Saving Lucretia 5: Livy and Lotto

Livy is our original source for the Lucretia story.  Ovid follows him but embellishes with lush detail which tends to emphasise Lucretia’s victimhood.   This allows for lots of erotic sensuality and emotional drama which is the sort of thing Ovid likes.  It is not the sort of thing Livy likes, but more than this, Livy is writing the story of Rome.  Lucretia is a founding mother, commemorated as a female role model and political heroine.  In a period of decadence, when the men fail to resist a vicious autocracy, Lucretia’s defence of the values of the home recalls them to their duty.  The result is the institution of the finest form of government known to Livy, the Roman Republic.

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Livy’s Lucretia sends for her men.  When they arrive she is weeping, but full of purpose.  She tells her story very briefly.  She states that only her body is violated, not her mind and she demands that the men swear vengeance.  She dictates the terms; she will kill herself, they will kill him – if they are men.  The men then try to persuade her not to commit suicide.  She tells them to mind their own business – their job is to deal with Sextus.  We do not yet find out, but she is already carrying the dagger she will use – whatever the men say.  She has resolved to die to preserve her honour – so that no woman shall live unchastely using Lucretia as an excuse (nec ulla deinde inpudica Lucretiae exemplo vivet).

This is really not what modern readers expect to hear Lucretia say.  When I teach this text, I can’t stop students telling me that Lucretia is forced to kill herself by the rules of the patriarchy.  Because she has been raped, she must die to save her men shame.  Or she is so traumatised by the rape that she kills herself through misery and despair. These are assumptions people bring to the text, maybe because of Ovid and all those naked Lucretias in art galleries.  But what Livy says is very different.  It is Lucretia who does  the enforcing.  She chooses to reveal the rape, to do it in Roman fashion, before male witnesses, to assert her intention to die, and to demand an oath of vengeance from the men.  Then she defies them and stabs herself unexpectedly.  After her suicide, the men will be publicly dishonoured if they don’t exact vengeance. Thus Lucretia causes the fall of the Tarquins and the end of Roman monarchy.  She becomes a model for all women and the foundress of the Roman Republic.

So what is happening here?  Rape doesn’t exist as a concept for Lucretia.  Her exchange with the men indicates that she is thinking in terms of adultery.  All participants in the exchange seem to assume that an adulteress is punishable by death.  In the early days of Rome the paterfamilias had rights of life and death over his children, and a husband was allowed to kill a wife taken in adultery.  It seems to be this sort of life-taking within the family that we are talking about – nothing to do with the actual laws of Classical Rome.  Lucretia and the men agree that she had no guilty intent, and therefore should not suffer even.  Instead, Sextus, the perpetrator, will be made to suffer.  They are formulating principles for dealing with rape which are quite enlightened for the period.   Lucretia has satisfied her menfolk that she is not an adulteress; she can now leave it to them to take over and deal with the rapist.

Lucretia is resistant.  She rejects the option of return into the private realm which the men offer.  What she does next is not to do with distress, despair or coercion, but entirely to do with honour – her female honour.  Romans were collective thinkers.  For Romans, suicide in the face of dishonour was an act of personal success, not failure, because it preserved unity with the values of the community and the ancestors and left the suicide the same legacy of honour as those who died preserving those values on the  field of battle.  Having been dragged into public realm, Lucretia resolves to reclaim her honour from any taint of suspicion as a man might do, and earning a glory usually reserved for men.  She stabs herself with a male weapon  (female suicides often hang themselves with their girdles) and it is the men who raise the lamentation.

Lucretia’s motivation is completely bound up with Roman collectivity.  She has lived as the perfect wife not because she is dominated by the patriarchy but because she is a strong soul dedicated to the values of the community.  She has no sympathy with women who flout those values.  She will not have her name which is also her family name associated with the ‘Lucretia defence.’  Her suicide is not an act of self-obliteration, but of transcendence, which asserts her own identity, not with her body, but with the values of her family and community and the spirits of the ancestors.  Lucretia does not just clear her family name, she adorns it and creates an inheritance for her children, an unfailing memory for herself – she fulfils the ideal of Roman life, as much as if she fell on the field of battle.  Her suicide shames the men, booting the Roman aristocracy into getting rid of the corrupt and repressive system of kingship, making her, for Livy, a genuine foundress of the Republic.  What more could a woman want?

This is Lotto’s Lucretia.  The unnamed noblewoman who takes on her example is a commanding self-assured figure.  Her rich clothing sets off her beauty, but she refuses to be an erotic object – in fact the would-be viewer is the object of her stern gaze. She is there to instruct, not to titillate.  Her right arm creates a straight horizontal line from her elbow, resting near the cradle, to her pointing forefinger, which creates a barrier between her and viewer.  The line terminates in her forbidding motto  – that no woman may be unchaste and live, using Lucretia as an excuse.  Above the motto she holds a scrap of drawing showing a naked helpless Lucretia, but this private shame is literally only sketched in, as it is in Livy.  And the sketch is crumpled and rolled away from the viewer.  It creates a visual reference to the viewer’s erotic expectations of Lucretia but dismisses them too.  It seems quite possible that this Renaissance Lucretia may have a dagger concealed somewhere about her person, and that the odds are not necessarily on Tarquin’s side.

Way to go Lucretia, early feminist!  Or not.  This is always the paradox with feminism.  Are you a feminist because you are a strong empowered woman living by your own rules, or are you a feminist because you sign up to a charter of women’s rights, including things like compassionate treatment for rape victims?  I often meet feminist men telling me what, as a woman, I have to think about women’s rights – and this gets me into awful trouble.  Me and Lucretia both, because she is an empowered self-determining woman who grasps the prize of honour like a man.  But, meanwhile, she derails the cause of women for a the best part of two thousand years.  In practice, Romans did not demand that raped women kill themselves, but this remained the gold standard of female behaviour.   The Church ban on suicide, when it eventually came, did nothing to remove the stigma, which continued to degrade raped women right up until – oh wait, has that not stopped yet?

EPILOGUE ON RAPE AND HONOUR SUICIDE IN THE ROMAN TRADITION

Livy was writing in the 1st Century BC as Augustus tightened moral legislation to try to restore the ancient virtues of the Roman home.  Augustan ideology held that the Roman state had been strongest when it had been supported by the bravery and self-sacrifice of its warriors and the militant chastity of its strong homesteading women.  Augustus tried to enforce marriage and childbearing, and increased penalties for female adultery, but he could not maintain traditional morals even in his own family.  Nonetheless, interest in these ancient role models was rekindled, which is why our earliest versions of the Lucretia story (Livy and Ovid) date from the era.

Honour suicide continued to be esteemed at Rome as a response to rape to such an extent that it nearly got incorporated into Christian theology.  the crucial moment came in the 4th Century BC when Bishop Ambrose of Milan, a man of aristocratic background wrote to his sister, Marcellina, who, with her mother, had formed an early community of dedicated virgins, nuns, in Rome.  The Letter to Marcellina is here.  In this letter, Ambrose recognises the act of suicide to avoid rape as an act of Christian martyrdom, citing the instance of a fifteen year-old girl, Pelagia, who had encouraged her mother and sisters to drown themselves to avoid rape by marauders.  Ambrose recognised Pelagia as a saint.

So why didn’t the Church add honour suicide to its long list of female duties?  For that, we have to thank St Augustine of Hippo.  He retold the story of Lucretia in his City of God  I. 19, but with disapproval.  If a woman is raped in all innocence, then to kill her, is to kill an innocent.  If she kills herself, she becomes a murderess.  Perhaps, says Augustine darkly, Lucretia had secretly enjoyed the rape after all, and knew she did really deserve to die.  Augustine’s barn-storming denunciation put an end to honour suicide as an act of female martyrdom.   His thinking is not entirely sympathetic today;  he suggests, for example, that women should consider whether they have been permitted to be raped as punishment for their excessive pride in their chastity.

Nonetheless, I give you Augustine, feminist theologian.

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Bergamo and the Romans: a post dedicated to my Dreaming Spires students.

Posting pictures from Bergamo is really damaging to my cachet with my Dreaming Spires students, who expect me to devote all my love to the Romans and Athenians.  There is a case for saying that the oldest parts of Bergamo, and many ancient Italian cities, are a better way of understanding the experience of walking a Roman street than any ancient site, with added ice cream.

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Piazza della Cittadella, Bergamo, Photo AES

In this very photo, we are only steps from the best ice cream in the Città Alta, the UPper City, but more importantly we are near the Civic Archaeological Museum of Bergamo, which is where the small but very interesting collection of Roman period remains is beautifully curated.  Photography is not encouraged, but I seem to have accidentally clicked my phone a couple of times while checking Whatsapp.

Bergamo was a city before the Roman era.  Northern Italy, to the Romans, was not part of Italia, but Gallia – they called it Gallia Cisalpina, Gaul on this side of the Alps.  This was a tribal area, and Bergomum was a hill town of the Cenomani.  The Piazza in the photograph is on a high point which may have been the original citadel, as the name suggests; in the 14th Century, a new fortress was built on a spur and this became the citadel.  The Romans called at least some of the Gauls ‘Celts’ and this has misleadingly become a term for Iron Age people in general.  The Cenomani didn’t call themselves Celts.  Livy records that the Cenomani had moved into Italy from France in about 400 BC, seizing and occupying Etruscan territory.   They probably spoke a dialect of a language we call Celtic, and definitely didn’t speak Latin at that time.

In the 5th Century BC, Rome was still a minor power within Italy.  In about 390 BC a Gallic tribe, the Senones, even sacked Rome.  The Cenomani, however, were actively pro-Roman, and fought on the Roman side in the major Roman victory over hostile Gallic tribes at the Battle of Telamon in 225 BC.  This battle ended the threat from the North, although Cisalpine Gaul was not formally organised into a province until 89 BC.  The Cenomani, remained loyal even during Hannibal’s invasion of Italy (218-204 BC).  Bergomum was granted full rights a Roman municipium in 45 BC, making citizens of the town full Roman citizens.  Shortly afterwards, in 42 BC, Julius Caesar extended Roman citizenship to the whole of Cisalpine Gaul.  The Bergamasks were now Romans.

The Cisalpine ‘tribal’ peoples on the edges of Rome’s growing Italian empire were not very different from the people within it.  The Romans themselves were tribally ‘Latins’ who developed an empire, first of all over all local cities and then elsewhere.  Even before the rise of Rome, the Northern Italians were living alongside the Etruscan empire, with its advanced social organisation, art and technology.  The Cisalpine Gauls used writing – hardly any survives – and made fine metalwork.  In the long period of cooperation between the Cenomani and Rome, there must have been a lot of cultural absorption and the number of Roman citizens in the territory will have increased both through migration and grants of citizenship to soldiers and the local nobility.  By the time Julius Caesar extended Roman citizenship to them, teh Cisalpine Gauls were integrated into Italian identity, and Latin was the language of the educated class.

Northern Italy 3rd – 4th Centuries BC

The Upper City of Bergamo is largely on top of Bergomum.  The stones of the Roman period buildings are holding up the houses and Churches visible today.  This makes the modern environment very rich, but it does limit the archaeology.  If you want to find a nice Roman carpet mosaic, then the best place to look for it it is in a field, which has been grazed on by cows for two millennia.  A place which has been developed and redeveloped again and again AND IS STILL BEING LIVED IN is not the obvious place to start wielding a trowel.  But having said that, here is a carpet mosaic from Bergamo.

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Bergamo Roman Mosaic, Photo AES

And here is an altar of Diana with a beautifully clear inscription.

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Altar of Diana, Photo AES

The distinguished man (CV = Clarissimus Vir) who set it up in fulfilment of his vow (VS = Votum Solvit) was consul in 201 AD, when the consulship had become more of an honour than an actual job.  Titles like Clarissimus Vir aren’t used on formal inscriptions from the Republic and Early Empire, but in the second century AD this becomes a standardised title for a Senator.  The use of formal honorific titles grows in the later Empire and grade inflation even sets in, until a really important official has to be a Vir Gloriosissimus.  In early Latin literature gloriosus means boastful, not glorious, which is quite pleasing.

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Bull’s head from Roman Theatre Bergamo, Photo AES

This amazing bull’s head was part of a set of ornamental beam ends in the Roman theatre.  The strange creature on the side will resolve itself into a dolphin if you concentrate. Dolphins were associated with Delphi and Apollo, God of Poetic Arts and the Romans tend to make dolphin beaks very big.  My guess is that this came from people who hadn’t seen dolphins in non-dolphinous places like Bergamo copying popular motifs from drawings, but what do I know?  Bulls are associated with festive occasions as sacrificial victims, aka lunch.  Roman theatres were not commercial and did not have regular showings.  They were used for a variety of civic events, and theatrical performances were staged on holidays with the sponsorship of high-ranking locals who took care to get maximum publicity for their generosity.

And finally, something which ties in with my posts on Germanicus, nephew of the wicked Emperor Tiberius, who was murdered in AD 19.  He was an important member of the imperial house, and the founder of the dynasty, the Emperor Augustus, had intended Tiberius to be a caretaker ruler only.   After Tiberius, Germanicus would take over, and the dynasty would pass on through his numerous heirs.  In reality Tiberius clung onto power until 37 AD, more than a decade after the death of his own son, and nearly two after the death of Germanicus.  His successor was Caligula, youngest son of Germanicus, and one of the most notorious emperors; the experience of having his father murdered and mother and older brothers openly persecuted to death by Tiberius may have contributed to his instability.  All of this was court politics, recorded in vicious detail by Tacitus.  But  these fractures in the imperial house were not public property.  Bergamo is 400 miles form Rome.  Like other cities of the Empire, Bergamo culted the Emperor and the imperial house and monumentalised its members as the embodiment of Roman authority.  Up and down the empire, cities commemorated the death of Germanicus with plaques, honouring the wish of the Emperor, who, Germanicus believed, had ordered his horrible death, and who certainly went on to wipe out his family.  Here is Bergamo’s effort.

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Germanicus monument, Bergamo, Photo AES

Actually, that is a bit grim to finish on.  Here is a nice picture of exceptionally yummy nibbles and non-alcoholic beverages in Clusone, being investigated by my research assistants.

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Cafe in Clusone, Photo AES

And here am I, smiling at you.  Hey students, don’t forget to sign up.  This year there’s The Making of Fifth Century Athens and New Testament Language and Culture.  I’m also working on a GCSE Classical Civilisation course for 2020.  Hope to see some of you there.

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Mrs S selfie – scary or what?

Bye.

 

The Dance of Death, Clusone

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Dance of Death, Oratorio dei Disciplini, Clusone, Photo AES

This post goes along with my Post on the Triumph of Death and the Three Living and the Three Dead.  The Confraternity of Disciplini at Clusone were very keen that we should get the message about death.  So they provided us with three separate images of the nearness of death, all of them popular at the time.

There is a lot of writing on the Internet about the Dance of Death, and I am only sharing this post in tribute to a lovely example.  The Three Living and the Three Dead go back to the 13th Century, but the Dance of Death seems to take off in the 15th Century, after the Black Death.  This example is from 1485.

The phrase ‘Dance of Death’ today suggests the bizarre and the horrific.   These associations are encapsulated by the composer Saint-Saens who used the usual French version of the name,  Danse Macabre, for his 1874 tone poem.  He envisaged a skeletal death animating the corpses in a graveyard to dance to a frantic and sinister tune on the violin.  This is very Gothic, and an interesting example of the 19th Century association of virtuosity, especially on the violin, and the dark arts – the Paganini connection.  There are examples of fascination with mere horror in the older tradition, for example this lurid woodcut, which could illustrate Saint-Saens’ music, if only Michael Wolgemut had supplied his skeletal musician with a viol instead of a  – is it a shawm? .

The Dance of Death (1493) by Michael Wolgemut, from the Nuremberg Chronicle of Hartmann Schedel

Although the prancing corpses are definitely dancing and dead, they don’t really have much to do with the Clusone Dance of Death and the 15th century family of moralising images to which it belongs.  This Dance of Death is usually stately and relatively benign, taking the form of a chain dance, where each human participant is accompanied by a skeleton.  The skeletons don’t appear predatory or malign nor the humans horrified or distressed.  There is no violence or confrontation, the humans are not snatched away, rather, courtesy prevails in the manner of a courtly dance.  I think this type of Dance of Death is really an image of human life; we should understand the skeletons as our own skeletons, the mortality which accompanies us and is inseparable from our earthly existence.  Human life is literally a promenade with mortality – we seem to be one with our, we adorn and enjoy them, but they set a limit to our earthly existence, through fragility, decay and inevitable death.  Our real life is elsewhere.  As long as we understand this, there is no reason why we should fear the dance.

The Clusone Dance of Death is particularly amicable.  On the left of the picture the hooded figure in white is one of the Confraternity, taking his place in the dance alongside prosperous citizens of different walks of life.  Behind him is a richly dressed woman, the only one I could spot in the scene.  In front of him the man in blue seems to have drawn a particularly friendly skeleton who turns towards him and inclines his head courteously, while delicately holding his first two fingers.  The hand position seems to be a deliberate part of the dance motif.  The skeleton partners do take the arm or hand of the mortals.   I can’t make out the lady’s hold, but in the case of both the Brother and his neighbour, the skeleton reaches across to place its right arm over the right arm of its partner, but not fully touching the arm and holding fingers not the whole hand – very genteel.  Where the mortal figures do not have a free right hand the hold differs.  The man in the red stocking has the same hold, but on his left hand.  The man in green leggings is lightly holding hands with his skeleton; the next couple have linked arms completely, and the skeleton is also using his spare hand to grasp his partner’s wrist in a particularly confiding manner.

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Dance of Death, Clusone, detail, Photo AES

There are no poor people in this Dance of Death – the point isn’t about Death the Leveller, but Death the Companion.  The costumes indicate a range of occupations, which clearly feature being a woman and a confraternal Brother.  Apart from that, I am not specialist enough to judge.  My guess is that the dancers include a soldier, a huntsman, a merchant, a courtier and a man with a teapot and terrible dress sense.

The philosophy of the 15th Century Dance of Death reminds me of the cadaver tombs which occur in the same period.  Alice Chaucer, died 1475 and styled Princess and Duchess at her death, has a magnificent example in Ewelme, which I must get out and photograph for you.  There are two tiers.  On top she lies in her pomp, underneath she lies a shrivelled corpse, but (I know this because I crawled) looking at her very own painting of the Annunciation on the ceiling of her death chamber.  In Italy the tradition goes back to the 13th Century.   In case anyone from Cambridge reads this, Hugh Ashton has a splendid cadaver tomb (1522) now in St John’s College Chapel.

 

 

 

Lovere in the rain

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Lovere, Photo AES

‘I am now in a place the most beautifully romantic I ever saw in my life,’ wrote Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, pioneer of smallpox innoculation and resident of Lovere for nearly 10 years.  In 1755 she wrote these lines there;

Wisdom, slow product of laborious years,
The only fruit that life’s cold winter bears;
Thy sacred seeds in vain in youth we lay,
By the fierce storm of passion torn away.
Should some remain in a rich gen’rous soil,
They long lie hid, and must be rais’d with toil;
Faintly they struggle with inclement skies,
No sooner born than the poor planter dies.

The town of Lovere loves Lady Mary and their promenade is named after her.  In temperatures of 33, 34, even 35, on July 9th 2019, we decided to hire a car and get out of Bergamo, head up into the pre-Alps, the Orobie and visit Clusone, with its amazing Triumph of Death fresco.  Then we would cross into the next valley, visit Lovere on the shore of Lake Iseo and then drive down the side of the lake.  It was a brilliant plan.  Luckily we couldn’t get a car until 2 pm, which seemed like a shame at the time.   Our outing coincided with a cloud burst which brought an hour of hail to Bergamo.  Where we were, it brought bouts of torrential rain so heavy we couldn’t even leave the car in Clusone.  In all honesty, I did, but noone else would.

We continued with the trip and managed to get out of the car in a period of drizzle and take some photos of Lovere in the rain.
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Lago d’Iseo from Lovere, Photo AES

Then I took my favourite video ever from under the awning of the Pasticceria Wender which served us drinks and very nice tiny pastries.  I can’t show it because I don’t have a Premium Plan, but it is a live version of this photo with the added sound of torrential rain.

 

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Lovere, Photo AES

 

After that we did did drive down the amazing lakeside road, scooped out of vertical cliffs which overhang it in places.  Part of it is tunnelled.  There are helpful notices warning about rock falls, and nets hopefully cantilevered out of the cliffs, to catch the boulders as they head towards your car.  Then we had really nice pasta in a trattoria in Sarnico, which for some reason thought it was an Irish pub, and then we went home.

The Three Living and the Three Dead, Clusone

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Oratorio dei Disciplini, Clusone, Photo AES

This post is an add-on to one I made on the Triumph of Death fresco in Clusone, which is where I talked about the significance of the main scene and the people who put it up.  Today we are zooming in on the top left.  My photo is not terribly good, especially when  cropped, but here it is.

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You can just see three horsemen in rich clothing and their two hunting dogs.  They are riding towards a sort of hedge, actually representing a wood, and over the hedge two distressed faces show horror.  This is a version of a legend, really just a moral fable, going back to a 13th century poem by Baudoin de Condé, who should have an acute accent on his final ‘e’.  The gist is that three nobles, enjoying the wealth and leisure of their status, go hunting in the forest and meet three corpses who remind then that they will soon be as the corpses now are and urge them to repent.  In the 13th century original, the corpses are clergy, but this is a late version (1485) and follows a well known variant where the hunters meet their doubles, so that it becomes a doppelgänger story .

As far as I can make out, the horsemen in the foreground are the corpses.  Number 3 lies across his horse transfixed by a javelin – this is my main clue.  Number 2 seems to have a problem with his neck, and I think he may he indicating that he is hanged by a noose.  Number 1 looks fine to me, although he is very far forward over the horse’s neck,  but I didn’t have a good enough zoom to be sure.  The later frame has cut off part of the scene left including the third face.  I’m not quite sure what the prominent bird is doing: it may be a hawk, part of the hunting scene, but I’m not at all sure.  It isn’t a usual part of the group.

If you search for the Three Living and the Three Dead, you will find an enormous number of images.  This version is quite restrained.  Here are some I have harvested on the Internet

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The Three Living and The Three Dead, Master of the Dresden Prayer Book, 1480-1515
This is a Flemish version from about the same period.  The one below, also from Northern Europe is much earlier, about 1349.

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Psalter of Bonne de Luxembourg, c. 1349

This version is from another Italian fresco, in the Monastery of St Benedict, Subiaco.  Here the corpses show three stages of decomposition, with maggots infesting the central one.  The nobles are carrying birds of prey – they are hawking.  I have seen this fresco in real life, but I have had to borrow the photo.

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The Three Living and the Three Dead, Monastery of St Benedict, Subiaco, 1334, used under licence from Clippix ETC.

The Triumph of Death, Clusone

 

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Triumph of Death fresco, Clusone, Photo AES

Death conquers all.  Riches and rank will not save you.   Even the Pope and Emperor (look in the tomb) will die and get eaten by worms.  The Confraternity of the Disciplini of San Bernardino  wanted us to know this.  In 1485 they hired Giacomo Borlone de Buschis to paint this scene on the outside of their Oratory in the small town of Clusone, in Northern Italy.  It happens that 1485 is also the date of the Battle of Bosworth, where Richard III, King of England, lost his crown on the field of battle and disappeared from history, only to turn up in 2011, buried in a car park in Leicester.  This is just the sort of thing the Confraternity would like us to think about.

This picture is accompanied by a Dance of Death fresco, and another scene representing the legend of the Three Living and the Three Dead.   These images were not uncommon in Europe in the period, and especially in this area, but the survival of such a huge and spectacular example, uniting three interlocking themes is a very rare and special thing.   I’ve got lots of other pictures.  In fact, this fresco is so well known on the internet, that it seems a bit superfluous to write about it, but I will try and bring together some parts of the story that you don’t always find in one place – it will take me more than one post.  I’m going to think about several questions – who and where were the Confraternity of Disciplini and why the interest in death;  who are the Three Living and the Three Dead?  I also want to blog about the Dance of Death and, separately, about the amazing interior of the Oratory.

Just for now, I will focus on the picture above, which is only a part of the whole.   Death, as a skeleton,  is wearing a robe and crown.  In Italian, Death is a feminine noun, so that it is culturally correct to say that she is the queen of this world, to whom we all submit.   This doesn’t make her evil.  Satan is sometimes described in the Bible as the ‘prince’ or ‘ruler’ of this world (e.g. John 12. 31) because he competes with God for power over mortal souls.  Death’s reign is different – for the Confraternity, at least, she serves God.

The scrolls surrounding Death spell out her powers; she is impartial and stronger than all; the ungodly will die with bitterness, but the godly and just will pass through the death of the body to eternal life.  So Death plays a part in sifting the good and bad, in levelling the unjust distinctions set up in human life and bringing us to judgement.  By the time of this fresco, Death was already established as the first of the Four Last Things; Death, Judgement, Heaven, Hell.  This gives us the first insight into the motivation of the Disciplini – meditation on Death frees us from the delusion of human wealth and power and helps us evaluate the true significance of mortal life as a stage in the journey to Heaven or Hell.  If Hell is very bad, Heaven is very good, so Death is only terrifying to those who have placed all their confidence in worldly success.

This Death has two skeleton acolytes with rapid fire weapons which kill at a distance.  The archer holds three arrows at a time – I imagine he fits them in quick succession, rather than all at once, but I am not an archer.  On the other side, and early gun appears – the arquebus.  All around lie corpses, mingled with dignitaries, religious and secular, who are dismayed by death and offer bribes.  Even where they don’t have crowns or religious insignia, these suppliants are richly dressed; although death comes to the poor too, this is really a moral story about the vanity of riches and the humbling of those who trust in them.  In spiritual matters, the Confraternity appear to have a preferential option for the poor, and part of their work was to minister to them.

In  Renaissance Europe,  religious Confraternities were everywhere.  Some internet sites attribute this Oratory to ‘monks’, but members were mostly lay people.  They bound themselves together to practice spiritual discipline (hence the name Disciplini) and good works.  The Disciplini of St Bernardino were a 15th century foundation based in Bergamo, the Lombard city lying 35 km below Clusone, which is in the foothills of the Alps.  Other activities associated at this time with Confraternities were education, including the staging of religious plays, and participation in religious processions in their distinctive long hooded robes.

Many of the Northern Italian Confraternities were flagellants, as this group were – they whipped themselves in public to demonstrate repentance and their disdain for the body.   This practice can still be found in some Catholic areas of the Mediterranean today, and together with the faceless hoods, which now recall Klan costume, tends to make a negative impression on people from outside the culture.  Like most things, it’s complicated.  The Confraternities were crucial in providing spiritual ministry and charitable aid in towns and villages, in a time of great political instability.  They despised the violence and luxury of the ruling classes, particularly, the factional strife between Guelphs and Ghibellines, supposedly supporters respectively of the Pope and Emperor, which fomented in-fighting, murders, coups and all-out war between the Italian cities.  The faceless hoods were for self-effacement – their frightening associations come from later.  Public self-flagellation, though, was always shocking; the Disciplini had an urgent mission, like radical protesters today.  If they dwelt on pain and death, it was to save the population from worse miseries, including Hell, of course, but also, in this life, the wars and other miseries with which Italy was racked because of human disobedience, and, worse still, God’s powerful wrath in the form of plague.

So before I close this post with a bigger picture, scholars seem to agree in associating the rise of Italian Confraternities and their preoccupation with death with the coming of the Black Death to Italy in the mid 14th century.   It was so devastating that it took a generation or more to cease to live in its shadow.  The effects were as unpredictable as they were devastating: some areas suffered massive sudden mortality, while neighbours escaped lightly or temporarily.  The Lombard region was worst affected later in 1361 and 1373, and outbreaks across Europe continued.  The particular Confraternity active in Clusone was founded several decades after the major Lombardy outbreaks, but it belongs within a movement that began as a response to the horrors of the plague.  The disruption across Europe was incalculable.  The plague ran along the major trading routes.  Even animals died – especially sheep – and humans who contracted the disease rarely lived more than three days.  Scholars attribute all sorts of social changes to the consequences of plague, including the end of feudalism, the empowerment of women, and, indirectly, the Reformation.

The Church was disrupted by the plague and its consequences along with the rest of society.  Many clergy died, and their places were hastily and inadequately filled or left vacant.  Some of the traditional monastic institutions which performed both spiritual and charitable functions ceased to function. The Confraternities took on the job of plugging this gap.  Their intense spiritual focus was also a reaction to the godlessness of the plague years when sick and dead had been abandoned, regular worship was thrown into chaos and when many, as Boccaccio chronicles, had responded to the fear of sudden death not by prayer and preparation, but with a hectic last round of worldly pleasures.  The modern viewer probably hopes to live long and see few deaths, so coming across a giant painted skeleton is shocking in itself.  This is not the intended effect. The original audience lived in a period where premature and violent death was common.   The goal of the fresco was not to remind them that they would die, but to place  Death in a proper perspective, queen of our mortal bodies, precursor to Judgement, Heaven and Hell.

Here is the big picture I promised.  I can’t do anything about the lighting.Triumph of Death whole wall 1.jpg

I recommend this site http://www.lamortdanslart.com/main.htm

Via Pignolo, Bergamo

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Via Pignolo, Bergamo, Photo AES

Bergamo has long been two cities – the Upper, the Citta Alta, and the Lower, the Citta Bassa.  There should be a grave accent on the a of Citta, but I’ve no idea how to do that in WordPress.  The Citta Alta is the ancient citadel, surrounded by 15th Century walls.  The Citta Bassa is where later development was able to take place, joining up small settlements and monasteries on the plain. So the Citta Bassa contains the new, and the relatively new as well as the very old.  Its main shopping centre is on the wide boulevard called the Via Sentierone.

This street, the Via Pignolo is one of the most historic streets in the Lower City.  It runs from the plain, up the hill, towards the St Augustine Gate of the Upper City.   It is lined by 16th Century palazzi, now mainly apartment buildings, but originally built for prosperous merchants and local notables.  The ground floors often feature arcades, which are occupied by shops – like ancient Roman town houses, these palazzi face inwards.  Their favourite connection to street level is a robust door.  The street-facing windows are higher up and neither large nor showy.

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Via Pignolo, Bergamo, Chruch of the Holy Spirit in background, Photo AES

I really recommend you to walk the length of the Via Pignolo in Google Maps.  I am borrowing the image from Ostia Antica below.

Street scene at Ostia Antica
Roman era street in Ostia Antica, by http://www.travelgardeneat.com

The town of Ostia Antica was active in the Roman period but later abandoned.  It is less famous than Pompeii and Herculaneum, but just as interesting.  You can see from the mosaic in one the the archways that it was used as a shop or bar.  This pattern of use is more than two thousand years old.  The plain exteriors give no clue to what lies inside the buildings, whose access to light and air is through interior courtyards.

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97, Via Pignolo, Photo AES

This is the door to the apartment block where we stayed – or at least to a section of the block, which has been divided.  There is nothing behind the door except a steep marble staircase.  The rest of the ground floor is used for retail and offices.  Our apartment was on the first floor.  It still had its high ceilings, but otherwise had been completely redivided and modernised.  However, the view from the windows told a different story.

This is the view into the courtyard.

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Courtyard, Via Pignolo 97, Photo Alison

Let’s look a bit more closely at the wall painting behind the balcony.

Interior Pignolo 1 (3)
Wall painting, interior courtyard, Via Pignolo, Photo Alison

I’m not an expert, but I would say that is 16th century, maybe early 17th.  Here is the view down.

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Interior courtyard, Via Pignolo, Photo Alison

The front window onto the street looks onto the Piazzetta del Delfino: Dolphin Place, named after the statue on a Triton on a dolphin which ornaments its fountain .  The Romans provided public water by channelling spring water, by aqueduct if necessary, to public fountains.  This system carried on in Italy, and although the fountains are now ornamental, there is nothing more typical than a fountain in a public square.  The water was icy cold.  I took this photo by night, when the bar next to the fountain was closed.  If I find a better photo I will add it to the blog.  Looks like it’s ‘Good Night’.

Piazzetta del Delfino.jpg