Saturday, July 31, 2021

The Porta Maggiore Basilica


Before the Christian religion adapted the basilican building format for religious purposes, a small secretive mystery religion used it first for their worship.  The Porta Maggiore Basilica is a three aisled structure carved from the bedrock about 40 feet (12 meters) underneath the railroad yard of the Stazione Termini in Rome near the ancient Porta Maggiore.  Railroad workers discovered it in 1917 when a passageway to the basilica caved in as they were building another rail line.  The Statilius family, close to the Emperor Augustus may have built the structure sometime in the 1st century BCE.  The scholarly consensus says that they built the Basilica for Neo-Pythagorean rites.  Neo-Pythagoreanism was new at the time, an attempt to revive ancient Pythagorean mysticism combined with aspects of Platonism.  The members of the sect were ascetics who renounced all worldly pleasures in the pursuit of a mystical union of the soul with its divine source.  The rites that took place here were probably secret.  The significance and the identity of a lot of the imagery in the basilica is forgotten.

Beautifully carved stucco images cover the interior of the Basilica.  The artists added ground up mother-of-pearl to the plaster mixture to give the carved stucco a lustrous quality.  Some of the carved figures can be identified such as Hercules and Orpheus, but most of the rest and their significance remain unknown.

Unlike the the third string house painters who made the later Christian catacomb art, these artists were first rate befitting an important family with ties to Augustus like the Statilius family known for their patronage of mystical and magical practices.

Since its discovery in 1917, preservation and restoration of the Basilica proceeded in fits and starts.  A recent campaign added a concrete shell around the structure and ventilation to prevent radon gas build-up and to control humidity.  It is now open to small groups of visitors who must make reservations in advance twice a month.

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

The Best Cafe

A new long-term project, a graphic novel...or more likely a story, some kind of story anyway.
I've tentatively titled it The Best Cafe and it's set in Hargis, Texas sometime in the 1970s.
It's about two young men who are lovers reunited after being separated by a scandal four years earlier.  They are two people whose lives derailed and they've struggled to find a new path ever since, and now they are figuring out how to go forward together.

I called it The Best Cafe since one of the two lead characters lives in a one room apartment above a small town diner called The Best Cafe.  Much of the drama takes place in that apartment. 

Below is a sample of the panels done so far.  They are all hand-drawn.  I have neither the technical skills nor the money for Illustrator, so I'm doing them all by hand using felt tip pens and ink wash with some white gouache.  I haven't put in any text yet.  All the text is there on each panel in pencil, but it's not presentable right now.  I'm figuring out how I want to do the text.  Lettering is not my forte, but I want clear and legible text, and I want to do expressive things with it too.  At the moment I'm drawing the pictures and saving the text for when I have it all figured out.

There will be a lot of sex in this story.  It's sex that separates these two guys from the rest of their town.  Sex is the big contending issue between them and everyone else, the distinction that so complicates and derails their lives.  Sex is also their path back to each other and to making a new future for the both of them.  So, I have no qualms about dwelling on it.  

Sunday, July 25, 2021

Sant' Ignazio, Rome


The great church of San Ignazio in Rome is a Jesuit church designed and built by Jesuits for other Jesuits.  Pope Francis is a Jesuit, a member of the Society of Jesus, the largest and most famous of the preaching orders that came out of the Catholic Counter-Reformation of the 16th century.  The Jesuits built the church to mark the canonization of their founder St. Ignatius Loyola in 1622.  They built it attached to the College of Rome that later in the 17th century moved to a new location and became the Gregorian University in Rome.
A Jesuit professor of mathematics at the College of Rome Orazio Grassi designed the church with some consultations from Carlo Maderno who was invited to submit proposals for the church.

Like Giacomo Vignola's Il Gesu, the mother church of the Jesuit order across town, Sant' Ignazio is a big hall church built for preaching.  An enormous uninterrupted hall space forms the bulk of the church with chapels on the side.   A three bay nave terminates in a crossing with an apse that is as high and wide as the nave, very much like an earlier prototype for these Counter-Reformation preaching churches, Sant' Andrea in Mantua built at the end of the 15th century.   Both Sant' Andrea and Sant' Ignazio were designed to accommodate very large crowds, giving them clear views of the altars and pulpits.

Today Sant' Ignazio is most famous for the contribution of another Jesuit, a lay brother named Andrea Pozzo who painted the spectacular fresco cycle in the church, the last great painted spectacle in Baroque Rome.  He spent nine years from 1685 to 1694 working on the ceiling, apse, and a tromp l'oeil dome.

The nave ceiling painting, The Apotheosis of St. Ignatius Loyola is a masterwork of quadratura illusionism that uses architecture and perspective that influenced similar ceiling painting projects all over Europe into the 19th century.

When viewed from a spot in the floor of the nave marked by a marble circle below, the illusion of the painting comes together.

Viewed from that spot, it's hard to tell where the nave vault ends and the painting begins.  It looks as if the ceiling opens up into the wider sky with figures floating upward like bubbles in seltzer.
It's an undeniably spectacular and irresistible effect.  The painting is supposed to be a complex allegory of the global mission of the Jesuit order, but all that is lost in the dazzling theatrical spectacle set out before us on the ceiling.

Saint Ignatius Loyola received into heaven in the dramatic center of the painting.  Four rays of light emanate from him to the four allegorized continents of the earth (as known at the time, Australia and Antarctica appear on maps much later than this painting).  Down on the lower right I presume is St. Francis Xavier sent by St. Ignatius to India.

This detail spells out a major theme of the painting, a passage from St. Luke's Gospel that meant a lot to Jesuit missionaries, "I have come to set the world on fire."

St. Francis Xavier looks down at the large woman on the lower right edge who stands for Asia.

The Name of Jesus carried by an angel.

The continent of Europe.

Africa rides a crocodile

A very beautiful detail.  Pozzo may not have been a great painter, but he was a very good one.

Asia riding a camel with St. Francis Xavier looking down at her.

Another fine detail.

America (north and south) wears feathers and rides a jaguar.

The whole painting on the nave ceiling once again.

The tromp l'oeil dome painted on canvas mounted onto the ceiling.  I'm guessing it's oil painting, but I'm not sure.  Orazio Grassi originally planned a tall dome over the crossing.  A quarrel with the Ludovisi family funding much of the church's construction prevented the construction of the dome.  So, Andrea Pozzo painted this tromp l'oeil substitute.

The apse and high altar with paintings by Andrea Pozzo.

In the half-dome of the apse, St. Ignatius appears in glory to the people of Rome.  Below is a cartouche with the words spoken by Christ to St. Ignatius appear in Latin:  Ergo Vobis Propitius Ero (I will be favorable to you [at Rome]).

Above the high altar is St. Ignatius' Vision in the Chapel of La Storta that began his religious calling.

St. Ignatius sends St. Francis Xavier to India

St. Ignatius receives Francesco Borgia who will become the first "general" of the Jesuit order.

Andrea Pozzo's painted spectacles in Sant' Ignazio were art for the masses.  They thrilled religious pilgrims, the Roman public, and Jesuit seminarians just as much as they thrill tourists today, and that was the point.  These kinds of spectacles were not the least bit interested in reflecting real life back to their audiences. They were about making the stories and doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church as vividly real as possible, so real they seem to fly over our heads.  The illusionism stretches the boundary between art and reality without quite breaking it.  
Writers describe Baroque art as "theatrical" all the time and rightly so, but it's a specific kind of theater, machine theater, the theater of special effects.  Hollywood uses the same concepts when producing summer blockbuster movies.  The point is not to reflect real life back at their audience, but to make their worlds of fantasy and story so vivid that they seem to fly out of the screen and into the theater.

Respectable critics and academics have frowned on this kind of art for over two centuries, and still do.  The idea that simple paint on a wall or ceiling could produce something so vivid and appealing so immediately and so broadly thrills the imagination of this painter.

Andrea Pozzo's proud self portrait

The beautiful Rococo Piazza San Ignacio in front of the church.

Note:  All of these photos come from Wikimedia Commons.

The Spitting Dictators

A fountain of dictators spitting at each other in a park in Arnhem in the Netherlands.  
The dictators are Stalin, Hitler, Franco, and Louis XIV.

The Spanish artist Fernando Sanchez Castillo made this and titled it "Spitting Leaders."


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.