San Francisco Fifty Years Ago

(Kenneth Rexroth’s complete columns from the San Francisco Examiner)



April 1967

Tintoretto and the Painters of Venice
Why Venice Is So Great
The Failure of Florentine Art
Contrasting Coalitions
A New Produce Rival to California
The Ghosts of Ravenna
Extincting Ourselves
Threat to Italy’s Economic Boom
Catholics in Upheaval
Tourist Tips for Italy
The Italian Communist Party
A Roman Sermon





Tintoretto and the Painters of Venice

VENICE. — Thoughts scribbled in a café by the Scuola di San Rocco.

Giorgio Vasari said of Tintoretto that his was the greatest mind that ever gave itself to the art of painting and I for one think he was, and still is, right. No other painter has ever affected me as he has.

Not only did I change after seeing two pictures over 30 years ago, from geometric painting in spectrum colors to an utterly different style — and that long before the Seattle group or Pollock or anyone but André Masson — but I believe Tintoretto changed my philosophy of life, my sensibility and eventually my whole personality. Only a few works of art are capable of such effects on anyone.

Some music can do this — William Byrd, Bach, Mozart, the later Beethoven chamber music — I suppose if one discovered Gregorian chant in youth it might have such an effect — I never discovered it but grew up with it.

Seminal books more often have such effects — I can look back on many from Homer to Martin Buber’s I and Thou or the Dharmapada, each one of which was a shaping stroke on my personality — like blows of a chisel on a sculptor’s stone. But painting, no. Who ever says of a painter that he affected him like Plato’s Republic or the Gospels? A few painters 60 years ago perhaps could say that of Cézanne.

Tintoretto not only had perfect control of more and different artistic resources than any other artist — but he had more wisdom and he had an unvarying, unselfconscious nobility.

Raphael is noble but hardly wise; Vermeer is wise but not noble; Michelangelo is neither and self-conscious to boot — self-consciously noble, which is a contradiction in terms and also a moral absurdity. Leonardo is self-consciously wise, which, except in The Last Supper, destroys his nobility — he is an intellectual.

But Tintoretto is utterly convincing — a hundred paintings that say life is vaster, more meaningful than we can see. We are like shadows cast by creatures who live in a world which is truly real or at least we see ourselves and others only in our shadow aspects — like the men in Plato’s cave. Tintoretto turns us around.

But it is not Tintoretto only. All the great Venetian painters have this quality to some degree except perhaps Titian, a painter I do not like. The Bellinis, Giorgione, Carpaccio when he wasn’t being a false primitive, even the worldly wise sensualists Veronese and Tiepolo have a profundity lacking in any other painters of their times. It’s something you have unawares — nobody can deliberately create it. So the constructed profundity of Rembrandt has always struck me as childish — like Dostoevsky — and Michelangelo’s deep thoughts as deluded rhetoric.

This resonance, this timbre of mind and heart permeates all Venice like the sounds of her bells on a Sunday morning. Here, you feel, are people who have made a success of a special and satisfying way of life.

If you get away from tourist Venice with its gondoliers and hawkers and touts and tarts you come in electric contact with an extraordinarily rich and confident community life. Social confidence — how few people have it!

The Swedes, the Chinese until recently, the Greeks, the English once — the Americans are constantly pretending to have it, a sorry sight. We do not think of the Venetians down through history as an especially calm people. Yet to judge from their paintings, it is serenity as a personal and social virtue they most esteemed.

It is with fascination you watch the Bellinis adapt the Greek Madonna icon to a different formal order and a different sensibility until at last they achieve a lucidity and peace never to be surpassed. Only in Venice do you see commonly that subject beloved of the Orthodox painters, Abraham and Sarah entertaining the Trinity unaware — a Christian retelling of Baucis and Philemon — God as the unexpected guest of man, Wisdom, Power and Love.

And how did a personality like Giorgione find its way to art? He gives no evidence of needing art — but secretes a serene radiance like a pearl. Raphael too seems to have grown his paintings as he grew his hair, but they have a hard formality unknown to the Venetians and a little too much like Picasso.

All the elements are there in Tintoretto — air, earth, fire and water in overlapping and interlacing networks — Raphael is a pyramid or sometimes more complex architecture of stone. The effect is due to specific gravity as in Cézanne or Picasso — this side up — Tintoretto and Tiepolo are vortices in free space.

[April 2, 1967]



Why Venice Is So Great

VENICE (Italy). — Venice of all cities in the world is the place I feel most at home — Venice out of season, that is. Like Naples and San Francisco, it has a sharp daily alternation of electric potential. Ellsworth Huntington, who equated civilization with meteorology, said all three cities were too stimulating to produce a great civilization — unlike his own Boston.

Stimulating Venice surely is, especially in spring and autumn. Next — it has no automobiles, and even the motorboats are remarkably quiet. No noise, no carcinogenic air. The loudest noises are human footfalls, voices, and the grunting of the boats against the landings.

Venice is the conclusive proof that the bourgeoisie don’t have to be like they are. It has been a city of merchants for almost 1500 years and for 1000 of those years it was the most civilized city west of Constantinople.

We forget how savage Europe was after the fall of Rome, how nasty, brutish and short life was for most medieval men. In fact, Europe did not begin to catch up with China until well into the 18th century.

Much of the fabric of Venice is still late medieval and structurally the houses differ hardly at all from modern ones — large, airy rooms, easily cleaned, plenty of windows, water closets — they’ve been there for centuries.

The first working men’s housing project in Europe was built 300 years ago by the Arsenal. It differs hardly at all from the better projects in San Francisco.

Domestic architecture conditions domestic life and domestic life is the ultimate determinant in the quality of a civilization.

The Venetians lived nobly for a long, long time. They have also lived longer. For centuries Venice, due to its canals, was the only city in Europe with a sewer system and its isolation made it possible to quarantine itself with some success against many epidemics.

Long before anyplace else, it had a department of public health. And very early the Venetians suspected some connection between plague and rats and still today there are almost as many cats and dogs as humans.

Again, Venice was and still is remarkably independent of the Vatican and in the days of the Inquisition was usually, though not always, a refuge for science and free thought.

It is still a city of manifold civic organizations and activities, still a republic of merchant princes, the very archetype of a civilization of bourgeois, burghers, the city-state as a commercial corporation. Yet all those faults that came to be called bourgeois later are at a minimum. Nothing shows this better than the careful control of the now principal industry — tourism.

[April 1, 1967]



The Failure of Florentine Art

FLORENCE (Italy). — Florence is digging itself out of its terrible flood with really extraordinary rapidity, when you consider that almost everything up to 10 to 15 feet above street level was destroyed or made inoperable — plumbing, wiring, merchandise, plaster. Sewers were clogged or burst and the retreating waters left three feet of mud everywhere, and high bars and banks of it in corners and blind alleys. Not to mention thousands of dead rats, and all the corpses of cows and sheep and pigs that came floating downstream to be entangled in the streets and left by the retreating water.

Restoration of spoiled works of art and manuscripts goes on like a factory. Even the shops and restaurants are back in business, though everything from the stone wall out is new — even the tiles on the floors were disrupted.

Florence is far from being one of my favorite cities. Rome and Milan are big enough to resist the destructive effects of tourism and Venice is the outstanding example in the world of controlled tourism. Besides, out of season the other Venetian life takes over. But it is never “out of season” in Florence and the swarms of rubes and the clip artists who prey on them are uncontrollable. Prices are high, good food is hard to find, service is ungracious or servile. They don’t need you. There’s another one of you born every minute.

Nor do I care much for Florentine painting. Most of it is hard and formal and lacking in humanity. Most Florentine painters were primarily interested in arranging very hard and very heavy colored sculpture in rectangular boxes of space.

Most Florentine painting is manneristic — long before that specific aesthetic was defined back at the end of the Middle Ages; at all looks so contrived.

Again, painters who tried to get away from the faults of their colleagues look just as contrived and sentimental, like Fra Angelico.

None of the earlier painters can compare with the Sienese, especially with the Lorenzetti brothers, who were as skilled in painting the visage of spiritual peace as any Sung Chinese.

That I think puts the finger on it. There is very little contemplative life showing in Florentine painting, either in subjects or in sense of form. When it occurs — as in Botticelli’s — it is neurotic.

As you move from the Uffizi Galleries to the Pitti Palace into the end of the High Renaissance, all the faults become hypertrophied. Art becomes the expression of social evil — the conspicuous expenditure of the Enemy. There is lots of “skill” of the most vulgar sort — like Dali or the old-time illustrations in Italian newspapers — the kind of skill no layman ever believes can be taught to anyone in two years in a commercial art school. There is little else — chic, camp. Bronzino was the ancestor of a thousand fashion magazine photographers.

It is fun to listen to the most expensive guides lecturing the Babbitts from Düsseldorf and Toledo, Ohio. It’s all the greatest. Even Browning knew that Andrea del Sarto was a false painter — but not these guides.

That’s the clue. There is no discrimination whatever. These are all just a lot of extremely expensive objects to appeal to the taste of the sudden rich. There is no essential difference between the original customers and the present gapers who are rich enough to hire one of Berenson’s personally trained impoverished counts.

What good does art do anyway? Does the Church deserve the art that fills the churches of Italy? Under a ceiling by Tiepolo, before an altar painting by Tintoretto, will stand a hideous plaster image lit by raw electric lights. Three to five hundred years of exposure to the greatest art in that special place have taught its habitués absolutely nothing. The Greeks read Homer and Thucydides for an equal length of time, as the English have read and seen Shakespeare. Who learned anything? Is art a failure?

As before, the first painting we looked at in Florence was Filippino Lippi’s The Virgin Visiting St. Bernard in the Badia — weary, wise and prayer-worn figures, full of the pathos of mankind. The last thing we did was to visit San Miniato and stay and watch the rose and gold fires of sunset burn over the city full of ringing bells.

San Miniato is certainly the most beautiful thing in Florence — built before they got all that money. They got their money too late.

[April 9, 1967]



Contrasting Coalitions

FLORENCE (Italy). — Both Germany and Italy are now governed by coalitions of Social Democrats and Christian Socialists. The conduct of the two regimes make a most illuminating contrast.

The German grand coalition is forging ahead to indisputable leadership of Europe. Although it was, at its formation, welcomed with a good deal less than enthusiasm, it now enjoys more popular support than ever did Adenauer in his palmiest days.

Over the winter it has moved with startling rapidity to reaffirm the alliance with France, keystone of any continental system; to repudiate the forced purchase of British and American arms, in effect to repudiate the lingering occupation; to disrupt the Warsaw Pact system beyond repair; to reestablish Bismarck’s Drang Nach Osten — the economic drive to the East; to repudiate support of the Johnson Vietnam policy, though not yet the U.S. intervention as such; to reorganize the overheated economy with a carefully controlled deflation, principal result of which seems to have been the lowering of credit rates and the reduction of the foreign labor force — and now it is embarking on an even more carefully controlled reflation. Oh yes, and it has refused to play underdog in any nuclear proliferation treaty. This is an amazing record, a series of sharp, quick surprise victories like the young Napoleon’s Italian campaign.

In contrast, the Nenni-Moro team is getting nowhere. The coalition has only caused dissension and demoralization in their own parties. For one rebel Günter Grass, Italian socialism has hundreds. For one Adenauer, Italy has thousands of old guardsmen who utterly reject all contact with the “dirty Reds” and who prevent any effective social legislation in a country which for all its prosperity still needs it desperately.

Italy is much like America and Spain. Economic rugged individualism masking as defense of home and Mother and God still is a widely held and even more influential political doctrine.

Any tourist can see this the moment he enters the country. Only America has more beauty-defacing outdoor advertising. It’s a symptom of what is wrong with the country.

The American military government in its years of rule did away with the good ideas as well as the bad of Fascism and established a powerful laissez faire faction in Italian politics.

In addition — the Italian church as an economic institution seems never to have heard of that Italian word Aggiornamento. At the grass roots, parish and diocese level, especially in the South, it still resists all decisive reform. In the Italian parliament, unlike the French, radical reform Catholicism is poorly represented and is outnumbered by deputies who still are fighting to hold off the 19th century.

There are powerful reforming Christian Democrats, but they are not powerful enough. There are in Italy many new men, trying to push the country on into the planned, technological “neo-capitalism” of the latter third of the 20th century.

It is to them and them alone that Italy owes what health it has — but there aren’t enough such men for a policy of dramatic initiatives like the Germans.

[April 11, 1967]



A New Produce Rival to California

RAVENNA (Italy). — I keep putting off doing a column on a subject of the greatest importance to Californians. For many years canned fruit and vegetables on the shelves of European shops have been mostly local or Californian, and in the case of certain products of the warm temperate zone, exclusively Californian.

This is so no longer. Bulgaria is crowding California as the fruit basket of Europe. In West Germany most imported fresh fruit and soft vegetables — for example, tomatoes — come from Bulgaria and often crowd out local produce even at the height of the season. Bulgarian canned fruit now outnumbers Californian and canned vegetables are about equally divided among the three nations.

In the Iron Curtain countries Bulgaria competes on equal terms with local products, as might be expected — but far more surprising, Bulgarian canned goods are common in France, as well as Great Britain and Scandinavia. They are even to be found in Spain, that bastion of the Free World, and in Italy, of all places.

The first reason is price. Without exception, Bulgarian prices are lower than Californian.

The second is quality. Fresh Bulgarian fruit and tomatoes are richer, more strongly flavored, finer, and stand shipping and keep better at a more advanced stage of ripeness than almost any others in Europe. They claim it is due to the systematic use of organic manures.

They far outclass California produce. Canned goods are more solidly packed and preserve their flavor better. Fruits are more densely packed and in far less sweet syrup — the way Europeans prefer them. Also — the cans are in European sizes, which again are preferred.

Parenthetically, I should mention that Bulgaria is now exporting even to France table wines of far better quality than cheap French or Italian wines, and incomparably better than Algerian or the cheapest California wines, and at very low prices indeed.

The one place Bulgaria lags behind is in packaging. Labels are poorly designed, making the contents seem unattractive, are badly printed and worse still — come off — so that customers in Helsinki or Dublin may find themselves with a load of anonymous tins on their hands.

Furthermore, the Bulgarian can is four times as heavy as a typical American can and fiercely resists a strong man armed with the most powerful can opener — and tends to buck out of an automatic one.

The Bulgarians are aware of their deficiencies and are shopping in West Germany, Italy and California for expert help — artists, designers, advertising talent — and have imported — what do you call them, mass tinsmiths? — from both Germanys and from the U.S. to reorganize their entire packaging industry.

They are also establishing new frozen foods plants, a field in which hitherto they have not been very successful.

As far as California is concerned, Bulgaria plums and peaches and tomatoes may be the most serious threat to American industry in Europe at this moment.

[April 13, 1967]



The Ghosts of Ravenna

RAVENNA (Italy). — Ravenna is a touristic problem. For centuries it was an impoverished malarial city with an embittered and oppressed population. Only recently have things changed. The ancient port has been reopened and a good deal of heavy industry has located there.

With the purging of the malarial coastal marshes by DDT and other insecticides sprayed or bombed from the air, a practice begun by the Yanks in the Second War, the entire Adriatic littoral has become a poor man’s Riviera. Ravenna is now in the midst of the most crowded cheap beach resorts in Europe.

I had not seen the place in eight years or spent much time there in almost 20 and I was dumbfounded at the changes.

Little did I ever expect to see antique shops or Carnaby Street boutiques in Ravenna, nor even Italian women sitting in cafés and smoking.

Like in the backlands of the Near East, decent women simply did not go out in the evening in Ravenna, and the indecent ones were locked up in the state-operated brothels. The town was overwhelmingly Communist and religious processions took on the character of embattled political demonstrations, pushing their way through lines of cursing, spitting ragged men. All this is gone.

Unfortunately, this hasn’t improved the tourism, but rather worsened it.

The old hostility survives to be turned on the tourist — much like the Black Power people take out their hostility not on the KKK but on the white liberals.

The food, however, is pretty good — Ferrarese and Bolognese and Venetian all combined.

Of course the reason to take the detour to Ravenna between Venice and Florence is the small group of Early Christian and Byzantine churches and other buildings — including almost half of the most famous mosaics.

San Vitale is the model for Charlemagne’s Aachen chapel and many other churches since it contains the great mosaic group portraits of Justinian and Theodora and their courtiers.

San Apollinaire in Classe and San Apollinaire Nuovo are amongst the world’s most beautiful early basilicas — San Apollinaire in Classe is perhaps the most beautiful of all, a masterpiece of subtle proportion — and their mosaics are as moving as their architecture.

There is Theodoric’s massive tomb, the Arian and Catholic baptisteries (both pools for baptism by immersion), some restored mosaics in another church destroyed in War II, and the lovely tomb of Galla Placidia, the mysterious and tragic queen who presided over the fall of the Roman Empire.

But it is enough to make Ravenna as important as Venice or Florence or Rome to the traveler interested in art — or who can project himself with sympathy into one of the most dramatic periods in Western history.

Ravenna is haunted with ghosts — Theodoric the Ostrogoth and lover of Roman civilization, who died broken-hearted knowing he had failed to restore the glories of the Empire.

Boethius the last philosopher and poet of the Classic world and the first of the Medieval, martyred “in the last gloomy hours of Theodoric” as Gibbon says in the greatest passage of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, leaving behind him “a golden book, worthy of the leisure of Plato or Cicero” — The Consolation of Philosophy. It was to be translated by King Alfred into the finest of all Anglo-Saxon prose, and by Chaucer into the finest Middle English — “lieth them stille all outwardly unknowable, ne fame, ne fortune maketh ye not seeke.” A book written in prison while awaiting the strangler of the Gothic emperor who above all else had wanted to save all that Boethius represented.

Or the ghost of Galla Placidia, daughter of one emperor, sister of another, wife of Adolph the Goth, who sacked Rome with Alaric, then of the Caesar Constantius, then regent and empress of the West.

And the greatest ghost of all, that little circus performer who danced on the head of a bear, attracted the attention of the Byzantine aristocracy, became a courtesan and then the wife of the Emperor Justinian — the Empress Theodora — Nefertiti reborn in another time of religious wars and revolutions, the only woman who ever excited Gibbon.

Across from her portrait in San Vitale standing next to her husband, is a figure labeled Maximianus. I like to think he is the Maximian, last of the Roman elegiac poets, who wrote poems of old age and impotence.

To him in his greatest poem to a Greek courtesan, given him as companion on his embassy to Byzantium, turns suddenly, standing before open windows above the moonlit Golden Horn and says, “I do not weep for my own troubles, but for the general ruin of the world.”

[April 16, 1967] 



Extincting Ourselves

LAKE COMO (Italy). — I am sitting in the high window of a villa overlooking the bend in Lake Como. It is just after sunrise and I am watching the cold air that has drained off the Alps all night give way to the rising warm air from Milan and the Lombard plain. It is a terrifying sight.

Down the lake where the sun cuts through the mountains is a slowly advancing wall of smog. There’s no question — it is not morning mist — it has the reddish color and the ragged upper edges of industrial haze. As the wind changes, it creeps slowly nearer. I feel as though we were being invaded by Martians who were blanketing the earth with poison gas, or by some horrible malignant intelligent virus from Betelgeuse. Maybe we are.

Milan day and night except during storms lies under a dense cloud of carcinogens that spreads out for miles and rises into the lower valleys of the Alps.

I have flown from San Francisco to Los Angeles and seen the smog bank stretching from the Mojave out to sea past Catalina and curling up the coast as far as Santa Barbara.

Maybe something is happening we don’t know about. Maybe the big molecules locked in the earth in organic fuels are intelligent and this is their way of achieving liberation and taking over.

The other day I sat in a little plaza by the sea in Barcelona. It was completely occupied by parked cars — right up to the walk around the fountain. Coming in that night from Sitges we passed the all-glass-walled SEAT plant. Ten stories of glass incubator, lit by pale, fluorescent lights and filled with thousands of sleeping cars.

Maybe organic life and man with it is just a brief episode in the evolution of a mechanistic world — a temporary device by which the mechanical relationships of matter were enabled to rise to a new qualitative level. Now they no longer need us and they are slowly eliminating us. By the time the computers are self-perpetuating and can prevent any and all problems we will be gone.

I have said for years that the only organization I belonged to was the Sierra Club. Implied in such a statement was the idea I reject all politics-as-usual, Left, Right and Center. Today the only politics that matters is the struggle to save the environment necessary to the perpetuation of the human species.

We are busy, even without the atom bomb, making ourselves extinct. The most revolutionary movement today is the ecological revolution.

It proposes to turn mankind around and set it off in a totally new direction, away from the oblivion it is now manufacturing for itself.

Maybe it will fail. Certainly so far machines have been more powerful than men. Even an obsolete machine like the internal combustion engine, a kind of mechanical duck-billed platypus, is able to take over the cities of men the way certain parasitic ants take over another ant hill.

But an automobile engine can’t compute. What’s going to happen when those creatures on the Dew Line get tired of the cold and move south to the White House and the Kremlin. Or have they already, and we don’t know?

[April 18, 1967]



Threat to Italy’s Economic Boom

NAPLES (Italy). — We have all heard about the European economic miracle and are not surprised to discover that the West German people are in many ways better off than the Americans and the Swedes.

What is surprising is the relative prosperity of Europe’s depressed areas — Spain and the Italian South. Naples always seemed to me a more oriental than western city, packed with a swarming, sweltering mass of humanity, most of them living at the teetering edge of existence.

In 1949, 20 percent of the children of Naples and an indeterminate number of adults were without domicile. Sicily was struck by periodic famines when the peasants ate grass and the bark of trees.

No more. The South as a matter of fact is booming, much more proportionately than the North. That’s not so remarkable — to jump from zero to something is a big jump. Towns once with no water supply or sewage system now have industries and public health departments and probably even psychiatrists and antique shops.

There is new building everywhere, homes and apartments of a quite high standard — and as much automobile traffic as there was in America before the Second War. The Naples area has become an immense “metropole” encircling the Bay of Naples.

Much of this is due to a widely diffused industrialization. Heavy industries, textiles, extractive industry, chemicals, oil, steel.

Naples, once with the finest air in the world short of San Francisco, is now as smoggy as Milan or Los Angeles.

But industrialization alone would not take care of the uncontrollable population explosion. The region has a most favorable balance of trade — much more money comes in than goes out. With improvement in sanitation and the development of hotel, restaurant and recreation facilities that meet tourist standards, tourism has increased tremendously, bringing in money and taking little out.

Most important is the immense number of Southern Italians who work abroad, all over Europe, on temporary work permits — from Norway and Finland to France. They have been doing much of the unskilled and semi-skilled labor in Germany for years. The money they have been sending home has made all the difference between prosperity and hunger, and then of course they themselves are absent, so they are the reverse of a population pressure.

Now, with Europe sinking into depression and deflation, the work permits are not being renewed or new ones issued. Anti-foreign labor agitation is German Neo-Nazism’s substitute for anti-Semitism — and it is just as popular as Jew baiting was in the old days.

If this redeeming flood of outside money dries up — and it can do that very rapidly — and the laborers come home as unemployed, the whole economy of the Italian South, in fact of all Italy, can swing completely around from plus to minus, from relative prosperity to profound crisis — in a matter of weeks.

Imagine what would happen if all the migrants, Negro and white, from the southern United States were to be sent back and put on relief — very, very inadequate relief — and you can form some idea of the threat of the current, so far mild, depression to Italy.

[April 20, 1967] 



Catholics in Upheaval

ROME. — Rome is all agog. Indeed it is, in a way scarcely sensed by the secular city. It is a city of students, of priests, nuns, seminarians from all over the world who have come here to complete their training or to study some specialty for an advanced degree, a harder kind of graduate study than almost any other except medicine.

By definition they are dedicated, learned, mature but still young and concerned about spiritual values. They also have a greater sense of decorum than most secular students, but students they are, nonetheless, and they share the ferments and searchings that are agitating students everywhere. They too are through with things as they are.

The first symptom of the gravity of their special crisis in the world crisis of confidence is the widespread criticism of the present Pope, and the first symptom of that — the rash that strikes the naked eye — is the almost universal custom of calling him by his surname Montini instead of his papal name Paul. This has always been common in Rome amongst anticlericals. Pius XII was called Pacelli by most Romans — but it certainly implies qualification of a full measure of respect, to put the matter gently.

Nuns and priests are discreet. “Scandal” — the airing of soiled linen before non-Catholics — has always been considered sinful, but the present trouble in mind is too widespread to stay under the rug.

What is the trouble? Very simply — most young people (and don’t forget, students, nuns and priests are young people) believe that the reforms of the Vatican Council are being interpreted, not in terms of spiritual liberation and rededication to the life of Christ and his disciples, but in terms of ecclesiastical reform of a purely defensive character.

Instead of “Give all thou hast to the poor, take up thy cross and follow me,” which would mean a total overturn of the old ways and old structures, what we have seen, say the students of Rome, is simply a retooling of the old machinery, and a number of sensational public acts which catch headlines but involve no forthright commitment.

What is most missed is the spirit of Pope John, something far deeper than Mass in the vernacular or nuns on picket lines.

This spirit, say the young, is almost all drained away and has been replaced by worry, querulousness and loss of confidence in the forces of reform.

Recent pronouncements of the Vatican would seem to bear this out. The deliberate interference with Parliament in the matter of the liberalization of the divorce laws created a storm in Italy, from the Right as well as the Left, and the statement that states without divorce were the leaders of civilization was greeted with laughter.

Then came the fantastic proposal for a minister of morality in all government cabinets.

Then, a few days later, the letter praising Cardinal Ottoviani, the leader of the reactionary faction in the Curia.

The cumulative effect of a whole series of pronouncements of which these are but a sample has been a degree of open criticism of the Pope unparalleled in modern times.

As the seminarians and student nuns become more voluble in their objections, the Vatican seems to respond, not with leadership, but with pessimism. Rumor has it that Jacques Maritain’s book Un paysan du Garonne has had a great influence on Pope Paul. This is an embittered diatribe by a fashionable religious journalist who in his 87th year finds himself no longer fashionable.

It is an attack on almost all aspects of Aggiornamento, the wave of reform inaugurated by the Vatican Council. Maritain started out on L’Action Française, the pro-Fascist French paper, voice of reaction of the 1900s, which supported the church precisely because they believed it the bulwark of reaction. In the course of a long life Maritain broke with L’Action Française when its editors were excommunicated, published a famous correspondence with Jean Cocteau, supported the Resistance during the war and convinced many uninformed people that he was the world’s leading Catholic philosopher.

Now, in his old age, he is apparently returning to the ideas of his youth. If it is true that he has an influence on Pope Paul’s thinking, it is sad, because Maritain represents the worst aspects of the growing disillusionment with reform amongst some of the older leaders of the Church and he has become the darling of the die-hard utter reactionaries who have hung on to the French Church and who, a year ago, execrated him and all his works.

On the other hand — there are things about the extreme reform party that I myself view with great skepticism — but of that, another column.

[April 23, 1967]



Tourist Tips for Italy

ROME. — Italy is no longer the land of cockagne for tourists with dollars. It is certainly far cheaper than France, and class for class, accommodations and food are much better. It is possible to travel grand luxe and live at least as expensively as in New York, but below the most luxurious, the higher the class of restaurant or hotel, the cheaper it is than its American double.

That is — a fixed-price meal in a first-class restaurant in Rome costs less than $5, a good room with bath in a second-class hotel about the same.

It is possible to tour Italy and never leave California — just stay on the autostrade and stop in the big Agip and Pavesi motels. They are somewhat better than their like numbers in the States and cost about one half the price. They are not my dish of tea. The food is awful — the new L.A. international cuisine.

Italy is full of pensions, some very good, many horrible. What makes them horrible is that they first developed to satisfy middle-class English tourists.

On the whole, a good pension is best for the sightseer. If you plan to be out over midday, get demi-pension. There is not much reason for this, everything is closed from 12:00 to 3:00 or 1:00 to 4:00, so you might as well come home, eat a heavy meal with pasta and wine and rest, like the Italians.

We found a fine pension in Rome, Pensione Mimosa, on the Via Santa Chiara near the Pantheon, run by Riccardo and Geuta Zattere, a most friendly middle-aged couple who speak most European languages. The rest of the family consists of an immense white cat, Cicio, and a daughter in California. It’s most centrally located, between the Pantheon, the Piazza Navona and the Corso.

Another very central one is Pensione San Giorgio on the relatively quiet Piazza Sant’Apostoli, immediately off the junction of the Corso and the Piazza Venezia. They speak no English.

You can usually find quiet and simple accommodations and good food in the convent pensions which abound in Italy. Each provincial tourist office can supply you with a list of them, youth hostels and student hospices.

In Rome many convent pensions are more expensive than the private ones; however even so, many people, and many of them not Catholic or even religious, prefer the peace, quiet, order.

My favorite square in Rome is Piazza Navona. The only dwelling on it is Foyer Unitas, expensive for what you get, no food, the rooms do not face the piazza, and a very low Roman Catholic order whose vocation is ecumenicalism. We lived there a week and moved to the Pensione Mimosa, better and cheaper, and friendlier, far more “ecumenical” people.

The real problem in Rome is to get away from the other tourists. Even out of season, Rome swarms with Russian actors playing Midwestern and Texas businessmen and their wives in a viciously anti-American comedy. They’ve been filming it for years (with invisible cameras) and you can’t escape them. It is so unjust, too. There just aren’t any Americans like that. I’ve never seen one and I’ve been in every state.

My advice is — travel out of season. Christmas in Rome is great, spring is well along by the first of March, and stay in hotels and pensions patronized by Europeans.

[April 25, 1967]



The Italian Communist Party

ROME. — The Italian Communist Party is not only the largest in the West and proportionately larger than many within the Iron Curtain, it is as independent as Yugoslavia’s or Romania’s, and more democratic than either. Its role in Italian life cannot be understood unless one knows something of its history.

Before the First War the Italian Socialist Party included some of the most outstanding leaders and thinkers in the socialist world, many of them, like Achille Loria, better known than Lenin or any other Russian.

Bolshevik historians have convinced the world that the Social Democratic parties of the Second International “betrayed socialism” by supporting their own capitalist states in the First War, and only the Bolsheviks opposed the war. Neither statement is true.

The American and Italian Socialist Parties both officially opposed the war. The Bolsheviks supported the Czarist government in a confused fashion. In Switzerland Lenin and Zinoviev raised the objectively pro-German slogan, “Turn the imperialist war into a civil war,” and were laughed at by all the international Left.

After the establishment of Fascism, the Italian Socialists and Communists were either in prison, under house arrest or in exile. Prison preserved most of the old guard from the destructive effects of the worldwide disease of Bolshevik factionalism — the expulsion of Trotsky and then of the Right Wing, the Moscow Trials, all the other murderous zigzags of Stalin’s dictatorship seemed very remote. They stood together in a united front which preserved a large portion of old-time independent Left Socialists, politically mature men whose like numbers were purged or murdered in every other Communist Party.

The exiles, on the other hand, were given jobs in the Comintern, humiliated by being forced to denounce leaders of other parties with whom they agreed — as Togliatti was made chairman of the American Commission that tried and expelled the leadership of the American Party for Right deviations — although Togliatti was himself an actual member of Bukharin’s personal circle — as they were not. Togliatti never forgave nor forgot.

During the Spanish Civil War all Italian exiles whom Stalin suspected were placed in exposed positions and eliminated. As has been said so often, the Spanish War was the Moscow Trial of the Comintern, with Franco’s army as firing squad.

The Italian leaders were not fools — after losing some of their brightest minds through Russian factionalism, notably Bordiga, one of the most intelligent Marxist theorists of the 20th century, they closed ranks and waited. After Hitler’s invasion of Russia the Italian underground grew by leaps and bounds until it became the largest partisan army outside Yugoslavia. Like Tito, the Italians gained a power base from which they could proceed to quietly defy Stalin.

In the years since the war the Italian CP has moved slowly, carefully, but persistently, to de-Bolshevize itself. Today it is the most democratic in the West, in some ways more democratic than the Yugoslav. The Italian Party includes all sorts of factions and schools of thought and political action. They are united on one fundamental aspect of Marxism — “What is wrong with life? How can society be structured so that man is no longer wolf to man? How can the ordinary worker find quality and meaning in his life?” This was certainly never a Bolshevik prime objective — but perhaps its opposite — how can the Bolshevik Party seize and hold power in spite of all opposition? In fact, had the Italian Party chosen to move as Lenin and Trotsky did in 1917 they could have seized power long ago — with resulting devastating civil war if not world war.

[April 27, 1967]



A Roman Sermon

ROME. — Mass at San Anselmo on our first Sunday in Rome, with 40 priests in purple chasubles extending their hands at the consecration, and a choir of over a hundred black-robed Benedictines. It was like something at the court of Justinian.

And yet it wasn’t, for it was devoid of all pomp and the vestments were as simple as could be. It was rather like all the disciples gathered together at some major anniversary in Jerusalem in the Apostolic Age. The Gregorian chant at San Anselmo I think is now better than at the more famous Solesmes Abbey in France — stronger and less ornamented. The congregation was almost entirely student and pilgrim nuns from all over the world.

The sermon was extraordinary. I will try to give you the gist of it as simply as I can — I hope I understood all the Italian. The first sentence made me sit up —

“We compromise in impossible situations. That is what compromise is for — otherwise life would be unlivable. But we have made of Christianity what moral philosophers call an ‘impossibilist ethic,’ and so we are enabled to compromise the faith and life of Christ. But is it impossible? Some Quakers do not find it so. Not all, but many, just go quietly about their business, patterning their lives closely on that of the Christ of the Gospels.

“Uncounted people live that kind of life, obscurely, without fuss, in the Catholic Church and outside it, perhaps today more often than not outside Christianity altogether. Millions of Catholics have lived that life down the centuries. They have found it not hard, but easy, to live the life of Christ and the Apostles. But all but a few of them are unknown. Most of them are not in the calendar of Saints and they were seldom in positions of power. But their influence has sustained the church and justified whatever claims it has to be Christian. They are the granite foundations on which power has raised temples and palaces.

“Here is to be found the source of the transports and visions of the famous mystics and saints in quiet lives in which prayer and contemplation is a habitude so accepted they do not know they pray always. Much less are they aware they are visionaries of the infinite and eternal, because their lives are lived always in calm illumination, as trout live in pure water. They are so used to living in light they do not know it is there, as we forget it is day until night begins to fall.

“We use grace in two senses — the theological which we have developed from St. Paul and the common-sense ‘graceful’ which is little influenced by the theological meaning. Perhaps we should allow the common meaning to revitalize the theological meaning. Then the sign of a state of grace would be an ever deepening moral gracefulness.”

The rest of the day after Mass in San Anselmo we spent in museums and churches staring at paintings and sculpture, and in the evening I walked in the sunset by the Tiber to the Ara Pacis Augustae — with the Ludovisi Throne, the most beautiful Roman sculpture.

The immense flock of birds in the cypresses by the Mausoleum of Augustus can be heard chirping their vespers for a quarter mile. Across the river on the Tiber embankment in letters six feet high, “The Salvation of the people is the abolition of all States!” “Long live anarchism!” I agree completely, said the gray mouse, but who is going to bell the cat?

The sunsets of Rome — the city of power incarnate. Upstream a short distance, “Against Francoism — Liberty!” The significant thing is that both slogans have been there for years and the authorities have not sandblasted them off.

The principal thing wrong with Roman Baroque is that it is unimaginative in the worst way — it is stereotyped imaginativeness. Quite unlike Venice’s Salute or London’s St. Paul’s, which are both true bursts of Baroque originality of feeling. In fact all such churches in both cities share this use of Baroque to liberate originality and uniquely personalized emotion.

Rome down the centuries has been much like New York — a pure power center to which culture came, but which sent little culture out. Roman art and literature turns out to be by provincials, from the ancient Republic to the present. Each generation of Latin poets came from farther and farther from the capital. The Roman painters of the High Renaissance are all from elsewhere. Not only that, but with the sole exception of Raphael, their best work was done elsewhere. “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely,” said a great Catholic historian. Certainly it corrupts artists and turns them into hacks.

Roman art is commercial art. So the best architecture in Rome was done in the period of darkness when the city was almost deserted and even the Popes were powerless — from the Gothic Wars of Justinian to the crowning of Charlemagne.

[April 30, 1967]


“San Francisco Fifty Years Ago” is an ongoing project of posting all of Kenneth Rexroth’s columns for the San Francisco Examiner (1960-1967). Each of the columns is being posted on the 50th anniversary of its original appearance. Copyright 1960-1967 Kenneth Rexroth. Reproduced here by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

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