AN ABUNDANCE OF CREATIVITY
WHICH MUST BE EXPERIENCED
In the early 16th Century an obscure Augustinian monk from Germany visited Rome. He was quite put off by the extravagance (not to mention the moral turpitude) he observed in this seat of the Church and center of Christian Tradition.
That experience was formative in Martin Luther’s thinking about the relationship between religious institutions and individual souls. We all know what came of his negative impressions.
It’s easy to understand Luther’s feelings. Visit the Vatican, visit the Pantheon, visit any of the historic churches that pepper this city, and you’re dazzled by extremes of artistic expression. All the paintings, the sculptures, the mosaics, the exotic structural materials, the ornamental flourishes, the enormous scale of the buildings themselves — so great a creative outpouring overwhelms. The mind can’t take it all in.
You’re left wondering, “What has all of this grandeur to do with that simple carpenter who walked the dusty roads of Galilee and Judea preaching love and humility?”
Of course, that simple carpenter was God Himself. And the aesthetic excesses on display in Rome demonstrate man’s attempt to suggest the infinity of truth which Jesus personified, and to convey His impact on the lives touched and the history set in motion.
These are artifacts of faith, no doubt. But not faith only.
This vast creative trove also testifies to the wealth of great Renaissance dynasties that funded the timeless works, and of the competitive drive by which they sought to assert prominence and visibility. Those Borgias, Medicis, and their counterparts were nothing if not showy.
It also reflects the boundless ambitions and monumental egos of the artists themselves, along with their astonishing talents: gifts of God for all the ages.
So much is Rome blessed with this abundant legacy that famous images crowded into spaces large and small vie for your attention. Some are displayed in ways that reduce them to almost footnotes.
For instance, Caravaggio’s “Crucixion of Saint Peter” and “Conversion of Saint Paul on the Road to Damascus” — two masterworks of Christian documentary art — face each other from opposite walls of a narrow side chapel in the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo. Between them is another classic work, “Assumption of the Virgin,” by Annibale Carracci. You could easily miss all three.
The ultimate example of artistic superabundance is the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. In each panel Michelangelo illustrates a biblical figure or a scene from Scripture, and implies some doctrinal point. Add the sidewall frescos and his “Last Judgment,” an enormous (and enormously complex) composition that covers the altar wall, and you could spend days drinking in the room’s flood of imagery. Every turn of your head reveals some new visual treat.
Of course, Rome isn’t only art.
The site on our recent tour which touched me most, at an emotional level, wasn’t primarily a repository of images (though a few images are present), but rather a place for human remains.
The Catacomb of St. Callixtus, located north of the city on the Appian Way, had been the burial place of popes and martyrs (including St. Cecelia, patroness of music), most of which were removed to various churches long ago. But picking my way among its now-empty niches and family crypts, I felt a connection to the early Christians of Rome which took me quite by surprise.
As I understand, it’s an unsettled question whether the popular idea of Christians worshiping underground in secret is true. We do know that memorial masses were held in the catecombs on feast days of the saints buried there. Perhaps what I felt was an air of sanctity still lingering in those dark passages. The experience was a blessing.
The Colosseum, Forum, Baths of Diocletian, the ruins of Pompeii, and other remains of the classical period all provide glimpses of how life was lived in the Rome of two millennia ago.
A subway station under construction near the Colosseum illustrates some of the complications of life in Rome today. By law, any digging that uncovers some ancient ruin or artifact must be excavated by certified archeologists. That particular project has been ongoing for several years. Locals doubt it will ever be completed.
I can’t leave my topic without a few words of credit to the tour company — Trafalgar — and our tour director, a Scottsman of great knowledge, charm, and wit named Dominic Harris. His well developed network of local contacts provided us with superb guides, excellent meals, and some extremely entertaining moments. A highlight was learning to make pasta at a local cooking school.
It was clever device that occurred on the first day of our tour. We all mixed flour and water, which was then passed through a dough press, eventually becoming a 50-foot length of raw pasta, that was cut and fashioned into noodles. It was a fun exercise that served as an excellent ice-breaker for the group.
Also, let me credit our drivers, who piloted a massive bus through the most narrow streets and insane traffic and parking arrangements you can imagine. Amazing skill!
But all of this is Rome — an experience which (as I observed in my last post) must be taken on its own terms. If you get the chance, take it. You’ll never forget it.
Perhaps if Martin Luther’d had a better time on his visit (and learned how to make pasta), Christian history would be very different.
When not conducting tours for Tralfagar, Dominic Harris is a musician and comedian He draws on his travel experiences in this amusing YouTube video of his satirical song, “Searching.” Check it out and enjoy…