Visiting Venice without Clichés

Othello relating his adventures to Desdemona by Becker
“Othello Relating his Adventures to Desdemona,” by Carl Becker

Shakespeare’s Othello begins in the streets of Venice. The Moor general has quietly married the fairest of all Venetian heiresses, Desdemona. The renowned cosmopolitanism of Venetian society strains to the breaking point at this. A black man has presumed to marry into a senatorial family.

But the Venetian senate has more pressing matters at hand. The Turks threaten their dominion over the fair sea. Othello will lead them in battle…

…Gore Vidal wrote a little history of Venice, complete with pictures. He insists that Venice has become a lovable cliché. When I arrive at Piazza San Marco, after visiting Trent, Verona, and Milan, I anticipate having to navigate many choking crowds of gawking cruise ship off-loads.

I intend, nonetheless–in spite of the “tourist-trap” aspect of the scene–to visit the relics of my baptismal patron at the Duomo. And to see the fair city. Without a single cliché.

I will focus instead on the legacy of Fra Paolo Sarpi and the Venetian Interdict of 1606.

When you look carefully at the facade of the Vatican Basilica of St. Peter, you see the name of the pope who completed the building, Paul V (Camillo Borghese). New popes present themselves to the world immediately below those chiseled words.

Paul V Borghese

Well, Pope Paul V also cancelled all Masses and sacraments (except last rites), for the entire Republic of Venice, for a year. At least he tried to.

Anthony Trollope wrote the chronicles of Barset. His brother Thomas Adolphus lived most of his life in Italy. Thomas Adolphus Trollope concerned himself with all things Italian, especially the Risorgimento. He wrote an utterly gripping, if wrong-headed, account of the Venetian Interdict of 1606, called Paul the Pope and Paul the Friar.

What happened? The Venetians held two criminal priests in custody, intending to judge and sentence them according to their laws. Pope Paul objected, insisting that he alone had jurisdiction.

What followed involved… 1. The enunciation of many of the principles of the U.S. Constitution, well over a century before Thomas Jefferson’s birth. 2. A crisis of Catholic identity not unlike the one we face right now, subsequent to the sexual abuse scandal. 3. A ‘test’ of the effects of the Council of Trent.

Now, please don’t think my interest in a four-century-old controversy between Rome and Venice amounts to mere antiquarianism. Let’s remember this also:

The Holy and Apostolic See of Rome certainly predates the Patriarchate of Venice. On the day St. Peter died at the foot of Vatican hill, the city of Venice didn’t even yet exist as a small island village. The pope created a diocese of Venice in 774 AD.

But the current length of residence in their sees is about the same, for the two lines of bishops. The popes left Rome in the fourteenth century; didn’t return until 1377. And even after that, the city of Rome experienced lengthy hiatuses of papal residence. We remember Pope Martin V as the hero who truly brought the papacy back to Rome for good–in 1420.

So the popes rightly developed an enormously high esteem for the Patriarchate of Venice, the inheritor of the genuinely ancient patriarchate of Grado (which managed to preserve itself for generations as simultaneously Roman and Byzantine).

In recent centuries, the pope customarily created a newly appointed bishop of Venice a cardinal at the subsequent consistory. Remember, two pope-saints of recent memory, John XXIII and Pius X, both entered their respective conclaves as Cardinal Patriarchs of Venice. (So did Pope John Paul I).

The Patriarch of Venice became such an “automatic” cardinal, in fact, that he acquired the unique privilege of wearing scarlet immediately upon his appointment as Patriarch–even before any consistory. That is: before the pope actually creates him a cardinal, the Patriarch of Venice nonetheless dresses as one. Since he certainly will become one, in a matter of weeks.

Francesco Moraglia Patriarch Of Venice Inaugurates His Mandate
new Patriarch Francesco Moraglia arrives in Venice, March 2012

Except when he doesn’t. The current incumbent Patriarch of Venice, in office now for nearly eight years, remains an Archbishop. He enjoys no right to enter the Sistine Chapel at the next papal interregnum. He sits neglected by the pope, clothed in what by now seems like “borrowed” scarlet. Francesco Moraglia’s scarlet robe, in fact, has become something like Miss Havisham’s wedding dress.

Not an interdict, to be sure. But this inexplicable situation plagues Venetian Catholics like an open wound…

…I will endeavor to unfold these matters for you, dear reader, as the good Lord allows me the time and energy to do so.

In the meantime, I ask for your prayers, that heavenly graces will accompany me on my little journey.

Ciao for now.

The Green-Eyed Monster

Othello and Iago by Solomon Alexander Hart
“Othello and Iago” by Solomon Alexander Hart

Saul kept a jealous eye on David. (I Samuel 18:19)

From the desk of Snowbound Father Mark… A summary of Question 36 of St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, part II-II: De Invidia.

Goodness makes us rejoice. Evil makes us sorrow.

We naturally want honor, a good name, a good reputation–and the prosperity that tends to go with a good reputation. But when we focus too much on winning the esteem of others, we grow vain.

We observe that sometimes people enjoy prosperity and a good reputation because they deserve it. But sometimes the unjust and undeserving prosper, and that makes us indignant.

When we meditate on the truths of the Christian faith, we recognize that success and prosperity in this world is one thing–relatively short lived. On the other hand, success and prosperity in the pursuit of holiness and eternal life–that’s another thing. That’s worth pursuing with zeal, with jealousy. May we all jealously strive to get to heaven.

While we do, we’ll forget about vanity. And we’ll learn to accept the fact that this world deals out rewards and punishments in an amazingly unfair way.

Divine love rejoices when anyone prospers with the truly beautiful goods of eternal life–with virtue and genuine excellence. By the same token, divine love sorrows and feels pity whenever a neighbor suffers.

When, on the other hand, we lose sight of the real goal of all our striving, and seek only success and recognition in this world, then we live in a state of competition with our peers. We sorrow at the neighbor’s achievement and excellence–because I think his or her success somehow harms me, makes me look like a loser by comparison.

Now, even good people experience twinges of envy–these twinges are venial sins. But if I forget heaven, grow vain, and let the green-eyed monster take over my my mind, I will gossip; I will tear down; I will hate. And then I will heartlessly rejoice at the misfortune of the one who has excelled me.

The rule to measure ourselves by: The loving, merciful person does not envy anyone–except the saints in heaven, whom he hopes to join. But the envious person shows no mercy.


Sean Connery Macbeth

I never knew a performance of Shakespeare’s Macbeth could so thoroughly enrapture a person, until the American Shakespeare Center (in Staunton, Va.) players did it to me.

They managed to produce the Platonic forms of all the characters. Macbeth: Martial, fraternal, and desperately in love with the only true confidante a man in such desperate, violent times can have, his wife. Banquo: The nobler of the two soldier-friends, but just barely. Duncan: magnanimous, not simpering. Macduff: tortured, but manly. Lady Macbeth: ravishing, graceful, and just imaginative enough to come untethered from reality.

To be honest, until I saw this ASC production, I did not adequately understand how seamless a masterpiece the play really is. Even the comic relief–the drunken porter muttering jokes to himself about souls arriving in the bad place, as he makes his way to the castle gate–serves the dramatic effect.

Continue reading Macbeth

Fall of Man in Othello

Marchers for Life, bundle up! See you on Constitution Avenue.

“For this revolt of thine, methinks, is like
Another fall of man.” Henry V, Act II, Scene 2

The two great “turning-to-evil” Shakespeare plays are Macbeth and Othello. Let us, as time allows, study both of them for insights into the mysterium iniquitatis, the mystery of evil, the Fall. Othello first. Continue reading “Fall of Man in Othello

MLK Day and the Moor

In my book, ain’t no co-inky-dink that Dr. MLK, Jr. Day and March for Life Day always occur within the week.

Here we present a couple from the archive in honor of the champion of justice:

1. St. Paul and Dr. King (2009)

2. Wedding at Cana and Dr. King (2010)

…Hopefully you will forgive me for taking so long to fulfill a promise I made a number of moons ago, namely to explain why—speaking of Moors—Othello both a) occupies an altogether different place from Verdi’s Otello, and b) shines forth as the greatest of Shakespeare’s oeuvre.

I have not forgotten! Just a couple thoughts…

1. Othello possesses practically perfect dramatic unity. No character speaks a single word which does not cohere with the movement of the play.

(Even Roderigo serving as Iago’s ridiculous dupe actually opens up its own vista on the central mystery. Roderigo will do anything, no matter how craven, because he is possessed with love for something he idolizes.)

Of course, Hamlet, too, moves forward without a single detour—as does “The Empire Strikes Back,” for that matter.

2. In Otello, no star shines brighter than Desdemona’s purity, and no pit gapes blacker than Othello’s jealousy. Verdi paints no horizon higher than Desdemona.

Shakespeare, on the other hand, gives us human characters. One can measure Shakespeare’s Desdemona against something greater.

When Lodovico arrives in Cyprus, Shakespeare’s Desdemona admires his physique. Innocent enough, to be sure. But such a girlish humanity lies outside the range of Verdi’s Desdemona’s personality.

In eloping with the Moor, Desdemona has indeed betrayed her noble and loving father. In the play’s Act-I action (which goes missing from the opera), the father warns the Moor,

Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see:
She has deceived her father, and may thee.

Verdi’s Otello acts as an irrational demon. Shakespeare’s Othello, on the other hand, has this one credible reason to doubt his wife’s faith.

3. Othello teaches what may be the greatest lesson of them all:

When we behold others, what we actually see mostly comes from inside ourselves. To see others truly, we must have nothing but truth inside ourselves.

Who has so much? “Judge not,” therefore.

Long-Term Questions

You may reasonably wonder:

What are the long-term intellectual projects underway behind the scenes at this weblog?

Indeed, two avenues of research occupy my mind. They will be addressed, dear reader, in good time. Please be patient with me.

1. Is it indeed true, as Mark Twain asserted, that Sir Walter Scott bears primary responsibility for the American Civil War?

2. Is not “Othello” perhaps Sheakespeare’s greatest?

Question #1 poses many convoluted problems. First of all, Mark Twain basically spent the Civil War in Hawaii. So: Can he really be regarded as an authority?

Secondly, Scott’s “Ivanhoe,” while enormously appealing as possible bed-time reading, requires seven years of uninterrupted leisure actually to read from cover to cover. Only the gentry of the Old South would have had a chance to read it all.

But I will get to the bottom of this question somehow, I promise.

Question #2 raises other questions…

1. Must not Verdi’s “Otello” be regarded as an altogether different story, since the opera does not include the crucial opening sequence of events in Shakespeare’s play, namely Othello and Desdemona’s elopement?

2. Does Ian McKellen “own” Iago on film?

In 1990, he played Iago as a fussy neat-freak, twitchy and (just a little too) grabby in his fidgets. Watching him truly does make a man’s blood run cold.

I have to admit that I have no great brief for McKellen. His Gandalf does nothing for me. He mumbles too much, and when he comes back as Gandalf the White, he looks like a cross between Wilfred Brimley and Fabio.

But I think the man does indeed own Iago in the movies. At least he owns the 1989 Othello movie, leaving plenty of altogether worthy co-stars in the dust.

Ian McKellen Iago


Shakespeare’s Deaths and Easter

In the final scene of “Romeo & Juliet,” three corpses litter the stage. In “Othello,” four. “Hamlet?” Four. “King Lear?” Five.

Wags have been known to mock the body count at curtain-fall in Shakespearian tragedies. Does this evoke reality, they ask, or is it just ridiculous?

Does such art imitate life? Most people go to bed at the end of the day–perhaps mildly dissatisfied with things, but with the coffeepot set up for the morning nonetheless.

Let’s admit that, viewed from one perspective, the wags have a point. But Shakespeare rings true in this: He telescopes the timing, but the fact of the matter is that, in real life, everyone does wind up dead, eventually.

The stage at the end of a Shakespearian tragedy resembles a family cemetery at the end of a century: All the dramatis personae lie lifeless, the epic struggle over.

Now, before you think that I am sinking into morbidity again…I actually just want to explain an idea about the surprising emotional effect of Shakespeare’s tragedies. They do not produce feelings of nostalgia or regret. Quite the contrary, they leave one feeling purified and renewed.

How, why is this? A simple answer: Easter.

Shakespeare did not write ‘Christian’ stories. He did something more ingenious. He wrote human stories that make sense only from a Christian point-of-view. He does not ‘teach’ Christian doctrine. But his tragedies force the audience to greet the play’s action with Christian faith.

When we do–and Shakespeare simply assumed that we would–the dark endings actually glisten with light and hope. The curtain may fall on a stage full of dead bodies. But the life of the characters actually makes the lasting impression.

Hamlet’s relentlessly intelligent words resound, not his death at Laertes’ hands. Lear’s ultimate humility, sweetness, and Job-like conquest resound at curtain-fall, not his death from grief. Somehow Othello lives on as a lover even after his suicide.

The vigor of Shakespeare’s tragic characters overcomes their demise. Yes, the dramatic logic of the action forces them to die. But their deaths feel more like a beginning than an end. The cemeteries of Shakespeare’s closing scenes presage a resurrection.

Greedy and Envious? Try Poverty and Love

He found in the temple area those who sold oxen, sheep, and doves, as well as the money changers seated there. He made a whip out of cords
and drove them all out of the temple area, with the sheep and oxen, and spilled the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables…At this the Jews answered and said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?”
(John 2:14-19)

The Lord Jesus drove the greedy merchants and money-changers from the Temple. The Jewish leaders envied Christ’s authority and power. So in the gospel reading, we have seen both greed and envy. These are two of the seven deadly sins.

Continue reading “Greedy and Envious? Try Poverty and Love”