Thursday, January 23, 2014

Cathedral Envy

This missive from Rabbi Phil Graubart popped into my email this morning, a day after I spent three hours walking to and through several churches, monasteries and St. Peter's:

"As a Jew visiting Italy, I was struck by a common disease - cathedral envy.  I wandered through dozens of dazzling churches, enormous structures, architectural masterpieces in and of themselves, but also filled with the finest art the Western World has ever produced.  And then, of course, I visited the synagogues.  Fine places, more impressive, I suppose, than anything we have here in San Diego. But, still, they pale in every way in comparison to even the smallest churches all around them.  And so I get a little jealous, but also I ask myself an unfair but important question: while the Christians were constructing their spiritual masterpieces, what were we doing?"

He answers it, in part, by reference to a debate in the Talmud:

"The Talmud takes a stab at answering the question directly in a beautiful story about Rabbi Joshua and Rabbi Eliezer strolling through the ruins of the Second Temple.  Rabbi Joshua breaks down in tears, but Rabbi Eliezer continues on, whistling a tune, utterly unaffected by the rubble all around him.  A few miles later, they pass another ruin, this time a small, modest building.  Rabbi Eliezer, who didn't cry while walking past the destroyed temple now breaks down in tears.  His companion is puzzled.  "You didn't cry over our sacred sanctuary, but you weep over these stones?"  "How can I not cry," Eliezer responds.  "This was a building that fed hundreds of hungry orphans every day, and look at it now."  The Second Temple - Herod's temple - was the St. Peter's of its day - an intimidating masterpiece.  But Rabbi Eliezer finds true spirituality in an altogether different structure - a soup kitchen."

Add this to my ongoing internal debate about my love of architecture and preservation, and my love of Judaism and its skepticism of architecture, lest they become idols.

I spent yesterday in a wonderful walk with my new friend Tom Mayes, general counsel for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.  We walked along the Passegiate del Gianicolo, a ridge-line walk with grand vistas over the city.  When I went to an exhibit on views of Rome, at the Carlos Museum at Emory, the curators noted that most of the views of the city were made from the Janiculum, indeed likely from these very lookouts.  Our understanding of the overall geography and look of room has been shaped for centuries by the view out my window!  Here is one of the grandest, by Vasi, in 1765.  The Fontana Acqua Paolo, just steps from the Academy, is on the very far right;  St. Peter's is on the far left.  

In order to help a Dutch couple who sought directions, we made a quick diversion to the San Pietro in Montorio, just a hundred yards from the Academy where Bramante's Tempietto, a gem of the High Renaissance (from 1502) is located (featured, most recently, in the film, The Great Beauty).  

And then it was on to the 15th-century Monastery of Sant-Onofrio, best known as the end-of-life home for the poet Torquato Tasso, and then to Saint Peter's.  (Much more on this later). 

 Monastery of Sant' Onofrio

 Tempietto by Bramante (1502)

 Saint Peter's Basilica (with seating for the Wednesday morning Papal Audience)

Bernini's columns at St. Peter's

In our return trip, back over the Tiber, and down Via Giulia and then through Trastevere again, we passed a dozen more significant churches.  They say there are something like 600 historic churches in Rome.  I am not sure "cathedral envy" is where I will end up, but rather at "cathedral exhaustion."

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