Sunday, July 27, 2008


I went to Venice for the day when we were in Verona, since it was so close by. Despite the horrific summer crowds, I quite see what all the fuss is about. It is a marvellous city, with its thoroughfares of water and its narrow medieval back streets. I hadn't really thought about the complete absence of motorized vehicles; supplies for restaurants and markets are brought in by boat and trundled through the streets on handcarts. As a result, the medieval streets have never needed to be widened, and the city remains, in scale and atmosphere, a walker's city.


One is struck with a sense of amazement, not that it was built in the first place, but that it somehow remains standing despite the ravages of time and water. Signs of rebuilding and alteration are everywhere, as above, where a Renaissance arcade has been filled in with brick and square windows let into the resulting wall.

I took the above picture from the bus, which is of course a boat. The best part is that I saw boxy yellow barges at the edges of the canals, with the numbers of bus lines on them; I thought these were the buses, but in fact they are the bus stations, where you wait for the bus itself (not a barge, but an oversized motor launch).

Venice's historical connections with Byzantium are immediately visible in the city: not only in the mosaic interior of San Marco, but in its treasury and here and there in other details of the city, like this Madonna and child shrine on the stucco facade of a minor palazzo.


Dispatch from the Ghetto

The word "ghetto," Venetian dialect for "slag" (the name of the area was Campo Ghetto or "slag-land," for the foundries that had been there previously) was first used to refer to the settlement allotted for the Jews of Venice in 1516, on a tiny island separated from the rest of the city by canals. Famously, the bridges over the canals were barred every night and during certain Christian festivals, until the gates were removed during the Napoleonic occupation of 1797. It remains a tiny neighborhood surrounding a single main piazza and a network of streets narrow even by Venetian standards:


A few traces of the medieval neighborhood are still visible, like this wellhead:


(I couldn't help wondering where the water to fill these wells came from, but clearly there must be some way of accessing the water table without saltwater contamination.)

The Ghetto is still an active Jewish neighborhood with five synagogues catering to Jews of different regional extractions (Portuguese Sephardim, German Ashkenazim, etc.). One of the synagogues houses a tiny museum; there is a gift shop nearby selling Jewish-themed Venetian glass (HAND BLOWN BY MY SISTER, the shopkeeper's homemade shelf-labels read) and with a hilarious blown-glass chess set in the front window: white-clad Ashkenazim in yarmulkes opposite black-hatted and black-clad Sephardim. There is a bakery and a few other Judaica shops, and the inevitable shopfront outpost for Chabad.

I visited the bakery and brought back a few local specialties for himself, who had spent all day in his conference. This allowed me to deliver a line that I do not expect to be able to deliver again: "Honey, I brought you some Jewish cookies from the ghetto."

The doorways of the houses in the Ghetto tell the story of years of Jewish life, and of the interruptions of the twentieth century:


Notice the stone doorframe, gouged out at the top where a mezuzah was once mounted. Yet another doorway nearby was inscribed with the opening words of the Ashrei:


"Blessed are they that dwell in Thy house; they will be always praising Thee."

Two Professors in Verona

Verona is, if you can get past the ersatz Shakespeare tourism, utterly charming. It is an old Roman town (apparently Catullus was a local boy) in the Veneto, about an hour and a half by train west of Venice. Like Arles, Verona still has its Roman arena, which serves as the municipal performing arts center where operas are performed in repertory during the summer season; what we thought was an Egyptian Revival monument in the Piazza Bra' turned out to be large set pieces for Aida, winched in by crane before each night's performance.


Medieval Verona was the seat of the Della Scala family and was ruled by the memorably named Cangrande della Scala ("great dog"), who offered Dante a place to stay when he was exiled from Florence. It has a couple of really spectacular medieval palazzi and churches, including the marvellous Basilica of San Zeno Maggiore, whose rose window is conceived as a Wheel of Fortune:


St. Zeno himself is entombed in the crypt in a glass-sided coffin, which is a bit of a surprise if you are not expecting it. Time and again it was borne in on me, the old sense in which a saint is so often, in Europe, a local figure, whose cult is sanctified by local belief and testimony. One of the things that happened in Hawai'i while we were away was a vote at the Vatican to elevate to sainthood Father Damien of Moloka'i, although it's not clear whether the actual canonization has taken place. One of his two attested miracles is said to have taken place in Hawai'i. These miracles were documented and investigated by a team of experts. But in another time, it might have been the faith of local believers that sainted Father Damien, not an official committee. So also San Zeno, the African bishop of Verona.

One of the most atmospheric things about Verona was the stucco facades of the buildings, painted in warm colors, and punctuated by ornamental stone window casings. The smooth, weathered color of the walls and the battered stonework give the impression of great age, but also of a very human comfort.


The Italian Gothic makes its Arabic roots more visible than the French Gothic does.


The Shakespeare thing is mostly due to Romeo and Juliet (strangely enough, there is no Two Gentlemen of Verona tourism) but it is ersatz since, even if you grant that the Italian story Shakespeare adapted into his play had some basis in reality, it wasn't set in Verona, but (I think) Siena. Thus, to identify the Montagues and the Capulets with local families, and then to identify houses which they might have owned in the thirteenth or fourteenth century, and then to make sure one of them has balconies, and to decide which one must have been Juliet's, is increasingly fabulistic. There are cookies called Juliet's Kisses (baci di Giulietta) and Romeo's Kisses (baci di Romeo) sold in local bakeries, etc., etc. The thing that makes the whole exercise memorable is the way it reflects the literary fascinations of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when the Grand Tour became a practice in English-speaking countries. The important thing, oddly enough, is not that this was Juliet's balcony; but Lord Byron thought this was Juliet's balcony, and that does in fact make it memorable.

For Languagehat

Man, I wish I'd known about this woman when I was getting my Ph.D.


Thursday, July 10, 2008


Quick low-bandwidth on-the-road placeholder post:

In Italy, "Romanesque" tends to mean less "in the Roman style" and more "made of odds and sods the Romans left lying around." Witness:


Sunday, July 6, 2008

Six million Parisians


The Catacombs of Paris is a famous ossuary complex in the disused limestone quarries under the fourteenth arrondissement. When the urban cemeteries around the churches of Paris grew so full that they began to spread disease and endanger the water supply, somebody had the bright idea of removing them to the miles of quarry tunnels under the city. This happened at about the same time that the City of Paris established a commission for the inspection of the quarries, which cut through the limestone beds some 20 meters below ground level, and which sometimes caused subsidences of streets and buildings above before they were inspected and reinforced. The commission was appointed in 1777, and part of the tunnel system was designated for use as an ossuary in 1786, although bones continued to be moved into the catacombs through the nineteenth century.

One enters the catacombs at Place Denfert-Rochereau, through a cast-iron shelter obviously set up in the nineteenth century, when the Romantic fascination with death led them to become a Parisian attraction:


To reach the tunnels, one descends an extremely long spiral staircase (130+ steps) which becomes a sort of surreal experience even before one comes to the quarries proper. There is then close to a kilometer of galleries to traverse before coming to the ossuary area; but this is interesting in itself as it forms a sort of museum of the limestone quarries and the practices of the miners, who did things like dig wells so they could have access to water while mining, and carve little scenes here and there from the rock:


Eventually you come to the ossuaries. The image at the beginning of this post is the verse over the door to the first chamber. The scene inside is indescribable: the skeletons of over six million Parisians, including the sculptor Girardon, the architect Mansart (inventor of the mansard roof), and Madame de Pompadour, together with innumerable nameless souls of the last seven or eight centuries, are piled inside in ornamental patterns. It would have seemed oddly disrespectful to take pictures, even if I had known how to turn off the flash on our camera, but there are some images here. The long bones and skulls are piled neatly in "walls" between limestone columns adjoining the walkways, and the other bones are thrown behind them in a jumble, often stretching backward for several meters.

It is difficult to give a sense of the impression these ossuaries give: I thought it would be the proximity of human bones that would strike me the hardest, but as it turned out it was the sheer quantity that really stays with me. It's not the number of bones that boggles the mind so much as the number of individuals, the number of lives lived on the streets of Paris. Six million is the usual estimate of the number of Jews who died in the Holocaust; but facing six million skeletons is a very different thing from contemplating this number in the abstract. (In fact, since the urban burial grounds of Paris were generally consecrated Christian cemeteries, there are probably few skeletons of Jews in the catacombs.) You realize that some of these people were happy, and some were miserable; some kind, and some cruel; some learned, some ignorant. All the sorts of lives that could be lived in Paris from the medieval period to the end of the eighteenth centuries were lived by these people.

One thing I hadn't thought about was the way human skulls differ from each other, which is particularly visible in the catacombs where they are laid in long rows. Even without their lower jaws, each has its own apparent expression, its own slightly different morphology; I hadn't really thought about how much the individual uniqueness of a human face was due to the underlying architecture of bone. It must be true of most of the bones in the ossuary, in fact, but it is the skulls that really give this impression. I had rarely thought of how delicate and fragile-seeming a human skull is, that contains so much of what we think we are; and how it bears the traces of human development in the sutures of bone that close in early childhood.

Each of these skeletons was nurtured by the wheat fields, orchards, and vineyards of Paris, by its dairies and its calcium-rich water (that filters up through the same layer of limestone through which the quarries are cut; even today I start my days with a cup of tea and limescale), harvest after harvest, lifetime after lifetime. The fruitfulness of long-lost farms is here, and the persistence of human life: through poverty, revolution, and war, come hunger or wealth, we continue to laugh, and quarrel, and love, to endeavor, to forget, to take risks, and to trust each other.

The catacombs are decorated with tablets and inscriptions from poets and writers (and the Bible, naturally) on the subject of death. They tend to be on the "memento mori" ("remember that you must die") theme; I wish I could find a place where they were collected. Some were taken from classical or Biblical sources, some from French poetry, and some were "on the spot" comments by famous people who had visited the catacombs, including, if memory serves, a King of Sweden. The one I remember is from Psalm 116: "Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints."

The pigeons of Paris

The pigeon population of Paris, according to this site, was apparently introduced by pigeon-keepers in the 19th century; prior to that they were not urban birds, which is hard to imagine if you've been to any major world city. (The site also claims that there is one pigeon for every 25 Parisians.) Most of what you see is the ordinary city pigeon or Rock Dove, but one frequently sees a larger and slightly more stately bird with a rosy breast and white neck:


This is the Wood Pigeon (follow the link for better pictures) and it is a very attractive bird. There are a couple living in the tree outside our window. Its size makes it easier to understand how the pigeon could have been considered a game bird, and also why the raising of pigeons in urban areas became popular (much as the raising of rabbits, and for the same purpose).

Saturday, July 5, 2008

St. Medardus of Noyon

The parish church near our place is dedicated to St-Médard (c. 457-545), the Northern Wei, uh, Merovingian bishop of Vermandois best known for removing the seat of the diocese to Noyon. He is the St. Swithun of France, in that it is said that if it rains on his feast day (June 8) it will rain for forty days thereafter. (Unlike the French and the English, we Americans use a groundhog instead of a saint for the same purpose.) Somewhat awesomely, he is also the patron saint of lifelong male partners, so three cheers and a San Francisco wedding for St. Médard.

The church itself is a wonderful (but ordinary) historical pastiche: fifteenth-century nave, sixteenth-century chancel, eighteenth-century apse, windows from all different periods. I really love this quality of architecture in the lived places of Europe, that parts of the old are incorporated into the new. Many apartment houses in Paris, with staid Haussmannian facades and wrought-iron, have exposed seventeenth-century hand-hewn beams in the apartments; and the longest known section of the enceinte (city wall) of Philippe-Auguste was found to have survived only because it was reused as the back wall of some seventeenth-century tenements in the Marais. Naturally, from an engineering point of view, why would you tear down a perfectly decent stone wall?

Similarly, those who renovated the church of St-Médard in the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries were not seized with the nineteenth-century impulse to tear everything down and start again; they merely extended the length of the church and fitted the new chancel to what could be saved of the old nave. There is evidence for a churchyard here since the time of St-Médard, though, since Merovingian graves have been found in the area. Now the churchyard is reduced to a small park and the square in front of the church is a market square, where vegetables are sold.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Connolly's Corner

Beer is not the first thing France is known for, and we've tended to go out for a kir or a coffee more than for a beer. But there is an Irish pub near our place which plays good music in a relaxed atmosphere. It has hilarious paintings on its windows:


Click through to Flickr for the full collection.

La Coupole

For our anniversary, and thanks to the generosity of Rex's parents, we had a Long French Dinner at La Coupole, one of the most famous brasseries of the Montparnasse district. Founded in 1927, it was frequented by artists and writers from Jean Cocteau and Man Ray to Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. The interior is done in an Art Deco style with columns decorated (for about a meter's length between the capitals and the ceiling) by local artists, back when "local artists" meant Modigliani, Leger, Picasso, and Matisse. On the walls currently is an exhibition of photographs of the sculptural work of Niki de Saint Phalle, along with photographs of the artist herself.

The food at La Coupole is classic French brasserie food, with a few specialties left over from the politically incorrect 1920s (when Josephine Baker and her bananas danced in the basement dance-hall). The most embarrassing of these was the lamb curry, which was served by a South Asian waiter in costume (kurta pajama, scarves, turban, etc.) from a rolling cart. His only job was apparently to serve the curry when it was ordered, as we watched him stand on the sidelines of the enormous dining room (said to seat 450, and full the night we went) for three hours.

We had champagne and foie gras de canard, and I had an entrecote of veal with chanterelles and gratin dauphinoise (a rich potato gratin). Rex had the Chateaubriand steak, which is part of the tenderloin, with frites. For dessert we split the crepes suzette, which was more than enough after all that rich food. It was all delicious, though you wouldn't want to do it too often.

Because it is a brasserie, the dress code is fairly casual, though one can dress up if one feels so inclined. We did, because we were celebrating, but we saw everything from jacket and tie to T-shirt and shorts. A white-haired couple across the way were deep in animated conversation, he in a jacket and tie with mitered French cuffs and she in a classic 1940s-style dress, and her hair in a French roll. She looked like Lauren Bacall. Next to us were two men in T-shirts and cut-off shorts, carrying backpacks and saying little.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The Little Schoolboy

The most famous cookie made by the famous LU company of cookie manufacturers is the Petit Ecolier or Little Schoolboy, which is a regular LU Petit Beurre (butter biscuit) with a slab of chocolate on top, molded with the image of a 19th-century schoolboy. We have been making our euro stretch further here by buying generic versions of various things at the Franprix, mostly produced as part of the excellent Leader Price line. They offer things you would never think of as being generic (tapenade, smoked salmon, marinated herring, foie gras) and we benefit from it. They clearly have a sense of humor, though, because the Leader Price version of the cookie just described has the chocolate embossed with the image of a baseball-capped kid on a skateboard, and the name of the cookie is the Petit Sacripant ("The Little Truant.")

Talk to the animals

The public park nearest our place is the Jardin des Plantes, which as the name suggests is a botanical garden with gigantic nineteenth-century natural history museums/labs attached. It is justly popular with the neighborhood kids for its combination of running-around space and kid-friendly animal art. Outside the museum proper are a series of animal sculptures including this exuberant horse:


The plinths of all these sculptures had quotations from famous French naturalists on them. Even better, the park has a tiny carousel painted with exotic animals:


and on which you can ride a gorilla or a dodo instead of any old horse:


Then you can have a snack with the gorilla and the dodo:


Stating the obvious


"But what is 'Jew art'?"

(Statue in honor of Captain Dreyfus, in the courtyard of the Museum of the Art and History of Judaism.)

The title of this post is the question posed to me by a museum curator recently when I asked him what he thought of the Musée d'art et d'histoire du Judaïsme. His question, however awkwardly posed, is a good one, so long as you grant that he is speaking from the particular point of view of an art museum. As a curator, how do you make a single artistic narrative out of art produced by and for the Jews in places as far afield as Shanghai, Damascus, Tunis and Troyes?

Yesterday we went to the Musée d'art et d'histoire du Judaïsme, and also to the Mémorial des Martyrs de la Déportation. The former is located in the Hôtel de Saint-Aignan, a spectacular seventeenth-century mansion near the Marais. It is an enjoyable but rather schizophrenic museum which can't seem to decide whether it's an educational museum about the history of worldwide Judaism (in which case a lot of the world gets left out), a history of the Jews of France (in which case there's a surprising quantity of Italian silver and Algerian clothing), an art museum (it really isn't an art museum), or what. The story it is telling is rather mixed up.

I suspect this is because the Jewish Museum has a very eclectic collection (the history of the collection, recounted on the website, begins to explain some of its eclecticism), and is tasked with showing as much of it as possible, but there are all sorts of oddities: a section on Zionism but nothing on Israel, and a historical narrative that ends in 1939. This was particularly puzzling until we realized there's a separate museum and Memorial de la Shoah which covers the Holocaust. It still means that Judaism post-1948 and the State of Israel are left out of the story. There is an effort to represent contemporary Jews in the Museum of History and Art, including a photography installation by Sophie Calle called "The Eruv" and another series of photographs of contemporary French Jews, with their stories, dispersed throughout the display cases from the very beginning of the show. This could be particularly interesting given Jewish-Muslim intercommunal conflict, because so many French Jews are of Algerian or Tunisian origin, and the older generation grew up in a context in which there was less conflict between Jews and Muslims than there is today. But there is a strange imbalance in many of the materials the museum shows: a collection of Algerian Jewish costume, a collection of Italian Jewish silver, a collection of French Jewish tombstones.

Behind this all is the sense we've gotten here of the overarching presence of the French state in everything, and the felt necessity for museums and monuments to project a coherent narrative that is about Frenchness first and foremost. On top of this, the fierce commitment to a specifically secular state means that the position of the Jews is somewhat odd - although many French intellectuals (Bernard-Henri Levy, Claude Levi-Strauss, etc.) are assimilated Jews, the only visible Jewish culture is Orthodox. It's similar with the Muslims (we're staying down the street from the Great Mosque) - one only sees the more extreme end of this community. But it seems to come from a particularly French version of equality, which does not encompass the US vision of coexisting despite one's differences; it's more like the old colonial sense that everyone was equal because everyone had the same chance to learn good French, read Proust in the original, etc. - that everyone had an equal chance to become civilized.

I think this goes some way to explaining the Deportation memorial, which is actually quite powerful and effective. It's a memorial to all the deportees of WWII, not just Jews but Gypsies, Communists, homosexuals, etc., all the categories of "undesirables" of the Third Reich. Thus it has to solve the problem that most memorials of WWII in Europe do: the problem of who owns the Holocaust. in the US it is always a Jewish story first and foremost, but of course that leaves a lot of people out, even if the Jews were the majority of deportees. It does a good job of this, because it works by reproducing the experience of confinement (high walls, iron bars, narrow passages) and thus by focusing on the experience of the deportees (which was universal) and not their reasons for being deported. On the walls are quotations from Sartre, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, etc. - the pantheon of mid-20th-century French intellectuals, basically - about how terrible the war was. The effect, above all, is to make the Holocaust French, which is of course appropriate in a memorial to French deportees. But for an American Jew, it is interesting to see that all the things US Jewry thinks of as having happened "over there" are of course "over here" when you are in Europe; and that the sense of ownership of the WWII experience is as likely to be national as ethno-religious. I am sure this is complicated by the particular difficulty of coming to terms with the Vichy government's collaboration with the Nazis. The memorial itself is extremely powerful.

The memorial is positioned at the eastern (upstream) tip of the Île de la Cité, in effect "behind" Notre-Dame cathedral. One enters by descending a narrow flight of stone steps. There is a guard who makes sure there aren't too many people in the memorial at once, and whose job seems as much to defend the dignity of the memorial itself as anything else; he reprimanded two women waiting in line for smoking while they waited. At the foot of the steps is an open courtyard shaped like the prow of a ship, with high, bare stone walls, and a barred and spiked iron window grating, conspicuously locked, looking out on the waters of the Seine. Turning around, one sees a narrow passage into a dark stone interior, where a ner tamid (eternal light) burns. Cramped cells open off the central space, and the names of the death camps are inscribed on the walls, together with the quotations from French intellectuals. At the rear of the chamber is a sort of crypt, a long narrow space which one cannot enter, containing the tomb of an unknown deportee, and on either wall, hundreds of thousands of tiny light bulbs, one for each of the deportees. This looks a lot like the yahrzeit bulbs at many synagogues, and was the only particularly Jewish touch. As one turns to leave, the words "Forgive, but do not forget" are inscribed over the door.