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Before the pot boils, it simmers. Between the conception and the creation falls the shadow. The cusp of something about to be born. A rough beast slouching toward Bethlehem. It is the ambiguous time between the discrete textbook ages of history that we name that is most interesting.

We generally name Romanticism in art as something that thrived in the first half of the 19th century. If it has a birth date, it is usually given as 1798, when William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge first published their Lyrical Ballads, a book of poems that seemed to be a clean break with the past.

Certainly there are other dates we could choose. In music, we often give 1805 and the first performance of Beethoven’s Eroica symphony. In politics, it might be 1789 and the fall of the Bastille in Paris. Or Goya’s Caprichos, published in 1799. Picking a single date is absurd, because Romanticism wasn’t born like Athena, burst instantly from the head of Zeus. It wasn’t born at all; rather, it accumulated. 

And in the 50 or so years before we gave the movement a name, it kept popping its head up above the surface in odd moments, letting us know it was coming. 

Before Beethoven, there were the Sturm und Drang symphonies of Joseph Haydn, beginning with his Symphony No. 39 in G-minor of 1765. There was Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther of 1774, that set all of Europe to sympathetic weeping and toward a penchant for suicide. In English, there was Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto, from 1764 that began a craze for Gothic novels, with their attendant gloom, rattling chains and ghosts in dungeons. There were the faux Celtic sagas that James McPherson published in 1765 as The Works of Ossian. All these, and many more came as a sort of antidote to the rationality of the Enlightenment. 

And, there are the prisons of Giovanni Battista Piranesi. These 16 etchings are sui generis in Piranesi’s vast output, and a fierce eruption rising to the surface of the simmering pot. 

Piranesi (1729-1778) was an architect, archeologist and printmaker who was fascinated by the ruins of Ancient Rome. While his architectural work consisted of a single building, and his archeology was more of a sideline, it is as an etcher and engraver that he became famous. One of the best printmakers of his time, his intricate detail and exacting craftsmanship were exceptional. 

Half his work functioned as a record of archeological evidence, cataloguing ancient architectural detail; the other half was as a profitable creator of souvenirs for European aristocracy, mainly British, who were taking the “Grand Tour” of Europe to flesh out their educations. 

These prints, known as Vedute, or “Views,” were in the Picturesque tradition — ruins covered in vines and under the arches of which lived peasants. It was a rich tradition in the second half of the 18th Century, and a bankable genre for artists wishing to make a good living. 

During this time, the rediscovery of Pompeii and Herculaneum prompted an interest in the past, including Ancient Greece, Egypt and the Gothic.  Johann Joachim Winckelmann was writing ecstatically about the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome. Piranesi rode this rising tide and published hundreds of vedute engravings. 

Many of these transcended the reality of the ruins left in Rome and the Campagna and were pure fantasies of what might have been. The more extravagant the fantasy, the better. 

In the midst of these popular prints, in the late 1740s, Piranesi began making a series of fantasy prints of imaginary prisons, or carceri, built of immense dank spaces and torture devices. Each of the original 14 prints was roughly the size of a 16-by-20 photograph, large by most etching standards. But they were an anomaly, and didn’t sell well. Surely, they came a decade too early.

For, in 1761, Piranesi reworked the original plates, adding two new ones, and republished them as Carceri d’invenzione, or “imaginary prisons.” According to Belgian writer, Marguerite Yourcenar, they represent “negation of time, incoherence of space, suggested levitation, intoxication of the impossible reconciled or transcended.” And can best be understood as externalizations of internal mental and emotional states. Nightmares, even.

 

Plate I Title; Plate II Man on the rack

Plate III The round tower; Plate IV The piazza

Plate V The lion bas-reliefs; Plate VI The smoking fire

Plate VII The drawbridge; Plate VIII The staircase with trophies

 

Plate IX The giant wheel

 

Plate X Prisoners on the projecting platform

 

Plate XI Arch with a shell ornament

 

Plate XII The sawhorse

 

Plate XIII The well

 

Plate XIV The Gothic arch

Plate XV Pier with a lamp

 

Plate XVI Pier with chains

 

Comparing the first and second states of the series, one sees them change from rather sketchy drawings to richly inked, dark and menacing spaces, with architecture and geometry that are often physically impossible — almost Escher like. 

The 1761 version of the plates were enormously popular and were reprinted many times. They leave behind the comfort and orderliness of the 18th Century and look ahead to the Byronic, irrational and psychologically disturbing Zeitgeist of the early 19th Century. They are a harbinger, a precursor, a herald. 

They are a manifestation of the sublime — a concept fresh in the culture, with a translation, in French, by Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux of the Perihypsos (“On the Sublime”) of the Roman author Longinus, and a book-length essay on the subject by English writer and politician Edmund Burke. 

The sublime is the profound psychological awareness of the immensity of the cosmos and vastness of nature compared with the puny insignificance of humans, but seen not simply as depressing or frightening, but as unbearably beautiful. Joseph Addison called it “an agreeable kind of horror.” It is awe, in the sense the word had before it became cant among American teenagers for whom a peanut-butter sandwich might casually be called “awesome.” 

In Longinus, we read: “We are by nature led to marvel, not, indeed, at little streams, clear and useful though they be, but at the Nile, the Danube, of the Rhine, and still more at the Ocean. A little fire which we have lit may keep pits flame pure and constant, but it does not awe us more than the fires of heaven, through these may often be obscured; nor do we consider our little fire more worthy of admiration than the craters of Etna whose eruptions throw up rocks and mighty boulders or at times pour fourth rivers of lava from that single fire within the earth. We might say of all such matters that man can easily understand what is useful or necessary, but he admires what passes his understanding.”

And so, the Carceri cannot be made coherent and understandable. The prisons expand outward into unseen spaces that open again into other unseen spaces. There are stairs to nowhere, torture devices in the shadows, catwalks over bottomless pits, stones overgrown with moss — and many tiny, nearly unseeable figures, caught in this Kafka-esque labyrinth. 

—You can find a wonderful animated tour through Piranesi’s prison on YouTube (link here). 

And you can get some of the effect in reality in the actual Medieval prison, the Conciergerie, in Paris, where Marie Antoinette was held before her beheading.

Mt. St. Michel

Or the rambling stairs and arches of Mont St. Michel at the border of Normandy and Brittany.

 

The Carceri are not anomalous for their subject alone: Unlike Piranesi’s usual draftsmanlike exactitude in his drawings, the prisons are nearly scribbled onto the etching plate. They imply a kind of fury in their creation, as if Piranesi were trying to get his vision down into line before they evaporated from his boiling imagination. Shelley once described the moment of creation as an ember rapidly cooling that needs be indited before the glow darkens. You can see Piranesi frantic not to lose the hallucination. 

The change from Classicism to Romanticism — like the change from the Renaissance to the Baroque — is not simply one of rationalism curdled to emotionalism, but of clarity as a virtue lost into a fog of ambiguity and incoherence. It is Racine metamorphosed to Rousseau. 

Beethoven’s “Fidelio”

The subject matter had enormous influence as the 19th Century was born. It is the Venetian prison and escape described by Giocomo Casanova in his 1787 Story of My Flight and later in his memoirs. Prisons and dungeons are everywhere to be found in literature, art and music. It is the prison where Florestan is rescued by Leonora in Beethoven’s opera, Fidelio. It is the dungeon where François Bonivard meditated in Byron’s Prisoner of Chillon. It is the prison that Alexandre Dumas, père, put The Man in the Iron Mask. It is the torture site of the Inquisition in Edgar Allen Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum. Not the least, it is, historically, the Bastille in Paris and its siege and fall that set off the French Revolution. 

“Dracula”

It is a trope that continues into the 20th and 21st centuries. It is Carfax Abbey in Tod Browning’s 1931 film, Dracula. 

The very gantry ways and bridges make their way into Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. 

Now, that same spacious gothic sublime turns up in fantasy films, such as Lord of the Rings, on TV in Game of Thrones and in nerd games, like Dungeons and Dragons. 

You can find its inception in 1761 with Piranesi. 

Awesome. 

Click on any image to enlarge

In a corner of the Fifth Arrondissement, next to the Gare d’Austerlitz, is a public garden that has come to be one of our touchstones of a visit to France. We go back each time. It is not one of the tourist hotspots, like the Eiffel Tower or the Louvre, but because we found it on our own during our first trip to Paris, it has become an old friend.
The Jardin des Plantes was built in the 17th century as the king’s garden, and initially grew medicinal and kitchen herbs, but later became one of those demonstration gardens in which pioneering botanists planted samples of vegetation they had collected on voyages around the globe.
Around the periphery of the garden are a zoo and several museums of natural history. Some are so old they practically grow fungus; one has been updated to become a sight-seeing draw — at least for the thousands of school children who bus there daily on class trips.
As we visited in 2002, it seems I was caught up again in the conundrum of the opposing French tendencies to formalize and regularize nature, as in its famous gardens, and to see nature as something red in tooth and claw: the opposing tendencies of classicism and romanticism.

Again, click on any photo to enlarge.

jardin main walkway

Friday, March 29
Jardin des Plantes

The Jardin des Plantes is a collection of odds and ends — various gardens, a small zoo, a bunch of superannuated museums, some sooperwhoopie new attractions and lots of old, old trees.jardin natural history facade

At the far end is one of the true treasures of France, although I’m not sure anyone here knows it. The Galerie de paléontologie et d’anatomie comparée is one of those Beaux Arts buildings, the kind with the names of noted scientists carved around the frieze, that are so common in the old museum world.

It is a long, thin building, two stories tall. From the side, you can see in the windows that there are “wonderful things,” as Howard Carter once said: the long spiny backbone of a whale, skeletons of prehistoric mammals and birds.jardin natural history eagle

But the building itself is notable. It is decorated on all sides with the most beautiful and decorative sculpture of the natural world. As an underpinning to window sills there are lobsters, hermit crabs, birds. In panels along the side of the building are giant wolves and lions. Above the entrance is a great eagle holding a lamb. A frieze completely bands the building with alternating scallop and vollute shells. Another panel on the west side has a beaver. Yet another has a scene with a man grappling with a bear cub over the dead body of its mother. Another had two men stealing young eaglets, having killed one adult, but with a second adult attacking the men.Orang and Indian

It was a 19th Century version of the Gothic love of nature.

But there is also a clue to the essential French character. As we entered the museum, on the queue for the tickets, there was a grand marble statue of a crazed adult orangutan strangling a prostrate nude Indian. It was a horrible struggle, with the man wounded, a gaping slash in his forearm, and the ape with his long arms extended down, holding the neck and head of the man flat, with his eyes bulging.

This is a version of nature with long teeth, a vision of nature as both beautiful and vicious, a kind of sublime: awesome in its seductive danger.

There is a dichotomy in French culture. One is first made aware of it in the Gothic cathedrals. There, nature is everywhere, and not a storybook nature, but an experienced one, a familiar one. If the church preached a contemptus mundi, it failed to gain traction, at least on first go-around. You can sense the love of the natural world that invests every carving, every Gothic tapestry.jardin walkway with pollard trees

That classicism that I mentioned yesterday, that stylizes and sublimated grubby nature is the other French impulse. And I see a kind of continuous war between the love of nature and the fear of it. Classicism is on one level a kind of defanging of nature.

But the French seem always aware, underneath, of the tooth and claw. So, in the Gallery of Paleontology and Comparative Anatomy, the orang is seizing man, elsewhere, man is seizing the eaglet and bear cub. It is “man against nature, nature against man, god against man, man against god. Very funny religion.”jardin from above

Perhaps the perpetual French classicizing derives not from a separation of humankind and nature, but rather from a constant awareness — and wariness — of the natural world.

The need to create, as at the Jardin des plantes, of a “jardin systematique,” or to display, as at the Gallery of Paleontology, all those gory skeletons of Siamese twins, and cats’ brains in formaldehyde, comes from that fascination with nature that is akin to a fascination with death, violent, bloody death.

I had never before understood — or thought I understood — this classicizing impulse in French culture, but today’s visit to the natural history museum has given me a clue.

Americans think of nature as vast and sublime. For Germans, nature is a place to exercise briskly. English nature tends to be bucolic: a cottage, a few sheep and a porringer. French nature is all tentacles and talons.jardin tree

O'keeffe Lawrence TreeAside from all this theorizing, the Jardin was a wonderful place. There is a huge tree, a cedar of Lebanon, planted here in 1743. It’s feathery canopy spreads out like Yggdrasil. I made a photo of it in imitation of Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Lawrence Tree.”

The Grande Galerie de l’Évolution — also at the Jardin des plantes — is as modern as the paleontology museum is musty. A shining example of modern museology, it houses an old collection of taxidermy and gives it a new spin, assembling the old stuffed animals in new arrangements, with dramatic lighting and display.jardin interior

On four floors — although to call them floors is an injustice, for they are really a series of catwalks and mezzanines hanging over a four-story cavity, filled with glass elevator shafts. Meanwhile, a parade of animals, as if marching to Noah’s boat, weaves through the central second floor.jardin elephant

It was a great plan to modernize what was once a dusty old display of vitrines and taxidermy.

But the final highlight of the day came next door at the great 19th century greenhouse and conservatory, Les Grandes Serres. The three-story-high greenhouse, like a long loaf of glass, was filled with tropical and exotic plants, dripping with moisture. At one end of the interior, a two-story waterfall has been built of concrete, with vines hanging down, dripping water.

My eyes turned on and I began making photos, in a way it only happens when my eyes are on. Made nearly 200 pictures. Another in the series of garden photos.grand serre 1

grand serre 4grand serre banana treegrand serre displaySpent from that, we began walking home. Carole got a cassis ice cream cone, purple and sharp.jardin ice cream stand

We got back to the room and dropped off to sleep, missing dinner.

Carole’s picks of the day:

carole and coffeeThat cafe au lait and the croissant. The one I had today was even better than the one I had before. I enjoyed being able to communicate in French. The images of the images at Ste. Chapelle keep coming back to me. I loved the statue of the orangutan strangling the Indian. The parade of animals at the museum of evolution (like a Disney Noah’s ark). The plants in the garden systematique. My favorite thing was the female lions on the front of the museum of natural history. All the wonderful sculptures of animals there: lobsters on windowsills, hermit crabs. Those wonderful animals. Oh, the croque monsieur was incredible. Sliced bread with very thin ham and bechemal sauce and some kind of white cheese, then fried, perhaps dipped in egg batter first. Oh, and finding the wonderful little wooden toys for the grandbabies. Oh, and the Redoute rose and lily book. Richard looked so serious about the grandbabies. Seeing Richard’s joy in the greenhouse.

Richard’s faves:

grand serre 5The sculptural decor on the Galerie de paléontologie et d’anatomie comparée was unforgettable. All those rich animal designs crusted on the masonry. I’m sure I don’t know why they don’t sell a catalogue raisonee of the carvings. It’s a treasure. Inside, the Orang attacking the Indian was a hoot. The hoard of skeletons inside was breathtaking (photographie interdite). The Jardins des plantes in general was special, but when we entered the greenhouse, I went buggy: My eyes turned on and I went nuts with the camera. All that vegetal variety, all that green fecundity, all that sinuous vinosity and verdant threat. It was the mille fleurs and Gothic acanthus leaves come to life.

When we visited Paris for the first time in 2002, we felt like yokels: Everything was new and we gawked. Now that we have been there often enough to feel at home on its boulevards, and have visited its most familiar sites enough times that the Musee d’Orsay can feel “old hat,” these initial  notes, written at the end of each day on that trip, can still bring back that feeling, that sense of excitement at seeing the world through a different culture, and with a wholly different sense of history. These notes and photos are from that virgin trip. Click any photo to enlarge. 

Thursday March 28

ste chapelle clerestory

Sainte Chapelle

There is no denying the beauty of Sainte Chapelle, with its two floors of chapel: a lower floor for the servants and the brilliantly lit upper floor for the king. But one can see a creeping French classicism overtaking the richness of the earlier Gothic. At Notre Dame de Paris, every pier is different, every capital, every boss in the vaulting. At Ste. Chapelle, there is greater unity: only two styles of pier, alternating along the nave walls. The bosses are uniform. The fleur-de-lis motif crops up everywhere, further unifying the decor of the building.ste chapelle exterior from street

Even in the 13th century, you can see Poussin coming, and Racine. There is a fecundity to the earlier Gothic. Metaphorically, the buildings mimic the variety of nature. One senses in Notre Dame, for instance, a connection with the earth, the seasons, the stars, the animals. At Ste. Chapelle, nature has become an ensignia for royal power and wealth.

No one at Ste. Chapelle, you feel, has ever shoveled manure.

The difference, as Carole stated it, is that Notre Dame feels like a machine meant to take you somewhere, like a traveling machine for the universe, or a time machine. You know, in Notre Dame, that something is happening to you.ste chapelle interior

At Ste. Chapelle, you admire the decor, recognize the royal taste — the gout royale — and it something you observe, look at, admire, rather than participate in. That doesn’t mean it isn’t astonishingly beautiful.

Ste. Chapelle, of course, is late Gothic, le style flamboyant, with neither aisles nor triforium. The windows hang like banners down the walls from just above head level to the top, at over 50 feet. Ste. Chapelle is filled with light in a way Notre Dame isn’t. There is nothing murky about Ste. Chapelle. It is brilliant.

There are two stories, in both senses of the word. Upstairs is reserved for royalty.

The first floor is a low chapel for servants and burgers. Its ceiling is blue and gold, and anyone using it must have felt privileged indeed, with all that gold leaf and those gilt vaults. (Granted, they are 19th century restorations and only approximate what must originally have been there.)ste chapelle downstairs

There is a tiny circular stone staircase that leads up to the main event on the second floor. Because of its two tier nature, Ste. Chapelle looks oddly gangly and tall. Because its foundation is hid from the street, the chapel looks as if it is built on a small hill, above the surrounding buildings. But there is no hill on the Ile de la Cite. The church is just jacked up a full story on its servant chapel, leaving the King’s chapel floating in the stratosphere.ste chapelle rose window, stained glass, ceiling

ste chapelle downstairs ceilingWhen the sun breaks out, as it doesn’t often do in Paris, the stained glass projects color on the floor, in blues, reds and a little yellow.

We spent a couple of hours in St. Chapelle, trying to see everything and absorb it. Every inch of the place is either gilt or painted or sculpted. There is little resting place for the eye. Perhaps that contributes to the sense that Ste. Chapelle doesn’t function as Notre Dame does.

It is something that allows Louis IX to show off, nearly 800 years after his death. He would have liked that, I’m sure.

Cluny winemaking taperstry

Musee de Moyen Age, Cluny

At the Musee Cluny, we began to wear down. We saw the first dozen rooms just fine, and had time to linger over the many tapestries, but eventually, our muscles and bones — to say nothing of our fried brains — made the last part of the museum a mad dash to get through. Which is a shame, because there is so much to enjoy.Musee Cluny exterior

The Middle Ages speaks to me in a deep and profound way: I am simpatico with its sense of multiplicity, and its sense of particularity.
“To generalize is to be an idiot,” said William Blake, and with that, he dismissed all of English neoclassicism.millefleur

But I feel as he does: Every flower, every tree on the mille fleur tapestries is identifiable. There is a daisy, there an iris. It might as well be a Peterson guide.

For me, the Gothic evidences a genuine love for the things of the world. The various classicisms that follow seem infatuated with ideas rather than things.

But you cannot rub an idea between your fingers, hold it to your nose and smell the camphor, as you can in an herb in a garden.Cluny column leaves

Yes, I admire the rigor of the classicisms. Poussin is no slouch: You have to respect the intellectual energy expended in regularizing the universe.

But in my heart of hearts, it seems like a kind of avoidance. The real world, with its real textures, real smells, real colors, real tactility, real sounds — seem so much more satisfying than the concepts that underlie classicism.

So, the Gothic world dug its arms up to the elbows in the soil, sniffing the moisture in the loam. You see it in the illuminated manuscripts, with their love of the seasons; you see it in the architecture, with its leafy pier capitals; you see it in the tapestries, with their mille fleur horror vacuii.Cluny stainded glass angel with flower tondo

The classical worlds that followed — and in France, even the Baroque is classical — it is all turned into ideas. Even French Romanticism seems wordy and literary.

So, you have to go back past the 13th century, to the early Medieval world, before you find such quiddity in French culture.

Adam Gopnik, in his book, talks about the French love of “theory.” Theory to them, is paramount: Without a solid logic in your theory, your conclusions are suspect.

But theory can be a dread evil. It is just such ideas that, twisted and mangled, turn into fascism, Stalinism, Maoism. No room for goats in such worlds.

When we finally got back to the hotel, we were destroyed. Could barely move. Slept for several hours before supper.

But then, we walked down the street to a little glass-fronted brasserie for some onion soup and apple tart. Quel marvelleuse!Cluny animal ivory tiles

ste chapelle floor lionsCarole’s favorites, day three:

Windows at Ste. Chapelle; Cafe au lait while walking to subway, and the pain au chocolat; learning about Ste. Chapelle from Richard as my own private teacher; I liked the servants’ chapel very much. Really really enjoyed was the cut on the fold animal patterns inlaid on floor at Ste. Chapelle; there were hounds, boars, vultures, wolves; At Cluny, saw some little metal pots that were children’s play dishes; saw some little metal whistles in the form of animal heads that were children’s whistles. I thought the combs were very interesting. The second most wonderful thing, after Ste. Chapelle stained glass, was Medieval garden at Musee Cluny. Saw some blue violets blooming.

Cluny gold rose 2Richard’s favorites, day three:

The Omelette Emental for lunch, which was heaven. The stained glass at Ste. Chapelle, although it was too overwhelming to see in detail. The fleur-de-lis stars on the vaulting of the lower level of St. Chapelle. The tapestries, in general, at Musee Cluny. There was a gold rose there, too.