I don’t think I’ve ever experienced such profound ennui as what I’ve experienced since returning from Rome. Granted, perhaps a little ironic, as my last blog post addressed how to avoid such things as ennui, but I’m going to write that off seeing as I had composed it before my trip. But before I can address my ennui, I must first describe what brought it on–what I experienced over the course of less than a week that transformed my life, I expect, for good. So I’d like to share my trip to Rome–the things I saw that made such an impression at the time–and then I’ll save how I’ve since responded to those things for a separate post. So without further ado…
We were gone for a total of 6 days–traveling for 2 and in Rome for 4–but we wasted absolutely no time. On that first day, we walked Palatine Hill, visited the Capitoline Museum, explored the Forum, saw the Circus Maximus, the Colosseum, and later that night the Trevi Fountain (which, though it was under construction, was still my favorite site, as it was where my best friend–and now finace!–proposed).
The second day it rained. Not a downpour by any means, but rather that casual sprinkling as though the rain is in no hurry to get anywhere. It falls as an expression of itself, not to drench or to overwhelm, but to douse the world in a refreshing bit of life. The greens of the city take on a new hue; the leaves are not the bright, vibrant green that shines and winks with the light of the sun–they are suddenly deep and lush and thick with teeming, rejuvenating water. We passed scores of people all robed in rain jackets and each carrying an umbrella to ward off the droplets, and we giggled to one another. We’re Seattleites, and in Seattle the mere sight of an umbrella anywhere on your person is enough to peg you immediately as a tourist. And so we soaked it all in with smiles on our rain-speckled faces, walking the city in no particular hurry. Today was our day of exploration.
On that second day we saw the Pantheon, the Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, the Museo di Roma, and wound our way through a plethora of alleys that I had dreamt of seeing for years but never knew I would be experiencing so soon. Elaborate iron sconces encased lanterns upon the edge of every corner. Flowers like fireworks smiled at us from rooftop gardens and stone balconies, and jagged alleyways whose shrouding buildings each bore a different color beckoned us to explore their winding mazes. We took our time all the while, eventually stumbling upon the Piazza Navona by accident, a plaza we found alive with laughter and street performers, music drifting across the square from some indeterminable speaker, bringing the very air to life. Restaurants lined the entire perimeter with waiters vying for our attention as we passed–reaching out their hands, offering us a menu, assuring us that their food was exactly what we were missing. And at the square’s center stood a massive, fanciful fountain surrounded by artists displaying their bright, intuitive interpretations of the life of Rome and its inhabitants. It all brought smiles to our faces that could not be washed away for the rest of the night, and we returned to the hotel with a settling of ease and bliss.
But despite all of our roamings and wonderful adventures thus far, our explorations of museums and cobblestone streets and marble structures, they were nothing in comparison to our experiences over the next two days.
You see, the next morning we visited the Vatican Museum: an extensive mass of long corridors and great rooms that so fluidly fed one into the next that there never seemed to be an end, only a turning and shifting of foot into the next display of Biblically-inspired art. I hardly can remember any doors, only passages and walls strewn with works conveying a depth of human philosophy, psychology, art, and knowledge that I’d never before seen in anything made by man. We spent over four hours there, walking with slow steps through a visual representation of the history and religion of one of the greatest cities of Europe. We were moved by the majesty of Raphael’s The Deposition and The Transfiguration, the grandiosity of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, and the various works of numerous other equally inspiring painters. Each artist so perfectly captured stories of humanity’s pain and suffering, iron will, triumphs, and wisdom that we were left speechless. And through it all, we could do nothing but wonder at the artists who had specifically dedicated their lives to representing some of the most meaningful moments in Christianity’s history.
Well, my fiance and I eventually left the museum exhausted (in the most wonderful way), ate a large lunch, and had our first Roman gelato in St. Peter’s Square as we people-watched to our hearts’ content. Later that night, we returned to the Piazza Navona, where we took our time eating our dinner and drinking our wine, consuming ourselves in the washing over of twilight’s blue gaze that blends every individual piece of the world into a single, beautiful cast of night.
If possible, the next day impacted us even more.
I’d never been inclined to cry at a building before. Moved, yes. Awed? Of course. But, as easily as I tend to cry at even slightly emotional circumstances, a structure had never done it for me.
Until I saw the interior of St. Peter’s Basilica.
To give you an idea of its magnitude, the dome of the ceiling, rising at the basilica’s center just above the presumed tomb of St. Peter, is at a height of 450 ft. A great number of statues twice an average man’s height line the walls, with a second row of statues far above testifying the various saints’ stories and deeds. It’s the most complex assortment of marble work, gold inlay, mosaic art, and paintings twenty feet high that you will ever get to see, and it’s absolutely breathtaking. Every bit of the ceiling is painted or carved, with great angels seeming to fly out from the very corners of the walls at the ceiling’s edge, while marble cherubims flit around the room. Everywhere you look, there’s some new work at which to ogle, some new thing to cause you to pause and almost sink into the floor under the weight of its magnificence and perfection. It must be one of the most grandiose structures ever comprised by man. And to know it was all done in the name of God was miraculous to behold.
After a claustrophobic climb of 320 steps to the top of the Basilica’s dome, where we saw all of Rome sprawled out before us, we were forced to return to the hotel so as to pack our bags and make checkout in time, which we did. We then took the metro tunnel to the northern end of the city to meet our appointment at the Villa Borghese–Cardinal Borghese’s immense, splendorous villa in which he collected artworks from such esteemed artists as Bernini, Raphael, and Caravaggio. I think I’ll save the description of the Borghese Gallery for a different post, though, for although the art was astounding and made an immense impression on us, it still wasn’t the highlight of the day.
The highlight of the day, and perhaps even, I would argue, the trip, was what came last: the Capuchin Crypt beneath the church of Santa Maria della Concezione de Cappuccini. Imagine this:
You take a large stone staircase up to the church’s door, and after paying a small entrance fee at the front desk, you walk a series of rooms detailing in various exhibits the history of the Capuchin monks. You peruse with a curious and fascinated eye a myriad of ancient artifacts, documents, and devices all protected behind panes of glass. Interspersed amidst these objects are long plaques explicating some of the Order’s greatest members and their deeds, and you pause before every piece, taking your time to carefully read each description. As you do so, you find yourself gradually captured, astounded, and utterly humbled by stories of such courageous selflessness that you can almost feel your very soul shifting. These monks were pinnacles of compassion and grace, of devotion and humility and true sacrifice. They had abandoned all they possessed, everything they knew, in response to a God calling them to care for everyone they could possibly reach.
Their stories provoke such a deep stir in your heart that you feel yourself irrevocably changed, spiritually transformed by these words on a wall.
And then you approach the end of the display.
The Crypt is just around the corner. The air has already grown colder; the lights have dimmed. You take a breath as you round the corner and descend a small set of stairs into a dank hallway. The walls are no longer plaster, but stone, and only one muted lantern hangs from the ceiling in each room, serving as the only source of light besides the frosted windows at your back. Suddenly you find you have entered a truly dazzling, grotesque work of art, and your eyes can’t tear themselves away.
Covering the walls, detailing the ceiling in grand designs, and even hanging in ornate lanterns are the bones of 3,700 monks. In one of the rooms, skull upon skull is piled atop one another in shapes of towers and domes. In the next room three skeletons in robes of brown stand bent-backed to welcome passersby as pelvis bones and shin bones take grand formations on the walls. Chills creep up your arm that have nothing to do with the cold, but you are surprised to find how little fear you actually seem to have. It is a horrific thing, the Crypt, and yet you can’t help think the macabre artistry absolutely beautiful. Nathaniel Hawthorne had once remarked of the place: “There is no possibility of describing how ugly and grotesque is the effect, combined with a certain artistic merit, nor how much perverted ingenuity has been shown in this queer way, nor what a multitude of dead monks, through how many hundred years, must have contributed their bony framework to build up these great arches of mortality.”
It was truly a uniquely wondrous sight.
My fiance and I took our time walking the exhibit, and when we eventually reemerged beneath the hushed, overcast sky we breathed deeply, silent and contemplative. As we paused just outside the church, we looked to each other and smiled, squeezing each other’s hands knowingly. There was no doubt in our minds that we had just had the most meaningful experience of our trip. And not because of the grand display of skeletal artistry–though that, too, had its merit–but because of everything the Capuchin monks had done. Between their magnanimous love and the Vatican’s incomparable splendor the day before, our hearts were heavy with a gratitude and appreciation we had never before known to such a depth. It was so clear that Christianity wasn’t just a religion or a belief system, but a way to literally save people, to bring men and women whose hearts had long ago hit their breaking points and lift them up to a hope they had forgotten they could achieve. And it was ground-breakingly transformative.
My fiance and I caught our train to the airport that night and couldn’t stop thinking of those monks. We couldn’t stop thinking of the anger and sadness of our world juxtaposed against the beauty and enlightenment of the artists and priests of Rome, and we certainly couldn’t go back to the way we used to live.
Thus began my journey through the twisting realm of ennui.