“In Those Days, Caesar Augustus…”

You’re probably very familiar with St. Luke’s account of the Birth of Jesus in the Bible.  If you’re Catholic, you hear those words read every year at Midnight Mass, and imagine St. Joseph and a heavily pregnant Virgin Mary, arriving in Bethlehem to enroll in a census, and finding no room at the inn.  However chances are, you’re unaware that the home of the man whom St. Luke credited with playing a crucial part in the timing and location of that birth still stands.

This week Italian authorities announced that after 18 years of work and over $3 million in investment, restoration of the complex on the Palatine Hill in Rome known as the “Domus Augusti” or “House of Augustus” has been completed.  It was the primary residence of Augustus and his family for decades, beginning around 28 B.C., and therefore in a real sense the center of the Western world at the time of his reign.  The Domus Augusti will now be open to the public on a very limited, tour-only basis, and said tours will include sections of the villa which were not previously open to visitors.

For Christians in particular, there is something poignant about this residence.  Certainly, there are historical problems with the timing of St. Luke’s account of a census in 1st century Judea, and the known history of the region in the Augustan Age. Not being a Biblical scholar, I will not attempt to address those issues here.  Nevertheless, one cannot lose sight of the fact that decisions which affected the Roman Empire at the time of Jesus’ Birth, and therefore Jesus Himself, were made on this spot.

While the furnishings are long gone of course, it is still possible to get a sense of what living in the villa was like.  Many of the walls of the home are decorated with bright, colorful frescoes of architectural vistas and swags of flowers.  What is particularly striking about the Domus Augusti however, is that it is not particularly grand, and certainly not what one would imagine the home of an emperor to look like.  So why would the most powerful man in Rome live in a house that did not reflect his status?

The answer lies in the fact that Augustus was a shrewd politician.  He saw what had happened to his great-uncle Julius Caesar, the man who had adopted the young Octavian (as Augustus then was) as his heir before his assassination.  He also knew that the way to have the people and the politicians stay in line was to keep them happy, in part by not seeming to live like a despot.

Thus, this residence is not the egomaniacal assemblage of later emperors such as Nero, but rather the well-appointed home of a man of means, albeit not one given to indulging in flights of fancy or frippery.  The restrained character of the house was remarked on not only in Augustus’ time, but by later admirers. In his marvelous book “The Twelve Caesars” of around 121 A.D., the Roman historian Suetonius  notes that the Domus Augusti was pretty much just as we perceive it today: “a modest dwelling, remarkable neither for size or elegance, having but a short colonnade with columns of local stone, and rooms without any marble decorations or handsome pavements.”  It seems a strikingly livable home, rather than an imposingly palatial piece of self-aggrandizement.

Of course, for anyone who loves history, grandeur is beside the point when visiting a structure like this.  The thought of the conversations that took place in these rooms, as the Roman Empire spread across the known world, is tantalizing.  To be able to wander down corridors where the real-life characters in Robert Graves’ superb novel, “I, Claudius” once met, to plot and plan with or against Augustus, is to hear the echoes of another time grow just that much stronger.

That being said, what truly gives me pause is the fact that this villa in Rome, and a more humble home in Bethlehem, stood at the exact same time. It is not hard to imagine that one evening, as Augustus stayed up late writing at his desk, or wandered through his garden with a case of insomnia, he was thinking upon many things, but no doubt confident of his own importance and legacy.  Meanwhile, completely unbeknownst to the Emperor, the most important person in human history was being born, 1400 miles away: a man whose importance and legacy would far outshine that of the man who lived in this comfortable Roman house.  That connection, for me, is the real wonder of this structure.

A security guard in one of the rooms of the Domus Augusti

A security guard in one of the rooms of the Domus Augusti, on the Palatine Hill in Rome

Through the Online Looking-Glass

I’m going to share a piece of information with you, which I suspect most of my readers will not care about at all, or at least not very much.  On this day back in 1642, the great Italian Baroque painter Guido Reni died, in the city of Bologna. For those of you not hugely interested in art history, this event may not seem to be of any great importance.  However it gives me the chance to do something rare these days, and that is appreciate, rather than criticize, what a great teaching tool the internet can be.

Last night after dinner I was checking up on some headlines in the art world, and came across a mention that it was the birthday of Francesco Albani, another Italian Baroque painter, who was born in Bologna in 1578.  Albani was one of the chief rivals of Guido Reni for major fresco commissions, but while Albani was very decorative, Reni was often the more sensitive painter, as his intense portrait of his mother, reproduced below, shows us.  The stark image, not at all colorful like many of Reni’s other works, puts me in mind of the Queen of Hearts from “Alice in Wonderland”; falling down the internet rabbit hole began soon thereafter.

Reading more about Albani and Reni, I came across a reference to Reni’s ceiling fresco for the Basilica of St. Dominic in Bologna, the church where the founder of the Dominican Order is buried. The church has gone through many changes over the past 800 years, including extensive remodelling during the pontificate of Benedict XIII (1650-1730), who was himself a Dominican.  Not knowing anything about Benedict XIII, I read up on him, and learned about someone else I knew nothing about, Cardinal Scipione Rebiba (1504-1577).

It seems this particular Pope Benedict consecrated a huge number of bishops during his pontificate, approximately 159, from all corners of the world. These bishops then went on to consecrate bishops in their respective home countries.  Tracing back the lineage of who consecrated whom gets us to Cardinal Rebiba.  Because of the huge number of bishops consecrated by Benedict XIII, the vast majority of bishops and Popes since his time are “descended” from him, including the present incumbent, Pope Francis.  Only about 5% of current bishops can trace their consecration through someone other than Cardinal Rebiba, so finding a bishop who is not in this line must feel something like a “Where’s Waldo” adventure for those who are deeply interested in episcopal matters.

Now, is any of this material of particular importance to someone who is not a researcher or historian? To be honest, it’s probably not.  And yet, if you love knowledge, this is exactly the sort of educational jumping-off point which the internet is really good at providing.

All of the preceding information came from a single, online mention of someone I did not know anything about.  I then let my brain and my fingers take me on an exploration through history, and learned a number of interesting new things as a result.  The entire process gave me immense pleasure, and fed my mind with something more significant than funny cat videos – although I freely admit that such things have their place, as well.  The curious fact that today is the anniversary of Guido Reni’s death, is something that might have passed me by had I not fed my brain the information I did last evening.  Now I find myself interested to learn about the artistic and political heritage of Bologna, during the heyday of these two painters.

What, if anything, such knowledge will lead to, I do not know.  Yet exploring your natural curiosity and building upon the knowledge you have is something that all humans should be doing, regardless of age or whether we are still in school.  I find there is always great joy to be had, pursuing new areas of knowledge about the world in which you live, and the interesting and surprising things you may not already know about it.  And whatever its faults, the wealth of information available online to do exactly that, is one of the reasons why we should be making the effort to become smarter, and more aware of our shared history and culture.

Detail of"Portrait of the Artist's Mother" by Guido Reni  (1612) Pinacoteca Nazionale, Bologna

Detail of “Portrait of the Artist’s Mother” by Guido Reni (1612)
Pinacoteca Nazionale, Bologna


The Man Needs a Manly Monument

One sign of the health of a culture is the way in which it remembers its heroes, particularly in artistic ventures such as civic monuments. The appropriateness or inappropriateness of such a piece can tell us a great deal about how that culture sees itself and wants future generations to look at not only the subject of the memorial but also at those who erected it. Whether grandiose and pharaonic or intimate and reflective, these efforts ultimately serve as bellwethers for historians as much as they serve as gathering places for those who want to ponder the life and works of a particular person or recall a significant event.

The popular architect Frank Gehry recently won a competition to design a memorial to General Dwight Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe during World War II, and subsequently the two-term 34th President of the United States. It is a dismal effort, as I have obliquely commented on in a previous post, and does not do justice either to Eisenhower or his service to his country. It is a wimpy, flimsy thing, just as inappropriate to the man and his ideas as the martial, almost Stalinist memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King – a man whose life was spent advocating peace, non-violence, and equality in the face of terrible oppression- and which is nearing completion not far away from the proposed site for Eisenhower’s monument.

Why was Mr. Gehry selected to design this? It is a difficult question to answer, for Washington is not a city known for the pursuit of trendy architecture. Mr. Gehry has had a crack at the D.C. market before, in his appallingly trite design for an extension to the beaux-arts splendor of the Corcoran which, mercifully, never came to pass due to funding issues. Crumpled bits of titanium are, I suppose, all very well if you are building them in places which lack any significant architectural fabric, but plunking down one of these things in one of the most historic neighborhoods of the capital would have been a disaster.

It has been brought to my attention that the National Civic Arts Society, an organization here in Washington which seeks to improve the nation’s civic art and architecture, is sponsoring a competition to design a counter-proposal to Mr. Gehry’s design. If you or someone you know is of an architectural or artistic persuasion, entries are being accepted through April 15th, and the Society provides some guidelines for those considering the project both in terms of the life and achievements of President Eisenhower himself, as well as the urban landscape in which the monument will be located. Whether the powers that be will consider the counter-proposal is, of course, an entirely separate question, but I suspect that by bringing attention to the issue it is hoped that what seems to be a fait accompli will in fact be sent back to the drawing board.

Eisenhower is admittedly not one of my favorite presidents, for various reasons which are not the proper subject of this post. However as one of the most important American figures of the 20th century in his efforts to defeat the Nazis, liberate and reconstruct Europe, and establish a bulwark against the spread of Communism during the Cold War, he is a man well-deserving of a fitting monument in the nation’s capital. That his nation cannot come up with something better than a giant folding screen to honor his memory is a sad commentary on how the confidence of the country he once led has fallen. What is about to be built is more appropriate, if indeed it could be found appropriate at all, to celebrate the memory of a romantic poet, not a man of action and decision, who changed the course of world history.

To be sure, one hopes that the counter-proposal does not go in the opposite direction, in favor of something overly harsh like the World War II Memorial, which looks like an Albert Speyer construction or Leni Riefenstahl film set. Yet there are already memorials to Eisenhower which ought to be looked to for inspiration. For example, consider the monument to Eisenhower in Grosvenor Square in London, in front of the commanding American Embassy designed by Eero Saarinen, commemorating that this was where Ike had his headquarters during the war. So much was he associated with the spot that the square came to be referred to as “Eisenhower Platz”, though sadly the American presence here is about to end as the embassy is being moved elsewhere for security reasons.

Robert Lee Dean, a graduate of West Point who subsequently became a sculptor, created a very simple, but commanding piece, evoking the confidence of Eisenhower and his generation. Copies of it have been placed at West Point and in other locations. The monument itself, a simple vote of thanks to the man who helped to secure the freedom of Britain, is a combination of sculpture, plinth, inlaid floor design, and surrounding wall, that is very effective.

Surely in the country of his birth, and in the city where he served as President for eight years, we can do something just as good if not better, that not only pays fitting tribute to General Eisenhower but also enhances, rather than clashes with, the city landscape.

Monument to Eisenhower by Robert Lee Dean
Grosvenor Square, London.