… the work of getting anybody to cheerfully undertake the monotony and drudgery of education must be effected not by pay merely, but by a skillfully worked-up appeal to the emotions as well.
I read this book in preparation for a recent visit to Pompeii; and it was an excellent choice. The ancient letters and the ruined city make for an ideal pairing, as both offer a remarkable look into daily life in ancient Rome. Pliny had a long and eventful career: an orator, magistrate, lawyer, and writer. His correspondence includes mundane details, tender love letters, poetic reflections, philosophical musings, and much else. Whatever the subject, his personality shines through: intelligent, urbane, loyal, if a bit ostentatious and pompous. He is, above all, eloquent; and his letters are without exception written in superb prose.
Though each epistle is a valuable historical document, some are conspicuously noteworthy. Most interesting for me was his description of the eruption of Vesuvius, which resulted in the death of his illustrious uncle, Pliny the Elder. He recounts his uncle’s and his own experience in two letters to his friend the historian Cornelius Tacitus. Here, with an eye to posterity, perhaps, Pliny reaches the height of his literary skill as he relates his escape from the eruption:
We had scarcely sat down when night came upon us, not such as we have seen when the sky is cloudy, or when there is no moon, but that of a room when it is shut up, and all the lights put out. You might hear the shrieks of women, the screams of children, and the shouts of men; some calling for their children, others for their parents, others for their husbands, and seeking to recognize each other by the voices that replied; one lamenting his own fate, another that of his family; some wishing to die, from the very fear of dying; some lifting their hands to the gods; but the greater part convinced that there were now no gods at all, and that the final endless night of which we have heard had come upon the world.
The collection is also invaluable for the correspondence between Pliny and Trajan. In these letters Pliny’s style is more restrained and formal; he takes the part of a supplicant and an apprentice. For the most part he is asking the Emperor for a favor or for advice. Much of it is concerned with the proper way to interpret the law and to distribute punishments, or else asking for permission to erect aqueducts, temples, and the like. Most extraordinary are two letters concerning the practice, spread, and prosecution of Christianity. Even at this early date, it was clear that the religion could grow rapidly: “In fact, this contagious superstition is not confined to the cities only, but has spread its infection among the neighboring villages and country.”
In sum, I recommend this book to anyone and everyone interested in ancient Rome. The letters are at once a model of style and a window into the past. Few books offer so much insight and pleasure for such little drudgery.
Writing my series of posts on Rome, back in 2016, was an educational experience for me. It was the first time that I tried to break up a single city into multiple installments, and the first time that I tried to be as brief and as useful as possible (a practice I have since abandoned). Nevertheless the posts’ photographs and formatting were a little rough compared to my later posts. To rectify this, I have given these original posts a makeover. You can see the results below:
Mérida has a long and noble history. Founded in the year 25 C.E. as a Roman Colony, during the reign of Octavius, the city was the starting point of the Vía de la Plata (the Silver Way)—a major Roman road running from south to north—and the capital of the Roman province of Lusitania. The city is an hour’s drive west of Cáceres. As usual, we were taking a Blablacar. Our driver was a young man from Seville—laid back, sociable, patient with our Spanish—and the drive proceeded very pleasantly.
The drive became doubly pleasant when a rainbow appeared to our left. It was interesting to see how the rainbow seemed to move across the landscape with us as we drove. I have this deep-rooted idea from watching cartoons as a child that a rainbow is a stationary object (how else could Leprechauns bury their pots of gold at the end?). But of course that’s not true; rainbows are optical illusions caused by the refraction of light through water droplets in the air, and thus appear at a different locations to each individual viewer. I suppose I’ll have to play the lottery if I want a pot of gold.
Soon we had arrived. Our bags tucked away, we began to explore the city. By now it was already rather late; all the monuments were closed, and the sun would be setting in an hour. With few options, we decided that we would stroll along the Guadiana River. The Guadiana is the bigger of the two rivers (the other is the Albarregas) that run through the city. The forth largest river in Spain, further west it forms part of the border with Portugal.
(By the way, the prefix Guad- can be found in several other Spanish place names, such as the Guadalquivir, the river that runs through Seville and Córdoba; the Guadarrama, a mountain range near Madrid; and Guadalajara, an old city in Castilla La Mancha. This prefix is a Castillianization of Arabic.)
A park ran along the riverside, green and splendid. Stray cats hid among the bushes, and teenagers sat and chatted on the benches. The river was calm and clear; the overhanging trees were reflected on its surface in the waning daylight. We walked until we reached a bridge, and then climbed a stairwell hoping to cross the river. But once we got to the top, we both gasped.
Half the town was gathered in the square, under the walls of the old Moorish fortress. The people were having an Easter Parade.
The most immediately noticeable thing—for an American, at least—is that it looks like a gathering of the Ku Klux Klan. Of course, the Spaniards created their costumes first, and thus it is absurd to associate them with American racism. Nevertheless, the first time I saw it with my own eyes, I couldn’t help feeling uneasy.
The unease passed quickly, however, and soon I was wholly absorbed in the spectacle. Rows and rows of hooded figures were lined up, some in red, some in white, each of them carrying a stalk of wheat. Among these were dozens of children, who carried little bags full of candy with them; as they walked by, they handed each passerby a treat. Behind the hooded figures was the float. On a large platform a life-sized figure of Jesus was seated on a donkey for his triumphant entry into Jerusalem.
Floats such as this—typical of Semana Santa (Holy Week) in Spain—are carried on the shoulders of a team of men, who huddle underneath, hidden under a veil. It must be heavy. As I watched, the float slowly lurched into motion, step by slow step, plodding like a giant through the town.
Behind the float was the marching band of brass instruments and drums. The music was very simple, and very loud. The snare drums beat out a slow, methodical march rhythm. Over this, the band played a somber sequence of minor chords—a sour, out of tune, tremendously tragic sound that conveyed a sense of overwhelming loss. Sometimes a trumpeter would play a call-and-response with the rest of the horns, squeezing out a strangled series of shrill notes, to be answered by the violent blare of the other players. If you think I didn’t liked it, you’re mistaken; it was music with pathos.
We stood and watched the Holy Week procession for over an hour. I feel privileged to have seen it. Unlike any American tradition, the Semana Santa traditions in Spain give the overwhelming impression of authentic age—as if they have been celebrated the same way for centuries. One feels that one is looking into the depths of history. In stark contrast to the commercial holidays I am accustomed to, the parade had a gravity and solemnity that was deeply moving.
But now it was dark, and we were hungry and tired. After a quick bite we went to sleep.
The next day was Monday. This was to be our only day full in Mérida, so we had lots to see. As I mentioned, Mérida was an important city in Hispania (Rome’s name for Spain). Consequently, some of the finest Roman ruins in Spain, and perhaps anywhere in the world outside Italy, can be found here.
Visitors to the Roman ruins of Mérida have the option to buy combination tickets, which include six sites. This is what we did. Then we went to the two jewels of the city: the Theater and the Amphitheater, located right in the center of town.
The visit took us to the amphitheater first. This is a like a smaller version of Rome’s Colosseum—though it was still a massive construction, big enough for 15,000 spectators. Many of the entranceways into the area are still perfectly useable, the Roman arches still holding strong. Other parts of the building are in various states of decay, allowing me to see the different layers of materials used in the building. One thing I learned—and I’m mildly ashamed I didn’t know this before—was that the Romans had bricks. Indeed, the bricks looked so neat and pristine, their color still bright red, that I found it hard to believe that they were original.
The years had been hardest on the seats; most of them are reduced to rubble. Apart from that, however, the preservation is astonishing. Our visit took us through a long tunnel, the main entrance. On either side of the walkway, cardboard cutouts of gladiators are standing guard; beside these are captions of information, explaining the typical armaments of the different types of gladiators. I had thought there were only two or three types of gladiators, but apparently there were a dozen or more, each with their own distinct weaponry. Some had tridents and nets, some had rectangular shields and short swords, and some had small circular shields, heavy helmets, and daggers.
On a stone in front of the box seats reserved for government officials is a faded inscription: AUGUST. PONT. MAXIM. TRIBUNIC POTESTATE XVI. (I myself couldn’t read it, but there was an informational plaque nearby.) From this we learn that this amphitheater was built during the reign of Caesar Augustus, around the year 8 BCE to be precise. To put that in context, the Colosseum was built about eighty years later, in 75 CE.
I tried in vain to imagine what it would be like to fight for my life in front of hundreds of cheering people, and gave up. It is a chilling thought to realize that this splendid architectural marvel was built so that the exploited citizenry and overfed nobles could watch slaves kill each other. It is yet another proof that great art can be produced for nefarious ends.
After our fill of pictures we went to the next stop, the Roman theater. It was even more impressive than the amphitheater we had just passed through: it was gorgeous.
The theater holds about 6,000 people. First built in around 15 BCE, and majorly renovated about 200 years later, it consists of a semi-circular stadium of seats surrounds a central stage. At first glance the seats looked to be in much better condition than the seats in the neighboring amphitheater; but this was an illusion created by stone-colored plastic coverings. (Plays are still performed here so they need working seats.) In the middle is a semi-circular open space, and beyond that, on a raised platform, a larger rectangular space: this was where the magic happened. But the real attraction was the structure behind the stage.
On each side, resting upon two levels of ten elegant Corinthian columns, was a wonderful façade that served as a backdrop for the ancient theater productions. This is called the scaenae frons, a normal fixture of Roman theaters. It had three doors, one in the center and one on each side, that allowed the actors to enter and exit the stage. The columns themselves were lovely, carved from delicately textured gray and white marble. Standing in the nooks of these columns were Roman statues (the originals are on display at Mérida’s Museum of Roman Art; these are replicas) of gods and heroes, with flowing robes and ornate armor.
I feel a powerful sense of helplessness in moments like this, when faced with something so beautiful and so historic. What am I supposed to do? I take pictures, I wander around, I sit, I stand, I stroll, I do my best to examine and appreciate. I feel a sense of awe at the age and splendor of the place, but what am I supposed to do with this feeling? I wish that the experience would humble me, will put things in perspective, and thus ennoble me; but of course the person who walks out of the monument is still the same petty, neurotic person who walked in.
I hoped to visit the city’s Museum of Roman Art next, but here I realized that I had planned my trip poorly: we were there on the only day the museum is closed, Monday. So we left to go find some more Roman ruins.
Luckily, Roman ruins were not in short supply. In just ten minutes we came upon the so-called Temple of Diana. This is something of a misnomer, as the temple was actually dedicated to Augustus. In any case it is an impressive sight; a marble lintel sat atop several towering columns. Behind the remains of the temple is affixed an old Renaissance-style house. Apparently, some rich knight decided that it would be nice to live next to the old ruins. The house was elegant enough, but the final effect of the house and the temple was somewhat incongruous. If memory serves, the government considered knocking the house down; but finally decided that it was important enough to merit preservation.
Next we went to the Alcázaba. As its name suggests, this is an old Moorish fortress; it stands next to the Roman bridge, so as to guard the old entrance to the city, and apparently was built over the remains of an older, Roman fortress. This fortress came in handy to the Moors, as they faced several uprisings. The walls are tall and thick, and could have easily withstood all but the most organized attacks.
The entrance fee was included in our combination tickets, so we walked right in. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much to see inside the walls. I imagine that the place was previously full of military barracks and other martial necessities, made out of non-durable materials like wood, which have since disappeared. The only exception to this was the stone cistern. This was a square building that stands in the center of the fortress. There is nothing inside except a long ramp that leads deep underground. At the bottom is a pool of clear, blue rainwater where, surprisingly enough, some fish make their home. But what do they eat?
Adjacent to the fortress is the Roman Bridge. This bridge is quite similar to the Roman bridges I had seen in Salamanca and Córdoba: a stone road built over a series of arches, not more than fifty feet over the water. But the bridge of Mérida does have the distinction of being considerably longer; indeed, it is the longest surviving bridge from ancient Rome. The bridge stretches well over 790 m, or 2,500 ft—a stupefying achievement of engineering. The Romans knew what they were doing.
GF and I walked to the other side of the river, and towards the other major bridge of Mérida, the Puente Lusitania. This is an attractive, modern bridge, designed by the architect Santiago Calatraba. The form of the Puente Lusitania is dominated by a big, great fin, like the back of a whale. Its completion in 1991 finally allowed the city to close the Roman Bridge to vehicular traffic. In other words, the only bridge linking both halves of Mérida until 1991 was a bridge built by the Romans.
(The only other bridge across the Guadiana is the railroad bridge, a triangulated structure of cast iron beams riveted together, designed by an Englishman named William Finch in the nineteenth century. The three bridges of Mérida, taken together, are a lovely study in contrasts.)
Our next stop was the Circus Maximus. This was on the other side of town; we had to walk about half an hour, all the way through the city center and through a tunnel under a highway to get there. Again, our tickets included this visit, so we walked right in.
In truth, there wasn’t much to see. It is a dilapidated stone wall (previously, rows of seating), that surrounds an oval-shaped grass field. The only impressive thing about the monument was its size: it’s huge. This was, of course, because chariot races cannot be carried out in closets. We walked around the grassy field for a few minutes, while I tried in vain to imagine what a chariot race would look and feel like, the horses stampeding in a confused heap, the wheels rattling, the whips cracking, the men shouting, the crowd screaming.
Outside the Circus Maximus were the remains of an old Roman aqueduct, the Acueducto de San Lázaro, one of the three Roman aqueducts of Mérida. Compared with the extraordinary aqueduct of Segovia, this one was rather short—only about 20 to 30 feet. It did go on for quite a ways, however, eventually extending over the other river of Mérida, the Albarregas.
We followed the aqueduct for a while, across the river and into a park, until the aqueduct disappeared over a hill. Then, we broke off for our next destination, the last site included in our tickets: the Casa del Mitreo.
This is an archaeological site that consists of the remains of an entire Roman housing complex. Understandably, you can’t go in; the visitor walks around a platform raised above the ruins, allowing you to peek inside the rooms from above. The complex was quite large; either it was one very rich family, or several families of more humble means. I don’t know, because all the information panels were written in very small font, in Spanish, and there was a crying kid nearby that kept breaking my focus. Oh well.
Most notable were the impressive floor mosaics, beautifully preserved. My favorite was a floor that had three concentric patterns: an outer pattern of criss-crosses, a middle pattern of rectangles, and an inner pattern of an intricate labyrinth. Floor tilling hasn’t advanced much in the last two thousand years, it seems.
The sun was setting now, and both of us were exhausted. We had been on our feet all day, crisscrossing all over town. But we had one final thing see: the Acueducto de los Milagros, or Aqueduct of the Miracles. This meant yet another walk through town, which we dutifully made, painful and blistered as my feet now were. It was worth it.
This aqueduct is massive, about 25 m, or 80 ft tall, standing on three rows of arches. It is partly in ruins now, scarred by the tooth of time, but this only lent it a special majesty. The sun was setting, shinning directly onto the aqueduct, making its brick construction glow a rusty red. All around was a park, where families were talking and laughing. GF and I sat on a bench, resting our aching limbs, staring up at the towering ruin. It was so impressive and so lovely that soon I felt myself full of energy again, ready to drag myself through a dozen more Roman monuments.
Soon the sun was setting. We limped back into town, and were again greeted with a surprise: they were having another Easter Parade. This time the crowd was gathered in front of the doors of a church. Just as we got there, the procession started to exit the building, walking with slow steps to the beat of another doleful march. We watched it go for a while, and then went to feast on beer and cheap sandwiches. Our trip was over. We would be going to Lisbon early next morning, but that’s for another post.
I’m not sure I’ve had a better day in Spain, and that’s saying something. Do visit Mérida. It is an extraordinary place.
All men of whatsoever quality they be, who have done anything of excellence, or which may properly resemble excellence, ought, if they be persons of truth and honesty, to describe their life with their own hand
Why we like or dislike someone, why we admire or despise them, why we are happy or annoyed by their conversation, are questions more difficult than they look. After reading this book, for example, I have grown quite enamored of Benvenuto Cellini, even though he had many ugly sides to his character—besides being criminally immoral. These flaws were unmistakable and impossible to ignore; and yet he had one quality that allowed me, and has allowed many others, to grow fond of him nevertheless: charisma.
Born in Florence in 1500, Benvenuto Cellini was a goldsmith and a sculptor, considered one of the most important artists of Mannerism. During his lifetime he traveled all around Italy and France, making rings, necklaces, salt shakers, statues, fountains, buttons, lapels, and coins for rich and powerful patrons. Perhaps his most famous work is the statue of Perseus standing over the body of Medusa, her bloody head held aloft in his hand, which can be found in Florence. As far as I know, the only work of his I have personally seen is his fine crucifix in the Escorial near Madrid. But despite Cellini being, to quote his book, “the greatest artist ever born in his craft,” he is nowadays mostly remembered for his autobiography, which is without doubt the most important work of its kind from the Renaissance.
Cellini wrote his autobiography in a simple, matter-of-fact style. His main focus was on his development and career as an artist, but he also relates many stories from his personal life along the way. And from this narration emerges a remarkable portrait of the man himself.
The most conspicuous part of Cellini’s character is his arrogance. He says near the beginning “in a work like this there will always be found occasion for natural bragging,” but occasional is hardly a fitting description of his boasting. Every page is stuffed with self-praise. He compliments himself for his robust constitution, his strong body, his keen mind, his kind nature, his skill in combat, and most of all his artistic prowess. The only artist he thinks equal to himself is Michelangelo, and with few exceptions he considers his rivals to be incompetent dunces, or worse.
It does not take shrewd judgment to read between the lines of this autobiography. Cellini only admits to being in the wrong once in his life. (After taking sexual advantage of one of his models, he viciously beat her. He felt guilty because the day before he had forced her at gunpoint to marry her lover. The next day, he beat her up again.) Other than this, Cellini would have you believe he is a decent, honest, respectful man and that all his enemies were motivated by jealousy or pure wickedness. And yet, the speed and consistency with which he finds himself surrounded by enemies, and the frequency with which he gets into disputes and fights, makes it painfully clear that he must have been a bellicose and infuriating fellow.
The degree to which Cellini was blind to his faults is both terrifying and oddly endearing. That someone could be so unconcerned with the morality of his actions or with the justice of his behavior is an instructive lesson in human nature. (And that he is still likable is another lesson.) Cellini narrates the vilest deeds in such a mundane tone that you almost forget what he is talking about. Here is Benvenuto’s forth murder, the killing of Pompeo, a rival goldsmith:
I drew a little dagger with a sharpened edge, and breaking the line of his defenders, laid my hand upon his breast so quickly and coolly, that none of them were able to prevent me. Then I aimed to strike him in the face; but fright made him turn his head round; and I stabbed him just beneath the ear. I only gave two blows, for he fell stone dead by the second. I had not meant to kill him; but as the saying goes, knocks are not dealt by measure.
(Besides the tone of that passage, the most amazing thing for me is that he aimed for Pompeo’s head but professed he didn’t mean to kill him. The guy was seriously nuts.)
When I reread the above excerpt, I think I ought to loathe such a man, who can both commit a murder and then talk about it so coolly. But Cellini’s ego and his personality are so exaggerated that I have trouble thinking of him as a real person. With all his misadventures, crimes, vanities, boasts, and disputes, he seems more like a character invented by Dickens or Cervantes than a man I can identify with. In this, I couldn’t help being reminded of Trump, who is relentlessly egotistical and cruel, but who escapes normal consequences because he seems more like a caricature than a human being.
Because Cellini is focused on his own doings, the world of the Renaissance stays mostly in the background. Sometimes it is easy to forget the setting entirely, since Benvenuto is one of those rare, timeless personalities. But at other times, the great difference between his world and mine was simply alarming.
One night during dinner, for example, his friend brought a prostitute; out of respect for his friend, Benvenuto refused her advances; but after those two went to bed, Benvenuto seduced the prostitute’s 14-year-old serving girl. The next morning he woke up with the bubonic plague. Another time, when he was sick, the best doctors in Rome instructed him that he couldn’t drink any water. His condition got worse and worse—doubtless due to dehydration—until finally, disobeying their orders, he drank a pitcher of water and felt immediately better. The doctors were stunned. The doctors had better luck on another occasion, though. When Benvenuto got a metal splinter in his eye, a doctor successfully flushed it out by slicing open live pigeons and letting their blood rush into his eye.
These are just a taste of some of Benvenuto’s anecdotes. His life was enviously exciting—indeed it’s rather amazing he lived so long, since he had many close calls with death. When he wasn’t being poisoned or fighting off highway bandits, he was suffering illness, injury, and imprisonment. And amidst all this, he managed to attain the highest reputation and skill as an artist, and also to write the most important autobiography of his century. If being a Renaissance Man means living life to the fullest, Cellini is a prime example.
If you are planning on taking a trip to Italy, or just want to learn more about the Renaissance, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. I listened to the audiobook version while I was in Rome. Cellini was narrating the time he defended the Castel Sant’Angelo during the 1527 sack of Rome. As Cellini boasted about his heroic deeds—he would have you believe he defended the castle single-handedly—I turned a corner and found myself face to face with that very castle (see above). It was one of the most memorable moments of my reading life.
While I do have some scruples about including the Vatican in my series about Rome—since it technically is not a part of Rome—I think excluding it would be paying too much attention to official opinion at the expense of geographic fact.
To state the obvious, the Vatican is unique. The smallest state in the world, both by population and area, the Vatican is also distinguished for being a theocratic monarchy, governed by the bishop of Rome, the Pope. The Vatican’s economy is also unique, supported almost entirely by tourism.
The Vatican is not as old as you might imagine. In former times the Pope was as much a secular ruler as a spiritual guide; the Papacy had its own proper country, known as the Papal States—which lasted from the time of Charlemagne to the nineteenth century—which controlled a sizeable hunk of the Italian boot. This state was swallowed up by Italy during the rise of Italian nationalism after the Napoleonic Wars. The Vatican as we know it today was established in 1929 in the Lateran Treaty. It is thus only a little older than my grandmother.
Aside from the pilgrims, many millions of secular tourists visit the Vatican each year, and all of them to see three things: the Vatican Museums, the Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter’s Basilica. This is what I saw, and this is what I’m here to tell you about.
The Vatican Museums
The first thing you should know about visiting the Vatican is that you must buy your tickets ahead of time. (Here in the link.) If you don’t, you will be one of the hundreds of people waiting—probably in vain—in the enormous line that stretches out the museum’s entrance and curves around the Vatican’s walls. I felt a mixture of pity and, I admit, self-congratulation upon seeing this line, its members sweating in the relentless sun, unremittingly pestered by tour guides.
I scheduled my visit to the Vatican for my first full day in Rome. I did not trust myself to figure out the public transportation, so I walked, which took me about an hour and a half. I was so worried about missing my entrance-time that I didn’t stop to eat or drink. Added to this, it was hot and humid, and I stayed in a room without air conditioning or even a window; so I slept poorly the night before. When I arrived, I was sticky with sweat, dehydrated and dizzy, my stomach filled with foam, disoriented by the heat and sleep deprivation, my legs a bit shaky, my heart pumping like mad, my body full of adrenalin. It was, in other words, a normal vacation day for me.
The Vatican Museum is one of the largest and most visited museums in the world. Begun in the fifteenth century by Pope Julius II, it displays some of the finest pieces in the papal collection, and thus some of the most important works in Western history. There are over 20,000 works on display; I will content myself with some highlights.
The real shame of the Vatican Museum is that most tourists rush through it to get to the Sistine Chapel. I do not blame the tourists: when you have something like the Sistine Chapel waiting for you, it is hard to take your time. Nevertheless, in the process visitors walk past one of the most impressive museums in the world.
Before visiting, I had hardly an inkling of the size and scope of the museum’s collection. In the Museo Gregorio Egiziano, for example, there is an enormous collection of Ancient Egyptian artifacts, including mummies, sarcophagi, papyruses, statues, and even reproductions of the Book of the Dead; the museum boasts a similarly complete collection of Etruscan art. In another wing, much further along the visit, is a collection of modern religious art. Added to all this is a seemingly endless collection of Greek and Roman statues. In the Museo Chiaramonti, for example, such a huge number of busts and sculptures—of emperors, heroes, and gods, all white marble—are pilled up on top of one another that it seems as though you’ve wandered into a warehouse of a sculpture factory.
The museum is notable not only for its works, but for its spaces. In the Sala Rotunda (“round room”), larger-than-life statues occupy niches in a circular room, built to imitate the Pantheon; and in the middle of the room is a gorgeous ancient mosaic. The Gallery of Maps is a long hallway; the decoration of the ceiling is unspeakably ornate—totally covered in floral designs, patterns, paintings, and decorative moldings—lit up with a golden glow; and its walls, as befitting its name, are covered in a series of lovely maps of Italy.
The Cortile della Pigna, or Courtyard of the Pine Cone, takes its name from the Fountain of the Pine Cone. This fountain, of Roman origin, was moved in 1608 from its original location near the Pantheon to decorate a large niche in the courtyard’s wall. (At the time, this courtyard was twice as large, and was known as the Cortile del Belvedere; the Apollo Belvedere used to be displayed here, which is where it gets its name.) In the center of this courtyard is a version of Arnoldo Pomodoro’s famous statue, Sfera con sfera—a large golden sphere, cracked and broken, with another similarly damaged sphere inside. There is also a monumental bust of Augustus, who was given a new hairdo in during the Renaissance.
Among the hundreds of excellent sculptures, my favorite is Laocoön and His Sons—a work that can also be said to be the founding piece of the Vatican Museum. The statue was made sometime around the first century BCE (we think), and later found its way to the palace of the Roman Emperor Titus, where it was praised by the Roman writer Pliny the Elder (first century CE). At some point in antiquity the statue was lost; it was only rediscovered during the Renaissance, in the February of 1506. The antiquarian and art-loving Pope, Julius II, was immediately informed of this discovery; Michelangelo went to investigate and sent an enthusiastic report of the statue; and one month later, Julius had the magnificent sculpture on public display in the Belvedere Courtyard. The statue now stands in the Museo Pio-Clementino.
The statue depicts a moment from Virgil’s Aeneid. The Greeks have given up trying to knock down the walls of Troy; instead they are following Odysseus’s sneaky plan, to gift them the Trojan Horse. The big, wooden horse is wheeled up to the walls, and the Trojans obligingly come out to admire it; soon they decide to bring the horse inside the walls. Laocoön, a priest, is the only person against this plan. “Beware of Greeks bringing gifts!” he says. At that moment, spurred on by the malevolent gods, two enormous snakes appear and strangle both him and his two sons. The Trojans interpret this as an omen, thinking that the gods disapproved of Laocoön’s skepticism. In reality, the gods were on the Greeks’ side.
The statue is extraordinary. Far removed from the Classic Greek ideals of perfect form and sublime grace, it is full of suffering and fear. The bodies are contorted and twisted, the faces scrunched up with pain; the snakes’ slithering bodies are wrapped around arms and legs, tying all the figures together into a writhing mass of limbs. Every detail is exaggerated. Indeed, the statue could have been melodramatic, even silly, if not for its perfect execution. Every detail seems just right: the arrangement of the figures, the anatomy, the posture, the expressions, the technical execution. It is one of those few masterpieces of art that impress themselves upon the memory after a split-second of viewing.
I stood for a long while admiring the work. How could so much movement be conveyed by immobile stone? How could an entire story be told instantaneously? The feeling evoked by the statue is one of gruesome tragedy. Laocoön will die even though he was right, and his sons will die even though they are innocent of any crime. All of them will die publicly, and in immense pain, for nothing, and with nothing to look forward to except oblivion. The image is much too exuberantly violent to be melancholy, much too grisly and ghastly to be beautiful. It is, rather, sublime: instead of conforming to your aesthetic sense, it overawes you, trampling over all your tastes and preconceived notions, soaring above all your attempts to measure or define it, leaving you simply dazed at the power of human art.
I could spend hours and pages in ecstasies over other works in the museum, but I will exercise self-restraint. The only other individual works I will mention are Raphael’s frescoes.
These were commissioned by that same Pope Julius II, in 1508, to decorate the papal apartments. They occupy four rooms, now called the Raphael Rooms: the Sala di Constanto, the Stanza di Eliodoro, the Stanza della Segnatura, and the Stanza dell’Incendio del Borgo. Needless to say, each one is a masterpiece and worthy of study. But by far the most famous of these are in the Stanza della Segnatura. This was the first room that Raphael completed. At the time, this room contained the Pope’s personal library, which is why Raphael set about creating intellectual allegories.
No place in the world more perfectly captures the Renaissance blending of art and science, of classical education and effective government, of pagan philosophy and Christian theology. In the Disputation of the Holy Sacrament, Raphael depicts theology as a collection of saints, popes, and religious poets engaged in a discourse on the nature of God, while Jesus and the Father sit enshrined above. In The Parnassus we find an allegory poetic inspiration, Apollo and the Muses stand with a collection of melodramatic bards and troubadours, all crowned with laurels, crowded on top of a hillside. (Dante is the only figure to be represented twice in the fresco sequence, appearing both among the theologians and the poets.) And in the Cardinal Virtues, both human and divine virtues are depicted in allegorical form, the human virtues—prudence, fortitude, and temperance—as women, and the divine virtues—charity, hope, and faith—as accompanying cupids.
The last and incomparably most famous is the School of Athens. Even if you do not know its name, it is an image you have undoubtedly seen countless times. At least three books in my library have this painting as their cover image. It is one of the iconic images of Western art: a symbol of the Renaissance, of humanism, of philosophy, of science, and of the entire intellectual tradition. Like other iconic images—TheMona Lisa, Guernica, The Creation of Adam—it is somehow unforgettable: every detail is classic, perfect, and instantly memorable, and it is carried with you the rest of your life.
In his classic documentary, Civilisation, Kenneth Clarke tells us that Raphael’s works must be looked at long and hard to be truly appreciated. Rather like Mozart’s music, Raphael’s art is so perfectly balanced, so immediately appealing to the senses, so intuitively intelligible even to the ignorant, that it seems as if they are devoid of serious substance. Raphael’s painting is just so seeable. The painting unfolds itself to you; it almost sees itself for you. The viewer is not asked to do any work, just to enjoy. Every relevant detail is taken in at a glance. Again, like Mozart’s music, everyone might agree that Raphael’s work is pretty, charming, and pleasant, but many might not guess that it is also profound.
To sense this profundity, you must learn to unsee it before seeing it again: you must fight the immediate familiarity, the apparent ease, and try to see the painting as it might have appeared to its first viewers: as striking, imaginative, triumphant, and so utterly convincing that one man’s individual vision soon became a model for classic grace.
This is, of course, much easier said than done. It is especially difficult if you are standing in the middle of a crowded room, buffeted by tour group after tour group, trying to find a good angle to photograph the painting. By this time, I was thirsty, hungry, and feeling not a little claustrophobic from the swelling crowds. I tried to look at the painting long enough to see what Clarke saw; but the contrast between Clarke calmly meditating on the painting in solitude, and myself sweating and painting in the noisy crowd, was too much to overcome. After fifteen minutes of staring, I turned and left. I was about to enter the Sistine Chapel.
(If you want to take a virtual tour of the chapel, there is an online version that you can find here. I recommend viewing it while listening to Georgio Allegri’s beautiful “Miserer mei, Deus,” composed for performance in the Sistine Chapel.)
Stepping into the Sistine Chapel is an unforgettable mixture of sublime awe and petty annoyance. Security guards are posted all around the room, keeping the gaping tourists out of main channels, preventing the entrance and exit from getting blocked, and repeatedly reminding tourists that no photos are permitted. Hundreds of people were packed into the room, all of them standing elbow to elbow, standing singly or in tight groups, everyone with their eyes turned upwards. It reminded me of those cartoons in which turkeys drowned themselves by looking up, mouths agape, during a rainstorm.
The hushed and hurried sounds of voices, some whispering, some laughing, reverberated in the stone chamber, creating a decidedly unmeditative din. Every five minutes or so, a voice crackled onto a PA system and told everyone, in four or five languages and to respect the sacred space. This created about thirty seconds of respective silence until the talking irrupted again, and the process started over. Even in this place, the most important space in the world for Western art, a holy place for Catholics and humanists alike, we recreate the same silly dynamic as in a middle school classroom.
Even without Michelangelo’s frescos, the Sistine Chapel would contain enough artwork to make it a necessary visit for any art-lover. To pick just one example, Botticelli’s Temptations of Christ, an obvious masterpiece, is on one of the lower walls, along with numerous other paintings of similarly high quality. And yet it is nearly impossible to pay any attention to these paintings; indeed, I bet most visitors do not even notice them. Michelangelo’s ceiling frescos are so overpowering that you cannot look at anything else. Every visitor stares helplessly up at the ceiling, painfully craning their neck like Rodin’s statues.
The work is so famous that it seems superfluous to say anything about it. Everybody has seen it. Everybody knows the story of Michelangelo, tortuously arching his back on the scaffold, slowly and scrupulously completing the frescos almost single-handedly. Michelangelo even wrote a sonnet about his own discomfort (this is a translation by Gail Mazur):
I’ve already grown a goiter from this torture hunched up here like a cat in Lombardy (or anywhere else where the stagnant water’s poison). My stomach squashed under my chin, my beard’s pointing at heaven, my brain crushed in a casket my breasts twisted like a harpy’s. My brush, above me all the time, dribbles paint So my face makes a fine floor for droppings!
Both artwork and artist have been turned into one of the great creation myths of European history. The work even seems to allegorize its own heroic origin: Just as God, sublime and omnipotent, reaches out with one delicate figure to delineate the reclining figure of Man, so did Michelangelo himself give form to the ideal image of Man. Here is the perfect symbol of creativity.
The Sistine Chapel was commissioned by the same Julius II—the most important of the Renaissance Popes, perhaps—and interrupted Michelangelo’s work on the Pope’s tomb. This tomb, by the way, was never completed on the scale originally imagined. The half-finished sculptures that were to form a part of it are now considered to be among Michelangelo’s masterpieces, such as the Dying Slave in the Louvre. Although originally planned for St. Peter’s Basilica, the tomb, as eventually realized, is in San Pietro in Vincoli, a church near the Colosseum; this tomb is now most famous for its statue of Moses.
The most striking thing, aside from their awe and splendor, about Michelangelo’s frescos are their focus on man. I use “man” deliberately, because the vast majority of the figures are men, aggressively so. Michelangelo does not portray landscapes, vegetation, or animal life; there are hardly any objects to distract us from the people. Michelangelo was entranced by the body—its musculature, its skeletal structure, its twistings and turnings, its living flesh. This is most striking in his Last Judgment, an obscene explosion of naked bodies.
The Catholic Church has traditionally had a fraught relationship with the human body, to say the least; but Michelangelo seems not to have shared this aversion. If you believe that humanity was made in God’s image, his fascination for the human form is sensible: by studying the human, you might get a glimpse of the divine.
I end this section feeling much as I did when I walked out of that room: overwhelmed. What are you supposed to say when face to face with such a work of art? How are you supposed to feel? How can you even understand what you are seeing, much less properly appreciate it? Can you, through any means, do justice to the experience? Michelangelo’s frescos are, for me, like Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Beethoven’s final symphony: a work that reduces me to the same stunned speechlessness as the starry sky.
St. Peter’s Basilica
By the time I left the Vatican museum—winding my way down the double-helix staircase—I was hungry, thirsty, and totally dazed. I bought an overpriced coca-cola from a vending machine, gulped it down, and then bought a bottle of water. Soon I was out on the street again. I had just seen some of the greatest art in the world; but every trace of aesthetic pleasure vanished in the hot sun.
I wanted to go home and sleep, but I didn’t have time to waste. I still had to go see the Vatican’s Basilica.
San Pietro in Vaticano is the church at the very center of the Catholic world. It is the last of the four major basilicas (I’ve written about the other three here), and the most important. The building, as it appears today, is actually the second St. Peter’s Basilica; the first was built during the time of Constantine, and had fallen into such disrepair during the Avignon Papacy that it was clear repairs were needed. The infinitely ambitious Pope Julius II—the ever-present specter of this post—was not content with mere repairs, however, and conceived a project far more daring: to tear down the original St. Peter’s and rebuild it on an even grander scale.
If you bear in mind that the original church was one of the most venerable, most historical, and most important churches in Europe, not to mention one of the biggest, you can get a notion of how bold this plan really was. Julian wanted not only to rival, but to surpass the great ruins of Rome that still towered above everything else in the city.
A contest was held for designs of the new building, and Donato Bramante’s design was the winner; he called for a Greek cross and a massive dome, modeled after the Parthenon’s. One hundred years earlier, the architect Brunelleschi had designed the massive dome the cathedral of Florence, still the biggest brick dome in the world, and Bramante wanted to build something even bigger. But construction was slow in getting off the ground; and it was not long before both Bramante and Pope Julius died. The leadership eventually passed to Raphael, who altered the design to include three main apses; but Raphael died, too, and the project changed hands many times again. When Charles V’s troops sacked Rome, in 1527, this did not help matters. Eventually Michelangelo, then an old man, begrudgingly took on the job; and nowadays his contributions are regarded as the most important.
The Basilica sits at the end of St. Peter’s square. This is a massive plaza, closed to vehicles, that is enclosed by two sprawling colonnades that welcome the visitor in a gigantic embrace. The square was designed by Bernini during the 17th century, and is visibly a product of the Counter-Reformation: grand, impressive, and crushingly huge. The colonnade is four columns deep, and is topped by a row of statues that are difficult to identity from the ground. In the center of the plaza is an obelisk, originally taken from Egypt during the reign of Augustus (a visible marker of the continuity between the Roman Empire and the Roman Church).
On any given day, the plaza is probably one of the most diverse places on earth. Visitors from hundreds of countries, sporting clothes of every imaginable style, speaking a befuddling mix of languages, crowd the massive square. The one thing they all have in common—at least on a sunny, summer day—is that they are very sweaty, and are busy taking photographs.
I was certainly sweaty when I got on the line to enter the Basilica. To pass from the plaza to the Basilica, you need first to go through security: this means waiting in line for the metal detectors. After you pass through security, however, you can waltz right inside. The Basilica is free to visit, which means that you can still see one of the great works of Renaissance architecture even if you forget to buy tickets for the Vatican Museums.
When you walk into St. Peter’s, the first and most persistent impression is the sense of space—open space, empty space, expanding space flooded with light. Everything is on such a huge scale that it is difficult to keep it in perspective; the ceiling is far above you, but sometimes does not appear so high up because everything is proportionally large; and it is only when you compare the little men and women scurrying about on the floor that you realize how big is everything.
The next impression, for me, was an overpowering sense of splendor and fine taste. As in so many Italian churches, but on an even more magnificent scale, the decoration of every surface is lush: shiny, colorful, and finely textured. Statues adorn nooks and crannies—heroic statues of popes and saints—each of them of the highest quality; and yet there are so many, and each is so consistently masterful, that no single thing particularly attracts your attention. Instead, all of the decoration and the statues create an atmosphere of awe.
Seeing the dome of St. Peter’s from the inside is somewhat surreal. It is so big, and so far away, that it is difficult to gauge exactly how big and how far away it is, exactly. Underneath the dome is one of the most famous works in the Basilica, Bernini’s Baldachin. This is a canopy, somewhat like a pavilion, that sits above the main altar. And it is gigantic: stretching to 30 meters (98 feet) in height, it is the largest bronze object in the world. (And despite this, it still looks tiny in the massive space of the Basilica.) The most distinctive and, for me, the most attractive feature of the work are the twisting, swirling columns that support it.
After wandering my way through the Basilica for a while—open-mouthed, exhausted, too dumbstruck and tired to really process any of the experience—I turned to leave. But there, on the way to the exit, was the most famous artwork of all: Michelangelo’s Pietá. The statue now sits in a side-chapel near the front portal, protected by a shield of bulletproof glass. (This glass was not always there. In 1972, a mentally disturbed Australian geologist attacked the statue with a geological hammer, while shouting “I am Jesus Christ!” He managed to destroy Mary’s arm and nose, and it was only through painstaking reconstruction that the statue was restored to its previous appearance. The world is an odd place.)
The statue is extraordinary. Jesus lays sprawled on Mary’s lap, while she looks down at his lifeless body. Jesus’s face is impossible to see clearly, since it is turned limply toward the sky; but Mary’s face is fully visible. For a woman old enough to have an adult son, she is strikingly youthful and beautiful. Her expression is a masterpiece: so quietly sad, so mournful, and yet not despairing; a tranquil and meditative grief. The viewer cannot help but recall all the images of the Virgin with the Christ Child, rosy-cheeked and smiling, sitting on her lap; now Christ still sits on her lap, a grown man, gaunt, tortured, and put to death. The mother gave life to the son, and now he is gone; but the son will return, and he will give life to mankind. Death and life are united in one image—the tragedy of mortality and the injustice of the world, and the hope of immortality and the justice of the universe.
I stood there for a long while, admiring the statue, and then turned to go. There was only one thing I had left to see: the crypt. St. Peter’s contains the remains of over 100 people, most of them Popes. This crypt is free to visit. To get there, I walked around the side of the building and then down a staircase.
What surprised me, most of all, was its plainness. The walls are white and mostly devoid of decoration; the tombs are relatively simple—at least, compared to everything else I had seen that day. If memory serves, many of the tombs had little plaques near them, explaining who the Pope was and what were his most notable accomplishments. I paused to read some of these, but I find that I normally do not remember much when I do this, so I skipped most. (In retrospect, I was right: I do not remember anything I read.)
At the end of the crypt I came to one far more ornate than the rest. It was not a sarcophagus, but a whole shrine—filled with gold and marble—visible through a glass window. I noticed many people pausing, crossing themselves, and praying before the tomb. Who was he? Then I realized: it was the tomb of St. Peter himself.
According to the story, St. Peter was crucified here on Vatican Hill, during the reign of Nero. He was crucified head downward, at his own request, so as not to die in the same manner as his savior. Peter is traditionally regarded as the first Pope, largely because of this passage from the Gospel of St. Matthew (16.18-19): “I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hell will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” It was for this reason that Constantine decided to build the original St. Peter’s in this spot.
In the 20th century, archaeologists investigated the area underneath the Basilica’s main altar—right underneath Bernini’s Baldachin. Several burials, tombs, and bones have been discovered under the Basilica. It seems that the area had been used as a gravesite before even the Christian era; coins and even animal bones were discovered. In 1968 it was finally announced that the bones of St. Peter’s had been identified. How any bones could be confidently attributed to St. Peter is another question; what matters, I suppose, is that they were given the official sanction, which makes them officially St. Peter’s bones.
Whenever I visit a cemetery, a tomb, or a graveyard, I think about human finitude. Our bodies are so frail, and will inevitably fail one day. Death comes for us all. And when I see these big stone structures we build for our bodies, it seems as if they are attempts to cope with this finitude. Maybe I will die, but my tomb will survive, and my name will be known, and my memory will live on. But this form of immortality is sterile. What is a tomb but a pile of rock? What is a name but a puff of air? What is a memory but a vague light flitting in darkness?
But when I see Laocoön and His Sons, The School of Athens, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter’s Basilica, it gives me pause. So much imagination, effort, will, knowledge, and force is compressed into these things that they seem as if they cannot die. This is fanciful thinking, of course. Everything can die, and everything will. But how could anything so splendid be undone, even by destruction? These works seem to transcend their earthly matter and break into the realm of pure forms, immaterial and everlasting. Why I feel this way, and why I choose to express myself using metaphysics and metaphors, I cannot quite say. What I can say is that these works of art do give me a certain feeling of faith: a faith in the human spirit.
It was at Rome, on the 15th of October 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the bare-footed friars were singing vespers in the temple of Jupiter, that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city first started to my mind.
I was stressed, sweaty, tired, and running a little late. Today was my day to visit the Vatican. I needed to get to the ticket office on time, or risk losing my entry to that sacred place. The only problem was that—because I did not trust myself with navigating Rome’s metro, especially not when so much was at stake—I had opted to walk; and this meant over an hour of trekking, at full speed, on a humid sunny day, as I followed my phone—which occasionally froze and required me to restart the map program—through the unfamiliar city.
Nothing could stop me or slow me down: not the lure of food, not the heat of the sun, not the ambling tourists that crowded the sidewalks. The only thing that could halt my steps was, as it turned out, Trajan’s Column.
I had first seen this monument in art history class; even now I can vividly remember how awed and impressed I was at the craftsmanship displayed by the Romans in this work. The column, I should explain, was made to celebrate the military victories of Trajan. It stands 30 meters (98 feet) tall, and even higher if you include the pedestal. Twisting along this length, covering the entire surface, is a series of bas reliefs depicting Trajan’s military campaigns. The detail is fine and exquisite: hundreds and hundreds of figures, legionaries, barbarians, and beasts of burden, in all varieties of poses and positions, marching and fighting up and down the column. We see Trajan laying siege, crossing rivers, celebrating victory; trumpeters blowing their horns, animals being led to the sacrifice, barbarians being tortured and trampled underfoot.
I must immediately admit, however, that all this detail was mostly invisible to me. You see, the column now sits in a parking lot—quite forlornly, I think—and it is not possible to get close enough to really appreciate the bas relief. It would be better if there were some sort of scaffold surrounding the column. As it stands now, the tourist must gape up from a distance.
There is a platform on the top, which can be reached by climbing up the steps inside the column (though this is off limits to the visitor). Originally the work was topped with a statue of an eagle, later replaced by a statue of Trajan himself. During the Renaissance, this imperial statue was, in turn, later replaced by a statue of St. Peter. Nowadays the Fords and Hondas that surround the column add an extra contemporary flavor. Thus time and changing fashions conspire to render the old glory of the Roman emperor obsolete and ridiculous. And yet, even now, there is no way to look upon Trajan’s Column without imagining that same emperor standing on the top, looking proudly out at his city and his empire, the ruler and conqueror of all within view and beyond the horizon in every direction.
I turned a corner, and there it was: the Pantheon. I was not even looking for it; I had been searching for the Trevi Fountain. Only in Rome can you unintentionally stumble upon one of the most famous buildings in the world.
The exterior of the building is striking enough. In front is a portico, supported by eight Corinthian columns. Sticking out behind this portico is a somewhat bulbous mass, a circular structure made of plain, drab concrete. The surface is discolored from centuries of rain, leaving ugly water stains, and is now cheerlessly grey, even in the bright summer sun of Rome. But contained within this somewhat unpromising exterior is one of the most beautiful spaces in history.
The Pantheon’s name, which means “all the gods,” reveals its original function as a temple. (Though there is some doubt about whether all the Olympian gods were actually worshipped there.) It was built during the reign of Hadrian, in about 120 CE, and is one of the best-preserved buildings from ancient Rome. Indeed, it seems hardly fitting to include the Pantheon in my post on “ruins,” since it is a fully functioning building.
The building was mobbed when I arrived. A line extended out the door; the surrounding area was packed with people; and inside there was hardly an inch of elbow room. This is unsurprising, considering that the ancient temple is right in the center of Rome, free to visit, and one of the most famous edifices in the world.
Since the beginning of the medieval period, the Pantheon has been used as a Christian church. It was this re-consecration and repurposing that saved the building from oblivion. (The official name is the Church of St. Mary and the Martyrs.) There is an altar at the far end of the building; and statues of Mary and various Saints stand guard around the perimeter of the building. The final effect is somewhat like standing in the Mezquita in Cordova: the Christian trapping look out of place in building whose architectural language is so different from a usual church.
The real highlight of the Pantheon is its ceiling. Even today, there is no unreinforced concrete dome larger than the Pantheon’s. It is a magnificent architectural feat. To me it scarcely seems believable that the Romans, without computers or calculators or even protractors, could have designed and executed something so geometrically precise. The coffering is so clean and regular that it looks digital.
In the center of this dome is an oculus, or opening, that lets sunlight pour into the building. A bright, yellow spot of the sun’s rays illuminates the interior like a searchlight, traveling around the space as the sun moves in the sky. On the floor below this opening are drains, so that the building doesn’t flood in the rain.
I sat down on one of the pews facing the altar, and stared up at the magnificent ceiling, suspended so enchantingly above me. This temple had been built for many gods, and had been re-dedicated to One; but as I sat there, it was easy to see what that the Pantheon was really consecrating: the force of human genius.
The architecture of Rome speaks the language of power. It has been imitated around the world, in ancient and modern times, to symbolize dominance and military might.
You can see this in the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, or the Porte Saint-Denise in the same city; you can see this in Madrid, with the Puerta de Alcalá; you can see this in London, with the Wellington Arch; you can see this in New York City, with the Washington Square Arch; and you can see this most clearly, perhaps, in Berlin, with the Reichstag Building and its neoclassical portico, the towering Berlin Victory Column inspired by Trajan’s Column, and the Brandenburg Gate, one of so many triumphal arches to be inspired by Roman examples.
One of the earlier and most influential of these Roman arches is that of Titus, located just outside the Roman Forum, on the famous Via Sacra. Built in the first century CE, it has only one arch. The inside of this arch is coffered with floral motifs. On the inner walls, on both sides, are reliefs commemorating the victories of Titus, the emperor Domitian’s older brother. I remembered from my art history class that this arch is notable for having one of the earliest depictions of a Menorah, which is pictured in the frieze celebrating Titus’s conquest of Jerusalem.
Larger and grander is the arch of Septimius Severus, which is in the Roman Forum itself. This was completed in 203 CE, and dedicated to the military victories of Septimus Severus and his sons against the Parthians. It has three arches—a large one in the center, and two smaller ones flanking it—and its façades are covered with reliefs depicting military campaigns. One of Septimius Severus’s sons, Caracalla, eventually had his brother Geta assassinated; and Geta’s name and image were removed from all monuments.
The largest of the three triumphal arches is the Arch of Constantine, completed in 315. This arch is situated between the Coliseum and the Roman Forum; originally it spanned the Via triumphalis, the road that generals and emperors traveled when they entered the city in triumph. It is an interesting stylistic jumble, since it was built out of spolia, or the remains of earlier pieces, which leads to juxtapositions of artistic periods. I cannot help but seeing this gesture—appropriating Rome’s glorious past—as a sign of the empire’s decadence. Indeed, Constantine’s arch, while the largest, was also the last triumphal arch built in Rome.
The Palatine Hill
The Palatine Hill, Roman Forum, and Colosseum are included on the same ticket. This is important to know, since it makes buying your ticket much more convenient. Most people buy their tickets at the Colosseum ticket office, which can mean quite a long wait on line. You might have better luck doing as I did, and buying your tickets at the Palatine Hill ticket office, on Via San Gregorio 30. There wasn’t a single person ahead of me; in three minutes I had my tickets and was strolling around the Palatine Hill. And this was on a Saturday.
The Palatine Hill is one of the Seven Hills of Rome; and of these seven it is the most central. According to legend, this hill was where the she-wolf, Lupa, nurtured the abandoned Romulus and Remus, and where Romulus, after killing his brother in a fit of pique, decided to found the city that bears his name. The less-mythological origins of this hill are also interesting: archaeologists have discovered settlements dating back to the Bronze Age, the remains of which you can see displayed in the Palatine Museum. Both in fable and in fact, then, the Palatine Hill is at the heart of Rome’s history.
As you stroll up the hill, a jumble of sun-baked brick strikes your eye. Arches tower over arches, in a rolling, chaotic mass of rusty red. I could not guess what any of these skeletal structures had been used for. I was first reminded of the abandoned Yonkers Power Plant, near my home in Sleepy Hollow, a similarly empty pile of brick. Yet that ruin, far younger, is somewhat ghoulish; it still echoes with the sounds of departed life. These bones of Rome had been washed by the rain of a thousand seasons, and bleached by the sun of a thousand summers. They were dead and sterile; they seemed to be part of the landscape, growing from the soil, rather than anything put there by people.
But of course people did build these structures—very powerful people. These ruins are, most of them, the remains of palace complexes of erstwhile emperors; the biggest of these is the Flavian Palace (Domus Flavia), which owes its ultimate form to Septimius Severus, but there are also temples and aristocratic houses from the Republican period. Another notable structure is the one known as the Stadium of Domitian, which looks like a hippodrome for chariot races, except that it is obviously too small to fulfill that purpose. This has led to some speculation as to its function; the most popular theory is that it was the emperor’s private gardens.
Because there were so many different buildings, from different eras, jutting up against one another and superimposed on top of one another, it was difficult for me to get a sense of what it used to look like by walking around the ruins. Instead, I was given a sense of time, of lost time; a feel for the lapsed years that disappeared into an unknown past. So many generations had come and gone on this hill, dismantling, repurposing, renovating, and expanding the work of their predecessors. These were people like me, with their own ambitions and ideologies, their own perspectives; and some were the most powerful men of their time. And now look what is left.
Aside from its ruins, the Palatine Hill is worth visiting simply for the view. Standing atop of the hill, surrounded by the remains of an ancient empire, you can see modern Rome stretch out before you. St. Peter’s stands proudly in the distance; to one side is the Circus Maximus; and standing above the enormous retaining walls, which extended the hill’s scope to accommodate the ever-growing imperial palace, you can see the whole Roman Forum.
The only thing, besides the burning Roman sun, that detracted from my visit were the art installations set up around the site. Take, for example, Mark Lulic’s piece, The Death of the Monument. This is just a large sign that says “Death of the Monument” in bright red letters. Now, in my opinion this piece obviously has no aesthetic merit, since it looks like an unimaginative advertisement. Its only purpose, then, can be conceptual. And as one might expect, accompanying this work is an explanatory caption, written in pretentious art jargon. I will quote an example:
Persuasive and seducing like in the best mass communication marketing tradition, the admonition transforms into an illogical presence of the artwork, which is a monumental negation of itself. The visual impact conveyed through a specialized and unconscious mechanism acquires instinctively a conceptual form, leading us to raise some questions: doesn’t the death of the monument coincide with its birth?
And so on in the same vein.
I find this disturbing on many levels. First, I am against any work of art that lacks both aesthetic and intellectual interest, and requires a condescending and badly written plaque in order to explain the art to the viewer. Good art should never need to be explained, only experienced. This is putting aside the sacrilege of putting such mediocre art in the middle of the Palatine Hill, turning a profound historical visit into a trip to a mediocre art gallery. The artist’s bad taste has been compounded by the bad taste of whoever let him install his art here. And this piece is only one example of many that pollute the Palatine Hill. Such art is a depressing index of our current cultural moment.
The Roman Forum
The Roman Forum (Forum Romanum) sits in a valley underneath the Palatine Hill. This forum was, for many hundreds of years, the heart of Rome; it was a center of commerce, trade, worship, and political power. Now it is center of tourism.
Looking down from that hill, you can see the Forum in its entirety. What you see is a jumble of columns with no roof to support, domes hanging over open air, fragmentary walls slowly crumbling to dust, the foundations of demolished buildings, and doorways leading nowhere; you see arches celebrating long-dead emperors, fountains sacred to long-dead heroes, temples dedicated to long-dead gods: the ruins of an entire civilization.
It would take many thousands of words to describe all of these ruins individually. I will only mention a few in passing. The Temple of Castor and Pollux, built around 500 BCE, is now little more than three towering Corinthian columns supporting the smallest bit of roof. The Temple of Saturn, built about the same time, is somewhat more complete, still possessing all of its front portico; in the old temple building, now long-gone, the Romans used to keep the official scales for weighing precious metals. The old Palace of the Vestal Virgins—where virgins lived a life of solitude, tending a sacred flame—has been lost; but several statues of the blessed women still grace the forum.
Perhaps the most impressive ruin, at least for sheer size, is the Basilica of Maxentius. This was completed during the reign of Constantine. Now only three of the basilica’s three concrete barrel vaults, coffered to save weight, remain standing. Rising to 39 meters (130 feet), it was the largest building in the Roman Forum; even now it is so large that it looks scarcely out of place amid the modern city. How on earth Romans managed to construct a building so large, with little internal support, is beyond my feeble understanding and imagination.
The most complete building in the Roman Forum might be Santa Maria Antiqua. Built in the 5th century, this is the oldest Christian monument in the forum, and one of the most important examples of early Christian art. The reason it has been so well-preserved is because an earthquake buried the church in the 9th century, and it stayed sealed under the rocks for over 1,000 years, until finally it was re-opened in the 20th century. This makes the church something of an unintentional time-capsule. What was revealed, upon its re-discovery, was a wonderful assortment of frescoes, their vivid colors preserved by the sterile air. These frescoes are especially valuable, since they provide a window into the pre-iconoclastic period of Christian art.
For my part, although I am ignorant as to their scholarly importance, I could not but be moved by these ancient, decaying portraits of angels and saints. In the dim light and dusky air, amid the faded ink and chipped plaster, the serene eyes of the first Christians stared back at me from across centuries—a triumphant victory, however temporary, against Time’s sharp tooth.
Finally it was time to visit the last ruin. Blinking in the hot sun, overwhelmed by all I had seen—far too much to take in for one day—I walked away from the forum and towards the most famous building in Rome. I still remember seeing the Colosseum in pictures in my sixth grade history class. I remember learning about the gladiators, the battles between wild animals and condemned prisoners, the executions of Christians, the mock-naval battles. Now I was finally here.
Purists will insist on calling it the Flavian Amphitheater. This was its original name, which it took from the name of the dynasty who built it. Construction began in 72 under Vespasian, and was completed in 80 by Titus; then Domitian, also a Flavian emperor, could not resist making a few modifications of his own. It is known as the Colosseum—or so the theory goes—because of the colossal statue of Nero that used to stand nearby. (This statue was 30 meters, or 100 feet, tall. Now no trace of it remains, save its base. How something like that disappears is not easy to fathom.)
The Colosseum is the biggest amphitheater ever built. It could hold somewhere between 50,000 and 80,000 people. Its tall outer walls reach a height of 48 meters (157 feet). Elliptical rather than perfectly circular, it is 189 meters (615 feet) long and 156 meters (510 feet) wide; its perimeter stretches to about 550 meters (1,800 feet).
But these numbers seem pale and lifeless compared to the experience of seeing it with your own eyes. It is a mammoth structure. As you stand on the hillside facing its outer walls, the building fills up your entire field of vision. Its walls tower above you, dwarfing the hundreds of people scurrying about its edges. Circumambulating the building takes five long minutes. The tall outer wall only extends about halfway round the structure; where it has collapsed, you can see the rows of interior arches that supported the many rows of seats inside. The entire area around the Colosseum is packed with tourists, tour guides, and vendors. Selfie sticks jut out left and right; groups pose for photo after photo; aggressive guides try to sell you their services.
Even though I had a ticket, I had to wait a few minutes on a long line. The security was pretty tight; everyone had to scuttle through a pair of overworked metal detectors. When you are finally inside, the most striking thing is the place’s familiarity. I had already seen so many photos of the amphitheater that every curve of its outline was already known to me. This happens with every iconic monument. It takes an act of will to see the place as it really is, rather than as a cultural symbol. I tried to blink away my preconceptions, to see the Colosseum afresh, as a hunk of stones laden with history; but so many notions had already molded my reaction that I felt strangely disconnected.
There is nothing especially beautiful about the Colosseum’s interior. Every part of the building is the same shade of brown; and its partially collapsed state makes it seem like a rolling mass of dun-colored stones in some lonely desert. The building is so filled with windows and arches that it is practically transparent; what remains today are just the building’s bones, its vital organs having long been reduced to dust. Today there are two levels available to visitors, though in the past there must have been at least four (and many more rows of seats). As I walked in the covered corridors that circumscribe the amphitheater, I was reminded when I was in Madrid’s bull ring, Las Ventas: and in that moment I could dimly imagine how it must have felt to be a Roman bustling through a crowd, trying to find his seat, so he could watch a bloody spectacle.
Beautiful or not, the building is grand and impressive. Merely as a feat of engineering, it is enough to inspire awe. Putting aside its massive size and its thoughtful organization, allowing visitors quick exit and entry, the Colosseum also boasted a system, called the hypogeum, of trap-doors and hidden chambers that allowed gladiators and animals to enter the ring from many different spots. What remains of this elaborate system can be seen in the amphitheater’s arena.
The now-absent floor of the Colosseum was made of wood and covered with sand. The hypogeum was below this, which consisted of walls, cages, and tunnels, two levels deep. Complex pulleys, and even hydraulic equipment, were used to haul men and animals onto the stage. Animals as big as elephants could be introduced this way. Tunnels also connected the Colosseum with nearby stables and gladiator barracks, allowing the “performers” to enter into the arena unseen by the crowd. Before this hypogeum was built, the arena could be flooded with water to have mock-naval battles.
The ultimate irony of the Colosseum is, of course, that something so grand and inspiring, the result of so much knowledge and work, could be used for such barbarous purposes. Slaves condemned to kill other slaves, exotic animals brought to be butchered, prisoners mauled by lions en masse. This is only another example of the sad human truth, that our greatest gifts and capabilities, our art and our technology, can be employed in the service of the darkest side of our nature. This is why we must educate our ends as well as means.
Edward Gibbon decided to write his magisterial history of Rome’s decline and fall after seeing her ruins. Upon witnessing these remains of a long-dead empire, the contemporary visitor cannot help but ask the same question as did Gibbon: how did such a powerful civilization collapse and fail? How is it possible that the people who built the Pantheon and who decorated Trajan’s column could vanish?
History teaches few lessons more clearly than this: that all human order requires constant reinforcement, or it will fall into disorder. Gibbon said much the same thing when he reminded us that “all that is human must retrograde if it does not advance.” Rome’s progress from the proud conqueror who erected arches celebrating her victories, to the aging empire of Constantine that looked backward to Rome’s glory days, to the sack of Rome by Alaric in 410; her progress from the glorious marble statues you can see in the Palatine Hill Museum, to the sad faces that stare back at you from the walls of Santa Maria Antiqua; her progress from the engineers who could create the concrete dome of the Pantheon, to the middle ages when the secret of making concrete had been lost: What does all this mean for us? Are we staring into our past, or our future?
And yet, did Rome really fall? Here I am, writing in a Latinized language, in a European country whose laws and institutions were influenced by Rome’s, and whose language, Spanish, grew directly out of Rome’s. Here I am in Spain, one of the many countries of the European Union, an effort to unite the continent largely inspired by Rome’s example. Order, when neglected, may fall into disorder; and perhaps it always does. But the ideal of order persists: it persists in the memories of men and women, it persists in books and the spoken word, and it persists in monumental ruins—in broken columns, crumbling amphitheaters, and cracked foundations—that serve as a beacon for future generations.
The idea of a museum seems somewhat superfluous in Rome, a city that is itself a work of art. Monuments abound; and famous paintings and statues can be seen—for free!—in several churches and basilicas around the city. But Rome is also home to some of the finest museums in the world, and this is not even counting the Vatican museum, which I will discuss in a later post.
I only went to two museums while in Rome, but they were two of the best museums I have had the pleasure of visiting. So, without further ado:
The Borghese Gallery
The first thing you must know about the Borghese Gallery is that you need to get tickets in advance if you want to have any shot of getting inside. (Go to the website to get them.) If you do not, your only remaining option is to stand by the entrance, offering to buy tickets from passersby, like I saw a few ragged tourists doing on my way inside. This is not the strategy I would recommend.
Your ticket will come with a specific date and time. You need to collect your ticket half an hour before entering or it will be canceled (that is what it says on their website, but I am not sure this policy is enforced); and you only have about an hour and a half to see the museum. This is more than enough time, however, since the museum is fairly small.
The Borghese Gallery originated as the private collection of Scipione Borghese (1577 – 1622), a Cardinal and nephew of Pope Paul V (there was a lot of nepotism in those days), who was a Caravaggio collector and a patron of Bernini. The beautiful building did not originate as a museum, but as the Cardinal’s villa; its garden is still known as the Villa Borghese, and is now perhaps the finest park in Rome.
I arrived at the museum hungry, sweaty, and stressed out. Every time I have to be a new place on time—be it a job, a date, or a museum—I panic and arrive very early. Today was no different; by the time I got there, I still had an hour to kill.
I tried strolling around the park, which is lovely, but eventually the Roman sun and humidity overwhelmed me, so I gave up and sat down on a bench. An American family chatted on my left (about gelato, if memory serves), and a group of young Chinese people chatted on my right (probably about gelato, too, but I can’t be sure).
Finally it was time for me to go inside. It is an extremely well-organized place, with tight security. They made me check my small bag, for example, but the line to drop off and pick up my bag moved very quickly. Soon I was about to enter, congratulating myself on buying a ticket early, eager to enjoy the fruits of my rare foresight.
I nearly gasped the first time I stepped inside the museum. Like so many Italian interiors, the space is staggeringly lush. The walls, ceiling, and floor are exquisitely decorated: doorways are framed by columns of fine marble and golden capitals; a delicately carved frieze of mythological figures runs along the upper walls; the ceiling is trimmed with gold and covered in neo-classical designs inspired by Pompey’s mosaics. Everything shines and sparkles and glitters, overwhelming you with prettiness but, even more so, with opulence. Borghese was a rich man.
The museum is divided into two floors: the first is mostly for statues, the second for paintings. Each floor is not terribly large, but each room is so packed with art, great art, that you can hardly give anything the time it deserves.
Like many people who visit the gallery, I was most interested in seeing the Bernini sculptures, since he’s one of my favorite sculptors. If you have any interest in Bernini, you can’t find anyplace more rewarding to visit than the Borghese Gallery. Almost every room on the first floor has a masterpiece by Bernini sitting right in the center.
The Bernini statue that greets you upon entry is The Rape of Proserpina. Though it is incredible to believe, Bernini completed this technical tour de force when he was only 23, while I am sitting here at 25 writing this blog. It depicts the moment when Hades (Pluto), god of the underworld, abducted Persephone (Proserpina) to be his queen in the underworld.
(The myth is literally a classic: Hades rips through a hole in the ground and abducts Persephone when she’s gathering flowers. Persephone’s mother, Demeter, goddess of the harvest, seeks high and low to find her; and in her grief, she neglects her duties as goddess, letting crops wither and die. Zeus, seeing this, eventually intervenes, forcing Hades to return Persephone to her mother. Unfortunately for Persephone, however, she ate some pomegranates, fruit of the underworld, and for this reason she must return a part of each year to spend time with Hades. During these months, Demeter is so upset that she again neglects her duties as goddess of the harvest; and this is why we have winter every year.)
The sculpture depicts the moment when Hades grabbed Persephone to whisk her away into his dark underworld. Bernini, as usual, seems to transcend the limitations of sculpture, creating a scene of dramatic action rather than stable form. The bearded, crowned, and burly Hades is picking up Persephone and pulling her towards him. She is obviously not pleased with this: her body is turned violently away, her hand pushing on Hades’s forehead, her face filled with terror. For his part, Hades looks rather pleased.
The technical excellence of this sculpture is seen most impressively by looking at Hades’s hands gripping Persephone’s back and leg. Bernini has somehow rendered in stone the effect of hands pressing on soft skin. Looking closely at this, it is easy to forget that you are looking at sculpted marble, so anatomically perfect is every detail. I cannot help imaging that, if I were to touch the statue, I would feel the warmth of living flesh.
The next outstanding Bernini sculpture is his David. Here Bernini captures the moment when David is winding up his body to launch his stone at Goliath. The sculpture was, like so many of Bernini’s, a radical departure from previous efforts. Compare, for example, Michelangelo’s David. That Renaissance statue is perfect form, standing stable and erect, motionless and pure. Bernini’s statue, by contrast, is all fire and energy, drama and movement, contortion and stress.
Two aspects of the statue stick out in my impressions. First is the expression on David’s face: eyebrows knit, squinting with concentration, biting his lips. No photograph of any athlete in motion has better captured the mixture of focus and effort that all skilled physical activity requires. Next I would call your attention to the rope of David’s sling: two narrow bands of marble, floating miraculously in mid-air. How on earth did he acquire such enormous technical facility?
The last Bernini sculpture I will mention here—though there are others—is his Apollo and Daphne.
It is worth recounting the myth before seeing the work. Cupid, the eternal trouble-maker, shoots Apollo one day and causes him to fall in love with Daphne, a nymph who is repelled by men. Apollo pursues her, promising everything and more, and Daphne flees. When Apollo is about to catch her, Daphne prays to her father, the river-god Peneus, to destroy her beauty. Like any good father, he promptly turns his daughter into a tree. In Ovid’s famous poem, The Metamorphoses, this story is given as the origin of the laurel tree.
Bernini’s sculpture captures this moment, as Apollo is on the verge of capturing the nymph, and the nymph is mid-transformation. Daphne’s fingertips are sprouting leaves; branches grow from her thighs; her legs are disappearing into a tree trunk. Apollo seems to be unaware of this transformation; on his face he wears a serene, joyful expression. The nimble god’s pose is as light as a ballerina’s, almost as if he as flying. Daphne is a study in contrast. Her body is twisted violently away, struggling to escape his grasp, and on her face she wears a look of horror.
Perhaps at this point it would not be out of place to say a few words on Bernini in general. In technical facility he is unsurpassed; nobody disputes this. But what of his artistic aims? He is drawn to action rather than form, to motion rather than meditation. His statues lack classic grace but make up for it in their exuberance and vitality. True, there is something superficial about his art. Many of his sculptures seem like the Baroque equivalent of special effects, meant to dazzle but not to move the viewer; and this was in keeping with the spirit of times, when egregiously rich cardinals would vie with each other to commission the most extravagant art. And yet the surfaces of Bernini’s art are so staggering and magnificent that all misgivings about “deeper” meaning are shushes into silence.
The first level also contains several splendid paintings by Caravaggio. There is Boy with a Basket of Fruit, St. Jerome Writing, and David with the Head of Goliath. I particularly like the latter painting, since it exhibits Caravaggio’s talent for gruesome, gritty, and human depictions of Biblical scenes.
The second floor of the museum is mostly dedicated to paintings. It is a bit disappointing to move from the splendid decoration and several masterpieces of the first floor to this comparatively subdued level. This is not to say that it is not also a storehouse of riches and treasures. There are many wonderful paintings, too many to adequately view in one sitting, the most outstanding of which is Raphael’s Entombment, depicting the burial of the dead Christ.
I walked and looked and walked and looked, until my eyes hurt from squinting, and my brain, overwhelmed with art, gave up the ghost. There are few museums in the world that can compete with the Borghese Gallery for elegance and taste.
Palazzo Massimo alle Terme
The Museo Nazionale Romano (National Roman Museum) has several branches around the city. The most famous of these is the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, located near Rome’s central Termini station, which houses an impressive collection of ancient artifacts.
I went fairly late in the afternoon on a Saturday, in the height of the tourist season. Nevertheless the museum was nearly empty; very often I was alone with the collection. This is a shame since, as I will venture to show, this is a museum well worth visiting, especially considering the modest price of admission and its central location.
The majority of the museum’s outstanding works can be found on the first floor (second floor for Americans). This floor is overflowing with portrait busts and sculptures—of gods, goddesses, heroes, emperors, senators, mythological creatures, philosophers, athletes, and everyday people—some of them larger than life, others small enough to fit in the palm of your hand.
The piece I was most excited for was Boxer at Rest. I had first seen this statue in my introductory art history class, and was lucky enough to have seen it in person at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it was on loan. This was the very first time it was displayed in the United States.
It is a bronze sculpture, made by the lost-wax technique out of eight separate pieces that were later joined together. Its subject matter is, unsurprisingly, a boxer at rest. This boxer does not look like he’s having a good day. He is naked except for a pair of boxing gloves, made from rope and leather. He seems to have just completed a fight. The poor man is stooped over; his face is covered in scars; his nose is broken; he has cauliflower ears; and drops of blood trickle down his arms and legs.
In this one sculpture, we can see how far the Hellenistic Greeks were from the mentality of the Golden Age Greeks and their idealized human forms. Far from calm and ideal, this athlete is battered, bruised, and ugly. His head is twisted around to one side, as if somebody had just called his name; but the pose looks so uncomfortable and unnatural that it reminds me of Rodin’s work. As I look into the shadows of his eye sockets, buried underneath is knit brows, I feel a mixture of admiration and pity for the man, for his resilience and his pain.
It is nearly impossible to believe that this magnificent sculpture was made in ancient times, before even the birth of Christ. There is a gritty, evocative, expressive quality of the work—the aging boxer, past his prime, pushing his injured body past its limits—that is strikingly modern. I suppose there really is nothing new under the sun.
Several other works are worth mentioning in passing. There are many vases, sarcophagi, and fragments of walls with wonderful sculptures in relief, including the Portonaccio Sarcophagus. There is the Aphrodite of Menophantos, the nude goddess of love shyly covering her private parts, as if embarrassed, but with a serene expression on her face. There were also busts of Socrates and Epicurus that I quite enjoyed.
Several essays could be written on any of the pieces in the collection; but here I will only pause to reflect on one more, the Discobolus. This is a Roman copy in marble of a Greek original in bronze, by the famous sculpture Myron (c. 480 – 440 BCE). The subject of the statue is an athlete, as usual nude, throwing a discus. His body is wound up to its maximum and he is about to reverse directions and release.
This sculpture dates from a much earlier period than the Boxer at Rest, and presents a striking contrast of mentality. Although the athlete’s body is doubtless under a tremendous about of strain, his face is emotionless and blank. He stares placidly at the viewer, his vacant eyes giving the impression that his mind is totally elsewhere, on a different plane, a realm of pure thought and idea. He seems to be so totally absorbed in the act of throwing that he feels no strain.
This is Greek idealization at its finest. There is not a flaw on his body. His muscles are not even tensed. Most striking, however, is the impression of stability that the sculpture conveys. Although the athlete is in mid-motion, it does not invite the viewer to imagine him coming to life and completing the throw. We are, rather, bidden to contemplate the perfection of the athlete’s body, the harmony of his pose, the calmness of his gaze. It is as if the flesh has been sublimated into pure thought.
A contrast with Bernini’s David might be appropriate here. Although both works portray a man about to launch a projectile, Bernini’s work is all fire and movement, while Myron’s is as still and lifeless as ice. The Classic Greeks are always there to remind us that passion and realism are not necessary, nor even always desirable, for great art.
The second floor of the museum is devoted to frescoes, stuccos, and mosaics. Although beautiful as works of art, these are, to me, more fascinating as windows into Roman life, since many originated as decorations in the homes of wealthy Romans. Wandering around this floor, it is easy to imagine that you stumbled into a Roman villa, full of images of sea monsters, gods, and strange beasts.
This does it for my experience of Rome’s museums; next I will discuss Rome’s ancient ruins.
But to begin with, keep well away of what is stronger than you. If a pretty girl is set against a young man who is just making a start on philosophy, that is no fair contest.
Epictetus forms one part of the triad of classic stoic authors, along with Seneca and Marcus Aurelius.
Born a slave, sent into exile, never rich nor powerful, he certainly had more need of the stoic philosophy than Aurelius, an emperor, or Seneca, a senator. His course of life was closer to that of Socrates. Like Plato’s hero (and unlike Plato himself), Epictetus did not trouble himself with questions of logic, epistemology, or metaphysics. His concern was ethics; his aim was to learn how to live the best possible life. Also like Socrates, he did not write anything down himself. All of “his” works were set to paper by his pupil, Arrian.
In character, too, he is far removed from either Aurelius or Seneca. Aurelius’s voice is intimate and frank; he speaks as a friend. Seneca is sophisticated, suave, and cosmopolitan; he is easy to imagine as a witty dinner guest. Epictetus is like a sassy staff-sergeant. His mode is vituperation; he is a teacher who will mock and chide you into shape. The basic idea of his philosophy could hardly be simpler. His goal is only to instill this idea into your mind so deeply that it reforms your whole character.
What is his philosophy? The basic message is this. The external world is ultimately outside of our control. We cannot determine whether we will be rich or poor, whether our loved ones will die, whether we will be banished, imprisoned, or executed, whether we will be favored or persecuted by the emperor, whether we will get sick, whether other people will like us, or a thousand other things. The outside world—the world outside our minds—will always be able to overpower us, outmaneuver us, and surprise us.
Only the internal world is within our control. This is what Epictetus calls the “realm of choice.” We cannot choose our circumstances, but we can choose how we react to those circumstances. We cannot, for example, prevent ourselves from being robbed; but we can choose not to place value in our jewelry, and so maintain peace of mind in the event of a robbery. Everything, even our lives and our loved ones, only has value because we give it value with our minds. You can laugh at your own executioner if you don’t regard execution as an evil. This power—the power to change our attitude towards the external world—Epictetus regards as the ultimate and quintessential human faculty. This is the power of choice, and constitutes human freedom.
‘He has been taken off to prison.’—What has happened? He has been taken off to prison. But the observation ‘Things have gone badly for him’ is something that each person adds for himself.
He is unwaveringly concerned with the practical rather than the theoretical. This book is full of castigation for philosophy students who consider themselves successful when they can satisfactorily summarize and refute a logical argument. Logic is just a plaything, Epictetus says, and all this argument is entirely besides the point. How will you react when you’re in a ship that’s being tossed about in a storm? How will you react if you’re banished or if your loved one dies? How will you face death? Remember, he says, that books are ultimately just another external good, like money or power, and by prizing them, like any external good, we simply make ourselves victims of circumstances.
Epictetus’s stoicism is more explicitly deistic than Seneca’s or Aurelius’s. He regards all humans as children of God (Zeus), whom he pictures as running every detail of the universe. Thus a large part of his philosophy consists of acting in accordance with God. If you want to live in Rome, but circumstances prevent it, don’t whine and moan, but accept that God has other plans for you. If you go bankrupt and end up a beggar, accept this new role and play your part in the grand design. To reject God’s plan is foolish impiety. It is to overlook all of the blessing bestowed on you—not least life itself—and focus on one small part of the universe that you find unpleasant: “So because of one miserable leg, slave, you’re going to cast reproaches against the universe?” (Epictetus was lame in one leg.)
Although sometimes Epictetus pictures Zeus as a personal god, for the most part it is easy to see his Zeus as merely a personalization of the universe. In any case, Epictetus’s conception of death is entirely materialistic. There is no afterlife; death is the end of existence. But it is only an end from your point of view. The materials of your body will be released and used for other things. Indeed, says Epictetus, we really do not possess anything. Everything—our house, our family, our body itself—is just on a loan from the universe. If Zeus asks for it back, we would be rude to refuse.
Books like these can easily become moralizing and unpleasant; but this one is saved by Epictetus’s rollicking humor and puckish wit. Epictetus is often shown discoursing with a pupil, upbraiding, reprimanding, scolding, chiding, and finally encouraging. His style is distinguished by its relentless use of rhetorical questions. For a philosopher, he can be rather cheeky:
I must die; so must I die groaning too? I must be imprisoned; so must I grieve at that too? I must depart into exile; so can anyone prevent me from setting off with a smile, cheerfully and serenely?
The only thing that makes this book occasionally unpleasant to read is its repetitiveness. The same ideas are put forward in a hundred different ways; the same theme is returned to again and again. There is little plan or order to the sections. There is no grand unifying scheme, merely a succession of chapters haphazardly arranged. I should admit, however, that this repetition can be partly excused by the need of a moralist to firmly instill his principles: “One should know that it isn’t easy for a person to arrive at a firm judgment unless, day after day, he states and hears the same principles, and at the same time applies them to his life.”
There are theoretical troubles, too. I could not entirely agree with his division of the universe into things falling within or without the sphere of choice. Surely it is more accurate to think of a scale, or a gradation, of things more or less within our power. We can minutely influence an election, we can somewhat influence our friends, we can usually control our bodies, and we can almost always control our attitude. Thus, instead of saying “Only worry about things within the sphere of choice,” it would be more accurate to say “Only worry about things insofar as your choices can affect them.” And then, even so, in practice it is so often difficult to tell whether we are fulfilling our duties to the best of our abilities.
This is related to another theoretical weakness. The stoics make much ado about living in harmony with nature (or Zeus). And yet, how can anyone act otherwise? If we are a part of nature, and bound by her laws, how can any of our actions be out of sync with nature? Let’s say, for example, that you get banished from Rome. Epictetus advises you to accept your fate as God’s will and make a new life. To protest your fate would be to act against nature. But what if it’s Zeus’s (or whoever’s) will that you protest? And how can Epictetus know that, by protesting, you won’t be readmitted to the capital? Maybe your protest will be an event in the history of Rome and change the practice of banishment forever?
By this I am led to another potential shortcoming in Epictetus’s system: fatalism. If everyone is entirely responsible for their own peace of mind, and if circumstances play no role in human happiness, then there is no reason to help anybody or to try to improve the world: “If anyone suffers misfortune, remember that he suffers it through his own fault, since God created all human beings to enjoy happiness, to enjoy peace of mind.” Again, in this situation I think Epictetus’s hard division between things outside or within our control blinds him to the dialogue between attitude and circumstances that comprise human life and happiness.
The modern use of the word “stoic”—someone imperturbable, unemotional, unfeeling—is not entirely accurate as regards the original stoics. Seneca was witty, cosmopolitan, and certainly not unfeeling. Yet in Epictetus we see this stereotype borne out more accurately. The majority of these dialogues is concerned with avoiding disturbance and maintaining peace of mind. Epictetus is constantly warning his pupils what not to do, what actions, people, and things to avoid in order to be properly philosophical. Very little is said about the joys of life. Indeed, unlike Seneca, who was a fan of Epicurus, Epictetus repeatedly denounces Epicureans without seeming to understand their doctrine.
These criticisms are minor when I consider that this book is easily one of the greatest books on the art of living that I have yet read. So often Epictetus seems to be speaking directly to me, with frightening relevance. He is not interested in any of my excuses, but shames me into virtue with his sharp-tongued and good-natured scolding. And it is, perhaps, unfair to criticize the theory of a philosophy whose end is practice. For my part, Epictetus is easily the most powerful of the three classic stoic authors, one who I will be sure to return to when life tosses me about.
Rome’s basilicas comprise one of the city’s most popular attractions, and rightly so: they are among the most beautiful examples of religious architecture in the world.
The four so-called major basilicas, so designated by the Pope, are all within the diocese of Rome. These are San Giovani in Laterano, Santa Maria Maggiore, San Paulo Fuori Le Mura, and St. Peter’s in the Vatican (which I discuss in my Vatican post). Besides these four major basilicas there are a multitude of minor basilicas to visit, which are minor in name only.
Santa Maria Maggiore
Santa Maria Maggiore is one of the few churches in Rome for which you need to pass through security to enter. In addition to the security guards manning the metal detector there are burly Italian soldiers carrying assault riffles standing outside. All these defenses should tell you that this is a precious building.
From the outside, the Basilica is hard to miss. Aside from its massive size, the basilica is notable for having the highest bell tower in Rome, a lovely 14th century construction. The inside is even more impressive. When you stand in the center, looking down the central nave, everything seems to be made of solid gold. The coffered ceiling is covered in gilded wooden flowers. Light pours in through the top row of windows, which sit above a row of marble columns. Straight ahead is the main chapel; on the apse above is a mosaic of the Virgin Mary’s coronation amid a golden background. The decoration is absolutely sumptuous.
The feature that most stuck in my memory was a sculpture of Pope Pius IX in prayer, which sits in a sunken area before the main altar. But much more important, historically and artistically, are the mosaics. Mosaics run along the nave in a row under the window, and also surround the semidome above the main altar. Unfortunately, the mosaics on the nave are difficult to see from the ground, but those around the arch are lovely works of art.
Santa Giovanni in Laterano
Bad luck again. I followed my phone to the Basilica di Santa Giovanni in Laterano, and it was not open. The gates were shut, the doors were closed.
In the plaza nearby was another Egyptian obelisk. (This is the Lateran Obelisk—the largest ancient obelisk in the world, apparently. I am embarrassed to say that I hardly took the time to look at it.)
I sat down sullenly on the surrounding barrier, determined to wait until the basilica opened. The thin metal railing was uncomfortably skinny, so I switched to one of the concrete supports. That was slightly better, but still too spherical to make a good seat. If I leaned forward or back, I would slip off; and my tail bone kept rubbing painfully against the concrete. On top of that, it looked like it was going to rain.
I sat and waited. A family of tourists walked up to the gate and then turned back, disappointed. A young couple did the same. Meanwhile, two Italian soldiers, standing beside an armored vehicle and carrying intimidating assault riffles, talked amongst themselves. Their job was not to interact with tourists; their job was to shoot anyone who did anything fishy.
An hour went by. Now it was drizzling. I began to seriously doubt whether this basilica was worth it. The outside was not terribly impressive. Maybe I could just bag it? But I’d come all this way to see it! And there’s no reason it should be closed. Idly, I checked the map on my phone. I could see that the building was quite big, occupying a whole block all by itself. Maybe there was another entrance?
With nothing to lose, I got off my perch, my bottom a bit tender, and walked around the corner. Once there, I smacked myself in the head. This was obviously the entrance. I had been waiting in the wrong place for a whole hour. But I am too used to messing up to get very frustrated when it happens.
As I lingered near the entrance, I was amused to see a young American couple being forced to tie bits of colorful cloth around their waists. They had to do this because they were both wearing shorts, and the churches in Rome have a dress code. In my brief experience, this dress code applies more stringently to women than to men; several times I observed men walking around basilicas in shorts, while women were always made to cover up their shoulders and legs. Keep this in mind on your visit.
The façade of the basilica is austere and neoclassical, full of straight lines and right angles, rising up to an impressive height. The interior is still more impressive. The main nave is cavernous and enormous. Far above hangs the gilded wooden ceiling, sectioned off into quadrilaterals and covered in armorial and floral motifs. The main altar is covered with a gothic baldachin; this is like a guard tower, with two figures (presumably saints) keeping watch inside.
The most outstanding feature of the basilica, however, is the series of statues of the twelve apostles. These are situated in niches in the columns of the main nave. Under the direction of Pope Clement XI, in the early years of the eighteenth century, seven sculptors were commissioned to make these statues. Each one larger than life-size, and each one is elegant and glorious.
Walking from one end of the basilica to the other, from the entrance to the main altar, dwarfed beneath the gilded roof, passing between these dramatic apostles with their flowing robes and outstretched hands, you can feel the gripping power of the Catholic faith—even if, like me, you do not belong to it.
San Clemente al Laterano
The Basilica of San Clement is one of the more historical and well-known minor basilicas in Rome. Unfortunately for me, my experience with this basilica is largely of frustration.
The first time I went—and I walked everywhere in Rome, so this was a major investment of time—it was closed. I do not know why it was closed, since it was the middle of the day, but it was.
The second time I went was quite late. I arrived at 5:30, just half an hour before the basilica shut its doors for the day. This normally wouldn’t have been a problem; the place is not very large, so half an hour was more than enough time to see everything.
But the Basilica of San Clement is not famous for its main floor; it is famous for what lies buried underneath. The present basilica—which I shall describe in a moment—was built around the year 1,100, over the remains of an older, smaller basilica, which had been converted from the remains of a Roman house. This house had served, at various times, as an early Christian church and as a small temple to the god Mithras. Before that, there had been a house built during the Roman Republic, destroyed in 64 AD by the Great Fire. These ruins are preserved in the lower levels of the basilica.
The basilica itself, like all basilicas in Rome, is free to enter; but you need to pay to go down to the basement levels to see the archaeological remains. I was more than willing to pay, since it sounded fascinating, but by the time I arrived they had stopped taking new visitors. I missed my opportunity. But I record this so you do not make the same mistake.
In any case, the current basilica was worth a visit. It is more on the scale of a church than a basilica; the roof does not tower above you, and there is no overwhelming sense of space. The semi-dome over the main altar, and the wooden roof above the central nave, are richly ornamented and glimmering with gold. The paintings and designs decorating the semi-dome have that lovely, medieval simplicity that always strikes me as noble and fresh.
San Paulo Fuori Le Mura
The only subway ride I took in Rome was to see the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls. As you might have guessed, its name derives from the fact that it was situated outside of the (now nonexistent) walls of Rome. As a consequence, the basilica is quite far from the city center, which is why I had to take a subway.
The train was absolutely covered in graffiti. It reminded me of photos I had seen of the New York City subway in the seventies. There must be very lax security if people are able to so completely cover the outside of the train cars. I always wonder: where and how graffiti artists do it? Is there a place where the trains are stored for the night, that the artists can sneak into? Maybe a railway yard in some corner of the city? For my part, I thought that the paint job was a little messy, but I appreciated the bright colors.
The walk from the metro to the basilica was instantaneous. In a second I was there, sweating like a pig in the Roman sun, facing the grand edifice. To enter, I needed to pass through military-controlled security, perhaps because the basilica, although in Italy, is technically owned by the Vatican. I was going through customs.
Before entering the basilica proper, you must pass through a courtyard. In the center is a statue of Saint Paul, sword in one hand, book in another, his bearded face staring down ominously. The courtyard is surrounded on all sides by rows of elegant columns, which makes it feel more like a Roman ruin than a Catholic church.
And indeed, this feeling is justified by the history of San Clement Outside the Walls. The basilica was founded all the way back in the reign of Constantine, and was later expanded by Theodosius in 386. Although damaged at various times in its history due to wars and earthquakes, it retained its original, ancient form until 1823. That year, a workman repairing the roof inadvertently caused a terrible fire that consumed nearly the whole structure. As it stands now, the building is almost entirely a reconstruction. It is ancient in design, but modern in appearance and execution.
When I went inside, the most lasting impression was of space. Even more than other basilicas, Saint Paul’s is vast and spacious. The paneled ceiling, covered in golden designs and decorations, glows from the light pouring in through the top row of windows. Between each of these windows is a painting of an episode from Saint Paul’s life. The ceiling is so long and wide, and the area underneath so empty, that it seems impossible it could stay suspended above you without more support. Why doesn’t the middle crack under so much weight?
The most beautiful part of the basilica, for me, was the apse mosaic. It captures wonderfully the medieval mood of simple piety that I find so appealing in religious art. Sitting underneath it, with Jesus benignly looking down upon me, I thought I could feel a trace of the comfort that believers must feel in these sacred places.
But I have not yet mentioned the basilica’s most holy treasure: the grave of St. Paul himself. In truth, there is not much to see. In a lowered section of the floor, there is a clear, plastic panel through which can be glimpsed white stone. In a wall adjacent there is another transparent screen with more white stone. I would not have had any idea what I was looking at if there hadn’t been a sign.
By chance, just when I walked down the stairs to see this tomb, an entire American football team came marching into the cathedral. They seemed to be of college age, and there must have been at least fifty. A nun with an Irish accent guided them to the tomb (I made a hasty retreat to get out of their way) and they all gathered to hear her give a brief explanation. Then, they all bowed their heads in prayer.
Perhaps I am just a cynic, but I could not help wondering how much time these burly, hormonal males spend on spiritual things compared with the time they devote to girls and sports. None of them looked particularly excited to be there.
Santa Maria in Trastevere
From Saint Paul Outside the Walls I took a long walk to Trastevere. For the most part, this walk was unexciting and unpleasant—just sweating and slogging my way past apartment buildings and parking lots in the heat and humidity. The most notable exception to this pattern of boredom was when I turned a corner and saw a pyramid.
This is the Pyramid of Cestius, and is actually one of the best-preserved ancient buildings in Rome. To me it looked as though it could have been built yesterday. Instead, it was built in around 12 BCE as a tomb for Gauis Cestius, a magistrate, when Rome was conquering Egypt and there was consequently a fad for Egyptian paraphernalia in the city. I thought it was strange that Cestius would put up a tomb in the middle of the city; but of course, back when it was built, the tomb was well outside the city walls, and the city later expanded around it.
It has since been incorporated into the Aurelian Walls. This was done to save money and materials, but it looks a little funny to see a pyramid with walls sticking out on both sides. The fortified gate near the pyramid is also well-preserved.
I did not know this at the time, but near the pyramid is the famous Protestant Cemetery, where John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley are buried. It is funny how fame works. Keats and Shelley have modest tombstones, no bigger than average; and yet they will be remembered at least as long as English is spoken. The name of Gaius Cestius, by contrast, is not associated with any notable words or deeds; the only reason we remember him is for his peculiar and grandiose taste in funerary architecture.
The novelist Thomas Hardy visited this area in 1887 to pay his respects to Keats and Shelley. The sight inspired him to write a poem, Rome: At the Pyramid of Cestius near the Graves of Shelley and Keats. He begins by asking: “Who, then, was Cestius / And what is he to me?” He continues:
I can recall no word
Of anything he did;
For me he was a man who died and was interred
To leave a pyramid
And so he was.
Soon I passed the pyramid, walked through the gate, and found myself in Trastevere. This is one of the most historical and most hip neighborhoods in Rome. It is attractive for tourists because of its narrow, stone-paved streets and its plentiful bars and restaurants.
The basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere is one of the oldest churches in the city. The basic floor plan comes from the 4th century; and the building as it stands now was largely built during the Romanesque period.
The basilica is lovely from the outside. Unlike many basilicas, it is not imposing or grandiose, but humble and pleasant. Its graceful brick campanile stands above a simple, triangular roof. At the top of the bell tower, above the clock, there is a small mosaic of the Virgin and Child, easy to miss if you are not looking; and beneath the roof is another, larger mosaic of the Virgin, surrounded by women holding lamps.
The inside of the basilica is even more charming. Its paneled roof is particularly nice; it is divided into stars, crosses, and other shapely forms, and has a painting of the assumption of the Virgin in the center. The glory of the basilca, however, is its apse, covered in medieval mosaics by Pietro Cavallini. (This is the same artist who did the mosaics in Saint Peter Outside the Walls, which were destroyed in the fire.) As is fitting in a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary, these mosaics depict her life, and center on her coronation in heaven.
Before moving to Spain, I had already thought the art of medieval Europe was simpleminded and cartoonish. But the more I look at this profoundly religious style, the more I fall under its spell. There is no pretence at realism. Two-dimensional figures, hardly individualized, stand in a neutral space with a gold background. And yet it is this lack of realism that allows the artwork to be so emotionally expressive. The figures are frankly symbols of higher things, too subtle and spiritual to be realistically expressed; the sign can thus not be confused with its signifier.
I sat under the apse and thought about time. How many years had it taken to build that basilica? How long has it stood? How many have worshipped here? How many have visited? I tried to think of all the people who were somehow connected with the basilica’s existence: the men who mined the rock, who baked the bricks, who carried the materials from the quarry to the building site. The Early Christians who founded the religion amid persecution, and the later Christians who built up the Catholic Church into the most impressive institution of the medieval world. The Popes who commissioned works, the priests who gave services, the artists who painted and sculpted. The poor mother who left a donation every Sunday. The specialists who helped preserve the aging artwork. The tourist who visits and takes a picture with his phone.
I thought of all the years that went into the place, and all the people who contributed, directly and indirectly, in big ways and small, and I thought about how many more people would visit this basilica after I was dead and gone, and I grasped, just slightly, how small I am in the grand scheme of things. Now, that is some good religious architecture.
It is an absurd understatement to say that Rome has many beautiful churches. You can hardly go two blocks without passing a church which would, in any other city, be a major tourist destination, but which in Rome is just another church.
Rome has so much world-class religious architecture that I need to divide up my posts by building type. This post is for the churches; the basilicas will come next. (The difference between a church and a basilica is largely a matter of size.) I only visited five churches, although they were quite famous ones. Thus this post, like everything written about Rome, will be woefully incomplete.
Santa Maria della Victoria
The first thing I did when I put down my bags was rush to Santa Maria della Victoria, which was luckily right near my Airbnb.
The main reason I wanted to go was because of Bernini’s famous statue: The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa. That was all I knew about the church. So I was astounded, upon entering, to find that every inch of the place was breathtaking. I found myself gasping, transfixed, at everything I saw. The church deservers Bernini’s masterpiece.
The first word that springs to mind, as I attempt to describe the place, is lush. Like a forest in springtime, the church overflowed with sensory pleasure. The floor, the walls, the ceiling, the statues, the altars—every surface, corner, and crevice provided fascination and delight to the eye.
After gaping at everything for a few moments, I went immediately to find Bernini’s statue. And there it was. In my experience, the first time you lay eyes on a famous work of art, one that you have seen many times in photos, there is a second of disappointment. “So, that’s it?” you say to yourself. At first glance, the statue looks like any other.
When you look closer and more deeply, the disappointment soon turns into a feeling of unreality. It’s like you just walked into a television program: you are suddenly inside something which you had been experiencing from without. “Am I really here?” you think.
This feeling, too, goes away soon enough, leaving only you and the artwork. Now that you can look at it, what do you see? To the modern eye, The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa looks inescapably sexual. A smiling angel stands over the supine saint, an arrow raised in his hands. Teresa is crumpled over, obviously overwhelmed, her mouth hanging open (in pain, pleasure, or both?).
To us in the post-Freudian age, the spear, the postures, and the Saint’s expression all seem like an obvious depiction of coitus. This impression is confirmed when you know a bit about St. Teresa’s life, whose greatest religious struggle was her attraction to handsome men. Yet I wonder if this was intended by Bernini. He was certainly not unacquainted with the sexual side of life. But it is also hard for me to think that a sincerely pious man would have intentionally depicted something sexual for a church, and that the church would have accepted something it considered suggestive.
As usual with Bernini, the statue is a work of technical virtuosity. The most outstanding feature is Saint Teresa’s robe. In the Renaissance, as in Rome and Greece, cloaks and robes were depicted as falling naturally over the body, closely fitting the body underneath. But here the robe seems to be alive. Far from succumbing to gravity, it is animated as if by an electric current, rippling and folding and crashing like stormy ocean waves. Instead of revealing the saint’s body underneath, the robe totally obscures her form, absorbing her into a torrent of energy that represents, all too clearly, the ecstasy she is feeling. This also serves to highlight the saint’s face, since the rest of her is absorbed by her garment. And here too we find Bernini to be a master. The saint is angelic, beautiful, and otherworldly.
Across from this masterpiece is a much lesser work, The Dream of Joseph by Domenico Guido, which is nonetheless impressive. The ceiling is covered with a heavenly fresco, and is held up by white, stucco angels. Besides Bernini’s statue, what most stuck in my memory was the marble in the walls and the floor. Several different colored stones were used, all of extraordinary quality. I cannot fathom how much money went into this single church. I find marble to be nearly hypnotic to look at. Light and dark patches of color swirl around each other like puffs of petrified smoke.
Santa Maria del Popolo
I had the bright idea of trying to visit this church on Sunday morning. I walked in to find that, of course, they were celebrating mass, so I did an abrupt about-face and sat down on the steps outside.
Santa Maria del Popolo is situated in the Piazza del Popolo, one of the pleasantest plazas in the city. In the center is a large Egyptian obelisk, the second oldest obelisk in Rome; and bounding the plaza are two semicircular walls, with a fountain in the middle of each. Although the name literally means “Plaza of the People” in Italian, its name historically comes from the poplar trees that grew there. It was also the site of many public executions.
It was in this plaza that I waited, hungry and frustrated, for the mass to end. The only thing that provided amusement were the many other tourists who made the same mistake. Person after person walked into the door and immediately walked out again, as a beggar by the door futilely said “La messa, la messa!” (“The mass, the mass!”). Obviously nobody could understand the poor guy, or else people habitually ignore the homeless. In any case, the steps were soon full of frustrated tourists who were, like myself, waiting for the mass to end.
It is, by the way, a sardonic comment on religion in the modern world that hundreds of people were annoyed that a church was being used for worship. There are still millions of Catholics in the world, of course; but it seems obvious to me that, in Europe at least, the religion is dying. I don’t know how I feel about this. On the one hand it seems like progress; but on the other it is hard for me to be happy about a religion disappearing when it inspired and helped fund so much beautiful art. But with this new Pope, maybe the future of Catholicism is looking up.
Finally the mass was over, and we all poured inside. Compared with other churches in Rome, the interior of Santa Maria del Popolo is relatively austere. This isn’t saying very much, of course. There were statues, friezes, paintings, and shining golden surfaces in abundance. The church’s dome is lovely, with a pinkish-yellow swirl of clouds painted on the inside, and light pouring in the windows from all directions.
Although Santa Maria del Popolo is home to many important and lovely monuments, it is most known for two paintings by Caravaggio. As soon as we got inside, all of us immediately flocked to the altar where the paintings hang. These two works are the Crucifixion of St. Peter and the Conversion on the Way to Damascus. Unfortunately, the paintings are hung in such a way that they face each other, rather than the viewer, so you have to see them at an odd angle. And if you want to see the paintings properly lighted, you have to put a euro into a little machine nearby (or wait till another visitor does it, like I did).
As usual with Caravaggio, the style is darkly realistic. Accurate anatomy, shadowy backgrounds, grubby details, and an intense focus on dramatic moments are what set Caravaggio apart from his contemporaries.
In Crucifixion of Saint Peter, Caravaggio pictures the saint—old, bearded, and grey—in the moment when he is being hoisted up on the cross (he was crucified upside down). Peter looks with helpless alarm at his hand, nailed to the cross. The workmen are, by contrast, anonymous forms: two of them have their backs turned to the viewer, and the last has his face cloaked in shadow. Caravaggio chose to portray the workers dressed in Renaissance Italian garb, giving the painting an extra feeling of realism.
Conversion on the Way to Damascus depicts the moment when Saul of Tarsus (later, St. Paul) was struck blind by God and converted to Christianity. The saint is laying flat on his back, his eyes closed, his hands reaching up to heaven. A horse and a servant look down at the supine man, confused at what transpired. The bright red and green of Saul’s clothes contrasts with the dull colors of the upper half. To me, there is something particularly touching about this painting. St. Paul is totally helpless, overwhelmed, as fragile as a newborn; and yet the look of rapture on his face tells us that he will soon be reborn.
Sant’Ignazio di Loyola
This church, which stands right in the center of the city, was built in the Baroque period to commemorate St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits.
The decoration of this church is lighthearted and joyful. This is exemplified in the fresco painted on the main vault (see above), which abounds in pinks, yellows, and blues, and whose numerous characters, flying through the heavenly skies, are almost cartoonish.
This playfulness is most apparent in the “dome.” Lacking funds to build a proper dome, the Jesuits commissioned a painter to create the illusion of one. It is excellently done: I am sure many visitors do not even notice it is false. When I did notice, I did a double take. “No, that can’t be right,” I thought, and tried to see it from a different angle. But soon the conclusion is inescapable: the dome is a fake.
Also notable are two friezes, one depicting the Annunciation and another St. Aloysius Gonzaga being welcomed into heaven. The swirling spiral columns of dark marble, which flank these friezes, particularly tickle my fancy.
Even more impressive is the monument to Pope Gregory XV. Four angels hold open a curtain, revealing the Pope sitting on a throne. What is most amazing is that the sculptor, Monnot, was able to make marble into a near-perfect semblance of fabric. Technically, at least, it is a masterful.
St. Louis of the French
This is the French national church in Rome. This means that the church originated as a charitable organization that helped French pilgrims in Rome. As a result, all the signs in the church are in French.
The church of St. Louis of the French is not far from the Piazza Navona. Although a lovely church by itself, it nowadays attracts visitors for its three famous Caravaggio paintings about the life of St. Matthew: The Calling of Saint Matthew, The Inspiration of Saint Matthew, and The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew. All three hang together in the Contarelli Chapel, and all three are masterpieces.
(Unfortunately, as in Santa Maria del Popolo, two of the three paintings are difficult to see, not only because they are a bit far away, because they are positioned at a right angle from the viewer. I can’t help thinking it’s a shame that such great works of art are not more easily visible.)
On the left wall is The Calling of Saint Matthew. Here is a perfect illustration of Caravaggio’s genius and originality. Instead of a heavenly scene, with the divine Jesus calling Matthew to serve God, we are shown a confused rabble in a bar. Jesus is almost invisible, hidden in shadow; most noticeable is his pointing finger. We follow this finger to a shabby, bearded man sitting behind a wooden table. This is Matthew. He thinks Jesus must be confused, looking for someone else; he points helpfully to his companion, who is bent over, counting money on the table. As usual, the costumes and the scenery are all taken from Caravaggio’s contemporary world (note the boy dressed in bright livery). The grimy realism, the dramatic gesture, the innocent surprise on Matthew’s face—all this combine to make the painting one of the most convincing portrayals of this Gospel scene.
In the center, facing the viewer, is The Inspiration of Saint Matthew. This was apparently a difficult commission for Caravaggio, since several earlier versions were rejected by his patron. Unfortunately for us, the most famous of these early versions, Saint Matthew and the Angel, was destroyed during World War II. (As the historian Will Durant notes, art and war are engaged in an eternal struggle.) This earlier painting is almost scandalous in its realism. St. Matthew is portrayed as a illiterate peasant. He is seated uncomfortably on a chair, his eyes squinting, his hand gripped awkwardly around the pen. An angel stands next to him, his hand guiding Matthew’s, acting the role as writing teacher. I love the painting, but I can see why the cardinal did not.
The later work is somewhat more conventional, but nonetheless wonderful. Instead of guiding St. Matthew’s hand, the angel hovers above the saint, talking to him (the angel seems to be counting something on his fingers). Matthew looks only slightly more comfortable. He is kneeling on a stool, hunched over his table, bending backward apprehensively to listen to the advising angel. Although less startlingly realistic, this painting makes up for that with its iconic design. The angel, robed in white, comes down from the upper right; while Matthew, robed in red, is positioned in a diagonal from the bottom right. The antithesis of the figures’ colors and postures make this painting instantly memorable.
Last we have The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew. This painting is by far the most dramatic. A nearly naked, intensely muscular soldier stands over St. Matthew, whose has collapsed on the ground. The soldier’s face is pure anger and violence. He is the wrathful embodiment of human strength. Surrounding the two central actors are about a dozen figures, reacting to the scene in different ways, from horror to mild curiosity. The saint seems, at first glance, to be frightened. His arm is raised, as if pleading. But then we notice that he is not looking at or reaching towards the soldier, but is entranced by the angel floating above. The angel is holding down the branch of a tree, which St. Matthew reaches for, as if he is about to be pulled right into heaven.
San Pietro in Vincoli
San Pietro in Vincoli is a tremendously old church, first consecrated in the year 439 (although rebuilt after that). Nowadays, it is famous for being the home of Michelangelo’s statue of Moses. The statue is part of a larger funeral monument to Pope Julius II (who was, incidentally, the subject of one of Raphael’s greatest portraits).
The relationship between fame and quality is interesting. To be honest, if I had not known that the statue was done by Michelangelo, I’m not sure I would have paid any special attention to it. This is most likely due to my own ignorance of art, rather than any defect on Michelangelo’s part. Nevertheless, I think the same is true of nearly every person who visits, not only this church, but many other famous works of art: we are impressed as much by the name as by the art itself (if not more).
You might notice that Moses is depicted with horns on his head. This isn’t because Michelangelo thought he was a cuckold, but because of the way St. Jerome, in his Latin Vulgate Bible, translated a Hebrew word. The original Hebrew word, used to describe Moses as he descended from Mt. Sinai, often meant “horned,” but also could mean “shining.” St. Jerome chose the first option; and thus there are many portrayals of Moses with little horns on his head.
Moses is seated. His long, flowing beard hangs down in tangled glory. In body and face he is so splendid that he could be mistaken for Zeus. Under his right arm are the two tablets with God’s commandments. On his face, he wears a dark and judgmental expression. What is he looking at? Perhaps he is casting a disappointed glance at his people, who are lost in idolatry. Freud made this statue the subject of some psychoanalysis, and later scholars have done likewise.