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Intellectual House o' Pancakes Webdiary

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2009-02-14 - 2:40 p.m.


If I had to come up with a slogan for Italian tourism, it'd be "Rome! Come visit your ancestors."

Visiting Rome and getting such an up-close glimpse of the origins of Western civilization as we know it, is a profound and complicated experience.

I think the human species' desire to reproduce and sustain itself works backwards as well as forwards. We can be moved to tears to see these stubborn ruins, evidence of life that happened (in a big way) before us, as much as we are moved by seeing new life.

And in that sense, walking through the Colosseum and the Forum and all the other zillions of little markers of ancient life was overwhelming for me.

Temple of Saturn at the Roman Forum, 500 BC

Temple of Antoninus and Faustina, seen from the Palatine Hill

Being right on their old stomping grounds, the ancient Romans no longer seemed like an abstraction, a list of confusing names and timelines, but real flesh and blood people, dark-eyed, brown-haired, sorta petite men and women who strolled the gardens of the Palatine Hill, ate oranges from the groves, heard the wind rustling through leaves, visited huge marble temples to pray, and did horrible things to each other in the playing fields.

Fountain outside the Domus Flavia

Farnese Garden on the P. Hill

Suddenly the statues were as haunting and real as photos on my grandmother's mantel--these are the people who lived in these hills, and who, in a loose sense, created us.

Warrior Torso

Experiencing the art and architecture in their proper geographical context (instead of a museum on the Upper West Side) is like having seen the Ramones at CBGB: it just means more. (Although the plumbing at CB's was probably a little worse)

Walking through the Roman Forum also gave me this deep, molecular sense of deja-vu. I wonder if that was my baffled neurons trying to file these mammoth structures somewhere and, coming up short, telling me "Memories! Yeah, that's it!"

And then there are all the other past eras and populations that are still vibrantly and organically represented in this one tiny region--the early Christians, the Renaissance artists and nobility, the Etruscans, and so on.

The Vatican and St Peter's were overwhelming in a different way--just tons and tons of statues, paintings, relics, tapestries, marble baths, columns, stained glass, stuffed into one relatively small area, an explosion of color and culture that feels visually manic, panicky, grabby, greedy and more-is-more.

Ceiling, maporium



To me, St Peter's is a little too somber and dark to be truly uplifting, and too overblown and packed with photo-snapping tourists and hard-assed, humorless guards (Italy seems lousy with dour civil servants who like to yell) to be anything close to a spiritual experience, but of course it's amazing on its own terms.

St. Peter's

The tombs of the popes underneath St Peter's was pretty great, though--no photos, no talking, and death all around, creating a natural solemnity that felt like a respite. I found myself involuntarily choking up at John Paul II's tomb, which still attracts mourners, piles of flowers, etc. In such an overblown environment, this felt small, personal, real.

Seeing Saint Peter's tomb (evidence suggests that the relics buried here are authentic) made me feel a new affection for him, such that anytime I saw a statue of him elsewhere, I got a little warm glow, not unlike seeing Tony Shalhoub in a movie after you've been loving him on Monk.

As for Papa Benedetto--he seems like a mild-mannered sort. He gave a short talk (not a sermon) and welcomed, by name, several visiting groups, some of whom broke out into song offerings. I liked that part--sweet and joyful.

The idea that this unimpressive old man is part of a lineage that dates back to Saint Peter is thrilling and mind-boggling and ultimately head-scratching. But I love lineages, no matter how they end up.

Pope flanked by henchmen

(Needless to say, the stone- and baby-faced Swiss Guard lends a freaky surreality to the proceedings.)

There is much more to say, but this is gettin' long.

The food? Simple as can be, but delicious. Pasta and gelato and pizza and panini and wine.

The people? Mostly pretty cordial, not a lot of English speakers (or people willing to speak English with us, anyway) Palpably male-dominated culture. The men are gorgeous, the women look weary but stylish.

The language? Easy enough to pick up and a complete joy to listen to. I took two yoga classes and it was like being murmured to by Peppino Gagliardi.

Yoga classes? Uh, not very plenteous. Romans don't seem to be overly concerned with fitness, and I guess they've got the spiritual part covered.

Public transportation? Never had to wait more than 1 or 2 minutes for a subway or bus. My main goal while I was in Rome was to not get hit by a tiny car driving at 100MPH.

The trains and buses really do run on time

Roman drivers prefer Smart Cars...

And as with any good vacation, I came back with a new appreciation for my own city. I've been walking around kinda dazed, looking at the beautiful buildings and people and resolving to take better advantage of this town's abundance. I'm also getting a kick out of seeing how many Greco-Roman architectural shout-outs there are all around here in Imperial America.

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