Vincent Price on the Eternal City and the glories of Renaissance Christendom

I Like What I Know (1959)In 1959, Vincent Price recounted his life-long passion for the art world in I Like What I Know. Here are some extracts from Price’s visual autobiography in which Price reflects on the city that became the ultimate highlight of his Seven Capitals Tour of Europe in 1928: Rome…

ON THE ETERNAL CITY AND THE GLORIES OF RENAISSANCE CHRISTENDOM
‘After Florence almost anything would have been an anticlimax. But anyone who doesn’t fall in love with Rome should have his heart examined. The names with which people label cities sometimes stretch the imagination, but Rome really does seem “eternal”. You can’t help feeling that it has always been there… and always will be.’

‘Tour 22 and our leaders leaned rather heavily on two aspects of Rome to take care of our curiosity about it – the Forum, those few remaining monument to its ancient glory, and the Church. By “the Church” I mean the glories of Renaissance Christendom… the churches of Rome. There are enough of them to satisfy anyone of any faith, and, indeed, they house greatly some of the greatest art.’

ON WHAT ART TEACHES US
‘The love of art may not be the surest way to become a millionaire, but one thing it teaches you is worth more than anything in life: tolerance. And more than tolerance… understanding.’

High Altar VaticanON THE ST PETER’S CANDLE STORY TOLD BY MOTHER
‘Mother had told me her favourite story about a little Protestant lady who, on being told that the candle at the high altar in St Peter’s had not been out for a thousand years, pursed her lips and extinguished it, saying “Well, it’s out now”. I had thought this very amusing, but when I walked through the doors of that Great Temple, the impact of its importance dispelled any kind of humor spiritually, if temporarily. There has never been anything so perfect as the scale of this church and of everything in it. The cupids holding the holy water, who seem so tiny when you enter, are my size when you reach them, face to face; the soaring canopy and twisted columns of Bernini’s great altar; the dome of Michelangelo; the tombs; the chapels and the chandeliers… perfection of proportion. It was many minutes of awed silence that it occurred to me: here I was, before the candle that hadn’t been out for a thousand years. Mother’s story crossed my mind, and I sincerely hoped that little lady (if she did exist) was safely home in Iowa, happy there, and that nothing on earth could ever bring her back to Rome to repeat that sacrilegious act.’

ON THE CHURCH OF ROME AND KEEPING AN OPEN MIND
‘Rome is the Church. Wonderful, gay, living city that it is, the wonder and majesty around which it throbs is the Church. It was the only place in Europe that to me, at that age, had not been deprived of its nobility by the passage of time, or social or political change. The kingdom of the Catholic Church remains, in all the world, the only realm that has the possibility of permanence. Other faiths will last as long, but none will ever again be able to house its monarch in such magnificence. I never would have believed it, but Rome turned out to be the high point of the whole trip. And besides the above lessons it taught me never again to go anywhere with a mind at half-mast. You’re only celebrating your own death if you do. Man has created so much beauty for so many different reasons – for everyone to enjoy and be a part of – that to shut yourself off from any section or second of it is a waste of time that hurts no one but yourself.’

Michelangelo's Pietà in St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican.

Michelangelo’s Pietà in St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.

ON MICHELANGELO’S PIETA, THE SISTINE CHAPEL, AND MOSES
‘I was so moved by Michelangelo’s “Pietà”, I wondered how any work of his could top it. Even the “David” in Florence, heroic and masculine as it is, was pushed aside by the femininity and strength of this young Virgin and her dead son. When I was told that he had done it at the age of twenty-one, I realized that I had only five years until I reached that age, and I had no talent toward it at all. Somewhere (and it may have been there, standing before the statue that summer) it came to me that I was not going to be blessed with creative genius, and it may also have been at this moment that I made up my mind that, as long as this was true, I had darn well better compensate for it by becoming the most receptive human being I could become. I knew for sure that I liked art, and I’d better know everything I could about what I liked. I became an audience, then and there, for the drama of the eye. And once you accept that fact, it is almost impossible ever again to be bored with life. You have a built-in recipe for the cure of that most dread disease: boredom… the living death. All you gave to do is open your eyes.’

Sistine Chapel‘When you’re young, there are lots of dreams of “doors”… at least there were for me. Being the time when things are opening and shutting with more vigor than ever again, youth has the door as a symbol. But there’s one door that, once you’ve entered it, undreaming, you will dream about all your life… the little insignificant door through which you enter the Sistine Chapel.’

‘Was it done on purpose? Did the architect plan it that way – that you should leave the ordinary world through a little door as you enter the heaven of Michelangelo’s creation?… I don’t know, but nothing is made of it in the tour of the Vatican. No guard suddenly stops and says: “Through this little door is another world” or “Don’t let the size of this door fool you… you are about to be hit over the head by a giant on the other side.”

‘But that’s just what happens. Open it, and there you are, an immediate witness at the “Creation of Man”. There you are, being judged by Christ in all His glory. There you are, a midget, standing at the toes of a titan. If you entered the world of art, alone, by the back door, as I did – this is the front door, and once you open it you’re in for keeps in the greatest company you can have.’

The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo“There’s no point trying the describe it. Everyone knows how long it took him to paint it – the incredible difficulty of working directly on the moist plaster, put on daily, just enough for the day’s work; how he held the composition in his mind all those years: the thousands of sketches, cartoons, that must have gone into the preparation; the incredible story he had to tell – the Sibyls, the Prophets, the Nude Youths, the Ancestors of Christ, the Miracles of Jerusalem – the accidents and personal torments that beset him…’

Last Judgment_2‘There’s no point in anyone’s saying that this is the greatest, or the second-of-ninetieth-greatest work of art… work of man… Nothing can describe it. But when you’ve seen it, your eyes never forget it. It may slip your mind for years, but one day something great will cross your vision, and immediately your eye will compare it to this ultimate experience of art. Then there’s the “Last Judgment.” Again, no words to tell its writhing, suffering, ecstatic story… There it is!

And the “Moses”, in another church, that eternal visualization of the lawgiver. One almost suspects there was an eleventh commandment: “Let no man see Moses as he was until Michelangelo is born to see him as he will be forever, in the eyes of man”.’

‘There is, however, some solace in the “Moses” that is only a fraction of a greater plan. Michelangelo was human, after all. The great tomb he planned, of which the “Moses” was only a small part, with the “Slaves”, was never finished. He couldn’t quite people the world by himself. But he did leave something for others to do, and the second great sculptor of the Renaissance did the rest… Bernini.’

Michelangelo_Moses

Michelangelo’s Moses, Church of San Pietro, Vincoli, Rome

ON ROME WITHOUT BERNINI
–’At sixteen the fountains of Rome seemed very frivolous, compared with the Sistine Chapel. I keep referring to those sixteen years, but after so many have been piled on top of them, I have to keep reminding myself that, in these chapters, I’m writing about those reactions, and not my older – much older – ones. What it boils down to is another proof of the living quality of all art. It is never static. What surprised you yesterday, you take in your stride tomorrow. What seemed frivolous at sixteen is very profound at forty-five. And that was the case with Bernini’s sculpture. But I know now that Rome is not complete without either of these masters. Rome without Bernini would be as empty as Rome with Michelangelo.’

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s