Friday, June 28, 2013

My hypothetical husband, the spy

This week, I'm visiting my hometown in Indiana. My mother and I just had the following conversation, and it was too good to keep to myself: 

Mama: You've had enough big life events in the last year. Let's not get married this year.

Me: Married? But I'm not even.....

Mama: Oh, I know, I know. But these things happen.

Me: Even if I were to fall in love and decide to marry someone, I wouldn't want to be engaged this year.

Mama: But you always said you wanted a Christmas wedding....

Me: Good grief, Mama, I've been unmarried for twenty-nine years already; I think I could manage to wait until the next Christmas.

Mama: But there might be a war.

Me: A war? So, you want me to move up the date of my hypothetical wedding because of a hypothetical war?

Mama [nodding]: He might be a spy. [pause] You know, I had a friend in college who had to get married in a hurry because her husband was going to jail. [pause] Don't marry someone who's going to jail.

Me: I won't. Unless it's for defending civil rights, or something like that.

Mama: Right. Don't marry someone going to jail unless he's going for a just cause.

Me: Okay, Mama. I promise.

(From the  State Library of Queensland. No known copyright restrictions)

Monday, June 24, 2013

I rest in hope

In the Basilica of Santa Croce, I stood before the graves of Michelangelo, Dante, Galileo, Ghiberti, and Machiavelli. I saw Giotto's 14th-century frescoes of the life of St. Francis, and I even saw a bit of robe said to have been worn by that merry Jongleur de Dieu. These monuments struck me like the tocsins of cathedral bells, but in all of beautiful Santa Croce, it was the conjugation of verbs that moved me most.

Most of the foreign languages I have studied --Latin, biblical Greek, Old English--are "dead," and so I am not used to encountering a language I know outside of a book. But in Italy, the walls whispered to me. Words, incised in marble or hammered into gold, surprised me at every turn. I find Ecce ancilla domini over that doorway, and something shakes the dust off my high-school Latin, tumbling me into a beloved chapter from Luke's Gospel. Behold the handmaiden of the Lord.

In Santa Croce, the tombs were speaking. Rich panels of marble paved the floor of the nave and transept, memorializing a body and soul at rest. Mostly they told me that so-and-so was buried here, many spoke of resting in peace. The ornate graves sang of the mighty artists and thinkers who had done so much to the glory of God. Of all these voices of the dead, one quickened me more than all the others.

 vixi in deo · quiesco in spe · resurgam utinam in caritate √¶terna

With much of the Latin I saw in Italy, I struggled to hear clearly, to gather words into the ordered hope of a sentence, but this inscription seemed to cry out in the quiet of the church: I lived in God; I rest in hope; I will rise again in love everlasting.* I lived, I rest, I will rise. Settled, carved in stone, yet moving through past, present, and future with the rhythm of a living breath.

Common hope in a foreign land. Cradle-truths from a half-forgotten tongue. Baptist girls are not accustomed to treading on tombs -- most of our churches don't even have their own graveyards. When I entered Santa Croce, I looked at the monuments of the Greats and thought, I am here to revere the work they have done. But no. The dead said, we are resting here in hope. Walk on us, climb over us, read, recite, and pace over our words, polish them to transparency until the grace blinds you in its shining. Come join us in the floor of the church. Listen to the faithful sing and step over you. Rest here, and rise in love everlasting.

* Before publishing this entry, I checked with some scholar-friends whose Latin skills are sharper than mine. They suggested a few other  translations, including the lovely possibility that the final clause should be, "would that I might rise to everlasting love." However, others argued that my (simpler) translation is actually more likely, since the tomb is medieval. I am choosing to include the text as it came to me in the moment, but I make no claims that it is a perfect translation.  

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Italy: The Bells of the Duomo

For most of my life, I have encountered Grand and Historical Works of Art in one of two ways: through museums or in books. While seeing a painting in person is far more vivid than studying its replica in a book, both settings can create an artificial context for a work. Perhaps the gallery imposes a certain perimeter of white space around the painting, or the textbook offers an explanatory gloss under the picture of a famous statue. Often, these new contexts help a visitor make sense of a work. Furthermore,  gallery collections and mechanical reproduction allow far more people to experience important works than would otherwise have access to them.

Museums and books also tend to organize works of art into sensible narratives. Perhaps I study the doors of the Baptistery of St. John in a chapter on "The Birth of the Renaissance," or I see Botticelli's "The Birth of Venus" not in the Medici country villa where it originally hung, but in a gallery room full of other Botticelli paintings. I can look at the work, place it in the story, and move on. Or I can choose not to study it at all. I can close the book, turn away from the gallery.

The most moving works of art I saw in Florence, however, upset my typical experiences with art, context, and choice. On our first day in Florence, my friends and I had an excellent guide who took us on a walk through the city. Our plan was to see the famous works of the Uffiizi and Accademia galleries the next day. The day was low and cloudy, threatening rain. Towards the end of our walk, we were strolling down a busy Florentine street, savoring cones of gelato and talking about something utterly unrelated to the Renaissance or to art history.

We turned a corner, and suddenly a mountain of pink and green marble soared up in front of us. Or so it seemed. As it happened, we had taken a back street to the Duomo, Florence's mighty basilica, with a dome that shapes the city's skyline, if you look from a distance.

Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore

The breadth and height of the Duomo, approached from such a near angle, crushed any sense of consoling distance. This was no gallery piece, no flattened photograph in a hand-held book. It was a standing, as it had stood for hundreds of years, bearing witness to God's glory, human genius, Florentine wealth, political history, Catholic theology, and more. Our guide was saying something about the marble, local quarries, Brunelleschi, but I heard little, for as we stood at the foot of the bell tower , bells began to ring. These were not like the sweet Methodist bells of my neighborhood, but powerful, unrelenting tones.

The bell tower

Hearing those bells was the only time in Italy I cried. I think it is because they eradicated any lingering distance between me and the object I had come to contemplate. They knocked down the white walls of my mind's gallery, ringing me into a living city, with a vast, beautiful, complicated church at its center.

The marble of the Duomo

The weight, the nearness of the massive church almost offended me. How dare it surprise me like this? How dare it stand there, presuming upon my reverence? Reeling from this offense, I was shocked to realize how much of my appreciation for beauty depends upon my own ability to choose. What picture shall I hang on my wall? Which room in the museum shall I visit? Which picture will I study from the book? The Duomo gave me no such choice. Either I could encounter it on its own terms, or I must leave the city and all it stood for.

And how did I respond? I wept when the bells rang, for it sounded as though they were calling all the world to prayer. And the next day, after a morning in tourist-thronged galleries, we returned to the Duomo and attended mass. Though I am not Catholic, I have attend various masses with friends, and my knowledge of Latin helped me follow along, dimly, with the prayers, scriptures, and songs. Like so many medieval Christians, I worshipped and prayed without understanding, in my own tongue, exactly what was happening. Nevertheless, attending mass in the Duomo helped reconcile me to the astounding beauty of the place. No longer was the Duomo a  Grand and Historical Work of Art I was trying to "appreciate," but a church in which I worshipped. In a humble, stumbling way, I went from being a spectator to a participant.

For the rest of our time in Florence, I always waited for and heard the bells of the Duomo with joy.