Whispering in the dark
Information overload manifests itself like a demon in the dark. On lazy days that I spend reading for most of the day, I fall asleep at night to the whispers of passages that I read earlier in the day. These whispers are vague and formless and closely resemble a fever dream. They are difficult to shed. Rising for a cup of water doesn’t always dispel them. Usually, I have to let the voices run their course. This is what I experience on the third night of our trip: whispers of street names and subways stations, of Capuchin monks and Renaissance artists. Some of the whispers are unintelligible gibberish, others are unintelligible because they are in Italian. But at some point, the whispers fade and fade and only the darkness remains and when I open my eyes, I see the first light of day out the windows.
Gibbon and the decline and fall of Rome
For some reason, when I think of Rome, I think more often of the Republic and the Empire, not Renaissance Rome. Today, we are defying entropy. We are visiting Rome in reverse, beginning with the Renaissance (Sistine Chapel, St. Peter’s Basilica) followed by a jump back in time to the Colosseum. I wonder what Gibbon would have made of this reversal. In the concluding pages of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Gibbon offers four causes of Rome’s decline:
- The injuries of time and nature
- The hostile attacks of the barbarians and Christians
- The use and abuse of materials
- The domestic quarrels of the Romans.
And what of its rebirth in the Renaissance? On this, Gibbon is, so far as I know, silent. Today, we see both the Rome of ancient days and the Rome of the Renaissance.
Breakfast is all about learning people’s names. I meet Greg and Ila1, who have traveled from Australia. I meet Peter and Val, who have come from South Africa. I scribble these names into my Field Notes notebook. I do this whenever I meet someone new as a way to remember their name. And yet, as Peter later would prove, just because I write down a name doesn’t mean I will remember it. When he asks me if I remember his name, I admit that I don’t, and it even takes me several seconds of flipping through pages of my notebook before I locate it. So much for writing things down.
The fried eggs are missing when I go to put some on my plate. The pan is there, but it is empty. I find other food to eat, but keep checking the pan. Only after I am completely sated does the pan magically refill with fried eggs, but I am now too full to eat them.
Patience is a virtue?
I have read about the Sistine Chapel countless times. It is as much a part of my awareness as Shakespeare, and like Shakespeare, I can no longer recall a time when I didn’t know about it. We learned of it in high school art history classes, but I was aware of it somehow, even before that. Will Durant writes extensively about the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the fifth volume of his Story of Civilization, The Renaissance. Durant writes of Michelangelo,
To the technical difficulties [Pope] Julius added himself by his impatience to have the great work completed and displayed. Picture the old Pope mounting the frail frame, drawn up to the platform by the artist, expressing admiration, always asking, “When will it be finished?” The reply was a lesson in integrity: “When I shall have done all that I believe required to satisfy art.” To which Julius retorted angrily: “Do you want me to hurl you from this scaffold?”
And I am told that patience is a virtue.
Durant captures the genius and virtuosity of Michelangelo in a concluding paragraph:
Julius died four months after the completion of the Sistine ceiling. Michelangelo was then nearing his thirty-eighth birthday. He had placed himself at the head of all Italian sculptors by his David and Pietà; by this ceiling he had equaled or surpassed Raphael in painting; there seemed no other world left for him to conquer. Surely even he hardly dreamed that he had over half a century yet to live, that his most famous painting, his most mature sculpture, were yet to be done. He mourned the passing of the great Pope, and wondered whether Leo would have as sure an instinct as Julius for the noble in art. He retired to his lodgings and bided his time.
Perhaps more than anything else, it was reading that passage years ago that made me want to see the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel myself. Like Michelangelo, I retired to my lodging; like Michelangelo, I bided my time. Patience, after all, is a virtue. And so I follow the crowd left from the great hallway and find myself in the Sistine Chapel, with guards admonishing me to move toward the the center of the room.
It is a shame, really. The long walk to the Sistine Chapel is quite remarkable, but one is only aware of what awaits at the end. The rest is, as they say, preface, and patience be damned, I rush past paintings and maps (maps!) and Byzantine ceilings to arrive in the Pope’s chapel with hundreds of other visitors.
You have to understand the conditions: a crowded room where people are respectfully trying to keep their voices at bay. Underneath is a panacea of whispers in every language imaginable. It is as if the air in the room is alive with this rush of hushed voices, an eerie reminder of the whispers in the dark last night. I am overwhelmed and I find it hard to focus. I am attempting, mentally, to edit the scene, photoshopping out the other visitors, mixing down the rustling passage of people, and the whispers. I am trying first to recreate the scene Durant describes, with the scaffolding climbing the walls and the old Pope up there with the master, admiring the beauty, and wondering, like any customer of a contractor, when the job will be done.
And then, with a more forceful effort, I remove the Pope and Michelangelo and the scaffolding and the guards and the people and the noise and slowly admire the art. Panel after panel telling the story of Genesis. I look at the faces, which were not Michelangelo’s specialty. It is the forms of the figures, the use of every inch of space to tell the story, the color that brings the scenes to life. For what seems like a brief time, I am the only person in the room, except perhaps the ghost of Michelangelo, who leans in a corner, rubbing his fingernails on his shirt, a knowing smile on his face.
Emerging from this space is like coming out of some deep dream and the sunlight seems too bright, the outdoors unfocused through the tears in my eyes.
The bridge of Khazad-dûm
St. Peter’s Basilica is so large inside that its scale plays tricks on the eyes. Letters that appear toward the top of the space are 6 feet tall, but look tiny from the floor.
It is so large, in fact, that despite the crowds, it doesn’t seem crowded. As I do in most of the European churches that I’ve entered, I marvel at the artistry and skill that led to such magnificence. Could St. Peter’s be built today with modern technology? Somehow, I think the answer is no. Some vital ingredient is missing, creativity has atrophied with repeated sequels and sequels of sequels. I think of our church back home, and its modern lines. It is a doctor’s office waiting room in comparison to where I stand now.
The golden arched ceilings and giant columns that support the ceiling remind me of the images Tolkien gives us of the dwarf kingdom of Khazad-dûm. Everyone has their phones pointed upward and for good reason: here there be majesty. Here is the Renaissance personified. Here is what is possible when creativity, innovation, know-how, skill, and artistry blend to form something greater than the parts.
Here, where dead Popes sleep, it seems to me that at night, they awaken to admire their final resting place.
All of this has happened between breakfast and lunch. Our local specialist, Christina, has guided us through the halls of the Vatican, through the Sistine Chapel, through St. Peter’s, filling us with information and color about the things we are seeing, and it has all been crammed into the few hours between eggs and bacon, and pizza. This is the downside to a whirlwind tour of Europe and as we sit in a small nearby restaurant with Ken and Pat eating lunch, I think about the yearlong tour of Europe that Theodore Roosevelt took as a child, where there was time to breath, time to contemplate the wonder you’d just seen before moving onto the next wonder. This whirlwind is is like feeding a rich diet to a starving person.
We eat, we shop. I buy some postcards and stamps and mail the postcards from the Vatican so that their stamps will be canceled by Vatican ink. We wander a bit, walking through a long tunnel beneath the street to escape the heat. Soon, we will trade the crowds of the Vatican for the even greater crowds of the Colosseum.
Lost and found
In the Sistine Chapel we are reborn with the Renaissance. In the Colosseum, we die with Rome. I can think of no better symbol of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire than the Colosseum itself. It embodies each of Gibbon’s four causes of decline:
- The injuries of time and nature are obvious in its structure. Half of it has fallen apart. You can see age and decay all over what remains. It stands only because of modern reinforcements. When once, it was felt that those reinforcements could be removed, the structure began to crumble all over again and the modern support was quickly restored.
- The hostile attacks of the barbarians and Christians–many of whom fought to the death in gladiatorial games held in this very place for the entertainment of the people; entertainment that distracts the populace from the civilization that is crumbling around them.
- The use and abuse of material: how much stone was required to build the Colosseum?
- The domestic quarrels of the the Romans. I think that battles that took place within the walls of the Colosseum were representative of the battles taking place within Roman society–and at some point, the walls of the Colosseum were not strong enough to contain them and those battles spilled over into the streets.
Lara tells us that of the three tours she has run this summer, ours is the only one to gain entry into the Colosseum. And so we line up for our journey into the past, entering this ancient place by passing through metal detectors and winding our way through lines. It was said that the Colosseum could be filled in 20 minutes and emptied in the same amount of time, but we have apparently lost that bit of technology in the fall of the Roman Empire as well.
The stairs that climb up into the Colosseum are steeper than modern staircases. As we climb, the crowds was pass through made it seems as though a major event is taking place within the Colosseum. The only thing missing are hucksters selling their wares. We learn that the Colosseum is named for the Colossus of Nero, a large statue, and that in its heyday, it was used for about 300 years. I think about Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs, which was built in 1914, and has thus been in use for about 109 years, or a third of the time the Colosseum was in use.
A minor incident takes place while we are at the Colosseum, and it is something that I imagine must have occurred countless times in the 300 years of its service. 3 people from our tour group decide to head back downstairs instead of walking around the upper reaches of the Colosseum. Christina gives them instructions for where to go, but when we finally arrive back downstairs, these people are nowhere to be found. A search party is formed while we make our way back to the bus. Eventually, we learn that they have taken a cab back to the hotel.
Pool and dinner
There is an optional tour in the evening that goes to the Trevi Fountain, among other places. It is one of only two options tours that we opt not to take, having visited the fountain ourselves yesterday. The crowds and the rush of the day has worn me out. When we arrive back at the hotel, the kids go for a swim, while I have a drink and relax just outside the pool area. We decide to have dinner at the hotel restaurant, and I have a veal escalop dish that very good. I can’t remember the last time I had veal, but I enjoy this meal immensely.
Tomorrow, we are leaving Rome for Florence, via Siena, and I am looking forward to getting out of the big city and seeing parts of Italy that I have never visited before. Rome has worn me out. I feel the decline and fall, not of Rome exactly, but of my own body and mind, utterly worn out from the day.
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- I spelled Ila’s name wrong when I first heard it, so it appears misspelled in my notebook, but I have corrected it here. ↩