Contemplating Beauty in a Disabled Body


Sitting up, I see the stranger standing in front of the building, admiring it below a sun that bleaches them both. Perhaps he sees himself reflected. Two bodies, the Galleria Borghese and the man, ivory and grand; two testaments to the enduring idea from the ancient Greeks and Romans that beauty is rooted in symmetry, measure, order.

The Galleria’s Palladian proportions come from classical formalism, from the temples erected by the ancient Greeks and from Vitruvius, whose “De Architectura” is the only extant instructional architecture text from antiquity. Vitruvius tells us that man and building are best built in accordance with mathematical principles. Da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man” displays man’s ideal proportions, perfectly inscribable within circle and square. The “Vitruvian Man” is a descendant of the “Doryphoros,” the masterpiece of Polykleitos, a beloved sculptor from fifth-century Athens. Polykleitos’s statue is of a spear bearer who is shown stepping forward, torso curved, his weight on the right leg, his left at ease, one hand curled around a phantom weapon.

In “The Canon,” a companion treatise, Polykleitos detailed the exact measurements of each part of the spear bearer’s body as well as the precise distances between them, claiming these to be the ideal proportions of the human body. For the Greeks, these perfect proportions were not random but were drawn from an intricate and holy design observable in the natural world. So, orderliness in the human body was proof of that person’s innate, divine harmony; to be beautiful was to have one’s parts function together in perfect relation to a whole, just as parts of nature function together. Temple, torso, tree, leaf, wing, rose, all lined up by the eye of God; His patterns repeating everywhere: buildings built by the golden ratio; the fractal branching in the trees above me; Voronoi tessellation on the skin of the fruit that falls from the tree, on the stranger’s skin and on the wings of the dragonfly that passes overhead.

Beauty could be caught and pinned by the regulating forces of design, measurement, order. Beauty could be whittled down to principles, precise measurements, symmetry. But my eye gets bored traveling from one end of the Galleria to the other. Halfway through, I’ve seen all there is to see. Symmetry is predictable; I am soothed but not surprised. To say that beauty was merely a result of definite measurement deflated the mystery of the aesthetic experience: that bodily recognition, an ancient sense tuned to beauty, a physical seizing of beauty and of beauty’s dissonance; a welcome fever, a palpitant thrill, pleasure ill at ease, a turned stomach, a chill, prickling hairs, goose bumps, high attention. And I have felt that high attention in the presence of art, people, ideas, sounds, storms, sentences, sunsets, streams and rivers and oceans, colors, efforts, failures, loss, pain, and how much of this can be measured? It is both there and not, neither subjective nor objective. I like the vastness. I want to keep the idea of beauty like a stone in my hand, turning it over and over.

But maybe I am dismissing the ancient ideals because they don’t fit the story I tell myself about myself. My body did not fit into any narrative of order, proportion, plan. What was my lineage and where was it celebrated? In truth, I might find the Galleria building beautiful had I been born looking more like the stranger, or if I were at least touched, loved, chosen by this type of beauty. Maybe then I would submit to its rigid ideals if I were recognized as worthy of experiencing them.

The muscles around my spine throb, and so I stay in the grass a while longer, willing the pain to subside. For weeks I had read up on art in Italy like there was an exam to pass later. But I had failed to imagine just physically being present in Rome and needing basic, sustaining things — like dinner plans, a water bottle, a European plug adapter. I’d prepared by reading fat biographies of Bernini, accumulating piles of facts about the past, none of which would lead me to an experience in the present.

I lift the Bernini book, heavy as a brick, from my bag, knowing I can read for an amount of time determined solely by me. I can stay on my back for the exact number of minutes it takes for me to feel a bit better and I will not be embarrassed for how long it’s taking and I am not delaying anyone because there is no one with me to delay, and if I’m triggering pity from passers-by, I don’t notice because I’m staring above at the sky again, free from the eyes of others, and I am so grateful to be alone.


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