We’ve finally made it to St.Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican and despite several people having warned me about before I left, it has rendered me speechless. I’m struggling to take in the sheer grandeur of it. Mother, on the other hand has locked eyes with what she’s come here to see all the way. There’s a small horde of people in front of it. Behind them, behind what I’m sure is bulletproof glass sits a haunting marble recreation of Mother Mary holding the naked body of her dead son. Even with my below average understanding of art, I know what I’m seeing pure genius in front of me. I use this adjective very rarely, but if there are a couple of places where one can use it without any regret – The Pieta has to count as one of them.
Mother’s been teaching students about Michelangelo since the past three decades, I’ve watched these lectures turn from notes of paper to floppy disks to CD roms to interactive video essays. In my second year, I’ve had the pleasure of sitting through them personally. Today, she’s seeing the sculpture with her own eyes. So am I, but I haven’t spent three decades studying every contour of it. That sculpture is her career. It’s been responsible for oooohh’s and aaaahhh’s in class, it’s been responsible for students failing semesters, it’s been responsible for doodles and jokes and wikipedia searches and kids getting kicked out of class for not giving a shit about it. It’s three decades worth of teaching sitting in front of her with frightening technical perfection. I mean that word. It’s perfect.
You have to understand what it feels like to finally see it. It physically impacts you. There are people standing in front of it transfixed, there are people who are silently crying, there are people desperately trying to freeze themselves in that moment by clicking a photograph or trying to sketch it. Couples are holding hands, small kids are asking questions, history teachers who have come with groups of kids are imitating a man chiselling away at marble, frat boys who’ve made ape like sounds looking at fig leafs covering dicks are staring open mouthed. The sculpture looms over everyone in its sheer arrogance.
If you’ve done a tour of the Vatican museums, this is the last point you’re going to be left at, which means by then you’ve already had an overdose of more art than you can deal with over a lifetime. You’ve seen Raphael’s School of Athens, you’ve seen Laocoon and his sons, you’ve seen Caravaggio, Apollo Belvedere, tapestries large enough to cover entire homes and maps you had no idea existed till you see them there for the first time. Heck, the token minuscule section of the Vatican Museums that houses contemporary art features Dali, Francis Bacon, Frida Kahlo, Matisse, Roy Lichtenstein, Van Gogh and Marc Chagall. It’s every name you’ve ever heard in every arthouse film, from every pretentious liberal arts friend and every person you’ve known who’s spent a week abroad and come back a seasoned critic. The Vatican museums have corridors leading to corridors which eventually end at the Sistine chapel exhibiting Michelangelo’s other magnum opus: the last Judgement – which looms over the sea of spectators all looking up desperately, trying to make the moment last till they’re booted out.
Yet, the Pieta is different.
It defeats the grandeur of the Basilica it’s in and if I haven’t mentioned already, the Basilica is the grandest, richest, vainest sign of opulence I’ve seen my entire life. It defeats all the art you’ve seen till that point, it erases out at that moment: every colour, texture and contour your mind has stored over the past few hours. It reduces you to silence. You want to shut the fuck up and think of some plausible myriad explanation to how a twenty three year old with a rock and a chisel came up with this. You want to know why you’re so untalented. You now have a benchmark for what ‘really really good is’. If you’ve had that benchmark already, you now know what the best is. You realise you’ve never been good and you never will be that good, no matter what Mrs.Rosy Fernandes said in the first standard, no matter what your Sheela Aunty told you when you drew that travesty of a scenery (seriously, the sun you drew in the middle of the mountains was smiling, it was that bad) on her birthday greeting card, no matter how many art competitions you’ve won. You’ve been below average at your best, and it’s nothing to be ashamed off. That’s just how it is. That phrase – ‘You’d have been great if you had put in effort – It’s a sham’. It’s just not true. You know what’s worse, he didn’t even do it out of a burst of artistic inspiration. It wasn’t the byproduct of years of trying to find a voice. It was a paid gig. He made what would be known as the greatest masterpiece AD as a fucking freelance job. His brief was ‘To make something no one in Rome could better’ and he did it. Because no one has till now.
I don’t think mother can really take this moment. She’s been really ill over the past three days, and we’ve considered going back. Right now, it’s all forgotten. I ask her if she feels like giving me a personal lecture. She mumbles some random facts about how Michelangelo would mix colours and trails off but honestly, she doesn’t give a shit about me right now. I can’t imagine what it’s like to be her right now. Sixty years old, from a family of artists, to grow up in art school and see some of the brightest talent in the state year after year pale in comparison to to Goliath in front of her right now. I think of that scene in Good Will Hunting, where Robin Williams tells Matt Damon ‘You could peel of every date and fact about Michelangelo, but you don’t know what it feels like to stand inside the Sistine Chapel’
I don’t think I deserve this moment. I think mother deserves to be alone with the entire sculpture to herself for at least a minute, but I don’t think Michelangelo deserves to be left for one person either.
“How many students have you taught in your life?”, I ask her.
“Over thirty years? Ten thousand at least’, she says.
“How many of them were extraordinary, like you knew there was something special about them?”
“About seven – eight”
“Anyone this good?”
“I don’t think even he knew he was that good.”, said mom very seriously. I chuckle. She doesn’t.
We sit in front of the sculpture for twenty minutes. Mother asks if I want to take a selfie in front of it with her. I take a photo of her alone instead. She checks it out and asks if I want to leave. I nod. On our way out, she stops.
“What happened?”, I ask her.
“I wanted to take a last look before I leave. I don’t think I’m ever going to come back”
She’s sixty. I disagree. I assure her she will. I tell her I’ll get her back soon. She smiles and tries her best to look like she’s convinced. We leave. We don’t talk for a while. A melancholic silence rests between us. We feel like every commoner in the midst of genius – defeated.