Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Oh, Madonna!

(Venice, Italy) Yesterday, I went inside the Basilica to see my favorite icon here in Venice, the Madonna Nicopeia, who is famous for performing miracles. There were only five other people inside the church, and if you have ever been to Venice, you know how rare that is.

The Madonna Nicopea has a starring role in my second novel, Harley's Ninth, which I wrote in the first-person present tense voice of a teenage girl. I never had the intention of writing specifically for teenagers when I started writing my books; it's just the voice that came out, sort of like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, or even Alice in Alice in Wonderland.

Why write in these young female voices if you also want to appeal to adults? Well, I can tell you why I do it: sometimes it is easier to get your point across if you use this voice, especially when you are working with esoteric ideas. I look at my protagonist, Harley Columba, as a sort of modern-day Joan of Arc -- she is spunky young artist, and is known for speaking the Truth.

Last night an old friend in America told me, "Your novels are for the teenager trapped inside the adult." One problem with it, though, is that I am reviewed by Young Adult critics, who often are looking at other dimensions when they read a "teen" book. I love teens, so I'm happy that they market the books to them, but my second book may push the envelope a little..

A bit of back story: My former publisher filed Chapter 11 Bankruptcy, and I had to go through the tedious process of reclaiming the rights to my first novel by taking legal action against them. During that time, I wrote for the International Herald Tribune-Italy Daily, which turned out to be an intensive course about the art, history, architecture and culture of Venice -- much like what this blog is turning into. (A month and a half ago, I didn't even know "Blog World" existed except on MySpace! I started this blog because of the disastrous exchange rate. So, this is an organic process that you are sharing with me -- I am trying to bridge my worlds.)

After many cross-Atlantic flights, a lot of suffering and expense, I did win the rights to my first novel, Harley, Like a Person back, and wrote a companion novel called Harley's Ninth, which continues the story. That book is the tip of an iceberg of years of research I've done about the changing image of the female throughout the millennium. I've always had difficulty accepting a virginal Mary as she was presented to me growing up in America, and have long been fascinated by the image of the female in the current culture, and how it relates to the male.

Because the Madonna Nicopeia means so much to me, I included her in Harley's Ninth. This excerpt that I want to share with you is set in New Jersey. Harley and her father, Sean (who is a Broadway set designer), stumble into a church after an intense encounter with Harley's mother and step-father. There they meet Father Lorenzo, who is Venetian. Harley's description: "He has long wavy, golden-brown hair and trendy eyeglasses. As he mounts the steps, I see he is wearing sandals and jeans underneath his habit, and I wonder why we did not have priests like this when I was growing up."

We walk up the aisle, an ancient triumvirate. Close to the altar, on the left, there are several tiers of red candles, none of them lit. A painting of what looks like Mary and a little Jesus is above the candles, but it is a Mary I've never seen before. She looks primeval, like her eyes carry important information. She is holding a small Jesus on her lap; just the tip of her right index fingers touches his neck while she supports him with her left hand. Jesus looks like a wise little man, not a baby. "I've never seen this painting before," I say.

"You like it? It is a gift from Venice," Father Lorenzo uses his hands to explain, as if he is
conducting an orchestra. "It is the Madonna Nicopeia, a duplication of the one in our Basilica of San Marco. The icon is coming from Constantinople. The Roman emperors carried it at the front of their army. It means Madonna of Victory. The Crusaders conquered it and brought it to Venice. The story is she was painted by Saint Luke the Evangelist. They say she can perform miracles. I am a little in love with her myself. You can make a prayer."

"Well, I know I certainly could use a miracle." Sean manages a smile. He takes a ten-dolla
r bill out of his wallet and sticks it in the little collection box under the candles. "That should cover both of us."

I am touched that Sean has bought me a miracle. "Thank you." He is still guarded but nods acknowledgment. I take a wooden stick out of the sand in a container on the side of the altar. "Who has a light?"

Harley's Ninth by Cat Bauer
I love the Knopf covers. The artist they hired to design them, Philippe Lardy, really understood what I was writing about -- he transformed my words into images. On the cover is the Madonna of the Sun, and I will tell you how I arrived at that image.

About seven years ago, I went to Turkey to investigate the female. What is now Istanbul used to be Constantinople (which, before, was Byzantium), the capital of the Roman Empire. Many Venetian icons came from there, including the Madonna Nicopeia that Doge Enrico Dandolo brought back after the Fourth Crusade in 1204 -- he was about 97-years-old and blind when he conquered Constantinople, so he must have been really angry about something! To understand Venice, you must go back that far because Venice feels closer to Constantinople than to Rome.

My plane was leaving from Bergamo (Yes! Colleoni territory:), and a very strange thing happened. I love to play the church raffles -- you pay a euro or two (at that time 1000 lire) and you are guaranteed to win a prize. Well, in Bergamo I won a white ceramic Virgin Mary, no joke! I'm looking at her right now, and she is the classic Madonna -- it was the perfect way to start the trip.

After visiting Santa Sofia in Istanbul (you can see what a remarkable influence it had on Venice's Basilica), and seeing Enrico Dandolo's tomb there inside the cathedral/mosque/whatever, my next stop was Hattusas and Yazilikaya, where the Hittite kings reigned 4000 years ago, starting in about 1600 BC. There, the female image was a sexy bull (I've tried to find an image, but I can't -- I've got a little statue I bought while I was there. She looks sort of like Bambi's mother crossed with a bull). The male image was a lion. But the most interesting image I found was the double-headed eagle, one body with two heads looking in opposite directions, which represented the male and the female ruling together -- or so they say.

I went other places to research other things, but next on this particular project was the town of Catalhoyuk that dates back 9000 years to the 8th millennium BC! I was lucky enough to go on a tour of the site with the head archaeologist himself. The images there were of a sexy, robust female lying naked on her side, her buttocks slightly elevated, with large, ample breasts. Another image is of a similar female seated on a throne of leopards, giving birth. They think this might have been a matriarchal society that worshipped the Mother Goddess.

Back home in Venice, we had an excellent Etruscan exhibit at Palazzo Grassi (this was before Pinault bought it and stashed his contemporary art collection in there). The Etruscan civilization was centered down about where Rome is today, and eventually stretched all the way to the Po River. In the tombs, they found images of a married couple, a female seated next to the male, who has his arm around her (sixth century BC). They are both smiling and look very wise. The role of the woman in the Etruscan society was very different than the Greek and the Roman women -- they were known for their licentiousness all the way back in the fourth century B.C. And they actually ate with the men at the dinner table! Shocking! In about 282 B.C., the Etruscans fell to the Romans.

If you ever have the opportunity to see an Estruscan exhibit, I strongly suggest going out of your way. There is one image that I just cannot find, even in the catalogue, but it was a mother and child that looked remarkably like -- guess who? Right! Mary and Jesus.

So, after all that, and much, much more which we won't get into right now, I decided that what was missing on the earth today was the female Sun energy. So, back in New York City on a West Village rooftop, my young protagonist, Harley Columba, decides:

I have my sketch pad with me; I want to work under the spell of the river in the distance, visible through a gap between the buildings. I also carry a mirror. I want to sketch my own face. I have an idea for an oil painting, a goddess of my own creation -- a sexy Madonna, a modern Isis, a new Amaterasu, the Japanese sun goddess -- and I want to capture the image before it disappears into the vapors of my mind. I flip open my sketch pad and take a piece of charcoal out of its case. I prop my sketch pad on the ledge of the building. I sketch a woman reclining in the hollow of mountaintop. Her hair is long, and shaped as if it is the veil of the Virgin Mary. She has wings, Indian-feather wings. The bottom half of her body is nude. Her knees are bent up in the air. Her feet are bare -- with spindly, elegant toes like fingers and semi-circular arches. Suspended between her thighs is a glowing sun; yellow beams shoot out between her legs and into the atmosphere. Inside her womb is a golden egg. The woman's eyes look sideways, right at the viewer. Her eyes are mysterious and wise. There is a tiny smile on her lips, serene and confident. I will call my painting The Madonna of the Sun.

In the future, I'll tell you some more interesting things I discovered along the way. So, when people ask me how long it takes me to write a book, I say about nine months to a year, but in reality, it takes a lifetime.

Ciao from Venice,
Venetian Cat - The Venice Blog


  1. The Madonna of Nicopeia is very special to my family..A distant cousin was a monsignor at St. Marks 40 years ago..He himself had many spiritual experiences while praying to the icon...

  2. Was your distant cousin Marco Ce' by any chance? I loved him when he was our Patriarch, and remember he had a great affinity with the Madonna Nicopeia, so much so that they gave him a beautiful copy when he was retiring -- I was there at the ceremony in St. Mark's Basilica, and it was a very emotional moment, which gave me the idea to include a fictional copy of her image in Harley's Ninth. Thank you for your comment! I am happy to know the Madonna Nicopeia is special to your family, too.

  3. My cousin's name is Don Oscar Zannoni, he is buried in the island of St. Michael, he had a very strong devotion to the Madonna Of Nicopeia..On one of my visits to St. Mark's ( 9-05), I was behind the main altar, there were 3 people praying, one of them had his hand around the iron gate of the tomb of St. Mark, I was focused on his hand, I saw his hand turn into a man's head, I later discerned it could have been the late Pope John Paul II...I told this to Monsignor Renato Volo, he said that many "things" happen in St. Mark's and that he knew my cousin and said that he was a saint.My mother said Don Oscar used to prayer in front of the Madonna for hours, I feel his spirit is still there, helping those who pray and look for her and Jesus' intersession.