I wonder if a single thought that has helped forward the human spirit has ever been conceived or written down in an enormous room.
Kenneth Clark, Civilisation, 7. "Grandeur and Obedience," 1966
|Entrance to Vatican Museum, 1970|
|St. Peter's Square, 1970|
That is where things stood until the Wall Street Journal ran a review of the newly restored "Gallery of Maps" in the Vatican ["An Italy Alive Again in Maps," April 23-24, 2016, p.C14]. Casual or not, the information now came to me. And now this was obviously the place in Civilisation, and there could not be two such galleries, more than a football field long, even in the Vatican. So I had walked right down, right past the vomiting tourist, the length of Clark's "enormous room." From the photograph, there is no longer the clutter of extra objects, like bird baths, that were there previously.
Clark's comments, of course, were part of the "misgivings" he expresses in the end about Baroque art. It strikes him as a bit too much and, perhaps worse, was patronized by Roman families, "rapacious parvenues," whose motives were mainly "private greed and vanity." While the Popes had always been nepotistic, and the Papacy often a football for local nobility, the families of the time, like the Medici, Barberinis, Borgheses, etc., treated the Papacy as a kind of enrichment industry. The wealth and flamboyance of the era may have exceeded the corruption of the Renaissance Papacy that provoked the Reformation. But now the Church is on the triumphant crest of the successful Counter-Reformation. The Gallery of Maps itself was commissioned by Gregory XIII, and it was completed in the very year, 1582, when Gregory instituted the calendar reform that still bears his name. Protestant and even Orthodox Europe eventually adopted the Gregorian Calendar also (although not in time to prevent confusion about the Russian Revolution).
Now, there are some odd things about Clark's misgivings on the Baroque. Bernini's work, which all but dominates the episode and the age, is brilliant, stunning, and moving. Clark has nothing but praise for all his works, especially his "St. Teresa of Ávila," before expressing his reservation that the real St. Teresa didn't look like that. However, I have already noted the artistic versimilitude of Bernini's sculpture because he transforms the undoubted charisma of St. Teresa, which is intangible, into the glamour that can be visually presented in tangible art (in the terms explored by Virginia Postrel). Also, by the external reality of the marble sculpture, Bernini manages to convey a sense of the internal, ecstatic experience of St. Teresa, in which much of the power of the piece lies. Indeed, Clark's critical characterization of the sculpture as "swooning" can be matching with one of St. Teresa's own terms, amortecimiento.
But there are some larger ironies in Clark's treatment. As his commentary ends and the camera pulls away from him down the gallery, we hear music of Monteverdi. It is magnificent, and continues in similar form into the end credits. This undermines whatever Clark was trying to convey in his "misgivings." The effect is of majesty and grandeur, which has not been compromised by any recollection of the nepotism of the Borgheses (and Gregory XIII was himself a Boncompagni, a name really not otherwise familiar). And, of course, the purpose of the Gallery of Maps, which we might not even think of as a "room" at all, was not to conceive or write any "thought that has helped forward the human spirit," but to look at the maps of Italy, while one passes on elsewhere, perhaps to the Sistine Chapel.
|The Restored Gallery of Maps, 2016|
But we know that Kenneth Clark had his quirks, including serial philandering that drove his wife to drink. One of the greatest failings of Civilisation is his obvious dislike for the Victorians and for the Industrial Revolution. Unlike Jacob Bronowski, whose The Ascent of Man (1973) continued the video philosophizing format begun by Clark, Clark misses the point that mass produced beds, sheets, and sanitary tableware dramatically improved the lives and health of common people in 19th century Britain, despite the pollution that attended the "dark Satanic mills" that produced these things. When we then reflect that exposure of the "evils of capitalism" led to the mass murder of millions of people in the 20th century, of which Clark can only have been aware, the confidence, optimism, and liberalism of the Victorians begins to look pretty good, even if they thought that labor unions were criminal conspiracies (which public employee unions now certainly are).
So, in the end, Kenneth Clark's big room is a paradox. There is something objectionable about the flamboyant art of the Baroque, but the spaces of the cathedrals are positive reflections of humanity, while an "enormous room" like Grand Central Station doesn't even merit a mention, with the brief and sour attention that Clark pays to New York City of a piece with what Clark dislikes about the Victorians (who created such train stations) and the rest of industrial modernity -- without which he would have been unable to do his shows. I hope to walk down the Gallery of Maps again some day, in air-conditioning, and I expect its story and appearance will occasion some reflections, whether or not they help to forward the human spirit.