I’ve decided not to make any plans while I’m here. I’m not doing research in Rome, after all, I’m just here to meet up with Lucy, who’s on a seriously hard-core-planned-down-to the-minute trip with her Latin class. Whatever I need to learn about classical Rome, I’m sure she will teach me. No, I’m going to drift…
On Saturday I drifted to Piramide, to see an old friend. I drifted via San Pietro in Vincoli, because it was close to the Colosseo Metro stop. I stared for a while at Michaelangelo’s Moses, and he stared right back. He’s virtually the only part of the tomb of Julius II that the great man actually completed; the rest was finished by his students, and this is really shockingly evident when you look at it. The rest of the sculptures, Rachel and Leah, and the Virgin and Julius himself up above, are… well, nice. Moses is anything but. He’s just burning up with power, incandescent, and the rest of the tomb might as well be a whitewashed wall.
At Piramide, I spent a while sitting on the steps and pondering the ruins of the Porta Ostiensis in the Aurelian wall. The classical city of Rome didn’t have massive fortifications, although it had city walls, and this was the gate that opened on the way to Ostia, the port of Rome, down on the coast. The really massive fortifications here were begun in the 3rd century, though what remains looks to me much later—thirteenth or fourteenth, perhaps, though as usual my guidebooks are silent on the medieval details. Tommaso had said he would meet me; I wondered whether I’d recognize him, but was fairly certain that I would. A little confusion arose, though, because he sent his partner Franco to pick me up instead, and had told Franco I was a blonde, which of course I was years ago in California. We sorted it out eventually, and back we went to their apartment for lunch with their two remarkably beautiful children. Tommaso is writing a book about walking around Rome, quite literally around it, in a big circle. When the line he has traced, much more regular than those Aurelian walls, leads through a school, or someone’s apartment, he knocks on the door and asks if he may walk through. And yet even Tommaso, who’s lived in Rome almost all of his life, confesses that he doesn’t know much about the medieval city; it’s a ghost, hanging intangible between the stupendous ruins of the classical past and the palazzos of the Renaissance. When I rack my brains to come up with even an anecdote about Rome in the Middle Ages, I get nothing but a vague recollection of a story told by Liutprand of Cremorna, who visited the city on behalf of the Holy Roman emperor Otto (III? I think so) and reported a scandalous story about a pope who was sleeping with his mother. It’s hard to know quite how reliable Liutprand was; he also visited Constantinople and witnessed the Byzantine emperor flying up to the ceiling in a magical mechanical throne. Still, the impression he gives of Rome near the turn of the first millenium is one of damp, disorder and decay.
Then there’s Margery Kempe. Someone ought to do a tour of Rome, walking in her footsteps. It’s a pity I didn’t think of this sooner, since I don’t generally travel with a copy of the Book of Margery Kempe, and thus have to patch together my vague recollections of her visit here in about 1415. She was on her way home from Jerusalem, when God instructed her to go to Rome. I imagine He thought (or she thought that He thought) that the Roman clergy needed to be licked into shape; this was the period of the Great Schism, with one Pope in Rome, one Pope in Avignon, and a third in Pisa. The idea of a Kempian pilgrimage around Rome occurred to me when I found myself by accident standing in front of a church dedicated to Saint Brigid of Sweden, who visited Rome some 50 years before Margery (and 650 years before me); Margery was a great admirer of Brigid’s, because they were both closely acquainted with the Holy Family. Brigid had visions of the Nativity, while in one of Margery’s more famous devotional daydreams, she sees herself bustling around with clean linen and hot water as the Virgin goes into labour.
It would be difficult, I suppose, to reconstruct Margery’s itinerary, even if I had brought along a copy of her book. She’s not big on geography, or description. Rather, it’s the people she remembers, and that one remembers after reading her: the various priests who either oppose her or support her, the wealthy ladies who invite her to dinner, the fellow travellers who keep ditching her because they can’t stand being preached at while they eat. She does, if my memory is at all reliable, have a sort of vision of herself in a mystic marriage to Christ when she visits St. John Lateran. And she constantly bursts into tears at the sight of baby boys, because they remind her of Jesus and the sufferings of her mother (my friend Tommaso’s little boy, not quite two, with extraordinary golden curls, would have reduced her to a puddle).
Most of the churches Margery visited in the fifteenth century would be unrecognizable to her now. Even the most ancient were rebuilt again and again in the Renaissance and during the Baroque period. Yesterday I visited three of these, Santa Maria Maggiore, Santa Pudenziana and San Prassede. The Basilica of Santa Maria was built by Sixtus III (432-440), but Sixtus wouldn’t recognize it now, with its Baroque façade. Inside, you can still see a series of 5th century mosaics—well, I couldn’t see them very well, because I had not brought binoculars, and they’re embedded in the wall quite high up in the nave. There are later mosaics, more visible to the naked eye and quite Byzantine in style, in the apse. What really takes your breath away, however, is the ceiling, all coffered in gold, the first gold to come out of Peru, donated to Alexander VI by Ferdinand and Isabella. The two smaller churches are much less altered. Santa Prassede, which dates to 822 has really wonderful mosaics in the chancel. There’s a flat dark blue sky, full of the most well-organized clouds you’ve ever seen, all lined up in rows rather like the stars on an American flag. Below these, saints and angels, and below these, flat green grass with red flowers as tightly ranked as the clouds above. The whole thing gives a wonderful impression of the coherence and unity of the divine plan. In a side chapel, there is a piece of the column to which Christ was tied in order to be scourged. I would have liked to have spent more time in this dark little church, but I was kindly encouraged to leave at half past noon, so the priest could go have his lunch. The third of these ancient churches, Santa Pudenziana, is dedicated to a senator’s daughter who used to help prepare the bodies of the martyrs for burial. I couldn’t explore it thoroughly either, because it was a Sunday. Nowadays, it is the Philippino church in Rome (I’m not sure why) and it was absolutely packed; a Mass was being said in Tagalog. I stood in the back for a while, feeling, as I rarely do, tall. And a bit conspicuous.
Rather typically, I failed to get my touristic act together today. I spent too much of the morning running errands (post office… money machine… pharmacy for ibuprofen for my aching knee… thank heavens ibuprofen is the same word in Italian) and got myself over to Trastevere just in time to discover that both St. John Chrysostom and Santa Cecilia close up at one o’clock. Beyond the Centro Storico, apparently, everything follows the old fashioned Italian schedule of long naps in the afternoon. Trastevere, however, seems to have changed very little since Margery’s day: narrow little crooked streets, lots of laundry hanging from the windows. Which makes me wonder a bit about Margery’s laundry. She insisted on wearing white clothes, as a mark of her born-again virginity, granted her by divine favour after 20 years of marriage and thirteen children. It must have been awfully difficult to keep them clean on pilgrimage. In Rome, if I recall correctly, she actually agreed to dress like a normal person for a while, and the skeptic in me wonders whether the difficulty of doing laundry in a pilgrim hospice (she stayed at St Thomas of Canterbury) may have been a factor here. It’s tricky enough washing out the occasional T-shirt in a hotel with running water, after all.
A word about my hotel: I love it. It claims to be one of the oldest in Rome, dating back to the Middle Ages, but in the same breath (a breath inscribed on a panel by the door) admits that it was entirely demolished and rebuilt in the nineteenth century, a perfect example of the imaginative recreation of the medieval. Still, it doesn’t feel particularly Victorian (or Vittorian). It’s a warren of little corridors around a central courtyard; my room is one of the simplest (i.e. cheapest), with furniture that must be at least a century old, and not much of it. No air-conditioning, but a big ceiling fan, and in any case it’s been rainy the last two days. The bathroom is down the hall. The courtyard is mostly occupied by American music students, here for a festival; as I write this, a couple of guitarists are rehearsing something classical and beautiful that I can’t identify. The people in the hotel are very friendly; yesterday I watched the Italy-New Zealand match with one of the guys who manages the desk. Absolutely shocking: a draw between the defending champions and the Kiwis who were ranked something like 103rd coming into this! At a potentially exciting moment, a girl wandered in wanting to buy internet time (you pay by the hour). “What… now???” my new friend said in disbelief. And tore himself away to fulfill her request, missing only the entrance of a new player on the New Zealand side. It’s Albergo del Sole, right off the Campo dei Fiore.