“Silence!” boomed the commanding voice of the uniformed guard as he lorded over the great hall, a hall packed with modern day pilgrims. Backed by another equally pompous guard, the non-negotiable official brought the loud commotion to a whimpering standstill with his command and a downward motion of his extended arm.
Slowly, and as surely as an ebbing tide, the crowd’s uncontained excitement rebounded from the whimper back to a murmur, and from the murmur to a buzzing tremor, and on to a mini roar beyond the boundaries of the official guard’s patience. Once again, he penalized the crowd with a bellowing order for “Silence!”
On and on it went for a dozen more cycles of crowd control until the time slot ended for this batch of visitors that were mostly everyday tourists, with up to two thousand more waiting in line to fill their spot. Throughout the day the cycles continued, like it must be every day for an attraction as grand as the Sistine Chapel.
High above this tittering fickledom of humanity, the hand of man stretched out for the hand of god in an iconic scene of hope for all, at least according to the paint brush held hand of Michelangelo. The uniformed guard’s insistence on “silence” was meant to impose a humble reverence on the collective gaze aimed at the expansive ceiling high above, and the sanctity of the Chapel in general.
In the depths of winter on a Wednesday at eight in the morning, one hour before the opening, I felt assured of a crowd free entry into this realm of Renaissance art for myself, my wife and our college age daughter. But not so, for we arrived to the back of an early bird line stretching around an extra-long city block of Vatican buildings. Supposedly crimping the number of potential visitors even more, this was a few short months after 9-11, when flights were half empty and tourism seemed flat with a pervasive state of shock lingering in the airways.
Exploring the ruins of the Roman Forum added a special twist to this trip, since I solved a long standing mystery concerning my own career. A very special tree grows on the hillsides of my Southern Oregon home, and a very special tree lines the Roman Forum of Rome. The Oregon Myrtlewood trees produce one of the finest woods of the world, and are the main medium of my artworks of carved wildlife. They’re categorized in their own unique genus-species, Umbellaria californica, but they have a close cousin, Laurus nobilis, that grows only in the southern Mediterranean region. This laurel produced the leaves used for wreathes that crowned champions of both the Romans and Greeks of ancient times.
While walking this promenade in the footsteps of the ancients, I was astounded to see this familiar tree, which had every outward appearance of the myrtles of my home. While smaller in stature, they looked alike, even down to the identical bark. I broke open a leaf to savor its aroma, and sure enough, besides looking the same, it had the exact pungent and spicy scent of the myrtle leaf. One could also compare this strong scent to the bay leaf used in cooking.
As an artist and writer, I am something of a romantic, and absorbing history has always provided an open door for that romanticism. Whether it be exploring the sanctuary of Apollo in the mountain stronghold of Delphi, as I did as a backpacking teenager, or strolling down the Roman Forum later in life, experiencing the actual sites of the ancients can truly uplift the human spirit. Both Delphi and the Roman Forum have these subtle links to my art career, since both locales used honorary wreaths of laurel leaves.
The Greeks of antiquity first introduced the crown of laurel as a reward for victors in athletic, military, poetic, and musical contests. The Pythian Games were held at Delphi every four years in honor of Apollo, and winners traditionally received a wreath of bay laurel. The laurel tree stood as an important symbol of victory and achievement, based on the following legend.
Apollo is the god of poets and writers, and the term poet laureate comes from his story. According to this ancient narrative, Apollo pursued the goddess Daphne until she turned into a laurel tree to escape him. He pulled off a branch of her tree so she would always be with him, claiming he would wear her in his hair. Hence, Apollo is often depicted wearing a laurel wreath as a symbol of his love for Daphne, and wide spread use of the wreaths became traditional in Greek culture.
The early Romans continued the tradition of the crowning wreath as a reward for triumph, leading to laurel trees lining the forum even in modern times. The symbolism of the laurel wreath survives to this day, used in the medal designs for modern day Olympic Games.
The expansive Piazza Navona [a Roman plaza] is a wonderful place to spend an evening, from enjoying oven fired pizza to strolling the extensive sculpted fountains of the piazza. It has always been a hub of social life, as an outdoor market was held here for centuries. Before that, the piazza adjoined a stadium, built in the first century A.D., the grand entry of which is still part of the buildings surrounding this great plaza. Now it is flooded with artists, musicians, locals and visitors, and it was here that we found really authentic, good Italian food. New York City has better Italian than most restaurants we visited, which offered mediocre fare catering to tourists, but when we found this hole in the wall on Piazza Navona, we went back night after night.
One evening alone on the piazza, I came across a festive crowd gathering around a portrait painter as she finished a handsome rendition for a gracious clientele. After a few moments of watching the artist at work, a happy go lucky trio of young men came carousing and cackling through the throngs. Their intoxication was fairly obvious as they directed their attention to the painter at her work. Suddenly, with a quick downward motion, the lead clown of the macho group whipped out his manhood with a mischievous “here, paint this” gesture. Although there were a few gasps from the crowd, fortunately neither the painter nor her subject observed or were aware of the crude antics, and the hysterical miscreants moved on. From the iconic David on down, perhaps there are too many naked statues around for the young males to absorb and still keep their wits about them. *
Late one night, one of my last nights in Rome, Trajan’s Column beckoned with its spire splitting the black sky. The air seemed refreshingly clean on this cool February night, and the city had calmed down, with only a few Vespa’s buzzing around, that motorbike being the obvious transport of choice throughout Italy. Even women in fine dress could be routinely seen navigating the boulevards, and many times two or three commuters would be aboard. But not on this evening devoid of most traffic, and I easily made my way across the main avenues from the Roman Forum to the prominent spire illuminated against the black sky.
The 115’ high column, built to commemorate Emperor Trajan and his war time victories in the first century A.D., looms large a short distance from the forum. Intricate scenes of roman life and battles are carved on the exterior of the colossal marble cylinders that form the tower, resulting in 620’ of bas relief frieze. Built with marble drums each weighing 32 tons and with a diameter of 12’, the Trajan Column is a substantial monument, with many picture stories of early roman life to view on its facade. After absorbing the telling dramas that unfolded before my eyes, I continued up this avenue of antiquities, and bidding Trajan farewell, I decided this was among my favorite cities. Shortly thereafter, with a heavyhearted feeling, it was also goodbye to the avenues of Rome.
*Note: everything written in “Where on Earth?!” stories is factual as seen and experienced by the artist. Quoted conversations and comments are generalizations taken from memory of the actual exchange of words.
Where on Earth?! Rome, Italy