Tuesday, December 29, 2009

New Discoveries

Life has a way of spilling over and washing away time spent on reading and blogging, and I have been particulary adrift with living of late. Always better to live life than to read about it. I have, however, made a few discoveries to share this holiday season.

I watched and enjoyed a French film called Jean de Florette, in which Gerard Depardieu plays a city tax collector who moves to the country after inheriting his grandfather's farm in Provence. Jean's is a soul full of music and poetry. He is in love with his life and with his new surroundings. He has grand plans for the farm, which are foiled by two neighboring farmers. The film ends abruptly and needs to be followed by a direct viewing of part two, Manon of the Spring. My disk from Netflix, however, would not play side two, so I am left hanging.

In the realm of music discoveries, my yoga teacher introduced me to a new-to-me pop artist, Kate Earl from Chugiak, Alaska. I bought her self-titled album from itunes and particularly like Melody and Nobody. Have a listen: http://popup.lala.com/popup/432627054054098921.

On the literature front, I have just begun to read the poetry of Anna Ahkmotova. Here is one of my favorites:

Along the Hard Crust

Along the hard crust of deep snows,
To the secret, white house of yours,
So gentle and quiet –
we both are walking, in silence half-lost.
And sweeter than all songs, sung ever,
Is this dream, becoming the truth,
Entwined twigs’ a-nodding with favor,
The light ring of your silver spurs...
Translated by Yevgeny Bonver, July, 2002
Edited by Tatiana Piotroff, September, 2002

Reading has not ceased completely. During our recent snowstorm I read The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper, which was a perfect read for a snowstorm. I found it to be well-written (for its genre) with a plot I enjoyed enough to read the others in the series soon. Currently I am in the midst of a work of nonfiction entitled The Nothing That Is -- A Natural History of Zero by Robert Kaplan, a book which is interesting enough to deserve its own blogpost at a (I hope) not too much later date.

Monday, November 16, 2009

In Which I Defend My Recent Junk Food Diet

I promise I have not ceased to be, nor have I ceased to read. Autumn at my house means one thing: I am reading my equivalent of junk TV--murder mysteries. It seems like every year when early darkness and Halloween roll around, I gravitate toward mysteries, which I read until I am sated. I can't join the fun and watch scary movies or read scary books, because I want to sleep again before I die, but murder mysteries I can handle. In my defense, I do try to choose fairly well-written mysteries. I opt for nuanced plots and lots of mood, setting, and character development. After reading novels set in different historical periods, you feel like you have traveled to some distant place and time. The better-written of these books can improve both your vocabulary and your knowledge of history. Besides, anything that makes your life more enjoyable can't be a complete waste of time.

So, to Ms. E, who asked me tonight, "Read any good books lately?" Here's the list. I'm still working my way through some of these:

Elizabeth George's Inspector Lynley series;
Laurie King's Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes series ;
Ariana Franklin's Mistress in the Art of Death series;
Lindsey Davis' Marcus Didius Falco series;
Ellis Peters' Brother Cadfael series, and
CJ Sansom's Matthew Shardlake series.

Happy reading, people. Remember, more darkness just means a built-in excuse for tackling that TBR pile.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Mistress in the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin

Why do people go to such trouble to avoid the truth? Living lives carefully constructed to prevent ever having to bare yourself to the often abrading wind of reality. It must be exhausting to run in the convoluted circles required to ascertain that you never come upon a mirror for your soul. Piece by piece, building a facade that is not you to present to the world because you are so afraid that an unedited, unembellished presentation of yourself would be found wanting or even worse, repellent. I cannot abide people who spend their lives hiding reality, whether the construct is physical, spiritual, or both. I had never realized that the feeling might be mutual. In Mistress in the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin, a rabbi tells Dr. Trotula: "truth produces hate for those who speak it." Read the book if you like historical, medieval mysteries and especially if you like to read about a smart, strong woman who's not afraid to tell the truth. I liked the book enough to buy the next in the series, which I am reading now, and I ordered the third tonight. I would not suggest the book for youngsters. (The above rant is my own and is related more to my own life than to the book.)

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Be Still and Know

When I was younger, and far more religious, my favorite Bible verse was "Be still and know that I am God." Although I spend more time with poetry now than with the Bible, the sentiment is still one of my favorites. Another favorite quote of mine has been "If you do not understand my silence, you will not understand my words." I think often of the idea of silence as I go through life being overwhelmed with the constant noise of our world. Why do we feel that every moment must be filled with something? Why can a moment not just be? Just stand alone on its own in its silence? This idea seems to dance around the edges of my consciousness. I am often confounded by my inability to find silence in my daily life. I feel so out of sync with society for needing such isolation. A few years ago I came across a Dixie Chicks song called Easy Silence that spoke to this need in me: "And I come to find a refuge in the easy silence that you make for me. It's okay when there's nothing more to say to me...and the peaceful quiet you create for me, and the way you keep the world at bay for me." The need for a refuge in silence can be as compelling as the need for warmth and shelter. Sometimes all we need is someone to keep the world at bay for us.

I finally finished reading The Princes of Ireland by Edward Rutherfurd. I had the same experience with this book that I had with his book, London. I enjoyed the book until about 500 pages in, when it began to drag and repeat itself. Then I enjoyed the last 100 pages. I guess I just don't have much patience with a book that takes me a month to read. I feel like I have so little time to read that I should only devote an entire month to a masterpiece. I did, however, find enlightenment in the middle of the book. I often have trouble describing to people what art, poetry, or music gives to me. A quote in the books sums it up: "Do you see how it glimmers? It's as if you could step right into the page; and once you are there, you encounter...a great silence." I remember the first time I was in Paris seeing one of Monet's large lily pad paintings. I had the strangest feeling as I stood there, as if the world around me was fading and becoming silent, as if I could take a step forward and be there by that pond, in that world. That's what all art gives us -- a chance to be quiet with who we are and to connect on a spiritual level with the people who went before us who saw the world as we see it now. It tells us that we are not alone.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Without Music Life Would Be A Mistake --Nietzche

I've been thinking a lot about music lately -- its endless variety and its effect on this species we're all part of. Isn't it amazing to think about how many types of music and how many songs exist, yet for the most part, they're all different, like human faces, existing in seemingly endless varieties.

Sometimes, knowing a person's musical taste can tell you a lot about that person, but in my case, I love it all. My ipod shuffles from Green Day to Bob Marley to Hazel Dickens. My musical tastes remind me of Millie's comment in Bull Durham about Nuke LaLoosh: "Well, he f**ks like he pitches. Sorta all over the place."

Think of the ability of music to move us to laughter, tears, joy, sorrow. Within the first few bars of a good song, your entire mood and frame of mind can shift. If you're tense, you might relax. If you're sad, you might find yourself smiling. Does anything else so easily affect our emotions? Music may be man's most sublime invention. As Victor Hugo observed, "Music expresses that which can not be said and on which it is impossible to be silent."

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Come On to My House

So once again, I’ve found the man of my dreams. Only, he’s not real. Typical. The main character of the first part of The Princes of Ireland is a prince (surprising, I know) who wants to be a druid, and not a prince. He is drawn to the solitary, introspective life of philosophy and poetry and is described as quiet, deep, and thoughtful. He meets my requirements of fun, funny, smart, and serious. Now if he could just look like Henry Cavill in The Tudors and come on to my house, life would be perfect.

“…since his early childhood, when he had sat alone by the lakes or watched the red sun go down, he had been overcome by a sense of inner communion, a feeling that the gods had reserved him for some special purpose. Sometimes it filled him with ineffable joy; at other times it seemed like a burden.” (p 57)

Barring some bizarre rabbit-hole experience leading this man to my house, I guess I’ll just have to settle for finishing the novel.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Fear From Insight

In the song, Do You Love Him, by The Avett Brothers, one of the lines refers to being able to tell the difference between fear and insight. It's a distinction I think some people may not even realize exists. I don't know that I could have named it, but as soon as I heard it, I knew someone had put words to a concept I struggle with in my own life. I like to believe I govern myself by insight, but I wonder if sometimes, insight becomes fear, and I begin to make decisions based on fear rather than insight. Or maybe fear is born of insight. Some experiences, and the knowledge resulting from those experiences, alter your perspective forever. After your life veers in directions unforeseen and unexpected, you can't ignore the insights you receive. I suppose the real answer is that there is no real reason to fear anything, since we often have little control over the directions our lives take. Ergo, fear is a complete waste of time.

On another note, I am still reading, just have been lazy about blogging. Since finishing Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling, I've read the following:

Death at La Fenice by Donna Leon
Watchmen by Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons
Careless in Red by Elizabeth George
Dark Fire by CJ Sansom

Right now I am reading The Princes of Ireland by Edward Rutherfurd. It's a well-written historical fiction saga set in ancient Ireland. Maybe soon I will find time to blog about some of these great books. I would recommend any of them.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Conclusion of Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling

Looking at the Sistine Chapel ceiling brought to mind Wordsworth’s observation about “thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.” Works of creative genius lose some of their transcendence when subjected to descriptive words. No one needs to hear me trip over myself trying to describe the indescribable.

I was so glad to have read Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling before viewing the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Without the knowledge gained from the book, I would have appreciated the beauty of the work, but I would not have understood what I was viewing.

One comment on the prior post: I mentioned that Michelangelo was an anatomist who dissected corpses in search of the truth. I did not mention that Ross King says on p 157 of his book that Michelangelo accurately depicted anatomical structures that to this day have not been named. Prior to modern medicine, there were accusations that he invented these structures, but modern medicine has born out the truth of his observations.

Another interesting fact that I picked up from the book was the idea that artists often “quoted” other artists. For example, Michelangelo might study ancient Roman sculptures, draw what he saw, and put it in his own work. One of the works he quoted when finding poses for the ignudi (nude men) was the ancient sculpture of Laocoon. I will have to admit my until recent ignorance of the story of Laocoon. I saw a painting in May at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC of El Greco’s version of Laocoon’s story. I was interested enough to google and read the story of the Trojan priest and his two sons. Soon after this, in Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling, I happened upon the story of how the ancient sculpture of Laocoon and his two sons was lost for centuries and found during Michelangelo’s time in Rome. Ross King says that Michelangelo was present at its excavation. It is currently in the Belleverde Courtyard in the Vatican Museums. It is a powerful and moving piece of art and is thought to be over 2,030 years old. For some reason, I was particularly fascinated by the serpent’s head about to bite into Laocoon’s left hip. It just looks so real and so sinister. The forms and poses of the male bodies in the sculpture look like much of Michelangelo’s work.

One of the chapters of the book describes Raphael’s work, The School of Athens. This fresco was one of the works Raphael painted in the papal apartments during the time that Michelangelo painted the chapel ceiling. Raphael had completed The School of Athens prior to the mid-point viewing of the Sistine Chapel. According to Ross King, after Raphael saw what Michelangelo had accomplished in an only half-finished work, he went back and scraped off enough plaster from the lower center left of The School of Athens to insert a portrait of Michelangelo in blue, alone, and brooding on the steps.

I used to wonder why so much of classical art had as its subject religious stories and characters. I seem often to forget that prior to recent history, the majority of the population could not read. Therefore, in order to teach them the Bible stories and lessons, the church had to provide visual narratives, through art, for the people to "read."

As Michelangelo was preparing to unveil his work on the first half of the ceiling, his patron, Pope Julius, was once again preparing to go to war. It was at this point that Julius made a pact, still standing today, with the Swiss guards to provide the pope and the Vatican with protection. After Julius finally returned from war, Michelangelo was ready to begin work on the rest of the chapel ceiling when Julius fell ill, delaying the project even further. Death was feared imminent. Had Julius died, the chapel might never have been finished. A new pope might not have wanted to complete what his predecessor began.

Fourteen months after work ceased on the first half of the ceiling, Michelangelo began to work on the second half. After viewing the ceiling from the floor, he changed his approach to include fewer, but larger figures. Looking at the ceiling, you can see where the new approach begins with The Creation of Adam. In the next few scenes, God appears in the image we are familiar with. I find it interesting that God was not portrayed in this grandfatherly manner until the 14th century. Apparantly, the image for God was taken from older images of Zeus. (King, p 244) Another interesting item I had never heard before is that the famous rendering of Adam’s left hand is not currently Michelangelo’s work. It was damaged and restored in the 1560s by an artist named Carnevale. (King, p 246)

Toward the end of his four years of work on the chapel ceiling, Michelangelo painted a portrait of Jeremiah, which is thought to be a self-portrait. In the picture, Jeremiah sits slumped over his knees with his head in his hands. This portrait is thought to have influenced Rodin’s Thinker and possibly to have been an acknowledgement of Raphael’s portrait of Michelangelo in The School of Athens. The list of artists who have quoted from Michelangelo includes Titian, Rembrandt, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Pissarro, Rubens, William Blake, and Diego Rivera.

I am in awe that the works on the chapel ceiling even exist. Imagine if Michelangelo’s natural reticence toward fresco work had won over his daring to accept the challenge. So many quotidian decisions affected the existence of the works of art, literature, and music that make up our culture. The ceiling has been endangered by shifting foundations, unimpressed popes (one of whom threatened to destroy it but died before he got around to it), oil and candle smoke, and is even damaged by the evaporation of the water released into the air by all the daily visitors to the chapel, but still it survives as a testament to what man can do if he is given free reign to indulge his genius. These works fill our lives with beauty, even making possible moments of sublimity in our humble, plain, everyday existence.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling

For the last few months, I've limited my reading to materials to get ready for my tour of Europe, which starts today.  This morning, I finished Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling by Ross King.  There is entirely too much information in the book for me to get it all in one blog post, especially with the time constraint of a plane to catch.  So, here's the post on the first half of the book.   

Michelangelo was 15 when he began to study sculpture, 21 when he was commissioned to do the Pieta, and 29 when he sculpted the 17' high David.  Up to this point, he had been a sculptor.  In 1504, he and Leonardo da Vinci were hired by Florence to fresco opposing walls in the Palazzo della Signoria.  The two artist did not like each other.  Both artists created their cartoons (templates) for the fresco, but Michelangelo never started his fresco due to being called to Rome to work by Pope Julius to work on a sculpture for his tomb.  Leonardo began his fresco using an experimental painting method that did not work.  Hence, neither of these frescos exist.

After going to Rome to sculpt Julius's tomb and even ordering the marble, Michelangelo's task set by Julius was changed to work on the Sistine Chapel.  Julius's uncle, Pope Sixtus IV, built the chapel in 1477.  It is the chapel used for the papal conclave to elect a new pope.  The building's proportions match the Temple of Solomon.  In 1480, Lorenzo de Medici sent a team of painters, including Botticelli and Ghirlandaio, to Rome to fresco the walls of the Sistine Chapel.  At this point, a fresco of blue sky with gold stars was painted on the vault.  Due to unstable foundation soil, the building shifted causing cracks and gaps in the ceiling fresco.  One of Pope Julius's projects was the repair and restoration of his uncle's chapel.  He commanded Michelangelo to remove the old ceiling fresco and repaint it with scenes from the Bible.  Michelangelo was not happy with this commission, because he considered himself a sculptor, not a painter.  In fact, he was only known to have painted one work prior to this and had very little experience in the difficult medium of fresco.  When he began work on the first scene, The Flood, he made an error that required that he scrap away over one month's work and start over.  The area left after the scraping, which shows a group of people huddled under a tent, is the oldest part of the ceiling paintings.

For subject matter, Michelangelo chose Old Testament prophets and the ancestors of Christ for the spaces around the vault.   Not all of the spaces were filled with Biblical subjects.  There are some figures from pagan history.   For the vault, he chose numerous Genesis scenes.  His total work would encompass more than 150 separate paintings including more than 300 individual figures.  The estimated number of preparatory drawings is over 1,000.  Michelangelo was a follower of Savonarola, whose teachings of judgement and punishment influenced Michelangelo's choice of subject matter.  

During the years that Michelangelo worked on the Sistine Chapel, he dealt with numerous outside stresses.  Pope Julius spent most of the time warring against the French and other Italians.  Michelangelo's family gave him no end of grief.  His father had been disappointed, to say the least, with Michelangelo's choice of profession, but he had no qualms about living off the proceeds of his son's work.  In fact, a couple of times, his father took money from Michelangelo's bank account without permission.   As if these problems weren't distracting enough, a rival artist, whom Michelangelo did not like, was hired to fresco the pope's apartments in the Sistine Chapel while Michelangelo frescoed the ceiling.  This artist, Raphael, was a beautiful, charming, extroverted ladies man, while Michelangelo was a misanthrope who rarely bathed.  Michelangelo was so screwed up about women that he wouldn't even use women models.  I find this strange, considering that he was so interested in verisimilitude that he dissected corpses to see how the body was made.

Michelangelo became much more comfortable and proficient in fresco as the work progressed, in fact, working free hand sometimes and working so fast he left bristles in some of the paint.  There was a point when the ceiling was about half finished when the scaffolding was dismantled to be reinstalled under the remaining half.  This was the first time that anyone, including Michelangelo, had been able to view the frescos from the floor.  After this viewing, Michelangelo changed his technique to include fewer, but larger, figures.  Once you know this, you can look at the ceiling and see exactly where this change occurred.    Many fascinating facts remain, but I've got a plane waiting on me, so I'll have to finish later.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

A Little Whitman for a Bad Day

I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid
and self-contain'd,
I stand and look at them long and long.

They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania
of owning things,
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands
of years ago,
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth....

Walt Whitman

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Two novels by Sarah Dunant

     Recently I have read two novels by Sarah Dunant:  The Birth of Venus and In the Company of the Courtesan.  The first novel is set in Florence during the Renaissance, and the second in Venice during the mid 1500s.  While I learned some history and other interesting and unusual facts from both novels, I did not love either one.  Both times, at about the midpoint of the book, I wasn’t sure I was going to finish.  I’m not sure why, but neither book really captured me.  I liked The Birth of Venus better just because I enjoyed the plot more.   In the Company of the Courtesan had too much personal detail about the life of a courtesan and about the relationships between men and women.  (Guess the title should have been a hint to me--duh.)   Both novels did a good job of making me feel like I had been to another time and place. 

Some of the interesting facts I learned from the novels:

Wealthy Florentine families had their own chapels in their palazzos, and they hired artist (some famous and some not) to paint frescos in them.

I learned about how frescos are painted, which I am not going to explain here.

In order to keep the family wealth intact, only the first son was allowed to marry.  His new family stayed on in the family palazzo, and the family wealth and business were his.  The other sons had choices including:  university studies for law degrees, military service, and the priesthood, among others.  I guess this surfeit of unmarried, perfectly healthy men explains the thriving courtesan trade.

Florentine families could only afford dowries for their first and possibly second daughters.  One of the other daughters might be allowed to stay at home and serve as the governess for her married brother’s children.  The other daughters were sent to convents with or without their consent.

Noble girls and women were not allowed to go outside unattended.  They were not allowed to speak to unrelated men except in family-controlled situations.

Women were not allowed to be artists, regardless of their talent, but there was at least one situation in which a nun painted the fresco in a chapel at her convent.

In 1528, Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, sacked Rome.  Many Romans fled to other Italian cities as refugees.

Venice was built on islands in a lagoon and has a combination of canals and alleys cutting through it.  A fondamenta is a street beside of a canal.

The Jews in Venice were confined to a ghetto and were used as bankers by the other Venetians.

Venice called itself the most serene republic, La Serenissima.  It was ruled by nobles, who elected a leader called a doge.  The doge was a noble.  He ruled at the pleasure of the nobles until he died.  To prevent one family from becoming the ruling family, when a doge died, his family was excluded from the next doge election.   The laws of the republic were enforced by the Council of Ten, which consisted of ten judges, the doge, and some noblemen.  They tried, convicted, and sentenced anyone accused of breaking laws.  Some of the laws regulated political and religious beliefs, so some people were executed for being on the wrong side of the government and/or the church.  Sometimes people were executed by drowning.  

The doge lived in the Doge’s Palace, where the government meetings, including trials, were held.  The prison holding accused criminals was also in the Doge’s Palace.  Along the outside facade of the palace are many statues.  One of the statues in the palace is a lion with his mouth open.  If a citizen wanted to accuse another citizen of breaking the law, he could write his accusation on a piece of paper and put it through the lion’s mouth.  

Venice served as a way-station for trade between east and west for many years.  This made her a rich city, but with the discovery of a trade route around Africa, her importance and wealth began to wane.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

The Silver Pigs by Lindsey Davis

Finding an enjoyable new mystery series is always an unexpected pleasure.  It’s sometimes especially hard for me because I don’t like to read about graphic violence or sex, and I can’t read anything too scary without having nightmares.  (I realize that last sentence makes me sound like either a prude or a ten year old, neither of which is true.)  Back to the point, I’ve discovered a new mystery series that I think I’m going to love.  The Marcus Didius Falco series by Lindsey Davis is set in ancient Rome, so not only do you become immersed in a good plot, you also learn about the everyday lives of the ancient Romans.  The first book in the series is called The Silver Pigs, but it’s not about the oinking kind of pig.  The “good guy” characters are likeable, which is a requirement for me to really like a book.  I might enjoy a book or learn from it without liking the characters, but I find it difficult to rate a book a favorite if I can’t feel something positive about at least some of the characters.  Didius Falco is my kind of person:  good without pretense or piety, witty, sometimes sarcastic, and more than a little cynical.  The main female character, Helena Justina, I also like.  She’s left behind the life and marriage that were planned for her by her father because it was not the life she wanted, but she suffers silently for this break with conventionality. Throughout the book, I was pretty sure I knew who the villain was, but this plot transparency didn’t matter, because I was enjoying the other aspects of the book so much.  One interesting note:  until I was almost finished reading and looked at the author’s bio page, I thought the author was a man.  I’m not sure why; the book just felt like it had been written by a man.   I won’t have time right now to read the second book in the series, Shadows in Bronze, but it will definitely go on my To Be Read list

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Brunelleschi's Dome by Ross King

Sometimes, upon reading the last sentence of a book, I feel like I need to start again at the very beginning.  In the case of Brunelleschi’s Dome:  How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture by Ross King, so much new-to-me information was presented that I feel like I don’t remember even a tenth of it.  One of the more straight-forward new pieces of information was that the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence took nearly 200 years to complete.  Besides the obvious technical challenges presented, the city of Florence had to deal with wars and plagues several times during the construction.  None of the people in charge of construction, including Brunelleschi, were trained architects.  The original planner’s model for the dome collapsed under its own weight.  Good thing he didn’t build the real one.  Many domes and towers of the time did collapse due to errors in planning or materials.  Obviously, we’ve never heard about them.  The whole building process of the cathedral sounds like a cobbled-together, seat-of-your pants operation.


Brunelleschi was a clockmaker and goldsmith, turned amateur painter, sculptor, and architect.  His father wanted him to be a notary.  Maybe father doesn’t always know best.  He built a model for the dome and won the competition to build it but didn’t have any recorded plans of how to build it.  The dome would be massive, on a scale of things just not done at that time.  Before even beginning on the dome, Brunelleschi spent 13 years, off and on, in Rome.  Rome had become a less-than-important, small city at this point, all its glory buried under years of rubble and rubbish.  People went there on pilgrimages, but at the insistence of the church, ignored the classical, pagan past and its ruins.  “To such pious Christians these ancient ruins were so much heathen idolatry…..  Antique images that had survived a millennium of earthquakes, erosion, and neglect were therefore deliberately trampled underfoot, spat on, or thrown to the ground and smashed to pieces.”  (p23)    Chalk up another instance of forward-thinking for the church.  Brunelleschi spent his time in Rome digging in ruins, studying the ancient art and architectural techniques.  He also re-discovered the mathematics behind perspective in art.


Eventually, Brunelleschi begins to work on the dome.  He will build two domes, nested one inside the other, without using the traditional wooden centering scaffolds.  The masons he hires will be expected to supply their own tools, their own food, and their own drink everyday.  Depending on how high up they are working, they will either be drinking wine or watered-down wine. God knows I would need wine to work up that high.  At least then you might not know if you fell.   They will not be allowed to descend during the day.   Brunelleschi will also be responsible for managing these myriad men without the convenience of standardized time – so no punching in and out.  Some of these men will die on the job – no OSHA, no workers comp, no health insurance benefits.  You get hurt, you and your family don’t eat.    None of them, including Brunelleschi, really knows if what they are doing will work.


Brunelleschi had to invent and build the lifting devices (hoists and cranes) he needed as the job progressed.  He had to intuit this knowledge.  The ancients had known these maths, but they had been lost during the Dark Ages and were not rediscovered until after he had already built his machines.  His hoists and cranes outlived him.  They were not removed from the dome until after his death.  In addition to the machines, he somehow figured out to lay the bricks in a herringbone pattern so that one row would support another as the bricks were being laid, and he had the dome built with a nine-tiered circular skeleton as support.  Even after the dome was finally completed, a massive lantern for the apex had to be designed and built.  This lantern required a different kind of hoist, which, of course, Brunelleschi invented and built.  The book has a great section describing how this lantern was used as a giant sundial and how the knowledge gained from this use improved navigation maps that were used by Columbus, but you’ll have to read the book to get all that.  I’m too tired to interpret it for you.


At the end of the book,  Ross King writes, “Indeed, in height and span the cupola of Santa Maria del Fiore has never really been surpassed….  Not until the twentieth century were wider vaults raised, and then only by using modern materials like plastic, high-carbon steel, and aluminum….” (p163) 


And all this was accomplished by a short (5’ 4”), ugly, stinky, uneducated, secretive, suspicious, petty little unassuming Florentine man.    Short people rule.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

"Who'd Walk in This Bleak Place?" A Day for Sylvia Plath

What leads us to believe there is superiority in our misery?  What makes our hurt worse than others, our burdens harder to bear?  Isn’t it the same kind of vanity that tells us we are smarter/prettier/better than others?  Unquestionably, there are degrees of misery in different kinds of lives, but aren’t we all damaged?  We all have been through the fire.  Not one of us has escaped whole and unharmed.  We are all disfigured now.  The question becomes what will you do with this destruction.  What you become every day is up to you; as Sylvia Plath wrote:  “…each day demands we create our whole world over.”  No one has the monopoly on misery.  We all get tired from time to time of the chore of moving on, of plowing through what feels like air swarming with ghosts.  I suppose more of the people I have loved are dead now than are living, but I do not take that as permission to stop loving the ones who are left.  Sylvia Plath also wrote:  “Your clear eye is the one absolutely beautiful thing.”  Find that one absolutely beautiful thing, whatever it may be to you, and live for it.  As long as your heart is beating, you owe a debt of gratitude to whatever god-force gave you life.  Keep your hopes low, and you will at least be comfortable.


Sylvia Plath

The air is a mill of hooks--

Questions without answer,

Glittering and drunk as flies

Whose kiss stings unbearably

In the fetid wombs of black air under pines in summer.

I remember

The dead smell of sun on wood cabins,

The stiffness of sails, the long salt winding sheets.

Once one has seen God, what is the remedy?

Once one has been seized up

Without a part left over,

Not a toe, not a finger, and used,

Used utterly, in the sun's conflagrations, the stains

That lengthen from ancient cathedrals

What is the remedy?

The pill of the Communion tablet, 

The walking beside still water?  Memory?

Or picking up the bright pieces

Of Christ in the faces of rodents,

The tame flower-nibblers, the ones

Whose hopes are so low they are comfortable--

The humpback in his small, washed cottage

Under the spokes of the clematis.

Is there no great love, only tenderness?

Does the sea

Remember the walker upon it?

Meaning leaks from the molecules.

The chimneys of the city breathe, the window sweats,

The children leap in their cots.

The sun blooms, it is a geranium.

The heart has not stopped.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Blogging Takes a Backseat

     I finished Brunelleschi's Dome by Ross King last week and need to blog about it, but I started reading The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant and haven't been able to put it aside long enough to do any blogging.   It's been quite a while since I've read a compelling page-turner type of book, so I am enjoying myself, even if blogging is getting behind.  Here are some pictures of my other hobby that is taking me away from the computer.  Disclosure:  I did not take these beautiful shots; my daughter took them on Mother's Day as we worked in the garden.  

Saturday, May 9, 2009

In the Name of Religion

     I finished two books this week:  Galileo's Daughter by Dava Sobel and Incantation by Alice Hoffman.  At first glance, these two books seem to be very dissimilar:  one a biography written for adults and one a work of fiction written for a mostly teenage-girl audience.  One important similarity between the books, however, occurred to me.  Both teach the dangers of religion run amok.  Both exhibit the damage that religion did in Europe for hundreds of years.  
     The church persecuted and imprisoned Galileo for recognizing and teaching the truth.  In Incantation, the main character's family is killed by the church during the Spanish Inquisition for remaining true to their Jewish identity.  The great irony to me in both of these examples lies in the church's persecuting and punishing people for speaking and living the truth, while continuing to teach the lessons of the ten commandments, at least one of which, I believe, addresses honesty.  

Sunday, May 3, 2009

And Here is One Example of What Words Can Do

Sonnet XXVII by Pablo Neruda

Naked, you are simple as one of your hands, 
Smooth, earthy, small, transparent, round: 
You have moonlines, applepathways: 
Naked, you are slender as a naked grain of wheat.

Naked, you are blue as the night in Cuba; 
You have vines and stars in your hair; 
Naked, you are spacious and yellow 
As summer in a golden church.

Naked, you are tiny as one of your nails, 
Curved, subtle, rosy, till the day is born 
And you withdraw to the underground world,
as if down a long tunnel of clothing and of chores:
Your clear light dims, gets dressed, drops its leaves,
And becomes a naked hand again.

I am watching the movie, Il Postino, about Pablo Neruda in exile in Italy.  In one section, Beatrice's aunt tells her that "Words are the worst things ever.  I'd prefer a drunkard at the bar touching your bum to someone who says, 'Your smile flies like a butterfly.'"    She warns Beatrice that once a man touches her with his words, touching her with his hands is not far off.  After this scene, Mario reads the above Neruda sonnet.  I'd have to say that this sonnet is a perfect example to use as proof of the old aunt's words.  Just reading that poem makes my heart full. I would imagine that even in my cynical state, I would be vulnerable to a man who had those words inside of him.  (Note to self:  need to warn my daughter now.  Life is not like poetry and literature.)

Monday, April 27, 2009

The First Man to See

“I render infinite thanks to God for being so kind as to make me alone the first observer of marvels kept hidden in obscurity for all previous centuries.”  (p 6)  

These words of Galileo Galilei appear early in the book, Galileo's Daughter by Dava Sobel.  Think of the feeling Galileo must have had when he became the first person ever to see the valleys and mountains of the moon, the dark masses of sunspots moving across the face of the sun, and the moons, (which he referred to as planets), of Jupiter. Imagine living in a world with no concept of gravity, with no true common understanding of the physical make-up of  your own planetary system or even of your own body.  A few years before Galileo's telescope, Copernicus used mathematics and his own genius to posit a sun-centered universe.  Soon after, Galileo looked through his telescope to reveal the truth, unpopular though it was at the time.  What bravery it takes to speak the truth to people who don't want to hear it.   Out of the darkness of centuries of common ignorance, a few men intuited, and some later proved, truths that were once believed to be only the province of the gods.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli

Last night, I read Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli. My daughter had read about half of it and quit. She seemed frustrated and angry with the book, and I wanted to know why. It's a great parable about the importance of being yourself. I understand why my daughter stopped reading. The way the teenagers in the story treat the one who is different is infuriating. It also is a bit of an exaggeration. I know that nonconformity is frowned upon and ridiculed in society in general, and especially in high school, but I don't think it is realistic to suggest that almost every single person in a high school would, en masse, shun another person. Even in the most main-stream American high school (like the one my son attends), there is always a small contingent of kids who revel in their otherness. In the book, those kids are represented by only one person. The uniqueness of Stargirl is itself also hyperbole. These exaggerations are why I call the book a parable. They also don't matter. The lesson of the book, and its beauty, make it a worthwhile quick read, especially for teenagers. It helps reinforce one of the lessons I want my kids to learn: "To know what you prefer instead of humbly saying Amen to what the world tells you you ought to prefer, is to have kept your soul alive." (Robert Louis Stevenson)

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Does This Mean I'm Not Very Smart?

Finally, I finished Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz. It has taken me almost all of April. I can't explain why I feel less than happy about this book, nor can I explain why it took me almost four weeks to read. The language is not difficult, nor are the concepts. I did not like the characters, nor did I understand their motivations or their principles. I felt like much of the book revolved around placating the dictatorial father who lived his life making mountains out of molehills. I do realize that I often won't like a new book or a new song until I have read or heard it enough to become more familiar with it. This book is certainly unfamiliar to me; I don't relate to the people, place, time, beliefs... at all. I usually like to find some beauty or some inspiration in what I read, and I did not find that in Palace Walk. I can see why the book is considered a classic. Mahfouz certainly paints a picture of a place, time, and culture. It just happens to be a culture I don't understand or agree with. Mahfouz not only seems sympathetic to the misogyny found in the male characters, he seems almost to celebrate it as something worth trying to recapture in society. To love a work of art, a book, a piece of music, I need some feeling of goodness and hope to come out of what I see, read, or hear. This book did not inspire even a hint of goodness or hope in me. It did make me thankful for the time and place in which I live.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Not As Easy As It Looks

I am still plowing through Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz. I've been at the beach for the last few days, and Palace Walk is not beach reading. The book seems to be psychological insight that is uncomfortable to me, and I often feel lost in loops of thought as I read. I have to re-read and read more slowly than usual. I remember feeling this way a few years ago when I tried to read Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie. I finally gave up on that. I need to try again now that I am older and more patient.

In Palace Walk, the characters, their lives, beliefs, and attitudes are so foreign to me. I am amazed by the women's acceptance and belief in the total domination of the men. The main character is a dictator in his home, and his family believes this to be the proper role for him and believes their role as submitters to be established by God. At one point, the author compares the relationship between the father and his children to the relationship between a trainer and a wild animal (p. 161). I can see why this cycle of domination took root in society and propagated itself for so long, but I am glad to live in a society that has evolved beyond this type of mindless authoritarianism.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Comfort Without Complete Understanding

Madrigal Written In Winter
by Pablo Neruda
translated by Donald D Walsh

In the depths of the deep sea,
in the night of the long lists,
like a horse your silent
silent name runs past.

Lodge me at your back, oh shelter me,
appear to me in your mirror, suddenly,
upon the solitary, noctural pane,
sprouting from the dark behind you.

Flower of sweet total light,
bring to my call your mouth of kisses,
violent from separations,
resolute and delicate mouth.

Now then, in the long run,
from oblivion to oblivion the rails
reside with me, the cry of the rain:
what the dark night preserves.

Welcome me in the threadlike evening,
when at dusk it works upon
its wardrobe and in the sky a star
twinkles filled with wind.

Bring your substance deep down to me,
heavily, covering my eyes,
let your existence cut across me, supposing
that my heart is destroyed.

Poems are like jigsaw puzzles. Some of them have only 50 pieces, and you can work them in one short sitting. Some of them have 1000 small white pieces that you think you can never finish. The truth is that neither the 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle, nor the poem you are trying to understand is impossible. They both just take patience, confidence, and time. You have to accept that you're not going to get it immediately and believe that you will eventually come to at least a partial understanding.

A poem like the Neruda above continues to be a revelation, no matter how many times you read it. At first, I just liked the imagery and music of the language: "Alojame en tu espalda, ay, refugiame (Lodge me at your back, oh shelter me...)" and "Flor de la dulce luz completa (Flower of sweet total light...)." Then, the more times I read the poem, the more meaning I began to grasp. There were and still are passages that I don't completely understand. This lack of understanding doesn't matter. It just means that the poem still has something to teach me, some comfort to bring me. What matters is that sometimes, when I feel "that my heart is destroyed," I find comfort in the thought of being sheltered by someone else.

Note: If you read Spanish, find this poem in Spanish. It is even more beautiful in its original form.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Hatred and Forgiveness

"In that house, he had loved his mother in a way that could not be surpassed. In it an obscure doubt had crept into his heart. There the first seeds of a strange aversion had been cast into his breast, the aversion of a son for his mother.These seeds were destined to grow and mature until they changed in time into a hatred like a chronic disease." p. 78

"He closed the door of forgiveness and pardon on her and barricaded it with anger and hatred." p.81

Chapter 13 of Palace Walk explores the feelings that one of the main characters, Yasin, has for his estranged mother. He spent his formative years with his mother, who was a divorced woman in a society where divorce alone can condemn a woman to the status of a prostitute. Yasin views women through the prejudices he developed because of his hatred for his mother, but he lusts after them without respite.

I was well along in life before I realized that some men, especially religious men, often blame women for their own lust, as if you can blame the ocean for its waves or the sunset for its beauty. I think the problem here is not the lust, but the guilt that comes from a perverse view of human sexuality. This guilt, this perverse view of right and wrong, can destroy us if we let it. Think of holding on to the kind of hatred Yasin holds on to and of continuing to obsess on it. Whose life is ruined by that hatred? Hating anyone takes so much energy that could be given to life. When you forgive someone, you give yourself a gift.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Gravelly Run by A R Ammons

In addition to prose, I often read poetry and will try to post some of my favorite poems. Today's poem is by A R Ammons who was from Whiteville, NC and graduated from Wake Forest University.

Gravelley Run

I don't know somehow it seems sufficient
to see and hear whatever coming and going is,
losing the self to the victory
of stones and trees,
of bending sandpit lakes, crescent
round groves of dwarf pine:

for it is not so much to know the self
as to know it as it is known
by galaxy and cedar cone,
as if birth had never found it
and death could never end it:

the swamp's slow water comes
down Gravelly Run fanning the long
stone-held algal
hair and narrowing roils between
the shoulders of the highway bridge:

holly grows on the banks in the woods there,
and the cedars' gothic-clustered
spires could make
green religion in winter bones:

so I look and reflect, but the air's glass
jail seals each thing in its entity:

no use to make any philosophies here:
I see no
god in the holly, hear no song from
the snowbroken weeds: Hegel is not the winter
yellow in the pines: the sunlight has never
heard of trees: surrendered self among
unwelcoming forms: stranger,
hoist your burdens, get on down the road.

Though I don't know that I believe in immortality, at least not in immortality as it is understood by our culture, I like the idea of the self existing before and after death and the idea of life's having "found" us. This idea brings to mind Wordsworth's Intimations of Immortality: "Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting. / The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star, / Hath had elsewhere its setting, / And cometh from afar: / Not in entire forgetfulness, / And not in utter nakedness, / But trailing clouds of glory do we come / From God, who is our home..." Regardless of what you believe (or don't believe), that kind of beautiful imagery, along with "losing the self to the victory of stones and trees," brings comfort, even to those of us with "winter bones."

Sunday, April 5, 2009

We Don't Like to Think Too Much, Part Two

Still in Palace Walk:

"Thought, however, was a burden and revealed how trivial his knowledge of his religion was." (p.43)

This sentiment is exactly why I feel so alienated by religion in America today. So many people profess to believe in what they don't understand, and they don't want to do the hard work of looking closely at their faith or of questioning why they believe as they do. Faith is not a picture show or an ornament you wear for all to see. It lives deep in the heart of us and is fed only by truth.

We Don't Like to Think Too Much - Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz

"He was not accustomed to busying himself with introspection or self-analysis. In this way he was like most people who are rarely alone. His mind did not swing into action until some external force required it: a man or woman or some element of his material life. He had surrendered himself to the busy current of his life, submerging himself totally in it. All he saw of himself was his reflection on the surface of the stream." (p.41)

What a perfect description of the manner in which most people avoid the hard task of self-knowledge and an accurate explanation for why many people are afraid to be alone.

Less Sure About Less

" And at fifty, Less muses drowsily, you're as likeable as you're going to get." I experienced a strange transitio...