbersome but classy long skirts, thick socks and extremely old-fashioned skiing kit. I can’t imagine skiing dressed like Kim Novak can be easy.
Other stalls had hundreds of old engravings, an inexplicable number of yellowing full-color newspaper pages showing Mussolini looking purposeful or signing treaties with everyone and their sister, belle-epoque French fashion illustrations, antique maps of an equally antique Italy, twenty-euro pages of Gregorian chant notation in black and red. Then there was a whole cart full of old lead soldiers of varying quality, including one or two half-decent Napoleonic bandsmen.
They also had, for no good reason, a diorama of a bunch of post-Anschluss Wehrmacht soldiers in field-grey breaking down one of the border crossings into Austria. I think it was based on a picture in a history book I once saw. Italians enjoy calling anything they dislike ‘Fascist,’ including, as Professor M. does, the Lazio football team. Given il Duce’s nonchalant guest-appearances here, I guess their contempt isn’t terribly systematic. Somehow, it doesn't surprise me terribly.
I decided to move on and filed away the location so I could come back when I had more cash on hand and a better reason to buy one of King Bomba’s last-ditch proclamations.
I decided I simply couldn’t go back to the studio after what I saw next. The German theme was coming back with a vengeance. Marching down Via del Corso was, not some Hitlerish scene of “all Germany marching uniformed in columns,” but something almost as terrifying and just as loud. A mobile version of Oktoberfest.
Really. A bunch of Italians, either smiling broadly or trying desperately not to smirk, were marching down the center of the street dressed in blue loden coats and extravagant St. Pauli girl-cum-Swiss Miss getups (with way too much eyeliner, I might note). They were ccompanied by an earsplittingly-loud brass band and a banner with an inscription in Fraktur something about Rome saluting Germany or beer or Bavaria, I’m not sure.
I'm still scratching my head about that.
I gawked after them for a while as they strode off towards Piazza del Popolo under the Teutonic eagle and Italic tricolor and saw I still had an hour to go until mass. So I wandered further in search of new and free entertainment, having a grand time all the while.
I ducked into some bookstores and music shops, checked out a few books on the Italian Army, found a Guillame de Machaut CD, the Morales Requiem for Philip II, some Alfonso el Sabio stuff, and a recording of sixteenth-century Lutheran hymns that looked interesting. I moved on though I decided to wait on buying anything.
I also got some of my fun, oddly enough, looking at the window displays. I’m not much of a window-shopper unless books, military uniforms or Cipriano de Rore CDs are involved, you must understand. When on field trips, the girls in the group stop and ooh and ahh over the semi-fetishistic shoes behind plate glass (they almost always wear sneakers anyway), my roommate and I stand on the sidelines, hands on pockets, and I wonder if I should say something about the Chicago Bears. Exactly what, I’m not sure, as I’m not even sure which sport they play. Lacrosse?
However, that parade of brightly-lit windows, installed into the old blocked-up arcades of palazzi, could have easily hold my attention for hours. I’m not sure why it’s so weirdly entertaining. I started out soberly enough, ducking into the wood-paneled narthexes of some of the nicer men’s shops and looking at the tasteful English tweed, keeping an eye out in case I saw a hat for the winter months.
I soon realized it was twice as entertaining (and much more of a time-waster) to glance at the female mannequins got up in odd skirts, blouses and scary pointy boots, behind the big glassed-in windows facing the Corso. Not only because their clothes were so radically different from the male sartorial sobriety I find tasteful but because I’m not wholly sure the outfits these fiberglass beauties were wearing really counts as clothing so much as expensive Halloween costumes.
I don’t think I’ve seen clothes this odd since high school. Trust me, nobody dresses weirder than teenage American girls.
The big window displays are the modern equivalent of the street shrines you see everywhere in Rome. Spain, hanging on to some shred of her Catholicism, still has her wooden-faced images of Our Lady with horsehair locks and stiff pearl-encrusted dresses. Secularized Italy now has a cult dedicated to these carefully-designed, hyperreal women in black. They're all pale as Ostrogoths, with uniformly bee-stung fiberglass lips, painted permanent makeup and chocolate-brown wigs either cropped short or extravagantly hair-sprayed into baroque disarray.
At least Spain’s Virgins smile or weep. I don’t think whoever pulled these Eves from the side of an Adam with painted white teeth could give them much more than the ability to purse their lips and stare as blankly as runway models. Opera (and street theater) doesn’t require much from its heroines but look decent in costume and sing. They’ve got fifty percent already, and it's the tricky bit that most beefy sopranos can't pull off.
It’s weirdly entertaining. Mannequins in the U.S. all seem to be headless diagrams wearing elegantly sober plaid, while these ladies remind me nothing so much as one of those Victorian ethnographic tableaux mortes that still crop up in museums. Two hundred years from now, historians will try to reconstruct daily life in Rome and, going only on clothing catalogues, all the women will be in leather with an excessive number of buckles and grommets and straps, topped off with shellacked snow-blonde hair. Children will have as much fun with that as making fun of Marie-Antoinette's skyscraper wigs.
Their clothing doesn’t resemble what’s worn on the street. That’s weird in a different way; the difference in Italy between runway and street isn't one of degree but just...well... It’s hard to say. You see, most of the insane ensembles you see in the per donne boutiques are actually more sober compared to some of the extravaganzas I’ve seen roaming the streets. Viz: High heels with put-your-eye-out pointed toes, baggy nylon trousers that look like army fatigues for space-age Zouaves, schoolgirlish punk regalia, insane Goth getups, miniscule tweed skirts, plaid ties (on women, let me remind you), silver Buck Rogers jackboots, skintight riding breeches in urban black-grey camoflage, translucent gauze mock-turtlenecks that leave little to the imagination, and anything in white pleather.
This is a place where a blood-red leather jacket is about as demure as an argyle cardigan. I even once saw a stumpy grey-haired woman dressed in what can only be described as a modest leather skirt, the kind of thing Carrie-Ann "Kick the Snot out of Agent Smith" Moss would wear if she were a Catholic nerd. Boggles the mind.
Sometimes it cuts the other way, and modesty almost reaches the extremes of fashion. The other day, walking past Sant’ Andrea I saw a demure, sharp-featured young woman of almost translucent fairness in simple white and beige almost as pale as her skin. Her well-cut pleated skirt, her pale hose and low-heeled blue-black shoes made her look nothing so much as a serenely well-bred nine-year-old waiting in line for her first Communion. Huh.
Nobody puts on clothes around here. Believe me, they’re costumes. It’s only when you realize this that the reasoning behind the seemingly-cumbersome clerical cassocks make sense. You sometimes see a Roman seminarian dashing through the streets in a full black soutaine, the tassels of his fascia fluttering at one side. The standard Jesuit plaid button-down of his American counterparts simply would not work in this context. He is trying to be heard over all the theatrical, sartorial shouting. Same goes with this The Matrix-goes-skiing women's clothing (what is it with Italians and this skiing thing?) that seems to be the latest thing around here. About the only thing that will hold its own against it is Sister Bertrille’s headgear…or a modest creature virtually dressed in her first communion clothes.
With so much competition, it takes a lot to get the Church noticed around here. When surrounded by palazzi, something as grandiose as the baroque SS. Ambrogio e Carlo in the Corso is only as useful as clearing one’s throat. It takes a stage-set the size of St. Peter’s to grab the attention of an actor involved in the comic tragedy or tragicomedy of the hilariously self-absorbed Italian streetscape.
It's better than anything you'll see in the theater, believe me.
Sets and Libretti
Nothing of consequence happens under a roof in Italy. People fitfully sleep; government ministers rubber-stamp reports, carabineri lose your paperwork. Italian apartments are small and cluttered, filled with odd-shaped rooms, and almost always empty. Even the most marginally significant of public meetings, such as the sessions of the Italian Parliament, are conducted in vast chambers that seem in size like indoor piazze.
More important business, such, as, say, opera and ballet, push the envelope even further: Palladio’s Teatro Olimpico is painted to look like an open-air Greek amphitheatre, while often the whole pretense is dropped and Pavarotti sings amid the ruins of Verona’s mini-colosseum, exposing himself to the equally Italian threats of rain and stray cats.
The truth is, given the plein-aire spectacle of life here, nobody would want to stay indoors much. Opera pales next to some of the extravagant coincidences that form the plot of even the most quotidian al fresco stroll. I had one of those crazy Italian theatrical moments the other day, when I ran into, out of all of Rome’s millions, my parish priest from home, dear Monsignor S.C.
He’d just gotten into town for the beatification and was on a stroll with another priest friend, Fr. F., from my diocese who knows Rome like the back of his hand. We’d been hoping to grab a coffee or lunch, though given the quality of my cell-phone reception, I was concerned he would be unable to get in contact with me. So, there I was, hurrying to a field-trip assembly point, dashing towards the Ponte Sisto down a narrow alley and I looked up to see a couple of priests. In Rome, one hardly gives a Roman collar second notice; Benedictine black, fluttering Norbertine white and the endless bizarre variety of nun headgear get a glance or two, but diocesan priests are everywhere. But I looked up again and realized there was a pretty darn familiar face there. I was ecstatic.
It was glorious, and almost hilariously cinematic, with the sun streaming down at the far end of the alleyway beyond them, the dip and buckle of the uneven cobbles paving the surprisingly empty street. Even my response, my loud cry of “Father!” and the overjoyed run towards him and Fr. F. harmonized with the overwrought backdrop perfectly. Italy does this to you. Sooner or later, you’ll be singing Vesti la giubba when you fold your laundry.
And enjoying it. Of course you are. You’re part of the spectacle. I guess it’s a way of giving back. Coffee the next day with Monsignor was like that too; I imagine the sight of three Americans gesticulating with loud familiar laughs on just another corner in the Borgo Pio just blended in seamlessly with the daily parade of nuns in full habit strolling past. It's a great show. We even spotted a cardinal, his scarlet fascia tassels peeking out from beneath his black overcoat. It was just another typical Roman corner, but it could have been the wings of a theater, so many colorful figures were skirting past as we enacted our own version of the “friends reunited” scene that caps off a dozen dramas and comedies.
Even funnier than that was I recognized a couple of the nuns, having met them a week before. Rome, as one would expect for a city of actors, is truly crazy, and I’m not sure anymore I want to be sane here.
Thursday, October 16
Isn't technology great? Who would have thought even 15 years ago that we'd be able to send emails to the Pope? So, send your congratulations to: email@example.com and let Papa know how much we love him.
Don Jim has the full lyrics of that gloriously Ultramontane (and perhaps slightly over-the-top) turn-of-the-century hymn Long Live the Pope. He's posted it in honor of the Holy Father's twenty-fifth anniversary on the Throne of Peter, which is today. Ad multos annos, Your Holiness. If there's anyone we can all sing "All hail! The Sheperd-King of Rome!" without snickering or disagreement, I would hope it would be our very own JP II...not to knock your Pius XIIs or John XXIIIs, of course, or even old John XX (who seems to have been a medieval bookkeeping error). But the Holy Father is cool. He, as they say, rocks, and I mean that in a Thou art Peter way. I don't think we understand how blessed we are to have him, and to have had him for so long. There's plenty of rumors circulating about his health. So, as well as praying for his well-being, let's also not forget to appreciate him while we can.
And there's yet more fun stuff via Fr. Tucker. Scroll down further after Long Live the Pope for the story (initially broken in the blogosphere by our very own Fr. Sibley) about the latest kooky manifestation of "Mother Teresa-mania" in Italy. I give you, Madre Teresa: La Musicale. Possibly produced by Messrs. Bialystock and Bloom? I've been seeing posters for it all over Rome for weeks now. I try very hard not to laugh, for her sake. What I really want to know more about, however, are the details on the choreography in the big Untouchables Tap Dance Number. Italy's tops for weirdness, I tell ya.
Siena Cathedral. From the University of Oklahoma.
Looking for Pope Joan in the Alchemical Cathedral
The Duomo in Siena is inseparably linked to the image of the city it crowns. It stands at the highest point of the great ridge the town is built upon, dome and campanile outlined by the early, pale light. Tile roofs crowd up at its marble-striped flanks, cascading down the hillside, hazily glimpsed in the morning mist. The whole city is built in some way in its form, as the main piazza, the grand, sloping Campo, is shaped like the curve of the Virgin's cloak. Yet, unlike beautiful Siena, there is something strange and unsettling about this mammoth Gothic structure.
I honestly don't remember much about my first trip to Siena as a child besides the fluttering Palio flags being sold by cart vendors along the Campo and an excellent hole-in-the-wall pizza place I never did find again. The Cathedral is equally blurry, and even the sketches in art history books make it hard to visualize. The only thing I could recall about it was some nebulous connection to the Pope Joan myth and some vague memory of crypto-pagan alchemical symbolism on the floor, the weird heritage of the Renaissance's unhealthy fascination with magic.
Even after my more recent visit there, it's difficult to grasp. Something is radically wrong with this glorious pinnacled structure.
For one thing, it's been turned into a museum. One crowded chapel in one side aisle, barricaded off by high partitions and entered via an impossible-to-find door is ghettoized for the sake of prayer. A bunch of garish Palio helmets and silver ex-votos to the Virgin cling to the underside of a nearby organ gallery.
The pavement had been recently restored, a marvelous maze of inlays in black marble, giallo antico and polished scarlet fitted into frames of white stone, and as a consequence, they have started charging admission for everyone to see it. It's quite striking, though perhaps improvidential: it's the only church in the world where one is supposed to be looking down at one's feet instead into the heavenly vaults above.
The endless wandering tourists with their prerecorded guides and the tables piled high with books towards the entrance further mar the scene. The fact that the sanctuary has not been marred by a versus populam new altar doesn't even serve as a relief because at least that could be a sign of life. We threaded through the cumbersome series of wooden partitions that snake along the floor of the church. Docents, rather than sacristans, told us not to sit on the step of a side chapel--people sat everywhere and anywhere during the Middle Ages--while tour groups tramped clumsily through the sanctuary, past the inlaid-wood stalls of the empty retrochoir.
It seemed suffocating. For once, the great wealth of gilded sepulchres and black-and-white striping, now pointless without a tabernacle, seemed overwhelming and even gaudy. It made no sense: why should this wealth of ornament that I would find magnificent anywhere else seem so troubling here? The iconography and decoration was no more dense or claustrophobic than any other Italian church, and actually quite severe next to the elegant baroque of Rome. We'd experienced it out-of-order, without the ritual progression up the nave towards the tabernacle and altar and instead had moved sideways across the aisles through the partition maze. This turned what should have been a glorious experience into an incoherent jumble of disconnected marbles and memories.
My fellow architecture students around me were strangely shocked by all this. Both by the money being chiseled out of the tourists and the money that had gone to building what would have been a glorious structure, if only if it had fulfilled its original purpose. It was truly bizarre: future architects being trained by one of the few programs in the world that cared about classical ornament were criticizing the only Institution on earth which had an infallible reason to decorate Her structures so lavishly. I tried to sputter a defense but I mostly wanted to leave.
The strange church was screwing with our heads. If you stepped back and set all this aside, it was still amazing. The wounds on the Body of Christ did not ultimately mar His beauty. But it was hard to look past them.
It's not just the barricades and the museumlike atmosphere that hangs over the place. It's simply strange. The splendidly-frescoed cathedral library has a large nude statue of the Three Graces in its center, while any church with alchemical symbols on its pavement has got to be a very odd place indeed. The Renaissance ideal was a splendid balance of classical and Christian but sometimes the scales got tipped the wrong way.
Even odder is that business about Pope Joan. There's an urban legend that says that the fictitious Pope Joan is included up in the rows of terra-cotta busts of the Popes that ring the frieze far overhead. It's not impossible as the medievals had, strangely, no hangups over the myth. It was only definitively disproved by, of all people, a Protestant historian of the sixteenth century. Anyway, I couldn't find her there. There seems to be a "Casa della Papessa" somewhere in Siena but my professors were mystified by what it was supposed to be and whether it had anything to do with this medieval dime-novel character.
There is, however, a pagan god inlaid on the floor. Hermes Trismegistus, the Egyptian composite of Mercury and Thoth, is shown teaching his disciples near the principal entrance. Perhaps they're talking about making lead into gold. Some ecclesial windowdressing said that he was actually an alias of Moses, with his Egyptian connections, but this hardly can be traced back to pious tradition. Trismegistus is the mythical author of the Renaissance occult-alchemical text known as the Corpus Hermeticum.
It's a seamier side of the quattrocento. It's hard to avoid when studying the era in-depth. The truth is, Renaissance science, freed from its ecclesiastical "restraints" often delved deeper into superstition, Gnosticism and magic than medieval researchers with their alleged tunnel-vision. Giordano Bruno, that supposed martyr of freethinking, was obsessed by the mystical properties of the Hebrew language, while the Tudor scholar John Dee held seances with angelic spirits in an Aztec obsidian mirror. Even Isaac Newton tried his hand at alchemy and wrote vast tracts on the weirder bits of the Apocalypse.
It's unsettling to see Hermes here, in a church. Even if, as my guidebook said, he is supposed to represent the beginnings of human knowledge, rather than as the emissary of some Gnostic divine in Neoplatonist disguise.
I said a prayer for the alchemists there, hoping their souls were in peace, hoping they recanted all their obsessed attempts to fuse Christianity with magic and heresy. And then I left that place.
There's some alchemy still going on there, too. While it should be of the sort that turns bread into God's body and wine into blood, instead it's about turning tickets into Euros. God's amazing house in Siena, even if He's stuck with Hermes and Pope Joan (wherever she is) for roommates, deserves better than this.
Notes from a lecture given at the Domus Sanctae Mariae Guadalupe in Rome by Professor George Weigel on 15 October 2003
5. The Pope has a lay corner in his priestly soul
Weigel himself admitted this was a peculiar way of putting it; he was speaking in a pyschological rather than theological sense when he said this. The Pope, first and foremost, is a man in love with and in awe with the gift he received when he was ordained to the priesthood. After all, Weigel noted, the Pope's been the best vocations director the Church has ever had. What is important here is to note the way the Pope's priesthood was formed during his early years of service. Previous popes had spent their days as young priests as junior diplomats or seminary professors, and often knew they wanted to be a priest from an early age.
The Pope, then Karol Wojtyla, well, he wanted to be an actor, and had to be dragged by the Spirit into the priesthood as he expected he would fulfill his vocation in the church as a layman. Furthermore, rather than filing reports or grading papers, he spent his early days as a pastor essentially hanging around with kids. He made a series of close friendships with the university students under his care, and that resulted in a profound exchange of gifts. He formed them into good Christians and they formed him into a profound and articulate minister of the Gospel. It wasn't a case of him trying to be like them and get down to their level; they wanted to be like him. The result has been one of the the rallying cries of this papacy, that of the universal call to holiness.
6. The Pope has an Apostolic Soul
Well, of course, he would. He's the successor of Peter, and like any other bishop, is the inheritor of the authority and charism of the Apostles. That being said, his Apostolic soul goes farther back than that. His belief in the universal call to holiness is to be lived out in service to equip us to be God's presence in the world. The Church has a distinct and correct view of history which sees it as stretching from creation and fall through the Incarnation and finally to the Kingdom of God, and that must be apostolically preached, and best preached by example, like the Pope's own, or by the likes of the soon-to-be-beatified Mother Teresa.
7. The Pope has a humanistic soul
First, a story. In 1959, when Bl. John XXIII sent out a memo to his bishops about what to talk about at the upcoming council (or at least how to organize a commission to discuss how to organize a commission on what to talk about at the upcoming council), he got a lot of rubbish in response. Most bishops sent vast, dull laundry lists about niggling liturgical changes and shuffling the odd paragraph around in canon law. Weigel cites the spectacularly ridiculous proposal by the then-archbishop of Washington, who, after a number of forgettable ideas, wrote down that the Church, in light of developments in science, should make a pronouncement on the possibility of intelligent life on other planets. Weigel reports it's even funnier to read in Latin. Having lived in that area, he tells us probably the good archbishop should have been more interested in finding intelligent life in his own diocese, let alone Mars.
That being said, young Bishop Wojtyla sent in, not a list, but a philosophical essay. His question was simply: What happened? What had gone wrong with the twentieth century? His answer was it was a crisis in the idea of the human person, which had philosophically gone off the rails in high culture a few centuries earlier. These ideas of the "Enlightenment" era, when mated with modern technology and science produced, not peace and prosperity, but Hitler, Stalin and two world wars. The Council, he said, should try to restore that idea of the human person lost so long ago. And that idea is ultimately rooted in Christ, the image of our humanity. Only in contemplation of the Holy Face, a devotion dear to his heart, would we come to know ourselves. Instead, there's only the possibility of a brave new world, as Weigel said, "a world ultimately without love."
Weigel concluded by saying that, simply, all the Pope has done during his reign is the product of this great soul. "This," he said, "is the great Christian witness of our time, because for him, Jesus is the answer to the question that is every human life."
Part III, the final installment, will cover some interesting comments on Theology of the Body that Weigel had to say in response to one of my own comments at the Question-and-Answer session afterwards.
Wednesday, October 15
Notes from a lecture given at the Domus Sanctae Mariae Guadalupe in Rome by Professor George Weigel on 15 October 2003
The learned Professor Weigel, on the eve of the anniversary of the Pope's election, spoke to us on the subject of seven facets that gleam most brightly in the "multisplendored soul" of Pope John Paul II, something he has come to understand through his own meetings with the Pope, his contemporaries and exhaustive bibliographical research that has been most fruitfully expressed in his book Witness to Hope.
Before starting, he told us a rather amusing anecdote about Notre Dame football that occurred around twenty years ago. At a pre-game dinner held jointly by the Notre Dame and Miami U teams, a Protestant chaplain gave a length oration on how he hoped God would help both teams do their best in the next day's game because "God doesn't care who wins and loses." He repeated this refrain over and over again. After dinner had ended, Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz got up and thanked the chaplain for his truly inspiring speech, telling him how true he was...except, while God didn't care about football, His Mother sure did! We applauded, of course.
But seriously, here are the first four categories he spoke on this evening, with a brief synopsis below. It was truly inspiring stuff, and I hope this does as much good for those who read it as for those who heard it.
1. First and foremost, the Pope has a Polish soul
Besides stating a matter of anthropology, Professor Weigel means that Poland and the Poles have learned by their geopolitical sufferings over the last two centuries that what drives history is, as he put it, "not politics or economics, or some combination of politics and economics but culture. And at the hear of culture is cult...what we cherish, what we honor, what we worship." For example, in those pivotal nine days in 1979 during his trip to Poland, he spoke not of politics but reminded his people of their authentic Catholic and Polish identity, and the result, thirteen months later, was the Solidarity movement. This upbringing has given the Pope an advantage over those of us in the west, who no longer see holiness as a force for change; however, the Pope knew it was the only way Poland could survive the dark night of the twentieth century.
2. The Pope has a Carmelite soul
The Pope himself has said he wears the scapular (itself the subject of a forty-eight hour media tempest-in-a-teapot); and this great love of the Carmelite mystical tradition stems ultimately from his days in Wadowice. The leader of his parish's underground youth group during the days of the Nazi occupation was a semi-educated tailor named Jan Taranowski who had, despite his lack of learning, taught himself a vast amount on the subject of the Carmelite mystical tradition. Taranowski established a number of sub-rosa "living rosaries" of fifteen young men led by a particularly mature "animator," one of which was the twenty-year-old Karol Wojtyla. From Taranowski, Karol learned of St. John of the Cross, and of the Carmelite theology of the Cross which sees the self-emptying, self-gift and self-surrender of the Passion as the central pillar of history. History is His story, Professor Weigel concluded.
3. The Pope has a Marian soul
Of course, we already know this because of his writings on the Rosary, even his motto of Totus Tuus (roughly, "All for You," addressed to Mary) and the Virgin's monogram beneath the cross of his Papal coat-of-arms. However, the nature of his Marianology is very important. It too can be traced back to his mentor Taranowski, who introduced him to St. Louis de Montfort's classic devotional manual True Devotion to Mary. Karol, then, was frustrated by traditional Polish Marian piety as inconvenient and obstructive to his relationship with God. However, St. Louis taught him that Mary, who says "Do whatever He tells you," leads to Christ, and through Christ, to the Trinity.
Furthermore, Professor Weigel continued, his Marian piety is influenced by the speculative theology of Hans Urs von Balthazar, who has written in his work The Office of Peter that the Church has often been shaped in the image of great figures from the New Testament. The Church of Contemplation is that of St. John; the Church of Proclamation, St. Paul; the Church of Authority, St. Peter. But behind those figures is the Church of Mary, who was, by virtue of Her fiat, the very first disciple of Jesus as well as Mater Ecclesiae. The Pope laid this out clearly in his 1987 Christmas audience with the Curia (which Weigel jokingly says "is the closest thing the Vatican ever gets to having an office party") where he reminded his cardinals and priests that the Church of Authority, the Vatican, exists for the benefit of the Church of the Disciples, that of Mary.
Lastly, his Marian soul is full of a spirit, and a spirituality of Trust, inherent in Mary's double fiat: enunciated before Gabriel and silently expressed by Her trusting acceptance of the dead body of Her Son beneath the cross.
4. The Pope has a dramatic soul
Professor Weigel doesn't mean simply he wanted to be an actor, but that his love of drama and his mental formation by it led to his belief that life is a drama in both the Greek and Hebrew sense. Life is a drama because we are in constant tension between who we are today and who we should be ideally. Bridging this gap lies at the heart of life, and we have to "mind the gap," as Weigel noted, recalling the signs on the London Underground. Our lives are dramas in a larger drama in which God is the playwright and protagonist. Exactly "one year after being shot in his front yard," as Weigel put it, the Pope went to Fatima where he declared, "In the designs of Providence, there are no mere coincidences." And no matter how quotidian your life is, that's pretty darn dramatic.
The final three categories of the Pope's soul will be detailed in a future post, discussing Weigel's thoughts on the lay/priestly, apostolic and humanistic aspects of this marvelous man.
Tuesday, October 14
Normally, I don't bother to write letters to The Observer, our campus daily, but last Friday I ran across a letter on a topic that's long been of interest to me, so I decided to respond. Also, it's midterms week, so I'll do anything to avoid working on assigned papers, including writing voluntary papers. As my devoted readers, I'm sharing the director's cut with you. (I had to do a hatchet job on it to get it down to the 350-word limit).
No More Altar Girls? (thier title, not mine)
by Emily Klejeski
I was sorry to see the frustration expressed in Anna Nussbaum's Oct. 10 Viewpoint letter. While the gender of altar servers is a matter of discipline rather than absolute truth, and thus is open to legitimate debate, I feel compelled to offer some reasons the Church might decide to disallow female altar servers (which, I should add, they haven't yet).
The fact is, boys and girls are different. Girls are natural volunteers; they jump in and help wherever needed. It's hard to find an area of parish ministry that isn't mostly performed by women anymore, and more power to them. The unfortunate fallout is that religion is often viewed as women's domain. All too common is the Mass where the priest is the only prominent male, looking rather cowed by the overwhelming female presence. Hardly the image of an alter Christus in whose footsteps boys may want to follow.
Having only altar boys provides boys a way to serve that is appealing to them. In parishes where girls are allowed serve, they more often than not overtake that ministry, while the boys drop out of what becomes yet another girls' club. Giving the boys a chance to be boys in the context of religion is an opportunity for them to experience a Catholicism that they can really sink their teeth into and to develop a knowledge and reverence of the Mass. It is an opportunity for them to learn from the priest and the other boys about a faith of heroic sacrifice, a faith worth living and dying for, and yes, a faith even worth getting up earlier on Sunday for.
Historically, altar serving has been a stepping stone in training for the priesthood, and the Church would like to return to that tradition. The results of this were shown by the Arlington, Va. diocese, which has only male altar servers, and now ranks among the top two U.S. dioceses for priestly vocations. 85% of these priests were once altar servers. So much for a vocations crisis there.
Finally, I'd like to address a misconception that pertains not only to this question, but also the question of women being priests, a concern which seems to lie just beneath the surface of Miss Nussbaum's letter. Our culture has misconstrued the concept of gender equality to consist of performing the same tasks. This reflects a demeaning, utilitarian view of the human person, by reducing a person's value to what jobs they are able to perform. Rather, we should understand that while men and women are intrinsically different, and thus have different means of serving Christ and his Church, the Church has always proclaimed their equal dignity. Remember that we uphold a woman as the highest created being (just look on top of the Dome).
Urbino continued to disorient me well into the evening, after stumbling into a bland suburban restaurant for dinner with a few tired friends and instead finding my professors there, excitedly looking over the menu in eager anticipation. We jointed them at the table and I found myself tasting some of the finest gnocchi I'd had thus far, garnished with duck sauce. It only got better, with an excellent, soft, smooth cup of tartufo bianco for dessert.
The next morning, before piling into the bus again for our journey over the Appenines, we stopped in town long enough to visit the birthplace of Raphael, whose tomb I would see in the Pantheon a handful of days later. It was a simple, elegant rowhouse, anonymous among the stony grey Urbino facades.
Within, all was whitewash and pale clear rainy morning light. Some sparse dark wood Renaissance furniture stood here and there, darker beams overhead, and a few minor paintings of Raphael's followers and contemporaries hung on the walls. Only one fresco fragment was actually the work of the Master. A small courtyard stood on the second floor, with a little detached dining room up a flight of stairs beyond, full of serene, simple leather-seated chairs and bull's-eye glass windows. It was perfect simplicity.
I'm not one for starkness or plainness; I got nicknamed "Mr. Baroque" fairly early on in Architecture School. Yet, Raphael's house, a plain, simple late-quattrocento middle-class townhouse satisfied any urge to the ornamental I could ever have. I can't say I would have been able to design it, but it was perfect.
It was difficult to visit, simply because you didn't want to just look around, but live there and never go home.
We spent our morning on a bumpy and unsettling bus ride through the Appenines, mostly glimpsed by me in a sleepy stupor; a hazy panorama of perilous cliffs, switchbacks, vast, half-Slavic hillsides thick with forest, and the omnipresent thick layer of clouds and fog.
We arrived in Arezzo, in somewhat more temperate Tuscany and had a quick lunch eating slabs of excellent, steaming folded-over pizza we'd gotten from a tiny lunch counter with a wait-staff with an enormous number of body piercings. Then we spent an afternoon sketching the steep pitch of their principal piazza, lined with attenuated tower-houses and a grand, out-of-scale colonnade designed by the famous architect-turned-biographer Vasari, who made Arezzo his home. We stopped by his own house before we left that afternoon.
Unlike Raphael, who had merely grown up in the house we saw in Urbino, this was Vasari's studio. Every inch of ceiling and wall was frescoed in a marvelous panoply of allegory and iconography. A bare-breasted, winged Virtue overcame Fame and Avarice in a remarkable antechamber with walls filled with painted architecture that seemed to extrude into three dimensions at the richly-molded stone fireplace. In another room, richly-dressed images of the muses were painted on the vaults, each given the face and figure of his lovely blonde fiancee. I sketched Urania, the muse of Astronomy, bent over a globe in a ruff and golden-yellow Renaissance finery. Sometimes she's associated with architecture, as well.
It was a place for an artist to live out his life, to play out all the ideas he had accumulated since childhood, whether it was to imagine vast symbolic schemes or reproduce sevenfold his beautiful bride-to-be overhead. Raphael's house was the only place to raise an artist, filled with good simple design to be elaborated on, examined: the basics. And the simplicity, when the time came, would push him out into the wider world to examine the brightness and color that dwelled there.
I think I'd be happy to live in either home.
ZENIT announced today that the philisophical works of Karol Wojtyla will be published in Italian. This volume, entitled Metafisica della Persona (Metaphysics of the Person), includes all of the Pope's philsophical essays from 1942-1978.
1,600 pages, and all from before he was elected Pope. The depths of that man's mind never cease to amaze me.
Those who judge [the Library] to be limited postulate that in remote places the corridors and stairways and hexagons can conceivably come to an end--which is absurd. Those who imagine it to be without limit forget that the possible number of books does have such a limit. I venture to suggest this solution to the ancient problem: The Library is unlimited and cyclical. If an eternal traveler were to cross it in any direction, after centuries he would see that the same volumes were repeated in the same disorder (which, thus repeated, would be an order: the Order). My solitude is gladdened by this elegant hope.
--Jorge Luis Borges, "The Library of Babel"
Urbino in the old Papal Marche remains something of a hazy labyrinth to me. We stopped there for one drizzly, grey afternoon, following the maze of crooked, steep, black-cobbled streets to the top of the outcrop that so defines the town's geography. The great Palazzo Ducale of the Montefeltro house stands atop it, rising five or six stories above and a further half-dozen below. There, a concealed system of snaking ramps and corridors digs into the cliffside, covered by stone, brick and complex vaults.
It is a monument to cinquecento genius and refinement. After all, Baldissare Castiglione, the author of The Courtier, a sort of Renaissance Man for Dummies handbook, was a member of the Montefeltro retinue. However, I don't think of Castiglione's work when I recall my whirlwind tour of this vast palatial megastructure. The palace could easily, by sheer size and strangeness, be an Italianate cousin to the maddening, irrational fictive castle of Gormenghast, famous from the author Mervyn Peake's strange trilogy set amid its corridors.
It could go on forever, and everything seems to exist within it. Inside the town it stands as a maze inside a maze, a maze with libraries, stables, galleries, chapels, spiral ramps, loggie, tiny studies and vast camere, even a whole cathedral. As well as something which, to our modern tourist eyes, resembled nothing so much as a jacuzzi.
Furthermore, everything seems subtly off in its angles and hallways, as contingency and ages of differing building campaigns try to make sense of this vast palace. If it's a Renaissance Gormenghast, then the floorplan is straight out of Jorge Luis Borges's short stories. It's the Library of Babel that never has an end or a beginning, but is as big as the universe, and, like the universe, is fallen and thus full of truncated ordering, unfinished sequences, stifled perfection. Walls jut in at seemingly-wrong angles cut with random windows with deep, pleasant stone seats beneath them, set on fussily charming spindly Renaissance plinths. And then there's the undercroft. I'll just say you could easily call it the Bat Cave and not be too far off.
Seriously. That's what Professor D. jokingly nicknamed it before he led us down the sloping ramp into a warren of enormous, Piranesian rooms, empty and weirdly purposeless with their whitewash and sail-vaults. A tiny door led up stairs into a high, narrow room occupied only by the rim of a well-shaft, cutting back down again far beneath us. It was supposedly the palace laundry, but it could have easily been a dungeon. Or Bruce Wayne's garage, serviced by about three hundred Alfreds.
Professor D., in a humorous mood, also said this was the sort of place where if you were to properly live in it you would have to wear big boots and a cape, and shout a lot. Probably correct, though your shouting would be lost in the vast rooms. It's hard to imagine what it was without the hum of activity that rightly belongs to a palace. The structure has been silenced by history.
The Ducal library was prominently placed on the ground floor, its principal room (now empty of any books, naturally) roofed by a vault painted by a blaze of fiery tongues spattering down from an immense, bizarre polychrome tondo of the Montefeltro eagle. The palace is a riot of symbols equally mazelike in their interlocking messages. The dynastic insignias of the house of Montefeltro mark every door lintel. They seem almost as encyclopedic as this universal palace as well, everything from compass dividers to featherdusters, eagles, as well as the omnipresent F C monogram. The signature of the first Duke, recognizing his Papal honors: Federigo, Count of the Holy Roman Church, as he styles himself on the frieze ringing the paradigmatically perfect brick-and-stone cortile at the schematic center of the palace.
But not perhaps at its heart. That honor goes to a much smaller, and equally perfect room. The Ducal study lies at the end of an endless series of galleries. Past the room of the King of England where James III Stuart pined for his unclaimed crown under a frieze of basketwork and stucco fruit. Past scores of remarkable doors inlaid with mythological figures with billowing hair and feigned perspectives. And these inlays are a hint of the richness to come. The study is tiny, windowless, crammed, seemingly in one irrelevant corner. Yet, this was where Federigo, one of the archetypes of the Renaissance prince, would retire away from the pressures of state.
It is, whatever its size, a princely room, an island of sanity amid the crooked corridors and intrigue of the court. Inlaid on the walls in meticulously-crafted marquetry are tromp-l'oeil cabinets crammed with lutes, clocks, armor, hourglasses and dozens of other treasures, the accountrements of the universal man.
Perhaps, like everything else in this melancholy palace, they're discarded, left behind, but I would like to think Federigo would meditate on them in this tiny closet, lit by candlelight. And then he would perhaps move on and step out onto the loggia a room away and look over his vast domains with their broad, misty hills and perhaps sigh. His palace is a wonder, but the word for wonder in the Latin of his court is stupor. Surprise becomes confusion. Once again, one feels Borges tugging at our sleeves, with his books of wonders and monsters that sometimes are the same thing.
One of the paintings that hangs in the court gallery is a Piero della Francesca painting with a title that can be interpreted either as the Ideal City or the City of Ideas. It is filled with broad, regular streets and grand palazzi, in sharp contrast to the mixture of deviancy and delicacy that characterizes the palace. Yet, there are no people here, a few potted plants, but not a single soul wandering those painted streets. I don't know if there's an ideal earthly city, a single perfect archetype we can build ourselves, alone. It's too tidy, too clean. My professors are equally doubtful, having lived in Rome's undulating streets for years.
Yet the palace, for all its Gormenghast strangeness, seems liveable in the same way a crooked Italian town is liveable. If only you remember the teeming thousands that probably would have lived under so great a roof. Servants, courtiers, cousins, sisters, aunts, visiting noblemen, idling aristocrats, ambassadors and spies. It's a whole city, and cities are strange only when they are empty. Batman's not Batman without Robin and Alfred, after all.