Sunday, May 25, 2008

The Death of the Past, or Presenting History and History's Presence, part 2

Hi all (this is a long one),

Here's the latest on our trip. On Wednesday we spent the morning walking around the area of Rome that we're staying in. Basically, a fountain and other famous stuff tour: Bernini's Triton fountain in the Piazza Barberini, the Trevi Fountain made famous in La Dolce Vita and Three Coins in the Fountain, and the Spanish Steps. The weather on Wednesday and Thursday was less than cooperative, so our walk was a bit abbreviated. The fountains were nice, but the Trevi Fountain was totally crazy busy, everyone throwing coins into the water ... repeatedly to make sure that their act was caught on film. In addition to the fountain, there is a small church right on the square that supposedly contains the hearts and intestines of several Popes (just wait, the cult of the dead gets better ... see below). We went but there wasn't much mention of the relics. It was a small, sweet little church. I want to go back to track down the innards. Maybe at night. Then, we took out requisite pilgrimage to the Spanish steps which are famous -- as far as I can tell -- for being famous, or at least for seeing and being seen. Granted, right after we got there the sky opened up and it began pouring rain (as it had been on and off that day), so I think the people-watching possibilities were at a minimum.

After the rain stopped, we took a walk to the Capuchin monastery not far from where we are staying. It's hard to describe exactly what is there, so I will start with ... well ... what is there: a crypt. A very awesome crypt. So, in Catholicism, there's this cult of the dead, see. Part of the deal with dying is that it marks the end of earthly time and the beginning of eternity, God's time. Hence, death is a thing to celebrate, even as we might mourn the loss of whomever leaves the world. So the Capuchin monks (whose brown robes are the color of cappuccino, hence the name of the coffee) in Rome moved into this church in the middle of the seventeenth century and brought the bones of their brethren with them from their previous church, some three crates. At some point in the later part of that century or the first part of the eighteenth century, the brothers began celebrating their dead by decorating the basement, now a cemetery, with their bones. They brought dirt from Jerusalem in which to inter selected monks, and created decorative alters to frame the cemetery. I mean decoration. There are six rooms in the crypt, five of them decorated with the bones of some 4,000 + people. They are hung on the wall and the ceiling; there are alters made of them, small arches, light fixtures, decorative symbols and crests, patterns ... I could go on but I'm running out of words to describe just what they did. Check out the wikipedia entry and look at some of the links at the bottom. It is truly amazing. My favorites include an immense alter made almost entirely of skulls -- hundreds of them -- which is marked by vertical lines of vertebrae and a coffin with the heart of an early Capuchin follower. Oh, wait, I almost forgot the complete skeletons and the handful of mummies that also mark the different rooms in the crypt. They hang out there in their robes, some standing, some reclining, all looking particularly creepy. I wish I could describe the level of detail, the ornate way in which the bones are put together. It was simply awesome.

On Thursday, we went to Ancient Rome: a trip to the Capitoline Museum, the Roman Forum, and the Colosseum. Our guide, Frederica, was far better than the one we had for the Vatican. She knew far more and gave us an excellent tour of the three sites. The museum, the "oldest museum in the world" (it's hard to know just what is Italian nationalistic pride and what is true, but she assured us that this was the oldest museum in the world), contained a number of artifacts from antiquity, collected and put in the some twelfth and sixteenth-century buildings sometime in the eighteenth century. The main building was built as a statement against the temporal authority of the church, a civic hall that demonstrated the power of the rising merchant class. But, in the fifteenth century, the Pope (Sixtus, who had the Sistine Chapel built), donated a collection of bronzes to the town and had them installed in the buildings. What I love here is the back and forth between secular and sacred authority: what do you do when the town asserts itself? You act like their patron and "donate" a series of artworks for them to house, thus demonstrating the Church's generosity!

During that period, Michelangelo also did a series of drawings to unify the buildings on the hill. The hill had previously been oriented toward the forum, but the Pope wanted them oriented toward the Vatican! The museum begins to take shape in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. As such, both the collections and their presentation represent eighteenth-century ideals about collections and display. Which is to say, they are a-jumble. Similar to the way the Vatican museum put together its objects to demonstrate the cultural wealth of the Church, the Capitoline Museum shoved dozens of busts, or statues, or bas reliefs, or archaeological fragments together in individual rooms. What's most amazing to me is the lack of order (I should say ordering) that occurs in contemporary museums. The classification schemes are not based on the supposed importance to art history or architectural significance. In fact, there is little attention paid to one piece over another (the exception being an ancient Roman copy of the Greek Venus, which has its own room). Instead the pieces occupy the rooms based on their aesthetic qualities vis-a-vis each other: large statues places in the center of rooms, smaller ones radiating outward. Busts arranged along shelves, etc. Unlike today when great pains are taken to know and explain a piece's placement in some idealized version of time: either chronologically, or as often, in some narrative of the history of design, form, iconography, or even artistic method. Instead, "curiosity" marked these collections, which is to say, the objects were simply exotic or different from the everyday. Together they represented an encyclopedic grasp of the world they portrayed, with very little interpretation given to them beyond a general system of classification: archaeology, religious relics, art, etc.

After the museums, we went to the Roman Forum, what was essentially the public square of Ancient Rome. The Forum is where the largest concentration of Roman Ruins are today; tall, grand, and decaying structures. The temples have been mostly destroyed over time, left to rot and fall by the Church because they represented Pagan Rome, or actively plundered (I think I mentioned earlier that the Pope's liked to pilfer the marble and bronze from these structures to use in their own structures). What is left is probably the most perfect visual representation of a popular notion of "history" that we in the Western world have. It's also the one that dad kept evoking when we were there. He repeatedly wondered what it must be like to "live with all this history." At first blush I understood what he meant. This shit is old. Really, really old. Way older than anything we "see" in the US. But me being the persnickety historian that I am, I started thinking about what was implied by his invocation of the term history (this is, of course, a lie. For the past couple of years I've been thinking about how our culture creates and deploys notions of "history").

So what does it mean to live with all this "history"? Well, first of all, I think its interesting that the "history" that we saw on Thursday was the very "history" that started History. Which is why I think it fits so well with our popular understanding of the past not simply as the past but as this very specific version of the past that we call history (what follows is a very incomplete and problematic history of History).

In the eighteenth and nineteenth century, the European elite went on a "Grand Tour" of these ruins (included in the Grand Tour were also the ruins of Ancient Greece and Egypt, as well as stops in Jerusalem, Byzantium, and at Medieval European ruins like castles and monasteries). This was, not coincidentally, when one of the two primary modern conceptions of history was born: history as a repository of civilization's knowledge. This fascination with the past produced two different ideas about the worth of history. In the Romantic period (up to the end of the nineteenth-century) you had the past as a means of accessing what was universally human. We are all the same in time and space. Human concerns, anxieties, problems, and the like, are, ironically, ahistorical. They don't change over time and space. In this sense, history was a container of all the lessons of humanity. Lessons such as power and corruption, greed and avarice, love and beauty. Seeing where Caesar was killed evoked the universal understanding of power and corruption. The vastness of the Colosseum conjured the lessons of the fall of Rome. Seeing the buildings in decay taught us even better that empire's fell. One look at the American Romantic Painter Thomas Cole's 5 part series, The Course of Empire gives you a sense of the "lessons" of history that ruins were meant to teach (see especially panel 5, Desolation; it's what the gentry saw when they came to Rome and Greece. And it's damn near what you see today, simply without the hundreds of tourists and their cameras).

But this sense of the past also contained the seeds of another idea of history: the past is where we came from, it held the "germs" of European, or white, civilization (I won't bore you with a detailed exposition of the germ theory of history, but suffice it to say, it stressed continuities over time rather than difference). Hence a good education in classical civilization taught European men of leisure, and eventually textbook readers in modern schools "where we came from." This was especially important to the new project of nation building that came about in the late nineteenth century. History as an academic discipline was born of this idea. There's another very important element of "objectivity" that I should talk about here, but I think I'm probably losing you, so I'll save it for another time. Just keep in mind the relationship between "object" (as in objects from the past), "objectify" (as to make an object of knowable knowledge), and "objectivity" (as in the ability to discover the "truth" inherent in some thing). Sorry, at any rate, with the rise of the nation state, it became incumbent upon someone (historians took it up, but so too did literature professors), to explain what made a nation and its people cohere (God gave King's the divine right to rule, but nations were held together by something else: nationalism, or a national character that suggested to a population that they should, in fact, stay in this thing together). The past, rather history, proved a coherent people-hood. This is different from today's understanding of the past as creating a people over time. Instead History was self-evident and teleological: it inevitably moved in a linear and progressive fashion toward something. That something was the place where we are (were) today (then, in the beginning of the 20th century). The "genius" (as well as racial essence) of a people could be glimpsed in its past. Europeans were highly civilized, look at Greece, Rome, etc. Look at the great and beautiful works of art and architecture that they produced. Look at the wondrous technological advancements they made, etc. Of course, as you can see, these are hardly "objective" statements: "highly civilized," "great and beautiful," "wondrous." They are quite circular, that is, they are great, beautiful, and wondrous because we remember them and we remember them because of their greatness, beauty, wonder. The important thing here is how we have placed these particular monuments in a linear narrative: the great monuments of Classical Antiquity led to their reproduction in the Neo-Classical Architecture of the Renaissance which also influenced the (Neo ?) Neo-Classicism of the Federalist period of the American Revolution, which created ... The democratic utopia known as the U S of A. (Leave it to the Italian historians to understand how Fascism came out of the same history, or the British Historians to tell us how Democratic Socialism developed in England from this similar historical soil).

I think this is kind of spinning out of control here, so let me try to pull it back together. Underlying one common perception of "history" is the sense that it contains some inherent meaning (national sentiment, inevitable progress, moral lesson, etc.). History "is." Hence, to "live with all this history" simply must have an impact on people. Because, history as a knowable object with an inherent meaning would necessarily affect (weigh upon?) the people who inhabit "historical spaces."

I've backed way into my argument here, which I realize is unfair and snarky. So, apologies, but here we go anyway. As you can see from the different meanings of history that we have given to (the same) history in the past, it's clear that history has no inherent meaning. To one generation it teaches one thing, and a different lesson to another. Incidentally, "our" current thinking in the discipline of history, (which I think the discipline sees as at war with, or at least as a critique of, popular notions of the past) is that history is not teleological, progressive, inevitable, or very coherent on any level. It is certainly not universal (or moral). And it is most definitely not linear. Difference and disjuncture mark the study of the past as much as similarity and continuity. Contingency and complexity are our lighthouses (which makes for awfully awkward sailing, by the way ... sorry, it's late and the metaphor police have gone to bed ... or to the bar and are wasted because, like most historical cops, they are Irish). That's not to say that the study of history isn't useful, it just isn't objective. It's situated in time and space, like all understandings of the past. It also doesn't mean that the past doesn't influence the present. We are a product of history to be sure. Meaning, we are part of larger historical processes that are still and always unfolding. Our ability to fix our position in those processes exactly is more problematic given this, because history (or the social processes of the past) is simply difficult (impossible?) to know (it may be too much, but I like Heisenberg's uncertainty principle here, as a parallel. Stop the electron and what do you know about its momentum?)

But if we are a product of history, we are also a product of History. That is to say, our perceptions of the past are also an important factor in how the past has played out (and how the present and future, I suppose will play out). If you're still even reading this, I'll leave you with two far more succinct summations on this point. The first is Karl Marx: "Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living." The second is ... well, the second is William Faulkner: "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

HA! I totally wrapped that up with the Capuchin crypt and the creepy monuments of bones. And you probably thought I'd forgotten.

PS We also went to the Colosseum. What can I say, it was colossal. Sometimes the monuments just look too damn monumental (or was it the fact that it was 6:00 o'clock and I had anitquity fatigue).

This was, in fact a couple of days ago and I'm behind on my narrative. Still to come, Christian Catacombs, the square where Julius Caesar was stabbed, and Volpetti's (which is not at all historical, but its selection of cured pork is epic!

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