Chance literary encounters

My (too short) vacation this year did not have any literary connection. So imagine my surprise when I met this little man:

The first night, then, I went to sleep on the sand, a thousand miles from any human habitation. I was more isolated than a shipwrecked sailor on a raft in the middle of the ocean. Thus you can imagine my amazement, at sunrise, when I was awakened by an odd little voice. It said:
“If you please– draw me a sheep!”
“Draw me a sheep!”
I jumped to my feet, completely thunderstruck. I blinked my eyes hard. I looked carefully all around me. And I saw a most extraordinary small person, who stood there examining me with great seriousness.

Let me back this story by saying that husband and I, while we don’t have “our song”, we do have “our book”, and it’s Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince. A couple of weeks ago, we were vacationing in Madeira and we were lucky enough to see our book transformed into wall and door art. All the important details were there. The fox:

“To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world…”

The lamplighter:

The fifth planet was very strange. It was the smallest of all. There was just enough room on it for a street lamp and a lamplighter. The little prince was not able to reach any explanation of the use of a street lamp and a lamplighter, somewhere in the heavens, on a planet which had no people, and not one house. But he said to himself, nevertheless: “When he lights his street lamp, it is as if he brought one more star to life, or one flower. When he puts out his lamp, he sends the flower, or the star, to sleep. That is a beautiful occupation. And since it is beautiful, it is truly useful.”

The sheep, the baobab, and the snake:

“Oh! I understand you very well,” said the little prince. “But why do you always speak in riddles?”
“I solve them all,” said the snake.
And they were both silent.

And more still:

The painting was part of an art project transforming walls and doors in historical Funchal into art pieces. You can find more about the project The arT of oPEn doORs here and more pictures of this painting by Francisco J. V. Fernandes and Maria Luisa Freitas Spinola (to be seen at the following address: Travessa do Pimenta, 7) here.

Quotes taken from this online version of The Little Prince (translator not stated).

Book: The Geometry of Love

The book: The Geometry of Love. Space, Time, Mystery and Meaning in an Ordinary Church, by Margaret Visser

The edition: North Point Press hardback, 325 pages, with notes and bibliography

What it is about: using the Roman church of Sant’Agnese Fuori le Mura, Visser goes on a journey to explain all the different layers of meaning present in a church: architecture represents spiritual life, art derives from history and reflects on myth, words in several languages create a network of cross-references, and everything can be read as through a glass, on a number of levels.

My experience with the book & my thoughts: I came across a mention of this book while I was looking for books set in Italy for last year’s Italy in Books reading challenge. I wasn’t able to finish it in time, but I am so glad that I discovered it, because I would never have found out about it elsewhere. And it’s a great book! I knew many of the things it is about, religious meanings and art history things… but they are masterfully woven together with so many other things and detail. It is a labour of love, and as such it is a masterpiece: I rarely read so good a non-fiction book. But I cannot really explain what’s so good about it, so just scroll down and read some of it in the author’s own words!

What I liked: the way so many different levels are interwoven. And of course all the etymological insight.

What I didn’t like: if I had to find a fault, that would be a couple of references to the author previous work (which was about food and had nothing to share, apart from the author’s own intent of analysing things on so many different levels).

In the author’s own words: the best way to tell you about this book is to share some parts. I loved this train of connections (it’s a bit longish, but please bear with me, it’s a perfect example of all the different layers of meaning that the author weaves together in the book):

The preliminary section of many early churches was an enclosed area outside the front doors, a courtyard before the temple, often with greenery and flowers and a fountain. In Latin the name for it was atrium (as the courtyard of a Roman house was called), or porticus, because it was a pillared enclosures; or it was called a paradisus, a garden, but one with biblical connotations. “Paradise” comes from a Persian word meaning a “walled-in enclosure,” often a deer park. The word came to denote more vaguely a “pleasure garden.” For this reason “paradise” was used to translate the Hebrew word gan, or garden, in the Book of Genesis: the place where Adam and Eve lived in delightful innocence before they disobeyed God. […] The first disobedience was the end of innocence — but still it is seen as standing at the beginning of the story of the human race. And similarly, to enter a church we step out of the narthex, or “paradise.”
Now the next stage of the journey can begin. The “road,” the church’s central aisle, lies ahead, its length representing the time humanity has before it, the span each person has to live. […]
In the children’s game of hopscotch, the origins of which are very old, a pattern of squares is scratched on a bald patch of ground, or drawn in chalk on a city sidewalk. […] Some hopscotch patterns are spiral, with the goal in the middle, like a labyrinth. There the player is said to be “reborn”: the next stage of the game is to turn and hop back out. This hopscotch design can be interpreted as a figure of the “journey” of life, as well as a static picture of the soul: of the truth — God — to be found at the heart of every self. Round churches are built in part to evoke such ideas. A different hopscotch pattern resembles the ground plan of a basilical church with a transverse section, or transept. This shape expresses, as we shall see, the spiritual life in time. […] The normally rounded hopscotch end-piece is known in many languages as “paradise,” or by a word such as “crown” or “glory.”

And a shorter one:

The lamb is Agnes’ attribute or identifying symbol; she was one of the first Christian saints to have one. The lamb (agnus in Latin) is a visual pun on the girl’s name. In Greek (her name is, in fact, Greek) hagne means “full of religious awe” (hagos). In ancient Greek religion, sacred people, places, or objects — those that were considered untouchable and “fenced-off” — had, and aroused, hagos. […] It is not surprising that the myth of Agnes should have endowed her with sacred virginity, for such a quality was suggested by her name.

Book connection: the same truths about the catacombs I read recently in The Last Cato.

Read this if: if you want to know more about art history, Catholicism, religious history; if you are passionate about word etymology… if you ever plan to visit Rome!

Counts as: Reading Round Rome #1; Travel with Books (Rome)

Wondrous Words Wednesday: Irving Stone

Wondrous Words Wednesday is a weekly meme where we share new (to us) and interesting (to us, again) words we encountered in our readings. See this week round-up at BermudaOnion’s blog!

I’ve been away for too long, but first vacation and then not reading much in English left me without new words to share. I’m back, though! And look, I carry new words from my current read, The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone!


The laughter had an annealing quality; strangers at Lorenzo’s table who had never met and perhaps came from diametrically opposed ways of life began talking with the people around them.

anneal: v. heat (metal or glass) and allow it to cool slowly, in order to remove internal stresses.

I didn’t realize it immediately, but the author uses a lot of vocabulary related to art and sculpture techniques, in a metaphorical way. Here I had gathered that he meant “unifying”, but it’s actually much more than that. This word alone has made my respect for the author soar!


By mid-December news reached Bologna that Savonarola had stepped into the crisis with a series of Haggai sermons in which he backed the proposed democratic structure.

Book of Haggai: n. an Old Testament book telling the prophecies of Haggai which are concerned mainly with rebuilding the temples after the Babylonian Captivity
*This definition comes from WordNet


Arising out of the third level of the wall and going up into the curved vault were pendentives, which in turn were based on pilasters, column-like piers buried in the third tier.

pendentive: n. (Architecture) a curved triangle of vaulting formed by the intersection of a dome with its supporting arches.

Here’s a diagram:

Image credits: Wikipedia. The pendentives are shown in yellow.

And here’s how the pendentives would turn out:

Image credits: Wikipedia


The Pope’s objective would be accomplished; no one would be disturbed any more by the projecting spandrels, loomingly empty lunettes or the broken-up vault with its monotonous circles of gold stars.

spandrel: n. (Architecture) the almost triangular space between one side of the outer curve of an arch, a wall, and the ceiling or framework; the space between the shoulders of adjoining arches and the ceiling or moulding above.

It’s easier to see it:

Image credits: Wikipedia

And here is what Michelangelo would end up doing with his spandrels:

Image credits: Wikipedia


This knock, these words, are the first time my hand or tongue have made sense since I arrived in Rome. I brought my lute so that I could accompany myself while I tell you my bathetic story.

bathetic: adj. related to bathos
bathos: n. (in literature) an unintentional change in mood from the important and serious to the trivial or ridiculous.

I knew “pathetic”, which has the same origin more or less, and I still think that that’s what he may have meant. Except that the character speaking here is putting up a show of his life (as a way to say he’s sorry), and may want to use high-flown words just as a jest.


But Rome shall hear this dirge no more from me. From now on I sing the praises of Master Buonarroti.

dirge: n. a lament for the dead, especially one forming part of a funeral rite; a mournful song, piece of music, or sound.


(All definitions are taken from the Concise Oxford English Dictionary © 2008 via unless otherwise stated.)

Book: The Art Thief

The book: The Art Thief, by Noah Charney

The edition: Simon & Schuster Pocket Books paperback, 308 pages, with reading group guide

The story: a Caravaggio altarpiece is stolen from a church in Rome; a Malevich painting disappears in Paris; and another (or possibly the same) Malevich is stolen from the National Gallery in London just a few hours after it was bought. In the world of art crime the three thefts may be linked, although the officials investigating may never know about it…

My experience with the book & my thoughts: while I like a good crime story, I am not a good judge of them. This one I enjoyed, but the plot is way too complicated for me, I still have to get my head around the details of what happened… Apart from that, I appreciated this book as a good balance of fact and fiction: the art history was good, and I later realized that art crime data were real too, because the author is a specialist in the field (his other published book is a non-fiction tome about the story of the most-stolen piece of art of all history) and created an association with the goal of bringing together the police force working on art crimes and the academy art experts. All in all a good read.

The part with spoilers: am I the only one who feels that everyone turning up in couples at the end was working out too fine?

What I liked: a well-constructed plot with many interesting characters.

What I didn’t like: the low consideration of Italians who are marginalized and described as people who botch up their jobs (e.g. the priest who leaves the alarm disconnected only to wake up to a stolen painting) and don’t care about investigating (e.g. the Carabinieri detective who dismisses all investigation because he has too many art crimes on his hands).

Language & writing: I don’t know if it is a trend or if I’m only happening to read several such books in a row, but what’s up with authors using foreign language dialogue in their books? Here you can find whole dialogues in Italian and French (and lucky me, I could understand both, but what if someone does not?). Unfortunately, the Italian sounded wrong to an Italian ear. I am not French, but even that didn’t sound right. If they want to use a foreign language (and I don’t get the reason for that), why can’t they try and get it right? Ask a native, maybe?

In the author’s own words: a secondary character is an art teacher, and while I didn’t like the character himself, I enjoyed the lessons. As here:

“Ladies and gentlemen, I am taking you on the Barrow high-speed tour of the greatest hits of th National Gallery. Please show requisite awe, veneration, and subsequent enlightenment. […]
Bow your heads, children. You are in the presence of majesty. Screw the Mona Lisa, screw Whistler and his mother, screw the Water Lilies and every other painting that you’ve heard of but know nothing about because it’s famous for all the wrong reasons. This may be the most influential painting in the history of the universe!”
The students collectively rolled their eyes.
“Don’t roll your eyes at me, you ignorant cows! I’m here to enlighten you and, damn it, you will be enlightened! This is The Marriage Contract by Jan van Eyck. […]
It doesn’t look like a Jackson Pollock? You’re right, but for the wrong reason.
Ladies and gentlemen! Art repeats. The history of art is rife with allusion and self-reference. Art is cumulative. The most modern art comments upon, and reflects, everything that came before it.So, although this 1434 van Eyck does not look like a Pollock, Pollock would not exist without van Eyck, and every artist who came between them. Art that looks different is a reaction against, but it is nevertheless a reaction. I’ll give you a train of for-instance.
Ancient Greek sculpture influenced ancient Roman sculpture which influenced Cimabue who inspired Giotto who influenced Masaccio who influenced Raphael who inspired Annibale Carracci who taught Domenichino who worked alongside Poussin who influenced David who inspired Manet who was beloved of Degas who influenced Monet who inspired Mondrian who inspired Malevich who worked with Kandinsky who led to Jackson-goddamned-Pollock, thank you very much! Polydorus to Pollock in seventeen easy lessons.”
The students broke out into smiles and applauded.

Links to better understand this book:

Random thought: too bad the church of the first chapter does not exist, I had wished to visit it on our next trip to Rome!

Read this if: if you like detective stories with a very entangled plot.

Counts as: Italy in Books Challenge #6, One Two Theme Challenge – Art