Twenty-five Selfies in the Raphael Room

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 selfie. A beautiful Raphael fresco was there behind them. The selfie-takers obstructed our view, but that seemed almost immaterial. The dominating scene was of the selfie-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. Selfie 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 selfie-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 selfie-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 selfie-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! (Now retired and living in Charleston, David Gillespie and his wife Judi resided in Clinton from 1979 to 2006. At PC, David taught political science and Judi served as Financial Aid Director.)

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