I am going to nerd out on your ass so. Hard. Right. Now.
I should have been an art history major. Of course, I didn’t realize I liked art until halfway through my junior year of college, studying in London just around the corner from the National Gallery. I visited the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and I was hooked. (How’s this for irony: I have a distinct memory of seeing Van Gogh’s painting of shoes in high school and thinking, “This is art? Art is stupid.” Already articulate and sophisticated at fifteen.)
I took a survey art history class my senior year at Notre Dame and really loved it, broad overview and 8:30am time slot notwithstanding. In the Baroque chapter there was a picture of a sculpture by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, depicting an angel holding an arrow that pierces the heart of Teresa, giving her the most exquisite pain imaginable. The sculpture seems to move, flow, radiate. The expression on Teresa’s face is unearthly and glorious.
It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.
I’ve carried the memory of that little textbook photo for a decade, always wondering what it would be like to stand in front of it. When I got this contract, I looked up the exact location of Bernini’s masterpiece, and upon discovering it was in Rome, I knew this whole experience would be worth it.
After careful map studying, I wended my way to Santa Maria della Vittoria. There, in a small, ornately (almost gaudily) decorated church, I came face to face with Teresa.
It was…a little underwhelming.
Leave it to the Catholic Church to set the sculpture high and far back into a wall, under extremely poor lighting. It looks small and removed, cold and aloof. I suppose the Catholics were afraid to let their parishoners see it too closely. Might give the ladies some ideas about pleasure. Teresa does look a bit orgasmic. God forbid anyone enjoy their faith.
I looked at it. My heart didn’t quite flutter the way I was expecting.
In contrast, when I walked into St. Peter’s Basilica and looked at Michelangelo’s Pieta, I started to cry. I wasn’t expecting that at all. It quietly encapsulates exactly what despair feels like.
But I knew it wasn’t Bernini or Teresa’s fault I felt alienated. When I bought postcards at Santa Maria from an ancient priest who recited rosaries between sales, I was again stunned by the sculpture. In the four by six postcards, with bright, clear lighting and the camera focusing on the angel’s serene smile and Teresa’s upturned face (really, you’re gonna make everyone crane their necks to look at something that is also facing upward?) – that’s when my heart lurched.
Semiotics: the postcard is a representation of a sculpture therefore is the sculpture. Can the reality of the postcard be better than the reality of the sculpture?
Next I went to the Galleria Borghese, a private collection of the most phenomenal Renaissance art collected by a rich and ruthless cardinal in the seventeenth century.
Borghese’s collection is full of Bernini’s work, including Apollo and Daphne, The Rape of Proserpina, and a David about to slingshot Goliath. These sculptures rest on pedestals at ground level, in the center of brightly lit rooms. I walked into these rooms where I could reach out and touch Bernini’s handiwork (well, if I wanted to get kicked out) and literally stopped breathing.
Some things just can’t be described in words. I’m a writer, and it’s a sore spot that words can fail. But they do, far too often.
It’s astounding to me that Bernini could take an act like rape and make it beautiful. It’s deeply disturbing to look at a statue of a man gripping a woman against her will, to see the look of terror in her eyes and say, “My God. How gorgeous!”
What kind of mindfuck is that?
In Florence I visited the Museo Bargello and the Medici Chapel, both of which house a much of Michelangelo’s sculptural output. People go wild for him, particularly the David. Before my art history class I hadn’t heard of Bernini, though of course Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles introduced me to Michelangelo in grade school.
Beyond the Pieta, none of Michelangelo’s work has moved me even a fraction as much as Bernini’s does. It’s static. Lovely, but in a less thought-provoking way. I haven’t yet gotten to the David, but I wonder if it will seem more like a Disney attraction than a piece of art, like the Trevi Fountain or the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
I love Bernini’s work for the craftsmanship that makes marble look as soft as flesh. But also because he chose to capture the moments – in Teresa, Apollo and Daphne, The Rape – where pleasure and pain touch. He takes torture and makes it beautiful.
That’s where I live. That’s what fascinates me, the intersection of joy and sorrow. How can they live so close together without creating numbness? How can two extremes exist in the same moment? Bittersweet is the most interesting emotion, and Bernini seemed to get that.
I will continue to scavenger hunt Bernini’s work around Rome and I will make a point of seeing the David and any other Michelangelo sculpture I can find, to discover what others love about him. We’ll see if either of them overturns my expectations.