Sunday, June 14, 2009

Rome 2009 - Part 1

Ever since I returned from my trip, I've been thinking about what I should blog. After all, how does one describe Italia? Perhaps one just needs to experience it visually. (You can see my photos by clicking here.) But trying to write about Italy is always a challenge. In some ways, it's been done so many times by so many people, that it's almost impossible to say anything new. I read Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Marble Faun (1860) while I was there, and although the story is tedious with an overwrought Romantic plot, Hawthorne's descriptions about Italian culture in the mid-19th century are engaging, and with a city as old as Rome it's not surprising to discover that some of the sites he describes, from the Piazza Spagna to Via del Corso, actually haven't changed that much. And ever since the wealthy began taking Grand Tours to Italy in the 1700s, and the middle classes embarked on their Baedeker trips--I'm now thinking of E.M. Forster's superb book A Room with a View (1908)--it seems difficult to try to describe the country, its people, its food, its art, and its culture, with a freshness and vivacity to enthrall others. In truth, you simply have to experience it first-hand. The fact that I've been to Italy a few times also seems to have stripped away my objectivity to some extent. But I don't want to convey that there's nothing new to say. On the contrary, rather than go through a day-by-day recounting of my trip, I thought it might be more fun to give you a descriptive list of things I encountered, noticed, and took part in on this trip, keeping in mind that I've done many of the main touristy things like the Colosseum in the past, so I'm not counting those things on this list. There is still so much to see and enjoy in Rome, and there were things that I never got around to doing this time. All that means, of course, that I cannot wait to go back! For now, though, I present to you Part 1 of my Top 10 Favorite Things about Rome 2009, counting down from number 10.

10. Pantheon Oculus. Buildings are always covered with scaffolding in Italy because restoration work is ongoing, so the last two times I was in Rome, it was difficult to fully appreciate the Pantheon because of said scaffolding. This time, however, I was able to see the entire interior of the Pantheon gleaning in all its marble brilliance. The Pantheon was reconstructed in the 2nd century by Emperor Hadrian as a temple to all the gods, and later became a church. It is an architectural marvel in many ways, but specifically because of the stone dome that crowns the building. Most impressive about it, however, is the oculus, or eye, that is open to the sky in the middle of the roof. (The image you see here is by IceNineJon on Flickr.) For nearly 2,000 years, this oculus has allowed the elements to enter the temple, and at times it was a practical way of capturing rainwater in a reservoir. But what impressed me most this time about the oculus was the way the sun poured through the oculus. It shines down with a golden-white glow that gleans off the marble floor and walls. In the days before electricity, this was the only source of lighting in the Pantheon (aside from oil lamps), and as the sun shifted in the sky over the course of the day and seasons, it would have helped light one altar after another. Today, it's fascinating to watch people huddle in the glow of the sunshine as the oculus forms a large space on the floor that could hold about 100 people. I returned two other times, just to see the sun in a different location in the space. But the best part isn't the oculus itself, or the sunshine on the floor. It's the incredible light itself that pours down through the space in a spectacle that illuminates the marble and glistens off of natural dust particles filtering through the air. It is nature penetrating the marble mass of human construction, superimposing its power, reminding us of its control over us and our space. It is brilliant, architecturally, spatially, and naturally speaking.

9. Religious Fervor. Okay, so no surprise, Vatican City and the Pope are nestled in the heart of the capital of Italy. Naturally, Catholicism is going to dictate much about the way Italians live and what they believe. There must be over 200 Catholic churches in the center of Rome itself, and there are always people in them. I actually visited on this trip at least 15 churches (I lost count), from the awesomeness of St. Peter's Basilica to the charming simplicity of the early Christian Basilica of Santa Sabina. In many of these churches, there are confessionals with priests hidden in their recesses and signs representing different languages spoken, giving people from around the world opportunities to confess their sins and receive absolution. (Does receiving penance in Rome has a greater significance than doing it in Secaucus, New Jersey, I wonder?) And then there are all the chapels, most set up during the Renaissance and Baroque periods by wealthy families who hired the greatest artists to decorate them. There are more named saints in Rome than I ever encountered in my entire Catholic upbringing in elementary school. And, lest we forget, there are relics--body parts and whole corpses--enshrined in gold chests and glass caskets, and for a mere Euro you can illuminate the electric lighting and say a prayer to the dead saint's body. There are icons as well, like the statue of St. Peter in the Vatican that people have kissed and rubbed for centuries to the point that his bronze foot has morphed into a fin-like appendage. Now, if I seem cynical with all this, I don't mean to be. I was actually fascinated watching all of this. It intrigues me that people are still spiritually enthralled by all of this. You would think the Western world stopped needing relics of saints as symbols of God's power ages ago. And confession? Really...what can the old Italian woman in the confessional really be confessing...that she cheated the fishmonger by stealing an extra octopus for her calamari? But I should point out that this isn't just about Italians. The Americans are perhaps even more zealous. There were numerous groups of Catholic tour buses, and the people who come into these churches collectively pray aloud. I heard prayers spoken aloud in American English by groups of people at least four times during the week. The religious fervor in Rome is amazing. Go into any church and watch the rituals, and mantras, in action. It's worth it.

8. GianLorenzo Bernini. If Florence is a city of the Renaissance, then Rome is a city of the Baroque, and the artist who made it so was GianLorenzo Bernini (1598-1680). Everywhere you look, you will find sculptural and architectural monuments designed by this genius. In true Baroque form, they undulate and sway, they are dramatic, they show action, they draw you into their world and make you feel like they are alive, a frightening concept since so much of his work is larger than life. In the past I had visited the Villa Borghese, where some of his exquisite works are on display. David flings a rock at Goliath, and Apollo chases Daphne as she turns into a tree. Outside St. Peter's, the all-embracing colonnades that surround the piazza are by Bernini. They draw you into the fold of the Church. Inside the Vatican, he also designed the bronze baldacchino over the altar and the Cathedra Petri as a sculptural stage for the throne of St. Peter. He even designed the Fountain of the Four Rivers at Piazza Navona. Even things Bernini did not design show his influence, like the Trevi Fountain. But on this trip I made a point of spending time looking at what is one of the best Bernini experiences: The Ecstasy of St. Teresa in the Cornaro Chapel at Santa Maria della Vittoria, a church which just happened to be around the corner from my apartment. The angel prepares to pierce St. Teresa, just as her autobiography described it, the burning sensation of the angel's arrows entering her with a spiritual ecstasy transcending human sensibility. She floats on a cloud and her face glows in orgiastic delight. (The image you see here is by Nick in exsilio on Flickr.) But to see the sculpture in true Baroque form, one has to understand that it is framed by its own stage, and you realize you are watching a theatrical performance. You are not alone either. On each side, Bernini also carved balconies, and in these balconies are the patrons who commissioned the chapel. They too watch the performance, and once again you are drawn into their world. You are part of the spiritual spectacle. You are made to ache along with St. Teresa. You are invited to participate in her ecstasy. That is Baroque art. That is Bernini. That is Rome.

To be continued...

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