If the Sistine Chapel reflected the moral vision of Christian Rome, is there any such coherent view in Modern Rome of how we humans should understand our purpose and live our lives?

Show Notes

I had published a series of podcasts on the Sistine Chapel in which I tried not to let the dramatic details of Michelangelo’s relationship with Pope Julius II steal the show, fascinating and revealing though they are. For this approach, see the New York Times bestseller by Ross King. It’s called Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling.

God divides water from land. Michelangelo, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

My goal, on the other hand, was to bring out the Chapel’s remarkably unified Christian message. We began with the side walls of the chapel, which represent the lives of the Bible’s two great lawgivers, Moses and Christ, and which were painted in fresco by great artists Pope Sixtus IV brought down from Florence a generation before Michelangelo. Then we looked closely at the vast ceiling, on which Michelangelo represents stories from the Old Testament.  Prophets, Sibyls, and some of the painted scenes looked forward to the later coming of Christ, but none represented him or any other event from the New Testament. We then turned to the large wall behind the altar, where Michelangelo’s dominating fresco dramatically conveys the ultimate Christian teaching, the resurrection of the dead and Christ’s judgment of each and every one of us. Thus the Chapel gives us the beginning, middle, and end of the human story, and it indicates our purpose as well.

The Sistine Chapel is a supreme artistic achievement, not only by Michelangelo but also by the artists responsible for the side walls, among whom are Botticelli and Perugino. The greatness of the art and of the human striving that it reflects is surely the main story of the Chapel. But I wanted to call attention especially to the fact that there was then on public display a mostly coherent moral and metaphysical teaching, which was backed by a powerful international organization, the Roman Catholic Church. This is easy to say, but it is hard to comprehend the many effects of having a more or less comprehensive message promulgated by the leading moral and religious authority of the day. It is one of the great advantages of a visit to Rome, virtual or literal, that we can see its many churches and vast store of art, spanning over a thousand years, of which so much has a Christian character. The Sistine Chapel is perhaps the single best exemplar of this characteristic, which can help us begin to appreciate the depth of the changes that modernity has introduced. We still have churches and religious art, but they no longer occupy the commanding heights of the society as they did when countless young artists learned their trade painting maddonas, martyrs, and other Christian subjects.

I had visited the Chapel with students many times before, but only during my recent study was I so struck by how the Chapel’s unified message helps to show how the western world has changed. The Chapel suggests authoritative answers to life’s great questions—Where did we come from? What is our purpose? What happens to us after death? What is right and wrong, and why should we favor the right over the wrong?—But where do we find the answers to such questions in the world of the modern West, the post-Christian West (or, to be more cautious, almost post-Christian West)?

The authority of the Catholic Church has been on the decline ever since the Reformation, which began even before Michelangelo finished his work in the Chapel, and a wave of militantly secular or openly atheist thinkers has partly replaced it, of whom Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud are only the biggest names. Had anyone in Michelangelo’s day tried to publish ideas such as we find shouted loudly by these authors, even if they had exercised a little discretion, they would have found few readers and an easy path to the stake.  Modern science is a strong candidate for the single most important new authority in the West, but what can it teach in the moral realm? That the universe is purposeful? That the survival of the fittest means the survival of the most morally deserving? That it is good to sacrifice oneself for others and that we are rewarded for so doing? I have read the work of several scientists who attempt to show the natural origins of moral behavior, for example by studying the social lives bonobo monkeys, but I don’t think they come close to explaining why anyone should prefer to help others rather than chart a more selfish course. But I wish to suggest only this, that several centuries ago the Catholic Church offered a comprehensive and authoritative teaching on ethics broadly understood, and while the Church has lost much of its authority, new secular authorities have come forward. Modern science is one of these, and the doctrine stressing the rights of the individual is another. Perhaps another is the teaching that all values are relative, with none being demonstrably superior to others. But I can’t think of any moral teaching of our time that is so clear, coherent, and comprehensive as that of the Sistine Chapel. Now, however, the Chapel is for most people a grand object of art, not a guide to how to live or what to believe.

In marveling as I am at how the leading moral opinions of the western world have changed, I don’t mean to be racing to judgment about the merits of these changes. They might be good news, for the Church was guilty of all sorts of abuses, its main doctrines may have been simply mythical, and it would also seem to follow that we have much more liberty of choice today than was enjoyed by those who lived under an institution that could often be inquisitorial. Modern westerners live longer, eat better, and benefit from rapid means of communication and travel. Even the middle class has come to take remarkable degrees of comfort and leisure for granted. Millions of young people in the modern west enjoy the advantages of a university education, and exploratory probes are sent to the bottom of our oceans and even beyond our solar system. When beginning to ponder the core opinions and achievements of the modern western world, of which Rome is very much a part, it is impossible not to be impressed. If we imagine these as being in a sort of contest with those of the Christian world represented on the walls and ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, most of us would award the victory to the newer ideas, at least in the first rounds of this war of worlds.

Population figures support this point in dramatic fashion: Christian Rome was tiny and stayed tiny throughout its entire history. It remained under 100,000 residents for a thousand years, even during the Renaissance, and it was more than decimated by the Black Death in the 14th century and by the Sack of Rome in the 16th, when its population fell to under 20,000, smaller than a state university. The population began to grow in the 18th century, but it was only after the unification of Italy that Rome’s population soared. It then jumped from just under 200,000 to over a million in the mid-1930’s, when it finally returned to the level it had reached almost 2,000 years earlier, during the early stages of the pagan Roman Empire. And now Rome is home to three or four million people, depending on where you draw the line between Rome and its suburbs. I take Rome’s belated but rapid growth in size to be evidence of progress in the material sense, and I think it has much to do with Rome abandoning the rule of the popes, becoming part of an Italy now united under a liberal democracy, and becoming enthusiastic about science and industry. It’s wrong to say the Catholic Church was wholly and consistently an obstacle to science and industry, a point often supported by citing Pope Gregory XVI’s real or alleged opposition to railroads and street lamps, but it was the Risorgimento and leaders like Cavour who modernized Italy, not the popes.

These are powerful reasons for siding with the Risorgimento’s attack on the Church and with the modern West in general, but they are not the whole story. If modern science and modern society have enabled great growth and brought great blessings, worried voices wonder whether they might also lead to irreparable environmental degradation or to the actual use of potent weapons that may seem only a good war to deter wars.

But since these concerns are so familiar, I leave them aside. I’d rather put on the table a less familiar and fuzzier area of concern. Perhaps I can put it this way: if modern society has been good for the body, for it has helped us to live longer, more comfortably, and with more pleasures, what has it done for the soul? Has it helped us to become better people, making more of our lives and living more admirably? Have we used well the great opportunities it has brought us? Surely there are huge disagreements about what constitutes living admirably, being a good person, and fulfilling our deepest longings; and we also hear it denied, sometimes with anger, that any one way of life, or any one culture, can possibly be defended as better than another.

I agree that it’s simplistic and dubious to start thinking with this conclusion already in mind, that one society or kind of person is better than another, but isn’t is also simplistic and dubious to begin with the assumption that no differences matter? Is honesty is no better than dishonesty, sharing no better than greed, or striving no better than laziness? If a culture encourages these qualities, is that not worth thinking about? That the question is difficult means that all answers must be tested; I don’t think it means that all answers are equally good.

So what has this to do with Rome? Everything, I think, for the monuments of Rome pay tribute to different answers to this vast question. Like the Sistine Chapel, the churches of Rome give the Christian answer. There are variations among them, but they all teach that our world has been created with our good in mind, and all hold out the hope of eternal life. They tend to treat faith, hope, and charity as great virtues. So too with Fortitude, Justice, Temperance, and Prudence. Pride, greed, anger, envy, lust, gluttony, and sloth are presented as vices. Not all emphasize to an equal degree the authority of the papacy, which is so much in evidence at Saint Peter’s, but they generally include at least some art that supports the popes’ authority and the distinguished history of the Church.

But, as I’ve suggested in other podcasts, this is not at all the case with the monuments dedicated to modern Italy and its heroes, such as Garibaldi, Mazzini, Cavour, Victor Emmanuel II, the Cairoli Brothers, and Galileo. These are either distinctly or implicitly critical of the Church and its papacy and perhaps even of Christianity altogether. They well represent what goes by the name “anticlericalism,” opposition to the clerics or priests. The issue is posed best by the statue of Giordano Bruno, which is why I began this podcast series by speaking of this subject. In brief, it declares a new age has arrived, the age of thought, and it excoriates the previous age under the leadership of the Christian religion, during which free thinkers, such as the ten represented on the statue, were treated with hostility and often with cruelty. Instead of such cruelty, the new age promises tolerance. The statue thus raises two questions too big for me to answer but too important for me not to ask:

1. Are the liberal principles of the New Italy and the modern West the best possible?

2. Have modern societies generally been true to them, at least apart from the rather major lapses represented by Fascism and Communism? Perhaps our several podcasts on Mussolini’s twenty-year reign provides a little help in this regard.

So there you are: I’ve rather predictably ended up in the same place as usual. I don’t mean to downplay the genius of artists like Ferrari, who sculpted the statue of Bruno, still less that of Raphael or Michelangelo, whose works are breathtaking; but I do want to emphasize that you can add value to your encounter with Rome, whether virtual or literal, if you attend also to the ideas that stand behind Rome’s great art and, especially, if you see that they do battle with one another. The war of ideas is more engaging than the usual guidebook fare, and ideas stick with us better than names and dates not linked by an absorbing narrative, and they can even pop up to enrich and enliven mealtime conversation. After all, versions of Rome’s culture wars are still raging today, which can help to make the past less alien to the present.

I’ll leave it at this for now, as I must read some more Cicero to get ready for the class I’ll be teaching in three weeks. I still plan to return to the podcast to add more episodes on Rome’s main monuments, but now is not the time. I’ve only got two weeks before my flight leaves, and if I get a little more ready for Rome now, I’ll find my stay both more pleasant and more intellectually engaging.