Saint Sebastian

June 18, 2018

Mantegna-049-St.Sebastian-1480-1485The unfortunate Saint Sebastian – I guess the saints are all unfortunate, since they all meet grisly deaths, but then, that’s their good fortune from the Christian point of view… -is a familiar figure to lovers of art history.  Also familiar to male lovers of men, since his image is popular as a gay icon in wildly different forms, many in the realm of kitsch, or camp, as it were.  I get that he’s a young, strapping fellow (patron saint of athletes for some reason), and the voyeuristic, masochistic, erotic aura that hangs, or can be projected about him.  (Did Oscar Wilde really say that in this image he looked a bit like a “mournful pin cushion,” or is that just something my girlfriend told me in high school?)  Once he was released from his martyrdom in Reading Gaol, Oscar Wilde did adopt the pseudonym, Sebastian Melmoth, the first part for the saint? and the second a reference to the long-suffering protaganist of Maturin’s early 19th century gothic tale Melmoth the Wonderer.

This image by Mantegna is just one of the most famous showing the saint’s martyrdom by archery at the order of Diocletian, or is it?  Yes, those two fellows in the right foreground have done their duty, and tied and shot up Sebastian, a former member of the emperor’s Praetorian Guard who kept his Christianity secret so that he could give help to the persecuted Christians.  He was found out, and Diocletian ordered him killed…but is he dead?  He appears alive to me!

I know that saints are the subjects and producers of miracles all the time, but if their sainted martyrdom is based on being murdered for their faith, shouldn’t they…er…be dead?  This set me off on a little art historical research regarding the saint, and I quickly found that he did not die from the fusillade of arrows, although you can hardly accuse the archers of negligence in carrying out orders.  He did survive, miraculously, and was fetched and tended by Saint Irene.  During the middle ages, because he had survived his execution by arrows, he was invoked for help against diseases, especially the bubonic plague.

Since he was undeterred by fear of death, and since his cover was quite obviously blown, his next move after recovering from his wounds was to go to the emperor’s palace, hide in an alcove or stairwell, and furiously upbraid Diocletian for his sins when he finally happened by.  Naturally, the emperor was furious:  not only was the man not dead as he had ordered, but he returns and insults him directly!  Diocletian ordered his men to club Sebastian to death – perhaps considered a more certain technique – and then to throw his body into the sewer, sometimes noted as the cloaca maxima.  Eventually, his body was retrieved, but the scenes of his actual death, and subsequent disposal and retrieval are vastly less common in art history than the picturesque and unsuccessful first try.

Here we have the saint being pitched into the sewer, as painted by Lodovico Carraci.  His suspension in the air just as he is beginning to fall in seems awkward to me.

1200px-Lodovico_Carracci_(Italian_-_St._Sebastian_Thrown_into_the_Cloaca_Maxima_-_Google_Art_Project

The work below, by Altdorfer, shows the saint’s body being retrieved from the sewer, or at least from out of the muck, by friends who will bury him in the catacombs near the resting places of the apostles.  His body seems little the worse for his immersion in the sewer.

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Scenes of Sebastian’s actual execution by clubbing are a bit more plentiful:  here is one by Veronese.

1200px-Martyrdom_of_St_Sebastian,_glaven_korab

Josse Lieferinxe did a set of paintings of the saint for altarpiece dedicated to him, and this image shows him being beaten to death:  in the background the executioners dump his body into the sewer.

1493+-Josse Lieferinxe (Fr)-St Sebastian clubbed-- copy

Another beating, but I have not identified the painter.

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The three images below are from a tiny chapel dedicated to St. Sebastian in Venanson in southern France.  The chapel is not well documented on the internet, but the painter of these frescoes is identified as Giovanni Baleison.

 

If you need a reason to take a trip to Provence, this site, and the even less documented one in Roubion should be reason enough.  The only photos of individual panels of the frescoes I could find online are licensed, and have a copyright logo watermark.  The two below show the saint being dumped into and retrieved from the sewer.

HYH0E3

CBGMMH

This image of the chapel frescoes shows the panel of the saint’s dumping in situ.

Roubion_-_Chapelle_Saint-Sébastien_-_Peintures_murales_-1

Finally, to bring us back nearer to the present, we have an image of a studio session with Muhammad Ali posing as Saint Sebastian, part of series of famous men standing in for the saint.

Ali_No._20

Sebastian’s head, or “skull cap” is preserved here, supposedly.

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Drainage: Civilization’s Foundation

July 27, 2012

BEIJING — In the heart of the Chinese capital is the showcase neighborhood of Sanlitun, where expatriates and Chinese glitterati go to dine, drink and dance. It has gleaming curved skyscrapers, a boutique hotel where rooms list for $400 to $4,000 a night, and restaurants with cuisines like French, Persian and Mexican.

What it does not have is a modern drainage system.

Here is the fundamental text – Drainage: The Wine of Life.

And here are some other posts on various aspects of this neglected topic:  Drainage Posts.

 


Two Criminal Tales

March 1, 2011

Le Trou, is a film from 1948 about a prison break in Paris. Goodfellas, need I say it?, is a film from 1990 about the mob in NYC.  I watched these two films over the last two days, and it was like visiting two alternate universes.

First, let me say that Le Trou (Jacques Becker) is a fantastic movie.  Spare and incredibly suspenseful, it pulls off the amazing feat of turning the hardened criminals into …not quite the good guys, but exemplars of humanity.  Homo faber, man, the maker, with incredible ingenuity, patience, and perseverance they plan their escape from a fortress in the center of the city.  Loyalty to one another is what makes them go, and betrayal stops them. The film has virtually no music score.

Goodfellas, well…it is based on fact. (In fact, both films are based on accounts of actual events.) The reason I watched the entire flick after seeing bits of it on TV, where it is played endlessly, was because of the part about the biggest heist in American history at JFK, but that is hardly treated in the film. Many say it is realistic, and Scorsesee said he wanted to show what the mob lifestyle was really like, what the violence was really like, cold, brutal, disgusting. Oh well…the millions of young men who love the film probably have a rather different take on Martin’s masterpiece.  They love it. It’s an entertainment, giving away the store by using an endless soundtrack of contemporary music.  How seriously can you take a mob movie that has Hendrix and The Stones rocking out as guys get whacked?

Nothing in Goodfellas compares to the one scene in Le trou in which the two cons peer at a Paris street from a manhole, watch a taxi drive by – freedom! – before going back inside to retrieve their comrades for the big escape.

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In the gutter

August 13, 2010

I don’t have too much to say about the film The Third Man – it’s so good, and I have liked if for so long…well, that’s enough.  Alida Valli is the girl, Joseph Cotton is the chump who falls for her, and for a lot of other stuff too.  She’s not too happy, but she’s living on borrowed time in bombed out Vienna.  She laughs once, and it’s almost like Garbo in Ninotchka.

Orson Welles is the mystery man, and of course he plays it as nobody else could.

 

The climactic sequence in the sewers of Vienna is marvelous, and not just because I am fascinated by sewers.  Or…maybe this movie is why I am fascinated by sewers.

That last long walk and wait, yielding nothing but disappointment…

   

 

 


Zola’s La terre & the USSR

April 20, 2010

I am closing in on the conclusion of Zola’s epic of peasant life in the 1860’s, La terre.  Mother Earth is the Good Earth, but everything else is pretty much shit.  Well, even shit ain’t so bad.

The plot recalls King Lear in that Old Fouan, the farmer who makes a gift of his land to his children in return for a pension when he can’t work it anymore ends up homeless, impoverished, and scorned by family and neighbors.  He recalls that he couldn’t wait for his own father to die either, so it’s only natural that his children want him to “peg out” as they call it.  His own sister, La Grande, a demonic crone in her eighties who at the end of life lives only for thinking up ways to make her relatives miserable, takes pleasure in slamming her door on Fouan as a sort of final “I told you so!”  But then she disowned her daughter for marrying for love, watched her granddaughter work herself to death to support her physically and mentally crippled brother, and then took the grandson in as her personal slave.  Zola is not sentimental about peasants, in case you were wondering.

During one of the less tragic episodes, there is a political election roiling the community.  There is an impromptu debate between a well-heeled factory owner and a local farmer:  the industrialist wants free trade, cheap imported grain to lower prices, make it easier for his workers to eat on low wages, and assure his profits.  The farmer wants protection to keep prices high on his grain brought to market:

The two of them, the farmer and the industrialist, the protectionist and the free-trader, stared each other in the face, one with a sly, good-humoured chuckle, the other with blunt hostility.  This was the modern form of warfare, the confrontation which faces us today, in the economic struggle for existence.

“We’ll force the peasant to feed the workers,” said Monsier Rochefontaine.

“But first of all,” insisted Hourdequin, “you must make sure that the peasant has enough to eat.”

We’ll force the peasant to feed the workers.   There’s an irony for you.  The bourgeois industrialist is looking out for the welfare of his workers, and threatening the peasant.  Flash forward sixty years to the USSR under Joe Stalin.  What do we see?  The vozhd, the great strongman, leader of the industrial workers state going to war against the peasant, the kulak. Why?  To feed the workers in the cities.  The tangled historical logic of it all!  The result was the great famine in the Ukraine, as bolshevik instruments of terror requisitioned grain at riflepoint and left the peasants to starve.  And starve they did, by the millions.

Meanwhile, back on the plain of Beauce, France, the peasants shovel their steaming piles of manure onto the fields – from filth comes life, a theme that appears in the strangest places in Zola – and marvel that in Paris, this valuable nutrient is totally wasted in the sewers!  Hugo began a chapter-long discussion of the Paris sewers in his novel Les miserables with the declaration:

Paris throws five millions a year into the sea. And this without metaphor. How, and in what manner? day and night. With what object? without any object. With what thought? without thinking of it. For what return? for nothing. By means of what organ? by means of its intestine. What is its intestine? its sewer . . . Science, after long experiment, now knows that the most fertilizing and the most effective of manures is that of man . . . A sewer is a mistake.

The peasants move on, as their parents did, and their parents did, and theirs, back for centuries.  No need to move too quickly.

And as I was waiting at the corner to cross the street next to the World Trade Center site, right where the giant trucks move in and out of a sliding gate, a husky woman in construction worker’s clothes announced that a dump truck was ready to come out – the pedestrians would all have to wait.  “I’ve got another one coming out!” she shouted at the top of her loud voice.  I thought, that’s not the voice of a peasant.  Why would a peasant yell with such energy just to announce something she announces several times a day, day in, day out, year in, year out?  Something that’s such a routine part of the job.  Why waste the energy?  No, that’s the voice of an American worker, filled with comittment to her job, maybe with optimism and pride in her role.  I thought, “I’m with the peasant!”  Maybe I’m just reading too damn much…


Where it all goes

January 13, 2010

Sometimes, when people find out about my professional work with sewage systems, they ask, “Oh, yeah, where does everything go when it goes down the drain? If you live in New York City, there’s a good chance it all goes here:

to the Newtown Creek water pollution control plant run by the NYC Department of Environmental Protection.  This is one of the largest wastewater treatment plants in the world, and I was there for a meeting this morning.  Afterwards, I took a stroll around the perimeter to get a view of the beautiful digesters, shown at the head of this post, that turn the residue of the treatment process into methane gas and inert sludge.  The shape of the tanks is quite innovative, and the DEP is very proud of them.  [In the aerial view, the digesters are on the right, under construction.]  At night, they are illuminated in their waterfront setting with blue searchlights.  These treatment plants are like ‘negative’ farms:  they use natural processes, aided by technology, to break down, rather than grow up, organic matter.

The public investment in facilities like these is enormous, and largely unremarked.  This plant is being enlarged and upgraded to the tune of about one billion dollars.  Lot’s of money is spent on sewage and drinking water, although not always wisely.

In the USA, the Clean Water Act of the 1960s was the impetus for a vast program of construction all across the nation to clean up urban waterways.  When I first came to NYC in college, it was not quite finished:  the entire west side of Manhattan dumped its raw sewage into the Hudson River, and on a  warm summer night, it stank!  A new treatment plant went on line there in the 1980s, and now all of NYC wastewater is treated, except when it’s raining (but that’s a story for another post.)

Consider this:  The waters around the city, in the Hudson and the East River, are easily cleaner than they have been in 100 years, despite the greatly increased population in the surrounding region.  In those bygone days of yore, when handsome lads would cool off in the summer with a dive off the East River docks, more likely than not they were dunking themselves in a pretty filthy brew.  Now it’s clean, although some people have a hard time believing it.

I came across this rather forlorn remnant of local national pride during my walk around the plant.



Drainage on my mind…

December 10, 2008

  welles_sewer

The other night, I caught the tail end of a special on the The History Channel called “The Sewers of London.”  Wow, that must have drawn quite an audience…but I was watching.  It described the horrors of cholera and typhus in London before the scientists had sorted out the causes of these scourges.  The miasma theory (infection borne by odor) which was wrong, but which nevertheless motivated great public works that led to spectacular gains in public health, dominated the medical establishment.

The Great Stink of the the mid-19th century in London arose from raw sewage dumped right into the Thames, the source of the city’s drinking water.  The theory of water-borne disease was not accepted, and Pasteur’s germ theory was not developed yet.  Get the stink away and the cholera will leave – it was common sense!

bazelgetteEnter Mr. Bazelgette, heroic engineer of the Victorian Age.  (Alas, we  have these giants  no more!)   He built a huge gravity drainage system that directed the city’s sanitary waste to two large pumping stations, from which it was lifted into giant holding reservoirs.  (They must have been a frightful sight when full!)  When the tide on the Thames was going out to sea, the reservoirs were emptied into the river, and the sewage was carried downstream, away from the city.  “The solution to pollution is dilution,” as they say in the engineering world.  Today, the beautiful Thames Embankment, imitated the world over, including in New York City’s Battery Park developments, sits on top of the massive gravity sewers designed by Mr. B.

londondrain1 thames_embankment

Around the same time, Doctor Snow made his famous map, dear to epidemiologists and cartographers, that showed the incidence of cholera in a neighborhood he studied.  He inferred correctly that the cases were all linked to the snow_mapsource of their drinking water, a local pump.  To test his notion, he dared to remove the handle (take note, Mr. Dylan) and the frequency of cholera deaths in the area dropped suddenly.  Case closed!  Disease is carried by…something…in the water, not by smell!

Which brings us to Alida Valli, the woman at the head of this post, the love interest of Harry Lyme (Orson Welles) who meets his ignominious end in the sewers of post-war Vienna in Carol Reed’s film The Third Man. I heard about this film from my mother, at a very young, formative age. Was I, perhaps, conditioned by what Pynchon calls the “Mother Conspiracy, ” just as poor Slothrop was? Is that why I now make my living fiddling with drainage systems and subterranean infrastructure? Well, leaving aside my hydraulic-psychoanalytics(and Freud was, I recall, very fond of hydraulic metaphors) it’s a great film.  And if you think I’m the only one who spins strange associations off of this film, read this appreciation of Ms. Valli.

I recently saw Valli in another film, Hitchcock’s The Paradine Case, a not-so-great film in which she plays a wonderful femme fatale. Yep, she did it, she get’s hanged.  The film’s location shot of the court struck me as it showed the corner blasted away from a bombing raid – it was shot in 1947.

And on the subject of sewers and culture, check out:

  • He Walked by Night – Richard Basehart kills and is killed in this Los Angels noir featuring a climax in the storm sewers
  • V by Thomas Pynchon – Benny Profane searches for the albino alligator rumored to lurk within the New York system
  • Need I say it, Les Miserables, which includes an entire chapter devoted to the history and importance of the Paris sewers, and includes some deprecatory words on the modern ones
  • Various memoirs of the Warsaw Ghetto – hiding and escaping in sewers was common
  • Adolf Loos’ emphasis on plumbing as the standard by which civilizations are to be judged
  • Gibson’s novel featuring The Stink, The Difference Engine

There are other items I’m sure…send me your finds!

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