Atop the Aventine Hill of Rome, beside the Savello park that adorns itself with countless bitter oranges, sits the Magistral Villa. This millennium-age estate, that gives tourists and visitors a chance for an offbeat pilgrimage, does so for its one simple property — or, rather, a lack of one. Its small ornamented keyhole: Il Buco Della Serratura.
Through this embellished gap the frozen image of the eternal city is shown to the visitor’s eye. Curtains of gardened grass frame the setting, accompanied by the copper green dome of Saint Peter’s Basilica, the pinnacle of Roman Catholicism; one of the many centers of the world. This still image, unchanged through many centuries, displays to its viewers more than just aesthetic beauty and the pleasure of being an observer of historical symbols: it is a consensual perversion, heightened in thrill by the presence of religious divinity. Traditionally, each day and every hour, voyeurs and peepers climb their way, by foot or by wheel, to bare witness to this view — a view that requests of its visitors a symbiosis between the physical endurance required to make the journey, and the mental delicacy and senseful attentiveness needed in the profound arrival at such a desired destination. That symbiosis is the essence of the pilgrim.
We can assume that past visitors to the keyhole would have arrived on the scene only to have a glimpse through the unlensed looking glass, to soak in the view, and then, eventually, to leave. While these might have varied with different levels of excitement or duration, there was one fixed variable: the visitors had no choice but to resort to what is anachronistically known as “photographic memory.” The only loose thread linking this subject-object relation. It was through this limitation that other elements were used as some sort of a mental compensation. The event, over some time, was adorned by the visitor with a romantic memory, all spiced with a fairly vivid usage of the imagination.
The fantastical and fabricated image that was created in the visitor’s mind is a stronger remnant of the one that was created initially in the visitor’s eyes. It is in this gap between actuality and fantasy that astonishment enters. But not only astonishment. Other elements, such as folklore, storytelling, myth, and legend, find themselves comfortable in such an enabling environment. This imaginative eye was freed from the boundaries of space, time, and human immobility. It has made itself present in the ways of the wayfarers. The anticipation that they in turn created for those willing to listen were bound to elevate the experience of those about to undergo the same journey that was foretold in such ecstasy.
If only that was still the case today. As my older sister and I arrived at the entrance of the Magistral Villa this summer we were presented not with a closed door, but with the sight of a snaking line of visitors. As each person (most of them couples) arrived at the keyhole, they would crouch, and then proceed to attach their phone’s camera to the gap, snap a picture; leave immediately. Very few felt there was any reason to look through with their own eyes.
To paraphrase the Italian writer Italo Calvino, the line between the reality that is photographed because it seems beautiful and the reality that seems beautiful because it has been photographed is very narrow.
As organs are willfully replaced by assembled mechanics, and the potential aura is reduced to its semiotic core, ignoring the loud declaration that this current age is defined by its violent murder of the mystical is becoming an increasingly Sisyphean act. And this even more so on the crest of the Aventine Hill.
It is not only that all that is holy is now profaned, or that all that had spiritual worth is now, lethargically, mass manufactured for an imagined, indifferent crowd. No. It is also that the secularization of religious experience is now, and simultaneously, a process of monetization. One created by the contorted digital omnipresence of private experience. Through the faux experience and spectatorship of digital documentation, the fantastical image has been replaced by a boring echo, one that bears not genuine but only the cynical hashtag of amazement. So it is that the need one feels for a personal, un-monetizable, emotional experience shatters.
While the question of how the disappearance of privacy affects religious experience remains (as does that of whether technology is necessarily a secularizing agent) the fact that either question can be posed is sorry evidence to our condition of human isolation. An isolation drifting further from the overwhelming forces of either divinity or forceful feelings.
When it was finally our turn to look through the keyhole, my sister and I made a pact. We decided not to take any photographs. As I took a few steps forward and leaned to the keyhole, as if I was bowing to its presence, I pressed my eye into the metallic tumbler. Drowned by the image seen through the gap, I took some moments. My sister took pictures of me looking through the keyhole.
Ido Nahari is currently working for the Quartet on the Middle East situated in East Jerusalem, where he specializes in regional climate change and resource allocations.