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Monday, 8 November 2010

The Grandeur that is Rome

In the middle of the 80s I lived in Rome for two years, two years which changed my life completely.

At the time I was a member of the Dominican Order of the Catholic Church and very unsure about my future membership of the same. My superiors, recognising my confusion, suggested that a change of scene might help me to focus more and offered me the opportunity to move from my native Ireland and continue my theology studies elsewhere – in Rome to be precise.

I was sceptical. My theological views and positions on Church issues in general were extremely liberal, even radical, and I had the feeling that Rome was not going to be the most absolutely comfortable place for someone deeply suspicious of the official Church authority structures, who felt clerical celibacy was wrong, who was in favour of the ordination of women, thought that homosexuality should be regarded as a normal sexual variation, etc., etc. On the other hand, I was able to recognise that I was deeply unhappy and unsure in the priory (that’s what Dominicans call their monasteries) in Dublin where I had been living for nearly six years and so I agreed to the deal.

[My suspicions of how I would find the Church environment in Rome turned out to be pretty accurate. Six years after the accession of John Paul II to the pontificate, the resurgence of neo-traditional troglodytes was gathering momentum. I experienced a world and mind-set completely divorced from anything I could identify with reality or good sense, so that I started to caustically call clerical Rome “the dead centre of the Catholic Church” and, indeed, this experience certainly contributed to my subsequent radical realignment of my relationship to it. But that’s another story about which I may write here sometime in the future …]

Roma – una vita non è basta! (Rome – a lifetime is not enough!), say the Romans in their typical Italian understated fashion. In this case, however, the saying is not exaggerated. Indeed, when you think about it, it is understandable, for this city has been one of the most important in the world – continuously – for more than two thousand years. It has been damned as the Whore of Babylon and celebrated as the Eternal City. It has dominated Europe and the Mediterranean world politically for hundreds of years and, even while its political power was waning, it was building up a religious empire which today still spans the world. It is an ancient city, a cosmopolitan modern European capital and everything in between. There is no kind of story this city has not seen, from the most sublime to the most deeply tragic, with everything in between here also, and every generation which has lived here throughout the long march of history has left its mark somewhere in the city, usually higgledy-piggledy interposed with all the marks left by the preceding generations.

And it was here that I landed in September 1984. I had the great fortune to live in the centre, a few hundred metres from the Coliseum, in the Collegio San Clemente, the house beside the historical Basilica San Clemente, named for the traditional third successor of Peter as “bishop” of Rome. The house and church were given to the Irish Dominicans hundreds of years ago and they are still there.

The Basilica itself is a microcosm of Roman history, an insider tip for visitors to the city, situated on the old Via San Giovanni in Laterano, the street which runs downhill from the Lateran Basilica to the Coliseum. The Basilica is a twelfth century church, much of it still in the original state (and even the subsequent additions are themselves valuable and do not appreciably take from the original), built on top of a fifth century church, built in turn over a Roman domus, Mithraic temple, alleyway and storehouse dating back to the first century C.E. It has all been excavated and is well worth a visit. When I was there, there were always groups of (mostly young) archaeologists around, working under the expert leadership of the distinguished scholar Professor Federico Guidobaldi, and I learned much from him and them (and enjoyed some great parties with them too!). You can find out more about San Clemente here: http://www.basilicasanclemente.com/ - do so, it’s well worth a look. For me, a history graduate who had had a special interest in late republican and early imperial Roman history from my schooldays, living in a place like that was a simply amazing experience.

There’s one story about S. Clemente you won’t find in most of the guidebooks and its historical accuracy is debatable, still it is well worth telling. Either in the middle of the 9th or at the end of the 11th Century (depending upon which source you take) a scholarly woman, disguised as a man, was reputedly elected to the papacy; the (in)famous Pope Joan. Her identity was finally revealed when she went into labour on a procession between St. Peter’s and the Lateran Basilica. She collapsed before the doors of S. Clemente and it can be (and has been) speculated that she actually gave birth to her child, dying in the process, inside the church or its courtyard[i]. Just another Roman story, one of millions.

But there are so many impressions Rome left on me that I can only hint at a few of them here; eating pizza on a balmy September evening at a street-side table on the Viale Aventino, working through the tourist-thronged vastness of St. Peter’s to stand in quiet awe before the sad, sublime beauty of the Madonna’s face in Michelangelo’s Pietà, looking down at the moonlit ruins of the Forum from the Capitol, drinking wine on a dreamy warm afternoon in a small, sun-drenched piazza in Trastevere, wondering at the beauty of the silhouettes of the pines on the ridge of the Palatine as seen from the Circus Maximus before a clear twilit sky, jogging around the Coliseum in the early morning, sitting with a cappuccino to watch the tourists in the Piazza Navona, the embracing sweep of Bernini’s twin colonnades in St. Peter’s Square …

And then, the unexpected joys; the wonders to be discovered around every corner. Like the day I wandered idly into a small church near the Piazza Navona. It was San Luigi dei Francesi and happens to be the French national church. But its true glory can be found in a side-chapel to the left, the (at first sight) gloomy Contarelli Chapel, dark intimations of large canvasses. Put a coin in the slot to switch on the illumination and you are confronted with … pure genius; three masterpieces by Caravaggio all dealing with St. Matthew, the most magnificent, perhaps, The Calling of St. Matthew – the ineluctable gaze and gesture of Christ defining a radical change in his destiny for the flabbergasted tax-collector.

Rome has been the background to many changes of destiny, including one of my own. There was a German girl I’d got to know … rather well. Making my way home to San Clemente early one morning, dazed with love and uncertainty about the future, the thought struck me that her apartment in the Via Panisperna, where we’d spent the night together, was in the middle of the Subura, that ancient area north of the Forum which had been a crowded melting-pot of ordinary Romans and immigrants from all over the Roman world over two thousand years ago. The impoverished but noble family of the Julii Caesari owned an insula [a Roman apartment house] there and, if the sources can be believed, it was there that the greatest of the family, Gaius, spent his childhood.

Rome can really do your head in.


[i] Most historians now agree that there is little basis in fact for the Pope Joan story. Still, it’s another good example of the truth of the old Italian saying: Se non è vero, è ben trovato [Even if it’s not true, it was well invented].

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