A Queer, Delightful Feeling
My mother and I both have husbands who do not much care for visiting museums and famous monuments, or gardens, ancient ruins, and historical houses. Our spouses are more the outdoorsy types, with a love of wild places untouched by the destructive hand of man. We share their passion for nature, but find ourselves equally drawn to the things of beauty and meaning created by that same hand.
So, once in a while, my mother and I set off, just the two of us, to immerse ourselves in European culture for a few days.
In Venice, we were dazzled by the shimmering mosaics of the Basilica di San Marco, and watched glass blowers create small miracles on Murano Island. In Florence, in the Galleria degli Uffizi, we gazed in awed silence at Boticello’s Renaissance masterpieces, La Primavera and The Birth of Venus, and fell in love with Michelangelo’s supremely graceful and confident David in the Galleria dell’Accademia. And in Paris, it was the magical, minimalist setting of Monet’s breathtaking water lilies, Les Nymphéas, in the Musée de l’Orangerie, which stayed with me long after we returned home.
A few weeks ago, we headed for Rome. Over the course of four wonder-full days we walked up the Spanish Steps, threw a coin in the Trevi Fountain (I wanted to make sure I’d be back one day), and ate swooningly delicious Giolitti ice creams (twice!). We imagined a gladiator’s death throes in the Colosseum, listened to a street musician with the Pantheon looming in the background, and gasped at the soaring glories of the Sistine Chapel ceiling (no photos permitted) and the excessive grandeur of St. Peter’s Basilica.
One oil painting in the Pinacoteca caught my attention, titled Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, by Wenzel Peter. It combines the stories of the creation of Earth with that of the fall of man, and captures the moment Eve offers the apple to Adam. Studying the harmonious scene, with its pristine mountains and waterfalls and dreamy river and its two hundred odd animal species cavorting around the unsuspecting couple, I found myself wishing, yet again, we’d had the sense not to mess things up.
Another highlight for me was the Galleria Borghese and its life-sized marble statues. Bernini’s Ratto di Proserpina (that ruthless hand pressing into the flesh of her thigh!), his David in the act of launching the stone, frowning in fierce concentration, and his Apollo e Dafne, in which Daphne morphs into a tree to escape Apollo’s desire, are simply astounding. Bernini was a mere stripling of 23 years old when he carved these marvels.
Canova’s representation of the lovely, lustrous Paulina Borghese, reclining on her marble bed with its delicate border and folds and gold-tasselled drapery, had me longing to reach out and touch it. It seemed almost inconceivable that my fingers would meet only cold, hard stone.
But it was a monument in the church of Santa Maria del Popolo that had me in ecstasies. (I know, I’m using a lot of extravagant words, but please bear with me). No information was provided. It was only after digging around online for half an hour afterwards that I learned the monument honoured Lieutenant Agostino Chigi and was designed by Adolfo Apolloni. I’m not sure if this means he personally carved the two statues that flank the monument, one an angel holding aloft a burning lamp and the other, apparently, a personification of earthly life. What captivated me most was the exquisite, sensitive detail of the angel’s feathers, and of the drape and diaphanous texture of the thin fabric (chiffon perhaps?) in which the two figures are dressed.
What has all this got to do with nature, I hear you ask? Well, I came away from Rome feeling happy, as one would expect after a holiday. But it was more than that. I felt uplifted and optimistic. Somerset Maugham describes my experience better. After visiting the Taj Mahal in India, he writes:
“… I was overcome by its beauty. I recognised that this was the authentic thrill of art and tried to imagine it in myself while it was still vivid. I can understand that when people say something takes their breath away it is not an idle metaphor. I really did feel shortness of breath. I had a queer, delightful feeling in my heart, as though it were dilated. I felt surprise and joy and, I think, a sense of liberation.”
I wondered what it was, precisely, that had given me an injection of hope for our future and for the future of nature. I think it’s this: In Rome I was reminded of mankind’s enduring capacity for conceiving and creating astonishingly fine things. If we can achieve such heights of empathy and compassion and intelligence, in art and music and literature, then it surely means we recognise beauty when and where it exists. And if beauty moves us so profoundly, then we cannot fail to protect it, sooner or later, whether shaped by man or by nature.
In the Pantheon, the Latin inscription in the marble sarcophagus of painter and architect Raphael reads:
“Here lies that famous Raphael, by whom Nature feared to be conquered while he lived, and when he was dying, feared herself to die.”