I woke up Thursday morning in a high-ceilinged, white-painted room suffused with pink light. I hadn’t realised the night before that the curtains were pink. This was Schwester Christine’s ‘spare’ room. Despite being on the ground floor, the flat is lofty, with tall ceilings, tall doorways, and tall windows. This height is pronounced by the smallness of Schwester Christine and her furnishings.
The nun lives in austere luxury. The most prominent feature of her main room is her bookcase; the most prominent feature of her person is her smile. The former is filled with philosophy, Shakespeare, and Biblical texts. The latter starts at her perfectly straight teeth, fills her eyes, and practically glows from her fingertips.
The main room has a little wooden round dining table; there are two wicker chairs, and a couple of folding chairs, one of which is at the small wooden desk, on which sits a large, open Bible, with many notes pencilled into the margins. There is a little cot which serves as Schwester Christine’s bed, a tall palm plant, and the bookcase. There are a few little stools for tables, one holding a basket filled with books, one holding a radio, one holding a laptop. Pictures adorn the walls – of the sea, of the Virgin, of an Abbey; photos of friends and family. There are a few little woven rugs and mismatched, floral curtains, in pale blues and off-whites. This ‘main room’ is where she lives, and there is also (not unlike my flat in London) a hallway, a bathroom, and small kitchenette. However, the ‘spare’ room, which could easily be her bedroom, is nearly empty, because, as Schwester Christine explained, ‘it is too much for me; I have what I need.’
Schwester Christine went to church very early Thursday morning (she usually goes in the evenings, she told us, but she had to leave for the airport at noon,) and I was delighted that we had more of a visit with her between church and the airport. Megan had to take the children to school, but the three of us managed to convene at the flat by about 9am. After thanking her once again, and admiring her home, Schwester Christine replied, ‘It is good for my…’ she patted her heart. ‘You see, there is no furniture,’ she said, gesturing around. (Indeed, there is what I described, but nothing bulky.) We agreed that this lack of clutter made us feel we could breathe and think.
Now, if you know me, or have read the background of this blog, you will know I am an atheist. I’ve gone from being a Pagan (pre-blogging-days, at university,) to being an ‘evangelical atheist’ (getting to meet Richard Dawkins a few times, etc,) to being some odd mixture of the two: a superstitious atheist with a great curiosity for religion. As much as I loved being able to talk openly to Megan about her religious beliefs, I didn’t want to raise it with Schwester Christine.
So I felt slightly odd giving her a copy of my poetry book, at her request, because I wondered if ‘Darwin’s Microscope’ might be blatantly anti-religion (even though I would say it is simply secular). I had a similar odd feeling gifting Verity (also religious) a copy of Darwin’s Microscope, but that was more because I lived in her house all winter caring for her two cats, and there are a few poems in my book about dissecting cats. Anyway, I concluded with Megan over wine spritzers that Schwester Christine surely wouldn’t read the book, so it didn’t matter.
Therefore it was a bit amusing and unnerving when she pulled it out Thursday morning and began opening to specific pages and asking me questions. The most flattering, and beautiful, moment, was when she opened to my poem about Ophelia, and read it aloud in whispery, lightly-accented English. ‘Beautiful,’ she said, smiling, ‘beautiful.’
It was beautiful, re-animated by her voice. I told Megan and Schwester Christine about the wonderful moment in Les Adrets when Verity pulled out my book to show off to her friends, a couple in which the woman spoke some English and the man didn’t speak any: the woman read a poem aloud in faltering, but good, English, and then Verity read it out, translating it into French on the spot.
It was especially unexpected when S. Christine opened up to ‘Fallen Armour’ and had a lot of questions about it. This poem talks about the deaths of my father and my friend Andrew, and also refers to an amusing story told many times when my brother and I were growing up, about how after I was born, my dad got a vasectomy, which my mom always referred to as him ‘getting fixed’ – I use that phrase in the poem (the ‘humorous’ part of the story is that my brother, three years old at the time, leapt into my dad’s lap after the surgery – slapstick humour and probably not funny to any male, anywhere).
S. Christine really wanted to understand the entirety of the poem. There was a long moment of Megan and I trying to come up with the word ‘vasectomy’ in English, German, and/or French – (fortunately the nun did know what a vasectomy was…) so when we finally hit on the right word, and the penny dropped, S. Christine burst out into whoops of laughter. I laughed at her laughter, and Megan laughed with a slightly panicked look.
Yup – with the bewilderment of an observer, I sat in Vienna laughing about my dead father’s vasectomy with a nun. And it was absolutely okay (though I’m not sure what poor Megan made of it)!
In true Schwester Christine style, the little lady shooed us out of her flat shortly after, ‘But you must GO girls, GO!’ – again, this is done kindly, not to kick us out, but because we simply MUST have TONS to do…and Megan and I went off to find the Josephinum, the only thing on my list, (since I knew Megan had loads to show me,) which we decided to get out of the way so we could then ‘play tourist’.
It was such a treat to see the Viennese waxes so soon after the Florentine waxes, which I saw over my birthday in January. Despite no photography being allowed, I’ve seen a beautiful collection of work from the photographer Tanya Marcuse, whom I hope to eventually collaborate with, combining the Venus Heart poems and the photographs. (She must have had special permission to take photos, but her photos are also better than mine would ever be.) Her collection of ‘wax bodies’ photos can be seen here, and they combine photos taken in Vienna and in Florence.
The waxes in Vienna were commissioned by the Emperor Joseph, made in Florence, at the workshop run by Fontana, and carted over the Alps on donkeys, to get to where they are today. They have the same Venetian glass and rosewood(?) cases that the waxes in Florence have, the same torn and worn silk cushions, and, similar to the Florentine waxes, these three rooms in Vienna (there are more rooms at La Specola) have several life-sized models, and many more bits and pieces all along the walls.
The Viennese ‘Venus’ is quite different, something I’d been able to tell from photos. She is not like the dissectible ‘doll’ after which my play is written – the brunette with pride of place in the obstetrics room in La Specola. This Venus is more like the three wax females I barely saw in the room that was being closed off temporarily. Splayed open, with (of course) a foetus in her womb, she’s got a double strand of pearls around her neck, and very long blonde hair. Her skin is the main difference, and her eyes – her skin is remarkably pasty, not luminous like the brunette Venus at La Specola. She looks more like a porcelain doll than a waxwork. She’s matte; less life-like, than the others. The male ecorche figures on either side of her, and the waxwork body parts along all of the walls, glow in contrast with a sort of wet, shellacked, luminosity. Did Fontana, the Director, or Susini, the wax-modeller, not want the Viennese Venus to be as beautiful? She is the only female figure on display at the Josephinum. Why blonde? Was that a request? (The Florentine brunette; the Viennese blonde?)
The other striking thing about this collection is the way the third room is displayed. This room holds six life-sized male figures, which feel larger-than-life, because they are standing upright, in enormous cases of glass and wood, raised on stands a few feet off the ground. Two are full musculature models, and are really big, beefy. The room is not necessarily ominous, but it does feel oppressive because of how the models are displayed – overlooking the viewer.
Back in the first room, with the blonde Venus, there is also a wonderful array of a dissected heart, and a whole heart in a glass dome, which Marcuse has an amazing photograph of.
It was lovely to have Megan there – she was happy to join me (though I stressed she didn’t have to, as I know this isn’t for everyone!) – She’d had no exposure to the waxes, and I filled her in on some of the history. ‘I expected to be more horrified, but they’re beautiful,’ she said. (Hurrah for friends with open minds…) She connected particularly to anatomy of the throat, which, as a singer, she’d learnt, but never seen. We talked about the idea of the gaze; who was looking at whom. I pointed out that as an artists’ model, there is the expectation and assumption that I am the object looked at, which is true, but that people forget that I am animate, and therefore I am also observing them.
Megan pointed out that we were considering the models now, but there are hundreds’ of years worth of gazes effectively invisibly layered between our gaze and the original models.
I thought about the presentation of the material. It is rather frustrating for these to be in a quiet, tucked-away space (though rather a treat, too, I admit,) – they are purely in the ‘history’ camp. To come to them, and understand anything about them, one needs to already have done one’s research. These could have modern charts or explanations to bring out more information, to impart knowledge about anatomy as well as about history. Not to mention art – these are pieces of art, and there is a vast amount of information about the pigments alone that were used to make the colours in the waxes. Then there is the social and political history behind them, which Anna Maerker writes about in her book ‘Model Experts’.
We went to a cafe for gloriously in-season asparagus soup (served with cream) and the best chai tea latte I’ve ever had (served with cream) before exploring a wonderful market, buying €5 pashminas and a bag full of goodies (cheese, olives, breads, stuffed peppers) in anticipation of a late picnic-style dinner at the flat.
Then we visited the Globe Museum – Megan’s suggestion, to my delight. (I’m so very glad to have friends who love the same obscure historical stuff I do.) I was impressed by how well laid-out and presented this Museum was, particularly in contrast to the context of the waxes, and my above thoughts about their presentation.
After exploring – which made me want to return to the museum at further length – we went to Cafe Centrale. Then Megan had to dash off to meet the children. I, meanwhile, wandered in a light wine-spritzer haze through the Volksgarten, past the Museumsquartier, enjoying the late-afternoon sunshine.
I met Megan at the Musikverein, home to the Vienna Philharmonic, for an incredible concert: a Beethoven overture, a Berg concerto, and, after the break, a symphony by Schostakovich.
The music was sublime as Sachertorte with cream, in undoubtedly the grandest setting. It was the best concert I’ve ever heard. (We had seats for €20, and the next night we had standing tickets to the opera for €3: now that is accessible culture.)