Rome's Horrors; The Colors of Love

Gosnell Trial Is a Lesson for the New and Old Worlds Alike

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Tourists from the United States tend to see ancient Rome like a distant mirror of their own culture. The ancient Romans were a people under a rule of law; they were resourceful and respected throughout the world. 

In the tourists’ eyes, the Forum is an ancestor of the Washington Mall, the Colosseum was a primitive and less enlightened form of modern professional sports. What they choose not to see is the cruelty practiced by Romans on those they considered less than human, the victims of the so-called games.

That selective blindness applies back home in the United States. As the awful tolls of the abortion business are being exposed in the trial of 72-year-old Kermit Gosnell, a late-term abortion practitioner, media outlets and cultural pundits remain stubbornly silent about the barbaric cruelty brought about by exceptionally lax abortion laws, whereby unborn children are given the status of less-than-human.

Dr. Kermit Gosnell ran an abortion clinic in the Philadelphia area from 1972 to 2011. Over the years, he grew to specialize in late-term abortions between 20 and 24 weeks –- in Pennsylvania abortion after 24 weeks is illegal, but in Alaska, Colorado, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Vermont, and West Virginia, there are no time limits on abortion at all. Which means, to make this perfectly clear, a child can be aborted up through the ninth month of pregnancy, so long as the mother can find a doctor who agrees that the abortion is necessary for her “health,” defined as well-being.

The trial has brought to light one of the methods used for late abortions: inducing labor at seven months in the hopes that the child will not survive the birth. In the case of Dr. Gosnell, witnesses for the prosecution have testified that when a child was born alive, crying or squirming, Dr. Gosnell or one of his assistants would sever the infant’s spinal cord in what Gosnell apparently referred to as “ensuring fetal demise.” Testimony indicates that this practice occurred hundreds of times.

Dr. Gosnell is also on trial for the unsanitary conditions of his clinic, performing illegal abortions on minors, and causing the death of a woman from anesthesia overdose.

The gruesome details that have emerged from the trial would ordinarily guarantee press coverage, yet the trial of Kermit Gosnell and his house of horrors, which started on March 18, seems to be covered in its entirety only by Life Site.

There has been an interesting series of articles about the media silence, starting with USA Today’s Kirsten Powers and followed by Connor Friedersdorf in the Atlantic. A lively debate has ensued regarding the coverage or lack of coverage regarding the trial, this debate almost obscuring yet again the crime. It’s like watching the flourishes and jabs in the arena and forgetting that the show ends in death.

Two thoughts have struck me in reading about this trial: one is that the Romans boasted about their gladiator battles and their animal hunts but were more reticent about the public executions, where people jeered and cheered while fellow human beings were tortured — much like the pro-abortion crowd who champion their “reproductive rights” and decry a “war on women,” but when it comes to the mutilated children killed by their cause, they grow strangely silent.

The poet Martial, public relations specialist for Vespasian who drummed up publicity for the opening of the Colosseum, recounts the death of a man in the re-enactment of a myth of a bandit king where “nailed to a cross – no stage prop this – a man offered his exposed guts to a Highland bear. His shredded limbs clung to life though their constituent parts gushed with blood. No trace of the body, but the body lived.”

The Romans soon stopped recounting these events, and the only testimonies remained the somewhat prim-by-comparison passions of the martyrs. It would seem that the Romans knew to be ashamed of these executions as entertainments. Cicero and Seneca, two great luminaries of the their age, forcefully objected to these games, but like Kirsten Powers or Connor Friedersdorf, their warnings went unheeded.

The ugly reality of permissive abortion laws is that it leads to Dr Gosnell’s ghastly shop. Powers makes a very interesting point in her first article: “Regardless of such quibbles, whether Gosnell was killing the infants one second after they left the womb instead of partially inside or completely inside the womb — as in a routine late-term abortion — is merely a matter of geography.” “That one is murder and the other is a legal procedure is morally irreconcilable,” she concludes.

Planned Parenthood, the multi-billion dollar giant of the abortion industry, protests that infants don’t survive the induced labor of late-term abortions, but if Gosnell was, as his own collaborators testify, snipping hundreds of spinal cords, it appears that Planned Parenthood’s information is inaccurate, to say the least.

Gosnell’s practice reveals the barbaric practice, worthy of the Flavian Amphitheater, of killing infants, cruelly, painfully and tragically. An aspect of our civilized, law-abiding generous society that we don’t want to think about.

Tourists balk at the idea that Romans enjoyed the spectacle of a pregnant sow killed in a beast hunt and the piglets spilling out of her dying body, or a woman raped for entertainment before being thrown to beasts, as this doesn’t reconcile with the pretty picture of a high minded society. Therefore, one will be hard-pressed to find these stories in the guide books or on the average tour. Who wants to ruin a vacation with stories of suffering? In the same way, the wretched clinic of Dr Gosnell reveals a part of America we don’t want to see.

My second thought is that Europe, where many countries still cling to more restrictive abortion laws, should take a look at where this death-dealing permissiveness leads. Europe has known the horrors of Auschwitz on its soil, and before that, 200 arenas throughout the Empire plied their gruesome trade. While it may seem to many Europeans that America is 20 years ahead on “social issues,” Gosnell’s trial shows that we are often 2,000 years behind.

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Sacred and Profane

Unlike Michelangelo, Leonardo and Raphael, Titian may never have been a ninja turtle, but he sure knew how to knock one’s socks off. After several decades of relative obscurity, during which the Venetian painter was prized by either art connoisseurs or fans of his erotic mythologies, a new exhibit at the Quirinal Stables recalls the breathless excitement of his art that thrilled viewers 500 years ago.

Like the blockbuster Caravaggio exhibit in 2010, this show features only “pure” Titian works, those fairly certain to be by the master’s hand. The exhibit is small so instead of the speed-dating approach of skimming through many works, each painting, well-spaced from the next, invites engagement and intimacy with the evolving technique of this Venetian genius.

My own love of art history came from Greek mythology. The stories of heroes and gods and loves and wars, each containing a little nugget of insight into humanity, enthralled me for hours during my childhood. One Christmas, when I was about 14 or 15, my parents gave me Bullfinch’s Mythology illustrated with famous works of art — the rest is history.

Among those magic pages, there were several appearances by Titian: Europa, Venus and Adonis and a splendid color plate of Bacchus and Ariadne. Titian took the love stories, leaving the monsters and the murderous tales to others. So I saw Renaissance Italy as a place of love, color and a vibran
t pulsating joy in being alive.

When I finally came to Italy and rushed to Venice, Venus and Bacchus were nowhere to be found. The city was full of altarpieces by the artist, a side of Titian I wasn’t expecting. Cold churches, dusty altars and shimmering color trying to escape from the heavy patina of age. The rollicking works had been shipped off to Spain for the delight of the Holy Roman Emperor, while Titian’s fortune had been made in his home town through devotional art.

If I had seen this exhibit 25 years ago, it wouldn’t have taken so long for me to “convert” to sacred Titian. Turning the corner to enter the exhibit, a large altarpiece blocks the path; it startles for its size, but the color is breathtaking. Painted in 1556 for the Jesuit church in Venice, St Lawrence lies on a grill surrounded by soldiers. It is night and the fires that torment the deacon are the only source of light. The orange flames sputter in the torches and rage under the grill, they lick between the toes of the martyr. Recently restored, the work demonstrates the true power of color.

The overwhelming majority of the works in the exhibit are religious, particularly from the post Reformation era, when the spirituality of aging artist intensified. Several come from his early period, with their bright colors and crisp lines. He experiments with different compositions while perfecting that shade of golden red that will bear his name.

This period of 1512-1514, well represented in the show, produced the painting that proved the lynchpin in my conversion from mythological to sacred art, Sacred and Profane Love, today in the Galleria Borghese but sadly not in the exhibition. These twin Venuses as they are called, sit side by side. Profane love, dressed for her wedding day looks at the viewer with her jewels and accessories while the nude and shining Sacred love beckons her to think beyond the here and now towards the eternal. The gentle way they interact, the harmonious balance between the two figures, showed me that it was time to move from the sweet milk of mythology to the sustenance of sacred art. I have never regretted it.

The exhibit dedicated a room to Titian’s late images of Christ’s Passion. The Crucifixion of El Escorial is haunting as Christ’s head hangs in darkness and gloomy clouds are split by lightning. It is impossible to believe that Titian was merely playing lip service to the church before this painting.

We are invited into the religious fervor of the mid-16th century, as the Reformation made every man, woman and child think about what they really believed. His works evoke an age of saints and martyrs thrown up from a sort of primal soup formed by the turbulence of the times. His rich palette, constantly mixing, churning and changing with dramatic slashes of brush strokes, seems to reflect the spirit of the Counter Reform, surrounded by darkness and doubt, looking for flashes of light.

The upstairs contains many portraits, a specialty of Titian. They are delightful and several are quite arresting, especially those of the Farnese family. Then the show closes with a nod to that young secular art historian who so loved Titian’s mythologies years ago.

And yet, as beguiling as Venus and Danae are, as they attempt to lure the attention away from martyrdoms and sacrifice, I walked away more moved by images of Passion, than tales of love.

* * *

Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus and University of St. Thomas’ Catholic Studies program. A new paperback version of her book, “The Tigress of Forlì: Renaissance Italy’s Most Courageous and Notorious Countess, Caterina Riario Sforza de’ Medici” was published by Harcourt, Mifflin Houghton Press this Fall. She can be reached at

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Elizabeth Lev

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