A NEWSLETTER FROM DAVID CORN
What I Learned During My Thanksgiving in Italy
By David Corn November 30, 2022
Michelangelo’s David, from behind, in Florence’s Accademia Gallery.
No turkey. No parade. No dog show. No NFL.
For the first time, I spent Thanksgiving abroad. In Italy, Florence and Venice to be precise. And no politics. Though Italy has moved a few steps toward fascism by electing Giorgia Meloni, a far-right fangirl of Mussolini, prime minister, in these cosmopolitan cities brimming with tourists (particularly other Americans trading stuffing for pasta), there were few noticeable signs of the nation’s slide toward authoritarianism and its embrace of a right-wing populism colored by antisemitism and bigotry. I don’t know whether it was reassuring or frightening that Italian life in those spots appeared so normally zestful at a time of political peril.
Venice seems an apt metaphor for us these days. A city full of wonder and art that showcases the best of human ingenuity and creativity, it may well be doomed due to our species’ inability (so far) to sufficiently address the human-caused challenge of climate change. It’s nearly impossible to traipse through this metropolis of canals, zigzagging down narrow brick streets and frequently crossing waterways, and not wonder about its future. How long can Venice survive? The water lapping against plazas, homes, shops, and avenues is a constant reminder of what is heading our way, each gentle slap another tick in time toward the city’s possible demise. It could disappear beneath the waves by 2100.
While there, I spent hours at the Venice Biennale, one of the more prominent art shows in the world. As is always the case, dozens of nations each had a pavilion to feature an artist (or artists) from their land. And an enormous, curated exhibit called The Milk of Dreams drew together the work of scores of artists from around the globe. Over 800,000 people flocked to Venice for this event.
Much of the art was political, with many artists, including American Simone Leigh, whose work appeared in the US pavilion, focusing on racism and sexism. The well-known American artist Barbara Kruger took a poke at the Pledge of Allegiance, with a piece that centered on a video that acidly substituted words in that vow of patriotism (“resentment” for “republic,” “power” for “justice”).
Barbara Kruger's untitled work in The Milk of Dreams exhibit at the Venice Biennale.
One of the more engaging works was that of Ignasi Aballi in Spain’s pavilion. He noticed that the building was slightly skewed with respect to its neighboring pavilions (Belgium and the Netherlands). So he constructed a replica of the pavilion within the pavilion that rotated 10 degrees on its axis to line up with the adjacent structures. The piece was titled “Correccion.” Great art? I don’t know. But everyone left the pavilion smiling. On a more aesthetic note, I enjoyed the well-displayed exhibit of the late Ruth Asawa’s intricate wire sculptures.
Ruth Asawa’s pieces in The Milk of Dreams.
The Malta pavilion featured a massive kinetic installation by Italian artist Arcangelo Sassolino and Maltese artist Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci called “Diplomazija Astuta,” in which coils of steel were instantly melted at 1500 degrees Celsius and the resulting molten steel droplets fell into basins of water, hissing, cooling, and resolidifying. Somehow this was connected to a famous Caravaggio altarpiece and, according to the work’s description, allegorized “the continuous cycle of agency and loss, the impossible and unstoppable flow of events—symbolized by evanescent intervals in which light is carved out of darkness.” Well, okay. I’m not sure I would have guessed that. But the 16-ton installation was hypnotic and rather impressive.
Molten steel fell into basins of water in “Diplomazija Astuta” in Malta’s exhibit at the Venice Biennale.
Perhaps the most political statement at the festival was not a piece of art but a building—a closed building. In 1914, Russia built an elegant pavilion at the Venice site. This year, it was shut and locked. Russian artists and curators who had been involved in producing the Russian exhibit resigned after Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, and that killed Russia’s participation in the Biennale. In a statement, the Biennale expressed “its complete solidarity for this noble act of courage and stands beside the motivations that have led to this decision, which dramatically epitomizes the tragedy that has beset the entire population of Ukraine.” A solitary security guard stood in front of the vacant building. This could have been a conceptual artwork. (Sidenote: I saw few, if any, Russian tourists in either Italian city. In the luxury shopping center of Florence—the sort of place where one used to see many Russian buyers—I caught no traces of Russian accents.)
To protest the war in Ukraine, Russian artists refused to participate in that country’s exhibit; the Russian pavilion was closed and locked up.
As might be expected, some of the art at the Biennale was inspiring and some of it easy to dismiss. But what was thrilling was that hundreds of thousands of people from around the world trekked to the event to celebrate our leading creators. Not as many as the estimated 2 million who traveled to Qatar for the World Cup (held in stadiums built by exploited foreign workers who toiled, and died, under atrocious conditions), but it was exciting to be within a throng of people trying to figure out what the hell this sculpture or that painting meant. Overall, the Biennale is a tribute to an independent spirit that challenges conventionalism and seeks to expand horizons, a force much needed to counter the global drift toward demagoguery that exploits parochialism and resentment.
Art in Florence is another matter. It’s old, very old. The Uffizi is full of masterworks that were created to serve the Catholic Church and retell its origin tale to reinforce its standing and power. The building was constructed by the powerful Medici family, and the role of the Medici clan in the Renaissance era brings to mind the dominance of today’s billionaires. Much great art was financed by these 1-percenters, including works by Michelangelo, who, according to Wikipedia, had a “complicated” relationship with the Medici crowd. But all these years later, we benefit from that. The fact that Michelangelo, nearly five centuries after he stopped chiseling, still prompts awe is somewhat reassuring about the human experience. (I had to wait nearly an hour to be part of the crowd that gawked at his David in the Accademia Gallery.) His art and that of his contemporaries have outlasted the political machinations of their era. Still, David’s hands and feet are disproportionately large. (There are various explanations for this.)
I much enjoyed the Galileo Museum. Though things ended badly for Galileo Galilei—he was essentially found guilty of heresy by the Inquisition for promoting the earth-orbits-the-sun notion and sentenced to house arrest for the last decade of his life—his tale shows us that reality-deniers may win some battles, but that reality tends to prevail in the long run. The museum named after him does not focus much on its namesake’s travails with the repressive Powers that Be. Instead, it highlights the search for knowledge triggered during the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment, when men (alas, as far as we know, it was mostly men) seeking to understand the physical world pursued ways to measure and observe it—through a wide range of experiments and inventions (telescopes, microscopes, barometers, astrolabes, globes). The finely crafted and ingenious scientific instruments on display are artworks of a different kind. Moreover, scientific experimentation in this era—say, the display of electricity—became a source of entertainment, featured in salons and on stage. All in all, the museum celebrates the unquenchable thirst to comprehend reality and to understand the foundations of our world—a human impulse that even now, as in Galileo’s day, is threatened by authoritarians and know-nothings who challenge science and war against expertise.
A highlight in the museum is Galileo’s finger. Literally. In 1737, 95 years after Galileo died, his remains were moved from his original grave to a tomb in the Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence. During this relocation, three fingers of his right hand (thumb, index, and middle), a vertebra, and a tooth were detached from his body—a common practice at the time for saints and highly venerated persons. (Wouldn’t you want a piece of Albert Einstein’s brain?) The middle finger ended up in the museum. The tooth and the other two fingers went missing around 1905 but were rediscovered in 2009, after an unlabeled urn containing them was sold at an auction.
It certainly is easy to imagine Galileo giving the finger to the science-deniers who persecuted him. The origins of this gesture trace back to the 4th Century BC Greece, and shooting-the-bird is believed to have been introduced to the United States in the 1800s by Italian immigrants. In 1992, Pope John Paul II, declared the church had erred in condemning Galileo. Three and a half centuries after his death, Galileo had finally triumphed in the battle between science and superstition-driven ignorance. Unfortunately, the citizens of Venice, and the rest of us, don’t have that much time.
Galileo’s middle finger on display at the Galileo Museum.
The Watch, Read, and Listen List
Andor. I am not a major Star Wars geek. When the original flick hit the screen, I was at the Ziegfeld Theater in New York City on opening weekend—and returned twice in subsequent weeks to marvel again and again at George Lucas’ reimagination of the space-Western. I excitedly waited for the next two installments but felt ho-hum about the second Star Wars triptych. My interest was re-piqued by the recent (?) trio of films, and I was intrigued enough to watch the recent television series spin-offs: The Mandalorian, The Book of Boba Fett, and Obi-Wan Kenobi. Of the three, The Mandalorian was the best, featuring a very Stars Wars-ish tale of a lone bounty hunter who goes rogue to protect Baby Yoda. It was, however, frustrating that the lead character, played by Pedro Pascal, almost never took off his helmet. Consequently, viewers missed out on Pascal’s considerable acting skill. Boba Fett felt like a pale version of The Mandalorian, with a much less-compelling story. (Mercenary bounty hunter with a heart of gold becomes the beneficent crime lord/protector of the former territory of Jabba the Hut.) None of these new Star Wars outings had me locked in.
Yet I am now over the moon about Andor, the latest SW series. Aficionados might want to know that the show is set in the years before the action depicted in Rogue One, the 2016 stand-alone Star Wars film, just as the rebellion against the big bad Empire is developing. But you don’t need to know any of the Star Wars lore to appreciate the story of Cassian Andor, a thief who specializes in snatching Imperial technology and selling it on the black market. After he kills two corporate security guards in a barroom fight—it’s not his fault—he takes a powder and ends up with no choice but to help a small, ragtag band of rebels heist a rather significant Empire payroll. The caper triggers political tremors throughout the galaxy and places Andor on the path—perhaps—of joining the nascent resistance.
What makes Andor such a stand-out is that it sidesteps the familiar tropes of the Star Wars universe. There are no cute critters needing saving. There are no mystical forces that can be summoned to battle evil. It’s all about power and politics. The Empire is a vast and repressive bureaucracy. But there are members of its legislative body that question its overreach. Within its intelligence service, there are rivalries, intrigues, and debates about how best to thwart resistance. To keep the lid on the locals, the Empire develops paramilitary and torture techniques.
Andor is darker than the other series—and more human. Andor is repeatedly forced to choose between self-interest and more noble ends. A resistance leader named Luthen, who doubles as a legitimate dealer of galactic antiquities, must decide whether to allow an operation to fail to protect a double agent within the Empire’s security branch. What’s the right calculation?
The acting is impressive, with Diego Luna (a veteran of Narcos) in the starring role, and Stellan Skarsgård (who was brilliant in in HBO’s Chernobyl) as Luthen. Forrest Whitaker takes a turn as an insurgent commander. Denise Gough plays a cunning Empire intelligence officer named Dedra Meero, who meticulously assembles data suggesting a scattershot rebellion is cohering. At first, you want to root for her, as she deftly overcomes bureaucratic inertia (and Imperial sexism)—until her ruthlessness places her in a torture chamber willing and eager to deploy the most extreme measures on Andor’s ex.
Throughout the 12 episodes, the writing is exceptional. During a mass prison breakout—one of the best prison breakouts in television history—the leader of the escapees delivers a St. Crispin’s Day-like speech that Kenneth Branagh would be proud to recite. The series finale includes its own thrilling speech from Andor’s mother about the need to combat the Empire and the sacrifice that will entail. None of this excellence is surprising, given that the creator of the series, Tony Gilroy, wrote the top-notch screenplays for the Bourne movies and Rogue One and that one of the writers on the show is Beau Willimon, who was the showrunner for House of Cards. They have piloted Star Wars TV to a new level.
Unfortunately, as Time reports, Andor, which streams on Disney+, has earned the least impressive audience of the Star Wars television shows. Perhaps it’s a victim of franchise fatigue. Or it may be too un-cartoonish for the targeted audience. There’s less mumbo-jumbo stuff and more reality. (Well, as much reality as there can be in a galaxy where junky ships can transverse the cosmos and humans throughout the universe speak English.) Thematically in-synch with today’s worries about the spread of authoritarianism in liberal democracies, Andor is not fueled by the light of the Force; it’s propelled by the complicated dirty work of resistance. That’s why—by light years—it may be the best Star Wars adventure yet.
Read Recent Issues of Our Land
November 17, 2022: Herschel Walker should release his medical records; giving thanks early; The Last Movie Stars reveals Paul Newman’s and Joanne Woodward’s most notable performances—their own lives; MoxieCam™; and more.
November 15, 2022: Is this the end of Donald Trump?; where were you when the Senate was called (I was with Jackson Browne and Tim Robbins); and Neil Young and Crazy Horse keep on riding with a new album; and more.
November 12, 2022: The 2022 midterms and the state of Trumpism; Dumbass Comment of the Week (Special Election Edition); the Mailbag; MoxieCam™; and more.
November 8, 2022: It’s election day…and it’s the Beatles; and more.
November 5, 2022: Has Biden lowballed the threat to American democracy; American Psychosis in the news; Dumbass Comment of the Week (Kari Lake); the Mailbag; MoxieCam™; and more.
November 1, 2022: Elon Musk: a problem, not a solution, when it comes to right-wing extremism; Barack Obama gets it right; Jason Kander’s gutsy and empathetic memoirs; Robert Gordon, RIP; and more.
October, 29, 2022: How Covid disappeared—politically; Dumbass Comment of the Week (Mehmet Oz); the Mailbag, MoxieCam™; and more.
October 25, 2022: Why Joe Biden and the Democrats should be talking about teeth; Michael Flynn’s greatest hits; the brilliance of Peaky Blinders; and more.
October 22, 2022: Attack ads—why they work (then and now); Tulsi Gabbard’s short, strange trip; Dumbass Comment of the Week (Marjorie Taylor Greene); the Mailbag; MoxieCam™; and more.
October 18, 2022: John Durham confirms Donald Turmp is a liar; the big takeaway from the Cuban missile crisis; a new Bruce Springsteen tune; Bill Berry return to rock ‘n’ roll; and more.
Got suggestions, comments, complaints, tips related to any of the above, or anything else? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.