After the virus, there will be decorating

20 Apr

Milan_Cathedral        

By Lanny Morgnanesi

Easter came and there were no large family gatherings or in-church services. There was only Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli, who sang for free while the world  listened.

Bocelli said his was not a performance. He called it a prayer and the event was advertised as Music for Hope.  It took place in the Duomo di Milano, one of Italy’s most breathtaking cathedral. Bocelli was accompanied by a musician playing the world’s largest pipe organ. Otherwise, save for the unseen camera crew, he was alone.

Inside the cathedral, the tenor sang a few piece of sacred music. People watching live on Youtube saw a pantheon of statues, stained glass, etchings, carvings, relief work, marble, enormous pillars, icons and more. As Bocelli sang, there were cutaways to the empty streets of great cities like Milan, Paris, New York and London. After 25 minutes or so, the blind singer stop singing and walked unaccompanied down a corridor, through an enormous door and onto the Duomo steps. There was no one outside in the locked-down city, the epicenter of the Coronavirus in Italy. The small country of 60 million has reported 159,000 cases and 20,400 deaths.

bocelli new

Andrea Bocelli

Bocelli stood on the steps and returned to his singing. In English, he sang the 18th century Christian hymn, Amazing Grace. There was no music at first. After a time, the production people layered in a full orchestra. When the song ended, there was silence, and the cameras shutdown. The prayer was over.

The concert lasted 30 minutes and, so far, has been watched by at least 37 million people.

Andrea Bocelli’s music, as intended, gave us hope. Even more inspiring might have been the miracle and magnificence of the Duomo di Milano, the largest cathedral in Italy. Construction on it began in 1386, just a few decades after the Black Death killed 100 million people worldwide. Many believe the depths, damage and darkness of the plague is what spawned the creativity, commerce and optimism of the European Renaissance.

Duomo interior

Interior of the Duomo di Milano

The amazing thing about the Duomo is its utter completeness as a work of art. The virtuoso violinist Itzak Perlman has said that in the world of symphonic music there is no such thing as a casual note. With the Duomo, there is no such thing as a casual surface. Every piece of wood or stone has been slaved over and loved into a masterpiece. In Renaissance Italy, the greatest and most famed artists would fight for commissions to illustrate or decorate a surface. And great time would be spent on them. Lorenzo Ghiberti spent 27 years on the doors of the Baptistery in Florence. When Michelangelo saw those doors he called them “the Gates of Paradise.” The doors to Milan’s Duomo may not be as famous, but they are covered in jaw-dropping art work. Mark Twain, in Innocents Abroad, said this about the Duomo doors:

“The central one of its five great doors is bordered with a bas-relief of birds and fruits and beasts and insects, which have been so ingeniously carved out of the marble that they seem like living creatures —  and the figures are so numerous and the design so complex, that one might study it a week without exhausting its interest …”

            You look at a place like the Duomo di Milano and quickly comprehend that no such monument would be built today or could be built today. It’s a representation of a now unachievable achievement. The Duomo was a continuous work in progress for nearly 600 years. That’s how long it took to complete. The expense was enormous and funds were not always available. In 1805, Napoleon Bonaparte, about to become King of Italy, ordered the facade to be finished and said he’d pay for it. He never did.

Duomo doors

Door engravings, the Duomo di Milano

The art and culture of the Renaissance arose as great fortunes in banking and commerce were being made. Wealthy, influential families like the Medici and the Borgia possessed incomparable riches and used their fortunes on the arts. It was expected and something of a requirement. What was created was to be shared with regular people and offered up to God in thanks. Great new wealth also has been amassed in our era through the likes of Facebook, Google, Apple, PayPal and others. But it is used differently. There is good being done, but it’s a different kind of good.

Screenshot_2020-04-19 From Warren Buffett to Bill Gates How auto dealerships are attracting a whole new class of investor

Buffett, Gates, Soros

True, the rich create foundations to better mankind (and get a nice tax deduction for it). George Soros, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are among a handful of billionaires who have contributed much of their wealth toward improving the human condition. The other side of this benevolence, however, are efforts to change the world in more entrepreneurial ways. The excessive profits of enormously successful companies, for example, might be channeled into no-profit or low-profit ventures, like building space ships or driver-less cars. Intentions are good and hopes for mankind are high, but the goal is ultimately money. Rarely do we see artistic creations or architecture wonders (the Brooklyn Bridge is an older example of this) that people feel part of and gravitate toward.

Apple is said to have spent about $5 billion on its campus for 12,000 workers in Cupertino, California, yet by any stretch it is not considered a great wonder of the world. (For that money is should be.) Today’s really impressive modern architecture is found mostly in the Middle East and Asia. The world’s tallest building is in Dubai. Eye-poppers are all over Singapore, Malaysia and Shanghai. Still, all this is so very different from building a church that takes 600 years to finish and is so magnificent that, even when surrounded by the sad solitude of a catastrophic pandemic, looking upon it makes us feel good.

Hearing Bocelli and seeing the Duomo I think of the Renaissance and whether a new one might be on its way. When our pandemic turns to dust, will we find a vigorous need to look upon life as new and to create things never before created, perhaps experience joy in ways that have been forgotten? Will we insist on engraving the mundane with the spectacular and seek enjoyment from even the routine?

graffiti-1

Graffiti art

Trying to fathom a modern day equivalent to the high art of the Duomo surfaces, I stumbled on a harsh and incongruous comparison  — inner-city surfaces covered in graffiti. These markings, considered art by the best of their creators, deface yet celebrate. They spring from repression but in a perverse way speak to optimism. Can anything about tomorrow be learned from the spray paint on walls, bridges and subway cars?

After the population decline of the Black Plague, wages for laborers went up (high demand, low supply) and the price of land went down (low demand, high supply). Inequality eased off. Opportunity abounded. The Renaissance (literally The Rebirth), and later The Enlightenment, burst forth, light from dark. So what happens to us and our culture when the all-clear sounds?

Duomo arches

The Duomo

This could be our big chance for change, unity and joint hope. Let Bocelli keep singing. Let the light shine each evening on the Duomo Di Milano. And let everyone else search out and lay claim to a surface in preparation for its decoration. The unadorned will no longer be accepted.

 

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