Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Islands in the Stream, Part II

Mordecai's essay continued...


The Leibnitz party thought they had found their parcel of the Promised Land, but the island proved barren despite their efforts. Within a fortnight it became clear that it was not even, in fact, a true island, as the spring Proxigean tides soon inundated the small space, leaving but a speck of damp sand “the size of a rolltop desk (Adão, ed., 1957).” By that point, the party was over, and Leibnitz was the only remaining guest.

One of the last to depart, Maggie Oswald, claimed, in her interview with the New Bedford Daily Register, that Leibnitz was attempting to construct “a platform of some sort, from any which flotsam and jetsam and the like that happened by. I saw a lobster pot he had, and a shipping palette, an empty rum barrel from a pirate ship I think, a big bone maybe from a moose, a split plank flower box... I don’t know. It didn’t look real stable (Adão, ed., 1957).” Colorful as this description may be, Ms. Oswald’s report was certainly influenced by the severity of the ordeal she had just endured and unfortunately could not be verified.

Any attempts to corroborate her story of Leibnitz’s unusual tower were thwarted when, within a few days, an unseasonal hurricane swept up the North Atlantic coast. While meteorological records from the period indicate a low-force storm (Davis & Davis, 1922), by the time the weather had cleared, Leibnitz, the accordion, the two sheep, any platform, and the first ten feet below sea level of the island had disappeared. At the University of Maine at Orono-hosted symposium “Is Any Man an Island?: A Discussion on the Hermeneutics of Ill-Fated Utopian Expeditions of the 19th Century,” Dutch researcher Jan-Mendelt Van Wristler commented, “It is doubtful Leibnitz survived.” Indeed. Another arrow shot at the moon that fell well short.

Whether or not Leibnitz knew of Pope Pius II (1405-1464) is a subject of some debate among utopian historians. However, they both held la città ideale of More and Plato in high esteem: Leibnitz played out his tragedy along the Massachusetts coast; Pius II used the Tuscan countryside as his palette. What is generally agreed upon is that Pius II was “born Enea Silvio Piccolomini in1405. [He] was Pope from August 19, 1458 until his death in 1464. Pius II was born at Corsignano in the Sienese territory of a noble but decayed family. His longest and most enduring work is the story of his life, Commentaries, which is the only autobiography ever written by a reigning Pope.”

Strongly influenced by the humanists of his day, Pius II set out to resculpt his hometown, and this aspect of his papacy is of special interest to historians of urban design. Corsignano, later renamed Pienza in honor of its most famous son, became the first formidable exercise in city planning in post-plague Europe. The town still retains most of the fruits of his labor and was designated a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1996.

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