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Catalonia and the Splintering of Europe

Secession is something of a dirty word in these parts.

My readers know that the United States dealt rather dramatically and thoroughly with the question of secession during the Civil War in the 19th century, meaning that the issue of whether a country could break apart is something which does not often cross our minds on this side of the Atlantic.  True, our media has done a great deal of reporting on the occupation of Crimea by Russia, but mainly because that action raises a number of strategic concerns for this country.  Somewhat less attention has been paid to the question of independence for Scotland, although it is reported on from time to time for the two-fold reason that the people there speak English, and Americans are fascinated by just about anything that goes on in Britain.

However in other parts of Europe, the possibility of break-up is being actively considered, yet remains outside the common knowledge of most Americans.  Consider the recent referendum in Venice for example, on whether to leave Italy and become an independent republic again, as it was before Italian unification in the 19th century.  The story received scant attention on these shores, but the referendum passed with a staggering 89% of the vote, accompanied by a huge turn-out: of the 3.7 million eligible voters, approximately 2.4 million voters took part, and of those over 2.1 million people voted in favor of declaring independence from Italy. Another example is the question of independence for Catalonia, an issue which is now starting to come to a head, but which is not being analyzed very much in American news outlets either.

As the reader may know, if he is a regular visitor to these pages, Catalonia is the northeastern region of Spain along the Mediterranean, of which Barcelona is the capital.  The Catalan people have their own separate language, flag, and culture, distinct from the rest of Spain, a fact which, at various points over the past few centuries, has caused them to try to gain independence.  Economically speaking, Catalonia is one of the most powerful of Spain’s 17 component regions, producing between 1/4 and 1/5 of the entire output of the Spanish national economy, depending on whose figures you believe.

Because of this, Catalan yearning for international cultural recognition has, in recent years, been joined with something resembling economic libertarianism.  The perception, rightly or wrongly, among the Catalans that they are paying far more into the central Spanish economy than they are getting out of it, has fostered a widespread call for less centralized control by Madrid.  This development of a greater desire for self-determination based on economic policy, not just cultural preservation, has appealed to a broad swath of Catalan voters, and led to an upcoming referendum which could lead to Catalonia declaring independence from Spain…or maybe not.

Back in January of 2013, the Catalan Parliament adopted a resolution that Catalonia had a right to hold a vote on whether to declare independence from Spain, as a sovereign legal and political entity.  This was temporarily suspended by the Spanish Constitutional Court in Madrid in May 2013, pending judicial ruling on the matter.  The resolution was rejected yesterday by the court, declaring that “within the framework of the constitution, a region cannot unilaterally convoke a referendum on self-determination to decide on its integration with Spain.”

While this was making its way through the legal system last year, the major Catalan political parties did not wait to see what Madrid would decide.  In December 2013, the Catalan government announced that a referendum would be held on November 9, 2014, in which two questions would be placed before the electorate.  First, voters would be asked whether they wanted to declare Catalonia a state; if so, the voters would then be asked whether that state should be independent of Spain.  The central government in Madrid has already declared that any such vote would be illegal under the Spanish Constitution, a position strengthened by yesterday’s court ruling.

Keep in mind, there are two very important differences with respect to the way the Scottish and the Catalan independence referenda are proceeding.  In the case of Scotland, the vote will only ask one question: whether Scotland should be an independent country.  In Catalonia, the two-part question means that, in theory, a majority of voters could declare that Catalonia is a state, rather than simply a province or a region, and yet those voters could also decide that they do not want to be independent of Spain.  Additionally, while the Scottish vote is taking place with the blessing – if not the approval – of the British government, the Catalan vote, if it happens at all, clearly will have no such approval nor be recognized, whatever the outcome.

Yet interestingly enough, Tuesday’s ruling may not prove to be a defeat for the Catalan referendum after all.  Not only was this court result expected, but it may actually galvanize Catalan voters to go ahead with their vote anyway, in defiance of Madrid.  If it does, Catalonia may be betting on the fact that the current Prime Minister of Spain, Mariano Rajoy, and the conservative Partido Popular which he heads, are now unpopular.  The Spanish economy remains something of a basket case, with around 26% of Spaniards still unemployed, and economic growth this year predicted to be only around 1.2%, according to figures released today by the Bank of Spain.

Given that Spain has been in the economic doldrums for several years, this growth rate is actually comparatively good news, but it is not winning Sr. Rajoy or his party many votes.  Recent polls suggest that in the upcoming EU Parliamentary elections in May, the Partido Popular is likely to lose to the Socialists and other leftist groups.  And since national elections must take place in Spain in 2015, Catalonia may be betting that Sr. Rajoy will not want to risk being seen ordering the police or armed forces to arrest and prosecute those trying to organize the referendum.

Of course, if Catalonia decides that it is a state within a state, this may prove almost more confusing within Spain’s patchwork system of government than if it simply declared independence.  Unlike the United States or Germany, Spain does not have a federal system of government, with a clear division of powers between the various state governments and the national government.  Rather, individual relationships were negotiated between the central government in Madrid, and the component regions of the country, which over the years have occasionally been re-visited and renegotiated.

Thus, even if full-on independence does not pass in Catalonia, Spain could be looking at a major constitutional crisis.  Other wealthy, culturally and linguistically separatist regions in the north of Spain, such as the Basques or Galicia, could decide that they, too, want to hold such referenda.  Some might want to stay within Spain; others might go for full-on independence.  The end result could be an evisceration of the Spanish Constitution, something which Madrid absolutely does not want.

In a wider European context, Brussels is clearly concerned about what the fracturing of nation-states means for the future of the European Union.  Paradoxically, it is the greater degree of self-determination brought about by membership in the EU which has helped to bring about these resurgent independence movements, but there is no guarantee that a newly independent Catalonia, Venice, or Scotland would be permitted to join the EU.  Their “parent” states could indefinitely prevent their accession, for example.  These would not be friendly annulments, as occurred in the breakup of Czechoslovakia, nor bloody, drawn-out divorces, as occurred in Yugoslavia, but something altogether new, which Brussels will have a very difficult time dealing with.

Stay tuned.

Pro-Independence Rally in Downtown Barcelona September 11, 2012

Pro-Independence Rally in Downtown Barcelona
September 11, 2012

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An Ancient Bronze Headache for The Getty

If like most people you enjoy collecting things – baseball cards, stamps, snow globes of the world, etc. – chances are you built your collection in a law-abiding way.  You received these items as gifts, or you bought them from a shop, market, garage sale, etc.  At the time, you probably didn’t stop to think about where the person selling you the item picked it up; if you did, chances are you dismissed the question from your mind fairly quickly.

Yet when it comes to extremely expensive objects, such as items from ancient cultures, international law is often not willing to dismiss that question so easily.  Countries know that antiquities are part of their cultural heritage, and as crass as it may seem to observe the fact, cultural heritage can translate into tax revenue.  Having magnificent, ancient objects to put on display in state-run museums will attract more visitors, and therefore more income, in the form of admissions fees, taxes, and externalities to local businesses such as hotels and restaurants, who themselves will then be taxed as well.  An example of this which is very much in the international legal and art news right now involves a bronze statue that has been on display at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles for decades, but which has been in the midst of a sort of custody dispute with the Italian government, at the instigation of a local museum group, for the past five years.

In 1964, Italian fishermen working on the Adriatic Sea discovered a well-preserved Ancient Greek bronze of a young man, presumed to be the figure of an athlete, since he is crowning himself with a laurel wreath as the victors in the original Olympic games used to do.  Commonly referred to as “The Victorious Youth” or “The Athlete of Fano”, after the nearest town to where he was found, it was probably cast sometime between the 1st and 2nd centuries B.C.  So few Greek bronzes from the ancient world have survived, that this was a truly remarkable find.

The fishermen in question sold the statue to a local art and antiques dealer, maintaining that they had found it in international waters; the piece eventually left the country and passed into the international art market.  A few years later, the men who had sold on the statue were charged with theft by the Italian government, since any ancient object discovered in Italian territory is rightfully the property of the state, not only under Italian law but in fact in many other countries around the world as well.  Although the men were initially convicted, those convictions were later overturned.  An appeals court found that the prosecution had failed to establish the most critical element of their case: i.e., that the statue had been found within Italian territory, and was therefore Italian state property.  Without that proof, there could be no presumption of culpability of theft from the Italian government on the part of the sellers.

Several owners later, the Getty purchased the bronze in London for $3.95 million in 1977.  They did so even though a few years earlier, the museum’s founder J. Paul Getty had passed up the chance to buy the statue when he smelled something fishy about the question of legal ownership.  After Getty’s death, the curators ignored his caution and went ahead and bought the piece anyway.  The statue made its way to Los Angeles, and became one of the greatest prizes of the museum’s collection.

Now we fast-forward to 2006, and an effort by the Italian government to crack down on activities like looting, grave robbery, and the illegal export of antiquities.  Italy contacted the Getty and alleged that a number of items in the museum’s collection had been illegally exported from Italy, and demanded the return of these objects; one of the objects on the list was “The Victorious Youth”.  While the museum complied with most of the requests, it refused to return the bronze, saying that the issue had been decided back when the appellate court quashed the convictions of the men who originally sold the piece into the stream of commerce.  Since then, the statue has been the subject of ongoing litigation between the Getty and the Italian government.

Most recently, on Monday of this week the parties were expecting to argue before the Italian Supreme Court in Rome, after a lower court judge issued a ruling ordering that the statue be returned to Italy – a ruling which the Getty appealed.  Unfortunately, though perhaps not surprisingly given the pace of the Italian justice system, the panel charged with hearing the case decided to boot the matter to another department, meaning that the litigation will go on for the an unknown additional length of time.  To date, then, the ultimate fate of the “Victorious Youth” remains in question.

As interesting as the legal side of this case is, including the philosophical and public policy questions it raises about our right to own objects, from a practical if not a jurisprudential point of view, I suspect the Getty will eventually be compelled to send the bronze back.  Even were the court to find that the previous judicial precedent regarding the statue’s aquatic origins was correct, that alone would be no guarantee that thereafter things would be smooth sailing. After all, the Italian authorities could begin to make life very difficult for the Getty, such as if the Getty wanted to borrow a work for a joint exhibition with one of the Italian museums.  Perhaps that is a cynical view, but again, it is a foreseeable result in this case. Regardless of the decision, it will be fascinating to read when it finally comes down.

"The Victorious Youth" by Unknown Sculptor (c. 300-100 B.C.) The Getty Museum, Los Angeles

“The Victorious Youth” by Unknown Greek Sculptor (c. 300-100 B.C.)
The Getty Museum, Los Angeles

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The Church Nobody Wanted

There was nothing particularly remarkable about the old village church in Montegiordano, until a contemporary artist decided to buy it and move it to New York.

Located in the Calabria region of Italy, the Church of the Madonna del Carmine (Our Lady of Mount Carmel) is a Neo-Baroque structure in the architectural tradition of the Roman Jesuit churches, which had such a tremendous influence on the development of ecclesiastical architecture not just in Italy but in Spain and, by extension, in the Americas.  This particular parish church was built in the 19th century, but it was later desecrated, deconsecrated, and left to ruin.  The local community subsequently built a new church to replace it, an exact copy of the old one.

Now there is something of an uproar going on, for Italian contemporary artist Francesco Vezzoli has purchased the ruined property, and is in the process of shipping it, stone by stone, to MoMa’s PS1 exhibition hall in New York.  Although Vezzoli purchased the ruins legally, local residents have filed a complaint with the Italian Ministry of Culture arguing that the ruined church should be categorized as local cultural heritage, which would therefore be protected from export.  For the time being therefore, the stones of the old church are sitting in an airport hangar, awaiting resolution of the issue.

Italy has among the strictest export laws in the world when it comes to its national heritage.  Almost any work of art more than 50 years old may be classified as a cultural object, and the process to obtain an export license for an object to leave the country involves significant government hurdles.  And this restriction on export extends to buildings, so that given the ruins in question are over a century old, there is no question that they would fall under Italian export restrictions.

Vezzoli is part of a breed of contemporary artists more interested in becoming celebrities or fashion magazine layout editors than they are in producing substantive works of art.  He likes to do the expected thing of insulting conservatives in his films and making pornographic and blasphemous photograph collages, which of course is nothing new and frankly rather boring.  He is perhaps most famous for getting Lady Gaga to play and sing on a giant pink Steinway covered in butterflies while surrounded by dancers from the Bolshoi, so safe to say the less said about his rather feeble art the better.

Yet the issue here, when it comes down to it, is not the virtue of what Vezzoli intends to do with this building, but how he was able to obtain it in the first place.  This is no longer a consecrated church, after all, so anyone could buy it.  Instead of being cared for the building was simply neglected, and allowed to fall further and further into ruin.

No doubt there are at least some in the community who do not like to imagine what the artist intends to do with the structure, since apparently he intends to project his films onto its walls.  Given what his films usually deal with, this is an understandable concern, for there can be little doubt that the artist relishes the idea of showing his work on the walls of a former Catholic church. However in this controversy we can see a bit of what is plaguing the Church today, not just in this little town in Italy but indeed here in the United States as well.

When we read about the outcry over old churches in places like Boston, Buffalo, and Chicago having to be closed down, there is an understandable sadness over how these beautiful structures and their furnishings are disappearing.  People will typically blame their bishop or others in the diocese when these things happen.  Yet rarely do they point the finger of blame at themselves.

There are many reasons why old churches get closed down, but in a significant number of cases the issue is one of attendance.  You cannot afford to keep the roof on a large, non-residential building which only a couple of dozen people of average income use on a regular basis. And God bless those people who are hanging on, and showing up every week or indeed every day, to keep some life in these old churches.  Those of us who care about our parish communities have a duty to support them as best we can, regardless of how large or small those communities are.

Yet for all that, without drawing in more people, we are only doing half our job.  The churches are empty because we are not going out and bringing in people to fill them.  When we think about being One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic, we must remember that the Apostles had to be out and about quite a bit, because that was what Christ told them to do.  The Great Commission was not, “Go, and straighten all the hymnals in the pews before mass.”

This little town in Calabria may not have thought about it, but in failing to tear down or renovate their old church, and leaving it to grow covered with weeds and further deteriorate, they gave the impression that they did not care about it.  Now they have realized what they have done, and perhaps they can rectify the situation.  Safe to say, though, another ruined and neglected church property will almost certainly be available for Vezzoli to purchase somewhere else.

It is indeed highly regrettable that an anti-Catholic artist was able to purchase this old church to display art which will undoubtedly be in eye-rollingly bad taste. However if we are not making our faith a vibrant one, and actually evangelizing to others rather than simply talking about how terrible it is when these sorts of things happen, then we will undoubtedly see even more incidents such as this.  In the end that is the real lesson to take away from the story of this church that, until recently, nobody wanted.


Ruins of Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel
Montegiordano, Italy


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Venice in America

Today is the Feast of St. Andrew the Apostle, brother of St. Peter and patron saint of many things, including fishermen, Scotland, and Russia.  However he is also the patron saint of one of the greatest and most significant architects of the modern age, Andrea Palladio, who was born on St. Andrew’s Day in 1508.  If you are not hugely interested in architecture, you may not be familiar with his name, but if you live in the Western world there is a reasonably good chance that the home you live in, or the civic buildings that make up the town where you live, were shaped and influenced by the ideas of this 16th century Venetian master.

Just as Jacobo Sansovino, whom I wrote about earlier this week, had a profound influence on the artists of his day, in convincing them that they were equaling or even surpassing the achievements of their ancient Greek and Roman forbearers, so too Palladio was a driving force in convincing architects that they could do the same.  Sansovino was himself a highly accomplished architect, of course, producing many beautiful and monumental structures in Venice between the 1530′s and 1560′s.  Palladio, who was a generation younger, had to bide his time while Sansovino held sway over the public taste of the capital, but eventually he became the head architect of the Venetian Republic after Sansovino’s death.

One of Palladio’s most influential contributions to the development of modern architecture and indeed modern living was in taking advantage of open spaces, rather than being afraid of them.  Keep in mind that in much of Europe from the fall of the Roman Empire in the West until the time of the Renaissance, most people lived together for protection, either in closely-packed walled towns, or in castles or other fortified structures in the countryside.  Foreign invaders or marauding neighbors bent on pillaging and destruction could sweep in at any moment, and there was safety in numbers.

What our eyes need to be trained to see is how different the world which Palladio created was from the times that had come immediately before it.  There is nothing of the fortress about a Palladian house.  There are no dark, thick walls designed for defensive purposes, with only interior courtyards to allow light and air.  Instead, his houses sit gracefully inside beautiful parks and gardens, surrounded by trees and flowers, green lawns and splashing fountains.

Nor were these houses gigantic, bloated structures, like the Baroque behemoths that were built to house the egos of absolute monarchs.  Rather, they were comfortable places to enjoy oneself with one’s family and friends by engaging in outdoor activities, reading, entertaining, or the like.  They are of course much larger than the average person’s home, but they are not overwhelmingly so.  The confidence with which these villas were built testifies to a similar spirit of self-confidence of the day that times were getting better, and that the darker ages of constant warfare between rivaling factions were becoming less frequent, at least in the Venetian Republic.

This in itself is a key component to the architecture which Palladio created.  His houses are built for aristocrats, but they are they are the aristocrats of a republic.  There was no hereditary king of Venice: the Republic was ruled by a Doge, an elected official whose powers were limited further and further as the centuries wore on.  While the Venetian Republic was not truly a representative democracy, in the sense that we would understand the term, it had a series of checks and balances in place to ensure that no one single individual or family could come to dominate the entire system.

Palladio’s ideas and methods were not just limited to a bunch of gondola-riding aristocrats half a millenia ago.  For in fact, many of the American Founding Fathers were hugely enamored of the Palladian way of living.  President Thomas Jefferson, for example, built his beloved estate Monticello, as well as the Virginia State Capitol building, and the main building of the University of Virginia, using principles derived from his own study of Palladio’s work.  James Hoban, the Irish-American architect of the White House, took his plans for the Executive Mansion directly from two Palladian-style country houses which had been built a few years earlier in Ireland.

Even today, Palladio’s legacy is all around us, not only as part of our visible history, but in continuing to influence architects who build homes and businesses, offices and churches by taking Palladio’s ideas and applying or re-interpreting them.  As is so often the case in these pages, we have here yet another example of why it is important to understand the cultural history of the West, something which the past forty-odd years of academically entrenched relativism has done such a bang-up job of trying to eradicate.  Over many centuries the ideas of this single Venetian architect have had a positive impact on both the look and livability of our homes, our public buildings, and indeed our cities.

Palladio understood that in order for contemporary society to succeed, it must be interconnected with the best aspects of the society which came before it.  He helped to radically change the way that his contemporaries lived by looking at how people had lived before, how they lived in his day, and figuring out he could bring together the best aspects of each.  In doing so, he succeeded in transforming not only a small Italian republic, but the lives of people in countless cities and towns large and small, all over the world.  His is but one example of why we should both study and try to understand our past, taking the lessons we learn there, and adapting them to the needs of the present.


“La Badoera” Villa by Andrea Palladio (built 1556-1563)
Fratta Polesine, Italy


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Raise Your Glasses

Today is the anniversary of the death of Jacobo Sansovino, who was born in Florence in 1486 and died in Venice in 1570. You may not be familiar with his name, gentle reader, but because of one single piece of art he created, he helped spur on the development of the Renaissance in Western Art, which of course had a far greater impact on world history than simply serving as decoration.  In one sculpture, Sansovino helped convince his contemporaries that not only had they managed to rediscover the knowledge of the Ancient Greeks and Romans, but in fact they were reaching the point at which they would be able to surpass those who had come before them – and for this he certainly deserves a memorial toast.

In 1510 Sansovino was commissioned to sculpt a statue of Bacchus, the Roman god of wine, for the Florentine aristocrat Giovanni Bartolini.  It was to be placed in a niche in the classically designed gardens of the latter’s home, the Palazzo di Valfonda, alongside statues of other gods and heroes from Greek and Roman mythology.  Fortunately for us, ever since the sculpture was later acquired by the Medici family, it has been housed in a museum for many centuries.  If the statue had been left outside, what makes this particular sculpture so special might very well have been lost, as a result of exposure to the elements.

When the work was completed in 1512, it astonished viewers because of a single factor, which may not be apparent unless you think about what you are looking at.  We see the figure of a nude young man, crowned with a wreath made out of grapevines.  He is striding forward, while at his lower right a small faun is trying to snatch a cluster of grapes from his hand.  All of this seems very ordinary at first, if we have seen Greek and Roman sculptures before.  Yet what is truly remarkable about this particular piece is that the figure of the young god holds his left arm aloft, bearing a drinking vessel, and that left arm has no visible means of support.

Up until this time, sculptors were extremely reluctant to attempt this type of carving in stone, since they had little or no remaining evidence from the past that such a thing could be done successfully.  Typically, when they were carving limbs that would be held away from the body, ancient sculptors would carve the arms of their statue separately and attach them later, since the weight of the heavy marble arms and the lack of support would tend to cause this part of the sculpture to crack and fall off, were it carved from a single block.  For example, in the famous example of the now-armless “Venus de Milo” in The Louvre, on the right side of the torso one can see a hole, which originally held a metal strut to support the now-vanished right arm of the statue, carved separately and attached later in situ.

Moreover, not many patrons would be willing to pay for such a feat, which would likely end in failure.  In a lightweight material such as wood, where things could be hollowed out or pinned together, gravity was not such a significant issue, but when it comes to stone, its heavy weight can be its undoing.  Thus it was considered so difficult and risky to attempt to carve a statue with an arm held aloft in a single piece of carved stone, that until Sansovino made this bold attempt most sculptors – including Michelangelo – simply avoided the challenge altogether.

The arm alone is not the only innovation however,  for here Sansovino is not simply copying his artistic forebears.  He is portraying a classical subject in stone, of course, which would have been familiar to the ancients, but there is a more natural sense of motion and fluidity in the body than one would often find in classical sculpture.  Admittedly this is not a universal observation, and there are notable exceptions, particularly from the Hellenic period.  Yet here we have a sense of movement in the pose of the figure, and indeed of boldness on the part of its sculptor, to create a sense of liveliness caught in a split second, rather than portraying someone standing still or at rest, which is what Classical sculptors tended to do.

In his later career Sansovino moved to Venice, where he became an engineer and a brilliant architect, helping to spread the aesthetic ideals of High Renaissance Florence and Rome to that city.  In fact, this native Florentine became so beloved by the Venetians, that when he died he was buried in the great Basilica of San Marco.  Yet this single work from when Sansovino was only an up-and-coming artist in his mid-20′s, competing with dozens of other young sculptors in the artistic hotbed of Renaissance Florence, can be admired not only on its own merits, but more importantly as part of a whole.

Achievements such as this in the arts, sciences, literature, and so on, had a profound impact on the thinkers and writers of the Renaissance.  These people became convinced that they were on the right track to achieve an even greater civilization than the ancients, to whom they had previously felt so inferior.  As we are all aware, in the end this change of attitude had a profound impact on the entire history of humanity.

“Bacchus” (detail) by Jacobo Sansovino (c. 1510-1512)
The Bargello, Florence


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