Wednesday, September 16, 2009

A Day of Art History

I'm taking two Art History courses and getting a pass into the Louvre (good for a year) for five Euros. That's remarkable. We will spend about half our time in the classroom and half at various museums and architectural sites. We'll be in the Louvre all next week. Today we learned how to look at art. I walked away with a number of insights, the most interesting of which has to do with context—which brought me back to the monumental arches in Paris.

As I said, Porte Saint-Denis was built in the seventeenth century, designed by Francois Blondel at the order of the Sun King, Louis XIV. (That handsome man on the right.) Louis ruled from Versailles (which we're visiting in early October) and was the longest ruling monarch in European history. During his day, France was the major power in Europe. This was the time of Moliere. Louis engaged in many wars and Porte Saint-Denis, was, as I said, a monument to celebrate his victories.

What came to light today, is that Louis  built an arch because arches had been used by the Romans. He was specifically copying the Arch of Titus, which commemorates the capturing of Jerusalem in 70AD. What's important here is the continuity of the symbolism, which only makes sense when one gets of the significance of the Roman Empire. It was the measure of civilization, culture, power, accomplishment. One emulated Rome to make a statement about one's own power, sophistication, and intelligence. Think: Latin.

I understand Shelly and Byron better too, and the  pilgrimage to Italy that was so central to the Romantics. The link to the past, the fascination with continuity and tradition and history. I think it's difficult for Americans to feel that connection the way Europeans do, especially in this day and age. We are so fixated on ourselves, as a nation, I mean. Not to wax too political here, but for the most part, I think we fail to grasp our place in the whole of things. We fail to realize that before World War II, the US was not the world's major power, not the center.

I had a recognition today about the Classical world and way it has always loomed so large in Europe. For a moment I managed to displace my cultural reality and see from a different vantage point—the value, of course, of travel. I glimpsed the world without being an American, or so it seemed. I experienced Europe as the center of power and culture. And the roots of Europe are embedded in Rome, and before that Greece. So, when Louis XIV wanted to legitimize himself as a world power, he copied what the Roman emperors had done: he built an arch.

It may seem like I'm on a tangent here and, no doubt I am. I'm thinking how all this has to be in the book. Not laid out like a history lesson, more like the canvas on which my story is drawn—like the medieval world in The Name of the Rose. If I want it to have depth and authenticity, which, of course, I do, I have to somehow to communicate the history out of which Romanticism arises.

I'm working with Virginia Woolf's idea too, applying it to humanity in general. She said Shakespeare's genius grew out of the psychic edifices of the past, came from men like Homer, Aristotle and Plato. Essentially, intelligence is cumulative; we build on one another. Significance is cumulative too. Louis XIV's arch was symbolically powerful because it drew on the power of Roman accomplishment. We tend to be cynical about the Roman Empire these days, seeing more of what was wrong with it than feeling the amazing way it moved civilization forward. That was not true in Louis' world. Nor Napoleon's.

What's going on is I'm trying to understand France. Paris. The French. And the obvious way to begin, at least for me, is to grasp their relationship to their history, to the trajectory of their national identity.  It's a very different history than America's, and I like it, even though I don't "get" it, yet.

Oh, and on a completely different note, I had a very curious conversation with a woman today about how easy it would be (according to her) for me to find work here teaching English. (That's not a threat, just an observation.)

1 comment:

  1. can't thank you enough for inspirations for 1967. The approach of cooking the seeds of your fiction is another lifestyle I'd like to adopt. Thank you Ariadne for the time and energy it takes to put this down while it's happening--the best