The museum. The space of grace

Ildebrando Clemente

What kind of place is a Museum? A fusion of contrasting atmospheres – auto-da-fé – a symbolic emptiness, a kind of stupefaction. The work of the spirit that operates around a Museum project is certainly one of the apogees with which it is possible to question compositional research in architecture. Difficult research, filled with misunderstandings and risks, but also a kind that can fathom new formal resources, given that it is aware of being able to assume the Museum as a monument “right here and now”. Indeed, it is common knowledge that the works of architecture of the 20th century have somehow exalted an awareness of the value of memory which Alois Riegl dubbed “the modern cult of monuments” (Riegl, 2011). A “cult” marked by an interlacing of historical, technical and documentary knowledge increasingly accompanied by a need to include instances closer to the transcendent and emotional dimensions of the Monument.
The fluctuations and links between the idea of the Monument and that of the Museum were also a subject of Aldo Rossi’s research on the theory of architectural composition. For Rossi, the Museum and the Monument shared an allusion to the unspeakable, and this “residue of mystery” is the only thing which would be interesting to know but which, despite all our efforts, is the only thing that continues to remain unknowable. According to Rossi’s well-known warning, expressed in his famous essay Architecture for Museums, the Monument represents something with which we try to decipher “what otherwise cannot be said” ”(Rossi, 1969, p. 136).

There are many ways to circumvent or tackle “what otherwise cannot be said”. Without a doubt, a remarkable imaginative faculty is necessary. Indeed, the unsaid can be imagined, can be suggested in the forms of a design. But what type of imagination do we need to picture a Museum capable of mentioning what cannot be said? Very often the unsaid is internalized and then suddenly dissolves in an expressive ebbing wherein the exigency of the past and the search are drained and disrupted, to use Walter Benjamin’s words, in the magic of a dialectic image (Benjamin, 2010, p. 216). With this dialectic image the architecture of the Museum shows its real face and announces its aspirations, varying, innovating and poietically transforming the perpetual oscillation between opposing polarities: countering the stable and latent fullness of the typological form, the spatial alternation of empty continuities and pulsating extemporarinesses. Or, to put it another way in the words of Mies van der Rohe, the Museum creates a “noble background for the civic and cultural life of the whole community” (Mies van der Rohe, 2010, p. 109). Against this “noble background” in which our experience is stirred together with the ghosts of archaeology and anachronism, it might perhaps be useful, for our discussion, to bring out the idea of the Museum as a primordial image.

A primordial or archetypal image is particular by definition but, as Carl Gustav Jung wrote, contains within itself links through which it may be known, loved, and cherished by the collective memory (Jung, 2007). These links trace out many different paths of knowledge but one vision in particular penetrates space in all directions, namely, the path of the mundus imaginalis; the world from which, as Henry Corbin wrote, the profound experience of the active and transforming imagination of reality arises and begins. However, for this imaginative acting to be both true and effective, it must rely on the intelligence of the heart. Following Corbin’s words, the expression “intelligence of the heart” is what connotes the desire to simultaneously know and love the forms of reality through the imaginative act (Corbin, 2010). Therefore, the thought of the heart is the thought of the images that shape reality. The heart is the seat of the imagination and it is through imagination that the authentic voice of the heart is expressed, so that if we speak from the heart, resuming James Hillman’s indications regarding the mundus imaginalis, we must speak in an imaginative way (Hillman, 1981). According to Henry Corbin, the thought of the heart is in fact an utterance that approximates to reality without trying to answer the questions about what it is, what are the beings and things (categorical questions concerning the essences) but embracing the road of the imaginary of who it is, who are the beings and things (questions concerning people, figures, narratives, and visions), (Corbin, 1986, pp. 13-73).

And Musaeus? Who was he? Musaeus was a legendary figure. In the ancient sources he was a companion of Orpheus who represented the superior figure. In fact, Orpheus was granted the nativity of Orphic poetry and, more in general, Orphism as a primitive ecstatic and eschatological religion based on otherworldly visions. After the 5th century BC, the two names often overlapped and intermingled without it being possible to clearly define their corresponding characteristics. According to the ancient sources, Orpheus and Musaeus both belonged to a divine lineage and were bound by family and discipleship ties. Musaeus was known as a native of Eleusis and a “son of Selene and Eumolpus. He went on to formulate liberations, initiations and purifications. Moreover, Sophocles stated that he was a diviner” (Colli, 2015, p. 297). Even if Musaeus has been attributed with poetic verses of an Orphic pattern, according to Giorgio Colli, it was the element of divination that characterized him with respect to the older and more esteemed Orpheus (Colli, 2015, pp. 43-45). The fact remains – importantly according to Colli – that tradition has treated Musaeus in accordance with the twofold reference to Apollo and Dionysus and at the same time has suggested two important and decisive aspects for the later development of the Orphic tradition: divination and the mysteries.

Giovanni Semerano underlined that we have not given enough thought to the fact that Musaeus (Mουσαῖος), and Orpheus (Oρφεύς) are names that evoke the sacredness of that darkness in which the divinity who created the light loved to be shrouded” (Semerano, 2001, p.127). The poet Musaeus, son of Selene the Moon, and (according to some) of Orpheus himself of whom he was the first disciple, is attributed with writing the Hymn to Demeter. Indeed, according to an ancient tradition, it was Musaeus who instituted the mysteries of Eleusis (De Cicco, 2014, pp. 9-44). One of the oldest mentions in which Musaeus appears as the son of Selene is in Plato: “And they produce a host of books written by Musaeus and Orpheus, who were children of the Moon and the Muses – that is what they say – according to which they perform their ritual, and persuade not only individuals, but whole cities, that expiations and atonements for sin may be made by sacrifices and amusements which fill a vacant hour, and are equally at the service of the living and the dead; the latter sort they call mysteries, and they redeem us from the pains of hell, but if we neglect them no one knows what awaits us” (Plato Rep. 364e-365a).
These were sacrifices to propitiate the favour of the gods, offered with a pure heart and with joy, as Plato tells us. Small gifts offered to God with sincere piety, such as milk, wine, grain, or bunches of flowers to recall and celebrate the fragility and brevity of life (Hubert, Mauss, 2002). The rewards for these gifts of purity and sincerity were mentioned by Plato in another passage of The Republic: “Still grander are the gifts of heaven which Musaeus and his son vouchsafe to the just; they take them down into the world below, where they have the saints lying on couches at a feast, everlastingly drunk, crowned with garlands; their idea seems to be that an immortality of drunkenness is the highest meed of virtue” (Plato, Rep. II 363c). Even Heraclitus did not hesitate to define the mysteries (μυστήριον) a medicine of the soul and maintained that “they are intended to medicate misfortunes and free souls from the sufferings that belong to being born” (Semerano, 2001, p. 128).

Musaeus and Orpheus are therefore related to many aspects of the secret essence of our ancient humanity. As Giovanni Semerano wrote, the name of Musaeus is a transliteration of the voices of Old Babylonian and Ancient Assyrian mūšu (night), and Musaeus is the cult follower of hidden mysteries; the μύστης being the initiate of the arcane night rite; while μυσ-τήριον is properly the rite. Let us not forget that M is an ancient glyph of water and in Akkadian mû literally meant “water”. And that in Greek the moon is μήνη, to be associated, according to Semeraro, with the semantic and Akkadian value manû (to calculate) with the sense of recalling and having sense. And manû in ancient Akkadian (calculate, compute) is precisely the hand as a natural tool for counting (Semerano, 2001, pp. 4-18). Before being identified as the epic poet devoted to the Muses, Musaeus was therefore a hypostasis of the sacredness of Night. Over time, “mουσαῖος, the name of the son of the Moon was reduced to that of the divine muses and cancelled – according to Semerano – the true name that evokes Night, called in Ancient Akkadian mūšu. From this word came the Greek μύστης: “he who watches all night long” (παννυχίς) and participated in the μυστήριον, in honour of the chthonian deities Persephone and Demeter” (Semerano, 2001, pp. 229-230).
In Greece, the oldest voice of the poets sang of the sacredness of Night, the cosmic genetrix: “In the celebrations of the great Eleusinian Mysteries, the souls that prepared themselves throughout the long night to accept the sign of the prodigy, with the presence of divinity, relived the anxiety of those ancient faiths which knew that the world had developed from the dark mantle of Night” (Semerano, 2001, p. 230). Also Orpheus who descended to Hades evoked the Greek voice ὄρφνη (night, darkness); he too participated in the merit of having introduced the mystery rites in which was invoked the Orphic vision of a stay on the Island of the Blessed, among the flower-clad meadows. In its innermost depths, every place recalls this vision.

The legendary figure of Musaeus, an incarnation of the power of divination of Apollo and that of regeneration of Dionysus, was also linked to a place name: the Museion. A description of this place can be found in a fragment of Pausanias: “…fortifying the place called Museion. The Museion is a hill just opposite the Acropolis, inside the walls of the ancient city, where they say that Musaeus once sang, and was buried when he died from old age” (Otto, 2005, p. 79). This fragment of Pausanias catches our attention and has no need of supporting evidence. Opposite the Acropolis is a hill called Museion (today Philopappos) where Musaeus is buried: “near this Museion, the Athenians once fought the Amazons” (Otto, 2005, p. 79).

As is well known, in antiquity the constitution of a place resulted in the appropriation of a space delimited by a spirit which could be invoked by a man. Consequently, at the base of the ideation of the Museion we can discern the instance of a formal re-consecration of the space interwoven with the arcane sacred worship of ancestors and the dead. And, as we are reminded by Adolf Loos, the first human Monument was the tumulus, the sepulchre (Loos, 1999, pp. 253-254). Human institutions draw strength and origin from death and therefore also the architecture of the Museum draws strength and origin from it. Tumulus, understood as a hillock, a mound of earth covering a body, like a rise, comes from the Latin “tumēre” hence “tumba” [dome]. The - m - of “tumēre” - as noted by Giovanni Semerano - “corresponds to an original - b -: Akkadian taba’u (come up, rise up, lift, aufstehen)” (Semerano, 2002, p. 569). The Monument is what calls to memory, calls to the attention, (makes us think of) while at the same time assuming the function of an admonition, from admonere; “μένος = animus, spirit, μέμονα I project, I intend, see mamné (I think, I believe); Akkadian mannû, manû, whose original meaning was calculate, compute, but also to give someone responsibility” (Semerano, 2002, pp. 471-475). Certainly the most ancient monument that humans built was the tomb: a memory of the past and an admonition to the living.

The tumulus is the symbolic form that exorcises and contains the anguish of the end. The ancient tomb is also a space whose interior – empty, dark, and functionless – was beautifully ornamented. Despite being dedicated to the eternal darkness, the interiors of ancient tombs were decorated with scenes of real life. In fact, in the secluded elementary space of the tombs real scenes of everyday life were prepared with the intention of ensuring the dead some concrete material and spiritual support for the life beyond life. Like authentic domestic puppet theatres – Wunderkammer ante litteram – tombs were a founding archetype of the forms of architecture in which the place of remembrance merged with that of theatricality in the mutual pursuit of an impossible vision: continuity between life and death. The theatrical space is none other than the original space in which everything is arranged to wait and watch for something that is not there, that is invisible, or that has incomprehensibly disappeared (Clemente, 2016, pp. 19-93).

The Museum seen as a repository of memories to be kept and handed down and from which to imagine a new world, has happily nourished the intrinsic meaning of its architecture for some time. Thanks to Museums, contemporary architecture has been able to express some quite extraordinary formal, constructive, and expressive potential. In addition, we know that Museums are intimately linked to changes in the political conditions of a country, to historical developments and the social and cultural changes of a society. It should be recalled in this respect that the Museum as an autonomous work of architecture emerged at a time when Hegel was declaring the fulfilment of the historical path of the European spirit in his Lectures on the Philosophy of World History written between 1821 and 1824 (Hegel, 1961). In his Lectures, Hegel highlighted a simple fact that is crucial to our historical experience. We become aware of things, Hegel said, when they appear at dusk. In other words, when they come to fruition. At that point, we can only reminisce (zur Erinnerung) over what has been. What is it, therefore, that comes to fruition? According to Hegel, what comes to fruition is the historical process of rationalizing and organizing reality guided by the universality of reason cum scientia. And it is common knowledge that from the apparent enhancement of the rational instance we face the risk of a progressive disempowerment of the richness of life forms – cultural, spiritual and metaphysical – on which history and reality have long settled. It is equally commonly known that this risk of downgrading the life forms and symbolic forms of human experience is now being expressed at all levels of common feelings, especially through the global digital network.

In some way – forcing Hegel’s point of view a little – the Museum would be the place from which the rational and abstracting spirit of European culture, having reached its apex, can, in the end, peacefully contemplate the images of its past, by now chrono-logically organized.
From this ideal location, and from this point onwards, the Hegelian rationality of history, intrinsic to the action of the European spirit, can turn its gaze to the past and reminisce over its own path and its forms by now come to fruition, without any regret over what it once was. But above all, this rationality can finally and cognizantly continue its journey towards an empowering of the rationalization of reality and human existence in all its aspects.
Nonetheless, despite the unidirectional strength of the instance of rationalization, in common feelings – as Karl Jaspers has shown among others – it would seem that memory survives through deep and unavoidable emotional and affective resonances: “The story is incomplete; the becoming embodies infinite possibilities; each shaping of history into a known whole is broken; what is remembered reveals, through new data, a truth first unnoticed; what has been discarded as unessential, acquires a dominant essentiality” (Jaspers, 2014, p. 345). However, the past – the ‘already been’ – as much as it has been summarized, schematized and reorganized through abstract and conceptual knowledge, continues to populate the spaces of our interiority and collective memory and still surfaces today as a premonitory agent of revelatory anxieties. In other words, the Museum today appears to our eyes as a formidable premonitory agent of revelatory anxieties. The Museum is the receptacle of the new world and of archaic things.

Returning to Museums, it must be said that in recent years they have gone from being an important national, regional or local phenomenon to a real worldwide experience, in which, as Jean-Loup Amselle has shown, intergovernmental, institutional and economic initiatives converge and intertwine on a global scale (Amselle, 2017). But the even more important fact is that in the meantime, let us say over the past 25 years, the privileged place in which to accumulate memories, mitigate differences, organize things and information has moved into the virtual space of the world.wide.web, a potentially limitless virtual space.
This dislocation of images, concepts and information inside a potentially infinite virtual space brooks no comparison with traditional experience but is at the same time something incontrovertible and equally indispensable. It is easy to imagine that there are reasonable grounds to believe that even the world.wide.web. represents one of the last pieces to trace out the historical path of the European spirit. In the virtual non-place of the world.wide.web. what emerges unambiguously is the relationship between rationalization and a reminiscence of reality.

“And Orpheus states that Musaeus is the son of Selene, while Musaeus says of himself that he is the son of Pandia, daughter of Zeus and Selene – and of Antiphemus. Instead, Ion maintains that he fell from the Moon” (De Cicco, 2014, p. 29).  The Moon recalls the night. The night recalls sleep. Within the non-place of sleep the future is silently dreamed, exquisitely imagined. All the unexpected joys and all the distressing fears enclosed in dreams, enclosed in time, lead into premonition, as well as into the memory, of which the moon is a symbol of protection. Among the many names of the moon is the Sanskrit Chandra, which also indicates an omen: the moon as a deity of omens.
Certainly of all the words that create the world, “Moon” is one of the most beautiful, and its beauty lies in its relationship with the Latin word for “hand” – manus – whose antecedent, as already mentioned, was the ancient Akkadian manû (calculate, compute). The imaginative, transformational, divinatory aspect of the night star did not escape the painter Osvaldo Licini who made the moon a reflection of ghostly personifications called Amalassunte. Personifications of the moon that fluctuate with their flaming lines – like his rebel angels – in a metamorphic space of the Kingdom of Heaven. Even Licini’s moons-Amalassunte are figures of an original reminiscence, of the transfiguring of imaginative memory, its symbolic and metaphysical enquiry. In the relationship between man and the moon opens the space-vacuum of the night sky into which float human questions on the indecipherability of every single thing.

The nocturnal regime of the imaginary – evoked by the legendary figure of Musaeus fallen from the Moon – addresses the forms of time attempting to capture the vital forces of becoming. Those same forces which in the diurnal scheme converge instead in horror and anguish for the future – according to Gilbert Durand (Durand, 2009). Therefore, just as every beginning flows from the darkness in which it lay hidden to come to light in something meaningful, so the architecture of Museums is born and develops by escaping from the injunction of a pure clarifying evidence, conquering snippets of reality little by little without forgetting the original darkness.

Along the east corridor of the Dominican Convent of San Marco in Florence is Cell number 3. Inside this small room, Fra Giovanni da Fiesole, born Guido di Pietro and nicknamed Guidolino, but better known to us as Beato Angelico, painted one of his most beautiful frescoes. The theme of the fresco is The Annunciation. The scene is essential, the space laconic and enigmatic, the composition almost abstract. We could say that the image of the fresco is closer to the idea of a transcription of an event rather than a true description of it. It is not therefore a simple illustration of the Gospel story. The image strikes us as if it were a remembrance of the Gospel story, its psychic image. The psyche is made up of images. Every psychic occurrence, if we heed the words of Carl Gustav Jung, is both an image and an imagining. The imaginatio, or imagination, is “a concentrated extract of all the forces of life, both bodily and psychic” (Jung, 1981, pp. 283-284). A concentrate of living forces that condenses a total psychic situation and is only indirectly attributable to the perception of an object or an external reality.
In The Annunciation of Cell number 3 any possible narrative and naturalistic details of the story have vanished. The scene of the event is imagined sparely and is set under the portico of the convent cloister: two slim columns partially hidden behind the resplendent wings of the angel to the left and to the right a wall with an opening cut into it. The interlacing of the cross vaults encloses the scene as if it were a cavern, a loggia, or a short tunnel. A few architectural elements describe the essentiality of the image. An essentiality underlined by the white of the plaster which completely clads all the masonry, its whiteness aged by time, as are the cross-vault ceiling and the floor. This essential whiteness stands out as a gleaming backdrop to the scene.

In fact, all of a sudden, the space of The Annunciation strikes us as a vision or hallucination while at the same time seeming elusive, uncertain, indeterminate, almost obsessive, like the space of a dream. On the left-hand side of the image part of a green lawn is visible, and on the threshold between this heavenly green and the man-made portico of the cloister is portrayed the Dominican Friar Pietro da Verona with his head bleeding, an anachronistic witness of the event. The witness – the Friar Pietro da Verona like any of us looking at the scene – carries his past with him along with his immanent prayer and gives thanks to what is happening now and for ever before him.
The scene is therefore a sort of psychic image of the Annunciation. The Virgin Mary, Queen of the Night, and the Angel Gabriel also emerge as essential figures against the white wall of the background. This empty white space between the gaze of the angel and the gaze of Mary is the space of contemplation and the unexpected. The space of revelation. An eternal past lives in our present. An immemorial past. In this rarefied space, each element is an indication of a meaning full of grace. Every single thing is full of grace. The very space, this place of the meeting of two souls, is full of grace. Just as the space that is suited to the Museum is full of grace.


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