Wednesday, July 21, 2021

The Sun Setting in the Smoke


A photo I took yesterday from the fire escape of my home in Brooklyn of the sun setting in a hazy sky full of smoke from the wildfires in the west.

The Cult and the Epidemic


The Trump GOP from the beginning politicized the pandemic.  They made it a test of loyalty to the Beloved Leader.  Don't take the vaccine created by those Jew liberal fags that you hate so much.  Believe the Leader.  You don't need no stinkin' evidence.

And now as we're heading into yet another covid surge, the Leader cult is turning into a death cult and a suicide pact.
Here's testimony from someone on the frontlines in Birmingham Alabama:

I'm admitting young healthy people to the hospital with very serious COVID infections. One of the last things they do before they're intubated is beg me for the vaccine. I hold their hand and tell them that I'm sorry, but it's too late. A few days later when I call time of death, I hug their family members and I tell them the best way to honor their loved one is to go get vaccinated and encourage everyone they know to do the same. They cry. And they tell me they didn't know. They thought it was a hoax. They thought it was political. They thought because they had a certain blood type or a certain skin color they wouldn't get as sick. They thought it was 'just the flu'. But they were wrong. And they wish they could go back. But they can't. So they thank me and they go get the vaccine. And I go back to my office, write their death note, and say a small prayer that this loss will save more lives.

None of this had to happen.  Over 600,000 dead was not necessary.  That the epidemic surges again in a lot of localities in the USA did not have to happen.

I'm fully vaccinated, but I'm watching on social media people I know online coming down with the virus still over a year and a half into the epidemic.  But for the ambitions of some demagogues and their willfully bamboozled followers, my mother might have lived the remainder of her life to its proper finish among family and friends instead of alone and isolated gasping for breath in a covid ward. 

If I survive this epidemic, I will never forget nor forgive.

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

The Altar of Peace


The Eternal City has been much on my mind lately, probably because I hope to visit there for a few days next summer, God, my finances, and the pandemic willing.  
It used to be fashionable to describe Rome as like a palimpsest, a manuscript where one text has been erased to make way for a new text, but traces of the old text remain.  I think that more accurately describes New York City that constantly tears itself down in order to build anew.  And yet, surprising survivals stand out here and there amidst all the shiny newness.  A couple of early 19th century tenements stand cheek by jowl with a luxury condo building finished yesterday.  I think Kenneth Clark more accurately described Rome as a compost heap of human ambition.

New York and Rome are both cities built for visitors.  They built their monuments with travelers in mind.  They both see themselves as destinations, as centers of the world.  New York built its prodigious towers with travelers in mind, to mark the city as a headquarters and a destination.  Its skyscrapers proclaim the common faith of the whole city in the transformative power of money.
Rome is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world.  Traditionally Romulus founded Rome on April 21, 753 BCE.  In reality, the city is much older.  The settlements on the Palatine, Capitoline, and Quirinal hills were already ancient by the time Romulus arrived, their origins going back into Prehistory.  The Emperor Augustus began a project which never ended to transform a big crowded city into a world capital.  Later emperors, popes, kings, dictators, and plutocrats continued that project for another 2000 years.

"I found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble," said the Emperor Augustus according to Suetonius.

The Ara Pacis, the Altar of Peace survives as one of Augustus' earliest monuments to glorify the city.  By the standards of later Roman emperors it's very modest in size, about as big as a modest house.  That's consistent with Augustus' very cautious campaign to sell the idea of the Roman Empire to a skeptical public.  And indeed, that's the point of this monument, to proclaim and justify the creation of the new Roman Empire out of the ashes of the old Republic that so recently collapsed in multiple civil wars.

The Roman Senate voted to build the Altar of Peace on July 4, 14 BCE to commemorate the safe return of Augustus from a three year tour of Hispania and Gaul (today Spain and France) and his rite of sacrifice in gratitude to the gods sometime earlier in the summer, perhaps late June.  The Altar was completed and consecrated December 30, 9 BCE.

In ancient Rome as in ancient Greece and Etruria, public religious rites almost always took place outdoors around a large altar.  The Altar of Peace is just such an outdoor altar for public ceremonies.  It consists of the altar proper, and a sanctuary wall that encloses the altar with entrances on the east and west sides (In 1938 Mussolini changed the orientation of the Altar from east/west to north/south).  The east portal had steps and was probably the main entrance.  The Altar today stands about in its original location on the north side of the Campus Martius, a wide flood plain of the Tiber river where Romans used to gather for public meetings, the census, elections, and religious observances.  In Augustus' day, this was outside the city along the Via Lata (today the Corso in central Rome).  Augustus built a large mausoleum for himself and his family a short distance from the Altar to the north.  

The east side of the altar seen in the new museum designed for it by the American architect Richard Meier completed in 2006.

The east side of the Altar with carved reliefs on the sanctuary wall of acanthus plant patterns on the lower walls and scenes from Roman mythology on the upper register.

The lavish altar proclaims abundance, prosperity, and continuity with Roman traditions in every part.  Though a relatively small monument by Roman standards, it is elaborate and ambitious.

The west entrance to the Altar.

A relief from the east end of the Altar showing a scene from Roman mythology, perhaps Aeneas sacrificing swine in thanksgiving for his safe arrival at what would become the site of the city of Rome.  Some scholars argue that it might show the second king of Rome Numa Pompilius who created many of Rome's institutions, especially its religious ones.  Numa Pompilius built the first Temple to Janus that the Romans always kept closed in times of peace and open in times of war.  The design of the Altar of Peace may recall the first temple to Janus.

A relief from the west side of the Altar that may show Tellus the goddess of the earth, or perhaps Pax the goddess of Peace, or Venus Genetrix, mother of Aeneas and the Latin people (and of the Julio-Claudian dynasty of Julius Caesar and Augustus).

The two remaining mythological panels are fragments and their reconstruction is very controversial.

From the east side, the Lupercal, the discovery of the she-wolf suckling the infants Romulus and Remus.
I think both of these panels are pure conjecture.  There are not enough fragments left to determine any subject matter.

A fragment from the West end reconstructed as the goddess Roma seated on a pile of captured weapons.

These reliefs linked the creation of the Roman Empire to the religious origins of the city of Rome.  They made a claim for the legitimacy of Augustus' regime as a continuation and recovery of Roman tradition.

The north wall of the altar with the acanthus pattern on the lower register and above that a sculpted frieze recreating the ceremony of thanksgiving for Augustus' safe return to Rome in the early summer of 14 BCE.

The north wall shows the beginning of a religious procession showing the lictors who guard the procession, the various "colleges" of priests and their acolytes along with members of the imperial court.
They all wear togas, a religious garment in ancient Rome that could veil the head during especially important rites.  On the left in the panel above, an acolyte carries a box of incense.

Most of the heads on the north wall were heavily restored and even replaced in the 18th century.

Members of the court and officials with children who may be the children of foreign royalty in Rome as guests, or just as likely hostages.
There are a lot of children in the frieze of the Ara Pacis, perhaps signifying peace and safety.  Small children rarely appear in most Roman public art and never in ancient Greek public art.

More priests on the north wall.

A fragment from the north wall today in the Louvre that shows more children.

A large part of the south wall of the Altar of Peace continuing the recreation of the religious procession of early summer in 14 BCE.  Once again, acanthus plant patterns take up the lower register and the upper shows the ceremony.  On this wall we see more of the imperial family and the culmination of the sculpted procession with Augustus himself making an offering of incense before the sacrifice of cattle.

The south wall shows the imperial family all individualized but to a limited extent.  The identifications are all controversial.  The couple with two children on the left may be Antonia and Drusus with their two sons the future Emperor Claudius and Germanicus.  The other boy on the right may be the future Emperor Tiberius.

The man on the left with his head veiled is usually identified as Augustus' close friend and son-in-law Marcus Agrippa.  The woman on the right may be his wife Julia the elder daughter of Augustus, or just as likely the Empress Livia.

The frieze of the Altar of Peace is a major masterpiece of Roman classicism.  The figures move with a slow right to left rhythm of the folds of togas and robes.  The figures seem to live vividly talking with one another as they move.  The slow rhythmic procession, the largeness of forms, and a certain generalization of features creates monumentality; taking a moment of time and making it stand for all time.   For all its vitality, the frieze of the Altar of Peace manifests grandeur and a sense of the momentousness of the occasion. The artists of the frieze used the example of the sculpted Ionic friezes of ancient Greece, especially the Parthenon Frieze.  They did a very un-Greek thing by including mortals in all their individuality on a religious structure, and mortals of all ages from small children to the elderly.
The monumentality in all its magnificence is deliberate.  It's a vision of Rome in its ideal state created out of those traditional Roman values of family, piety, and patria.  The destiny of Rome ordained by the gods is fulfilled.  Rome lives at peace with itself and now readies itself to bring peace and civilization to a war-torn barbaric world.  The order and harmony of the gods as manifested in the stars and the workings of nature will be created on earth through Rome.
The Altar of Peace proclaims Rome's empire to be a project of secular salvation to end conflict and bring peace and prosperity to the world.

Priests and other officials accompanying the Emperor Augustus.

The badly damaged figure of Augustus himself on the center right probably making an offering incense before the sacrifice of cattle.  He performs the role of Pontifex Maximus, the highest priest, instituted by King Numa Pompilius in the days of Rome's traditional foundation, a title still claimed by the head of the Roman Catholic Church, the Pope.

Augustus was very careful about the image he presented to the public.  The Altar frieze shows him not as some enthroned Pharaoh receiving supplication from subjects, but as a fellow citizen performing a priestly duty as would any Roman father in the worship of family ancestors and household gods in his home.  The Emperor Augustus was always careful to show himself as a first among equals, as a citizen among other citizens, and not as some enthroned demigod.

And yet the Altar does make divine claims for him, subtly joining him to Rome's origins and its gods in the imagery and design of the structure.

The acanthus pattern takes up the bulk of the sculpture on the sanctuary wall of the Altar of Peace. Scrolling acanthus plants grafted with all kinds of other plants and flowers from grapes to pomegranates to hop vines and wheat springs from single roots.  Animals of all kinds crawl and perch throughout the acanthus scrollwork.  Some of the best and most delightful carving is found here.
The lavishness and vitality of this pattern played its part in the themes of peace and prosperity in the Altar. 

The single root from which an impossibly wide variety of botany springs.

A swan.


A flower, possibly a pomegranate flower.

A small frog.

A variety of plants including what looks to me like hop vine on the curl on the upper right.

More flowers on the acanthus vines.

A lizard.

A scorpion.

This kind of acanthus scroll pattern would have a long afterlife in Christian art as a metaphor for the Christian paradise.  Here it appears as the Tree of Life in a 12th apse mosaic in the church of San Clemente in Rome.

The decoration is a little more sparing inside the sanctuary and on the altar proper and recalls the religious function of the structure.  Above is the sculpted frieze on the inside of the sanctuary wall facing the altar.  It shows a stone version of temporary screens set up to indicate a sacred area.  They were cloth screens decorated with the skulls of sacrificed cattle and swags of flowers and fruit.  

Here is a swag of pomegranates, apples, grapes, olives, wheat, and pine cones with flowers and ribbons between cow skulls.  The circular object in the top center is a patera (phiale in ancient Greece), a libation bowl for making drink offerings.

One of two volutes on the altar itself carved with more acanthus scrolls, winged lions on the ends, and a scene of sacrificing cattle.

Another view of the altar volutes.

Sacrificial cattle in procession on the altar.

Over time, the Altar of Peace became lost on the Campus Martius.  Even before the Roman Empire officially fell in 476 CE, the city of Rome decayed and fell apart.  The superb central drainage system of Rome, the Cloaca Maxima stopped working due to lack of maintenance.  The Campus Martius became a flood plain once again.  Successive floods over the years and centuries wrecked and buried the Altar of Peace under layers of silt.
The first fragments of the Altar came to light during construction of a palazzo in 1568.  More fragments surfaced in the 18th century.
In 1909 the first excavations to recover the Altar began.  Excavations were limited and came to a halt in the 1920s when they threatened a nearby movie theater.
Mussolini in the 1930s ordered the full excavation and reassembly of the Altar of Peace in time for the 2000th birthday of the Emperor Augustus on September 23, 1938.  The reconstruction was very hasty with a lot of guesswork due to so many pieces still missing.

The first pavilion built in 1938 to safely house the rebuilt Ara Pacis designed by the architect Vittorio Mopurgo on orders from Mussolini.

In 2006, the Italian government replaced Mopurgo's pavilion with a new museum designed by Richard Meier.

The Emperor Augustus as Pontifex Maximus.

People always wonder about Rome's decline and fall.  The Roman Empire ended for the same reason that all states end.  They are mortal things made by mortal people.
What is really remarkable about the Roman Empire is its success and longevity.  Empires usually are ephemeral things.  The globe circling British Empire didn't last two centuries.  Rome's Empire lasted from the end of the Punic Wars in 147 BCE to the abdication of the last Roman Emperor in 476 CE; or if you prefer to the end of that continuity of the Eastern Roman Empire known as the Byzantine Empire in the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453.  After its end, Rome cast a long shadow through history down to the present day.  There were many abortive attempts to revive the Roman Empire from Justinian and Charlemagne to the Russian Tsars to the Austrian Hapsburgs to Napoleon to Mussolini.

As imperial apologias go, the Ara Pacis is one of the best.  Frankly I think all empires boil down to little more than smash and grabs, stealing land and resources and reducing the people who live on that land to tenants in their own country and cheap labor.  That was true of the Egyptian Empire, Alexander's Empire, the Roman Empire, the Spanish Empire, the French Empire, the British Empire, the German Empire, the Russian Empire, and the American Empire, of every empire.
And all of them justify this highly organized robbery on a grand scale by the same claims of divine mandate and historical destiny made by the Ara Pacis.

Wednesday, July 14, 2021


I'm thinking this Bastille Day of Lafayette.  The young Lafayette was an amazing prodigy.  A very courageous, charismatic, and capable military commander he won battles before the age of twenty.   He summoned all the courage and daring of adolescence to demand that George Washington free his slaves and provide land and means for them to make a living as free people.  He said this to Washington's face, and at Mount Vernon, instantly over-shadowing the handful of Founding Fathers who opposed slavery.

The older Lafayette appeals more to me these days, probably because I am older.  He began as a star of the French Revolution creating a National Guard to safeguard the new republic and repel foreign invaders.  With help from Thomas Jefferson, he wrote the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen.  As the revolution radicalized and became more violent, Lafayette found himself on the death lists of both monarchists and Jacobins.  He fled to Belgium hoping to catch a ship going to America.  Instead Hessian soldiers captured him.  Lafayette spent the rest of the French Revolution going from one German prison to another sometimes living in appalling conditions.  That was a misfortune that probably saved his life.

Napoleon negotiated Lafayette's freedom and brought him back to France.  Lafayette standing on principle and being foolishly naive called out Napoleon for being an autocrat and betraying the original liberal spirit of the Revolution.  Napoleon responded by seizing all of Lafayette's assets reducing him to being a pauper.  For the rest of his life, he lived off his wife's inheritance and what he could earn speaking and writing.  

During the Bourbon Restoration, Lafayette mostly lived quietly always receiving American visitors, but also many others, especially those involved in other liberation struggles.  He served briefly in the restored Chamber of Deputies under King Louis XVIII, but changes in election laws preventing liberals like him from being elected to the Chamber caused his defeat.

In 1824, he toured the United States for a little more than a year.  The tour was a triumph.  Everywhere he went Lafayette was hailed as a hero of the American Revolution and as a living link to the brave days of independence.  Politicians competed to share the stage with him.  Towns and cities competed to have him visit.  Lafayette returned to France under the reactionary autocratic rule of King Charles X.

Lafayette made himself the king's enemy openly calling for a democratic republic on the American model.  The king's heavy handed rule created a lot of popular support for Lafayette that probably saved him from being arrested.  But the king's spies were everywhere and always kept watch over Lafayette and read his correspondence.  

Lafayette was 72 years old when the July Revolution of 1830 broke out after the king tried to disenfranchise everyone except his supporters.  Once again Lafayette was summoned to command the National Guard to protect the Chamber of Deputies from the king's troops.  Lafayette refused to negotiate with King Charles and forced his abdication.  Lafayette very reluctantly accepted the reign of King Louis-Philippe in order to avoid another civil war in France.

Lafayette died in 1834 at the age of 76.

I think about all that the older Lafayette did and endured these days because it appears to me that the USA of today like the France of Lafayette's maturity is about to send liberal democracy into a long eclipse.
I've never thought much of political ideologies -- like religious dogmas they always degenerate into pretexts for dominating people -- but I've always felt loyal to liberal democracy.  How to continue once it ends?  How to remain true to democracy when it becomes unfashionable, inconvenient, and perhaps illegal?  How to believe and act on the concept of freedom and dignity as the birthright of all people, that people can govern themselves for their own sakes without anyone representing God on earth, or some political messiah embodying the forces of destiny?  These were all things Lafayette faced through most of his life.  The tragedy and the heroism of Lafayette is that he remained true to liberal democracy and to France long after France had betrayed him.

A portrait of Lafayette from 1824 by Ari Scheffer who was a personal friend of Lafayette.  This painting hangs in the House of Representatives in the US Capitol.

A painting of the Rights of Man and Citizen written by Lafayette with help from Thomas Jefferson.

The Roman Grandeur of the Williamsburg Bridge

This time, I photographed the bridge from the Manhattan side on June 25.


Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Catching Up on the News

 For those of you left who follow news about me from here instead of from Facebook, a lot has happened over the past couple of years.

My mother died of covid in January of this year.  She was 93.  My brother had just moved her out of a nursing home to get her away from a covid outbreak there, only to have her test positive for the disease in the new nursing home.  She died about a month later in Dallas Presbyterian Hospital in complete isolation.
A live video feed was the last I saw of her a few days before she died.  My brother in Dallas had no more access to her than I did here in New York.

A photo I took of the sunset from the Williamsburg Bridge on the evening before my mother died.

Michael and I moved last year, though not very far.  We moved 2 doors down the street on Engert Avenue here in Brooklyn.  An apartment that we wanted for awhile became available and we took it.  
We may move again in the near future.  We're both getting very tired of the noise on the BQE just outside our window.

Michael now has a new career in real estate.  He aced the state real estate exam on the first try.  He's very good at the business, and to my surprise, he actually enjoys the work.  

We have a new cat.  Willy died in 2019, and his successor is an adorable tuxedo cat named Mickey.
And here he is.


I'm very busy this summer.

I'm working on the last panels of the Second Passion Series.  I'm working on a version of the Doubting Thomas story, and the Supper at Emmaus.  Those panels are almost finished and illustrated below, photographed with my better but less than perfect phone camera.

After these are finished, then I will begin work on the last two panels of the 20 panel series.  They will be a version of the Ascension I'm titling Jesus Returns to God, and the last panel will be The Trinity.  Traditionally, the extended Passion sequence ends with The Last Judgement.  I'm thinking about incorporating some aspect of the Last Judgment in the Trinity panel.


Jesus Appears to His Friends

A detail from Jesus Appears to His Friends

The Supper at Emmaus

I'm also working on an entirely new kind of project, a graphic novel (or something like that).
I've just started making the finished panels.  I spent a long time writing the script and it's finished, though it will inevitably get tweaked as I make the panels.  Here are some phone photos of what I've finished so far.  I've just started.

The story is set in the town of Hargis, Texas sometime in the 1970s.
I've decided to spill out my id and see what happens.  This is all made up.  There's nothing autobiographical here.

I'm tentatively titling it The Best Cafe.  One of the two protagonists lives in a one room apartment over The Best Cafe, and a lot of the drama takes place there.

I've just started making the panels for pages in the book.  I'm saving filling in the text boxes for last.