Published on “Dangerous Circuit Board,” column on Out of Frame. Full article link below:
Each city has one or two trees that grow best in its climate and suits best in its urban fabric. When you see roads canopied by rows of huge trees, bifurcating at the trunk, you know you are in Nanjing. The trees are oriental planes (Platanus orientalis), the characteristic tree seen on the sides of every street, in every neighborhood of the former capital. In summer, giant green canopies on both sides of a typical Nanjing street interlace in the middle, like two arms crossing into an embrace, shading people and traffic. The warm, gentle green giants have been nourishing Nanjing, and nurturing each Nanjinger. When you see small trees with delicate, alternate leaves in many leaflets, you are in Beijing. The tree is Japanese pagoda tree (Styphnolobium japonicum), which is unfortunately named because it is native to China, and introduced to Japan. The pagoda tree flower is one of the 50 core essences of Chinese herb medicine, and its Chinese name has a mythological origin. The pagoda tree is one of the two signature trees of Beijing. The ginkgo is the other one. The gingko is a living fossil, quite an unusual plant whose presence on earth can be traced to the Permian. Although the gingko is cultivated all over the world, the only natural habitat for the gingko is Beijing and its surroundings on the same latitude. The gingko’s natural specificity interwoven with the city officials’ programming efforts creates a golden autumn in old Beijing alleys when the trees all dress themselves up in cascading, pure lemon yellow leaf fireworks. The golden gingko and the dark-barked S. japonicum have delineated the identity of Beijing.
The urban planners of Nanjing and Beijing have followed nature’s call in the choice of their city trees, not imposing artificial selection on altering the existing nature of the cities, but accentuating the natural condition. The trees’ nativity and the city’s municipal design had together created a beautiful and long-lasting urban ecosystem and streetscape, and they have been successful in making the signature tree species known to the people living in the city. Beijingers are proud of their trees! Oh my! When I see a Japanese pagoda tree, I immediately feel a connection — it may be a psychological, social, or ecological connection to my city. As an avid traveller I have seen gingkoes in many cities abroad, and every time I encounter one, I shout out: “it is MY gingko!” I don’t say it is “a gingko,” I am used to saying it is “my gingko.” Often people don’t perceive how much information their word choice contains. I realized that certain trees to certain people have become a cultural tie to a city, a type of city identity that I call “arboridentity.” In the age of globalization, gentrification, and modernization, cities tend to grow to be alike, instead of growing to be unique. On the road to conformity, some cities are losing their traditional identities or altering them. While it is a controversial process, arboridentity remains stubborn in the wave of change since native vegetation has an unsurpassable affinity to the land it owns. Already more than a natural phenomenon, trees in certain cities have become an embodied cognition, profoundly embodied in this area’s history, atmosphere, climate, hydrology, folklore, and everyday language.
When I came to America, studying at Duke, I was quick to discover, with some surprise initially, an aspect of American culture that I wasn’t aware of before. Americans don’t know their trees. Beside a small number of tree huggers and outdoor hobbyists, most inhabitants of a city can’t name the species of their prevalent trees. Tree identification is perceived in the expert realm, not culturally embedded. There are exceptions too. If you ask a random Durhamite, what kind of tree is the large evergreen with smooth leaves and snow white, lotus-shaped flowers? You will probably get the answer “it is the southern magnolia,” which sounds just as magnificent as its flowers look. It is one of the most common trees in Durham, North Carolina, and many southern states. But I’ve noticed that in the North Carolinian cities the southern magnolia functions primarily as an ornamental backyard tree, whereas it rarely appears on the street side or in public spaces. The magnolia is the opposite of low-key, but has a particular, showy, flamboyant character that may create a spectacular alternative effect if planted along streets and incorporated in the city view. While it is an attractive hypothesis, we will need more information on how the tree alters landscape both above and underground and how it manages hydrology before proposing to establish it as the city tree or state tree of any place.
If small cities like Durham really want to fasten their process of development, they will inevitably face the issue of tree choice, because urbanization requires intentionality to every detail. Hypothesize that we hired a team of researchers, and surveyed native-born Durham inhabitants with questions: what are the tree(s) in your memory of childhood? What tree(s) first come to your mind when you think about Durham? Have you experienced encounters with familiar trees that brings you feelings of home when you traveled outside of Durham? Synthesizing the results with gardening and ecology experts’ analysis, we can be intentional and thoughtful of the big picture in making decision on how to form and express an arboridentity of the developing Durham. Since the arboridentity has always been latent in the area, but never has been articulated, the underlying insects and birds local to the area will stay compatible with the new municipally established arboridentity. Not limited to trees, there are many currents, forces, elements, and systems always existent in a city but never articulated. In the ideal city I envision, one of the major goals is to articulate the unarticulated.
To articulate is to delineate, to educe the essence from a place, without exerting arbitrary forces upon it. Too often decision makers start from the question what trees cope best in the climate, whether people need big shades or small shades, whether planting this species of tree does damage to the construction of the site, etc. While all of these are valid questions and some are necessary to every design, I think we should start by asking this first question: what has been already existing in the city, and what is embodied in the city dwellers’ cognition? To educe is to bring the essence out and make it pronounced. I spent my first two college years only knowing the spring and fall of North Carolina. Due to an internship in the summer between my second and third years, I stayed two months in Raleigh and I was stunned. Raleigh by the way is nicknamed the Oak City. Having never experienced summer in North Carolina, for the first time, I witnessed the passion of the Oak City — fiery red and pink crape myrtles blooming like a beautiful parade along city streets, roads, they were everywhere. Being continuously amazed on my daily commuting trips, I realized how impactful trees can be to the perceptual, atmospheric and cultural qualities of a city. And on the other hand, it made me ponder why I hadn’t noticed such a breathtaking arboridentity before. Coming from a large metropolis, I easily falsely assumed that the Raleigh-Durham downtown area was duller than it actually is. That summer of fiery crape myrtles opened my eyes to a kind of arboridentity that is wildly seasonal, and perhaps a more important insight is you can never fail to discover the excitement of a place as long as you’ve stayed there long enough. I was also incredibly lucky, I admit, to have traveled extensively which fostered a sensitivity to arboridentity and other parameters of uniqueness that differ across cities. So it is important to articulate arboridentities through investigation and implementation, to make them salient to a wider population. That summer, that awakening of Raleigh’s passion, was unforgettable because this particular facade of city identity was unseen in other cities. Crape myrtles in Beijing are more sparsely planted, primarily a small residential yard plant, and Chinese prefer light pinks and light violets to bright saturated varieties. Crape myrtles are not unique to Raleigh, but this passionate, seasonal carnival is. When you live enough time in a city, you will feel an irresistible cry from the land: “Love the trees of the city you dwell upon!” The crape myrtles that made me love Raleigh, which many people always pass by but rarely see, are the awakening of the city’s passion!
Ever since Giorgio Vasari used the fresco scene 19 of St. Benedict Sends Away the Harlots, 1505-08 to illustrate a licentious and bestial image of Bazzi, compatible with his nickname Il Sodoma, a whirlwind of controversy arose on the prolific painter. It is indeed very interesting how the scene of St. Benedict and the prostitutes epitomizes several crucial elements in Sodoma’s creativity and the Olivetan order — the gap between the human and the saint; the contrast between the ascetic ideals and the hedonistic pleasures; the imagery of animal – all of which contributes a great deal to our understanding of Sodoma and his art, not as a departure from the idealistic religious values, but rather, as a humanist approach symbiotic with the core values of the monastery.
Teeming with obvious visual appeal, St. Benedict Sends Away the Harlots tells the story of the evil Florentius attempting to corrupt the monks by bringing them nude prostitutes, where St. Benedict was able to resist the temptation and protect the purity of the monks by sending the women away (Sodoma – Oxford Reference, 2016). Vasari presents Sodoma as a person both dangerous and shameful (Ladis, 2008) by stating that he privately painted the women stark naked, and that when the leader
Olivetan monastery saw the completed work, he was so enraged that he demanded the fresco be torn down (Vasari, Barolsky, De Vere et al., 1998). If this account were the fact, it would tell the audience nothing but Sodoma’s loyalty to the original legend. The documented biography of St. Benedict by Gregory the Great in about 593-94 depicts the harlots as completely naked women, coming in an enticing manner (Forness, 2011), which is not only how Sodoma initially conceived this scene, given that Vasari told the truth, but also completely appropriate for the monastery – how could the monks internalize the Benedictine ideal if they were so easily distracted by mere paintings of nudes? How much hypocrisy would it be, if Sodoma must depicted the harlots conservatively and without sexual appeal, while at the same time the Olivetan commissioner tried to advocate the willpower of abstinence amongst his monks?
As one delves into this fascinating painting, one secret after another uncovers itself. The fresco, beautifully balanced in its composition with two sets of people, captures the pivotal moment of conflict between the humanistic side and the idealistic side of men. On the one hand, the women in the right side whose postures highlight the curved body, dancing feet, and flippant eyes represent lust, and therefore their extended meaning encompasses the human spectrum of desire
On the other hand, the men on the left side, mostly withdrawing but not without a hint of hesitation, embody asceticism, the teaching of St. Benedict, whose face and body show the most stoic refusal to temptation. The scholar Ruth Karras aptly analyzes the symbol of prostitutes lasting from medieval cultural values as an exemplar of humanness. In late fifteenth century, prostitution even stood for the whole spectrum of humanly sins because prostitution symbolizes not only sexual promiscuity but also a greed for money, both of which were considered the severest of sins by Christian standards (2016, p. 6). With his artistic prowess, Sodoma epitomized very well the two conflicting forces of humanity in the hagiographical paining by the two sets of people between whom one can almost feel a gravitational pulling force and a repulsive pushing force at the same time.
A careful “reader” of this fresco may note the donkey amidst the monks, and a little dog running from the harlots toward the men, and refer to Sodoma’s usual tendency to include animals in his artworks. The most plausible explanation is that this donkey represents stubbornness (Boswell & Ellen, 2012, p. 39), and the dog, lust.
As the detail picture shows below, despite the damage to the fresco, the texture of the little dog’s coat was painted with fine vividness. St. Benedict holds one hand straight in front of his chest, as if he were gesturing refusal, and his other hand holds some ambivalent entity in a fist, possibly a roll
book, symbolizing that the power of knowledge can help one resist temptation. While Boswell and Ellen touch on the donkey’s symbolic meaning, I’d extend this allusion further in regard to the positioning of the donkey. If the donkey stood with the men, who represent the moral force as discussed above, then the animal serves as a direct symbol of St. Benedict’s obstinacy to hold true to his ascetic ideals; if the donkey were placed on the women’s side, it shows the perseverance of human lust and desire in people’s spirits. Sodoma chose to place the donkey on the men’s side, and he placed a dog that represents lust in the middle, revealing much about his deep understanding of what Monte Oliveto Maggiore needed his Life of St. Benedict to embody.
The scene St. Benedict Sends Away the Harlots was the first scene Sodoma painted on the walls of Monte Oliveto. From the life-like poses of the people to the contrasting facial expressions, he treated the fresco with great excellence. Although many modern scholars spare no effort in vindicating Bazzi of that the nickname Sodoma, some art historians argue that Bazzi was indeed homosexual (Freedberg, 1993, p. 171). The point of this study is not his nickname, but if he were actually homosexual it would have been more remarkable of him to have captured human lust through women and set it in a symbiosis of manlike desire and saint-like asceticism through symbols of prostitution, compositional balance, and animals.
“Il Sodoma.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2016. Web. 15 April, 2016. http://www.britannica.com/biography/Il Sodoma
Cust, Robert Henry Hobart. Giovanni Antonio Bazzi, Hitherto Usually Styled “Sodoma,” the Man and the Painter, 1477-1549; a Study. London: J. Murray, 1906.
Barolsky, Paul, Giorgio Vasari, Gaston Du C. De Vere, David Ekserdjian, Patricia Rubin, Leon Satkowski, and Ralph Lieberman. “Lives of the Painters, Sculptors and Architects.” The Art Bulletin 80, no. 2 (1998): 380. doi:10.2307/3051239.
Boswell Schiefer, Ellen W. Miracle at Monte Oliveto Renaissance Benedictine Ideals and Humanist Pictorial Ideals in Perspective. University of Cincinnati, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2012. 1515012.
Forness, Philip Michael. “The Life of St. Benedict by Gregory the Great: Translation and Commentary – By Terrence G. Kardong.” Religious Studies Review 37, no. 1 (2011): 67. doi:10.1111/j.1748-0922.2011.01490_5.x.
Freedberg, Sidney J. (1993). Painting in Italy 1500-1600. Penguin Books. pp. 117–119 et passim.
Karras, Ruth Mazo. “Holy Harlots: Prostitute Saints in Medieval Legend.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 1, no. 1 (April 17, 2016): 3-32.
Mladenovic, Ivana. “Victims and Villains in Vasari’s Lives by Andrew Ladis.” Comitatus Comitatus: A Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 39, no. 1 (2008): 295-96. doi:10.1353/cjm.2008.0049.
Sodoma – Oxford Reference.” Sodoma – Oxford Reference. Accessed April 03, 2016. http://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780198662037.001.0001/acref-9780198662037-e-2469#.
When people think of Il Sodoma, more myths come to their mind than knowledge, more questions are raised than answers found. Il Sodoma was the name given to the painter whose real name was Giovanni Antonio Bazzi, because Vasari suggested that he had taken an indecent interest in “boys and beardless youth” (Vasari).
Because Vasari disliked Giovanni Antonio, Vasari created a defamatory portrait of him as bestial, licentious, capricious, and undeserving of his artistic achievement. Despite many modern scholars’ effort to deny this perpetuating image, evidence has shown that Sodoma deserves his nickname. There has been immense attention disproportionally directed to his personal life compared to his career, but he was the leading painter of Sienna in the early 16th century.
Sodoma was a prolific artist of frescoes and easel paintings. Born in Vercelli in Piedmont in 1477, Sodoma studied under a local Lombard artist, the “archaic” Matino Spanzotti. He also studied under the painter Giovenone. Mastering the strong coloration of Lombard school, he absorbed the sfumato of Leonardo Da Vinci in his style.
After early years of study, Sodoma settled down in Sienna, where he was commissioned his first important commission—the frescoes of a little convene, ST. Anna, in Creta. Then he executed the Life of St. Benedict frescoes at Monte Oliveto Maggiore, perhaps his most successful, though controversial commission. His other important works include the fresco despicting St Catherine in the Basilica of San Dominico, Allegory of Celestial Love, Deposition of the Cross, The Marriage of Alexander and Roxanne, The Mystical Marriage of St. Catherine, St. Sebastian (1525), and Trequenda.
Giovanni Antonio Bazzi was born at Vercelli, in Piedmont, in 1477. His father Giacomo was actually a descendant of a Vercellese noble lineage, but due to unfortunate fate reduced to a shoemaker. Although not affluent, Giacomo Bazzi was a master of shoemaking that he was considered a social equal to a bourgeois (Cust, 1906). Settling in Siena afterwards, Sodoma became one of Siena’s most beloved children “by adoption” (Cust, 1906, 54), due to his long-term contribution to her school of painting.
Martino Spanzotti, one of the leading artists of Lombardy of the time, accepted Giovanni Antonio as his apprentice, since he reached age twelve orthirteen. His father Giocomo signed a conventional, seven-year contract with Maestro Spanzotti, that his eldest son would be a faithful servant of Maestro Spanzotti’s in exchange for the master’s teaching.
Maestro Spanzotti had a style that could be characterized by some sort of dignified simplicity. Spanzotti was traditionally trained and very few of his works survived to present day, but he left a trace in his pupils’ paintings that were very different in their own sense but shared a taste in beauty that reflects his training. Spanzotti had a pronounced influence on Bazzi could be seen not from the apparent, superficial coloration and composition, but from the aesthetics and the eye of Bazzi that in his whole artistic career yearned for beauty.
At the turning of the century, Leonardo Da Vinci had achieved enormous popularity around Vercelli and his influence was seen in many artists’ works. At that time, our artist Giovanni Antonio already had his own style established. And it was not clear whether Bazzi had apprenticed directly with Leonardo, but like many of his contemporaries, Bazzi absorbed his own sip of the strong “Leonardorian” flavor in his soft, multi-layered, and almost therapeutic treatment of textures that was not distinct in his old master Spanzotti’s works. The technique, known as sfumato, is unmistakably Leonardo.
Vasari’s Representation of Il Sodoma: The Lustful, Animal Man
While we can’t discount the value of Giorgio Vasari in bringing life to the prominent Renaissance artists and architectures even six centuries later, that Lives recorded Vasari’s biases and willful distortions is undeniable. Usually, the painters, architects or sculptors who were alive during Vasari’s time and who maintained a good relationship with Vasari, and those artists who met his standards, enjoy a flattering tone in his narration. Whereas the less fortunate ones, who Vasari disliked or rivaled against, suffer undeserved obloquy originated from Vasari’s deft rhetoric of their vices, substantiated or not.
Giovanni Antonio Bazzi is among these unfortunate ones. Vasari prefaced the chapter on him by a metaphysical discussion of how people sometimes owe their success to talent, while other times to fortune. He explicitly attributed Bazzi’s accomplishments simply to his good fortunes. Vasari famously suggested that “Il Sodoma” was the name Giovanni Antonio went by proudly, a nickname that did exist, but due to Vasari, has become the first thing that comes to mind when the world comes to appraise this great painter of multi-faceted personality.
The core criticism that Vasari placed on Sodoma, obviously centers on immorality, because Sodoma supposedly lived in a “Noah’s Ark” (Vasari, Lives, 1550) with a variety of animals, and because he was often seen frolicking with boys and young men (1568), which couldn’t be more scandulous during his time. Some scholars validate this nickname, “Il Sodoma,” by stating that evidence was found that Bazzi indulged in the company by young men and that his wife left him in disgust (Freedberg, 1993), while some argue that the exact historical fact is hard to tell (Cust, 1906).
Apart from his ambivalent sexual orientation, Bazzi’s depiction of animals in his frescoes somehow provoked anger in Vasari, leading him to conclude that Bazzi was just as wild, as licentious, and perhaps as primitive as his artistically expressive animals. It should be an instrument with which Vasari confirmed his judgment of the immorality of Sodoma.
Sodoma, a Nickname Immortalized
“Giovanni Antonio, when young and in good repute, took for his wife in Siena a girl born of a very good family, and had by her in the first year a daughter. But after that, having grown weary of her, because he was a beast, he would never see her more; and she, therefore, withdrawing by herself, lived always on her own earnings and on the interest of her dowry, bearing with great and endless patience the beastliness and the follies of that husband of hers, who was truly worthy of the name of Mattaccio which, as has been related, the Monks of Monte Oliveto gave him.”
— Vasari, Life of Sodoma
Out of all the sins Vasari alleged of Sodoma, the nickname itself is the most damaging and yet probably the most interesting to take a close look at.
It is notable that Vasari’s Lives was published 19 years after Sodoma’s death, and Sodoma did not leave any progeny close to him or pupil devoted to him to defend his reputation by that time (Cust, 1906). Furthermore, unlike Michelangelo or Leonardo, Giovanni Antonio was born to a declined noble lineage and a shoemaker father. Without influential powers in the society to speak for him or elevate his success, Giovanni Antonio acheived his knighthood and artistic accomplishments on his own. After he died, his lack of well-off social connections may play into Vasari’s courage to attack him outside the realm of art. Vasari placed the defamatory line about how the painter acquired his nickname Sodoma in the beginning of Life of Sodoma, as if being a knight and a prominent master of Siena, or having painted the frescoes at Monte Oliveto suddenly lose their glamour, and that the first and foremost quality of the man is his indecent interest in young men.
Giovanni Antonio Bazzi was not documented to have any nickname before Olivetan friars called him Il Mattaccio, the Madman, around 1512. Another circumstance related to the name Sodoma was the Palio in Florence, in the year of 1515. According to Vasari, Sodoma, who was always fond of animls, owned a Barbary horse and it won the race. When asked the name of the owner, he exclaimed “Sodoma! Sodoma!” However, Cust suggests in his 1906 study of Giovanni Antonio that he was invited to participate in racing horses by his friend Jacomo V’ d’Appiano, with a group of people, and that Sodoma was one of their usual racing appellations.
Many of the Renaissance painters and sculptors had ambivalent relationships with young males. The amiable Leonardo and the godly Michelangelo, who also sought male companionship of their pupils or models, both were able to escape Vasari’s poisonous verdict. Just as Ladis claims in “Victims and Villains,” Lives is more of an artistic and literary effort to tell a story, which is compiled from stories the author had heard during his travels, distilled by the author’s own lens of judgment, than a scholar’s rigorous research in pursuit of historical verity.
Name, an important label and the most succinct identification card, deserves due respect or will be prone to misinterpretation that perpetuates generation after generation. Because of Vasari’s Modern debates around the name Sodoma is more like a tug-of-war than an actual evidence-based research, and the latter seems impossible from the scarcity of documentation available. One question to raise, however, is to what extent we should associate one person’s artistic merit with this person’s personal life and idiosyncrasies, if we should at all. Certainly, an artist is not an isolated entity, nor the artist’s works. But inference drawn upon arbitrary guesses can do more damage than justice, as demonstrated by Vasari’s prejudiced account of Sodoma. Once the past is past, nothing can resurrect it better than artworks, but artworks only solidify moments; therefore when we say, let artworks speak for the artist, what they respond is not the full, live person. It is an ongoing debate.
What Exactly is Vasari Criticizing Sodoma about?
A wild and eccentric individual in most Vasari readers’ eyes, Giovanni Antonio Bazzi lived a more ordinary life than people conjure. However, completely whitewashing this artist is not attempted in this book. The man is a mixture of complex characters, which Vasari and modern art historians explored alike. Some art historians chime in to voice a different perspective, that they believe that the main criticism of Vasari was on Bazzi’s intemperate conduct, that caused him to lose his wealth in his late years, and (as Vasari claimed) to have died in want.