Rome is frustrating. Only two and a half days in Rome is almost criminally so. There’s just so much to see and experience. As in New York, you could easily spend a year in this incredible city and barely scratch the surface. But that’s one of the real pleasures of travel as well. I have students ask me on a regular basis if I get tired of doing these tours and seeing so many of the same sites. No way! I always see a thousand new things, not to speak of a hundred old things in a different way, sometimes subtly different, sometimes radically so.
This trip to Mater Roma has been no different in any of those respects. We arrived at Fiumicino, Rome’s main airport, around 11:30 on Friday (Italy is six hours ahead of us in the summer), collected our bags, met our friend and guide Oshri, had time for a potty break and a trip to the ATMs, boarded our bus and made our way from Ostia to our comfortable hotel, the Cardinal St. Peter, on the lower slopes of the Janiculo, the ancient Janiculum Hill, about a mile west of St. Peter's. When I’m in Rome I love to stay in the central district, within walking distance of ancient sites such as the Fora , the Colosseum, the Pantheon, etc. But of course, just as in Manhattan, you pay for that proximity, either in cash or in comfort. Personally I’m OK with staying in an affordable rat hole if I can walk to the center of ancient world. But our modern hotel made a great transition to Italian travel for us American travelers, spoiled as we all are by our creature comforts.
Friday afternoon was under the expert care of Oshri, who took us to some of the most famous piazze (squares) in Rome, such as that of the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain, etc. A special treat was my first visit ever to the Basilica of San Clemente, a perfect example of the complexity of this city. The ‘modern’ church is a beautiful, twelfth-century, classic basilica with nave, side aisles, apse decorated with a brilliant mosaic that is easily sixty feet high. But the real charm of this church lies beneath. Winding down a flight of stairs you reach a level some thirty feet below where you see...the Basilica of San Clemente! Only this one is a product of the fourth century CE. Think about the significance of that fact, remembering that Rome openly tolerated Christianity only in 313 BE after Constantine issued the Edict of Milan. Thus, this is one of the first, if not the first, officially recognized church in Christianity, built by none other than Constantine himself.
And he did it right. Like its later iteration, the church was a huge basilica with classic nave, side aisles, apse— in short, the classic form, right from the get-go. I should explain that the Romans invented the basilica form, but the Roman basilica was basically a courthouse. So how did a secular building become the prototype for the canonical Christian church? We’re not exactly sure, but here’s the theory that makes most sense to me.
If you look at the plan or footprint of a basilica, it’s basically a huge rectangle. Within the rectangle , along the longer sides, are two rows of columns or pillars that mark out the side aisles, The larger rectangular area left over in the middle is the nave, usually built significantly higher than side aisles to provide room for clerestory windows But as early as the first century CE, Romans began modifying the plan by adding an apse (think of a cylinder with half a globe stacked on top) at the far end, and from time either an apse or a rectangular ell on either sides to create a transept. Thus if you were a bird flying over, you’d see the shape of a cross. But there’s more. Beginning in the second century, a dome and cupola were sometimes added at the intersection of the cross’s axes, and a huge statue of the emperor, by then worshiped as a god, was placed in the apse at the end of the nave. Now look at your basilica in three dimensions; we have created north-south and east-west axes, so to speak, as well as a vertical axis through the cupola, through the intersection of the horizontal axes, and ultimately into the underworld. We have constructed a three-dimensional axis, what the Romans called an axis mundi, an ‘axis of the universe’ a place where the powers of heaven and hell communicate with the horizontal plane of the temporal world. Big mojo, to put it more simply. And what happens at that exact spot in the Catholic mass? Why, the consecration of the host on the altar, of course, the place where the bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Christ. And what goes into the apse where the pagan emperor-god’s once stood? The most sacred of Christian icons, the crucifix. In other words, the Roman basilica is an ideal architectural form for the Christian church, and here in San Clemente may well be where it all began.
Fortunately for us, the basilica burned in the ninth century and, in typical Italian fashion, the builders of the new Medieval church leveled the walls to thirty feet or so, walled up the side aisles, created barrel vaults and cross vaults on these, and built the new church upon this foundation.
But there’s more. You descend yet another stairway some twenty feet or so and there you are on a classical Roman street, beautifully made from herringbone-pattern bricks, with houses on either side which you can explore. And as you make your way toward the area of the western apse of the church above, there you find almost perfectly preserved a Mithraeum, a shrine to the popular mystery god Mithras, conqueror of mortality and ensurer of resurrection and eternal life. In such shrines the initiates were baptized, not in water but in blood, in this case the blood of a bull positioned on an upper level over a grate in the ceiling. Imagine this fearsome ritual: the initiand kneels in the center of the shrine before the altar of the god and recites his vows. Above him, as the priest of Mithras recites the liturgy, one officiand stuns the bull with a mallet and another deftly lifts his head before he falls and draws a knife across his jugular. And out gush literally gallons of blood, blood which falls through the grate beneath and cascades over the initiand below. “Are you washed in the blood of the....bull?” If you’re interested, the HBO series “Rome” has an incredible recreation of the ritual which will leave you shocked but awestruck.
Well, it cannot possibly be a mere coincidence that arguably the first official Christian basilica in the Roman world was built precisely here. Mithras was perhaps the most popular of the many pagan gods who represented immortality to the pagan Romans, and the early Christians, by placing the crucifix of their new church above this shrine, sent a not-so-subtle message that the new guy on the block was now in charge. And when the church burned, they wanted to make sure that old dude stayed defeated and in Hell. Amazing.
I confess, the rest of our tour of Rome was a bit anticlimactic for me, though it was great fun. Saturday morning was what I affectionately call “The Day of Popery” (my Catholic friends will understand I'm just kidding). Vatican Museums, an incredible place which I find incredibly frustrating because there is a standard tourist itinerary which shows you some real eye-poppers such as the Laocoon, the Apollo Belvedere, the Rafael rooms, and many more, but leads you right past a priceless but inaccessible trove of classical art. Then there is the Sistine Chapel. I won’t insult your intelligence by trying to explain how magnificent this room is. But the atmosphere here created by the hoards of tourists practically guarantees that what should a deeply moving spiritual experience has more the effect of a circus side show. On the day we were there the room was so jammed it was frankly dangerous, and the guards who usually make some pretense of maintaining a respectful silence just gave up and let the mob shout and flash away with their cameras.
Fortunately the tour ended with a visit to the basilica of St. Peter, always awe-inspiring. The problem here is one of scale. The building is simply so huge that one has difficulty grasping how huge it really is. For example, the baldacchino (altar canopy) of the church, an incredible work of art designed by Bernini. The first time I saw it I thought to myself, “Gee, that thing must be fifty feet tall!” In reality it is 92 feet tall, as tall as a ten-story building. The church from the pavement to the lantern of the cupola is 423 feet tall, as tall as a forty-five story building! Simply amazing.
But not entirely original. The original architect of the church, Bramante, had thought to place a scaled-down version of the Roman Pantheon atop eight massive pillars within a Maltese cross. In other words, one of the classic Byzantine forms. But when Michelangelo received the commission to redesign the church upon Bramante’s death, he decided Bramante’s plan was not audacious enough. And so he decided to set the eight pillars within the Basilica of Maxentius, figuratively speaking, the biggest basilica in the classical world. Thus did St. Peter’s become the biggest Christian church in the Western empire.
Sunday was our day for the tour of classical Rome, but that will have to wait for another blog, I fear. Our bus is entering Umbria and the scenery, always stunning, is quickly becoming irresistible.