Postcard from Rome, Italy: Stumbling around colorblind

Time out. I wandered around Rome for almost three weeks before it hit me in the face, just as we were about to exit the Diocletian Baths. The sculpture above, the photo included in the prior post, did it.

I had been viewing remnants of ancient Rome in black and white, completing forgetting photographs in magazine and newspaper articles about exhibitions making the rounds in the United States a decade ago. The ancient Etruscans, the ancient Greeks, the ancient Romans – they had no inhibitions about applying color to their art. We have been brought up in an art world dominated by the influence of Renaissance artists reviving classical sculpture using the whitest of marble.

Writing in the Smithsonian Magazine in 2008, Matthew Gurewitsch describes how our color-blindness would shock the ancients:

But we can guess that Phidias would be brokenhearted to see his sacred relics dragged so far from home, in such a fractured state. More to the point, the bare stone would look ravaged to him, even cadaverous.

Listen to Helen of Troy, in the Euripides play that bears her name:

My life and fortunes are a monstrosity,
Partly because of Hera, partly because of my beauty.
If only I could shed my beauty and assume an uglier aspect
The way you would wipe color off a statue.

That last point is so unexpected, one might almost miss it: to strip a statue of its color is actually to disfigure it.

I was still processing this concept as we wandered through the National Etruscan Museum of Villa Guilia (more to come later), where we encountered a couple reclining on their sarcophagus, circa 500+ years B.C. The accompanying text mentioned that the “twin” to this housed in the Louvre actually shows remnants of colors.

But the Louvre couple (on the right) still does not burst into a full technicolor-type bloom. Based on decades of work by Vinzenz Brinkmann of the Glyptothek Museum in Munich, Germany, replicas of ancient statues colorized are probably as shocking to our senses as people accustomed to black-and-white films almost 80 years ago felt in theatres viewing the vividly bright yellow brick road in the midst of The Wizard of Oz.

This Carsten Muller video for Capitol City Media Design helps somewhat with visualizing the changes:

I got on an absurd jag in Rome of photographing statues of lions (more later). They are everywhere. I am so conditioned to thinking of them from a monochromatic perspective, I never once pictured the ancient ones in what to me is amusement-park merry-go-round colors, as is this reproduction of a Greek lion Brinkmann uses in exhibitions.

Color changes our perceptions about ancient civilizations. But ouch, with the following description in mind, would you really want to see the featured relief of Mithras or the statue of Mithras pictured below fully restored in color?

Diocletian Baths

Statue of Mithras, Diocletian Baths

But my imagination fails to make the Crayola transition on its own. My color-blinders remain in place unless confronted by the images side by side.

Which brings me back around to San Antonio. And her missions. The Native Americans herded into the flocks of the Spanish friars nearly three centuries ago were not monochrome in their tastes.

Years back, I rudely shoved through a motion at a San Antonio Conservation Society board meeting for the society to go on record supporting “colorizing” the outside of one mission the way the Native Americans originally did. The not-well-thought-out motion probably still languishes at the bottom of a list of active motions.

I would withdraw it now in favor of a different approach. Illuminate the facades of Mission Concepcion and Mission San Jose often and on a regular basis, if only for an hour at a time right after sunset to show for those of us who stand colorblind in front of these incredible landmarks failing to envision the imprint of our Native American population on them, and, by extension, the city San Antonio has become.

The City of San Antonio has worked several times now with the San Antonio Missions National Park to spotlight the missions “Restored by Light.” The photograph on the left of Mission Concepcion colorized was taken by Bonnie Arbitter and appeared in The Rivard Report, September 8, 2017. Scott Ball took the second one of Mission San Jose that appeared in The Rivard Report, September 6, 2017.

Please let the light shine on these more often.

Meanwhile, this unimaginative soul will return to viewing Roman antiquities in monochromatic tones. Am hoping your imagination adds a richness to the palette where applicable.

 

Visit those quiet little missions before the reenactors remember the Battle of Espada

One of the nicest features of the Mission Reach of the San Antonio River Improvements Project is that it invites you to visit the missions strung along the banks of the San Antonio River.

And not just the first two you normally take visitors from out of town to see before you get missioned-out and head for margaritas.

But the oft-overlooked San Juan Capistrano and San Francisco de la Espada, which, true confession, the Mister and I had not seen for at least two decades (but, true confession, not as long as it’s been since my last confession). Their histories easily can be found online, so I will not attempt to rewrite. This post is simply meant to entice you through pictures to rediscover what we tend to forget on the south side of town.

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Mission San Juan Capistrano was founded in 1716, with much of the mission compound not completed until 1756. San Juan himself must of have been incredibly pious because he was governor of Perugia, the chocolate capital of Italy, before becoming a Franciscan. However, since chocolate came from the New World, maybe lording over Perugia around the year 1400 was not as flavorful as it would be today.

When the Mister and I made a mid-morning stop at the mission, the information center was staffed by a volunteer from the parish. What was wonderful was that he peopled the mission for us with his own ancestors, photographs of ancestors he did not realize had lived within the protective mission walls until seven years ago. Plus, he told us how a window at each of the missions is positioned to let illuminating rays of light shine on the statues of each one’s patron saint on the appropriate feast day. Clever calculations by the priests; miracles to the Native Americans they were converting.

The National Park Service seems proving a good steward of the grounds, and Father David has been applying the funds he has raised successfully through the nonprofit Old Spanish Missions to re-stucco the church for the first time in about 250 years. The church now gleams against the blue Texas sky. Unfortunately, the priest does not keep the same hours as the park, so we did not view the interior. Probably the most reliable time to view the interior is during a scheduled Mass, but I’ll probably stick with more random attempts.

Visiting Mission San Francisco de la Espada should become a more fashionable pilgrimage now with the popular Pope Francis in charge at the Vatican. More attention undoubtedly will be focused on Saint Francis, about whom I have written before in this blog. It would help if San Antonians, including myself, would incorporate the Francisco instead of shortening the name to Mission Espada.

Of course, if the National Park Service really wanted to market Espada to Texans, maybe the thrust of the story should change away from the agrarian and vocational skills the friars taught the inhabitants.

I mean, look at the Alamo. If you make it about guns, they will come, as Land Commissioner Patterson recently showed us.

If more people were aware of the battle fought there in October 1835, Espada would soon be mobbed.

The following is from a report submitted to General Austin by James Bowie and James Fannin following the battle, according to Wallace McKeehan on the Sons of Dewitt Colony Texas website:

Mission of Espadas, Saturday morning 7. oclk AM 24th octr 1835 Genl S F Austin Half an hour since we were attacked by the enmy, who were repulsed, after a few fires being exchanged Only a few men were seen-say about fifty-tho, from the dust etc. it is believed 200 or more, were in the company-Dr Archer says that Col. Ugartichea was the commandant, as he plainly saw him, and recognised him-The place is in a good condition, or can be made so in an hour, for defence, and until we know, of the advance of some aid, or what was intended by this feint, we will continue to occupy this station, where we have provisions enough for the army provided means are supplied to purchase….

If the Alamo attracts millions of visitors to a site where virtually all the Texians were slaughtered, wouldn’t people love to visit the spot where Bowie and Fannin were victorious?

Espada is the spot.

Visit it now. Before the word gets out. While it is still a peaceful place at the end of the Mission Reach.

A place to celebrate the Feast Day of St. Francis on October 4, perhaps even witnessing the rays of light illuminating his statue.

And well before reenactors decide they need to start shooting off noisy guns at 6:30 a.m. every October 24.

Update Added on August 12, 2014: As August 15th brings a solar illumination to Mission Conception in time for the Feast of the Assumption of Mary, an article in Today’s Catholic by Carol Baass Sowa sheds light on the phenomenon that would amaze Native Americans:

It was the Franciscan missionaries’ knowledge of astronomy, he related, that was responsible for the incorporation of solar illuminations in a number of their churches. They served to symbolically communicate the friars’ Catholic faith to the Native Americans, much as medieval churches used stained glass windows to tell the story of Christ and Gothic arches pointed upwards towards highly decorated ceilings to symbolize the heaven men should strive to attain.

Arriving in what was a wilderness, the Franciscan founders of Concepcion had little to work with, Father (David) Garcia explained, so they built into the church the symbols and signs that would tell the indigenous people about God and Christ. “They had a ray of sunshine come in and illuminate the sanctuary,” he said. It was a way to tell the native people “God is moving among us…..”

The friars were highly educated men, (George) Dawson explained, and the Catholic Church used churches as solar observatories since the 15th century as a means to figure out such things as when Easter fell. Also leading credence to the case for the Franciscans is research on the California missions, which has shown one or two Franciscan priests were in charge of construction for several of the missions there which feature the majority of the solar illuminations….

Mission Espada also has an illumination, he related. On the morning of Oct. 4, the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, (the Franciscans’ founder), light from the rectangular window on the eastern wall bathes the statue of St. Francis on the altar in a golden glow. Again, there is a duplicate display on March 9, which happens to be the feast day of St. Frances, a woman mystic who died in the 1400s.