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.