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…

‘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.’

‘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.’

‘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.’

‘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.

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

–’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.’


Italy | 11-12 August 1928

Rome_CollageDate August 11th
Rome the eternal city the mother of Christianity the center of antiquity consumes four days well deserved.

• The Sistine chapel is very beautiful as is all the work of Michelango.
• Visted Emanuel II buried in Parnthenon.
• In church of Quo Vadis there is the place where Jesus appeared to St Peter.
St John the Lateran is one of many churches in Rome contains the heads of St Peter & St Paul & the holy table the Baptistry contains the place where Constantine stood & the singing doors.


St Pius V_Saint_Peter_in_ChainsDATE August 12th
The second days sight seeing tour.

• In St Pauls [1] there is a glass case in which the body of St Pius V is held… on his finger is a very large diamond & his original vestments are on him… he wears a silver mask.
• In St Peters one half of the bodies of St Peter & St Paul are kept.
• Caputian church contains Guido Reni‘s famous Saint Michael & the decorations with skulls.
• Saw Saint Peters Church & many things Forum of Trajan where 85 cats now live. Got special permit to go thru Kings palace. St Mary the Greater has the ceiling made of solid gold brought by Columbus from his first trip to America. In the church of Saint Peter in Chains the original chains are preserved with which St Peter was bound & above Michelangelo’s famous Moses. In St Pauls the other half of the bodies of the two Saints are ???? [2]. This is a new church & very beautiful in its simplicity. The mosaic of St Peter contains diamonds for his eyes.

This 1928 silent movie from the Oklahoma Historical Society, sections of which have appeared in previous posts, follows the same route that Vincent’s tour took of Rome. Turn down or off the sound before viewing.

Vincent Price Travel Journal 1928 11_August

Vincent Price Travel Journal 1928 (reproduced courtesy of Peter Fuller)

These pages in Vincent’s journal are made up of notes about the sites of the city that Vincent and his tour visted, written around a cutting from the tour guide.
[1] Santa Maria Maggiore
[2] I have yet to work out which Saint’s Vincent refers to here. Can you help?

[sic] Although Vincent misspells words in his journal, we have kept them as he wrote them.

Italy | 9-10 August 1928

capri_1928_postcardDATE August 9th
PLACE Sorrento to Capri
Left the hotel early & took a boat to Capri. A beautiful & cool ride. We went in the Blue Grotto & had lots of fun then to Capri for lunch afterwards shopping & up the mountain for a view. Catch the boat to Naples staying at same hotel. Nothing to do after dinner.

This home video film footage from 1928 (courtesy of the Oklahoma Historical Society) includes scenes of Naples and Capri that Vincent’s tour also visited the same year.

naples_1928_postcardDATE August 10th
PLACE Naples – Rome
This morning we took a sight seeing tour of Naples visiting the museum where most the relics of Pompeii & Herculeum are housed. After lunch the train to Rome. Arrive Rome for dinner. After dinner a raffle of a cameo more fun.


Vincent Price Travel Journal 1928 9_August

Vincent Price Travel Journal 1928 (reproduced courtesy of Peter Fuller)

• Check out the official website for the Museo Archeologico Nazionale.
• Vincent’s tour would spend the next four days in Rome, staying at the Hotel Ludovisi, still one of the top hotels in the city today. Click here to view the website.

[sic] Although Vincent misspells words in his journal, we have kept them as he wrote them.

Italy | 7-8 August 1928

Capuchin Church 1928DATE August 7th
PLACE Florence to Rome to Naples
Today was another dreary day on these awful hot trains. We stopped at Rome for dinner, but before we went to get a hair cut & then over to a church [1] where the decorations are made of the skulls of the monks then on to Naples after a rotten dinner, chased up 4 letters. We arrived at Naples about 12:00 & then a ride in private cars to our Hotel Savoy on the bay where we could see Vesuvius [2] in all its fiery glory.

Vesuivus_1929_postcardDATE August 8th
PLACE Naples Amalphi Sorrento
This morning we left for the Amalfi Sorrento drive via Pompeii. We stopped at Pompeii & saw the whole town it was wonderfully interesting. Then on to Amalfi and much dust & heat. Stopping there for lunch then pushing on to Sorrento where we stayed at the Hotel Sirene very good. Took a swim which was marvelous. Then dinner & shopping afterwards.

SorrentoPompeii_1928This home movie footage from 1928 shows scenes from the Amalfi coast and Pompeii Courtesy of the Oklahamo Historical Society. Please lower or turn off the audio here.

Vincent Price Travel Journal 1928 (reproduced courtesy of Peter Fuller)

Vincent Price Travel Journal 1928 (reproduced courtesy of Peter Fuller)

Capuchin Church[1] The church Vincent visited is Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini, or Our Lady of the Conception of the Capuchins located at Via Veneto in Rome. It’s ossuary, known as the Capuchin Crypt, contains the bones of over 4,000 Capuchin friars, collected between 1528 and 1870, that have been turned into decorative displays in the Baroque and Rococo style. Here’s the Italian website (here).

Vesuvius in 1928[2] In 1928, Vesuvius was still very active (see the news clipping above from 9 August 1928 or download a 1928 British Pathe film here), having last erupted in 1926. While that eruption had been minor, the effects of the early 1906 eruption was still very much evident when Vincent visited the region. This had resulted in the deaths of over 100 people were killed and much damage to the city of Naples, so much so that the 1908 Summer Olympics had to be transferred to London’s White City. The next eruption, also minor, would occur on 6 June, 1929, while a major earthquake on July 23 1930, in the Irpinia region (near Avellino), would result in 1500 people losing their lives.

[sic] Although Vincent misspells words in his journal, we have kept them as he wrote them.