Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Rome, city of layered history

Walking through this city with its ancient, medieval, Renaissance, baroque and modern history all telescoped together, I reflected on Freud comparing it to the human psyche, what with all the layers of history, of time past, surrounding one wherever you turn. And if the remnants, ecclesiastic, artistic and architectural, which address one on virtually every street, are not enough to drive the point home, the ongoing excavations at archaeological sites, dotted throughout the city, should impart a semblance of historical awareness to even the most historically anaesthetised denizen of “schizophrenic” postmodernity (in Frederic Jameson’s phrase).

Even if one lived here, chances are that you would never discover everything worth seeing or experiencing. But we have not done badly so far for people on a relatively short conference visit, partly because we don’t use public transport, preferring to walk everywhere, no matter the distance. On foot we have discovered the 2000-year-old Pantheon, built by the Romans but turned into a basilica by Christianity, and too many other churches, big and small, to mention. Of these the church of St Mary Maggiore, the Basilica of St Mary of the Angels and Martyrs, and St Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican stand out. In addition there are the usual suspects on visitors’ “must-see” lists, namely the beautiful Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps, the ancient Roman Colosseum and Circus Maximus, and many more.

We have taken the gap to listen to an authentic Italian opera by Verdi (La Traviata), with a soprano, blessed with a powerful, but ethereal voice in the role of Violetta (Carmela Maffongelli), have enjoyed genuine Italian pizza on more than one occasion (which is economising on food, given the weakness of the rand to the euro), as well as genuine Italian cappuccino (better than its French counterpart) at the bargain price of 1 euro a cup, if you sit inside the coffee shop; outside the price more than doubles because of city taxes.

If I had to single out the most memorable experiences here in Rome, the first would be discovering and reflecting on Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio’s paintings (see my previous post), while the second would undoubtedly be experiencing the majesty of St Peter’s Basilica. This magnificent building is more than architecture — it is what Walter Gropius called a “gesamtkunstwerk“, a “total work of art”, integrating architecture, sculpture, relief sculpture and painting from the early Christian period through to the 20th century, in an overwhelming creative synthesis. And, of course, these are all dedicated to giving imaginative flesh, as it were, to Christian beliefs, to the point of comprising a veritable (Christian, specifically Roman Catholic) world of its own.

Standing underneath the gigantic principal dome — designed by Michelangelo, and still the tallest building in Rome — and casting one’s eyes upwards and sideways to the lesser domes and the enormous vault, trying hard to take in all the complexly articulated spatial modulations, it is easy to understand why Immanuel Kant (in his 3rd Critique) alludes to St Peter’s as an instance of the mathematical sublime, where sensory perception, aided by imagination, fails to encompass the church dimensions in a single, unified image. Instead, it conflicts painfully with the understanding, at which level one is nevertheless able to comprehend the perception — and image — surpassing greatness of this architectural marvel. The strange thing is that Kant never saw St Peter’s — he spent his entire life in and around the town of Konigsberg in what later became East Germany, but probably saw architectural sketches and drawings of the basilica, the complexity of which led him to realising that one could not “take it all in” in a single perception.

The history of St Peter’s is a chequered one, going back to the time when the Roman emperor Nero built a circus on the spot after the great fire of Rome in the first century AD. Because he believed Christians were responsible for the fire, they were persecuted in the circus, in addition to which it is believed that St Peter was crucified and buried there. Christian Roman emperor Constantine built the first St Peter’s on that site in 326 AD, but from the 16th century on, at least five different architects contributed to its present form, including Michelangelo, Bramante, Rafael, Maderno and Bernini (if I recall correctly). Even in the 20th century new features were still added. The only thing from the old St Peter’s that has stayed in its original position, is a mosaic of Christ in a niche below the altar.

The irony of St Peter’s variegated architectural, sculptural and painterly depiction of the (spiritual) world of Christian belief, consists, to my mind, in its hyper-ornate celebration of the human form — those of Christ the child and the man, of Mary, of many saints and popes — too many to keep track of. It is an understandable irony, however. Just as in Karen Blixen’s novel Babette’s Feast (beautifully rendered in film by Gabriel Axel), the eponymous heroine-cum-chef teaches the members of a conservative and staid religious group that, without the pleasures of the flesh — in this case sumptuous food and wine — they have nothing to model the anticipated pleasures of the hereafter on, so, too, the ornate artistic decoration of St Peter’s may be seen as an analogous foreshadowing of the beatitude awaiting the faithful in the hereafter. A “purely” spiritual realm would be impossible to render imaginatively, hence humanity has to fall back on the inventiveness of the imagination in relation to representable bodies and shapes.

The spectacle that is St Peter’s is undoubtedly overwhelming in its magnitude and diversified beauties. And yet, when I compare its baroque sumptuousness to the much simpler, but equally overawing Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, dating from the early 6th century AD, I have to say that, despite St Peter’s undeniable architectural greatness, I somehow prefer the relative simplicity of the Hagia Sophia. Here one’s spirit soars, unencumbered by all the ornate detail that meets the eye in every corner, every nook and cranny, of St Peter’s. In this respect the Basilica of St Mary of the Angels and Martyrs on Republic Square in Rome, far simpler than St Peter’s, but pervaded by a sense of the numinous, is more consonant with the uplifting, evocative spiritual atmosphere of the Hagia Sophia. Given the opportunity, though, all of these wonderful churches deserve an unhurried, contemplative visit. It is the kind of thing that makes life worth living.

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