On Our Prolonged Absence
Rome, for all of its expansionist history, is still a bit of a small town. It has survived pillaging and burning, extreme growth and shrinkage, yet the city has not really grown beyond its extreme center along the Tiber. For over 2,000 years, the city has endured as a permanent fact of the ancient and modern worlds. Pilgrims who travel to Rome (and there are thousands each week), make their own schedule unless you subject yourself to a fully guided tour of the city. Every fly-by-night operation offers some “secret” access to the city, but I imagine each service is found lacking by its clientele.
After a prolonged and nervous flight from America, we spent the afternoon in Castel Sant’Angelo, a former imperial mausoleum and papal fortress. Built in the 2nd Century AD, the fortress was not officially decommissioned until 1901, when it was turned into a museum. There are the usual tourist trappings there that litter modern Rome. Specifically, there is a ticket booth that works the way most Mediterranean things work - occasionally. The slow climb to the top of the fortress is well worth it, though. Nothing in the city is more than several stories high, save the dome of St. Peter’s. A statue of St. Michael the Archangel looms over the northern half of the city, guarding the grand entrance into Vatican City. We ate and slept well that evening, as one does in Rome.
The next several weeks, while exhilarating, were a blur. We toured around Rome visiting churches, museums, overlooks, and piazzas. Each one, architecturally and historically speaking, more significant than the last. On a visit to Florence, it was hard not to be impressed with the Tuscan style facades and beautiful scenery. One church, in particular, San Miniato al Monte, had just celebrated its 1,000 year anniversary. It stands atop an overlook, where one can see the entirety of Florence. The Duomo, as one might suspect, dominates the landscape, jutting upwards as both tribute to God and the achievements of man. San Miniato, by contrast, is oddly humble. From its perch, along with its still numerous monks, it just watches the world below. There were no lines for the mountain church, like the cathedrals below. It was silent, stoic, and breathtaking.
By contrast, Naples was hot and sticky. The streets were narrow and resemble a rabbit warren, but there are no tourists. The city is still lived in and loved by its natives. Unlike Rome or Florence, it is a city that restricts itself to outsiders. One must actively look for the jewels here. Among those jewels, Certosa di San Martino, the Carthusian monastery forcibly seized by the French, overlooks the best natural bay in the entire Mediterranean. However, the looming Mount Vesuvius on the opposite side of the bay leaves one with a distinct Italian impression. Only these odd and lovely people, with a distinct disregard of death, would build a city that is slowly creeping up an active volcano.
In Rome and all of Italy by extension, one must confront the ancient to understand the modern. It is a country that weaves around the remnants of empires and long-dead civilizations. It is a nation of extremes, nearly German to the north, while distinctly plebeian to the south. Pilgrims continue to seek out Rome’s secrets but will continue to fail. The secret to Rome and Italy is not found on a tour bus or with a large group. It is found by wandering down odd alleyways and meandering through near-forgotten ruins. If you’re in the city or countryside, pop into a church if its doors are open. I promise you will never be disappointed.