The Italian artist explains the Greek myth through his traditional play of light and shadow.
The human being is a well-oiled machine, but it has flaws.
One of them affects that concept as ethereal and mysterious as the soul. Psychology, some call it. If we stick to the latter, the problems of the human psyche are practically endless.
Vanity, for example, would not fall within that group of problems; however, it can be a double-edged sword. Greek mythology taught us this danger through the myth of Narcissus.
In the Hellenic mythological narrative, we are presented with a very proud and insensitive young man in its cosmogony. A guy who keeps rejecting suitors so that sooner or later, the divine punishment had to come for such a braggart.
Narcissus was not going to be an exception.
Among his many suitors who took a good cut was Aminias; the poor man loved Narcissus deeply, but that did not prevent him from rejecting him in nasty manners and with malice. Among these taunts, he gives him a sword, with which the same Aminias will commit suicide in front of the house of Narcissus himself (did he think anything else was going to happen?). While the suitor was dying, he had time to beg the goddess Nemesis to give him an exemplary chastisement Narcissus, making him suffer the suffering of unrequited love in his flesh. Having launched the supplication, Aminias died.
As expected, Narcissus spent enough of that death in front of his house. The guy continued with his business until, one day, he came to a pond.
He saw his own reflection in its waters, falling in love with it. Intoxicated by this attraction, he did not realize that he saw himself. He leaned towards the water’s surface to kiss that attractive young man, recognizing the tremendous deception.
At that moment, shocked by the discovery, he fell into the water and drowned. Saddened by this pitiful spectacle, the gods decided that his body would become a flower, the daffodil we all know.
Knowing the myth, we can better understand Caravaggio’s painting, which shows us the moment in which Narcissus is engrossed contemplating his reflection in the pond water.
When contemplating the painting, we can make a mythological reading (what it tells the story of Narcissus, the specific passage of the myth that shows us and that is clear) and another more allegorical reading, the messages that the artist wanted to convey through this representation.
We see in the upper part the real character, who looks down on his aquatic antagonist. Two parts divide the work, an upper and a lower one, that is opposed both in presentation and composition.
Above (the real Narcissus), we see the well-defined light in the arms, neck, and face and some flashes here and there. On the contrary, the lower part (the reflection) is very dark, with a very attenuated image that transmits fragility, which seems to foreshadow the fatal outcome of the myth.
The figure of Narcissus, the luminous one, has his left hand coming out of the frame, and we do not see the tips of his fingers; the lower reflection as well, but also part of his back disappears from the painting beyond the margins.
This technique enlarges the figure of the protagonist and promotes the sensation of proximity. A very distant anteroom to the three dimensions, of which there are many other examples throughout the History of Art.
It is as if we could almost reach out and touch Narcissus.
This technique was prevalent in Caravaggio, who liked his paintings to create an impact. Spontaneity and closeness are two common aspects of his works. He wanted the viewer to feel that the characters were about to fall at his feet.
If we look at the painting again, and as mentioned before, we can see that the reflection of Narcissus is somewhat different. It seems older and worn out. In the shoulder canvas, we can appreciate Caravaggio’s mastery in playing with lighting in his works. The ability to put darkness into light was a revolution in his time, so much so that this technique ended up having its name: tenebrism.
Some interpret this luminous contra-position between the upper and lower parts as the visualization of the Ego confronting one’s self-consciousness.
Some even venture to theorize that Narcissus can be read as an explanation of Caravaggio’s psyche, a man of great vanity.
Focusing on the reflection again, we can consider it as that dark place we all have and where aspects such as excessive self-contemplation or selfishness nest.
Above is the conscious, luminous, beautiful, and evident self; below is the egocentric subconscious, which is what we want to hide and which is the shadow of any human being.
Venise est entrée au contact de nombreux peuples au cours de son histoire. Tandis que la République sérénissime étendait sa domination et déployait ses talents militaires et marchands, elle se faisait d’abord admirer par ses nouveaux sujets, auxquels elle accordait sa protection. Elle était toujours prête à combattre l’injustice et l’oppression dans la mesure où n’étaient pas desservis ses intérêts hégémoniques. Mais, cela commença plutôt mal…
Au Xe siècle, pour s’assurer l’accès des bouches du Pô en même temps que le monopole du sel, le doge Pietro II fit mettre à sac Comacchio et déporter les populations vivant dans ces marécages. En l’an mil commencèrent les expéditions sur le littoral dalmate, afin d’obtenir le contrôle de l’Adriatique tout entière. Zara, Ossero, Vaglia et bien d’autres villes furent conquises. Les forces vénitiennes avaient à lutter à la fois contre les Croates et contre les Slaves, qui avaient envahi les Balkans. Au fleuve Narenta, les habitants de la ville romaine de Narona pratiquaient la piraterie et le trafic d’esclaves. Les Vénitiens étaient leurs meilleurs clients. À leur contact, les pillards découvrirent que le commerce était tout de même plus avantageux. Vers la fin du XIe siècle, après la conquête des îles de Curzola et de Lagosta, les côtes dalmates étaient entièrement sous la protection de Venise.
La percée vers l’Orient
Vers cette époque, les Vénitiens eurent à lutter contre les seigneurs normands qui s’étaient installés en Méditerranée. Ils s’allièrent donc avec les Byzantins, leurs rivaux, pour libérer l’île de Corfou et de Durazzo (Duras). Venise obtint alors de pouvoir commercer librement sur tous les territoires contrôlés par Byzance. En 1122–1124, les Vénitiens soumirent la ville de Tyr et les comptoirs byzantins de l’Égée et de l’Adriatique. Vers le milieu du siècle, ils renforcèrent leurs liens avec les peuples de l’Istrie. Pola, Parenzo, Rovigno furent contraintes d’accepter une protection militaire et maritime contre les débordements des Hongrois. Cette protection obligatoire se transforma rapidement en soumission des terres environnantes et, finalement, le doge fut reconnu comme le seul maître.
La colonisation de la Crète
Vis-à-vis des Grecs, Venise pratiquait un double jeu, maniant tour à tour les pressions diplomatiques et les actes de piraterie. En 1204, la ville du lion de Saint-Marc profita de la quatrième croisade pour enlever Zara aux Hongrois. Les forces chrétiennes détournées de leur but prirent Constantinople cette année-là. De ses prestations de service, la République maritime reçut pour salaire deux îles de la mer Egée, la Morée et l’Eubée puis, en 1207, l’île de Crète. Elle s’assurait ainsi les routes de l’Asie mineure.
Cependant, une chose était d’occuper Candie, et une autre de tenir la Crète tout entière. La grandeur de l’île dépassait sans doute les possibilités militaires de Venise. Durant l’occupation, soulèvements et guerillas se succédèrent. Ce fut la première fois — l’intérêt territorial prévalant sur l’aspect stratégique — que la Sérénissime entreprit une véritable « vénitisation » d’une colonie.
Le gouvernement et l’administration de la Crète étaient aux mains de grandes familles vénitiennes exclusivement. Dispersés, les colons ne parvinrent jamais à trouver un terrain d’entente avec les colonisés. Sauf peut-être contre Venise elle-même, dans la révolte de 1363, fomentée par un chef de village crétois et appuyée par les colons : les Venier, les Gradenigo, les Molin… Confiée à un Pisani (Vettero), la répression fut terrible. Les Crétois furent écrasés par Pietro Morosini.
Par les célèbres voyages de Marco Polo et de sa famille, les Vénitiens entrèrent en contact avec les nations d’Extrême-Orient. Ils développèrent des échanges diplomatiques et commerciaux avec les Persans, comme avec les Mongols et les Chinois.
Les guerres avec Gênes
À partir de 1308, et de la guerre contre Ferrare, on note un durcissement des rapports entre Venise et ses voisines : Padoue, Vérone et surtout Gênes. C’est l’époque où Trévise souhaite et obtient le protectorat de la République. La guerre contre Gênes fut sanglante et très coûteuse. Elle fut à l’origine de la peste (1347–1348) qui décima la population vénitienne. Une situation désastreuse s’instaura. Pour survivre, Venise dut s’allier avec d’autres peuples, comme les Catalans, et faire appel à ses sujets dalmates, grecs ou albanais pour renforcer ses armées.
Au cours de la troisième guerre contre les Génois, la coalition vénéto-catalane remporta une victoire navale dans les eaux d’Alghero (1353), bientôt suivie d’une cuisante défaite à Porto Longo (1354). La menace la plus précise survint en 1379. Les Padouans, sous les ordres de Carraresi, apportèrent leur soutien aux Génois et attaquèrent Chioggia, à proximité de Venise. Jamais la Sérénissime n’avait été aussi menacée. L’offensive fut cependant stoppée, grâce à la cohésion des habitants de la cité, groupés autour du doge Andrea Contarini. Les Vénitiens parvinrent à séparer les armées de Gênes et de Padoue et, par mer, portèrent la dévastation dans les comptoirs génois de la mer Égée. Ils allèrent jusqu’à Beyrouth. En 1381, Gênes signa la paix grâce aux bons offices du comte de Savoie.
La dernière décennie du XIVe siècle et les deux premières du XVe furent marquées par une expansion de Venise en direction de la terre ferme. Corfou fut acquise des Angevins de Naples en 1386. Venise fut en relation marchande avec la plupart des peuples du nord de l’Europe : Flamands, Français, Allemands… Cependant, l’expansion territoriale du début du XVe siècle finit par inquiéter les principales puissances : France, Espagne, Empire germanique, Papauté… Contre Venise se noua la ligue de Cambrai, dont Venise vint à bout par son habileté diplomatique (1508).
La menace turque et la victoire de Lépante
En 1571, la formidable victoire maritime de Lépante, contre les Ottomans, illustre la suprématie maritime de Venise. Cependant, le début du déclin de la Sérénissime est proche
Aux XVe et XVIe siècles, les Turcs ne cessèrent d’être une terrible menace. Pour les arrêter, Venise n’eut pas d’autre recours que de s’allier avec les Hongrois — ses ennemis “héréditaires”, pourtant. Une campagne commune en Dalmatie donna le Frioul aux Vénitiens. La Sérénissime favorisait la constitution d’un État vénitien de la terre ferme. Un peu partout, dans son empire, Venise était au contact des Ottomans. De 1424 (prise de Salonique) à 1571 (bataille de Lépante), les deux mondes semblèrent s’équilibrer.
Bien qu’elle fut, au premier chef, victorieuse de la grande bataille navale de Lépante, Venise commença dès lors à décliner. C’est que le pouvoir ottoman, pour faire rentrer ses lourds impôts, favorisait les initiatives commerciales de ses “sujets”. La concurrence des marchands grecs, turcs, renégats chrétiens, arméniens, arabes, barbaresques, ragusiens ou juifs était extrêmemet dure et les Vénitiens en pâtirent très vite. Pour les peuples levantins, l’arrivée de la protection ottomane était une sorte de revanche. Le sultan les vengeait de l’arrogance proverbiale des marchands de Venise.
De la mer à la terre : une ville et ses communautés
La puissance maritime perdue, Venise devint une nation terrienne. L’arrogance se tourna désormais contre les paysans de la terre ferme. Dans la cité, depuis des siècles, un modus vivendiavait fixé les rapports entre les diverses communautés. La plus nombreuse était celle des Grecs, composée de marins et de savants exilés. Ceux-ci avaient apporté à Venise leurs connaissances et leur culture. Les “intellectuels” du patriciat vénitien (ou du clergé) n’ignoraient rien de la langue d’Homère ou de la philosophie de Platon. De nombreux ouvrages étaient ainsi conservés dans les plus fameuses bibliothèques — c’est ainsi qu’ils furent sauvés.
Les Turcs eurent leur quartier — le “Fondaco dei Turchi” –, ainsi que les Allemands, les “Tedeschi”. C’est par ces derniers, émigrés de Mayence après la dispersion des ateliers, que Venise découvrit l’imprimerie.
Les Esclavons, orignaires de Slavonie, donnèrent leur nom au quai devant la place Saint-Marc. Ils vivaient de trafics divers et du métier de soldat.
On trouvait aussi à Venise des Arméniens et des Juifs du Levant, qui donnèrent son nom à l’île de la Judecca. Les Juifs eurent un grand rôle dans les domaines de la philosophie, de la théologie et de la médecine, toutes sciences enseignées à l’université. Le premier livre en hébreu fut imprimé non loin du cœur de Venise…
De la création du ghetto au bannissement des Juifs
Au XVIe siècle, Venise eut une attitude des plus ambiguës envers les communautés qui vivaient dans la cité. Il s’agissait pour elle de contrôler tout en protégeant… Un bon exemple de l’expression de cette double volonté est la conduite adoptée vis-à-vis des Juifs. Les autorités de Venise distinguaient trois sortes de Juifs : les “Allemands”, les Levantins et les Ponantins. Les Levantins, originaires de Constantinople, de “Romanie” ou de Crète, bénéficiaient des droits réservés aux étrangers — en particulier le droit de pratiquer le commerce international.
Pour les “Allemands” et les “Italiens” — réfugiés originaires d’autres régions de la péninsule –, le traitement était très dur. C’est à leur intention que fut créé le “ghetto”. Il leur était interdit de prendre part au commerce international. Les seules activités tolérées étaient l’usure… et le métier de chiffonnier.
La nuit et à l’occasion des fêtes, les portes du ghetto étaient fermées. Rares, cependant, furent les violences physiques. Les réactions antisémites survinrent avec l’arrivée des marranes d’Espagne et du Portugal. Leur rôle dans les villes d’Alexandrie, de Raguse, d’Ancône ou à Ferrare, quand ils disputèrent, grâce aux Turcs, la suprématie commerciale aux marchands de Venise, fut à l’origine de leur bannissement vers la fin du XVIe siècle. L’un d’entre ces marranes, Joseph Nassi, était même devenu le grand argentier du sultan. On l’accusa d’être l’instigateur de l’occupation de Chypre par les Ottomans.
Le XVIIIe, siècle du crépuscule
Une nouvelle menace se faisait jour par le nord-est : l’Autriche. Venise devait la combattre en 1617, durant la guerre de Gradisca, quand les Habsbourg armèrent les Uscocchi (les peuples de Bosnie et de Dalmatie) qui, après la signature de la paix, préférèrent la protection de Vienne à celle de Venise.
Au tout début du XVIIIe siècle, Venise fut définitivement chassée de la mer Égée : la Crète fut perdue en 1669 et le Péloponèse (la Morée) en 1718.
En 1797, Bonaparte met un point final aux mille ans d’indépendance de Venise et, en 1866, la cité rejoint le tout nouveau royaume d’Italie.
Evil and art have a long history. For almost as long as we have existed, we have externalised the things we fear most. The Ancient Egyptians made reliefs of Apophis, the snake god of chaos and darkness continually trying to consume Ra, the Sun god. The Aztecs evoked the feared Tezcatlipoca, the ‘smoking mirror’ in their art. Christians for millennia have depicted the devil haunting the margins of numerous books and manuscripts.
Over the centuries though, the relationship between art and evil has remained in constant flux. Far from being a simple visceral reminder of our greatest fears, evil in art is often used to say more about the observer than the art itself, as I shall go on to demonstrate. I’ve broken evil down into three categories, which I believe broadly cover evil in art, the role it plays and its relation to the viewer.
We, as observers and consumers of art, are either its victims, witnesses, or perpetrators.
I’ll start with what I think is the rarest form of evil in art — that which makes the viewer the victim of evil. It takes a special confronting kind of art to achieve this effect. We must not only be addressed by the piece but overcome by it. For me, there is no greater example of this than Peter Paul Rubens ‘Two Satyrs’, 1619.
The first thing we are drawn to in the painting is the eyes. The satyr is staring directly at us, cheeks flushed, with a wicked grin. Presumably, he has been drinking like his fellow satyr in the background. Satyrs are half-men, half-beast in Greek and Roman mythology and are the attendants of Bacchus (Dionysus). They are distinct from similar creatures like fauns and centaurs and their primary focus is to entertain Bacchus and drink with their wild, indulgent god. They also have a reputation for debauchery, particularly sexual depravity, and are sometimes represented as being permanently erect. Combined with their wild lust, they make for an uncomfortable figure in mythology.
Rubens achieves something disturbing in this painting. Then as now, the context behind the art is important. Understanding this painting means understanding the nature of satyrs. To have one staring at you, grinning, with lust in his eyes is chilling to the core. We are victimised by the evil at play here, our own vulnerability seemingly reflected at us in the satyr’s ever-widening grin.
To be a witness to evil is to be a part of it. We are affected by the things we see and moved to action. Artists for millennia have played on our need to act and encouraged us to judge the subjects of their work. It’s no wonder then that being a witness to evil in art is the most common expression of the relationship between evil and art.
A great deal of religious art revolves around this premise. We are encouraged to judge the crucifiers and sympathise with Christ. It is a simple and sometimes passive relationship, meant to inspire contemplation of the suffering. But a huge amount of art play with us as witnesses on a different level.
A masterful example of this is William Bouguereau’s, ‘Dante and Virgil’, 1850. Deep in the bowels of Inferno, in a region known as the Malebolge (Rottenpockets), Dante, Virgil and a demon witness two men fighting with one another. Capocchio, a heretic, is bitten by the fraudster Gianni Schicchi. The violence here is visceral and shocking. To the bottom right a man lays crippled in pain and emerging from a glowing pit behind him are several other groups battling one another. Dante and Virgil are clearly sickened by what they see, but the demon revels in it. He is a creature of evil that delights in evil.
Bouguereau has given us an interesting dynamic here, offering us two different choices. We know that these two men have been condemned to Hell for their crimes. We are not asked to judge whether they are guilty because we already know they are. What Bouguereau is subtly implying here has more to do with us as viewers of the art than the figures in it.
Put simply, he asks whether you are horrified by the animal barbarity of the men’s fate, or revel in it as the demon does. Bouguereau seems to suggest that you’re doing the latter. Of all the characters in the painting, the demon is the only one really looking out at you. His smile is almost conspiratorial, and his horrific features invite us to contemplate our own inner thoughts on how punishment and retribution must be exacted.
This kind of intimate relationship between subject and witness is different from what we find in many other paintings where we witness evil acts. For example, Caravaggio’s, ‘Judith Beheading Holofernes’, 1558–1602, is powerful and shocking, but the focus is mostly on Judith. The brilliant light, her determined face and firm grip of the blade all seem to me to suggest a commitment and reassure the viewer that although this is a horrific, ‘evil’ act, it is right.
Picasso’s, ‘Guernica’, 1937, offers a different relationship too. We see the trauma of Nazi and Fascist Italy’s bombing campaign on the town of Guernica at the request of the Spanish nationalists. Surrealism here offers us nothing less than a world falling apart. Buildings burn, swords are broken, and men and animals lie in pieces. This is a painting of war on an industrial scale and Picasso overwhelms us with it. We are still witnesses here, but Picasso suggests that our judgement is meaningless. Our voices are drowned out by the falling of Fascist bombs, the lick of flames and the screams of the dying.
Finally, and perhaps most uniquely, we can be perpetrators of evil in art. This is where the true ‘allure of evil’ comes in. While Bouguereau’s demon asks us to think about ourselves, art where we take part in the evil, however subtly, asks no such thing of us.
In Europe, this type of art most commonly depicts Satan. The change from monstrous abomination to the complicated anti-hero Satan has become today is mostly the result of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Milton depicts a rebellious bad boy fighting against the establishment. His Satan is a far cry from the epitome of evil in we find in Christianity. Artists are quickly drawn to the idea. In fact, I would go so far as to say that our understanding of the devil/Satan/Lucifer should be considered in pre and post-Milton terms, especially where art is concerned.
William Blake’s, ‘Satan Arousing the Rebel Angels’, 1808 is a testament to this. Here Satan is powerful and beautiful, a moving figure giving a rousing speech. We are encouraged to sympathise with him. Likewise, Thomas Stothard’s, ‘Satan Summoning His Legions,’ (c. 1790), presents us with a gilled figure, summoning an army. He appears almost imperial, a worthy challenger to the Almighty. We know that the figure in these paintings is meant to be emblematic of evil, and yet he is seductive and alluring. He seems passionate, a revolutionary and rebel, someone we could follow. The artists’ triumph here is to make us forget that evil is evil and draw us closer to darkness than we would ever have dared go ourselves.
These are the first steps toward where we are today with TV shows like Lucifer and Supernatural, where the devil is charming, and his diabolical nature extends no further than his wicked grin. Evil is no longer evil. It is sexy, passionate and inviting. Our crime is being tempted by it. We are co-conspirators and would-be rebels. Our inner minds betray us as we feel the pull to figures like Satan.
As art continues to evolve so will our relationship with evil. New mediums, materials and artists will revolutionise the field, but their goals will remain the same. To bring forth the things that torment our nightmares and to reflect back at us those parts of ourselves we would rather remain hidden.
The Importance of the Venice Ghetto for Modern Jewish Studies
The Venice Ghetto serves as the starting point from which to address questions of modern Jewish spaces — for it is a turning point in Jewish and western history. It is a site that has stereotyped and simultaneously helped the Jews to articulate a multicultural communal identity: once sequestered in the Ghetto at its founding in 1516 the Jews had to negotiate their new identity as they took on modern and paradoxical roles in Jewish and European culture.
“In the city without being of it”
The establishment of the Venice Ghetto brought Jews into the modern city while isolating them on one of its islands, and thereby imprinting them with the experience of exile. In order to permit Jews to live within the city (unlike the Spanish who converted, killed, and/or expelled the Jews in 1492) the Venetian government created a sequestered habitat, a city within a city, allowing Jews significant autonomy under surveillance. Now the Jews could be in the city without being of it. The difficulties of exile came along with the creation of the iconic Venice Ghetto as a Jewish address: this new tension defined the modern landscape.
Thus the urban Jewish experience comes to embody a series of paradoxes. The Venetians included the Jews in the commerce of the city as the Ghetto gates were open for business throughout the day, but the water-gates — the doors to the canals — were walled up, barring access to the primary Venetian mode of communication at night. The ability to lend money (think Shylock), with strictly regulated interest rates, made Jews central to the success of the city’s economic activity.
Despite this crucial function in trade, the Jews were excluded from participating directly in many aspects of the city. They could not join the Guilds; the Jews could build synagogues as long as they did not open to the street. They could bake bread for their own use (including Challah, the Sabbath and Holiday loaves), but were forbidden to sell bread to Christians. Not satisfied with simply limiting mobility, the Ghetto’s exterior windows were walled up in order to prevent Jews, whose gaze was thought to be polluting, from looking upon their Christian neighbors. [Katz, “The Ghetto and the Gaze…”] And the Jews had to negotiate the right to residence in Venice just about every five years, for which privilege they had to make an ever larger “contribution” to the government: thus they lived in a regulated state of “inclusive exclusion.”
These conditions and contradictions imposed by the Venice Ghetto, were replicated and intensified in the ghettos established across Italy and Europe and lasted to the end of the nineteenth century — the era of Emancipation — when these Ghettos were abolished and urban renewal erased their traces in most cities.
Jews & the Modern City
The contradictions of Ghetto life still define the relationship of Jews to the modern city and the paradoxical situation of the Venice Ghetto still characterizes central aspects of the modern Jewish urban experience: inclusive/exclusive, inside/outside, valued/disdained, controlled/autonomous.
Long after urban renewal at the turn of the twentieth century pulled down the Ghetto gates, its psychological and sociological impact persists. Even in the most obviously unfettered Jewish communities, in countries with broad guarantees of religious and civic protection, the relationship between Jews and the modern city is still marked by the dynamic tension inherent in the contradictions of this modern exilic situation.
Much modern Jewish writing includes an implied history of Jewish urban life. In such accounts — wonderful tales each in its own right — the historic ghetto experience hovers in the psyches of characters and narrators, reinforced by the constraints of the Ghetto and the shtetl and their histories of oppression and pogroms. These stories tell us what it is to be modern: they reveal the lure of assimilation as well as the fierce loyalty of Jews who refuse to abandon traditional habits, even as they devise new ways of living.
No wonder the modern city has not become a melting pot. As Jews question whether exile is still the Jewish condition — whether the modern city has become a diasporic Jewish homeland, or if and to what extent the founding of the Jewish State in 1948 has indeed changed Jewish history — urban Jewish writing maps the contradictions, paradoxical histories, and possibilities of modernity.
Expanding notions of “the Ghetto” in Jewish culture
The Ghetto has been both historic place and symbolic location in Jewish History.
Israel Zangwill extended the significance of the word, calling the Ghetto “the law” of Jewish immigrant life in London in 1892, bringing the term to refer from pre-Emancipation Venice to the more general situation of modern Jewish life. Zangwill, Children of the Ghetto.
As both place and symbol, the Ghetto took on a new life at the end of the nineteenth century, leading, for example, to its use by Abraham Cahan in 1896 in “Yekl, a Tale of the New York Ghetto,” and by Hutchins Hapgood to explore Jewish life on the lower east side in his 1908 The Spirit of the Ghetto. In American cities, “ghetto” began to refer to crowded ethnic communities, and, later, under the Nazis to sites of “attritional extermination” which they established. Today the word has negative and positive connotations, both worth considering.
Ghetto as Liminal Space
From a spatial perspective, Jewish history, presents a paradox: on the one hand, the confinement of the ghetto, and on the other, the dispersion of the diaspora. And then many kinds of in-between — liminal spaces — that have been improvised since Jews built their first synagogues in the ancient world. That tendency to improvise creatively, to make a virtue of necessity, is one of the great themes of Jewish history, nowhere more evident at the dawn of modernity than the Venice Ghetto.
As in the Venice Ghetto, the constricting experience of sequestration has been tensed against the expansive possibilities of the metropolis. In his 1896 collection, Israel Zangwill underlines how the ghetto experience leads individuals to imagine alternative possibilities; he calls them “dreamers” of the Ghetto. His dialectical prose reminds us that the Venice Ghetto was a paradigmatic moment in Jewish and Western history with implications that unfolded over the next century, leading to Zionism, Bundism, and an imagined New York City where, in the words of Lenny Bruce, everyone in the metropolis is Jewish. It is a phrase that points to the Jewish love affair with the city.
As my father used to say, die Stadtluft macht Frei — the city air makes you free, as it offers the luftmensch of the shtetl the opportunities of the metropolis.
The meanings of the Venice Ghetto thus hover over our conversation, as we focus on the relationship of liminal spaces and Jewish identity in many contemporary and historic situations and writings. Our discussions begin from an understanding of how contemporary globalization brings into focus the relationship between identity and spatial location, and highlights new and cross-cutting transnational allegiances.
Where to see the Baroque artist’s masterpieces in their original locations
Not all art was made to be bought and sold. Some works of art were made for specific locations, where they were designed to live for decades and centuries. Such artworks are especially interesting because they occupy a very real space, and therefore, can be read within an architectural and social setting.
One such case is the art of Caravaggio, who made some of his best work for several churches in Rome, works that still hang in their original locations.
Caravaggio had an important relationship with the city of Rome: he moved there from Milan in 1592, and over the next 14 years, established his considerable reputation with a number of prominent commissions. These works were on public view and were made to communicate directly with church-goers of the 17th century.
It is worth remembering that the electric lighting that now illuminates these paintings creates a different sort of scene than in Caravaggio’s day. In the early 17th century, the minimal natural light from the church windows and doorways would have been supplemented by the flickering light of oil lamps and candle flame.
San Luigi dei Francesi
One of the first major commissions Caravaggio received was in 1599, to decorate a chapel in San Luigi dei Francesi, a church not far from the Piazza Navona. The chapel was dedicated to St Matthew, and Caravaggio initially painted two scenes from the saint’s life: The Calling of Saint Matthew and The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew, both completed in around 1600.
There was also a third painting, commissioned after Caravaggio had completed the first pair and the patron was happy. The first version of Saint Matthew and the Angel was rejected, and subsequently removed from the church — it was later destroyed during WWII — but the second version was accepted. Otherwise known as The Inspiration of Saint Matthew, the painting still hangs in the church today, and is for me one of the great paintings of the Baroque period.
The image of St Matthew gives us the apostle in the act of writing. Matthew is the traditional author of the first gospel, and so paintings often show him in a study or at a writing desk. As one of the evangelists, he is usually accompanied by his traditional attribute, a winged figure resembling an angel.
Caravaggio’s painting follows this model: the angel can be seen dictating or providing inspiration as Matthew writes.
Caravaggio also does a great deal more with the subject. He provides a setting that is both abstract and ambiguous (set against a dark background) whilst at the same time building up a scene full of real textures, fabrics and expressions. Despite having no definite setting, there is nothing other-worldly about the image; rather, it is close-at-hand and tangible.
Matthew and the angel are in an intimate exchange. And the gentle curve that moves through composition of the painting, from the sweeping lines of the angel’s robes through Matthews body and his outstretched leg, gives the work a perfect internal unity.
S. Maria del Popolo
At around the same time, Caravaggio was asked to work on paintings for the Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo, a church on the northern side of Piazza del Popolo.
Two works can be found in the Cerasi Chapel of the Basilica: The Crucifixion of St Peter (1601) and The Conversion of St Paul (1601).
The Crucifixion of Saint Peter is an especially arresting painting. Peter was one of Jesus’ twelve apostles and one of the closest to Christ. He was the brother of Andrew and a fisherman of Galilee. After Christ’s crucifixion, Peter led the apostles in spreading the word of the gospel, and in Rome established one of the first Christian communities.
His own crucifixion came at the hands of the Roman Emperor Nero in A.D. 64. At Peter’s request, he was crucified upside down as he didn’t believe he was worthy enough to be killed in the same manner as Jesus.
Caravaggio’s depiction is notable for several reasons. The physicality of the moment is remarkably vivid: one need only examine the three workers who are raising the cross, each of them occupied by a different task, to understand that this is no idealised account, but a cruel act of real men on another human being. One man hoists a rope; another bears the weight of the wooden structure in his hand; the third stoops to press his back into the cross to help raise it, also holding a shovel in his hand to dig the hole for the stake.
All three workers are are shown with the marks of toil and industry. Their feet are blackened with dust and their hands and arms pulse with raised veins.
Peter himself is shown in a state of distress combined with disbelief, as he his hoisted backwards on the cross. The very moment depicted emphasises his vulnerability: he is an old man in a loin cloth, frightened by the prospect of his last few moments alive. It was Caravaggio’s ability to bring out the psychological drama of a scene, and to make it so graphically present, that won him many admirers — and critics too.
Basilica di Sant’Agostino
Caravaggio’s realistic style draw criticism because he was so willing to forgo idealisation, even when the scenes were traditional subjects of veneration.
There is no better example of this than the Madonna di Loreto (Pilgrim’s Madonna), completed around 1605 for the Basilica di Sant’Agostino, a Renaissance church near Piazza Navona. The painting is located in the Cavalletti Chapel of the church and shows the the Madonna and Child being visited by two pilgrims, who kneel in prayer before them.
Caravaggio has painted Mary in a naturalistic pose, that of a mother bearing the weight of her child on her hip. It is a much less glorified posture — clearly drawn from real life — than the Renaissance tradition had previously established, with Mary tending to hold the child as he were weightless.
Mary is stood in a simple doorway on a stone step; the wall beside her is cracked and flaking. All of the figures have bear feet. The only suggestion that this is a sacred scene is the faint elliptical halo above Mary’s head.
Later critics would claim that Caravaggio made a disrespectful and indecent treatment of the subject. And yet, it remained a popular image for the church-goers, perhaps because the rustic details gives the painting something of a pastoral quality, raising the act of faith as displayed by the destitute pilgrims to the level of pure devotion.