Friday, November 27, 2009

The Stones of Assisi (and Urbino)

Between Bologna and Firenze, the Eurostar crosses the Appenines, the spine of mountains that runs the length of the boot of Italy. The mountains rise and fall like the waves of a green and rocky sea. The peaks of these mountains are craggy and erose; buildings cling to their sides or crown their peaks.

The Veneto and Emilia-Romagna were grey, grey, grey. Grey clouds, grey fog, grey light. The Eurostar enters one of many tunnels cut through the mountain; when it comes out on the other side the bright Tuscan sun floods the hillsides with light.

I am on my way to Assisi. I change trains at Florence Santa Maria Novella. No more Eurostar; I am now on an Interregionale which stops at every stop. It took two and a half hours to travel from Venice to Florence. It will take another two and a half to Assisi, half the distance. But if you grab a window seat it is a ride well worth enjoying. Descending into Umbria, the train winds between the base of the mountains and the Spoleto Valley at their feet. You skirt Lake Trasimeno, which is vast and beautiful, ringed with hills and grassy plain. Olive trees are everywhere, and the strange cachi -- persimmons -- whose fruit hangs like orange bulbs on the bare and skeletal limbs long after the leaves have fallen.

The Basilica di San Francesco in Assisi is one of my favorite places. What strikes me, each time, is how festive the interior is. Even the dark lower basilica is decorated for a party in geometric pastel festoons painted in wet plaster seven hundred years ago.

The last time I was here the apse behind the altar of the lower basilica was hidden by scaffolding, undergoing restoration. Today it is finished, and beautifully lit. Like the basilica itself it is peculiarly brilliant, unlike anything else. The colors appear freshly painted. It is amazing that pigments mixed with wet plaster seven centuries ago could become this durable. In many places, almost entirely in Venice, they have crumbled or faded; it's a matter of microclimates. When an earthquake shook this basilica several of the ceiling frescoes in the transept collapsed. The fragments were gathered to the last speck of dust, and they were lovingly restored as best as humanly possible. Fortunately most of the frescoes were spared.

The apsidal fresco in the lower basilica is much later than the Giottos upstairs. There are heroic Renaissance figures amid the late medieval throngs. Veronese meets El Greco in a painting that stylistically would not look out of place amid the Orozco and Sequieros domes painted in Guadalajara six centuries later. Stylewise. But the messages could not be more opposite. Orozco painted fiery hells, but they were the lurid industrial furnaces of capitalism; the angels and saints were Marx and Engels and Lenin. Here, Hell and Death writhe at the bottom. Above, amid bugles and trumpets and angels hovering like birds, is Christ triumphant. The two worlds meet along the center meridian of the fresco, which draws an arc around you. That is the point of tangency where heaven meets earth, and it is mediated by friars of the Minor Order which Saint Frances founded. The Franciscan brothers are lowering ropes down into the torment of purgatory, to rescue lost and desperate souls.

The oldest stone in Assisi, pink stone hewn from Mount Subasio, has never seen plaster. The stonework is solidly medieval but inextricably commingled with the earlier Roman masonry. The medieval stones are eccentrically well put together. These stonemasons were bold and imaginative, amusing themselves with clever, ever shifting patterns to make the walls more interesting.

The basilica of San Francesco was built upon a rocky spur of steep hillside, like the prow of a ship cutting into the flat plain below. It required an immense superstructure to create the flat floor of the upper basilica. The floor of the lower basilica, directly beneath, slopes down like a ramp toward the apse. As a result the side chapels are reached by increasing numbers of steeply pitched stairs. What they lacked in light they made up for in a mad profusion of painted color and stained glass, as brilliant today as it was in 1330.

Both basilicas, upper and lower, are decorated inside with frescos; the outside is simple, with masses of stonework only around the portal and the rose window above it. It is utter simplicity, and it is close to perfect. You have to stand back and see it in context to appreciate the scale of the imagination required to build. You can best appreciate its splendid audacity from high above, from Rocca Maggiore, the castle fortress high above the town.

Ruskin was right that you can read the stones like a book. They tell the story of a place and time and were intended to do so forever.

Ruskin was a Christian moralist and this colors his thinking, but his eye was invariably clear and true. One of his assertions in this vein is that the ratios and proportions of classical architecture -- Egyptian, Greek, Roman -- their rigid regularity and symmetry, results from the fact that they were built by slaves. The artists were not free to indulge in flights of fancy; their imaginations were as fettered as their limbs.

That is why he maintains that the peculiar glory of the Gothic is that the artisans were free, both in the material circumstances of their lives and in the lives of their minds. They were free to sculpt and carve whatever they loved and found beautiful and amazing in the natural world. It was a sublime exercise of free will. This was certainly true in Venice, par excellence, which is Ruskin's point. The stones of Assisi, however, tell their story differently, and, perhaps most importantly, their interior surfaces are still plastered over with some of the most amazing pictorial art ever conceived and drawn by human hand.

The Porziuncola is a stone church the size of a suburban dining room. It was given by the Bishop of Monte Subasio to Francis and his band of brothers if they accepted it as the seat of their order. It was in ruins on the plains below the city; they were effectively banished from the life of the city to practice their vocation in splendid isolation. Francis and the brothers restored it with their own hands, stone by stone.

The silhouette of the Porziuncola is such perfect gothic that Ruskin could have built it himself. The doorway arch is pointed ever so gently; the outer roof is a sharp high gable and the inner roof is a stone barrel vault. It is the humblest of structures.

Santa Maria degli Angeli is a meretricious baroque basilica that sits atop the Porziuncola. It is like a Faberge easter egg, a gaudy outer shell encasing a perfect gem inside. This easter egg demonstrates quite vividly what Saint Francis was originally and what the Church quickly turned him into. Once the Porziuncola stood alone, a beacon of saintly poverty. Now suburbs sprawl around it, and the train station and MacDonald's, and, encasing it, S. M. degli Angeli with its parklike surrounds.

Walking along the flank of S. M. degli Angeli, taking its measure, I crossed the street to see it better; on the wall beside me I saw a stone plaque with the Medici coat-of-arms: a shield with a circular arrangement of six balls. I thought I must be mistaken. We are in Umbria, not Tuscany. I crossed the street to see a fountain running along the basilica wall. There were 20 or 30 spigots and at the end, embedded in the wall, a small plaque: Fonti Medicee sec. XVI-XVII. The Medici fountains, high renaissance. The dynasts left their imprint in the holiest of places.

These walled hilltop towns were built for defense; the hillsides and the plains below were cultivated, the farmers dependent upon the military power and prestige of the city above.

The medieval city of Assisi was literally built upon the Roman city whose foundations and street levels can be seen in many places, nowhere more clearly than the Museo del Foro Romano, the Roman Forum museum, located under the present Piazza del Comune. Here you see the original foundations of the square, with the temple of Minerva at its center whose facade still fronts the piazza above. High above the square stands the fortress, then as now, refortified as a bastion of the Papal State in the 14th century.

The Roman Forum Museum has sculpture and fragmentary remains of Roman stonework, but is distinguished by the Roman masonry itself. From the signage:

East monumental fountain
Placed in the East part of the terracing wall, the fountain consists of two rooms with a connecting archway. The walls are built in travertine opus quadratum with barrel vault. The front face shows two arches and a large monolithic travertine slab.

The Tetrastyle
The tetrastyle, an aedicule [a platform framed by columns] made up of four pink limestone columns holding the statues of the Diosscuri dates to the first half of the First Century A.D. It completes the central terracing building project which took more than a hundred years to finish.

You can only marvel at the elegance and precision with which these stones are laid, how strong and sound they still seem two thousand years later. They were built to last, and they did.

Elsewhere in the museum they have computer generated simulations of the Roman Forum, both still photos and a video walk-through. There you can see how the medieval city fits atop the Roman like a porcelain cap and intermingles their stones. The existing Roman masonry, uncannily precise, impossibly strong, is rigorously regular. Later, the gothic stonemasons made their walls in complex and irregular patterns pieced together from smaller stones and bricks; in comparison, they are infinitely varied and felicitous.

Ruskin was right.

Urbino is located in Le Marche -- the Marches -- the province bounded on the north by Emilia-Romagna, on the west by Tuscany and Umbria, on the south by Abruzzi, and on the east by the Adriatic Sea; it is in the approximate center of the eastern coast of the boot.

From Assisi I took the train to Foligno and transferred to an InterCity to Falcone Marittima. The train follows a pass through the Appenines down to the sea at Faro which was the key Roman port on the Adriatic. At Faro I transferred to Pesaro and from Pesaro I took a bus.

I am standing high on a hilltop surrounded on all sides by a sea of hills and mountains; there are no plains here, only variegated hillsids and scarps of granite. This was the seat of the Montefeltros, the dynasts who ruled these hillside towns, orchards and vineyards for several hundred years. The current city owes its fame and its form to Federico da Montefeltro, duke of Urbino from 1444-1482. He built the massive Palazzo Ducale and Duomo which dominate the town and are its distinctive landmark.

The city is also the site of the University of Urbino, founded in 1506. Today Urbino is the college town par excellence, filled with students, the university having taken the place of the Ducal court as the center of its vitality.

The Duomo, of later date, rotated 90 degrees from its medieval predecessor, is straight Palladio in inspiration. But its interior walls are paneled in pastel pistachio stucco. It makes the place feel more gay than somber. The pulpit, positioned above the nave on a stone pier, is covered with baroque stucco work like white icing on a cake of pale pistachio marzipan. It is perfectly way-too-much.

I sit. But for me, the place is deserted. The images and impact of the past few days collapse inward and I am face to face with the bare essence. The place itself, its design and its imagery, compel me to think about religion; the duomo posits a dogma with a Counter-reformation Baroque sugar-coating.

In all cultures, at all times, the loftiest and lovliest work was put into the temples and the basilicas. At its best, it is a gesture of gratitude to the spirit that animates the universe; at its worst it enforces a rigid code of exclusionary clauses demanding strict adherence to its own language and rituals.

But no, I think... Did only St. Francis get it right? Religion -- worship -- should begin with joy, the joy a child feels watching a butterfly emerge from its cocoon and flutter up into the sunlight on jeweled wings.

Religion should be the safety net, the unbreakable skein, supported by the understanding that suffering can not, and need not, be justified or eliminated; put simply, it is. It occurs on every level of sentient life and is part of a continuum with ecstasy at its opposite pole.

Religion should begin in joy and it should end in forgiveness, forgiveness of all things. That's a really tough proposition. It is much easier to envision excruciating hell for those who have harmed us, but we have to be able to let that go, too. It is all, Buddha said, a veil of illusion. The most difficult and the most rewarding peace arises not from justice -- however conceived and delivered -- but from compassion, infinite compassion.

As I sit here scribbling this in my notebook a choir of monks somewhere beyond the apse are singing plain chant. It echoes softly in the baroque faux-Palladio vaults, hanging in the air like a soft breeze.

It brings tears to my eyes and induces a feeling that I would like to last a long, long time, a kind of euphoria, the ecstasy of simply being alive, sentient, capable of experiencing and appreciating such beauty.

Ruskin believed that the beauty of the greatest works of man, the gothic structures and ornamentation, were so precisely because of the joy the artisans felt in their freedom to create the most beautiful stonework they could imagine. They could not rival Nature, but they could pay it homage, devout, humorous, sensual, mundane, from the angel blowing his trumpet on high to the loyal dog at the portal base baring his teeth. That is what Ruskin believed they were doing.

We might imagine that we are, each and every one of us, stonemasons. Our task in life is to fashion and to embellish it, to make it rich and beautiful, filled with love and gratitude. The work is so fulfilling and exhilarating that we can endure the pain and the sorrow life inevitably brings. We really aren't in this alone; we are in it together. We carve more than just our piece. My piece fits with your piece to build an exceptional piece neither of us could have built alone. Then multiply that by everyone you know and everyone they know.

That is how a gothic cathedral was built, over the centuries, by generations of families who lived and died without ever seeing it completed. The greatest buildings freely-built consumed lifetimes in their construction and decoration. That is why they are neither uniform nor symmetrical; they are as varied and complex as life itself.

Here is how it works for me: I am sitting in an outdoor cafe down the hill from the duomo. I am having a caffe macchiato and a brioche al cioccolata. I am surrounded by university students who have finished classes for the day. The air is charged with their ebullience. Across the street are two stupendous renaissance stone portals. Downhill the square is teeming with people chatting, waiting for buses, hanging out. The Christmas lights just went up and are switched on for the first time. It is also going-home-from-work time, which is inherently festive. It is an absolutely perfect moment. Is it all there is? No. Is it all I want? No. But it is the moment I have, and it is perfect. I want to share it with you, and this is how I do it. I am carving my stones.

The strange turrets of the Palazzo Ducale, the iconic image of Urbino, are tall and pink and slightly effete. I understand what Ruskin means when he speaks of the masculine energy of the best architecture. He is not being a sexist. To him it was clear that although the urge to build was shared, the task of building fell on the men. The women sent the men off to carve stone that would last throughout the ages, to shelter them and to celebrate them. It was men's particular genius. When she was a brilliant thinker, in Sexual Personae, Camille Paglia made the same point throughout the long arc from ancient Egypt, through classical Greece, to Imperial Rome.

Ruskin says it best. In judging if a building is good, "First, see if it looks as if it had been built by strong men; if it has the sort of roughness, and largeness, and nonchalance, mixed in places with the exquisite tenderness which seems always to be the sign-manual of the broad vision, and massy power of men who can see past the work they are doing, and betray here and there something like disdain for it."

Masculinity is an interesting quality. It is cultural and it varies. The Italian brand, for example, is far less aggressive than American macho. The Italians seem a quiet breed given to heights of passionate hysteria. Theirs is a softer, rounded masculinity, buffed by history and time. It allows for the physical closeness and open affection men routinely display toward one another, from the gentlest camaraderie, holding hands and kissing, to the most exuberant horseplay. It is a coat of many colors. They queue patiently, they argue passionately, they carefully savor a tiny cup of espresso, dress with attention to detail, and speak musically, drawing the logic with their hands like a conductor. It's when you see this that you can understand what Ruskin meant by the masculinity of great architecture.

Raffaello Santi was a greater painter than his father Giovanni, but seeing Giovanni's work reveals a direct line of artistry. Raffaello's genius did not burst from nowhere, comet-like. He was his father's son, but a generation later, freer, more sensual and closer to the reality of the natural world which is the archetype of all beauty. Giovanni's best figures look like particularly well-executed waxworks. Raffaello's breathe. Giovanni worked within the formal constraints of early Renaissance perspective. Raffaello reinvented them in voluptuous curves and swirling fabrics.

A bit further on in the Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, located in the Palazzo Ducale, is the "Flagellation" of Piero della Francesca. First and foremost, Piero had style. His work is instantly recognizable. Yes, for all its complex perspective, what truly speaks are faces and expressions, so much more alive than the architectonic composition. It represents the transition from an earlier, freer medieval style of painting -- the Giotto frescoes at San Francesco for example -- to the highly composed and ordered style of the renaissance.

Was the gothic the Golden Age? Was the Renaissance? Was there ever really a "Golden Age"?

It seems there were many Golden Ages, in different times and places. In all cases what they shared in common was the momentary flowering of human genius in all its forms of expression. We make fetishes of these moments, forgetting that in all times and in all places something is arising and something is dying. Which is what is often only clear in retrospect.

The virtue of architecture and of art is that it fixes these moments, so that in other places and at other times we can read the story of genius in flower, of its rise and fall, and perhaps better understand our place in the big picture.

This seems perfectly clear to me, sitting deep in the basement of Federico da Montefeltro's Palazzo Ducale in Urbino. It was blindingly clear in the basilica of San Francesco in Assisi.

A multimedia show is being projected on the low vaults of the service basement beneath the ramparts and towers, projected all around, evoking the glories of Federico's court, which was, by all accounts, an exceptionally brilliant one. Wit, intellect, genius, all gathered; the library was full of gorgeous books, the walls emblazoned with art, the rooms filled with brilliant minds. Its particular genius was local, rooted in these craggy mountains and green hillsides. Wisdom and virtue, greed and lust, war and politics did their dance until greed and lust, war and politics, blew out its light and the light appeared elsewhere, as surprising there as it was here, and as brief.

"Golden Ages," like perfection itself, are simply ideas. History indicates that all efforts at perfection are doomed to fail. Perfection is an ideal that dwells in the realm of the mind. It provides something unattainable to aspire to. We may never get there, but we can come dangerously close, in our art, in our buildings, and in our minds and hearts. Like all greatness, it begins with love and ends with compassion, and is an expression of gratitude for the opportunity to experience the sublime.


Larry Mellman
Assisi | Urbino | Venezia

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