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DAVE WAGNER HOMAGE TO BAUMEISTER NEUMANN for H. Zeltner I Balthasar! A name like thunder, or a cannon shot (yes, that's fitting: his head round as a cannon ball in the Kleiner portrait). Balthasar Neumann, ballistical expert and a master at dreaming in stone! Along the Main river valley, from Würzburg to Bamberg and farther, his churches like no others (baroque as only they define the word) grew up: here the seed of a thought dropped into the earth and a fantasy rooted and grew, unfolding in rock, in marble, sandstone, paint and gilt— but as much one thing as a tree. I have stood floating up with the lightness of his fantasies. At eleven a.m. during the first spring weeks the sun's rays burst like startled birds through the clear uppermost window over the altar, and a red fire runs through the gold. This at Vierzehnheiligen, Church of the Fourteen Saints near Bamberg, where a shepard drunk with religion saw miracles some five hundred years back; in fact, three miracles. But I prefer Neumann's visions. Here they play with the hillside's effects: clouds turn at the tree-line and spin back, madly baroque in the updraft and even whiter against the blue (sky by Tiepolo). Inside the church this goes on even at night and in winter, a certain turbulent harmony, or moment of it, an energy that will not be still in that stillness. And then, sinking back, I imagine the cost of this beauty, this stone epitaph to Schönborn and his bandits— Fürstbischof Friedrich Karl von Schönborn, bishop and prince of Würzburg, mining Deutsch-marks from peasants' bones after the Thirty Years War. Not ten percent of the harvest—hell, he owned the bodies bending in the fields. Leibeigenschaft they called it, which means the state owned your body and the church your soul (and both powers combined in Schönborn). Ah, the nursery rhyme simplicity of that system! It drove my ancestors out to America, into the topdirt of Pennsylvania. And later, centuries after the fact, I return to stare up at this. . . insousciant perfection, this account book of various pains illumined like a precious manuscript wherein is writ how Schonborn, after the Counter-reformation, bought up the best talent in Italy and put it to work on his grandeur: Carlone, Viscardi, Petrini, and Appiani for the Saint's church (and Tiepolo, most famous of all, for the floating fresco in the Schonborn Residenz). But we who left come back, staring up at what we lost and were freed from, all sharing, perhaps, the same tentative detachment: it didn't happen to us. '"Are you interested in architecture?' asked the young man at the chimney-piece. 'Well, I took the trouble, this summer,' said Newman, 'to examineas well as I can calculatesome four hundred and seventy churches. Do you call that interested?' 'Perhaps you are interested in theology,' said the young man. 'Not particularly.' " But that Newman was James', Christopher Newman of The American, 1877. Did it occur to him as well, in his examinations and calculations, that America too is a history of forced arrangements, an industrial Leibeigenschaft ! With this difference: we have nothing to show for it, no Neumann dreaming in red stone! What a break for Christopher Newman, wandering Europe in the fresh muscle of his American decade: He saw the churches that show in their carved faces why they were made at allgrimaces of gargoyles, leers of the judged and damned crowding like ignorant pigeons under the eaves of cathedrals. These things heave from the ground. You can hear the groaning, if you listen, inside the stone. Within these cathedrals there is that odd anonymity under the gothic sky, that shrinking awe as the vaultings leap toward upper space. That perspective once held firm: we are worms, earth worms, wriggling on the Christian hook! But he also saw the hand of Neumann, its lightness breaking up the gothic wilderness like a pioneer's, his eyes roving the earth for stone and ochre, for the pigment of what lives. . . Less than a decade later our own "Baumeister," Henry Richardson, broke open bituminous Pittsburgh...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2157-4189
Print ISSN
0026-5667
Pages
pp. 3-7
Launched on MUSE
2011-07-06
Open Access
No
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