November 12, 2012 – A Thing of Beauty if a Joy Forever
Math has never been my strong point. But that doesn’t matter when it comes to viewing the Pantheon. Here is art, math, and architecture combined in one single location. I’d learned about the Pantheon in art history (and occasionally confused it in my mind with the Parthenon in Greece) and been intrigued by it. More than the allure of a church built to all the gods of ancient Rome, I’ve recently been reminded (by looking it up online) that the structure commissioned by Marcus Agrippa in some antique time and rebuilt by Hadrian in 126 AD still holds the record for being the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world.
It’s also mathematically perfect. I don’t exactly know what that means. But its stark beauty magnetizes me. I hardly glance at the alcoves filled with saintly figures (some time in the 7th century the church was taken from all the gods (which kind of makes me sad) and given over to St. Mary and the Martyrs and the basilica is still used for worship today), I’ve got my head cranked back to stare upwards. Before I fall over, I take a seat on a bench next to some other tourists and gawp. It’s the simplicity of the dome. It’s the perfect little squares that tier inwards like a child’s toy whose pieces fit within itself. It’s the light that streams down to illuminate me. It’s the rounded beauty of geometry. It’s amazing. The center of the room is roped off and I make a face because more than anything in this moment I want to lie on the floor below the oculus and be directly underneath perfection.
I content myself with getting a crick in my neck and trying to count the squares. It’s so perfect that even Michelangelo said it was designed by the angels.
Mathematically inclined angels apparently.
Speaking of Michelangelo. I’m kind of in love with him. I don’t care that he’s dead. Well, maybe a little bit. And really this love is more of an impressed crush. You know, the kind you get on someone who does anything well. I’m continually falling in love for a day with a musician, athlete, or poet. One time I even day-crushed on a whistler. This of course doesn’t begin to touch on all my fictional character crushes. That’s another story altogether. But, back to Michelangelo. He’s incredible. It’s no wonder he’s considered one the greatest artist of all time. Prolific. Prodigious. Pure.
Take for instance the Pieta. Michelangelo completed this sculpture when he was twenty-four years old. Twenty-four years old! (I’m thinking I shouldn’t compare my achievement at that age to his. It’ll only depress me.) The Pieta is housed inside St. Peter’s Basilica (also designed by Michelangelo). It’s another one of the things I didn’t want to leave Italy without seeing. And I’m glad I don’t miss it.
The Basilica is huge. Ostentatious. Spectacular in an overwhelming way. When I turn to my right and see the Pieta, I’m relieved to have one thing to focus my attention on. I stand in front of it for a long time, being affected by the stone. There’s a man next to me who seems bothered by the continuous camera flashings, who seems to be there in an air of worship or contemplation. I stand next to him and feel a kind of kinship, like we’re the only two there who are really looking at the statue, really seeing it. Moved to my own contemplation I pull out my notebook and write:
Mary makes holding the dead weight
of her eldest son
seem so easy
so perfectly marble.
Oh sacred head now wounded
with grief and pain weighed down
on the Madonna’s supporting,
heartbroken, heart yearning,
Why, Jesus, why?
she seems to ask with the
upraised palm, the questioning turn of her
After the man has gone, I eventually leave too. The emotions garnered from the Pieta fall off as I walk. The sun beats down on me and I feel full, touchingly melancholic, happy.
Although not any less remarkable, not all of Michelangelo’s work was so passionately haunting. I find this out in the Basilica di San Pietro in Vincoli. My host, Chiara, had told me that I had to see Michelangelo’s Moses. I’d forgotten about it. Somehow Moses hadn’t left an indelible imprint in my art smeared memory. But I add him to my list of things to see and make my way over after a full day spent at the Colosseum, Palatine Hill, and the Roman Forum. The church is closed when I arrive. A sign on the door says they’ll reopen at 3:00. It’s about twenty minutes of and already there’s a group of tourists waiting on the benches outside. I sigh and imagine the mad rush to get in when the doors open. The drooling, open mouthed gapery of all these objects inside. How am I any better?
I just hadn’t thought this place would be as well known. Perhaps because I hadn’t known about it. I find a pillar to lean against and wait out the time.
When the doors open, the crowd goes in. I linger for a while and then follow.
Moses is sitting off to the right of the altar in a throne. He’s enclosed by a wooden fence and kept company on either side by the biblical sisters Leah and Rachel. Above him are other figures, one of which is laying on a sort of dais and might be Pope Julius II who commissioned the entire gigantic piece for his tomb.
The interesting thing about this depiction of Moses is the horns on his head. There’s a lot of debate about these horns. Some say that Michelangelo used Jerome’s Latin Vulgate translation as his model (per se) of the biblical story of Moses receiving the Ten Commandments from God on Mount Sinai. This version had translated the word for radiant or haloed as horned (it was a simple thing of Jerome’s mistaking the verb karan which means to cast a glow for the noun keren which means horn). Others vehemently deny this. Still others say that Michelangelo was trying for some great optical effect for reflections of light, or some such thing.
Regardless of why they’re there (I don’t care about the reason) I think they’re marvelous. Well worn, Moses, well worn. I take him in from all sides, and, in good time, satisfied and delighted by the vision of the old Patriarch as cornutus I make my escape.
I go back under the arch and down the stairs, sneak past the accordion player and singer wailing out “That’s Amore” with a hat out for tips, and head back to the main street. I’m thinking about Michelangelo an awful
lot. But how can I help it here in Rome?
As if statuary wasn’t enough. As if architecture was just a trifle to play around with. Michelangelo was also a skilled painter (if I didn’t love him, I’d hate him with mad jealousy). As a small example, take the Sistine Chapel. Good lord! I don’t even know where to start. It makes me feel a little bit better that it took him four years to complete it, but only just a little. I try to count all the figures on the ceiling, but I lose track around fifty (remember math isn’t my strongest suit). Smashed in by all the other visitors, I once again, crane my neck to take in the color.
I look at each panel and trace the bible stories. The creation of the world. The famous hand of God to hand of Adam creation of man. Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve being tempted by the serpent. Adam and Eve being expulsed from the Garden. That’s just the beginning.
My favorite scene from the Sistine Chapel ceiling is the Garden temptation. I don’t know if it’s for the coiled tree trunk length of snake ending in a human figure handing a fruit to Eve. Or for the relaxed pose of that first mother, or for the leaf-sorting curiosity of Adam. Maybe it’s for the right side depiction of Adam and Eve being forced by sword-point out of Eden. I can’t quite put my finger on it (maybe it’s the storyteller’s penchant for putting characters in the worst possible situation), but it captivates me.
My favorite figure is a toss-up between the Delphic Sibyl and the Libyan Sibyl. I’ve loved them both for a long time. The Delphic Sibyl for the blue of her head scarf, the green of her dress, the captivating orange of her over piece, her almost bored expression. The Libyan Sibyl for her muscular and manly shoulders and arms, the delicate draping of her dress, the intricate headpiece she wears, and the orange.
I love well placed orange.
I love well placed orange.
I also love the prophet Jeremiah for his ponderous, dejected lamentation and The Last Judgment for the creepiness of it all.
There’s too much to take in. Too many stories being shown. Too many scenes being acted out in static painted permanence. I stay there a long time. I stay until the stories lose their meaning and I become a little starved for fresh air.
And what of Rafael?
The Vatican is a labyrinthal museum. As I follow signs (pointing me ever towards the Sistine Chapel) I put my brother’s band Bayta Darell’s album on my playlist. I need to block out the chittering noise of the people around me. With the soothing, haunting melodies to guide me, I maneuver through the Pio Clementino Musuem, the Gallery of the Candelabras, the Gallery of Geographical Maps, the Tapestry Gallery, through the throngs of people, and find myself in the Rafael Rooms. These are frescoed rooms. And frescoed rooms are rife with images. Rife with color. Rife with stories and morals and warnings. They’re like cacophonies of the visual. I’ve got my nose pressed up to a wall and see a figure holding a chalkboard. Another figure sketching out a mathematical form with a compass. Hey, wait a second, these are familiar figures. I almost cry when I realize that I know this painting. I’d wanted to see it. I’d somehow not realized I’d find it here. It’s The School of Athens by Rafael.
“Hi,” I say to it. And then, “Hello from Marie.”
My painter sister-in-law had told me, “Tell the School of Athens hello for me (if you see it).”
With the formalities out of the way I stand and stare, take time to look at each figure; Zeno of Citium, Epicurus, Ptolemy, Leonardo da Vinci, Rafael himself, Socrates, Michelangelo, Aristotle, and the rest. It’s the surprise of stumbling upon it that makes it all the greater to view, all the more precious to see. I only wish Marie were there to admire it with me.
In another room, a more modern room, I find Salvador Dali, Max Ernst, Marc Chagall (what was his obsession with goats?), and Edvard Munch. If the liquid in my proverbial cup were seeing almost all the artists I’ve loved from books then it would certainly be overflowing. It’s probably making a mess on the floor. A sopping, artistic, painterly mess.
Do the math.
If I could add it all up, all the art of Rome, I don’t know what the sum would be. Except that I’d express the formula in words. That beauty is in art and art is in the detail and appreciation comes from the soul.
Whether it was Keats or Willy Wonka who said it, it’s still true: A thing of beauty is a joy forever.