Elizabeth Lev


Interview with Elizabeth Lev - Art Historian






Square & Area

Vatican City
Colonnade Saints
Floorplan #2
The History

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Tone Deaf to St Peter's
Julius II's Big Gamble
The Pieta
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Stpetersbasilica.info sat down with art historian Elizabeth Lev in Rome. She has written extensively about the Vatican and Rome and been interviewd by numerous media outlets.  She can be found online at www.elizabeth-lev.com

Elizabeth Lev's road to reversion began with Dante, passed through Caravaggio and ended with Michelangelo. After studying Renaissance art at University of Chicago and doing graduate work at University of Bologna in Baroque art, in 1996 she moved to Rome, where the intersection of the sacred and the beautiful opened her eyes to greater and deeper meaning in art. Elizabeth presently teaches art history at Duquesne University's Italian campus, including a survey of Christian art in Rome, a course of her own design. She also writes for Inside the Vatican and has been a regular contributor to Zenit news agency.

How did you end up in Rome?

Elizabeth Lev
I came to Italy in 1989, after I finished my undergraduate degree at the University of Chicago, to go to school at the University of Bologna because I was interested in the way the Italians taught art. That means that as opposed to the University of Chicago where I was taught a very formal vision of art, in Italy it was all about the context and meaning of art, and most importantly the placement of a piece of art. So at a certain point I realized that there was only so much I could ever really understand by reading books and looking at slides and that everything would be different when I stood in front of the work. I came to Rome and stood in front of Caravaggio in the Contarelli Chapel in St. Luigi dei Franchesi and understood how the paintings worked around the altar. When I went to St. Peter's and looked at the Pieta and realized how the work was to be around an altar, a whole new world of meaning in art opened up for me. And so I can't really go back to slides and books.

What attracted you initially to St. Peter's Basilica?

Elizabeth Lev
The history of my understanding of Catholicism is through the artwork in Rome, and it's between Caravaggio and Michelangelo. So it's the Sistine Chapel, St. Peter's Basilica, and the few places that contain Caravaggio's work. What drove me to St. Peter's was that once I got beyond this formal discussion of the balance, the symmetry and order of the works of art, there seemed to be something left in the discussion. It seemed to me over the years, St. Peter's has revealed itself to me slowly, but always with the promise that there is more coming. You see how the work of Bernini reveals the interaction of the Holy Spirit throughout the church. When Bernini is working in St. Peter's he's trying to make us understand the presence of the Holy Spirit. When Michelangelo's in the church, he's trying to give us more of the physical presence of God. So the way that art and history, and this sacredness of place all work together, provides just a constant draw to St. Peter's.

Any personal experiences in St. Peter's that you'd like to share?

Elizabeth Lev
St. Peter's is the site of my reversion I'd have to say. I grew up Catholic but I left the church with such a door-slamming, bridge-burning attitude that if you'd have told me that when I was 25 that one day all I would ever want to do is go into St. Peter's and talk about God, I would have slapped you silly probably. So I think that the moment for me, like many, many other people, was when I went to St. Peter's during the year 2000, except during the year 2000 I was going for work. And I just saw it as work. During the course of that blessed year, under our magnificent Pope, St. Peter's began to mean more to me. And I think in that year the moment that stands out, and every time that I'm in there I look at the statue of St. Peter, I remember two priest friends of mine who had taken me to do a lot of tours with their benefactors and their friends, and they never really pushed me to live out more of the religious end of the tour. So they would pray here or stop for the Blessed Sacrament there, and I would do the talking about the art. I remember toward the close of Jubilee Year 2000 when I was pointing out the statue of St. Peter, and the line of people touching the foot. I was saying that this is what the pilgrims do when they thank Peter for the safe journey here, and it's their way of showing that you've finally come to St. Peter's for your indulgence, and these two big 6 foot priests boxed me in on either side and they walked me over in a way that I really could not move away without screaming or yelling, and they took my hand and they put it on St. Peter's foot. Within a few months the whole situation of my life had changed so that I was really free to go back to the church. I've had a lot of wonderful experiences in St. Peter's. I've seen a lot of interesting things in St. Peter's that people don't get to see, done a lot of really cool things in St. Peter's, but to me the most important moment in St. Peter's was when my soul was saved.

Do you have a favorite work of art in the basilica?

Elizabeth Lev
My favorite work of art changes every couple of years. I'm afraid I'm something of a 'donna mobile', or fickle in my tastes in St. Peter's. There are periods when I find that Bernini's exploration of the Holy Spirit between the canopy and the Chair of St. Peter is utterly fascinating. At times I enjoy discussing Bernini's monument to Alexander VII and the idea of the good death. There are moments when the anthropomorphic element of the dome and the apses captivate me. Right now I'm really taken with the architecture of the dome and how Michelangelo inserted a cushion of light between the dome and the church by opening up all those windows, so that the dome seems like it's floating. In this particular period I've taken to referring to it as Michelangelo's greatest gift to the church. Because it was a gift. He took no money for it, he donated it for the glory of God and the salvation of his soul. Sometimes I like to go through the papal monuments and talk about the different periods of the papacy. The way that Pius VII on his monument the crown seems so heavy, and the mantle seems so big, and it was a tough papacy for him. Then you look at a Medici pope with his jaunty crown, and then you see Alexander VII without his tiara kneeling in prayer, it recounts different moments in the history of the papacy. The Pieta will always mean the world to me. The Pieta is probably the work that first opened my eyes to how much the sacred and liturgical aspect affects a work art. That was the work that I really understood that I had to throw out 60 percent of what I had been taught in college, and that I had to do it all over again. You're looking at things through a very different lenses.

Anything that you'd like to see changed at St Peter's?

Elizabeth Lev
I think St. Peter's is a church designed to grow. It's a church that has been expecting vast numbers of pilgrims. I think that we have hit a tremendous number of pilgrims at this point, and then in our new post September 11 world there are elements of the basilica that are very different from the one I knew a few years ago. I used to go to daily Mass at St. Peter's, but now that it's such a pain to get in to St. Peter's I can't bring myself to go to daily Mass there anymore. I think St. Peter's is going to have to deal a bit with the growing pains of being so big with so many people. This idea of having so many people in the church; is it a museum, is it a church, what is its function, how does it treat visitors. I think St. Peter's is doing an admirable job, but I still think we have some time to go before there is a real ease with the flow of people and the purpose of that flow, because over 50 percent of these people are tourists. Another thing that I would not mind having changed are those statues that they put outside in the niches. For those I'm sure they have a perfectly good warehouse that could be lined up.

Can you tell me some of the other things that you're involved with?

Elizabeth Lev
I live a very Roman life, and all good Romans have four or five different jobs that keep the easily distracted people in the Eternal City busy. Right now I'm working with a couple of Catholic colleagues from the tour company that I worked with for many years, to put together an organization to do sacred tours of the city. Of course we'll cover St. Peter's and the Vatican, but we'd like to show pilgrims that from 500 to 1870 Rome was a papal city, and that the pope was part of Rome. The Christian presence of Rome shaped this town, you can see that everywhere, especially with the movement of Christian churches into the city. And realize that the whole history of Christianity--- the struggle with the pagan empire, the triumph over paganism, and its development into the Catholic center of the world, it's all there in the basilicas, fountains and piazzas. After 1870 and the separation of the papal states and the Italian state, part of the city has became more and more a series of tourist monuments. So it's like a larger version of what going on at St. Peter's, because people think of St. Peter's as a museum and not as a church. And so we'd like to remind them that Rome carries the imprint of 2,000 years of the followers of Christ. The city of Rome is a series of sites where St. Peter's chains were kept, where he was imprisoned, where he left Rome and encountered Christ and where he first found the place to stay when he came to Rome. It's the site of the first church dedicated to the Virgin Mary in the west, and the beginning of our Marian devotion. It's all in here, but we don't look at it that way any more. We don't even look at the way the fountains of Rome, that were being built by all the popes, are part of that sense of cleansing and have that memory of baptism. So clearly I'm getting very sidetracked into what is my new pet project of presenting the Christian element of Rome through its clear Christian window.

I'm writing a book, which is a biography of one of the few women I've ever heard of who was as busy as I am, Caterina Riario Sforza who lived in the 1460's to early 1500's, and was not just witness to the events here but also protagonist in some of the most dramatic moments in Italy. Somewhere in there I try to do decent job of raising my children and transmitting my love of our city to them.

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