PRINT Summer 1983


IN BOOK BOOK IV, Chapter II, of St. Augustine’s The City of God (ca. 412 A.D.) the famous church father ridicules the many pagan gods by naming only “one god” to rule the ether, air, sea, and earth, as opposed to Jupiter, Juno, Neptune, and Pluto, along with the copious other deities affixed to whatever entities. Furthermore, he says, that “one god” should also “open the infant’s mouth when the baby wails, and be called the god Vaticanus” (my emphasis). The Latin dictionary yields Cicero’s words, “sed ego fortasse vaticinor”—“but perhaps I rave.”

The Vaticanus, the hill on the west side of the Tiber, whose surrounding countryside is notorious for its bad soil (and hence poor wine), lexically resides beside the Latin words vaticinator, vaticinium, vaticinor, or prophet, prophesy, and to prophesize respectively. On April 29, 1982, Pope John Paul II—the man on the Vaticanus, a place of so much wailing—announced the exhibition “The Vatican Collections: The Papacy and Art,” held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. He said the collection, a gift of “eloquent testimony,” “strive[s] to communicate to as many people as possible all the cultural benefits of that artistic heritage of which they are the custodians.” The works of art “will speak of history, of the human condition in its universal challenge, and of the endeavors of the human spirit to attain the beauty to which it is attracted. And, yes! These works of art will speak of God, because they speak of man created in the image and likeness of God; and in so many ways they will turn our attention to God himself.”

Metropolitan possesses the fragments of Rome within its first five letters. In the catalogue Fabrizio Mancinelli recounts a “somewhat romantic—story” (my emphasis) concerning Da Vinci’s Saint Jerome, ca. 1482:

There are numerous old retouches, some of which were intended to disguise the damages incurred in the nineteenth century, when four cuts were made in the upper part of the picture and the head of the saint was removed. . . . The cardinal [D’Archiardi] first discovered the painting, with the head cut out, being used as a cover for a chest in a second-hand shop. Subsequently, he located the missing part of the panel in a cobbler’s shop. The details of the story are probably fictitious, but the cuts in the panel indicate that the head was removed by someone who thought it would be more easily saleable alone. [Again, my emphasis.]

Henry VIII, in a truncation reproducing that of Da Vinci’s painting, “divorced” or removed himself from Rome when he removed the head of Sir Thomas More. No more would England concern itself with Rome. All our wailing and crying occur whenever familiar supports separate. Unlike More the head of Da Vinci’s Saint Jerome eventually returned to its torso as Jerome returned to papal Rome once the Vulgate became the Roman Catholic Church’s official Bible.

My emphasis on these anagrammatic cryptophors of Rome stammers that “there is certainly not a little that is ancient still buried in the soil of the city or beneath its modern buildings” (Sigmund Freud on Rome in Civilization and its Discontents). Even modern has Rome buried within it. The center of ROMA is an M (the middle letter of our current Roman alphabet), and the center of every M is a V. All roads lead to a V (the via of any stylus’ incision) just as they lead to the Piazza Venezia, the probable center of the world. Here two diagonal avenues converge from both sides of the Monumento di Vittorio Emmanuele II into the site where Mussolini spoke. The first four letters in Vaticano also cry: vita (life), via (path), vai (“you go”). Perhaps the entirety of the Vatican’s attention to antiquity resides in the anagram: Vaticano/antico V. Even the Vatican City shapes a V where the Viale Vaticano extends to its westernmost tip. Every tip to an obelisk shapes a V (not to mention pediments), and the one in Piazza San Pietro (once tipped by a globe) is now surmounted by a cross:

. . . And loud sings the rib
Of the sandy globe in the work of God
A definite style of building, green night
And spirit, the pillars’ order, true to
Total proportions, including the center,
And to gleaming . . .

—(Hölderlin, “The Vatican,” translated by Michael Hamburger)1

These V’s compel me to “ra_V_e wildly.” When the cardinals vote on a papal successor within Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, their predictions are aided by looking up at the ceiling’s vates, those prophets and sibyls (“Cvmae”) enthroned between V-shaped frescoes.

Wherever that central V may stand, it merely spreads elsewhere. Cara V aggio’s The Deposition, 1604, depicts the body of Christ being lowered onto the “Stone of Unction,” according to the catalogue for “The Vatican Collections.” It also states that the stone represents Christ as the “cornerstone and foundation of the Church,” confirmed by Jesus’ finger delicately pointing to the slab below him. According to Justin Martyr the stone mentioned in Exodus 17:12, “But Moses’ hands were heavy; and they [Aaron and Hur] took a stone and put it under him, and he sat thereon,” predicts the Christ in symbolon or in parabole. (A substitute for this stone which symbolizes Christ is St. Peter,’ another petros or stone.) In Caravaggio’s The Deposition what conceals Christ from view metaphorically turns into what reveals his features, an anointed stone, a surface with oil.2 Caravaggio’s canvas anointed with oil equates painting with stone by rendering the slab parallel to the painting’s lower horizontal edge, as if Christ were resting there. Furthermore, Christ originates the Church and its anointed walls just as a Greek bronze sculpture originates Roman marble copies. (In marmor [marble] lives Roma.)

Duncan Smith has unearthed the Roman ruins in Norma Desmond’s Sunset Boulevard with an MS. entitled “All About Sunset.”



1. The original runs:
. . . Und die Rippe tönet
Des sandigen Erdballs in Gottes Werk
Ausdrüklicher Bauart, grüner Nacht
Und Geist, der Säulenordnung, wirklich
Ganzem Verhaltniss, samt der Mitt,
Und glänzenden . . .

2. Philip Morris, Inc., a tobacco company, sponsored the exhibition’s tour of the United States. The show’s subtitle, “The Papacy and Art,” henceforth bears the parabasis “The Papacy and Tar.”