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Postmodernism and parliamentary government
The Duomo of Naples, aka the Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta, aka the Cattedrale di San Gennaro, is a history class in a single building. A paleo-Christian church, Santa Restituta, was built here by the Emperor Constantine, on the site of a temple to Apollo; the main body of the church was constructed in the 13th and 14th centuries in Angevin gothic style; the main chapel was built and decorated in the 17th century; and the church houses a host of 19th century jewel-encrusted gewgaws donated to the church by various noble families. You can find virtually the entire history of Christian art represented somewhere in the building.
It’s an awesome experience being in the presence both of so much history and so much art. And it’s very different from being in a museum, because even though the church is a kind of museum (it’s thronged with tourists like myself snapping pictures, and it charges admission to enter certain areas, such as the chapel that houses San Gennaro’s relics and the museum that displays the gewgaws) it’s also a sacred place of worship, and is organized as such. By that I mean that the art therein isn’t necessarily arranged to be best-observed by an art student, but to create whatever effect the church is aiming for in its religious purpose. And while awe is clearly a big part of that purpose, it didn’t feel to me like the only purpose being aimed at. Or, perhaps better, it sometimes felt to me like the strategies employed by the different kinds of artwork in the place worked at cross-purposes. I’ve been puzzling ever sense to what degree that’s just an expression of my own taste, and my own status as an outsider, versus to what degree it’s built in to the work itself—to what degree, in other words, a Catholic from 1750 or 1650 or 1550 would see something like what I saw, and to what degree they wouldn’t notice anything amiss at all.
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Consider, for example, the extraordinary dome in the ceiling of the cathedral’s chapel, with frescos by Domenico Zampieri, pictured above. I can’t even find words to describe the breathtaking feeling of looking up into these ever-receding tiers of glorious light. It’s a perfect marriage of architecture and decoration intended to evoke a feeling of heaven, depicted on the inside of the dome itself. I can imagine how it would feel like that to worshippers. Here’s a closer view of the dome itself, which is, I think, less impressive than what it looks like in the context of the ceiling as a whole, but just so you can see what the whole thing is rising toward:
But now consider another, smaller dome in the Basilica di Santa Restituta, the early Christian church that got incorporated into the larger cathedral when the latter was built:
The frescos on this smaller dome are older than those at the top of the 17th-century chapel, but they demonstrate the characteristic “realistic” elements of renaissance and baroque art in terms of the depiction of bodies and their orientation in space, even an imaginary space like the heavens. It’s not the Sistine Chapel, but it’s recognizably trying to do the same kind of thing Michelangelo was doing, only on a much smaller scale. But in this case, the dome sits right above a much older work of Christian art with a totally different conception of how bodies and space should be represented. And my immediate reaction upon seeing it was feeling: oh, this is the real thing. I went back to look at the magnificent dome in the chapel, and I thought: this is very beautiful, but it’s a beautiful wedding cake, a confection, a stage effect, not something real. Indeed, it’s almost kitsch.
Now, I don’t trust that reaction, because I’m a person with modernist sensibilities, so of course I’m going to be drawn to the ostensibly more primitive, less-realistic work, identifying those qualities with authenticity and authenticity with worth. When I look at this early Christian mosaic from the ancient baptistry under the church, I see the shadow of Remedios Varo—but that’s because Remedios Varo was looking back precisely to this kind of work when she made her surrealist masterpieces.
All if which is to say that while I may have modernist sensibilities, I’m a postmodern person, so I’m acutely aware of how those sensibilities are themselves historically contingent. But all of that just raises the question I’m really interested in, which is how did it feel to the people who painted the frescos in that small dome, juxtaposed so closely against earlier Christian work, or the people who came to worship there after they were painted. Did they think they were dressing up something sacred but out of date? Were they striving mightily to measure up to the awesome power of the more ancient work? Or did they not even see what I see, perceive the juxtaposition of styles as a matter of history?
In that regard, consider this bit of fresco:
I think the chapel is an eighteenth-century restoration, and the fresco on the interior ceiling is clearly older—but zoom in on the central Christ figure in the lozenge under the dove of the Holy Spirit and you’ll see something older still:
Unless I’m reading it wrong, the book has the date 1592 in it, but the whole thing is built around a much, much older face of Christ which is not so much surrounded by a halo as encircled in stone like a relic. Which, I suppose, is what it is, but a relic not of Christ’s person but of an earlier era in Christian history. Whose idea was it to do that, to signify by such an arrangement that this is what matters, and that the rest is decoration? And if the rest is decoration, what does that mean about what whoever did this thought about their own devotional art?
If you’re still with me, you’re probably thinking “these are all questions an art historian could just answer; pity you didn’t have one for a guide.” But my experience of the place, without such a guide, was cut through over and over with these kinds of questions, questions of the relationship between art and history and belief and how they might play out in the minds both of the artists and of the devotees who worshipped there. And the questions were, frankly, more interesting to me than the art-historical answer. If I learned, for example, that the head of Christ in the fresco above was only discovered twenty years ago, underneath a substantially defaced fresco that had been painted over it in 1592, that wouldn’t “answer” my question of what someone genuinely devoted sees when they look at a patchwork like this. That question is still alive, even if the artists who created all the various patches aren’t.
What I’m wondering, I guess, is whether a postmodern sensibility, in which history is just a cabinet of styles to juxtapose at will, is genuinely postmodern or whether it’s been there for centuries—and, if it has been there for centuries, was it always fundamentally disenchanting in its effect, even in 1592. The modernist impulse in art has all been about digging down and stripping away, finding something true and fundamental under layers of pretense and decoration; it is the spiritual opposite of the baroque sensibility. Could they possibly have coexisted, in a spiritual sense, their effects not at war but operating in some kind of harmony? If they did once, could they possibly coexist again?
I felt like over and over again on this trip, I came across attempts to demonstrate that they could, attempts that nearly always failed. The contemporary art displayed in these sacred spaces nearly always looked like kitsch to me, and not only because it was often simply bad—even it was perfectly good from the perspective of color sense or compositional balance, it nearly always felt (to me) to be spiritually false and inert, an attempt to force the game or fake it. But occasionally I came across a juxtaposition of a different sort, where a contemporary work of art was displayed next to an older work deliberately to create a kind of postmodern dialogue. And the results of those juxtapositions, well . . .
This was from the Pio Monte della Misericordia, a chapel organized around a painting of Caravaggio’s called “The Seven Works of Mercy.” I’m not entirely sure whether it is still functional as a church or whether it has been turned into a museum, but regardless, the juxtaposition jarred, not because of the nudity but because the modern image felt like it aimed to reveal the artificiality of Caravaggio’s own work. If so it backfired on me, revealing the contemporary work to be abstractly gestural, Caravaggio’s to be more rooted in something genuinely felt.
(Here’s the Caravaggio, by the way.)
The only times I felt that more modern work could hold its own were when the space in question was essentially artistic rather than devotional, either because it was always so or because it had been “consecrated” as such even if it had previously been sacred to some other deity. These dogs of war tearing each other to bits before a 19th-century history painting in a modern art museum in Rome seemed entirely apropos, for example:
And I caught my breath when I first saw these guardians of a deconsecrated church, part of the castle complex in Ischia which is now a museum:
It wasn’t awe on the level of my first encounter with that baroque dome, but a short sharp shock of delight. These beings were of a different order than those who made this space and now were gone, but they cherished its emptiness, had made their home in it, were beautiful and had made the space more beautiful by their presence.
But there I go being a modernist again. I suppose I can’t help myself. Perhaps none of can, and perhaps that’s my answer.
The Fall of Draghi and the Populist Implosion
While I was in Italy, the government fell, and the more I learned about why it fell, the less sense it made to me. Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s last effort to salvage his coalition was torpedoed by coalition members to his right like Matteo Salvini’s League, who have reason to hope that the next election will bring a more right-leaning government—though not necessarily one led by them, since the most popular party in current polls is the right-wing opposition party Brothers of Italy. But the collapse was initially triggered by the populist Five Star Movement, and, well, I genuinely don’t know what they want or expect from their actions.
Draghi is the consummate centrist technocrat, so it would make sense that Five Star would be restive under his government. But he was brought in by them in a moment of crisis precisely because they were incapable of governing. Now Draghi is by far the most popular political figure in Italy, widely considered both within Italy and elsewhere in Europe to have had a successful tenure in office. Five Star, meanwhile, is fracturing and collapsing in the polls. It’s not strange to discover that populists aren’t great at governance, but when a purportedly populist movement can’t find the pulse of popular opinion or even identify its own interests, I think we need a new terminology to describe them.
Meanwhile, as someone who has at times been highly critical of America’s creaky constitution and the ways it may be fueling populist frustration, Italy is a bit of a cautionary tale against the notion that a parliamentary system with proportional representation would be enough to solve those problems. A frustrated and fragmented electorate will likely produce a frustrated and fragmented parliament, and consequently weak and unstable government easily dominated by the permanent bureaucracy. Draghi was exceptional in his ability to assert leadership over parliament and the bureaucracy, but his position depended on an extremely broad coalition, and such coalitions can’t and shouldn’t last. In that sense Draghi’s fall should not be in the least bit surprising, notwithstanding his popularity.
He is popular, though, and the fact that nobody expects him to win a mandate through an election despite his popularity suggests that parliamentary systems like Italy’s may tend toward fragmentation for reasons other than the natural fissiparousness of the populace, and thereby sow the seeds of their own destruction. That’s something advocates of parliamentary government over America’s kludgier system should grapple with more than I have generally seen them do.
My World, Here and Elsewhere
With my usual impeccable timing, I left for a vacation in Europe just before my latest piece in The New York Times came out. As a consequence, I have a bunch of new readers who haven’t heard from me in two weeks, and both you and my readers of longer standing have no doubt been wondering where the heck I’ve been.
I usually use these wraps to link back to and elaborate further on things I’ve written in the previous week (or sometimes two weeks). This time I’m not going to elaborate (because this email is already quite long), but I’m also going to include a “greatest hits” series of links for new readers to get a sense of the kind of work I’m usually putting out here.
In any event: while I was away, two new pieces of mine came out:
First, in The New York Times, a guest essay on the burgeoning Republican contradiction over whether to take on the administrative state or take it over, a contradiction could come to a head if a future GOP president runs roughshod over the requirements of administrative law to seize control of the bureaucracy.
Second, in The Jewish Review of Books, a review of Alex Edelman’s one-man show, Just For Us, about the time he (a Jew raised in an observant home) went to a white supremacist meeting, which I saw at Soho Playhouse and which is now running at Greenwich House through August 26th.
And, as promised, a list of posts from this Substack that give a sense of its range and, I think, represent some of my best work here. I hope they help convince those of you who are new here to stick around.
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