Sunday, April 08, 2007

Emerson at St. Peter's in Rome, April 8, 1833

The Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson have an entry for this day (or possibly yesterday) in 1833. The entry follows directly after the one I quoted yesterday.
April 7-8, 1833

I love St. Peter's Church. It grieves me that after a few days I shall see it no more. It has a spectacular smell from the quantity of incense burned in it. The music that is heard in it is always good & the eye is always charmed. It is an ornament of the earth. It is not grand, it is so rich & pleasing; it should rather be called the sublime of the beautiful.
Emerson's journal entries are generally clear, but, written for his own purposes, they can be enigmatic in places. The phrase "ornament of the earth" is arresting, but not self-explanatory. One wonders, why is this immense structure "not grand"? And what does he mean by "the sublime of the beautiful"? It sounds like an echo of Edmund Burke's On the Sublime and Beautiful. But Burke separated the one from the other and Emerson is here putting them back together. His meaning seems to be that St. Peter's is a counter-example of the beautiful -- a work of beauty on the scale of the sublime.

(It was Burke who said "terror is in all cases whatsoever ... the ruling principle of the sublime." He said beauty could not be grand and overpowering: "Sublime objects are vast in their dimensions, beautiful ones comparatively small: beauty should be smooth and polished; the great, rugged and negligent; ... the great ought to be dark and gloomy: beauty should be light and delicate; the great ought to be solid, and even massive. They are indeed ideas of a very different nature, one being founded on pain, the other on pleasure ...")

You'll recall that John Henry Newman was in Rome that same Easter. I mentioned some parallels and divergences. Though there's no evidence that they encountered one another, they travelled there for much the same reason, arrived and left at about the same time, and did much the same things. Of St. Peter's Newman wrote:
We have this evening seen St. Peter's illuminated [that's Easter Sunday, April 7] . It is a splendid sight, but so difficult and dangerous in execution that it is surprising they make it so much a matter of course. The men who are employed are let down by ropes outside the Dome. We went up the Dome the other day, which presents the most extraordinary sight of the kind I ever saw. Often as I had been in St. Peter's, I could never realise to myself its dimensions. I measured and measured, and though the problem solvebatur ambulando, as old Aldrich says, my imagination was unconvinced. But when you get aloft and look down inside the Dome, then you see what a mountain the building is. No words can do justice to the strange sight which everything below presents when you are only as high as the first gallery above the arches which support the cupola. The Tabernacle of bronze, which itself is 121 feet high, is shrunk and withered up, and seems to barely rise above the pavement. We went into the ball, but did not venture the cross, which is ascended by a ladder outside. We are not Dornfords—pardon us.
{REV. J. H. NEWMAN TO REV. HENRY JENKYNS, Rome: Easter Day, April 7, 1833.

- Solvitur Ambulando - the problem is solved by walking
- Aldrich - Possibly Henry Aldrich, (1648–1710), dean of Christ Church, Oxford}

{The first photo is taken from St. Peter's dome looking down into the cathedral interior. The second from the dome outside. The others may help one understand what Emerson meant by "sublime of the beautiful." Sources: msmaria's flickr photostream,,}

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