“At last-for the time—I live! It beats everything: it leaves the Rome of your fancy-your education-nowhere. It makes Venice-Florence-Oxford-London-seem like little cities of pasteboard. I went reeling and moaning thro’ the streets, in a fever of enjoyment. In the course of four of five hours I traversed almost the whole of Rome and got a glimpse of everything-the Forum, the Coliseum (stupendissimo!) . . . I’ve seen the Tiber hurring along, as swift and dirty as history! . . . In fine I’ve seen Rome, and I shall go to bed a wiser [woman] than I last rose-yesterday morning.” –Henry James
16 September 2016, Trastevere
It’s easy to say I’ll remember Rome; how could one forget? James lists the things he’s seen and claims to be the wiser for it. Goethe says the things he experienced “may serve both [himself] and others as guidance and encouragement for an entire lifetime.” But I think one needs to comprehend, at least on some level, what has been experienced in order to share it, in order to become wiser by it. I confess Rome to be one of those places least understood to me. She seems to hide secrets under and within all her layers. The facts parade what happened at certain places, during certain years—who murdered whom, what battles were fought and won/lost, and which gods were worshipped where. I sense these are partial truths. Rome plays her cards close, eagar to show nothing save facades, hiding a royal straight from our view.
25 September 2016, White Salmon
I learned about art and literature during my study abroad, which is to say, I learned about people. Space prevents me from sharing even a fraction of it. I’ll just say this: London, as always, was a sort of homecoming, even though I don’t necessarily equate London with England. Cities like London and Rome are macrocosms of converging cultures, so they don’t always give the best picture of a country’s natural state. An example of this is Frascati. This little vineyard town is quite different from Rome; it’s Italian the way Salisbury is English. Having said that, the metropolises of London and Rome provided a condensed history that quaint villages couldn’t have. So I know I was in the “right” place for learning. The understanding, however, has not yet provided its wisdom, and I can only hope it will come in time.
Of St. Peter’s Basilica Dickens writes, “It is an immense edifice, with no one point for the mind to rest upon; and it tires itself with wandering round and round.” This is similar to how I feel about all of Rome. It’s too full of monuments; there’s so much going on, it’s hard to rest the mind on any one thing. It’s like a house busy with clutter.
The clutteriest parts of all are the sounds of Rome. Each sound might be delightful if listened to singularly, but like Dicken’s view of St. Peters, there’s no one thing to rest your ears on. Like static, sound is heard but the ear cannot appreciate it. As a lover of quiet and a devotee of silence, this was the most challenging aspect of the trip abroad–the unrelenting bombardment of commotion. At one point, I felt anxious with the realization that days were left and there would be no getting away from the noise. I attempted to solve this problem by encouraging my ear to stop trying to rest on any one sound. For it occurred to me Rome’s noise is like an orchestra, not a single instrument. In theory this should have aided me to adjust, but it didn’t. I never did acclimate to the song of Rome, but I did accept it.
As I write this, I’m happily installed on my quiet ten acres, so it’s easy for me to write of the cacophony that is Rome, something I just couldn’t do while I was there. If I’m disappointed in anything it’s probably my inability to absorb the chaos and still think at the same time. But alas, I fear Rome is one song I’ll never acquire a taste for.
One of the best meals I had was the first in Rome. It was a simple bowl of spaghetti with tomatoes and basil. Think red. We were all tired and hungry, wanting to get into our apartments, ditch the luggage and set out in search of food. But there was no one there with our keys. Fortunately for us, a restaurant was a few feet from our door. We hauled our belongings over to a vacant table setting on the cobbled street, and in no time at all we were gorging on carbs.
In “Campo dei Fiori” Czeslaw Milosz reminds us that the “cobbles spattered with wine and the wreckage of flowers” are the same cobbles over which Giordano Bruno was burned. Does Milosz dare to compare Rome’s hunger for blood with their hunger for food? Or is he accusing the Romans of indifference to death? Soon after “his [Bruno] burning . . . they were back at their wine or peddled their white starfish, baskets of olives and lemons . . . and he already distanced as if centuries had passed while they paused just a moment for his flying in the fire.”
It seems pretty calloused to return to food while the pyre has not yet cooled, but when I think about my first meal in Rome, I have to admit the ease with which I focused on the meal, forgetting “those dying here, the lonely forgotten by the world.” I could have been anywhere in the world that day; it wouldn’t have changed my hunger.
“In the process of recreating with our own hands what lies before our eyes, we seem naturally to evolve from observing beauty in a loose way to possessing a deep understanding of its constituent parts and hence more secure memories of it.”—Ruskin
I took a picture of this arched doorway in Trastevere focused on its graffiti. When I sketched it, I noticed the hearts in iron over the double doors. Big hearts with smaller inverted hearts inside, free of spray paint, mock the mess underneath. The solid dark behind crisp metal lines is cool in its cleaness, a confusing dichotomy of suggested warmth and cold. The “process of recreating” this image asked for more than seeing and naming what was in front of me. Each component popped out of hiding and added its paragraph to the story.
About Rome Goethe says, “Truly, there is nothing small here, although a few things may be objectionable and tasteless; but even they reflect the general grandeur.” My own experience of Rome is much the same; everything seems bigger in Rome: light, sound, color, structures, the graffiti. As to the latter, which one finds everywhere, even marring the edifices of antiques and ruins, the graffiti seems to reflect a larger than usual desire to express the soul. For example, the Pantheon marks not so much a tribute to the gods, or even to its current single god, but is an expression of and for those who worship them. I stand under an oculus 30 feet in diameter, straining my neck to imagine a ceiling once overlaid in gold, and suddenly I realize Rome’s purpose–it’s a display case, a curio cabinet of memorabilia on an unimaginable scale.
“And yet we keep no memory of that once-upon-a-time, nor can we call it back; somewhere between a break occurred and all our atoms went wandering here and there and far away from our sensations.” –Lucretius
When I walked down Ostia’s Via dei Tombs, I didn’t think about death. Rather, I pondered life, the lives that occupied the space for a time and times. Questions came in the form of philosophical wonderings, the universal type. Questions of existence and non-existence. I wondered if they also worried about the state of their lives, whether or not they were squandering it away, or making the most of what little time was left, as they laid to rest family members and friends. A good friend of mine reminded me once that our natural state is that of non-existence, since, as she put it, she had not existed for far longer than her present short existence. Lucretius, I think, would agree. What have we to fear when death is no longer an enemy, but only a natural conclusion to existence? Walking down the street of tombs, with sarcophagi to my right and urn niches to my left, the answer came quickly–not living.
One of the best views of London’s skyline is from the Millenial bridge, where you come face to face with St. Paul’s Cathedral’s looming presence. The 300 + year old cathedral is a wonderful example of the way London effortlessly meshes the old with the new, especially when standing on the Millenial bridge. Designed by Sir Christopher Wren, the anglican church is a fully functioning church. I was able to attend evensong on this, my third visit, to St. Paul’s. It was the first evensong I’ve attended, and I must confess myself less interested in the service than the structure of the ornate roof over my head. St. Paul’s will always be more than a cathedral to me; it’s an impressive work of art. As I sat there, half listening to word and song echo down its massive naives, I couldn’t help but imagine the dedication and skill constructing it entailed. The cathedral took around 35 years to finish, almost a lifetime for someone living in the late 17th century. And that’s how I’ve come to see London–in terms of lifetimes, a place that encapsulates lifetimes—the lifetimes of the Roman wall, the lifetimes of Westminster, the lifetimes of St. Paul’s.
Ovid’s poem “Metamorphoses” indirectly exposes its non-traditional perspective by the parallels found in the Adam and Eve myth. In Genesis, Adam warns Eve away from the tree of knowledge, but the snake, which historically has been portrayed as wicked and threatening, invites her to take of its fruit and see for herself that it is good. Comparatively, in Ovid’s poem Apollo slays the snake, symbolically killing the messenger of an idea that threatens the status quo—the education and empowerment of women. Daphne embodies the forbidden tree by deciding for herself what is good, even when to do so is deemed wicked and at odds with societal norms. In a profound move that shakes what it means to be feminine from its patriarchal roots, Daphne’s transformation symbolizes rejection of the masculine prohibition on female liberation, as she literally becomes the symbolic vessel of knowledge. Bernini captures this moment in marble.
In the Piazza Navona, one fountain represents four rivers and their continents: “the Nile represents Africa, with its veiled head because the source of the river had yet to be discovered, the Ganges Asia, the Danube Europe and Rio de la Plata, the Americas.” Commissioned by the pope, Bernini’s swirling style of graceful movement animated by water is especially noted in some of the animals that seem to be leaping in and out of the pool below. Four male figures beneath a central towering obelisk appears to celebrate the masculine, and reminds me of the ancient practice of blessing the four directions. In circling the fountain it could equally bring to mind Pliny’s words about the four elements: “The highest of these is supposed to be fire, and hence proceed the eyes of so many glittering stars. The next is that spirit . . . air. It is by the force of this vital principle, pervading all things and mingling with all, that the earth, together with the fourth element, water, is balanced in the middle of space.”