My favorite painting of all the paintings in all the galleries I visited was Venus & Mars by Botticelli, housed at the National Gallery in London.
There’s so much here that intrigues me. So much narrative potential. Why is Mars asleep while Venus lies awake? Is she looking at him with contentment or irritation? Is there a message here that love conquers war? How can we read into the dynamic of their relationship, of their intimacy? What do all the other little figures symbolize – the satyrs, the wasps? That love includes pain? Why is Venus still clothed and Mars is naked? Is there a reversal of the common notion of love as irrational and base and war as political and rational?
I love narrative art and I love when it raises questions. I also love when my questions remain unanswered!
“In the evening we arrived at the Coliseum when it was already twilight. When one looks at it, everything else seems small. It is so huge that one cannot keep the image of it in mind; it is remembered as smaller, and when one goes back there it seems larger again.” — Goethe, Italian Journey.
Goethe gets it. While reading his introspective insights in his Italian Journey, especially his insights on Rome, I thought again and again: he gets it. He is putting into words so much of my experience, so much of what I couldn’t previously articulate.
This passage was particularly uncanny. A few days before reading this, a small group of us had, after a public transit mishap, stumbled upon the Coliseum at night.
It’s somehow more monsterous at night – spotlight shining on it; stark against a black Roman night. It is true that everything seems small by comparison – other buildings, tall trees, and obviously our measly selves.
There is no capturing its size. Not by photograph; not in the countless paintings I spotted by street artists. There is only the act of trying to hold it accurately in memory and even that, as Goethe says, becomes difficult.
I will just need to go back – then it will become larger again 🙂
Walking around the forum at night with dear friends will forever be one of my favorite Roman memories!
Lovely Ostia, you ancient Roman harbor town – thanks for acting as a bridge for me.
We are told so often about the history of Rome, from our earliest history lessons to our senior year in college. But how often do we picture our bodies in that landscape – how often do we get a sense for how it felt to walk along an ancient Roman street?
In Ostia my history lessons became less abstract, more tangible. I could picture myself here. Buying fruit or fish or wine. Walking up steps and over cobblestones. Convening, conversing.
After experiencing Roman culture closer to the busy city, around Trastevere, and then seeing these bare and barren city bones, my mind couldn’t help but merge the two. I could almost feel the frame of this port town being filled with some of the bustling, bursting life of Trastevere on a Saturday night!
It seems barren, yes, but now I know how Romans party and I have a feeling it wasn’t all that different back when Ostia was a happenin’ place.
I walked past this basilica every day in Rome. It’s one of the oldest churches in the city. Somehow, though, I escaped going into it until the last day. Audrey and I were walking around Trastevere, saying goodbye, trying to take it all in. We had such a special place in our hearts for Santa Maria Piazza at that point – it seemed necessary to walk into that church, now Rome-worn and sentimental, to say hello and goodbye.
I don’t have any photos from the inside, but I have the feeling. In this church, more than any other, more than St. Peter’s, I sensed genuine reverence over tourist excitement. When I lit a candle and dropped a few euros into the donation box, I felt I meant it. I felt pulled to leave a tiny mark on this beautiful church in the piazza that became home. I’m not religious but I felt a reverence for this space that welcomed me, my group, with open arms. I know we will all be back.
The Rape of Proserpina by Bernini was the most memorable sculpture I saw at the Borghese Gallery in Rome. It depicts the abduction of Proserpina (Persephone) into the underworld by Pluto (Hades). It was memorable because it makes my heart hurt; details like Pluto’s hand digging into Proserpina’s flesh, and the tear in her eye, are really beautifully executed from a technical standpoint – but they also make me sick with sympathy, with anger, not just for Proserpina but for all women throughout all time who have either been in this position or had to live in fear of it.
Bernini’s piece accomplishes what good art should – it makes us feel and think. Art shouldn’t always make us feel good, but it should make us feel. Though the piece is surely triggering for some, I’m glad the Borghese displays it, and so prominently. Sometimes words fail our social discourse surrounding things like rape culture and victim blaming – sometimes words get worn out or we just can’t think of the right ones. We can read about it when it happens in the news. But when we see our own culture reflected back at us in centuries-old art, maybe this is a better catalyst for change.
That’s why art that commentates on social issues is so important – we need visual art to spark our thoughts and feelings in ways we can’t articulate with words.
Of all the beautiful fountains I saw in Roma, I could not pick just one to write about. So, I’ll write briefly on three that nested themselves in my heart.
The fountain in Piazza Santa Maria is special to me not so much because of the fountain itself, but because it stands as an example of how architecture and landmarks bring people together. Each day, our group would meet at this fountain to touch base before heading off for a day of activities. Each day, especially as evening drew near, dozens of people would gather on the steps – watching street musicians, eating gelato, visiting with their friends. The piazzas are Rome’s living rooms, and the fountains are the living room couch.
The Fountain of the Four Rivers by Bernini was visually stunning. I love the juxtaposition of the smooth, meticulous human figures against the rough, organic cliff-like carving. The fountain was so grand, lit up at night. I spend time studying the fingers and toes of the figures, just admiring the technical skill. A crowd gathered around but it was different from the crowds in Santa Maria. It’s funny how some fountains are almost secondary to the hubbub of the Piazza, and some are the reason for it.
After trying and failing to capture the Trevi Fountain in a single photo that captured its grandeur, and its scale, I realized that some things aren’t meant to be photographed. There comes a point where a photo seems insulting because the impact of standing under it can never be digitally reproduced (there’s that Walter Benjamin concept again). Being there was special, if overwhelming. It’s hard to take something like this in, even with just my eyes – its more of a physical feeling. the smallness of my body against this monster of a water feature. I threw a coin over my shoulder, so I know I will be back.
Glorious green, I’ve never seen anything like you! I sat on cool stone and stared into your depths, wondering what it would be like to dip my feet in you; relishing in one of my many (many) ‘I can’t believe I’m here’ moments. I can’t believe what’s come before me, how much history, how many people have sat here, bathed here, breathed here, and that I get to to experience the weight of my body in this ancient and beautiful place.
Inside the corridors surrounding the green pool – which have been turned into a museum in the most respectful way possible, keeping the integrity of the architecture – I came across a fountain seeping spa water – which has 43 minerals and is said to heal all ailments. I wondered, does it heal hearts and minds as it heals bodies? When we’re home, in our grinds, our habits, its easy to let negative energy build up and weigh on us. Travel can lighten us up and help us to see how much negativity we’ve been carrying around, and let it go. I was already feeling this, but for extra measure I drank a full paper cup of tangy water and felt nauseous but hopeful.
Also, let it be noted that without conscious thought, I wore all earthy green tones to the baths! Green is such a healing color. After exploring this historic site, a small group of us went to a nearby spa, and swam in a heated rooftop pool overlooking the beautiful city. We sat in a sauna letting our tired muscles rest and sweating out our toxins. ‘Twas a healing day all the way through.