Who in Italy will have not noted her reliquaries? Vast collections grace even the humblest hamlet — carefully provenanced thumbs, teeth, hair, thorns, fingernails, arms, jaws — all held captive in exquisite vitrines of greenish glass.
Tourists file dutifully past these things, a guilty giggle suppressed – ‘Popish idolatry’. Yet to go to the Basilica of Sant’Antonio di Padova is to see not merely a display of specimens, but sacred objects in use. Tearful pilgrims crowd the back of the chapel, touching the Saint’s sepulchre, some knocking their heads on cold stone. Meanwhile the less devout visitor gingerly steps around them to find the Tullio Lombardo relief. The contrast is stark – desperation born of sickness, juxtaposed with the Instagram-ready culture vulture, ticking off a tourist itinerary.
From what source then derives the power of the relic, and its cousin, the icon? We are assured that Christ and the Virgin Mary were safely lifted into the empyrean through the Resurrection and the Assumption, respectively. Thus, in a historical echo of the Arian Controversy, the question of Christ’s physical remains does not arise and may border on blasphemy. For these principals, it is usually secondary objects — thorns from the crown, nails from the cross, the Mandylion of Edessa — that are venerated.
A supply-demand imbalance presents itself, leading to a panoply of martyr’s remains. Between the years 360 AD to 430 AD, the early Church sought to resolve its foundational disputes, through a string of synods, councils, and diets. It became theologically acceptable to divide up bodies of martyrs, thus causing an extraordinary efflorescence in relics across the empire. In the historian Cyril Mango’s words: ‘regions that had an excess [of relics] could supply those that suffered a deficiency’.
Not only bodily remnants attracted veneration. At Rome’s church of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, the Empress Helena (c. 246/50-330 AD), mother of Constantine the Great, brought back pieces of the True Cross, and a great quantity of blood-soaked soil from the Crucifixion. Alexander Nagel, theorising the connections between contemporary land/installation art and Medieval chapels, sees this church as ‘an ancient earthworks project…a piece of transplanted territory, a bit of Jerusalem installed in Rome’. An age of effortless travel makes it difficult to appreciate the impact — most in the congregation would never make it to the real Jerusalem — this was an opportunity for them to visually and phenomenologically project themselves to Golgotha.
Nagel, discussing Robert Smithson’s Non-site works (c. 1968), shows a 6th-century reliquary held in the Vatican Collections. A wooden box contains rocks and a splinter from the Holy Land, inscribed in faded Greek: Bethlehem, the Mount of Olives, the citadel on Mount Zion. The artefacts rest in ossified mud, presumably from Palestine, whilst the cover, designed to slot into the box, features five tiny primitive paintings from Christ’s life. This, the obverse to Santa Croce: instead of an architectural environment transporting the faithful, here a small, rather crudely-made object acts as a visual and haptic aid to the viewer’s imagination.
Neither dismembered bodies nor transplanted land fully satisfied the proselytising needs of an œcumenical church; hence Roman painting was pressed into service. Larger, mobile, and above all, unambiguously narrative, the painted picture could reach far more people, even the dim-witted and unimaginative. Yet, the early Church had inherited the Judaic prohibition on holy images. Over the years, a variety of justifications were proposed: some didactic, others citing as precedent L’evangelista Luca, pittore. Canonical guidance held that religious paintings could be efficacious in intermediating with the Divinity, and could even perform miracles, speak, bleed, and exude oil. Paintings were to be done from life — that is, from direct observation of the saintly subject. When it became obvious that this wasn’t always practicable, a welcome theological flexibility, anticipating the Jesuits, ruled it acceptable to copy from a faithful likeness, subject to certain pictorial conventions being observed. Needless to say, the issue was periodically revisited, not least in the First and Second Iconoclasms (726-787 AD and 814-842 AD respectively), yet the sacred image was never proscribed for long. The drastic contrast between Christianity’s attitude to images, and that of say Islam and Judaism, led the essayist George Steiner’s to observe that ‘Christianity…is a form of polytheism…charged with an awareness of the symbolic, allegoric and the imaginary’.
So far then, the venerated thing, whether relic or icon, derives its agency from physical and temporal proximity, or else a mimesis, to a holy site or person. But how does one go from a smallish, intricately-worked panel covered in a jewelled carapace, and made for private, perhaps rare, worship, to large mosaics and frescoes on church walls? Such architectural decoration is at one remove from the font of spirituality, neither divinely touched nor a directly-painted likeness. Further, large scale makes them expensive, while site-specificity is inseparable with the local population’s ethnicity, customs and politics. Hence we see that the raw, early belief of a besieged sect, Edward Gibbon’s ‘poor and simple’, needs step aside, in order to make way for an established religion, that practiced by the Imperial house — as well as the merchants, bankers, and generals who formed the body politic of, and funded, a far-flung and multi-ethnic Empire. These worthies sought to commemorate their presence, and perhaps, having lived lives of distinctly imperfect ethics, hedge their bets on eternity.
In the exarchate of Ravenna, there was Julius Argentarius, financier of San Vitale and Sant’Apollinaire in Classe. Possibly commemorated in the Justinian mosaic, he lent his name to distinctive long flat bricks known as giulianei. Nearby, in Padova, we find the patron Enrico Scrovegni, fearing for the soul of his usurer father, endowing a small chapel for public use. On the Scrovegni Chapel’s Last Judgement, the torments awaiting moneylenders are exquisitely rendered under Giotto’s hand.
In another Byzantine theme, Sicily, one comes upon the most moving, and visually explicit, of such donative works. At Palermo’s Church of the Martorana, there is George of Antioch, admiral of King Roger’s fleet and successor to the protonotarius Christodulus. George resembles a glittering, cowering turtle, posed as if handing up a tiny model of the church to the Virgin. A similar motif is replicated in Constantinople, at the monastery of St Saviour in Chora, as well as in the Hagia Sophia.
Why these curious images? Are the donations of Late Antiquity a type of contract? Not in the strict sense — after all, two contracting parties should be roughly equal in status, and at a minimum, a contract needs to specify actions by both parties, and penalties for breaches. We would have to wait until the dawn of the Renaissance to see contracts per se: by the 1500s, much Italian religious art appears to have been made on commission, with a written, notarised contract stipulating precious materials, timing, milestones, while leaving, perhaps surprisingly, the precise subject matter somewhat open to development.
More plausibly, one may view these images as covenants, in the Judaic sense. It would appear that the church is being dedicated, financed, indeed physically offered upwards, in exchange for a promise, that of salvation, handed down by a benevolent deity. We do not know how these donations were documented, but contemporary sources give some clue — in the early Byzantine world, charity became a way for an increasingly wealthy Christian class to retain control over society as well as increase social status. The great Bishop of Constantinople St John Chrysotom (c. 396 AD), baldly writes that alms ‘quickly raise human beings to the heavenly vaults’, and constitute ‘ransom from the bondage of sin’. One suspects that a transactional view of charity, and organised religion, was possibly all the more pronounced in the Byzantine milieu owing to caesaropapism: an institutional unity of the secular and spiritual authorities — perhaps discernible today in Russia, heir of Byzantium.
In summary, as the sacred image grows larger and more complex, organisational and pecuniary needs place it in the warm embrace of patronage. The source of its efficacy becomes more bureaucratised and less authoritatively steeped in apocryphal antiquity. From sacred object to devotional image to architectural decoration – religious art in the Late Antique can be seen to be circumscribed within an arc of gold. That arc stretches from the time of Attic tragedy and the pre-Socratics, becomes increasingly secularised and financialised through the ages, and comes down to us as Adorno’s culture industry, insipid and pervasive. The art object, no longer embedded in a people’s belief, metastasises into its own autonomous reality, becoming reliant on global markets in luxury goods and academic theories for value and justification. Against this world where the medium has indeed become the message, a dull knocking of heads on Proconnesian marble, as in Padova, dimly memorialises the archaic and performative origins of art.
Nagel, Alexander Medieval Modern: Art Out of Time New York, London: Thames and Hudson, 2012, p. 112
Mango, Cyril (ed) The Oxford History of Byzantium Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002, p. 108
The 2016 quincentennial of Jeroen von Aken’s death has given rise to two major exhibitions – at the Noordsbrabant Museum (’S-Hertogenbosch) and at the Prado (Madrid). Rather than add to the excellent reviews already written, this essay considers the Prado’s Garden of Earthly Delights primarily as a political object. Three 20th-century European theorists of the state frame the work’s patronage, interpretation, and provenance: Giorgio Agamben, Carl Schmitt, and Alexandre Kojève.
The triptych has long obsessed its aristocratic owners and puzzled historians studying it. Unlike its Netherlandish antecedents, The Garden‘s exterior is painted in precise grisaille, enigmatically depicting either the third day of Creation or the aftermath of the Flood. Inside, the left leaf presents a magical Eden, seemingly at the instant following Eve’s emergence from Adam’s rib. Christ, in common with some of Bosch’s other paintings, looks out, firmly yet gently, at the viewer. The central panel’s formal garden is inhabited by a multitude of fruitophages, naked yet guile-less, both black and white, diverting themselves amorously around a lake, surrounded by vegetal pink towers, blue orbs and a host of friendly animals. The less jolly right-hand leaf, a vision of Hell, is centred upon Bosch’s eponymous ‘tree-man’, below whom a diaphanous devil, seated atop a bog-throne, simultaneously ingests bodies and defecates souls. Yet a parsimonious description omits much: what is it about those monsters that grips us so? Why do we, eagerly if slightly shamefully, stare at those scenes of evisceration, limbs being rent asunder, indiscriminate fornication? The scatological merges with the eschatological, leading the viewer to ask – what was El Bosco up to?
Patronage and Image
Bosch’s images, combining detail, vividness and sheer weirdness invite scrutiny and disputation. Yet, owing to a lack of clear evidence or contemporary accounts, it is hard to establish why, or even when, he painted what he did. It has been proposed that Garden may simply have been a moral allegory. Others have perceived an alchemical theme in the work, while the historian Wilhelm Fraenger saw a primitive and promiscuous Adamite cult at work in the painting.
A more interesting interpretation suggests it may have been commissioned, as a teaching aid, by Engelbert II, the syphilitic Count of Nassau for his nephew and heir Henry III. A cultured man, Engelbert had brought Henry to Brussels, and sought to give him a princely education from the Burgundian court’s own excellent library. Books for rulers-to-be are one of the oldest veins of political writing: prior examples are Xenophon’s Cyropaedia (Greece, 370 BC), Chanakya’s Arthshastra (India, 150 BC – 125 AD), or Machiavelli’s Il Principe (Italy, 1532 AD). As befitting the practices of his sumptuously ornate, performative, and visual court, Engelbert may have wanted to supplement his charge’s education with a magnificent image. Falkenburg links the hermeneutics of the image with the content of a travelling library, which included Augustine’s City of God, and Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. These, and other texts, are documented as accompanying Duke Phillip the Fair, on his journey to Spain, where he would assume, via marriage, his Spanish possessions.
Moreover, Garden was not a static wall-hanging – it was active object of theatre. First documented by Antonio de Beatis in 1517, it is described as a bizarre thing, calculated to induce stupefaction at the intricacy and variety of its contents. One imagines that the austere grey-black leaves would open in front of the astonished viewer, revealing for an Augenblick a tableau of coloured wonders, only to be slammed shut again, leaving him befuddled as to what was actually glimpsed.
So why do I belabour the origins of a 500-year old painting? Because it begs a question raised by Giorgio Agamben on the role of art today. Whereas in the past art fulfilled a clear spiritual vocation, today it has lost this potency, neither threatening the established social order nor bringing forth truth from the shadows. Agamben also discusses the importance of the patron as a co-creator, rather than merely a source of funding. He specifically points to Popes Julius II and Clement VII as being intimately involved — commissioners, collaborators, tormentors — in the Sistine and (Florence’s) Medici Chapels, respectively. In the same way, one imagines senior members of the Burgundian court, documented as reciting poetry to each other, guiding, even hectoring, Bosch to bring to fruition his phantasmagoric work. In our age, when we have neither courts nor court artists, that crucial transmission channel between audience and artist is much more diffuse, largely mediated by the market, mass-culture, and the ideological proclivities of curators and other tastemakers. Thus the artist must create, seemingly ex nihilo, without any urgent and personal connection to a single figure of authority and patronage. Thus, art has been diluted to a matter of tepid aesthetic appreciation on the part of a great mass of ‘culture vultures’: some more, others less, well-schooled in art theory and history.
Who is my Enemy?
One of Agamben’s philosophical antecedents was the conservative German jurist Carl Schmitt, from whom we get a second perspective on Bosch. Schmitt, immensely influential in political philosophy, had a decidedly chequered record in practical politics. Yet his thought cannot be stripped from its context – the fatally-flawed Weimar Republic, hyperinflation, combined with a decadent Berlin, which, while perhaps admired today with the distance of nostalgia, was in stark opposition to the Zeitgeist of a defeated, occupied, and bankrupt Germany. In his world, Schmitt perceived looming revolution, apocalypse, the eschaton; indeed, it is (Christian) theology that drives his conception of the political.
Schmitt’s Hobbesian view on man’s nature correlated with his interest in Bosch, the demon-painter par excellence. The jurist, commenting on Hobbes’ Leviathan, writes: ‘[Bosch’s] devils are ontological reality, not the products of a fantasy or horror; the landscape is hell, whose fire in many places breaks through the veil of earthly colours…’. In his Gombrich lectures on Garden, Joseph Koerner starts with Schmitt’s relationship with this painting. In 1947, as a prisoner awaiting possible trial at Nuremberg, Schmitt is described by Koerner as reviewing and critiquing Wilhelm Fraenger’s iconological analysis of the triptych. In response to the American interrogator’s question ‘Wer bist du?’ (‘Who are you?’), Schmitt responds with his own ‘a priori “Who is my enemy?”’. For Schmitt had built his very definition of politics around the friend/enemy distinction, with its implicit threat of violence amongst groups or nations, without which ‘life…would be shallow, insignificant, and meaningless’.
So, who was this enemy that so exercised the old man from Plettenberg? His writing states that it is liberal society, cosmopolitanism, the consequent dissolution of all values – a possibility he perhaps perceives in the licentious, gluttonous frolicking in The Garden of Earthly Delights. But can we be more specific? Returning to Bosch, in works such as Christ Crowned With Thorns (London, 1479), or Christ Carrying the Cross (Ghent, 1515), we cannot but miss the apparent, yet not definitively identified, presence of Jews and Muslims. Or, in the triptych Adoration of the Magi (Prado, 1500), we see an enigmatic, partially-unclothed, pseudo-monarch (see image below) with an unattractive leprous sore on his leg. This figure is variously identified as the Antichrist, an alchemical representation of lead, or the Jewish Messiah. The ambiguity in these examples illustrate Schmitt’s point that the enemy is not a factual or objective category, therefore an outsider cannot recognise the enemy. It is a classification made subjectively by a group. Logically then, how does the sovereign, or any outside observer, distinguish between the merely different Other (perhaps living alternatively, but ultimately in a reconcilable and law-abiding manner), and the irreconcilable enemy (who acts outside the law in the name of a radicalised religion). It has not been possible, for the purpose of this essay, to establish to what extent Schmitt had seen or written about these particular paintings while developing his theory of the enemy, but one hopes Prof. Koerner will analyse this point in an upcoming book on the enemy in Bosch and Brueghel’s art.
Schmitt also seems haunted by the katechon, an obscure figure from early Christian theology. Katechon, ‘the restrainer’, who keeps Antichrist at bay until the Apocalypse, is never explicitly identified in scripture, and has had many interpretations over the ages. Schmitt himself refuses to specify who the restrainer is, merely citing as one example, the last Hapsburg Emperor Franz Joseph. He seems to view it as a category that, in every age and in various guises, has been a bulwark against chaos.
The nature of katechon is important, because it leads to Schmitt’s other major conceptual contribution – the definition of the sovereign. For if the state is not to descend into chaos, it may be necessary, from time to time, to suspend its normative workings (namely the constitution), and impose rule under an exception. In Schmitt’s words: ‘Sovereign is he who decides on the exception’. In this sense, the sovereign, by preventing chaos through the instrument of exception, might act as restrainer, in a practical if not necessarily theological sense.
Schmitt’s thought has acquired renewed relevance, in part because other philosophers have built upon it, but also because governments post-9/11 have adopted policies that seem to reference him. Moreover, although Schmitt viewed the exception as a temporary condition, governments have increasingly relied on states of exception or emergency as the ordinary course of business, so to speak. Lastly, Schmitt’s view of a nation and a state that are organised around a friend/enemy distinction, if ever it made sense, throws up particular problems in a multicultural, tolerant society, which the US, UK, EU, and India (to take the most populous examples) identify as. To summarise, while some left-wing commentators therefore view his thought as incompatible with modern democracy, others find a degree of Schmittian influence impossible to avoid, as a practical matter of how a democracy negotiates pressures from competing groups.
Europe’s Unbridged Chasm
To establish our third vantage point, we must step away from Bosch’s paintings themselves, to examine the milieu in which they were created and still exist: namely, a Continent that remains divided between North and South, notwithstanding the EU’s foundational vision of an impartial, technocratic state that would rise above national, linguistic, and ethnic differences.
This post-war environment found a Russian emigrè, Alexandre Kojève working in France’s Ministry of Economic Affairs, planning what would become the Common Market. At a conceptual level, Kojève felt the era of the nation-state was over, and would be supplanted by one of international alliances. In a quixotic yet prescient 1945 memo to General Charles de Gaulle, he predicted Germany as likely hegemon within the new Europe. He also felt that Germany would inevitably fall into an Anglo-American orbit. Germany’s population advantage, proven technological and organisational skill, a Weberian appreciation for work as highest good, and finally a cultural affinity for England, would reduce France to an impotent ‘dominion’ state. He proposed a counterweight – a Latin Empire that would comprise Spain, Portugal, France, and Italy – Greece presumably being left to fend for itself. He next raised a mirror-image of the Schmittian question – what glue would bind the peoples of the proposed Latin Empire, if not ethnicity, nor language, nor religious fervour (France having long become a secular republic), nor a common monarch, nor colonies, not even a rampant American-style capitalism?
Kojève’s answer was a secularised Catholic Church. He envisioned the Church as the historical fountainhead of all European culture, having risen, by the time of the Renaissance, above narrow theology to realpolitik and patronage of the arts, as exemplified in the Janus-faces of the Papal State. Were it to shed its remaining Italian and theological baggage, it might become a unifying cultural force, and thus live up to the full dictionary meanings of the words catholic and œcumenical.
Writing before the messy denoument of France’s own colonial escapade in Algeria, Kojève was relatively silent on how to accommodate non-Catholics – by axiomatically defining a secular Church, he seemed to wave away the question of how Muslims, and others, such as Jews or Gypsies, were to be integrated.
The idea might have remained a curious footnote in the proto-history of the EU. However, in 2013, amidst a continuing crisis in Greece, Giorgio Agamben resurrected the concept of a Latin Empire. Agamben’s provocation caused a predictable firestorm in the German media, to which he gave a rejoinder of wry surprise. Yet, the notion is not as fanciful as it might first seem – although not couched in the grandiose, quasi-theological terms of a Latin (Catholic) Empire, the structure of a ‘two-speed’ Eurozone has become increasingly credible.
What has this to do with Bosch’s painting? At the most simplistic level, the central garden panel may evoke the (apocryphally) care-free Mediterranean life. But the subtlety lies in the left-hand leaf where Christ’s eyes meet those of viewer. Falkenburg extensively comments on this as the spectator being drawn into the speculum of the painting – which one could think of as a personal relationship being created between the viewer and Christ. This, in turn, is essentially the message of the Reformation: direct salvation, with a generous lashing of original sin, bypassing the malefic intermediation of Popes, Saints, indulgences or any of the other panoply of Roman Catholicism. In this light, it is notable that not even a God, seated atop a nimbus of angels, graces the triptych’s interior. Thus this work, painted about 40 years before the Reformation, foreshadows a humanist and anti-institutional perspective on faith.
Provenance also illuminates the North-South divide. In 1567, Fernando Alvarez de Toledo, the Duke of Alba and Spain’s greatest general, was sent to the Netherlands by King Phillip II to crush a growing civil and religious insurrection. Alba’s action in the Netherlands would inaugurate the Eighty-Years War, ending in 1648 with the Peace of Westphalia, which of course was the starting point of Carl Schmitt’s analysis of the nation-state. The result of the War are still visible: Protestant Flanders and The Netherlands, Catholic Wallonia and Luxembourg. Koerner, perhaps employing poetic license in his Gombrich Lectures, depicts (Spain’s own) Iron Duke, obsessed by this painting, as declaring a state of emergency primarily to acquire it. Eventually though the triptych ended up in Philip II’s collection. One imagines this most Spanish of monarchs, alone in his monastery-fortress at El Escorial, grimly signing warrants for The Inquisition’s autos-da-fé, his days lightened only by the Apocalyptic visions of an obscure Netherlandish painter.
Notes & References
1) Hieronymus Bosch’s family seems to have come from Aachen, though his name was eventually Latinised and linked to the town in which he worked, ’S-Hertogenbosch. Source: Laurinda Dixon, Bosch (London/New York: Phaidon Press, 2003), 20.
A visitor to Yuri Pattison’s exhibition User, Space at the Chisenhale Gallery is confronted by a large, nearly empty, room that is, paradoxically, filled with stuff. Orange industrial shelving on two walls support stacking plastic boxes, miniature designer furniture and computer servers. In the middle is a long glass table flanked by semi-opaque room dividers, a profusion of transparent Eames chairs covered in plastic sheeting, and a pile of plants under a steel canopy. Rectangular panel lights, hanging overhead, come on and off at seemingly random intervals, and the room is filled with the hum of computer equipment. Monitors abound while electrically actuated bottles emit vapour.
There is little physical transformation of materials – other than said plastic sheeting, quite a lot of dust, and electronics stripped of casings. Lighting and electric window-films are controlled by computer server, while cameras feed live footage from the gallery to a monitor. A large monitor shows a video based on the architecture of co-working spaces. Some notable contemporary art tropes are missing: 3-D printed objects, UV-printed plastic, casts of body parts (though there is a little finger stuck onto a server), crutches-as-sculpture.
In an accompanying printed interview, one learns that Dexion shelving units relate to Pattison’s interest in global logistics. He talks about an Amazon fulfilment centre in London, recalling for the viewer how work and labour have changed in the contemporary gig economy. The interview goes on to explain that transparency, surveillance, modification of sleep patterns, and the history of computing are amongst the ideas that occupy Pattison.
He also talks about the work-leisure slippage, a phenomenon that started with the mobile internet, and developed most famously in Silicon Valley offices with their bean-bags, ping-pong tables, and free food. On a related note, companies like WeWork, which started by developing co-working spaces, are now building ‘co-living’ spaces. In a co-living arrangement, millennials, finding city-centre housing unaffordable, rent rooms in a shared flat (often decked out as a loft with exposed brick, cable runs and concrete), complete with ‘concierge’ services like cleaning and laundry. Sounds like a conventional flat-share, except that the flats are owned by a large corporation; in WeWork’s case, valued at sixteen-billion dollars. Co-living and its economics have attracted mild incredulity in the venture-capital press, and apoplexy in the art press.
Pattison’s particular take is how these practices result in individuals who “isolate themselves…[and] create a physical filter bubble”, resulting in a “disengagement with the fabric of the city”. Moreover, the sharing economy means time gets carved up, as people rent desks by the hour or co-living spaces by the week, again to the potential detriment of the broader community. Yet this isn’t really picked up, visually, in the installation – the videos and CGI feel a little lazy and could have taken a more critical perspective.
The 14-page interview is fascinating in its breadth, touching on almost ever trendy topic in contemporary cultural and economic theory: Bitcoin-mining rigs, pop-up restaurants and stores, the new international style in interior design, coffee culture, mass-marketing of Modernist furniture, and so forth. These first-world concerns, arguably familiar only to the culturally-aware metropolitan, when combined with the visual poverty of the exhibition, fail to move or surprise the viewer.
The closest Pattison perhaps gets to eloquence, is in the dried sebum and dust covering many surfaces – the abjection of which somehow speaks to the absence of the worker, of the human. One misses the jargon, rituals of coffee, cigarettes or Soylent, inside jokes, backstabbing, gossip – all of which characterise shared places, whether of work or life.
To end with a counter-example, consider Simon Denny. He has similar concerns: intersection of corporate and hacker culture, surveillance, the physical and digital material of the work environment. In contrast to Pattison, Denny’s 2015/2016 exhibition at the Serpentine maintained a tight focus on organisational and software structures. He married, mediated, and abstracted the graphic and architectural elements of corporate and governmental intelligence entities, producing an installation of sculptures memorable as much for their totemic presence as for any politically-charged content.
The overwhelming sense of Pattison’s show was that of a research project rendered visible, almost a ‘core dump’ (computing term for the aftermath of a crash: the entire contents of memory are dumped into a file, to help programmers debug). That is not to suggest the collection or display were un-curated or arbitrary, and there were some clever twists, such as a circulating economy of Bitcoins that are mined using free electricity. Yet somehow, there was a whiff of incoherence, and it is not clear the interview, perhaps due to the sheer catholicity of Pattison’s avowed interests, helped. Most importantly, the social element that energises any working or living space, was missing. Yet one could argue, it was precisely that exclusion of the human that generated a pathos and brought forth the moral and ideological bankruptcy of the sharing economy.
The wines of Sicily have long had an undistinguished history. They were known as powerful and tannic feedstock for the more tepid strains of the northern Italy and Calabria. Much of the wine was produced in cooperatives, often in the press-cum-warehouse called a palmento. When the EU outlawed the palmenti as unhygienic (cue Brexit contingent’s ferocious gnashing of teeth ‘bloody Brussels bureaucrats !’), Sicily finally moved into the era of modern winemaking. The Art of Eating issue 65  is an excellent and poetic, albeit dated, introduction to Sicilian wine.
This article is more of a photographic survey of the area, contextualised with food, rather than a particularly knowledgeable review of wine – the links below are a good start, and there are plenty of wine blogs with great articles on Etna DOC.
One cannot drink wine in Sicily without a little sense of the climate. Sicily’s Pozzallo port is located further south than Tunisia’s Cape Bon, and the African sun affects all. The heat saps one’s desire to do anything, least of all drink the off-dry, alchoholic production. As Luigi Veronelli (taken from AoE65) put it: the wines of Sicily ‘flash like a knife…leave the unprepared drinker more dead than alive’. While, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa wrote of the pouring style practiced by footmen of the Bourbon-era – ‘no collars’ i.e. up to the brim. He goes on: ‘ “Only water is really good”, [Don Fabrizio] thought like a true Sicilian; and did not dry the drops left on his lips.’
Yet it is all different on Mount Etna. In the curious landscape of Etna Nord, away from the tourists who throng the beautiful sun-drenched green south slope, we find a gentler, cooler clime, hospitable to such vines as can survive in the rich but unyielding soil. From Randazzo to Linguaglossa heading clockwise on the SS120 lies an extraordinary zone of production that has, in the past 10 years, attracted tremendous, well-deserved, attention. As ever, an excellent introduction is Jancis Robinson, but Eric Asimov at the New York Times has also energetically championed Etna, and Sicily generally. Very briefly, the principal grapes are Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio for reds, while Catarrato, Carricante, and Minella Bianca fill out the whites.
The terroir has been most memorably described by Marco de Grazia (see below) as the ‘Burgundy of the Mediterranean‘. He sees Burgundy’s variety of soils and fickle climate mirrored in Etna’s geography: the DOC encircles the mountain for 120 sq km, with exposures ranging between full north to full south; rainfall 6-10x Sicilian average with one of the latest harvests in Europe; volcanic soil with layers of lava flow interpenetrating, creating soil zones, only hundreds of metres separated, yet that originate in eruptions thousands of years apart; and lastly, an altitude range of 400-1000m. Despite all the variety, the wines, and how they interact with the food and landscape of Eastern Sicily, seem to have a deep unity and embedded history.
Our trip started in Bronte & continued, via Catania, to the Baroque jewels of Noto and the sea at Siracusa. Yet it was in the misty, brooding slopes of the devil’s mountain, as Etna was known to the Arabs who once ruled it, tramping amongst vineyards and fields of pistachio & almonds, that we were happiest.
Every day the mountain would be different, often with clouds blown from the south, giving an English aspect to the hill towns. On certain days, one could see the slightly different denser clouds expelled from the craters of Etna – sole sign that Monjebello could, once again, erupt. All around was evidence of volcanic activity, as ravines were filled in with volcanic rock, while the soil was often crumbly black, almost a fine black talc. This soil often had few weeds or plants, for it is rough and inhospitable. Yet, for those hardy greens which can survive, it is nutritious.
The legendary & idiosyncratic winemaker Frank Cornelissen inspired the trip, and we mostly drank his wines and those of a few other producers who share his philosophy – a fidelity to the earth that most winemakers preach, but few practice. In the tasting at his cantina, he told us about his background and how he came to Etna, and his approach to making wine. As an glimpse of what winemaking really boils down to, it was invaluable, particularly as we have seen and drunk his wines over years, and remember the especially volatile and idiosyncratic wines of the early days. Some of his wines employ skin contact, yet he made an interesting comment on orange wine, a trend that’s gripped the weingeist in London and New York. His sense was that orange wines tend to have a certain similarity of flavour – they resemble each other, in their oxidative notes and strong tannins, more than they fully express individualities of terroir. While I am not sure I can entirely see the wines of Gravner or Radikon in that way, I do agree, that, in lesser producers’ hands, after one subtracts the colour and tannin, there’s precious little left of fruit or individuality.
Cornelissen also gave an example of a cold maceration as an approach that let’s him get the things he wants, such as the transfer of natural yeasts from grape skins to the juice, without undesirable effects, such as transfer of tannins.
That said, Cornelissen is all about expressing the identity of the land, grape, and vintage, with as little intervention in the cantina as possible.
Cornelissen, like many of the other top producers in the area, uses the archaic alberello approach to training vines. The French term is gobelet, but the gist of it is that vines are trained to form a clump of vine leaves and suspended fruit, around a central spur, so resembling a wine goblet or a tree. Given there is a minimum of external support (i.e. trellis or wire), the weight of the grapes can cause them to drag on the ground, hence this is a method better suited to low-yield varieties. It is also well-suited to Sicily’s relatively dry climate and difficult soil – because of the vine’s bushy, clumpy structure there is enhanced risk of damp and rot. This is also a fiddly approach that requires more manual work, and, combined with the steep terraced terrain, it’s not a surprise that Cornelissen requires a (very glamorous) enclosed tractor: Sicily’s answer to the Lamborghini tracked-vehicles we saw in the mountains of the Abruzzi.
Asked about what he thinks amphorae do, he was characteristically forthright – he lines his in epoxy, so they are essentially neutral vessels of 400 hectolitre volume, nothing more or less. He didn’t see any particular attraction, in the final product, to lining them with beeswax, making them out of terra-cotta, etc., as other producers sometimes claim. Georgia, a country with an illustrious and long history of wine-making, was one of Cornelissen’s first stops when he made the transition from wine trader to novice vignero. He recounts how Georgian oenology perhaps ended up pursuing traditional approaches, such as kvevri (amphorae), without questioning them sufficiently. Indeed, Georgian wine is somewhat ‘rustic’ (Cornelissen’s term), but I find it works well with the spicy, flavourful food of that land.
Similarly, his comments on the palmento were telling – they weren’t particularly hygienic ways of making wine – and as in any natural wine-making operation, Cornelissen has essentially no defence against harmful bacteria. That is, other than taking great care to keep kit clean, keeping the cantina cold, and, in the field, hoping it doesn’t rain too much.
Cornelissen’s cantina at Passopisciaro is bracketed by two fine eno-restaurants: San Giorgio e Il Drago in Randazzo, and Cave Ox in Solicchiata. San Giorgio is a joyous, casual place, particularly when one of the younger proprietors is on the floor – and it is, hands down, the best value on (high-quality) food or wine, that we have found in Sicily. Its wine list is exclusively Sicilian, with many Etna names. Cave Ox, owned by Sandro Dibella, is a bit of a legend – a phenomenal and wide-ranging wine list, both Sicily and otherwise. In particular, it’s great fun to drink awesome wine there with the equally spectacular pizze, though his lunch menu was some of the finest food we had on the trip. Prices are slightly higher, but it’s emphatically worth it – and it’s worth staying the night. In both places, we saw mostly local people eating simple food and drinking modestly-priced wine. It was early in the season, but there was a smattering of the international eno-set tootling along from village to village in rented Audis.
Other producers have gravitated to the area – such as Marco de Grazia who runs Tenuta delle Terre Nere near Randazzo. His vineyards are from 700 to 900m, and one parcel has pre-phylloxera alberello vines of 140 years age. The wines, while slightly spicy, have a chewy sort of minerality, described by Jancis Robinson as a ‘cappucino’ edge. Their soils range from volcanic pumice to volcanic sand mixed with basaltic pebbles and ash. The terrain is steeply terraced, and again, needs to be tended by hand.
Tuscan winemaker Andrea Franchetti’s Passopisciaro makes some phenomenal wines, both with the local grapes but also transplants such as chardonnay in the 2013 entry-level Guardiola white, from a parcel at 1000m, vinified in stainless steel and aged in wood botti grandi. Franchetti also makes single-contrada reds, and like wines from some other producers, the pale, perfumed production of nerello mascalese bring to mind northern greats like Pinot Noir as expressed in Chambolle-Musigny or Gevrey-Chambertin, or Nebbiolo as expressed in Gattinara.
We drank Alberto Graci’s wines a few times, as they were amongst the most affordable. Like Franchetti, Cornelissen, and Wiegner, Graci is an import from the north (a Milanese banker in this case, albeit with Sicilian roots), his parcels are also near Passopisciaro. This bianco is a blend of Carricante and Catarratto and was actually one of the loveliest and most versatile we tried, particularly with food.
The last producer we sampled, albeit back in London, was Salvo Foti’s I Vigneri, a collective named after a winemakers’ guild of 1435. His Vinudilice comes from a parcel nestled in a forest of holly oak (quercus ilex giving the name), near Bronte, located at 1300m, probably making it one of the highest vineyards in Europe. The grapes are Alicante, Grecanico, Minella Bianco, Minella Nera, and Nerello Cappuccio, growing on alberelli vines 100-200 years old. The soil is ash and sand, and the terrain requires Foti to employ Ciccio the mule – fair competition to Cornelissen’s tractor. This was a pretty remarkable rose – pale in colour, strong acidic backbone, but a tremendous complexity of nose and palate – really not like any other rose we’ve had. That complexity, I suppose, was the pure expression of rock and ash. We paired it firstly with boquerones, then a guinea fowl roasted in wine and grappa – secondo Patience Gray’s recipe from Carrara. Vinudilice is available retail at Noble Fine Liquor and also through Les Caves de Pyrene.
It has been curious to see Brexit unfold, from southern Sicily. In Noto, a stunning Baroque town, albeit rather gypsy-ridden, our queries to waiters last Friday morning at 8AM were met with befuddlement. Similarly, the tourist information lady, glancing at her purple nails, denied all knowledge of the EU but grudgingly acknowledged the possibility of a mayoral election in the next village. Saturday morning, at Caffe Sicilia, the best gelato/sweet shop in Sicily, the cosmopolitan staff were veering between despair & resignation. But by Saturday night, in Ortygia, with its marina of large yachts, one could pick up snippets of conversation amongst hordes of Milanese businessmen. The bronzed thirty-something French couples at dinner were chatting about Londres, the tragedy of the young, in between mouthfuls of linguini con ricci. Even the Gazzeta Dello Sport, Italy’s version of a serious pink broadsheet, was leading with analysis of Brexit.
The FB/Twitter hand-wringing & hysterical calls for a second referendum seem, besides their implied disrespect towards the 52% that voted to exit, to focus far too much on impact on the UK. Granted, the metropolitan elite in London have lost the warm & fuzzy feeling of being ‘part of Europe’; while a long-planned move to the Costa(s) or Puglia might have to be re-thought. Science & culture will undoubtedly suffer through loss of funding, and Cornwall apparently misses its EU cash infusions (I thought only Third-World Countries got development aid?). Still, the British electorate, whether Remain or Leave, may ruefully appreciate the possibility of Britain finally being rid of loathsome financiers as banks choose to migrate operations into the EU.
That aside, I’m not sure how anyone can have any clear view on what will happen finally, given that we seem to be stuck at the starting-block: the gun has been fired, but no one is in a rush to trigger Article 50. It would appear, until that is done, the entire question remains in limbo – hostage to the fascinating ritual fratricide of the Tories & the (mostly irrelevant) idiocy of Labour. A deux ex machina to move things along can perhaps arrive via a second referendum, court challenge, or HM addressing the nation as she memorably (if inadvertently) did on the occasion of the Chinese Premier’s visit.
But that’s the UK side. What the markets are telling us though, is that most of the worry, at a geopolitical level, is for the EU itself. European banks have taken a beating in anticipation.
Centripetal forces continue to imperil an incomplete project that only lurches forward through increasingly frequent existential crises. I can see a fork in the road. On one hand, the core EU countries can double down on unification : try to push the ball forward on fiscal & banking union, now that the tenacious objections from London have (presumably) been silenced. Yet, my suspicion is that even within the core EU, both leadership & electorate, there is little consensus on increased centralisation, consequent loss of sovereignty, erosion of democratic accountability, and the fiscal transfers that would be needed to overcome deep economic imbalances.
The other, more likely, possibility is that the noise around Brexit, and the more urgent nationalist movements in Italy, France, even Germany, will further hamper the move towards federalism and induce more paralysis. Although the Spanish election seems to have gone okay this weekend, Italy remains the one to watch: its banks are undercapitalised, while Renzi has been a disappointment. A referendum this October looks eerily like the UK one, a protest opportunity for an alienated electorate combined with a promise from Renzi that he will resign if he loses. Recently, voters, disgusted with corruption, have elected mayors in Turin & Rome from Beppe Grillo’s insurrectionist/anti-Euro Five Star movement. In the background Umberto Bossi of the secessionist Northern League watches events calmly, puffing on a cheap Toscano cigar.
Yet the elephant in the room, even if the Remain campaign sort of politely ignored it, is the clear inability of the EU to control its external border. Sicily remains on the front line, though the scenes of 2 years ago have been better managed by Italian authorities – back then there were hundreds of migrants sleeping under the sun in Catania’s port and we were shown the remains of a wrecked migrant boat in Siracusa’s coast guard station. Tourism is the main earner here in the south, and efforts have been made to not present tourists with scenes of chaos. Yet one need only go into the outskirts of certain towns here or talk to the locals to see the social stress induced by large-scale migration into an economy long plagued with unemployment. And of course, many migrants have rapidly moved up the Italian penninsula, arguably with support of local Mafias, and onwards to Europe. It is fear of this ‘Other’, to use the term fashionable in London’s cultural/academic circuit, rather than the apocryphal Polish plumber commonly cited in the Brexit debate, or the nuances of gross vs net transfers to the EU, that probably did most to influence the voters in Hull and Huddersfield.
Unfortunately, the migration problem appears insoluble, in the short-term. To a certain extent, it is the result of an enthusiastically interventionist policy, on supposed ‘humanitarian’ grounds, in N Africa (Libya). Yet a pragmatic non-intervention (Syria) hasn’t worked well either. If one is monadically pre-disposed, one can plausibly link the migration problem to water scarcity, climate change, flawed integration policies (France), excessively permissive multiculturalism (London), or of course, the original sin of France and Britain in the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Ironically, the relatively benign Italian colonialists of Eritrea & Libya are reaping the bitterest fruit at the moment.
In summary, we are probably seeing the clash of several inconsistent pressures, playing out on the European stage. For the UK: a long-term desire to benefit from the 500m strong common market, selling them services (financial and otherwise), while assiduously avoiding many of the associated constraints and obligations. For the Leave camp as a whole: an incoherent mishmash of free trade, buoyant house prices, unfettered finance, reasonably open borders that somehow manage to keep out said Others (but possibly let in Polish builders who, after all, do a rather good job). For many Labour voters and so-called progressives: an equally incoherent, if less well articulated (they weren’t at Eton after all), shibboleth of anti-capitalism and workers’ rights (except when said workers vote the wrong way in an otherwise correctly-constituted electoral process).
And of course, the EU continues to embody a great mass of inconsistencies that are unlikely to be resolved before it is torn into pieces. However – the EU, as envisioned by Monnet, Adenauer, Schuman, and de Gasperi, was always a work-in-progress, a bureaucratic capolavoro that would, by concrete steps, each individually boring and unimpressive, achieve a de facto union. Brussels, having neither the power of autocracy nor the fiscal clout of a modern nation, is reduced to governing via regulation. It must impose a degree of uniformity across the bloc – in the hope that years of dirigisme may, perhaps, create a political unity out of centuries-old plurality.
It is also natural that the path is littered with failures and fudges. As another great European – whose mix of idealism and brutal pragmatism would be useful today – said: ‘Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable, the art of the next best.‘ (Bismarck)
In any case, the step-by-step approach didn’t reckon with the pace of events post-2008, that have often rumbled the EU into action. Moreover, the project is built on a certain foundation of sand: one need only spend time travelling through Italy to see the deep antipathy & distrust that separates North & South – a mirror of the EU’s own divisions. While many young London-based Brits might see themselves as European, and plenty of young Italians have decamped to London in search of opportunity, it’s not at all obvious that institutionally or culturally, the average Sicilian is particularly keen on the promises of enlightened rule from Brussels. Possibly rightly, he has internalised Don Fabrizio Salina’s recollections on Sicily’s 2,500-year history as a colony.
All the punditry notwithstanding, no one is sure how this will ultimately play out, and most likely we will all become bored with it within the next few days – never mind 2019, the presumptive end of the Article 50 timeline. But we can take great comfort that the UK’s negotiating team, and such Anglophiles as still remain in Brussels, will have ample guidance in back catalogues of Fawlty Towers & Yes Minister !