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A Writer's Life in Rome & Tuscia

Book of the Beast: Ugo Bardi's Il Libro della Chimera

"We are all Chimeras" -- Ugo Bardi

Not too long ago, I made a trip to Florence to visit an old friend who has dwelled in my unconscious for a very long time, ever since I first laid eyes on her at the Archaeological Museum: the Chimera. This bronze statue, cast in one piece, depicting a three-headed beast composed of a lion, a goat, and a snake is considered by many art historians to be among the major masterpieces not only of Etruscan sculpture, but of all ancient religious art that has come down to us from anywhere the world over. After years of absence, she does not disappoint, radiating electrifying power and intensity.

The sculpture, eighty centimeters tall, shows a regal beast on the defense, with a jagged mane of spikes, its sinuous body tensed to pounce, ribs protruding from its sleek, gaunt sides, suggesting hunger. Its open jaws roar in pain and fury. The extremely realistic, flat-eared goat head sprouting from its spine leans downwards, shedding drops of blood on the base of its neck. Soulful eyes gaze out helplessly as a vicious serpent, which is the Chimera’s own tail, stretches out to strike, seizing the goat’s horn in its jaws.
The Chimera, as notes Ugo Bardi distinguished chemistry professor at the University of Florence, environmental blogger, and author of a study on the beast, Il Libro Della Chimera, (edizioni Polistampa, Florence, 2008,) is portrayed in a moment of suffering. She is a fighter, but she is losing.
Bardi goes on to say that the Etruscan artist who made this Chimera, roughly in about 400 B.C. may have wanted to express the fate of his people who at that time were gradually being overcome by the Romans. Or perhaps he wished to express his own destiny, that of all human beings, who will eventually be overcome in a final, individual battle. “We are all chimeras,” Bardi suggests.

Once face to face alone with this astonishing creature your first desire is to reach out and caress its smooth sides and haunches, then to run your hand across the cold bronze spikes of its mane and hackles and test the sharpness of the claws. But your next immediate response will be a question: But what does it mean? for this curious three-headed combo must mean something. What Ugo Bardi sets out to do in his thought-provoking study is to illuminate that meaning on many levels.

First, he provides us with a historical account of its discovery unearthed by workers digging outside the Arezzo city walls in 1553, her transferal to Florence where she captivated Cosimo I De Medici, and soon became a symbol of Tuscan cultural and political identity. He describes the vogue for Etruscan culture to which she contributed, as scholars tried to link the undeciphered Etruscan language to Hebrew and sought traces of the mysterious race who were the forefathers of the Renaissance Tuscans, rivals to the Renaissance Romans. He explains why indeed she is not a fake, as some have claimed. He investigates her mythic background as a fire-breathing female creature who laid waste the land of Lycia until she was slain by the hero Bellerophon, riding on Pegasus. To kill the Chimera, Bellerophon shot a wedge of lead to the animal’s throat, where it melted on contact with her fiery breath, causing her to die of suffocation. Bardi reminds us that the Chimera was no monster but a goddess. Later accounts attempted to rationalize the myth, by claiming that she represented a volcano.

Readers will find all this and more in Bardi’s exhaustive study which includes a fascinating essay on the origins of the myth of the Chimera and the female archetype it represents, akin to both the Sphinx and the Great Mother. Citing both Freud and Joseph Campbell, he traces the recurrence of this archetype in religion and art from Mesopotamia to the present day, offering a psychoanalytical interpretation for the myth as an Oedipal rite of passage.

Thus far, we might say that in the Libro Della Chimera Bardi has assembled all the known facts and lore about this mystifying beast, along with a beautiful selection of photographs and drawings, but he goes even further, to make a momentous discovery of his own which may indeed lead us to solve the enigma of her essential meaning.

When the Chimera was pulled out of the earth, she was found to have a word engraved on her right foreleg TINSEVIL, which over the centuries has been interpreted in dozens of ways, related to the Etruscan god of thunder, Tin. Bardi conducts his own linguistic research on this term and finds connection with one of Europe’s most ancient and mysterious languages: Basque. From this he derives an extraordinary theory as to the Chimera’s true meaning and identity.

In many cultures letters and words are sacred, not mere abstract symbols of sounds, but seeds from which may germinate emotions, visions, entire universes. When spoken aloud or merely formulated in the mind, words can conjure gods and demons, materialize blessings or curses, shatter a brick wall into fragments or even make the limbs of a statue shudder to life. Such power may lie dormant in the word TINSEVIL, for it has also inspired Bardi’s newest literary project, a novel, about which soon I hope the world will have news.

Il Libro della Chimera is at present only available in Italian but much of the material can be found in English on his wonderful website Ugo Bardi Chimera Site
The book in Italian may be purchased here
Ugo Bardi, one of the most followed environmental bloggers in Italy, writes beautifully in English on some very scary topics about which he is expert: collapsing systems and planet plundering. Follow him here
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Fra Angelico and a Tuscan Interior

The Annunciation, Fra Angelico, Convent of San Marco, Florence
My next stop is the former Dominican convent of San Marco , a monument to the interior life containing some of the greatest religious art ever created, painted by the hand of a monk known to us as Fra Angelico or Beato Angelico. The names translate as “the Angelic Brother” and the “Blessed Angelic,” but his real name was Guido di Pietro and he was known to his contemporaries simply as Brother John of Fiesole. The convent was established by Cosimo the Elder De Medici in 1438 on the site of a previously existing monastery inhabited by Benedictine Silvestrine monks who were literally chased out to make room for the Dominicans. Although the Silvestrine order is devoted to poverty, silence, and hospitality, it seems the ones in San Marco had been misbehaving, running up debts, hoarding goods on the sly, and other unacceptable behavior which is why they were replaced by the more austere Dominicans. , Cosimo had the old monastery, dating from the thirteenth century, completely rebuilt, entrusting the job to the Florentine architect Michelozzo Michelozzi whose design included two cloisters, a chapter house, two refectories, and workrooms where the monks labored over illuminated manuscripts, all on the ground floor. Upstairs on the first floor is a dormitory with forty-two individual cells. The decision to provide the monks with private accommodations in single cells was an innovation in their living arrangements, for prior to that time, shared dormitories were the most common form of sleeping quarters in Italian convents and monasteries. There is also a library upstairs, a long, narrow room with elegant columns and abundant natural light , the first public library of the Renaissance, where today you may admire exquisite illuminated manuscripts on display under glass cases.
These two innovations, private cells for the monks and a public library of devotional tomes are by no means insignificant details in the overall organization of this convent, but point to important developments in the concept of the Christian spiritual vocation, which has always sought a balance between the meditative life and active service within the community of Christ. They clearly suggest that the balance was tipping back towards the former, a tendency also corroborated by Cosimo’s wish to have each cell decorated with a fresco illustrating a major episode from the life of Christ.
With the exception of two double cells, one of which was set aside for Cosimo’s own personal use while on spiritual retreat at the convent, the monks’ cells are tiny, hardly big enough for a cot, writing table, and window. Yet on their bare white walls, each one contains a large, ethereal fresco in magical colors, painted between 1440 and 1445 by Fra Angelico, resident friar and acclaimed painter of the era. Although it was customary for monks to have sacred images, usually small icons, among their very few possessions, which might also have included a rosary, hair shirt or other articles of clothing, one or two books, and maybe a skull for the purposes of contemplation, the decorating of each cell with such a splendid fresco was yet another innovation. The frescoes were intended not only as a visual means of religious instruction and spiritual enhancement for the community at large, such as the scenes of the crucifixion or annunciation, placed in areas where the monks convened as a community, in the chapel, cloisters and refectories, but also as a guide to individual prayer and inner life. The prior of the convent had indeed instructed his monks to kneel before these pictures and contemplate them in the privacy of their cells. Perhaps they were also used as a memory aid to imaginative prayer, a practice of meditative visualization which would later be described in great detail in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola .
This same period in the mid fifteenth century witnessed throughout Christendom a return to stricter observance of monastic rule, which in some convents had gone a bit lax, with too many papal dispensations which may have allowed some monks to be distracted by worldly affairs. The new rigor brought a reaffirmation of the value of contemplative life and withdrawal from the world, as outlined in Thomas a Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ. This devotional work, published between 1418 and 1427, second only to the Bible in Christian readership, emphasized that the spiritual life was to be sought in solitude, study, and prayer. "I have sought everywhere for peace, but I have found it not save in a little nook and in a little book,” Thomas a Kempis writes, emphasizing prayer and meditation over good works in the world.

One of the most famous frescoes by Fra Angelico in the convent of San Marco is the large Annunciation along the corridor, just at the top of the stairway, which greeted the monks, day in and day out, as they ascended from the ground floor to their cells and to the library. The fresco shows the Virgin seated on a humble wooden stool, resembling a milking stool, under a lovely loggia whose airy vaulting and handsome columns resemble those of the convent’s own library. The Virgin is listening to an angel who has alighted on her porch, the edge of which borders a garden full of leafy, low-growing plants, very much like the salad greens and medicinal herbs which might have been cultivated in the cloister for the convent’s use. The garden is enclosed by a wooden stake fence separating it from a wood with tall, lush trees and stark, spindly cypresses so common in the Tuscan countryside. The scene resonates with quiet joy.
Before painting this fresco, Fra Angelico had painted other Annunciation scenes, such as the one now in the Diocesan Museum of Cortona, which are quite different from this one in mood and spirit. In the Cortona Annunciation, painted a decade earlier and intended as an altarpiece, the Virgin, dressed in unadorned garments of sumptuous red and blue, sits on a chair upholstered in gold brocade. A golden dove floats above her head, symbolizing the divine energies about to enter her body to work the miracle of the immaculate conception. Behind her, a red curtain has been pulled across a doorway, limiting our view of the interior of her home. The angel, clad in a pink gown with ornate, gold embroidery, presses towards her in a dynamic, even perhaps aggressive pose, as if about to spring towards her, pointing at her with his right index finger, while his left hand gestures upwards towards heaven. His message appears in little gold words tumbling from his mouth through the air. Mary, with a book in her lap, seems quite taken aback, even terrified by the unexpected visitor. Although there is no fanfare of trumpets or cherubs, as we sometimes find in gothic representations of the Annunciation, the angel’s stance and gestures, the gold trimming and opulent colors, all hold a strong emphasis marking this extraordinary moment when the divine and human merged. The use of gold and rich fabrics denotes the spiritual elevation of the figures. As future queen of heaven, it is quite appropriate that Mary should be seated upon a brocade cushions, as emissary of God, it is equally appropriate that the angel should be garbed in luxury.
Nothing could be further from the austere beauty of the San Marco Annunciation, although the settings of the loggias, arches, trees and garden with salad greens are almost identical in the two paintings. In the San Marco Annunciation, the colors are more subdued, Mary’s drab, black and white garment is much plainer than the dress she wears in the Cortona scene, recalling the sackcloth robes worn by the Dominican friars of San Marco. Gold has been sparingly employed only for the halos of the two figures, the modest trimming on the angel’s gown, and in a few bits of glitter sprinkled throughout his rainbow wings which twinkle randomly, depending on the light in the corridor. The wings seem to be inspired by those of a butterfly or bird and are the most colorful detail in the painting. The use of perspective invites the eye to follow the vanishing point through a door in the background and to a window beyond that, which, very similar in shape to the windows in the convent cells, must face out over the trees. But what is most extraordinary is the attitude of the two figures, bowing towards each other gently, in mutual recognition, in a moment of deeply intimate exchange. The angel seems to be confiding something to the Virgin, a secret perhaps. There are no outward displays of glory, no outer emphasis, only the record of an intensely personal experience. It is all interior.
The prominent positioning of this fresco at the top of the stairs, where it would be seen every day by all was chosen to capture the attention of the monks and strike home to their hearts, reminding them that they too had received the good news of the annunciation which had led them to choose a spiritual vocation. They were not only climbing a staircase made of marble, but also one of the spirit, which required them to make ceaseless efforts in order to progress. “There is no harder fight than the struggle to overcome oneself,” wrote Thomas a Kempis.
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