So here am I in Rome, the city the natives call la Capo di Mundi (the center of the world), with slightly more truth (and less egocentrism) than most other cities who claim the same. So much to see—3,000 years of art and history—so many friends to whom I owe letters...and so little time.
What to do? Why, write all of you at once, of course.
At some point during the last four days many of you have crossed my mind in one way or another—“I wish Bill could see this,” or “God, Dave would love this,” or “Marie isn't gonna believe this one,” or “What would Paul think of this?” Those named are, of course, included in this letter, but I've tagged each and every one of you for a reason.
I haven't addressed my remarks to any friend in particular. But let me say this: If you think something is addressed to you...it probably is.
1. Lust vs. love. Or, Roma vs. Firenze.
Tuscany has my heart. For better or worse, Firenze got to me first.
But oh, does Lazio incite my lust.
This place is an endless dance, like any large city. But what choreography! What style! What an endless, sumptuous buffet of gorgeousness—architectural, archeological, artistic, and human—offered up for continual delectation!
Oh yes, Firenze is my true love—but Roma is the one bidding fair for my bed.
2. SPQR: Senatus Populusque Romanus. The Senate and the People of Rome.
The initials are everywhere. On storm drains. On statue bases. (More on that later.) On signboards.
Their ubiquity doesn't matter. 3,000 years of dignity, and the practical beginning of ideals I cherish, stand behind those four letters. Which is probably why Roma chose them as its motto.
Not that its marketing prowess makes a damn bit of difference. Not with the Roman Republic standing sentinel, silent & colossal, at its shoulder.
3. Ave, Imperator.
Father Joachim (on whom more at some other time) and I were standing outside the Colosseo, watching the Romans dressed in crimson capes and plastic armor posture with the turisti who were paying to have pictures taken with the “gladiators” (misnomer, really; the Roman lads were dressed as centurions; but there actually are times when I manage to keep my pedantry inside my own head). One of the “gladiators” shouted, “Ave Caesar!”
Father Joachim must have seen me start slightly. Having already endured days of my spouting Roman trivia, he smiled—his normal, gently encouraging smile—and said, “And what comes next?”
And because he was smiling so sweetly and patiently at me, I couldn't tell him that those words make me cold inside. So I stood in the 97-degree Roman sun and spoke the words which never fail to run ice through the center of my spine—the words which complete the nautical gladiators'—the naumachiarii's—greeting to the Imperator: “Ave, Caesar. Mortituri te salutant.”
Hail, Caesar. The dead salute you.
4. Seven-letter synonym for “Via dei Fori Imperiali”: Rubicon.
There stands, on the Via dei Fori Imperiali, a statue of Julius Caesar. Those of you who read
my dispatches from Firenze four (!) years ago know how I get over my favorite Romans (especially the emperors); and this is a one-and-a half-times-life-size bronze portrait of Gaius Julius Caesar. But...but.
The inscription on the marble base is surmounted by the omnipresent “SPQR”.
I've just described how those letters make me feel. But standing on the Via dei Fori Imperiali at sunset, those letters mixed with my awe of Julius Caesar and my knowledge of history to produce a very odd feeling.
SPQR—the body which forbade Caesar's legions the Rubicon. We all know what happened once he crossed it. And now he stands serenely, hand raised in greeting or benediction, on a plinth inscribed with the initials of the idea that murdered him, on a street which divides the Senate's ancient seat in the Roman Forum from the Imperial Fora which Caesar's dynasty built and expanded.
I stood, and looked, and didn't know whether to laugh or cry.
5. San Giovanni in Laterano & the Senate.
The Basilica of St. John Lateran—the Archibasilica Sanctissimi Salvatoris et Sancti Iohannes Baptista et Evangelista in Laterano (Archbasilica of the Most Holy Saviour and Sts. John the Baptist and the Evangelist at the Lateran)—is the most important church in Rome. Yes, more important than St. Peter's Basilica, though that isn't actually in Italy—but then, technically, San Giovanni in Laterano isn't “in” Rome either. It's an extraterritorial holding of the Holy See, similar to an embassy.
It is the cathedra (seat) of the Bishop of Rome—better known as the Pope. It is the “ecumenical mother church”—Sacrosancta Lateranensis ecclesia omnium urbis et orbis ecclesiarum mater et caput (“Most Holy Lateran Church, of all the churches in the city and the world, the mother and head") to Roman Catholics. Its “first and only honorary canon” is the President of the French Republic, a title inherited by the officeholder from the Kings of France. The church was built by Constantine in 324; for 1,500 years, Popes were crowned there.
Because of its pedigree, the art collection of San Giovanni in Laterano stands out even in this city of wonders.
But the only thing which really moved me at all were its doors.
San Giovanni in Laterano stands (as do so many churches in Rome) on the site of an imperial palace, that of the Laterani (the imperial cavalry bodyguards).
And its doors—its doors guarded the entrance to the Roman Senate.
That's right. Pope Clement took the doors from the seat of the Roman Republic to guard the doors of the seat of the Holy See. Took the doors of the seat of the largest republican government the world has ever known, to guard the seat of the head of the largest monarchy the world has ever known.
I've been moved nearly to tears in an Italian city before: Michelangelo's David, in Firenze, had me fighting to breathe through the awe compressing my chest. But this—this wasn't awe. It was a terrible sadness.
Because for more than two hundred years—from the time those doors were taken until the unification of Italy—tyranny won.
And in testament to that victory, the doors of the Roman Senate still hang in exile.
8/18/2010 at 09:54
Teatro di Roma: Prima Lettera
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