Going to the Vatican museums is a bit like going to the dentist for root canal. I resist it, because the lines are so long, the flow of tourists is so noisy and assertive, and because trying to linger in the Sistine Chapel is a contact sport.
But once I have surrendered to the flow of Vatican visits, I am able to relax and just soak as much of it in as my weak brain can hold. I’m always shocked by how little I know. I can find St. Lawrence (with his iconic grill), and Aristotle and Plato in the School of Athens, but much of what I see is essentially impenetrable, because I’m so illiterate in the narratives of the Bible and the mythological stories that the Renaissance found fascinating. I wonder what it would be like to know enough to be able to “read” the Vatican, or even the Sistine Chapel, without feeling like a stooge. And of course I vow to myself every time that I am going to “master” these things, and bring to the Vatican what it deserves.
With students today at the Non-Catholic Cemetery, I lectured about Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn, which ends: “Beauty is truth, truth, beauty; that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” Ok, I get it, looking at a fresco by Botticelli is enjoyable merely for the vibrancy of the colors, the delicacy of his women, the harmonies of his composition. But I would like to know just what story he is telling, at what moment in that story, and how his treatment of the tradition relates to those who came before him.
When you go to the Vatican Museums, it is a bit like Christmas morning, when you just want to get to the big presents (the Sistine Chapel), but you open the card from your great aunt, and you make coffee, and you start the breakfast rolls, all the while bursting with eagerness to get to the main event. I try not to rush my way to the Sistine Chapel, but it is essentially impossible. And when at last you climb the three steps and cross the threshold, you gasp at the sheer audacity of
Michelangelo’s achievement. How did he construct the scaffold so high? How was he able to know what he was painting, from the perspective of the floor below, when his head was no more than two feet below the immediate plaster? Did he know he was creating a revolutionary work of art? How much of it was just tedious task work? How often did he feel like quitting and just walking away to his sculpture lab?
For once, the Raphael Rooms were relatively uncrowded. I was able to linger for half an hour, perhaps more, trying to identify all the philosophers in the School of Athens, and trying to figure out why Diogenes the Cynic gets so prominent place in the fresco. And, for the first time really, trying to make sense of the Disputation of the Sacrament.
At last, you come out of the museum into the bright Mediterranean light, blinking like a character out of Plato’s Republic. You are dazed by Beauty in its fullest presentation. You want to sit, to drink sparkling water, to avoid being distracted by the noisomeness of daily life. You want to have the ideal second person there to argue with. And soon enough you want a simple splendid plate of pasta.
A person I know back in North Dakota went to Rome. When she came back she was asked to characterize her week in Rome. She said just two things: A–there are very few restrooms. B–that Da Vinci’s ceiling is over-rated.
As many times as I come to Rome, as long as I can drag my body through the endless corridors of the Vatican Museum, I will take in all that my brain can hold. But it is my hope and intention that one day I will bring enough to the enterprise.