Saturday, November 28, 2015

Churched Out


I write again from an AirB&B apartment in Italy.  Another Saturday morning.  This one in Florence.  Himself sleeps.  Despite watching an instructional You.Tube video I have just melted the tiny Bialetti coffee pot.  I make a fine, albeit dinky, cup yesterday. I think I’ve followed the same steps today but apparently not and I am relegated to drinking tea.  After instant coffee in Ireland and a week of wee cups of Italian sludge, it will nice to be home to my 12 cup machine and the jumbo canister of Trader Joe’s beans.

We travel off season, not only because that is when Himself has time off, but also, to avoid crowds.  Rome however is jammed. The weather is lovely, in the 70s and the streets and cafes teem with visitors and Romans alike.  We walk around the Coliseum but the ticket line is long and we observe that the inside is dense with people snapping selfies.  Crowds distract us from getting a real feel for a place and it seems that in some cases looking at images and video online is more satisfactory, as many of Rome’s heavy hitter tourist sites feel like Disneyland.  We eschew most of the “A ticket” attractions and instead wander and poke into churches.

The number of churches, that don’t even merit guidebooks listings and are over-the-top ornate is mind boggling. The percentage of Italian Catholics who are church involved decreases every year.  In most of the churches we visit, there are a handful of people engaged in prayer but almost all of the worshipers are substantially older than we are.  Despite the rockstar popularity of Pope Francis it is predicted that church affiliation in Italy will continue to decline.  There are a number of UNESCO designated churches that will always draw an admission paying crowd but what will become of the little gems that are off the beaten path?  It seems that there is a church every few blocks and each has its own treasures.  But these structures, crammed with precious religious art, must cost a bundle to maintain.  I doubt if the Irish or Italian government is in a position to protect and maintain every historic church and I wonder, what with the decline in active Catholicism, how these countless ancient churches will be preserved.

We make the obligatory stop at the Trevi fountain.  The crowd is incredibly dense and we can’t really get close so Himself tosses coins from high overhead. They may have hit the water or perhaps another tourist.  The Spanish steps are under construction.  The Vatican at dusk is stately and awesome but lined with kiosks laden with religious kitsch and peddlers hawking selfie sticks.  

There are posters all over Rome advertising a Balthus exhibit. Perhaps it is sacrilegious to take in a show by a modern French/Polish painter instead of Michelangelo, Leonardo and Bernini but we both like his vaguely creepy paintings of sexualized pre-adolescents and cats.  There is a particularly satisfying group of sketches inspired by Bronte’s Jane Eyre and other works that give a nod to Lewis Carroll.  Balthus’ biography reveals that as a youth, he was encouraged in his artistic pursuits by Rainer Maria Rilke. The poet also happened to be having a love affair with Balthus’ mother.

Mostly though, we walk.  We get lost trying to find a recommended restaurant and wander for hours on the outskirts of Rome, through housing projects and modest neighborhoods.  We navigate the twisty alleys of the Travastere. The Monastario San Grigorio, home to an order of Calmondolese monks since the 1570s, pops up as we stroll.  Just a sidebar in the guidebooks, we peruse the particularly vibrant frescoes virtually by ourselves.

Himself knows just about every saint and points them out in frescoes and altarpieces. I can probably give most Jewish girls a run for the money on martyrdom and torture wheels, upside down crucifixions, and definistrations.  For Himself these vivid depictions give vision to the tales that filled his childhood.  Despite the grisliness, I think he experiences some sort of nostalgic comfort.  For me, most of the churches and monasteries are a blur. Altarpieces.  Frescos.  Fantastically intricate painted ceilings. Tons of gold leaf. Relics, including the preserved severed head of St. Catherine of Siena.

I’ve lost count now but one of the standouts is the Dominican monastery of San Marco, in Florence.  The artist-monk Fra Angelico was born in 1395.  The monastery displays altarpieces and spectacular murals.  During the Renaissance tones grew darker and more muted but the work of Angelico is vivid and crisp.  We notice too that Angelico has a sense of community.  Witnesses to miracles and martyrdoms are engaged in conversation and their bodies stand naturally. Fra Angelico seems to have broken with the stiff symmetry of pre-renaissance paintings.  It is this ordinariness of spiritual experience that attracts me to the work of English painter Stanley Spencer, who was undoubtedly very much influenced by Fra Angelico.

The tour of San Marco also includes the cells of the monks, each with a mural depicting a stage in the life of Christ.  Some of the murals show the birth of Christ, all soft and sunny but others bear gruesome images of the crucifixion that I would prefer not to have to wake up to each morning.  Another notable resident of San Marco was the infamous super zealot monk Savonarola, who rallied against the secular.  His disciples burned artworks and books--The Bonfire of the Vanities.  Savonarola also spoke against the corruption and greed of the church.  The pope eventually ordered the monk's excommunication and hanging.    His hairshirt is on display at San Marco.  

Siena is a spectacular medieval city.  We stay at a former convent that’s been converted to a hotel but is still under the church’s aegis. There are fussy little signs everywhere.  Don’t put your suitcase on the bed.  No clothes washing or food allowed in the rooms.  Eat your breakfast from a plastic tray so as not to soil the tablecloth. Nevertheless, our spartan room has a spectacular view of the ancient city and the magnificent Byzantine Duomo.  We climb an unbelievable number of steps to reach a viewing balcony.  The picture of splendid old city surrounded by the gentle green hills of Tuscany is well worth the effort.

From Siena we travel on to Florence and then Venice. I work some on this piece from a Venice coffee shop but the document disappears and as our trip winds down I don't manage to get back to it until now, having been home for a week. After having no television for our first week in Italy, the apartment in Florence has a set and the only English language channels are BBC and CNN. The news is devoted to the Paris massacres exclusively. We can't help but watch, compelled a bit more than we might be ordinarily I guess as Italy neighbors France.

Church fatigue has set in by the time we reach Firenze. We trudge with crowds through the Bargello and Uffizi Galleries. I prefer the crisp vivid colors of the late middle ages to the moody grays of the Renaissance except I am taken with the complicated composition of the many enormous Tintoretto works at Venice's Scuola di San Rocco.

Venice is our last stop. I expect it to be unlike any place I've ever visited but am blown away by how profoundly different it is. Our hotel is so difficult to find that we have to load a video with directions unto our phone. Dark, twisty alleys lead to bright crowded squares. Dogs, without the risk posed by cars or bikes, wander freely. We see a mutt with a fancy collar, by himself, walk into a pet store to check out the merchandise. We see some Orthodox kids with payot and yamulkes in less touristed Jewish ghetto. A plaque memorializes the 247 Venetian Jews who were deported and executed by the Nazis during the Second World War.

As the church looses ground in the west, the pope characterizes the current threat posed by fundamentalist terrorists as a piecemeal Third World War. Back in the day, church leadership could expediently rid itself of the messily over zealous. The Pope made sure that after his hanging, the bones of Savonarola were burned, less any relic peddlers attempt to martyrize him. I doubt if this would be a practical solution for mainstream muftis and imans.

Himself, the most frugal person I have ever known, is actually enthusiastic about commissioning from a Venice mask maker, a papier mache kitty with our Gary's likeness painted from one of the pictures, from the several hundred that I have stored of him, on my phone. It is difficult to remember all of the animal companions we've survived but it is inevitably the case that each pet has a favorite human and both humans have pet pets. Gary's littermate Mary, who died a year ago, preferred me and Gary has slept most nights on top of Himself and spent many days perched on his shoulder, staring into a computer screen.

Our herd has thinned now to just a single dog. I stole from someplace the wonderful observation that one dog is people. Two dogs are dogs. Given the truth of this I am content to keep only a single dog. We say we want to get down to no pets because we enjoy traveling so much. The truth is, it has never really been a problem to get a house-sitter. The problem is that when we travel we miss the pets too much.

Opie goes through her normal hysterical whining and dancing routine when we return. If I had worn military fatigues when I walked in the door after the trip, the video would go viral. Gary usually gives us a cold shoulder for about an hour before we get his purr back. We hear him howling and finally find him cowering under the bed. He will not eat and only briefly tolerates being held before he disappears again under the bed. After three vet visits and no concrete diagnosis, he has a seizure the day before Thanksgiving and we know that it is time. Himself stays with him until the end. I can only stand the first injection. The mask is beautiful and I am relieved when I consider how much worse we'd feel now if we'd elected not to have it made.

Even if we hadn't endured the drama of losing the cat, I doubt if this piece would be completed any sooner. The accretion of churches, punctuated by a Paris bloodbath and all in God's name leaves me at sea. I do not cover my Facebook profile pic with the French flag. I am not Charlie Hebdo or France. Nor do I have an affiliation with any religious organization and my observation is pretty much limited to a couple of minutes on Friday night where we try to cram in some appreciation of family and a nod to the salubriousness of mindfulness.

Freud alluded to the human need for religion as a substitute for mother love. Himself reads a book by a biologist who explores this theory with a sophisticated scientific understanding. I wonder if there is any evidence that suggests that the most vulnerable to religious excess have a history of troubled maternal bonding.

There is some sort of singular satisfaction I guess; Himself just can't pass up a church. Between Ireland and Italy though I am more than sated. How many of the greatest treasures of western art were created at the behest of the Catholic church? To me, every ornate church is an example of the church's insatiable appetite for wealth and power, The clergy has its hands in the pockets of the poor while they preach for them to accept the nobleness of poverty.

The conundrum for me is that I am pretty intractable when it comes to freedom of religion. But this unwavering tolerance opens the headways for a whole lot of crackpot bullshit in the name of faith. Not that it would happen, but perhaps stripping religious institutions from tax exempt status in the U.S. might separate a bit of wheat from the chaff here at home. Nor do I see an effective tool on the global horizon to tamp down out-of-control extremism.

Fortunately, I have not been charged with preventing deranged nut jobs from carrying out atrocities in God's name. I have not been selected to oversee a more equitable distribution of church assets. Apparently we have a biological need to replace mother-comfort with the belief in some higher loving force. Perhaps they'll invent a pill for this. Or maybe, like the pantheistic faiths of Greece and Rome, the religions of the world will simply run their course. And then of course there's the chance that the Pope is right and we are on the cusp of unimaginable destruction.

In the wake of the attacks in Paris, someone posts “Don't pray. Think.” This makes sense when one considers the scores of atrocities committed in the name of faith. But my own thinking is confused and ineffectual. I am not Paris, or Kenya or Malala. There is still clean up from Thanksgiving. We are sad about our cat. We're due for a binge on Amazon's Man in the High Castle. I have no bright ideas to bring to the debate about religious extremism. Nevertheless, being in Europe after the Paris attacks and having had thrown in my face for four weeks the obscene riches of the Church, the state of religion is on my mind. My thinking however is naive and distracted. When your intellect is absolutely and utterly useless, maybe it's not so bad to pray.


My own Damn Blog said...

I too, was conflicted when I viewed the opulence of Italy's churches and basilicas. All this gilt (gelt) in the honor of a simple Jew who would have no need of such riches, other than to parcel it out to the needy. But then I did a bit more thinking on the matter, especially the "benevolent God" bit, who also would have no necessity for such excess, Him being omnipresent and all that. So aside from power and riches, what do these ancient treasures mean in the big scheme of things? IMHO, a kind and loving God would encourage us to do what we love. The millions of architects, artisans, craftspeople, painters, sculptors, etcetera, who have created these elaborate places of worship worldwide were absolutely doing what they were good at, and probably preferred to a profession of say, stable mucking.

Anonymous said...

On a trip that closely resembles your own, I also had much the same impression of the wealth of the Church. In the past, the Church was one of the few institutions that could afford to sponsor artists. If say, a wealthy merchant had commissioned Michelangelo to paint a ceiling in his private residence, it is doubtful it would have survived to this day. If indeed, the Church fathers had used the money they spent on art to feed the poor, it would have quickly disappeared and hunger would have returned just as quickly. In my view, it is the preservation of these masterpieces through the ages that gives some credence to the Church's involvement in works of art.
For believers, a pictorial representation of the tenets of their religion was the only way to communicate with a largely illiterate audience, so it made sense in that context.
Every time I try to wrap my modern mind around antiquity,I am left dissatisfied, just as I am when I attempt to understand politics, another topic that defies common sense.