On the hillside before Subiaco you drive up past Villa Nero, his summer hideaway of which little remains, to reach the Abbey of Santa (Saint) Scolastica, the monastery honouring the sister of Saint Benedict, and a place of natural beauty.
It is one of 12 monasteries in Subiaco founded by St. Benedict of Norcia, and the closest to that of San Clemente, in which abode, further up Mount Taleo, Benedict resided for three years. The size and magnificence of the Abbey confirm that some original stonework must have been from Nero’s villa thanks, inadvertently, to the famous emperor.
The tour of the abbey steps me back in time from the revitalised structure of today, impeccably repaired after the bombing in 1944, a tragedy it shared with many other of St Benedict’s monastic memorials. There are three eras of expansion in the abbey that houses but 20 monks in five star celibacy in a setting of peace and beauty in life.
Visually the oldest section is that constructed after the uninvited Saracen and Hungarian visits in the ninth and tenth centuries. In 1052 or thereabouts the wonderful campanile (bell tower) was erected, in front of the then Romanesque church and, at the corner of the cloister with its unmistakeable cosmatesque (cosmati) stonework.
It was to the church of Santa Scolastica that we owed this visit. Our objective was to attend a seminar on La Bellezza, beauty in life and a theme in art, beauty that inevitably finds naked young ladies in art. It is pertinent to consider the environment for this gathering. The church presents its most recent design from 1770 by Giacomo Quarenghi, a neo-classical design. It is reported that the powers at that time were less enthused by Quarenghi’s design than he would have preferred and that the church was actually finished by other architects.
Meanwhile Quarenghi sojourned to Russia. It is noted that he has been described in Russia as the ‘last great architect of Italy’ and, based in St Petersburg, he promoted Palladian architecture ‘par excellence’. On my realising this, it became obvious where Quarenghi gained his influence for the Santa Scolastica church. Apparently, a little earlier, he had gained a copy of Palladio’s masterpiece of architecture (published exactly two centuries previously to this project), ‘Quattro Libri d’Architettura’, and this church design may have been his one and only example of the text lessons from Palladio. Whether this church is beauty in life is up to the observer.
The historic abbey church was ‘packed to the gunwales’ with the elegant minority, academics, historians, art critics and lovers (of all forms) and the monks and nuns of the cloisters of Subiaco. I found myself in the choir stalls, at the end of the second row, facing the backs of the presenters. Opposite sat six nuns covering the full spectrum of age and race of humans, the most aged being apparently centenarian.
Having only a verbal description of the pictures being presented by the eminent president of the Vatican Museum, I was able to lapse into my own reflections on beauty. My first thought, after visions of naked mannerist ladies, was that beauty is a totally qualitative concept with no measure outside of personal experience and comparative analysis with others similarly bewitched by a particular example of ‘beauty’.
So what is beauty objectively?
Maybe it is the integrated response to reactions of our senses to input data. It is not, as some have expounded, perfection, as great beauty in landscape and even humans inevitably meets the definition that only God can create perfection (and He has not left us with any examples). But beauty does seem to draw on balance, simply the balance between visual impacts.
Yet, I contend that beauty for a blind man may yet be the song of a bird, the breeze sighing thought the trees, or the sound of a Puccini aria sung with ‘near’ perfection, or even the touch of suppliant flesh. What role does the brain have in this response? Is there a connection with the heart, and is this how our emotions arise when we are confronted by something of ‘great beauty’?
Maybe the connection between the mind and the ‘heart’ gives mankind the opportunity to comprehend beauty, and for it to fill our souls with joy.