Marvelous, moving, marble masterpieces.
“Why don’t you speak?” screamed Michelangelo at his statue of Moses, before hurling a hammer at it leaving a visible dent in its knee. Today the majestic figure (sculpted around 1514) is on display at the basilica of San Pietro in Vincoli. Moses was so lifelike that Michelangelo could not bear his stillness or silence. His muscles seem to ripple and his veins to pulsate as he clutches the tablets of the Ten Commandments. The prophet’s furrowed brow and stern glare reflect his fury over the sight of the Israelites worshipping the golden calf. The energy and tremendous presence of the figure give the impression that the sculpture has just burst free from the inanimate hunk of marble. Legend has it that Michelangelo took six months to choose the block of stone. Sigmund Freud was so captivated by the masterpiece that he wrote an essay devoted to the statue.
Moses is just one of Rome’s so-called “living” statues. They seem so real that getting too close causes a slight feeling of discomfort. These statues turn the simple museum visitor into a voyeur of the marble figures frozen in their respective acts. Suspended in intimate, human and almighty deeds, they do not seem bothered by being watched.
Michelangelo once exclaimed, “I saw the angel in the marble and I carved until I set him free.” Another “living” statue is found in St. Peter’s Basilica. The Pietà is one of Rome’s most stunning and certainly most moving marble statues. The famous sculpture of the Virgin Mary portrays her moment of despair with Christ draped limp and lifeless across her knee. Michelangelo was only 24 when he started working on this masterpiece. His banker friend Jacopo Galli, while negotiating the commission for the young artist, promised the prospective patrons that it would be “the most beautiful marble work in Rome.” He went beyond keeping his word as the masterpiece has proved to be one of Rome’s most beautiful statues ever. Allegedly Michelangelo was so annoyed at hearing it attributed to other sculptors that he surreptitiously carved his name on it one night.
Moving from agony to ecstasy, in the transept of the Santa Maria della Vittoria Church lies Bernini’s Coronaro Chapel. This little jewel is an emotional roller coaster that culminates with the statue of The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa. The sculpture, work of the master who brought stone to life, has an amazingly real facial expression. Her half-closed eyes and open mouth reflect the intense drama of her heart being pierced by an angel’s arrow. Another moment of divine ecstasy can be found at the church of San Francesco a Ripa. Bernini’s sculpture of blessed Ludovica Albertoni clutches her breast in mystical rapture as she takes her last breath.
Bernini’s recently restored, strikingly sensual statues of Charity and Virtue, who grace the chapel in the Church of Sant’Isidoro, evoke a different kind of ecstasy. Unabashed by their nudity and provocative poses, the two caused such a stir in the prudish 19th century that they were clad in bronze garments. The coverings have recently been removed revealing their original nudity and the extraordinary, fleshy softness that illustrate the maestro’s astounding ability to “breathe life” into his statues.
Another sensual statue is that of Pauline Bonaparte, Napoleon’s sister, which still today dominates the Sala della Paolina in Galleria Borghese. Canova’s masterpiece was considered so “sexy” by her husband, Camillo Borghese, that he kept it locked up. Unfortunately for the proud sculptor, his greatest work was hidden from the public eye and he could only show it to an occasional few at night by the light of a single candle.
If The Pietà is the most moving statue and Pauline Bonaparte the most sexy, the representation of Apollo and Daphne is certainly the most romantic. The statue, made by Bernini in 1624 and housed in the Galleria Borghese, freezes the virtuous Daphne for all eternity. She is depicted in the act of turning into a tree while escaping the clutches of Apollo. The shoots that spring from the nymph are so delicately carved that they sound like a harp when the window is opened and wind blows through them.
Turning from fleshy females, voluptuous bodies, dancing Dionysian figures and larger-than-life characters, we come to the small and solitary child, known as The Spinario, in the Capitoline Museums. This late-Hellenistic bronze statue from the first century B.C. is of a young boy plucking a thorn from his foot. As the story goes, this is Marcius, a shepherd from the Roman countryside, who was sent as a messenger to Rome to warn of the enemy’s advance toward the city. He successfully completed the mission, but in tortuous pain due to a thorn in his foot that later killed him.
On the quest for Rome’s most magnificent living statues we must not leave out the tragic figure of The Dying Gaul, the wounded Celtic warrior (also in the Capitoline Museums) who is slumped on his shield awaiting certain death from a chest wound. The warrior, whose ethnicity is represented by his thick, mussed up hair, silently surrenders to his fate. His physical pain is supplanted by bitter defeat at the hands of Hellenistic warriors. His strength slowly ebbs away, making it a matter of moments before his arm, on which he is resting, will buckle under the weight of his lifeless body.
Another touching final moment is that of young Saint Stanislao Kotska on his deathbed in the Church of Sant’Andrea at the Quirinale. The patron saint of novices, born in Poland in 1550, arrived in Rome after a long pilgrimage and died at the tender age of 18. His poignant statue, sculpted by Pierre Legros the Younger in 1703, is remarkable for its Baroque allusion and its use of colored marble.
Among more recent works, we must mention Pietro Canonica’s sculpture, The Abyss, of two bodies on the brink of a chasm, animated by an intense interior life and expressive force and, last but not least, the Fountain of the Naiads by Pietro Rutelli. With their alluring poses the Naiads have triggered the forbidden dreams of several generations of Romans.