To start a relationship with Rome and walk in the midst of her contradictions.
To reacquaint myself with London and discover more of her narrative and antiquity.
To better understand the subterranean connections between the two cities, the historical veins that continue to feed their identities. Two cities that have given and taken much from the world.
To have, as Doerr says, insatiable eyes.
To have my breath disordered by the glorious and the crumbling.
To encounter more of the classics and to be in or near places where they were created.
To breathe the air and stroll through the mornings and evenings on the other side of the world.
To encounter a bit more of my true self, as de Botton would say, and to perhaps see a little of the light in the hearts of others. To detach from the known in order to discover the unknown.
To experience it all not only through my own senses but also of my fellow study abroad travelers.
Through it all, I will make a lot of photos, enjoy the food, hug my family in England, and do everything I can to gather up a collection of unique experiences and pack them gently into each day. Oh, and post a few thoughts in this blog.
Photo: early in the morning, traveling from Seattle to Vancouver, B.C., the sky was a wonder. I grabbed my phone and snapped off one shot through the window before the light changed. The resulting blurry glory feels like a travel moment.
Rome holds a particular fascination for me because I’ve never been there. I haven’t stepped down its historic streets or heard its people or seen its antiquities jumbled together with modernity.
It seems, from reading Robert Hughes and Anthony Doerr, that this is a city that wants a relationship. Something personal. They both write of the light and the color and the smell of Rome. I am ready to build something with an old city that is new to me.
When Hughes first arrived his senses went into glorious overdrive. “The enveloping light can be of an incomparable clarity, throwing into gentle vividness every detail presented to the eye. First, the color, which was not like the color of other cities I had been in. Not concrete color, not cold glass color, not the color of overburned brick or harshly pigmented paint. Rather, the worn organic colors of the ancient earth and stone of which the city is composed.” He writes of the color of the ages.
Doerr falls in love with the sky. “I never tire of the clouds here, the light bleeding through their shoulders.”
On the terrace one night he watches as “the sky passes through a sequence of darkening blues.” “Is this Rome? Or a dream?” He is afraid of waking bereft of the color and air of Rome.
Early morning after a storm, “the air seems shinier and purer than I’ve seen it. Dawn stretches across the gardens … the old walls look washed, almost new; a thousand speckled tints of bronze, trailing lacework of ivy, glossy tangles of capers.”
As he prepares to take his family home to Idaho, he says goodbye to “the amber and purple and green of the distances, the blues of dusk…” Then he wonders if enough Roman light “enters our eyes … maybe we incorporate it. Maybe it becomes part of us. Maybe it flashes around inside us, endlessly reflecting, saturating everything.”
As Anthony Doerr and his wife Shauna explore their new neighborhood in Rome, he wraps their discoveries in words of color and light as they “glide through sun and shadow,” and see “hundreds of balconies crammed with geraniums, pygmy palms, tomatoes.”
Living in Rome on a one-year writing fellowship, Doerr is astounded by Italian pines, “trees both unruly and composed at once, like princes who sleep stock-still but dream swarming dreams.” He never expected them or for Rome “a city of 3 million people to be a living garden, moss in the sidewalk cracks, streamers of ivy sashaying in archways, ancient walls wearing a haze of capers, thyme sprouting from church steeples.”
In the studio where he is trying to write a novel he has a lot of moments as he orients himself to the massive history of the city. “When the night sky above the Janiculum was as awash with stars as any sky anywhere, Galileo Galilei assembled his new telescope at a banquet in this very garden, just beneath my window, and showed guests the heavens.” Of nearby Trastevere he realizes, “Julius Caesar lived in this neighborhood. So did Cleopatra.” I am thrilled that our study abroad group will be there too.
On the terrace of their apartment one night, the city shows its dusky side. “The air is warm and sweet. Stars burn here and there. In the distance, little strands of glitter climb the hills.”
More exploring. They find a glorious fountain and then a view of the entire city.
“Beneath us, for as far as we can see, drifts a bluish haze – it is as if the city were submerged beneath a lake, and a wind were ruffling its surface.” A few pages later another view and, “everything is radiant.”
They begin to grasp their taxi driver’s words the day they arrived: “There is no city more beautiful than Rome.” From the book Four Seasons in Rome.
Reading about Emperor Constantine in the book Rome was an eye-opener. He is well known in history as being a Christian and for holding the Council of Nicaea. However, author Robert Hughes says he was not a convert until he was dying. Reflecting back over the millennia, who really knows what was in the man’s heart? One could ponder his actions and perhaps get a glimpse. After Constantine won the battle for Rome Hughes says, “state persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire – torture, murder, confiscation of goods and property – effectively ceased.” Assets confiscated from Christians were returned. Then the Edict of Milan in 313 C.E. allowed followers of Jesus to restore or build places of worship. Constantine also began financially underwriting churches in a big way and – this was new to me – began the practice of exempting churches from taxes.
Constantine funded the construction of “the mother and head of all churches of the city and of the world,” known as San Giovanni in Laternano, which Hughes says remains the cathedral of Rome. It was big and splashy and the apse was decorated in sheet gold, which was later looted. Given this photo of the apse today, it must have been resplendently amazing back in its golden days.
Constantine’s mom Helena made pilgrimages to Jerusalem and he underwrote several churches there, including the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. In the early 1990s I stood inside that church, gasping through clouds of incense and marveling at its ancient presence in a strife-torn area.
The nascent Christian church flourished under all of this attention and largesse. However, like most all of his predecessor emperors, Constantine was no saint. Nope. Hughes rightly describes some of his edicts as “psychotic” – edicts that pretty much put girls and women under the thumb of men, for better or worse. While he decreed that rapists were to be burned alive, the female victims lost the right to inherit property from their parents, essentially marginalizing them in society. Why? Because it must have been their fault. Of the other punishments – read at your own peril.
As Constantine influenced tax codes down through the ages, tragically he also influenced the interpretation of law for victims of sexual crimes.
The warning “do not read at bedtime” should be posted on most of chapter 3 from Robert Hughes’ book Rome. This is where he writes about the later rulers of the Roman Empire, in particular “those two reliable crazies” Caligula and Nero. While excepting these wickedest and most wretched of rulers, Hughes asserts rather nobly that not all Roman emperors were “beastly degenerates.” However, that would altogether depend on one’s definition of the term.
These guys oppressed women; crushed entire countries when Roman invasion was resisted and then killed, tortured or enslaved its leaders, military and intellectuals; crucified or otherwise executed thousands of people on the flimsiest of accusations; and created entertainment based on the beating, mutilating and slaughtering of multitudes of men, women and animals. And those were the ones that Hughes asserts were not so bad.
From my lens, they were all pretty nasty even if they did write wonderful and visionary prose, build amazing structures and advance the glorious empire. I’m offended that Hughes writes of Claudius in admiring terms because he was “a gifted administrator” and then mentions that he “was unusually bloodthirsty, even by Roman standards,” describing exactly how. Ugh!
Should you ever pick up this superbly written book, far better that you go back a few pages and wander with wonder over his account of the truly remarkable Roman road system. Or bounce forward and read about the architectural innovations made possible by Roman concrete, such as the Pantheon (I can hardly wait to see it), the aqueducts and the thermae, or baths (yep, going to see those too). All of these structures sport the uniquely Roman “giant vaults” made possible by “the poured concrete arch.”
As for the rest of the chapter, well, you have been warned.
Ancient Rome, just before the Common Era, was “Calcutta-on-the-Mediterranean – crowded, chaotic and filthy.” Most residents lived in “tall jerry-built tottering blocks of flats known as insulae or ‘islands,’ which rose as high as six stories and were given to sudden collapse or outbreaks of fire. Building codes did not exist.” There was no heating and no limit on how many people landlords could cram into these rat traps. Robert Hughes, whose book Rome is quoted here, estimates a total population of about 1.4 million at that time.
People threw pretty much everything they didn’t want into the street. Garbage, excrement, kitchen waste, even corpses. (!) There was no running water for most residents, except underneath the ubitquitous public toilets. With stellar sewers and storm water channels, the rain would eventually wash the festering, mouldering mess into that system. It all landed in the Tiber River – a source of drinking water. (!)
“The streets of Rome were unlit and unpoliced … [they] had no numbers or posted names.” Terra cotta pots were plentiful, so they were tossed out along with the contents from any handy window – usually at dusk. Getting home at night would have been epic, especially during the time when young Nero is said to have roamed alleys looking for people to beat up … for fun. (Can anyone say psychopath?)
In “a masterpiece of bad urbanism,” Julius Caesar banned most traffic between dawn and mid-afternoon. (But not the vestal virgins and champion charioteers.) Result: chaos, clutter and cacophony all night long as commercial traffic banged through the stony, rutted streets on “wooden wheels with iron tires.” Poets wrote furious prose about the din.
“Rome, the enemy of repose!”
I can imagine a classified ad:
Wanted: urban planner. Good with emperors and slum landlords, able to collaborate with vestal virgins and hefty chariot celebrities. Frequent night work, good vision and strong skull required. Demonstrated ability to work with the sleep deprived and angry poets. Knowledge of local business routes a definite asset. Applicants with firefighting experience will be given preference.
I was not expecting to encounter consecrated cluckers when reading a book about the ancient and very fearsome Roman army. It seems that the Romans adopted divination as a belief from the even more ancient Etruscans, who wanted a religious reason to do just about anything. Ever the practical empire, Romans also adapted a host of gods that very much resembled Greek gods, but with different names.
Back to birds. Robert Hughes, in his hefty book Rome, recounts how Etruscan diviners looked for signs to “read the will of the gods” from such portents as “lightning flashes” and “the flight of birds,” plus other more unsavory sorts of activities. The idea was not just to “foretell the future, but to find out whether important plans were “likely to have the approval of the gods.” In the earlier republican times and even into empire times, Hughes amusingly says “Roman religion was an absurd bureaucratic clutter of minor gods.” Covering all their bases, Romans also had a collection of principal gods who had their own priests and rituals.
Enter the chickens. A cage would be carried into a field by Roman armies and the birds fed before a battle. If they ate with gusto, an “excellent omen” was seen. If they ignored their food, this was a big, bad omen. Even a halfhearted appetite had meaning. While many high-ranking officials were serious about this ritual, one Roman admiral did not like his chicken dinner reading and tossed the poor things overboard. “Alas, he lost the ensuing battle,” says Hughes.
I may never look at chickens in quite the same way again. Or artists’ renderings of big, burly Roman centurions.