My feelings about Rome turn out to be complicated.
I’m sure not everyone in the world loves Rome. Like any big city, it’s noisy, hurried, smoky, dirty, expensive, and confusing. (Although the Italocentric guide who lead our Colosseum tour bragged that the Romans had invented straight roads, he failed to tell us where any of them were. Around a hundred yards of straight were as much as we ever experienced. It is fun, however, to play a little game called “Who Will Be First to Find the Name of This Major Thoroughfare?”)
Rome is also splendid, romantic, surprising, and deeply moving.
I was fully prepared to ooh and aah over historic, architectural, and artistic treasures. I can read, after all; I can watch PBS; and thirteen years in Catholic school provided ample exposure to illustrations of many of Rome’s wonders. However, long before I’d almost reached the limits of my ability to consume massive quantities of food and wine, Rome’s treasures themselves began to feel like too much – and for a variety of reasons.
Let’s start with the Pantheon, since that’s where our hotel was, and it was the first thing to knock the wind out of me as soon as I set foot on cobblestones. I mean, 2,000 years old? Largest unsupported concrete dome in the world for centuries? Oldest structure in continuous use on the planet? And it is truly wondrous.
“Marcus Agrippa son of Lucius, having been consul three times made it,” says the chiseled inscription. (Hadrian actually commissioned it to replace Agrippa’s previous Pantheon, which had burned down. But Hadrian tended not to put his name on things.)
I wish I had the photographic skills to convey its scale-
or the way the sunlight coming through the top of the dome is a timekeeper not yet fully understood –
although twice a year the sunbeam illuminates the main entrance in a pretty impressive way. We were curious about what happens when it rains, and found ourselves searching for various holes in the floor. Note to self: visit Pantheon during vernal or autumnal equinox, and when it is raining.
When the early Christians were doing away with the pantheistic model, they replaced pagan representations with Christian ones that were at least as (what’s the word I’m going for here? grand? showy? ostentatious? imposing?). And as beautiful.
I grew up believing my guardian angel protected me from things like being run over by a car, and that choirs of angels would usher me into heaven. These sculptures embody all that hope and belief. And all that innocence.
I understand that throughout human history we’ve built monuments to forces beyond our understanding. The more imposing the better, to show our respect and awe – and in hopes of winning a few favors when things seem to be going badly. Bring your best to the deities who have made this world possible.
Here at the Pantheon began my conflicting feelings about Rome’s spectacular antiquities. The ancient religions replaced, histories torn down, melted down, updated, eradicated. Pieces of the original structures requisitioned by papal order for use elsewhere. Belief in grandeur. Belief that grandeur means something other than showing off that you can indulge in grandeur.
While here I sat in an expensive hotel right across the piazza, gazing through a scaffold put in place to refurbish – at great expense – the building’s facade, pondering the hundreds of millions of inch-thick bricks that had been put in place so very long ago from one end of this ancient world to the other.
Put in place, of course, by slaves.