Building the New Rome

Rome

In 2005 I spent three months in Rome. In some ways I have never left. Perhaps it sounds like a commonplace to say that I “left part of myself” in the Eternal City. But the fact is, I did. I returned to Rome once more, in the spring of 2007, when I proposed to my now-wife in Assisi, and I have not been back since. And yet, to this day there is hardly a week that goes by when I do not dream about Rome, and often these dreams recur far more frequently than that.

There is very little to tell about these dreams: usually I am alone, or with another person or group of friends, wandering through the cobblestone streets and alleyways of the city. It is not so much the events, but rather the mood of these dreams that so disturbs my sleep, and then my waking hours, so that I often feel the influence of their haunting beauty long after I have awoken.

Very often, in the curious manner of dreams, “Rome” looks nothing at all like the real Rome, and yet when I awake I am absolutely certain that I was dreaming about the Eternal City. This makes sense because Rome has become so much more to me than a city, even a very beautiful one: it has become an archetype, a symbol, an abstraction of beauty, both man-made and divine.  And whenever I encounter such beauty in my dreams, whether it bears any resemblance at all to anything actually in Rome, it is categorized simply as “Rome.”

Our sleeping subconscious minds are far more skilled creators than our waking selves, and if I could show you the churches and basilicas and cafes and boulevards and parks and vistas that my imagination has cooked up in the small hours of the morning, you should see why I feel as if I am haunted by the Eternal City. And yet, for all of their ethereal beauty, I doubt that anything my sleeping imagination has concocted comes anywhere close to what the real Rome has to offer.

Though I must have walked through the giant bronze doors of St. Peter’s Basilica four dozen times in real life – more perhaps – every time was like the first: which is to say, every time I felt an almost irresistible urge to drop my knees. I wonder if it is ever possible to become insensible to that moment when you step into the nave of the basilica and catch sight of its vaulted ceilings, the immensity and height and beauty of which never fail to catch you off guard, and feel that strange, buoyant sensation, as if the weight of the heavens has been resting on your head, and has suddenly lifted? The only other place where I remember feeling that sensation to a similar degree was the Pantheon, with its massive dome so cleverly concealed that you don’t even know it is there until you are directly under it, and the first glimpse of which literally made me feel as if I was about to lift a full three inches off the floor. In both of these buildings is found an architecture of such purity and elegance, that is at once light and airy, and solemn and manly. And this is but the tiniest fraction of what Rome has to offer.

Having grown up in a suburb of Toronto, with its Soviet-style apartment blocks, strip malls, and cookie-cutter homes, Rome came as a shock to me: I did not know, at least with the full weight of experience, that men could create such beautiful things. But even more unexpected and earth shattering was the revelation that the creation of exquisite beauty was not only the province of masters and geniuses. For while Michelangelo and Raphael may have carved statues and painted pictures of seemingly divine craftsmanship, these works of genius are inevitably displayed in buildings with painstakingly assembled marble floors, gilt ceilings, polished pillars, intricate chandeliers and carved facades that are sometimes wrought with hundreds upon hundreds of stone gargoyles and saints. And who assembled, carved, chiseled, and cast all of these magnificent things? Not geniuses, but rather common artisans: thousands upon thousands of common stone masons, blacksmiths, painters and carpenters whose names will remain obscure until Doomsday.

Like any other sightseer who has wandered through the museums and churches of Rome, it was not long before the uncomfortable question began insinuating itself: Why do men no longer create such things? Why, with all of our education, wealth and technology, far beyond the wildest imaginings of the medieval popes and peasants who financed and built the churches and palaces of Rome, can we not build, or paint, or carve what our medieval and renaissance forebears built and painted and carved? What have we lost?

This essay is not about that question, or its answer. I take it as a given that we have lost something, and I believe I have a pretty good idea what it is. Rather, the first point I wish to make is that we have not lost it completely. Much of the beauty of the past is preserved for our enjoyment. And sadder, perhaps, than the fact that such beauty is no longer being created on a wide scale, is that many of us have chosen rather to gorge ourselves on the grossest provender of the ersatz “pop” culture in which we are immersed, than to dine upon the far more substantial and nourishing fare of true culture. That is the first point I wish to make.

But I do not wish to sound like a curmudgeon. And so my second point is this: that the spark in the human soul that created Rome has not been extinguished, not entirely, and that it is up to each of us to fan that spark into life until it burns anew in a living flame. For if we only ever enjoy the achievements of the past, we run the risk of becoming mere elitist antiquarians – dusty scholars of a dead tradition, snobbishly excoriating the failures of the present while doing nothing to remedy them: hoarding beauty, and ignoring that it, like goodness, is self-diffusive, and demands to be multiplied and shared. We all know such people, and they tend to be full of anger, for implicit in their cultivation, in their knowledge and their discerning taste, is an elegy for beauty, Whom they believe is dead, even if well-embalmed: but Beauty is not dead, because, for all the protestations of a syphilitic German philosopher otherwise, God is not dead.

For those who are disgusted with what now passes for culture, there is a middle way, and it is this: to allow authentic beauty to soak into our minds like a rainfall on a fertile field, and then to carefully tend that field until it brings forth new life, fresh life. In other words, we must be like those nameless artisans of old, who, though they were not geniuses, though they had not the greatness of a Raphael, or a Brunelleschi, nevertheless were able to contribute their small piece to works of architecture that centuries later still take our breath away, because of the simple fact that they had drunk in true culture so deeply that, even if they could not have put it into words, it seeped effortlessly from their pores.

I said earlier that I would not discuss the question of what our culture has lost, but I find that I cannot finish this essay without doing so. The answer, of course, is simple: we have lost God. And without God all we have left to do is to give vent to the barrenness of our own souls bereft of the Divine Spark: hence, modern art, modern architecture…modern life.

This, then, is the first duty of those who wish to restore authentic culture: to rediscover God. Once do that and our lives will, even without our consciously willing it, express this new knowledge. Maybe not in artistic achievements (though for some it inevitably will, and we should support such artists wherever we find them), but in the very fabric of our lives: the way we live, the way we love, the work we do, the homes we build, the books we read, the songs we sing, the games we play, the families we raise. And in all of these humble ways, we will be as those medieval artisans, laying our stone, chiseling our gargoyle, painting on our gold leaf, contributing our small, anonymous piece to what John Senior eagerly looked forward to and called “the restoration of Christian culture.”

In this way maybe one day we may yet create a new Rome.

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