Another pagan at the Vatican
To the woman who was praying at the David back when I last visited the Accademia: I understand. A month or so later, I understand.
Not that I didn’t understand then, when I was talking around the magnitude of him and thinking, this, this is something you can’t reproduce (not on postcards and not in the Piazza della Signioria’s clumsy duplicate). When I was staring up at him at that just-right angle where his head looks normal, because you’re looking at him right under the jaw and he’s meant to be adored at that angle. When I took stock of his huge hands and the marble hollow of his sternum, when I walked around the plinth and caught his furious marble eye. There are two kinds of famous artworks: the kinds that are capturable in reproduction, and those that aren’t. The kind you see in person after seeing the pictures and go yep, or go Oh. The Mona Lisa is capturable. Klimt, huge and golden, isn’t. The David is impossible. Worth any kind of overwhelm, and what’s prayer if not a kind of catalyzed overwhelm? Lady, I didn’t begrudge you then.
And I understand now. Viscerally. Have made the skip from sympathy to empathy, as it were.
I just got back from Rome—I just got back from the Borgia Apartments.
Here is where I take you back, give you context. If you’re reading this, you probably know me, and if you know me, you just went Oh. But that’s not true of everyone, so let’s get on the same page. The page is blank right now. I’ll title it: A List of People I, Isabel, Have Loved, That I Still Love, In Chronological Order. First: mother, aunt, family; top of list since birth. Second: the Borgia family; on the list since age six.
I’m aware of the improbability of this. As the possessor of the improbable history, I’m the most aware. Who goes through elementary school thinking, you know who’s the most beautiful girl in all the world? Bastard daughter of the most corrupt pope in history, that’s who. But there you go: my first love outside myself was Lucrezia Borgia in my Renaissance portraits coloring book. (I did type that correctly. Renaissance portraits coloring book. I had no choice but to grow up and become—well, me.) She’d been outlined clumsily from the Pinturrichio fresco, the Disputation of St. Catherine, all long hair and graceful hands and ornate, lilied gown. She was my Disney princess, she was my favorite thing in the world to look at, and I followed her into historical novels and then into history books. Her brother was there in the book, too, long-haired and grim and unbeautiful in outline, less fun to color in—but indissociably present, you can’t have one without the other. That goes for the books. Goes double for the books. I wish I could remember reading about them for the first time—I must have had early literary impressions—but the first thing I remember is reading Mirror, Mirror at age twelve, the Snow White retelling with Lucrezia as evil stepmother, and thinking, Well, this is ALL WRONG. Not the incest, that I rather took as a given—they were for each other. I disliked the idea of them being villains in someone else’s story, was all, when they were so much their own, for good or for ill. It didn’t get better—the books. Not the fiction, in any case. (Don’t read Kalogridis, don’t read John Faunce.) The nonfiction was waiting for me, though I can’t remember a time I didn’t know their history. When I read the nonfiction, I mostly thought: yes. Occasionally, the more revelatory: oh, yes.
You need this context, why? One, because I want to own the fact that I’m full Hamlet histrionic about this (the Hamlet that jumps into Ophelia’s grave and shouts WHAT WOULDST THOU DO? at her family and everyone who’s ever loved her; like, fuck you, I would eat so many crocodiles in the name of Renaissance murderers, you don’t even know) right off the bat, and two—I’m in Italy. This Friday, I will be leaving Italy. And before this weekend, I’d not been to Rome. Epiphany was belated, panic was instantaneous, action was immediate. I bought a train ticket for Saturday. December 8.
(The Catholics in the audience: “Wait, but that’s—” Yes, I’m getting there, Catholics, wait your turn.)
Things were not off to a brilliant start, that December 8. I woke up at 7:45 of my own volition to do this, which was in and of itself insane—a good, oh, three, four hours before I’m usually willing to be coherent? Bought the ticket at Santa Maria Novella, 9:30 train, late, 10:00 train, OK, whatever. Flashed it at the conductor, who waved me aboard the train pulling into the station at the time the ticket gave me. Once the train was in backwards motion, the ticket-taker shook his head at me tragically: this train is going to Milan. Got off at Bologna, where it was snowing, where I stood outside for twenty minutes in the snow with my wrists bare, shaking and fearful and staring at my iPod clock. (The Vatican ticket offices close at 4, a stupidly early hour. My heart had been in my throat since 7:45.) Get into Rome at 2:00 p.m., catch a taxi that cons me out of 25 euro, not caring, I had hours to spare, and the taxi drivers flirted with me, told me I looked like an Italian film starlet, and I took that as my due for the 25 euro, really, and in the back seat my eyes were ridiculous cartoon tourist wide and eating up the city, which is beautiful in ways that alternate between Baroque and Classical, so basically: best of marblework throughout time, and I thought, it’s okay, your wrists don’t have frostbite and your time frame is juuuuust right—
We pull up to the Vatican Museum, round the giant terrifying prisonish brickwork exterior of Vatican City, up to what looks like the locked back door of something, since it’s big and iron and, well, locked. “È chiuso,” my taxi driver says, and I think yes— and I say, “No, oh NO.” Run outside, look at the calendar, yes they’re open on Saturdays, no they’re not open this Saturday. “Feast of the Annunciation,” a helpful Australian points out—I’m not the only one gawking at the calendar—and I almost kick the pedestal underneath it. CATHOLICS!
My sense of public decorum hits me, belatedly. God bless those smitten-for-salesmanship taxi drivers, waiting for me with the door open and the meter closed: I run back into the taxi and shut the door. “Take me to Castel Sant’Angelo,” I say, and then, humiliatingly, start tearing up, which I have to deal with. I’d pretend it’s not happening at all, and eventually it wouldn’t be, but one of the taxi drivers cops wise and starts telling me, no, smile, and I grin at him, the self-deprecating I’m being a silly GIRL grin, meaning it, hating that I mean it. Meaning that self-hating smile is just about the worst thing in the world, but what’s sillier than an agnostic crying by the Vatican?
To the Castel Sant’Angelo, then, which is a medieval fortress, round and bricked and crowned with an angel on the roof and unspeakably huge. It’s where Cesare Borgia brought Caterina Sforza, the so-called Tigress of her city, after he captured Forlì, which is immediately what I went to mentally when I got there. I walked into the courtyard and promptly realised that you couldn’t access the inside of the fortress from the courtyard and oh, I was done, I was finished, I was through. Has anyone ever been that through in the history of the Castel Sant’Angelo? Answer: yes, nearly everybody, before it was a museum, which is why it’s okay that I finished up the weepy tempest in earnest in the blessedly (bizarrely) abandoned moatlike courtyard, the inside of the Castel exterior’s grassy jaw. Nobody was watching. Eventually I got back up and found the door and thought about Caterina Sforza, who had far more right to her feelings of defeat and despair than I did. Bucked the fuck up, went inside, up and up and up through the twisting dark interior, through the papal museum and up to the roof. Back down, after a decent museumy tour experience, only, the day being what it is, my comprehension being shot to shit like an hour ago, I get lost. My breath’s fraying in my lungs—am I going to get lost in the dungeon, is that what this fucker of a day’s got for me next?—when I stumble down the nearest flight of stairs into a dead-end courtyard. Totally empty. There’s a cannon and some fodder behind a chain. A well in the center. A placard on the wall: Courtyard of Pope Alexander VI.
This one gets more than the oh. This one got an oh, yes. Or a revelation modified to fit the moment: the most heartswelling possible rendition of oh—okay.
The well, the placard said, was a Roman—as in Ancient, Classical—construction. He’d put the Borgia crest on it, though. (Of course. This isn’t going to be anywhere near a good enough Borgia history lesson, but I will tell you this: they were magnificent show-offs. They thought they were going to be kings in this holy city. Now they’re in a tiny courtyard I only found by getting lost, but the mark remains.)
The crest is mostly papal—mitre, keys—but the Borgia bull is on it. The courtyard is completely empty, silent and private and careless. I kneel, hidden behind the well. I put my hand on the mitre, which is carved and sticks out from the stone side. I put my forehead to the bull, close my eyes, very, very done.
And it’s okay, then.
(There was peace in my body, the kind that’s never belonged to my body, the kind that made me think I was going to wake up somewhere lost in time and space not because I believe in time travel but because I don’t believe in my body’s ability to self-generate that kind of peace.)
Woman at the David, your eyes cast up at the marble and blind to the rest of us walking around him (Him?), I understand.
Now to the actual present: today. Today, because I decided to skip my Italian class’s party and run off to Rome again after I’d finished my politics exam. I am leaving Italy on Friday, and I have had this date since I was six.
To this morning, then, wherein I downed four shots of espresso—cafeteria espresso, not real espresso, but still on balance about twice what the doctor ordered—and wrote my politics final like I was Joan of Arc and the voice in my ear was the textbook I’d skimmed last Friday. Handed it in an hour early, six pages in forty-five minutes, and my professor asked me, baffled, if I wanted to revise, and I looked at him through my possessed-with-furious-purpose fog and said “It’s all right! I read the book really closely just this weekend!”
To the bus stop, got on the bus; it was waiting for me. To the train station, got on the train; it was waiting for me. Used Saturday’s unstamped not-meant-for-Bologna ticket. Tucked myself up against the window, reread Paul Strathern’s The Artist, the Philosopher, and the Warrior, trying not to giggle hysterically into the paperback. Hands shaking, heart wedged in the back of my throat. I do mostly blame this on the espresso. Nevertheless, the trip ran on fear and awe. I got to Rome and felt like I’d run to Rome.
I got to Rome a good two hours earlier than I was expecting. It was a grey damp Monday and a gift from a very particular niche in the cosmos (god of Who The Fuck Wants To Go Out On A Day Like This?). No line for the Vatican Museum, the doors of which when they are opened are breathlessly wide. So I finally make my way in, into the maze, which it is—fun fact, it’s huge, have you ever seen the Vatican? IT’S HUGE. I run, almost physically run (as close to physical running I can do without being conspicuously deranged) through the Raphael rooms. Sorry, Raphael. I didn’t see a brushstroke. It’s not you, it’s me, and my heart which is at this point in the story still trying to beat its way out of the back of my throat with tiny heart fists. Follow the signs: Appartamento Borgia, Appartamento Borgia, oh FUCK it did NOT just disappear off the signs oh good there it is again DON’T YOU FRIGHTEN ME LIKE THAT AGAIN.
Eventually, yes, Appartamento Borgia. The Appartamento Borgia is, at present, doubling as a contemporary art museum. I have never cared about anything less than I cared about the contemporary art in the Borgia apartments. (Eventually, upon descent, I will get to the rest of the Vatican’s contemporary art. It is super cool. I run into Dalì and grin like I’ve met up with an old friend. In the Borgia apartments, I see literally none of it. It is there as a kind of obstacle course as I stare at the ceiling.)
The ceiling frescos are in disrepair in most of the rooms. I see why people aren’t looking. The rooms wing off and become less and less populous, borderline abandoned in the Sala dei Misterei and Sala dei Santi. I nose around with my head at a ninety-degree angle, looking up, looking for Isis and Osiris (yes, really) and St. Catherine, not seeing them at first. For a brief moment of irrational mortal terror I’m in the first room thinking, Is this it? and then I regain my senses and remember to follow the bulls.
Those bulls—they’re on everything. Quick game that lets you spot Borgia architecture on sight: Has it got a bull on it? Then yes. There’s a ceiling where golden bulls chase each other in rows, like lilies on more normal royalty’s wallpaper. It’s a little Apis, the holy bull of ancient Egypt, a little Spain, heart’s-blood nationalism for the wrong country, and all Borgia, those most flagrant Catalan bastard outsiders who stole the country’s holy heart and almost made it their kingdom. The same room with the bull ceiling has a tiled floor with six-pointed stars that’s the most Moorish thing I’ve seen since I was in Prague’s Spanish synagogue. I’m laughing. It’s beautiful, and aggressive. There’s a marble fireplace with no chain around it, the pope’s name on it. I drag my fingertips over the letters. Every inch of the rooms is its own voice in a great, repeated cry: We Are Here.
The Borgias are one of history’s pet monsters, and weren’t much loved even in their own time, Catalan bastard outsiders that they were. They knew it, and for a second they won in spite of it. The architecture is bossily triumphant, drunk on its outsidership along with its richesse. Fuck you, it says, with glorious religious inappropriateness. We killed for this: and wouldn’t you?
There’s the Sala dei Misterei which, blessedly, has an unchained window-seat where I tuck up under a crest to look at Pope Alexander himself kneeling to the resurrected Christ. And there’s the Sala dei Santi, which I walk through slowly, which is mostly lumber construction covering, which I almost miss—
It’s an empty room and I am thankful for this, for the sparse refurbishing and the construction and the bad art and the fact that nobody has maybe ever cared about this family like I care about this family (magnitude, maybe, somewhere, but not quite in manner), because I am alone when I see the Sala dei Santi after I’ve just resigned myself to having failed to recognize the frescos in the Hall of Sybils, and I look up and there she is, St. Catherine, Lucrezia as.
(I am not too proud to own the sound I made—this exalted shriekgasp that knifes its way out of my throat before I can consider a speck of self-restraint—but I’ve never heard myself make one like it before. If I ever make that sound at the sight of a person, I will know that I love that person in earnest, i.e. as much as I love dead Renaissance Italians, which is the one of the most earnest loves I know how to mete out.)
So, there she is, dead center of the upper wall. The fresco’s been renovated, lush with color, and in Klimtian validation, it is a thousand times brighter and fuller than its reproductions. Pinturrichio has embedded trinkets in the paintwork. There is a real gold lily in her turban, and the trompe-l’oeil shadow seems to do double duty on her hands, which plead gracefully through the paint. She has long, three-dimensional-looking fingers, half-twisted together as she speaks. She has long gold twists of hair. Pinturrichio is slightly clumsy with fabric, so her red cape, half-shrugged from her shoulder, does not fall so much as enclose her like a little wall. Her dress is a deep, starry blue, gilded with little locklike lily-knots. Her face is clear, both in painterly delineation and in model-object thought.
She’s not the only Borgia in the picture. Juan of Gandia is there, hands on his hips, turban twice the size of most heads in the picture, daring you to question what he’s doing there. Jofre is listing behind the throne, long-haired and mildly useless. Lucrezia is also St. Barbara on the next wall: half-running, half-praying, looking back at herself in the opposite scene. St. Barbara is in unfair light. Above the saints: Isis and Osiris (told you!). The cheerful gory shock of Osiris’s dismembered limbs, kitty-corner to the Disputation. The Apis bull, decked in gold. Pagan Grand Guignol on the Vatican ceiling. I looked at Osiris’s severed head in Isis’s arms, the red open flesh of his hacked arms and legs and thought, with giddy affection, My God, this apartment’s theirs. (And it’s them. One of—one of the ones that counts most.)
I spent two hours with my neck cricked back. My spine still feels gnarly (in the surfer way, like, whacked the fuck out, is my neck, and also in shape, tied up in a grumpy willow bend). At one point I considered descending to the Sistine Chapel and got separation anxiety halfway down the stairs. Wasn’t done! I went back to her. She hadn’t gotten old yet. Lucrezia Borgia, in paint that’s the next-best thing to flesh, casual part-time holy object in the family rooms. They lived there, under her face, her father’s face, her brother’s. Lived under themselves, among the gods and saints. Of course they did. Of course they won, a little. Of course they lost, magnificently and tragically. Of course they never loved anyone as much as they loved each other. Of course I never loved anything like I loved them. Of course I bent my neck out of shape for them. Someone’s got to, even now.
Two hours until I felt okay leaving.
The rest of the Vatican in forty minutes.
(The Sistine Chapel is, oddly, smaller than expected. More crowded. I thought, is this the Sistine Chapel, am I right about that? and then I looked up and saw that I was standing directly under the Son of Man. Ah. Yes, then.
Ashamed to admit it, but: The Sistine Chapel is reproducible. In some ways, easier in reproduction. It’s like Bosch, you can’t take it in in one go, and it’s on the ceiling of a crowded room, so if you try to take more than one thing in, you’re eventually going to headbutt someone. OH, AND I FEEL LIKE THE CULTURAL CONSCIOUSNESS SHOULD HAVE INFORMED ME OF THE PANEL WHERE GOD’S FLYING AROUND ANGRILY WITH HIS ARSE OUT. What gives, cultural consciousness?)
It’s okay. I’ll go back.
I took a slapdash walk up back through Rome, through the glorious history-book pastiche that is Rome, where classical ruins and basilicas sometimes literally face each other across the palm-lined streets. I ran into the Colosseum—the Flavian Amphitheatre, if you’re an accuracy snob—on my walk back to the train station. Colossal as the name, cresting up from the end of the sidewalk. Same moment as with the Sistine Chapel: Is that really—Yep, sure is. That’s Rome, that’s Italy, that’s Europe: if you think the thing in front of you looks giant and famous and imposing, yeah, it’s probably because it’s the real thing. I will miss that. I’m sad I didn’t get to see all the real things. But I’ll come back. Florence, and Italy on the whole, has been good to me, but I can go now without looking back until it’s actually time to come back. I had my moment, my handprints on history, my space-time slaps of sacrilegious adoration. I can’t ask for anything else. I got what I needed. Visited my family in Rome. Agnostic does church country, finds altars in all the wrong places.
I don’t think I was worshiping their corrupt ghosts, nor the Egyptian gods painted on their church ceiling. That’s not nearly the important thing. The important thing is the way the world went quiet and let me touch the piece of history I love the best, and it left me with physical aches and a calm, clear head. And that’s what I understand from the woman at the David, her palms clasped together and her arms reaching out: the way communion with a piece of art you love makes the world go quiet. A piece of beauty, a piece of history, a piece of truth, a piece of whatever-it-is-in-front-of-you that you, in the moment of regard, understand like nobody has ever quite understood that thing before you. Giant museum crowds regardless: they don’t have to know it, but they’re shutting the fuck up for you, sonic waves parting like—no, that metaphor’s too easy. The point isn’t the Bible, isn’t God or idolatry. Just you, looking at something that cracks you open and reminds you in spite of yourself how deeply you are capable of feeling.
I walked away with peace in my head like a relic.