Rome in God’s Eye

The title of the illustrated painting is “Modern Rome—Campo Vaccino.” It was painted in 1839 by Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851). It is the third of five paintings that moved me during my last visit to the Getty Center in Los Angeles.

There is something about the quality of light in J.M.W. Turner’s work. The painting is described as follows by the Getty’s database:

Ten years after his final journey to Rome, Turner envisioned the Eternal City through a veil of memory. Baroque churches and ancient monuments in and around the Roman Forum seem to dissolve in iridescent light shed by a moon rising at left and a sun setting behind the Capitoline Hill at right. Amidst these splendors, the city’s inhabitants carry on with their daily activities. The picture’s nacreous palette and shimmering light effects exemplify Turner at his most accomplished.

When first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1839 with its pendant, Ancient Rome; Agrippina Landing with the Ashes of Germanicus, the painting was accompanied by a modified quotation from Lord Byron’s masterpiece, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1818): “The moon is up, and yet it is not night, / The sun as yet divides the day with her.” Like the poem, Turner’s painting evokes the enduring sublimity of Rome, which had been for artists throughout history less a place in the real world than one in the imagination.

Note the characters and livestock in the foreground of the painting. In the background, ancient and contemporary Rome are intermingled as the light at the end of day washes out all the details. It looks almost as if Rome is in flames.

Campo Vaccino literally means cow pasture or cattle field in Italian. For years, the location had been a cattle market. According to the Princeton Art Museum, “Essentially in ruins since the fifth century A.D., by the seventeenth century the still-to-be excavated Roman Forum was popularly known as the Campo Vaccino, or cow field, alluding to its dual role as pasture and cattle market; it was also a popular sketching spot for artists.”

California Dreaming

Condos Reflected on Venice’s Grand Canal

Today, as I was driving to a history discussion group, I saw huge crowds of tourists lurking around Beverly Hills and perched on countless tourist buses. It is interesting to see that so many young people from elsewhere are interested in Los Angeles. Even if what they are interested in is mostly garbage: The shops on Rodeo Drive and the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

But there is something about this place. Believe it or not, it’s the light. But you have to be receptive to visual nuances, something not quite as crass as a Gucci Bag or a star honoring the career of Rod La Rocque. And you have to be up early in the morning, or be around at dusk. Noon is just plain achingly bright.

The funny thing is that you don’t see much of what L.A. is about by visiting Universal City or Disneyland or even the La Brea Tar Pits. You can get something of a feel for it when you see the Getty Center or the Arboretum or Descanso Gardens or the Huntington Gardens and Art Museum. But you have to be still and let the light play over you. The more frenzied your touring is, the less you’ll get out of it.

Hell, it took me years before I could even see this place as it should be seen.


Sun Shining Through Leaves

Nothing Puts Me in a More Meditative State of Mind

This scene at Descanso Garden’s Mulberry Pond represents to me nature at its most lovely. I enjoy sitting there in the late afternoon and watching the lengthening sun shine through the leaves of the tree and the reeds growing from the pond. That luminous shade of green more than anything else makes me feel at peace. I usually let Martine walk around the park while I thinking about my inhaling and exhaling, all the while small children try to throw sticks and stones into the water. No matter: It’s all good.

One doesn’t always find this lush configuration of plants and sunlight in Southern California. More frequent are dusty botanicals that merely look dark. Not that Descanso has a team of caretakers dusting and polishing the plants—but that bench under the mulberry tree is one of the secret places in my heart. And it’s one of the reasons I keep returning to the park in La Cañada-Flintridge.

Laser Light

Extreme Brightness

Extreme Brightness

The month of January is Southern California’s rainiest month. Usually. But not this year. So far, we have been treated to an endless round of Santa Ana winds and low humidity (around 10%). Right now, it’s about 85° Fahrenheit (that’s about 30° Celsius). If the temperature didn’t drop sharply at night, we would all be sweltering.

I just got back from lunch. The heat in this arid weather isn’t quite so uncomfortable as the laserlike light of the sun. It makes me wish I wore my baseball hat or some other brimmed headgear to protect my eyes. Although I wear photo optic glasses, they don’t provide sufficient protection from the sun’s fierceness. Years ago, I used to have super-dark prescription sunglasses. I’m beginning to think I should see my optometrist for another pair of those.