Naples’ Palazzo Pitti is the other enormous, masterpiece-stuffed museum in Florence, or rather, set of museums jammed into a Renaissance palace that, in addition to having many stone staircases inside to climb, is on top of a hill.
To the weary tourist, it is truly a place without pity. But I went to visit, in search of Pontius Pilate. Later in the day I would make my way in and out of the (boring) royal apartments over into the Palatine Gallery and wander awestruck through room after room of fifteenth, sixteenth, seventeenth century paintings by the likes of Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese, Raphael, etc., etc. The floors are hard on the feet, and the neck hurts from straining to look at even the exquisitely painted ceilings.
The sheer volume of artwork here is overwhelming, and one grows numb to it. Even the Raphael of Count Tomasso Inghirami one sees in the background below could move me, though I was a little agitated by the placard saying this version is the real one, not the one in the Gardner Museum in Boston! Still, by the end of it all, I felt like the kid below did, splayed out on a bench like the Deposition of Christ behind him.
But, as I said, I’d come to find Pilate, and I did find him, in one of the rooms of the Gallery of Modern Art. Only in Florence, of course, could eighteenth and nineteenth century artwork be considered modern! It’s a lovely museum, though too crammed as well, to be sure.
I spent the better part of an hour looking at many minor masterpieces in this gallery before I came upon it, in the corner of a well-appointed room, Antonio Ciseri’s Ecce Homo, from 1871.
It’s a much reproduced work, as you can imagine. The dramatic point of view, “backstage” if you will, at the presentation of Christ to the jeering crowd, features in many a work about the Passion and Pilate’s particular place in it. I wanted to have a closer look at it, and I’m glad I did. Only later would it occur to me, in Rome at the Scala Sancta, that Pilate stands at the top of the Praetorium steps, those stairs that probably are not in Rome but certainly have been revered as being so.
At the center of the painting, one sees Pilate’s gesturing hand. The placement demands that we consider it, this hand, pointing away from himself toward Christ who, though largely in shadow, is represented with the crown of thorns. Pilate will wash that hand a little while later, but he will never efface the moment. As Macbeth says in a context perhaps connected to Pilate’s own, Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood / Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather / The multitudinous seas in incarnadine, / Making the green one red.”
Beneath the hand and behind the railing of the praetorium, one sees the faces of the crowd. Over and above them are symbols of Empire, most notably Trajan’s Column, out of place geographically and temporally–its jarring placement seems to indicate that there is little the worldly power of Rome can do for the procurator at this moment. The crowd cries for blood, and Pilate will supply it, whether he wants to or not. Like George Orwell in Shooting an Elephant, Pilate must do their will. “A sahib has got to act like a sahib; he has got to appear resolute, to know his own mind and do definite things. To come all that way, rifle in hand, with two thousand people marching at my heels, and then to trail feebly away, having done nothing – no, that was impossible. The crowd would laugh at me. And my whole life, every white man’s life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at.”
“What shall I then do with Him?”
This question once asked always has its answer. Even the attempt to ignore it, is an answer as real as any
other. For to do nothing with Jesus, or to do without
Him, has its result. Its result is despair. The life of
such a man as Carlyle is the result. To know the sin and
not to know the sin Bearer, to know the burden and not
to know the burden Bearer, to load one’s heart with the
burdens of men, is to live a life which may be sublime, but
must be full of anguish. Carlyle confessed that to carry
on one’s conscience the sins of his age and his own imper
fect life, makes life seared and stern. Pilate’s question is
in truth unavoidable, and Ciseri’s picture is a vivid pre
sentation of that fact. The picture centers attention on
the chief point of Pilate’s part in the tragedy, and makes
his attempt to avoid his his own question appear, what it in
fact was, most pathetic
It’s a dated approach, but perhaps the right starting point to a deeper consideration of Ciseri’s magnum opus.