NOTE TO READERS: The Rome 2014 trip begins with post #30. Posts #10—29 were Rome 2013. Posts 1–9 were Florence 2011. If you'd like to be notified of new postings by email, let me know at

Saturday, March 23, 2013

#22—My Moment with Carravaggio

Well, it all started out when I got to the famed Spanish Steps and found them blocked off by metal gates and giant speakers. There is, as I write, a big international gathering sponsored by WWF, the World Wildlife Fund, for people concerned about the welfare of animals. I am one of those people, but I am writing this and dedicating it to gli animali instead of going...because, people, it would be a long walk back to the Spanish Steps. And having got lost to and from there already today, I decided to stay home and do my rather large Italian assignment for Monday. Plus, I am tired and already had quite day...I mean, it's not every day that four hundred years vanish between you and a great master so that your eyes meet in a moment of shared tenderness and grief for the world. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

When I discovered the Spanish Steps were closed, I hoped on an elevator because I didn't realize there were side steps. In the elevator was a man who suddenly began talking to me about the state of the world. It was only 2 flights up, but by the time the door opened, I knew he was from Bangladesh, had been in Italia for 3 years, and was going to meet his brother negli Stati Uniti next year. There are no jobs in Roma, no work, no food, no beds. He is going to America...I didn't have the heart to warn him. We said goodbye overlooking Rome as the crowds flowed along the road.

I'm sure it wasn't this jammed with people when Lord Byron lived across the street in #66. Or when Keats came to ponder his mortality before dying of TB.

It was not a day for pondering my mortality but for breaking free of the crowd. It's also in this area where Gucci, Prada, Versace, and their pals peddle their wares. Window shoppers appear in droves. And by the way, I thought Swatches were inexpensive watches. Ha. The one I liked best was 85 euros. So off I went down a side street. Very quiet...when all of a sudden I came upon the Rome Museum of Modern Art featuring an exhibition of works by writers and artists from 1900 through the 60s...Pirandello, Ungaretti, Moravia, and many other Italian Futurists.

I don't think the work of the Futurists, Italian or otherwise, has ever been made so clear to me: The fragmented abstractions that comment on the coming of the machine, the possibilities of travel, and the growing complexity of life with all it's various facets...the still lifes showing the importance and difficulty of focusing on the everyday things to anchor ourselves in the mechanistic and changing world.

I liked the thought expressed by Ungaretti that the artist must live in the extreme because this is the only way of getting to the bottom of things...and the thought, I believe by De Chirico, that the time for depending on myths and fables was over...he preferred adventure with all its contradictions and risks as a way of escaping the cultural myths. It seemed to me that this described my own desire for my current adventure. The poet and artist have always been among my favorites. I thought it interesting that a form at the end of the exhibit asked not just my opinion of the exhibit. but also with which artist I identified most closely.

So many of the artists were influenced by the two World Wars. In a way, the exhibition was like Pirandello's 6 characters, all in search of truth in words.
All the artists were grappling with disappointment in a world besieged by suffering brought on by the absurdities of war. They acknowledged the need to find new ways of looking at reality, yet despaired in that reality. The art was not depressing but rather reflective. Like looking into a mirror and seeing myself in this time when in addition to the machine, we have technological devices that have turned the world into a place run by programs and systems and menu items.

The different technologies have different rules, strict and unyielding rules like medieval religion. As with my iPhone. Before leaving America, I called Verizon 4 times so thought I was good to go, had covered all bases. Nope. As you may recall, I had to buy a phone here so I could call to find out how my iPhone worked. Even then, it took three more people to get me to the person who told me what to do. It was as easy as touch tapping one OFF to ON. This is crazy.

I learned from Frontline just shortly leaving that there are even more PTSD cases among soldiers operating drones than pilots flying actual bombing missions. Remote war saves people's lives but blows their minds. What the hell are we doing to ourselves?

The museum itself was a gem. Quiet. Not many interested in contemplating the Italian Futurists. They were playing music, friendly Italian music, very much like a CD I've had with songs made for waltzing with cats. It's driving me nuts...the title of the song with that mellifluous Italian tenor voice...oh when I dance with a cat, how light I become on my clumsy feet, sweeping about the living room with my big round and bunchy orange prince Reno until he refuses to put up with the humiliation. How sweet of the museum to remind me of those tender moments of life in the midst of the Futurist response to twentieth century decadence, suffering, and mechanized complications.

Time for gelato after the long walk back home. Amarena. Made from Italian Amarena dark cherries often used in a syrup. It was cheerful...with creamy swirls of red and pink and white and bits of the dark cherries. I like Tre Scali gelato. It's outstanding plus they give you a really big cupful for 2 euros. Gelato spoons are teeny tiny plastic spoons made for teeny tiny tastes to be slowly savored. I was refreshed and ready to continue my day.

From the piazza, I went around the corner, not knowing of the mystical encounter awaiting me in the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi...the French National Church here in Rome. The attraction drawing the mini swarm making its way to the left front corner of the church: the three Caravaggios: The Calling of St. Matthew, The Inspiration of St. Matthew, and The Martyrdom of St. Matthew.

I've always liked St. Matthew, the teacher. And Caravaggio, master of light. The thing is, these large paintings are tucked up in that left corner of the church that is completely dark unless someone puts a euro in a box to light them up. I never timed the light, but I'd say you get about five minutes per euro. During that five minutes, the people swarming in front of the marble railing start elbowing each other as they try to snug up to the rail to get just the right angles...left...right...straight on for their pictures.

Every time the light goes off, you hear this loud "Ahhhhh," as if the home team just couldn't get the ball from the first-yard line over the goal for the winning TD. Not one cheap maniac with a camera ever put in a euro for light. I watched. I had time to watch because when I finally made it to the rail, the light went off. I stepped to the right to drop in a euro and the small space I left filled so I now had to work my way up again. Nature and photographers abhor a vacuum.

From behind the swarm, I looked at the pictures in the little camera screens. I wondered what these people were going to do with their pictures. I mean, they didn't really look at the real Caravaggios. How much genius can you see through a lens...or in digital image, no matter how many pixels...I watched them holding up iPhones with one hand, trying to remain steady as other iPhones and clickety Japanese cameras were going off all around and in front of them.

And yes, The Voice was back: Silenzio. No Flash. Silenzio.

A woman in a Campbell's soup T-shirt zig-zagged in front of me, shot The Calling, Inspiration, and Martyrdom with her white iPhone and was off.
I looked at St. Matthew's astonishment at being called by The Lord...the light on his did the master do that?...perhaps in the spirit of the universal moment, both saint and artist were also anticipating the astonishment of the present moment.

In the Inspiration, St. Matthew has paused in his writing...the angel suspended in the air above him appears to be counting fingers. I'm sure there is a religious symbolism to this...but with the somewhat quizzical look on the saint-teacher's face, he appears to be doubting that in the future people will be as ridiculous as they are and that it is his job to write something to teach them what spirit means.

In the Martyrdom, a perilous figure is standing over the saint who is lying down. The perilous man has a weapon in one hand and with the other has grasped the downed saint's a marvel of art, it is difficult to tell whether Matthew is reaching for or refusing a branch extended to him by an angel floating over the grim scene. Perhaps that lifeline could lift him from the grasp of the diabolical strength of cruelty. Is he reaching for or resisting salvation...then again, when it comes to sainthood, maybe resistance is also reaching.

I finally made my way again to the marble rail. The colors...the figures...the magic of light in all three works are all infused with an indescribable spirit. How did Caravaggio do that?

The light on the paintings went off. "Ahhhhh."
Silenzio. No Flash. Silenzio.
I heard the sound of a euro dropping into the box. The light went back on. The swarm came and went and came again. Finally, I could no longer stand the jostling and stepped back behind the swarm.

In the upper right corner of The Martyrdom, Caravaggio painted himself, dark eyes and beard, into the picture, gazing over the crowd, unable to get past the gaggle of ineffectual onlookers to the endangered saint. And suddenly, our eyes met—Caravaggio, master of light, and me.

And I knew just from his look that he had been waiting, watching over all these 400 years for those who would recognize that Blessed are the Peacemakers, the Meek, and those who Mourn, for they shall be comforted as they maintain the light in this dark world. Blessed, too, are the Artists and Teachers who remain fearless in answering the call to walk into the dark of the human heart to bring forth the light.

Blessed also are all the animals, to whom I dedicate this on a night of international commitment to recognizing that the quality of a culture is evident by the way the people treat animals, both wild and domestic.

And finally, Blessed are those who can just put down their cameras and phones for two minutes and then shut the F*** up while they see, feel, and absorb the wonder of art instead of taking home a digital image that's no more real than the Colosseum turned into an ashtray.

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