Seeing things from the “inside out”: The contribution of Rome

Carl Schmitt’s son Jacob has written extensively on his father’s life, work, and aesthetic philosophy.  This excerpt discusses Schmitt’s awakening to the unique contribution of Rome not simply to world culture in general, but the interiority which is vital to any authentic endeavor in the arts.

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Palace of Sepimius Severus, c. 1940, oil on canvas, 30 x 25 in.
A painting based on sketches done by Schmitt while in the Rome in the 1930s.

While on a second honeymoon in 1934, after visiting Dalmatia and the little towns of Korčula, Split, and Dubrovnik along the Adriatic where he had visited as a student, Schmitt continued to Venice, Florence, and Rome.  One afternoon, while sketching the gigantic ruins of Septimius Severus palace in Rome, he once again was reminded of the significance of place.  Nowhere, he recounts in his notes, had he found as here in Rome, a sense of permanency and interior quietude.  This “realization” was first experienced during his student years in Italy, but here and now, in the Eternal City, he found a more profound, conscious realization of it—a sense of what he first called “interior being.”

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Palace of Sepimius Severus, c. 1940, oil on canvas, 36 x 30 in.
“The Fine Art of Architecture did not appear until the creative genius of Rome brought it into being,” Schmitt wrote in 1956. “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.”

His mind went back to the time when these ancient ruins, the Theater of Marcellus, the Baths of Caracalla, and the still-standing Pantheon, were built with massive archways and vaulted ceilings that soared to the heavens with a glorious spacious interiors—what he later called the form of interior space.

These magnificent interior structures were created by and signified, in his mind, an interior, personal maturity not seen in any previous age.  Here in Rome, he thought, was what the true Renaissance was seeking—the manifestation of a full human person who recognized the superiority of an interior, familial life over the social, political life endemic of the Grecian contribution.  Rome had turned inside out all that it had absorbed from the idealized, aesthetic Grecian culture.  It had unified all the scattered Grecian city-states into the one centralized political system of Rome—Urbe et Orbe (the city of Rome and the whole world).

Pennsylvania Station, etching, dated June 16, 1916.
The great hall of the massive Beaux-Arts structure in New York City, now demolished, was modeled after the Baths of Caracalla in Rome.

Thus, for Schmitt, the Roman sense for interior space became a more inclusive realization and expression of reality.  It had the advantage of an interior vision of seeing things from the “inside out” rather than from the Platonic-Grecian idealized vision of looking “on” or “at” things from the “outside in.”  This was a more personal development without which no true perfection in anything could be developed.  Here was the central aspect of his aesthetic dramatic stage more fully realized.

No wonder, he thought, that this interior form of the Roman Republic was able to permeate, absorb, and inform the then-known world.  No wonder Peter and Paul, guided by the Holy Spirit, found themselves in Rome transforming this personal, pagan, interior maturity—first prepared for by the realization of the hidden interior nature of reality found in Aristotelian thought—into an interior Christo-centric reality.

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Interior of St. Mark’s Cathedral, Korčula, Dalmatia, pastel on paper, June 16, 1926
“The era of Augustus with its grandeur and peace could never have occurred without magnificent virtue, and it is only on such magnificent natural virtue that the supernatural virtues of Christianity can be placed, if they are to survive (short of miracle).” (1943)

Wisdom on Wednesdays—A passion for the permanence of matter

“Religion today is often nothing more than a concept.
“Hence the seeming dichotomy between religion and beauty.
“For the artist has an instinct for material absolutes: he has a passion for the permanence of matter which the philosopher, in his specialization, seems to ignore.  Hence, a Roman Paganism seems necessary to balance the Greco-Jewish religion which tends either to Gnosticism, or concepts, or both, avoiding the Incarnation and death of a God-man.”  (1952)

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Madonna Against a Hillside, oil on canvas, 24 x 20 in.

Wisdom on Wednesdays—The magnificent virtue of Rome

“We hear often enough of the pagan vices (Rome always seems to have fallen) but it is time to recognize the important place which history gives to the pagan virtues.

“The era of Augustus with its grandeur and peace could never have occurred without magnificent virtue, and it is only on such magnificent natural virtue that the supernatural virtues of Christianity can be placed, if they are to survive (short of miracle).
For the supernatural religion cannot exist by itself; it cannot float in mid-air.  It must be superimposed upon a foundation of balanced and vigorous natural religion.”  (1943)

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Lady Chapel, Paulist Church (New York City), etching, 1915 (printed 1921), 8 x 6¼ in.

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.