San Francisco: In the Mist

San Francisco: In the Mist

California and New York have a relationship like many siblings. The two have much in common: they are wealthy, cosmopolitan, populous, and mostly liberal. And yet they drive each other crazy with their differences. Whereas New Yorkers are traditionally rude, uptight, stressed, and workaholic, the archetypical Californian is relaxed, gentle, happy, and obsessed with organic food and fair-trade coffee. Who is to say which is better?

I found myself reflecting on these differences as I walked off the plane that had taken me from JFK to the San Francisco airport, in the summer of 2018. The contrast was immediate. Any time you walk into JFK, you soon have someone yelling at you. But the airport here was calm and quiet. All the staff spoke to us in cheerful, polite tones. Of course, I was suspicious.

We were here to celebrate my cousin’s wedding, and to do some sightseeing in our free time. As it happens, all of my mother’s four siblings moved to California when they left home (whether from a hatred of NY or a love of Cali, it is unclear), which means that all of my cousins on my mother’s side were born and raised here in the sunny side of the country. It was inevitable that one of them would get married here.

My aunt picked us up from the airport. We were jet-lagged, tired, and quite hungry, and so we immediately headed to a restaurant. This meant a little bit of driving. Driving is fundamental to the Californian lifestyle; and since so many people live here, that means traffic is as well. But at least there are some nice places to drive. As a case in point, we were soon crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, probably the most famous bridge in our country (the only competition being the Brooklyn Bridge).

Photo taken by my brother, on a less foggy day.

Now, when we were crossing this bridge, I am afraid that I mostly did not get a good look at it, since the bridge and its surroundings were shrouded in a thick fog. As I quickly came to appreciate, this is not unusual in San Francisco during the summer. The reasons for such abundant mist are rather elusive to me. Essentially, the fog forms because the air over land is heated more quickly than the air over the oceans. The hot air, then, rises, which means cold air is sucked in to replace it. And this cold air happens to be foggy, since it comes from the ocean. And as this process works best when the sun is hottest, San Francisco summers are foggy.

(The reason I say that this reasoning is elusive to me is that the same logic would seem to apply to any coastal city; but New York, Valencia, and Hong Kong are not foggy to such a degree.)

The climatic consequences of this are interesting. You can have hot sunny days a few miles inland, but in San Francisco itself it will be cool and misty—even a bit chilly. Indeed, Mark Twain famously wrote: “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.” That adage has a few problems, however, the first being that Mark Twain never actually wrote it. Another problem is that it is not true to begin with. Winters in New York are a lot colder, as Twain well knew.

Well, if I could see the bridge on that foggy afternoon, I would have seen one of the great engineering marvels of the world. At the time it was built (in the 1930s), the Golden Gate Bridge was the longest and tallest bridge on earth. The bridge connects the city of San Francisco with Marin County (where we were going to eat), spanning the entrance to the ample San Francisco Bay. It owes its fame, not only to its dimensions, but to its elegant design and bold orange color (the paint is called “international orange”), not to mention its dramatic location at the crossroads of land and sea.

Soon enough, we parked the car in the small town of Sausalito. Like the city of San Francisco, this town’s name preserves its Spanish origins (sauce means “willow tree”; sauzal means “a willow grove”; and sauzalito means “a little willow grove”). In the past, the town was a center of ship construction; but nowadays it is a touristy little town full of nice restaurants and cute shops, with a great view of the bay. We ate in an Italian restaurant and I felt greatly relieved. But our chit chat was interrupted when somebody said: “Is that Santana?” Everyone’s eyes turned to look at someone behind me.

“There’s no way that Santana is in this Italian restaurant,” I thought, and mentally justified not turning around. Then I saw somebody walk out of the restaurant: It was, indeed, the legendary guitarist Santana. This was my welcome to California.


San Francisco is located at the tip of a peninsula enclosing the eponymous bay. In many ways the city’s geography was its destiny. A center of commerce with limited land, the city had little choice but to expand upwards. These same factors determined the history of Manhattan; and, as a result, the two are among the most visually striking cities in the United States—a collection of spires rising out of the blue.

If you have gone to Catholic school, you may have guessed that San Francisco was named after St. Francis of Assisi. To this day, the oldest structure in the city is a small white building topped with a crucifix, a part of the Misión San Francisco de Asís, a holdover of the original Spanish mission to the peninsula. One must realize, then, that a city known for being a center of liberal politics, of the Summer of Love, of the gay rights movement, of the ultra-wealthy Silican Valley technicians, was named after a Catholic monk who took a vow of poverty. History is full of these delightful ironies.

We awoke early the next day (though still groggy from the jetlag) to begin our first day of exploring San Francisco. This time, we entered the city through the Bay Bridge, directly across the bay. This of course meant traffic and a toll. But it did provide a rather dramatic entrance to the city. At four and a half miles long (over 7km), the Bay Bridge is one of the longest bridges in the United States. It is not one continuous span, however, but two separate bridges linked to the Yerba Buena island in the middle of the bay. (“Yerba Buena” is a corruption of hierbabuena, which literally means ‘good herb,’ and is commonly used to refer to spearmint.)

The Bay Bridge, with Yerba Buena island in the distance.

This bridge has been reconstructed fairly recently. The original construction consisted of a suspension bridge on the west, and a cantilever bridge on the east. But an earthquake in 1989 damaged the eastern section, which eventually led to its being rebuilt with another, more stylish, suspension bridge, opened in 2013. Photos of the construction look very much like the construction of the new Tappan Zee bridge in Westchester, quite near my home, where another old cantilever bridge was replaced by a sleek and stylish suspension bridge. And, indeed, the same barge crate was used in both constructions: the Left Coast Lifter, an enormous contraption painted patriotic red, white, and blue, used to heave big pieces of bridge into place. 

On a clear day, the Bay Bridge would afford you a magnificent view of the city. On this particular day, however, it gave us a rather less magnificent view of gray fog. But this did lend the city an intriguing air of mystery.

Our first stop was Coit Tower. This tower is not exactly conspicuous amid the skyscrapers now crowding the city; but when it was built, in the 1930s, this was the finest view in town. The tower is of fairly modest dimensions, about 200 feet tall. But it stands on Telegraph Hill, one of the hilly city’s tallest and most ideally situated hills. This makes the tower a wonderful place to enjoy the view—when it is not foggy, that is. In any case, the tower is interesting in itself. Made of unadorned concrete, it has a vaguely industrial shape, perhaps like a sprinkler. Considering that the tower is dedicated to fallen firefighters, many have surmised that it was to look like a fire hydrant. The resemblance is apparently coincidental, however.

Coit Tower owes its name to Lillie Hitchcock Coit, a wealthy dowager who patronized the volunteer fire department, and who left money in her will for the beautification of the city. I would say that the money was well spent, considering the tourists crowded into every inch of the building. We entered, paid the fee, and went up to the top. The building is narrow and there is only one small elevator providing service up and down. In any case, as soon as I reached the roof, I wanted to turn back. It was rainy, the wind was howling, and the fog put a damper on the view.

But Coit Tower has much to offer besides its view. On the bottom floor, there is a continuous mural running across the outer and inner walls of the hallway. It is detailed and impressive work, done during the height of the Great Depression, under the auspices of the Public Works of Art Project. Indeed, Coit Tower was the pilot project of this organization, an experiment in using public funds to employ artists to beautify public buildings. The results are still heartening. The murals are done in a Social Realist style, showing stylized scenes of America.

What makes the art “social realist” is not so much that the paintings are particularly realistic, but that they attempt to encapsulate the everyday American experience. Thus, we see street life, factories, and farms, rather than saints, heroes, or Greek gods. Personally I found the murals both aesthetically pleasing and even vaguely inspiring—showing pride and faith in our sprawling country. Certainly, such a thing seems very distant nowadays. Perhaps we ought to bring back the Public Works of Art Project. I am sure there are still lots of needy artists willing to paint inspirational scenes in public spaces. 

After this we headed to the Financial District. Anywhere money is centered, big grey buildings are likely to follow; and so this is where the city’s skyscrapers are found. When you factor in the regular grid pattern of the streets, the final result looks remarkably similar to midtown Manhattan (though not as dirty). The Financial District even has its own Wall Street, in the form of Montgomery Street, one of the country’s great concentrations of capitalist activity.

For over forty years—from 1971 to 2017—the skyline of San Francisco was dominated by the Transamerica Pyramid, a daring modernist triangle of glass and steel. Even now, the building seems futuristic in its design. The same cannot quite be said for its younger brother, the Salesforce Tower, which surpassed the pyramid upon its completion in 2017. It is difficult to find anything positive to say about this building’s design. Its shape calls to mind objects not normally mentioned in polite conversation, and its bloated form does not harmoniously blend in with the San Francisco skyline, but dominates and disrupts the picture. I must admit, however, that the building is an impressive technical achievement, since erecting safe skyscrapers in the seismically-active city is no easy feat.

The Transamerica Pyramid

For lunch, we headed to Yank Sing, a dim sum restaurant in the famous Rincon Center. The building itself has an elegant art-deco design. But it is most notable for the murals inside, which also date from the Federal Arts Project. The best murals are to be found in the old post office, and were painted by the Russian immigrant Anton Refregier. They are also part of the social realist tradition, and treat of the history of San Francisco—covering major events, like the 1848 gold rush, the 1860 completion of the trans-continental railroad, and the horrible 1906 earthquake. Refregier’s sense of injustice and oppression caused some controversy, as it led him to portray some of the less attractive scenes of American history—a choice that got him into trouble as a communist sympathizer during the Red Scare. Thankfully, the murals have escaped destruction by bigots.

After we finished eating and enjoying the art, we got back in the car to head to the most iconic stretch of asphalt in the entire city: Lombard Street. This is a twisting street, consisting of eight hair-pin turns, that leads down one of San Francisco’s many hills. I have never seen anything else like it. The last time I had visited San Francisco was over ten years earlier, when I was quite young, and I still had a vivid memory of this road—so crazily misshaped. On this particular summer day, as the fog began to clear, the street was quite beautiful. Flowers bloomed in the little gardens beside the pavement, and plants even colonized one colorful house nearby.

This seems like an appropriate time to discuss San Francisco’s topography. Like Rome itself, San Francisco claims to have been built on “seven hills,” though there are an awful lot more than seven hills in the city. Indeed, there are six times more: 42 hills, ranging in height from 200 to over 900 feet tall. I can only imagine that the city’s marathon is punishing on one’s knees, and that owning a car means frequent brake repair. It is probably due to this inclination that San Francisco developed its famous cable car system—one of the city’s most identifiable symbols. In its hilliness and its in street cars, this Californian city has an intriguing resemblance to Lisbon, a city with its own big orange bridge.

The city’s famous cable cars.
Lombard Street from the bottom.

Now we decided to visit the city’s most famous book store: City Lights. I must confess that I had never heard of it, and I walked out thinking that it was just a particularly nice shop. But my dear mother soon informed me that it was this humble store which published Allan Ginsberg’s iconic collection, Howl and Other Poems, in 1956—a pivotal moment in the Beats movement, as the resulting obscenity trial changed censorship practices and catapulted Ginsberg to national fame. When I found this out, I went right back inside and bought myself a copy of this poem. (Fortunately, after the store’s continued existence was threatened by the coronavirus lockdowns, an online fundraiser helped to save the business.)

After this adventure in literature, we retreated to the nearby Caffe Trieste for some caffeine. This is an elegant little establishment which holds the distinction of being the first Italian-style café on the West coast. As you might expect, having a quality coffee house near a center of the Beats movement meant that this spot also became a meeting-point for literati, like Alan Watts, Jack Keruac, and Alan Ginsberg himself. But I was mostly struck by the prices. Coffee in San Francisco is not cheap! Indeed, ever since we landed, everything I saw seemed absurdly expensive to me; and this is no coincidence.

Though San Francisco was the center of the Beats movement, the setting of the 1967 Summer of Love, and in the 1980s the epicenter of gay liberations, nowadays the city has gone the way of so many major cities—it is simply too expensive for anyone but high-earners to live there. A big part of this is due to the proximity of Silicon Valley, just a few miles south. The influx of big business has made the cost of living shoot up: the typical rent is higher than $4,500, and the typical house costs well over one million. According to this article, homelessness has increased by 17% in the last two years alone (and who knows how the coronavirus depression will affect that!). In short, it is not a great city to visit if you wish to travel on a budget.

Hippiedom and corporations aside, there are some traces of religion left in the coastal city. I have already mentioned the old San Francisco mission. There are some impressive church buildings as well, such as Grace Cathedral. This is the city’s Episcopal cathedral. The structure was completed in a resplendent neo-gothic style, doing a convincing imitation of Paris’s Notre-Dame. Yet the church doors are not gothic, but Renaissance in style; indeed, they are full-scale replicas of the Gates of Paradise. These are a set of bronze doors by Lorenzo Ghiberti, made for the baptistry of Florence, now considered to be great masterpieces of the early Renaissance. The replicas in San Francisco are wonderfully done, and were just as enjoyable to examine. The interior of the cathedral is quite as majestically gothic as the outside, with gilded paintings and stained glass illuminating the stone space. It even has a replica of Chartres’s labyrinth.

Not far off is the city’s catholic cathedral, Saint Mary’s. Completed in 1971, the building is so oddly shaped that you could be forgiven for not thinking it was a place of worship. To me, it resembles an enormous washing machine agitator, ready to rinse off the sky. While I am not an enemy of modern architecture, I do think that churches ought to be a bit more solemn and less, well, ridiculous in appearance. This church was built to replace the original cathedral, which had been standing since 1854. Reduced to the status of a humble church, this building still stands, now called Old St. Mary’s. While no architectural marvel, the simple brick building does have the conspicuous advantage of looking like a church.

The new Saint Mary’s
The old Saint Mary’s

Perhaps the most beautiful catholic church in the city is Saint Peter’s and Saint Paul’s. It is a pale white building with two long, narrow spires. The interior is quite lovely, with a coffered ceiling leading to a semi-dome above the main altar. The church even has a full-scale replica of Michelangelo’s Pietá—and it is extremely well-done. A center of the Italian-American community, the church holds services in Italian as well as in English. Somewhat more surprisingly, the church also holds services in Cantonese!

After some milling about in town, we got back in the car for the day’s final destination: Lands End. As you might have guessed, this is one of the many spots in San Francisco where earth meets water. More specifically, this is a park near the mouth of the bay. It is quite a romantic spot, with shrubby trees clinging to rocky soil, with the wind and the waves crashing in. The visitor’s center sits above a kind of rocky crater, beside which stand some ruins of old structures. This is all that remains of the famed Sutro Baths, an enormous complex of swimming pools that used to attract thousands of visitors. 

I took some time to walk along the shoreline. The landscape is beautiful and dramatic, with whitecaps washing over sunbleached rocks, and the rolling hills crawling out from under the screen of fog. As I walked on, the Golden Gate Bridge came into view—still partially shrouded by the mist, but magnificent nonetheless.

I also noticed something strange in the water, a sort of concrete stump in the middle of the bay. I learned from a nearby sign that this is the Miles Rock Lighthouse. It was built after the SS City of Rio de Janeiro ran into a submerged reef and sank in 1901, killing 135 of the 220 on board. Originally, this lighthouse—which is built on a lonely rock—had the recognizable form of a tower, but in the 1960s the top floor was demolished in order to make room for a helicopter landing pad. Nowadays, the lights are automated, so nobody has to sit there, alone, in the middle of the foggy bay.

So ended my first day in San Francisco. We got back into the car and drove by the famous Cliff House restaurant, which overlooks the Seal Rocks (both of these very accurately named). Then, after a pizza dinner, we were on our way back to the suburbs. But I would return.


San Francisco is blessed to have the rail system with the dorkiest name in the country: BART, which stands for Bay Area Rapid Transit. For my next day in the city, I hopped on the BART by my aunt’s house in the suburbs, and disembarked at the Embarcadero. This is the city’s waterfront to the east, facing the bay; and its name is yet another mark of the city’s Spanish heritage (embarcadero is a place where you board a vehicle). With the weather quite clear and sunny, I could see the full span of the Bay Bridge. Infrastructure is inspiring.

I walked along the water, enjoying the gentle breeze and the bright sun, pausing occasionally to examine anything that caught my eye. This certainly included the giant sculpture, Cupid’s Span, which consists of a huge bow and arrow that have been stuck into the ground. Designed by the artist team Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen (who are married), the sculpture is meant to pay homage to San Francisco’s history as a city of love. (But to me it looks as though cupid had carelessly lost his weapon, which is not good news for would-be lovers.)

Next I passed the Ferry Building, which looks vaguely like a medieval city hall—with a large clocktower shooting up from a lower structure. This beaux-arts style building actually took its inspiration from the Giralda, the half-Moorish, half-Renaissance bell tower of Seville’s cathedral. As you may imagine, before the construction of the major bridges, ferries were quite important to the life of the city. But as time went on, the building came to be seen more and more as a historical monument, and parts were even rented out for use as office space. Nowadays, however, the building has regained some of its former luster, and is a tourist attraction in its own right—with a food court and a market in the “Grand Nave.” It is still the main ferry hub for the city.

While I walked along, I noticed an interesting presence on the streets: big, hulking streetcars. This is the city’s historic streetcar service. Much like the city’s cable cars, these streetcars now mainly serve a nostalgic purpose, ferrying tourists in creaky wooden and metallic boxes across the city. But they really are quite charming to see, as they scuttle past like big colorful beetles. Incidentally, I also passed by the Fog City Diner, a landmark restaurant with a classic, retro appeal. I later ate here with my family, and the food was fantastic.

One of the city’s historic streetcars, with Coit Tower in the background.

My next stop was Pier 39. This pier is one of the city’s major tourist centers, which means it is crowded and filled with all sorts of touristy junk. But the pier is still worth visiting, if only for the view. From the end of the dock, you can see both the Golden Gate and the Bay Bridge; and behind you there is Coit Tower and the Transamerica Pyramid. What most attracts attention, however, are the Sea Lions. A few decades ago, these animals preferred to lounge on the rocks near Cliff House, but for some reason they moved inside the bay and set up camp here. The sea lions took over these docks and have not budged since. The number of animals present on any given day fluctuated. When I visited, there were probably around 50; but there can be many times that number.

Coit Tower on the left, the Salesforce Tower in the middle, and the Transamerica Building on the right

There are still more things to see from the pier. The SS Jeremiah O’Brien was docked not far off in the bay, a so-called Liberty ship. These were medium-sized cargo ships mass-produced during the Second World War, to ferry goods and men across the Atlantic. This particular ship has quite an impressive record, having been part of the D-Day Armada and seeing use in the Pacific Theater. The ship normally sits in the dock, available for tours; but occasionally it takes tourists on short rides.

Yet by far the most famous thing in the bay is not a ship, but an island: Alcatraz. You may be surprised to learn that this name also dates back to the Spanish occupation. Nowadays, the word alcatraz is used to refer to garrets; but at the time the word was used for pelicans (both are white, coastal birds). Thus, Alcatraz is the island of the pelicans—as it remains, incidentally.

(It is also curious to note that this word—like virtually all the Spanish words that begin with “al-”—is a loan word from Arabic, dating all the way back to Moorish Spain. It most likely comes from al-ḡaṭṭās (in Arabic: الْغَطَّاس‎), which means “the diver.” So the name of one of the world’s most famous prisons comes from a Spaniard misidentifying a bird, using a word that was misheard from Arabic several centuries earlier. History is a funny thing.) 

The last time I had been in San Francisco, I visited this island with my family. Nowadays, unfortunately, you need to have booked tickets in advance in order to visit, so we missed our shot. But I do have a strangely vivid memory of my time on this island. It is an arresting mixture of the wretched and the beautiful—with dark, concrete cells surrounded by ocean and sky. Because of the frigid waters and strong tides of the bay, the prison was considered escape-proof, though three prisoners tested this notion in 1962 (as dramatized in the classic film). The iconic gangster Al Capone was imprisoned here, as well as the famous “Bird Man” of Alcatraz, Robert Franklin Stroud, who did important work on bird diseases during his many years of imprisonment. (Alcatraz, however, did not let him have either birds or equipment.)

By now, I had had enough of the overpriced and gaudy seaside, so I headed to one of San Francisco’s great neighborhoods: Chinatown. San Francisco has a claim to being the most important city in Chinese-American history, as the city’s Chinatown—established in 1848—is the country’s oldest. Though New York City has a higher Chinese population in total, people of Chinese descent make up a greater portion (about a quarter) of San Francisco than NYC or anywhere else in America. As it happens, most of the residents in the Bay Area hail from southern China, where Cantonese rather than Mandarin is spoken (which explains why some services at St. Peter’s and St. Paul’s are offered in that language).

The most recognizable landmark in the neighborhood is the Dragon Gate—a stylized arch (called a pailou), with two fearsome guardian lions on either side. This was actually a gift from Taiwan, and was erected as a kind of PR stunt during the Korean War for the Chinese-American community (since the People’s Republic of China was fighting on North Korea’s side).

Two other notable landmarks are the Sing Fat and Sing Chong buildings, both on Grant Street. These feature an arresting combination of typical Western and Chinese building styles—looking like ordinary buildings that have grown ornamental frills, towers, and swoops. But elaborate architecture is not needed to know that you are in Chinatown. Every surface is covered with Chinese characters, and red lamps hang over the streets.

I had quite a bit of fun simply walking around. I love walking into Chinese grocery stores and food shops, as they are always full of unfamiliar products and brands, all of them wrapped in sparkling colors. As I walked by an alley, I spotted a couple men practicing a dragon dance. And I even paid a short visit to the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Company, which is exactly what it sounds like: a small factory for fortune cookies. But the best part of visiting Chinatown was the food. I waited online at a dumpling shop and walked out with enough food for three people, all for less than $10. In San Francisco, where a ham sandwich can cost more than that, this is beyond a bargain. And it was delicious.

Next, I wanted to visit a museum. San Francisco has plenty to offer in that regard. There is the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), which has a vast collection of 20th century art, all housed in an appropriately daring building. There is the Legion of Honor, an imposing neoclassical building with a wide-ranging collection of (mostly European) art; and the de Young Museum, which mainly focuses on art from the United States. If you are looking for something a little more interactive, the Exploratorium—located on the Embarcadero—is full of participatory exhibits. (The museum was the brainchild of Frank Oppenheimer—a far more beneficent gift to humankind than Frank’s older brother’s gift of the atomic bomb.)

But I only had time for one museum, and the one which interested me the most was the Asian Art Museum. This museum is located right across from San Francisco’s city hall—a lovely Palladian structure with a gilded dome—as well as from the main branch of the San Francisco public library. The museum is an enormous institution in its own right, with one of the country’s great collections of Asian art. As I walked through the galleries—going from India, to China, to Japan—I found myself more and more deeply amazed, both at the quality of the collection and of the art itself, and once again filled with a burning desire to learn more about these cultures. But as I am, alas, still quite deplorably ignorant, I will let my photos do the talking:

This concluded my last full day in San Francisco. It was late and I needed to get back to my Aunt’s house for dinner. So I made my way to the nearest BART station and was whisked back across the bay. But I still had time for a last glimpse of the city.


On one beautifully unfoggy day, I took BART into the city center. I was going to go on a bike ride with my cousins. And to get to our rendezvous-point, I had to walk through one of the most famous neighborhoods in San Francisco: Haight-Ashbury.

Of all the famous cultural moments in the history of San Francisco, the 1967 Summer of Love may be the most iconic. That summer, tens of thousands of hippies—dressed in tie-dye and bell-bottom jeans, taking every type of substance you can imagine—converged on the city in order to protest war, reject capitalism, and in general to imagine a different kind of world. It was one of the high points of the sixties counter-cultural movement, an event that helped to identify an entire generation. The moment was so notable as to even merit its own hit song: “San Francisco,” by Scott McKenzie. It summed up the moment thusly:

All across the nation

Such a strange vibration

People in motion

There’s a whole generation

With a new explanation

And indeed there was.

All hippiedom aside, the neighborhood is quite beautiful in itself, for its array of classic Victorian-style houses. These constitute perhaps the most distinctive buildings in the city—stately, elegant structures of wood and many windows, all scrunched up against one another in the city’s rolling hills. Residents have taken to painting them mellow, contrasting colors, leading to the popular nickname “Painted Ladies.” Personally, I found the neighborhoods quite charming. And I was also taken with the detectable aftershocks of the summer of love in the neighborhood, such as an “anarcho-syndicalist” bookstore (presumably one doesn’t have to pay?), and the coffee shop where I waited, which served a very nice brew in a space dominated by used books.

Finally it was time to assemble with my cousins. Within mere minutes, we had rented bikes and were pedalling our way through Golden Gate Park. If San Francisco’s Painted Ladies are the city’s equivalent to New York City’s brownstones, then the Golden Gate Park is the city’s Central Park. In fact, it is quite a bit larger than Manhattan’s greenspace, which is impressive in a city that is a fraction of NYC’s size. However, the two famous parks could never be confused by a visitor. Whereas Central Park is full of maples and oaks over a gently rolling field of grass, the Golden Gate Park has palm trees, eucalyptus, and cypress, which to me seemed quite beautiful and exotic.

Even more exotic were the bison, which were lounging casually in a field. This was almost certainly the first time I had ever laid eyes on a live bison. (There are stuffed ones in the American Museum of Natural History.) And, of all places, I did not expect it to happen in San Francisco. The park had purchased a herd back in 1899, when the country’s bison population was threatened; and it seems the habit of keeping bison is hard to kick.

We made our way through the patchwork of roads, paths, and bridges, until we came to a large open garden. This is where the de Young Museum (mentioned above) is located, as well as the California Academy of Sciences. But I was more interested in a lovely sculpture of two of my heroes, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, praying to their creator Cervantes—yet another echo of Spain in this Californian city. We dismounted and walked for a bit, enjoying the sun and the bird calls (most of which were entirely unfamiliar to me), until we came to the park’s end.

Suddenly, the sky opened up and the land expanded into a sandy beach: the very literally-named Ocean Beach. There were a few scattered surfers in the distance (which caused my cousin’s boyfriend, an Australian, keen envy). Behind me, I observed a beautiful Dutch-style windmill, which had been constructed in 1903 as a tasteful way of pumping water into the park.

Three creative names: Ocean Beach, with Cliff House and Seal Rocks in the distance.

My time in the city was quickly coming to an end. We pedalled back to the other side of the parks, returned the bikes, and then had dinner in a bar. Soon, I was on the BART, heading back to the suburbs. 

Inevitably, I missed a great deal during my trip. I would have liked to have visited more museums and to have seen Alcatraz once again. I also regret not paying a visit to the Castro District, one of the country’s most important gay neighborhoods. It was here that Harvey Milk became the nation’s first openly gay elected official, before his gruesome assassination. It was also here that the nation first came to grips with the horrible AIDS epidemic of the 1980s.

San Francisco is, without a doubt, one of the great American cities. Its history is fascinating, and its personality is unmistakable. Yet the city I had seen was very different from the city of Allen Ginsberg, Scott McKenzie, and Harvey Milk. Nowadays, San Francisco is the city of Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, and Elon Musk. Whether or not this is an improvement, I will let its residents decide.

Soon enough I was walking through the airport gate, back into JFK. And it was not long before someone was yelling rudely. It felt good to be home.

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

Rome Posts Update

Rome Posts Update

Writing my series of posts on Rome, back in 2016, was an educational experience for me. It was the first time that I tried to break up a single city into multiple installments, and the first time that I tried to be as brief and as useful as possible (a practice I have since abandoned). Nevertheless the posts’ photographs and formatting were a little rough compared to my later posts. To rectify this, I have given these original posts a makeover. You can see the results below:

Central Europe: Vienna

Central Europe: Vienna

The train from Munich crawled through the city’s surroundings towards the central train station. We were entering Vienna. I gazed eagerly through the window, but could discern nothing save for the usual nondescript buildings, the industrial wreckage, and the bleak tracks and power cables that surrounds every modern city like a cage. Nevertheless I was excited. I had just finished Stefan Zweig’s absorbing autobiography, The World of Yesterday, which portrays the Vienna of the pre-War years (before World War I, that is), in loving detail. But I hardly needed Zweig’s description to know that I was entering one of Europe’s cultural capitals, where great artists, writers, and especially musicians lived and worked.

Thus I felt a little disoriented when I stepped off the train and found myself on a city street. I don’t know what I was expecting—a giant opera house or a city-sized museum—but certainly not an ordinary street, full of ordinary people, doing ordinary things. Indeed, the scene that confronted me was rather ugly, full of glass office buildings surrounded by yellow cranes (no doubt busy erecting more glass office buildings). Yet the disillusion quickly passed, since, after storing my bags in a luggage locker, I went straight to the Belvedere Palace Museum, a quick ten-minute walk away. Thus before I could even glimpse the city I was plunged into its art.

Belvedere_Palace

The Belvedere Palace consists of two buildings, an upper and a lower, both built during the Baroque period. They are separated by a lovely orangerie, a French-style garden full of neoclassical statues, carefully pruned ferns, decorous fountains, and artificial ponds. From the Upper Belvedere (where the museum’s most famous art is located), the visitor can see Vienna’s center looming beyond, with its cathedral’s dark spire splitting the skyline. It is a lovely place, worth visiting even if it were not full of famous works of art; and its design, by Johann Lukas von Hildebrant, proved stylistically influential. But I am no connoisseur of palaces or their deadening pomp. So after a quick walk around the gardens, I queued up and passed through the ornate lobby into the museum.

Belvedere_Collage
Above: the Belvedere gardens. Below: a painting of the gardens by Canaletto

The Upper Belvedere’s collection focuses on art from the nineteenth and early twentieth century. The highlight of its collection, and the reason why so many tourists bother visiting, is its extensive collection of Klimt’s work. For my part I knew close to nothing about Gustav Klimt before my visit; thus I felt somewhat out of place in such a horde of gaping spectators. Klimt is much more famous than I had suspected. There was a frenetic energy in the Klimt rooms, much like the atmosphere in the Louvre around the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo, with tour groups jostling for photos (which are inevitably ruined by other jostling tourists). What was all the fuss about?

The first works I encountered were of plants, trees, and other natural scenes. Klimt’s style immediately struck me for its resemblance to wallpaper. An eye for pattern and design transforms everything into an ornament: the colors decorate rather than delineate, and any sense of depth is flattened into the scheme. As I gazed into the swarming mass of greens, pinks, reds, blues, and yellows, I felt a tingling sense of pleasure, like that of drinking cool soda water on a hot day. Every element of the paintings was subservient to a sense of texture, an almost tactile use of color. I would not call them beautiful, but they are very pretty.

But Klimt’s most famous works are not of nature, but of women. These combine his taste for the ornate with a surprisingly frank sensuality; and the combination has proven popular.

Kilmt_Judith

Judith and the Head of Holofernes illustrates this perfectly. Klimt takes the original story from the Book of Judith—about a widow visiting an enemy force and decapitating its general, Holofernes, traditionally interpreted as an act of pious devotion—and turns it into one of the most iconic images of the femme fatale. The disrobed Judith looks at the viewer with an extraordinary expression, a perfect mixture of scorn and invitation, of seduction and triumph. Her carefully realistic skin contrasts sharply with the abstract two-dimensional background, made from gold-leaf, which makes her seem to pop out from a graphic design. Though the painting celebrates the triumph of woman over man, to me it represents the double poles of fear and desire of the male gaze—the sex drive tinged with castration anxiety, to use a Freudian expression (as we must, in his home city).

Even more famous than this painting is The Kiss. Indeed, it is so famous it can hardly be properly seen, which is the irony of so many famous painting. The crowds they attract make it impossible for the visitor to observe closely, to ponder, to become completely absorbed in the work. To give the museum credit, they have set up a printed copy of the work in an adjoining room, marked “Kiss Selfie Point,” in the hopes that selfie-seekers would go there and leave the original unmolested. But it did not work. Dozens of people were gathered around, all busy taking pictures of each other and of themselves, and seemingly none actually looking at the painting.

Kiss_Painting

All this notwithstanding, I can see why the painting has become so iconic. The woman kneels on a flowery meadow, her lover bending down to kiss her cheek. The poses are exaggerated and unnatural, reminding me of Mannerism; the man’s neck in particular seems painfully bent. Yet all the attention is focused on the woman’s face, which wears a look of rapturous joy. They are both wrapped in golden clokes, the man’s with a stiff vertical design, the woman’s with swirling spirals, which serve to obscure their bodies into one amorphous whole. The composition of the figures, situated at the top of the canvass, makes it seem as if all nature—the earth, the flowers, the stars—are swelling and concentrating themselves on this one blissful moment.

Having said all this in Klimt’s praise, I must admit that I am not particularly fond of his work. At best the strike me as excellent graphic designs, absorbing and attractive, but failing to touch any strong emotional or intellectual keys in me.

The Upper Belvedere has more to offer besides the world’s best collection of Klimt. One painting which stands out in my memory is a pentaptych (consisting of five separate panels) by Hans Makart, portraying the five senses in allegorical form, as female nudes engaged in symbolic poses—looking at a mirror, cupping an ear, smelling a flower, reaching for an apple, or resting a hand on a cloth. The painting is saved from its potentially trite theme and shallow symbolism by excellent technique and tasteful execution; the result is an ode to sensuality, which artfully represents Makart’s own views on ‘Total Art’ (art that appeals to all the senses). As you may know this idea is mostly associated with Wagner, and indeed the two of them were friends in life. The sensuality of Makart’s work was, perhaps unsurprisingly, a notable influence on Klimt, who is said to have worshipped him.

Makart_Fuenf_Sinne

Another famous painting on display is Jacques-Louis David’s Napoleon Crossing the Alps. This is one of five surviving versions by the painter, the others scattered around Europe. The original painting, which hangs in Malmaison, was commissioned by Napoleon to send to Charles IV of Spain after the two countries’ rapprochement following the strife of the Revolution. (Charles sent Napoleon a portrait of himself by Goya.) The painting is executed in David’s characteristic neoclassical style, turning Napoleon into a second Alexander the Great. Though the heroic ethos of David’s paintings is ethically questionable at best—the worship of warriors and conquerors is something I have trouble understanding—his works are undeniably visually striking and impressive, and this one is no exception.

Napoleon_at_the_Great_St._Bernard_-_Jacques-Louis_David_-_Google_Cultural_Institute

The only other work I will mention (though there are many more deserving of note, ranging stylistically from neoclassicism to romanticism to impressionism) is the collection of busts by Franz Xaver Messerschmidt. These are hard to miss: they cover an entire wall in the museum and, besides, are unlike any other busts in the world. Rather than sculpt images of calm dignity, Messerschmidt made a collection of extreme expressions and distorted features. Apparently he achieved this by pinching himself and observing his reactions in the mirror. They must have been awfully painful pinches, since many of the busts portray horrendous grimaces. But pain is not all he captured; some are smiling maniacally, some have their lips pursed like an old lecher, some are engaged in a terrific yawn, and so on, covering everything from delirium to disgust. It strikes one as a little silly at first; but given how often we tense up our faces—from pain, from pleasure, from a curious odor—we may rank Messerschmidt as a more accurate chronicler of the human soul than many more famous sculptors.

Belvedere_Bust

After taking in my fill of art, I returned to the train station, picked up my bags, and went off to check in to my Airbnb. The gap between my arrival in a city and the check-in time of my accomodations, by the way, is something that had been troubling me. For how can I take advantage of arriving early if I have to drag my bags around until the afternoon? The luggage lockers in train stations have proven to be the best way to solve this problem; and I recommend their use to any similarly beset travelers.

Now it was time to see the old city center. The first thing I noticed is that Vienna is very flat. Everything seemed situated on a level plain, which somehow made distances seem longer. Little deviations in angle help to make one feel progression; without that, one feels as though one is on a treadmill. The wide and long avenues also contributed to this impression: I felt small in the openness of the city’s streets, trying to traverse a space too expansive for my puny legs. But what most struck me about Vienna was the city’s unified aesthetic. Everything is built in a grand, stately style, in a noble marble-white. Walking around the center, you do indeed get the impression that you are wandering around a massive palace or museum or opera house, or rather some combination of all of the above. And this is not very far from the truth.

Vienna_city

Vienna is sometimes called the “City of Music,” and the city will not let you forget it. Concerts are everywhere. Salesmen sporting white wigs and dressed in fluffy satin suits walk the streets selling tickets to see performances of Mozart and Beethoven. It is no wonder that the city is known for music, considering that not only Mozart and Beethoven, but also Haydn, Brahms, Mahler, and Schoenberg have worked here. Nevertheless I find it somewhat depressing that the genuine cultural vibrancy that made the city so famous—the universal love of art that Zweig lovingly describes in his autobiography, in which the theater and the opera were universal obsessions—have been turned into a kind of parody of what it was, a tourist industry, in which cookie-cutter performances of canonical works are sold to tourists, the majority of whom have only a very limited interested in classical music. I suppose this is only to be expected, considering that the profit motive of the vendors harmonizes with the desire of the tourist for iconic experiences.

Vienna_Opera
The Staatsoper

All this being said, it is no doubt true that Vienna still has a thriving performance scene. This is evidenced by the city’s several opera houses, the most famous of which being the Staatsoper, or State Opera House. This is a monumental and dignified building, built in the nineteenth century, in which Gustav Mahler worked as a conductor. Though I unfortunately did not take this opportunity (since I didn’t know at the time), it is possible to buy cheap standing-room tickets 80 minutes before a show. Another notable venue in Vienna is the Burgtheater, a elegantly decorated circular building near the Town Hall. I did not venture within, but from the outside I observed busts of Goethe, Schiller, and Lessing hovering above me, the gods of German theater. This theater, still popular, has historically been important in the German-speaking world for its trend-setting style.

Vienna_Theater
The Burgtheater

From there I walked to Vienna’s lovely neo-gothic city hall, situated at the end of a large plaza. Opened in 1883, the building bears a strong resemblance to Munich’s neo-gothic town hall (built around the same time). I suppose this resemblance is due to both structures owing much to Brussels’ authentically gothic city hall. On the day I visited there was an outdoor fair set up, and the square was full of trailers and tents selling appetizing food. Though I was tempted by Indian curry and Turkish kebab, I decided that, since I was in Vienna, I had better have a sausage. It was spicy, filled with cheese, and came with warm potato salad. The Austrians, like the Germans, certainly know how to accompany a beer.

Vienna_Cityhall

Near the City Hall (or Rathaus, in the teutonic speech) is Universität Wien’s central building. It does not look especially interesting from the street; but after wandering inside I found myself in a lovely courtyard, whose shaded walk enclosed busts of the notable Austrian intellectuals that have been associated with the university. There I found Freud’s scowling face, whose enormous forehead and glowering eyes reveal a man who sought dark secrets. Much more cheerful is Karl Popper, who looks eminently professorial and harmless, even avuncular—though I think the real Popper was not so mild. Erwin Schrödinger looks completely abstracted, as if lost in an uncomfortable dream (presumably featuring a cat); his bust has his famous equation—used to calculate quantum effects—written beneath his name. Vienna is certainly not short on intellectuals.

Klimt was famously commissioned to decorate the Great Hall of this university in 1894. When he finally revealed his designs for Philosophy, Medicine, and Jurisprudence, the university reacted with shock and alarm, declaiming the works as pornographic and refusing to install them. The originals no longer survive, since the Nazis reportedly destroyed them during their retreat, though this is not confirmed. Judging from the surviving photographs, the works are quite impressive allegorical designs—both deeply original and visually striking. That being said, the profusion of nude women is hardly in keeping with the sober dignity of an old university. But when they commissioned Klimt, what did they expect?

Next to the university is the Sigmund Freud Park, where I observed college students in their native habitat—bent over cheap takeout noodles, their heads buried in books. This park is presided over by the Votivkirche, an excellent example of neo-gothic architecture, comparable even to St. Patrick’s in New York City. Its name (“Votive Church”) alludes to its construction: it was built to give thanks to God after a failed assassination attempt on Emperor Franz Joseph in 1853, for saving the emperor’s life. God may have not been so pleased, seeing as Franz Joseph lived to see the death of his brother, his wife, and his son (Archduke Franz Ferdinand), and to witness the beginning of the Great War which would end his empire for good. Lovely as the church is, I could not properly appreciate its form, since it was being restored when I visited; and so its façade was covered with scaffolding, which in turn was covered with a giant advertisement. Nowadays even churches are billboards.

Vienna’s most famous church may be the Peterskirche. This was remodeled by Johann Lukas von Hildebrandt, who you may remember as the same man who designed the Belvedere Palace. Though the outside of the church is, in my opinion, unremarkable, its inside is quite impressive, decorated from top to bottom in a florid yet tasteful Baroque. Outside the church’s front entrance is the Pestsäule, or Plague Column, a memorial to the Great Plague epidemic of 1679. The column is bursting with forms and figures, using a complex iconography to represent the victory of faith over the threatening disease (in those days thought to be caused by sin). Though full of angels, the bulbous form of the column manages to be quite grotesque, which I think is appropriate given what it commemorates.

One more church deserves mention. On one of my walks back to my Airbnb I stumbled upon the Karlskirche, which unfortunately was closed when I found it. Yet, even from the outside, the church leaves an impression for its monumental size and for the spiral columns (inspired by Trajan’s column) that flank its entrance. The Karlskirche is only a five-minute walk from another of Vienna’s treasures: the Naschmarkt. This is a street market that has existed since the sixteenth century. Now, I am no foodie, nor do I enjoy shopping for exotic products. Nevertheless I was impressed by the vast display of fresh fruits and vegetables, of spices and herbs, of candies and baked goods, all of which seem to go on forever—indeed, it was almost unbearable to witness, since I visited on an empty stomach (but didn’t leave that way).

Naschmarkt_collage
Stalls at the Naschmarkt (above); and a painting of the same market, with Karlskirche in the background (below)

Yet dwarfing even the finest of these churches in size and splendor is Vienna’s Cathedral, the Stephansdom. Its profile is unmistakable. The front entrance of the cathedral (to the west) is flanked by two Romanesque towers, rising up in grandiose dignity. To the back is the cathedral’s famous southern bell tower, a massive gothic spire that can be seen from many corners of the city, a feature as characteristic of Vienna’s skyline as is the Duomo in Florence. Yet the Cathedral’s most striking feature is not its towers nor its profile, but its colorful roof. The Stephansdom’s slanted roof is decorated with glazed tiles; on the southern side these are arranged into a bright diagonal pattern; and on the north the tiles create Vienna’s and Austria’s coats of arms. The inside of the cathedral is decorated in a high gothic style and contains the tomb of Emperor Frederick III, who was responsible for obtaining cathedral-status for the church from Pope Paul II.

Cathedral_Collage
A painting from the Belvedere (left) and my photo (right)

I feel that I am rambling on about Vienna, and yet failing to capture the flavor of the city—a city which for so long was one of the great cultural and political centers of the continent. “Center” is the operative word here, since the city leaves no doubt that it was the seat of power and the ultimate arbiter of artistic taste. Yet I am cataloguing buildings as if they were a random assemblage, while Vienna seldom feels haphazard or fortuitous; rather the city feels planned down the last centimeter, like one giant palatial complex. Indeed, you might say that the city seems to grow out of the labyrinthine Hofburg Palace in the city center. This palace served as the winter residence of the omnipotent Habsburgs for generations; and it is still occupied by the President of Austria.

The most iconic view of the palace is from the Heldenplatz, or Heroes’ Square, a crushingly vast, open space that features two heroic equestrian statues: of Archduke Charles of Austria, and of Prince Eugene of Savoy, two of Austria’s greatest generals. Facing this plaza are the arching wings of the Neue Burg, the newer section of the palace (built in the 1800s), whose arms sweep out like a giant embrace. This is only a fraction of the palace, however, which expands chaotically through the area. Built over a span of centuries, the Hofburg lacks the unified grandeur of, say, Versailles or the Schönbrunn. Indeed, when I visited I could not tell where it begun or ended.

Hofburg

Nowadays the gargantuan complex, in addition to being the official residence of Austria’s leader, is the home of several institutions. One wonders how any emperor, however egotistical and vain, could ever have used so much space. The aforementioned Neue Burg, for example, is home to an ethnology museum, a museum of arms and armor, and a museum of musical instruments. Elsewhere in the complex is Vienna’s famous Spanish Riding School, which puts on horse shows that are a popular attraction. (I didn’t go.) The Imperial Treasure is also on display—with its bejewelled crowns and scepters and other ornaments of power—though no doubt well guarded. What attracted me most was the Court Library (now part of the Austrian National Library), famous for its gorgeously decorated Punksaal (“State Hall”). And this is only a taste of the behemoth.

Right next door to the Neue Burg of the Hofburg is the Maria-Theresien-Platz, an attractive square named for the statue of Empress Maria Theresa in its center. Two of Vienna’s most famous museums face each other from across the square: the Kunsthistorisches Museum (the Museum of the History of Art) and the Naturhistorisches Museum (the Museum of Natural History). These are housed in matching grand, palatial buildings, topped with a dome, which creates a satisfying symmetry across the square. The two buildings were built under the reign of the unhappy Franz Joseph in order to make the imperial art and science collections public—for which we may heartily thank him. Though both museums are popular attractions, the art museum is indisputably the more so. Being in all things a follower, I visited this one.

The museum building itself is attractive. A mock-palace decorated in a neoclassical style, each room is well-tailored to the art it displays: providing a charming but not distracting background. The exception to this is the central stairwell, which is adorned with statues of heroes and lions, and whose ceiling and walls are covered in paintings. Klimt is responsible for a few of these paintings, such as a nude Cleopatra that occupies a nook. Not only is the building itself impressive, but the exhibitions are expertly arranged and displayed. It is an excellent institution.

Gemma_augustus

Despite the Kunsthistorisches Museum’s name, the museum is not an attempt to portray the whole history of art. The collection is, rather, the result of the tastes of Emperors and the periods of their glory. Thus we begin with antiquities—Egyptian and Greco-Roman—for the Empire funded and commissioned many excavations in the years when it was easier to simply take artifacts from their native lands. I admit that it was difficult for me to pay proper attention to these collections, since I was in Austria to learn about Austria, not Egypt or Greece. This is a shame, however, as the collections are undeniably impressive, well-organized and displayed, and featuring thousands of items—many of them beautiful and all of them instructive. Of particular note is the Cult Chamber of Ka-ni-nisut (a section of an Old Egyptian Temple) and marvelous Gemma Augusta, a delicately carved inscribed gem from a Roman workman.

From these relics of ancient peoples the collection jumps to the high point of Habsburg in the Kunstkammer rooms. A Kunstkammer or Wunderkammer (normally translated as “chamber of curiosities”) originated during the Renaissance as a kind of private a museum, a collection of strange and rare objects to stimulate the mind (and sometimes thought to have occult properties). The other examples I have seen contained fossils (not understood at the time), stuffed exotic animals, and foreign artifacts. But the Kunstkammer in the Kunsthistorisches Museum is full to the brim of luxury items, the most striking of which are delicate creations in gold. Far from the product of intellectual curiosity, this collection seems more to be a display of wealth.

The most notable item in this section is the salt cellar by Benvenuto Cellini. I was especially keen to see this, since I had read and loved Cellini’s roguish autobiography—possibly my favorite example of the genre—in which he repeatedly boasts that he is the best goldsmith in the world, even of all time. So I was curious to see whether his boasting was justified. It was. I find it depressing to think that this man, who wrote one of the great books of the Italian Renaissance, was also an extremely accomplished artist. Some people can do everything. The cellar contains two reclining figures: a man representing the sea, and a woman representing the earth. Each is seated next to decorous boxes, one to contain salt, the other pepper. The craftsmanship is exquisite in every detail: the bodies lithe and expressive, the ornamentation sumptuous. Imagine having something like that at your dinner table.

Cellini_salt

Though the Cellini Salt Cellar is without doubt the highlight of the Kunstkammer rooms for its artistry, it is only a small part of the extraordinary display of craftsmanship and wealth. A succession of Habsburgs used their combination of resources and connections to assemble a vast collection of scientific instruments, statuettes, models, clocks, lamps, and decorative plates, trays, and cutlery, all of it made with the finest craftsmanship out of the most expensive materials. And yet, aside from Cellini’s cellar, the display produced in me little more than an admiration for the fine skill required, and a mixture of awe and disgust at the flaunting of riches.

After exploring the Egyptian, Greco-Roman, and Habsburg rooms, I thought there could be little more to see in the museum. But I was blissfully wrong. The second floor of the museum is a world-class painting gallery, comparable to Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum or even Madrid’s Prado. The collection mainly contains works by Germanic, Dutch, and Flemish artists, though there are some notable exceptions. One of these is Raphael’s Madonna in the Meadow, with the rosy-faced Virgin Mary watching over the infant John the Baptist and Jesus, playing in a field. The painting exhibits the Renaissance master’s smooth forms, agreeable colors, and harmonious compositions. Also notable are the several works by Velazquez on display, which were originally given as a gift by the Spanish to the Austrian Habsburgs.

kunstmuseum_gallery

Jan_Vermeer_The_Art_of_Painting

Other paintings call out for attention: several excellent portraits by Jan Van Eyck, self-portraits by Peter Paul Rubens (looking resplendent) and Rembrandt (looking rather shabby), and one of Vermeer’s masterpieces, The Art of Painting, which portrays a painter (himself, presumably) engaged in painting a woman dressed in blue (possibly his daughter). As is usual with Vermeer, an expert composition is matched with exquisite realism, blending the iconic and the intimate. On the one hand, the painting looks like a snapshot of an ordinary day; you can almost guess the time of day from the shadowing on the crickled map on the far wall. And yet, once examined, the painting reveals itself to be anything but casual, but even more carefully composed than the painting which is being painted in the painting.

All of these wonderful works notwithstanding, the highlight of the gallery is indisputably its collection of Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The acknowledged master of the Flemish Renaissance, Bruegel began his career as an engraver of prints, and only took up the brush comparatively late in his short life (he died at around the age of 40). Even so, he left us with a treasury of paintings, which combine the engraver’s eye for detail with an earthy humor and an ironic sensibility, making him one of Europe’s great artists.

Perhaps I enjoyed Bruegel’s work so much because there were influenced by another of my favorite artists, Hieronymus Bosch. This is most apparent in Bruegel’s Fight Between Carnival and Lent, which tackles the typical Boschian theme of the combat between sin and piety in the typical Boschian manner of a vast panorama. In the lower-left of the large town square the people boisterously celebrate Carnival, with all the hilarity, mirth, and drunkenness expected; and in the upper right, robed figures and well-behaved children carry out the abstemious rituals of Lent. The riot of detail is too much for the eye to take in at a glance, or even several; and no central narrative emerges from the busy activity of the town. The closest thing to a central action is the joust between the figure of Carnival, a fat man seated on a barrel, being pushed by drunkards, wielding a skewer, and Lent, a skinny, miserably figure in religious vestments, being pulled by a monk and a nun. Both of these figures are pure Bosch in their exaggerated ghastliness, down to the odd objects sitting on their heads.

Pieter_Bruegel_d._Ä._066

Another remarkable panorama by Bruegel is his painting, Children’s Games, which shows hundreds of kids engaged in dozens of sorts of play—with masks, with dolls, in groups, by themselves, climbing, rolling, play acting, and so on—creating a veritable anthology of childhood. But Bruegel’s artistry is not confined to these social summaries. He was also deeply sensitive to the beauties of nature, as is shown in his winter landscape, Hunters in the Snow. I do not think that I am the only one to feel a peaceful sense of sublimity in this work. Somehow Bruegel has captured the feeling of the hours after snowfall, when the world is frozen still and silent, and the works of human hands are humbled in the anonymous white of winter. When I visited there was a guest artist busy making a copy of the work, which I admire, for there is much to learn in this work.

800px-Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder_-_Hunters_in_the_Snow_(Winter)_-_Google_Art_Project

Yet my favorite work in the Bruegel collection is his Tower of Babel, the most convincing representation of that mythical tower I know of. I admit I am predisposed to like the painting because the story is among my favorits of the Bible. It shows how much we humans, individually weak, can accomplish if we unite together—a power so great as to even make God in heaven tremble, since He decided that He had better scatter us and confuse our speech if He was to defend his astral territory. The story seems so prescient, too, considering that we have succeeded in leaving earth and entered the heavens, and with the help of two universal languages: English and mathematics, the international languages of science. Though the story has traditionally been interpreted as an allegory for humanity’s presumption, I tend to see it as an allegory for the potential of cooperation. Thus I feel a strange pathos when I look at Bruegel’s image of the unfinished—never to be finished—tower, dominating the landscape and brushing away the clouds.

Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder_-_The_Tower_of_Babel_(Vienna)_-_Google_Art_Project_-_edited

This does it for my tour of the Kunsthistorisches Museum. But one museum remains: the Sigmund Freud Museum.

This is located in the apartment were the psychoanalyst lived and worked for over 40 years, on Berggasse 19. I believe the rest of the apartments in the building are still residencial. To enter I had to queue up on the stairwell, since only a limited number of visitors can be admitted at any one time, due to the limited space. I admit that I was somewhat disappointed by the museum. You see, when Freud fled the Nazis and moved to London, he was able to take all of his furniture (such as the famous couch) with him; so the museum in Vienna is largely bereft of its original furnishings. (There is a Freud Museum in London in which you can see what his house and office looked like.) Instead, the exhibition mainly consists of information and photographs, with a few antique items on display.

Even though I did not learn very much about Freud—since I already knew a fair amount about the psychoanalyst before my visit—it was still special to know that I was standing in the apartment of somebody whose thoughts had changed the world. For even if Freud’s ideas are bunk as science and questionable as therapy, he undoubtedly contributed to our concept of the human condition, helping to erode the old Platonic idea in rational beings, and instead accustoming us to the now-common notion of unconscious, unreasonable, and ugly motivations. Since Freud, we have not been able to trust so blithely in the logic of our thoughts or the purity of our actions; and I think this is ultimately a good thing: since blindness to the animal within makes us unable to restrain it.

§

Evening was falling now, and I was going to leave the next day. I was tired and sore from having walked all day for days on end; but there was one more place to visit: the Schönbrunn Palace.

Sometimes called the “Versailles of Vienna” (which is somewhat Francocentric, I think), the Schönbrunn (literally, “Beautiful Fountain”) is the marvelous palace that, for hundreds of years, was used by the Habsburgs as a summer residence. As such, it stands in the center of Austrian history. Franz Joseph, Austria’s aforementioned last emperor, was born, lived, and died within these walls. Located about an hour’s walk from the center, the palace is accessible by metro, tram, and bus for the foot-weary, and is easily worth the detour.

Schonbrunn_collage
The palace from the gardens (above); and a painting of the palace from the road (below).

As it stands today, the Schönbrunn mainly owes its monumental, neoclassical form to that remarkable empress, Maria Theresa. It is painted a cheerful yellow color, which helps to humanize the inhuman proportions of the building. The visitor entering from the street passes two imperial eagles, elevated on columns, which lead into a stone courtyard. By the time I arrived the palace was closed (which did not much bother me, since I prefer gardens anyhow). So I walked around the monumental pile to the other side, which opens up into the palace’s orangerie.

Schonbrunn_gloriette

The gardens are arranged in the orderly French style, with rows of ferns adorned with classicalizing statues of heroes and gods. These lead up a gentle hill to the famous Gloriette, a kind of ceremonial structure, vaguely reminiscent of a triumphal arch, built to celebrate Habsburg power. I slowly ascended the slope until I reached its modest peak. The grass swells like an ocean wave on its way down the hill; and at the bottom, flower patches lead up to the palace, which does not look so presumptuously big from up here, and whose yellow façade grows agreeably in the sunset light. Vienna is stretched out in the distance, almost completely flat, save for the dark spire of a church silhouetted against the pink sky. I wrote in my diary: “The clouds look painted. I can almost see the brushstrokes.”

Schonbrunn_view

I made my way back down through a side path, which took me through a more wooded area and passed near the palace’s zoo. Some large animal—a lion, a bear, or even an elephant—was growling powerfully in its enclosure. The deep and throaty roar made my hair stand on end; the sound was so deep it even seemed to shake the leaves on the trees. A panic momentarily came over me; and this instinctual fear quickened my senses and snapped me out of my fatigue. I was here, I was in Vienna, listening to an elephant in the palace gardens.

Finally I reached the bottom of the hill and passed by the palace on my way back to my apartment. As I passed, strains of music caught my ears. A concert of chamber music was being held in the palace; and by standing nearby, I could hear the players quite well. It was Mozart, whose composition accompanied my final moments of wonder in the City of Music.

The next day, as I waited for my train to take me to the airport, I wrote these concluding thoughts in my diary:

Every day I ingest Culture, sometimes so much I can hardly swallow it all without feeling ill. What effect does all the art-viewing and book-reading have on me? Does the sophisticated, elegant, finely crafted decorations of, say, an Egyptian sarcophagus create any reflected, echoed, imprinted form in my mind? Do I gain something from visually processing the forms of brilliant men and women? My mind has its limits, which I feel all the more keenly when I measure myself against these artists.

 

Homage to Catalunya: Museums of Barcelona

Homage to Catalunya: Museums of Barcelona

This is Part Three of a seven-part series on Catalonia, following this plan:

  1. Introduction & Background
  2. The City of Barcelona
  3. Museums of Barcelona
  4. Architecture of Barcelona
  5. The Museum of Dalí
  6. Montserrat
  7. Tarragona

Barcelona, is a vast and cultured city, and has a correspondingly huge number of museums. There is the Museum of Contemporary Art; the Museum of Catalan Modernisme; and a museum dedicated to archaeology and to design—just to name a few. But I have only visited the three most famous: the National Art Museum; the Miró Foundation; and the Picasso Museum.


Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya

The biggest and grandest museum in Barcelona is the National Art Museum of Catalonia, situated atop the Montjuïc hill. The museum’s building itself is splendid: the Palau Nacional, a large palace built for the 1929 World’s Fair. It reminds me very much of El Escorial, and for good reason, since it was intentionally made in a Spanish Renaissance style. Four large towers flank a central dome, which rise above the city on its perch.

Catalanmuseum

The museum’s collection is expansive, ranging from the Romanesque to modern art. The oldest pieces are arguably the museum’s most impressive. Whole church apses have been transported into the museum in order to display their frescos. And these frescos are exquisite. Romanesque art always charms me with its fantastic stylization. As in Egyptian and Babylonian art, humans are idealized and abstracted, turned into cartoonish symbols. The volume of Greco-Roman art and the realism of the Renaissance are completely absent from these flat figures, residing in a two-dimensional realm of color and sentiment.

Romanesque_Tapestry

When I first saw medieval Christian art I found is disagreeable, almost childish in its lack of naturalism and its technical unsophistication. But now I find in the Romanesque a sense of otherworldly peace. It is a spiritual art, representing timeless truths, and thus the stylization suits it perfectly. Unlike the real world, where facts and details have no meaning beyond their own existence, every line in Romanesque frescoes is imbued with significance. Every scene is part of a cosmic drama; every man and beast symbolizes a divine attribute; every gesture illustrates a religious truth. The apparently simplicity of the works, then, is the result of a synthesis: focusing a whole worldview into vivid clarity.

Romanesque_Nave2

Quite as enchanting as the frescoes are the Romanesque capitals. These often display what, to me, seems like a playful delight in the grotesque. The monsters, men, and vegetable motifs that weave around each other—their squat forms helping to hold up the structure—are almost pagan in their exuberant love of life. The friezes are ingenious, endlessly varying, each one a different pictorial solution to the puzzle of turning things into designs. Apart from the frescoes and the capitals, the museum also has a digital reconstruction of the monumental portal of the Ripoll Monastery (in Gerona). Using a projector you can explore the façades many excellent friezes in detail, and in 3D.

Romanesque_Capital

The character of the art changes quite noticeably once you go from the Romanesque to the Gothic section. Gothic representation is, on the whole, far more naturalistic than that of the Romanesque. The people are individualized—escaping the anonymously identical faces of the Romanesque—with flowing robes and fluffy beards. Frescoes and paintings have more sense of solidity and depth. This growing naturalism, if it lacks the purity of the Romanesque, does give the Gothic a greater visual delight, while maintaining a deep sense of spirituality.

Gothic_Painting_Barc

Having finished with the medieval period, I ascended the stairs to the second level. Here you can stand under the building’s central dome. Its inside is decorated with an attractive, allegorical fresco by Francesc d’Assís Galí. From here you can skip ahead in time a few hundred years, and visit the museum’s collection of modern art. I must admit that none of the individual pieces made a deep impression on me as I walked through. But I did very much like the historical and sociological framing of the progression of modern art, which reminded me very much of how Robert Hughes introduced the subject in his documentary, The Shock of the New.

Catalanmuseum_dome

This about does it for the National Art Museum. Luckily, the next museum is only a short walk away.


Fundació Miró

The Fundació Miró sits perched on the same hill, Montjuïc, with the same grand view of the city beyond. Around it are the lush gardens of the hill, where many locals come to exercise, play, and walk their dogs. The building of the foundation looks incongruous amid such surroundings, white and angular like a warehouse. It was designed by Josep Lluís Sert, a friend of Miró’s, who managed to create an ideal museum space. Each room, bare and unobtrusive, is bathed in natural light; and the visitor is led effortlessly through the museum on a linear path.

Fundacio_Miro

The right angles and stark whiteness of the building offsets the colorful curves of Miró’s paintings. These are arranged both by chronology and theme. Miró’s earliest works are actually some of my favorites. They were made during his fauvist period, when he was painting realistic scenes of Montroig—his ancestral home in Tarragona, to which he returned throughout his life—using lush and vibrant colors. The influence of Cézanne also shows, with shapes somewhat simplified and made geometrical. To me, these works have a wonderful cheerfulness, purely absorbed in the joy of bright colors and the beauty of the Mediterranean landscape.

Miro_Fauvism

But this realistic phase is soon got through. Now we come to the Miró as we know him: the Miró of flat spaces and abstract shapes. The human form in particular becomes unrecognizably twisted in Miró’s works—a whole person being evoked with a few lines and dots and shapes. To me many of these paintings have a sort of childlike naiveté—completed with a seemingly simple technique, at times approaching stick figures. But there was nothing childlike in Miró’s thought. He was deeply interested in poetry throughout his life and aspired to make his paintings like poems, employing an idiosyncratic system of symbols. To the knowledgeable eye, therefore—which I do not possess—his paintings are deeplying meaningful.

Miro1

On a purely formal level, however, they may still be savored. Miró’s bulbous and suggestive shapes, swelling and sticking, stretching and squeezing, evoke many things at once. Unlike Picasso, who bent form but never broke it, Miró’s paintings sometimes verge on the nebulous—the outlines floating on top of nowhere. It is a deeply organic world with no hard surfaces, with every simple form evoking the body and the natural world. And though grotesque and even monstrous, it is not a frightening world. Miró’s demons are cartoonish and his nightmares have laughing tracks.

This is the Miró that charms me. But when Miró attempts a grave statement, I cannot go along with him. His series of three paintings, The Hope of a Dead Man, which were painted on the occasion of a young anarchist’s condemnation and execution, provoke no reaction in me save boredom. They consist of a single blank stroke on a white background, with a ball of color floating nearby. Such art is too much statement and too little substance. In general I think Miró’s work is rather hermetic—floating in his own dream world—and so his attempts to be political fall flat.

Miro2

The Fundació Miró also tells us something of Miró’s philosophy of art. One of his most quoted phrases was his desire to “assassinate painting.” This statement can be interpreted in manifold ways, but I believe refers to his desire to escape bourgeois commodification. (Notwithstanding this desire his paintings sell for millions of dollars at auction.) It is true, though, that Miró was never quite content with painting. He loved poetry and strove to emulate it, developing a complex system of symbols for his works. He also branched out into sculpture (of which the Fundació Miró has many examples) and even into tapestries. Apart from assassination, Miró was interested in the idea of anonymity, believing that art should be so popular that it cannot be said to have come from anyone. (According to what I’ve read, Miró liked popular music, especially Jimi Hendrix.) All of these ideas, taken together, seem quite odd in a painter who developed an individual style that is not widely popular.

Miro_Statue

I cannot say that I emerged from the Fundació Miró deeply shaken by an aesthetic awakening. But I did emerge deeply impressed by the diligence with which Miró followed the bent of his vision and his success in bringing forth an entirely new visual language. After visiting this museum one can hardly doubt that Miró was one of the great Catalan artists of the previous century.


Museu Picasso

(Unfortunately photos are not allowed in this museum, so you will just have to imagine the art.)

The last museum on my itinerary is quite a walk from Montjuïc: forty minutes away, deep in the old city center. This is Barcelona’s Picasso Museum. Picasso was not Catalan: he was born in Málaga (where there’s another Picasso museum) and spent several years in La Coruña. Nevertheless he is regarded as something of an honorary Catalan, since he spent his teenage years in the city and often returned to it throughout his life. This is why Picasso suggested Barcelona as the location for a museum dedicated to his artistic career.

The Museu Picasso occupies five aristocratic houses dating from the gothic period. Its collection is somewhat bipolar: with an extensive (approaching exhaustive) collection from the beginning and end of Picasso’s career, and very few from its famous middle. Despite this—or because of it—the museum is one of the best places to go to explore the workings of Picasso’s mind.

In the first rooms of the museum the visitor can see Picasso’s juvenilia—in itself not especially great, but showing great promise. These gradually increase in sophistication, under the influence of Picasso’s academic tutelage, until it culminates in Science and Charity. This paintings, which he completed in 1897 at the age of 15, is astonishingly finished. Picasso manages to be both allegorical and naturalistic. The morbid topic of death is portrayed with great realism, with the brown hues of the space and the sick girl’s palid face giving the painting a certain grimy edge. Belying this naturalness is the careful diagonal composition of the figures, and the obvious dichotic symbolism of the doctor (science) and the nun (charity). It is no wonder the critics loved it.

But Picasso does not continue down the academic path. Instead he turns toward the avant-garde, and thus commences his blue period. Here his work becomes decidedly unrealistic, completed in monochromatic blue; and his drawings of human forms reveals the influence of El Greco, with bodies extended and features exaggerated. In subject matter, Picasso turned towards poverty, sadness, and death—the darker aspects of the human experience. Though perhaps not technically in the Blue Period, The Madman (1904), which you can see at the museum, illustrates this trend in Picasso’s painting: a homeless man, covered in rags, his long fingers extended almost maniacally—all done in a single shade.

Also on display is The Frugal Meal (1904)—showing two gaunt, emaciated forms, the man desperate and the woman resigned, leaning over a bare table. This vein in Picasso’s early work reminds me of one of Van Gogh’s early works: The Potatoes Eaters. Both artists, it seems, were deeply concerned with the poor and neglected during their youths; and both used gritty hues and nightmarish distortions to represent it. As I mentioned, the museum has relatively few paintings from Picasso’s most well-known periods—when he was developing, perfecting, and then moving beyond cubism—but this time is not totally neglected. The museum has, for example, The Offering (1908), a recognizably proto-cubist work clearly reminiscent of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. The museum also has a copy of Picasso’s famous etchings, Minotauromachy (1935), made when Picasso was experimenting with mythological themes in the years leading up to Guernica.

The museum becomes, once again, close to exhaustive when it reaches Picasso’s later years. Most notably, the museum boasts the complete Las Meninas series (1957).

Las Meninas is, of course, a famous painting by Velazquez, on display at the Prado in Madrid. Picasso used this iconic image as the bases of a series of reinterpretations, 45 in all. Though many are excellent, I don’t think any of these paintings, individually, is a masterpiece. But taken together the series is an incredible look at the way Picasso can take a form apart and put it back together. Velazquez’s painting explodes under Picasso’s gaze, reduced to its basic elements. Picasso then experiments with the different ways these elements can be distorted, twisted, stretched, compressed, simplified, and how all these can be reassembled into a new work. Admittedly there is something trivial about all this; many of the paintings look somewhat slapdash and hasty. But their lack of finish does help us to see Picasso’s mind at work—to catch a glimpse of his cognitive processing of shapes and compositions. And one of the paintings, at least (the most famous one, in black and white) does capture some of the creative energy of Velazquez’s original.


Here I reach the limit of my knowledge of Barcelona’s museums. But the city of Barcelona, you might say, is itself a sort of museum, housing some of the most interesting buildings I have ever seen. It is to these buildings, and the architects that designed them, that I turn next.

Roaming in Rome: Museums

Roaming in Rome: Museums

This is Part Four of a six-part series on Rome, following this plan:


The idea of a museum seems somewhat superfluous in Rome, a city that is itself a work of art. Monuments abound; and famous paintings and statues can be seen—for free!—in several churches and basilicas around the city. But Rome is also home to some of the finest museums in the world, and this is not even counting the Vatican museum, which I will discuss in a later post.

I only went to two museums while in Rome, but they were two of the best museums I have had the pleasure of visiting. So, without further ado:


The Borghese Gallery

The first thing you must know about the Borghese Gallery is that you need to get tickets in advance if you want to have any shot of getting inside. (Go to the website to get them.) If you do not, your only remaining option is to stand by the entrance, offering to buy tickets from passersby, like I saw a few ragged tourists doing on my way inside. This is not the strategy I would recommend.

Your ticket will come with a specific date and time. You need to collect your ticket half an hour before entering or it will be canceled (that is what it says on their website, but I am not sure this policy is enforced); and you only have about an hour and a half to see the museum. This is more than enough time, however, since the museum is fairly small.

Borghese

The Borghese Gallery originated as the private collection of Scipione Borghese (1577 – 1622), a Cardinal and nephew of Pope Paul V (there was a lot of nepotism in those days), who was a Caravaggio collector and a patron of Bernini. The beautiful building did not originate as a museum, but as the Cardinal’s villa; its garden is still known as the Villa Borghese, and is now perhaps the finest park in Rome.

I arrived at the museum hungry, sweaty, and stressed out. Every time I have to be a new place on time—be it a job, a date, or a museum—I panic and arrive very early. Today was no different; by the time I got there, I still had an hour to kill.

I tried strolling around the park, which is lovely, but eventually the Roman sun and humidity overwhelmed me, so I gave up and sat down on a bench. An American family chatted on my left (about gelato, if memory serves), and a group of young Chinese people chatted on my right (probably about gelato, too, but I can’t be sure).

Finally it was time for me to go inside. It is an extremely well-organized place, with tight security. They made me check my small bag, for example, but the line to drop off and pick up my bag moved very quickly. Soon I was about to enter, congratulating myself on buying a ticket early, eager to enjoy the fruits of my rare foresight.

I nearly gasped the first time I stepped inside the museum. Like so many Italian interiors, the space is staggeringly lush. The walls, ceiling, and floor are exquisitely decorated: doorways are framed by columns of fine marble and golden capitals; a delicately carved frieze of mythological figures runs along the upper walls; the ceiling is trimmed with gold and covered in neo-classical designs inspired by Pompey’s mosaics. Everything shines and sparkles and glitters, overwhelming you with prettiness but, even more so, with opulence. Borghese was a rich man.

The museum is divided into two floors: the first is mostly for statues, the second for paintings. Each floor is not terribly large, but each room is so packed with art, great art, that you can hardly give anything the time it deserves.

Like many people who visit the gallery, I was most interested in seeing the Bernini sculptures, since he’s one of my favorite sculptors. If you have any interest in Bernini, you can’t find anyplace more rewarding to visit than the Borghese Gallery. Almost every room on the first floor has a masterpiece by Bernini sitting right in the center.

RapeofPersephone

The Bernini statue that greets you upon entry is The Rape of Proserpina. Though it is incredible to believe, Bernini completed this technical tour de force when he was only 23, while I am sitting here at 25 writing this blog. It depicts the moment when Hades (Pluto), god of the underworld, abducted Persephone (Proserpina) to be his queen in the underworld.

(The myth is literally a classic: Hades rips through a hole in the ground and abducts Persephone when she’s gathering flowers. Persephone’s mother, Demeter, goddess of the harvest, seeks high and low to find her; and in her grief, she neglects her duties as goddess, letting crops wither and die. Zeus, seeing this, eventually intervenes, forcing Hades to return Persephone to her mother. Unfortunately for Persephone, however, she ate some pomegranates, fruit of the underworld, and for this reason she must return a part of each year to spend time with Hades. During these months, Demeter is so upset that she again neglects her duties as goddess of the harvest; and this is why we have winter every year.)

The sculpture depicts the moment when Hades grabbed Persephone to whisk her away into his dark underworld. Bernini, as usual, seems to transcend the limitations of sculpture, creating a scene of dramatic action rather than stable form. The bearded, crowned, and burly Hades is picking up Persephone and pulling her towards him. She is obviously not pleased with this: her body is turned violently away, her hand pushing on Hades’s forehead, her face filled with terror. For his part, Hades looks rather pleased.

Bernini_rapeofpersephone

The technical excellence of this sculpture is seen most impressively by looking at Hades’s hands gripping Persephone’s back and leg. Bernini has somehow rendered in stone the effect of hands pressing on soft skin. Looking closely at this, it is easy to forget that you are looking at sculpted marble, so anatomically perfect is every detail. I cannot help imaging that, if I were to touch the statue, I would feel the warmth of living flesh.

The next outstanding Bernini sculpture is his David. Here Bernini captures the moment when David is winding up his body to launch his stone at Goliath. The sculpture was, like so many of Bernini’s, a radical departure from previous efforts. Compare, for example, Michelangelo’s David. That Renaissance statue is perfect form, standing stable and erect, motionless and pure. Bernini’s statue, by contrast, is all fire and energy, drama and movement, contortion and stress.

Bernini_David

Two aspects of the statue stick out in my impressions. First is the expression on David’s face: eyebrows knit, squinting with concentration, biting his lips. No photograph of any athlete in motion has better captured the mixture of focus and effort that all skilled physical activity requires. Next I would call your attention to the rope of David’s sling: two narrow bands of marble, floating miraculously in mid-air. How on earth did he acquire such enormous technical facility?

The last Bernini sculpture I will mention here—though there are others—is his Apollo and Daphne.

It is worth recounting the myth before seeing the work. Cupid, the eternal trouble-maker, shoots Apollo one day and causes him to fall in love with Daphne, a nymph who is repelled by men. Apollo pursues her, promising everything and more, and Daphne flees. When Apollo is about to catch her, Daphne prays to her father, the river-god Peneus, to destroy her beauty. Like any good father, he promptly turns his daughter into a tree. In Ovid’s famous poem, The Metamorphoses, this story is given as the origin of the laurel tree.

Bernini_apollodaphne

Bernini’s sculpture captures this moment, as Apollo is on the verge of capturing the nymph, and the nymph is mid-transformation. Daphne’s fingertips are sprouting leaves; branches grow from her thighs; her legs are disappearing into a tree trunk. Apollo seems to be unaware of this transformation; on his face he wears a serene, joyful expression. The nimble god’s pose is as light as a ballerina’s, almost as if he as flying. Daphne is a study in contrast. Her body is twisted violently away, struggling to escape his grasp, and on her face she wears a look of horror.

Perhaps at this point it would not be out of place to say a few words on Bernini in general. In technical facility he is unsurpassed; nobody disputes this. But what of his artistic aims? He is drawn to action rather than form, to motion rather than meditation. His statues lack classic grace but make up for it in their exuberance and vitality. True, there is something superficial about his art. Many of his sculptures seem like the Baroque equivalent of special effects, meant to dazzle but not to move the viewer; and this was in keeping with the spirit of times, when egregiously rich cardinals would vie with each other to commission the most extravagant art. And yet the surfaces of Bernini’s art are so staggering and magnificent that all misgivings about “deeper” meaning are shushes into silence.

The first level also contains several splendid paintings by Caravaggio. There is Boy with a Basket of Fruit, St. Jerome Writing, and David with the Head of Goliath. I particularly like the latter painting, since it exhibits Caravaggio’s talent for gruesome, gritty, and human depictions of Biblical scenes.

800px-David_with_the_Head_of_Goliath-Caravaggio_(1610)

The second floor of the museum is mostly dedicated to paintings. It is a bit disappointing to move from the splendid decoration and several masterpieces of the first floor to this comparatively subdued level. This is not to say that it is not also a storehouse of riches and treasures. There are many wonderful paintings, too many to adequately view in one sitting, the most outstanding of which is Raphael’s Entombment, depicting the burial of the dead Christ.

I walked and looked and walked and looked, until my eyes hurt from squinting, and my brain, overwhelmed with art, gave up the ghost. There are few museums in the world that can compete with the Borghese Gallery for elegance and taste.


Palazzo Massimo alle Terme

The Museo Nazionale Romano (National Roman Museum) has several branches around the city. The most famous of these is the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, located near Rome’s central Termini station, which houses an impressive collection of ancient artifacts.

I went fairly late in the afternoon on a Saturday, in the height of the tourist season. Nevertheless the museum was nearly empty; very often I was alone with the collection. This is a shame since, as I will venture to show, this is a museum well worth visiting, especially considering the modest price of admission and its central location.

The majority of the museum’s outstanding works can be found on the first floor (second floor for Americans). This floor is overflowing with portrait busts and sculptures—of gods, goddesses, heroes, emperors, senators, mythological creatures, philosophers, athletes, and everyday people—some of them larger than life, others small enough to fit in the palm of your hand.

The piece I was most excited for was Boxer at Rest. I had first seen this statue in my introductory art history class, and was lucky enough to have seen it in person at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it was on loan. This was the very first time it was displayed in the United States.

It is a bronze sculpture, made by the lost-wax technique out of eight separate pieces that were later joined together. Its subject matter is, unsurprisingly, a boxer at rest. This boxer does not look like he’s having a good day. He is naked except for a pair of boxing gloves, made from rope and leather. He seems to have just completed a fight. The poor man is stooped over; his face is covered in scars; his nose is broken; he has cauliflower ears; and drops of blood trickle down his arms and legs.

Boxer_statue

In this one sculpture, we can see how far the Hellenistic Greeks were from the mentality of the Golden Age Greeks and their idealized human forms. Far from calm and ideal, this athlete is battered, bruised, and ugly. His head is twisted around to one side, as if somebody had just called his name; but the pose looks so uncomfortable and unnatural that it reminds me of Rodin’s work. As I look into the shadows of his eye sockets, buried underneath is knit brows, I feel a mixture of admiration and pity for the man, for his resilience and his pain.

Boxer_Statue1

It is nearly impossible to believe that this magnificent sculpture was made in ancient times, before even the birth of Christ. There is a gritty, evocative, expressive quality of the work—the aging boxer, past his prime, pushing his injured body past its limits—that is strikingly modern. I suppose there really is nothing new under the sun.

Several other works are worth mentioning in passing. There are many vases, sarcophagi, and fragments of walls with wonderful sculptures in relief, including the Portonaccio Sarcophagus. There is the Aphrodite of Menophantos, the nude goddess of love shyly covering her private parts, as if embarrassed, but with a serene expression on her face. There were also busts of Socrates and Epicurus that I quite enjoyed.

Several essays could be written on any of the pieces in the collection; but here I will only pause to reflect on one more, the Discobolus. This is a Roman copy in marble of a Greek original in bronze, by the famous sculpture Myron (c. 480 – 440 BCE). The subject of the statue is an athlete, as usual nude, throwing a discus. His body is wound up to its maximum and he is about to reverse directions and release.

disc-thrower-full

This sculpture dates from a much earlier period than the Boxer at Rest, and presents a striking contrast of mentality. Although the athlete’s body is doubtless under a tremendous about of strain, his face is emotionless and blank. He stares placidly at the viewer, his vacant eyes giving the impression that his mind is totally elsewhere, on a different plane, a realm of pure thought and idea. He seems to be so totally absorbed in the act of throwing that he feels no strain.

This is Greek idealization at its finest. There is not a flaw on his body. His muscles are not even tensed. Most striking, however, is the impression of stability that the sculpture conveys. Although the athlete is in mid-motion, it does not invite the viewer to imagine him coming to life and completing the throw. We are, rather, bidden to contemplate the perfection of the athlete’s body, the harmony of his pose, the calmness of his gaze. It is as if the flesh has been sublimated into pure thought.

A contrast with Bernini’s David might be appropriate here. Although both works portray a man about to launch a projectile, Bernini’s work is all fire and movement, while Myron’s is as still and lifeless as ice. The Classic Greeks are always there to remind us that passion and realism are not necessary, nor even always desirable, for great art.

The second floor of the museum is devoted to frescoes, stuccos, and mosaics. Although beautiful as works of art, these are, to me, more fascinating as windows into Roman life, since many originated as decorations in the homes of wealthy Romans. Wandering around this floor, it is easy to imagine that you stumbled into a Roman villa, full of images of sea monsters, gods, and strange beasts.

This does it for my experience of Rome’s museums; next I will discuss Rome’s ancient ruins.