there is a group of about fifteen buzzing flies hovering in tight circles between the open hotel door and the check-in counter as if they were placed in the air one by one and given specific instructions by a movie director. the scene is typical: green plants with broad leaves, stucco walls and thick italian accents floating on the muggy air blowing in from the Mediterranean. i am on one of several bright red couches surrounded by very poor reproductions of french artworks. kandinsky, mondrian…
I am in Ostia, just outside of Rome, Italy.
i am here studying drawing and michelangelo for a month. in my few days so far I have read about galileo and the invention of astronomical telescopes while sitting on the beach, bought a great deal of pizza and gellato, enjoyed the worst possible service in restaurants, discovered new fruits, and have begun drawing a few sketches a day.
yesterday in Vatican city for the first time i saw famous works by Michelangelo and Raphael including the sistine chapel and the school of athens, one of my favorite paintings. my catholic upbringing and catholic schooling has given me a special sentimentalism concerning these churches and artworks which remind me at once of my youth, my family, and my more recent art school education. in a carmellite church in rome, i was momentarily overcome with spiritual emotion, which is i guess what is supposed to happen with a catholic or former catholic visits the holy see. a river entered my mind filling it like a flood with god, mary holding her son, the love of my own mother and my sisters and my family, jesus’s death, my father’s death, kneeling sitting standing, the sign of the cross in latin, art music science and heaven and human potential and in all the chaos of the universe there is always peace.
i have been thinking about the roman catholic church. despite the atrocities committed by the church throughout the ages, the fine arts would not have evolved in such an extraordinary way without the church’s patronage. there is a tendency to scorn at the church for its outrageous wealth (much of which was collected during the crusades through pillaging) and its extravagant collection of art. the truth is–and this didn’t really sink in until yesterday–that to create great art it takes and great amount of money. artists have to survive while they work, and i believe that the less an artist has to worry about making money, the greater the potential of his or her art becomes. that doesn’t justify the crusades. but by providing people like raphael and michelangelo with a public space in which to show their work, and the money to live, the church is responsible for advancing the art of painting, which developed at an exponential rate during the renaissance (if you prefer the french word, or the quattrocento, as it is called here in Italy). if you are looking for reasons to forgive the church (as i am since i’m in rome), maybe you can put that on the list.
the sistine chapel is about painting. it is about spirituality or religion or god only insofar as the idea of god is wrapped up in humanism–it is about the extraordinary potential of one individual human being. we are all divine. we are instruments of the divine and the fine arts are the ultimate expression of human potential and god. Michelangelo may have been a holy man and was painting biblical scenes, but first and foremost he was an artist and these paintings were about his ability to paint. Raphael too.
Michelangelo was working on the sistine chapel in one room of the vatican, while Raphael was working on the school of athens just down the hall. each room was private and they worked in secrecy. eventually raphael saw michelangelo’s sistine chapel in progress. Raphael was so struck by it that he put a portrait of michelangelo in his own nearly completed work, the school of athens, partly as an homage and partly as a jab. while the other philosophers and artists and thinkers are interacting with each other and sharing ideas, michelangelo is painted looking down and aloof, as he was seen as quite independent, to put it nicely. however, i believe michelangelo was the superior painter and sculptor of his day, and when one is the very best at something, i think it becomes difficult to relate to others in general, especially those working in the same field.
the idea of the “renaissance man” has always appealed to me. michelangelo was a sculptor, a painter, and a poet. i have begun to relate to him personally, which is a good thing since i will be studying him for a month. i’ve heard stories of him carving with such strength and voracity, clouds of marble dust flying up into his face and hair, and to produce such serene works! i love that push and pull between violent intensity and gentleness. i like to think my own art has that quality occasionally, especially my recent paintings. i live for attacking the surface or the song. not that i claim to be a michelangelo, but i know what it means to be an artist, to be full of ideas, to be progressive, to balance pride and ambition, to be poor, to be at the mercy of patrons or an audience, and to live with all these things artists live with and have always lived with. i can relate to these characters and envy them. oh to be a renaissance man during the renaissance.
i woke up this morning and had tea out on the porch as a brazillian man with a blue guitar strummed caetanno velloso songs. it was euphoric.
i have no ticket home and i don’t know where i’m going or what i’m doing after June 29th. if you are europe and want me to come play songs for you, i will do so for somewhere to sleep and the cost of a train ticket to your country. also if you are in the medici family please get ahold of me.
i am going to go eat yet another nutella sandwich, which is how i am living to save money. i couldn’t find american style peanut butter and figured what the hell. when in rome!