November 5, 2016
I've never been in a city where the light is softer or more beautiful than this one. The colors are married to the light and they play together all day long, regardless of whether the sky is bright or overcast or misty or raining hard, as it did today. And when the cobbled pavement is wet and shining, it's gorgeous, but you definitely have to watch your step.
The neighborhood where we're staying, Trastevere, is on the western bank of the Tiber, while the city's historical center was on the east, and its name literally means "across the river." But it is not a new suburb by any means: Trastevere was originally Etruscan, but by the time of the Republic (c. 509 BC) sailors and fishermen had begun to live there, along with Jewish and Syrian immigrants, and the Romans gradually built bridges to connect the west bank to the city. A logical place to construct early bridges was the Tiber Island, just a few minutes' walk from where we are living, in a modernized apartment in a house built around 1600 AD.
Our street is a tiny winding alley barely big enough for the little cars and motorcycles and scooters that do drive down it, but mostly it is a lane for local people walking to and from their houses. There is a famous bakery just a couple of doors away, Biscotti Innocenti, run by a woman who makes hundreds of kinds of delicious, intricate little cookies, and also the shop of someone who seems to restore or copy antique marblework; it hasn't been open yet but through the window I can see all sorts of plaster casts piled atop each other or leaning against the walls.
There are more places to eat nearby than anyone could visit in a lifetime, and the food has been uniformly fabulous. But I'm cooking too: tonight a shrimp risotto made with a bag of nano rice that cost less than 2 euros here and would go for $8 in Montreal. It's fairly quiet and we've slept a great deal, but the bells of nearby Santa Cecelia are ringing right now, at 9:00 pm, as they do to mark all the monastic hours. I haven't visited the patron saint of music yet, but I will, in spite of the gruesomeness of her martyrdom.
We needed a quiet evening tonight to digest our day. In the morning we had crossed the Tiber and walked up to the Largo de Torre Argentina, where an exposed excavation of five Roman temples now houses a colony of wild cats, and from there to Campo di Fiori to see the market and have lunch, a white foccaccia-style pizza stuffed with mozzarella and zucchini blossoms, at Forno, a famous bakery on the edge of the market square.
Campo di Fiori, "Field of Flowers"
From there we walked in the rain to Piazza Navona, looked at the Bernini Fountain of the Four Rivers along with hundreds of other tourists, and went on through the narrow streets to the Pantheon.
Heading back, we stopped at the ornately baroque Chiesa de Gesu, the mother church of the Jesuits, and then Piazza San Marco, where we both admitted that we were having a bit of a hard time as the sheer amount of wealth and power began to sink in: wealth that has been concentrated here in families and churches and government for more than two millennia, and shown off in triumphal arches, palaces, military monuments, self-aggrandizement.
"I think I've always identified a lot more with the people who had to deal with this," J. said.
Ponte Sisto, 1473
I've found myself thinking a lot about Empire and what it has meant all through history: the acquisition and concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few elites, won through wars of one kind or another, on the backs of the expendable lives of the ordinary people. The artists we now revere were often practically slaves to the rulers and popes and rich aristocrats who were their patrons, and the hypocrisy between church teaching and the level of their decoration, not to mention the way the popes and cardinals lived, is astounding. We walked home quietly, hand in hand, in a light rain, both of us thinking about the upcoming elections and feeling disturbed: it just goes on and on, like the Tiber flowing under its bridges.
The one we crossed today was built in 62 BC, has survived intact, and been in continuous use ever since. How can you not be amazed by the fact that your feet are touching stones worn smooth for more than two thousand years?
And the Pantheon, that "pan-theon", a temple to all gods, whose dome is still the largest non-concrete-reinforced dome in the world, has also survived. Its huge columns were carved in Egypt and transported by wooden sledges from the quarry to the Nile, then down the river by barge during the spring floods, by boat across the Mediterranean to the Roman port of Ostia, then by barge up the Tiber and rolled or dragged to the building site. Marcus Agrippa had originally commissioned the temple during the reign of Augustus (27 BC to 14 AD); the Emperor Hadrian rebuilt and dedicated it in 126 AD. The temple has been in continuous use ever since, but became a Christian church in the 7th century, which may have saved it from the destruction visited upon many Roman buildings during the Middle Ages.
Here, for the first time, I began to try to get my head around what I was actually seeing. Although my own period of passionate study had been ancient Greece (archly, I had thought of the Romans as copyists, appropriators, imitators), I had also studied some Roman history and art, taken some Latin. The Pantheon had been begun during the reign of Augustus, at the time of Christ. Luke's Gospel, written somewhere around AD 80 or 90, contains the famous Christmas passage about Mary and Joseph having to travel to Bethlehem to register for a Roman census: "And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed." The light filtering through its oculus high above my head, I realized, may have shone on the person who issued that decree; his feet may have walked across this floor.
As I stood under the dome, looking at the Christian sculptures and paintings that now decorate it, and the empty niches above, where Roman gods probably once stood, I also felt wistful. Conquerors have always erased history by writing over it, but I would have liked to stand in the original temple in the presence of Athena and Zeus and Poseidon, gods who had felt alive to me since my childhood, already renamed Minerva and Jove and Neptune by the Romans. But all I saw of them remaining were fragments of some dolphins carved in travertine, high up on the very back of the building's exterior, and between them the raised fork of Neptune's trident.