Tag Archives: Bologna

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Becoming Texan

I have three friends who are wannabe Texans. First, there is my “brother” in Bologna, an art historian of a high order of intelligence. He has all the characteristics of a genius—he is creative and he is enthusiastic about what he loves: art, the Palio, hot chili peppers (he grows his own jalapeños and Carolina reapers), his friends, and, of course, Texas; indeed, he is a genius. The other two, also geniuses, are new to loving Texas: one, Argentinian, because she loves Texans, Texan food and Texas’ oldest university; the other, French, for the same reasons, plus boots.

Now the last of these friends is hilarious in no small part because, unlike most people who love boots, she (and I) just fantasize about them the way that perhaps a teenager (and she has two teenage daughters, so I should be careful here) fantasizes about being a pop star; actually, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that her daughters fantasize instead about writing a book like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, which I believe they are now reading in English. But this friend of mine and I both go to boot stores to look, smell, feel and touch, the way I once went to William H. Allen, Bookseller at 2031 Walnut Street in Philadelphia. I would feel the books, touch them, smell them, and fantasize about buying them; and, in the end, I would buy one or two, and invariably Mr. Allen, just as he was thanking me (in spoken Latin) for my business, would give me one or two paperbacks for free. He was a marvelous man, and I treasure my memory of him and keep his books among the many in my personal library in Texas.

A bust similar to this one from the Naples Museum sat steadfastly in the window of William H. Allen’s Bookstore on Walnut Street.

Though I am a native of Pennsylvania who spent most of his childhood in the Philadelphia area, I have now lived in Texas for some twenty-five years; yet, I still do not have a pair of boots.  Yet recently, while my Argentinian friend was dealing with a number of kind Texans, as she was then on a computer shopping spree, my French friend and I, went boot shopping–that is to fantasize about buying boots. We even consulted with a buff and husky salesperson about the general efficacy of wearing boots in inclement weather, for example, what a particular Texan t-shirt’s dictum meant (apparently it comprised an erotic reference neither of us understood), and whether the on-sale boots were of high enough quality to purchase—which he assured us was definitely the case. This is quite a contrast to my friend from Bologna, who when he was visiting Texas, bought two pairs of boots—one for himself, and another for his charming daughter.

Recently, when I was standing there at a funeral for a dear friend who, thanks be to God, passed away at a good old age, and I noticed that all the real Texans were wearing not only their suits, as I was, but also boots, I immediately became alarmed. I realized that, after all these years, I was still a spurious Texan. Jody, one of the pallbearers, pointed out to me that if I were to cross over from dress shoes to boots, I could do it incrementally.  He suggested just switching one of his boots for my shoe—not at the funeral, of course, put presumably later that day at Starbucks or let’s say after work, at a bar for a beer.  That way I could try it.  But what would people think at the bar?  I mean, surely the bar patrons would notice that we were wearing each other’s shoe.  (Some might be bikers and be upset by such an odd development—pace all motorcyclists here).  I know he was joking about putting my best foot forward, but surely going back to the boot store would be a better solution.

Then his brother, Cody—for Texans often have rhyming names—suggested that if I were to go back to the boot store, I should definitely not get a lizard-skin boot.  That would be a sure sign, aside from my Philadelphia accent, which is already problematical, that I am not a Texan. I had no idea that real Texans prefer what he called “rawhide” boots.  So, that is a good piece of information, I thought to myself, for my French friend and I, under the tutelage of the buff and husky salesperson, had noticed that the lizard skin boots were in any case significantly more expensive. 

And then another in our group of pallbearers—and again, I was the sole bootless pallbearer—whom some call “Waco” (a nickname), but whose real name is Glyn (pronounced “Glen”) suggested that I get a ten-gallon hat to go with it. I know he was only kidding. Jody then quipped—I think it was Jody—said maybe start with a nine-gallon version; Cody said, no, “He’s ready for a nine-point-five-gallon hat.”  Of course, I recognized these comments as kind of ritualistic rite du passage, that has moved the transformation of me from a lad from Philadelphia into a man from Texas. 

And then, just when everything had settled down and I had temporarily scratched my itch, to some small extent, to become a real Texan, my French friend wrote me, sending me electronically a picture of a real Texan boot store she found in Paris.  And she told me how enamored of the Texan accent she is, too. (I’ve never known anyone enamored of the Philly accent.) And then, coincidentally, my other friend, from Argentina, wrote to tell me what a wonderful impression she had of Texas and of Texans, and how well her Texan computer is working.  I didn’t want to ruin it for her by telling her that that computer, though purchased in Waco, Texas, which is coincidentally my other friend’s persistent nickname, was not made in Texas. But why ruin it for her? She loves Texans, had a great time in Texas, and anyway, though she bought a Hewlett-Packard, it might as well have been a Dell, right? Dell is at least based in Texas, even if the Dell I am now writing this on was made in China (I checked).  And this friend, even though an Argentinian—and as you know Argentina is famous for its steaks—said that Texan steak is delicious, too.  And that’s a real compliment. I suspect, by the way, that this intellectual friend also likes cowboy boots.  But of the four non-Texans mentioned in this blog, only my brother from Bologna has had the courage to buy them so far.

That said, I think that now I have good start on becoming Texan. I love Texan steak. I have horse and mule riding experience, as I was a muleskinner for circa ten years.  I will probably buy rawhide boots in the next twelve to eighteen months. And, though I may not buy a ten-gallon hat, I am debating about getting a belt with a breastplate sized buckle.  I am not sure about that, as perhaps I have too much belly fat.  But maybe they’re slimming?  After all, even arguably overweight professional wrestlers look pretty good in their championship belts, don’t they?

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Nervous Traveler

Fortunately, I wasn’t actually next to the woman, for she seemed very nervous to me. Yet though there was an entire aisle between us, it provided no comfortable hiatus, as an airplane’s aisle, even that of a Boeing 787, is more like one of the narrow canals of Venice than the vast Adriatic Sea that feeds that city’s beautiful system of aquatic thoroughfares.

Yet I’m not going to Venice, not this time. Rather, via a layover in Madrid I am Bologna-bound, where I will meet up with a dear friend, Piergiacomo, and his lovely family: Anna, his fine wife, and Margarita, their beautiful daughter. There we shall spend four days discussing art history—the early Renaissance, specifically, for that is what we most often discuss. Coffee in the morning, wine in the evening, and a day spent enjoying the hint of Piergiacomo’s pipe smoke in the air, testing one of his home-grown red peppers, talking about Italian food (for there is no better place in the world to do that than Bologna), and art of course, art and literature, and occasionally spiritual things to boot.

But I am not there yet. Rather, even as I write this I am in an airplane very near that nervous traveler. I can only imagine that she is nervous, for it is the middle of the night when everyone is sleeping or, in my case, trying to sleep. And while we are occupied with the vain pursuit of mental inanity, aka restful repose—nay, rather, sleep—she is furrowing her bag. Or is she rifling it? Or is it that she is rifling through her bag? I prefer furrowing, for she keeps digging into it as if she were making a furrow in the soil. And she seems to have found a vein not of flint or clay but of plastic, noisy plastic. And here’s the weird part: she keeps going back to that vein of plastic like a miner trying to hack into a vein of copper or iron. She keeps picking at it nervously, seemingly entirely unaware of how shrill crinkling plastic can be. Indeed, it’s not a soft plastic but rather the kind of annoying plastic that some brands of muesli are packaged in, the kind that, when you try to open them without a scissors, causes the muesli to spill either all over the table or, at best, into the cardboard box, and in either case is not capable of being put back into the plastic bag as it is now split too badly. Why? It consisted of that nasty, crinkly plastic, the very plastic this woman kept mining for, so it seemed.

All that to my right, across the aisle. To my left came some redemption, but not until the morning. Then, once the coffee was safely delivered to my seat, my nearby seatmate and I struck up a conversation about literature. Now, if you’ve read previous blogs, you know that I don’t normally engage in conversations on airplanes. But this time providentially, so it seems, I did, just a few minutes ago now as I write this. Mercedes is a teacher in Spain, at an international school with a good deal of Asian, and a generally diverse, body of students. She adores them, and it is easy to see that she is a good teacher. She is, too, a good role model for them, seeking to make them aware of the global crises that confront our world today. How can we just stand by while we are inhumane to our fellow men, while our planet dies of pollution poisoning? She seeks to know the motivations that allow some people to stand by and watch while others do seemingly heroic things, taking on causes not their own, making the welfare of one’s fellow man a priority higher than career or monetary gain or, in some cases, even the comforts of family life. All good questions. All questions she wants her students to consider, to take to heart.

And Mercedes has not only asked the right questions but rightly connected them with what so few do nowadays—framing of the world in spiritual terms. So many would accept a two spheres approach: God’s in his heaven, all’s wrong with the world. Or put another way, science is one thing, religion another. One frequently hears that formulation, as if it were a mantra. But Mercedes intelligently and counterintuitively connected the actions to spiritual outlook. It can’t explain every action, of course, and one knows that sometimes religious viewpoints produce disastrous outcomes. Terrorism motivated by religious fervor is one obvious example. But Mercedes was digging a bit deeper, considering teachings that don’t suggest such an outcome: loving your neighbor as yourself, praying for those who persecute you, asking God to do His will on earth and let His peaceful kingdom come, not the political or military kingdoms of men.

Wow, now there’s a not-very-nervous traveler; rather, there on my left I found in Mercedes what I call the thoughtful traveler. Meanwhile the woman with the plastic in her purse had fallen asleep, but all in vain, for now we were landing. We had come back to earth, the way one does after a good prayer, though with less bouncing around on the tarmac. And now on to Bologna. I can almost taste the food already, and I’m equally looking forward to friendship, reflections on art, and trying a few good home-grown peppers.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: On Books and Travel

hunt-stok-book
To order click on the image above.

Well, there’s nothing like curling up with a good book. An old dictum, and perhaps there’s none truer. My friend is writing a new book now, one that will be out this summer. Actually, he’s cowriting the book with a colleague from Italy, whom I also know, a certain professor from the university of Tor Vergata in Rome along with another American colleague. What seems to me to be weird about the book he’s writing is that, though it is a scholarly book, it is one that I think—for I am helping him proofread it—will be accessible to the general public. So it’s a good book in a different way than, say, the Curious Autobiography is said to be by its Amazon reviewers. Of course, my friend’s book, which can already be ordered is still in production, so it hasn’t any Amazon reviews of its own (or other reviews) just yet, though perhaps some “prodigiously famous” scholarly polysyllabricator will write a virtually unintelligible blub for the back cover. But I want to say that that book, which I am reading this weekend, seems to me to be really a good book, an interesting one that anyone could enjoy at home or abroad, for the only thing better than curling up with a good book is reading one in transit.

9781480814738_COVER.indd
To order click on the image above.

I very much like doing that—reading while roaming—not only because it lightens the burden of travel and luggage transfer but also because the movement of one’s eye over the page often whets that same eye’s appetite for scanning a new vista, studying every store window, admiring architecture, or considering the quaintness of each town on the journey. I’ve got a trip planned for a group of friends this summer, a group of friends who have never visited Bologna or eaten at the Osteria Broccaindosso, number 7 on Broccaindosso Street. There, you may recall from a previous blog, one finds the world’s best lasagna (thankfully my Aunt Lee Ann is not alive to read this, for she boasted the best lasagna, made in the Bolognese style), a truly scrumptious antipasto, which I devoured when I was there, of course, befobologna-foodre the lasagna came to my plate, not to mention the procession of smidgens of insalata al balsamico, egged-up zucchini treats, superb slices of ricotta and mozzarella, all served alongside high-quality local wine, Sangiovese. Dare I mention the dessert, the incredible mound of tiramisù? All that awaits my traveling friends’ lip-smacking palates, but that is not what is really amazing about Bologna: it’s the seven churches, Asinelli and Garisenda towers of the city center, the endless porticoes, and the chance to walk over the grounds of the oldest university in the western world.

venice-canalAnd that’s just the beginning of what will be a wonderful adventure. Next comes Venice (need I quip at all?), then, after a bus ride through the Alpine foothills, we’ll go on to Salzburg (the home of Mozart and the Opernfestspiele where, if we can get the tickets ordered soon, we shall see Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito); salzburg-cityscapethen on to Augsburg, Germany with a stop on the German side of Lake Constance, which in Teutonic is known as Bodensee, for dinner. St. Gallen beckons next, where we shall visit a superb monastery and library, and where, I hope, we shall all be inspired to curl up with that proverbial good book, for that town is tranquil beyond belief and the library pure inspiration. A stop at Zurich’s Altstadt follows before the trip winds up in Geneva, where there is so much to do and see that the mind boggles.altstadt

I’m hoping to read a good book on that trip, or maybe to write while in transit, for I much enjoy that, too. Perhaps I will begin writing the next installment in the Curious Autobiography series—something I’ve put off too long. So, while I am not certain about what specifically that trip will hold for me, I am sure that it will offer a sense of wonder to our entire group of wayfaring friends, who all will experience the overwhelming joy of grasping new cultures, shaking new hands and making new friends. And it will offer, too, inspiration, for one learns through travel what one cannot learn from staying home, even when curled up with a good book.

 

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: “Just Sayin'”

just sayin

“Just sayin’” is not just a Philly expression, but it might as well be. I’d love to know where it actually started, because it sounds to me as Philadelphian as an expression can possibly be. Just sayin’.

But what does it mean? Once all the Philly-ease and Philly accent is stripped away—that is to say, when one translates it from the vernacular to the highbrow, mutatis mutandis it might be rendered, “If you will permit me to broach the subject” or perhaps more directly, “Might I take the liberty of mentioning…?” And a person who would use such language might feign not enjoying talking about what they are talking about, however prurient his or her interest in the subject might be.

Along the same lines but more negatively, another person might use the expression haughtily. Such a rendering might be “If one really must descend to such considerations” or the like. Now this person might in fact share the same immodest interest as the person in the previous example, but he or she would not want you to know it; hence the apparent disdain. The topic is portrayed, of course, as well below that person’s normal level of discourse. Yet by pretending to be compelled to speak about it in this way, the person has an immediate out. That person enjoys complete deniability for, with the modal verb of compulsion, he has cleverly redirected the blame for the topic of discussion to a fictional conversational interloper or, worse, to you yourself.

But we have not exhausted the full range of the seemingly innocuous but actually quite potent expression “Just sayin’.” For there is also a rather crusty, even crude and inappropriate aspect to that declaration. Beneath the surface lurks a certain incongruity. In such a case, its user is essentially stating “I shouldn’t mention this, but I will anyway” (along with an implied, “I don’t care what you think about that”). This occurrence, what I am calling the “crude” usage, may actually be seen as an improvement over the first two because, on the surface at least, it seems more honest. It seems fresh, even brash; it seems to be ignoring the rules of proper etiquette, and maybe even smacks of a kind of “truth and nothing but the truth” of the courtroom or barber’s chair.

barber's chairIndeed, this third category—the one involving the barber’s chair—seems to me the most interesting and is why I decided with this blog to broach the subject of the sometimes quite condensed but too often indelicate expression “just sayin’.” Don’t get me wrong: I like honesty and, like most people, I find forthrightness refreshing. But the bit about the barber’s chair, a place where sometimes truly complex problems are swiftly whittled down, whether to splinters or usable planks, that is the part that I would like to consider briefly here.

I begin with a disclaimer. I love barbers, I really do, and I love conversing with them. I shan’t ever forget Jerry, my favorite barber—though he is no longer a barber, so I’ve heard, and no longer attends my church—who gave me a haircut just before my eldest son’s wedding. Though I tried to pay him, he wanted it to be a gift to me for the wedding. I’ve never forgotten his kindness, and the touching simplicity of that gift. Nor shall I ever fail to remember the barber of my childhood in the “Four Seasons Mall” in New Hope, Pennsylvania. There I would go by myself as a child, for I had no father to take me, and I would sit in the waiting chair next to all the magazines and newspaper, glutting my eyes on The Sporting News, memorizing baseball players’ statistics and reading the articles that speculated how the Phillies might wind up their season. Then up into the chair I would hop, for it was a very large (or so it seemed to me at the time) chair. I had to do all the conversing with my barber myself, as I hadn’t a father to take me or to engage Mike—for as I recall his name was Mike—about sports, or the weather or politics. But that was years ago and a world away from where I now am, Italy.

Bologna

Nevertheless, I was reminded of such erstwhile conversations when I arrived in Bologna, almost two two months ago now, to stay for a few days with my dear friend Piergiacomo and talk about hot peppers and Renaissance art (separately, of course) in his temporary “Man Cave,” for his lovely wife, Annamaria, and daughter, Margarita, were out of town. There the first thing I did, even before getting over jetlag, was seek out a barber to get a haircut, for I hadn’t had time to get one before I left. Somehow I found myself in the dingiest barber shop I’d been in for years, with music distortedly flooding the small square room through an iPhone speaker echoing off the high-walled ceiling. The lyrics seemed to me to be in Arabic—not exactly Rossini or Mozart—and the music surprised me by being in the rather modern sounding rap-style. Various magazines, well-thumbed and colorful, all in Arabic, adorned the small table next to the uncomfortable waiting seats.

straight razorI did not have to wait long. Kalam stood at the ready, inviting me with a less-than-welcoming glance to sit in the barber chair. A single light bulb on a wire string dangled above my head like the sword of Damocles. He held in his hands the implements of his trade, a straight razor and electric clippers. In very broken Italian with a thick Pakistani accent he told me he had come from Islamabad just a few months before. He didn’t like Italy much, he said, but you eat well here.

Kalam then asked me where I was from. I said Texas. He hadn’t heard of it. I said it’s a part of America, the south part of it. Ah America, he said, wielding his straight razor in a fashion that made me just a little uncomfortable. He went on to tell me of his hatred for Americans, but since I came from South America, he said, “That’s okay.” (What I had actually said was that Texas is in the southern part of America; he took that to be South America.) “I don’t hate South America,” he continued, “Just the USA. That is the great Satan.” As an accidental representative of what was to him a Hellish empire, I decided not to say much more, noting well the discomfiting combination of his palpable animosity toward America and the blade in his hand. Needless to say, I did not fuss over how ridiculously short he cut my hair, as bald fear in me produced in the end, a nearly bald appearance. Just sayin’.

Now will merely that expression “just sayin’ ” actually justify a story that might be deemed as Islamophobic? Indeed, it is thoroughly and quite literally Islamophobic, or at least Islamobadophobic. I was honestly scared as I sat in his chair, alone in such an off-the-beaten-track and quite shabby barbershop, while an insufferable coiffeur, in the course of reducing my head to little more than a lunar landing spot, wielded his blade, scratching away this and that bit of hair while he spoke between scratches of the evil decadence of the West and the great Satan, assuming all the while that a “South American” like me would agree with him.

But I leave that all aside to say that however baldly honest we may want to be whether about our political or our religious views, perhaps we would do well to recall that every once in a while it is good to leave them aside, every once in a while just to keep them to ourselves, especially when our most welcome allies accidentally, thanks to a minor misunderstanding, come from South America or, quite beyond that, in an election cycle when the candidates themselves are all too baldly dishonest in their honesty and vice versa. You never know when you might find yourself in the chair of an uncivilized version of the barber of Seville—no Figaro, him. Anyway, I’m just sayin.’

12092_JustSayin_Flat

 

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Dining Out in a World Gone Mad

I would love simply to have written this blog about dining out last evening at a charming restaurant in Bologna known as Osteria Broccaindosso, located at door number 7 on Broccaindosso Street (which explains its slightly difficult-to-pronounce name). osteria signI would love to tell you that I savored the best lasagna that I ever had, that the antipasto that led up to the lasagna was itself a feast, one that kept parading in waves toward our tiny table where it marched about in a ritual procession of smidgens of insalata al balsamico, miniature zucchini omelets, two super-fresh cheeses mozzarella cheese(ricotta and mozzarella) and other less easily identifiable but very easily devoured hors d’oeuvres. I would then love to have added that in fact everything in this tiny restaurant was thoughtfully prepared, delicate to the palate, and all of it something surpassing merely fresh. You would have to have performed in an Olympic triathlon to have worked up sufficient appetite to have desired, after the exquisite primo, a secondo, which I am sure would have been just as exquisite as the primo or antipasto. I would, too, have been sure to mention that the wine was an exceptionally high quality Sangiovese, a specialty of this region, rounding out the entire experience which, as by now you have ascertained, was simply remarkable. To top it off, even though both Piergiacomo (my friend who is an expert in art history, all things pertaining to Renaissance culture, and as a bonus, wine and food) Piergiacomo with orange hatand I did not ask for dessert, we were nevertheless treated to a spoonful each of the most amazing tiramisù that I have ever had—offered, no doubt, to be the final proof that we had died and gone to heaven. But I will not describe such an occasion in this blog, because it is not the time for that.tiramisu

 

 

 

Why can I not simply focus on something so delightful? Because others have died this week, and they have died not in a world rich in heavenly virtue or even rife with restaurants like Osteria Broccaindosso, for such establishments are rare, but rather they were murdered in a world gone to hell; they were shot to death in a world gone mad. While we saw something more than merely a hate crime in Orlando this week, we nevertheless did see hate-inspired killing at the hands of someone who smugly perceived himself a warrior in a battle. Driven on by hate, he envisioned himself as a hero about to die for a cause, not merely a cause, but for him the ultimate cause. He set himself up—or was set up by other insane zealots—as judge and jury and executioner. And he had, it would seem, no problem in taking up the last of these roles.

Many atheists see religion at the base of this man’s problems. Their facile argument is, “Remove religion and you remove the source of the hatred.” I don’t think it is really worth the time to demonstrate how specious such a statement is. It is probably not even worth suggesting that it is impossible to remove from most human beings their desire to discover their humanity not by repressing their religious impulse but by exploring it. It would be asking too much of a human being to ignore the soul’s cry for God, the hope for something beyond the grave. It is too much to ask us to see everything that is amazing—from the image of a mother lovingly nursing her infant to a powerful lightning storm to the Alps lightning in Alpsto humpback whales to the less spectacular (e.g. the color blue, another beautiful sunset)—as simply coincidence. Or what about that time you needed precisely $50 to pay the rent and you uncle sent you a card out of the blue with $50 in it? Yes, someone coulhumpback whaled say that’s all coincidence, but to most of us it does not seem to be simply that. On such occasions it certainly seems to the person receiving the $50 that there is a God. It seems that he is showing his care both in the particular and in the general. One can see the latter in the provision of this marvelous paradise in which we live, even though it is beset with dangers and grave challenges.

Yet I don’t want to get into a debate about religion. Rather, I want to close by addressing the world gone mad in which we live. In such a world it is important not to assign blame fatuously. Religion alone did not cause the shooter to act on his hatred of the freedom that characterizes American culture, of homosexuality, of the western world. Rather, a specific strand of belief did, a strand of one religion, a bad and hateful strand. That shooter’s hatred was not of a particular people but of the values that enable the freedom that allowed for the club that was attacked to exist. God did not cause the massacre in Orlando. Humankind did. A single member of our human community, no doubt egged on by others, took it upon himself to advance the attack on western values. And it all happened so quickly. So many died. So great was the horror. So sad the families. So shattered the lives of those who did survive.

So where do we assign blame if we are so compelled to do so? We have identified the problem, and it is us. For my atheist friends and, for that matter, for all my friends and anyone who might be inclined to blame religion or even God, I can only say this: we live in a broken world, a world broken by our own sin. We can either crassly counter hate with hate, or we can pray for our enemies, even love them. Does that preclude defending ourselves? Of course not. But unless part of that defense is genuine love and care for those who are spiritually lost, who have fallen into a spiral of hate and destruction, we will only get so far as political solutions allow us to get. It’s not simply that religion must solve the problem that one bad strand of religion has engendered. Rather it is that God—the God who offered a sacrifice for this world’s pain and grief, who speaks love, and who by his own example teaches us to love selflessly—alone can inspire the solution. And the solution to hate is, in a word, love.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Traveling

piergiacomo
Piergiacomo Petrioli

 

“May you be praised, my Lord, for our sister, Bodily Death, from whom no living human being can escape.”[1] Thus wrote St. Francis of Assisi some time just after 1200 AD. To St. Francis, my good friend Piergiacomo Petrioli assured me just yesterday, everything was good. “That’s the point,” he said as we sat in his living room in Bologna discussing how the Renaissance, which began almost precisely a century after St. Francis wrote this canticle, came about. “The point is that Francis cared about all of creation, saw everything as good because it came from God’s hand. And so,” he added, “even death could be seen as good, as a release from the troubles of this life.”

Giotto's St. Francis before the Sultan
Giotto’s St. Francis before the Sultan

And that, we agreed later in the course of the conversation, was the beginning of the period of Western history in which the focus on repeating over and over in the cold echoing chamber of the high-ceilinged central nave of a Gothic cathedral, “God is Pankrator (Ruler of All)” reverted to the idea that “God is a human being, too.” Piergiacomo added, “The point is that the emphasis of the Renaissance is not that ‘God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world’—he was quoting Browning, of course—“but that God, as a human being, suffers with us humans, participates in our humanity; that human suffering is thereby redeemed, dignified to the extent that even morte corporale can be nostra sora (i.e., sorella), our sister.” This he said, with my slight adaptation, of course, in a lovely Italian accent. St. Francis himself must have sounded like Piergiacomo, I thought to myself, gentle and warm.

But the title of this blog is not St. Francis’ views on death, but rather “Traveling,” and I come back to that now. For when I am traveling, one of the things I like to do best is to visit my friends on the continent and chat with them about things like the origin of the Renaissance, something I had never before connected with St. Francis. The reason for that is, perhaps, that somewhere in my mind the cautionary words of G.K. Chesterton were still rambling about, for he once wrote of St. Francis, “… it is not true to represent St. Francis as a mere romantic forerunner of the Renaissance and a revival of natural pleasures for their own sake. The whole point of him was that the secret of recovering the natural pleasures lay in regarding them in the light of a supernatural pleasure.”

What I think Chesterton is cautioning against is not the importance of the emphasis beginning with St. Francis on all created things being good that Piergiacomo and I were touting as foundational to the notion of humanity that the Renaissance would advance. In any case, such emphasis certainly owes itself much more to the rediscovery of ancient texts than to St. Francis’ memorable declarations about death or Brother Sun or Sister Moon. Rather, I think that Chesterton is railing against those who want to put St. Francis on a pedestal, or more precisely, those who would distort his views about the interaction of man and God. That same group might emphasize St. Francis’ love for animals as a part of creation to the exclusion of his view on redemption and humankind.

Elsewhere in his biography of that saint, Chesterton offers a vivid description of Francis that I think is likely to be precisely right:

“He was, to the last agonies of asceticism, a Troubadour. He was a lover. He was a lover of God and he was really and truly a lover of men; possibly a much rarer mystical vocation. A lover of men is very nearly the opposite of a philanthropist; indeed the pedantry of the Greek word carries something like a satire on itself. A philanthropist may be said to love anthropoids. But as St. Francis did not love humanity but men, so he did not love Christianity but Christ. Say, if you think so, that he was a lunatic loving an imaginary person; but an imaginary person, not an imaginary idea.”[2]

As usual, Chesterton gives us more to ponder than we may have wanted. His challenge to his reader is to consider St. Francis not in general, but in particular. And this is the challenge that Chesterton and later C.S. Lewis would lay at the feet of every churchgoer, every human being, to consider God in particular and each person in particular. It is much easier to love the idea of humanity than to love your neighbor.

Which brings be back to traveling, for how can I love my neighbor when I’m journeying such a long way from home? Well, if you’ve been reading any of my other blogs so far, I imagine you may know my opinion about the answer to that question. But in case you haven’t, I’ll tell one last story about traveling that might illustrate what I mean.

There once were two couples who went a traveling. One went to a large, impoverished city in Africa and bought bread and carried it with them everywhere they went in case they met any street children there. street children(As it turned out, they gave a great deal of bread away, and much more than food, as well. Indeed, I believe they would have surrendered their bodies to fire, were it necessary, to help those in need.) The other couple went to some other far more luxurious spot—Hawaii, I think it was—on vacation; that second couple gave money to world hunger relief organizations from time to time, especially when there was a crisis in the news. That same couple felt very good about their donations, and from time to time would tastefully mention their own generosity to their friends over dinner. But they could see no reason to encourage the other couple about their trip to Africa, or to help them in their admittedly limited-in-scope “humanitarian” effort. In fact, they gently rebuked them when they were having lunch together before they left. “You know, it’s a vain effort, you going there. It won’t cure all the ills in the world; you might even come back with one—a disease. Better to give money to some relief organization or something—that’s what we do,” they told the first couple in a well-intended, but condescending way.

The first couple was not taken aback. Rather they might even have expected as much, for they had long before come to love Brother Sun, Sister Moon, and even to understand that Bodily Death, too, is the sister of the moon and sun, and our sister, too. They were not going to Africa to rebuke that sister. They were going to find and help their brothers and their sisters. They did not love the idea of humanity, they loved human beings.

Now I myself did not and still do not understand one thing about the first pair, the couple who actually went to Africa, for I do not understand St. Francis’ idea that death could ever be our sister. I am rather angered by death, with Herculean emotions welling up from deep within. When a friend or family member dies, I feel that something fundamentally bad has happened, something gone wrong in the universe. But that is me, not Chesterton, not the first couple, nor probably the second. But I wax mystical.

Pope FrancisYet I was speaking about traveling. St. Francis’ travels are well known. Now another Francis, a new Pontifex Maximus, to use a Latin (and quite ancient Roman) term, is traveling, as well. He has just left Italy, to build a bridge to the needy, the poor in another hemisphere, one with which he is quite familiar. I will leave Bologna for a different America, the one with which I am familiar, only a few days after him. This Francis is not voyaging to Africa, but to Bolivia, Ecuador and Paraguay, countries where life is rife with challenge, where in every valley death casts a long shadow, where there are needy and weeping souls, real people, about whom it seems to have been forgotten by far too many who could care (but don’t) that they are human beings. In his travels the Pope will—indeed, I believe, already has—like St. Francis, bring warmth and love for human beings, not just for “humanity.”

Compianto
Compianto

In the meantime, until I leave, Piergiacomo and I will sit by and by, eating Parmesan and raising a glass to The Curious Autobiography, which he is now reading, and more especially and fittingly a cup running over to both the pope and the saint, whose love for humanity and human beings was and will be, I hope, remembered and, by the time this blog is posted, seen, as well. For our part, we shall consider the importance of the Renaissance again and again, admiring the work of artists, and reading a piece of literature or two—I hear Petrarch beckoning—and, before I leave, perhaps even visiting again Santa Maria della Vita here in Bologna. To the right of the altar of the central nave one can see the masterpiece of Niccolò dell’Arca, his Compianto, a sculpted work that portrays the humanity and pain of human beings in the face of the most horrific death in history, before history could be changed by a single naked act. But the nakedness of that act involves a trip I once took to Estonia, which will be the story of another blog about traveling, a blog I will write perhaps a long time from now.

For more on Renaissance Art, see Artsy’s website and follow your favorite artists. For example, see on Raphael.

[1] Laudato si mi Signore, per sora nostra Morte corporale, da la quale nullu homo uiuente pò skappare, from Michele Faloci Pulignani (ed.). Il Cantico del Sole di San Francesco di Assisi. Foligno: Tipografia di Pieter Sgariglia, 1888, pp. 10–11; http://www.prayerfoundation.org/canticle_of_brother_sun.htm. My translation.

[2] The Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton (Ignatius Press, 1986), 70, 29.