bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

No photo

Posted in Art by bonaelitterae on 13 January, 2011

I arrived in Rome last night for a period of research. So this morning was my first chance on this trip to see the city in daylight. Rome had prepared itself for me: it woke up and put on its blue sky (gently streaked with plumes of high white cloud); it met me not in any fancy dress, but (as I like it) wearing in its lived-in statuesque beauty; it felt fresh as it closed in and breathed on my cheek. You may tell that I am ecstatic with the splendour of it all.

An added, perhaps meaner, joy of my walk was relishing how little of the morning could be caught in photographs. No camera could capture the dappled delight of the sunlight speckling the water streaming from the fountains above the Galleria d’Arte Moderna; it could not comprehend the haze that veils the morning panorama of the city from the Pincio; it could not record faithfully the quality of the light giving each leaf its individuality. The camera never fails to lie. There are virtues in virtuality but the pleasures of reality are vertiginous.

It was after I had walked down from the Pincio to the Piazza del Popolo and entered Santa Maria del Popolo that I encountered the injunction to sum this up: ‘no photo’ is printed in majuscules on A4 paper stuck on the both sides of the chapel containing Caravaggio’s two canvases. There are particular reasons, of course, to avoid photography of those objects in that confined space. But, there, in that holy place, a sin is committed nearly as bad as trigger-happy-snapping. For the price of a small coin, the walls are lit with an intense electric light that floods each of the pictures. It reveals every detail of the design: the folds of the rich drapery of Saul-becoming-Paul, the strain on the right arm of the cross-maker as he lifts the perplexed Peter off the ground. Yet, at the same time, something seems lost through this uncompromising revelation: it somehow evens out the pictures; it flattens them. Was this how Caravaggio intended them to be seen, a pool of light lapping around each element? We tend to like our seventeenth-century music played in ‘period’ style nowadays; is it not time we went in for some period viewing of our own? I waited for the light to switch off and gazed then at a different image of a fallen Saul, in some sort of harmony with the flank of the horse above him. It was something more mystical, less comprehensible – as a miracle should have been. I prayed silently for a few more moments of half-light, but the clatter of the coin falling into the box sent not a soul out of Purgatory, but the soul out of the paintings before us. No photo, yes, but no aggressive artificial lighting either, please.

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