An elegant gondola with its striped-shirt gondolier plying one of Venice’s 177 canals, silently gliding beneath one of its 450 stone bridges. Extravagant carnival masks … simultaneously concealing their wearers’ identities and projecting fantasies. Blown glass … dizzying bouquets of translucent color magically forged from sand. Or, perhaps that architectural confection that feels more like an imagined Xanadu than an inhabited city. No other place on the planet conjures such images! The novelist Thomas Mann called Venice “the most improbable of cities” … and all on a piece of real estate just two times the size of Central Park.
La Serenissima, long may you float. The world’s prayers are with you.
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Orvieto’s cathedral doesn’t have the global profile of Saint Peter’s in Rome, Saint Mark’s in Venice or the Duomo in Florence, and if the Catholic church were to do a survey of Italy’s most glorious churches it might even trail Milan’s cathedral or Siena’s stunner. But if you arrive in Orvieto on a blue-skied day and stroll up Via Nebbia, then turn the corner with all the tourist signs and cast your gaze heavenward, there’s a good chance that you’ll forget all the others, at least for a while. There before you is the Duomo, in all its grand Gothic glory. Construction began in 1290 but wasn’t completed until three hundred years later, and by that time, according to one historian’s count, it had become the collaborative product of 33 architects, 152 sculptors, 68 painters and 90 mosaic artisans.
Art historian Jacob Burckhardt called the Duomo “the greatest and richest polychrome monument in the world.” Pope Leo XIII suggested that on Judgment Day the Duomo’s beauty would levitate it straight to heaven … I think so too!
With ghosts and goblins everywhere and Halloween just around the corner, I figured it’s a great time to talk about one of my favorite motifs in art: memento mori. Memento mori is Latin for “remember death.” The phrase is believed to have originated from an ancient Roman tradition in which a servant would stand behind a victorious general as he paraded through the streets; as the general basked in the glory of the cheering crowds, the servant would whisper in his ear: “Respice post te! Hominem te esse memento! Memento mori!” . . . “Look behind you! Remember that you are but a man! Remember that you will die!”
We moderns don’t like to think too much about death unless treated more as a camp statement of style, but for those living in antiquity all the way up to the beginning of the 20th century, death was seen as a motivator to live a virtuous life. To help reflect on this, artists created paintings, sculptures and mosaics depicting skulls, skeletons and other symbols of death to encourage contemplation on how you live your life. Romans also used the phrase memento mori to remind one another of the brevity of life, and that death makes us all equal . . . and to remember to live life and each day to its fullest. By honoring death, you thus honor life. The flip of Memento Mori is Carpe Diem … seize the day. Rejoice, and be glad in it!