Friday, December 22

From the archives: an old poem partially based on the O Antiphons composed after a visit to the church of Sant' Ivo in Rome, and, for sentimental personal reasons, a favorite of mine:

The Borromini Girl
to an unknown maiden seen sketching in the cortile of Sant’ Ivo della Sapienza despair I took the sword and pulling it out of the scabbard leant the hilt on the bed and put the point to my side and then fell on it with such force that it ran into my body, from one side to the other, and in falling on the sword I fell on to the floor [...] and because of my wound I began to scream, and so Francesco ran in and opened the window, through which light was coming, and found me lying on the floor, and he with others whom he had called pulled the sword out of my side and put me on the bed; and this is how I came to be wounded.

--Francesco Borromini: From an Account of his Successful Suicide Attept, 2 August 1667

When we entered, a merry maelstrom of studious noise
Full of commonplace bodies,
She was there,
Standing isolated in the center of the colonnade
Of this palace of lacy rain and mildew,
La Sapienza—wisdom,the wisdom of a university
And a universe. Once a college, now an archive:
Wisdom robed in musty cracked sienna stucco.
Wisdom has set up his seven pillars,
In this urban wilderness.

Grass grew parasitically
Between the coal-black pavement stones.

(And I heard a distant voice breathe, and cry: O Sapientia!)

She continued to draw, oblivious to us and all others.
I knew not her language or name.
She was cool and quiet as a classical column,
Standing there in the pale damp gothic light
Of a Roman drizzle, a perfect sentient counterpoint
To the weird suicidal snail shell of the Borromini
Church’s baroque lantern,
A glorious monument to self-destructive genius,
A flaming crown for a momentary phoenix of invention.

And whanne Sche hadde herd, Sche was troublid in his word,
And thouyte what maner salutacioun this was.

(They say it means charity, wisdom,
The perfect Platonic
Perfection of the sphere, the ball, suspended over the
Rayonnant crown of burning charity:
And the cross above that with the dove of the
Holy Ghost—but we were told not to draw
The brass summit-cruciform,
Lest this baroque-gothic monstrum seem
Less than weightless
By its Sacrifice).

Did she know, this serene virgin,
In rumpled brown corduroy trousers and a sky-blue parka
That matched her pale sapient eyes, far more vivid
Than the empty sky overhead,
Did she know that the tortured architect of this place
Had killed himself, leaving this one of
A dozen unhallowed tombstones?

Borromini hath fallen on his sword.
Borromini hath fallen by his own sword.
And cut himself body from soul.

(And a voice cried: O Adonai!)

No—or perhaps she had looked beyond the blood stained
Across the snow-white stucco, looking
With an intent crook of a dark eyebrow,
With a bowed head framed by a tumbledown lock
Of her bobbed gold-brown hair
With an intent purse of her pink, untinted, elemental lips—

Lips like those that said, in Nazareth,
Two millennia ago: Fiat voluntas tua

With her neck craning forward with vague eyes
With those eyes growing wide
As if she had just seen the whole
Of the Universe, and
As if to hear the music of the building
And the very music of the Spheres—

And the voice cried: O Radix Iesse!

—With all these, with this careful drawing
And attention
And placid serene attention
She birthed the building anew
In my mind, a monument
Not to uncontrollable genius,
Not to self-slaughter and dismal overgrown despair,
A whitened sepulchre
Full of stony funereal torches crowning its highest pinnacles:
But instead it became incarnate blinding whiteness,
A lobed dome like the mind of God, with colorless color
Like the wing of a seagull
Perched atop one round-balled finial in the dismal sky.
Like the wing of the Dove.

And the voice from heaven cried: O Clavis David!

She hesitates—

And Marie seide to the aungel,
On what maner schal this thing be doon,
For Y knowe not man?

—she hesitates, and there is, as she shifts her weight,
A sharp balletic movement as she thrusts out one leg,
A stamping of feet like a foal pawing the earth.
Perfectly commonplace as she is a commonplace girl,
With a pretty, anonymous profile.
She sketches, intently, bending close to her page,
Impossibly close, like a monk in a scriptorium.
A shy scratch,
A deep breath,
A symmetrical parting of her
Drooping gilt locks.
The shy downward turn of her head like a Bernini angel,
A glimpse over one shoulder.

The wind flickers through her hair—O Oriens!
O Rex Gentium!
And the rain spirals out through drainpipes like Solomonic columns.
I am mad with damp cold, and have lost my coat.

And she bows profoundly, stiff-backed,
Stretching and placing her work at her feet
As if to study it
But it seems more as if she is honoring, with a sacred gesture
Those creedal words, et incarnatus est.

And Elizabeth was fulfillid with the Hooli Goost, and criede with a greet vois,
And seide, Blessid be Thou among wymmen,
And blessid be the Fruyt of Thi wombe.

And the monument is clean and new,
Freed from debt and ghost of suicide,
And the cross is bright in the newly-fired morning sun.

O Emmanuel.
And the voice cried again, from the the womb:
Tomorrow I shall be.
For God’s providence and God’s charity, and God’s wisdom, is wondrous.

I looked for her again later, and she had gone.


Francesco Borromini of Ticino, master architect and Knight of the Order of Christ, died of his wounds, in his right mind and with the consolations of the Church, on the third of August in the year of Grace 1667. Pray for his soul.

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