Photo Credit: Torbjörn Jörgensen 2008
In the late winter of 1973, my sister and I, at 19 and 21, had packed rucksacks (mine a borrowed army green canvas one covered with embroidered patches of faraway cities and countries boasting of my boyfriend's considerable Foreign Service family travels) and taken off on the great Eurailpass and hostel adventure through Europe both coveted and a cliché for American young adults at the time.
We had been on our sojourn about a month, having started our travels in chilly Northern Europe beleaguered with runny noses and ears clogged from our flight. So we took an overnight train to Italy to escape the cold. Neither of us had a bit of street sense or sophistication. We wandered through Europe with no agenda, no understanding in advance of where we were wandering and our eyes wide open in awe at the education we were getting simply by being strangers in strange lands. We read no newspapers or sought out schedules of events - not by intent, we just didn't think about it. There was just so much to see and experience, wandering through the museum that is Europe.
In Rome we ambled into St. Peter's Cathedral. There were no lines then, it was not crowded and there was no security or line to enter. We had shopped earlier and were carrying picnic lunches in plastic shopping bags (these plastics bags were already ubiquitous in Europe but not yet seen in the US), ready for a picnic after our visit to the cathedral. We wandered through St. Peter's, pausing to wonder at Michelangelo's poor draped Pieta, damaged by a madman with a hammer a year before. We then continued on to dutifully explore each alter, sculpture, painting, architectural detail in this enormous homage to Catholic piety. Like most churches and cathedrals, it was quiet and calm, reverential. We had done a very good job exploring St. Peter’s, working hard, in spite of our ignorance, to appreciate the Renaissance splendor. We were heading to the exit when a group of men came in with lighting equipment which they began to set up. Consistent with our travel plans, we lingered to see what they were up to.
They finished setting up, after which the cathedral doors opened allowing a flash flood of people, mostly nuns in traditional habits still worn in 1973. This crush of humanity overtook and separated us and we were engulfed in this crush of a crowd so tightly packed that our arms laden with our picnic were unable to budge and we were terrified at the possibility of falling and being trampled in the insanity of the crowd. There was no apparent reason for the crowd and caught as we were we could only struggle to stand in the flow of the mob, dumbstruck and at the ready for our fate, facing, with the crowd, in the direction of the shrouded Pieta. The nuns began wildly shaking their rosaries over their heads and the crowd inched further, tightening impossibly around us and forward as a group of official looking people approached between the crowd and the veiled Pieta.
Immobilized and terrified amid the ever more frantic shaking of rosaries and squishing of bodies we stood. Then to our even greater astonishment, the Pope was ushered in, right in front of us before the PIeta. Pope Paul VI stood at a lectern right there in front of Michelangelo's masterwork and no more than 30 feet from where we stood in a crowd now so tightly packed it moved and breathed amoeba-like as one body. The Pope addressed us and blessed the draped marble beauty. Then, even more astounding, the drapes were removed revealing the restored perfection of the Pieta. Pope Paul VI blessed the crowd and departed and as he did the body of the crowd exhaled and we were released from its frenzy. We took our turn reverently passing as close as the bullet proof glass would allow to admire the polished marble perfection whose wound had made the world ache, before heading out to fresh air, sunshine and wide open spaces for our picnic.
For me and my sister the Pieta would never be so small as a merely astonishing demonstration of the genius of Michelangelo, of a hunk of stone made flesh and poignant. Rather Michelangelo's Pieta will always be an astonishment of religious fervor, of triumph over heartbreak, of artistic brilliance and the serendipity and sheer dumb luck of being in the right place at a wildly dramatic moment in time.