by Kleitia Vaso

“Signora, copriti le spalle, per favore!” (Madam, please cover your shoulders!)

These words brought me back, forcefully the guard at the Sistine Chapel who spoke them might have thought, to the world of the living. But, who are the living and who the truly dead?

I had only just run into the Belvedere Torso, known to me as the Torso of Apollo, telling us, poor impotent mortals, through Rilke, to change our lives. “Despite being of cold marble, I am more alive than you, more potent, could perhaps impregnate someone who looks at me desirously enough,” it seems to suggest, not needing words, “while you with your practical shorts and fanny packs can do no such thing, are unaware that power of such magnitude exists.” The beautiful torso would never directly address the hordes of people who look at it and photograph it, but who should, instead,  wonder at its power, marvel at its beauty, at the improbable possibility of containing, even for a short-lived moment, that much life within one’s body, mind. Ultimately, its creator must have felt the powerful charge transmitted to us centuries later.

I was visibly moved for several intermingled reasons. The torso’s sudden, unannounced appearance.  Its overwhelming beauty, exuding an affirmation of life more vividly than any of the holy prayers or compassionate faces of the countless holy figures surrounding it. Rilke’s experience of it, transmitted to me, permanently fused with mine. If not for him, I might have not given it the singular attention it so deserves. I silently thanked him, transcending space and time. We were in the same spot, I hope, but certainly won’t attempt to confirm.

“How can something be more beautiful precisely because of its greatest flaw, a missing head?” J. asked. Like Nike of Samothrace at the Louvre, I thought. All unfortunate surrounding pieces fade into oblivion, despite their apparent wholeness, completeness. Despite. Because of.

I continued on, hoping to have some internal respite before seeing some other overwhelming object.

Do not let the reader be misguided. I did not float on the air, above other museum visitors, only breathing and feeling art, unencumbered by my earthly body. With fortune on my side (it was my birthday, after all) I had barely slipped into the Vatican museums before the gate had closed and, although in a haze, immediately felt the incongruity between so much beautiful but cold nudity in the birthplace of morals, restrictions and suffering. A place, the very guidebook of which covers people up in its first few pages. With clothes and shame. But, always veering from high to low and vice versa, rarely in between, I also had fleeting superficial thoughts, for instance, congratulating myself on my very clever choice of a low-back, bright blue dress which harmoniously coexisted with the marble-dominated interiors.

Thus, I was quite taken aback at the admonition to cover my shoulders. By then, however, I had already been transported to another world, by the torso and the phrase, softly spoken by the handsome guard, which made me sink into a sensuous state, thankful that my shoulders could even be an object worthy of attention in the chapel of all chapels, surrounded by an endless crowd of other onlookers, underneath that ceiling. I looked up at the beautiful nude bodies and silently scoffed at the absurdity of my inappropriate shoulders when naked bodies floated above us, unashamedly. Bodies, simultaneously ideal yet less tempting than physical flesh, which, unlike the floating figures, is more acutely subject to time’s caprices. Yet, for one glorious instant, I felt triumphant over the immutable youth and beauty eternally fixed above the crowd which, unlike the paintings, will be replaced by others to come.

The Colosseum

The Colosseum’s strange and overwhelming effect comes from its position in and resistance to a world which no longer belongs to it. Walking lightheartedly on a sunny day, it suddenly sneaks up on you, dramatically reminding you of both beauty and death, lending the spring in your step immediate weight. Once gladiators filled its grounds , now tourists with selfie sticks, posing with and for themselves, signaling to the world their experience of it through a peace sign, a thumbs up, or an orchestrated jump. “I was here, I was happy, I lived, here I am” putting on a silly performance in front of a front of a monument whose performances, once upon a time, ended in certain death. A building which has witnessed so many of us inglorious non-gladiators disappear without a trace.

“I will be here,” the eerie building seems to say, “although broken and fragmented, I will survive.”

But you won’t.

by Kleitia Vaso