Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Rome: Beauty, Power and Awe

To visit Rome is to be throttled by thousands of years of rulers, artists and priests who all want you to do more than just admit to beauty, power and awe; they want you to succumb to it.

From our very first walk through Rome, across the grand Piazza della Repubblica, past churches that take your breath away, and through small alleys, each more picturesque than the last, I was ready to admit to all three.

For five days, we visited and we viewed. Church after church. Ruin after ruin. Imposing antiquities of grandeur after even grander monuments to power.

At first, it’s the sheer number of churches which impresses you. I don’t think it’s possible in Rome to walk down any street without coming upon a church. Most of them are grand sights in their own right, but in Rome, there are so many of these pearls that after a while, each becomes just another brilliant pearl on a blinding beach of pearls.

Off the Piazza Navona, we walked into the church Sant'Agnese in Agone. Except it was not a church, it was a marble-lined, gilted, enormously high-vaulted, ornately painted, mind-boggeling dedication to Saint Agnes.

If I had been blindfolded, taken to Rome, into this church, had my blindfold removed and told that this was the height of Rome’s grandeur, I would have had no doubt.

Indeed, this is no mere church. It's classified as a Basilica Minor. And to give you an idea of the concentration of Rome’s wealth in churches, now imagine there are about 60 minor basilicas here.

And those are just the minors. There are four major, or papal, basilicas. And then there is St. Peter’s in the Vatican.

The number of additional churches? Just that many more pearls.

Leaving the quiet and cool of a church in Rome, you are instantly reborn to the hustle of this tourist town. You shuffle into a line to exit, pass the beggar at the door, pass blindingly into the light, and are disgorged out into the loud, crowded square. In this instance, the Piazza Navona.

On to the next site.

We walked, we bussed, we tramed, we taxied.

We climbed the Spanish Steps.

We squeezed in among the crowd at the Trevi Fountain.

We traipsed through the Coliseum. (Where it is doubtful, by the way, that Christians were fed to the lions, though it is true that slaves and condemned prisoners were.)

We craned our necks to the open circle at the top of the perfectly round dome of the 2000-year-old Pantheon.

We listened to audio-guides as we gazed at paintings and statues in various museums. We strode along the Circus Massimo which held up to 200,000 people watching chariot races.

We put our hands in the Boca della Verita. According to legend, if you tell a lie while your hand is in its mouth, it will bite your hand off. 

We spent hours exploring the ruins of ancient Rome’s seat of power where once the Emporer’s throne room overlooked the Forum below and the city beyond.

We quite possibly walked the same steps which were Ceasar’s last.

How can one stand among the ruins of ancient Rome, once the greatest empire of the world, without remembering Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias.”

Of the coliseum, I want to write in more detail than I have time about how I could suddenly feel the vibrancy of 70,000 people seated in one stadium, enjoying a spectacular display of a fake forest rising from trap doors in the arena floor, and then, just as magically (from other trap doors) lions, tigers and panthers populating that staged forest. I could sense the pride of the gladiators, who, if successful in their battles against beasts and each other, became famous and well-off idols to the cheering populace. Today these theatrical performances have morphed into World Wide Wrestling and violent games of football. Chariot races replaced with NASCAR, both riddled with the allure of fatalities.

And standing there, looking at this oval architectural marvel, which provided the senators ring-side platforms, and then with every higher set of bleachers, lower-ranked citizens, I could understand the grumbling indigence of senators and other roman prominences who were pressured into funding these extravaganzas by game organizers. The events were free to attendees, but through private funding (or extortion) promoted an entire industry of organizers, set designers, wild game traders, and of course, payments to the successful gladiators. The events became so lavish that when news arrived that a whale had washed ashore on the coast, the next Coliseum event featured a gigantic whale whose jaws opened and spilled forth 40 bears into the arena.

One afternoon, we spent hours touring famous works by sculptures and painters.

We circled, within arm’s reach, magnificent, life-like marble statues carved by Bernini at the Galleria Bourghesi.

Of the Galleria Borghese, I wish I could write with as much vividness and salience about the paintings and sculptures as Bernini was able to evoke in the 1600s with his marble sculptures. When restoring his “Apollo and Daphne,” workers found the marble leaves so delicate that when tapped, they rung.

Of the painting, Venus and Cupid with a Honeycomb, I truly can’t write because I can’t capture how this painting took my breath away, nor have I yet untangled all the emotions I feel the more I look at it and research Cranach, seeking some insight into his mindset when he painted this one of his many variations on the same theme. Upon close examination, you can see letters in Venus’ headband, and her necklace seems to be a row of pea pods. What do both signify?

And then, after we were almost numb from so much beauty, so much antiquity, such displays of might but also of virtuosity, we visited the Vatican.

This was to be the pinnacle of our Rome visit. First of all, the scale of St. Peter’s Basilica is hard to grasp even when you are standing in it, or – as we did – climbing to the top of the cupola. One fact that might help you imagine its gigantic size is that the Statue of Liberty can stand inside the basilica and still not quite reach the ceiling.

I will not describe its beauty, because it has been done better elsewhere. Michelangelo's Pieta, the cherubs, the mosaics, the gilt, the marble, the baldachin, the bronze statue of St. Peter with the worn toe from pilgrimage rubbings.

Some of the Vatican’s museum halls are just as elaborately designed as parts of the basilica. The ceiling of the map room has relief statues coming out of frescos, creating three dimensional scenery.

My increasing numbness to all this extravagant beauty began to take a sour turn because about every fourth room had a souvenir table selling kitsch and chotskies.

Here is the epicenter of Catholicism's oblation to God, this is their greatest manifestation of a complex for worship, and it is also one of the world’s wealthiest sites, and they need to sell junk in here? Really?

Is it to make just a few bucks more? Or to cater to human’s material desires? Which answer is it, because either leads me down a road of disgusting hypocrisy.

Here is a religion which advocates a life of simplicity, sacrifice and the abdication of this world’s material wants, and yet has built the gaudiest display of greed and accumulation. With gold stolen from the people of Central America. With marble “acquired” from the decaying Roman temples and palaces. And a few extra coins from tourists by selling them Chinese-made plastic replicas.

I was done with Rome. Yes, I will admit to its beauty, power and awe. But succumb? No. I turned my back on it.

After we had visited all we thought we would, we spent a couple of days catching up on chores: shopping, correspondence, paying bills over the internet. In the afternoon of the second day of our chores, we took a walk around the block in a new direction.

We walked by another ruin. This one appeared to be undergoing renovations. We walked around to the front to see more. There, just off the busy Piazza della Repubblica which we had passed almost every day for the last week, we saw a modest entrance in the wall of the ruin.

It is a bit like the magical entrance in Herman’s Hesse “Steppenwolf.” Suddenly there, when all the previous week, it had not been.

We walked through the entrance and with a sudden sense of imbalance, we spiraled through time and space.

Time, because we had instantly traveled from the present 1,700 years into the past, into the midst of what once was the largest bathhouse complex in the world. It spanned 30 acres when it was built. Most the brick archways and garden spaces still exist, but little else of the endless marble and pools which served the million people who lived in Rome at the time.

Space, because we were no longer in a bathhouse or the city, but in another beautiful church. In fact, another basilica. The Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels and the Martyrs. This basilica was Michelangelo’s last project.

And back to time again, when you realize that about 450 years ago, Michelangelo, at age 84, converted the remains of a 1,200-year-old bathhouse into a stunning basilica.

It was disorienting to absorb what we were seeing and experiencing.

Here is the wikipedia entry along with a photo of the unassuming entrance.

As I read the informational plagues in various spots in the basilica, I reluctantly found myself being seduced by this holy space. This church is only one I have ever known to incorporate science and astrology with catholic worship.

On the floor, laid into the marble is a long bronze line of about 150 feet acting as a sort of sundial, marking the seasons along with designs of the respective astrological signs.

It is perhaps that only evidence I have ever seen of holistic thinking and cosmic awareness within the Catholic Church.

And so, in our exhaustion of this city’s opulence, I had to admit that even my indigence with the church’s hypocrisy was softened.

I loved that Michelangelo did not replace the bathhouse with the church, but worked to incorporate the two, exemplified most significantly by the modest entrance in the half-crumbled ruin.

We left the church and instead of taking the direct route back to our room, we walked down another street. The sun was low as we rounded a corner and almost to our delirious humor with the situation came upon another church.

With the attitude that nothing more could impress us, we decided that we should give it a quick look-see anyway. As we approached, a beggar-woman opened the large door for us and held out her cup. We entered, nodding our coinless thanks.

This was, by Roman standards, a smaller minor basilica, and yet, the first words out of Jennifer’s mouth were, “This is out of control.”

And those were the only words we repeated for the next while as wandered through the Santa Maria della Vittoria. If you google the images, they will give you a hint of its extravagant ornateness, but not do it justice.

I stepped into the crossing and looked to my left into one of the church wings. What I saw there, stopped me in my tracks. I have heard that people have had visceral reactions to marble sculptures. I had two friends tell me they had wept when they saw Bernini’s pieta in St. Peter’s Basilica. But I had seen his pieta. I had seen Benini’s other works at the Galleria Bourghesi. They were beautiful, yes, but enough to make me cry?

But this.

This sculpture. I was drawn to it, almost involuntarily. While my body had become slack upon seeing it, now my feet were moving on their own accord, as if the sculpture had a gravitational field pulling me close.

My eyes and mind worked feverishly to comprehend what presented itself before me. Here was a woman, completely enrobed, except for her face, hands and feet. She is reclined backwards in a collapsed sitting position, one foot loosely dangling. Her head is slack, to the side, but face up with her eyes, half closed, or should I say, half open. Her mouth is agape. She is in turmoil. She seems to be suffering. And yet there is no hint of tension, fear or anger.

Lording over her is an angel. A winged cherub with curly hair and the body of a late male teenager. He is half clad in a robe and half revealing a well-toned chest and arm. In contrast to her face of suffering, he is smiling. So broadly that his eyes are half squinted by his delight in her throes. His hand delicately holds a fold of her robe. Why? Surely it is not supporting her in anyway. Is he pulling her robe to reveal part of her?

In his other hand, just as delicately as the robe, he is holding a golden arrow. It is pointed directly at her lower body.

How can this angel be taking, what seems to be sadistic pleasure in piercing this woman? And how can this woman not fear this? Not show any signs of pain?

The answer is so plain, yet so unbelievable that I couldn’t grasp it. She is suffering the throes of ecstasy. She is experiencing true passion, which is delight so pure, it is painful.

And this angel is not sadistic, but rather showing his pleasure that she is offering herself fully, freely and completely to the ecstasy of devotion.

I wandered to the gift shop to see if I could find more about this sculpture. And sure enough, it is a work by Bernini dedicated to St. Teresa of Avila.

Here are her own words from her autobiography written in the mid-1500s:

“I saw an angel close by me, on my left side in bodily form. This I am not accustomed to see unless very rarely. Though I have visions of angels frequently, yet I see them only by an intellectual vision, such as I have spoken of before. It was our Lord's will that in this vision I should see the angel in this wise. He was not large, but small of stature, and most beautiful - his face burning, as if he were one of the highest angels, who seem to be all of fire: they must be those whom we call Cherubim. ... I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron's point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain that I could not wish to be rid of it. The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God. The pain is not bodily, but spiritual; though the body has its share in it, even a large one.”

We left the church. I was dazed.

I have to admit: in the end, I had succumbed to Rome's beauty, power and awe.

Veni, vidi, but in the end, no vici. Instead we were the ones who were vanquished. Vanquished by Rome. Vanquished by beauty and hypocrisy. By might and tenderness. Vanquished exquisitely and passionately.


Joel Gardner said...

Wonderful! If I ever get to Rome again, I'll have to pay attention. And bring good walking shoes...

Anonymous said...

wow!!! beautifully written!!! so good to have you back online again

Barbara Costa said...

I got chills when I read how you were transfixed by your first sight of this final statue, of St Teresa of Avila. Only three days ago, at a meeting of my book group, we were in awe of this very statue, passing around a photo of it and talking about the expressions of St Teresa and of the angel. It was part of the story in the book Cutting for Stone (Abraham Verghese) which we all loved and I heartily recommend. So an amazing coincidence to hear how it captured you as well. Thank you!