Rome: The ‘ne plus ultra’ of Art

There is something larger than life about Rome, something that transcends the grandeur of ‎its monuments and the vastness of its piazzas. The Eternal City lives up every inch to its ‎reputation, and you wouldn’t need a map because wherever you set your look, there would ‎be something unearthly enough to leave you awe-stricken: art becomes a way of being, ‎architecture seems to descend from heaven, and the inanimate matter becomes flesh and ‎blood at the touch of alchemist-sculptors. ‎

On earth as in heaven, everyone likes good drama. Who better that Caravaggio, Bernini, ‎Raphael and Michelangelo to capture snapshots of the divine through their paintbrushes, ‎chisels and fingertips? ‎It’s a drama of the senses, a glimpse of eternity.

Gazing, contemplating, savoring the works of the old masters, the inevitable question ‎becomes: how can we bear our present mediocrity? I spent only a weekend in Rome, ‎walking endlessly and –at times- aimlessly, as if by the force of some inner tide. My thoughts ‎outpaced my vision as I experienced an intense aesthetic anxiety. There is no way I can ‎describe this, no storyline and no logical thread to follow because beauty has a language of its ‎own. This is why I will only share some impressions and reflections:‎

Standing at one of the highest viewpoints inside the Colosseum, I eventually noticed how it ‎resembled one huge sundial as the sun moved slowly, as if ashamed to shed light on the ‎horrific history of human brutality in this place.

At the Pantheon, apart from paying respects to Raphael in his resting place, one can visualize ‎how Brunelleschi once stood here with a dropping jaw as he contemplated a seemingly ‎impossible architectural feat. He had no idea people would experience the same awe gazing ‎at his own dome in Florence years later.‎

Three Caravaggios in just one chapel at the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi; three ‎masterpieces of chiaroscuro by the master of tenebrismo. The works are so spellbinding that ‎the Church had to put a banner asking visitors to watch for their belongings: Caravaggio ‎hypnotizes the viewer, doing half the job for the lurking pickpocket. Caravaggio…the Saint of ‎Pickpockets!‎

Simon Schama once described Bernini as sly. One look at Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers ‎at Piazza Navona is enough to confirm this impression: The Nile, represented by a reclining ‎man, stretches his arm and turns his wrist in a gesture that suggests he is trying to avoid ‎something disturbing. He faces the Baroque Church of Sant’Agnese in Agone erected by ‎Bernini’s archrival, Borromini. In short, the Nile cannot stand Borromini’s poor quality! ‎Coincidence or conscious metaphor?‎

St Peter’s would have been –artistically- just another mammoth basilica, if it was not for ‎Michelangelo’s Dome, his Pieta, and Bernini’s imposing Baldacchino. The interior is, ‎nevertheless, one of the least inspiring places in Rome.‎

All the Baroque exuberance and extravaganza of the Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria ‎cannot possibly distract you from Bernini’s masterpiece: The Ecstasy of St. Teresa. She seems ‎to defy gravity, her ecstasy/orgasm lifting her beyond time and space; a realm that only ‎Bernini is capable of immortalizing in the memory of marble.‎

Luckily, some of the best things in life are for free! La Pietà, the Ecstasy of St Teresa, ‎Caravaggio’s ‘The Calling of St Matthew’…Rome is generous to art lovers.‎

The Vatican Museums offer a crescendo narrative that takes you from Roman masterpieces ‎like Laocoön and His Sons, through Renaissance and Baroque wonders, and all the way to the ‎shockingly vivid frescoes of the Stanze di Raffaello (Raphael Rooms). Then comes God ‎himself, emanating from the walls and ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Like in Florence, nothing ‎can prepare you for the first encounter with this whirlwind of prophets, angels, saints and ‎sinners that draw you into a world of biblical dimensions.‎

I left the Vatican with mixed feelings, but mostly a sorrow that is very difficult to understand: ‎All my life I had dreamt of contemplating these masterpieces, experiencing their ‘halo effect’ ‎in first person. These artworks had always held a promise of enchantment that I had always ‎imagined and fancied. Now that I have finally filled my soul with their magic, I realize I have ‎just witnessed the very limits of human talent, the boundary of artistic skill. It doesn’t get any ‎better than this because Rome, like Florence, is the ‘ne plus ultra’ of art.‎

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