American finger to Christian art
From Mr Alexander Boot:
A surgeon from Connecticut took his family to Florence.
By itself there’s nothing remarkable about this: millions of tourists, many of them from the USA, come to Italy every year.
The surgeon then went to the museum of the Duomo’s works of religious art, which isn’t particularly newsworthy either: he was treading a well-beaten path.
Now I don’t know how often the Connecticut surgeon exposes himself to the great glories of Christendom, but it’s evident that he has little respect for them.
To make this point he tried to compare his finger to that of the 600-year-old marble statue of the Virgin by Giovanni d’Ambrogio. The test turned out to be of the destructive variety: the medical man accidentally snapped the Virgin’s finger off.
A security guard tried to stop the surgical procedure but he was no match for the inquisitive Connecticut Yankee. The police arrived, arrested the vandal, then released him without charge.
The museum curator also declined to press charges, and the surgeon rejoined his family, presumably in a queue for some other museum.
The queue is likely to be long: hordes of tourists unfailingly form a beeline for Florentine museums, making one wonder exactly how many art connoisseurs there are in the world. Tens of millions? Somehow one doubts it.
The doubt turns into a certainty when one looks at the crowds besieging, say, the Uffizi and listens to their conversations. Many art lovers, especially those from America, aren’t even sure which city they’re in.
A Scottish gentleman who runs an English-language bookshop in Florence tells me that hardly a day goes by that he’s not asked for directions to the Coliseum, Rialto Bridge, the Bridge of Sighs or even the Parthenon. Directions to Taj Mahal haven’t yet been requested, so there’s something to look forward to.
Why do they come at all, especially in such numbers? Many Americans defer the European experience until their retirement: “Hot damn, honey, we’ve worked hard for this so we’re gonna enjoy it!”
Nothing wrong about that, but if they’ve waited so long to partake of ‘culture’, they’ve waited too long: the boat has sailed. Yet thankfully only few have such far-reaching ambitions.
Most Americans regard ‘Europe’ as a sort of Disneyland, a place where fun can be had provided that one remembers it’s not real life. Real life isn’t about the glories of Christendom. It’s about the property prices in Connecticut.
This is to be expected. After all, the United States is the first (alas, not the last) country in Western history constituted along secular, materialistic lines. For all the cloying references to God in its Pledge of Allegiance, America separated herself from Christendom by a watershed considerably more significant and less navigable than the Atlantic Ocean.
What comes naturally to most Americans is ‘the pursuit of happiness’ stipulated in their founding document – not the pursuit of beauty or, God forbid, the truth. This has produced the happiest society in the West, and also the least Western. There’s a price to pay for secularism, and in America’s case the most prominent rubric on the bill is aesthetic.
Few Americans stop to think why just about everything man-made in their country is ugly, and even when such a thought crosses their minds they do not gasp with horror. Real life isn’t about beauty.
But the great Greeks had a ready explanation for ugliness. They considered what Aristotle called ‘transcendentals’ and what Plato specifically identified as Truth, Beauty and Goodness to be inseparable properties of being.
Leaving theologians to decide whether or how this prefigured the Holy Trinity, one can still derive a logical inference that a deficit in one element of the inseparable triad would automatically produce a failure in the other two.
If true, then Americans could do worse than look at the soulless ugliness of their Houstons, Clevelands and Detroits, and wonder where they’ve gone wrong. Perhaps they could start from the philosophical premise of their statehood.
At the time Giovanni d’Ambrogio was creating his Virgin, the pursuit of happiness would have been regarded as a dangerous heresy. Happiness wasn’t seen as the be all and end all. It was a by-product of other pursuits – specifically that of salvation.
By creating their Enlightenment-inspired secular canon, the Founders set up a cultural disaster. For it’s naïve to expect that the cultural tree of Christendom will remain luxuriant and fertile after its metaphysical roots have been severed.
Thus the finger incident is symptomatic: barbarians tend to break things they don’t understand. Whether they do so out of carelessness or hatred is immaterial. The things get broken in either case.
The word ‘barbarians’ as I use it here is merely descriptive, not pejorative. The Greeks and then Romans used it to describe those from elsewhere. Americans too are from elsewhere – not just geographically, but also metaphysically and therefore culturally.
Patrick Broderick, the Connecticut surgeon, has served a useful reminder of this.
Alexander Boot is a writer on political, cultural and religious themes