09 October 2009

Roma: Day VII

The other day while searching the bowels of my computer for a lost file, I came across a travelogue I'd written nearly 10 years when I went to Rome on vacation. At the time, I shared it with a few friends. And it seems appropriate to share it here now. Enjoy.

I have lost a day.

It is Nov. 23. I’m positive of the date, but the tour guide swears that today is the 24th. Kate says she’s right. She has a calendar on her watch. She shows me. Proof.

As we ride the bus toward the Catacombs, I mentally try to figure out when and where I lost 24 hours of my life, but can’t. I guess this is a sign of a good vacation.

Or alien abduction.

But onto the catacombs...with the conversion of Constantine, Roma became Christian, and the Church has been laying claim to the city and the surrounding countryside ever since.

It is odd to see young priests, nuns and monks walk through the city in habits and sensible shoes. In most parts of the world, the Church faces a dearth of servants. It's challenging to men and women willing to take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and live a life of prayer.

Of course, traditionally, the church has had trouble getting men and women who keep those vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Obedience to whom? God? The Church? The crown?  Obedience has been the subject of many legal arguments, excommunications and a few pitched battles.

Chastity didn’t become a requirement until the 11th century, before that it had merely been considered a good idea.

And poverty? The Church owns a sizable portion of Italy; it holds the largest and best art collection in the world, and there is enough gold adorning the ceilings of the churches in Roma to feed Africa for a century or more.

The struggle between the ideal and the reality is an old one, and I sympathize with all who struggle between the two.

We are barreling down a portion of the Via Appia on our way to the catacombs with a tour group. The bus driver ignores all traffic rules – “we’re in Roma,” he cheerfully explains, “we can do anything” – to get to the underground chambers before closing time. We make it, barely, and are part of the last tour group of the day.

The catacombs remind me of an underground tower of Babel. A half-dozen guides, speaking in as many languages, lead groups of 10, 20 or more through the narrow passages where the walls are too close and the ceiling too low.

The ancient Romans cremated their dead, unlike the Etruscans, who buried their relatives and assumed they carried on the good life in the hereafter, minus sickness, pain or death. Roman law decreed that neither cremation nor burial were allowed within the city walls (Julius Caesar was one exception and the conspirators briefly lived to regret that decision). So, outside each old city is the necropolis, a cemetery of sorts with niches instead of graves, statuary instead of tombstones and detailed inscriptions instead of R.I.P.

The Christians, though, wanted to separate themselves from the Pagans and buried their dead. And thousands of tourists come each year just to take a peek at these early graves.

And on a cold, damp evening we follow the crowd and descend into colder, damper, miserably narrow tunnels and empty niches. The bodies are gone and the inscriptions have been moved.

Keeping with the theme for the day, we venture to St. Peter’s next. We listen to vespers in Latin as we stand in the piazza and marvel at Michelangelo’s perfect union of form and function in his design of the basilica.

Kate waxes poetic about Michelangelo’s architectural gifts, talking about form and function, balance and aesthetics, until I remind her that he considered himself first and foremost a sculptor.

Tomorrow: Ostia Antica

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