The Eternal City

26 10 2017

The Colisseum

Everyone who visits Rome tells some version of the same story. Here’s mine:

We spent the morning touring St. Peter’s Basilica. It was grand and vast, almost more to take in than one could grasp. We celebrated mass at a side altar where Pope John XXIII is interred, his uncorrupted body encased in glass. The morning was overwhelming, to say the least.

After four hours in the Basilica, Mom and I were free to find our way in Rome. Footsore, jet-lagged, and dehydrated, we grabbed a table at the first sidewalk cafe we saw, still inside the security perimeter of the Vatican. Lunch was perfect! Afterwards, we literally grabbed a taxi back to Casa Tra Noi, the driver swearing a steady (but quiet) stream under his breath as he made his way up the narrow hill, every few yards maneuvering around obstacles not envisioned when this street was first cobbled: buses, delivery trucks, SUVs.

Statue of St. Francis

We rested for a while on the patio, and I swallowed another miniscule cappuccino, before meeting our tour bus for the drive to the Cathedral of St. John Lateran. At first, I was unexcited to tour another cathedral, but then I realized that this bus trip would show us much of the city we might not otherwise see in our brief time in Rome. And it did: the Colosseum, the Forum, the Circus; we crossed the Tiber River; we saw the balcony where Mussolini harangued the crowds. Our group piled off the bus at a statue of St. Francis that stands across the piazza from St. John Lateran. We posed for a group photo,then made our weary way toward the church. Like most sites in Rome, there was security to go through – though there was no guard in sight here, just a conveyor belt that we all dutifully placed our bags on, walking through metal detectors before retrieving them.

Detail from the Jubilee Doors

Our guide, Father Andre, in his brown Franciscan robe and sandals, introduced us to the cathedral. I remember bits and pieces of the history he recited, though I wouldn’t be able to reconstruct it without assistance. We looked at the beautiful papal door, opened only in jubilee years (bricked shut at other times). Then we wandered over to the giant front doors. By this time in the day, our group lacked its earlier spry energy, so we waited for the stragglers to gather close enough to Father Andre to hear his next words.

Doors originally from the Roman Senate

“These doors,” he said, “Were originally on the Roman Senate. Think about that for a minute! That means that Cicero walked through these doors. Augustus Caesar walked through them…everyone you remember from early Roman history likely touched these doors.”

And that was it: my goosebump moment.

Like I said, everyone who has been to Rome has this story. They tell about the exact moment it hit them that they were in a spot where ancient history still lives. I couldn’t have anticipated that my moment would occur at a cathedral I’d never heard of before – but it was an electrifying moment. For me, it was my heart’s true first step on the pilgrimage I had come to Italy to make.


Darkness and Thoughts on Two Continents

6 10 2017



It is 11:27 p.m. in Iowa, which makes it 6:27 a.m. in Rome.

It is dark in Italy, as it is here – I don’t imagine this. I can watch the early morning unfold in darkness there via webcam broadcasting from the Campo dei Fiori just as easily as I can see the night outside my own window.
It is so quiet in both places. I feel like I am alone with my thoughts on two continents at once.
When I first click on the campo’s camera feed, the market square appears empty. Then I see a solitary person, like me, wander into view. All in white, he or she walks silently along the market stalls, then disappears underneath an awning. I am suddenly alone again.
Alone but for a figure in the very center of the market square – a statue of Giordano Bruno, last convicted heretic to be burned alive by the Roman Inquisition in 1600, here in the Campo dei Fiori. He looms over the square. In the dark, I cannot tell if he looks my way or has his back to me.
As I watch, the day begins to break: trucks and handcarts arrive, people appear with them to unload merchandise. I see flats of produce (tomatoes? eggplants?), and a man passes through my view with heavy, oblong bags slung over both shoulders. More stalls are erected, I begin to hear people calling to one another, glass bottles clink loudly one against another. Birds caw out raucously.
By 6:47 a rosy sunrise is just visible over the roofs of buildings that enclose the square, slowly revealing a skyline that is both foreign and, somehow, familiar. Once I read a book in which Giordano Bruno was a character. The day after I finished this novel, I browsed a local bookstore, discovering a book containing a cycle of poems about his life. I thought that was an interesting coincidence, until later that same day, I picked up a thick volume of poetry by the Polish writer, Czeslaw Milosz. I opened the volume to a random page and the title staring up at me was “Campo dei Fiori”.
This string of coincidences has stuck with me. Tonight, I wonder if it holds a message. Giordano Bruno: scientist, heretic, believer in an infinite universe, burned alive for his convictions. I told a priest friend this story and he said, “I won’t discuss him and I heartily encourage you to stay away from him.” As if we still live in a time when ideas are worth dying for; are worth killing for.
In his poem, Milosz imagines Campo dei Fiori on the day of Bruno’s death. A bustling marketplace, full of people engaged in their daily business. A pause as the pyre is lit. “Before the flames had died, the taverns were full again.” Bruno’s burning is juxtaposed with Milosz’ own time, where a carnival delights while the Warsaw ghetto burns. In both scenes, the people “of Rome or Warsaw/haggle, laugh, make love/as they pass by the martyrs’ pyres.” He imagines the loneliness of those dying, aware that the world and the living simply go about their days, barely noticing. The poem ends with a vision of the future:
Those dying here, the lonely
forgotten by the world,
our tongue becomes for them
the language of an ancient planet.
Until, when all is legend
and many years have passed,
on a new Campo dei Fiori
rage will kindle at a poet’s word.
Try as I might, I can’t quite get there – to this new Campo dei Fiori. It feels like we are living in the same old marketplace, a carnival to distract us from the fires in which people are dying. Some days we pause to notice ashes from the burning float past us, but most days we just keep keeping on. We might think “this isn’t right”; maybe we’d like to stop the world and get off this sicko ride, but the ferris wheel keeps relentlessly turning and our choice is ride or jump. We fear the free-fall that follows the jump more than we fear the impact of the ground (though, to be honest, we don’t relish the thought of either). So we ride, around and around mumbling the same argument, the same complaints.
 As night deepens where I am sitting, day is already moving on in Rome. I check the webcam and note that there are shoppers beginning to drop by the market stalls. I hear the murmur of their voices, though I cannot make out any words. My eyes follow a bird that swoops in above the awnings, flying straight toward the towering figure of Giordano Bruno. Just in time, the bird rises, avoiding a collision.
That is when I notice it is bright enough to see that Bruno is facing me. Even though his face is shadowed by the hood of his robe, I imagine that our eyes meet. Behind his shines the light of a thousand thousand stars. Right or wrong, he stood his ground; is standing there still.
Campo dei Fiori by Czeslaw Milosz
In Rome on the Campo dei Fiori
baskets of olives and lemons,
cobbles spattered with wine
and the wreckage of flowers.
Vendors cover the trestles
with rose-pink fish;
armfuls of dark grapes
heaped on peach-down.
On this same square
they burned Giordano Bruno.
Henchmen kindled the pyre
close-pressed by the mob.
Before the flames had died
the taverns were full again,
baskets of olives and lemons
again on the vendors’ shoulders.
I thought of the Campo dei Fiori
in Warsaw by the sky-carousel
one clear spring evening
to the strains of a carnival tune.
The bright melody drowned
the salvos from the ghetto wall,
and couples were flying
high in the cloudless sky.
At times wind from the burning
would drift dark kites along
and riders on the carousel
caught petals in midair.
That same hot wind
blew open the skirts of the girls
and the crowds were laughing
on that beautiful Warsaw Sunday.
Someone will read as moral
that the people of Rome or Warsaw
haggle, laugh, make love
as they pass by the martyrs’ pyres.
Someone else will read
of the passing of things human,
of the oblivion
born before the flames have died.
But that day I thought only
of the loneliness of the dying,
of how, when Giordano
climbed to his burning
he could not find
in any human tongue
words for mankind,
mankind who live on.
Already they were back at their wine
or peddled their white starfish,
baskets of olives and lemons
they had shouldered to the fair,
and he already distanced
as if centuries had passed
while they paused just a moment
for his flying in the fire.
Those dying here, the lonely
forgotten by the world,
our tongue becomes for them
the language of an ancient planet.
Until, when all is legend
and many years have passed,
on a new Campo dei Fiori
rage will kindle at a poet’s word.
Warsaw, 1943