Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Roma: 2

More musings from my recent visit to Rome.

One of Rome's pleasures is that civilized dining is still widely available. I am not a gourmet or "foodie"; I don't as a rule particularly like eating in restaurants, but I did in Rome. The city still has an abundance of the kind of restaurant that has all but vanished in New York, London, and most big cities I know: small (often with only a dozen or so tables), waiters who've been there forever and take pride in their work rather than consider it demeaning, no background music, no "theme," no exaggerated emphasis on decor.

In such places, your food may not be wildly complex but it is prepared and served with care, and it's delicious. Romans take
restaurant dining seriously without making a holy ritual out of like Parisians do, and they get on with it. You don't have to sit at the table till you're growing roots before you're done — it's possible to eat a very satisfying meal and be on your way in an hour. It's a splendid interregnum between bouts of sightseeing.

On most menus, the items on offer are translated into English, more or less. Sometimes less is more for entertainment value. My favorite: "Vitella di Lombarda" translated as "Grilled Lumbar Day Veal."
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Fashion notes: Romans (or at least those identifiable as Italians by their language) dress surprisingly conservatively if they're over the age of 40 or so. The women (this season, anyway) seem to go in for muted colors and expensive but not showy fabrics. Men may still try to cut a bella figura, but it's more well-tailored, English country style than flashy. The teenagers and twentysomethings are mostly slobs. The Slut Look is popular with the girls, somewhat softened by the current popularity of long, hippie-ish hair styles. The young guys are right losers and look like they just came from the soup kitchen line. Black is very in with both sexes, making for a drab humanscape in a colorful and vibrant city.
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For all that it can make you feel exuberant and revitalized, Rome doesn't let you go for long without reminding you of death.

The churches that you visit for the art and architecture are, of course, full of tombs. The very floor you walk on is marked by medieval slabs carved with images of churchmen and nobles whose final resting place is below. The main walls and side chapel walls contain more monuments to those who passed on centuries ago, and in the Baroque age — when war and plague could strike people down at any time, and the Church believed a memento mori was bracing for your soul — sculptors weren't shy about depicting mortality in the memorials they designed, which were frequently adorned with carved, hideously grinning skulls or skeletons.

The bodies of saints, or fractions thereof, used to be on display for veneration; nowadays they're mostly decently attired, with masks over what's left of their faces. But for the sepulchers of its honored ones, the Church went to immense expense and hired great artisans to represent with palpable realism the physical forms of cardinals and Popes whose calling was to lead the faithful to the nonmaterial fields of Eternity.
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At last, I was able to visit the church of St. Agnese Fuori le Mura and the adjacent Mausoleum of Constantia (daughter of the Emperor Constantine, who legalized Christianity in the Empire and went on to make it the official religion). I say "at last" because it has been several years since I read a fascinating book about the church and mausoleum, The Geometry of Love. (The book is further discussed in my collected reviews linked to at the sidebar.)

St Agnese large
St. Agnes, from the apse mosaic,
St. Agnese Fuori le Mura

The mausoleum was built in the fourth century and still has orginal mosaics (restored in the 19th century, accurately one hopes). As in the church of Santa Maria Maggiore, it's amazing to see artwork so old in situ exactly where it's been for 1,600 years. The mosaic in the apse of the church is of a vintage only a few hundred years later, showing St. Agnes and two early Popes, in stately Byzantine poses ("O sages standing in God's holy fire" — Yeats).

I joined a tour group of only four or five others — the site is in what looks like a high-class, mostly residential district some distance from Rome's historic center, so it gets few tourists — to visit the catacombs beneath the church and the adjacent area. The narration was in Italian, although I could get the gist of most of it, but the location needed no explanation for its impact. It was unlike anything I'd exprienced before. A huge network of narrow tunnels is lined on both sides with horizontal niches where Christians buried their dead in the early days. The niches are empty now, thanks to grave robbers of the middle ages, but you can still see signs in ancient Latin to identify who had been interred there. We were also shown a larger, cave-like area where a well-off family had their own "plot."

The relics of millennia in Rome make you ponder time. Many of them, like the catacombs, also make you think about time ending for each of us.
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Yet there is something appealing in the way Rome is connected to the past while also very much of the present, unlike museumized cities such as Venice, Florence, or Tombstone, Arizona. Not all that is contemporary in Rome is appealing, not the graffiti-sprayed metro trains or the in-your-face commercialism or many other things, but it's hardly necessary to point out that the city's earlier eras included far worse horrors. In a time when militant Islam wants to replace Western civilization, it's comforting to know that this center to which all roads once led, which was almost literally left for dead after the barbarian conquests and the empire's departure for Constantinople, was regenerated in the Renaissance and has been going strong ever since. In the midst of dramatic, constant changes, Rome as a place of the heart and spirit has endured the passing of ages.

So, arrivederci, Roma: you who have seen everything there is to see of piety, triumph, folly, glory, cruelty, artistry, and all else that makes up the human condition. When I see you again, you will no longer be the same, just as always.

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