All Things Move, Learning to Look in the Sistine Chapel by Jeannie Marshall
Jeannie Marshall's new book, All Things Move, opens the door to a thoroughly new way of experiencing the Sistine Chapel, and the magnificence of Michelangelo's paintings.
All Things Move: Learning to Look in the Sistine Chapel "tells the story of Marshall’s relationship with one of our most cherished artworks. Interwoven with the history of its making and the Rome of today, it’s an exploration of the past in the present, the street in the museum, and the way a work of art can both terrify and alchemize the soul. An impassioned defense of the role of art in a fractured age, All Things Move is a quietly sublime meditation on how our lives can be changed by art, if only we learn to look.”
Jeannie Marshall interview excerpts:
Wendy Holloway: This is Wendy Holloway with the Flavor of Italy Podcast. I'm here today with Jeannie Marshall, whom I've known for over a decade.
Jeannie, I know that you've been living in Italy now with your family for more than 20 years and that you waited 18 years to go see the Sistine Chapel ceiling, which is pretty amazing.
And then as a result, after many visits, you wrote All Things Move, Learning to Look in the Sistine Chapel.
Before we get into that, Jeannie, what brought you to Italy?
Jeannie Marshall: Adventure, really, I think. I mean, that's how it felt. But it was a job, but it wasn't my job. I was working as a journalist in Canada and also my husband was also a journalist. We had actually tried to move to Spain, but it was while we were in Spain that he got a line on a possible short-term job in Rome at a United Nations agency.
And so we decided, Oh, let's go. Wouldn't Rome be amazing? So, we went and we thought we'll just stay a few months. And then there was another job and that was two years. And we thought, well, we'll stay two years. And now I think it'll be 22 years in a couple of months.
Wendy Holloway: A long time! And it feels to me like I met you early on in your time here in Italy, but maybe I'm not correct on that.
Jeannie Marshall: I keep trying to remember when I published my first book. And so that would have been probably about 12 years ago.
Wendy Holloway: The book that we're talking about today is your second book and you are now working on your third book, which is a completely different concept altogether, if I'm understanding correctly. So your first book was The Lost Art of Feeding Kids, What Italy Taught Me About Why Children Need Real Food.
On the surface it seems to me based on that book and your new book about the Sistine Chapel, that although they don't seem to be connected, they both relate to what you were experiencing at the time.
Jeannie Marshall: Yes. That's a good way to put it.
Yes, and at the time of the first book my son was eating sardines and anchovies and things. We would be at a table with lots of big Italian families and lots of food being ordered in a restaurant. And I'd see all these little fishes arrive and think, “Oh, what is he going to do?”
And, you know, he just did what all the other kids did so it was great. Just dove in and started eating it. So that to me was a real education through my own kid to see how our food preferences are even formed. His were being formed by the environment and he was really lucky to be growing up in an environment of really good food.
But yes, that was a very journalistic kind of book. It was a story and it had a personal element to it, but I did apply all my journalistic skills to that one, doing lots of research and interviewing people but also trying to bring into it what was a personal story at the same time.
Wendy Holloway: Your background is journalism, is that correct?
Jeannie Marshall: That's right. Even the second book, with the Sistine Chapel, it's not exactly a journalistic book, but there is a genre called literary journalism, maybe also literary nonfiction, it's often called, and I kind of love it because it's about storytelling - factual storytelling - making the story not just about the facts. You actually have to weave it into a story.
I run into other writers all the time who are saying, Oh, that's been done. But everything's been done. It's all in the telling, it's the story itself. That is what makes it unique. We all start out in some ways with the same kind of facts. We might differ on a few things, but it's how each person approaches it that makes it different.
So to me, I thought about it still as being still in the category of journalism to a certain extent when I was doing it. But I really allowed myself to try to be as creative as possible with the way of telling the story, because it wasn't an obvious linear story. It has a few strands that you wouldn't think would go together, but they do.
Wendy Holloway: Through the book, you seem to evolve. You go back and forth from personal storytelling of your life. And then the historical and artistic background of the Sistine Chapel and what was going on even before and after the painting of the Sistine Chapel. So it became at certain points very much history and journalistic.
Jeannie Marshall: Yes. And of course I read a lot and did a lot. I used sources that are out there. I wasn't digging around in archives or anything because the Sistine Chapel is something that's thoroughly researched already and that's really available to us.
But what I wanted to do was, as I started to go through and spend some time in Sistine Chapel, I started to think about how we look at art and how we don't know how to look at art. Sometimes you see people looking very confused and you feel it yourself. Sometimes you don't know; what am I supposed to look at? What am I supposed to be experiencing here? So I thought it might be interesting to actually write about my own process of trying to figure that out for myself while looking at something that's really famous. So it's hard to figure out what you are experiencing from what you've already heard and know about it.
And of course they mingle together, those strands. So it came to feel to me like writing about how I'm experiencing it and taking the reader along. in their own experience. You know, it's like you kind of go together. It's like we start out together and it becomes a kind of quest and a journey.
We're going through the Sistine Chapel ceiling piece by piece, and we know we're heading to the Last Judgment, which is on the altar wall, and that forms the end of the book. So that made it more interesting to me to even think about my own experience in that way, but also that desire you have to share it and to bring someone with you.
Wendy Holloway: Indeed. I did a podcast interview about art access for the blind and most specifically works of art, but not exclusively within the Vatican. The interview was with Sabrina Zappia, and it's really her passion and focus. She relayed an experience she had when she was in the Sistine Chapel looking at it, and she listened - as you did when you went many times - to what other people were saying.
She ended up having a strong relationship with Deborah Tramentozzi, an Italian woman, who was talking about some aspect within the Sistine Chapel. Sabrina realized, “oh, I've never looked at it that way, that whole aspect escaped me”, and it turned out that not only is Deborah Tramentozzi blind, but she was making the art accessible to other blind people.
And now in, within the Vatican, there are works of art where the Vatican has established a tactile and an audio experience for the blind.
Jeannie Marshall: Yeah. So that they can have an analogous experience, but also their own individual experience of it.
Wendy Holloway: You go in the Sistine Chapel and, and as you say, you know that some people arethere because they're checking it off of their tourist list. Perhaps that's the majority, but everyone goes there with some unique backstory as they approach it. Maybe just to tick it off their list, or maybe as in your case, because there is a deep rooted or really underground sort of denial relationship with Catholicism. Something you sort of pushed onto the back burner and through art you figured out exactly what your relationship with Catholicism is, maybe because of your grandma's strong relationship with it.
And then on a different level, your mother's feeling about being a good or bad Catholic.
After your 15 visits there, or more, I think it must be like reading, and rereading, a book in that you get more out of it each time.
Jeannie Marshall: Yeah. Oh, I know. But it's funny because I really just wanted to go and see it as art, but I knew that's really hard to do because it's one of the most incredibly famous religious pieces of art as well.
So, in trying to figure out how does the whole thing fit together because it's all these different pieces and taking apart the pieces I did start to realize, there's a real theology that's being presented here. AndI realized it's not exactly the theology that my mother felt oppressed by in the sixties and seventies.
I did realize looking at the Sistine Chapel when I started taking apart the images that there was this theology that was so different and so interesting and so poetic and artistic. And it wasn't what I remember my mother finding so objectionable about the Catholicism that she grew up with that she felt was always judging and oppressing.
And for her, she was still a spiritual person to a certain extent, although she didn't really know what to do with it. But she just felt so judged by it that she couldn't really stay there. And when I was looking at the Sistine Chapel, I felt like this isn't about judging people.
I mean, they have the Last Judgment, of course. It's about questions. It's about asking all of these questions about origins, and where do we come from, and all these mysteries, and acknowledging that we don't really know. We have stories, and we have ideas, but it's almost an acknowledgement that these are stories, and these are ways of knowing something, but we don't have the whole truth.
And the more I started to read about the influences that Michelangelo I found one of them was Giles of Viterbo. He had a very interesting sort of vision of Catholicism, spirituality, and Christianity as being artistic, and that the way you had to communicate spirituality was through art.
And he spoke of the of scripture as having a poetic veil with the idea to simply say it head on, which is something I often say about stories as well. If you just bludgeon people with facts, you're going to bore them.
You couldn't just go straight on and say this is the meaning of life and then we'd all be fine. It has to bemore diffused than that. We can only catch it in little bits and pieces and it comes to us through these very religious artists.
Wendy Holloway: Each person has to come to it in their own way.
Jeannie Marshall: Yes, and you have to be active about it. It isn't a passive sort of thing where you just go through the rituals.
But of course, around the time that Michelangelo was painting the ceiling, that was happening. There was a lot of “we do the ritual, we buy an indulgence and then we're fine”.
Wendy Holloway: You mentioned a few things about going into the Sistine Chapel in the book anddealing with these massive crowds, so if you’re focused because on that you can't really engage.
You also mentioned being there with your son. And when you left, he said, “Ma, my neck is sore from looking up” -another distraction.
One thing that was wonderful and helpful, that would make subsequently going into the Sistine Chapel more approachable, was the show at the Vatican, the Giudizio Universale.
Jeannie Marshall: Yes, it's such a hard thing because often if you're going, especially if you're a visitor to Italy, you're probably only going to go one time.
So there's a lot riding on your one visit, so you've got all of these things that you already know about it, your own expectations. And probably buried in there too are these questions like “is it still relevant? What is the point? Why am I going? So in fact, having something that can make it relatable, like the Giudizio Universale I think can help.
Someone wrote me a letter about having just picked up my book on a whim because she and her husband were going to Rome and she read it on the plane on the way over, and she said it helped her to just slow down.
She said she just accepted that those questions she was having were normal questions to have and just find her way into the city, but also into the Sistine Chapel, into the images that she was actually there to look at, especially because they had one visit. They couldn't go twice.
She felt it helped her to squeeze a little bit more out of it. And I think taking any kind of a guidebook, something that helps you to find an anchor is really useful. For me, it was. I had read a lot of books before and then I would go there and I would still feel very confused. So often what I would do is I would decide I'm going to find one thing. I'm going to find Jonah. And then, not be sure exactly where Jonah was. And then in looking for Jonah, I would see other things. But finally when I would find him, I would have a sense of being anchored. And the same for other panels, other images I would look for. And then I could go off and branch out after that. It's just that it is so enormous that you do need a way into it.
Just to sort of go in and be confronted by the whole thing is just flattening.
Wendy Holloway: True. And as you say, from the touristic perspective, the last time I went was pre Covid and I deeply regret that I didn't go there immediately after Covid. I missed the golden opportunity in the midst of a tragedy.
I went with my niece and her two little girls pre Covid. And even then it was so crowded. I was focused on: I didn’t want to lose the girls, where to find the bathroom for them etc. It was not a pleasant thing at all, and in a certain sense it's very much the fault of the Vatican.
Because if you think about a theater experience, for example, there's a set number of people who attend. And you might get tickets to the theater six months in advance, but you know you've got your seat. But I feel like we’re cattle being pushed through the Sistine Chapel, and it really takes away from any chance to engage with the experience.
Jeannie Marshall: It seems the guards see their jobs as pushing you out of the room. You spend all morning or all afternoon trying to get into the room, and the moment you step in, they're pushing you towards the exit. I think they could do better for sure. I think that's not a great experience but I can understand it from their perspective. They want safety. People are looking up and so it's easy to have someone fall or trip over other people. They have to be sure that nobody sits down because peopleobviously want to. I'd love nothing more than to just lay down on the floor, and look at the ceiling.
I did go just after Covid. And the nice thing about that was that I felt like the guards themselves were also a little bit in awe of what was happening. It was that this room had been closed up, no one was here, and now we're here only a few people at a time, and we could look around. The disappointing thing was that they taped off the seats that are around the edge of the room so you couldn't sit down for social distancing.
But at least there were not so many people and you would catch the eye of other people and you would have a sense of, isn't this incredible, you know, that we have this chance to actually stand here and look at it in peace for a few minutes.
Now, some of it is just that it's a big room, but it's not that big a room, so to have all those people coming through, guards do have to manage them. I don't know what the answer is. There's such demand to see it, and you don't want to make it impossible for people to see it, or make it such an exclusive thing that only a few people can go, but allowing everyone in also creates its own problem.
You can't restrict it or make it so expensive that only a few people will go because you never know who's going to have that big experience - you never know. It could be someone who's not really expecting much will go in, and have their lives changed.
Whether it's an inner change, a sense that, wow, I never really cared much about Renaissance art and now I get it. Maybe it's a spiritual thing, or it's just that moment like I never cared about art, and now I do. You never know what can happen and it's something where I find some unexpected things happen when you go to an art gallery and particularly when you have a little bit of time.
I like going by myself. It's fun to go with other people, but we end up chatting and making lunch plans and we don't really look at what we're supposed to be looking at. I do love to go by myself and go as often as I can.
I was in Toronto recently because my son is going to university there and I was delighted to see that the Art Gallery of Ontario has created a program where if you're under 25, you go in for free. And I thought, that's fabulous, because when you're that age, you're impressionable. And to be able to just wander in and maybe look at two things and wander out again is, is wonderful. That's a real gift, so I'm pushing my my science oriented son to take advantage of that.
Wendy Holloway: There probably would be a couple of ways for better art management in Rome, like Galleria Borghese where you have a time slot with a limited number of people. You know that your time slot is a set time instead of getting in a line in the morning and you wait and wait and wait.
Jeannie Marshall: They do that to a certain extent. You can buy tickets online and they are for a certain time. I think they try to control the numbers, but it's just that it's such a big place that there are people who bunch up in different areas of the Vatican Museums. You end up with a bottleneck in certain spots, and then a lot of people who want to spend more time in the Sistine Chapel.
Wendy Holloway: Maybe as you say, go alone, or try to have an alone experience, even if you're with people. I think an audio guide could be great.
Jeannie Marshall: Digging deep and going back, reflecting and going back again. That takes you to a very unique place that because there's so much in the, in the Vatican, it just would be so overwhelming.
Wendy Holloway: Living in the countryside like you I feel overwhelmed and a kind of lightheadedness, and my heart is pounding almost, almost the Stendhal effect that you discuss in the book.
Every time I go into the center, I go to the Pantheon and just like you mentioned about your sensationin the Sistine Chapel - the sense of permanence, eternity, the fact that it was there before you, with you and then will endure after you is a grounding and comforting feeling I get at the Pantheon. Like you I just stand there and look at its magnificence and it calms you even though your heart may be pounding at the same.
What would your suggestion be for a first-time visitor to Rome and the Sistine Chapel? How should that newbie approach it? Even from the practical standpoint, the best times to visit, if you would suggest a guide - any insight and tips you would give to a first time visitor.
Note: The audio portion of Jeannie Marshall’s interview cut out here; this is the essence of what else she shared:
Jeannie Marshall (paraphrased): When you visit the Sistine Chapel go prepared with some research under your belt. The starting point could be my book All Things Move: Learning to Look in the Sistine Chapel.
Take a look at the bibliography at the back of the book which is full of historical and art references to explore. Most of the photography in the book – all of which is magnificent and evocative – is by Douglas Cooper. Douglas Cooper has also written a book about the Sistine Chapel you can explore.
If possible, visit the Sistine Chapel by yourself so you can have a very personal experience exploring it. And it goes without saying that multiple visits are ideal so that you can digest everything you’ve seen and absorb it in between visits.
Finding a great guide is a way to explore the Sistine Chapel although the shortcoming with this is you are seeing the guide’s interpretation and experience rather than forming your own.
Audio guides are a great way to visit the Sistine Chapel.
The Sistine Chapel experience is something unique to each and every person so enter with an open mind and let the experience envelope you.
Jeannie Marshall is completing her third book, a novel that takes place in Florence. The protagonist is seeking her own spirituality and doing so through Saint Augustine, a theologian and philosopher. You’ll be able to enjoy this book probably within the first half of 2024.
Art access for the blind at the Vatican
About the Sistine Chapel
The Sistine Chapel ceiling
A Vatican Sistine Chapel Virtual tour
Giudizio Universale: The Sistine Chapel Immersive Show, an NPR review
About the Giudizio Universale show
All Things Move reviews:
Jeannie Marshall interviews:
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