Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.
“Michelangelo Quotes on BrainyQuote”
As we walked past the thousands of statues displayed in the Roman corridors and roadsides, it is astounding and humbling to see the thousands of hours of creative labor that survives. The Vatican alone houses so many art forms and pieces of art, that we were quite naturally hurrying along if we did not wish to spend a good decade in there admiring every piece.
The Roman Empire is probably the most famously chronicled and studied empires in the world. The human condition across millennia has sought peace, temperance, a cultivation for the finer aesthetics even while battling the evils of war, famine and barbaric practices, and nowhere is that more apparent than in Ancient Rome.
Many portraits and statues were commissioned by the noble wanting to cast a sliver of their mortal presence into the immortal. The legacy of their lives as they might have seen it. But in works such as these, who endures? The person whose statue was carved, or the work of the sculptor whose ability enabled it? (See this picture drawn by my friend, of a statue)
Is it the Artist or the Object of the Art who endures?
It isn’t hard to imagine the artist with a philosophical bent of mind when one sees the thousands of head busts carved out of stone. The busts themselves may be of emperors and powerful men, but they were carved by the skilled artisans who were not all famous. I’d like to imagine that the artisan who carved Caligula’s head had his laugh by secretly carving a statue of Caligula’s favorite horse, Incitatus. (Incitatus was made a senator, and was granted a place at the royal dinner table. ) Claudius, the one everyone assumed to be the local fool turned out to the successor to Caligula in the end. His head bust stands right next to Caligula’s in the hall of head busts in the Uffizi gallery.
So, who endures and who doesn’t? It was Claudius’ writing that showed us all about the dangerous, mad tyranny of Caligula after all. ( The book, I, Claudius by Robert Graves is an excellent peek into Ancient Rome)
Walking past the arrays of the head statues, I could not help thinking of the Tamil poem by Bharathiyar that the husband quotes often:
Pirappal pala pizhaigal seidhu …
narai koodi kizhaparuvam eidhi …
Verum kootrukku eraiyagum pala vedikkai manidharai polae
Naanum vizhuvaen endru ninaithaayo?
Loosely translated it means:
Did you think I too would live the life that wracks ordinary human beings?
That I would sport grey hair, grow old, be small enough to talk pettily about people, and fall at the hands of fate?
The angst that has wracked mankind for centuries is apparent in the poem, and in the head busts and portraits by which I was surrounded. So, what is it we hope to leave as our legacy and for whom? We should aspire to be a thread holding the tapestry of life together while alive, but beyond it, what do we crave?
After the 160th picture of non-smiling faces, 100 head busts, and the n-th depiction of the crucifixion and the nativity scene, I knew what we craved for: Gelato.
“Before we go though, let’s go to the next floor. There is a gallery of musical instruments of the time.” said the husband. The children groaned, but I was intrigued. Music is a beautiful anthropological constant. We even sent a recording of whale song, Beethoven, Bulgarian folksongs and so much more on the Golden Record when we sent it out into space aboard the Voyager. NASA did not want to waste the space, but Carl Sagan, saw the poetic touch to it. The need for space exploration was to learn and connect, and what better mode to connect than through music?
The image of a man playing the harp in a city square, as people walked by tingled in my brain, and I rose happily, urging the children on. “That man playing a harp could be from the 12th century or the 16th or the present. How beautiful is that?” I said to musical groans.
After we climbed up the flight of steep stairs, however, we found ourselves peeking into another floor of more paintings. I looked around confused. The husband pointed to the sign there: Piano Secondo:
‘Piano’ in Italian means ‘Floor’, and not a collection of pianos. He looked sheepish, but happy to be the person who relieved the tension, and off we went in an indecent hurry looking for gelato. Anthropological musings and existential angst can wait, Gelato cannot.