Circular Thinking

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Bramante’s Tempietto on the Janiculum hill Renaissance art and architecture. The sixteen doric columns are pilfered from ancient sources, which was pivotal in the High Renaissance’s classical revival.

It is essentially a Renaissance shrine to Peter, who was mistakenly thought to have been buried beneath it. This mini-re-order reinterprets pagan peristyle temples’ design and use as shrines to particular gods.

The Tempietto has been described as evoking the peristyle design’s “aura of columns.” It is intriguing to consider a tangible object that can act as an energy or atmospheric sensation. The aura of classical art and architecture ‘order’, ‘rational authority’, and ‘harmonious proportion’ are embodied in the column.

Classical columns’ circularity creates soft edges that imply continuation rather than the finality and containment of a flat plane’s edge. The Tempietto is composed of a tiered, layered series of circles. This encircling space marks and memorializes the site of the church of Peter, the “rock” upon which God declared he would build his church.

The Tempietto’s dome informed Bramante’s design for St. Peter’s Basilica, which was modified by Michelangelo. The etymology of dome is  domus  or home. Bramante’s Tempietto provides a commemorative home for St. Peter.

The Tempietto is too small to express its spatial intentions from inside. Rather it provides a singular, a space of intimate scales meant to mark a site of earthly importance to divine workings.

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The Church of the Gesu, on the other hand, is meant to be experienced from inside. Its Counter Reformation rhetoric counters the staid, harmony and restraint of the classically inspired This preeminent example of Counter Reformation architecture is persuasive purpose, that vaulting space is that Catholicism holds the truth and Martin Luther was a heretic!

The spacious and sumptuous interior of the church and the dome, in the form of the church’s dome. The dome is circular and is golden and luminous, evoking the higher power of the divine. It forms an otherworldly, a celestial canopy that is meant to inspire

Time Marches On

Travertine exterior

Travertine exterior

The Flavian Emperor Vespasian began building the Colosseum atop a giant lake that was part of Nero’s Golden House or Domus Aurea in 70-72 AD.  Vespasian’s son, Trajan completed it in 80 AD.  The speedy construction of the biggest amphitheatre ever built relied on tens of thousands of slaves and ingenious Roman engineering.  This stadium hosted bloody forms of public spectacle, gladiator fights, ruthless public killings of criminals, and exotic, brutal matches between animals such as lions, zebras, and elephants brought from distant provinces.

Pacification of the masses was a primary function of this stadium that held up to 75,000 audience members from all classes.   It was a free, public space that replaced the megalomaniacal Nero’s multi-acre personal palace.  Bread and circuses, the satirical poet Juvenal suggests, is all the masses need.  Entertainment, the circus of distraction, serves the purposes of many forces of power over time.

Cavea and stage

Cavea and stage

This elliptical site of spectacle’s state of ruin is remarkable.  It has been freely plundered to build other spaces for millennia.  For example, St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican incorporates 2,500 cartloads of materials from the Colosseum into its structure.  The lack of medieval and Renaissance era connection to the Imperial Roman culture that constructed this four story, six acre sight of contest, execution, and entertainment allowed for its current state of sublime dilapidation.

Monumental, sweeping spaces

Monumental, sweeping spaces

In addition to entertainment, socializing and the assertion of social stratification were integral to the Colosseum’s structure.  Vendors sold food in its ambulatory arcades where Romans chatted over roasted meat and other fare.  The class based assigned seating enforced social stratification, the equestrian class and vestal virgins (more on them in tomorrow’s post!) were close to the action on the first tier, Roman citizens were right above on the second level, and the plebs sat in the upper nosebleed seats.

This vast space of amusement was free and the events could last for days, with animal fights kicking off the day in the am, followed by gladiator fights in the afternoon.  The animals who died in morning fights were cooked and fed the people later in the day.  The drama and feasting helped to keep the people happy and arguably pacified potential unrest.

Humans don’t really change that much over time!

Burning Needs

Vestal Virgin, The Roman Forum

Vestal Virgin, The Roman Forum

The Vestal Virgins, tended to the eternal flame of Rome.  This sacred fire of Vesta was allegedly brought from Troy by Aeneas, son of Venus and distant forefather of Romulus, Rome’s founder.  Romulus and his twin brother Remus’ mother, Rhea Silvia, was a Vestal Virgin (more on this fascinating tale of treason, fratricide, and immaculate conception later!).

The sacred fire of Vesta bore an elemental connection to Rome’s allegorical origins.  The Vestal Virgins also safeguarded the Trojan Palladium, a wooden statue of Athena (Greek) or Minerva (Roman), which acted as a protective talisman for the city.

Temple of Vesta, the hearth of Roma

Temple of Vesta, the hearth of Roma

These priestesses were part of an exceedingly honored and rarefied cult.  There were no more than six Vestal Virgins at a time and they were committed to their positions early, between the ages of 6 and 10, devoting themselves to a lengthy 30 years of service.  The priestesses wore white, flowing robes, physical signifiers of their vows of chastity.

The betrayal of this solemn vow had ominous consequences.  A Vestal Virgin who veered from her vow of chastity risked extinguishing the sacred fire of Vesta and she suffered cruel punishment, being buried alive.  The details of this form of strategically public punishment are vividly described by Plutarch:

The Vestal convicted of incest [losing her virginity] is buried alive in the neighborhood of the Porta Collina, under the Agger of Servius Tullius. Here is a crypt, small in size, with an opening in the vault, through which the ladder is lowered; it is furnished with a bed, an oil lamp, and a few scanty provisions, such as bread, water, milk, and oil. These provisions (in fact, a refinement of cruelty) are prepared because it would appear a sacrilege to condemn to starvation women formerly consecrated to the gods. The unfortunate culprit is brought here in a covered hearse, to which she is tied with leather straps, so that it is impossible that her sighs and lamentations should be heard by the attendant mourners. The crowd opens silently for the passage of the hearse; not a word is pronounced, not a murmur is heard. Tears stream from the eyes of every spectator. It is impossible to imagine a more horrible sight; the while city is shaken with terror and sorrow. The hearse being brought to the edge of the opening, the executioner cuts the bands, and the high-priest mutters an inaudible prayer, and lifts up his arms towards the gods, before bidding the culprit good-bye. He follows and assists her to the top of the ladder, and turns back at the fatal instant of her disappearance. As soon as she reaches the bottom, the ladder is removed, opening is sealed, and a large mass of earth is heaped upon the stone that seals it, until the top of the embankment is reached, and every trace of the execution made to disappear.

Chastity is deeply embedded in Roman history and culture as a profoundly important female virtue.  The Vestal Virgins’ cult aligns chastity with the perpetuation and protection of the city of Roma itself.  The painting below illustrates this relationship.

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Cibele, the Magna Mater or Great Mother, was brought to Rome from Asia Minor in 204 BC, during the second Punic War as a divine aid to winning a critical battle against Hannibal.  The ship holding the Cibele statue got stuck off shore near Ostia Antica on the Tiber River.  Vestal Virgin, Claudia Quinta, was called upon to pull the ship bearing the statue to shore (scholars suggest that the statue was a black meteorite rather than figurative personification of the goddess!).  Claudia Quinta’s ability to summon the strength to do so was contingent upon being fortified by chastity, which some questioned.  The priestess prayed to Vesta and thanks to Claudia Quinta’s chastity, she was able to pull the ship to shore with ease, thereby granting Rome much needed protection.

This is just one of many stories that reflects and inculcates a historic Roman sense of chastity as a virtue of utmost importance, a virtue that determines life or death as well as victory or defeat.

More broadly, it is informative to examine how allegories, rituals, and forms of punishment affect, generate, and sustain societal values, gender norms, and cultural expectations.

 Time Waits for No One

Yes, star crossed in pleasure the stream flows on by
Yes, as we’re sated in leisure, we watch it fly
And time waits for no one, and it won’t wait for me
And time waits for no one, and it won’t wait for me
Time can tear down a building or destroy a woman’s face
Hours are like diamonds, don’t let them waste
Time waits for no one, no favours has he
Time waits for no one, and he won’t wait for me
Men, they build towers to their passing yes, to their fame everlasting
Here he comes chopping and reaping, hear him laugh at their cheating
And time waits for no man, and it won’t wait for me
Yes, time waits for no one, and it won’t wait for me
Drink in your summer, gather your corn
The dreams of the night time will vanish by dawn
And time waits for no one, and it won’t wait for me
And time waits for no one, and it won’t wait for me
No no no, not for me….

The Rolling Stones, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards

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Yesterday I wandered somewhat aimlessly after taking a bus to some Catacombs off the ancient Via Appia Antica.  Starting at the Baths of Caracalla, then on to the Lateran Basilica, up and over the Aventine Hill, moving along the streets, getting lost finding my way, stopping to watch a bike race in front of the Coliseum amongst fans wearing pink t-shirts, standing in a long line because a bunch of people were waiting to look through a peep hole — not knowing why but figuring it was worth it (St. Peter’s Dome was visible through arcing hedges way off in the distance, a perspectival miracle), drawing a church interior, paying to enter a sacred cloister, sketching a cityscape with dome upon dome.  After all that, I SUDDENLY STOOD STILL, and my heart ached, literally hurt, I felt this strange pang — maybe melancholy, maybe a strain of the sublime.  As I gazed at the view above of the Palatine across a trash strewn park, near a homeless man asleep with a bottle in hand on a bench I felt something having to do with time.

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I had just passed this wall of ruin and rebirth. Upon noticing it, I felt a tingling joy and my mouth involuntarily stretched and rose into a smile!  I recognized the purple passion flowers, past their peak but still blooming, reaching like little sun bursts towards the sky.  This wall is a thing of textural grit and grace, slathered with plaster, crackling in parts, encrusted with some concrete like substance and piled with wonderful round and rectangular rocks, reminders of a time before humans could ponder the meaning of time’s relentless passage.

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The day before I had visited the Vatican Museums with my students and mother.  We were led like cattle through the vast and packed space, encountering statues like the one above, ravaged to varying degrees by time.  The sheer number of statues that were brought from sites such as the Roman Forum was staggering, arcades stretched as far as the eye could see with statues lining the walls, in no apparent order, an archive of pride, plunder, and attempts at preservation.

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At the Roman Forum, nearly two weeks ago, near the beginning of our quick and concentrated trip, one of my students spoke of the sense of brutality that she felt during her encounter with this place that marks Rome’s origins.  The Forum was reduced to a cow pasture and the monuments were knee deep in dirt when archeologists began to excavate the site in the early 1800’s, the major excavation process took well over a century.  This site was heedlessly plundered, materials and structures such as columns used to build churches and other structures.

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There is a brutality inherent to the ruins of Rome, a sense of time’s negligence and that time waits for no one.  There is beauty as well, a blending of the present and the past.  And there is an aching form of awe to be found in the many rough, varied textures of walls gradually eroding into ragged cavities and stark formations of dissolution, testaments to human ambition and the impermanence of all things.

Elevating Spaces

Hadrian’s Pantheon is a temple to all gods. Its ecumenical nature is as encompassing as the celestial space the magnificent and mammoth dome implies. This is the broadest dome in Rome and is a feat of Roman engineering, made of concrete (a Roman invention).

Hadrian’s Pantheon is a temple to all gods. Its ecumenical nature is as encompassing as the celestial space the magnificent and mammoth dome implies. This is the broadest dome in Rome and is a feat of Roman engineering, made of concrete (a Roman invention).

There is an undeniable rhetorical and emotive power in vaulting spaces.  The Catholic church makes use of this sense of elevation and awe in spaces meant for worship, confession, and ritual.   Being in lofty spaces, can inspire consideration of what, who, and how we worship.

St. John the Lateran is the cathedral church of Rome and has extraterritorial status, rendering it the mother church of all Catholics in the entire world. Constantine, the first Christian Roman emperor, built the original structure in 324 AD.

St. John the Lateran is the cathedral church of Rome and has extraterritorial status, rendering it the mother church of all Catholics in the entire world. Constantine, the first Christian Roman emperor, built the original structure in 324 AD.

I have been reading Ovid’s Metamorphosis, trying to get a handle on the complicated melodramas that inflect the lives of gods, goddesses, nymph, morals, and other beings.  It is intriguing and a bit sobering to encounter the moral failings and ambitious strivings that drive these tales of transformation.

Santa Maria Maggiore retains its 5th century basilica structure. Church basilicas were inspired by ancient Roman basilicas, which were secular assembly halls. They feature a spacious central nave, side aisles, and a rounded apse. Santa Maria Maggiore is the first church dedicated to the Virgin Mary upon the 431 AD Council of Ephesus declaration that she was the mother of god. It is built atop a temple to Cybele.

Santa Maria Maggiore retains its 5th century basilica structure. Church basilicas were inspired by ancient Roman basilicas, which were secular assembly halls. They feature a spacious central nave, side aisles, and a rounded apse. Santa Maria Maggiore is the first church dedicated to the Virgin Mary upon the 431 AD Council of Ephesus declaration that she was the mother of god. It is built atop a temple to Cybele.

The gods and goddesses that animate Ovid’s 250 stories are human all too human and yet were worshipped as deities.  The same could be said of the majority of popes and emperors, just as many churches are built atop pagan temples, hubris and greed are common building blocks for rising and falling power structures.

Santa Maria sopra Minerva is the only gothic church in Rome. Roman architecture is very entrenched in its classical precedents. The church is built on a site of great significance, as its name suggests, on top of (or at least near) a temple to Minerva (the Roman name for Athena), goddess of war, wisdom, and handicrafts

Santa Maria sopra Minerva is the only gothic church in Rome. Roman architecture is very entrenched in its classical precedents. The church is built on a site of great significance, as its name suggests, on top of (or at least near) a temple to Minerva (the Roman name for Athena), goddess of war, wisdom, and handicrafts

A couple of days ago I read the tale of Echo and Narcissus.  Echo, a “garrulous” nymph, distracted Juno at Zeus’ bidding, from his numerous “consorts” with nymphs.  Juno never is duped for long and always exacts vengeance upon the female beings who “consort” with her roving husband or in any way cross her.

Note:  There is a rather distorted sense of culpability in Greco Roman myths, e.g., women, both divine and mortal are blamed for men’s lust and even for rape!  More on such injustice in a future post…

Echo’s punishment is loss of her own voice; she is only able to repeat the words of others. This inability to assert, to implore, to declare is truly a loss of agency.

St. Peter’s Basilica is built on the St. Peter’s tomb. His remains are under the baldachin (part of which is pictured above, designed by the one and only Bernini). It took 120 years to build the current basilica. It is built on top of the St. Peter’s church, which was built in the 4th century under Constantine’s rule. St. Peter’s is the biggest church in the world and the dome, the highest point in Rome, was designed by Michelangelo.

St. Peter’s Basilica is built on the St. Peter’s tomb. His remains are under the baldachin (part of which is pictured above, designed by the one and only Bernini). It took 120 years to build the current basilica. It is built on top of the St. Peter’s church, which was built in the 4th century under Constantine’s rule. St. Peter’s is the biggest church in the world and the dome, the highest point in Rome, was designed by Michelangelo.

Her inability to communicate is especially frustrating when Echo falls for a handsome youth in the forest.  Echo encounters the handsome Narcissus while he is out hunting and is utterly beguiled.  Narcissus senses her presence and calls out to Echo.  Echo is only able to repeat his words.  This cofounding call and response culminates in Narcissus’ request and subsequent, tragic miscommunication:

‘Here, let us meet together’. And, never answering to another sound more gladly, Echo replies ‘Together’, and to assist her words comes out of the woods to put her arms around his neck, in longing. He runs from her, and running cries ‘Away with these encircling hands! May I die before what’s mine is yours. She answers, only ‘What’s mine is yours!’

Narcissus flees Echo and soon encounters his own comely face in a still pool.  He falls in love with his reflection and slowly withers away, tormented by a self-reflexive version of unrequited love.  As Ovid poetically puts it:

 Fool, why try to catch a fleeting image, in vain? What you search for is nowhere: turning away, what you love is lost! What you perceive is the shadow of reflected form: nothing of you is in it. It comes and stays with you, and leaves with you, if you can leave!

What, who, how do we worship?  How can we encounter elevating spaces, feel elevated, when so much of our focus is downcast, gazing into pools of reflecting light that comes and stays with you, and leaves with you, if you can leave.

Rose City

The Skidmore Fountain: A historic and contemporary watering hole

Good citizens are the riches of a city.
— C.E.S. Wood
Skidmore Fountain, Portland, OR, 1888, Bronze and Granite  The Skidmore Fountain was built as a watering hole for horses, dogs, and people.  It is the centerpiece of Akeny Plaza in Portland's Old Town district.

Skidmore Fountain, Portland, OR, 1888, Bronze and Granite

The Skidmore Fountain was built as a watering hole for horses, dogs, and people.  It is the centerpiece of Akeny Plaza in Portland's Old Town district.

I've visited Portland's oldest example of public art, the Skidmore Fountain in downtown Portland, twice.  I first encountered this neo-classical watering hole last summer on a clear, late June day.  As I read the above quote, inscribed on one of its granite faces, a middle aged woman in a neon green tutu straddled the fountain's lower basin.  Half in and half out of the rippling water, her long bleached blond hair, like her arms, extended in multiple directions as she gesticulated and shouted at a couple of friends.  She buzzed with an accelerated energy that seemed as unnatural as her blond hair and tutu's fluorescent green.

 

The Skidmore Fountain's sculptor, Olin Wood, was influenced by neo-classical work in the 1878 Paris World's Fair.

The Skidmore Fountain's sculptor, Olin Wood, was influenced by neo-classical work in the 1878 Paris World's Fair.

The fountain's balanced ratios and classical elements, embossed rosettes and palmettes, spiraling volutes and twin nymphs or goddesses bearing the weight of the upper bronze basin evoke cultural ideals such as harmony, reason, and tradition.  The real time human interaction with this Victorian fount contrasted starkly with its contained and elegant aesthetic as well as C.E.S. Woods' aspirational quote.  Homeless citizens, agitated and lacking anywhere to hold their accompanying earthly possessions, congregated around this historic watering hole. 

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I returned to the Skidmore Fountain last month.  While its lower basin was empty homeless citizens still gathered around with blankets and backpacks.  As I stood momentarily entranced by water twinkling like liquid stars a man with a shaved head, baggy jeans, and patchy beard staggered across Akeny Plaza.  In that moment beauty and bare life simultaneously dominated my vision. 

Italian philosopher, Giorgio Agamben defines bare life as a "state of exception" or condition of existing outside the state and thereby being denied the basic rights and protections granted to citizens (more on the contentious nature of citizenship in a future post!). Public parks and plazas, urban spaces meant for respite and reflection, are often spaces where visitors encounter individuals arguably living in states of exception.  These spaces built for aspirational purposes instead provide space to confront public failures. 

The Skidmore Fountain persists as a public watering hole, serving its original purpose as a space to gather and rest.  It also provides space for reflection but of a more political and urgent nature that I suspect C.E.S. Wood or Stephen G. Skidmore intended.  While encountering this bronze and granite homage to good citizenry, I imagined an updated inscription:

Good social services are the riches of a city.

Wright Park

Wright Park

Wright Park's fountains share the Bird Pond with the Fisherman's Daughter statue.  This statue is a copy of one of five classically inspired statues that were purchased in Paris in 1889 and donated to Wright Park by Tacoma entrepreneur Clinton Ferry.  The statues convey the City Beautiful movement's (1890's-1920's) aesthetic sensibility.

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