David Gillespie —
It was Monday, June 20. This year. Celebrating a milestone wedding anniversary, we were in Rome. This would be a day for touring the Vatican under the care of a local guide.
As we walked through the public area of the Papal Apartments on our way to the Sistine Chapel, the guide told us that we were about to go into the Raphael Rooms. (There are actually four Raphael Rooms, not just one.)
We had seen the Sistine Chapel once before, many years ago. I don’t know much about fine art, but I certainly agree with every adjective I have ever heard people use to describe the Sistine ceiling which Michelangelo devoted four years of his life to painting. Exquisite. Magnificent. Breath-taking. Divine.
But now we were approaching the frescoes which certainly rank among the greatest creations of Raphael’s 37 years on earth. Our guide was telling us something, her opinion she assured us, which we were free either to accept or cast away.
“What you are about to see here in the Raphael Rooms is even more wonderful than the Sistine Chapel,” she said. Michelangelo’s real interest had always been sculpture. Raphael’s passion was painting, and Raphael, she told us, was the greatest painter who ever lived.
And so, walking into the first Raphael room, I looked out toward the wall, fully expecting to encounter a work inspired by God and left by His most gifted artist. What I saw was something else. Twenty-five tourists (or more), lined up side by side, each taking a selfy.
A beautiful Raphael fresco was there behind them. The selfy-takers obstructed our view, but that seemed almost immaterial. The dominating scene was of the selfy-takers and their self-indulgence in the presence of Raphael’s beauty. I wondered whether they captured even a hint of that other scene, Raphael’s, in the background of their selfies or whether that mattered to them at all.
I took a picture, mental, not by my phone or camera, of that selfies scene, and I mentally framed it. It will remain for me a memorable symbol of the self-obsession, the narcissism, which is one thing I revile about the times in which we live.
Selfies are the rage in Rome and in other Mediterranean cities just as they are in the U.S. and innumerable places worldwide. Selfy sticks, putting false distance between photographer and subject, are now among the hottest items vendors sell. In Rome they go for one euro each. One sees it everywhere, people pleasuring themselves with selfies.
Full disclosure. I am an old fogey, something about which my spouse and friends often feel duty-bound to remind me. From at least Plato on there is a long written record of old fogeys regretting the present and longing for days past. Plato’s lament turned back no clocks, and I am certain that what I have just written will not impede our time’s selfy craze or the self-indulgence underlying it.
I don’t mean to suggest that selfy-takers are by definition awful people. I would guess some are awful, but others really quite nice. I dare say some of my best friends may be selfy-takers, and if I were a good bit younger and a whole lot prettier I might even engage in some of it myself.
But just to be clear: based on my random observation, I can confirm as fact that neither youth nor beauty is a bottom line requirement for someone to take up selfy-making!
My dislike of selfies is really symbolic. There are, of course, far worst things in contemporary life. Taking a picture of one’s self is not a heinous thing. Just more than a little bit repulsive in what it signifies about narcissism and self-indulgence in the culture of our times.
Especially selfies taken in the Raphael Room!
Originally published in the Clinton Chronicle (Clinton, SC), July 20, 2016
7 thoughts on “Twenty-five Selfies in the Raphael Room”
Agreed. My husband and I were in Venice this past December. There was a pitiful sign in the Basilica of San Marcos begging people in every possible way not to use cameras of any sort while inside: No Cameras, No Camcorders, No Selfies, No Selfie Sticks. I understand a selfie or two to mark an especially important occasion, but it seems to tip over into narcissism in too many instances. And, yes, please! Not in the Raphael Room!!
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I get where you’re coming from, and yes there’s a time and a place for selfies that some younger folks need to learn. But also consider the selfie (which, btw, is how it’s spelled in the singular) as an adaptation to our current situation. Gone are the days of packing four or five disposable cameras that cost $5 each for an international trip–now we take photos with $700 supercomputers. You can’t hand that off to a stranger and ask them to take a picture of you in front of something famous. You risk losing your entire life and identity by doing so. I know on most smartphones you can store and use it as a complete replacement for a wallet, rolodex, photo album, camera, computer, and phone. Should young folks stop and be in the moment a little more? Absolutely. Could you be more accepting and try participating in some of the new cultures being presented to you? Definitely.
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Thanks, Ellin. I appreciate the solidarity. I see this was filed under creative non-fiction. Probably accurate categorization. Maybe 15% tongue in cheek creation. 85% grumpy old man non-fiction. Never did see much of those frescoes.
Thanks, Marie. I take your point and even agree. Mixed in with the self-indulgence involved (with many people at least) there are functional, even compelling reasons justifying their use, at least on some occasions.
Guilty! But not too guilty. I recently saw a Frida Kahlo exhibit at the Dali museum in St Pete’s, Fla. at the entrance, not really in the show, is a much larger than life wall-sized photo of Frida in front of her house. I took one without and one with me. But I have posed friends in “light ” days at the Art Institute when nobody was around because one loves Chuck Close and dressed as the artist, etc. I took another with a Buddha as background. I do feel a bit bad but I interact with art and am a painter myself. Maybe some artists wouldn’t mind? Bothering others is out. Once I saw the rector of a lively cathedral in Chicago chasing out a wedding party who were about to take photos inside the fountain (baptismal) inside the church. They giggled and fled.
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Point taken, Norma. I wrote this with some tongue in cheek and my only purpose was to inject just A LITTLE guilt! 🙂
Back in May I spent a few days in Vienna, Austria. While there I visited the art gallery in the Belvedere Palace, the home of a large Gustav Klimt collection. The most famous of Klimt’s works is The Kiss. Apparently the taking of selfies by gallery visitors has become such a distraction that the managers of the gallery came up with an interesting solution. The gallery made a life size reproduction of the original work and placed it in a separate room exclusively for selfies. The original work was in a different location.
When I was there, more people were in the selfie room than were viewing the original work.
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