Thursday, May 31, 2012

Jubilee: a short history of a long tradition

The Queen of Pentacles

From the 2nd to the 5th of June, Queen Elizabeth II celebrates her Diamond Jubilee, marking 60 years of reign, a landmark anniversary that is cause for celebration in the United Kingdom. We would also be amiss if we didn't note that the Astrologer Royal was doubtless consulted when selecting the spectacularly auspicious end date of the festivities, the same day that Venus, "the Queen of Heaven," begins to transit the face of the sun, which last occurred in 2004 and won't occur again for another 113 years.

In one of nature's boundless displays of beauty, Venus's orbit when seen from earth traces a pentagram over an eight-year cycle known as the grand quintile, succinctly elaborated at; they also created the excellent graphic below (you may need to click on the image to enlarge it for clarity).

The pentagram traced by Venus is actually a fractal one, and when plotted graphically (below) reveals a nexus of symbolic meanings: the five petalled rose (the English rose), the lily (the royal fleur-de-lys) and the alchemical quintessence, the fifth and pentultimate of the classical elements (earth, wind, fire and water), the æther. In short, we are being invited to witness a royal apotheosis, and I for one am expecting a jolly good show.

The Good Sumerians

The celebratory ceremony of the jubilee is as old as civilization itself, a tradition that stretches back through medieval Christianity to ancient Israel and ultimately to Sumer and First Dynasty Egypt, whereupon it is lost to recorded history.

The first recorded ruler to proclaim a jubilee is Enmetena, king of Lagash, an ancient Sumerian city-state. His proclamation of "freedom" (ama-gi, written in cuneiform above and literally translated as "a return to the mother") is documented in a tablet dating from ca. 2400 BC:
A remission of the obligations (ama-gi) of Lagash he instituted.
He returned the mother to the child
and returned the child to the mother,
and a remission
(ama-gi) of interest-bearing barley loans he instituted.
Some fifty years later, a successor king of Lagash, Urukagina, also declared a universal pardon and is the first ruler known to institute reforms to fight inequities and corruption, detailed in surviving tablets such as the following excerpt from a praise poem of his reign. The poem recounts man's eternal subjegation to taxes and takings and is profoundly depressing when one considers that it was written four and a half millenia ago, yet begins with the words:
From time immemorial, since life began,
in those days, the head boatman appropriated boats, the livestock official appropriated asses, the livestock official appropriated sheep, and the fisheries inspector appropriated [fish].... These were the conventions of former times!

Egypt: Run for your throne! Run for your life!

Though adapted over time, the Egyptian Heb Sed, or royal jubilee, was a codified test of the pharaoh's fitness to rule. After 30 years' reign, pharaohs were to prove their physical and mental acuity and stamina by running, singing and performing ritualized dances and ceremonies intended to renew their authority, vigor and divinity.

(Below: a view of the Heb Sed courtyard at Saqqara. In the foreground is the socle representing the double throne of Upper and Lower Egypt, with the Heb Sed pavilions and the famed stepped pyramid of Djozer rising behind.)

During the Heb Sed ceremonies, the pharaoh also raised the djed pillar, a phallic fertility symbol, from which derives, I believe, the English-language double entendre of "raising the dead." Thereafter the festival was repeated every three years until the ruler's death. What scraps of information remain concerning the ceremonies indicate nothing concerning those elements of the Heb Sed not directly involving the pharaoh, so we do not know if pardons were involved as well. However, if we go back to the earliest known incarnation of the Heb Sed, pharaohs who failed the test were ceremonially put to death—indicating that society ultimately governed the pharaoh and not the reverse.

"And on the seventh day He rested"

The Jewish jubilee (from the Hebrew yobhel, or ram's horn, blown on the Day of Atonement) was based on a seven-year cycle of crop rotation; in the Torah, Jehovah commanded Moses that fields and orchards were to lie fallow every seventh year, the sabbath year, or shmita. The jubilee year was celebrated at the end of the seventh year of the seventh shmita cycle, or every 50th year. All debts were erased, all sins forgiven, all foreclosed land returned to its prior guardians and a universal pardon was proclaimed.

This article of Mosaic law is detailed in Leviticus 25: 9-10 (KJV):
Then shalt thou cause the trumpet of the jubilee to sound on... the day of atonement... throughout all your land. And ye shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof: it shall be a jubilee unto you; and ye shall return every man unto his possession, and ye shall return every man unto his family.

All roads lead to Rome

Pope Boniface VIII, much more economically stingy than Jehovah but spiritually much more indulgent, proclaimed the first Christian Jubilee on the 22nd of February in the year 1300. In return for 15 days of visits to the basilicas of St. Peter and St. Paul for pilgrims and 30 days for native Romans, the penitent faithful (above) received complete absolution of sin.

No debt relief came with purity of soul, and in fact pilgrims indebted themselves to undertake their journeys; nonetheless, the pope's gesture was enthusiastically received throughout Christendom and began a tradition—initially at fifty year intervals, then for a time 33, reverting again to 50, and finally, with Paul II's proclamationin the late 1400s, settling upon a 25-year interval—that continues to this day. In 2000, John Paul II greatly liberalized the requirements for receiving a Jubilee indulgence, though confession, Communion, prayer for the Pope and freedom from all attachment to sin remain mandatory prerequisites.

The British Jubilee

The tradition of the British monarchy celebrating royal jubilees began with the anniversary of George III's 50th year of reign on 25 October 1809, which was celebrated thoughout Britain and the colonies. A private service was held at Windsor and a grand fete and fireworks were offered at Frogmore.

Queen Victoria, the longest reigning British monarch, also celebrated Gold and Diamond Jubilees in 1887 and 1897. Two days of pomp, feasting, processions and fireworks were attended by foreign monarchs and administrators from across the Empire, and witnessed by massive crowds. Of her Diamond Jubilee carriage ride, the Queen wrote in her diary, "No one ever, I believe, has met with such an ovation as was given to me, passing through those 6 miles of streets... The cheering was quite deafening & every face seemed to be filled with real joy. I was much moved and gratified."

"What would Jesus do?"

Which brings us to the present day: a world engulfed in The Depression that Dare Not Speak its Name and rising calls, amid vertiginously rising national and world debt that has reached truly Biblical proportions, for a Biblical response equal to the problem. For those fond of asking, "What would Jesus do?", it is well worth noting that the only time Jesus ever became violent was when driving the money changers from the temple—literally with a whip. Makes one stop a moment to ponder, doesn't it?

Caveat Victor

Throughout history, human societies have recognized the need for renewal, cleansing and release—a reset button, if you will—to resolve inequities and to relieve injustices and imbalances that would otherwise destabilize them and eventually cause outright collapse. The imperative was so strong, in fact, that the jubilee became enshrined as an essential societal regulator and was sacralized as the Word of God as received by Moses. Whatever one's political persuasion, it cannot be denied that the world today is not only in social, political and financial turmoil, but actual distress.

The causes are far too complex to ever outline here, but if we take a few steps back and consider the proverbial Big Picture, it becomes obvious that long unchecked and exponentially accelerating debt creation, coupled with a steadily increasing concentration of wealth and power, threatens the very fabric of society itself.

Of course, those who have amassed most of the marbles won't like giving some of them back, and other inequities will certainly be engendered in doing so. But if we stay with the game metaphor for a moment, has anyone ever finished a game of Monopoly in peace and harmony, or finished the game at all? Inevitably, when the endgame comes into view, dissension arises and a handswipe—or worse—finishes things off. No one plays things out until there is an actual winner.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Pavillon d'amour, Neuville-sur-Oise

One of the wonderful things about the Ile-de-France, the region surrounding Paris, is the density of ancient construction and—once beyond the grasp of the hodge-podge of rather depressing suburbs—the beauty and largely intact rural character of the land known as "the great crown." Neuville-sur-Oise is one of these ancient villages, grown around a feudal château, and its pride is one of the most perfect examples of the pavillon d'amour form, so perfect in fact that it negates this hoary architectural cliché of the clichéd age of la douceur de vivre. (Above, our watercolor portrait.)

The octagonally planned pavilion is a true belvedere, magisterially sited on a projecting cut-stone terrace overlooking the river Oise, the massive, canted and chamfered basement suggesting a ship's prow. The building is rather sedate until one considers the voluptuously over-scaled slate roof, another suggestive form evoking the voluminous, curving panniers of an ancien régime court dress.

The property had a brush with fame in the late 18th century, when in 1775 it was purchased by Count Mercy-Argenteau, the Austrian ambassador to the court of France and confidant and advisor to Marie-Antoinette. Though no documentation exists, it is believed that the pavilion was built earlier, in the mid 17th century, as it literally exudes the quiet sophistication of France's Augustinian Age.

The count brought artisans who had worked on the queen's own apartments at Versailles to embellish the château with fine furniture and exquisitely carved boiseries, and the mistress who undoubtedly inspired the pavilion's appellation was Rosalie Levasseur, who was—in yet another 18th-century cliché—a beautiful opera singer.

The pavilion was restored recently and has become the town's symbol and pride but the Château de Neuville has unfortunately not fared as well and is, inexplicably, a gaping wreck. It is always a mystery how such historic properties, relatively near Paris, can still today remain abandoned and in complete decrepitude.

I always imagine interminable lawsuits by feuding heirs stretching over generations and worthy of Bleak House. At least I prefer this to the idea of the owners allowing the property to rot beyond repair so that the land can be redeveloped, which is most often the case, as French landmark laws have no legal mechanism to force maintenance of most listed properties. However, in truth the still-handsome shell is thankfully slated to be saved and find new life as a retirement home.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Perrault Brothers and the Fate of Classicism

During the polemical ferment of France in the 1660s, Louis XIV's minister-factotum Colbert and the Perrault brothers, Charles and Claude, laid the intellectual foundations undergirding France’s political and cultural ascendancy. The Perraults played a central role in the adoption of classicism as the French state's de facto official architecture, and in turn classicism's transplantation from Italy to France had a decisive effect on the evolution of Western architecture, as a newly unhobbled France—with a population of over 20 million (greater than that of the rest of Europe combined) and an administration of rare ambition and matching competence—overtook Italy to finally claim its proper place as the first power of Europe.

Architecture had long been understood as the most tangible manifestation of the power and taste of princes, and so it is no surprise that it became intimately integrated with politics in a court where everything was considered to have political utility and a propagandistic dimension. However, the profession—long-neglected due to decades of civil unrest and the dearth of commissions during Louis XIV's long regency—had fallen into a state of disarray which demanded urgent, remedial attention.

This crisis was quickly redressed; in fact, it lasted less than a decade, and by the mid-1670s the negative impact of several initial architectural missteps (most notably Versailles itself) was effectively erased by the extraordinary efficacy and reach of the propaganda machine installed by Colbert and the cultural élite functioning under his direction, with Charles Perrault (above), also author of the Mother Goose nursery rhymes, acting as his chief architectural assitant. Architecture became so thoroughly enmeshed with the fabrication of the glory of the Sun King, and he in turn with the glory of France, that even today a halo of magnificence serves to protect this closed circle of eternal verities by its blinding influence.

One of the main elements of this hermetic structure is the doctor and architect Claude Perrault’s myth of a French classical tradition stretching back to the late fifteenth century, elaborated in the introduction to his translation of Vitruvius. Perrault's work was on the most basic level an attempt to appropriate Vitruvius—the personification of the Roman roots of the classical tradition—for France, as well as a means to create a classical pre-history to legitimize the adoption of Italian classicism as France's official state architecture.

Scouring France’s architectural history for native classicists and constructing an architectural Pantheon from them became a preoccupation of the Académie, as its members attempted to build a stair—however fragile—between French vernacular architecture and the state-sponsored classicism of the reign of Louis XIV. Tellingly, Perrault (below) whined in his introduction to Vitruvius that generations of Italian architects had conspiratorially hoarded their knowledge of classicism, and as proof he cited the dearth of Italian architectural treatises (frankly one has to laugh at his shamelessness).

All this was simply a desperate attempt to backfill an irreducible historical void, for there is a sharp break in French architecture between the hybrid classical/vernacular as practiced at mid-seventeenth century and the state-sponsored classicism that resulted from Bernini’s voyage to Paris in 1665. Indigenous French architecture, which Colbert took for granted as the most tangible symbol of royal power and authority save for exploits of war, could not be implicated as being unworthy of the role the royal administration had defined for it, and thus history had to be manipulated to bring the past into alignment with the needs of the present.

Classicism, that noble enterprise reborn with the Italian Renaissance, was adopted wholesale by France in the wake of Bernini’s passage. (The great Roman sculptor and architect had remarked while viewing Paris from the heights of Meudon that the city was like a carding comb: a forest of chimney pots unrelieved by any monument worthy of notice, ancient or modern, excepting its great gothic churches.) The cultural bureaucracy under Colbert's direction—which may as well be called the Perrault brothers' cabal—undertook a two-pronged effort to first efface Bernini's influence, primarily by vicious slanders directed by Charles, and secondly to erase any trace that France had ever known a time before classicism at all by Claude's fabrication of a made-to-order classical pre-history, anchored by a false legitimacy based on patently ridiculous claims to France’s inheritance of the legacy of Imperial Rome. It thus comes as no surprise that early in his reign, Louis XIV was more often represented as Caesar Augustus, Rome's great emperor, than he was as Apollo, god of illumination and the arts.

Perrault’s classical canon was simply pure propaganda (even the Spanish Habsburg's Escorial somehow got on the list) and served to obscure the Italian parentage of French classicism and thus held an important political dimension at the onset of an era of aggressive French adventurism in Europe. With the appropriation of Renaissance classicism by the cultural bureaucracy, absolutism supplanted humanism as the ideology underpinning architectural expression, and architecture became inextricably enmeshed with state policy and the manipulation of history to promote Louis XIV’s gloire—that is, the myth of the young, untried king’s power and omniscience, his generative force and semi-divine status.

Claude Perrault's Vitruvian project was instrumental in defining the theoretical boundaries and concerns ruling French classicism, but he also played a crucial role in facilitating its adoption by architects by devising a system for the practical application of classical principles, which he published as The Ordinance of the Five Columnar Orders According to the Methods of the Ancients in 1683. The work was an extraordinarily important manifesto couched as a practical “how-to“ guide to architectural composition, and its widespread adoption and numerous translations had a profound impact upon the course of classical architecture.

The treatise reflects Perrault’s dismissal of humanist principles and his promulgation of Descartian rationalism, with its view of a mechanistic universe. Perrault dismissed the quasi-mystical theoretical trappings which had enveloped the five columnar orders, but in so doing destroyed the fusion between meaning and proportion that imbued Renaissance classicism.

His underlying thesis was crucially incomplete, for Perrault concentrated solely upon codifying a single set of “perfect“ proportions for each of the five columnar orders (Tuscan, Doric, Ionic, Corinthian and Composite) while ignoring the larger, determinant question of the proportions of the building being ordered. Specifically, Perrault attempted to deduce a single formula for the internal relationships between the constituent elements of each of the orders, which he deduced by measuring a range of Ancient precedents and establishing a mathematical mean from them. To put it quite bluntly, Perrault invented cookie-cutter classicism, one size fits all.

In classicism, the building’s proportions were paramount and were ruled by the application of geometrical precepts derived from Greek harmonics and mathematics—namely, the Pythagorean geometrical progression of prime numbers and their relation to musical chords, elucidated in Plato’s Timaeus and encapsulated by the Harmonia mundi, the Music of the spheres (below). The proportions a classically trained architect selected to guide his design were comparable to the tonal key chosen by the composer of a musical work, and they in turn determined the choice and treatment of the columnar order that regulated and imposed hierarchy upon the composition.

The orders themselves, far from being static entities whose proportions could be scientifically deduced and quantified, were rather a kind of Platonic ideal, universal in theory but infinitely adaptable in their particulars. Thus they were a closed but elastic system that remained internally coherent, even though their constituent measures (the length of a column in relation to its diameter, for example) were logically varied in response to an architect’s intent and the proportional “key“ he employed.

Unaware or uninterested that a higher level of ordering principles was inextricably enmeshed in the humanist philosophy he dismissed, Perrault never properly addressed the question of the proportions of buildings. Though the French Académie pondered the question and several members also likened proportion to musical composition, these deliberations offered little more than vague platitudes—a feeble echo of the intellectual coherence and direct applicability of humanist principles.

The translation of classicism into a French idiom and its subsequent dissemination had far-reaching historical impact. The wide dissemination of Perrault’s treatise on the orders—which became a massive bestseller throughout Europe for over a century—was instrumental in pushing these principles into obscurity and depriving classicism of the greater part of its creative potential, an impoverishment compounded by the pedantic regimentation of the Académie. (One would be quite interested to know what these savants must have thought about Michelangelo's elongated yet massive, unfluted and volute-less Ionic/Doric columns—in pairs, no less—at the Laurentian Library in Florence, for example.)

Claude Perrault's conception was fully at odds with his subject, for classicism was an art whose fundamental aim was to transcribe Platonic ideals into stone and to express the poetry of the spheres with captured space. In essence, Perrault reduced a complex and nuanced art to the simplistic application of formula—a process of deracination that led to increasingly formulaic designs and that doubtless hastened classicism’s demise.

So shorn, apparently quite in ignorance, of its living, humanist roots, French classicism quickly devolved to the formulas employed by Jules-Hardouin-Mansart, the first and most successful student of Perrault's precepts. The compositional ease Perrault’s ideas afforded him found their ultimate fruit in the remarkable lack of scholarly interest in Hardouin-Mansart (the first monograph of his work was only published some five years ago), even though he was one of the most prolific architects in history and almost single-handedly defined (and designed) the architecture of the Age of Louis XIV. And this is because Hardouin-Mansart's designs are a simulacrum of classicism, a projection of gloire simplified and aggrandized to serve the needs of a monarch who in his maturity was less the leader of a kingdom than he was the figurehead of a vast state bureaucracy.

(Below, Hardouin-Mansart in action: the right-hand wing is the original Enveloppe of Versailles, at left his massive palace-by-the-yard northern addition; a nearly identical pendant was built to the south)

In turn, Hardouin-Mansart's stylistic hegemony and its limited repertoire would crowd out the experiments of the pioneering generations of French classicists and impose itself upon France, and Europe, for well over a century. Add to this the fundamental difference between the French and Italian conception of building—the Italian sculpts a cubic mass, while the Frenchman aligns rectilinear blocks in an accretive fashion—and the end result is Haussman’s Paris, its endless boulevards lined with uniformly handsome and nearly indistinguishable limestone apartment blocks. (Every Parisian has at least once left the Métro distracted and stood, hopelessly disoriented, wondering if he got off at the right stop.)

In the face of increasingly numbing standardization, architects abandoned the search for meaningful form and were seduced by the glittering attractions of novelty, engendering successive waves of historical pastiche in both the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (below, the Royal Pavilion at Brighton). Toward the end of both periods, committed classicists sought a corrective, reinvigorating classical vocabulary with new forms and a return to clarity and purified volumetrics.

Ultimately Perrault’s legacy is ambiguous. Turning to Italy in the seventeenth century, classicism also suffered decline as humanist culture waned, and Perrault’s principles, riding a swelling wave of French political, military and cultural influence, seem simply to have accelerated the inevitable. Perrault undoubtedly banalized classicism, but in so doing offered the key to its widespread adoption and thus played a critical role in fostering the extraordinary flowering of neoclassicism in eighteenth-century Europe.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Peleş Castle

Peleş Castle, like Johann Strauss' Blue Danube Waltz, is so perfect in its way, so zeitgeistig, that if it didn't already exist it would have to be created. Far more successfully than even the famed Neuschwanstein Castle built by Ludwig II of Bavaria, the Romanian alpine estate incarnates 19th century troubadour romanticism.

This post will be short on text and long on photos, simply because the property is so extraordinarily visually seductive—but its history is very short. (We highly recommend that you click on any photo to launch the enlarged photostream.) The castle was the brainchild of Carol I, Romania's first monarch, who discovered the achingly picturesque alpine scenery in 1866, then ordered purchase of 500 square miles to form the royal estate of Sinaia in 1872.

The king rejected three initial proposals as too simplistically historicist and lacking inspiration, but the scheme of German architect Johannes Schultz delighted him. Construction began in 1873 and the castle was inaugurated a decade later, though major elements, most notably the main tower (which rises 217 ft.), were added over later years until the estate reached its final form in 1914. An amusing pseudo-anachronism: Peleş was the first castle to be fully wired for electricity from the outset, with its own generator building.

This amazing confection, melding Tyrolian, Germanic and Italian Renaissance styles into a tour-de-force of historicizing scenography, features typically bombastic fin-de-siècle rooms encrusted with ornate woodwork, but like all follies, the interiors are simply an excuse for the exterior.

The castle, today a state-run museum, holds important collections of swords and armor and also of art, including most notably three works by the young Gustav Klimt.