This chronicle is dedicated specially to Leila Whittemore, our guide and inspiration on this trip to Rome.
Rome? On Seville, Camilo José Cela wrote: ...es una gran señora con la cara pringosa de literatura." (a great lady with a sticky face from all the literature). Rome is this wonderfully grand lady, albeit overripe, enveloped in picturesquely chaotic flowing robes, whom we would like scented with less patchouli, with a bosom that is a tad firmer, a girth more conducive to embraces, somewhat more attentive to personal hygiene and maybe more carefully coiffed before showing herself, but that we admire for her wit, generosity, opulence and welcoming smile; we know that she has made so many happy, and the scars of her many miseries are all too evident, and we perceive the smoldering fires in her eyes and heart, yes, she can and will make you happy too, if you have the courage to talk to her and the wisdom to break away before she possesses you. Her gifts are offered to all to the point of meaninglessness, but the wisdom of her hidden favors holds the sweetest taste and promise.
Lila Kedrova playing Bubulina in “Zorba, the Greek”? But Linda put it best: “We now know that Fellini was making documentaries.”
On a cool and crisp Sunday morning the only fitting thing to do was to wander into Saint Peter’s basilica, past the security checks, the magnetometers watched by inattentive blue blazered functionaries, into the stream of humanity. At some point a sloppy decision, mass only to the right, visit the architecture to the left; we went right, past the bronze doors, discreetly shepherded by impeccably clad young men in grey, with red ties. Rows of plastic chairs on the multicolored marble floors, mostly occupied, but with plenty of spaces to chose from. We were handed booklets, in Latin and Italian, from which we gleaned that the Holy Father himself was to officiate. Linda, always partial to royalty, rooted right there. From high above, from loudspeakers apparently made of marble, came soft angelic choirs. In our world electronics crackle and dissipate; not here, the sound floated down like dust from the hazy heights of the Bramante-MichelAngelo-Bernini-dellaPorta dome. Far away, but of a size that made it immediate, stood the Bernini “baldacchino”, the portal on four 100 feet tall elegantly twisted bronze columns shielding the papal altar. Sun was streaming in through the side widows of the cupola’s cylinder, leaving the rest of the immense space in half-dusk.
The music changed in texture and rhythm. This was going to be a mass to close the conference of African bishops, the Catholic Church's new frontier, and softly beating African drums underlaid Swahili, Kwa-Zulu, Twi, Afrikaans hymnals. The cyclical lyrics were underscored by swaying soft percussion, rounding and softening any primevalism, as if saying that the Church, mother to us all, expects its African children to lead it into the next centuries; it offers them redemption and a path to civility.
At ten o’clock sharp, a processional hymn preceded a bobbing stream of black heads in white hats and green chasubles, followed by cardinals in red. Finally, behind the cross on a staff, marched a small German gentleman all in white, also in a green chasuble. When he reached the baldacchino, he began the steps, evolutions and rituals of the High Catholic Mass. The choir worked through the Introito, the Kyrie, to the Homily. By the time the Credo came around, I was expecting a powerful blast of the organ pipes to “Credo in Unum Deum, Patrem Omnipotentem….”. But the Choir tastefully continued in the genteel tone of universal blandness. No Church triumphant here, but a kinder, gentler sea of thousand points of light.
We did not stay for the Eucharist, but discreetly stepped past the Swiss guards in their workaday powder-blue uniforms and képis, into the Bernini “columnata”, the twin ellipses of columns embracing the faithful gathered on Saint Peter’s square. Giant, high-definition screens provided a view, a highly and impeccably produced live view of the proceedings inside the Basilica. The cameras lovingly dwelled on the exotically clad black ladies in tall head-dresses, that brought readings and tidings from the Dark Continent. Vivid scarlet, blue, gold, stepped in and out of camera range. Close-ups of African nuns in grey white and blue veils bringing chalices of hosts for consecration. The German gentleman, who had counseled “corrrraggio” (courage) to his listeners with his guttural rolling “r’s”, very earnestly touched every chalice proferred. He looked slim, slight but without any frailty, a schist in a multisecular structure.
The outside audience and spectacle rounded out the interior, more mystical and atmospheric proceedings, into a well-organized, highly engineered package. The mediated representation becomes the real world.
From St. Peter’s we walked across the Sant’Angelo bridge, under the shadow of Hadrian’s tomb and the piled on superstructure that conforms the castle from whose battlements Floria Tosca is supposed to jump into the river Tiber in the eponymous opera by Puccini. Sant’Angelo is probably the structure that best represents Rome: on a millenial base, peoples. locals, invaders, have wrought their best and worst, destroying, robbing, repurposing, rebuilding to the whims of their moments. In the streets, whenever a Roman monument protrudes, we look down ten or twenty feet to the excavated bases of temples. The present city is built on the rubble of all the older ones.
But it is glorious rubble. Hitler wanted to rebuild Berlin to emulate Roman ruins. He did not get the opportunity for the glory, just for the rubble. The German imagination has always tended to the Classical South. From Goethe’s “Werther” to Sandra Nettlebeck’s “Mostly Martha”, the German gaze looks to Italy. So did the British, with their 18th and 19th Centuries “Grand Tours” and the spate of ladies wandering through Tuscany and Firenze to relieve their widowhood; even Noel Coward sung the adventures of Mrs. Wentworth-Brewster (rhymes with “goosed her”) in Capri.
We understand today that historical taxonomy fails us here. You cannot talk of pre-Christian Rome as separate from Papal Rome or present-day Rome because they are so closely interwoven. The Pantheon may be the oldest fully preserved site of worship in the world, but already at its erection it was meant to encompass and digest all the deities (Pan denotes ‘all’, and Theos refers to divinity) past, present and in effect future, as there is a fully functioning Catholic church, dedicated to Saint Mary and the Martyrs, but known in Rome as Santa Maria Rotonda (the round one) and the worship has ben repurposed today into a secular movement that drives thousands of visitors under its “oculus” (round opening in the cupola).
Any and all of the noted buildings in Rome have been constructed using ideas and materials ‘borrowed’ or looted from somewhere else. As the saying goes: “quod non fecerunt Barbari, fecerunt Barberini.” (What the Barbarians did not do, the Barberini - a Roman papal family- did.)
The Barberini Arms
The Beginning of the End.
5 years ago