Avatar and Rome: The Art of World-Building

January 23, 2010

I love to enter worlds unknown.  Last week, I went to see James Cameron’s movie, Avatar.  This movie is a feast for the eyes.  This week, I indulged in the first season of the HBO series, Rome.  This drama is a feast for the mind. 

I got to thinking that what made both of these experience pleasurable is that the settings are both unfamiliar but yet they adhere to our essential understanding of both human nature and how we perceive our environment.  Said more simply, there is a quintessential truth to these artificial worlds.

One of the things I appreciated about the forest and animals portrayed in Avatar included how their exterior features consisted of real world elements.  Of course, there are no blue people on earth and it’s hard to imagine a planet where this creature could exist, but having a degree in the biological sciences, there were fundamental concepts adhered to in this movie.  For instance, I loved that the “horses” in this movie had stripes on their legs.  This feature is seen in the Okapi (Okapia johnstoni), a mammal found in the Ituri rainforest in Africa.  In addition, the striping on both the Avatar’s skin as well as on some of the animals makes biological sense given that light filtering through the dense canopy would mimic this pattern and help to camouflage animals with this trait.  I could actually picture natural selection at work.  These minor details created a world that made it easy for me to “suspend my disbelief.”

The magic world-building of Rome, on the other hand, engages in bringing a foreign world of ancient time.  While the setting and costumes are a visual delight, this mastery of the art of world-building in this show is accomplished more through dialogue and custom.  I love the pagan rituals, the superstitions, and the political intrigue.  I love that the characters are based on real historical figures.  I love that the authentic phrasing that is used.  I believe that I have been transported in time.  I believe I have entered their world.


January 16, 2010

I did not intend for these posts to become a travelogue, but since I am still here and have the luxury of time, Que Sera, Sera.

Before I address the title topic, a few observations: 1) the sun does (rarely) shine in Northern Italy in January, and 2) it warms spirits but does not remove the chill from the air – maybe all this stone radiates cold into bones.  3) Italian college students travel down narrow cobblestone streets in packs of no less than 30 – tough to walk through, so I just plaster myself to the plaster and let them pass, and 4) Italian college students congregate in (and just outside of) bars in packs no less than 50.  I usually go to bed early and only have to deal with the left-behind mess the next morning.  Pity the old clean up men (with their long straw brooms) that have the walkways sparkling again by mid-day.

So, my previous Bi-Lateral Observational Grit, uh WebLog mentioned St. Anthony’s relics.  Since Anthony died recently (1306), only 34 years of age, and very important already to the church and the populace, his body and other relics of his life were well preserved.  Anthony lived at the height of the Relic Pilgrimage fad, when Christians from all parts of the settled world would flock during holidays to the Cologne Cathedral to visit the bodies and propped up heads of The Three Kings, or Saint Luke’s skull in Prague, or John the Baptist’s tooth in Munich.  Every large church in Europe was required by the Vatican to have at least one relic of a saint, even if it was a knuckle or toenail.

So, in essence the holy saints of the Catholics got carved up – usually after death.  These bodily parts were the most sacred of the treasures, but rings and capes would also suffice.  The body parts would be carefully sealed in glass and surrounded by a “reliquary” or container, more often than not made of intricately designed solid gold and jewels.

St. Anthony was no exception.  When I went to pay my respects to the patron saint of Padua, I was impressed by his solid white marble tomb, surrounded by paintings and wall art of incalculable value – Carravagio’s, Bellini’s, etc.  Then I followed signs pointing to the very back alter of his gigantic cathedral, where the relics of St. Anthony were displayed.  Fortunately, the guards had just returned from their obligatory 3 hour lunch break and had opened the Reliquary for inspection.

The line of worshippers (all others) and gawkers (me) was not long due to the winter season, but during the summer months I understand the line would snake out the door – a 45 minute wait.  First, I viewed Anthony’s dirt-stained reddish cape and then his original coffin, a simple oak box with two smaller compartments.  I made out the Italian plaque to say his skeleton was stored in one and his innards in the second.

From what I understand, he was buried in this simple way in 1306 but was exhumed again in 1360 after the grand church was built to house his remains (he had been granted sainthood in record time due to popular pressure).  When the ancient priests opened his oak casket, they found that his body had decomposed normally, but that his tongue was remarkably (I think in Italian they said, “Miraculously”) intact, pink and ready for the next rousing sermon.  So of course they cut it out of his mouth and saved it in a relic vessel to inspire all succeeding generations, along with his vocal chords and lower jaw.  Each is displayed in its separate gold vessel in St. Anthony’s Reliquary.

You can imagine my horror when I first laid eyes on these.  My stomach did flip-flops when I gazed at the 700 year old tongue, jaw and (now black) vocal chords preserved behind glass. Ugh!  I exited the Reliquary probably too quickly.

After I returned to my room and settled my nerves with some vino rosso, I began to understand the logic of preserving these body parts.  Anthony was the greatest religious orator of his day.  The priests had seen the relatively good condition of these fleshy parts of his vocal system as a sign from God.  Anthony had been blessed by God for spreading his word.

Inspiring as this story may be, I hope nobody preserves my tongue, or any other body part to inspire succeeding generations of writers.  There is very little chance of this, but I just wanted to get my request out there while I still walk among the living.  It’s one thing trying to preserve shattered slivers of the holy cross, but let the dead rest in peace, not pieces.  Amen.

Writing Resolutions

January 15, 2010

I’ve not been traveling Europe recently, so I have no interesting tales to share about my adventures.  As we’ve just turned another year, I have been thinking about resolutions and setting writing goals.

I’ve just read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, a classic in writing circles.  If you haven’t read it, perhaps you should.  In Bird by Bird, Lamott relates her writing journey and dispenses the lessons learned along the way with wit and humor. She offers plenty of valuable “how to” advice, but I found it particularly inspiring for the “why” of writing.

I admit to being a bit like the exasperating students in her class, who responded to her every nugget of wisdom with a question about getting published.  Isn’t that what this writer’s journey is all about?  Publication is the brass ring in this business.

Unfortunately, getting published via traditional channels is not guaranteed. Writing, like painting, is art and thus is subjective.  Publication also depends on the whims of the market, the tastes of an editor, and a good deal of luck.  Unfortunately, none of these things is within my control.  As I set my goals for the year, I plan to focus on things I can control.

In the final chapters of Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott lists several reasons for writing.  Among them is “finding your voice.”  She’s not just talking about style here.  By this, she means identifying what is important to you.  Your truth.  The “why” behind what you write.  Now that sounds like a worthy aim and one that I’d like to explore further.

So here are my goals for 2010: to hone my craft to the best of my ability, to consistently put my butt in the chair and write, to explore my voice, to express the vision that is mine and mine alone. 

What are your writing resolutions for the New Year?

The Saints be with You

January 12, 2010

Buon Giorno!  Jill posted that Italy had brought out her appreciation for art and for the art of writing.  Magnifico!  I find myself also in Italy – specifically Venice (Venezia) and its intellectual capitol, Padua.  My wife slaves away during the day instructing psychologists and psychiatrists how to properly use the measure she invented.  I roam the streets freely seeking inspiration.

And yes, Jill there is plenty of inspiration here.  This is the Old Country, but more specifically the Old Country of the Old Country.  The 15th century is recent times to Venice and Padua.  Old to these folks is pre-1000.

This is a very religious part of the world (of course).  But what in America is considered “religion” is “history” here.  I had no idea that I would stumble so casually upon so many persons of religious history – and so personally moving to me.

My wife and I visited Saint Mark’s Square in Venice on a rainy morning – like many millions of others before us – and popped into St. Mark’s basilica to view the artwork and marvel at the mosaic floor tiles.  We had to walk across elevated ramparts to avoid the flood waters spilling into this historic area because of global warming.  It was 2 Euros to view the “Golden Alter”.  That sounded like a come-on, but the alter was indeed 100% golden and carved in endless patterns of rococo artwork.  The artwork was splendid.

But I did not realize the historical significance until we returned to our hotel room and read Rick Steves’ Guide.  This golden alter was built over the tomb of Saint Mark, yes, Mark the Evangelist who wrote the Gospel according to Mark in the Holy Bible.  He had been “martyred” in Alexandria, Egypt – drug behind a horse through the town until he was dead – then entombed for 700 years.  Crusaders “rescued” his remains and spirited him off to Venice in a pork meat drum to be interred under the alter in what would be come St. Mark’s Basilica.

While we were on the short train ride west to Padua, in old Veneta – the Venetian city-state, I read up on other saints in the area.  Aside from Rome – St. Peter under the alter in the Basilica, and St. Paul outside the old city walls where he was (mercifully) beheaded since he was a Roman citizen, Padua contained the most really-really old religious relics around.  I looked forward to exploring this historic city.

Padua (Padova in Italiano – the “v” is silent), is most historic for intellectually thumbing its nose at Rome and the Vatican.  When Marco Polo went off and “discovered” the Orient, Venice and Padua became the crossroads of the middle ages.  While France and Britain were still wallowing in mud, Padua had established itself as the center of European learning.  The Universite lists some of its more celebrated instructors as “Copernico”, “Gallileo”, “the Discoverer of the Pancreas”, and of course, ” Dr. Carol George – Visiting”.

You may think that there is a disconnect between the intellectual heritage of this city and its religious history. In fact, the Church was the keeper of intellectual discourse and discovery for many hundreds of years.  Under the protection of the powerful Venetian Doges, Padua flourished as a center of independent thought.

It was here, in the 13th century, that St. Anthony, a contemporary of St. Francis of Assisi, became renowned as a clergyman, orator, and preacher of the more noble pursuits of  Christianity – care for the poor, redemption of the worthy, and hell for the abusers of power (both outside and within the Church).  He died just outside Padua, and his basilica here remains one of the most popular pilgrimage sites in Christendom.  Many parts of his body (documented in a subsequent posting) are on display in his “Reliquary” behind the alter of this magnificent church.

But what fascinated me most about this town is that all knew of the influence of St. Anthony in the 13th century and his massive basilica and tomb, but no one knew that their city was the final resting place of another – much more important in my book – “saint” resting just a few hundred meters from St. Anthony.

Have you heard of Luke?  Yes, THE Luke.  The evangelist and doctor who wrote both the “Gospel according to Luke” and “Acts” of the Bible?  Santo Luko’s remains rest in the Basilica di Santa Giustina.  Well, most of his remains.  His skull was decreed by a 15th century Holy Roman Emperor to be transported and displayed in Prague, and the Greek Orthodox Church insisted that he be returned to Thebes where he died (the patriarch of Padua shipped off a rib “closest to his heart” in 1991 to his tomb in Thebes).

As you know, I am not a particularly religious guy.  But I must say that I was moved when I came face-to-coffin with one of the authors of the New Testament.  Luke did not know Jesus in person, but followed disciple John around.  When John languished in prison before his death, Luke became his transcriber, writing down all of John’s letters and remembrances of the times he spent with JC.  Because he was a physician, Luke’s writing was informed, well-writtern, and fact-based (well, as fact-based as you could get in a time of miracles and prophets).

And nobody in this town knew that his remains are here!  I am not a big fan of Dan Brown, but  I do think a church conspiracy exists to conceal St. Luke’s final resting place.  It’s like, “We are NOT going to ship any more ribs, skulls or other body parts away from here, so just go away and forget all about his tomb”.

I for one cannot forget my encounter with a doctor and evangelist dead for two thousand years.  I have attached a dark photo of his tomb – it’s the best I could do in the light.  You be the judge.  Should we rejoice along with St. Luke or share his plea for quiet rest?

– David of Padua.