Perspiration and Inspiration: Working Out Under the Watchful Eye of Madonna

Working out in Rome meant working out without air conditioning, that is, until music icon Madonna’s gym Hard Candy rolled into town.

To Icon, or Not to Icon

I live in Monti, an area of central Rome that has exquisite iconography. Between the Colosseum and the Esquiline hill, the churches here house artwork that takes your breath away. Triptychs, diptychs, you name the tych. Glittering mosaics of first century saints, complete with toenails below their togas. My favorite images are those of early martyrs who stare into your eyes, surrounded by the symbols of their martyrdom. I grew up Protestant, so aversion to iconography is part of my religious heritage. If Jesus is in our hearts, and we’re meant to treasure simplicity, why do we need some priceless mosaic or triptych to help us pray? Shouldn’t we sell that gorgeous art and donate to the poor? But living in this neighborhood has led to my change of heart. Not only do we need to “remember and long for” models for our lives, but we need to look into their eyes. We need to feel their gaze on us: a gaze that first cuts through all our justifications and excuses, and then reminds us that despite all our brokenness, we’re forgiven.

Madonna doesn’t make excuses for not working out. Image credit: Harper’s Bazaar

Hard Candy and Hard Bodies

Justifications and excuses get in the way of physical as well as spiritual health. “I don’t work out in Rome because gyms don’t have AC,” for example, has been the reasoning that has kept me out of shape since I moved here. It was shot down by a friend recently who informed me that Madonna (the rock star, not the Holy Mother) had opened a Hard Candy Fitness Center right near the Colosseum. And that the air-conditioning was centralized and fully functioning.

“Their single-minded intent on tightening their butt cheeks was admirable.”

When I walked into Hard Candy Fitness, I was struck by Madonna in all her iconographic glory: an enormous image of her loomed over the reception area. Her airbrushed gaze seemed to say “So you’ve finally decided to get off your cottage-cheesy rear end. Let’s see what you got.”

Next to the image was a quote in huge, challenging font (I imagined her saying it in a no-nonsense, New York businesswoman voice): I’d rather walk through a fire than away from one. Well, I thought, the early Christian martyrs, many of whom were set ablaze across the street, would probably agree with you.

A lovely, crisp draught of AC hit my face as I signed up for something like 3 months plus ten days of suspension plus two 30 minute personal trainer sessions. I paid way too much money. The impossibly bulky trainer led me through the rooms, with women on their knees in what could have been Muslim prayer, Christian monastic worship, or Buddhist meditative stillness… except for one leg moving up and down in unison like dogs peeing on a hydrant. Their single-minded intent on tightening their butt cheeks was admirable.

Images of our Lady of Michigan were everywhere. She was contorted, limbs laced up with black leather. She was holding a fist to the camera, her hand encased in a de-fingered glove. She was stretching, splitting, boxing, flexing. Impossibly toned, cellulite and wrinkle-free. And everywhere, she was looking at me.

The penetrating gaze of the icon. Follow me, I have found the answers. With a great American work ethic and determination (not to mention apparatuses like ballast balls and hanging medieval torture devices), you can become like me.

Guess What? I’m Not Madonna

I am now one month into my membership at Hard Candy, and my workouts are waning. I’ve tried looking into Our Lady’s ever-present eyes (I’m increasing the incline on the treadmill, really I am!) and repeating the mantra: I can do it. Candy is hard, and so is life. My body will be hard, too.

“The more frequently Christ, Mary, and the saints are seen, the more are those who see them drawn to remember and long for those who serve as models, and to pay these icons the tribute of salutation and respectful veneration.” With these words, written in 787 at the Second Council of Nicaea, the early Christian church decided that icons were OK.

But, if I’m being honest, it’s not working out (pun intended). Her icon, her image, is not the model that I want to follow. I need something deeper — something that creates a drive more fervent than the desire for perfectly sculpted abs. The Council of Nicaea referred to images inspiring “salutation and respectful veneration” and fortunately I have perfect examples nearby. Santa Cecília, Santa Teodora, Santa Prassede. It’s time to feed my eyes and heart with some true icons, so as to remember the examples that I am really meant to follow.


Katherine Wilson’s memoir, Only in Naples, was published in the US and six other countries last year. The paperback edition, entitled The Mother-in-Law Cure: Learning to Live and Eat in an Italian Family, will be out from Penguin Random House on May 2, 2017. Copyright © 2016 Katherine Wilson

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