la divina commedia di washington dc

Back in undergrad my focus was more on 16th- and 17th- century English literature, but I took a class on Dante Alighieri as a comparative literature component for my English degree, and I loved it. Divina Commedia (the Divine Comedy) is fantastic. Utterly astounding in the richness of the symbolism, the depth, the allusions, et cetera. And it has many similarities (religious content, narrative structure, epic poetry) with Milton’s Paradise Lost, which is probably my all-time favorite ‘book’ … so yeah, I like it.

Anyway, I’ve been trying to find a way to get through the many photos I have from my visit to DC, so I’m going to use Dante as a guide. Inferno, Purgatorio (Purgatory), and Paradiso (Paradise), meet Washington, DC, the nation’s capital.

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Inferno = Washington Metro. I ride the New York Subway quite often ($2.50 per swipe … ouch!) and though when I first moved to the city I found its jarring movements very annoying and was a bit disgusted at its lack of refinement, I can’t imagine New York without it. In comparison to the NYC Subway, the Washington Metro is a downright young’un. So sleek and modern and brutalist … and so I’M STUCK IN A CONCRETE TUNNEL. Exposed concrete, fairly dim lighting. Beautiful, but in a foreboding menacing sublime sort of way. Every time I took the escalator down and down and down I felt like I was slowly approaching doom. But coming back up feels like cheating death.

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Purgatorio = United States Capitol. Its design was actually the result of a design competition, followed by committees, resdesigns, and all the craziness that goes on with turning an idea into architecture. It’s a bit odd, don’t you think? Can the Capitol still be conceived of and judged as architecture? Of course it is structure, but the Capitol has so much weight as an icon and symbol of the legislative branch, the government, and the nation that it is no longer ‘mere’ architecture. With so much bureaucracy going on in that building, who the heck really knows what’s going on? All those stairs, do they lead up or down? Is progress being made and lessons learned or is it a place for walking in circles?

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Paradiso = Peace Monument. Hanging out in front of the United States Capitol is the Peace Monument by Franklin Simmons, erected in 1877. The figure of Grief leans against the figure of History, commemorating naval deaths during the Civil War. While the white marble is clean and ‘peaceful’, the arrangement of the figures hovering high above, touching the Heavens, looking down with frozen sadness at all the tourists scurrying by, is actually more haunting. Perhaps that understanding of human turmoil and remembrance of our own frailty and faults is as much as we can hope for.

If you’re further interested in the Divine Comedy, my professor for the Dante class, Guy Raffa, created this website related to the Divine Comedy which is worth checking out. It’s ostensibly a study guide, but the images are pretty nifty.

monument v. memorial

What is the difference between a monument and a memorial? A monument can be a memorial and a memorial can be a monument. Or can they? Take for example the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, on opposite ends of the reflecting pool in Washington, DC. Why is one a monument and the other a memorial? Each is in commemoration of a past president, each is a popular tourist destination, and each can be considered a visually-impressive work of formal art/architecture in its own right.

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The Washington Monument is a monument to (in commemoration of) George Washington, 1st President of the United States. Washington is not represented via figural form. Instead his monument is an impressive stone obelisk.

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The Lincoln Memorial is a memorial to (in memory of) Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States. Inside is a larger than life-sized marble statue of a seated Lincoln, by the sculptor Daniel Chester French.

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And then there’s the Reflecting Pool, which is technically part of the Lincoln Memorial, but whatever. Positioned between the two and reflecting both structures, it feels more neutral, favoring neither one nor the other. It might seem odd to add value judgments (better, more successful, prettier) to monuments/memorials, but let’s be honest … people visit them because they’re tourist attractions, not to remember the contributions of Washington or Lincoln. You could talk about the memorial aspect of the Washington Monument or the monumental aspect of the Lincoln Memorial, but they’re not called the Washington Memorial and Lincoln Monument simply because those aren’t their names.

The way I always learned it, a monument is an architectural element and a memorial is a memory signifier. So while they may be the same actual object, whether you call that object a monument or memorial depends on what function of that object you’re describing or which takes precedence – the presence of form and physical architecture or the presence of history and transcendent memory. Is that clear? Hm … hope so.