It’s been a while since I last paid vows in that awe-filled agora of the aesthetic, the National Gallery of Art. So I was thrilled to find on exhibit the works of Hubert Robert (1733-1808). This French luminary was known in his time not only for his mastery of architectural painting and classical history, but also for his identity as something of a bon vivant in Parisian and Roman society… quite an achievement given the French Revolution consumed many of his working years.
Robert’s particular genius was to evoke the grandeur of ancient Rome. His nick name, “Robert of the Ruins” comes from his love for depicting the remains of the imperial city. Often, he would combine various monuments into what is known as a capriccio, “trick,” depicting scenes that never actually existed. Looking at Hubert Robert’s work through eyes of faith, what can we see?
Like most who’ve tried to capture “ROME” in stone or on canvas, Robert conveys three sensations: warmth, la vita, and greatness.
Located as it is in central Italy, Rome has always been a warm city. Snow is so rare that when it fell on the Esquiline Hill, Pope Liberius dedicated the Basilica of Mary Major on the spot! This gave rise to the Roman saying, “when it snows, we build churches…” but I digress. Looking out over Rome on any given afternoon there is a sense of haze… sometimes that of modern smog, but more often a glow of sorts; perhaps the result of the city’s stones radiating the day’s heat back into the atmosphere. It slows down life. Roman’s walk slower, take their time at meals and are rarely in a rush to work. Romantics suggest this is a nod to the city’s eternity… a state in which rushing is pointless… I like that idea well enough, but practical experience taught me, things are slow because it’s just plane hot. Robert captures this warmth in his paintings, and perhaps especially in the hazy strokes of his favorite medium, red chalk.
La Vita is a concept characteristic of Italians. It’s their sense that life will be what it will be and we have very little control over it. Consequently life should be enjoyed. Historians and commentators suggest that La vita rises from centuries of conquest as foreign powers literally marched all over the peninsula.
This sense of la vita is typified most eloquently by the Italians’ use of a joyfully sardonic or ironic humor throughout their literature. Robert captures la vita by juxtaposing monumental architecture with the realities of peasant living; it’s subjects pulsing with triumph, tragedy and a healthy does of groundling laughter throughout.
Finally – and most important for us – Hubert Robert’s Rome is a GRAND vision. Think for a moment, have you ever seen a “humble” vision of Rome? No. Everything from Ben-Hur to Gladiator to the works at the Gallery show Rome as mighty. To be sure, when one walks the via Sacra in the Roman forum, it is impressive. The fact that at it’s height the city was home to well over one million people… two thousand years ago… is astounding. And yet… our images of Rome are often even greater than her reality. One sees this on display in Rome today. The Victor Emmanuel II Monument (the famed “Birthday Cake”) was built to show Rome’s resurrection under the Kingdom of Italy (1870), but – with the exception of the Colosseum – it dwarfs all of the monuments that once stood in the forum… which is one reason that modern Italians generally consider the monument to be garish in its disproportion. Nonetheless, behold the power of imagination.
Imagination has a vital role to play in our lives and should be exercised often. St. Thomas Aquinas spoke frequently about the role of imagination in prayer, in dialogue with the Lord, and generally in transcending this world. St. Ignatius Loyola gave great practical advice in this regard, by tracing out the concept of “Imaginative Prayer” as part of his Spiritual Exercises. In a hyper-empirical age, Robert’s outsized image of Rome could be criticized as “inaccurate,” but it was ideas fit to those mythic proportions that inspired people like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson; ideas like “Republic,” “Equal Justice Under the Law,” “Freedom from tyranny”… all of which found their origins in Roman government. That same dream of Rome is at the core of our city: the Capitol is spelled with an “o” as a reference to Capitoline Hill in the Forum… which, by the way, is reflected in the National Mall… Even Constitution Avenue, used to be a canal running through the capitol… a canal called, “Tiber.” Maybe, even in a scientific post-modern age, a little imagination has a useful role to play in building up our own city on a hill and bringing us all to the heavenly city one day.