Posts Tagged ‘Botticelli’

Prime Time at Kepler’s: Jane Fonda is getting more out of life

Thursday, September 8th, 2011

Packing it in ... at the National Museum in Kraków

Several years ago in the National Museum of Kraków, I remember studying the Botticelli portrait of Giuliano de Medici, a historical figure previously unknown to me.  I was transfixed by the arrogant tilt of the head, the self-confident expression, the full possession of his black curls, his youth, and his virility.

Naturally, I wondered what became of him. What future was he blithely unaware of in this this portrait?  So I looked it up.

He was co-ruler of Florence in the 15th century, the “golden boy” – a handsome, athletic, renowned patron of the arts.  His illegitimate son by his mistress Fioretta Gorini, Giulio di Giuliano de Medici, became Pope Clement VII.

He was assassinated by a rival clan on 26 April, 1478, in the Duomo of Florence, killed by a sword wound to the head and was stabbed 19 times.

He was 25 years old.

They certainly knew how to pack it in back then.  But that got me to thinking about all those rulers and leaders and authors and statesman who were called cruel or neurotic or selfish or greedy.  Are they famous for traits they would have outgrown had they simply lived longer?

Remember, for example, when you judge Mr. Darcy harshly that he is a mere 28 years old, and Lizzie Bennett is just 20. Who among us does not regret being haughty, vain, or silly when they were Lydia Bennett‘s 15?  Most of us live it down.

This is a long way to coming around to Jane Fonda‘s appearance at Kepler’s last month.  She is still living down the ill-advised moment she climbed into the seat of an anti-aircraft gun in Hanoi in 1972.  She was 34.  All those workout videos and film cannot erase that indelible moment.  Should it?

And here she was a few feet in front of me. (Video below. The first with my Droid. I’ll get better. Really I will.) Now she’s 73 and peddling a book called Prime Time.  She’s a cheerleader for the Boomers.

And admittedly a good looking one, no matter how much surgery it took.  She was glossy and very thin under a bushel of hair and tinted glasses. As she donned her reading glasses, she said she had “lost eyesight but gained insight.”

The room seemed to be filled largely with Boomers.  She gave a shout-out to Laura Carstensen of Stanford’s Longevity Center, with whom she had been spending time during her swing through the Peninsula.

She touched on Carstensen’s main themes: we are, on average, living 34 years longer than earlier generations. What are we going to do with all the time?

“A third of how well we do aging is genetics.  Two-thirds is us and the decisions we make.”  Over time, she said, we have “less of an ego-stake in the outcomes.”  She also said, “The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.”

She began talking about sex for the elderly, getting a ripples of knowing, cougar-like chuckles from the audience.  She recommended computer dating.  “Over here! Help me, Jane!” one called out.  “Match me up, Jane!”

She had a piece of good advice for one of the few young women in the audience (it was almost entirely women): “It gets better,” she said. “Understand that ‘no’ is a complete sentence. Your body is yours. Honor it. Don’t let anyone make you feel bad about it.”

Who would she go back to in time to talk to?  “Jesus.”  Who besides Jesus. “Eleanor Roosevelt.”  I didn’t quite follow the line of thinking.

Someone asked her about becoming a Christian.  “It changed my life. It also ended my marriage [to Ted Turner].”

“It has given me a core, a center. …Once we understand spirit, we’re strong.”

She cited Viktor Frankl, and said that a key to living well and longer was “generativity” – a fancy word for sharing.  But if caritas is merely another form of self-improvement – is it love at all? Isn’t it simply something else we are doing for ourselvse?

I had never seen Kepler’s so crowded. The room was transfixed.  The crowd was well educated, well heeled, well groomed.  They had everything, and many of them didn’t seem to know it.  They wanted to know how to get more from their lives.

But isn’t there an age when we should simply be giving more?

Elif Batuman in Hell and Paradise

Wednesday, August 17th, 2011

OK.  I surrender.  Now I’m a hopeless fan.  I’ve just finished Elif Batuman‘s “A Divine Comedy: Among the Danteans of Florence” in the September Harper’s Magazine.

True confessions:  I never really read The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them beginning-to-end; just in bits and snatches, the way I seem to read everything nowadays.  I’ve heard, frankly, that the book was more or less assembled in bits and pieces, so this is not as sacrilegious as it may sound.

But Elif’s Italian journey can be read in one go.  It’s funny and brilliant and intoxicating, and I’m sure I’ll save this copy of Harper’s till the paper is in tatters, rereading it. Of course, the topic is unbeatable:  Dante Alighieri and the Divine Comedy.

Her journey begins like this:


During the Dante Marathon in Florence, the entire Divine Comedy is declaimed by readers in color-coded jerseys emblazoned with their canto numbers. Readings proceed in concentric circles, with the Inferno beginning on the outskirts of the city, and Paradiso ending on the steps of the Duomo. In the spring of 2009, notwithstanding my poor Italian language skills, I participated in this marathon.

Wearing an Inferno-red 33 jersey, I read the canto in which Dante and Virgil cross the frozen floor of hell, where traitors are punished. …

I first learned about the Dante Marathon from a student in a thesis-writing workshop I was teaching at Stanford. The student, an aspiring operatic soprano, was writing a thesis about vocalization in Dante. In class, she spoke in a throat-preserving, emotionless whisper. It was only much later that I heard her sing – the utterly unfamiliar voice, so pure but so knowing, unfurling like some gorgeous endless fabric out of her tiny Chinese body.

Elif’s saga takes her through Florence, to Pisa, where she meets the forensic paleontologist Francesco Mallegni, who has reconstructed a facial likeness of Dante based on a “bootleg model” of the poet’s skull when the skeleton was exhumed in 1921. Mallegni also found and studied the body of the Inferno‘s imprisoned Count Ugolino, presumed cannibal who devoured the bodies of his own children in hunger.  His conclusion? “The septuagenarian count, not having a tooth in his head, couldn’t possibly have eaten a child, let alone four grown men,” Elif writes.

On to Verona and (inevitably) Juliet’s balcony, and the estate of the most recent generation of Dante’s descendents, on a paradisiacal estate. This leads to her concluding meditation on Paradise:

...not this

Dante’s afterworld, drawing attention to its own eccentricities, paradoxes, and loopholes, is not a universal afterworld – it’s Dante‘s afterworld, based  in his own experiences. Seen from this perspective, the only thing that’s indubitably real, the only thing everyone can see and agree on, is the stuff of this life – all the stuff that Dante himself studied with such interest and love. Is Paradise more real than all that? Is it better? Is Paradise enough to compensate for the loss of the world?

Maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t. Believe me, if that’s how the cards fall, I’ll be the first to congratulate Dante on his eternal happiness – even if I have to do it from the sixth circle in a flaming coffin with Epicurus and the rest of the heretics. But if this world is all there is, then it’s in history itself that the riddle finds its solution.

You’ll have to buy the magazine to read the rest; it’s not online.

Bad news for me, though.  According to Mallegni, Giotto painted the real Dante – Botticelli got it all wrong. “But Giotto’s Dante looks like any Renaissance youth, and Botticelli’s looks like someone who has been to hell and back,” wrote Elif.  Botticelli’s profile of Dante rather resembles mine – at least in the nose.  I had liked to think that Dante and I had at least that in common.

Postscript on 8/20 (with a hat tip to Dave Lull):  On her own website, Elif has elucidated this edifying language point:

Forward-thinking readers! You don’t need me to tell you that our language is a living, growing organism. So, in an effort to stay with the times, I recently attempted to use the word “douchebags” in print. The context was an essay on Dante, which is scheduled to run in the September issue of Harper’s, albeit probably with some minor revision to the following sentence: “Dante goes to the afterworld, and everyone is there: Homer, Moses, Judas, Jesus, Brunetto Latini, Beatrice, all the thousand and one douchebags of Florence.”

Read the rest here.