Thursday, January 16, 2014

Rome 27.12.2013: Double Kisses and Baroque Holy Water Stoups

St. Peter's, Tour Guide and Yours Truly, 23 December 2013

Waiting to get into the Borghese in Rome, I see a very nice-appearing man assisting an elderly woman down the steps. They've just toured the gallery. I think he's gay, and she's his mother.

As I watch them, I think of the lie that gay men hate women. Who in our society gives more loving care to elderly women than gay men--as their hairdressers, their priests and spiritual confidants, as the "unmarried" son expected to provide care for the mother in her old age?


We're packing now to go home and I should capture some impressions of Rome. I've avoiding doing so up to now because we've been continuously on the go. And it's overwhelming. And the longer I don't write anything here about our time in Rome, the more I dread taking up the task.

Impressions--mere impressions: day one, we tour the Vatican Museum, Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter's, with a young, attractive art historian recommended by Chuck F.--Barbara P.--as our tour guide. She arrives sporting a nimbus of curly reddish-blond hair, wearing fashionable leather boots and jeans.

Michelangelo's "Creation of Adam," Sistine Chapel
Ciao, ciao. Double kisses for both of us. She's good at what she does. Using a new computer guide screen the museum has set up to prep people for the Sistine Chapel, where talking is now forbidden (at least officially), she walks us through each painting in the panel, providing illuminating commentary and telling interesting stories about Michelangelo, his rivals (especially Raphael), and popes and cardinals with whom he interacted.

One fascinating tidbit: the sort of nimbus or mantel around God as he creates Adam--the rich deep purple-red shape behind God--may be Michelangelo's depiction of a human brain, halved.

The whole tour: overwhelming, even enervating. There's simply too much to take in on one visit, even with an accomplished tour guide-cum-art historian as one's mentor.

Statue of African Boy, Vatican Museum, 23 Dec. 2013
I'm struck by the obvious, crystal-clear connections between--the carryovers and outright dependencies on--pre-Christian Graeco-Roman and Egyptian tropes and Catholic ones. It's trite to note this, but it's such a striking experience of the Vatican Museum: tour a room of Greek, Roman, Egyptian "pagan" statues, turn a corner into a new room, and there the very same statues will appear all over again, transformed into the Madonna, angels, saints.

Another impression, especially of St. Peter's: the somewhat repulsive need to showcase the hegemonic power of Rome (as in Roman Catholicism) via the resplendence, the power and wealth embodied in jewels, marble, precious metals, papal tombs, sumptuous art work.

I'm reminded of the unseemly battle between the dominant episcopal sees of the early church--Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Rome, and Byzantium--and how Helena and Constantine sought to trump Alexandria's claim to supremacy through Mark and Rome's through Peter by producing the Holy Cross: the cross of Christ trumping mere apostles. It's all entirely about power, demonstrated through shock and awe, and is a little sick-making, perhaps especially for someone with a cultural sensibility rooted in the British Isles, which have always been so geographically and culturally far from this trumpery.

Dome of St. Peter's, 23 Dec. 2013
The early Celtic church and its monks found God in thin places, in the song of birds, the lapping of sea or lake water on stones, the blue of sky and green of woods--against which the excess of Baroque triumphalism in St. Peter's can seem not only appalling, but when all is said and done, downright silly, as if by topping a rich fruitcake with marzipan followed by ganache followed by whipped cream with a goodly dollop of marmalade on top, one has self-evidently created the world's most compellingly perfect confection.

Now having gone there, I understand Luther's reaction to Rome and St. Peter's, even if part of me revels in the opportunity to have a less straitened, pristine, and monochromatic Christian story to tell than the Reformers would dictate to us. Because the positive side of all this sumptuous excess and rich memorial art is that it catalogues for us an amazing diversity in the Christian tradition from very early in its history, which is hard to reduce to the kind of irredentist straitjacket that imagines there was one and only one model for the church or for living the Christian life, from the origins of the Christian movement . . . .

Putto, Francesco Moderati's Holy Water Stoup, St. Peter's

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