Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Rome flashback #3 -- You don't have to Catholic to dig the Vatican

     I wasn't exactly a simpleton as a young man, but re-reading these columns from 1999, they do have a certain gee-whiz quality that was wrung out of me in my 40s and 50s. Don't get me wrong, I'm still looking forward to going back to the Vatican someday very soon. 
Interior View of St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican, by Giovanni Piranesi (Metropolitan Museum of Art) 

     VATICAN CITY—As a good Jewish boy, I don't know why I felt the need to bolt here the moment I got to Rome, even before seeing the Colosseum or the Parthenon or any of the other scenic piles of rubble that define this ancient place.
     My father, with whom I'm traveling, certainly had other priorities. He wanted to see the synagogue -- he always wants to see the synagogue in every city, though he doesn't go at home regularly. I think it makes him comfortable while abroad, the way some people go to McDonald's.
     But the synagogue in Rome, which turned out to be guarded by four cops with machine guns, wasn't on the top of my list. The Vatican was.
     I'm not certain why. I can't recall anybody grabbing me by the shirt front, drawing their face close to mine and babbling that St. Peter's Basilica is the most fantastic place ever constructed, the boldest architecture ever to rise out of the human mind, and to see it is to impoverish every other wonder you've seen in the world.
     But it is. Or it was, for me.
     Perhaps it was that my childhood was spent building things out of blocks. The square in the Vatican is what a child would build if he or she had all the blocks in the world. An enormous dreamscape flanked by curving colonnades of paired columns built around a gigantic Egyptian obelisk.
     And that's just the appetizer. As grand as the square is, it contracts to nothing and falls away the moment you step inside the Basilica. The interior nearly defies language. The first thought to fight its way out of my blown mind, boggled from the dim enormousness of St. Peter's, was that here is the limit of communication. Mere words—"gigantic," "soaring," "grand," "wonderful," "119 meters tall"—struggle to get anywhere near the reality. No photos, video, CD-ROM would offer more than a whiff of the collect-your-jaw-off-the-pavement impact of the place. You just have to go there.
     I don't mean that as a bland cliche—that a person has to go to the Vatican to appreciate it. I mean that as a specific command—that you, the particular person reading this right now, must go there, if you possibly can. Sure, it costs money. Maybe you can't afford it today. But it's something to shoot for. I'd make the 10-hour plane trip just to walk through St. Peter's for an hour, then go home. Really.
     And I'm not even Catholic. I can't imagine the effect on people to whom the images are more than bravura examples of art and architecture. It must be overwhelming.
     Many of the adult Catholics I know do not have the most charitable feelings toward the church, and they couldn't see the Vatican the way I did, without baggage, as an amazing structure erected by one of the world's many faiths. A Catholic co-worker, hearing me praise the Vatican as the gem of Italy, contorted her face in a mask of disgust. "I hated it," she said, adding that it seemed obscene in light of all the coins they dropped into collection plates for the poor each Sunday.
     Well, yes, I can see that. Perhaps there was something disloyal in my embracing the Vatican. But that's how I felt.
     The Basilica provided an hour of respite from hard feelings, a misericord, to use the church's term. It was emotional and not intellectual. I tried to remind myself to be offended, but it didn't work. As I made a slow circuit of the place, from Michelangelo's Pieta to Bernini's canopy and back, I tried to tell myself that this was the stone proof of how the simple teachings of a carpenter's son could be inflated into a fever dream of power and splendor. That this was the marble pep rally for every pogrom over the last 400 years.
     But I didn't believe it. Maybe I was duped by deft stonemasonry. But I found myself thinking as I walked, head tipped so far backward at times I almost lost my balance, "Of course they'd repress dissent. Who wouldn't, coming home to this every night?"
     Perhaps it boils down to the question of whether you can separate artwork from the circumstances of its creation. In my view, that's like not enjoying your dinner if the chef is a Republican. You can let matters of politics influence matters of taste, but why?
     And the Catholic Church, if not perhaps a force for universal good, isn't burning heretics anymore. Times change.
     Besides, I left puzzling over a deeper mystery. St. Peter's was built almost 500 years ago. For the last half millennium, people have been making pilgrimages to it, and coming away, as I was, amazed. A thousand years from now they will still be visiting, still be amazed.
     And what have we done, in this brief century, that can compare? Are people going to file by that first McDonald's, preserved as a museum, in awe of the splendor of franchising? Maybe the power of our science and ideas will amaze future generations. But I don't think so. As my visit to St. Peter's shows, a tall ceiling will trump ideas every time.

          —Originally published in the Sun-Times July 4, 1999


  1. For a relatively affordable way to spend a week or two in Rome you might look into Untours (www.UNTOURS.COM). they provide an appartment near the Vatican and transit passes. Plus local advice on what's on in the city.


  2. Thanks to the magic of metonymy, The Vatican means many different things to many different people. I was going to say that the beauty of its architecture is undeniable, but I'm sure there are philistines out there who find it gaudy and prefer a Trump Tower with its brilliant clean lines and pugnacious logo. Good for them -- they can appreciate the art of their choice just by riding the El downtown. Nonetheless, in my opinion, the 10-hour plane ride is a better buy.


  3. It sure seems like any gee-whiz tone in the column was justified.

    I wonder, the people who work there or otherwise have to see it every day, does the Basilica eventually become just another familiar milieu, as unremarkable as any skyscraper?

    1. I've always found that the buildings/art pieces/landscapes/etc. that cross my daily view continue to bring me joy -- if they stop, it's usually because I change, not because of familiarity. This doesn't work for mw with popular music -- familiarity can numb a song's effect for me, though not permanently. But physical things keep their power.

  4. Have never been to Rome; it's awe-inspiring in photos, I can only imagine what it must feel like to walk through the square and into the Basilica.


  5. Great etching!. Piranesi was a master at demonstrating the puniness of mankind by placing tiny, buglike, human figures on floors and stairways of fantastical structures. His prisons were imaginary, but with Saint Peter's he didn't need to exagerate.



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