vault1 (vôlt), n. 1. an arched structure, usually made of stones, concrete, or bricks, forming a ceiling or roof, sewer, or other wholly or partially enclosed construction. 2. an imitation of such a structure constructed for aesthetic reasons. 3. an arched space, chamber, or passage, esp. one located underground. 4. an underground chamber, as a cellar or a division of a cellar. 5. a room, often built of or lined with steel, reserved for the storage and safekeeping of valuables, esp. such a room in a bank. 6. a strong metal cabinet, usually fireproof and burglarproof, for the storage and safekeeping of valuables, important papers, etc. 7. a burial chamber. 8. Anat. an arched roof of a cavity. 9. Something resembling an arched roof: the vault of heaven. –v.t. 10. to construct or cover with a vault. 11. to make in the form of a vault; arch. 12. to extend or stretch over in the manner of an arch; overarch: An arbor vaulted the path. –v.i. 13. to curve or bend in the form of a vault. [alter. Of late ME vout(e) < MF voute, volte < VL *volta a turn (cf. It volta), n. use of fem. ptp. *vol(vi)ta (r. L volute) of L volvere to turn; see REVOLVE] —vault like, adj.
This is a delayed post from the dictionary project presents event held on May 17, 2014 at Casa Libre en la Solana. Thanks to our amazing reader lineup: Brian Blanchfield, Lela Scott MacNeil, Farid Matuk, Molly McCloy, and Meg Wade.
We, unfortunately, don’t have video recordings to share with you from the reading. Here is the piece I read by way of introduction.
My early twenties were spent walking in the footpaths my father walked in his—the cobbled streets of Rome, the bricks that encircle the square in front of St. Peter’s. We both looked up at the colonnade, at the grandeur of the duomo. We both walked through those colossal doors. On our right in the corner, Michaelangelo’s Pieta. In front of us, Bernini’s Dove of the Holy Spirit. And all along our path to the altar the undulating marble of Bernini’s Saints. We both walked up to the ancient statue of St. Peter, his foot one long smooth rectangular surface, without an ankle, without toes, worn from the touch and kiss of thousands of pilgrims.
By that time, I had been taught for twenty years to look to the heavens: for answers, for solace, for grace. I did not need the architectural columns that forced the eyes’ vision to the ceiling. It was instinct to look up. And I thought not of engineering or architecture when I gazed upon the vaulted ceilings of St. Peter’s. I thought of majesty. I thought of God.
In the sixties, my dad and his friends were nicknamed bagarozzi by the Italians: little cockroaches for the long robes the seminarians from the North American College wore, black cassocks with buttons down the front. My dad had come there to study theology but he fell in love with Rome. There was a vibrancy about living that spilled out everywhere: in the boisterous debates of old men drinking espresso at corner cafes, the ruins rising up amongst newer buildings, the savoring of freshly baked bread dipped in olive oil and salt.
I told everyone I chose to study in Rome because I wanted to live in Italy, but I also was deeply curious about the life my father had led so many years before and about the capital of the faith I had been raised in and still practiced. I didn’t realize at the time what formative years the early twenties are. But it is significant to me that both my father and I spent time in Rome, learning to love the Italian way of life and in turn becoming disillusioned with the religion we had both so firmly placed our faith in.
When I lived in Rome, it was during the Jubilee Year, 2000, and a deal was made. It was a holy year and only during this year were the holy doors to all four main churches in Rome opened. If a pilgrim were to walk through the holy doors of all four churches and then go to confession and communion within a two-week period, he or she would receive indulgences to heaven. Although I had my doubts about Catholicism before my time in Rome, the indulgences might have been the beginning of the end. I never quite understood the idea that one could do these basic things and suddenly receive free passes to heaven. What about the kind of life one had led before and after this moment? If someone did all of these things and also, say, murdered someone during the same time period, did they still get indulgences to heaven?
I went to all four churches but not within the time frame. I didn’t go to confession. I did not want to believe in indulgences and I did not want my passport to heaven to be paid for in this cheap way.
Every Sunday, mass was held in the basement of our college. In the circular room, we sang songs in English and listened to the priest recite the Eucharistic Prayer. On other days, we went to class, we wandered around Monte Mario: looking for leather jackets, eating spaghetti carbonara, drinking cappuccinos, and buying three bottles of good red wine for 3,000 lire, at the time the equivalent of five bucks. We walked up the Spanish Steps and checked out the nearby boutiques, which held nothing we could afford. We went to the all night bakery located off one of the bus routes and filled our mouths with fresh dough and cream. We walked along the Tiber at night. We roamed Trastevere visiting restaurants where we flirted with young Italians. We ate too much margherita pizza. On days when we got homesick, we went to the Pantheon, staring up at its dome, with cutouts like postage stamps, and then grabbed burgers and fries from the McDonald’s nearby.
I took was an art history class called Art in Rome, one of the most challenging courses I have ever taken. Our instructor, an American expat who had lived in Rome for three decades, was a small pale man with glasses who always wore a little black beanie. He had made his own photocopied packet to serve as our book and it was filled with names of artists and artwork and dates, which we had to memorize for tests. The saving grace was that the entire course was taught on site so we spent our time talking about Rome’s masterpieces while looking at them. We walked around Piazza Navona discussing the symbolism of the Four Rivers fountain and then we went out for gelato and a carafe of red wine.
My father speaks of going early on to the Catacombs. We descended into the earth where the early Christians would meet. I was impressed by that. I imagined what it was like for the early Christians, persecution that meant that they had to meet underground in these vaults. I never made it to the Catacombs. In part, because of time and the need to make reservations. In part I think because the idea of weaving in and out of underground tombs, honeycombs of the dead, made my chest start to constrict.
But I felt differently when visiting churches that had rooms underground. I remember the coolness of the air, the feeling of being somewhere secret, sacred. In one of these churches, several Caravaggio paintings hung. I found myself startled by the way he used light: illuminating only the face or hand or book of his subject while the rest of the image was cloaked in darkness. There was a brilliance to that one candle and the limitations of its light.
My father was in Rome in 1965 for the last year of the Second Vatican Council. St. Peter’s Basilica is shaped like a cross. And for the council, hundreds of bishops gathered in the main hall, the vertical line of the crucifix, with stands constructed so they could face one another to rewrite the future of the Church. My dad was studying these documents as they were being created and in them, he found the exciting potential for change and the focus on service and inclusivity in the Catholic Church. But when bishops visited the North American College, all he saw was incongruity. These same men writing about the importance of staying true to the mission of serving those most in need were lavishly dressed, were served a neverending buffet of gourmet food and wine.
Because I was in Rome during the Spring, I was able to attend Easter services. My friends and I watched the Pope as he carried a cross up a hill near the Coliseum. On a sunny Easter morning, we crowded into St. Peter’s Square amongst hundreds of thousands of believers. But on Good Friday, I had gone to St. Peter’s for a mass and something was off. I was struck by the gold, the gilded nature of everything. The incense was so strong I felt I might pass out. And as man after man gilded in golden robes went up to kiss the simple wooden cross at the front of the church, I was reminded of the opulence of the Church and the absence of women. Out of hundreds, three women, two of them plainly dressed nuns, were invited to kiss the cross. And this kissing, this adoration, would be something I would remember when I returned to the United States and my catholic university, where weekly, students would gather for Eucharistic Adoration, singing songs to the consecrated host. I remember sitting in the hard pews and thinking: is this how Jesus wants us to be spending our time? Wouldn’t he rather us be helping people? It seemed unnecessary to put all our attention on adoring an entity that was almighty and didn’t need us.
Vaulted ceilings are built to induce the feeling of levity, but the construction which allows them to stay there binded in that unlikely bend, that permanent lift is quite complicated. So too is the control, the core strength an Olympic vaulter must exact to arch his body so high up in the air, to curve over the unyielding pole.
I must have visited at least a hundred or more churches in Europe while I was there. There was a solidity in all that marble—a density that felt comforting and secure. But in turn, that same density could feel oppressive and obstinate, a weight too heavy to be born.
My father traveled to Rome on an Italian liner and the first place he visited was not Rome, but Capri. After arrival in Naples, he and his fellow seminarian were brought to Capri where a trip had been arranged for them to explore the grottos. On a sunny day over turquoise blue waters, they took a small rowboat. When they approached the entrance to the grotto, the water turned a deeper shade of blue and they had to duck their heads as the tour guides rowed them under the rugged rock arch. Once inside, they looked up. The water had become a kind of prism, refracting the light from outside through the water and sending it ascending to the ceiling. The cave was filled with an intricate web of luminous veins. My father jumped out and swam alongside the boat until it was time to row back outside into the fullness of light.
The morning I left Rome, I wept—in part from lack of sleep but mostly from a palpable grief born out of the knowledge that I had learned to love life in a way I never knew possible. And that this love was in many ways in direct conflict with my life back home. The light I had believed was only possible through certain mediums was in fact present in everything. Obedience and submission were no longer options. I would have to find another way.
Vaulting requires a kind of faith in the ability to bend and stretch. It asks us to steel ourselves, to combine materials to find solidity, for a moment or a lifetime. It demands an answer to the question: what are the limits to your soaring? To vault is to ask ourselves: where do we find majesty?