Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Rome Day 3: Stendhal's Syndrome

There are several ways to the Vatican: down one of Mussolini's widened roads, where St Peter's dome shines at the end, drawing you forward, almost like a spiritual promise

or down one of the narrower medieval streets, where the cathedral is seen in more bashful glimpses.

Older streets are generally more interesting, I find, and this one yielded the oldest hospital in Rome with a revolving drum in its wall,

where in times past foundling babies could be left incognito: a pragmatic solution to a sad and ever-present problem: unwanted children and inadequate birth control.

Which leads me (neatly and not irrelevantly) to the vast square of St Peters and its circumnavigating queue (even though the basilica would not be open for several hours yet) and onwards to the walls of the fortress of the tiny Vatican state

with its guards self-consciously modeling the ancient uniform.

We queued. Then, having gained entrance to the impressive modern vestibule, queued some more (or rather formed part of a huddle)

gave a somewhat cursory glance at Roman carvings

and rooms full of later ones

and elaborately painted ceilings

with their guards who had lost interest long ago (I have given him a hat to disguise his identity)

to a darkened room with an Egyptian mummie

and another, strangely stuffy one (even though it seemed large and airy) hung with tapestries

then an even more magnificent ceiling (although we were led down it the wrong way - it only made sense looking back)

while the lower walls

and upper walls

and ceilings grew ever more splendid

until we reached the Sistine chapel accompanied by recorded messages not to take photos (so I didn't, but still the cameras flashed) and to remind us that we were standing in a place of worship. We stood. We gawped. We made appreciative noises with a thousand others, shoulder to shoulder, sucking in air that had just been breathed out, waiting for a gap between the press of warm bodies and a suitable time to elapse before we confessed we'd had enough, and glad to escape

...and although we could appreciate the magnificent skill and incredible wonderment of Michaelangelo's work, confess quietly to ourselves that actually we preferred the simplicity of this

that we found this quiet face was more affecting, and for me, at least said more about the glory of God and man, and that even this painting in a shrine we saw later in an anonymous alleyway

seems just as heartfelt, since it is kept so simply and sincerely alive with this symbol of devotion.

At the front of Elizabeth Speller's book she describes 'Stendhal's Syndrome' - 'a dizziness, panic or paranoia caused by trying to see too many artistic or historical artifacts in too short a time'. In Rome, of course, this is a constant danger. We walked on - back into the city and the Pantheon

(a beautiful building with an 'oculus' open to the sky) - a pagan temple converted to a Christian one. Then, eventually, by accident, came across the Marcello Theatre - a smaller version of the ampitheatre.

'What is that?' A woman asked me, when she saw me taking photographs, so I told her, and she laughed. 'There's just so much, isn't there?'

We agreed. It is difficult to keep appreciating such magnificence. Everywhere in Rome, it seems, there is some ancient splendour. It soon becomes background, and needs a smaller detail to bring it into focus. The next day I found such a fact, and it was this: when the Jewish population of the Roman ghetto was being persecuted during the second world war those tiny apartments in the Marcello Theatre became a temporary hiding place. So now when I look at these photos it is this Marcello Theatre that I want to see again, because, in some ways, its seems to be the most memorable and significant thing I saw that day.


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