The most meaningful things are always the hardest things to write about. Why is that?
We (the three big kids, my mother-in-law Brida and I) got to spend a week in Rome, almost embarrassing to say, but true! And even though it was mid-November we had blue sunny skies and very agreeable temperatures every day but one.
But how to sum it up? For anyone it is a fascinating city. For anyone interested in art or history or architecture or all three it is magical. Not to mention the beautiful language and interesting people. And the food! The wonderful thing with a week was that while the chaos and busyness would have seemed frustrating after only a day or two, by the end of the week we’d gotten used to it.
An example: crossing the street. The first day we huddled on the sidewalk, wondering at the fact of no traffic light, looking in bewilderment at the raging river of cars and thinking we’d never get to the other side. My first clue was the bent over little old lady with a cane who stepped out nonchalantly into the river, and like Joshua and the Israelites, the river piled up and stopped and the little old lady walked calmly to the other side, never breaking her stride. We stuck close behind.
Actually, it’s one of the few things I retained from a brief visit to Rome when I was twenty, that excellent example of faith. The cars are barreling five abreast down the broad avenue. There is no crosswalk in sight and standing on the sidewalk, getting to the other side not only seems, but actually is, an impossibility. Until you get off the sidewalk. Once you take that first step off and into the stream of trouble, one by the one, the impossibility becomes possible, and you cross safely to the other side. My metaphor would be better if Jesus had been waiting on the other side, but unfortunately it was only the pope (!).
Okay, on with the story.
We stayed about 10 minutes walk away from the Vatican and several mornings one or two of us got up early to visit soon after it opened at 7 before the crowds show up and while it is still a peaceful place of worship. It was peaceful with little groups of visiting nuns singing during a celebration of Mass.
I confess I have very mixed feelings about St. Peter’s Basilica. It certainly is impressive – built, according to tradition over the burial site of the apostle Peter. Since it is right next to the old site of Nero’s circus and that there’s been a church there since very early days, it is not unlikely. Other history as well – a spot on the floor marks the place (in the old St. Peter’s church) where Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by the pope on Christmas Day 800. Architecturally it is an amazing feat. But I couldn’t help thinking about the pope needing more money to complete it and sending Johann Tetzel out to sell indulgences to the peasants of Germany. Martin Luther was scandalized, stuck a notice on the church door, and well….if you don’t the story of the Reformation, you should probably go read it now. So I found myself wondering about the life savings of German peasants at the same time as I was inspired by the building.
the south transept
But, it is an impressive building, very much in the tradition of the old Roman baths and basilicas. The dome was designed by Michelangelo in his spare time.
The visit to the Vatican Museums was a highlight ~ I only would have liked to have a few more days to stay there. So many amazing works of arts that one has always heard of from ancient times and the Renaissance. Perhaps I shall spare you lots of photographs of old statues and artifacts, but it’s like grandma’s attic of the world – a little bit of everything. Ancient Sumerian writing tablets? Check! Egyptian sarcophagi? Check! A genuine mummy? Check! (poor woman)
Mid-November was certainly a great time to visit because there were no lines and we stayed in the Sistine Chapel as long as we wanted, (even longer than some of us wanted!) getting cricks in our necks and deciphering the Old Testament stories that Michelangelo painted there. My Apollo was especially absorbed in Michelangelo’s painting of The Last Judgment which covers one huge wall. It’s a somber painting and makes you thoughtful and serious. My favorites were the Raphael rooms – I think because I am always yearning for more balance and beauty and less drama. To see The School of Athens for myself, there on the wall, that was something else. And to think that the pope had these painted essentially for wallpaper!
At the Vatican Museums and at the Borghese Gallery the next day, I felt like all the kids’ study of Greek and Roman history and mythology paid off. They were deciphering the artwork better than I, rattling off the twelve labors of Hercules and picking out Aeneas carrying his father out of a burning Troy from across the room! At any rate there is art and history to decipher everywhere in the city. Here was the base of one fountain. Can you name that story? I thought it was special (and took a picture of it) until I saw it on every lamp post in the city.
On the weekend, Zeus arrived with little Hermes. We had saved the Forum and the Coliseum for them. With the help of Rick Steves and his Ancient Rome app on my iPhone, we sat on the ruins and deciphered them. The Forum is a lot of rubble and less impressive than the still standing Coliseum but nonetheless amazing when you have a little bit of the history to go with it.
Here we are on the steps of the Roman Senate building – talk about significant history! Notice us squinting in the sunshine!
Our family with the jumble of ruins and buildings that is the Forum. The square tan building on the right hand side was the Senate building, and above and behind us at the top of the hill stood the Temple of Jupiter – the highest edifice in Rome. The triumphal parades – with captive barbarians, kings in chains, etc -- would have passed right to the right (our left) down the Via Sacra and then up to the Temple to offer sacrifices.
An interesting fact, that when Julius Caesar was murdered, the Senate happened to be meeting across town, here. Notice two kids are practicing their Brutus-just-stabbed-me looks. Artemis appropriately quoted lines from Julius Caesar, “Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears…”
It’s a funny ruin, surrounded by busy streets and stores. It’s below street level and archeological work is obviously currently going on. It’s also a refuge for feral cats. In this photo you can see how much Rome was built and rebuilt on the previous layer and how every time they did anywhere they are liable to find old treasures. They’ve been working on a third subway line for years, but it’s taking forever because they keep finding priceless goodies. Speaking of priceless goodies, aren’t my girls lovely in their matching Italian coats?
This is just for fun: My sweetie and me at the Arch of Titus, which shows the sacking of Jerusalem in 70 AD.
The Coliseum. They’ve rebuilt a little of the wooden floor (towards us) so you can picture how it once looked. Underneath the floor was the maze of cells and hallways where gladiators practiced and wild animals paced.
On our last day in Rome, although the weather wasn’t quite as blue, we went up the Palatine Hill. It certainly gets less press than the Forum and Coliseum but we loved it. One gets to wander in the half overgrown remains of the Imperial Palace, stand where Caesar's throne one sat, and take in the sweeping views over the Circus Maximus and the Forum.
View from the ruins of the Imperial Palace. St. Peter’s dome is in the distance. Isn’t that umbrella pine in the middle just fabulous?
The kids in front of Romulus and Remus’ supposed huts. These are a fairly recent uncover, apparently, and there is a good case that they may be the real thing. (!?) Check out that umbrella pine in the background.
And finally, let’s not kid ourselves, one of the wonders of Italy, besides the history and the art (and the shopping) is…the food!
Hermes with his anchovy pizza and his drawing of the same.
Italy has the world’s highest level of celiac disease (people allergic to gluten) in the population and children are routinely tested for it, so consequently, waiters and store clerks are very well-informed and well-stocked. It was very easy to find pasta and pizza senza glutine and on two occasions, even ice cream cones!
So, sigh,to sum up. I haven’t even begun to capture how much beauty and art there is in that city. If you would like to gaze upon more lovely photographs of Rome, I commend you to my daughter’s blog, In the Far Country, where she posted some really nice shots.
For me, I think beyond the art and the history, one of the highlights was being there long enough to experience some of the everyday stuff. And because I like languages and I had been practicing in the car with the Instant Immersion Italian that I bought at Costco this summer (to the annoyance of many of my passengers), I enjoyed trying to communicate in pigeon Italian.
Too often I get hung up on my perfectionism that my desire to be correct in speech inhibits my desire to communicate. But there was something in Rome that worked well against that. Maybe because as a city it’s obviously imperfect and chaotic but so beautiful anyway. Many people in the tourist industry are quite used to speaking English, but there are plenty that don’t. There was a tiny grocery market across the street from our apartment. Instead of picking things out and then paying for them, you have to ask the man behind the counter for them. He was patient with me and made suggestions when I obviously didn’t have the right word for something. Si si! Carta hygenica!
Another time we had a great taxi driver with whom I had a lengthy philosophical conversation although most of it was in two word phrases of mashed up Italian. That experience of communication, of catching a little glimpse of someone else’s language, and therefore culture, reminds me of why I like languages and I like traveling. I like people and I like their stories. Individually, like the taxi driver, who wasn’t too worried about the lack of tourists today – domani migliore -- tomorrow will be better – and corporately, historically, as in all the individuals who made up Rome and the Roman Empire, the stories behind the paintings, how Caravaggio painted his own self-portrait into his David and Goliath to apologize for accidentally killing a man, and the bittersweet romantic story behind the painting of Sacred and Profane Love.
The Arch of Titus – Romans carrying off the menorah from the Temple in 70 AD
The best stories and the best artifacts are the ones that make me realize that the best really old stories are true. In the Vatican Museums there were Sumerian tablets, like Abraham probably wrote on. There was a decorative stone panel commemorating one of Sennacharib’s conquests. The Arch of Titus, shows the Romans carrying off the treasures of the Temple of Jerusalem – fulfilling Jesus’ prophecy that the Temple would be destroyed, and that His sacrifice fulfilled the need for sacrifices once and for all. Seeing all those artifacts, tangible evidence of a history that has been lived on and lived in continuously for thousands of years builds my faith that the Bible is historically true and accurate and worthy of my trust.
When we left Rome, we were ready to go. I think in the summer, with the heat and the crowds, it must be nearly unbearable. But even for us, with pleasant weather and a minimum of tourists, it was time to go back to the familiar and process everything we’d been blessed to see.
But when I visit a city, I am always hopeful that I will be able to say, “there now, I’ve checked that off my list!” and feel done with it forever. But I never do. I’m afraid I only start dreaming of the next time…