“No, there is not more beauty in Rome than elsewhere, and all these objects which have been continuously admired for generations, which workmen’s hands have mended and restored, signify nothing, are nothing and have no heart and no worth; –but there is much beauty here, because there is much beauty everywhere.”
Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters To A Young Poet
Our bus parked in Caserta and we stood at the foot of an 18th century baroque monstrosity. A grand stair carried us into the belly of the beast–a world of gilded bronze, carved wood, rare stone and lush fabrics. Chandeliers glistened overhead and paintings played upon various themes. Indeed, the kings of Naples built this sanctuary of opulence to impress.
The only thing that the Palace of Caserta impressed upon me was a sense of boredom. Glancing from one embellishment to another, I reflected on the uselessness of the place. Even the most exquisite flourishes at the “Reggia” appear empty and expected, like a stage set without a plot to bring it to life. The handsomely dressed spaces lack their own story–they recall worn out mythology and misplaced wealth. Their state of preservation conveys more about the modern culture of tourism than it does about the royal family’s brief reign.
Similar monuments populate the city of Rome where they continually attract and astonish visitors. Unfortunately, these works of art and architecture wear the weight of their own fame. Reproductions systematically reduce each masterpiece to an icon and diminish our capacity of perception. Filled with expectations, we look at great works for the first time without a sense of discovery.
The Palace of Caserta and the attractions of Rome are beautiful, but they are missing something. It exists in the spaces between these sites. They are small and unimposing things–traces, coincidences, and peculiarities that lurk in every city, revealing more about the human condition than the weary monuments that we to shower with attention.
In Rome, bottles churn endlessly at a dam in the Tiber; aggregations of metal locks stand testament to a series of romantic vows; strands of steel from the street cleaning brushes litter the roads; cell phones distract gladiators when business is slow; pasta occupies an entire row at the supermarket; and re-used cobble stones wear the decontextualized paint of pedestrian crosswalks.
Such things are mere traces of a city, but they offer the freshness and excitement of discovery to anyone who cares to notice. They are what I love about this place. The baroque palace at Caserta, I could do without.