Reason #5379 to love Rome: Michelangelo’s Moses

Michelangelo's Moses, RomeThere’s a great expression in Italian, l’imbarazzo della scelta, which translates loosely to such a wide range of choices that it’s almost embarrassing.

That’s how I feel about Rome’s artistic treasures.

There’s simply so much to see in Rome, and much of the treasure trove is absolutely free to visitors. One such (marvellous) artistic example of masterpieces in the Eternal City is Michelangelo’s Moses. This sculpture can be viewed – for free- at the San Pietro in Vincoli (Saint Peter in chains) church in the Colle oppio neighborhood.

Michelangelo's Moses, RomeThe church, in the Colle Oppio neighborhood of Monti and close to the Colosseum, is itself worthy of a visit.  It is one of Rome’s ancient churches, dating back to 439 A.D..

One of its most famous relics are the two sets of chains that were said to have been used to imprison the Apostle Peter, the first in Palestine, and the second in in Rome.

The chains were brought from Jerusalem to Rome by the wife of the Byzantine emperor Valentinano III, and they now reside in this church.

Michelangelo's Moses, RomeBut most visitors flock to this historic church for another artistic and historic wonder – Michelangelo’s Moses (carved between 1513-1515).

The Moses is so spectacular on its own, that it’s hard to imagine that it was only one of a monument containing 40 individual sculptures that Michelangelo was commissioned to sculpt for the monumental tomb of Pope Julius II. One side of the planned tomb, with seven statues,  is now in the church.

Many years ago, long before I lived in Rome, I took an art history class on Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564) where we studied Michelangelo’s plans for this tomb – a tomb that was completely unrealistic in terms of time and labor. Even Pope Julius eventually talked Michelangelo out of it, and roped the sculptor into painting the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling instead.

Michelangelo's Moses, RomeBut even if Michelangelo could leave us only this partially finished monument, it was more than worth the effort. This Moses should not be missed on a trip to Rome – the folds of his tunic, his fingers stroking the long curls of his beard.

And of course, the horns. In my distant class, we learned that the horns often depicted on ancient sculptures and paintings of Moses is due to a mistranslation. Hebrew, like all Semitic languages, does not write the vowels as letters, which sometimes caused confusion in translation.

Michelangelo's Moses, Rome

A design for part of the original plan for Julius II’s tomb

Hebrew-speaking readers will know better than I, but the story goes that the verse that said that God’s light glowed on Moses’ head was mistranslated into horns on Moses’s head. Much early art illustrates Moses with horns.

Although this translation error was widely known at the time of Michelangelo, the Reniassance artist still chose to depict Moses with horns emerging from his tumble of curls.

Despite the numerous times I’ve visited this statue, I am always transfixed. Clearly one of the gazillion reasons to love Rome…

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