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28 March 2013

Emulation: III.3

Giotto, The Crib at Greccio
St. Francis and the Renaissance

troubadour |ˈtroōbəˌdôr; -ˌdoŏr|
a French medieval lyric poet composing and singing in Provençal in the 11th to 13th centuries, esp. on the theme of courtly love.
• a poet who writes verse to music.
ORIGIN French, from Provençal trobador, from trobar ‘find, invent, compose in verse.’
from the Oxford English Dictionary

The new pope chose the name Francis. So in a sense did his model, who was baptized Giovanni (either his father later chose Francesco because he wanted him to be a worldly—i.e. French—businessman, or he preferred the name Francesco out of his own affinity for French troubadour music). Francesco d’Assisi is a paradigmatic figure of the Italian Middle Ages, shaped in a culture of crusades, poverty, nascent urbanism, internationalism, and a Church in crisis. With regards to the theme of Beauty, Francesco may seem a poor fit—more devoted to Lady Poverty and Sister Moon, he eschewed wealth and its attendant luxury, and lived the life of a mendicant and mystic.

Yet Francesco was also the great popularizer of the Nativity crèche (presepio in Italian); one of his first good works was manually rebuilding the dilapidated stone church of the Porzincula; and the pope who sanctioned his order had a vision of him supporting the papal basilica of the Lateran. Francesco was, in nuce, a devoted supporter of religious imagery and architecture. He also, almost single-handedly, reoriented Gothic art from the hieratic, impersonal, Byzantine manner to something more naturalistic, intimate, and popular. Arguably, then, he was a founder of what would become the Renaissance; Giotto is unthinkable without San Francesco, so too Leonardo and Raphael’s Madonnas, and Vasari’s whole trajectory of the buona maniera would not have its impetus without Francesco’s popular piety.

Bernini, S. Francis in Ecstasy, Raymondi Chapel
And if Giotto was not possible without Francesco, neither was Bernini the artist of Baroque spirituality. San Francesco may be responsible for the Madonnas that found their fulfillment in Raphael, but his own mysticism and its culmination in the stigmata would also sponsor the images of ecstasy that Barocci painted and Bernini carved. The synthesis of naturalism and mysticism that the saint from Assisi represents is the essence of Italian art in its flowering, budding in the fifteenth century and blossoming in the seventeenth.

The tension for St. Francis’ followers was their desire to honor him and his desire for simplicity. When we visit S. Francesco in Assisi today, it seems a riot of color to American ideas, “ornate” in ways we aren’t always comfortable with. Yet what makes the upper and lower churches there so remarkable are the frescoes, and this is the humblest of all artistic media—lime and sand plaster, painted with earth pigments suspended in water. Poorer than that, one cannot get. What makes it art, and remarkable, are the form and meaning endowed on it by the artist and iconographer. If the new Pope Francis I wants a “poor church,” fresco is a good place to start. And durable buildings, as S. Francesco himself built them, are their essential foundation.

primo pensiero for a Stigmata

Bernini, Raymondi Chapel, S. Pietro in Montorio

11 March 2013

Emulation: III.2

The Key of the Past

On the evening before an historic conclave with a living pope, I was dining in a simple trattoria in Lucca, where they were playing the Rolling Stones’ greatest hits—in chronological order. It seemed, in the earliest tunes, that the band depended quite literally on American music—the Blues, to be sure, but also Buddy Holly (part of the poignancy of American Pie) and other pop music genres of the early sixties. So they were derivative; so, too, were The Beatles. When the selection made it to Lady Jane I couldn’t help but think that their derivations were essential to who they were, and what changed—and what they mastered—was from which period they derived. It was true in America in the mid-sixties that folk music led back to American folk traditions, Appalachian and otherwise. But it is less remarked on that in Europe, and England, folk music was really medieval music. Jethro Tull was formed just a year after Lady Jane, and their minstrel manner was coincident with the early flourishing of the modern Early Music movement. Lady Jane (the B-side to Mother’s Little Helper) was a typical Stones’ processing of what was going on around them. And it had its influences as well; as the Wikipedia page for the song says,
Neil Young's 1975 song "Borrowed Tune" from the album Tonight's the Night uses the melody of Lady Jane. A fact that Young admits to in the song:
I'm singin' this borrowed tune
I took from the Rolling Stones,
Alone in this empty room
Too wasted to write my own.

Wasted energy? Being derivative never is.

02 March 2013

Emulation: III.1

Beauty, Goodness, and Truth. In that order.

Virtual visit to the Sistine Chapel (accompanied by Palestrina):
Few philosophers would arrange the three attributes of Wisdom—beauty, goodness, and truth—in that order, as it presumes a hierarchy that ranks them in the reverse of intellectual seriousness, or turns them inside out in terms of moral purpose. However, during this (hopefully) brief papal interregnum, I thought it wouldn’t be out of place to offer a lonely voice for the importance of Beauty.

Of course, the Romantic poet Keats proclaimed “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” but that equivocal conflating of the two gets us nowhere. And if, for St. Paul, “the greatest of these is love,” both truth and beauty must take a back seat to goodness in any discussion of our life’s ends and means. But need beauty be relegated to last place in every case, where most moderns would put it? Many, indeed, would leave it off the list altogether, like an arch-neoclassicist shunning the Corinthian order. But if a preference for truth can lead us to a false choice between orthodoxy or apostasy, and for goodness can valorize the merely sincere, can’t beauty be seen to have left us instead with the most enduring legacy of Western Christian culture of the three?

Is it wrong that so many go to Rome not to see the pope, but the Sistine ceiling? Isn't the problem there that the experience ends with mere aesthetic satisfaction, which is a long way from Michelangelo Buonarotti’s transcendent reasons for Beauty?

For all of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio’s human weaknesses, his Madonna di Loreto (with its dirty-footed pilgrims) resonates more profoundly for so many with a tenuous grasp on their faith than any theological truth. And it is not the artist’s sincerity that made it so, but his ability. Surely he had affection for the image of simple devotion that he depicted; but he made that image transcendently beautiful. It is through that illuminated window that the light of revelation passes.

North transept of Ss. Martina e Luca
the church of the Roman academy of artists
If we privileged Beauty, as we once did, we would make a more humane world. We could resolve irresolvable differences, inspire affection and devotion, and be confident of a lasting effect on the world. If we valued Beauty we would want to know it as well as make it; we would indeed believe it was knowable, possible, and necessary. If Italy and Rome make any sense as the home of the papacy, it is not for any particular locks on truth or goodness, but because of their beauty. It is a beauty that encouraged artists and academies to emulate the best; public beauty made the divine an accessible thing, freely available to all; greengrocers patronized their collegiate church with ornament and art, celebrating their pride in producing what everyone needed to survive.

We might think that beauty is over-valorized in our superficial culture, but what passes for beauty today is simply the attractive. Instead, how often do we read the word “ornate” as saddled with implicit condemnation? To “embellish”—which means to make more beautiful—is usually considered pejorative, a masking of the sincere and plain. By equating beauty with truth we have burdened it with moral weight it was never meant to bear. Beauty is not truth, and truth is not goodness. They are all important for the good life, but they should not be conflated. If we suffer the lack of any of them today, I would argue it is the former.
Madona dell'Orto in Trastevere, Rome
the church of the greengrocers and other trades
from the wikipedia page: gli Ortolani e Pizzicaroli, fondatori; i Fruttaroli; i Sensali di Ripa, mediatori dei commerci locali; i Molinari - e si capisce, data l'importanza dei mulini sul Tevere nel rifornimento di farine; i Vermicellari, produttori di paste alimentari; i Pollaroli; gli Scarpinelli (ciabattini); i Vignaioli; e i "giovani", garzoni e lavoranti di diverse università