Christmas Musings

It’s over. I’m here, stranded on my sofa, unable to move, only my brain keeps on working on some lines that keep on echoing in my mind¬† : ” my heart ( but also head, stomach….I would add) aches and a drowsy numbness pains my sense as though ……”a ton of carbs I had swallowed.ūüė©Well, this is not the faithful reproduction of the poem, but I have got the feeling that Keats must have been thus inspired after having attended some Christmas family parties. However, after these three days of masochistic food marathon, I cannot help but wonder: what is this Christmas spirit about? What is it that we long for, as soon as Autumn sweeps away the summer sparkle? After a long pondering ūü§Ē, I¬†have come to the conclusion that the Christmas spirit has nothing to do with religion, births of Saviors, renewed feelings of empathy for humankind etc.; Christmas is all about the wonder of lights and food. It has always been so.

For example, before the fourth century A.D., the 25th of December was very popular even among the Romans, only that it was Mithras, originally a Persian deity who was said to be either the son of the sun or the companion of the sun, the one to be celebrated. At that time, the 25th of December was considered the winter solstice, that is, the moment when days begin to lengthen and the power of the sun to increase, hence, the fittest day to celebrate the son of the sun. Of course, the best way to glorify such a god was to kindle lights everywhere in token of festivity. When the doctors of the Church perceived that this celebration was becoming dangerously popular even among the Christians, they took counsel and resolved that the true Nativity should be solemnized on that day. That’s why we keep on lighting our towns and houses after so many centuries: in memory of the god of the sun!

Therefore, the popularity of those rituals stands in the power of light, rather than the name of the god it was meant to be honoured. Light is the symbol of life over death, fertility, joy and Christmas illuminations and decorations, wherever we live, make us arouse an instinctive sense of childish wonder, as if for a while all that light had the power to hide the ugliness of the world. It is that illusion that we long for.

The other question is: why do we feel compelled to overeat during Christmas holidays? Maybe, there are anthropological reasons, as it is now winter and we have to store fat for the long cold season. Some of you who might be reading this post in warmer climates might object this point, of course, hence, I would like to remind you that, first of all, we live in time of globalization and that if you are celebrating Christmas, it is because some European soldiers and monks settled in your lands centuries ago exterminating the people who had inhabited them bringing the traditions of their cold mother countries…….. in the name of the Savior, of course.

 

Advertisements

“Spelacchio”, a Farewell.

It is now official: “Spelacchio” is dead. He couldn’t make it for Christmas, and now it has become a long, slender, bare, dry , lifeless tree dressed up with lights and balls which, let me say,¬† make ¬†“Spelacchio” even more pathetic, if possible. What did it kill it ? Well, it seems it was the cool wind from the North which has blown over the capital for a couple of days – I have to say that it has been unusually cold these days here – that stroke the last mortal blow. Strange indeed, however, as firs don’t grow at tropical latitudes as far as I know, unless this one was of a peculiar kind.

However, if “Spelacchio” aimed at becoming a celeb, somehow it did it, even if for the wrong reasons. Lots of articles from all over the world have narrated its slow agony, and if “Spelacchio” (mangy) has sounded so pejorative, a newspaper from Moscow , Russia Today, has even been less genteel defining it “toiled brush“. Even the “Ghana News Agency” had something to say about it with an article entitled: “No Christmas Joy in Rome“.

However, the reason why this story has enraged all Roman citizens lies in its symbolism. “Spelacchio” represents, in fact, “the eternal city’s eternal decay” as The Guardian defined it. And there is no sign of any improvement. The capital has been in a state of chronic stagnation since Virginia Raggi, the bright star of the anti-establishment 5-star movement, has become Mayor of Rome. The streets are full of pot holes, there are piles of garbage everywhere, public gardens are often unkempt with weeds that grow as tall as a person. Even the Pope himself has decried the state of the city in a public celebration before the Mayor. Words unheard, of course.

So, farewell “Spelacchio”. I am sorry we have not been more welcoming with you, but try to understand us if you can. You were to be that ephemeral beauty, that sparkling illusion that lasts only few weeks . A childish illusion, indeed, which would have made us forget for a while the ugliness that surrounds us every day, giving a little hope. Maybe next year? Maybe.

“Spelacchio”: A Christmas Story


Once upon a time a beauty contest was held among the snowy valleys of Trentino Alto
Adige in order to spot the most, luxurious, beautiful fir worthy to represent the
Christmas spirit in the capital: Rome. The prize was very high: the fir would have
been placed in the middle of Piazza Venezia and would have been adorned with
hundreds of fabulous silver balls and kilometers of lights bulbs. For almost a month
it would have reigned over that ancient city, close to the Coliseum and the majestic
Roman Forum . It would have been admired by millions of people, thus
becoming a celeb. The administrators of the city had in mind to create something
memorable that year, hoping people would forget the shabby organization of the previous Christmas setup. They were so confident that they didn’t even look for a sponsor
to share the expense, as it should have been crystal clear that the merits were to be all
their own .

The winner was a tall, elegant, rich sort of fir and as it had always been very admired and envied in the entire valley, nobody objected that choice. A party to celebrate the victory was given, then, band and scepter in hand, the Fir was accurately prepared and delicately placed on a lorry on a bed of cushions and tied, so that the 700 and more kilometers to the capital might be not too tiring. It should have been at its best once in the capital. However, when the snowy cliffs of Trentino Alto Adige were no longer in sight, a sort of melancholy took possession of its heart. The air was no longer clear and sparkling, but humid and polluted. It seemed as if it could not breathe.
Furthermore, it had started to notice in horror that some pine needles were falling
off prematurely. Surely, it was the stress of the long journey, but fortunately they were very close to the final destination. Nobody would have noticed few pine needles missing, the Fir was sure.

Only when it was eventually crucified in the middle of Piazza Venezia, the most deserving of all firs understood the tragedy that was about to overwthelm it. It was not only for the few
needles that had fallen off, but it had lost almost a half of his green coat. It
stood there, defenceless, tired, mortified at its own ugly nakedness. Was really this tall
and huge scarecrow the “elegant”, “sober” tree promised by the administrators? When the children gathered around the tree they were, of course, disappointed and soon named it sneeringly: “Spelacchio“( the closest word in English I might think about¬† is “mangy”) The tons of lights that weighted on its humbled spirit and the hundreds of silver
balls that wounded its bare branches were not enough to hide the shabbiness of the
entire effect. Giving a look around from where it had been placed,  however, the Fir felt just a little relieved: that capital was not exactly what it had imagined. Dirt and garbage could be seen almost everywhere, the city seemed chaotic and noisy. Somehow, its presence perfectly fitted that place, it thought bitterly.

Sunset was the happiest moment of the day. The lights were turned on, so the Fir felt safely hidden behind the magic wonder that covered it all and imagined to be admired as it used to be, but the mornings were hideous and the Fir couldn’t bear to read in the disappointed eyes of passers-by its own failure any longer. So there it stands now, barer and barer day after day, waiting for Christmas to come, hoping¬† to be set free as soon as possible from its misery and humiliation . Much better to end up as a log in some warm fireplace that exposed in that cold square.

The moral of the story? Well, if your city administrators cannot even make a decent Christmas tree, it is very unlikely they will be able to bring the place you live to the standards it deserves. Think twice before giving your vote next time.

In the meanwhile, Merry Christmas everyone!

 

The Darkness behind the Locked Door

One of the most fascinating take on Wuthering Heights, in my opinion, is the Jungian interpretation,¬† which sees¬† Heathcliff as Catherine‘s dark side, her shadow.¬†In the personal unconscious, the shadow consists of those desires, feelings, which are unacceptable, for both emotional or moral reasons : it¬†is¬†the dark side of human nature. Heathcliff represents her repressed sexuality, her unconfessed desire which, however, is arduous to control, as the shadow is impulsive, powerful, wild, and hence can become obsessive or possessive.¬†When¬†Catherine marries¬†Edgar, she tries to reject that secret part of her, ¬†that‚Äôs why¬†Heathcliff mysteriously disappears. But Heathcliff,¬†as¬†the shadow, refuses to be suppressed permanently, in fact, he surfaces after two years to claim his place next to Catherine, who, despite her desperate efforts to integrate him, is eventually defeated and dies.

This paradigm can also be applied to Jane Eyre as well. In this novel the role of the shadow belongs to Bertha Mason, Mr Rochester‘s first wife. Both Bertha Mason‘s and Heathcliff‘s descriptions conform to the archetype of the shadow. Heathcliff is always portrayed as dark as a gypsy , while Bertha is a Creole, the daughter of a white European settler in the West Indies with “dark hair” and “discoloured black face“. At those time the Creoles were more associated with the native Caribbean populations than the white, civilized Europeans. Creole women were often described as obstinate, dissolute and untrustworthy, which is exactly what Rochester will tell about Bertha.

Rochester had been entrapped¬† in this marriage. He had been beguiled by her uncommon beauty, wealth and that Creole sensuality, but only when it is too late, he open his eyes to face the real truth: his wife is mad. Once back to England and to the strict conventions of the Victorian society he cannot but hide and lock Bertha in a remote chamber of Thornfield, thus caging his own sexuality.¬† Thornfield will represent for him from that moment on, what the very name foreshadows, a field, as his soul, tormented by the thorns or guilt, sexual frustration and disappointment. That’s why he is often away. Till Jane Eyre crosses his way.

The growing attachment he feels forJane will make him spend more time at Thornfield, thus it will be impossible for him to ignore his surfacing powerful shadow. As I mentioned before, the shadow cannot be repressed forever, in fact, Bertha walks the night undisturbed, her screams and hideous laughter can be heard by everybody and she even attempts at punishing Mr Rochester setting his room on fire for having been thus neglected and confined, but above all for having brought in the household the “other” woman, Jane Eyre.

¬†Bertha is, of course, Jane‚Äôs polar opposite but she is also her truest and darkest double. Her confinement in the attic mirrors Jane‚Äôs imprisonment in the Red Room at Gateshead, a punishment for her anger and lack of conformity. This doubling¬† makes Bertha‚Äôs role within the novel much more complex, and¬† that means that any analysis of her character must take account of her relationship with Jane. For example one night, when Jane sees Bertha¬† at the foot of her bed, dressed in white with a bridal veil, while she is looking in the mirror, Jane continuously repeats that she has never seen such a face. Only a few pages later, the morning of her marriage, Jane looks at herself in the mirror and says:” I saw a robed and veiled figure, so unlike my usual self that it seemed almost the image of a stranger. It is impossible not to notice that the two scenes are almost identical.

Mr Rochester‘s attempt to marry Jane is but his extreme effort to reject that contemptible part of himself and be free to live his life. But in vain. The disclosure of the truth will have as consequence the disappearance of the “good ” self, Jane, who will come back only when Bertha Mason dies, committing suicide. It is interesting to notice that Mr Rochester will be permanently injured in the endeavour of saving Bertha from the fire she had herself set. After all, as his shadow, she was part of him, therefore, letting Bertha die was just like dying himself.

 

 

 

 

 

Teaser and Seductive

It is true: when it happens to re-read a book after many years, even one that you think to know very well, it will inevitably appear under a different light. The book is just the same, but the reader has changed in sensibility and life experience, hence; words, actions unexpectedly take different forms and meanings and the novel, like a precious jewel case, opens to your mind to reveal its new treasure.

So, when I recently analyzed with my students chapter XXXVIII of Jane Eyre, I couldn’t help but noticing a tension in the book, that I had missed before and, I have to say, I quite enjoyed it. Whoever has bumped into my old articles about Jane Eyre, knows that she is not exactly my favorite heroine and not certainly one I naturally emphatize with. I have often found tedious such display of prudery, modesty and self-righteousness, however, between the lines of that chapter I could perceive a new aspect of Jane which I had totally missed.

First of all, I felt that Charlotte Bronte, through Jane, must have really had a great deal of fun ( mixed with a little degree sadism) in humiliating her Byronic hero: Mr Rochester. She tortures him slowly in this very long chapter, which apparently celebrates the re-union of the two lovers. When Jane Eyre comes back to Thorfield after a year, she only finds physical and spiritual ruins. Thorfield has been destroyed by a fire set by Mr Rochester’s wife Bertha Mason and Mr Rochester, in the attempt of rescuing her, has become lame and blind. When Jane approaches him for the first time, what she sees is only a shuttered, miserable, brooding man: a pale shadow of the man he used to be. However; after she has revealed her presence to him( which, I have to admit, is one of the most effective love scenes ever) thus giving Mr Rochester a sparkle of joy, she soon inflicts him one last terrible blow confessing that she is a rich and independent woman now.

Jane had left Thornfield a year before penniless, that is why Rochester had believed her¬† “dead in some ditch under some stream” or¬† “pining outcast amongst strangers‚ÄĚ. Now that she has turned up rich and independent and being in such a wretched physical and mental state, he is convinced he has no longer any power on her. No more. Nevertheless, our heroine doesn’t seem to show any real mercy and keeps teasing him, in fact, right before going to sleep, somehow she hints at the presence af a man near her in the time she had been missing. The pangs of jealousy work during the night till the next morning, when the two meet again, Mr Rochester will flood a super satisfied Jane with questions on whom he perceives as his rival.

Her answers will just add pain to his tortured soul. That man is Jane’s cousin St. John Rivers, whom she describes at first as a sort of cultivated, refined, handsome Apollo with a Grecian profile too, exactly the kind of person that in that moment makes him feel undeserving of Jane’s love and attentions. At a certain point, probably feeling that this game was lasting a bit too long, Jane justifies her behaviour saying that she was doing this for his own good: to relieve him from his state of melancholy. Maybe she was right, but I could see her exultant smile between the lines. When Jane hears that Mr Rochester has been wearing¬† her little pearl necklace fastened round his bronze scrag under his cravat since the day he left, she cannot but triumph over the ashes of somebody who once could be rightly defined a true Byronic hero. What an end!

What is surprising in these last scenes is the sensual tension between the two lovers and it is Jane who makes the rules of the game. She is seductive. She approaches silently Mr Rochester till he feels her presence and only then she allows him to touch her fingers, her face and her entire body so that he might have the joy and the pleasure of identifying her.¬† Mr Rochester’s joy for having his Jane back at last is balanced by the uncertainties due to his condition and our heroine plays this bitter-sweet game as long as she can, till she eventually accepts to be his wife. From the ashes of the Byronic hero a dominant, self-confident woman is born.

 

 

The English Way (1)

Sordi-in-I-Due-Nemici-Posters

from “The Best Enemies”, with David Niven and Alberto Sordi.

Elections are not very far and I may say that analyzing the Italian political situation, the name of the party that is very likely to win will be: “precariousness and confusion”.¬† But what are reasons¬†that have brought our¬†nation to the¬†pathological political instability that has characterized us for decades? What’s wrong with us? We are a charming country with a glorious past, the cradle of civilization along with Greece and much more could be added, for sure. However, even if we started so well, we must have¬†missed a few steps in the path towards a mature democracy.

One justification¬†might be that we¬†are a young¬†nation: only 157 years old. We shouldn’t forget that before¬†the unification,¬†we had suffered dominations of¬†any kind, whose heritage can be clearly seen in any of our regions in term of culture, food, music, language. By the way, in those centuries of oppression we had also¬†gradually developed a higher degree of scepticism and¬†distrust against any form of administration.¬†Cunning, unreliability, deceitfulness,¬†“virtues”¬†that still distinguish the Italian stereotype abroad,¬†were the weapons we had developed¬†in time¬†to defend ourselves from the foreign rules.

The problem is that once free and politically united, we haven’t been able to¬†work together¬†for¬†the making of¬†a common identity, because our chronic distrust runs in our veins and has always made¬†us¬†choose for the “individual” way, rather than the “social” one.¬† That’s why¬†the process towards a responsible, efficient democracy here is slower than in other countries.¬†It’s this lack of a common political¬†and social exercise that still makes us always look for¬†that charismatic one, who might solve all¬†our problems. He has¬†never showed up and never will.¬†But as I told you before, we are young.

In other countries, on¬†the contrary,¬†the path towards democracy¬†has seemed¬†somehow more natural. The last invasion in¬†England, for example, dates back to 1066,¬† when the Normans conquered and unified the country – fortunate event that might have happened in Italy as well, thus sparing¬†us a lot of troubles, but for the Pope’s fierce opposition against the Normans’ advance from the South of Italy,¬† therefore; England, if compared to Italy, had¬†an advantage of 800 years. It means they had¬†plenty of time to make a lot of nice political experiments. From that moment on, and before any other country, England will¬†undergo¬†a gradual but¬†constant weakening of the great powers of the Middle Age, Church and monarchy and the growing of a modern one: Parliament.

With¬†the English Common Law, for instance, the king¬†was not considered any longer above¬†the law; therefore if the English ruler could be tried just like anybody else,¬† it meant that he¬†had started to¬†lose those divine traits that his fellow kings all over Europe would have kept for a longer time. Furthermore; with The Magna Carta the king could no longer impose taxes without¬†that “general¬†consent” of¬†those who¬†one day will become part of¬†a fully elected Parliament.¬†The nobles took advantage¬†from this situation increasing their power, but they greed will¬†bring¬†England to the disaster¬†of the War of the Roses.

The Tudors were necessarily firmer monarchs whose recipe for a stronger country was the balancing of powers. They weakened the nobles depriving them of their private armies, avoided summoning Parliament, increased trade, developed alliances with the other countries, but above all, smashed the power of the Roman Catholic Church taking advantage of the Protestant wave from the north of Europe. At the dawning of the seventeenth century England was an Anglican country with a well-defined Parliament and a growing middle class.

The Stuarts failed to understand the now rooted distinctive features of their country, and¬†tried to make it more “European” if possible, but in this way they only succeeded in reinforcing¬†its prior structure. After the¬†Glorious Revolution, England was a¬†modern nation with a monarchy controlled by an independent Parliament and a flourishing bourgeoisie. It¬†was, therefore, ready to face the great changes the industrial revolution would have brought about before any other European country and destined to be a long-lasting power worldwide. But this is another story. As I told you before, we are young.

Being Artemisia Gentileschi

Susanna and the Elders

What if you had been gifted of a unique talent but not allowed to express it freely because you were born woman. If Shakespeare had had a sister, endowed with the same degree of genius, or even more, what would have become of her, was Virginia Woolf’s question in “A Room of One’s Own”? Marriage, children, a woman ‘s¬† “career” was quite defined whatever her social status was at those times. Hence, Virginia Woolf ‘s conclusions were that had such a playwright existed, she would have died in obscurity, her poetry unexpressed, her voice made dumb.

Sleeping Venus

Well, exactly at those times, when Shakespeare was at the peak of his popularity, a woman was struggling to gain hers as an artist. Born in Rome on 8 July 1593, Artemisia Gentileschi was the eldest child of the Tuscan painter Orazio Gentileschi.¬† Artemisia was soon introduced to painting in her father’s workshop¬† just like her brothers but soon Orazio saw where real talent harbored among his children and it was in those little, delicate fingers of her daughter. He encouraged her and taught her how to draw, mix color and¬† paint, but at the same time, she had to take her mother’s place, who had lately died, and bear the burden of the various responsibilities of family business, home management and the custody of her three little brothers. Whatever Artemisia had learnt, therefore, it was within the domestic walls. Even Caravaggio’s technique, the most popular and innovative painter of those times that had influenced her style so much, was not apprehended directly but through his father’s paintings. As woman, she was unable to enjoy the same learning paths undertaken by her male colleagues. As you can easily guess, painting was considered almost exclusively male and not feminine at that time. However; Artemisia’s talent was blossoming to such an extent that Orazio allowed her to work on his canvases. It was in 1610, at the age of 17, when she produced what, according to some critics, is the work that officially seals Artemisia’s debut into the world of art: “Susanna and the Elders“(Susanna e i Vecchioni).

The episode to which the work relates is narrated in Daniel’s book from the Old Testament. Susanna is a young and chaste girl, who is surprised naked in the bathroom by two elderly gentlemen attending her husband’s home. She is subjected to a sexual blackmail: either she will agree to submit to their appetites or the two will tell her husband that they had surprised her with a young lover. Susanna accepts the humiliation of an unjust accusation and only later Daniel will bring to light the lie of the two elders. Maybe it was a presage, but incredibly Artemisia will experience a similar event with devastating consequences in her life. In 1611, when Artemisia’s father was working with Agostino Tassi, a talented painter, to decorate the vaults of Casino delle Muse inside the Palazzo Pallavicini-Rospigliosi in Rome. Orazio decided to hire him to mentor his daughter privately, despite the rumors about his obscure past.¬† During this tutelage,Tassi raped Artemisia.¬†

Death of Cleopatra

Which were Artemisia’s options? Telling everything to her father? What if he had not believed her? Denounce the rapist? Bearing the consequence of public exposure and comments? She decided to be silent. She even continued to have sexual relations with Tassi, hoping he would marry her, thus restoring her dignity and future, but Tassi continually postponed the marriage, using his promise as a means of convincing her to continue sexual relations with him. Nine months had passed and rumors about the liaison reached the ear of Orazio. The two were confronted and eventually both Tassi and another “gentleman” Cosimo Quorli (who had tried but failed to rape Artemisia and had helped Agostino plan visits to her house when her father was absent) were charged.¬†The trial lasted seven months in 1612, and received, as you can well imagine, considerable publicity.

The major issue of this trial was the fact that Tassi had taken Artemisia’s virginity. If Artemisia had not been a virgin before Tassi raped her, Orazio would not have been able to press charges. “What I was doing with him, I did only so that, as he had dishonored me, he would marry me….I have never had any sexual relations with any other person besides¬† Agostino..” she declared, but these were only the words of a woman, therefore; during the trial she was subjected to a gynecological examination, first to verify her testimony and then tortured with the “sibille”, thumbscrews, involving cords of rope tied around her hands and pulled tightly, in order to “prove” that she was telling the truth. During the torture, which, of course, seriously injured her hands, thus risking her career, she was repeatedly asked whether or not Tassi had raped her, and she continually responded: “it is true, it is true.”

Orazio Gentileschi’s self portrait

During the trial Artemisia discovered that Tassi could have never married her, because he already had a wife, a wife that he had planned to murder, but still alive. Furthemore; he had been engaged in adultery with his sister-in-law and had in mind to steal some of Orazio’s painting. Not exactly a Prince Charming. After the trial he was condemned to five years of imprisonment or, alternatively, perpetual exile from Rome. Of course, he opted for the second possibility, but he managed never to move from Rome. Hence; even if Artemisia won, her¬† in Rome was completely undermined and¬† an impressive¬† amount of licentious sonnets that saw her as protagonist started to spread. One month after the trial, in order to save her reputation Artemisia married a painter, Pierantonio Stiattesi and moved to Florence. She and her husband separated a few years later.

What followed were years of hard work, but also fame. He travelled and made herself known all over Europe and her genius reached even the court of Charles I. Of course, the consequences of the rape and subsequent trial had left inevitably a profound impression on Artemisia’s life and art, thus¬† transposing the psychological consequences of the violence suffered on her canvas. Very often, “la pittora”(the woman painter) as she was called, turned to the uplifting theme of biblical heroines such as Judith, Jade, Betsabeah, or Esther, who – fearless of danger and animated by an upset and vindictive desire – triumph over the cruel enemy, and somehow, claim their right within society. In this way, Artemisia soon became a kind of protofeminist, permanently in war with the other sex and able to incarnate the desire of women to affirm themselves in society.