Judging by Appearances (part 2)

Working amidst the distractions of Rome

Sr. Angela told us before we came that there was a good view of St. Peter’s from the VOICA house. When I mentioned this to Claire at the time, she was unimpressed, noting that that could be said of most places in Rome. In the event, we found that Sr. Angela actually understated the case and have spent many satisfying moments looking out over the city towards that looming dome.

We’ve heard that there is actually a law in Rome that no building, public or private, can be taller than St. Peter’s. We don’t know whether this is an urban legend or not, but regardless, it well could be true. Office and government buildings, apartments, anywhere you look, are all limited to modest heights. There seems to be an ongoing cultural effort to protect the dome from symbolic infringement. The practical result is that the Roman skyline is dominated by the dome of St. Peter’s.

A story in three pictures

It reminded me of a Joseph Campbell quote: we can tell something of a society’s values from its tallest, most impressive buildings because of the immense wealth, dedication, and vision required to erect them. That strikes me as true. There is another quote that I can’t find the source for. It’s the insight of a traveler of the early 1900s steaming into New York harbor from Europe. The view from the harbor was one of commercial buildings towering, crowded together, competing with one another. He remarked that clearly business and commerce were predominant. It’s a fair observation, I think. I’m not trying to argue that Rome is the City of God and New York the City of Man. And even if I were, it could reasonably be countered that motivations are hard to sort out in this case. New York is relatively young, without cultural baggage to contend with, and the Romans have a huge economic stake in preserving their ties to the past. But I do think that this contrast between the skyline of Rome and that of New York City invites more reflection.

St. Patrick’s Cathedral, NYC

Out of curiosity I pursued this relationship between iconic skylines and churches and went to Google maps. I looked up St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City and took a screen shot. Click on it and have a look. It is quite arresting. This is one of those cases where a picture is indeed worth a thousand words. We should note that this same phenomenon exists in most (all?) large American cities. The old downtown churches which once had a major presence have long since been overshadowed by business and government buildings.

What are we to make of this architectural narrative, this eclipsing of churches by government and corporations? I stumbled upon two quotations that illustrate alternate ways of understanding what it means.

The skyline of New York is a monument of a splendour that no pyramids or palaces will ever equal or approach.
                                                                                                  —  Ayn Rand

The spires of St. Patrick’s Cathedral are dwarfed by the skyscrapers of the Manhattan skyline, yet in the heart of this busy metropolis, they are a vivid reminder of the constant yearning of the human spirit to rise to God.
                                                                                                  —  Pope Benedict XVI

The first I think is problematic. The second provides a realistic, yet hopeful reading of the modern secular landscape. Maybe you, like me, can sometimes struggle to maintain that hope. What do you think?


Addendum:   At some point on one of our numerous rides on Bus 64, we together noted a related quality about Rome: when there aren’t gigantic buildings looming over you, impressing you with your smallness, a city is not so overwhelming. It seems built to a human scale.


Fr. Barron has a helpful article along the same lines and mentions the same issue here.   [posted by David]

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