Posted by: mkl325 | April 17, 2013

Sacred Spaces and Revisiting the Past in Italy

About a month ago, I was in Italy with some friends from school, some undergrads and one of my professors. We spent 5 days traveling through Rome and Florence, soaking in as much as possible in the short time we were there. Although I have been to Venice several years ago, I had never actually been to Rome or Florence and was bubbling with excitement to experience these archaic and beautiful cities. Through all the churches, sculptures, and maybe just a little bit of wine, there were two elements of the trip that stick out in my mind. First is the definition and purpose of sacred spaces and the second is the idea of how aspects of your past leave an imprint on your life and aid the development of who you become.

It is almost impossible to turn a corner in Rome and not encounter a church. As Art Historians, we approached the churches in terms of their architectural and artistic elements but it is impossible to separate the spiritual aspects of these buildings. I don’t know if it is the initial silence when entering the church, or if the calm of the building is an essence left behind by those who worked on it, but there is a very palpable shift in the air when you step into one of these buildings.

Santa Maria Vallicella….

Santa Maria Vallicella

They build upon themselves, over time, as though they are living beings on their own. This is in part because of the amount of time it takes to build it but it also occurs as the patrons turn the focus of the church or decide to redesign it. As a result in a lot of churches there are pockets of inspirational ingredients that make each church unique.

The chapel in the basement of Santa Susanna…

The Chapel in the Basement of Santa Susanna

…And the Cornaro Chapel of Santa Maria della Vittoria. In this chapel you find The Ecstasy of St. Teresa by Bernini. (Unfortunately the picture is pretty blurry – my camera is getting old and doesn’t do as well in low light as it used to)

Bernini's "The Ecstasy of St. Teresa" in the Cornaro Chapel of Santa Maria della Vittoria

For me, the most mesmerizing part of a church is the ceiling and dome. We have read a few articles in class discussing the way in which the dome lanterns bring light into the church. It has to do with looking up towards heaven and having the light from above permeate the darkness. It is a deeply moving element to the churches, one that seems to have been perfected in Rome.

One of my favorite examples of this idea is this ceiling of the San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane designed by Francesco Borromini.

Francesco Borromini's San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane

Then of course there is the Pantheon…

The front of the Pantheon

Since the Renaissance, the Pantheon was used as a tomb for artists and architects such as Raphael and Brunelleschi. However, the building was originally built as a temple to the pagan gods and then transformed into a Christian church in the Medieval times.

Inside the Pantheon

The churches are not the only sacred space in Italy, however. As an Art Historian, encountering certain works of art turns into a spiritual experience. One problem in the study of Art History is that the impact of the art gets lost in pictures and slides. One of the books I read in my program is by the literary theorist and artist, Mieke Bal. She talks about the idea that all art is a personal narrative that needs to be experienced instead of described. A photograph and a slide is a type of description, removing the personal experience from the artwork. So when you come face to face with a piece of art that you have studied for years and grown to love, it is a very emotional experience. I equate coming into the presence of such an artwork as being in the room with someone you have a crush on. You walk into the room and the hairs on your next stand up a little, your heart beats a little faster and even when you are looking at other pieces of art, you keep it in the corner of your eye.

The Trevi Fountain by Bernini is one of those works of art that in which is better experienced than viewed in photos.

Bernini's Trevi Fountain

Then there are the natural sacred spaces, such as parks, which for me are the most calming. On one of our last days in Rome, everything we tried to go to was closed. As a result, we ended up walking around the park surrounding the Villa Borghese. This was one of my favorite parts of Rome, as I love finding pockets of green within a city. At one point I held back from my friends for a little bit, put in my headphones and got lost in the trees and the wind. It was the most peaceful I felt through the whole whirlwind trip. It was more spiritual for me than all of the churches that I visited.

Park around the Villa Borghese

The second element of the trip had to do revisiting and remembering parts of my past.  There are people and traditions from your past that change over time, but that also leave a lasting imprint, determining the person that you become.

In keeping with the theme above, I’ll start a discussion of the Catholic Church. I was raised in an Irish Catholic family and attended an all-girls Catholic school from the age of 5 till the age of 18. For the first part of my life my faith was an important part of my life, I was even an altar server when I was in the 5th grade. When my father died a few years later, I really began to question the purpose of religion. I didn’t find the comfort in the Catholic religion that others did, and even though I am confirmed in the church, I began to look at other religions in order to understand and move on from my grief. Since then, after a lot of testing of different religions, I have become a Buddhist, however my family is still, for the most part, Catholic. Walking around St. Peter’s Basilica on my last day in Rome, brought up a lot of feelings. The church is not only a part of my history but my family’s history and I was standing in the most important building to the Catholic religion on the day of new Pope’s first mass. I felt the monumentality of where I was and was very conscious of the fact that I had rejected this world. The values with which I was raised, the community that I was born into and the religion that shaped my childhood, it was all represented in this one building. The building itself is a gorgeous combination, on a grand scale, of the two things that shaped my life, religion and art. I was able to walk around the church and embrace the impact that this religion had on my life and still understand the reasons I needed to move on away from it.

St. Peter’s…

St. Peter's Basilica

Pictures from the inside…

Light inside St. Peter's

Inside St. Peter's 2

Bernini’s baldacchino…

Bernini's Baldacchino

The Dome…

The dome of St. Peter's

Then there was Florence, a city that has been near the top of my “Must Visit” list for a long time.

For as long as I can remember, I have been in love with the Basilica di Santa Maria del Flore. Chop it up to my sister introducing me to the movie “A Room with A View” when I was young but I have always thought of it as one of the most beautiful buildings that I have ever seen in my life. We didn’t get the chance to go inside but just being in the presence of this building was amazing, each time I walked by it I had to stop and take pictures. Yes it is beautiful, the green, gold and pink of the design is gorgeous in person, and it Brunelleschi’s dome design is an important one in the study of Art History, but the most important element of this church was the connection it has to my sister. I have three older siblings who introduced me to different writers, music, and movies, leaving me with a very eclectic taste and an open mind. So not only was standing in front of this building the culmination of a life’s dream to experience it in person, but also reminded me of the connection to my siblings, whom I have missed terribly while being here in Scotland.

The Duomo…

Basilica di Santa Maria del Flore

Details of the Church Façade…

Church detail Church Facade

Gorgeous even in the rain…

Basilica di Santa Maria del Flore

The last part of revisiting my past is in a very obvious form, that of seeing an old friend. The first two years of my college experience was completed at St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It is a wonderful program, focusing on the great books and discussion. As a result, the people drawn to the school are done so for a multitude of reasons and bring a unique perspective to the readings. It was a wonderful introduction to college, and to a life outside of Washington, DC. There is also an amazing community that develops (some of my most important friendships came from my time at St. John’s) that has lasted over time. So when I found out that my friend, Kevin, was studying in Florence I was thrilled. I had not seen him since I left St. John’s, around 2004, and we had not kept in very good contact, so I was excited to see where the past 9 years had led him. My friends and I got off the train and there he was with a giant smile, on his bike, to show us to where we were staying.

Kevin marking places for us to visit on the map, after bringing us wine and chocolate, such a sweet guy…

Kevin in Florence

He is studying theater at a school where they have done amazing some amazing work with masks and movement, then he told me that they were starting clown work (there is a link to his blog on the side). I am absolutely terrified of clowns, in the traditional circus sense, but I was assured that their work was a more pure form of clowning, without all the makeup and rainbow afros. It was strange and wonderful to hear about the work and the people that Kevin had found himself with. He was always a person that just completely exuded joy and it was wonderful to see that not only has that not changed but also that he has found a group of people that are of the same spirit. Marisol, who was at dinner with us, gave off the same wonderfully kind energy from the very instant that I met her. This of course leaves me to believe that these people, who spend their lives connecting with an audience in order to bring them joy, are of an exceptionally kind disposition. It was surreal to encounter an old friend as an adult, so much has changed for each of us and yet there are still aspects that are exactly the same. It made me realize how lucky I am to have established that community at St. John’s and how much I have grown up in the last 9 years. Along with seeing the Duomo, making this reconnection was the highlight of my trip.

Me and Kevin making clown faces (this was the best I could do as a non-performer and the one glass of wine I had turned my face completely red) …

Clown Faces

Although the trip was short, it was definitely worthwhile. Every time I travel anywhere, I learn something new. It’s corny, I know, but if you leave yourself open then you can return with some insight on yourself and how you approach the world. For me this trip helped me realize that I have grown to appreciate my history with the Catholic Church and it reiterated how lucky I am to have the communities in my life that I do.

Oh…and there was some awesome pizza.

Pretty and Tasty Pizza


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