Why Roman Artists Love to Paint the Sky
February 5th 2019:The colors transition from powder blue, to deep cerulean, to black. For a moment, it had even been spattered – like paint from a squirt bottle – in bubblegum pink and lavender. But at ground level, that mural of sky is hard to see. Pegasus and Neptune block out the heavens. Fountains bury clouds; ruins bury the sun. Below, black cobblestones fill the streets. People are small, and within alleys, every structure steals a snippet of the sky. A stoic man with salt-and-pepper hair locks up his coffee bar and walks into his city: into Rome. By the time he arrives on Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, wide enough to give him back the sky, it's black. We who saw the sunset might take pity. We saw the little miracle. But the heavens only laugh.
“You're too late; it's already passed.”
February 17th 2019:Today, Vatican City has clear skies. A recent mist has made the roads slick with dew. St. Peter's Cathedral looms at the far side of the oval piazza. Saint Sebastian, Claire, Benedict, and a hundred and thirty-seven more are immortalized in stone and watch over the space, seven feet apart. Visitors wander in stiff black winter coats. They know deep down that their smartphone photos will wash out the sky, erase the saints' faces, only capture a fraction of reality's beauty. Fountains at either end of the piazza, illuminated by tiny lights hidden under the water's surface, appear touched by Midas. Up close, they sparkle like silver. An obelisk, taken by Emperor Caligula from Egypt, rises in the piazza's center. Backlit by the sun, the obelisk turns to shadow; still it lifts its cross to the heavens. A woman in high heels tiptoes down Via della Conciliazione and doesn't see the cathedral behind that hunk of Egyptian stone. In the reverent quiet, a window turns gold. Then another. A third. Saint Peter's Cathedral glows with a thousand campfires, and the saints look down from their columned piazza walls atop false stars.
The sky changes, unobstructed, from foggy gray to velvet black, the cathedral haloed by the sun. The cobblestone ripples and reflects the sunset in innumerable dewdrops.
February 26th 2019:It's still winter. Gray clouds conceal the heavens, but sunlight is visible at the horizon: a band of brightest gold. A lookout in the Villa Borghese supervises the Piazza del Popolo. Santa Maria dei Miracoli and Montesanto, Piazza del Popolo's obelisk, Bacchus, and Minerva fall under its gaze. Only afew trees shield my lookout – the few Villa Borghese had to spare. Gold turns to copper and the horizon quivers. Saint Peter's Cathedral rises amid the buildings and distant hills. The sky lies to the tourists with color gradients:
“This is the most beautiful sunset I can provide.”
But frescoed church ceilings say otherwise.
After the visitors have left, Villa Borghese's squirrels witness the dusky clouds part and see pink, purple, and orange in watercolor.
March 21st 2019:The sky burns as the inside of a jack-o-lantern. Crowds arrive in droves, populating the streets with spring break fever, and Rome welcomes them. Opera – artificially loud – is sung by makeuped women wearing stilts, their ruffled blue and pink dresses ballooning down ten feet, from their shoulders to the ground. Their song is accompanied by a staccato of civilian chatter. Languages pool together and mix through alleyways. Hundreds walk up and down the floral-adorned Spanish Steps, dodging flowerpots with carnations and daffodils. Visitors jostle for position and try to avoid merchants aggressively selling goods. Storefronts glisten in the twilight: Gucci, Valentino, Armani. There, employees stand in form-fitting suits, hands clasped, hoping the next person to walk in isn't there towindow shop. One taxi drives down the narrow street, five miles an hour. To avoid it, people press against each other like birds huddling to stay warm. A year from now, the Romans will be trapped in their apartments and sing opera to each other from their balconies. But now, on the top of the SpanishSteps, the crowds are merry, the air fresh, and the sky visible, smeared in citrus orange.
April 14th, 2019:Roman churches paint heaven as a spring sunset. Puffy clouds pepper the sky, globby and thick, yet thin enough for hazy sunlight to come through. Blue, purple, pink, and yellow oil paint are mixed by God with an oversized brush, who blots them into the firmament. The sky becomes a celestial Vincent Van Gogh, with swatches of brightest gold to darkest purple. Trastevere, a poorer district to the south, away from the tourism of the Campus Martius, becomes a pink dreamland for thirty minutes. Apartments transform into kaleidoscopes. The streets are quiet as everyone looks up. Brick apartment complexes, huge and modern, are reassured that it's not just the historical monuments who are allowed to see such beauty. Romans smile, appreciate this little miracle, and shut their curtains. But we linger on our balconies open-mouthed, not daring to speak, lest we awake.
May 3rd, 2019:There's a guitarist on the Aventine Hill. His case is open at his feet but he strums for himself. He and the crowd have gathered to watch the sunset. The Romans have fully transitioned to their spring wardrobe: mostly loose patterned shirts and slacks. Italian dominates the hill; some are glad touristsdon't often come to the Aventine. The sun begins to set.
When the empire was founded, did Romulus stand atop this hill too? He wouldn't have seen Saint Peter's silhouette. He wouldn't have seen the Altare della Patria, so large and jarringly white. He wouldn't have seen the Jewish Temple tucked beside the Tiber, or the Colosseum, barely recognizable within the ruined forums. But he would have seen the sunset, framed by hills and golden bright. He would have seen these little speckled clouds, floating like a flock of birds, white against the periwinkle backdrop. When he left, he would have descended the Aventine without the convenience of stairs and stood by what would become the Circus Maximus. He would have seen the sky in the East shift to turquoise blue with little rose clouds and that purple streak smeared through like a banner. In the West, he would have seen this golden horizon ignite and pour midnight blue paint over the canvas, smothering out all color but stripes of florescent pink and yellow. The bands would have faded, as they do now, leaving nothing but velvet black ink. Rome would be asleep, and Romulus would have returned home.
But now, as the last fleck of sunlight fades, a light comes on in a window. Then a dozen. And a hundred. And ruin-filled Rome becomes a city of stars.