Officialdom can never cope with something really catastrophic.
As with all of Camus’s books, The Plague is a seamless blend of philosophy and art. The story tells of an outbreak of plague—bubonic and pneumonic—in the Algerian city of Oran. The narration tracks the crisis from beginning to end, noting the different psychological reactions of the townsfolk; and it must be said, now that we are living through a pandemic, that Camus is remarkably prescient in his portrayal a city under siege from infection. Compelling as the story is, however, I think its real power resides in its meaning as a parable of Camus’s philosophy.
Camus’s philosophy is usually called absurdism, and explained as a call to embrace the absurdity of existence. But this is not as simple as giving up church on Sundays. Absurdism is, indeed, incompatible with conventional religion. Camus makes this abundantly clear in his passage on the priest’s sermon—which argues that the plague is god’s punishment for our sins—an idea that Camus thinks incompatible with the randomness of the disaster: appearing out of nowhere, striking down children and adults alike. But absurdism is also incompatible with traditional humanism. The best definition of humanism is perhaps Protagoras’s famous saying: “Man is the measure of all things.” In many respects this seems to be true. Gold is valuable because we value it; an elephant is big and a mouse is small relative to human size; and so on. However, on occasion, the universe throws something our way that is not made to man’s measure. A plague is a perfect example of this: an ancient organism, too small to see, which can colonize our bodies, causing sickness and death and shutting down conventional life as we know it. Whenever a natural disaster makes life impossible, we are reminded that, far from being the measure of all things, we exist at the mercy of an uncaring universe.
This idea is painful to contemplate. Nobody likes to feel powerless; and the idea that our suffering and striving do not, ultimately, mean anything is downright depressing. Understandably, most of us prefer to ignore this situation. And of course economies and societies invite us to do so—to focus on human needs, human goals, human values—to be, in short, humanists. But there are moments when the illusion fades, and it does not take a pandemic. A simple snowstorm can be enough. I remember watching snow fall out of an office window, creating a blanket of white that forced us to close early, go home, and stay put the next day. A little inclement weather is all it takes to make our plans seem small and irrelevant.
A plague, then, is an ideal situation for Camus to explore his philosophy. But absurdism does not merely consist in realizing that the universe is both omnipotent and indifferent. It also is a reaction to this realization. In this book, Camus is particularly interested in what it means to be moral in such a world. And he presents a model of heroism very different from that which we are used to. The humanist hero is one who is powerful and free—a person who could have easily chosen not to be a hero, but who chose to because of their goodness.
The hero of this story, Dr. Bernard Rieux, does not fit this mold. His heroism is far humbler and more modest: it is the heroism of “common decency,” of “doing my job.” For the truth is that Rieux and his fellows do not have much of a choice. Their backs are against the wall, leaving them only the choice to fight or give up. An absurdist hero is thus not making a choice between good and evil, but against a long and ultimately doomed fight against death—or death. It is far better, in Camus’s view, to take up the fight, since it is only in a direct confrontation with death that we become authentically alive.
You might even say that, for Camus, life itself is the only real ethical principle. This becomes apparent in the speech of Tarrou, Rieux’s friend, who is passionately against the death sentence. Capital punishment crystalizes the height of absurdist denial: decreeing that a human value system is more valid that the basic condition of existence, and that we have a right to rule when existence is warranted or not. To see the world with clear eyes means, for Camus, to see that life is something beyond any value system—just as the entire universe is. And the only meaningful ethical choice, for Camus, is whether one chooses to fight for life.
This book is brilliant because its lessons can be applied to a natural disaster, like a plague, or a human disaster, like the holocaust. Indeed, before the current pandemic, the book was normally read as a reaction to that all-too-human evil. In either case, our obligation is to fight for life. This means rejecting ideologies that decree when life is or is not warranted, it means not giving up or giving in, and it means, most of all, doing one’s job.
The story of these first five years of AIDS in America is a drama of national failure, played out against a backdrop of needless death.
Though this book has been on my list for years, it took a pandemic to get me to finally pick it up. I am glad I did. And the Band Played On is both a close look at one medical crisis and an examination of how humans react when faced with something that does not fit into any of our mental boxes—not our ideas of civil liberty, not our categories of people, and not our notions of government responsibility. As such, this book has a lot to teach us, especially these days.
Randy Shilts was working as a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. This position allowed him to track the spread of this disease from nearly the very beginning. Putting this story together was a work of exemplary journalism, involving a lot of snooping and a lot more interviewing. What emerges is a blow-by-blow history of the crisis as it unfolded in its first five years, from 1980-85. And Shilts’s lens is broad: he examines the gay community, the epidemiologists, the press, the blood banks, the medical field, the research scientists, and the politicians. After all, a pandemic is not just caused by a virus; it is the sum of a virus and a society that allows it to spread.
The overarching theme of this book is individual heroism in the face of institutional failure. There are many admirable people in these pages: epidemiologists trying to raise the alert, doctors struggling to treat a mysterious ailment, gay activists trying to educate their communities, and a few politicians who take the disease seriously. But the list of failures is far longer: from the scientists squabbling over claims of priority, to the academic bureaucracies squashing funding requests, to the blood bankers refusing to test their blood, to the government—on every level—failing to take action or set aside sufficient funding.
A lot of these failures were due simply to the sorts people who normally caught AIDS: gay men and intravenous drug users. Because both of these groups were (and to some extent still are) social pariahs, major newspapers simply did not cover the epidemic. This was crucial in many respects, since it gave the impression that it simply was not worth worrying about (the news sets the worry agenda, after all), giving politicians an excuse to do nothing and giving people at risk an excuse not to take any precautions. The struggle in the gay community over how to proceed was particularly vexing, since it was their very efforts to preserve their sexual revolution which cost time and lives. As we are seeing nowadays, balancing civil liberties and disease control is not an easy thing.
But what made these failure depressing, rather than simply frustrating, was the constant drumbeat of death. So many young men lost their lives to this disease, dying slow and agonizing deaths while baffled doctors tried to treat them. When these deaths were occurring among gay men and drug users, the silence of the country was deafening. It was only when the disease showed the potential to infect heterosexuals and movie stars—people who matter—that society suddenly spurred itself into action. This seems to be a common theme to pandemics: society only responds when “normal” people are at risk.
Another common theme to pandemic is the search for a panacea. At the beginning of the AIDS crisis, there were many claims of “breakthroughs” and promises of vaccines. But we still have neither a cure nor a vaccine. Fortunately, treatment for HIV/AIDS has improved dramatically since this book was written, when a diagnosis meant death. Pills are now available (Pre-Exposure Prophylactic, or PrEP) which, if taken daily, can reduce the chance of contracting HIV through sex by almost 99% percent. And effective anti-viral therapies exist for anyone who has been infected, greatly extending lifespans.
Unfortunately, these resources are mostly available in the “developed” world. In Sub-Saharan Africa, where resources are scarce, the disease is still growing, taking many lives in the process. Once again, a disease is allowed to ravage in communities that the world can comfortably ignore.
One day, a hardworking journalist will write a similar book about the current coronavirus crisis and our institutions’ response to it. And I am sure there will be just as much failure to account for. But there will also be just as much heroism.
My years in Madrid have been consumed with the search to find the cheapest possible flights. Within Europe, this is fairly easy, as bargain airlines could bring you from Madrid to Krakow for less than forty euros. But it is more difficult to find similar deals for trans-atlantic flights (which I need to get back to New York). For a few years, the best deals I was able to find were with Icelandair, which allowed me to travel for around $500 with one checked bag. The only inconvenience was having to have a stopover in Keflavik Airport—a large airport near Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik.
I performed this maneuver twice: once in the July of 2017, and once a year later. Both times, I had a few hours to kill between flights, and so I decided to spend some time in Reykjavik. This is easy enough. A shuttle bus leaves the airport about twice an hour, which brings you to the BSI bus terminal in the city. There you can find luggage lockers in which you can leave any heavy luggage while you walk around the city. Neither the bus nor the locker is especially cheap—nothing in Iceland is, unfortunately—but it was still within my limited budget. This was how I visited Iceland.
Stopover 1: July 2017
By the time I arrived in Iceland I was already jetlagged. My flight had left from Madrid late in the day, and had arrived in Iceland in the middle of the night. When I boarded the bus to Reykjavik, it was around three in the morning. And yet it was not dark. Because it is so far north, Iceland enjoys near perpetual daylight in the summer months, and suffers nearly perpetual darkness in winter. The landscape was bathed in a gray twilight, with the sun hovering somewhere near the horizon, as I slumped into my seat on the shuttle bus. A young man checked my printed ticket and, soon, I was on my way to the largest city in Iceland (population: 130,000).
Iceland does not lack for sophistication, as I soon discovered. The bus was comfortable and equipped with wifi. Soon I was using the internet connection to look up an organ piece that I had heard some months earlier, in Munich: the Salva Regina by Olivier Latry. It is an enchanting and unnerving piece of music, built of augmented and diminished chords, that seemed ideally suited for the sort of environment I saw out the window. The road to Reykjavik cut through a barren landscape of amorphous volcanic rock covered with a thin layer of moss—a landscape so bereft of feature or vegetation that it seemed entirely arbitrary where the road was built.
Occasionally, some buildings could be seen in the distance: small prefabricated structures made of steel and fiberglass. I did not know what I expected to find in Iceland, but I did not expect to find such total emptiness and precariousness. Every bit of human life seemed as if it had been eked out in a hostile environment. And, indeed, Iceland is hostile: at such a high latitude, Iceland’s climate is nearly arctic. Even in the middle of July, I needed extra layers to be comfortable (which I had hastily bought at a second-hand store before my trip). Simply looking out the window during this short bus ride opened my eyes to the reality of life in this place. It is a land of a few, hardy people, willing to deal with surroundings that are not especially conducive to comfortable life.
Finally the bus arrived at the station. I put away my extra bags and left to explore the nation’s capital. Once again, I was surprised at how humble and sparse everything was. The bus station itself is little more than a shed, and it stands right next to a neighborhood of residential houses. Even these buildings had the quality of bomb shelters, with thick concrete walls and small windows. I suppose it is difficult to build on permafrost.
Very soon I was standing in front of one of the most famous buildings in the country: the Hallgrímskirkja, a monumental church. I will discuss this church more later (since I experienced more of it during my second visit), but I do want to highlight here that this church is one of the tallest structures in the entire country. Certainly, it is not a miniscule building, but in any other context it would be medium-sized at best. Even provincial churches in Spain are taller—and that is putting aside apartment buildings. Once again, the permafrost creates real limitations.
I did not have much time—only about two hours—so I could not stop to do anything. Besides, it was around five in the morning by this point, so nothing was open. I just wanted to walk as far as I could; and the experience was surreal. Since the jet lag and the sunlight had totally thrown off my own biological clock, I had little sense that it was the middle of the night. So it was shocking to see the many young people still crowding into bars, throwing up into the bushes, or pissing on the sidewalks. Typically, such scenes are mercifully shrouded by the darkness of night. In the twilight, however, it was rather disturbing to see—especially since I was quite painfully sober.
After making my way through the nightlife sections of town, I reached the seaside. Here I got a glimpse of the beauty of the Icelandic landscape. The sky was streaked with low-lying clouds, shining bright yellow from the low-lying sun. Ships sat idle and empty at the docks—coast guard vessels, fishing boats, pleasure barques—their dusky reflections an indistinct shadow in the shady light. I kept going and going, trying to get as far as I could in the peninsula before I ran out of time. This led me to Seltjarnarnes, the township at the very end of the landform. Further on, I could see the distinct, cubic form of the Saltjarnarneskirkja, another architecturally daring church.
I had hoped to get all the way to the Grótta Island Lighthouse, which stands at the extreme end of the land. But, alas, I ran out of time before I could make it. I had to turn back. But I took a few minutes to sit by the sea and gaze into the ocean. The circumstances—the brisk morning air and the unnerving dawn light, combined with my jetlag and exhaustion—produced a strange and memorable feeling: as if I had reached the end of the world, and was gazing into an unknown beyond. This was easily the most north that I had ever travelled, and for all I knew it was the most north I would ever travel in my life. For a moment, I felt the thrill of adventure and, that most wonderful of travel sensations, the endless wonder of the world.
This did not last long, however, as I had to rush back to the bus station if I wanted to make it to New York. Soon, I was once again being driven through the strange volcanic landscape, was making my way through airport security, and was flying thousands of feet through the air. I was seated next to a nice family from Argentina, and chatted with them a bit in Spanish. Out the window, I could see an endless landscape of mountains, rock, and ice: Greenland. It was magnificent, in the way that only nature can be. And I hoped that, someday, I would have the time and the means to experience more of this extraordinary part of the earth.
Stopover 2: July 2018
A year had gone by, and I was not much the wiser for it. But at least I knew that, if I was going to stop in Iceland again, I should at least give myself a little more time to explore. Thus, I gave myself upwards of 10 hours during this second stopover: enough to at least visit a couple things and have a bite to eat. Plus, not all of it would be in the middle of the night.
But some of it would be. My flight arrived at around four in the morning, and of course I was exhausted. Once again, the sun was not quite fully up nor fully set; but this particular night was cloudy, and so it was fairly dark outside. Since nothing in the city would be open yet, I decided to spend some time trying to get a little sleep. So I lay down on one of the benches near my arrival gate and closed my eyes. The sleep was not forthcoming. Though the place was mostly quiet, the lights were blaring brightly, and placing my hoodie over my eyes did not help much. What is more, every ten minutes or so another plane would arrive, flooding the hall with passengers. This did not make for restful sleep.
One way or another, though, the time passed. By around eight, I decided that it was time to go to Reykjavik. The process of arriving was exactly the same as the year before: a coach bus to the city’s bus station. After about an hour, my luggage was stored away in luggage lockers, and I was retracing my steps.
This led me, very soon, to the Hallgrímskirkja (“the church of Hallgrímur”). And now I finally had some time to stop and visit it. From the outside, the church is quite unlike the typical European architecture. It features a central tower flanked by a series of steps which ascend, logarithmically, to the highest point. This gives the building a wonderful energy, as if the entire structure is being swept up towards the sky. Incidentally, this design also helps to accentuate the building’s verticality, helping it to appear taller than it really is (74.5 m, or 244 feet).
In front of the cathedral stands a statue of Leif Erikson, perhaps the most famous Icelander in history: the first European to set foot on the American continent. This statue actually predates the church, as it was given as a gift to Iceland from the United States. It was designed by Alexander Stirling Calder (who also designed the statue of Washington in NYC’s Washington Square), and is quite a heroic piece of work.
One can get some idea of the engineering challenges presented by Iceland’s climate when one learns that this church—which, again, would not be considered particularly big in another European context—took forty years to complete: from 1945 to 1986. In fact, the original plan for this church did not call for it to be so large; but the dimensions were enlarged in order to outshine the country’s Catholic cathedral (located not far off). This church, by the way, belongs to Iceland’s national denomination, which is based on Lutheranism. The inside of the building is quite as geometrically daring as the outside: an unadorned assemblage of gothic vaults and arches.
Next I made my way to the city center—which was very familiar, even though I had seen it only briefly a year ago—and then onwards to the shore. There, I paused to admire the daring form of the Harpa Concert Hall, a modern performance space consisting of glass over a steel frame. Both the windows and the underlying structure were created using various geometrical forms, which make the surface of the building fascinating to see, especially as the variously angled windows catch the shimmering morning light. The Iceland Symphony Orchestra most commonly performs here, and I am sure it is quite a good show.
By now it was still early morning, but I was famished. So I decided to visit one of the most popular cheap restaurants in the city, Icelandic Street Food. When I visited, this establishment had just recently opened, and yet it already was the top-rated cheap restaurant in the city. As soon as I arrived, I could see why they had had such success. The entire staff—an international collection of young men, from Iceland, and Eastern and Northern Europe—were extremely friendly and went far out of their way to create a pleasant atmosphere. Also, their menu was tailor-made to engender satisfaction. They sold soups—two types: lamb and fish. If you paid a little extra, your soup came in a bread bowl. But whatever you got came with unlimited refills. Soon I found myself downing my third bowl of soup, as I chatted with the friendly Polish waiter.
Best of all, my soup came with a free coupon for a beer at the bar next door (which had the same owner). So even though the meal was not exactly cheap by my usual standards, I got quite a lot for my money. And, best of all, it was good.
Now my time in Iceland was running out. I could only visit one of the city’s attractions. There were many options. The Perlan is an impressive exhibition center, built in a former hot-water heater on a hill somewhat outside the city center. But I did not have time to walk so far. The National Museum of Iceland was an intriguing choice, filled with artifacts from the country’s Viking past. And of course there was the famous Iceland Phallological Museum, an exhibition dedicated to the phalluses of the animal kingdom. That was certainly tempting. (By the way, I highly recommend reading the museum’s Wikipedia entry.) But I eventually decided on a new attraction: Tales from Iceland.
To be honest, I did not know what to expect when I paid and walked inside. But I was immediately delighted to find that my ticket came with free coffee and cookies. Iceland was certainly making a good impression this time around. Soon I discovered that Tales from Iceland is an audiovisual exhibit, consisting of dozens of screens and chairs, all set on a standard timer. This way, all the videos end at about the same time, and you have a minute to move on to the next video station. I thought it a very neat idea.
I have to admit, however, that I mostly did not care for the videos on the first floor. These mainly consisted of over-produced, romanticized travelogues by tourists to Iceland, with cheesy commentary about how travel broadens our horizons and deepens our feelings and so forth. But I am sure my girlfriend would have loved it, since traveling around Iceland is one of her dreams. Certainly, judging from these videos, the country is quite beautiful. There are endless fields, cliffs, valleys, rocks, and rivers—not to mention the glaciers and volcanoes—with a few hardy Icelanders living in cozy houses scattered throughout this barren environment. The tourists seemed always to be on an adventure: driving down a dirt road, walking under a waterfall, riding an exotic horse, or camping under the northern lights. Maybe I can go on my honeymoon.
The upstairs was considerably more to my tastes. Here, the videos gave little overviews of many different aspects of this little island nation. I learned a lot in a short time, and much of it surprised me. The most important thing to keep in mind about Iceland is that there are really not many Icelanders. Indeed, there are more sheep than people living in the country: with over 800,000 of the former, and just about 320,000 of the latter. In other words, there are more people living in my county in New York (Westchester)—about three times more, in fact. Considering this, virtually every accomplishment in Iceland seems nearly miraculous.
Consider the book industry, for example. Iceland had a robust and vibrant literary output—novels, nonfiction, journalism—and even a Nobel Laureate, Halldór Laxness. Of course, this is true of nearly every major country; but in a country the size of Iceland, this means that an absurdly high portion of the population must publish a book. In fact, 1 in 10 Icelanders will publish a book in their lifetime—a higher portion than anywhere else in the world. (Icelandic, by the way, is a Nordic language, like Swedish or Danish; but it is distinct for being the most closely related to Old Norse, which allows Icelanders to read the medieval Eddas and sagas in the original.)
The figures on authorship are impressive enough. But consider Iceland’s football team. Somehow, in a country the size of a medium-sized city, they have assembled a team which can compete with and even defeat countries like England (whose population is about 200 times bigger) in the World Cup. Iceland has also had great success in entertainment. A surprising number of successful musicians have come out of Iceland—including, most famously, Björk. (Here’s a charming video of her.)
And all this is not to mention Iceland’s impressive economic success. For most of its existence, Iceland had been primarily a fishing nation. In fact, the closest the thing the country has had to a war were the so-called “Cod Wars”—conflicts over fishing territories waged against the UK. In the wake of the Second World War, however, Iceland emerged as one of the most developed countries in the West, with a standard of living well above many European nations (as well as above the United States). You can get a feel for Iceland’s success by, say, paying for a cup of coffee. It is not a cheap place.
Apart from being culturally exceptional, Iceland is also geologically extreme. Besides its high latitude and cold climate, Iceland is distinct for the very high level of volcanic activity. The entire island was formed from an upsurge of igneous rock from the ocean floor. Volcanic eruptions are not uncommon events in the island, and are occasionally disruptive. As recently as 2010, a volcanic eruption in the south of the country grounded flights in the UK.
Curiously, it is not quite known why Iceland should have so many active volcanoes. Partly this is due to the country’s location between two continental plates; but still there must be other factors at work. The volcanism has certainly been good for tourism, however, powering attractions such as the Blue Lagoon, a famous geothermal spa. In fact, many houses in the country get their heating entirely from the earth.
I finished the museum, and now it was time to go. On my way back, I passed by the Tjörnin, or the little lake in the center of the city. It is a picturesque spot, with the profiles of the buildings reflected in the placid waters, and lots of birds feeding on the plentiful breadcrumbs made available by the residents. There, I snapped a final picture before returning to the station, boarding the bus, and then flying back to New York. It was a wonderful layover; and I suspect it will not be the last time that I set foot in Iceland.
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Venice certainly does not lack for sights. The entire city is virtually an open-air museum; there are architectural masterpieces on every other corner. And even if you get tired of the historical center of Venice, there are plenty of islands in the Venetian lagoon that are worth visiting. But I think that it is worth going even further afield during your trip. The famous city of Verona is not far off, and the Prosecco wine region is also within reach. But if you are interested in art, then the place to go is Padua.
Trains leave regularly from Venice to Padua. They cost less than 10 euros, and the trip takes substantially less than an hour. In no time I was stepping off the train and walking towards my destination: the Arena Chapel. Also called the Scrovegni chapel, this is the small church where Giotto—known as the father of the Italian Renaissance—did his finest work. Not wishing to leave anything to chance, I booked my ticket online in advance. The chapel is small, and the artwork is delicate; so only 25 people are allowed in during any visit; and a visit lasts about 15 minutes. I certainly did not want to go all the way to Padua to be told that there were no more tours that day.
Indeed, I was so worried about making the tour in time that I arrived substantially early, leaving me an hour to kill. Luckily, the Musei Civici di Padova—the municipal museum—is right next door. This was free to visit and actually quite beautiful. The collection is housed in a former monastery, filling the old cloisters within and without; and this former monastery itself sits in the bucolic monastery gardens (now a public park). The collection was far more impressive than I expected. There are bits of Roman ruins, fine works of ancient pottery, original manuscripts, and prints and drawings.
But of course, this being Italy, the main attraction were the many sculptures and paintings on display. Both the quality and variety of these works astounded me. In Europe, art is truly endless; every city has its own collection of minor masterpieces. Padua has some fairly major masterpieces in its collection. There were some wonderful examples of religious wood carvings, with faces distorted in grief at the dead Christ. The paintings were quite wonderful as well. There are works by Tiepolo, Bellini, and Tintoretto, and dozens of works by lesser-known masters. By the time that I had to leave for the chapel, I was rather disappointed that I could not spend more time enjoying this charming collection.
Now it was time to visit the chapel. This is a separate building off to the side of the former monastery. We gathered in front of the entrance, just as the previous tour group was exiting through a separate doorway. Soon enough we were being herded inside—all twenty-five of us—to watch a short informative film while the climate adjusted around us. It is a very good system, I think. The film gives us a bit of background, while the air conditioning gradually cools down the temperature and reduces the humidity, so that when we enter we do no harm to the artwork. I must admit, though, that I was a bit cold by the end of the film.
Before we go inside, allow me to give you some background. The chapel was never part of a public church, but was rather built at the behest of a wealthy banker, Enrico Scrovegni (thus the name), who owned a large mansion—now demolished—right next door. The chapel was built over a Roman arena which once occupied the spot (thus the other name), whose ruins can still be seen nearby. Scrovegni must have been quite a wealthy man, since he was able to recruit the great Giotto from Florence, the preeminent painter of his day. Giotto came, and spent about two years on the project. The result was one of the great masterpieces in the history of European art. For his time, Giotto was an extremely innovative figure, pioneering techniques for adding realism, dimension, and form to his paintings. There is a lifelike drama to his work that makes him a forerunner of the entire Italian Renaissance.
Finally it was time to enter. I walked through just one doorway and, finally, I was there. I remembered seeing this chapel in my art history textbooks, and finding it astonishing even then. In person, the chapel was extraordinary. Everyone who entered was reduced to the hushed silence that accompanies any great work of art—the feeling of awe that forces us to speak in reverential whispers. Though composed of dozens of individual works, the Arena chapel is a unified work, with a single aesthetic sensibility pervading the atmosphere. The dominant color is blue—a shade between the bright blue of the sky and the dark violet of the late evening. It helps to give the chapel the lush, cool ambience of a cloudless summer night.
This comparison is quite obvious, when you look up to see the ceiling painted as the night sky. In two panels, Giotto represents Christ and Mary as the center of the universe (earth, in Giotto’s day), with the prophets as planets, against a starry background. Then, in four distinct levels, panels tell the story of Mary and Christ, and represent the virtues and vices. At the far end is the centerpiece of the program: a magnificent portrayal of the Last Judgment. The entire work has been aptly compared with Dante’s Divine Comedy. Indeed, Giotto, who was a near-contemporary of Dante, may have been directly influenced by that great poem in its images of heaven and hell. In any case, the Scrovegni chapel is a work of comparable ambition and skill: a grand cosmic vision, attempting to encompass the human experience.
The main entrance of the chapel (which is not where the modern visitor enters) is right below the Last Judgment. On the opposite side is a triumphal arch, underneath which the priest would have stood. The grand program of decoration begins right at the top of this triumphal arch and then works its way down tier by tier. The cosmic cycle is set in motion by God the Father, who calls the archangel Gabriel to his side, and instructs the angel to deliver the annunciation to Mary. This is done immediately below, on either sides of the arch—Gabriel on the left and Mary on the right—who form a beautiful pair. Already, we can see some of Giotto’s innovation here. The two figures occupy a convincing architectural space, with balconies that sing to hang into the air. This was something quite new in the history of art. Though still not true perspective (since the lines to not converge on a vanishing point), even this little background is a more convincing three-dimensional representation of space than anything in gothic painting.
The story on the upper tier begins even before the annunciation to Mary, with the story of Mary’s parents, Joachin and St. Anne. Mary herself was the subject of an annunciation, as an angel informed her mother that Mary would be born without original sin (immaculately, in other words). The story of Mary’s birth and marriage takes us back around to the triumphal arch, where Gabriel’s annunciation has its proper chronological setting. This sets in motion the story of Christ, which begins with the birth, the adoration of the Magi, the flight into Egypt, and the rest of the typical scenes of Christ’s childhood. This sequence takes us to the first half of the second tier. Now, Christ’s adulthood begins, with its many scenes: the baptism, the miracles, the betrayal, crucifixion, and resurrection. This takes us all the way to the Last Judgment, the logical end of the series (and, indeed, of the world).
Of course, this is a story often told. You can see it, or part of it, in any church in Europe. Giotto’s excellence is revealed in the execution of this standard program. He was an artist of many talents. One is his sense of dramatic narrative. Rather than a series of disconnected scenes, as is often found in gothic art, the scenes in Giotto’s work all lead very naturally to the next. This is done through simple but effective visual cues, such as having Christ constantly facing in the direction of the next panel, or having the ground seem to continue from one scene to the next. This gives Giotto’s rendition of these classic stories an organic continuity and unity, easy and pleasant to follow.
Giotto was a dramatist in other ways. Whereas emotion is rather abstract or generalized in medieval art, Giotto renders emotion more palpable. This is apparent in many scenes: the tender kiss shared between St. Anne and Joachim at the golden gate of Israel, or the way that the Virgin gently cradles her newborn son, or the passionate grief apparent in those mourning Christ. The emotion in these scenes is shockingly direct; and this is a measure of Giotto’s realism. His figures are not generic or unreal, but solid and substantial. Their emotions are expressed through their very physicality—an embrace, a kiss, a gesture.
Giotto’s realism and his dramatic sensibility are tied together through his gift for composition. Several of the panels are masterpieces of formal study, guiding the viewer’s eye to the central drama, and expressing that drama through shape and line.
The best example of this—and perhaps the best painting in the entire chapel—is the arrest of Christ (or the kiss of Judah). It is a traditional scene, but its execution is far from traditional. Judas is normally shown coming and kissing Christ on the cheek, as Christ looks forward. But in this work, Christ and Judas directly face each other; Judas actually embraces Christ, covering him with the fold of his gown, and appears to kiss him directly on the mouth. The contrast between the stoic, tall Christ and the lowly, cowardly Judas—who looks both timorous and ridiculous, as he puckers—is extreme. And yet the pair, locked together, stand as a kind of anchor for the chaos raging around them. The torches, clubs, and lances of the mob are positioned so that they seem to emerge from the pair, splitting the night sky. On the left St. Peter is cutting off the ear of one of the assailants, while a hooded figure grabs somebody off to the side. On the other side, an official (painted with impressive volume and foreshortening) points menacingly to Jesus, signaling the others to apprehend him.
As impressive as this is, my personal favorite from the chapel is the Last Judgment. Like any typical representation of this awesome event, the scene is divided horizontally and vertically. On the top Christ sits among the saints in heaven, while below him the world is split between the saved and the damned, the former to his right and the latter to his left. Right at the bottom, we can see Scrovegni himself offering his chapel to the angels (presumably to secure his salvation). And we can see that the chapel, as it was when this was painted, is not as it is today. Concretely, the chapel today is smaller and less ornate that this drawing, which has led scholars to conclude that parts of the original chapel were demolished because the local church complained of competition.
Right at the bottom, below Scrovegni, there are a collection of naked, impish figures emerging from coffins. Presumably these are the dead, arising to be judged. Like many great painters, Giotto let his imagination run wild in his depiction of hell. Jets of flame shoot down into the abyss, carrying the damned into the inferno, where Satan and his minions are waiting. Demons pull and push the frightened sinners. Some unfortunates are hanging, while many others are being stuffed into pits at the bottom. In the center, Satan himself chews on a sinner, while others grasped in his hands await the same fate. Serpents emerge from his ears and he sits on a bed of dragons, which also gnaw hungrily on corrupt flesh. If Giotto was not inspired directly by Dante, he was responding to similar cultural currents. Or perhaps both imaginative men just enjoyed picturing the suffering of their enemies.
This more or less brings us to the end of the religious scenes. But I still have not mentioned the exquisite decorative painting that occupies the spaces between these scenes. They are beautiful works of abstract art, with geometrical and floral patterns perfectly imitating the appearance of marble inlays. Individual portraits of Old Testament figures occupy the spaces between the New Testament panels; and the knowledgeable viewer will notice that these, too, are carefully selected, in order to draw connections between the stories of the prophets and the story of Christ. For example, the story of Jonah and the Whale is placed before the resurrection, since Jesus’s death and rebirth were mirrored in Jonah’s being swallowed and then spit out again. (Many theologians spilled a lot of ink trying to prove that the New Testament was prefigured by the Old.)
We come finally to the representations of virtues and vices in the bottom tier. Though not explicitly religious, these only reinforce the message of the chapel: for the virtues lead directly to salvation and the vices to damnation. They are, thus, the abstract lessons to be learned from this great cosmic story, or if you prefer a moral philosophy expressed through personification. The execution of these vices and virtues in monochrome (thus imitating sculpture), only heightens their abstractness.
There are seven virtues, all mirrored by their corresponding vice on the opposite wall: hope with desperation, prudence with folly, justice with injustice, and so on. They are all wonderful, my personal favorite being the portrayal of Envy: standing in flames, clutching a bag of money, with a serpent emerging his mouth and turning around to bite him in the face. There can be no more graphic illustration of the torture and self-destruction inherent in envy. The representation of hope is also justly famous, as winged woman reaching up towards a crown; while her counterpart, desperation, has hung herself.
After fifteen wonderful minutes, we were led out of the chapel. I was exhausted. I had spent the morning rushing to the train, rushing to the museum, and then absorbed in artwork. It was time for lunch. For this, I headed to one of Padua’s better-known cheap eats, Dalla Zita, a small sandwich shop in the center. Dozens of color-coded sticky notes cover one of the walls, informing the visitor of the many sandwich options available, each one with a cute name. Somehow, the staff of the shop have memorized all of these sandwich names, and so you need only say “Steve” or “Babu” to get the sandwich you want. I do not remember what I ordered, but I am sure it involved roast beef and was delicious.
While I sat on the corner, stuffing the assemblage of bread, meat, and sauce into my mouth, I had quite a charming interaction. A woman, who had accidentally cut me in line in the sandwich shop, saw me, realized her mistake, and came over and actually apologized to me. That had never happened to me before. This was only the second act of small kindness that day. When I was in the monastery gardens trying to find the chapel a young man came over and pointed me in the right direction. He did not even want a reward! These things rarely happen in New York.
Now I had a few hours before my return train to Venice. I decided to spend some of it simply walking around the city of Padua. Though not as shockingly beautiful as Venice (no city is), Padua is a charming city, with an attractive historic center. Its most characteristic feature are the shaded arcades lining the wide, cobblestone streets. The walk along the river Bacchiglione—which runs through the center of the city—is also quite lovely. But the most picturesque spot in the city is, undoubtedly, the massive central square: the Prato della Valle (literally, “meadow of the valley”). At 90,000 square meters, this is the biggest plaza in Italy and among the largest in Europe. But it is not only special for its size. A moat encircles around a grassy central island, with no fewer than 78 neoclassical statues on either side of the canal.
Two of Padua’s most splendid church buildings stand nearby. Within sight of the Prato della Valle is the Abbey of Santa Giustina, a massive brick church building topped with domes. Like so many Italian churches, this church is richly and beautifully decorated. But it is perhaps most notable for holding the remains of St. Luke the Evangelist. Well, at least most of the remains: the evangelist’s body is entombed here, but his head is in Prague, and one of his ribs is in Thebes. In any case, I unfortunately did not have the chance to visit this church, since I was more interested in visiting another one nearby: the Basilica of Saint Anthony of Padua.
This basilica is the largest and, undoubtedly, the most glorious church building in Padua, though it is not the city’s cathedral. (This distinction is held by a far more modest structure, which has a famous fresco cycle by Guisto de’ Menabuoi.) Its profile is difficult to miss. Though the building has few external sculptures or friezes—being mainly composed of red brick—the roof is forest of domes and spires, which gives the building a vaguely Russian appearance.
Before going inside, it is worth pausing to examine an equestrian statue located right next to the building. This is the Equestrian Statue of Gattamelata, by none other than Donatello. Gattamelata is the nickname of Erasmo da Narni—it means “honeyed cat”—a famous condottiero (basically a general for hire). Though this statue lacks the ferocious strength of Andrea del Verrochio’s statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni in Venice, it is perhaps more historically significant in the history of art, if only because it was made earlier. The statue has many of the hallmarks of the early Renaissance: humanism, realism, secularism, classicism. After all, the subject of the sculpture is neither a saint nor a king, but a person famous for his own exploits—an individual. And Donatello obviously paid close attention to the anatomy of horses, as we can see from the careful modeling of the muscles and even the veins in the horse’s head.
The statue’s classicism is not only apparent in its realistic style, but also in the technique used: a bronze sculpture made using the lost-wax technique. Such a large-scale equestrian statue had been beyond the technical abilities of Europeans since the fall of Rome. It was the rediscovery of the statue of Marcus Aurelius (misidentified as Constantine) which showed Renaissance artists the possibilities of bronze sculpture. Donatello was both a pioneer and a master of this technique. It is also worth comparing this statue to one of the masterpieces of medieval sculpture, the Bamberg Horseman. The two works—both beautiful and realistic—reveal a difference in worldview. The Bamberg Horseman is graceful, handsome, and above all royal: a man of elevated status. Gattamelata is a much more imposing presence: self-contained, intelligent, determined, he seems to be a heroic man riding out of history.
Now, let us enter the basilica itself (where Gattamelata is buried, incidentally). Like so many Italian churches, the Basilica of Saint Anthony is lushly decorated. When not covered with fresco, every surface shimmers with gold, silver, or marble, in sharp contrast with the fairly plain walls outside the building. Because I could not take pictures, my ability to talk about any aspect of the church in detail is limited. What most sticks out in my memory is the palatial shrine of St. Anthony of Padua. When I visited, pilgrims were lined up to receive a blessing and to kneel by the saint’s relics. Indeed, this basilica is an important site of pilgrimage, and is one of the eight international shrines designated by the Catholic Church (two of the three are in Italy, and three are in Poland).
With my visit concluded, I retreated outside to take a final look at the basilica. I had spent far less than a day in Padua, and almost every minute of it was enjoyable. Indeed, I found the city so charming that I wished I could spend far more time there. At the very least, the streets of Padua are more lively than those of Venice. But I had scheduled my train back and I could not stay any longer. One major site I missed was the Palazzo della Ragione, an enormous medieval town hall, decorated with dozens of paintings. I also wish I had visited the University of Padua, one of the oldest universities in Europe, where Galileo himself once taught. I suppose that the next time I return to Venice, I will have to return to Padua as well.
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It is redundant to speak of the “Venetian Islands,” since the entire city is composed of islands. Yet when people speak of “Venice” they are most commonly referring to the cluster of small islands, connected with bridges, that compose the historical city center. This is only a fraction of the Venetian lagoon, however. There are a great many larger islands, further away, that require a boat to get to. That is what this post is about.
If you are standing near the Doge’s Palace, looking out towards the Mediterranean Sea, you will immediately notice the basilica of San Giorgio Maggiore. This is one of the bigger church buildings in the city, and its magnificent shape forms a wonderful profile in the sunset light. None other than Monet immortalized this image in a series of paintings. This basilica sits on an eponymous island, which is not much bigger than the church itself.
The island of San Giorgio Maggiore sits at the far end of a much longer island, Giudecca. This island has served many functions through Venice’s history—as a residence for the wealthy, as a center of industry, and now as a mainly residential area. The most important structure on this island is Il Redentore, another grandiose church (Europe is so full of them). This one was built in the late 16th century, as a way of showing thanks to god for the end of a bad outbreak of the plague. It was designed by none other than Andrea Palladio, who is perhaps the most influential architect of the Italian Renaissance. This church is entirely typical of his style: an elegant blend of Greco-Roman models and Christian influences. During the Festa del Redentore, a pontoon bridge is built between the city center and Il Redentore, so that pilgrims can fill this historical church.
Moving further away from the center, we come to the Lido. Along with the Pellestrina further south, the Lido is one of Venice’s barrier islands—an island formed by the tide, which protects the Venetian lagoon from harsher weather. Historically the Lido has often been used for defense, as it is the ideal place for fortresses. But my image of the island comes from much later in its history, when it became a center for tourism in the late 19th century (partly fueled by the notion that bathing in the waters was therapeutic). The German writer Thomas Mann stayed in the Grand Hotel des Bains, a large luxury resort that later became the setting for his novella Death in Venice. This is how Mann describes the atmosphere:
The gray and even ocean was enlivened by wading children, swimmers, garish figures, others, who were laying on sandbanks with their arms folded under their heads. Some were rowing small boats in red and blue without a keel, capsizing with roaring laughter. In front of the row of beach huts, whose platforms were like little verandas, there was playful motion and lazy rest, visits and chattering, careful early morning elegance but also nudity, which perfectly took pleasure in the freedom of the place.
It quite reminds me of a painting by Sorolla.
This little list hardly scratches the surface, of course. After all, there are literally hundreds of islands in the Venetian lagoon, some of them quite large. But I will focus on the islands that tourists most often go out of their way to visit.
Like the historical center of Venice, Murano is not a single island but a cluster of islands connected by bridge. Several vaporetto lines (3, 4.1, 4.2, and 12) can get you to this island from many different points in Venice, and the trip is around ten minutes. Architecturally speaking, Murano is certainly not among the most impressive parts of Venice. It is worth the trip, rather, for being the seat of Venice’s legendary glass-making industry.
Glass has been made in Venice for well over a millennium. And for centuries Venice was incontestably the source of the finest glass products in Europe. Products ranged from bowls and jars to chandeliers and mirrors. The technique and formula used by the Venetians was a closely-guarded secret. When Louis XIV of France persuaded some Venetian glass-makers to work on the palace of Versailles, agents were sent to poison the defectors. But like all good things, the golden age of Venetian glass faded into history, as the ability to make high-quality glass products became more widespread.
Although the industry is much shrunken, Murano is still the site of world-class glassmaking. It is also a popular tourist destination, thanks in no small part to places like the Murano Glass Factory, which displays some of the finest historical examples of Venetian glass. Another popular attraction is to see glass being blown by experts. One popular place to do this is Vetreria Murano Arte, which I visited during my class trip in 2007. I highly recommend it. Glass-blowing is an art and a science; it requires careful temperature control, a trained eye, a steady hand, and a deep knowledge of the structural properties of different materials. The assurance with which the artisans handle the flaming-hot glass is wonderful to see.
Significantly closer to the city center than Murano is the little island of San Michele. For centuries, the only residents of this island were monks in a small monastery. But now the only residents are the dead. During the Napoleonic invasions, the monastery was suppressed, and the island was turned into a municipal cemetery. The island is easily recognizable for the brick wall going around its perimeter.
Though not a particularly big cemetery, San Michele is the final resting place of some big names. The two biggest are Igor Stravinsky and Ezra Pound. Part of the reason Stravinsky chose this little island is because Sergei Diaghilev—the famous impresario of the Russian ballet—was already buried there. Ezra Pound had lived in Italy since the 1920s, and after the Second World War was forcibly removed to the United States because of his openly fascist views. After his eventual release from a lunatic asylum, Pound made his way back to Italy, where he died in 1972. He is buried near Stravinsky and Diagheliv.
It would be harder to find any three people buried together who exerted a greater influence on the art of the previous century than these two Russians and one American.
Burano lies significantly further off, past both San Michele and Murano, at the northern corner of the lagoon. To get there, just take the line 12 vaporetto, which will deliver you in under an hour. Or if you prefer spending over 100 euros, you can take a private water taxi. But I do not recommend that route.
Like Murano, Burano was also the home to a fine-arts industry, in this case lacemaking. The island is full of touristy shops selling lace products, though certainly not all of it is made in the time-consuming traditional way. La Scuola del Merletto is a small museum dedicated to this historical art. The fine lace was used in everything from clothes, to furniture, to church decorations, until demand fell off in the 18th century. Eventually, somebody is always going to figure out how to make a cheap and convincing imitation.
Most tourists do not, however, come for the history. They do not even come from the church of San Martino, which has a leaning campanile. Burano is, rather, a heaven for amateur photographers, thanks to its many canals and its brightly colored houses. No two adjacent houses have the same color; and the municipality even regulates what color residents may paint their houses, in order to maintain the aesthetic. Considering that the island’s only industry nowadays is tourism, this is certainly in their self-interest.
While I enjoyed the pretty colors, I have to admit that I lost interest rather quickly. I wanted something more historical. Thankfully, the next island had just that.
Like many islands in the Venetian lagoon, Torcello has a long history, dating back at least to Roman times. Torcello is particularly important in the history of Venice, as the first cathedral in the area—before St. Mark’s—was built here. Indeed, for many years Torcello was a more important center of trade than Venice itself. This is not true anymore, of course. Though thousands used to live on this little island, in recent years that number is probably much less than 100. Aside from tourism, Torcello seems to be a place where locals gather to relax. There were dozens of private boats moored to the canal, and several large outdoor restaurants filled to the brim.
The environment of Torcello is quite beautiful. Here you really feel as though you are in a lagoon. Aquatic birds fly overhead, and the tall reeds are abuzz with insects. I took some time to walk along some of the rugged paths in the island, relieved to finally be in a natural space (something that Venice entirely lacks). Eventually I stumbled upon “Attila’s Throne,” an old stone chair that now sits exposed to the elements. Almost undoubtedly, this throne has nothing to do with Attila, and probably belonged to a local political or religious leader. Still, it is an impressive piece of furniture. This chair is located right outside the island’s museum, which displays some of the antique ruins that have been found there.
Torcello’s main attraction is the Church of Santa Maria Assunta, which is sometimes simply called Torcello Cathedral (though it is a cathedral no longer). This is a truly ancient church, dating back to the 7th century, when Torcello still had strong ties to the Byzantine Empire, and when it was still more powerful than Venice itself. The building’s age is quite apparent from a single glance. A relatively simple construction of faded brick, the church is mostly unadorned on the outside. The inside, however, is another story. Here you will find some extremely fine examples of Byzantine mosaics. Unlike the mosaics in St. Mark’s, these retain their original form, and so have all of that naïve charm and grace of early medieval art. The portrayal of the Last Judgment is particularly masterful—a cosmic vision against a gold background.
This fairly well wraps up my experience with the islands of Venice. But of course this list leaves out several dozens. There is San Servolo, which once housed a Benedictine monastery (and now is home to a museum). In San Francisco del Deserto, Franciscan monks still pray amid the cloisters and the cypress trees. And this is not all. There is also San Lazzaro degli Armeni, an island where Mekhitarist monks (a type of Armenian Catholic sect) go about their daily rituals. Lord Byron famously stayed at this island, using the time to translate Armenian into English and to author textbooks on the language. This island is still one of the world’s most important centers of Armenian culture.
And there are still more. The biggest island in the lagoon is Sant’Erasmo, which is mainly agricultural nowadays. Two islands have served as quarantine stations, Lazzaretto Vecchio and Lazzaretto Nuovo (named after the Biblical figure with leprosy). During outbreaks of the plague, any incoming ships were required to dock here and wait a mandatory minimum number of days.* And everything aboard was disinfected through fumigation. Aside from this function, these islands also functioned as leper colonies, where those afflicted with leprosy (a bacterial infection) were isolated. But many islands have more cheerful functions, such as the exclusive hotels and resorts scattered throughout the lagoon.
(*The word “quarantine” actually comes from the Venetian dialect, which means “forty days.” This is the time from infection to either death or recovery in the bubonic plague.)
Considering all of this great, unexplored variety, it appears that, one day, I will once again have to return to Venice. Hopefully that day will be soon.
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My first footsteps in Europe were in the airport in Venice. It was in 2007, when I was a sophomore in high school, some time before my sixteenth birthday. Typical of that age, I was awkward, hormonal, pubescent, immature. During this trip, I was exposed to the most beautiful things that I had ever seen, and was largely unimpressed. Teenagers are too wrapped up in themselves to care much for the outside world. I had a digital camera that my mom had lent me; but over half of the photos I brought back from the trip are of my friends, or cats, or other nonsense. The only thing that roused me to enthusiasm was the food, which was quite excellent.
Eleven years later, I finally returned to the city, to see what I had missed. It was quite a lot.
As usual, I was travelling on a budget. This pretty much ruled out the possibility of staying on the island of Venice itself. Small, antique, and exclusively devoted to tourism, accommodations are not cheap. Thankfully, there is the Mestre—the mainland of Venice (not the old city), which is generally quite a bit more reasonably priced. I stayed at an Airbnb in a quiet neighborhood and very much enjoyed the experience.
Frankly, I think staying in Mestre was better than staying in Venice itself, partly because I could get away from the crowds at night. And unlike the island of Venice, this quiet neighborhood had a real community of locals, which certainly improved the atmosphere. I had some beautiful mornings sipping coffee at a corner café, while I watched senior citizens come in for their morning glass of wine. And being close to affordable restaurants and supermarkets was also quite nice.
My memories of my first day in Venice, in 2007, are all a blur. We arrived early in the morning, all of us disoriented and jetlagged. Our hotel was right in the city center. Since virtually all of the buildings on the island are old, the rooms were tiny and the elevator only fit for one or two people. Most amusingly, our bathroom fan made a screeching, wailing noise that I will never forget. All of us badly wanted to take a nap, but our Irish tour guide insisted that we stay awake all day in order to adjust to the jet lag. By the time we had dinner, kids were falling asleep at the table. I nearly did the same.
Coming from Spain, at least I did not have to deal with jet lag this time.
The Mestre is very well connected to the city center with public transportation. In my case, all I needed was about a twenty-minute bus ride. Soon I arrived at the train station, stepped off, and confronted the new but strangely familiar profile of Venice.
Now, I have called the center of Venice “an island,” but that is not accurate. Rather, it is a collection of small islands—over 100—which are connected with bridges. The city occupies a lagoon between two rivers. This oddity of location is what gives the city its charm. Though Amsterdam and even New York may have more individual bridges, no city I know of is more dominated by the presence of water. But of course, having a city built on a lagoon entails unique challenges. The foundation of the city has been sinking, partly as a result of settling, and partly as a result of pumping groundwater (causing buildings to sink further into the ground). This, combined with climate change-induced rises in sea-levels, have worsened the periodic floods suffered by the city. Already, many ground floors are uninhabitable.
(In 2003, a massive engineering project was initiated, called MOSE, but it stalled because so much money had been siphoned off due to corruption. Work seems underway again, as global warming exacerbates the flooding problem. The flooding in 2019 was the worst in fifty years, causing widespread damage to the city’s cultural heritage.)
Building a city on a lagoon also entails unique transportation challenges. The lagoon is far too unstable for a subway, and the city is too cramped for either trains or buses; so the only option within the old center is by boat. The Venetian equivalent to a bus is the vaporetto, or water taxi, fair sized ferries that patrol the city in 19 lines. Line 1 is popular with tourists, since it goes down the Grand Canal. The other famous option for water transport is the gondola—operated by a single gondolier, pushing the elegant boat through the water with an oar. Nowadays the gondola exists exclusively for tourists, and the price reflects that: 80 euros for about half an hour, and more at night.
As I walked through the city, I have to admit that my first impressions were rather mixed. Venice is obviously and undeniably beautiful; indeed, judged purely in terms of its buildings, I believe it has a claim to being the most beautiful city in Europe. But the atmosphere of Venice is odd and empty. Keep in mind that I was visiting during the high tourist season, in July, when many locals go on holiday (about 55,000 live in the old center). This meant that whatever local life that Venice may have was largely dead. Instead, the streets were dominated by people carrying cameras, and others dragging suitcases. It felt like being in the world’s most beautiful airport. Or perhaps Venice is better compared to an enormous, open-air museum. This meant that one of the chief charms of travel—taking part in local life—was off the table.
Venice is probably at its most lively in the weeks leading up to carnival. During this time, people dress up in beautiful masks and elaborate costumes, now famous throughout the world. You may be surprised to learn that this is a modern tradition, though it has historical roots. Masks were banned in Venice for about two hundred years, from the 18th to the 20th century. It was only in the 1970s that the tradition was revived. When I visited in 2007 it was mid February, and the streets were full of these disguised Venetians. For the most part these seemed to be street performers, however, who only dressed up so that tourists would pay to take photos with them.
If you look at the old center from the air, you will see an S-shaped gash running through the city. This is the Grand Canal, the largest canal in the city. For many years it was the main artery of Venice, since there was only one bridge which crossed it (the Rialto). As a result, it became something like Fifth Avenue in New York City: a place for the wealthy of the city to flaunt their success. As the canal was the central thoroughfare, the magnificent façades of private palaces face the water, displaying a variety of different architectural styles from the city’s history. The Ponte de Rialto is the oldest of the four bridges that cross the Grand Canal. It provides a lovely view as well as being quite attractive in itself. However, like the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, it is covered in shops, which makes it rather cramped. (For centuries the bridge in this spot was a wooden construction; but multiple collapses convinced the authorities to rebuild it in stone.)
After crossing the bridge, and taking the obligatory photo, I continued making my way to the central square: the Piazza San Marco. This is easily the most famous area of the city. For the most part the plaza is dominated by long buildings composed of many levels of arcades. At the far end is St. Mark’s Cathedral (which I will describe later) and its marvelous campanile, or bell tower. At nearly 100 meters, this tower is the tallest structure in the old city, and quite attractive in spite of its simple form.
Not far off is the clocktower (Torre dell’Orogio), another of the city’s landmarks. Two bronze shepherds with hammers ring the bell on the top, while a winged lion (the symbol of St. Mark) holds an open book below them. (A statue of the Doge once accompanied these lions, but Napoleon had him removed.) Below the lion sits the Virgin and child; and twice a year (on Epiphany and Ascension) mechanical figures of the three wise men emerge from the adjacent door and make their bows as they pass. For the time it was created—during the Renaissance—this was an impressive engineering feat.
The face of the clock itself is also a marvel. The sun travels along the twenty-four hours of the day, against the background of the zodiac. In accordance with Ptolemaic astronomy, the earth sits right at the center of the clock, while the sun, moon, and stars rotate around it. Bad science aside, the clock’s combination of blue and gold is quite pleasing on the eyes.
If you are standing at the end of the square, with the clock tower to your left and the basilica directly ahead, you will see the space open up to your right. This is called the Piazzetta, and it leads directly to the sea. The view is framed by two columns topped with statues—one of St. Theodore (who was one of Venice’s patron saints) and the lion of St. Mark.
Proceeding forward, you arrive at yet another iconic area of the city, the Riva degli Schiavoni, a waterfront promenade. At almost any time of year (except during a pandemic) this place is extremely crowded. Gondolas bounce up and down in the waves, while people sell all sorts of knick knacks from stalls. The waters around this area are typically quite busy, with ferries going back and forth, as this is near one of the mouths of the Grand Canal. The view is characterized by the distant form of San Giorgio Maggiore, an enormous basilica that sits on an eponymous island across the waters. Its campanile looks quite like the San Marco’s, creating a pleasing symmetry.
Now the first major stop on our tour has arrived: the Doge’s Palace. If you are looking out at the water, this palace will be right behind you, though you may not have paid it much attention. In the context of Venice, the building’s exterior is not immediately eye-catching (though I will return to it later). But within is a palace of quite astonishing dimensions. I recommend going early, as there can be long lines to enter. I arrived at around ten in the morning and was basically able to walk right inside. The visit began with a small exhibition space, where I was delighted to find some drawings by John Ruskin. The famous art critic was also a talented draughtsman, and he made dozens of meticulous sketches of the city in preparation for his monumental book, The Stones of Venice. As I happened to be reading the book at the time, this seemed to bode well for my visit.
On display were also the forty-two original capitals of the stone pillars on the palace’s exterior. (Those there now are replacements.) Ruskin considered these capitals—which most of us overlook—to be the most significant artistic statement of the palace, and devoted much attention to their analysis. I will leave my own commentary for the end, and will instead embark now on the palace interior.
But before moving on, it is worth asking: What is a “doge”? This title, sometimes translated as “duke,” is unique to Venice. It is a cross between a king and a president: a ruler given royal prerogatives who was elected for life. The political organization of Venice was somewhat complicated, but suffice to say that it was an aristocracy with a touch of republicanism. The ruling class was basically hereditary; but they were divided into governing bodies—councils, parliaments, senates—and held elections (within their own ranks); and there were some checks on arbitrary power.
If the cases of Athens, Amsterdam, and England can be trusted, there seems to be some connection between a maritime, mercantile orientation and democratic forms of government. This is the case of the Republic of Venice as well, which rose to wealth and power through sea trade rather than conquest (though it was not averse to war). This, perhaps, is one reason why the city’s government—with its separation of powers and its checks on authority—developed the way it did. This also explains the moderate degree of intellectual freedom allowed in Venice, where the censors of the Catholic world could not reach. Venice also had a degree of religious autonomy, as its highest religious figure was the Patriarch of Venice, who himself was elected by the senate (from among its own ranks, of course).
From Venice’s beginnings in the 8th century, as a satellite of the Byzantine Empire, the city-state gradually rose in power and influence. It was a major staging ground during the crusades and profited enormously from trade with Asia along the Silk Road. By the Renaissance, the Republic had the wealth and the means to compete with the Ottomon Empire for control of the Mediterranean. But the “discovery” of America by Europe spelled the end of Venice’s high-point, as trade gradually shifted away from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic. Thus began a long, gradual period of decline which ended in 1797, when Napoleon conquered the city and formally ended the rule of the Doge. All told, the Republic of Venice survived some thousand years.
With this brief history lesson out of the way, let us see how this humble Doge lived. After passing the courtyard (enclosed on the far side by St. Mark’s Basilica), and ascending a flight of stairs, the visitor enters into a succession of brilliantly decorated rooms. The rooms are so ornate, in fact, that it even impressed my fifteen-year-old self. The second time around, I was stunned. Every ceiling is covered with carved engravings and panelling, and every wall is adorned with enormous paintings. Though the palace was built in the 14th century, and thus owes its form to the Venetian gothic, several fires required the interior rooms to be redecorated. Luckily, the great painter Tintoretto was on hand to provide much of the new decoration. The painters Veronese and Tiepolo, and the architect Andrea Palladio, also contributed; so there was no shortage of talent.
The palace contains some rooms that you would expect to find in any palace: luxuriant apartments for the ruler and antechambers where ambassadors could cool their heels. (Unfortunately, the Doge’s apartments were closed for renovation when I visited.) But there are also many sorts of rooms that you will not find in any other European palace. There is a Council Chamber, a Senate Chamber, a chamber for the Council of Ten, and rooms for the administration of justice. Judging from the size of the room’s alone, they were not built for a single ruler, but for hundreds. This did not stop them from decorating like kings.
There are simply too many rooms and too much decoration to enter into too much detail. I will let the photos do the talking:
One chamber does, however, stand out for special comment. This is the Grand Council Chamber, which is not only the biggest room in the palace, but one of the biggest rooms in all of Europe. It is simply massive: 1325 square meters (over 14,200 square feet!). The room had to be big because the Grand Council included all of the patrician males over age 25 into its ranks, which amounted to well over one thousand men. This may not sound inclusive to us, but for its day this was radical. One of this council’s tasks was the election of the Doge, who sat on the podium at the far end of the room. Behind this podium is one of the largest oil paintings in the world: El Paraiso, by Tintoretto (though largely executed by his son). The painting stretches over 25 meters and includes many dozens of figures. Ruskin thought that it was an artistic masterpiece, though I found its sheer size more impressive than its artistic quality.
The other noteworthy aspect of the room are the portraits of the first 76 Doges running around the top of the room. These, too, were commissioned to Tintoretto, but were mostly done by his son (the painter was quite old at the time). Each of the Doges is present along with a scroll, on which are written their most important achievements. The one exception to this is Marino Faliero, a Doge who attempted a coup d’etat and was beheaded. In place of a portrait, there is a black cloth for this tratorious duke. History is not kind to the subverters of democracy. (Well, perhaps Julius Caesar is a partial exception to this. Napoleon as well, I suppose.)
After the grand tour of the regal rooms used by the Venetian government, I entered the prison. This dreary space has been known as the Pozzi (the wells) and the Piombi (lead), and it deserves both names, as it is a damp space with a leaden atmosphere. (You can tell that the Venetians were concerned with laws and their efficacy, since they built the major prison next to the center of government.) The “old” prison is connected to the “new” prison (built several hundred years apart) via the “Bridge of Sighs,” which was so known because it was the last place a prisoner could see a bit of sunlight and utter a weary sight before his long confinement. In 1756, the infamous Giacomo Casanova effected a daring escape from these prisons by climbing onto the roof.
Thus ended my tour. But before moving on, I ought finally to address the columns on the outside of the building. John Ruskin was extremely fond of the sculptures carved into the capitals of these columns, and devoted ample space to them in his book on Venice. Indeed, by common consent they are masterpieces of gothic sculpture. Inspired by Ruskin, I spent a good thirty minutes examining these columns in detail, and I was glad I did (even though, as mentioned before, the columns currently outside the palace are copies of the originals inside). They generally consist of figures interspersed within vegetable patterns, usually demonstrating some allegorical significance. Rather than launching on a giant Ruskinian rant myself, I will be content with a few photos:
Thus ended my tour of the Doge’s Palace. But I did not have time for a break. After all, St. Mark’s Basilica is right next door.
No monument in Venice better illustrates the city’s role as a conduit between the Catholic and Byzantine worlds. St. Mark’s embodies both influences. Neither wholly gothic nor wholly byzantine, the church is an alluring hybrid structure, unlike anything else in the world. At a first glance, the basilica (it is also a cathedral, though more commonly called a basilica) presented a chaotic forest of towers, domes, and semi-domes. It bears very little resemblance to the towering gothic spires that are so common elsewhere in Europe. Rather than awe the viewer with harmony or height, the basilica is profuse in details of decoration. Mosaic scenes from the life of Jesus—quite lovely in its bright colors and gold backgrounds—adorn the surface, while statues of saints stand guard above.
The most famous figures on the cathedral are the four bronze horses that adorn the roof, right above the entrance. They are Roman copies of Greek originals, supposedly designed by the famed Greek sculptor Lysippos (more probably they adorned a Roman triumphal arch). Certainly they are wonderful works of art. The reason they are here is because the Fourth Crusade went sour, and culminated in the sacking of Constantinople (a Christian city) by the Catholic forces. Napoleon had the horses taken to Paris in 1797, but they were eventually returned after his defeat, in 1815.
The other famous decorations are the tetrarchs. This is a rather odd and unsettling sculpture, made in the fourth century and, like the horses, taken from Constantiple during the Fourth Crusade. By the time this work was made, the Roman Empire was in disarray, and the Emperor Diocletian decided that he needed to divide power between three additional co-rulers in order to maintain order. This sculpture represents the co-dependence of these four rulers. But the four men do not seem like confident allies; rather, they seem scared out of their wits. Certainly it is not a work that inspires confidence—they clutch each other in fearful desperation. The sculpture is also remarkable for the degree of abstraction. The great Roman tradition of realistic sculpture (as epitomized by the horses) had already been lost by this time.
Saint Mark’s owes its name to a Venetian trick. According to the story, two wily Venetian merchants smuggled the saint’s body from Alexandria to Venice in the 9th century. (Supposedly, they covered the body with pork to prevent Muslims from investigating.) The story is extremely difficult to believe, if only because the body would have already been nine centuries old and unrecognizably decayed. However, standards of evidence were not very high in the Middle Ages; and in any case the city had much to gain by being the home of the evangelist’s relics. The story seemed doubly dubious when one considers that, according to legend, the saint’s relics could not be found when construction began on the basilica; Mark himself had to appear to direct the Venetians to his mortal remains.
Well, eternal resting place of St. Mark or not, the basilica is an immortal work of art. Entrance to St. Mark’s is free. All one has to do is stand in a long line and wait. Once inside, you will find yourself in a space quite unlike any other European cathedral. The floorplan is a Grecian rather than a Latin cross, meaning that the building is as wide as it is long. But St. Mark’s is not like a gothic cathedral, which impresses with its architectural majesty. Rather, basilica’s outstanding feature is its decoration. The overwhelming impression is of light, gold, and color. Every inch of the interior is covered in mosaics with gilded backgrounds. Unfortunately, many of these have been retouched or restored, most often with a definite loss in quality. Even so, the whole has a power greater than the sum of its parts—hypnotic in its use of color.
My next stop was the Scuola Grande di San Rocco. Even though this building is called a “school,” it is really the historical seat of a powerful religious confraternity. (A confraternity is essentially a private club that promotes a religious cause. San Rocco—”Saint Roch”—was a saint commonly invoked against the plague.) Though magnificent enough, the façade of this building does not attract attention in the context of Venice. But the inside is special indeed. As in the Doge’s Palace, there are several enormous rooms, all of them richly decorated. Unlike the Doge’s Palace, however, much of the decoration in the Scuola Grande was provided by one man: Tintoretto.
After Titian, Tintoretto is probably the most highly-regarded painter of the Venetian school. Nicknamed “il furioso” for the energy of his brushwork, he was known for working fast and rough. He was no perfectionist. By general consent, the quality of his work is highly uneven. But his style was very well-suited to the semi-darkness of these enormous rooms, where his figures could dazzle with their suggestiveness rather than their perfection of form. His paintings are notable for the drama and movement of their subject, rather than the typical Renaissance solidity and harmony. I would be lying if I ranked Tintoretto among my own personal favorites, though Ruskin was quite wildly fond of him. For me, the wooden carvings in the seats along the walls were, if anything, more charming than Tintoretto’s great pictorial spread. But I do admire his productivity.
After this I made my way to one of Venice’s many museums: the Gallerie dell’Accademia. This museum is the Venetian equivalent of the Uffizi in Florence: housing a massive collection of Italian art, from the medieval period to the 19th century. It is housed in another former confraternity building, this one the Scuola della Caritá. When I visited, parts of the museum were undergoing restorations, and so were unavailable. Even so, the museum has an impressive collection.
As usual, I was most captivated by the works of Hieronymous Bosch. There are three major works by this Dutch painter to be seen. One is the triptych The Hermit Saints, which shows three saints resisting temptation in the wilderness. In keeping with his typical, bizarre style, Bosch represents these temptations in a series of absurd little figures—monsters, skeletons, nun’s heads—that surround these simple, pious men. Another triptych is The Crucifixion of St. Julia, which shows us a bearded woman nailed to the cross. Christians explained the beard with a story about a woman who prayed to God to make her repulsive (and thus protect her virginity); but probably the historical reason involves images of Christ from Eastern Europe, in which Christ’s dress was misinterpreted by Westerners as being that of a woman.
My favorite work, however, is a series of four paintings called Visions of the Hereafter. Here, as usual, Bosch sets his vivid imagination to work picturing the world beyond our own. The most captivating of these images is the Ascent of the Blessed, which shows us the infinite white light that leads to paradise. To our modern eyes, the image cannot but remind us of some space exploration movie. We have used the same sort of image to represent portals to other dimensions or accelerations to speeds beyond light. Bosch proves himself, once again, to be one of the modern age’s visual godfathers.
The museum has works by Titian and Tintoretto, of course. But a more elusive Venetian painter is also on display: Giorgione. A few years older than Titian, Giorgione is normally regarded as one of the great innovators of Venetian painting. The trouble is that it has historically been difficult to definitively attribute works to him. Indeed, an air of mystery seems to surround Giorgione, which is apparent in his painting The Tempest. It shows a young woman suckling a baby, while a traveller looks on with a curious expression. In the background we can see an Italian village, while a storm rages overhead (thus the title).
The execution is quite beautiful indeed. Its meaning, however, is difficult to decipher. To my eye it looks like a depiction of the “rest on the flight from Egypt,” when the Virgin Mary escaped Egypt with the infant Jesus, and stopped to suckle him on the road. But the woman—almost completely naked, and staring rather boldly at the viewer—is unlike any other depicting of the Virgin. Contemporaries referred to her as a “gypsy” and the man as a “shepherd,” but art historians, straining for cohesion, have proposed obscure stories from classical mythology and fanciful allegorical meanings. Yet none of these interpretations sheds light on the particular power of this painting, in which the heavy and humid atmosphere of a storm, the grey, shadowy light through the clouds, is so palpable. I can see why it was Lord Byron’s favorite.
I cannot leave the museum without mentioning, if not the greatest, than the painter who did the most to show Venice to the world: Canaletto. This was not his real name, of course; he was called “little canal” because his paintings were so often focused on Venice’s many waterways. His paintings are consistently impressive, capturing the city with photographic accuracy. Personally I cannot fathom how much time it would take in order to create such a scrupulously detailed image. But in a world before photography, this was the only way that wealthy nobles could catch a glimpse of the city from afar. Canaletto was more than a mere technician of monumental patience, however. His paintings have a very charming, wistful emotion running through them, a kind of atmospheric joy. They are absorbing and refreshing works.
My next stop was another church: Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari (normally just called the “Frari”). After St. Mark’s itself, this is perhaps the most important church building in Venice. If you only saw the exterior, however, you would be excused for not thinking so. The basilica’s brick façade and relatively plain decoration do not make it stand out in the context of Venice. Nevertheless, it is certainly worth a visit. From the inside, the basilica looks like unlike any church building I have seen. It is an incongruous mixture of dark materials and open windows, of plain surfaces and rich decorations. The entire building does not come together as an organic whole; rather it seems like a warehouse for art and monuments. But it is a beautiful warehouse.
Among the artwork, the best may be the large-scale paintings by Titian. I found the Pesero Madonna especially beautiful for the shimmering effect of the brightly-colored robes. Titian is also responsible for the painting in the main altarpiece, a wonderful depiction of the Assumption of the Virgin. But what really caught my attention were the funerary monuments. The Frari is the resting place of many Doges, as well as some of the city’s most gifted artists. Titian himself is buried here, commemorated by an enormous marble sculpture by Antonio Canova—erected centuries after the artist’s death. Canova himself (arguably the greatest neoclassical sculptor) is buried here, in a stunning pyramidal cenotaph—my favorite work in the whole basilica. I also found myself captivated by the monument to the Doge Giovanni Pesaro (not the same Pesaro as in Titian’s painting). This gruesome monument features black skeletons emerging between African servants, who support the monument’s upper half. It is disturbing for many reasons.
It is worth mentioning another of Venice’s many basilicas, Santi Giovanni e Paolo. In appearance it is quite similar to the Frari, and it likewise is the final resting place of many Doges. However, I think the most impressive thing to see is not inside, but next to this old structure: the equestrian statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni. This was done by Andrea del Verrochio, most famous for being Leonardo da Vinci’s mentor. But he was a great artist in his own right, as this sculpture proves. It is really a marvelous work: the horse is rippling with muscle, and confidently striding forward. The condottiero is both heroic and ruthless: his face is ugly and yet compelling, and his pose one of unquestionable command. It is one of the finest depictions of a military leader.
After all of this glorious art and all of these magnificent monuments, my last stop is rather depressing: the Venetian Ghetto. This is the neighborhood where Jews were forced to live for hundreds of years. In fact, the word “ghetto” itself comes from this area of Venice. The derivation of the word remains rather difficult to pin down. It may come from a German word for street (many of the Venetian Jews spoke a German dialect), or a diminutive form of an Italian word (“borghetto,” or little town), or perhaps from a Hebrew word. We visited the Venetian Ghetto on my school trip, back in 2007; and I still remember our guide explaining that the buildings were taller in this area because the Jews did not have room to build anywhere else.
The Venetian Ghetto is split into two sections, the Ghetto Nuovo and the Ghetto Vecchio (the “new” and “old” ghettos), though this classification refers to when the area was used as foundries, not as a place of Jewish residence. (Indeed, one hypothesis for the word “ghetto” is that it comes from the Italian “getto,” which means to pour molten metal into a mold. Many foundries existed in this area.) Two bridges connect this part of Venice to the surrounding area; and Jews had to be sure to return to the ghetto before the nightly curfew, or face a stiff fine.
Even in my brief time walking through the ghetto, I noticed that there was still a significant Jewish presence here. There are several synagogues, cultural centers, and even a kosher restaurant. There is also several monument to the victims of the holocaust. Fortunately, the Jewish community largely escaped Nazi percesution in Venice, and this was thanks to the heroism of Giuseppe Jona. Jona was a Jewish physician who, like many Jews, was deprived of his profession during the Nazi occupation. He took it upon himself to stay in Venice and to help organize the Venetian Jewish community. In 1943 the Nazis ordered him to help them locate the Jews in the city. Instead of cooperating, Jona burned every document in his possession that could be used, and took his own life. He is memorialized in the Venetian Ghetto, and certainly deserves it.
As I walked through this distinct corner of the city—so strangely marked by tragedy and hope—I reflected on the long history of anti-Semitism in Europe. The Nazis were merely the last and worst in a long line of Jew-haters. Even great works of art are marred by this sentiment. The most obvious example of this is, perhaps, Shakespeare’sThe Merchant of Venice, which reflects many of the worst stereotypes of Jews. (Because Shylock is so compelling a character, some have argued that the play is not actually anti-semitic; however, I think the work is incoherent if you consider Shylock the real hero rather than, as I believe Shakespeare intended, the villain.) It is depressing to think that even a man with as free a mind as Shakespeare’s could not entirely escape prejudice. But prejudice runs very deep. The ramshackle buildings of the Venetian Ghetto are a testimony to this lasting hatred and also to the community’s lasting resilience.
This does it for my return to Venice. But listing the monuments does not do justice to the real experience of visiting the city. Venice is one gigantic work of art. Virtually every angle of the old city is picturesque—from the impressive works of architecture to the forgotten corners of run-down buildings. Venice is palpably an abandoned city, a floating relic, which gives it a kind of romantic charm. But the city is also refreshing—for the ocean breeze that blows through it, for the ever-present sight of water. Admittedly, for all of its beauty, Venice does lack the most charming part of any city: street-life. I cannot say it is my favorite European destination. Even so, the memories Venice evokes—of awkward pubescence, of my first window into a wider world—will always make the city special for me.
Before my flight home, I found a café and sat outside sipping grappa, the strong Italian brandy. I have to admit that I actually had no idea what grappa was. I thought it was some sort of wine, and I winced when I took my first taste (I normally do not drink liquor). Even so, sitting outside in the sunshine, sipping on this flaming beverage, I could not help but feel rather satisfied with the way that my life had turned out. When I visited Venice in 2007, I could never have guessed that I would be living in Europe ten years later.
If you know anything about Venice, you will know that this post has left out virtually everything beyond the city center itself. There are many smaller islands that are also worth visiting. But that will have to wait for another post.
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As I mentioned in my last podcast, it’s pretty hard to do a podcast about Spanish life when everything has been turned upside down. Normally I take inspiration from what I can see in any given week, or from a recent trip. But I’ve just been seeing the inside of my apartment and, occasionally, of the nearby grocery stores. However, I can’t leave this podcast season incomplete. After all, I just have one episode to go to make a nice, round, even twenty episodes. And since it’s hard to talk about day-to-day Spanish life during the coronavirus times, I thought it would be good to revisit the last time in Spain’s history when daily life was so completely turned upside down.
I’m talking, of course, about the Civil War of 1936-39. Of course, in this podcast I can’t hope to do a real thorough history of this war. If you want that, there are plenty of great books on the market. If I tried to even list the major writers on the war, I’d be here all night. In fact, the Spanish Civil War is only behind World War II in the number of books dedicated to the subject. That is pretty crazy, considering that far more people died in World War I or even the Vietnam War. But the conflict has an enduring fascination, for quite a few reasons.
So here’s the basic background. Spain came out of the 19th century in pretty bad shape. The Napoleonic invasions, in the early 1800s, successfully introduced the idea of constitutional government into the country. After that, things were never quite the same for the Spanish monarchy. There were tensions everywhere: between the monarchy and the church, between the church and the people, between advocates for different branches of the royal family, between the rich and the poor, between liberals, monarchists, carlists, and anarchists, and that’s just the beginning. Spain was steadily losing its overseas colonies, a process that ended in the humiliating defeat in the Spanish-American war in 1898, when the decadence of Spain’s power finally sunk in for a lot of people.
In the early 20th century, Spain was economically backward. Industrialization had come late to the country, and for the most part hadn’t come at all. Spain was still mostly agricultural. Not only that, but the country was highly decentralized, as it is now. Each region had its own organization, its own politics, and many regions had their own languages. In the places where industrialization had taken hold, like in Barcelona and Asturias, organized labor had become a powerful force. Meanwhile, in an attempt to get rid of the corrupt and inefficient government, Miguel Primo de Rivera seized power in a military coup in 1923. (Spain has had a lot of military coups.) He ruled for about seven years, until he too had to renounce power. By then there was popular support for democracy. The king absconded, and the Second Republic was born.
The Second Republic survived for five tense years, 1931 to 1936. As you can imagine, democratic government didn’t exactly heal the rifts in Spanish society. Political tensions spilled into violence all too often. There were street fights, riots, brutality between bosses and workers, and even a violent uprising in Asturias (which was put down by Franco). Basically nobody was satisfied. There were conservative parties, fascist parties, liberal parties, and anarchists and socialists who thought the entire system was broken—which it undoubtedly was. An unsteady and ineffective center-left coalition was in control in 1936. But that was just the beginning.
The military had secretly begun planning an uprising to seize control, as they had done many times in the past. The spark that set off the conflict was the assassination of José Calvo Sotelo, a conservative politician, who was killed by the bodyguards of the socialist party leader. Shortly thereafter, all around the country, military units attempted to seize control. If the plan had gone perfectly, there would have been no war. But it didn’t go as plan—at least not everywhere. In the weeks following the start of the uprising, on July 17, the rebel forces controlled about a third of the country. This included most of Spain’s north, a lot of the center, and a pocket of the southern coast. The government maintained control of Madrid, as well as the prosperous eastern coast—including Valencia and Barcelona.
At this point, the government didn’t seem to be in such a bad position. After all, they had more fighting men. They had the big cities and the big factories. They had the money. Most of the areas that the rebels conquered had a low population density and were mainly agricultural. If no outside party had gotten involved, then I think it fairly probable that the rebellion would have been defeated. But of course that was not to be. Spain, instead, became the laboratory of Europe, where all of the newly radical ideologies came to clash for the first time.
Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany came to the aide of the rebels, while Stalin’s Soviet Russia offered supplies to the government forces. The rest of the world’s governments, however, wanted no part in the conflict. They were understandably wary of being dragged into another world war, after the terrible experience of the last one (though of course they couldn’t avoid it in the end). So England, France, and the United States signed a non-intervention pact, which forbid them to give or even to sell weapons to the Spanish government.
Meanwhile, people from all over the world began to pour into the country. There were lots of Italian and German soldiers, of course. (My girlfriend’s grandfather was one of these Italian soldiers, which is why she has an Italian last name.) On the Republican side, there were volunteers from all over—Ireland, England, the United States, France, and even some Germans and Italians. For the most part, these were inexperienced, idealistic young men who wanted a chance to fight against fasicsm. George Orwell was one of them. They formed the famous International Brigades.
Needless to say, the idealism and heroism of young volunteers wasn’t enough to stop German tanks and fighter planes and bombs. Simply put, the Republic soon found itself outgunned. Meanwhile, the organization of the rebel side soon consolidated under Francisco Franco, who was relatively young at the time, but who made a name for himself by leading the crack African troops in Spain’s wars to suppress its colonial uprisings in North Africa. (In fact, Franco had been sent to the Canary Islands right before the war, but he managed to return with his North African troops.) The Republican side, on the other hand, did not consolidate so easily. There were many different left-wing parties which had their own organizations, and which often did not agree. When George Orwell finally fled Spain, it wasn’t from the fascists, but from the Stalinists which had seized control in Barcelona.
In a series of bloody battles, the rebel forces gradually wore down the Republicans. Life for the civilian population had also taken a dark turn. There were summary executions on both sides of the lines. Neighbors denounced neighbors, and people were taken from their houses, shot, and buried in anonymous graves. The famous poet, Federico García Lorca, was killed, as well as countless others. To this day, Spain is the country with the most mass graves in the world, after Cambodia. Hundreds of thousands still remain buried across the country, many still undiscovered.
To make a very long and sad story short, the rebels won. Franco seized power in 1939, and he didn’t give it up until his death in 1975. His rule effectively kept the country poor and backward for another thirty years. To this day, the people who grew up in the opening years of his reign—people who are senior citizens now—are very noticeably shorter than their children and grandchildren, largely because of the widespread malnutrition in those years. After Franco’s very timely demise, Spain did finally make the transition to democracy, in no small part thanks to King Juan Carlos I, whom Franco had appointed as his successor. The Spanish constitution was voted into being in 1978, thus inaugurating modern Spain.
As you can see, Spain has historically had a lot of tensions running through it. And the same is true today. Spain still has regional tensions, most notably in Catalonia and the Basque Country. And it is still difficult to talk about the Civil War. Franco’s Spain didn’t end that long ago. Many people alive remember it well. Some people actively supported it. There are still living veterans of the Spanish Civil War, on both sides. In any case, Civil Wars are just inherently painful—the sense of betrayal and distrust is everywhere. Even though America’s Civil War happened a long time before Spain’s, it still causes controversy.It will be interesting to see how this current crisis affects Spain. Maybe nothing will really change, and we’ll all go back to normal. Maybe it will strengthen xenophobia and the populist right party, Vox. Or maybe it will engender a new sense of solidarity and unity in its citizens. I really have no idea. Spanish politics, as ever, are difficult to predict. But Spanish culture is a different matter. Spanish culture managed to emerge from a century of conflict, a bloody civil war, and a repressive dictatorship, and I know that Spanish culture will emerge from this crisis, too. It’s only a matter of time.
People write about war. They write about the Holocaust. They write about the horrors that people inflict on people. Apparently they forget the horrors that nature inflicts on people, the horrors that make humans least significant.
Like so many people nowadays, I have been scrambling to wrap my mind around the current pandemic. This led me, naturally, to the last major worldwide outbreak: the 1918 influenza. I have a distant connection to this disease. My great-grandfather (after whom I was named) was drafted out of Cornell’s veterinary school to work as a nurse in a temporary hospital set up for flu victims. I read the letters he sent to his mother, describing the experience.
John Barry’s account of this virulent flu is sobering to say the least. In a matter of months, the flu spread across the world and caused between 50 and 100 million deaths. More American soldiers died from this flu than from the entire Vietnam War. In most places the mortality rate hovered around two percent, but it struck much more fiercely elsewhere. In the Fiji Islands, 14 percent of its population succumbed; in Western Samoa, twenty-two percent; and in Labrador, a third of the population died. And because the disease mainly struck young people—people in their twenties and thirties—thousands were left orphans.
Barry’s book is not, however, simply a record of deaths. He sets the historical scene by giving a brief overview of contemporary medicine. In the early 1900s, modern medicine was just coming into its own. After centuries in which it was thought that bad air (“miasma”) caused illness, and in which bleeding was the most popular “cure,” researchers were beginning to discover viruses and bacteria, and were beginning to understand how the immune system combats these germs. Major public health initiatives were just getting underway. The John Hopkins School of Public Health had been founded, and the Rockefeller Institute was making new types of research possible. It was not the Dark Ages.
The other major piece of historical context is, of course, the First World War. Undoubtedly this played a major role in the epidemic. Not only did troop movements help to spread the disease, but press censorship virtually guaranteed that communities were unprepared. Barry notes how newspapers all across the country consistently downplayed the danger, which ironically only further increased panic. (The pandemic is sometimes called the “Spanish flu,” because the press in neutral Spain was uncensored, and so reported freely on the disease.) The war effort overrode all of the warnings of disease experts; and by the time the disease struck many communities, most of the available doctors and nurses had been sent to the military.
Barry’s narration mainly focuses on the United States. Partly this is because this is where he believes the disease originated (there are several competing theories), partly this is because the disease’s impact in Europe was overshadowed by the war, and partly this is simply because of the amount of easily available sources. I did wish he had spent more time on other countries—especially on India, which suffered horribly. The sections on science—both on the history of science, and summarizing what we know now about flu viruses—were in general quite strong. What was lacking, for me, were sections on the cultural impact of the disease.
But perhaps there are not so many. As Barry notes, no major novelist of the time—Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Lawrence—mentioned the pandemic in their works. I have noticed the same thing myself. I cannot recall a single mention of this flue in biographies and autobiographies of people who lived through the pandemic, such as John Maynard Keynes or even John D. Rockefeller (who personally funded research on the disease). This is perhaps understandable in Europe, where the deaths from the pandemic were swallowed up in news of the war; but it seems odd elsewhere. What is more, the pandemic did not seem to exacerbate existing racial or class tensions. In many ways the virus seems to have swept through communities and then disappeared from memory.
(Barry does have one fairly controversial claim in the book: that Woodrow Wilson contracted the flu while negotiating the treaty of Versailles, and that it caused him to capitulate to Clemenceau’s demands. If this is true, it would be a major historical consequence.)
It is illuminating to compare the 1918 pandemic to the current crisis. There are many similarities. Both are caused by easily transmissible viruses, and both spread around the world. The H1N1 flu virus and the SARS-CoV-2 virus both infect the respiratory system, causing fever, coughing, and in severe cases pneumonia and ARDS (acute respiratory distress syndrome). In both cases, no vaccine is available and no known treatment is effective. As in 1918, doctors are turning desperately to other therapies and medicines—those developed for other, unrelated diseases like malaria—and as in 1918, researchers are publishing at a frantic pace, with no time for peer review. Police are again wearing masks, hospitals are again overrun, and officials are struggling to catch up with the progress of the virus.
But of course, there are many important differences, too. One is the disease itself. The 1918 flu was almost certainly worse than the novel coronavirus. It was more deadly in general, and it killed younger people in far greater numbers—which resulted in a much bigger dip in life expectancy. (Young people died because their immune systems overreacted in what is called a “cytokine storm.”) The H1N1 flu also had a far shorter incubation period. This meant that the gap between infection and the first symptoms was short—often within 24 hours—and patients deteriorated far more quickly. Barry describes people being struck down within mere hours of showing their first symptoms. The challenge of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, however, is the very long incubation period—potentially up to two weeks—in which people may be infectious and yet not show symptoms. This makes it very difficult to keep track of who has it.
The explanation for this difference lies in the nature of the virus. A virus is basically a free-floating piece of genetic code incased in a protein shell. It needs to highjack animal cells in order to reproduce; and it infiltrates cells using proteins that link up with structures on the cells’ surface. Once inside, the virus begins to replicate until the cell literally bursts, spilling virus into adjacent cells, which in turn get infected, and which in turn burst. Each burst can release thousands of copies. The rate at which the virus replicates within the cells determine the incubation period (between first infection and first symptoms), and coronaviruses replicate significantly more slowly in animal cells, thus explaining the slower onset of symptoms. Their greater speed also means that flu viruses change faster, undergoing antigenic drift and antigenic shift, meaning that new strains of the virus are inevitable. The novel coronavirus is (likely) more stable.
Another potential difference is seasonality. Flu viruses come in seasonal waves. The 1918 virus struck first in spring, receded in summer, and then returned in autumn and one last time in the winter of 1919. Every wave hit very quickly—and then left just as quickly. Most cities experienced a sharp drop-off in cases after about six weeks of the first patients. The seasonality of the 1918 flu was partly a result of the genetic drift just mentioned, as the different waves of this flu were all at least subtly different strains of the virus. Atmospheric conditions—humidity and temperature—also presumably make some difference in the flu virus’s spread. COVID-19 may exhibit a very different pattern. It may, perhaps, be less affected by atmospheric conditions; and if it mutates and reproduces more slowly, it may linger around for one long wave rather than several short ones. This is just my speculation.
Well, so much for the virus. How about us? The world has changed a lot since 1918. However, not all of those changes have made us better prepared. Fast and cheap air travel allowed the virus to spread more quickly. And economic globalization did not help, either, as both medicines and medical equipment are often produced overseas and then imported, thus rendering countries more vulnerable to supply-chain disruption than in the past. As we witness countries and states compete for supplies, this vulnerability is very apparent.
But of course we have many advantages, too. Many of the deaths caused by the flu and the coronavirus are not from the virus infection itself, but because the virus renders us vulnerable to secondary infections by bacteria, causing pneumonia. Antibiotics (which did not exist in 1918) can save many lives. Another advantage is medical care. The most severe patients of both epidemics were struck with ARDS, a condition with an almost 100% mortality rate for those who do not receive intensive medical care (using a ventilator machine). In 1918 they were able to administer oxygen, but far less effectively than we can. Even so, even with the best intensive care, the survival rate of ARDS is between 40-60%. And our ability to administer intensive care is quite limited. The ventilator shortage has become a global emergency in itself, as hospitals are overrun.
Medical science has also advanced considerably. Now we can isolate the virus (which they could not do in 1918), test individuals for it, and work on a vaccine. However, testing has so far been unable to keep up with the virus. And the most optimistic estimate of an available vaccine is in a year. Arguably a much bigger advantage is information technology. The press is not censored—so citizens have a much better idea of the risks involved—and experts can communicate with each other in real time. We can coordinate large-scale societal responses to the pandemic, and can potentially even use technology to track individual cases. As we come to better understand the virus, we will be able to use more sophisticated statistical methods to understand its progress. None of this was possible in 1918.
One thing that we will have to contend with—something that is hardly even mentioned in Barry’s book—is the economic toll that this virus will take. Even in the ugliest days of the 1918 pandemic, governments did not require businesses or restaurants to close. War preparations went on unabated. (In 1918, after years of slaughter and at the height of the war, life was simply cheaper than it is now.) Our societal response will likely mitigate the health crisis but will create a secondary economic crisis that may ultimately be more difficult to solve. The solutions to this crisis could be our most lasting legacies. Already Spain’s government is talking of adopting universal basic income. Though of course it is far too early to predict anything with confidence.
Comparisons with 1918 are partly depressing, and partly uplifting. Depressing, because we knew this was possible and did not prepare. Depressing, because so many governments have gone through the same cycle of early denial and disorganized response as they did back then. Uplifting, because we do know much more than we did. Uplifting, because—after our early fumbles—we are finally coordinating as a global community to deal with the crisis. Perhaps most uplifting of all, despite some ugly stories here and there, the crisis has revealed a basic sense of solidarity in the face of a universal threat. Hopefully, unlike 1918, we will not do our best to forget about this one.
This is a critical point in history. Time is running out to prepare for the next pandemic. We must act now with decisiveness and purpose. Someday, after the next pandemic has come and gone, a commission much like the 9/11 Commission will be charged with determining how well government, business, and public health leaders prepared the world for the catastrophe when they had clear warning. What will be the verdict?
If I had read this book in more normal circumstances, I do not know how I would have responded. Perhaps I would have been slightly unnerved, but I think I would have been able to sleep soundly by dismissing most of it as alarmist. In fact, I did just this a few months ago, when I read Bill Bryson’s book on the body, and scoffed at his claim that another 1918-style pandemic was easily possible. Nowadays, however, reading this book is more depressing than anything. Those in the field saw this crisis coming from miles away, but few of us listened. The epidemiological community must feel rather like Cassandras right about now: uttering prophecies that nobody pays any attention to.
(As Osterholm was responsible for most of the ideas in this book, and as it is written from his perspective, I will refer to him as the author in this review.)
This book attempted to be the Silent Spring for infectious diseases. That it did not succeed in doing so is attributable just as much to human nature as to the book itself. Limiting the use of pesticides is fairly easy and relatively painless for most of us. But mobilizing the political will necessary to prepare for health crises in the hypothetical future—preparations that would involve a great deal of money and many institutional changes—is not such an easy sell, especially since we had been lulled into a false sense of security. As is the case with climate change, the dangers seemed so remote and theoretical that for most of us it was difficult to even imagine them.
After witnessing what this new coronavirus has done to our entire way of life in a few short weeks, I was quite disposed to take Osterholm seriously. And I think the entire content of the book—not just the warnings about a potential pandemic—are valuable. Osterholm turns his attention to a wide array of threats: Zika, AIDS, Yellow Fever, Typhoid, Malaria, Ebola, MERS. We are vulnerable on many fronts, and we are generally not doing much to prepare.
One example are the many diseases that are transmitted by mosquito bites. As modern transportation has introduced disease-carrying mosquitos into ever-more parts of the world, and global warming expands the geographic range of mosquitos, this will be an increasing concern. (Silent Spring may, ironically, have contributed to this problem.) Another worry is bio-terrorism. Now that we can see how paralyzing even a moderately lethal virus can be, imagine the damage could be inflicted by a genetically-modified virus. And the technology to edit genes is becoming cheaper by the year. We have already experienced bio-terrorism in the US on a relatively small scale with the 2001 anthrax attacks. This is just a taste of what is possible. According to Osterholm, a mere kilogram of the anthrax bacteria could potentially kill more than an atomic bomb. And it would be far cheaper to acquire.
But these are not even the biggest threats. According to Osterholm, we face two virtual certainties: another flu pandemic, and the imminent ineffectiveness of antibiotics.
The latter is quite terrifying to consider. Antibiotics are not easy to discover, and our arsenal is limited. Meanwhile, bacteria constantly evolve in response to environmental pressures, including to the use of antibiotics. It is inevitable that resistance to available antibiotics will increase; and this could have a profound effect on modern medicine. Even routine operations like knee-replacements would be unsafe if we did not have effective antibiotics. Slight injures—a scratch in the garden from a rose-bush—could result in amputations or even deaths. And yet, antibiotics continue to be widely prescribed for ailments they cannot treat, and given indiscriminately to livestock, which only accelerates the impending bacterial resistance.
The other major threat (as we are learning) is a pandemic. Now, Osterholm was not precisely correct in predicting the cause of the next pandemic, since he thought it would be a flu virus (though he does have a good chapter on coronaviruses, and in any case a flu pandemic is still just as possible). But he is certainly correct in identifying our many structural weaknesses. He notes our lack of stockpiles and correctly predicts a shortage in protective gear, face masks, and ventilators in the event of a pandemic. And though medical science has advanced a lot since 1918, in many ways we are even more vulnerable than we were back then, most notably because of our supply chains. Since so many of our medicines and medical equipment—among other things—are produced overseas, shortages are inevitable if trade is disrupted.
Osterholm is quite illuminating in his discussion of pharmaceutical companies and their incentives. As private businesses, they have little to gain by investing in preventative vaccines or in new antibiotics. In the former case, this is because vaccines have to undergo thorough testing and pass FDA approval, requiring millions in investment, only to face the prospect of uncertain demand once the vaccine hits the market. The case of SARS is instructive. After the disease was identified in 2002, companies rushed to make a vaccine; but when SARS receded, interest in the vaccine disappeared and pharmaceutical companies, cutting their losses, stopped work on the vaccine. We still do not have one.
The incentive system is just as ineffective when it comes to antibiotics. Finding new antibiotics is costly; and since there are currently many cheap antibiotics on the market, a new patented antibiotic probably would not turn a large profit. Besides, effective antibiotic stewardship requires that we use them sparingly, thus further limiting profit potential. Drug companies have much more to gain by creating products that would require continuous use, such as for chronic conditions. Letting the free market decide which drugs get developed, therefore, is not the wisest decision. Osterholm advocates the same approach as taken by government in weapons contracts, wherein the government essentially guarantees payment for any product that meets specifications.
Osterholm’s most ambitious idea for government funding is for a new universal flu vaccine. The flu vaccine we are all familiar with is based on old technology, and can only provide protection from a few strains of flu. Scientists essentially must guess what sort of flu will be circulating in a year; and they must do so every year. But Osterholm thinks that there is good reason to believe that a universal flu vaccine is possible, and recommends we devote at least as much money to such a vaccine as we devote to AIDS research. This seems very sensible to me, since the next pandemic will likely enough come from a flu virus.
I am summarizing Osterholm’s book, but I do not think I am doing justice to its emotional power. Now that I am living through the events that Osterholm predicts (in surprising detail), I feel a strange mixture of outrage and fear: outrage that governments did not listen when they had time, and fear that we will repeat the same mistakes when this current crisis is over. I cannot help but be reminded of another situation in which we comfortably ignore the dire warning of scientists: climate change. My biggest hope for the current crisis, then, is that afterwards we will be more willing to heed the warnings of these nerds in lab coats.
Keynes’s paradox, which few could grasp and which many would find unacceptable today if expressed in ordinary language, is that horrendous events may have trivial causes, and easy remedies.
This is an ambitious and impressive biography of one of the most influential men of the last century. Robert Skidelsky was a pure historian before turning his attention to economics; and in this book he attempts to do justice to Keynes’s moment in history as well as his ideas. It does not make for light reading. After trying to read Keynes’s own General Theory and finding many parts of it impenetrable, I hoped that Skidelsky’s book would provide a gentler introduction to Keynes’s ideas. But this this book is not economics for dummies.
The hardest going sections were not, however, the bits devoted to economic theory, but the detailed reports of negotiations and plans undertaken by Keynes in his many official capacities. Here is just an example:
Keynes’s main effort to get the Stablization Fund to put on the clothes of the Clearing Union was his proposal to monetise unitas. The crucial structural difference between the Clearing Bank and the Stabilization Fund set-ups was that in the Keynes Plan member central banks banked with the central banks. Member central banks would subscribe their quotas to the Fund’s account…
And so on. Probably there are a fair number of readers who could follow this sort of writing with interest, but at the moment I am not one of them.
It would be seriously unfair, however, to suggest that the whole of the book is like this. Many parts are quite entertaining. The beginning years are especially so, when Keynes was in Cambridge and then a member of the famed Bloomsbury Group. I was surprised and amused at the open homosexuality of Keynes’s milieu, and the fluidity of his sexual life. Of more lasting interest, of course, is the intellectual climate in which the young economist was growing up. Skidelsky is wonderful when it comes to intellectual history, and he able shows how the circulating theories shaped Keynes’s attitudes for the rest of his life. I would not have guessed, for example, that Keynes was so deeply influenced by G.E. Moore’s Principia Ethica.
Skidelsky is also very skilled in his ability to trace the growth of Keynes’s major intellectual theories. He does this by pairing the influence of the historical moment with the inner machinations of Keynes’s mind, showing how the economist used, adapted, and discarded the economic orthodoxy he inherited when faced with the Great Depression. The chapter on the General Theory—Keyne’s most important book—is lucid and will greatly aid my further understanding of macro-economics. Thus, in the most essential task of a Keynes’s biography, Skidelsky undoubtedly succeeded.
Apart from the dryness and density of some sections of the book—mostly concentrated in the last chapters, when Keynes was heavily involved in planning for the post-WWII economy—the book has other flaws. The most notable, for me, was probably a consequence of Skidelsky’s intellectual seriousness. That is, he is so focused on Keynes’s ideas that Keynes himself can be left behind. Strangely, though one learns a great deal about Keynes, one seldom feels that one has “met” him. The economist’s personality remains rather vague and distant.
It would be generous to call this biography a page-turner. But Keynes is perhaps not the ideal subject for a readable biography. As Skidelsky repeatedly notes, Keynes was born into privilege and remained there the rest of his life. He was a thoroughbred member of the Establishment. Thus there is no spectacle of a struggling underdog or of rags to riches. Further, much of Keynes’s influence and activity resided in the intricacies of trade arrangements, exchange rates, currency valuations, and so on. He can come across as a hyper-competent civil servant.
There was another side to Keynes, however, which is quite a bit more attractive. As already mentioned, he was a member of the Bloomsbury Group—friends with Lytton Strachey and Virginia Woolf—and deeply valued all of the arts. He spent a great deal of time and money supporting his painter friends, and was heavily involved in the world of ballet and theater through his wife. In spite of his great practical gifts and his flair for finance, Keynes was not a crass materialist and consistently thought that the good life required more than ready cash.
Politically speaking, Keynes appears to have not been particularly ideological. He could not be readily assimilable into the Right or the Left, and instead preached a “middle way” based largely on competence rather than values. As Skidelsky notes, “Keynes was moved to wrath not so much by a ‘fiery passion for justice and equality’, as by ‘an impatience with how badly society was managed’.” This is not an altogether winsome quality, I think; though it does have a certain appeal—a world of ultra-efficient technocrats resolving problems without partisan bickering.
Indeed, as Skidelsky notes, this was largely the promise of the Keynesian Revolution, which more or less collapsed in the 1970s. In the final section of the book Skidelsky includes an even-handed evaluation of the successes and failures of Keynes’s ideas in practice. Certainly I am not qualfied to judge myself. But I do think that, as we look another depression in the face, we will be thinking an awful lot more about Keynes in the coming months.