February 26th, 2006


Michelangelo, in awe of the fearsome qualities that were emerging from his massive block of Carrara marble, hurled his chisel, slightly chipping Moses’s knee.

“Perché non parli?” he shouted.

Now apparently Moses didn’t reply to the sculptor, but said a great deal to Sigmund Freud, who was compelled to visit San Pietro in Vincoli each day for a week and later wrote down much what he heard.

As for me--thirty-four years ago on my very first visit to Rome--I put a lire coin into a metal box. The lights came on and I set my camera to a 60th of a second at f 2.8. I tried to keep steady, but unfortunately I was enormously hung over and shaky, thus the image (above) is not as sharp as I wanted. I failed to capture that famous chip in the knee, and also the profile of Michelangelo that allegedly can be seen in the figure’s beard.

I suppose it wasn’t meant to be.

No longer hung over and shaky I now study the image. I can see much more clearly now. And I wonder: Why the horns, which elicited so much of Sigmund’s psychoanalytical attention?


Exodus 34:29-35 tells that after meeting with God the skin of Moses' face became radiant, frightening the Israelites and leading Moses to wear a veil. Jonathan Kirsch in his book Moses: A Life, thought that, since he subsequently had to wear a veil to hide it, Moses' face was disfigured by a sort of "divine radiation burn".

This story has led to one longstanding tradition that Moses grew horns This is derived from a mistranslation of the Hebrew phrase "karnu panav" The root -- קרן -- may be read as either "horn" or "ray", as in "ray of light". "Panav" -- פניו -- translates as "his face".

If interpreted correctly those two words form an expression which means that he was enlightened, and many rabbinical studies explain that the knowledge that was revealed to him made his face metaphorically shine with enlightenment, and not that it suddenly sported a pair of horns.

The Septuagint properly translates the Hebrew word -- קרן -- as δεδοξασται, 'was glorified', but Jerome translated it as cornuta, 'horned', and it was the latter image that became the more popular.

This tradition survived from the first centuries AD well into the Renaissance. Many artists, including Michelangelo in a famed sculpture, depicted Moses with horns.

My own form of enlightenment has come from a half dozen years of asceticism and solitude on this isola verde. Much reading, and intense contemplation. Each night I experience nekyia, like the sun god’s perilous undersea journey that skirts madness and destruction. One convoluted dream after another. Sometimes even nightmares, from which I awake each morning, grateful and refreshed.


Faceless doll in store window, Rome, settembre 2005

Passages in Exodus and Deuteronomy forbid the making of anything that is in the likeness of male or female. Which is why the Amish of Pennsylvania do not put faces on their dolls. In some strict Amish homes, even these are not allowed. A child instead is given a piece of wood wrapped in a blanket to serve as her own little baby.

Before the Amish arrived, Native American Iroquois told of a wonderfully crafted doll who went from village to village to play with the children. They all would tell her how pretty she was. Soon she became vain, and remained so despite The Creator telling her this was not the right kind of behavior.

One afternoon the doll was walking by a creek and she glanced in the water. She admired herself, she couldn’t help thinking how lovely she was. Then the Creator sent a giant screech owl out of the sky and snatched her reflection from the water. When she looked again, she had no reflection.

The faceless doll (above) took me back to the early 70s…

Beginning at dawn I prowled the streets of Rome hung over and still half drunk, camera in hand, deep into a frenzy of repeated shots of everything interesting that I saw. I did not trust the light meter because after all, it just might be lying to me. Or perhaps in my fumbling intoxication I had set it improperly.

Therefore to be absolutely sure I would begin at the indicated exposure, and then “bracket” by making additional exposures three or four f stops above, and the same number below. Surely among all these would be a single image with just the right balance of highlights and shadow detail.

My perception of Rome in those early days was informed by the works of my then favorite author, Alberto Moravia. I fully identified with the despair of his characters. I, like them, was in the firm grip of faceless authority, and I loathed it.

What’s more I cringed at the thought of being locked for the next 20 years in a marriage in America that had been the most profound mistake of my life. But my wife was four months pregnant, and I therefore had an obligation I could not avoid. For me, a terrifying burden.

How to escape? In the evening I sat in the hotel’s lounge and drank vodka. I asked the bartender if he could find me a puttana. “No,” he said smiling, “but perhaps a pretty boy might be to your liking?”

The thought nauseated me. I felt the contempt in his gaze. Later I overheard him talking to the bell boy. “L'americano pazzesco,” he said, and they laughed.

What would my “superiors” at the magazine in New York do if I did not return with all the pictures they'd commissioned me to take? Was it even possible to disappear? How would I live here in Rome? Most likely I'd never get a job because I spoke virtually no Italian. Maybe I could become a thief. Or a gigilo. Maybe I ought to drink myself to death.

Would I ever escape?

No, I didn’t think so.