Although we’re not talking Jayson Blair–quality malfeasances here, there’s probably something a little fishy about a mature art critic for a major news magazine-I’m Newsweek ‘s art critic-never having set foot in Rome. Now, I’ve never claimed to have interviewed Michelangelo’s surviving relatives or the models who posed for the Sistine Chapel ceiling. But, as with the reported early age at which I slipped from the ranks of virginity, I’ve probably implied more direct encounters with great works in Roman venues than I’ve actually enjoyed. If some vengeful, Googling graduate student with nothing more consequential to research were to do a little digging, he or she could probably come up with a handful of misleading intimations of my firsthand familiarity with the treasures of the Eternal City.
The Rome of my un-fact-checked imagination looked like an older, sootier, more compact Washington, D.C. All the buildings resembled the Supreme Court, only with smart little cafés and shoe shops tucked in on the ground floor. Behind them, pickpockets and fanny-pinchers worked the crowd, and stubbled, dark-suited men with greasy and tousled hair made love to Midwestern widows fleeing American sexual repression. Somewhere cloudily adjacent to all this, the Pope hovered like the endgame Charles Foster Kane.
Truth is, Italy as a whole was never big on my artistic agenda. Italian art’s creepy anthropomorphism (naturalistic stone people impersonating live people, sitting on the tombs of formerly live people who’re now more or less stone people) makes cultures with more stylization and abstraction in their public decoration seem to me not only more appetizing, but much less superstitious. American artists who sojourn in Italy always come back chirping in brand-new Raf Vallone accents about the light in Tuscany and the food in Florence, or vice versa. And they haul back with them trunkloads of sentimental landscape paintings sodden with Naples yellow.
A short while ago, however, I finally got an opportunity to go to Rome for a week and see for myself. It took Mr. Euro-Savvy Art Critic, Mr. Streetwise New Yorker, only about 24 minutes on the ground to get conned. My wife and I were trudging up a hill toward the Roman Forum when a small car pulled over. Its driver craned his mustachioed face out of the passenger window, saying, “Excuse me, do you speak English?” He had a map of Rome on the seat and said he was lost; he wanted to make one last garment-business call before heading back to Milan. (So instead of flagging down a native to ask, he .… Oh, never mind.) We looked at his map and said his destination was right across the river, a few blocks away. In gratitude, he pushed a plastic shopping bag that said “VERSACE” through the window: a couple of samples, something for me, something for “the lady.” In town for a clothing trade show, he explained, he’d gotten drunk, partied and gone through all his funds last night. Could we sport him a little gas money to get home? Please?
Hesitantly (funny how you can know without knowing you know … ), I took out my wallet and handed him a E10 note. He was visibly disappointed, whining, “Sin-YOR-ay …. ” So I gave him my next smallest bill, a E20, and lied that it was all the cash I had. A few steps after he drove away, Laurie said, “You know, we’ve been conned.” I opened the plastic swathing around the lady’s garment and found a garish, rubbery purple vinyl car coat that’d sweat five pounds off if you walked three blocks in it. Ten Euros max on the street, Laurie said, which is exactly where we left it. As for per l’uomo , my reward was a serviceable-looking tan windbreaker, which I decided-rolling it and stuffing it into my shoulder bag-to keep.
The art had its highs and, if not lows, at least peculiar eddies. Inevitably, I was herded by guards regularly commanding ” Silencio !” into the Sistine Chapel and under its famous ceiling, “restored” to a state of Disneyesque brightness (which felt to me like the way it probably was when originally unveiled). St. Peter’s basilica-with the exception of Michelangelo’s Pietà behind bullet-proof glass-rather deserves Ruskin’s remark, “At best, suitable for a ballroom, and perhaps a bit too gaudy for that.”
But the real big kahuna in Rome is the Pantheon, the most intact Imperial building in the city. Perhaps it was the size of the place (constructed, remember, without power tools), its proportions (a sphere the diameter of the dome would just fill the sanctuary) or simply the hundreds of people happily circulating in and out (the Pantheon is now a church, thus ticketless); whatever, I was stunned by the edifice for the whole week.
Bernini’s David (1623) in the Galleria Borghese has the coiled athleticism-in marble, yet!-of a Grand Slam backhand. And if you fancy high-contrast cinematography, and I do now and then if it’s really over the top, then Caravaggio’s hyperreal, supremely weighty Entombment in the Vatican Museum is your kind of painting, too. Each of these works earns a spot on my worth-a-pilgrimage-to-see short list, along with a few others in such places as Paris, Madrid and London. But I can kind of get my brain around Paris, Madrid and London. Rome is something else entirely: an intense layering of classical and Renaissance civilizations, world HQ of the Catholic Church, and a contemporary, ad hoc street life. If I didn’t outrightly come to like Italian art, I realize there’s no ignoring it.
On our last night in Rome, we attended a free concert of 14th- and 15th-century music serendipitously announced by a flyer tacked to a church door near our hotel. As we waited in the cool courtyard for the music to begin, the heavens roared and then opened. I watched the orange trees undulate in the wind, a waterfall cascade off the tile roof, lightning tease the rooftops. Indoors an hour later, the sound of the concert was terrific.
A character in a mystery novel I read on the flight back to New York said of a person he’d despised for a lifetime, “If I’d shot him 30 years ago, they’d have let me out by now.” Rome represents a similar, though much less dark, paradox for me. If I’d come to it sooner, when I first went to live in Europe for a while in my mid-20′s, I’d probably have returned several times by now, and would have somewhat digested the city. But a first visit then would have found an insufferably callow, impatient me manically checking off items on a list not so much to contemplate them as to get them seen . Nevertheless, when I pitched a coin into the Trevi Fountain, I wished that my next trip to Rome could magically take place in my youth.
Footnote: Friends in New York say they’d gladly pay 40 bucks at Century 21 for a windbreaker like mine.