Sunday, May 25, 2008

The Death of the Past, or Presenting History and History's Presence, part 1

Yesterday we got up and had a tour of the Vatican which included the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter's Basilica. Out tour started with us jumping the five-block line that led to the Vatican. Our guide, Alberto, a somewhat slick Roman, simply cut into the like about 20 feet in front of the entrance and told us to do the same about a minute after he did. It seemed to work all right. At least we didn't get booted to the back of the line. The Vatican museum, the Chapel, and St. Peters are, of course, amazing, though they were more crowded than Disneyland on a summer's day. The Vatican contains innumerable statues and marbles from antiquity -- Grecian, Roman, Egyptian, and Etruscan -- set in neo-classical and baroque galleries demonstrating the Vatican's power and right to rule. The various Popes who gathered these things (the 16th-19th-century papacies were the biggest) were deeply influenced the the humanist impulse to COLLECT. This gave the Church all kinds of claims on authority. By displaying the treasures of antiquity, the Church positioned itself as the latest in a long-line of progressively "great civilizations." And by putting these things together in one space, they demonstrated to the world that the church was the legitimate heir to both the legacy of antiquity and its meaning. Additionally, putting these objects in galleries demonstrated that it was the Church who would "save" or "recover" the knowledge of the ancient past that might be lost to an unwritten history. So archaeological authority comprised one way for the church to create and maintain temporal power. Spiritual authority, at least among the faithful, was pretty set, though presumably the challenge presented by the reformation demanded some kind of papal response, so I don't think the timing here is coincidental.

The Sistine Chapel was, I suppose, AMAZING. Though I have to say my attention to the frescoes on the ceiling and the wall behind the alter (those done by Michelangelo) was distracted by the sheer throngs of people who literally filled the space. This was true for the Vatican as a whole: it was simply the most crowded museum space I have ever encountered. Guides speaking all different languages to large groups of 20 or more, smaller collections of people plugged into the now ubiquitous audio-tour devices explaining the meaning of what you are supposedly seeing, and scores of guides like ours with groups of one to five folks being lectured in English, German, Japanese, Chinese, Spanish, etc. The galleries were in constant motion and then everyone simply stopped and stared and pointed in the Sistine chapel. Though you are supposed to keep quiet in the chapel (it is after all, still a house of worship), the hall had the din of a large marketplace. Every five minutes our so the guides would clap their hands loudly and admonish the crowd: "Silence," or "Shhhh." At which point people would lower their voices for the requisite minute or so and then the noise would continue. It was a weird experience, being herded in and out like that. The tour ends with St. Peter's Basilica, a massive church with multiple chapels dotting the sides (our guide claimed that the place can hold about 20,000 if the mass called for it). The church was grand and heavily baroque. Marble everywhere, an immense bronze representation of the Papal canopy that covers the site where St. Peter's body is said to be buried (the St. Peter ... first pope, Jesus' rock, keys to the kingdom Peter). To get material for the sculpture (about 100 feet tall) they melted down statues from the Pantheon, so much for saving antiquity.

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