Monday, February 16, 2009


No, not this:

I'm speaking of Gothicness as in the generally misunderstood and under-appreciated moment in human history (ca. 1000-1400).

I have to admit it did little for me for the first 61 years of my life, but in the last two years I have slowly begun to understand the ecstatic praise lavished on the Gothic by its leading evangelist, English Victorian writer and critic John Ruskin.

Because I have been researching the 13th and 14th centuries, and because I live in Venice, the Gothic is at hand. Here, its particular flavor -- Venetian Gothic -- is unavoidable. You encounter it every day, from the rhythmic arches of countless window arcades

to the Doge's Palace, which Ruskin called "the central building of the world." (He did not mince words.)

It is especially at the Doge's Palace that you can appreciate the glory of the Gothic spirit. There, and at the adjacent Basilica di San Marco-- more Byzantine than Gothic -- the spirit of the Gothic is manifest in stone. It is especially apparent as sculpted on the capitals of the 36 pillars of the ground-level arcades of the Doge's Palace.

These capitals teem with life, with every form of life, from curling leaf and flower to birds and beasts to men of every sort, from every place. The artists interpreted their task of ornamenting these buildings to mean joyously reflecting all creation. Ruskin pointed this out to me, and I am sincerely greatful. Nothing was too humble, nothing was too grand. We see carpenters and shoemakers at work; we see saints and angels; we see young couples in love and later, as grieving parents; we see scribes and dogs, bishops and peacocks, knights and hens, kings and babies. They are all linked together in great chains by wreaths of extravagantly lush foliage. Each has an individual face and is unique.

(Unfortunately, the photos in the GOTHICNESS GALLERY were taken outside, at dusk. I will have to redo them on a better light day. Even more problematic, these outside capitals are casts of the originals (which were removed safely into the palace to prevent further deterioration). The originals inside are better to look at, the cutting of the stone cleaner and more exact; the details reveal themselves more clearly. Even in their deteriorated state they are extraordinarily beautiful. The outside reproductions are, at best, reasonable facsimiles.)

I see two elements of paramount importance to appreciating these things. The first is that we do not know who did them. They are unified stylistically and thematically, but each is different, unique, bearing the "signatures" of individual artists in the way they are crafted, but they are unsigned and remain anonymous. We do not and we will never know who the creators were. All that remains is their work. Their names are lost in time.

The second element is that they share a common spirit, a vision, a world outlook. These were conscious creations of individual artists, not mindless industrial stampings. They are intended to express and celebrate all creation.

In his comments on Gothic ornamentation, Ruskin slips for a moment inside the Gothic head set:

"... We are going to be happy: to look around the world and discover ... what we like best in it, and to enjoy the same at our leisure: to gather it, examine it, fasten all we can of it into imperishable forms, and put it where we may see it for ever."

That is the soul of "Gothicness.".

So I was particularly struck when my sister sent me photos from her recent trip to Southeast Asia, and I saw this

and this

These, from the temple complex of Angkor Wat, were apparently created around the same time as the Basilica di San Marco and the Palazzo Ducale, although the Venetian buildings were encrusted over time with additions and renovations which the Angkor temples were not.

The creators of the Angkor temples were equally anonymous artists. Their work is similarly filled with teeming vegetative imagery and the celebration of dieties, kings and ordinary people. The overall impression of the work is continuous. The building structure was their canvas and they used every space in harmonious and ingenious ways.

We tend to think of globalization as a recent phenomena, but it isn't. There are the surface manifestations, the integration and interdependece of economies and the cultural aspects of life, the ubiquitization of Coke and McDonald's and cellphones. But there is something deeper in all of this. Factor out the specifics of cultural identity and you begin to approach the realm of the human spirit, that common circumstance we all share regardless of our name, country of origin, language, or soft drink preference. There is a common spirit that animates all human life as we know it. In the simplest terms, we all eat, breath air, sleep, and dream. Our art comes out of the same pool of collective unconsciousness as our dreams. This is what we see so clearly in these images.

Check the [ GOTHICNESS GALLERY] and see for yourself. It combines details from both Angkor Wat and San Marco and the Palazzo Ducale.

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