by Mark Tedesco
Reviewed by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D.Profiles in Catholicism
What can one say about Rome with its magical and mystical draw? I lived there after college for a time. Words are inadequate but leave us gasping for the joy of another day in Rome. The author states: “What is it about Rome that seduces the heart, fascinates the mind, and envelops the senses? Once she becomes part of you, there is no turning back, no forgetting, no forsaking. Her fascination deepens with the passing of time and the maturity of life. I cannot stay away for more than a year, yet even that is not enough. She is like a jealous lover, a siren, or a genie who casts an enchanting spell from which one does not want to escape.”
History comes alive to the extent that the senses are involved: can I see, touch, smell, hear, or even taste it? History loses its aridity when it enters one’s experience, and Rome is the world’s most ideal history venue. I had an archaeology professor in Rome who had some nutty ideas, like the day he proposed that the Garden of Eden’s story was validated by the discovery of snake fossils dating from around the time humans first appeared on the earth. But he had a passion for the experience of archaeology. Every week he gathered his class and brought us down to explore Rome underground, starting from ancient burial areas.
The history began in Bethlehem when Christ was born about 4 BCE in a stable because there was no room at the inn (Luke 2:7). Sources say that the baby was laid in a manger, which becomes the focus of our story. The manger is a type of open trough for animals to feed from, consisting of legs or a stand, and the trough itself, made from wood or stone. Helena, the mother of Constantine, traveled to the Middle East to secure the places sacred to Christians, including the place of Christ’s birth, converting the cave into a chapel and then into a basilica. The history then becomes vaguer, but a reference to Christ’s crib appearing in Rome surfaces under Pope Theodore’s pontificate (640-649). Under the high altar of St. Mary Majors can be seen a glass bubble with five wooden boards visible that are said to be part of the manger carried to Rome from Bethlehem at Pope Theodore’s time. The next phase of the story is a summer snowstorm; it was August 5, 352 CE, when snow purportedly fell on the Esquiline Hill in Rome. Before the snow could melt, the people marked the outline; the snow was interpreted as a sign that a church should be built on that spot in honor of the Virgin Mary. The present basilica 18 dates to the fifth century CE with additions and renovations through the centuries. The third part of our story begins with the Spanish colonization of the Americas.
Whenever I go to the Vatican, my visit is colored by my own experience; my memories reach back to John Paul II’s papacy when communism in Eastern Europe started to crack when I felt like I was at the center of cataclysmic changes. I remember walking through St. Peter’s Square in 1984 one morning and saw posters plastered everywhere about the murder of Jerzy Popiełuszko, a Polish priest. He was an outspoken critic of the Russian-backed regime. Europe was on the brink of change, the Pope was an important stakeholder, and I was there. When I returned years later, the Vatican held greater historical importance for me. As I wandered through Raphael’s Rooms and looked up at the School of Athens, where all the ancient world’s wisdom was summarized, I felt surrounded by history. I realized that humanism, which exalted humanity to the center of the universe, was celebrated in this spot by Michelangelo, Raphael, and even the Renaissance Popes, despite their faults. Again, I felt I was at the center of cultural change
A journey through Rome begins with the visitor as the stories between the past and present converge together. We find ourselves immersed in the legends surrounding churches and monuments, fountains, and neighborhoods, experiencing good and evil, saints and weirdos in the past and present. Humanity flocks to this city, which overflows with examples of heroism and corruption on the same street! Since ancient Rome, the city’s life has been on its streets, with its performers, cafes, and crowds from practically every country and culture. The contemporary street artists, surrounded by spectators in jeans and tennis shoes, echo those in the ancient world, in sandals and togas. In Rome, history comes alive because it invades all five senses. The visitor can see the soaring ceilings of the ancient baths of Caracalla and touch that wall where Nero perhaps leaned and hear the gurgling of the underground stream at the Mamertine Prison; the daring can even taste the ancient world! Rome’s charm is the ability to purposely get lost and discover something new and precious or unique, like a little-visited piazza, a neighbourhood that still bears the scars of the last world war, or a fountain that is a monument to love. The city is often filled with American tourists whose amazement is contagious and expectations that everything functions as it does in their country are comical. Each American and tourist from other countries have their favorite places to eat, where even the restaurants in this magical place have their stories. Whether it is a cafe connected to 158 a Pontifical university, a comfortable bar with a generous happy hour, or a luxury dining experience run by an order of nuns, the stories leap from the menus. The people who give meaning to the statues, monuments, food, and art that fills Rome, and the Romans themselves, who have lived there for one generation or more, each have their unique experience of what the city means. Most visitors miss the fascinating part of the city, which is underground Rome. The Golden House of Nero, the homes of Augustus and Livia, the catacombs, and other excavated areas are like time capsules that transport one back to where the walls speak and the frescoes cry out, expressing even after death the desires, beliefs, and values of those who lived or were buried there. Italians who immigrated to Rome often have a different perspective. Their bond to the city’s history is powerful; they explore Rome above and underground and are often the first to discover the most unique and unknown aspects of the city. No artist captures Rome’s spirit better than Caravaggio, whose grittiness, realism, sensuality, lack of discipline, spirituality, and connection to the divine somehow result in masterpieces that those who followed him could only try to imitate. Following his footsteps in Rome and absorbing his art’s expressiveness, the visitor gains a glimpse into Rome’s essence, which is somewhere between the human and the divine. And yet, following the artist’s path in the city today, one notices the people watching, eating, selling, performing, and wandering. Each person has their story, background, their hopes, and dreams. A judgmental attitude, regulating people into stereotypes, is difficult to maintain in Rome because the city’s international character keeps revealing that humans are not who they may seem to be at first. Those who want to drink deeper of Rome’s magical potion venture into the lesser-visited areas, whether outside the city to surrounding towns or a lesser-known museum within the historical center. Taking some risk in going outside the beaten tourist path always rewards where one can find oneself as the lone visitor or explorer in an area that few tourists venture. 159 But who has the inside scoop on what Rome is? The expats give the perspective of an outsider, with often comical stories of dealing with Roman bureaucracy; the Romans are aware of the city’s potential, which is often not realized, and the Italians who have immigrated there tend to ignore the shortcomings and enjoy the grandeur of Rome. The expats, however, have the funniest stories. This visit to Rome concludes with a nocturnal Vatican visit. Wandering through the darkened halls, surrounded by art from Egypt, Nero’s Golden House, Caracalla’s baths, and the ancient Greek world, the realization grows that Rome hangs somehow between the human and divine, just as expressed in Caravaggio’s work. Rome’s history is never concluded because the stories continue in the personal lives of those who bond with the city. This book is an invitation to experience Rome in its stories, which give meaning to a monument, a painting, the street performer, the expat, the restaurant owner, and the ghosts of those long dead. Those who experience Rome’s magic understand that beyond the dirty streets, the graffiti, and all the problems with mismanagement that one can spend time complaining about, there is something else that cannot be found elsewhere. Those visitors who allow themselves to experience this “something else” will carry memories of their visit away and bear its magic with them. The city will eventually beckon them back because she is a jealous lover and does not want to be forgotten by those she has seduced. Rome teaches that it is the story that matters and that beyond the tasks and responsibilities of life, there is a greater context that gives meaning to the fabric of human existence. One realizes that it is not the “thing” that matters as much as the story behind it. Rome is this collection of stories embedded in the buildings, ruins, people, and hidden angles. For this reason, the city is eternal because the stories continue. This is a great book for those who love Rome.