In the Ulmer Museum, a small but interesting museum in the town of Ulm in Baden-Württemberg, there is a small sculpture of 30 centimetres high of exceptional anthropological importance. And its beauty is extraordinary.
Carved in a mammoth tusk, it is considered nowadays that it was made nearly 35.000 years ago; that is a few thousand years before the paintings of the Chauvet Cave and at least 15.000 years before the paintings of the Lascaux Cave. Go there to discover it. I assure you that this work of art is as captivating as Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci. And if you go there you will certainly find yourself alone in front of this sculpture. This experience will upset you.
This sculpture was undoubtedly an object of ritual essential to the community of Homo Sapiens which lived in the area of Ulm. This object is unique because of what it represents: a figure with a human body and a lion head, reason why it has been called ‘Löwenmensch᾿ since the hundreds of pieces of ivory discovered in 1939 in the cave known as ‘Hohlenstein᾿ were assembled in the late 1970s.
‘Löwenmensch᾿ is the oldest evidence that has come to us from the existence, more than 35.000 years ago, of a necessity by Homo Sapiens to represent a creature that does not exist, a creature that opens to the invisible, to the magical inner landscapes of these men and women. It is an object whose use in rituals provided access to beyond death. It was a kind of symbolic protection from the violence that threatened the community.
This object, and this is very important, was created in the ivory of the biggest animal of the time, the mammoth, and represents the head of the most dangerous and ferocious for men, the lion.
This community, which struggled daily for survival, considered it necessary to assign to one of its members the responsibility of dedicating his time to the task of sculpting this object.
The unique quality of ‘Löwenmensch᾿ leaves no doubt: generation after generation, a man from the group developed a superior know-how, a practice that we would describe today as artistic. In other words, a member of the group had the function of creating for several months a statue by which the community communicated with the spirits of the ancestors, with the spirits of nature, with the souls of the animals.
Recent archaeological discoveries have uncovered flutes that have been made from the bones of birds and predators. It is therefore assumed today that the rituals associated with the ‘presentation᾿ of the ‘Lion Man᾿ were accompanied by music and dance. They happened probably at the bottom of a cave, in a remote place, specifically dedicated by the community for rituals which where used to take place around a fire.
Many of you are familiar with the opera La Vestale by Gaspare Spontini created in 1807 in Paris, which then had the ambition to evoke the spiritual greatness of the Empire of Napoleon by referring to the Roman era, an opera that Maria Callas, in the role of Julia and in a staging of Luchino Visconti, sang at La Scala in 1954. What matters to us here is less the forbidden love story, but the presence of fire in the temple.
Vesta was the Roman goddess of fire and the protector of home and community peace. The function of the vestals was to ensure that the fire that burned in the temple never went out. The temple of Vesta was in the centre of the Forum. No statue represented the goddess. Her presence was visible only in the perpetually bright flame. This temple was the home, the heart of both the city and the empire. It was considered then that the destiny of the Roman state was linked to the permanent presence of this flame. The young women who watched over this fire, virgins who renounced love, were highly regarded by all segments of the population. Under the tutelage of the priestess of the goddess Vesta, they were the protectors of the spiritual fire of Rome. So much so that when the fire was extinguished despite all the care given to it, it was interpreted as a punishment of the gods to which it was necessary to respond by the death of a vestal who was then buried alive. Despite the risk of such an atrocious death, many young women of the Roman nobility dreamed of becoming protectors of the city fire.
We are talking about a fire at the same time physical, very real, and spiritual without which the city feared the worst of calamities: the civil war. The fire of the temple of Vesta, in the heart of the city, possessed, as you can see, a considerable symbolic and political force.
Tens of thousands of years separate the ritual in which ‘Löwenmensch᾿ occupied a central place, in a remote cave, around a fire, and the worship rendered to Vesta in imperial Rome, a goddess who appeared to the citizen only in the form of a permanently protected flame.
The fire of the Homo Sapiens of the cave of Hohlenstein, the fire in the centre of the Roman Forum and the spiritual fire which has to animate all the directors who run theatres, opera houses, museums, public libraries in our cities in 2019. I see a bond, a continuity, a permanent aspiration in the human being to develop in the heart of the community unique places that are supposed to bring to those who are part of it an access to bigger than oneself, to a higher spiritual dimension, to fictions and to the knowledge without which a society disintegrates.
We have a duty to keep the spiritual fire alive in the heart of our cities. Every performance means that the flame remains alive. An artist on a stage is both the brilliant craftsman of whose hands the ‘Löwenmensch᾿ was born and a Roman goddess who nourishes such a precious fire for the citizens of the Empire.
In continental liberal European democracies, with variations of course from one country to another, public cultural institutions still remain largely financially supported by the state, the region, the city, because in the minds of the citizens these institutions shelter many fires essential to the life of the community. It has been the case for decades. Will it last? I’m not sure. It depends now largely to us, to our capacity to make the citizens understand that they deserve as human beings much more than what the television and the social media offer. But we must be also aware that the economic logic of the time tends to reduce the commitment of the public investment and these fires I’m talking about could be under threat also on that front in the next future.
We must never fight by choosing the easy way. This fight must be carried out without ever forgetting that we have a moral, intellectual and artistic responsibility towards citizens, towards the ‘polis᾿ in the Greek sense: that is, a political responsibility.
We have a duty as directors or curators of public institutions to never forget the spiritual dimension of our mission. I call the spiritual dimension what burns in all of us and leads us to try to answer the fundamental questions that faces every human being.
In order to live up to our mission, it is essential to open our opera houses and to develop creative networks that go well beyond opera, which will combine in a joint project museums, libraries and theatres in our cities. This is the idea that is at the heart of the ARSMONDO festival in Strasbourg, Mulhouse and Colmar. An annual festival that Eva Kleinitz created when she started her mandate at the Opéra national du Rhin and a project I’m now in charge of.
We need bridges to join the existing fires in our cities in order to build a common future. It’s never been more urgent.