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Gothic Pilgrimage, visiting the great French cathedrals.

                                Grandeur of composition, nobility of silhouette, perfection of proportion, wealth of detail, infinitely...

November 3, 2009

the inside story of a gothic façade

Swinging precariously in a makeshift chairlift from the heights of a cathedral tower, at the equivalent of the thirtieth floor of an apartment building, the medieval sculptor put the finishing touches to the uppermost sculptures, and fitted the last joints in place. His achievement is one of the wonders of European art; on a cathedral such as Rheims with over 3000 sculptures, he created what Victor Hugo called a "stone book." Yet no one heard of him. Few devices and no mechanical instruments were there to help him. Rare was the sculptor that had not had a fall and, even protected by gloves, his hands were savagely torn by handling the limestone. Except in midwinter, he was out in all weathers.

Comparatively, however, in the Middle Ages, the sculptor considered himself happy. Happy to take home at the end of the week more than any other of the workers. Happy, too, that he was on his way up, that he had risen from being a mere stone-hewer or, worse still, from the unhealthy quarries, to a position where by hard work and with good luck he could become an architect. He could travel, too, for there was plenty of work on all the cathedral sites up and down the country and abroad, and the sculptor would often travel around from one site to another, picking up current theories, ideas and carving techniques.

Alternatively, he could settle down; at Rouen Cathedral, we know that fifteen master masons, three at least assisted by an apprentice, worked for twenty-five years on the portal of the Cathedral, carving the thirty-four large statues, the multitude of small figures, and the tympanum.

Relatively little scaffolding was used during the construction of the cathedral because the building itself as it went up provided the necessary platforms, but poles were inserted in gaps between stones and planks placed across them. At lower heights, inclined planes were used for wheelbarrows and even carts. In higher reaches, workers hoisted the stone up with cranes, which consisted of trunks or wooden poles with pulleys at the end, operated on the treadmill system, with two men walking round inside a wheel like squirrels. If these cranes looked flimsy, they were well studied and supported huge weights. Some of them survive, at Beauvais Cathedral for instance, and on the roofs of certain churches in Alsace where they were left for future repairs. In the last resort, however, the commonest method of carrying stone up was simply by hand and when one thinks of the colossal weights involved, the medieval sculptor's achievements seem even more remarkable. It is hardly surprising then, that to build a cathedral might have taken 150 years; the sound of chiseling and hammering could be heard during the services for many years.

Some of the actual sculpting was done after the stone was in place. Throughout France, there are glaring examples of large areas on churches and cathedrals which were meant to be carved and which for reasons of time or money were left bare, as is the case with one of the towers of Saint-Sulpice in Paris. Equally, unless the quarry was near the cathedral site, not much of the sculpting was done there. There were too many risks involved in the course of transport-the most costly and difficult item in cathedral building. Most of the time sculpting was done in small thatched lean-to sheds or huts beside the cathedral with twenty masons or so chiseling the blocks, laid out on a trestle or on their sides; sculpting was only done upright in the later Middle Ages. In cold weather, they would light little fires and during the long rainy winters when work on the site slowed down, the sculptors would continue working on pieces to be put up the next spring, inside these huts (the original Masonic lodges).

The sculptor's tools have varied little over the centuries; the set of chisels and a mallet, the hammer with a pointed edge, the trowel and the set square are much what the Romans used and much what is used today. It appears that they did not use models or drawings, or at least none have come down to us, but after sketching out on a block what they intended to do, attested to by the rapid, incisive chisel marks that can still be seen from close to on edges and surfaces that haven't been smoothed. The traditional skills of the profession were passed from father to son and developed rapidly in the great Gothic era from the art of copying former models, to an inventive, creative art.

Some of the bigger statues were done in two parts. The higher they are placed on a facade, the larger they are as a rule, and some on Rheims-the most highly sculpted of all Gothic cathedrals-are fifteen feet tall. Each piece was marked with a particular sign so that Saint Paul's feet weren't put with Saint Peter's body and so that each piece took up its rightful position on the facade. Again, in Rheims, we know from the position makers that this was not always the case, and mistakes were made as when two angels were inverted.

Once the larger scenes were completed, they were hoisted up and fitted into place. Often adjustment was necessary or there had to be a little bit of forcing; we can frequently see the sculptors' difficulties in making the joints fit exactly. It is hard enough to make small things fit; to put a cathedral together in all its in¬tricacy is an extraordinary feat. Later centuries, with other ideas on beauty, often tampered with the original work and in the arch moldings in Rheims, the 18th and 19th centuries added their own versions.

Sometimes, one thinks one can recognize a single hand behind two pieces of sculpture. However since no sculptor signed his work, which was probably a team effort, the masterpieces of medieval sculpture remain anonymous. Sculptors took as much care sculpting those that could not easily be seen from below as they did with those round the main portals, although those higher up have a certain roughness about them and are less well finished. The chapter had chosen the themes to be illustrated, after fierce theological debate, no doubt, and given the sculptor precise instructions on the subject, but the sculptor could then give free rein to his imagination in the details either in the interpretation of scenes and incidents or in the expressions. The famous smile of Rheims, found on many of the Rheims figures and nowhere else, is an example of the local forms that sculpture could take.

But with his growing success, the sculptor lost some of his initial modesty. He became less happy to see his sculpture mixed with others unrecognized and wanted it to stand more independently. Henceforth he worked his block of stone away from the site. He tended to become more his own master, less of a mere workman, and grew apart from the architect too. And with this development we see the beginning of the Renaissance notion of the sculptor as an "artist".

October 8, 2009

Reflections on the Jews and Jewry

visiting the Jewish ghettos of Rome and Venice

The only people who have ever claimed to understand the full complexities of the Jewish phenomenon are anti-Semites. For the rest of us, Jews and gentiles alike, religious, or unbelieving, there will always be a certain mystery. The first difficulty is that of definition which causes uncertainty in Israel and even more in the diaspora; does one include only those who follow the prescriptions of the Jewish faith, those who in some way identify themselves with the Jews past and present, for whom Jewish history is their own history, or does one accept as Jews anyone who can plausibly (or even implausibly, as in Peyrefitte's opening paragraph of Les Juifs) be credited with a Jewish or part-Jewish ancestry?

If we confine ourselves to persons identifiable as Jews without much controversy from the time of the dispersion to the re-gathering in Israel, we can make two assertions: first, that the contribution of Jews to the general cultural inheritance of the Christian and Muslim worlds is disproportionately high in respect of their probable numbers, and second, that this contribution has generally been the result of interaction with the environment.

These facts would serve to dispel the view that Jewish achievements are a function of social persecution and would necessarily disappear if total toleration and nondiscrimination were to prevail, or if in Israel a wholly Jewish and therefore favorable atmosphere could be created and maintained. It is obvious, for instance, that little that was important came from the Jewish communities of the Muslim world for many centuries after their first flowering, and that the Spanish Jews and Marranos who found refuge there after the expulsion showed only in limited spheres the same creative capacity that they had done in Spain.

But to say that therefore these Jews, the Sephardim, are naturally inferior to the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe, the Ashkenazim, is to overlook the fact that the notable cultural contributions of Ashkenazi Jews only appeared when the European enlightenment and then the French Revolution produced a sufficient degree of emancipation and of acceptance by the host society to make such contributions possible. It could, on the other hand, be argued that the result of total emancipation in predominantly secularist societies is to permit a high level of intermarriage and that this will lead to the eventual disappearance of the Jews as a distinct biological group. Somewhere between the extremes of total acceptance and total rejection lies the point at which the maximum degree of creativity is called forth.

Since we know that, at various periods both before and after the dispersion at the hands of the Romans, Jews have intermingled with surrounding peoples despite all the religious difficulties in the way, it is also difficult to accept a biological  explanation of Jewish achievements such as has occasionally been put forward. It is no easier to prove the racial superiority of Jews than their racial inferiority. The problem is a social-cultural one. Nor certainly is there any particular evidence for saying that Jews are by nature good at some things and less good at others. The reasons for specialization seem to be social or religious rather than natural or innate.

The obvious example is the fact that the Jews in Israel have proved better at soldiering, from which they had been largely excluded for centuries, than at many of the economic activities with which they had been particularly associated in the diaspora. Or, if Jews are thought to be more important for their contribution to music than to the visual arts, something must surely be attributed to the religious prohibition of image-making. If one thinks of the role of the visual arts in Christian places of worship and the impact which these must have had upon impressionable individuals from their earliest years, it is not surprising that the Jewish contributions to painting and sculpture were unimportant until the present century. With the divorce of Western graphic art from the Church, and with the decline in the Jewish consciousness of the full weight of the religious tradition, the significant role of Jewish artists both in Israel and in the diaspora today is not dif-ficult to understand.

But when all this has been said, one is still left with the question as to whether there is in the Jewish contribution to general culture a specifically Jewish residue or would Marx and Freud, Mendelssohn and Epstein, Einstein and Ehrlich have done work of the same kind if their ancestry had been impeccably Aryan? We must of course exclude, in dealing with literature and the fine arts, the use of material which is specifically Jewish; obviously it does not make sense to imagine a non-Jewish Chagall or Ernst Bloch or Bialik. Or again, Jewish or even part-Jewish ancestry may create particular sensitivity to certain aspects of social life -would a wholly Aryan Proust have been the same writer?

But all the natural sciences, much philosophy, most painting and sculpture is or has become international or at any rate Western in content and style, and to distinguish elements that are specifically Jewish except in order to brand them as "decadent" in the Nazi fashion is probably otiose. In any event it would be very difficult to do. No doubt many Jews derive some kind of pride or satisfaction from the achievements of more eminent Jews or more gifted ones-but one might think that this is again a reaction to centuries of humiliation. Often indeed such pride leads to the mistaken belief that once equality of opportunity is achieved, Jews are bound to show an innate superiority. Jewish parents in Western countries are particularly prone to such fond illusions about their children; yet whereas in England there is full equality of access to higher educational opportunities, observation would seem to suggest that although Jewish children mature rather earlier their ultimate performance is no different from that of others of their own social class.

In the same way the undoubted concentration of Jews in certain occupations or professions-and it might be higher still in medicine but for overt or concealed discrimination in many otherwise liberal societies -has historical and sociological reasons and is not attributable to any particular aptitudes or their absence. Nor is it possible to give easy assent to the familiar argument that Jews in the diaspora, because there is some kind of artificiality in their position, an absence of organic ties with the particular country, are inhibited in their contributions to cultural life and obliged to take on interpretative or critical rather than creative roles. It is true that a high proportion of great performers on the vio¬lin or piano are Jews and that they are relatively more significant than Jewish composers. On the other hand, Jewish dramatists are more significant than Jewish actors. Nor does the role of Jews in such occupations as journalism in different countries at different times seem something on which any great general theory can be built.

But this kind of discussion does point to one thing that is essential for any serious consideration of the subject, and that is the relationship between the role of Jews as individuals and the role of Jews as members of some kind of Jewish community. For many centuries in different parts of the world, and among both Ashkenazis and Sephardis, the latter was all important. The contacts between Jews and their neighbors were almost exclusively economic and Jewish contributions to culture were made within the framework of their own religious and philosophical tradition.

I t is a moot point whether the considerable difficulties of this kind of existence resulted in some kind of survival of the fittest so that when the ghetto walls were broken down, there was an enormous mass of human potential ready for release. It was in particular to the oppressed Jewish communities of the Russian pale of settlement that the great majority of those Jews who have made their mark in the world in the last 150 years trace their ancestry. That human reservoir was perhaps far from exhausted when the Nazi holocaust obliterated it for ever. But it was already the source of most of American and British Jewry and of a high proportion of the Jewish population in Israel.

An argument could be made for the view that it was not only the vitality of this branch of the human race but also the shock of confrontation with more advanced societies that stimulated achievement. One's impression is that it is the grand-children of the ghetto, not the great-grandchildren, whose performance has been the most remarkable. By the time opportunity can be taken for granted the pressure to achieve becomes diluted. It is diffilult to see in contemporary American Jewry the equivalents of a Brandeis, or a Frankfurter. One test may be whether the same proves true of the Jews now being allowed to emigrate from Russia. It is true that the Jews of Russia, the last great Jewish reservoir, do not live in ghettos today; but the degree of discrimination against them is probably sufficient for them to feel to some extent walled off psychologically from their non-Jewish fellow citizens. In Israel this feeling will give way to one of opportunity; some people think the Jews of the emigration may prove formidable competitors for leadership in every field.

In the end, Israel is the testing-ground for all theories about the Jews. The Zionists expected that the return would bring about a normalization of the Jewish situation, in that the Jews in Israel would be free of all the pressures that arose from their anomalous position in the diaspora; Jews would have to fill all the economic and social roles in a complete society. What they could not know was whether this would have the effect of obliterating the specifically Jewish aspects of cultural and social consciousness. Should Israel continue to produce an exceptionally high proportion of distinguished men, or should its quota be expected to be no higher than, say, that of Wales or Norway? It is much too soon to be able to answer this kind of question. One has to allow for the probable growth of secularization to see what elements in Jewish culture wane when the forms of worship and their associated studies are no longer   present in the experience of the majority. One has to see what will be the impact of having major Western languages as only the second language of a people whose original thought processes will be conditioned by Hebrew being their natural speech. When we talk of Marx and Freud and Disraeli and Leon Blum, we are talking of men who, whatever their biological affiliation, were men who talked and thought in German, English or French. Above all, we do not know what will be the effect of the juxtaposition and presumably eventual merger of the Ashkenazi and Sephardi streams in the population.

And we know even less what the impact of all these developments will be upon the rest of Jewry. Will secularization take its toll and lead to the total assimilation of Jews wherever persecution does not prevent it? Or will the identification that nearly all Jews today still feel to some extent with the fate and fortunes of Israel preserve a separate degree of sensibility among the Jews of the United States, Britain, France and so forth? Jews are traditionally united in joy at the feast of the Passover by the assertion that they are the descendants of those whom Moses led forth from bondage in Egypt. Today they are still united in sorrow in the knowledge that they are the survivors or the children of the survivors of the Nazi holocaust. Recent history is not the same for them as for others; and one must imagine that their sensibility is colored by this fact. Against it must be set pride in and hope for Israel which at moments of crisis can evoke echoes even among those apparently most fully assimilated. Raymond Aron's little book, De Gaulle, Israel et les Juifs is the most eloquent exposition of this feeling. The interplay between the Jews and Jewry is not yet fully worked out; history has not come to an end.  

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October 2, 2009

September 27, 2009

Gothic Pilgrimage, visiting the great French cathedrals.


Grandeur of composition, nobility of silhouette, perfection of proportion, wealth of detail, infinitely varied play of light and shade combine to raise this composition so majestic, so serene, to the place it has ever occupied in the heart of anyone endowed with the slightest feeling for the beautiful.

Evening was coming on when I arrived in Troyes.

“In this town,” said the woman at the hotel desk, “we live surrounded by churches. When they light up the facades, I like to go out and walk at night. It is like walking between borders of lace.” She took me up four flights of stairs to an attic room, pushed open windows, and stood back. She was offering me the rooftops of Troyes, a benediction of grey stone, towers and clocks, steeples and orange tiles with carrousels of pigeons circling above. Twilight, like the bloom on a grape, was thickening around us.

Medieval theory reduced the idea of beauty to that of perfection, proportion, and splendor. Three things, says St. Thomas, are required for beauty: first, integrity or perfection, because what is incomplete is ugly on that account; next true proportion or consonance; lastly, brightness, because we call beautiful whatever has a brilliant color. –JOHAN HUIZINGA, “The waning of the Middle Ages”

I have been driving in a great, irregular circle around northern France, looking at cathedrals. Three weeks ago I arrived in Coutances and had felt, rather than seen, the cathedral straining upwards in the afternoon sunlight of the town square. A pure, geometric statement, it rose from the soil of Normandy, lancing the sky with its twin spires, so sure in its statement of divinity, so terrible in its size and age.

Coutances, through war and revolution, has lost the humanizing details of its sculpture. Curiously alive, it seemed, unsleeping, omnipresent in the old town and built to more than human dimensions. Continuously through its skeleton runs the transfer of weight from vault to buttress to pier to the ground. There was never any doubt in the minds of its builders as to whether or not God existed nor as to whether or not He would be present in this great house which human sweat and love and error was going to erect for Him.

Art in those times was still wrapped up in life.…Life was encompassed and measured by the rich efflorescence of the liturgy….All the works and all the joys of life, whether dependent on religion, chivalry, trade or love, had their marked form. The task of art was to adorn all these concepts with charm and color. –JOHAN HUIZINGA, “The waning of the Middle Ages”

“It is reassuring,” said a young Frenchman I met over diner. “It has been there more than 600 years. It was repaired after WW II. When all the old quarter of Coutances was destroyed, the cathedral remained standing. It is not just history, it is continuity.” His words were like an echo of Ruskin: “It is well to have, not only what men have thought and felt but what their hands have handled, and their strength wrought, and their eyes beheld all the days of their life.”

There had been motives other than faith for the erection of cathedrals like Coutances. There were motives of competition with neighboring churches and for comfort in the place of worship, and pride and power entered into it. Nevertheless, the underlying motive was belief in and praise for God. Larger and larger churches were demanded. They rose, and often they fell. Stone collapsed under the weight of new and more daring architecture, earthquakes tore at the walls and fire melted the lead from the roofs and scorched the saints into a second martyrdom. The devil was usually only one clawmark behind the builders, with a whole horde of destructive fiends at his heels. Between 1170 and 1270-with some leeway-France, like the new Jerusalem, decked herself out in bridal clothes; more than 300 churches and 80 cathedrals. Normandy, land of rain-drenched fields where the apple harvest lies in piles before the cottage doors, raised the austere miracle at Coutances. On the coast, the marvel of Saint-Michel was climbing upwards on its granite islet, shimmering between wet sand and sky with the rough, salty pastures of the mainland spread in front of it like a tufted carpet.  The gentle, obstinate abbot of St. Denise on the outskirts of Paris had built a Gothic monument, which set all France talking. The pious dragged stones for it from Pontoise in the North. The ignorant said that the blue windows came from ground sapphires. Barons and bishops had torn the rings from their fingers and thrown them into the mortar when the first stone of the choir was laid. “Vanity of vanities,” cried St. Bernard of Clairvaux. Such churches were an incitement to human pride; the very beauty of them might lure the simpleminded from contemplation of God. The “vanities” continued to rise, books of stone and air and color where those who could not read could see before their eyes the stories and moral lessons of their Christian faith. No two were the same.

“All of us who fear the wrath of the Judge fly to the Judge’s mother,” wrote Pierre Abelard. The great cathedrals of Rheims, Chartres, Amiens, and Paris were dedicated to Notre-Dame. Some say that there is a particular time of the day for seeing each of them. Rheims is at its most spectacular in the evening when the restored west window distills the sunset into rose and amethyst. Chartes needs ample light to swell the rich colors of the glass. But Amiens, the supreme achievement of Picardy, stone dreamchild of the North, needs to be seen under a typically northern sky, best of all in winter when you can approach it from the South, over the mournful, denuded plain of the Somme, the land robbed of trees, rook crowding in the cold empty skies above the ploughed fields. The Somme this land of mists and ghosts. The giant harvesters which tear at the autumn crops of sugar beets and maize unearth shrapnel from the soil. Roses still grow in Pircardy, clinging dark and ragged to the stem well into October. I drove through one small village after another; not old villages of the sort that still exist in the Oise, but villages rebuilt after WW I and rebuilt with a touching loyalty to all their old remembered faults. The new roads curve maddeningly-because the old road did the same thing. Bone-white chalk among the soil and on the hills a white mirage of chalk-white crosses. The road to Amiens lies through the graveyard of the Somme.

“The Parthenon of Gothic,” is the phrase most often applied to the cathedral church. Viollet-le-Duc who restored it gave it the title. One great cathedral cannot be compared to another.

Coutances had been gracious and austere.

The choir at Beauvais with light running up the stupendous arches to the upper vaults of the choir are like a stone forest.

Rosy Strasbourg, stretching from the soil of Alsace, was to remain in my memory like an arrow transfixing the very gateway of heaven.

I have not often understood so well what spiritual power is concentrated in a church which is weighted by a whole past of prayers, and springs into life with the beauty of the vaults and windows. –TEILHARD DE CHARDIN, writing in the cathedral of Strasbourg after the liberation, 1918.

At Amiens, the choir stalls are not to be missed. They are carved in wood, stories from the Bible made tangible and visible. Ruskin described them in The Bible of Amiens. “Woodcarving was the Picard’s joy from his youth up,” he wrote, “and, so far as I know, there is nothing else so beautiful cut out of the goodly trees of the world. Sweet and young-grained wood it is: oak, trained and chosen for such work, sound now as four hundred years since.”

I proved the truth of another of Ruskin’s remarks. Every custodian likes his own church best. The old man at Amiens was happy to give up washing the choir steps to join me in admiring the carved stalls, pointing out his own particular favorite-the Wedding at Cana, with a little dog crouched under the banquet table gnawing on a bone.

Rouen and Rheims are two towns forever associated with Joan of Arc. “Ah Rouen, Rouen, must I die here?” she cried. It was less than two years since her gentil dauphin had been crowned in Rheims cathedral, the royal cathedral, built and rebuilt, where most all the kings of France had been or would be crowned.

In the eyes and on the lips of a few of the entranceway statues hovered a half-smile, a fleeting, rare expression which, long centuries before, the Greek sculptures preceding Phidias had achieved. Again, at the Renaissance, da Vinci was obsessed by the same expression, “born of a miracle, meant to gladden men’s souls forever.”  -ELIZABETH BOYLE O'REILLY, “How France Built Her Cathedrals.”

The Revolution left the cathedral almost untouched. The building must have inspired some combination of tenderness and reverence. WW I gave Rheims it martyrdom and, as for Joan, it was martyrdom by fire. Rheims was bombarded as if it were a citadel. The delicate chiseling of wings and robe, the gracious smiles of angels, saints and kings, the whole stone paean which the builders of the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries had lovingly raised up in honor of God and France burnt like a tremendous torch and all over the country people wept to hear it. Rheims like Joan, has been hallowed by fire.

“Good and dear friends, loyal Frenchman of the city of Rheims,” she wrote to them once, “ I affirm and promise that I will never leave you.” And wonderfully enough, through all the bombing and fire, the statue of Joan in front of the church remained unharmed.

It was from Rheims that I went to Troyes. To my room where the clocks spoke to each other all night.

The cathedral at Bourges, when I arrived, had its doors wide open. Glass surrounded me. I moved in a kaleidoscope of color. I was drowning in color, falling through torrents of blue, color that you could almost hold in your hands, dense, opaque; golds that dripped slowly through the air, rubies that burned darkly with sparks of fire at their center, greens that were like the promise of the French countryside, stirring like the first touch of spring. Mighty Bourges, massive grey stone and straddling buttresses, raises with all its strength a tremendous, silent, thunder-roll of glory. I am that I am.

Symbol of Faith, the cathedral was also a symbol of Love. …During more than two centuries every vital force in France collaborated on the cathedrals. From that comes the puissant life emanating from these eternal monuments. …Past and present were united in the same feeling of love. The cathedral was the very conscience, the very soul of the City. –EMILE MALE

One day later, and I was in Angers, a turning point in this circle which is more like an irregular square, and then heading north again through the region of the Loire.

The cathedral was perfected slowly and passionately. The Romans brought to it their force, their logic, their serenity. The Barbarians brought to it their naïve grace, their love of life, their dreamful imagination. From this unpremeditated collaboration sprang a work modeled by times and places.
–AUGUSTE RODIN, “Les Cathedrales de France”

I drove to Chartes, not really wanting to arrive, and then saw it, pale and youthful on the swelling of its hilltop.

The reverence in which Chartres is held goes back to pre-Christian times. On the rise which dominates the valley of the Eure, there was a well, and the subterranean spring was venerated, cures were attributed to it and a goddess mother was honored. A statue of her was placed near the water. Early on, Christians considered the image a prophetic representation of the Virgin, believing that some cult had existed to propound the belief that a virgin would give birth. It was a sacred place. Over the spot, with various mishaps, the present cathedral has risen. A copy of a copy of the original statue, no doubt greatly changed in many details, still stands in the crypt.

I had seen the famous glass at Chartres many times, and the grave, beautiful statues, but on this occasion I went down to into the crypt, the underground heart of the church with its Romanesque chapels, the well lit by a constantly burning rosy light, and into the chapel of the water goddess made virgin mother of God. The smoke from generations of candles and oil lamps has blackened the ceiling. This is a voyage beyond Christianity. Here, beside the living spring, a lump of wood was sanctified. It is a voyage back through the arteries of Chartres to a point before symbols had names or the church had laid its blessing on the original concept of holiness. And above this, with reverence and with the living stone, they raised the cathedral of Chartres.

Who built the cathedral of Chatres? An anonymous architect, stonemasons, laborers, quarry workers. The burghers gave their money, the peasants gave their grains and animals, and pious citizens offered their strength. “All our France is in our cathedrals. …” wrote Rodin. “Initiation into the beauty of Gothic is initiation into the truth of our race, of our sky, of our landscape. …Gothis art is the sensible, tangible soul of France.” Who built the cathedrals? Ruskin gave a somewhat wider answer. “God and man…The stars in their courses…”

These statues…possess a dignity and delicate charm. It is owning partly to real nobleness of feature, but chiefly to the grace, mingled with severity, of the falling lines of excessively thin drapery; as well as to a most studied finish in composition, every part of the ornamentation tenderly harmonizing with the rest. –JOHN RUSKIN “The Two Paths”

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August 26, 2009

The white outposts of Byzantium

The small medieval Greek church, the bulbous Byzantine beauty, one can never say it rises above its landscape of field or village. It squats.

There is one in Athens, holy and immovable, which squats on the pavement underneath the concrete arcading of a skyscraper built round and above it; the ancient brick huddles itself closer to itself, cosy as a curled cat, while harsh new rectilinear pillars haughtily roof it in, separating it from sky and God with the glass offices of man. It does not mind. Its independence squats secure; below, but above it all.

Sometimes from a distance in the open country the close huddle of cupolas and domes has an unmistakable look of sheep clustered together, the round backs of sheep gathered together in communion against a dangerous world beyond. The whole system of interlaced cupolas can be analyzed in terms of squinch and pendentive, but for the layman looking on its supreme effect is one of cluster,as if a number of separate single-domed chapels or shrines had ambled in from their isolation to nestle up close to a central mother. The feeling is of love and completeness. No spires to search out God from the sky. God is there, right inside.

Some of the larger small churches boast bells. But again, the bell towers are built stepped downwards to earth, rather than aspired upwards. Strung from white arched frameworks, the bells-often black-hang like luscious dark fruit ripening against a blue Aegean sky. White! Though one dome may be blued, though tiles may be red or apricot-colored, these churches are often painted a most dazzling white. In a brown landscape of great distance they Iook like white pimples, Ionely mushrooms, lost golf balls: in the village, close to, they scorch the eye. Such is the gentle moulding of line and rotundity, one might be excused if one demanded, Is this church or cheese? Much Arab-inspired Mediterranean architecture has the same quality, the moulding rather than cutting of corners, a dislike of or an inability to contrive sharpness-the white farms of Ibiza, the domed houses of Positano, even modern copyists on the Sardinian Costa Smeralda. The white, as with a Panama hat and a gabardine suit, is for coolness. A familiar experiment in the physics laboratory may be recalled-two kettles, one matt black and the other shining bright, are heated at the same time. Similar metals, similar heat-but the black one boils far the faster, for the bright one throws off heat.

So the whiteness of these churches is there for a purpose. And it results in the only paradox, almost a dishonesty, in such pure and plain building; for against the exterior simplicity, the inside has a richness of gilding and icons and candelabra and painting much in excess of the most decorated Roman Catholic Church. Even, in one Corfiote church I know, a strange assembly of grandfather clocks. But dishonest? The plain white eggshell conceals a richness of golden yolk, the simple melon rind a wealth of pink pips. And then-the white is not always white. It changes with the course of the sun. At dawn it is golden, pale rose; at sunset, bright pink or purple; in moonshine, blue. As one goes to the far north to see the winter snows make color magic in a theatrically lateral sunlight, so one might go to Greece in winter to digest the changing colors of these comforting cupolas. Rainbows with both ends firm in the earth, a luxury for the few.

June 21, 2009

Divine Comedies (muses on art and commerce)

In Florence, I like to remind myself that Dante was once a supervisor of street construction here. I try to imagine a street designed by Dante a heaven, hell, and purgatory all wrapped up into one, a divine comedy of a street. It's reassuring also to think that in his greatest book Dante too was a tourist.

Like all visitors, I begin at the Piazza della Signoria, for it's here that Florence announces itself. One historian even goes so far as to say that "every great event in the history of Florence has taken place in this piazza". It's one of the most civilized pleasures in the world to idle in a cafe here and feel the reverberations of Florence's past.

The statues in the Loggia dei Lanzi suggest that the Florentines of old had a taste for turbulence. As Mary McCarthy pointed out in The Stones of Florence, they are "writhing, twisting, stabbing, falling, dying on their stately pedestals. " Rape and decapitation are popular themes, for Italian sculptors like to see the body exercised. Michelangelo's David is an exception. Superbly poised in his contrapposto, he is an athlete not of movement but of sheer being. As Conrad said of Lord Jim, he has "a gorgeous virility. " While some writers see David as tensed to attack Goliath, he strikes me as too pleased with his pose ever to give it up. Kenneth Clark said that his head is turned "in a movement toward epiphany," but I think he has already reached it.

"The cruel tower of Palazzo Vecchio pierces the sky like a hypodermic needle"; this is Mary McCarthy again, breathing a little heavily, reaching into her shopping bag of metaphors. But she's right: the piazza has an almost lethal grandeur. As if the setting drove him to it, one of E. M. Forster's characters stabbed a friend here in A Room with a View.

A medallion set in the pavement of the Piazza della Signoria commemorates one of the more brutal ironies of Florentine history. It was on this spot that the fifteenth- century monk Savonarola presided over the Bonfire of Vanities, a huge funeral pyre of "masquerading costumes and masks, false hair and rouge pots, musical instruments and dice-boxes, books of Latin and Italian poets, priceless parchments and illuminated manuscripts, works of art and paintings, especially such as represented female beauty."

The bonfire was a tribute to the power of Savonarola's incendiary preaching. Fulminating against what he saw as a loss of religious faith and a revival of paganism disguised as humanism, he terrified Florence for a while. But then, as if he too were a vanity, as if his religious passion constituted a kind of inverted pornography, the Florentines burned Savonarola himself on the same spot just a year later. It was a classic case of the moth and the flame.

Savonarola's followers were called Piagnones, or weepers, and even Botticelli was said to have been one. But it was a mistake to make Florentines weep, because they are not a penitential people. Their churches, for example, have none of the austerity of the French. A French church or cathedral like Chartres strains at sublimity, at a divine understatement, while for all its beauty the Duomo in Florence is as busy as a market, more manic than depressive. Its striped exterior suggests silk as much as stone. God is dressed here by the ancestors of Armani.

The first dinner in a foreign city is the most important. It's a visceral encounter, a meeting of two chemistries. It answers the question, Is this country for me? and temporarily silences the voice that never leaves the traveler, the voice that asks, What am I doing here? A satisfying dinner restores one's strength after the initial shock of so much otherness.

I had a list of restaurants from an acquaintance who lived in Florence. Though I like to experiment, it's nice to have a few places to fall back on when you're feeling vulnerable. I'm always amused by people who say you can't get a bad meal in France, or in Italy. I've had a number of them. It's partly our fault, because I use eccentric criteria in choosing restaurants. Not being intense about food, I eat atmosphere. My approach is as much anthropological as gastronomic. I don't mean that I am indifferent to food, but that I see the act of dining out as something like theater.

In Paris, I ate in two places that had terrific ambience and terrible food. I managed to do this twice in Florence, too, though one of the places had compensations. It was an outdoor restaurant in the Piazza Santo Spirito, a slightly shabby square that seems to be a hangout. While waiting for dinner, I saw all sorts of mysterious exchanges between resolutely deadpan young people. They seemed to be playing a depressed game of tag or hide-and-seek.

This particular restaurant was jammed and turning people away. It's just like New York City-bad food discourages very few diners. The service was surrealistically slow, and the owner explained that her regular waiter had broken his leg on his motorbike. She had pressed into service an old friend who was a dentist-a whimsical fellow who had once visited Chicago and fancied himself a comedian. The confusion in the place served as a sort of hors d'oeuvre, and the customers' gestures of impatience came straight out of Renaissance sculpture.

Most of the time in Florence I have appetizing, pleasant, reasonable meals. Italians are not as grim as the French about eating, and I felt invited into the bosom of the scene. The noise level is usually jolly, sometimes more than that.

My favorite restaurant was not far from the Ponte Vecchio. Yet it was half empty. When I asked the owner about this, he said that most of his customers were Americans and that there were few of these in Florence now because of the recession.

Walking is my favorite pastime in a foreign city, but because of Florence's narrow sidewalks and unremitting traffic, which force you to go in single file, it's hard to carry on a conversation. The person walking in front tosses throwaway lines over his shoulder while the one in back casts thoughts up and out the way you cast with a fishing rod.

Though most French writers wept over Haussmann's boulevards in Paris, claiming they destroyed the picturesqueness or medieval coziness of the city, boulevards do make it possible to flaner, to stroll or browse. In Florence, the piazzas serve as parenthetical boulevards in the absence of real ones. They're like pockets in time: you don't feel the present rushing through the past there as you do in the streets. For serious walking in Florence you must go to the Boboli Gardens, behind the Pitti Palace. As Robert Harbison said in his Eccentric Spaces, the gardens are "conducive to erroneous wandering"-just what you need after a morning of strenuous concentration.

What shall you do during Florence's three-hour siesta, from one to four in the afternoon? I found a perfect answer on the terrace of my room. With a beer or a split of Champagne in my hand, I gazed down at the city and reviewed it through what Ruskin called "the pathos of distance." Seeing it from above, one is able to separate its strands, to sort out and achieve some perspective on all those perspectives. Afterward, I took a nap and let the unconscious do its work; I dreamed of Florence, which is itself a dream.

Later, I wanted to see the people of Florence relaxing, taking their ease outdoors. The Piazza delIa Signoria is too self-conscious, too charged with visitors for this, and the Piazza della Repubblica is unwelcoming; for all its great size, it is mere willed space, a piece of city planning. But the Piazza Santa Croce, a homely, slightly run-down square, is just right, and I sat there for a couple of hours and observed the neighborhood life.

Basilica di San Miniato al Monte (remember this from one of our favorite movies?)

As I watched them talking, walking, sitting, laughing, playing with their children and dogs, I thought about how different Italians are from us. While Parisians remind me of New Yorkers in their nervous, never-resting alertness, their incessant consciousness, Florentines seem as remote as South Sea Islanders. Though they're celebrated for their politeness, I wondered whether this was not, at least partly, a result of their lack of curiosity. While the probing, judging eyes of the French tend to isolate and confirm you in your Americanness, the Italian attitude leaves you feeling rather irrelevant. And this has the further effect of making you feel irresponsible, which may not be a bad thing for a traveler.

Even with minimum of Americans, the Uffizi was crowded. But while it's customary to complain about this, I think a case can be made for crowded viewing. With people talking and pushing all around you, wearing every kind of costume, including bathing trunks, you see the pictures in medias res, competing with life itself. Instead of a pure soul-to-soul confrontation, the situation has saving elements of irony and vulgarity, which help you to keep your balance.

I enjoy the individual comedies, the competition in art appreciation, people jostling for a view, their faces darkening when someone comes between them and the thing on the wall. Some visitors are shy in the presence of great art and look at it sideways; others walk right up and pick its nose. If you think about what art is and what it can do, there's some-thing shocking in a mass of people in a room all responding in one degree or another. There's a religious vibration, as well as a suggestion of orgy. You can also feel a sad awareness of the failure of art-because it does fail for many.

A tour guide was discoursing, in heavily accented English, on Leonardo's Annunciation. "The angel," he was saying, "is telling this young girl that God has planted a miracle in her body. She is innocent, a virgin, she knows nothing of these things. . . . " He paused to let that sink in. Then he said, "Feelthy! Dairty!" and a surge of dismay rippled through his audience. But he was referring to the fact that the painting had not been cleaned and its true colors could only be guessed at.
Florence must have hundreds of Annunciations, and painters differ dramatically in imagining this controversial episode. It's curious that the chamber in which the Virgin sits reading a book almost always includes what might be called a Freudian profusion of architectural columns. While the attitude of the angel varies only in the degree to which he seems to be dancing, the Virgin's reaction to the miracle is a study in medieval psychology. Sometimes she hugs the idea of her pregnancy to her bosom together with her book, and her face is full of blind inward satisfaction. In other versions she is electrified by what is, in effect, a metaphysical rape. In Simone Martini's wonderful fourteenth-century Annunciation, the Virgin winces away from the angel, and her eyes narrow as if she were undergoing the actual pain of defloration. She looks as if she was grief-stricken at the loss of her innocence and already filled with nostalgia for it.

One of the things you become aware of in working your way through the Uffizi is the evolution of the human face. While you see here mostly idealized faces, they reflect a psychological progress all the same. In the earlier works, piety often erases humanity from the face and imposes a blank or rapt expression, an immobile and abstracted listening to a remote and incomprehensible God who moves in mysterious ways. The human face generally appears rather stupid when its personality is suspended, although occasionally a pious person may look like the cat who swallowed the canary, or like someone sucking on a lozenge. Occasionally, there's a suggestion that a person has just removed his glasses and his eyes have not yet adjusted. All too often, a pious expression looks like a stare that, finding nothing to fix on, rebounds back on itself and becomes a stare staring, like the sound of one hand clapping.

After so many otherworldly faces, it's a relief to arrive at Botticelli's women in the Primavera. Here's the prototypically modern face, evolution's latest shimmering product, as ambiguous as the human condition. These are the faces of fallen angels, fashion models, divorcees and adulterers, readers of modern fiction and poetry. We are suddenly in the heart of the Renaissance; everything vibrates with expectation, nervousness, and conceit. Humanity is just beginning to realize how interesting it is, and how profanely beautiful.

Because so much of Florence's art is religious, the secular works take on an unnatural emphasis-at least for me. In front of Michelangelo's Dawn, a larger-than-life female nude in the Medici Chapels, I felt some of the self-consciousness of a person watching a pornographic movie.

Michelangelo, Botticelli, and Leonardo- the three men who produced the most radically beautiful images of women in the Renaissance-were not sexually attracted to them. Like fashion designers and choreographers, they were free of the kind of lust that conventionalizes the way we see women. There was nothing to keep them from speculating. In Dawn, and to a lesser extent in Night, Michelangelo expresses, almost against his will, the muscular power of female passivity. Dawn suggests not an awakening from sleep but a recovery from sexual extravagance. Nobody sleeps that voluptuously.

Michelangelo's women have been criticized for their "masculinity," their powerful biceps and small, widely separated breasts, which seem pinned on like afterthoughts. Yet the attitudes of these figures are exquisitely feminine-even more so than some of Michelangelo's squirming men. And no one has ever depicted a more seductive belly, pubic mound, or pair of thighs than he has in Dawn. He seems to have anticipated by four hundred years the muscle-conscious women of today.

Just as we Americans eat too much in Paris, we gorge on art in Florence. You can't get away from art, and it may begin to oppress you. The responsibility of responding is like a judgment on your education and your taste. When the king of France moved out of the Louvre, he said that he couldn't live with all those great paintings and sculptures, and I know how he felt. After a while, I find myself hungering for the ordinary, and that's when it's time to go shopping. This may even be one of the reasons people shop so furiously in Europe-it's a way of escaping the high demands of art and reasserting the self. Art makes us anxious in the best sense, and shopping buys peace.

Supported by their history, Italians have taken a possessive attitude toward the idea of beauty. In the sixteenth century a writer named Agnolo Firenzuola published a book that defined beauty down to the smallest detail, such as the precise turn or tint of the whorls of the ear. Proportion, one of the governing principles of beauty, was an obsession with Leonardo, and he worked out a theory of cosmic harmony in which everything partook of a universal rhythm or measure.

Eager to outfit ourselves with cosmically harmonious clothes, I browsed the Via de Tornabuoni, the Madison Avenue of Florence, with a guilty thrill of greed and abandon. But I was disappointed. This year's fashions struck me as rhetorical. That's the only way I can describe them, for while they seem to be making a statement of some kind, it was a forced one, without charm. The colors were hard and electric, and there were too many white or scarlet leather jackets. Of course, it's possible that Italian designers had taken such a quantum leap that they outdistanced our understanding. We're always ready to doubt our own sophistication: that's how fashion works.

The city of Dante, Michelangelo, and Leonardo is equally famous for its handbags. There must be enough handbags here to outfit every woman in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. What happens to handbags that don't sel!'? Can they be altered or restyled? Taken apart and recombined? Or are they plowed under, like farm surplus, to protect prices? I imagined a handbag dump on the outskirts of town, smelling so powerfully of leather that it dizzied the rats and crows.

Clive (drowning in honey)

June 9, 2009

Balthus at the Villa Medici

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Founded in 1666 under Louis, XIV, the Academy of France in Rome is the oldest and most important institution of its kind in Italy. After having occupied several sites, it was established in 1803 under Napoleon in the marvelous setting that is still its headquarters and contributes so much to its renown: the Villa Medici. To the art lover privileged to live in it for several years while undertaking the responsibilities of its direction, nothing is more agreeable than to show its beauties on the spot to visitors, but nothing is more difficult than to evoke these same beauties in a few lines for faraway readers. The photographs taken are deliberately concentrated on some of the rather discreet aspects of the interior to the exclusion of the highly decorated apartments, but they reveal even better the charm and the purity of its ambience.

The Villa Medici forms with its annexes and protected gardens an exceptional historic ensemble inseparable from its site. It rises in fact on the Pincian Hill, a favorite promenade from which one discovers the best views of Rome and which in ancient times was called the hill of gardens. The most famous gardens then were those of Lucullus, who brought back from his Asian campaigns a feeling for luxury and refinement. His villa had its back to the hill right in the space between the Villa Medici and the neighboring convent of Trinita dei Monti. Excavations have uncovered vestiges of it and clarified its layout.

After a long period of abandon linked to the decline of Rome the hill of gardens came to life again at the end of the fifteenth century with the installation of monasteries for the religious orders and rustic houses or casinos for dignitaries of the Church. With its severe palace facade overhanging Rome, its airy orchestration above the gardens, its silhouette inscribed in the panorama of the hills, the Villa Medici is a major example of the Italian villas of humanist conception devoted to entertainment, to aesthetic enjoyment, to meditation. Itself a vast cabinet d'amateur, it also had its studiolo, its chapel, its library, its secret enclosures, its pavilions to dream in, where today are scattered the ateliers of the fellows, winners of the Grand Prix de Rome. The garden with its two paths of approach invites the kind of contemplative promenade inspired by a place of pilgrimage, with pauses to look carefully at the various loggias, two of which were painted by Velazquez in views of Rome now in the Prado. Velazquez is one among the illustrious guests popes, sovereigns, princes and dignitaries, scholars and poets, artists and musicians who haunt these grounds overflowing with history and legend.

The Villa Medici has kept together practically all of its primary structures, but they were progressively altered during a century and a half by administrative undertakings, several military occupations, and the ostentation of bourgeois taste. In 1961 Andre Malraux, Minister of Culture, had named as director his friend the painter Balthus, who fulfilled his mission over the course of sixteen years with singular prestige and with results that cannot be too much appreciated. His complete restoration of the villa (and later of the gardens), which has served as a model for other Roman buildings, notably the Farnese Palace, is in itself one of his most perfect works and has had a significant and positive effect on both him and on his art. The success is owing to the sureness of his artistic gifts, to his profound knowledge of Italy, where in adolescence he learned to paint in front of the sanctuaries of Florence, Siena, and Arezzo; to his infallible sensitivity, of which he has given other proofs, toward high places and their particular genius. He knew how to restore to each room its proportions and harmony, and with the aid of old Italian artisans still skilled in the secrets of their trade, to achieve the appropriate colors for the walls, in a manner that is at once matte and vibrant, simple and strong, polished on the last coat by rubbing with bottle shards. If these walls with their monastic bareness resemble the backgrounds of Balthus's paintings, it is because the latter come from the same source and are directed toward the same anonymous grandeur.

All the paving of the ground floor was remade in terra-cotta tiles according to ancient practice. The former carriage rooms were cleaned out and transformed into magnificent halls that regularly welcome exhibits of the fellows' work at the end of their residence, and, twice a year, ex positions of various types, conceived according to places with an Italian resonance, which are attended like important events and followed by a large public.

The reform of 1971 has modified the recruiting conditions and the statutes of the Villa Medici, which is no longer a dependency of the Institute de France but of an administrative council under the direction of the Ministry of Culture. Prix de Rome candidates are no longer admitted by academic competition but chosen by a double jury on the basis of aptitude. To the traditional disciplines-painting, sculpture, engraving, architecture, musical composition have been added literature, movies, photography, as well as a section of art history and of restoration of works of art. All the activities corresponding to these diverse domains have been amplified, and music has notably undergone considerable expansion. A succession of important concerts retransmitted to France and Italy have been produced in the Villa Medici gardens. These exceptional manifestations enhance without betraying it the peace of a privileged place for reflection and creation, out of the tumult of cities and the pressures of fashion, looking down on the blazing domes of Rome and their universal glory.

June 6, 2009

The Vatican gardens & Piranesi’s Secret Domain

St. Peter’s Basilica is at the pulsing heart of Rome, its soaring dome dominating the skyline of the ancient city. You are embraced first by the welcoming arms of Bernini’s baroque colonnade, then enfolded in the magnificent church itself. But behind this façade is a world few know and still fewer can enter. Here, set into a maze of buildings, are the offices and institutions of the Roman Catholic Church. And behind them lies an astonishing place of peace and respite, the Vatican gardens. Among the world’s important gardens, the Vatican’s are unique. They lack both the formal unity of those at Versailles and the ordered vision of nature that distinguishes the great eighteenth-century gardens of England. The Vatican gardens are complicated and intricate –as complex as the papacy itself. The plan they follow is not a true plan but the reflection of the Vatican’s long history of pragmatism.

one of many unexpected delights,
a mosaic niche in an old building

Near the Vatican radio station, just a few minute’s walk away, is a nice, homey touch; raised vegetable beds, fertilized organically. This small garden supplies the papal table, direct.

The great dome of St. Peter’s can be seen from nearly every point in the gardens, including the papal veggie patch.

At the foot of the bosco, shaded by pines, is the Villa Pia. Known also as the Casina of Pius IV, it’s the first example of an Italian garden house, a type of retreat that would proliferate through Europe.

the courtyard of the Casina (built 1558-62) of Pius IV

There are gardens within gardens; long vistas that run into ancient buildings; fountains that appear, like God’s grace, in the unlikeliest places. The feeling here is of serenity. In antiquity, this was the site of Nero’s summer villa and gardens, well placed to catch every cooling breeze.

The Italian Garden,
the last classic Renaissance “room” in the Vatican gardens.

Water was not always plentiful. In the Middle Ages, drought prevailed. The Renaissance pope Paul V reactivated an ancient Roman Aqueduct, Aqua Paola, to bring water to the Vatican. This water still feeds all the fountains. Propelled by gravity, descending from fountain to fountain, the water ends up in the twin fountains in St. Peter’s Square before flowing into the Tiber.

Twenty gardeners mind the
sixty-five-acre park

It is easy to imagine the gold and red papal carriage rolling down the secluded allees to an outdoor meeting.

The great gardens, with all their nooks and crannies, tend to be empty these days-though his Holiness walks in the park for exercise when his busy schedule permits. The stillness, while slightly surreal, lends the gardens an air of immanence. One is conscious, too, of history, of foibles, of the constant decisions and revisions that in the end seem not compromises but the very definition of human wisdom.

Since the second century B.C. gardens have flourished on the slopes of the Seven Hills of Rome.
With the advent of aqueducts, the peculiarly Roman mixture of plants, water, and perspective evolved into a distinctive art that harmoniously integrated villas with the surrounding landscape. The structure these gardens acquired in antiquity and in the Renaissance changed little until the nineteenth century, when the fashion for English informality swept away many a formal design. One survivor is the jewel of a garden on the Aventine surrounded by structures that Piranesi designed in the 1760’s for the Knight of Malta.

Properly called Knights of the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, the Knights of Malta belong to a Roman Catholic order of laymen and monks that still enjoy nearly complete sovereignty. Like the Vatican, the order has extraterritorial rights, its own passports, and courts of law. Initially the Knights maintained an eleventh-century pilgrims’ hospital in the Holy Land, but after the Crusades the order retreated to Cyprus, then conquered Rhodes and eventually was given Malta, which Napoleon seized in 1798. Today rich and influential, they provide funds for hospitals and the needy throughout the world from their headquarters in Rome.

many tourists know the entrance to the Knights’ garden
because of its singular view through the keyhole to Saint Peter’s
one and three- quarter miles away.

In the sunken garden box hedges in the shape of crosses frame beds of roses, marigolds and salvia. At right is the 17th –century Kaffeehaus. Known in Rome by the German name, such pavilions were cool retreats for coffee and literary conversations.

Atop the niche for an antique bust are smaller versions of the cannonball finials and flaming urns that crown Priranesi’s monumental screen facing the Piazza dei Cavalieri di Malta.

A pool reflects the walled enclosure, that Edith Wharton called a “real ’secret garden’, full of sunny cloistered stillness, in restful contrast to the wide prospect below the terrace.”

Piranesi’s opportunity to built anything significant came when one of the pope’s nephews, Cardinal Giambattista Rezzonico, became grand prior of the Knights of Malta in Rome and hired Piranesi to restore the order’s church, Santa Maria del Priorato.

Thanks to an account book compiled from the daily worksheets of the contractor (now in the Avery Architectural Library of Columbia University), we can follow the work from November 1764, when the crumbling foundations first received attention, to October 1766, when the pope inspected the completed work and expressed his family’s satisfaction by making Piranesi a Knight of the Golden Spur. Soon after, the artist began to sign his work Cavaliere.