March 3, 2011

seeing Paris in chronological order

Here is a plan for visiting major sites of Paris chronologically.

1. Roman Lutetia to the high Middle Ages

This itinerary can be completed entirely on foot. Start at les Arènes de Lutèce (a Roman amphitheater off rue Monge). Walk from there to the Cluny Museum, whose basement is in the old Roman baths and whose main floors were once a medieval monastery. Explore the collection, noting the development from Roman sculpture through barbarian jewelry to Romanesque sculpture to the moving and sophisticated unicorn tapestries, which evoke the late medieval ideals of chivalry and gentility.

Walk north to the church of Saint-Séverin, noting the medieval street plan in that vicinity. Visit the church's interior, focusing on the forest of Gothic columns in the apse. View Notre Dame across the Seine. Cross the bridge and visit the Conciergerie, the medieval royal palace. (You are allowed to see the exhibitions having to do with the Revolution of 1789, even though this is out of order.) Then enter the Sainte-Chapelle, whose walls of stained glass make it one of the finest displays of Gothic civilization in Europe. Finally, visit the heavily restored interior of Notre Dame and climb to the towers, bearing in mind that most of what you are seeing here (such as the famous gargoyles) dates only to the 1800s.

2. The Renaissance

If convenient, start at the church of Saint-Étienne-du-Mont, which was constructed continuously while the prevailing style shifted from Gothic to Renaissance. Even though the architectural vocabulary is all mixed up, the colors and scale are consistent, making the church interior a harmonious and lovely space.

Then ride the metro to the Marais and start in the Place des Vosges, a grand late-Renaissance planned space. Visit Victor Hugo's house, just so you can get into one of the buildings of the Place. Exit through the Hotel Sully and consider visiting either the Musée Carnavalet or the Musée Cognac-Jay, each inhabiting a palace built while the Marais was at the height of its popularity, in the early 1600s. This is the Paris of the three musketeers. Walk toward the Louvre, whose eastern portion represents the late Renaissance. Visit the Renaissance painting and sculpture collections inside.

3. Louis XIV to Napoleon

This would be a good day to go out to Versailles. If you don't want to make that trip, here is an itinerary for Paris proper: Start at the Invalides to get a flavor of grandeur, Louis XIV style. Walk along the Seine embankment to the Place de la Concorde, originally the Place Louis XV, whose architecture epitomizes the mid-1700s. (It then became the site of the guillotine during the Terror). Explore the Palais-Royale, which played a crucial role in the Revolution. Cross the river and walk to the Panthéon by way of the Sorbonne. Three classical domes, three Baroque or neoclassical interiors, and a lot of grand vistas.

4. The Industrial Revolution to Postmodernism

Start at the Musee d'Orsay and enjoy both the building (formerly a great train station) and the art collection. Make a detour to the Eiffel Tower. You could get a sense of the Paris of Boulevards and the haute bourgeoisie by taking a bus to the Parc Monceau and the Musée Jacquemart-André. Next stop is the Orangerie, which houses Monet's Water Lillies from 1918 (a bridge from impressionism to abstraction). End at the postmodern Pompidou Center. Ride the external escalators to the top for the view, and look at the permanent collection of modernist art.

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February 3, 2011

learning from Las Vegas

Las Vegas--I am here for a gathering of the alumni of YouthBuild USA. More about that tomorrow. Meanwhile, unlike Boston, Milwaukee, or Atlanta, Las Vegas makes you ask: Is this the real America? Is this our distilled essence?

It is arbitrarily here. It has no historical roots other than what you might find in the Mob Museum. It is totally dependent on technology: the Hoover Dam, air-conditioning, and slot machines. It is relentlessly commercial, all of its landmarks basically advertisements. It makes nothing except opportunities to strike it rich by sheer luck. Its public spaces ring with the literal sound of money clinking: audiotaped money, not the real stuff. It is vulgar but inventive, often inventively vulgar. It is as subtle as its massive exploding desert fountains. It is profligate with water, carbon, alcohol, jumbo shrimp, and people. Its lumbering visitors care nothing for social rank but expect to be excluded from the blatant displays of wealth and power. Its shining towers of commerce are ringed--first by dusty slums, then by encampments of ranch houses, and finally by treeless mountains that look down in contempt.

"All America is Las Vegas" is the kind of thing that Jean Baudrillard would say. (Maybe he did say it: I haven't searched.) I resist the formula. Why isn't America equally reflected in some of the other places I have visited already in 2011, such as Gainesville, with its 65,000 wholesome and diverse youth filing to classes under Spanish moss? Or downtown Oakland, the place alleged to have "no there there," which still proudly raises civic buildings across the bay from San Francisco's glamor? Or the town greens of Middlesex County, whose cannons and puritan gravestones are lost deep under crusty snow? Finding our national essence in Las Vegas is like identifying the French with Brigitte Bardot's Riviera or the English with a fox hunt: it is a hostile interpretation.

But it is worth worrying about.

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October 26, 2010

trying to look at the Empire State Building

(Washington, DC) Over the weekend, I finished Mark Kingwell's excellent book Nearest Thing to Heaven: The Empire State Building and American Dreams. By coincidence, I spent today in an office three blocks south of the actual Empire State Building. I saw it first from an airport taxi, got a good direct look at it from the window on 31st Street, walked by its front door, and then watched it vanish over Queens on my way to La Guardia.

Seeing it, however, is problematic--that is one of Kingwell's themes. First of all, it is actually very big. If you are far enough away to see the whole thing, it becomes misleadingly small, unremarkable, dwarfed by routine buildings closer by, sometimes just an extra piece of equipment in the backdrop of a New Jersey auto dealership or a Brooklyn lot. If you come close enough to sense its scale, it veers away so sharply that you can't really see anything. What you do glimpse is just the skin. It's a three-dimensional structure; to experience it fully (if such a thing were possible) would require going inside: time and motion would be needed as well as vision.

The Empire State Building is also hard to "see" because you have seen it so many times before, in real life, in postcards and movies, inside snow globes, on tee-shirts, carved as chocolates or soaps. As a result of all that mechanical reproduction, you carry the wrong shape in your mind. In my memory, it had more stone and less steel, more shoulder and less head, than in my experience today.

And it's a hard object to see because savvy New Yorkers don't stare up at it, whether they're walking down the street or in meetings on 31st Street. They are too busy, too blasé. Tourists were standing around the entrance on Fifth Avenue, and since I was also a tourist but didn't want to seem one, I hurried past.

From the taxi, though, it was OK to stare. The building looked a little solitary, standing down there in the thirties. I recalled Kingwell's idea that the Chrysler Building is its uptown girlfriend; they seemed a little distant. At first sight, on a grey day, the Empire State Building looked pixilated, like a stack of tiny cubes with angular edges all the way to the Deco dirigible dock at the top. A surprising dark stripe crossed its belly.

I wrote the above on the plane from New York to DC, without really reaching a conclusion before we had to put computers away for landing. We came in low over the Potomac, Georgetown lamps shimmering on the river, the Lincoln Memorial's skylights glowing upward, and the obelisk standing in the middle of it all. It may have been a trick of the perspective--or something to do with my twenty years of past wrapped up in Washington--but it looked grander than the city we had left.

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August 6, 2010

in praise of Glurns

We are back from an Alpine driving vacation. I don't post travelogues on my blog, but I will mention a highlight to give a flavor of our trip. The little Italian town of Glurns is missing from many guidebooks but is amazingly appealing. Part of Austria until 1919, it is still German-speaking. It is at 900 meters and surrounded by much higher mountains. Six miles away is Switzerland, and over the border is a valley where the main language is Romansch.

Each of the three roads into Glurns passes through a gothic gate bearing the two-headed Hapsburg eagle. The city wall is mostly complete, and outside rushes a steep mountain stream.

In the middle of town, there's a picture-perfect square with a fountain. The plan (with a forum at the center and radiating streets) presumably dates to Roman times, when Colurnus was a stop on the Roman road across the Alps.

The Laubengasse or Via dei Portici is completely lined with low porticoes on both sides, so that it's possible to walk its whole length without facing the elements. Most of the buildings probably have long and complex histories of construction and reconstruction, but the dominant period for visible facades is the 16th century. The church towers bear onion domes.

Today's population is less than 1,000. For backpackers, skiers, and climbers, there are magnificent Italian and Swiss national parks to the south: Alpine wilderness areas. For history buffs, there's the UNESCO World Heritage site of the Convent of St. John in Müstair, Switzerland, just hiking distance away. We found the Convent itself to be rather modest, but it has been a continuous religious community for 1,230 years and it houses remarkable murals painted around 800--extraordinarily early examples of Christian art in what must have been wild country when Charlemagne passed through on his way to be crowned Holy Roman Emperor in Rome.

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May 19, 2010

in London

I am on a long journey: Boston -> Washington -> Boston -> London -> Lisbon, all within 48 hours. I had a layover at Heathrow that was long enough to allow me a quick trip to Paddington and then back to the airport. I walked a circuit of a few miles: Paddington to Notting Hill Gate, Hyde Park, South Kensington, Gloucester Road, Kensington High Street, Kensington Church Street, Bayswater Road, and back to Paddington.

I have spent about eight years in this city, including almost every summer from ages 0-20, plus five school years. Nostalgic by temperament, I am fond of London for quasi-objective reasons as well as strictly personal ones. Actually, it would be hard for anyone to deny the elegance of Kensington on a cloudless spring day. But I admire much more of the city than its wealthiest squares and mewses. London has been a polyglot entrepot since Chaucer's day, when Lombards and Flemings were especially important residents, and it has become an amazingly multiracial and multicultural metropolis in the 21st century.

The underlying English culture is absorptive and adaptive. London changes faster than New York (the supposed capital of creative destruction) because both market and state have the power to reorganize this city in each generation. After just a few years away, all the retail chains seem new, people eat and drink different things everywhere, the transportation system has been sold, resold, and reconfigured, the slang is new, uniformed workers speak different languages (I heard lots of Polish and Spanish today), and whole new neighborhoods seem to have sprung up. Yet the bricks are still made of London Clay, which the Romans used here. Ladies still pull tartan shopping baskets home from Sainsbury's. Stinging nettles still force their way between railroad tracks and garden sheds. The morning streets still smell of wet cement, curry, and beer.

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March 1, 2010

in the crypt of the Medinaceli

A little more than a week ago, we were in Toledo, that ancient city where Muslim, Catholic, and Jewish faiths and cultures flourished and intermingled between the years 1000 and 1500. We spent the day wandering into cathedrals, mosques, and synagogues and along winding alleys that concealed lush patios. The driving wind carried wet snow.

My endurance for this kind of thing can be a bit greater than my family's, so at dusk, I proceeded alone to the Hospital de San Juan Batista, a vast Renaissance structure on the outskirts of town.

I turned out to be the hospital's sole visitor. I found my way to the chapel and then down into the crypt. Here, several stories underground, are buried grandees from the Spanish ducal house of Medinaceli, one of the most ancient in Europe. They include a duke who was shot by Republican forces in Madrid in the 1930s and his widow who lived alone in the Hospital--in grim splendor--for many postwar decades.

I took three steps toward the marble sarcophagi. Someone else took three steps behind me. I turned, expecting to see a guard: no one. I took two more steps, and two more sounded as clearly behind. You know that it was an echo. I knew it, too, but it was quite hard to believe it, hundreds of feet beneath this city of inquisitors, heretics, martyrs, and ghosts. The hair stood on the back of my neck, and I retreated before I could read the names on those tombs.

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December 4, 2009

my past from the air

(In DC for the Everyday Democracy board meeting): We landed through clouds that ripped open just as we passed above the Kennedy Center, revealing Northwest DC spread out over the airplane wing. It was my seventh landing in DC this fall and probably my twentieth since we moved away from the city in July 2008. Before that, I had spent two decades there. For me, the panorama of Northwest represents the place where our children were born, I was married, unforgettable good and bad news arrived, and the ordinary rhythm of commuting and shopping played through my twenties and thirties. When I see that view disappearing on northward flights, I feel that my youth is also falling behind in a great chunk.

The view is of "DC," the vernacular city of Metro trains, DC Public Schools, Safeways, summer evening concerts at the Zoo, and the dreaded DMV--not "Washington," the federal city of power and glamor, nor "Washington," the tourist destination with its museums and monuments. But the three cities intersect. If you live in bourgeois Northwest, you probably know people who know powerful and glamorous people, and you occasionally visit those museums and monuments by the Mall.

Today, while on a conference call by cell phone, I strolled through Oak Hill Cemetery, where lie Dean Acheson, Jefferson Davis' infant son, Myrtilla Miner (an abolitionist who founded the DC Normal School for Colored Girls), dozens of congressmen, several descendants of Martha Washington, a man who was "promoted to Assistant Chief Engineer, DC Fire Department," and a recently interred man with an Arab name and a quote from Khalil Gibran on his grave. They and many diverse others built the city that becomes one studded reliquary as you view it from the air.

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October 30, 2009

Istanbul melancholy

The theme of Orhan Pamuk's autobiographical book Istanbul: Memories of the City is hüzün. That is a Turkish word for melancholy, but it doesn't mean a private sadness that causes one to retreat by oneself. It is a communal sadness, a shared feeling that is perfectly compatible with mass gatherings or everyday sociability.

The special hüzün of Istanbul comes from the juxtaposition of historical grandeur with poverty and decay. It is the massive Byzantine walls of the city, crumbling next to crooked Ottoman houses that burn up or fall down one by one. It is "a cobblestone staircase with so much asphalt poured over it that its steps have disappeared," "marble ruins that were for centuries glorious street fountains but now stand dry, their faucets stolen," "seagulls perched on rusty barges caked with moss and mussels, unflinching under the pelting rain," "little children in the streets who try to sell the same packet of tissues to every passerby."

The word hüzün is Turkish but the idea that Istanbul was melancholy was invented by European visitors in the 1800s. They provided the descriptions of the city, both verbal and visual, that are most influential in Turkey today. And their patronizing, sympathetic, appreciative, critical reaction weighs heavily on Turks like Pamuk. It actually causes the city to change, because when Westerners decry Turkish traditions, Turks repeal them. The Western eye also makes reality seem sad: grandeur in decay. "What I have been trying to explain is that the roots of our hüzün are European," Pamuk writes. "So why is it that I care so much ... about what ... Westerners have to say about Istanbul?"

I have visited this great city twice, for a total of more than 10 days. In what turns out to be traditional style, I have wandered with a scholarly European guidebook through the poor western quarters of the Old City, finding Byzantine ruins, old mosques, and leftover Ottoman wooden houses whose upper stories lean over the streets. I have relished the hüzün that Pamuk has lived with for half a century. Pamuk both shares and criticizes that reaction.

My one disagreement with Pamuk concerns his use of the categories of East and West. Obviously, he knows his city better than I. But my sense is that Istanbul is not uniquely caught between East and West or between Europe and Asia (despite its literal location on that arbitrary border). Rather, the tension is between tradition and modernity.

For instance, Pamuk grew up in a modern apartment building, each floor of which was equipped with pianos that no one played and china in cabinets than no one opened. The whole building was occupied by members of his family, who left their doors open and visited constantly. They were using a modern apartment building to house a traditional Turkish extended family. You could interpret this case as East meeting West. But apartment buildings with pianos are not traditionally "Western." Our American and European ancestors didn't live that way. These are innovations of modernity.

It may be that we have a different relation to modernity in America because it seems more "ours." When an airplane flies overhead, it symbolizes long-distance travel, which is modern and disruptive. But we know that two brothers from Dayton invented that machine, so it doesn't feel as alien as it might in Turkey. Still, the spatial location of the inventor is only one aspect of this technology. The airplane has similar effects in Chicago as in Istanbul.

In general, I am suspicious of the concept of the West, or of Western Civilization, because it seems so vague, internally diverse, and porous. Here are some famous "Westerners": Daniel Boone, Karl Marx, Torquemada, Oscar Wilde, Heidegger, Edison, Malcolm X, Hildegard of Bingen, Catharine the Great, Andy Warhol, Erik the Red, Phyllis Schaffley, Albert Einstein, Paris Hilton. If they have anything in common that a typical Turk does not also share, I'm at a loss to identify it.

I say this because I doubt that the melancholy Pamuk feels (especially as a sensitive and somewhat alienated writer) is as specific to Istanbul as he thinks it is. I suspect the hüzün of Philadelphia and Baltimore is actually rather similar. Like Istanbul, these can be great places to live, and one can love them. But it is hard to escape a sense that their greatness is past and that some kind of alien modernity (or post-modernity) has disrupted their traditions.

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October 23, 2009

the romance of production

This is a tiny scene from the San Diego Model Railroad Museum, which I visited last week with my 10-year-old.

The museum contains 27,000 square feet of model train layouts, the largest collection in the world. The tracks and dioramas seem to be built and maintained mostly by older men with leathery skin and buzz cuts, although there are opportunities for kids to help. What fascinates me is the nature of the scenes they have chosen to represent. In England, a model railroad museum would show steam engines chugging through picturesque villages, with gothic churches, cricketers on green fields, and grazing cows at every turn. Not so in San Diego, where the trains pass an urban railroad yard, a port, a Western gypsum mine, and an Imperial Valley agricultural town from the 1950s.

The layouts seem realistic to me, complete with dusty access roads, utility shacks, blasted hillsides, barbed wire, abandoned machinery, and guard dogs on chains. It doesn't look like anywhere I'd want to visit, let alone live and work. These are places in serious need of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers, or maybe the Wobblies to organize the old gypsum mine. But obviously the men who have hand-made these scenes in loving detail do like such places. Mass production, the extraction of raw materials, and the transformation of nature have a romance for them. Laboring at one 87th of actual size, they respect the manual labor of the real farmworkers and miners and admire the engineers and executives whose orders transformed the West on a vaster scale. It's a legacy that's easy to criticize but worthy of respect.

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August 4, 2008

an introduction to Prague

Prague from Hradčanská (2)I think few people really enjoy visits to beautiful old places, and they're not helped by most guide books and tours, which just attach dates, artists' names, and styles to the objects on view. Guides also tell anecdotes about events that happened to occur where one is standing. The result is history as one thing after another, which is fundamentally tedious. Much more compelling is some kind of explanation that presents works as intentional efforts to solve problems within their cultural contexts.

I am unqualified to explain Prague in those terms. I don't speak the language, haven't read most of the acknowledged classics of the literature, and have only spent a total of 14 days there. But this is a blog, so qualifications are waived. Here is my brief introduction to the city, based on four of its historical figures and their contexts.

1. Emperor Charles IV (1316-1378)

To imagine the Prague of 1350, think of the high middle ages: of ladies in tall conical hats, troubadours, sophisticated theologians. Also remember plague victims and open sewers; but it's a mistake to think of those times as ignorant and backward (as in Steve Martin's "Theodoric of York" skit). Progress was never linear or uniform; life was probably better in Central Europe in 1350 than in 1640, during the wars of religion. Certainly, the culture was highly sophisticated and developed. Looking out over the city, one can pick out the medieval parts (mixed with some modern imitations) by looking for angular spires, pointed arches, and steep triangular roofs. IMG_0193

Prague became the capital of the whole of central Europe whenever the local monarch was elected Holy Roman Emperor, which happened on several occasions over the centuries. (Its status as an occasional capital helps to explain its magnificence.) When Charles IV was elected, he became the highest figure in the vast hierarchical system called feudalism. Each piece of land was assigned simultaneously to serfs, a local lord, a major lord, often a king, and the emperor; and each of these had different rights and duties. The whole system was circumscribed by law; and the feudal law reflected general principles that could also be discerned in ecclesiastical law, municipal law, and even the rules of chivalry and courtly love. The same way of thinking was also evident in theology, which Charles IV studied at the great university of Paris as a youth. Medieval Europeans loved hierarchies and patterns generated by distinctions and rules; but within each cell of a pattern, they welcomed improvisation and elaboration. A clear illustration is a Gothic church, with its regular pointed arches and windows, each heavily and uniquely decorated. All of this took work: one intentionally brought diversity into order and then embellished the results.

Charles IV personally made Prague a city of greater sophistication, elaboration, and order by founding the university that bears his name and commissioning major works of architecture. To explore his city, one could climb the medieval Jindřišská gate tower and look for other Gothic tours and spires, walk through Old Town Square with the Týn Church and famous clock, visit the university and bridge both named for Charles as their founder, and ascend to the Royal Castle, within which is St. Vitus Cathedral--substantially built under Charles' patronage by a great Gothic master, Peter Parler.

The Cathedral is good place to think about the Czech people and what has defined them, in Charles' day and thereafter. One answer emphasizes the Slavic side. Czechs were originally a group of Slavs not sharply differentiated from other Slavs. (It is the human condition to belong to groups not sharply distinct from others.) Today their language is defined by dictionaries and grammars and is different from Slovak or Polish. In the middle ages, Bohemia was already a province, along with the other Czech province of Moravia. It had a quasi-mythical founding figure, "good" king Wenceslas (Vaclav; pronounced "vatzlav") who was expected to return, like Arthur, to serve his people. Thus Czechs were of the tribe of Vaclav. That was also Charles' given name, before he ascended to the imperial throne, when he became Karel/Karl/Carolus. But the population he ruled included many who spoke German or Yiddish. That remained the case in Bohemia until 1948. Thus another answer is: Czechs were a multi-ethnic people in a melting pot. Charles himself spoke German and Czech along with Latin, French, and Italian (and all five languages have had deep impact in Prague).

2. Emperor Rudolf II (1552-1612)

Rudolf held the same offices as Charles, plus others. He was a Hapsburg, thus of German extraction, although he too spoke several languages. The political system he oversaw was still feudal; serfs on huge estates paid for the massive and numerous Renaissance and baroque palaces that crown Hradčany hill. But this was the beginning of the age of absolutism. Although Rudolf was not an absolute monarch like Louis XIV somewhat later on, he had more power and a more effective bureaucracy than Charles IV had possessed at the high point of feudalism.

We are now in the Renaissance, whose definition is the recovery of Greco-Roman culture. At the peak of the Italian Renaissance, the result is simplicity, clarity, and still perfection. A Madonna by Raphael is an idealized woman in a peaceful and transparent three-dimensional space, often framed by classical architecture. But the recovery of ancient civilization also dredged up all kinds of odd and esoteric ideas and practices: magic, religious cults, speculative philosophies, and strange and deliberately distorted works of art. Renaissance Europeans were always interested in the eccentric side of the ancient world, but this interest rose in Rudolf's time and especially in his own circle. He made his court the world's center for occult and cabalistic studies, collected a huge museum of strange objects, and patronized the style of art we call Mannerism. This style deliberately eschewed clarity and perfection and made an issue out of the artist's personal style ("maniera")--the odder the better. Mannerist architects played with the classical rules, using traditional elements of Ionic or Corinthian orders but deliberately turning them backwards or upside-down.

IMG_0270Magic and the occult were not yet distinguished from science. Rudolf brought both Kepler and Brahe to Prague and made it the greatest scientific center of the age. We could see his era as a struggle (not perhaps fully conscious) between the transparent and the secretive, and between classical norms and personal eccentricities.

It would be hard to conduct a walking tour of Rudolf's Prague, since he locked himself in his castle to avoid assassins; and not much other Renaissance architecture survives. Better to look out of the Castle windows at the subjects' houses below. There is also some important Mannerist art in the Sternberg Palace.

Rudolf provides a good opportunity to think about religion. In Charles IV's day, all of Europe north of the Alps was Catholic, with the exception of the Jewish ghettos, of which Prague's was particularly important. But the Protestant Reformation came especially early and strongly to Bohemia, thanks to the influence of the pre-Protestant religious reformer Jan Huss. During Rudolf's reign, as religious wars raged in France and the Low Countries, tensions simmered in Prague. Everyone had to take a side and could easily be burned at the stake for taking the wrong one--unless one were the Emperor. Rudolf seemed neutral or perhaps committed to his own strange and unorthodox beliefs. After he died, religious conflict dominated Central Europe and may have killed 20 percent of the whole population. The Thirty Years War ended with Bohemia under Austrian rule and mandatory Catholicism.

III. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (in Prague 1786-9)

Mozart was not a Czech; he was a German-speaking subject of the Austrian Empire. But he did some of his most important work in Prague and especially liked the city. He is a representative figure from an era in which Prague was a provincial Austrian capital and German was the only official language.

Mozart found a Baroque city. There had been an enormous investment in religious art and architecture as the authorities tried to institutionalize Catholicism after 1648. They naturally commissioned Baroque works, that being the style of the era. Baroque artists were learned in the classical orders, but they changed them to make them dynamic and dramatic. Every surface (pilaster, column, lintel, frieze, and cornice) might be bent and decorated. Buildings were situated for theatrical effect, emerging surprisingly from crowded streets or looming dramatically above. Paintings and statues were likewise situated within and around buildings for dramatic impact.

Baroque is an art of ornament. The real structure of an object is concealed with embellishments. Windows are hidden to allow the light to play mysteriously on painted surfaces. In its final phase, rococo, the ornament becomes the art. Gilt frames break loose from paintings and flow all over walls in abstract, plantlike forms.

Rococo seemed to reflect the artifice and inauthenticity of a culture dominated by feudalism and Catholicism, when the most sophisticated people (such as Mozart) were republicans and free-thinkers. So rococo contended against at least two major alternatives: neoclassicism and romanticism. Mozart dramatically reduced the ornamentation typical in Baroque music; instead, he combined several musical themes in related keys to build ordered and transparent musical structures. Don Giovanni, the transcendent example of his classical style, was first performed at the Neoclassical Estates Theater in Prague.

This was a city, then of Baroque theatrical propaganda versus Enlightenment and Neoclassicism; of absolutist feudalism and revolutionary thinking; of artifice and critique.

IV. Franz Kafka (1883-1924)

Kafka was an unobservant Jew, a Czechoslovak citizen with a Czech name who spoke German, and a potential victim of the German State if he hadn't died prematurely. He was alienated, skeptical, detached. These are hallmarks of modernism, of which Prague was a major center. It was the only place in the world where Cubist buildings were constructed (see Josef Gočár's Cubist House of the Black Madonna with Gothic spires in the distance); and it was the seedbed of literary theory. IMG_0278

One could contrast Kafka to the highly talented and abidingly popular Czech artist Alfons Mucha (1860-1939). Mucha was a Czech nationalist and a Slavophile (although not at all antisemitic). He thought that the Czech people had an essential character that could be celebrated in art. The way to celebrate it was to illustrate dramatic episodes of Czech history in a realistic yet idealized style. His illustrations decorate, for example, the Municipal House, a shrine to Czech culture and language that was deliberately built at the head of Na Prikope street--am Graben to Kafka--which was the center of Prague's German-speaking cafe and theatrical life. In contrast to Mucha, Kafka didn't fit in, didn't believe in the essential character of any nation, couldn't complete any public project, and didn't think that he could or should tell straightforward stories. I emphasize the negative, but of course he invented some of the greatest stories of our age.

A day devoted to Kafka might begin with the old Jewish synagogues, because he was interested in his heritage and the Prague-Jewish traditions of Cabala. It is then possible to see some of his old cafes, plus many important Cubist and other modernist buildings. There is even the world's only Cubist lamppost on Wenceslas Square.

Reading the City

A final photo posted below shows a Gothic arch from the Middle Ages still embedded in a house that was given a Baroque facade in the eighteenth century, behind a modern commercial sign in the new international language of English, and a guy on a cell phone. This is Prague, endlessly fun to interpret if one begins to learn its codes.


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June 2, 2008

New York's golden age

A very brief stop in Manhattan last Friday prompted some thoughts about what New York City represents. Between 1920 and 1960, the apogee of American civilization was built in that place, or so I would argue.

I acknowledge some bias, because New York formed both of my parents. These days, I especially think of my father in connection with the city. He lived almost half of his life there and it shaped his identity. Much of the time that I spent in New York, from my early childhood until recent years, was with him; and he was a nostalgic person who would often reminisce about his youth. One of the last times I saw him in reasonably good health was last spring, when we walked together all the way from the Upper West Side to the Metropolitan Museum.

But even adjusting for my prejudices, I think New York City in the mid-20th century was a splendid achievement that embodied some (not all) of the best qualities of the United States as a whole. We could start with high culture: New York was the world's center of modernism in painting, music, architecture, poetry, and fiction after the Second World War. New York's high culture had diverse sources, including the Bohemia of Greenwich Village, the Harlem Renaissance, the uptown galleries, the old magazines and publishing houses (privately owned and not out to maximize profit), academic programs at Columbia and The New School--among other universities, the clusters of exiled Europeans, and well-endowed "establishment" institutions, such as the Metropolitan Museum and the Metropolitan Opera.

A second layer was commercial culture, for it was private capital that erected the Chrysler Building, lit the lights of Time Square, published The New York Times and New Yorker magazine, and put on Broadway shows. And third--not below the others but on a par with them--were the city's various vernacular cultures: the lower-middle-class secular Jewish Brooklyn that nourished my Dad plus many others, including Spanish Harlem, the Irish-Catholic neighborhoods, the African American church, and on and on.

Culture does not make a civilization, but New York had the other essential components as well. Its institutions, although certainly imperfect, were impressive. The public schools, for example, enrolled around one million students and had a high reputation. City University represented another huge and successful foray into public education. The subways, the parks, and the harbor worked well--notwithstanding inequality, segregation, and corruption that were inexcusable but less destructive than we have seen in other times and places. New York developed impressive leaders--TR, FDR, LaGuardia--who were both disciplined and inspired by a tough and engaged citizenry. There were elites and masses, insiders and outsiders, but these relationships were dynamic and flexible.

I don't want to exaggerate or romanticize, but I suppose I have in the back of my mind a rather pessimistic account of how human beings live together in large numbers. It ought to be possible to surpass the model of New York City ca. 1950, but we have rarely done so.

Finally, I don't mean to suggest that the city is entirely in decline. There are respects in which it has improved. But I think the magic balance has been gone since the harbor shed hundreds of thousands of blue-collar jobs, the schools went into crisis, and the yuppies took over Bohemia. The most wonderful parts of New York today are either legacies of the mid-20th-century city or reprises of its spirit. For instance, the mix of immigrant communities in today's Queens seems a worthy successor of Brooklyn in the 1930s.

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June 18, 2006

how to enjoy Venice

I love Venice. My family and I just returned from an idyllic week there and are mourning our departure. However, we noticed that a lot of the other visitors didn't look very happy. Maybe they were having a better time than it seemed as we watched them trudge across the Piazza San Marco. I'm sure that some of them enjoy activities that I don't happen to like (such as shopping), and that's great. But I also know from overhearing their conversations that at least some of the hundreds of thousands of tourists who visit this small city every day are quite unhappy.

Venice is a city of crowds, of heat in the summer and dampness in the winter, of bad smells. The tourist industry, which arrived in the eighteenth century, is virtually the only business today, and that means inflated prices and sometimes mediocre food. The crowds--to which we contributed our own four bodies--contain very few Italians. There's nothing wrong with masses of Americans and other stranieri, but it isn't a novel cultural experience for us to hear American voices.

So why go there at all? Because there is an indescribable richness of art, architecture, and political and social history in every Venetian neighborhood. I don't think that any other spot on earth has the same concentration of beauty and interest. (It's amazing to know that an estimated 96% of its paintings permanently left Venice during the French and Austrian occupations of the early 1800s. So many remain.)

It takes a fair amount of information and background to reveal that beauty. If you rely on a Fodor's guide or the equivalent, then you will go where everyone else goes--to places like San Marco, where the crowds are most intense. Behind the crowds, the gondolas, and the water, you will see a multi-colored, variegated, architectural backdrop. You may like that setting, or you may not, but you probably won't like it enough to compensate for long lines, high prices, and difficulties getting your restaurant bill or finding the right vaporetto.

In a bid for readability, guide books typically provide anecdotes about each location. But why do you need to stand outside the jail from which Casanova escaped? The story is just as good if read more comfortably from home.

What you need is some way to make sense of all that decoration--not to mention what's hidden away in remoter Venetian neighborhoods and inside all those the buildings. Works of art and architecture are deliberate and specific statements of meaning, not just efforts to be pretty. They are solutions to specific problems. As with nature, so with art: you need to understand before you can appreciate.

Unfortunately, you would need a vast amount of knowledge to make sense of Venetian art, which was excellent from the ninth century to the nineteenth. (There are also fine Greco-Roman, modern, and post-modern works in the city.) The scope and variety is intimidating.

Here, then, are some ways to narrow the focus. Even if you could only do one or two of these activities, I think you would enjoy the city more than if you tried to hit the top-ten list from Fodor's.

  • Go around the city contrasting Veronese and Tintoretto. Their lives overlapped for 60 years. They had the same influences, the same set of skills, some of the same patrons, and the same basic ingredients. But Veronese was decorative, sunny, apparently more interested in pretty women, clothes, and architecture than in religious subjects--or at least so the Inquisition thought. Whereas Tintoretto appears, on the evidence of his painting, to have been an obsessive, tortured, and deeply spiritual genius. Often they painted similar subjects, which makes for direct comparisons. (E.g. Tintoretto's "Marriage of Cana" in S. Maria della Salute versus Veronese's "Banquet in the House of Levi" in the Accademia--great to see on the same day). In addition to the other paintings by each artist in the Accademia, and Tintoretto's harrowing cycle in S. Rocco, it would be important to visit each man's parish church, where he painted a great deal and was buried. (It's S. Sebastiano for Veronese; Madonna del'Orto for Tintoretto.)
  • Focus on the major scuole, charitable fraternities for bourgeois Venetian laymen. You can obtain an introduction to the history of Venetian art by visiting the following scuole in this order: the Scuola Grande di S. Marco (hard to get into, but the facade is an experiment in early Renaissance architecture and scientific perspective); the Scuola Grande di S. Giorgio degli Schiavoni (with charming early Renaissance paintings by Carpaccio); room 21 of the Accademia Gallery (equally charming Carpaccios taken from the Scuola di Sant' Orsola), room 24 of the Accademia (a whole preserved chamber from the Scuola della Carita with a high-renaissance masterpiece by Titian), the Scuola Grande di S. Rocco (Tintoretto's cycle from the end of the Renaissance), and the Scuola Grande dei Carmini (with elaborate and cheerful rococo ceilings by Tiepolo).
  • Consider the facades of a dozen Venetian churches--there are more than 125 still standing--as efforts to solve a common problem. The typical Christian church has a high central nave and two lower side aisles. This is a design borrowed from Roman law courts, which were called "basilicae." Many people find the plain front of a basilican church an ugly shape: a high box with two smaller boxes on either side. So the architect must cover, conceal, or soften it without tacking on a completely different shape. There are dozens of solutions to this problem in Venice, some original, and each reflecting specific values. For example, Palladio, wanting to imitate classical aesthetics, started with two Greek temples. He put the larger one in front of the nave and sliced the smaller one in two, putting each half in front of an aisle. He used this solution at least four times in Venice, and it's interesting to compare the subtle differences.
  • Buy a Chorus Pass, which provides admission to 20 Venetian parish churches. Each participating church provides laminated cards that identify the significant works of art. Visit as many of the churches as you can. The cards won't help to distinguish works that are commonly considered masterpieces from ordinary paintings and sculptures. But maybe that's an advantage. Decide which works you like best, and keep a record of your favorite artists.
  • Take the King James' version of the Bible along and read the passages that are illustrated in so many works of art, starting with the fine early Christian objects in Torcello and the Basilica of S. Marco. For instance, all artists who portray a scene called "The Annunciation" choose a specific phrase from Luke 1:28-38 to illustrate; which phrase they choose makes a significant difference.
  • Sit alongside a picturesque stretch of canal and consider the buildings opposite, one by one. It would help to have a detailed guide, like Alta Macadam's Blue Guide to Venice, and some schematic drawings that distinguish Byzantine, gothic, Renaissance, and baroque architectural elements. Each facade tells a story. For example, two columns incorporated into an old window may be of Greco-Roman origin. The arch over the same window, if it's Venetian gothic, reflects powerful Moorish influence. (Venice grew rich trading with the Moslem world.) The little round opening below the window may be modern, cut to accommodate an electric fan. The next window was perhaps used for loading freight onto boats; now it's bricked in. The whole scene is a record of human adaptation and expression over scores of generations.
  • permanent link | comments (0) | category: cities , fine arts

    December 20, 2005

    city of dreaming spires

    Oxford--the city, not the university--figures in my memories from all stages of my life. In fact, my connection to the town predates my memory. When I was a colicky baby, my parents rented a house in Oxford one summer that came with its own punt--one of the flat, polled boats that are common on Oxford's two placid rivers. Apparently, I was happy only when lying on my stomach at the bottom of the punt.

    When I was between seven and ten, we lived for several long periods in London. My father, a British historian, could make good use of the books and papers in Oxford's Bodleian Library. We took family day-trips to Oxford that developed certain routines. We would go to a pet store in Oxford's Victorian covered market, buy dry food appropriate for deer, and feed them in the park of Magdalen (pronounced "Maudlin") College. The Magdalen park is stocked with short English roe deer and surrounded by a bend in the Cherwell River along which Joseph Addison liked to walk in the 18th century. The gothic towers of Madgalen (ancient and quaint even in Addison's day) rise above the grass and water.

    I also remember that we would buy tea in Brown's cafe, which remained remarkably unchanged 15 years later--the same man still made tea by pouring hot water through what appeared to be the same nylon mesh sack. This is where the city's "meter maids" and market vendors met around formica tables to talk in their thick, West-Country accents, straight out of Thomas Hardy.

    And it was in the Minoan and Cycladic room of Oxford's Ashmolean Museum that we learned I was color-blind, because I could not distinguish the regions on the map. From the same period, I remember the children's book room upstairs at Blackwell's book shop. It represented a certain style--affluent but bohemian: we would now call it "yuppie"--that was new in England and had not yet reached my home town of Syracuse.

    Later, when I was eleven or twelve, my father and I sometimes used to go to Oxford alone. We would meet about every two hours in the anteroom of the New Bodeleian, so that he could check up on me. Between our meetings, I would visit the Pitt-Rivers museum, which I now know to be an extremely eccentric Victorian collection of ethnographic artefacts; or I would buy stamps in a musty stamp shop east of the Cherwell or model train supplies on Broad Street.

    Still later, in my teens, we spent two whole summers in or near Oxford. We'd often rent a punt and I'd pole my family along the Cherwell, which seems to run through deep wooded countryside even close to the University. I took a lot of pictures in those days (I had a darkroom back in Syracuse). I'd go in and out of Oxford's colleges looking for good shots of old buildings.

    And then, because I won a scholarship that was tenable only at Oxford, I attended graduate school there. I always felt like an outsider to the University, perhaps because I was a graduate student working alone on a dissertation at an institution that revolves around the undergraduate tutorial, or perhaps because I was uncharacteristically shy during that period. Or perhaps almost no one is an insider to Oxford, divided as it is among dozens of colleges and separate academic faculties. In any case, I knew and loved the physical environment, the ancient academic buildings, the bustling modern shopping districts, the old workers' districts, and the farmland of the upper Thames Valley. Needing to take breaks from my writing, I used to walk several times a day. Sometimes I'd just stretch my legs around Addison's Walk or Christ Church Meadow, whose miscellaneous cows munching before a medieval townscape looked like figures in a 17th century Dutch painting. Other days, I'd hike as far as Blenheim or at least to Iffley, where the Norman church still shows its primitive zigzagged carvings

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: cities , memoir

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