I could see the marble quarries from 30,000 feet. I had watched the Alps roll away underneath me as the plane made its way from Paris to
Rome. Suddenly white scars appeared in the foothills, the tops of peaks gouged out and left to shine as welcome beacons for jets entering Italian airspace.
I nudged and pointed to my parents, who were with me on this journey to the Mediterranean.
I had not traveled with them since high school; we
had not always seen eye to eye since then. One of the few things all three of us had read was
The Agony and the Ecstasy: A Biographical Novel of Michelangelo by Irving Stone. Now, my mending family would treasure the art of the Renaissance together.
In Rome the next morning, the tour group was whisked through the long lines at the Vatican to the vaulted Sistine
Chapel. “You have an hour,” the guide told us. An hour! It seemed like a short time to admire this masterpiece,
though we saw other tourists hustled through after only a few minutes. I crooked my neck and studied the ceiling, finding the famous image
of Adam stretching his hand to God.
Michelangelo made the same reach for the divine himself. He started out humbly enough,
working every day, sometimes for twenty hours, learning his craft step by step. He fought against princes and popes, pushing against the
constant societal and political pressures. Everyone knows how he lay on his back high above this very floor, going blind by candlelight
to paint. The evidence of his toil was over the altar, in his painting of The Last Judgment, which featured a flayed Saint Bartholomew,
in reality, a self-portrait. The comparison did not seem hyperbolic to me.
Michelangelo’s life was difficult and full of chaos, but through skill and
hard work he created beauty that no one before could have imagined. His struggle, the struggle of humanity, somehow seems justified when it leads
to great art. It is something that we use to light the darkness, to push back ignorance and cruelty, to put forward our best selves.
We continued into the soaring vaults of St. Peter’s, designed in part by our favorite sculptor. Inside was
the Pieta, and this third artistic wonder in one day did not disappoint. The intricate folds and creases of Mary’s skirts told of
an artist who could see an astounding complexity. The Pieta was unfortunately, behind glass, due to an attack a few decades earlier
by a man with a sledgehammer.
“Why would anyone do that?” my mother asked, genuinely shocked. We discussed another incident
during the bonfire of the vanities in Florence, when the David was broken by overeager citizens. “The fragility of art is terrifying,”
I remarked. “Imagine putting all that work into something and then having it ruined.” My father nodded. “It takes
a lot of guts.
The next day, after circling the sweeping stage of the Roman Coliseum, the tour group fled
the afternoon heat for the hotel. My parents and I stayed though, walking slowly through the Forum and Palatine Hill, while I played the tour
guide, explaining the history of the fall of Rome. My parents seemed genuinely interested, but I could tell they were tiring.
We rested under the shade of an umbrella-shaped Stone Pine, waiting for a small church on the opposite hill to open its doors. The church,
called the San Pietro in Vincoli, was
compared to some of the cathedrals that awaited us on our journey. However, it was famous for one thing, housing Michelangelo’s Moses.
After a short nap on the cool grass, we walked
through the ruins of ancient Rome and up the narrow streets, finding a small crowd of faithful already waiting. A frocked priest heaved open the massive door, and we hustled inside, getting a front row
seat only a few feet from this richly detailed statue. Unlike the Pieta, we could get close enough to nearly
touch it. “Look at those arms,” someone exclaimed. I thought back to Irving Stone’s words that described Michelangelo’s act of sculpting: “He placed his chisel on the block, struck
the first blow with his hammer. This was where he belonged. He, the marble, the hammer and chisel, were one.” I studied the angles and curves, the rippling
muscles of the calf, the flowing beard, and wondered at the power of the artist to turn raw material into something
We walked out into the golden Italian sun, feeling somehow different about the city. We passed
the elliptical Piazza del Campidoglio, designed by the man himself.
The columned façade of the Pantheon appeared; we walked inside. The circle of light from the Oculus speared down onto the far wall. I wondered if Michelangelo
had walked through here, if he had studied the
molded concrete coffers of the dome. As we passed Trajan’s column, the heat broke and the sky blessed us with a torrent of rain.
After a day at Pompeii,
we took the bus through fields of sunflowers to Pisa, where we explored the Baptistry and the Leaning Tower. My father pointed out the engraved
pieces of marble stolen from Roman buildings and set haphazardly into the glowing facades. But our real destination was the holy city of Michelangelo
himself – Florence. We happily walked the cobbled streets amidst the diamond merchants and designer shoe shops. We climbed Giotto’s Tower and stared at droves of red roofs, a unity of architecture not found in our pastiche homeland.
My parents reluctantly stopped halfway up a hill
on the south bank of the Arno, while my younger legs took me to the Piazza Michelangelo, designed in 1869 by Giuseppe Poggi. Florence shone in the late afternoon light, the Duomo hunched like a bronzed shepherd over its flock. The main attraction was examining the so-called Captives, originally carved for the tomb of Julius II. They seemed to be pushing out of
the rock, fighting for sentient life. I pointed out the chisel marks on the forever-unfinished pieces to my mother, who remarked that they
“let us see the artist at work". As my father and I discussed the unfinished sculptures, I smiled, reveling in the power of art to bring us
together, to bind us through creativity and beauty.
The entire time, the David
stood on the edge of my sight, alone in the center of the majestic Tribune room. He was enormous, towering over the gawking tourists,
defying the millions of postcard reproductions with his fearless stare. For nearly an hour I stared at this marble giant, who looked as if he could come alive at
any moment. What genius
to carve this! One person could never accomplish so much, create anything so perfect. It was impossible, superhuman, beyond.
Such a thing made sense of all human struggle, gave heart to the cruelty of the universe. This was truly the work of one who had achieved the divine.
Later that day, I stood in front of the artist’s tomb in Santa
Croce, his little stone coffin looking so small, so human. And I burst into tears.