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Monday, November 5, 2012

Imperial Rome--and Los Angeles

Your team at RST spends about as much time in Los Angeles as in Rome, and not because the cities are similar, and not because we enjoy them the same way.  In Rome we have our Malaguti scooter; in LA it's an ancient Volvo.  And so on.  So we were surprised, and pleased, when Christopher Hawthorne, the architectural critic at the Los Angeles Times, found a bit of common ground.  There's just a hint of what Mr. Hawthorne found in the headline for his column, which appeared on Sunday, October 7:  "L.A.'s imperial side on parade."  We hoped Mr. Hawthorne would reprise his argument on this blog, in his own words, and we offered him the opportunity to do so.  But we haven't heard from him.  So here goes. 

Checking for clearance
Like hundreds of thousands of other Angelenos, Mr. Hawthorne has been intrigued and stimulated by two public events that took place in the past year on the city's broader streets and avenues.  One was the transport of a 342 ton rock--known as "the Rock"--from a quarry in Riverside to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), more than 100 miles to the west, where it became the centerpiece of Michael Heizer's work of art, "Levitated Mass."

Moving the Rock--that's it, bagged in white and
suspended from the vehicle
Moving the rock along county roads and city streets required legions of police officers, the removal of traffic lights and signs and other impediments, and--part of the spectacle--a truck larger than most people could imagine.  We were there one evening in March when "the Rock" made the turn from Adams south onto Western, then later as it negotiated a difficult move onto Wilshire (at left), heading for the "Miracle Mile."  We were enthralled; our only regret was that we didn't keep the grandchildren up past midnight (on a school night) to see it. 

We'll get to Rome in a moment.

The second event, no less wondrous, also involved a large object moving along the city's avenues: the Shuttle Endeavour--the vehicle that replaced the ill-fated Challenger and supplied the international space station for many years--making its final journey, this time on land, from Los Angeles International Airport (referred to always as LAX) to the California Science Center, 12 miles away, where it would sit on display in retirement.  Although the shuttle was much lighter than the Rock, it was also much larger, with a wingspan of 78 feet.  Trees--some 400 of them--had to be cut down to accommodate the ship (this was not popular with folks living along the route nor with many others), and for a time the authorities insisted that the breadth of the shuttle was such that sidewalks would have to be closed to the public.

Larger than life, the Shuttle on Crenshaw. 
That didn't happen, as we learned last Saturday (October 13), when we finally found the shuttle at Crenshaw Avenue, south of Stocker.  The first sighting, as we came around the corner of a bank building, took my breath away, and the thrill continued as we approached the shuttle and the wings passed over our heads. 








Observers on rooftop, right
This time the grandchildren were with us--pleased, but nonplussed in the way only children can be--and so were tens of thousands of others, jamming the sidewalks and intersections, standing on the roofs of buildings, cheering, savoring what seemed an historic moment. 

And what's Rome got to do with it, "got to do with it"?  That's where Mr. Hawthorne comes in.  "Los Angeles," he writes, "is in some striking ways reenacting one of the oldest public celebrations in Western urban history, the Roman triumph."  The Roman triumph, he explains, was an elaborate procession, a grand parade, celebrating a military victory of Rome's imperial armies. 

The Triumph of Camillus
The spoils of war, the gold and jewels and art works and other booty, were part of the parade, there for everyone to admire, as was the general responsible for the victory, riding atop a chariot, through the Circus Maximus, the Roman Forum and, in all likelihood, through one of Rome's triumphal arches, each elaborately decorated with scenes of some wondrous victory over still another inferior people who had stood in the way of Rome's imperial might.  One of these triumphs, the triumph of Camillus, is captured in in a fresco by Francesco Salviati (now at the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence). 

The Arch of Constantine, where
Mussolini honored Italo Balbo
(three centuries after this painting).
 Although Mr. Hawthorne doesn't mention it, the "triumph" didn't end with the fall of Rome and the demise of the Roman empire.  In the 20th century, when the Fascist regime resurrected the glories of ancient Rome and its imperial attitude, Mussolini would reward prominent Fascists who he thought had done something special for the patria with his own version of the triumph.

Balbo's Arch of the Fileni,
in Libya
One so honored was Italo Balbo, the swashbuckling bon vivant and aviator, who took a squadron of planes from Orbetello in Tuscany to Chicago for the 1933 World's Fair.  On his return, Balbo's prize was a parade--with the Duce--under the Arch of Constantine.  Balbo went on to become Governor of Libya, where he built his own triumphal arch, a symbol of Italian empire in the Sirte dessert.  Mussolini was there for the opening ceremony--a triumphal parade.     

The Los Angeles connection is harder to articulate, but it's what makes Mr. Hawthorne's column so valuable.  "We used to make stuff here," he writes, "and send it out into the world or into outer space.  Now we capture that stuff, tether it to the back of a huge vehicle and arrange a low-speed, celebratory public parade through the streets of Los Angeles before putting it on display in one of our major museums."  There is, he suggests, something "imperial" in all this, as we take stuff from "out there"--and that means anywhere, even outer space--and put it in a building for people to see.  In doing so, Mr. Hawthorne concludes, "we affirm some basic idea of what contemporary Los Angeles means or stands for." 

The Rock, now art at LACMA.  We once flew
kites in this space.

So what does Los Angeles stand for, given its newfound penchant for triumphal parades featuring big objects?

It stands for spectacle, for producing systems and events that amaze and confound: the talking pictures, Hollywood, Disneyland, Universal City, Cinerama, 3-D--and now the Rock and the Endeavour.  It stands--or once stood--for aerospace techology (the Endeavor was built in Los Angeles) and for art (the Rock is an art work, in a city undergoing an artistic resurgence).  But most of all, LA stands for museums.  The Rock has already been mounted for display in a museum, and the Endeavour just went on disl

And that means that Mr. Hawthorne is right, that there is something "imperial" going on.  Museums are inherently imperial; they house things that often come from afar and once belonged to others.  They've been bought or taken, sometimes stolen, removed from their original settings, for the pleasure, in this case, of Angelinos.  That's why the Getty Center, another "new" Los Angeles museum--and, appropriately, faux Roman--has been forced to return many of the objects of antiquity that it once housed: they were acquired in imperial transactions. 

Moreover, oil tycoon John Paul Getty, whose 1970s Villa/Museum in Los Angeles was modeled on the Roman Villa dei Papiri in Herculaneum, likened himself to Caesar and was comfortable with descriptions of Getty Oil as an "empire."  The Getty museums house some 44,000 objects from antiquity.  The Rock and the Endeavour have a different provenance; they were neither stolen nor taken from another society.  But they are part of the imperial museum culture that is the new LA.

Bill

The Getty Villa, Los Angeles


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