“Built only for the prince and the peasant”: Carl Schmitt in Korčula

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The Chapel, 1929, gum Arabic print.
This small church sits off cathedral square in the center of the town of Korčula in Dalmatia (the coastal region of present-day Croatia). The print was rendered from sketches made three years prior during Schmitt’s second visit there.

Carl Schmitt was overwhelmed by the beauty of Dalmatia from the time he first set foot there in January, 1914.  His visit was purely serendipitous.  Sailing through the Adriatic on its way to Italy, his ship stopped briefly in Split and Schmitt disembarked to explore the ancient city.  He heard the ship whistle the “all aboard,” but, enchanted by the people and the scenery, he decided to remain. When he returned to the port, the ship was gone, and thus began Schmitt’s first sojourn in Croatia.

Chapel - Korcula - contemporary photograph - CROPPED

Schmitt made the most of his stay, sketching peasants, army officers, musicians, and others he met on the streets and in the cafes of the city.  As he described it to Catholic activist and writer Peter Maurin, in Dalmatia “People still combine cult, that is to say liturgy, with culture, that is to say literature, with cultivation, that is to say agriculture.”

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Schmitt’s constant sketching and his association with some newfound friends of a revolutionary stripe attracted the attention of local authorities. In the politically charged days before the ourbreak of the Great War, they took him for a spy and after a brief interrogation, let him go. He decided to go on to Italy as planned, but always pined for Dalmatia.

The brief sojourn in the city made a deep impression on the artist, and Schmitt even considered settling there with his family after a subsequent visit to the region 1926. The sketches he made of the island of Korčula off the Dalmatian coast during this later trip formed the basis of a series of prints published in the February 1929 issue of Scribners Magazine. In the article Schmitt described his attraction to the picturesque town in almost rhapsodic terms:

“Korčula is a town of 3,000 people on an island of the same name. It is on the regular steamboat route between Split and Dubrovnik. Since I was first in Dalmatia fourteen of the principal cities of the mainland have lost their character of peasant homeliness and something fine is gone out of their hospitality. But not so Korčula.

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House in Korčula, 1926 (pastel on paper, 17 x 13 in.) and a contemporary photograph of the same house.
The photo was sent to me by Sani Sardelić, curator of Korčula Town Museum, which is publishing a booklet on Carl Schmitt’s visit to the the town in 1926.  The father-in-law of the book’s author hosted Schmitt in this house during his stay there almost 90 years ago.

“I could write at length of the health (and consequent beauty) of the imaginations and bodies of the people of Korčula, due, I think, in part to a providential weakness in modern banking ability and in part to a beneficent sun. But the city, the buildings, the boats, and the indescribable water of the Adriatic are also a part of the picture. The city rises out of this clean blue water of carved white glowing stone and climaxes in the cathedral which was begun in the thirteenth century. There are no automobiles here. The limestone-paved streets rising steep to the cathedral are built only for the prince and the peasant, one on foot, the other on a donkey. For this is the story of Korčula.”

Schmitt would return to his beloved Dalmatia only once more, this time with his wife for a second honeymoon in 1934, shortly after their tenth child’s second birthday. For him, the region embodied his ideal of becoming a true “peasant,” one whose role is to “intuitively envision, act, create.” He longed to form a firm “base of culture and religion” for his family by “a long memory and experience of [a] place.” For him, such a place is “where body and soul become one.”  Silvermine would fulfill that role for him and his family in the years ahead, but for Schmitt, Europe would always remain “an island of the Fine Arts; the locus of the full liberation of the imagination.”

Carl Schmitt - Building a Boat (Croatia) - CSF43002 - from Scribners magazine

Building a Boat, 1929, gum arabic print.
“With Korčula in the background—a white city shimmering in the subtropical sun.”

Reprinted from the July 2014 issue of  Vision, the CSF e-newsletter.  To subscribe or read past issues, click here.

See also:

Wisdom on Wednesdays—The arts as fundamental

The idea that a work of art is something to be used as an embellishment and its possession is the mark of a cultured person (provided the work of art is in style) and nothing else, is the mark of decay in European society.
“The fact of the matter is that the arts are as fundamental to the material life of man as the sacraments are to his spiritual.  As the sacraments fail, so do the arts.”  (1943)

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Still Life with Banana, c. 1975, oil on canvas, 18 x 15 in.

Seeing things from the “inside out”: The contribution of Rome

Carl Schmitt’s son Jacob has written extensively on his father’s life, work, and aesthetic philosophy.  This excerpt discusses Schmitt’s awakening to the unique contribution of Rome not simply to world culture in general, but the interiority which is vital to any authentic endeavor in the arts.

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Palace of Sepimius Severus, c. 1940, oil on canvas, 30 x 25 in.
A painting based on sketches done by Schmitt while in the Rome in the 1930s.

While on a second honeymoon in 1934, after visiting Dalmatia and the little towns of Korčula, Split, and Dubrovnik along the Adriatic where he had visited as a student, Schmitt continued to Venice, Florence, and Rome.  One afternoon, while sketching the gigantic ruins of Septimius Severus palace in Rome, he once again was reminded of the significance of place.  Nowhere, he recounts in his notes, had he found as here in Rome, a sense of permanency and interior quietude.  This “realization” was first experienced during his student years in Italy, but here and now, in the Eternal City, he found a more profound, conscious realization of it—a sense of what he first called “interior being.”

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Palace of Sepimius Severus, c. 1940, oil on canvas, 36 x 30 in.
“The Fine Art of Architecture did not appear until the creative genius of Rome brought it into being,” Schmitt wrote in 1956. “The poetry of interior space with shadow had to be revealed in the Pantheon the baths and the basilicas of Rome before the paradox of the Fine Arts was proclaimed.”

His mind went back to the time when these ancient ruins, the Theater of Marcellus, the Baths of Caracalla, and the still-standing Pantheon, were built with massive archways and vaulted ceilings that soared to the heavens with a glorious spacious interiors—what he later called the form of interior space.

These magnificent interior structures were created by and signified, in his mind, an interior, personal maturity not seen in any previous age.  Here in Rome, he thought, was what the true Renaissance was seeking—the manifestation of a full human person who recognized the superiority of an interior, familial life over the social, political life endemic of the Grecian contribution.  Rome had turned inside out all that it had absorbed from the idealized, aesthetic Grecian culture.  It had unified all the scattered Grecian city-states into the one centralized political system of Rome—Urbe et Orbe (the city of Rome and the whole world).

Pennsylvania Station, etching, dated June 16, 1916.
The great hall of the massive Beaux-Arts structure in New York City, now demolished, was modeled after the Baths of Caracalla in Rome.

Thus, for Schmitt, the Roman sense for interior space became a more inclusive realization and expression of reality.  It had the advantage of an interior vision of seeing things from the “inside out” rather than from the Platonic-Grecian idealized vision of looking “on” or “at” things from the “outside in.”  This was a more personal development without which no true perfection in anything could be developed.  Here was the central aspect of his aesthetic dramatic stage more fully realized.

No wonder, he thought, that this interior form of the Roman Republic was able to permeate, absorb, and inform the then-known world.  No wonder Peter and Paul, guided by the Holy Spirit, found themselves in Rome transforming this personal, pagan, interior maturity—first prepared for by the realization of the hidden interior nature of reality found in Aristotelian thought—into an interior Christo-centric reality.

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Interior of St. Mark’s Cathedral, Korčula, Dalmatia, pastel on paper, June 16, 1926
“The era of Augustus with its grandeur and peace could never have occurred without magnificent virtue, and it is only on such magnificent natural virtue that the supernatural virtues of Christianity can be placed, if they are to survive (short of miracle).” (1943)

The Flowering of One’s Roots

A wonderful article by Bridget Skidd, a recent graduate of Thomas More College in Manchester, New Hampshire, on her search not only for a long-lost painting, but her place in the Catholic tradition.  While in England studying the Catholic Literary Revival,

Through word of mouth I had heard that a painting by my great grandfather, Carl Schmitt, was ‘somewhere in Oxford.’ With no idea of the subject of the painting except that it was religious, and unsure of which of the many houses and colleges might be the home, I set out on my search.

Read the rest here: The Flowering of One’s Roots.

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Resurrection, c. 1940.
This painting is very similar to one of the same name bought by Schmitt’s good friend John Cavanaugh in the 1940s and now owned by the C. Michael Schmitt family.

Fine Arts on Fridays—the arts as “the sacraments of a natural religion”

Today we begin a new series, Fine Arts on Fridays.  

The fine arts were central to Carl Schmitt’s life and thought, and provided a touchstone not only for his aesthetics, but his ideas on religion, culture, and history, among other topics.  We will explore Schmitt’s understanding of the fine arts in general and those realities closely related to them: the imagination, intuition, and the creative process and aesthetic life of the artist himself.  The series will also include reflections on the artist’s thinking on each of the fine arts, their relationship to each other and to the family, society, and the person.   

For Schmitt, the fine arts were defined by their metaphysical import, as the “symbolic expressions of spiritual realities.”  He went so far as to portray them “in a way the sacraments of a natural religion,” “the means of grace for the natural man.”  

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Study for Reclining Woman, pastel on paper, 13 x 16 in.

The significance of the fine arts was not limited to the individual, however, but served to express the culture of peoples.  Indeed, in Schmitt’s mind, the vigor of the fine arts were a principal—if not the principal—means by which the health of a civilization could be measured.  In Schmitt’s words, “there exists not a better barometer of the spiritual life of a people than their arts.” 

This was the seminal idea of Schmitt’s most sustained effort in explaining his thought, Europe and the Arts.  Here the arts are treated as the “symbols of a vital spiritual life” not only of individuals but of entire peoples and countries.  Each European country or region serves as a “custodian” of one of the seven fine arts, which art expressed in a particular way that country’s genius and culture.         

Schmitt’s latest manuscript of the work dates from the 1940s.  The book, however, incorporates ideas going back twenty years or more and can be seen as a kind of summation of his thought on the arts.  Although friends encouraged Schmitt to finish and publish the book, it remained incomplete at his death.

After a brief introduction, the first chapter of the essay defines the fine arts in contrast to the practical arts, and defends seven as their traditional number. The opening of the essay appears below.

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Reclining Woman, oil on canvas, 20 x 24 in.

Those forms made by man, which have survived the ages, have been the expression, or symbols of a vital spiritual life. Wherever religion has been vigorous, permanent forms have resulted. These symbolic forms range from the most absolute, i.e. the fine-arts, down to the most utilitarian or practical i.e. the so-called crafts. . . .

They have generally been accepted as seven in number, and are listed as follows: Music, Literature, the Dance, the Drama, Sculpture, Architecture and Painting.

There have been various attempts to enlarge or reduce this number. For example, some critics at various times have attempted to limit the number to exclude the Dance or the Drama.  These attempts may be due to the fact that these two arts are possibly not fully developed.  We shall consider the question of their immaturity later.  On the other hand, the number has been stretched by others in order to include say, moving and talking pictures; but anyone with an understanding of the fine-arts will immediately grasp the fact that the “movie” (or “talkie”) is a hybridization of several of the arts, at least in its technical aspect and is more to be considered as a science than as an art.  The moving picture is, in fact, a means for recording the dramatic art in much the same way that the radio-phonograph is of recording the musical art.

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Study for Woman in Irish Coat, pastel on paper, April 1933, 12 x 9 in.

Finally there are always those who will deny that there is such a thing as a fine-art as distinguished from a useful art.  It is not within the scope of this essay to go into this question, beyond saying that it is addressed to those who recognize the validity of metaphysical reality.  It is assumed that the arts are not always primarily utilitarian, or as it is called “functional,” in their aim, but that they at times, on the contrary, indicate by the symbolism of their imaginative vision a more profound spiritual life.  Beethoven and Rembrandt for example, besides being excellent craftsmen were fine-artists of the greatest vision; and the aim of Michelangelo, needless to say, was not primarily utilitarian.

Assuming then that there are seven fine-arts, which record or reflect as many facets of imaginative life, let us attempt to characterize them briefly observing the qualities peculiar to each, as well as their unity in an organic whole.

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Woman in Irish Coat, oil on canvas, c. 1933, 25 x 30 in.