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

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

Our Body of Work

Regular readers know that I often encourage you to look more closely at the environment you live in, and observe the details around you. This is part of your ongoing duty as an educated adult. I realize that a number of my readers are not Christians, let alone Catholics, but I hope you will bear with me in today’s post, and consider some of the points I raise herein about why it is so important to continue to educate yourself, if we are to preserve the body of Western culture which has been handed down to us as a priceless gift from previous generations.

The more you study subjects such science, architecture, literature, and so on, the more you realize that you are surrounded by reminders of our collective past. For example, if you give yourself a break with a Kit-Kat bar, you are eating something originally invented in England in the 1920’s, but named for a prominent London club of the 18th century. Or you might live in a town named for a Catholic saint, such as St. Louis, Missouri, or San Francisco, California. And since today is the Feast of St. Mark the Evangelist, he is a good jumping-off point for our consideration.

We can point to many works of art, musical compositions, schools, buildings, streets, and even entire towns named for this 1st century Jewish man, who became an important figure of the early Church. For example, Saint-Marc is an important coastal city in Haiti; Saint Mark’s Place is a popular tourist trap in the East Village in Manhattan; and the oldest military fort in the United States, the 17th century Castillo de San Marcos or “Castle of St. Mark”, is located in the city of St. Augustine, Florida – which of course is named for another Catholic saint. Bach wrote a Passion Oratario based on St. Mark’s Gospel, which composition sadly has been lost, while Irish composer Charles Wood wrote his own version while at Cambridge in the 1920’s.

For those of my readers who are not familiar with him, St. Mark was one of Jesus’ youngest disciples, a friend to St. Paul, and author of one of the Gospels. Although St. Mark was martyred in about 68 A.D. in the Egyptian city of Alexandria and buried there, in the 9th century his remains were stolen by a group of Venetian merchants and taken back to their city. The legends surrounding how this took place are interesting in and of themselves, but more importantly they created a narrative for Venice and for its empire, which was reflected in things such as city planning, public celebrations, music, literature, poetry, architecture, painting, sculpture, and so on.

As a result, there is probably a greater concentration of art related to St. Mark in Venice than in any single other city in the world. Not only is the city Cathedral, the Byzantine-Gothic style Basilica of San Marco, dedicated to him, as is the famous piazza or square in front of it, with its flocks of pigeons pooping all over the tourists, but he represents the Venetian Republic as well. Throughout Venice and in the territories which it used to control, the winged lion of St. Mark was used as the emblem of the old empire on the Adriatic, much as the bald eagle represents the United States, today.

In the books of Ezekiel and Revelation in the Bible, their respective authors wrote of heavenly visions involving four winged creatures which surround the throne of God. Christian interpreters of Scripture came to believe that these represented the four canonical Gospel writers. That which is believed to represent St. Mark, the winged lion, was chosen because St. Mark begins his Gospel with the voice of St. John the Baptist crying out in the desert, like the roar of a desert lion. Thus, Venice adopted this symbol of its patron saint as its own.

When it comes to Venetian art portraying St. Mark, the great master Tintoretto (1518-1594) is not one of my favorite painters, truth be told. I do not generally care for his work, since I often find his pictures too messy and busy, and his palette can sometimes be rather muddy. That being said, I recognize his importance in art history, both in the influence he had on the work of subsequent artists I do like, such as El Greco, but also in that he did paint some interesting works from time to time.

In the mid-16th century, Tintoretto produced a rather brilliant series of four paintings on scenes from the life of St. Mark for the Scuola di San Marco charitable institution, which of course was named for the saint.  One of the paintings from this series which has always fascinated me is Tintoretto’s portrayal of the stealing of the Evangelist’s body from its tomb in Alexandria.  It is a dramatic scene, but an example of how the artistic imagination can take a story and run with it, not seeking to portray reality but rather to explore different ideas and concepts in art, architecture, and science.

Rather than have the figures in the scene carrying a coffin or reliquary containing the bones of St. Mark, Tintoretto portrays them as carrying the full-sized body of the saint, who is looking rather buff despite being dead for over 800 years. Alexandria itself looks nothing like 9th century Egypt, and more like the stage set of an idealized city by the great Venetian Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio, a contemporary of Tintoretto’s – all perfect proportions, arcaded palaces, and vanishing sight lines. A further dramatic touch is provided by having the night sky split with threatening thunderstorms against a blood-red sky, including a rather spectacular display of lightning which is causing passersby to flee to the colonnades for shelter in what looks like a choreographed dance.

After considering all of the forgoing, the reader can see my point about why there is so much more to be seen in something like a painting than might first meet the eye. If you were to go to the Accademia and admire this painting, you might be able to appreciate it for what it is, and decide whether or not you like the picture based purely on aesthetics. However, a student of cultural history realizes that there is a great deal more at work here than simply the creation of an image. In this one piece one can point to all sorts of threads that led to its creation: The Bible, optics, linear perspective, anatomical study, Mediterranean trade routes, the decline of the Byzantine Empire, and so on.

This is why it is important not just to accept what you see at face value, but to take some time to think about what you are seeing. Otherwise, we reach the point where people wallow in their stupidity, being unwilling to acknowledge with humility that they have more to learn, rather than seeking to do their best to overcome it. We have been given a rich inheritance of human achievement, which will be lost if we do not study and preserve our culture for future generations, and by adding to it ourselves. Otherwise, the body of work which we hand on to them really will be putrid and decayed.

“The Theft of the Body of St. Mark” by Tintoretto (1548)
Gallerie dell’ Accademia, Venice