St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The world’s largest wedding cake.
I sang there once – before the altar of Saint Peter’s. I was fifteen, and the concert was the prize at the end of a choir festival- three weeks singing in every hill town church in and square in Tuscany, and as a grand finale, a performance during a Cardinal’s Mass in Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome: five choirs would sing one mass, in unison in the heavenly acoustics of that massive hall, and the Pope would be there to listen when we sang.
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 there. Or if there was, it was lost in 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 an eight-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 gotten to some place that they shouldn’t have.
My parents and my sister were meeting me in Rome at the end of the tour, and they had come along to the Vatican to watch us sing. My father made it inside the basilica in good time for the mass. My mother, good ex-catholic that she was, was still outside, standing nose-to-nose in a screaming match with a striped member of the Swiss Guard.
Inside, we began to sing. Right there in front of the great bronze Bernini Baldacchino. It had been a long and dusty three weeks and we were under-rehearsed; we were all unfamiliar with the new music, and none of us had found time for one proper practice with all five choirs together, and in that great big barn of a space, the acoustics were just too good. Booming, grandiose, and a big problem. The place was so big that our conductor was three bars behind right from the start – she simply couldn’t hear.
I know for a fact that my own choir finished the piece three full bars behind at least two choirs, and one poor group, all the way from Australia, trailed off to an uneven finish half a verse after the rest of us had stopped for good. Our proud chaperones melted away like snow in a Roman summer, hiding behind pillars and vanishing quietly into side chapels. Dad told me afterward that it had been the most excruciatingly embarrassing musical moment of his life –
“I was hiding behind that baldacchino! You were like cats. 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.”