I recently got back from a break in Rome. I’d imagined what visiting it would be like for some time and was really fortunate to be there with my wife. Experiencing it with her and sharing our different thoughts and reactions to it was a real gift. I’ll try and break-down some of the things that I thought about whilst there.
I can see why people call Rome the eternal city, everywhere new developments sit side by side with structures that go back to the time of Caesar.
I got a strong sense that contemporary Romans are proud of their heritage, culture, where they came from and the continuity linking the past to the present. The line between old and new is blurred and it wasn’t uncommon to see new developments built into or amongst Roman ruins. I think in the UK such a thing would be sacrilege but it was nice in a way to breath life into old structures once more in a new way. It also struck me how architecture is an integral part of culture and the acts of building on and exposing one’s history cannot be anything but an expression of cultural continuity and an embrace of the past. Perhaps we need to do the same at home. Instead of being a spectacle our history will become participative and part of us.
When we visited the colosseum, I was struck by how it was much more than a gladiator arena and a site of early Christian martyrdom. At times it was also a barracks, farm, home, muse and ecological treasure. It was alive in that sense and it was only more recently that it had become something very different in its transition to spectacle.
I came to Rome as a tourist, I’m grateful because it gave me access to places in previous years I might not of come close to. The interior of the Vatican comes to mind when I think of this. Yet I could not be shocked by the sheer volume of tourists in such a place. When we walked down a street we could not help but be reminded of when we visited Bali years ago where you are relentlessly accosted with various forms of paraphernalia and trinkets. You can’t blame them since that is perhaps the best form of income available to these hawkers but I could not help but feel the whole thing denigrated the city. Yet in a way I was part of that denigration, I was part of an economic ecosystem that seemed to have stolen something from the city. I was conflicted because I greatly appreciated being there, but my presence lessened the place itself.
I’m reminded particularly of visiting the sistine chapel, we were asked not to take photos and to keep silence yet the whole hall was rammed with tourists loudly talking to themselves and taking photos. The disrespect was shocking and the impotency of the guards who stood above the crowd and shouted in an effort to bring order was embarrassing. We had little time available there and had rushed to see it and thought the whole thing induced a mild form of anticlimactic cognitive dissonance. The Vatican itself I thought was generally run badly, at least publicly facing, and my wife commented that the whole thing felt largely like a theme park. I couldn’t help but agree.
I was also consciously aware of the sheer number of monks, nuns and priests wandering about Rome. I quite enjoyed seeing them although I didn’t interact with any. Many nuns were acting as a form of tour guide for some and I did wonder about the dividing line between tourist and pilgrim. The line seemed increasingly blurred and it wasn’t unusual to see someone walk around snapping photos in a church, check twitter and then quickly bow and cross themselves before heading off to the next site. A tourist shop, depending on where you were, was as likely to sell icons, rosaries and medals as it was roman swords and small cheap stone statues. It was incredible to be surrounded by such art, such history and yet the accessibility of it in a peculiar way denigrated it. Even the act of ‘paywalling’ some of it, whilst understandable, only contributed to the theme park impression left on my mind. Yet I was honestly grateful to have been there and see what I did but that Rome was somehow worse for it.
Churches and art
The sheer volume of churches, and their wealth is eye watering. I quite enjoyed seeing the aforementioned monks, nuns and priests going about their days in Rome. I enjoyed the reality that there was a church on every corner, open and in active use. There was an accessibility in this which left the mind to ponder the opportunity and blessing of being able to take communion and pray throughout the day no matter whether you were at work, at home or somewhere in between. Would it be that every city was like Rome in that regard.
When I first visited Rome one of the first churches I wanted to visit, near where we were staying, was Santa Maria della Vittoria which housed the Ecstasy of St Teresa. Truth be told I found the church incredibly disturbing and it sent my Protestant ‘spider sense’ off as soon as I stepped through the door. I couldn’t help but feel it was a total perversion of the gospel with its ostentatious displays of wealth, to say nothing of the saint veneration taking place. The Marian churches in particular I could not honestly believe and to my mind I could not help but notice in many instances Mary appeared more than Christ and that when the two were together Christ was either smaller or off to the side entirely. I’m reminded of one painting in the Vatican, I wish I knew its name, which was huge and appeared to be the second coming of Christ. Only that Mary was at the center and Christ was off to one side. I honestly could not believe it, this picture like many was beautiful in its craftsmanship but at the same time, to be honest, was utterly perverted to my mind.
The one exception to my experience, and I cannot explain why was the Sant’Andrea della Valle. My wife noticed this church and wanted to step in. Outside it is huge and aside from the dome on top relatively unremarkable, but inside it is so beautiful. The interior is golden, the windows are tinted so that the light is yellowed, there were huge lettered mosaic inscriptions in latin around the edges. The ceiling covered in depictions of the patriarchs, saints and near the altar a triptych of St Andrew’s martyrdom on his cross. Everywhere there was light and my wife commented that here you can really feel the saints looking down on you. I don’t think we ever talked about such things but you could and their depictions were literally doing so in this case! We sat for a bit and as we did the organist started to practice, the addition of the music moved me profoundly and induced a form of aesthetic experience that almost caused me to well up a little bit as I took in the work inside. To bring it back down I found the body of a dead cardinal on display in a side chapel, this was a repeated feature that occurred in the other church I mentioned and even in Westminster Cathedral back home. I found the whole thing absurd and my wife didn’t realise they were the actual corpses at first but statues. It was only when I pointed out the decayed teeth and withered flesh behind the slightly open mouth and broken plaster that she noticed. It was sobering and in a way reminded me of reading Martin Luther’s reaction to the church in Rome when he visited. I can appreciate the aesthetics of the churches but I am distinctly more grateful and appreciate the tragic necessity of the reformers.
The other thing I was reminded of on this topic was that I had recently watched the HBO miniseries the ‘Young Pope’ which, for all its faults really taps into the aesthetic marvels of Catholicism. As I walked around I couldn’t help but contrast the Church of Pope Jude Law to the Church of Pope Francis and be reminded of a First Things article on the peculiar appeal of the former over the latter.
Paolo Sorrentino, who wrote and directed the series, does not seem to be a traditional Catholic. As with most recent treatments of faith, a little more religious literacy would have gone a long way. Nonetheless, The Young Pope reveals the exhaustion of attempts to make the Church attractive by conforming it to the world. Reveling in supposedly old-fashioned garments like the papal red shoes and wide-brimmed saturno, it shows how attractive an unapologetically traditional Catholicism can be.
Sorrentino is not the first artist to admire Catholic tradition without adhering to it. Perhaps because they stand at some distance from the faith, or perhaps because they are trained in manipulating forms, artists have a way of hitting on truths about the Church that many Catholics cannot see. The signatories of the 1971 “Agatha Christie Letter” that pleaded for the preservation of the Latin Mass—people like Vladimir Ashkenazy, Agatha Christie, Graham Greene, Nancy Mitford, Iris Murdoch, and Joan Sutherland—were not generally Catholics, let alone traditional ones. But as artists, they were able to see the beauty and value of a liturgical form that too many practicing Catholics, through familiarity, had foolishly come to despise.
As a filmmaker, Sorrentino is particularly alert to the power of images. “In the 60s,” says Pius, “the young people that protested in the streets spouted all kinds of heresies. All except one: power to the imagination. In that, they were correct.” He vows that his first public appearance will be a great visual event, a “dazzling image, so dazzling it blinds people.” For Sorrentino, the Church is most eloquent in its pomp and dumbshow.
Marshall McLuhan! Thou shouldst be living at this hour. The media theorist believed that every group needed a common symbol or code, something that set them apart and made clear their purpose. Often this would involve “costume and vestment”—visible markers of identity. “What the young are obviously telling us is this: we want beards, we want massive costumes and vestments for everybody. We do not want any of this simple, plain, individual stuff.” Decades later, watching HBO, it is hard to deny that McLuhan was right.
I’m not sure how I’d react if the Church did move in this direction but there is something powerful being tapped into there. To be honest I had thought about wandering in my Protestantism recently but if anything a visit to Rome more than undid that. I didn’t realise how Protestant some Catholics or Orthodox were in the west and Rome reminded me of times I visited Orthodox churches and monasteries in Russia. Beautiful undoubtedly and sincere too but I can see how the reformers turned away and instead proclaimed ‘sola fide’ in face of such things. If anything I admire their bravery for doing so all the more now.
Rome is definitely a city unlike any other, in many ways I wish every city was like it. It didn’t feel like a city in a traditional sense because of its unique blend of history and religion. I couldn’t help but reflect on the fact that so much of the contemporary western identity has its roots in what is found in Rome. It feels naturally suited to pilgrimage but in its contemporary setting seems tailored increasingly to tourism. Tourism takes a place and turns it into a spectacle for those wandering its streets. It makes a place accessible but simultaneously creates distance between it and the visitor. Maybe it was because I was a Protestant in the most Catholic of cities that I could only have seen it from the outside. Despite this, I loved the italians merging of historic and contemporary architecture that brought it alive and think it’d be great if the British did a similar thing with their historic buildings in some measure.
In any case I’d definitely recommend a visit