Friday, January 18, 2019

Rome Journal: Art Attack

Selfie from the Warhol show at the Vittoriano 
Along the walls of the “Pollock and the New York School” show at the Vittoriano, you’ll come upon two typos. “In the summer of l949, he went to Springs, New Hampton” and “Lee Krasner, a painter, even gave up paiting at one period.” The Pollock and accompanying “Andy Warhol” exhibition are running coevally with the Warhol retrospective at the Whitney and “Epic Abstraction: Pollock to Herrara” at the Met. But the booboos are so much in the spirit of action painting and spontaneity that they’re almost charming and excusable and you get to finish the Warhol with a selfie, which you can email home. Since the Abstract Expressionists and later Pop artists were such a break with European art, it’s a treat to see these two shows, which in their scope are, of course, overshadowed by their American counterparts. In the environment of Rome, the power of American art still upstages puny antiquity which continues to look like one of the stage sets on the Cinecitta lot, where the whole kit and caboodle are, by the way, replicated. One can’t help noticing that the love affair between Warhol and Italy (and particularly Italian fashion designers like Armani and Versace), represents a cross-pollination of the worst aspects of both cultures, coming to a head in the infatuation with celebrity.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Rome Journal: Henri Cartier-Bresson

"La Photographie...saisit l'instant"--Henri Cartier-Bresson  (photo: Francis Levy)
This from Henri Cartier-Bresson, written in elegant cursive on the side of an RV with a Magnum Photos sticker on the front) parked along the Via Pietro Roselli on the Gianicolo. There are machine gun toting soldiers guarding both the American University, the Seminario Teologica Internationale, the back of the American Academy and an auspicious looking institution with eagle sculptures over its gates and a plaque outside that reads "Juridicum Claretianum," on the Via Giacomo Medici up the street. “Le temps court et s’ecoule et notre morte seule arrive a le rattraper. La photographie est un couperet qui dans l’eternite saisit l’instant qui la eblouie.” In short it’s carpe diem, time flies and photography seizes the moment. The least the itinerant traveler can do is to reach into their pocket for an iPhone and take the picture of the quote in the spirit of the great photographer's (and founding member of Magnum Photos) words.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Rome Journal: Reality Palestra

The Spanish Steps (photo: Arnaud 25)
Palestra is the Italian words for gym, but there aren’t a helluva lot of Italian gyms that are palaces. Visitors often decry the absence of the chains of American gyms that you find in America, but the fact is that in Rome reality is a gym and one of the most demanding ones you’re going to find. Let’s start with the famed Ara Coeli Steps on the Campidoglio--the best step climber on the market. Ascending strait up them to the Basilica di Santa Maria is a nice workout, but try ten of those. If you like stadium climbing, there’s the Colosseum and, of course, the Spanish Steps.Trastevere lies below the Gianicolo which is one of the seven hills of Rome and it’s a step climbing party. If you descend from the Pancrazio at the top and pass by the Spanish Academy in which Bramante’s famed Tempietto is located and then cross the street there are a particularly beautiful set of ancient steps descending into a classic winding back street. It’s 50 steps down and up and if you do l0 laps you've done 1000 which will commemorate the l000 years of the Empire. Then of course there are the 12 steps, but you'll have to attend an AA meeting, of which Rome has many, to climb those. Rome is full of runners and bicyclists and if you like hills and obstacle courses, Rome is the gym that you want to join.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Rome: The Underground

S300 train at Conca d'Oro station (photo Daniele Brundu)
When you think about it Rome’s Metro should be one of the seven wonders of the world. It’s actually hard to believe that the city’s fathers (and mothers a la Mamma Roma) had the chutzpah to build tunnels which would have to compete with all the archeology. In fact, during the building of line A, the second built in the system (there are also lines B and C) which began in l964 and ended in l980 that construction had to be stopped because of the archeological discoveries that were made in the area where the tunneling was taking place. In the case of New York for instance the only thing you might find were the remnants of the $24 Peter Minuit paid to the Indians for New Amsterdam, but building a Rome underground is a little like trying to pave streets at rush hour. Rome has often born comparisons with the human mind to the extent that a lot of what is going on in the city, takes place underground. Romans are like sleepwalkers who are unwittingly walking on consecrated ground. The artifacts of the past are so ubiquitous that you could easily be walking on the hallowed ground where Augustus or even the exiled Ovid once paraded. The Largo di Torre Argentina adjacent to the Theatre of Pompey where Julius Caesar was stabbed on March 15, 44 is, in fact, now a tram stop. Rome was itself one of Freud’s favorite stops and much has been written about psychoanalysis and Rome, but the city also hosts an Underground whose stations might be compared to circles of Dante’s Inferno in the significance of the signposts they represent.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Rome Journal: Psychoanalysis

It would be fascinating to undergo a psychoanalysis in Rome. Freud was interested in archeology and he regarded the discipline as having much in common with the fledgling science he created. The famous Roman ruins, the Colosseum, the Caracalla Baths, the Theater of Marcellus are all constantly on display creating the often disconcerting feeling that one is on some kind of Hollywood set. In fact if you take a guided tour of Cinecitta the famed Roman film studio, you'll have trouble differentiating some of the fiberglass sets from the Rome citadel outside. And underneath the city excavations are always coming upon new layers of history. So you have reality and illusion and then an underground, a nether world of past civilizations that’s very much like those parts of the unconscious which are unearthed in treatment and which play a role in determining the present. It’s like one of those script writing programs which provide you with all the cues and the layout for an imaginative act. Frederico Fellini, a long time resident of Rome, also underwent psychoanalysis there and when you look at films like Roma and especially you can see the influence of the couch in his work—which is so inured in both individual and collective memory. There is actually an International Institute for Psychoanalyic Research and Training for Health Professionals on the Viale Tito Livio and also an Italian Psychoanalytic Association on the Via di Priscilla, neither which will probably be on the itinerary of most tourist buses.The Interpretation of Dreams contains five instances in which Freud recounts the longing to visit Rome, though he apparently had some inhibitions about going (due to his identification with Hannibal and his fear of the Catholic Church, according to the Rome the Second Time blog) since he didn't travel there until l901. And in Civilization and Its Discontents Freud makes the following proposition: "Let us suppose that Rome is not a place where people live, but a psychical entity with a similarly long and rich past." "Freud famously likened Rome to a palimpsest," remarks Nigel Spivey in The New Criterion ("Eternally Ours," November 2018), "a text overwritten and annotated time and again. This may have suited as an analogy for the multiple layers of the human psyche when subject to psychoanalysis." What Rome and psychoanalysis have in common is an immersion in the past. The German compound word Vegangenheitsbewaltigung means, according to Collins, the  "process of coming to terms with the past," but despite all the pain of what goes on during a session, Rome is probably one of the few places on earth where treatment could be regarded as a vacation.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Rome Journal: Fellini's Roma

The Ecclesiastical Fashion Show is one of the most iconic scenes of Fellini’s Roma (1972) and it was a highlight of the recent “Heavenly Bodies” exhibit at the Met. The scene epitomizes the themes of beauty and decadence that run throughout the film. Roma is a movie about the making of a movie and in the end Fellini portrays himself as a paparazzo failing in his attempt to get a few words out of Anna Magnani. He does succeed however in an earlier scene with Gore Vidal. Roma, like 81/2 (1963), is an autobiography, albeit even more freewheeling then the earlier effort, replete with the classic Fellini mists as the director tells the story of his coming to Rome as a young man and having his first experiences of art and sex--where he falls in love with a prostitute he meets in a brothel. However, the movie is also an excavation both of memory and, literally, Rome’s subway system. It’s an esthetic archeological dig, where layers are unearthed along with artifacts of both the recent and ancient past, the collective unconscious of a city as it reveals itself, almost psychoanalytically, in the imagination of the director. It is truly Frederico Fellini's Roma! At one point a character shouts “the air is destroying the frescoes” as a film crew follows workers unearthing history as they dig tunnels (a reference to the digging for line A of Rome's Metro which was frequently halted due to archeological discoveries). There are wonderful throwaways in the dialogue which exemplify Pax Romana to wit: “If you see people on their way to work, it ain’t Rome” and “No matter what you eat it turns to shit and what you eat tastes like shit.” Fellini has an associative sensibility that enables him to unfold his narrative in a dream-like manner. The style of the movie is a mixture of Proustian reflection (a gilded mirror appears more than once as an esthetic cipher) and surrealist juxtapositions. The shot of a group of hippies being violently disbursed by Carabinieri is followed by a boxing match. A momentous animal tusk is discovered underground following a scene of wartime turbulence. A vaudeville performance culminates with the audience running into a bomb shelter. And the finale, a kind of mock armageddon recalls Marlon Brando in The Wild One (1953), as a motorcycle gang sweeps through the Campidoglio and the Arcacoeli Steps as they ride towards the Colosseum. 

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Rome Journal: Cinecitta

photo of Theater 5 Cincecitta by Francis Levy
Cinecitta was and is a factory for the willing suspension of disbelief. There are 21 studios which are still used by film and television production companies around the world (during Hollywood's "Rome on the Tiber" era, classics like Roman Holiday with Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck were shot there). It was in the largest of them, the monumental Teatro 5, that Frederico Fellini worked his magic. When Martin Scorsese was filming Gangs of New York in 2002, he had "New York Gas Works" painted on the side of the studio since he was using practically the whole lot and needed something to justify the presence of the hulking structure. Rome’s Via Veneto is on a hill so Fellini recreated a flat version in Teatro 5 when he was filming La Dolce VitaIt’s been said that Rome with its great monuments to the past is like a stage set, but at Cinecitta you still had and have many stage sets that are Rome. Fellini also created scenes from his iconic film about the city, Roma, on this favorite set. The studio actually has a water capability and for Casanova he produced a Venetian canal there. Fellini maintained an apartment in Teatro 5 and he once commented, "...When I'm asked what city I'd like to live in, London, Paris or answer is--to be honest--Cinecitta...Cinecitta Teatro 5 is actually my ideal place. Excited, thrilled, enchanted: that is how I feel before an empty soundstage, a place to be filled, a world to be created."

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Rome Journal: Gotico Americano

“Gotico Americano” is a small exhibit at the Barbarini which, of course, immediately conjures Grant Wood’s “American Gothic.” In this case the two figures are Percy Seldon Straus (1876-1944) and Edith Abraham (1882-1957), an American couple whose anonymous late 14th and to early 15th century masterpieces earned the soubriquet, “Master(s) of the Straus Madonna.” In fact, what's interesting here is the placement of an artwork at the high spot on the esthetic great chain of being.The context in which "Gotico Americano" is displayed  places artists nearer to craftsmen who worked in medieval guilds. In the current age of celebrity, the primacy of the work over the auteur is a refreshing notion. The curators quote the medieval philosopher Meister Eckhart thusly, “it does not matter whether it is Peter or Martin, or whether it is a man or a horse, provided he who executes it, possesses art.” They go on to point out that in the context of the works in which this "master" worked there was the abstract and knowable (pulchrum) and the sensual (formosum). Naturally there are famous collectors in every age, though today the monetization and commodification in which art is treated as a tangible asset would make Straus and Abraham seem as quaint as Grant Wood’s pitchfork carrying subjects.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Rome Journal: Mantegna's "Ecce Homo" at the Barbarini

“Ecce Homo,” “behold the man” are the words Pontius Pilate uttered at Christ’s crucifixion. It’s also the title of a famous work by Nietzsche. Ecce Homo: How One Becomes What One Is was one of the last works the German philosopher wrote before losing his mind. Caravaggio also painted an "Ecce Homo," (c. 1605-6 or 1609) but what was Mantegna thinking when he painted his “Ecce Homo” (c.1500), a Christ figure surrounded by those who were to carry out the final judgment? Christ is humanized and is plainly a man amongst men rather than the visitor who would be resurrected. Here's a vision of Christ that might remind some filmgoers of the neorealist figure Pasolini depicted in the Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964)Mantegna's "Lamentation of Christ" also informed one of the central scenes of Pasolini's Mamma Roma (1961). By humanizing both Christ and his executioners, Mantegna is creating an almost political figure, a voice for the good in the earthly as well as heavenly realm. Commenting on the placement of the figures in the painting, the curator, Michele Di Monte remarks: "...the painting does not depict the typical scene of Pilate presenting Christ to the people...On the contrary, here it is the scribes and Pharisees who present the condemned man to Pilate, clamoring for his death. But in so doing they present, in fact, Christ to the beholder, who finds himself in the difficult 'position' of the judge who must decide or wash his hands." You can see “Ecce Homo” along with “Madonna and Child with St. Jerome and St Louis of Toulouse” (1455) in "La Stanza Di Mantegna," Masterworks from the Musee Jacquemart-Andre, currently on exhibit at the Barbarini.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Rome Journal: Via Margutta

110 Via Margutta (photo by Francis Levy)
Fellini lived on the Via Margutta which runs parallel to the Via del Corso one of the main arteries off one of Rome’s central shopping areas, the Piazza del Popolo (which is also famous for its Caravaggios). Many Americans know the location not because Fellini lived there, but because it's where Gregory Peck sequesters Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday. Picasso also has a studio on the Via Margutta, where he worked on sets for the Ballets Russes. In other words Fellini didn’t live on some recondite little street, far from the madding crowd, say like Pasolini, who liked backwaters (he lived way out near the Rebibbia prison with his mother when he first came to Rome and then in the working class neighborhood near the Piazza di Donna Olimpia in Monteverdi). Fellini, who died in l993, lived at 110 and a plaque above its comfortable-looking, almost bourgeois doorway commemorates both the great director and his wife, the actress Guilietta Masina. Next door is Il Margutta which advertises “vegetarian food and art since l979." On the other side is a shuddered storefront over which a sign simply reads Antichita. Several doorways down down at l04 is a Lavanderia and Lavasecca (06-323-624) and there there’s an expensive men’s shop Sergio Nesci across the way which displays suede shoes in the window and sports a rack of elegant vests. Onc can imagine Fellini in one of the building’s garden apartments looking down on the spillover of from the agora or perhaps venturing across the street to buy himself an ascot. Margutta is long and narrow and full of charm and it’s a perfect place to envision the procession of characters from buxom starlets to tortured intellectuals who made up his Dolce Vita.

Friday, January 4, 2019

Rome Journal: Et Tu, Brute? Country

Pantheon at Night (photo: Francis Levy)
Rome is “Et tu, Brute?" territory. Of course the Largo di Torre Argentina is legendarily where it all took place. Lurking in front of the ancient dirty stone structures are conspirators waiting to stab you. Walking the cobblestoned streets of the Piazza della Rotonda towards the Pantheon, on a midwinter night shortly after the holidays, with Christmas lights still strung along all the adjacent streets, one is immediately stung by the play between light and dark. Beauty and festivity coexists with terror and in the shadows of the ancient structure under its famed Oculus treachery lurks. What a perfect location Orson Welles would have found if he had chosen Rome instead of Vienna for The Third Man. Rome exudes a garrulous joy, but sometimes it comes at you like a staggering drunk, seeing things and swinging wildly at imagined adversaries. Rome is also the perfect city for those people whose interpersonal relations are really conversations with themselves. Bravo Bravo, you hear it all the time and from the moment you get off a plane at Fiumicino and get hustled to pay twice the 48 Euros it would normally cost to ride into town in a city cab. Death in Venice?

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Rome Journal: The Fall of Rome

The trailer for Fellini's Roma (1972) declares, "Fellini examines the fall of the Roman Empire, 1931to l972," in other words from the Mussolini era to modernity. 41 years is nowhere close to the l000 years of the original empire. The film which features the costume designer Danilo Donati's famous ecclesiastical fashion sequence which informed the recent "Heavenly Bodies" show at the Met was prescient in other ways. "Rome in Ruins" ran a recent New York Times headline about the uncollected garbage that threatened to inundate the city (NYT, 12/24/18). And though there's no doubt that modern Rome is a little like a puppy mill or one of those farm belt areas which is so fecund that it threatens to inundate the market—in this case the product being tourism, there’s something to be said for the theory Roma  advocates. From an archeological standpoint Rome is a layering. You have ancient Rome and before that the Etruscan Period. If the triumph of Odovocar over Romulus Augustulus marked the end of the Empire, it’s plainly trash that may bring down the current iteration of the myth. But you can’t look at Rome as just ruins or just garbage. It’s a fusion of both.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

The Favourite

Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite is primarily about power. Britain is at war with France, but the real war lies between the two women who vie for Queen Anne’s (Olivia Colman) affection, her niece Sarah (Rachel Weisz) and Abigail (Emma Stone), a fallen aristocrat who lands on the steps of the palace literally covered in mud. Everyone is out for themselves in this world of wit and insult that’s just around the corner from restoration comedy. Here sending letters to the great satirist Jonathan Swift is brought up as a means of blackmail. But sex, particularly of the lesbian variety, is the real subject (Anne collects 17 rabbits who represent all her failed pregnancies). Her consorts use it to gain her favor and the movie’s title refers to the winner in the battle, Abigail, who in her total and  utter self-regard is a character who might have stepped out of the pages of Hobbes. “You will dismiss her,” Sarah demands. “I don’t want to," Anne replies. "I like it when she puts her tongue inside me.” This is definitely the randy, often scatological pre-Victorian world that you may remember from Fielding’s Tom Jones and the chapter headings give bring back the Augustan era. Consider “I cannot marry a servant, I can enjoy one though" and  “have you come to seduce me or rape me?” The expressions “stripped and whipped” and “cunt struck” are further examples of the language popping out these characters' mouths. Bodily fluids are also a major element in the movie. The queen is suffering from gout and is always seeking salves. Sarah, like her rival, is literally and metaphysically dragged through mud and graphic displays of vomiting are not an infrequent occurrence. Interestingly despite all its disinhibition, the film is almost heartless; there isn't one really likeable character amidst all the whores and fops and that appears to be the director's intention. Yet The Favourite is refreshingly brilliant in the way it negotiates this topography of inner psychobiological urges, socio-political conflict and at times violent class strife, weaving it into a vast and incandescent tableau, painted with expletives, outré costumes (including the Queen’s embroidered braces) and objects.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019


Adam McKay’s Vice argues that Dick Cheney’s repeal of the "fairness doctrine" was responsible for the inception of Fox News. It demonstrates how his trumpeting of "unitary executive theory" (an intreptation of the law he receives from a youthful Antonin Scalia) inadvertently allowed the spurious intelligence about WMD’s and a second Iraq war leading in turn to the rise of Zarqawi and ISIS. Under Cheney "global warming" was reduced to "climate change." Calling the "estate tax" a "death tax" was another bit of verbal legerdemain that allowed Cheney and his pals to shift public opinion. Vice is an unusual biopic and reverse hagiography. However it’s power comes less from its indictment of the same arrogance that led to the Watergate and now the Trumpocracy, but in its utter eccentricity of its style. The movie is loaded with clever tidbits. For instance the end credits roll mid movie to demonstrate a parallel universe where history never occurred. The fishhook is one of many graphic devices that add a visual commentary and then there are the time shifts, in which the action is constantly turning back on itself as if the psychohistory the movie endeavors to explore were itself being psychoanalyzed. One of the most curious things about Vice is the portrait of Dick (Christian Bale) and Lynn Cheney (Amy Adams)  and their protective attitude towards their daughter, Mary (Alison Pill), who's gay. Eventually even this issue becomes tarnished when her sister Liz (Lily Rabe), in the course of running for the senate, challenges same sex marriage. Yet the marriage exists in a world of its own, with the Cheneys in bed imtoning faux Shakespeare in kind of literate love duet. The Cheney marriage is one of those love work/affairs in which a woman channels her ambition through her husband and it’s depiction lies in stark contrast to the uncompromising brutality of the main character’s tactics in and out of government. Vice is a political satire and it's got a perfect dead horse to beat. At the same time, it’s curiously multivalent, precisely in the schizophrenic way it shows how tender a monster can be.