Beautiful, Old Things

When you try to keep current with subjects like archaeology, architecture, art history, or the art market., but you are capable of forming a rational thought pattern, you often find yourself in rather a lonely place. For every article about the reemergence of a lost masterpiece, or the discovery of fascinating buildings from ancient times, there are ten about – I kid you not – whether Kate Middleton is a bad influence on the art world. What I have learned over the years, watching the lunatics take over the asylum, is that the relative lack of interest in beautiful, old things, which has become so ingrained in the groupthink of the creative classes, has greater significance than simply in questions of taste. We are in serious danger of losing our artistic and cultural heritage of beautiful, old things, to the worship of all things ugly and new.  

Some countries are much more on the ball about protecting and celebrating their beautiful, old things than others. Yesterday for example, the Israeli Antiquities Authority announced the discovery of a 4thcentury A.D. Roman shipwreck in the harbor of Caesarea – a town well known to Christ and indeed to you, if you’ve ever read the New Testament. Items recovered included a number of bronze statues in a remarkable state of preservation, from having been covered with sand for centuries. I’m always impressed by the way that the Israelis make a point of celebrating these historic works of art. They place a premium on preserving and sharing this history and beauty with their citizens and with visitors.

Sad stories about the lack of due care shown to our past, like the general neglect of Pompeii, are all the more remarkable when stories emerge about how earmarked taxpayer funds have gone to waste. It is true that brazen thefts of well-documented works of art sometimes have a happy ending, as occurred recently with the discovery of a cache of Old Master paintings that were stolen in Verona last year. Because of the chronic underfunding of museums and historic sites, it’s a thief’s paradise out there, and we hear less about what is missing than about what is recovered.   

Yet I don’t believe that the answer to the problem of preserving and protecting artistic patrimony lies in simply throwing more money after it, at least not exclusively. The fact that there is so much decay and theft, it seems to me, stems not so much from underfunding as it does from a lack of leadership, which itself comes from a lack of appreciation. A greater value has been placed on trendiness over tradition, which spills over into issues like understaffing or a lack of security. The illegal trade in art and antiquities would not be possible without someone, somewhere, turning a blind eye, or giving up the fight out of frustration. 

The real root of the problem is the ignorance of the supposed cognoscenti, an ignorance most easily demonstrated by a glance at sales figures from the art market. When art requiring little or no artistic skill, such as pseudo-graffiti created with stencils, cause institutions and philanthropists to dance to the tune of tens of millions of dollars, what does that say about our society? How can a wax dummy of Adolf Hitler, by a contemporary artist whose name I’ve already forgotten, go for $17 million, while a beautiful, old bust by Houdon, one of the greatest sculptors of the 18thcentury and indeed in the history of Western art, is only worth $25,000?

If the powers that be cared more about our artistic heritage, and less about getting Beyoncé or one of the Kardashians to appear at their cocktail parties, I believe the situation would be quite different. Collectors and philanthropists who spend hundreds of millions of dollars on the work of contemporary artists, but spend a fraction of that amount – if any – on the preservation and celebration of beautiful, old things, thanks to the infernal whisperings of alleged experts in the arts, have contributed in no small way to this mess. You cannot expect the public to sympathize when you call for the protection of ancient buildings and works of art, when you yourself fail to throw your weight and, yes, your money behind it.

Credit where it’s due, there are certainly many who do their fair share. The Italian luxury goods retailer Fendi, for example, paid most of the $2.4 million needed to restore the recently reopened Trevi Fountain in Rome. Other Italian companies are picking up the tabs for preserving the Coliseum and the Spanish Steps. The Italian government at least recognizes that it does not have the resources to address these projects on its own, and has reached out to companies who care about these things to get them to help.    

Meanwhile in France, the government of Le Petit Hollande spent untold millions at the Palace of Versailles last summer to host a monumental sculpture exhibition by the decidedly untalented British sculptor Anish Kapoor, one of whose rather adolescent and prurient works was designed to evoke the nether regions of Queen Marie Antoinette. This summer the artist whose work was chosen to litter the gardens of the grandest chateau in France is the Danish-Icelandic sculptor Olafur Eliasson. Mr. Eliasson’s most recent work involves carting large blocks of glacier ice to public spaces and then allowing them to melt, in order to draw attention to climate change. God help us all.

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Part of the Roman bronze collection found in Israel this month

Is Gaudí Getting Closer to Sainthood?

Regular readers know of my admiration for the great Catalan architect, Antoni Gaudí i Cornet (1852-1926), most famous for his Basilica of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.  The hugely original and innovative Gaudí was a deeply devout man, and spent the last decades of his life working exclusively on this structure which, when it is completed around 2026, will be the tallest church in the world.  With a new Vatican-approved graduate studies program being named after him, and Gaudí’s cause for beatification now in the review stage in Rome, one wonders whether this is a sign that the Vatican is moving in the direction of his canonization.

Located in Barcelona, the Antoni Gaudí School offers graduate studies in Church history, Christian art, and now archaeological studies, in conjunction with programs approved by the Vatican.  The architect himself loved archaeology, not only as part of his research and design process, but also as a reason to go out into the countryside at the weekends with fellow enthusiasts.  Groups of these thinkers and creative individuals would explore ancient ruins and crumbling castles to get a better sense of their own history, as well as to understand design concepts and building methods.

Pope Benedict XVI admired the Catalan architect a great deal.  He not only traveled to Barcelona to dedicate the church and raise it to the level of a Minor Basilica, but he also used a photograph of the sculpture of the Holy Family on the Nativity Facade of the building for his official Christmas cards that year.  An exhibition celebrating Gaudí’s work was mounted at the Vatican at the same time. And recently, Pope Francis accepted a gift of a portrait bust of Gaudí from the group promoting his cause for beatification, a work based on an original carved shortly after the architect’s death.

The current expectation is that the Congregation for the Causes of Saints will complete their investigation sometime in the spring of 2015, and will make their recommendations to the Holy Father at that time. Despite some earlier rumors that beatification was going to be announced for certain, so far there has been no official word from the Congregation on that point. It would seem to me more likely that he would first be made a “Venerable”, if the cause is moving forward, but Catalan sources insist that Rome will be skipping straight to beatification.  To my knowledge, Pope Francis has never spoken about Gaudí publicly in the way that Pope Benedict has, so we can’t assume anything one way or the other with respect to his urging the work of the Congregation forward.

That being said, the fact that the Vatican seems to be encouraging naming things after “God’s Architect”, as he is often called, seems to me to be a good sign.

Work underway on the central towers of the Sagrada Familia, Barcelona

Work underway on the central towers of the Sagrada Familia, Barcelona

Archaeology As Sideshow: Digging Up the Dead

I wanted to be a lot of things when I was little: superhero, paleontologist, CHiPs officer, fireman, Jedi, wizard, pope, etc.  One of my more lasting pipe dreams however, was to become an archaeologist, and that early interest in archeology has stayed with me lo these many years later.  Yet there’s always been an aspect of this science which I find disturbing, as exemplified by some recent work in the UK, and that is the practice of digging up the dead in order to put them on some sort of display

Recent reports are that the group of archaeologists and researchers who managed to rediscover the tomb of England’s infamous King Richard III are at it again.  This time their quarry is King Harold II, last of the Saxon kings of England, who was allegedly killed during the Norman Conquest at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.  In the famous Bayeux Tapestry, Harold is shown rather graphically getting an arrow through the eye into the brain, proving that our medieval ancestors liked violent comic books as much as we do.

The exact location of Harold’s grave is presently unknown, but archeologists have an idea of where they should look.  The hope is to find it using the same ground-scanning technology employed to locate Richard’s grave, on the grounds of a much-rebuilt former Benedictine abbey from Harold’s time.  If he can be found, they may be able to determine whether Harold was indeed felled in battle, or whether – as another source maintains – he lived to a ripe old age as a religious hermit, after being deposed by William the Conqueror.  Thus, a long-standing historical mystery would be solved.

Part of this same historical curiosity was what drove these researchers to look for the remains of Richard, of course.  Did the last Plantagenet king in fact have a hunched back? Was he really killed in battle?  After locating his tomb and digging him up, it turned out that yes, Richard had a spinal deformation, and yes, he was hacked to death in battle, and pretty savagely, too. These kinds of details make history, and indeed archeology, an exciting area of study.

However the problem is that Harold, like Richard, was a Catholic. As a Catholic, he had the right to be buried in the way he and any Catholic would be buried, in consecrated, Catholic ground.  I suspect that Harold, if he’s found, is going to be dug up and put on display in a building expropriated from the Catholic Church, for indeed that is what is happening to the remains of Richard.

To be fair, the rediscovery of Richard’s resting place led to his reburial in a church, rather than leaving him in a parking lot, and that’s all very well as far as it goes.  Yet there is a certain element of the bizarre in the notion that either of these monarchs should be disinterred and reburied in buildings stolen from their faith by people who would have persecuted or executed these men for being Catholics but a few centuries ago.  Even today, in the 21st century, Harold and Richard would still be banned from succeeding to the English throne, based exclusively on their Catholicism.

Given that Harold, at least, is expected to lie somewhere in the graveyard of the abbey where he was originally buried, it seems far more preferable to leave him there, even if his tomb is located and explored.  Don’t turn him into some sort of sideshow attraction, just leave him where he is when all is said and done.  It still won’t be a Catholic site, but at least it would avoid the painful historical anachronism of what would surely follow, in a formal re-interment somewhere else.  The dead deserve far more respect than that, whether they are a significant archaeological find or not.

King Harold II getting it in the eye at the Battle of Hastings (c. 1070) Bayeux Tapestry Museum, Bayeux, France

King Harold II getting it in the eye at the Battle of Hastings (c. 1070)
Bayeux Tapestry Museum, Bayeux, France