Archive for December, 2011

Slaughter of the Innocents (Or, why Red is the Christmas color?)

December 25th, 2011 | Category: Italy,Travel

As it’s Christmas, it seems only fitting that I post something Christ-related.

Jesus was a citizen of Judea, which was run by king Herod, an SOB widely castigated by writers of the time and foully remembered throughout history. He was a Saddam Hussein-like figure, and although the census of his victims has been exaggerated for propaganda purposes, accounts of his savagery are likely accurate in tone if not in fact.

A much publicized escapade of this fellow was to order the death of all children under the age of two.  This was his reaction to learning, supposedly, that the next king of the Jews (his replacement, he thought) would be born in Judea, and it couldn’t have helped that the astrologers who predicted the event refused to cough up the ID of the individual in question – knowing that the populace, not generally pleased with their murderous Roman-puppet overlord, would be subversively pleased at the news that Herod’s replacement was among them and the substitution imminent – hope for the weary,as it were.

So, as any psychopathic bloodthirsty absolute monarch would do, he figured he’d put money on all horses, and kill all newborns, and anyone up to the age of two, because he was a thorough kind of guy.  You don’t get to be king by being sloppy.

Because these unfortunate kids were the first to die for Christ-related reasons, they are seen as a stand-in for all Christian martyrs, and for unearned suffering in general.  They’re used as a kind of guilt-trip and self-aggrandizing symbol: “You see how we’re persecuted?  And see what’s required of true Christians?”

On my 2011 trip to Italy, I saw numerous representations of this incident – known generally as the slaughter (or massacre) of the innocents.  It’s been the subject of innumerable paintings, frescoes, friezes, drawings, dramas, sculptures, poems, and any other form of art you’d care to mention.  Somewhere, there’s probably a cake decorated with this motif (note to self…).

I’d like to share two of them with you, both seen in Siena.  I saw some in Florence too, but I didn’t want to get my hand slapped for taking a picture in the Uffizi, or was too exhausted to care. First, a masterwork by Matteo di Giovanni, who was doing his thing in the 1400s.  What I like about this painting, in addition to the evident skill, is the depraved look on Herod’s face, and the gruesome ugliness so typical of art from the Middle Ages.  It was hanging in a dark hallway of the old hospital of Saint Maria of the Stairs (Santa maria della Scala) in Siena, which is now a museum.

Note the voyeurs on the stairs in the background, faces filled with excitement.

Herod is absolutely getting off on this, exhorting his troops to amp up the bloodshed.  If you didn’t know better, you’d think he was watching his team score a touchdown seconds before the end of a game.  Herod was the kind of guy who’d really have enjoyed the pony show in Juarez.

Although I’m captivated by Giovanni’s ability to depict depravity, his ability – or more likely, his willingness – to depict horror and pain are attenuated.  For some reason, there’s a strange kind of drugged passivity to a lot of Medieval and early renaissance art, with suffering toned down or smoothed out, as if it was too controversial or unsightly.  I need to learn more about this, because it’s too universal to be an accident.  Check out this mother holding her kid:

Instead of what you’d expect of someone who’s just witnessed her baby being pithed, it looks like she’s suffering the slight discomfort of passing a little gas.  The baby’s face has a kind of grisly reality to it, and I suspect that the artist was pretty familiar with violent death.  In the 15th century, life and death were not so far apart, or sanitized like today.

Apart from any of this, I think it’s interesting that Herod’s robes have a starkly geometric pattern usually associated with modern desert camo or Navajo decorations.

An even better example of this sanitized expressionality can be seen on the floor of the main duomo (Cathedral) in Siena, where there is another slaughter of the innocents, this time carved into the stone of the floor.

But in this example, rather than looking mildly pained, they look positively delighted to be participating.

Rather than an abattoir thick with the cries of anguished parents, this appears to be a scene of convivial bonhomie.  My imagined script for this scene: “John?  Long time no see buddy.  How’s it going?  Watch your step, don’t slip on the corpses.  Oh, no bother, I’ll just slip a quick dirk into him – mind the gore, there’s a good chap. No need for thanks – say hi to the missus for me!  Pardon me, madam – let me get that for you.  Oh yes, delightful weather, isn’t it? Oh, don’t try to clean up, just drop it on the floor with the others, I’ll have my people get it.”

The artists, and the patrons that paid them to make these things, succeeded in transmitting a message through hundreds of years.  It’s a future they couldn’t possibly have imagined.  In some ways they’ve succeeded as well as they could have hoped, creating a work of lasting value and visual beauty that brought prestige to their church, city, and selves; but I doubt they intended to send us this coded message about themselves.  Why would you depict such a scene of horror with slack or even happy faces?  Were styles of facial expression so different that what appears now as amusement seemed then like horror or surprise?  Or was it deemed not suitable to show true horror, as if it was pornographic, or too strong for the general public?


Tuscany 2011 – Pisa

December 21st, 2011 | Category: Italy,Travel

Rachel and I went to Tuscany in the winter and had a great time.  In these posts, I’m keeping notes for myself, as well as telling a story for my friends and family to see.

We flew from Phoenix, transferring in Salt Lake City and Paris, landing in Pisa.  I have been around the world and have seen a lot of airports, but had never been through Charles de Gaulle airport before.  I was amazed; it seemed like the largest airport I’ve ever seen, although statistically, I’ve been in busier airports – but gauging by appearances alone, I was impressed.  It seemed to go on and on; our enormous 767 aircraft taxied past multiple gates, each large enough to be an airport all by itself.  We were herded through EU customs, then flew the last leg to Pisa, arriving at dinnertime after an exhausting 19 or so hours of travel.  Pisa is a small airport, like Flagstaff or Panama City, FL.

We checked into the excellent Hotel Bologna (90 Euros, wifi, excellent free breakfast, evening snacks, bar, and in a charming old part of the city near restaurants – plus, they have a complementary shuttle to/from the airport or train station). Then, we had dinner and walked around a little.

The next day, we walked across the river Arno in the daylight on our way to the leaning tower.

Along the way we passed the street market.  Let the bargaining begin!  Later, we found that Florence and Siena had better markets, and this one (the daily one) was mostly tourist fare (plenty of cool stuff though).

The Piazza dei Miracoli, which is the complex housing the leaning tower, is surrounded by a crenelated wall, and also has a cathedral, a baptistry that looks like a giant chocolate truffle, and the Camposanto, which is a “monumental Cemetery” filled with medieval sculpture and frescoes.  It was badly damaged during WW II, and the restoration continues to this day.  The Camposanto was something I’d wanted to see for a long time.

We were walking around, looking for the tower, consulting the map… and then looked up and said “Oh!”

First, the tower: That thing has some serious lean to it. If you stand at the base of it and touch it with your forehead, your feet will be a foot away from it.  It really looks like it’s going to fall over; and yet, a few years ago, the Italians made the lean less radical to save the building.  I can’t imagine what it looked like before they adjusted it.

Then, back down the narrow and winding stairway, traveled by countless people since they started building it before 1200.

Having limited time – isn’t that always the case – we had to decide between the Camposanto and the other buildings.  So, we didn’t see the cathedral or baptistry.  Next time.

In the Camposanto, there is a hushed atmosphere appropriate for a cemetery, which is what it is.  Inside, you can stand around on graves from the 1200s.  Once, People with names like Gallitus and Damiana lived and worked their lives in this city; now I can tread upon their graves for my idle amusement.

The beautiful frescoes were almost completely destroyed during WWII, when the US bombed German positions in Pisa.  It’s amazing that there’s anything left at all, once you’ve seen pictures of the wreckage.

Here are the tortured souls in the lake of fire, or something like that.  Reminds me of some jobs I’ve had. Note the pitchforks poking the people on the left side; they must have been having too much fun.

Someone’s bones in an ossuary.

The cathedral, and in the foreground, the baptistry.

Rachel stands at the foot of the cathedral.  Note the writing on the granite column behind her; the builders reclaimed that handy Roman marble lying around.



A note about Gate 1 travel: I’ll use them again.  The trip was exactly as advertised, the price was excellent, was customizable, and we were very happy with it.

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A1 Mountain

December 11th, 2011 | Category: Arizona

I took a short hike to A1 mountain today; I’ve tried it twice before but ran out of time or light.  Today was the day!

The elevation is 900 feet, so there was a little work involved.  For some reason, I’ve always done this hike in the snow.  Today was no different.  Although it’s been a week since the snow fell, it’s still deep in the woods, specially on the north face of slopes or in gulleys.  So it was a snowshoe hike, bushwhacking through the woods.

I love the breathtaking view as you turn off of route 40 onto A1 mountain road:

That’s the San Francisco peaks in the background, with A1 on the left.  I took a forest road until it was impassable.  The main forest road was moderately-traveled, with packed ruts but little exposed soil.  I turned onto a smaller road which looked as if 3 or 4 vehicles had been before me.  When the snow got deeper than the bottom of my little SUV, I parked and started walking, at about 7500 feet, along the compass bearing to A1 mountain.

Walking towards the slope, I passed through an area pulverized by fire.  The sun shone brightly into the wounded forest, warming me up.  I passed over the last, and only, human footprints I’d see on my way to the top.  Shortly afterwards I entered an erosion gulley on the east side of A1.  Shadowed by rock, the area was gloomy and cold, the snow deep.  I started trudging up the steep slope, stamping my feet into the drifts.  Tycho ranged happily at the edge of my sight, but he was a good boy and didn’t stray.

The going got tough and I had to take a few breaks.  No path here – just whatever way I wanted to go.  I followed the deepest snow while trying to switchback a little.  Soon I was at the rim of this old volcano, with a good view to the south:

In the heavily forested interior of the crater, it was dark and cold, but right on the edge, where the winds can do their worst work, it was spring-like because of the sun and lack of wind.  Tycho and I took a rest.

I worked my way west to the highest point, and had a great view to the southwest and west:

Coming north, the crater lip dips and rises again, with occasional tantalizing glimpses of the San Fran peaks covered with snow.  All i had was my cell phone, so I didn’t get any shots, but in person, it’s nice to see.  Tracks of rabbit, birds, mice and probably coyote – or maybe stray dog – lay across the volcano, but if any human had passed here, it was before the snow.

Slaloming down the steep slope on my way back to the car, I could see the dome of the US Navy observatory.  Not bad for an afternoon outing: 3 miles, 900 feet, 1:45, and only 15 minutes’ drive away from home.