Friday, October 28, 2011


Express Staff Writer

Architecture has always been a serious business for empire builders, especially for the Roman Catholic Church.

Touring the Cathedral in Milan Italy, or the Duomo di Milano, is like taking a walk through a dark and powerful mausoleum of the Catholic soul. We toured the Gothic church recently and imagined that the impressive building spawned legends across the world, and drew the faithful in droves.

The original church on the site was begun in the fifth century. What you see today took 600 years to complete and houses extraordinary works of art, including a marble statue of the martyred St. Bartholomew, carrying his own skin, carved by Marco d'Agrate in 1562. Newly deceased and somewhat shriveled, bishops lie in glass caskets, the names and dates of their predecessors line a entire wall nearby, dating back to the time of Christ. This place carries the undeniable authority of history.

If the famous words of Julius Caesar, "I came, I saw, I conquered," have their counterpart in stone, it is carved into details of the church buildings of old Europe.

While we were inside the Duomo, the modern world raged on outside. Italian protestors flooded the square as tens of thousands more protested across the country against Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and his government's austerity measures that would cut 300,000 jobs.

How many times down through the centuries had the Duomo seen such social skirmishes, or been sacked and burned by outside forces? The power of the church lies in the power to weather the tumult of history and remain standing. It is tempting to crawl into this sanctuary and hide from the noisy world outside. But there is another kind of power that revitalizes each generation and can cut across boundaries of class and culture.

After leaving the Duomo we passed a police barricade and a crowd of protestors and spotted Michael Franti sitting ringside at a café, in bare feet and wearing a 10-gallon hat. He was taking a break from his European concert tour. We thanked him for the rousing show he put on at River Run in Ketchum this summer, and praised his ability to get the whole town up and jumping on its feet; all walks of life dancing to a strong, simple message of tolerance and enthusiasm.

Franti said if we were impressed by Milan, we should go to Rome and the Vatican.

"Makes this place look like McDonalds," he said.

We chose instead to explore Tuscany, once home to the Etruscans, an ancient and mysterious society of soothsayers, artists and warriors who thrived before the founding of Rome.

Unlike the Romans, Etruscans gave women equal rights in society and cared little for history, preferring instead to focus on prophecy and the control of fate through ritual. Etruscan shamans, or haruspexes, drove a nail each year into a wall of the temple of the Goddess of Destiny at Volsinii, essentially outlawing the past.

Perhaps these people had been ordered to never look back, after being sent away from the ancient Kingdom of Lydia, as reported by Herodotus. They left no written histories, frustrating historians' attempts to understand them and their past.

A collection of Etruscan sarcophagi in the hill town of Volterra, "one day's march" from the sea according to ancient historians, sheds further light on this group of inspired and superstitious people. Each burial urn is capped by a carved effigy of the deceased man or woman, happily reclined and carrying a goblet of wine.

Unlike other, more austere and pious cultures, the message of the Etruscans to posterity seems to say: "We came, we saw, we partied."

Tony Evans:

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