Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The Dirt on Rome's Earthy Chapel:
Angels & Demons Demystified

“References to all works of art, tombs, tunnels, and architecture in Rome are entirely factual as are their exact locations. They can still be seen today.” Readers are welcomed by this preamble as they open the book for the first time.

Drama and mystery-infused historical fiction certainly catches the interest of generations young and old, in this day and age. Unfortunately, the authors in this field are good enough at their jobs to fool readers into believing what is actually written to be – as the genre explicitly states – fiction. But do these sly writers take things too far? I would leave it to readers to determine this, but these are the same readers that praise novels before even second guessing their validity. So, allow me to walk you through an intensive look at a section of one of the most well known of these thrillers, Dan Brown’s Angels & Demons. I assure you I will not ruin the book (unless you cannot handle the truth) and to that effect, we will only discuss our hero’s first stop on a dramatic, action-packed quest across Rome.

For this short preview, we arrive at the Roman Pantheon, drawn here by the wording of a poem hidden in Galileo’s Diagramma:

From Santi’s earthly tomb with demon’s hole,

‘Cross Rome the mystic elements unfold.

The path of light is laid, the secret test,

Let angels guide you on your lofty quest.

We meet our characters in modern days, when our world is on the brink of a public discovery that in some opinions, may bridge the gap between science and religion. In light of this world-changing finding, breached security and a gruesome murder have set into motion one of the world’s most devastating terrorist agendas. Coincidentally taking place at the time of the pope’s death in Rome, there is no doubt a connection. This horrible situation is proven true at the disappearance of four of the most able cardinals at the most important time of the conclave, and a phone call from the terrorist himself explains his horrific plans for the evening – the death of each of the kidnapped at every hour, followed by the explosion of St. Peter’s itself, using by no coincidence the stolen technology. The only way to stop this disaster from happening is to find the murder sites before each hour and use clues to follow the Illuminati’s rumored Path of Illumination. Our antagonist comes from the Illuminati, a centuries-old secret society struggling for world control, bent on destroying organizations as strong as the Catholic Church, and condemning the church for its disconnection from science.

So perhaps to get you into the mood, imagine: it is quarter ‘til eight, and you and an undercover accomplice are walking into the Pantheon, amongst the waning number of tourists. This seems to be the obvious location of the first cardinal murder, as it is the home to Raphael Santi’s own tomb, a reference from the poem. I could also mention your doubt as you enter about how the murder could possibly take place in such a confined public space, but that would surely be wasted breath, as you will soon understand that the novel thrives on what is impossible in actuality. After ten minutes of this doubt, it is soon realized that the tomb had been moved to your location after the time of Galileo and the supposed Path of Illumination, and a nearby tour guide sends you off in the direction of another “earthly tomb.” Your misunderstandings corrected, you run out into Piazza del Rotunda to head to the Chigi Chapel, a mausoleum designed by Raphael.

With less than five minutes to spare, you hail a taxi and direct him north towards Piazza del Popolo and Santa Maria del Popolo, making it there in just over a minute. At this timing, you arrive amidst the quiet and shadowy square with still some three minutes to stop the Illuminati horror. Wasting no time, you head in the direction of the “misplaced battleship askew on the southeast corner of the piazza.” However, you might have been able to prevent the cardinal’s death if you had walked the correct direction towards the correct church.

Santa Maria del Popolo lies instead in the northeast direction of the elliptical piazza, but don’t get too upset, because if we’re being this picky, we would not have made it to the piazza at all before the murder at eight o’clock, even if our taxi had actually chosen a traversable route. Despite the one way streets and traffic barriers that would have stood in your way, Piazza del Popolo lies much farther than a minute’s drive from the Pantheon.

Even before hitting any major plot twists, Dan Brown bombards readers from all sides with misinformation. It would have been hard to have walked into the Pantheon among tourists after its daily closing at 7:30pm – almost as hard as it would have been to find an inconspicuous parking spot in the shadows for a BBC van in the lively, parking-less, and well lit Piazza del Popolo.

But perhaps I am focusing too much on minor details, possibly even typos. Surely this type of breakdown would be just as inaccurate for any other piece of historical fiction. After all, writers need a certain level of artistic license to build a riveting story. It is just unfortunate that for readers visiting the Eternal City and trying to follow the hero’s path, things run somewhat less smoothly. Luckily, I have not heard of any readers intently concerned about these details, so we’ll let it slide for now. I can settle with the fact that the author just gives the story a few kicks to move it along without readers losing the adrenaline. I will however, continue to point out these errors to keep readers informed, and you may notice the misinformation increase in intensity.

To bring you back to the story, you approach Santa Maria del Popolo, notably not a cathedral, as written, but a church. Walking up the stairs which are by no means a welcoming fan, you find the doors locked for renovation inside. Perhaps the wrong location once again? But no! Looming over the church, you find the symbolic source of illumination over a pyramid largely engraved upon the Porta del Popolo. This must be the place!

Alas, upon viewing the symbolism, it oddly resembles the Chigi coat of arms, with aspects hardly representative of masons, the Illuminati, or anything of the sort. As was the case for many ruling families in Rome, the family crest was often pasted upon everything and anything they touched during their tenure, to signify their power and effect on the city. For this one in particular, Pope Alexander VII put it up on the grand city entrance on the north end, for any foreigners on the pilgrimage to St. Peter’s or just to the city in general, but especially for visitors as important as the Queen of Sweden. But mention of this would not advance the story, now would it?

Time is running out – only seconds to spare before the horrific plot is set into motion, so in desperation to find an entrance into the church, you head down the side alley, the one that doesn’t exist. The church is crammed between the piazza and the old Roman city wall, so the situation is impossible. But worse than this little fib is Dan Brown’s use of the religious history term ‘porta sacra,’ meaning not simply a side door for the clergy, but in fact a special door plastered shut until the jubilee year for the Catholic Church, and is something that is only found in each of the four great basilicas of Rome. It holds much more significance than the author lets on, as religious pilgrims who passed through all four are rewarded with an indulgence. But alley or not, we somehow find ourselves inside.

Before approaching the chapel itself, though, it would be interesting to hear more about its history, among other things omitted from Dan Brown’s “factual” selections. In 1507, over 400 years after the creation of its church, Santa Maria del Popolo, the chapel was purchased by the wealthy banker Agostino Chigi from his friend, Pope Julius II. The pope allowed him to buy this structure and use it as a mausoleum for him and his heirs. Raphael was commissioned to redesign the room for this purpose, but in 1520, long before its completion, both Raphael and Agostino died. It wasn’t until more than a century later in the Holy Year of 1650 that the chapel was picked up again in restoration; Fabio Chigi, the great great nephew of Agostino and soon to be Pope Alexander VII, did this and commissioned Bernini to complete the project.

But returning to the story, upon your entrance to the church, your symbologist eye finds an embedded tile with pyramid and illumination along with the inscription, “Coat of Arms of Alexander Chigi Whose Tomb is Located in the Secondary Left Apse of this Cathedral.” But there is a large problem aside from the apparent English inscription in an Italian church. Understanding now the history of the chapel, we know that the patron for this room would have been Agostino, and the tomb of Alexander VII sits instead in St. Peter’s – though also a Bernini work with some comparable features. Upon learning about the coat of arms – of which we already know – Brown has the main character wondering if Alexander Chigi was himself an Illuminatus. That is quite an accusation against a former pope.

As you step into the fictional crime scene, you may experience less “earthy” observations as Brown makes us think, and you may observe a space much smaller than expected. But he is just as contradictory as he references the chapel as an “out of the way alcove, a literal hole in the wall.” Perhaps you can be the judge of that. Regardless, somehow you manage to miss all other aspects of the chapel as your eyes are drawn to the ceiling. Looking up, you see a domed cupola with stars, astronomical planets, and zodiac signs, though the trained symbologist eye should recognize 16th century designs by Raphael, instead of Bernini or Galileo in the 17th century. Unfortunately, the author did not elaborate on the limited truths that would have added to the plot. For example, eight mosaics surround the Chigi Chapel’s “oculus,” each personifying a planet as an Olympic deity. In all of them, the Olympian is accompanied by the sphere of their planet, along with its zodiac sign. The angel that guides each Olympian is meant to show that God controls everything, even Olympic deities. But unfortunately, this information was omitted from your adventure. Despite this however, it should still be known to readers that it was not uncommon for ancient pagan symbols to be readapted or reused in the Christian religion to reinforce Christian themes.

Similarly, though you may be surprised to see pyramids in art as your eyes fall to these previously unseen objects, the designs were actually derived from old Roman tombs. While they certainly aren’t as true of pyramids as the text would imply, their use was for imperial rather than mystical connotations, and was not any more unusual than the use of obelisks across Rome. In fact, in ancient Egypt, pyramids signified burial and a happy afterlife. The structures were borrowed by ancient Romans and later in the Renaissance to represent Christian themes of death and salvation.

Somehow missing a giant hole in the floor until now, your attention falls to the marble manhole cover and its intriguing skeleton carrying a tablet, labeled “death in flight.” You know now that the tablet is actually the family crest, and the inscription actually reads “death opens the way to heaven” – within this wording, Roman numerals stick out for the Jubilee year of 1650. As this was Bernini’s work, he used the piece, like others, to relate to Raphael’s work thus far in the chapel; the apparent rising from the crypt was to be in response to the zodiac and Raphael’s depiction of God above.

Seeing this removed crypt covering, you are sure this is the place of the murder – unfortunately you are four minutes late. Upon climbing down to the horrific scene, there should likely be some mention of the third pyramid in the crypt, but there is not. And why not? The pyramids, like the structural components of the chapel, were Raphael’s design, not Bernini’s. Bernini’s only contribution to them was the medallion on each, which – important to note – are white marble, not gold.

Of course, for this misunderstanding you can blame the plaque that reads: “Art of the Chigi Chapel: While the architecture is Raphael’s, all interior adornments are those of Gianlorenzo Bernini.” On the contrary, this mere suggestion by the author is far from true, as he fails to mention any of the other frescoes that cover the ceiling and upper wall. Specifically, the drum of the dome contains a series of frescoes by Francesco Salviati depicting Creation and Original Sin. He also has four more below these, frescoes of the Allegories of the Seasons. Above the altar is the Nativity of the Virgin, by Sebastiano del Piombo, and below that a bronze relief of Christ and the Woman of Samaria, by Lorenzotto.

But even if this were included in the plot, or even mentioned as a side note, Bernini could still have not laid a Path of Illumination. In addition to his good terms with the church – being the Vatican’s go-to artist – Bernini, like most artists, never got to pick the location of his art, and devising a scheme as grand as this would be difficult and risky being commissioned by none other than the pope himself, the would-be enemy.

Upon returning to the chapel floor’s surface, you may find it difficult to believe that someone would have to point out the sculpture to you, but this is indeed how Brown plays the text. This idea seems ridiculous, given that there are four sculpture niches, though Brown conveniently omits mentioning three of them. As the author writes, your symbologist eyes focus on the depiction of Habakkuk, apparently the prophet who predicted the earth’s annihilation. Instead, art history would like you to know that the piece’s story comes from Bel and the Dragon. Bernini took cues from the Vatican librarian to keep the theme within the chapel, and the selection was a story from the Greek book of Daniel – a copy belonging to the Chigi family. Of course this is left out to save the story; after all, mentioning this would imply the pope’s own role in imagery in an antipapal chapel.

In Bel and the Dragon, Habakkuk sets out to deliver food to field laborers. He is stopped by an angel and redirected to Daniel, who is trapped in the lion’s den. While Habakkuk points towards famished laborers, the angel points towards a new target, where Daniel is kneeling in pleading prayer. The story’s end – the fulfillment of prayer – is shown by an unexpectedly tame lion licking at the feet of Daniel, in the sculpture niche directly across from Habakkuk and the angel. Daniel in the lion’s den signified the Christian soul in peril of death and in need of salvation, while Habakkuk’s angelic transport of bread in his basket followed early Christian interest in the miraculous meal delivered to Abraham in the desert. Sadly, the author’s hero oversimplifies the amazing work of art of Habakkuk, and fails to discuss its correct importance, let alone that of any of the other sculpted pieces. So even though the angel does seem to point in the exact direction to the next crime scene in the novel, the gesture is aimed at another piece of art distanced by only yards, not miles.

In addition to Habakkuk and Daniel, the chapel does enjoy the presence of two other pieces, though notably not created by Bernini, our brilliantly undercover Illuminati artist. Carved instead by Lorenzotto, Jonah and Elijah were created during the initial construction of the chapel and were chosen specifically for the purposes of maintaining a certain theme surrounding the family’s mausoleum. Specifically, Elijah represents Christ of the ascension, as he once ascended into heaven in a chariot of fire, and Jonah was known symbolically as a precursor to the resurrected Christ, as he spent a similar three days in the belly of the whale before being saved.

Perhaps you can take a break from saving the day and stop to truly look around the chapel. There are many intriguing details that slip the mind of the author, and our imagination upon reading the book certainly does not do justice to the artistic space. The interior of the chapel is often referred to as a hybrid of the Pantheon and St. Peter’s – ironically, two related places in the book. For example, the deep entrance arch with its double Corinthian pilasters seems to be an exact copy of the Pantheon entrance, which is not surprising considering Raphael’s intense interest in the structure. Similarly, the dome and its coffers are very much the same; the true oculus is replaced instead by Raphael’s mosaic of God, much like seeing into heaven, and in this way is somewhat of an oculus in itself. The main space in the room resembles the crossing of St. Peter’s, with the crypt entrance replacing its baldacchino. From this, we recognize the four wide arches, with four statue niches between each. It is only too bad that the book made no reference to the harmony of these shapes and allusions in Raphael’s architecture.

It is also unfortunate that Dan Brown’s historical fibs had his writing too backed into a corner to make a note of the clash of artistic disciplines. Had he mentioned this, you would have been able to see the straight Renaissance lines thrown askew by Baroque drama. For the Habakkuk-Daniel scene, the statue of Jonah was moved to incorporate a story with movement – a diagonal plot line drawn directly across the chapel space. Had Jonah remained in its original spot, it could be seen that despite the calmness of Renaissance art, Raphael and the other artists all had purposes behind their details. Originally, Jonah and Elijah would be looking towards the altar to remind viewers of their purpose. To this end, Bernini’s contributions did not fall short. In true Baroque style, the intensity in art and flowing cloth is normally seen directly upon entering with Habakkuk; the scene naturally follows the angel’s pointed finger to Daniel, whose pleading eyes draw us to the dome and Raphael’s God. Viewers turn to get the correct view of this mosaic, only to have their eyes fall upon the altar and Piombo’s fresco of the Virgin, similarly reminding visitors of the purpose of the space. As the Baroque sculptures face off and cut through the Renaissance space, they also respectfully emphasize a connection from the Bernini works to Raphael and other artists’ works. The hybrid creation in turn becomes the best religious function of space.

Contrary to our fictional literature, the themes in the Chigi Chapel are more around the family itself and the aspect of resurrection, rather than earth references or antipapal ideas. The Chigi family was by no means modest; the intense and expensive artistic patronage was primarily to demonstrate their endless wealth and cultured style. They hoped to have the artists’ renowned reputations reflect their own taste and heritage. Every detail was paid attention to in this sense; even marble choices were allusions to the family name and history.

Today there are just as many people visiting Santa Maria del Popolo to see the crime scene of a fictional murder as there are to see the truly amazing works of Caravaggio, among others. They walk in armed not only with a Rick Steves’ guide, but also a copy of the novel that infuses excitement into the history of which we are so terribly ignorant. Unfortunately, it is realized by many readers that the book imparts very little factual information about Rome’s history, art, or architecture, despite the book’s believable preamble.

But despite what could be considered as blatant lying for the purposes of a story, inquiring readers stumble upon pieces of history that were before unheard of, or at most lightly touched upon in high school history class. Certainly, works such as Angels & Demons have created a new type of tourist – one that does not settle for the typical top ten must-sees, but instead uses the text’s motivation to uncover the reality behind all that Rome has to offer. Authors such as this lightly introduce concepts never encountered before, leaving them wanting to learn more. Though not directly, Brown and others bring the real history to the attention of those interested enough in the subject – a history as intriguing as the story which sends readers on their own quest across Rome.

Next stop – the Vatican!

Works Cited

Brown, Dan. Angels & Demons. New York: Atria Books, 2003.

Burstein, Dan, and Arne de Keijzer, eds. Secrets of Angels & Demons: The Unauthorized Guide to the Bestselling Novel . New York: CDS Books, 2004.

Habel, Dorothy M. The Urban Development of Rome in the Age of Alexander VII. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Hibbard, Howard. Bernini. London: Penguin Books, 1990.

Magnusson, Cecilia. "The Antique Sources of the Chigi Chapel." Journal of Art History. 56.4 (1987): 136-139.

Murray, Peter. The Architecture of the Italian Renaissance. New York: Schocken Books, 1986.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Canova, Bernini, and Movement: Writing Assignment 17

Sculptures at the time of Bernini carried the very Baroque characteristic of incorporating the viewer into the art, an interaction that was not used prior. Viewed only under one candle, Canova’s Pauline Bonaparte would most likely be placed somewhere in a room such that the typical approach by the viewer is at an angle, possibly even behind the sculpture, as was set up in the Borghese museum. The one candle would undoubtedly be somewhere on the front side, creating very dramatic shadowing from the initial viewing angle. Certain features would be unclear from your distance, drawing you closer to clear up your mind’s confusion. It is clear that there is a woman reclined on a bed, but at such soft of light, all you can wonder is why.

In the museum, the marble form is initially seen from behind; it appears to be a woman, but to find out for sure, you walk around towards the front. As the facial features take shape, you see that she is holding something in her hand, and continue circling to find out what it is as well as what emotion is taking hold of this figure. Upon circling more, defined breasts and an ideal woman form prove your initial thoughts, and you see the perfectly content and comfortable look on her face, imagining how soft that marble must be. Unfortunately, in a well lit museum these questions and answers seem to be very immediate, since things are not very hidden from view.

Instead, with one source of light, approaching from behind would create a much more dramatic experience, creating a reclining silhouette that may even look human at first glance. Perhaps you would travel the same direction around, but much slower, as the harsh shadows flicker with the candlelight, revealing bits of white marble. The same questions would be asked – what is she doing here; what is she thinking – but it would be dramatically drawn out as inspection would be much more of an involved process. Simple fold lines in marble fabric become intensely Baroque in candlelight.

We as viewers become engaged in sculpture, or any form of art for that matter, as soon as we begin asking questions. In the case of Bernini’s sculpture in Villa Borghese, the original viewing angles created a scene that would leave the viewer confused or aching for more. These characteristics distinguish free standing sculptures from artwork meant strictly for niches. Yet Bernini and Canova take their stories in different directions: Canova shows calm, static scenes where attention is drawn towards the intense detail, while Bernini displays full scenes of very baroque action. Attention is instead drawn to the incredible movement portrayed in marble. As a result, the stories the artists include with their pieces are much different; Bernini’s often tell a familiar story with no need for text reference, while Canova seems to create more of a biographical story – be it about himself or his subject.

Whether it is Bernini or Canova, the spectator constantly wants to know the story – both of what the piece is about, and also why the work was created. These stories, though parallel or separate, draw viewers in the exact moment that attempts are made to answer the questions we wish we could ask the artist himself.

Bernini Sculpture: Writing Assignment 15

Placed in the back of a chapel near the front of the church, Bernini’s sculpture catches full attention at even a partial glance. If the facial expression is initially overlooked, even peripheral vision will catch the special lighting. As attention is drawn towards the work, the first thing seen is the expression – not in the face, but in the mouth. The lighting creates such a contrast between the darkness of the mouth and the lightness of the face that is impossible to ignore. The light falls upon the head and face of the woman, through what seems to be a window, though on closer inspection includes artificial wall lights to apparently achieve what the sculptor had in mind. The light seems to be the source of intense pleasure, perhaps sexual, that the woman is evidently feeling. As the eyes follow the fading light down the figure, it is clear that this experience is not a still life, as marble sheets seem frozen in the midst of intense movement. The pillow appears softer than the mattress, though it doesn’t seem that she is quite using it. Below her divine experience, a ruffled cloth lays cast in marble, while above, cherubs creepily look on, strangely enjoying watching such a private experience.

In my mind, many details were omitted from explicit observation of the first Ecstasy until viewing the second to realize the intense differences. In Santa Maria della Vittoria, The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa attempts to be much more spectacular. First of all, it is placed in a very ideal location for viewing, as it is in the very large niche adjacent to the altar and apse of the church. The niche is not nearly as deep as the chapel housing the previous Bernini piece, making the Ecstasy visible already halfway down the aisle. The experience in marble is lifted some five to ten feet higher, making it actually difficult to see up close. The light falls from straight overhead, following the guide of the golden rays that grab your attention first and draw your eyes downward toward the scene. Once again, the shadow of the mouth becomes the point of reference in observation, though this time the mouth portrays more a sense of agony than pleasure. Along with this, the angel appears much too happy to be responsible for what looks like pain. The intense elevation of the piece makes it look more supernatural than religious in character. Similarly, the ruffling of Theresa’s garments seem to take the place of her body, making it appear as though she only has the upper half in bodily form. To that end, this piece forces the viewer to see exactly what was intended, less interpretation involved. As if the light from above was not hinting enough of the Divine interaction, the figure is dramatically elevated, accompanied by an angel and artificial light as well in the form of golden rays placed behind. The men on the sides, though not Bernini’s work I assume, just make the experience slightly awkward, wondering if it is entirely appropriate for them to be there, much like the cherubs seen before. While both sculptures use light to distinguish the viewing angle and order of things to be seen, the two are very different in these areas.

The two are actually similar in physical placement within their respective churches, though their effect on parishioners is quite different. The theatricality in the St. Theresa sculpture compared to Bernini’s more subdued artwork across Rome shows two different purposes in art. Beata Ludovica Albertoni is placed far back in a chapel so that people will come in to pray that their religion will affect them in a similar (though not literal) way. In comparison, St. Theresa is presented so that the art can be seen from the main pews. The church then uses the art to remind its followers of the figurative effect Catholicism has on people’s lives. For the former, the art is brought to life by the visiting parishioners, while the latter is brought to life by the church, almost forcing visitors to see it and all its glory.

Exit, No Exit: Writing Assignment 14

Walking up and down Via Veneto, I am reminded of Paris. The taller, more Renaissance-style buildings create a scene much unlike anything seen before in Rome. All of a sudden, just outside of the old downtown, somehow cobblestones turn to asphalt and sidewalks broaden. In some places the pedestrian paths are so expansive that restaurants have connecting annexed facilities for evening dining – a spitting image of Parisian avenues. Via Veneto caught me by surprise as one of the first lanes in Rome to be lined with tall trees as well as buildings.

Among the chaos and weaving streets in Rome, there are a few that have a distinct destination; they achieve this by somewhat guiding travelers along the road, focusing their attention not towards any side streets that pass, but straight ahead along the framing of the buildings. Via Veneto is no exception, as cars never seem to turn off the road. It is as if the drivers feel too uncomfortable leaving the guide of the treed avenue for the spider web of back roads. After all, why would the road be this way? Obviously its builders wanted to send travelers in a specific direction. There must be something up ahead that is meant to be seen; perhaps this road takes drivers somewhere even more magnificent than the impressive avenue which they are on. If they turn down a side street, they will surely miss what they are driving to see.

Santa Maria della Concezione is in fact on this very road, and follows the theme as such. From the outside, it can be seen that there is really only one entrance, and walking in, you find that there is no central nave with side aisles like in so many other Roman and European churches; instead, there is one main open room, unobstructed by any pillars. These ceiling supports are instead found as part of the wall that separates the main section of the church from the surrounding chapels. Also unlike other churches in the city, the nave is a simple rectangle, unlike the typical cruciform shape.

The religious structure actually resembles the form of the road outside, as its lighting, among other things, directs attention only forward towards the altar. The building’s weight bearing columns line the nave as the trees line the street outside, while each dimly lit chapel acts as a less-traveled side street. But certainly the differences are much more apparent, since we are comparing a church to a road. Were they more alike, Via Veneto would be straighter, and would force travelers to turn around and drive out the way they entered the street.

Below the main church is a crypt following similar structural rules of space. Similar to its parent church a level above, the crypt shares its entrance and exit through one door. However, the columns and chapels in the room above or the trees and buildings on the avenue outside are replaced here by bones and graves. While their placement along the crypt walkway provides somewhat of the same guiding encasement as visitors walk down the hall, the bones are much less inviting in their placement than the trees prove to be outside. But even more of a difference in the style of the crypt would be that it has no distinct destination; instead, visitors walk through the crypt to observe each burial chapel one by one. There is not exactly something comparable to the altar upstairs, where the hall takes you somewhere. But in many of these structures, it becomes apparent that there is not always a distinct destination, but rather a collection of scenes that invites you in; a great example of this is surely found in the liveliness of the Spanish Steps.

No matter the time of day, you will find tourists and Romans alike resting and viewing the surrounding beauty from an open step. The pathway to the top is divided architecturally into three sections; with the massive amounts of people at any given time, the middle becomes the seating area, with two aisles along the side – somewhat resembling the setup of our familiar church. The edges of the steps are framed quite abruptly with railings, forcing pedestrians to resume their path upwards. They act as the buildings on Via Veneto, or the walls separating the chapels from the nave in Santa Maria della Concezione. However, in sitting and observing among the hundreds of other visitors, it seems that the Spanish Steps are used much less for a connecting road to get to one street from the other. Instead, people enter from one direction, find their seat, spend time enjoying their surroundings, and ultimately leave the way they entered.

The steps can be considered a double-sided church. Entering from either direction, you are drawn in by a view comparable to viewing the altar upon entering Santa Maria della Concezione. From the base of the steps, you can see the obelisk and church behind it sitting just at the lip of a perfect viewing balcony, and entering from above, you can see the well-crafted fountain amidst a bustling piazza. Both views invite a trip up or down the steps. And similar to the church, trips both ways are not simply straight shots. Traversing the steps includes seeing it all – views and people alike – just like visiting the church includes a tour of the surrounding chapels, for either respect or prayer.

This theme of guiding architecture seems very apparent across Rome – it is a city of purpose and style in architecture. Focusing the attention of passersby in places such as the walk approaching St Peter’s, among other places, was very important to prove significance in built aspects of the city. All examples certainly do not fall into the same perfect mold, but their forms and shapes are strikingly similar – perhaps to get the same point across.

The Pantheon: Writing Assignment 10

What is the Pantheon in Rome like? What at first seems like a simple question can only be answered by another question: when? With a variety of variables constantly changing the appearance and experience inside, the church changes to the time of day.

In the morning during the week, the massive metal doors are hauled open promptly at 8:30, not even waiting for the floor sweeper to finish his last area right near the entrance. At last he moves out into the portico section, polluting less of the church with noise. One could wonder if he does that every morning; if he is the only one with that job. Looking out onto the piazza, there are more horse-drawn carriages than people, and they are standing at the ready until the cameras with people attached to them come out of the woodwork. The doors just opened reveal a vast, empty marble space, like an opened tomb from an overnight sealing. A dim light shines through the oculus barely right of the opening, shaped as an oval by the sun’s height just above Rome. There are no hard lighting angles; instead the church seems to be dimly but evenly illuminated, with equal light sources from the ceiling and the front door. Despite the unique characteristics of the church, the Pantheon maintains the general aura in the lighting that would be expected from any other church in the city. The equality of lighting makes your mind work to see everything, as nothing is dominated to draw your attention. 8:45 already, and still practically no one is in the Pantheon. A pigeon flies in, finding a peaceful resting ledge. This is a perfect time to observe the floor and the alternating circles and squares – in color and shape. The tranquility is only disrupted by kids jumping from circle to square, but even then, the innocence adds to the experience. A soft breeze feels pulled in through the front entrance, and the sky slowly brightens just through the oculus. It proves to be a great time to observe the incredible detail at the top of the Corinthian columns, as well as the intricacies of the choir stalls behind the altar. Your eyes can easily focus on these truly amazing aspects without feeling like they are missing out on the main show, which does not come until midday.

Unless overcast skies freeze the morning experience throughout the day, when you return with the sun high in the sky, everything can change. The sun through the oculus is strong enough to appear as dramatic as a spotlight, moving slowly across the base of the dome near the front door. In late summer, the sun never gets high enough to focus the light on the floor or walls of the amazing structure, so it instead keeps the dome constantly illuminated for those midday hours. Most who have visited the Pantheon remember the gigantic feat of architecture that is the dome, and little else; the lighting makes it impossible to forget the coffered ceiling, the shadows emphasizing the square within square inlay. There are art pieces and tombs lining the edge of the perfectly circular church, but with the sea of people, it is easier to just look up to see a sight uninterrupted in a photo by the tops of strangers’ heads. There are signs all around requesting silence, but no one takes heed, too in awe by the structure to remain quiet. Unfortunately, the number of people inside makes it impossible to experience the wonder of all there is to offer.

At night, artificial light is relied upon to view this amazing building, but in a good way, as it brings attention to things in the church that were not noticed previously in the day. All day light for the most part comes from above, reaching only the areas in good view of the oculus. Instead, at closing time, the place is lit in most cases from below; the dome is lit from spotlights above the upper cornice in a very ordered fashion. Overlapping shadows are cast from below, compared to the single dramatic shadows experienced with the sun in the sky. Large chapel niches, a side note in the viewer’s mind before, now becomes the focus of attention, as each are lit from inside. It is a scenario similar to viewing a lit room in a house from outside at night. Compared to their surroundings, these lit rooms invite our eyes to see so much more detail there than anywhere surrounding. The walls of the church are truly the main event in the evening. What had been an amazing dome earlier has now become somewhat of an illusion, like a trick on the eyes as it seems to look shallow – no light to prove its depth. As such, a much sparser crowd spends their time skirting the edge, looking at the chapels, and less looking up. The lighting definitely returns the church to a more typical church feel; though the room is circular, the lining chapels and art pieces are distinct reminders of the fact that it is indeed a church. Between the chapel niches, statues and works of art seem to pop out under their single spotlights, attractions that one probably would not recall from their earlier visit. Drama can be found in the accentuated imperfections and lines where materials meet in the upper walls, as well as in the shadows below the dome, creating silhouettes of the architectural details in aspects such as the Corinthian column profiles that line the room. But soon enough the spotlights start going out, expecting people to follow the light out of the Pantheon. When people continue to stand in awe, the large front doors are closed halfway, and a loudspeaker that didn’t seem to exist until now comes on, reminding visitors in every language that the church is now closed. On the way out, eyes are drawn to the portico roof, as spotlights accentuate the arch and wood framing architecture above. The sun, though set, still has an effect on the dimming sky, making visitors wonder just what the place would look like in the middle of the night.

Roman rain comes down large and hard. If you catch the Pantheon at a time when the skies are falling, you will see the incredible view of rain coming through the oculus and trickling on the church floor. Upon approach, it is at first amusing to see more people gathered under the Pantheon front portico than in the piazza and church interior combined. Inside, squeaks from wet shoes echo softly and slow to a stop as each person coming in seems religiously drawn to the oculus. But at a closer look, it is apparent why. The heavy pouring of rain outside is somehow altered in its entrance to the church, because the drops appear more as a mist, slowly falling to the marble floor. The drops are only visible in the light, so looking at the floor, there appears to be more of a mysterious rippling puddle of water. Skies are overcast outside, so the soft light shortens the apparent depth of the ceiling. As such, the rain drops seem to fall slowly and for an eternity before hitting the ground. People look up as though waiting for the rain to pick up again, even though outside it is already raining cats and dogs. After a while people casually stroll the interior though nothing is immensely lit, and slowly squeak back out, in no hurry to return into the rain.

The structured space offered by the building on the inside can in some ways be compared to the exterior space of Piazzas Navona and Sant’Ignazio. Both exterior squares retain their shape with help from tall, flush buildings. They follow the same trend the through the day, where different lighting patterns guide a visitor’s attention. In twilight in Piazza Navona, nothing stands out besides the height of the church dome and perhaps the construction of the Four Rivers Fountain. Instead, in the evening, the absence of sun draws our attention to the light that spills from the side streets, similar to the Pantheon niches. Sant’Ignazio does this too, but it is interesting to note that upon arrival, the focus is drawn towards center structures, such as the middle triangular building, instead of the openness of the sky above, like it is in the Pantheon with its dome.

The Grand Tour of Tuscany: Writing Assignment 6

A Very Mad Journey

In the grand scheme of things, my life is pretty organized. Given, my room is a mess, and I still have some doubts about my career aspirations, but the things in between run smoothly enough. Spur of the moment is not my style, so I have owed nearly every crazy venture to the spontaneity of my closest friends. Perhaps that is a subconscious factor in choosing them.

At the end of our trip to Florence, I met up with a friend from school to spend the weekend with around Tuscany. Few plans were made, because I had really enjoyed the smaller city and wanted to give him enough opportunity to discover as much as I had. To my surprise, he frantically experienced Florence in two days, yet saved time to take me to a place Friday evening that I hadn’t seen in my four days. Both of us were satisfied with our Florentine experiences, and suddenly our entire weekend became a blank canvas, with only a Europe travel book to paint our scene. Such an event was entirely new to me; I had traveled in the same company for two weeks prior to arriving in Rome, but plans were made months in advance – hostels and train tickets too. Now we were faced with overnight planning, but in the excitement of the moment, we went to sleep saying we’d wing it.

We arrived at the train station less than well rested at 7:30 in the morning, not knowing any of the departure times. We caught the next train to Pisa and enjoyed the rolling Tuscan countryside while discussing our plans: What’s in Pisa? The Leaning Tower. Anything else? No idea.

It was just as we expected. Pisa is just an Italian town like any other, put on the map only by an old building frozen in the process of falling over. To make matters worse, it was almost as if they purposely put the train station on the opposite side of town – like a grocery store where you have to walk all the way to the back of the store to simply get the essential gallon of milk. We sat on the lawn upwards of an hour, hysterically entertained by the hundreds of tourists making the signature pose and trying desperately to align their arms perfectly for the camera. Then of course we gave in, making the excuse that our parents would enjoy seeing corny European travel pictures. The fee to climb the tower was horribly overpriced, so after perusing the duomo for a while, we consulted Rick Steves, who sent us in the direction of a nearer station. The place was not very tourist friendly; in fact, it looked abandoned, so we were not surprised at all to find that there was no where on the departure schedule that caught our eye – not even anywhere we had ever heard of. Quiet at first, the only cargo train in the station behind us rumbled to life and began inching its way what seemed like north. My friend and I looked at each other, both obviously thinking how crazy and exhilarating it would be to ride towards an unknown destination. We spoke of it jokingly, though both of us were seriously considering it, but in the end neither of us would go so far out of our comfort zone as to jump on a moving train destined for some unknown city. I actually regret not doing it. Only in Italy
would I consider such a thing.

On the endless walk back to the train station, Rick Steves suggested Siena as a worthy visit, and I had remembered that a majority of my classmates were there for the weekend, so we bought a ticket on the spot at Pisa Centrale. A short tour of Tuscany later, we arrived in Siena and hopped a bus to the historic center. Pamphlets from the train station guided our walking tour of the place, providing historical tidbits and great viewpoints of surrounding Italian hills along the way. Despite our disorderly travel plans, we still made time to lay in the main square, where we coincidentally ran into a few of my classmates, who informed us that the others took a trip to nearby San Gimignano. After a fizzled attempt at buying bus tickets to the medieval town, we called it a night and took the train back to Florence for a good night’s sleep.

Upon reminding ourselves of the great things we had heard about Cinque Terre from fellow hostelmates, we gathered our newfound energy and dragged ourselves to the Florence terminal once again and without second thought jumped aboard a train to La Spezia. It was definitely a snap to reality when the train passed through Pisa once again – realizing for the first time how ridiculous our itinerary had been, but stress was replaced by the relaxation of having zero expectations for the day. We were just going.

Cinque Terre was beautiful, and in celebration of making a weekend out of nothing, we splurged on beach chairs, and despite being in the middle of a study abroad experience, I have never been more relaxed in my life. And like clockwork, just when I had swum as much as I wanted and had experienced what I wanted, we jumped on a train, making it back to Rome by 11:30pm (though not before stopping at Pisa and Florence once again).

Mad voyages for me are ones that have no itineraries, no expectations. It seems they also involve a Rick Steves guidebook, but more so, they are spur of the moment and spontaneous, and are not welcome, it may seem, to my personality, but I’ll have you know that those are the best journeys of all.

They never made it to a mailbox... Writing Assignment 3