Rome and Form1

by Carl Schmitt
from Liturgical Arts Magazine, November 1946

To our choice of the Italian peninsula, and particularly Rome, as the seat of form probably no one will take exception. From our earliest knowledge of the Latin, up until the end of the counter-reformation, form was actively his distinguishing mark. In the aesthetic, political, and religious fields, the forms of Rome have persisted as the fundamental core of our institutions, and all peoples have had to return to this source from time to time when in moments of crisis their institutions had grown distorted or amorphous. After the advent of Graeco-Jewish culture, which Rome took over, one can discern the fullest emergence of this quality. What we have called "three plane volume" had come to replace the more superficial patterns of the Orient. And it is important to call attention to the fundamental importance of what is called volume.

Of all the mysterious ingredients which go to make up the arts, this mystery of form or volume is possibly the deepest and, consequently, the hardest to describe. Its appreciation is reserved for the fullest maturity of the imagination. Upon this truth we may base a hope for the future. For the true meaning of volume (or mass, or bulk) has in no sense been popularly grasped, and hence sculpture has yet to see some acclaim comparable to that which has been enjoyed by most of the other arts.

Not that sculpture could ever rival architecture in the popular imagination. That latter art is, in a very profound way, the very bone and sinew of the people. Sculpture, however, is of a very personal nature and its message can never come fully to us through collaboration. The sculptor's helper does not count as do, for example, the many who of necessity aid the architect. The full, formal, or sculptural inspiration is not collective. In architecture the reverse is true. The social inspiration leads and all else follows, or it is nothing.

It is due to this personal character of the formal inspiration that Italy has, when the culture of Europe was high, led in the arts. For Italy, for good or ill, has always been and hence probably always will be intensely personalist. So far, in no other place on earth has the state of the common weal, the course of virtue, or the destiny of beauty been so many times and as much in the hands of one person. It would seem that in the very long view, fate will always ultimately force all decisions and responsibilities back upon the critical faculties of one man. In Italy, acceptance of that responsibility has repeatedly occurred. Protest, whose function it is to attempt to dissolve  or wear down form, was never a mark of Italian latinity. Definition, which is a classic thing, is the nourishing core upon which protest, the social force, feeds. Without dogma, protest would die. The proper understanding of this constant struggle  between the social forces outside Italy and the personal authority within is very necessary to a full appreciation of her artistic destiny. Nor can we allow the imagination to entertain a vision of the extinction of either force: as normal or proper to man, a domination of one or the other is necessary at different times, but their mutual dependence should be obvious.

Nor is the ultimate issue determined by the struggle between society and the man. Within personalism itself is a force far more destructive than can be found in the slow attritions of society. This is because personalism is based upon the widest spiritual gamut possible in created things: between the complete submission of the will to good or to evil. This final ability deliberately to submit the will is the highest function of the will and, in itself, constitutes what we call personality. By this deliberate act of will the soul has reached its fulness; nothing more is possible to man and, moreover, the act can only be personal. In this freedom to choose one's servitude, even to evil, lies a power of destruction far more cataclysmic than anything within the gamut of social man. And conversely the power of good (and beauty) residing within one personality is also much more far-reaching than anything to be found within the social structure. The history of Italy bears out this fact. The evils and tyrannies and the uglinesses of Rome have been enormous. But more enormous still are the records and monuments attesting to her formal power: her will to goodness and beauty, and her magnificence.

This wide range which ethically man can attain: the gamut of pride and humility, opens up to the imagination a cosmos of "calibre" which has characterized the historic Rome. Magnificence, whether evil or good, has always had a strong appeal to mankind.2

Let us try to be clear upon this point of the destinies of nations. In the sculptural or formal destiny of Italy, with its ethical implication of the pride-humility gamut, one can readily see that this destiny is one of potentiality or capacity and does not connote continuous fulfillment. Moreover such destiny operates throughout the fluctuations of the "time spirit,"   allowing for those periods of sleep or fallowness through which particular nations are bound to pass in the long run. In the case of Italy we instinctively know that the capacity of calibre for the greatest good or evil is constantly present. We have seen it slumber at various periods of history and at no time more deplorably than the period of great socialization through which we are just passing.

While it is necessary to touch upon the spiritual peculiarity which lies behind this personalism, in order to get a fuller understanding of the soul of Italy, it should not be necessary here to burrow too deeply into the philosophy of mysticism. The mystique of a nation is here used to mean not only the peculiar way normal to that people of worshipping, or praying to, the Deity, but more important still it embraces the wider implication of the peculiar way in which God reveals Himself to each particular people.

Christian mysticism may be broadly divided into three main categories (which are, incidentally, roughly symbolized by the three permanent arts). These three categories may perhaps best be illustrated by the character of the three Marys of the New Testament. One, Mary the mother, represents the family soul in relation to God the Creator; that is, the mystique of birth. The second Mary with her sister Martha introduces the duplex adoration of contemplation and action, both directed toward God as "formal" or social guest. The third Mary is the Magdalen of the passion and death. Mary Magdalen represents the eleventh hour lover who has a direct and very personal place under the cross of renunciation and atonement.

Of these three kinds of worship Italy seems to have had the destiny to accent the third. Christianity at the end—its final terms—a consummation of all activity in humility. And humility, in the fullest meaning, is the obedient acceptance of death.

Now this capacity for final obedience is only possible as a virtue as long as it is deliberate and willful. This highest, if not the greatest of the virtues, would be impossible of attainment without being accompanied by the strongest desire of revolt against the "tyranny of God." Despair is the only alternative possible to such religion. Hence, Italian destiny is either hopeless or Christian. In fact, in its profoundest aspect, it must be "hopeless" in order to be Christian.

Another point which must be noticed here is the peculiar affinity existing between this proud-and-humble kind of religion of Magdalen and the domestic kind of Mary the mother. Among the many things common to both there is one character which is most important: that there is here a kind of extreme singleness of purpose, if not fanaticism, in the love of the mother and in that of the sinner, which is not shared by Mary and Martha. Because, religiously, Martha is inseparable from Mary, the worship of the sisters is duplex and is therefore less intimate, though of course, no less valid, than the domestic affection of the Mother and the personal passion of the penitent. As has been noticed in our study of the arts, this affinity (of the family and the person) also exists between the poetic impulses of the lyric and dynamic inspiration. The tender lyric and the tense dynamic poetry have what seems to be on the one hand a na´ve and on the other a fanatical character when looked at from the cool vantage of the epic. The latter might also be described well-to-do and urbane. The point may be carried further by saying that the lyric and dynamic work may be done in actual poverty, but few have ever heard of a starving epic poet. Possibly also poverty was not inimical to the life of Mary Magdalen. It was certainly characteristic of the life of Mary the mother. But we have it on the authority of tradition that Mary and Martha were well-to-do, as is fitting and necessary when one is host to a king.

Be these things as they may, the supernatural mystique has never fared well at the hands of reason and analysis, has always found it necessary to tread ever so delicately in the presence even of the metaphysic of the natural order. Nonetheless the liturgy of the natural religion, which we call art, as well as that of the supernatural, has an inside as well as an outside, and any attempt at an understanding of either by a history of its externals would be futile. A study of the arts, no matter how fragmentary or technical, would be incomplete without acknowledging, at least by implication, the reality of beauty.

It has been noted that the institutions of Rome were the model of the world. It could be added that her men were greater than her institutions. It is not proposed to make a list of the personalities from the days of Romulus and Remus to the days of the Italian decline. The reader may find them for himself in the histories and the biographies. It is more to our purpose to consider but one or two examples of Italian life and culture which are typical of the spirit of Italy. Here the passion for form and the critical spirit had gone hand in hand. Society, to the Roman, was never conceived as the sole authority and depository of right, as had sometimes been the case with the French. The mob, to the Romans, had always been somewhat alien. Nor, to be fair, had the person or the family held an exaggerated place of authority in Rome for long over the rights of commerce and society, as has at times been the case, say, in Spain or Poland. On the contrary, his capacity for great spiritual range or gamut enabled the Roman in the past to understand the functions and peculiarities of other peoples, bringing with it a tolerance which was to stand him in good stead when he was placed in a position of leadership in the government of the early European world. It was only in modern times, after the influence of Rome had definitely been forgotten and some of its parts had grown at the expense of the whole—that is, with the rise of modern nations—that Europe was finally seen to be dying.

But up until the last, one could always sense the humility latent in this people and could understand how this natural humility could only in the long run express itself fully in sculpture. We have seen how sculpture is basically concerned with form, naked, as a symbol of the soul stripped of all which might shield it against the ultimate realities. And in this connection nothing stands forth so clearly as the memory of Saint Francis's death and the manner in which he arranged it; lifted at his direction from his bed to the earthen floor of his cell and stripped of his clothing so that he might leave the world owning nothing. Such humility (with its potential corollary of pride) is the true soul of Italy.

1 A chapter from a book in preparation. [This book was never published. ed.]

2 "Pride is almost always humiliation which has been overcome, an attempt to escape from the mediocrity of Life....In truth every great quality derives from its opposite. The mediocre remains mediocre forever." Giovanni Papini, Dante Vivo, Macmillan, 1935.

© Copyright 2004 Carl Schmitt Foundation