Monday, April 15, 2019

An Easter Sermon.

Yesterday was Palm Sunday, the day which marks the beginning of Holy Week during which we experience Christ’s entry into Jerusalem and have a foretaste of his Passion and Resurrection. 

At church we had a great time, the children produced wonderful banners, the evening service was also a great time for fellowship, followed by a rather jolly dinner for all those who worked hard to make such a day so special. 

Yet, this morning, on this Monday of Holy Week, reality hit me hard. We held a funeral in church, not that it is a new experience for me, as I have been involved in funerals before, both in family and at church, but I wasn’t quite ready for what I was going to expect. Far from me to sound emotionless, but I thought it would have been a classic funeral for a well loved elderly person. 

It wasn’t - it was the funeral of a well loved young dad who died of throat cancer within a year of being diagnosed. Dylan spent his life travelling the world with his band, some of his favourite pieces were played during the ceremony. 

His daughters’ and granddaughters’ eulogies at church and at the crematorium were absolutely moving, especially as some of the youngest girls got rather emotional. 

It rather reminded me of my mother’s funeral when I was 16, I can’t pretend to know how the children and family were feeling, but I couldn’t help but feeling how great the pain love can produce can be. 

Accompanying Dylan’s wife and best buddy in the car to the crematorium was one of the most intimate experiences I have ever had, a window into a family’s most private moment - I have witnessed people die before and I can never stop feeling humbled by being able to share such moments with people. Seeing their tears, listening to their deepest emotions, being there with someone who is not there anymore. 

The power of love can be an instrument of peace and it can be an instrument of torture. Funerals can leave us working with the families, feeling drained, sad and remindful of our own experiences with death, and yet we must keep professional and strong for those who are going through it. Let me tell you, it sounds like a difficult task, but really it is incredibly humbling. This is not even my first Holy Week funeral, and yet I can’t help but feel a strong connection with God right now, who sent his Son into this world to suffer and die for us. 

What pain did Mary feel when Jesus was taken away? I am always one who finds comfort in rationality and doesn’t like to utter empty phrases at those who mourn, but I can’t but think as Easter approaches, that there is always a Resurrection, the race is not complete and we will all finally join in heaven one day with our loved ones. 

We have all experienced grim moments in our lives, especially if we have loved, but hope is what can bring us back to common sense, the hope of the Resurrection is always there. Holy Week always ends with Easter, but we must keep fighting, and we mustn’t leave anyone behind, we must be able to recognise our failures and to recognise those who fail at getting up in the face of adversities to help them overcome their struggles. We must fight and help the weak to fight, we must be there for the grieving, the poor and sick, the sinner, whatever that means, and those who think they aren’t. If we can always aim at the common good and strive for justice, if we can all act together as a communal body to help each other, we will find that love is there, and where love is God himself is there. And where there is God, there is the Resurrection, the final joy and consolation to all our sins. 

As long as we will be there for Dylan, his family, for all who need it, God will be with us - it was a great privilege to be there this morning to give support to a family that needed it, not everyone is called to give support to people in the same manner, but we can all each find a way to do that in our own ways. 

As we approach the Triduum of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday let us reflect on helping each other in sharing our burdens, and at the last to commend all our problems to God, who by dying for us aimed at our eternal felicity and salvation. There will always be those who will feel like their problems are the worst and cannot be solved but let us not lose hope, let us keep fighting the good fight. If we lose hope we will lose the great strength hidden in every each one of us, there is no shame in seeking help from those around us. The process of grieving for Dylan's family has just begun, the process of healing has not yet started. What can we do for them? What can we do for all those who mourn or suffer? We must be there.

Today’s experience was particularly draining for me, I won’t hide it, but it has also been a great privilege, it made me realise that it is what we are called here to do. There is no greater joy in life than causing those who are weeping to smile. It means that there is still hope. Let us fight our way through this Holy Week and our life, that at the end we may attain whatever it is that we strive for, we are here to stay. There is no magic medicine that can cure us from pain, but there are ways to cope and carry on, and once we’ll learn how to do it - we can finally aim at the final goal. Let us fight our way through this difficult life, and let us fight to reach that goal, that joy and serenity that will burst at Easter: The Strife is over, the battle done, the victory of life is won, the song of triumph hath begun… Alleluia! God will comfort us to the end of times, and his love lives in each act of charity and generosity that we do, we make God live in us, and we are his body that makes the Resurrection happen again each time, it’s a power that lies with in us. Let’s try and dig it out! If you don't feel like your life is a long battle, good! Help your neighbour to fight through her struggles! Keep positive and carry on! We are one body, one family, one Church.

After the Passion, there is always the Resurrection. I wish you a blessed Holy Week and Easter Day. 

What would Jesus say about it all? Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Tribute to the Pittsburgh victims.

Two days ago, on 27th October 2018, America sees another violent massacre at the hands of an American terrorist. This time the victims were 11 Jewish Americans attending a Saturday morning service at Or L'Simcha Conservative Synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh. The attack occurred on the holiest day for Jews, the Shabbat, the day of rest, as they gather to give thanks to God at worship. This was the worst antisemitic attack ever occurred in America.

The sole suspect is a middle aged right-wing extremist whose goal, in his words, was to kill the Jews. This unfortunate event not only confirms a terrifying resurgence of antisemitism across the wider world, often ignored or derided, a resurgence that we would not want to see 70 years after the Holocaust, but also, an increase of antisemitism in a nation that has always been a safe haven for Jews, even at times where nowhere else was: the United States of America.
The history of Jews in the United States goes back to the 17th century, the first Jew born on American soil was a Sephardi man, Joachim Gans, in 1584, Elias Legarde, another Sephardic Jew, arrived in James City in Virginia in 1621, large Jewish communities flourished in New England and the Carolinas, the Touro Synagogue in Newport, built in 1759, is the oldest in the country, the Gomez Mill House in Marlboro, NY, dating to the 1710s, is the earliest surviving Jewish home in America. The history of Jews in the United States dates back to the very time during which the foundations of the nation were being laid.

By the time of the revolution, around 2,000 Sephardic Jews lived in America, they contributed to the war effort in large numbers, the Bill of Rights made sure that antisemitism would never become as prevalent as in Europe. George Washington wrote to the Newport community:
May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in the land continue to merit and enjoy the goodwill of the other inhabitants. While everyone shall sit safely under his own vine and fig-tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.
During the 19th century, a substantial number of German Jews became among the first settlers of the new Old Wild West. Later in the century, with the intensification of the Eastern European Pogroms a massive immigration of Ashkenazi Jews from Poland, Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Rumania began, a massive "aliyha" that would last until the early stages of the Nazi regime in the 1930s.
During the Civil War, about 3,000 Jews fought for the Confederates and around 7,000 fought for the Union, they were American young men. 
The massive wave of Jewish refugees to the East Coast of the United States, strengthened even more their presence in the United States, the influence on culture, art, science, even cuisine, today America is the 2nd largest Jewish country in the world, New York City being the largest Jewish city in the world.

The history of America is also Jewish, and Jews have enriched the history of the United States, as scientists, philanthropists, writers, artists, film-directors, politicians, activists, shaping every aspect of American culture, Jews fought in the two world wars valiantly and Jews have been and are American, and most Americans' friends, neighbors, coworkers, schoolmates, teachers, doctors.
To be Jewish is to be American, to be antisemitic is to be anti-American.
Shooting people during their worship gatherings, at Shabbat, on the holiest day of the week is a terrible act of terror, it is not the first time it happens in a house of worship, and we must pray and work for a more concrete solution to such hatred. How can we make our Jewish brothers and sisters feel safe after the worst antisemitic attack ever occurred in America? We will keep praying for the eleven victims of the Pittsburgh attack, that their memory may be a blessing, that America may continue to be safe haven for Jews and for all.
This Christian stands with you.

Mourner's Kaddish

Glorified and sanctified be God’s great name throughout the world
which He has created according to His will.

May He establish His kingdom in your lifetime and during your days,
and within the life of the entire House of Israel, speedily and soon;
and say, Amen.

May His great name be blessed forever and to all eternity.

Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honored,
adored and lauded be the name of the Holy One, blessed be He,
beyond all the blessings and hymns, praises and consolations that
are ever spoken in the world; and say, Amen.

May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life, for us
and for all Israel; and say, Amen.

He who creates peace in His celestial heights,
may He create peace for us and for all Israel;
and say, Amen.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Review of the Mantegna & Bellini Exhibition at the National Gallery.

Earlier this month, a new exhibition at the National Gallery has opened on two great masters of the Venetian Renaissance, the two brothers-in-law Andrea Mantegna and Giovanni Bellini. I have had the privilege to see it on the day of its inauguration, and I must say that it has been among the best exhibitions held here in London in the past few years, probably on pair with the recent one on Charles I and his collection.
In historiography it is always complicated to define chronological periods with absolute precision, and this is one of the reasons why I have always been absolutely avverse to dates. The Renaissance was a time of great cultural growth in all fields of human advancement. Slowly, by the end of the 14th century, when Italian economy began to grow, especially in Florence with the advent of modern banking, and later in Rome in the early 15th century, when Pope Martin V Colonna brought the papacy back to Rome, things began to change, not quickly, but swiftly: the aesthetics of the international Gothic slowly gave room to a new classical language, rediscovered through the new Humanistic thought, a new rebirth of Neo-Platonism brought back to life Rome’s classical past, and Renaissance art slowly began to evolve, with an art deeply rooted in Christianity, but now also based on and improved by the rediscovered marvels of ancient Rome, such as the Domus Area, which artists such as the early and more Gothic, Benozzo Gozzoli or Fra Angelico, or more humanist Botticelli or Ghirlandaio, tried to recreate. Religious and secular, Christian and Pagan or historical, themes began to coexist in art, commissions were often not only religious but also secular, they began to influence each other, the "new" wave of Classicism deeply inspired religious works, at least with its advanced perspective, order, realism and architectural features, and which the new Rome of the Popes and the Florence of the Medici tried to make their own, and soon this new vibrant energy spread to the entirety of the Italian peninsula, at the time connected, through trade and banking, much like today to the great cultural hubs of the north and of the east, and it is here that the role of Venice as the connecting vehicle between the two emerges.

Venice, a city strong of a majestic past as one of the major Italian maritime republics of the late Middle Ages, which made its fortune through trading and of course through the Crusades, the Venice of the Dogi had been developing a vast empire and even an important role as a trading hub for centuries. La Serenissima came into being in 421 AD as result of the development of the Byzantine empire, with which it always maintained good relations. The Venetian Empire ranged from the Greek islands to the Black Sea and to the Levant, mostly because of trade. Venetian merchants operated throughout Europe, much like the Medici and their Florentine emissaries had branches throughout the continent and even England. It is in this opulent setting that Andrea Mantegna (1430-1506) and Giovanni Bellini (1459-1516) lived and worked. 

Andrea Mantegna, was born near Padua to a carpenter, and as many artists at the time was trained in a local bottega to a local master known as Squarcione, in 1453 he broke the agreement and married into the great firm of the Bellini. His first great commission came in 1448, when he worked at the Eremitani Chapel in Padua, where he worked alternatively with Verona until his move to the court of the Gonzaga in Mantua in 1460. As a good humanist he had a scholarly interest in antiquity, in 1464 he notoriously dressed up as an ancient Roman for a boating excursion on Lake Garda with his friend Felice Feliciano. A great example of his style inspired by the Classical world is the “Triumphs of Caesar” series now at Hampton Court. His style was particularly good at aiming to represent antique sculpture realistically. His religious works also resent from the classical influence and are particularly admirable, he laid the early foundations to what would become the Venetian High Renaissance style and inspired artists to come, from Giovanni Bellini to Albrecht Dürer: he experimented with perspective, another important advancement of Renaissance art, but also with detailed landscapes and a dramatic rendition of human emotions. He died in 1506, at the end of a great career.

Giovanni Bellini lived and worked in Venice throughout his life and his 65 years long career. Unlike Mantegna, he is known for his tender and graceful pictures, his realistic portraits are known for an astonishing use of natural light. He was born into a long dynasty of Venetian painters, shaped by his father Jacopo, he was greatly influenced by Andrea Mantegna who happened to be his brother-in-law.  His early and most graceful works mainly focus on Christian themes such as the “Blood of the Redeemer” or the “Agony in the Garden” or indeed the beautiful depictions of the Virgin on countless panels and altarpieces, often set in mystic landscapes or geometrically exquisite architectural features derived from the Classical world, later in his career like Mantegna, his art was heavily influenced by the new Humanistic ideals and he executed a few secular narrative paintings such as the stunning “Feast of the Gods”. He was an incredibly gifted artist who brought to Venice those artistic characteristics that would later define the Venetian works of Titian or Tintoretto as such; the use of color, observed light, atmosphere, etc. His influential family background led him to be the artists of the Doge, the rulers of the Venetian Empire. Like Mantegna he influenced artists to come both in Venice and abroad. Indeed, even a renowned Italian cocktail was named in his honor.
The two artists lived and worked to serve among the most refined courts of their time, the Gonzaga at Mantua, where Mantegna painted the famous “Camera degli Sposi” and Giovanni Bellini who worked for the Doge of Venice, the imperators of the Venetian Empire, for whom Bellini painted altarpieces and portraits. They also worked for great chapels and churches, mainly in Padua, Verona and Venice respectively.

Exhibitions on Mantegna and Bellini are not something new, only recently the Louvre (2008/2009) and the Scuderie del Quirinale (2008/2009) offered two individual and rather excellent exhibitions on the two masters, in Paris and Rome respectively, which I have thankfully been able to see as a younger boy and which perhaps led me to undertake an art degree at university! 
The London exhibition for the first time unites rather splendidly and successfully, not only the works, but also the dramatic lives of these intricate characters. For seven years Mantegna and Bellini worked closely around Venice, almost in a mystic dialogue, the aim of the exhibition is to show that; a competition between masters characterised by mutual respect and which lasted for a lifetime.

The exhibition is divided into six rooms which aim at portraying the life-long relationship between the two artists through their work. The first room, named “Beginnings”, is dedicated to their early works, the two masters are introduced by their cities of Padua and Venice, through the different taste of their patrons. This room also presents a beautiful set of drawings by Bellini on loan from the British Museum. In the following room, named “Explorations”, the exhibition begins to present the mutual impact of each artist on their works, at around the time of the marriage that made them brothers-in-law. In this room are the two nearly-identical versions of the “Descent into Limbo” by the two masters and the beautiful “Crucifixion” by Mantegna as opposed to Bellini’s “Le Calvaire”, respectively on loan from the Bristol Art Gallery and the Louvre. The third room named “Pietà” focuses on a new distinctive Renaissance iconography, the Dead Christ supported by Angels, with examples by both artists. In the fourth room, named “Landscape”, the extraordinary contribution of Bellini to the history of art is shown through his glorious depictions of realistic landscapes, natural light and atmosphere, a a key element even to the meaning behind some of his religious works. This is also great chance to see the newly restored “Assassination of Saint Peter Martyr” for the first time. The theme of the room is also to revel the differences in approach to landscape between the two artists and how the two, in this case Bellini, influenced the other; his “Death of the Virgin” with a spectacular view of the city of Mantua on loan from the Prado is extraordinary. The fifth room, dedicated to “Devotional Paintings and Portraits”, an essential theme in the heavily Christian world of the Renaissance. We can see the development of the Sacra Conversazione, in which the Madonna and Child appear with other saints as if occupying the same space. In this room there are also beautiful depictions of the Holy Family and the Madonna and Child from Dresden, Venice, and Berlin. The final room is called “Antiquity”, and is dedicated to the most spectacular works of the two artists inspired by the ancient Greco-Roman world, among the highlights are the beautiful “Triumphs of Caesar” by Mantegna on loan from the Royal Collection at Hampton Court and Bellini’s realistic monochrome sculptural paintings, including an “Episode from the Life of Publics Cornelius Scipio” from the National Gallery at Washington D.C. Astonishing works that show the impact of Humanism on the arts of the Renaissance and of the ancient works of Rome, the effect is certainly breathtaking. This fascinating journey has to be experienced, because words can't equate the beauty of the works of these transcendental masters.

Perhaps the highlights of the exhibition are the splendid Presentations to the Temple of the two artists, whose realism and use of lighting are absolutely astonishing. This fantastic exhibition not only brings together some of the most beautiful Renaissance masterpieces ever depicted from the greatest collections in the world, from the Prado to the Louvre, from the Uffizi to the Staatliche of Berlin, but actually, for the first time, creates a “sacred conversation” between two brothers-in-law and masters who shaped the arts of the Renaissance and became history by influencing each other and by depicting with such realism and beauty that they became eternal and influenced not only the Venetians of the High Renaissance, but generations of artists to come. It is certainly a once in a lifetime exhibition that requires to be seen to be believed!

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Sermon on Saint John the Baptist.

Today I had the privilege to lead a service of worship and to preach in Rome's English-speaking Methodist church of Ponte Sant'Angelo, Pastor Tim Macquiban kindly welcomed me and allowed me to experience what it is to lead God's people in God's praises. This was my first time leading any Sunday service and I am indeed touched to have done so in a church whose tradition finds its roots in Anglicanism, through John and Charles Wesley, a movement whose aim was to bring God to the four corners of the world, by speaking of God's infinite grace and love but also through a splendid musical tradition, and indeed we sang some favourite hymns with joy and enthusiasm. I will always treasure this special occasion. Here is a transcript of that sermon I preached:

Whether you are a visitor, a long time resident of this city of Rome or a Roman; you surely have noticed the beauty that this city has to offer, in its churches, frescoes, paintings, galleries, palazzos, gardens, bridges, even the food, anywhere! But sometimes, the most exciting, beautiful places hide some dark secrets. Surely not a surprise for a 2,700 years old city. Sometimes what seems ordinary can hide gruesome details! If you take a stroll not too far away from here and head towards the Spanish Steps area, you may end up in the not so exciting piazza of San Silvestro, named after a church that still stands there, if you keep walking heading north, on the Via del Gambero, you may notice a tiny door along the church’s wall; the small door leads to a little chapel guarded by a charming Gothic-revival screen that hides what looks like a reliquary, the rather large object houses a mummified skull, that supposedly belongs to Saint John the Baptist. Surely, there are various skulls of Saint John, throughout the world, but the thought and faith is what counts, now the need of showing it openly, is something that we can talk about instead! But every time I pass by that alley, I reflect on a simple thought that comes to mind; are people walking outside, children eating gelato, adults holding hands, tourists doing some shopping, are they aware of this little, dark secret? Are they aware of how hard it is to be a Christian? To Fight the Good Fight?

Today’s readings were, to say the least, quite unusual, sometimes the Word of God, isn’t easy to digest, isn’t it? First, Paul tells us of God’s infinite grace, shown in his son Jesus Christ, as tricky as this passage may seem, and surely throughout the centuries there have been extreme interpretations of these words, what really is the meaning is that God predestined all of mankind to be saved and the incarnation of his Son Jesus Christ, who redeemed us all in his sacrifice of blood and love, is its very sign. In love, he predestined us for adoption through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will - to the praise of his glorious grace which he has freely given us in the One he loves. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace. 

God who first revealed himself to the people he freed from Egypt, finally in his revelation to the world he made himself incarnate in order not to save someone, but to save all of humankind - in order to extend his salvific mission to everyone of us, denying that, would be denying the sacrifice of many. As Christians, Paul also gave us the key in order to make our communion with God stronger, in Ephesians he continues: and you were also included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the Gospel of your salvation. When you believed you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit. It is by Christ we have been saved, with the grace of God, bestowed by the Holy Spirit, this holy and blessed Three, glorious Trinity, Wisdom, Love, Might; boundless as ocean’s tide, rolling in fullest pride, through the earth far and wide, let there be light. It is this Trinity, this mysterious communion of love that is God, one in three and three in one, that can save us, that can give us light. And we just have to understand and be thankful for such an act of love that transcends ages, time, space, the very limits of our universe and understanding of what surrounds us. 

If God, entrusted us with such a responsibility, if God believed we as creatures made in his own image, were to be worthy of the time to be considered for salvation we must take our faith and make it grow, we have to cultivate our daily thanksgiving to this boundless love, we must Fight the Good Fight. I have to say, I am partly thankful, that I managed to be here, when one of the most difficult Gospel readings from the Church’s year were to be read: the death of John the Baptist. Here in Rome and in Italy in general, as an art historian to be, I have always been fascinated by the spectacular Renaissance art works, that portrayed the Baptist as a little child playing with baby Jesus or as an adult baptising Jesus, even in England, the beautiful and yet simple Baptism of Christ by Piero della Francesca, in London’s National Gallery, truly holds a strong message, the message that this saintly man was chosen by Christ to baptise him, so that he could baptise everyone and open the kingdom of God to all believers, so that, that grace given to us by God could really make its way among us. It is no surprise that our Muslim sisters and brothers in the faith regard the Baptist as an important prophet that announced the coming of Christ, there is even an ancient Middle Eastern tradition within Judaism that sees the Baptist as a reincarnation of the prophet Elijah, as our Gospel today also states. 

As for the little relic in the tiny chapel near the Spanish Steps, hidden from the bustling life of this city, the Renaissance depictions of an adorable Baptist as a baby or as a humble preacher in the Baptism scenes, hide the fact that this holy man was slaughtered for having stood up to tyrants in order to follow his faith and God’s grace. If there is an example out there of how strong faith can be, that is it, the example of the first Christian! He taught us how to Fight the Good Fight.

Sometimes, everyone of us feels too let down by God, I am the first, there are moments when there isn’t even anything serious going on and you’re just tired to pray, but not enough to watch some tv series or to eat a snack. Yet, the first Christian wasn’t afraid of standing up for God when he had to, does that mean we all have to be slaughtered? No! But I think it is important to be a living testimony of God’s love as Christians, to hold strong to his faith and to be good examples of human beings. People throughout the world still die for their faith or for human greed, even in more brutal ways than the Baptist, for the sole fanaticism or enjoyment of others, to Fight the Good Fight means to take conscience of this, to fight this and to try and make an impact on the world, in Jesus’ name! Faith is what saves us all, believing and God’s grace is what saves us, but what makes us whole is making this world a better place. We must Fight the Good Fight.

Today we read of how as for Jesus, Herod was too afraid of killing John the Baptist, he was too afraid of laying a hand on someone who was carrying a testimony of faith that clearly made an impact on the monarch. And yet, in order to follow his earthly promise, a promise requested by greed and jealousy, Herod agreed to the request: the head of John the Baptist, and so that was it. Do I feel as I should judge Herod for his decision? I am not sure. This decision is only up to God, but to be honest I do not feel like it. What if the little child eating gelato would find the gruesome head in San Silvestro? What if Herod had the courage to stand up to his pride, not make the mistake of agreeing to that promise, not offer to make any promise as a ruler with certain duties and responsibilities? What if we could stand up to the injustice we witness day by day? What if we could put our own interests aside and aim for the common good? What if we would Fight the Good Fight?

It is not our duty to judge, for example the first Christian man, the Baptist, couldn't even sweeten Herod up; people make mistakes, though not as great as his perhaps, but at the very least, we should stop asking and asking, we should stop and think that perhaps it’s time to give, it’s time to be thankful, it’s time to forgive and not ask for anyone’s head on a platter. Why did the Baptist die? For his faith. For a common belief in Jesus Christ who died to save us all. We have incredible hardships to go through in our lives, we are all saints, and it is because of Christ’s incredible act of love that we know any hardship can be overcome. We have to have the courage to find what’s hidden, it may be much better than a mummified human skull. Let us be thankful in the Baptist’s sacrifice and testimony of faith, let us go out into the world with new eyes. The Baptist showed us that being a Christian is not easy, let us remember whenever we are feeling a bit under the weather, being us is not easy, but Jesus is always by our side and in our hearts. We simply have to Fight the Good Fight!

Fight the good fight with all thy might;
Christ is thy Strength, and Christ thy Right;
Lay hold on life, and it shall be
Thy joy and crown eternally.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

The Tiber Island, a fascinating history.

Recently, I took a water bus on the Thames in London between Blackfriars and Westminster; I admired the grandeur of a great city that was made such also thanks to its important waterway. The Thames is a fluvial artery that saw Romans cargo ships, Tudor galleons as well as clipper ships that made the British Empire great. Today, along its banks rise both the shadows of London's past glories as well as the skyscrapers of the City, one of the two most important financial centres in the world. The greatest cities in the world were founded on rivers: London, Paris, Florence, Prague, Vienna, New York and Rome. It is probably the latter that made a long lasting impact on the use of rivers from the age of the empire to our day, connecting the Eternal City to the known world. If we should then seek the original "holy" river, which one would it be? It would be the Tiber, sacred to the Romans, it became a new Jordan when Rome superseded Jerusalem as the Rome of the Popes (at least theoretically) and surely, while today, it would need a thorough clean up, it still shows traces of its former glories.

One of the most fascinating bits of the river is perhaps the Tiber Island, located in the southmost area of the historical centre, between the Jewish quarter and the Trastevere quarter, since Roman times it has been for over 2,000 years a place of healing. It is still connected to the mainland through two surviving bridges from antiquity: the Pons Cestius, leading to the Trastevere and the Pons Fabricius leading to the Jewish quarter, both dating to the 1st century BC. The Pons Fabricius, is also known as Bridge of the Four Heads, because of the ancient two-headed sculptures at each corner and it remains intact since antiquity.
According to legend, the island was formed in 510 BC, when the Romans threw into the water the body of the evil tyrant, Tarquinius Superbus, his body settled to the bottom of the river where dirt and slit accumulated around it, eventually forming the island - another less macabre version reports that the Romans threw Tarquinius' wheat and grain into the river and eventually the island was formed.
The island was considered a dodgy place during the early Roman Republic, up until the 3rd century BC.

It was then that it became a vast and magnificent sanctuary dedicated to Aesculapius, the Greek god of medicine and healing. According to various accounts, in 293 BC a massive plague took hold of Rome, the Roman Senate consulted the Sibyl and was instructed to build a temple in honour of the god; a delegation even went to Epidauros in Greece to obtain a statue of the deity. It was customary to bring a snake onboard ships at the time, and interestingly that one curled itself around the mast and that was taken a good sign. To this day the image of snakes curling around a mast are a symbol of medicine. And so the island was deemed a good place given the godly sign. 
Eventually, the island became associated with the temple which was modelled to resemble a ship sailing the river, Travertine prow and stern were added, as well as an obelisk erected in the middle, acting as a mast. Part of the prow still survives and there is still a surviving relief of Aesculapius' rod with an entwining snake. In the 19th century the obelisk was removed to make way for a neo-Renaissance obelisk with the four patron saints of the island: Paulinus of Nola, Francis, John and Bartholomew. Parts of the obelisk are now in museums in Naples and Munich.

In 998, Emperor Otto III, had a basilica dedicated to the martyr Saint Bartholomew built on the island. A nice anecdote links the island as a place of healing to London: in 1123, Augustinian canon Paul Rahere travelled to Rome on a pilgrimage but fell ill, he was hospitalised at Saint Bartholomew on the Tiber Island and when he came back to London he vowed to build a church as a sign of thankfulness: that became the church of Saint Bartholomew the Great, also a place of healing as a hospital that bears its name was also founded adjacent to the church. Meanwhile, the island remained a place of medicine and healing; during the Renaissance many hospitals were being restored, enlarged and founded by the Church, in 1554 the hospital on the island was enlarged and it became known as the Fatebenefratelli. In 1943, during the Nazi occupation of Rome, when the Jews were being rounded up, Dr. Borromeo, the then head of the hospital invented a "deadly" and highly contagious illness known as the "Syndrome K", as the SS were highly scared of contagion, the hospital managed to save dozens of Jews, just a stone's throw from the Jewish quarter! 
After over two thousand years the island still manages to impress and to be a place of healing, and through the river it is on, it connects it with its sister foundation in London! What marvels these rivers can do.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

How the Medici became the most powerful family of Florence; because of the English!

During the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, trade was a very important mean through which knowledge, art, goods of all kinds could travel throughout Europe, nations were much more connected than we could believe and often the great nation states exchanged raw materials for precious goods or loans, for example eastern England during the 14th and 15th centuries had a strong link with Florence through the Flanders, especially Bruges, the wool that made England rich was exchanged for eastern spices from Venice, stunning artworks and often... loans. It always amuses me to hear conspiracy theories about the Jews and especially the Rotschilds, when the great banking families that fuelled art, literature and especially war throughout Europe were... Tuscan and Venetian! Talking about which, there is an amusing historical anecdote from the 14th century about just this.
By 1310, Florence was a vibrating and rich city, filled with beautiful art, bustling with merchants and the most educated men of the time, it was also much larger than London; but Florence could have never been so grand, had it not been for what it was: a city of bankers, built by bankers, it's them that built the churches, commissioned the sculptures, frescoes and churches to Michelangelo, Botticelli, Raphael and Leonardo. Renaissance Florence was the Gilded Age New York of a hundred years ago.

By 1310, the most powerful banking families of Florence were the Bardi, the Peruzzi and the Acciaiuoli. They had branches at locations stretching from England to the Flanders and even North Africa and the Middle East, all key areas for Italian trade. Each family owned each operating capital, sometimes together with few close partners, but money was also received from outside deposits. Foreign branches were operated by Florentines sent abroad. These firms traded in agricultural commodities, industrial products, but more especially refined woollen textiles imported from England. They drew most of their profit from the fees levied on exchange of currency. Florentine bankers were the most trusted, because moving money abroad was risky, of course it was less so if you had a presence everywhere, therefore they also had more information than those they were dealing with.
Another significant portion of their profit came from extending credit, a risky activity in the 1340s, as these families discovered soon.
Both the Peruzzi and the Bardi made the mistake of lending vast sums to King Edward III of England during the 1330s as the Hundred Years' War was approaching. Sadly, the bankers soon realised that it is quite difficult to repay a lot of credit all at once, they just lent so much that they felt compelled to lend more, also because they needed royal licenses to export the precious wool. By 1343, it was clear the war would not have ended soon, the king repudiated his debts. The large amounts lost were of circa 600,000 gold florins owed to the Peruzzi and 900,000 to the Bardi, none of it ever repaid. This led to the 1345 economic crisis that eventually had a strong impact on all of Europe.

Of course, this was not the end of Florence, and eventually the Bardi and Peruzzi rose from their ashes and lived quite comfortable aristocratic lives: during the 15th century, smaller firms that survived the crash started to acquire more and more power, this was a new, greater era of Florentine banking, the names? Pazzi, Rucellai, Strozzi and the Medici. Florence and its economy were only bound to become greater, this led to such a flourishing time for the arts, culture, archeology, philosophy, sciences and even religion that became known as the Renaissance. Perhaps we can forgive that thief of a king then!

England's St. George's Flag: an Italian job.

What is the most recognised symbol of Englishness today? It is probably the simple and yet beautiful flag of Saint George, a red cross on a white shield, a theme used since the late Middle Ages in various flags throughout Europe, including Florence or the banner of the risen Christ in much Christian iconography between the 13th and 16th centuries. What is the story of the use of Saint George's Cross in England?

In 1188, according to various 13th century chroniclers, Henry II of England and Philip II of France agreed to go on a crusade to Jerusalem, it was agreed that the two kings would wear respectively a white and a red cross, later, according to a Victorian tradition Richard the Lionheart adopted both the flag and the patron saint of Genoa for his crusade. Also, in the late 13th century, during the reign of Edward I, red crosses seemed to have been already used to distinguish English soldiers - documents also prove that the king in 1277 made an extensive order of cloth for the production of several Saint George banners. By the 1300s the banner was eventually used as a royal standard.

Of course, Saint George had become a popular saint during the crusades as a warrior saint, as opposed to the national saint of England, Saint Edward the Confessor, known for his good heart. Edward III made Saint George even more popular by using his flag for the Order of the Garter in the 1300s. Finally, King Henry VII commissioned John Cabot to sail to Newfoundland under our flags, banners and ensigns. That was the first use of George's banner in the Royal Navy.

Before the Reformation, England's patron saint was Saint Edward the Confessor with Saint George's Day being considered a "double major feast" since 1415, but later, despite the king saint still being honoured, especially given his royal role, Saint George rose to a primary position when the cult of saints was altered, this also appears in the revised Book of Common Prayer of 1552. The use of Saint George's flag became widespread during the late Tudor era.

But what's the Italian connection? As remarked by the Duke of Kent in 1992: the St. George's flag, a red cross on a white field, was adopted by England and the City of London in 1190 for their ships entering the Mediterranean to benefit from the protection of the Genoese fleet. The English Monarch paid an annual tribute to the Doge of Genoa for this privilege.
At the time Genoa, was along with Venice the most powerful naval force in the world and using its flag and protection was a warranty of making a safe trip without being bothered by Saracen pirates or other enemies.

A few days ago, the mayor of Genoa, during a fundraising campaign for the Comune decided to ask for help directly to the Queen, 247 years of unpaid debts of the British Crown for not paying rent for their flag! His words: your Majesty, I regret to inform you that from my books it looks like you didn't pay for the last 247 years. Quite a clever marketing operation, though I believe that since Napoleon put an end to the Republic of Genoa, later occupied by the Savoy state of Italy, he has lost any right to claim those funds, but nonetheless, what a fascinating story!