Friday, May 28, 2010

We'll Always Have Paris

Just returned from a lovely, boisterous, really, really good meal at Polidor with Steve and Gina. The website video describes the décor as "authentique et émouvant" (authentic and moving) - and you know what? They're right! The place has been there on these terms since 1845 - it's a pilgrimage site. And the Bavarois au Cassis is out of sight! Thanks, Steve and Gina - it was scrumptious at every bite! It was also fun to write Paris out on the paper tablecloth as we plotted a million different things that Paris has to offer. I myself am seriously considering playing hooky from the BN on Sunday: there are about 5 exhibits that I want to go see, and the research library is closed (only the reading room would be open, and while, no, I can't read on my own time, I'm in Paris, France and there are at least 5 shows I want to see!)

Plus (significant pause) I had a major professional triumph today. Major. Unprecedented. In the tiny, neurotic world of academics who study at the BN every once in a while, the notice "Reserve" strikes fear in every heart. (I'm not even going to address doing research at the Manuscripts Room, which is as ego-crushing an experience as anyone could ever get. Crushing). For Reserve means you have to go through yet another set of Get Smart doorways, get approved to go up the elevator, get buzzed into a room, and then (tremulously) ask to see, oh I don't know, the 1517 French translation edition of Bernhard von Breydenbach's 1484 work Sanctae Peregrinationes which describe the German canon's travels to Jerusalem and the Holy Land. The answer (always) is a withering "We have it in microfiche, you may not see the original." Now this doesn't mean much to you if you're French, you accept it humbly. But if you're American, and you've ever studied in a University library's Rare Books room where they just about give you a massage and a cuppa tea when you ask to look at a manuscript, you just kinda of start to weep inside. What's it all for? Did these manuscripts come here to die alone? Of course, I know I'm wrong, I know that manuscripts die if they're over-handled, but still, it breaks my heart, because these works really truly were made to live and breathe with readers. Naive American, I know.

However, today I was ready. "Ah," says I, "Then perhaps the 1522 edition is not on microfiche and I can consult it." Touché, pussy cat! But instead I got "Why do you want to look at it so badly in any case?" Usually at this point, I cave, give up, and take the microfiche with slumped shoulders and trembling lip. But today, I said "Because I'm an art historian!" I really did! And guess what? IT WORKED! I was scolded, of course ("You should have said so from the start") but I didn't care - I was actually going to get to look at 1522 book within one hour of asking for it. (I've looked at manuscripts before, but only after 5 days of slogging through enough microfilm to really make you wonder what it's all for). So there I sat, with my 1522 edition of Breydenbach and I read it pretty much all day long. Lunch hour came and went, and I couldn't get away: it was all too crazy and beautiful. The French edition is awesome because they added all sorts of new chapters about the "Turks and the Sarracens" and I'm trying to figure out the slippage here between different Islams in this period. The two are lumped together in a whole new way after the Turks take over Jerusalem in 1517 (and Jerusalem would remain part of the Ottoman Empire until 1918!) and I'm trying to gauge the characterization of the Turks that François and Louise would have been experiencing.

The most astounding thing by far that I found in this compendium of sources old and new about Islam in the 16th century is a fictional letter from the Sultan Mehmed II asking Pope Nicolas to stop inciting people to crusade, especially the Venetians. (!) (it's probably an anti-Venitian tract more than anything else, but the terms are fascinating). The logic, says "Mehmed" is that the Turks are, after all, descended from the Trojans (through classic humanist etymology), as are all Italians, and so why fight? Plus, the Turks believe Jesus was a prophet. Plus, they just want to claim what is theirs (Europe) through their Trojan heritage. !!! Lots and lots of doublespeak. I also found this really touching table of words, basically an early survivor's travel vocabulary list (how to say "sick" or "beautiful" in Turkish - and numbers 1-30). This book was as much a travel account as a pilgrim's guide, and as such, asks very different things simultaneously of the reader. On the enormous fold-out map of Jerusalem, sites marked with two crosses (you are told) are worth a plenary indulgence (big deal), sites marked with one grant you a quarateine (40 days off in Purgatory). Reading that involves you with the image a great deal more. There was so much more (images, texts) but it's late and we should all move on, yes? Sorry for the petulant blow-by-blow of my wee triumph - but man oh man did it feel good (do you think it was the mention of the 1522 edition that did it, or the fact that I'm an art historian? I'll never know!).

For now, to bed, then back to the BN tomorrow for a last long haul. Then to dream of an evening (there's a Georgian (ex-Soviet Republic Georgia) movie playing and how often do you get to see those?) and then to see as much art and life as possible in Paris, France on Sunday!

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