I went straight to the Sta. María della Vittoria that first morning. Everything seemed to be falling into place (even though it would fall apart, as I had fallen). I felt like a safe-cracker who gets the right combination, the tumblers of my life clicking to form a sound pattern whose meaning I was only then discovering. Up the shallow steps, down the dark aisle in the small church, forward left and there she was, poised and floating on a cloud with a burst of golden light behind her, just as she had been on my last visit back in 1977. That encounter was suspended in my memory like a golden sphere upon which a beautiful patina had been accreting; now that blurry yet brilliant image blended with this one in early January, 1985. Saint Teresa. All my mulling over her stone embodiment, the collapse of my marriage, later falling in love, tribulations and disasters had somehow prepared me for this moment. I stayed a long time occasionally changing my position so as to take in different features of the chapel, my heart pounding painfully all the while. For me the Teresa shot a bolt directly into the nerve-center of our time, I knew not how. Her disturbed sexuality, the revolt of spirit against matter and matter against spirit, the sheer magnificence of the conception in its worldly acceptance of a place in the middle of spiritual corruption which at the same time revokes that place and blasts all its values to pieces, the reduction of the viewer to an incidental epicycle through a sales strategy of calculated removals, the work of art as a black hole sucking all meanings from the spectator all churned through my bedazzled apprehension. Eventually a mounting anxiety drove me from what had become the "scene of the crime;" now I was convinced that there was a definite obscenity at work. How was Bernini able to get away with it? The piece was a black Mass; Teresa wasn't a saint but an erotic and dangerous witch gnawing voraciously at the very bones of the Church. Her presence was a sacrilege which simply overturned the arbitrary telos, turned it inside out. She couldn't exist.
I stumbled out into the late morning light, walked down to the Piazza Barberini and sat in a café. Why did no one see what I had? Maybe some had, but no one was saying anything since the ghost had left the machine. In any case, the Church would merely have opened up her Bernini arms another cog and "incorporated" the heresy, which is what happened in Teresa's canonization. Once one is inside the walls of Rome, anything is possible. And this was my trip, to return to the Teresa and what it had come to signify for me: a method of projection whereby I would be cast into myself as she had been into herself or as marble was shaped by an inspired madman whose technique and life circumstances had conspired, for once, against him (and me). Hadn't he said it was the most beautiful thing he had made? What indeed was beauty to him if not the Teresa? A perfect circle which, of course, defies entry. Teresa pierced in the violence of flesh and spirit trying to appropriate each other, in a mad parthenogenesis which shatters all constriction, going hermetic. Not enough to reason around, toy with categories, faddish theories, stylistic developments, terminologies. I had been reduced (or elevated, augmented) to a direct encounter, guaranteeing my failure. In that she and I share an X factor, Teresa equals failure. Her perfection is that of perfect failure.
Oddly, these ruminations provided a temporary satisfaction. The next day it snowed for the first time since the late 1950s. Everything took on an air of torque and charge, a slight shift into the coefficient of weirdness. Early morning light gleamed from the dangerous ice coating the Piazza Esedra, which I regularly crossed. One evening, after photographing from the Trinitá dei Monti, I spent some 15 minutes negotiating the ice-coated Spanish Steps, afraid for my life. Still recuperating from a plunge through a roof which had broken my ankle and back (indirectly responsible for this trip to Rome), I couldn't afford another slip. The pins felt cold and heavy in my bones. Always photographing, freezing the light into negative halides of silver, I moved cautiously through a decaying archaeology of 2,500 years of human vanity, decked in white. Daily activities ground to a halt as the old whore of civilization appeared in the glistening bridal gown of death. The chill fleshly marble of Teresa frozen effectively forever; Rome locked in ice; my own bones bolted together with hard secret alloys.
Fortunately my hotel, near the Termini station, did not skimp on the heat, so I had a place to retreat to in order to ponder. No television. Each day I would stop in at the church, then continue on to other sights. After a week or so I found a more stable rhythm. I don't remember dreaming about the Teresa, although subsequent events have since persuaded me that my experiences in Rome were anything but those of another tourist in the Eternal City.
Even though my Catholicism would certainly be suspect in the eyes of Church dogma (in 1962 I had been baptized by a high-school friend, now a municipal court judge, late one night in the swimming pool of the Villa Sur Motel in Calexico, drunk), somehow given my reactions to the Teresa I felt that it would be appropriate for me to attend a Mass. One Sunday morning I found myself ambling down the cavernous nave of St. Peter's. A crowd was forming on the far side of Bernini's baldachine, which I joined. The ceremony had obviously been tailored for Sunday visitors, as the sermon had been cut short. Some twenty cardinals in white and red formed a double semicircle around the altar area, at which presided three priests attended by many others, some bearing huge candlesticks. A small men's choir was accompanied by the pipe organ played by a monk dressed in a brown robe. Not a single woman in the ritual. How else but with music could the inhuman interior spaces, so often likened to a womb, be comprehended? Great waves of sound, which I wanted to go on forever, washed through the cathedral. A beautiful blond kneeling next to me was in a disturbed state, the tears coursing freely down her cheeks. The transformation of paltry human nature into all of this, indeed, was something moving. A series of priests said parts of the service in English, Spanish, French, Polish, and several other languages. While the chief celebrants were exiting down the nave, the monk at the organ belted out a recessional which was positively hair-raising, rooting me to the spot. Only the pipe organ was suitable for the monstrous enormity of the place. Eventually I climbed up to the top of the lantern, descended into the shallow catacombs were the Pontiffs buried themselves, then followed the masses out onto the plaza, where thousands more were swirling around and awaiting the appearance of the Pope. At the stroke of noon he appeared, no larger than a dot in the distance over Bernini's staggering arcade, on top of which was an Italian television crew broadcasting everything everywhere, reminding me that this was the twentieth century. Prayers, chants, and an address to the crowd in Polish and Italian. Then he was gone. The snow was melting into slush.
Having read about another Bernini sculpture which resembled the Teresa, on another day I set out by foot for the Trastevere, a workers' district. As to be expected, the buildings were morose in their delapidation under grey skies, the streets here and there filthy with uncollected refuse, none of the evidences of the wealth which characterizes fashionable parts of the city. I found the small church, the San Francesco a Ripa, and entered to find a wizened, ancient priest in the process of winding up a Mass. He was placing wafers in the open, upturned mouths of the communicants, exactly like a mother bird feeding her young, all the while bellowing out over and over, "CORPUS CHRISTI." No music here. Everyone left hurriedly as soon as possible, after which I found the Bernini, another figure of a beautiful reclining woman. The Ludovica Albertoni, like the Teresa, had been a family commission. Fully clothed and portrayed with closed eyes and open mouth, she lay upon a couch and pillow and pressed a shapely hand against an even shapelier breast. The piece, as I had expected, was overtly erotic, although lacking the eerie power of the Teresa.
After a while I wended my way through the back streets of the quarter to come upon another old church, this one in the basilican style. Snow crusted the inner courtyard which separated the church from the street. Inside, not a soul, silence, but lying before the main altar was S. Maderno's masterpiece, the Sta. Cecilia. Once again a clothed figure of a woman. Her face was covered by a twist of garment, her gown caught between her knees. The slash marks on her neck, although small, sucked in my attention with a tremendous power. Patron saint of music and according to legend the inventor of the organ, Cecilia had been hewn down by Roman soldiers. I took a number of photographs but had the distinct feeling that I was violating something. The sense of interiority which the work creates was extraordinary.Although enclosed upon herself in a state of impersonality, her face concealed, we can see into her body through her wounds, yet it is this very inversion which reestablishes her innerness. I spent a long time contemplating this representation in marble of the heart of evanescence, music.
My last day in Rome marked a terminus to a cycle which had begun during that first visit to the Vittoria church. More out of a sense that I should go rather than because I felt an impulsion, I decided to see the catacombs, something I had never done before. A short metro ride deposited me at the Coliseum station, where I was supposed to be able to catch a given bus to my destination, the Via Appia Antica, along which were the catacombs. I crossed the busy boulevard to a bus stop, but the number of my bus did not appear on the sign. I began to walk around the huge stone structure, keeping it on my right and stepping carefully over the ice, but could see nowhere to catch a bus. Then I discovered a metro information booth, and boldly breaking out in broken Italian I asked where I could catch the bus I needed. Further on around the Coliseum, it turned out, was another bus stop, which I then found; however, there were stops on both sides of the boulevard, and I had no idea which was mine. Seriously wondering if the fates were conspiring against me, since I had not really wanted to make this little obligatory trip anyway, I simply made a completely arbitrary choice, deciding to board my bus and ride it to wherever it took me. After all, why be rigid? For sure I would see something interesting. The bus came, I got on, and it moved off in a direction which turned out to be the right one. Soon we passed through the wall and were moving along down the narrow, walled road, when I realized that I didn't know where to get off. Again I obeyed my whimsical impulses and jumped down when it seemed right. The bus roared away, leaving me standing in the snow between the walls of the road. I tramped off in the direction the bus had taken and at the first doorway in the wall read a sign announcing that this was the catacombs of St. Callixtus, which I entered. Small snow-covered hillocks were crossed by narrow, intersecting, paved streets that had been cleared. The sun was shining, so that the damp black asphalt gleamed. I purchased a ticket and joined two others awaiting a guide, who separated himself from a nearby group of men who were smoking and lounging in the morning sunlight. They were all dressed like railway conductors and bore flashlights. Our group consisted of a corpulent German scholar in a three-piece suit who carried a cane and groaned on the stairs, a young American girl who was a fundamentalist Christian, and me. The guide, a multilingual Belgian with a displeasing authoritarian air about him, lead us down a series of stairs into the catacombs. These house tens of thousands of crypts and were the first to have been acquired by the Church. Discovered in 1849, they are on five levels, the oldest nearest the surface. We passed into a small chamber called the Crypt of the Popes, which housed the remains of nine third-century pontiffs, since removed to St. Peter's. "The Holy Father said Mass here last March. He comes down regularly," monotoned the guide with a heavy accent. "Please step this way." Through a series of dank and oppressive passages that reminded me of Poe's "Amontillado" horrors, we were then ushered into another cramped chamber, which immediately took me beyond all questions of chance and determinism.
"Saint Cecilia," said the guide gesturing towards precisely what I had just seen in the Trastevere. A spray of roses lay before her whiteness in the open crypt. "Patron saint of music. Her body was found in the state you see it here when the crypt was opened. It had not yet decomposed. A miracle. Please step this way."
"Wait," I cried. "Who did this statue?"
"An American woman made this copy. The original by Maderno is in the Trastevere; he sketched the corpse when it was exhumed," he said with annoyance. "Now please follow me this way."
I tried to stay as long as possible but had to keep with the group. My head was spinning with all that had happened; as we viewed the bones of the melancholy dead in this endless necropolis, all the false and faltering steps which brought me to this place were retraced in my mind. Falling in love, the false step which brought me near death, Teresa, the erotic danger, memory, the dead, Cecilia, art, roses, music these and many others merged, separated, recombined as we passed from level to level looking at gnomic early inscriptions and fragments, breathing the heavy cold fumes exuded by the decomposing earth.
"You may think," said the guide as we emerged into the blinding light of day, "that the Church worships the dead. Not so. She offers us something beyond life and death." It was the inevitable pitch I had almost forgotten to expect, and its abrupt intrusion upon my confused reflections struck me as genuinely obscene. Feeling as if I had been provided with a series of experiences the complexity of which I could never hope to unravel, yet whose richness consisted in this very opacity, this multiplicity of possibilities, I went into the tourist shop, bought a postcard displaying the American Cecilia, and left the grounds.
Before I knew it I had been violently ripped out of Rome and hurled back to California. Now there was no other access to the experience but through the duplicity of memory; even its supposed reconstitution in a work of art, which was certainly beyond my limited abilities, would never be able to capture what had happened. The deprivation of speech through graded steps left me failed and gaping. If only I could not forget to remember, remember to forget.
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Light and Dust Mobile Anthology of Poetry