Sunday, December 03, 2006


Rome is a dream. Incongruous elements from different times, eras, styles exist side by side, like the images in your mind while you sleep of people and places illogically co-existing, scenes instantly shifting. I'm not going to try to write a coherent posting about the visit I just returned from, just offer a few impressions.
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Rome means churches. Even people who don't profess any religion or are committed agnostics visit St. Peter's, Santa Maria Maggiore, the Gesu, and many others if they want to understand the essence of this city. "For the art," they say, as if to absolve themselves from any connection with a spiritual world that their scientific skepticism insists they reject. And indeed, the churches contain so much splendor, artistry, and craftsmanship as to be a wonder in themselves. The richness of the materials is stupefying: the colored glass of the mosaics, its reflective brilliance intended to simulate the miraculous light of the Glory too great for people's eyes; the marbles of green, rose, gray, pure white and mixed hues; alabaster; lapis lazuli; gold; silver; and much more. Sculptures, paintings, frescoes, patterned floors. There is hardly a space in some of the churches that hasn't been decorated.

The Catholic church, especially in the Baroque period, saw no contradiction between overwhelming the viewer with the visual world and urging him to faith. It saw art and architecture as a bridge between daily life and Spirit.

Today we use art and good materials in public spaces, if at all, only for impressive company headquarters and shopping malls. The notion of hiring talented artists, designers, and builders to create grandiose buildings to celebrate God -- to the average contemporary mind, either a superstition or a Supreme Niceness -- rather than for commerce or marketing would be almost the ultimate absurdity. But the profit motive has yet to achieve anything like the grandeur to be seen in dozens of Roman houses of worship.

Yes, the extravagance can be cloying. True, although geniuses such as Bernini and extraordinary painters like Caravaggio and Pinturicchio contributed to the decor, much of the art is derivative and second rate. The relics in their own temples under altars or in side chapels may not be "authentic" in the historical sense. But in almost every case, the whole -- often built and added to and revised over centuries -- is more than the sum of its parts.

I was told a story about a priest in Mexico who had all the statues of Jesus and the Virgin and saints removed from his church because he felt the country people in the congregation were worshiping them or concentrating on them so much as to be distracted from God. I can symphathize with his motives, but believe he was mistaken. He did not understand that embodied souls are at different stages of development, some starting on the long spiritual climb through many lifetimes of experience, others having developed more wisdom and a longing to know God in spirit as a result of growth in earlier incarnations. (Reincarnation is heretical in Catholicism, although there is much dispute about whether some of the early Church fathers, such as Origen, taught it.) The priest who stripped the adornment and statues from his church was asking his flock to put away childish things while they were still children. To them, the visible images of the saints and the beauties that surrounded them in church spoke to their intuitive sense of another world greater than this and helped them to connect emotionally with a transcendent reality they could not yet reach through spiritual discipline. To take all that away from them was to remove the lower rungs of the ladder they had to climb if they were to see God in pure spirit.
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Special exhibitions everywhere, announced by posters and banners. Not only does practically every museum have its blockbuster must-see show, but many churches as well. It seems to work, if getting bodies through the door is the goal. The church of Santa Maria del Popolo was having a special Caravaggio exhibit; I never did figure out exactly what it was about, although the two famous paintings (St. Paul's conversion and the crucifixion of St. Peter) were considerably brighter and cleaner than I remembered them, so maybe their restoration was the drawing card.

And boy, does Caravaggio pull 'em in these days. I hadn't realized how trendy he is, although I guess it shouldn't be surprising, since he is now well known to have been homosexual and his work is "edgy." The lines of people waiting to see the Caravaggios in Santa Maria sometimes stretched out the door and down the steps. (As I was staying near the Piazza del Popolo, I frequently went by the church, and was finally able to get in without waiting. My policy is to wait in line no more than 15 minutes for anything.)

Caravaggio: Rest on the Flight into Egypt

Why are tourists such herd animals? There are Caravaggio paintings all over Rome you don't have to wait in line to see -- for instance, at the fantastically ornate Palazzo Doria-Pamphilij, which was practically deserted. (Maybe tourists are afraid to ask how to find it because they don't know how to pronounce it.) The Doria-Pamphilij's two Caravaggios, Rest on the Flight into Egypt and the Penitent Magdalene, are both early works and I prefer them to the ones in Santa Maria, the Museo Borghese, etc. The painter seems not to have yet developed the shadowy, somewhat sinister style he is now famous for: the Holy Family and the Magdalene are both sincere and touching, but without sentimentality. You have to look very closely to notice the ghostly tear on Magdalene's cheek. In the Holy Family painting, Joseph holds up a musical score (for an actual composition that has been identified from the painting) in front of an angel playing a violin, as though it was the most natural thing in the world, like a neighbor dropping in, no conventional Baroque attitudes of religiosity. A donkey overlooks the scene from behind Joseph; he, more than any of the human characters, seems to understand the part they are playing in a divine manifestation.
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Blimey, this is getting long already. That's the way it is when you've been to Rome -- you are so full of experiences and anecdotes that you're hard to shut off. I think I'll take my leave now; more soon, for those who are interested.

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