Rushing around the bustling noise of New York City overwhelms me at times. But the city isn’t without solace. Federal Hall on Wall Street or the cast iron buildings in Soho not only steady the metropolis, they awaken a truer sense of my self, too often dulled or distracted by glass buildings and the electric hum of modern life. But why does classical construction seem to correct the chaos and let me breathe again in rhythm with life?
Socrates answers without an answer — “Wisdom begins in wonder.” I decided to test this hypothesis. A week later, my curiosity landed me in Italy.
Rome, my first stop, couldn’t be more dissimilar to New York, at least in ethos. Romans today still stop to smell the roses, seemingly, in everything they do — savouring handmade pasta made with heirloom recipes, kids swarming the streets on bicycles, shopkeepers leaning calmly at their entrance, smiling, nodding as a stranger passes. This mindful culture mixed with epic, ever-present architecture truly throwed me deep into another life.
Bold and masculine, like a temple guardian, the Pantheon stood before me, a guide on my journey to an alternate existence. Built early in the 2nd century, meaning “every god,” believers of all faiths worshipped there. What became most pronounced in my inspection was the building’s cosmic use of shapes.
The square portico (porch) and rectangular vestibule signify the human, material form in classical Greek thought. But, similar to the scale of a soul’s life journey, the Pantheon’s smaller square structures bridge to a much larger spherical rotunda, the perpetual perfect cosmos.
Once inside, the coffered dome seemed to vibrate, as each sunken square pushed my earthly eyes towards the beaming light shooting down through the circular oculus. The sunlight shimmered down through this orb, filling the temple, as if a god’s grace and watchful care poured down to the believers below.
Basking in the warm amber ambiance, I felt the tangible power of geometry and wanted to explore more this divine disc, the shape of a halo.
Like the jewel within a jewel of an imperial Fabergé egg, the Tempietto sits coyly in the courtyard of the San Pietro in Montorio church in Rome. As a small commemorative tomb marking St. Peter’s precise place of martyrdom, its symmetry and proportion earned its place in history as an exemplar of high Renaissance architecture.
Vitruvius, the first-century-BC architect and author who inspired Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, inscribed inside a circle and square, stated, “Beauty is produced by the pleasing appearance and good taste of the whole, and by the dimensions of all the parts being duly proportioned to each other.” As if the father of architecture saw ahead, no truer words could describe the charming aesthetic pleasure of this quaint stone ornament.
The construction of concentric circles — starting from the outside steps, moving to a covered cloister, then dome — evoked a serene and simple elegance while still staying true to the Tuscan order, revered for being the most solid and least ornate.
Intrigued, I set sail for the birthplace of the Renaissance to explore more how men of the cloth inspired the exterior world as much as the inner one.
Like a classical symphony, Florence beautifully blended layers of architecture — contrasting columns, sharp and swooping arches, rectangular and triangular geometry repeated from building to building — creating a calmness as real as romance.
Vitruvius’ wisdom crooned once again: “Music assists him in the use of harmonic and mathematical proportion.”
The Pazzi Chapel, a prime paradigm originally built as a classroom for monks, serenaded me in form and feeling.
While the ideals of classicism regained popularity during the Renaissance, the birth of humanism and the idea that man exists in harmony with his environment encouraged architecture meant to empower, not diminish.
A welcoming simplicity invited me inside the Chapel. My eyes naturally swam in the interior’s open space, floating upwards to a ceiling smiling with scenes of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, an homage to devotion.
With my attention still soaring above, the dome’s droves of blue roundels blinked at me like a consummate compound eye — a kind reminder from above to be beholden to my thoughts, words and actions.
My senses soon grounded me, moving me away from this Chapel, Michelangelo’s final resting place. Though I departed from the virtuoso’s vault, my next stopping place floated with frescoes as symbolic as the Sistine Chapel.
Duomo di Firenze
As my sights landed on the breathtaking Duomo di Firenze, the wisdom of Vitruvius’ student Leone Battista Alberti resounded — “Beauty is that reasoned harmony of all the parts within a body, so that nothing may be added, taken away, or altered, but for the worse.”
The Florence Cathedral is that perfect beauty, a harmony of all the puzzle pieces perfectly placed into one. An immaculate facade as detailed as fine China, stained glass stories and trompe l’oeil that breathed the building to life, and Gothic design that spoke to antiquity’s heavenly King or to today’s civic icons, summed up man’s journey from dust to dust, igniting our spirit in between.
The dome’s exquisite 38,750-square-foot fresco demanded over a decade of creative sweat and toil from Giorgio Vasari, Federico Zuccari, and a handful of others. Its depiction of Heaven and Hell’s divine duality from The Last Judgment became achingly clear as I ascended the winding staircase. Once at the very top, like an angel’s salutation, the full majestic view of Florence freed me.
Up so high, at almost a god’s-eye view, after my voyage of discovery across the seas of Italy’s finest structures, I fathomed for the first time how people of the past who couldn’t read or write could just as plain as day feel surreal divinity.
Text by James Smith Edited by J.H. White Translated by Rui Chen Produced by Peggy Liu