a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Zero Dark de Triomphe

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 14th December 2012

Roy Edroso takes on Glenn Greenwald’s recent piece on the upcoming “Zero Dark Thirty” movie, and rightly identifies several passages undermining Greenwald’s claim as “disingenuous” that his piece is all about critical reactions, and not about the movie itself.  Personally I feel like “so what?”   I think Greenwald’s basic point remains valid: many critics essentially said both “whoa, whutta movie! must see!” and “but ya know, it glorifies torture.” And that is indeed another data point for cultural Nate Silvers to add to their estimate of where our national handbasket is headed.

But yeah,  maybe Greenwald jumped the gun a bit by foolishly taking many reviewers at their word instead of waiting to see the movie for himself.  So did I, maybe: I set up a “Boycott Zero Dark Thirty” Facebook page before learning that Spencer Ackerman — a reporter for Wired who has seemed like a straight shooter over the years — argues the movie says that torture wasn’t the “silver bullet” but “the ignorant alternative”  to the kind of detective work that actually did find Bin Laden.

But this is the part of Roy’s piece I want to discuss:

“This is still more proof — as if more were needed — that you shouldn’t bring your political obsessions to the temple of art. It is both more personally edifying and more pleasing to the Muses to approach a work of art as a work of art, however obnoxious it may be to you on other grounds, than to approach it as a political phenomenon.”

Honestly, Roy, I’m sorry: baloney. I don’t have to see Zero Dark Thirty to know — OK, very, very strongly suspect — that it’s “art” the way the Roman Colosseum is art, or the Arc de Triomphe is art, or “Triumph of the Will” is art.

That is to say, OK, sure, it’s a kind of art — but it’s a kind serving to glorify the victories and rulers of the day and validate their people’s faith in them, and it’s fully intended to do so. Such art, unlike, say, “Little Miss Sunshine,” is therefore a political phenomenon too, and is completely fair game for political discussion. For that matter, so is a hell of a lot of the rest of the uplifting artstuff hanging on museum walls or flickering on screens for that matter: it’s what those who are good at saying well-compensated uplifting stuff say or have the power to say.

What is it Bigelow and Boal have the well-compensated power to say? E.g., how do Bigelow and Boal know what they think they know, how does it get that authentic, documentarian feel cinematic art consumers today crave?   Not just “the illusion of real time” in exciting night time raids but the ‘ripped from the headlines’ faithful[ness] to the material’?  Oh, right: they got it spoon fed to them — back when the prospective opening date was apparently advertised as October 12, not December 14.  Do the math.

Greenwald (and I for that matter) may have swung early and missed as far as ZD30 goes, but I’m betting there’s plenty there to hit. One way or the other, we’re on the cusp of our “pass the popcorn” phase of our national dialogue, such as it is, on torture.  Not every story at the intersection of art and politics is “Piss Christ” revisited, or about whether government should pay for controversial art or monitor its content.  Bigelow and ZD30 chose the kitchen, they can’t complain about the heat.  As long as the word “disingenuous” is floating around, it also seems a little disingenuous to claim the most highly anticipated political snuff movie ever is in the  “temple of art,” so leave it aloooooone.

On the other hand, though, I’m not sure about boycotting the thing any more.  It’s probably best to go ahead and see it if you’ve got to scratch that itch, or just to judge what, if anything, is wrong with it exactly.  I guess I do hope many, many Americans don’t enjoy it.

Screening the rushes for Zero Dark Thirty (and making sure there was a group photo).

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Armistice Day

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 11th November 2012

“Mahnmal,” (lit. “Warning monument,” usu. “Grieving Parents”) Kathe Kollwitz, 1932.
Photo by Tony Novosel

Today is Armistice Day, marking the end of combat in World War I. I’m seeing other remembrances of it on the Internet, and thought I’d add this one. It’s titled “Grieving Parents” or “Mourning Parents” in English, but the true name, in German, is simply “Mahnmal” —  “Warning Monument.”

Kathe Kollwitz’s younger son Peter volunteered for the German army when World War I began, and died in Belgium in 1914. Kollwitz — a socialist and eventual communist, as it happened — began work on this the next year; it was placed in the Roggevelde-Eesen German military cemetery in 1932.*

To me, this is one of greatest sculptures of all time, a Pieta of this world, not the next: the mother collapsing as if shot, the father grimly holding on to himself to keep from doing the same; eternal, unassuageable grief set in stone. Multiply this nine millionfold: World War I. Multiply it millions upon millionsfold again: the wars still fought after the war to supposedly end them all.

Each wartime grief has a particular story.  In this one, Kathe Kollwitz’s younger son Peter volunteered for the German army when World War I began.  Her diaries record the sequence of events:
Read the rest of this entry »

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Bye bye to all that: Roadrunner, ‘Just Drive,’ and 20th century America

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 31st August 2010

Late last week we ended a wonderful stay in Maine, one where a quiet lake, the company of family, the calls of loons, the cracks of lobster shells, and the splash of kayak paddles were the dominant experiences of lazy days.

We returned, however, by driving straight home — in a minor family legend of a road trip that took sixteen hours to complete. The traffic wasn’t bad, but it took a little longer than anticipated, and it’s just a long, long way.  As time wore on, dusk turned to night, we found ourselves in the seemingly endless urban plain of New Jersey with a blur of highway stops, gas stations, exits, and a slow flux of neighboring cars and trucks to keep us company.  We talked, planned, argued, listened to music, read, drove.  And drove.  And drove.

And while we certainly weren’t on a quiet lake in Maine any more, there was a certain familiar but usually overlooked beauty to this, too: streams of red tail lights ahead, oncoming streams of white headlights, the rush of buildings, bridges, signs and overpasses, a giant civilization all around.

“Just Drive 2: New Mexico – New York,” YouTube video uploaded by ‘heraldstreet’, whose
description is “driving across america in 1995 with a super-8 and the radio. music by
jonathan richman and the modern lovers. pretty well unedited.”

More than 30 years ago, Jonathan Richman captured some of that in the underground rock anthem “Roadrunner” — one of his first recordings.*  While the exact lyrics could vary from performance to performance, the gist was that there is a beauty in the experience of … driving through the suburban sprawl around Boston Richman called home, at high speed and with the radio on:

I’m in love with the modern world
I drive alone when it’s late at night
I wanna hear now, the modern sound
so I won’t feel alone at night
I mean I’m in love with the modern world […]

Read the rest of this entry »

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“24”, torture, free speech, and art

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 21st January 2009

Over at “Unqualified Offerings,” Thoreau writes about a Stephen Colbert reference to the popular TV show “24“, notorious for depicting torture as an effective tactic:

Last night I had a good chuckle when Colbert mixed in some Jack Bauer speeches with speeches by media and political figures arguing in favor of torture. I chuckled, because I distinguish between reality and fiction, and I can enjoy watching fictional characters do things that would never be excusable in real life. It’s pathetic that some people can’t.

But then he acknowledges that “24” may not be as simple as that, and asks:

Are artists responsible for people who feel validated by their works? Are they responsible for people who fail to see the nuances in their works? What if we were talking about gangster rappers instead of Kiefer Sutherland?

Those are excellent questions, I think.  But one of Thoreau’s readers didn’t, simply answering “no” to each question and closing, “Another edition of easy answers.” As it happens, I value that reader’s opinions, which is why I’m taking the time to write out why and how I disagree; I think easy answers aren’t available in this case.

I begin by affirming that everyone has the right to say whatever stupid, vile, pernicious thing they want, because I don’t see how to agree on what does and does not fit that description, and because trying to in a serious, consequential way would chill the free expression of difficult or unpopular ideas.

But I also think everyone should man up and take moral responsibility when they do say stupid, vile, pernicious things.  As Jane Mayer has shown, this TV show clearly has an intentional agenda, and its directors and actors had and have a choice whether or not to participate in that.  If exposure to “24” has increased the propensity to torture or to approve of torture (as it appears to have done) and if that appears to be part of an intentional agenda, then Kiefer Sutherland and the rest of the “24” cast and crew should take their fair share of the blame.  Sometimes it’s not just a job.

This art — like much art, maybe all of it in some sense — is meant to challenge.  To criticize its makers and their collaborators for their role in that art is to accept that challenge.  This is not about the purported effects of exposure to video games or gangster rap, or whether “Piss Christ” is art or deserves public funding.  This is about the real, intended, and deeply unfortunate effects of a work of art on the public discourse.  In that world of public discourse, these people deserve censure.  I think they are “responsible” for their work to that extent.

To some very small degree, my disapproval of “24” incurs the cost of chilling truly nonstupid, nonvile, nonpernicious expression, and that really is regrettable.  So I don’t think my own answers are easy ones either.  Surnow’s creation of and Sutherland et al’s participation in “24” doesn’t make them permanent pariahs (though in Surnow’s case I’m tempted).  But I do think that in this case they failed as human beings, and that they deserve our temporary contempt and our lasting pity.  They also deserve our serious consideration long enough to answer the questions, “What would I do?”  The answer shouldn’t be “hope that no one gives my choice much thought.”

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taking a breather: rivers, tides, music, stars

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 9th March 2008

  • from Rivers and Tides, Andy Goldsworthy, movie by Thomas Riedelsheimer, 2001 (6:35)
  • Billie Holliday, Lester Young, “Fine And Mellow,” 1957 (9:04)
  • The Hubble Deep Field Image, movie by astronomers at SUNY, 1995 (4:30)

    assembled from 342 separate exposures taken with the Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 (WFPC2) for ten consecutive days between December 18 and 28, 1995. […]

    Representing a narrow “keyhole” view stretching to the visible horizon of the universe, the HDF image covers a speck of the sky only about the width of a dime located 75 feet away. Though the field is a very small sample of the heavens, it is considered representative of the typical distribution of galaxies in space because the universe, statistically, looks largely the same in all directions. Gazing into this small field, Hubble uncovered a bewildering assortment of at least 1,500 galaxies at various stages of evolution.

  • Miles Davis, “So What,” 1958 (8:22)
  • from Rivers and Tides, Andy Goldsworthy/Thomas Riedelsheimer, 2001 (4:01)

NOTES: Holliday video clip via Bernard Chazelle (“A Tiny Revolution”) where you can read more about it. The first “Rivers and Tides” link is to the IMdB movie database, the second is to the Powell’s Books entry. “Hubble Deep Field Image” link is to the news release web page. Emphasis added; by my calculation, that means there are well over 25 million more distinct views like this one. A subsequent exposure, the Hubble Ultra Deep Field Image, is discussed here.

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Washington Ballet Nutcracker season over

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 24th December 2007

It’s been fun getting Maddie to the Washington Ballet Nutcracker shows and being part of the hustle and bustle of Christmastime. I helped sell Nutcracker paraphernalia during intermission a few times, benefiting the Washington Ballet School’s scholarship funds. Before the show, at intermission, after the show: a crush of people — what’s the price on that? I’ll find out for you; yes, we take credit cards, would you like that wrapped, hope the credit card connection doesn’t hang — and then it’s over with a litter of tissue paper, paper rolls, and shopping bags around you and “see you next time”s. I kind of like it.

But it’s also been a little exhausting after a while — between that and Christmas shopping, neighborhood parties and an end of year crunch at work, I’ve been even more sporadic about blogging than usual.

Maddie’s in her second year as a “Fox page” in the Sugar Plum Fairy’s woodland (rather than Land of Sweets) court scenes, mainly early in the second act. She comes skittering out with a bouquet for Clara and the Nutcracker Prince, does a little dance around them with other woodland creatures, and then retires to a side stage to watch the rest of the proceedings — which were also fabulous, as ever. The show is really fun; kids of almost all skill levels are integrated into an imaginative, “Americanized” production of the ballet (in this case set in 1880s or so Georgetown, and then in the dreams of the American Clara, peopled by Betsy Ross, Ben Franklin, a King George Rat, etc.).

The top pros are scintillating — while I’m no expert, I was particularly impressed by the Sugar Plum Fairy, and the dancers of the “Arabian Dance” (recast as “Anacostian Indians” in this production). But I was also very impressed with the top ballet school students (I believe), some of whom put in several pieces of hard work (and some very quick costume changes!) per performance — party girl to Snowflake to Cardinal to Cherry Blossom — always dancing beautifully.

There may be other good Nutcracker productions out there, but I don’t think there could be a better one. It’s well worth your while if you get a chance; but at this point this parent and volunteer is relieved that won’t be until next year!

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Cool stuff

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 5th October 2006

The trek (David Fleck, Moira Breen, “Progressive Reactionaries”) — I love travelogues, and this one is about a great trip through the American West:

The basic plan was this: from home, drive west to central Utah. Spend about a week there, fanning out and visiting as many national parks as possible. Then, drive southwest, through Las Vegas to the southern Sierra Nevada (details of plan got fuzzy here) and thence working our way north through the mountains, popping back out into the northernmost Central Valley, and onwards up the Willamette Valley. Finally, after a couple of days rest, turning eastwards again and following the Snake River to its very headwaters, travelling through Grand Teton and Yellowstone, following many winding, high-altitude, picturesque roads to eventually wind up on the northern Plains, pausing at Little Bighorn, again in the Black Hills, Badlands National Park, and finally staggering back home.

Me, I got worn out just clicking through the posts, and there are more to come. Meanwhile, John Wesley Powell quotes, weird geology, and glorious photos, photos, and more photos— what more could you want?

Kitchen Sisters — a.k.a. Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva, a radio documentary team I first heard driving to work one morning this summer. They explain how they came to do the piece I heard on NPR, “Texas Icehouses“:

A lot of Kitchen Sisters stories are born in taxicabs. In fact, the whole Hidden Kitchens concept was conceived in the back of a Yellow cab in San Francisco. The icehouses of Texas came to our minds in a Checker in San Antonio. We were there last year on our way to an interview for our story on the Chili Queens when we saw an abandoned ice depot on the way and asked the driver what it was. He began to tell us the story of how ice was delivered to the neighborhoods and the birth of the icehouses all over town. We were hooked and lured a year later to document this faded but vibrant tradition, and to drink some Texas beer chilled on Texas ice.

The Texas ice houses turn out to be the back story to (drumroll….) 7-11! But as one man described the difference:

” A Stop & Go is just that. This is a stop and stay. You put down anchors here.”

Imagine dancing at a 7-11 to Floyd Tillman on the jukebox playing “Cold, cold beer.” OK, well, don’t. But these places sound like they were (and still are) fun. Score one for Texas.

Non-Errors — “Those usages people keep telling you are wrong but which are actually standard in English” or “annoying pecknsiffery I feel very strongly about.” Re the split infinitive fallacy, one explanation of this stupid so-called rule I’ve come across is that it was a 16th century effort to graft Latin grammar onto the English language. From the same Wikipedia entry: try rewriting “She decided to gradually get rid of the teddy bears she had collected” — no word changes, just rearranging. More importantly: Captain Kirk should have to say “to go boldly”? I think not!

Make your own Jackson Pollack (click occasionally to change colors).

Falling sand game — Wikipedia explains:

The game involves four different particles falling from the top of the screen, which all look and move similar to sand: sand, water, salt, and oil. Each of these elements have properties that can be manipulated, such as burning, desiccating, growing, and eroding. Along with these four, additional elements can be placed on the screen with the mouse, some that are solid and stationary instead of flowing. By mixing the different elements together, many colorful designs, complex structures, and systems can be created.

There are a number of versions out there; here’s one I came across, I think via Karen (“Peripetia”).

NOTES: Try the slideshow option (upper right corner) for the Western US trek photos. You can listen to “Cold, Cold Beer” at the NPR “Texas Ice Houses Melt Away” web page. Pollack site via Flash Insider, where an authorship controversy is noted.

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Italy trip: Siena, and arrivederci

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 14th April 2006

Civitella Maritima, south of Siena
Civitella Maritima, south of Siena.

We got off to a later start than we’d hoped the next day, despite warnings that our goal, the town of Siena, pretty much shuts down in the afternoon, especially perhaps during Easter week.

The day was sunny and the drive was beautiful, especially as we turned inland from Grossetto and headed north. For a shot out the open window of a moving car, the one on the right isn’t half bad, I think; if only I knew which town it was …Pari? Leccio? Campagnatico?

We arrived around noon, but lucky for us, things were not as shut down as we feared. Parking in one of the garages on the edge of the old town inside the walls — like Florence, no nonresident traffic is allowed within the old town — we set out to see what we could of the city and its treasures.

Siena rooftops
Siena rooftops from Opera della Metropolitana,
Duomo di Siena.

Siena has been under development restrictions for some time — for centuries, in fact. At one time it was a wealthy Ghibelline (imperial) rival to Guelph (papal) Florence, and even administered a crushing defeat to that city’s armed forces in 1260. But then came the Black Death, which apparently hit Siena harder than it did Florence. Another battle with the Florentines ended in Sienese defeat — and terms that no further building would occur.

The potted history is intended only to explain why Siena is both a exceptionally well-preserved medieval/Renaissance Italian city, and one that was once powerful enough to command the talents of the greatest master builders and artists and develop a distinctive style of its own.

Duccio’s Maesta
Our first goal was a painting that Cricket has always wanted to see: Duccio’s Maesta (Virgin in Majesty), in the Opera della Metropolitana, a museum housing art works of the Siena Duomo. The museum is actually housed in what would have been the nave of an even vaster Sienese cathedral than the present-day Duomo, which was originally intended to be only the sanctuary and transepts (the “head and hands”) of the larger planned structure.

The “Opera” houses many other great works as well. One I liked was Tondo of the Virgin and Child by Donatello (1457), a kind of large stone medallion (maybe a yard wide). At first the otherwise beautiful Mary seems to have really overly large hands — until you realized the piece was designed to be seen from nearby and below.

But the Maesta was by itself in a specially climate-controlled room, and it really is spectacular — a 7 by 14 foot or so wooden panel, painted in a style that seems to have just begun a breakout from medieval conventions (distinct, recognizable faces, the artist’s signature) with lavish use of golds, scarlet red, and dark blue. The painting was unveiled on what was declared a public holiday in 1311. From a contemporary account:


…and on the day that (it) was carried to the Cathedral, the shops were closed and the Bishop ordered a great and devout company of priests and brothers with a solemn procession, accompanied by the Signori of the Nine and all the officials of the Comune, and all the people, and in order all the most distinguished were close behind the picture with lighted candles in their hands; and the women and children were following with great devotion: and they all accompanied the picture as far as the Cathedral, going round the Campo in procession, and according to custom, the bells rang in glory and in veneration of such a noble picture as this, . . . and all that day was spent in worship and alms-giving to the poor, praying to the Mother of God, our protectress, to defend us by her infinite mercy from all adversity, and to guard us against the hand of traitors and enemies of Siena.

Quite a difference from the hushed room the Maesta is in now! Commissioning the painting was quite expensive for its time — lots of gold, an artist paid a substantial daily wage for 3 years; together with the rapturous reception, I think it illustrates a “conspicuous pious consumption” principle that seemed to inspire and subsidize most art in those days. But whatever pleasure the Mother of God took from the painting, prayers, and alms-giving, Siena’s protection was at best short-lived — the Black Death (1347-1351) lay only a few years ahead.

A reverse panel was visible to the clergy as the image above was to worshipers. It now hangs across the room from the Virgin in Majesty, and shows Stories of the Passion in a series of 12 panels. I tried to identify what was going on for Maddie, who demanded to be told what exactly was going on in every panel. Family of heathens that we are, this was her first detailed exposure to the story. Subsequent reading confirmed my befuddled guess that Duccio was an early blogger — in that the all the earlier Passion stories are in the 6 panels of the bottom row, with later stories left to right along the top row.

Almost unbelievably, Duccio’s masterpiece was sawn apart in the late 1700s; two of the resulting fragments are now in the National Gallery of Art in Washington. One, The Calling of the Apostles Peter and Andrew, is Cricket’s favorite NGA piece. That connection was what prompted our visit to the Maesta — and a palpable step back in time.

Duomo, Piazza del Campo
We climbed to a gangway atop the Opera, above what would have been the entrance to the larger Duomo, and looked across to the Duomo in one direction, towards the Palazzo Publico and its tower, the immense Torre del Mangia in another. After exploring the museum a little more, we headed over to the Duomo for a look inside. In the war of all against all that was also the Renaissance, I’m guessing that impressing rubes and visiting dignitaries was cheap compared to fighting them — so up and coming cities like Siena spent a lot on impressive buildings.

Like Florence, the Sienese Duomo seems designed to show city pride nearly as much as veneration for the Holy Trinity and its church. Siena’s colors are black and white, and the cathedral walls and columns are built with evenly alternating black and white marble layers. The effect is both attractive and showy, and clearly says “spare no expense.” Something I also don’t recall seeing before, at least to the level of the Duomo di Siena, was very advanced marble-inlay flooring; artisans were able to use to compose quite intricate and naturalistic “marble jigsaw” (more accurately intarsia) pictures. The technique was apparently first developed by Sienese woodcarvers.

Torre del Mangia, Siena
Torre del Mangia.

Leaving the Duomo, we headed for the centerpiece of Siena, the Piazza del Campo and its huge bell and watch tower, the Torre del Mangia. As you walk through Siena, you notice that different neighborhoods have their own insignia underneath the street signs. The symbols of each neighborhood, or contrada, are often whimsical or exotic; there were Rhinoceros, Unicorn, Caterpillar, and Snail contrade, among the 17 comprising Siena.

Coming up on the Piazza and seeing up close how big the ancient Torre is (330 feet, finished in 1348 just as the bubonic plague hit) was unforgettable. The Piazza del Campo is justly renowned as well. The plaza is a huge semicircle, that slope down towards the Palazzo Publico and the Torre in 9 distinct “pizza slices”brepresenting the nine elders (signori, see above) who ruled the city. Off limits to traffic, it has the feel of a kind of medieval urban beach, surrounded by cafes, storefronts, and of course the imposing Palazzo and Torre.

In addition to its layout, the Piazza is famous for being the site of biannual horse race, the Palio di Siena, a three-circuit race around the edge of the Piazza, pitting horses and riders sponsored by each of the Sienese contrade against eachother. My brother-in-law once actually saw one of these races, and achieved a measure of newspaper photograph fame for trying to help pull a fallen rider out of the way of an equally terrified horse careening towards them.

Leaving Siena
Leaving Siena, we drove north and then west to San Gimignano, famous for its medieval skyline of family towers, ranging around 150 feet high. We walked towards the center of town and back, just taking in the sights and not really even checking our guide book for information; we were all a little tired. After a quick supper, we headed back to the car parking lot outside the city wall.

It was getting dark, and our not-so-early start now took its revenge in an occasionally hair-raising drive back “home” to Baratti. The road west from San Gimignano towards Volterra is long, winding, and mountainous, most other drivers wanted to go faster than we did, and turnouts were generally on the “precipice” side of the road rather than the hill side. This resulted in our car leading several long processions through the nighttime hills of Italy, more than a few exasperated Italian drivers, but nothing worse.

Easter weekend and leaving Italy, April 15-17
On Saturday and Sunday we undertook no major excursions, preferring to relax in Baratti with our relatives and new friends. We helped a bit with a sweet Easter egg hunt (no colored eggs, just the good stuff: candy and chocolate), which some of the host’s Italian friends’ children participated in.

On Sunday, we attended a Easter service at the house of one of our host’s sisters. It was nontraditional for not being in a church, and featuring folk songs, but a Catholic priest who was a friend of the family presided over the event, preaching in Italian. (I wasn’t sure whether Catholic services in Italy are held in Italian or Latin, and I suppose I still don’t know what happens generally.)

Our trip drew to a close on Monday, with a morning dash down the Italian coast back to Rome and the Fiumicino Airport. Stopping at a small gas station along the autostrada to top off the tank and get a bite to eat, we found a full service cafe, with espresso, freshly made prosciutto and mozzarella and artichoke sandwiches, and all the other paraphernalia and offerings of a good Italian sidewalk cafe. I can’t say I was really surprised by then — I’d say one part of the Italian lifestyle is “life’s too short to eat bad food,” and we were just seeing the same principle at work along an Italian highway.

I’ll add a few miscellaneous notes separately, but that’s pretty much it for this travelogue. It’s mainly for my own use and that of my family, but I hope it proves interesting and useful to others as well.

Yours truly, Piazza del Campo, Siena.
Yours truly, Piazza del Campo, Siena.

[Italy travelogue: home] [posted on 5/4]

FURTHER READING (headings link to Wikipedia entries)
Duomo di Siena: Official museum site Opera della Metropolitana.
Palazzo Publico, Torre del Mangia: official Palazzo Publico e Museo Civico site.
Piazza del Campo, Palio di Siena: The Piazza is listed on the Great Buildings site. There are both official and unofficial English language sites devoted to recording the history and organization of the Palio di Siena races and explaining them to outsiders. The unofficial one — La Voce della Piazza — is clearly by fans, for fans. From “75 seconds to victory“: “…Finally a silence filled with anxiousness comes over the Piazza. Sunto has stopped ringing; the Sienese hold their collective breaths and the last formalities seem an eternity. And suddenly horses and jockeys in the stupendous colors of their Contrade exit from the Cortile of the Podestà. The Campo is a palette, a caleidoscope; everyone looks in the same direction while the race horses go slowly to the ropes…”

Duccio: A profusely illustrated book — Duccio: The Maesta — by Sienese art historian Luciano Bellosi looks to be a painstaking effort. The Web Gallery of Art offers a “guided tour” of Duccio’s work, as well as of Sienese painters in general. See also this SUNY Oneonta student web site. As mentioned above, The National Gallery has two fragments of the original Maesta. A 2005 New Yorker article, “The missing Madonna,” tells the story behind the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art’s most expensive acquisition, Duccio’s “Madonna and Child” — “Finally, the Met has its ‘Mona Lisa.”
Donatello: This Opera della Metropolitana document confirmed that Donatello intended a “foreshortening” effect for the Tondo.

Siena: Official web site for tourists.
San Gimignano: Official web site. In an economics- and mathematics-laden analysis titled Household Saving, Competitive Conspicuous Consumption and Income Inequality, Herbert Walther calls the San Gimignano towers a “nice example of wasteful competition between various families of the upper class in a medieval society” but asks whether they made a certain kind of sense after all: “Or was it rather a conscious signal of prosperity and wealth (like many other monuments), offering prospective coalition partners a clear hint, whom they should trust and associate with in the future? Such signals may have been particularly important at a time, when property rights were insecure and coalition partners were needed for support…”

* From the Web Gallery of Art history of the painting.

EDIT, 2007: Gloria of Casina di Rosa has identified the town in the picture as her town of Civitella Maritima; thanks very much! We seem to have been heading south for some reason, I’d forgotten that part — maybe it was to take this picture.

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Italy trip: Florence

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 11th April 2006

Lion, Loggia dei Lanzi
Lion, Loggia dei Lanzi, Piazza della Signoria.

We arranged what turned out to be a pleasant, comfortable 2d-class train trip from Rome to Florence the previous evening, and arrived around noon. With what seemed like roughly two tons of luggage, we decided to take a taxi to Hotel Belletini, one of the more reasonably priced places to stay in town, and located pretty centrally; in truth, we could have just about walked there, although schlepping that suitcase full of books would not have been much fun. We were very happy with the friendly reception and good service we got at the hotel (just as we were in Rome).

We left our luggage and commenced exploring Florence. Our first goal was to get a first look at the “Duomo”, the magnificent central cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore. Traffic has been routed away from it (and only city residents can drive inside the city anyway), but that means some of the nearby streets are correspondingly congested; together with every other tourist in Florence wanting to see the Duomo as well, it’s a somewhat crowded experience to get where you want to go. Still, once you’re between the baptistry — a beautiful second building, with magnificent doors by Ghiberti — and the Duomo, things open up a little, and you’re glad to be in one of the great places of all Europe and the world.

Copy of Michelangelo's David, Piazza della Signoria
Copy of Michelangelo’s ‘David,’
Piazza della Signoria.

After taking care of renting a car for the next leg of our journey, we returned to the hotel to take our room and rest up a bit. Then it was off for more exploration. This time we headed for the the spectacular Piazza della Signoria, flanked by the Palazzo Vecchio (“the old palace”) and the Loggia dei Lanzi, a kind of Renaissance era open-air museum featuring great sculptures by Cellini, Giambologna, and others. (The “Lanzi” turn out to refer to “lanzicenecchi” — the Italian version of “Landsknechte”, or German mercenaries, who were originally housed in the building by Grand Duke Cosimo I.) Walking on, we crossed the jewelry store-encrusted Ponte Vecchio, a bridge-plus-stores structure crossing the Arno River. Beautiful stuff, gold, silver, coral.

Based on a glowing review in a Saveur magazine, we went to the Trattoria Sostanza for dinner that evening. By showing up at opening time (7:30pm, if I recall correctly) we wangled some seats on condition that we were prepared to leave at 9:00. Whatever, fair enough. The restaurant is actually pretty small, seating maybe 30 people in a single narrow room. It turns out to be the oldest trattoria in Florence, and is a favorite of locals and “foodie” tourists alike. (The Saveur article is for subscribers only, but it’s also reviewed in this Guardian article.) I had a wonderful minestrone soup (pureed, I hadn’t seen that before) and a great bistecca alla Fiorentina — steak Florentine style — and some good house red wine; we struck up a nice conversation with our Italian table partners, and generally had a great time.

April 12

Duomo, Santa Maria del Fiore
Duomo, Santa Maria del Fiore.
A.k.a. “the stripey church” by Maddie.

The first thing we did the next day — after a nice breakfast in the hotel, something Maddie really appreciated and tucked into — was to revisit the Duomo in order to go up to the top and see the ceiling frescoes by Vasari along the way.

The ascent to the base of the dome goes along two or three narrow spiral staircases. Once you’re there, you can walk around a vertiginous gangway (it’s over 55 meters down to the bottom, but there’s a pretty solid marble balustrade and plexiglass barrier) allowing a view of Vasari’s “Last Judgment.” I was briefly sorry for bringing Maddie; parts of the painting are pretty horrific (that’s the point, of course), with one prominent demon’s flaming pike aimed squarely at the rear end of a victim. I could only hope these things weren’t ever actually done to anyone, but I have a bad feeling about that, too.

Resuming the ascent, we got a first hand look at one of the remarkable features of the dome. It’s double-shelled, with the brickwork involved slanted inward and apparently cleverly interlocked, although that’s hard to see from the side. As I understand it, this was all part of the builder Brunelleschi’s strategy for making the overall structure lighter, avoiding expensive wood scaffolding, and allowing an octagonal-based dome rather than the usual circular kind. The (fairly huge) wooden model he built to illustrate how he would do it was once on display here in Washington, D.C.

View of Palazzo Vecchio from Duomo
View of Palazzo Vecchio from Duomo.

The view from the top is spectacular, of course. Maddie was very proud to have made the climb, and can still tell you it took 463 steps to do it. And of course 463 steps back down as well.

After a gelato break, we decided to visit the Basilica di Santa Croce. Like many churches in Florence and in Italy, this one leads a dual existence as church and art museum. An audio guide we rented and its accompanying brochure identified about fifty or sixty distinct things to see — tombs of Michelangelo and Macchiavelli among them — but Giotto frescoes in the Bardi and Peruzzi chapels were our main destination in the main cathedral.

Giotto was a shepherd’s son, and so talented an artist that a lost lamb was said to have been attracted to an image of its mother the boy painted on a rock. I happen to know that story from often reading a rather nice children’s book — A Boy Named Giotto — to my little girl when she was younger; the connection was why we were so interested in the artist. In the children’s book, the drawings seem more medieval and two-dimensional (although also quite nice); Giotto’s own work was a great deal more expressive and modern in appearance, especially the Death of St. Francis,* in which the various monks at the saint’s deathbed are distinctive individuals. The relatively flat coloring and clean line drawing reminded me of good quality cartoons (which I don’t at all mean negatively).

Giotto was an apprentice to Cimabue, who created the Crucifix of Santa Croce, a huge crucifix that was notable in its time for a slightly surprising reason — it depicted Jesus after his death, still on the cross, having suffered obvious pain. The style had been to either depict Jesus risen and triumphant, or at least still alive; Cimabue’s more forthright crucifix was a harbinger of breaking other artistic conventions and restraints — and may also reflect credit on his patrons, the Franciscan order, who seemed to push the ecclesiastic envelope in other ways, such as burying Galileo on church grounds against papal wishes.

Sadly, the River Arno flooded in 1966, and Santa Croce lies close to its banks. The flood rose 7 meters high in the Franciscan “refectory” room in which Cimabue’s masterpiece was hung, damaging it badly. Having seen it in its present state, however painstakingly restored, it’s a little sad to see how beautiful it once was.

The Santa Croce church and piazza occupy a special place in Florentine and indeed apparently Italian affairs, as the basilica’s Westminster Abbey-like function as the burial site of so many of Italy’s greats attests. The piazza is one of four venues for an annual half-soccer-, half-rugby-like Calcio Storico tournament pitting teams from different parts of the city against eachother in historical costumes; the neighborhood appeared to be one middle class people actually lived in, some of the others were more completely given over to pricy stores and whatnot.

We grabbed a bite to eat at an enoteca — wine and lunch bar — and then headed back across the river to the Palazzo Pitti and its Boboli Gardens. By now we were a little beat, to tell the truth, and after climbing up to the first level of the garden, now well above most of the city, we all just sat down near an ornate, rococo-looking pool. Maddie commenced writing in her journal, while my wife and I just chilled out.

A visit this brief to Florence almost makes you as aware of what you didn’t see as what you did. I knew about the Uffizi, the Accademia, and the Brancacci chapel, and actually visited them over 25 years ago. If I ever make it back for a week I’ll make sure to visit them again. Looking around inside places like the Palazzo Vecchio and the Palazzo Pitti would have been nice, too. But I learned about another site worth seeing once I got back from this trip — the Institute for the History of Science. The Renaissance is apparently considered by some to be a bit of a dry spell for science, but this institute (and some of my subsequent reading) makes plain that something was afoot all the same: one might say advances in metallurgy, optics, and engineering during the Renaissance laid the groundwork for the scientific revolution just ahead, as did simply the spirit of inquiry and pride that seemed so evident in the best of Renaissance work.

It was time for us go. We headed back across the river and picked up our car. I fetched our luggage by taxi, and we then fought our way out of town as rush hour began. Soon we were on the open road towards Livorno, and then points south: San Vincenzo and Baratti.

[Italy travelogue: home] [posted on 4/28]

FURTHER READING (headings link to Wikipedia entries)

Santa Maria del Fiore (“Duomo”): In Long-Span Structures, Angus MacDonald, ArchitectureWeek) discusses engineering innovations Brunelleschi used to span the dome, such as special brickwork and the double dome plan, calling the result “an example of genuine ‘high tech.’ The overall form was determined from structural considerations and not compromised for visual effect.” Scientific American Frontiers’ Science, Italian Style: Renaissance Machine discusses other Brunelleschi innovations during work on the Duomo, like the first reversible hoist (animation by Institute for the History of Science)– speeding work by no longer unharnessing horses between loads headed up and those headed down. A lecture by McGill University’s Maria Farfan (“Dome Structures: Santa Maria Del Fiore (Florence)“) provides more details about the Duomo’s construction. Here is one photo of Vasari’s Last Judgment painting on the inner surface of the Duomo. See also Great Buildings,
Palazzo Vecchio: official site. See also
Ponte Vecchio: Great Buildings,
Basilica di Santa Croce di Firenze: The Franciscan order has an interesting history of its own, of course. The Santa Croce neighborhood is described by the proprietor of Le Stanze di Santa Croce, which looks to be a nice bed and breakfast.
The “About Florence” tourist information site has a good description of the “Calcio Storico” tournament; see also this everything2 account which notes, “the referee carries a sword and needs it.” See also
Palazzo Pitti: official site. See also
Boboli Gardens: official site. See also
Uffizi: the official site is partly in English, and lists basic information, and updates on exhibits, and events. See also the Virtual Uffizi, which offers advance tickets and a comprehensive image catalog. The images are all around 600*400 pixels, so you get a sense of the art or sculpture, but not a detailed one. See also

Brunelleschi: the Institute for the History of Science has several exhibits about Brunelleschi including a biography and a discussion of his work on the Dome.
Giotto: The extremely cool Web Gallery of Art (developed by Emil Kren and Daniel Marx) provides the online tour The Art of Giotto, which includes Frescoes in the Bardi Chapel and Frescoes in the Peruzzi Chapel.
Cimabue: Giotto’s teacher seems to have been a similarly driven child artist, according to Vasari: “Instead of studying his letters, Cimabue spent all his time covering his paper and his books with pictures showing people, horses, houses, and various other things he dreamt up.” The Web Gallery of Art biography notes that Cimabue is mentioned as one of the foremost painters of the day in Dante’s Divine Comedy.

Renaissance: The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Timeline of Art History: Florence and Central Italy is a well-constructed overview linking to images and discussions of items in its own collection. It’s the tip of an online iceberg’s worth of art historical information, images and data, a real treat. Books: I’ve already mentioned Paul Johnson’s sensible, compact The Renaissance: A Short History. J.H. Plumb’s The Italian Renaissance is another accessible classic, with chapters by people like Jacob Brownowski and Garrett Mattingly. I’ve now picked up a copy of Christopher Hibbert’s The House of Medici: Its Rise and Fall as well.
Florence: ItalyGuide Virtual Travel in the City of Florence lets you pan and zoom 360 degree views of the Duomo and other sites throughout the city. They also offer iPod-downloadable audio guides to many of the same sites.

* Web Gallery of Art.

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Italy trip: Rome, continued

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 9th April 2006

Castel Sant’Angelo. St. Peter’s Basilica
is in the background.

We decided to extend our stay in Rome another couple of days, and moved ourselves from Pensione Panda to the equally pleasant Pensione Paradise, across the river and closer to the Vatican.

The first thing we visited, though — simply because it was closest — was the Castel Sant’Angelo, a unique behemoth of a fortress right along the Tiber River, close to St. Peter’s Basilica. Originally built as a mausoleum for Emperor Hadrian (of Hadrian’s Wall fame in England) in A.D. 135-139 , it was eventually put to work as a sturdy medieval fortress for popes to retreat to in case of attack — there’s even a passageway (Passetto) that still links the Vatican to the Castel for quick papal getaways. Inside the fort there’s a long, cool spiral walkway that might have been handy for hauling cannons and munitions to the upper platforms.

Ristorante Fiammetta, Piazza Fiammetta #10.*
Head waiter and pizza baker in front of the
wood-fired brick oven. Photo by Maddie.

Both citadel and passetto saw use in 1527 during the Sack of Rome — used by some as a marker for the end of the Renaissance — when Protestant “Landsknecht” mercenaries, nominally under the command of Catholic Holy Roman Emperor Charles V of France, looted and terrorized the city because they hadn’t been paid. A Swiss Guard unit was nearly wiped out protecting Clement VII as he fled to the Castel.

We returned to the Spanish Steps area later in the day, then made our way west. I had the vague goal of seeing the Piazza Navona, but as it turned late afternoon we got more interested in finding a good place to eat. Luckily, we stopped outside Ristorante Fiammetta. While we were trying to scope out the place from the menu and through the window, several locals crowded in. Sold! The restaurant served hearty, well-prepared food and pizzas right out of a wood fired oven. Crickey had a zucchini flower and anchovy pizza that was both tasty and beautiful, I had some great soup and a pizza of my own. We figured why mess around, and went back again our last night; my calzone was excellent. We never got to the Piazza Navona, though.

April 10

St. Peter's Square, Holy Monday
St. Peter’s Square, Holy Monday.
Also near the start of a
long line to see the museum.

The next day was our last in Rome, and we went to the Vatican to see the Sistine Chapel and the museum it’s a part of. We found the long, long, long line to get in near St. Peter’s Square; Cricket and Maddie got in line while I ran to get money at a cambio (money exchange). The line moved briskly; by the time I got back they’d moved about 30 yards… and about 40 minutes later we were inside the museum. I’d been a little anxious not to miss this, so I was relieved we’d finally made it.

Etruscan ceramic head, Vatican Museum
Etruscan ceramic head,
Vatican Museum

The museum contains a great deal more than the Sistine Chapel; in particular, Cricket was looking forward to seeing the Etruscan collection. The Etruscan culture was an earlier dominant Italian culture, more or less centered north of Rome in Tuscany, that was in contact with Greece and competed with early Rome. Not being a scholar of such things, I just looked at the accomplished armor, sculpture, sarcophaguses, and ceramics, and realized here was yet another part of human history I was more or less ignorant of. The audio tour I rented was helpful and interesting.

Another memorable part of the museum was the “Gallery of Maps” or Galleria delle Carte Geografiche, a corridor stretching for about 120 meters with beautiful huge paintings of maps of ancient and contemporary 16th century Italy. Insets show views and maps of major cities of the depicted region. Painted in 1580-1583 by Ignazio Danti, the maps were an assertion of the importance of the papacy in Italian affairs — however waning that influence was in the post-Sack of Rome era.

I also lingered a while in the Stanze di Raffaello (Raphael Rooms), particularly at the School of Athens and The Fire in the Borgo. The former is probably familiar to many, the latter not so much, at least not to me; it’s a quite striking depiction of a disastrous fire in Rome that was supposedly ended by the miraculous intercession of Pope Leo IV. Paul Johnson, in his excellent The Renaissance: A Short History, writes that “[a] part of Raphael rejected serenity and sought transcendence. [Fire in the Borgo] presents terror and anarchy and the mob appealing for a miracle … Medieval painters could present the supernatural, and did it all the time. But they could not convey it by painterly techniques of atmospheric light and subtle suggestiveness. Raphael could.”

Finally, we came to the Sistine Chapel. I have the feeling it may have been a bit of an anticlimax for Maddie: crowded with equally tired tourists huddled in groups, occasionally reminded by loudspeaker to keep quiet and not take flash pictures, puzzling pictures you had to crane your neck to see. The muscular figures — and lack of much of any landscape — remind you that Michelangelo was a sculptor first and foremost. As countless others have no doubt observed, with works like The Creation of Adam Michelangelo was clearly and proudly asserting that Man was akin to God and in some sense co-equal — receiving, I would think, the gift of reason as much as the gift of existence, since Adam is already there. Johnson is critical — “One might [say] of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, ‘No one ever wished it bigger.’ In the end the sheer quantity of human musculature makes you want to pass on.” Not so for me, anyway; I’ll always remember what will likely be my last, twisting look at “The Creation of Adam” as we filed out of the Chapel.

[Italy travelogue: home] [prior entry] [posted on 4/26]

FURTHER READING (headings link to Wikipedia entries)
Castel Sant’Angelo: Official site: Museo Nazionale di Castel Sant’Angelo. See also Rome Sacked (Old News); 1527: The Sack of Rome (Salem Press)
Passetto di Borgo: Google satellite image closeup; zoom in and out to see St. Peter’s and the Castel. A “Virtual Roma” page (under the rubric “Curious and Unusual”) provides details. Explore the site for other parts of Rome as well.
St. Peter’s Basilica, St. Peter’s Square: Great Buildings — Basilica, Piazza
Vatican Museums: main portal (English), Etruscan Museum, Raphael’s Rooms, Sistine Chapel. When they’re fully functional, the Vatican Museum online tours are fantastic. Always providing detailed commentary, they offer virtual 360 degree tours of rooms, and closeups of art work. But I’ve had only sporadic success with the Java links embedded in each web page, meaning the images don’t always appear. The “Web Gallery of Art” offers an alternative detailed online tour of the Sistine Chapel; most images available on this site can be viewed at good magnification (800*800 pixels or better). A book about the Gallery of Maps is reviewed here.
Raphael: Web Gallery of Art biography, works (with links to high quality images of many paintings). School of Athens: Who is who?
Michelangelo: Ingrid Rowland, NYRB, “Titan of Titans.” Rowland recommends in passing Irving Stone’s classic The Agony and the Ecstasy (“careful research… professional writer”). Interestingly, Rowland says Michelangelo was influenced by Etruscan designs: “For sixteenth-century Tuscans, as for their fourteenth- and fifteenth-century predecessors, Etruscan aesthetics were as natural as eating or drinking, and we can see their effect on Michelangelo’s work. For all his heroic height, his big hands and imposing head, David has the body of a small, wiry man with long arms; these compact proportions and the springy tension that suffuses them are also what give Etruscan sculptures their crazy charm, and Michelangelo knew them well; Casa Buonarroti is full of them.” See also the Web Gallery of Art biography and works.

* First link is to a “Slow Travel Italy” review, second to a Mapquest map.

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