More Rome Travel – with Walter Benjamin

It’s Friday morning in Rome. I am a bad traveler. We have two full days left (today and tomorrow), and then a full day of travel. I am homesick and tired. It is cold and rainy and I can’t seem to get warm. The artwork is starting to run together. This is a very sad state to be in when I should be appreciating the glories of Rome and Florence. Indeed, it is glorious. Overwhelmingly so.

If you could list the top ten pieces of art of Western civilization, we’ve hit at least five of them. The David, The Birth of Venus, The Birth of Adam/Man definitely the top five.

It says something about the nature of art that we can breeze through cities like Rome and Florence in a week, observe all the “hot spots” and come home saying “Been there, done that.” Is that the point of this? It’s almost pro forma. I stood in awe of these pieces of art. I really did. It’s quite a moment.

The long hallways of art, art, art leading up to the Sistine Chapel make the journey a pilgrimage. For each viewing, there’s a powerful instant of feeling perfection, actual perfection. It is Western philosophy and theology in material form, the hand of God working through the perfection of form and beauty.

The way The David is bathed in light from the dome over him makes you expect to hear angels sing.

It’s also postcards, plastic David heads, chef aprons with strategically located David erections, audio tours, tour guides, books that tell you what you need to know. It’s so mediated that the “big reveals” slide away into kitsch.

On my first overseas trip, I used to take pictures everywhere I went. Now, I don’t bother. The postcards, artbooks, and Wikipedia have better versions. When selecting postcards for the many people at home who made requests, I picked ones with writing on them: “From Rome,” “Florence!” That way it meant something. It meant the postcard came from somewhere, not some random, mass-produced page of an art book where the picture was decontextualized, hanging in outer space.

Still, it’s hard to escape the erosion of aura, even standing beneath the chapel ceiling or in front of the titan.

Benjamin lurks at every turn.

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