Existential Angst or Gelato?

Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.
“Michelangelo Quotes on BrainyQuote”

As we walked past the thousands of statues displayed in the Roman corridors and roadsides, it is astounding and humbling to see the thousands of hours of creative labor that survives. The Vatican alone houses so many art forms and pieces of art, that we were quite naturally hurrying along if we did not wish to spend a good decade in there admiring every piece.



The Roman Empire is probably the most famously chronicled and studied empires in the world. The human condition across millennia has sought peace, temperance, a cultivation for the finer aesthetics even while battling the evils of war, famine and barbaric practices, and nowhere is that more apparent than in Ancient Rome.

Many portraits and statues were commissioned by the noble wanting to cast a sliver of their mortal presence into the immortal. The legacy of their lives as they might have seen it. But in works such as these, who endures? The person whose statue was carved, or the work of the sculptor whose ability enabled it? (See this picture drawn by my friend, of a statue)

Is it the Artist or the Object of the Art who endures?

Image by Suresh (SureshSketches)

It isn’t hard to imagine the artist with a philosophical bent of mind when one sees the thousands of head busts carved out of stone. The busts themselves may be of emperors and powerful men, but they were carved by the skilled artisans who were not all famous. I’d like to imagine that the artisan who carved Caligula’s head had his laugh by secretly carving a statue of Caligula’s favorite horse, Incitatus. (Incitatus was made a senator, and was granted a place at the royal dinner table. ) Claudius, the one everyone assumed to be the local fool turned out to the successor to Caligula in the end. His head bust stands right next to Caligula’s in the hall of head busts in the Uffizi gallery.


So, who endures and who doesn’t? It was Claudius’ writing that showed us all about the dangerous, mad tyranny of Caligula after all. ( The book, I, Claudius by Robert Graves is an excellent peek into Ancient Rome)

Walking past the arrays of the head statues, I could not help thinking of the Tamil poem by Bharathiyar that the husband quotes often:

Pirappal pala pizhaigal seidhu …
narai koodi kizhaparuvam eidhi …
Verum kootrukku eraiyagum pala vedikkai manidharai polae
Naanum vizhuvaen endru ninaithaayo?

“பிரப்பால் பல பிழைகல் செய்து
நரை கூடிக் கிழப்பருவ மெய்தி
கொடுங் கூற்றுக் கிரையெனப்பின் மாயும்
பல வேடிக்கை மனிதரைப் போலே
நானும் விழுவேன் என்று நினைதாயொ?”

Loosely translated it means:
Did you think I too would live the life that wracks ordinary human beings?
That I would sport grey hair, grow old, be small enough to talk pettily about people, and fall at the hands of fate?

The angst that has wracked mankind for centuries is apparent in the poem, and in the head busts and portraits by which I was surrounded. So, what is it we hope to leave as our legacy and for whom? We should aspire to be a thread holding the tapestry of life together while alive, but beyond it, what do we crave?

After the 160th picture of non-smiling faces, 100 head busts, and the n-th depiction of the crucifixion and the nativity scene, I knew what we craved for: Gelato.

“Before we go though, let’s go to the next floor. There is a gallery of musical instruments of the time.” said the husband. The children groaned, but I was intrigued. Music is a beautiful anthropological constant. We even sent a recording of whale song, Beethoven, Bulgarian folksongs and so much more on  the Golden Record  when we sent it out into space aboard the Voyager. NASA did not want to waste the space, but Carl Sagan, saw the poetic touch to it. The need for space exploration was to learn and connect, and what better mode to connect than through music?


The image of a man playing the harp in a city square, as people walked by tingled in my brain, and I rose happily, urging the children on. “That man playing a harp could be from the 12th century or the 16th or the present. How beautiful is that?” I said to musical groans.


After we climbed up the flight of steep stairs, however, we found ourselves peeking into another floor of more paintings. I looked around confused. The husband pointed to the sign there: Piano Secondo:


‘Piano’ in Italian means ‘Floor’, and not a collection of pianos. He looked sheepish, but happy to be the person who relieved the tension, and off we went in an indecent hurry looking for gelato. Anthropological musings and existential angst can wait, Gelato cannot.

Una buona immagine

“Amma – you were sleep talking so much last night – it was hilarious!” said the daughter. The children and the husband giggled. In my defense, it had been a rather long few days. Roaming around in Rome had taken the wind out of my sails.

“I must have been tired!” I said. “ I had dreams of the weirdest nature. I dreamt the horses ran out of the picture, and out into the gardens that had the whomping willow type of tree.” (Pitti Palace & Boboli Gardens which are perfectly delightful to behold: A lovely spot of nature in Florence)

“Yes we know. And you sat up in bed sending Sabrina to get the horses back! Poor lady doesn’t have enough work in the reception, you have to send her galloping behind horses!”  I laughed with them. Sabrina had saved us considerable time by getting us a slot of time to visit the Uffizi Gallery.

I was trying to extricate the strands of weave from the coagulated mess in the brain. A number of galleries collapsed in the various chambers of the brain leaving the paintings smushed together. Waddling through the galleries with a coat hanging off one hand, a child off another and a bag on my shoulders, I wandered through the works of Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael – entire galleries devoted to Renaissance artists. I naturally gravitated towards pictures featuring the rich myths, with a whiff of the beautiful Italian countryside in the background. The Birth of Venus, Primavera et al were as beautiful as everybody said, and had I known the nuances of art could have enjoyed it more.


I felt like one of those canvases that inspired the starry night by Van Gogh. All the different colors flowing into each other, forming a confused mess of colors, but having a unique kind of beauty in itself.

Art can never exist without naked beauty displayed - William Blake.

The first time we spotted a picture featuring a nude, the son tugged at my hand, and giggled, “Why isn’t he wearing any clothes?”

I giggled with him. Do you think this is what William Blake had in mind? The renaissance era with its developments in the anatomy and study of the human figure really did go overboard on the whole human body thing. Considering that it was winter in Italy, there we were dressed in thermals, sweaters, jackets, caps, gloves and socks, looking upon the stone cold statues of apparently virile, strong men with muscles exploding out of their bodies, and not a thread of clothing on them. It was amusing, and the pair of us giggled like children in the pristine halls of the museums.


Standing outside a fountain on the way from one gallery to another, I posed for a photograph. I smiled and asked if the picture was okay. Apparently, it wasn’t.

The teenaged daughter took a deep breath and with the air of explaining basics to an idiot child started instructing me on the best method to pose for a photograph. Apparently, smiling like I am happy to be in the photograph is out.
“Go for this look.” she said, and looked morose, angry, pensive all at once. “And those shots of you standing in front of a place is so third century! Look at this one, “ said she showing me a picture of a person with a sharp nose in a red coat overlooking a ruin.

If it weren’t for the fact that she was looking stylish in my coat, I could barely have recognized her, and that, she said, was the angle you have to go for.

I am not sure I will get it entirely. I come from a generation that saw as many people crowded together in one frame as possible, and all of us smiled at the the count of three – with at least one blinking at the opportune moment. From there to this sort of “Don’t even show your best face, and please don’t smile” slide is a bit quick.

But after looking at the numerous pictures in the galleries across Rome, Florence & Venice, I can see the impulse. I mean this trend probably came from too many pictures. It is probably why Madonna looks apathetic holding a babe Jesus in her hands, who displays no curiosity in his surroundings or joy or mischief. It was quite disquieting to see picture after picture like this with frozen expressions. Was the smile frowned upon so much? I can understand the looks of anguish in the scenes of the crucifixion, but even in the more joyous pictures of Madonna and Child, can one not introduce a motif of joy?


That’s what our million pictures must look like isn’t it? Frozen expressions  “capturing the moment”. If we are capturing frozen expressions, I don’t mind jumping on those galloping horses out into the gardens from the painting with a wild look of freedom and joy on my face any day.

So that brings me back to the basic question of what constitutes a good picture (una buona immagine). Does every picture need to tell a story? Why is Mona Lisa so famous, and not the beautiful pictures of these ladies?


Please recommend books on the art of appreciating Art.

The Roman Holiday

“Can you believe we are going to roam around in Rome?” said the excited son. He was very proud of his homophone.

“Isn’t it funny? Roaming around in Rome?”

“Yes! You bobble head! I said it was funny the first time you said it.” said the teenaged daughter pulling an I-can’t believe-this little fellow face. I laughed, knowing this was only setting the stage for at least another 108 times we would have to endure the phrase in Rome, and I was not mistaken. The nourish-n-cherish household is proud of its jokes.

“Have you done your homework? Did you spend some time trying to figure out the places to see?”

The husband’s I-love-my-wife-but-I-know-what-she-doesn’t-do-well tone deepened.

Setting aside the dismal feeling of being caught in school, I told him (patiently),
“Relax – I got the itinerary from my colleague who went there for his honeymoon, and it has a pretty good list of things to do including details on where to catch a sunset.” I said winking. “I even prepared a doc and shared it with you.”

He looked surprised, but right enough, when he opened the doc, he discovered entries like:
Check out the colosseum, if there is enough time, also add Palantine hill, and the Piazza Navona.
On the way back,  spend some time on the Spanish steps, and near that is Trevi Fountain.

I am no trip advisor, and when I generally send people on their way, I give them a vague list like above, keeping a wide margin for ducking into random stores that attract one’s fancy, stopping at random spots that demand one’s attention, looking at people scurrying about their business, tucking in an extra gelato, dribbling along and finding a couple of boys play football – it is all good fun.


I like to blame my list-making on being one of those staunch believers in the super power of Serendipity, and the gift of winging it. For instance, the taxi driver the previous night told us not to miss the Piazza Venizia.  Piazza Venizia, as it turned out, was one of the most grandiose buildings I have seen. Built recently by Roman standards, it is only a century old among ruins millennia old, but the views from up above of the sprawling city of Rome,  Colisseum and the Palantine Hill were brilliant.


The Romans didn’t believe in skimping on the grandeur. Glancing skywards and finding flying chariots bearing regal men atop their chariots was so novel that we found ourselves gawking like fish seeing Poseidon’s horses swishing through the seas for the first time.
“Poseidon was a Greek God, his Roman equivalent, Neptune, wasn’t as powerful because the Roman Navy wasn’t very powerful then”, said the mythology expert, the teen- queen in her mythical world.

Rick Riordan has done a marvelous job in getting tens of thousands of teenagers interested in the Greek and Roman myths, and our tour guide at the Vatican, told us she wrote up a Percy Jackson tour that was hugely popular. I could well imagine it. The city burst with myths. Flying chariots, fountains of fortune, serpents of evil, winged harbingers of war or prosperity jostled along with busts of statues of philosophers, kings, and senators.

Bengt Nyman [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
It was also slightly disconcerting to read about the forms of entertainment in early Rome. We have heard stories of the slave, Androcles, who was not mauled by the hungry lion remembering a past kindness, seen movies of the era etc, but there is something disconcerting about standing amidst the ruins of the Coliseum and reading about the manslaughter, the barbaric practice of skinning people alive etc. A place where hundred of years ago,  people watched this gore as a form of entertainment raises goosebumps.


If that is the kind of evolution mankind has had to come through, we have come a long way, but we also still have several ways to go.

What was that poem about “Miles to go before I sleep” ? by Robert Frost.

Walking among the ruins, you are intensely aware of the fact that toga-clad Roman senators walked the same path 2000 years ago, and if you are even slightly distracted, there are thousands of tourists, their phones, and their respective tour guides to remind you of the significance. In spite of that, it felt strange to see the husband looking at the GPS to figure out directions beside a ruin that was literally thousand years old. What if a spirit from that age were to spring in our paths then and there?

Maybe one did, for the husband saw a chain lying across the road, and attempted his boyish skip across the chain. He underestimated its height and went sprawling face-down on the pavement. After the initial shock wore off, he started laughing, and the son said, “Appa tripped on the trip. Hey! Appa tripped on the trip while roaming around in Rome. Get it? Get it?”, and we all laughed.

Our jokes! Well, they need to evolve too.

The Anthropological Note – Bonjourna

Traveling from the US to any other continent is different. Continents with older civilizations hold an anthropological charm, and a cry to learn from History. Setting foot in the first city on our Italian holiday, Rome, I could palpably feel everything we have heard about Rome ringing in my years.

All roads lead to Rome
When in Rome, be a Roman
Rome was not built in a day

The Great Roman empire, Remus and Romulus fed by a wolf. An Italian Sojourn was unfolding, and I was filled with the milk of human kindness as we made our way to the first place of stay.

Ruins in the middle of the city – Roman Forum. A pathway over 2000 years old!

Rattling along in the taxi from Rome airport to our place of stay nearer to the tourist spots, our driver was helpful. He gave us tips on places to see, and warned us about staying away from the railway stations at night. “Many people gather there, poor people, people from other countries, it can sometimes be , eh, dangerous for tourists.” he said in his thick Italian accent. I grew to love the tune with which Italians spoke English. “Italy now, there are no jobs enough for Italians, where will these other people find jobs? But they have no place to go, no work to do also.” he said sadly.

It was a sentiment that is commonly heard across Europe these days. Across Italy and Ireland, I heard variants of the same thing: The human heart that wants to share and welcome has to work hard to find the resources to aid all. It is easier for people to take to cynicism, nationalism and protectionism.  The refugee crises has peaked because of religious tensions, economic collapse, tyrannical governments – Rohingya, Syria. Millions are being displaced (Source UNHCR) without any shot at livelihood, and this will have consequences to a planet already stretched to its limits.

Do We Belong On Earth Blog Series

Travel as a Political Act by Rick Steves is a good book to read in this context. It is a book of short essays based on his travels to the countries of turmoil. Israel-Palestine border, Serbia-Herzegovina, Syria, Iran, Honduras.

You can watch the video here


Traveling makes me think of Mark Twain’s quote:
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

A broad, wholesome, charitable view of men is all well when things are going well, and when one as a traveler or tourist is sublimely soaking in another culture, being helped by strangers and so on. I have to admit though, that I had difficulty summoning up charitable views of men when I had my purse stolen a few days later. I was sore at the end of a weeklong journey, and I swore at the pickpocket who stole my purse. Charitable view forsooth!

But, it too taught me something. I had ignored the pater’s teaching about splitting your assets and had stupidly taken all my credit cards together. That learning came with a cold lesson( a painful 6 hour wait in the whipping winds outside the DMV.) Another post for another day.