Fifty years ago, the Southern poet Allen Tate remarked in an important essay on the symbolic imagination that America is as dependent on a diminished Europe as ancient Rome was on a diminished Greece. What he meant was that the survival and flourishing of our most important social institutions, including the Church, demand of us an on-going and genuinely engaged reflection with the past. To ignore our deep human and institutional need for engaged reflection is to risk losing that unique recipe that is the western tradition. It is the proverbial salt and yeast in the dough. Priests too are called to engaged reflection. Specifically we are required by canon law to take an annual week of study, which we rarely do, for our renewal and for the renewal of the Church. At the invitation and urging of our New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan we decided we needed to engage the foundational western church and starting July 1st, 2010, twenty-two priests of the Archdiocese of New York–myself included–traveled to Italy for a ten-day term of study in Tuscany and Venice. We were honored to have as our director the esteemed Reverend Doctor Monsignor Timothy Verdon, Canon of the Diocese of Florence, and a Yale-trained American art historian. What follows is a résumé of our day-to-day encounter with our western roots through the history, art, culture, and theology of Catholic Italy. This is a pilgrimage of beauty and a feast of history. Beyond a summary of how we spent our week of study in Tuscany and Venice, is a résumé of sorts that suggests how we as priests could employ art as a handmaiden to theology and the sacramental life, as if art came to your door one day and gave you a Tuscan (and Venetian) résumé in search of employment in the life of the Church.
July 2nd, Friday. Poppi
In a classroom at Pastor Angelicus, a chalet-styled retreat center at the foot of the looming sanctuary of St. Francis in La Verna in Eastern Tuscany, Monsignor Verdon opened with a lecture on the “shift from the antique world of cities in the fifth and sixth centuries A.D. to a feudal system in the germanic tribal agglomerations.” His point that civilization can and did regress set the stage for the dramatic way in which civilization was reborn along with the rise of the merchant class in the nearby cities. Following the lecture we took a bus to the church of Pieve de Romena in the nearby valley of Poppi. The building embodies the Romanesque style in its haphazard memory of Roman grandeur. Its sturdy rounded apse and cave-like slits for windows, hand built by itinerant masons, sits alone in wheat fields. It is called “Pieve” as a corruption of “plebs” or people. The isolation of the valley shielded the local people from the barbarians. There was no more indoor plumbing or the sanitation that the Romans took for granted, but what emerged was a Christian faith that blended with local traditions that the church absorbed and used to help fortify the security of a class system. Allegiance to the church and the local fiefdom was rewarded with protection and the blessing of peace. The powerful union of the caste system of the fiefs was embodied in the term for the parish priest still used today in Italy: “Don.” The parish priest, often rudimentarily educated was also a Lord (“Don” is from Dominus or Lord). As the papacy filled the empty throne of the emperor in the centuries before Charlemagne’s crowning as Holy Roman Emperor on Christmas Day 900AD, so too did local Dons create an aristocracy. Following Charlemange, this feudal power was more clearly in the hands of non-clerical Lords, who in this valley occupied an even higher land than the Church.
The church’s thick walls and thin windows make the interior unchangeably cool. We file down into the undercroft to see the outline of an original foundation. Monsignor Verdon points out the egg and dart carving of the Roman style. Other carvings look Celtic with their concentric circles. We step out into the courtyard in front of the church under some olive trees. The air has an unnameable and sublime flower on it. Half of the priests have straw hats. Walter Kenny’s has a rake to it. He looks like a real don and sits against the enclosing wall glancing.
In the distance from the church a fortified hill shows the shadowed outline of a tower. The town hall/castle of Poppi is our next destination and once up on the bridge entering the castle it is clear that the power to dominate must have come along with the bird’s eye view. In the fields below the first battle between the pro-emperor Ghibellines and the pro-civitas Guelphs was fought in 1250. The local lords, Ghibellines, won against the Guelph forces of the rising merchant class, the winnings of which were invested in the fortification. A private chapel off the secluded and relatively plain royal apartments is lavished with early frescoes. These paintings have the beginnings of the realism in that Tuscan style that strongly suggest the underpinnings of the Renaissance. The walls fall a hundred feet out the windows and are very strong, but not invincible to the will to win. The taxation and legal impunity that came with inherited titles eventually contributed to the crumbling of feudal authority as the wool traders of Florence developed modern financial tools like a letter of credit and the selling of futures and grew accustomed to the ease of lucrative contractual relationships.
On June 11th, 1289 a third battle was fought in the fields of Campolidino. A miniature of that decisive battle is poised on a table in the castle. The Guelphs carry the flag of the crimson lily on a white field, the symbol of Florence. They are an all-volunteer force. The Ghibellines, in contrast, fight with hired hands and lose and the losers became slaves. On the facing wall hangs a painting of the 24 year old Dante Alligheri who fought on the winning side in the battle. Already a popular poet of the sonnets of La Vita Nuova in 11 years he will be exiled permanently from the city he fought for while on a diplomatic mission to nearby Arezzo. The dates and political divisions reveal what a condensed period of turmoil this was. For instance, St. Francis died at the age of 44 only 39 years before Dante was born, himself the son of a wool merchant.
I don’t know if they broke for lunch during battle but we did. What can Americans learn from life in Italy: pace yourself. After lunch we drove to Camoldolis, higher in the mountains than even La Verna and cool even in the afternoon sun. Fr. Sorgie reminds us that Cardinal O’Connor came here for retreats. The crimson lily of Florence appears again in the wrought iron that separates us from a small peaked range of eremetic huts that fade into the heavy forest. The Medicis too in all their worldliness came here for retreat. Sons were sent to be monks and equals to the most common man. St. Romuald had a vision in 1020 A.D. of white robes climbing into heaven here and created the secret source of good government: the chapter room. In this case the chapter room, where monks confess faults to each other humbly, has an inlaid floor in a honey-colored wood in beveled squares. Here is something we don’t have in America that we desperately need: sacred ground in the form of a simple and beautiful floor. Our sacred floors invariably have pews bolted in. A good hand-made open floor in a sacred space would teach us to tread lightly on each others dreams. Camoldolis have the soul to make things. Lumber was their stocking trade and prized in Florence. Today they make a range of goods from liquor to shampoo beautifully and simply done in their tradition that helps support the monastery.
July 3rd, Saturday. La Verna
Having the monastic tradition in mind primed us for the next morning’s visit to the Sanctuary of La Verna and an introduction to St. Francis, superstar saint. Monsignor Verdon was freed up to meet us for a lecture in the morning. Half of us chose to hike up through the sacred woods including 83 year old Fr. Louis Mazza. Another thing we can learn from the Italians is to keep gleaning the woods for good firewood for pizza. Not only do the woods still look as good as in the Bellini painting in the Frick, but pizza in wood-fired ovens is sublime. Ascending drenches us in green, in silence and in vigor. A large tumbling piazza in rough stone unfolds at the summit, but not after the misdirection of low arched tunnels and the hips of chapels. A telephone-pole high cross impales the stone’s edge where a brass button can be pushed to spout spring water. After a few handfuls of water the vista of the country below suggests how Graymoor got it right. The mountain was the gift of Count Orlando Cotani in 1215, an otherwise useless property as sometimes is the case in gifts from the wealthy. “Forreste Santo” surrounds the whole sanctuary. There are many approaches as I found out from several runs in the subsequent days. If you are given to finding God in nature, you will find Him here in abundance. Beware, the spirituality of this place is intoxicating.
Francis was the right person to the give the mountain to. His whole being needed it and he came back to it four times more in the final 13 years of his life. He was not a monk, but he embodied the need to blend the two worlds. There had been a centuries long drought of saints and his appearance really shook the world. To be sure, Pope Innocent III stands in the background as a model of how to let God’s work be done. Another Pope may have easily denied granting a charter to Francis. In the imagination of Francis, which in Tuscany in this time meant the quest for the real and not escape from it, Christ mystically emerges out of true humility. Monsignor Verdon leads us along a long outer hall of mediocre frescoes of scenes from the life of Francis. The hall narrows and a door, seemingly entering into through one of the paintings, opens to a rustic courtyard. The uneven steps lead down to a damp cave, Francis’ rock bed. We stop and visit in turns. The thrust of a rock inches from where his chest would have been make the weight suspended in the rock feel like the rest a head might have between an anvil and a hanging hammer. It is not likely he ever got much sleep there. Brother falcon came and Francis rose and went out onto the ledge of his vision of the seraphim which opened the wounds of Christ for him and in him. Another time the devil tempted him there on the ledge with the valley below, pulling him off the ledge. God drew him back. Turning back down the same hall the stories unfold in the accordion book of frescoes: the wolf at Gubbio and conversation with birds, show his imagination was an instrument that could work peace. His visit to the sultan of Egypt is a rare page of diplomacy with the muslim world.
Francis was born into a time of great wealth-making that was also a stunning source of great poverty. Stigatized with the wounds of the Christ, Francis became an alter-Christus, in the words of St. Bonaventure “after his days and nights (in prayer in La Verna) Francis came down as lawgiver.” The law of brotherly love he preached was synthesized in the della Robbia blue and white altarscreens, one of many defining artworks that in the Renaissance interpreted the legacy of Francis. It is summed up in an opposing nativity scene and a passion scene in often reproduced ceramic: a nativity with a passion beneath and a passion with a nativity beneath. Suffering and joy commingle. Poverty is acclaimed as a “queen.” A version of the Stabat Mater is sung at Christmas. Francis came in a time when the dialogue between clerics and artists was constant and complementary. Isn’t this the root of how the imagination serves peace. Simply put, putting nativity and the passion of Christ side-by-side is in essence saying “I can see the baby in its mother’s arms in the face of a suffering man,” and “I can see the suffering in potentia in the face of a baby.” Complaints against the vacuity of contemporary art have to be met with some upbraiding for our neglect of artists in recent times. Artists are struggling to articulate that tragic backdrop to our human condition because they have intuited through the tradition the comic vindication of the word made flesh. Artists too need to be upbraided for living off the flesh of the ecclesial salvation narrative without the critical accountability that would keep their voice toned and durable. Serrano’s crucifixion in urine comes to mind, though I have always felt there is something elegiac about the image that is obscured by prankish context.
Following our ascetic morning with Francis is a waiting pullman for 16 of us who opted to visit the nearby birthplace of Michelangelo, Caprese di Michelangelo, for a meal at the restaurant of the nephew of a parishioner from Holy Trinity on the Upper West Side who spent years in service to Toscanini and to Vladimir and Wanda Horowitz. Mario Cheli’s restaurant is appropriately named Il Refugio. He made seven variations on truffles and mushrooms that come nearby in earthy abundance. Creamy pools of cheese and cream flecked with truffles and bubbling in terracotta dishes followed a layered dome of mushrooms. A mossy brown growth of truffle formed a topsoil to hot beef. Concluding with soft, hot biscotti to dip in vin santo reinforces in taste and smell the path from humility to majesty that is a reward for an imagination steeped in the real and open to grace. We can make a god of food, but when food and art make necessity sublime it is an occasion for good conversation. Our conversation continued the theme: what can Italy teach us? The bus driver had a three o’clock job and had to get us back. Guiliana’s sister Maria and husband thought there would be time to meet after the meal and sat at home patiently dressed, but there wasn’t time and they followed the bus to Chuisi della Verna. They stopped the bus at last in the middle of the street and they called for Don Andrea. She and her sister had almost starved during the war and still lives with the effects. Their gentleness is animated by gratitude. I tell them that their son gave a gift to the Archdiocese of New York. Fr. Joe Fallon said it was like Babette’s Feast. I don’t think they saw the movie, but they understand without the explanation.
July 4th, Sunday. Siena
Fr. Sorgie celebrated the early mass singing. We have been celebrating a daily mass in the chapel at Pastor Angelicus. I like to hear the strong voices in response. Siena today. Another superstar saint to meet. St. Catherine’s head looks more like a glimpse at Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.” I pray for my sister Kitty whose patron saint is Catherine and light a taper. Catherine was born in the neighborhood of San Domenico, the large plain barn of a Dominican church opposite the pink and green and white stirated duomo. A valley separates them filled with tumbling buildings. She was born in the year before the plague, 1347. My sister Molly said last summer that the plague proved the power of scholasticism, the fruit of the mendicant orders, because there is no other disaster to match the invisible horror of one in four Europeans dying so swiftly. Without a full soaking of philosophy the faith lives of Christians would never have been able to distinguish fate and suffering in the wake of that disaster.
Catherine only lived 33 years. By the time most of us are just getting out of graduate schools with manicured opinions about how women needed the sexual revolution and reproductive rights to find liberation, this 20th of 22 children wrote and dictated books that were actually read. So much so, that her diplomacy in the Avignon court mediated the restoration of the papacy to Rome. Considering the backdrop of the divisions between the Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope that were condensed in the divisions between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines her insights are clearly synthetic. Allen Tate, quoted in the first paragraph, features the story of St. Catherine in the same essay. He maintains that her consolation of a murderer in the month before his execution in Siena as a seminal example of the symbolic imagination. She says that she will be there to receive his head. She is indeed there to catch the head and is splattered by the blood from the axe. She says that she could smell the blood of the lamb. Tate, a convert to Catholicism and a proponent of understatement, cites the example because, he claims, she clearly never loses sight of the literal blood and the victim. The symbolic imagination can bridge the gap between the literal and the signified. In the back of the church she found a private place to pray before the eucharist. She exchanged her heart with Jesus and received the stigmata.
Another figure closely associated with Siena is Bernardine. In front of the church a large piazza was often filled with thousands. Strategically placed big-voiced assistants listened and repeated his slow speech, in case you wanted to know how such a large crowd could hear one man without amplification. Apparently it worked better. Bernadine knew his audience and lifted the sunburst with the “IHS” in the middle at strategic moments when he suspected he might lose their attention. Professor Verdon says “IHS” was a variation on the name Jesus. Joyce says it means “I have suffered.” That is true too.
We visit St. Catherine’s home, the kitchen church. The lapis blue walls and the gold stars are foil for jewel-like paint on wooden panel portraits of nobles and saints that punctuate the space. Catherine’s kitchen pot hangs off the wall below the altar on a hook as if never moved.
It has been two days since the Palio, a bareback horse race in the shell shaped Campo in the heart of Siena. Flags of the winning contrada, one of 17 neighborhoods of Siena dominate the square. Selva has oak leaves on its flag. A portion of the earth covering the stone stretches in front of the Town Hall. Romulus’ brother Remus was not killed evidently, as the Romans claim, but made it up here to found the city. Everywhere are statues of mother wolf and the fabled fat babies suckling her. We enter the town hall and climb up to a large upper room which pays homage to the union of Sienese bankers to the Papacy. A golden rose, a gift of the Holy Father, grows like a miraculous bonsai on a shelf.
Monsignor Verdon draws us into the parliament chamber to point out a fresco on good government. Happy fields, a lady on horseback is fashionably plump at the pink gates of the city, scaffolding on a tower and balanced workmen is a clue to how Brunalleschi built the Duomo in Florence without scaffolding. In the eternally blue sky a feminine figure of wisdom floats over the throne and other virtues stand in attendance. On the opposite wall bad government is ruled by superbia, pride. A delicate neck of a girl is crushed under a golden yoke. Other the vices engulf the stormy scene. The city and country crumble in misery in the distance. A good morality tale for Independence Day.
After lunch we meet over by the Duomo. The first person to greet you in the floor in front of the main doors is Hermes Trismagisthus, a pagan philosopher. The Duomo is populated by loads of unbaptized pagans, though baptized by desire. The library sports a classical fountain of three nudes. Why not? Pintorecchio tells that proud tale of shamelessly successful Sienese cleric who becomes Pope. Elevated to one side of the sanctuary the ambo roils in little bodies. The whole piece is in marble and the figure of the resurrected Christ is so real, leaning out, he is about to speak. This early realism is an exceptional piece and the object of emulation. In particular the Sienese artist Duccio, the Mets most recent and most expensive purchse. We conclude with a visit to the treasury and too short a time before Duccio’s windows. We have a moment a gelato. Some secure the prized pan forte before we mount the bus again. Dario our driver gets us back just in time for dinner. The temperature drops from 33 degrees celsius to 22 (91 to 73 degrees Farenheit). I fetch a bowl of ice for spirits to celebrate independence after dinner.
July 5th. Monday Florence.
We start early to Florence but it still takes a long time. We are a block from the Duomo and Monsignor Verdon meets us. We enter a side door. Fr. Sorgie shares a Sienese joke on how the Duomo in Florence is like Florence itself, all flourish on the outside and nothing on the inside. Monsignor doesn’t like the joke but laughs politely anyway. He whisks us into the feriale sacristy with ceilings as high as a planetarium. An old priest at the desk brightens and said that he was in Poughkeepsie in 1966. Fr. Alexander Pacchia. The sacristan has albs and stoles for everyone. He adjusts Fr. Tom Kelly’s. When the bell rings and we process the tourists hush for a moment and then resume. Monsignor Tim Verdon preaches. He has enjoyed the opportunity to present the context of the art to fellow American priests. Artie Mastrolia will run off to get a gift for him – a pen from a Florentine “scriptorium.”.
After mass a tour of the bishop’s sacristy. The lavabo is an angel urinating into a marble sink. The gardinarium in the rear is a wooden door that uncovers a set of stairs down to a plot of earth for a toilet. Vestments are under the center vesting table whose bottom is lower than the floor to accommodate the length of the garments. Other advantages to the sacristy? Bronze doors help ward off assassins. In 1478, on Ascension Thursday a Pozzi scheme to assassinate Guiliano and Lorenzo Medici hatched during mass at the elevation of the host when their guards were distracted. Lorenzo’s guards caught the plot in time and rushed him into the sacristy, closing the doors until reinforcements arrived. One of the perpetrators was hung out the window of the Sacristy.
In 1439 Florence hosted the wandering Council of Florence at the invitation of Cosimo the Elder. The Emperor in Byzantium saw the proverbial Arabic on the doorstep and was eager for a truce with the West in hopes of military aid against the Ottoman Turks. Bishops John and Eugenio IV were dispatched to Florence with other bishops from the East. The Florentine Church embraced learning Greek with alacrity and the Fathers expressed their hospitality to the Eastern Church by setting up a Greek school for the Latin bishops. It only underscored Western openness to learning and Eastern intransigence. Disappointingly, with all that effort as soon as the truce was declared the treaty was renounced. Armenia and the Lebanese churches aligned with Rome, however. POSTLONGASDISPUTATIONES after long discussions…. Is written on the tablet by the sacristy.
Rising above us is the famous dome that must have impressed the participants of the council. The octagonal base is 43 meters wide, the same as the Pantheon and 60 meters to the opening. Higher than Hafia Sophia. How to complete the dome was open to an international competition, the happy custom of Florence that won so much acclaim. The hometown boy – Fillipo Brunelleschi – was given no special consideration. He was an effective campaigner with a tantalizing way of teasing intrigue out of the process. His claim: he can build the dome without scaffolding. He wins without divulging the plain secret. He created open scaffolding from the masonry ports with timber and vaulted upwards row by row.
In twenty years another spectacle of politics and collusion with church and state. This time the David of Michelangelo began as a series of prophets for the interior of the Duomo, but following Medici’s expulsion the City Council commissioned the statue for itself. Michelangelo re-conceived the work as a model of a civic hero, slightly frowning over the work of statecraft and won a prominent space for it before the prominent town hall. I am drawing furiously and scribbling notes. Then there is a painting of my hero Dante off to the side. We are discussing the visuals of the renaissance and not the literature. You can’t do it all, but who else embodies an appeal to classical direction than the poet whose hero Virgil appeared at the moment of his desperation. I had a homily prepared for Dante in the morning which will be delivered tomorrow.
Joe Fallon and I break for lunch together as the others break off to forage. There is so much to see in Florence I wonder why we can’t stay on and catch dinner on the road back. The proposal sounds good at lunch but loses steam. “You can always come back.” Yes that is true. Don’t do too much.
We convene at the Baptistry, an entirely separate building in front of the Duomo. I remember a guide singing a note that was completed into a full chord, not by a harmonizing choir, but by the eight sides of the architecture. The eighth day signifies that day which will not end. Our attention turns to the dome, built over, as it happens, living water. Originally a temple of Mars. The god Mars, by the way, always bullies his way into prime real estate. The Romans that repelled the foul king Tarquin decided not to divide the spoil of the king’s wheat that grew in the Campus Martius in Rome. Rather they dumped it in the Tiber and it miraculously grew into the Isola Tibernius. (Great hospital there. You can drink at the bar as you convalesce.) Columns from the old temple are reused. The feet of Christ grip the disk at the world’s edge. They are large and prominent forcing perspective ever upward. He is 8 meters tall seated. (about 26 feet) The just and the damned are separated, the souls of the just leaping out. Can’t wait. The damn can’t be moved, must be pried out. The devils have special tools and talons for the work. Among the just a child is running at play. It is the type of small detail that makes the whole scene come alive, somewhat like the way the handprints of Picasso’s daughter at the base of Guernica set off the newsprint lines above it. There is the mouth of Satan as Dante saw it, munching on a sinner.
Embers of the Easter fire, started by flint stolen fair and square from the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem restarts the homefires of Florentines. That would be a worthwhile ritual to adopt in the United States after an Easter mass, except we don’t have homefires any more. A better ritual in Florence on Easter is the team of white oxen with gilded horns that pull a box on wheels in front of the Duomo before the Easter Sunday mass. Flags somersault through the air. During the Gloria of the mass the doors open wide and a fuse hanging from the tail of a mechanical bird is lit. A roman candle in its belly propels the bird suspended from a wire down the center of the nave. It strikes the box and sets off fireworks. The bird returns at highspeed to hit a post over the high altar and drop harmlessly on a pillow until next year. The fireworks send in smoke and light into the rear of the church. Monsignor Timothy Verdon says that the most dour cleric, muttering “I can’t believe we do this” is won over by the spectacle. I don’t know how we could get oxen and a fireworks box up Fifth Avenue, but perhaps something could be worked out.
We walk briskly to Santa Maria Novella, the only Dominican church of its era with a fancy façade. Great art means having to walk past the Giotto crucifix because you need to dwell on Masaccio. “Big hulking Tom Masaccio,” as he was called. He sought advice from Brunelleschi. They tacked in nails in the stucco and hung strings to devise the schema for perspective to greet pilgrims at the door. The Virgin Mary is as a woman in widows weeds pointing her hand towards the cross, gazing outwards. A skeleton beneath the painting bears the inscription below, “I was as you are, and I am as you will be” a memento mori, but with a twist since the crucifixion is the center of our attention and the center of perspective. The patrons are flanking the scene. The corpus is Brunelleschi’s.
We stop at an annunciation towards the rear of the church. “The virgin’s bed is neatly made” comments Monsignor Verdon. The realism requires attention to details to control the scene. It is refreshing to reach Ghirlandaio’s Visitation, the familiar rear end of the figure leaning over the wall to look down in the valley, a technique to mask a problem with landscape perspective.
I run to the Farmacia Santa Maria della Novella around the corner to get a bottle of Sicilian water and make it back to the bus in time for gelato. We bid farewell to Fr. Sorgie and Fr. Bisognano, who are heading onto Rome. The mountain road is familiar now. Dinner and the world cup. It is good after all to decompress and reflect.
July 6th, Tuesday. San Sepolchro
My turn for mass. I include in the homily the four levels of interpretation mentioned in Dante’s letter to Con Grande following the publication of the Divine Comedy. Con Grande was having some difficulty grasping the poem and wanted some help. To the lay person interesting in cultivating the symbolic imagination these four levels at the very least help hone a critical eye on what makes a great painting, or a great poem. Dante states that the pilgrim in his Comedy is on a literal pilgrimage, therefore the first level is the literal level. The loss of the literal can make or break art. The second level is the allegorical level. Simply put, an image can stand for something else: a pilgrim can allegorically be everyman. Thirdly, there is the anagogical level of interpretation, how there is a mystical or heavenly interpretation. To Dante this really was a political level of interpretation. How we form the mystical body is the focus of this level on interpretation. Dante is concerned with the life of the city and in particular his beloved Florence. His work is a map of the political divisions and essential tensions that inhabit every city and those peculiar to Florence. Finally there is a analogical level of interpretation. Coleridge described what it meant to interpret art at this level was as a fragmentary “participation in the reality that is signified.” Fortified with Dante, the eucharist, itself the perfect “analogy” and cafe latte we greet our gentle bus driver Dario.
A short distance from Chiusa della Verna, the town is a miniature Renaissance Florence, with grand three-tiered palazzi. It was here that the promising Piero della Francesca chose to live in a sleepy provincial reserve rather than pursue the fame of Florence. In the church is the Volto Santo, the holy face, a crucifix whose corpus is a single piece of wood and dating to the time of Charlemagne in the 8th and 9th centuries. The image is attributed to Nicodemus, Jesus’ night visitor, and has a calm tilted head, a slightly forked beard and long hair flowing into subtle twists. He is enthroned on the cross wearing the chasuble and stole of a priest. The piece is well lit and the features do have a soulful aliveness to it. His monumental form is rare and compellingly sympathetic. We all love this piece for its tenderness. In a nearby fresco, a bishop with a gash down his pate turns out to be Thomas á Beckett. Rome is saying you mustn’t kill bishops at mass. You must not kill bishops at anytime, but especially not at mass. For that matter avoid assassinations at mass too. Thomas is holding the knife that killed him and gazing at it intently.
Around the corner is the Borgo museum. Monsignor Verdon walks us past a painting and then stops. “Now this would be useful to look at.” It is not a great painting but it is commissioned by the local guilds and so it was with Piero della Francesca, that is, his paintings were commissioned by the local guilds. Only look what he did with the little he was given. As you turn the corner the vision has the effect of the long awaited sun. This is the painting of the virgin whose open cape protectively enfolds the guild members, all knee high. Her eyes are inwardly drawn, tender and reflective. Her hair is oddly shaved so that she is almost bald, as was the fashion of the day. The background is all gold, like Klimpt would do. Monsignor Verdon says that Piero may have more in common with modern abstract painting. I can see where he is at home in the medium and loves the sanctuary of open space. No rush to fill in every thing.
If that were not enough of a thrill, the Resurrection in the next room is inescapably profound. Christ is stepping out of the grave with his left leg up on the ledge. Here is art working with the difficult balance between human and divine. Behind him, the Victor Rex, are trees to his right in winter, leafless and brittle, to the left full with fresh leaves. The heads of the soldiers rest on the sepulcher their lids poised to open.
Monsignor Verdon closed with a reflection on Vatican II. Fifty or a hundred years is easily needed to interpret such a formidable Council, he said. It seems that it has hardly begin. The confidence that we should have that the Good News is a universal Good News should compel us to cultivate a symbolic imagination that is part of the living dialogue that shares what percolates up through the human imagination. That seems to appropriately reflect the spirit of Vatican II. Just as civilization can rise and fall, so too the life of faith in Christian community can suffer demise or be revitalized. The relationship between the Church and artists should be respectfully two-way.
It is interesting that our American presupposition that the radical separation of Church and State is the best of all possible worlds was subtly challenged on this purview of late medieval and renaissance art. The Church seemed to hold the State in check and vice versa. Sometimes the State wanted to own the Church. Many times the opposite was true too. Boundaries between the sacred and the profane require constant alignment and realignment, which is part of the ineluctable tension in human life.
In the evening we assembled again. Monsignor Verdon had returned to Florence. We have an amaro to share and we discuss our impressions of the art we saw and our relation to art in the Church as such. Many expressed an openness to art in their parishes and cited examples of how that had been implemented, from commissioning original art to recognizing the existing art in the parish. Commonly, there was a distaste for modern or contemporary art. As an artist and a priest I can appreciate the current gulf between artists and priests. The two camps are deeply suspicious of each other for similar reasons. Since I have long collaborated with artists, I can offer a some pointers to priests and lay people alike:
- Just start doing art. We need to see that great art was not just the product of genius. A great deal of anonymous and unimportant art was the foundation that made great art possible. Art inhabits the practical world. It is there ready to tackle spatial and temporal problems. This is where new forms emerge.
- Art is not permanent. Good workmanship can make it long-lived, but even if long-lived it can be moved and changed, improved. It can be destroyed too, for better or for worse.
- Art does not have to cost a lot of money. Materials can be very simple. Time, space, light, a living and understanding community can compensate a lot for an artist. Some churches have the above in abundance and some even have money. Usually those with money also have committees. Better to have a Medici who had as much vision as he had cash.
- No decorators allowed. You can tell a real artist because they hate it when art is treated as a subset of interior decorating. Priests should understand this especially when we are treated as decoration at the wedding.
- Manage your expectations. You may want the Pietá for your parish. Wouldn’t that be nice? If you haven’t noticed from the tour of Tuscany, it is hard to do new and exciting art in Italy because it is hard to compete with the old art. Unfortunately, Italy is a bit of a museum. New art, however, can be done in New York. New art in fact is done in New York. New York is the center of the art world and it is odd that the Church here has no real relationship with the prominent artists here in the City. The Church offers artists something very valuable: a transcendent narrative as well as potentially meaningful space for art. In the movies why is the backdrop of a church scene invariably a Catholic church?
- Church, State and Art want to get to know each other. We have the wherewithal to generate great art in the New York Church. Just put the right ingredients together. For instance, it is the centennial of Catholic Charities this year. The spiritual father of Catholic Charities is Pierre Toussaint, a Haitian barber who hailed from our original cathedral. Since St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral was raised to the status of a basilica last year, uniting the celebration of Catholic Charities’ milestone and elevating the sacred space within the basilica would be in order. I suggest a sacred floor be commissioned that would be on par with the floors in its brethren in Europe. It should be in wood, which is more appropriate to us in the United States. I was inspired by the wooded floor in the chapter room at the Camaldolis Monestery. Given Cardinal O’Connor’s particular love of that monastery that could be an inspirational context for the design. The design of a sacred floor could be granted to a prominent designer here in New York. Marc Newson would be interesting. University students in Llubljana, Slovenia specializing in woodcraft, Europe’s most esteemed woodworkers, could be given residency in the Slovenian national church on St. Mark’s Place and the wood could be harvested, milled and air-cured on the Homelands Foundation estate in Amenia, NY. Funding for the wood at least would be a part of their operational expenses. The students would require a stipend. Remaining funding is likely to be abundant for a work of this prominence. Just a thought.
July 7th, Wednesday. Venice
Seven hours to drive to Venice. John Ruvo said, after crossing the Po, that he thought it would have been wider. I don’t know if he thinks less of Caesar as a result. Our guide greets us when we arrive in Venice and we lose Ed Barry right away. In the coming hours we all get lost in some way into this mysterious city. “Venice is a delicate and miraculous old lady that requires much attention” Gabriele di Moro says, our guide. Old Romans and Phoenicians fled the boatless Barbarians swarming on the shore into the safety of the lagoon and sunk timber into the mud which happily turned to stone. 200 separate islands were united over the years with the diplomacy of bridges. Each island had their own church until Napoleon tore down 70 of them. After more than 1500 years the islands did not disintegrate, but it is sinking. A lock system is being built in the lagoon to keep the sea at bay. Our boat plows into the famous sea of color that the marble and water refract. Canals of this sort could be a solution to New Orleans. To the right is the pasta factory that Frank Sinatra thought would make a great casino. His friends at the Hilton bought it eventually and made it into a hotel. The story goes that the owners were not going to sell it to him. How did Frank always get his way?
Fondamenta Zettere is the name of our boat stop, Grand Central in the discreet size of a kiosk. A gelato counter in the wall opposite the church dispenses emergency relief to the heat. Good luck learning Italian: the word for fork – forchetta – is ‘spirón‘ in the Venetian dialect. Half an hour brisk walking will take you to the opposite side of Venice. After stowing away our bags at the Don Orione, we were passing each other in alleys and around corners as if each meeting is an odd coincidence. Santa Maria Salute on the tip of the island is the first stop to take in in one view as much of Venice as I can.
July 8th, Thursday Venice
This is the last day of an organized tour. We head to St. Marks for mass. We concelebrate mass in Italian with the priests of the Basilica around the relics of St. Mark that, as the story goes, were brought here under the nose of the Turks concealed by a layer of of odious pork. Walter Kenny’s Italian is very good as he recites the canon in the choir stall. Following mass we tour of the square with Caterina, a very good Venetian guide. It is sad to think of the demise of the city. I believe she said that fifty percent of Venetians are over 70 years of age. We re-enter the Basilica during the 11:30 to 12:30 hour when all the domes are illuminated. The timeless gold mosaic’s edges and spheres cover the same square footage, evidently, as the Maine coastline. We reassemble outside and let the sun burn off our mystical stupor and head to the glass museum. It is a bit touristy, but we do buy because they do know how to sell. Our final tourist event is gondola ride. I am a veteran of travel and I have been to Venice many times before, but I never went on a gondola. At 20 euros each with a bottle of prosecco thrown in by our guide, the half hour of somnambulant ballet was well worth it. The buildings too seem to move. Mossy green steps rise out of the water between barber pole posts, chandeliers float across ceilings that ripple in watery light and the claquing of dishes and silver punctuate the muffled conversation over the midday meals that increase our hunger as we drift by. Gabriele leads us to a nearby sanctuary of a restaurant run by brothers from Abruzzi and they bring antipasta of fish and roe, fresh pasta and a caramelized compote of apricot and peach served in a table side flambé over gelato. Afterwards I am thinking that if I ever ran for president I would run on the siesta party.
My siesta is not long. I take a jog through the city, starting with the new Santiago Calatrava bridge by the train station. I meander through the Jewish ghetto. Its alleys are narrower than other parts of the city and stainless steel gates are hung on walls to presumably be locked over a portal to block the path of a riot or some other precaution. My goal is finding Fondemente Nuova, the boat stop for Torcello. We have learned there is to be a one day scioppera, or strike, declared this evening for tomorrow for all transit in the city. I want to go to Torcello, the original island of Venice with a legendary Cathedral on it. The total area of Venice could probably fit below Wall Street. Torcello would be like sailing to Coney Island from Water Street. We would need to walk to Fondamenta Nuove from Zettere without any local boats running. Supposedly there is emergency service to the islands in the Lagoon.
After dinner four of us cross back over the Accedemia Bridge and sit in the church of St. Vidal for Vivaldi’s Four Seasons played on traditional instruments. Not bad for a parish priest using what had to work with.
July 9th Friday. Venice
Following mass Artie Mastrolia and Joe Fallon offer to accompany me to Torcello. In a half hour we have walked at a comfortable pace over to Fondamenta Nuove. The wait for a boat is long and Joe is discouraged and heads off. Artie and I take the boat that comes along to Murano, the island of the glass factory. We have time to walk and have a cappucino and buy some beads. Italians understandably frown on drinking a rich cappucino after 10 am, but considering the stress of waiting and rushing, it hits the spot. The LN boat comes in just after noon. Almost all the occupants are hopeful tourists. We creep our way through the islands hoping we will be able to get back. The towers of Mazzorbo and Burano grow, colorful fishing villages where lace is made. The Lagoon is washed in the hazy green of the heat. Torcello is a grassy estuary. A simple but handsome wharf greets the boat and visitors. Beside it the brick walls of its single canal undulate. It is a recent construction and well made. The single path on the island is lined with a few airy restaurants. A small sacred compound opens at the end of the canal that have a baptistry, that is a round separate building used as a daily chapel, a circle of ruins from the fifth and sixth centuries and a long romanesque cathedral. It is 5 euros to enter the cathedral. It is both rough hewn and magnificent. A strong rood screen and dominant corpus obscure the single figure of Santa Maria Asunta in the apse. Except for the church of St. Agnes on the Via Nomentana in Rome I don’t remember seeing a similar single figure in a church of this period. The mosaics are the caliber of Ravenna and you wonder why such an early extravagance in a grassy island that could look like it was plopped in the middle of the Meadowlands. During the Middle Ages this island apparently was home to 300,000 souls.
The steps to the throne behind the altar look like the front steps to a brownstone in Brooklyn. The floor is a cosmati-styled floor, almond-shaped and square bits of stone set like jewels in mortar. On the far wall is the Pantokrator as action figure, in his right hand he bears like a sword a cross resembling the rood, and in his left hand he drags a terrified-looking bishop toward martyrdom. The scene is littered with locks and keys, buckles, compasses and symbols. Another Christ figure in the next lower panel is set in a mandorla that looks like an engine producing a river of fire running through wheels and quotation-mark seraphim and winding its way to a judgment scene singeing the feet of the damned.
Artie and I unpack our reflections at a sleepy restaurant under a canopy of reeds and swallows. The wine is from the island, a white wine with a saffron hue and deeply mineralized notes. It is the wine equivalent of the surprising cathedral.
After lying down in the grass under the shadow of the cathedral for a quick rest we pray for a boat. As we walk to the wharf one has just left. In a little while a speed boat comes to discharge passengers. Some French are with us. The boatman wants 40 euro to take us over to Burano which is close enough to see the gelato counter. The French woman with us rightly spits out: “ridiculous.” He pulls away and turns around by the reeds and re-approaches. 30 euro. 5 each. Well that is worth it. We step into the old boat and the magical island recedes. On Burano we have time for gelato. The LN rounds the bulging walls of the church yard on Mazzorbo.
Once back in Venice there is one final visit to make: to the noble rider Bartolomeo Colleone, the hired soldier from Bergamo in the Italian Alps who came to fight and win many wars for Venice. He bequeathed a large sum for the poor and for a statue in bronze to be placed in St. Mark’s Square. His wish was honored except that the city fathers, the Doges, we not going to cede any real estate in front of St. Marks even to a trusted hero. The square in front of Giovanni and Paolo was chosen, the largest church in Venice and adjacent to the hospital. Andrea del Verrocchio the master of Leonardo da Vinci, sculpted the work. It is the masterful counterpart to the antique statue of Marcus Aurelius in the Campodoglio in Rome and probably the most perfectly cast and masterful bronze of the renaissance. The flesh of the horse twitches with movement and force. The beak of the hat of the rider matches his thrusting chin. The American poet Wallace Stevens gave a famous address in Princeton in 1941 about the statue and how inspiration in art is a “necessary angel.” Like his confrère Robert Frost did in 1947 in his seminal poem Directive, Steven’s is on a grail-like quest to find the living waters of the artistic intuition in order to rebuild western civilization, war-torn by its mechanical rationalism. Steven’s searches for the real as an achieved good, a worked-for and struggled-for goal that happens in a way that is gift, unexpected and delivered with mercy. The rider is a grateful coda to this remarkable week of study.
July 10th, Venice. Departure
We packed our bags and left them the night before for the porters and rose at 3:30 to step onto taxis. It 4:14 AM, the deadest hour. Still dark the two boats set out south to St. Marks. As a tangent between San Giorgio’s and San Marco is crossed we veer into the city, through the canal the engines are throttled down to a soft purr. A man hangs over laundry on a balcony and has an early morning cigarette. By the time we exit past Fondamenta Nuove a sliver of the moon finds a watery weightlessness and an early flush of violet and red stirs the movement of wings over the cemetery. The final run is fast in a channel marked by pilings. Arriverderci Venezia.