Mr Tabubil and I have just returned from three weeks holiday – a week in Holland, so that I might see a bit of his country and meet his family, and two weeks together after that in Italy. Right now, we're in Rome.
St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The world’s largest wedding cake.
From the outside, St Peter’s appears a modest-seeming three stories tall, but as you see the clouds move behind the building, and as the multitude of ants crawling before it resolve into people, you realize just how large the building is, and the tricks of scale resolve into an order several hundred times larger than life.
Inside, the church is a warehouse of wonderful sculpture, all of it drowning in the immensity of the space, and where there isn’t something splendid and sculptural, there’s something cheap tacked onto to fill the gap - swags of second-rate saints and sibyls and cherubs, chiseled by assembly line and cheerily defying gravity, swinging from the clerestory arches. There’s no grace. Or if there was, it was lost among the shadows and swept out years ago.
The cherubs are worse than second-rate: giant stone babies with cellulite and the eyes of eighty-year old congenital sinners, dipsomaniac and debauched. When a ten-foot infant leers out of the shadow of an altar and eyes you up like he means to try something on right there in church, you know things have gone somewhere that they shouldn’t have.
I sang there once. I was fifteen, and the concert was the grand prize at the end of three weeks through every
hill town church and square in Tuscany: the Cardinal’s Mass in Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, with five choirs singing in unison, and the Pope there to listen while we sang.
My parents and my sister were meeting me in Rome at the end of the tour, and they thought it would be nice to come along to the Vatican to watch us sing. My father made it inside the basilica. My mother, good ex-catholic that she was, spent the mass outside the door, standing nose-to-nose in a shouting match with an overly-striped member of the Swiss Guard.
Inside, before the altar, we sang. Right there in front of the great bronze Bernini Baldacchino. It had been a long and dusty three weeks and we were somewhat under-rehearsed: we were all unfamiliar with the music, and the tour hadn't made space for even one proper practice with all five choirs singing together, and in that great big barn of a space, the acoustics were just too good. The basilica was so enormous that our conductor was three bars behind us right from the start – we were booming, we were grandiose, we were all of us over the musical map, and she simply couldn’t hear.
I know for a fact that my own choir began the piece three full bars behind at least two of the others, and one poor group, all the way from Australia, trailed off to an uneven finish half a verse after the rest of us had finished for good. Our choir directors melted away like snow in a Roman summer, vanishing behind pillars and stepping quietly into side chapels. Dad told me afterward that it had been the most excruciatingly embarrassing musical moment of his life –
“I went and hid behind that baldacchino! Pretended I was there for the paintings. You were like cats, Tabubilgirl! Cats who harmonized, but cats!”
There was only one small scrap of silver lining. As the whole thing trickled its way to an inglorious finish, Mum swept into view, flushed and square-shouldered with triumph.
“It wasn’t what he said,” she said. “It was how he said it. There needs to be a complaint. Where’s the Pope?”
“Ah.” Dad brightened and beamed at her. “That’s the good part. He has a cold. He didn’t come.”