art history

Of Earthly Magnificence and Heavenly Bodies: Haute Couture and Catholic Aesthetics at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

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In the foreground: Christian Lacroix. Wedding ensemble, autumn/winter 2009-2010 haute couture. In the background: Thierry Mugler, evening dress, autumn/winter 1984-85. Photo: Cynthia Houng

By Contributing Writer Sarah Pickman

In his seminal work Fashion & Anti-Fashion: Exploring Adornment and Dress from an Anthropological Perspective, anthropologist Ted Polhemus delineates two broad styles of dress: fashion, characterized by constant – if often cyclical – change, and anti-fashion, characterized by deference to tradition and the status quo. For Polhemus, one of the quintessential kinds of anti-fashion is the garb worn by the members of particular religious sects or clergy: their garments, instantly recognizable and changing minimally over time, “state not only that ‘we’ exist, but they also express symbolically what kind of group it is that ‘we’ are.” It is perhaps not surprising then that the exhibition “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination,” organized by the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, would tackle the intersections of fashion and anti-fashion through the use of religious garments and symbols as inspiration for secular, fashionable clothing. The exhibition – which is staged across both the Museum’s main building and The Cloisters, the Met’s satellite branch devoted to the art of Medieval Europe – probes the relationship between Catholic images, symbolism, and narratives and the work of a select group of fashion designers, many of whom were raised in the Roman Catholic faith. Unlike many previous Costume Institute exhibitions, “Heavenly Bodies” situates designer garments amongst objects from the Museum’s permanent collections, inviting comparisons between the religious imagery that suffuses European Medieval art and the twentieth- and twenty-first century garments that call on this tradition.

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Haute couture dresses installed in the Met Fifth Avenue’s Medieval Galleries. Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The central part of the exhibition is staged in the Museum’s Medieval galleries, where the work of designers such as John Galliano, Dolce & Gabbana, A. F. Vandevorst and others is interspersed amongst the permanent displays of tapestries, triptychs, and architectural embellishments from churches. While each ensemble is show-stopping in its own way, the connections between some of the garments and Catholicism seem a bit speculative; the curatorial labels relying more on an implied equation between Catholicism and opulence. (A flowing silk red Valentino gown, viewers learn from a label, “implies” the cappa magna robe worn by cardinals and bishops, but it might just as easily be, well, a flowing red silk gown.) The exhibition is more successful when it groups ensembles together to make clear the designers’ inspiration, as well invite comparison between how different designers interpret the same source of inspiration. This includes a row of feminine black garments that evoke the habits of Dominican nuns, and a second row of outfits inspired by the characteristic black cassock worn by male members of the Catholic clergy.

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Designs inspired by clerical clothing worn by priests and other male members of the Catholic clergy. Photo: Cynthia Houng

The curatorial choice to stage this part of “Heavenly Bodies” in the permanent galleries – interspersing the designer garments with already-installed Medieval artwork – is ambitious, but it hits a few logistical snags. The Costume Institute’s special exhibitions are always popular, and the galleries feel visually crowded with so much of the open space now taken up with the fashion ensembles (and physically crowded when the extra visitors pour in). Certain components of the exhibition seem lost amidst all of the things on display. For example, several of the labels reference the satirical “ecclesiastical fashion show” scene in Federico Fellini’s 1972 film Roma, but the television monitor that shows this scene is tucked in an easily overlooked corner.

New temporary labels on some of the Medieval artworks discuss how Catholic vestments have changed or remained continuous over time, referencing depictions of the clergy in these works from the Middle Ages and their connections to the designer fashions nearby. However, as a historian and non-Catholic I wanted a more central text panel or panels with an overview of how some characteristic Catholic vestments arrived at their modern forms, becoming so standardized that they could serve as inspiration for couturiers. However, this historical context is discussed in greater detail in the exhibition’s accompanying catalogue. (More historical context would have also been helpful for emphasizing that the exhibition focuses on the Roman Catholic tradition, especially since some of the designer garments are displayed in adjacent galleries devoted to Byzantine art and Eastern Orthodox religious objects.) Two of the most breathtaking outfits in this section of the exhibit do evoke a sense of movement over time, even though they were never intended for human wear: stunning ensembles designed by Yves Saint-Laurent and Ricardo Tisci for statues of the Madonna in churches in France and Italy, respectively. Saint-Laurent and Tisci’s gowns and headdresses are recent iterations of the longstanding tradition of dressing statues of Mary in luxurious clothes, modern couture additions to a centuries-old Catholic practice.

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In the foreground: Riccardo Tisci, the Poor Benedettine Cassinesi Nuns of Lecce Statuary Vestment for the Madonna Delle Grazie, 2015 (original design, 1950). In the background: Yves Saint Laurent, statuary vestment for the Virgin of El Rocío, c. 1985. Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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Detail of the Virgin of El Rocío’s headdress. Photo: Cynthia Houng

Some of the exhibition’s greatest highlights are not in these galleries on the Museum’s main floor, but downstairs in the Anna Wintour Costume Center galleries, where “Heavenly Bodies” continues. Here, visitors have the chance to see vestments and accessories on loan from the Sistine Chapel sacristy in Rome, some of which have never been on display outside of the Vatican. An introductory panel for these galleries makes explicit some of the exhibition’s overall themes. A quotation from Andrew Greeley’s The Catholic Imagination instructs us that Catholics live in an “enchanted world” of beautiful objects, each one a revelation of and reminder of the divine, while the words of noted Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar tell the viewer that Catholics “first perceive the mystery of God through beauty, not truth.” Such a sense of beauty and majesty is evoked in these galleries by a parade of dazzling ecclesiastical garments, most dating from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, each exquisitely embroidered and most embellished with gold and silver thread. One particularly beautiful cope (a long clerical cloak, open in the front and secured with a brooch) features Biblical scenes embroidered in such an extraordinarily lifelike way that another visitor asked me if the images had been painted on the ground textile. One side room is filled with a series of clerical accessories, including miters, scepters, and brooches, each covered in a stunning array of precious gemstones that sparkle in the low light of the gallery.

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Installation view, Anna Wintour Costume Center galleries. Photograph courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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Dalmatic (front) of Pius IX (r. 1846–78), 1845–61. Italian. Courtesy of the Collection of the Office of Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff, Papal Sacristy, Vatican City. Digital composite scan by Katerina Jebb. Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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Tiara of Pius IX (r. 1846–78), 1854. German and Spanish. Courtesy of the Collection of the Office of Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff, Papal Sacristy, Vatican City. Digital composite scan by Katerina Jebb. Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The labels in this section of the exhibition indicate that almost all of the loan pieces were originally gifts to the Vatican from various clerical orders or European monarchs. As someone not raised in the Catholic tradition, I was awed by the beauty and opulence of these objects. Seeing them up in person and up close, even behind glass, I understood how they evoked the splendor of God and his creation, and the glory that might await the believer in the afterlife. I also felt I understood how five centuries ago, such lavish gifts would have helped convince Martin Luther and other reformers of the Church’s decadence and its need for reform.

While many visitors may not want to make the extra trip to northern Manhattan to The Cloisters to see the third segment of “Heavenly Bodies,” the effort is well worth it. Here, the exhibition returns to designer fashion, staged again amidst a permanent collection of Medieval European artwork and architecture. At The Cloisters, the galleries are arranged thematically around particular artistic periods or architectural components, and the garments are likewise grouped to be in dialogue with each other and with each room, an approach I’d wished had been more prevalent in the Metropolitan’s main building. For example, the Fuentidueña Chapel, a transported Spanish Romanesque church apse, holds a series of dresses that evoke clothing worn for particular sacraments such as marriage and first communion. Nearby, the reinstalled Pontaut Chapter House, originally a daily meeting place for Aquitanian Benedictine monks, hosts a row of dresses designed by Valentino, Geoffrey Beene and Claire McCardell that in color and construction evoke the habits of certain monastic orders. Because of its location, The Cloisters is almost always less crowded than the main Metropolitan Museum building, allowing visitors the chance to view this section of “Heavenly Bodies” and its successful thematic groupings in a more unhurried manner.

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Installation view of an ensemble by Cristóbal Balenciaga for House of Balenciaga, wedding ensemble, 1967. Installed in the Fuentidueña Chapel, The Cloisters. Photograph courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The relationship between the Roman Catholic Church and clothing has many intriguing facets to explore: the evolution of ecclesiastical dress as part of a Catholic visual lexicon, the transgressions of erotic designer couture inspired by sacred symbols, the tension between clerical vows of poverty and opulent garb that evokes God’s beauty and majesty. If any museum has the collection, space, and financial resources (not to mention the clout to negotiate loans with the Vatican) to pull off an exhibit on this topic, it’s the Metropolitan Museum. And yet the subject itself is so vast and rich it’s difficult to probe all of these questions and provide deep historical context in a completely satisfying way, especially within the logistical limits of label panels and floor space. The involvement of the Church also likely hushed opportunities for critique: as another reviewer noted, many of the vestments are the result of hundreds of thousands of hours of handwork by nuns, whose exhaustive and essential labor for the Church in this capacity goes unquestioned. Overall, though, “Heavenly Bodies” is an ambitious and beautiful exhibit that speaks to the intriguing tensions between the fashion of elite modern designers and the anti-fashion of a millennia-old faith tradition.

“Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination” is on display at The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Fifth Avenue building and The Cloisters through October 8.

Sarah Pickman is a Ph.D. student in History of Science and Medicine at Yale University. Her research centers on American and British exploration, anthropology, and natural history museums in the long nineteenth century, with a focus on the material culture of expeditions, particularly in the exploration of the Arctic and Antarctica. She holds a B.A. in Anthropology from the University of Chicago and an M.A. in Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture from the Bard Graduate Center of Bard College.

Bernini at the Borghese

By Contributing Editor Cynthia Houng

In Rome, Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) is nearly unavoidable. Walk down the center of the Piazza S. Pietro and look up. All along the great curving wings of the Piazza’s colonnades stand Bernini’s saints–carved and executed by other sculptors, but envisioned by Bernini. There he is in Piazza Navona, with the Fontana dei Fiumi, or Fountain of the Four Rivers. Those are his angels on the Ponte Sant’Angelo. That playful little elephant bearing an obelisk in front of Santa Maria sopra Minerva? That belongs to him, too. Only by leaving the historic city center can one escape him. Much like Michelangelo, another sculptor turned architect and impresario, Bernini transformed himself from a maker of precious objects to a maestro whose vision re-shaped the city. If Bernini is synonymous with the Baroque, it is due to his success working on this grand scale, shaping and molding the fabric of Rome to suit the dreams and needs of the Church and its princes.

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In the fall of 2017, a monographic exhibition on Bernini opened at the Galleria Borghese, curated by Anna Coliva (also director of the Borghese) and Andrea Bacchi (director of the Fondazione Federico Zeri in Bologna). By the curators’ own admission, there has been no shortage of Bernini-related exhibitions in the past decade. So why mount another one? Their rationale is deceptively simple: “We have attempted for the first time to cover Bernini’s whole career,” with the exception, of course, of those site-specific works (fountains, altars, the baldachin in St. Peter’s) that cannot be moved. What this means, in reality, is that the curators have collected an extraordinary range of freestanding works by Bernini and his workshop. The exhibition also includes Bernini’s paintings (seldom exhibited en masse), sculptures by Bernini’s father, Pietro, and preparatory works for monumental commissions like the Four Rivers Fountain.

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Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Apollo and Daphne, Galleria Borghese. All photographs by Cynthia Houng

So much has been written on Bernini in recent years that it seems impossible to propose anything new. But the experience of encountering Bernini’s work is always new. Each encounter is a dance, a performance that requires the beholder’s participation. There are no passive audiences here. Bernini’s orchestration of the pilgrim’s approach to St. Peter’s exemplifies the performative, relational nature of his work. As a series of impressions leading the pilgrim out of the quotidian world and into another world altogether, the work is, to use the language of another time, site specific and performative, requiring activation by a participant in order to be complete. The power of the encounter, and the effect of the performance on the participant-beholder–Bernini’s partner, really, in the work–is ecstatic. In Rudolf Wittkower’s evocative description, the performance of approaching St. Peter’s cathedral via the Piazza transports the viewer “beyond the narrow limits of his own existence and be entranced with the causality of an enchanted world.” In St. Peter’s, “the beholder finds himself in a world which he shares with saints and angels, and he is therefore submitted to an extraordinarily powerful experience. A mystery has been given visual shape, and its comprehension rests on an act of emotional participation rather than one of rational interpretation.”

“The challenge that Bernini set himself in his religious architecture,” Fabio Barry argued, “was always to create visions whose credibility depended upon them being experientially fleeting but permanent in the mind. God had created a heaven, but because its unveiling at the end of time was eternally distant yet perpetually imminent, Bernini must create a heaven just for us.” And who wouldn’t want to experience heaven again and again, each time anew? And so both scholars and laypersons find themselves drawn back to Bernini, each return an attempt to parse their own experiences of Bernini’s art.

The Borghese show makes full use of the relational, performative aspects of Bernini’s work. It is an object-oriented show in the fullest sense, all of its arguments and propositions originate in the objects gathered for the exhibition, in the relationships formed between them, and in the possibilities of close observation and comparison. It invites the visitor to participate in a hermeneutics of looking.

The show is both ambitious and ravishing. It makes full use of the Villa Borghese’s fabulous setting, occupying both the ground floor galleries (where Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne has resided since its creation), and the smaller, more intimate rooms on the second floor. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2012 exhibition, “Bernini: Sculpting in Clay,” was a marvel, but the show was installed in the antiseptic Lehman wing. The Met did not have the benefit of the Borghese’s setting, with its sumptuous ornamentation and rich installations of Old Master paintings and Classical sculptures. Though the Borghese was largely redone in the eighteenth century (by the architect Antonio Asprucci, under the patronage of Prince Marcantonio Borghese IV), it had always served as a site for the display of art. These eighteenth-century renovations codified the building’s role as a site for the display of art. In her study of Asprucci’s renovation of the Galleria Borghese, Carole Paul noted that “Asprucci coordinated the decoration of each room to form a sumptuous ensemble unified in form and content, including the statuary.” Asprucci took everything–from the marble floors to the carved cornices–into consideration, creating new juxtapositions between the paintings, sculptures, and their environments. He also shifted Bernini’s statues, David (1623) and Apollo and Daphne (1622-25), from their original seventeenth-century locations. Today, neither sculpture can be viewed as Bernini intended. Though one can no longer see Bernini’s sculptures in their seventeenth-century settings, the richness and intensity of the Borghese’s environment is closer to how these works were meant to be seen than the clean, white galleries of the modern museum. More importantly, the placement of Bernini’s sculptures in the Borghese maintains their connection to the painting of his time, a connection that is particularly important to the argument of the Borghese’s “Bernini” show, which dedicated an entire section to Bernini’s own practice of painting.

Due to its constraints, “Bernini” is more heavily weighted towards the artist’s production for private patrons. However, Bernini’s greatest patron was the Church. As Wittkower noted in his 1955 study of Bernini (the first English-language study of Bernini intended for a broad audience): “it was Bernini’s tremendous achievement in the area of the Vatican that secured his reputation as the first artist of Europe.”

Appropriately, for our secular age, the major patrons of the Bernini exhibition at Villa Borghese were a bank and a fashion house–Intesa Sanpaolo and Fendi. And this is no accident. If, in Bernini’s time, the Church was the greatest orchestrator of spectacle, then commerce must be the Church’s contemporary analogue. We have grown comfortable with the imbrication of aesthetics and capital. We have even come to expect it. When I saw that Fendi sponsored the Borghese’s Bernini show, my first reaction was, “Of course.” Fendi has been funding various cultural initiatives around Rome, where the house has its headquarters, as part of the house’s mandate to invest in the city’s cultural capital. (Fendi also sponsored the restoration of the Trevi Fountain.) My second reaction was to note the exceptionally spectacular quality of the exhibition’s presentation–the display cases, the lighting, the installations, the quality of the fixtures–which matched the quality and finish of those intended for luxury boutiques.

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Installation View, Sculptures by Gian Lorenzo and Pietro Bernini, Galleria Borghese

The Borghese’s “Bernini” exhibition presents a narrative weighted towards the earlier stages of Bernini’s long career. This emphasis was dictated, in part, by the show’s constraints: it could rely only on freestanding, movable works to make its arguments, and much of Bernini’s later output can be characterized as site-specific installation work, literally inseparable from its architectural setting. (The Cornaro Chapel is not going anywhere.) Walking through the show, visitors witness how Bernini became Bernini. The show presents some of his earliest works–including collaborations with his father, Pietro as well as early independent works. Pietro Bernini’s sculptures are also part of the Borghese presentation, and through the younger Bernini’s sculptures we witness Gian Lorenzo’s talent unfurling.

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Model for the Four Rivers Fountain, Galleria Borghese

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Installation view of bozzetti and modelli, Galleria Borghese

More interesting–and startling–is the development of Bernini’s aesthetic, the emergence of a strong and powerful stylistic vision, though again the show references Bernini’s mature works largely through proxies–through sketches and models for large-scale projects such as the Four Rivers Fountain, Cathedra Petri, and Ponte Sant’Angelo. And for almost all of Bernini’s works–even the bozzetti and modelli–there is always the question of authorship, of hands and facture. (The Met show addressed this problem of the “hands” in remarkable, technical detail.) The Borghese show is less interested in these questions. The curators take it as givens that Bernini operated a large workshop, and that he often outsourced work to other sculptors. As Bacchi and Colivo note in the introductory essay, the show aimed for “a direct dialogue with the works,” and many of the objects are on display together for the first time. The two monumental crucifixes have never been gathered in the same space before.

The show also invites viewers to consider different facets of Bernini’s practice in relation to each other. At the Borghese, visitors can view Bernini’s early putti in relation to his classically-inspired sculpture, The Goat Amalthea (an early work dated before 1615, probably made when Bernini was about 16), in relation to his restoration of ancient Roman sculptures–such as his restoration work on the famous Hermaphrodite sculpture, and to the angels and putti that he imagined for the Ponte Sant’Angelo and the Baldachin and Cathedra Petri projects in St. Peter’s cathedral.

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A room full of bozzetti, Galleria Borghese

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Installation View, Portrait busts and paintings, Galleria Borghese

The portrait busts and paintings, displayed together in one long gallery, form an interesting dialogue. Bernini is not often thought of as a painter. The paintings gathered for this exhibition will probably not elevate him to the pantheon of great painters, but they are very interesting as windows into his creative practice. They also provide us with clues to his relationship with the painting of his time. And the Borghese, with its impressive collection of Old Master paintings–though several of the Borghese’s most important Caravaggio paintings were on loan to the Getty during this show–provided an apt location to think about Bernini’s style and aesthetic in relation to the painting of his time.

Tightly focused on Bernini, this show was both an investigation and a celebration. It is a testament to Bernini’s magnetism as a subject that the wider world seems to pull in and collapse around him. The Roman Baroque narrows down to the Age of Bernini. The show is both spectacular and ravishing, and it reminds us of how far we can go–how much we can do–with an intense focus on the works themselves. It is their world that we wish to enter. And once there, we linger in pleasure.

At the same time, the Borghese show does not present the full breadth of Bernini, the man, or Bernini, the artist. It is a highly specific vision, one that presents him as a great genius, on par with the other “giants” of Italian sculpture named by the show’s curators in their introduction: Donatello, Michelangelo, Canova. Bernini had another side, one not revealed in this show. As Alexander Nagel once pointed out, “Just about everyone who knew him hated him.” He was domineering, violent, and ruthless. He slashed his mistress’s face in anger. One didn’t have to have to know Bernini to loathe him. In his biography of Bernini, Franco Mormando quotes anonymous pasquinades directed at Bernini, critiques affixed by unhappy Romans to the statue of Pasquino in the Piazza di Parione. The expensive transformation of the Piazza Navona by the Pamphilj family–which included the construction of Bernini’s spectacular Four Rivers Fountain (completed in 1651)–elicited such pasquinades as “Dic ut lapides isti panes fiant [Turn these stones into bread]!” Ordinary Romans, tired of poverty and hunger, railed against the Church’s immense expenditures on projects that did not benefit the populace.

Mormando quotes an impressive kaleidoscope of criticisms, describing Bernini as selfish and avaricious, and accusing him of robbing the papal treasury to enrich himself. Mormando cites an avviso from August 30, 1670, blasting Bernini as “the one who instigates popes into useless expenditures in these calamitous times.” By this time, Bernini was a wealthy man. (Pietro da Cortona was one of his few contemporaries who achieved comparable levels of wealth, and Cortona was, by all measures, also not a very nice man.) The construction of the Piazza San Pietro, with its colonnades and statues, cost 1 million scudi, roughly half of the Church’s yearly revenue. For Bernini’s critics, whether or not ordinary Romans enjoyed the aesthetic experiences of encountering the Four Rivers Fountain or progressing through the Piazza San Pietro was beside the point. Aesthetic pleasure provided no relief from poverty:  “We don’t want obelisks and fountains; it’s bread we want!”

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In 2017, Fendi initiated a three-year partnership with the Galleria Borghese, providing support for the establishment of a Caravaggio Research Institute. This description of the partnership between Fendi and the Borghese comes from the press release for the “Caravaggio” exhibition at the Getty Museum: “The partnership between the Galleria Borghese and FENDI is part of a patronage begun by the luxury goods House in 2015, and is based on the company’s belief that beauty must be shared and spread, and that the incomparable richness of the Galleria Borghese, a reflection of the Eternal City, is a powerful, cosmopolitan pathway to promote a refined cultural sensitivity, both contemporary and universal, in the same way that FENDI pursues in its collections a true example of aesthetic research and the absolute sign of ‘Made in Italy.’”

In our time, commerce has replaced the church as art’s great patron. Private sponsorship of public patrimony raises difficult questions–of appropriation, commodification, profit, and control. It pulls the public patrimony into a process where values inherent in the cultural ‘patrimony’ or ‘heritage’–sometimes called ‘heritage values’–are captured, accumulated, and commodified by private entities. The process is widespread enough to merit its own neologism,“heritagization.” And it is almost always twinned with commodification. Salvatore Settis has written and lectured extensively–and passionately–on this subject, arguing that the transformation of cities rich in cultural heritage–such as Venice and Rome–is almost always accompanied by ossification and decline, as the city ceases to be a city for the living and transforms into a museum city, a set piece for the delectation and consumption of tourists. And yet the profits from the heritagization process flow, not to the public, but to the private entities who sponsored–capitalized, really–the process. As Pablo Alonso Gonzalez noted in his study of the heritagization process in Maragateria, Spain, the process can alienate the community from its heritage or patrimony, eliciting resistance and even fury from community members.

The relationship of the past to the present is always tricky, but perhaps exceptionally so in a place like Italy, where the past is all pervasive, where there is so much value to be extracted from the past (via industries like tourism), and where the past weighs heavily upon the present. History can feel, at times, like a straitjacket upon the present, as the city ossifies into an open-air museum. There is the Rome for the past–but where is the Rome for the living?

Fendi is not the only Italian luxury house to invest in Italy’s cultural heritage, in order to capture and accumulate “heritage values.” Tod’s sponsored the restoration of the Colosseum. Bulgari chose to restore the Spanish Steps. Telecom Italia (also known as TIM) is sponsoring the “re-launch” (the verb employed in the press release announcing the project) of the Augustus Mausoleum through its Fondazione TIM. But investment in Italian cultural heritage is not limited to Italian entities. In a 2014 interview with the New York Times, the minister of culture, Dario Franceschini, said, “Our doors are wide open for all the philanthropists and donors who want to tie their name to an Italian monument. We have a long list, as our heritage offers endless options, from small countryside churches to the Colosseum. Just pick.”

Sponsorship isn’t the only mode of privatization. In a 2007 article, Roland Benedikter noted that a set of laws, introduced in 2002, allowed the Italian government to sell objects and monuments “to international investment firms and private investors for amounts that many Italian experts consider well below the median market price.” Benedikter noted that, since 2002, the privatization of Italian cultural heritage has been “the subject of heated public debate [for it] concerns the limits of privatisation, and could lead to a broad new anti‐capitalism movement.” Settis, too, frames his argument in terms of opposition not only to commodification but also to neoliberalism.

One might argue that Bernini would have understood this process–that, perhaps, he would have encouraged and embraced it. After all, only a hair’s breadth separates the tourist from the pilgrim, and Rome made a mint off pilgrims. (Rome continues to make a mint off pilgrims. The 2000 Jubilee drew 35 million visitors to Rome.) But one might also argue that we live in different times, with different ethics and ideals–and the society we wish to live in looks nothing like the one Bernini knew.

Our wishes, though, are not always consonant with our realities. Neoliberalism, globalization, and capitalism have all incited resistance and fury from the people of Rome. I am no expert on the intricacies of Roman or Italian politics, but it would not be an exaggeration to say, given the recent elections, that Italy is in a difficult place. And– Bernini would also have been familiar with this–the fury of the people is neither predictable nor easily channeled. We don’t want obelisks and fountains; it’s bread we want.

Or perhaps more pointedly: We don’t want to live among the patrimony of the past. Nor do we want to alienate our heritage to enrich certain select private coffers (does this sound familiar, again?). We want to be able to create a patrimony that we can call our own.

Bernini was on view at the Galleria Borghese in Rome from Nov. 1, 2017 – Feb. 4, 2018. The exhibition was accompanied by a catalogue (available in Italian or English).

 

 

A Reflection on the Phenomenology of Tibetan Space

By guest contributor Joshua S. Daugherty

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Milarepa, Tibet, 11th-14th century, Kagyu lineage, Taglung style. Ground pigment on cotton. 55.24×46.99cm (21.75×18.50in) HAR 65121. Rubin Museum of Art, accession no. C2002.24.5
(https://www.himalayanart.org/items/65121/images/primary#-3004,-8020,9726,0)

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Milarepa, Tibet, 1600-1699, Kagyu lineage. Ground pigment on cotton, HAR 30508. Private collection. (https://www.himalayanart.org/items/30508)

While exploring the pictorial depth displayed in traditional Tibetan scroll paintings known as thangkas, a rather abstract concept continually resurfaced: the notion of space. Early paintings appear shallow or flat, yet, in later centuries, the surrounding environment was expanded to include landscape elements. Questioning whether this change is material evidence of a shifting zeitgeist, I have begun to trace a thread running throughout the Tibetan imagination, one that links topographical ideas with soteriological aspirations. By looking to theories of phenomenology, it is possible to begin unravelling the way space structures lived experience in the Tibetan context.

Numerous studies trace the impact of concepts such as love and hate (Hadreas 2007), evil (Hamblet 2014), perception (Merleau-Ponty 2002), and the sacred self (Csordas 1994); each of these dissect how concepts set up a matrix of presuppositions and expectations that govern lived experience. Prior to engaging with Tibetan ideas, it is useful to briefly consider the work of Western academics who have defined phenomenological methodologies. Henri Lefebvre theorized the “spatial body” in which the conception of reality is predicated on perceptions experienced through a human form (Lefebvre 1991:194-6). The body orients the mind within the environment, which organizes the development of understanding just as language gives structure to thoughts. Considering that thoughts are formed in words, they are therefore limited by vocabulary and syntax; likewise, the mind struggles to imagine a reality beyond the known environment. Just as it becomes impossible for the human mind to experience thoughts beyond the limitations of language, the use of the five sensory perceptions to navigate reality limits the mind’s understanding of that reality. An environment which does not contact the mind via these sense faculties is unfathomable.

Moreover, as Maurice Merleau-Ponty explained, “Our perception is entirely dominated by a logic which assigns each object its determinate features in virtue of those of the rest…” Consequently, once the facts of spatial perception are perceived by sense faculties, they are organized according to logical dualism: near and far, above and below, inside and out, etc. To propose that space is underpinned by a type of logic originating from the human body, one that demarcates zones of being based on practicalities of physical movement, and superimposes notions of the metaphysical, ontological, and soteriological dimensions derived from a sense of self, requires that space take on “an essential and necessary structural role” (Merleau-Ponty 2002:313). Consequently, both Lefebvre’s spatial body and Merleau-Ponty’s logical dualism allow us to glimpse the conceptual object of ‘space’ as a structure of consciousness. Yet, such a statement can be brutal in its hegemony.

Accepting space to be a fundamental structure of human consciousness risks totalizing all human experience under the yoke of a single paradigm. Gavin Flood provides an important counterpoint in his assessment of the limitations of phenomenology when applied to religion, that it “carries with it Husserlian assumptions about the transcendental ego and an overarching rationality… [and] smuggles into the phenomenology of religion a Husserlian philosophy of consciousness.” (Flood 1999:155) While both Lefebvre and Merleau-Ponty assert that space underlies perception—and certainly, parallels between Tibetan concepts of sacred geography and macro-microcosmic spiritual domains suggest an overarching thought-structure—Flood is wise to warn us against essentializing phenomenological structures as a fact of consciousness. In many ways, Tibetan concepts of space mirror the prevailing notions of South and Southeast Asia prior to vernacularization, a time when “Mount Meru and the Ganga were locatable everywhere” and as Sheldon Pollock explained, this is “nothing in the least mystical” but rather “a function of a different, plural, premodern logic of space” (Pollock 2006:16).

In the Tibetan language, there is an inherent connection between notions of location and materiality. The word sa means both “place” and “earth;” a concise twofold definition which poetically demonstrates the problem at hand. To stand on soil is to be somewhere, which may seem rather obvious, but in the case of Tibet, topographical features possess complicated layers of attributions. A single point in space can be the form comprising a deity, a vessel of sacred energy, the domicile of either divine or demonic beings, a site embedded with residual power left behind by spiritual adepts, or some combination thereof, which can change depending on the inhabitant’s religious affiliations. Moreover, beyond these immediate details pertaining to individual sites, all locations are subsumed within a cosmic system. Therefore, to stand on Tibetan earth is not simply to be somewhere in a cavalier sense, but rather a very specific place within a complicated network of locations and ontological stratifications.

In his assessment of Heidegger’s essay ‘Art and Space’ (1969), Paul Crowther wrote, “Place comes into being not only through the relation between things, but through the event of their coming together to define a certain location, and even more importantly, through their enduring together, and individually, through time” (Crowther 2013:70). Physical space can be described as a matter of distances and directions, but also exists as an omnipresent aspect of the cultural milieu. Areas defined in relation to an ‘object’ or localized essence, are termed “place” or gnas, as the site possesses a distinct identity. Conversely, locations like yul lha or mountain gods, where consciousness is believed to be active in the site, are identities which acquire a place and possess agency. Examples of sites expressing agency include Tsibri and Mount Potalaka. The former is a mountain in Tsang, Tibet believed to have relocated from Bodhgaya, India to conceal a poisonous lake while the latter is the home of the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara, which also originated in India and supposedly moved to Lhasa, the capital city of Tibet (Quintman 2008:367). As the conceptualization of locations as gnas or conscious yul lha endured through time, characterizing the culture of Tibet, they inspired the continued identification of newly recognized sacred places, leading to a proliferation of moveable spaces and single sites which simultaneously exist in multiple locations.

Therefore, in Tibetan civilization, geography is not uniformly fixed in place; rather, it is subject to change over time, resulting in an ongoing, shifting amalgamation of spaces. There are many examples of locations being transported to Tibet, like the eight charnel grounds utilized in tantric rites, or sites in India replicated elsewhere. The latter includes the Mahābodhi temple, the site of the original Buddha’s enlightenment, which has been replicated in Bagan, Burma and Patan, Nepal (Buffertrille 2015:135). Another Mahābodhi temple can be found at Lung Ngön monastery in the Golog area of Tibet, where Kusum Lingpa (1934-2009) carried out several building projects in the 1990s. Other duplicated sites included at this location are the Sarnath Stūpa, Samye monastery’s Tsuklakhang, and the Bodhnāth Stūpa (bya rung kha shor). Although these structures are apparently not organized according to a larger composition, they establish links with important sites from the historical Buddha’s life, significant masters of the Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, and important figures active during the Tibetan empire period (Buffertrille 2015:138, 142). During her investigation, the scholar Katia Buffertrille was informed of Kusum Lingpa’s motivation, “When the pilgrim could not go to the pilgrimage, the pilgrimage was brought to the pilgrim” (Buffertrille 2015:144). While the reasons for these relocations are diverse, ranging from religious veneration to economic prosperity and legitimization of power, this quote demonstrates the visiting practitioner’s pragmatic reception of these events, which in other cultural perspectives would be nothing short of mystical.

Further, the replicated sites are considered to possess the same power believed to imbue the original location, so the circumambulations performed by pilgrims at the replica bestows a similar quality of spiritual merit. Buffertrille points to several incidents in which actions done at one site are equated with actions performed at another more prestigious location. She provided the example that thirteen circumambulations around Mount Tarab are considered equal to one circuit around a more culturally significant site, Mount Kailash. Also, a site’s ability to attract pilgrims has economic dimensions. This may partially motivate claims that some sites are as potent as—or even the combined embodiment of—other well-known locations, like Tsibri in the region of Tsang, which is considered a combination of three sites: Lapchi, Tsari, and Kailash (Buffetrille 2015:145).

Lastly, although the complexity of the subject extends well-beyond the scope of this reflection, mountains also contribute a cosmological template, which is outlined in the Abhidharmakośa and the Kālacakra Tantra. The cosmic mountain as axis mundi stands at the centre of a composition comprising a macrocosmic world system, which is analogous to a second mountain-based network visualized inside the body of the practitioner. Utilizing this macro-microcosmic duality, it is possible to conceptualize processes which hover on the brink of non-conceptual thought. The subtle body is a catalyst for reversing the supposedly confused perception that the universe causes the human form to come into being, and that this form creates the mind, which in turn creates consciousness. By reversing this conception of universal-to-internal space generation and discovering the primordial awareness believed to predate material reality, the three layers of topographical, microcosmic, and macrocosmic space are united as a single entity. By locating the individual’s notion of self within Buddhist cosmology, and simultaneously recognizing a microcosm within that self, pilgrimage sites—such as the twenty-four pīṭhas identified in the Chakrasamvara Tantra—act as physical spaces where it is possible to concurrently operate on all three levels of space.

As it exists in the Tibetan imagination, space can neither be considered an “ether” wherein “things float,” nor a common characteristic; rather, it should be considered “the universal power enabling them [phenomena] to be connected” (Merleau-Ponty 2002:284). From the immediate experience of an individual, space includes a perception of the self and external objects in a cohabitated environment. Material reality composed of self, objects, and landscape are all easily recognized from the vantagepoint of the individual. Tibetan Buddhist philosophy seeks to complicate or problematize this idea by deconstructing the dualism of microcosmic and macrocosmic spatial divisions, that is to say, the internal world of the self and the larger universe in which it is contained can merge. Dualistic distinctions of interior/exterior or self/other can be obliterated. The great yogi, Milarepa (1052-1135), once said, “Having meditated on gentleness and compassion, I have forgotten the difference between myself and others” (Odier 2003:104). Milarepa demonstrates that, from a Buddhist perspective, space not only encompasses perception, sacred geography, and micro-macrocosmic metaphysics, but is the medium through which soteriological aspirations are accomplished.  While there are many nuances regarding the conception of Tibetan space, it is clear they are not somehow affiliated with a super-consciousness. Rather, these conceptions form a thought-structure upon which cultural representations of reality have been projected throughout time and from which individuals derived a variety of interpretations that bear similar characteristics

Joshua S. Daugherty is a graduate fellow at the University of Washington pursuing a PhD in the history of Art. He has previously studied art history at the University of London, SOAS and Tibetan & Himalayan Studies at the University of Oxford.

A conversation with Prof. Surekha Davies: From our occasional podcast series


In our inaugural podcast, Contributing Editor Cynthia Houng speaks with Prof. Surekha Davies about her book, Renaissance Ethnography and the Invention of the Human: New Worlds, Maps and Monsters (Cambridge University Press, 2016), winner of the 2016 Morris D. Forkosch Prize for the best first book in intellectual history.


Below, you’ll find some of the maps and objects that we discuss in our conversation. Follow the links to explore each object in greater detail.

Vallard Atlas Huntington

Vallard Atlas, 1547, Map 2, Terra Java. The Huntington Library, HM 29.

jrl1118347

Pierre Desceliers, Detail of World Map (Mappe monde), 1546. The University of Manchester Library, FR MS 1*.

Explore other parts of this large map (it is 260 x 130 cms in size!).

Nieuwe_Caerte_van_het_wonderbaer_[...]Raleigh_Walter_btv1b84924380

J. Hondius, Nieuwe Caerte van het wonderbaer ende goudrijcke landt Guiana, gelegen onder de Linie Aequinoctiael tusschen Brasilien ende Péru. nieuwelick besocht door Sir Water Ralegh Ridder van Engelandt in het jaer 1594, 95 ende 1596 (New Map of the Wonderful, Large and Rich Land of Guiana…), Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Cartes et plans, GE D-14317.

Explore this map on Gallica.

Screenshot 2018-02-05 19.05.08

Detail of the frontispiece to J. Hondius, Kurtze wunderbare Beschreibung. Dess Goldreichen Königreichs Guianae im America, oder newen Welt, vnter der Linea Aequinoctiali gelegen: so newlich Anno 1594. 1595. vnnd 1596. von dem wolgebornen Herrn, Herrn Walthero Ralegh…, Nuremberg, 1599. The John Carter Brown Library, Accession Number 0918.

Explore the entire book.

The_Continent_of_America_1666_Jan_van_Kessel_the_Elder

Jan van Kessel, America (from The Four Continents), 1666, oil on copper. Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Alte Pinakothek, Munich, inv. no. 1913


A note on the music in this podcast:

The music on this podcast was recorded by Paul Bowles in Morocco in the late 1950s.

Today, we remember Bowles as the author of The Sheltering Sky, but he was also a composer with an interest in ethnomusicology. That interest, coupled with his belief that Moroccan musical traditions were threatened by post-Independence modernization efforts, led Bowles to propose, in 1957, that the Library of Congress sponsor a project to record Moroccan music in all of its breadth. The project was, in Bowles’s words, “a fight against time.” In 1959, with the support of the Library of Congress and a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, Bowles criss-crossed Morocco, setting up recording sessions in towns all over the country. He would make three more trips between 1959 and 1961. Bowles had no formal training in ethnomusicology, and his choices were guided by the contingencies of geography and travel–and by his own aesthetics.

In that sense, Bowles shares something with early modern travel writers and cartographers. They made forms of knowledge that bear some resemblance to modern-day academic disciplines, but belong, properly, to their own times. Bowles once told an interviewer, “I’ve always wanted to get as far as possible from the place where I was born. Far both geographically and spiritually. To leave it behind. One belongs to the whole world, not just one part of it.”

The Library of Congress maintains the Paul Bowles Music Collection. If you like what you hear, some of these recordings are available from Dust-to-Digital as a four-CD set, the Music of Morocco.

Life and Likeness at the Portland Museum of Art

By Editor Derek O’Leary, in conversation with curator Diana Greenwold

It can be easy to imagine the early American republic as rushing headlong into the future during its first half-century—westward with the suppression of Indian society, seaborne to new markets with the products of southern plantations and western farms, upward in the growth of manufacturing hubs and cities, and in all cases away from the colonial past.  Newspaperman and staple of any US history survey, John O’Sullivan celebrated in this “Great Nation of Futurity” “our disconnected position as regards any other nation; that we have, in reality, but little connection with the past history of any of them, and still less with all antiquity, its glories, or its crimes.”

This forward orientation was a common enough sentiment during these decades, yet one bound up in a much broader and Janus-faced preoccupation with the nation’s place in time. Biography burgeoned as a literary form (finely explored in Scott Casper’s Constructing American Lives, 1999); leading authors leveraged historical fiction to fashion a mythic colonial and revolutionary past; historical, antiquarian, and genealogical societies flourished as civic institutions. And in innumerable households, individuals and families marked their passage through time during years of seemingly unprecedented change.

The Portland Museum of Art’s exhibit “Model Citizens: Art and Identity from 1770-1830” (on view through January 28) provides fascinating insight into that latter world. It assembles a diverse array of household and commercial practices of marking pivotal stages of life in the early United States. Drawing on rich collections in Maine and New England art, it places in conversation a range of self-representation, organized around the life cycle: birth and childhood, marriage, adulthood, death and mourning. The exhibition recognizes its bounds within the white household, but in this space explores a far greater variety of lives and likenesses than we would typically see from this period.

dearborn

Gilbert Stuart (United States, 1755-1828), Major General Henry Dearborn (1751-1829), 1812, oil on panel, Gift of Mary Gray Ray in memory of Mrs. Winthrop G. Ray, 1917.23

Diana Greenwold, PhD., who curated the exhibition, situated “stalwarts of the permanent collections”—such as the large and familiar oil portraits by Gilbert Stuart— alongside less elite likenesses produced in households and more accessible markets, such as samplers, shadow cutters, paintings by itinerant artists, and mourning embroidery (shown below).  “For a long time,” she explains, “that type of folk portraiture was understood as being less sophisticated and telling of the moment,” a bias which the exhibition helps to revise. “By using different media,” she continues, “you open up the opportunity to show how different social classes can get at a similar goal. Not everyone can engage Gilbert Stuart, but cut paper can serve in a similar way for families to represent themselves, to both themselves and those around them.”

In depicting the shared life cycle of individuals of such disparate means, the exhibition thoughtfully examines the uses of these varied self-representations. Sewn samplers produced by middle- and upper-class girls in finishing schools served as stages to perform discipline, literacy, numeracy, and piety. But alongside sewn renditions of the alphabet, numbers, and biblical verses, girls might also inscribe their own name and age, or indeed, as in this peculiar rendition of a genealogy, a truncated, textual family tree.

Mary Ann McLellan_Genealogy Sampler

Mary Ann McLellan (United States, 1803-1831), Stephen McLellan Genealogy Sampler, circa 1816, cotton on linen, museum purchase, 1981.1063

By the 1830s, genealogy would develop into a widespread household and academic practice, equipped with institutions, periodicals, and specialists who manipulated transatlantic connecting networks. (Francois Weil’s Family Trees (2013) is the recent major work on this phenomenon in the US.) Often, it sought to link the living in an unbroken chain backward, at least to the first Anglo-American settlements, and ideally eastward to their English origins.  Yet, in a decade when genealogy had yet to emerge as a widespread practice, Mary Ann McLellan’s genealogical sampler (above) is striking: it places her father atop a small familial hierarchy, above his first and second wife and their four children. Paternity is overt; maternity only deducible by examining dates of birth and death. In this riff on a genealogical tree, more important than connecting the present to the past is inscribing an inter-generational duty: overseen by an elder generation, undertaken through a younger, promised to a future. “Let us live so in youth that we blush not in age”, the poem insists. The admonishment is surely a basic feature of gendered household management, but one cannot help but hear echoes of the broader national anxiety about the character and prospect of the country during these years, when the trope of the cyclical rise, corruption, and fall of republics was most potent.

Expanding on this analogy, Greenwold explains that “these domestically-scaled ways of representing self or family could become proxies for larger questions of national identity.” Especially in the works of childhood (produced both of and by children), “for a person in the early US, memorializing their children as the first generation of native-born citizens could be an act of establishment, visualized in a permanent and lasting way around virtues that were stressed for a new republic: industry, piety, family, etc. This notion of a domestically-scaled object had bearing not just on how folks were understanding their own families, but within a larger-scale participation in a budding national family.”

Though many of these were household products intended for a domestic space, perusing the exhibition, one can also imagine the markets for likenesses springing up in these decades before the more mechanized means of the daguerreotype and its successors. The shadow-cutters are the cheapest, visually starkest, and perhaps most arresting of works on display. Greenwold notes that these profiles cut into beige paper and pasted on black background (and sometimes vice versa) were produced at once by itinerant artists, as a popular parlor game, or in such venues as Charles Willson Peale’s Museum by means of a physiognotrace. The exhibition explains the special appeal of the profile—which features the chin, nose, and forehead—in the field of physiognomy, which sought to discern character in the subject’s facial features. In these shadow cutters of the women of the Stone family, distinctive hair styles have been inked around the silhouettes. Historian Sarah Gold McBride, whose work examines the significance and uses of hair in the nineteenth century, argues that in addition to physiognomy, hair style, texture, style, and color conveyed clues to one’s character in this period. (See her dissertation “Whiskerology: Hair and the legible body in nineteenth-century America” (2017) for more on this.)

IMG_2898

Unidentified artist (United States, 19th century), Cut paper silhouettes of the Stone Family, 1917.11-.18

These were often products of fleeting popular or commercial transactions. However, in addition to revelations of character, as small and easily transferable objects these likenesses-and more specifically portrait miniatures painted in watercolor on ivory-could be more intimate than the finely painted portraits of Stuart or John Singleton Copley. Greenwold elaborates, that “they are meant to be very portable and physically held, near the heart or the body. That sort of physical embodiment of a loved one does something categorically different than something that hangs in a parlor, such as an oil on canvas portrait, that would be both for family and the larger group of visitors who would be in your home.”

If girls mainly executed the works of childhood in this collection, and mostly men those of adulthood, women undertook the tasks of mourning represented here. Though there are cases of men making some of the outlines of such mourning embroidery, Greenwold discusses that “in this nineteenth-century moment, women were becoming the vessels through which a family performs its mourning—the public face through which a family expresses grief, for instance.” Bedecked in Greco-Roman iconography, balanced around a central urn inscribed with the dates of the departed, these “classically-draped figures intertwine with a lexicon of Christianity, forming a hybrid language of pagan and Christian.” It is a common aesthetic aspired to by the middle to affluent classes in this period, but one which suggests again how the marking and performance of the life cycle in the early US was enmeshed with the larger concerns of the place of the American citizen and republic in history.

Memorial to Mrs. Lydia Emery

Susan Merrill (United States, 1791-1868), Memorial to Mrs. Lydia Emery, 1811, watercolor and needlework on silk, Gift of Helen Harrington Boyd in memory of Susan Merrill Adams Boyd, 1968.4