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Though not at all religious, when in various places I tend to visit churches, especially in Europe, or South America, or, as well, temples in Asia.  While scarcely an academic, I think I am drawn to these places as they tend to tell you much about the cultures in which they were built, and which have (or haven’t) preserved them.   As the apparent trajectory of most civilizations seems to have transited a major period in which religion was the dominant organizing mechanism – determining roles, status, and social values – churches and temples are a repository both of a culture’s highest level in the arts, and at the same time provide deep clues as to the essential grounding of that culture’s present day behavior, even if, for the most part, the religion has been left behind.   This summer, traveling in Italy, a place with which I am pretty familiar, having traveled there many times and lived there some years, and where I was in my own description, a “church junkie,” I indulged this habit again.   Fortunately we were in different areas and I was able to see many new places, some of them utterly amazing.


While I could easily find my way there if in Bologna, a Google search fails to help me identify the church where this painting is, one of a series, this one depicting the execution of saint whomever she is.  As painting it is neither famed nor I  imagine thought by any experts to be “good.”  What I found remarkable was its Nude-Descending-Staircase compression of time, a morbid inversion of animation.

Italy, by the grace of its sun and warmth, its geological terrain, mountains and lakes, and long dazzling coastline; by its cuisine, and the unfolding richness of its cultural heritage, is a place of extraordinary sensuousness.  Sometimes it seems as if every part of it had been caressed by a lover of amazing talents, and we are given the residue of millenia of such opulence.   Nature, architecture, the arts – sculpture, painting, music, theater and city planning – all offer up a sumptuous feast for the eye, ear and palate, not to mention the brain.   One drowns.   Which perhaps explains the  seemingly perverse constancy of the morbid death-oriented imagery which the Catholic religion regurgitates endlessly, a nearly infinite litany of torture, the body maimed in myriad creative manners, such that the long list of saints which are celebrated in paint and stone seem primarily known for the manner in which they were dispatched from this earth, rather than for what they did in this life.

Thus, for example one of my favorite places in Rome, a bit off the beaten tourist path, is San Stefano in Rotondo, an ancient basilica begun in 468.  Architecturally it is an unusual structure, round from the outside, and inside with both circle of columns, but also a wall which bisects the center, with arches in it; light enters through a high clerestory.  The effect is a place of an embracing calm, a perfect architectonic centering which inherently induces a meditative state.  Such is the architecture.

Basilica di Santo Stefano al Monte Celio, Roma, after recent restoration

As if to counter-balance the beatific calm of this structure’s form, the walls are lined with relatively crude frescoes made in the 16th century depicting, as in a horror show, the death-theater of a sequence of saints.   Sometime, I suspect in the 19th century, labels were stenciled onto them, probably to point to literary description: who, when, how….

Aerial view, San Stefano in Rotondo

Again and again, Italy confronts us with seeming opposites.  The lovely small cities curled upon a craggy mountain-top,  roofs tumbling down the flanks of their settings; the wonderful narrow streets leading to the sudden openness of a lovely piazza, the dazzling high vistas overlooking an agricultural valley – all these are not the happy product of intelligent design and pure aesthetics, but are rather the by-product of times of constant war and piracy.  It was an enormous added cost to build on such heights, inaccessible and willfully, deliberately, difficult to reach.  Everything needed to be hauled up – food, water, the resources to make things.  All of this was a huge burden, and in a time when all of our work-saving machines did not exist:  if it came up it was hauled by man or animal.

Opposite Enna, Sicily, is Calascibetta, whose people are “stupid” said a very young and bright teenage guide to us; so much for neighborliness

As a culture Italy is a dense mosaic of isolated towns and cities, each rooted in a particular and peculiar history, so deeply embedded that most inhabitants feel more of their town or city than of a nation.  The sense of being Italian seems only to emerge during World Cup football tournaments, when rooting for the Azzuris is a collective national mania, or when Italy is criticized by an outsider, even if it is the same critique Italians level against themselves domestically.  In these two cases the regional and city identifications lapse and Italians are, if only briefly, “one.”   This regional identification derives from not so long ago, when most cities were in fact little states, busily warring with one another, making alliances, and breaking them.  Fidarsi bene; non fidarsi meglio. Hence the city walls, fortifications, and tendency whenever possible to build them on readily defensible heights.   Down below were armies, brigands, and insecurity.   This was Italy’s history from the break-up of the Roman Empire until Garibaldi’s campaign unified the peninsula in 1860.

Giuseppe Garibaldi

The fragmentation of Italy into smaller units, centered on a city or region, is seen clearly in the shifts in styles in the arts and architecture.  While, for example, the Baroque is a general style (1600-1800) its effects shift considerably as one moves down the peninsula, from the relative austerity to the north to the often heavy and opulent excesses of Sicilia.   These “tastes” are also reflected in the balance of the culture – food, dress, music, and of course, behaviors to match.  Those to the north despise the southerners as “beasts” and  point variously to their wild driving manners, their menagerie of organized crime syndicates  – the Mafia, Camorra, ‘Ndrangheta – their corruption, and other proofs of the lower status of the mezzogiorno. Never mind that the country’s most recent scandals have come out of Lombardy and Milano, with its leading star being none other than Silvio Berlusconi, the Premier, who now seems chronically mired in mud, whether it is fiscal, legal or sexual.   And is also in bed with the Sicilian Mafia.   As were his predecessors.  Still, even a casual survey of the Italian boot finds it more orderly and Germanic to the north, and more, well, maybe African, as one heads south.   Such are the blessings of Italy’s traditional regionalism and diversity.

Mosaic, Rimini



[With a backlog of pictures from Italian travels of the last few years, I will start to print some here, soon, the first groups to be called Sicilian Suites.]

One Comment

  1. It is rather odd that there seems little in the way of paintings, frescoes, etc. portraying the work of those who would become saints, and instead a myriad of works dedicated to their execution.

    And who says the Church doesn’t enjoy some good barbarism.


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