Wisdom on Wednesdays—The creative genius of Rome

“The teaching, well-nigh universal today, that the Romans were a non-creative war-like people who did nothing culturally but pass on the culture of the Orient and Greece is utterly false.  Quite the opposite in fact is true.  The Romans were the most creative people in history and moreover were creative in that one field which is the most fundamental: that is in Form.  Not until Rome formed them had the world ever heard of the Fine Arts. . . . The Art, the Fine Art of Architecture did not appear until the creative genius of Rome brought it into being.  The poetry of interior space with shadow had to be revealed in the Pantheon the baths and the basilicas of Rome before the paradox of the Fine Arts was proclaimed.”
(c. 1956)

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Palace of Septimius Severus, Rome, pastel and wash on paper, 14 x 17 in., dated May 16, 1935.

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“The unique miracle of Christian culture”

“And this is the mark of your major artist: without losing memory, the mirage, the illusion, he grasps the tangible in three planes.” —Carl Schmitt, “On Wind in Art,” 1925

For Carl Schmitt, the fault of the modern artist lies not in making too much of his art, but too little.  In his fixation with originality, personal expression, and an “abstract” style, he denies art its true significance as a bearer of “transcendent reality.”  Like oriental or primitive art, modern art is “but a sign or at best a prophecy” that can find its full stature only in the fullness brought by a Christian understanding of reality.

“When will we realize that the Fine Arts are a Christian creation?” Carl Schmitt asked.  To him, the “fine-arts are uniquely Christian.”  To be sure, non-Christian civilizations have cultivated the arts, but in Schmitt’s view, “That there is a system or hierarchy of seven fine arts [which are] symbolic expressions of spiritual realities” is “beyond [the] capacity” of these cultures.  What did these other cultures lack?  What has Christ brought that makes the fine arts possible?

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Carl Schmitt, Nativity.  Oil on canvas, c. 1926, 30 x 25 in.

Christ brought the fulfillment of what these cultures strove for but did not, indeed, could not achieve.  It was in this sense that Schmitt called Christ “the perfect myth”—He summed up and made real all the longings and dreams of the ancient peoples.  “We forget that Christ came not only because man needed hope for eternal beatitude but that He was also the historic concrete answer to the desire of the wildest imagination: the appearance on earth of a God-man.  History united to myth.”

The arts of these peoples, embodying as they did their yearnings and strivings for the transcendent—for God—were not complete, but awaited their perfection in the full revelation of Christ: God visible, God in the flesh.

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Carl Schmitt, Resurrection.  Oil on hardboard, 1941, 24 x 20 in.

The appearance of the invisible God was not simply a “religious” event, but the fulfillment of an aesthetic ideal: in Christ, symbol and substance, appearance and reality, sign and signified, are perfectly joined.  Only now that this has come about in the world can man acquire the vision to join these in permanent form in art, in what Schmitt paradoxically terms a “substantial symbol.”  “Hard as it may be for our time to understand, the Western and unique Fine Arts were only made possible through [the] radical power of Jesus Christ.  Only by means of his Incarnation and death was it possible for man to have a substantial symbol and ‘exterior sign which is but the figure and yet in reality contain the substance.'”

Giotto - Michelangelo

Giotto (c. 1266 – 1337) The Kiss of Judas, 1304–06, fresco in the Scrovegni Chapel, Padua
Michelangelo (1475-1564) Libyan Sibyl, 1511, Sistine Chapel, Vatican City

The development of the fine arts has not come about immediately; even in the Christian era we can see a progression in the arts toward their full flowering: “The progress of Christian Art (European Art, the Fine Arts) has always and steadily been toward the progressive freedom of form.”  In Schmitt’s understanding, this freedom involves  seeing things in all their dimensions, in what he calls “three planes.”  Aesthetically, “seeing” means that the artist’s vision must develop from the “picture plane” to movement “around a central axis.”  “The Oriental art (from which it springs) has always been quite static, i.e. ‘glued’ to the picture plane (if painting), ‘glued’ to the wall (if sculpture).  Practically all movement in Oriental applied art is confined to the superficial movement which two dimensions admit.”

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Temple of Concordia, c. 450-440 BC, Agrigento, Sicily
Giovanni Paolo Pannini or Panini (1691-1765) Interior of the Pantheon, Rome, oil on canvas, c. 1734, 50⅜ x 39 in. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, Samuel H. Kress Collection

The unfolding of three planes has been particularly marked in the fine arts of painting, architecture and sculpture.  Schmitt points to Giotto “with his two planes and Michelangelo with the three planes” as milestones in the  full development of painting.  While the ancient Greeks perfected the exterior of the temple, architecture since the Romans “must primarily be a matter of interior space.”  And in contrast to the single perspective offered by the sculpture of the ancient Egyptians, “sculpture, since Michelangelo, must move in three planes around a central axis.”  

Egpytian sculpture - Michelangelo

King Menkaura (Mycerinus) and Queen, greywacke sandstone, c. 2500 BC, 56 in. high. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Michelangelo, Florence Pietà, marble, c. 1547-53, 89 in. high. Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Florence
Carl Schmitt considered this one of the great works of sculpture: “Form was freed, was felt to be able to move most fully with Michelangelo, and at the greatest degree with his last Pietà, the one in Florence” (1952).

Even now, however, the fine arts have not come to their full fruition.  “Christianity will have no great art until death enters consciously into the picture.  The Christian drama has yet to be realized.”

“A Monument”

Carl Schmitt wrote this brief essay in one of his notebooks in 1935.  It recounts a sketching trip where he was overtaken by the ruins of the massive palace of the emperor Septimius Severus, built around AD 200 on the Palatine Hill overlooking the Circus Maximus in Rome.  Some of the pastel sketches he made on this trip were shown at an exhibition in New York in the summer of 1935.  Later Schmitt used them as the bases for a number of watercolors and oil paintings.

My companion took me along a foot path over the Palatine to the farthest western end and showed me a heroic ruin on the hillside.  I immediately liked it.  Green fields surrounded us richly sprinkled with scarlet poppies.  On the ground among the flowers I saw occasionally bits of mosaic and iridescent glass.  The building was bulky and recalled the typical poetry deep in Rembrandt.  He must have seen somewhere a print of this.  On this account it was good to draw but also because it was isolated.  An occasional pair of lovers or two mounted policemen came by and seminarians.  So in the heart of Rome and overlooking it, we sat down to sketch.

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Palace of Septimius Severus, pastel and wash on paper, 14 x 17 in., dated May 16, 1935.

Rome lives in the round.  All sides of the ruin, on different levels, are interesting.  And it is constructed, not poured.  Even the vertical blind walls are arched with the peculiar thin Roman tile.  That solid construction coupled with tremendous scale characterizes ancient Rome.

When I had finished a beggar came by, a little shrunken man, toothless, and in dialect he said something, so I gave him two soldi, and thinking of my investment I asked him who made the building we were drawing.  He said Septimius Severus had built it for his palace, and shuffled along.

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Palace of Septimius Severus, oil on canvas, c. 1950, 20 x 24 in.
Schmitt painted this work for his close friend and benefactor Harold M. Landon, a stockbroker and art collector.  Landon’s most prized painting, Luca Giordano’s
The Flight Into Egypt, now hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

My companion who knows about such things told me that Septimius Severus was an Emperor-soldier who lived in the 2nd century and that he found the world in fragments and left it one, even imposing peace in Britain.

Whether what I had heard was true or not, there stood that bulk.  I have never felt time so challenged.

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Palace of Septimius Severus, watercolor on paper, 15¼ x 18¼ in.